Up For Review

Check out some of the books I’ll be reviewing over the next few weeks.

Death of a Saint (Mall Rats #2) by Lily Herne (Puffin Books)

After having a lukewarm reaction to Lily Herne’s first novel, Deadlands, I’m happy to report that I found the sequel, Death of a Saint to be a much better book. Even though it’s a lot longer than its predecessor, I tore through it in under two days. Review to follow on Thursday.

Secrets. Everyone has them. But what if your secret is something so unthinkable that you can’t even admit it to yourself? Lily Herne returns with Death of a Saint, the next instalment in the Mall Rats series.

Exiled from the city enclave for crimes against the Resurrectionist State, teen rebels Lele, Ginger, Ash and Saint — aka the Mall Rats — are hiding out in the Deadlands, a once-prosperous area now swarming with the living dead. With the sinister Guardians breathing down their necks, the Mall Rats face a stark choice: return to the enclave and try to evade capture or leave Cape Town in search of other survivors. But what if the rest of South Africa is nothing but a zombie-infested wasteland? Will they be able to survive on the road if all they have is each other, or will their secrets tear them apart?

After all, only Lele knows the shocking truth as to why the dead leave the Mall Rats unscathed — knowledge that she can’t bring herself to share. And she’s not the only Mall Rat harbouring a dangerous secret…

Death of a Saint was released on 1 April 2012 by Puffin Books, and the series has been rejacketed. The third book is entitled The Army of the Left. Thanks very much to Candice at Penguin SA for my review copy.

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Blackbirds (Miriam Black #1) by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot)
This gorgeous cover was designed by Joey Hi-Fi, who used a similar style for the awesome Zoo City and Moxyland covers.

Miriam Black knows when you will die. She’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides.

But when Miriam hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be murdered while he calls her name. Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim.

No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.

Blackbirds will be published by Angry Robot on 24 April in the USA and Canada, and on 3 May for the rest of the world.

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The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry
Normally, I don’t even look twice at books with these kinds of covers, but Lu and I are always looking for books to joint review, and when she requested this one I thought the story sounded interesting and it might give us something to discuss. But either way I’ll be reading and reviewing it soon.

This dark and thrilling adventure, with an unforgettable heroine, will captivate fans of steampunk, fantasy, and romance. On her 18th birthday, Lena Mattacascar decides to search for her father, who disappeared into the northern wilderness of Scree when Lena was young. Scree is inhabited by Peculiars, people whose unusual characteristics make them unacceptable to modern society. Lena wonders if her father is the source of her own extraordinary characteristics and if she, too, is Peculiar. On the train she meets a young librarian, Jimson Quiggley, who is traveling to a town on the edge of Scree to work in the home and library of the inventor Mr. Beasley. The train is stopped by men being chased by the handsome young marshal Thomas Saltre. When Saltre learns who Lena’s father is, he convinces her to spy on Mr. Beasley and the strange folk who disappear into his home, Zephyr House. A daring escape in an aerocopter leads Lena into the wilds of Scree to confront her deepest fears.

The Peculiars will be published on 1 May 2012 by Amulet Books.

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The Croning by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books)
I haven’t read a good horror novel in a while. I hope this one is creepy enough to get under my skin.

Strange things exist on the periphery of our existence, haunting us from the darkness looming beyond our firelight. Black magic, weird cults and worse things loom in the shadows. The Children of Old Leech have been with us from time immemorial. And they love us.

Donald Miller, geologist and academic, has walked along the edge of a chasm for most of his nearly eighty years, leading a charmed life between endearing absent-mindedness and sanity-shattering realization. Now, all things must converge. Donald will discover the dark secrets along the edges, unearthing savage truths about his wife Michelle, their adult twins, and all he knows and trusts.

For Donald is about to stumble on the secret…of The Croning. From Laird Barron, Shirley Jackson Award-winning author of The Imago Sequence and Occultation, comes The Croning, a debut novel of cosmic horror.

The Croning will be published on 8 May 2012 by Night Shade Books.

Thanks very much to NetGalley and the publishers for providing review copies!

Nekropolis by Maureen F. McHugh

Title: Nekropolis
Author: Maureen F. McHugh
Publisher: Eos
Publication date: 21 August 2001
My Rating: 6/10

Nekropolis is an unusal sci fi novel. The setting is 22nd century Morocco, but the culture is that of a timeless Islamic state. Aside from a few technological advances, the society of Maureen F. Mchugh’s novel is little different from the Islamic states of the past and present – it’s theocratic, harbours deep sexual divisions, inequality and repression, and shuns the western world, from which it has remained largely isolated.

Various forms of slavery are still permitted, as in the case of the protagonist Hariba, a young woman who feels she has no chance of getting married and thus makes the decision to get herself “jessed” – implanted with biotechnology that makes her loyal to her master. Although the practice is illegal in many societies, here it is validated by a verse in the Koran. Hariba gets paid for her work as a servant, but she is also owned by her master, and running away has potentially fatal consequences, as her body will revolt against the disloyalty.

Which is exactly what happens when Hariba falls in love with one of society’s other slaves – a harni named Akhmim. Harnis are artifical human beings, designed to serve human needs, available to be bought and sold, discriminated against for not being truly human even though, physically, there’s no difference. Because he’s not considered human and therefore isn’t considered truly male either, Akhmim is allowed access to the women’s quarters of the wealthy household in which Hariba works, and the shy, conservative servant girl slowly grows attached to the warm, gentle harni. But when they decide to run away together it becomes painfully clear that love is not enough to overcome the social, personal and biological boundaries existing between them.

The story is told by four different narrators – Hariba, Akhmim, Hariba’s mother and Hariba’s best friend Ayesha. Each of them offer distinct, compelling perspectives on the story, the society it’s set in and each other.  Together they bring a variety of themes to the novel – love, gender, motherhood, friendship – and while the narrative is slow and melancholy it is also a rich, living, breathing tale. As you might have guessed, there isn’t much focus on the science-fictional aspects of the story – technologies like jessing and harnis; the transition from present to future. These things exist in the background, providing the structure for the story and most importantly, the characters.

Nevertheless, as the most sci-fi-ish character in the story, I found Akhmim’s perspective to be the most interesting. He gives us a glimpse of life as a harni. It’s a tragic existence – harni like Akhmim are designed with a dependence on physical contact with other harni, but because they are used as slaves they’re usually forced to live separately. Even the comforts of human contact are unavailable to him, because he lives in a society where men and women are separated, where it’s inappropriate to even hug a woman in public let alone in private, and homosexual behaviour is obviously outlawed. In a sense, it’s impossible for Akhmim to be happy in any way that’s considered legal or even socially acceptable and thus it’s inevitable that he comes to live outside of Morocco’s legal boundaries.

Akhmim  is also designed to put the needs of humans before his own – a fact that’s constantly hovering over his relationship with Hariba. Does he truly love her and care for her, or is it just his biology? Despite being artifical though, Akhmim is the most open-minded, loving character and thus easily became my favourite.

Hariba, her mother, and Ayesha are complex, multifaceted characters, but easier to dislike in their conservatism. It hurts to see the open, friendly Akhmim ignored or berated when he tries to speak to Ayesha or Hariba in public, and Hariba’s mother’s ethical debates with herself regarding the son and daughter who have broken the laws of God and society seem so devoid of love and compassion at times that I wanted to scream at her. But don’t let this put you off; I think McHugh does an elegant job of crafting characters in a society such as this. It’s easier to put rebellious characters in an oppressive society and let them voice the criticisms that most readers would be ready to utter themselves. The beauty of Nekropolis is its ability to make you empathise with characters that frustrate and anger you, the ones who can’t or won’t do what you want them to.

To the novel’s credit, it isn’t as loudly critical of Islamic society as one might expect in a novel by an American author. Religion and culture exist largely in the background of the story in the same way that the futuristic technology does, providing context rather than content. Of course, the characters do struggle with the laws and conventions of society – all them violate the law in some way, for love, family, friendship, happiness while social and religious conventions create constant difficulties for them.  But for the most part the characters accept their society as is and their revolts are more personal than political. No one gets up on a soapbox to give a speech about oppression or religion. No one needs to, because the actions of the characters and the events of the novel speak for themselves.

On the other hand, one the reasons I only gave this book a 6/10 is the portrayal of Western society If McHugh seemed relatively subtle when we’re in Morocco, the tables are turned when it’s compared with a western society. Akhmim and Hariba escape to Spain in what is now known as the ECU, and it is a essentially a social utopia that admits to none of the problems of the western world while making Morocco look like a backward little dump shunning the beautiful light of the modern world. Had McHugh employed a more balanced view, I would have awarded this novel an extra star.

Nekropolis also lost a star for a more subjective reason – it wasn’t the greatest read. I’m by no means averse to slow, contemplative novels, but the best of those leave me in pensive awe, while this evokes something more like a shrug of mild admiration. I wasn’t bored, but anything more than 6 stars feels unfair.

Nevertheless, it’s unusual to find a sci fi novel set in a non-western society such as this, and that alone is reason to check Nekropolis out, in my opinion. As a fan of sci fi, I am often more interested in the way technology affects characters and societies than I am in the technology itself, and Nekropolis certainly caters to that. Those who like their sf on the harder side probably won’t enjoy it, but for those who prefer cross-genre fiction or who seldom read sci fi but enjoy historical or travel fiction, Nekropolis could be a valuable read.

Hungry for You by A.M. Harte

Title: Hungry For You
Author: A.M. Harte
Publisher: 1889 Labs
Publication date: 5 February 2011
My Rating: 7/10
Source: ARC provided by author

Buy Hungry For You

if there’s anything a zombie understands
it’s desire
–  Gabriel Gadfly

Who would have thought zombies could be so… tender? To me zombies are gross and scary, sometimes funny, but not much else. Then webfiction author A.M. Harte surprised me with Hungry For You, her collection of short zombie fiction which transcends the typical zombie mythos and uses the hungry, decaying monsters as metaphors for love and obsession. It makes zombies less scary, more revolting, but also morbidly fascinating.

The premise for this collection is that

Love is horrible. It’s ruthless, messy, mind-altering, and raw. It takes no prisoners. It chews you up and spits you out and leaves you for dead. Love is, you could say, very much like a zombie.

In Hungry For You couples are faced with the dilemma of what to do when the zombie apocalypse comes – do you part at death or stay together forever in decay and dismemberment? One lucid zombie takes the latter option, biting his wife so that he doesn’t lose the love of his life: What was it we had promised? For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health….Together forever. I’d made sure of it.

In one of the quirkier stories – “A Prayer to Garlic” – a very mortal zombie is faced with the existential angst of losing love to decay, as well as the amusingly mundane problem of what to serve a conservative mother-in-law for dinner:

Mog had known about my alternative eating habits for months. But it was something we’d hidden from his mother, who was a traditional zombie to the core. She scoffed at the mere suggestion of pork. Not to mention how she’d react whenever she met the chicken-eaters down the road.

“Vegetarians, the lot of them,” she’d say. “I survive on human and marrow pie, and if it’s good enough for me then it’s good enough for them!”

Then there are obsessed-lover zombies, ready to kill (and sometimes feed) for love:

She’d been chasing them with typical zombie hardheadedness for days, her previous lust and love transformed to hunger.

Zombies also act as apt metaphors for depression, loneliness and addiction. A lonely girl living a dead-end life lets infection consume her, perhaps because her existence is already zombie-like. A grieving musician shuts himself in his apartment, writing lyrics, missing his dead girlfriend and getting addicted to some rather dodgy tea.

These imaginative tales take place in a variety of contexts, from isolated incidents, to apocalyptic plague outbreaks, and post-apocalyptic scenarios where zombies rule. Because these scenarios are so familiar now – the outbreak of infection, the dwindling human resistance – that Harte is able to toy with convention and manipulate your assumptions about zombies and human beings. In addition, she is able to focus on her characters without being held back by explanatory details.

With the freedom to explore character, Harte has several different takes on the zombie. Among the classic mindless, flesh-eating creatures, are zombies who think, love and lust, a zombie who manifests as a monstrous rose, even killer zombie swans. In fact, symbols and concepts typically associated with love and romance – roses, swans, promises, hearts, kisses, sex – all get twisted, mutilated, devoured.

Because of the theme, the gross-out factor is pretty high, although in a manner different from normal zombies. There isn’t that much gore, but there’s a lot of intimacy – zombies kissing, implied sex, sexualised descriptions of zombie bodies. But then again zombies are supposed to be really disgusting. Plus, I think the ick-rating of kissing someone with a rotting tongue prevents these stories from degenerating into romance. When I read the blurb of Hungry For You I was worried it would be a bunch Twilight stories with zombies instead of vampires. It’s anything but. Instead it’s smart and spunky, bringing together horror, tragedy, romance and dark humour.

It’s a lot to pack into this very short collection (a mere 84 pages) of short short fiction, but Harte does it admirably and playfully. I enjoyed all the stories, except the last – “Arkady, Kain and Zombies”. It’s a more conventional zombie story and feels underdeveloped; perhaps more like the seed for a novel than a complete story in itself. But other than that I was happy. The stories are so short and punchy you devour them quickly, decide to read just one more, and before you know it you’ve read the whole book.

Hungry For You is recommended snacking for zombie fans, especially thrifty ones – you can buy the Kindle edition for $2.99 on Amazon, £0.71 on Amazon.co.uk, or choose from a selection of digital formats for only $0.99 on Smashwords. And if you’re spending every cent on preparations for the zombie apocalypse, or you just want a good quick read, check out Harte’s fiction for free on her blog.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Twilight (Twilight, #1)Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The absolute worst book I have ever read. A huge pile of atrociously written, misogynist, utterly ridiculous, boring crap.

Bella is the most annoying, whiny narrator I’ve ever come across, and Meyer’s pathetic, dead writing makes this even more unbearable. Bella is also a complete dismissive bitch to those who care about her and try to be kind to her, including her father. The only person she cares about is the unbelievably arrogant and emotionally immature vampire Edward. Meyer/Bella tells us he’s supernaturally beautiful and attractive (on almost every page) but I never felt it. I don’t think I could stand to spend 5 minutes with such an egotistical, anti-social person, nevermind share a bed with a body that’s ice-cold, hard as stone and has the skin tone of a corpse.

Bella and Edward’s relationship is based entirely on physical attraction (he’s beautiful, she smells good), so it made me gag everytime Bella/Meyer tries to forcefeed you the idea that it’s the greatest, most loving romance of all time. Even worse is the fact that Edward’s creepy, intrusive behaviour – such as breaking into Bella’s home, watching her sleep without her knowledge, dragging her by the collar into his car, constantly “commanding” her, and eavesdropping on her private conversations – is either interpreted as a sign of his great love or dismissed. Which sounds a lot like the excuses made for or by domestic abusers – he’s just overprotective, he did it because he loves me. And Bella seems happy to waive her right to privacy and choice as long as it means this man will always be in her life. Nor does she seem to mind that Edward lays the blame on her for any physical damage he might cause to her – it’s her fault for being so beautiful, for smelling so good, for being irresistable. He even says it’s her fault that a dangerous vampire becomes attracted to her and decides to track and kill her. Another line from the domestic abusers – she provoked me.

The (very poor) counter-argument from fans tends to be that this novel is just meant to be fun, you shouldn’t take it so seriously. Well if Twilight were just badly written, and all I had to ignore were the gaping plot holes (what happens when Bella gets her period?) or the long list of ridiculous plot devices (like sparkling or century-old adults going to high school over and over again), then maybe I could have just enjoyed the romance. But if I read a story that celebrated a rapist and his belief that women deserved it, or a story that vindicated a racist and his ideas about the inferiority of blacks, I couldn’t say ‘oh, it’s not meant to be great literature, it’s not meant to be taken seriously, just enjoy it’. I’d be disgusted, as I am disgusted with Twilight, and there is absolutely nothing in it to redeem its flaws. I remain shocked and saddened at its popularity, and what it implies about the sexist, antiquated views women and men still have about gender and their relationships with each other.