Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Book Review - Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey

Santa Olivia - Jacqueline Carey

Format: Trade Paperback, 341 pages
Publisher: Grand Central
Cover Design: Alan Ayers
Release Date: May 29, 2009
ISBN-10: 0-44619817X
ISBN-13: 978-0446198172

Santa Olivia is an urban, post-apocalyptic novel concerning a small community caught in a battle of borders and subsequently set apart from the rest of America by the military. A plague threatens the U.S. and the border with Mexico is sealed. Santa Olivia, a small Texas town, is isolated between the walls of the two paranoid countries. The tale of the Garron family (and the town itself) is a study of human alienation, the loss of technological amenities, and isolation. But it is also one of strength and survival under the most demanding of situations. Carey's strength is by far the modeling of her characters. They become so real that you'll begin to feel their emotions after only a few pages. The story delves into the raw emotion of abandonment (on many different levels) and confronts the issue in a very unique way.

Loup Garron is the child of an incarcerated mother and an “enhanced” father who shows up in the cordoned off city of Santa Olivia. A stranger and “different from other men,” he is befriended and then loved by Loup's mother. As the story unravels we find that Loup’s father was a genetically engineered human who has super strength and that fear has been completely engineered out of him. When Loup is born in the town square under the statue of Santa Olivia many take it as a sign of protection. But a few years later Loup's mother dies from the plague and she and her brother are forced to move to the local orphanage. Loup’s brother, Tommy, begins working at the local boxing gymnasium and realizes that if he becomes a boxer and beats the favored Army boxer he will win freedom for himself and his sister.


But Tommy dies in a fixed prizefight when his opponent is switched with a twin that is also “enhanced.” Loup picks up the mantle and trains to destroy the man who killed her brother. In the end, she wins the fight but is taken into custody when the military realizes that she too is “enhanced.” She is tortured and beaten but, with the help of an improbable ally, eventually escapes to Mexico.

Note: According to legend, Saint Olivia was the beautiful daughter of a noble family. At the age of thirteen she was kidnapped and taken as a slave. Impressed by her virtue and beauty her abductors permitted her to live in a cave as a hermitess. Later, she began to perform miracle cures on the local sick. Consequently she was imprisoned and tortured. She was sentenced to be burnt to death, but the flames would not touch her. She was finally decapitated. Her sainthood is celebrated on June 10th.

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Book Review - Death's Head Series by David Gunn

Death’s Head Series
David Gunn

1. Death’s Head (4 ½ stars out of 5)
2. Death’s Head: Maximum Offense (4 stars out of 5)
3. Death’s Head: Day of the Damned (4 stars out of 5)

When it’s time to put down those dusty classics, the recommended high-brow literature and your lengthy summer reading list I suggest you pick up any one of David Gunn’s Death’s Head books. They are the Science Fiction equivalent of the action adventure blockbuster movies you’ve come to know and love. The stories move faster than the speed of light and are quite literally jammed with swearing, shooting and screwing (not necessarily in that order.) Between the three S’s however, you’ll find great storytelling, sharp dialogue and quite a few unique literary inventions. Wait! That just doesn’t give justice to Gunn’s work. There is backstabbing, compassion, evisceration and even a bit of technological tom-foolery. Yes, I said it – tom-foolery. How else do you explain the computer chip resurrection some characters achieve? But take my word for it this is not a cheap sub-plot to play god. There is logic and purpose behind the concept. You’ll feel it before you truly understand it.

The Death’s Head books are military Science Fiction the way it was intended to be written and the way it must be read. The characters are the meanest, nastiest, toughest survival-types you’ll ever meet and they find themselves in impossible situations under unbelievable odds. Yet, they still manage to stay sane and complete the missions (well, most of them anyway.) Two of my favorite creations are the talking gun (and a smart-ass to boot) and a cognizant, sentient planet. You really have to read them to understand the complexities involved. But believe me when I tell you that it’s absolutely worth it. I’ve been reading the series since the publication of the very first book and I wait impatiently for each next installment to hit the bookstores. (I haven’t done that since Harry Potter!) This is great solid, throw-back military Science Fiction and I assure you that you won’t be wasting your money if you purchase every book in the series.
The Alternative
Southeast, Wisconsin

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Book Review - Personal Effects: Dark Arts

Personal Effects: Dark Arts
J C Hutchins and Jordan Weisman

“Personal Effects: Dark Arts” is a bleak, noir story of gruesome multiple murders and the physiatrist assigned to interview the suspected criminal responsible. But there is so much more to this story then I ever expected. It is a dark mystery with a very unusual and highly unique concept. Packaged inside the front cover and included with the purchase is a myriad of physical clues. Included documents, photographs, and personal effects provide minute clues and added enjoyment to the story. The files of ephemera add to the mystery and the unsolved murders. Sticky notes with phone numbers, funeral cards with websites, driver’s license, credit cards, etc. all provide evidence to the actual architect of the numerous heinous crimes committed. The story, in short, might have stood well on its own merits but the addition of the physical evidence made it much more enjoyable for me and is a unique concept that I've never seen before.

The protagonist, Zach Taylor, a psychiatrist who practices art therapy, is given the case of one Martin Grace an ex-CIA operative who has a sordid past. Martin is incarcerated at the Brinkvale Psychiatric Hospital with a case of psychosomatic blindness and accused of multiple murders. Zachary finds himself involved more deeply than he anticipated when he is dragged into the dark world of Grace.The climax is a blend of clues gathered through the narrative with additional help from the included personal effects.

This mystery is highly accessible to even the most novice reader buts hold untold secrets for even the most experienced viral alternative reality gamer.

Good fun and a fun to read especialy for those who love to unravel mysteries by themselves.

4 out of 5 stars
(added points for all the extras)
The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Monday, August 10, 2009

Book Review - Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

“Sandman Slim” is by no means a literary masterpiece and thank the demons below and the angels above that it isn’t. It is, however, an extremely dark urban fantasy littered with the dead bodies of angels, demons, humans, magicians, civilians, Kissi, and Hellions, to name just a few. And one Hell of a good read!

The main character, Jimmy “Sandman Slim” Stark is forced by an evil cadre of magicians into Hell where he lives for eleven years fighting demons, monsters and worse in Lucifer’s battle-arena of the macabre. Returning to earth, with the help of a magic amulet, he finds that during his absence the magicians who sent him to the Inferno have also murdered his girlfriend. Bent on revenge and with a little help of his own magic Stark begins an epic search for the men who sent him to Hell and killed the love of his life. Along the way he is befriended by arch-angels, alchemists and monsters and hunted by demons, magicians and police.

Kadrey definitely knows how to spin a dark tale. His language, while offensive to some, fits the character of the story perfectly. Gritty, dark, angst-ridden and graphic the dialogue and fight scenes are coarse, bloody and down-right mean spirited. And to me that’s exactly what made this book spark. How could you not write noir razor-blades about a character this flawed and angry? Besides, if you had to deal with half the bad-asses Stark had to you’d be pissed off too! Beheadings, ritual sacrifice, demon weapons, magic, monsters and gore… just the way I like my back-alley fantasy!

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Book review - The Stranger Book One - The Labyrinths of Echo - Max Frei

“The Stranger,” the first book in “The Labyrinths of Echo” series, is comprised of numerous who-dun-it mysteries that are set in a magical new dimension. When Max, the protagonist, leaves his own dimension into Echo he finds himself befriended by a strange Magician named Sir Juffin Hulley, The Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force. The two men strike up a close friendship after Max is discovered to have magical skills himself. Russian novelist Frei knows how to tell a good story. Every chapter in the book is a new mystery with dark magic running throughout each. From a demon inhabited mirror, to a Grand Magician who is attempting to beat death by murdering innocents, to the creation of a New World (alternative city) by a ‘good’ magician, each story is well told and told well.

“The Stranger” is reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” and Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” stories but with much more action, “The Stranger” is set in a magical Victorian dream world accessible only via an enchanted trolley. Frei has developed well-rounded, believable characters and places but his real strength is his dialogue and the developing friendships of the characters. I always find it compelling when a new author tells a good story set in an alternative world. Especially when done from a unique and creative angle. This is one of those tales.

Engaging and entertaining this book receives 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

From the book flap:
Max Frei’s novels have been a literary sensation in Russia since their debut in 1996, and have swept the fantasy world over. Presented here in English for the first time, The Stranger will strike a chord with readers of all stripes. Part fantasy, part horror, part philosophy, part dark comedy, the writing is united by a sharp wit and a web of clues that will open up the imagination of every reader.Max Frei was a twenty-something loser-a big sleeper (that is, during the day; at night he can’t sleep a wink), a hardened smoker, and an uncomplicated glutton and loafer. But then he got lucky. He contacts a parallel world in his dreams, where magic is a daily practice. Once a social outcast, he’s now known in his new world as the “unequalled Sir Max.” He’s a member of the Department of Absolute Order, formed by a species of enchanted secret agents; his job is to solve cases more extravagant and unreal than one could imagine-a journey that will take Max down the winding paths of this strange and unhinged universe.

Note: Max Frei (Russian: Макс Фрай) is the fictional narrator of ten Russian fantasy novels which make up the “The Labyrinths of Echo” series (“Лабиринты Eхо”), as well as several other novels. He is also presented as the author of these and other works, although in an additional twist of fantasy, it has been revealed that Max Frei is actually a pen name of Svetlana Martynchik and Igor Stepin the true creators of this literary icon.