Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

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A little Fantasy and a little bit of Reality…

August 25, 2009

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Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik

Greetings all.

I hope all is well.
This time out I’ll be reviewing the last two books I read (omitting one that I tried to wade into and got stuck)
The first one is ‘Victory of Eagles’, the latest installment in Naomi Novik’s ‘Temeraire’ series, about sentient war dragons during the Napoleonic Wars.
I know, I know, it’s a seemingly insane premise, but I assure you that Novik has, over the course of the five books proven that she is an excellent writer with a unique talent for melding fantasy and alternative history.
In brief, Temeraire, a Chinese born (laid actually, in the first book his egg is obtained by the British Navy and he actually hatches aboard an English Man-o-war.
Colonel Lawrence is Temeraire’s master/partner, and the relationship between the two is absolutely wonderfully written.
For those of you that haven’t read any of the earlier books (which I think you should) I’ll spare you the details, revealing only that Lawrence and Temeraire finally meet Napoleon on the field of battle.
Maybe not the kind of thing that everyone digs, but if you dig the genres above I think you’ll love these books.

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Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture 1970-1979 by Tim Lawrence

The second volume we concern ourselves with is Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture 1970-1979 by Tim Lawrence. The book is a weighty historical tome based around New York City DJ culture as it developed through the decade of the 1970s. I – who happen to be a DJ – found it absolutely fascinating (if a little long). The book was full of revelations, technical info, vintage playlists and great pictures.
I can’t imagine that someone without a prior interest in the subject manner would be able to withstand the ‘thoroughness’ of the book, but like I said, if you’re interested in DJ culture, dance culture (disco and house in particular) you will find this book rewarding.

Next up: Last Places: A Journey in the North by Lawrence Millman

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I’m Back (condensed version)

June 28, 2009

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Greetings all.

This post has been a long time coming, and thanks to a lack of time right now will not follow the previous format. Hopefully I can get it together and start posting again, as I have been remiss.
The last time I posted a review (back in February?!?) I was in the middle of the book ‘In Search of Captain Zero’, which if you dig wonderfully written prose about surfing, is a must read, I found the story arc running through those descriptions to be anti-climactic, but I’d go as far as to say that if that if surfing interests you, it’d be worth picking up.
Around the time I was reading that book I underwent a serious life change, that being I left my job of 24 years to be a stay at home Dad for my two sons. I won’t go into too much detail, but my wife and I decided that for the sake of the kids, and for the continued sanity of the entire family, this would be the way to go.
This change disrupted my reading for quite some time as I became acclimated to the new routine. It was sometime in the spring that I was in the book store when I happened upon a display of various post-apocalyptic novels, many of which (including ‘Alas Babylon’ and ‘Earth Abides’) I had already read. One series, written by S.M. Stirling caught my eye, but thanks to the numbskulls at his publishing company, it wasn’t readily apparent which book was the first in the series, so I made a note, picked up something else (the excellent ‘World War Z’ by Max Brooks), went home and did a little research.
Good thing, too, because Stirling is a prolific author with several series to his name, including two related series that included the book I was looking for.
That series (known as the Emberverse) starting with ‘Dies the Fire’ has to do with a world beset by a mysterious, apocalyptic “change” that renders all electricity, internal combustion engines and explosives useless. It starts in the late 90s and progresses more than a decade over the course of the first three novels (numbers two and three are ‘The Protectors War’ and ‘Meeting at Corvallis’).
Stirling’s books drew me in right away. He has a real talent for plotting, creating compelling characters and researching the hell out of just about every topic covered in the novels.
I’ve read complaints about one of the major characters/settings in these books, but they didn’t bother me as much as the fact that if these books have a fault it’s an excess of “medieval battle porn”, i.e. constant, deeply detailed descriptions of arms and armor that got to be a little repetitive after a while.
That said, if you have an interest in good stories in the post-apocalyptic subgenre, I would recommend the first three novels in the Emberverse series. I read straight through all three (more than 1500 pages) and decided to take a break and read some other stuff before moving on to the next two (more are planned) which take up two decades after the end of ‘Meeting at Corvallis’.
After finishing those books I rambled and meandered through bits of non-fiction, magazines etc, before starting Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’. I only got about two-thirds of the way into it when I decided that it was too dark and depressing, but vowed to pick it up and finish it soon.
Right now I’m reading the autobiography of comedian Tom Davis (of Franken and Davis) which was a fathers day gift. I’m enjoying it so far and will report back as soon as I’m finished.

Next up – 39 Years of Short Term Memory Loss

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The Armageddon Rag

October 2, 2008

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The Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin

Greetings all.

I come to you today, a full week after having finished this book, only having found time to write a review now.
George RR Martin’s ‘Armageddon Rag’ is yet another book that I first heard about via BoingBoing.net.
Martin is best known as a writer of science fiction and fantasy. Though I knew his name, I hadn’t read any of his other work.
‘The Armageddon Rag’ was first published in 1983, and takes place in and around that time. It is the story of Sandy Blair, once a prominent journalist of the 60s underground press, now a novelist with a career that seems to be fading. The fact that he’s struggling with writers block isn’t helping any, so when he gets a call from his old publisher, to cover a murder of a prominent promoter, he jumps at the chance.
The murder victim had been the manager of a band called the Nazgul, who’s lead singer was murdered at the height of an Altamont-like concert many years before. The Nazgul now seem – against all odds – to be coming back together, and Blair wants to be there to cover the story.
Though I’ve seen ‘The Armageddon Rag’ described as a mystery, it has elements of horror, social history and fantasy.
Once Blair starts investigating the murder, he starts to reconnect to the scene he was such a part of in the 60s. He travels across the country, tracking down the members of the Nazgul, as well as touching base with his old friends who have all left their old lives behind to widely varying degrees.
Through his portrayals of Blair and his friends, Martin touches on many familiar archetypes, from commune dwellers to generational sellouts that’ve packed away their tie-dyes and moved on to the executive suite. That he manages to portray these characters so vividly without resorting to the kind of ‘Big Chill’ clichés that have saturated the image of the 60s in our collective rear-view mirror.
My only criticism of the book – and it’s entirely possible that this was Martin’s intention – is that I was never really sure (and this wasn’t resolved) whether or not there really was a supernatural element operating in the background.
That said, ‘The Armageddon Rag’ was briskly plotted, suspenseful and often touching in the way Martin portrays how the various threads of the 60s counterculture had, or had not resolved themselves fifteen years on. ‘The Armageddon Rag’ would make a great movie.
Now reading – The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol

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Stardust

August 24, 2008

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Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Greetings all.

I found my way to Neil Gaiman’s ‘Stardust’ via a circuitous route. My wife read a review of ‘Good Omens’ – which Gaiman wrote in collaboration with Terry Pratchett – it sounded interesting, so I grabbed a copy, read it and liked it.
Not too long after that we put the film adaptation of ‘Stardust’ on the Netflix queue. We both like it a lot, so I promised myself that the next time there was an opening in the reading list I’d pick up a copy of the book.
I took a trip to ye olde book barn and headed over to the ‘sci-fi/fantasy’ aisle to look for the Neil Gaiman section. Gaiman has been very prolific, writing novels, graphic novels (the acclaimed ‘Sandman’ series) and even childrens books. When I saw Gaiman’s name on the shelf I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were still stocking copies of the movie tie-in paperback of ‘Stardust’. It was sitting directly adjacent to the “quality paperback” version of the book, which was almost twice as expensive as the corny looking book with the pictures of Robert DeNiro and Michele Pfeiffer on the cover.
Naturally, I grabbed the cheap copy.
I’m always a little cautious when it comes to reading a book when I’ve already seen a film adaptation. Though most of these films manage to corrupt the books horribly, occasionally you run across one (like the novel ‘Last Orders’) where the film was a scrupulously faithful adaptation and the book hold no surprises whatsoever.
Happily this was not the case with ‘Stardust’. The film was a substantial departure from the book, with some characters/events amplified (substantially), others cut from whole cloth and others diminished.
The novel ‘Stardust’ contained a lot more story than the film (a good thing) and in the end I found that I had enjoyed the book a lot as well as having a newfound respect for the film adaptation, in which the spirit of the book was kept intact and deviations from the novel didn’t dishonor the original material.
‘Stardust’ was a quick read, and managed to be a ‘fantasy’ novel that was almost entirely devoid of the kind of clichés that usually cause me to roll my eyes.
Recommended.
Now reading – non-pleasure reading…

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Escapement / Watchmen

August 15, 2008

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Escapement By Jay Lake

Greetings all.
It’s been a while since I posted, but this is another one of those whipped through one book dove right into the next (and then again into another) things.
When I posted my review of ‘Mainspring’ I had already begun reading its sequel ‘Escapement’.
Though at the point that I wrote that post it seemed that Jay Lake had conquered some of the pacing problems from ‘Mainspring’, once I completed the second book it was obvious that instead of going away, the problems had merely come into sharper focus.
‘Escapement’ continues the story of the alternate, clock driven, orrery-esque earth. Though the hero of the first book is present only in a few peripheral mentions, two of the three main characters in ‘Escapement’ are carried over from ‘Mainspring’.
The main problem with these books is ironically also their greatest asset, that being the world that Lake has created. This alternate universe and the warring religio-philosophical factions that attempt to control it are a truly amazing invention.
Perhaps too amazing.
Lake spends a tremendous time on exposition/explanation, and the detail is wonderful, but I finished ‘Escapement’ wishing he’d spent less time on minutae and more time actually plotting the book.
My main issue with ‘Mainspring’ – that the story moved in fits and starts, with long periods of slow unwinding (no pun intended) followed by inorganic jumps in the story and changes in tone – was continued in ‘Escapement’. I found myself with less than 50 pages left wondering when and how the story was going to be resolved, and arrived at the end unsure that it had. Though there was an “ending” of sorts, the book concluded as if I had just purchased not a full novel, but the first half of one.
I’m not a huge consumer of series, but one that I’ve been reading for the last few years, and enjoying a great deal is the Temeraire books by Naomi Novik. Though the books cover a finite period, and the adventures of the dragon and its master continued from book to book, these stories (and the word story is crucial) have a beginning, middle and, here’s the catch, and ENDING. Each book, though connected to the ones before and after, has it’s own distinct plot.
‘Escapement’ has a number of loose ends, one of them unforgivably huge. The ending of the book points directly to a sequel, but ends not like a self-contained novel, but more like the first half of a larger book.
I’m not exactly a prodigious consumer of fantasy literature, so maybe this is par for the course (I doubt it), but I’m not sure I’m going to want to read the next book in the series.

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Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

On a more positive note, I finally got with the program and grabbed a copy of ‘Watchmen’ by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (20 years late…I know). Though I knew about the series (now collected into a single volume), my lack of interest in superhero comics kept me away. My interest was piqued by a recent review (and an endorsement by a friend), so I grabbed a copy at ye olde book barn, and I’m glad I did.
I know that the whole “turning comics clichés on their head” thing is pretty much a cliché itself, but Moore and Gibbons were  – in 1987  – at the vanguard of this movement.
‘Watchmen’ is, like the best of the genre truly a graphic novel (as opposed to a swollen comic book). The characters are complex (as is the plot), and the story is told in a manner that still seems innovative. There are sequences in ‘Watchmen’ that are absolute masterworks of the combination of text and visual storytelling.
While I can’t wait to see the movie, I wonder of there’s any way to bring the story to the screen without doing it a great injustice.
A good friend of mine – a huge comics fan with a serious grip on the history of the genre – tells me that Moore and Gibbons have steadfastly refused to expand upon ‘Watchmen’ with spin-offs, prequels or sequels. This is both cool – in that they feel the story is strong enough to stand on its own without elaboration (and it is) – and a huge drag because several of the characters, especially Dr, Manhattan are ripe for expansion.
Either way, if you’ve been avoiding graphic novels because you thought them lacking in depth, go out and get yourself a copy of ‘Watchmen’.

Now reading – Stardust by Neil Gaiman

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Mainspring

August 7, 2008

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Mainspring by Jay Lake

Greetings all.

The book I bring you today is yet another tome that I was turned on to by a post over at BoingBoing.
While I wouldn’t call myself an aficionado of steampunk/clockpunk (and PLEASE spare me a corrective post delineating the subtle but important differences between the two), but I do like what I’ve read and seen.
Thus, when I read about Jay Lake’s ‘Mainspring’ I filed it away for future reference.
A few weeks later the wife and I happened to make an unscheduled visit to the local Barnes and Noble (to avail ourselves of the restrooms, if you must know) and, in the kind of coincidence that seers and conspiracy theorists lay awake at night pondering, there, next to the bathroom door, was the sci fi/fantasy section of the store.
I was almost done with whatever it was I was reading at the time, so I figured I take advantage of the timing and see if ‘Mainspring’ were available. At first all I could find was Lake’s current novel (‘Escapement’, which I’m reading now), but then I decided to check out the ‘new in paperback’ shelf, and there it was.
The coolest (and simultaneously the most difficult) thing about ‘Mainspring’ is navigating the alternative universe Lake has created for his characters. Though the time period is the beginning of the 20th century, and the locale New Haven, Connecticut, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. The vast majority of the western world (including all of North America) is dominated by the British Empire, the rest ruled by the Chinese.
The equator of the earth is marked by a huge wall, the top of which serves as the seat for the gears on which the world turns. Everything south of the equator is pretty much terra incognita and the cause for much speculation, as well as the target for possible empire building by both of the major powers.
The hero of the book, a clockmaker’s apprentice named Hethor Jacques is sent on a quest by the angel Gabriel (the world in ‘Mainspring’ turns on a fanciful reinterpretation of Christian dogma, which in itself is cause for all kinds of conflict between warring forces).
Lake does a fairly good job of establishing, and elaborating upon his remarkable framing device. There are points in the book where the tone of the book ‘stutters’ a little bit, but he has a lot to establish here, so a little bit of unevenness is certainly better than another three-hundred pages of exposition. I especially like Lake’s ability to maintain suspense using a kind of motivational ambiguity about many of the characters.
I won’t spoil anything, but I’m about halfway into ‘Escapement’ and I’ll say that things have evened out considerably (especially since two of the three major characters in ‘Escapement’ were introduced in ‘Mainspring’).
Recommended.
Now reading – Escapement by Jay Lake.

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Good Omens

July 16, 2008

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Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Greetings all.

I’ve been away from this space for a while, but it’s been one of those stretches where I ended up momentarily bookless. I tried to remedy this by working my way through a couple of magazines, reading a legal abstract (on the history of the copyright of the song ‘Happy Birthday’, a lot more interesting than it sounds I assure you) I downloaded from the interwebs and then rereading an old fave (‘Jupiter’s Travels’ by Ted Simon) but didn’t get very far before the need to read something new (intersecting by a fortuitous trip to a book store, natch) led me to the book before you today.
My wife tipped me off about this one (though I don’t recall where she heard about it). I was familiar with the names of both Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, but had never read anything by either of them before I picked up ‘Good Omens’.
I hesitate to give away much of the plot, but the book is a comical look at the approach of the apocalypse. The two main characters, an angel and a demon are both very well drawn.
I’m often curious about the methodology of co-writing something as complex as a novel. I’m not sure how Gaiman and Pratchett worked it out, but they did a fine job. The book is always funny and occasionally poignant.
Though it does qualify as a “fantasy”, if you’re put off by the idea of a novel of that particular ilk (especially one co-written by a major force in that genre, as Pratchett is), don’t be. If anything, ‘Good Omens’ is more of a socio-religious satire with lots of interesting twists and turns.
It definitely made me want to check out other works by the two authors.
Now reading – Last of the Mohicans – by James Fenimore Cooper.