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.