January 20, 2017

Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I checked this book out from the library after seeing the terrific movie Arrival, based on the story that is the centerpiece of this collection, "Story of Your Life." Before this, the only exposure I'd had to Ted Chiang's work is the marvelous little story "The Great Silence," published in 2015 in E-Flux Journal. (Which y'all should go read immediately, by the way. It'll put dust in your eyes.)

After reading "Story of Your Life," I tip my hat to the screenwriter of Arrival. I'm sure a great many people considered that story unfilmable, and I would have been among them. So much of it, as is the case with many of Chiang's stories, is interior monologue, and it's amazing to me how much of this story's thrust and tone managed to be translated to the screen. Film and prose are very different mediums, of course, and the movie added a couple of subplots that weren't in the story. Still, it is about the best adaptation we could have gotten.

For the most part, the stories in this collection ranged from very good to great. The standouts are "Story of Your Life" and "Hell Is the Absence of God," the latter being a sobering examination of what might happen if Hell, Heaven, and visitations from angels were actual things in our reality. This story has what to me is a dark twist indeed. The only story I wasn't terribly fond of is "Understand," the tale of a man rescued from a permanent vegetative state by the injection of an experimental drug that regenerates his damaged neurons. Unfortunately, in the usual way of there-are-some-things-humans-weren't-meant-to-know, this drug causes him to evolve into a sort of godlike superbeing, at least until he meets up with another of his kind who shuts him down. I'm just not into that sort of consciousness-gestalt-meta awareness narration (unless the author is Peter Watts and space vampires are included). That said, this is still a masterful story: Chiang is very much in control of his weird, twisty narrative, and I can appreciate it even though I didn't like it very much.

These stories are a cut above almost anything else you might read, and Ted Chiang is a writer's writer. You owe it to yourself to check him out.

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January 16, 2017

Review: Cold-Forged Flame

Cold-Forged Flame Cold-Forged Flame by Marie Brennan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of Tor.com's new novella line. This particular story was 100 pages, and for an introduction this format was perfect. Sometimes a book doesn't need to be doorstop size to make its point.

Speaking of "perfect," look at this opening paragraph.

The sound of the horn pierces the apeiron, shattering the stillness of that realm. Its clarion call creates ripples, substance, something more. It is a summons, a command. There is will. There is need.

And so, in reply, there is a woman.


Now that, my friends, is a hook, and the author reeled me right on in. The writing is smooth as silk, with not a word wasted, and the pacing was excellent. Due to the book's length, there aren't that many characters, but the people we do meet are vividly drawn. This nameless woman is prickly, sarcastic, and stubborn, and she never gives up. She doesn't know who she is, or how she has been summoned, or why she has been set to a task against her will. This is the story of her task and how she completes it, and what she finds out about herself along the way. It's a story of memory and identity, what you are willing to give up and what you fight to keep.

(One oddity I noticed in reading the other Goodreads reviews--a couple of people mentioned this story is told in first person. It is not. It is third person, present tense, with a tight focus on its protagonist. I guess the POV is so tight it fooled a few people into thinking it's first person, but it isn't.)

I would love to find out more about this world. We're given just enough details to whet the appetite (and I've already pre-ordered the sequel, due out in a few months). Hopefully the next volume will do this.

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January 14, 2017

Review: Born to Run

Born to Run Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I haven't read a musician's autobiography in a long time, after I struggled to get through Keith Richards' Life and had to give up on it. I've glanced at a couple since then, but they all seemed to follow the same boring trajectory: fame, fortune, sex and drugs, the latter of which led to a complete bottoming-out, followed by a torturous climb back to sobriety and sanity.

Fortunately, Bruce Springsteen's memoir isn't like that at all.

For one thing, the man can write. (Of course, since he's been writing songs for nearly fifty years, you would automatically think so, but lyrics, which have to rhyme and scan, are very different than prose. Maybe that's why most of this book's chapters are so short--they're mini songs.) I don't know how he'd do with fiction, but the prose in this book is excellent. His voice is sharp, wry, funny, and brutally honest. The heart of this book is his complicated relationship with his father, which weaves through from beginning to end (though towards the end of Douglas Springsteen's life, father and son found some understanding and peace). Then there is Bruce's frank discussion of a life lived with depression, and the fact that he's been in therapy for decades, which obviously contributed to the insights about himself in these pages. I also appreciated that on some subjects (namely the sex part of the rock n'roll equation), he didn't let it all hang out--there's no salacious kissing and telling here, although he is forthright about the failure of his first marriage.

(But the stories about his second wife, Patti Scialfa, and his children, are some of the funniest and most heartwarming in the entire book. This is a bit of a long excerpt, but I just love this.

She also guided me when she thought I was falling short. For years, I'd kept musicians' hours, a midnight rambler; I'd rarely get to bed before four a.m. and often sleep to noon or beyond. In the early days, when the children were up at night, I found it easy to do my part in taking care of them.
After dawn, Patti was on duty. Once they got older, the night shift became unnecessary and the burden tilted unfairly toward the morning hours.

Finally, one day she came to me as I lay in bed around noon and simply said, "You're gonna miss it."

I answered, "Miss what?"

She said, "The kids, the morning, it's the best time, it's when they need you the most. They're different in the morning than at any other time of the day and if you don't get up to see it, well then...you're gonna miss it."

The next morning, mumbling, grumbling, stolid faced, I rolled out of bed at seven a.m. and found my way downstairs. "What do I do?"

She looked at me and said, "Make the pancakes."

Make the pancakes? I'd never made anything but music my entire life. I...I...I...don't know how!

"Learn."


Patti Scialfa sounds like a woman who brooks no nonsense. I'd almost rather sit and talk with her than Bruce.)

Because we don't get the usual rock and roll cliches in these pages, this book has a rare depth. I particularly appreciated the stories of Bruce's political awakenings, encapsulated in the controversy over his song "American Skin (41 Shots)"--sadly prophetic indeed, in the age of Black Lives Matter. There are also fascinating insights about his songwriting; the themes he wanted to tackle with each album, what he wanted to say to his audience and how he constructed his songs to fit. This book is five hundred pages long, but it's well worth the read, whether you're a fan or not.

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January 7, 2017

Review: The Gene: An Intimate History

The Gene: An Intimate History The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my favorite non-fiction books of the past few years was The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. It won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. This book is both a sequel and prequel to Emperor. One of that book's main themes is that cancer is a genetic disease, with cells basically running amuck because of mutated DNA. I don't know if the author realized he was setting his next book in motion by saying this, but this book is pretty much the followup he had to write.

Needless to say, it is quite heavy on the science. Personally, I love this kind of stuff, but be aware that this book is 500 pages, not counting the endnotes, and it's definitely not something you can race through at the beach. It traces the discovery of genes and DNA, from Gregor Mendel's "units of heredity" to modern-day epigenetics. Siddharta Mukherjee, as was made clear from his first book, is an expert at explaining incredibly complex scientific material to a layperson audience. He is also an engaging writer in his own right, as evidenced in this excerpt from p. 310, discussing the beginnings of the Human Genome Project:

"If the Genome Project had not found Collins in 1993, it might have found it necessary to invent him: he was almost preternaturally matched to its peculiar challenges. A devout Christian from Virginia, an able communicator and administrator, a first-rate scientist, Collins was measured, cautious, and diplomatic; to Venter's furious little yacht constantly tilting against the winds, Collins was a transoceanic liner, barely registering the tumult around him."

Mukherjee also adds a deft personal touch to the story, with his family history of mental illness. This humanizes the author, and makes it clear that his imposing tome is a bit more than a dry scientific premise. If you loved The Emperor of All Maladies, as I did, I think you will enjoy this.

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December 30, 2016

Review: What the #@&% Is That?: The Saga Anthology of the Monstrous and the Macabre

What the #@&% Is That?: The Saga Anthology of the Monstrous and the Macabre What the #@&% Is That?: The Saga Anthology of the Monstrous and the Macabre by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Joseph Adams has a well-deserved reputation as an editor; I own several of his anthologies, and they're usually high-quality stuff. For this book, he teams up with Douglas Cohen.

This anthology's theme is reflected in the title: in every story, a character must say "What the [blank] is that." (Usually "fuck," although there was a "hell" and a "devil.") According to the forward, the book was originally slated to be a Lovecraft mythos anthology--and it is still dedicated to Cthulhu--but the subject matter was eventually expanded to include all monsters. In my opinion, this is a good thing, as it enlarged the anthology's scope (and, I believe, its quality) considerably. (Not that I'm down on Cthulhu in and of itself, but twenty stories of blood, guts, slime, gore and various unidentifiable body liquids and/or parts would get tiresome after a while.) The horrors here are wide-ranging, from the surreal to the straightforward Lovecraftian to an old-fashioned werewolf noir.

Most of the stories ranged from good to very good, although the one I downright disliked, Laird Barron's "Mobility," was unfortunately the lead-off tale. Needless to say, these stories are not lighthearted, and more than half of them have depressing downer endings. This naturally flows from the anthology's theme, but be warned. Some highlights include "Little Widow," by Maria Dahvana Headley, a delightful magical realist piece about three sisters, the survivors of a cult, and angelic dinosaurs (and just about the only story with a halfway happy ending); Christopher Golden's "The Bad Hour," about an Iraqi war veteran dealing with PTSD, both the normal and the supernatural kind; Seanan McGuire's "#ConnollyHouse #WeShouldntBeHere," a story told as a series of Tweets that overcomes its gimmicky premise to become genuinely scary (you have to pay attention to the timestamps with this one); and "We All Make Sacrifices: A Sam Hunter Adventure," by Jonathan Maberry, the aforementioned "werewolf noir" story and possibly my favorite in the book.

This anthology is well worth your time. Recommended.

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December 24, 2016

Poem of the Day

This poem sums up this godawful year.

A Carol for Children
(The Holy Innocents is commemorated
December 28 or January 11)

God rest you merry, Innocents,
Let nothing you dismay.
Let nothing wound an eager heart
Upon this Christmas day.

Yours be the genial holly wreaths.
The stockings by the tree;
An aged world to you bequeaths
Its own forgotten glee.

Soon, soon enough come crueler gifts,
The anger and the tears;
Between you now there sparsely drifts
A handful yet of years.

Oh, dimly, dimly grows the star
Through the electric throng;
The bidding in temple and bazaar
Drowns out the silver song.

The ancient altars smoke afresh,
The ancient idols stir;
Faint in the reek of burning flesh
Sink frankincense and myrrh.

Gaspar, Balthazar, Melcheor!
Where are your offerings now?
What greeting to the Prince of War
His darkly branded brow?

Two ultimate laws alone we know,
The ledger and the sword
So far away, so long ago,
We lost the infant Lord.

Only the children clasp His hand;
His voice speaks low to them.
And still for them the shining band
Wings over Bethlehem.

God rest you merry, Innocents,
While Innocence endures.
A sweeter Christmas than we to ours
May you bequeath to yours.

— Ogden Nash



(Image gakked from Balloon Juice.)

December 11, 2016

Review: Red Right Hand

Red Right Hand Red Right Hand by Levi Black
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wish there were separate stars for plot, characterization, etc, because I would rate this book higher than it is. In terms of plot, pacing, and atmosphere, it passes with flying colors. But there is one element of the protagonist's characterization I absolutely abhorred, and it damn near ruined the book for me.

This is another of the recent crop of Cthulhu Mythos reimaginings, but this author plays it completely straight. The hook is simple: “Imagine that one of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones (in this case, Nyarlathotep) showed up at your door and said, ‘You work for me now.’ ” (From the back cover blurb) Needless to say, this book is bloody, gory, slimy, and overflowing with all sorts of bodily fluids, both human and alien. A strong stomach is required, and I would recommend not trying to read it during a meal. That said, if you can stand it, it is a fast-paced rocket ride, a dark Lovecraftian noir that I’m sure many people will like.

However.

**SPOILER**SPOILER**SPOILER**

Gah. There is an absolutely unnecessary bit of characterization that made me angrier the further along I read in the book. The main character, Charlotte Tristan (Charlie) Moore, H.P. Lovecraft's great-grandniece, has a Tortured Past that includes gang rape. This, to put it bluntly, is gratuitous bullshit. I mean, for frak's sake, the basic setup (The Elder Gods fighting over humans and the planet) is quite fraught enough all on its own, without dragging in this disgusting bit of sexism that adds nothing to the character and the stakes. I am so sick of this trope. Anyone thinking about trying this book, be warned.

The book ends suddenly with the main plot thread unresolved, so expect a sequel. I'm not sure I will be reading it, though.

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December 5, 2016

Review: Wonder Woman: Earth One, Volume 1

Wonder Woman: Earth One, Volume 1 Wonder Woman: Earth One, Volume 1 by Grant Morrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is apparently yet another reboot (or "reimagining") of Wonder Woman. Most of us know the basic story, of course. So my goal in reading something like this is to see if the writer can find something different, add some new tweak to the legend. Looking at it from this angle, the results were definitely mixed.

First, the upside: writer Grant Morrison seems to have a good grasp on the characters of Diana, Hippolyta and the other women of Paradise Island. Diana is very young (she's described by one man as a "teenage swimsuit model who can benchpress a Jeep") and at the beginning of her journey. Needless to say, she gets quite a shock when she first sets foot in "man's world." Etta Candy has become Beth Candy, who is a larger-than-life delight. This writer, at least, does not sugarcoat the obvious: with no men to be found, the women of Paradise Island can and do form relationships with one another. Queen Hippolyta is a complex figure, wanting to protect the daughter she created out of her anger and the seed of Hercules.

The most drastic change is Steve Trevor: he is now African-American. As such, he states that "like a lot of people in 'man's world,' my ancestors were enslaved and persecuted by men with too much power." He does not want to see that fate happen to the women of Amazonia. But Diana, the daughter of Hercules, is, as her mother describes her, "proud, restless and rebellious." The final panel shows her taking her robot airplane and setting it down in the middle of a town square, coming out on the wing and saying, "Hola, Man's world--it's time we had a talk."

The art is...well. It could be better. It's way too busy in some panels. The pacing of the story seems a bit uneven in spots. I think this reboot shows a lot of potential, but it's not quite there yet.

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November 23, 2016

Review: Feedback

Feedback Feedback by Mira Grant
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If I'm to be honest (and there's no point in writing this if I'm not), this book disappointed me. I am a great fan of the original Newsflesh trilogy: the first book, Feed, made me cry (and anyone who's read it will know what I'm talking about). Shaun and Georgia Mason, Buffy and the rest are great characters, and the premise pretty much reinvigorated the standard zombie-apocalypse genre, I think.

This book continues the story of that world, taking place concurrently with the events in Feed. Our narrator, Aislinn "Ash" North, is an Irwin (those who, in this universe, actually get out in the field and kill zombies). She and her team of bloggers are covering the Democratic candidate for President, just as the Masons were covering the Republican candidate in Feed. We get quite a few zombie attacks in this book, there is a conspiracy revealed that is much more straightforward than the somewhat convoluted plotting in the original trilogy, and our team ends up on the run in the wilderness.

All well and good. However, the reason this book falls flat for me is the characters. To put it bluntly, despite the author's best efforts, these people are simply not as interesting as the Masons. Ash marries her Newsie (news blogger on their team), Ben Ross, to get a green card to work in the country, but she's really in love with her Fictional (fiction writer on their team), Audrey Wen, and the three of them are in some sort of fake polyamorous relationship. Then there's the other member of the team, genderfluid Mat, who unfortunately gets offed (or zombified, rather) about two-thirds of the way through the book. Mat's characterization, as far as I'm concerned, is not well done. I realize the author is trying to be consistent by calling this person "they" and not describing them, but the end result of this is that the character came off as vague and opaque, and I didn't care about this person very much.

The writing is as good as ever, but the story just sort of peters out at the end, with an unsatisfying conclusion. To me, this book is ranked at the bottom of the Mira Grant books I've read, behind the original Newsflesh trilogy and the Parasitology trilogy.

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November 15, 2016

Review: The Fireman

The Fireman The Fireman by Joe Hill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To make a long(ish) review short (and after completing this 747-page behemoth, I have a fresh appreciation of brevity) this book is basically Joe Hill's version of The Stand.

The story leans more towards the science fiction end of the spectrum than horror. There are a few elements that might be construed as supernatural, and they seem a bit out of place with the rest of the narrative. Instead of The Stand's virus, we have a spore that inhabits human hosts and eventually, in most cases, results in spontaneous combustion. This inevitably leads to the breakdown of society and the usual attendant horrors; anarchy, mass death and starvation, and roving tribes of people exterminating the "burners," the infected.

Unlike Stephen King's magnum opus, Joe Hill keeps a tight focus on one character, nurse Harper Grayson. He makes it a point to characterize her as an ordinary Everywoman. Harper is not some kind of kickass urban fantasy heroine, but rather someone trying her best to cope with a terrifying time. She becomes pregnant at the beginning of the outbreak (the timeline of the story is the length of her pregnancy), and nearly the entire nine months is spent running and hiding from her crazy, vicious SOB of a husband, who threw a fit when Harper wouldn't join him in his planned suicide pact after they became infected. (Jakob is a bit over the top as a villain, actually.) After her first escape from Jakob, she falls in with a group of infected people who are learning to control the spore; apparently the hormone oxytocin can convince it not to incinerate its host. (Some people, including the titular character, demonstrate an impressive cooperation with the spore, which gives them incredible flame-generating powers. Unfortunately, some of this stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.) This group gradually turns into a rather frightening cult, which takes up most of the middle part of the book. There is a lot of fighting, running and hiding, and a great many character deaths (including the completely unnecessary death of a cat--come on, Joe. That was just gratuitous and wrong). I suppose this is intended to keep the reader on edge, George RR Martin style: none of our supposed protagonists are safe. It got damned tiresome after 700 pages.

In fact, I will say right here that 2-300 pages of the book could have been chopped out with no great loss. This is not to say that Joe Hill is a bad writer. To the contrary, his prose is excellent. He writes good action scenes. I don't think his characterizations are as compelling as his father's; he seemed to be setting a few scenes up to make the reader cry, or at least tear up a bit. I did none of that. (Except when Mr Truffles died, and it's telling that I felt worse over the death of a cat then the demise of the Fireman.) I did finish this book, but it took more than a week and I was dragging at the end.

So: very much a mixed bag. If Joe Hill ever writes a normal-sized book, I might take a chance on that. But I'm not diving into one of his doorstops again.

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