Book Review: Unwelcome Bodies

Thursday, 30/09/2010 ≅23:04 ©brainycat

Unwelcome BodiesUnwelcome Bodies by Jennifer Pelland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jennifer Pelland's first short story anthology Unwelcome Bodies from Apex Publishing contains only eleven stories, but they are all winners and would be considered among the highlights of any anthology they're a part of. Jennifer's style is at once both intimate and removed, she focuses on her main characters with a detail that betrays how much she cares for each of them (especially their flaws), while the world around the characters tends to disappear into a vague "otherness". This is the strength of her stories, the faceted characters that are engaging and unique and the relationships between them. Her stories tend to focus on the conflicted desires and obsessions within her protagonists and even the secondary characters, clearly sock puppets for the conflicted feelings of her heroes and heroines, are drawn with more depth and affinity than many other authors can achieve for their protagonists in a novel.

I'd classify the genres represented as dark sci-fi, horror and a touch of "regular" dark fiction. Make no mistake, Jennifer has no trouble leading the reader into darkness using the noblest of human intentions as a guide - the phrase "the path to hell is paved with good intentions" is clearly a common factor in her stories. As I was reading the book, watching her explore different styles and points of view while growing her craft, I felt I was watching a formidable writer take shape and hone her craft. Jennifer is definitely a writer to keep an eye on, she clearly is destined to bring an understanding of the human condition back into dark fiction that, at least in my recent reading, seems to be sorely lacking.

The first story "For the Plague Thereof Was Exceeding Great", the first story Jennifer sold, tells of a grim future where the human race is on the verge of extinction, but still trying to maintain twentieth century lifestyles. Two characters set up on a collision course, both of them dealing with the loss of their friends and family and the constant fear of airborne and contact based lethal viruses, find that while they're reacting to the plague differently, their feelings are coming from the same place inside them. Finally, they are able to absolve each other in a last moment of kindness before the lights go out on humanity.

"Big Sister/Little Sister" was also in the collection Apexology: Horror, and I wrote this about it after reading that book:

Sibling rivalry goes to places it probably never should, but thanks to Jennifer Pelland's excellent treatment of the subject Big Sister/Little Sister, this utterly twisted tale of jealousy and anger is a joy to read, even while people are doing hellishly horrible things to each other. It's the best kind of horror, in my opinion, the kind that makes me ask myself what I would do in that situation and would I be any kinder or humane. Ultimately, I'm not sure I would.

Another quality I enjoyed about this book is the sense of the author's involvement in the story. Some readers don't like to feel they're sharing with the author, they enjoy a disconnected relationship and want to consume the book without any give or take. Both because of the notes included at the end of each story, and the nature of the stories themselves, this is almost like a conversation by email with the author - slightly disjointed, and wild tangents in every direction, but ultimately rewarding. The story "Immortal Sin" certainly resonates for me, as this was clearly written as a catharsis of her catholic upbringing.

"Flood" engages a device Jennifer uses often, the young woman as protagonist. Undine is a pop star, obsessed with the mysteriously disappeared oceans and rivers of a dried up and barely inhabitable earth. Her obsession drives her and is grist for her fame and fortune... but is it driving her towards something, or away from a part of herself she doesn't want to admit? Whlie there's no doubt this story ended at the right time, I would desperately like to see a sequel about Undine's life after [the things that I'm not going to spoil for you].

The most experimental piece in the collection, "The Call" is best described by the author herself: "And now that I've written my second person, all-question story, I never have to do either of those tricks again." The theme, like the rest of the collection, deals with loss, loneliness, absolution and the value of sacrifice. Unfortunately, the stylistic tricks really do take her away from what she's best at, and this was my least favorite piece.

After that mercifully short story, the 2008 Nebula nominee "Captive Girl", another especially strong piece, tells the story of a love that can only happen between unequals - and the depths - and heights - people will go for love. A haunting piece, I believe most people will relate deeply to the metaphor of needing broken things - and intentionally breaking oneself to be needed.

Sometimes good things happen to people, and I would catagorize "The Last Bus" as dark fiction, certainly not horror. Absolution is writ large across every paragraph of this story. Another not so strong piece, but the characters are so richly drawn that even though the plot treads well worn ground, reading it is a pleasure.

One of the longest, and in my opinion the real standout in the collection, is "The Last Stand of the Elephant Man". Jennifer transports Joseph Merrick (the infamous "Elephant Man" of victorian england) into a post-cyberpunk future where bodies are worn like sleeves, and often heavily modified in increasingly garish ways to shock the jaded rich and bored. Jennifer's skill at getting inside the conflicted emotions of Joseph, who suddenly wakes up centuries ahead of his time and with a gorgeous body - simultaneously confused and grateful, she uses his deformed body almost like an albotross around the antagonist Jean-Piere's neck, allowing both Joseph and Jean-Pierre to emerge at the end of the story more wholly human - and imperfect - than ever.

"Songs of Lament" is what Walter Jon Williams' Surfacing would be like, if WJW was filled with a particularly sinister sense of humor and woke up in a bad mood for a couple weeks. From the notes,  "One day I thought, 'What if whales are singing about terrible, violent things?' The thought of all those hippies and new agers blissing out to whales screaming in anger was just too delicious an idea not to play with". And I'm glad she did; I've often thought the exact same thing.

Going back to young heroines again, "Firebird" covers a lot of the same emotional ground that "Captive Girl" does, but from a very different angle. Frankly, "Captive Girl" is the better implementation, though stylistically "Firebird" is written in a journal format that makes the story come alive.

"Brushstrokes" is a very pretty story, but left me feeling a little empty at the end. If it were a happy ending, though, it wouldn't be dark fiction. Again, it deals with love and the lengths people will go to for it in a dark future where humans are basically pets of some undescribed races that control nearly every facet of their lives. Shades of "1984" were clearly visible, but the entire concept of humans as domesticated animals in servitude to vastly more capable alien races has been a thought experiment of mine for years, so it was fantastic to read a story set in such a world.

Without a doubt, Jennifer Pelland is someone to keep an eye on, and her engaging and intimate characters in dark and horrific scenarios makes for some good reading, even if some of the plots and themes feel a little derivative. I highly recommend this book in the strongest terms possible; it's a very quick read and well worth the effort.

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Winter is coming, Showtime is going

Thursday, 30/09/2010 ≅13:13 ©brainycat

Why I'm getting HBO next year.

I've been a big fan of the Song of Ice and Fire series for several years, and like the rest of the fanbase I'm eagerly awaiting the conclusion of the series from George R.R. Martin. Unfortunately, he keeps getting distracted from his duties and doing things like helping the production of the HBO miniseries. We're sticking with Showtime long enough to finish out Dexter, then we're going to HBO because I. CAN'T. MISS. THIS. The trailers are awesome; they're clearly put together by someone who knows and loves the books. The visuals I've seen so far absolutely catch the feel of the books: the grit, the pageantry, the intrigue, the passion, the hate, the joy and the loss. Pillars of the Earth, this isn't.

I recommend this series to everyone who says, "the fantasy genre is worn out; there's nothing new since Tolkein." I've been just as bored with Tolkienesque fantasy as gazillions of other potential fans for decades, I understand their sentiment. But George is able to take the tropes from 16th century Europe, add in the memory of magic and dragons from just a few generations ago, and create an entirely human epic that works on every level simultaneously. While it certainly recycles some well worn fantasy tropes, the implementation is so subtle and finely crafted that they're more like a familiar features in a world so epic, so finely thought out and so real that you can completely immerse yourself in the series.

I'll read Game of Thrones again before the series starts, because I'm enough of an asshole that I'll enjoy pointing out all the differences from the book, but I'm still holding off on rereading the entire series until all the books are out. If he pulls a Robert Jordan on this, I will personally seek him out in hell and spend a few centuries flaying him daily.

Jump for a production teaser from HBO with snippets of behind-the-scenes footage.

The Raven: The latest trailer

Winter is Coming:



Book Review: Bone Song

Monday, 27/09/2010 ≅21:19 ©brainycat

Bone Song (Tristopolis, #1)Bone Song by John Meaney
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bone song is filed under "urban fantasy", but I'd put it under gothic dieselpunk. It takes place in a couple of different urban environs, both of which are left over by some long past (undescribed) civilization who's technology has been mostly forgotten. What does still work in this world is thaumaturgical based magic; "death" is not so much a final destination as a state of being with different shades, including "zombies" which function as living humans but need regular infusions of thaumaturgical energy and "wraiths" that are discorporal consciousnesses able to pass through matter. Naturally, magic is a very important part of how the world works. Mages and those who can commune with bones (of the both the living and the dead) replace computer nerds, engineers and doctors in our world. There are no computers or wireless communications. The world seems less like a well thought out construction and more like the world of the 50's, with some details changed around to replace technological solutions with magical ways of doing things. But it never really feels like it "gels" in a cohesive way; it's like pasting a lot of pretty baubles on the same suit you've seen a million times before, hoping the little shiny bits make the ensemble into something new. Unfortunately, I didn't feel like I was reading about events occuring in a well thought out world.

The story focuses on Donal Riordan, a hardboiled lieutenant in the metropolitan PD with a rough background and a reputation for being an incorruptible hardass (sound familiar?) who is tasked with protecting an opera star from a shadowy cult who has been abducting top-notch artists, presumably to glean visions from their bones. Without giving away too many spoilers, the protection detail doesn't go as Donal hoped. After all is said and done, he finds himself attached to a federal unit that is tasked specifically with breaking up the bone-thieving cult.

Somehow, Donal and his superior fall in love. And I say "somehow" because for no reason that's hinted, led up to, foreshadowed or makes any sense in terms of character complications they wind up in bed and almost immediately afterwords "fall in love" (sound familiar?). Now, I'm all about some hot'n'steamy human/zombie romance, don't get me wrong. But it feels like it was thrown in because Jason Meaney's pre-writing notes had these two character's arcs crossing, and maybe it was necessary for one or another plot development later. But there's nothing in the final book I read that makes it plausible. I don't need some drawn out courtship, but there wasn't even any hint of animal magentism. This, in my opinion, is amateurish and it detracted from my enjoyment of the story.

As the investigation continues, the leads take the team to higher and higher levels of government (sound familiar?) and the story goes off on a couple of tangents that eventually come back around to the main plot and characters, but only eventually. There were a few chapters, wherein some members of the federal team are working on rescuing an undercover agent who's been discovered and is being tortured, that really didn't need to happen so much. I think that whole section of the book was trying to explain that the team, aside from the newcomer Donal, is a tight unit that looks after their own and brooks no guff. Additionally, it showed off some of the skills of each of the teammembers, but in retrospect that handful of chapters felt manufactured. The characters and plot could both have been better advanced with subtler dialogue and crisper writing around the main plotline.

Eventually, Donal gets himself sent via aeroplane (see "dieselpunk", above) to another city to follow up on some leads on his own (sound familiar?). At this point in the book (maybe 75% through it), there's a lot of characters and while there's a lot of "clues", it's pretty clear what's going to happen, if not the exact way it'll play out. The trip to the other city had a situation occur that I can only describe as "contrived", and while Donal didn't understand what was happening, I the reader had even less idea what was going on, why, or what happened to Donal during the resolution. There just wasn't enough explanation of the situation and the characters involved to advance the mystery - another example events introducing plot complications wholly divorced from the preceeding story. At this point, there's 20%-15% of the book left, and I was getting the feeling that this was going to be one of those books where everything wraps up too cleanly in the last couple chapters.

It does. Within the span of the last 8%, everybody in the team resolves their reticences around "the new guy", a major suspect is "surprisingly" exonerated, the perpetrator trying to frame the suspect is caught (after a chase so laughable I don't know why Jason bothered), and the Big Bad Guys are interrupted in the middle of an evil ritual, but manage to slip through the fingers of justice (sound familiar?). The last couple of chapters do less to wrap up the story than setup the sequel, and the "heart wrenching twist" at the end seemed a bit extreme and implausible; it would have been nice to see Donal and Laura's relationship evolve - but given the light treatment characterization got throughout the book, perhaps it was best this way.

All in all, this was a readable noir detective story wrapped in the trappings of a gothic/dieselpunk setting. The character development was very shallow, but the action is fairly nonstop and the pacing - in as much as you only consider points of contention in the plot - was constant and fairly exciting. I would recommend this to fans of the gothic (as in "Sisters of Mercy" or "Fields of the Nephilim") look/feel, or anyone who wants a quick little noir detective story. There's nothing wrong with this book, despite my uncanny ability to detail things that annoy me. But I felt there was so much potential in these characters and the world they live that I can't help but feel a little shortchanged by the shallow characterization and incomplete world building.

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Dexter – Too late to die a graceful death

Sunday, 26/09/2010 ≅21:32 ©brainycat

I just watched the season premier of Dexter.

I should have spent the hour reading. At least they had the decency to keep it down to a single hour; I wouldn't have been able to tolerate two hours of that. The episode felt directionless; there was a lot going on, and clearly many subplots were being generated, but at no point did we actually get into any of the characters with enough depth for me to feel any affinity.

And most of the plotlines have been done before: coworkers sleeping together (what happened to Deb's boyfriend? I thought she was still seeing the musician guy), Dexter is the primary suspect in a murder, Dexter didn't clean a murder scene properly, Dexter's kids are a handful, Aster is a pain in the ass, and there's tension between the MPD and the Gmen. Yawn.

I had the sneaking suspicion after last season that this series has outlived it's usefulness. The attraction of Dexter, for me, is the way his barely contained inner life navigates the world of the "normal" people. The last few seasons, however, it seems that dynamic has been pushed aside in the interest of showing Dexter in ever more improbable situations with less of a private life. The plots have revolved around him juggling his responsibilities, not the tension of hiding his sociopathy in the middle of a bunch of cops. It seems like his sociopathy has become a burden to the writers, rather than being the creative force to drive the tension and character arcs.

But once he married Rita, it seems like Dexter's arc has been pretty flat. We'll see how things go next episode, but I don't have very high hopes for it. I think seasons one and two, where he's still learning about himself and his inner world is wildly dynamic are the interesting seasons. At season three, it seemed like Dexter stopped changing and it was other characters that were driving all the plots. It's not a good situation for a series named after the lead character to rely on supporting characters to create tension.



Book Review: Broken Angels

Wednesday, 22/09/2010 ≅20:27 ©brainycat

Broken Angels (Takeshi Kovacs, #2)Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Richard K Morgan's first book, Altered Carbon introduced us to Takeshi Kovacs, a bitter cynic with a heart of gold and the best psychosocial training humanity has been able to muster in this post-cyberpunk setting. In Broken Angels Takeshi comes back thirty years later as a lieutenant in Wedge's Wolves, a notoriously "effective" mercenary army involved on the interplanetary force's side of a recently colonized planet's war for independance. While getting put back together on a causualty ship after his unit was annhilated, he learns of an alien artifcact so valuable that, providing he can get to the artifact first and deliver it to the right buyer, he can live in luxury for as many lifetimes as he can imagine.

Takeshi is a bit different in this book than in Altered Carbon, befitting the typical post-cyberpunk themes of personality transformation and transcendence. I felt it was the same evolution of tone between Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig's renditions of James Bond. Takeshi has become something less of a rake, but more bitter and cynical at what he increasingly feels are the futile machinations of capitalism and the human destruction left in it's wake. While he's still as self-obsessed as ever, and still has the razor wit and scathing sarcasm I love so much, there's a new undercurrent of rage and futility underneath his cynycism. He makes a deal with a major interplanety cartel to bankroll the operation to recover the artifact, and he finds himself hating himself for the moments of kinship he feels for the executive - he knows they're both cogs in a machine much bigger than the planet they're on, both doing whatever they need to do to get their piece of the immortality that money can buy. The team of specialists they assemble, a group of battle hardened specialists recruited from a bucket of cortical stacks purchased by the kilogram, also become mirrors of Takeshi's increasing frustration with the way the world around him works. While he feels a kinship with each of the professional soldiers, and he certainly relates to their recent deaths, he sees their youthful bravado and fledgling sense of immortality for the nieve inexperience it is. Where the soldiers look up to Takeshi as a hero who fought in the most important battles of the last two centuries, Takeshi sees in the soldiers a collection of tools of The Powers That Be, not yet burned out and burdened with the memories of dozens of horrible deaths - both their own and of those their companions and comrades.

The political posturing in this book is kept to a dull roar in the background, and doesn't interrupt the story but rather provides a backdrop for the duplicities and scattered allegiances. The story is ultimately about sacrifice, selflessness and redemption. Nobody's hands are clean by the end of the book, and everyone has suffered at the hands of each other, their consciensce, and the weight of an alien culture so far advanced "...(the aliens') plans for reliable FTL drives could be hanging on some collector's wall somewhere - upside down." An excellent vehicle for the other overarching theme of the book, which explores the ideas that for as much as humanity feels it's accomplished at this point in the timeline, we're still a bunch of children who can't stop fighting with each over the scraps of detritus left by a culture so far advanced they'd already abandoned this part of the galaxy by the time hominids were starting to come down out of the trees. Who decides what's really so great about what a person, or a political movement, or a block of capital believe? Does the power to affect lives, or live forever matter as much as being able to wholly trust even one other person? Is there some kind of divine intervention involved? Some of the characters in the story are motivated by religion, and Takeshi engages one in what might be the most cogent description of why I am atheist I've ever read:

"Really." I leaned forward, searching his face for some trace of irony. "You believe this shit, right? I mean, seriously?"

The Mandrake exec watched me for a moment, then tipped back his head and gestured at the sky above us.

"Look at that, Kovacs. We're drinking coffee so far from Earth you have to work hard to pick out Sol in the night sky. We were carried here on a wind that blows in a dimension we cannot see or touch. Stored as dreams in the mind of a machine that thinks in a fashion so far in advance of our own brains, it might as well carry the name of God. We have been resurrected into bodies not our own, grown in a secret garden without the body of any mortal woman. These are the facts of our existence, Kovacs. How, then, are they different, or any less mystical, than the belief that there is another realm where the dead live in the company of beings so far beyond us we must call them gods?"

I looked away, oddly embarrassed by the fervor in Hand's voice. Religion is funny stuff, and it has unpredictable effects on those who use it. I stubbed out my cigarette and chose my words with care.

"Well, the difference is that the facts of our existence weren't dreamed up by a bunch of ignorant priests centuries before anyone had left the Earth's surface or built anything resembling a machine. I'd say that on balance that makes them a better fit than your spirit realm for whatever reality we find out here."

Hand smiled, apparently unoffended. He seemed to be enjoying himself. "That is a local view, Kovacs. Of course, all the remaining churches have their origins in preindustrial times, but faith is metaphor, and who knows how the data behind these metaphors has traveled, from where and for how long. We walk amid the ruins of a civilization that apparently had godlike powers thousands of years before we could walk upright. Your own world, Kovacs, is encircled by angels with flaming swords”"

Whoa. I lifted my hands, palms out. "Let's damp down the metaphor core for a moment. Harlan's World has a system of orbital battle platforms that the Martians forgot to decommission when they left."

"Yes," Hand gestured impatiently, "Orbitals built of some substance that resists every attempt to scan it, orbitals with the power to strike down a city or a mountain, but who forbear to destroy anything save those vessels that try to ascend into the heavens. What else is that but an angel?"

"It's a fucking machine, Hand. With programmed parameters that probably have their basis in some kind of planetary conflict”"

"Can you be sure of that?"

He was leaning across the table now. I found myself mirroring his posture as my own intensity was stoked.

"Have you ever been to Harlan's World, Hand? No, I thought not. Well I grew up there and I'm telling you the orbitals are no more mystical than any other Martian artifact”"

"What, no more mystical than the songspires? His voice dropped to a hiss. Trees of stone that sing to the rising and setting sun? No more mystical than a gate that opens like a bedroom door onto”"

He stopped abruptly and glanced around, face flushing with the near indiscretion. I sat back and grinned at him.

Admirable passion, for someone in a suit that expensive. "So you're trying to sell me the Martians as voodoo gods. Is that it?"

"I'm not trying to sell you anything," he muttered, straightening up. "And no, the Martians fit quite comfortably into this world. We don't need recourse to the places of origin to explain them. I'm just trying to show you how limited your worldview is without an acceptance of wonder."

I nodded.

"Very good of you." I stabbed a finger at him. "Just do me a favor, Hand. When we get where we're going, keep this shit stowed, will you? I'm going to have enough to worry about without you weirding out on me."

"I believe only what I have seen," he said stiffly. "I have seen Ghede and Carrefour walk among us in the flesh of men, I have heard their voices speak from the mouths of the hougan, I have summoned them."

"Yeah, right."

He looked at me searchingly, offended belief melting slowly into something else. His voice loosened and flowed down to a murmur. "This is strange, Kovacs. You have a faith as deep as mine. The only thing I wonder is why you need so badly not to believe."

That sat between us for almost a minute before I touched it. The noise from surrounding tables faded out and even the wind out of the north seemed to be holding its breath. Then I leaned forward, speaking less to communicate than to dispel the laser-lit recall in my head.

"You're wrong, Hand," I said quietly. "I'd love to have access to all this shit you believe. I'd love to be able to summon someone who's responsible for this fuckup of a creation. Because then I'd be able to kill them. Slowly."

The end of the book does an excellent job of wrapping up the myriad interpersonal conflicts, and in proper cyberpunk fashion, does not offer a happily-ever-after ending. Nobody finds enlightenment, though a few people do get rich beyond anyone's expectations. At the end of the book, humans are still acting like petulant children lobbing tactical nukes across the landscape, the same forces that are willing to sacrifice thousands of lives for a profit margin are still in charge, and Takeshi is still cynical and dispossesed. He and the surviving members of his team spend a month of subjective time in a virtual construct during an eleven year flight to a settled planet away from the war, and while he enjoys the company of his new comrades, he ultimately realizes "This afterlife shit is overrated".

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Richard Morgan nails it, again

Wednesday, 22/09/2010 ≅03:39 ©brainycat

Takeshi Kovacs may be my most favorite-ist protagonist ever. He's smart, capable, cynical and completely self-absorbed. Actually, he's a lot like me. In the second book in the Takeshi series by Richard K. Morgan, we meet Takeshi about 30 years after the first book. He's working as a mercenary, leading a company of soldiers during an uprising on a planet distant from Earth.

Richard's writing inspires me, he so effortlessly drops metaphor and simile that shimmer and illuminate the story without ever falling into long, drawn out sentences or comma strings. It's very reminiscent of William Gibson's earlier works.

In this passage, Takeshi is talking to a corporate executive, Hand, that is buying a priceless alien artifact from Takeshi. They'd recently been to a bazaar and Takeshi witnessed the people there absorbed in their religion, quoting proverbs and using arcane symbols:

"Really." I leaned forward, searching his face for some trace of irony. "You believe this shit, right? I mean, seriously?"

The Mandrake exec watched me for a moment, then tipped back his head and gestured at the sky above us.

"Look at that, Kovacs. We're drinking coffee so far from Earth you have to work hard to pick out Sol in the night sky. We were carried here on a wind that blows in a dimension we cannot see or touch. Stored as dreams in the mind of a machine that thinks in a fashion so far in advance of our own brains, it might as well carry the name of God. We have been resurrected into bodies not our own, grown in a secret garden without the body of any mortal woman. These are the facts of our existence, Kovacs. How, then, are they different, or any less mystical, than the belief that there is another realm where the dead live in the company of beings so far beyond us we must call them gods?"

I looked away, oddly embarrassed by the fervor in Hand's voice. Religion is funny stuff, and it has unpredictable effects on those who use it. I stubbed out my cigarette and chose my words with care.

"Well, the difference is that the facts of our existence weren't dreamed up by a bunch of ignorant priests centuries before anyone had left the Earth's surface or built anything resembling a machine. I'd say that on balance that makes them a better fit than your spirit realm for whatever reality we find out here."

Hand smiled, apparently unoffended. He seemed to be enjoying himself. "That is a local view, Kovacs. Of course, all the remaining churches have their origins in preindustrial times, but faith is metaphor, and who knows how the data behind these metaphors has traveled, from where and for how long. We walk amid the ruins of a civilization that apparently had godlike powers thousands of years before we could walk upright. Your own world, Kovacs, is encircled by angels with flaming swords”"

Whoa. I lifted my hands, palms out. "Let's damp down the metaphor core for a moment. Harlan's World has a system of orbital battle platforms that the Martians forgot to decommission when they left."

"Yes," Hand gestured impatiently, "Orbitals built of some substance that resists every attempt to scan it, orbitals with the power to strike down a city or a mountain, but who forbear to destroy anything save those vessels that try to ascend into the heavens. What else is that but an angel?"

"It's a fucking machine, Hand. With programmed parameters that probably have their basis in some kind of planetary conflict”"

"Can you be sure of that?"

He was leaning across the table now. I found myself mirroring his posture as my own intensity was stoked.

"Have you ever been to Harlan's World, Hand? No, I thought not. Well I grew up there and I'm telling you the orbitals are no more mystical than any other Martian artifact”"

"What, no more mystical than the songspires? His voice dropped to a hiss. Trees of stone that sing to the rising and setting sun? No more mystical than a gate that opens like a bedroom door onto”"

He stopped abruptly and glanced around, face flushing with the near indiscretion. I sat back and grinned at him.

Admirable passion, for someone in a suit that expensive. "So you're trying to sell me the Martians as voodoo gods. Is that it?"

"I'm not trying to sell you anything," he muttered, straightening up. "And no, the Martians fit quite comfortably into this world. We don't need recourse to the places of origin to explain them. I'm just trying to show you how limited your worldview is without an acceptance of wonder."

I nodded.

"Very good of you." I stabbed a finger at him. "Just do me a favor, Hand. When we get where we're going, keep this shit stowed, will you? I'm going to have enough to worry about without you weirding out on me."

"I believe only what I have seen," he said stiffly. "I have seen Ghede and Carrefour walk among us in the flesh of men, I have heard their voices speak from the mouths of the hougan, I have summoned them."

"Yeah, right."

He looked at me searchingly, offended belief melting slowly into something else. His voice loosened and flowed down to a murmur. "This is strange, Kovacs. You have a faith as deep as mine. The only thing I wonder is why you need so badly not to believe."

That sat between us for almost a minute before I touched it. The noise from surrounding tables faded out and even the wind out of the north seemed to be holding its breath. Then I leaned forward, speaking less to communicate than to dispel the laser-lit recall in my head.

"You're wrong, Hand," I said quietly. "I'd love to have access to all this shit you believe. I'd love to be able to summon someone who's responsible for this fuckup of a creation. Because then I'd be able to kill them. Slowly."

- Richard K. Morgan, Broken Angels

This passage struck me, it's filled with Real Truth. And it's a perfect example of why I like Takeshi so much: he's just like me, only way smarter, capable, better looking and generally the perfect post-cyberpunk hero. I came to be an atheist from exactly this same place, and even as my vitriol at the world around me mellows with age, I still can't find any reason to need to believe in any kind of superstitious mumbo-jumbo. If there is some kind of god, I'd want to get my hands on it too. This book is to Takeshi what Quantum of Solace is to James Bond - the armor of years of cynical jadedness is wearing thin, and Takeshi's bitterness is beginning to lash out.



Posted at MobileRead

Tuesday, 21/09/2010 ≅23:24 ©brainycat

I wrote a gentle rant at mobileread about DRM.

I don't understand how people can be satisfied by letting a select few people narrow their choices and funnel their money away. We all lose when our rights to fair use are infringed. We all lose when choice is restricted in the marketplace. Regarding ebooks specifically, let the market decide what stories are successful based on the quality of the story and let every reader seamlessly find the material they like, regardless of the means used to (fairly) distribute and read the books.



Book Review: The Kult

Monday, 20/09/2010 ≅03:03 ©brainycat

The KultThe Kult by Shaun Jeffrey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I actually didn't finish this book this time. I'll probably pick it up later. Technically, the writing is superb - very lively and crisp, without resorting to odd structures or obtuse vocabulary. I just couldn't get into the characters, and when I started reading it I wasn't in the mood for any kind of police-procedural thriller. The background for the characters was told, not shown, and for at least one of them it was repeated too often for my taste.

That being said, a lot of people really like this book and I'm sure it gets better if I were in the right mood or if I'd read more of it.

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Book Review: Apexology: Horror

Sunday, 19/09/2010 ≅23:52 ©brainycat

Apexology: HorrorApexology: Horror by Alethea Kontis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the third or fourth collection I've read from Apex, and while not quite the punch in the gut that Dark Faith is, it's still a superior collection that I recommend to any fan of dark fiction and horror.

This book is marketed as a survey of authors in Apex's stable, and (like Apex's books) there is a wide variety of themes, tones, characters and voices. There really aren't any especially weak pieces, and there were a few of standouts that I especially liked. It's available for US$2.99 at SmashWords right now and it's worth a lot more than that. I highly recommend picking this up.

The first story in the collection held me absolutely captivated. It Tasted Like the Sea by Paul Jessup covers dark fiction's familiar territories of lust, obsession and warped perceptions and boundaries with such verve and vigor and interesting characters I was hoping the story would be longer than it was.

The next real standout story for me was Cerbo en Vitra ujo by Mary Robinette Kowal, replete with elements of Frankenstein and Johnny Got His Gun, told in a future setting where all is not as bright as it seems. Making the horror more poignant is the point of view, a lovelorn teenage girl trying to find her boyfriend. Mary did a superior job making me empathize with the protagonist, no mean feat considering I didn't understand teenage girls when I was a teenager, let alone now.

The Dark Side by Guy Hasson did an excellent job of balancing competing concurrent realities in the protagonists head, while telling a story of duality, fate and the abuse of power. What starts out as an innocent story about a man with a singularly unusual problem eventually becomes a story about a man with a universal problem, but a unique solution. I'll leave the twist to be discovered by the reader, but I was pleasantly surprised at the sophistication of the way it came about.

Lavie Tidhar's contribution Transylvanian Missiontries too hard to create a mood from the setting (Nazi occupied Romania in WW2), but unfortunately it falls a bit flat in that regard. The setting was never developed enough for me to feel like I was there, but the action makes up for it. It's a bit like the videogame Castle Wolfenstein, but tells a story of the power of the land and it's myths to overcome "upstarts" like the Nazis. It's an exciting read, setup more like a thriller than traditional dark fiction or horror.

There are several very short stories in the collection, which I appreciate. I like the ultra short story format, probably because of fond memories of reading Aesop's Fable as a very very young lad. Deb Taber's Powered is a very short story that made me giggle and smirk. That may say a lot more about my own macabre sense of humor than the subject matter, but it's a great story either way.

Eulogy for Muffin is set in contemporary Seattle, but that's not the only reason I like it so much. I'm always fascinated with the machinations of belief systems amongst groups of people; for me, the interesting question isn't "What do these people believe about the world around them" but rather "When did these people's beliefs change and why". This is the space explored by Jennifer Brozek in a slow spiral that leads from the most charming and innocent to the sad and horrific in such slow increments - while keeping a tense, pageturning pace - I found myself forgetting to guess "the twist". I'm definitely looking forward to reading more of her stories.

Taking a turn into straight-up Science Fiction is The Junkyard God by M. Zak Anwar and O.M.R. Anwar. For some reason, the copy I have doesn't have any introduction or author information for this piece, nor am I able to locate any information on google. I wish I could, this dark futuristic take on the Beowulf theme was exceptionally well done and I would like to read more stories set in this world.

Sibling rivalry goes to places it probably never should, but thanks to Jennifer Pelland's excellent treatment of the subject , this utterly twisted tale of jealousy and anger is a joy to read, even while people are doing hellishly horrible things to each other. It's the best kind of horror, in my opinion, the kind that makes me ask myself what I would do in that situation and would I be any kinder or humane. Ultimately, I'm not sure I would.

Just because I didn't provide a synopsis of each of the 21 stories included in this collection doesn't mean they aren't as good. It just means two things. First, I'm a lazy reviewer and second, at any given time and emotional place in my life certain themes and tones are going to feel more immediate to me than at other times. For three bucks, you can't go wrong with this book, and I'm sure anyone who appreciates dark [fiction, scifi, fantasy] and horror will find something they like in this book.

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Book Review: Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road

Thursday, 16/09/2010 ≅01:35 ©brainycat

Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing RoadGhost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road by Neil Peart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a fantastic read, but I don't know if it will go down in the annals of history as a great book. I'm a LONGtime Rush fan, which was the original impetus to pick it up. Also, I've gone through a number of huge changes in my life recently and since Neil's lyrics have been there for me through good times and bad, I thought I would give this book a try.

Neil Peart is the drummer for the immensely successful band Rush. During the course of a year and a half, he lost his 19yo daughter in a car wreck and his wife to cancer. Consumed with soul-crushing grief, he hopped on his motorcycle and traveled over 55k miles across western Canada, the west and southwest of the US, and down through Mexico and Belize. He stashed his bike in Mexico during the latter part of winter, and returned to his home in Quebec through the following spring and summer, then flew back to his bike and rode it home. Two more roadtrips are documented in the ensuing months, though of much shorter and more focused duration. Honestly, though, the roadtrips cease to be an end unto themselves after he gets back to Quebec, and become more scenery for the changes happening inside him.

As a travelogue it works wonderfully for me. He writes about the things I'd notice, though he's much more concerned about food and booze than I am. He's an incredibly well read and thoughtful man and the depth and breadth of his knowledge spills across each page effortlessly. He doesn't just describe the scenery, he places it into ecological and geopolitical context while he ponders his own emotional state with ideas from most of the greatest writers ever. His relationship to his motorcycle and the roads provide a sound material counterpoint to the internal turmoil he wrestles with constantly and makes every mile seem real and vital. He writes about his encounters with strangers and friends and family with equal aplomb, capturing the essence of what he felt at the time without sharing so many details the emotional landmarks get lost.

The format of the book is mostly redacted journal entries and letters he writes to a few close friends, interspersed with short recollections to frame the letters and maintain continuity. For all his protestations of being essentially a shy loner, it's obvious he thrives on the company of people he loves and trusts and it's in his letters where you really see him work through his grief. Most of the letters are to his friend Brutus, who was originally planning to join him for this adventure but unfortunately got himself invited into the US penal system shortly before their planned departure. Brutus begins to take on an almost mythic quality to Neil, a larger than life hero who is equal parts confessional and unquestioning sympathetic listener. Brutus takes on the role of Neil's "better judgement", and several times Neil refrains from too much excess because Brutus isn't there to take care of him.

I've seen several reviews that say the middle of the book is "whiny" - it's a book about a man getting over the deaths of his two greatest loves! What did they think it was going to read like? I feel he does an excellent job of keeping the writing moving and describing the tides of emotion that wash over him, even as he (too slowly for himself to see at the time) processes his feelings and puts himself back together. I felt the ending of the book felt rushed (see what I did there?), and frankly, I didn't really need the epilogue. I would have liked to see the book either end one chapter sooner, or expound on how he discovered room in his life for love again in the same sort of detail he used to describe how he put himself back together again.

I can't relate specifically to Neil's situation, but in the last 19 months I've given up a 25 year long relationship with alcohol, gotten divorced, changed jobs, completely changed my living situation, lost my cat companion of 16 years, and basically re-engineered my life from the ground up. The best part of this book, for me, was how he visualized and verbalized his "baby soul"; how he related to it and felt it were a small flame that needed nurturing and protecting. The therapist I talked to when dealing with my alcoholism used a very similar metaphor, so it resonated deeply with me. As Neil learns to cope day to day with the jagged holes in his life, different aspects of his personality emerge and he gives each of them names, not unlike the heroes of greek tragedies who are alternately possessed by different gods (archetypes) as they change through the story.

While the topic of this book is grieving, and the format is a travelogue, this is ultimately a book full of hope and an homage to the triumph of the human spirit to dig deeper into itself than anyone could believe possible. Neil is a rationalist much like myself, and there aren't enough books by rationalists dealing with deep emotional pain, IMHO. To watch someone go through the healing process without the crutch of superstition was very empowering for me.

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