Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Touch of Death

A Touch of Death (Hard Case Crime #17)A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When washed up football player Lee Scarborough gets hired to steal $120,000 from a banker's widow, how can he pass it up? Little does Lee know that other people have their sights set on the money and the widow herself. And Madelon Butler, the widow, is the most deadly of them all...

A Touch of Death has many of the things I look for in a crime novel. There are multiple double crosses, gunplay, and the tension of being on the run. Madelon Butler is by far the most interesting character in the novel; beautiful, cold, calculating, and deadly. Lee had big hopes for the dough but wound up way over his head.

So why only a 3? William's writing seems really stiff compared to the other work of his that I've read, The Hotspot. It felt like he was afraid to really cut loose. There was no sex and only a little violence. The suspense was good but not as good as in the Hotspot.

The final verdict is that this isn't a bad read but is neither the best Hard Case nor the best Charles Williams book.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Fungus of the Heart

Fungus of the HeartFungus of the Heart by Jeremy C. Shipp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once again, I wrestle with the dilemma of trying to review a collection of short stories. Should I talk about The Sun Never Rises in the Big City, a bizzaro detective story about a detective and the search for the killer of his rag? Or The Haunted House, about a ghost struggling with its identity and trying to help a girl? Or the title story that starts with a man chasing a homicidal jester through a forest for killing his warthog? Or the fairy tale-eque The Boy in the Cabinet?

Fungus of the Heart is a collection of bizarre tales by Jeremy C. Shipp. While on the surface the only thing the tales have in common is their strangeness, a deeper look reveals that they're all about relationships. Relationships between a detective and his woman with a detonater inside her, a boy who lives in a cabinet and his cup with a smile drawn on it, or a gnome and her oposition to a war against goblins. The tone of the stories ranges from darkly humorous to creepy as hell. Many of them are so strange they have a dreamlike quality.

If you're in the mood for something different, give Fungus of the Heart a try. You won't be disappointed.

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Golden Apples of the Sun

The Golden Apples of the SunThe Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How does one review a book of tiny short stories? Do I describe the stories individually? Or do I just mention a couple favorites, like the one about the last dinosaur and the lighthouse, or the pedestrian, or The Sound of Thunder, the time travel story that everyone knows even if they don't know the name of?

I'm one of the few people that didn't have to read Fahrenheit 451 in school so the only exposure I had to Ray Bradbury before this was issues of Tales from the Crypt where they adapted his stories. Bradbury's got a quaint sort of writing style and most of his tales have that bite you in ass ending. He knows how to tell a short story without letting it get too wordy. 22 stories in 169 pages is impressive. Not all of them are gems but there are more gems than bits of broken glass in this collection, that's for sure.

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Starman Omnibus Vol. 5

The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 5The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 5 by James Dale Robinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jack Knight, with Mikaal in tow, takes to the stars to find Will Payton, a previous Starman and the brother of his lady love. Will he find Payton or only trouble?

As I've said many times before, what sets Starman apart from other comics of its day, or even today, is that it's about something. It's about family, stepping into your father's shoes, destiny, and a slew of other things. James Robinson takes characters that normally just wear spandex and punch one another and tells a compelling story.

In this volume, Jack takes to the stars and has quite a series of adventures. Adam Strange, the Steve Ditko version of Starman, Starboy of the Legion of Superheroes, the New Gods, an intact Krypton, and some of DC's C-List sci-fi heroes are featured. Ever think you'd see Ultra the Multi-Alien again? He's in here. So's Space Cabbie. And Jack even makes a reference to Richard Stark's Parker, something I didn't catch the first time through.

Other cool aspects of this volume include the reprinting of things that didn't make it into the original trades, like Starman 1 Million, the Shade's journals and some JSA-related stories.

Any negatives? Just one. Tony Harris defined Starman for most of the series. While Peter Snejbjerg's art isn't bad, it just isn't Tony Harris's. That's about all as far as gripes are concerned. That and we only have one omnibus left before the series is finished.

Starman is a worthy addition to any fan of comics that aren't just extended fight scenes bookshelf. It's a pity they don't make them like this anymore.

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The Murderer Vine

The Murderer Vine (Hard Case Crime #43)The Murderer Vine by Shepard Rifkin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three college students travel to Mississippi to work for civil rights and don't come back, and it's up to New York private eye Joe Dunne and his assistant to find out what happened to them. And he gets a hundred thousand apiece for killing their murderers...

The Murderer Vine is a fairly good crime tale. You've got deception, murder, some sexual tension, and a shit storm of bullets at the end. The tension between himself and Kirby, whose posing as his wife, is what keeps the story going. It would make a pretty good movie.

Still, it's not all that great. Joe Dunne isn't that different from most detective characters. Since Dunne has a good idea of who killed the students before he leaves New York, there isn't a lot going on on that front. The reader is left waiting for him to get the drop on the murderers. If it wasn't for the ending, I'd probably give this a 2.5 because it was so predictable. The way the Southern dialogue was written got on my nerves after a while. I was glad when Dunne wrapped things up and headed north.

Not a bad read, especially for Hard Case fans. It's an easy three.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Mornings in Jenin

Mornings in JeninMornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the West, when we hear of the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, we rarely get the Palestinian side of the story. This book is that story.

Mornings in Jenin is the story of a Palestinian girl, Amal, and her family, living through six decades of Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As such, it is brutal at times. There are scenes of torture, brutality, and killing. War is brutal business and Abulhawa doesn't let you forget it. People are senselessly killed left and right.

Amal's story was an extremely sad one. Every time things start goign her way, the rug gets jerked out from under her. I almost teared up in front of co-workers at one particularly poignant scene near the end. The book was originally titled the Scar of David. David is Amal's brother, lost as an infant and raised as an Israeli. Amal finally meets up with her brother decades after he'd been lost in yet another tear jerker. Her return to Jenin after years of exile in America was the best part of the book.

I could see how some people could criticize Mornings in Jenin as being anti-Jewish but I don't think so. Ari Perlstein is portrayed as a benevolent man. Besides, the story is told from the poiont of view of the Palestinians. Of course the Jews aren't going to be looked upon in the most favorable light.

Mornings in Jenin is a good read. Just be prepared to have your emotions repeatly stomped on.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Beyond the Moons

Beyond the Moons (Spelljammer: The Cloakmaster Cycle, #1)Beyond the Moons by David Zeb Cook

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Poor Krynnish farmer Telden Moore has a space ship crash land in his field. The dying captain gives him a magical cloak and soon every miscreant in Wildspace is on the trail of Telden and his cloak. Will Telden's life ever be the same?

Even though I played a fair amount of D&D when I was a lad, I was never compelled to read any of the related novels. Fifteen years later, I was in a haze of nostalgia when I decided to give the Cloakmaster cycle a try. While I wasn't wowed, I was quite entertained.

Sure, the plot isn't overly unique. Hell, the summary above looks like the origin of the Hal Jordan version of Green Lantern. Still, it was a fun read. You've got hippo-headed mercenaries, octopus-faced aliens, mysterious blue-skinned merchants, sailing ships that ply the spaceways, and, in later books, Giant Space Hamsters. The Spelljammer itself, a manta-ray shaped ship with a city on it's back, remains the goal of the series throughout.

Without giving too much away, Telden does a lot of running and getting betrayed on his quest for the Spelljammer, exposing the reader to the wonders of Wildspace (and hopefully enticing him to buy the Spelljammer boxed sets.) Those TSR guys were sneaky.

Any flaws? Sure. The writing. Each of the six books is written by someone else and the quality varies. This is one of the better ones. Also, the plot is pretty linear and predictable. Still, for gaming fiction, it's not bad. By the end, Telden is in space and firmly entrenched in his quest.

Not a bad read but you probably should already be a Spelljammer fan before reading it.

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Night Lamp

Night LampNight Lamp by Jack Vance

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A six-year boy is found nearly beaten to death and, in order to save his life, a portion of his memory is erased. He recovers and is adopted and becomes Jaro Fath, an outcast youth on the socially stratified planet Thanet. As Jaro gets older, his desire to find out about his past intensifies until he can resist the call of space no longer! Will he be able to unlock the mysteries of his past?

First off, I have to say I've discovered an advantage of reading using a digital book rather than an analogue one: no back cover flap to blow half the plot twists. Yeah, the flap revealed things that happened 60% of the way through the book. Bastards.

Night Lamp is a likeable read but it's not up to the standards of the Dying Earth books. While Vance creates some interesting cultures and creatures in the Gaean reach in this volume and the standard Vance formal dialogue is there, the sense of wonder is diluted with a sense of tedium. While Jaro is curious about his past, he only leaves Thanet 75% of the way through the novel. The first 75% is Jaro going to school and dealing with all the cliques while trying to become a spacemen despite what the Faths want. 75%. And when he finally figures out who was behind the death of his mother, there's a showdown, only it's in a courtroom. It reminded me of that Simpsons episode where Bart and Lisa watched a parody of the Phantom Menace that was all in the senate halls on Coruscant. The bit with Jaro's dead twin brother was fairly predictable. In fiction, how often does one twin actually die and not come back later in some capacity?

Night Lamp isn't a bad read, it just isn't up to the standard set by his earlier books.

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Merlin's Gift

Merlin's GiftMerlin's Gift by Ian McDowell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Right off the bat, this book has my favorite opening line of any book ever. I'd relate it here but I don't want to spoil it. Never the less, it was what made me decide I was going to enjoy this book and its predecessor, Mordred's Curse.

Merlin's Gift was a great sequel and a logical follow up to the first book. It's ten years later and Mordred and Guinevere are keeping things on the down low after the climax of the last book. Guinevere's sister is changing and Mordred goes to Merlin for help. Little does he know the size of the can of worms he opens in the process, leading to the end of Camelot.

To sum up: Interesting take on the Arthurian legend, full of black humor, and finished in just two short books

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Mordred's Curse

Mordred's CurseMordred's Curse by Ian McDowell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was really into King Arthur as a kid and when I saw this book and it's sequel in the Science Fiction Book Club's flyer one day years later, I decided to give it a chance. King Arthur's story from Mordred's point of view? Sounded interesting.

Interesting was an understatement. The story is told by Mordred and he's bitter as hell about Arthur, his supposed father Lot, and has a strange relationship with his mother. Launcelot is nowhere in this book or its sequel. The things Launcelot is known for, ie romancing Guinevere right under King Arthur's nose, is done by Mordred. And Merlin, don't get me started. He's a half-demon and a pedophile.

The story is engaging, dealing with Mordred growing up on Orkney, eventually joining King Arthur and falling for Guinevere.

If you're looking for a new take on King Arthur, look no further. Plus, the second book in the series, Merlin's Gift, has my favorite opening line of any fantasy book ever.

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Saturday, October 2, 2010

I Shall Wear Midnight

I Shall Wear Midnight (Discworld, #38)I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Things are hostile toward witches on The Chalk and Tiffany Aching aims to find out why. But how can she with the future mother-in-law of the new baron gunning for her? Can the Nac Mac Feegle help her clear her name and the name of witches everywhere?

Terry Pratchett has been one of my "buy everything" authors for years now and this book is a good example why. It would be easy for old Pratch to phone it in at this point. He's written something like 50 Discworld books and has been stricken with early onset Altzheimers. I'm proud to say there was no phoning in, or even texting in, in this one.

Like all of the Discworld books, this book is about something. It's about prejudice and mass hysteria, how seemingly rational people can be driven to do some pretty irrational things. It's funny how a lot of people dismiss the Discworld books as fantasy parody when they're so much more.

The Nac Mac Feegle, demented Scottish smurfs that they are, provide comic relief as always. Preston, the guard who's too smart to be a guard, provided a believable future love interest for Tiffany. Tiffany herself has come a long way since the Wee Free Men. Her grace The Duchess was such a foul villainess I couldn't wait to see her taken down a peg. The Cunning Man was pretty horrible as far as Pratchett villains go. And the cameos by Vimes, Nanny Ogg, and Granny Weatherwax were worth the price of admission.

Something that not many people mention, Terry Pratchett does a lot to advance the concept of the fantasy witch as more than juts a cackling hag. He portrays them more like shaman or jacks of all trades, doing whatever is necessary for the people in their steading.

So why a four? Why not five? I'll tell you, Arnold. For one thing, the ending was a little too easy. For another, too many plot threads were swept under the rug. Amber, the girl who's dad beat the hell out of her, was forgotten for most of the book after spending time with the kelda of the Nac Mac Feegle. The Duchess, likewise, was defused at the wedding near the end and it seemed out of character. The thread of Letitia being a witch came out of left field and also didn't go very far. It could be that old Pratch is planning another Tiffany Aching novel but I was under the impression that this one is the last.

All in all, this was a worthy addition to the Tiffany Aching saga and the Discworld series. Lots of laughs and also some thought provoking stuff.

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Friday, October 1, 2010

The Man with the Golden Torc

The Man With the Golden Torc (Secret Histories, #1)The Man With the Golden Torc by Simon R. Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Edwin Drood is a member of the legendary Drood family, a family dedicated to protecting humanity from threats. At least, that's what he thought until he was declared rogue and had the entire familly on his trail. Now, with Molly Metcalf, infamous witch, in tow, Edwin must find out the sinster secret at his family's heart. The only people that can tell him: the people he's been fighting against his entire adult life...

The Man With the Golden Torc is typical Simon Green. You have monsters, action, and dry jokes. The Secret Histories series is an homage to James Bond and it shows. The action is almost at a ridiculous level, reminscent of the Bond movies, making for a very exciting read.

The Drood family reminds me of the family from Roger Zelazny's Amber books and Eddie himself reminds me a little of Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius, only without the ambiguous sexuality. There are nods to the Nightside, as well as the other easter eggs common to a Simon Green novel. The enemies are top notch, be they Manifest Destiny, a group seeking to overthrough the Droods, or the Sceneshifters, a group that alters reality to suit them at will with the help of a mummified yet still living head.

So why only a three? Eddie is a little too powerful for me to care very much about. Each member of the Drood family wears a golden torc around his neck that allows him or her to be sheathed in a nigh-impervious golden armor at will. Not much jeopardy there. Also, his gadgets are a little too over the top. A watch that rewinds time? A gun that never misses or runs out of ammo? But the thing that really irked me was Edwin Drood's cover identity of Shaman Bond. It's not like the James Bond homage wasn't clear already. Shaman Bond is about as hamfisted as he could get. Although he could have called him Bames Jond or something, I suppose.

The Man with the Golden Torc is an exciting read and a good bit of escapism, quite enjoyable despite the flaws. I'd give it a three and a half if I could.

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