Book Burners by Gladstone, Dunlap, Lafferty, and Slattery

Read  September 2017
Recommended for fans of serials. Not the edible kind.
★    ★  

Book Burners is an urban fantasy series about a five-person team that works to recover dangerous magical artifacts and lock them away beneath the Vatican. The brainchild of Max Gladstone, author of the fabulous Craft series, it is one of the main titles for Serial Box, an online publisher/distributor that “brings everything that’s awesome about TV (easily digestible episodes, team written, new content every week) to what was already cool about books,” selling the weekly installments for a small price. Like a tv show, there’s a overarching plot that is moved incrementally along as the cast fights weekly battles. Think the tv show Supernatural, or as other reviewers note, Warehouse 13. Let the Serial Box advert serve as warning: Book Burners shares some of the weaknesses of the television format without capturing the strengths.

Five main characters make up The Avengers the team: Detective Sally, police officer; Liam, computer dude; Grace, kick-ass fighter; Asanti, researcher; and Father Menchú, priest and leader. The first story uses Sal as as stand in for the naive reader, building the world and introducing the team and its mission. Sal’s a NYPD police officer whose younger brother shows up at her apartment, looking for a place to crash. The team is following him, and when weird things happen, Sal ends up working with them to help her brother.

The collected edition has all 16 episodes of the first season in one tome, and definitely feels too similar about halfway through. Undoubtedly, reading will work better following the serial pacing, not binging. Each episode is about 50 pages. The four authors are able to achieve a relatively uniform tone, although I felt like Gladstone’s style tended to stand out slightly. Most follow the standard tv format of short victim viewpoint followed by team-focused problem solving and action mode. Lafferty’s sections had welcome flourishes of humor. The pacing is well done, with each installment having a plot that starts and finishes, usually without resorting to cliffhangers.

However, the uniform tone is at the expense of in-depth world and personality-building. One way the authors deal with the challenge is to have a couple of episodes focus on backstories. Sal, the police officer and Grace, the fighting expert from China (go ahead; I sighed too) both get some history, but most episodes are the ‘monster of the week’ variety. Eventually, arch-villains are discovered who will provide background opposition through multiple stories.

Honestly, as a read it was only mildly entertaining. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that felt more like a television script, bare on details that would likely be fleshed out in a visual medium. Writing often felt choppy, making me nostalgic for the work of writers more comfortable with short-story format. Characters felt largely stereotypical, with only the rare transcendent moment. There isn’t too much that gets into the philosophical underpinnings of how team members reconcile the dichotomy of having magical support/knowledge/access/skills at the same time they are confiscating magical artifacts.

Overall, not a bad book, and I wouldn’t rule out reading more in the world. It’s just wasn’t as fun as I was expecting (especially with the tv-like focus) and generally feels forgettable.

 

The installments, broken out:

  1. Badge, Book, and Candle (Gladstone): Sal meets the team
  2. Anywhere but Here (Slattery): an Italian apartment and a pair of missing girls
  3. Fair Weather (Dunlap): an explosion at a book shop leads to a yacht
  4. A Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Lafferty): Asanti heads to Scotland for her mentor’s funeral, Sal is back-up
  5. The Market Arcanum (Dunlap): Sal and Menchu attend the annual flea market for practitioners
  6. Big Sky (Slattery): tornadoes are out of control in an Oklahoma town
  7. Now and Then (Gladstone): Sal tracks down Grace and learns her story
  8. Under My Skin (Lafferty): the team heads to Vegas to solve a problem with a tattoo artist reality show
  9. Ancient Wonders (Dunlap): the team goes to Delphi to listen to the Oracle
  10. Shore Leave (Lafferty): Grace and Sal enjoy Grace’s day off while the team tries to manage a timepiece
  11. Codex Umbra (Gladstone): recovering a magical book from a guarded fortress
  12. Puppets (Slattery): dealing with demons
  13. Keeping Friends Close (Lafferty): demons and books
  14. An Excellent Day for an Exorcism (Slattery)
  15. Things Lost (Dunlap)
  16. Seige (Gladstone)

 

 

 

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Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. Must I?

Read  September 2017
Recommended for fans of classic sci-fi
★    ★  

 

And today, mine is going to be unpopular. But remember the advice from 9th grade Advanced English teacher Mrs. Muench about metaphors. Or maybe I mean false equivalency. Regardless: you are not what you like. If I dislike something you love, I am not disliking you. But you may not want to read my review, friends who love this book.

Consider Phlebas is classic sci-fi that I missed growing up. Periodically, I try to exercise my genre core, and it was with a bit of ‘read-harder’ spirit that I picked it up. Initially intrigued, I gradually lost interest as the main character, Horza, ended up in one disastrous situation after another. Horza’s a Changer, a shape-shifting species that is extremely rare throughout the galaxy, who voluntarily works for the Idiran race in a battle between the Idirans and the Culture. Disaster seems to sharpen Horza’s philosophical skills, because as he attempts to save himself from (da-dum) Certain Doom, he takes a little bit of time to compare and contrast the structured and AI-dominant Culture with that of the religious and militant Idirans.

I’ll take ‘C,’ none of the above.

Honestly, I ended up bored, and there’s no way that should happen when you are a) in a torture chamber filling with liquid waste, b) in a deep space shoot-out, c) captured by space pirates, d) attacking a monastery for a priceless artifact, e) involved in a mega-colony ship crash, f) about to be eaten by cannibal cultists, g) playing a card game to the death, or h) making a daring spaceship escape, which is where I last set the book down.

Mr. Bazan, of the honors high school Civilization class always insisted that boredom was due to the person complaining of it (the students, naturally) not asking enough questions. I’m willing to accept some responsibility here, but frankly, it feels padded with filler. Though Horza is approached with a job for the Idirans that involves returning to a planet and people from Horza’s earlier life, he doesn’t actually start that particular task until close to 3/5 through the book, having to get through the aforementioned adventures to get close to his objective. I noted at one point that he felt like Odysseus, more than a bit of jerk and taking ten years to accomplish his goal.

So the plot is somewhat meandering. Maybe the characters are interesting? Well, not really; Horza is hard to enjoy. While he is resourceful and confident, and occasionally even affable, he truly connects with only one person. He shares very little of his past, so despite reading three hundred pages or so, I can’t really tell you much about Changer culture, his childhood, etc. Although he states families are close-knit, his parents are dead and he’s the only one in his ‘clan,’ one presumes he’s been isolated by circumstance. His feelings towards other beings is largely dispassionate, strategical over emotional.

The writing failed to grab me as well, with a fair amount of description that doesn’t really advance the story or the world-building. For instance, when on the pirate ship:

“During the next few days he indeed got to know the rest of the crew. He talked to those who wanted to talk and he observed or carefully overheard things about those who didn’t. Yalson was still his only friend, but he got on well enough with his roommate, Wubslin, though the stocky engineer was quiet, and, when not eating or working, usually asleep. The Bratsilakins had apparently decided that Horza probably wasn’t against them, but they seemed to be reserving their opinion about whether he was for them until Marjoin and the Temple of Light.

Dorlow was the name of the religious woman who roomed with Yalson. She was plumb, fair skinned and fair haired, and her huge ears curved down to join onto her cheeks. She spoke in a very high, squeaky voice, which she said was pretty low as far as she was concerned, and her eyes watered a lot. He movements were fluttery and nervous.”

It goes on like that for another three pages for the rest of the crew, and this is on page 67, mind you, of people who quite possibly may be killed. The descriptions aren’t even particularly interesting; different cultures/races represented and we get that the voice was high and her eyes watered? No dialogue on discovering this? I remember reading A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and being intrigued by interaction with the crew members, the details that made their race/personality come alive. Banks doesn’t even have the courtesy of character preservation, so that my effort in learning these almost faceless blobs’ names might be entirely wasted.

It just didn’t work for me. Explanatory and expositionary; full of telling, a main character that was a challenge to connect to, and a rather arbitrary division between religious extremism and A.I. regulation couched in yawning philosophical dichotomies meant this was a struggle all the way through.

Sorry, friends! Always a downer when someone doesn’t love the book that you do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Interstellar Pig by William Sleator. Or, a board game I could actually play.

Read  September 2017
Recommended for fans of sci-fi, board games
★    ★    ★    ★   1/2

It takes a special book to stick in one’s memory for over thirty years. There are some I remember because I read them over and over, but then there are those that I remember because of the sheer ideaness and atmosphere imprinted on my young brain (there’s also the category of Awful Things that Happened to Animals genre, which caused a less happy kind of imprinting). I must have read Interstellar Pig shortly after it release in 1984, and it remained one of those books that I remembered in sections now and again. Not the title, of course, but strangely enough, you put ‘young adult,’ ‘aliens’ ‘pig’ into Google, and it comes up with the book in a flash, so it was easy for me to track it down for a wander down memory lane.

It is with pleasure that I realized it was still an interesting, engaging read.

Barney is sixteen, and trapped with his parents at a two-week rental college on the coast coast, a beachfront location that does absolutely nothing for his sunburn-prone skin but seems to serve a purpose for his status-hunting parents, but does give him a chance to catch up on his science-fiction reading. The caretaker informs them that the sea captain who built the cottage kept his brother locked in the front room for twenty years. Barney is hoping for more information, perhaps a ghost story or two, when the caretaker has to abandon story-telling to settle in the next-door neighbors who have an obsessive interest in Barney’s cottage. Barney’s intrigued by their cosmopolitan personalities and by the game they continually reference.

“But they didn’t seem to appreciate my wit. Barely moving their heads, their eyes met; three pairs of eyes meeting equally somehow, as though there were only two of them. And I thought of the jagged pits and troughs in the windowsills of my room, and I felt uneasy for the first time. A curtain flapped gently at the window. The others in the room remained as still as reptiles in the sun.”

To say much more would enter spoiler territory, as the plot moves quickly and has a couple of interesting twists with an earlier scene providing nice foreshadowing for the climactic event. Slater builds suspense well, and I think that the atmosphere of fear he created might have helped stick this book in my memory. Characterization is perhaps a weaker point, but its more than adequate for the story. I’d say for my 2017 re-read, although Barney’s age is supposed to be sixteen, he feels more like twelve or thirteen in modern terms.

The writing is solid, feeling more sophisticated than most of the young adult I’ve read in recent years. Like many teens, Barney’s descriptions of his parents are ruthlessly honest, but there’s also a measure of acceptance there, and eventually fondness, that elevates it above the simple sarcastic dismissal. The three people next door have traveled a lot and “seemed exotic, as though English was not their native language.” It is cleverly conveyed through their dialogue, though Barney never remarks on it but that once. “Ugh! You let the milk go sour again, Manny,’ Zena groaned. ‘Can’t you learn to recollect the date?'”

At 197 pages, it goes by too quickly. A fun little book with a great finale, and a final flourish of well-earned humor. You just never know who will win the great game.

 

 

 

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All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Read  September 2017
Recommended for fans of sci-fi, AIs
★    ★    ★    ★   1/2

“Confession time: I don’t actually know where we are…. I hadn’t looked at the maps yet and I’d barely looked at the survey package. In my defense, we’d been here twenty-two planetary days and I hadn’t had to do anything but stand around watching humans make scans or take samples of dirt, rocks, water, and leaves. The sense of urgency just wasn’t there. Also, you may have noticed, I don’t care.”

I can relate to Murderbot, the misanthropic construct who is contracted to provide security detail for a small expedition to a planet. Murderbot, as the A.I. calls itself, it plainly uncomfortable with personal attention, and has little interest in anything outside its scope of concern, namely, its job and entertainment videos. I have to confess, that sounds like me during most of my adolescent years (substitute books for videos and you have me at every family event ever).

Written as a novella, the plot takes off from page two. It isn’t long before both Murderbot and the team realize they’re facing multiple types of danger. Characterization is one of the outstanding parts of the story, with Murderbot’s nature getting a lot of subtle build. The team never stood out to any great degree, but that’s partly because until this expedition, Murderbot has had generally negative experiences with the people it is contracted to protect and assumed this group would be more of the same. The leader, Dr. Mensah, soon distinguishes herself with crisis management and leadership, while an augmented human, Gurathin, presents a different kind of challenge.

My one hesitation in calling it a five star book is the ending, which felt somewhat awkward and incongruous to the personality earlier, which displayed little curiosity or independence. I read the story twice, the second time doing the math on the length of time Murderbot has been independent. I’m guessing around four years, based on its own estimate of 35k hours since it failed to become an uncontrolled killing machine. The resolution felt like a shortcut, and like a logic failure in Murderbot’s circuts. But I’m open to discussion on it.

Final resolution aside, I certainly enjoyed the ride. I predict some kind of award nomination next season. Wells and Tor.com recently announced that the novella is first in a four part series. I’ll be eagerly anticipating the following books. And, if you want to tease yourself, Wells does have the first bit of book two on her site.

“I thought it was likely that the only supplies we would need… was the postmortem kind, but you may have noticed that when I do manage to care, I’m a pessimist.”

Me too, Murderbot. Me too.

Martha Wells has shared the first chapter of All Systems Red here.

 

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MageBorn by Stephen Aryan

Read  August 2017
Recommended for fans of epic fantasy
★    ★    ★    ★   

Mage Born is the first epic fantasy I’ve really enjoyed in a long, long time.

Plotting surrounds a group of people connected to the Red Tower, a center of learning and networking for mages, re-established after an international war caused by rogue magicians. Magic users had historically been viewed with suspicion and fear, so the Red Tower sought to identify and teach young practitioners. However, decades-long fear and bias are hard to erase, and a movement to ban magic seems to be growing (as I write this, I find myself pondering parallels in the US political climate).

“Many of the older students who’d learned to conceal their magic were taught how to stay in control, to keep themselves safe and prevent accidents in their communities. Thhey were often middle-aged men and women, approached with discretion, so as not to alert their friends and neighbours. Most had no desire to learn more, didn’t want to become a Battlemage and wanted nothing to do with the Red Tower. These days it was becoming too dangerous with so much anti-magic sentiment.”

Narratives include Habreel and Akosh, uneasy allies working to ban magic-use; Munroe, a woman with a troublesome past who has become an exceedingly strong sorcerer; her husband, Choss, who trains young students in combat; Tianne and Wren, young women who have just come to the Red Tower to learn how to develop and control their abilities; Tammy, Guardian of the Peace; and a few other rare perspectives. The multitude of viewpoints are woven together around two main plots: the atmosphere in the Red Tower for the new students, and the attempt to protect magic users in the community while Habreel works against them. Additionally, Tammy is tasked with an old murder case–discovering who killed her husband so many years ago. At times, I was not sure how all the dual stories would connect, but they eventually dovetailed. There’s a level of danger in the Tower that seems inappropriate for an enlightened school setting, although that ends up being intriguingly hinted at the end.

I enjoyed the characterization, wishing only that we spent more time with fewer characters, as I wanted to know more about the school and more about Munroe (it turns out there’s more about Munroe in an earlier trilogy, so back to the series I go). I was fascinated and uncomfortable with Habreel’s sedition, but believed his sincerity in his cause. I loved Munroe’s cocky confidence–that she completely owns and deserves–and Tammy’s understanding of human nature. I also love that Tammy is an older woman who has been through a lot in her life and professional career. Wren and her friend Tianne are members of different ethnic groups, so there’s an added level of complexity there as they seek to integrate into the Tower and their peer group. There was increasing tension as the book progressed, and I found myself trying to read faster. When I finished, I was left with one of those book-hangovers that signal deep involvement in a book.

There are a few challenges for me in the smoothness of the writing, primarily as we shifted viewpoint to viewpoint. I also generally prefer a little more world-building, but I think it was adequate for the story and allowed the author to focus on dialogue and action. However, I can forgive quite a bit, particularly when I realized in retrospect that most of the perspectives were female, and they were just, you know, people. It isn’t even until I’m listing perspectives in my review that I realized how many are female, and how many different roles they fill. Contrast that with my last review in the Night Angel series, Beyond the Shadows, when I realized almost every single woman was defined by her sexuality.

I grew up on fantasy, and if there was one thing I realized early, it was the dearth of people like me. Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad (excepting Polgara), Sword of Shannara (Wren is the only female I remember in the early series, and look how that turned out), The Wheel of Time series (Egwene and her hair-flipping), the Dragonlance chronicles, Robert Lynn Asprin, and don’t get me started on Piers Anthony (who I generally loved): all primarily male characters and women who embody stereotypes. Then there’s the subset of epic fantasy that had a few female characters, but included rape and violence against women (Jennifer Robinson, McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, Thomas Covenant series). I think I had burned out on the genre before people started doing more interesting things with it.

So yes. While there may be issues–I might wish for more vivid writing or more detailed world-building–they are relatively insignificant. Stephen Aryan’s books scratch a decades-old epic itch in a satisfying way. I can’t wait until the next one.

 

Thank you to Jenni at Orbit and Aryan for an advance copy of this book.

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The White Road by John Connolly

 
Read  August 2017
Recommended for fans of atmospheric writing, thrillers
★    ★    ★    ★   

“To invite me into their lives was to admit failure and allow death its provenance, for I was the one who arrived when all hope was gone, offering nothing but the possibility of a resolution that would bring with it more grief and pain and a knowledge that perhaps would make ignorance appear like a blessing. The only consolation in all that would occur was that some small measure of justice might begin to accrue from my involvement, that lives might continue with some small degree of certainty restored: the certainty that the physical pain of a loved one was at an end, and that somebody cared enough to try to discover why that pain had been visited on them at all.”

Charlie Parker is still finding his way, but he is coming to understand that his form of justice has jagged edges. Louis, one of Parker’s best friends, knows even more about Charlie’s form of justice than he does: “He [Parker] had chosen his own first faltering steps toward some form of salvation over the wishes, perhaps even the needs, of his friend, and Louise could not find it in him to blame Parker for this. Even Angel did not blame him: he merely wished that it were otherwise.”

The beginning is a bit like following a trail of breadcrumbs, as Connolly recounts the public lynching of a black man in 1964, Louis settling up old debts, a retired guard in the Carolina swamp plotting revenge and Parker trying to bring closure on the case of Cassie Blythe. Parker is back to his normal cases, leaving white crime behind, but still trying to stay close to home with Rachael pregnant with their child. He seems almost desperate for normalcy, but can’t escape the ghosts of the dead and his feeling of obligation. To make matters worse, Faulkner, the evil preacher from the last story, is about to be freed from jail, and Parker, Louis and Angel know they’ll be first on his list.

A lawyer friend from NYPD days calls from South Carolina, wanting Parker to find information exonerating his client, Artys Jones, a poor black man, from the rape and murder of a white woman. The woman, Marianne Larousse, is the daughter of a man who virtually owns the the area with tobacco, oil wells, mining and factories, so despite Marianne and Artys seeing each other, no one is inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

“The history of these two families, the Larousses and the Joneses, the blood spilled and lives destroyed, meant that it could never be anything as pure as luck or coincidence that drew them together. Over more than two centuries they had bound themselves, each to the other, in a pact of mutual destructiveness only partly acknowledged on either side, fueled by a past that allowed one man to own and abuse another.”

Wrapped around and threaded through the case in Carolina of the dead woman is the history of racism in the south. It was chilling coincidence that I read this as #45 talked about ‘both sides doing wrong’ at a white supremacist rally where a peaceful counter-protestor was killed. It was clear that Connolly did a lot of research about hate groups in the Southern U.S. as a connection develops between the Neo-Nazi movements, the white supremacists and the fringe. It is rare to learn so much from a thriller, but it gave a horrifying feel of realness about the story, that different kinds of crazy might align themselves together to consolidate a power base.

Much more would run the risk of spoiling. I thought that this was a much stronger book than the previous ones for me, with better balance between the evil and the philosophy. The setting was extremely well done, from an endless swampy wilderness, to a run down industrial area. The mystery had a couple of solid twists, making it satisfactory on that level as well. If anything, this reminded me of a more horrific Tana French (these Irish!). Definitely not one I read before bedtime, at the risk of adrenaline twitches. There’s even a tiny bit of humor mixed in, as one of Parker’s contacts is looking for help finding a date in return for a professional favor. My only complaint would be that the resolution to all the threads (but not the mystery) felt rushed and over convenient, with an odd switch into third person omniscient that contrasted uncomfortably with the Parker’s first person and the occasional cut of third person limited used in the rest of the story. Overall, though, that was a minor complaint that only stood out because the rest of it was so interesting and full. I’ll definitely move on to the next.

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Borderline by Mishell Baker. Yep.

Read  August 2017
Recommended for fans of urban fantasy looking for a new take
★    ★    ★   

 

One of my friends once called me ‘The Anti-Drama.’ It was one of those moments of startling clarity, when one thinks, ‘wow; that could be the truest thing I’ve heard.’ I’ve found myself shying away from people that seem to enjoy confrontations, outbursts, reversals, confessions, and living life on a roller-coaster of emotion. All of this is to explain that it isn’t Mishell Baker’s book as much as it is her protagonist, Millie, of the borderline personality disorder and recent suicide attempt, that prevented me from enjoying Borderline.

Well, maybe the writing has something to do with it. Baker drops us into Millie’s world without background, almost exactly like meeting a new person in real life. We don’t know her childhood, although there’s clues dropped that her mother was absent and her father abusive/distant. We learn she was a prodigy in the film world, with a shot at winning Sundance, but have very little of the in between. These hints come about as she talks with other people, or as she thinks about her coping skills. The advantage to this is avoiding awkward explanatory backstory; however, it does little to mitigate the perception of impulsive, selfish behavior. Millie’s own habit of stating ‘borderlines do this…’ and ‘of course, mood swings are borderline…’ etc. contributed to the outsider effect.

Equally difficult was her inability to demonstrate compassion or softness with others. She seemed to value other people in terms of usefulness or in response to sudden affection (characteristic of borderline, of course, not just your average 20 year old who recently left an isolated environment). She has little empathy for their own struggles, even after learning everyone at the house that serious issues. For me, it was a barrier to connecting Millie as she continually sabotaged her moments of possible connection and success. On the plus side, there were a couple of moments where she was able to coach herself through (‘borderline,’ of course) situations (because who else over-reacts?). It ended up not really being enough to connect with her, or actually care particularly when she was so quick to abandon the group (again, ‘borderline,’ not an impulsive young person). It was a little like watching a mouse run a maze. Would she navigate it? Did I care?

 

The setting was a split-world fairyland/real world set-up, centered in Los Angeles, California, movieland. Baker’s spin on the two worlds is that many people have an emotional fae twin on the other side, and allowing the human and fae to meet would allow the human to express new heights of artistry. The plotting focused equally on Millie’s development in this new world and a missing Fae.

My last mental association is unfortunate, because I never really cared for Madonna. I’m sure younger readers won’t have this problem.

 

I read this with somewhat high expectations, after GR buzz, knowing it won a World Fantasy Award and it’s (shocking) Nebula Award nomination, and a very enthusiastic podcast where someone called it the ‘best urban fantasy I’ve ever read.’

I’d like to introduce him to Kate Griffin.

 

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Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith

Read  July 2017
Recommended for fans of sci-fi fantasy that messes with the rules
★    ★    ★    ★   1/2

“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.

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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.

 

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