Friday, July 24, 2020

Non-fiction: Review of Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughn by Alan Paul & Andy Aledort


I had a Stevie Ray Vaughan phase in my life. There was a one or two year period in my twenties where I bought all his studio albums, as well as a handful of bootlegs. The speed, the energy, the passion, the talent—all fed me like a drug. Putting “Lovestruck Baby” on the stereo and cranking up the volume as loud as I could stand it put the hairs on my arm on end, Stevie's actually crackling in the background. And while I haven’t done that in a while (kids, middle age, yada yada), when I saw Alan Paul and Andy Aledort’s biography Texas Flood, I took a peek. When I saw that it was essentially a string of excerpts of interviews taken during and after Vaughan’s life, glued together by Paul and Aledort’s adroit editing, I splashed the cash. And after turning the last page, with Stevie’s uplifting, dark, uplifting, dramatic, human story fresh in my mind, I found the book’s value.

Texas Flood proves the old adage ‘You gotta live the blues to sing the blues’ both right and wrong. Vaughan subject to his own demons, the demons of a rough childhood, and the demons of fame and fortune, until ultimately killing the demons, Texas Flood details the life of a man born to play the guitar through the highest peaks and lowest valleys of life. The lives of the people around him told in live stereo, it is their words, as well as Stevie’s own, which comprise the overwhelming majority of the book. From bandmates, past and further past, to producers, friends, colleagues, fellow guitarists, and a number of people from within the industry, all chime in to comment upon the major milestones and lesser known details of Vaughan’s career and personal life.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Review of Conspirator by C.J. Cherryh


The first trilogy of books in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series grabbed me. The third book, Inheritor, snorted too many lines of cheap sf, but overall the novels’ in-depth exploration of culture and otherness was unlike anything I’d encountered to that point. The second trilogy was a major departure, but again, the focus remained on relationships and the differences between them, and had the strongest overarching storyline of any of the trilogies to date. With the third trilogy things started to crack and fray. Where each of the first two trilogies had a defined arc, the third moved like a drunken man at a Rolling Stones concert, i.e. according to its own set of rhythms that only it understood. It was worrisome. Was the series I enjoyed so much starting to fall apart?

Reading the blurb for the next Foreigner book (the tenth), Conspirator (2008), my senses went on full alert. That is just a repeat of the plot from Deliverer!!! my inner voice screamed. What is Cherryh doing?!?! I have since picked up and completed Conspirator. What are my senses telling me now?

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Non-fiction Review: The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier by Ian Urbina


It happens occasionally that after finishing a book I’m left speechless how to write a review, let alone an introduction. About halfway through Ian Urbina’s The Outlaw Ocean (2019), I had the thought: this a book future generations will read how life on the seas was as at the turn of the 21st century the same way I read Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle or Captain Cook’s journals, and the manner in which it documented life on the seas in their eras.

While that may seem a pile of hyperbole, it’s important to consider context. Technology has made life complex in myriad ways, including the way in which humanity plies and interacts in and on the seas. More than the winds and stars, we have satellites, massive, powerful engines, and a global trade network that dwarfs those of yesteryear. That being said, a romanticized view of the seas remains partially in the society’s mind’s eye. Land dwellers have little to zero knowledge of how humanity exists on the seas in the 21st century.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Review of Slipping by Lauren Beukes


Different strokes for different folks, and different values for different authors, some get by on quantity over quality, while others vice versa. I think it’s fair to say Lauren Beukes is in the latter camp. Progressing and improving noticeably over the course of a decade via a small handful of novels, she proved her work as a journalist translated to writing fiction, and has since produced one of the best horror/fantasy novels of the 21st century, Broken Monsters. But throughout writing novel-length fiction, Beukes likewise sharpened her skills with short fiction, sometimes extremely short fiction. Slipping: Stories, Essays, and Other Writing (2016) collects almost everything Beukes has published in short form, plus a few unpublished extras.

Setting the tone for the collection is its first entry, the poem “Muse”. It lets the reader know that what is about to come will cover the spectrum of velvety smooth to bloodily visceral, realistic to speculative. And the second story, the title story, “Slipping”, quickly makes good on the promise. A story about post-human Olympics that retains its human heart, it tells of a poor African who has been biologically altered to participate in the +Games. The story’s elements can be gaudy, but Beukes keeps the motivation real, all the way to its unexpected conclusion.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Review of The Spider's War by Daniel Abraham


If anything, Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger & Coin series has continually rewarded patience. The first novel, The Dragon’s Path was something of a barrier to entry (despite its dramatic sounding name). Abraham taking his time to establish character and setting, setting the juicier stuff of plot aside for later, it’s possible the novel put off a few readers from the series who would otherwise enjoy it very much. For those who stuck around, things just kept getting better and better. Revealing Basrahip’s true mission, uncovering Inye, seeing Geder’s character crumble before your eyes, Marcus and Kit making their grand discoveries—character and setting continually strengthen, while the stakes are raised each and every book as those juicy bits are fed into the story, ramping up the tension and enjoyment. This is all a long winded way of saying: The Spider’s War (2015), final book in the series, brings the fireworks readers have thus far been led to believe would be the reward at the end of, dare I say it, the dragon’s path, just perhaps in an accelerated fashion that may not belie the pace of the prior novels.

The Spider’s War is the big splash. It is the promise, delivered. It is the expected clash, resolved. And while most if not all the devices of the series are indeed generic fantasy, the resolution of some characters’ arcs hits the feels given their development. Like any good opera coming to an end, there are moments that have the potential to impact readers as such. I would guess most writers would say that’s a good pay off.

Review of The Widow's House by Daniel Abraham


Starting the third book in The Dagger & Coin series, The Tyrant’s Law, there is little hint or clue what the title of the fourth, penultimate could possibly mean. We’ve had spiders, dragons, wars, and treachery, but who is the ‘widow’ of The Widow’s House (2014)? But as events in The Tyrant’s Law take shape, the meaning starts to take shape. The details, however, are for the book to reveal.

The major reveal of The Tyrant’s Law was Inys, the dragon, and in The Widow’s House he plays an even bigger role. Having survived his encounter with Inys, Marcus Webster, along with the Kit and the rest of the traveling theater group, continue their search for ways to take down Geder. Completely, bloodily, single-mindedly focusing war on Cithrin, particularly Porta Oliva where she lives, Geder now lives to make her pay for the heartbreak she caused him. Having made her decision to spurn Geder, Cithrin now attempts to put in place economic plans that will offset his reprisal. And, finally Clara. At last back in the strata of aristocracy, she has an immense new challenge: find a way to balance her new position, her sons’ new positions, her love interests, and her continued desire take down Geder—not an easy task when some of those items seem at odds with one another. As war marches across the continent, and the cult of the spider goddess grows more powerful with each city taken, the stakes of Abraham’s universe have never been higher.

Review of The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham


You’re here. You want to know: has Daniel Abraham carried forward the momentum of The King’s Blood into The Tyrant’s Law (2013)? Has he maintained—or enhanced —the quality of The Dagger & Coin series? Does the series continue getting more and more interesting? Answer to all: yes. Where The King’s Blood upped the ante on The Dragon’s Path, The Tyrant’s Law pushes more chips on the table. The stakes, and subsequently reader engagement, grow.

The prologue of The Tyrant’s Law opens on a scene readers have been wondering about throughout the first two books of the series. As is Abraham’s style, it features a non-main character who is witness to something hinted at, but never revealed, until now. From there, the novel switches back into the cycle of viewpoints readers are now very familiar with.

Manifesting himself in a variety of directions, for better and worse, Geder remains one of the most complex characters in the series, by turns sympathetic and despicable. His decisions and behavior in The Tyrant’s Law (as the title hints), only ramp up the understanding he has serious mommy issues. Still in disgrace, Clara starts work from the bottom up, building relationships and enacting plans to get revenge for her husband’s killing. Marcus continues his journeys with Kit, discovering the netherreaches of the known world, and all the fantastical thigns that await. And Cithrin. Cithrin, Cithrin, lady who gets in her own way as much as she helps herself. Her earlier decision to befriend Geder coming back to haunt her, she faces yet another decision that gives her a chance to prove whether she’s learned anything about herself.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Review of The Agency by William Gibson

And here I thought William Gibson’s The Peripheral was a one-and-done. Wrong. I should have known better. Looking back on Gibson’s history, particularly the interviews, it seems clear. I think I’m done with this setting. No, wait: I’m not, and yet another trilogy comes about… What then does The Agency (2020) have to add to the setting?

Building from the Jackpot concept of The Peripheral, The Agency introduces new tangents (including, what if Hilary won the 2016 election) and plays the old Gibsonian trick of featuring new characters while slyly working in familiar ones. In the Hilary storyline, a new character named Verity is introduced. Hired by a start-up in San Francisco to test new technology, she spends the better part of the novel’s beginning trying to understand the strange avatar software being developed for the military. In the second, the Jackpot storyline, exists the new technology Verity is working with named Eunice. At the umbrella level, the relationship and tension between these two “women” drives international and interdimensional plots and cabals.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Review of The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham


The Dragon’s Path, first book in Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger & the Coin series, was a slow burn. Perhaps too slow, the novel took its time, building a foundation of characters and setting for the four books to come, that may have put off would-be readers. It wasn’t until roughly the two-thirds’ point that the plot’s gears started to bite into one another, and the wider picture started to come into focus. Building off this, the second book in the series, The King’s Blood (2012), carries the momentum forward into a novel that is likely more to the liking of readers with a preference for pace and conflict.

The King’s Blood returns to the viewpoints of the same handful of characters. Geder, now regent to the king, continues his arcane studies under the watchful eye of the spider cult, all the while watching over Astor, heir to the kingdom. Ever faithful and honorable, Dawson attempts to clean up the mess of the failed assassination attempt, even as he sees King Simeon’s health failing. And Cithrin, despite her rise in power in the Medean bank, is now subject to a new line of notary authority, a line that is entirely to her disliking, forcing her to find creative ways of getting done the things done that she knows are good for her and the bank.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Review of The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel


Emily St. John Mandel’s 2015 Station Eleven was a hit. Science fiction by definition but more humanist in aim than the majority of work that fits under that umbrella, Mandel earned herself a number of fans on the “other side”, despite that her first three novels didn’t ping the “squids in space” radar. Wisely taking a five-year break to let the hype cool down, Mandel returns in 2020 with the novel The Glass Hotel. While likewise technically genre (the reader can discover how), again, Mandel has focused her energy on the people who populate her story, and the layers that make them human.

Character study in the era of corporate fraud, The Glass Hotel is set primarily in the early Oughts, and looks at a few branches of relationships—family, friends, spouses, etc. living through a major, Enron-esque corporate scandal. Foremost on the screen, but only by a few frames, is a young woman named Vincent. Raised in atypical circumstances on a remote British Columbia island accessible to mainland only by boat, she reels, seemingly throughout her life, from the unexpected death of her mother when she was a young teen. Children to a broken marriage, her brother Paul relieves his existential angst through narcotics.