Florida Keys by Moon Handbooks

Florida Keys by Moon

Read July 2015
Recommended for eco-tourists
 ★    ★    ★    ★

The library had the nerve to ask for this back, just because it takes me two months to plan a trip. And by “plan,” I actually mean “extensively daydream,” so it’s a time-consuming process. Really, why do they want it back? Does anyone read travel books anymore? It’s summer in Wisconsin, for Pete’s sake: all the Wisconsin people go to Florida for the winter if they are over 65, or for spring break if they are 18-20, so there are months and months before the Florida travel season gets underway. Really, the library should ask to loan it to me, just to make space.

I did wonder why I was bothering with a travel book. I’ve found Yelp very useful with eateries (it has distances, food type, menus and ratings) and TripAdvisor has proven useful with ratings for area attractions and tour guides. But I realized the value in a travel book–if one finds the right one–is that it is information in relatively linear form that avoids the rabbit hole of the interwebs.

In this case, it seemed a great match. It could be Martone/Moon, or it could be the Florida Keys, but her focus seems to be on the outdoor attractions of the area, which is exactly what I wanted. She gives specifics on each park. For instance, National Key Deer Refuge is noted as having two nice trails, one of which is wheelchair accessible. Long Key State Park has a canoe trail where one can rent canoes  from the park service (Martone said “cheap” but on the website it’s $17.50 for 2 hours). It’s also mentioned for the 1.5 mile “Golden Orb (Spider) Trail,” which I will no doubt avoid.

What I was really hoping for was ideas for snorkeling, and I did find adequate mention of places that do snorkeling as well as preferred locations. John Pennenkamp State Park is mentioned as a site not-to-be-missed (with the Christ of the Deep statue). Bahia is mentioned for having snorkeling trips to Looe Key, known for the staghorn coral.

Guides are also useful for the information on things that locals take for granted: although one always associates Florida with beaches, she mentions that most of the beaches are crushed coral, and takes care to point out the few major swimming beaches (such as in Bahia Honda State Park).  There’s tips on bike riding trails, a recommendation to use bikes in Key West, and a strong suggestion to avoiding attempting it along the Seven Mile Bridge.

Organized by geography, she takes the reader from Key Largo down to Key West in five general sections of Miami/Everglades, Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon and the Middle Keys, Big Pine and the Lower Keys and Key West. The beginning of each section gives an area overview that includes history and a mention of general attractions. Further information is then divided into types of attractions, such as parks, tourist attractions, cultural attractions, diving/boating and shopping.

Standard guide fare includes a restaurant listing with notes on what stands out, whether the Key Lime pie or the locals, as well as hotels/accommodations sorted by price. In my estimation, both sections of guides are made obsolete by the internet and often don’t stand the test of time. Format missteps include some annoying sidebars that would likely do better in their own section: for instance, in the middle of a section on Key Largo are general for safe diving in the Keys.

At the very end of the book is a section on the history of the Keys as a whole. I’m kind of fascinated by the pirate/wreckage history, as well as the creation of the “Conch Republic” when Key West decided to succeed from the United States. They still have an annual succession party with such events as a Zero-K run, a ‘drag race’ (in drag, naturally), a parade and a “5 Rum Salute”–If college spring break doesn’t fall in April, that would be a fun time to visit.

I started taking notes as I read on colored post-its, then used those to make notations on Google maps. When I took it back to the library, I suspect the evidence of my earnestness encouraged the librarian to take pity on me, allowing me another two weeks.

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

The End Has Come. Or more precisely, A New Beginning.

The End Has Come

Read July 2015
Recommended for fans of a new world
 ★    ★    ★    ★

Let’s be clear: the title “The End Has Come” implies that the stories center upon the events as the apocalypse is upon us. Little did I know when I bought it that per publisher, “The End Has Come is about what will arrive from the ashes.”

Nevertheless, once I dealt with grief caused by unmet expectations of disease, destruction and horror, I enjoyed this collection.

Though I have a fascination with The End of the World (as we know it), I tend to avoid thematic collections of short stories. Too much like a box of chocolates, and, man–do I ever hate the coconut ones disguised as vanilla creme. But the contributing authors have more than the average share of credibility:  Hugh Howey (Wool), Seanan McGuire (Incryptid series), Ken Liu (a million short story award noms), Carrie Vaughn (former classmate), Mira Grant (Newsfeed series), Jonathan Maberry (one of the best zombie series I’ve read), Nancy Kress (I’ve always meant to read her),  Elizabeth Bear (loved “Bone and Jewel Creatures”), Ben H. Winters (The Last Policeman triology), and others.

There’s great stuff here with interesting worlds and stories. Maberry’s contribution is a short related to the Rot&Ruin world (finally, zombies!) that was a bit more of socio-political bent, and Howey did a short related to two people who wake up alone in a silo in the world of Wool. I actually liked that less, as I got stuck on the biology in his scenario. Honestly, I didn’t care for plot of Arkenberg’s “Like All Beautiful Places.” Set in a carrier ship off lovely San Francisco, it was a well written attempt to recapture the past, but I enjoyed the prose: “A sky that seemed too big for itself, too solid blue for too many miles, almost threatening to collapse.” Lagan’s “Prototype” was captivating and eerie, centering on a scientist working in isolation to improve the protective suits people need to wear: “What he lacks in social graces he makes up for in creepiness. Most of us add a little personality to our suits… He looks like a six-foot-tall, man-shaped oil slick.” Her sense of humor amused me, and I think she’d be an author I’d enjoy: “I laugh, and decide I’ll spend the rest of the trip needling him. At least one of us will be entertained.

Sander’s “The Last Movie Ever Made” envisions a post-apocalypse deaf population, but one still deep in the movie craze: “Some of the film geeks wanted us to make a movie about the fact that everyone was deaf, but that seemed like the opposite of escapism to me–which I guess would be trapism, or maybe claustrophilia.” In fact, Sanders is a very interesting writer, and while I wouldn’t say that I loved the story, she got the bulk of my text highlights: “This not-talking thing meant you really had to watch people, and maybe you could see people more clearly when you couldn’t hear them.” I’ll definitely keep an eye out for her. Bear’s “Margin of Survival” was extremely satisfying: a young woman seeking to provide food for her weaker sister by sneaking into an enclave. It had a horror twist at the end that I didn’t particularly enjoy–it smacked of gimmick–but was well-told and interesting world-building.

Grant’s short is set in Disneyland, and the efforts of a marketing specialist to maintain the Disney spirit. It worked well for Grant’s writing, but again, an idiot end twist. Seanan McGuire’s “Resistance” is the one that really hit home–it was a character piece about an OCD scientist set in a world that was covered with a fungus. Brilliant and powerful–that woman does good people. Wellingtons’ “Agent Neutralized” was a bureaucratic Mad-Max type piece. I enjoyed his writing and wouldn’t mind spending some time in the world he created. Likewise Bellet’s “Goodnight Earth,” which reminded me of a cross between Paolo Bacigalupi and the tv series “Dark Angel” as a couple take an unusual family on their boat up the Missip. Another book I’d read. Kerr’s “The Gray Sunrise” is story about a man who has sacrificed much of his life for his dream sailboat, which becomes an escape for him and his son. I liked the ornery independence of an older woman in Due’s “Carriers,” and wouldn’t mind seeing more from her as well.

There were a few misses. Winter’s “Heaven Come Down” didn’t gel; it was an infirm parallel to the re-creation of the world coupled with aliens. I ended up skipping Wasserman’s “In the Valley of the Shadow of the Promised Land” because I couldn’t cope with the Old Testament/religion parallels, and while I like Liu, I found “The Gods Have Not Died in Vain” initial <chat text> format off-putting, the A.I. kind of <yawn> and was never able to really immerse in the story. Avellone’s “Acts of Creation” is a woman interviewing a person (?) in detention and feels like it needs more context. I did like Shallcross’ quilted/story idea; comparing pieces in a patchwork quilt to the scene featuring that material, but it was a little jumpy. Still, a sweet story about preparing for the apocalypse.

Overall, an extremely satisfying collection. I’ll say this for it–there’s weren’t any stinkers, just ones that worked less for my taste. Since The End Has Come is the last collection in a three-volume “triptych,” it appears I’ll be heading back to catch the other two collections. The Introduction notes that some of these stories are capstones to stories in the first two. Honestly, they stood well on their own, but now I’m interested to read more.

Even with the lack of zombies.

Posted in Apocalypse & dystopia, Book reviews | 3 Comments

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross

The Atrocity Archives

Read July 2015
Recommended for fans computer-geek UF
 ★    ★    ★   

Stross’ take on the urban fantasy is engaging. The Atrocity Archives is first in currently seven book series–for those of you looking to sink your reading chops into an established series–that feature Robert Howard, computer programmer and now employee of Her Majesty’s Secret Supernatural Service. Bob found his way into the top-secret government organization when he did something precocious with a computer, and now he’s facing the unusual dilemma of being a stipend collecting desk-warmer or stepping into the dangerous supernatural spy business.

Well, we all know which he chooses, right?

His first international mission is to go to America and make contact with a British expatriate who is having trouble leaving the country. His decision-making sets a chain of events in motion, including landing him back in spy basic training. Without being too spoiler-ific, chasing down the perpetrators will require a stay in Amsterdam as well as a trip into another dimension.

It’s an entertaining premise that I haven’t really run into before in the urban fantasy/sci-fi genre. The blurb and reviews make much of it being “Lovecraftian.” I don’t know that I agree; there’s certainly the sense of evil/malevolence, and there’s an interdimensionality thing going on, but for the first part BIG GIANT SPOILERS AHEAD the ‘bad guys’ appear to be an Islamist extreme group and Nazis. Sigh. Yes, Nazis. I mean, there’s another antagonist as well, but I find that more of the actual ‘horror’ of the book was devoted to the Nazis. Which were horrible, so there’s that. But that does mean that the “Lovecraftian” or supernatural element was a bit of an anti-climax, with significantly less authorial time devoted to developing the ambiance of its awful and destructive potential.

Then there’s the plot flow. You know when you first read the Anita Blake series and you were enjoying the mystery, the zombie raising to discover who the killer was, and all of a sudden its about her having sex with jaguars so your eyes drift past that part of the book until you get to the next murder scene? Well, it’s not about sex, but Stross has whole paragraphs that did that to me:

“The theorem is a hack on discrete number theory that simultaneously disproves the Church-Turing hypothesis (wave if you understand that) and worse, permits NP-complete problems to be converted into P-complete ones. This has several consequences, starting with screwing over most cryptography algorithms–translation: all your bank account are belong to us–and ending with the ability to computationally generate a Dho-Nha geometry curve in real time.”

Yeah, you’ll notice I’m not waving. And this little gem was from page 17. Thus my second problem with the book: there’s a whole lot of computer jargon that isn’t explained well, and moreover, isn’t actually necessary except as a device to prove how smart Bob/Stross is (for instance, the NP/P and Dho-Nha are terms which are not used outside of that paragraph). While I struggled through college physics, I’m a sci-fi reader, can use a computer perfectly well, thank you very much, and I still found sections largely incomprehensible. To make it worse, I couldn’t tell if Stross was being factual (I’m aware of Alan Turing and computers in general) and where the funky was stepping in (as opposed to the InCryptid series with its faux-bio-ecological descriptions)

So I skipped them. I tend towards skimming at times, so it didn’t bother me unduly, and didn’t much hamper the overall gestalt of the plot, but I imagine it would prevent a number of readers–particularly those with a predilection to digest every word–from enjoying it.

Oh yeah: he does the technobabble with organizational structure as well (something about when a department in the British government was was disbanded, remade and/or “disappeared” in 1945). He explains more of it in the Afterward, which rather convinced me he was just info-dumping his research instead of telling a cracking good story.

This rather sounds like I didn’t like it, doesn’t it? On the contrary–I did, but I’m aware that I put blinders on in order to enjoy it. I thought there was more depth to Bob’s characterization than one usually gets in this type of book, and better emphasis on action as part of a team. There’s moments of ordinariness, such as Bob negotiating with flatmates–and moments of escalating action that are appropriate for Bob’s lack of expertise. Setting is generally well done, giving atmosphere without diverting focus from the action. This book also had a short story at the end, “The Concrete Jungle” which I enjoyed even more, It includes a female Detective Inspector who redeems the general treatment of women in Atrocity.

I’ve already ordered the third book from the library–I’m skipping the second for now, as it’s billed as a “James Bond-esque” island sort of thing with sultry evil woman-creature, and that’s just too much for me to deal with, given an author I’m ambivalent about. This is one book that it’s better to choose with foreknowledge, as it is such a specialized read.

Posted in Book reviews, Science fiction, Urban fantasy | Tagged , | 3 Comments

God’s War by Kameron Hurley

God's War

Read July 2015
Recommended for fans of assassins, complicated stories, tough heroines
 ★    ★    ★    ★   1/2

I grew up in the 80s, when fantasy fiction largely meant the Lord of the Rings-esque fantasy world or the ‘parallel worlds’ fantasy, the same fantasy setting juxtaposed with the real world. It wasn’t until much later that I understood most of the fantasy settings I read were based on a highly sanitized Western medieval framework (Do I hear George Costanza in the background saying, “not that there’s anything wrong with that“?) I’ve found that those familiar types of settings and stories no longer hold my interest to the same degree. I live in a world that is broader, more complicated, and more importantly, has even more stories to offer that reflect different cultures and perspectives. The most satisfying stories have echoed that philosophy, stretching genre conventions, drawing upon a wider range of cultural traditions and bridging genres. God’s War has earned a place on my shortlist of fantasy books that are able to successfully breathe fresh air into the fantasy genre. 

Nyxnissa is a bel dame (echoing the “Belle Dame sans Merci“) who has made her living as an assassin for the government of Nasheen, hunting down the men who have deserted posts at the war front. She’s fallen on hard times, however, and also works as a bounty hunter bringing in thieves or those dealing in illegal gene trading. Lately she’s doing a bit of that black market gene transporting as well. After serving a prison sentence, she gives up the independent work and recruits a crew. When Nyx is called to the palace by the Queen, she and her team are given a job they can’t refuse: hunting down an alien woman who has disappeared, likely into the enemy territory of Chenja. Rhys is a magician and immigrant from Chenja, where women wear the veil and men are head of household. When Nyx is recruiting for her team, Rhys agrees to work with her.

The plotting says ‘heist,’ but the setting says “Middle East in space.” It seems this world began centuries ago when it was settled by colonists from another world. Their world is at the edge of the space routes and as they’ve elected not to modernize their spaceport, off-world visitors are rare, leaving the colonists isolated. For over a century, Nasheen and Chenja have been at war. Although very different culturally, they share a similar religious foundation: all consider themselves “People of the Book” (being ill-versed in world religions, I only thought of Geradline Brooks’ People of the Book, not of the more germane “monotheistic Abrahamic religions“). (This is one book I would have benefited by reading on Kindle with Wikipedia at hand). Nyx’ disenchantment with her own religion and Rhys’ dedication to his provide an interesting contrast and social commentary. Social and religious divisions are further complicated by a marginalized class of people who have carry shapeshifting genetics. 

She didn’t much like the stink and crowd of cities, but you could lose yourself in a city a lot more easily than you could out in farming communities like Mushirah. She had run to the desert and the cities for anonymity. And to die for God.

None of that had worked out very well.

Nasheen is a matriarchal government and culture; men are sent off to war and only allowed home if they reach forty. Sexuality is open and lesbian relationships are normalized, although male homosexuality is still somewhat hidden. I was half-expecting the Women’s Studies 1o1 version of matriarchy, but instead Hurley is far more nuanced. Male or female; everyone has mixed motives; varied upbringings and ethics–or lack thereof–drive them towards their decisions. As is often noted, everyone is fighting the war in their own way. 

The preponderance of bugs in the magicians’ quarters made his blood sing, as if he was attuned to a bit of everything, able to touch and manipulate pieces of the world. He felt more alive here than he had anywhere else in his life, among those who spent their days coming up with new and interesting ways to kill his people.

Then there are the bugs, a world-building aspect that takes the story to a whole new level of uniqueness. Some people–‘magicians’–have the ability to manipulate the bugs and their energy. Some of the technology is hybrid-organic, and the bugs play a role in powering vehicles, lighting rooms and in healing. Magicians are the only men granted an exception to serving at the war front.

It’s a complicated set-up with a non-English foundation and Hurley doesn’t handhold. I thought it flowed reasonably well given the range of components, but it was the kind of wind that pushes you a little harder, making for an exhilarating sail. The first forty pages are virtually an independent short story; the development of the larger plot comes later, with roots in the prologue. The story ‘works’ in the China Miéville sense (and I’m thinking of Embassytown here), so take that for what it’s worth; people who don’t read much in sci-fi or fantasy may wish for more explanation and those who have little tolerance for gender dynamics might find themselves irritated. I thought the relatively straightforward plot balanced the complicated setting and ethical issues nicely.  

It was engrossing, interesting, and occasionally melancholic. Nyx is truly a belle dame sans merci– she has a very bloody, culturally sanctioned job, but her lack of compassion also extends to herself. It reminded me of the torturer Glokta in Abercrombie’s The First Law series. It provides an avenue for compassionate development of a deeply flawed human.Without doubt, God’s War deserves its Nebula nomination–as well as the Arthur C. Clarke and British Sci-Fi Association nominations. That said, I’m not sure everyone would enjoy it. But if you are looking for complicated, unusual fantasy with a fast-moving plot, give this a try. I’ll certainly be moving on to the next in the series, Infidel.

Posted in Book reviews, Epic fantasy, fantasy | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson. Worth dating.

Falling in Love with Hominids

Read July 2015
Recommended for fans of fantasy/sci-fi
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

In the foreword to Falling in Love with Hominids, Nalo Hopkinson writes that as a teen she despaired of the human race. I remember that feeling; perhaps as recently as last week. Then again, I also empathize with her closing line, “so part of the work of these past few decades of my life has been the process of falling in love with hominids.

Me too, Ms. Hopkinson. Me too.

This is an imaginative, provocative collection of stories that reflect the complexities of human existence, the moments of good and the impulses of bad.  The collection contains eighteen pieces that were written over the course of years, some written to specific themes, and published in variety of venues. Each piece has a short introduction that generally provides background to the story, usually in regards to the story influences. “Shift,” for instance, mentions Peter Straub, “Ours Is the Prettiest” gives some background to Bordertown, while “Delicious Monster” mentions the plant that inspired it.  I appreciate the information and the variety of insights; anthologies that are presented without context often feel disjointed, while authors that provide long explanations for the story origins distract from the actual pieces.

And what a collection this is. Explaining the subject and emotion of her works is challenging–I don’t read much in the literary fiction genre, and there aren’t many like her in sci-fi and fantasy. It’s rather like Octavia Butler sat down to brainstorm with Angela Carter in a beach cottage rented from Jeff Vandermeer. Though the stories draw on fantastical elements, they are usually written in contemporary setting with folk-tale structure. A few have a pronounced horror feel, such as “Blushing,”  which clearly originates with the Bluebeard tale. “The Easthound” opens with a look at a post-apocalypse life of a group of children starving themselves, hoping that by preventing puberty they prevent the dreaded “sprout.” Others are more balanced, but still flirt with the awful. In “Soul Case,” a group of indigenous people protecting themselves against invasion at great cost. The ghosts in “Old Habits” are forced to relive the moments of their death every day–in a shopping mall. Beauty, horror, sacrifice, sexuality, miracles and greed are all wrapped up together.

Hopkinson’s stories frequently reflect her upbringing in the Caribbean, drawing upon a diversity of mythology, language and cultures not often seen in sci-fi and fantasy. The inclusion gives a chance to integrate issues from the various backgrounds without feeling didactic. “Ours is the Prettiest” has a glancing look at domestic abuse in lesbian relationships. In”The Smile on the Face,” a  self-conscious teenage Gilla asks her mother for micro-braids, indirectly raising the volatile topic of ‘nappy hair:’ 

“Her mum came over, put her warm palms gently on either side of Gilla’s face and looked seriously into her eyes… “you want to tame your hair,’ her mother said… ‘You want hair that lies down and plays dead, and you want to pay a lot of money for it.

There were a few missteps for me. Possibly it is me and the short story form; I’m impatient with stories that clearly feel like an exercise in cleverness, such as “Snow Day” which was a challenge to reference certain works. “Message in a Bottle” has the feel of a budding novella, and the truncated ending did a disservice both to the fascinating sci-fi concepts and the desperate emotion of one of the characters. 

The writing is lovely, vivid; sometimes challenging when it integrates the patois of the multi-lingual. Sometimes its playful, particularly in “Emily Breakfast,” which centers on a talented cat and a missing chicken. Sometimes the language is clear but its the ideas that cause mind-stretch, as when a time-traveler tries to explain a particular shell:

Every shell is a life journal, made out of the very substance of its creator, and left as a record of what it thought, even if we can’t understand exactly what it thought. Sometimes interpretation is a trap. Sometimes we need to simply observe.

 

Well said.

 

Many, many thanks to NetGalley and Tachyon Publications for a reviewer’s copy. Please note that all quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof, but I could not resist sharing some of the wonders of Hopkinson’s style.

Posted in Book reviews, fantasy, Science fiction | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Katwalk by Karen Kijewski

Katwalk

Read July 2015
Recommended for fans of the 80s. And female P.I.s
 ★    ★    1/2

Nostalgia Series #1

Way back in the mid-nineties, I tried reading every series with a female investigator I could lay my hands on. Kat Colorado is one of the series that I recall enjoying a great deal. When I reached the then-end, I was disappointed ended and hopeful Kijewski would resume. Meandering through the memory files recently, I decided to give this series another go, reading through the lens of a decade or two. After all, it won the Shamus and Anthony Awards for Best First Novel, right?

That demon nostalgia. One of the reasons I rarely pick up books I remember fondly but indistinctly.

It begins when Charity Collins, advice columnist, calls friend and private investigator Kat Colorado for help. Charity’s in the middle of a divorce, and her soon-to-be-ex Sam has informed her that he has lost 200k of their money  in Vegas. Charity, of course, suspects duplicity. Despite a personal rule against working for friends, Kat takes the case and jets off to Las Vegas to track down the money. As she’s leaving the airport, she runs into a childhood friend, Deck, all grown up and suspiciously well-connected. When they meet for dinner, Kat is sidetracked from her mission after they stop by an art opening and she discovers a body.

I certainly can’t remember what I thought on first read so long ago, but now the writing seems awkward. It has that ‘first-book’ language feel where the author is trying a little too hard to use adjectives and adverbs to jazz up dialogue and setting. When Charity comes over in the middle of the night, Kat “watched morosely” as Charity raids the fridge, and “watches glumly” as Charity opens a bottle of wine Kat was saving. Then Kat “shakes off the idea” of Charity’s fudge combinations and “shuddered” at her finishing up her binge with hot chocolate. The fluidity (and sense) does improve, but the awkward writing coupled with Kat’s lukewarm support with her “good friend” led to rapidly deflating expectations.

Foreshadowing was heavy-handed, particularly in the early sections of the book. I suppose it is a stylistic choice, but I tend to think it’s a weak one. By page ten, there’s a musing on what if? with speculation capped by the phrase “Curiosity kills the cat.” Unfortunately, those kind of pun-ish foreshadowings continue to crop up.

On the up side, I did like Kat’s humor, although it mostly seemed to erupt at inappropriate moments, presumably out of nervousness. I couldn’t help but feel a moment of kinship when someone pours Kat a cup of coffee:

He poured two cups and put a huge teaspoon of powdered cream substitute in. I shuddered. He handed me the coffee and patted me on the shoulder, thinking, no doubt, that I was overcome. Which I was, but it was the cream substitute, not Sam. I should have gone with black.

And, for those who like mystery with a side of romance, there’s a chance meeting that develops quickly. Kat does seem to have empowered, strong-willed overtones, a character trait I prefer over hand-wringing distress. Still, it’s the kind of feminism that lacks subtlety, being couched in the most stereotypical of terms (“my job vs you caring that I’m risking my life”), and forgetting that Kat actually has no real skills that we’ve seen when it comes to protecting herself. She’s also kind of a snot to people that she doesn’t think deserve it, whether it’s a waitress giving lousy service or a real estate agent. I suppose that suited me when I was younger and more arrogant, or younger and lacking some self-esteem (depending on which time period we are talking about), but on the whole, I wasn’t impressed.

All that said, I’d say it entertained me. Until, that is, the last thirty or so pages when it attempts to up the finale by adding one of those silly thriller finales. The villain is straight out of James Bond, cold glittering eyes and creepy sexual domination fantasies (I believed it was compared to “breaking” a horse). As a further feminist bonus, there’s an “exotic woman” angle that makes it even more creeptastic. I’m pretty sure Old-me forgot that scene on purpose, but I would have liked a heads up. Way to go, Old-me!

Honestly, what a bitch, nostalgia. It would have been a lukewarm “I liked it” until the thriller finish. Now the adult in me just rolls my eyes (and yes, I understand the irony in that sentence.)

Posted in Book reviews, Mystery | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell.

The Severed Streets

Read June 2015
Recommended for ?
 Unrateable

Gah!

Imagine you are reading a developed, dark mystery series, tracking a killer brutally slashing his victims until they die. Say you are following around Matthew Scudder as he walks the streets of New York City, questioning prostitutes, greasing a palm or two and generally throwing back a whiskey whenever able. Then imagine Scudder gets a lead, goes to the meet in a dark alley, and discovers the informant is James Patterson. Worse, Patterson lurks in the corner of the alley, watching while some toughs beat the stuffing out of Scudder.

Cornell did something similar in The Severed Streets, and for the life of me, I cannot let it go. It’s a messy, fourth-wall-breaking action that destroys the both the atmosphere of danger and the serious emotional tone of the story. Even worse, the guest star reappears not one but twice later, with an implication of involvement in future events. 

Until that appearance, The Severed Streets was shaping up to be a notable improvement over the first book, London Falling (my review). It begins when London’s supernatural police team hears about a messy locked-car murder of a prominent politician and is sure the details fit one of their special cases. Investigation of the scene proves they are right, but as they start to make extensions into the hidden world of London’s occult practitioners, another message leads them to consider Jack the Ripper as prime suspect. The team will have to go undercover chasing leads from seedy bars to Parliament in order to find the cause of the killings, and the increase in London’s unrest.

Narrative is limited third person, switching primarily between the four members of the team: lead Detective Inspector James Quill, undercover specialists Kev Sefton and Tony Costain, and support from intelligence analyst Ross, but occasionally including viewpoints from victims, informants and suspects. As a device, I generally dislike it, feeling it’s a cheap technique to develop tension and provide information in one easy shot, but Cornell does it better here. Congruity is obtained by focusing primarily on Quill and Ross, and by limiting the non-team viewpoints to a few pages.

“So today was going to be a bit different and he was now in the mental space he associated with being undercover, lightly wearing a role which could basically be described as ‘definitely not a policeman.’

The writing stood out this time. At one point early on I had thought of taking notes, as several phrases impressed me, but talked myself out of it on the theory I would re-read. Since re-reading is most definitely out, I’ll have to resort to skimming. Such a good job of developing atmosphere, complexity of emotion and the London setting. Sigh. There is a sense of humor in the mix, but it is the dark humor of someone who sees too much of the callous, selfish side of humanity. I certainly smiled at points, but as I’m a practitioner of that school of humor, it appeals. I did think it avoided poor taste.

A few of them were, even now, giving each other high fives and laughing. But most of them looked grim. Quill looked at their emotion and again felt distant copper annoyance at bloody people. He used to joke that without people his job would be a lot easier. But now he supposed he couldn’t even say that.

There’s political undertones in the setting, with masked protestors appearing in flash mobs throughout the city. Quite a bit of the vernacular is British slang and British police speech, so it takes a little extra though process if you are an ignorant American. It wasn’t incomprehensible, however.

So, do I recommend it? I don’t know. Besides breaking that fourth wall, there’s a bit that was an emotional shocker. I guess that’s a compliment, right, an author that can evoke that kind of emotion? It really was a four star plus read until that guest came along and ruined the world-building. I can’t imagine what Cornell was thinking, except perhaps that he could treat a two-book UF mystery series like a Dr. Who special? I don’t know, but can attest that it didn’t work.

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Knight Moves, The Black Knight Chronicles 3 by John G. Hartness

Knight Moves

Read June 2015
Recommended for UF readers who want lite-fun-silly
 ★    ★    ★ 

Well, got that fix out of the way. I’m about full-up on my need for humorous urban fantasy, so I can finally slip into something different. On deck and dragging is finishing The Severed Streets (and why on earth that fool author introduced Neil Gaiman is beyond me), (re)reading Katwalk, which should count as an initial read since I first read it about twenty years ago, re-reading Quantum Thief and hopefully, immersing myself in The Troupe. Oh, and The Spirit Stone. So I’ve got a lot to do, people; I need to make this quick.

Right, on to the main point. Knight Moves is book three in the vampire buddy duo of Jimmy Black and Greg Knightwood, aided and abetted by Father Mike and Detective Sabrina Law. It begins with a bowling date, and Jimmy and Sabrina seemed poised for their first clench when they are rudely interrupted by Greg bearing news of a dead–and drained–body on the local college campus. Oh-oh: Jimmy knows all too well what that means. They’re too late–or just on time, depending on your point of view–to do what needs to be done, and the newly risen twenty year-old woman is going to cause some thorny philosophical and emotional issues. The investigation into her death takes off, moves quickly among a combination of expected and unexpected plot points, and maintains a fast pace until the end.

There is a plot point or two that had me wondering about the world-building in this version of Charlotte, North Carolina, but I didn’t dwell too long, and honestly, close reading might have explained it. But I don’t read these kind of books to focus on the amazing world-building and language finesse. I want plotting to be generally coherent and enough action that I can’t accidentally-on-purpose skip five pages and still be able to understand what’s going on. So, success.

What I tend to appreciate most about this series is the combination of humor, emotional sensitivity and action. It’s clear the more we learn about Jimmy that he has some serious internal conflict about his life as a vampire, no matter how he tries to spin the ‘apex predator’ slogan. However, Jimmy (and Hartness) does not take himself as seriously as Dresden (and Butcher), and the quips are more appropriately placed with respect to scene tone and action.  The humor is a nice mix of commentary that hints at an emotional depth while turning it into a laugh:

But I couldn’t change that, so I had to be responsible for her. Greg was going to love this. He’d wanted a puppy for years, and I kept saying no. Now I was going to bring home a pet vampire.”

Or recognizing plot/vampire tropes, such as when Jimmy and Greg are discussing a stolen vehicle:

‘Yeah, whatever. You got any clients that run chop shops?’
‘No. You got any old informants that owe you a favor?’
‘No. So if we’re out of the stereotypical ideas, what’s next?’

As well as current cultural commentary:

“And she’s kinda the Kingpin of Charlotte, if you’ve read enough Daredevil comics to get the reference.’
‘I saw that really crappy movie with Ben Affleck, if that’s what you mean,’ Abby said. ‘But I get it.'”

(Personally, I like to think of it as that bad comic-book movie where Jennifer Gardner makes an appearance, but we all have our ways of describing Daredevil).

At any rate, though humor often seems to be a staple of the UF genre, it’s hard to maintain the tone of seriousness if  your heroes are going to make as many quips as judo moves. Hartness found a balance that works for me, particularly in the development of the emotional aspects of Jimmy and Greg’s lives. If you’ve been following this long, you know that although they are best friends, Jimmy turned Greg, and both of them live with some heavy emotional consequences. There’s also a developing angle with Father Mike, and the growing connection between Jimmy and Sabrina. If humor pops up, it’s because it helps put a brave face on the heartbreak, or indirectly comment on Jimmy’s affection. Plus, Sabrina is freaking funny:

‘So,’ Sabrina said. ‘If you two are done measuring things no one else is interested in seeing, what’s the plan for the evening?”

And honestly, although there are enough references to crack me up, Hartness doesn’t come near Ready Player One or Geekomancy in the cultural references, which is nice. Yet despite my claim to the contrary, I’ll leave you with one last little giggle:

“I pulled a chair in from the kitchen for Sabrina and looked around for a place to sit. If we kept adding supernatural associates to our little Junior Justice League, we were totally going to need a satellite. Or at least a real office.”

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Back in Black, The Black Knight Chronicles 2 by John G. Hartness

Back in Black

Read June 2015
Recommended for UF readers who want lite-fun-silly
 ★    ★    ★   

There are times when making a healthy, fresh meal seems like too much work, times when munching on white cheddar popcorn and enjoying a drink seems like an acceptable substitute for a meal. It isn’t in the long run, of course, but as an occasional treat it works. The Black Knight Chronicles are the popcorn in the UF world. To me, Hartness managed the tricky feat of creating the tension a mystery requires without negating the seriousness of the situation for the victims.

Best friends James Black and Greg Knightwood IV are vampires making their living (so to speak) as private investigators. There’s been a series of seeming hate crimes in North Carolina where six gay men have been found badly beaten. Details surrounding the scenes lead Detective Sabrina to suspect a supernatural angle, so she enlists the duo to help. We meet them on the way to Lilith’s (yes, that one) supernatural strip club, but this is about as far away from True Blood’s Fangtasia as one can get. I read the first two chapters with raised eyebrow, but I was committed when the chapter ended with this giggle-worthy toss-off:

I slid into the backseat and lay down as best I could. Greg had a towel behind his seat, because he’s a hoopy frood that way, so I tried to put the bloodiest parts of me on the towel to save the upholstery.

Characterization is decent, especially given humorous overtones. Greg and James have been buddies for most of their lives, along with Mike the priest, and their banter has the fond familiarity of classic bro-mance. I also appreciated that James is aware he’s the muscle of the group and doesn’t resent the others for their direction or help. James admires Greg even as he mocks him, and the respect–for the most part– for Greg’s ethical code helps elevate the story’s tone at the same time it goes for laughs:

“Sometimes my partner is really perceptive, something that’s easy to overlook when he wraps himself in black spandex, which happens more often that it should.

The storyline takes an unusual turn with the crime. Per the genre norm, Detective Sabrina becomes personally involved when one of the victims is her cousin. A backstory is revealed that makes the connection even more personal. However, a major plot twist develops that takes the story in initially pun-ishing directions when another supernatural group becomes involved. At first, I rolled my eyes. I had scanned a review or two before reading, but had forgotten that detail, noting only that I may not appreciate the direction it took. It turned out, once the pun-ish idiocy (pardon me) was left behind, it became a reasonably interesting story. There’s a bit of fantasy world-building that seems a little bit oddly juxtaposed but works, as well as a modern action sequence to ramp up the tension. It’s possible that there’s a little too much of kitchen sink in the story, but what do you expect from popcorn?

I frequently have anticipatory nervousness when I run into a book that tries to combine humor with sensitive issues. Gay-bashing and shaming is a very real issue, and I was on the alert for signs the author was going to be dismissive. I ended up enjoying this one. There’s a few preachy points but not overly intrusive, and it seemed Harkness was generally able to be respectful while maintaining a fun tone. I’d certainly welcome other insights and experiences if anyone want to share thoughts.

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The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump by Harry Turtledove

The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump

Read June 2015
Recommended for UF readers
 ★    ★    ★    1/2

I’ve always thought of much of the urban fantasy field as taking off with Ann Rice and Laurel Hamilton books, so when I saw this book was published in 1993, I had to give it a shot. It is of the alternate history kind of urban fantasy, with magic as the basis for technological development. David Fisher works for the Environmental Perfection Agency as an inspector. His manager in the District of St. Columbia wants him to unofficially follow up on a tip that a waste dump north of Angels City might be experiencing problems. As David investigates, he discovers that three area children have been born soulless, and there’s more than the usual numbers of elf-shot, werewolves and vampires in the area. The dump manager seems like an honest sort, but it’ll take a warrant and legal challenges to get more information. When a monastery is burned down, it becomes clear that David is onto a deadly conspiracy.

Apparently arising out of a discussion at a convention, Turtledove created a world-view that mostly works by Principle of Substitution. Instead of ‘Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley,’ we have ‘Angels City and St. Ferdinand’s Valley.’ Telephones use imps to pass information, and alarm clocks are powered by small spirits. People use flying carpets instead of cars, and doesn’t that just create a new level of merging challenge! Parchment is used instead of paper, but David will still need to convince a judge to issue a warrant to further investigate the dump. Elevators are powered by spell-inscribed parchments and an air spirit. It’s an interesting technique; while it allows one to jump right into a story without extensive world-building, I did get the pun-ish vibe of Piers Anthony’s Xanth series.

The concepts I found the most intriguing was the general idea of separate-but-equal religions that seems to underlie the worldview. However, I’m not sure it entirely worked, particularly with how the story developed. And no, I don’t remember what they said about atheism, except that everyone agreed that the three children born without souls was a profound tragedy. I’m not sure that was ever explained, as it didn’t sound like it would impact their earthly experience. There’s also some aspects of the story that deal with immigration, an ongoing discussion in the L.A. Basin. I appreciated it was integrated and acknowledged in the story, as so many ‘urban’ fantasies seem to ignore the nature of the urban setting. However, as the story progressed, I’m not entirely sure that it worked out in a non-judgmental kind of way.

Characters were well developed. Unfortunately, David’s a mid-level bureaucrat, and much of his routine is rather mundane. His inner narrative gives insight to the world he lives in, but even discussion of imps and telephones couldn’t keep me interested in his phone calls. I particularly liked his relationship with Judith, an editor and proofreader at a grimoire publishing firm. David uses her as a sounding board, and she contributes valuable ideas when they brainstorm. But what I liked even more is that their relationship seemed mature and balanced, without the interpersonal drama (usually due to misunderstandings) that so characterizes the genre.

Plotting was acceptable, although it dragged a bit in the beginning. I almost felt as if Turtledove really had followed a mid-level bureaucrat through a week of his life and then magicalized it. And, as you might imagine, most people’s professional details are not interesting enough that detailing them gives any benefit to the sense of routine. I won’t spoil it, but as the investigation of the dump starts to escalate, the plotting picks up and becomes more complicated, almost to the point where it seems like another story.

While I was glad to have finally read Turtledove, a classic fantasy author, the story didn’t deeply engage me. I read it with intellectual interest as to the world-building, but that isn’t always sustainable for a story. Aspects also reminded me of Terry Pratchett, although I’d be hard pressed to say why. Perhaps the tongue-in-cheek tone that simultaneously wants the reader to care about character predicaments while jokes are being made. I’d recommend it for people that are interested in a wide variety of urban fantasy, those who want perspective on the genre, and fans of the time period.

Thank you to NetGalley and to Open Road Media for providing a review’s copy of this book

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