Monday, November 1, 2010

Johnny Halloween

Book 64: Johnny Halloween: Tales of the Dark Season by Norman Partridge, isbn 9781587672231, 125 pages, Cemetery Dance Publications signed limited edition, $30.00

I've been meaning to read more of Norman Partridge's work since I literally tripped across his novel DARK HARVEST a couple of years ago on a business trip to Phoenix. I had left the hotel without any reading material, and if there's one thing I hate it's sitting at dinner in a restaurant with nothing to read other than the menus. This has happened more than once, and occasionally has led to me purchasing books I never finish reading. DARK HARVEST was one of the best impulse buys I ever made. So when I saw that Cemetery Dance was issuing a new Partridge collection with a Halloween theme, I couldn't resist ordering it and then letting it sit until the holiday weekend.

There are only 6 stories, plus an introduction and an essay, in this slim volume. The introduction and the final story are brand new; the other 5 stories and the essay are collected from various other sources but were all new to me. Only one story, "Black Leather Kites," disappointed me and even that story held some charm (mostly in imagining what it would look like on the big screen or HBO). My favorite story in the book is probably the title story, about a sheriff recalling the crime he stopped when he was a teenager and how that comes back to haunt him in the present. I was also looking forward to the Dark Harvest-connected story that concludes the book, "The Jack O'Lantern," but I will caution anyone who has not read the book -- this story contains a fairly significant spoiler about the events of the novel. If you've read DARK HARVEST, "The Jack O'Lantern" will make your heart-rate race the way the book did, and will fill out the picture of just what goes on in this small town on the night of The Run.

The essay in the book, "The Man Who Killed Halloween," is Partridge's first person account of what it was like to live in Vallejo, California, at the time of the Zodiac killings, and how that unsolved crime spree forever changed the way that town celebrates Halloween (and most other holidays, I would think). Non-fiction rarely scares me or unsettles me the way fiction does, but the story is so personal to Partridge that I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing up as he described not on the crimes but the way most people found out about them. Perhaps it's because I've been reading IT recently, but Partridge's essay connected strongly with my reaction to the 1950s sections of that novel.

Definitely a good read if you can get your hands on a copy.

Individual story reviews can be found here.

Trysts by Steve Berman

Book 63: Trysts: A Triskadecollection of Queer and Weird Stories by Steve Berman, isbn 9781590210000, 148 pages, Lethe Press, $13.00

I first came across Steve Berman's work when I ordered his short novel VINTAGE from the InsightOut Book Club (an arm of the Book of the Month Club aimed at gay and lesbian readers). I enjoyed the book, as you can see from the review found here. I posted my review and discovered that Steve is here on livejournal, both on his own journal and through the journal for the publishing house he runs, [info]lethepress . This gave me the opportunity to seek out more of Berman's work, which has most recently appeared in the anthologies PAPER CITIES (his story reviewed here) and THE BEASTLY BRIDE (his story reviewed here). I ordered both of Steve's personal short story collections from Lethe, and have finally gotten around to reading the earlier of the two, TRYSTS.

There are twenty stories in TRYSTS, and several of them show the rough edges of a writer who is just starting out. These stories date from the late 90s through the collection's publication in 2001. Four of the twenty stories take place in Berman's dark-fantasy world of The Fallen Area, a section (or perhaps all) of Philadelphia that has been cut off from the rest of the civilized world because something has happened to change it -- magic works, people develop Talents or Afflictions, normal people struggle to survive a world they no longer hold primacy in. All four stories feature individuals new to the Fallen Area who find themselves in over their heads; some adapt better than others.

Not all of Berman's stories are Dark Fantasy / Horror. "His Paper Doll" is nearly whimsical and "Beach 2" isn't really supernatural at all. Some of the stories are homages to other authors. "The Resurrectionist" owes a lot to Poe (and perhaps Hawthorne), while "Path of Corruption" is positively Lovecraftian. A few of the stories didn't work for me (notably "Left Alone," which feels incomplete, and "Stormed and Taken in Prague," which seems too focused on the sex the main character has to really get across the kind of hole the character is potentially falling into) but even those stories don't lack for potentially interesting premises. I would recommend this collection for the Fallen Area stories in particular, and for a look at early Berman.

Reviews of the individual stories can be found here and here.

Feed By Mira Grant

Book 62: Feed by Mira Grant, isbn 9780316081054, 599 pages, Orbit, $9.99

I have to admit up front that I only picked up FEED because it was the October entry in the online book club run by [info]calico_reaction and I always read as much horror as I can in the month of October anyway. I also have to admit that really, I'm not a zombie fiction fan. For me, zombies work great on the screen (I love the original Romero trilogy as well as 28 Days/Weeks Later) but don't seem to have the same hold over me in print. So I was skeptical that I'd really get anything out of this book other than a chance to say "I told you so" and an addition to my year's total page-count.

Thankfully, I can say my skepticism was wrong. While I don't think FEED is anywhere near a perfect book, I can say that overall it worked for me: the characters clicked and a couple of the action sequences got my heart racing a bit.

In 2014, super-cures for cancer and the common cold are released to the air, and combine to create Kellis-Amberlee, the virus that brings the recently dead back to life with an insatiable hunger. Twenty years later, people live in rigidly-defined hazard zones based on the likelihood of encounter with Infected (humans or other mammals). Society hangs in there under a constant cloud of fear, and faith in traditional news media is low. Twenty years after the Uprising, more people trust Bloggers in the world of FEED, and two of the most well-regarded bloggers are "Newsie" (hard-news reporter) Georgia Mason and "Irwin" (adventure-based reporter) Shaun Mason, a brother-and-sister team aided by their technical support and fiction-writing third partner "Buffy" Messionier. The team is tapped by Senator Peter Ryman to accompany his Presidential Campaign, from before the party primaries all the way up to Election Day if they go that far. Georgia, Shaun, Buffy and new team member Rick discover they are on to the biggest story of their careers, and it's bigger than just following a candidate around.

The book starts off a bit rocky, in my opinion, with a lot of the world-building info repeated almost ad nauseum not just from chapter to chapter but occasionally from page to page. Most of the first section of the book (which is divided up into five distinct sections) feels like an info-dump. While it establishes the characters of Georgia, Shaun and Buffy very clearly, it also repeats so much information over and over again that you begin to wonder if Georgia, who narrates, is the reporter she's built up to be. But if you can get past the first hundred pages, the narrative kicks in and the characters spend a lot less time repeating themselves. The baseline information about the world they live in has been driven home through repetition and the story can begin to move. The book gets good when it stops re-explaining how people get infected and what's been done to protect the populace and starts getting into what the book is really about: political machinations and the use of fear as a means of controlling the populace. Georgia and the team get an up-close-and-personal look at the political side of terrorism as well. The action sequences also get stronger, more pulse-racing, as the book goes along; it's almost like Grant knowingly saves her best action-prose for the end, although the fight in Eakly occurs relatively early in the book and contains at least one very tense moment.

To say too much more about the twists the book takes would be to spoil it for anyone who has not read it yet. I can say a few things. The encounters between Team Mason and the zombies start out almost mundane (see how silly we are, poking zombies with sticks to get higher ratings for our blog) and grow deadly serious (a multi-car-wreck has lasting effects on the team) right up to the very last pages. I was pretty sure I had tagged who was behind the terrorism early on, and I'm sure most astute readers will manage to figure it out too. But sometimes, knowing who the "big bad" is and knowing how events will reveal that "big bad" to the characters are two very different things, and the direction the reveal took very definitely surprised me. Each chapter ends, and each of the five sections begins, with quotes from the blogs of Georgia, Shaun, Buffy and Rick; flipping back through the book after I'd reached the end, I was not surprised to find that most of them gained a "you should have seen that coming, gentle reader" tone in hind-sight. If I have any complaint about those quoted passages, it is that they don't seem to have unique voices. For all the characters talk about how Newsies, Irwins and Fictionals approach the news with distinct voices, there wasn't anything particularly individual about the posts of Georgia, Shaun and Rick (Buffy is set apart because she's writing poetry about the events around them, not non-fiction reportage).

I can also say (and I doubt anyone would be surprised) that FEED is the first of a trilogy. I'm not sure how quickly I'll rush out to pick up book two, DEADLINE. I think FEED stands well enough on its own that I don't necessarily feel the need to see the story continued; I guess my decision will rest solely on how much I miss the surviving members of Team Mason by the time the new book hits the stands.

Haunted Legends

Book 61: Haunted Legends edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas, isbn 9780765323019, 347 pages, Tor, $15.99

I have never been disappointed with any anthology edited, or co-edited, by Ellen Datlow, and HAUNTED LEGENDS continues that trend. While there are a few stories in this collection that didn't really work for me, the majority of them did.

The theme is exactly what the title implies: those local, "home-grown" tales of hauntings and other oddness that you often find retold in poorly-edited "local legends" tomes sold in airports kiosks and tourist-trap gift shops. Datlow and Mamatas' edict to the participants in this anthology was to rescue those local legends from poorly-written retellings and to give them new life -- to make them universal while not sacrificing their local flavor. And most of the authors succeed.

There are 20 stories in the collection. My favorites are "As Red as Red" by Caitlyn R. Kiernan, "Shoebox Train Wreck" by John Mantooth, "Tin Cans" by Ekaterina Sedia, "Return to Mariabronn" by Gary A. Braunbeck, "The Redfield Girls" by Laird Barron, "Between Heaven and Hull" by Pat Cadigan, and "Chucky Comes to Liverpool" by Ramsey Campbell. With the exception of the Kiernan and Campbell stories, they all have to do with transportation-related ghosts -- something I didn't realize until I listed them all together like this. There are a couple of stories that disappointed me, notably "The Folding Man" by Joe R. Lansdale and "Down Atsion Road" by Jeffrey Ford, but not every collection can be perfect.

Even though Halloween is over as of a few minutes ago here on the east coast, I recommend seeking this collection out if you like "local legends" and "home-grown ghosts." It's worth the effort.

More detailed story-by-story analysis can be found here and here.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Horror Stories

A mixed bag of genre stuff this entry. I'm trying to weed out books I know I'm not going to read, to donate to the book drive that will be happening to support National Novel Writing Month. I can't let any anthologies go without at least reading a couple of stories in each. So:

From Cthulhu's Reign, edited by Darrell Schweitzer (the concept of the anthology is "what the world will be like after Cthulthu and the other Lovecraftian monsters return to Earth):

304. Such Bright and Risen Madness in our Names by Jay Lake. Lake takes the anthology's premise and narrows it down to the personal level: the narrator is one of an ever-dwindling group of "rebel" humans / near-humans striving to maintain some kind of resistance against Cthulhu and the humans/near-humans who serve "him." In Lake's interpretation, there seem to be very few baseline humans left: almost everyone has undergone some kind of physical change since the Olde Ones returned. The narrator ends up involved in a plan to wipe out the Lovecraftians, but if every other form of resistance has failed, what are the odds this one will succeed? And is our narrator willing to do what it takes? What works about this story is that it could just as easily be about a resistance cell in an over-run third world country -- if the dictators in the story were not actual monsters, the emotions and interplay of the three main people in this story would be just as heart-wrenching and their decisions would be just as difficult to try to understand. The best genre stories speak to the "real" world, and this ranks right up there.

305. The Seals of New R'Lyeh by Gregory Frost almost crosses genre -- it's a crime caper (let's see if they can steal the heavily-guarded Seals), it's a sort-of buddy flick (if the buddies don't actually like each other but work together anyway) and it's at least dark fantasy, if not outright horror (after all, the setting is The World After Cthulhu Returns). At least twice, I thought I knew where this story was going and found that it wasn't going there. Frost makes several neat turns in the story work with just a word or two; he never beats you over the head with clues to where things are headed, but the clues are there nonetheless in the way the story progresses. See if you can put it together before the end; I'll admit, I didn't but afterwards said "of course!"

And now four from the first Dark Delicacies anthology, edited by Del Howison and Jeff Gelb:

306. The Reincarnate by Ray Bradbury. Is there anything like a Ray Bradbury short story? This is one of those stories that is addressed directly to the reader-as-main-character: "After a while you will get over being afraid." This type of story is, I think, very hard to pull off even in the short form. So far, Bradbury and Norman Partridge seem to be the only authors that come to mind has having succeeded enough for me to not only remember the story, but to add it to my list of favorites. Bradbury's starts off a little rocky for me, but within a trio of paragraphs I was pulled right in and stayed in the story through the really satisfying ending.

307. Part of the Game by F. Paul Wilson. This is a tidy little "pulp / penny dreadful" type story. 1930s Chinatown setting, prejudiced white detective tries to horn in on the gambling and other illicit activities from which a mysterious figure called The Mandarin takes a cut. He tells the Mandarin's Emissary that he wants to "be a part of the game," or else he will bring the entire police department to bear and essentially shut Chinatown down. Famous last words, of course. What I really liked about this story is that Wilson does not attempt to make the detective, or the emissary, or the Mandarin himself, at all sympathetic. Occasionally, a story in which everyone is simply out for himself is exactly what the reader needs. This was one of those times for me. And it's not that the detective is a particularly flat character -- he has motivation and such -- it's just that he's thoroughly unlikeable. Great story, and I'm wondering if Wilson intended "The Mandarin" to be Fu Manchu.

308. Bloody Mary Morning by John Farris. I'm not a "gore horror" fan so much -- I'd much rather watch or read a psychological horror story than see the latest SAW movie. Farris' tale sort of walks the line between the two. There is a lot of blood here, and described in very cinematic terms, even though there are only three deaths. The blood permeates the entire story, and just when I thought it was getting to be a bit too much and perhaps a bit cliche ... Farris ends the story on a grace note that makes you realize why all the blood was necessary and what it was really all about. The psychological dramatic tension (will he get away with it, is the best I can summarize without giving anything away) walks you through a few cliches but not in any way that feels cliched.

309. A Gentleman of the Old School by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. I read this because it is a Count Saint-Germain story, and it's been years since I've read a Saint-Germain story. That being said ... it's not really a horror story. In fact, I'm not really sure what to call it. It's got murder mystery and serial killer elements in it, it's got the whole "will she learn his secret and what will happen if she does" element, and it's got that "intrepid reporter who might be getting in over her head" element. And they somehow work together, but there's nothing particularly horrific about the story, nor is there anything really in the way of a satisfactory exploration of the serial killer aspect. For fans of Saint-Germain, I think it's a great little character moment, but others might wonder just what the story is doing in this collection.

And finally three from Dark Delicacies II: Fear, also edited by Del Howison and Jeff Gelb:

310. Dog by Joe R. Lansdale. I normally try not to boil stories down to comparisons with other authors, but this story made me immediately think of two Stephen King works: CUJO (for perhaps the obvious reason), and "The Gingerbread Girl" (for reasons that hopefully will become apparent when you read the story). Which is not to say that Lansdale spends the story channeling King -- this is definitely a Lansdale story beginning to end. The tension just keeps ratcheting up through the story. I literally was sweating along with the main character, feeling chased and harried. And left the story with an unsettling feeling that this is the kind of thing that happens to you once, and you can't explain what it was all about but you hope you've done your time and it won't come around to bite you again. Which is meant as a great compliment.

311. First Born by John Farris. This Farris story didn't work quite as well for me as the one above, but it still had its nice twists. The main character is a famous actor who finds that he doesn't remember a promise he made 20 years ago to the man who started his career -- or at least that's what the odd voice on the other side of the phone claims. The caller wants the actor to turn over his first born child -- I'm not giving anything away here because the title pretty much leads you to that already. Farris works in a twist about halfway through that allows the story to resolve in a little bit of a different way than is typical. I think the details he leaves out (allowing the reader to piece things together) are more interesting than the details he leaves in.

312. The Ammonite Violin (Murder Ballad No. 4) by Caitlyn R. Kiernan. I know this is part of a longer book. I read it and decided that I really want to read that longer work now. Kiernan gives us a view through a serial killer's eyes -- a killer who has two passions, killing and collecting ammonite shells. He has a violin constructed using some of those shells and we spend most of the story wondering what his purpose is. It becomes very clear at the end. Kiernan does a great job of building that tension and wording things in such a way that even up to the end you're wondering exactly how the story is going to play out. Very well done.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fungus of the Heart

Book 60: Fungus of the Heart by Jeremy C. Shipp, isbn 9781935738008, 158 pages, Raw Dog Screaming Press, $24.95

I was lucky enough to get an ARC in pdf form of Jeremy C. Shipp's forthcoming (sometime in November) short story collection of dark fantasy / dark sf / dark fairy tales / horror. Shipp's work is hard to define by just one genre. Most of the collection would probably fit the "dark fantasy" description, and almost all of them have some horror component. And at least two have a very "fairy tales but not of the Disney variety" feel to them.

I posted individual story reviews here. Overall, the collection is very strong. A few stories in particular stand out: the noirish "The Sun Never Sets in the Big City," the supernatural detective with a twist story "The Haunted House," the dialogue-driven "Boy in the Cabinet," and the wistful (and anti-war) "Spider House" are perhaps my four favorites of the collection. I can see the characters from "Haunted House" and "Spider House" both inhabiting full-length novels if not outright series. Special mention to "How To Make A Clown," which I think I would nominate for [info]lethepress 's WILDE STORIES anthology if I had a say. The only story in the collection that really didn't work for me at all was "Agape Walrus," but I know people for whom the very out-there nature of the story will be perfect.

You can pre-order the book directly from the publisher, Raw Dog Screaming. I think it's worth the paperback price at least -- and the collectors among you will probably want the hardcover.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Jeremy Shipp's Stories

A couple of months ago, author Jeremy C. Shipp sent out a call for reviewers on his Twitter. Some of those reviewers got print ARC's of Shipp's forthcoming short fiction collection FUNGUS OF THE HEART from the publisher. I was amongst those who got the ARC in .pdf form directly from the author. Here are my thoughts on the individual stories:

291. The Sun Never Rises in the Big City Shipp has a knack for combining genres, in this case mystery and horror. Most of the mystery-horror hybrids I've read have been in the Harry Dresden / urban fantasy mode. This one is decidedly not. The narrator pretends to be a noirish private dick with a sexy customer named Adeline who wants help confirming that her husband is cheating on her; the truth of the situation comes out quickly and the twists flow from there. It's still a mystery, it's just not the mystery you initially think it is. The true personality of the narrator becomes apparent as the story moves along. This one made an impression on me and made me wonder more about the world the characters live in.

292. The Haunted House Another mystery-horror hybrid, this time with a narrating character who could fall more into the Harry Dresden mold. Ash possesses her clients in order to get deep into their psyches to help solve them find solutions to the emotional trauma / problems they have. I liked how Shipp doled out the information as to what was really going on slowly, eerily. Apparitions, manifestations of the client's personality and past, come and go, but not everything Ash encounters is a figment of her client's imagination. This story has a different kind of mystery-tension than the story that precedes it, even though they can be lumped under the same "mystery-horror" label.

293. Fungus of the Heart Shipp creates interesting worlds in these short stories. In this story, the narrator is a trained Sentinel, meant to protect The Protectors, a breed of humans who are set slightly apart from the rest -- their powers give them responsibility but also cause those they protect to pull away. But Nightingale, the Sentinel, has a mission: to rescue her lover, also a Protector, from the people who have kidnapped her. Nightingale is willing to do anything it takes to rescue Cailin; the question is will she forfeit her soul to do what she thinks is right? Shipp very capably addresses the issue of when it's time to let go, within the bigger issue of finding your own personal boundaries.

294. Boy in the Cabinet A lot of Shipp's stories seem to be dialogue-driven. This is one of those: a boy who lives in a cabinet talks to a Death Cat, a Cup, a Girl, and a Man. The Boy discovers things about his life, his past, his future. The relatively small amount of actual descriptive writing in the story actually increases the feeling that we're reading a fairy-tale. The cat in particular is a great character, ranking right up there with the cat in Neil Gaiman's CORALINE in terms of almost overshadowing the human main characters.

295. Just Another Vampire Story is also not your typical vampire story. I really don't feel like I can say much about why this story worked so well for me without spoiling the way Shipp plays the story out. I think I can summarize it: a husband cheats on his wife, and vampires fit into the resolution of their marital problems. By keeping the story in Steven's POV, and showing how little he really understands Helen, Shipp keeps the narrative tension tight. Possibly my second-favorite story in the book after the opening story.

296. Ticketyboo Another story that did not go at all where I thought it would, and that's a good thing. I'm not sure I ever got a really clear sense of where / what Ticketyboo actually is (although there's a heavy implication that again, I don't want to spoil; but I think it can also be interpreted as something very different from what's implied by the end of the story), but I did get a strong sense of the bond between the young siblings the story centers on. I found the choice of the name "Massa" for the surrogate mother figure to be a little odd but that's a minor quibble.

297. The Escapist is a legend among Gnomekind, the best greatest hope for ending the war with the Goblins. But is he really what the bards sing about? The Escapist IS the main character in the story, and we see what he really thinks of himself and his abilities and his past as compared to what his fellows think. I'm not sure if Shipp intended this as almost a treatise on the Cult of Personality, but the theme certainly fits the story. What happens when the Savior/Hero we think we need not only is not what we thought but is also not what he thinks he is? The story is also an absolutely great war story -- how far will we go to win a battle? What happens when one general decides to take matters into his own hands, literally?

298. Ula Morales I'll admit I don't "get" the title, but I'm pretty sure I got the story, about a ten year old girl with antlers raised by an oak tree who will go to any lengths to protect her forest. One of the shorter, more pointed stories in the collection. On the one hand, it feels light a great character piece; on the other hand it feels like maybe it could have used a bit more development -- but then again, being in first person I'm not sure how the story could have been expanded. So it's a bit of a catch-22.

299. Spider House In contrast to the preceding story this one not only cries for more exploration, it would be very easy for the author to do more with it. If Shipp hasn't yet considered expanding this into at least a novella, he should. The main character is heavily burdened with her past involvement in a war that at first seems a bit vaguely described and later, with just a few lines, takes on a dimension that is both cliche and creative. Her supporting characters include a pumpkin-dwelling Sprite with low self-esteem and a vampire who can travel through computers and is searching for details on the person who destroyed his village and his family. And then there is the foil, General Thomas Reed, who wants to pull Shanna back into the war. It's a great cast of characters that almost demand to be developed further, which is a compliment to the story and not a criticism. I feel like I already know these characters and now want to see where events take them.

300. Monkey Boy and the Monsters Another war-based story, with a far more "anime" feel to it. That's the term that just popped into my head. I can see this story as a wildly-insane Japanese cartoon. Which is not to say the story's silliness is its only dimension. Far from it. Underneath the story of Monkey Boy, his sidekick Soapy and their battle against zombies, werewolves and dirt, we get commentary on controlling parents, censoring bodies, puberty, teen angst, and prejudice against "Georgians." Reading this only a week or so after the latest gay-bullying-related suicide here in NJ, I couldn't help but layer my own thoughts and concerns onto Shipp's words. Sometimes the right story comes along at the right time, and for me this was one of those happenstances.

301. Agape Walrus I am forced to admit that this particular story, about a rare "love walrus" named Kevin Donihe, his zombie lover, and three visitors to their remote home who are all looking for something. It was, perhaps, just a little too "out there" for me, but I'm sure the story will work very well for others. It felt like the silliness that propelled the Monkey Boy story (with the more serious undercurrent) took a wrong turn here; for me, too much of what goes on in this story felt more like it was there for shock value than for anything else.

302. Kingdom Come Another story I can't say too much about without spoiling the best part of the story. The story is about a man who takes his family on vacation in a national park in a world where people are equipped with Filters that essentially sound like high-tech "rose colored glasses." Early on, the narrator mentions his Filter editing out the utility wires and pollution so he can enjoy the view. The story of course takes a darker turn when the narrator's son disappears -- the author really excels at this "dark sf / dark fantasy / mystery" sort of mash-up. The story feels like it falters a bit in the middle and almost shows all the cards too soon, but it redeems itself in the final act and delivers a neat ending and (as with several other stories in the collection) a decided anti-war message.

303. How to Make a Clown is another of Shipp's dialogue-driven stories. It takes a more careful reading to really parse apart what's going on, but it is worth the effort. The opening is a bit rocky (what is up with that Clown, anyway), but the rest of the story has a romantic side in among the weirdness that I really liked. If I had a say, I'd recommend this story for Lethe Press' next Wilde Stories anthology.

Full book review will be posted over on my LJ and various other online places a little later tonight.

Friday, October 8, 2010

4 Story reviews

A mixed bag of genres, before I start my usual "Month of Horror" reading:

287. The Fall of the Moon by Jay Lake, from the October 2010 issue of Realms of Fantasy. In a world that seems to be in the future of our own (based on the use of certain words and the way characters refer to what used to be), a young man realizes that the insular, despondent life of his family's village is not all there is -- and that taking a risk (even if it is a risk prophecied by a book he finds under a bed) to see what's beyond the horizon is better than staying miserable. Jay Lake's short tale of Hassan and the boat he builds is rife with great details that reveal a world turned extremely dangerous (ocean tides bring in a flood of rodents, but also a flood of predators), but Hassan himself is what propels the story to its open end. Well done.

288. Twins by C.E. Morgan, from the June 14/21, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. This is one of those stories that I really can't figure out what to say about. I didn't hate it, I didn't dislike it even, but I also can't say I liked it. It's the story of very young twin brothers, one light-skinned and one dark, the progeny of mixed parents. It's told with a focus on the darker, less daring, brother and his interactions with more his more daring twin, their smothering single mother, and their distant father. It's full of physical detail that evokes the industrial area of Cincinnati, an area I've passed through and could picture. But I didn't click with the characters or the point of the story.

289. Torhec The Sculptor by Tanith Lee, from the October/November, 2010 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction. I'm going to sound like a broken record if someone goes back and rereads all of my Tanith Lee reviews in succession, but I love how she creates alternate Earths that are just a tweak or two away from our own. Is this story far in our future or in an alternate dimension? I don't know, and I'm not sure it really matters. The story is really about the ephemeral nature of art and the ever-lasting nature of man's pride and his doubt. The title character is an artist who creates, and then destroys. He does not sell collectors. Until the "multinaire" Von Glanz names a price high enough. Torhec and Von Glanz are opposite sides of "playing God," one destroying and one preserving. Or are they really all that different? Great story.

290. Death and the Countess by Win Scott Eckert, from The Avenger Chronicles. Another fun foray into the Wold-Newton Crossover Universe by Eckert, this one centering on Richard Benson, the gray-faced Avenger of the pulp magazines, and his team Justice Inc. They are drawn into a conspiracy in which a mysterious Countess is demonstrating a deadly new weapon to be auctioned off to the highest bidder -- and every major nation on the Allied and Axis sides of the soon-to-be World War Two want to get their hands on it. I won't spoil the fun of figuring out just how many other pulp (and other) literary figures Win manages to reference, since that's half the point of the story. A fun, easy read.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Order of the Phoenix

I actually finished "re-listening" to this three weeks ago, and just have not gotten around to writing my review. (Part of that was, honestly, my goal of making the second half of September "Non-Genre Fortnight," and thus wanting to hold off on this review until those books' reviews were written and posted. Which they have now done.)

Book 59: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
by J.K. Rowling, read by Jim Dale, isbn 9780807220290, 870 pages / 23 cds, Scholastic / Listening Library, $13.95 / $75.00

If I were hard-pressed to list the Potter books from favorite to l east favorite (understanding that even "least favorite" is still very much enjoyed), OotP would probably place 3rd from the top. PRISONER OF AZKABAN will always be my favorite, and I think GOBLET OF FIRE will always come in a close second. ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and DEATHLY HALLOWS probably tie for third, with OotP just slightly edging out the series finale if push comes to shove.

That said, the book is still not perfect. Listening to Jim Dale perform it on cd, it becomes very apparent where the book slows down and almost terminally loses me: Hagrid's flashback. Please note that I'm not saying Hagrid's flashback is a waste of space: it is important that Harry & company learn where Hagrid has been, what he's been attempting to do both for Dumbledore and for his own purposes; it's important that we the readers know what Hagrid's been up to so that we understand just why it's so important that Dolores Umbridge not know what Hagrid's been up to. But still, for all the importance of that chapter -- it is slooooowww going even with the best of readers. I thought, when I first read the book, that it was my own problem, but listening to Jim Dale showed me that it's the chapter itself (and friends who are Potter fans have largely expressed the same problem). Thankfully, that's one of the few problems I have with the book.

Overall, despite the 870-page length, I find ORDER to be a tightly-plotted book that just keeps moving towards a conclusion we see coming long before Harry does. Even on my initial read of the book the week it was published, I could tell early on that Voldemort had figured out how to use his connection to Harry to manipulate our hero and knew that the trip to the Ministry was not going to end well. No, I did not (probably could not have) predict(ed) Sirius' death in the climactic scene; but I knew something horrible would happen. How could it not, with the tension and dread Rowling builds up in the preceding 700 pages? Of course, people had been predicting "an important character's" death for months before the book came out, and Rowling expertly teases us just before the halfway point with the near-death of Arthur Weasley. Harry never quite, in the books, comes to view Arthur as a father figure the way he does Sirius and Dumbledore, but Arthur's near death should have been the warning sign to all of us: in order for Harry to grow into the role prophecied for him at the end of the book, he needs to grow beyond what his father-figures can provide for him. Arthur, being not quite a father figure, survives his encounter with Nagini (and that wretched Muggle invention, "stitches!"). We should have known that Sirius and Dumbledore would not fare as well.

Rowling uses the animosity she's developed between Harry and Snape (as well as Snape and Sirius) to good advantage in propelling this story. Had Harry taken Occlumency lessons from just about anyone else, he might have been more successful. Had Snape been teaching the skill to just about anyone else, he might have come up with a better method of teaching it. (It's my opinion that Snape isn't actually a bad teacher, when he concentrates on his chosen subject(s). It's his mentoring side that is lacking, probably because he didn't have very good mentors when he was a kid. One wonders exactly where Dumbledore was during the school-days of the Marauders and "Snivellus.") And of course it is Snape's taunting of the house-bound Sirius that contributes, at least a little bit, to Sirius' willingly to chance being caught just to be out and doing something. (To be fair, it's also Sirius' nature -- Remus would never let Snape's taunting get to him, whereas Sirius just uses Snape's taunts to justify doing what he wants to do anyway.)

Rowling does an interesting thing with the Sirius/Harry relationship in this book: she allows the other characters to call Sirius and Harry on the dynamic that has developed between them. Molly Weasley is not the only character to point out that Sirius is trying to replace James and make up for all the years they didn't have together to get into trouble and raise hell. It makes me wonder if, once he was married, James became so much less of a wild-child that Sirius was already feeling the distance growing even before James and Lily were murdered. And Harry, of course, just wants a father who loves him so badly that he's willing to let Sirius egg him on to do the un-wise/un-safe thing -- the thought of disappointing Sirius pushes Harry to not really think through the consequences of his actions.

The revelation of not only the existence of the Prophecy but also its exact wording (as well as the revelation that now only two people in the world know that exact wording, since Sybil Trelawney apparently blacks out when she makes prophecies) is of course what the whole book leads to. Coming as it does after the emotional death of Sirius, it's almost an anti-climactic moment. Yes, yes, we know -- Harry is destined to face down Voldemort, and one has to kill the other. We sort of had that figured out once we realized Voldemort was the behind-the-scenes bad-guy of the first five books (he's barely seen in PHOENIX, despite being mentioned every other page, so he counts as "behind the scenes"). Again, it's an important moment, but it can't compete with the death of Sirius for sheer punch-in-the-guts power.

Voldemort may be behind-the-scenes, but Rowling's true gift to the readers in this book is the creation of a character who shows you don't have to be the Ultimate Evil to still be a menace. Dolores Umbridge, Senior Under-Secretary to the Minister of Magic, Hogwarts High Inquisitor and Defense Against the Dark Arts ... teacher is not the right word, is it? A woman who truly believes she is doing the right thing by setting Dementors on "out of control liar Harry Potter," by dumbing-down the curricula of the DADA class to "protect" the children as well as the Ministry, by inflicting bodily harm on her charges in the name of "discipline," Dolores is that every-day sort of evil that lurks in all of our lives: the horrid teacher, the petulant boss, the distant spouse. She is as big a threat to Harry's well-being as Voldemort. To me she is the scarier of the threats, because the last time I checked there were no Dark Wizards running around the real world, but there are hundreds of people just like Dolores Umbridge.

I could go on and on, as I could for just about any book in the Potter series, but I have to stop typing sometime and press "post." Final analysis: despite the occasional slow spot, ORDER OF THE PHOENIX pushes along at top speed, sprinkling some great character background and some great comedic moments in with a ton of tension and action. Well worth the read.

On the audiobook side, I do have one question that will probably never be answered: what made Jim Dale and his directors decide to give Bellatrix and Narcissa BLACK (married names: LeStrange and Malfoy) French accents? It seems clear in the books that Bella and Cissa grew up in England just as their cousins Sirius and Regulus did -- Bellatrix's French last name is her married name. Radolphus and Rabistan LeStrange should have the French accents, not Bellatrix.

(and one final note to those who disagreed with my stance that Hermione's House-Elf Crusade in GOBLET goes nowhere -- thank you for not pointing out just how much it bears on the action of PHOENIX and eventually PRINCE. Any one of you could have not-so-gently reminded me that Hermione continues her crusade in PHOENIX by leaving knitted caps all around the Gryffindor common room, a move I'd completely forgotten about. One of you did point out that Hermione's treatment of Kreacher is an outgrowth of her SPEW movement, but I'd forgotten just how much it plays into the center of this book.)

Spirit Day

Spirit Day

Other Rooms Other Wonders

The book is a collection of 8 loosely-interconnected stories that take place in Pakistan in the present day. I've read three of the eight stories and reviewed them here in previous years (in fact, this was my third reading of the opening story, "Nawabdin Electrician"). The stories, all together, paint a picture of a society in which the Old way of doing things still hangs on and in which the younger generation struggles to fit, as well as a society in which status still matters greatly. Most of the stories have a very "traveling storyteller" tone to the narration, as I noted in my original review of "Nawabdin Electrician."

I liked each of the stories individually, but felt that perhaps there was a bit too much repetition when all grouped together. The stories "Saleema," "Provide, Provide" and "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders" all basically tell the same story from different vantage points and with different main characters. All three are about beautiful but poor young women who see the possibility of securing a better future for themselves by creating romantic/sexual connections with powerful older men. Yes the details of the stories are different but the basic point of the stories is the same. In fact, the basic point of almost all of the stories in this collection might be summed up as "no matter how much you plan and scheme and think you're making the right decision in the moment, nothing is ever 100% certain and life often twists in unexpected ways."

The sameness of the lesson from story to story is the book's only negative. The positives are: a writing style that feels part medieval troubadour, part travelogue; a depth of sensory description that can only be described as "sensual" regardless of whether the author is writing about the weather, the food, or the sex; and a mosaic quality that enables you to see the connections between even the most peripheral of characters. In fact, some of those peripheral connections had me wondering what had happened to certain characters "between the scenes," so to speak, and I wonder if Mueenuddin has other stories with these characters in mind.

Mueenuddin Short Stories

During the second half of September, I made a concerted effort to read more "non-genre" fiction, both book-length and in short story form. For the short stories, that meant at least trying to catch up on several months worth of stories from The New Yorker (partially successful), One Story and Library of America's Story of the Week (not successful on either front). It also meant finally reading Daniyal Mueenuddin's IN OTHER ROOMS, OTHER WONDERS. The book is a collection of 8 loosely-interconnected stories that take place in Pakistan in the present day. I've read three of the eight stories and reviewed them here in previous years (in fact, this was my third reading of the opening story, "Nawabdin Electrician"). The stories, all together, paint a picture of a society in which the Old way of doing things still hangs on and in which the younger generation struggles to fit, as well as a society in which status still matters greatly. Most of the stories have a very "traveling storyteller" tone to the narration, as I noted in my original review of "Nawabdin Electrician."

279. Nawabdin Electrician The lead-off story centers on the poorer strata of Pakistani farm-town society, and the wealthy land-owner KK Harouni and his family are only briefly seen (and only in the role of bestowing a motorbike on Nawab to help him get around). Almost every time I reread a story I get something different out of it. In this case, what I really noticed this time was the sensory detail of Mueenuddin's writing. Whether he's writing about the weather, the food, or actual sex (which we don't see in this story, but do in others), Mueenuddin's writing has to be described as "sensual." The story's moral, that sometimes it is impossible to forgive or forget, still comes across full force and the final scene is still brutal.

280. Saleema The second story in the collection brings up more detail of the household of KK Harouni, but still primarily from the staff / servants perspective. It's also the first story in the collection to address the theme of social mobility in Pakistani society. Saleema, suffering with a husband who is a drug addict, comes into the house employ and first sleeps with the cook Hassan, but eventually sets her sights on the older Rafik, the household's major domo. Without giving too much away, there are developments that make Saleema think her place in the world is set. But if there's one thing Mueenuddin seems to make a repeated point about in his stories, it's this: nothing is ever set and guaranteed regardless of your station in life or who you build "unbreakable" connections with.

281. Provide, Provide We don't really see much of KK Harouni in these stories despite his being the main "rich" person in the book. But we do see how his actions and decisions affect others. This story focuses on a former manager of some of Harouni's properties, who buys up land Harouni is forced to sell off to pay off business debts. Chaundrey Jaglani becomes a farm-owner in his own right and by all accounts is a good one. As happens in Saleema and in the title story of the collection, Jaglani falls in love with a girl initially hired as a servant. He becomes torn, later in life, by this decision. She, of course, thinks her life is set because of her connection to Jaglani. The regrets the main character expresses towards the end of the story (and the travails of those he leaves behind) really express again that idea that the decisions we make have repurcussions we cannot always predict.

282. About A Burning Girl This is the only story in the collection narrated in the first person. The narrator is a judge in the Lahore High Court, and the story largely seems an indictment of a corrupt judicial system as well as a corrupt police system. The judge's wife's favorite servant goes home to visit his brother, and is arrested for the immolation-death of the brother's wife. The Harounis are again peripheral characters, the servant's father having been cook for various Harouni family members (including the "nephew with the American wife" introduced in "Our Lady of Paris"). There is almost a detective-story aspect to this piece, but it never really feels like a "whodunnit," and the judge is way too ineffectual to be a convincing series detective (although his assistant could probably be the focus of a sharp detective novel).

283. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders The title story is a companion piece to "Saleema" and "Provide, Provide," in that it centers upon a young woman facing hard times who sees her chance to secure her future by becoming the companion of a more powerful man. In "Saleema," that powerful man was the major domo of KK Harouni's household. In "Other Rooms," the powerful man is Harouni himself and so we finally, halfway through the book, get a more detailed look at the powerful businessman and representative of the "old school" upper-class of Pakistan. KK is near the end of his life in this story and Husna, the young woman, doesn't at first seem predatory at all -- but opportunity goes to her head. Again, the story is about false pride and the assumption that nothing can ever go wrong. Saleema and Husna, in these two stories, mimic each other without, it seems, being aware of the other's existance.

284. Our Lady of Paris This story introduces us to KK Harouni's nephew Sohail and the young American woman he falls in love with. Taking place in Paris, I actually expected it to feature KK's estranged daughter mentioned in earlier stories but she fails to put in an appearance. Instead, what we get is a tight little family drama: Sohail has avoided having his parents meet his girlfriend until this story when they insist on journeying to Paris with him, although his mother is smart enough to rent separate apartments in a different part of the city. Helen, the girlfriend, and Rafia, the mother, begin a not-so-delicate dance to see where Sohail's ultimate loyalties lay and how they will be able to co-exist should Sohail marry Helen. Sohail's father figures into the picture as well, but mostly as a foil for the women. This is the story in the collection that feels the freshest perhaps because it is the only one that features a true change of scenery. With the Pakistani characters out of Pakistan, there is less emphasis on the running of households and more emphasis on the characters. It is also perhaps the only story in the book besides "Nawabdin Electrician" that features characters who are all of the same social status.

285. Lily The Harounis are even more peripheral in this story of a rich young girl who wants to make a change in her life after a devastating car accident. She meets a fellow disaffected rich youth at a party, and he begins the slow dance of courting her. Ultimately, the story asks if we can really change who we are -- or perhaps it asks why people go so far overboard in changing themselves. Every relationship is about compromise in some sense, but Lily falls prey to what the Canadian band Motion Picture Ending calls "the superficial science / of changing all you are" to fit someone else. Lily wants so badly to escape herself and her social circle that she is willing to follow her suitor to his remote farm, which does not turn out to be the solution she thinks it will be.

286. A Spoiled Man The last story in the collection nicely book-ends with the opening story. In this tale, poor Rezak comes to work for Sohail Harouni and his American wife on their farm. He is a man accustomed to fitting everything he has in a small portable hut in which he also lives. Where Nawabdin, in the opening story, needed to find ways to support his large family, Rezak wants very little (in fact, needs very little) to support just himself but his possessions grow as the Harounis pay him far more than his previous employers. The story, it struck me when I first read it, is about how little we really need to survive and how we become dependent on the things we have. And, as with every other story in the collection, Rezak's tale is also about how the decisions we make seem sensible at the time but lead to places we never expected them to.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Robin And Ruby

Book 57: Robin And Ruby by K.M. Soehnlein, isbn 9780758232182, 276 pages, Kensington, $24.00

When I finished reading Soehnlein's THE WORLD OF NORMAL BOYS back in 2000, I was satisfied with the ending to a book I absolutely loved and was moved by. I knew the characters must go on to live their lives, but I wasn't clamoring for a sequel. So when I found out Soehnlein had written ROBIN AND RUBY, my first thought was "did you really need to go back to that well?" Upon reading the book, I'm glad he did.

R&R finds Robin MacKenzie now 20 years old, a college student working his summer away in Philadelphia alongside his childhood friend George and knee-deep in a relationship with a slightly older man that you know right away is just not working out. Robin's sister Ruby is now in high school, dating a boy who also doesn't seem quite right for her. She accompanies him to a party house on the Jersey Shore and a chance encounter with a boy from her past sets her off on a path that brings Robin and George to the Shore to find her.

Soehnlein does what I think is a wonderful job summarizing the earlier book, which took place when Robin was fourteen. The events of that book, surrounding Robin's homosexuality and the injury/death of his younger brother Jackson, haunt this book. We are never really free of our past, and Soehnlein works that idea into the novel without letting it completely overwhelm the story. Robin and Ruby's thoughts drift back to how Jackson's death affected them, how they've never really gotten out from under the shadow of being "Coma Boy's" siblings, how far apart their family has drifted thanks to divorce after Jackson's death. But the story itself propels on something completely different: the lives Robin and Ruby now lead, the fears and hopes they hold. At it's heart, ROBIN AND RUBY is a relationship drama: sexual relationships, creative relationships, familial relationships, and friendships. Robin's break-up with Peter and the changes in best friend George interweave with Robin's connection to Ruby's scriptwriting rich boyfriend Calvin; Calvin's connection to Robin reveals things about his personality to Ruby; the weekend at Calvin's sister's rented Shore house show Robin things about both herself and the life she would lead if she stayed in love with Calvin. And then there's the mystery boy from Ruby's past who brings memories of who she was after Jackson died compared with who she has become. NORMAL BOYS was told exclusively from Robin's point of view; Soehnlein rightly alternates sections of this book from both Robin and Ruby's points of view, the switching-back-and-forth happening more frequently as the book moves towards its conclusion.

Soehnlein also has a nice attention to period detail. I remembered that from NORMAL BOYS, where he sprinkled enough late 70s pop culture references to firmly root you in the era without being over-the-top. He does the same thing here for the early 80s: songs heard on the car radio or in the club bring back, for me at least, memories of where I was in those years.

I actually now find myself hoping, in a few years' time, that Soehnlein will write another book with these characters, showing us where they are as they move into the 90s.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Short Stories

This entry will be a mixed bag, and some of the reviews may be a bit short as I'm trying to catch up before tomorrow's flight home.

271. Better Lessons by Aaron Polson, the June 6, 2010 entry on Every Day Fiction. As usual, I found myself really enamored of Aaron Polson's ability to tell a full story in under a 1,000 words. I can't seem to manage it. This is one of his less SF/Fantasy entries, although there is a slight touch of the fantastic. It's about a street-rat who teams up with a rather personable Macaque to pick pockets among the tourists, and the relationship between the two has a strong effect on the man's life. Well written.

272. The Young Painters by Nicole Krauss, from the June 28, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. I liked this story, but I can honestly say I did not like the main character. The story is really about where writers get their inspiration, and what happens when you draw (perhaps too closely) from the lives around you. The narrator does this several times, and does not seem at all bothered by how her stories and books might affect those from whose lives she has drawn. She directs her story to someone called "Your Honor," and that adds a level of mystery to her tale: is she recounting this as part of a divorce proceeding? As a witness at a trial? Or is she not really directing her words to a judge at all -- is she just pretending to do so while really addressing us? I'm not sure we'll ever really know, and in this particular case, I'm okay with that.

273. Blue Water Djinn by Tea Obreht, from the August 2, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. I will be shocked if this story doesn't turn up in at least one "Best of" anthology in the coming year. It would be eligible for Best American Short Stories 2011, and honestly I think it would also deserve placement in Best American Mystery Stories 2011. A young boy, the son of a hotel owner, watches as the adults around him try to find out what happened to a French guest at the hotel who has gone missing. Jack is both overlooked and overprotected by the adults in whose care he has been left while his mother is off attending a conference; he is able to get close up to the proceedings as long as he does not get close to the ocean. The connection between boy and missing man is implied early on, and I was happy that the story did not go where I almost immediately thought it was going to. Obreht feeds the tension of the story out on a tight line and lets the tide of the story pull you in. One of my favorites of the year, I think.

274. The Landlord by Wells Tower, from the September 13, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. My first impression of the story was that it's about yet another clueless American middle-class business who doesn't know how to do business. I feel like that's a stock character type these days -- the guy who thinks he knows how to make a million but can't manage to manage his own office. In glancing back over the story, I hit on a few key phrases that made me rethink that assessment. The narrator of this story may seem dense and self-absorbed, but he really does understand how his life has spiraled out of control and how it's his own disconnectedness that has cost him not just his business, but his relationships with his daughter, his tenants, and his workers. It's actually a great first person character study, and I can easily picture my friend Dave making this work as a monologue.

275. The Science of Flight by Yiyun Li, from the August 30, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. This story seems to bookend nicely with Nicole Krauss's. In Krauss's story, the main character steals from real life to create her fictions. In Li's story, the main character creates fictions to mask the real life she's embarrassed to tell people about. Zichen's fictions threaten to over-take her much as Krauss's narrator's stories do. Li really captures that sense of getting caught up in a lie that last for years and becomes the truth.

276. The Pilot by Joshua Ferris from the June 14 & 21, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. The main character of Ferris' story is a self-absorbed writer who second guesses every move he makes socially, who reads too much into every word spoken to him (and every silence as well) and who can't bring himself to finish the pilot script he's been working on. Okay, who let Ferris into my own head? There are some key differences between myself and the main character -- I'm not writing a tv script and I'm not a recovering alcoholic. I also don't live in LA and don't get invited to lavish "end of season wrap parties" where I can awkwardly attempt to shop my wares. Another main character I can't say I liked, but that might largely be because of how much of myself I saw in the character.

277. Captain Midnight At Ultima Thule by Win Scott Eckert, from The Captain Midnight Chronicles (published by Moonstone). If I'm being honest, this was not my favorite Win Eckert story. The story had two strikes against it, one my own fault and one the publisher's. For my part, I admit that I know next to nothing about Captain Midnight; I'm far more familiar with other pulp characters and felt through this story that I didn't really know enough about the character to understand why he does what he does. On the side of the publishers, Win's story seems to be the only one in the book that is marred by proof-reading errors -- odd printer's marks and symbols where there should be normal punctuation; it was a bit too distracting. However, on the positive side the contains Win's usual plethora of literary references that cross-connect and build on Philip Jose Farmer's Wold-Newton concept, and that kind of story is always fun to read. Win always makes me feel like a literary detective, trying to figure out what's a reference to a previous work and what isn't. And of course there's a rock-em, sock-em fight and heaps of sexual tension.

278. Captain Midnight Meets Airboy
by Chuck Dixon, from The Captain Midnight Chronicles The Eckert and Dixon stories are the reasons I bought this book. Dixon's tale of two classic aviators meeting for the first time had great tension and action, and managed to get into Midnight's head a bit. I don't know how much of a departure Dixon's characterization of Captain Midnight may be from the classic pulp version, but his Airboy is of course dead-on. So good to have him back writing a character he made me love twenty years ago, and plenty of good gun-fighting and old-fashioned pulp fisticuffs as well.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mao II

Book 56: Mao II by Don DeLillo, isbn 9780140152746, 241 pages, Penguin, $14.00

Don Delillo is one of those writers I feel like I should have read long before now. Somehow, he did not come up in any of my Lit courses in college, and I have not sought him out since then. Two years ago the owner of my local independent bookstore recommended MAO II. Dave's recommendations have always been spot-on before and as is my habit when recommendations are made while I'm in a bookstore, I immediately purchased the book, put it on a shelf at home, and promptly forgot about it. But lately I've been on a "clean out the bookshelves" binge, and this was one of the books I decided I wanted to read before trading in at the used bookstore.

Plot-wise, the back cover tells us MAO II is the story of reclusive author Bill Gray who, stuck for years now on a failed novel, is inspired to leave his reclusive life and become involved in a group's attempts to get a French poet released from hostage captivity in Beirut. Bill's sudden change in attitude is brought on by an encounter with a world-renowned photographer, and his actions leave his obsessive-compulsive assistant Scott and Scott's girlfriend Karen at a loss for what to do while waiting for Bill's return to what they consider normalcy.

That's the plot, but the book is "about" something larger. It took me a few days after reading the book to figure out exactly what that larger thing is. Ultimately, I think, the book is about the Cult of Personality. DeLillo litters the book with references to Andy Warhol, to Chairman Mao, to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Anyone who fails to draw at least a surface connection between Bill Gray and J.D. Salinger just isn't paying attention. Scott is concerned that Bill's reputation and reprint rights are based on what people think he is up to in his seclusion, and that if he publishes this latest novel (failed or not, we never really get to see the contents) people will no longer be intrigued. The French poet is held hostage by a Communist terrorist building a following in Beirut, whose followers give up their own identities to be a part of his. Even the photographer, Brita, builds her career around a sort of cult: she travels the world photographing writers almost exclusively.

The opening section of the book, which focuses on Karen and takes place at the Mass Wedding lead by the Rev. Moon at Yankees Stadium, almost lost me. DeLillo bounces between at least three (that I could count) distinct points of view, sometimes in mid-paragraph, and the feeling I had by the end of the section was that this work was going to be too pretentious, too arty for me. Had the rest of the book continued in that vein, I might not have been able to finish it. Happily (for me), the remainder of the book is written a bit more traditionally. Actually, it becomes a bit heavy on the dialogue side for a while -- characters jumping on various soap-boxes and rambling, dissembling, reminiscing, pontificating. At first, the penchant for characters to spout non-sequiturs bothered me, but ultimately that's what real conversations are like, aren't they? So DeLillo does capture that aspect of real life, even if some of his diatribes go on a bit long. He also does a nice job of allowing we, the readers, to see where all of the characters ultimately end up even if the characters themselves have lost track of each other.

I can't say that MAO II has inspired me to rush out and start reading everything Don DeLillo has ever written, but I am glad I made the effort to read the book.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Writers, Advice Please!

Had a real nice thing happen today, which also inspired me to seek some advice from the writers who read my blog here. I will probably also post this to

Yesterday during class, I tossed in my usual off-handed mention that I met my cousin who works for the Coast Guard when she came to a book-signing I did two years ago. Occasionally, people will pick up on that and ask me during a break or after class what the book-signing was all about, and I get a chance to advertise my book THE FIRFLAKE without feeling like it's a conflict of interest (advertising my book while doing my Daye Jobbe). No one mentioned it yesterday (which is what usually happens, honestly), so I assumed no one had picked up on it, or if they had they were not interested in hearing more. Today towards the end of lunch, I was back in the meeting room checking email and one of the participants said, "I enjoyed reading your short stories last night." My immediate answer was, "oh, thanks!" And then I looked at her and said, "Wait. Short stories? Which ones? Where did you find them?" I know I've posted one or two here on LJ over the years, but I'm pretty sure I locked those posts. She said, "there were three of them on a website. One of them was about a bank robber." I'm pretty sure the issue of Willard & Maple magazine that includes my story "Invisible Me" is not available online. "I found them just by googling your name."

So of course, I immediately googled myself. Sure enough, there's a link ... to the "test run" of the website page my friend EJ Flynn was designing for me. I had given her an author bio and three of my stories ("Invisible Me," "Navarre," and "That Happy Kid," the latter of which has been revised since I sent it to her) to see what the site might look like in final form. I had thought that test page was locked off for only she and I to see, and the project sort of fell through the cracks as she went on to other work and has spent less time designing websites (especially for free as she was doing for me). A month or so ago, my buddy Darrell and I got the actual finally up and running, with the intention that I'd probably eventually add a Story tab to the site once things were tweaked to where we want them.

So, the question is: should I leave these stories posted / open to being found on her site? Two of the three are unpublished in any kind of print form, and one of those is fairly substantially revised while the other I'm considering revising. I've heard that many editors (of print and online mags) will not look at stories once they've been on a website of any kind (be it a personal site or a blog like Livejournal or Blogspot). If that's true, can it hurt to leave these three on the web since they've been out here for over a year without my knowledge that they were visible to the general public? Should I move them to my website, leave them in both places, or take them all down? I'm genuinely unsure of the best route to take.

Thoughts are appreciated.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What I Was

Book 54: What I Was by Meg Rosoff, isbn 9780765321855, 368 pages, Tor, $26.95

WHAT I WAS was an impulse buy off of the $2 table at a Books-A-Million in Roanoke. The back-cover copy pulled me in (which is what back cover copy is supposed to do on trade paperbacks, after all). The book is narrated by H., nearing the end of a long and seemingly fulfilling life. He reflects on the teenage "relationship that has shaped and obsessed him for nearly a century." That relationship was with a "beautiful boy named Finn, who lives alone in a fisherman's hut by the sea. Their friendship deepens, offering H the freedom and human connection that has always eluded him. But all too soon the idyll that nurtured their relationship is shattered by heart-wrenching scandal."

I wish the book were half as interesting as it sounded. I was expecting, because of the boarding-school-by-the-sea setting, a bit more closeted boy-romance. I was expecting, because of the back cover copy, a revelation partway through the book that rocks the characters' world. Instead, what we get is an excellent "inside his head" character study of H and how he is a) obsessed with the free-spirit but not socially adept Finn and b) oblivious to the schoolmate in his own dorm who could be his only friend if H would just stop to think about it. Even from the vantage of his later years, H is brutally honest about his own teenage motivations, how his lust and fear combined to alienate him from everyone except the virtually unknowable Finn. On the mission of creating a very understandable main character, Rosoff succeeds. I won't go so far as to say "this is a British CATCHER IN THE RYE," because I don't think that was Rosoff's intent at all. There's a similarity in feel in that the narrator is caught up completely in his own world and doesn't really understand what's going on around him (or, if he does, he brushes it aside in favor of what he wants us to think is going on around him), but the similarity in feel is about as far as I'm comfortable taking the comparison. (Besides, aren't we all tired of hearing first-person-teen-boy-narrators described as "the next Holden Caulfield?")

The shocking scandal? It comes way too late in the proceedings and is dispatched fairly quickly in favor of a "here's what the rest of my life was like" ending. The events precipitating the scandal are somewhat brutally described, and I give credit to Rosoff for some terrific writing in that section. I can't say I was completely shocked by what transpires in those pages; in retrospect the hints are all there regarding where this will all go, despite the fact that the book never feels like it's headed in any particular direction at all. What I take exception to is the editors who decided to tout "the heart-wrenching scandal" as the core of the book when it really isn't. If it was meant to be the core of the book, I'd think Rosoff would have taken a little more time with it, teased out more details of the years immediately following the breaking of the scandal -- but it's as if Rosoff, and by extension H, loses interest once those key events play out. The breaking of the scandal and its aftermath are almost glossed over.

As a character study, I can recommend the first two thirds of the book, but I have to say I was disappointed in what feels like a complete lack of energy in the final third.

Monday, September 13, 2010

My Life In Books

Yoinking this from the lovely and talented Adam, aka RoofBeamReader:

Basically you just answer the questions with books you read this year!

In high school I was: What I Was (Meg Rosoff)

People might be surprised: If I Were You (L. Ron Hubbard)

I will never be: Where Angels Fear To Tread (Thomas Sneigoski)

My fantasy job is: To Open The Sky (Robert Silverberg)

At the end of a long day I need: Wishful Drinking (Carrie Fisher)

I hate it when: It All Changed in an Instant (various)

Wish I had: Instructions (Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess)

My family reunions are: Dark and Stormy Knights (P.N. Elrod)

At a party you’d find me with: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K. Rowling)

I’ve never been to: Hunt Among The Killers of Men (Gabriel Hunt & David Schow)

A happy day includes: The Kiss Box (Regina Gelfer)

Motto I live by: Fear Strikes Out (Jim Piersall)

3 from The New Yorker

Three from recent issues of The New Yorker. In mid-June, the magazine started featuring "20 Under 40," twenty writers under the age of 40. It seems this will run through the fall. I'm behind on my New Yorker reading, and I'm not approaching the stories in any kind of order. Just whatever's next on the pile.

268. The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire by Rivka Galchen from the June 14-21, 2010 issue. To be blunt: I really didn't like this story. I read it, and as I was reading I hoped I'd find something favorable to say about it. The best I can say is that it is not badly written. But I thoroughly disliked the characters and the fact that the story doesn't seem to go anywhere and the abrupt ending that failed to resolve anything at all. If all of that was the author's intention, then she did a good job. The main character is either incredibly self-involved or is the stereotype of the dumb blond who just doesn't get what's going on around her. Both of the people she expresses her problems to (her brother and a close friend) are equally self-involved. The main character's agent seems like the only person who might have a clue as to anything, and we never actually see him on-screen, just get a summary of a phone conversation. And I realize that there are very good stories out there (some of which I've reviewed here) that have ambiguous endings and lack complete resolution. This story's ending doesn't just leave things hanging, it feels tacked on.

269. The Erlking by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum from the July 5, 2010 issue. I've only read one other Bynum story, Yurt, reviewed earlier this year. The main character in that story struck me as disconnected from herself and the world around her, and the main characters in this story strike me in much the same way. Kate, the mother, and Ruthie/Ondine/Dorothy, the young daughter, both are wrapped up in their own heads (as so many of us so often are) that even the simplest social interaction between them becomes something absolutely different to each. Bynum works the neat trick of alternating pov without making any sharp breaks in the narrative (and the few sharp breaks there are don't occur at a POV change but in the midst of Kate's thoughts, providing us with some indication of the recent past). Both mother and daughter are caught up in their own fantasy worlds, although Kate's fantasies are of the mundane kind: find the right school for her daughter, find the right colored doll, and the child's problems will disappear, while Ruthie's are typical child flights of fantasy: the strange man and the Renaissance Faire-like day at a nearby school surely has an amazing surprise gift meant only for her, if only she could get her mother to talk to the man. The story takes on a darker tone near the end, as the mother's searching for the right doll overwhelms her attention to what her daughter is doing. The ending is a bit ambiguous -- is the last paragraph in Ruthie's imagination or is it real -- but compared to the story above, the ambiguity is a satisfying ending.

270. The Dredgeman's Revelation
by Karen Russell from the July 26, 2010 issue. Karen Russell is one of those writers I feel I've read more of than I really have. I've read Vampires In the Lemon Grove twice now, and St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves once, although I can't seem to locate the review of that latter story here in the community. Perhaps I mis-tagged it. Anyway -- I loved both of those stories, taking genre tropes and tweaking them. This story works in a very different way. There is no obvious genre feel to the story at the beginning, unless you consider "Depression-era Dust Bowl Lit" to be a genre like SF or Horror. The story is about an adopted son who runs away from home during the Depression and ends up on first one, then another, work crew in Florida dredging a swamp. Most of the story has a very Oh Brother Where Art Thou / Grapes of Wrath feel: the boy is optimistic despite hard times, does what he has to to survive, doesn't talk about his past with his coworkers. You can almost feel the tension building like humidity on a summer day: something is going to happen, things seem too happy. Sure enough, something does happen -- something that caught me so off-guard I don't want to spoil it here. In its final page the story takes on a genre aspect, and in fact reminded me of a very different movie than the two referenced above. Very much enjoyed this one, and will be surprised if it doesn't end up in Best American Short Stories in 2011.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dark Stormy Knights

Book 52: Dark and Stormy Knights edited by P.N. Elrod, isbn 9780312598341, 357 pages, St. Martin's Griffin, $14.99

This is the fourth P.N. Elrod-edited urban fantasy anthology I've picked up. Honestly, the deciding factor to purchase each lay in the fact that each includes a story / novella of The Dresden Files written by Jim Butcher. I also have to be honest and say I haven't really finished any of the other anthologies. Over time, I've picked out a story or two to try out but have never really had the urge to read the anthologies cover to cover. I didn't have that urge with this anthology at first, either, but I kept finding first lines / first paragraphs that interested me, and after the third time that happened I decided I needed to just read the whole thing.

I'm glad I did. The contents of any anthology can be described as "hit or miss," but I can say this collection actually had more hits than misses for me. According to the back cover text, the characters in these stories are "the shadow defenders of humanity -- modern-day knights committing the darkest of deeds for all the right reasons." Most of the main characters fit that description well, both in the stories that are part of an already existing larger fictional world and the stories that introduce us to new settings.

As I've already reviewed each story individually on the [info]365shortstories community on livejournal, I won't retread those thoughts here in any detail. Of the nine stories in this collection, five are definitely part of existing fictional worlds: Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels books, Carrie Vaughn's "Kitty" books, Vicki Pettersson's "Sings of the Zodiac" series, and editor P.N. Elrod's Jack Fleming mysteries. I was already very familiar with the Dresden books and have a decent familiarity with the Fleming stories; the other three were new to me. Of those, I thought Ilona Andrews and Carrie Vaughn did the best at making a new reader feel comfortable. Pettersson's story was interesting (especially in terms of the question "what makes us human?") but I felt like I was being penalized for not having read the novels -- too much of Pettersson's story seemed to rely on knowing exactly where in the novel series the characters were, while Andrews and Vaughn gave me enough world and character background to enjoy the story as a stand-alone piece. As for the two worlds with which I was already familiar, I'm probably not in a good position to judge whether the Dresden story (which does not feature Harry Dresden himself, but rather gangster "Gentleman" John Marcone) is easily accessible without knowledge of the novels. I think it is, but readers new to Dresden can judge better than I. The Fleming story, as with the others I've read, is a decent little mystery, serviceable towards the anthology's theme, and I think ultimately accessible to new readers; Elrod gives you everything you need to know about Jack to get you through the story.

The remaining four stories in the anthology appear to be truly stand-alone tales. Shannon K. Butcher's "The Beacon" reads like an introduction to a series. I have no idea if she plans to continue with the Ryder Ward character, but I think she certainly could and could build up an interesting world around him. Rachel Caine is always a favorite of mine in these anthologies, and this time she gives a tale of dragon-hunting in the modern day that is both funny and heart-breaking. The Lilith Saintcrow story also felt like it might be an introduction to a new series (or perhaps it is part of something that already exists -- it didn't seem so from the author's notes, though). And the Diedre Knight story felt so complete that I can't imagine where she would go if it was part of a series.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

new website

Hello all!

I finally have up and running. Right now, there's an "About Me" page, a page advertising my book THE FIRFLAKE, and a Blog page. My intent for the blog page is to be pretty much the same stuff I post here. Book reviews, thoughts on reading and writing, etc. I haven't been very consistent with this blog, and hopefully having my own domain to keep active will inspire me to post more frequently. I still intend to crosspost any writing-connected blog entries to this space. However, as I have yet to figure out how to get notifications to my email to work here on Blogger, the advantage to is that I will actually see your comments when you make them, and be able to respond sooner!

I appreciate the support of the few of you who follow me here and take the time to comment even when I don't answer right away, and I hope you'll follow me to the new domain. I also intend to, in the next week, add links to your blogs from my site. I respect your reviewing and want to drive more readers your way!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Knights of various stripes

Another short story round-up: Stories 259 - 267 for the year.

259. AAAA Wizardry by Jim Butcher, from The Dresden Files Role-Playing Game: Our World volume. Harry Dresden instructs a group of fresh new young Wardens of the White Council in the art of being a detective of the supernatural. He illustrates each of the "A"s in turn by relating a case involving a single mother and her "sensitive" children. Tension builds nicely, and there really aren't any spoilers for the series overall aside from mention of the on-going War with the Red Court of Vampires, which is a background note to most of the books to date anyway. The story is a really nice glimpse into what makes Harry a good detective, but also what makes him a good character: the fact that he makes mistakes.

The rest are from the anthology Dark And Stormy Knights, edited by P.N. Elrod:

260. A Questionable Client by Ilona Andrews Even without the author's note at the end of the story, I could tell this adventure of mercenary Kate Daniels takes place within a larger fictional world. Too many small things are mentioned off-handedly: The Mercenary Guild, the fact that magic and technology seem to alternate in unpredictable waves, Kate's interactions with her boss and fellow mercs. Still, the story itself, about Kate taking on bodyguard duty with extra hazard pay for a client no one else seems to want to touch, flows well and feels complete. I can't say it made me want to run out and buy the Kate Daniels novels, but I am curious about how her world works and how this adventure, involving a very questionable client and the people after him, fits into the overall scheme of things.

261. The Beacon by Shannon K. Butcher Yes, Shannon is Jim Butcher's wife. But her story is not, so far as I can tell, at all related to his Dresden Files world. This also seems to be an introduction to a character who I think could hold his own series well. Ryder Ward is the latest in a line of Terraphage hunters -- he inherited the job from his father, and the implication is that it's a family heritage. Ryder tracks down "The Beacons" whose dreams summon the phages into the real world, and he kills them before the phages can be summoned. The problem is, Ryder's latest Beacon is not an easy kill. The question quickly becomes: how far can a man be pushed to do something that he knows is for the good of the society no matter what it does to him emotionally? I liked the way Shannon Butcher built the main and supporting characters and gave the story several possible directions to go in, with a satisfactory (almost, dare I say it, fun) final moment.

262. Even a Rabbit Will Bite by Rachel Caine This was a really fun story. Like Shannon Butcher's, I did not get the sense it was part of an already-existing fictional world and I think I enjoyed the story more for that. Caine asks the question: what happens when the last near-immortal dragon hunter, living in our modern world, gets a letter from the Pope telling her it's time to train her own replacement? How do you train someone to fight dragons when the last remaining dragon is as old as you and hides in a dessert half a world away? I loved the exasperation and crotchetiness of Lisel Martin and how she handles being made obsolete. I also loved the way the story goes from snarky to serious in a heart-beat. Naturally, all is not what it seems to be at the story's start, and Caine uses the story to make a bigger point than just "be constantly vigilant."

263. Dark Lady by P.N. Elrod This is the second Jack Fleming story I've read. The Fleming stories take place in 1930s Chicago and feature a vampire private eye who runs a bar. In this story, Fleming is called on to aide one damsel-in-distress and finds himself needing help as well. The Dark Lady of the title turns out to be an interesting secondary character. I've never read any of Elrod's Fleming novels, but the two stories I've read have been reasonably fun.

264. Beknighted by Deidre Knight Another story that doesn't seem to take place in an previously-existing world. Each of the stories in this collection plays with the concept of what it means to be a "knight," male or female, and most of the main characters can easily be described as "dark," or "stormy" or both. Knight's story puts a bit of a twist on the theme. The main character is an artist who, thanks to intense dreams, has set herself the task of creating a mystic puzzle that will set an imprisoned knight free. Her main problem is that none of the materials she has to hand are really up to the task - until a mysterious patron shows up with a small cache of "templar gold," living gold that can be mixed with the paint to provide the painting/puzzle with the oomph it needs to free the nameless knight. The question, of course, is what the mysterious patron is really up to, and can he be trusted at all? Knight's story flows well, although there are a few details I'd like to have seen explained (such as how our main character knows painting the knight and then creating a puzzle of the painting will free him -- there's an implication that this sort of thing is done, although highly regulated, in her world, but I'd have liked a more explicit explanation.) Still, I recommend this as one of the better stories in the volume.

265. Shifting Star by Vicki Pettersson Another story that takes place in an already-established world with which I am unfamiliar. I think that this story contains a few more spoilers for Pettersson's "Signs of the Zodiac" series than the Dresden, Daniels or Fleming stories do, judging from the focus of the story. It took me a few paragraphs to understand that the main character is a magical construct given a name, autonomy, and a life -- to which she is mostly not adapting well at all. The mystery she becomes embroiled in seems to be connected to something of a major series point. And the main character's growth, through her interaction with a mortal man she meets, also seems like it should have a large affect on this character's role in the book series. The Zodiac books have been recommended to me, but I haven't added them to my TBR list just yet. I would say, of all the stories in this volume, approach this one with the most caution if you're reading the Zodiac books but are not up to the current volume yet, just in case the spoilers are as big as they seemed to me to be. That said, I did enjoy Pettersson's take on "what it is that makes us human."

266. Rookwood & Mrs. King by Lilith Saintcrow I got the impression that this story was part of an already-established world, but nothing in the author's notes at the end confirms that suspicion. So this might be one of those rare anthology stories that feels like it belongs to something already extant even though it is in fact it's own new thing. The Rookwood of the title is a cop-turned-private investigator with a problem: he's not quite human, not quite vampire. He's been surviving, taking on cases, but waiting for the one case that will enable him to come face-to-face with the creatures that created him, and it seems that case has finally fallen in his lap. There are a series of double-crosses, often telegraphed with phrases like "if only he'd told her the truth at the beginning..." Those phrases cause the story to stumble a bit and feel clunky in spots. It's not a bad story, and in fact I like the concept of half-turned victims of vampires who need to find a way to survive (reminiscent of The Fellowship of St. Giles in the Harry Dresden books, but Saintcrow handles the concept differently, which I appreciated).

267. God's Creatures by Carrie Vaughn This story of Cormac, Monster Hunter, feels a bit similar to Shannon Butcher's story above -- the monsters are more your traditional sort (in this case, a werewolf) but like Ryder Ward, Cormac carries the weight of a family tradition handed to him before he was really ready to take it on. Ward and Cormac are essentially loners, and loners who hold to a certain code that doesn't allow them to believe what is right in front of their eyes. I found the identity of the werewolf to be a bit easy to figure out -- the "red herrings" weren't really much of a distraction -- but that didn't really detract from the overall flow of the story. The question is a bit less "who" and a bit more "how is Cormac going to finish this?" Which again, makes it bookend nicely with the Butcher story. Cormac is apparently a supporting player in Vaughn's ongoing werewolf series, but this felt nicely stand-alone. Only the author's note at the end clued me in to the fact that Cormac had appeared before.

And since I reviewed Jim Butcher's Even Hand, his Johnny Marcone story in this anthology, a month or so back ... that means I'm done with the book!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Four By Hubbard

One of the interesting things the Country Inn & Suites chain does is stock a "lobby library" with "read and return" books. Lots of kids books, a few current or near-current best-sellers, that kind of thing. The last Country Inn I stayed at (outside Columbus OH several months back) had the David Lodge novella I reviewed in a previous post, and four entries in the L. Ron Hubbard Stories From The Golden Age series of pulp reprints. Since each one was a different genre, I decided to grab copies of all four and finally give ol' L-Ron a fair shake. Here's what I thought:

Book 48: Spy Killer by L.Ron Hubbard, isbn 9781592123025, 121 pages, Galaxy Press, $9.95

An American sailor on a ship in Shanghai Harbor is accused of a crime he didn't commit. He manages to escape and gets caught up in a spy-and-criminal plot involving tensions between the Chinese and Japanese and two beautiful women: an American ingenue and a Russian femme fatale. This was my least favorite. I struggled with Hubbard's tendency to refer to every character by their full name every time they appear. It's always Kurt Reid, Varinka Savischna, Anne Carsten, Lin Wang. Even when they refer to each other, it's by full names and never just first names. It was so distracting that it's all I can remember of the story -- I know tensions mount and all comes out well in the end for Our Hero, but at this point I can't even tell you if he ends up with either of the women. I was actually afraid, having read this one first, to continue on to the others.

Book 49: Under The Black Ensign by L.Ron Hubbard, isbn 9781592123391, 121 pages, Galaxy Press, $9.95

Thankfully, the effort to crack the cover on this one was worth it. This is classic pulp and without the over-stiff writing of Spy Killer. Tom Bristol is an American press-ganged into service on a British Man O'War in the 1600s Caribbean, the heyday of pirates. Threatened with disciplinary action by a cruel captain and provincial governor, Bristol gladly jumps to the pirate side of things when the Man O'War is attacked. There is a love-interest that for a few fleeting moments seemed like it might be an actual gay romance but of course turns out to be a woman disguised as a young boy. The dialogue is classically Pulp but also a bit snappy. I had fun reading this one.

Book 50: Six-Gun Caballero by L.Ron Hubbard, isbn 9781592122998, 121 pages, Galaxy Press, $9.95

Half-Irish, Half-Mexican Michael Patrick Obanon finds his ranch in the New Mexico territory slipping out from under him when the border with Mexico shifts and all Spanish Land Grants are nullified. Desperadoes move in and try to take over the ranch, not realizing "don Michael" is actually the property's owner. He plays a fun Zorro-like game with them (without ever donning an mask and costume) that puts not just his own life but the lives of his tenants at risk if everything doesn't play out just right. Another fun outing. I could see a young Antonio Banderas as Michael Patrick. There are certain plot similarities with Black Ensign, which just shows that Hubbard was cranking these things out by formula (and either hoping, or not caring, that no-one would notice if the same basic plot showed up in different genres).

Book 51: If I Were You by L.Ron Hubbard, isbn 9781592123599, 121 pages, Galaxy Press, $9.95

This is an odd little fantasy story. A cadaverous fortune-teller leaves all of his books of arcane lore to the circus' midget, who discovers the ability to "transsubstantiate" his consciousness into other people's bodies. Many many complications arise, as he discovers that being someone else is not so much better than being himself. This one actually tries to impart a moral of sorts. I liked the concept, but would rank this third out of four if I had to put these books in order of enjoyment.