Review by: Prof. Jenn
Guy Adams has created a charming “detective” duo in Max and Tom. His experience in writing Sherlock Holmes books means he knows how to set up an investigatory plot, but this isn’t your everyday police procedural. It involves the undead, too, but nowhere does one find the classic vampires or zombies (beware, the “z” word makes one of our protagonists cringe). In fact, even the minor minion characters are round, unusual, realistic in this crazy world Adams has created, and all are compelling enough to make us want to know what happens next.
Max and Tom are drunkenly leaving their bar (the Deadbeat) one night when they stumble across an undertaker’s service fumbling with a corpse. Except, this corpse seems to be breathing. As we progress through the story, we find that it isn’t the only one.
Adams seems to like writing his novels in the “change POV each chapter” structure, usually to good effect. It certainly is here–the POV switches aren’t too frequent that we don’t get to know or care about our characters, and change just when we need a new window on the proceedings. One habit I’ve noticed, though, is the quicker switches (and switches to unusual or minor characters) as the plot churns to a climax, which sometimes can be disconcerting.
I very much enjoyed the voice of Max in particular, and appreciate the beginning of the book being basically the end of the story, with the rest of the novel filling in the events till that opening one. It’s a cinematic way to go. In a good way.
Bottom line: Deadbeat–Makes You Stronger is a highly recommended, action-packed thriller. WIth the undead. Yeah.
Book Review: Jago by Kim Newman
Review by: Prof.
One of the most brain-happy things Kim Newman does in his novels is incorporate pop culture, literary allusions, and history together in a postmodernist bird’s nest that houses the eggs which are his original plots. Jago is no different (at one point, even some of the characters remark that their situation is “postmodern”), but unlike his Anno Dracula series of books, Jago is a bit heavier on the original plot than the allusions.
Paul and Hazel have moved to a little English town called Alder to work on a dissertation and pottery, respectively. Across the village is the Agapemone, a classically-creepy obvious-cult wherein all the inmates are happy, brainwashed, blindly worship their smarmy leader, “share love,” etc. As the big music festival nears, the tension of the native villagers and London or “hippie” outsiders ramps up to a height. Of course, when the festival arrives, everything goes completely to Hell. Literally.
Jago is an intricate, multifaceted novel, taking the multitudes of various (round, well-written) characters and puts us in each of their POV at just the right times to make us scoot to the edge of our seat wondering what will happen next. Enough surprising character deaths (and gruesome violence) happen that by the time the climax occurs, we really truly don’t know what the outcome will be.
Also included in this volume are some short stories in the same universe as Jago. They are well-written, and marginally interesting re: backstory, especially for some of the more powerful/mysterious figures from the novel, but I could have done without them.
Bottom Line: Very dark, but very good. Highly recommended.
Joyland by Stephen King
Review by: Prof. Jenn
When a new book by someone like Stephen King is imminent, there is perforce lots and lots of hype. Especially through this particular label; Hard Case Crime is doing a really cool thing with its releases. The covers echo those of old-school pulp novels, and will always be real paintings, not digital works. They will not be published in e-book form, nor in hardcover, only paperback. Read more about the reasons for these (IMO: awesome) choices here.
So there are plenty of trappings and baggage already before one enters into a book like this. And when I heard “American nostalgia” I rolled my eyes, attempted to drown out the John Cougar Mellencamp song in my head, and took the plunge.*
Now I normally think of Stephen King the way I do about J.K. Rowling, and the way I used to about Anne Rice: an amazing storyteller, gifted as far as creativity and brilliant at character creation, just without the actual writing skill-chops to pull off the enormous ideas pouring forth.** Joyland, however, is an exception to this opinion of mine, and in fact makes me want to go back to other King pieces and see if I was wrong all along.
The story is told from the POV of our protagonist in his 60s, telling us the story of That One Summer as though we’re an old friend on the porch over a cold brew. The voice is parts dry humor, stoic melancholia at the passage of time, and pure wonder at the events narrated. The story itself centers around an amusement park, and our protagonist’s summer (and beyond) working there. It’s part warm and fuzzy coming-of-age story, part adventure, part eerie ghost story. In the best possible balance between the three.
I will admit, I did see ‘who dunnit’ coming. But not too soon, and I have a suspicion I only knew exactly when King wanted me to. The murder mystery is put forth perfectly–a writing professor of mine once said about murder mysteries: “It’s not what the reader knows, but when he knows it that’s important.”*** King feeds us just the exact right size and number of plot snippets at just exactly the right times through the arc of the story, until by the time we’re taking that final ferris wheel ride, it’s as tense and gripping (and admittedly over-the-top action movie fun) as it should be.
Bottom Line: Joyland is very highly recommended. Don’t miss it.
*It’s cool if you like those things–to each his/her own. It’s just not my thing.
**I have a feeling I’m dodging tons of hurled virtual eggs and tomatoes here.
***One Keith Abbott, from Naropa University.
Book Review: Complex 90 by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
Review by: Prof. Jenn
Mike Hammer is the original detective badass, and reading a Mike Hammer detective story is like plunging into a familiar, classic noir hot tub–settling in to the abrupt cadence of Hammer’s inner monologue as the lights dim.
Mike Hammer was the first womanizing, seasoned and sarcastic investigator that inspired the likes of Fleming’s James Bond. He’s the original hard-boiled detective, and the stereotypical “film noir” voice-over you hear when you think of this genre came from Spillane’s thrillers.
In Complex 90, Hammer breaks free from the KGB after having been framed and unofficially arrested. Upon his return home, he finds that a mysterious Russian faction (including a spy from his past with a grudge), are after him, But for what? Oh, for a McGuffin, of course, and the race to find out what the McGuffin is and where it is moves along at breakneck speed.
It’s delightful to read the classic Hammerian narrative, and we get all the noir detective tropes from a story set in the ’60s that we could possibly want. The dames are beautiful and dangerous, and the fights are gritty and violent. What surprised me, though, is how Lawful Good Hammer is. I mean, he’s against the law most of the time–laws and law-abiders get in the way of justice in his stories, but according to his own very high moral code, he is exact. He’s not your bitter, jaded, cynical hero, but a paladin, fighting for justice even when justice isn’t doing so. Perhaps especially then.
I was also surprised at how strong the female characters are, especially Velda, Hammer’s partner. Every single woman in this book is interesting, round, mysterious, strong, and acting on their own vital objectives. Not only that, but even though Hammer is a womanizer, his emotional world surrounding that is complex and not misogynistic at all. What a fantastic team Mike and Velda make. Now let’s make this into a movie, stat.
Max Allan Collins has adapted several of Spillane’s manuscripts for publication, and I have to say his work is smooth as butter, i never got jolted between the two authors in style, tone, or anything else, the book is seamless (though there were a couple typos).
Bottom Line: This book is so very much fun! Too much sex and violence for kids who enjoy detective stories, though. This one’s for grownups. Very highly recommended.
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.
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.
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: The Aylesford Skull by James Blaylock
Review by Prof. Jenn
The folks at Titan have sent me another snorter! This time, it’s a rollicking steampunk adventure starring savvy botanist and inventor Langdon St. Ives. I haven’t had the pleasure of enjoying previous St. Ives adventures, so I can’t speak to its place in the canon or how it holds up to them, but I can say to any readers who, like me, are being introduced to St. Ives for the first time here, you won’t either be lost or overburdened with exposition.
When the evil Dr. Narbondo kidnaps St. Ives’ son, we are hurtled headlong into a three-pronged investigation and chase, involving airships, Victorian Parkour, a glass cathedral, projected ghosts, and descriptions of pub meals that positively make one’s mouth water.
Blaylock does two things very well: he switches POV frequently enough that we get multiple perspectives on the action, but not so frequently that it’s jarring, or so we don’t get to know our characters well. It’s a perfectly balanced story as far as character in that way. It’s also action-packed–we really don’t know how the characters will get out of each predicament as they come, and it’s nail biting, with enough reflective rests that it doesn’t get too wearing.
Bottom line: The Aylesford Skull is fantastic. Highly recommended.