Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Virgin Soldiers

by Leslie Thomas


they don't stay virgins for long!


time to strip down...

for the British soldiers stationed in late 40s-early 50s Malaya at the Panglin Base on Singapore Island, there is one element that impacts them all: the intense, pervasive heat. clothing becomes unnecessary for these soldiers, a burden, and so those clothes are quickly discarded throughout the day and night. the soldiers are stripped down in other ways as well: young, inexperienced in matters of love and death, their personalities only barely formed, virgins in their lack of experience in war, in the understanding of life itself. there is a sameness to these recruits, a shared lack that gives them a sort of anonymity. trade one out for the other and you'd barely notice a difference. the writing and the story itself are likewise stripped down. this is not a novel of gorgeous prose or of adventure after adventure. The Virgin Soldiers is about life on a sleepy base, one where the war against communist guerillas barely encroaches. it is a book about small moments, ways to amuse yourself when bored and stuck in one place. and so Thomas describes his story's anecdotes with a certain nonchalance, a lack of poetry, using only the occasional splash of vivid imagery to brighten the pages. it made the reading experience an easy and swift one, but a rather forgettable one as well.

1821208time to fuck...

with soldiers who have so much time on their hands and so little to do, in their teens and early 20s, one obsession connects them all: their dicks. the book is frank and highly sexual, but it is not a sexy book. nonchalance balances frankness and so the end result is sexual behavior treated with a lack of heat and drama. whether they are contemplating their various erections in the barracks or getting it on with various Asian whores in a nearby city, reckless passion is rarely present; instead there is a constant and very prosaic horniness, an itch that always needs to be scratched. one of the things I appreciated about this book is Thomas' decision to include the perspective of Phillipa, the 20-year old daughter of a particularly repugnant Sergeant-Major. she dominates the thoughts of many soldiers, including the appealing protagonist Brigg and the admirable Sergeant Driscoll; her vaguely contemptuous disinterest that barely hides a deep well of seething anger in turn dominates the narrative whenever she appears. a fascinating character. I also liked the lack of homophobia in the offhand description of a pair of soldiers in love with each other, and I particularly respected the lack of sexism in the depiction of the whores that Brigg and his buddies return to repeatedly. the author's honesty and lack of issues, his refusal to be judgmental when presenting sexual relations and sexuality in general is really admirable.

time to die...

the base on Singapore Island may be a quiet one, its soldiers bored out of their skulls, but death still comes to call in The Virgin Soldiers. the horrible and tragic death of one of the female characters comes out of nowhere; its suddenness and the careless way it is described to Brigg was like a punch in the gut for both Brigg and me. likewise with the accidental death of a soldier who steps on a mine: a beautiful morning on the beach, young men swimming and playing football, a terrible explosion, body parts everywhere - and then a memory that won't go away for Briggs, or me. those are isolated incidences in the overall story, but death comes in a major way near the end of novel. a bandit attack on a train transporting civilians and soldiers returning from vacation is completely hair-raising. Thomas' decision not to alter the breezy nonchalance of his story nor to escalate his stripped-down prose into something more dramatic made this sequence particularly striking. the mayhem and confusion, the body parts, the moments of cowardice and heroism... all are reported in same casual way in which Thomas describes a bullfrog race a few pages earlier. a commendable show of restraint. and although it was not a particularly memorable experience overall, I would say that the novel is still quite commendable as well. no complaints from this corner.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Midnight Sun: The Complete Stories of Kane

by Karl Edward Wagner

Karl Edward Wagner was many things: originally trained as a psychiatrist (a profession he ended up rejecting), a longtime editor of the influential Year's Best Horror and Fantasy series, a poet, a writer of dark horror, an alcoholic (it eventually killed him), and - perhaps most famously - the author of a series of odd stories and novels featuring the immortal Kane. this iconic character is widely considered to be the most successful of all the Conan-esque creations to follow in Conan's footsteps.

715273Wagner writes his Kane stories using a dark but vibrant palette of throbbing colors. his pastiche of the classic Robert Howard style manages to stay true to the form while injecting his own brand of despair, various hallucinatory elements, and a deeply cynical outlook on life. these tales of 'adventure' often read as gripping horror stories (plus swords & sorcery, 'natch) that are informed by a very modern nihilism and a free-floating feeling of ambiguous menace.

Kane himself is none other than that infamous brother-slayer, Cain, cursed to immortality for his crimes by - as Wagner sees fit to describe - "a long dead god." it is interesting to see an author use a biblical character while completely rejecting the religion that created that character. it is even more interesting to see how that immortality plays out, story by story. events and places and people that Kane encounters in one story become historical tales told by people in other stories - no doubt with Kane silently smirking at the mistelling of those stories. ah, immortality. what a cross to bear!
Wagner cheats a little bit in these tales. at different points in his career, Kane is a Machiavellian courtier, a bloodthirsty warlord, a murderous sorcerer... his history is that of an immortal, capital-V Villain, one who causes kingdoms to fall and cities to be sacked and towns to be plundered, happily manipulating events for his own obscure goals, an infernal architect of countless plans that result in the deaths of countless people. he's not tragic or noble - he's a monster. the cheat comes in that we never actually see that particular Kane, those different villainous aspects - at least not in the stories collected in this compendium. instead the reader meets Kane between his notorious misdeeds and misadventures. we don't see the cruelty or the devious machinations; we see those presumably rare moments when Kane is on the run or is revisiting the scenes of his crimes or is just having a little side adventure that actually isn't hurting anyone. we see Kane when he is kind - when he protects the weak and rescues the innocent. an odd but usually very effective strategy. I came away from this book feeling pretty sympathetic to the character.

the first seven stories amazed me! thrilling, often sinister tales that portray a compelling antihero and atmospheres full of sorrow & regret, or hot-blooded but misguided vengeance, or the threat of sexual violence, or intangible dangers, or all of that combined. "Undertow" cleverly uses parallel narratives to illustrate why Kane's girlfriend is someone we all should just avoid pursuing. the bittersweet "Two Setting Suns" details Kane's journey with a giant as his companion attempts to reinvigorate his dying race. "The Dark Muse" is very Clark Ashton Smith with its drug-taking poet and interdimensional threat and scary journey through the ruins of a dead city. the remaining stories of this first seven ("Raven's Eyrie" & "Misericorde" & "Sing a Last Song of Valdese" & "Lynortise Reprise") are all equally compelling.

the stories that follow are less compelling. I don't know what happened here. "Reflections for the Winter of My Soul" (that title!) and "Cold Light" have so much promise and do such an excellent job at creating an intriguing premise full of eerie atmosphere... but they are done in by the terrible anachronisms of the dialogue - it gets genuinely laughable at times - and the extreme overuse of exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!! "Mirage" and "The Other One" are not bad, but are also rather flimsy and unmemorable. the less said the better of the Kane-meets-Elric adventure "The Gothic Touch."

there are three modern day stories of horror featuring Kane in his new guise: a drug-dealing man of extraordinary wealth engaged in a battle against the forces of evil. or just engaged in drug dealing. frankly, these three stories are terrible. the modern elements are eye-rollingly awkward, with the exploitative use of 'alternate sexuality' feeling particularly forced. the protagonists are pathetic and irritating. also... an Elvis dildo, really? ugh. the experience of reading "Lacunae" & "Deep in the Depths of the Acme Warehouse" & "At First Just Ghostly" was repellent, to say the least.

I hate to end my review of such an interesting and idiosyncratic author on a sour note, so I'll repeat myself: those first seven stories were FANTASTIC. so good that they have helped me pretend that those other stories don't even exist. I am really looking forward to reading the three Kane novels, all thankfully set in archaic times.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


by Zoe Archer


he is an EX-SOLDIER!

she belongs to a SECRET SOCIETY!

this is a ROMANCE!

but it has a lot of ADVENTURE!

and MAGIC!


I liked all of that MONGOLIA!

she's no prude she wants to be an ADVENTURESS!

and also his WIFE!

he's your basic decent studly alpha male STEREOTYPE!

his eyes, his skin, his hair are colored in shades of GOLD!

he apparently smells like the WIND!

she is an accomplished ARCHER!

she really knows how to use a GUN!

also, she sure knows how to ride a HORSE!

the story was like a classic fast-paced ADVENTURE MOVIE!

the feel of this book is decidedly OLD-FASHIONED!

except he frequently mentions his stiff COCK!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Let's Go Play at the Adams'

by Mendal Johnson
I don't believe in the world of this book, nor in its worldview.
1777308three children and two teens, ages 10 - 17, trap a 20-year old babysitter; over the course of a week, she is repeatedly tortured and raped. in the end, they torture her to death.
I'm not a glass half-full kinda guy. I know that children can often (usually?) have little to no moral compass. more importantly, I know how the world can be a cruel and relentless place; I've seen the horrible things it can inflict on people. thank you, work history. but there is always context for why people do the things they do. not context that excuses those things, but context that allows an understanding of why they occurred.
5 kids are not going to quickly turn into psychopaths able to systematically abuse and murder a person within a week unless they were already deranged. only one of them is characterized as having mental issues; none have traumatic backgrounds or guidance from a disturbed adult. there is no believable context to why they do the things they do, unless it is mere coincidence that brings these 5 deeply disturbed individuals together. that's a hell of a coincidence. no, I don't believe in the world of this book.
477801on a formal level, the writing is excellent. really, quite top-notch. the perspectives of all six major characters are interestingly depicted. interestingly, not believably. surprisingly enough, the intellectual, clinical, yet oddly dreamlike manner in which Johnson views his subjects reminded me of writers like Duras or Ballard or film directors like von Trier or Fassbinder or Lynch. but you do not often approach those authors or directors as if they were depicting actual reality, real life there on the page or up on the screen, breathing and bleeding and genuine. instead their works have an almost ironic distance from the material that encourages contemplation of - rather than engulfment by - that material. one could try the same approach to this book. good luck! Let's Go Play is not an extended metaphor; it shows the actual thought processes involved during this situation, how escalated forms of projection and objectification and role-playing can lead to atrocity. the author brings a certain sardonic detachment to the material, but this is no stylized dream odyssey. it attempts realism but tries to paint human nature as inherently monstrous, psychopathic. that is not reality.
there are reasons given for the kids' actions. "It's all a game" ... "There always has to be winners and losers" ... "The world is all about hate" ... "We voted" ... that old bugaboo, violent media ... etc. the reasons provided are not convincing enough for me to believe that 5 kids (ok, let's not count the lil' psychopath) - 4 'regular' kids without traumatic lives or the guidance of a disturbed adult - are going to be able to slowly and dispassionately torture someone to death, and then methodically cover their tracks like supervillains. I call bullshit on that. I don't believe it. there needs to be context for such actions because all humans are not all monster. well, perhaps I am a glass half-full sorta guy after all.


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Running Wild

by J.G. Ballard

70236          1243390

Experienced nannies wanted for care of 13 children ages 8-17 in the safe, comfortable, and perfectly controlled upper class environment of the exclusive Pangbourne Village.

Position Description:

The nanny is a specialist working in the family's home, responsible for all tasks related to care of the children. The nanny will serve as a loving, nurturing, and trustworthy companion to the children. The nanny will carefully maintain at all times the liberal attitude enforced by the parents and society of Pangbourne Village. The nanny will avoid being shot, stabbed, electrocuted, and/or run over by the children. The nanny will avoid surprise strangulation by Vietnamese bamboo traps set by the children. The nanny will shower the children with hugs, kisses, and positive affirmation on an ongoing, continual basis.

Major Responsibilities:

*Create a stimulating, nurturing environment for the children;
*Supervise and monitor the children's activities at all times and provide a minute-by-minute accounting of all activities throughout the day and evening including in the bathroom;
*Prepare meals and bottles for, and feed, the children (regardless of age);
*Dress the children (regardless of age);
*Place the children down for naps and bedtime (regardless of age);
*Bathe the children (regardless of age);
*Change diapers (regardless of age);
*Discipline the children, when necessary, with a preferred disciplinary regimen that includes naps, hugs, friendly pats on the head delivered with a half-smile that combines subliminal admonishment with the understanding that the child is otherwise practically perfect in every single way, followed by handfuls of spending money to allow the child to maintain a positive self-image after the disciplinary regimen;
*Regularly remove bite marks left by children on wall corners, bannisters, headboards, and closet interiors; and
*Perform additional positive reinforcement activities as needed.

Job Qualifications and Requirements:

*High school graduate required; PhD preferred.
*Experience caring for children.
*Experience treating teenagers like children.
*English proficiency.
*Comfort with status level of service position; lack of interest in upward social mobility.
*Car, driver's license, auto insurance, and safe driving history. *Reliable, honest, and trustworthy.
*Ability to keep children from, as they say, "running wild."
*Ability to run very, very fast.
*Ability to plan, organize, and multitask.
*Ability to counter any plans and tasks organized by the children that could potentially lead to the violent massacre of all adults within Pangbourne Village. Safety first!

✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰

Pangbourne Village
is a subsidiary of Ballard Microcosms Unlimited, Ltd™. Our model of absolute positive reinforcement at all times is delivered in the classic Ballard style, using the traditional Ballardian techniques of cool appraisal, ironic distance, postmodern pastiche, sardonic detachment, and small moments of gleefully vindictive humor at the expense of the affluent upper class and various soul-deadening institutions.

Pangbourne Village... Where Nature Is Unnatural!
Pangbourne Village... Where Nurture Rules And Nature Drools!
Pangbourne Village... Where Teh Children Come First!

As the saying goes: 'It Takes a Village'... Pangbourne Village!

9671467           1243386

Monday, June 2, 2014


by Lois McMaster Bujold

a colleague asked me a series of questions while we were out drinking the other night, questions like So what's next for you? and Is this all you are planning on doing with your career? and Is your current job how you want to be defined and does that actually give you satisfaction? I found myself annoyed then defensive then offended. what gave her the right to question me, I've accomplished a lot in my job and in my life, yes I am content with my career and why the hell shouldn't I be, blah blah blah. in the end I realized that I shouldn't have been offended because I think she was asking me those questions because she was asking herself the same. and so I calmed down and we continued to get drunk while philosophizing on the choices we've made and the nature of our existence blah blah blah.

I think some people like to live in boxes. I am such a person. I love my box, it's a safe and comfortable one and I've spent a lifetime constructing it. my box is one that gives me genuine satisfaction and the feeling that I am doing only what I want to be doing with my life. but I think other people resent and reject the idea of a box; they prefer to live in what can be called a "liminal space" - that space between, that place of ambiguity and movement and looking towards what comes next. you can look at your goals in life and try to come up with a plan or timeline to achieve those goals. or you can look at your goals and see them as constantly in flux, in movement depending on where you are, liminal. or you can look at yourself and realize that you are actually not a goal-oriented person. I think all of those are different kinds of boxes. I think my colleague may disagree.

61880so this book, Memory, is about those sorts of things. despite opening with a character getting his legs shot off and ending with a high-stakes trap for a devious villain, this is far from an action novel. it is a thoughtful story about who we are, why we are, the boxes we construct, the identities we create for ourselves and the separate boxes those identities live in, how our identity/identities can become dominos or houses of cards falling if something or someone takes those boxes away. Miles Vorkosigan's dual identities of mercenary fleet commander and aristocratic peer of the realm have always been bubbling in the background throughout his stories; in this novel they finally come to a head. Bujold does a superb and moving job in delineating who Miles is, and was, and can be; she gives the mundane, all-too-common situations of making errors & trying to cover up your tracks, losing a job & so losing a part of your identity, a palpably emotional resonance. she does all of that and then she doubles down and gives us another ongoing character, Simon Illyan, going through a similar thing but in an entirely different manner. Miles is the sort of character who assertively rejects the idea of a box and who insists he lives in a liminal space - but who has actually been constructing two boxes to live in, and has actively not been living in the space between, in that liminal space. Simon is the sort of character who has constructed his own perfect box - one that makes his career equal his actual self - only to find that box dismantled and his sureness of purpose and self destroyed as he moves into a purely liminal space. it is fascinating comparing the two journeys.

in sum, this is a wonderful novel about figuring out that who you are does not equal your job or your birth name or any specific, singular role or title; rather, it is the sum of all such things, and your experiences, and your internal workings, your actions and your potential, your ability to change or not change, and so much else. you = not easily summed up in one word.

I love that this space opera is all about these 'mysteries' that every human experiences. I know when I pick up a Vorkosigan Saga novel that I will be enjoying some action and some intrigue and some political maneuvering and maybe even some romance. standard space opera pleasures. but I also know that I will be enjoying a human tale about actual human beings and the things that happen in life, to everyone. it is that last sentence, that particular quality, that makes this series so special.

The Silent Land

by Graham Joyce

8719737youngish married couple go on a ski trip. avalanche! when they extricate themselves from the snow they find that everyone at their ski village has disappeared and that time now moves differently. what the hell?
fortunately, guessing the (entirely predictable) twists that come at the halfway and end points should not ruin the experience of reading this lovely and affecting book. unless you are the sort of reader whose experience rises and falls on the twists and turns and purely narrative pleasures of a book. if so, stay away. if not, then there is a lot to enjoy in The Silent Land - a minor note but very thoughtful, very sweet (but not saccharine) experience.

it is a chamber piece, of sorts: two primary characters; one POV - a wife contemplating her feelings about her husband and their future together. I say of sorts because, surprisingly, the married couple are not particularly well-developed or given the sort of rich, deep characterization that you'd expect to find in a novel with such a small cast and such intimate concerns. they are real people, certainly, but the context behind their actions and the lifetimes behind them that helped make them who they are... not so much of that, not really. there is a dog that gives some context (context that actually made me tear up a little bit, but I'm a sucker for sentimental stuff around animals)... and there are two wonderful chapters that are concerned with the impact that death has had on each of their fathers. those two chapters were insightful and the fathers are depicted with both clarity and warmth. very, very moving chapters - but they are anomalies in the novel. what is mainly present are the thought processes of the wife and husband, how they think, what they think, how and what they think about each other. the book is very Here & Now & What Comes Next. I thought this was a really interesting and atypical approach, and helped an already dreamlike (sometimes even nightmarish) landscape become even more dreamy.

the prose is also quite dreamy. rather spare, rather elegant, subtle, careful, with the occasional dash of idiosyncrasy to spice things up now and again. the atmosphere moves between eerie and ominous and even strangely enchanting... again, dreamlike.

naturally there is a lot of sex. I assume that most couples stranded by themselves in fairly luxurious quarters, who don't have much to do and who are still deeply attracted to each other on both an emotional and a physical level... yeah, there will probably be a lot of fucking going on. and hey, some making love too. all mixed up together.

anyway, the book is about love. how we live with it, how it is a magical thing yet also an everyday sort of thing, how it exists beyond the here and now, how it can stay with us and all the myriad ways it can take shape.

it also has a Christmas tree that is adorned with memories rather than ornaments. awesome idea!

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Weirwoods

by Thomas Burnett Swann

9361326the name of Thomas Burnett Swann's game is Pastoral Fantasy vs. Slowly Encroaching Civilization. the author wrote a good number of fantasy (and some science fiction) novels that took the old myths and legends as reality and pitted them against the gradual intrusion of industry, the city, the military, modernity in general. one of the delightful things about this author is his ability to make these myths real in their own strange, unreal way. his dryads and water sprites and centaurs and fauns are three-dimensional yet often utterly alien as well. although it is obvious which side Swann is on (and what fantasy author will ever side against fantasy anyway), he also illustrates his early civilizations with the same trappings of fantasy - these aren't the ancient civilizations of the classroom, they are cultures that have been made almost as mythical as the fantasy creatures who share their world. entering one of Swann's novels is entering an adult fairy tale; very little is familiar except for the familiarity we all have with myths & legends & ancient civilizations. these myths & legends have been given a compelling sexuality that is central to their mythology. this is definitely Sexy Fantasy: the sexuality manages at different times to be genuinely sensual and carnal yet also innocent - not dirty and not exploitative, sometimes disturbing and threatening, often deeply homoerotic (and honestly I wish he had been a bit more even-handed with the ladies), and just as often unintentionally silly - and silly in a rather dated, eye-rolling, but still amusing way. anyway, The Weirwoods is about water sprites and Etruscans, a terrible revenge, and how a traveling musician, a naïve city girl, and two deadly but weirdly attractive water sprites all cross paths. his prose is lovely and his story manages to feel languorous despite its brief length. it is a serious book and it is also often a really goofy book (especially in its second half, post-revenge). overall I quite liked it; it took me right into another world and I wanted to stay there longer than I was able. I'm looking forward to reading more by the author and I'm excited to reread the ones I read as a teen. they certainly inspired dozens of my own smutty fantasies. but also a longing for things long past and things that never were.

The Moorstone Sickness

by Bernard Taylor

Hal and Rowan flee the big city of London to settle in the beautiful, placid, and exceedingly friendly village of Moorstone; disturbing undercurrents eventually become stronger & stronger, and the almost-happy couple find that things are murky indeed beneath the town's lovely surface. there are some intriguing things going on under the surface of this novel as well: Bernard steeps his small bag of precisely-drawn, often ambiguously sympathetic characters into the opaque waters of immortality to see what particular flavors of forever will rise to the surface. who wants immortality and what price are you willing to pay for it? think not on such things - 'tis a sickness of both the body and the soul that you contemplate. 'tis the Moorstone Sickness!

there are no surprises here, neither in the supernatural mystery itself nor in what flavors comes to dominate by the end. still, despite showing its hand (inadvertently? hard to tell) so early that most of the suspense is stripped away, the book is a good one. polished and elegant prose, an often enigmatic narrative, interesting characterization, a well-developed background for the mystery, and a tone that is drily straightforward but also hits notes of an almost grim melancholy, laced with a subtly acidic wit. Taylor is a more than competent author and is distinctly underrated. if you are the sort who likes your horror to be restrained, subtle, thoughtful, and horrific in a quietly brooding way, then he is the author for you. overall I preferred Sweetheart, Sweetheart but this was still an intriguing and atmospheric experience.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Tender Morsels

by Margo Lanagan

Snow White and Rose Red live with their mother in a cottage. upon them comes a bear, out of the cold, into their warmth and into their lives. he stays with them a bit; they become a sort of family, until he must go away. the girls meet a strange and irritable dwarf and save him several times. he is not grateful. later, the girls come between the dwarf and the now enraged bear. the unpleasant dwarf begs the bear to eat the girls rather than his little self. can the girls' sweet spirits get them out of this mess - are the girls able to survive? they can, and they will!

 photo tendermorsels_zps63324dce.png

a young girl's mother dies, and she is left with her horrible father in a cottage. she is repeatedly molested and impregnated by her father. it is important that you know this, that this is a part of the book and this is a part of life, for some. a young girl loses her father and is happy for a time. a group of boys come upon her, pull her down from the chimney where she has fled, and proceed to rape her. it is important that you know this, that this is a part of the book too and this is a part of life, for some. can this much-abused girl survive? she can, and she will.

2662169a woman writer named Margo Lanagan decided to write a book about women. she would make the book a portrait of a family of women, a family that grows bigger. she would make the book a portrait of motherhood and sisterhood and daughterhood, the challenges and the wonder and the excitement of becoming, of transforming into such roles. she would make this portrait of women a part of the greater world, so there are many voices heard, even voices of men, sympathetic men and strong, kind ones too. the book does not share the voices of those who are brutal and who destroy with their brutality; they are not worthy of having their voices heard and they are not missed. well, there is a certain voice, a harder voice: the dwarf. but his story is its own kind of tale, not the story of a brutal man but rather the story of a man small in stature and in spirit, an occasionally unkind man but not a brutal one, and one deserving of some sympathy. so this woman writer would take the fable of the sisters Snow White and Rose Red, their cottage and their mother and that dwarf and the bear-who-was-a-prince, as her template. men in the shape of bears and women in the shape of women. she would spin this tale out of prose that is light as gossamer, pliant as cotton, soft as flax, sturdy as wool. prose that sings; prose that whispers. can a woman do all these things in one book, tell all these tales, and still stay true to her goals and still stay true to the myth itself? she can, and she did.

I was once a residential counselor for runaway kids. one girl in particular, I remember her well, she came from a history of sexual abuse, like many others. she fled to the house where I worked. one night she went out wandering and upon her came a group of men. they raped this girl, this girl who had already suffered so much. was she broken though? she was, for a little while. but she came back, she healed, not completely because these kinds of wounds never heal completely, but she did heal. she was young and I know that this was still the beginning of her story. could she survive this beginning, could she survive and even thrive, one day? she could, and she did.

I thought of this girl quite a bit while reading Tender Morsels, her survival. the first 50 pages were exceedingly hard for me to read, for many others to read as well. sometimes these kinds of stories need to start hard. but they don't need to stay that way, only hard, they can expand and move beyond and transform, become something different, something more than atrocity, some bright and warm and ready to embrace those who have been hurt and who long for that bright warmth. can stories that start with such terrible things remain hard - even vengeful - while also growing softer, a soft side and a hard one, side-by-side, life is all sides, can a story juggle such things, even up until its very end? it can, and it did.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


by Penelope Douglas

so nice to see the topic of bullying being turned into a romance! that is definitely the way to deal with bullies. they just need hugs and kisses and your virginity. poor misunderstood bullies. Jared the manly wittle bully with daddy issues just needs to be wuved by someone. bullies just pick on you because they are secretly in love with you. why even bring up the idea that bullying often causes kids to kill themselves. that's not romantic, yuck!

in the words of one of the most embarrassing reviewers on Goodreads:

18090508"This may make me seem a little crazy- but I will just say it right now. I LOVE JARED. Okay, a lot of people loved Jared by the end of the book. Not me. I loved him the entire time I read this book. He was a jerk. An asshole. A bully. But there was just something about him that pulled me to him... I was rooting for him the whole book, so yay!"

self-esteem much?

gosh the author sure knows the right topic to choose to make some money. not a cynical choice at all! and I see that this is apparently the first book in a series. I wonder what the second book will be called. how about "Date Raper"? the wuveable misunderstood wapist just wants to wuv you!! as long as he's a hunk, who cares?

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Friday, February 14, 2014

The Magician King

by Lev Grossman

The Continuing Adventures of a Smug Magical Asshole, as written by An Asshole. and now featuring The New Adventures of a Completely Self-Absorbed Bitch.

i suppose i understand the acclaim that has been heaped on Grossman. he is playing with tropes as his characters play with magic. he has a puckish sensibility that makes reading his series a tart and spiky experience. his tone is breezily casual and entirely unsentimental. and since Snark is the New Law of the New Millenium, the snark that is delivered in spades throughout his novels probably lets many readers off the hook of reading genre fiction... everything is delivered neatly wrapped up within a knowing, eye-rolling, jaded wrapping paper. this gift can be unwrapped at sophisticated dinner parties and the reader won't have to suffer any kind of embarrassment over reading and talking about "Fantasy".

but i had to do a lot of eye-rolling of my own. it's not as if The Magician King is just about a shallow little prick who views everything - and i mean Everything - around him with disdain. i probably would have less of an issue with this book if it were simply about an unsympathetic protagonist. but nope, the author himself makes it clear that he is officially on the side of cynical, snarky assholery. it is all in the writing itself, and not just in the voice of our tedious hero. i can start with the ending, where banality has been substituted for actual meaning and resonance. but the problem is endemic to the entire narrative. people and places are described in the same shallow, smirky, insulting manner, as if the book was actually written by our tedious hero. a bit of the jokiness scores; most of it just falls flat, with a thud. like the irritating, oh-so-clever commentary of some overly-intellectual prick at a party, going on and on about how pedestrian tv is, how terrible music is these days, how pop culture is for idiots, how he's been there, done that, and there were so many tourists and it was all so predictable and banal and now he's rolling his eyes and arching his eyebrows and i just want to smack the bullshit right out of him. in short, this novel lacks SINCERITY.

10079321okay, enough of the complaints. there is still a lot to enjoy. first off, new co-protagonist The Completely Self-Absorbed Bitch is actually pretty interesting and her parallel flashback adventures are often enthralling. the way that the parallel narratives of our heroine's past and our hero's present eventually dovetail into one narrative is clever and quite elegantly structured. an island battle is genuinely thrilling. the novel's major set-piece, where a bunch of brilliant but mentally ill magicians conjure up an actual god is pretty awesome - and very upsetting. the story of young Benedict is also quite well-done... there is genuine tragedy and sadness there, in a way that really stands out from the rest of the narrative. and extra points for portraying rape without even the slightest bit of offensive sexiness.

i was happy to see my favorite characters from the prior novel, Penny and that novel's superb villain Martin Chatwin, both return in a couple excellent cameos. and many of the ideas are wonderful - in particular the Neitherlands, dragons, Venice, the return of the old gods, magical halfway houses, a magical ship, magicians who have somehow transitioned into higher beings, the seven golden keys, a sloth, the Customs Agent and especially her daughter... and i'm probably missing a few equally choice nuggets. The Magician King is deeply flawed and its juvenile tone may be instantly dismissable; it is also practically brimming over with a host of smart, fun, and intriguing moments. much like a creative, outsider-type teenager - full of unearned cynicism and irritating snarkiness, but also full of vibrant energy, a host of ideas, and a fresh, sometimes even brilliant way of looking at things.

so, when all is said and done, i'd actually recommend this book as an interesting and often enjoyable experience. but i'd have to give a big disclaimer before recommending it - a disclaimer delivered with a little snark and a lot of eye-rolling.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The King of Elfland's Daughter

by Lord Dunsany

14686a tale out of time: an old myth reinvented; a new myth born. a wayward bride, a forlorn husband, their son - a pitiless hunter. a defiant old woman; a melancholy old man. trolls delight in delight; unicorns are for slaughter. question: what is Time in Elfland? answer: a fantasy! twelve men want magic. madmen shall take captive a king. borders shall be crossed and boundaries may be as fleeting as dreams. be wary of what you wish for! love shall conquer all and death shall be no more.

prose like poetry, like music. the novel: a silvery lake stretching to shores unknown. i gazed at this lake by day and its surface shone with sunlight: the world and all its colors flamed bright and fierce. i took a lonely boat ride by night and its surface glistened with moonlight, reflecting the beyond... i stared into those starry depths and saw the infinite: an entrancing sight!


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ombria in Shadow

by Patricia A. McKillip

781124this is a beautiful, dreamy fantasy. it is about a fallen city, the mysterious city under that city, two magical beings, a royal bastard, a cast-out mistress, a kind of changeling, a curious scholar, a lonely child prince. it is about ruthless control and equally ruthless revolution against that control. although it does not have faerie, it is a fairy tale, one that is both modern and classic in tone and structure. the writing is splendid; McKillip's words are like gems that she strings together to make a sparkling kind of wonderful. she does not overwrite her story; her prose is lusciously rich, almost edible - but it is also streamlined, stripped-down, full of ambiguity and meaning yet never spelling things out too explicitly, never getting lost in detail. sometimes you have to step back, to appreciate the vivid beauty conveyed on the page, to wonder over the mysteries being so carefully teased out, piece by piece. the setting, the city of Ombria, is a marvel: a sad, gloomy, violent, desperately alive place, one that has fallen far from its glorious history; a sad, gloomy, mysteriously un-alive un-place, a shadow city beneath and between and co-existing with the living spaces of Ombria, an un-living history. Ombria in Shadow is full of magic, tragedy, mystery, and love.

MAGIC: it is front and center. don't expect rules to this magic, although it doesn't feel random. it is simply not spelled out. it is as ambiguous and mythic as the rest of the tale. its two sorceresses - one a fell and fungal villain of the darkest hues and the other an unsettling force of nature, change, and potential catastrophe - are marvelous creations.

TRAGEDY: there are the central tragedies, of course, the greater ones that dominate the narrative. but McKillip does an excellent job in making the tragedy hurt beyond those larger strokes, beyond the death of a king, beyond the attempted murders, beyond the ruination of a city. she makes the tragedy felt in many small ways... casual violence in the night, the distance between father and daughter, lovers parted and lost, the feeling of disempowerment, the loneliness of a little boy.

MYSTERY: answers are almost always tantalizingly out of reach, parsed out little by little, nothing ever simply dumped on the reader. the ending gives you answers, but they are not straightforward, they require contemplation and a willingness to forsake easy answers and easy satisfaction. when they come, the answers were almost as mysterious as the mysteries themselves. that said, when the riddles of the nature of the two sorceresses were finally answered, separately... marvelous to read, perfect.

LOVE: my gosh i was delighted about the Love that is at the heart of this tale. specifically, the love between children and those people in their lives who love them and care for them - be they parents or friends or guardians. of course i have nothing against Romantic Love and its place in any story. but how refreshing to have that focus changed! there are Love Stories in Ombria, naturally. but this book has at its heart Familial Love - with "family" being one that is both born and chosen.
this is the kind of book that you just want to hold close to your heart, be sentimental over, and think about again... but perhaps not talk about, at least not too much. it is a delicate book, like most precious things.

Friday, January 24, 2014


by Larry Niven

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Footfall is an Independence Day (the movie) type book, about an alien invasion and a wide range of humans across the globe reacting to said invasion. I'm sure you've seen Independence Day and I hope you didn't like it because it sucked. but have you seen Mars Attacks? now that is a great alien invasion film. smart and hilarious. Footfall is much better than Independence Day but it is a far cry from Mars Attacks.

the first thing you should know about Footfall is that the aliens in question who are invading, sometimes slaughtering, and in general causing mass havoc across the earth look like baby elephants. that is fucking ingenious!

the second thing you should know about Footfall is that it features a bizarre and hilariously bad and hilariously awesome scene where some rural homespun types, a big city politician, some Soviet astronauts, and the baby elephant alien invaders screen and then discuss that classic film Deep Throat. what Deep Throat means about sex, about relations between the genders, about morality, and of course about whether anyone really gives blow jobs. then the whole thing degenerates into a hysterical argument about 'just us folks' types vs. 'big city feller' types and then the American way vs. the communist way. finally the baby elephants get frustrated and tell the humans that when they are in control, the humans will be able to live by their own rules - but the rules better be consistent and the humans better actually follow them. I literally could not believe what I was reading! that scene is a timeless classic.

I started off the review by comparing the book to a crappy mass-produced Hollywood special effects extravaganza because the issues of those kinds of products certainly plague Footfall. maybe because it was written by two authors, there is a certain blandness and an annoying repetitiousness to its writing. the prose, if you can call it that, is smooth and polished and utterly workmanlike. it indulges in all of the stereotypical character types of your typical lame Hollywood action movie. most of the ladies need to be rescued. most of the guys are strong and upright and dependable. there are annoying jerks who get what they deserve (especially that reporter, ha!) and there are wacky eccentrics who turn out to be heroic, of course. the Russians are often described as having 'crafty peasant' looks, which I did not know was a thing. everyone is white, white, white. after a while, I grew really weary of the humans and if this novel was all about that species, overall this would have been a tedious disappointment.

but then there are the baby elephants! Niven and Pournelle really outdid themselves on these aliens. fascinating, well-developed, by turns threatening and sympathetic, just beautifully rendered and utterly alien creations. a far cry from aliens who are basically humans in alien drag. these baby elephants turned Footfall into an often delightful and fascinating experience. and they are given vaguely Thai or Khmer names, which added a lot of color (cough) to their characterizations and which made it an odd experience to read while traveling around Cambodia. my companion was really disappointed that I was reading an alien invasion novel to fall asleep to after a whole day exploring Angkor ruins, but hey I'm a prosaic kind of guy.

I've had this book since I was a kid and I'm not sure why I took so long to read it. it is an 80s style book, so it has one of those 80s fold-out covers:

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that cover mesmerized me. but I think it also disturbed young mark monday because there was something so sympathetic about that alien. and so I avoided the book until now. here's a close-up of that image:

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those humans look quite threatening. the alien looks intriguing, like someone I'd like to sit down and have some coffee with. plus check out his little backpack! and that mirror to spy on threatening humans. and that teddy bear! adorable. I hope he didn't take that off of a slaughtered human because that would be rather a bummer. let's just assume he found it somewhere and decided to keep it. aww!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


10. THE WAYWARD BUS by John Steinbeck
I didn’t like this book. I didn’t like its deterministic perspective on humanity or its pessimistic outlook on the way people interact and love and hate and live. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t like it. The Wayward Bus is gorgeous. It details heartbreak in miniature, lives that cross each other briefly, sadness and pettiness and barely understood anger…  the striving to be more, understand more, live more, no matter the hopelessness of that striving. I didn’t like this book, but you don’t need to like a thing to love that thing.

9.  MARTYRS AND MONSTERS by Robert Dunbar

My favorite book of horror read in 2013 was this masterful collection of short stories. Martyrs, monsters, and the danger and potential toxicity of self-enclosure. Dunbar is a thoughtful author who specializes in menacing ambiguity, but in this book he also illustrates the flexibility and fluidity of his talents. By turns eerie, funny, scabrous, and inexplicable, each story is its own strange and vividly imagined world.
Macauley’s 1956 novel takes its reader on an amusing and whimsical trip through Turkey. She’s like an aunt who is full of all sorts of stories but whose breathless storytelling style is its own reason for listening. Aunt Rose serves you some nice herbal tea and tells you this wry story; at the end of her tale, she picks up that teapot and smashes you across the head with it. Her story is not meant to be amusing. Wake up!
7. RED CLAW by Philip Palmer
Dense and action-packed, Red Claw is a rollicking saga and a demented, bloody massacre. This bizarre future society is ingeniously imagined; the alien anthropology on display is even more impressive. Palmer is an aggressive and brazen author who wants his rollercoaster to be as appalling as it is fun. Plus genuine bravery and an uplifting ending! Sorta. My favorite science fiction novel of 2013.
6. LONDON FIELDS by Martin Amis
Amis continues his lifelong thesis on the insect nature of mankind in this lavish and spiteful death-farce. Humans Off Earth Now!
Moebius is surely one of the most likeable geniuses to ever write and draw a comic. His visions are as loveable as they are obscure. Worlds within worlds; super-powered humans who never bother to show those powers; characters who jump off the page and then disappear forever. Circular narratives! Mind-bending visuals! Demented plotlines! Nonsensical dialogue! This charming epic is candy for the brain.
4. THE PYX by John Buell
How is this 1974 crime novel not a classic? Each sentence, each paragraph is a work of art. Follow the haunting heroine as she walks inexorably down her tragic path. Sit back and try to figure out the mystery with the stalwart and humane detective as he sorts out this shadowy tragedy. Gape, agog, at a truly fearful ending.
 3. MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN by Marguerite Yourcenar
"But books lie, even those that are most sincere…” but not this one. Yourcenar finds her way to the heart of a man, his own truth, by reimagining not just an ancient world, but all aspects of the man who lives in that world. By the end of this book, I felt as if I looked through Hadrian’s eyes and thought Hadrian’s thoughts. The man is the world is the book. O Death, sometimes you come not with a sting, but with an embrace.
2. QUEEN LUCIA by E.F. Benson
My favorite reread was Benson’s classic first novel in his Mapp & Lucia cycle. Rose Macauley is your eccentric spinster aunt with a heart of steel; E.F. Benson is your quirky queer uncle with a mouth full of ironic innuendo and ludicrous, hysterical tall tales. Except these tall tales don’t involve giants or beanstalks; instead they detail a fantastically petty and obsessive little English village full of smaller-than-life characters who do larger-than-life things. Pure pleasure from beginning to end.
1. THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman wrote something wondrous, something perfect. Again.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Throat

by Peter Straub
The Throat is an often brilliant thriller that is concerned with big questions about identity, the past and our memory of it, the demons that shape us and the demons we carry with us. It is intricately structured, densely layered, full of eerie and haunting dreams and flashbacks, and is impressively thoughtful in its take on murder and vengeance. As a third book in a trilogy, it also must extend and wrap up storylines started in the preceding novels Koko and Mystery – and for the most part it delivers. But sadly, the novel is a deeply flawed one. There are many minor irritations that I could look past, but I can’t ignore the flaw at its heart: its terrible mismanagement of a certain key character. The person at the heart of the novel seems to be the character that Straub lost all interest in fairly early on – which leaves the novel with a hollow core rather than one that should have been full of mystery and meaning.

Synopsis: Tim Underhill from Koko and Tom Pasmore from Mystery come together to solve a series of killings by a resurfaced – or new? – Blue Rose Killer. The Blue Rose killings and their legacy lived in the corners and shadows of prior novels and so I was full of anticipation in seeing them given their due.

It is a strange experience to read a book, admire the technical skill of its writing, and spend hours upon hours living in its world (The Throat is nearly 700 pages long)... and end up feeling utterly disappointed. And yet I don’t feel like I wasted my time. Straub is a masterful writer. This novel reconfirmed to me that he is the yin to Stephen King’s yang, the coolly intellectual brain to King’s bloodily beating heart. King has kinetic characters who jump off the page just as his narratives can spin messily out of control. Straub has dispassionate, contemplative ciphers as characters who live in stories that, despite being both lengthy and dreamily ambiguous, are still narratives that are carefully mapped out. I don’t think one writer is better than the other; they are both masters. I enjoy Straub's intelligence, his concentration, even his quasi-Jungian flourishes. Although it was ultimately a disappointment, it was a fascinating experience and I don’t regret the many hours spent within its pages.

"Then the nightly miracle took place once again, and I fell down into the throat of my novel.”

SPOILERS FOLLOW. ALSO, a lot of bitching. So if you loved this book, you may just want to skip the rest.

Okay, the minor irritations. First: there is a very sloppy bit of meta-nonsense in the beginning where Peter Straub is a character in the novel; this is done to resolve the problem of Mystery’s island setting - which is incompatible with the story started with Koko and ending with The Throat. That sloppiness casts a shadow on the characters of Underhill and Pasmore, who now confusingly seem to have the same childhoods. Or not, who knows – Straub doesn’t clear things up. Second: the setting of Millhaven is schizophrenically portrayed: at times a small town where everyone knows everyone and you can easily walk from one end to the other in the space of a couple hours, at other times a highly dangerous city of industry (365 murders a year! For real?) modeled on Chicago or Milwaukee or Detroit. Third: by the middle of the book I easily figured out the identities of all three killers: Old Killer, New Killer, Surprise Killer. It was obvious to me and I am no Tom Pasmore: the Bad Man, the Good Man, and the Catalyst (for the story itself) are all too-clearly telegraphed as the killers on numerous occasions. Fourth: Lt. Bachelor is compelling but is also a second-rate Colonel Kurtz, living in his Vietnam era heart of darkness. Fifth: the use of race riots as a backdrop in a novel that itself doesn’t engage with race or racial tensions felt disrespectful and cheap.

I could actually have looked past all of those things and still given this novel a somewhat qualified thumbs up. But the laziness in dealing with central character John Ransom just drove me up the wall. This is a character who is the catalyst for the entire novel. He is given an intriguing introduction that sets him up to be fascinatingly multidimensional; his flashback appearances in Vietnam are likewise interesting. But that is not the character we spend the most time with – instead we get a John Ransom who is a petty, whiny, greedy dipshit who exists to bitch, moan, roll his eyes, and make a series of foolish mistakes. He becomes a tedious drag to the story whenever he appears. John Ransom needed to be an ambiguous creation, evasive and mysterious yet real enough to come alive on the page – practically every other page, because he’s that much of a lynchpin to The Throat’s narrative. He needed to be resonant; instead he is flat, flat, flat. Fie, Straub, fie! The heart of darkness is not a petulant douchebag.