Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett

Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep of the Royal Thai Police returns in Bangkok Tattoo to guide the Western (particularly American) mind through the underbelly of Bangkok as he did in Bangkok 8. Told from a distinctly different point of view, we see the culture clash of East vs. West in a hardboiled crime thriller that hits on some of the most poignant issues facing the world today.

In addition to his role as a trusted detective and gifted linguist under the service of the ever brilliant, entertaining, and corrupt Colonel Vikorn, Sonchai also serves as papasan in the Old Man’s Club – a brothel run by his mother and financed by Vikorn. The star performer, Chanya, of the club has murdered a farang (Westerner to us) who turns out to be a CIA agent. Realizing what is coming, Vikorn and Sonchai cover up the details of the murder in a web that soon spins out of control as Muslims from the south are eventually implicated while Chanya’s past in America is slowly revealed.

The murder mystery forming the backbone of Bangkok Tattoo is improved over Bangkok 8, but still nothing I’d call extraordinary. As with Bangkok 8, the true genius of this book is Sonchai’s unique vision of Thailand as it is shared with the reader. Biting criticism and humorous sarcasm are inserted as he recounts events to us, a Western audience. The West’s misunderstanding of the East and short-sightedness following the tragic events of 9-11 are revealed in a world of apparent moral ambiguity beyond our comprehension. As I said in my previous review, I’m in no place to say if Burdett gets it right, but feels like he does.

Fans of mystery and those seeking an adventure through a strange and real world in Southeast Asia should look no further than Bangkok Tattoo. While it is a sequel, it stands nicely on its own. Take a trip through the back alleys of Bangkok, through whore houses and tattoo parlors, into the Muslim south, on a Buddhist journey with a voice unlike anything you’ve heard before. Bangkok Tattoo scores 8.5 out of 10 – highly recommended.

Related Posts: Review of Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Haunts (at FantasyBookSpot)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Patrick Rothfuss Podcast

With the release of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss today, there is a podcast up at Penguin/Putnam. In addition to all the buzz at his website, there is my review, my interview, and this interview by Pat and Rob with the Fantasy Hotlist and SFF World, respectively.

Monday, March 26, 2007

A Tale of Two Covers – Gardens of the Moon

In this installment of my irregular series of cover art discussion I discuss two different covers of the same book: Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson One is the UK version and the other a US version. To muddy the waters even more – it’s not a black and white discussion. I don’t particularly like either cover – it truly is a gray area here (which is rather appropriate since it is a Steven Erikson book’s cover I’m discussing).

Chris Moore is the artist who produced the UK version (above) of the cover art for Gardens of the Moon. I definitely file this cover in the ‘traditional fantasy’ section with a nice castle in the background and some wizardly dude in the foreground holding a sword with lightening flashing from it. All in all, it’s quite cheesy, though it doesn’t quite achieve the point of me being embarrassed to be seen reading the book.

Really there isn’t too much for me to say beyond it being traditional fantasy cover (thankfully it is dragon-free). It has almost nothing to do with the actual content of the book as far as I can tell. It’s just there.

Stephen Youll is the artist behind the US version (above). This cover is almost universally despised as far I can tell. In some ways that puzzling, and others it’s quite clear why. Looking at the big, detailed version, I have to say that the artwork really is spectacular – particularly the background. The dark red background appropriately sets the mood for the book.

Of course the problem is the people on the cover. These two look to be taken from a harlequin romance cover and dressed in armor (isn’t cleavage a nice, practical touch for armor?). While the backdrop is nice, these people make for a truly embarrassing cover – I certainly wouldn’t want to be seen reading a book with this cover. The only positive about the people is that the woman isn’t worshiping the man – though she is still placed in a lower, subservient position. For the paperback version (below) they markedly improved the cover by omitting the woman, though the cover remains quite bad as they left the man.

Again, I can’t see any real relation to the actual plot of the book. As I mentioned above, at least the dark red color appropriately captures the mood.

So, what’s the conclusion – in my opinion, they both suck as cover art. However, the nod certainly goes to the UK version (as it usually seems to) for not being utterly embarrassing to be seen with*.

*No, I’m not overly concerned about my appearance to others or what they think of me or my reading tastes. But that does not remove the shame of being associated with truly bad cover art.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Bone Song by John Meaney

Bone Song is a genre-bending blend of dark/urban fantasy and hardboiled crime enshrouded in noir. Think Dirty Harry in a city created by the bastard love-child of Jeff VanderMeer and China Miéville – it’s close, but still a disservice to Meaney’s creation.

The city, Tristopolis, is the familiar urban center – we have skyscrapers, cars, roadways, police, upper and under classes, and crime. However, this eerie familiarity is lost in the bizarre world Meaney creates. Humans are not the only sentient beings – we also have various types of wraiths, werebeasts, zombies, and others in a world powered by necroflux generators – think the opposite of bioenergy. The bones of the dead literally power the lives of living in a world where life and death mean even more (and less) than in our own. Simple appliances might be operated by an enslaved wraith, autopsies are performed by specialized people who read the bones of the dead, and sorcery is another fact of life.

The horrifically realized world takes a back seat to the story – which is pure hardboiled crime. A mysterious organization piercing the ranks of the elite is killing celebrities to get their hands on their priceless bones before natural death confuses the issue. Lieutenant Donal Conner is assigned to protect a visiting Diva from this shadowy threat. His ultimate failure leaves him nearly dead from a sorcerous ensorcellment and recruited into a secretive task force investigating the killers all the way to the pillars of society.

Told mostly in the first person from Donal’s point of view, the plot drives the story forward, with strong characterization of the main characters and adequate characterization of secondary players. We see the world through the perspective of the locals, with little in the way of explanation and leaving lots of questions – in a good way. Donal is the stereotypical good, but not necessarily nice, cop – he’s got years of experience, lives a lone and insular life, and has long since gotten over the guilt that comes with killing someone. In a clever touch, Donal is a fan of fantasy novels and is seen reading a fantasy serial set in a world very different from his own, but sounding rather similar to ours.

It’s rare to find something that feels new, yet Meaney manages to succeed powerfully with Bone Song. A fantastic and unique world is created, yet only glimpsed at by the reader. The backdrop of a hardboiled crime plot cleverly disguises stories of human interaction, trust, mistrust, loyalty, morality, acceptance, and love while delivering a great mystery. My only complaint is that the ending felt a bit rushed and abrupt, while ultimately succeeding.

Bone Song is a dark and creepy delight for genre fans that I strongly recommend: 8/10.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Patrick Rothfuss On The Spot

My interview with Patrick Rothfuss has been posted at FantasyBookSpot. He’s a fun, easy going guy who has written a great book. Check out the interview, buy The Name of the Wind – you’ll thank me.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Dragon and the Unicorn by A.A. Attanasio

I still don’t quite understand how or why I read the entire book. The Dragon and the Unicorn begins with a ‘Prelude’ that is about 50 pages of incoherent rambling about life, the universe and everything – it was utterly painful to read. Then we get to the actual story part of the book – which turns out to be just another version of Arthurian myth.

A majority of the story follows Merlinus (Merlin) who searches for, finds, and raises Uther Pendragon to be King of the Britons in the age after Rome has left the land and invasions by the Angles, Saxons, and other tribes begin. The story is pretty standard with Ygrane, Queen of the Celts eventually marrying Uther to ultimately give birth to Arthur – this is not the story of Arthur, but his parents (I assume there is a sequel but don’t care to look it up).

Generally speaking this book is just painful – it attempts to be philosophically universal in the origins of the universe, earth, and religion. This is something that should appeal to me, but it just never works, coming across as New Age crap rather than anything meaningful. A few places in the book become compelling to read and that magical Celtic feel is achieved, but these are exceptions rather than the norm. In the end, I didn’t care for a single character in this book and it took an extreme exercise in will to reach the end of the book.

I can only recommend The Dragon and the Unicorn to the most hard core fans of Arthurian myth; everyone else should give it a wide birth. 4/10.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Sagan Diary (audio book) by John Scalzi

The Sagan Diary is a novelette by John Scalzi that falls in between The Ghost Brigades and forthcoming The Lost Colony in the sequence he began with Old Man’s War. The presentation is a series of diary entries from Jane Sagan just prior to her retirement.

The Sagan Diary is not an action book – the diary entries are pure introspection of Jane Sagan, Special Forces officer. No background into the world is really given, or even much of an introduction to the character. For this reason (and the lack of action) The Sagan Diary will likely only appeal to fans of Scalzi’s other books. At some times the introspective exploration bored me, but at others it was a really powerful expression of emotion – particularly the chapter about sex (which is really a chapter about love); this is really the shining moment of The Sagan Diary. The chapter is basically the thoughts in Jane’s head while she ignores what her lover is trying to tell her – we’ve all been there before, and the playfully raw emotion expressed perfectly characterizes her.

My only real criticism of the book is the use of language. The language is very flowery and metaphorical at times, using lots of big words. These are supposed to be the internal thoughts of person who didn’t really learn to speak true language at first – just thoughts. She even describes at length her limited vocabulary and use of language. It becomes hard to believe that these diary entries are from this person.

I have not actually read the book yet (I’ll get it when Scalzi’s book tour comes through town next month) – this review is based on the audio book, making this one of the more difficult reviews I’ve written. Can I really tell how readable the book is? Would I feel the same about the use of language? Did I miss anything when that asshole cut me off?

The accessibility of this book is truly wonderful – by this I mean that you can download the audio files here for free and burn them on just two CDs. The audio length of the book is just under an hour and a half. Each chapter is read by a different author-friend of Scalzi's. Readers are Elizabeth Bear, Mary Robinette Kowal, Ellen Kushner, Karen Meisner, Cherie Priest and Helen Smith. All the readers do a wonderful job, with a couple perfectly capturing what I’ve imagined Jane’s inner voice to be – particularly Mary Robinette Kowal.

Due to the rather narrow range of audience that I would think The Sagan Diary will appeal to, I rate it a 6 on my 10-point scale. Fans of Scalzi’s books can likely ignore that rating, as they should like it. The best part is that you can try the audio version for free with little investment in time, and if you like it you can buy the snazzy Subterranean version.

Monday, March 12, 2007

It’s Tourney Time – March Madness Goes SFF

NCAA March Madness is fast approaching and the folks over at FantasyBookSpot have cooked something up a bit different. Tournament brackets have been set up for two parallel tournaments – an All-Time Best and The Best of 2006.

Two books are matched against each other and then you vote on your choice for winner. You are invited and encouraged to defend your vote to the death (or just chastise others for their votes). It’ll be very interesting to see what the last books are standing. Oh, and some of the early match-ups are really interesting – poor VanderMeer, poor Williams – someone has to take on the big guns.
The schedule is:

All Time Tournament

3/12 - 3/15 – 1st Round
3/16 - 3/19 – 2nd Round
3/20 - 3/23 - Quarterfinal Round
3/24 - 3/27 – Semifinals
3/28 – 4/1 - Championship

2006 Releases Tournament

3/12 & 3/13 - 1st round
3/14 & 3/15 - 2nd round
3/16 & 3/19 - Sweet 16
3/20 & 3/23 - Elite 8
3/24 - 03/27 - Final Four
3/28 – 4/1 - Championship

Go visit – go vote – go argue!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Rothfuss Buzz

A couple weeks ago I posted my review of Patrick Rothfuss’ debut novel, The Name of the Wind. The buzz has steadily grown toward the release date in late March. Now the official website is up and running with excerpts all the usual perks.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Sagramanda by Alan Dean Foster

One of the more interesting directions sci-fi has taken recently is an emphasis on emerging economies and non-Western societies. Hallmarks of this movement include River of Gods by Ian McDonald and his upcoming novel, Brasyl. Similarly inspired, Foster writes of a near-future India in the techno-thriller, Sagramanda.

We are introduced to a cast of players in Sagramanda, a huge megalopolis of 100 million people in India’s east. Taneer is a brilliant scientist who has developed a revolutionary technology a massive global corporation. He and his beautiful, ‘untouchable’ fiancée, Depahli, are in hiding because Taneer has stolen this developed technology with the intent of selling it on the open market for an unimaginable sum of money. Taneer’s father is searching for his disowned son to perform an honor-killing to end the shame brought on by his son’s association with the ‘untouchable’. Chalcedony Schneemann is the problem solver that has been hired to find Taneer and recover the stolen merchandise. Added to the mix are a farmer-turned merchant who helps to broker Taneer’s hopeful sale, a French serial killer, the chief police inspector searching for her, and a hungry tiger prowling the city’s margin.

We follow the various players through the seething streets of Sagramanda – some hunt, some are hunted, and they all converge at a clandestine meeting one night. Of course, not all of them leave it alive.

Sagramanda becomes a character all its own as we see a microcosm of India – the poor, desperately poor, the rich, the tourist, the huge population, the filth, the decadence, and the contrast of old and new – through the eyes the hunters and hunted. The portrayal of India is fascinating – especially for someone like me who has never been there. As I said about John Burdett in relation to Bangkok 8, I don’t know if Foster gets it right, but it feels like he does.

The underlying narrative to this story of Sagramanda is merely serviceable. Yes, it’s interesting, but it’s not particularly memorable and is quite often rather predictable. In a city of 100 million, there are a few too many conveniences of the plot to be believable. The value of Sagramanda is the representation of India – the vehicle is reliable if not remarkable.

Sagramanda rates a 6.5 on the 10-point scale. It’s a fascinating portrayal of near-future India with an average techno-thriller plot holding it together.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Cover Art - an Article and a Plea

Laura Resnick has posted this 5-part article about cover art that was originally published around 10 years ago. It is a fascinating and troubling look into cover art and its importance to a writer’s success. A writer’s career can be made or unmade by cover art, and they have very little control over it – of course do they have any true understanding of the market and how it works?

As interesting as it is, I have to think that this article is out of date. As I say here, cover art has almost no impact on my buying a book (the title is probably most important to gaining my initial interest). Either I’m very rare, or I reflect a new trend in the market. This is the world of the internet, on-line buying, blogs, endless reviews of books easily accessible with a computer, and fewer and fewer actual book stores (and it seems that more often they actively hide everything but the best sellers).

I believe that publishers, art directors, and marketers need to give us readers a bit more credit when it comes to cover art, and realize that to us end purchasers – the cover may actually be the last thing we see when we choose to buy a book. The buyers for the big bookstore chains need to get with the times as well – STOP JUDGING BOOKS BY THEIR COVERS! The out-dated model of reliance on cover art may be a reason for declining sales of books (among others of course). Work on a good title, a good jacket description, get the book out for reviews in traditional and non-traditional sources, and good cover art – but remember, in an on-line world, it’s the words that matter.

It’s a whole new world out there and I believe its past time for some evolution here…

…but what do I know, I’m just a guy who buys a lot of books.
Celebration Time!

I started up Neth Space in early February, 2007 - just over a year ago - today another milestone was passed. According to the stat counter, Neth Space had its 10,000th visit this morning - WooHoo! We passed by 20,000 page views early this week (these stats do not count RSS readers, so I'm likely a bit late with this post).

Readership has really jumped in the last couple of months (the 5000 visitor celebration post was only 3 months ago) - mostly due to changing over to the new blogger beta which greatly increased the number of hits from search engines (google in particular).

Ok, enough about me - I hope to get through this article about cover art that was reposted recently (since I now seem to blog about cover art a lot, even after figuring out that it doesn't matter much to me - strange that), and I saw this discussion going on at Malazan - again, curious timing. For those that don't already know about - every Friday there is this a weekly fantasy art post over at Stainless Steel Droppings - it's good stuff (link to this week's).

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Teacups, Aesthetics and Fat

Well, a couple weeks ago I jumped into this on-going debate. I pretty much stopped following it since I said what I had to say, but it has morphed a bit with this blog by Hal Duncan (even Scott Bakker came out of hiding to comment about this one), followed by this two-part take on the issue by Jonathan McCalmont. Hal has followed up once again.

It’s all very interesting (though I recommend getting very comfortable and arranging for your next three meals before attempting to read a Hal Duncan blog post – a funny look at this here); however, I don’t have anything more to add – it’s all just works, and my eyes go blurry trying to follow it right now.


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