Sunday, June 30, 2013


by Mira Grant


1 Shut The Hell Up Star for the most grindingly obvious villain that i've had the displeasure of experiencing in years. he's a militaristic, right-wing, fundamentalist old man with the ruthless urge to dominate and no respect for youth, the media, liberals, etc. i know these people exist, obviously. but can't targets be picked with a bit more subtlety and finesse? this guy was out of central casting and only needed a moustache to twirl to be more obvious. geez louise, Captain Obvious: The Author... not only is the target predictable, but his every villainous move is telegraphed with thudding, insulting He Is Bad Man-ness. how trite. obvious, obvious, obvious. SNORE!

Feed (Newsflesh Trilogy, #1)★★ 2 Eye-Rolling Stars for some pretty shoddy writing at times. many times. no, i don't need to hear snarky comments made every other paragraph - because that's the way young adults on tv talk, not real young adults. at least not 100% of the time. and no, i don't need to read incensed reactions to hyper-vigilant security protocols every single time that a security protocol happens. good grief, enough is enough! repetition does not make this heart grow fonder. the second time this happened, i grimaced. the third time it happened, i began to hold a grudge. by the time it happened for the umpteenth time, yo, i was cursing up a muthafucking storm, for real. also, characterization for supporting characters: WEAK. i find out that Buffy was "the funniest person" that Shaun ever knew - and yet the reader has been given no evidence of this. in fact the reader has been given no evidence whatsoever that Buffy even has a personality beyond an OCD desire to be technologically on top of things. and at the end i find out that the nonentity known as "Rick" is now a vice-presidential candidate? uh, whatever. words can't convey my feelings of derision at that announcement.

★★★ 3 OK I Liked It Stars for Overall Enjoyment. i, as the stars say, "Liked It". would i recommend it? no, probably not, except maybe to a teenager (although, duh, that's the target audience, mark, get a grip!). so despite the above complaints, and see below, overall this wasn't a disagreeable experience for me. the zombie attacks were sparse, and despite being a zombie lover, i appreciated their sparseness - it rather lifted this book above straight-up horror. and this is, i suppose, a bonafide YA novel... so i also really, really, really appreciated the lack of Corny Eyerolling Romance Lite. thank you, author! 3 Stars should be automatic for any novel that  has intelligent goals behind its design, that seeks to entertain but also seeks to provoke and to make the reader both think and feel. 3 Stars for getting that right.

★★★★ 4 Good Job On This Stars for Edjumakation for the Youth. i am probably going to sound like an old man here (what's new), but the lessons in this novel actually are pretty important. and i think it is really important that The Young People, whoever they are, listen up. for real. the whole novel is an obvious parallel for what has been happening in the States RIGHT NOW. or i guess what could be happening in the forseeable near-future. the U.S. is at a very dangerous crossroads, with religious fundamentalists and sociopathic assholes in political power (and often in collaboration with parts of the mainstream media), and hoping to turn this country into Taliban Lite in terms of both domestic and foreign policy. yes, that's an exaggeration, but a purposeful one. now i love my conservative friends, so no offense to you all, but elements of the right-wing have degraded debate to a point where "debate" is simply a game of chicken. who can go the farthest? who can block the most policies? who can call who a communist or anti-american or [enter pathetic cliche here]. i think all the viciousness of the extreme right-wing quasi-fundamentalists is simply the viciousness of a group of close-minded, money-grubbin bullies who smell that the wind is blowing against them. but they are still in power! and they want to remain in power! and they have the resources to accomplish their disgusting dreams. so yeah, i appreciate all the points laid out so energetically in Feed. kids, teens, young adults, whatever... people should know what exactly is happening, and they should be pissed off and angry. the time for old men like myself is fading fast. and i'm not even that old - but me and my friends' main concerns these days seem to be more about day-to-day things involving work and family. and vacations. it was different when i was younger - i was angry! and broke, with very little in the way of tangible responsibilities. nowadays i just want to make sure i do the right thing on a daily basis - if i can say i've accomplished that, i've had a good day. so i really hope all the folks who are younger than me, all the folks who are inheriting this country and the earth... i hope that they are pissed off, angry, and that they want change. and for that, Feed is a 4 Star Call-to-Arms. well, not "arms" as in guns. you know what i mean. anyway, i really admire Feed's passion and its anger. i truly appreciate it.

★★★★★ 5 Golden Stars for that one chapter, and the one before it, and the one after. you know the ones i mean. She Dies. my God, that was moving. it was tough to read. i may have a ton of complaints about the writing overall, but in those three chapters, no complaints whatsoever. perfectly accomplished. i felt sick, i felt sad, i felt moved, i felt so much. beautiful job on that. incredible, really. i wouldn't change a word of Chapters 25, 26, and 27 because they all flirt with a kind of minor-note brilliance. just the kind that i like. wow! wow. so thank you for that, Mira Grant. a sad kind of thanks.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Childhood's End

by Arthur C. Clarke

you think you're so fucken smart, don't you mark? ha, think again. all your little plans and goals, your little community of friends and family and colleagues, your whole little life... what does it matter in the long run? not a whole fucken lot. grow up, sad child.

Childhood's EndChildhood's Endtake this book for example. a classic of the genre, written by a classic author. you thought you knew what you were getting into; you've read countless examples of the type. you sure are a well-read little scifi nerd, aren't you? for the first half, maybe longer, you were right. a well-crafted central character, flavorful supporting characters, intriguing aliens, a spicy mystery to solve. it was all laid out as expected and the pleasures were of a familiar sort. when the mystery of the aliens' appearance was solved, you were a wee bit surprised. but it was a comfortable sort of surprise. it's not like it blew your little mind. it was clever. but overall everything up until then was as you expected. well fucking Congratulations, chump, your predictions came half-true. you want a medal? you don't get one. there aren't any half-medals.

there are some fucking spoilers that follow!

Childhood's EndChildhood's Endyou weren't expecting what came after. those revelations came out of the blue for you, didn't they? you didn't expect to be made to feel so small, to get a little depressed, to have your expectations pounded all to pieces. it was kinda beautiful in a way, kinda mind-blowing. but mainly it was fucken sad. oh you poor baby. you have your own private little dreams of widespread empathy and the future of children and the future of humanity and our future place in the world and - at the most secret, sentimental heart of you - some corny spiritual post-life higher consciousness transcending type shit. you didn't expect that to be a part of the novel, did you? you didn't expect it to all come out, be laid out on the page like a body in a morgue, your body, and then just get eviscerated. your dreams of some sort of future beyond this present, where you are still you, a wistful dream that you like to think is both delicate and profound like one of those origami things you like to do. what's your favorite one? a pinwheel. well you get to watch that pinwheel of a dream get smashed and turned inside out and torn up into bits. revealed as a typically naive and childish fantasy. ha! so much for that. grow the fuck up, chump.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Martyrs & Monsters

by Robert Dunbar

in this excellent collection of short stories, Dunbar mines both horror tropes and, more interestingly, the inevitable degradation of self within a varied range of vividly depicted and toxic closed circles. the breadth of these stories - from tenement to moldering southern 'mansion' to space station (maybe) to killing fields of the distant past - is impressive. as is the verve and finesse in which Dunbar approaches his topics and paints his imagery. he really knows how to bring the literary to literary horror. there is an abundance of dread and melancholy and creepiness, and a good number of squalid squirmy scenarios, but not much in the way of gore or viscera. if you want the pornographic detail of torture porn, this is not for you. but if you want thoughtfulness and ambiguity and to be forced to think a bit, then this is an interesting and rewarding book to pick up.

the companion stories "Gray Soil" and "Red Soil" are worth the price of admission alone. these take place sometime long ago, on a field that that is a post-battle graveyard in one and in the other, the site of forced labor on some strange folly at the behest of some strange nobleman. we see a mother and her children forced to deal with the horrible scavenger that haunts the battlefield and we see a brave lad trying to look out for his sister as a host of these scavengers attack his camp. the creatures are fascinating; what happens to these characters is even more compelling. the prose in these stories is spare and resonant, as suits a myth or fable. haunting and disturbing and, best of all, leaving the reader to figure out on their own what comes next.

the very amusing and enjoyable "The Folly" takes place in a very oddly-shaped home on an isolated swamp island in the South. Dunbar revisits the Jersey Devil of his novels The Pines & The Shore but does so in a very different manner. the creature is fully recontextualized as a worldwide phenomena (although that was present, a bit, in the novels) and is also made somehow less mysterious - yet still quite threatening. a creature that is described as looking like a giant muskrat is indeed still scary if it wants to tear you to pieces! but the creature is not really the best part. i liked the bizarre home (and actually wanted more of it), i enjoyed the nascent lesbian affair on the horizon, and i really loved the wonderfully arch and wry tone of the story. charm + slaughter, a lovely combo.

"Saturday Night Fights" is a fun ticket to an old-fashioned monster battle, this one featuring a punk rock about-to-be-a-couple fighting a disgusting beast in some repulsive apartment building somewhere. some sharp characterization - the subtlety of which really sticks out, in a good way, when taken in context with the broadness of the story itself. plus kittens and a feel-good ending! awww.

"Full" is ingenius. it takes the whole paranormal subgenre - hey, vampires & werewolves & zombies walk amongst us and we have to deal with it! - and boils it down to one hopeful walk in the dark by our moody protagonist as he goes to meet his boyfriend. the story does really amusing things with zombies and a vampire and a horny Frankenstein's monster type creature. and it does an awesome thing with the werewolf - simultaneously illustrating why that creature is such a pervasive erotic fantasy while not forgetting that making love to such a creature may be a bit... problematic.

"Explanations" was, sad to say, my least favorite story. it is witty and the characterizations were full of depth and humor, but there was also an unpleasant veneer of sneering condescension that reminded me too much of John Shirley's Black Butterflies (a book i loathed).

"Getting Wet" and "Are We Dead Yet?" weren't my favorite tales in the collection, but there is no denying the sheer artistry on display in these stories about sociopathic boyfriends living in a very dirty world and making it dirtier. Dunbar's ability to get into the head of our twitchy protagonist and to make the protagonist's boyfriend threateningly opaque yet still very real - to make these two human cockroaches come alive even as they turn on others and each other... very, very well-done. and the dark, watery, empty world he creates for them to live in is just as impressive.

"Away" is one of those rare stories that made me feel sort of dimwitted and confused when reading it, as if i should be understanding what was going on but some lack in me made that nearly impossible. the story of a paranoid outsider who may actually be right all along really left me mystified and unsure about what i had just read. was it too subtle? no, there is no such thing. that story is going to force me to re-read it. and when a story can do that: Like!

there are several other worthy stories, but i'll close on my favorite - perhaps even one of my new all-time favorite horror stories - the strange, haunting, tense, sorta sexy and sorta disgusting, eerily evocative, wonderfully understated "Mal de Mer". a cold-blooded lady taking care of an old woman about to die. a house near a beach. a mysterious and violently sexual man. two exceedingly creepy children. something big and monstrous that manages to be, somehow, disappointed and scornful as well. lacerating self-analysis and lonely contemplation and needle-sharp teeth and bloodstains on the floor. in a word, brilliant.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Rendezvous with Rama

by Arthur C. Clarke

Rendezvous with Rama (Rama, #1)i like world-building in science fiction and fantasy. in these modern times, extensive world-building is commonly derided... it is often seen as a lazy way to create a world, telling not showing, an author so in love with something they've built that they just want to describe instead of allowing the reader to slowly experience. i understand that point of view; world-building can often be seen as a glorified, masturbatory info-dump. but for some reason, it just doesn't bother me too much. i think this is because with good world-building, i feel like i am looking at a kind of work of art created by the author - a rather nerdy work of art, sure - but still something that a person has put a lot of thought, energy, and passion into. i really respond to all those details that the author is in love with sharing. but maybe i just have a high threshold for these kinds of things, as i'm also the kind of person who likes to hear all the details in a person's dreams.

Rendezvous takes world-building to a different sort of place: Clarke is artifact-building. the amazing alien spaceship Rama is indeed amazing; almost the entire novel is devoted to exploring this gigantic vessel. most of the narrative is in service to purely descriptive passages of Rama; everything else is either minimal characterization or political discussions from various scientists & ambassador types about how to respond to Rama. all of this very focused world-building has the potential for much boredom and irritation. but i never felt that; the author's love for his creation is too clear, his details are too meticulous, his sense of wonder and his ability to concretely illustrate the almost-unknowable are too skilled, too palpable. despite my feeling that this novel essentially functions as a prologue to the 'real' action to come, i got caught up in Clarke's passion and enjoyed it all.

Rendezvous with Rama (Rama, #1)for such a man of science and large-scale concepts, Clarke is a surprisingly warm writer. his characters are pleasant - and real. there are no grand villains, at least not in this initial volume of the series. and he has a sense of humor - particularly around sex (one character is described as having no interest in anything outside of work, except for sports and sex - preferably combined; a high-level scholar is described as originally making his reputation through researching "puberty rites in late-twentieth-century Beverly Hills"). for all of the high-falutin' ideas on display, there is zero pretension present in Rendezvous.

although the novel ends before anything actually happens, there does seem to be interesting directions that the series could go. the slight mining of sexuality and gender roles could lead somewhere. and politics - particularly around how government responds to the unknown - are clearly an intriguing next step. i'm looking forward to seeing how this series pans out.

all that said, as far as Giant Mysterious Alien Artifacts go, right now my favorite is still Greg Bear's Eon - which in many ways appears to be an homage to Rama.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Curse of Chalion

by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Curse of Chalion (Chalion, #1)when i was younger, i was always confused by the moniker of "Adult Fantasy" (less used today, but more common decades ago). i assumed it meant sex and possibly violence, but that was almost never the case... what it ended up meaning to me was BORING, I Can't Finish This.

well now that i am clearly an adult, i get it. for example, Curse of Chalion. this is definitely an Adult Fantasy. it does not feature sex - if anything, it is rather pleasingly old-fashioned and discreet about sex. and it does not feature extreme violence - the violent moments are just that, 'moments', and there is no juvenile dwelling on the pornography of blood, guts, & pain (although there is definitely blood, guts, and pain in our protagonist's life).

Curse of Chalion is Adult Fantasy in a few ways.

The Curse of Chalion (Chalion, #1)first, it is all about the interior life and the slow-burning changes in a broken man. he is a man in constant turmoil - one who lives in fear due to his tormented past and the betrayals that haunt him, one whose path appears to be a slow, step-by-step attempt at staying under the radar while looking out for the interests of those he loves. Cazaril is a hero, but not an easy one. action is not his automatic response (and so when it does occur, it is genuinely thrilling). the reader will find little knee-jerk wish fulfillment in his carefully-considered feints & moves. he is one of the most thoughtful protagonists i've come across in fantasy and a truly Grown Up, Adult Hero.

second, the pacing is very deliberate. this is not a novel where action jumps off the page in a big rush. it moves at a conservative pace, bringing the reader along on Cazaril's slow journey. it forces you into understanding what makes the man, why he acts the way he does, before finally picking up the pace and beginning Adventure Time - if you can even call such a thoughtful progression An Adventure. it seems almost purposefully designed to throw off the rather shallow needs of the thrill-seeking reader (and i include myself in that group). the book is thoughtful.

The Curse of Chalion (Chalion, #1)third, religion is front and center. there is magic in Curse of Chalion - Death Magic even - but it is linked entirely with the worship of 5 gods & goddesses. it is a painful sort of magic. it is a deep and rich and nuanced portrait of religion. i loved it. the novel's intense and nuanced focus on faith and spirituality was my favorite part of the experience.

and finally, it features the inclusion of a major supporting character who is queer. it did not feel arbitrary, the character is not there as some form of liberal tokenism, there was no stereotypical nonsense to annoy me, and the character and his actions are completely organic to the story - he is not shoe-horned into the narrative. as a queer, i really appreciate this sensitive, realistic, and exploitation-free approach.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


by Richard Calder

far, far in the future, Richard Pike is a disreputable pimp in the Pilipinas Archipelago, a former war hero and expat from the Darkling Island, whoring out the love of his life - the demonic "malignos" Gala, a devout catholic born in the deep underworld, and a turncoat on her people during the great war between the Earth Above and the Netherworld. trouble comes our lovers' way, and the brave Gala is poisoned and simplified. Pike must journey to the heart of the Netherworld, to the mind-bending city of Pandemonium, to find her cure. a dark and surreal science fantasy quest ensues.

Malignosdo you have a secret inner hipster, a snobby elitist who loves your little finds - ones that no one else seems to know about? i sure do. i get a thrill from liking things that few people will ever come across. but it's a sad feeling too. why haven't i heard about Richard Calder before now? why isn't his excellent Malignos better known? it seems unfair.

this is a pretty amazing novel. its dense & hallucinogenic imagery, casual sadism, and intense focus on perverse & not-so-perverse spirituality reminded me of the early, bizarre trilogies of Elizabeth Hand and Paul Park. even better, his use of arch & deeply ironic dialogue, his shallow & self-absorbed hero, and the oddly cheerful & light tone for some dark events were reminiscent of Jack Vance's equally picaresque and arty Dying Earth series. in this story of a tormented, murderous hero and his larger-than-life sword, there is also more than a nod to Moorcock's Elric series - it seems almost like a straight-up homage. and, obviously, the basic narrative of this novel - a hero's descent into an underworld to save the life of his lady love - is also the basis of innumerable tales and legends.

the writing is wonderful. the imagery is gorgeous. the narrative is compelling. the characters are off-kilter but strangely iconic. the author, himself an English expat living in Philippines, brings to the  table both insouciant verve and a lived-in understanding of elements of Filipino culture. this is science fantasy that made me pause and consider many things.

it is perhaps inappropriate to actually call this a "science fantasy". the history of this world is given careful pseudo-science explanation. SPOILERS IN THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH: first of all, the universe is composed of many dimensions. sometimes these dimensions bleed over and sometimes denizens of one dimension will cross over to another. in a certain dimension that is clearly where the idea of Hell sprung from and bled over, evil is good. people apparently have given themselves the appearance of what we call devils, amongst many such outre appearances. the philosopher-scientists who dominate this dimension, and the dark-energy beings that protect them (including that eternally famous villain, the cold-hearted Metatron) became ambitious and sought the create their own personal universe. disaster occurs; their dimension is destroyed; their spirits crossed over to a new dimension to possess and integrate with its more perverse and artistic residents. these newly transformed beings began to create great & terrible machines and to fashion new, more appealingly demonic forms. they were called many things: goblins, ogres, malignos. they are not necessarily evil... they just see things a different way. and driven underground, they plot to someday return. oh, and i'm not even talking about our dimension. Malignos takes place in a post-post-post-apocalyptic future of a familiar-seeming earth, but one that includes such world powers as Atlantis and Cathay. it's all so mindboggling and carefully thought-out... awesome!

there are many absorbing scenes, bizarre & beautifully described tableau, and moments of stylized dialogue & offhand musings to enjoy, to chuckle over, to slowly digest their implications, to read again, maybe to treasure. one of my favorite bits:

"If she embraces old superstition, Defoe, it is because the new superstitions that have currency in our world, superstitions that inhibit and finally destroy our sense of empathy, will lead us all to destruction.' Gala frowned. She did not seem to like the equation of her faith to superstition. Neither, perhaps, did I. But I was too damaged by war to be able to lift my face to heaven and put all my hope in the love everlasting. The only thing I feared more than the mummery of my own existence was the possibility that God also was an ostentatious fake."