Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith

Read  July 2017
Recommended for fans of kick-ass-lady urban fantasy. And vampires
★    ★    ★   

“I made a mental note to tell the next Street Engineer I met that they were doing a damn fine job. Sort of an embarrassing thing to think, but I knew it was safe; I always lose my mental notes.”

Glad I’m not the only one. I had some intelligent things to say about Only Forward, but I can’t find my mental sticky notes. I do know that I found the beginning undeniably clever and almost unputdownable. My reading updates show chuckling and snerking through the first hundred pages.

“Working out what that might be was going to be important, and I put a memo in my mental file to have a crack at it when I could be bothered. My mental memos are different from my mental notes: I always do something about them eventually, and they’re typed so I can read what they say.”

And then suddenly my updates stopped, because, damn, that shit started to get real, going from world-weary, cynical humor to semi-thriller to something deeper and more devastating.

“I could defend myself, say it isn’t easy… but I won’t, because that’s not the point. The point is too deep, too personal and too small to explain. The point is not for spectators. Nothing that’s important, really important, looks impressive, because it only means something to the person that does it. Staying alive, for example, not dying: it looks so easy, but sometimes it’s almost too difficult to be borne.”

A really good book that is unlike most things I’ve read, but perhaps similar in tone and scope to The Gone-Away World, Cursed or Pandemonium. Probably some people might feel there is a similarity with Vonnegut, but it’s been a very long time since I read him, and I found Stark to be far more accessible than any of Vonnegut’s characters. All take a skewed view of the world, people sort of making connections and an emotional undercurrent to make something quite interesting. First published in 1994, it feels amazingly current in 2017. Note: also an award winner, with the British Fantasy Award in 1995 and the Philip K. Dick award in 2000.

Set in an America of the future, it is one we can almost recognize, where cities have become something like gated communities known as Neighborhoods, where people of a kind can band together and really support what they believe in. Some of these cities make perfect sense, such as Idyll, “an old Neighborhood, where people come and go quietly and peacefully. They don’t care about anyone else, and they have no argument with anyone. They just want to be left alone to be kind and gentle to each other. I know that sounds kind of weird, but it works for them.” Some are just futuristically weird, like Color, where the narrator, Stark lives. Color has color rules, including a strict after-dark black jacket code.

Someone who is clearly quite important to Stark, although it isn’t exactly clear how or why, asks him for a favor, to find someone who has gone missing from the Type A Neighborhood. It is unprecedented, and while Stark wonders “which kind of job this might be,” it seems straightforward so he agrees.

Much of the story is like that; Smith tells us what we need to know, but we know Stark is holding things back. And that’s fine. He’s wit is as dry as pixie dust, but it’s as funny as hell. For instance, take his description of trying to answer the phone:

“It was a long and arduous journey, full of trials, setbacks and heroic derring-do on my part. I was almost there, for example, when I ran out of cigarettes, and had to go back to fetch another packet.”

Then there’s catching up with an old friend:

“We chewed the rag for a while. I recapped the last few months, mentioned a couple of mutual acquaintances I’d run into. Ji told me his land had expanded another half mile to the north, which explained his bars continued existence, recounted a couple of especially horrific successes and used the word “fuck” just over 400 times.”

At his business meeting:

“‘Uh-huh,’ I said, reeling under the impact of so much bad film dialogue. “So put a trace on him. “

The humor eventually fades somewhat, leaving a different, more emotionally sincere tone in its wake. It ended up having more of an emotional impact than I expected, particularly for a book that had me giggling through the beginning.

Visiting different Neighborhoods gives Stark a chance to engage in entertaining social commentary. It’s soon apparent Mr. A has left his Neighborhood, which means we get to visit some of the other ones nearby. The world-building doesn’t make a ton of literal sense; I suppose one could think of it as metaphorical, and indeed it is a commentary on how we choose to live with those like us, but his vision is also extremely interesting.

I unquestionably enjoyed it most of the way through, but found the ending… not at all what I expected. It took a turn that didn’t entirely work for me and called into question most of the preceding story. That’s an unsettling feeling to have in a book, but I think it was unsettling in a good way, raising questions about authorial intent, narrators, etc. Wastrel has a nice analysis of the book. I admit, most of that didn’t occur to me when reading, which is, I think, the better kind of revolutionary story. It was only much later after reading that I thought of the Vonnegut comparison, who honestly, was kind of a chore in high school, even when I read him for fun. I actually started re-reading this all over again, enjoying it just as much. One of those book you keep thinking about after finishing. Read at your own risk.

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Fiction, Science fiction | 6 Comments

Lumberjanes: A Terrible Plan. Vol.3

Read  August 2017
Recommended for fans of girrrl-power
★    ★    ★   

It was somewhat with surprise that I found myself enjoying the first two Lumberjanes graphic novels, as it’s not a form I’m drawn to (ha-ha) normally. Unfortunately, the third novel stumbles in both artwork and story, and my love affair seems to be settling into a low flame. Originally conceived in terms of the arc completed in Volumes 1 and 2, Volume 3 had to reinvent itself, choosing to take us back to the individual girls. There wasn’t a great deal of character depth in the first two volumes, which focused more on teamwork and a plot at breakneck pace.

The beginning of the volume centers around the time-honored tradition, campfire stories. With each storyteller, the artist also changes, somewhat suiting the style of the teller. In the second half of the edition, the group splits in two, with Mal and Molly off to enjoy a possibly romantic picnic, and Jo, April and Riley off to earn badges.

Characterization is where it both shines and fails for me. As storytellers, the reader gets a insight into each girl’s style. In the breakout, we get more depth on Mal and Molly. Back in camp, we learn more about April, which turned out to be confusing in context of earlier build. I perceived her as a natural, calm, enthusiastically positive team leader (pointing out others’ skills) and in this one she becomes almost scarily obsessed with getting a badge. Her friends go along in support, but with less enthusiasm.

Lumberjanes: A Terrible Plan: April goes bonkers for badges

 

 

Contrast: Lumberjanes: Friendship to the Max! A calm leader, as well as the only one with eyeballs.

 

But my biggest issue with the volume is the artwork. Once the storytelling and guest artists finish, the art is taken over by Brittney Williams. There’s a notable infantilization of the figures. Big eyes, simplistic lines, rounded edges, lighter colors; I started to feel a little more manga-like rather than the more edgy and complex visual depth from earlier issues.

Lumberjanes: A Terrible Plan: a picnic, soft lines, cute button noses

Lumberjanes: Friendship: a dark and gloomy forest

 

The camp director, a riff on Rosie the Riveter, is particularly, unfortunately, softened.

Lumberjanes: A Terrible Plan: a softened Rosie declares a camp free day

Lumberjanes: Friendship: Rosie confronts Bear Woman

The first two collections are billed as ‘all-ages’ graphic novels. but this one really felt targeted to a younger set. However, I guess artistic changeover is a common facet of comics, and perhaps also of graphic novels. Which–allow me to get my grump on–only further solidifies my perception that they are very far removed from the storytelling form of a short story or novel. So here’s hoping for further change toward an all-ages look. I’ll continue the series, but without the same degree of enthusiasm.

 

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School Days by Robert Parker

Read  August 2017
Recommended for Spenser fans
★    ★       

Not the worst book I ever read.

I went through this period in my mid-twenties when I was trying to work out on the elliptical and the bike at the gym, but it was SO BORING that I ended up trying to read. You ever read a book when you are stepping up and down with hips shifting side to side? Yeah, super-challenging with small print books. Oh, this was the mid-to-late 90s, kids, before audio books were a thing beyond the Bible and the classics and phones could be linked to a tv channel or a favorite movie. I discovered mental diversion in the form of thrillers, a genre previously largely unexploited by me. They worked extremely well; I was particularly fond of Robert Parker’s Spenser series and Lee Child’s series. Fast plotting, larger print, lots of white space, not a lot of extraneous detail; perfect for a fluctuating attention level. My physical copy of School Days is an artifact of those days, but unsurprisingly, I remember nothing about it. I decided to clear it off my shelves, passing it on to my dad, but thought I’d give it one quick perusal before it embarked on its next journey.

It’s definitely quick, a one-evening read. This feels like most of the Spenser books as he aged, outlines waiting to be fleshed in, and as such is barely an investigation wrapped in book nostalgia. Chapters generally last four to five pages. We get cursory nods to Spenser patterns; cooking a meal, mention of Hawk, assistance from Healy of the State Patrol, a fight, him being a wiseass and the person he’s interacting with resenting it. Friend appearances are mostly limited to Rita the Super Hot Super Smart Lawyer. That is, besides Pearl the Wonder-Dog, able to sniff out yogurt containers in an office. For those that hate Susan, Spenser’s long-time lady-love, she’s off-screen at a conference for most of the book.

The bare bones is that a rich grandma hires him to prove her grandson ‘didn’t do it,’ a horrific mass shooting at a school in a very wealthy, conservative suburb. The book has aged poorly, in light of the real mass shootings we’ve since witnessed. The parents, the cops, the teachers and everyone want the kid to ‘go away and disappear,’ unanswered questions and all, a marked contrast to the dissection and blame we saw after the Columbine shooting. The kids at the private school are nonplussed by the incident, a mere six months ago. In fact, Spencer and the cops are remarkably undisturbed. Puzzling that Spenser doesn’t even talk to families of the people killed or the wounded when trying to learn more.

As a final trigger for some folks, the resolution hinges on ****SPOILER  [ the kid being diagnosed ‘retarded.’ Seriously, no joke; by a psychologist, no less. The rest of the resolution consists of the adults discussing whether or not the kid is ‘retarded’ enough to understand right/wrong but not enough to understand an inappropriate relationship. ]

It makes the book seriously dated.

I gotta say, it’s really only worth it for completionists. I’m happy to send it out on the world to find its own way.

AKA: The one Where Spencer Thinks the Defendant is Guilty.

 

Posted in Book reviews, Mystery | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The Killing Kind by John Connolly

Read  August 2017
Recommended for fans of mystery/horror
★    ★    ★    1/2 to four stars

Finally Connolly lives up to the promise in The Lovers, book 8 in the Charlie Parker series. It is a mystery series that often borders on horror, a genre I prefer not to linger in, however, something about Connolly’s writing is so evocative, so full of humanity that I keep returning to his writing. I think it might almost be the mirror-image of much I enjoy, perhaps because it centers around some of the most basic–but darkest–of emotions.

‘There is a dark resource within all of us, a reservoir of hurt and pain and anger upon which we can draw when the need arises. Most of us rarely, if ever, have to delve too deeply into it. That is as it should be, because dipping into it costs, and you lose a little of yourself each time,a small part of all that is good and honorable and decent about you.”

Charlie Parker is a haunted man. The reader was never quite sure if they are literal haunts in the first two books, but in this book it becomes clear that his visions are meaningful and real. Charlie is bumming around his grandfather’s house in Maine, working out, doing white collar investigative work, when he’s approached by a wealthy businessman and former senator to investigate the apparent suicide of Grace Peltier, a graduate student researching local cults. At the same time, a mass grave is uncovered in a nearby development, and Parker starts seeing a young boy in broken eyeglasses with a wooden sign hung round his neck. He attempts to meet with the leader of The Fellowship, a splinter religious group, but it seems to consist of an office front and nothing more. As he persists, he attracts the attention of the antagonistic Mr. Pudd and far, far too many spiders. Oh, by the way, this entire book is a trigger for the arachnophobic.

Narrative is thankfully linear, with intermittent interruptions from Grace’s thesis as a way of giving the background on the Fellowship. Not a bad technique, mostly because it doesn’t read anything like a real thesis–more like a local tale (I imagine those who have actually written a thesis in anthropology/sociology would be snerking and chortling at these sections). It serves to emphasize both the hope of people who follow a devout path, and the unscrupulousness of many of the leaders.

I enjoy Connolly’s writing, a balanced combination of world-building, action and both internal/external dialogue. I thought many passages resonant with emotional truths, albeit difficult ones. Again, Connolly doesn’t live in the ‘happy’ side of the human experience, but in the world of loss, pain, and this time, a touch of hope, and the setting reflects this focus.

“I should have felt pain, I thought. I should have felt the old agony. But instead, I experienced only a strange, desperate gratitude for this place, for the two fat old dogs and for the unsullied memories which they had left me. For some things should never be allowed to fade away… a place should be found for them in the present and the future so that they become a precious part of oneself, something to be treasured instead of something to be feared.”

Oh yes–and the spiders. Those passages are horrific, and I confess to speed-reading because heaven almighty, I did not need those images seared in my brain. But they are.

Characterization feels full, if somewhat archetypal. Charlie is considering progressing his relationship with Rachel, an arc continued from the last book. There’s a number of characters that amble in and out, and I thought they felt solid, even with short visits. The father of the woman, Curtis Peltier; the mobster Al Z, reflecting on a long and storied career; the former roommate, daffy Ali Wynn; and a handful of law enforcement agents; all give a nice flavor to the story and the investigation of the missing woman. Parker’s best friends are a pair of killers, Angel and Louis, and the three of them account for 90% of the humorous moments in the story. Parker is notably world-weary, as well as focused on concepts of vengeance and justice, and it gives him a certain cavalier approach when dealing with others. When a client accuses Parker’s work of being ‘sleazy,’ Parker notes:

“Mr. Hoyt had sex in the afternoon with a woman. Neither of them is married. What they did wasn’t sleazy… Your company paid me to listen in on them, and that’s where the sleaze part came in.”

Overall, solid, evocative and nice contrast to some of my more lighthearted reads that still represents a ethos I can appreciate. As it has enough balance to the characters, plot and setting I’ll go on to the next. Other reviews recommend reading the two relatively closely together, so I have it waiting at the library.

 

 

 

 

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Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore

Read  August 2017
Recommended for fans of Butcher and noir PI
★    ★    ★   

 

I see dead people. Well, I don’t, not really, although I do regularly encounter the dying. But I was curious to see how a urban fantasy would handle the idea of death when I saw this book about a necromancer, and what kind of operating system an author might conceive of for the spiritual world. This particular world still seems like it could use a little fleshing out (groan), but it passed the litmus test of entertaining, a palate cleanser between substantial reads. It’s a streamlined noir mystery where the investigator, Eric Carter, is a necromancer–oh, and technically, an assassin, as he kills things or people for hire.

The opening chapter is a zinger, a fast episode that must have been perfect to workshop. Carter has been chasing an undead man-spirit around the southern U.S., trying to stop an ongoing killing spree. Finally corners the spirit in a bar, resulting in a dramatic confrontation. It’s a great lead in to the book, priming the reader for understanding the powers Carter wields, and whetting the appetite through the following expositionary chapters. When an old friend calls Carter to tell him his younger sister has been murdered, Carter’s pulled back to L.A., a town full of questions and contacts he left decades ago.

Strip away the ghosts and you have a basic noir revenge plot, with complications from the ‘never darken my town again’ trope. There’s a red herring or two regarding possible double crosses. But that’s not necessarily bad, just a note for genre readers. The necromancy adds an interesting angle, allowing Carter access to a certain group of informants and certain problem-solving skills, but it’s involved enough and a consistent enough inclusion to satisfy those looking for UF elements.

It was entertaining, but I can see where there are issues. It does feel Dresden-ish in many ways (power levels, male-centric with lingering ex-issues, somewhat lacking in actual investigative skills), although far more entertaining than the earliest couple of Dresden books. Although Carter talks as is if he is comfortable killing, its worth noting that he doesn’t usually do it unless he has to. World-building feels like it has a little ways to go; though Carter works with the dead and their spirits, I’m still not entirely clear on the theology. Haunts are locked in place, some spirits are Wanders; all eventually lose their memories, whether it’s a few days or a thousand years. The ending was a tad annoying, particularly with  evidence of Carter’s stupidity and the ‘I’m going to stay to protect __’ resolution. Despite that, it was entertaining enough for me that I’ll check out the next to see where Blackmoore takes it.

 

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The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Read  August 2017
Recommended for Americans
★    ★    ★    ★    ★   

“And all this is happening in the richest and freest country in the world, and in the middle of the 20th century. The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur and you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”

 

Baldwin considers this, after he and two friends in their thirties were refused service at a busy bar in O’Hare Airport ‘because they were too young.’ The Fire Next Time remains sadly pertinent, despite publication in 1962. The first section, titled ‘My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,’ muses on society and exhorts his nephew to meet it with dignity and love. The second section, ‘Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind’ begins like a memoir, develops into political analysis and ends with a sermon. It is devastatingly brilliant, and near the end I found myself highlighting quotes nearly every page. But I’m clearly not the only one who has read his work: one of the oddest aspects for me is that I have read both writers and poets who were influenced by him, as I heard their echoes in his writing.

“How can one, however, dream of power in any other terms then in the symbols of power?” ~ Baldwin, bringing immediately to mind Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

‘Down at the Cross’ begins from adolescent years, when James was fourteen and underwent “a prolonged religious crisis.” It was a fascinating recounting, giving the feel of Harlem of a particular time, and looked at how religion became the way he coped with the perils of growing up, and yet how, in many ways, it was no less controlling or harmful to the soul than “the whores or the pimps or the racketeers on the Avenue.” For a short time he was known at the boy preacher and while it gave him some freedom from his father, his faith was only an infirm illusion.

“I date it – the slow crumbling of my faith, the pulverization of my fortress- from the time, about a year after I had begun to preach, when I began to read again. I justified this desire by the fact that I was still in school, and I began, fatally, with Dostoevski.”

I loved that words and writing were his real salvation. He muses more on the role of the church and his breaking with religious faith before seguing to a meeting with Elijah Muhammad, recalling me to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Baldwin was clearly uncomfortable, confronting his own echoes of churchgoing, but felt the limitations of the Nation of Islam were no better than those of Christianity, ie. a failure to dream of something outside the paradigm. He noted that the young follower who drove him to his next appointment in an expensive car that the Nation was still conceiving of power in the same terms that white people defined it, and in owning land of their own.

“He was held together, in short, by a dream– though it is just as well to remember that some dreams come true– and was united with his ‘brothers’ on the basis of their color. Perhaps one cannot ask for more. People always seem to band together in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility.”

He then spirals off into the musing on human nature, the relationship between blacks and whites, and linking them both to the spiritual as well as the political. It’s an extraordinary achievement, the way one thought leads to the next, and the next, and suddenly you’ve run into a philosophical truth that touches the soul. The truth I recognized:

“It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death-ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage is nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us… It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant–birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so–and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths–change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not–safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayal and the entire home–the entire possibility–of freedom disappears.”

Somehow, I’ve never read James Baldwin. Despite a rather liberal high school, we still read far too many of the ‘classics’ (and I, for one, will never read Dickens again). College was Women’s Studies when I ventured outside the sciences, a reading list universally written by women. My free time, fun time reading just never ran into Baldwin, perhaps because I stay away from lit-fic like the plague. Now that I am finally class-free (on more than one level, *snort), I find myself gravitating towards the occasional non-fiction. What I discovered is that Baldwin writes lyrical, exacting prose, clear, and yet somehow poetic, with a belief in love and in dreaming better. I loved immersing myself in his writing. I rather wish I was in a classroom of people with whom I could wrestle with these ideas.

 

Posted in Book reviews, Non-fiction | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly. Like childhood.

Read  July 2017
Recommended for ? fans of Neil Gaiman
★    ★    1/2

This is definitely not a young adult book. If you should try, with best intentions, after reading numerous glowing reviews and having heard Connolly’s name bandied about the bookish world, to gift this one to a ten-year-old, expect stern words and doubts of judgement. And for pity’s sakes, don’t give it to any girls, because it’s even less friendly to the female person than Grimms’ Fairytales. In fact, it does bear a strong resemblance to the writing of the dear Brothers, which is not a been a bad thing if one enjoys the flagrant telling and the elaborate language of fairy tales. That all generally works beautifully here, except that it’s oh-so-very dark and misanthropic a tale that I’d reserve it for grown boys who used to be good and are having trouble figuring the path ahead. Which, as you might have guessed, is also not altogether abhorrent. But, let us speak logically, and dissect this.

“One bottle was filled almost to the top with eyeballs. They seemed alive to David, as though being wrenched from their sockets had not deprived them of the capacity to see. Another contained a woman’s hand, a gold ring upon its wedding finger, red varnish flaking slowly from its nails.”

It begins with a narrative we can all get behind, a long tradition in English country houses and cracks in the garden walls, and a young man–almost adolescent–embarking on an adventure. Except this adventure is framed by three salient grimnesses; the death of his mother, the father remarried/subsequent baby brother, and World War II. This is the adult world with danger, his perceptions of it seeped in negative emotions of loss, jealousy, fear, and sometimes even boredom. He is being stalked by a Crooked Man, who seems evil, though he cannot say exactly why. The young man, David, journeys through the crack and falls into a land that is fairy-tale twisted. Rescued by a Woodsman, he embarks on a journey to see the king, gain insight from The Book of Lost Things and hopefully return to his own world. As the story progresses, he meets different people and occasionally they will tell him stories that echo fairy tales he has read.

“And, in truth, I prefer to hunt children. They make better sport, and better trophies for my wall, for they are beautiful.”

A wonderful, traditional format; journey to Oz and to home, but Connolly lets it unwind more than a bit toward the end, as he indulges in descriptions of The Crooked Man’s evil deeds, in a way that really doesn’t matter to the story, and just serves to point out the horrors of the world. Incest, torture, murder, draining away life; in some ways, I too felt my life drained away by this tale, by the cataloguing of misuse of power, the isolationism of a village, the careless mutilation and torture. Instead of uplifted, I felt ground away, like I had been watching a war montage. Connolly is not celebrating childhood or impending adulthood as much as outlining it as a horrible, dastardly trap where the right choices will mean honor and loss, and the wrong choices mean torture and loss.

And, after all, I have days I feel that way. Where the world has pounded me down. Where humanity seems too full of itself. Where individual kindness feels scarce. Which is why I pick up other books. This is why Catherynne Valente had to write The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland.  and The Orphan’s Tales.  This book is indeed about Lost Things, the most lostest being childhood itself, except in this version of childhood, what David leaves behind is fantasies of his mother and his first family, not idle days exploring wardrobes, or playing at sword-fighting, or looking for moon-paths. In this book of childhood, the most halcyon of times were pre-war and pre-illness and so distant as to be barely present.

“Most of the children David knew had by now left the city, thronging train stations with little brown luggage labels tied to their coats on their way to farms and strange towns. Their absence made the city appear emptier and increased the sense of nervous expectancy that seemed to govern the lives of all who remained. Soon, the bombers would come, and the city was shrouded in darkness at night to make their task harder.”

Atmosphere is well done, if dark and grim. Characterization is interesting. David is well done, as layered as one can possibly be at that age, struggling with pride, isolation, independence, and a great deal of loss. Most of the rest of the characters exist as they do in fairy tales, that is to say, as archetypes. There is an off-note encounter with the Seven Dwarves, who have become communists; an anomaly in that they are supposed to be humorous. It’s also worth nothing that the Gallant Knight is in love with a man, and while a man of honor, is also a doomed, tragic figure.

“David had an opportunity to examine its face as it hovered: it resembled a woman’s but was longer and thinner, with a lipless mouth that left its sharp teeth permanently exposed. Now those teeth tore into its prey, ripping great chunks of bloody fur from its body as it fed.”

As a final note, to myself and those who follow the humanist footpath: I do not think Connolly loves females overmuch. Because, wow. Aside from the idolized but dead mother, the doomed deer-girl, and a friendly female horse, there is absolutely nothing to love here about females. I’m going to list it here, because I’m not going to ever re-read this book, and someday, someone will ask why: the dead mother. The Loups born from Red Riding Hood’s sex. The harpies. The grossly fat, selfish Snow White. The Evil Huntress obsessed with finding the perfect prey. The Evil Enchantress asleep behind the wall of thorns. The girl in a jar, about as close as one comes to a refrigerator in a non-refrigerator world.

One of the most beautiful, happiest passages in the book:

“Stories were different, though: they came alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide-eyes following them by flashlight beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world. They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being. They lay dormant, hoping for the chance to emerge. Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination, and transform the reader.”

Absolutely beautiful, and absolutely true. It came alive to me, but not in a pleasant way, more in the way of being lost in a forest and arriving at a town where nobody speaks your language and everyone looks at you askance, and you feel you may not be safe after all, which is why on my own personal scale, it’s about a ‘okay.’ On the technical side, I’d say it’s a four star, meaning generally well written, lovely use of language, recognizable themes, consistent story. All that said, it’s not a book I’d ever give and would recommend to only a few.

 

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Chaos Mage by Stephen Aryan

Read  July 2017
Recommended for fans of epic fantasy and sieges
★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

Wow, what a stroke of luck! The rather crabby clerk at Half-Price Books wanted me to know it’d be half an hour before they’d make me an offer on my books. No worries–I can think of about a hundred things more difficult than spending thirty minutes in a bookstore. So instead of my usual quick scan, I actually looked quite thoroughly at all the books on the trade and hardcover sci-fi shelves. And wow, would you believe how many of my mediocre reads were there? (Apparently I wasn’t the only one unimpressed). I was shocked to see Chasing Embers, and almost bought it just so I could howl with laughter all over again. But I digress.

I found this and tempted by ‘chaos’ to read a few pages. Two women were standing guard on a wall, defending their motley group against the Forsaken, hollowed-out  former friends who had been carried away during the fighting. A few more pages and there was a Guardian woman given an assignment to escort a battlemage to the beleaguered city. Excellent: mages, zombies and women as many of the main characters. I thought I’d spend my ill-gained proceeds from Altered Carbon, American Gods, Charmed by Shadow, and Joy School on this baby, and I have to say, what a prize.

It’s kind of old school epic fantasy, writ modern, reminding me of Witch World. Andre Norton had some kind of hollowed, characterless grey men, and I suddenly realized a number of classic authors had flirted with zombie mythology in fantasy land. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it’s the conclusion of a trilogy, but from what I can tell, it doesn’t matter too much in terms of a single overarching story. It takes place in a distant, isolated city of artisans, Voechenka. It is under siege from the undead, and reports are finally starting to reach those who have enough power to act.

The two women standing guard are Zannah, a non-human and member of the prior conquering race, and her friend, Alyssa. They’ve been rallying survivors to defend their safehouse, a winery (isn’t everyone’s?), from the Forsaken and the mercenaries. Farther away, Tammy the Guardian (easily the worst thing about this book was her incongruous name) is escorting Balfruss the Battlemage to the city of Voechenka. Her superior wants her to investigate, and the mage has tasked himself with discovering the teacher for the evil sorcerers who have been responsible for starting a war.

Once all the characters got into place, action was non-stop. There were a number of issues to sort out, so every one has a part to play. While I expected certain things to play out certain ways, I really enjoyed the ride getting there.

Characters are really well done. I think most are newer to the story, so we get more information about Zannah, a member of a race of non-humans, and Alyssa, her friend. The battlemage and the warrior also get some development. And you know what else? There’s a lot of women in this story. Amazing fighters. Leaders. Spiritual guides. Antagonists. Magic wielders. You know–they’re just people, playing a role that isn’t just virgin or whore. Give this a try if you like the blood and guts of Mark Lawrence or Brent Weeks but would like less sexism. Or if you sort of liked The Black Company by Glen Cooks, but wanted more detail and characterization.

Although I didn’t get too much sense of the larger world, I enjoyed the sense of the city, past and present, and felt like there was a good sense of danger. I recommend this to fans of epic fantasy. I suppose I’ll have to search out the first two books, but I’m a little afraid they won’t live up to this one.

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The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly

Read  July 2017
Recommended for fans of police detectives, L.A.
★    ★    ★    ★   

 

In book three of the Harry Bosch series, Connelly finally hits his stride. The preceding two books frequently referenced the lethal shooting of a serial killer, a career-changer that resulted in Harry being transferred out of the glamorous (?!) Robbery-Homicide Division and into the hinterlands in Hollywood. In The Concrete Blonde, the case is being tried in a civil court. Harry’s refused to plead or settle, and is making do with a lawyer from the D.A.’s office against a top-notch civil rights attorney Honey Chandler.

The tale opens with the very scene where it all began, Bosch and a streetwalker informant watching the apartment of a man who is possibly The Dollmaker, a serial killer who rapes and kills his victims, and then garishly applied makeup to their faces. We segue into the courtroom, where Harry’s trial is about to begin. During recess, he gets a call from his lieutenant, asking him to come to a homicide scene. They were led there by a note echoing the handwriting and style of The Dollmaker, and the information in the rhyme has led detectives to a woman buried in concrete. Harry is sure in his gut that he shot the right man, so is this the work of a copycat or is Harry wrong?

It’s an reasonably intriguing premise–aside from Harry’s gut doing the detecting–made urgent by the trial. To add to the tension, it appears someone has leaked information to the prosecuting attorney, so it isn’t long before Harry and his somewhat inept attorney are threatened with contempt of court. The back and forth from the courtroom to solving the mystery of the woman in concrete keep the pace moving. His relationship with Sylvia provides a counterpoint to the sordidness of the case and the trial.

One of the strange things about the series for me is the 80s setting. It’s so odd to think of a time of pagers and public telephones. In-time information isn’t quite as much of a lynch pin in this case, so it’s easier to ignore. There’s a couple of red herrings, the first quite obvious, the second less so, but the law of character conservation holds. I will note that it’s a relief for a mystery-thriller to not feel the need to explore the serial-killer POV.

Although Connelly still has a rather flat, simplistic writing style, he seems to be improving stylistically, or at least allowing himself to drift away from the narrow confines of Harry’s basic world-view. A couple of points was almost poetic, as Harry muses at various points about the nature of justice.

“The lack of hospitality exists because the federal government does not want its courthouse to give even the appearance that justice may be slow, or nonexistent… There is enough of that going on across Spring Street in the County Criminal Courts building. Every day the benches in the hallways of every floor are clogged with those who wait. Mostly they are women and children, their husbands or fathers or lovers held in lockup. Mostly they are black or brown. Mostly the benches look like crowded life rafts–women and children first–with people pressed together and cast adrift, waiting, always waiting, to be found.”

A game changer for me as well, I’ll definitely be moving on with the series.

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Lumberjanes Vol.2 Friendship to the Max!

Read  July 2017
Recommended for chicks who love camping or graphic novels
★    ★    ★    ★    ★

Score! For a person who ordinarily struggles with the format of graphic novels, this series is the max, adorbs, the bomb, rad, peachy keen.

(I honestly don’t know what kids say these days).

Anyway, I thought it was a more cohesive story, with great adventures in each issue. One of the things that was particularly enjoyable is that Counselor Jamie, Joan, Juanita, Jedidah, Jen has been brought into the loop. Chapter Five, ‘Friendship to the Craft,’ starts with a nice, safe, crafting activity and I laughed to see a diagram for making a simple friendship bracelet, the number one best way to advertise you’ve been to camp. Of course, magic powered beasts appear, and a little crafting saves the day. Also has a great tribute to Jurassic Park and damsel-in-distress scenes.

The ketchup blood cracked me up.

Chapter Six is ‘Jail Break,’ a capture-the-flag game (another camp staple) that goes somewhat wrong, but we finally get an idea what’s behind the adventures the girls keep stumbling into. It has one of my favorite panels (literally a game) that made me laugh out loud, and an exclamation–“For the love of Sister Rosetta Tharpe” which–omg. How did I miss this guitar-playing singing virtuoso? 

Appropriate use of ‘literally.’

 

Chapter 7, ‘Friendship to the Max’, has a escapade with tribute to Mission Impossible and a cliff-hanger ending. Another camp staple: I remember performing our own Waterfront Mission Impossible skit which brought the house down. Chapter 8, ‘Space Jamborie,’ is about astronomy, anagram problem-solving and sibling rivalry with an ultimate bash that was thankfully mildly anti-climactic after all the ridiculous adventures earlier.

I love that Jen knows everything.

 

Overall, I thought it even better than the first collection, with improvement in storyline and visual arrangement. It took most of the book to get names straight, however–Jen and Ripley were referred to a lot, and Mal almost not at all. In this series, we see more from Jo, who has something hidden; Molly, who wears a secret in plain sight; and the effervescent Ripley. Jen gets a chance to test out her rule-breaking, and I love the moments she has with Rosie, Camp Director (and fab visual riff on Rosie the Riveter). There’s a little puppy-love kiss that has a nod to same-sex relationships. The collection edition has a set of cover pages done by different artists as well as an excerpt from another graphic novel centered on three college kids. Super-fun and entertaining. Can’t wait to see where new adventures go.

Ultimate power.

 

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