Sunday, November 29, 2015

Beacon 23: The Complete NovelBeacon 23: The Complete Novel by Hugh Howey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There's a lot of good things I can say about this collection of 5 stories that happen to make up one complete novel and one fairly heavy personal annoyance.

First, the good, and even a bit of the great.

It's emotional. Being a spaceways lighthouse keeper may seem like a thankless job, but strong characterization carries it off seamlessly. The poor guy starts off being the wounded war hero, but he fairly quickly descends into some rather crazy shit. It has a bit of The Martian feel without any lengthy science or the immense pathos, instead relying almost entirely on personal feelings and regular PTSD self-therapy. I thought it was quite well done, and the introduction of a rock and some bounty-hunters provided very nice comedy relief. I was quite amused.

When it gets a bit deeper with a bit of healing, I was moved and made to believe that a great deal of soul-searching and tears must have been dredged from the author. It got me in the feels.

And then it got deeper into the discussion of war. No real problems there until late, and then I get to my gripe.

I liked how personal and oddball and emotional these sections were.
But then when we got to the point where a spoiler alert is necessary...

Where a single man with the rare but oh so requisite empathic powers suddenly has the means to kill off 8 billion men and women of the great war machine, it dropped me right out of the tale and made me want to get a hammer. Sure, the big stuff is pretty cool sometimes, but in this novel, I just didn't think it was necessary at all. It stood on its own without getting cheesetastic, tyvm.

...then I just want to mourn the move from a good character study into a gimmick-grab.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe the casual partial genocide of one's own race for the benefit of peace is actually and truly justified and I'm just a lousy whiner.

Maybe I just didn't like the direction it finally took.

Sill, I think that just leaving the last short story out might have been a primo bueno move. I would have been left with something thoughtful that has a lot to say about war vets, personal culpability, healing, and perhaps a bit of madness, too. The setting would have been just a fun-as-hell gravy. :)

Howey is a pretty fine author. He has very fine sense when it comes to weaving a tale. My few quibbles shouldn't crap on the solidity of the full tale, I'm sure. He does like to surprise and twist his readers, and this does qualify. :)

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The Traitor Baru CormorantThe Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm going to have to make a new shelf for the growing number of economi-punk titles that have been coming out. I can't believe how many of them there are, or why I get drawn so hard and fast into these kinds of tales. I can easily list one economist-protagonist for each of my fingers, and no one is more surprised than me that I'm digging it.

I'm digging it hard.

Can we have math geniuses make great heroes? Why yes, of course you can. SF has a very long history of doing just that. But how about Fantasy? Why yes, yes, indeed, it looks like crossovers are happening all over the place, and everyone is heartily enriched by the trend.

Take this novel, which grabbed me from the get go and didn't let go throughout its fantastically dark and emotional passage. Our heroine is a savant, hand-picked and groomed to be an elite tool of an empire that has good aspects as well as being quite ruthlessly evil, bringing progress and some of the most repressive social regimes that even a southern baptist hate group might blanche at. And yet, the Masquerade brings schools and medicine and stability, uniting so many disparate cultures, while eventually homogenizing them all at the same time. Baru Cormorant vows to free her home from within the bowels of the beast with the tools of the same empire she wants to escape.

Great set-up. It's obviously a tragedy from go. The growth and setbacks, the challenges and the successes and the failures get tightly woven together until we truly believe we've got the real measure of Baru. I really like her. I like her even through to the end of the novel. I may not approve or condone anything that happens at all. That doesn't really matter. There is evil and there is good in everything and everyone. Even the most atrocious of social norms become background to the overriding immediacy of what everyone is going through at the moment.

I wanted everyone to succeed so badly that I could taste it. I was holding three or four impossible things in my head at the same time, and I rejoiced in the grand tale that it was spinning. Yes. It was a novel about betrayal. But who's betrayal, and how many times will it occur? The question goes so deep and is spread so wide across the plains of the story that I was left in mute wonder.

I LOVE THIS NOVEL. It is so well-crafted. It is disturbing and full of purpose. It is full of meaning.

It remained such a grand and epic tale of love and striving and hope, with perfectly executed waves of storytelling, that I never once wanted to put this book down. The undercurrent was deep and swift and oh so nasty. I felt almost like I was in one of the great Shakespearian tragedies. It held me by the neck and forced me to watch on as so much of humanity was sacrificed for ever-increasing tiers of need and hope.

Just. Wow.

Economics? Try the underpinnings and execution of a revolution, instead, because that was the core action of the novel. The theme, on the other hand, is one that will reverberate long after I've read the pages.

To think this was a debut novel. Amazing.

OF course, there are other very disturbing and important topics I probably should bring up. Homophobia is institutionalized in a rather grotesque fashion, among other vile things, but what I was most impressed about was the author's unflinching courage to lay it bare like he did.

Spoiler alert:

Baru Cormorant's deepest secret and hope was all wrapped up in her desire for other women, and this, more than anything else the Masquerade repressed, was the core of her own rebellion. She has to fight for the success of the people who would repress her. This is a very dark, very painful kind of story to tell. Being a traitor is all wrapped up in this idea just as much as breaking free of the empire or creating the honeypot that betrays everything and everyone one last time. The twisting of this knife really killed me.

This book has so many layers, but don't mistake me on this: it is one hell of a fantastic story on the surface, too. It was brilliant. :)

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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Stations of the TideStations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was some kind of amazing. The main character, who was never referred to as anything but Bureaucrat, was hardly my definition of a bureaucrat. He was part outcast, part superspy, part magician's apprentice, and part avenger. He wears so many hats during this superb little gem that I never slow down and even consider why. The plot is also so damn interesting and the pacing so fantastic that I almost miss exactly how wonderfully crafted the writing is.

Am I a fan of Swanwick? I have read a few of his short stories, years ago, and I loved them. I remembered them very fondly, but in passing, because I prefer novels over anything else. So why am I so damn late to the table, now? Hell if I know, and I'm ashamed because of it. I'm going to be going through his entire catalogue shortly.

So many wonderful sf ideas were crammed in here, and all of them were firmly in the service of the overarching story that happens to have an awful lot in common with The Tempest. The obvious bits were intended by the colonizers of Miranda, and the allegorical allusions were fully conscious and intended by the characters. It was delightful in that respect. The things that happen give the feel, but thankfully not the full substance of the play, so never worry, if you think you might be turned off by a shameless cribbing. This novel is truly a one-of-a-kind brilliant homage to all things SF and Fantasy. A lot of the time, it's impossible to separate the two, but what else can you do when you have awesome worldbuilding on colony worlds, cloning, terraforming, world-AIs, NSA game theory puzzle boxes the size of nations, AND indigenous aliens who shapeshift, who's biology is mostly incompatible with us except when triggered, turning us into wizards with grand powers, morphing into angels and demons, mind-control, as well as the summoning of immensely powerful archetypes? Is it SF or Fantasy? Clarke's razor applies.

But lo! This is no simple tale to mix elements and say, "Hey, look what I did!" No. The story here is king, from old world to new, disillusionment to renewing perception, retribution to revelation to understanding.

Of course, it also borrows concepts to sweep a wide circumference, even stooping to crib from some classics (Dune fans rejoice, pain by nerve induction). For this, I don't care too much. It serves a serious and pretty much identical purpose, but in the service of magic apprenticeship. There's other examples, too, but it slides by so fast and delicious and moves on to the next wonderful surrealism and solid chink of plot, that I'm left gasping with joy.

THIS IS A GRAND GEM, people. Fantastic writing, wonderful ideas, and nothing short of intensely memorable characters. It won the Nebula award in '91 and was nominated for Hugo, alas that it hadn't won.

I will probably read this one again, just to bathe in it. The tide is coming. Can YOU read between the lines of the tv station?

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Friday, November 27, 2015

The Woman in WhiteThe Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes it is so damn hard to put your mindspace in the right place to enjoy a piece so far out of your frame, and this is definitely one of those books.

I knew a bit of what I might expect, after all, I did enjoy reading Drood and so I got a real hankering to read an actual extremely popular novel by such a wild character in a modern book about Wilkie and Charles. But that's neither here nor there. I probably wouldn't have ever picked this one up without it, though.

On to the novel at hand. It's a mystery! And if I can believe wikipedia, it's one of the very first ever written, and considered to be one of the top 100 novels ever written! Whoopie! I mean, that's all great and all. But did I enjoy it? Actually... I did. To a degree.

Of course, the mental gymnastics were pretty strenuous. After all, I have to suspend belief that Laura was NOT TSTL. Tstl? Yes. Tstl. Every step of the way, she made the most horrible decisions, either by not listening to her heart or not having a brain in her head. If this were a mystery novel of even 20 years after its written date of 1854, we'd have killed this one off like a redshirt for sure. Therefore, I am UTTERLY AMAZED by the ending. I've never seen such brilliant contrivance to make such an unlikable airhead pull through to the very end, have her love, her fortune, and her unwitting revenge upon all who had assailed her.

I mean, WOW. Wilkie Collins is a MASTER.

That being said, I thought the Count was pretty much awesome. Everyone except for Laura and Walter managed to transform themselves from cardboard cutouts into genuine people full of both good and bad.

Sometimes the descriptions were cumbersome and made me wish for a bit of a Hemingway Edit, but that's a complaint I can make about any of the literature of that day. There was one notable exception. I loved our enlightenment of Count Fosco's animals. It's details like this that turn a sensational-ish novel into something a bit more memorable.

I swear, though: Laura was consistently tstl. Thank GOD for her half-sister. Miss Halcombe was pretty damn awesome from start to finish, and I agree 100% with the Count's esteem of her.

The one thing I cannot be more pleased about, after finishing this, is the fact that there wasn't some long-drawn-out court scene so reminiscent of modern police drama or mysteries. We had the hint of it in the beginning, and it could have gone that way, but I can't be happier with the outcome as it actually occurred.

There was a hell of a lot of expanded plot in this novel, and it was all so logical and well thought out. I'm just so damn AMAZED that the whole society in which they lived was actually able to FUNCTION, ya know? How could people trust each other as much as they did? How could people be so INNOCENT? I mean, really? Really? Was it a function of the black and white nature of the novels of the time to pop all of these features out at us in stark and glowing detail? Or was it just Wilkie? Or was it in actual fact, a real piece of the society in which they all lived?

I'm primarily a sf/f/horror fan, but I truly HAVE read a ton of traditional classics. And yet, I'm still forced to set myself into a Victorian England as if it is some truly alien society so foreign and strange to us. It's funny. I should know better. Life is WEIRD.


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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Saturn RunSaturn Run by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Strong points: Characterization and the science. We can classify this pretty easily as a realistic SF, even including the the scenes of "Meet The Aliens". It's a Go To Saturn and Come Back novel, after all. No real need for anything truly out of the ordinary. After all, the novel's strong points are in its characters.

I like Sandy and Crow. What can I say? The hooks were fantastic and strange and they just kept coming, adding some truly oddball mixes to the MCs. I never once got bored with any of the peeps.

The science, on the other hand, seemed like an old primer recapitulating on all the things we need to do a run toward Saturn. I mean, I can recall the first few novels I'd read that did this. A. C. Clarke was quite fun, after all, but after the eighth... well... there's gotta be something quite good about the novel for me to care about rehashing the same science over such a long stretch of pages. There wasn't anything wrong with it that I could tell. Nothing super obvious. Hell, to me, that's just an added bonus, especially since I read SF for the stories, not always to learn something new. Consistency is truly wonderful, but consistency can be internal or universal and still make a great tale either way. This one aimed for universal, and that's great. It can be a bit boring, to be perfectly honest, but I can appreciate it.

The characters made up for most of anything that went wrong in the novel. I truly enjoyed them. Hell, I think I enjoyed all of them. The author has a talent at writing engaging characters. What I didn't appreciate so much was the rather black/white depictions of governments and government functionaries. Sure, having a villain is good, sometimes, but turning the Chinese into such an obvious black hat and relatively incompetent to boot just stretched a lot of credulity. It's the whole culture-centric thing played relatively straight for American readers, and it's so ham-fisted that the cover artist should have added some red to the design. Then we'd all know, as prospective readers, that this was obviously a propaganda piece.

Fortunately, it also pulled off a good yarn, or at least a fairly satisfying one.

Spoiler Alert:

In a nutshell, when we meet the aliens, we learn that they've set up a huge chain of quick-marts across the galaxy. You know, for your shopping convenience. Gas and a hot-dog. That kind of thing. *Sigh* Oh it's better than what I make it out to be, but hell... the essentials are the same. Funny in retrospect, but also a little bit cheap. Not even a single live alien to lighten the page, just a quick-check-out line.

All in all, the good guys win, and don't we all love a great celluloid ending?



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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Great North RoadGreat North Road by Peter F. Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm afraid that this huge doorstopper of a novel is going to be one of those love-hate jobs. I now only love it after having finished it, but I felt my stamina drain and drain and drain through long long passages of mind-numbing boredom and a litany running through my head went, "Where is the editor? Why can't these last 150 pages be safely omitted without losing any story whatsoever?"

*sigh* It's rather the same problem I had with The Reality Dysfunction, although, to be very fair, I think this one was the superior of the two.

For one, the whole North thing was highly amusing. They're a clan of clones who had built one hell of an empire. The worldbuilding was frankly amazing, too. The amount of depth and creation was awe-inspiring, although, to be realistic, it was mostly filled with names and places and huge Zanthswarm worries, so we can mostly just chalk that up to consistency and organizational charts. After all is said and done, everything appears in order. All the long passages of time spent in either the present where things don't seem to be getting anywhere, or the even longer time spent in flashbacks that were, to my built understanding, already gone over fairly well in present dialog.

And here's where my complaints come in.

For ninety percent of this huge novel, we were treading over slightly shifting ground, either past or present. It was only very late in the reading that I realized that the MAIN MAIN MAIN character was Angela. The murder mystery was actually rather entertaining, with all the complicated issues of discovering who or what was behind the murder of a North, but I only had the vague sensation that a slightly important bit player, Angela, was something special.

I'm here to tell you now, dear reader, to just ignore everyone else and focus on her. The other stories are fine, but in the end, they all just revolve around her. You can say that all roads lead to Angela, and you'd be just fine.

You see, that's the problem with a novel that is allowed to be so freaking huge and detailed and dense to develop a life of its own. It's hard to tell who's most important. I believed Sid and the investigation was the most important. I believed it for a freaking long time. And then a painfully long backstory for a minor character dominates the novel. And other long backstories of others start cropping up. And then more long backstories start growing like some intelligent plant that has grown to be the most genetically dominant life form of a whole planet, driving away all animal and insect life. (Whoa, where did that come from? Oh hell. It's a spoiler. Sorry.)

What should I say to anyone struggling to get through this novel as they hit these wtf moments?

Patience. Just have patience. I wanted to DNF it. I really did. But since I just don't pull that crap, I flogged myself to stay on target.

What do you know? It paid off. Everything converged and wove a pretty awesome tapestry of coolness. I sure as hell got a huge primer on Angela. I even enjoyed the detailed existence of all those Norths.

Another problem: Maybe I'm just a shallow reader, but I probably would have reacted better and had my flagging attention sit up straighter had I known that such cool action and conflict and Important Shit was happening later on both the Earth and St. Libra. The BIG THINGS THAT HAPPEN could have been intimated earlier, such as when the murder investigation stalled. A Really Big Hook would have revved my engines right about then.

Reader advisory: Things Do Get Cool.
*If you're patient. If you're patient.*

And after all is said and done, I STILL think a liberal dose of a red pen would have done this novel a great justice.

That being said, I'm still giving it a 4 star because the opening, great swaths of the story, and the ending were all pretty damn cool. Do you like clones and aliens? Do you like epic invasions and being an invader? Do you like murder mysteries and questioning the nature of humanity? Well good! You'll probably like this novel. It's nothing if not ambitious as fuck.



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Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Bazaar of Bad DreamsThe Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I figure I'd better put a bit of effort into this review, so rather than just throwing out a few impressions from just a few of the stories, I'll throw out impressions for ALL the stories. :) Stephen King is still a POWER in the world, for good and ill, and more importantly, he's a damn great writer. I don't care too much for short stories in general, but I do tend to enjoy them when I finally get my arm twisted.

Overall impression: SK's characterizations are King. Memorable, conflicted, and above all, deeply interesting. You know the old adage, "Kill your darlings?" Yeah. He's a master at it.


Mile 81 -
Truly gorgeous characters, especially the ones that died in horrible and grotesque ways. I sit in awe at SK's ability to evoke the feels and connect us to his people right before we wonder if they'll survive. I kinda expected a Christine-ish story, but this was pretty near perfect as it was. Awesome. Kids rock.

Premium Harmony -
Carver-like story with deep characterization, immediacy, and sudden death. Quite beautiful.

Batman and Robin Have An Altercation-
Well crafted story of road rage, but it didn't really grab me quite as much as the others. It was mostly nostalgia and a brief moment of terror.

The Dune -
A bit magical, a bit odd. A bit forgettable.

Bad Little Kid -
Fascinating characters and creepy coincidences and a very cool build. Smooth as silk. Some kids DON'T rock.

A Death -
An old-tyme lynching... or is it a murder mystery? Kill-em kill-em anyway!

Bone Church -
A meh poem.

Morality -
Back to interesting characters and a rather hardcore fall from optimism to abject pessimism, including some rather memorable obsessions. It was like watching a train wreck. The ending also turned my stomach, but not for the usual horror-type reasons. It was an indictment of beliefs. Odd and disturbing tale.

Afterlife -
Let's get away from this mortal coil, eh? Nothing changes if you go back. All your same mistakes to do over and over... or you could choose utter oblivion. No one is sinless, and the best part is the... you guessed it... the characters. I actually liked the societal preachiness. :)

Ur -
Back to some cool horror and character development, featuring everyone's favorite Pink Kindle! Fuck the One Ring... this one's EVIL. ;) And yet, I found myself looking up the new models of Kindle and dreaming... and yeah, this story is a Dark Tower tie in. That part made it AWESOME.

Herman Wouk is Still Alive -
Pretty Classic King. Fall in love with the characters only to be shown how ephemeral they are while simultaneously immortalizing them quite consciously.

Under the Weather -
Damn uplifting story about someone who keeps things around well after their "Best Fresh Date". It's both sad and creepy as hell, too, but mostly very optimistic.

Blockade Billy -
Even as SK warns us that we don't have to like a particular pastime to enjoy a good story about it, I still don't care much for baseball yarns. Or any sports, for that matter. Still, I kept with it and by the end kinda wished I was given a "Bad News Bears" story with SK's twist from this little gem. Uplifting, quirky, full of hope in the middle of despair, and in the end... the fat kid we had been rooting for all along actually wound-up being six-year-old Michael Myers. And have the movie be billed as something meant for kids, too. Does that make me sick? Muahaha

Mister Yummy -
This was an oddball. I know there's a lot of magical realism meets retirement home stories out there, and SK likes to corner the field, but running to back to flashback the 50's and eighties as a wild gay man rummaging about Aids, who eventually winds up being one of the top 1% and an ultraconservative in his old age just tells me that way too many authors out there just aren't trying hard enough. Rock on.

Tommy -
Nostalgia poem. 'S ok. Kinda had to be there.

That Little Green God Of Agony -
A story about pain management done SK style. A lot of old tropes done with style and nice twists. SK hasn't lost his talent. Indeed, he's been sharpening his blades all along. Now, let's get that sucker out!

The Bus Is Another World -
Kinda thought this would be a great fantasy title, but no, it was more of a story about tight distraction. Do we all filter things that happen this much? "Murder? Oh well... I've got A VERY IMPORTANT MEETING...." The thing is, the character is so interesting that I sympathize. What does that make me? (Hint: that's likely the point.)

Obits -
Probably one of my most favorite stories in this collection. Think Death Note, Vol. 1: Boredom with a rather less tight rule system attached to it. Very creepy and rather effective. I'd probably give everything up and move to Wyoming, too.

Drunken Fireworks -
As a plain short story without anything supernatural, it was a fun drunken ride. Hatfields and McCoys with fireworks. :) Good *somewhat clean* fun.

Summer Thunder -
SF apocalypse, as only SK can do it. Definitely a more concise tale than The Stand, but this time with a nuclear option. I loved Gandalf, and watching that progression really broke my heart. SK proves that it's only the close-up that matters. *sigh*




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Friday, November 13, 2015

The Easiest Job in the WorldThe Easiest Job in the World by Scott Hale
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nice. I liked this a lot better than Black Occult Macabre Vol. 1 Issue 7 even though the other had a lot more weirdness going on.

What can I say? I love it when stories move smoothly. I love it more when smooth stories move on horribly grotesque and brutal scenes of nightmare, and still remain a smooth story. Even with all the fleshy fronds and gore strewn basements, it was still damn easy to get into Beatrice's character.

I hate student loans, too, but honestly, they're probably the most horrific part of this whole story. ;) No. Seriously. Anything that might turn a bright young girl like this into a starving babysitter has got to be EVIL.

Even so, so much happens in a short time, and anyone who reads this will NOT have to wait long before everything goes to utter hell.

I was surprised by the end. I SERIOUSLY didn't expect that. No Way.

After all that? Hell no.

Did it please? Oh yes. Just like a Jawbreaker, sweet and oh so dangerous. Chomp.

:)

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UpdraftUpdraft by Fran Wilde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a lot of high hopes for this. I really did. I thought to myself, "Oh wow, a society of fliers. A whole world of fliers! This could be utterly awesome, giving me lots and lots of necessary extrapolations and unusual twists and turns, whether societal, setting, or even character-centered."

Instead, I'm introduced to a completely forgettable and utterly predictable plot, with: A Chosen One. An Outcast Sect. War like a Football Game.

Huh? Am I reading YA? Trials, graduation, snobby rich kids, dashed expectations. Okay. there was a little flying, but it was like listening to a game. Where were the serious consequences? Oh... serious consequences are all in the dashed expectations: The MC and ME.

Later on, the plot remains absolutely scrutable. She can choose to level up with tattoos that give her better blah blah at the risk of blah blah, she'll have to remain outside of the regular caste and Sing. Yeah. Like a bat. And like a siren. And oh yeah, don't feed the animals.

The worldbuilding is probably the best part of the novel, but it is mostly there in the background, and it went deep enough to flog my waning attention.

Seriously, I wanted more flight and a story that wasn't exactly like EVERY OTHER recently popular dystopian YA novel. I was never surprised. Not even once. There were lots of opportunities for the novel to break off in new directions.

Do we really want another story about a squad of outsider tribals trying to save the misunderstood animal species from the other tribals? Substitute pieces at your convenience.

Other than that, it wasn't like the novel was written poorly. It wasn't. All my interest just drained away because it didn't bother to stand out. It just followed formula and relied on setting to try and carry it.

I DID like the novel better when I thought about the kinds of adventures that I might have had. The possibilities are still there, sitting unrealized. I just don't think I'll go out of my way to find them out except in my own head.

I'm rather disappointed.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Black Occult Macabre Vol. 1 Issue 7Black Occult Macabre Vol. 1 Issue 7 by Scott Hale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title *may* be misleading. Spoiler alert! There aren't actually six other issues of this magazine! lol This is a fairly standalone short story.

I'm a mess of emotions when it comes to trying to review this short story. On the one hand, it's horror and self-referential reality-bending loops. It also has a fair dose of cameos from villains and even a few heroes from The Bones of the Earth. Nothing wrong with any of that. A bit of a modern mentorship program going on, with nasty necklaces and missing dolls, carnivorous trees and ghosts.

Mind you, this was a short story. A lot of interesting things flew by, but the MC seemed a little all over the place. What age was he, really? From the excessive hyperbole at the beginning, I thought he was in his early teens. At the end, I thought he was in his early twenties. School-time with his peers felt distinctly middle-school, but the emailed critique felt very college-like.

There was a lot of this kind of confusion, and while reading it, it annoyed me. It distracted while I was focusing on the bloody adventure he was writing a chronicle for. I can't help but think that this short story would have been better served in a longer tale that could have exposed and explored the aging craziness, because there was way too much to be anything but deliberate.

Unlike the other two shorter works, there was something very disjointed about this one, but it didn't ruin my enjoyment of it. It glories in its horrorifics and adds dimension to the greater worldbuilding inherent in the rest of Mr. Hale's tales, but let me be honest: it belongs in an anthology of related Hale-Tales, and not truly as a standalone.

That being said, hold off on reading this until you've read the others first!

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Scanner DarklyA Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my second time reading this wonderful novel, and I see no reason to revise any of my initial impressions. It's still very enjoyable... Again. Maybe I have a soft spot in my heart for all those wonderful novels that either deal with the nature of reality, of conscious identity, of drug use, or just plain consequences of one's actions.

Fortunately for me, I've got so many of my favorite themes in one novel. To me, it builds on the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and only mildly resonates with any overt SF gadgethood. Instead, it speculates wildly about the people who use and the people who suffer, showing us all how much worse the punishment is for what is, in effect, a victimless crime.

A discussion about Pot? If so, it is rather early in the turning of the wheel. We're shown people having fun despite the darkness of their lives and despite the heavy consequences, whether by huge mental instability, outright madness, incarceration, brainwashing, and last but not least, inequity of justice.

Maybe the last isn't as obvious until you read the author's afterward, or maybe it'll bash you over the head as you roam the fields. Either way, Death is only an inversion of self, and the faster a person runs toward fulfilling themselves through drugs or hedonism, the faster they lose everything that matters in their lives.

PKD's dark universe and exploration of the mind falling apart, of draconian measures tearing harmless people apart, of the absolute irony of the end of the novel... all of it is a testimony of heartbreak in the midst of humor.

I happen to know a bit about PKD's life. He wasn't the drug fiend that people made him out to be. He smoked some pot and dropped a few tabs of acid in his life, but he was also a man of his times. He WROTE as a man of his time. He was more interested in philosophy and the nature of reality, religion, and the mind that most writers, but that's not to say he was anything other than paranoid. He was. And that was a main feature of most of his great novels. Counterculture was his passion. So was questioning the fabric of reality.

Some of his last novels exemplify this. A later brain tumor cannot explain away the devotion to these threads of themes, although I think we can all agree that it did make him a bit obsessive about it.

Regardless, this was first and foremost a deliberate novel set out to deliberately show the blurred definitions between the norms and the abnorms, the crazies and the sane, the users and the clean. Everything was merely a reversal in the glass. Narcs and pushers were practically the same, and the funniest bits of the book had to be either the antics of the friends or the deliciousness of having our MC ironically persecute himself every step of the way.

What a beautiful novel. Not my absolute favorite of his works, but it is crazy good.

Now, off to re-watch the great Linklater film!

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Best of All Possible WorldsThe Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So the big question is: Can you have a long, drawn out courtship between two level-headed middle-aged adults in a SF universe without much in the way of conflicts, misunderstandings, petty rivalries, jealousies, or much in the way of an overblown outside conflict bearing down upon them?

Why yes, yes you can, when it is called The Best of All Possible Worlds. I'm okay with pastoral romances, but usually there's a bit more plot and even if it's a mild comedy of errors or a comedy in the old romantic sense, there's usually enough intrigue to push everything along until the conflicted characters finally get together.

Here, we've got a woman who doesn't know her mind, or at least, doesn't want to admit her own mind, mildly, until the end.

And then we've got marriage.

Yup. That's it.

All right, maybe there's a slight bit more to it, but for the most part we're dealing with a lot of lack of conflict except for the fact the taSidiri homeworld got destroyed and there's a glut of men who are just like Vulcans except for the Pon Farr. Telepathy plays a big role through the novel, but nothing much happens except average every day pastoral concerns such as finding all these poor men wives and proving survivability for their cultural heritage.

That's not to say that things don't happen, because some things do happen. Kissing elephants, the Fairy Kingdom, uncovering a slavery ring, an expedition that goes awry... but honestly, they were never immediately powerful or full of serious long-term consequences. They happened. I can't really say if they progressed any type of real story except as a shared backdrop to the really early telegraphed insistence on The Marriage, which eventually happened.

It was a gentle boat ride of a novel that had a few mild and gentle confusions and resolutions, long-term planning, and logical and deliberate considerations.

Oh yeah, and it is SF. At least, it's set in an SF universe that had some standard tropes and even a little mysticism and what I can only consider angels.

It's okay. Ultimately kinda forgettable, but okay.

Congratulations on the marriage!

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The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance, #3)The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I must say that this is the best of all three.

Sieh.

He touched me just as much as he touched Shahar or Deka. And before you start going on about how that's nasty, I mean it entirely metaphorically! Gosh, you people. I was damn close to tears an unknowable number of times while reading this. It was special in a way that all deeply mythological tales can be special, even when they tear a hole in reality to let in the Maelstrom, borrow from so many sources, and yet manage to be fully creative and original all on their own.

Was I genuinely surprised by some of their choices, or by the events that happened, or the way it finally got resolved? Yes, to all three.

I cried. It was just that good.

As for some of the things that some of you might be looking for in a progressive tale: There is offhand and natural relations between the sexes that I've come to expect from gods and godlings, only it is is a bit more down to earth with more of the mortal flavor in this novel. Traditional love story, this isn't.

What it really manages to be, spectacularly, is a novel about growing up.

That in itself is the biggest source of all conflict, of course, and made so much worse because it is the god of childhood and mischief that has to undergo such a nightmare of losing everything that he is.

What an emotional ride.

Plots and other storylines were very interesting and held the rest of the tale together as tightly as anyone could desire, and there were some rather huge events that happened, satisfying my ever-increasing desire for "More, More, More" mind-blowing greatness. I truly couldn't put the novel down for the life of me. It was intelligent, so well-crafted, wise, mischievous, and eventful. And best of all, it had one hell of a great story underneath everything else that was popping.

I already knew that Jemisin was one hell of an artist, from the first novel that I read, The Fifth Season, to this third book in the wonderful The Broken Kingdoms. She's now become my go-to mastermind for brilliant storytelling, huge worldbuilding, and mythopunk craving.

So damn wonderful!

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Sunday, November 8, 2015

Illuminae (The Illuminae Files, #1)Illuminae by Amie Kaufman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been accused of being prejudiced against YA fiction, justly, and mainly because I've been the first to admit that I get so tired of the same old blah.

Good news, everyone! I loved this YA book!

At first, I was worried that all the layout gimmicks ranging from ascii art to pretty space-battle action sequences made up of small text MIGHT be a way to hide the fact that there was no solid story, emotional impact, developing characters, or a wonderful hodge-podge of nutritious SF staples.

I couldn't be happier to learn that I was wrong!

And get this: The freaking novel is a romance! And I loved the romance in it! NO ONE is more surprised than me. There's so much crap out there. And this wasn't crap!
Holy shit.

The gimmicks work, first of all. Found electronic documents make up most of the text, including internal memos, instant messaging, and heavily encrypted diaries. As for the nuts and bolts, we've got attacked colonies, limping and abused space battlecruisers, deranged AI, bioplagues, brilliant hackers, star pilot jockeys, and enough intrigue to raise your dander AND make you call out for some serious revenge. That's all fine and dandy, you say, but how was the story? Did they pull it off?

Hell yes. Hell, Hell, Hell yes. This was an action adventure that reminded me of the best parts of that first Starship Troopers movie, full of bright lights and sarcasm. Add to it a ton of mystery with absolutely fantastic pacing and conflict on all sides, a truly emotional rollercoaster between our star-crossed lovers evolving into a major rescue attempt that turns into something truly heroic beyond a mere selfish desire to save her love, and we've got an awesome winner.

It may not break new ground in the SF categories, except in being fully up-to-date in internetese and subculture joyrides, but the WAY that this novel pulls it off was pure enjoyment. I couldn't put the book down until I was absolutely FORCED TO BY FORCES OF NATURE BEYOND MY CONTROL: IE., my daughter.

And all the while, I promised myself that I'd recommend this book to her when she's a new teen. The main characters are 17-18 range, but screw that. I would have gotten everything about this novel when I was 12. I would have enjoyed it even more because it packed a ton of punches from so many sides. It was damn exciting, creative, and it made me cry.

Yes. It made me cry. I got all emotional all over this book. I thank all the stars in heaven for all the good books I've read this year to make up for all the crap.

Here's to the truly excellent! Here's to Illuminae!

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Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Boat of a Million YearsThe Boat of a Million Years by Poul Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my great googamunga, what the hell have I been reading all these years, slogging through shit only to finally come upon THIS MAGNUM OPUS OF SF? I'm frankly about as embarrassed as I can possibly be.

I am STUNNED by how smoothly this enormous work slid down my gullet, amazing me with so much delightfully interesting history told so damn well that I had to check a few times to be sure I was reading an actual SF novel, and not a brilliant historical told through an old motif of immortals making their way through time. I kept picking up nuances that were thrilling and I absolutely loved the tension when it came to the possibilities of having these radically different people finally get together, or when they did, things went to hell, like ships running with false colors in the night.

But understand this: neither the interesting characters nor the locations and situations make this book the bit of brilliance that it is. It's the undercurrents of mythology, the retellings of old, old, old tales, and the underlying questioning of life that turns this huge novel into an unforgettable tale.

Sure, MANY authors have gone and turned their hands at immortality, and I've even been convinced on occasion that the best long-term space-farers limited by light-speed would inevitably be vampires and wandering jews, but let's face it: A lot of what's out there is dreck.

This novel isn't.

In fact, it's one of the most scrupulously researched and deftly imagined SF titles ever written. I'm absolutely certain that I'm going to have to read this a second and perhaps a third time. I picked up enough references to old gods and messages from other greats of literature to choke a horse, and yet Poul Anderson is so damn experienced and crafty that he never let any of it get in the way of good writing and storytelling. They were practically all below the surface, giving so much damn depth to this novel that I feel like a Phonician in a flimsy boat tempting Thetis or even Ran to capture me in her grand oceanic net.

"Stunning" doesn't really do this novel justice.

I feel like I just read great literature. This is the kind of writing I'd always wished and hoped to see in SF: deep, intelligent, crafty, exploratory, and a damn good yarn to boot. I'm not going to be forgetting any of these immortals any time soon. Heaven willing, I'll be able to meet up with them in a million years, myself, and drink wine with them with all the other biologicals filling all the niches of the universe.

One thing I will say, though, if anyone is considering between the audio version or the text, aim for the text. I tried both and reading it traditionally made a hell of a lot better sense and maintained if not excelled at keeping every ounce of my attention. And this is coming from someone who actually prefers to read by audiobook for convenience.

I'm pretty damn sure I'm going to have to do some serious rearranging of my top 100 list soon to make room for this puppy.

Another thing: there's quite a lot of Heinlein-dropping in the modern section of the tale. I know this is very intentional, from politics to borrowed story ideas. Far from being derivative, though, I think Poul pulled off a Heinlein better than Heinlein. And another thing: this novel was published in 1989, one year after Heinlein died.

As a send-off, it brought real tears to my eyes.

As a side note: I've only read one other work of Poul Anderson's, Tau Zero , and while I enjoyed the hard SF aspects a ton, ignoring what we now know about physics, I had some serious issues with the characters and sexual dynamics, feeling like the novel was a throwback of misogyny. I'm now sure that it was either Poul trying to speak to his intended audience of the early 70's, or he had gone through a HELL of a big life change between the years, because I had NO PROBLEMS AT ALL with the characters in The Boat of a Million Years. They were complicated and three-dimensional, frail and strong and constantly growing. I loved them. They went down like sweet wine. I'm of the opinion that Poul was following someone else's misguided attempts to try for the apparent spirit of the times in Tau Zero, and for Boat, he was given free reign to make whatever kind of masterpiece he wanted.

THANK googamunga for that!

I've only read two, but he's now up there as one of my favorite authors of all time. That's a big WOW for me. Obviously I've got to get onto the rest of his library, huh?

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Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House (The Sandman, #2)The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Corinthian and the serial murderer's convention was rather special, and Rose Walker was somewhat interesting the first time reading this, but the second time? I think it was much better.

It's all about how we are shaped and what we shape, from feelings of listlessness (Dream), making a new life (the escaped dreams), or friendship with Hob, the humanity of Death, of Desire's machinations.

All of which touch on something deeper than a single series of comics should ever have a chance to commit.

Very impressive storytelling, and weird, full to the brim with images and sequences that go very deep indeed.



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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

LagoonLagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having been a fanboy of Anansi in the past, I loved seeing Anansi the storyteller being our narrator here.

As a SF, it was a fairly traditional first contact story dovetailing into a christ image into a deeper story about the building of a world and its stories. Confused? I'm just referring to bare-bones. Beyond that, I was enraptured in the immersion of Nigeria. It was spicy and exciting to me, even though I've read some good African stories in the past, I can rank this up there with them all, and favorably, too.

Before things got dangerous and weird, I was pretty damn impressed with the introduction of so many types and kinds of people. They almost read as a litany of motivations from the sublime to the most base, and when things blew up, I was thoroughly ashamed to call myself human. That's kinda the point, though, and it set us up for the whole christ theme. It wasn't too tired. Sure, it's one of the most overdone subtypes, but the focus was a lot more heavy on change rather than culpability and redemption.

That's good, because the storytelling was always pretty damn on target for just that. The world always changes, whether from outside or from the inside or for good or ill. This was pretty damn satisfying.

The aliens weren't extremely original, but that's not really the point. This whole book could have been written as our subconscious coming to life, magically, to provide us both a mirror to ourselves as well as being the catalyst to something more.

My only real complaint is one I've already made my peace with. Special powers for our MCs? I wanted to blow a raspberry. Fortunately, it all eventually made sense so I let it go.

Good novel, and quite entertaining. I'm going to definitely read more by this author! It is a real eye opener.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes (The Sandman, #1)The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have to say I enjoyed this much better the second time around.

Both times I really got a kick out of the Crowley sidestory, and I still have no idea who or what the original sandman comic was all about, nor do I particularly care, but this reimagining is a real work of art.

It's not even the art, per-se, although I did enjoy seeing Bowie as Satan. It fits him so well. It was the story. It seemed to stumble about for a short while as 70 years of imprisonment turned a very old god into a shadow, but once he was released, we had the real power of myth awaken and we suddenly had a Quest to Regain Powerful Artifacts, including John Constantine representing normal human worlds, Satan representing hell, and Doctor Dee representing dreams all made perfectly real. Each success returned Dream to his former glory and established a truly epic worldbuilding experience.

If everything is possible, then what is necessary?

The answer? A good night's sleep.

Possibly.

Oh hell, I know what's going to happen later. This has made me almost impossibly giddy to revisit it. Welcome home, Dream.

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Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch, #3)Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have to say this book puts the previous one in an entirely new and better light. I was left with Ancillary Sword being somehow a lot *less* than Ancillary Justice, but that's only because I had missed it's true purpose and eventual outcome, which, thankfully, became extremely pleasant in this third novel.

You know how it is, the curse of the middle novel. Less action, more buildup, slower and more subtle. Okay, maybe the themes weren't very subtle at all, revolving as it had upon the hinges of being civilized. But that's okay. The first novel established quite a bit of homelessness, identity issues, loss, and near hopelessness in the face of such an insane power. The second established a thoughtful and forward-looking pace under the realization that Breq's sometime Rachii boss is damn nuts, and the only sane course is to protect whomever and whatever she can in the face of it. The third book takes it much farther, in a much more proactive way, eventually leading us to an all out revolution and breakaway from the grand old empire.

Insane move? Hopelessly outgunned and outpopulated? You better damn believe it. Fortunately, this is a novel about Breq actually belonging somewhere, at long last. It was touching and thrilling in its own way, building upon the previous novels in a way that is obvious in retrospect, and it's awesome.

The AI loves and is loved, despite never quite believing it could happen. Respect, fondness, sure, all of that has been in her memory, but never quite that elusive concept of love. It's her choices, the way she treats people, the way she truly cares that does it. And that same power has the ability and potential to free all the other Ancillaries she has contact with.

Truly beautiful. This novel had the ending and feel of greatness, however abrupt it was, that I wish the second novel had. All told, the full tale is brilliant and worthy of high SF in all it's glory. Freedom and Love, forever!



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Monday, November 2, 2015

Bird BoxBird Box by Josh Malerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is good modern horror. No SF or Fantasy mix at all. Oppressive and thrilling start, giving us thousands of questions and immediate care for Mallory and her two children. There are few good answers to be had by the end of the novel, but that doesn't matter. It's a thrilling and emotional tale set between the extremely harrowing present, lost in required blindness due to the unknowable tragedy that surrounds them, and the past, as we get to see how she survived up to then.

It's a simple tale made vibrant with so many questions.

Why are people going crazy and murdering everyone and themselves after seeing what is outside? Why has it struck the whole world? If you're lucky enough to have closed your eyes or otherwise blinded yourself, then you have the chance to live, but the questions remain and even those tend to rip off the blindfolds.

So simple. And yet, quite terrifying when you're in the middle of it and desperate to survive. Oh so oppressive. And chilling. This is what good horror always ought to do to us. Question, reason, fear, and survive. But mostly question. The answers are rarely the ones we want and the fact is, we rarely get good answers anyway. The trick is always to question and always hold on. It doesn't matter if its your sanity, a blindfold, or your children as you search for your next meal, avoid the crazy birds or the crazy dogs or the rivermen that cajole you into just opening your eyes, "It's so beautiful...": The point is to hold on.

So damn sweet.


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Sunday, November 1, 2015

White Trash Zombie Gone Wild (White Trash Zombie #5)White Trash Zombie Gone Wild by Diana Rowland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a better turn for the series, getting away from corporate or spy shit and giving us an old-style drug problem to work through. :)

I knew it was coming from the end of the previous book, but to see all the horrible issues of the soldier potion for zombies turn her into a self-serving self-destructive zombie who had Just started getting her life together was a very pleasant move. It was going too easy for Angel. The personal agency stuff needed a big kick in the ass, and I'm so happy it happened this way.

Zombie life is interesting enough on its own. :)

Total brain candy. Literally. Yummy Brains. :)

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