Thursday, January 31, 2013

Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When the King comes to Winterfell, Ned Stark soon finds himself given the post of Hand to the King by King Robert. All is not well in Winterfell, however. Stark's son is gravely injured and signs point to the King's wife's family, the Lannisters. Stark will soon find out that when you play the Game of Thrones, you either win or die...

Okay, so it's way more complicated than that but it's hard to write a teaser for an 800+ page kitten squisher like this.
I was bound and determined not to read the Song of Ice and Fire for a variety of reasons.
1. I am not a huge fan of today's fantasy novels, never-ending doorstop fantasy series in particular.
2. The series is not yet finished and I don't want to be Dark Towered into waiting years between books or having Martin pull a Robert Jordan and die without completing it.
3. Hype. Anytime someone tells me I have to read something, I almost always dig my feet in and resist. One of these days, I'll stop being stubborn when people recommend me books. Sure, most of them read probably 20% as much as I read in a year but there are reasons why certain books sell thousands and thousands of copies.

So after my girlfriend and I blazed through the first season of Game of Thrones in a weekend, I figured it was time to cave in and give it a try. My fears were unfounded. The Game of Thrones took over my life while I was reading it. Even after watching the first season of the TV series, I couldn't be bothered with things like cleaning house and eating properly. I was captivated by the tale of the Lannisters, the Starks, the Targaryens, and the rest.

I read an interview with George R.R. Martin where he mentioned liking historical fiction but hating knowing the ending before he started. Game of Thrones feels way more like historical fiction than it does fantasy. While there are magical elements, they don't dominate the story. The story is the battle for the throne of the seven kingdoms and intrigue behind the scenes by various factions. It feels way more like Pillars of the Earth than it does epic fantasy.

For me, the main strengths of the Game of Thrones are the characters and GRRM's willingness to do horrible things to them. While fantasy is usually about good vs. evil, nothing is so black and white in the Game of Thrones. King Robert is a man with a drinking and whoring problem. Ned Stark fathered a child out of wedlock. The Lannisters are a bunch of well-meaning scumbags. Jon Snow looks down upon his companions because of his noble upbringing.

As for GRRM's willingness to do horrible things to his characters? Don't get too attached to anyone. There were several shocking deaths in Game of Thrones and I'm told it gets worse from here on out. I can't wait for someone to settle Joffrey Lannister's hash!

For me, one of the marks of a good book is if it makes me want to rush out and write something similar. It happened with the Dark Tower, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Elric, Hyperion, Amber, and now this. Speaking of Amber, Martin thanks Roger Zelazny in the acknowledgments. I already knew he and Zelazny were close. Now I'm wondering if the machinations in Game of Thrones were in any way inspired by the ones of the family in Amber.

Differences between the book and the first season of the show are pretty minor. One thing that really stood out was that a lot of the characters were younger in the book. Also, there weren't so many women being taken roughly from behind in Martin's text. Other than that, it was mostly chronology and a few minor scenes that were missing.

That's about all I can say since I don't want to give too much away. This book is a monstrous tome but it didn't feel like it. There's always something going on and everyone better watch their backs. After all, Winter is Coming...

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Murder Was My Alibi

Murder Was My AlibiMurder Was My Alibi by Ray Garton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Detective Myron Foote is hired by Cynthia Thacketer to pose as her uncle so she can find out if the mob man she's seeing knows she saw him kill a man. Complicating things are Foote's feelings of responsibility toward a prostitute who knew his deceased sister and his own feelings toward Cynthia. Oh, and all the money Cynthia is planning on stealing...

With a title like Murder Was My Alibi, how could this book not be great? Easily, it turns out.

Maybe my expectations were too high going in but the plot turned me off right away. A PI impersonating a beautiful woman's uncle so she can figure out if the mobster she's seeing knows she saw him kill a man. Does that sound convoluted to everyone else? I didn't really buy the way Cynthia and Foote fell in love. It felt like she was setting him up for something more than anything else. The Bernice plotline felt tacked on. The ending felt way out of character for what kind of man the rest of the book established Foote as.

That's all about all I have to say. I didn't hate it but I didn't particularly enjoy it either.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013


HostageHostage by Robert Crais
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a convenience store robbery takes an ugly turn, the three perpetrators take a family hostage, leaving small town police chief Jeff Talley to sort the mess out. Is Talley, whose life fell apart after a failed hostage situation years earlier, up to the task?

Much like with Demolition Angel, I have to admit that I was skeptical about Hostage, one of Robert Crais' standalone books. Like with Demolition Angel, I had nothing to worry about.

Hostage is the tale of several hostage situations. The Smith family are held hostage by Dennis Rooney and the gang after their robbery, Jeff Talley is held hostage by his own past, and... well, I hold off on mentioning the hostage situation in the book.

Hostage is a page turner of the highest magnitude. Crais uses frequent viewpoint shifts to great affect. While the shifts sometimes annoy me in his other books, they are perfectly used here. Twist after twist come flying at Talley and the reader, some obvious, others coming out of left field. The only way it would have been harder to put down was if it were handcuffed to my wrist.

Talley is a great lead character, plagued with doubts and concerns for his estranged family. The villains are well done, a believable bunch of fairly clueless criminals, although there's much more to Mars than originally indicated.

Once again, Crais delivered the goods. I'm not planning on watching the movie adaptation starring Bruce Willis, though.

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Die A Little

Die a LittleDie a Little by Megan Abbott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When her brother's new wife seems too good to be true, Lora King starts poking around in her sister-in-law, Alice Steele's past, uncovering ugly things lurking beneath Hollywood's glitzy surface. Can she protect her brother before getting ensnared in the same web as Alice?

I've arrived at Die a Little, Megan Abbott's debut novel, after weaving a serpentine course through her other noir books. It sure doesn't read like a first novel. All the things I love about her later novel are there, fully-formed or very nearly so.

Die a Little is the tale of a sister trying to protect the only family she has. Her sister-in-law seemed a little dark around the edges from the start but things started sliding downhill once her friend Lois showed up. Once Lora hooked up with Standish and found the address book, things really started getting grim.

Lora's journeying through the Hollywood underbelly of disposable party girls, pimps, and drugs, was a little stomach-turning. The ending surprised me but I guess it shouldn't have, given that this is a noir book. It almost felt like a Jim Thompson book at times.

If I had to complain about something, it would be that Lora's brother Bill wasn't very developed as a character, but since Lora's investigation of Alice was the focus of the story, it didn't matter all that much.

Megan Abbott was in fine form in her debut novel, which is at least as good as her later ones like The Song is You. Four easy stars.

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cop Hater

Cop Hater (87th Precinct, #1)Cop Hater by Ed McBain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When a cop is cut down with a .45, Detectives Carella and Bush spring into action. But can they stop the killer before he kills again?

I was looking for another crime series to begin reading when the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain caught my eye. I'd read one McBain book before, The Gutter and the Grave, and I enjoyed it enough to take a change on the long long long series of 87th Precinct books..

Cop Hater is a police procedural about someone killing cops, set in the fictional city of Isola. While it was written in the 1950's, women and minorities get better treatment in this book than in a lot of its contemporaries. Steve Carella, the lead character, is engaged to a beautiful deaf mute named Teddy, is something I didn't expect but McBain manages to make their relationship believable.

Cop Hater takes place during a heat wave and all of the characters have frayed nerves from the beginning. All of the cops wonder which of them will be next, as did this reader. One thing I liked is that while Carella is the lead, he's no super cop and no angel. While the mystery wasn't solveable, the killings made sense once the motivations behind them were explained.

It's a pretty quick read. I enjoyed it enough that I'll read the next couple but McBain wrote 50-something of these things so I'm not sure I'll attempt to ever read all of them.

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Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came

Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came (Phoenix 60p Paperbacks)Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For the past decade or so, one of the ways I find books to read is to see who or what influenced some of my favorite writers. I discovered P.G. Wodehouse after he was mentioned by Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Christopher Moore, for example. One of Stephen King's influences for the Dark Tower saga was this poem by Robert Browning.

I've been a Dark Tower junkie for somewhere between twelve and fifteen years at this point but I never read the poem Stephen King drew inspiration from until today. It's not a long poem by any means. There are many reviews on this site that are longer. Yet it contains a lot of parallels to The Dark Tower series.

The poem is in an AABABB rhyme scheme and told in 34 stanzas. I'll note the Dark Tower inklings that jumped out at me.

The first four stanzas seem to be an inspiration for the first book in the Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger. Roland, recalling his wanderings, is tempted to give up on his quest for the Dark Tower by a lying old man with a staff. Sound familiar?

The seventh stanza also harkens to the Gunslinger, when Roland things of the others who have fallen in the quest for the Dark Tower. In the eighth, Roland resumes his quest. In the ninth, he's lost and the only man is gone, kind of like when Roland finds himself lost on the seashore, just before the lobstrocities attack.

In the sixteenth stanza, Roland remembers his friend Cuthbert's face. In the seventeenth, a traitor and a hanging are mentioned. In the flashback sequence in the Gunslinger, Roland and Cuthbert witness the hanging of a traitor.

In the thirty-first stanza, Roland finally sees the Tower in the distance, built of brown stone. Finally, in the final stanza, Roland blows his horn, signifying the end of his quest, something that didn't happen on the last iteration of Stephen King's Dark Tower, but may happen in the next one.

Sadly, there is no giant bear with a satellite dish on it's head in Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. For the bear, I'll be reading Shardik sometime in the future.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Prayers for Rain

Prayers for Rain (Kenzie & Gennaro, #5)Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When a former client commits suicide, Patrick Kenzie goes digging into her background to find out why. What he finds is a blackmailing stalker that anticipates his every move. Even after being reunited with Angela, can Patrick put a stop to the blackmailer's reign of terror?

Wow. After Gone Baby Gone, I assumed the Kenzie and Gennaro series would be on the decline. I'm not ashamed to admit I was wrong.

Prayers for Rain starts with Patrick at his lowest point and sees him clawing his way back to the land of the living. His case sees him reunited with Angela and spending a lot of time with Bubba Rogowski, all the while learning more than he ever wanted to know about the Nichols family.

Like all great mystery writers, Lehane showed me the way with one hand while picking my pocket with the other. For great whacks of the story, I had no idea what was going to happen next and the big twist really made me feel like a rube.

The villain of the piece was very chilling and his competence made him that much more frightening. Angie and Patrick were soon back to their old selves. I may have let a chuckle escape when they were engaged in some banter with a witness and she said "You two have a pretty act going." Bubba Rogowski showed himself to be right up there with Hawk and Joe Pike in the Bad Ass Friend hierarchy at the climax of this one.

Even though I'm giving this one a five out of five, it's not all peanut butter and honey sandwiches. After making Wesley seem like such a bad ass, the end was a little too easy. Also, it could have been longer. Other than that, I'd say this one was almost as good as Gone Baby Gone.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Looking for Rachel Wallace

Looking For Rachel Wallace (Spenser, #6)Looking For Rachel Wallace by Robert B. Parker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When a feminist lesbian author gets death threats, Spenser is hired to protect her. After he is dismissed, Rachel Wallace is kidnapped. Can Spenser bring her back alive?

It's been a couple years since I've read a Spenser book. I spent a lot of time looking for Looking for Rachel Wallace at used bookstores before I gave up and moved on to easier prey. Over the weekend, I was working on my girlfriend's door when my dremmel went dead. While waiting for my dremmel to charge, I ran to the used bookstore to find something to read. Imagine my delight when I found Looking for Rachel Wallace for the modest sum of $1.95.

I'll be honest: Spenser has never been one of my favorite series detectives. I get tired of all the talk about his moral code and even more tired of his relationship with Susan Silverman. Given the choice, I'd rather read one of Robert Crais's Elvis Cole books. However, I still catch myself being entertained by Spenser and this book was no exception.

For a paperback original from 1980, Looking for Rachel Wallace is surprisingly deep. Spenser and company talking about homosexuality, feminism, hate crimes, and Spenser's possibly archaic methods of problem solving. Rachel Wallace was pretty abrasive at times and Spenser's hunt for her nicely contrasted the two characters. Spenser tough-guyed and wisecracked his way to finding her, as he always does.

But it wasn't all kittens and puppies for me. For one thing, Susan Silverman was in it a little too much. For another, much bigger thing, there was no Hawk!

It's a pretty slim book so I don't have a lot else to say. Three stars, leaning toward four.

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Friday, January 11, 2013

Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth  (The Pillars of the Earth, #1)The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Confession time: This is not a book I would have picked out for myself. First of all, look at the size of this kitten squisher! Second of all, Amanda's hate-filled review of it is one of my favorite reviews on Goodreads. However, it's one of my girlfriend's favorite books and when she suggested I give it a read, I knew what was good for me. Lucky for me, I enjoyed it.

Pillars of the Earth is a multigenerational tale about the construction of a cathedral in a fictitious English town in the 1100s. Many threads are followed for it's nigh-1000 page girth. Tom Builder goes from being an expectant father to a widow to a master builder. Philip becomes a prior and the ruler of Kingsbridge. And lets not forget Jack, Aliena, Richard, Waleran, that bastard William Hamleigh, or any of the many other characters.

Ken Follett was primarily known as a thriller writer before Pillars and it shows. Every time things appear to be going right for the good guys and it looks like the cathedral is back on track, another monkey wrench is thrown into the works. For a book with very little in the way of action, I was enthralled. You can squeeze a lot of plot complications in nearly 1000 pages and Follett jammed in as many as he could. I have to admire the kind of planning it took to write something like this.

As I said before, I always found the size of this thing daunting but I probably shouldn't have. It's a best seller, and best sellers aren't known for being difficult reads. Since Follett is a thriller writer, he tended to keep things to the point for the most part, though I thought he was ignoring Elmore Leonard's rule about not writing the parts people skip a few times.

I don't really want to say much about the plot for fear of spoiling anything. It's a long read but the ending is worth the time it takes to get there.

Parting thoughts (may contain spoilers):
- Tom Builder sure jumped into bed with Ellen pretty quickly. Agnes' body wasn't even cold yet.
- Lots of rape in the 1100's
- Since Kingsbridge is fictitious, does that make Pillars of the Earth historical fantasy?
- I really hate William Hamleigh.

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Friday, January 4, 2013

STC in the House!: An interview with Shane T. Cartledge

Today's guest is Shane T. Cartledge, author of House Hunter.

How did you get involved in the Bizarro movement? 
Anyone who's a part of the Bizarro community will know how supportive these guys are. They genuinely want to reach out to new fans and new writers. I was a bit of both. I read a few Bizarro books, mentioned them a bit on facebook. I put book covers up as my profile pictures to show people what I was reading. I started getting friend requests from people like Carlton Mellick and Jordan Krall. From there, I read more, got into writing weirder stuff and read up about the New Bizarro Author Series on the Eraserhead Press website. And the more I read, the more I wanted to get in touch with authors. Part of me knew it was a business thing, getting to know people in the industry, but mostly, I've just enjoyed getting to know some fantastic people and read some entertaining books. It started around November/December 2010, I think, but it wasn't until November 2012 at BizarroCon that I got to meet a lot of these people face-to-face for the first time.

Tell us about House Hunter. 
It's an epic action/adventure fantasy that's got all the action and none of the long-winding nonsense of epic action/adventure fantasies. It's about a world where houses are living creatures that grow up in the wild and are domesticated by house hunters before they settle down in towns and cities. It's about a young woman who is struggling to make ends meet while the world around her crumbles. It's about house fights and legendary castles and epic battles. It's about being fun and crazy and weird and entertaining.

I had a Labyrinth vibe while reading House Hunter.  Are you a fan of that awesome movie starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly? 
As much as I would love to say yes, I can't. As much as I'd love to be a film buff, I'm not. I would be the worst film buff ever. I love movies, but I just haven't seen any of the films that I should have. Labyrinth was a little before my time, so I can't recall ever watching it. Maybe as a really young child, but I can't remember. I'm a fan of David Bowie, and I'm a fan of labyrinths, yet somehow I haven't seen the two intersect. I'm a fan of Pan's Labyrinth, though.

I already know about this since I was also in the contest but tell us about Thorquake
Thorquake was a short story I wrote for a Bizarro fanfiction competition. It was based around James Steele's "Felix and the Sacred Thor". The story was set in a hypothetical real world where the Bizarro scene was massive and BizarroCon was roughly the equivalent to something like ComiCon. It blended James' story with Jeff Burk's pop-culture novel "Shatnerquake", and just went nuts. It was a lot of fun to write, considering I was working with fictional characters and fictionalised versions of real people I'd never met. I treated it like a fanfiction send-up, and it worked out great. The year after, I wrote another Bizarro fanfiction for Spike Marlowe's "Placenta of Love". That one was called Plaception, and it was set in her theme park world and took her characters on an Inception-themed ride. Now that I've got my own Bizarro book out, I'd like to run my own fanfiction competition at some point during the year.

Was there a book that made you realize you wanted to be a writer? 
I would probably have to say the H.P. Lovecraft short, "The Call of Cthulhu". I was reading some of his work in my last year of high school, and in my gap year I started writing to pass the time. The stuff I wrote back then were pulpy gothic horror stories that tried to imitate his style. So that would have to be my most obvious influence. I'm not sure if there was anything before that that may have got me thinking about writing. I read Fight Club a couple of years later, when I was studying creative writing at uni, and that had a massive impact on my writing too. I guess that book would have had more of an influence in a professional "maybe I could do this as a career" sort of way.

Who would you say your influences are?
Neil Gaiman as an author (although I've only read American Gods), and as a public personality. I like the way he approaches folklore and fantasy from a gritty, modernised perspective. Cameron Pierce, for being fantastically strange. D. Harlan Wilson, for fucking with the rules. Carlton Mellick has influenced me a lot lately, for his limitless creativity. I'm also a bit of a manga/anime fan. Tsutomu Nihei is a big influence there, for his grand designs and fantastically sublime worlds that are exposed through his sprawling, chaotic storytelling. It's vast, sparse, and lightning fast. Hayao Miyazaki, for his beautiful films, but also for his apocalyptic manga, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I could go on...

Superman or Batman? 
Duh, Batman. Superman is boring. Super strong, super fast, AND he has a chiselled chin? I like my superheroes to have flaws.

What's your favorite book?
Just one? I'd have to go with American Gods.

Who's your favorite author?
That's a tough one. It's likely to change depending on what I'm feeling at any one point in time. I'll go with Cameron Pierce for now.

What's the best book you've read in the last six months?
I'd probably have to call it a tie between Shane Jones' "Light Boxes" and Forrest Armstrong's "The Deadheart Shelters".

Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
Practice helps you to improve, so a lot of people say to just write. Write as much as you can. I'd like to add to that, you need to get your writing out there, too. Feedback helps you evaluate just how far you've improved. I started off posting stories on forums and getting feedback that way, before I started sending my writing elsewhere, doing workshops, that sort of thing. Criticism is a most valuable asset. Sometimes you need to hear things out loud what you kind of knew all along. And, of course, it helps to know how to take criticism. You don't reject it because people fail to see your perspective, nor do you blindly swallow what others have to say. Weigh up their arguments. If they say something's wrong, that means something's probably wrong. They may be wrong when they point out where the problem is, but that part is for you to figure out. Know your stories and know your audience. And it doesn't hurt to give a little feedback in return. But if all else fails, just relax and write for the fun of it.

What's next for Shane Cartledge? 
This year is all about House Hunter. I'm trying to prove my worth to the publisher with this book, so I'm trying to put my book out there and reach markets outside the usual Bizarro audience. I'm also hoping to pump out short stories throughout the year, while I figure out what I'll be doing for my next book. I've got a lot of ideas kicking around as to what that book might be, and I've had a few people hassling me over one novel idea they want me to work on (which is nice, in a way, to have people wanting me to write more). I'm working on a short story at the moment that I think the Bizarro crowd will love. It's about a murder investigation that takes place in a prison in a surreal utopian society.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

House Hunter

House HunterHouse Hunter by S.T. Cartledge
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In a world of sentient houses, Imogen is a house hunter. When dark forces seek the mythical Jabberhouse for their own nefarious purposes, Imogen must sacrifice everything she holds dear to stop them...

Another year, another round of the New Bizarro Author Series. As with past NBAS books, you never know what you're going to get.

House Hunter is a bizarro adventure tale, more akin to fantasy quest stories than most bizarro tales. It reminded me more of the 1980's classic movie The Labyrinth more than anything else, with hints of China Mieville's Un Lun Dun.

The world STC creates is delightfully strange. Sentient houses walking around and battling one another isn't something you come across every day, especially houses with nipples on their walls. The pygmy houses were by far my favorite of the creatures he created. The story follows a fairly standard quest structure, complete with Imogen suffering some crippling setbacks before rising to the occasion and saving the day.

I do have a few gripes, though. Imogen wasn't overly interesting as a lead character. Also, there were a few occasions where I felt like I was missing something or turned over two pages at once. Other than that, the only other gripe I have is that "cannon" was misspelled "canon" on quite a few occasions. Other than that, it was a fun weird romp and a good way to spend a lunch hour.

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