Friday, May 28, 2010

Reviewed by Sin - SPARROW ROCK

Sparrow Rock
Nate Kenyon

Gore: Masterful
Sex: It’s the end of the world, and not enough gals for every guy. Sorry, horny teenagers.
Angst: See “Gore”

Let’s be honest, fellow writers, we’ve all thought about how we would end the world. Will it be zombies? Ravenous unicorns, thirsty for human blood? Whatever the means, the important part - the real story - is the aftermath. Who survives, how the fuck do they keep it together, and what happens when shit starts to hit the fan all over again? It’s an immense challenge: after all, it’s been done so many times, in so many ways. I still plan to destroy the world one day (I’ve already done it in a short), and encourage you to do the same. That said, reading “Sparrow Rock” made me realize how high the bar is. For that, I kind of want to punch Nate Kenyon in the face.

I of course mean that as a compliment, and not an invitation to a restraining order. This is one of the best books I’ve read since “Heart Shaped Box.” I was sucked in from page one, so much so that I finished the book in a day’s time. My emotions went from “neat!“ to “ewww!“ and finally, to wanting to curl up in a ball and drink heavily for the rest of the night. Ah, literature. The ending, which I will not spoil, was exactly as it should be. Again, a tough thing in end of the world novels. Too much rosy hope for the future, or bitter pessimism, and you close the book feeling unfulfilled.

I was especially impressed with Nate Kenyon’s handling of teenagers. It’s easy to glamorize that phase, gild the lily to speak. Or worse, forget how an actual teenager thinks and feels altogether. Thankfully, Kenyon remembers what it’s like to be young and, as we all once were, a little stupid. No one comes off as more capable than they should be, nor do they become Saturday cartoon cliches of post-puberty angst. There is only honest angst: earned through blood, tears, and things much worse. Not everyone is entirely likable, yet Kenyon writes about them such that you care anyway. Unlike some novels, there was was never a moment were I was relieved to see someone finally bite it.

As for the sex, I hardly noticed how little was there. High praise, from a pervert such as myself. And I have to admit, not everyone connects “end of the world” to “fucking like bunnies.” Especially with the nasty surprises waiting for this particular band of survivors. Long story short, the mood was not particularly erotic. Though, me being me, I would have nudged a few private talks between male friends into a totally different direction. I mean, it’s the end of the world, you don’t want to get anyone pregnant. And it’s not like you can hop down to the drug store and buy condoms. If I was a man, I would stay far, far away from anything with a vagina, and start taking showers with my buddy under the guise of saving water.

At this point I’m sure I’ve mortified Nate Kenyon, if he’s reading this. So I’ll wrap things up with this: “Sparrow Rock” kicked ass: It’s the kind of book where you get paper cuts, from turning the pages so fast. Go get a copy, along with a bottle of Jack Daniels for later, and clear your schedule for the rest of the day.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

I'm in three book clubs in our village of 1500 people, and two of the three are reading Cutting for Stone.

Lucky me, I found the trade paperback for 50 cents in our library sale room, and had a weekend free to read its 658 pages.

The author also wrote My Own Country in 1996, his nonfiction account of the arrival of AIDS in rural east Tennessee (specifically, the Johnson City area) in the 1980s. As an internal medicine physician, Verghese knows his stuff, and sometimes his knowing so well what can go wrong with the human body made for somewhat queasy reading.

My Own Country, published almost 20 years before Cutting for Stone, is vividly written and at times riveting, but his first novel is incredible, brilliant.

The novel's plot is as intricate as it is mesmerizing: a nun with issues has an affair in Ethiopia with a physician with issues and dies giving birth to conjoined twins who are almost murdered…

Well. The plot alone could win a prize for cleverness, but Verghese, as deftly as the surgeons in his operating theaters sew up their patients, artfully describes the exotic and dangerous world of mid-sixties South Africa, as well as developing a variety of difficult and fascinating characters and carrying them along a fascinating story arc.

Marion, the mirror twin of Shiva and the protagonist of the novel, grows up in the hospital in which he was born and cut away from his brother; his life, surrounded as it is by the milieu of medicine, is always seen within the psychic connection to his twin.

I found Verghese's use of language and his vivid descriptions of Ethiopia to be as compelling as his story arc, with stylish and sophisticated writing and tight, careful plotting. Sometimes the pacing felt uneven to me: early, critical chapters contain several tantalizing, frustrating point-of-view shifts at crisis points that are reviewed from various perspectives in minute detail over the course of a day; in later chapters, there are sudden, startling leaps of years from one page to the next. But this seems a trivial criticism when considering the amazing depth of Verghese's character development, his skillfully detailed understanding of surgery and internal medicine.

This is a book I closed with a sigh--I was tired, sort of grossed out, even overwhelmed. I was, in fact, a tiny bit relieved the journey with Marion--Ethiopian surgeon, son of a nun, Siamese twin--was over.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

SpellCrash by Kelly McCullough

I thought this book had been released a few weeks ago, but I see that the official release date is actually May 25. Either that's wrong, or I wasn't supposed to get my hands on this copy so soon. I blame B&N. Anyway, May 25 is just a few days away so I'll go ahead and post my review.

SpellCrash is the fifth book in the WebMage series, and the last. There's a lovely little loophole at the end that allows for further books with the main characters Ravirn and Melchior, and which gives us a glimpse at the two characters' futures even if there aren't anymore books. I really appreciate when an author does that.

I reviewed the previous two books in this series recently, CodeSpell and MythOS. In SpellCrash, Ravirn and his webgoblin buddy Melchior are back home from the Norse MythOS they visited in the last book, and they've brought a couple of friends with them. It's a good thing they did, since the goddess Necessity--who runs the multiverse as a sentient computer network of sorts--is in even worse shape than she was when they left, and they're going to need all the help they can get to set things right. The book's tagline is "Prepare for a total systems failure," and that's pretty much accurate. Ravirn and Mel are the only ones in a position to save Necessity--or destroy her once and for all.

The action is fast and interesting, as always for these books. One of the things I really like about this series is that, while Ravirn and Mel face similar problems in each book, they have to solve the problems with radically new techniques each time. This time around, for instance, Ravirn discovers he can't jack into the web with his spirit athame as he used to, and he has to find a workaround. This makes for much more interesting reading than a series where the hero uses the same methods to succeed every time.

I was surprised and pleased with the ending. For one thing, it becomes obvious about halfway through that this is the last book in this series, so when things started to look very bad for our heroes, I really suspected a downer ending. That wasn't the case, fortunately, but the ending did hold a number of surprises and twists--twists that weren't at all contrived. The plotting in these books is excellent.

Ravirn started off as a likable character in the first book, and he's become more complex with each book without losing his likability. I really hope Kelly McCullough writes more about him and Mel; if he doesn't, though, I'll still be on the lookout for McCullough's next book.

B&N link

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Silver Borne by Patricia Briggs

Silver Borne is the fifth book in the Mercy Thompson series. I have a strong suspicion it's the last--or that it should be the last. I doubt Briggs's publisher is ready for her to stop the series. Hell, even I'm reading them and werewolves bore me solid.

Mercy Thompson isn't a werewolf, of course, which is the only reason I picked up the first book in the series, Moon Called. She's a skinwalker who can turn into a coyote. Her boyfriend's a werewolf, though, and the series is basically all about Mercy coming to terms with being a non-werewolf who's not just part of a werewolf pack, she's the pack leader's mate.

While this book is nominally about a fae artifact that Mercy has borrowed and that some people want to take from her, the artifact is really just a maguffin. The book is really about Mercy finding and accepting her place among the pack. That also happens to be the theme of the previous four books. It's getting a little bit repetitive.

I was glad for the closure this book gave, but I was annoyed at the things that were left out. Mercy transforms into a coyote exactly once in this book, toward the beginning. After that she might as well have been a regular old human. And while the series has tended to have a vampire book followed by a fae book followed by a vampire book, it was pretty glaring to me that the important vampire characters are barely mentioned, and then only in passing--Mercy happens to remark that she hasn't seen Stefan in months. It's an odd way to compartmentalize the various aspects of the world Briggs has built, when every reader knows that mixing things up is way more fun. I'd have loved to see how Stefan dealt with the fairy queen. Instead, not even the werewolves had much of a role.

In fact, no one had much of a role, mostly because, as I said, this was a book about the pack, not about the fae trying to trick Mercy into giving up the maguffin. The big climax was neither. It was mostly told in flashback, in fact, which is infuriating. Most of the book is taken up with arguments, discussions, and a few fights among the werewolves.

The main theme of the series, Mercy having to accept being controlled and losing her autonomy, has always squicked me, and I'm getting less and less tolerant of the ways Briggs shoves it down the reader's throat. It's getting to the point that I sometimes feel like I'm reading a treatise on the pleasures of masochism. Upon reflecting on the entire series as it stands, I see that Mercy Thompson has gone from being a strong, independent, interesting character at the beginning of the series to a wobbly-legged, fearful woman who accepts being subsidiary to her mate and is easily manipulated by others.

So you know what? I don't care if there is another book in the series. I'm done.

B&N link

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Mall of Cthulhu by Seamus Cooper

I bought this book because of the title. Well, and I'd heard it was funny. And I liked the cover. I was a little hesitant, though, because the last Night Shade Books book I read was not only barely readable, it was barely edited. Fortunately, this one was both readable and edited. Not a single homophone error in it!

Ten years ago, Ted saved Laura from a band of vampires posing as a college sorority. Now Laura's an FBI agent dissatisfied with her job, while Ted--who wakes up screaming almost every night, remembering the horrors he experienced--works in a coffee shop and tries to forget the past. Unfortunately, Ted accidentally steals a CD containing eldritch knowledge, and the next thing he knows, he's on the run from both the law and white supremacist cultists who are trying to call up the Old Ones. He has no one to turn to except Laura.

It sounds like a romp, and to some extent it is. There's a lot of action, very funny dialogue, and situations that skirt along the edge of WTF-ness in a most satisfying way. But I was delighted that the characters are the real focus of the book.

For ten years, Ted and Laura have had a strange relationship. Laura's gay and Ted's straight, so their relationship is platonic; but their friendship is strained by Ted's neediness--no one else believes in vampires, and he needs someone who can understand his past--and by Laura's frustration with having Ted as her shadow. I enjoyed seeing them deal with their relationship at least as much as I enjoyed their attempts to thwart the cultists.

And yes, the book is very funny. It's also surprisingly touching and well-written. It is, in short, extremely good.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

Five hundred heavy pages of epic fantasy, and there are no less than ten books in the series--eight already printed, two more forthcoming. I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later I'd come across this one. Frankly I'm surprised the author didn't drop me a post card or something.

The first few chapters were confusing as hell, but the characters were immediately interesting and the world was presented with a vastness from the outset, so I hung on. A hundred pages in, and the new themes and new characters and new motivations were still dropping from in with every section. It wasn't until about two hundred pages had passed that I started to see where the author was going, and another fifty pages beyond that before some of the major players' motivations became clear and the plotting stabilized.

Now, I hear what you're saying, but bear with me. I was complaining about this to my wife (who just loves hearing my impromptu book reports, believe me!) when something became clear. The twists and turns of the characters, the hidden information and sudden reveals: they were put there to keep the reader off balance because that's what the characters were suffering from too. Betrayal is a big part of the plot here, and hiding that surety from the reader is a good way to help draw them into that world of intrigue. Did that major character really mean what she just said? Sure she's been fitting action to words so far, but...

There are dragons and shadow hounds, high and low sorcery, love and murder... oh, it's just chock full of epic goodness. And like I said, there are nine more after this. How can you go wrong?

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Cumberland Caverns by Larry E. Matthews

I've been fascinated with maps of caves since I was a kid and first read a wonderful book that I think is called The Sacrificial Wells of Chichen Itza--I used to have a copy, but I can't find it and I can't find that particular title online either. Anyway, I used to pore over the maps of the underwater caverns; I used to draw my own imaginary cavern maps too. So when I picked Cumberland Caverns up in a used book store and saw that it contained lots of cave maps, of course I had to buy it and read it.

Fortunately, the book is fascinating even if you're not particularly into cave maps. It's intended for a particular audience, namely people who are either cavers or interested in becoming cavers, and as a result it's sometimes more detail-oriented than readable. It covers the history of the cave system now known as Cumberland Caverns, which happens to be pretty close to where I live. Since I grew up here, it just goes to show that there are mysteries everywhere you look. Who knew I lived an easy drive from one of the largest cave systems in North America?

While the book focuses on the cave's history, it also touches on connected topics, especially the people who explored sections of the caverns. I would have loved more details about those explorations beyond the rather dry, jargon-heavy descriptions. On the other hand, there's an excellent chapter about mapping the cave, which of course is my favorite part of the book (apart from the short and inconclusive section about a possible ghost).

The book was published in 1989, and it's astonishing to me how much work went into mapping caves back then. It's undoubtedly still a lot of work, but I'm willing to bet there are computer programs now that will do the grunt work of actually building the map from measurements. I'm glad, because the more cave maps there are, the happier I am.

B&N link

Sunday, May 9, 2010


The Resurrectionist
Wrath James White
Leisure Books

I started reading “The Resurrectionist” yesterday, and was done before midnight. Before I start to gush, and I will, I present the GSA ratings!

Gore: Sweet DJ Ozma, yes.
Sex: See above.
Angst: Done fluidly, and in a manner that fit with the plot.

What can I say about “The Resurrectionist” that won’t be a spoiler, or make me sound like a very sick person? I’ll be honest: I love gore. Whether it be unbridled, senseless slaying (a la B-grade slasher films), or a poetic orgy of flesh and bone (Ichi the Killer), I’m happiest when body fluids are raining down on the pages/movie screen. Wrath James White delivers on the later version: His novel is brutal, but there is a method to the mayhem. In other words, this isn’t torture porn.

This book also isn’t for the squeamish. The killings are wet and nasty, and I’ve never read so many rape scenes in one novel. It wasn’t done for shock value, but I wouldn’t look down on anyone who felt too uncomfortable to pick up a book that deals so graphically with the subject of violent sexual assault. It’s not pretty, but that’s the point. The antagonist may or may not be truly evil, I’m sure opinions vary, but his actions are. To create character like Dale, and then write the book any other way, would have been hypocritical.

Personally, I had a blast reading “The Resurrectionist.” It's a depraved, bloody roller coaster ride that stops every so often to punch you in the gut, then start again. Books like this are the reason some people think horror fans/writers are sick fucks. This isn’t the place to wax philosophical on reality v. fiction, so I will simply say that my line between the two is very thick. If yours is as well, then I recommend grabbing a copy of “The Resurrectionist,” by Wrath James White.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones is one of my favorite authors, and one of the few authors whose books I buy in hardback. Enchanted Glass is an excellent addition to her other books.

The book follows two characters, Andrew Hope and Aidan Cain. Andrew teaches history at a university, but he retires when his grandfather dies and leaves him his house and magical "field-of-care." Aidan, who lived with his grandmother until her death a week before, has run away from his foster family--mostly to escape the frightening monsters pursuing him. Aidan's grandmother was friends with Andrew's grandfather. Aidan shows up on Andrew's doorstep, and Andrew takes him in.

Jones has a brilliant way with characters. They're warm and funny, quirky and realistic. Aidan's grief over his grandmother feels very real--it hits him hard when he least expects it, as grief does; in between, he explores Andrew's field-of-care and the village, makes friends with a weredog and a giant who live on the property, plays football with some of the local kids, and starts to look forward to the summer fete. Andrew, meanwhile, is both worried about Aidan and furious at the peculiar and sinister Mr. Brown, a neighbor who seems to be encroaching on his field-of-care.

The story is fast-paced and fun, with Jones's trademark humor and interesting minor characters. Her descriptions of the countryside are masterful, and the climax of the book is satisfying. This book reminds me a bit of Conrad's Fate and The Merlin Conspiracy, two of her recent novels, but it takes place in a distinctly different world from her other books. The plot is clever and Jones reveals it slowly, allowing readers to guess along with Aidan and Andrew about what's really going on.

I would say I enjoyed Enchanted Glass thoroughly, but the very last page brought me up short. It contains one last revelation that struck me as sour and strange, without any explanation or hints beforehand. And the book just stops at that point. Many of Jones's books have awkward endings, but this one's the worst I've seen. It's a disappointing note in an otherwise excellent book.

B&N link

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Unshapely Things by Mark Del Franco

It's not that I didn't like Unshapely Things, it's just that I never connected with it very deeply. I finished reading the book last night, but when I sat down to write this post I had to think just to recall the main character's name.

Connor Gray is a druid, a former bigwig in the Boston chapter of the Guild, which investigates crimes done by fairies, elves, and other fey. After an accident that lost him most of his magical powers, though, he's down on his luck and helping the Boston police on a freelance basis. The current investigation is of a string of murders of fairy prostitutes, murders that seem to be building to some kind of ritual that may be related to the Guild itself.

I had trouble figuring out the worldbuilding in the book, which I think was compounded by a certain lack of description in general. I never got a good idea of what Connor looked like, and I certainly never figured out why druid in this world is a separate species, not a job description. The fairies and elves didn't seem that much different from humans, either. Although Connor lives in a part of Boston dubbed the Weird because of all the fey residents, I never got a feeling of otherworldliness or strangeness.

The plot was interesting, though. I didn't guess the murderer, although I knew perfectly well who the murderer wasn't. Connor never figures that out, though, until the very end. Connor is pretty dumb. He walks into traps, sometimes even after he realizes this is probably a trap. How dumb can you get? I got very frustrated with him every time he followed a line of thinking that was glaringly wrong, which was much of the time. I found it hard to believe that he was ever a Guild investigator of any repute, even with lots of powers to draw on.

Connor also isn't a very sympathetic character, or maybe I just couldn't connect with him. I found him standoffish with everyone, including me-the-reader. Many of the minor characters are more interesting than he is, including Stinkwort the flit--think pixie--and one of Connor's former coworkers who helps him with some research. I might have liked the book better if it was about those two.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Lightbreaker by Mark Teppo

"From newcomer Mark Teppo comes an explosive, action-packed occult thriller combining Western magick, Hermetic traditions, and shamanism." That's from the back cover.

Explosive... well, there are several kabooms, and thousands of casualties, so I suppose that's accurate enough. Action-packed is pressing it a little--but then I read Conan books so the bar I expect an author to clear in order to merit action-packed is perhaps a tad high. Yes it's a thriller insofar as the main character is effectively a detective and there are periodic motiviation shifts in major characters. But the important thing in that blurb is the word occult, combined with the last few nouns.

I'll give Teppo his due in one regard: every urban fantasy author strains himself to establish some kind of credibility for his alternate world, and Teppo has chosen well. He's picked out tidbits from every major religion (and most minor ones) and taken a good swing at building a coherent theme from them, using the result to bolster his universe. After a mystic exercise with his girlfriend goes tragically wrong, the MC's soul is partly ripped from his body (ouch) and he is thrown headlong into the world of the psychic and the divine. Delving into philosophy helps him come to understand what's happening, and selling antiques helps pay the bills--until his girlfriend resurfaces years later, and the story picks up.

Okay, good enough for UF. Many authors take the all-encompassing route of trying to explain away vampires and werewolves, sprites and pixies, trolls and goblins and all of our long and varied myths; Teppo doesn't, introducing instead only the soul as a physical thing and the human Will as an element of the divine. Not bad. (Full disclosure: zombies are still fair game: they're the husks left after the soul has been removed. Yeah, we've got lots of zombies here.)

But although the premise is good, and the MC's particular hash of abilities is clever (the "chorus" of human souls he employs does a lot for the story), he's also a whining douche-bag rabbit for much of the book. For three chapters running he'll spend all his time looking for a way to leave town, then he'll get his ass kicked, and finally he'll immolate a dozen people and walk out unscathed while pronouncing himself ready for anyone.

But wait, that's not all! I haven't even gotten to the important bit yet. Here it is: if you took out every pages-long half-baked philosophy-jumbling treatise from this book, the book would be half its length (and a lot more clear). Fully half the book consists of the author acting like a freshman philosopher who is desperate to impress a date, pulling out every reference to every religious belief that he can muster just in case he'll hit the right combination and get lucky for the night. The author's clearly intending this to be world-building, and to some extent it does work that way, but it's overkill to such a degree that it's mostly just a distraction from what would otherwise be a pretty good first novel.

For all that, this one was still good enough that I found myself looking for it to read during meals, which is pretty much my baseline for do-I-buy-the-sequel. But if author can't stick to his theme more and his philosophy less in the next book, I probably won't finish it.

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The Survivor trilogy by Susan Beth Pfeffer

The moon gets hit by an asteroid and then goes into a closer orbit around the earth, and whiny teenagers everywhere are about to find out that life isn’t about finding a prom dress, and that a nice supper might involve a two-year-old can of Popeye spinach and some dog food.

That’s the premise of the trilogy written by Susan Beth Pfeffer for nervous young people.

We meet Whiny Teenager number one, Miranda, in Pfeffer’s first moon book, Life As We Knew It.

Miranda keeps a diary, and she is as shallow as a puddle. I thought after page 100 or so, by which time the moon’s closer orbit had already caused lots of trouble (volcanic ash, earthquakes, etc.), Miranda would quit running off to her bedroom and slamming the door because mean old Mom kept hurting her feelings.

But I hung in there, because I found the plot fascinating: Just what is a girl to do when she runs out of lipstick and she can’t wash her hair because there’s no shampoo or running water?

Miranda takes a very long time to wise up. She worries about her brother Matt being the favorite, even as her friends die or get robbed.

I was happy to see that Pfeffer started off volume two with a new protagonist, Alex, who went through the same moon trauma in a New York City apartment.

Alex was a bit anal and never whined. He was driven to be perfect. He liked knowing rules so he knew where he stood.

With Alex, Pfeffer hits her stride. He learns quickly that to survive in New York City and to provide for his sisters, he’ll have to pull shoes off corpses and barter for boxes of rice. Alex doesn’t loll about in his family sunroom and vent to his diary--he grapples.

Book three, This Life We Live, brings Alex and Miranda together, which is rather clever of Pfeffer, but we’re back to diary-writer Miranda taking over the point-of-view, so Alex becomes more controlling and difficult, pushy and obnoxious as seen through Miranda’s hard-to-please eyes. They inevitably fall in love, being in close proximity for days and weeks and being full of hormones, but first, obligatorily, they have to find each other irritating for many chapters.

There’s very little information about the moon once it does its thing in chapter one of volumes one and two, and I found this frustrating. Clearly, Pfeffer did some research or made some good guesses about the results of a changed moon orbit, but she kept communication with the characters’ outside worlds limited, so that basically they were clueless about what was happening (“Why is it so cold in August? Why is it snowing gray snow?”) and, more baffling, none of the young people particularly wanted to know what was going on around the planet. Some of them even refused to be given information, which might have made it easier for the writer but was frustrating for the reader.

And there were questions I simply couldn’t answer, and Pfeffer gave me no help: Where were all these canned goods coming from? Were there new canneries? Nope--no sunshine, what with all those volcanoes erupting and hence, no photosynthesis--and who would go to work at a cannery anyway, when money was useless? So, when the cans ran out or expired, what next in a non-sunshine world? Duh: no book four, fer sure...

(Pfeffer used as a plot point some secret “safe towns,” where apparently every problem was solved--there was plenty of gasoline, trucks pulled in weekly with groceries, there were hospitals and schools!--but only people under 18 could get passes, and the passes were for the rich and powerful only. And surely Pfeffer knows that even the richest and most powerful can’t have green veggies if there aren’t any.)

There are lots of holes in her plot, but I found the story arc tight and interesting, and (even though I knew she would make her whiners grow up) she did adequately demonstrate that appalling circumstances tend to make even shallow people mature--or die off.

One thing I learned about myself from pondering this plot: If the moon changes orbit, I’m going to shoot myself before somebody steals my shoes.

I’m no grappler. Like Miranda, I'd be whining, and writing long, self-pitying diary entries.

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