Review: “The Scattered and the Dead Box Set,” L.T. Vargus

Pros: Moves beyond the post-apocalyptic basics
Cons: A bit, well, scattered
Rating: 4 out of 5

The Scattered and the Dead Series: The First Four Books, by L.T. Vargus, gives us a plague-stricken world thrown into the dark ages by a nuclear response to the fast-moving biological threat. The population has been vastly depleted, and even years afterward civilization is in tatters. The narrative follows a variety of characters across a spectrum of time periods before and after the nuclear strike. It’s a bit confusing to go back and forth like that all over the place, but I think ultimately it works.

Sometimes there’s a bit of sameness to the character voices; several of the characters are unusually aware of their own physicality and physical actions/reactions. It’s a bit weird. The characters have some nice depth, though, and sometimes surprise the reader. Current post-apocalyptic fiction still often focuses so intensely on the basics–survivalism, largely–that it’s nice to find a book that develops the depth of plot and character necessary in fiction in general. Most sub-genres follow this pattern, starting out as sketches and basics and then gradually developing into fully-fledged fiction with all of the necessary elements for a good story. Unlike some of the recent books I’ve read, Vargus’s The Scattered and the Dead makes that transition.

I like some of the details. There’s a prepper whose preparations come to naught because he gets hit by the plague, and given the odds, that should happen more often than not. It’s been a bit weird to read post-apocalyptic after post-apocalyptic in which both the prepper and all of his family members mysteriously turn out to be immune; after a while it beggars belief. Another nice detail: there may be some serious perverts in here, but at least it doesn’t depict every male as a rampant rapist and every female as a would-be victim.

Vargus’s work is a bit rough around the edges, but I like the story and characters. If you like the genre it’s worth giving this series a read.

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Short Take: “The Halcyon Fairy Book,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: hilarious, fascinating look at fairy tales
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s The Halcyon Fairy Book mostly consists of reprintings of a handful of fairy tales together with Kingfisher’s biting, humorous, insightful commentary on the same. Fairy tales are known for taking bizarre left turns and leaps of logic, not to mention having ridiculous plots and characters. Kingfisher both appreciates them for what they are and skewers them at the same time. She clearly pokes fun from a place of love, and it shows. I’d gotten so used to the weird facts of fairy tales that I’m not sure I really approach them critically any more, and it’s nice to be reminded of how to apply modern thought to fairy tales without losing an appreciation for them.

Kingfisher also includes a few of her own fairy tales, and they’re wonderful. She clearly puts to use some of her insight in order to create tales that retain that fairy tale feel yet incorporate insights that give them new and fascinating ground to cover. In particular I love her characters, human and not. They possess a great deal more depth and sense than typical fairy tale characters while remaining magical and weird.

I love all of Kingfisher’s work so far and highly recommend reading whatever you can get your hands on!

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Review: “Secrets in Death,” J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts

Pros: Until the ending, it’s up to Robb’s usual quality and style
Cons: Went from too many suspects to just one with a real leap of logic
Rating: 3 out of 5

Secrets in Death: An Eve Dallas Novel (In Death, Book 45), by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts), is not my favorite installment in the series. There’s just nothing to differentiate it much from the rest. I suppose it’s inevitable that this will happen when you get up to book 45(!) in a series, but I love this series so much that I’m still disappointed.

Eve never liked Larinda Mars, a gossip reporter who’d do anything to get a juicy story. But when Mars gets killed in the back room of a trendy bar, Eve will have to do everything she can to track down the culprit. On the way she’ll find out that Mars didn’t just care about secrets for the sake of her job–she cared about them for many reasons. She hoarded them like some people hoard objects, and she used them to blackmail people. Everyone hated Mars, leaving Eve with more than a city-load of suspects.

My biggest complaint with Secrets in Death is that when Eve finds herself with little room left in the book and many suspects remaining, her method of finding the killer involves a rather large leap of logic. It’s a leap that kind of made sense, but it didn’t make sense for her to be as certain of it as she was. So the ending felt both sudden and anti-climactic to me.

My favorite part of this one is the concept of a person who hoards not just objects, but also information. It’s a fantastic concept that I wish Robb could have done even more with.

As usual, you’ll find plenty of fun with Eve, Peabody, a handful of regulars, posh places, things, and events, sharp dialogue, and smokin’ hot action between Eve and Roarke.

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Food: Jazzing up my soup

Last Saturday I went to a mushroom festival in Pennsylvania. It was fantastic! Full of delicious treats and inexpensive and unusual varieties of mushrooms. I brought three pounds of ‘shrooms home and turned 1 lb into bisque, as well as 2 lb into Duxelles*.

When you’re one person having one bowl of soup for dinner, mushroom bisque lasts all week. I don’t know about you, but I need to jazz it up here and there so it doesn’t taste the same every night.

1. I had a bottle of marinated goat cheese balls that I got from a farmer’s market. It added more olive oil than I might have liked, but the sharpness of the goat cheese is divine!

2. If you have Duxelles* on hand, thaw one and use it to garnish your bowl of soup. Just mound it right in the middle. It’ll add some butter, but also a nice garnish of cooked-down mushrooms, which adds texture.

3. Drizzle a little bit of olive oil on your soup, especially if you have some that’s infused with herbs, spice, or garlic.

4. Drizzle a little bit of vinegar on your soup.

5. Chop some roasted peppers and mound into the middle. Other vegetables might work as well, such as marinated artichoke hearts.

6. Chop and cook down bacon; drain on towels and sprinkle that bacon on top of your soup! Pancetta is another option, or sausage.

7. Shred or crumble a good cheese on top. Something sharp or smoky would probably go very well with a mushroom bisque.

Obviously, most of these suggestions will work well for other soups as well.

*Duxelles are what you get when you cook down chopped mushrooms with butter and garlic (I know it’s supposed to be shallots, but I prefer garlic) until dry, then freeze in ice cube trays and empty the frozen cubes into freezer bags. They’re supposed to last for up to three months that way and can be used for all sorts of things.

P.S.: If you want to try that wonderful mushroom bisque, it’s from “Thanksgiving Table” (Review)

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Review: “Mad City,” Michael Arntfield

Pros: Fascinating and detailed
Cons: Rambling in places
Rating: 4 out of 5

Michael Arntfield’s Mad City: The True Story of the Campus Murders That America Forgot is the story of Linda, who spent most of her life trying to get justice for her murdered college friend. It’s also the story of the evolution of police procedures and understanding of serial killers, and an indictment of many of the actions taken (and not taken) by police past and present.

The beginning in particular rambles round and round quite a lot, and could have used a lot of trimming. Sections rocket back and forth in time and in focus. In general the book is wordy and tends to obscure its points rather than enlighten them. However, it is fascinating to read Arntfield’s take on things like victim-blaming, and how police tend to stick blame onto any convenient caught serial killer so that they can close cases. He does, however, do a good job of pointing out time periods when police really didn’t have the scientific understanding or resources to do what they can today.

It’s depressing that Linda almost certainly knew who killed her friend, and kept the police informed of each bit of progress she made, yet the man died of old age without ever having been looked at seriously by police.

[I]f the general public knew just how many murders are solved due to luck or silly mistakes and oversights made by offenders with respect to leaving physical evidence or not keeping their mouths shut–versus cracker jack sleuthing the way it’s done on TV–people generally would be horrified and never leave their homes.

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Review: “Nine Goblins,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: An all-around wonderful story
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s Nine Goblins gives us a world in which goblins–who aren’t so bad, really–are at war with humans and elves. It’s what happens when you keep getting pushed out of your habitats until there’s nothing left to do but turn and take a stand. We find ourselves traveling along with the Whinin’ Niners, a particularly motley crew. They’re just trying to survive the war, but things take a turn for the magical when they charge a human wizard and he opens an escape hatch in the air–one they find themselves falling through as well. They’re left stranded 40 miles behind enemy lines with an unconscious and probably psychotic human mage (after all, everyone knows that mages are psychotic, suffering from Arcane Manifestation Disorder). Not wanting to be responsible for murder, they get a little water into him, put a blanket over him, and take off toward home. Along the way they meet Sings-to-Trees, a most unusual elf. Instead of being ultra-fashionable and unwilling to get his fingers dirty, he’s a veterinarian. In fact, we first see him up to the shoulder in an ungrateful unicorn, trying to help birth her breech baby. He’s used to all manner of foul and disgusting things–like goblins. He even knows some of their language. He teams up with the goblins to find out why the nearby human village seems to be mysteriously empty of people and animals alike, only to end up in an awful lot of danger.

The characters are fantastic. From the goblin who only speaks for his teddy-bear to the elf who can’t help stopping to treat a big blubbery baby of a troll, from the goblin who makes machines that don’t blow up to the person responsible for much of the bad stuff going on, they each shine in their own way. They have unique and fantastic personalities that make them riveting to follow. Character interactions between the goblins made me laugh out loud, and the weird collection of characters truly brought the tale alive. I mean, did we need an elven veterinarian in here? Of course not, but he’s such an exceptional character that he slipped seamlessly into the tale and brought it to life. Kingfisher has a knack for going beyond what’s needed into what’s magical.

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Review: “Summer in Orcus,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: Beautiful, heartfelt alternate-world tale
Rating: 5 out of 5

Summer in Orcus, by T. Kingfisher, is about 11-year-old Summer, whose mother is overprotective and needy. One day Baba Yaga’s house struts into town and plops down near Summer’s house. Baba Yaga offers to give Summer her heart’s desire–but Summer has no idea what that is. It’s only once Baba Yaga has thrust Summer into another world with only a talking weasel for company that Summer realizes that any story featuring Baba Yaga is unlikely to end well. It doesn’t take her long to discover that there’s a cancer eating away at the heart of the world, and to realize that she’s no hero to go around saving entire worlds. How can she help on a scale that’s doable; how can she find her way back home; how can she escape the bad guys who immediately realize that something’s changed and there’s someone to be caught?

I absolutely love Summer in Orcus. It has a taste of Narnia, but it’s on a smaller scale. Summer isn’t a queen; she isn’t meant to save entire worlds. She’s lost and tired and scared. Her friends include a wolf (who turns into a house when night falls–he’s a were-house), a dandy of a hoopoe bird who owes people money, and a weasel who’s just as scared as she is. Early on she stumbles into a dying dryad and finds she feels a sense of need to help that dryad, but she has no idea how. The only hint she has as to her path is from a cheese-selling man who cuts a slice of a cheese that predicts the future, and this one says that her path will be marked with turquoise. A turquoise dragonfly, vivid blue eyes of a forester…the color isn’t always there to lead her, but it comes up often enough that she thinks she’s still on the right path.

She still has to avoid the bad guys, however, and the bad guys have no qualms about killing and burning to get what they want. Summer’s very presence puts some of her new friends and their allies in danger, and she has to realize that this doesn’t make it her fault.

Summer in Orcus is a smaller, folktale-sized version of something like Narnia, where young people have to go to another world and put it to rights. This one is cozier and very imaginative, and as an adult I love it.

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Review: “Jackalope Wives and Other Stories”, T. Kingfisher

Pros: Magical
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher’s Jackalope Wives And Other Stories is an absolutely magical collection of stories and poetry. I remember reading one of the stories online some time ago, and I loved it enough I read it twice… then read it all the way through again when I picked up this book. In this case there’s also a little bit of extra context to the story due to a preceding story in the book that’s connected. (Both involve the Jackalope wives of the title.)

There are a couple of poems in here, particularly regarding gardening, and they’re lovely. My favorite, though, is called “This Vote Is Legally Binding” on the topic of men who seem to think that women’s wearing headphones in public is somehow a plot to keep them from talking to women.

There’s also a story involving a man named Bob who decides to summon himself a unicorn, having “re-virginized” himself. The main character tries to explain that virginity is a cultural concept, but he just doesn’t get it. This is one of the best examples I’ve seen of how to introduce a ‘cool concept’ to an audience while making it also a really great story rather than an infodump. I wish I could force writing teachers to use this story to teach that concept to their students.

This collection definitely feels like folklore, and I love that magical touch that so few writers seem to have. There’s even a Cinderella variation that has the feel of folklore rather than a typical fairy tale and involves a wonderfully none-too-cooperative Cinderella.

After I finished reading this book I went through on my Kindle and bought every other T. Kingfisher book it offered to sell me.

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Review: “All the Little Children,” Jo Furniss

Pros: Fantastic tale of hardship, loss, and survival
Rating: 5 out of 5

All the Little Children, by Jo Furniss, follows Marlene and her children, as well as a few relatives and friends, on a camping trip. As it happens, while they’re camping in the woods of England, the apocalypse more or less comes and they’re left adrift. Everything is called into question–the status of relatives and friends, how they’ll keep themselves fed, and what they’ll do when other sorts of tragedy strike. Even Marlene’s parenting is called into question, especially when a boy dies. Eventually the group ends up gaining additional children, and Marlene finds herself unable to rely upon the other parent present.

Marlene isn’t a perfect parent, and neither is her sister-in-law (the other parent present). I appreciated that. It makes this a story more about people than a plague. There are plenty of hardships for the group to endure, from life-threatening injuries to a kid who feeds all their food to the dog, and what makes this different from other post-apocalyptic books is the focus on adult/child relationships. It’s also a nice change of pace for those who primarily read American post-apocalyptic fiction; the setting does introduce some differences. Politics have a role to play as well, which additionally keeps things interesting.

Even the small children have personality and their own unique ways of helping and hurting the situation. And with all the children involved, it’s easy for Furniss to tug on our heart-strings when things go badly. She isn’t afraid to invoke tragedy, paranoia, and imminent danger to keep the reader on her toes.

Between the great characters, the threats to life and limb, the interesting setting, and the hard knocks, this is a fascinating book to read. I was glued to the pages, wanting to know what happened at every turn.

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Short Take: “No Easy Hope,” James N. Cook

Pros: Interesting characters
Cons: Somewhat slow
Rating: 3 out of 5

Unlike many recent zombie apocalypse novels, James N. Cook’s No Easy Hope (Surviving the Dead Volume 1) takes the time to give the characters some depth and originality. I wouldn’t say they sparkle, but at least they come alive. It’s interesting to be following a lead who was a financial analyst as opposed to a hunter/survivalist/etc. In this case he had a friend who taught him what he’d need to survive when the time came, and then he passed that on to others. I love that they basically have a survivor’s manual printed out from the information collected by someone who saw the whole thing coming.

Things are a little slow, but not too much. It’s about what you’d expect from a zombie tale that’s trying to give you a taste of the usual parts: survivalists, fighting the zombies, and fighting off some bad guys. It’s a decent balance.

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