Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers



Tim Powers is for me a writer whose development is more obvious than a lot of others.  I cringe reading such early efforts as An Epitaph in Rust and The Drawing of the Dark.  One can see a wonderful imagination on the page, but not the talent to execute on a line by line basis.  In The Anubis Gates, On Stranger Tides, and Dinner at Deviant’s Palace a synthesis starts to be seen.  I daresay The Stress of Her Regard (1989) is the transition point from those novels to where we see Powers today, as Last Call and the novels which follow feature the author in his best form.  Thankfully, unique imagination has remained a constant throughout. 

The Stress of Her Regard was Powers’ most ambitious novel to date.  Daring to feature some of the English language’s most renowned poets as primary characters—Bryon, Shelley, and Keats among them—the resulting storyline tells of a British doctor, Michael Crawford, and the bad luck he has while out drinking the night before his wedding.  Accidentally leaving his ring on a statue, he returns the next day to find the object now clenched in a stone fist, unable to be loosened.  All goes well in the wedding, however, that is until the next morning when Crawford awakes to find his new bride’s body mutilated in terrifying fashion beside him.  A whole world of dark horrors slowly unveiling itself in the aftermath, Crawford escapes Britain, but does so into the arms of a creature which would rather have him dead.  Cognizant of the lamia’s true power, he turns to British poets who are traveling the continent for help.  Trouble is, they too are haunted in their own way.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review of Nation by Terry Pratchett



Mythopoeic if there ever was, Terrry Pratchett’s 2008 novel Nation is an Adam and Eve clash of native and western values, with the cream that rises to the top taken to drink.  A wave from a tsunami wave carrying the native Mau and the colonial Daphne to the same beach, slowly the survivors of Mau’s tribe and Daphne’s shipwreck begin appearing onshore, fleshing out the two sides’ differences but forcing them to establish compromises—yes, as only Pratchett can write.  

It should be stated that Nation is not a Discworld novel.  Pratchett sticks to the real world, but given he does nothing to change his style of writing, nevertheless feels very much like a Discworld offering.  Mau, Daphne, or any of the other characters could quite easily appear on the streets of Ankh-Morpork.  Thus for anyone concernd non-Discworld = non-Pratchett, fear not: Nation could not be mistaken for anything but a Pratchett offering.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review of The Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell



David Mitchell’s oeuvre, as relatively small as it it to date, has nevertheless covered a range of plots, settings, and characters.  But fitting in there, sometimes small, sometimes big, always seems the Orient, and most often Japan.  From the Japanese man working in the jazz shop in Ghostwritten to the main character and setting of number9dream, Japan seems to play a role in most of Mitchell’s works.  In 2010’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell turns to the island nation for setting, specifically the Sakoku era, but does so from a majority European perspective.

Believing that accepting a clerk position with the Dutch East Indian Company in Japan for five years will land him the woman he desires once he returns to the Netherlands, Jacob de Zoet reluctantly says goodbye to his homeland and makes the long ocean voyage to the other side of the Earth at the opening of the novel.  The outgoing company steward leaving behind a trail of corruption, de Zoet has been sent along with a strong-minded captain with the mission of setting things right to get commerce flowing with the Japanese on the up and up once again.  Japanese restrictions on European presence in Nagasaki highly intemperate, de Zoet is disappointed to learn that none of his cultural hopes or expectations have any real hope of being fulfilled.  From language to Japanese daily life, all are essentially cut off.  But de Zoet does strike up something of sympathetic relationship with the Japanese translator, and from it meets the local European doctor who is allowed beyond the walls of the stockade, and through that has talks with a woman that may just change his mind about returning to the Netherlands, Miss Aibagawa.  With Dutch power fading in the Orient and English power on the rise, trouble looms in the backdrop, even as de Zoet hacks his way through the rough characters he must work alongside each day.  When an English ship is spotted on the horizon, cannon doors open, trouble starts brewing.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Non-fiction: Review of Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram by Iain Banks



‘Fate’ doesn’t fit.  ‘Marriage made in heaven’, does.  What’s the combo?  Whiskey, Scotland, and Iain Banks, of course.  In other words, publishers finally savvied up; in 2002 they commissioned Banks to write a book of non-fiction—his first and last—about whiskey.  Taking his own path, the result is a travelogue cum history cum taste-test cum ramble about the Scottish national beverage called Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram (2003).

A very loose, heart-on-his-sleeve, Banks-ian approach, Raw Spirit does whiskey justice.  The reader can see the Banks who usually lies between the lines in his novels come front and center. Far from a formal discourse on history or chemistry, pedagogery is limited to a brief review of whiskey’s origins and the distilling process.  After, all the focus is on the merits of individual expressions—the different types of whiskeys—encountered while traveling around Scotland. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

And the drop is due to...



The rate of reviewing has dropped off on this site for more than a few of months.  I’m still reading a lot, just not as much as I used to.  And of course there’s a reason.   Actually, there are two.  But first things, first.

A year and a half ago, just before the holidays, my wife’s family asked what we wanted for Christmas.  Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on perspective—I was not asked an opinion on the decision, and instead of requesting something relevant to our ongoing (lifetime?) house renovation, my wife asked for, of all things, a Playstation 4.  What?!?!?, I thought.  We’re in our late thirties.  The last time either of us played video games was university.  We could have a new front door for the price of one of those things! Secretly, of course, I was also aware of what a brain-suck video games can be; like chocolate they are oh so good, and yet oh so bad—bad in the sense that they put to strong test one’s time management and self-control to. not. play. just. one. more. level.  (Despite the decades since last playing, I remain in the court that video games are a positive thing, depending on the game and how the time is spent of course, and I think cognitive science backs this up.)  But Christmas time came, and there sitting under the tree, was a PS4.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Review of The Mindwarpers by Eric Frank Russell



One of the interesting aspects of science fiction is that it is a form sometimes used to criticize science, or more precisely the application of science, rather than glorify it.  From Barry Malzberg to J.G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury to Pat Cadigan, Tom McCarthy to James Morrow—these and other writers in the field have in some way expressed a wariness at technological change and its impact, intended and unintended, on people and society.  The quantity of such fiction dropping since the days vast and quick technological change first threatened, change has almost become the norm.  Getting more outdated with each day, Eric Frank Russell’s 1965 The Mindwarpers is one such book.  Republished as an ebook in 2017 by Dover Publications, the message at its heart, however, transcends time.

Richard Bransome works for one of the most advanced science research laboratories in the country.  Consequently, it is one of the most heavily guarded.  Multiple layers of security prevent unwanted access from the outside, even as the scientists and researchers internally impose their own unwritten code about secrecy in their work, hierarchy, and work ethic.  Bransome is happy in his job, but when people around him start leaving the compound, some even disappearing, things start to get fishy.  Paranoia settling in, Bransome soon finds himself in hiding from people who would like to uncover the secrets of his past as well as scientific work from his present.  Trouble is, are his fears real or imagined?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Review of The Moon and the Other by John Kessel



In the culture wars of the contemporary era, it’s fair to say gender is one of, if not the top subject inciting discussion, criticism, and (inevitably) argument.  From ultra-conservatives to ultra-liberals, the netwaves are awash with facts, opinions, and all manner of material between.  In these wars, it is the blessed privilege of science fiction to actually play out imagined gendered scenarios. From mature efforts like Margaret Atwood’s brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale to less mature (i.e. zeitgeist) works like Naomi Aldeman’s The Power, Suzee McKee Charnas’ challenging Walk to the End of the World to Theodore Sturgeon’s broad-minded Venus Plus X, James Tiptree Jr.’s paranoid yet intelligent ouevre to Aliya Whiteley’s childishly rebellious The Arrival of the Missives, experimenting with gender and gender interrelations has become a sub-genre unto itself—it still can’t compete with military sf or space opera, those bastions of traditionalism, but nevertheless…  Throwing his business card into the gendered sf hat is John Kessel and his matriarchal though male oriented thought experiment, The Moon and the Other (2017). 

Only adding to the idea that sf novels set on the moon currently are in vogue, The Moon and the Other takes advantage of its lunar setting to re-imagine society.  A scattering of colonies and settlements pockmarking the surface, all feature variations of patriarchal societies similar to those we have on Earth, particularly the biggest, richest colony of Perseopolis and Cyrus, it’s leader, who wants to recapture Persian glory of old.  But one colony is organized along different societal lines, the Society of Cousins.  A matriarchal society, men and women mix freely in the society, but men’s rights are limited in terms of child custody, voting, and the ability to organize into groups or political parties.  Men can be scientists, judges, even serve as members of political boards, but are kept in relative isolation as outright male authority and male-only groups are hindered.  Instead, sexual capability, leisurely pursuits, sports, and other non-politically invasive habits are heavily promoted within the male community by the cousins, and as a result, most men take the easy route of pampering and (relative) celebrity.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review of Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore



Alternate history is a fairly common element of today’s science fiction scene.  It’s not unusual to read about a novel or encounter a short story that takes some key aspect of history as we know it and flips it on its head.  From the lack of the Black Plague in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt to Michael Chabon’s Jewish habitation of Alaska in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s exploration of a 21-st century Ottoman empire in the Arabesk trilogy to Adam Roberts’ wild, lilliputian Swiftly, the past decade or so has seen a significant number of such stories.  But there was a vanguard—at least if the scattering of stories over several decades can be described as such.  (‘First wave’ sounds just as equivocal…)  One of the key, initial forays into history through an imaginary lens is Ward Moore’s 1953 Bring the Jubilee, which is being released in ebook form by Open Road Media in 2017.

Its Jonbar point the American Civil War, Bring the Jubilee looks into the idea ‘what if the South won’?  The story of Hodge Backmaker, son of a poor farmer in what’s left of the United States of America (essentially the Union), the young man breaks free of his rural home at an early age and heads to New York City—an impoverished metro compared to the grand, lavish cities of the Confederate States of America.  Getting lucky and finding work with a book printer, Hodge spends the next few years of his life learning the trade.  And he learns much more.  The book printer’s essentially a front, namely that of printing propaganda and counterfeiting money, Hodge learns of ongoing secret operations to build a Grand Army and restore the United States to its former glory.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Review of The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow

Many films and tv series have featured Hitler’s Third Reich.  And while the clipped ‘stache and heavily-greased forelock are the Fuhrer’s trademarks for personal style, it’s inevitable that a sharply-edged color-scheme of red, white, and black banners and bunting play an equal part in defining the Nazi backdrop.  Hitler not a stupid man, he was aware of the power of art toward helping define an ideology’s image—a visual commonality to abstract concepts.  Going back to the previous world war, James Morrow’s The Asylum of Dr. Caligari (2017, Tachyon) takes a metaphorically satirical look at said power.

It’s 1913 and Francis Wyndham, in a flurry of youthful exuberance, abandons his life in Pennsylvania as a would-be artist and heads to gay Paris, hoping to become apprentice to the great one himself, Picasso. Kicked out the door before he even has a chance to collect his portfolio, Wyndham must switch to plan B.  Given an intriguing offer by another artist, Wyndham heads to Luxembourg through a cloud of impending war in Europe, and the asylum run by the strange Dr. Caligari.  Outbreak imminient, Wyndham settles into his role as the asylum’s master artisan, but not without bits of mystery, including patients who may be more sane than they appear, as well as the twinkle-eyed Dr. Caligari’s own late-night painting projects.  And then the crescendo of war breaks…

Monday, June 19, 2017

Review of Frontera by Lewis Shiner



The transition from the Silver Age of science fiction to the New Age brought with it a change in perspective on mankind’s chances in space.  Where Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and others took a Betty Crocker life in the solar system and beyond as par for the course, Ballard, Malzberg, and other authors had a more jaded view of our prospects.  The 70s saw something of a return to space fervor, but cyberpunk in the 80s once again put a grittily realistic spin on humanity’s relationship to technology, socio-political evolution, and life in space.  A lot of cyberpunk’s focus related to street tech and life, cybernetic enhancements, and data hacking thanks to the success of William Gibson, it’s easy to forget that its aspirations were broader in aim.  Lewis Shiner’s 1984 Frontera, on top of being a debut novel, is a prime example of cyberpunk that does not fit the classic mold in aesthetic terms, yet adheres to its political and human tenets wonderfully.
                                                                                                          
With the collapse of world government in the face of mega-corporations, society has drastically changed form, and many public programs have fallen by the wayside.  One such program is the terraforming Mars mission—the colonists essentially left on their own by Earth, NASA now disbanded.  But one of the mega-corps, Pulsystems, has caught wind of a new technology that has evolved on Mars, and sends a ship with a few choice personnel, including the strange Kane, to learn more—in secret, if possible.  Arriving planetside, Kane begins spending time among the colonists, digging ever deeper into their strange fabric to learn if any new tech exists, even as his own mind, and what strange things implanted by Pulsystems, threatens to shoot off course.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Review of Borne by Jeff VanderMeer



Short review: Biopunk mythopoeia better a novella

Long review: While many genre fans were already aware of Jeff VanderMeer thanks to his years of writing and editing short stories as well as his novel-length works in the Ambergris setting, it was the Area X: Southern Reach trilogy which put VanderMeer’s name on the broader map of fiction.  Almost universally well-received, the three 2014 novels appeared in genre awards lists as well mainstream bestseller lists.  The three written and released in a very short period of time, it’s no surprise VanderMeer took a long break before releasing his next novel, 2017’s Borne.  Trouble is, was it too much time, or too much expectation for the follow-up?

A focused look at two people embedded in a near-future setting twisted Weird by advances in bio-technology, Borne opens with a woman, Rachel, scavenging for survival in a post-Collapse Earth.  Finding a small, blue-green blob-plant creature, she names it Borne and takes it home to her erstwhile companion, Wick.  Wick a drug dealer for the mutant bear overlord named Mord, he brews his bio-narcotics in an abandonded swimming pool.  Wanting to dissect Borne rather than nurture and raise him, Wick believes Borne is one of the many discarded creations of the Company, a biotech corp largely responsible for the ecological Collapse.  But Rachel convinces Wick to let the little creature live, and soon enough, it starts growing and learning.  Thing is, what kind of world is Borne growing up into?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review of The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch



Short review: eco-feminist manifesto

Long review: I find myself at odds with the vast majority of the rhetoric in the contemporary political scene.  I shake my head in amazement and fear at many of the statements made by both mega-conservatives and extreme liberals.  I do not think a wall along the Mexican border is an answer to America’s immigration/financial problems, nor do I think gender is fluid, something possible to ignore or forget.  Regarding the latter, I’m mystified by voices which would have us all be pan-sexual—in physical form and in orientation.  Such voices seem to be ignoring key elements of being human, namely that we are first animals, secondly civilized, and that understanding and working with this hierarchy as best we can is the way forward, not pretending it doesn’t exist.  But this is just one of the main reasons Lidia Yuknavitch’s 2017 novel The Book of Joan is so damn intriguing.

Heavily introspective atavism in space, The Book of Joan focuses on the life of Christine, prisoner in a panopticon orbiting Earth.  Earth nearly destroyed by nuclear war, she is sexless, genderless, and has had her skin reduced to a papery white by exposure to radiation.  Watched day-in and day-out by affluent overseers in the station, she awaits her fiftieth birthday, a point at which her body will be recycled for its water.  That day fast approaching, Christine decides to write a chronicle of her experiences on Earth with the despot Jean de Mar, the man who played a strong role in bringing about the nuclear destruction, and Joan, the young woman who opposed him.  Christine tattooing the story on her body, it’s only appropriate the resulting perspective is likewise corporeal.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Review of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett



Sometimes I’m behind the times, and with Robert Jackson Bennett’s 2014 City of Stairs, for certain I am—or was.  Distrusting the extreme hype upon release, I waited for the novel to settle a little in cultural memory, and in 2017 finally got around to it, (noting, with even more suspicion that the sequel City of Blades did not have the same level of reader response.)  Worth the hype?  Let’s see…

City of Stairs is contemporary epic fantasy, equal parts Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, and China Mieville (on his monster days).  Featuring magic and spells, alternate worlds, and old-world gods, all driven by a classic murder mystery plot, Bennett covers familiar market material while creating a world partially unique—at least unique enough.  He avoids a good vs. evil dichotomy by adding human detail to an occupied city setting, but keeps most of the focus on plot progression, fantastical reveals, numinous objects, military invasions, and a grand climax that is the stuff of classic epic fantasy.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review of Barkskins by Annie Proulx



Humanity’s written history perpetual for such a time now, fiction set in yesteryear has become an area of writing unto itself—a whole branch of novels and books overlaying stories of their own onto facts as we know them.  And the success of well-written historical fiction is natural; humanity remains as interested in its past as it does its future.  The real challenge for a writer of such novels is to include an agenda relevant to the contemporary world.  Focusing on the history of North America’s forests, interweaving them with the tales of multiple generations of two families, with Barkskins (2016) Annie Proulx proves that historical fiction can be every bit as relevant as contemporary fiction.

Barkskins is the story of two indentured servants, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, and the generations of their families that disperse throughout the centuries that follow—blue collar to white, lumberjack to aristocrat.  Sent by their king in the mid 17th century to cut timber in Nouveau France, the two men arrive together in the same dense, mosquito-infested forest, but quickly move in different directions.  Sel remains on the land, indifferent to the mistreatment by his lord, and clears space for a family and livelihood.  Duquet, on the other hand, escapes servitude and puts into action ideas that will fulfill his dreams of being a man of empire.  Both men’s lives taking unexpected turns toward their respective goals, they live long enough to father children, children who carry on the family names in equally interesting and varied means.  But always the forests remains a part of their lives, even as it dwindles around them.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Review of Passion Play by Sean Stewart



There is very little cyberpunk which brings religion in as a major theme.  Its concerns largely technological, biological, existential, political, post-human, etc., most dystopian corporate futures seem to assume faith and belief-based systems have once and finally been drowned by ‘civilization’.  A peripheral element at best, it’s rare to see Christianity, Buddhism, or any other religion defining the terms on which a cyberpunk novel is written.  (I’m aware there are works like George Alec Effinger’s Maid series which feature Islam heavily, but the religion appears for setting and plot backdrop alone.  Effinger does not go into the meaning of its system in a silicon world.)  This is certainly what makes Sean Stewart’s 1992 novel Passion Play so intriguing - and thankfully re-released in 2017 by Dover Publications.

It is the dark, corporate near-future, and a group of Christian fundamentalists, calling themselves The Redemptionists, have taken political power in the United States.  In the opening chapter, investigator Diane Fletcher is called to the scene of a brutal murder—a woman stabbed to death in her apartment for reasons unclear.  Fletcher a shaper (person who can glean hints of underlying emotion or thought from other people in conversation), she begins investigating the case, and quickly discovers that a local reverend, a radical Redemptionist, took matters into his own hands and elected to kill the woman for the sin of adultery.  With little time to ruminate on the reverend’s honesty, Fletcher packs the man away to prison and inevitable death sentence, and is then called to the scene of another murder, this time the actor Jonathan Mask, a man positioned high in Redemptionist circles.  The murder suspects limited in number, Fletcher begins interviewing them one by one, but ultimately, finds her questions facing in a surprising direction.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review of The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett



Exceptional powers more a burden than a gift, Cyril Hayes—company man to the powerful McNaughton Corporation—lives his corporate agent life in a haze of opium and alcohol.  Able to discern the inner workings of people’s minds if he can spend a couple of hours with them, Hayes uses his talents for the benefit of the Corporation, sniffing out moles and frauds, informants and spies, and always in a back room.  The unions in the metropolis of Evesden growing ever more powerful, Hayes’ investigative work begins to get uglier and uglier.  Dead bodies turning up in the underground and canals, the threat of violence and revolt among the men laboring each day in the factories and mines grows more palpable each day.  But one set of murders is stranger than normal.  A whole tram full of corpses found with the tinest of red holes in each body, Hayes is asked to get involved as even the powerful McNaughton executives fear the unknown cause.  More and more corporate secrets uncovered in Hayes’ investigation, the city of Evesden—and the secrets lying beneath it—will never be the same.

The Company Man is a robust piece of entertainment.  Detective noir infused with dieselpunk and sci-fi, Bennett creates a nice blend that opens simple but escalates superbly into an ever-expanding storyline of who or what is behind the happenings.  Hayes is an alcohol drinking, opium smoking anti-hero of self-pitying proportions, but given the tale he’s caught up in, is difficult to outright dismiss given the reader’s desire to know more about the plot and setting.  The novel highly reminiscent of a Robert Charles Wilson offering, Bennett uses solid prose to patiently yet intriguingly build a scene that has the reader looking for answers.  Also like most Wilson stories, The Company Man exists at a distance from reality.  The characters are fairly realistic, but plot and sensawunda take steadier and steadier steps toward the forefront.  (Is it too much to point out that Wilson and Bennett also use three names?)  In short, it is a novel that may not possess much underlying substance, but remains a ripping good read.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Review of Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence



With the emergence of any cultural phenomenon, there is the natural, human inclination to develop it as much as possible.  (In the publishing world, ‘develop’ often becomes ‘milk’.)  One of the easiest, most natural, and most obvious iterations is to go extreme—to take to the limit whatever key ingredients made the phenomenon a success to begin with.  Rock-n-roll began innocently enough, but one branch of that tree has become the cavernous, guttural death metal.  Blue jeans were once a workman’s clothing, yet now are a highly commoditized (sometimes shockgun blasted, sometimes acid soaked, sometimes intentionally frayed) article of high fashion.  Thus, when readers and writers of epic fantasy with gritty operatic undertones finally got together and agreed ‘grimdark’ had emerged as a thing, it was only natural that some of the next gen of writers tried to evolve it to the max.  Mark Lawrence’s 2011 The Prince of Thorns is that cavernous, shotgun-blasted extreme.

That intro perhaps longer than my actual ‘review’, The Prince of Thorns is an ambitious work of epic fantasy only in that it attempts to push upon the reader the most malevolent anti-hero possible, which, given the familiarity of everything else in the novel, comes across as a gimmick.  The most violent acts of dishonor and disloyalty committed in the name of daddy issues/victimhood, Lawrence says “Pshaw, so that’s grimdark, eh? I’ll show you G.R.I.M.D.A.R.K.” and throws an uber-Machievellian, sadomasochistic, megalomaniacal teen killer male the reader’s way.  Everything else about the novel rendered in standard epic fantasy form (Medieval-ish setting, sword fights, random bits of magic, monsters, massive battles, yawn…), the novel makes its mark only in that it is essentially a never ending parade of antipathetic scenes.  Little to no character development or emotional depth, bog-standard action scenes, and a whole world of take-that characterize the remainder.  Lawrence’s prose is clean, quite readable, and retains tight focus, but it struggles to keep afloat what seems reaction to the larger epic fantasy cultural phenomenon rather than any story with substance or depth. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review of Glimpses by Lewis Shiner



Despite the centuries that have passed, there remains hope that the final thirty chapters of Cao Xueqin’s manuscript for A Dream of Red Mansions will be found.  Gao E and Cheng Weiyuan made a valiant effort to fill in the missing story, but there remains a notable difference in quality, not to mention perpetual questions whether Gao and Cheng ended the tale as Cao Xueqin would have.  And the same holds true in the rock n’ roll world.  A hungry tape deck, record company restrictions, distraught musicians—all have at one time or another sabotaged or prevented the release of an album or music to the wider world.  But what if it were possible to go back in time and redress the situation?  What if we could return to the era and participate in the actual writing of the novel or making of the music—to read or hear how it was or could have been?  What if we could have unreleased albums like Brian Wilson’s Smile, Neil Young’s Homegrown, or Jimi Hendrix’s First Rays of the New Rising Sun?  Overlaying a powerful personal drama onto this premise in the context of American cultural shifts in the 60s and 80s is Lewis Shiner’s 1993 Glimpses.

A silver lining of sorts, days after his father passes away in a freak diving accident in 1989, Ray Shackleford discovers a lost Beatles track—in his imagination.  “The Long and Winding Road” a track fans are aware of but never heard, Shackleford manages to get a copy recorded on cassette.  He and his father never close, Ray brushes aside the death but can’t brush aside the beautiful bit of Beatles music, and so heads to LA to see a record producer.  Graham Hudson as convinced as Ray as to the power of the track, he agrees to fund The Doors album that never was, Celebration of the Lizard.  Shackleford’s marriage in a downward spiral, he retreats into the history and mythology of Celebration of the Lizard in an attempt to conjure up the album.  Unfortunately, he retreats into alcohol, as well.  Moving from one lost album to another in the aftermath, the beer and marriage problems only get worse, leading to the question: is there any salvation to resurrecting the greatest albums that never were?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review of Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald



The five dragons are now four.  In a grand, murderous sweep, the Mackenzie’s have wiped the Corta family from the face of the moon, absorbing their helium-3 business and leaving only a small handful of the family still alive.  Carlos, Rafa, and many other Cortas met their end at the conclusion of Luna: New Moon.  The Mackenzies just players in the game, however, the beginning of Luna: Wolf Moon (2017), second volume in Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy, finds machinations of life on Earth’s largest satellite just as fateful to others.  As the wo—moon—turns…
 
Lucas, Wagner, Lucasinho, Luna, Ariel, and Robson the only remaining Cortas alive, Luna: Wolf Moon opens precisely where New Moon ended.  McDonald not slowing narrative momentum one bit, Lucas gains his senses in the aftermath of the Mackenzie takeover aboard a Vorontsov ship, his mind set on getting to Earth to start his plan of vengeance.  Lucasinho and Luna find themselves uneasily under the protection of the Asamoahs—a family who may or may not have had their fingers in the downfall of the Cortas.  His mother a Mackenzie, Robson Corta is taken back under the wing of Rachel, his situation more than awkward as the Mackenzies celebrate their takeover.  Wagner, always an outcast, continues to find himself living in the interstices of lunar life, but struggles to remain anonymous as events around him escalate.  And Ariel, the egocentric daughter of Adriana Corta, remains in her wheelchair.  But when political alliances are offered, she finds a new power.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Review of Stargazer's Embassy by Eleanor Lerman



In 2015, Eleanor Lerman’s career in writing took what some might frame as an abrupt left turn: aliens.  Known primarily for her poetry, Lerman had only one novel and two collections of short stories to her name, none of which breached known reality (at least for non-conspiracy thinkers).  With The Radiomen, however, Lerman told the story of an everyday woman who as a child had a strange encounter with an alien through her uncle’s shortwave radio, then developed the scene into a story revolving around religion and self-awareness.  The premise apparently ripe, in 2017 she returns to novel-length fiction about equivocal extra-terrestrials in the human context with Stargazer’s Embassy (Mayapple Press).

Julia is a single, middle-aged cleaning lady living in New York City who seems content with life.  Her mother’s train riding off the track most of the time (she tattooed Julia’s wrist as a child with a strange pattern of stars), her passing leaves Julia with some sense of peace.  But things may just be repressed.  Meeting an older professor of psychology one evening, Julia starts up an unexpected relationship.  And things progress normally, that is, until John reveals that a major portion of his research revolves around experiencers—people who have encountered or been abducted by an alien race dubbed ‘the grays.’  Julia is willing to accept this part of his work, but the tattoo on her wrist won’t.  The star pattern something commonly observed by experiencers, Julia is forced to delve into her mother’s past as well as the rabbit’s hole of her own soul.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review of The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood



It’s for certain the case that the deeper an author gets into a setting that the more possibilities and avenues to expand the setting pop up.  For some authors its planned out all along, to extend and explore various storylines and characters through the world they’ve created in a series of stories or novels.  And sometimes it’s unplanned.  Sometimes an author looks back at the world they’ve created and realized something’s missing—a story still needing to be told.  In The Year of the Flood (2009), Margaret Atwood looked back to her earlier novel Oryx and Crake and decided to tell the other side—what was happening in the world beyond the titular pair, what role did in fact God’s Gardeners play in the circumstances that brought about the global pandemic, and what was life like outside the affluent, protected bubble of life in CorpSeCorps?

A parallel sequel rather than a sequential one, The Year of the Flood features storylines occurring at the same time as those of Oryx and Crake.  Unknown whether Atwood planned it all out in advance, Oryx and Crake did end on an open note that left room for, but did not by default require more.  What was added, however, makes the larger story much more immersive.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Review of Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution by Michael R. Underwood



Where fantasy literature was once written as fantasy, no need for pretense, in the contemporary glut of such fiction a self-awareness has appeared (some would say ‘natch’).  An author can no longer write of dragons or princesses without a century’s worth of stories using the same tropes tagging along behind, often in intentionally conspicuous fashion.  Given Michael R. Underwood’s Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution (2015), the glut has reached a point where even the commonality of the tropes themselves can be the subject of fiction.  (Can everybody else see the writing on the wall?)

Leah Tang is a struggling comedian who identifies herself through the fiction she reads, namely mainstream fantasy novels.  Ostracized by jocks while on stage one night, after the show a mysterious bystander makes her an offer seemingly too good to be true: to join a team of genrenauts who make excursions into genre settings, yes, to save the world (the real world, just in case you were confused) from destruction.  Her first assignment Wild West Land, Leah heads off to adventures unknown…  Actually, all too well-known given it is stereotypical wild west...

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review of Explorer by C.J. Cherryh



Inheritor, the concluding volume of C.J. Cherryh’s first Foreigner trilogy, was something of a disappointment, particularly the final sections.  What had been a staid, considered three volume series, in a few moments resolved itself in a flash-bang of prototypical pulp hash, complete with human-alien sex happiness.  Precursor and Defender, the first two novels in the second Foreigner trilogy, likewise lay down a staid, considered storyline, thus raising the question whether the third and concluding volume, Explorer (2003), will follow in the footsteps of Inheritor?  (Spoiler: no.)

Cherryh using the gap between novels to traverse the length (and boredom) of space, Explorer opens with space ship Phoenix arriving in Reunion Station space.  A couple of surprises await.  First is an alien space ship parked quietly to the side.  The second is somehow more surprising.  Communications opened with the Pilot’s Guild on Reunion Station and its general, Braddock, there is an unexplained reluctance to allow Saban, Jace, Bren and the remainder of the Phoenix crew to board Reunion and get the fuel they need to make the return trip to the Atevi home world.  Saban’s tough manner not making things easier with Braddock, the situation quickly escalates when it’s learned that the alien attack that supposedly occurred years before has ongoing repercussions, meaning the Phoenix’s return, let alone survival, is anything but certain.