Thursday, February 6, 2014

Book 8: Zombies vs Unicorns

That's right.  Zombies vs. Unicorns.  A collection of short stories that tries to answer the question of which is better.  The hope and purity of Unicorns or the despair and despoilment of Zombies. Six of each (and oddly and a bit disappointingly, only one story has both and even it doesn't have a fight between the two).  Here we go:
1) The Highest Justice by Garth Nix.  Medieval magical setting.  Nix can write and I would have a read a whole book set in this world.  Left me wanting more, much more.  It's a unicorn story with the help of a zombie.  Five out of five stars.
2) Love Will Tear Us Apart by Alaya Dawn Johnson.  Gay zombie lusts after hunk who's dad is a zombie killer.  Interesting set up, cool characters, nothing new here.  Four stars\
3) Purity Test by Naomi Novik.  More tongue in cheek than anything.  Silly fun with all too human unicorn in the middle.  Four stars plus one for the Fort Tryon reference.
4) Bouganvillea by Carrie Ryan.  This is actually a great short story.  Curacao is a haven in world gone mad with zombies.  Teenage girl with daddy dictator issues.  Uses the Zombie backdrop for commentary on survival very well.  Five enthusiastic stars.
5) A Thousand Flowers by Margo Lanagan.  Meh.  Odd story, written well, but avoids the unicorn themes in favor of strange mysticism.  Enjoyable though.  Three stars.
6) Children of the Revolution by Maureen Johnson.  Good short story.  Some of the satire misses, though the end is pretty good.  Three stars.
7) The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Unicorn by Diana Peterfreund.  Very readable twist with unicorns as bad guys.  Pretty standard YA stuff with misunderstood teen girl who discovers she holds secret powers.  One of the few books with an actual upbeat ending, which I appreciated.  Four stars
8) Inocualata by Scott Westerfeld.  Something in this one really grabbed me.  I suppose the half zombie is getting done to death and I'm getting pretty tired of having gay characters pop up all the time, but feels genuine.  I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would have.  Four stars.
9) Princess Prettypants by Meg Cabot.  Love the title.  A real unicorn story.  This might be my favorite simply because it totally embraces unicorns rather than trying to make them evil or something.  Sweet with just a tinge of revenge fantasy thrown in.  And Cabot can really keep things interesting, if a bit surface.  Four stars.
10) Cold Hands by Cassandra Clare.  Strange that one my least favorite is by the only author that I've read before.  Shallow characters, not terribly engaging backdrop, and too tidy end.  Two Stars.
11) The Third Virgin by Kathleen Duey.  Putting a twist on the magical healing powers of a unicorn who gets so tired of it all after 500 years (maybe more), especially its own murderous inclinations, Duey pulls off a very interesting piece on redemption.  Four Stars.
12) Prom Night by Libba Bray.  Near perfect.  Gets a lot of development in a short period of time while providing the creepiest story.  Classic horror.  Five Stars.

That's 25 stars for the Unicorns and 23 for the Zombies.  Unicorns win!

Book 7: House of Sand and Fog

More Literature!  But this was kinda ugly.  Yes, it's very well written.  But it pretty much doomsday all over it from the beginning.  Reading it, you know it's not going to end well and, well, it doesn't.  Extermely engaging characters incapable of getting out of their own way.  At times, the loserness of the parties involved feels overdone, particularly the cop.  Stressful, depressing, ugly.  Yikes, these are the types of books I avoid.  Last one of these for awhile.  I needed Lithium just to finish it.  Bring on Zombies vs. Unicorns for crying out loud.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Book 6: White Tiger

Holy moly! I read Literature with a capital L! And a Man Booker winner at that! What's a Man Booker? I had the same question. Evidently, it's awarded to the best novel published in the Commonwealth of Great Britain, whatever that is. So, I guess a book written by an Indian (not sure if he is from India or GB) qualifies. And I'm glad it did. I found it on my bookshelf, left over from a forgotten gift or loaner or something and the label announcing the Man Booker award winner is what hooked me. In short, it's amazing. Told through a series of letters from a rural, uneducated Indian who works and scams his way to a fulfilling life, White Tiger is at turns scathingly funny, deeply poignant, and flat out horrifying in its depiction of modern India. If I hadn't seen a Vice episode on similar themes (though more urban), I could chalk it up to an exaggerated imagination, but I can't. For someone in the so-called western world where my primary exposure to Indians is via my IT team, it serves as a stark reminder of what much of the world goes through, told by captivating, charming, and ultimately soulless character. BRILLIANT!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book 5: White Trash Zombie Apocalypse

Continuing the adventures of Angel, the white trash zombie, White Trash Zombie Apocalypse picks up shortly after Even White Trash Zombies get the blues. Angel is still dealing with her "condition" by stealing brains from the morgue, wondering about her relationships with Marcus, her sometimes boyfriend, her drunk father, and the mysterious Uncle Pietro. Now, she has to deal with a zombie movie filming at the local high school!! Sounds great, and it is. I'm a huge fan of Angel, who combines vulnerability, femininity, and good old fashioned kickassedness into a delectable plate of deteriorating flesh requiring upkeep in the form of human brains. Sure, it's all very ludicrous, the "parasite" that causes her putrescence is laughable, and the backdrop of zombie mafia (good guys) vs. evil corporation is, well, what it sounds like. But despite (or because of) the insane plot centered on zombies, Angel comes across as one of the most human characters I've encountered in urban fantasy. The White Trash Zombie books are all fun rides and this is no different. The action never devolves into brutality (though it skirts it), the villains are easy to root against (though there are some switcheroos) and the secondary characters all bring their own dimensions (particularly Brian, the zombie enforcer cum valet). It's escapist fun with a surprising amount of tenderness. But it's Angel that sparkles on every page. Told from her point of view, being a zombie is neither curse nor advantage, just another crap thing to deal with in what has been a fairly crappy life. She's feisty and trying hard to be a better person which could become very annoying in lesser hands. Overall, extremely enjoyable, not overthinky, and just a great ride.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Book 4: King Maker (The Knights of Breton Court I)

The gang infested ghetto part worked. The Arthurian retelling did not. Set in the 'hood of Indianapolis (didn't know they had one), Maurice Broaddus crafted a very ambitious work, resetting the Arthurian legend in a drug and gang infested landscape. On the surface, urban fantasy seems perfectbut the inherent limitations of the genre hamper the story quite a bit. We are introduced to a variety of characters, mostly based on different Arthurian characters. Instead of Percival, we get Percy, a simple, kind man caught up in events well beyond his control. Instead of Merlin, there's Merle, a white bum who emerges to advise King. There's Lott instead of Lancelot, a Fedex employee just trying to save enough money. There's Wayne instead of Gawayne, an advocate for the youth of the neighborhood. The best part of King Maker is when the story focuses on the different characters responses and interactions with their neighborhood. Broaddus does a great job of painting despair, hopelessness, anger. But when we get to the fantasy part, wow, it gets weird in a hurry. A couple of moments work, but there's a lot of nonsense towards the end and the climax just isn't interesting. The casting of King Arthur as King and his "knights" as a bunch of holier than thou types is less than satisfying. The characters that are interesting are the bad guys. King, Lott, Wayne, and Merle come across as a bunch of douchebags. I would have preferred a bit more complexity to them. Baylon, a reluctant gang banger who struggles to get the street respect that he desperately wants, emerges as a vibrant character.
Overall, there are some really interesting yet undeveloped elements, but the fantasy elements are so, well, weird. The writing is mostly on par with what you'd expect from Urban Fantasy, but there are glimpses of being more than the genre. It just never manages to escape itself.
Dresden O Meter:
Plot: 5. I'm not sure what it was all about. If I wasn't passingly familiar with King Arthur, I think I would have been completely lost.
Central Character: 5. No real central character, but the good guys weren't very interesting.
Fantasy Hook: 3. I still don't really get it.
Supernatural: 3. Seemed forced rather than organic.
Characters interaction: 8. The actual responses to the world were very real, dirty, and scary.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Top (or bottom) 10 worst fanbases in the NFL.

Top (or bottom) 10 worst fanbases in the NFL.
10) Philadelphia. Boobirds unite. They travel, but start fights, act the clown, and are generally disagreeable.
9) Jacksonville. Just not enough of them and poorly schooled in football anyway.
8) Baltimore. The day I saw a Johnny Unitas Ravens jersey cemented this one. I'm sure a lot of the fans are conflicted over their stealing a team to replace a team.
7) NY Jets. The Jersey penis envy of the Giants is just laughable.
6) Atlanta. Why are Atlanta teams the epitome of fair weather fans?
5) Dallas. So many fans who have never been to Texas.
4) Oakland. Some great fans here, but the thug image of the Raiders draws some really unsavory people.
3) Green Bay. See Dallas, add cheese heads. Never seem to realize when their team is mediocre.
2) Patriots. Arrogant, obnoxious, and unable to understand that NE is not the center of the NFL.
1) Seattle. Loud for the sake of being loud. People in Seattle love talking about their sports teams, but only in the most glowing terms. They seem incapable of seeing any flaws. And now, they've taken obnoxiousness to a new level.

Book 3: Cormorant

I like to read sequels as quickly as possible thanks to the groaning saga of getting the next Game of Thrones novel (pick which one) published. So, after knocking out Mockingbird, I tooled up the Amazon Prime and snagged Cormorant. I still like the Miriam Black saga, but this one went off the rails a bit for me. Overly violent and brutal at times (and unnecessarily so), this is even darker than the predecessors in some ways. I think Wendig is falling into the trap of trying to make each book bigger and badder than the last, which detracts a bit from the enjoyability of the first two. Sure, there was violence in the first two, but here, the violence is more random, less personal, and very brutal. The narrative structure with multiple timelines works a bit, but the "now" timeline never makes sense nor does Wendig make more than a tepid effort to have it make sense. Still, Miriam is one of my favorite characters in urban fantasy and is worth reading, though if the violence and brutality remain at the current level, I won't be as enthused. It saps some of the fun.
Dresden O Meter:
Plot: 8. Interesting and action driven. Kept my attention and I read it every chance I got. Falters a bit from the narrative structure, but still engaging. The lezbo stuff is very silly, highly gratuitous and reads more like a lame penthouse letter.
Central Character: 10. Miriam Black is so much fun. A bit of a male take on a hard ass woman at times at times, but she reminds me of people I've met.
Fantasy Hook: 6. I see how people die, but I can change that if I give the fates someone else. Not terribly original and it creates some problematic issues given that multiple murders seems to be in the future of just about any bad guy that Miriam encounters, so saving one person by offing the offending baddie probably has downstream implications, but oh well. It works with Miriam although it could use some tightening in the explanations.
Supernatural: 5. It's not a supernatural world the Miriam inhabits, though there are others who develop similar "gifts." The real problem is that the supernatural element, once it gets beyond Miriam, is undeveloped and poorly explained. It's kind of a catch-22 though. The supernatural element is usually at its best when it is undeveloped and mysterious. As it becomes better known, the mystery dissapates and the supernatural element gets tired. Overall, Wendig keeps Miriam's curse extremely tight. It's when he gets into the interaction and consequences that it gets very convoluted.
Character Interaction: 8. Miriam is just an awesome character. She's largely in the dark most of the time as to what's happening around her, but that doesn't matter. Her response to her gift is classic in it's determination.
Overall, the book is about an 8 thanks to a noirish writing and pacing and a brilliant central character. The "fantasy" part often creates more questions that it solves with some real consequential inconsistencies. But still enjoyable as hell.

Dresden Files Rate-o-meter

After downing Mockingjay earlier this week, I went to write my review and found I thought quite a bit in terms of the Harry Dresden books.  I read a lot of urban fantasy (about 20-30% of my reading could be classified as such).  I'm not a huge fan of Harry Dresden books, but I find them enjoyable in a mind candy kind of way.  I know Dresden isn't the first of its ilk and I don't care.  To me, the Dresden books represent the mid point, top of the bell curve, Mendoza line, or whatever of the urban fantasy world.  In order to create a Rate-O-Meter, I need to describe the central characteristics. I know there are plenty of definitions already out there and I'm probably not really qualified to pigeon hole books, but that's what I'm going to do.
1) Plot driven.  The plot to me is generally the most important part of any book. If it's boring, it's boring. We're looking for mostly linear storytelling of events that typically happen within a relatively short time span. There is definitive central goal that drives the action. For example, in Storm Front, Harry Dresden is hired to find a magical killer or killers. Goals can change or morph or shift, but there is a goal that drives the bulk of the actions in the book.
2) Central character. In Dresden files, it's Harry Dresden, wizard. In Druid Chronicles, the central character is a centuries old Druid. Sometimes, it's a regular guy or gal thrust into a magical world like Neverwhere. Sure, there are plenty of other players, but typically, there is one central character that the drives the plot. Sometimes, like in Dresden, it's a first person narrative. Other times, it's third person told through the lens of the central character. But make no mistake, the central character is supreme.
3) Fantasy Hook. Typically this is done through the central character. Harry Dresden is a real wizard in a world where magic is known to only a few. Miriam from Mockingbird sees how people will die when she touches them. In Neverwhere, the central character is a regular Joe thrust into a fantastic world.
4) Level of Supernatural. Related to fantasy hook, the level of supernatural is how much supernatural or magic or whatever exists in the world. In Dresden, you don't only have magic, but there are Fairies with their own hard to access kingdoms, vampires, werewolves, demons and all sorts of other stuff. Very high.
5) Characters interaction in the world. Almost all of Dresden's world interaction is due to his wizadry. This is more about level of "believability" and subjective like than level.
I may expand this as necessary as it's my first pass, but for now, this is what I've got. For me, Dresden is the Mendoza line with a 7 out of ten in all categories. All categories are entirely subjective to my whims and tastes. There are no other considerations.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Book 2: Kornwolf

Kornwolf by Tristan Egolf is an incredible read. Ostensibly about a werewolf in Amish Pennsyltucky, it's really a darkly comedic look into thematically dense territory. It's uneven at times (some of the storylines are more gratuitious than necessary) but overall, it takes unexpected twists and turns. I often struggle when character development sends plot to the background, whihc happens a bit early on, but once the main characters are developed, the story veerss from mystery to religious satire to emotionally rich family drama with almost reckless abandon, setting up a final quarter that defies explanation. I love that Egolf pays us off in the end, taking his considerable talent with the written word and obliterating most of the genre fiction that it definitely isn't. There's a level of care here in depicting a folk tale that actually has roots in the Amish community depicted. Like I say, it's uneven with some humor at the wrong points, subplots to nowhere, and a bit of over-indulgence, but overall, it's an incredibly strong novel about so much more than "werewolves" (I'm almost shamed by even mentioning this word given it's genre, trope filled connotations). Outstanding.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Book 1: Mockingbird

No, not Mockingjay, the atrocious end to the Hungergames saga. No, it's Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig, about a damaged twenty something woman who sees people's deaths when she touches them. Neither the character as a hard driving, cynical woman who likes to hit as much as she gets hit (there's a bit of Lisbeth Sander in her) nor the set-up of future death sight are very original, but the action moves quick and Wendig has a great way with language. As urban fantasy goes, it's as dark as you want with an intriguing enough storyline. Don't overthing this one as it really is a plot and character driven book and fun (if you can handle the violence, which is profuse). I need to put together a Dresden scale of rating urban fantasy like this. Maybe later today, but this one is tighter than the Dresden books, darker than most of them, more jarringly violent, especially towards women, and bit more difficult because of the violence. Overall, I liked it better than Dresden though I think some of the violence detracts from the fun.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Bottom 10 of 2013

When one reads 66 books, many of them way off the beaten path, one is bound to hit some stinkers. Since I love lists, here's my bottom 10 of 2013, ending with the worst.
10) The Subtle Knife. OK, maybe not entirely fair here. It's very well written. But for a YA book, it is intensely dark with very bad things happening. I had an extremely hard time finishing and it put me off to the last book in the trilogy for six months. Unnecessarily violent.
9) Summer Knight. I typically enjoy the relative mindlessness of Harry Dresden. But for some reason, this book was overly violent, lacking in humor, and totally perposterous. I know that's kind of the point, but I don't care. Just fairly dopey with little resolution or even advancement of story lines that I actually cared about. I took a four month break halfway through.
8) Hexed. Cheap Dresden ripoff and mostly forgettable. I think the Druid Chronicles are a bit better paced, but so derivative, it feels like I've read them before.
7) Dog of the South. Boring. Really, really boring. I can't even remember anything from it.
6) City of Bones. I like reading YA fiction. Typically easy reads that I can tear through. Some are great (Harry Potter, Ender's Saga) some are mildly interesting at first giving way to trite conclusions (Twilight, Hunger Games) and some are just bad. City of Bones is just bad. Uninteresting characters, Harry Potter derivatives (Mundanes instead of Muggles? Really?) and forced cliffhanger ending. Saw the movie and it was actually worse (unlike Hunger Games where the movie was much better).
5) Simulacra. I guess even Philip Dick should get a mulligan.
4) Amped. Like Robopaclypse well enough, but Amped never got amped. This might be the worst written book of the year.
3) Walk in the Woods. I can't think of anything more torturous than a long hiking trip, but a book about one comes close.
2) Warlock of something blah blah blah by Michael Moorcock. I was really excited about this. Until I realized it was socialist propaganda. Should have been in the social studies section. Pure torture.
1) Lando Calrissean. Laughably bad. Probably shouldn't be number 1 simply for the fact that it's given so much grist for my shit talk mill. This books should remain largely forgotten.

Top 10 of 2013

Of the 66 books I've read, there were some real standouts. My favorites of 2013, a list that does not include books I've read before (Gatsby and Ender's Game) for no real reason other than I don't want to. So here it is, in order, ending with my favorite:
10) Strangers on a Train. Highsmith at her creepy mind game best.
9) Wool. OK, so I read like 10 books in this series, but it was total dystopian mind candy.
8) Drowned Cities. One of the great recent characters, Tool, part man, part jaguar, part dog, part hyena gets a chance to shine.
7) Three Parts Dead. Took a bit to catch up to the crazy world, but worth the ride.
6) Folly of the World. Indulgent, vulgar, violent, and with one of the most twisted and haunting relationships I've ever encountered.
5) A Plague of Wolves and Women. I will never, NEVER, recommend this book. It's the darkest, creepiest thing I've ever read. I still thought it was brilliant.
4) Parliament of Crows. Take a great true story about murderous sisters, sprinkle in some crazy civil war shit and a dash of supernatural and presto, pure awesomeness.
3) King of Thorns. I was luke warm to Prince of Thorns given the sometimes mind numbing violence, but it really came together in King of Thorns. King of Thorns solidifies Jorg as one of the great anti-heroes of dark fantasy.
2) Cloud Atlas. Ok, going with an acknowledged brilliant book seems cheap here. But, even though it doesn't always work, it is an amazing piece of literature, totally audacious, insanely creative, and utterly jaw dropping.
1) Blood Song. Though I think Cloud Atlas is the superior work, Blood Song hit every note of the current epic fantasy.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Rants, Dismissals, and the occasional ray of sunshine from my 66 books of 2013

2013 is over and I made two thirds of my goal of 100 books.  A few random thoughts followed by some lists:

There were two books in particular that were mind numbingly awful:
1) Lando Calrissean and the Mind whattt?  I figured this would be pretty much dreck, but thought some good campy fun about one of the least explored characters of the original trilogy would have some merit.  WRONG.  Terrible in so many ways.  Bland writing, interchangeable characters and most galling, a contrite, almost apologetic Lando with no balls of any kind.  Horrible, horrible, horrible.
2) The Warlord of Air by Michael Moorcock. Great name for a gay porn star, but what a dreadful sci fi.  Started promising, ended in polemic.  Some dickhead said that it was the best sci fi/fantasy since Tolkien. If you like your socialism served in heaping doses of preachy prose without the benefit of any real thought, then this is the book for you.  RAAALPHH.
Award for "Not ALL Books by Revered Author are Classics" Award:
The Simulacra by Philip K. Dick. Interesting title, but wow, boring, boring boring. I guess when you write as much as Dick, there's bound to be a clunker, but I would have thought his clunkers would be better than other's best, which, isn't really true. Just lame.

Award for "I Never Knew Hitchcock was Such a Pussy":
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. Seriously, read this book, then get the Hitchcock movie. I always thought the movie was a high point of film noir with an incredibly well played psycho at the heart of it. But the book is on a different level entirely. Some moments drag a bit as one of the central characters spends too much time wrestling with their conscience, but, wow, talk about a psychological thriller. After The Talented Mr. Ripley and this book, I believe that Highsmith is the most under appreciated author from the 20th century. She may not have delved into the American experience like Steinbeck or Fitzgerald, but her creations represented the beginning of the sociopath as antihero that still dominates our entertainment culture. Plus, her writing digs deep into guilt and loss and friendship and so many other themes in such a uniquely twisted way. I'm not sure why she doesn't get enough run as a great author, but I enjoy her works tremendously.

The "Holy Shit, Did I Just Read That Award":
My readings have been fairly off the beaten path so there are a few candidates for one of my favorite awards. Honorable mention goes to Parliament of Crows which was so well done about three mystifying women and Prince/King of Thorns which put the "Dark" in dark fantasy, but the hands down winner was A Plague of Wolves and Women. It's almost an indescribably brutal nightmare told from the most nonplussed narrator. I mean, what happens is horrifying in every sense and no one is safe. But somehow, it's not awful to read, though it should be. I even gave it to my mom, thinking there was no way she'd finish it, but she actually liked it. Weird.

More coming soon....

Book 66: The Amber Spyglass

So I fell pretty short of my goal of 100 books.  I started strong, then work got in the way (and a couple of TV series that I invested in, namely homeland and finally finishing Dexter).  66 is a good number though.  I can't really get much symbolism from the last one, The Amber Spyglass.  I liked it,didn't love it.  The early parts were almost unreadable, but once Lyla comes back, it takes off.  Unfortunately, a couple of side stories are absolute snoozefests.  The crushing anti-religion element also gets fairly distracting.  Still, the story is strong enough at points to be a true page turner and I'm sure there's plenty of allegory (both obvious and not so obvious) that I missed or didn't care enough to notice.  Still, better than a lot of the final books of so called children/YA series that I've read with some good payoffs.