Hugh Likes Fiction: Norse Mythology

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Norse Mythology
Written by Neil Gaiman
Published by W W Norton and Company
Norse Mythology
From the comics pages of Sandman to the upcoming television production of “American Gods,” Norse mythology suffuses Neil Gaiman’s writing. Which makes a collection of tales written in his signature easy-to-read prose a perfect fit.
In a book that feels neither scholarly nor bowdlerized, Gaiman brings new life to the fragmentary records of Norse mythology that still remain. His choices take us from the beginning of the world to Ragnarok, the end of the cycle, and beyond. Gaiman’s excitement to share these tales is palpable in the writing. The gods and giants that populate the book aren’t figures of superstition or sociological interest. They aren’t big-screen superheroes and villains. The author captures what makes the Aesir living, breathing people. He captures a lost age of monsters and magic, but also beings with incredible power and equally human flaws. From Odin, infinitely wise but also petty and occasionally grasping, to Loki, whose mischief gets the gods out of almost much trouble as it causes.
In an early myth, Loki shaves the goddess Sif’s head. When Thor, in his anger, asks him why, he is honest. He was drunk, and he thought it would be funny. These gods will be familiar to Gaiman’s fans, but newcomers will perhaps see something they hadn’t before in these ancient legends.
In Norse Mythology Gaiman has poured a mighty horn full of the Mead of Poetry. Take a seat on the bench, and have a drink.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Idle Ingredients

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Idle Ingredients (Sin du Jour Book 4)
Written by Matt Wallace
Published by Tor


Matt Wallace is back again with the fourth course of his ‘Sin du Jour’ novellas. Each bite-sized course of these epicurean Urban Fantasy series is an utter delight, and I’ve been looking forward to this one. As usual, Wallace doesn’t disappoint.
Still reeling from their last big job in Los Angeles, Sin du Jour line chef Lena Tarr goes on the lamb. Bronko and Nikki bring her back to the kitchen on the very reasonable assumption that the armies of Hell that are after them will kill her without the protection Sin du Jour provides. But there’s a new face at the catering company, ‘Government liaison’ Luciana Monrovio and Lena is immediately suspicious of the hold she seems to suddenly have over all of them, particularly the guys.
This novella is a bit more serious than the last three, but that’s not surprising after the major throw down at the end of “Pride’s Spell.” The thing I did like about this one is that it packs in a lot of character growth for characters we haven’t seen too much of before. Darren gets some nice page time, and really starts to come into his own, even as Lena is shown as more vulnerable than we’ve seen her in the past, and planning assistant Jett gets a cool arc too. Wallace’s strength is in keeping all of his plates spinning so flawlessly. Sin du Jour, as in his previous novella series, Slingers, has a huge cast of characters. Matt manages to breathe life into all of them, and progress their individual stories, in a breathtakingly short amount of pages. Each bite-sized book contains more character growth and personality than your average doorstop fantasy epic.
Sin du Jour book four, Idle Ingredients, is out now from Tor. You can purchase it from Amazon or wherever you get books.

Hugh Likes Fiction: The Shootout Solution’ by Mike Underwood

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Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution
Written by Michael R. Underwood
Published by Tor
Writing metafiction is a difficult needle to thread. Fiction about fiction can easily become maze-like and incomprehensible, and it makes the reader very aware of the author. By its very nature, it doesn’t suspend disbelief. Metafiction done well can be cathartic and clever. Done poorly, it just feels like a writer bragging about their MFA in literature. So I was a little leery approaching Michael Underwood’s “Genrenauts” novellas, but after finishing the first one, he’s managed to pull off something extraordinary.
Leah Tang is a standup comedian struggling to make her big break while holding down a boring day job she hates. When a strange man offers her a dream job, she is skeptical at first, but jumps at the chance.
She joins the Genrenauts. An elite, highly secret team that travels to parallel worlds and fixes problems before they bleed over into our world. Leah’s first mission is to help a desert town in Western World. But the Genrenauts don’t save the day. They put stories back on track, which is a much more difficult proposition.
Underwood’s concept of genres as alternate realities is fun and has a lot of possibilities to it. He gets to show off his own savviness with tropes and conventions, but giving these discussions to the characters rather than the narrator softens the rough edges. It makes for a quick novella read that gives old tropes new tricks. Making genres living, breathing worlds might not have worked in a longer book, but it sets the stage quickly and lets the reader get right to the plot without too much fuss here.
The other real strength is the Genrenauts team, whom the reader only gets introduced to here. Leah is the newbie on the team, and there are a lot of first impressions, but the characters seem to all have a lot of hidden depths. Putting them up against genres that often rely on stock, pulpy characters is an interesting dynamic.
Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution is a quick, delightful introduction to a novella series that is built on a great premise. I can’t wait to see what adventures the Genrenauts have ahead of them, and what other adventures they’ll have to fix. Genrenauts is available in ebook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, MichaelRUnderwood.com.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Heartless

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Heartless:  The Parasol Protectorate, Book Four
Written by Gail Carriger
Narrated by Emily Gray
Although I am not big on Romance, I’ve had a soft spot for Gail Carriger’s “Parasol Protectorate” series for a long time. It might have to do with her delightful sense of humor, or the richly detailed world of her supernatural Victorian London. Whatever the case, I’ve been savoring the series, and I recently devoured the fourth entry, for the first time in audio.
Alexia Maccon, Soulless, Lady of Woolsey, and Mujah to Queen Victoria, is never one to let little details interfere when she sets on a course of action. So when a ghost gives her a cryptic warning of a plot against the Queen, she isn’t going to let a little thing like being eight months pregnant stand in her way. Scheming scientists, maladjusted werewolves, and zombie porcupines aren’t going to have much of a chance, either.
Carriger does it again with her fast paced comic misadventures in Victorian supernatural society.  Her grasp of character and timing is once again on display as she navigates Alexia through mystery, society expectations and steampunk hi-jinx.
Emily Gray’s performance is spot on, and deftly juggles the wide-ranging accents and character foibles of the large cast. Her narration is a perfect balance of high society wit and action-comedy timing.
While this isn’t the best place to jump on to the Parasol Protectorate series, Heartless is a worthy entry. I heartily recommend readers pick up this one, or work their way up to it. You can find it on Audible, in a variety of formats on Amazon, or of course at your local bookstore.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Ancillary Justice

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Ancillary Justice
Written by Ann Leckie
Read by Celest Ciulla
Ancillary Justice is a return to old school science fiction filled with modern twists.  It is the story of 1-ESK, an ‘ancillary,’ or human imprinted with a spaceship AI.  Twenty years ago, she was permanently severed from her ship.  When she finds a former officer, whom she thought dead a thousand years, lying drugged in the snow, she makes a decision that will change the course of intergalactic civilization.
This Hugo-winning novel has been on my radar for a long time, and it was a delight to finally listen to.  Leckie’s universe is an intricate, well built puzzle supported by a story that is about people, even if the people at the center don’t see themselves that way.  The speculative bits are intriguing and explored well.  Her style is engaging and propellant.
The characters center around a society that does not recognize gender.  Leckie uses exclusively the female pronoun throughout the story, even for characters which are male.  This is both a custom of 1-ESK’s culture, which does not differentiate between genders as a cultural norm and a character trait.  She legitimately has difficulty differentiating between them.  It was a unique spin on the trope of a robot trying to act human, and while I don’t know if it was realistic, I did find this aspect of the novel fascinating.
The audio book was read by Celest Ciulla, and I feel she did a great job balancing the oddness of the novel’s culture and protagonist with a listenable cadence.  The story implies a whole slew of completely imaginary accents and speaking patterns, and she rises to the occasion.
Anciliary Justice is a novel that truly deserved its awards, and I can’t wait to dive into 1-ESK’s next adventure.  You can find it at your local bookstore, or on Audible and Amazon.

Hugh Likes Fiction: The Turn of the Screw

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The Turn of the Screw
By Henry James
Read by Emma Thompson with Richard Armitage

The Turn of the Screw is a classic suspense novel and ghost story, but perhaps it suffers from being too firmly rooted in the time of its creation.  The short novel is the story of a young governess sent to care for the orphaned niece and nephew of a rich London gentleman.  Her employer wants nothing to do with the two small children, but that is only the start of their troubles.  The governess is soon convinced that they are haunted by a pair of ghosts.
James’s short novel is preserved as a primary example of Victorian suspense, but the style would be way too wordy and anticlimactic to best-seller readers today.  But the nouvelle is both steady and deliberate in the application of suspense as the main character attempts to unwind the layers of mystery surrounding her two charges.  The opening section, in which the James claims to have heard this story from a friend one Christmas holiday serves as a statement of purpose to this effect, and also as a sort of carnival barker, stoking the nerves of the reader and daring them to turn the page.
But “The Turn of the Screw” is perhaps a bit too steeped in the cultural and social mores of Victorian England to be relevant to modern readers.  Class and gender relationships, with a clear hierarchy, are taken for granted throughout the work.  The narrator asserts that young Miles is either her equal or superior on the basis of his sex.  Also, class consciousness is central to the scandalous behavior of the two ghosts.  The novel asserts either a tryst between a common manservant and the well-born governess.  It also implies that their contact with the two children was inappropriate, and that their return from beyond the grave is to snatch the children.  James doesn’t seem to see any difference between breaking class taboos and pedophilia ,  which was troubling to my twenty-first century American morals.
I listened to this book on Audible.  Emma Thompson’s reading is quite good, and she manages to cut the dense verbiage of James’s style down to a manageable path.  Her performance keeps the modern listener invested and upholds the air of gothic suspense that may be lost on a reader unaccustomed to the style.  The Turn of the Screw is also available in print and digitally from a number of public domain sources.
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Hugh Likes Fiction: Sorcerer to the Crown

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Sorcerer to the Crown
Written by Zen Cho
Narrated by Jenny Sterlin
Published by Recorded Books
At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, Zacharias Whythe is the Sorcerer Royal, head of the Society of Unnatural Philosophers and possibly the greatest sorcerer in England.  But Zacharias is also a freed slave, and his adopted father, the previous Sorcerer Royal, died under mysterious circumstances with his familiar nowhere to be found.  And if his situation weren’t precarious enough, magic is drying up in England.  If he doesn’t solve the situation soon, his enemies in the society will have everything they need to literally take his head.
But the solution to his problems might lay in the hands of two extraordinary women.  Prunella Gentleman is a half-Indian orphaned girl with untapped magical potential and a mysterious inheritance.  Mak Genggang is a Malaysian witch of immense talent with a temper to match, who might save English magic, if she doesn’t declare war on it first.
With a colorful cast of fashionable faerie-folk, scheming society girls and treacherous wizards, this debut novel is an outstanding romp.   It addresses the realities of race and gender in early nineteenth century England in ways that other fantasy romances like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell shy away from.  And it remains clever, fun, and surprising at every turn.  I particularly enjoyed her interpretation of the Faerie peerage.  But my favorite character has to be Mak Genggang by a country mile.  A sassy, no-nonsense witch, she stomps through the novel like a force of nature that reminded me of the witches from the Hayao Miyazaki version of “Howl’s Moving Castle.”  She’s fantastic, and I hope she makes a reappearance in later novels.
I listened to this book via Audible, and the audiobook was narrated by Jenny Sterlin, who does a great job with the material.  Her reading is lively and her characters are strongly delivered without being overacted.  It is an excellent way to experience the story.
Sorcerer to the Crown is the first part in a trilogy, but ends quite satisfyingly, and I give it a hearty recommendation for anyone looking for a historical fantasy novel that’s a bit less vanilla.  You can find the audiobook on Audible, and the print version is available from Amazon or your local book store.

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