Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Links to Keep You Busy

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks for me. I had two conferences, one presentation, a board of directors meeting, plus the usual work and family obligations. Throw in a car wreck (I was rear-ended - thankfully neither my son nor I was seriously hurt) and hectic really doesn’t apply anymore. At least one of the conferences was in New Orleans and that was lots of fun, in spite of missing my family quite a bit. One note – Bourbon Street really is tourist hell, thankfully I went beyond and got a better sense of the city, though I didn’t get the chance to get out to the areas devastated by Katrina – I was on the high ground.

Anyway, on to the links…

  • I’ll mention it again – FantasyBookSpot is now Bookspot Centeral. Hopefully I’ll find time to update at least some of my old links to reviews I’ve done over there now that they are dead.

  • I’ve posted it elsewhere, but it still makes me laugh (remember, I am a Geologist).

Friday, September 26, 2008

Review:
The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason (Audiobook)

With my recent move came a longer commute that I make once or twice a week. To fill in some time and arrest the static, I have begun picking up the occasional audiobook. The first book I grabbed is the Da Vinci Code knockoff, The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason and read by Jeff Woodman (US, UK, Canada), thinking that mindless entertainment goes well with driving. I was wrong.

The Rule of Four follows four roommates at Princeton University. Starting with typical college antics, a conspiracy revolving around one roommate’s (Paul) research into an ancient Roman book slowly develops. Paul’s best friend, Tom, the narrator of the story, struggles with his past, his girlfriend, and his future as Paul’s research heats up and becomes deadly serious.

I intentionally used a rather cliché phrase to close the above paragraph – as it’s entirely appropriate for any description of this book. To put things bluntly, if I were reading this book, I would have been shocked if I lasted more that 50 pages. The book is simply that bad. The best way to describe things is that the authors attempt to show off for the entire book. The first half is dominated by silly, nostalgic college stories with the overwhelming feel of how ‘cool’ the authors were for attending Ivy League institutions. Even the authors attempts to forgo this problem only serve to reinforce it – the modest origins of two of the roommates and the token black guy for the third – the fourth is your stereotypical Wall Street banker’s son. Beyond the sickening feeling of how awesome college at Princeton is, the authors make darn sure that the reader is aware of their historical brilliance and literary prowess. Several times I found myself exclaiming ‘Oh God’ as I listened and I even decided I’d rather endure the interspersed static of 80s and 90s pop music or NPR stories I’d already heard than listen to one more minute of the book.

The story itself was cliché, utterly predictable, and populated with characters that I couldn’t find any interest in. Only the isolation of a long drive allowed me to continue. The ending, while definitely not a surprise, does work out well, but it is far from redeeming the rest of the book.

Another aspect of an audiobook is the presentation by the reader, Jeff Woodman. In this case, the reader only seems to reinforce the weaknesses of the book. He insists on making sure each character has a unique voice, and the result is damn near offensive – especially for the token black guy. When not offensive, it is certainly annoying. The main two characters come across as whiney wimps that I really just wanted to hit and the rest are nearly as bad. As mentioned above, the silence of the void (or bad 80s music) was often preferable to listening to this book.

My expectations were low to begin with, and those low expectations served me well since the book was even worse than I had imagined. I can’t recommend The Rule of Four for reading and I certainly can’t recommend the audio version. 2/10

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Review:
Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory

Following one of the more common routes to becoming a published author, Daryl Gregory, fairly well-known for his short fiction, has just released his first full-length novel, Pandemonium (US, UK, Canada). The world of Pandemonium is a reflection of our own – the difference being that entities known colloquially known as demons inspired by modern pop culture regularly possess people, reeking their own individual havoc in the process.

Possessed as a child by the demon known as the Hellion, Del, now grown, struggles with mental illness and the scars of his past. A car accident resurrects these troubles and Del seeks the comfort of home and a chance to finally rid himself of the affects of the possession that never really left. Thrown into the world of demonology and count-culture world of demon worship, Del wrestles with his identity and the very origins of demon possession.

Pandemonium will appeal to a wide-range of age groups – from the vibrant YA audience all the way through the aging baby-boomer nostalgic for the classic sci-fi and comics of their youth. Through his unique brand of Americana, Gregory explores such varied topics as the treatment of the mentally ill in society, influences of popular culture, and generational clashes of 1950’s-era ideals in the twenty-first century.

Del represents the classic stereotype of the modern young man – a screw-up who can’t hold a job and scrapes by leaning heavily on his family. Del’s foil is his older brother – the ‘good son’ with a successful business and wonderful wife who never moved far away from the family home. The devotion of the brothers to each other, with their at times bitter banter, is one of the touching aspects of Pandemonium. This relatively ideal family behavior is reinforced by the particular pop-culture emphasis of the most visible demons of the story. Strait out of 1950s world, these demons embody the ideals, fears, and mythos a post-World War II America.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are examples of past Demonology that showcase influential demons – the Truth, the Captain, the Little Angel, Smokestack Johnny, the Kamikaze, Boy Marvel, and finally the Hellion. Each shows both a pop-culture alteration of the world and deviation of Gregory’s America from our own – the most interesting and influential deviations being the killing of OJ Simpson in his trial by the vengeful Truth and the assignation of President Eisenhower by the Kamikaze. Other demons make cameo appearances to round out the homage to an earlier age of pop-culture – a ‘monster’ who haunts a rural lake in up-state New York and has become a tourist attraction and a still-living Philip K. Dick, possessed by the demonic sage, Valis. Another classic sci-fi reference of note is a secret society devoted to the extermination of demons founded by fans of A.E. van Vogt.

In many ways, Pandemonium shows us the death of 1950s pop-culture in our twenty-first century world. Or it tells a fun, accessible story of a journey through Americana. Both interpretations are true and Daryl Gregory’s debut entertains at multiple levels and shows a promise for more to come in the future. 7.5/10

Related Posts: Interview with Daryl Gregory

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Few More Links

I’ve been pretty well slammed in terms of being busy, but I still have a few interesting links to share (mostly because a couple deal with me directly).
  • SF has a new mind meld, and I was asked to share. This one is about the influence of an author’s personal views and if it has any impact on the enjoyment of reading and such. It’s a subject I’ve blogged about before, so I suppose I was an obvious choice. Of course, I’m up with some big names with a number of authors, editors, TV executives, and other bloggers.

  • FantasyBookSpot has re-launched in a new and improved format, and now is known as BookSpot Central – though the old name and links will get you there too.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Review:
Return of the Crimson Guard by Ian C. Esslemont

Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is arguably the most exciting on-going series in epic fantasy. Less known is that Erikson had help when creating the Malazan world from his long-time friend Ian C. Esslemont. As co-creator, Esslemont has his own tales to tell, related to yet somewhat apart from Erikson’s main series. His first entry in the Malazan world was Night of Knives (US, UK, Canada), the tale of one night in Malaz and one of the most exciting convergences of power we’ve seen yet. Return of the Crimson Guard (US, UK, Canada) is Esslemont’s second entry, falling in the time between Erikson’s seventh and eighth books – Reaper’s Gale (US, UK, Canada) and Toll the Hounds (US, UK, Canada), respectively.

Due in part to overextension, the Malazan Empire fades from the glory of its founders in the hands of the current empress, Laseen. The continent of its governmental seat and one the empire’s earliest conquests, Quon Tali, rises in rebellion, largely led by surviving ‘Old Guard’, long-lived, legendary leaders from the empire prior to Laseen’s rule. At the same time, the empire’s sworn enemy, the Crimson Guard, returns with visions of complete and total destruction of the empire while suffering internal conflict about the true goals of the invasion.

As readers have come to expect in the world of Malazan, Return of the Crimson Guard weighs in with a hefty page count and numerous plot lines that converge in a final battle. New characters are introduced, old characters revisited, and some of the whispered and rumored come to life.

Comparison to Erikson is inevitable for Esslemont, and the simple truth is that Esslemont still has a long way to go. Night of Knives was clearly the work of a first-time author and Return of the Crimson Guard is only an adequate sophomore effort. The brilliance of Erikson is his ability to tell a kick-ass story while interweaving powerful thematic elements. His use of the soldier and their equivalents as an everyman/everywoman entwined with dark, gallows humor makes equally entertains and inspires. Esslemont has gotten quite good at the story telling part, but lacks the depth that makes for great writing. Essentially lacking thematic elements, the feel of an everyman/everywoman, and that wonderful gallows humor of Erikson is nowhere to be found. On top of this, Esslemont often suffers with trying too hard, particularly with vocabulary. Especially early on, he utilizes unnecessarily big and obscure wording, often at odds with the point of view of the character at hand. Whether the attempt was to create the all important atmosphere of a fantasy world separate from our own or if he was just showing off a bit, it was an annoyance.

In the Malazan world, characterization ranges widely and inspires much discussion. I have always felt Erikson can do wonders for characterization with just a few words while Esslemont is still a bit awkward. He clearly knows the relevant facts about his characters, but only rarely does more come out – I’m left feeling that most of his characters are little more than note cards – a face, name, nationality, general age, with important actions. Unfortunately only a few really stand out as fully realized characters.

Another aspect of Return of the Crimson Guard that annoyed at times happens when Esslemont crosses the line of mysteriousness to a seemingly obtuse refusal to provide the relevant information – of course Erikson is equally guilty of this at times, but generally handles it better. I know that this is par for the course in the Malazan world, but really now it’s just become annoying (I was tempted to use the word infuriating, but backed off).

Return of the Crimson Guard is Esslemont’s second entry in the Malazan canon, bringing the total to 10 books and 3 novellas between Erikson and Esslemont, with many more to come. In spite of all the issues I mention above, the story that Esslemont tells is an excellent addition that becomes completely enthralling by the end – I read the final 300 pages in one sitting. Esslemont still has some growing ahead to become a polished writer and is not yet in the same field as Erikson, but I suspect fans of Malazan won’t be disappointed by Return of the Crimson Guard. Remember, I’m an affirmed fanboy when it comes to these books, so my ultimate enjoyment of this book exceeds its overall quality. 7/10

Friday, September 05, 2008

Review:
The Man on the Ceiling by Steve Rasnic Tem & Melanie Tem

The Man on the Ceiling (US, UK, Canada) is the re-imagined and expanded version of the novella of the same name that won the Bram Stoker Award, International Horror Guild Award, and the World Fantasy Award, the only work to ever win all three. With such a pedigree I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, only to find disappointment as the unexpected lingering reaction.

This loose mosaic tells the near-autobiographical story of the Tem’s family, at times sad, tragic, and heart-wrenching, yet always hopeful. The madness in their method brings forth an often horrific life to the text – these tag-teamed stories cross back and forth from a world of magical realism to surreal, playing with reality to reveal the truth.

As shown in The Man on the Ceiling, the Tem’s lead an extraordinary life – they adopt troubled and abused children, raising and loving them as their own. The exploration of their past, and their lives with their children and all the fears of life lies at the heart of this mosaic. A year ago I would have reacted very differently to this book, but now I have entered the world of parenthood. Part of the Tem’s journey that is shared deals with the death of a child. In the past I would have found this appropriately tragic, but not having children, I would not have had a true connection and relation to such a tragedy. As a parent nothing causes more dread than the even the thought of a child dying, much less my own. It’s this aspect of the book that affected me most.

In many books the reader can’t help but wonder home much is taken from an author’s own life. The Man on the Ceiling repeatedly emphasizes that ‘everything we tell you is true’. With this statement a line is crossed, the world of fiction blends into the intimate lives of the authors. So assured of the autobiographical elements, I eventually found myself questioning that very ascertain of truth – have the Tem’s turned a common reaction upside down?

Literary – the word comes with baggage in the genre world, yet literary describes The Man on the Ceiling well. Through the exploration of the Tem’s lives universal fears and conditions are revealed strait out of the American heartland. Plot is fluid, unfocused, even nonexistent. Reality twists, turns, and climbs on the ceiling to reveal truth. Such an exploration won’t appeal to all – in fact, it didn’t exactly appeal to me. As powerful as the Tem’s story is, it feels as if it pulls up short, not going the full length it could and should have. I expected a powerful affect on me that would linger for days and even weeks after finishing the book – not only is this affect absent, but the book is already fading away to obscurity. Combined with this not being my usual reading fare and the lack of that final, expected punch, I’m left with luke-warm (at best) feelings for the book. 6/10

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