Saturday, September 10, 2011

four short stories

196. Adam by Jennifer Cotroneo-Mancuso, from Diagonal Proof magazine.    This is a taut psychological thriller told through the eyes of a hysterical woman and then her husband. It's a study in mental breakdown over the loss of a child. I can't describe it in too much detail without giving away the plot twists, but I can say that the author slides well from one POV to another in a way that just heightens the tension rather than disrupting the flow.

197. Ginnifer by Matthew Pearl from the June-Sept 2011 issue of The Strand.    I knew Matthew Pearl by reputation only. Friends have recommended his three period-piece mysteries to me, but I've yet to read them. So when I saw his name on the cover of the June-September 2011 issues of the Strand, I thought it might be a good way to test the waters.  And it was, except that this is no literature-based period piece. No Poe Shadow or Dante Club here. This is a darkly comic (in my opinion) modern day tale of a man who is accused of a heinous crime, and the woman who believes in his self-proclaimed innocence. Pearl plays out the drama (is he really innocent? what will she do once he's free?) at a perfect pace for this kind of story. Waters tested, appetite whetted: I  definitely want to read more Matthew Pearl.

198. The Audience of the Dead by Andrew Lane from the June-Sept 2011 issue of The Strand.    Not every new Holmes story published in the new Strand magazine is a worthy descendant of Doyle's original work. Then again, some of Doyle's later Holmes stories suffer compared to the early works as well. Andrew Lane has written a series of "Young Sherlock Holmes" books that are only now seeing publication here in the States, but this tale is of an adult Holmes and Watson investigating a theater full of dead bodies. Lane keeps Holmes' personality and methods pretty well according to Doyle, down to the Great Detective seeing clues we simple readers don't. It's an interesting tale with a satisfying conclusion.

199. The Second Theft of Alhazred's Manuscript by Bradley H. Sinor, from Historical Lovecraft.  Every now and then I grab this anthology off the shelf and read a story at random. It just so happens that this time it was the Holmes story in the batch. Sinor walks that fine Holmes line: is what the Detective encounters in this story really supernatural, or is there a perfectly mundane explanation hiding underneath? Holmes never quite unveils that what's happening is faked, although he expresses that opinion to Watson. But then again, Holmes' concern here is the theft of a manuscript he's been called in to rescue once before, and not whether said manuscript holds eldritch power or not. Sinor walks the line well and keeps the story interesting without either downplaying the supernatural or calling Holmes out as a fool blind to the forces of the universe. Not easy to do.

Review of The Red House Mystery

Book 51: THE RED HOUSE MYSTERY by A.A. Milne, isbn 9780099521273, 211 pages, Vintage UK (Random House), $7.95

The Premise: (from the back cover) Far from the gentle slopes of the Hundred Acre Wood lies The Red House, the setting for A.A. Milne's only detective story, where secret passages, uninvited guests, a sinister valet and a puzzling murder lay the foundations for a classic crime caper. When the local police prove baffled, it is up to a gueset at a local inn to appoint himself "Sherlock Holmes" and together with his friend and loyal "Watson," delve deeper into the mysteries of the dead man. The Red House Mystery is a lost gem from a time before Tigger and a perfectly crafted whodunnit with witty dialogue, deft plotting and a most curious cast of characters.

My Rating: 3 stars

My Thoughts: I wanted to enjoy this a lot more than I did. Sadly, I don't think it quite delivers on the promises of the back-cover copy. Which doesn't make it a bad story. There is a clever set-up, and a clever method of getting "Holmes," aka Anthony Gillingham, knee-deep in the action while remaining an outsider with an impartial eye to the murder. Milne lays out the hints all along the way, so this really is a fair-play mystery, more Agatha Christie than Conan Doyle. And there is a lot of oh-so-clever banter that makes me wonder why this story has never been adapted by the BBC/PBS (and a quick scan of IMDB tells me it hasn't), being a classic "drawing room cozy mystery."

I liked the characters of Anthony Gillingham and Bill Beverley ("Holmes" and "Watson," as they style themselves) enough that part of me wishes Milne had written further books with them. But part of me is also glad he didn't, as I think he'd have to have gone to more and more ridiculous lengths to get them involved in mysteries where they would remain the impartial outsiders unless he went the length of having them set themselves up as rivals to Holmes and Watson.  They don't quite have the feel of a Hercule Poirot or Jessica Fletcher where adventures would just fall into their laps.

The downside to the book is that Milne dispenses with "curious cast of characters" pretty quickly. Within the first few chapters the cast is pared down to Gillingham, Beverley, the "sinister valet," the cop, and the missing man at the center of the murder. The other house-guests and the house-staff are shuttled off-stage quickly, part of Milne's wish to not have too many red herrings to distract the reader. That cuts down on the mystery as well. For me, the book quickly became a case not of "whodunnit" so much as "how-and-why-dunnit."

Review of Ghost Story (Butcher)

Book 50: GHOST STORY (The Dresden Files, Book 13) by Jim Butcher, isbn 9780451463791, 481 pages, Roc, $27.95

The Premise: (from the plot description) When we last left the mighty wizard detective Harry Dresden, he wasn't doing well. In fact, he had been murdered by an unknown assassin.  But being dead doesn't stop him when his friends are in danger. Except now he has no body, and no magic to help him. And there are also several dark spirits roaming the Chicago shadows who owe Harry some payback of their
own. To save his friends-and his own soul-Harry will have to pull off the ultimate trick without any magic...

My Rating: 4 stars

My Thoughts: The latest Harry Dresden book was eagerly awaited, and I tore through it in just a couple of days. I have learned this lesson when it comes to Dresden: I am incapable of savoring him. I devour. Then sometimes I can go back and take things slower. This time, for instance, I found myself able to re-listen to the book on cd (this time narrated by John Glover) just a few short weeks after reading it.

Overall, I loved the book. Without spoiling the major plot points I think it's safe to say that of course nothing is as it seems. Harry thinks he's coming back to find his murderer and save three of his friends from vaguely-worded premonitions of doom (and the kicker is, he doesn't know which three friends) but when has a Dresden plot ever been as simple as that? Not since the third or fourth book, at least. So yes, there are bigger issues, and bigger machinations, at work in the background, and Harry working through the mystery while being incorporeal is pretty much the least of his problems.

Because Harry is stuck as a ghost/shade, the book has a slightly different feel to it: Harry can't just blunder in, make a mistake, and fix it later. At least, that's what we're told repeatedly: that he can't physically affect anything so he has time to slow down and not blunder right in ... except that I counted at least 3 times where he did exactly that, once to nearly disastrous results. He may be slower about making the blunders, but he's still Harry and he still manages to make things worse before he can make them better.

But, and this is an upside to the book, because Harry is stuck as a ghost, he is also far more dependant on his supporting cast than he ever has been before, and so more of them get more screen-time than some of them have had in ages. Tertiary character Mort Lindqist gets a major step-up, Butters gets some great moments, Father Forthill plays a major role, Daniel Carpenter gets to show that he is made of the same mettle as his father ... in fact, these four move the action along far more than usual co-stars Karin Murphy, Molly Carpenter, Thomas Raith and Gentleman John  Marcone. And that is a nice change of pace.  Of course, Karin and Molly are not completely ignored -- a large part of the subplot of the book centers on how these two women, who both love Harry in their own way, are suffering from his death. And they get some of the most poignant, heart-wrenching moments in the book.  But still, cast-wise this might be the most inclusive of any of the Dresden Files. Only a few beloved (or behated) characters go unseen/unmentioned. (I mean, seriously, where the hell are Toot-Toot and the Za Guard?)

There are some things I didn't like about the book, particularly in how often Harry repeats information he's already shared with us three times, as if we can't be expected to remember those details throughout the book.  I think on this score Butcher has underestimated most of his readership. Even someone accidentally picking this book up without ever having read a Dresden book wouldn't need to be beat over the head with why Harry did what he did in CHANGES as many times as Butcher has Harry retell the story with basically the same details every time. Another quibble is the characters who do go unmentioned (in addition to Toot, we also don't see or hear anything about a couple of other people/beings one would expect Harry to be curious about as he's checking in/up on those he's left behind).  But overall, these are quibbles rather than major problems, at least for this reader.

I know there are people out there also crying "foul" that this book seems to end with another cliff-hanger. At first I felt that way too, but after relistening to the book, I realized that no, it's not really a cliffhanger. We know exactly where Harry stands (or floats, as the case may be ... you didn't really think I was going to spoil the end of the book, did you?) and we have a hint as to how Butcher is going to move into the next phase of Harry's story. Butcher's always been clear that CHANGES was pretty much the halfway point, and there's still plenty of Dresden Files to be revealed. However, we're beyond the point where the books can work as stand-alones. The mythology is too dense, the core mysteries of Harry's past and present too involved, for any remaining book to be read (or written) completely without links to past and future books.

So, from me: four stars and a recommendation that if you've never read a Dresden Files book, you start at the beginning. It's worth it.

And a final question: what is it about dead wizards named Harry and train stations, anyway?

Friday, September 9, 2011


Book 48: HUNT THROUGH NAPOLEON'S WEB by Gabriel Hunt and Raymond Benson, isbn 9780843962574, 320 pages, Dorchester Publishing, $14.00

The Premise: In the sixth, and possibly final, adventure of relic-hunter, and modern-day Indiana Jones, Gabriel Hunt finds himself on a quest to rescue his estranged younger sister, who has been kidnapped by a secret society intent on returning the ancient Egyptian treasures stolen by Napoleon and his men centuries ago. Of course, things are not quite as they seem, and there's the possibility Napoleon had secreted away another Rosetta Stone. Will Gabriel rescue his sister and find an artifact that might already have changed the course of history once?

My Rating: 4 stars

My Thoughts: If this really is the last hurrah for Gabriel Hunt, he goes out in fine form thanks to Raymond Benson. As with the preceding five Hunt books, HUNT THROUGH NAPOLEON'S WEB starts out in a rush (Gabriel and a cohort in the midst of a spelunking accident) and gets faster from there. Oh, there are a few quiet moments mid-book, but like the best pulpy thrillers (both old and new)the quiet doesn't last long.

Benson's story balances the "hunting for clues" and "high adrenaline adventure" aspects pretty well, driving home the point I've made with each book: that Gabriel Hunt really is a modern Indiana Jones, albeit one with a more familial support system than Indy had in the original three movies. Of course Gabriel gets a woman, no surprise there. The least suspenseful part of the book is the "how will they end up in bed" question -- it's become such a predictable part of the books that I don't even worry my little head about it beforehand, unless there's more than one potential bedmate in the book (and in this case, there's not). Benson also provides we faithful readers of the series with a moment we've been waiting for through several books now, and it is a satisfying one.

On the downside, if this is the last Hunt book, there's at least one series-long mystery that has not been resolved and that left me a little frustrated. The background mystery of what happened to the Hunt parents when they disappeared from that cruise ship a decade ago is an intriguing one, but it's also one I'd hate to see go unresolved forever. Hopefully, publisher Charles Ardai can convince someone to bring out at least one more Gabriel Hunt book. And if Raymond Benson writes it, I'm okay with that too. (Benson, or Christa Faust, or Ardai himself -- they've provided I think my three favorite installments of the six, not that I've been disappointed in any of them.)

Book 49: AFTERTHOUGHTS by Lawrence Block, isbn 9780843962574, 320 pages, Dorchester Publishing, $14.00

The Premise: A lot of Lawrence Block's early work has been reissued recently in e-book format, and Block has written new afterwords (and in some cases forewords) to explain a bit about how the books were written. All of those pieces are collected in AFTERTHOUGHTS.

My Rating: 5 stars

My Thoughts: Every time in the past month that I told people I was reading a book collecting Lawrence Block's afterwords (and some introductions) from various ebooks, I got the same response: a somewhat quizzical raising of the eyebrows and a vague "oohhh" sound that indicated I had perhaps lost my mind, because how interesting could a bunch of afterwords be, anyway?

Very interesting is the answer.

Block is a master storyteller not matter what form or format he's working in. These essays (and that's what they are) are the next best thing to a full-on memoir. In them, he relates how each book he discusses came to be written but he also manages to tell the highlights of his life story and of course share some anecdotes about his writer friends.

What makes the book interesting is that each afterword was originally written and published separately. And so what we get when we take them as a whole is various angles on the same set of life experiences. In some hands, that could just feel repetitive. But Block doesn't tell the story the same way twice even as he manages to keep all the details consistent. By the sixth or seventh (I didn't bother actually counting) retelling of his time working the slush pile for the Scott Meredith Agency, I felt like I was hanging at the bar with an old friend listening to a story I knew the ending to but couldn't wait to hear anyway.

If you want a glimpse into what the "paperback originals" market was like for writers in the 60s and 70s, as well as a look at why someone would choose to write under multiple pseudonyms long past the time where he'd need to, read AFTERTHOUGHTS. If you want an overview of a writing life, read AFTERTHOUGHTS. If you want to get to know Lawrence Block better, but despair of ever meeting him in person, read AFTERTHOUGHTS. If you want to laugh while you glean some advice on writing, read AFTERTHOUGHTS.

Well, what are you waiting for? Go read AFTERTHOUGHTS already!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Review of The Last of Kal

Book 42: The Last of Kal (The Battles of Liolia, Book One) by Will Mathison, isbn 9780615451268, 229 pages, WBM Publishing, $9.00

The Premise:  (from the back cover) "Speilton is all alone after his village is destroyed. Left with nothing but a small blue egg and instructions to go north into unknown lands, he begins a journey that changes his life forever. Along the way he meets challenges, finds new friends, and realizes he had more strength and courage than he could have ever imagined.  All proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to Relay For Life." (RFL is the American Cancer Society fundraising arm.)

My Rating: 3.5 stars

My Thoughts: Okay, let's get this out of the way: Yes, Will Mathison was in fifth grade when he wrote and illustrated THE LAST OF KAL. Yes, his parents put up the money to self-publish the book because Will wanted to use it to raise money for the American Cancer Society Relay For Life event in his suburb of Atlanta.  No, those are not good enough reasons for you to ignore the book.  Because honestly: if Will Mathison is this good at plotting, if he has this kind of recognition of the genre tropes of high fantasy, if his sentence structure and narrative sense are this strong, at the age of eleven ... man, I can't wait to see what he can do when he's twenty-one.

The book is not perfect. There are times when you read a sentence and think "oh, yes, obviously the work of a fifth-grader." Mathison occasionally allows his "writer's voice" to interrupt the narrative, because he's so excited to make sure you know what happens next isn't what you might expect to happen. He struggles a bit with keeping a consistent point of view -- most of the book is from Speilton's POV and then there are chapters that show events going on outside of Speilton's range of knowledge. Those are fine, but every now and then there's a POV shift mid-chapter.  These are all small qualms, and easily fixed in the hands of a professional editor. Definitely not enough to detract from the overall enjoyment of the book.

Mathison has obviously read and/or watched, a lot of high fantasy. He hits all the tropes: orphaned child hero, mystical pet, gruff but likable mentor figure, mysterious mission, dark-clad enemies, a prophecy to be fulfilled.  He keeps the action moving along, and gives us a chance to get a sense of the entire world these characters are operating in along with Speilton, who has never left his island-village. And, of course, he sets up future books while capably provided closure to this first story of Speilton Lone.

There's also something a bit cute and fun in deciphering Mathison's character and creature names. Most (but not all, the title character being a notable exception) names draw from real words. I won't spoil the fun of figuring out Mathison's method of coming up with names. You'll figure it out quick enough.

I'm definitely recommending THE LAST OF KAL to people. It's a fun book, and the proceeds go to a cause close to my heart.  I'm looking forward to Will's next book (which I hear is closing on on 500 pages -- yeah, he's got that part of the high fantasy series tropes down as well: the second book is always longer!) to see how he grows as an author.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

2011 Stories 94 - 107

All of the following appear in WILDE STORIES 2011, edited by Steve Berman from  Lethe Press: (Slightly more in-depth thoughts than in the review of the book itself)

94. Love Will Tear Us Apart by Alaya Dawn Johnson A zombie-like boy, the new student in town, falls in love with a troubled jock whose father is an ex-government agent. Will love conquer all? Not one of my favorite stories in the collection, but still not a bad one. Johnson's storytelling style is fine, but something about the story just didn't totally click for me (and I wish I could put a more precise finger on why).

95. Map of Seventeen by Christopher Barzak I first read this story last year in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's YA fantasy anthology The Beastly Bride, and really enjoyed it. The female teen narrator is not sure what to make of her older brother's new boyfriend when they come home for a visit -- what secrets is the boyfriend keeping?

96. How To Make Friends in Seventh Grade by Nick Poniatowski  The story is a coming-of-age drama set against an "alien invaders are watching us" backdrop. It works very well because of the authenticity of the narrator, who reminded me quite a bit of Kevin from The Wonder Years if he'd had a crush on Paul instead of Winnie and been unable to express it. A quietly moving story.

97. Mortis Persona by Barbara A. Barnett  is also moving, a tale of love cut short by death and how both the departed and the left behind deal with it. There's a tinge of horror that is highly effective, but again it's the human emotions that make the story. I loved the conceit of the death-masks used to retain the spirits of the departed and the actors used to let those spirits speak during the funerals of family members.

98. Mysterium Tremendum by Laird Barron Possibly my favorite story in the collection. I described it in a tweet as "Lovecraft meets Danielewski." I'd like to expand on that a bit: Barron, in his own style, evokes the best of Lovecraft's stories -- the focus on human characters chancing upon physical manifestations of the great unknown -- but the tone and pace of the story put me almost immediately in mind of Mark Z. Danielewski's The House of Leaves. That novel is not perfect, but what lingers with me years after reading it is the sense of what I can only call "claustroagoraphobia." Barron's story (and Danielewski's) makes me feel tense because spaces that shouldn't be vast and endless (say, a cave hidden in a hillside) suddenly are, and spaces that should feel wide open (hiking trails in the Pacific Northwest) feel tight and threatening. For this story alone, pick up this collection.

99. Oneirica by Hal Duncan  I'll admit I struggled with this.  We all know I have problems with poetry, and this story absolutely is poetic not just in tone but in word choice and the way it circles around itself. There were portions of it I liked, but I think I might have missed the point in it somewhere along the line. But even this story I can't say was "bad," just that it didn't work for me as well as most of the others.

100. Lifeblood by Jeffrey A. Richter At first bluch, this story shares some commonality with Johnson's lead-off story, despite the fact that they don't share a plot or even similar characters outside of the fact that in both cases the narrator is a supernatural predator and the story is about unexpected love throwing that predator off his game. I think I liked this story a little better, but that might just be my preference for vampires over zombies giving a slight prejudice to my reading.

101. Waiting For The Phone To Ring by Richard Bowes feels like it wants to be a novel. Despite a first-person narrator with a limited focus, there's a lot going on here, with nods to the Beat Generation, 70s rock-band hedonism, random folks with the ability to see into others' souls, and a not-quite-demonic human manipulator pulling the strings in the past that lead to heartache and distant relationships in the present. I suspect I'd have enjoyed it more if it were longer. Again, good, but not quite great for me because of that feeling that too much was going on and yet too much was being left out.

102. Blazon by Peter Dube I thought I'd dislike this story because it starts with a bit of a pretentious (to me) first line: "I am a metaphor." I'm glad I kept reading, because the story moves out of that tone very quickly and becomes a series of vignettes about a young man attempting to control his passions for all the wrong reasons. Worth a read if you can get past that first paragraph.

103. All The Shadows by Joel Lane  was another moving story and didn't end the way I expected it to. That's a compliment. I really thought I knew where it was going, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found I'd got it wrong. The end of the story actually made me tear up a bit. The narrator's voice, again, is authentic.

104. The Noise by Richard Larson  I'm always going on about how I'm not really a zombie-story fan (my love for Mira Grant's Newsflesh books notwithstanding), so it's probably not a surprise that this is one of my least favorite stories in the collection. It's not a bad story, and there's a nice revelation at one point that pulls it neatly out of the realm of your typical zombie tale, but as much as I wanted to relate to the narrator (especially after the reveal, poor guy), I just couldn't come to like him enough to be concerned for him or his friends.

105. How To Make A Clown by Jeremy C. Shipp Shipp's work is always a bit "out there," and this story is no exception. Folks who have been with the community awhile know I liked the story -- and may remember that I even suggested that Steve Berman take a look at it for inclusion in an anthology. I'm glad he did! This story, which I originally read in the ARC of Shipp's Fungus of the Heart, makes my brain hurt, but in a good way.

106. Beach Blanket Spaceship by Sandra McDonald This story is maybe the closest to hard-sf we get in the book. I liked it because it melds a trope situation (captain of spaceship finds himself trapped in a dream-like world while his ship is in danger) and melds it with 1950s-60s teen surfer movies. I mean, what's not to love about a combination like that which also works in unrequited love and artificially intelligent computer-generated lifeforms?

107. Hothouse Flowers by Chaz Brenchley  I'm a fan of pulp and Victorian sleuths, so I also really enjoyed this homage to Stoker and Doyle in style (but is also entirely Brenchley's own tale). The narrator has traveled the world and doesn't really expect to either fall in love or find the evils of the greater world present when he returns home to England. I'd enjoy further adventures of Messrs. Furnival and Alshott investigating the outre. They'd be a fine addition to the greater Wold-Newton Universe, as well.

review of Wilde Stories 2011

Book 41: Wilde Stories 2011 edited by Steve Berman, isbn 9781590213032, 289 pages, Lethe Press, $18.00

The Premise:  WILDE STORIES 2011 is the fourth installment in editor and publisher Steve Berman's annual collection of the best gay speculative fiction. This time he's drawn from a variety of anthologies and magazines to compile 14 stories with strong gay characters at the center of the action. The stories skew heavily to the fantasy and horror quadrants of the speculative fiction map; possibly there were just not that as many hard-sf stories with gay characters to choose from.

My Rating: 4 stars

My Thoughts:  I was already familiar with two of the entries: Christopher Barzak's "Map of Seventeen" from its appearance in THE BEASTLY BRIDE, and with Jeremy C. Shipp's "How To Make A Clown" from his FUNGUS OF THE HEART collection. I liked both stories the first time I read them, and liked them equally as well reading them again. Barzak's tale is great YA fiction with a straight female narrator talking about her older gay brother and his new boyfriend; Shipp's story is classic bizarro fiction that makes my brain hurt in a good way.

Possibly my favorite story in the collection was Laird Barron's "Mysterium Tremendum." I described it in a tweet as "Lovecraft meets Danielewski." I'd like to expand on that a bit: Barron, in his own style, evokes the best of Lovecraft's stories -- the focus on human characters chancing upon physical manifestations of the great unknown -- but the tone and pace of the story put me almost immediately in mind of Mark Z. Danielewski's THE HOUSE OF LEAVES. That novel is not perfect, but what lingers with me years after reading it is the sense of what I can only call "claustroagoraphobia." Barron's story (and Danielewski's) makes me feel tense because spaces that shouldn't be vast and endless (say, a cave hidden in a hillside) suddenly are, and spaces that should feel wide open (hiking trails in the Pacific Northwest) feel tight and threatening. For this story alone, pick up this collection.

I also really enjoyed Nick Poniatkowski's "How To Make Friends in Seventh Grade." It's not quite hard-sf, but that's okay -- a coming-of-age drama set against an "alien invaders are watching us" backdrop, it works very well because of the authenticity of the narrator. Sandra McDonald's "Beach Blanket Spaceship" is closer to hard-sf and feels reminiscent of the scenes from 2001 where Dave is alone with HAL and he knows something is not right but can't put his finger on what.

Barbara A. Barnett's "Mortis Persona" is also moving, a tale of love cut short by death and how both the departed and the left behind deal with it. There's a tinge of horror that is highly effective, but again it's the human emotions that make the story.

I'm a fan of pulp and Victorian sleuths, so I also really enjoyed Chaz Brenchley's "Hothouse Flowers, Or the Discreet Boys of Dr. Barnabas." It is an homage to Stoker and Doyle in style but is also entirely Brenchley's own. I'd enjoy further adventures of Messrs. Furnival and Alshott investigating the outre. They'd be a fine addition to the greater Wold-Newton Universe, as well.

I'll admit I struggled with Hal Duncan's "Oneirica." There were portions of it I liked, but I think I might have missed the point in it somewhere along the line. But even this story I can't say was "bad," just that it didn't work for me as well as most of the others. Likewise Alayna Dawn Johnson's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," Peter Dube's "Blazon," and Richard Larson's "The Noise." All GOOD stories, but for me not GREAT.

Joel Lane's "All The Shadows" was moving and didn't end the way I expected (that's a compliment). Jeffrey A. Ricker's "Lifeblood" shares some ground with Alayna Dawn Johnson's tale without sharing any plot points. Richard Bowes' "Waiting For the Phone To Ring" feels like it wants to be a novel but works in the shorter form.

Overall, a book well worth picking up when it hits stands in August. Of course, as with any multi-author collection, the stories I enjoyed the most may be the ones you enjoy the least -- but don't let that stop you from checking the book out and experiencing some authors you've never read before.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Review of Three Madmen & more

Earlier this week, I read and reviewed Titan Books' reissue of Philip Jose Farmer's short novel THE PEERLESS PEER, in which Sherlock Holmes and John Watson encounter John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, a.k.a. Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.  That led me to reading a small group of related stories written by diverse authors over a long span of time.  Starting with:

89. His Last Bow by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from the Sherlock Holmes collection His Last Bow.  I've been trying to read the Holmes stories in order, so who knows when I would have actually hit this story in the proper sequence (2013, anyone?) but the lead protagonist of Farmer's novel is the bad-guy from this story in which Holmes "finally" "officially" retires. The story is notable as one of the few that Watson does not narrate. I actually found that this built the tension surrounding WW1 German super-spy Von Bork -- which of the people surrounding the spy is actually Holmes, that master of disguise? Is it the Ambassador? The housekeeper? The informant?  I felt like Doyle really kept me guessing and Holmes revealing himself was the high point of the story. Von Bork is no Moriarty in the minds of Holmes fans, but he's still portrayed as an effective foil for Holmes. I'd like to see a real matching of wits between them.

90. The Adventure of the Three Madmen by Philip Jose Farmer, from The Grand Adventure.  When Farmer initially wrote The Adventure of the Peerless Peer, it was a limited edition hardcover, and the Burroughs estate approved of the use of Tarzan. But when Dell released a mass market paperback version a short time later, the Burroughs estate rescinded their approval and told Farmer the story could not be reprinted until the Tarzan copyright expired in 1999... which also precluded Farmer including the story in his "best of" anthology The Grand Adventure in 1984. Rather than write a brand-new novella, Farmer simply reworked "Peer" into "Madmen," replacing Tarzan with another "jungle lord" -- Mowgli, now all grown up and a member of the British peerage himself.  The rework works surprisingly well. Most of the text is the same down to key bits of dialogue, but there are differences (Tarzan arrow-skewers a cobra about to attack Holmes; Mowgli talks the snake into  leaving Holmes alone, to name one example). Regardless of which Jungle Lord features, the story still moves along at that brisk pulp-adventure pace Farmer loves. One thing I did notice here even more so than in the Tarzan version: Holmes' behavior is quite erractic, and his transition from "I believe the man is a fraud" to "I believe he is entitled to his title" is a bit too abrupt. Those tend to be my only complaints in this fun story.

91. Jungle Brothers, or Secrets of the Jungle Lords
by Dennis E. Power, from Myths for the Modern Age: Philip Jose Farmer's Wold-Newton Universe.  Reading "Peer" and "Madmen" back to back reminded me of this excellent essay reconciling the two versions and giving valid logic for how both could have happened simultaneously.  Power picks out the hints in both manuscripts and puts the pieces together: Watson, at the behest of Tarzan and Mowgli, wrote two versions of the story in order to muddy the waters for anyone trying to track down or connect them. I'm actually a bit surprised, knowing that Titan Books will soon be issuing new Holmes novels under the previously reprint-only "Further Adventures" banner, that they didn't ask Power and Win Scott Eckert to combine the narratives as Power suggests in this essay.  I also like Power's closing thoughts about the existence of a "southeast Asian Wold-Newton family" resulting from a different meteor strike.

92. After Kong Fell by Philip Jose Farmer, from The Grand Adventure.  While I was rereading "Three Madmen," I thought it was high time to reread Farmer's neat little tale about a grandfather reminiscing about the primal experience of his childhood: seeing Kong escape from the theater, rampage across Manhattan, and eventually fall from the Empire State Building. In typical Farmer/Wold-Newton fashion, there are cameos by The Shadow and the ESB's most famous resident, Doc Savage.  This is a wistful, nostalgic tale built out of watching reruns of the original  King Kong movie on local NY television in the 70s and 80s (back when Channels 5, 9 & 11 were WNEW, WWOR and WPIX and unaffiliated with any major national network. Yes, kids, this was before FOX and The CW!)

Bonus Content! Here's a photo of these interconnected books:

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review of The Peerless Peer

Book 40: The Peerless Peer (The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes #13) by Philip Jose Farmer, isbn 9780859681201, 139 pages, Titan Books, $9.99

(Original 1974 paperback publication: The Adventure of the Peerless Peer by Philip Jose Farmer, 128 pages, Dell, $1.25)

The Premise: (from the back cover): "Sherlock Holmes and Watson take to the skies in quest of the nefarious Von Bork and his weapon of dread... A night sky aerial engagement with the deadly Fokker nearly claims three brilliant lives... And an historic alliance is formed, whereby Baker Street's enigmatic mystery-solver and Greystoke, the noble savage, peer of the realm and jungle lord, team up to bring down the hellish hun!" The Titan Books edition also included an afterword on the "Wold-Newton" concept by Win Scott Eckert, and a preview of Kim Newman's Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Ubervilles.

My Rating: 4stars

My Thoughts:  From the beginning of Titan Books' series of reissues of classic Holmes pastiches and crossovers, I'd been wondering if they would manage to secure the rights to finally reprint Farmer's 1974 classic teaming Holmes and Tarzan.  Granted, the original story penned by Farmer is relatively slim at 128 pages. As compared to most of Titans' reissues it's more novella than novel. Still, it's good to see the story back in print in a widely-available format that doesn't require fans to scour used bookstores or pick up pricier limited edition anthologies from specialty presses.

For fans of Farmer and his "Wold Newton" concept, this book is pure gold. Any Wold-Newton-connected story, whether by Farmer or Win Eckert or anyone else, is a treasure-hunt: how many casual references to other fictional characters can you find? As expected from the man who built the original Wold-Newton Family Tree, Farmer drops plenty of names in these pages. He also carefully closes the connection between Holmes and Greystoke that he first outlined in his Tarzan Alive: that Holmes' "Adventure of the Priory School" involves the Greystokes, with Watson changing the family's name to Holdernesse in the published version to protect the family name and prevent public scandal.

For fans of fast-moving pulp fiction, the book is pure gold as well. Even when the main characters are completely at rest (for instance, during long hours of air travel), the book still zips along. There are no long drawn-out descriptive passages (except, curiously, when Watson is describing the aircraft they are riding in). Holmes' mission is to stop Von Bork; the encounter with Tarzan only helps move that mission along. There aren't any secondary stories or side-trips; the longest lull in the action is the short breather towards the end where the Holmes-Tarzan connection is spelled out by the Great Detective.

As far as the "extras" in this edition go: Win Scott Eckert is perhaps THE torch-bearer for the Wold-Newton concept now that Farmer has passed away; along with folks like Christopher Paul Carey, Eckert has been completing unfinished Farmer novels and writing stories that fill in "missing pieces" of the Wold-Newton family tree. Eckert's essay "puts the pieces together" for those who are not as well-versed in the published careers of Tarzan and Holmes, explaining most of Farmer's off-hand references to other characters and clarifying things like "the succession of ducal titles" that is so important to the Greystoke/"Holdernesse" line of succession. Eckert also explains the connection between PEER and "The Adventure of the Three Madmen," and nods to Dennis E. Powers' great essay reconciling the two stories. For anyone interested in knowing more about Wold-Newton scholarship, Eckert's Afterword to PEER is a great place to start.

My only regret is that Titan didn't include "Three Madmen" in this volume. Rounding out the book with Farmer's alternate take on the story, and Powers' essay, would really have made it a complete package.

So there you have it: a rollickin' good adventure that doesn't take very long to read, and a great essay to follow it up? What's not to love?

Review of The Lincoln Lawyer

Book 39: The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly, isbn 9780446616451, 516 pages, Grand Central Publishing, $7.99

The Premise: (from the back cover) "For defense lawyer Mickey Haller, the clock is always running. With two ex-wives, four Lincoln Town Cars that he uses as offices, and dozens of guilty clients, he can't afford to miss a trick. When he gets picked by a Beverly Hills rich boy arrested for assault, Mickey sees a franchise case: a nice, long, expensive trial with maximum billable hours -- until it hurtles him into the last place he wants to be. Suddenly hustling, cynical Mickey Haller is confronted with pure evil and someone may be truly innocent. Now, for a lawyer who has always gone for the easy score, getting justice means taking the deadliest risk of all."

My Rating: 4 stars

My Thoughts: I actually enjoyed this more than I thought I would. It was the June pick for our office book club, and I honestly didn't know what I'd make of it. I like detective and crime fiction, but courtroom dramas are not usually my thing. Still, I found myself pulled into the plot fairly quickly, and the courtroom scenes, when they did come in the second half of the book, were not nearly as tedious as I'd expected. Connelly keeps the action moving at a fair clip and doesn't let long lawyer-speech drag the action down. In fact, he goes out of his way to mock long, rambling speeches in front of the jury, which made me smile.

Character-wise, Mickey Haller is saddled with more than enough personal foibles. He's got two ex-wives both of whom are connected to his professional life, a young child he doesn't see often enough, and a mortgage he can barely meet. Most of his clients are guilty of what they've been accused of and it's Mickey's job to get them off on technicalities; most of the cops he encounters openly dislike or out-and-out hate him because he is the epitome of a slimy defense lawyer. And yet, there's also something endearing about Mickey -- as much as I wanted to dislike him, I just can't. Almost from the beginning of the book, you can tell there's a bit of a "heart of gold" underneath all that lawyerly slime. And it perhaps helps that most of the prosecution attorneys he meets are just as slimy as the cops think Mickey is; he definitely comes across as the lesser of two evils. He's also got daddy-issues that are not deeply explored in this book but are mentioned enough times that you know it's a character point Connelly intends to explore further in later books.

Plot-wise, Connelly paces the story out very well. Again, what could have been a drawback (long speeches in court) Connelly plays to his main character's advantage, at once utlilizing the conventions of the genre and tweaking his nose at them.  It's the fast pace that makes even the most predictable twists in the plot (and there are one or two moments that you can see coming a mile away, although the big final twist did take me by surprise) palatable. The feel of the book is very cinematic -- fast cuts, no scenes that are there just for padding. Even the most trivial of scenes ties into the whole somehow; nothing is there "just for character development" or "just in case this becomes a book series." Every character mentioned has a role to play towards the greater plot, too. Some, granted, are peripheral but none are extraneous.  All of this helps sweep the reader along.

The only thing that really pulled me out of the story was the stylized manner of speech for Mickey and most of the main characters. I'm hard-pressed to find anyone in the book who speaks in contractions, and that sort of stylization in a story set in modern times always feels forced to me. I can accept it easier from the young female lead of True Grit than I can from a lawyer in a contemporary courtroom thriller. It's a personal thing, to be sure. I've been informed by a friend who knows a lot of defense lawyers that most defense lawyers speak without contractions whether they're in court or not-- precision of language very quickly becomes ingrained, is the way my friend worded it. As true to life as that may be, it still felt a bit jarring the times I noticed it.  But that's really my only complaint. The book is overall a fun read. I'm not sure I'll be running out to read the rest of the Mickey Haller books, but again, that's largely because I'm not a usual reader of courtroom thrillers.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Review of Deadline

Book 38: Deadline (The Newsflesh Trilogy, Book Two) by Mira Grant, isbn 9780316081061, 608 pages, Orbit,  $9.99

The Premise: (from the back cover): "Shaun Mason is a man without a mission. Not even running the news organization he built with his sister has the same urgency as it used to. Playing with dead things just doesn't seem as much fun when you've lost as much as he has. But when a CDC researcher fakes her own death and appears on his doorstep with a ravenous pack of zombies in tow, Shaun has a newfound interest in life. Because she brings news -- he may have put down the monster who attacked them, but the conspiracy is far from dead. Now, Shaun hits the road again to find what truth can be found at the end of a shotgun."

My Rating:  4 stars

My Thoughts: At the end of my review of FEED, I said, "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."

Obviously, I missed the surviving members of Team Mason far more than I thought I did. I bought DEADLINE the moment I saw it on the shelf. It took me another week or two to get around to reading it, and it's been over a week since I finished reading it, but I don't regret snapping it up as soon as I saw it.

Any complaints I had about the first book, in terms of characterization or the same-ness of the different characters' blog entries, are pretty much gone in this book. The pacing is excellent. The new characters (or the old supporting characters with increased importance and screen-time) fill out the cast nicely in the wake of the main characters lost in FEED. Becks, Mahir, Alaric, Kelly -- all add more depth to a story told entirely through the lens of Shaun Mason's slowly increasing insanity.

Yes, Shaun is going insane thanks to what happened in FEED. No doubt about it. The other characters know it, and any reader who writes it off as hyperbole or as some clever trick of the author -- no, sorry. He's nuts. He knows he's nuts. He's functioning (barely, some days) but he's nuts. Actually, I take that back -- there is a clever trick on the author's part. The trick is in making us understand that Shaun is almost certifiable and yet still making us believe he can solve whatever problems the team is faced with as he tries to dig deeper into the conspiracy that has effectively ruined his life and is quite possibly going to ruin the world.

I described FEED as a "zombie political thriller ala ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN."  I've been describing FEED to people as a "zombie medical thriller ala Robin Cook's books."  Once again, while the zombies are the every-day problem the characters need to deal with, it's the medical conspiracy Kelly brings to the team's attention that is the main focus of the book (just as the political campaign intrigue was the focus of FEED).  And I think this is why I'm enjoying Mira Grant's books far more than any other print zombie story I've ever read -- because the zombies are there, but the focus is on a bigger story than just "let's try to survive while undead creatures try to eat us."

Once again, I find I can't say too much about what really makes the book work for me without spoiling major events.  So it'll have to suffice, I suppose, if I say that the events at the close of FEED provide the major momentum for the events of DEADLINE, and the last 20 pages of DEADLINE will provide the momentum of the final book in the trilogy, BLACKOUT.   And this time, there's no doubt in my mind: I will be picking BLACKOUT up the week it hits the stands, and probably reading it that quick.  I need to see how this whole thing wraps up.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Review of Challengers of the Unknown

 Book 37: Challengers of the Unknown by Ron Goulart, isbn 9780440113377, 155 pages, Dell,  $1.50 (1977 cover price)

The Premise:
(from the back cover) Deep in the South American jungle, a real and sinister menace lurks in the shadows of the supernatural... In a remote lake, a legendary monster, incredibly vicious, surfaces after a sleep of centuries. Acting to protect its oil stake, the U.S. Government calls in... The Challengers!  Men with young faces and old memories move mysteriously in the area, speak in low tones about the capital city. The country's president alerts... The Challengers!  A dying man names a desert fort, many miles away... bizarre mechanisms keep the curious away... Unseen enemies... Strange accidents... Strong-arm assailants... A hair-raising test of the celebrated ingenuity of the Challengers of the Unknown."

My Rating: 3 stars

My Thoughts: Anyone who knows me knows I have a soft spot for pulp adventure, and just about any pulp adventure I read is going to end up with around 3 stars: they're not always great literature, but rarely are they disappointing either.

Anyone who knows me knows I also have a soft spot for secondary (and tertiary) DC comics characters like the Challengers of the Unknown. I loved collecting the out-of-print original run of comics from the 60s, I loved the revival in the late 70s.  I remember reading this novel (the only one written featuring the Challs) back in high school. I lost that copy, but found another not long ago in a Half-Price Books somewhere (probably Pittsburgh, but might have been Dallas).

Sadly, I cannot say it was as good as my teenage self thought it was. But it was still a rollickin' good pulp adventure.  

What I didn't like about the book can be summed up with two words: Characterization. Dialogue.  Aside from Ace Morgan and Red Ryan, the Challs feel "off" somehow.  Prof. Haley in this version is a rabid womanizer, sort of a brainiac young Hugh Hefner. Rocky Davis is a wrestler rather than a boxer (I seem to recall in the comics he was ret-conned to have been trained by the great Ted Grant), a health-food nut (that I can accept). June Robbins comes across far ditzier than she should (and if it's meant to be an act for her reporter cover story, that's never stated in the book).  And the dialogue -- I'm not saying the Challs have to have stereotypical speech patterns that fit their roles (Ace as gruff ex-AF, Red shouting "hey rube," Prof sounding like a thesaurus, Rocky sounding addled from too many blows to the head), but they should at least sound consistent throughout the book. There were points where I was jarred out of the book because something Rocky said was written in Prof's style, etc. Ron Goulart is a good writer with a strong sense of pulp history -- I was disappointed that he seemed to drop the ball on dialogue.

Now, for what I did like: pretty much everything else. The plot is classic pulp adventure: Challs get sent to South America to deal with a supernatural menace and end up encountering a human menace that is as bad or worse. Straight-forward action segues into trippy 70s supernaturalness with just a dollop of Lovecraftian mythos. The Challs, like their peer Doc Savage, overcome sometimes ridiculous odds to beat both menaces.  Extra bonus: Wold-Newton Universe fans don't have to dig very far to make connections to Farmer's works and world.

Three stars for pulpy goodness -- grab this for a light, fun read (I read it on one short plane flight).  Maybe someday someone will write more Challs novels with these original five characters. If any secondary DC characters could carry a tv series (SyFy at least, preferably HBO) or movie series, it'd be the Challs.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


A friend described THE FALLING MACHINE to me as "part Sherlock Holmes, part Justice League of America, all Steampunk." I think he hit the nail on the head.  I'm not a huge steampunk fan -- as a genre I have no problem with it, but I don't tend to be drawn to it -- but this premise intrigued me. And the author's appearance on the #sffwrtcht thread on Twitter a few weeks back helped cement my decision to read it.

It is both a fast read and a good read. I was immediately pulled into the world Mayer has obviously lovingly created.  The attention to the details of 1880s New York City pays off in a number of places, from the opening sequence on the still-incomplete Brooklyn Bridge to a visit to the infamous Five Points district. Mayer, sometimes in just a sentence of two, conveys both the shining hope and dirty underbelly of "the greatest city in the world" at that period in time, name-dropping real life personalities like Thomas Alva Edison and inserting his steam-powered super-heroes fairly seamlessly into the real history. He even manages to drop a comment or two about why the existence of steam-powered super-heroes hasn't appreciably changed history ... yet.

Sarah and Tom (The Automaton) are the most full-realized characters in the book, as it should be since they are the focus. Sarah is a great central heroine -- and even better, she's not perfect. She makes mistakes, gets herself into scrapes, and needs the help of friends to get out of some of them. In other words, she's a very real person dealing with out-of-the-ordinary situations... just what I like in my fiction.

I also have to give credit to Mayer for creating a pair of secondary characters I want to know far more about. It would have been easy to let the steam-powered members of The Paragons be mostly one-note riffs on whatever their individual theme happened to be, but he's given almost all of them some deeper characteristic (almost all ... the Submersible feels like a stereotype, and Nathan/Turbine does as well) to make them stand apart. The two secondary characters I really wanted to see developed (and this being the first book of a trilogy, with a rich history to be explored, there's plenty of time) were The Professor and The Sleuth.  Their relationship is at first implied, and then outright commented on, derogatorily, by their peers. Gay-bashing was just as much a part of 1880s life as it is now, if not moreso, and while many of us would like to imagine our super-heroes would be more accepting than real people are the fact that Mayer includes some queer-baiting among the team's conversations feels more realistic to me, especially considering this book takes place during Oscar Wilde's lifetime. Still, I hope we'll get to see more of The Professor and The Sleuth's history in subsequent books.

If there's any downside to this book, it is that it explicitly IS the first book in a trilogy, and it makes no apologies or concessions. If you get to within 50 pages and you're wondering, "wow, how is Mayer going to wrap all of this up," don't be surprised that he doesn't. He wraps some of it up, but the book ends with a fat old cliffhanger that has me wishing book two was already on the stands.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Review of TEETH

I don't think there's a single bad story in this collection. There were one or two that didn't work for me quite as well as the rest (Cecil Castellucci's "Best Friends Forever," and Suzy McKee Charnas' "Late Bloomer") and I'm always honest about the fact that I struggle with poetry even at the best of times (and thus, Neil Gaiman's "Bloody Sunrise" and Emma Bull's "My Generation" were not highlights for me personally), but even the stories that didn't totally click still had some aspect I lilked (in Castellucci's story it was the ending; in Charnas' it was the twists on the way there).

My favorite stories in the collection? The lead-off by Genevieve Valentine, "Things To Know About Being Dead" and the closer by Tanith Lee, "Why Light?" prove why Datlow and Windling are such great editors -- they know how to start strong and end strong. The stories are very different in tone and text, but both leave a strong impression.  Steve Berman's "All Smiles" introduces us to a possible new YA series protagonist who happens to be gay, and by the end of the story I absolutely wanted to see and know more about Saul. Nathan Ballingrud's "Sunbleached" felt like a lost chapter from Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot; coming from me that's high praise indeed. Garth Nix's "Vampire Weather," Delia Sherman's "Flying" and Ellen Kushner's "History" were also high on my favorites list.

More Short Story Thoughts

I'm back!  I've been juggling too many balls the past few months -- reading short stories has suffered, and thus so has my attention to this community.  I'm going to use this as a catch-up post, so my thoughts may not be as in-depth as usual, but hopefully this will get me back on the horse!

All of the following stories are from TEETH: Vampire Tales, edited by [info]ellen_datlow and Terri Windling. I reviewed the first story in the collection,[info]glvalentine's Things to Know About Being Dead, in a previous post.  So I'm picking up with story #2....

71. All Smiles by Steve Berman   I was recently lamenting the fact that there don't seem to be any Harry Dresden-style urban fantasy series with a gay private investigator at the center. This doesn't quite fit the bill either, but it's the closest I've come in a while. Berman's young Saul is a character I'd like to see more of, and I can easily see him, in adulthood, growing into a Dresden-like character. First, of course, he has to survive his teens. He's flawed, he's in a difficult situation ... but he's also an honest character who knows he's not perfect and tries to find solutions to his situation that won't make it worse. I absolutely hope Steve will write more stories of Saul and his encounters with the supernatural world.

72. Gap Year by Chrisopher Barzak   Vampires are the impetus for this story but not the focus. The two female main characters have been best friends forever, but when vampires come to speak out at their school, will their relationship stand the strain of differing opinions? I could definitely relate to growing apart from a friend over a guy.

73. Bloody Sunrise by Neil Gaiman   Another short, beautiful poem by Gaiman. I always feel awkward commenting on poetry.

74. Flying by Delia Sherman   Sherman asks the eternal question: if you were terminally ill, what would you do to stay alive? A young girl's circus aerialist career (and thus, the career of her parents) is cut short by illness. She convinces her parents to take a break from the monotony of home life by going to see an old-fashioned traveling show.  As a cancer survivor, I really felt for the lead character and understood (even if I didn't agree with) the choices she makes.

75. Vampire Weather by Garth Nix    A number of the stories in this anthology take place in timelines where vampires are an acknowledged (and accepted, in some cases) subset of society. Garth goes in a different direction: society knows vampires are real -- but normal humans can get vaccinated against them. Unless, of course, you're a part of an Amish-like culture like the hero of this story. Like Flying and Gap Year, what makes this story work is that the author concentrates on real-world emotional issues (in this case, not fitting in with your family) and allows the vampire angle to add dimension to the story.

76. Late Bloomer by Suzy McKee Charnas   Everyone wants to fit in somewhere. The protagonist of Charnas' story just wants to be as creatively talented as the rest of his family, but he just can't seem to get it right. Then he becomes the temporary thrall of a vampire / antique collector passing through town. Will the experience open up his creativity or stifle it further? And will he survive the experience to find out? There's a decent amount of suspense that kept me moving even when I felt the main character was getting a bit whiny about his lot in life.

77. The List of Definite Endings by Kaaron Warren   It's natural that the concepts of vampirism and the terminally-ill go together well. What I'm thankful for is that each of the authors who touch on the combination in this anthology do it differently.  Warren's story looks at the terminally-ill from a vampire's perspective, and also touches on her relationship with a man who has continued to age while she's stayed young. It's a very bittersweet tale, in my opinion, and very well done.

78. Best Friends Forever by Cecil Castellucci   Another tale of vampires and the terminally-ill, this time looking at the possibilities for friendship between the two, and what might draw two such individuals together before they even know each others' secrets. For some reason, I had a harder time relating to the characters in this story, but even so the very end made me tear up.

79. Sit the Dead by Jeffrey Ford   Like Steve Berman's tale, Ford's introduces us to a possible male Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but with a couple of neat twists that I don't want to spoil. Ford's action sequences are possibly the most actually action-filled in this anthology. It's a nice break from the stories that are more introspective and relationship-based, and as such it is perfectly placed at the mid-point of the book. I went back and reread the action sections, that's how much fun I had with them.

80. Sunbleached by Nathan Ballingrud   I hope Mr. Ballingrud takes this comment as the compliment it's intended to be: halfway through reading this story, I stopped to make sure I hadn't put down TEETH and picked up my copy of 'SALEM'S LOT instead.  This is a throwback to what vampires were meant to be: not eternally-suffering lovers or sympathetic foils, but downright EVIL predators.  I could see the ending coming, kept hoping I was wrong, and couldn't stop reading until I got to the end. Again, perfectly placed near the mid-point of the book. The Ford, Ballingrud and Koja stories are so different from what precedes them that they can't help but shine.

81. Baby by Kathe Koja    Another very different look at how vampires relate to the mortal world. The actual vampire in this story never says a word, but the narrator's words are more than enough to convey a very skin-crawling icky feeling about the symbiotic relationship between vampire and narrator. I wanted to look away but couldn't.

82. In The Future When All's Well by Catherynne M. Valente    In a world where turning into a vampire is almost as easy as sneezing or having a black cat cross your path, how would it feel to watch your friends turn and not turn yourself?  It's no secret I love most of Cat Valente's work, and she doesn't let me down here.  I could feel the main character's denial turned ambivalence turned ache. Wonderfully done.

83. Transition by Melissa Marr  Not a bad story, but not one of my favorites. Marr questions the rules for vampires siring other vampires, and asks a good question: what if you couldn't directly harm the vampire who turned you, but you could no longer stand to be in that person's presence? To what lengths would you go?  A good concept, but the story suffers a little bit from what feels like an inconsistent tone. Still, I was intrigued enough to keep reading.

84. History by Ellen Kushner  Kushner asks another question that authors of vampire fiction (and tales of other immortals, like the Highlander) should have long-since asked: if you could live virtually forever, would you really want to remember all of the history you experience?  Telling the story at a remove (through the eyes of a human girlfriend rather than the eyes of the ages-old vampire) gives the story a quiet quality. The characters' May-December relationship also feels very real.

85. The Perfect Dinner Party by Cassandra Clare & Holly Black    Sibling rivalry doesn't go away just because you're both undead. Clare and Black craft an interesting story that leaves much unsaid but chugs along with a strong sense of detail while attempting to reconcile the Victorian image of vampires with the modern day romantic image. It's an experiment that mostly works despite the narrator's initial snobbish delivery.

86. Slice of Life by Lucius Shepard    When you've got a reputation, even the undead want to take advantage of you. As with most of the successful stories in this anthology, Shepard concentrates on character first -- a poor girl with something of an out-of-control mother who is just trying to find her way in the world -- and then takes things into the supernatural realm by making the girl's would-be rescuer a vampire. Again, nicely done.

87. My Generation by Emma Bull  Another nice poem with some beautiful language.

88. Why Light? by Tanith Lee  Another author who never fails to impress.  If Nathan Ballingrud's story reminded me of 'Salem's Lot, then Lee's story reminds me of Octavia E. Butler's Fledgling. What if hidden vampire societies were working towards breeding young who could survive, and perhaps even thrive, in sunlight?  Lee's story takes a slightly different direction than Butler's, and while shorter still manages to touch on ideas Butler's didn't. Still, I'd say they are excellent companion pieces, and that this story is a great choice to end the anthology with. I'd love to see Lee expand this into a longer piece, or return to this world in other stories.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Catching up on short story commentary

I've fallen way off the pace on my "a short story per day" goal, but here's the latest batch, a bit of a mixed bag of sources and genres.

62. Going For A Beer by Robert Coover, from the March 14, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.  It reads like flash fiction -- if it's over 1,000 words it can't be by much since the story is one magazine page long -- and I'm afraid to say I just didn't get it. A whole life squeezed into one page, it seems to be a treatise on how fast life goes and how we don't really notice or remember most of what we do, but I couldn't figure out if all of this was really happening, or if it was the main character's fever dream after too much beer and a bad one night stand. And I found that, ultimately, I really didn't care what happened to the main character.

63. Silver Blaze
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. I've got a goal of reading all the Holmes stuff in the next year or so (minus the stories I read last year), so I'm picking up the next short story collection. Silver Blaze is a horse-racing related mystery. The titular horse goes missing two nights before a big race, and the trainer is killed. Holmes and Watson come to investigate. I was actually invested in this and was gratified that I figured out the "who" before Holmes revealed it, although I got there a little differently than he did.

64. Fang and Sting by Win Scott Eckert, from The Green Hornet Chronicles  Win Eckert crafts another bit of extended Wold-Newton universe fun, putting the Hornet in a difficult situation: an Asian mastermind is framing the Hornet for crimes he is committing, and claiming to be partnership with the Hornet. Britt Reid and Kato have to figure out who the mastermind is, where to find him, and how to stop the crimes and somewhat clear the Hornet's name. There's also a nice bit at the end that fills in what I suspect is a question that has long bothered Hornet fans. I'm not as well-versed on the Hornet's history as some are, but I appreciated the little nod.

65. Zorro's Rival  by Win Scott Eckert from More Tales of Zorro Likewise, I'm not as well-versed on the history of Zorro as some. (One of these days, I intend to read that collection of original Zorro stories by Johnston McCulley that's been sitting on my bookshelf for ages.)  Once again, Eckert puts together a really fun story about Zorro meeting El Halcon, who also seems to be working for the benefit of the downtrodden people Zorro usually helps. There are the usual Eckert Wold-Newton winks and nods; I'm sure I didn't pick up on all of them. Eckert captures all of the chivalrous derring-do we associate with Zorro thanks to the tv series.

66. If Only To Taste Her Again by E. Catherine Tobler, from Historical Lovecraft.  I was intrigued by the concept of the anthology: extending the themes and background of Lovecraft's Chthulu Mythos beyond early 20th century New England. I found out about the anthology through Tobler's LJ ([info]greygirl ) so I read her story first. Set in Ancient Egypt, it hits all the right Lovecraftian notes: a hapless human who slowly becomes aware of the creeping oddness and insanity surrounding him, lots of sensory detail and that feeling that reality has shifted under the narrator's, and the reader's, feet. Returning from a diplomatic mission to a far-away land, the narrator knows that something is not right with the gifts he has brought back for Pharoah Hatshepsut but can't quite vocalize what is wrong. This might be one of my favorite "new Lovecraft" stories ever.

67. The Yellow Face by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.  Watson starts out this tight little story by noting that it describes one of the few times when Holmes' deduction about a case was wrong. A married man comes to Holmes for advice on the gap that has grown between him and his wife. The hints are all laid out in the man's story, to the point where I (who have never read this story before) called the conclusion ... and yet Holmes gets it wrong. Perhaps Doyle was trying to prove something about his character, but it seems odd to me that this relatively simple case is one of the few where Holmes is wrong ... he not only makes deductions based on what's he's told without investigating in person but  he also ignores his own oft-stated maxim about not jumping to conclusions before all the evidence is in. I have to say, while I liked the story's flow, I took no joy in outsmarting The Great Detective.

68. Jefferson's West by [info]jaylake , from Boondocks Fantasy. For this anthology of "urban fantasy gone rural," Jay Lake goes not just rural but remote and historical. What if there was more to the Lewis and Clark expedition than just finding the west coast? What if at least one of the team leaders had a secret agenda? And what if President Jefferson had a premonitory dream about it?  Lots of what-ifs that could fill an entire novel. Lake gives us an intriguing story and strong character work in both Lewis and Clark. I won't spoil the twist, but I can say I didn't see it coming (despite well-laid hints) and was pleasantly surprised. I'd actually love to see Jay turn this into a novel (if he hasn't turned into a longer story already).

69. Things To Know About Being Dead by Genevieve Valentine from Teeth: Vampire Tales. Valentine gives us the tale of a young girl who dies in a car crash and comes back as a vampire, as per the traditional Asian myths about where vamps come from and how they behave. This is a side of vampire lore we don't see often -- the focus is usually on the European version.  The main character's voice is authentic, and her confusion and anguish really comes through ... as does the personality of her grandmother (despite having very little dialogue) and the other major character who appears. A quiet but really satisfying story for the lead-off spot in an [info]ellen_datlow & Terri Windling anthology.

70. Herman Wouk Is Still Alive by Stephen King, from the May 2011 issue of The Atlantic.  Right after I read this story, I tweeted: "Devastating. Beautiful and Horrific."  And days later, I stand by that. You know from the get-go that this is a story about a car accident, and you're pretty positive you know how it's going to end. But the short journey to that place is emotional and beautifully rendered.  The story also has a bit of that old "road disaster tv movie of the week" feel -- we meet several characters whose lives will intersect at the fateful moment, but King puts his own emotional stamp on the trope. And, for those who say "I can't read King  because I'm not into supernatural stuff," this is one of his stories that has not even a hint of the ghosty-vampy stuff. It's just a good, solid, punch-to-the-gut story that I can't stop thinking about.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Review of Water For Elephants

I vacillated between 3 stars and 4 for this, but after our office book club discussion I settled on the 4. Water For Elephants is a memorable book, and I would recommend it to almost everyone.  Being a fan of the science fiction and mystery genres, I wasn't as thrown off by Gruen's alternating time-periods as some would be; most of the novel is told in flashback and the jumps between times are fewer and farther between as the novel progresses. What happens during Jacob's time with Benzini Brothers is the real story here and the modern sequences are simply framing and used to heighten tension.  So if the modern scenes had been cut, would the novel have been as effective? I personally think so.  While the modern scenes flesh out Jacob's character and do add the secondary tension (how did he get from his life with the circus to a miserable retirement home?), I think they could just as well have been done without. Gruen creates more than enough tension in primary, secondary, and even tertiary storylines surrounding the circus.  She does this not only through the four main characters (Jacob, Marlena, August and Rosie) but also by letting Jacob interact with secondary characters (like circus owner Big Al, Walter the dwarf, and Camel the roustabout) and even tertiary characters (Carl, Pete, the other animal handlers and the other animals) and letting their own problems influence Jacob's actions.  Two major scenes near the end pull most of these characters together magnificently.  And Gruen's descriptions of the world of the traveling circus are terrific -- she gives us all the pomp and circumstance and color we expect from a circus setting, but also brings in the miserable living conditions and dirt around the edges that the workers and animals dealt with. Her ability to mix the colorfulness of the musical BARNUM with the bleakness of the Showtime series CARNIVALE so perfectly really impressed me.

My only real complaint would be in how patly everything wraps up for Jacob after the major events of circus portion of the book -- the explanation of how he got from circus to nursing home feels a little too perfect, a little too "let's wrap everything up and have no loose ends." That might be what keeps me from giving the book an even higher score; to explain further would be to risk spoilers for those who haven't read the book (or seen the movie) and intend to.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Review of Terror in the Navy

Book 28: Doc Savage: The Terror in the Navy by Kenneth Robeson, 122 pages, Bantam,  .50 cent cover price (picked up at a used bookstore for $1)

The Premise:
A mysterious force appears to be pulling US Navy vessels into reefs to wreck, as well as pulling planes out of the sky and smaller boats under water. Doc Savage gets wind of the situation and investigates, alongside his usual 5-man team and cousin Pat.

My Rating: 2 stars

My Thoughts: The cover says this is the 33rd of Doc's adventures, reprinting in paperback from from its original pulp magazine publication in the 1937. It contains all the classic pulp elements, but I can't say it's the most exciting Doc Savage adventure I've ever read. I enjoyed the banter between Monk and Ham, as usual. And the banter, such as it was, between Doc and his cousin Pat is also fun: Pat wants to be in on the action, but Doc doesn't want his female cousin in danger at all. She finds a way to be involved anyway, of course.  The author drops the usual batch of red-herrings to make it seem like different characters are actually behind the goings-on, although it's fairly obvious early on who is actually in charge.  A fun, breezy read and not one that requires a lot of deep thought.

Review of Books of Magic 1

The Premise: (from the back cover) Timothy Hunter is just like any other thirteen-year-old boy in London ... except for the tiny fact that he might be the most powerful magician of his time. When four strangers offer to show Tim the realms of magic, he begins a journey beyond imagination. Wizards pursue him, danger threatens at every turn, and he discovers powerful forces that want him on their side -- or dead.  Based on the popular graphic novel series The Books of Magic, originally created by Neil Gaiman and John Bolton.

My Rating: 2.5 stars

My Thoughts:  I wanted to love this. I really did. I am a huge Tim Hunter fan from when the original BoM mini-series was released by DC/Vertigo back in 1989, and I've followed most every iteration of the character since then. I love Harry Potter, but Tim will always be closer to my heart because I met him first. Somehow, this series of paperback adaptations of the Neil Gaiman, and then John Ney Rieber, comics made it past me when they originally came out. I tripped across this one in a used bookstore. I was excited. By the end of the book, I appreciated the hard spot writer Carla Jablonski was in but even understanding the challenges she faced didn't mitigate the fact that I was disappointed with the book.

So let's talk about that hard spot Jablonski was in. She had to take a property many young adult readers will look as as a "Harry Potter knock-off," and adapt existing comic-book scripts into paperback form. In addition to the difficulty of adapting comics to prose, she had to deal, at least in this initial book, with the fact that most of the characters Tim encounters, including the so-called Trenchcoat Brigade who introduce him to magic, are DC Comics characters with complex histories of their own that are both peripheral and integral to Tim's story.  I'm sure copyright issues are to blame for the herky-jerky nature of Tim's trip through time (the Altantean sorcerer he meets is never named in this version as Arion in this version, and thus the reason for his crotchety response to Tim's presence feels a bit awkward and ill-explained, for example) and his tour of the modern era (DC couldn't really force Zatanna out of the story without changing the very nature of it, but I feel like there were more DC magical characters in the original story).

Once Tim heads into the Realms of Faerie and the Far Future, the story falls into a bit of a better rhythm. Jablonski had one advantage over Gaiman: she had access to the stories written by John Ney Rieber that flesh out Tim's family and school life, and was able to drop names and descriptions into this book to make the introduction of those characters in the second book a little less awkward. The book shines for the brief time where Titania, Queen of Faerie, and her court are on the page, and you can see that Jablonski really does like Tim Hunter and wants to tell his story well.  But once Tim is journeying into the future, the book returns to feeling like a straight adaptation; I never really got a feeling for Mr. E's motivations in the original story, and it doesn't play any better in this version -- I still feel like Mr. E is less a character than he is a plot device (unlike Tim's other three guides -- John Constantine, Dr. Occult, and even The Phantom Stranger -- who at least feel like characters with greater depth from the way Jablonski handles their dialogue and interactions with Tim).

I will probably seek the next book out in used bookstores, because it's not fair to judge Jablonski solely on her version of what would probably be the most difficult Tim Hunter story to adapt (precisely because of how much it relies on knowledge of the rest of the DC Universe and how magic operates therein). Perhaps once she's into adapting stories that are purely about Tim and his discovery of his abilities, her own talents will shine better.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review of Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction?

 Book 27: Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction? by T. S. Blakeney, isbn 9781883402107, 134 pages, Otto Penzler,  $7.95

Blakeney's biography is one I've often heard about but only just came across in a used bookstore, in the reissue edition from Otto Penzler books. Blakeney wrote this in 1932 and Penzler reissued it as part of his "Sherlock Holmes Library" in the 1990s.  I have to say that while it was a fun read, I can't say I was as impressed as people implied I should be. The chapter on Holmes' relationship with Scotland Yard is fun without a doubt. The bulk of the book is an attempt to put Holmes original published adventures in chronological order -- I don't know if Blakeney was the first to do this but he certainly wasn't the last. Not being quite the Holmes devotee others are, I can't say whether I agree or disagree with Blakeney's logic concerning the placement of stories that have no internal dating or are dated inconsistently, but I can say it seemed logical to me and was fun to read.

The back cover copy says the appendices discuss Dr. Watson's second marriage -- and one does, but barely long enough to refute an earlier researcher's theory without Blakeney advancing an alternate name. The appendix refuting the theory that Holmes and Moriarty were the same person fares a little better in terms of length and commentary.

A fun read, and one I'm sure the Holmes aficionados I know have already read more than once.

Friday, April 15, 2011

review of A Hundred Words for Hate

I'm growing increasingly disappointed in the Remy Chandler books. I love, love, love the concept of an angel who willingly leaves Heaven after The War is over, choosing to walk among humans and behave as one, who then gets pulled back into all manner of battles that are epically Biblical in nature. I love Remy/Remiel's divided nature (Seraphim vs. Human personalities). I love the basic concepts Sniegoski comes up with to fill Remy's life with adventure: the return of the Four Horsemen, the real fate of Lucifer, and now the possible return of the Garden of Eden. I've enjoyed the author's twists on Biblical folks like Samson, Delilah, Noah and others.

But somewhere in the last two books, I've discovered that Sniegoski's execution of those concepts just doesn't work for me.  I finished this book because it's a Remy Chandler book and I love the character -- but I felt none of the excitement, drama, and concern that I should have felt considering the concept of the book overall and the twists it puts in place for the main series characters (Remy and his cop friend Steven Mulvehill most of all, and also Remy's dead angel friend Francis/Fraciel).  Largely, this felt like a place-holder book, a moving of chess pieces: the events surrounding Francis spew directly from the end of the previous book, and the events involving Mulvehill seem intended to set up his character arc for the next book ... and in Mulvehill's case particularly it feels like what happens to him has little or no bearing on the actual main plot or even a secondary plot.

So why is Sniegoski's style not working for me?  A few reasons, I think. One is that his style just feels too sparse. To me, the books feel like they'd rather be television episodes. The scene changes (especially those that occur mid-chapter and jump from one character to another) feel like there should be commercial breaks inserted, or at least dramatic-close-up-theme-music being played over a brief fade to black.  The dialogue is occasionally repetitive (and more than once, exact phrasing is repeated in describing two different characters, something an editor should have caught) and feels perfectly detective-show-cliche.  I'm okay with sparse scenery descriptions that allow the reader to imagine what things look like, but Sniegoski goes beyond sparse into bare-minimum in a way that works against my mental picture instead of allowing it to form.

Another reason might have to do with one of my pet peeves about series fiction. I find that  typically authors go to one extreme or the other -- they either tell us too much about the events of previous books, thus bogging down the current book's pace, or they tell us too little to remind us of where the characters are coming from in relation to the new book, so that we have to struggle to determine if what we're seeing is character growth or just inconsistency on the author's part. This time, Sniegoski falls into that latter group. If an author is going to use a book's b-plot to make major changes to a character's status quo, we need enough detail to understand why that change is important, and I don't feel like we got that in the case of either Francis or Mulvehill -- both of whom have life (or after-life)-changing experiences in this book.

Finally, there's the fact that my reaction to most of what happens in the book is to ask "why should I care about this moment, this supporting character? Should I be trying to place it all in context with the previous books? Is it worth the effort?"  After a while, I gave up trying to tax my brain, and I gave up caring very much. I don't want to give up completely, but I suspect I will not rush to read the next Chandler book as soon as it comes out.

review of Mockingjay

I'm giving this the same rating I gave Book Two. Although Collins does a good job of incorporating the important information about the events of books one and two into the action here without resorting to "info-dump" style writing, I still don't think you can pick this book up and run with it without having read the earlier installments. That's part of the reason for the slightly lower grade than book one received. The other reason is that the things that made book one so interesting and such a fast read (the fast pace of the prose; Katniss' innocent inability to understand the actions of her peers in context of the bigger picture; Katniss' inherent inability to trust anyone) are now feeling a bit predictable and old hat, until near the end.  I found myself, in this volume more than the other two, wanting to tell Katniss to get her head out of her ass and start picking up on the not-so-subtle comments of those around her. In book one, I was fine with Kat not realizing that Peeta's love for her wasn't an act; by this book I was aggravated at the things Kat took for granted and failed to connect on. (I'd say more on that score, but I don't want to spoil anything for those still intending to read the books.)

What redeems the book and keeps it from dropping to a "three" rating is most of that ending. Kudos to Collins for not delivering on my jaded expectations as to who would live and who would die. (Okay, at least one of the deaths near the end was expected; but one most surely was not, at least by this reader, and the two deaths I most expected did not happen at all.)  The very very end (as in the last three pages or so) felt a bit rushed -- which is saying a lot in a series that moves as fast as this one does -- but that doesn't detract from the emotion and turns of the 50 or so pages that precede those three.

I have to say I am glad I read these books. I may have gotten aggravated with her at times, but I like Katniss. I like Peeta and Gale and Prim; I even liked Haymitch and Finnick despite the initial dislike accorded their actions when they first meet Katniss.  I also have to say I understand why my friends who have kids find the series increasingly uncomfortable. It's sort of like reading Stephen King's PET SEMATARY -- you don't want these things happening to kids you actually know, and by the end of these books you feel like Katniss and Co are kids you know. You also recognize that they are for the most part older than their years.

Review of Name of the Wind

This is another book I struggled to rate; part of me is expecting to be lambasted for giving even this low of a score, and part of me wants to drop it down to a 3. I know how much this books means to so many people (and in fact one of the friends who loves it so much read it because I pointed it out in a bookstore and said "yeah, I've heard great things about this one..."), and I wanted to like it more than I did, but ultimately I felt it was Very Good, but not Unequaled.
 So what did I like or admire (not always the same thing)?  I give full marks to Rothfuss for writing an epic fantasy in first person, with the Hero of Legend telling his own story not-so-many years after the fact. Kvothe, once he gets on a roll, has a voice that must be paid attention to even if you don't believe half of what he's saying.  And the details of the world-building are terrific -- I really felt like I was "in" the cities with Kvothe,  the workings of the world make absolute sense, there's a great internal logic to everything that is clear and yet allows room for mystery.  The tactic of "here's the real story behind the story" has been used before (one of my favorite instances being Parke Godwin's FIRELORD, a novel of King Arthur narrated by Arthur, which starts with the classic phrase "who you are depends on who's telling your story.") but Rothfuss elevates it with his use of language, and what I perceive to be his willingness to allow us to dislike Kvothe.

Because honestly, when it comes down to it -- I do dislike Kvothe. And I'm sure I'm in the minority in that opinion, but hear me out. Framing sequence or not, what we get once Kvothe starts talking is a man who claims to want the truth of his story set down to contradict the legends and fabrications that have grown about him and his deeds, but who in actually is building that myth himself. There are points where the adult Kvothe says that events have been exaggerated and yet his own version of those events is structured to cast him as something larger than human and greater than those around him. Every woman he encounters eventually swoons in his presence or feels he can do no wrong; every man is either his fast-and-best friend or his sworn enemy, or not important enough to rate much more than a name (with the exception of a few of the University Masters, the only characters who seem truly ambivalent about Kvothe).  Now -- disliking Kvothe does not equal dislike of the book. Like I said, Kvothe has a voice that must be listened to, once he gets moving. For me, that took close to 300 pages; proportionately that's about as much time as I give any novel to make or break.

What did I dislike? The framing sequence and interludes slowed the pace of the book down -- and in a book where it takes 700 pages to lay out the hero's childhood (and not even all of that!) and only barely touches on the legendary things he supposedly did, a slow framing sequence feels deadly. I understand the reasons it exists (Why is Kvothe telling his story, and to whom? And what are the current events that may bring him finally out of "retirement"/hiding?) but everything that happens in the present feels unimportant at this point. I'm sure by the time the Chronicle is done, those events will have taken on greater significance, but by then I'll probably have forgotten the Smith's Apprentice's name and what he did to earn Kvothe's respect.  I also disliked the incredible amount of detail in Kvothe's rememberances -- again, for someone who claims to want his truth put down clearly, he spends an awful lot of time recalling details of what people were wearing and how often they sneezed (okay, that's an exageration, I don't think he ever mentions sneezing or any other bodily function -- but in retrospect it sure feels like he was that detailed in his account). There's a certain willing suspension of disbelief in first person narration -- no one can possibly remember exactly what everyone said in any given situation -- but I felt like at points Kvothe (thus, Rothfuss) took it a bit too far. Perhaps almost 800 pages x 3 books is a bit much for that suspension.

So, for me personally, the book doesn't quite live up to the hype. I'm glad I read it, and I will read THE WISE MAN'S FEAR (book two) when it comes out in paperback. The book is still good, and Kvothe's voice is still interesting to me.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Review of Vampire Relationship Guide

I'm going to break this down into The Good and the Not-So-Good to try and keep my thoughts a bit more on track than the first draft of this review turned out.

The Good: This may be one of the funniest genre pastiches I've ever read. Vampire (and other supernatural creature) Romance is a huge market right now, and in 90 pages Evelyn Lafont manages to crack wise about almost every trope of the genre. I haven't even read that much supernatural romance (urban fantasy of the detective/crime realm is more my cup of tea) and I found myself smiling or laughing or nodding knowingly throughout the book.  The main reason I enjoyed the book is that it does not take itself too seriously. The book is a fast easy read with lots of funny dialogue and wink-wink-nudge-nudge humor regarding the current obsession with sexy vampires.  The author also does a nice job of taking all the standards of vampire lore and giving them the tweaks necessary to make them work in her world without straying too far from what is "canon" about vampires: they drink blood because the magic in their bodies prevents them from making new red blood cells; channels in their teeth draw the blood directly into their circulatory system; drinking blood is an act of sustenance not sexuality; anything that would cause a vamp to lose blood or that would destroy blood cells will eventually kill them (not just a stake to the heart, but any gaping bleeding wound, etc). The main character, Josie, is a bit of a rural rube in her thirties -- almost too innocent despite claims of being jaded -- that is a perfect send-up of the young-nubile-innocent heroine trope.  The lead vamps, Gregory and Walker, fit the standard romantic types as well.

The Not-So-Good: Because of the length, there is not a lot of obvious world-building beyond those basics of vampirism, and what other world-building details are mentioned are inconsistent throughout the book. For instance, we are told early on that Vampires are as publicly recognized a minority as any other group you can think of and that laws have been passed declaring that businesses must stay open 24 hours a day to accommodate those who cannot go out in the sun; there's no detail on how long ago Vampires "came out," or how readily they were accepted into mainstream culture. This creates a problem for our main character: vampires are common enough that it's apparently fairly easy to find them, and yet Josie knows so little about vampire culture that she asks incredibly personal questions at the absolute most wrong moments. I realize Josie's questions are a way to get the basic info about vampires mentioned above into the reader's path, but the result is a main character who in social situations is either incredibly stupid (this stuff should be mostly common knowledge and she doesn't have that knowledge despite her vamp-obsession) or incredibly insensitive (she knows what she's asking is a bit personal, but asks anyway, almost like she has no verbal filter between her brain and her mouth).  I'm leaning towards the former, because I like the idea of Josie as a play on the young-nubile-innocent heroine and if she's knowledgeable-but-insensitive I don't think I like her as much.

The Part I'm Undecided About:  As the book moves from "meeting vampires for sex" to "our heroine is in danger, who will save her" tropes, the plot either becomes burdened with holes large enough to drive a hearse through or becomes a pastiche on the action/adventure genre. i can't speak for the author or her intent, but I have plans to interview her and hopefully will get some insight. I'll post a link when I put the interview up on my website.

Overall, though, I recommend VAMPIRE RELATIONSHIP GUIDE to anyone who enjoys vampire romance fiction and likes a good send-up of genre tropes. I suspect Evelyn Lafont will be continuing the series (otherwise why call this Volume One) and it will be interesting to see how she maintains the tone of this volume.