Thursday, December 26, 2013

Parasite (Orbit), by Mira Grant

If Dr. Cale was telling the truth about what she’d been able to do –and I had no reason to doubt her, even if Nathan wasn’t quite so sure- I was talking to a tapeworm that had been given full control of its very own human body. And that same tapeworm had been watching me sleep, just in case I had bad dreams.

If you’ve read my reviews of the books in the Newsflesh series, then you have no doubt I’m a fan. As bored as I am with zombies at this point, those books managed to tap into something special in me. She showed a sense of sincerity and detailed, intellectually intriguing world building that I adored. Needless to say, I went into Parasite with high expectations. Luckily for me, they were mostly met.

Let’s jump forward a decade in human development, shall we. To a time where most sickness and disease are things of the past. All thanks to one tiny miracle pill you take once every two years. That is actually the seed of a genetically engineered tapeworm. Oh, and they’ve started waking up and wanting their own shot at the reigns. As Tansy put it: “Let’s party.”

I’m going to start with the things I didn’t like, just for a change of pace: The character Tansy is a bit too spot on reminiscent of one from Newsflesh (you’ll see it the moment she opens her mouth). The fox was amusing and all, but I don’t need another one. Similarly, the whole “scientists trying to cure a disease cause the apocalypse” thing has been done already. By her. In the last series she wrote. And the surprise punch at the end only made me angry at the protagonist, given that I had assumed that from almost the beginning. Then the sleepwalkers started acting suspiciously like zombies and I was worried.

Those things need to be said, because they are valid and may well break the experience for some of you. But now, I’m going to gush.

Oh my god. Goopedy goo. Everything that drew me in about Feed initially is just as good here. Mira’s prose flows like a river of lightning. A 500 page hardback can be a tough sell, but I never noticed the length. Her characters are generally well rounded, though there are a few of the one dimensional Vice Presidential Candidate types (the evil corporate butthead coming to mind very quickly). The action, when it gets going, is fairly intense. I like that this operates solely from one point of view, making it much more intimate than the last series. And the whole gets fairly mucky in the realm of morality almost from the get go. I very much en joy that there really is not much of a clear cut path here. Just a series of options that kind of all suck. That kind of ambiguity makes me very curious to see how our intrepid Sal will move onward from here.

Look, if you liked the Newsflesh books, you might be a bit put off by some retreading but you’ll still enjoy yourself. If you didn’t like them, you aren’t seeing something radically different here. At least not at this point.  I, for one, enjoyed myself tremendously.  And I will definitely be buying myself a UV lamp at the nearest opportunity.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Cain's Blood (Touchstone), by Geoffrey Girard

We, as a people, carry a bizarre obsession with serial and spree killers. My wife has a rather large section of our library dedicated to the subject and she is, by no means, alone in her focus. They seem to be a part of the American mythic collective, where we tend to view them as something significantly more, or less, than human. In our minds, they are monstrous, gigantic beings of grotesque intent and capability instead of broken human beings acting in a horrific fashion. Therefore, it is no surprise that we get so much fiction focused on them. 

In Cain’s Blood, Geoffrey Gerard  gives us a world where the proverbial mad scientist (as a part of the Grand Organization of Super-Mad Scientists, under the guise of a humble evil corporation) has taken to cloning some of America’s worse serial killers. Ostensibly, this is to isolate the gene that makes us do evil things to each other (I believe they called it the Cain gene, out of subtlety), but we all know that isn’t what it will end up being used for, right? Now, a group of those kids are roaming the country and painting it fifty shades of crimson. Enter former soldier and current merc Shawn Castillo and the “pure” clone of Jeffrey Dahmer, Jeff Jacobson, to hunt them down. Blood, paranoia and introspection ensue.

Comparisons to Crichton and Harris are inevitable. You have tons of somewhat scientific mumbo-jumbo at the heart of a tale that focus on a determined sleuth’s manhunt or a sadistic killer (or killers, in this case). Hell, I’d throw in the political paranoia of Robert Ludlum in there, too. If you like them, I’m sure you’ll enjoy yourself with this one. I don’t.

I see a lot of potential here. We’ve got a boy struggling to define himself and figure out if he is what he was designed to be, or his own person. Monster or Man. We’ve got a modern equivalent to the old broken down P.I. of the noir days, with his own personal demons tied inextricably to the larger events of the books. A bit of a buddy cop thing between two seemingly disparate individuals who are forced to put aside their mutual distrust and realize how alike they truly are (in the sense that they were both designed to kill). Hell, there is a monumental opportunity to deal with the dichotomy of value and horror we place on mass murder, as a society. Any one of those things could get me doing a jig. All of them would leave me convulsing.

However, that potential just wasn’t met for me. The boy is largely sidelined (though he has his own book, Project Cain, which may delve face first into his interior dilemma). The nefarious demons are completely monochromatic, moustache twirling, muwahahahaing baddies with no depth to make them interesting to me. To me, though the worst part is how on- the-nose it is about the grand thematic tie in. At a couple points, the narrative stops dead to have a character, usually Castillo of Jeff, point out that soldiers aren’t much more than murderers for hire. I don’t like feeling as if the writer is calling me stupid.

Don’t get me wrong, the writing itself is usually tight and the pacing, when not stopped dead by exposition, is smooth as butter. Certainly, fans of the aforementioned authors will enjoy themselves here. But, I couldn’t get past what I so much wanted this novel to be. However, I admit being incredibly curious about Project Cain, since the kid was the character I really wanted to know more about.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Things Slip Through (Crystal Lake), by Kevin Lucia

I’m starting to wonder what will happen if I keep staring at these words, what will happen if I keep reading them, what will happen to them, to me? Will they slide down onto the scuffed Formica tabletop, slither over to my hand, melt into my skin, ride my blood to my brain and burn themselves forever there?

Gary Braunbeck, in the intro to Fran Friel’s frankly ass kicking collection Mama’s Boy, mentions how Peter Straub changed the expectations of a collection. No longer can an author get away with something as mundane as what often amounts to a “best of” grouping of unconnected short stories. They have to have some sort of through line, some thematic connection. With Things Slip Through, Kevin Lucia has taken that idea to its next logical step, compiling his short fiction in a way that tells a larger tale through them. It’s a heck of an endeavor that grabbed my attention immediately.

The first tale of the bunch, “Lament”, was by far the most effective and affecting one presented and does a heck of a job of kicking the door off its hinges. Nominally, it’s a story of repressed anger, violent revenge and racism in the wake of national horror. Nominally. But, under the surface lurks a far more crushing chronicle of the dangers of inaction and the guilt that accompanies it. There is no doubt that Kevin is out for blood and hearts with this one.

Then we’ve got “The Water God of Clarke Street”, wherein an intrepid and witty young girl turns the tables on an elder bastard in a way that slyly plays with the development of abusive and exploitative relationships teen girls sometimes find themselves in. And there is “The Gate and the Way”, a nifty cycle paying homage to ye olde Yog Sothoth and the terrors of watching family turn into something we no longer recognize. Ooh-ooh aaaannd “A Brother’s Keeper”, where selfishness is repaid in kind. But we can’t forget “Mr. Nobody,” where a young boy’s salvation comes from an unlikely source.

These show Lucia at his best. When his voice is warm and inviting, like chatting it up with an old codger at the local hole in the wall bar. When his Serling-esque sense of situational irony plays out as smooth as butter. When his characters jump, living and breathing, from the page. Good Old awesomesauce on a twelve grain bun.

But there are some problems. The wraparound narrative, ambitious as it is, starts off a bit awkward and contrived, making it harder for me to invest in those characters. Also, the journey of our intrepid Sherriff does not seem to end with much of a point. Perhaps it is intended to be a journey of finding purpose, but the value of the purpose is not particularly clear (as compared to the interior narratives of Gavin’s similar journey). Also, it seems like some of the stories are altered to fit this overall narrative, in a way that does not fit the story itself well.

Then there are some of the stories that don’t stand up to the standard set by those listed earlier. For instance, “Bassler Road” comes across as a pretty standard Carnival of Souls type of storywhere the point seems to be redemption, but the only temptation in the opposite direction is an obviously foul demon. The conflict there just felt limp to me. “On a Midnight Black Chessie” was an overall good story, but the beginning, which seemed like it was supposed to tie into the end, didn’t quite fit with the later portion. That created some dissonance that was tough to get past. Same goes with the Deus Ex Machina in “The Monster.”

So, yeah, there are some issues that I think could have been smoothed out and some stories that I didn’t entirely believe needed to be here. However, the collection overall entertained me and had a couple stories that absolutely wrecked me. I can’t give you a higher recommendation than that.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

An Inheritance of Stone (Aliteration Ink), by Leslie J. Anderson

According to the author, this collection of poetry was almost named Ponies and Rocketships and, truth be told, that would have been a significantly more honest title. It lays out the twin obsessions with horses and space that most of the poems held herein deal with. And the Walt Whitman quote makes more sense in that context.

Now, if you did not close out this window already (chased away by the mention of poetry, ponies, space and Walt Whitman as much of the populace would be) there is a chance you may enjoy yourself with this book. Feel free to pat yourself on the back as you continue.

There are some really fucking good poems here. One, “Ponies and Rocketships”, actually made me cry while contemplating the sense of wonder and disappointment and horror and hope at the heart of watching all those bright, expansive childhood dreams of entitlement die under the rampaging foot of reality. Or “New Year’s Resolution”, which manages to encapsulate that same sense of grandiose expectation in the face of mundane truth in the space of ten lines. Or “Diamonds”, a chilling, sparse metaphor for the objectification of beauty. Goddam “Eulogy for Spirit and Opportunity!” 

Poems that carry the punch of personal experience, with just the right amount of metaphor to add depth and enough trust in the reader to believe they can understand without being spoonfed while going for the gonads as much as the funnybone. Poems that clearly could not have come from anyone else but this specific woman at this specific time in her life. That’s the shit I kill for in poetry.

However, the good ones are weighed down with a bit too much preachiness. A bit too much blunt force. Far too many that smack of the type of poetry you write to impress your college professors. Staid. Overwordy. Stiff. Lifeless. Lacking in personality. Bleh. Stuff like “America,” “The Nature of Gunfight” or “Stone” that only feed us what we’ve been told a thousand times over and without half the liveliness. Or the last stanza of “The Night Blooming Cereus”, that does everything except directly call the reader too stupid to understand everything that the rest of the poem was saying. And that isn’t getting into what I strongly suspect is a moment confusing the Vietnam War Memorial in DC  with the Korean War Veterans Memorial (which does not have names, only statistics, listed).

Leslie doesn’t just have promise, she’s got chutzpah and power and grace. And when it shines, it can blot out the sunset and the hero on horseback riding into it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t shine nearly as much as I wanted it to here and there’s an awful lot of dust choking out the light.

Monday, September 23, 2013

I Can Transform You (Apex), by Maurice Broaddus

A phlegmatic gentleman by nature, some mistook Sleepy’s somnambulant Demeanor for muddle-mindedness. Given nuanced consideration, this was rather true after a fashion.
-“Pimp My Airship”

I’ve made my distrust and general dislike of sci-fi and steampunk known in the past. I’m not into the fine details of your gew-gaws and widgets so much as I am into people. I want to see unusual situations and how they affect individuals, not argue the vagaries of M theory and steam engines. Whether it be revelation or change, that’s what gets me all excited in the morning. So then I get a gander at my mail and see the next entrant in Apex’s  “Apex Voices” series, containing both a science fiction and a steampunk tale. Ugh. But they’re by Maurice Broaddus and he tends to be pretty awesome with the wordings. Yay.

The bulk of the book is the eponymous novella, a riff on the buddy cop tale with doses of Gibsonish cyber-noir, political intrigue and issues of socio-economic inequality. That’s a lot to cover in a story ostensibly about a detective looking into the possible murder of his ex. It also contains “Pimp my Airship”, Maurice’s stab at an often ignored aspect of the usually idyllic steampunk worlds.

I Can Transform You fails a bit when it comes to the big picture portions of the tale. I don’t think I’m tipping too much of the man’s hand when I tell you that a conspiracy is revealed. However, the revelation of the conspiracy is a tad sloppy and choppy and a bit jumbled to make clear sense to me. It seemed thrown in too quickly and wasn’t developed as fully as my feeble little mind needed to absorb it. This disengaged me from the narrative more than I prefer.

However, on the micro level, it totally worked. I bought into Mac, the broken, disenchanted and general sour-sac asshole with a heart of coal that he is, in every way possible. He felt real to me, instead of another “bad-boy who plays by his own rules” cardboard cutout. He kept the tale grounded in his own misery and kept the narrative focused on the small, personal details. Even the end isn’t about enacting huge change so much as digging out the small piece of justice we need to keep moving.

Also, much is said about the lack of diversity in sci-fi. Hell, every alien species still seems to have a fundamentally Euro style and approach with slight pigment distinctions. But that isn’t nearly as noticeable before reading something like this, that contains such a pervading, encompassing feel of what this type of future would look like with the continually compiled baggage of race and economic relations heaped on your shoulders. I especially appreciated a version of slang that wasn’t the usual over-reaching and goofy dive for cool, instead opting for minor fluctuations on current slang. It made the whole come across much more organically.

“Pimp My Airship” may account for the first time a steampunk story has made me smile. Here, Maurice goes on the attack (quite literally) against the whitewashing of historical context that occurs in the genre. At the same time, he shows these worlds from an angle that most certainly must exist in most, if not all, of them but is consistently pushed to the background. Add to that the presence of the three types of people who seem to be a part of every revolutionary movement (the brain who actually has the knowledge and willingness to accomplish something, the voice of overwrought foolishness that everyone believes must be deep because they don’t take time to realize he is using large words to spout nonsense and the simple grunt with neither the vocabulary nor the intellect to properly voice his outrage but the determination to see it done) and you have a good time. At least, what I consider to be a good time.

Certainly, PMA was my favorite of the stories presented, even if the language was a bit too overblown for my taste (entirely intentional and a necessary part of the parody, I’m sure). The title tale could’ve used a bit more development in the grand scheme end, but I adored the character work and the bones of the narrative enough to make it worth my while. I’ve actually managed to enjoy myself in two genre’s I normally shrug at. Take that for what you will.