Fearless Defenders Volume 1: Doom Maidens

Monday, December 30, 2013

Fearless Defenders Volume 1: Doom Maidens
Cullen Bunn, Will Sliney, 2013

Premise: Collects Fearless Defenders #1-6. Valkyrie has a problem. Since the troubles that Asgard has been having (it’s super complicated, but you don’t need to know the details to read this title), she was supposed to put together a new cadre of Shield-maidens to replace other vanished valkyries. She hasn’t exactly done that, and now an ancient team of death warriors are rising from their graves to correct the balance. Valkyrie and Misty Knight might need all the ladies of Marvel to get on board to save Earth from the Doom Maidens.

This was really fun to read. The writing is really strong, the dialogue is snappy without being gimmicky, and the art only occasionally strays too far into cheesecake territory. It’s a great showcase book for a bunch of somewhat lesser-known Marvel superheroines. Valkyrie is the one I knew best, from a few issues here and there of various events and team books she appeared in, as well as guest spots on Avengers Academy, etc.

Misty Knight I know was part of a few recent books that I didn’t get into, but I love her here. She’s a bionically enhanced detective. She is also snarky as anything and uber-practical. Misty’s friend the archeologist Annabelle Riggs stands for the unpowered among us, although her knowledge is essential to their mission. Dani Moonstar I think I’d heard of briefly before this, but she seems awesome. A telepathic mutant who can create illusions and whose prior dealings with Asgardians left her with a few extra abilities, she’s a perfect fit here. Hippolyta, a resurrected amazon who has no patience for much outside of battle, rounds out the main cast.

I loved the style and I loved the pacing. The splash pages were epic in more ways than one. The trade collection happily keeps all the entertaining covers before each issue, and reprints a selection of the letter columns too!

The end of the arc manages to both be a bit of a cliffhanger for the next arc and a satisfying resolution to the story as presented. The main characters cover a lovely array of backgrounds, ethnicities and sexualities! I have heard some complaints about the ending or about certain character developments, but I enjoyed it enough to give the creators a little benefit of the doubt, and I look forward to the next volume.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

A Yuletide Universe: Sixteen Fantastical Tales

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Yuletide Universe: Sixteen Fantastical Tales
Editor: Brian M. Thomsen, 2003

Crossposted to Mainlining Christmas

Hooray! Despite opening with an epigraph/poem that made me cringe (it started out rhyming, and then… stopped?) this was a much better collection of holiday cheer than the others I've read this year.

My favorite stories are starred(*).

The collection opens with three super-short pieces:
“Nicholas Was . . .” by Neil Gaiman, 1989
“Cyber-Claus” by William Gibson, 1991
* “Holiday” by Richard Christian Matheson, 1982

The Gaiman and Gibson are brief and forgettable, but the Matheson (this Matheson is the son of the more famous author) is a nice, subtle piece about a guy who runs into Santa on holiday in the tropics.

“Nackles” by Donald E. Westlake, 1964
Westlake is mostly a crime fiction author, and this little spooky story about the creative power of belief is well done, if not (in 2013) particularly original.

“Santa Claus vs. S.P.I.D.E.R.” by Harlan Ellison, 1968
Absolute shit. Extremely dated, pedantic, unfunny, and gross parody of a spy novel. Avoid this one at all costs. I'm already repressing having read it.

“O Come Little Children . . .” by Chet Williamson, 1989
This is a finely written piece about belief and the “real” Santa, along with parental fears and a decent twist.

“It’s a Wonderful Miracle on 34th Street’s Christmas Carol” by Brian Thomsen, 2003
The most recent piece, a trope mashup taking place mostly in a therapist's office, is also the one by the editor of the collection. It’s not terrible, but maybe he should stick to editing.

“The Yattering and Jack” by Clive Barker, 1984
While I found some parts of the ending unsatisfying, this tale of the struggle between a demon and an average man was often fascinating.

“Icicle Music” by Michael Bishop, 1989
A creepy ghost story that starts with a boy receiving a shotgun and a visitor.

“Miracle” by Connie Willis, 1991
Nope, not reading that one again. It’s not horrible, I just didn’t like it much.

* “A Foreigner’s Christmas in China” by Maureen F. McHugh, 1993
A poetic, lovely piece about travel, ghosts, and the paths people walk.

“Household Words, Or The Powers-That-Be” by Howard Waldrop, 1993
This was very very odd. Parts of this meditative, half-biographical, half-alt-steampunk-world story about Dickens and Christmas Carol are intriguing, but it never really goes anywhere. It felt like the author was just showing off a handful of ideas he really liked, without a real story to put them in.

* “A Kidnapped Santa Claus” by L. Frank Baum, 1904
An earlier version of this story was in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, but certain aspects of it are much more interesting in this. A handful of demons decide to kidnap Santa in order to cause the children of the world to indulge in vices. In the public domain! 

* “How Santa Claus Came to Simpson’s Bar” by Bret Harte, 1873?
A Western! It’s got excellent style, and it’s a sweet story with rough edges, which is just right. In the public domain!

* “A Proper Santa Claus” by Anne McCaffrey, 1973
Just lovely, a fantastic story about a young boy and his ideas about “proper” art. Recommended for all who were young artists.

* “The Plot Against Santa Claus” by James Powell, 1970
FINALLY! Someone wrote an actual Christmas noir! Rory Bigtoes has a lot of problems as head of Security for Santa, what with threats against the big guy and civil unrest among the elf population over new toy production techniques. This is probably my favorite piece in this whole collection.

This is a much stronger collection overall than the others I read this year, despite a few missteps, and I can safely recommend it as a fun read. Just skip the Ellison.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book (If you delete that one story. Otherwise 3. Or 2. It’s really bad.)

The Knights of Christmas

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Knights of Christmas
Suzanne Barclay, Margaret Moore, Deborah Simmons, 1997

Crossposted to Mainlining Christmas

Yup, it’s officially a theme. MORE SHORT STORIES. These ones are a little more like novellas, though.

This is a Harlequin Historical compilation, three short works set at Christmas. I thought it might be a somewhat entertaining read: a bit of fluffy medieval holiday romance. Well, I was right, sort of, in that it was fluffy (in a shallow way) and medieval (in its uneasy gender roles).

The first story, Kara’s Gift, was the one I actually liked. It has in common with its sibling stories awkward and somewhat off-putting description in the sex scenes, but the characters are at least likable, the story super-cliche but amusing. Duncan is a landless knight, back from the crusades with enough treasure to wed his childhood sweetheart, but instead he’s swept up in a Scottish clan-war and a wild-hearted pagan lass. It’s actually kind of sweet by the end, and the romance is whirlwind but the passion plausible.

Here’s the first problem with the other two stories: they have the same plot, more or less. The Twelfth Day of Christmas is about a young noble couple who have until the end of the Epiphany celebrations to figure out whether or not they want to marry. The lady challenges the gentleman to convince her to love him. A Wish for Noel is about a world-weary knight who comes home to find his neighbor’s daughter is obsessed with him, and he gives her until the end of Epiphany to clear out, which she takes as a challenge to make him love her.

Second problem: they both have couples that make my skin crawl, although they feel like standard romance fare. In the first, Giselle wants to get out of an arranged marriage because she’s convinced that having a husband is like an imprisonment. Sir Myles Buxton, her suitor, is pompous and self-absorbed, but apparently capable of the occasional romantic gesture, and revealed to be ‘sensitive’ by the end. The story starts out alright with misunderstandings and trickery and banter, but it bogs down in overly flowery descriptions of how twitterpated Giselle becomes, and the whole resolution of the plot made me grimace. In the second story, Noel is convinced that she can make her PTSD’d man all better with her (young, magical, virginal) love. Of course, because this is Harlequin, Giselle is wrong about the dangers of marriage, marriage is hearts and flowers and happiness and she was being foolish, and of course Noel can cause her knight to embrace life again with only a few well placed kisses and holiday games. Ugh.

Third problem: they both feel like stories that might have made at least some sense if they were set in the Regency period, but they are completely odd set in medieval Europe. Both authors, by their blurbs, also write Regencies, and Margaret Moore in particular seemed ill at ease writing about medieval life or celebrations.

All three stories are followed by a short blurb/ad for the author’s next book. Needless to say, I am not on the lookout for any of them.

1 Star - Didn’t Like it Much (But Give Kara’s Gift 2 Stars)

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories

Monday, December 9, 2013

Miracle and Other Christmas Stories
Connie Willis, 1979

Crossposted to Mainlining Christmas

Awww, man! More disappointing Christmas stories. I went into this one with high hopes, because Willis’ story “Pony” was one of my favorites in Christmas on Ganymede. Unfortunately, it was one of my favorites here, too.

It starts strong, with an introduction that was worth borrowing the book from the library for, just for the snark about Hans Christian *overrated hack* Andersen and the list of other recommended stories and movies, some of which weren’t on our radar yet! Sure, she thinks The/A Christmas Story is actually quality, and that's just wrong, whether you’re talking about the myth as literature or the movie as cinema (she likes both). But Willis is a Hugo winner! Surely, there are some good genre stories in here, right?

Sort of.

Lets run through the contents, shall we?

Starts strong, woman receives visit from accidentally conjured hippy Spirit of Christmas Presents, makes a cogent compelling argument for why “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrible movie. All good right? Unfortunately, about halfway through you see the “twist” and it devolves into another bad holiday rom-com. Sigh.

Now, credit where credit is due: In this story, Willis probably comes closer than anyone else in my entire life in getting me to give a good goddamn about a baby in a manger. It’s a good solid story about a woman in a church choir with an unexpected visitor.

“In Coppelius’ Toyshop”
Has a nice creepy vibe in some of it, overall too obvious.

“The Pony”
Read before. I still like it, although it doesn’t have much of an ending.

Okay story about a bookseller meeting characters from A Christmas Carol fallen on hard times.

“Cat’s Paw”
This one confounded me at first. It is clearly presented as the latest in a line of Holmes/Poirot/etc. style stories, although the characters are aware of this. I just wasn’t sure whether these characters did in fact predate this story, and if it would make more sense if I knew more. Turns out no, and no. Still, it’s kind of a neat little murder mystery, if the ending is a bit clunky and I found the style grating.

BEST story in the book. Really fun first-person tale about a possible alien invasion at the holidays. Everyone is nice, you see… too nice.

This story about a preacher with a sudden urge to drive into a snowstorm starts strong, but goes on a smidge long. Then the end, which is supposed to leave a sense of mystery and be open to interpretation, just undermined the whole thing for me, leaving me unsatisfied.

Short stories often have the problem of just being vignettes, but most of these were long enough ‘short’ stories that I thought the plots should have some closure, and only half of them did, it seems.

It’s not a terrible collection, overall, but I was so annoyed by the first one that it took me a while to give the other stories a chance.

3 Stars - A Good Book on average.

The Ice Harvest

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Ice Harvest
Scott Phillips, 2000

Crossposted to Mainlining Christmas

Premise: Charlie Arglist is making the rounds on Christmas Eve, 1979: the bars he likes, the strip joint he runs and the one that he patronizes. He’s not telling anyone that he’s leaving town in the morning. Charlie’s not having a good night.

I didn’t like the movie of this as much as Erin did, but I did really enjoy the book. It’s got a bleak humor that places it firmly in the best noir tradition.

Charlie’s a lawyer, and he works in the machinery of the mob that runs much of the town, managing businesses like porn shops and the Tease-O-Rama. He’s skipping town in the morning. That’s all you know at the start of the book, and I really liked the slow build. The movie hits you right at the start with Charlie’s partnership with Vic, and why and how they plan to leave town, but for fully half of the book, all you know is that Charlie’s leaving, and he has to meet Vic at two.

The book takes place over less than 24 hours, chronicling Charlie’s long, horrible night. The picture of the town from this perspective, of the 4 or 5 bars that Charlie visits, and then visits again in a different order, makes it clear how realistic and terribly sad it would be to live like that. Of course there’s action, murder and betrayal, but the best parts of the book are the quiet interactions with minor characters, each with their own tragedy of a life.

The minor characters get a lot more play in the book than in the film, and the family relationships are slightly different, and more interesting, I think. Charlie isn’t sympathetic or unsympathetic. You go along with his decisions because he’s the point of view character, but you don’t really spend time in his head. He’s not a nice guy; he’s just less awful than a lot of the others.

It’s the story of one man’s long, dark Christmas Eve, and it was a really satisfying read.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Christmas on Ganymede and Other Stories

Monday, December 2, 2013

Christmas on Ganymede and Other Stories
Edited by Martin H Greenberg, 1990

Crossposted to Mainlining Christmas

I was so excited when I found this book! A collection of sci-fi themed Christmas stories, just the thing to break up the Christmas monotony, right?

Now I know why I kept finding copies of it for a dollar.

It’s not all bad, there are some stories I liked, but most of the authors are phoning it in here. It’s like everyone had one mediocre holiday story in them, and instead of reading it in a collection of other good stories on other topics or other good stories by the same author, it’s bundled with every other author’s one mediocre story.

But let’s be more specific, shall we?

“To Hell with the Stars” Jack McDevitt, 1987
To hell with your pessimistic cliche attitude, Mr. McDevitt, warp drive might still be possible - 1 Star

“A Midwinter's Tale” Michael Swanwick, 1988
A nicely creepy Solstice tale, well done - 4 Stars

“Christmas on Ganymede” Isaac Asimov, 1968
Cute humor story, fine for what it is - 3 Stars

“The Falcon and the Falconeer” Barry N. Malzberg, 1969
Okay example of mysticism, not my thing - 2 Stars

“Christmas Roses” John Christopher, 1943
Decent little character study, holiday somewhat incidental - 3 Stars

“Happy Birthday Dear Jesus” Frederik Pohl, 1956
Starts really strong, but the cutesiness of the setting takes over and the ending chickens out big time - 2 Stars

“The War Beneath the Tree” Gene Wolfe, 1979
One of the best stories in the book, dark and horrific, well in tone for December - 4 Stars

“The Santa Claus Planet” Frank M. Robinson, 1951
Cute premise, I guess, but overstays its welcome - 3 Stars

“The Pony” Connie Willis, 1985
Niiiiiiiiiiice - 4 Stars

“O Little Town of Bethlehem II” Robert F. Young, 1985
Really intriguing premise, somewhat lackluster execution - 3 Stars

“The Christmas Present” Gordon R. Dickson, 1957
Really? This was pointless - 1 Star

“The Season of Forgiveness” Poul Anderson, 1973
Decent, but at this point in the book, decent wasn’t impressing me - 2 Stars

“Christmas without Rodney” Isaac Asimov, 1988
Cute, but read like a story that was cut from I, Robot for not having an ending - 2 Stars

“Christmas Treason” James White, 1961
It’s almost good? The idea is neat, but the plot “twists” are so incredibly dated today that I just had to sigh - 3 Stars

Hits and misses aren’t that surprising for an anthology, but still I was disappointed. Nothing really blew me away, although most of the stories were at least okay.

In the end, it averages about 2.6, which sounds right. Not terrible, by any measure.

Lets call it 3 Stars - A Good Book, because I’m feeling generous.

Because all credit to these authors, but it’s not their fault that Mainlining Christmas’ collection of Christmas stories has amazing sci-fi that leaves theirs in the dust.

Cocaine Blues

Monday, November 25, 2013

Cocaine Blues
Kerry Greenwood, 1989

Premise: When Colonel and Mrs. Andrews ask Phryne Fisher to check in on their daughter, who they fear is in danger from her husband, she takes the opportunity to try her hand at being a Lady Detective. It's 1927, and Phryne may have found her calling.

Oh, I love finding a new series to enjoy. I heard about this series because someone recommended the new television adaptation (now on Netflix!). I found it a quick and delightful read.

Phryne is pragmatic in all things, including matters of the heart. She's multitalented and possibly an example of a female “hero”. By this I mean a Holmes, a Bond. One of those characters, sadly almost universally men, who can be practically perfect in every way, yet never are accused of being uninteresting. (I hope you are now picturing Batman dressed as Mary Poppins. If you weren’t before, you’re welcome.)

The book is full of interesting characters, mostly women, and archly humorous turns of phrase. There's archaic Australian slang to learn, and a great range of vocabulary. I adore a book that can teach me a new word.

The word for today is epicene.

It's a short book, an average length for this type of mystery. The plot was intriguing, the twists exciting, even if the ending was never really in doubt.

By turns aspirational and inspirational, I found reading this great fun.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Catwoman Volume 2: No Easy Way Down

Monday, November 18, 2013

Catwoman Volume 2: No Easy Way Down
Ed Brubaker, Cameron Stewart
compilation 2013, original issues 2002-2003

Premise: Follows on from Volume 1. Selina’s made an impression on the Gotham underworld… that’s not always a good thing. She learns the hard way that doing nice things for Gotham City will only get you beaten back down. Collects Catwoman #10-24 and Catwoman: Secret Files and Origins #1.

“One thing I’ll never get used to about the past is that it’s never really over...Just when you think that your history is done--locked away, forgotten...It rears its ugly head to remind you that no matter how fast you are, you can never escape yourself.”

This thick volume starts off with a couple warm-up one-story issues illuminating aspects of Selina’s personality and technique, then dives into a multi-layered epic tying back to the events of Volume one and other parts of Selina’s history. But don’t worry if you’re new, you’ll pick up all the context you need along the way.

The art is every bit as kinetic and delicately paced as the first volume. But here the noir tone takes a harsher, darker turn. Selina’s enemies have a head-start, and their revenge is brutal. This story pushed buttons I didn’t know I had, and one particularly horrific part still gives me the occasional nightmare. Despite that experience, though, the writing is so brilliant that I read it again. Besides, I think screwing me up emotionally for days, despite not being fun, is at least the mark of effective writing.

After the five-part story “Relentless” that forms the heart of the plot, what follows is the three-part “No Easy Way Down”. This is aftermath, switching to a sparer art style that focuses on moments and surreal emotion, with each character trying and failing to deal with recent events. I love that this series gave these emotional developments room to breathe, without rushing on to the next thing. Following that is another five-part story arc: “Wild Ride”, in which Holly and Selina take a road trip, trying to move past their troubles. It’s full of guest stars, action and humor, but never becomes quite light and fluffy.

This is one of those stories that’s like a punch to the gut in a satisfying way.

The back of the book has a few short pieces that take place before/during/after the main storyline and give a bit of background, if you want it.

A really solid story, and a huge book, definitely worth the price.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

The Darwath Trilogy

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Darwath Trilogy
Barbara Hambly
The Time of the Dark (1982), The Walls of Air (1983), The Armies of Daylight (1983)

Premise: Gil dreams. She dreams of a haunted city, full of people in clothes she doesn’t recognize, not even from her historical scholarship. She dreams of a king, and a wizard and an infant prince. She dreams of the Dark which besieges them. And then the dreams are no longer dreams…

It was very odd, reading this after reading Hambly’s later series which starts with The Silent Tower. There are a lot of parallels between the two books. Both focus on a person or persons drawn from California into a fantasy world, who have to learn to survive there and decide what they want to do next, whether it’s get home above all else or help the people where they end up. However, while I wouldn’t read them back-to-back, there are enough differences as well to make both series worth reading.

I loved the variety of characters here, the range of plausible perspectives and beliefs. This series is very much about fate, and more so about vocation. It’s very much about doing the things one feels called to do, whether that’s study swordplay or fall in love, and doing them with everything you have.

The skill with prose and tone is really what I keep going back to Hambly for. She does an amazing job writing characters in situations I accept in a totally understated way. I love understated emotion in a world seemingly tilted towards melodrama. I like Gil’s grit and quiet passion; Rudy (another traveler from America) and how his surface flippancy hides a person who wishes he were less shallow.

The action is gripping, the world interesting, the tension unrelenting for much of the second and third books. The ending is…. fine. The excellent writing helps it land better than the actual plot perhaps deserves, although it might be a case of a plot that’s been done more than once now, but was more groundbreaking in 1983.

A side note: the formatting on these e-books is much MUCH better than the last few I had from Open Road Media, so maybe they’ve gotten a handle on their production issues. I do love getting backlist books on my Kindle.

4 Stars - Very Good Books.

Captain Marvel Volume 2: Down

Monday, November 4, 2013

Captain Marvel Volume 2: Down
Kelly Sue DeConnick, Christopher Sebela, Dexter Soy, Filipe Andrade, 2012

Premise: Collects Captain Marvel #7-12. Carol Danvers is still reeling a bit from her time-travel escapades, but she’s ready to help out her friend Monica Rambeau to determine what’s causing ships to go missing off of New Orleans. Later, are her own powers failing her, or is something more complicated going on?

I read the first arc of the new Captain Marvel series in issues, and I liked it well enough, but decided to wait for trade for the next part. I’m glad I ended up picking it up, both because it was great to read all at once, and because it’s easier to review and recommend in trade than issues.

In this volume, I feel that this book is really hitting its stride. The balance between drama, snark and realism is well-tuned and the character relationships both build on decades of continuity and are easy for me to understand, whether or not I have context. The art isn’t my favorite style, but it generally works pretty well. Cameos by other big guns in the Marvel U are well placed, but don’t take over.

The combination of humor and action in a world full of colorful characters is really what I come to comics for. Throw in a powerhouse like Carol Danvers who you so easily care about - she’s brusque and prickly and snarky and tired and still making it up as she goes along after all this time - and you’ve got yourself a winner.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book


Monday, October 28, 2013

Joe Hill, 2013

Crossposted to Mainlining Christmas

Premise: Victoria “Vic” McQueen has a special talent: she can use her bike and a bridge that isn’t there to find lost things. Unfortunately, Charlie Manx has a talent too. Vic is the only child to escape from Manx’s one-way trip to Christmasland, but it takes more than luck to break an evil man, and every power comes with a price.

I thought this book was good, but I’m not sure I actually enjoyed reading it. The tone wasn’t quite my cup of tea, and it needed to be more tightly written.

Some positives: Vic herself is a great protagonist. She’s broken and flawed in completely believable and sympathetic ways. She’s brave when she has to be, even if she has to talk herself into it. The talents are interesting. Broadly and only vaguely defined, they hint at much more out of sight. The writing is quite good: the descriptions of the supernatural and creepy as well as the mundane and everyday were evocative and often poignant.

The use of the Christmas motif as the villains’ theme works, both on a creepy-as-heck level and a thematic level about the horror of childhood without morality. Manx takes the children he abducts to “Christmasland”, which is a lot like an old-fashioned Christmas cartoon on acid, and the use of his powers are accompanied by Christmas music or decorations.

However, there were a few big negatives as well from my perspective. The villain’s henchman talks a lot, graphically, about rape. I found it upsetting, even though a sexual assault is never carried out on “screen”, so to speak. And I know that it’s in the story to emphasize the evil and the wrong-ness of this very broken, indescribably horrible person, but for me it detracted and distracted from the more interesting themes and plots.

Also, the book was just too dang long. The description was all lovely, but it went on for ages. The book takes place over something like fifteen years or more, and way too much of that time is actually described. There’s just too much meandering plot and extra moments. Many of those moments are good, but they do not drive the story forward.

Then after sidetracking for pages and pages, the ending felt incredibly rushed. I had some trouble following the actual events of the climax, and the emotional ending was a bit lacking as well. It comes very very close, but I just didn’t end feeling satisfied.

I was very amused that Hill (Stephen King’s son, let’s not forget) places his story somewhat nebulously in the same world as both his father’s vast semi-shared universe of tales, and his own very popular Locke & Key series. It doesn’t affect the plot, it’s just a side note, but it made me smile.

In the end, if you like Christmas-related horror and long reads, this is probably just what you’re looking for. It just wasn’t entirely what I wanted.

3 Stars - A Good Book

The Dispossessed

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Dispossessed
Ursula K. Le Guin, 1974

Hugo Award Winner - 1975

Premise: Shevek is a physicist on the moon Anarres. The followers of Laia Odo fled the planet Urras several generations ago to settle on Anarres, to create a truly free society, without government, where everyone shares in needed work per their skill. Shevek eventually discovers that freedom and choice might be as complicated as any theory of the universe.

I put off reviewing this book for a long time, because I wasn’t sure what to say. I’m still not entirely sure. As a story of two different societies and a person trying to survive in each, it succeeds very well. It reminds me a little of The Left Hand of Darkness, because that also took as its main character a man seeking to understand a culture foreign to his own. This moved me less than the former book. However, I think it’s because I personally care much more about perception of gender than political theory.

Both Anarres and Urras have problems with their societies, although Urras’s are more vocal, obvious and violent. Anarres is presented as a sort-of utopia. (One of the sometimes-used subtitles for this book is in fact ‘an ambiguous utopia’.) The people are generally happy, there is no poverty or hardship that is not shared by the entire population. However, the descriptions of the shaming and coercion faced by anyone who doesn’t fit the Annarrian ideal - like artists, outliers, romantics - horrified me almost as much as the rioting on Urras. For me, Anarres is no kind of utopia. I have sympathy for some of the stated advantages, but no desire to live on an anarchist planet. It made me a little uncomfortable how much I disliked Anarres, actually, but I couldn’t change my reaction. The ideal of Anarres is presented as a worthy goal, but I had trouble agreeing with any characters that could take the ideal seriously, given the actual reality they faced.

For Le Guin, this book was apparently a thought-experiment; a test to see how an anarchist society could work, and what the flaws would be. From articles I’ve read, it was very successful at the time at convincing its readers why this would be a kind of utopia. Today I find it more successful as a story about a culture clash and one person just trying to muddle through.

It’s a very well written book, although I don’t know that I’d especially recommend it to anyone but Le Guin fans, students of the history of utopian fiction and students of political theory.

3 Stars - A Good Book

List of Hugo Winners

The Godborn (Forgotten Realms: The Sundering, Book Two)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Godborn (Forgotten Realms: The Sundering, Book Two)
Paul S Kemp, 2013

New Release! I received an electronic copy of this book via Netgalley for review.

Premise: Dungeons and Dragons is coming out with a new edition next year. This series of books (each focused on a different set of characters) take place during the in-world adjustments necessary so that the abilities of the characters in the novels will match the adjustments to the rules of the game. Insert eyeroll here.

Okay, remember how I said that the first one of these books wasn’t a good jumping on point? This one is worse. Now, my reaction is probably partially due to the fact that rather than starting with a bit of poorly-remembered background on the characters, I had nothing going into this one. However, these books were not only offered to Netgalley reviewers, they were specially promoted to them, so it’s Wizards of the Coast’s own PR department’s fault if new readers are reviewing these.

This book was confusing and boring, but my biggest problems with it was the testosterone was too thick throughout, sticky and unpleasant like chewing tar.

Here’s a little synopsis of the premise: This dude whose mother dies in the first chapter is a paladin and he’s also the son of a dark warrior who is maybe dead or maybe trapped in Hell and there was a god whose powers got split amongst a bunch of guys in some previous book, some of whom are barely mentioned until the end, even though I guess they’re really important to the plot? Other dudes decide to adventure with the paladin because why not. And there’s an evil goddess who wants to destroy the world, but mostly we hear about the priest dude who wants to help her and how his brother hates him for maybe killing their mother and there’s another couple of dudes who were horribly cursed and go about raping (magically-metaphorically, but the metaphor is way too horrendously obvious) and slaughtering people.

It’s all a bit... bleck. And bleak. And blah.

I started skimming about two-thirds of the way through, and only finished the thing through sheer perversity. Who the main character was seemed to change abruptly near the end, and the whole thing was just boring when it wasn’t gross.

I’m going to go on a little side-note here, because I’m not always one to be hard on books for their gender representation, but this was ludicrous.

Female character count: (spoilers, naturally)
  1. Mother of the main character: dies in childbirth after being on stage for a handful of pages, kid grows up w/adoptive father.
  2. Mother of priest-dude: killed before book to motivate priest and brother.
  3. Wife of supporting character: only on-screen long enough to create desire for vengeance/reason for questing when she dies horribly. Husband's desire for vengeance fades inexplicably after a few chapters.
  4. Daughter in peasant family: appears only to immediately die horribly to prove the bad guys are bad.
  5. Pilgrim mother: lives through her brief appearance, her entire purpose is to worry about her son, who almost dies horribly.
  6. Evil Goddess: wants to destroy existence, is only a force with no personality and no dialogue, we only know anything about her through her priest.
I think those are all of the named women in the entire book. Every one an adjunct to a more important male character. Four of them die to serve the male characters' motivation. I just... I can’t even... ugh. (Incidentally, The Companions, for all its many faults, had one major female protagonist and at least five major supporting female characters, all of whom had their own interesting motivations, and none of whom were fridged.)

Some of the writing was fine, but I was by turns pissed off and grossed out for most of this book. Not a winner.

1 Star - Do Not Read.

Archer's Goon

Monday, September 16, 2013

Archer's Goon
Diana Wynne Jones, 1984

Premise: Howard's family's life is normal. His dad's a writer, his mom teaches music, he and his sister are in school. One day he comes home to find a Goon in the kitchen, and Howard has to figure out what his dad's arrangement with the town council has to do with all the odd goings-on...

This is actually the first book by Diana Wynne Jones I have read, and it was an absolute delight! This has a tone and style reminiscent of my very favorite children's books.

The characters are balanced nicely between larger-than-life and sweetly grounded. As more and more of the powers behind the town are revealed, things get complicated and dangerous, but I can't see it being too scary for any but the youngest readers.

The style is simply fantastic. Howard's young perspective lends itself to both sly asides on his parents' behavior and matter-of-fact observations on ridiculous events. I think just enough of the supernatural situation was explained, but never so much that it felt prosaic.

It’s not the most brilliant ending, but overall it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Rendezvous With Rama

Monday, September 9, 2013

Rendezvous With Rama
Arthur C. Clarke, 1973

Hugo Winner - 1974

Premise: First it looked like a spark. Then a comet with an odd trajectory. Once observers realized what the object was, it was almost too late to divert the ship Endeavour to take a closer look. The crew of the Endeavour are in for a truly unique experience.

This was delightful. It's one of the ‘hardest’ SF tales to come up in the ranks of the Hugos so far, but Clarke does a brilliant job surrounding the scientific theorizing with human characters and human concerns.

I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that the object designated Rama is a spaceship: source, destination and purpose unknown. The crew have to figure out how to explore the alien structure thoroughly and quickly, because they are unable to alter its course and they must break away by a certain deadline. The captain also has to balance the reality before his eyes against the sometimes-contradictory orders coming from Earth.

We're moving solidly into the 1970's by the time this came out, and it's neat to see all the asides about new religions and different family structures and sexualities sprinkled into the character descriptions. (I did especially enjoy the Church of Jesus Christ, Cosmonaut.) I was disappointed that the genetically engineered super-apes that help out onboard ship are barely mentioned, just an interesting part of the setting.

The characters are given enough depth to make them compelling, but no more. Rama is the star, and fascinating enough to carry that distinction. Despite the fact that there is little in the way of plot, I had trouble putting this book down, and I was fully satisfied by the ending. (I have heard less-nice things about the sequels written many years later, and I don't think I'm going to seek them out.) This is a classic humanity-against-the-unknown story, and worthy of its many accolades.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

List of Hugo Winners

60 hikes within 60 miles: Seattle

Monday, September 2, 2013

60 hikes within 60 miles: Seattle
Andrew Weber and Bryce Stevens, 2006

This is a very different sort of review for me, but I've probably read this one book more over the past few months than any other.

The premise is just what it says on the front: 60 hikes within a hour or two drive from the city. I wanted a book for suggestions for day hikes to do on the weekend, and this fit the bill beautifully.

The front of the book has an easily referenced map of all the hikes and a series of great lists to narrow down your search. For example, if you're looking for a short hike with a waterfall, or maybe a less well-known hike with good bird-watching, or a long hike to an overlook, you can quickly cross-reference the lists to get some options.

The actual hike descriptions are clear and thorough. They include information about facilities, parking, height gain, distance, the primary features and difficulty are restated here, and there is both a map and a description of the notable sights and any important turns on the trail.

Many entries even have a suggestion or two for a restaurant or another activity nearby, should you want it later in the day.

This book is part of a series, and while I can't promise that your city's edition is as wonderful as mine, it's a great resource. Just having a list of nearby parks and hikes has really increased the new places we've explored and time we've spent outdoors.

What are you waiting for? Hit the trail!

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

The Companions (Forgotten Realms: The Sundering, Book One)

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Companions (Forgotten Realms: The Sundering, Book One)
R.A. Salvatore, 2013

New Release! I received an electronic copy of this book via Netgalley for review.

Premise: Dungeons and Dragons is coming out with a new edition next year. This series of books (each focused on a different set of characters) takes place during the in-world adjustments necessary so that the abilities of the characters in the novels will match the adjustments to the rules of the game. Yes, really.

Have you ever read a book starring Drizzt Do'Urden? If the answer is no, then stop right here. Do not pass go. Do not read this book. This is a terrible, horrible jumping on point. It made next to no sense to me for large chunks of the story, and I’ve read and enjoyed books with these characters, in this world. There are some small spoilers in this review, because superfans have already pre-ordered their copy, and people with no knowledge have already clicked to something else. So a few more details for those of you on the fence:

The premise is completely inane. Until I realized what the plot of the book was going to be, I was actually intrigued, but upon the reveal, I almost quit reading right there. Now, I only read a few of the early Forgotten Realms books, so I missed all the plot that came between then and now, but apparently most of the characters died variously, and Drizzt was either killed or left for dead or something at the end of the last book. I’m just extrapolating from context here, though, that last part was unclear. However, in this book, all the main (read: popular) characters are reborn! Yay? Except Drizzt, he’s just still around.

Despite being on the cover, Drizzt is in very, very little of the book, and that’s for the best. In truth, once I got past the idiocy of the premise, the book wasn’t bad. Each character has a subplot. They’re reborn as infants, but with all the memories of their previous life. They have to walk a careful line to learn about what’s happened in the world, regain the strength or knowledge they need, and just survive when forces on the lookout for godstouched heroes or just damn bad luck could take them back out of the game.

Each storyline had aspects that I enjoyed and aspects that fell flat. As I read I remembered a little more about the characters, but Forgotten Realms was never a passion of mine, so most references to past happenings were just backstory to me.

The climax is a non-starter: nothing really happens, but the melodrama works. For a workaday fantasy novel, something light to read during my commute, it wasn’t that bad in the end.

2 Stars - An Okay Book (Feel free to add a star for every 3 Forgotten Realms books you’ve read and loved that were published after 1991, so not counting The Icewind Dale Trilogy or the Dark Elf Trilogy.)

Morning Glories, Volume 1: For a Better Future

Monday, August 19, 2013

Morning Glories, Volume 1: For a Better Future
Nick Spencer, Joe Eisma, Robin Esquejo, 2011

Premise: Collects issues 1-6. Six teenagers have been accepted into one of the most exclusive prep academies in the country. Morning Glory Academy isn’t an ordinary school, though, and if the new kids want to figure out what’s going on, they’ll have to work fast. First they have to figure out who to trust, if they want to stay alive.

I definitely see why Morning Glories made a splash when it first appeared. The first issue throws you into the action, telling you just enough to be creeped out and/or horrified, then introduces the main characters. We get a quick, effective intro to each teenager, then things go south fast when they arrive at Morning Glory Academy. My only problem with this volume is how few answers we get by the end.

I like the characters; I like the way they balance between playing into stereotypes and a modern teenage self-conscious self-awareness. The art is wonderful too, evocative and easy to follow. The plot twists are continually shifting the floor under our protagonists’ feet, the mysteries are intriguing and alliances are never to be trusted.

However, the last issue doesn’t feel like part of the same plot, and made it clear to me that it would be a long time before any of these mysteries became clear. After that... I wasn’t so interested in continuing the story. Maybe I’ll backtrack once the story is done and I know whether or not it pays off.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Locke & Key: Volume 5: Clockworks

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Locke & Key: Volume 5: Clockworks
Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez, 2012 (issues originally 2011)

Premise: Sequel to Keys to the Kingdom. All the players take their places as we hurtle towards the final struggle with Dodge. First though, Kinsey and Tyler will discover one more key, and this one will show them the dark history of Keyhouse, the secrets of their father's past and finally, what the Omega Key does and why Dodge wants it so badly...

For an arc that is largely exposition, this was extremely gripping. We finally get many the answers that have been teased the whole time: how all the minor characters fit together and the history and origin of the keys of Keyhouse.

Now that I have that history, I want to go back and read the whole thing again from the start, because I'm sure I'll catch new wrinkles and more pieces of the mystery will make sense. I loved how well everything fits together, all these seemingly disconnected bits of magic and history and various parts of Dodge's motivation. I wasn't expecting his story to take the turn that it did, but I enjoyed it.

Small spoiler: I'm not sure whether I like Lovecraft Massachusetts being quite so literal a name, but at least it was planned from the start, and I guess makes the name of the first arc less silly in hindsight. End small spoiler.

There's only so many ways to say this: Read Locke & Key. Well, not if you don't like gore and nudity in your comics. But so long as you like paranormal horror more, I'll still say: Read Locke & Key.

The series is ending soon, and the final issues will be collected in Volume 6: Omega & Alpha.

4 Stars - A Great Book

London Falling

Monday, July 29, 2013

London Falling
Paul Cornell, 2013 (2012 in UK)

New Release! I received an egalley of this book from NetGalley for the purpose of review.

Premise: Undercover cops Costain and Sefton, along with their Detective boss Quill, have been working this case for a long time. When the bust goes abruptly south, they, along with analyst Lisa Ross, delve deeper. But what they find turns reality on its head and they soon realize that this may involve going after a villain like no-one they’ve ever seen.

Paul Cornell is mostly known for writing comics and well-loved episodes of Doctor Who. Here he proved he’s definitely got solid urban fantasy chops as well.

I liked this book a lot, although it has a really slow burn. You meet the characters gradually, and it’s a solid police drama for at least the first five chapters or so before anything explicitly supernatural starts happening. Once it does, the pace picks up in a hurry.

I eventually liked all the characters, although it took me awhile to come around on one or two of them. Also the narrative sometimes jumps a little awkwardly between points of view. Each character’s story is nicely unique, they each have neuroses and issues and strengths.

The story is gripping, and (be warned) often grotesque. This tends toward where the edge of urban fantasy blurs into horror. I thought the mechanics that were revealed on the supernatural stuff were mostly pretty great, although a lot was left mysterious in a way that risks seeming not-thought-out.

This is definitely written with the potential to expand into a series, which means that the very end is a little.... it’s fine, but it feels as though it should end with “see you next week for the further adventures of...” which doesn't match the tone of the rest of the novel. I would far prefer if this book stood alone. You can safely skip the epilogue to avoid that, if you like.

(Interesting side note, according to the afterword, the genesis of this idea was for a long-ago tv pitch involving DW showrunner and writer Steven Moffat. I wonder what that would have been like?)

I’m torn on the rating here, because despite several flaws, I did enjoy the read, and I actually might be interested in more about these characters. Just go in expecting Stephen King rather than Charles DeLint. And if you’re American, expect to occasionally flip to the British glossary in the back.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Search For the Star Stones

Monday, July 22, 2013

Search For the Star Stones
Andre Norton, 2008 (Originally 1968, 1969)

Premise: Originally published as Uncharted Stars and The Zero Stone. When his father died, Murdoc Jern was left with very little. He had an apprenticeship to another gem trader and a ring of unknown material found in deep space. Circumstances and a new friend will cause him to undertake a desperate search for the zero stones; source of power and magnet for violence.

This was a re-read for me, I had these books when I was young and they were some of my favorite Andre Norton books I'd read. I still think they're good, although a character who's an alien space cat with psychic abilities is less of an instant draw for me than it once was.

Murdoc is a space trader; he's not in the business of cheating others but isn't any sort of paladin, he's just trying to survive. I like how underplayed the friendship between Murdoc and Eet is. Murdoc sometimes resents Eet's high-handed treatment, Eet sometimes comments that it's just a mutually beneficial partnership, but they're still quietly fond of each other.

The plot moves at a decent clip, and the description is pretty stripped down. Published separately these were both very short books, and as a close-knit duology, I'm not surprised that they've been packaged together.

I think the end is sort of anticlimactic, but it's still a lot of fun along the way.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

The Judas Contract

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Judas Contract
Marv Wolfman, George Perez, 1988
Original Issues released 1983-84

Premise: Collects The New Teen Titans #39, 40, Tales of the Teen Titans #41-44 and Annual #3. One of the most well-known story arcs in the history of the Teen Titans. Tara Markov, known as Terra, joined the team months ago, and has become one of their own. None of the Titans know she’s secretly a double agent.

There were aspects of this story that I liked, but overall this was a little too dated and melodramatic. I wish the collection had included more of Terra’s introduction. The book starts when she’s an established member of the team, but right before the reader is let in on her secret.

The good: Sketchy-scary-evil Terra is cool in much of the lead-up to the betrayal, and this volume includes the introduction of Dick Grayson’s Nightwing identity, which has some sweet moments. There’s a fun sparring scene between Donna Troy (Wonder Girl) and Koriand'r (Starfire). Raven gets to be badass now and again. My favorite issue in the collection is probably #42: The Judas Contract Part 1, The Eyes of Tara Markov. Tara collects intel on the Titans, quietly hating them, and ultimately loses her temper violently. I found it much more emotionally satisfying than the climax.

The bad: the dialogue and character of Garfield (Beast Boy, going by Changeling in these issues) is downright painful. No, it’s not cute to have the kid brother type constantly sexually harassing all the female team members. It’s really tiresome. That same issue that I like so much opens with some really unpleasant Starfire-doesn’t-understand-why-she-is-so-hot stuff. The introduction of Jericho. I hate him. I don’t know anything else about him and I HATE him. The issue that’s just backstory told by Jericho’s sketchy mean mom. Bleck. The super-obvious visual coding of "evil" Terra with cigarettes and low-cut outfits.

Erin read this as well, and he pointed out that the ending is very silly, and you’re likely to start rooting for Terra. She keeps screaming things like (paraphrased) “I hate you all! I’m going to kill you!” and the Titans keep saying, “Terra, why are you so upset? I’m sure we can work this out.” I did kinda want to smack them for being so obtuse.

In the end, Terra’s story has some pathos, although very little of it is openly in the pages of the book. This is a good example of a comic arc that was really important in its day, but it doesn’t really hold up.

This plotline was turned into a much more effective and emotional arc of the Teen Titans animated series, too.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

The Gods Themselves

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Gods Themselves
Isaac Asimov, 1972

Hugo Winner - 1973

Premise: The Electron Pump is the most revolutionary invention in history, creating free energy through a complicated exchange system with another universe. Only young physicist Lamont begins to believe that the downsides to the Pump might soon outweigh the benefits...

This was a great read. It’s divided into three sections, which were originally published as (and still work as) separate but interlinked stories. The first part works the best on its own, and I was actually a little disappointed that the story continued; it has such a great, pointed ending.

The second section takes place in the parallel universe, focused on an utterly alien, three-gendered race. This was equally fascinating for completely different reasons. The social structure and norms of the aliens are not completely divorced from human culture, but there are tons of intriguing wrinkles. If you’re not paying attention, you might miss the allusion to masturbation in the description of one character's experiences growing up, it’s subtle. The ways that these characters interact, socially and physically, are really interesting. Dua, the “Emotional” in the trio the story follows, is the most compelling and sympathetic character, for all that she’s single-minded and sometimes shallow.

The third section is back in Earth’s universe, although it takes place with a new group of characters on the Moon. It’s well written, interesting, and enjoyable to read, however it didn’t have the same impact as the first two sections. Now, bear in mind, ‘not having quite the same impact’ still places it pretty high up on a list of great works of science fiction. Overall, I found this to be an extremely satisfying book, both to read and to think about later.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

List of Hugo Winners

Locke & Key Volume 4: Keys to the Kingdom

Monday, June 17, 2013

Locke & Key Volume 4: Keys to the Kingdom
Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez, 2011

Premise: Sequel to Crown of Shadows. Life continues to get stranger for the Locke family as Tyler, Kinsey and Bode keep trying to solve the puzzles of Keyhouse, and trying to stay alive as Dodge steps up his pursuit of the Omega Key.

Locke and Key continues to be awesome and disturbing by turns as the action ramps up even more. I’m torn on this volume between being happy the pace is picking up and sad that there are so many new adventures and new keys that we’re only getting to see in passing, or in a montage. The power of the keys is starting to influence our heroes in more insidious ways, though, which is interesting.

The plot threads are starting to pull further together here, all the minor characters getting lined up for the next act. Each issue in this collection is very different from the last, and each is special.

The ending was shocking and amazing and horrifying. So, yeah, par for this series. I’m ordering Book five through the library now, and Book six (the end of the series) is coming out soon. I think I’ve said it before, but whether or not you generally read comics, if you like supernatural horror, you should give Locke and Key a try.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

To Your Scattered Bodies Go (Riverworld 1)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

To Your Scattered Bodies Go (Riverworld 1)
Philip José Farmer, 1971

Hugo Winner - 1972

Premise: Sir Richard Francis Burton saw many things and had many adventures in life. He is rather surprised to continue doing so after death. All of human history has been mysteriously resurrected along the banks of the great River, although no one knows why.

This is one of those books where I found the premise really interesting but the execution lackluster. The descriptions of the Riverworld and the juxtaposition of people from different points in history was pretty neat. (Not as neat as in The Big Time, but still.)

Burton is an interesting choice as protagonist, a historical person whose life reads like fiction. However, because the narrative so closely follows Burton and his (dated, chauvinistic) attitudes, it has some issues with its female characters. They feel a bit like props used to prove a point when they are present at all. Somewhat oddly, the character of Peter (J) Frigate seems to function as a slightly awkward mouthpiece for the author to explain what is both great and problematic about Burton. (Problematic so far as racism goes. His behavior toward the women in the group goes unexamined.)

I very much liked the initial adventures as everyone explored the Riverworld, the early conflicts and solutions. However, then there was a huge time jump, and the character focus shifted, and the story becomes more about asking questions about how and why all the dead have been reborn here. This would be interesting if there were any answers in this volume. I have skimmed ahead on Wikipedia, and it looks like those answers aren’t much to be had until book 4. I’m not going to bother reading that far, given how tedious I found the second half of this book.

There are intriguing things hinted about the Ethicals (people in charge of the resurrection) and their mission, but there just isn’t enough pay-off for me here. I did enjoy the first half or so, and I was interested to find out that the book was adapted from two short stories. You can definitely see the seams where they were pasted together.

3 Stars - A Good Book, at least for the first half.

List of Hugo Winners