The Days of Tao – Wesley Chu

Days of Tao CoverSeries: Tao, #3.5
First Published: 30th April, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Subterranean

Cameron Tan is studying in Greece when he’s called up for a secret mission. Another agent has important information, and needs help getting out of the country.

The concept of the story was interesting. There are two rival alien groups, who live inside human hosts. The alien brings knowledge to their host, but not amazing superpowers. This gives the whole thing more of a spy action vibe, as no one is a bullet sponge.

I also enjoyed the opening. It starts with Nazar, the agent who has to get out of Greece. He’s competent and has a complex past. But this is the only time he really gets development, as he doesn’t have any other sections from his perspective. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t escape on his own, as he’d have been much safer. Having a damaged arm (from an injury years back) was not a good reason. It made him distinctive, but it’s not like the escape plan was ever to walk through border control. This was a very weak reason for needing help.

I wasn’t particularly interested in Cameron Tan, the actual main character. He’s the classic inept slacker guy, who for some reason keeps getting important tasks to do. I got the impression I was supposed to find that hilarious, especially the repeated joke about low grades in art history. The first half of the story is mostly how funny it is that he’s terrible at stuff, and everything else is happening painfully slowly.

Then there’s a sudden shift when the group gets moving. There are too many characters, and everything’s going too fast, for them to get any development. It’s hard to really get inside the difficult choices Cameron has to make when the people around him are so flat. The tone also goes from laugh-at-the-funny-guy to death-and-angst. Which is the realistic outcome of choosing someone incompetent for a task. This did raise my interest in the book. But people who enjoyed the first part might find that change a downer.

All in all, this story didn’t work for me at novella length. Fewer characters and a tighter opening half would have done a lot. I’m sure readers who’ve been following the series will like it, and it does appear to set up some things for future stories. It’s probably not the best introduction to the world though.

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

The Tea Party in the Woods – Akiko Miyakoshi

Tea Party CoverFirst Published: 1st August, 2015
Genre: Children’s Fantasy / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Kikko is taking a pie to Grandma, after her father forgets to take it. She ends up lost in the snow, but stumbles across an unusual tea party.

This is a whimsical adventure, about finding animals wearing clothes who are having a tea party. There are some creepier moments, such as Kikko getting lost in the woods, and the uncertainty of how the animals will react when they first see her. However, the overall tone is one of warmth and strangers helping each other out.

The artwork is charcoal and pencil on textured paper. Most pages have some splashes of yellow and red ink, such as Kikko’s yellow hair and red clothing. The tea party scenes are especially good, as they have a lot of detail. There’s more to find on subsequent reads of the book.

I enjoyed the theme of magic as part of the world. It’s easy to imagine it’s waiting there in the woods, if only you go the right way. This book was written after The Storm, but was the first one translated into English. Being a later book shows, as the story is much better paced. Kikko is off on her adventure within a couple of pages, and plenty of time is spent hanging out with the animals.

It’s a great book, and is sure to capture the imagination. It would also link in well to activities like teddy bears’ picnics.

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

The Storm – Akiko Miyakoshi

The Storm CoverFirst Published: 5th April, 2016
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A boy plans to go to the beach with his parents the next day, but a storm is approaching. As he sleeps through the storm, he dreams of a giant airship blowing it away… but will the storm still be there when he wakes up?

The art is what makes this book. It has detailed charcoal pictures filling the pages. Most of the art is black and white, apart from a hint of blue near the end. The feeling of the characters is captured perfectly. I especially liked the boy’s cat, who appears in many of the scenes (including joining him in his airship dream).

In terms of story, it’s a very simple one. I felt the balance wasn’t quite there, as a lot of time is spent on storm preparations. The airship dream is the standout part, but it feels like it’s over before it really gets going.

This is a gentle story about the power of imagination, and aspects like the airship and the cat are appealing. I’m not convinced about how well it’ll hold interest after a first read, but it’s certainly a very beautiful book.

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

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories – Ken Liu

Paper Menagerie CoverFirst Published: 8th March, 2016
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Collection
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | IndieBound

Ken Liu has been nominated for, and won, many genre awards for his short fiction. He’s also a translator, which is discussed briefly in the preface.

The collection starts with short stories, with the novelettes and novellas towards the end. This was a good choice, as it gives the reader a chance to read through several stories to get a feel for the range. The opening story, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”, was particularly imaginative. It’s written like an article and covers a range of alien species and their books. I liked how they all tied together at the end, with the books of the final species.

“Good Hunting” was one I didn’t expect to enjoy at first, as it looked like a classic science versus magic story. The construction of a new railroad starts to cause magic to disappear, leaving a trainee demon hunter out of a job, and a hulijing unable to transform. But as the technology veers off into steampunk territory, the story takes another turn. It ended up being one of my favourites.

I enjoyed most of the stories, though a few didn’t really work for me. “The Perfect Match”, where an automated assistant called Tilly controls people’s lives, was rather predictable and about as exciting as Tilly’s personality. The funny side is Microsoft chose that moment to suggest I downloaded Windows 10 and they’d give me a new personal assistant. It’s one of those things where the idea is certainly based on reality, but the execution didn’t take it anywhere new.

It’s generally a strong collection, with reoccurring themes of Chinese history, the experience of being an immigrant in America, and control/surveillance. However, there is a tendency for the work to be rather heteronormative. Not in the kind of way that is openly anti anyone who doesn’t fit that, but in the kind of way where anyone else is unlikely to appear in the stories. Men and women date, men and women marry and have one or two children, people broadly follow binary gender roles, and so on. It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t be so obvious reading any one of the stories in isolation, but does stand out when they’re collected together.

Readers should note some stories have detailed torture descriptions and violence against women is a common theme. There’s a lot of text in italics in some stories, which can be difficult to read.

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

The Oddfits – Tiffany Tsao

Oddfits CoverSeries: The Oddfits Series, #1
First Published: 1st February, 2016
Genre: Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Murgatroyd Floyd doesn’t fit in. He’s the only white child at school, has one friend, and nothing ever seems to work out for him. He’s also an Oddfit, able to visit another land called the More Known World. Once he reaches adulthood, a group who explore that world seek him out.

This is a portal story set in a person’s life before the portal. Murgatroyd sees a few glimpses of the More Known World, but it’s mainly not about that. It’s about his life growing up and living in Singapore. It’s also a story with mature themes written in a children’s book style. Both of these things made me interested in reading it. I did like the early part where Murgatroyd is befriending the ice cream seller. Unfortunately, that didn’t last.

Murgatroyd is abused right from the start. It’s not simply that he feels like he doesn’t fit in, but that the people around him actively try to harm him. This starts with his parents, who make sure his first day at school goes badly, then tell him it’s his fault. The abuse continues into adulthood, where they keep all his earnings, to be sure he doesn’t gain any independence.

The other people in his life are only marginally better. His employer sees him more as a novelty possession to make her restaurant look good, and his best friend is selfish. It only counts as better because they don’t spend as much time with Murgatroyd, so the damage they do is limited compared to his parents.

As the abuse continued, I was increasingly uncomfortable with how it was handled. At first, the tone feels as though the reader is supposed to laugh at the things happening to Murgatroyd. I wasn’t laughing. Later on, this abuse is blamed on the Known World reacting to Murgatroyd being an Oddfit. In other words, blame for the abuse is shifted away from the abusers. They couldn’t help it. Murgatroyd was just different and they had to treat him like that. Which is disturbingly close to how people try to minimise abuse against non-neurotypical children.

There are interesting elements to the story. The idea of the More Known World, and the parts shown of it, was potentially fascinating. It looks set for the series to make some different choice in terms of plot, compared to the usual portal story. Where it falls down is the challenge of making someone’s pre-portal life as exciting as the world on the other side. I don’t feel this book managed it. There wasn’t a whole lot of plot, so it was stretched very thin. There’s a lot of padding, such as the multiple paragraphs taken up listing out food items.

There are some things that may be an issue for readers. There are a few casual bigoted comments made, generally by characters (though some are in the narration). Examples are bystanders fat shaming people, Murgatroyd’s parents using binary gender assumptions as a weapon, and calling an unhealthy home environment schizophrenic. There are also some detailed descriptions of killing animals, as the restaurant where Murgatroyd works slaughters animals as a public entertainment. Basically, the book isn’t as fluffy as it might appear on a quick read of the opening, so go into it knowing that.

I liked some parts of the book enough that I might read the next one. This acted as a prologue more than anything, and it might be the aspect of abusers not being able to help abusing will be subverted later. It’s difficult to tell at this point, as a lot of the nature of the More Known World wasn’t explained. I’d also hope the next book picks up the pace, now that the world and the main players are introduced. This is a book that had potential, but never quite reached it.

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