Book Review: Chicks Dig Gaming ed. by Brozek, Pearson, Smith?, & Rabe
Review by Prof. Jenn
Books of this nature can easily fall into the trap of redundancy. Witness my review for Queers Dig Timelords, another anthology of this ilk, and indeed in this series. Chicks Dig Gaming does not, however, fall prey to the trap. The collection of essays span from wicked satire to sweet nostalgic memoir, to a celebration of gaming in general or certain games, a recounting of a particular gaming event, to analysis of a game or game trope, a recounting of the history of video games, to the ever-important discussion of the unfair and even dangerous treatment of women in the gaming world. This collection doesn’t only discuss video games, but board games, LARPing and pen-and-paper RPGs are discussed as well.
My problem with Queers…, as you recall, was that the essays all had the same tone and even the same subject matter (Doctor Who changed my life because…). This, especially read in big sections in one sitting, started to grate on the nerves, or at least became repetitive fawning. Chicks...doesn’t do this, as each essay has an author voice distinct from every other, and the topics at hand vary widely. I commend the editors for this, as it’s an entertaining as well as an informative read throughout.
Highlights of this collection include: a satirical look at the lack of boys in video gaming and what we can do about it, a paralleling of Mario to a bodhisattva and the Mario games to Buddhism, how one author who didn’t like video games at all tried Portal, and a delightfully written description of how another author learned to get cutthroat in Eve Online.
Bottom Line: this collection is highly recommended for anyone who loves any games.
Book review: Jackrabbit by Ian Healy
Review by Prof. Jenn
Ian Healy has delivered again in this next installment of superhero novels in the Just Cause universe. As I have written before, I have and continue to enjoy Healy’s ability to embody the coming-of-age voice, as well as the voice of the “regular Joe,” whether they are superpowered or not. (Sorry, “parahuman” is the correct term in his universe.) In Jackrabbit, though, we run into a new kind of parahuman–that of the Herald. The cheeky rabbit god and his buddy the frog god run into a new, insectile god in God’s Land–and it is revealed that this new god isn’t one invented by humans. This is a big deal, and not a good thing, at all. So (as it so often is) it’s up to our trickster god Leporidus to save the day. He begins his rescue plan by choosing a Herald–that is, a human who will embody the god on Earth. He selects hapless nerdy teenager Jay and, as it turns out, he has made an excellent choice.
Since I know Ian personally (we grew up together through Talented and Gifted programs in junior and senior high school as well as the theatre programs in said schools), I can slap him a virtual yet hearty high five in glorifying the nerd in this world. Even with today’s “geek chic,” nerds are still the victims of bullying today, and actually the nasty insect takeover of Earth event in this novel is connected directly to the theme of bullying. What Healy does very well is illustrate real human beings, whether it’s the coming of age type of Jay/Jackrabbit here or Mustang Sally in his earlier works, or “normal” folks trying to deal with the extraordinary, as in yet other novels in the Just Cause universe. And I love that the female hero is adorably annoying–it’s so great that she’s not flawless, but we still love her. Thanks for the realism and the joy amid the tense action. Also, thank Heaven for an African-American protagonist hero.
Usually I adore Healy’s Just Cause books without question, but I had a couple minor reservations about this one: a) why does Jay have to get all buff and huge when he transforms? Isn’t he a better Rabbit god herald by staying slight and quick? b) Bunny, Jay’s best friend, smacks of the stereotypical Gay Best Friend. In fact, he reminds me of the gay dancer friend in the 1984 movie Breakin’. maybe it’s the dance studio thing. Anyway… c) Jay turns real cheeky once he becomes Jackrabbit. he was pretty meek before. I’m not quite buying his snarky transformation. Maybe if he were already getting in trouble because of his wit and cheek, before he transformed? That way we can see exactly why Leporidus chose him, and his personality later would fit, etc. d) I hate to say it, as I love the ending, but I think it was a little too easily achieved. All of you, go out and read it and come back and tell me what you think.
Bottom Line: Jackrabbit is a fantastic novel and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Book Review: Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann
Review by: Prof. Jenn
How good a combination is a ninja-detective, seriously? What a perfect set of skills to be able to solve a murder in 16th-century Japan. Blade of the Samurai is a sequel to Claws of the Cat, which are historical thrillers starring Hiro, our shinobi protagonist, and his partner in solving crime, Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest. With these two intellects at the helm of any investigation, no murderer will stay safe for long. Admittedly I haven’t read the first in this series, so I can’t tell you how the characters have evolved in this sequel, but I can tell you if this is your first foray into the investigations of these two, you will have no problem getting to know our characters, their situations, and setting immediately.
An official in the shogunate has been murdered, and a whiff of a plot to assassinate the shogun himself is in the air as Hiro and Mateo are conscripted to investigate the murder before Oda comes to invade Kyoto. The inclusion of real historical figures (Nobunaga Oda, Hattori Hanzo, etc.) and detailed descriptions of the 16th century Japanese setting plunges us right into the setting as good historical fiction does. However, the quick, clipped pace, the tension begun right as the story begins, and the short chapters make this also a well-crafted whodunit. This book is difficult to put down, and is a quick, exciting read. It’s also a fun addition to have the cultural differences pop up between Father Mateo and his Japanese surroundings (especially noble and samurai encounters, normal Western gestures and thoughts being offensive to the Japanese characters). The outcome of the mystery is complex and not cookie-cutter easy, and the end leaves us with many open ends ready for another sequel (Flask of the Drunken Master, out in 2015).
Bottom Line: Blade of the Samurai is highly recommended.
Book Review: Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress
Review by Prof. Jenn
Yesterday’s Kin is a novelette which takes us on a breakneck pace through the philosophical, scientific, and psychological implications of a near-future contact with alien life. They come in peace, they come with some scientific advancements but not totally all-powerful, and we experience them through the POV of a prominent scientist and her flighty, dreamy, ne’er-do-well son. What the aliens’ actual purpose is for parking in New York Harbor and what happens to the people of Earth (and what will happen) is a fascinating, intelligent and intuitive discussion of the old “are we alone” question of so much sci fi.
The book is written in third-person limited POV, and is limited to two perspectives only: Marianne”s (the scientist) and Noah’s (her son), which makes what we know and when we know it tightly dictated and suspenseful. By the time we get to the big twist/revelation at the end, whether or not the reader has guessed it already is irrelevant–it’s a tense moment nonetheless.
Bottom Line: Yesterday’s Kin is highly recommended. I read it through in one sitting. I think it’d make a great movie…
Two, two, two reviews in one!: Noah by Mark Morris and Noah: Ila’s Story by Susan Korman
Review by Prof. Jenn
Sigh. Well these books are pretty awful.
Noah is the official novelization of the the movie of the same name (screenplay by Aronofsky and Handel). The story follows Biblical figure Noah from the preface of him seeing his father killed by barbarians through his vision of cataclysm and subsequent construction of the Ark and the saving of all the animals, two by two. Ila’s Story is a novella/knockoff/something-or-other that retells the story in Noah but with much less detail and in the POV of character Ila.
Since I am a lit professor by trade, I can’t bring myself to write a completely negative review of anything, no matter how poor in quality. So here are the redeeming qualities of these two books: hm…let’s see…
- The Watchers are a cool concept (well everything here is a Biblical concept but you get what I mean), and seeing them in both their manifestations in this story is satisfying.
- It’s always interesting from a character study standpoint to delve into the complexities of psychological motivation in an old and/or archetypical character. Having all the sturm und drang of Noah’s psyche as he struggles to keep control of crazy circumstances is a neat exploration of an old character.
- The addition of Ila makes for more strong female presence in a story traditionally male-centered.
Yeah, that’s as kind as I can be. The fact of the matter is that the book is clunkily written, the women are only focused on motherhood and the men, nothing else, the violence is gratuitously graphic without furthering the story, and the villain is so stereotypical he’s actually kind of funny. Ila’s Story is actually even worse–there is no character development, no added richness due to the changed female POV, the writing is even more stilted and clunky, and this is even less okay with me as Ila’s Story smacks of being written for juvenile or YA readers. All readers deserve better, but especially young readers.
Having said all this, I must admit I have not seen the movie on which these books are based. Would my opinion of the books change if I had? I don’t think so, as bad writing is just bad writing. Maybe we can blame the bad writing more on the screenwriters than the novelists? Any of you seen Noah and can add to the dialogue here?
Bottom Line: I do not recommend either Noah or Ila’s Story.
Book Review: The Iron Jackal–a Tale of the Ketty Jay by Chris Wooding
Review by: Prof. Jenn
The Iron Jackal is a steampunky, Firefly-esque romp though the fantasy lands of Vardia and Samarla, lands full of warring factions, slavery and rebellion, corrupt officials and those that fly outside the law. Our protagonist, Captain Frey, is one of the latter. Actually, I’m not really sure he is our protagonist exactly but I’ll get to that later. When Captain Frey carelessly handles a rare relic he and his crew, er, acquired for a client of his ex, things go pretty gosh darned amuck and the whole crew of the Ketty Jay plus one have to scramble to make things right.
There is action aplenty in this book–in fact, the opening scene is a barroom shootout and subsequent chase–and our lead is just as wry a leader and barely better than the bad guys as a Captain Mal or an Indiana Jones. The action is similar to these favorites too: heart-pounding chases, tense scenes of theft and skullduggery, and a colorful band of miscreant minor characters. This is where I ran into this book’s only real flaw that I can find: there are many characters with already-established back stories and relationships, and this book being a sequel, sometimes I got my characters confused or didn’t quite get what was going on in the detail I needed.
Also, the POV shifts often, which added to my confused spots–I often got confused who I was supposed to “be” in some situations. But what is well done about the characters is a sense of genuine emotion. Frey’s feelings for his ex, Crake’s complex emotional world surrounding his golem, and the many examples of true loyalty make all the characters round and complex, a good thing since this steampunk world tilted on the edge of Lieber-esque urban fantasy needs that human quality to ground it.
Bottom Line: I recommend The Iron Jackal, especially for those already familiar with the other Tales of the Ketty Jay.
Being a World War II historian and a fan of the golem legend, Breath of Bones was a perfect combination of good storytelling and fantastic line art that held my interest the whole way through. The tale is told from the point of view of Noah, an Allied soldier who is going to take care of the upcoming attack with a repeat of something that happened to him as a young boy. And, so, we get pulled back to his childhood and a recounting of how his village survived with faith and strength.
When Noah was just a child, his father went to war along with the other able-bodied men of their village. Noah was left to live with his grandparents and wait, everyday, for his father to return. Sadly, the stark reality of war is that he will never see his father again. The monsters of Nazi Germany has stolen away this young boy’s childhood and made him grow up way too fast. But pretty soon the war is not some far-away threat, but one that is knocking on their village’s front door.
An Allied soldier by the name of Simon Richards crashes his plane near the village. Noah and his grandfather, along with the rest of the villagers, hide him away and put out the fires of the crash, but pretty soon the event draws the attention of the Germans who send two soldiers to check it out. The villagers almost get away with the secret they are keeping, but after accidental exposure of Simon during a search and a resulting shootout that leaves one German soldier dead, one German soldier injured yet able to escape, and Noah’s grandfather bleeding from a gunshot wound, it is evident that the monsters outside will soon be coming into their home. It is up to them to fight or run away scared.
This is where the golem legend comes into play. Noah’s grandfather, Jacob, gifted him with a small clay figure prior, one that has been passed down from grandfather to grandson for many generations. Jacob is going to use the golem legend to build a large clay figure that will come to life through the power of faith and protect them from the oncoming Nazi attack. He gets the townspeople’s help to create the figure and then sends them on their way, hoping that they can escape to safety before the Germans come back. Choosing to stay behind, Noah, his grandmother, Jacob, and Simon all stand their ground and watch as the golem does indeed do what it was meant to do. And once his mission is completed, the golem goes back to being just clay again. The village is safe, for now.
And it is this memory of faith and safety that Noah uses again in present day. As we close the series, he is beginning to shape another figure out of clay so that the golem can rise up again and defend good men against the monsters. It’s a wonderful ending to a wonderful story. If you’re a fan of WWII, or the golem legend, or just a fan of great artwork and great storytelling, you cannot go wrong with Breath of Bones. Pick up your copy today and revisit the notion that good can indeed triumph over evil.
Rating: 5/5 stars
Book Review: The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes by George Mann
Review by: Prof. Jenn
Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes have been gallivanting around Mann’s alternative Victorian London for several novels now, and this collection of short stories is an excellent addition to their adventures. The stories are a good variety of POV and all are exciting, creative, steampunk adventure mysteries that shouldn’t be missed.
A couple of particularly interesting points: there is one story in this collection which is entirely epistolary, which ups that story’s suspense level multifold. There are several Chirstmas-y themed tales in here as well, which somehow adds more to the Victorian feel (as Mann himself says in the Story Notes). One thing to note: I have not read any Newbury and Hobbes books before reading this collection, and, though the stories and characters do stand alone just fine, as I read I got the feeling I wasn’t in on some of the more nuanced relationship evolutions, and got the feeling that someone who was familiar with the characters might have some OMG moments of origin story that was lost on me. I still thoroughly enjoyed myself, however, and these stories made me eager to explore the rest of the Newbury and Hobbes books.
Bottom Line: This collection is highly recommended, especially for those who already know and love our intrepid steampunk duo.
Book Review / Interview: A Taste of Blood Wine by Freda Warrington
Review / Interview by Prof. Jenn
There are so very many vampires running around in pop culture these days. Between True Blood and the Vampire Diaries, and the continued popularity of Twilight (and does anybody still read Anne Rice?) we are inundated with the sexy undead these days. So why would Titan Press want to republish a vampire book, into the midst of the maelstrom? What does A Taste of Blood Wine have that makes it a worthwhile reading endeavor?
One word: character. This is not a romantic and mystical Dracula knockoff falling in love with an ingenue with no personality. This is a realistically-drawn female nerd who still has a healthy dose of fear for the main vampire character even after she sleeps with him. The vampire himself is science-minded (I mean, doesn’t it totally make sense that an immortal undead bloodsucker would try and use science to figure out how the heck this is happening to him?) and not at all whiny and apologetic about being what he is. He’s no brooding Edward or whining Louis, but a real person, still grieving for his family in completely realistic ways, and yes okay he happens to be beautiful, but isn’t it wonderful that he falls for the nerd, not her social butterfly sister?
The setting, too, is something unusual–we don’t get typical Victorian or contemporary society, but England in the 1920s. What a compelling scene, to see our friendly neighborhood vampire strolling across the WWI battlefield, finishing off some wounded for his existential crisis lunch. The Crystal Ring, which connects vampires to their geography in this universe, is also a compelling concept, as is the use and flouting of traditional vampire tropes.
The vampires of Blood Wine can exist in sunlight, though they don’t sparkle. They cannot be killed but fire or stakes in the heart, but can be crippled and rendered useless by extreme cold (and indeed killed by some forms of extreme cold, as we see. No spoilers here!). It’s fascinating to see how the various vampires have dealt with their “condition” in a realistic way: from Karl’s pragmatism in the face of grief, to Kristian’s insane self-worship and cult following, to Ilona’s pure rage, and then of course our hero Charlotte’s love-fueled choice, it’s all compelling.
Bottom Line: A Taste of Blood Wine is a great read. Highly recommended.
Now, please to enjoy the below interview with author Freda Warrington.
5 Questions: Freda Warrington
Interview by Prof. Jenn
1) With all the vampire craziness happening these days (between the popular TV shows and Twilight), what made you desire to add your own take to the lore?
Actually my Blood Wine series was originally written and published in the early 1990s, long before the explosion of Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and other more recent vampire fiction! In fact I began the first, A Taste of Blood Wine, way back in the 1980s as escapism from a difficult period of my life. So my influences were old school: the Hammer Horror films with a brooding Christopher Lee, the original Dracula novel, and Carmilla (by JS LeFanu) along with a selection of classic stories and the first couple of Anne Rice novels. Why did I want to add my own take to the genre?
Well, I’d long been fascinated by the vampire as a lonely, mysterious, dangerous yet intelligent and strangely attractive figure… However, I was frustrated that he or she was always a monster to be hunted down and staked. Ms Rice brought new life to the lore by showing vampires as thinking, feeling beings with their own story to tell. Part of their tragedy was that any kind of relationship with humans – other than predator and prey – became impossible. But I wondered, what would it be like if you could break through that barrier, despite the difficulties, and come to know this mysterious stranger as an equal?
So I did what I always do when I can’t find the story I want to read. I wrote it myself!
Obviously, human-vampire relationships and romances are commonplace now, but when I first started A Taste of Blood Wine, it was something quite fresh and unusual. My shy heroine Charlotte meets the devastatingly gorgeous, enigmatic Karl. At first he terrifies her, then gradually he begins to fascinate her…
The three books – A Taste of Blood Wine, A Dance in Blood Velvet, and The Dark Blood of Poppies – were first published in the UK by Pan Macmillan. They went out of print for a number of years, despite many plaintive emails from readers who wanted them and couldn’t find them. In fact I was just on the point of reissuing the series myself, when Titan Books stepped in and republished them in gorgeous new covers. I’m also writing a brand new fourth one, The Dark Arts of Blood. If you look at my website, www.fredawarrington.com, you’ll find all the details.
2) The early ‘20s is an unusual time period to experience as a vampire novel setting. What made you choose this era?
When I wrote the earliest version of A Taste of Blood Wine I actually set it in the 18th century! Later, when I came to rewrite it, I found that time period too Georgette Heyer-ish. I wanted something more modern – so my characters could zoom around in cars if need be! – but not too modern. I settled on the 1920s as a period that had not been overused, a decade with a perfect blend of old and new. You’ve got the Edwardian world morphing into the modern world, scientific advances being made, women starting to achieve emancipation. It’s a period of glamour, but also of horror, because the shadow of the First World War still hangs over everything. The social changes of the ‘20s mirror the internal journey that Charlotte makes as she develops from being a shy, suppressed individual into becoming her true self.
3) What lies in store for us in the sequels to A Taste of Blood Wine?
Ooh, without giving too much away… For a start, I couldn’t drag out the “will-she, won’t-she” tension of whether Charlotte will become a vampire over three or four books. In fact it never occurred to me to do so, because I wrote the first book as a one-off. So A Dance in Blood Velvet begins to explore the complications and difficulties of actually being a vampire. Not least the pain of leaving her family behind – every choice my characters make carries a price, and I’d also like to point out that these are vampires who are NOT AFRAID TO BE VAMPIRES! No abstinence or living on animal blood for them!
So just to give a flavour – an old flame of Karl’s intrudes unexpectedly into their new life, in such a wretched state that Karl can’t abandon her. Feeling insecure and rejected, Charlotte becomes fascinated and then disastrously obsessed by a prima ballerina, Violette Lenoir. However, Violette has secrets of her own, not least a mystical connection with the dark goddess Lilith. There’s also a pair of rival occultists in the mix – very much in keeping with trends of the 1920s! – who really stir things up for Karl and Charlotte.
As for book three, The Dark Blood of Poppies, that will be issued in May 2014 in the UK and October 2014 in the USA. You can see the cover on my website, it’s stunning – all blood-red and “Black Swan” style gothic gorgeousness! Anyway – it continues the story of Karl, Charlotte and Violette, and also introduces a different flavour of vampire-human romance in the form of the bitter, twisted vampire Sebastian, and the warm, passionate, but equally-screwed-up-in-a-different-way American beauty Robyn. If you want power struggles, tragic romance, painful voyages of self-discovery, sex, death and general mayhem, look no further!
I don’t want to say too much about the new one, The Dark Arts of Blood, as it’s still a work in progress, but I’ll try… Just as Karl and Charlotte think they’ve reached a state of equilibrium, a new menace arises that may be connected to a guilty secret in Karl’s past. Meanwhile, Violette tries to hold her ballet company together when her principal male dancer, the splendid, egotistical and irreplaceable Emil, goes off the rails in spectacular fashion and disappears… This one is set in 1927 and has silent films, the rise of fascism (but not where you might expect it) and yet more fraught relationships, murder, madness and mystery. In fact I think this one will turn out to be more of a mystery story than the first three… wait and see!
4) It’s a brilliant stroke to have our main vampire protagonist exploring the science behind his condition—trying to find a solution or an explanation. Do you have a scientific explanation set in your head for your universe, or are you discovering along with Karl?
You could say I’m discovering along with Karl and Charlotte! I have an explanation that’s more metaphysical than scientific, although it could turn out to be scientific on a quantum level. See my answer to the next question…
5) Discuss the fascinating concept of the Crystal Ring a little more for our readers.
The Crystal Ring is a parallel dimension of reality that my vampires can enter. This enables them to vanish, to escape danger, and to travel rapidly to distant places (so they’re not arousing suspicion by feeding in the same area all the time). More than that, it’s deeply entwined with whatever strange force makes my vampires, vampires. I can’t exactly remember where my idea for the Crystal Ring came from but I think it was partly inspired by the paintings of John Martin, and just from looking at the sky – you know when clouds form amazing shapes that resemble mountains you could actually walk on? Oh – and also a documentary about certain sea creatures (sharks or rays, I think) being able to perceive the Earth’s magnetic field and use it to navigate. I thought, what if my vampires could do that?
The Crystal Ring, also known as Raqia, is an unearthly place like a stunningly beautiful sky-scape, but semi-liquid, so they can more or less float or fly through it. Basically it occupies the same space as the sky. It’s not somewhere the vampires actually live. In fact it can be dangerous, because if they stay too long they become torpid and unable to escape back to Earth. The very highest level, called the “Weisskalt”, is so icy cold that a vampire could be frozen there forever – a fact that plays a big part in the plot, naturally.
The nature of this mysterious realm defies science, so Karl struggles to find an answer. Each character has his or her own theory. For example, the megalomaniac Kristian in the first book, a religious zealot who believes vampires to be “instruments of God”, insists that the Crystal Ring is the actual mind of God. Others, with more of a guilty conscience, might think it’s a layer of Hell. Charlotte comes up with a more plausible theory – as rational as something so weird can be – but I’m afraid you’ll have to read the books to find out!