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Tips on keeping your vacation from becoming a “sick-ation”:

Leaving on a jet plane? How to cut your chances of getting sick before you get where you’re going

Thanks, editor Mary Vorsino, for awesomely improving it!

Being808 is a good place to keep up with keeping yourself healthy in Hawaii, go check it out!


Book Review: “Annihilation” (Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff Vandermeer

This is a mesmerizing, tense, unsettling science fiction psychology thriller about the 12th expedition into an area called Area X. Area X is apparently a part of a sea-coast that has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades; most of what humans had built there has decayed back into nature. It is being investigated by a clandestine government agency called the Southern Reach. (Who really trusts what such an agency might say or do?)

The first expedition came back and said everything in Area X was fine. The second ended in mass suicide, the third in a bloody gun battle as the members killed each other. The members of the seventh returned mysteriously over 18 months, but all died of cancer within weeks of returning.

The main character is a biologist, the wife of a medic in the seventh expedition. The whole book is told in first person from her POV. All members of the 12th expedition are women: a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a psychologist who is the oldest and the leader of the expedition.

The book isn’t clear about what the Border is that has cut off Area X, although there’s a suggestion that things aren’t what they seem (the Border is something that causes hallucinations; that’s why everyone who crosses it has to be hypnotized to remain calm). The Border is also moving out into the land surrounding Area X. Sounds like enough to motivate Southern Reach’s “good” side, right?

It comes out that the psychologist has planted hypnotic orders in all the expedition members. Some orders force them to see Area X in certain ways. So our perceptions of Area X are themselves suspect.

For example, they discover a structure the narrator insists on calling a tower although only the top floor or two appear above ground with the rest descending underground. Together, the surveyor and the narrator descend into the Tower, and it becomes clear that the narrator sees things that the surveyor doesn’t.

(At the end of the story, the narrator discovers that one order implanted in each of them is to suicide. Did the 2nd expedition kill itself on command?)

They find things that previous expeditions had reported, like a mysterious empty lighthouse on the shore of the sea. They find the tower I mentioned earlier, where something mysterious and deadly produces living words (made of an unknown biological life form) that spirals up along the walls inside the tower. The words include:

“Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms”

that continues on endlessly in that vein. Eventually the biologist reconstructs additional words from a coral-like frieze on the wall beneath the living words:

“Why should I rest when wickedness exists in the world … God’s love shines on anyone who understands the limits of endurance, and allows forgiveness … Chosen for the service of a higher power.”

She finds (or hears) similar words coming from creatures and plants in Area X. As if the life or living reality in Area X is endlessly talking to itself.

Did the surveyor and the biologist both see the words? Only the biologist sees that the Tower seems to be breathing, its walls moving in and out.

Later, the anthropologist’s body is found down in the tower, her intestines ripped out and her body covered with a green glowing fungus. She had gone there seeking the source of the mysterious words. So apparently she could see the words.

As things go on, the psychologist disappears and the surveyor decides that the expedition’s over: “Best thing we can now is return to the border and await extraction.” The biologist leaves her behind, hiking alone to the lighthouse which appears to have been the central interest of many of the previous expeditions.

In the lighthouse, she finds a room filled with journals from the previous expeditions, containing information that didn’t make it out of Area X. The journals are just dumped into the room from a trapdoor in the ceiling, forming a messy, damp heap. Was someone hiding them? The bottom of the heap is moldy and rotting. It appears that at least some of the information dumped there is known by the Southern Reach agency.

Clearly, a lot more expeditions have gone into Area X than just 12, possibly for as many years as Area X has existed. Or even longer! (Perhaps time travel is also occurring?)

She also finds the psychologist, sitting upright at the base of the tower with numerous broken bones. They psychologist says she lept from the top when she thought something terrifying was rushing towards her. (Is she also under some hypnotic compulsion she doesn’t know about? Or was she attacked by something from Area X?)

She is also infected with the glowing fungus. The narrator talks with the psychologist, receiving some suggestive (but not necessarily reliable) answers, then the psychologist dies, asking to be left there, as the fungus continues to spread.

The narrator reads some of the journals, (including those of her deceased husband) but they don’t necessarily help clarify anything.

She then returns to the camp, where the surveyor shoots and hits her twice, demanding to know what she did with the psychologist and wondering aloud if the narrator is human anymore. That’s a good question, because the narrator shoots the surveyor when “the brightness” growing within her enables her to sense where the surveyor is crawling towards her through the high reeds of the swamp lying between the camp and the lighthouse.

When the narrator finds and reads the surveyor’s journal, the journal is blank. The surveyor has been faking her hours of journal-writing sessions. Except for a single sentence that suggests that the surveyor “took care of” the psychologist.

By the end of the story, the biologist is alive, partially taken over by the fungus. “Partially” only because the fungus has had to pause while healing her two bullet wounds. (Seems like this fungus has some benefits!) Then she decides not to return to the Southern Reach agency, but to leave the camp and head north, the direction that she thinks her husband may have taken when he somehow walked out of Area X and returned back home.

Vandermeer’s style is crisp, with a nice awareness of rhythm and the affect of rhythm on building mood and emotion. The characterizations of people; the narrators’ thoughts, feelings and motivations; “reality(ies)” of Area X itself are crystal-clear. Everything is there. But despite the clarity, everything is still shrouded in mystery. The meanings are absent, vague, conflicting, questionable, unreliable. That helps maintain a nice tension throughout the story.

When they arrived in Area X, the narrator finds out that the linguist who started the expedition with them outside of Area X didn’t come in with them:

“‘She had second thoughts,’ the psychologist told us, meeting our questions with a firm gaze. ‘She decided to stay behind.'”

Is this a suggestion that we should be very suspicious of the language we’re reading? (Of language itself?) There are points where the narrator talks about what happened in her life before the expedition: her various biological researches, her marriage, her husband’s death. But – given the embedded hypnotic commands and the psychologist’s suggestion that Southern Reach may have implanted false memories – how much of that can we trust?

The narrator’s name is never used (as far as I recall) and the narrator never uses the other expedition members’ names. She refers to them by their specialties. Yet it doesn’t feel distancing, like I’d have expected. It feels right because it’s the way the narrator is: kind of distant, apart from the others. One of the narrator’s preferences even from before the expedition is to be alone, studying nature, rather than being around or interacting with people. Even her husband only calls her “Ghost bird”. Is she a ghost, not really there? A bird always flying away? Both?

This book intrigues me enough to want to read it again. It seems to connect with one of the themes Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood stories: how much “reality” is determined by our individual thoughts, feelings, beliefs. In the Mythago Wood mythos, what appear as archetypes in the mind – or even concentrated, willed thoughts – take on physical reality as mythagos with a life of their own that continues on and changes subtly from appearance to appearance, ringing endless variations on the archetype.

Similarly, how much is “real” (in Area X outside the characters) and how much is “real” (inside their possibly warped perceptions and memories) in Area X? Are they even IN Area X, or are they really just handcuffed to the chairs they were seated in before departure? (The narrator notices handcuffs on the arms of the metal chairs they waited in before the psychologist hypnotized them to cross the Border.)

I’m looking forward to the two final volumes; the second, Authority, is due in May 2014 and the third, Acceptance, in September 2014. If they turn out as well as this one, I may have a new trilogy to add to my collection!

Book Review: “The Waking Dark” by Robin Wasserman

The story begins quite promisingly: A small town in the Midwest, on a hot summer day, when suddenly five seemingly-normal people in town commit senseless bloody murders (some singular, some multiple, all but one murder-suicides). Only one of the murderers survives; she’s locked up in an insane asylum.

The story is told through the POVs of a couple of teenagers (not the popular ones) in town, from different classes of society, and seems to be doing a good job of exploring what the various teens are feeling and thinking in reaction to the murders. Sounds like a story that’s going somewhere, with something to say.

Oh, and the town was built on the site of a town of the same name that was burnt to the ground and all 1100+ people in it were killed. That (and maybe the general tone) must have been what one of the advance reviewers meant when he likened it to Stephen King.

Then suddenly the town is surrounded by the US military, all communication with the outside world cutoff, they’re fed some kind of story about something toxic and/or infectious nearby that leaked, etc. Oh, and the mayor’s specifically been handed absolute power – “Do anything you want,” says the Army colonel in charge of the quarantine. And the mayor’s named the high school football team (a bunch of drunken hooligans) as volunteer deputies who’ll be patrolling the town (before this, they’ve been built up as real threats to gang rape one of the POV characters) … Oh, and there’s more than traces of some fundamentalist religious crazies in there, too.

And the story proceeds to wander away from its originality into cliched formula …

I don’t usually give up on a book once I start reading it. I might decide not to read it after I’ve checked it out of the library, but once I start reading, I usually finish. But, sorry, I got to page 122 (hard back library edition), and quit.

I wish the author had written the story she had going before she lost her way.

Book Review: The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lillith Saintcrow

This is a fun steampunk-cum-paranormal-cum-Holmesian adventure. It has violence (both physical and magical), powerful wizards fighting for and against Britain (which is ruled by a powerful spirit named Brittania, currently incarnated as the young Queen Victoria), dragons (mostly sleeping), conspiracies and invasions from other countries (such as Germany) trying to take over Britain, and strange non-human humanoids called Shields whose function is to protect wizards (both physically and magically).

The book won’t win prizes for originality. The Holmesian character is a super-genius who operates by science and the science of deduction and uses a suspiciously-named chemical stimulant when he needs a boost. He’s one of a class of people whose name is suspiciously-like that of the mentats in Frank Herbert’s Dune books. The main character is a beautiful, powerful female wizard who works as an agent for the British government but draws her power from dark magic (Death); her Shield is a man-like humanoid who is quick and deadly with a hint of scaly skin; he’s a kind of being called a “Nagah”. Two dragons are involved: the lesser one is a metal dragon who is the ruler and power source behind the steampunk industry section of London. The greater one is asleep deep beneath the British Isles and so gigantic that if it should wake up, all of the British Isles would be destroyed.

It all comes together with a satisfying end.

Recommended if you like this sort of thing.

Book Review: Carrie Ryan’s post-zombie apocalyse books

The three books are:

The first is my very favorite zombie story. I read it about 2 years ago, when it was a “Best For Young Adults” selection.

This year, I found the other two at my local library and snapped them up.

Some writers can write a great book in an imagined world, then prove unable to write another great book set in that same world. Ryan isn’t one of those writers. She has three great books set in her post-zombie apocalypse world.

The three books are loosely connected, with the main character of The Forest of Hands and Teeth being the adopted mother of the main character of The Dead-Tossed Waves. The main character of The Dark and Hollow Places is the sister of another of the main characters in Dead-Tossed Waves.

What I like most about her books is that they’re not focused on the blood and gore of fighting zombies. She’s writing about the surviving humans and the effects the zombies and survival has on them, their society and their religious beliefs.

Common thread: catastrophic change (the Return) and how people respond

Zombies are something good

The Soulers are religious people who’ve decided that zombies (being essentially immortal) are the immortality that some religions believe is the reward given to good/righteous believers. A Souler voluntarily agrees to be bitten by a zombie so they can return in their own immortal body. The other Soulers then smash and remove the returnee’s lower jaw and pull their teeth so they can’t bite or infect anyone else, and keep them chained up as part of the family, so to speak.

This touches on a repeated question throughout all the stories: when someone becomes a zombie, is the original personality/soul still there, or is it gone and the zombie body is just a biological machine? No one really answers this question, although one of the main characters (Catcher) in the two later books hints a bit toward an answer. Catcher was bitten, but turns out to be immune; his immune system is able to hold the infection in check. Those in the story who are familiar with immunes say that whenever he finally dies, he’ll come back as a zombie. But none can say if he’ll still be in the zombie body or not.

Zombies are something evil to be destroyed whenever possible, or avoided

This is expressed in the general attitude of the survivors, and particularly expressed in all three books. In The Forest of Teeth and Hands, the people who’ve been protecting the village from the surrounding zombies have formed an almost-religious community with rigid rules intended to protect the village. In The Dead-Tossed Waves, the larger village has nothing particularly religious about it, but has rigid rules intended to protect the village. In The Dark and Hollow Places, a non-religious military dictatorship (the Protectorate and its Recruiters army) protects the larger coastal village (and the even larger Dark City). In all three cases, the rules result in the deaths of uninfected citizens.

The responses of the village sisterhood, the Soulers and the Protectorate to the wrenching change caused by the Return of the dead as zombies boil down to basically the same: hard-hearted, hopeless, resistance.

The positive response

At the end of The Dark and Hollow Places, the response is, “Zombies are a part of the world as it is, but we don’t need to give up living to deal with it.” It ends with hope as the main characters and the downtrodden slaves of the powerful escape the final zombie horde by flying away in hot air balloons. Then they go to sea in an old sailing vessel, setting out to look for other pockets of survivors, with the hope of establishing a sea-born society safe from the zombies.


She’s still writing for young adults, so sometimes her characters spend a bit too much time moping around about the whole “He loves me, he loves me not, should I love him, do I love him” et al. The two later books have more of that problem than the first. But unlike Charles de Lint, I never felt like anything kept me from connecting with the characters and immersing myself in the stories.


Read and reread them all!

Book Review: “The Unreal and The Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin”

This set consists of two volumes. Volume one is Where on Earth, volume two is Outer Space, Inner Lands.

All of these short stories have been published before. What’s interesting about these volumes is that le Guin selected each of these as a story that she really liked. No one else helped her select stories or choose the order in which they’re published and which volume they occupy. It undoubtedly says a lot about her thought processes and interests; particularly about her fluid and amorphous boundaries between realism, fantasy and science fiction.

The stories include well-known ones such as “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight?” and little-known ones that she wanted to put before readers.

She writes in a clear, distinctive style that varies little from story to story. It varies so little that I found it difficult sometimes to keep the stories separate. Reading too many of them in one sitting can make them all sound alike.

If you’ve not read any of le Guin’s stories, slap yourself (you deserve if for neglecting one of our great modern writers), Then read these volumes, followed by some of her novels. These have stuck with me the longest:

  • The Word For World Is Forest
  • The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia
  • The Left Hand of Darkness
  • The Lathe of Heaven
  • The Books of Earthsea
    • A Wizard of Earthsea
    • The Tombs of Atuan
    • The Farthest Shore

In her introduction to these two volumes, she says that she deliberately left out her favorite story form, the novella. “Each novella would crowd out three, four, or five short stories.” These volumes left me hoping that she’ll do a similar story selection volume or two focused on her novellas. I also thought, “If these volumes had been thought of as e-books, there’d be no page limit.” So she could have included both the selected short stories her selected novellas. (E-books have made the number of pages meaningless. Books like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was originally intended to be published as a single volume but was broken into three volumes due to the sheer difficulty and cost of publishing thousands of physical pages. So if your primary focus is on e-books, you no longer need to feel constrained by length limits.)

So check out these two volumes and go read some of her great novels. At once, you hear? There you go, good reader! Good reader!

Book Review: “Eyes Like Leaves” by Charles de Lint

Although recently published (2009), this novel is actually the fourth he has written. It was going to be his fourth published book, until his publisher pointed out that this would be his third “secondary world” fantasy. (I prefer the older term, “high fantasy”.) According to the publisher, publishing it would forever brand Mr de Lint as a writer of high fantasy. de Lint didn’t want that, he wanted to pursue contemporary fantasy, so he withdrew this book and offered another of his contemporary fantasies, Yarrow. So Eyes Like Leaves “fell between the cracks like some long-forgotten lover” (according to his introduction to this book).

This is a good story set in a version of Britain during the time of Viking raids and invasions. It’s about the conflict between the Summerlord (the power that keeps things green and alive) and his brother, the Icelord, the power that wants to cover the British Isles (and ultimately, the whole earth) with ice. The Summerlord has been weakened when his staff was broken; his power is fading and only being kept alive in the various Summerborn people (people who are his children or descended from his children).

The story moves along, as the main human characters follow prophecies and instructions from an Oracle on what they must do to help restore the Summerlord’s power. It climaxes with the Icelord easily defeating the main human characters, which gives the Summerlord just enough time to regrow his staff and defeat the Icelord. He sends the weakened Icelord back to the Viking north lands, refusing to destroy the Icelord because that would destroy the balance between life and death that nature depends on.

de Lint’s writing style is clear and clean.

I like high fantasy (in which the story takes place in a completely imaginary world), so I liked that part of this book. The magic system made sense and had an excellent balance between capability (what a magic worker could do) and cost (what it cost the magic worker to use it). Some fictional magic systems have their magic users doing spells with little or no cost to them. No danger to them. The magic here gets its power from the being of the magic user, and using it weakens the character. Magic can be even more dangerous than that: if a magic user changes shape and keeps that shape too long, he or she might be unable to change back – or have his personality taken over by that of the shape. There’s a point in the story where the main character (a Summerborn) assumes the shape of one of the Icelord’s most powerful evil beings. He becomes dangerously close to taking on the personality of that shape. That’s partly because he keeps the shape for too long, and also because he’s not only a Summerborn, he’s also a descendent of the Icelord.

My main problem with the story is that I felt like I was seeing it from a distance and through a pane of glass. Being “told” it rather than experiencing or participating in it. I didn’t feel touched by it, didn’t care about the characters. (I almost quit reading it.) It wasn’t until the climax and the end that I felt like the pane was going away.

You might not have that problem, so I recommend reading it if you like Charles de Lint and want to see the kind of writing he could have done if he’d chosen to pursue high fantasy (“secondary world fantasy”) in addition to his contemporary fantasies. In my opinion, he could do both. I don’t think he would have been “branded” as his publisher suggested. Of course, I look at it from today’s viewpoint, 30 years later, in the age of the Internet where the author is the brand, not the genre. I think the “Charles de Lint” brand transcends fantasy sub-genres. de Lint doesn’t have the writing chops to transcend whole genres like Ray Bradbury, Poul Anderson or Isaac Asimov, but he could easily transcend fantasy sub-genres.