Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Book Review: The Changeling by Victor LaValle

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

Hardcover, 431 pages

Published June 13th 2017 by Spiegel & Grau

I really loved this book, and I know the hyperbole has started, Lavalle's last book book has seems to have won every major award. this book is no different it is getting rave reviews from almost everyone who read it. The reasons are clear. This book is the real deal story telling to it's core. It has a fantasy feel to that at moments feels like full on fable or fairy tale and other times brutal horror. At the heart of this novel is a very rich story that feels like it is being told to you as you sit on rocking chairs on the front porch. I picked up the book based on the strength of Lavalle's last book The Ballad of Black Tom. I think it was good that I didn't know anything about the plot.

It is the story of Apollo Kagwa son of single mother and African immigrant in New York City. His father left them and the reason is a mystery. The elements of this mystery unfold in a very magical way. Early in the story Lavalle creates a simple story that has a natural feeling of scope and magic. It is kinda hard to explain, the events of the novel are subtle with a slow burn but the way it is told just feels powerful. The pages fly by.

Apollo receives a clue left at his door step that leads him to want to collect books, there are really cool moments centered around the magic and power of books. Those passages set the tone but the zigs and zags into romance and horror. When Apollo meets the love of his life. A Librarian whose entry into his life fills a void. But there is tragedy coming. Soon his son and his wife are missing presumed dead, he ends up briefly in jail orginally charged with their murder. After he is released from prison he wants to get to the truth, is he unlucky or are dark forces working against him?

The strength of this novel is the constant balance that Lavalle brings to the text between the magic and beauty and the dark evil as it builds to a boil. I am sure some readers will feel jolted by the tone shift half way into this novel but this is earned through moments of tension slow building in the first half. The New York setting and characters are really well developed.

Was it perfect? Most seem to think so, the book is racking up five star reviews and started already to win awards. For me there were two elements that didn't work. For one thing I didn't like the addition of modern technology into the story. The inclusion of a phone app into a story that drew strength from a spiritual tone was jarring to me. There was one chapter that ended with joke involving an app that was so corny I almost slammed the book shut.

Apollo is tragic character but one I liked enough to feel for. I liked the strengths of this novel enough to ignore the parts I didn't like. I thought it was very, very good but I didn't like it as much as some. The Ballad of Black Tom was a masterpiece and this one was very good but I am not sure I would use the word that strong of a word here. Lavalle is an amazing writer and I think I will read what ever he writes at this point.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Book Review: The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

he Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

hardcover, 288 pages

Published April 2017 by Harper

I have to admit I have never heard of Lidia Yuknavitch before. I have gathered since I started this book that she is an author whose books are shelved and marketed as lit fiction. Certainly this is one of those cases where a book is very clearly genre and is never slapped with the honest label. I understand that to the author she may not have set out to write a science fiction horror post apocalypse novel, but she did. I am sure all she meant to do was do a modern Joan of Arc novel.

Look it was the genre elements that hooked my interest and it the reason many of you read these reviews. Yuknavitch is a talented writer and I am I positive I will read her again. The concept alone, Joan of Arc re-told after the majority of humanity has escaped a radiated earth to live in a orbiting habitat. The humans who survive are transforming, fluid with gender and sexuality becoming a memory. All coo elements that make for interesting read.

Book of Joan is a an ultra-feminist speculative fiction that will get lazy comparisons to Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness just because of the gender fluid moments. I suspect fans of Leguin however will love this novel. There is alot to like here. Normally I am annoyed when a novel like this is not called science fiction, but I have seen worst cases. The novel is not hard sci-fi at all and is more surreal than anything.

Early in the novel I was riding with it. The prose is crisp and the pace starts up OK. I enjoyed the flurry of weird ideas, I had put the hold on the book so many months ago I had forgotten why I was interested so I went in cold. I thought Yuknavitch put more energy into the setting and the world building in the early pages, that is one reason why the first half of the novel worked better for me. In the second half the novel lost focus. So did I.

This novel is really cool, and I liked the themes and methods Yuknavitch used to express herself. I really enjoyed the first one hundred pages. The ecological message is as strong as the feminist one, but I don't think the story suffers for that reason. The last sixty became confusing for me. I admit I got lost and pages went by. That could have been on me, there is no denying the talent involved in the writing.

Overall I liked this book even if I was less happy with the last parts of the narrative. I think fans of smart politically charged speculative fiction should read this book. Fans of smart weird stuff will also enjoy.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Book Review: What Immortal Hand by Johnny Worthen

What Immortal Hand by Johnny Worthen
Paperback, First, 318 pages Published September 2017 by Omnium Gatherum

I was sent a review copy so I could not have gone into this novel anymore cold than I did. I expected something good based on OG's history of cool indie horror titles. WIH is a strange horror novel, and one I am glad I read it. Also kinda glad I didn't read the back cover description which gave away an aspect of the book I didn't see coming. Don't worry I'll warn you before I explain. You don't have to take the red pill.

Lets start with the story. Our POV is Michael Oswald a private detective who is hired by an insurance company to track down a stolen truck. Not because of the two people that went missing, but the rare equipment insured on the missing truck. This investigation leads Oswald across the southwest although mostly Utah and California. He eventually discovered a mass graves filled with bodies both fresh and ancient history.

How Oswald finds the bodies becomes a more important mystery than what happened to the truck. Let me cut to the chase here to avoid spoilers and then I'll come back to the story.

Did I enjoy this novel? Yes This is a odd horror novel that starts off as weird crime noir that has a edge of southwest gothic to it. The turn the novel takes as we enter the last 100 pages is a great one that crept up on me. It took a pretty simple novel and turned the narrative into a bit of live wire. It took a pretty simple book and gave it a really interesting edge. Before that twist I was enjoying it, but my feelings for the book really spiked.

That said I was not a huge fan of the last twenty or so pages.I didn't find the ending as satisfying as I had hoped but it didn't ruin the experience. The book is well written and Oswald is likable enough character. The story moves at a good pace but the things that made the book stand-up were back loaded. I enjoyed the book, and thought it was fun but honestly don't think it holds a candle to some of the very exciting things we have in the modern horror underground. I am thinking of authors like Laura Lee Bahr, Cody Goodfellow or Jeremy Robert Johnson for examples. Those writers are telling daring and brave stories in the sense that they are trying to break new ground.

This is a very good book but it felt a little safe to me. That is OK hell I like Vanilla ice cream. I enjoyed this book enough to give it four stars the problem is stacking it up against the amazing things I have read this year. It is a good book judged on it's own merits, but the hard part about giving a recommendation comes to how much do you devote to reading?. Hell I get it I released a book this year too. There is alot of amazing things out there and it is tough as hell to compete. Worthen should be proud of this book, no matter what I say. I really liked this book, think it is great but I am pretty positive even in September that it will not make my Top 10 list of the year.

OK Spoilers Bonus:

On the back cover the book is compared the 1985 World Fantasy award winning novel Song of Kali by Dan Simmons. That is really a bold claim and one I am glad had not read. I didn't read anything about the book dealing with Kali or thuggee cults. I am glad I didn't because that was actually a good twist for me. The twist introducing those elements worked for me but going fully into in the last pages didn't work as much for me. I am not sure how I would have written to the back differently I am just saying I am glad I didn't know.

(Audio) Book Review: Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

9 1/2 hours audio recording. I don't listen to alot of audio books anymore. I used to rock most Stephen King novels that way, and it used to be the soundtrack of my long walks. The growth of podcasts, my interest in sports and thus sports radio sorta killed my audio book consumption. But in a convoluted way I owe sports radio local legend and world class curmudgeon Jeff Dothseth. In between insulting basically everyone in San Diego but enemies and friends alike Jeff mentioned Author Don Winslow's new book the Force. I wanted to read that but it is popular and the book has 150 holds at the library. Jeff also mentioned This novel The Dawn Patrol which he described as a Mystery set in Pacific Beach. I was sold.

Last month I had a trip planned to Carbondale Illinois to go watch the total solar eclipse. This is only a four hour drive from my hometown Bloomington Indiana where I would be visiting my father. However I understood that the traffic into and out of the tiny college town of Carbondale would suck. Indeed on the way home the Drive from Carbondale to Mt. Vernon (normally 45 minutes)took 4.5 hours. I listened to more than half of this book on the drive there and drive back. That said I spent alot of that long drive to Mt. Vernon explaining how amazing it was to see the eclipse.

OK Dawn Patrol is written by the genius crime writer Don Winslow known for his cartel crime novels and Read by Ray Porter. Who I knew from his reading of San Diego's own Jonathan Maberry's books. Winslow is known for very honest and brutal modern crime novels. The Savages and and his novel Cartal are known for the detailed research as much as the characters. Dawn Patrol is the most classic noir novel set in San Diego I have read. It has a classic detective novel feel.

The mystery at the heart of this story is only one thread in a rich tapestry. The title perfectly captures the most important aspect of the novel The six characters that make up the Dawn Patrol surfing crew. While our main POV character is Boone Daniels PB surfer turned washed up cop, all the members of the crew did attention and add essential flavor to the story. Boone fits alot of surfer guy and novel detective story tropes but when he is given the job solving the murder of a stripper it drags him in the underworld of San Diego.

In many ways Dawn Patrol reminded me of Terriers, the short lived noir comedy Series on FX set here in San Diego. While I like Terriers slightly more, they kinda have a similar DNA.

As San Diegan my favorite aspect of this novel was the asides where Boone via Winslow explained San Diego to the readers not from here the city. This is important to explain the differences between OB, PB and mission bay for example. Living here I of course know much of this but Winslow really gave history and context that most San Diegans have no clue about. Like Why the Gaslamp district exists, and it's more than 100 years of history. This alone makes the book a worthwhile read

A part of me wishes I had read this novel myself but the audio book was well produced. Ray Porter is a world class reader. I think if you like crime novels you can't go wrong here, but if you are in San Diego you should read this local novel.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Book Review: His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem

His Master's Voice by Stanislaw Lem
Paperback, 199 pages Published November 25th 1999 by Northwestern University Press

This book had been on my shelf for years, and I knew I wanted to read it at some point. It is considered a classic and certainly Lem's Solaris is one of the best mind screwing sci-fi novels ever written. Lem pretty much broke the forth wall spoke directly to us on page 31: "The Reader who plowed his[their] way to this point and is waiting , with growing impatience, to be lead into a inner sanctum of the famous enigma, in the hope that I will regale him [them]with thrills and chills every bit as delightful as he experiences viewing horror movies, I advise to set my book down now."

Yeah I admit during the first 30 pages I found myself wonder what the hell was the story. If anything this warning was about 30 pages late. Alot of the early pages just came off as philosophical nonsense. I am sure that is on me but I was waiting for a story to begin. Once I got this warning I sat back to enjoy the book for what it was a thin story propping a discussion of how our species would/could handle contact with a intelligent species beyond our world.

So the story centers around a signal discovered to be repeating that is coming from deep space somewhere around Canis Minor. The signal is transmitted by a method that itself is barely understood. So the U.S. Government gathers physicists, linguists, engineers, psychoanalysts, mathematicians, chemists, humanists, anthropologists and many others. We are told 25,000 experts and sub-experts are gathered in the Nevada dessert to study it. Years go by they learn enough to bio-engineer something they call frog-eggs something they don't entirely understand.

The title of the book does a excellent job of expressing the whole point of the 199 page exercise. The title is reference to the record famously played for dog to test him if he would response to a recorded voice. It confused the dog, and that is what happens to humans here. Confusion. I actually wish Lem had kept the the title but not named the Manhatten style project in the book His Master's voice. I doubt the government would name their project that. Maybe the scientists would have but whatever, I think it took away from the power of the title.

This novel is a masterpiece of speculative philosophy, that is held together by a threadbare story. The story is not the point. Thinking about what it means to contact another civilization is the point. The extra-terrestrials here are not typical not war like or peaceful. They are as much a mystery as the nightsky itself. We are not even sure if the senders intended for earth to get the message or was it a accident. The message could have been sent out billions of years ago and the senders may be alive or not.

This may be a spoiler but the novel in the end is not about communication, but lack of communication. It becomes most clear when our lead scientists has to explain to us dummies through a dummy surrogate in the Senate. This dialogue clears up alot of things that frankly flew over my head.

There is plenty of ghee-whiz moments when the team discovers that instead of numbers and math the methods normally considered to be the common language in translation, the language is genetic, and based on chemicals. Lem writes some of the most genius and other worldly science fiction.

It might seem funny to say this is a masterpiece of science fiction and certainly worth of five stars even when I personally gave it three. Lot it is a work of genius and the ideas it brings up and discussion are important. I think it is an important book but it is not exactly a fun read. The opening 25 pages is a not stop pompus blab fest that adds zero to the book. In thinking about this book I would talk myself into it's genius at times and then marvel at how crap other parts were.

I also think it is a interesting counter to Sagan's Contact. I wonder if Carl had this book in his mind when he came up with that one. I can't recommend this as a fun read. But certainly I think the ideas are important, if a dry as sand paper sci-fif novel is something you can live with read it and lets talk.

Book Review: The Boy on The Bridge by M.R. Carey

The Boy on The Bridge by M.R. Carey

Hardcover, 392 pages

Published May 2nd 2017 by Orbit

The boy on the Bridge is a follow-up release to the M.R. Carey surprise bestseller The Girl With All the Gifts. If you enjoy horror fiction or just good story telling at all let me say right now that you need to get into The Girl With all the Gifts. It was was one of my top reads of last year. It was a great novel, but thankfully if you don't have it in you to read the novel, then you a pretty faithful movie based on it starring Glen Close. I think it is hard to talk about either book or movie without laying ruin to the effects the story has on the consumer. So if you trust me stop right here. Read the first book or see the movie.

OK maybe you saw the first movie or read the book and you are wondering if this one is as good. I'll get to that. First off I think the marketing and even the title for this book are really interesting. It seemed like they were really trying hard to make sure you were very clear this was in the same world as the first book. The Boy in the title certainly doesn't play the role the Melannie did in the first book.

This novel follows the science team living in a tank named "Rosie" that they take around the waste land. The main character was a scientist named Dr. Rina Khan and a savant named Stephen. The book switches back and forth from their points of view. Stephen is obsessed with finding a cure, and his chapters and unique way of viewing the world provide some of the most interesting moments of prose. For her part Khan reveals in the early pages that she is pregnant. This is very against the rules of the mission but they are too far out into the wilds of the apocalypse to return. This child on the way is well played for moments of subtle but creepy suspense. What world is this child coming into? Will it be safe? Will it be human?

I think for many the characters will come off flat to some readers, but I think this is a bi-product of their position in the mission.The two main characters were well written in my opinion, and yes some of the others filled tropes but I don't count them against my enjoyment of the novel.

Now is this a sequel? Does it take place around the same time as the first book? We know early on that the E-blockers exist in this story. That is the stuff they put on their skin so they are not smelled by the Hungries (zombies). Because I didn't really know I got treated to a bit of twist and I enjoyed that reveal. I think if I had read the first book more recently I might have had a better context for it. It will not be a twist for all readers.

M.R. Carey is a master story teller, and alot of people feel the first book was the man coming to the tops of his powers. There are moments of suspense and reveals through-out the book that really impressed me. He used the claustrophobic setting of the tank for both emotional as well physical suspense. The moments through Stephen's eyes we are watching him make amazing discoveries but we know he is doing it in a way that will harm him down the line.

The action in the book is done incredibly well. One scene chapter 38 pages 241-244 was something I had never seen before. Did it work? It did for me. Stephen just had seconds to save Khan's life and Carey broke actions down second by second.It was a really smart way to do action and character at the same time. I thought it was a neat trick. There is also a moment of heart-breaking coldness on pages 312-13 that I thought was the best moment of the book.

The Boy on the Bridge is a excellent follow-up to the Girl with all the Gifts after last year's disappointing (for me) Fellside I thought this was a great read. As good as the first, that would be tough to do. but it will make the first book stronger and that alone is reason enough to read it.

Check out this 30 minute discussion I had about the book with fellow critic Marvin Vernon or the Novel Pursuit blog.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Book Review + Author Interview: Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

Paperback, 144 pages

Published April 2017 by Tor.com

Boy Tor continues to release weird and exciting novellas! Now I generally think 100 pages or more is a novel, and I always bring up Of Mice and Men as an example. Hoosier horror and fantastic fiction author Maurice Broaddus is also on a heck of roll. His short story collection Voice of Martyrs is destined for my top ten reads list and this one has chance. If you read that review you might remember I said 'Voice of Martyrs goes beyond just being good, it is a book of deep meaning.'

I was first introduced to this world in the short story “Pimp My Airship” which appeared in the Voice of Matyrs. There all kinds of genius moments of world building through that story. And as soon as I heard that a novella set in that world was coming – I was sold.

This alternative history features a very different map and even though I am spelling it out here it is woven matter factually into the text in a way only masters of world building can do. Jamaica is a super power, Texas spelled Teja is its own country and the five native American nations control the west. You probably have more fun discovering that on your own, but I mention it to give you a understanding of the depth here. This is a short book but Broaddus is an author who has to sit on his over-stuffed suitcases to get them to close. These books are so filled with ideas you will marvel at them.

There were times when the world came off recognizable and other times so alien I had to really think about it. Is this the past, present or future of this other America…I can’t say exactly but it was an amazing steampunk setting. As great as that was it wouldn’t matter much if the characters and story were flat.

Our hero Desmond Cole is a Jamaican spy who brings a talented young man named Lij. The boy is hunted for his pychic abilities and here another tried and true sub-genre is added. Think of the magical child horror genre made famous by King’s Firestarter and originally in the John Farris classic “The Fury.” We also saw it more recently in The Forgotten Girl by Rio Youers.

Broaddus has fun playing with old tropes and tools in a very different sand box. I think this a neat book and certainly could have been double the length. I mean this novel has the fantasy elements, the strong characters and the pieces of assassins and intrigue that make this at times feel like classic adventure while always balanced with imagination and invention of a master story teller.

Already now. I was recently back home in Indiana and asked Maurice if he wanted to have a coffee hang. So we did but I couldn’t resist the chance to record a interview in person. So this interview is mostly about Buffalo Soldier and the craft of writing. So if you have not read the book there is still a lot to learn in this interview. If you like it please check out my youtube channel for interviews with other writers.