Fugitive Telemetry (CBR13 #64)

Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries, #6)

We have a Murderbot murder mystery novella. It is almost as if this book was written specifically for me. Although published after Network Effect, Fugitive Telemetry takes place before it, after Mensah brings Murderbot to Preservation Station. We join action in progress as a body has been discovered on the Station and Murderbot accompanies Dr. Mensah and Senior Officer Indah as an investigation is undertaken. Dr. Mensah does her Dr. Mensah thing and Murderbot is contracted to aid in the investigation (neither Murderbot not Senior Indah are super excited about that) and we follow as Murderbot does what Murderbot does, following the information to find out how the human got dead, and who is responsible for that death.

We see on page the continuing growth of Murderbot’s personhood and the practical ways it goes about figuring out how to communicate with humans that are not its humans for the best result for everyone. Which is of course complicated by the Station security and investigators not trusting Murderbot at all, and having made Murderbot promise to not hack into SecSystem (which Murderbot abides by, its word matters). I enjoyed immensely getting to see Murderbot interact with its people (Ratthi and Gurathin play parts in Murderbot’s investigation and then just keep checking in on it and its progress and safety) and humans who are not its humans (there’s a really great cast of investigator characters), as well as bots (I love me some JollyBaby). I also appreciated the way the mystery expanded naturally from the murdered human to the circumstances around its death, and how it ripples out into the greater world of Preservation Station.

What I have always loved about the character of Murderbot, and the function of SecUnit’s in the first place, is that it is designed to protect humans and fuck everything or anything else. Yes, Murderbot is both full of weapons and in a certain respect a weapon itself, but there’s a moment late in the novella where Murderbot feels like itself because it gets to make a plan that is a SecUnit plan, not a CombatUnit plan and I smiled from ear to ear.This outing felt like a delightful episode of media and I think I’m going to go ahead and round it up to 5 stars.

A Good Heretic (CBR13 #40)

A Good Heretic (Wayfarers, #0.5)

There are a handful of authors that I am simply delighted Cannonball Read has put on my reading radar. Becky Chambers is absolutely one of those. Her The Wayfarers series helped to cement for me my enjoyment of space based science fiction, while simultaneously reaffirming that one doesn’t need to rely on the hero’s journey in order to write excellent genre fiction. My favorite genre books are all character driven, and that is just the kind of exploration and survival stories to which Chambers excels.

A Good Heretic finds its existence in the sidelines of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and one (including me) can be forgiven for not necessarily remembering the plot specifics this many years out from publication as that book spends over 400 pages bouncing from one small adventure to another. But that book doesn’t really need much else, and neither does this short story. For both their strengths lie in the small things. In the Galactic Commons, an interstellar, interspecies union established for ease of trade and travel, Faster than Light travel is illegal, so transportation between systems is facilitated through a vast network of constructed wormholes. The construction of wormholes is impossible without the mathematical contributions of the Sianat, a reclusive race who intentionally infect themselves with a virus that enhances specific cognitive abilities (at the cost of shortening their lifespan). Infected Sianat are properly called “Pairs,” and think of themselves as plural entities. In The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, we’re introduced to mainstream Sianat culture through Ohan, a Navigator aboard a tunneling ship. However, we receive a glimpse of an alternate Sianat way of life through the character Mas, who we meet briefly late in the book. A Good Heretic is her story, a story of what happens when they life we are destined for is not actually the life that we have grown to anticipate.

Chambers has the gift of writing these stories of people living on spaceships who act like people you interact with every day. Chambers captures what informs our humanity and she uses the small details that tell us so much about who we are to craft vivid writing with exceptional world-building. What Chambers can do in a matter of sentences to build her locations is superb.

While this story is my least favorite of all the Chambers I’ve read (I am still holding onto the final Wayfarers book, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within) it is still a good small bite to get an idea if her writing is for you, with the addition of giving a bit of extra insight into one of the corners of her universe that didn’t get as much exploration as it might have in the larger series. But, while you do not have to have read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet to read this one, it might make more sense if you have.

A Good Heretic is available in the Infinite Stars: Dark Frontiers anthology and also at this link for free.

(Trust) Falling for You (CBR13 #17)

(Trust) Falling For You

What an enjoyable snack of a book this was. I was reminded a few days ago that I had bought (Trust) Falling for You as a birthday gift to myself back in February and I snuck it into my weekend reading line up. I was pleasantly surprised to find out it is a novella, I hadn’t realized, but a 120-page story was just the right size for my mood. Charish Reid specializes in writing stories featuring people of color in higher education and their love stories. I really enjoyed Hearts on Hold last year and (Trust) Falling for You shares much of what I liked in that one, while being just a touch more lighthearted.

This book tells the story of Yolanda Watson is the “fun professor” from the English Department and her nemesis in the History Department, Samuel Morris. Morris beat her out for a grant as well as chairs the boring committee she sits on. These two opposites find themselves thrown together for a week of close proximity as the various Humanities Departments of Franklin University spend a week away at a university team-building retreat to the woods of Wisconsin. There’s a lodging mix-up, and the pair are forced to share the same cabin for six nights. As Team-Building Buddies, they will take part together in all the embarrassing bonding games the Dean throws at them. In order to succeed they’ll have to learn to meet in the middle, and that’s before accounting for the sexual tension that gets harder to ignore.

I laughed a lot while reading this one. Forced Fun is my least favorite type of work activity, and these team building exercises were often the stuff of my nightmares, but they were for the characters as well and Reid populated her story with personalities that rang true for academic settings as well the kind of people you would expect to be friends with her leads (well, in Samuel’s case the kinds of people most likely to warm up to him once he relaxes). Their banter was crucial to the strength of the story and served well as a counterpoint to the more intimate moments between Yolanda and Samuel when they begin to allow the other one in. The characters take time to reflect and make changes, and left me with just enough loose endings to keep the story in my mind without feeling unsatisfied.  

Tikka Chance on Me (CBR12 #46)

Tikka Chance on Me

The Pandemic has stolen my ability to focus on long form works, so I went trolling through my digital library to see what I had available in the novella length, thankfully for me at some point I had downloaded Suleikha Snyder’s Tikka Chance on Me. Perfect.

I *loved* the first part of this novella. Pinky Grover is a fantastic lead – she’s a feisty, sex-positive Desi heroine that could carry a much larger work on her character’s shoulders. Snyder introduces us via Pinky to Trucker Carrigan, a regular at her parent’s restaurant where she works and the attraction is instant and a lot. Are there problems? Sure. Pinky knows he’s part of the local MC and that should disqualify him from her attractions but there’s just something about him, something under the surface, that has her jumping headlong into bed with him.

Its just a fun time watching these two flirt about Marvel comics and good food and then having steamy sex in the back of Trucker’s truck. And because we also get Trucker’s POV we know right away that Pinky is right, he’s not really in the MC, he’s undercover ATF. And that’s actually what brings this novella’s fun to a screeching halt and dropped my star rating. Pinky puts it all together for herself during their second time together, and he doesn’t deny it (and those scenes are very hot and quite well written) but the final third of the novella deals with the fallout of Trucker’s job and the separation of the pair. There’s still a bit of book left when they separate and we do get a typically happy romance ending eventually but there’s more angst here than I was hoping for based on the beginning of the novella.

All that said – still something I recommend!

The Governess Affair (CBR12 #42)

The Governess Affair (Brothers Sinister, #0.5) by Courtney Milan

For my Bingo Gateway Square, I decided on a personal Gateway and one that I would recommend to others. The Governess Affair was my on ramp into the writing of Courtney Milan (and her near perfect Brothers Sinister series) and it’s been a love affair for the past six years. As for others, this lovely little novella is good for a general introduction to romance and romance novellas specifically.

I struggle often with reading novellas or short stories – too often for my liking the story feels like it ends before the narrative should, or worse, is left thin. Neither of those things happen in The Governess Affair. In this crisp hundred-page novella we get the story of Serena Barton, the titular governess who finds herself put out from her job after a run-in with the Duke of Clermont. She decides to take her revenge by quietly sitting in front of his residence until her demands are met… the problem being that it falls to the Duke’s man of business, one Mr. Hugo Marshall, to see that she is on her way so that the Duke can win back his bride, her fortune, and Mr. Marshall’s wages to boot.

It’s not an uncommon historical romance set up, but what makes this one stand out in my memory over the years is the depth to which the characters are developed. The best books I read feature the most well drawn characters and Milan crafts three dimensional characters who exist in a world you are easily able to understand over and over again in her oeuvre. As a bonus her protagonists are beautifully self-aware, which is just down right refreshing.

A Big Surprise for Valentine’s Day (CBR12 #11)

A Big Surprise for Valentine's Day (Holidays with the Wongs, #4)

In recent months Jackie Lau has jumped to the “read right away” position as her novellas in the Holidays with the Wongs series has been released. While I didn’t get an ARC this time, I have signed up to be considered in future. A Big Surprise for Valentine’s Day makes me feel that was a very good choice.

Picking up after the events of A Match Made for Thanksgiving and A Second Chance Road Trip for Christmas and running concurrently with A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year this one focuses on our fourth and final Wong sibling, sister Amber. She is the youngest of the four and after a rough few years getting herself settled into her career (her dream job at the Stratford Festival sounds pretty great to me too) and dating only terrible men she gives herself a moratorium – no dating for now. But she’s missing the physical connection if not the emotional one and a run-in with Sebastian Lam in the grocery store family planning aisle finds them both with a partner for some no strings attached sex. Sebastian is newly back in the area after moving home following medical school, is a childhood friend of Zach, and has a reputation for being the “good son” to Amber’s “wild child”.

I was rooting for this pair from their meet cute buying condoms. Lau is playing with some opposites attract, although we discover that they aren’t all that opposite, in addition to her other tropes of the aforementioned Older Brother’s Friend and Friends with Benefits. Amber is taking steps to correct missteps in her past, Sebastian is letting himself discover what he wants his life to be, and they are each working on healthy boundaries with their families while staying connected (something that can be difficult even under the best of circumstances). They are also hot for each other, and kind. These novellas have never wanted on the Steamy front, but Lau puts the peddle down on this one and keeps going for its crisp hundred pages.

My only niggling complaint and it isn’t even that really, is that I think I would have liked to see Lau combine this one with A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year and write one novel length work instead of two novellas… which is probably a good sign since I’m planning to read The Ultimate Pi Day Party next month. In the meantime, this one published on February 4th, and you should definitely treat yourself to it.

A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year (CBR12 #5)

A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year (Holidays with the Wongs, #3)

I continue to love the conceit of these novellas; there are four Wong children, all unattached, and their parents and grandparents hatch a plan to set them up with potential partners at Canadian Thanksgiving based on the tropes in the romance novels that their mother and grandmother read. The initial matches go terribly, but as the holidays progress each Wong sibling finds love in different romantic tropey ways. For A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year Lau combined the friends to lovers and fake relationship tropes for the third Wong sibling Zach’s book.

In A Fake Girlfriend for Chinese New Year Zach is afraid of a repeat performance from Thanksgiving and now that his two brothers are in relationships he knows he is the likely target for a second try at blind date setups (I appreciate how Lau makes this his fear, not the plans his mom and grandmother have). To keep that from happening he approaches his friend Jo with a favor – would she be willing to pretend to be his girlfriend for a few weeks to keep the pressure off from his family. The both live in Mosquito Bay and have a friendship built on broken engagements and hobbies, so Zach thinks this is safe for both of them. What he doesn’t know if that Jo has secretly been falling for him for the past two years of their four-year friendship and that he has some feelings for her that he is being dumb about.

As emmalita said in her review of the ARC people “will be dumb about their feelings” and as someone who is often dumb about her feelings I enjoyed reading along as two people were dumb about their feelings, got less dumb about those feelings but at different rates, and then finally stopped being completely dumb about their feelings for each other. Like in Second Chance the obstacle is resolved much closer to the ending, which makes sense for a novella clocking it at 90 pages, but still left me a smidge unsatisfied so I’m rating this one 3.5. That said, this still had what I’m looking for in a romance at the end of the day – to care about the characters and enjoy spending time with them which I’m continuing to discover is Lau’s gift.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate (CBR11 #48)

Image result for to be taught if fortunate by becky chambers

I knew what to expect from a Becky Chambers book after reading two of her previous novels in the Wayfarers series (which apparently this novella is not part of… but I swear its in the same universe). To Be Taught, If Fortunate would have some vivid writing, exceptional world-building (seriously, what Chambers can do in a matter of sentences to build an entirely new environment is insane), and diverse characters. I knew nothing else when picking it up, and I’m glad. I didn’t need to.

Like The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, this novella is at its heart a road trip story treated in an episodic way, but it’s also so much more. At its core this is a speculative fiction work about where we as a species could be headed in the near future. Our narrator, Ariadne O’Neill is the engineer on OCA spacecraft Merian (crowdsourced space exploration following the defunding of national endeavors) is writing a message sent back to Earth recounting their mission so far. Ariadne is one of four who must balance their mission for exploration of four previously unexplored planets outside our solar system with the domestic dramas of a functional family unit in a small space. Because Chambers is a pro, we do not get caught up in stereotypical space opera style events, even though there is plenty of drama possible.

There is much that I enjoyed about this, including its exploration of somaforming (altering physiology) instead of terraforming to facilitate exploration of far flung planets. Communication is also at the heart of this – how we do it, when we need to, when it can feel like a burden, and what we do when it stops. The ending is one of the most heartbreakingly human things I have read in a long time and presented to me something I hadn’t expected (and also gave me a new fear, which thankfully won’t be something I ever personally have to deal with).

Even if you don’t think solarpunk or speculative fiction are for you, I bet this one is.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure (CBR11 #33)

Image result for mrs. martin's incomparable adventure

Courtney Milan really is fantastic at writing novellas. Even the ones I don’t love are still fantastic reads. The Governess Affair is one of my favorite books, period, and A Kiss for Midwinter is one of the few books I’ve read more than once in the past several years. Mrs. Martin’s Incomparable Adventure ranks right up there with them.

While the book is part of the Worth Saga books, it absolutely stands alone, which I can attest to because the only other book in the series I’ve read is the novella Her Every Wish. You learn everything you need to enjoy the story on the page, and it’s a quick enjoyable romp through valuing oneself and ruining the lives of terrible men. The book tells the story of Mrs. Bertrice Martin, a wealthy widow, aged seventy-three, who crosses paths with proper, correct Miss Violetta Beauchamps, an energetic nine and sixty, who is after solidifying her retirement plans and Mrs. Martin’s Terrible Nephew is the reason she lost her pension. One small white lie and Violetta is convinced Mrs. Martin will send her on her way with funds to secure her dotage, what she wasn’t expecting was Mrs. Martin to insist on bringing her Terrible Nephew what he deserves.

The book features Mrs. Martin employing every nasty trick she can think of to bring her Terrible Nephew to heel (off-key choir serenading him first thing in the morning, for example), while also letting her heart open for the first time in the years since her closest friend and lover passed away. Meanwhile Violetta is struggling with the foundational untruth she told and how her burgeoning feelings for Bertrice have come too late. Each lady is working through their own struggles and comes to life when acting for the benefit of the other.

The novella also features a villain you love to root against. In her Author’s Note Milan nails exactly why: “Sometimes I write villains who are subtle and nuanced. This is not one of those times. The Terrible Nephew is terrible, and terrible things happen to him. Sometime villains really are bad and wrong, and sometimes, we want them to suffer a lot of consequences.”

Her Body and Other Parties (CBR11 #31)

Image result for her body and other parties

Her Body and Other Parties is all about expectations – both the ones on the page for the characters Machado created and for the reader as they come to the much hyped but little described work. I knew going in that the book was pushing boundaries, igniting conversations (the husband stitch, for example), and refused to stick to one genre at any given time, let alone for the entire collection.

Having completed the book I understand why reviewers have, one the whole, been relatively mute on details. There isn’t an easy way to try to capture what Machado is working towards. Her Body and Other Parties is simultaneously gothic and speculative, bending the lines of realistic fiction and fantasy. Most reviews cover “The Husband Stitch” and the novella-within-a-short-story-collection reinterpretation of Law & Order: SVU, “Especially Heinous”, which are admittedly very dramatic and easy to focus on, but my favorite in the collection is a much quieter look at the end of the world, “Inventory”. Machado takes one woman’s coping mechanism (list making) to recount a component of one’s life not often so honestly and quietly spoken of (bisexual sexual history) that in turn tells the story of the collapse of civilization due to a pandemic. It reminded me of Station Eleven in all the best ways while taking the appropriate sized bite of a narrative.

Because, that is my complaint about this collection, and it pains me to have a complaint at all with such a well-written, mechanically beautiful collection. Machado swings big in this, and sometimes it feels that she overshoots what is currently within her powers. “The Husband Stitch” plays with its origin points and makes a larger point, right up until it doesn’t – the landing is missed. Once I noticed that in the first story, I noticed it again in several other places. It is such a tough line in novellas, finding the right amount of story to tell. I’m hopefully Machado continues to refine her technique, because she is one of the few people working in this medium that I know I want to read again.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.