Book Review: Plague Nation by Dana Fredsti
Review by: Prof. Jenn
For a reminder of my opinion of Fredsti’s first zombie book in this series, and my interview with her, see here: http://nerdsinbabeland.com/archives/6571.
In Plague Nation, the zombie virus has spread from our one little college town to all the way across the, well, nation. We also learn that there is more than meets the eye with how the plague started in the first place. We catch a brief glimpse of a new villain, and learn more about a possible cure. Though the next book is called Plague World, so I wouldn’t hold your breath yet.
Here’s my professional opinion of Plague Nation, in list form, like the last one was. Also, lists are cool.
What I liked:
The pacing. This sequel is much tighter than the first one–it hits the ground running, and doesn’t let up. Having said that, there are enough quiet spots to allow us to catch our breath, but not enough to drag down the drama.
Character development: Remember when I complained last time about one-dimensional characters? Well they’ve developed here, and it makes us want to know what happens next much more now that we’re getting to know our characters better.
The drama re: Gabriel’s mysterious condition. It’s getting down to the wire, and it’s exciting.
Our new silky, creepy villain. Actually I wish we had more of him– the conclusion of his thread is a bit anticlimactic, though I can tell he’ll continue in the next book. But he’s great to have–a supervillain in a zombie story, totally charming and sociopathic.
The premise of including lots and lots of pop culture, and characters who quote movies, and reference them in their daily activities. Like we do.
What I didn’t like:
Ashley’s snarky inner monologue. It was a bit too much in the last book, and in the sequel, it’s even more out of hand. Instead of sounding like a funny, smart, kick ass protagonist (which I suspect is the idea behind writing her like this), Ashley just grates on the nerves.
As much as I like the idea of pop culture references in a story like this, it does get a bit overboard in actual practice. Also, it veers a bit too close to Walking Dead. There’s a fine line between postmodern remix and clunky copying, and this book crosses that line a few times.
The conspiracy plot-line: I won’t spoil it for you, readers, but I don’t get it–the motivations behind the new evil-doers are not plausible to me. I don’t know, go read it, then email me and see if that’s just me.
Bottom line: if you can grit your teeth past Ashley’s voice, pick up Plague Nation and have fun seeing how our intrepid wild cards are faring against the spread of the zombie virus.
The Magic Circle by Jenny Davidson is the story of three young women whose lives revolve around games. Ruth is a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University in New York City whose research focus is on game theory and design. She pulls two friends, Lucy and Anna, into the development of her most recent alternate reality game, Trapped in the Asylum. The Magic Circle follows the dramatic, life-altering effects game development and practice has on these three women.
The Magic Circle has a lot of potential. It explores a segment of geek culture that I personally love (live action role-playing gaming, ARGs, etc) and involves three strong female protagonists. Additionally, Davidson incorporates different forms of story-telling, including having portions of the story told via gchat conversations, online forum conversations, and blog posts. It has a much darker tone than I expected and includes some interesting twists. While I would love to be more involved in LARP and ARG culture, I admit I do not know all of the intricacies of that world and therefore cannot speak to the validity of the culture they portray in this book. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading a book that acknowledges how enlightening and fun this world can be, primarily with regards to the Trapped in the Asylum game.
Nevertheless, there are some problems with the book. The first half of the book is slow. Aside from the parts of the book that serve to develop Trapped in the Asylum, I found myself having to struggle a bit to gain interest in these characters and their lives. The second half takes a dramatic turn and becomes much more of a thriller. It is faster-paced and much harder to put down. My biggest problem with the last half of the book is that there are a number of plot points that never get fully explained. These plot holes left me feeling slightly unsatisfied by the end and wishing the author had added just a few additional pages to wrap some things up. Admittedly, I am not familiar with The Bacchae, the Greek tragedy the latter half of the book is focused on, and therefore I might be missing part of the story. Regardless, I would have liked a little more wrap-up of the primary story lines in the final resolution of the story.
The Magic Circle is a dark thriller that skirts on the edge of a full examination of game culture and design. While I have a handful of issues with the way certain story-lines and characters were handled, I admire the effort Ms. Davidson put into exploring unique ways of handling prose and the examination of live action game culture. I am definitely interested to see what future stories Ms. Davidson has to offer.
Bioshock Infinite was released last week, bringing a new, exciting chapter of the hugely popular game series for fans to obsessively play for days at a time. I, myself, am a fan of the franchise and when I heard about a book release accompanying the game which would outline the artistic development involved, I was thrilled to have the chance to review it. The Bioshock games are known for their complex story lines and tormented characters, but I think the real core of these games is in the mind blowing art work. I still remember my first time watching the opening sequence for Bioshock. I felt real terror and fear living the experience of sinking on a huge ship, watching people and flames plummet in to the ocean around me as my character sank deeper and deeper. Then, the elation of discovering Rapture, the city under the sea, glowing and majestic, yet abandoned and incredibly eerie at the same time. Bioshock has never settled for less than ‘holy shit amazing’ in the visual department and by the looks of The Art of Bioshock Infinite, this latest installment is no different.
The introduction to the book is by creative director Ken Levine and he explains that the process of developing a video game on the level of Bioshock Infinite is far more complicated and time consuming than some may assume. “ the process of making anything—and certainly an Irrational game—is grueling and exhilarating, exciting and depressing, thrilling and scary as hell. For every idea that makes it into the game, a dozen are put against the wall and shot.” This book puts this process on display for you, showing the character and world development, sketch by sketch. Hundreds of pieces of art and ideas were thrown out in the editing machine, but no less impressive. It becomes obvious right away that the artists who created this new Bioshock universe toiled endlessly to achieve the perfect effects on every single detail of every puzzle piece that eventually became Bioshock Infinite.
I found the notes explaining the process behind the art development as intriguing as the pictures themselves. To get a glimpse in to the great care and immense thought behind every detail in this game feels like peeking in to someone’s window and watching them create. Someone with more artistic chutzpah in their little finger than I could achieve in a lifetime. Watching the floating city of Columbia come to life in these paintings and sketches is so much fun, but for me the best part was being witness to the birth and growth of the enigmatic characters of Bioshock Infinite. Booker DeWitt, Elizabeth and Songbird are focused on heavily, their personality and story details being just as imperative as their styles and physical make up. Readers are invited to observe the ideas behind Sky-Hooks, airships and the menacing, powerful Heavy Hitters.
The Art of Bioshock Infinite is a beautiful, enlightening lesson in video game development. It’s not quick, easy, simple or lacking in sacrifice. At least not a game on this level of quality and brilliance. I haven’t actually played Bioshock Infinite yet, but reading this book makes me feel like I already have an intimate knowledge of the people and creatures (or machines) that make up the city of Columbia. Whether you’re a fan of the Bioshock franchise or just a lover of artwork, this book is definitely satisfying and worth having on your shelf. It’s been a real treat for me and has only increased my desire to experience Bioshock Infinite for myself.
Book Review: A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwartz
Review by: Prof. Jenn
If you like perky romantic tropes, and you like Historical Fiction motifs, and you dig steampunk, this book is for you.
No, really–I mention tropes because they’re here in spades, but in no way do I mean to imply that’s a bad thing. Schwartz delivers the goodies into expectant hands in this high-action story, and just because we know what the goodies are (and have had them before) does not diminish their deliciousness.
Elle is an independent, stubborn, beautiful-redhead airship pilot (I know, how cool, right?) who finds herself embroiled in a take-over-the-world plot beyond her ken. Of course. Unexpected help comes in the shape of handsome, rich, magically-powered Mr. Marsh, whom she *definitely* isn’t in love with, nope, no way, and he absolutely will not fall in love with her either, huh-uh, nothing doing… oh. Yeah. Except they of course do. This is not a spoiler–you will see them getting together miles away, the moment the first flirty banter exits their mouths. But again–that’s not a bad thing.
This book is unabashedly rife with tropes, and absolutely does not apologize for them, nor should it. When Elle put on her goggles to pilot her airship, I bounced with joy. When Marsh ventured into old Italy and met a mage within a dusty apothecary shop, I sighed as I do when I am sipping a favorite brand of coffee. And there’s a train trip. With intrigue! Yes, I’ve seen many of those before, but I *like* them! It’s like watching an episode of Star Trek, or reading a Sherlock Holmes story, or watching a James Bond film. There are certain motifs and images (even lines or events) you’ll see over and over in these, but you *want* to see them, you expect to see them, that’s what makes those media so enjoyable. It’s a similar effect in Conspiracy, except Schwartz has included a few different genres mixed up in a big fun sundae.
There is a little awkwardness just in some of the mechanics of the writing. For example, we get a little overburdened with exposition, and there are some places where Schwartz loses hold of her feel for the time period–even though this is a Fantasy world, some of the dialogue comes across as anachronistic. But hey, I’ve just gorged happily on vampires and airships and absinthe fairies; I’m willing to forgive such minor shortcomings.
Bottom Line: A Conspiracy of Alchemists is a heckuva lot of fun. I recommend it.
Review: The Wind Whales of Ishmael by Philip Jose Farmer
Review by: Prof. Jenn
Philip Jose Farmer is well-known for writing science fiction that in essence is a gate to mainstream classics. His Wold Newton series in particular does this artful remix thing that you readers have heard me wax rhapsodic about so often. The Wind Whales of Ishmael isn’t technically one of the Wold Newtons, but it very well could be, in that it takes a famous character from classic literature and plops him in a science fiction scenario.
Titan books has re-released several Farmer classics, with intros and outros by experts and colleagues of the legendary writer, which gives anyone not familiar with Farmer’s work a good background and inspiration to try further readings, and those fans a richness to their continued collection.
The Wind Whales of Ishmael is fantastically entertaining, taking place just after the events of Moby Dick, where Ishmael is floating alone in the ocean on Queequeg’s coffin (remember?). Then, just as the Rachel rescues him, he finds himself and the ship plunging through a rip in the fabric of time, landing as the sole survivor on a future Earth where sharks and whales have evolved to live in the air, and the seas have all pretty much dried up. Oh, and there’s plants that provide water, but that drink your blood. And there’s air ships that are whalers. And a pretty princess.
It’s written in a quick, clipped, concise style, with Ishmael as a character just as enigmatic and intellectual as he was in Melville. The action starts right away and doesn’t quit, ever, ending with one of the best dungeon crawl scenes in genre fiction. The descriptions of the future world and its machinations are exhaustive and vivid, but at no time do they slow down the action.
Bottom line: I highly recommend The Wind Whales of Ishmael. It’s a classic, and a great read. ~Prof. Jenn
Comic Review: Dr. Who vol. 1: the Hypothetical Gentleman by Diggle, Buckingham, Seifert, Bond, and many more
Review by: Prof. Jenn
The Hypothetical Gentleman consists of two story arcs: the title one, and one called The Doctor and the Nurse. Both are quite different both in writing feel and artistic style, and both are quite enjoyable.
The Hypothetical Gentleman takes place in a few different time periods in London. It concerns seances, artifacts of time, and what is real and what is shenaniganry, and of course there’s a dangerous device having to do with the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey and the Doctor must save the day. Or space-time. You get the picture. There’s some wonderful Amy-Rory dialogue, and a delightful bit where the Doctor is exploring a museum, coming across some objects that any Whovian readers will recognize with a chortle (Just checking to see the mummy is deactivated. Yes). The art is elegant and full of emotion–it reminds me a little bit of the style of CrossGen’s old series Ruse, in that we get lots of character and movement, with rich color and a sort of Impressionist realism about it.
The Doctor and the Nurse is a much more whimsical storyline, and the art is more colorful and cartoony as is appropriate. It follows Rory and the Doctor attempting to have a Boys’ Night Out, ending up with a trapped Amy and many many time periods and a flood of beer. And the Silence. But they’re not the scary Silence in this one, they’re just slightly menacing–even though we get a sense of tension and high-speed action, this isn’t one of those terrifying or super-deeply-poignant stories, but rather a fast-paced Whovian romp. The comedic relief of the Doctor’s dynamic with Rory when trapped alone with him is a lot of fun, and Amy is a resourceful hero in her timeline too.
Bottom Line: Volume One is a lot of fun–the stories are beautifully drawn, and they read like good episodes of the show. Highly recommended.
Review: Everybody Loves Tank Girl by Mahfood and Martin
Review by Prof. Jenn
Once again, I’m in the position of not being familiar with these comics characters before plunging right into reviewing the latest in a series of volumes. So what I can’t tell you is how the characters have progressed, how this collection fits in with previous ones, etc. What I can tell you is what I did and didn’t like, of this volume.
Let’s start with the bad news first: being new to Tank Girl and her cronies, I didn’t get what world we’re in, what the back story was, etc. For example, what is Tank Girl an outlaw for? Or of, for that matter? For someone already familiar with the denizens of Tank Girl’s bloody world, this is no doubt not a problem, but for a first-timer I needed a little more. The other downside to this volume is its bloody foul-mouthed-ness. Sometimes the base-ness is strong or dirty-fun or hilarious, but sometimes it’s just jejune and crude. Tank Girl has been called the “most rock ‘n roll comic book character ever” (NME, back cover blurb), and I would agree–but we get both the good and the bad of what that potential is.
And now the positives: I like that they’re rarely in color–we get a lovely, gritty tattoo-art sense from most of them in black and white sketchy style. The art itself is the visual equivalent of Beat poetry: rough, busy, sexy, and interesting. I dig the many little joke commercials peppered throughout. The short one-off punch line-centered stories are a lot of bizarre fun; they remind me of a couple of precocious adolescents making a radio show. The storylines are chaotic enough to be hard to follow sometimes, but that’s not really an issue given the tone and feel of the whole thing. Just hang on and enjoy the ride.
Bottom line: Meh, I don’t know what to think. It’s enjoyable enough, albeit quite trippy, confusing and low-down-and-dirty. So…hm, okay my final judgment is “meh.” ~Prof. Jenn
Book review: Encounters of Sherlock Holmes ed. by George Mann
Review by Prof. Jenn
First, I would like the readers’ input as to coining a new term. I don’t particularly like the term “pastiche” in reference to books like this, as to me “pastiche” sounds like a parody or a mockery of the original material. Only one of the stories does this in this collection (coincidentally, my least favorite one), whereas the rest of these Holmesian delights range from the sublime (a fast-paced Watson-narrated mystery very close to Doyle in style) to the ridiculous (Mrs. Hudson battles demons and witches), to the crossover (Holmes investigates the murder of the Martian ambassador, post War of the Worlds invasion).
This book is like one of those heart-shaped boxes of chocolates–you don’t know if it’s a good truffle or a bad one until you bite into it. Some of the nougats I didn’t care for as much weren’t well written or mistreated Holmes as a character (I never like stories where Holmes isn’t in fact the smart one, but that’s just my taste). The ones that went down the best were either very Doyleian in flavor or were a skillful character mashup (Holmes meeting with Sir Richard Burton and his encounter with A.J. Raffles are two of the best). The tasty stories far outweigh the spit-outers, so don’t shy away from this collection because of a couple of duds, particularly if you’re a Holmes fan.
Bottom line: the good stories balance out the bad. Definitely worth a read, and if you’re a Sherlockian, you’ll want to add it to your collection. ~Prof. Jenn
I have had the great pleasure of reviewing Kim Newman’s previous Anno Dracula books (Anno Dracula, Anno Dracula: the Bloody Red Baron), and was happy to get the chance to check out Newman’s newest Anno Dracula book: Dracula Cha Cha Cha.
Newman’s first book took place in Victorian England, his second during WWI. Both books do a thing which I very much enjoy (when done well)–they combine a historical fiction base with fictional characters. This makes for a lovely mix of alternative history and mystery in one of the funnest cross-genres I have enjoyed reading lately.* What Newman does especially well in all these books is make the setting very important ( as all historical fiction should), includes fictional as well as historical (and original) characters in vital ways, and makes sure the story remains paramount.
In Dracula Cha Cha Cha, Newman puts us in 1960s Rome just as deftly as he previously put us in Victorian England and WWI Europe, with enough setting description to put us there, without detracting from the story. This is important because it’s in essence a detective story, and the what-will-happen-next, whodunit aspect is actually the most important thing in a story like this. Another quite skillful thing Newman does is incorporate the setting into the action, which means we’re getting more of the setting while still investigating the murder.
One of the funnest* things about all three Anno Dracula books is the spot-the-character game. Many beloved characters from fiction in the time period when the book is set appear in vital roles, and while Newman never randomly throws these characters in for no reason, it’s still an Easter egg game to see who shows up, and who ends up being a vampire. This latest installment is no exception–I know a lot of my geeky friends and I claim James Bond is a Timelord, but in this book he’s a vampire. Totally makes sense, and the way favorite character Kate Reed interacts with him is priceless. The deadly Lovelies are quite Bondian without being associated with Bond, and the groovy student-and-drug related novella Aquarius (included in this volume) are right out of a 1960s movie. I only wish Newman had included the Avengers (TV spies, not superheroes) in this mix. But that’s just me.
Both stories in this volume (the main novel, plus the novella Aquarius) are murder mysteries, and are just as gripping, mysterious, and full of twists as a story of that genre should be. I won’t even reveal anything about either plot itself, only that they are well crafted whodunits. They do get a little gory, but that’s of course to be expected in a vampire book. The only other thing I can say about plot, is that I wish Newman had had only the novel here, and published the novellas (from the last book and this one) in a separate collection. I understand that that would mean having two stories in two different time periods instead of keeping to one volume, one era, but the way it is now makes for kind of a long read. It’s not really a big deal, it’s just a thing to think about for the next one, guys.
Bottom Line: the Anno Dracula series is excellent, and I highly recommend this latest one.
*i am an English professor by trade. I’m allowed to say “funnest.”
Book Review: Two MacInnes Classic Spy Novels
by Prof. Jenn
Helen MacInnes has been called the Queen of Spy Writers, and after reading Titan Press’ re-release of Above Suspicion and Pray For a Brave Heart, I can see why.
The novels share many strengths, including compelling main characters, realistic historical settings without distracting from the taut plots, and all the “whodunit” tension necessary for thrillers of this genre. Both novels star amateur protagonists (in Above Suspicion’s case: a couple of amateurs) stuck in the middle of big-time political intrigue, and it makes for an edge-of-the-seat read in each case. I mean, Jason Bourne is a pretty awesome character, but he is just that. Awesome. Denning and the Myleses are normal people–brave, sure, smart, certainly, but just people. The fact that they have friends in odd places who ask them for help in their intricate information-gathering is a side point, until they become embroiled in said intricacies.
I would posit that the reason the historical/political settings (1939 Europe in the first case, 1953 Europe in the second) aren’t distracting like so many historical fiction settings are is that, well, these books are actually contemporary fiction, written very close to the times they are set in. Historical Fiction writers, take note of MacInnes’ balance: there are certain political things she assumes we readers know (like WWII is about to begin, for example), but doesn’t assume too much, and doesn’t shirk in her background descriptions. MacInnes also performs a second masterful balancing act: she switches POV just when we need it, not too often to be jarring but just so much that we get the right information at the right time. In a spy novel (or a mystery), that’s essential.
Bottom line: Both Above Suspicion and Pray for a Brave Heart are fantastic reads. I’m hoping the many typos I found in the former are just in my review copy, however.