Saturday, January 29, 2011

Venus Blue's November Promo

Who the hell is Venus Blue? The short answer would be a bizarre, up and coming metal band from Texas whose material is free and, in this reviewer's opinion, well worth your time. The long answer, unsurprisingly, will take a bit longer to say.

But first, you should know that Sean Carroll, main man of Venus Blue, is one of my close friends.

Pimping one's friends is generally considered bad form, the purview of desperate self published authors, spammers, and other pushers of dubious products. There's some truth to that. After all, it's difficult to give an objective opinion to someone you know personally, let alone to publish such an opinion.

And yet I did not start listening to Venus Blue because I was Sean's friend. I met Sean a few years back through internet music forums, and we've stayed in contact in part because of how much I enjoyed his work. This is not a case of listening to someone's work to appease their feelings but rather the opposite, a friendship established due to the strength of said work.

So now that we've gotten through the disclaimer I'm given the task of discussing, perhaps even classifying, Venus Blue. But pinning down a genre is difficult here. Venus Blue is a synthesis of disparate influences, a project equal parts Acid Bath and Tom Waits, Manowar and Pentagram, the music itself a mixture of demented and furious metal, melancholy acoustic pieces, and outspoken stoner-style charm.

So, regardless of what they are, why should you be interested? Well, two reasons. First, I'm assuming that you readers of this blog are interested in both powerful uses of language and also the fantastic. Venus Blue is a damn good provider of both. Sean Carroll's lyrics can all be found at his blog. To give you a few samples, there's the first verse of Moonlight:

I feel the screaming cynicism of a brain-cell as it pops
An angel in a syringe that I'm powerless to stop
Nothing rhymes with suicide
Meaningless morning tears
I knew this day would come
For I've dreamt of it for years

Or, if you're more inclined, take the overpowering imagery of The Troupe's opening:

Star-born courtesan
taste the sun-side on your tongue
Sun-flavored courtesan
Taste the star-side and carry on
The witch curses the skies
Somewhere someone's lover dies
The Death Jester softly cries
The harlequin dances on and on

The second reason Venus Blue's worth your time is less specific to this blog. Simply put, Venus Blue makes great music. Of course, the November Promo in question is over an hour and a half of music, and a huge variety of styles, and it can be a bit overwhelming to start with. So, if you just want a taste, I'll say some of my favorites.

Dawn Over Moscow would likely be my pick for best song of the bunch. Red Death Blues is the band at its most crazed. Feast For the God of Ashes is likely my favorite of the acoustic numbers. Finally, Phobos Anomaly is, once it gets going, a warhammer-esque, groovy number that is ludicrous amounts of fun.

If you're interested, the November Promo can be hard in all its sultry glory right here.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Allan Guthrie - Hard Man

"It's okay, Davey," Pearce said to the kid. "The bad man's gone." He closed his eyes. He was a liar. The bad men were never gone. (p. 268)

Allan Guthrie’s third novel is tight, fast, and raw. Hard Man is, to put it bluntly, a book about stupid, violent people doing stupid, violent things.

Do you ever find yourself imagining the absolute worst way that something could play out? If so, I’m sorry to inform you that Guthrie is far better at it than you will ever be. We start off with a simple situation: married May Baxter’s pregnant, but not with her husband’s child. In order to escape her spouse’s violence, she flees back to her family. From that point on, things get worse in every possible way. Every gesture, action, and plan leads to things only spiraling even further out of control.

Hard Man is a book of two paces: the contemplative and the berserk. Things start for Gordon Pearce in the first of them. He spends his day in a passive daze, his only activity taking his three legged dog to the beach. He has no friends and no aspirations. Though he is no longer a young man, and though he’s most certainly a hard man, he’s still trying to come to grips with existence as a free man and with his mother now long gone, the (male) dog with her name an attempt to fill the hole that she left.

Balanced with Pearce is the tale of the Baxter family. Elderly Jacob Baxter is determined to force Wallace to stay away, which shouldn’t be too hard a task for him, his two sons, and his friend, Norrie. Unfortunately, Jacob’s can do worldview is curbstomped within the first few pages of the novel. On their walk to Wallace’s home, he’s confident that the Baxters cannot be stopped: They were all tooled up, they'd handle Wallace no problem, reputation or not. He was only one man against three, and those three were Baxters. (p. 4). Now, dragging himself away, he’s been humbled – but he’ll still do whatever it takes to stop Wallace.

Of course, there’s the fact that Wallace is far stronger than they are, the fact that the police are (after the Baxter family’s disastrous attempted assault) solidly on Wallace’s side, the fact that family friend Norrie is far more mentally impaired than he appears, and the fact that Jacob's eldest son might not be the bouncer that he claims he is. But Jacob resolutely ignores the warning signs. He has a duty to his family, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t carry it out.

Jacob Baxter isn’t the only character who doesn’t quite grasp the way that things are. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that nothing is as it seems, but the phrase is rarely as true as it is here. Things look straightforward, but they are, of course, far more complicated than they appear. Climactic confrontations are often met with confusion, and dramatic reveals generally just succeed in making things messier and more confusing than they were moments before.

As the novel continues, and every plothread does its best to run off in its own direction as fast as it possibly can, things lean increasingly toward the latter of the two aforementioned pacings: the frantic. Hard Man is told from several point of views, and each of their scenes is brief, here, while the various characters act decisive in all the worst ways.

Guthrie does not spare his characters the consequences of their actions; instead, every mistake is magnified, its toll taken in injuries and tragedies. The cast is too small for a particularly high body count, but Guthrie bashes his pieces together again and again until there isn’t much left of their original shape, and the deaths that do occur are always utterly and mercilessly senseless.

Guthrie depicts his novel’s visceral violence with a clear, uncluttered prose style that’s packed with character and slang. Descriptions of beaches and people give the novel a Scottish flair that’s augmented with the language, shoving us in the center of the lowest, most dangerous neighborhoods of Guthrie’s neighborhood and never losing its wry humor:

Pearce's towel had flown off, dropped to the floor. He relaxed. Well, as much as he could, given that he was bullock-naked in front of a pair of strange men. Young men. Who clearly weren't here to ask after his health. At least they weren't naked, too. That would have been really uncomfortable. (p. 7)

The outside world around our characters is a distant thing. Civilization is present, but it's always nearby, never on the scene itself. Decent areas of town are only a few blocks away, and the scent of barbecues reaches us where we are, but we can never get there, and the only times the novel departs from its primary cast is to show briefly panoramic views of sin all around them, rapes and assaults taking place in newspapers and the streets around their homes.

In the midst of the book’s escalation, Guthrie takes one of the major plot threads and slams it into an imprisoned stasis. The change of pace and the situation, especially when balanced by the rest of the cast outside, is excellent, but it’s also here that the novel’s two weaknesses occur.

The first is comparatively minor, more a missed opportunity than a weakness in and of itself. At one point, a character is fed an obscene amounts of hallucinogenics. Unfortunately, the results turn out to be the same lackluster lines that we’ve all heard before in a dozen pot-baked comedies.

The more serious problem is the book’s supposed villain, Wallace. The build up against him is well done, and his mixture of innocence and depravity is captivating, but the few glimpses we get of the man’s core do little to answer our questions. Wallace is frightening precisely because of the contrast between his normality and his actions, but there’s nothing that we see of him, either in his point of view or outside it, to explain what could have led him to such sadistic heights, leaving one of the book’s most horrific scenes feeling almost out of character.

But such problems do little to damage the narrative as a whole. Hard Man is, to quote a certain Bay Area thrash band, good friendly violent fun. With emphasis on the fun. And on the violent.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Historical Lovecraft: Table of Contents

The table of contents for the upcoming Historical Lovecraft anthology, which I just happen to be in, has now been released. The contributors are as follows:

The God Lurking in Stone, Andrew G. Dombalagian
The Seeder from the Stars, Julio Toro San Martin
If Only to Taste Her Again, E. Catherine Tobler
Deus ex Machina, Nathaniel Katz
Shadows of the Darkest Jade, Sarah Hans
The Chronicle of Aliyat son of Aliyat, Alter S. Reiss

Silently, Without Cease, Daniel Mills
The Good Bishop Pays the Price, Martha Hubbard
An Interrupted Sacrifice, Mae Empson
Pralaya: The Disaster, Y Wahyu Purnomosidhi
The Saga of Hilde Ansgardottir, Jesse Bullington
The City of Ropes, Albert Tucher

Inquisitor, William Meikle
The Far Deep, Josh Reynolds
City of Witches, Regina Allen
Ahuizotl (TRANSLATED), Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas
The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins, Molly Tanzer
The Second Theft of Alhazrad's Manuscript, Bradley H. Sinor
A Meeting On The Trail To Hot Iron, Joe Pulver
Black Leaves, Mason Ian Bundschuh
What Hides and What Returns, Bryan Thao Worra
Ngiri's Catch, Aaron Polson
An Idol for Emiko, Travis Heermann
Black Hill, Orrin Grey
Red Star, Yellow Sign, Leigh Kimmel
Manuscript Found in a Trunk (REPRINT, TRANSLATED), Meddy Ligner

An interesting list. Especially that Katz guy. Totally awesome guy, him/me. The book's coming out at the end of April. It will be fourteen dollars for a print copy, or five for an e-copy, with a 20% discount for the first two weeks. You know you want a copy.

It would probably be a shade off to review an anthology I'm in, but I will talk about it again in the future. I'll mention when it comes out and perhaps talk a bit about my favorite (non me-written) stories.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Reading in 2010

For those interested in the full list, this is everything that I read in 2010. Everything should have gone up in its month's respective Reading In… post, except for those works read in January and February (before the Rack really got going, if you can believe that there was such a time). Quantity wise, this was the best year I've ever had, spurred on, no doubt, by this very blog.

1.     The New Weird
2.     Shine
3.     George RR Martin/Daniel Abraham/Garder Dozois – Hunter’s Run
4.     Liquat Aahmed – Lords of Finance
5.     Daniel Abraham – Leviathan Wept
6.     Leonid Andreyev – Visions
7.     Margret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale
8.     R. Scott Bakker – The Darkness That Comes Before [REREAD]
9.     Iain M. Banks – Matter
10.   Iain M. Banks – Surface Detail
11.   John Banville – The Book of Evidence
12.   Clive Barker – Mister B. Gone
13.   Peter Beagle – The Last Unicorn
14.   Mikhail Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita
15.   Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep
16.   Susana Clarke – Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell
17.   Glen Cook – The Shadow Lingers
18.   Justin Cronin – The Passage
19.   J. A. E. Curtis – Mikhail Bulgakov
20.   Philip K. Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
21.   Stephen R. Donaldson – The Real Story
22.   Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment
23.   Arthur Conan Doyle – A Study in Scarlet
24.   Margaret Edson – Wit
25.   Tony Earley – Here We Are In Paradise
26.   Tony Earley – Somehow Form a Family
27.   Steven Erikson – Bauchelain and Korbal Broach
28.   Steven Erikson – House of Chains
29.   Steven Erikson – Midnight Tides
30.   Steven Erikson – The Bonehunters
31.   Steven Erikson – Reaper’s Gale
32.   Steven Erikson – Toll the Hounds
33.   Steven Erikson – Dust of Dreams
34.   Ian C. Esslemont – Night of Knives
35.   Ian C. Esslemont – Return of the Crimson Guard
36.   Ian C. Esslemont – Stonewielder
37.   Brian Evenson – Last Days
38.   Neil Gaiman – Neverwhere
39.   Neil Gaiman – American Gods [REREAD]
40.   Neil Gaiman – Anansi Boys
41.   Neil Gaiman – Fragile Things
42.   Neil Gaiman – Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes
43.   Felix Gilman – Thunderer
44.   Felix Gilman – The Half-Made World
45.   Felix Gilman – Gears of the City
46.   Kate Griffin – A Madness of Angels
47.   Allan Guthrie – Hard Man
48.   John Fowles – The Collector
49.   Peter F. Hamilton – The Reality Dysfunction
50.   Peter F. Hamilton – The Neutronium Alchemist
51.   Peter F. Hamilton – The Naked God
52.   Peter F. Hamilton – Pandora’s Star
53.   Peter F. Hamilton – Judas Unchained
54.   Peter Haswell – Pog Decides to Climb Mount Everest
55.   Robert A. Heinlein – Stranger in a Strange Land
56.   Joe Hill – 20th Century Ghosts
57.   Joe Hill – Heart Shaped Box
58.   Robin Hobb – Ship of Magic
59.   Robin Hobb – Mad Ship
60.   Robin Hobb – Ship of Destiny
61.   Homer – The Odyssey
62.   Arlene Hutton – Last Train to Nibroc
63.   M.R. James – The Haunted Doll House and Other Stories
64.   N.K. Jesmin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
65.   ST Joshi – HP Lovecraft: A Life
66.   Franz Kafka – The Metamorphosis
67.   Stephen King – Carrie
68.   Stephen King – Duma Key
69.   Stephen King – The Shining [REREAD]
70.   Stephen King – Everything’s Eventual
71.   Stephen King – The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
72.   Thomas Ligotti – Songs of a Dead Dreamer
73.   Thomas Ligotti – Songs of a Dead Dreamer [REREAD]
74.   Thomas Ligotti – The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
75.   Thomas Ligotti – Teatro Grottesco
76.   Thomas Ligotti – Teatro Grottesco [REREAD]
77.   Jeph Loeb – Batman: Hush
78.   Marjorie M. Liu – The Iron Hunt
79.   William Messner-Loebs – Necronimicon  
80.   HP Lovecraft – Various [REREAD]
81.   George RR Martin – A Feast For Crows [REREAD]
82.   George RR Martin – A Song for Lya
83.   Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian
84.   Cormac McCarthy – No Country for Old Men
85.   China Mieville – Un Lun Dun
86.   China Mieville – The City and The City
87.   China Mieville – Kraken
88.   Frank Miller – Batman: Year One
89.   Elizabeth Moon – The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter
90.   Alan Moore – Watchmen
91.   Alan Moore –The Killing Joke
92.   Alan Moore – V for Vendetta
93.   Haruki Murakami – Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
94.   Haruki Murakami – After Dark
95.   Haruki Murakami – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
96.   Adam LG Nevill – Apartment 16
97.   Adam LG Nevill – Banquet for the Damned
98.   Mark Charan Newton – Nights of Villjamir
99.   K.J. Parker – The Folding Knife
100.  K.J. Parker – Devices and Desires
101.  K.J. Parker – Purple and Black
102.  K.J. Parker – Evil for Evil
103.  Sam Pickering – Autumn Spring
104.  Tim Powers – Anubis Gates
105.  Terry Pratchett – Going Postal
106.  Wyatt Prunty – Unarmed and Dangerous
107.  Thomas Pynchon – Gravity’s Rainbow
108.  Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49
109.  Alastair Reynolds – Zima Blue
110.  Alastair Reynolds – Thousandth Night/Minla’s Flowers
111.  Alastair Reynolds – Century Rain
112.  Alastair  Reynolds – Terminal World
113.  Patrick Rothfuss – The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle
114.  Brandon Sanderson – The Way of Kings
115.  Brandon Sanderson/Robert Jordan – Towers of Midnight
116.  John Scalzi – Old Man’s War
117.  John Scalzi – Agent to the Stars
118.  Shakespeare – Hamlet
119.  Shakespeare – King Lear
120.  Dan Simmons – Hyperion
121.  Dan Simmons – Fall of Hyperion
122.  Dan Simmons – The Terror
123.  Jane Smiley – A Thousand Acres
124.  Sophocles – Oedipus
125.  Sophocles – Antigone
126.  Sam Sykes – The Tome of the Undergates
127.  Steph Swainston – The Year of Our War
128.  Tom Stoppard – Arcadia
129.  Catherynne M. Valente – The Habitations of the Blessed
130.  Jeff VanderMeer – Finch
131.  Jeff VanderMeer – Secret Life
132.  Jeff VanderMeer – The Third Bear
133.  Brian K. Vaughan – Y: The Last Man, Unmanned
134.  Brian K. Vaughn – Y: The Last Man, Cycles

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Robin Hobb - Liveship Traders [Trilogy Review]

Life is not a race to restore a past situation. Nor is it a race to the future. Seeing how things change is what makes life interesting. (p. 312, Ship of Destiny)

The truly amazing thing about Liveship Traders is that Robin Hobb has created a society…wait, what? Isn’t that the goal of (almost) all second world authors? Yes, but I don’t mean that Hobb created a list of rules, or a collection of customs, or a homogenous mass of bizarre rituals. No, Hobb’s creation is multi faceted and deep, beautifully realized and felt with every word that’s read of her creation.

Characters, or people, are shaped by the world around them – even as they, in turn, shape that world – and few authors better understand this than Hobb. Nobody in these novels exists in a vacuum. Instead, each and every character is a result of their environment, whether they are struggling to live up to the expectations of others or trying to break entirely away from those predefined paths.

This is character driven fiction in every sense of the word; the plot meanders and grows, always organically, as a result of the characters’ decisions, even when that character is wrong or misguided. Main characters will end up opposing one another, threads will wander and twist, and some events even seem to be striving in the opposite direction of the rest of the novel, but there is not a single point where a viewpoint feels false, where a plan seems concocted only for convenience’s sake.

In order for something like this to work, the characters need to be exceptional. And they are. These are people driven by their own desires and needs, who have their own goals and fears, and always act in a way dictated by their virtues and flaws. Everyone here believes their own goals to be paramount, and, within that character’s viewpoint, it is impossible to think otherwise. Hobb’s skill is not to make the epic personal, but rather to make the personal the stuff of epics. Simple tragedies, the kind that we experience without having to fight dark lords upon mountaintops, the kinds that form the core of almost every life, are the center of this story.

Personal injustices affect us just as much as they do the characters. The catalyst for much of the trilogy is Althea’s loss of her liveship, the Vivacia. Convinced that her sister’s husband would be better able to support the family as a whole, Althea’s father deprives her of her inheritance. The scene hits with the emotional impact of Martin’s famous Red Wedding. This was never a world shattering event, and yet I was as furious as I’d ever been made while reading; at that moment, if I’d had the ability to reach into the book, I would have throttled Kyle Haven.

Even that, however, is not where the true power of Liveship Traders lies, because, you see, Hobb’s characterization is unbiased, and, when I was in Kyle’s head, I understood his reasons, I understood why he did what he had to do, I even agreed with him. The fact that Hobb can do both ends, can make both sides feel as just as the other, can stir up the reader’s one way and then twist it the other, is the core of The Liveship Traders success.

Furthermore, the lackadaisical pace of The Liveship Traders gives characters time to grow. These books are not a series of trials or challenges from which the characters come out at the end with a tidy moral lesson. They are, instead, brutal transformations, where every character is morphed and shaped by the events around them and by what they have to experience. Often, at the end of difficult journeys, characters will be presented with what they’ve been striving for, only to realize that it no longer fits them as it once did.

Malta is a great example of this. At the book’s start, she is spoiled and childish, not to mention wholly unlikable. As time progresses, she’s forced to mature. By the book’s end, she is a totally different person, even though the characteristics that shaped her before are still present, and even though she never went through a magical epiphany that reorganized her whole personality in a single, glorious instant.

The first book in the trilogy, Ship of Magic, is slow to start, as many of the characters seem unsympathetic, and the cast as a whole is too far apart to really influence one another yet. Still, the characterization draws you in within only a few pages, and you’re soon enthralled as events that start simple slowly begin to spiral out of control.

The supernatural is muted here, present but far from center stage. What few elements of true magic there are are blended seamlessly into the rest of the narrative, made normal by the character’s perceptions and used to emphasize the cast’s humanity rather than to simply drive the plot.

Mad Ship is where the stakes are upped throughout, with the beginnings of the plot that will link the series together becoming apparent. The various conflicts that determined the first book’s events are magnified here, the societies established in book one on the verge of splitting open. Where Ship of Magic was a meandering journey through increasingly interesting places, Mad Ships is a disparate but still cohesive sprint through ever more affecting heights of tension.

Hand in hand, with the growth of the stakes is the presence of magic in the narrative. Ship of Magic showed us a relatively standard world, with only the slightest hints of the otherworldly to give it flavor and direction. Here, by contrast, events are often decided by the ever growing presence of those otherworldly elements.

Everything still works, however, because those elements are still fundamentally a part of the narrative. Rather than supersede the various character stories that Hobb has built up to this point, the supernatural plays into them, exaggerating strengths and weaknesses while still sticking to the ground rules that have been established up to this point even if Hobb is busy shattering our perceptions while she does it.

Furthermore, the magic is just damn cool. None of it is particularly original, but we’ve been made to care about the world to such an extent at this point that that doesn’t matter. The reveals given here are both jaw dropping and horrifying, and the atmosphere that Hobb manages to evoke is haunting and beautiful in all the right places.

The plot of The Liveship Traders is almost like trying to make something out of a disorganized ball of string while seeming to do nothing at all. Patterns slowly began to emerge in Ship of Magic, but things are more than leisurely as the individual pieces seem more inclined to move under their own volition and to their own ends than to any master plan. Mad Ship is nothing short of frantic when compared with its predecessor, but the events still feel just as character driven as they did before.

With Ship of Destiny, though, you can clearly see Hobb’s fingers in the frame as they manipulate the strands into the shape she needs them to be in, regardless of where they just seemed poised to go. The once organic plot now becomes contrived, characters picked up off of their natural courses and plopped down somewhere convenient with no regard to their wants or desires. By the time the third or fourth piece is about to be rammed into place for the climax, it becomes hard to even feel that Hobb tried to disguise the fact that she, quite literally, dropped him out of the sky.

A prime example of the simplification of everything that came before is the Bingtown situation. Where the first two books featured an increasingly fractured community, one where no easy solution was present, Ship of Destiny features a cartoonish and generic villain take power by being a puppy-eating demon, his every threat counteracted by his oh-so-obviously-eminent downfall.  

Worse still is the use of magic. No longer are the dragons and serpents, the seething cities and sentient ships, a part of the plot, an influence on the characters. Instead, the supernatural steps up and takes control of the whole journey, tossing the motivations and actions of the characters we just read about casually aside as they assert their own dominance and narrative directions. Partway through the book, a certain magical character instructs the characters:

"I have a task for you, [name]. It is of utmost importance. You and your fellows must set aside all else to attend to it, and until it is completed, you must think of nothing else. […] The task you must perform is vastly more important than one human's mating. I honor you with an undertaking that may well save the whole of my race." (p. 355-356)

A supernatural creature insisting its own tasks are far more important than that of us lesser humans? Fascinating. The humans actually going along with this and just about abandoning all of what made them interesting characters and the book a gripping read? Less fascinating.

The Liveship Traders is one of the absolute best works of character in fantasy or any other medium. Events are built to a fever pitch over several excellently paced and plotted books, the experience something like what might result from taking Fitz’s treatment in Farseer and expanding it to everyone in sight. Then, in the final volume, the whole thing falls apart, resolving the events and conflicts that were built up without ever resolving the characters internal and external crisis, explaining how everything fits together without bothering to mention why the pieces should be put together that way or how they feel about their new positions. It’s not enough to ruin what comes before, but it is enough to deny The Liveship Traders the position in the fantasy hierarchy that it deserves. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Reading in December

Well, I'm only seventeen days late on this recap, so it's practically breaking news. Quite a few of the books have already been discussed in the various year end post, and many of them will be receiving reviews shortly, so I don't always go into that much detail here. December was my second most productive month when it comes to reading, though almost a  third of the sixteen books were from two authors (Thomas Ligotti and Haruki Murakami), which is pretty unusual for me.

 This was the Westeros book club book of the month.  The first thing that must be known about Banville, is that his prose is excellent:

We presided over this rabble, Daphne and I, with a kind of grand detachment, like an exiled king and queen waiting daily for words of the counter-rebellion and the summons from the palace to return. People in general, i noticed, were a little afraid of us, now and again I detected it in their eyes, a worried, placatory, doggie sort of look, or else a resentful glare, furtive or sullen. I have pondered this phenomenon, it strikes me as significant. What was it in us- or, rather, what was it about us that - that impressed them? Oh, were are large, well-made, I am handsome, Daphne is beautiful, but that cannot have been the whole of it. No, after much thought the conclusion I have come to is this, that they imagined they recognized in us a coherence and wholeness, an essential authenticity, which they lacked, and of which they felt they were not entirely worthy. We were - well, yes, we were heroes. (p. 10-11)

The second thing that must be known about Banville is that, in his haste to combine Crime & Punishment with postmodernism, he completely misses the dilemma of Crime & Punishment and ends up with a well written but meandering book devoid of thought provoking questions.

 The Big Sleep had excellent pacing and prose. The plot, while fast paced, managed to also be meandering and twist itself into dead ends fairly frequently, but Marlowe's character made up for that quite handily. For my first foray into Crime, this turned out to be a great choice.

Stonewielder is the best of Esslemont's Malazan novels. Which, given my thoughts on Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard, might not be saying all that much. Review coming.

I already talked about Preludes & Nocturnes in my Best Reads post, so I won't really do so here, but I will say that it was simply fantastic. If this is the weakest volume in the series, as I've heard quite often, I'm damn excited for the rest.

Fast, fun, and absurdly violent. Review coming.

Like a lot of classics, the Metamorphosis had the problem that I've seen every single scene go on to closely influence three others and be parodied four times, meaning that there wasn't a single unexpected blow in the story. And yet none of those pastiches or parodies had Kafka's humor, which, for me, made the story.

Seeing as I wrote my longest review to date on the book, I won't speak more here besides to just say that I found it thought provoking and extremely well written.

Ligotti is one of my favorite authors, and this is perhaps his best collection. I talked about this in my Best Reads piece, and I'll have a review up before too long.

Like most Ligotti, I read Teatro Grottesco twice. As for how it was…see former comment.

As evidenced by it making my Best Reads list, I loved After Dark. Review coming.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was extremely interesting, but it was also extremely unfocused and is my least favorite of the Murakami I've read so far. Review coming.

Agent to the Stars was snarky fun through and through. Some events of the ending were a tad convenient, but the laughs never stopped, and, somewhere between them, Scalzi also managed to make me care. This is worth checking out, though don't expect a masterpiece.

Of the Shakespeare I've read, King Lear might be my favorite. Not much point in commenting further on something so discussed in so short a space, so I'll leave it at that.

A Thousand Acres – essentially a modern day take on King Lear – has a very powerful and affecting emotional core. Unfortunately, it also has a huge amount of slow moving scenes that served, for me, to dull the impact to some extent. It was, in the end, an enjoyable read, though I was very hesitant for the first third or so.

 Like with Oedipus and The Odyssey, my main reaction to Antigone was astonishment that something written so long ago could be read so easily. I preferred Oedipus (read a few months back), but this was still an interesting read.

I talked about this in my Best Released list, but the prose is so good that it's worth repeating the comment: Valente's prose is mind blowing. It's a flood of images that's easy to drown under, but you'll be enthralled for every second of it. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Breaking New Ground: Crime

I know nothing about Crime fiction. If asked, I couldn’t even tell you what really distinguishes Crime/Noir/Mystery/Thriller/what have you.

Initially, that was only going to be the opening of several introductory paragraphs of my view of Crime fiction. I was planning to go through the clichés and the reasons I hadn't read it and all of that, but I realized that those two sentences really say it all. I don't know enough about Crime to say more, besides that I should read Chandler at some point.

But, if I don't know anything about it, how did I select books for this Breaking New Ground? Simple: I found a random crime blogger and asked them for a list. The Nerd of Noir was kind enough to comply, and I then picked random books off the list to start with.

Just for anyone interested in the genre, I'll post the rest of the given list (also check the comments for other recommendations):

Modern Noir:

Twisted City by Jason Starr

Hard Man by Allan Guthrie

American Skin by Ken Bruen

Pariah by Dave Zeltserman

Caught Stealing by Charlie Huston

All great, nasty, violent novels by authors with plenty of other great work. Worth looking into.

Modern Private Eye:

Saturday's Child by Ray Banks

The Guards by Ken Bruen

Darkness Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane

Right as Rain by George Pelecanos

Already Dead by Charlie Huston

Books that fuck with the private eye tradition or exemplify what can be done within the genre.

Modern Crime:

The Cleanup by Sean Doolittle

The Pistol Poets by Victor Gischler

The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski

Yellow Medicine by Anthony Neil Smith

Deadfolk by Charlie Williams

Dark, criminal-centered novels but not "noir" dark. Some of them are pretty funny too.

Classic Crime:

The Wounded and the Slain by David Goodis

Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

The Switch by Elmore Leonard

All novels by crime legends that many modern authors will cite to you as major influences of theirs. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Shock Totem #1

Shock Totem is a relative newcomer to the horror scene, but you wouldn't know that from the quality of the publication. The editorial that opens the first issue of Shock Totem is stunningly humble; it and the ethereal and beautiful cover art set the tone for what follows. The stories are generally a blend of more whimsical humor with out and out horror, though tales fall on both sides of the spectrum.

Our opener, T.L. Morganfield’s The Music Box, seems on first glance to be as odd a horror opener as imaginable. The story is told from the point of view of Snowflake, a sentient stuffed elephant who does his best to get his nemesis, the stuffed Boo Bear, to be eaten by the family’s dog instead of him. The first pages are more cute and amusing than scary – and then comes the part where Snowflake and the other animals display sickening cruelty in their competitions with one another. At the edge of the story, the reader can make out sympathetic characters on the periphery, coming into the light just long enough to be pushed aside.

Mercedes M. Yardley’s Murder for Beginners follows. Like many of the stories in the collection, it’s centered around violence – the two main characters are standing over the corpse of a murdered man – but, like many of the first issue’s stories, it’s the bizarre atmosphere that really defines the story. The two characters are completely nonchalant and unconcerned by their recent crime, though they are well aware that a dead man’s pockets are gross, and their snappy dialogue is laugh out loud funny in context.

Brian Rosenberger’s Mulligan Stew and Jennifer Pelland’s ‘Til Death Do Us Part operate in a similar manner. Both are short (a poem and a piece of microfiction respectively), and they each quickly build to an amusing and light hearted climax. Neither is jaw dropping, but they are enjoyable and flow very well between the longer pieces and nonfiction articles.

Like the opening stories, Brian Rappatta’s The Dead March only has violence on the side, and the grotesque dismemberments that are not infrequent in the tale either happen on screen or are just alluded to in a single sentence. The story’s protagonist has the ability to raise the dead with a word, leading to some good old fashioned zombies. Said zombies are too matter of fact in their creation and mindless obedience to be particularly frightening, but the sympathy generated by the protagonist’s relationship with his mother in the early pages is powerful enough to make the read an affecting one.

There are difficulties inherent with short fiction, especially with a hard word limit (5,000 words), and one of those difficulties is weaving exposition into the narrative. Les Berkley’s First Light and Don D’ammassa’s Complexity both irked me to a greater or lesser extent by blocks of exposition.  The first of them, First Light, is a short tale set in a bizarre and anachronistic countryside where ghosts wander. The actual horror aspect of it is relatively typical, but Berkley’s prose is powerful and manages to convey setting, atmosphere, and personality all at once:

Time’s a strange commodity in the County. Moving out here struck me like coming home, if home was a couple centuries ago. We hang on to the past as though it was worth something. Roads stay unpaved so they can’t develop things, and we mostly take care of our own problems without recourse to outside authorities or laws. The .357 Colt Python in my saddle holster reminded me that this way of living comes with its own dangers. (p. 29)

Complexity is intriguing, and the narrator’s attempt at isolation are fascinating. D’ammassa skillfully evokes the narrator’s paranoia and is adept with the description of his home, but I felt that the tale ran into problems as it progressed. The revelation of just what the narrator was afraid of was kept back until it was told in a great lump towards the end, and the story’s climax felt jerky and abrupt.

David Niall Wilson’s Slider sets itself apart by being about a rather normal fellow (compared to the relaxed killers of Yardley’s piece or the zombie-raiser of Rappata’s), but I’ll admit that this is the one story in the collection I was apprehensive about. See, I may live in New York, but I know nothing about baseball. Nothing. I needn’t have worried. Wilson’s passion for the sport shines through and invigorates the characters, but the little terminology that there is is easily either picked up or bypassed, and the story’s core is filled with sympathetic characters and delicious twists.

The only story in the collection that felt like a true weak link to me was Pam L. Wallace’s Below the Surface. This story has more of a high fantasy bent than the others, but (though I’m generally a large fan of fantasy) the tale overall didn’t work for me. The betrayal at its core was too obvious, and the conclusion felt clunky, though the prose was generally strong throughout.

Things end with Kurt Newton’s Thirty-Two Scenes From a Dead Hooker’s Mouth closes the collection. The story is a backwards journey through the murdered woman’s life, featuring thirty-two tenuously linked scenes. The actual events are in danger of being cliché (the “weird” client, the specific abuses and difficulties of the lifestyle) but the manner of their telling is excellent, painting the picture of a tragic life a shade too out of focus to ever be ordinary. The final scene, though expected, is extremely powerful and ends the collection on a highly emotional note.

In addition to fiction, the issue also includes three interviews and a lengthy review section. The interviews were varied and content and had interesting questions; the reviews were more cursory than I’d prefer but well written. Further nonfiction articles are promised in future issues. Finally, there’s a “Howling Through the Keyhole” section of the stories behind the stories which I loved.

Shock Totem is a quality product. The stories are powerful, and the editors’ drive and determination is clear from the beautiful paperback binding, though some credit for that surely goes to the collection’s artists, Rex Zachary and Robert Høyem. It says something about a collection when the weakest story has strong prose and a generally good atmosphere. At 5.99, this issue’s a great buy for horror fans (even if the print’s a tad small).

Standouts: Murder for Beginners, The Dead March, and The First Light

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Short Fiction in...Magazines!?

There’s been a rather odd hole in my reading for a while. See, I love short fiction. Out of my five favorite authors, two exclusively write short fiction (Lovecraft and Ligotti) and one I like best for his interconnected short fiction (VanderMeer). In my recent Best Of posts, four of the books I nominated were collections. Recently, I’ve even begun to submit my short fiction to the various genre magazines that duotrope has so helpfully listed for us desperate writers.

And, through all of this, do you know how many magazines (where short fiction actually, you know, comes from) I have read? The answer’s roughly zero. A while ago, I bought a copy of Fantasy & Science Fiction to peruse but never got around to it.

I considered making this a Breaking New Ground post, but this is such an oversight that it seems almost silly to do so, especially as I won’t exactly be heading off to new genres. Just sensibly exploring the genres I already love. Also considered making this a new year’s resolution, but I’m not quite that dramatic – just dramatic enough to write over two hundred words on the subject in its own post.

What publications am I looking at? Well, first there’s Shock Totem, which is actually the magazine that got this whole thing started. After that, I suppose I’ll go buy a few single issues, read them (and perhaps read that F&SF I have around here somewhere), and see about subscriptions from there.

So, after far too long on the subject, the rather simple meat of the post: short fiction in magazine form shall come to the Rack.

I know, I’m excited too.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Yesterday, I opened an email that started like this:

We'd like to purchase this story for the anthology. Please see the attached electronic contract.

I read those words several times, more confused with each read. It seemed like a rather sadistic way to start off a rejection letter. Were they going to give me a contract and have one of those obnoxious Psyche! jokes on the bottom? But no, they seemed to be seriously asking me for a bio and a paypal address and all sorts of things. But that meant that…

At this point, any conscious thought was replaced with a repeated string of expletives similar to OHMYFUCKINGGODOHMYFUCKINGGOD, only much longer and less coherent.

Back on December 1st, at the end of National Novel Writing Month, I said:

This is, in case you were growing worried, the last time I’ll discuss my own writing until, I guess, NaNo next year short of some sort of publication related miracle.

Well, as the more astute among you have probably guessed by now, said publication related miracle has, evidently, become publication reality. It seems that everyone’s (second? third? fourth? eighth?) favorite blogger will be published in Innsmouth Free Press’s Historical Lovecraft anthology. Though I haven’t blogged about him, Lovecraft is one of my favorite authors, and being in an anthology like this makes me happier than a Shoggoth in…well, whatever substance Shoggoth’s like to be immersed in.

Oddly enough, this is one of those cases where sitting on something for a little while until they’re fully formed, as I so often (innocently) do around here, makes the revelation sort of awkward. See, a short time ago, I got another set of great news. Everyone’s (second? third? fourth? eighth?) favorite  blogger is going to have a review go up at Strange Horizons. I figured I’d wait to say anything till I could link to the review, but waiting further seems pointless, so yeah. Expect amazing linking action in the next little while.

How will these Totally Awesome announcements change the Rack? Not that much. The …Who? section has been slightly updated, but posting should continue as normal right up until I get that three book deal, and I’ve got some very cool stuff coming up.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

N.K. Jesmin - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

“We don’t call them gods,” Viraine smiled faintly. “That would be an offense to the Skyfather, our only true god, and those of the Skyfather’s children who stayed loyal. But we can’t call them slaves, either. After all, we outlawed slavery centuries ago.”

That was the sort of thing that made people hate the Arameri – truly hate them, not just resent their power or their willingness to use it. they found so many ways to lie about the things they did. It mocked the suffering of their victims.

“Why not just call them what they are?” I asked. “Weapons.” (p. 44)

The story that we start with seems fairly standard. Yeine is an out of the way heir to the empire’s throne, and she’s thrown into the battle for succession. The fact that she’s a barbarian to boot just adds another touch of familiarity. When she gets there, we meet the scheming, evil sister and the nonchalant brother, and we’re introduced to the various nations and various plots.

All of that, however, soon becomes almost a side story. Intertwined with the main story and buried under the various political machinations is a drama on a far greater scale. The Arameri have three enslaved gods in their palace, the super weapon that’s given them their preeminence, and those gods are planning to make a bid for freedom and strike back at the god who betrayed them. And Yeine is their key to freedom and the vengeance that goes with it.

The mortal and immortal dramas play off one another brilliantly, and the dichotomy between them is reflected in the prose. Jesmin’s writing is clear and fast paced, but, for all that, it’s got a twisting, digressive quality that hides greater depths than are at first apparent. Yeine’s narration is always factually accurate, but she plays with chronology and the difference between the Yeine narrating and the Yeine of the novel is a stark one, felt strongly as the prose debates with itself:

In a child’s eyes, a mother is a goddess. She can be glorious or terrible, benevolent or filled with wrath, but she commands love either way. I am convinced that this is the greatest power in the universe.

My mother –

No. Not yet. (p. 90)

For two plots to play off of one another, both have to succeed. As such, it’s a shame that the politics in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms fails to live up to the grand backdrop that it’s been given. Towards the beginning of the novel, Yeine asks another character:

“It might be wise for me to meet with others in the palace who are influential. Who would you suggest?”

T’vril considered for a moment, then spread his hands. “You’ve already met everyone here who matters, except Relad.”

I stared at him. “That can’t be true.”

He smiled without humor. “Sky is both very large and very small, Lady Yeine.” (p. 64)

That sentiment sums up the politics of the novel fairly well. The important players are brought on stage quickly, and everything else is glimpsed from such a distance that it might as well not exist. Of course, it’s fine to have a more focused novel; there’s no city state minimum requirement to be considered an epic fantasy. 

But the small feel of the world hampers Jesmin’s themes. She tries to show us how the Arameri are so dominating, how they trod across other cultures without even being properly aware of it, but those other cultures are so one dimensional that it’s hard to really care.

The disconnect between theme and content is most apparent with the Darre, the barbarian people that Yeine comes from. The Darre are set up as a fiercely matriarchal society. We are told that females fulfill the important and dangerous roles and that men are weak and to be protected. And yet, with the Arameri, Yeine surrounds herself entirely with men. She references Darre and compares the Arameri to it constantly in her thoughts, yet her actions don’t seem even remotely traceable to that background.

Of course, what we know about the Darre feels like enough to fill an encyclopedia when you compare them with their neighbors. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a title that makes you think of a vast world, but what we actually see of it is so small that the novel could have been written about two cities without much loss of content. We hear of the city’s politicians ordering vast territories around at a whim, but the game has no more weight than a game of Risk. This was, perhaps, intentional – it would, after all, be a powerful image to see the society’s leaders bossing around whole cultures like they did not matter. But, without first having gotten a sense of the nation’s they’re leading, it’s hard for the reader to humanize them any more than their rulers do.

In the end, it’s simply hard to care about the politics when there are gods on stage. At one point, Yeine goes to try and stop a war with the night god, Nahadoth, in tow. In the process of intimidating them, Nahadoth kills half of their delegation in a horrifying, effortless, and incomprehensible way. From that point on, it’s a it hard to be terrified of the soldiers.

Still, the gods stealing the show has some advantages. The various gods are a joy to read about, and, for all that they’re immortal and all that, they’re the most comprehensible and sympathetic characters of the cast. The trickster god, Sieh, is as adept at inserting himself into the reader’s confidence as the characters, and the others are all as vibrant on the stage as he is.

Of course, with the gods we come to the book’s biggest point of controversy: the romance. From the first time we see Nahadoth, the relationship can be seen coming. Now, it certainly is a tad (or more than a tad) over the top, but I think it’s relatively believable that a love affair involving an all powerful deity might be a bit melodramatic at times. But as the book continues and Nahadoth’s character grows more multifaceted, his relationship with Yeine remains shallow. Whatever genuine chemistry there might be between them is so buried by Bad Boy clichés that it’s hard to see their romance in any other terms, and it doesn’t help that it’s all capped off with a sex scene that involves potentially supernatural genitalia. 

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms tries to accomplish a lot. It delves into the history and metaphysics of its world to a degree that you’d think impassable in a novel so (comparatively) slim, it parallels two larger than life conflicts, and it’s got (some) fascinating characters. A good many of those interesting ideas fail to reach their true potential, but enough do that Jesmin’s debut is interesting overall. How much you’re willing to forgive for ambition is, ultimately, up to you; for myself, I’ll be reading another of Jesmin’s books at some point, but I’ll be hoping that she manages to match her aims with her ability more closely next time.