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.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Home Truths

Book 47: Home Truths by David Lodge, isbn 9780140291806, 115 pages, Penguin, $11.95

There's an oft-quoted / paraphrased theory of fiction writing that says "the form finds the story." I know Neil Gaiman has blogged about the concept: how occasionally he's struggled trying to tell a story in a certain way only to discover it works better as something else (trying to write a short story when what it really wants to be is a poem, for example). And of course Alan Moore is famous for his refusal to have anything to do with adaptations of his work into other forms of storytelling (see the movie versions of Watchmen, V For Vendetta, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) because he told the story in the style and format it fit best in, and it didn't need to be anything else.

I have occasionally toyed with turning both of my less-than-successful attempts at one-act plays into novellas. David Lodge's Home Truths made me think twice about it. Lodge's novella is a prose rendering of his play of the same title. His short note at the beginning tells you so, and also tells you that he put back in dialogue cut from various productions of the play. The problem is, the novella doesn't feel like a novella -- it feels like a playscript with very very explicit stage directions added in, and one odd veering-off into something that could not actually have been staged the way it's written (which, perhaps, was Lodge's whole intent for the piece, but since most of it sticks to what conceivably would have been an English Country Home One Room Drama, the piece that doesn't take place in that one room feels highly highly out of place.)

The plot, in short, is this: retired author Adrian Ludlow and his wife are visited by their old friend Sam Sharp, who is quite upset a scathing profile done by paparazzi-journalist Fanny Tarrant. A revenge scheme is set up, involving Adrian being interviewed by Tarrant at the same time that he interviews her. Will the retired author give up his own beloved privacy to skewer the woman who skewers famous people?

I have a feeling if I had seen Home Truths staged, I'd have enjoyed it quite a bit. The very British snappy patter speaks to me, and the topic is ... well, topical, perhaps even moreso now than when the play was written in 1998 (the action takes place around a pivotal cultural moment in 1997). But in book form, Lodge uses an awful lot of "he said" style dialogue tags that quickly get repetitive and actually annoying, cutting into the flow of the story. And in the end, the point Lodge seems to be trying to make is almost too cliche precisely because of that pivotal cultural moment Lodge relies on to make the point.

Reading this novella was instructional for me as a writer, but not something I'd recommend eagerly to others.

A Visit To Palimpsest

Book 46: Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente, isbn 9780553385762, 367 pages, Bantam, $14.00

Back in May, when I was reading the short story anthology Paper Cities, I read and reviewed Cat Valente's short story "Palimpsest." At the time, I didn't know that story was excerpted from her novel of the same name. It was the choice to make the novel her August book club selection by [info]calico_reaction that clued me in to the world of Palimpsest existing in longer form. I enjoyed the short story, as you can see from my brief comments here. I also enjoyed the novel, although I had to work harder at it.

"I had to work harder at it" sounds awfully negative now that I read it on the screen. I considered rephrasing that sentence, but I'm not going to. It says what I want it to say: Palimpsest is not a mindless beach read. It's not trope-filling SF, the kind of thing you can sort of let your attention wander and still know what's going on. Palimpsest the novel requires your attention the way Palimpsest the city requires the devotion of its inhabitants and visitors. You can choose, like one minor character in the book, to walk away if the work is too weird for you. Honestly, I almost did walk away. As much as I've enjoyed Ms. Valente's short stories, I was on vacation and didn't want to tax my brain too hard. It was being introduced to that minor character who gives up on Palimpsest that made me decide to stick it out; I'm not one to normally give up on a book anyway (the list of books I couldn't bring myself to finish is a short list indeed), but something about a minor character wishing she'd never heard of the place the four major characters (and several other secondary ones) are willing to hurt themselves to move to made me decide to see the novel through and find out if either her sacrifice of the city or the major characters' sacrifices of parts of themselves (literally and figuratively) was the wiser, more noble choice.

I realize I have not summarized the book at all, or given you any indication of what it's about. An online friend commented that it's a book about "a sexually-transmitted city." That's the high concept: people can only find Palimpsest after they've had sex with someone who has been to Palimpsest, after which a portion of a map of the city becomes a permanent tattoo somewhere on their flesh. After that, they can only return to Palimpsest, as 'immigrants,' by having sex with other people who have been tattoed by the city. Many of the characters wonder what it takes to go from immigrant to emigre, and would gladly pay whatever price -- the city is that addictive for them.

A book can't survive on high concept alone. Well, okay, some books can and become wildly popular because they are nothing but high concept. This particular high concept wouldn't sustain itself, though, if it were just a series of orgiastic vignettes. Well, okay, again some books would, but I'd lose interest quickly. Each of the main characters needs something the city can provide, each of them is searching for something they've lost. Valente creates a main quartet of characters that is international, intergenerational, intergender and fluid intersexual -- a pretty good cross-section of society. They may start out as "types" (the disaffected Asian, the lonely young spinster, the work-obsessed husband, the hard-working immigrant) but get past the opening section and those characters take on greater depth.

What seems to put some people off the book is the intense weirdness of the city itself -- a dreamlike place where no-one is quite human, even the humans. There's a lot of weirdness to process, and again that's where the hard work comes in. The weirdness starts early and is unrelenting, although even those characters who are permanent residents of Palimpsest become deeper, almost less dream-like as the book moves on -- it's almost like moving from regular dreaming to lucid dreaming, in a way. The more I read of Palimpsest the city, the more I could picture it, the less weird the weird felt, if that makes sense.

Ultimately, I'm glad I chose to follow Oleg, Sei, November and Ludovico on their journey, rather than turning my back on Palimpsest like that minor character by drugging myself with something less dream-like. The more I read of her work, the more I feel that while Cat Valente is not an easy writer to read she is a writer worth reading.

Teaser Tuesday for August 24th

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

* Grab your current read.
* Open to a random page.
* Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.

* BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

* Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Here's my teaser from "The Sun Never Rises in the Big City," the lead-off story in Jeremy C. Shipp's soon to be released new short fiction collection FUNGUS OF THE HEART:

I could hire a private investigator, but I’m sure he’d wonder why I’d spend so much money investigating the death of a rag. He’d look down on me, so that’s out of the question.

I can’t call the police either, because they’d just laugh at me. Legally, killing a rag isn’t murder. And according to the handbook, in the case of a rag’s death, we’re supposed to call up the Agency and ask for a replacement.

Because people are cheap. Investigations aren’t.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Advs of Holmes

Book 45: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, contained in The Complete Sherlock Holmes Volume 1, isbn 9781593080341, 265 pages, Barnes And Noble Classics, $7.95

I decided not long ago that I really needed to go back and read some (or all) of Doyle's original Holmes work, to be able to more capably judge how the stories by more recent writers stack up to those of Holmes' creator. Since there seem to be new Holmes short stories in every issue of The Strand magazine and in just about every period mystery anthology, I decided to skip rereading A Study In Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, the first two Holmes novels, and proceed to the first short story collection.

Of course, I've reviewed all of the individual stories over on the [info]365shortstories community. If you want my individual thoughts (with pretty much no spoilers), you can check that out.

Overall, the collection really brings out certain facets of Holmes' personality. Some of them are repeated in story after story: the penchant for closing his eyes and ducking his head when he's trying to think in public; the habit of having reached a conclusion from the barest set of clues even before the parties involved give him more details. That last part, of course, is what makes him The Great Detective. It's also a bit infuriating for someone brought up on "fair play mysteries." The most important details of most of these cases tend to get noticed by Holmes when he's off-screen rather than when Watson is with him to show how Holmes got to that detail.

The other facet of Holmes' personality that really shines through in these stories is his attitude towards women. Much is often made of how Holmes refers to Irene Adler as "The Woman," and how she is the only woman who ever earned his respect because she outsmarted him in one particular case. I've seen many a review talking about how misogynistic Holmes is, that he veritably hates women. But in story after story in this collection he goes out of his way to protect women, whether it be physically (by warning Violet Hunter to stay away from a situation Holmes would not let any sister of his get involved in) or emotionally (by helping men who have wronged women pay their dues without the women being further emotionally injured). I can't say I approve of Holmes' decisions in every case where a woman's feelings were in danger of being hurt, but I can say that I find it an interesting aspect of his character. (And speaking of Ms. Hunter -- at the end of the story in which she appears, she seems to have gained high respect from both Holmes and Watson, and this time for not outwitting Holmes but matching him detail-for-detail.)

There are a few classic tales in this particular collection: A Scandal in Bohemia introduces Irene Adler; The Red-Headed League is just a fun outing; The Adventure of the Speckled Band and The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb are the most gothic-feeling of the tales; and The Adventure of the Copper Beeches introduces Violet Hunter. The stories I enjoyed the least: The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet seemed forced and The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor felt like a retread of the much more interesting A Case of Identity.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Holmes in brief

254. The Adventure of the Speckled Band Holmes once again comes to the rescue of a pretty young damsel in distress. This one is concerned that her step-father and the gypsies in residence on his property are somehow complicit in the death of her sister, who was due to be wed. The action takes place in the town of Stokes Moran, and for some reason I expected a connection to Col. Sebastian Moran, aide-de-camp to the notorious Prof. Moriarity, Holmes' nemesis. But there is no connection (at least not in the story itself. I'd have to read back through various Wold-Newton sites to see if any later authors came up with a connection). The story moves quickly, and Holmes of course spots the key details everyone else has missed. Several early details are essentially red herrings.

255. The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb Doctor Watson is brought an intriguing patient: a young civil engineer who has somehow lost his thumb. Once he's patched up as best as Watson can manage, Watson brings Holmes on board to hear the man's story. How he lost his thumb is not the mystery Holmes needs to solve, but rather where the man lost his thumb and who the perpetrators really were. Another of those cases in which Holmes solves the crime but doesn't catch the criminals.

256. The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor Doyle seems to like these stories in which one member of a wedding party disappears before, during, or just after the nuptial ceremony. (Jim Butcher somewhat pays tribute to this trope in his Harry Dresden story Heorot.) This time, it is the newlywed husband who is left without a spouse when his new bride disappears during a post-wedding luncheon. The facts of the mystery itself are a good read, although I do wish more of them had been hinted at in the story itself.

257. The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet The implication at the start of the story is that the Important Person who hocks the royal beryl coronet to a banker for a loan is Prince Albert. In our modern day and age, it's almost impossible to imagine someone so well known being able to visit a major banker in full daylight business hours to hock a piece of jewelry that normally resides in a locked guarded case. The late 1800s were a simpler time, for sure. The main mystery is not why "Prince Albert" put the coronet up as collateral for a loan (that's never revealed by Doyle in the story), but rather how the coronet is almost stolen and definitely damaged by someone in the banker's household. Holmes believes the man arrested for the crime didn't do it and sets about to prove himself right. I felt like this was one of the fairer-play mysteries in this set. I could not only understand how Holmes got to his conclusion, I could actually go back and see the hints where they were dropped.

258. The Adventure of the Copper Beeches Much is made of the fact that Irene Adler, or "The Woman," is the only woman for whom Holmes ever showed actual respect as an equal. In this story, Holmes and Watson meet a young governess named Violet Hunter, and I humbly submit that Miss Hunter shows as much mental fortitude and attention to detail as Holmes himself. Adler may be the woman who outwitted Holmes, but Hunter is the one who essentially matches him stride for stride. She starts out a little demure and unsure of herself, but by the end she has gained Watson's respect and I suspect Holmes' as well.

And that wraps up the first Holmes short story collection. I'm going to hold off on starting Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes for a little bit so as to cleanse the palate a bit, so to speak.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

THE FIRFLAKE giveaway!

Okay, it's time for me to do it: I'm having a giveaway for THE FIRFLAKE. I'll be giving away 3 copies, one for each social platform I'm running the giveaway on. So that means one winner on Livejournal, one winner on Blogspot, and one winner on Facebook.

THE FIRFLAKE is my self-published short Christmas book, available through Amazon and even by order through your local independent bookstore. The cover, and interior art, are by the great Don Cornue:

Product Description

"But what if I'm looking near the field and the Firflake falls by the old stream?"

Engleberta Ruprecht is this year's Watcher, and she takes her job seriously. The Watcher is tasked with waiting for the first snowflake of winter and leading Papa Knecht, the head of the family, to where the Firflake will fall. While the parents prepare for the special day, Papa Knecht and Mama Alvarie gather the grandchildren and tell stories.

They tell the legend of the Firflake, a story of cold northern plains and whipping winds.They also tell how Papa, when he was just a young man, went out to explore the wide world. How on a cold winter's night in a small town, Papa was attacked by a group of young men, and then rescued by a tall stranger named Nicholas. And how Papa and Nicholas' friendship became the foundation for the family's long Christmas tradition.

Told in the best winter campfire storytelling tradition, The Firflake: A Christmas Story is a tale full of familiar Christmas stories told in a new light.

About the Author

Anthony R. Cardno finds a way to work storytelling into everything he does. He has spent time as a classroom teacher, environmental educator and instructor on environmental law. He grew up in the Hudson Valley region of New York and has lived in northwestern New Jersey for the past twelve years. His short works have appeared in Willard & Maple and SYBIL magazines.

Additional Info: I will of course Sign and Personalize the winning copies. I will ship for free anywhere in the US, Canada and Europe.


1. Respond to any of the posts (Livejournal, Blogspot or Facebook) by answering the following question:
What is your favorite Christmas story or legend? (Saying my book is your favorite will not get you an extra entry, but choosing my favorite story not of my own creation will!)

2. Provide a mailing address to which the book can be sent, and a way to contact you if you win so I can find out who you'd like the book personalized for.

3. Gain extra entries by Tweeting, Blogging, Stumbleuponing, etc -- one extra entry for each time you advertise for me, but you MUST provide me with a link to eachTweet, Blog, Facebook post, etc. One extra entry per social platform/network.

4. Deadline is 11:59pm Friday, AUGUST 19th, 2010. Then I will choose the winners randomly from all of the entries and begin contacting, etc.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hunt in Shanghai

Book 44: Hunt Among The Killers of Men by Gabriel Hunt, as told to David J. Schow, isbn 9780843962567, 265 pages, Leisure Adventure, $6.99

The fifth of six projected Gabriel Hunt adventures finds our man Hunt in Shanghai and nearby, searching for a missing friend of his younger sister, hoping to find her before she can get revenge on the Chinese mobster who killed her own sister. This being a Hunt adventure, some sort of ancient treasure or ancient legend must come into play. This time it is the legendary Killers of Men -- the terra-cotta army of Chinese warlord Kangxi Shih-K'ai which is supposed to include the warlord's entombed body.

Hunt books are always a thrill-ride. This one is no exception. There are a number of "set-piece action sequences" that you can easily picture being in the next Bourne or Salt movie. Where previous Hunt installments felt like "Indiana Jones in the modern era" thanks to most of the objects being sought having mythological qualities (the fountain of youth, sphinxes, a city under the polar ice cap), this book felt more like a modern spy thriller thanks to the treasure being of more recent vintage and less mystical (the statues are needed for purely mundane, gangster-war reasons). In fact, I didn't realize how heavily I was expecting things to take a supernatural bend until the final end-gambit started and I realized there would be no actual supernatural event this time. "Co-author" David J. Schow actually writes a bit against type here. He's known for horror, especially splatterpunk, and for the scripts for various slasher flick franchises. I expected a more horror-based story and was pleasantly surprised to get this spy-thriller instead. The action sequences fly fast and furious, the dialogue is pretty snappy. Another change from previous Hunt books: there are almost as many scenes without Gabriel as there are with. Schow takes full advantage of his movie script experience to write a Hunt book that really feels like it's ready to be a movie: high on action, decent on character, low on CGI needs.

Characterization is always present at some level. Over the course of five books Gabriel, his brother Michael, and even their sister Lucy, have all been drawn well. At first Gabriel and Michael were fairly stock -- if Gabe was Indy, Michael was a young Marcus Brody; if Gabe is Doc Savage, Michael is Renny. Lucy appears not at all in the first few books, and we don't get too much of her personality in the one book before this that she's a main part of. Schow uses her sparingly, but gives us more of her personality and more of her relationship with Gabriel (although notably not with Michael) from when they were kids. Series editor Charles Ardai also smartly lets Schow add some detail to the mystery of the Missing Hunt Parents. Ambrose and Cordelia Hunt have been missing since a mass disappearance off of an ocean liner on the eve of "the millenium," and we learn a little bit about what they were investigated prior to that cruise in this tale. Schow also gives us the requisite Hunt femme fatales / damsels in distress, but puts a welcome different spin on them.

So, final verdict: if the more Indiana Jones stylings of the earlier books in the series were not your thing, give KILLERS OF MEN a try and I think you'll enjoy it. And if those earlier stylings were your thing -- well, variety is the spice of life, and it's good for series characters to have their adventures break from the formula occasionally!

There is one more Hunt book left, HUNT THROUGH NAPOLEON'S WEB, due out in a few months. With the closing of Dorchester Publishing's mass market paperback division, it seems that the final Gabriel Hunt will be out in e-reader format only at first. But Charles Ardai has vowed that it will come out, and in print eventually. I'm hopefully the last book will bring more details on what happened to the Hunt parents.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Review of The Magicians

Book 43: The Magicians by Lev Grossman, isbn 9780452296299, 402 pages, Plume, $16.00

The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant but somewhat unhappy high school senior looking for any way out of his empty Brooklyn home life and being the third corner in an unequal love triangle. He receives an invitation to attend Brakebills, a Hogwarts-like elite college for magicians (so elite, no one really knows it exists; Quentin's parents are "convinced" it's just an oddly remote boarding school), and sees a way to make real life a bit more like his favorite childhood fantasy series, a Narnia-like place called Fillory. What Quentin ultimately discovers is that the key to being happy really comes from within yourself, not from the places where you find yourself. Or, at least, not solely from the places you find yourself.

The Magicians has been called "daring and inventive," and "the best urban fantasy in years." I can agree with the former, but to my mind the later is a bit of hyperbole. The book, in some ways, may be the most accessible urban fantasy in years, but that's not the same as being the best. It is, however, daring and inventive. Grossman takes what have by now become standard YA fantasy lit tropes -- the kid who is not who he thinks he is, the boarding school, the adventurous mystery land where animals talk and God in animal form watches over without ever taking action, the fulfilling of a prophecy -- and drags them all into adult fantasy lit territory -- people die (sometimes brutally), actions have reactions, decisions have consequences, drinking and drugs and sex happen, and most of all there is no clear-cut Good and Evil despite what the characters may wish.

Grossman covers four years of University life and two years of post-University life (give or take), in 400 pages. In the world of Harry Potter, at the four hundred page mark we were barely into Harry's second year of grade school. In most high fantasy novels, 400 pages would be just the start. Even in urban fantasy series, six years of life would take at least four, if not six, separate books. Grossman's decision to move time so quickly for his characters has an mixed effect on the book. On the one hand, keeping with the largely realistic tone of the book, time flies for these college students the way time flies for every college student (think back, even if you just graduated a few years ago -- how much of your day-to-day college experience do you really remember in any detail?). On the other hand, the fast pace works against character familiarity and development. We are told things about the characters relationships, but with one or two exceptions we don't see those relationships develop. I felt like I got to know Quentin very well, almost too well. I think I got a good sense of Alice and Eliot and even Janet, but the other major and semi-major characters remained sketches, and in some cases even ciphers. Not that I'd expect, in a book of this length, for every secondary character to get some kind of insightful shining moment. Heck, it takes Rowling several books before half of Harry's classmates are anything more than names, and after seven books some still remained undeveloped -- but I still felt I knew more about, say, Dean Thomas, than I know about Quentin's classmate Josh, who is a presence throughout at least half of the book. I'm sure many people will not feel this is a problem, but it was for me in at least one important spot. There is a character death about halfway through the book that should, I think, have carried some kind of emotional impact but which fails to carry any at all. While I can understand why Quentin is upset at the death, I didn't share that pain with him, and I think I needed to.

My quibbles about the book are relatively small, though. Spreading the story over multiple books might have helped with some of the character development and might have fixed some of the pacing issues. Then again, there is a sequel coming in 2011 and perhaps that will flesh out certain characters a bit more. It still won't fix one particular problem with the resolution of the book (and I see from other reviews I'm not the only one who has picked up on this), which lies in the motivation of the Main Bad-Guy. The explanation given is a throw-away line at best, but because it is the only theory given (and espoused by a character who should, in all honesty, be more aware of what the truth actually is than any other character in the book) the urge is to take it at face-value. It's too simple an answer for what should be a more complex question.

Despite these concerns, I enjoyed the book. I won't say "I couldn't put it down," but I will say that for the week I read it, it was the only book I picked up. I do feel like I understood Quentin and the fact that Janet is now high on my list of Characters I Love To Hate means that Grossman did something right with both of those characters. I am also grateful to Grossman for Eliot, a man character who happens to be gay. We get one or two glimpses into that portion of Eliot's life, but no less so than we see the sexual side of Quentin or Alice. Okay, maybe a little less so, but not by much (and I think that's largely a function of the book being essentially Quentin's POV, and he's just not around when Eliot is having sex). I'm hoping Eliot in particular will get more page-time in the sequel. Brakebills and Fillory are also very well developed places, as is The Neitherlands. In fact, one of the things Grossman really excels at in this book is a sense of Place (which is interesting considering Quentin is always hoping the next Place he finds himself in will be the one that finally fulfills him and makes the world 'right').

I'm already recommending the book to friends, and I've had more people stop me in hotel lobbies and restaurants saying "Isn't that a great book" than I've had for almost any other book I've ever read.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Glimmer Train Stories Summer 2009

Here are my thoughts on the stories from the Summer 2009 issue of Glimmer Train Stories. I thought I was bringing the most current issue with me on my trip, but it turns out I grabbed an older unread issue instead. For 2010, these are stories 245 - 253.

245. Save by Carmiel Banasky Save attempts a strong colloquial voice (somewhat Southern, perhaps Delta-ish?) that just didn't quite work for me. I had a hard time entering the story. I can usually follow stories that bounce between past and present with no warning, but I had a hard time keeping the sequence of events here straight. I'm not sure why. The author has a story to tell that should be interesting, about a family, and a family business, coming apart at the seams. It just didn't work for me personally.

246. Korean Wedding by Hubert Ahn When a short story can make two different points, and make them both equally well, that should be lauded. This story manages to be about unrequited love and about the way close groups of friends drift apart once the situation in which they bonded no longer exists. The main character is attending a wedding of an old college friend, along with the rest of his crowd of Korean college (and possibly high school) friends. He is the only one who has not made some kind of career for himself since graduation. He holds it against himself, just as he holds not winning the girl against himself. Present and past do a dance here, as in the preceding story, but the dance flows better in Ahn's story. There's a great line in this story that sort of describes me: "My personality is dynamite around girls I'm not attracted to; put me in a room full of ugly women, and I turn into Oscar Wilde."

247. Melting at Both Ends by Cynthia Gregory The story takes place over the course of one long phone call between the narrator and her friend. Each of them has different ways of coping with life changes. The narrator lights candles and prayers to various gods; the friend goes on retreat to a health spa. Neither one seems to be finding their way to happiness, and I think that's sort of the story's point: as long as we look to someone/thing to fix our unhappiness, we're going to be disappointed. Or we're going to become sycophantic, but I don't see either of these characters heading in that direction. There's a smooth fluid feel to the story, although it's another one that dances between past and present ... and in fact between two different characters' pasts. Seems to be a theme of this issue.

248. Pronouncing the Apostrophe by Johnny Townsend The "dancing between past and present" theme seems to take a break in this story. There are still, of course, references to things in the character's past, but no actual flashbacks. Most of the past is delineated in dialogue or in the lines surrounding dialogue. I have to say, with all apologies to Mr. Townsend, while I liked the idea of the story I so thoroughly disliked the main character that I almost stopped reading it. It's a tribute to the author's style that I didn't give up on it, though. The main character is obsessive-compulsive to a fault, but doesn't see that perhaps that is why his relationships (romantic and otherwise) don't seem to pan out. He reminded me a bit too much of a friend of mine, which made the story a little tough to read.

249. Morth by Marc Basch The author's note at the beginning of the story says this is one of a group of interconnected stories related to the suspicious death of the title character. There are times when reading a story that is part of a cycle "out of order" is a detriment -- think of all those genre short stories that take place between novels in your favorite fantasy or SF series, that reveal key information you haven't encountered in the books themselves yet. This was not one of those times, however. Basch's story feels very complete, very done-in-one. As with almost every other story in this issue, there is a feeling that we're witnessing a Memory Play of sorts. The main character, Guy, starts out as a fifteen-year-old getting a job at a local pharmacy, where he meets the slightly-older title character. The story details their odd connection, and of course there's a girl involved, but eventually Guy moves on. He only finds out about Morth's death in the closing pages; in fact I would not have expected to hear about the death at all if I hadn't read the author's note before the story. I liked the development of the characters, and Guy's obvious confusion as Morth and others assume he understands what they're talking about.

250. Which Leaves Me by Lindsey Crittenden This might be the shortest story in the issue, and the most autobiographical. In fact, in retrospect I'm not sure it's actually a short story. It might be a creative non-fiction essay. Either way, it's a short compelling story about life for Crittenden in the aftermath of the deaths (over a span of years) of her brother, her mother, and her father, leaving her to parent her teenage nephew. I think in part it's also about allowing parts of our real life to inspire our writing.

251. Proximity by Diana Spechler This may be the lone story in the issue that relies less on what happened in characters' pasts and more on what happens in their present. The main character has an eating disorder and is involved in group therapy. One of the group fails to show up for two meetings in a row, which leads to acting up on the part of the others in their personal lives, especially the title character who is juggling several emotional issues at once. I suppose it's a tribute to the author that there were several points where I found myself wanting to slap the main character and tell her to wake up to the reality of her situation, and yet I still felt satisfied with the end of the story.

252. Marijuana, Lipton Tea, and Jazz by Scott Schrader I'm not sure I like any of the characters in Schrader's story. Each of the three -- narrator, narrator's wife, narrator's troubled daughter from his first marriage -- are largely disconnected from the world and from each other. Even the connections narrator and wife do have -- for instance, their interrupted Sunday night ritual of the title -- seem forced, a method by which they convince themselves the relationship is working when really it's just rote. I couldn't find any hook to make me care how the daughter's visit interrupting their ritual affects them, although the end of the story implies that it does. Another story that might work better for others than it worked for me.

253. The Scream by Mary Morrissy The framing device of this story is the anguish felt by a terminally-ill woman who has tried to leave her bed and has collapsed at the top of the stairs, while her daughter watches television in the kitchen down below. In the interminable time between collapse and rescue, the woman's mind flits back to various moments in the past, particularly settling on the relationship between her late husband and their daughter. To me, the implication is heavy that there was an unsavory aspect to that relationship, but I could also have been reading too much into it. Perhaps the relationship was innocent, and it is the ailing woman who wants to see more in that relationship than was actually there. The story works, but it's not a feel-good story that I'll be running back to. If I run across it in an anthology, though, I'd read it again just to see if my interpretation holds up.

Friday, August 6, 2010

2010 Book 42: Goblet of Fire

Book 42: Harry Potter And the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling, read by Jim Dale, isbn 9780807282595 , 17 cds / 752 pages, Listening Library / Scholastic, $69.95

As with the three earlier books in the Potter series, if memory serves correctly this is my third time through Goblet. I've read it twice, and now listened to it on cd. Overall, I still love the story and the way it basically changed everything. While Prisoner of Azkaban, my favorite Potter book (and movie, to date), was a bit darker than its predecessors, the danger still felt a little bit removed and the book still maintained a somewhat lighter tone. With Goblet, Rowling turns Harry's world upside down and almost from the start the book feels darker; the joy and wonder of the Quidditch World Cup, people tend to forget, is preceded by Harry "dreaming" about Lord Voldemort killing a Muggle and beginning his return to power. The bad stuff doesn't start with the Death Eaters and the Dark Mark at the Cup, but it certainly escalates from that point.

Experiencing the book for the third time, I was once again struck by how well Rowling builds on earlier throw-away comments and sets the stage for the later books. She allows her teen characters to grow, while most of her adult characters remain infuriatingly predictable. We can see Hagrid's blast-ended skrewt experiment ending badly before it even begins, and we know Hagrid will have at least one "I should not have told you that" moment; Dumbledore will be so focused on keeping Harry safe that he will neglect to share the very information Harry needs to make the smart decisions that will keep him safe; McGonagall will be stern and motherly at the same time; Snape will have those one or two moments where he vaguely threatens Harry and obstructs Harry's path but will ultimately not be a major part of the storyline .... except that, while all of that happens, Rowling actually gives us reasons this time. We get a bit more of Hagrid's history, we get to see just why Dumbledore is so distracted, and we start to see the Snape of the movies. In the first three books, Snape is a speedbump in the road and not much more. In this book, Snape quite literally is indirectly responsible for a character's death (had he not delayed Harry from seeing Dumbledore, Barty Crouch Sr might not have died) and in the final pages we see that he is going to be more than just a menacing teacher from this point on. Rowling expands even the secondary characters' roles (with the Madame Maxime subplot for Hagrid, and the heightened involvement of the adult Weasleys), and her page count expands to accommodate that change in story-style.

She also introduces at least one intriguing new character: Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody. Moody quickly became a favorite character of mine, and remains so. Even after what I think is one of the best plot twists in the Potter series (if not all of series fiction). Listening to the book, I found myself even more attentive to Moody's scenes than I am when I'm rereading the book. And yes, the clues are all there early on, once you know where to look.

Some people have said that upon rereading Goblet, the teen relationship angst comes across as more forced than on the first read. I didn't find that to be so. Because while spurned feelings and requited attractions motivate the characters at various points, those emotions are still not the main plot (unlike at least one other YA urban fantasy series of great popularity, or so I've been told). Harry's interest in Cho and jealousy of Cedric, Ron's jealousy of Hermione and Krum, the poor Patil sisters stuck with dates who won't even pretend they're interested, even the ease with which Fred (or is it George) asks Angelina (or it is Katie) to the Ball ... all of this fits into the book as fine character work and subplot without taking our attention away from the main plots: the Tri-Wizard Tournament and the Return of Voldemort.

Unfortunately, there is one spbplot that annoyed me on the initial reading, annoyed me again when I reread the book, and still annoys me listening to the book. As wonderful a reader as Jim Dale is (and he is stretched to prove himself in this book, not only due to the length but due to the number of speaking characters to be interpreted), even he cannot generate any interest or excitement in the SPEW sub-plot. Way too much time is spent for a subplot that is ultimately dropped mid-book and not revisited in any of the remaining books. Yes, it's an important development for Hermione's character that she takes up the mantle of gaining equality for a down-trodden race. And yes, I'm sure in adulthood she worked tirelessly at the Ministry to finally get house elves the respect they deserve. But an already long novel could have been 50 pages shorter if Hermione's Crusade had been cut out or at least mentioned less frequently. Perhaps my largest disappointment of the Potter series is that this major subplot ultimately went nowhere. (I can foresee certain arguments having to do with events in Half-Blood Prince which were cut from the movie version, and in Deathly Hallows. I would ask that if you feel the urge to debate me / tell me I'm wrong, you try to be as vague as possible. I know of at least one person reading this blog regularly who has not read the books and so far has managed to not have any of the major events of DH spoiled for him before the movie comes out (which he will see opening weekend, as he has every other Potter movie, I'm sure).

I could natter on for pages yet, I'm sure. I haven't talked about the representation of sensationalist media in the form of Rita Skeeter. I haven't talked about Karkaroff and Krum, or the concept of other nation's schools of magic (I've always wondered why Rowling didn't use an American school, since the books were already selling so well over here. Might have been a nice nod to her American fans. Then again, the portrayal may have been unflattering.) But this is a review, not an essay. Overall, Goblet is my second-favorite book in the Potter series. Great character development, great new characters introduced, lots of groundwork laid for the second half of the series and especially for the next book.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Teaser and WWW for week of August 2nd

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

* Grab your current read.
* Open to a random page.
* Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page.

* BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

* Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Here's my teaser from HUNT AMONG THE KILLERS OF MEN, by Gabriel Hunt "as told to" David S. Schow:

"Don't you dare get an erection, or I'll have to shoot you."

They were immersed to the collarbones inside a large cauldron of steaming water, which they had bucketed over from a wood fire inside the second of the leaning pagoda's shrine rooms. Pressed herbs floated on the cloudy surface. Qi had insisted Gabriel join her -- for purely therapeutic reasons, she explained, after she had applied antibiotic ointment to his head would and to a new gouge, raw and red, that he'd acquired on the side of his neck.

Yes, I know, that's more than two sentences. I didn't want to leave out that classic bit of dialogue, though.

* * * * * * *

WWW Wednesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!

To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

* What are you currently reading?
* What did you recently finish reading?
* What do you think you’ll read next?

My answers for this week:

I Am Currently Reading: The new Gabriel Hunt adventure, HUNT AMONG THE KILLERS OF MEN. I read a couple of chapters last night before bed, read more of the book on today's flight and tonight over dinner. I suspect dinner tomorrow night will finish it. Hunt books, of which this is the 5th of a proposed 6, are intentionally fast reads. Hunt is a modern Indiana Jones, and the adventures range from the outright fantastical (sphinxes exist) to the politically intrigued (the current book, with Shanghai mafia in-fighting), suited to the style of whichever author Hunt "told" this tale to.

I Recently Finished Reading: THE MAGICIANS by Lev Grossman. The book has been highly recommended by a few people, including new Twitter / blogger friend RoofBeamReader. I'm glad I decided to read it, and will post a review sometime in the next few days. This book caused more random conversations with strangers in restaurants and hotel lobbies than any other book I've ever read. (See my earlier post about Reasons to Not Have an E-reader for more details on that.)

I Think I'll Read Next: PALIMPSEST, by Catherynne M. Valente (aka [info]yuki_onna , for [info]calico_reaction 's August book club. I really liked the short story version I reviewed over in [info]365shortstories a few months back, and am intrigued to see what a full-length version of the story does for the characters. I don't suspect I'll be let down at all.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

reason to not have an e-reader

In a conversation about Kindles, Nooks and the like on someone else's blog (I think it [info]graygirl 's), I jokingly commented that one of the things you don't get when you carry one of those devices around is that random person seeing the cover of the book you're reading while you're on a bus or plane or in a restaurant and starting up a conversation because of it.

I thought I was being a bit funny, because that sort of thing has happened occasionally to me, but not by any means frequently. Well, I must have "spoken it into existence" as a friend used to say.

I've been reading Lev Grossman's The Magicians this week (review at some point in the next day or two, as I'm at least two reviews behind now).

Monday night in Nashville, my server at the Ruby Tuesdays noticed the cover, asked what the book was about, and that led (between taking orders and delivering food and so on) to an on and off conversation about Harry Potter, voracious reading habits, and libraries / used bookstores vs. chain bookstores.

Last night at the PF Chang's here in Memphis, my server asked me what I was reading. Halfway through the meal, a woman took the table next to mine because "oh, he's reading too, so I won't look so strange." Of course, neither of us ended up reading much as we discussed not only what we were reading (she was working through a Tess Gerritsen thriller), but why we found ourselves in the outskirts of Memphis (me for business, her to drop her son off for two days of freshman orientation at a nearby small college), and our shared knowledge of NY and NJ and TX (her husband is from Jersey, she loves Central New York, and they live east of Dallas).

Then, on my way back into the hotel after dinner last night, I was coming through the rotating door while a family was going out through the non-rotating door next to it (if you can picture that, considering how poorly I'm describing it). The mother turned to me, smiled, and said something that I could not hear through the glass over the whisking of the rotating door. As I stepped through, she told her husband and son to hold up, and pointed to my copy of The Magicians:

Her: "That is such a fantastic book!"
Me: "Isn't it? I've got like three chapters left to go."
Her: "Did you know they're talking about a movie?"
Me: "No! I can picture that. Did you know about the sequel?"
Her: "No! Although when you get to the end, you'll see why there very well could be one."
I showed her the page at the back of my copy, which heralds the arrival of The Magician King in Summer of 2011.
Her: "That's so great! Enjoy the rest of the book!"

Seriously. If I'd been walking in with a Kindle, I suppose someone might have said "I have one of those too!" and we might have discussed the relative merits of Kindle v. Nook or whatever -- but I can't imagine the conversation (especially as technologically illiterate as I am -- I have to check the outside of the laptop and the phone to tell you what makes and models they are) being anywhere near as giddily social as any of the conversations above.

Your mileage may vary, as another friend of mine says, but for now, despite the extra weight in the backpack (and hey, that's even actually good for me, it's exercise!), I'll stick with my hardcovers and paperbacks and hope for more such interactions.

2010 Book 41 To Open The Sky

Book 41: To Open The Sky by Robert Silverberg, isbn 425038106 , 209 pages, Berkeley, long out of print, $3.00 or so, in used bookshops. It's also on the Kindle apparently, but Amazon didn't list pricing.

To Open The Sky is a set of five novellas (originally published seperately in magazine form) that cover roughly a hundred years of "future history" (from the late 2000s to the early 2100s), charting the rise of two new religions which power Humanity's dual quest for immortality and the stars. I first read this book in 5th or 6th grade, back in the mid-1970s. I still own the same yellowed-pages, bent-spine, taped-cover edition I read back then. Every 5 years or so I pull it out and reread it. The last time I did so was before I'd started my livejournal (which means long before I'd started any of my other blogging / social networking). I was fairly traumatized recently when I realized the book was not in its usual bookshelf location, and I spent a few good months trying to figure out who I'd lent it to before finally discovering it, on top of a later edition and two other Silverberg books, on a completely different shelf. The book means that much to me at this point, that I'll have panic attacks over not being able to locate it. There aren't too many books for which "but you can always buy another used copy on Amazon" is not an acceptable answer to me, but this is one of them.

Robert Silverberg may be well known for his Majipoor Chronicles series of novels, but I've always enjoyed his short fiction more. To Open the Sky, like his more recent Roma Eterna, works precisely because of the time (and location) jumps between sections. If you read Silverberg's foreword, you are aware of the publishing history and you expect those time jumps. In TOtS, each of the five novellas centers on a man (mostly young men, except for the last novella) at an emotional / spiritual crossroads. In the first vignette, we are introduced to the nascent Vorster religion through the eyes of Reynolds Kirby, a UN diplomat farther at the end of his mental tether than even he realizes. The Vorst religion wraps a thin veneer of spirituality around essentially worshiping the energy spectrum. They're considered nutjobs by the hedonistic Earth society of 2070 and upstarts by the longer-established religions, but they make no secret that what they're offering is not Religion but rather a place for the development of science leading to individual immortality and colonizing of the stars. Kirby gets a first-hand look at Noel Vorst's new religion thanks to the actions of an upstart Mars colony dignitary. In the second vignette, decades have passed and young Vorster acolyte Christopher Mondschein finds himself face to face with a hard decision: stay loyal to Noel Vorst and his religion, or spy for the developing splinter religion, The Harmonists. His decision, and I won't tell you exactly what it is, influences the course of another young man's life several decades after that, as Vorster missionary Nicholas Martell tries to establish a chapel on Venus in the third vignette. In the fourth and fifth vignettes, the stories of Kirby, Mondschein and Martell come together with the Harmonist's found David Lazarus and Noel Vorst himself.

Wow, I don't usually let book synopses take over my reviews. But when I talk about this book, I feel like it's important to discuss how the novel develops. I don't think anything I said above really qualifies as a Spoiler; most of it can be read in the back-cover synopsis on the editions I have.

The book is of course replete with classic mid-1960s SF tropes. Colonists terraform Mars to make it habitable, and colonists are surgically altered to survive the rigors of Venus. The colonies have a contentious relationship with Earth, where society has largely forgotten what hard work is all about. (In fact, a trait Kirby and Mondschein initially share is their avoidance of actual work, although their avoidance tactics are nothing alike.) Knowing what we now know about the surfaces of those planets, the worlds Silverberg presents don't seem to be as possible as they once might have seemed. Human life is extended through the use of mechanical implants to replace failed organs. Organ replacement is happening now, not in some "far future." The genes for various ESP abilities are developed and play a core role in the narrative. And so on. All of these possibilities were captivating to me back in 6th grade. I reread the book now and those same aspects give me a warm sense of nostalgia, and also a sense of wonder -- in some cases, it seems Silverberg (and others) was not as far off in regards to society's destiny as he might have hoped.

Every time I reread the book, I take something new from it. When I was in 6th grade, it was pure wonder and excitement. In later rereads, it was how seamlessly Silverberg worked spy-thriller tropes into the Mondschein chapter and commentary on social stratification and being an outsider into the Martell chapter. On this reread, what struck me was how all of the main characters are at a crossroads whether they see it or not, and how small personal actions can take on societal importance when viewed through the lens of passing decades.

And of course, that ending. More full of hope for humanity than much of modern SF, without falling completely into cliche.

I wonder, a few years down the road when I reread this book again, what I'll take out of it at that stage of my life.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Cat Valente's Thirteen Ways (2010 Story 244)

Last night, I noticed author Cat Valente announce on Twitter that she had a new story posted online at Clarkesworld Magazine's site. I replied to her that I'd have to track it down, she sent me the link. I then Tweeted "bout to read @catvalente's newest story, over at http://tinyurl.com/2eakr3u Join me, won't you?" Cat got a kick out of that and retweeted it, and others picked it up as well. She also said "I love the idea of Twitter-organizes live communal reading."

Which is all just prelude to actually posting my review, of course. In case people are wondering, I've reviewed two other Cat Valente stories in the past year: Palimpsest and Days of Flaming Motorcycles. I liked both stories quite a bit. In fact, I only recently found out that Palimpsest is also a novel, which I will be reading for [info]calico_reaction 's August book club here on livejournal.

Story 244. Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time By Catherynne M. Valente, in the August 2010 issue of Clarksworld magazine. My brain needed a day to process this story after reading it last night, mainly because I dove into it in the midst of a headache (of course, had I gone to bed when the headache started, I'd have completely missed Cat's announcement that the story was live). "Thirteen Ways" is not an easy story to read, but it's worth the extra effort you have to put into it. There are two threads going on: permutations on various creation myths, retold with hard science tossed in among the mythology (it took me a minute or so to get used to this, and then I found the concept working for despite my dim understanding of most actual science); and a science fiction writer's life story, told in forwards- and backwards-moving vignettes (which comment not only on the nature of memory as a component of creating fiction, but also on how we recreate our memories, consciously or not, to support who we think we are). By alternating science-filled creation myths with science fiction author life story, we get to look at the creative act from multiple sides. I can't claim to speak for Cat in terms of what the story was intended to Be About, but what I drew from it was the idea that we can reinterpret the act of creation however we want: the fact is, we'll never truly understand why and how it happens, it just does. I felt each of the vignettes, as time-and-space-warped as they were, touched on that idea. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to read the story for again for the first time (I think ... depending on which me is writing this review and which me is editing it and which me/you is reading it...)