A Front Page Affair – Radha Vatsal

Front Page Affair CoverSeries: Kitty Weeks Mystery, #1
First Published: 1st May, 2016
Genre: Cozy Mystery / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Kitty Weeks is an apprentice reporter for the Ladies’ Page of a newspaper. Her first big assignment, to cover a party, turns into something more when someone is murdered.

The story is set in the USA during World War I. The period comes across clearly, and the series looks set to cover America’s entry into the war. There are a number of mysteries that come together in the book. I guessed the initial murderer quickly, but as there was more going on, there were still things to figure out.

The biggest issue was I didn’t connect with the main character. Kitty is from a wealthy family, which gives her the freedom to take on her dream job. She still faces issues from a newspaper editor who thinks women shouldn’t be reporters, though her biggest issue turns out to be herself. Kitty is the one who decides to skip off work for things that could have waited until later, or to go home early on a day when she was needed late. She simply assumed that if she did that, there’d be no consequences. When there are consequences, she’s shocked. Her first reaction is to assume those working class people around her, who do stay at work, were out to get her. Rather than not having a whole lot of choice because they can’t risk their income. This is why I empathised more with the people around Kitty than I did with her.

It’s uncomfortable to have the attitudes of the time laid on so thickly, without anything to balance it. For example, there are racist statements, but no prominent characters of those races. It touches on attitudes to gay people at the time, but the only gay character ends up dying tragically. People outside of the white upper class are lucky to get lines, and certainly don’t get a lot in the way of development.

It was also difficult to get through the non-fiction sections. There are quotes from books and articles, which slow the story down. All round, I found myself skimming a lot.

I didn’t hate the book. It’s competent. But those things meant I didn’t love it.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Poem in GUD Magazine

GUD Issue 7 CoverI have a poem in the new issue of GUD (Greatest Uncommon Denominator) Magazine. It’s called “Monkey Bait”, and is inspired by the story of how the jellyfish lost its bones.

This is an odd announcement for me, as I stopped writing poetry years ago. There were a lot of delays with the magazine, which is why this poem is surfacing now. Some might recognise that it was also in my collection, as the exclusivity part of the contract with GUD was waived some time back.

I’ve always liked poetry, but never really in the way the current market likes poetry. I like writing poems about ideas I find neat. They might be serious sometimes, but they’re not linked to serious issues in the real world. Neat idea poetry tends to get flatly rejected (sometimes with strained “this isn’t the direction we’re going in” messages). So there’s always that pressure to be more meaningful and make it relate somehow to a real world issue, even if it’s a poem about robots.

Added to that, poems don’t have space to clarify what they’re about. That’s much more of an issue when it is about a real world thing. It’s more likely to hurt someone, which is exactly what happened when I tried to write poetry that was better suited to the market. That poem was a science fiction scenario with some things based on my own experiences, but there wasn’t really space to make that clear, so that wasn’t how the poem was taken.

That “Monkey Bait” is my last published one is fitting in a way, as it wasn’t a market-pleaser. There isn’t a hidden metaphor here for anything else. Just a different take on the theme of the original tale. I won’t say I’ll never write another poem, but it’s not something I have plans to do. In the meantime, I hope GUD readers enjoy my take on the story.

Gone Home (PlayStation 4)

Gone Home CoverDeveloper: The Fullbright Company
First Release: 15th August, 2013
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Length: Short
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | XBox One | Steam

Katie returns home after touring Europe, only to find the house is empty. She has to piece together where everyone has gone from the clues left behind.

Though Katie is the character controlled by the player, this is primarily about her sister Sam. Finding notes and other objects triggers journal entries, written as though they were letters to Katie. Sam is a teenaged lesbian in the 1990s, and her story touches on dealing with her parents and finding her place in the world. In addition, Katie finds out more about her parents and the previous owner of the house.

There aren’t really any puzzles in the game, as it’s focused on story and exploration. It doesn’t get more complicated than finding a combination to open a lock.

I enjoyed the story. The voice acting was good, and it avoided a lot of the negative tropes that come with lesbian characters. I was a bit surprised it wasn’t a horror game, based on the way it’d been described to me. This is firmly based in the reality of family relationships.

The atmosphere in the house is well done. Floorboards creak whilst a storm rages outside. These things are on random timers, giving them an organic feel. There’s attention to detail with the rooms, making sure they have the expected everyday objects. Each family member has their own style, which shows in the things they own. That said, the realism of the house also means there isn’t anything very surprising around the corner.

I grew up in the 1990s, but in a very different environment to Sam. The whole angle of the feminist punk movement was new to me. The game has music (on cassettes that can be played), fanzines and badges for the bands. The commentary mode includes some thoughts from Corin Tucker, the singer from Heavens to Betsy. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the commentary in general, so it’s worth playing a second time with it activated.

Accessibility is reasonable. The game has options to remove head movement, and has a crosshair in the centre by default. This helps reduce motion sickness issues. Subtitles and text overlays for notes are also options. There are a few flickering lights in places, but the flickers are short and don’t create a strong strobe effect.

This is an interesting game about growing up and relationships. The emotional narrative and attention to detail stood out as strengths. The short playtime could be an issue for gamers on a budget. There are themes of anti-gay prejudice in the main storyline, and child abuse is implied in the side narratives, though none of that is very graphic.

This Is Your Brain on Parasites – Kathleen McAuliffe

parasiteFull Title: This Is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society
First Published: 7th June, 2016
Genre: Science Non-Fiction
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This is a science non-fiction book, looking at the ways parasites manipulate behaviour. A broad definition of parasite is used, which includes parasitoids. It also looks at things like behaviours that have evolved to avoid getting infected.

Many parasites are talked about in detail, including how the parasite was researched. Though not intended as the book’s main theme, that part was also of interest. It shows how science is often hampered by who can get funding or fund their own research.

The style is accessible to people with little knowledge of science. Basic concepts are explained, such as insects being able to make decisions. It’s important to realise they’re not instinct machines in order to understand that a parasite could knock out their ability to make choices.

One thing that stands out with the parasite examples is a lot are rather more subtle and cunning than the average science fiction parasite. Some do take over the bodies of their hosts completely, but often it’s not that extreme. For example, humans are sent running to water, thus allowing the parasite to release offspring into the water. All it requires is making the skin feel like it’s burning. No direct brain control is required.

The positive aspects of parasites are discussed briefly. An example was crickets being made to jump into the water, which provided a meal for a rare trout. Without the parasite, there might not have been trout. The ecology of parasites is complicated, which has implications when it comes to trying to eradicate certain parasites. It could have unexpected results.

Where the book fell down for me was discussing humans. It wasn’t about what was covered. Examples include how gut bacteria might influence someone’s weight, and parasites as an environmental factor in schizophrenia. It also touches on how inequality can alter the chances of someone being impacted by harmful parasites, such as Toxocara infections being less common in White Americans and more common in African Americans.

Though a lot of that information is interesting, the perspective it was presented from wasn’t comfortable. It’s written from a privileged perspective that assumes the reader will be too, so mental illness is a tragedy and fatness is a disease. When saying people shown images of sick people become more prejudiced against those who are different to them, like disabled people and immigrants, it’s making a statement about who is the default person and who is different.

This is a wider issue when it comes to science, as it can mean studies miss the obvious and programmes based on the research fail to understand the communities they’re supposed to help. A research example was the scientist who tried to use the smell of durian to make his research participants feel disgust. But he’d not taken into account that many were Asian and were used to it. This is such an obvious thing that it really shouldn’t have needed to hit the lab before someone figured it out. Yet it’s portrayed as the surprise that no one could have predicted. Shock horror: you won’t feel disgusted by foods you’ve grown up eating and enjoying.

I liked this book when it was about wasps making cockroaches indecisive. It contains a lot of examples, and would be a valuable starting point for science fiction writers wanting to expand their basic knowledge. It also has a bibliography to aid with continued research. But once it starts talking about people, it hits the common non-fiction territory of wading through a series of microaggressions (and some not so micro ones) to get to the information. I could have done without that part.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Rowanwood Curse – Elizabeth O’Connell

The Rowanwood Curse CoverSeries: Hal Bishop Mysteries, #1
First Published: 23rd January, 2016
Genre: Historical Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jem is the apprentice of his magician brother Hal, and is bored of the dull routine work they’ve been taking on. Then Hal is called to break a curse on Sir Jasper Pryce’s daughter. In order to break it, Hal must figure out who cast the curse and why.

The story is told by Jem as he aids Hal. It has a very Sherlock Holmes vibe, being set in a similar era with the companion of the genius sleuth as the one writing the story. That said, the relationship dynamics are different, as they’re brothers. As well as the case at hand, it explores some of the circumstances around their father’s death. Hal initially tries to keep those things from Jem, but does start to share before the end. It looks like that mystery will continue to be developed as the series progresses.

This is a world where magic was the major push in the industrial revolution. Spirits and elementals are bound into machines to make them function. Industrial magic is treated as a science, with formal teaching and rigid thinking about how it works. The result is local folktales and magical teachings are dismissed as superstition. Local wise women aren’t considered true magical practitioners, unlike the learned gentlemen who’ve studied it at academic institutions. I liked the handling of this aspect of the world, as it mirrors the real systematic bias against local knowledge. It’s also clear the bias is wrong. Hal realises there’s a lot the magical institutions don’t know, and the local yarbwoman has valuable information for the case.

It’s an interesting mystery, weaving in folklore with family secrets. The focus on understanding the curse is a twist on usual murder mystery formats.

I wasn’t comfortable with the handing of disability. All examples of mental illness are people who’ve been affected by magic. They’re possessed, cursed, or otherwise been driven mad by magic. It would have been nice to see a contrast to this, rather than having magically induced mental illness as the only sort that existed. There’s also a heavy layer of pity towards the idea of being disabled, and Jem is upset that people will think him an invalid for having to take medication (for his magic sensitivity). Sir Jasper is blind in one eye, but as that aspect is barely there, it’s not really a counterpoint to the idea that disability is the end, and caused by magic.

Overall, it was an entertaining story, and sets up some bigger mysteries for the future. It will appeal to people who like crossovers between mystery and historical fantasy.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]