Pink Vodka Blues by Neal Barrett Jr. Not really ‘blues’ as much as ‘bubbles’

pink-vodka-blues

Read September 2016
Recommended for fans of daffy buddy mysteries, the Spellmans
 ★     ★     ★     ★   

“The lamp by the bed said cheap hotel. The lamp was bright orange, which is not a good color if you drink. You wake up and your head’s a can of nails, you don’t want to see a lot of orange. You want to see a color like black.”

I found Barrett by way of reading his Hugo/Nebula novelette nominee, ‘Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus. Something about the tone, humor and nicely paced story intrigued me, and I found more of the same in Pink Vodka Blues. A solid mystery of the ‘find the missing item’ school, Russell Murray (‘not Murray Russell’) wakes from a bender in a motel room with a very attractive young woman. While he’s heaving up last night in the bathroom, two large men break into the motel room, shoot the girl and then spy him hiding in the bathroom. Within a flash, he’s on the run. 

“I decided last week was the ideal time to leave town. That I really liked fishing a lot. That I could surely learn to like the local beer. As ever, good planning is the key.”

He’s pretty sure a drink will help him cope, but Chicago isn’t selling at this exact moment, so he makes his way to the Wisconsin border where they have early opening on Sundays.

The sign at the Wisconsin border reads: ‘Warning! Wisconsin Arrests Drunken drivers!’ To help bring this about, an impressive number of taverns line the roads. Other states have Mom and Pop groceries… Wisconsin has Mom and Pop taverns – more taverns per capita, locals boast, than any other state.”

He buys a bottle and calls his friend and employer Tony Palmer, who seems excessively interested in where Russell is and what happened to a briefcase. Russell has no clue what Tony is referring so but starts to get worried, so he hangs up and takes to the road with his booze. You can tell its the late 80s, because the cop that picks him up leaves him at a rehab facility instead of jail. (Of course, Wisconsin still remains one of the best states to drive in while drunk, if by ‘best,’ one means no minimum sentence and it’ll take four OWI before you reach felony level offense). After a bit of hallucination and a missed urinal, he comes around to Sherry Lou Winn, fellow resident, staring him in the face. She’s well endowed in the financial sense and looks like a red-headed Cheryl Ladd, but even better, is a bit of a loose cannon.

“Sherry took a bite of dry toast. ‘Les doesn’t care for me a lot. He figures I’ll bring you down.’
‘You just might,’ I said. ‘I have no will of my own. I am easily led astray.’
‘I sure do admire that in a man,’ Sherry said.”

The two end up on the road, trying to figure out what is going on and clear Murray’s reputation. The danger eventually becomes quite real, as if Murray didn’t already know. There’s a lot of drinking, some intermittent research, and narrow escapes that all tie up in a solid, if somewhat confusing ending.

I found it highly enjoyable, a kind of perfect read for a not-too-serious mood. The banter was amusing and I particularly appreciated the dry wit punctuating Murray’s thoughts. Murray wrote for “The Literary Times,’ and more than one of his jokes draws on the literary (“my mouth was dry as a page of Henry James”). There’s a number of running jokes which amuse–particularly the ones relating to vocabulary–as well as a few absurdist images.

I half expected the staccato narrative style to grate, but strangely, I enjoyed it. I think Barrett kept the pace moving, and switched to a more descriptive style at appropriate moments. It might have also helped that I didn’t read this all at once, but more as a diversion. Characterization may seem a bit simple at first–Murray is a bit of a sweetly sincere and straight-forward drunk–but I thought there was a nice subtlety to how Sherry and Murray related, and how their relationship evolved through the strain of their search for the briefcase. It takes skill to weave the balance between humor and daring adventure, and this nicely  navigated humor and suspense.

 

Note: although this is described sometimes as part of the ‘Wiley Moss series,’ it is no such thing. Apparently Barrett wrote four detective novels in a quick time frame, with similar style. This book is a stand-alone mystery.

 

“Drawing the covers around her neck, I slid quietly out of bed. I nearly made it to the chair. I eased onto the floor for a break. Travelers need to rest.””

 

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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Or, How to Feel Good on your way to a Small Angry Planet

the-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet

Read August 2016
Recommended for fans of Firefly
 ★     ★     ★     ★      

Niceness is undervalued. In an age of cynicism, we believe very little is done altruistically: this politician is facilitating an international adoption for campaign-fodder; that site is offering $1.99 books to boost web traffic; that church is holding a Sunday neighborhood BBQ to evangelize. Our stories show similar cynicism. We’ve embraced tortured dark heroes, we give five stars to stories sympathizing with killers and rapists, and although we believe a good guy can still win, the only way he can is by embracing his dark side.

One reason The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet proved so enjoyable is that it believes in the better side of human and alien nature. It begins with Rosemary, a naif running from her family’s past to take a position on a tunneling ship, a specialized kind of spaceship that creates ‘shipping lane’ wormholes to connect distant points. The story is set in galaxy of aliens, with the human race supported by the Harmagians, an intelligent oyster-like creature, and Aeluons, in attempting to recover the ruined Earth. The captain of the Wayfarer hired Rosemary hoping that a licensed clerk would give access to bigger jobs, and it’s a gamble that pays off when they are offered a contract to create a tunnel near the galaxy core and the warlike Toremi, new members of the Galactic Confederation.

Much like any ship-enclosed story, it largely becomes about the characters and how they interact. Characterization is one of the story strengths; through small, focused interactions, almost each crew member is fleshed out. Rosemary, Sissex and Dr. Chef feel the most well-rounded. Ashby, the captain, is mostly concerned about his crew, getting the contract and his not-so-secret paramour. Kizzy and Jenks are the mechanical engineers who keep the ship running. Kizzy is often comic relief. Jenks is having a secret relationship with the ship A.I., Lovelace. Corbin is the algae biologist who keeps the fuel running, Dr. Chef is combination cook and medic, Sissix is the reptilian pilot and Ohan is the virus-merged Sianat pair who can calculate the complex physics required to tunnel through space. At times, Kizzy bordered on the absurd, but her personality stayed solidly genuine and she did provide a few laugh-out-loud moments, particularly her (mis-heard) song about “My Socks Match My Hat.”

Plotting was unsteady. A number of readers relate this book to the Firefly tv series, and it’s easy to see why; a loveable, ragtag crew copes with various adversities in weekly adventures. However, the pacing of the smaller on-the-way elements to the overarching story of the big tunneling job is uneven. The trip is supposed to take a standard year, but with a couple of stopovers, it seems no different than any other time period of the book. More significantly, the ending felt incredibly rushed, again incongruous with the lengthy and significant trip. When I learned from one of my co-readers that Chambers had lost her job and created a Kickstarter to fund finishing the book, it made more sense. I can’t wait to see what she does with time and resources.

My last quibble is with narrative style. It’s often a third-person omniscient, unevenly taking turns between various characters. Interspersed are missives, whether personal letters, information requests or news bulletins. I think they are meant to serve as information, but they distract from the friendly tone of the crew and further interrupt story pacing. I initially ignored them, until I learned one near the end of the book drops a significant story point. Conversation is often didactic style, with a character asking a question or seeking explanation and another answering. Although it doesn’t quite have the dreaded, “as you know, Bob…” feel, in a few spots it feels clunky. In others, it just feels borderline lecturing about ethical principles. Well, what can I say: she’s preaching to the choir. I appreciate the hope that we can find enough common ground or space to live with each other.

Thematically, there’s some interesting exploration of some very topical and complicated topics such as safety and defense,  individual right-to-die, identity, violence, sexuality and what makes a community. Chambers is also very inclusive in her visions of alien-ness as well as human beings, which is frankly a delight to find in science fiction. It isn’t going to work for everyone; I’d recommend it for people who enjoy character-driven stories and envisioning alien cultures.  Overall, it was a quick read, despite the size, and easy to spend time with the crew. I’m looking forward to finding out what they do next.

 

Many, many thanks to those at Goodreads who participated in a flash read and shared their insights. I enjoyed sharing perspectives and bouncing off ideas. Find them at https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/197823-the-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet-flash-group

 

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Dance of the Bones by J.A. Jance

dance-of-the-bones

Read August 2016
Recommended for fans of Jance’s Walker/Beaumont series
 ★   

Note to self:

Do NOT pick this up again. Yes, I know you are a bit desperate for a solid mystery series and thought you’d check out Jance in the hopes of rekindling the old J.P. Beaumont suspense. But it’s true; you can’t go home again, at least not after you’ve been reading competent, coherent and suspenseful stories.

I think this book was meant to be a bit of fan-bait, a melding of her J.P. Beaumont and her Brandon Walker series. I haven’t checked out the Walker series; in fact, when I ended up moving on from Jance, I don’t know that she (or her ghostwriters) had started it yet. I had the strong feeling that this was paying homage to the Walker character and where he was in his life at the moment–or actually, where all the people who were significant in his life were. There’s a bit about a granddaughter or medicine woman or tribal friend someone who was trapped in a cave twenty years ago, and I think I recognized that book, but nothing else. Honestly, it felt like I was dropping in at the family reunion of a friend from high school: it was the dimmest of connections and little more than a list of names and biographies.

The narrative is a kaleidoscope of perspective, and I’m pretty sure I don’t mean one of those cool fractal ones, but more like a screenprint of one worn for three days by an attendee at a Grateful Dead concert (no, it wasn’t me). It is made worse that one of the first perspectives is that of a man who is killed. We jump forward decades into the future and get his former friend/partner, the viewpoint of the killer, Walker, the medicine woman, a sullen fifteen-year old kid, and J.P., at which point I quit. Did I mention the reunion metaphor? Actually, it’s more like looking at their pictures in a yearbook than meeting them in person. You see, she’s effectively removed the mystery (who was killed and why) and all that remains is puzzling out the connections between people from two different book series.

It says something that the most interesting thing about the story was the Native American myth that was doled out in pieces at the beginning of chapters. Maybe that’s the hook to the Walker series; I don’t know. I will say that it makes me really uncomfortable when Native stuff is written by non-Natives, particularly because most Native American cultures are very protective about their stories and rituals. It would be one thing if it was out there in more-or-less popularized sources (ala Grimm’s fairy tales or Aesop’s fables), but when it’s clear that most southwest Native groups are very protective of their cultural history and appropriation, it just makes me as uncomfortable as fuck to see it in a best-seller that is apparently meant as fan-bait, particularly when it is only a fragment of the story and not the whole purpose as one can hardly do justice to the issues of appropriation.

I’m torn between a ‘yawn’ and a ‘yuck’ rating; the ‘yawn’ because it was just boring, and the ‘yuck’ because of the surface integration of Native culture.

Reminder: you can’t go home again. And sometimes, that’s okay.

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Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams

wastelands

Read August 2016
Recommended for fans of the end of civilization, without zombies
 ★     ★     ★     

I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but I think I prefer apocalypse stories with zombies. I’ve enjoyed Joseph Adams’ edited collections before (the The End is Nigh series has some great arcs), but Wastelands largely feels bleak and depressing. Apparently contributions were curated or written with either physical or emotional desolation in mind.

Deliberately excluding apocalypses resulting from aliens or zombies, Adams attempts to answer the question of what would the world be like after the apocalypse. He contextualized the sub genre in general, suggesting that the genre starts in 1826 with Shelley’s The Last Man. He references a number of iconoclastic works and suggests the genre lost some popularity post-Berlin wall fall but has been enjoying a resurgence since the turn of the century. This collection literally spans decades, from 1973 (R.R. Martin) to 2008 (Oltion). Most of them hold up extremely well. All were generally well-written and a couple were enjoyable enough that I’ll make a point of looking for the authors. Adams also provides an extensive bibliography of apocalypse books at the end which may be interesting to genre fans (like me!), including ones that are sort of sub-sub genre, such as Octavia Butler’s Dawn and Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

After pushing to the half-way point, I set it down for a month, lacking the motivation to continue, even in the middle of summer when depressing should be more tolerable. I should have recognized trouble when Adams described a story where a girl’s family traps her in the cellar as “the most optimistic story in this volume.” However, after a couple month hiatus, I was able to pick it up and finish, discovering that somehow I might have turned an emotional corner. The last half felt more optimistic. Interestingly, I think I confirmed that while some of the historically big names in sci-fi certainly are competent writers (Wolfe, R.R. Martin, Doctorow, McDevitt), something about their writing usually doesn’t connect with me. Reviewing the stories, I also discovered that I generally preferred the ones written by women. Hmm. Overall, I’d call the collection three to three-and-a-half-stars with a couple of five-star standouts.

In the interests of both my own limited memory and in case anyone would like to know exactly what stories it contains, notes follow. All of the stories except “Judgement Passed” were published elsewhere and are used with authorial or estate permission.

“The End of The Whole Mess” by Stephen King. Solid. Good characterization, nice sibling dynamic between two brothers. Genius brother does research into bees and has an idea how to make people less aggressive. Feels unremarkable, however, and the “Flowers for Algernon” trajectory uninspired.

“Salvage” by Orson Scott Card. In a far off future, Deaver convinces his friends to go on a salvage run to an underwater Mormon city rumored to be full of riches. Strange tale that likely contains references that went above my head. Maybe about alienation and values.

“The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi. Read it before in Paolo’s anthology. Good story, but I hate it. Paolo’s writing makes me lose hope for humanity.

“Bread and Bombs” by M. Rickert. Children of a small village react to differences in other children, but learn the biggest difference is between them and their parents who destroyed the world by dropping bombs and food packets overseas. Creepy Children of the Corn feel.

“How We Got in Town and Out Again” by Jonathan Lethem. A boy and an older girl join forces with a traveling virtual reality competition team as a way of getting into town and getting access to food. The boy is drawn into participating and ends up subverting the system. Love, companionship and reality.

“Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” by George R.R. Martin. Greel is exploring the Oldest Tunnels when he runs into something he’s never seen–a fire. Ciffonetto and Von der Stadt are exploring the tunnels looking for an ancient treasurehouse. Mistakes are made. Depressing, as always. I feel like I’ve read pretty close to this exact tale before. Hugh Howey did something similar as well.

“Waiting for the Zephyr” by Tobias S. Buckell. A young woman wants to run away to the Zephyr, a giant traveling caravan that periodically comes through her dying, one-horse town. Her family traps her, literally, but her boyfriend loves something and sets it free.

“Never Despair” by Jack McDevitt. Two archeologists are searching for the secrets of the concrete Roadmakers when they find a holograph of one of the ancients. Surprise! The reader is supposed to recognize who he is through increasingly obvious clues. Has a A Canticle for Leibowitz feel but feels like an incomplete story.

“When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” by Cory Doctorow. Winner of Locus for 2007, and one of the more enjoyable stories. Focused on a computer operation center when everything starts to go down, the Sysadmins try and figure out what is happening. An interesting take on an active apocalypse, as banks of computers are likely highly protected, at least until the power runs out.

“The Last of the O-Forms” by James Van Pelt. Finalist for a Nebula. Everyone is a mutant, even animals. A traveling circus runs into financial disaster but ends up capitalizing on their manager’s mutation. Creepy small-town mutant feel.

“Still Life With Apocalypse” by Richard Kadrey. Life post-apocalypse is just trying to keep busy, whether it’s recovering records or getting rid of all the dead bodies. Quick little 4-5 page piece that feels like there is potential but is underwhelming due to brevity.

“Artie’s Angels” by Catherine Wells. A pair of young kids inadvertently start building a myth in the Kansas Habitat. A genius boy befriends a homely girl and starts a bicycle club for area kids. I thought this one sweet and poignant. Easy four stars.

“Judgement Passed” Jerry Oltion. A fascinating tale of what happened when a spaceship colony crew returns to Earth and discovers everyone has been taken by Jesus, apparently literally. One of the more unique apocalypse scenarios I’ve read, and one of the only ones in the volume that clearly takes place in the future. Character building was exceptional.

“Mute” by Gene Wolfe. Two kids on a bus ride to their father’s house are almost sure he’s there. Strangely, the tv is always on ‘mute.’ A strange little story with quirky-horror overtones. Was the bus driver real? Is the tv communicating? Where is their dad? No idea on the end of the world.

“Inertia” by Nancy Kress. Another interesting take on the dystopian setting. People who have survived a disfiguring epidemic are living peaceably in compounds walled-off from the rest of America that suffers increasing levels of violence. A doctor sneaks in to research why. Very interesting psychological study, as well as an exploration of depression and biology.

“And the Deep Blue Sea” by Elizabeth Bear. A thrill-seeking female bike courier takes a job getting a package to Sacramento, only to be interrupted by Nick trying to re-negotiate another deal. He’s having a hard time accepting her refusal. I enjoyed this one, which reminds me I need to seek out more by Bear.

Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler. One I haven’t heard of. In a post-apocalypse setting, people are mute, dumb, or cognitively challenged after exposure. A woman trying to get from L.A. to Pasadena runs into a Lone Ranger and discovers more than she expected. Might be one of my favorites by Butler, if only because she doesn’t push me anywhere I’m not willing to go.

“Killers” by Carol Emshwiller. After a war, mostly older women are left, getting by on subsistence living level. The men who come back are damaged and tend to be hermits, although someone has been killing them off. A man appears in the narrator’s house and appears quite attractive after he’s cleaned up. Creepy, speaks to the dark, jealous sides of human nature.

“Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” by Neal Barrett, Jr. A story that was a Nebula/Hugo finalist. Great done. Ginny, barker Del and Possum the Gun expert are traveling through a post-apocalypse landscape selling sex, tacos and drugs. What makes this one fabulous is the narrative tone and the unapologetic, easy nature of the characters. Really enjoyed it. Will have to check out more from him.

“The End of the World as We Know It” by Dale Bailey draws the parallel that the world is always ending on a personal level, and we might never know the whys or hows. Makes interesting parallels between a man named Wyndham who wakes up one day only to discover everyone around him is head, and various disasters responsible for killing thousands to millions of people. It takes an interesting narrative approach with a somewhat casual tone. Feels rather Zen.

“A Song Before Sunset” by David Grigg is about a man who has survived the apocalypse and now has one last dream before he sleeps: to play on a concert piano. He wheels and deals to get the instrument ready, even as marauders approach the city.

“Episode Seven” by John Langan is a strange piece that is more superhero than Lovecraftian, where a young pregnant woman is saved by her longtime close male friend. He seems to be getting in touch with a latent part of himself, almost Dark Knight-like. The end of the world sounds like nature run amok. Well-written, interestingly told, but a little lacking in the character department into why the woman is troubled.

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Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson, or Author’s Notes to Way of Kings

alcatraz-and-the-evil-librarians

Read August 2016
Recommended for librarians, fans of Lemony Snicket and Artemis Fowl
 ★     ★     ★     

Also known as The Official Author’s Notes for The Way of Kings.

Stay with me.

The first clue is in Chapter 2. “I’ve been many things in my life. Student. Spy. Sacrifice. Potted plant. However, at this point, I’m something completely different from all of those–something more frightening than any of them. I’m a writer.”

He gives structural tips (and a hint as to his personality):
“You may have noticed that I began my story with a quick, snappy scene of danger and tension–but then quickly moved on to a more boring discussion of my childhood. Well, that’s because I wanted to prove something to you: that I’m not a nice person.”

He boldly states how he would like you to read:
“I would ask you to kindly refrain from drawing conclusions that I don’t explicitly tell you to make. That’s a very bad habit, and it makes authors grumpy.”

Unsurprisingly, he trumpets the importance of his work:
“Remember, despite the fact that this book is being sold as a ‘fantasy’ novel, you must take all of the things it says extremely seriously, as they are quite important, are in no way silly, and always make sense.”

He explains his plot devices to engage the reader:
“I’ve worked very hard–perhaps I will explain why later–to frustrate you. One of the ways I do this is by leaving cliff hangers at the ends of chapters. These sorts of things force you, the reader, to keep on plunging through my story.”
He does this despite further elaboration that a hook at the beginning of a book is an ‘unexcusable’ trick, and that “I have it on good authority that when an author gives a hook like this, he isn’t ever likely to explain why…and, if the explanation does come, it won’t arrive until the end of the story.”

Ultimately, he expresses his writing goal, which should have been quite obvious if you follow the Way of Kings ten book series, now up to book two: “Authors write books for one, and only one reason: because we like to torture people.” He continues: “Authors also create lovable, friendly characters–then proceed to do terrible things to them… This makes readers feel hurt and worried for the characters. The simple truth is that authors like making people squirm.”

Given my concerns with Way of Kings, I appreciated his notes regarding time in novels: “Three chapters is an awfully long time in book terms. You see, time moves differently in novels. The author could, for instance, say, “And I spent fourteen years in prison….” Now this sounds like it would be a great deal of time–fourteen years–but it actually only took one sentence to explain. So, therefore, it happened very quickly. Three chapters, on the other hand, is a very long time.”

And a final bon mot on pacing:
“Now, if you are ever writing a story such as this, you should know something. Never interrupt the flow of a good action scene by interjecting needless explanations. I did this once, in Chapter Fourteen of an otherwise very exciting story. I regret it to this day.”

I tell you, I gained tremendous insight into The Way of Kings.

But I know what you are going to say:

I read it wrong.

P.S. I really enjoyed the polite dinosaurs.

(view spoiler) Continue reading

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Chasing Embers by James Bennett

Chasing Embers

Read August 2016
Recommended for fans of purple prose and dragons
 ★     ★     1/2

There’s a lot to enjoy here. A dragon. A fast moving plot. A dragon. Realized settings from NYC to London to Berlin to Cairo. Oh, and a dragon. It starts as a simple plot: an age-old enemy is trying to kill Ben, the only dragon left walking the earth. He represents his species while the rest slumber as part of a Compact (aka The Magna Carta), awaiting the return of the Fae. What was less enjoyable was the abundance of forced purple prose that did nothing for the story but serve as a distraction.

“The man called Fulk grinned, a self-satisfied leer breaking through his shaggy black beard. Coupled with the curls falling to his shoulders, his head resembled a small, savage dog, ready to pounce from a thick leather pedestal. ‘London. Paris. LA.’ Fulk named the cities of his search, each one a wasp flying from his mouth.”

I tell you, I stopped comatose on the rail with that one (see what I did there?), trying to picture a dog sitting on a bar stool pedestal–for some reason a pug kept coming to mind, although they don’t have curly hair. And the ‘words as wasps?’ Okay, ‘stinging’ must be what he wants but what is so harsh about place names? He’s basically just complaining he had to look all over for the dragon. Well, yeah. Last one left and all that. Like it’s the dragon’s fault to not have a physical address that says ‘kill me here.’

“‘It was yesterday to us,’ Fulk said, the claim escaping through gaps in his teeth.'”

What? Why should the claim ‘escape?’ Are we making fun of poor dentition? Does he mean ‘hissed,’ or something?

“‘The sword Fulk drew from the scabbard on his back was a guillotine on the barman’s words. The youth scuttled backwards, bottles and cocktail sticks crashing to the floor, panic greasing his heels.

It’s like dragon MadLibs. Instead of ‘cutting someone off,’ we get “guillotine” and ‘words.’ ‘Bottles’ crash, but cocktail sticks don’t. ‘Panic greasing’ just sounds weird. A sentence or two later: “Ben watched them leave in peripheral envy.” Uh, what? Out of peripheral vision? Or with a shred of envy? Then “he grimaced, his teeth clenched with dull yellow effort. The sword came up, came down, scoring a line through shadow and sawdust…” Yellow effort? I don’t even know what that is. Did he mean ‘grey’ with effort? Or wait, I figured it out–these are malpropisms by a dragon. Or an alien. The author isn’t really human! Now it makes sense.

“The wind off the Hudson stoked the embers of his hair as he scanned the shattered facade.” Because our hero is red-headed, I guess. This is so weird. Why didn’t he just say it ‘ruffled his hair’? Now I think his head is on fire, like a Q-tip dipped in lighter fluid.

“The debris supported the article’s claim that the thieves had fled the exhibition this way, but the fact seemed as lonely as an abandoned lighthouse.” Because the lonely fact used to provide guidance to ships at sea? Because the fact used to warn about rocks? This language is amazing to me, and not not a good way.

I can’t stop myself. Another: “Babe Cathy’s lips were a fishbone, rattling out an incantation, and he stumbled to a halt, watching her.” For the life of me, I couldn’t picture any way that made sense in this mix of audio and visual. Pursing her lips? Why are they rattling? Let alone why the dragon is watching her instead of kicking her butt.

Last one, I swear: “Her sore feet tingled on stone and she moved forwards as if through water, a subtle magnetism drawing her on, the sense of little teeth nipping at her budding breasts.” What. The. Hell? Why he didn’t just stop after ‘water,’ and leave a perfectly good metaphor alone, I don’t know. Not sure where the magnetism got it’s teeth, either. Why’d we have to bring boobies into it? Voyeurism? Creeper.

Ok, I lied. “Before leaving the Gold Street apartment, Ben dug around in the bedroom closet and unearthed a pair of trainers, lurking in the gloom like stuffed rats.” Those are some seriously gross shoes.

I can’t stop! Somebody take this Kindle away from me. “His hair was a blizzard atop his skull, his pyjamas disarrayed.” It’s the HEAT MISER!

Still, not the worst specimen of writing I’ve read. It took me quite a few chapters to train myself to ignore the style, because otherwise I would have been highlighting all damn day. I thought Bennett nicely conveyed a sense of age/longevity to Ben, unlike some other urban fantasy authors (hello, Hearne!) I loved the scene in the Berlin–fun dialogue, interesting backstory, evocative imagery. The plot is decent, except for the stupid romance aspect, by which I mean we get a lot of romance flashback bracketed by a lot of stupid miscommunication and assumptions between the parties. It doesn’t make sense, anyhow, that a centuries old dragon would pine over a woman. 

The villains are well done and appropriately hateful, but there’s also some sophisticated subplots with characters who are mislead into action. The inclusion of the village witch-woman and her own gods was interesting but honestly felt a little incongruous with the rest of the story. However, it was one of my favorite parts of the book. There’s a fairy-tale substory in here that is supposed to be Ben’s past, and his past with the enemy. Again, kind of incongruous with a vastly different writing style. It is also basically a red herring, giving a bit of insight into why Ben is ridiculous about women, but not any insight into the plan the villains are hatching.

It is also worth noting that my copy had a chapter from the next book, and the writing style and narration was considerably more concise. Now, that might be a fun book. There’s a good chance I’ll read the next book based on that chapter, but I’ll be crossing  my fingers, hoping for less strained writing.

 

Many thanks to NetGalley and Orbit Books for an advance reader copy.

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The Immortals by Jordanna Max Brodsky

The Immortals

Read August 2016
Recommended for fans of Greek myths
 ★     ★     ★    1/2

Like many myth geeks, I loved reading D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. I followed the trail of magical into fairy tales and down the slide into mythology. Brodsky took the idea of Greek gods and moved them to modern New York City, powered down and living among mortals. Artemis is a far cry from her old self, but she still hunts those who offend her spirit of justice. Instead of a pack of hounds, she has her faithful dog Hippolyta. As Artemis is scaring off a mortal man from his abused girlfriend when she feels a call go out from one of her worshippers. Although she’s certain worshippers no longer exist, her goddess abilities seem to be returning to her.

Gods among the mortals isn’t a new idea in fantasy, but Brodsky’s version is firmly anchored in research. Depending on your wheelhouse, this level of detail can be an attraction or a bore. Personally, despite my long fondness for ancient Greek art and myth, I did find the explanatory babble occasionally cumbersome, although not as bad as I would have expected in an urban fantasy. It works because Theodore Schultz is the ultimate professor, easily expounding on ancient culture and mythology at every opportunity, even in a police station. Artemis needs to reconnect with her history, but she tends to think about it rather than verbalize.

Although I am drawn to thoughtful characters, Artemis is no Athena (fun fact: I mistakenly named my rottweiler Athena instead of Artemis. She also was no Athena, metaphorically speaking). Her strategy in solving the mystery is to investigate crime locations and to accuse everyone she knows of the crime. Ordinarily, this headstrong thoughtlessness would irritate, but Brodsky makes it work for her. However, much like the deities in mythology, she also distinctly lacks a sense of humor. As in mythology, Theo is the character that helps the reader connect to the story.

On the downside, the author clearly follows the theory Conservation of Character, which was kind of a disappointment. There were a lot of insignificant mortals in mythology, so I missed the lack of inconsequential players, along with missed potential in minor gods and half-children. Strangely, early on we are introduced to Gabriela, a completely stereotypical Latina chica, her girl-friend speech pattern, her gay-dar, her moods that “could turn on a dime” and physical affection with Theo. I felt kind of embarrassed for Brodsky creating such a stereotypical mess of a character.

Setting was one of the high points: what’s not to love about New York City? She even nails the strange stale and fetid smell of the subway in the heat. However, Brodsky chooses to set her story fairly solidly in time, a serious mistake. I was puzzlingly distracted by more than a few mentions of Alexander Hamilton (the person, not the musical), and my reading buddy noted references to Amy Shumer, Anderson Cooper and Saturday Night Live! are going to badly date the books. Seems kind of a rookie mistake, but then it is a first book. So much of NYC is fairly timeless that it is a surprising choice.

Plotting is perhaps one of the weaker points. It roughly revolves around “who killed Helen,” Theo’s ex-, “and why?” but it does develop a couple of related sub-plots. I will say that I was able to identify the villain fairly quickly, and as I’ve said before, if I’m able to do that, you are performing the literary equivalent of ALL CAPS! MURDERER HERE! There’s a romantic subplot that feels incompletely realized. Basically, why is the virgin goddess falling in love while she’s avenging a woman? Goddesses are capricious and all that, but seems a bit hard to conceive that our cold moon goddess is mooning over a man as she’s hunting a killer. Brodsky didn’t really quite have the chops to pull it off.

It wasn’t until the end that I realized one of the philosophical underpinnings of the world-building, the idea that deities can be maintained by adapting to new traditions, was utterly ignored with Persephone, goddess of harvest, and Leto, goddess of motherhood. Somehow the females all became weaker while the males became stronger. Clearly, Brodsky’s never worked with a gaggle of moms-to-be, had to buy stupid baby presents every year or look at a facebook feed full of fat little faces. The Cult of Motherhood is strong.

Overall, I’d say I enjoyed reading it, but I do tend to rely heavily on skimming over the boring bits, whatever they may be. The approach seems to be a little more of the literary-fiction angle than the UF angle, which may be why there’s a blurb from Deborah Harkness on the front. People who don’t groove on Greek myths or on NYC may be more bored, although it’s worth noting that Artemis’ approach is more like a superhero- powerhouse, not a magicky-wishy–thinky approach. This was generally solid, and more palatable than early Harry Dresden books. I think there’s some interesting potential, so while I wouldn’t add it to my personal library, I’m also willing to continue the series.

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The Creeps by John Connolly. More like The Laughs.

The Creeps

Read August 2016
Recommended for fans of clever YA books
 ★     ★     ★     ★    1/2

 

I confess: I’m still not entirely sure who the ‘creeps’ are. Is it Samuel Johnson, his dog Boswell, and his compadres from the adventures of The Infernals? Namely, Dan the ice-cream man, now managing a group of Dwarves With Attitude (so much better than the Stars Of Diminished Stature [S.O.D.S.]); Nurd, ‘The Nurdster,’ and Wormwood, ex-demons of Hell and car-testers extraordinare; as well as agents of order Sergeant Rowan and Constable Peel?Or is it the Shadows from the Multiverse using the very angry Mrs. Abernathy’s (the Demon Formerly Known as Ba’al) desire for revenge as a gateway to devouring Earth? Could it be the optimistic demon Crudford oozing his way through the Multiverses in search of Mrs. Abernathy’s molecules? Or might it possibly be the scientists who have left Switzerland and the Hadron Collider to up residence in Samuel’s village disguised as sweet-shop salesmen? Or, just possibly, could it be the former boy-band and now unemployed, middle-aged BoyStarz (“Love is like a run-on sentence”)?

The last book in the Samuel Johnson trilogy is a perfect capstone for the series (1). The team has returned from Hell and gotten on with their lives. The demons have all found jobs and are more or less fitting into the human world although Nurd still feels the great divide from himself and the humans, and is particularly aware of how he needs to hide his looks. Samuel is trying to put the past behind him and has made been dating Lucy Johnson. Dan is trying his best to find work for the dwarves and BoyStarz. But Evil will be Evil, and something sinister is taking place in the abandoned Wreckit & Sons department store (2), soon to re-open as a toy store. When Samuel & Friends all receive invitations to the Christmas Grand Opening, it seems like time for a celebration.

The plot moved right along, taking turns following the large cast. It serves to build some suspense, but it also nicely captures the different moods of the characters. Melancholy from Nurd, the vague worries of Samuel, and the optimism of Crudford, Esq. (3). Connolly is able to achieve an amazing balance between suspense, humor, the melancholy of growth and the horror that the universe might be destroyed.

The humor almost always amused me. Connolly is particularly good at sliding in running jokes adults will appreciate such as the titles of pop songs and the properties of special brews (“My love is like a Little Man”). I confess, Crudford’s incomprehensible pictorial explanations cracked me up. A couple of times the dwarves’ dialogue made me laugh out loud, particularly during their job interview (4). Once again, the footnotes played an entertaining role, whether it was recalling the prior books, explaining the problems of kings, or the differences between an English biscuit and an American one. They aren’t as much science/history informative this time as much as outright commentary on the author’s part (“I don’t know why I bother“) and further elaboration on running gags about the sweets at the sweet shop and Mr. Spiggit’s alcoholic brews. Thanks to the insight of Melora, this time I noticed the sticking-things-up-the-bum jokes, an excessive four or five times. But probably completely consistent with the kid humor. At the very end is an Epilogue about Samuel and Nurd meeting in Samuel’s old age that provides a nice bit of emotional resolution.

Overall, I unhesitatingly give the series 4 1/2 stars. I re-read the last book twice; it not only held up, but was perhaps even more enjoyable for my ability to savor even the throw-away bits. I think this series will be worth a re-read or two and recommend it if you enjoy clever writing, dark humor, and a willingness to play with YA conventions.

 

(1) “Once again, if you’d read that book then you’d know all of this already. Look, why don’t we just arrange for me to give you a telephone call and I can read the book to you?”
(2) Although according to the narrator, it was not particularly long in the timeline of a giant barrel sponge.
(3)”Being blown apart on the subatomic level must have hurt an awful, awful lot, thought Crudford. Still, look on the bright side: at least Mrs. Abernathy was seeing new places.
(4) “He fumbled in another pocket and extracted a tattered, folded sheet of paper. He started trying to unfold it, but he immediately ran into trouble due to a lack of fingers. ‘Need a hand?’ said a dwarf voice.”

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Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe. Or The Rage Confounder.

Thing Explainer Complicated Stuff in Simple Words

Read July  2016
Recommended for people who dislike language, writing and communication
 ★   

We all have one, that person we’d prefer to get along with, but every time they open their mouth, so much stupid erupts that low-level irritation shifts into rage.

That about sums up my experience with Thing Explainer.

Every time I picked it up intending to read a few ‘cartoons explaining concepts like helicopters, the cell, elevators or the auto engine, I’d end up either generally annoyed or quite specifically angry. Thing Explainer fails on so many levels for me, it was shocking. I went into it hoping for the grown-up version of The Charlie Brown Question and Answer Book, and instead found cartoon explanations of things I still don’t understand, such as how all the parts of a car work together. I understand that it was supposed to be funny, but I was hoping for informative as well.

It wasn’t.

Language is meant to communicate ideas. Generally, more complex ideas require more specific words to convey meaning. Remember when you last talked to a two or three year-old and everything with four legs was ‘dog,’ everything that flew was a ‘bird’ and every time someone cried they must be ‘sad?’ When we are just beginning to understand words represent things and concepts, simple language suffices, but as we grow in age and sophistication, we learn words can be more specific in representing object and idea. The more we grow in experiences and want to convey information with accuracy, the more we need that vocabulary.

But specificity does not have to be incomprehensible. For instance, in explaining what leukemia was to someone who was just diagnosed with it, I first had to teach about red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. I taught these common terms, so that we all understood what it would mean when the nurse says, “your red blood cells are low and you need a transfusion.” To explain, I didn’t have to use vocabulary like ‘erythrocytes,’ ‘leukeocytes’ and ‘thrombocytes;’ simple descriptions such as “white blood cells fight off infection” and analogies like “soldiers fighting against an enemy invader” explain without being incomprehensible. But the terms ‘cells,’ ‘transfusion,’ ‘infection,’ ‘red,’ and ‘white’ are non-negotiable in learning the concepts related to blood. You have to understand them to understand communication about body processes.

I tested The Thing Explainer on something I know: Cells. Our body’s cells are reduced to “Bags of Water.” Inside the bags of water are other bags such as the ‘bag filler,’ the ‘bags of death water,’ ‘bag shapers,’ ‘little builders,’ and ’empty pockets.’

I found myself mentally trying to translate his terms into appropriate terminology: nuclei, mitochondria, lysosomes and Golgi apparatus, except I ended up irritated because endoplasmic reticulum and ribosomes sound alike with his description and I couldn’t remember what Golgi bodies do. How is this even helpful? How does this help anyone understand the cell? DNA? Cancer? Genetics? It doesn’t.

I tested it on something I didn’t know: the automobile engine. “The Fire box computer watches how the fire box is working, and decides how much fire water to add to the air it sends in.” Did this help? No. As he used the same words to explain its as to describe it, it’s a useless explanation, like describing a circle as a ’round shape.’

There were occasional exceptions. The periodic table of elements was mildly amusing with descriptions like “green burning air that kills,” “air in bright signs made from colored light,” “the rock that makes up beaches, glass and computer brains,”  and at the end, “stuff that lasts for the time it takes you to close and open your eyes.” However, for it to be funny, you have to know the table and elements off the top of your head. So, not so much for almost everyone.

It took me a lot of reflection to pinpoint the source of my rage: while Munroe disingenuously suggests that he is explaining ‘complicated concepts in simple words,’ he does so in such a way that the reader needs to understand the concept well to interpret his illustrations. This approach simultaneously insults the person who doesn’t understand using the illusion of ‘common words,’ while creating an in-joke for people knowledgeable about those concepts.

The other reason it made me angry is my impression that like many people, Munroe is confusing ‘complex’ with ‘incomprehensible’ or ‘pretentious.’ He gives it away in the forward (“Page Before the Book Starts”) when he says “I was really just worried that if I used the small words, someone might think I didn’t know the big ones.” A truly gifted person would be able to communicate with clarity instead of relying on circuitous explanations and false construction of word limits (he includes his personal emails in his source for the “1000 most common words”). Instead of actually communicating, what he did is replacement code sophisticated concepts into simple words, so to understand his comic, one mentally replaces “fire box” with ‘engine.’ Really, the opposite of explaining things: he would have done just as well to use symbols (which is what he ends up doing for the evolutionary tree). Except it is supposed to be funny when the reader knows the replacement code.

I’m not laughing.

 

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Trailer Park Fae by Lilith Saintcrow

Trailer Park Fae

Read August 2016
Recommended for fans of fae and ornate language
 ★     ★   

Lilith Saintcrow’s blog was one of the few I read regularly, and I have fond memories of reading her Jill Kismet series Night Shift when vacationing in New Mexico. In the mood for urban fantasy, when I happened upon this at Half-Price Books, I thought I’d give it a try.

Alas.

Though I generally enjoy extravagant prose (Beagle, Kay, Valente), this is awful. Layered on and stretched thin (see what I’m doing there?), Saintcrow has traded in Spartan style for Valente on crack. I knew there would be trouble with the opening line: “Summer, soft green hills and shaded dells, lay breathless under a pall of smoky apple-blossom dusk.”

Think on that a moment. Is it ‘summer soft’ with a misplaced comma? I suppose the season can lay breathless–it does get stiflingly hot–but then how does that ‘soft green hills’ clause make sense? And what is ‘smoky apple-blossom dusk? Aren’t apple blossoms white and pink shaded? I’m so confused.

“Her mantle slipped a fraction from one white shoulder, but that could have been to expose just a sliver of pale skin, fresh-velvet as a new magnolia petal. Artfully innocent, that single peeping glow could infect a mortal’s dreams, fill them with longing, drive all other thought from their busy little brains.”

There’s a lot here that tells us, but not much action. We hear a great deal about Summer’s power, but its shown only twice, once in the narrative gaze lingering on a transformed person and once with an entranced child.`

Let’s meet the main character, Jeremiah Gallow:

“A chill breeze resonated through superstructure, iron girders harpstrings plucked by invisible fingers. He was wet with sweat, exhaust-laden breeze mouthing his ruthlessly cropped black hair. Poison in the air just like poison in the singing rods and rivets, but neither troubled a Half. He had nothing to fear from cold iron.”

Ruthlessly cropped?

Sigh.

Here’s when Gallow sees Robin Ragged up close:

“She clutched at the brick wall, her pale hands starfish-spread as if she intended to splinter her fingernails scratching her way through. Ribs flickered under her dress as she panted, and her hair was now weighed down with dampness. The gold hoops dangling from her ears peeped at him, and the first hounds skidded behind him on the street and sent up a racket. The cry of prey cornered filled the night, turned the mist-rain drops to diamonds.”

Seriously–I got stuck on “ribs flickered” because I kept imagining parts of her body disappearing in and out like the Cheshire cat. Then I wondered where her dress was if I’m seeing her flickering ribs. Wait, is she naked? Or does she mean her dress is ill-fitted and hanging loose? Once again, completely distracted by the writing, and not in a good way.

I started to skim, but it was a challenge because there’s so little of substance beneath those words. The two main characters meeting and reflecting took a hundred pages–a hundred–and most of that is just so much filler of them each mentally bemoaning their state and generally musing on the shortcomings of the fae. The plot is very simple, classic folk tale–the Courts of Summer and Winter at war with each other–with a handmaiden of Summer trying to save a stolen mortal. Robin Goodfellow has his own agenda (and a taste for blood) and Gallow just wants to stay lost in memories of his dead wife.. There’s devious intentions, suspicions, and sleights of hand made more twisty by the over encumbered language.

I wish this had worked better for me. I wish Saintcrow the best, I truly do–particularly as I think there’s more than a little of her autobiography in some of the characters–but I’m giving the rest of this series a pass, and this book is headed back to Half-Price.

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