Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Book Review - The Frozen Sky by Jeff Carlson

The Frozen Sky
Jeff Carlson
Print Length: 348 pages
eBook: 472 pages (portrait mode)
Publisher: JVE
Publication Date: October 10, 2012
eBook ISBN: 9781936460137
Orbital Diagrams and Maps: Jeff Sierzenga
Interior Illustrations: Karel Zeman
Cover Art: Jacob Charles Dietz

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     Well before the printed word critics and reviewers alike debated over what made a good story and, conversely, what made a story good. Fortunately, those answers still remain a matter of individual opinion1. Better still, I like to express my opinion about the books I’ve read. (I have a keyboard and I’m not afraid to use it.) One of my own long-standing gauges for identifying a remarkable book2 hinges on a simple principle. If the narrative personally motivates me to sit down and write then I know that it wholly entertained, profoundly inspired, and/or emotionally stirred me in some way. It doesn’t matter that I’m not a novelist. That I WANTED to pick up pen and paper and write immediately after finishing Jeff Carlson’s The Frozen Sky is the important factor. As a reader the spark of inspiration, that need to create, is a tell-tale sign that a connection has been made, that I’ve discovered a truly provocative story of worth and value3. Simply put, The Frozen Sky is very much the story I’d want to write myself (if I lived in an alternate universe where I created best-selling Science Fiction.)

     Based on the award-winning4 novelette of the same name The Frozen Sky is a new, full-length Science Fiction thriller that in many ways compares to the classic ‘First Contact’ novels Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle and Mindbridge by Joe Haldeman. The idea that humans will encounter problems communicating with aliens is not at all a new concept but Mr. Carlson may have identified a few of the potential stumbling blocks we could face when trying to make ourselves understood. The near-impossible seeming task of “talking” to another race will certainly be a challenging experience but, if we learn from the “what if’s” posed by Mr. Carlson and his fellow Science Fiction writers it need not be a traumatic one. Despite the ‘hard’ Science Fiction label The Frozen Sky is not at all difficult to read. In fact, I finished it rather quickly and was thoroughly entertained by the creative premise, the right amount of page-turning action, the character development, and the plausible argument for keeping our heads when we start to physically explore our neighboring solar system.

     A planetary rover, sent to discover natural resources for a dying, war-ravaged Earth, encounters signs of life on Europa, the ice-rich moon of Jupiter. A robotic probe has discovered a millennia-old tunnel engraved with hieroglyphic symbols. And, where there’s language there’s civilization. Except, in this case the alien race encountered by an elite team of scientists is older than mankind and, because of the harsh environment, has regressed to an unusually barbaric state. With the help of a human-A.I.-hybrid hastily uploaded to a mech, one scientist fights time, newly-landed competitors from Earth’s remaining superpowers, and the aliens themselves to prove that the new race is sentient. But the military applications, mineral mining, and water-rich environment of Europa are too lucrative and tempting to an impatient Earth. Time is running out and there are factions on Europa that would rather eliminate the newly-encountered race than talk to it.

     In my opinion, The Frozen Sky coupled with his Plague series makes Jeff Carlson a logical heir of the Golden Age writers such as Isaac Asimov, Robert H. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. And we definitely need writers like Carlson to fill the void left by their passing. Not only does Carlson provide impactful science fiction but he also knows how to convey the nuances of the human condition in his storytelling. The Frozen Sky is an exceptional piece of Science Fiction, and is evocative, entertaining, and on par with the hard Science-Fiction5 works of the writers mentioned above. It adds to Carlson’s existing body of work and I feel strongly that one day it will be regarded as one of the classic works of Science Fiction. Jeff Carlson creates fascinating non-terrestrial landscapes, technological gadgets, and alien creatures like a painter designing his masterpiece or a composer creating his magnum opus. Epic in scope The Frozen Sky is a fast-paced First Contact story like none I’ve ever read before and deserves a wide audience and an avid following.

     Recommended for fans of alien encounters/first contact, hard Science Fiction, military fiction, action adventure, electronic warfare, Artificial Intelligence, planetary rovers, hacking, space travel, terra-forming/exploitation, environmental suits, computer simulations, humanism, alien life forms, the sentience argument, rogue A.I. probes, memory transference, and space exploration.

     File with: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Frederick Pohl, Jack McDevitt, Poul Anderson, Larry Niven, Iain M. Banks, China Meiville, and Arthur C. Clarke.

     Note: The ePub version of the book contains a very entertaining story from Jeff Carlson’s short story collection Long Eyes and Other Stories entitled “Pressure.”

4 ½ out 5 stars

The Alternative One
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Read the novelette of The Frozen Sky

Review of The Frozen Sky

The Frozen Sky Amazon Page

Jeff Carlson Wiki Page

Jeff Carlson Official Author Page

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Illustration Karel Zeman
Copyright 2009
Pevnost Magazine

1 Many a beloved classic have garnered bad reviews over the years. Some still do.  Click here for a short list.

2 A virtual index of my physical library can be found here: The Alternative

3 I equate this to when, as little boys, my brothers and I would get energized after watching a sporting event on TV and then would immediately run out to play that sport. That excitement, that spark, is a true indicator that I’ve been immersed in a good piece of fiction and was “inspired to play.”

4 First-place winner in the international Writers of the Future contest.

5 A word about “hard” Science Fiction by Mike Brotherton (and recommended reading) can be found here: Ten classic hard SF novels featuring Physics and Astronomy

     Disclaimer: The eBook version of The Frozen Sky was obtained gratis as part of the Early Reviewers Program at www.LibaryThing.com. The Alternative One Blog does not accept compensation, other than reading material, for its reviews.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Concert Review – Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson Plays Thick As A Brick 1 & 2

(November 1st, 2012 – Pabst Theatre, Milwaukee, WI.)

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Watching the Minstrel from the Gallery

     From our perch high up in the Gallery at the Pabst Theatre last night we witnessed a spectacle of musical diversion not seen in the Midwest in a very long time. Ian Anderson and “chums” performed the classic prog-rock concept album Thick As A Brick 1 AND its new companion album Thick As A Brick 2 back-to-back, live, on-stage. It was an event of extraordinary performance art, head banging rock, musical theatre, visual arts and one great, kick-ass piece of mind-boggling musical entertainment. Ian Anderson, long-time front-man for Jethro Tull, is unarguably one of the most charismatic performers in the industry and the world’s most gifted flautist. And he proved it last night.

     Replete with a new touring band and a new backup singer who sounds astonishingly like a young Ian Anderson the band played through Thick As A Brick 1 & 2  in an energetic, theatrical performance. New and well-known melodies and themes were resurrected and rolled up into a suite of profound sound and expanded into a two-and-a-half-hour adrenaline-filled  show. Ian Anderson’s robust vocals, shared with Ryan O’Donnell, were solid and his flute and acoustic guitar work flawless. Lead guitarist, Florian Ophale, a gifted musician, definitely did his homework as both his lead and rhythm works were outstanding. Keyboardist, John O’Hara, is a talented and multi-layered instrumentalist that utilized the piano, organs, and an accordion throughout the performance. Drummer, Scott Hammond, was fluent, fluid, and provided a jarring, romping five minute drum solo that rocked the house.

     All in all, this was one of the very best throw-back rock concerts I’ve attended in recent years (beating out Eric Clapton, Santana, and yes, even Pearl Jam) and in my opinion, fulfilled every Tull fan's most fervent dream… stripped-down folksy acoustic guitar, flute musings, rollicking electric guitars and synthesizers bracketed by tight rhythm-section accompaniment, inspired musicianship, entertaining visual performance art (at one point Ryan O’Donnell sat on stage pretending to read a copy of PROG magazine), and the liquid but brawny vocals and humorous storytelling of Ian Anderson. Not surprisingly, this performance, as well as their entire body of music over the past forty years, incorporated elements of classical music, theater, English folk music, jazz, British humor, hard rock, erudite storytelling, and art rock into their sound. Exactly what every fan there came to see.

Performance 5 out of 5 stars
Musicality 6 out of 5 stars
Visual arts and storytelling 5 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

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Additional Reading:

Official Jethro Tull Website

Jethro Tull Wiki Page

Ian Anderson Wiki Page

Thick As A Brick 1 Wiki Page

Thick As A Brick 2 YouTube Trailer

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Book Review - Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Ransom Riggs
Hardcover: 352 pages
eBook: 361 pages (Portrait view)
Publisher: Quirk Books
Publication Date: June 7, 2011
eISBN: 978-1-59474-513-3
ISBN-13: 978-1-59474-476-1
Cover Photograph: Courtesy of Yefim Tovbis

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     Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
     Home for Peculiar Children…
     Peculiar Children…
     The title suggests to me that its pages have to be filled with all things gothic, dark, melancholy, and, for lack of a better word, peculiar. The cover image of a girl floating six inches off the ground grabbed my attention adding an air of mystery and implying that something profound and extraordinary was about to happen. All I had to do was open the book to find out what made these particular children so different. So, I wasted no time in doing just that and found myself wholly fascinated and entertained by the story. Ransom Riggs has created a world of imagination filled with mystery, time loops, magic, monsters, and yes, some very uncommon “children.” Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is an exceptional novel and I found myself entranced by Riggs’s voice and captivated by the notion that something ominous was about to happen every time I turned a page. It’s a remarkable story that blends a murder mystery, a quest motif, and a coming-of-age tale with the supernatural to create a masterful piece of lasting fantasy. The story is intelligent and engrossing and filled with old sepia-toned photographs that depict unfamiliar and titillating characters situated in not-quite-natural poses or evocative scenes. My curiosity became piqued the moment I saw them. The photos were strange but somehow made sense. They begged examination. They filled gaps. They complimented the story. And they helped to explain that “peculiar spirits” still walk the Earth.

     Jacob, a 16 year old American, has listened to his grandfather’s tall-tales for years but attributes the chilling stories of cunning monsters and strange characters to his grandfather’s unusual experience as a World War II orphan. (After losing his family to the Nazis Grandpa Abe was shipped off to England where he found himself a ward of Miss Peregrine on the tiny island of Cairnholm off the coast of Wales.) One day Jacob receives a panicked, confused call from his grandfather and rushing off to find out what’s happened he discovers his grandfather bleeding and dying in the woods behind his home. His last words, “September 3rd, 1940…. Emerson… Find the bird in the loop…” are a mystery to Jacob but as his grandfather’s life fades away his flashlight reveals the hideous face of a monster lurking in the woods. Jacob realizes that his grandfather’s stories were not fabrications after all and he knows that his world will never be the same. When he finds a letter written to his grandfather by Miss Peregrine Jacob knows he must find out who, or what, killed him and why. Using the excuse that visiting the island would ease the trauma Jacob convinces his psychiatrist and his family to let him visit the “Home” where his grandfather spent his childhood. Once in Wales, with his dad in tow as chaperone, Jacob stumbles upon a group of very unusual children. He learns that his grandfather’s stories were more truth than fantasy and that he is not as common as he once thought. The world he lived in was never at all what it seemed. Miss Peregrine and the children, hidden in a time loop for the better part of sixty years, are being hunted by monsters and it falls on Jacob’s shoulders to protect them at all cost.

     Recommended for time travel buffs, psychological horror fans, murder mystery aficionados, fantasy lovers, Young Adult fans, or anyone looking for an interesting or “peculiar” read. Also recommended for fans of Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human or Zena Henderson’s “People” stories.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children Amazon Page

 Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children Wiki Page

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children You Tube Book Trailer

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children Excerpt (Prologue and 3 chapters)

 L.A. Times Article

Ransom Riggs’s Official Website

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A word (or three) about the peculiar photographs –

     Ransom Riggs came up with the idea for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children after stumbling upon a number of “found” vintage photographs. Mixed throughout the book are many of these unusual, sometimes spectral, sepia-toned images. Hoax, “Spirit”, and fake photographs were mass-distributed around the turn of the last century as a means to gain popularity or make money and have been around almost as long as the art of photography. That so many of them survive is a testament to those who collect and preserve them. The images presented in the novel are suggestive of a bizarre nature or contain an illusion-like oddity or uncommon scene and as I continued to read I looked forward to seeing more of them. There was something compelling and altogether eerie about every image and I wanted to meet the characters shown in them and hear their individual stories. Riggs integrated the unrelated images into the novel perfectly fitting them together like the pieces of a puzzle. A woman in period clothes holding a parasol became Miss Peregrine, an old subway tunnel became the entry to a time loop, and so on. As the story unfolded in his imagination Riggs started searching for similar photos. He went to swap meets and flea markets and was allowed access to photographic collections to search for more “peculiar” images to help propel the story forward. The afterward contains a listing of all the images used and the collections they’re from. In an interview, Riggs told fans that he’s compiled a huge backlog of additional images for a sequel. I, for one, can’t wait to see what the next installment brings us.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Book Review - The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Sisters Brothers
Patrick deWitt
Paperback version 336 pages
eBook version: Portrait 368 pages
Publisher: Ecco (Harper Collins)
Publication Date: February 14, 2011
ISBN-13: 978-0062041289

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     The best thing about Patrick deWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers is that it is an inventively unusual and magnificently flowing piece of fiction. (For those of you wishing to pad your reading list for the year this book is an extraordinarily quick read and I found it nearly impossible to put down.) The language is strong, in plot and content, the story compelling, exciting and creative, and the characters, while flawed and slightly comical and buffoonish, are totally believable and empathetic, especially the narrator. It takes a special story to interrupt my customary fare of Science Fiction and Fantasy and The Sisters Brothers is just that. It was so exceptional, in fact, that it wiggled its way into my already-waiting-to-tip-over reading pile. When I started it I didn’t realize that it was a Western, a genre I don’t normally read, but the blurbs and back-cover description gave an “otherworldly” or “sinister” vibe to me which was the deciding factor. Once I began reading, however, I was hooked. Additionally, the cover art and title seemed both unusual and remarkable in their own ways and I wanted to know more about the characters depicted there. (It turns out that sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover.)

     The Sisters Brothers is dark, disturbing, gory, bloody and, above all, great fun to read. It’s packed with home-spun wisdom, wagon-train philosophy, and frontier angst and is a creative and unique blending of a time-worn genre and contemporary thought. What I find interesting is that this atypical, Western-inspired tale does not follow customary themes (i.e. Cowboys versus Indians, The 7th Cavalry arriving in the nick of time, a lone gunman seeking retribution against past wrongs, or an evil cattle baron buying or stealing all the land in the peaceful valley.) It seems that Mr. deWitt is a frontier philosopher of sorts and those values rub off marvelously on his characters. Assassins inclined to discuss their own brand of twisted philosophy prior to heading off into a gunfight? Priceless! There are numerous quests and a few missions and lots of bloodshed and a double-cross or two. There are gunfights and surprises, and animal husbandry and a bit of cruelty, and prospecting for gold, and insanity, and dirty characters, inside and out. There’s arrogance and a price to pay for it in many guises. There’s humility and reward, albeit somewhat unsatisfactory for the character in question. There are attitudes of the frontier and the trail and there’s bloodlust and violence everywhere and the mentality of gunfighters can be found on almost every page. But there are many unique ideas and themes here that you will not find in other Westerns. Most noticeably is a strong, quick, un-squandered language that fits perfectly within the genre yet flows exquisitely. And that language helps make Patrick deWitt’s re-envisioning of the Wild Old West feel more authentic and realistic.

     The two main characters, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are well-known gun slingers in and around Oregon and northern California and the mere mention of their names can bring hard men to their knees and send weak men running for the hills. But the Sisters brothers are psychologically flawed from a young age. Witnesses to the brutal beating of their mother by their father and the subsequent murder of their father by Charlie, the two six-gun-toting brothers couldn’t be more different. Charlie is tortured, arrogant, and tough and Eli is complex, sensitive, and often tender-hearted. And while Charlie kills for the sport and pleasure of it Eli kills to protect his older brother who saved him from a life of abuse. The Sisters Brothers is, in essence a quest story. Charlie and Eli are sent by their boss, The Commodore, to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a supposed thief, and return to Oregon with his secret formula for easily extracting gold from the rivers. But this is not the main quest of the book. The true pursuit is the search for self and the realization that what we do in our younger years molds us into who we are to become as adults. The human drama is laid bare but you have to peek around the gun fights, between the fist fights, the drunken debauchery, the mind-numbing hours on horseback, the dirt coffee, and the mindless prospectors that have been too long in the wilderness to find it. Look hard. It’s there. The exploration is well-worth the price of admission.

     By all accounts this book should have tanked with me (according to my genre choices and reading preferences.) But, here’s the thing, as soon as I started reading it I knew that I wouldn’t be able to put it down. It was that captivating, that unique, and that sublime. Never before have I reviewed a semi-historical Western but, as they say, “things change” and so I am reviewing this romp through the Old West and gladly so. Why? To use the vernacular, it’s a “damn fine” story, that’s why.

4 ½ stars out of 5

The Alternative One
Southeast Wisconsin

     Recommended if you appreciate Westerns, exceptionally plotted narratives, action-packed gun and fist fights, old west debauchery and saloons, unscrupulous men and their corrupt actions, and home-spun comedy combined with a bit of cowboy buffoonery.

Additional Reading:

The Sisters Brothers Wiki Page

The Sisters Brothers Amazon Page

Chapter One Excerpt of The Sisters Brothers

Chapter One Audio of The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers Facebook Page

Patrick deWitt Official Author Page

Friday, October 19, 2012

Book Review - Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell
Random House Trade Paperbacks
First Edition - August 17, 2004
ISBN-13: 978-0375507250
528 pages

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In many of my past book reviews I’ve discussed the concept of the writer’s voice when describing style, inventiveness, and thought-provoking, imaginative, and inspired literature. In the case of David Mitchell his voice resonates with unquestionable clarity and Cloud Atlas, which to me reads more like poetry than prose, is an outstanding opus for any genre. Indeed, by its nature, it cannot be simply pigeon-holed into any one genre but skirts the neighborhood of many. Masterful story-telling combined with creative plots and twists and turns make Cloud Atlas my favorite book of the year and is, in my opinion, a near-perfect work of fiction and an instant classic. Mr. Mitchell has crafted an interesting and entertaining tale filled with curious themes and remarkable elements that effortlessly tie together in some fashion or another, usually via a common thread (i.e. Movies, books, music, or people.)Themes of reincarnation, attempted murder, pirates and sailing on the high seas, the human drama, Science Fiction, suicide, dystopian society, poetry, succinct language (no one does two and three word sentences better), Fantasy, corporate cover-up, sex, altruism, and survival are all expertly and brilliantly represented in this multi-player and multi-thematic story.

Cloud Atlas is divided into six interrelated story-lines narrated by as many diverse characters and ascends up through history from the mid-19th century into a distant post-apocalyptic future world. The stories are all interlinked expertly using either certain reoccurring (reincarnated?) individuals and/or their associates or by the letters, music, or lives that they’ve touched. Everything is connected and spiked with head-spinning Déjà vu.

In the first vignette, written in the form of diary entries, we learn of Adam Ewing, a writer out to make a name for himself and his fateful trip from New Zealand to O-Hawaii in 1849. (Note: For some this may be the most difficult chapter in the book to read (the style is period) but stick with it - the rewards are entirely worth the work.) The book concludes with the sad story of Mr. Ewing and the hardship he suffers at the hands of a devious scam artist.

The second chapter introduces con-man Robert Frobisher who has been forced to vacate Europe due to a long history of philandering, gambling, cuckolding, and debt (in some cases all four simultaneously.) Frobisher decides to ingratiate himself into the lives of an aging but brilliant music composer and his wife and daughter in an attempt to gain employment and advance. His story is revealed in a number of letters to his friend and sometimes bi-sexual lover Rufus Sixsmith. (Aside: The number six, which is the number of harmony and balance, also recurs many times throughout the story.)

The third novella centers on Luisa Rey, a reporter, who has stumbled onto a huge corporate cover-up that could push the world over the edge of self-destruction. What she learns from scientist Rufus Sixsmith (the same considerably older character mentioned earlier) could change the course of history – if she can survive long enough to tell the story.

The fourth short story is extremely entertaining and could have been written for the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. Timothy Cavendish, a book publisher, has recently achieved sudden and immense wealth by publishing the memoirs of a man that committed an unexpected murder. When the man is sentenced to prison Cavendish reaps the benefits of the popularity of the book but must contend with the murderer’s unsavory family. Mr. Cavendish’s unhappy fate is poignant, disturbing, and in some ways predictable.

In the fifth section Somni -451, a fabricant (or clone), has been pulled from her service job waiting tables and serving food at Papa Song’s to be used (and abused) as an experiment by a wealthy college post-grad. Unfortunately, her freedom comes at a very high price.

The sixth chapter, the centerpiece of the book, is my favorite. Written in the colloquialism of the post-apocalyptic Hawaiian (Ha-Way) Islands the language takes some getting used to (I found it easier to read it quickly.) But the story itself is very compelling and filled with unique and creative dystopian tropes that will leave even the most jaded readers in awe of Mitchell’s skill. Technology, for the most part, is gone and the denizens of Hawaii have been living subsistence existences for years, But, when a ship arrives with people who use “old-un” technology things are about to change. And not at all how anyone expects them to…

Cloud Atlas does not end there, however. Each chapter, and subsequent story, folds back onto itself in opposite order to be neatly and comprehensively pieced back together and the preceding loose ends tied up into a climactic ending that is altogether brilliant, inventive, and concise. This is literature at its best combining fragments of Science Fiction, Fantasy, drama, mystery, post-apocalyptic dystopia, and the human condition together into a highly entertaining and spell-binding read. Cloud Atlas is a magnificently crafted and indelible work of fiction. Thank you Mr. Mitchell, it is definitely one of my top ten island reads.

I have never read any of Mr. Mitchell’s work before but I certainly will now… look out Amazon.com here I come, credit card in hand!

Recommended for, well, everyone…

6 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

David Mitchell Amazon Page

Cloud Atlas Amazon Page

Cloud Atlas Extended Movie Trailer

Huffington Post Review of Cloud Atlas

Book Review - A Book of Horrors - Stephen Jones (Editor)

A Book of Horrors (Anthology)
Stephen Jones (Editor)
Trade Paperback
St. Martin's Griffin
September 18, 2012
448 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1250018526

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In the anthology A Book of Horrors we are treated to a number of very good genre stories by some of the most talented writers in fiction today. While not every story is satisfyingly scary enough to send us under the covers or give us the cold shivers its refreshing to find that the genre is comprised of more than glowing vampires and six-pack wielding werewolves. On the contrary, the world of horror fiction still thrives beneath the weight of paranormal romance and while I firmly believe there is room for every sub-category of the genre it’s good to see that traditional horror stories are still being written and sold. Though not really a revival, since conventional horror never really died off, I do think it important that works of this nature, in the short form, find their moments in the limelight. I’ve said it many times before, horror has never been my favorite genre but, when done right, and theses stories are done right, they can be as entertaining as any form of fiction on the planet. In fact, most of my very favorite stories have some element of horror in them and that’s not a bad thing at all.

A Book of Horrors is recommended for fans of Stephen King, conventional or traditional horror, paranormal mystery, and spooks that go bump in the night.

Contents:

Stephen King - "The Little Green God of Agony"
*Caitlin R. Kiernan - "Charcloth, Firesteel and Flint"
Peter Crowther - "Ghosts with Teeth"
*Angela Slatter - "The Coffin's-Maker's Daughter"
Brian Hodge - "Roots and All"
Dennis Etchison - "Tell Me I'll See You Again"
*John Ajvide Lindqvist - "The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer"
*Ramsey Campbell - "Getting it Wrong"
Robert Shearman -"Alice Through the Plastic Sheet"
Lisa Tuttle - "The Man in the Ditch"
Reggie Oliver - "The Child's Problem"
Michael Marshall Smith - "Sad, Dark Thing"

3 ½ stars out of 5

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

* The strongest stories in the collection.

Additional Reading:

Stephen King’s Official Website

Caitlin R. Kiernan’s Official Website

Peter Crowther’s Official Website

Angela Slatter’s Official Website

Brian Hodge’s Official Website

Dennis Etchison’s ISFDB Page

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Official Website

Ramsey Campbell’s Official Website

Robert Shearman’s Official Website

Lisa Tuttle’s Official Website

Reggie Oliver’s ISFDB Page

 Michael Marshall Smith’s Official Website

Book Review - Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems by Ursula K Le Guin

Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems
Ursula K. Le Guin
Trade Paperback
208 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: September 18, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0547858203
Advance Reader’s Copy – Uncorrected Proof

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     In her eighty-third year Ursula K. Le Guin may very well be searching for her own elegy but her newest collection of poetry is by no means a swan song. If we define elegy as a funeral song or dirge then perhaps Ms. Le Guin has published Finding My Elegy as a memento for future generations. I think this extremely unlikely, however. In fact, if we define elegy as a composition of poetry (it’s sister meaning) then I believe Ms. Le Guin, as seasoned a writer as she is, simply continues her writing process by searching for her own unique, poetic voice. Only a true poet would carry on the quest for lyrical inspiration well into their eighth decade. The muse is a moving target and as every writer knows that voice, the essence, is always in  motion and must forever be pursued. It can never be accepted as is since it is evolving, ever-changing, and frail to the touch.

     There’s no question that Ursula K. Le Guin is one of our most gifted authors and while I have always appreciated and loved her body of fiction I know that it takes a certain amount of courage, even by an established legend, to write and publish poetry. Those singular glimpses into the personality and soul, however fleeting, is something most writers would rather not expose. I wish other celebrated Science Fiction writers would follow suit. What would the biggest names in the genre today have to say in the short poetic form I wonder? Mieville, Hill, Gaiman, Atwood, Scalzi, Walton, Stephenson, et al. consider that a challenge, if you will. What might we have learned if Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, or Pohl had written poetry from their distinctive perspectives? I for one want to thank you, Ms. Le Guin, for your thought-provoking work, your daring, and for giving us your little book of collected poetry and for providing us a much too-short glimpse into your heart of hearts.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

** Disclaimer – Advance Reader’s Copy – Uncorrected Proof received free from the Amazon Vine Program for review.

Additional Reading:

Ursula K. Le Guin Official Website

Ursula K. Le Guin Wiki Page

Finding My Elegy Amazon Page

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Coming soon....

The following book reviews are scheduled for October (not necessarily in this order):

The Book of Horrors - Stephen Jones (Ed.)
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
Revision 7: DNA - Terry Persun
Death Warmed Over (Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I.) - Kevin J. Anderson
Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems - Ursula K. Le Guin
Containment - Christian Cantrell

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Book Review - Shadow Show - Edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle

Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury
Sam Weller and Mort Castle, Editors
Trade Paperback
Publisher: William Morrow & Company
Publication Date: July 2012
464 pages
Advance Readers Copy – Uncorrected Proof

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Table of Contents
Sam Weller and Mort Castle - Introduction
Ray Bradbury - Second Homecoming
*Neil Gaiman - The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury
*Margaret Atwood - Headlife
Jay Bonansinga - Heavy
*Sam Weller - The Girl In The Funeral Parlor
David Morrell - The Companions
Thomas F. Monteleone - The Exchange
Lee Martin - Cat on a Bad Couch
*Joe Hill - By The Silver Water Of Lake Champlain
*Dan Chaon - Little America
John McNally - The Phone Call
Joe Meno - Young Pilgrims
Robert McCammon - Children Of The Bedtime Machine
*Ramsey Campbell - The Page
Mort Castle - Light
Alice Hoffman - Conjure
John Maclay - Max
Jacqueline Mitchard - Two Of A Kind
Gary Braunbeck - Fat Man And Little Boy
*Bonnie Jo Campbell - The Tattoo
Audrey Niffenegger - Backwards In Seville
* Charles Yu - Earth: (A Gift Shop)
Julia Keller - Hayleigh's Dad
Dave Eggers - Who Knocks?
Bayo Ojikutu - Reservation 2020
Kelly Link - Two Houses
Harlan Ellison - Weariness

One of the most important contributions to literature that Ray Bradbury gave us was NOT his Science Fiction stories. If you’re surprised by that statement then you obviously haven’t read much Bradbury. While he was mostly a Science Fiction author (The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man) every one of his stories (short or long) is steeped in the emotional values and humanism of his characters. Ray Bradbury was an evocative writer who posed the “What if?” question better than most and provided provocative answers to those same questions through his characters. Shadow Show, the tribute anthology to celebrate the career of Ray Bradbury, if nothing else, tells us how Ray Bradbury affected his audience. To bring together some of the biggest names in speculative fiction to celebrate the man is a great indication of his affect on some of the most creative writers in the industry.

When paying homage to a literary legend it is common for editors to become overly maudlin or include patronizingly syrupy content. Shadow Show, a tribute to Ray Bradbury, does not fall into the trap of over-sentimentalism and while not all the stories here emulate Mr. Bradbury’s style they all were obviously inspired by his writings. In Shadow Show, editors Sam Weller and Mort Castle have assembled short stories from a number of the world’s most gifted authors to honor Ray Bradbury and his contribution to the literary world of fiction. Also included is an Introduction in the form of a personal essay "Second Homecoming", written by Ray Bradbury, specifically for the book. Best stories in the anthology: Headlife by Margaret Atwood, The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury by Neil Gaiman, Little America by Dan Chaon, Earth: (A Gift Shop) by Charles Yu, and By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain by Joe Hill. A special nod to the Campbell’s here, as well. Ramsey Campbell for The Page and Bonnie Jo Campbell for The Tattoo titles that evoke Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man, respectively.

* Denotes my favorite stories in the anthology.

** Advance Readers Copy – Uncorrected Proof from LibraryThing.com Early Readers Program

4 ½ stars out of 5

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Ray Bradbury Official Site

Ray Bradbury Wiki Page

Harper Collins Sam Weller Page

Shadow Show Amazon Page

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Book Review - 21st Century Dead (A Zombie Anthology) Edited by Christopher Golden

21st Century Dead (A Zombie Anthology)
Editor: Christopher Golden
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Publication Date: July 2012
Trade Paperback
352 pages
Advance Readers Copy – Uncorrected Proof

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Short fiction has always been problematic for me. Even the best anthologies sometimes fail to hold my interest for very long. In addition, there’s the long-argued dilemma of how to review an anthology. Should the book be reviewed as a single entity or should each story be reviewed separately?  What makes matters infinitely worse for me is that five of the last seven books I’ve received for review are short story anthologies.  Guess it’s time to make up my mind… or not.

So, zombies, right? What could possibly be wrong with a short story anthology featuring zombies? In the case of 21st Century Dead? Absolutely nothing! Infinitely better is that Chris Golden has brought together some of the most unusual and interesting “zombie” stories ever written. This is not your usual faire of shambling undead but a strange mixture of victims, weirdoes, and the most maladjusted walkers and non-zombie zombies in the history of all lifeless, ambling brain-eaters.

The first three stories, for instance, do not fit any “normal” zombie mold. Chelsea Cain’s Why Mothers Let Their Babies Watch Television is a lesson in why zombie babies should be allowed to watch TV. In Carousel by Orson Scott Card we are given a new perspective by a post-living person. (“It’s all poop!”) And when the dead are suddenly resurrected a discussion with God at the Carousel puts an end to all the suffering. In Reality Bites by S. G. Browne we see Reality TV with a twist. The Zombie Jersey Shore. The Amazing Zombie Race. American Zombie Idol. What if a TV exec discovered a rationalizing, lucid, talking zombie? Now that would be quite the Reality Bite…

Given the unique and constructive names given to the zombies in the various stories here (Infects, NODS, and Dead Ones, among others) and how zombie-ism is spread (a virus, drugs, and the apocalypse) we begin to see that the 21st Century Dead is not your typical shambling zombie anthology.  I should also mention that the stories are overloaded with social media, TV, Hollywood, and advertising. In that sense alone this anthology truly represents the 21st Century Dead.

Table of Contents:

Biters by Mark Morris
Why Mothers Let Their Babies Watch Television: A Just-So Horror Story by Chelsea Cain
Carousel by Orson Scott Card
*Reality Bites by S.G. Browne
The Drop by Stephen Susco
**Antiparallelogram by Amber Benson
How We Escaped Our Certain Fate by Dan Chaon
A Mother's Love by John McIlveen
*Down and Out in Dead Town by Simon R. Green
*Devil Dust by Caitlin Kittredge
The Dead of Dromore by Ken Bruen
All the Comforts of Home: A Beacon Story by John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow
Ghost Dog & Pup: Stay by Thomas E. Sniegoiski
*Tic Boom, a Love Story by Kurt Sutter
*Jack and Jill by Jonathan Maberry
Tender as Teeth by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski
Couch Potato by Brian Keene
*The Happy Bird and Other Tales by Rio Youers
Parasite by Daniel H. Wilson

* Denotes the stories I felt were the strongest in the anthology.

** Note to Amber Benson: Antiparallelogram needs to be written into novel. It’s too good a story to languish as a short zombie story. Everyone I know that has read it wants to know what happens next.

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

21st Century Dead Amazon Page

21st Century Dead MacMillan Page

21st Century Dead Facebook Page

Official Christopher Golden Page

Christopher Golden Wiki Page

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Book Review - The Prankster by James Polster

The Prankster
James Polster
Novella
Trade Paperback
122 pages
Publisher: 47North
Publication Date: July 10, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-1612183633
Advance Readers Copy – Uncorrected Proof

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With a skewed take on game shows, slick advertising, televised practical jokes, and the very human need to be entertained James Polster’s The Prankster holds a mirror to our singular obsession with vanity and our excessive need for constant diversion and distraction.

In a far off galaxy on an alien world, The Prankster, the most popular reality game show in the universe, suffers a slip in time and the host and his assistant become trapped in the very place they’ve spoofed on live television for many years. Pom Trager has become accustomed to using the Earth, and many of its most famous people and places, for his show’s pranks and practical jokes to boost ratings. But a system glitch traps him on Earth and an ever-closing window of time gives him less than 48 hours to get from New Mexico to San Francisco. Since air travel will mess with the time/spatial continuum an old fashioned road trip is the only way they can travel.  A mistrustful Earth woman accompanies them on their journey as a relentless and suspicious sheriff follows their trail. With only one chance at rescue the two time travelers must either make it to their destination in time or become forever trapped on an Earth lost in the past.

Recommended for Science Fiction fans, time travel freaks, talk show activists and anyone interested in a fast-paced, character-driven story that pokes fun at the human need to be constantly immersed in entertainment.

Recommended Reading – He Walked Among Us by Norman Spinrad, Year Zero by Rob Reid, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Wrack & Roll by Bradley Denton and My Favorite Band Does Not Exist by Robert T. Jeschonek.

Back in June of 2011 I reviewed Polster’s The Graduate Student for this book review blog. This is what I had to say about the author then:

“James Polster has, in my opinion, a home-spun, blue-collar humor that reminds me of some throw-back Kurt Vonnegut/Hunter Thompson/Carl Hiaasen construct. He takes turns at being subtly and blatantly humorous with both high-brow twists and guttural turns - sometimes, in the same scene. Once you read his bio page you’ll ask yourself if art, in this case, isn’t imitating life. (It is, BTW since Polster actually travelled the Amazon River basin, lived the life of a grad student, and worked for a major television station.) I found a certain underlying level of comfort in Polster’s writing style. By that I mean he creates an intelligent story that is easy to read, contains fast-paced language, and is both clever and humorous. However, The Graduate Student is not a laugh-out-loud belly romp but rather is filled with delightful servings of understated, intelligent, thinking-man humor.”

It’s no less true with The Prankster.

3 ¾ stars out of 5

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

The Prankster Amazon Page

James Polster Wiki Page

About the Author (from Amazon.com):

Equal parts novelist, journalist, explorer, and movie producer, James Polster draws on his rich cultural experiences to craft highly entertaining stories with social significance. From profiling Indira Gandhi and Donald Trump, to covering the World Championship of Elephant Polo in Nepal, to navigating the Amazon River and living among jungle cannibals, Polster’s adventures have given him a unique perspective on life that infuses his work with witty depth.

A graduate of Harvard and Columbia universities, Polster has written A Guest in the Jungle, The Graduate Student, and Brown, which received the Critics’ Choice Award and was named by Publishers Weekly as a Best Book of the Year. He lives in Los Angeles.

Disclaimer - Received via the Amazon Vine program for review.

Puzzle Review - KRYPT Silver 654 Piece Blank Puzzle Challenge

Finished Puzzle Size: 27" x 20"
Origin: Germany
Manufacturer: Ravenburger Company
ASIN: B0009QXXB8
Item model number: 15964
Manufacturer recommended age: 12 - 15 year
Difficulty: Expert+

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The KRYPT Silver 654 Piece Blank Puzzle is an infuriatingly fun and difficult challenge for every puzzle fan. Tired of creating puzzles by the printed image? Well, then the KRYPT was made for you. Instead of building the puzzle by using the image printed on the box the KRYPT is built using the individual shapes of the puzzle pieces. And is an incredibly taxing and infuriatingly fun way to while away those rainy summer vacation days. Be forewarned that this “blank” puzzle (a spiral that tightens the further from the center you get) is amazingly tough and unlike any other puzzle you’ve ever attempted.

5 out of 5 (really hard to find) puzzle pieces

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Ravensburger Amazon page

Ravensburger Home page

Ravensburger Company Amazon Blurb for this puzzle:

Since 1891 we've been making the finest puzzles in Ravensburg, Germany. It's our attention to detail which makes Ravensburger the world's greatest puzzle brand. We use an exclusively developed, extra-thick cardboard and combine this with our fine, linen-structured paper to create a glare-free puzzle image for a quality you can feel. Our steel cutting tools are designed and crafted by hand. This ensures that no two pieces are alike and guarantees a perfect interlocking fit.

Disclaimer - Received via the Amazon Vine program for review.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book Review - The Part-Timer Primer - A Teen's Guide to Surviving the Hiring Process and Landing Your First Job by Darrell Doepke

The Part-Timer Primer
(A Teen's Guide to Surviving the Hiring Process and Landing Your First Job)
Darrell Doepke
Self-Help Teens
2012
Timberwolf Publishing
84 pages
ISBN: 9780985622800

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Written as a self-help guide for teenagers The Part-Timer Primer is filled with valuable and insightful information on how to survive the hiring process and in a straightforward manner provides teenagers with the necessary tools for landing that all-important first job. One of the major stumbling blocks many teenagers face today is following the correct steps essential for obtaining employment. Mr. Doepke has written a perceptive "How To" guide filled with “How Not To" warnings while offering valuable advice to first-time job seekers. Helpful guidance pertaining to the “dos and don’ts” of the hiring process is something most teenagers do not possess when they begin their job search. The Part-Time Primer promises to arm every teenager with the basic information they need before beginning their first job search. Mr. Doepke provides detailed guidance on exactly how to fill out an application correctly, how to prepare before, during and after an interview, how to dress, act, and conduct oneself during the first and subsequent interviews, and what employers expect from potential employees. This is solid, sound instruction and intelligent guidance from a business owner who has obviously conducted many interviews over the years. The advice and suggestions found within the pages of The Part-Timer Primer have been collected from many applicants and interviews and provides a unique perspective concerning the entire hiring process from both employer and employee points of view. I recommend it to every part-time job seeker (teenager or not.)

If you are the parent of a teenager who is looking for work do yourself a favor and put this book into your child's hands. They’ll thank you for it later when they’re enjoying careers (and not just stuck in a dead-end job.)

If you are a teenager seeking a job for the first time and you’ve followed the advice given in The Part-Timer Primer you’ll be sure to find work in no time at all.

5 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

The Part-Timer Primer Webpage

The Part-Timer Primer Facebook Page

The Part-Timer Primer Amazon Webpage

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Book Review - Windeye by Brian Evenson

Windeye
Brian Evenson
Trade Paperback
188 pages
Advance Reader’s Copy – Uncorrected Galley
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Publication date: June 2012
ISBN-13: 978-1566892988

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      Windeye, a new short story collection by noted horror author Brian Evenson, is a thoroughly enjoyable read filled with spine-tingling horror, dark humor, and that just- beneath-the-surface element of doom that every good horror writer tries to capture. Evenson does so and in buckets-full. The terror he invokes, however, is not provoked by a gore-fest or through shock-and-awe. His is a thinking man’s fear. By that I mean there are multiple layers of dread in the majority of stories found in this anthology. The deeper you delve into that mine the darker it will become.

     You know the writer’s saying “show them don’t tell them”? Evenson shows his readers enough to scare the hell out of them and then pulls back just enough to allow their own imaginations to finish the job. Spooky, creative, and down-right sinister which is, I expect, exactly what he was aiming for.

      The stand-out stories in the collection are: The Process, Legion, The Sladen Suit, The Absent Eye, Grottor, and Anskan House. A brief description of each story follows. (Note: In my opinion, The Absent Eye, Legion, and The Sladen Suit would have made awesome Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episodes.)

      In the title story Windeye, a child is stolen, drawn into an unexplained place in a haunted house, and her entire existence erased. If not for the brother who remembers her she would simply be a forgotten footnote in someone else’s reality.

      The Second Boy is a supernatural tale about a ghost that refuses to let go of life and the story he tells to be repeated round the campfire.

      In The Process, sometimes the only way to break a political tie in a post-apocalyptic world is to remove someone from the opposition.

      And, something was made forfeit when humans lost communion with the simple honey bee in the short vignette, A History of the Human Voice. Can it ever be regained?

     In Dapplegrim when your inheritance is possessed by a demon the very last thing you want to do is piss it off…

     The Angel of Death follows a company of ghosts awaiting one man to record their names in the book of the dead so that they may rest.

     In The Dismal Mirror when you make a deal with death you better be prepared to make the final payment.

      In Legion a robot finds a stray human arm at work one day (how it got there is interesting) and grafts it to a sensor plate. Only then does it discover true consciousness. How long afterwards do you think it takes to learn the difference between power and weakness, master and slave? Legion is a story with a powerfully shocking surprise ending.

     Murder Inc. has nothing on the Organization. The Moldau Case is a procedural with not one but three murders, one after another upon another.

     Is The Sladen Suit an entry point to an alternative universe? During a long storm at sea starving sailors discover another world in a Sladen suit. But what lies on the other side?

     Hurlock's Law – Is Hurlock from an alternative universe? Or, has he just disappeared into one? And why won’t the construct respond?

     Falling out of time (everything skews out of synch and there’s a Discrepancy in time) can have disastrous side effects.

      Forensic evidence uncovers the Knowledge that two corpses killed each other. How is it they were found miles apart? Evenson’s clear argument as to why he hasn’t written a detective novel yet.

      Baby or Doll - Would you question your sanity if you were stuck between alternate worlds?

      Is The Tunnel a metaphor for the journey into the afterlife? Or is it a supernatural story of fear and trepidation? The Tunnel is a spooky and disconcerting tale.

      South of the Beast gives new meaning to the term suffering poet. More prose than narrative South of the Beast has the flavor of contemporary poetry while telling a tale of loneliness and agony. Of all the characters in Windeye the tormented poet here may be the one that suffers the most.

       The Absent Eye is a metaphysical look (pardon the pun) at a physical presence. What if our spirits, our very souls were slightly malignant and sentient in their own right? What if your soul questioned where it went after death and then tried to find out?

      There is no more humorous story here than Bon Scott: The Choir Years. An enterprising rock journalist discovers secret information outing the late lead singer of AC/DC as a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But did Bon Scott sing in the Mormon Choir and was his death really a horrible accident? Evenson has an interesting take on a very weird conspiracy theory. The really eerie thing about this story is that it rings true.

      In Tapadera a murdered boy just won’t stop knocking to be let into the house he was thrown out of. Some unusual methods are employed by the killers to keep him out. But getting rid of a living-dead body is not an easy task.

       A soldier’s ear, lost in a horrific battle, is replaced with The Other Ear of a dead man. Where is that voice coming from? And, why has it lead him to the graveyard?

      In They a man commissioned to discover who is murdering his client, over and over again, faces an eyeless, faceless opponent.

      Unable to comprehend the reality of his hallucinatory world a man sets out looking for answers. What do you do when The Oxygen Protocol is initiated and oxygen and water start to run out? If you’re playing it smart you let the machines put you on life support until the situation improves. What if you couldn’t let them do it to you? Would you sacrifice the resources of the group for yourself or would you comply?

       The Drownable Species – In true tradition of Edgar Allen Poe one man’s hallucinatory search for a missing brother, and the uncommon death’s of his parents, uncovers a sinister evil lurking from within. What if your perceived family were really your victims?

      Grottor, Lovecraftian in design, gives whole new meaning to the phrase “a wolf in grandmother’s clothing.”

      At Anskan House be very, very careful what you wish for.

4 out of 5 stars

(Rated S for suggestive evil and inevitable chills.)

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Complete Short Story “Windeye“

Author’s Webpage

The Brooklyn Rain Review

Brian Evenson Interview

Brian Evenson’s Music Play-List for Windeye

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Book Review - A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix

A Confusion of Princes
Garth Nix
Reading level: Ages 13 and up
Trade Paperback
Advance Reader’s Copy
352 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins (May 15, 2012)
ISBN-13: 978-0060096946

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     What makes Garth Nix’s Space Opera A Confusion of Princes unique? How about a Young- Adult-Epic-Space-Opera-Fantasy with a very interesting and creative opening sequence in which the main character and his body guard space-surf on a Biotek Manta, almost get assassinated twice, link to the Imperial Mind to acquire information to become reborn, and join the Royal Navy because they’re the guild least likely to get them killed travelling to the recruiting center? Add to the narrative a Master of Assassins body-guard/baby-sitter, an Imperial A.I. sentient hive-brain, reincarnation (rebirth of a sort), Bitek, Psitek and Mektek (you should be able to figure them out by their names), insect warriors, strange new worlds, and galaxy building more ambitious than those of Asimov’s Foundation and you begin to see a few of the distinctive ideas that make A Confusion of Princes stand out.

     There’s a lot to like about this story and here are my reasons (if the ones above are not enough): First, I’m not sure exactly how this happened but during my initial research of the book I got the impression that it was a YA Fantasy. (I think maybe from Amazon Vine or from the fact that Nix’s body of work was primarily fantasy.) I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was and it wasn’t. That it was a major space opera epic became clear very early on, yet the story retained subtle elements that usually are associated with fantasy. Princes, and concubines, and Master Assassins, and reincarnation and rebirth… all these things speak more of a tale from Arabian Nights than a galaxy-crossing space opera. Nix somehow manages to blend them together successfully and, more importantly, entertainingly.

     An empire with a million worlds is ruled by a class of prince’s numbering in the millions. These princes, young men and women, are programmed from birth to rule the Empire. Linked to a sentient A.I. computer they can be reincarnated over and over again but not when they’re in normal human form and Khemri, after dying defending a space station from hostile aliens, is offered the extraordinary mission of becoming an “Adjuster.” But, the first element an Adjuster must learn is to live as a normal human, susceptible to permanent death. Newly reborn, Khemri, now known as Khem, meets and falls in love with a normal human and his world is turned upside down. As his destiny in the Empire draws near he must decide what he truly desires – power as a ruling Prince or the love of a woman?

     Recommended for fans of Space Opera, coming of age stories, high Science-Fiction, unique Young Adult books, YA romance, and action and intrigue junkies.

     File with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, David Brin’s Uplift War series, Catherine L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories, and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series (which is ironic in a way since this is a YA book and I recommend/file it with Old Man’s War.)

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Official Garth Nix Website

Garth Nix Wiki Page Garth Nix Wiki Page

A Confusion of Princes Amazon Page

A Confusion of Princes Video Game Tie-In (Goes Bust) and Lengthy Interview with Garth Nix

A Confusion of Princes Tor.com Page

Garth Nix Old Kingdom Website

Monday, June 25, 2012

Book Review - A Bad Day For Voodoo by Jeff Strand

A Bad Day For Voodoo
Jeff Strand
Reading Level: Ages 12 and up (YA)
Trade Paperback
251 Pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: June 5th, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-1-4022-6680-5

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The Intro:
I’ve come to expect a certain level of raucous, titillating humor and, what I might call, impertinence in Jeff Strand’s stories and A Bad Day For Voodoo, his new, Young Adult novel is no exception. In fact, it might be the funniest and most entertaining writing he’s ever done. A Bad Day For Voodoo is a brilliantly humorous and dark take on the high school state-of-mind with irreverent (and sometimes gory) undertones and a number of highly creative and fascinating moments that are well-worth the price of faire. It’ll knock your socks off (Oh, wait…. That’s the main character and those were a couple of his toes, not his socks. My bad.) Voodoo really sucks when it works the way it’s supposed to, right? Imagine what happens when it goes spiraling out of control.

The Tie-in:
When I was in the fifth grade I had a cantankerous, old teacher (name withheld to protect the innocent – mostly every fifth grader who ever crossed her path) that I secretly wished would fall asleep at her desk and do a face plant onto her memo spike. Gasp. No! Yes. True story. (Sorry mom.) Imagine my surprise then when in A Bad Day For Voodoo the math teacher’s leg spurts off during an ill-advised voodoo experiment. I think every kid old enough to understand it will stand up and cheer when they read the opening sequence of Strand’s amusing novel. Only someone truly twisted could create a voodoo-zombie-amputation novel this engaging, let alone one that begins with a voodoo doll accident with epic consequences. Thank you, Mr. Strand for your warped sense of humor. It comforts me to know that I’m not the only perverse SOB on this dusty rock we call home.

The Clever Part:
Speaking to (or directly acknowledging) the audience, known as breaking the fourth wall, still catches me by surprises sometimes and Mr. Strand accomplished this trope with superb skill and not a little tongue-in-cheek humor. The remarkable thing is that he managed to add to the narrative flow while acknowledging his readers which made the story that much more pleasurable to read. Not that the story was NOT NOT enjoyable without it (Does that double negative make any sense?) but the perfect placement of speaking (writing) to the audience with impeccably timed transitions simply added to the overall enjoyment of the story. And the occasions when Mr. Strand employs them are clever, deliberate, and exceptionally comical.

The Premise:
High-school teenagers, no matter how reliable or responsible, should never, ever be allowed to handle voodoo dolls. Unfortunately, for certain members of this high school, voodoo is accidently deployed with serious side-effect. “Wait,” you say, “voodoo isn’t real.” Tell that to the Mr. Click, the math teacher whose leg just popped off, or to Tyler Churchill who is missing two toes due to a misguided pin-pricking. Add a voodoo doll that won’t stay put, a group of car thieves that get caught up in the coolest Abbot and Costello-like gunfight in history, a family of Basers (people that follow every religion on the planet in the firm believe that covering all the bases assures salvation,) a bizarre and spooky neighborhood, a zombie escaped from the morgue, and a pair of mysterious, unsympathetic witch-doctor-ess(es) and you begin to catch an abbreviated glimpse of the bizarre world Jeff Strand has created in A Bad Day For Voodoo. Can Tyler and his friends find and rescue his voodoo doll before someone accidently smashes in his head?

The Artist:
While A Bad Day For Voodoo is clearly marketed for consumption by Young Adults (12 and up) it’s an entertaining and worthwhile read even for those 40 years over the recommended marketing age. Here’s why. Jeff Strand has the incomparable skill of creating acts of gory gruesomeness filled with moments of dark horror and wrapping them around some very funny words in especially scary ways; words that make total sense when he strings them together “his way.” He’s one of the few writers that can make me feel squeamish and make milk squirt out of my nose at the same time. And I mean that in a good way. Sort of…

The Fun Stuff:
Some of the highlights include high-school book review advice, a missing chapter filled by an apology e-mail from the publisher, a chapter numbered to inflate your reading prowess, and a list of forthcoming books in the series. Including: A Bad Day For Witchcraft, A Bad Day For That Guy About To Get Hit By A Bus, A Bad Day For Voodoo II, A Bad Day For Taunting Llamas, A Bad Day For Voodoo 3-D, and Harry Potter Vs. A Bad Day For Voodoo. If you’re still in high school and in a pinch for good book report information Chapter 20 will be an invaluable tool. Read A Bad Day For Voodoo for that chapter alone. I mean it. You’ll go wow, cool! Chapter 28, lost due to a computer glitch, somehow manages to propel the story forward and, if you happen to make it all the way to Chapter 367 then you’ve got bragging rights and all your friends will be envious J (Okay, this probably bears explanation but I’ll let Strand do that himself when you read his book.) So, what are you waiting for? Go out and buy the book. Read it. Have fun. Just don’t stick pins in it…

The Commendations:
Recommended for fans of Urban Fantasy; Young Adult stories; action adventures; humor; dark magic; rude, teenage dialogue (I mean teenage dialogue); hilarious acts involving guns and zombies and frequent amputations; voodoo, car-chases; and anyone that enjoys an intelligent but warped sense of humor. Did I mention it was pretty funny?

The Rating:
4 ½ stars out of 5

The Blogger:
The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

The Extras:
Additional Reading:

Strand’s Official Author Site “Gleefully Macabre”

A Bad Day For Voodoo Amazon Page

Excellent Review by Elizabeth A. White

My previous review of Strand’s “Out of Whack” can be found here

The Post Script:
P.S. A Bad Day For Voodoo literally (okay, figuratively) had me on pins and needles the entire time I was reading it (bad pun intended.) Fortunately, I knew that I wouldn’t be missing body parts before the first Chapter ended. Good thing I’ve given the book a solid review, though. There’s a rumor going around on the Internet that a blogger that panned it is now missing a finger, but that just might be a weird coincidence. Or not…

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Guest Blog Post “My Least Favorite Part of Being An Author” by Jeff Strand

My least favorite part of being an author? By far, it's reviewing galleys.

Galleys are cool at first glance, because you actually get to see the book in its final layout. It looks like a real book, instead of something that's in 12 pt. double-spaced Courier New. You're sooooooo close to having this in the hands of readers!

When you go through the galleys, you get one last chance to find any errors. But that's really all you're looking for: errors. And not "Wow, does Chapter Sixteen ever suck!" errors, but tiny errors. If you send in a completely revised version of Chapter Sixteen at the galley stage, big scary men will show up at your house with crowbars.

Now, if you find a really HUGE mistake, like a loophole in your time-travel logic that means that your heroine is making out with her great-great-great-great grandfather, they'll probably let you fix it. But otherwise, the book in galleys form is pretty much the book in published form. Which means that while I review the galleys, I will think of hundreds of new jokes that should be in there, and funnier ways to tell the jokes that are already there through the book. Suddenly I want to change EVERYTHING!!! Lines that were totally fine the first thirty-nine times I went through the book, when I could change anything I wanted, now make me want to bury my head in the sands of shame.

My favorite part of the process is the final proofreading of my manuscript before I send it off to the editor. At that point, I'm a genius...no, a super-genius! This book is AWESOME!!! Go me! I'll be putting a down payment on that gold-plated mansion any minute now! Woo-hoo!!!

This thought process changes approximately 1.7 seconds after I click "Send." Then, every previously unseen flaw in the book bursts into my brain with a force that knocks me out of my chair and through the window in my office. I can't BELIEVE I sent the publisher that garbage. I am the epitome of lameness. I wait for the inevitable e-mail response that says "Dear Jeff: WTF?"

As time passes, my opinion of the book slips to somewhere in-between the two extremes.

In theory, the worst part should be months later when I actually read the published book, because then I really can't change anything, except with a pen and a lot of bookstore visits. But I don't read the published book. Oh, sure, I lovingly cradle it, maybe stroke the spine, but I never actually re-read any of it. That would make me cry.

-o-o-o-o-o-
Jeff Strand is the author of the Andrew Mayhem series, Graverobbers Wanted (No Experience Necessary) (2001), Single White Psychopath Seeks Same (2003), Casket For Sale (Only Used Once) (2004), Lost Homicidal Maniac (Answers to “Shirley”) (2011), and Suckers (2009) (with J A Konrath); stand alone novels How to Rescue a Dead Princess (2000), Mandibles (2003), Out of Whack (2004), Pressure (2006), Elrod McBugle On The Loose (2007), Benjamin's Parasite (2009), Dweller (2010), Wolf Hunt (2010), Draculas (2010) (with Blake Crouch, Jack Kilborn, J A Konrath and F Paul Wilson), Fangboy (2011),and A Bad Day for Voodoo (2012); the omnibus The Mad and The Macabre (2010) (with Michael McBride); and the novellas The Severed Nose (2009), Kutter (2010) and Faint of Heart (2012). He was nominated for the Bram Stoker Best Novel award in 2006 for his novel Pressure.

The More-Or-Less Official Jeff Strand Website
http://jeffstrand.wordpress.com/books/faint-of-heart/

Jeff Strand Bio
http://jeffstrand.wordpress.com/bio/

P.S. My review of Jeff Strand’s A Bad Day For Voodoo coming soon…
The Alternative

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Book Review - Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu

Sorry Please Thank You
Charles Yu
Pantheon Books
Publication Date: July 24, 2012
222 Pages
Uncorrected Bound Galley
ISBN 978-0-307-90718-9

Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu

Charles Yu’s much too slim volume of short stories Sorry Please Thank You is a humorous romp through a wide range of Science Fiction stories and is the perfect platform for Yu’s sense of comedy, command of the language,  alternative universe building and speculative fiction skills. So, like the book my review will be much too brief yet hopefully entertaining.

Not every story here is a gem but at least five, maybe six, of the 13 (some of which have appeared elsewhere) are exceptional and definitely worth the read. My favorite stories include “Standard Loneliness Package”, “First Person Shooter”, “Hero Absorbs Major Damage”, and “Yeoman.” I’ve taken this opportunity to record the table of contents below and, following the titles, have included my take on each of the stories.

Contents

SORRY

1. Standard Loneliness Package – What if someone paid you to feel their pain, their guilt, or attend that funeral no one really wanted to go to? What if that funeral was for a child?

2. First Person Shooter – How would you handle a zombie roaming around your store? What if she was primping for a date? (Note: Shotgun is a perfectly acceptable answer.) [P. S. The complete story can be found by clicking here – First Person  Shooter ]

3. Troubleshooting – How to be successful in a wish machine universe… A step-by-step guide on how to make winning choices.

PLEASE

1. Hero Absorbs Major Damage – Exceptional story about love, life, and getting whacked hard enough to take Major Damage. Hero dead. Game Over.

2. Human For Beginners – Bizarre and weird and strange and bizarre… did I say bizarre. Extended family relations, indeed.

3. Inventory – “It’s hard to have a relationship in this world. Other people are not the same from day to day.”

4. Open – Be wary of the alternative universe that advertises itself… especially if your relationship is suffering.

5. Note To Self ­– Alternate universe “us’s” hold an unusual discussion. And, as usual, we still don’t understand myself.

THANK YOU

1. Yeoman – Sometimes a guy in a red shirt is just a guy in a red shirt (or Kama Sutra and other things to do with goop.)

2. Designer Emotion 67 – A transcript of PharmaLife, Inc.'s annual report to shareholders in 2050 with interludes by the cocky (and very greedy) CEO. Major hilarity ensues…

3. The Book of Categories ­– Contains no less than 3,739,164 pages (and counting.)

Also included in the anthology Thackeray T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities.

4. Adult Contemporary – Narrating one’s own life.

ALL OF THE ABOVE

1. Sorry Please Thank You – A suicide note on a bar napkin -  a melancholy hymn of loneliness and a perfect end to the collection.

3 ½ out of 5 stars

The Alternative One
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Sorry Please Thank You Amazon Page

Charles Yu Wiki Page

Monday, June 04, 2012

Book Review - Niceville by Carsten Stroud

Niceville
Carsten Stroud
Trade Paperback
Advance Reader’s Copy
400 pages
Knopf Doubleday
Publication Date: June 12, 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0307700957

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     Buried in Niceville is something evil… and the harvest is coming.

     Carsten Stroud is probably not a name that immediately comes to mind when discussing horror or dark-suspense stories. In fact, he’s probably most well-known for his politically-driven, suspenseful mystery novels than for anything else. However, Mr. Stroud has found a way to channel all the coolest (read darkest and weirdest) parts of modern horror into one ominous place, Niceville. Stroud’s everyman style and the murky content of Niceville will inevitably elicit comparisons to Stephen King, Clive Barker, or Graham Masterton and while this happens quite often when authors cross into the horror genre it’s totally justified in this instance, and, for good reason. While their styles are complimentary and very similar (smart-mouthed characters and irreverent dialogue backed by an eerie premise) Stroud manages to incorporate elements of Southern Gothic, ghost-realms, Quentin Tarantino-like characters, bloody gun-battles, American Indian folklore, paranormal mystery, and some of the nastiest, most flawed antagonists you’ll ever come across in modern, dark fiction. It’s an outlandish combination, to be sure, but it all works and works quite well, in my estimation.

     I have to admit that to me Niceville read very much like a Stephen King novel. Quickly paced, easy to read, and journeyman in approach much of Niceville’s horror is found “off page,” by which I mean it’s left somewhat to our own imaginations (especially when moving through the realms where the dead reside or when the living are murdered.) And my imagination can, when pushed just right, conjure more horrifying images than could ever be written, something that King has done perfectly for many years and that Stroud has tapped into.

     With a name like Niceville you might immediately think of a sociable, idyllic village with friendly neighbors, an antiquated town-square, award winning rose bushes, and fun-filled, summer parades. You couldn’t be more wrong. Niceville is a very dark place. Children have disappeared at an alarming rate there which has the distinction of having the highest rate of stranger abduction in the country. When a security camera catches the most recent abduction it only fuels the mystery. One moment Rainey is there, on camera. The next he’s simply vanished. When he’s found alive in a sealed crypt the confusion deepens. Who, or what, is abducting the children of Niceville and why? And, what does a high-profile bank robbery, 80 years of disappearances, and a black lake at the edge of town have to do with each other? When you enter Niceville you’ll find out.

     There’s a grocery list of characters in Niceville and the story moves from many of their perspectives, sometimes rather abruptly, and while that is slightly confusing and a little interruptive it bears mentioning that Stroud reels all the characters in together nicely as the story progresses and delivers a neat, tightly-woven climax that does not disappoint. While the numerous characters may seem a drawback to some I rather enjoyed the weaving together of the many characters, especially since Stroud brought them all together in a surprisingly satisfying (and spine-tingling) ending.

     If you like Southern Gothic, Stephen King, imaginative horror, larger-than-life characters, or dark suspense then I recommend Niceville for you.

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Official Carsten Stroud Web page

Official Niceville Site

Niceville Sample Chapter

Niceville Amazon Page

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Coming soon….

… to a Blog near you (including this one.) On tour, a new YA novel by Jeff Strand, A Bad Day For Voodoo.  I’ll be reviewing this book in the very near future and, as with anything by Jeff Strand, I expect a very special story. Here’s a sneak peak.

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A Bad Day For Voodoo

Promo by Jeff Strand

I'm Tyler Churchill. Not too long ago I had this insane adventure, with car chases and body parts coming off and everything, which I wrote about in the book A Bad Day For Voodoo. It's not my job to say that it's the best book ever written, but I will say that if you don't read it, the following conversation will definitely take place:

[You're walking down the sidewalk, whistling the merry tune of your choice. Up ahead you see a friend.]

YOU: Hi, friend!

YOUR FRIEND: Hi, you! Crazy party last night, huh? I've never seen anybody eat that many pretzels without getting a drink of water!

YOU: And who brought the rhinoceros? I kept thinking "Whoa, somebody is gonna get tusked!" but nobody did, which is good because it would have been funny at the moment of impact, but not so funny once we got into the screaming and bleeding and ambulances.

YOUR FRIEND: Were you there for the ritual?

YOU: What ritual?

YOUR FRIEND: You'll find out. [His or her expression darkens, and he/she gives you a wicked smile.] Oh, yes, you'll find out.

YOU: Seriously, what ritual? There was a ritual? Where was I?

YOUR FRIEND: When the time is right, all will be revealed.

YOU: C'mon, tell me what the ritual was! You can't just throw something like that out into the conversation and then not give answers! Tell me! I need resolution! Resolution!

YOUR FRIEND: I was just kidding. We were all sitting around playing Words With Friends on our phones. Somebody played "rhinoceros" on a triple-word score, which was pretty ironic. Actually, I played "rhino" first and they added "ceros." So what did you think of A Bad Day For Voodoo?

YOU: That new book? I didn't read it.

[Several onlookers gasp.]

YOUR FRIEND: Excuse me?

YOU: I said I haven't read it.

YOUR FRIEND: You...you...you haven't read A Bad Day For Voodoo?

YOU: No. That's okay, isn't it?

YOUR FRIEND: Okay? Okay? Don't you understand what this means? It means that you're not cool!

YOU: But that's not possible! I do cool things all the time!

YOUR FRIEND: It doesn't matter! This is the book that will define our generation! If you're ever on a game show and the host says "For twenty thousand dollars, please give us the definition of your generation," you could hold up A Bad Day For Voodoo and win the twenty thousand dollars!

YOU: But...but...but...but...but...but...but...I thought it was just a silly book!

[Your friend shakes his or her head and sighs.]

YOUR FRIEND: No. It is not.

SOME GUY WHO ALSO HAPPENS TO BE IN THE AREA AND IS EAVESDROPPING ON THE CONVERSATION: You really haven't read A Bad Day For Voodoo? Wow. I heard that those people existed, but I never thought I'd see one outside of a zoo.

YOU: You don't have to be a jerk about it.

YOUR FRIEND: Yes, he does.

YOU: Oh.

YOUR FRIEND: I never knew you were so uncool. It's like our whole friendship was a lie.

YOU: You're making too big of a deal out of this.

YOUR FRIEND: Do you see all of those weird-looking colorful waves that are coming out of people's eyes?

YOU: Ack! Yes! What are those?

YOUR FRIEND: Those are waves of judgment. Everybody is judging you. This will follow you around for the rest of your life.

YOU: No! I don't believe you!

[You get hit by a car.]

YOU: Ow! Ow!

YOUR FRIEND: That's what happens when you don't read A Bad Day For Voodoo. Bad luck follows you everywhere. Watch out for that circular saw blade.

YOU [quickly ducking]: Aaah! That circular saw blade almost took my head off!

YOUR FRIEND: And you'll need your head to read A Bad Day For Voodoo! Do you understand now?

[A monkey jumps out of a tree and starts punching you in the neck.]

YOU: I understand! I understand!

YOUR FRIEND: Your coolness meter is running out quickly, but there is still time to replenish it! Run to a bookstore or an internet and buy A Bad Day For Voodoo! Hurry, before it's too--

[The earth begins to crumble around your feet.]

YOUR FRIEND: Oh no! It's too late! The world needed your coolness! It's the only thing that kept us from being all dystopian and stuff!

[Zombies--fast or slow, your choice--show up and start eating people.]

PEOPLE CURRENTLY BEING EATEN [in unison]: Nooooooo!

YOU: What have I done? What have I--

[Suddenly you wake up screaming.]

YOU: It was all a dream! Only a terrible, terrible dream! In fact, the book A Bad Day For Voodoo doesn't even really exist!

SOMEBODY (YOU'RE NOT SURE WHO): Yes, it does. It's just not out yet. But it will be in June 2012. And you'd better buy it, or the next time you wake up screaming, Effie Trinket will be drawing your name for tribute.

YOU: Then I shall mark my calendar, or better yet, pre-order a copy of A Bad Day For Voodoo right now!

See? You may think I made all of that up, but I assure you that my only concern is for the safety of the world. And even if you don't care about the world, you should read about the time that my history teacher Mr. Click falsely accused me of cheating on a test, and my friend Adam got a voodoo doll of him, and I jabbed it with a pin during class, and things went wrong, wrong, wrong!

My girlfriend Kelley, who is smarter than both of us combined, also got caught up in the whole thing, and you will not believe the kind of stuff that happened. It's crazy! I mean, we ran into this one family who...well, you don't want spoilers, but it was one messed-up family.

Oh, the book is my completely true story, but the publisher put the name "Jeff Strand" on the cover, because of some sort of ransom demand. Just ignore that.

Okay, so, you know what to do, right? Awesome. See you in June.

JEFF STRAND is a three-time nominee for the Bram Stoker Award, lives in Tampa, Florida, and doesn’t believe in voodoo.  But he thinks you should carry a doll around, go up to people you don’t like, and chuckle while you jab at it with pins, just to make them squirm.  Poke around his gleefully macabre website.

My previous review of Strand’s “Out of Whack” can be found here: Book Review - Out of Whack by Jeff Strand