ORDER OF THE POISON OAK (Russel MiddleBrook 2)- by Brent Hartinger

Blurb: Summer camp is different from high school. Something about spending the night. Things happen.

Geography Club’s Russel Middlebrook is back, and he and his friends are off to work as counselors at a summer camp. Brent Hartinger’s third novel is the story of Indian legends, skinny-dipping in moonlit coves, and passionate summer romance. It’s also the story of Russel’s latest club, The Order of the Poison Oak, a secret society dedicated to helping its members see life’s hidden beauty, and accept its sometimes painful sting.

Review: Order of The Poison Oak is the second book in the Russ Middlebrook series, following The Geography Club,  and takes our three best friends, Russel, Min and Gunnar, out of High School and into a Summer Camp for children who are burn survivors. After the complete dramatic car crash that was Russel’s coming out, he understandably wants a break from being The Gay Kid and a chance to be himself. But of course, dealing with a set of gobby tweens proves to be a handful, and he soon finds himself in a competition with Min over the affections of the sexy camp leader Web.

The characters: As usual, the characters are great. Thanks to the Ever Complicating power of bisexuality and its superpower to create love dodecahedrons, Min and Russel are now romantic rivals competing for the same guy. They compete, but their friendship is as deep and enjoyable to read as ever.and it develops still, remaining one of my favorite aspects of the series.

Gunnar is more tolerable this time, being as his actions are less terrible (I still haven’t forgiven him for what he did in Geography Club), and his story is of a guy who (almost certainly) has aspergers syndrome dealing with his awkwardness around girls. His said love interest, Em, is great, with a dry sense of humour and a Cool Nerd Girl personality that makes her a great addition to the book and, like with Brenda from the previous book, I wish she’d become a permanent cast member. But while she’s in this book, she’s great fun.

Our other stand out is Otto, a burn survivor who is volunteering at the camp who is fun and likeable, and only gets better in later books. I also like the sexy Web (what an appropriate name), the object of desire and a complete tease. He is the spear counterpart to the femme fatale, and although being a YA novel, there’s not a lot of sex but Casanova once said that the sexiest part of any encounter is the walk to bedroom, and the sexual tension that rises whenever he’s around is palpable.

The Plot: While the previous book followed a tried and tested High School popularity/ Mean Girls sort of plot, the plot for this one was iffier. It worked, and it served to allow the characters  a chance to develop and interact (and chase the sexy, sexy guy), it did at times feel like it was here to teach us a Very Special Lesson about looks not being everything, but the strong characterisation saved it from falling too deeply into that trap.

One good thing was Russel assuming because he’s gay that he’s automatically on a higher plane of tolerance and is ready to be oh so kind to the poor little burns kids, but they turn out to be nightmares at first. Russel learns that just because he’s gay doesn’t make him immune from having a white savior complex, which was a nice twist and this character flaw made Russel  more appealing.

The kids had character, and I liked that Russel genuinely struggled to not obsess over theirs (and Otto’s) scars and to be modern accepting, but falls short. The only problem is that we did get a cringe worthy road to understanding with a face palm inducing scene describing Otto’s inner beauty when Otto began to play the guitar which felt cheesey and like I was being taught a lesson about looks by a primary school teacher.I love this series, it’s one I’ve read multiple times but it does have an exasperating lack of subtlety.Luckily, Otto’s a strong and appealing character so as painful as that scene was, it didn’t transform him from a character into a lesson.

Verdict: The plot is a lot shakier than the last, but the characters are just as loveable as usual and I enjoyed Min and Russel’s friendship deepening and seeing how the chaos caused by our sexy love interest would play out. If you read the first, I’d definitely give this a shot.

REVIEW:THE SAMURAI’S GARDEN- by Patricia Kiyono

Tanaka prepared for a life as a samurai warrior. But his world changed when Japan’s feudal system was abolished by the Emperor. Now, he must find a new vocation. Disillusioned with fighting and violence, he travels alone, going north to the island of Hokkaido. Many other samurai wander through the country and are known as ronin. Some have forsaken their honorable way to prey on the less fortunate.

Hanako Shimizu experienced first-hand the devastation caused by these disreputable wanderers. The previous winter, they raided her farm and killed her husband. Now, she needs to rebuild but has no money and no prospects — except for the dubious intentions of the town merchant.

When Hiro, tired of his wandering, encounters Hanako in the market, arguing with the merchant, he poses as her late husband’s cousin then offers to help her on the farm in exchange for a place to stay. Working on the land, Hiro finally finds the peace he has been seeking. But the reappearance of the rogue ronin, led by an unscrupulous leader from Hiro’s past, forces him to take up his swords again. But now, the stakes are higher.

‘But now the stakes are higher’.This sentence is misleading because this story has no stakes- and no real conflict. The Samurai’s Garden is warm, pleasant fluff; a cinderella story where a knight in shining armor rides into a poor woman’s life and sweeps her off her feet. Nothing causes any real problems in their life (except some contrived reasons about Hanako’s none existent ‘independence’ which only exists to delay their marriage),everyone is ridiculously nice, and the whole novel consists of Hiro serenading Hanako and essentially singing poems about his love of a simple domestic life. Continue reading REVIEW:THE SAMURAI’S GARDEN- by Patricia Kiyono

BOOK REVIEW: BINTI- Nnedi Okorafor

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself — but first she has to make it there, alive.

I’ve never come across an African society  in science fiction before (save the Rastafarian space station in Neuromancer). The world of Okorafor’s Binti was a first for me in that respect, and it was fascinating. I’d never even heard of the Himba tribe until reading this novella, and the way she blended their culture with futuristic technology and a deep future philosophy was masterfully done. Continue reading BOOK REVIEW: BINTI- Nnedi Okorafor

REVIEW: DINNER WITH FLEXI- by Jason Werbeloff

It’s not often that a book has me stumped. When it does, it’s  always a surrealist piece or some post modernist crap that attempts to be experimental but just ends up being tedious and less thought provoking than if they’d wrote out their message flat out. But I honestly don’t even know where to begin with Dinner With Flexi, or even what I just read, where am I, or where Werbeloff is getting his crack from. I think if I knew the answer to the last one, I’d either have some awesome hallucinations or be in a better position to review this short story.

Okay, the plot. Flexi is a sex-bot (a must have in every cyber punk story ever written). And she services men. Not just with sex. No, she serves the men by allowing them to eat the flesh of human women. You see, this is a world where all other food sources have been destroyed and the only solution is eating human women. Of course it is. This story from the mind of a man who decided the most logical solution to a lack of the metal required for internet hardware was to replace search engines with human brains- in that context it makes perfect sense.

As you’d imagine, I have so, so many questions about thhis premise: what condition could humans survive that hardy creatures like cockroaches or rats could not? Unless they stole the insta-pregnancy solution from Hedon, how could women reproduce fast enough to keep up the food supply?But I’ll and turn my brain off since this is meant to be farcical and only ask this: wouldn’t fucking and feeding at the same time be distracting and the cause of a lot of heartburn?

But of course, though Dinner with Flexi parodies a lot of Philip K Dick, it primarily parodies the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies. As for the latter, It’s either parodying the way women’s bodies are commodified, or the language that is used when talking about objectification.

It’s a very bizarre reading experience, which falls into a standard ‘taking the red pill’ narrative until its ending. Is it sexist? After all, women are reduced to cattle and a lot of horrible things happen to them for the sake of black comedy. Then again, women are the only ones who are sympathetic and have any kind of depth while all the men are the most over the top evil patriarchal moustache twirling monsters imaginable. Is it feminist? It’s clearly not making a deep statement or about women overcoming the patriarchy because of the endng. And speaking of…

What I really have to give it credit for is its ending, which is somehow perfect in a terrible, bleakly comic way. It’s so over the top, so cruel and such a downer and yet told in such a blase way that the only reaction left is laughter.Maybe it’s meant to be subverting the ‘downtrodden rebellion against dystopia’ narrative.Maybe it’s just meant to be fucked up. One thing I can say about Werbeloff though; whether he’s on form or just missing the mark, he is never boring and never less than completely memorable.

BOOK REVIEW: HEDON- by Jason Werbeloff

In 2051, the Bhutanese Empire rules post-apocalyptic Shangri with iron-fisted Buddhist compassion. Happiness is compulsory, but making everyone happy isn’t easy in an overpopulated world. Breeders are ghettoed, homosexuality is mandatory, and Shangrians’ happiness levels are strictly monitored by hedometers implanted in their heads. Become depressed, or feel too happy without helping others feel the same, and The Tax Man will get angry. Very angry.

Gemini and Cyan, winners of the pregnancy lottery, are on the run. Cyan can’t fall pregnant, and Gemini is addicted to the Experience Machine. Will they evade The Tax Man, and find a way to end the brutal pleasures of Shangri?

The lovechild of Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale, HEDON is gritty satire on a dystopia drunk with bigotry and positive thinking.

Hedon is a dystopian novel set in far East Asia, where happiness is government mandated and anyone who fails to meet the correct quota of joy is quickly dispatched by the tax man. With most dystopian novels, the object is to look at problems with our own society and look at what would happen if they were taken to their logical extreme. Hedon does not do that. Continue reading BOOK REVIEW: HEDON- by Jason Werbeloff

BOOK REVIEW: MOON CALLED (Mercy Thompson Book 1)- Patricia Briggs

Mercedes “Mercy” Thompson is a talented Volkswagen mechanic living in the Tri-Cities area of Washington. She also happens to be a walker, a magical being with the power to shift into a coyote at will. Mercy’s next-door neighbor is a werewolf. Her former boss is a gremlin. And she’s fixing a bus for a vampire. This is the world of Mercy Thompson, one that looks a lot like ours but is populated by those things that go bump in the night. And Mercy’s connection to those things is about to get her into some serious hot water.. 

Moon Called is the first in Briggs’ urban fantasy series featuring Mercy Thompson, a ‘walker’ (were-coyote) mechanic, who inhabits an alternate universe where super naturals live alongside humans. When she discovers that a mysterious organisation is experimenting on werewolves, she finds herself thrown deeper still into the dangerous world of supernatural politics.

In this novel, Briggs manages to craft a fantasy world that is both well executed and engaging. A problem that is prevalent in many other fantasy works is that the writer will bombard the reader with numerous supernatural races at once and then fail to develop them; the result is a story full of half formed, two dimensional species that are only distinguished by one or two different traits. This is a problem that Briggs manages to avoid; instead of overloading the reader with multiple races all at once, she introduces them one at a time and gives us details about their powers and their culture before moving on to the next one. The original lore of each species has clearly been well researched, and she combines this with her own invention to create a really unique take on the different species she introduces.

She has also created a decent heroine in Mercy Thompson. Mercy is a strong and likeable protagonist who can hold her own story and keep her head in a tense situation. Unlike with some writers who must resort to having their heroines constantly breaking down into soap operatic outbursts  in order to convey emotion, Briggs manages to express Mercy’s feelings with a great deal of sensitivity and subtlety.

The world and the characters are enjoyable enough to read about. The story moves forward at a steady pace that will keep the pages turning, though even towards the end the action never really heats up. The focus of the story is on the characters and the supernatural world rather than the main plotline. The action sequences are well done and entertaining, although Briggs never quite manages to create the kind of tension or suspense that will have you gripping the edge of your seat.

When the antagonist and their scheme were revealed I was left a little unconvinced, however. The extremes they went to seemed somewhat unnecessary for what they hoped to achieve. I could not help but think that there were numerous less convoluted methods they could have used to achieve the same goal.

Although this is not a tense novel by any standard, it is a quick and enjoyable read. I would recommend this for fans of urban fantasy that want a bit of light escapism.

RATING: 3.5 / 5

REVIEW: HERA- THE GODDESS AND HER GLORY (OLYMPIANS BOOK 3)- By George O’connor

The story of Hera, Queen of the Gods, and the heroes who won her favor.

Volume 3 of Olympians, Hera: The Goddess and Her Glory, introduces readers to the Queen of the Gods and Goddesses in the Pantheon. This volume tells the tales of the many heroes who sought and won Hera’s patronage, most notably Hercules.

In Olympians, O’Connor draws from primary documents to reconstruct and retell classic Greek myths. But these stories aren’t sedate, scholarly works. They’re action-packed, fast-paced, high-drama adventures with monsters, romance, and not a few huge explosions.

O’Connor’s vibrant, kinetic art brings ancient tales to undeniable life, in a perfect fusion of super-hero aesthetics and ancient Greek mythology.

Before there was the Jeremy Kyle show, there was these two: Zeus and Hera, the world’s original high-drama power couple. Zeus and Hera are well known for destroying everyone around them in their explosive marital fights; in what began as a playful debate over which gender gets more pleasure out of sex, Hera ended up blinding Tiresias for taking Zeus’ side- while Zeus in turn gave him ‘special disability powers’ to see into the future. And then there was Hera’s penchant for driving everyone mad. Continue reading REVIEW: HERA- THE GODDESS AND HER GLORY (OLYMPIANS BOOK 3)- By George O’connor

BOOK REVIEW: Guardian Of The Spirit-

You’ve never read a fantasy novel like this one! The deep well of Japanese myth merges with the Western fantasy tradition for a novel that’s as rich in place and culture as it is hard to put down.

Balsa was a wanderer and warrior for hire. Then she rescued a boy flung into a raging river — and at that moment, her destiny changed. Now Balsa must protect the boy — the Prince Chagum — on his quest to deliver the great egg of the water spirit to its source in the sea. As they travel across the land of Yogo and discover the truth about the spirit, they find themselves hunted by two deadly enemies: the egg-eating monster Rarunga . . . and the prince’s own father.

Moribito: Guardian Of The Spirit is the first in a series of nine novels (and counting) that were extremely popular in Japan and adapted into an anime. The first two books were published and translated in the West, but unfortunately the series was cancelled after that. This is a shame, because Moribito is the most engaging YA series I’ve read since The Hunger Games. Continue reading BOOK REVIEW: Guardian Of The Spirit-

BOOK REVIEW: The Experience Machine- Jason Werbeloff

The skullcap sits to one side of the chair. Its snaking wires and sensors throw a Medusa shadow against the basement wall. I touch its plastic. Stroke its wiry hair.

The Machine gives me everything I want. Or the one thing I want. Life in a woman’s body, under the tangerine glow of the Spiral Arm Nebula. But nothing remains the same for long, not even in the timeless worlds of the Experience Machine.

Fantasy; obsession; impossible desire. The Experience Machine is a brilliant dark horror/ science fiction story about living in a world that’s so cold and stifling, that building a machine that allows you to live out any desire is the only way you can be yourself. The happiness found in the Experience Machine comes at a price, however, as our protagonist finds their life in the real world slowly unravelling and each jaunt in the machine taking a dangerous toll on his health.

I think we can all relate to (the unfortunately named) Manfred, as there’s been a time in everyone’s life where things have been so dreadful that you feel like the only escape is to the world of fiction. Manifred’s desire is even more desperate because s/he’s going through the worst struggle of all- feeling like s/he’s in the wrong body and attracted to men in a dysphoria where it seems like transgender/ genderfluid and gay community don’t exist.

I’m currently using male pronouns to describe Manifred/ Mascara because male pronouns that are used throughout the story (and in his cameo in Hedon). Manifred doesn’t use the words ‘trans’, and it is not pinned down whether our protagonist is trans or suffering from gender dysphoria. This makes sense, because the world of Manifred/ Mascara is populated by strawman bigots and Manifred/ Mascara is still young and living with their bigoted religious parents, so they probably lack the freedom and language to fully explore their identity.

Our protagonist’s voice is very well done. The writing and language is very simple, flowing and engaging. We find ourselves gripped by Manifred’s struggles, and by watching him try to straddle between his two worlds- the real world of coldness and bigotry, and the fantasy world of romance and acceptance. Like with a lot of Werbeloff’s other works, the religious people our protagonist has to contend with are presented as crude, strawman bigots who vomit  homophobic bile every time they open their mouths. I might object to this portrayal of homophobia as oversimplified, but sadly, as Werbeloff lives in America- the land of Donald Trump and televangelists- I can’t criticize the portrayal because there’s sadly too much truth in it.

The best part of this story  was its  twisted, brutal and glorious ending. When I started reading this, I was certain I knew how it was going to end, but I was glad to be proven wrong. The ending went full slasher as it devolved into a delicious bloodpath that was sick, graphic and yet refreshing and extremely funny. In his other short stories, Werbeloff often stumbles to make the dismount with his finales, but here he made his landing with Olympic-level form. I have no hesitation to recommend this to anyone who wants to read grizzly sci fi horror dripping with black humour.

RATING: 5 mad scientists/ 5

BOOK REVIEW:OLYMPIANS: APHRODITE, GODDESS OF LOVE- by George O’connor

Don’t let the fact that this is a comic deceive you; Aphrodite, Goddess of love is one of the most sophisticated and engaging explorations of Greek mythology you’ll ever read. Not only does it give a faithful portrayal of the original Greek myths, but it also elaborates on the characters and explores some of the attitudes behind them.
Continue reading BOOK REVIEW:OLYMPIANS: APHRODITE, GODDESS OF LOVE- by George O’connor