Thursday, May 29, 2014

Drawing Blood

Poppy Z Brite
Completed 5/9/2014, Reviewed 5/27/2014
4 stars

I discovered Poppy Z. Brite accidentally while researching books for the numerous challenges on Worlds Without End, Wikipedia, and other sites.  Now I can finally say that I’ve read fiction by a transgendered person.  I also discovered that Horror, while a genre in its own right, also falls under the category of Fantasy.  “Drawing Blood” was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1994.  So a couple of firsts for me, and I’m proud to say that it all happened through this book.  In a wild update of the haunted house theme, Brite creates an engrossing tale of terror, violence, and love among disaffected youth.

Trevor’s father was a moderately famous graphic novelist.  After a long period of personal suffering and alcoholism, he murdered Trevor’s mother and baby brother, then hung himself.  Trevor is found by family friends later the next day, nearly catatonic. 
Twenty years later, having survived growing up in an orphanage and finding solace himself as a graphic novelist, he returns to the home where the tragedy occurred.

Zack is one of the best computer hackers around.  After getting a tip that the feds are after him, he dashes out of town, chancing upon the same town as Trevor.  They fall in love, and together try to overcome the powerful forces in the house that are trying to drag Trevor down the same road as his father.

Brite’s forte is prose and characterization, my two favorite aspects of a book.  The book begins with the recounting of the original murder.  The rest of the first half of the book is wonderfully written descriptions of the events leading up to Zach and Trevor’s meeting in the town of Missing Mile, NC.  They are Generation X-ers.  Reading this book twenty years later, I could easily see them as hipsters/Millennials, having the same attitudes and interests, or rather disinterests, as the disaffected youth of today.  Trevor is withdrawn, almost asocial.  He has no intimacy and no connections.  Zach on the other hand is hypersocial and hypersexual, but ultimately has no real intimacy either. 

Inevitably, they meet, and fall for each other.  But there’s a third in this relationship, the house.  This relationship is what dominates them and the rest of the book.  The house provides electricity and running water without public service, and of course causes creepy noises, loud bangs, and hallucinations galore.  I have to admit, it made going to bed at night a little tough for a few days. 

I think my favorite part of the book was its refreshing take on a non-heteronormative relationship (I admit, I just heard the word on NPR).  I had just read “The Steel  Remains” which featured gay and Lesbian heroes in a high-fantasy context, so jumping into a gay/bisexual horror novel almost made me feel like the world had changed a little.  Brite’s target audience seems to be the young and disaffected, but I felt I could relate to the characters and the situation more than those in a Stephen King novel. 

I really enjoyed this novel.  If I had read it when it was first published, I believe I could have given it a 5 star rating because I would have been closer in age to the characters.  I still give it a glowing 4 stars.  It’s an excellent psychological thriller that makes me want to read all of Brite’s works and sad that he’s no longer writing.  

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Lisa Mason
Completed 5/25/2014, Reviewed 5/25/2014
3 stars

In the future, you can exist and conduct business in virtual reality.  Strapped to a chair and connected through a port implanted in the neck, you can telelink, and conduct business in the blink of an eye.  Carly Nolan is a lawyer about to go on her first solo court case in telelink.  Seconds before arriving in court to represent a conglomerate being sued for stealing intellectual property, Carly experiences a blackout and has a strange vision of spider weaving a web.  In the two seconds it takes for the blackout to clear itself, the judge is furious for the delay, accepts a new court date, and orders Carly to perimeter probing and recertification.

D. Wolfe, an unscrupulous senior lawyer tries to get Carly to try an illegal drug called cram which enhances the telelink experience, believing it will rid her of any bugs in her linking.  He also wants to pursue her for a sexual relationship.  The alternative is perimeter probing, conducted by an AI named Pr. Spinner, who also has ulterior motives.  Pr. Spinner believes the spider is an archetype, a piece of unprogrammed telelink space that once possessed, would expand her consciousness beyond the finiteness of her own programming, but would leave Carly a vegetable, or dead.  Carly is caught between two evils, but must walk through her fear and anger to stop the blackouts and resume her place as a young aggressive lawyer. 

Coming up with the plot summary of “Arachne”, I had to stop and reflect on why I didn’t care for the book.  There were a lot of neat concepts.  Telelink is an awesome construct, and it’s easy to see why this book is hailed as a forerunner of the cyberpunk movement.  It’s well-designed and Mason’s prose lends itself to its wonderful descriptions.

I also really liked Pr. Spinner.  With the faceplate of an old woman and her obsession with obtaining an archetype, the character comes off as a robotic, near-retirement nurse with an addiction to illegally imported exotic animals.  She’s brassy, cruel, but not unfunny. 

As Mason began building her universe, I was really intrigued.  Even the physicality of a post-mega-earthquake San Francisco is quite remarkable and visionary.  But once all the pieces were in place, that’s where I lost interest.  The time between the beginning and the end of the book just seemed like miscellaneous thrashing.  There’s some tension, some interesting and surprising twists, but it never gelled for me.  Everything between Carly’s three perimeter probes with Spinner felt like filler.  I had a tough time believing the relationship with Wolfe.  It was more soap than substance. 

I give this book three stars.  Mason does a much better job with characterization and relationships in her later book “Summer of Love”.  But you can see the potential in her world building and writing style that came to maturity in her later work.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


Lester del Rey
Completed 5/17/2014, Reviewed 5/24/2014
3 stars

I read this book for the Grand Master Challenge on WWEnd.  Lester del Rey was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction in 1991.  I also got it because it’s the only book by del Rey in the entire Washington County Library System.  They don’t even have a collection of his short stories.  So maybe I was going into this read feeling like I had no options.  And the result was that I didn’t really care for the book. 

“Pstalemate” feels like a novella stretched by about a hundred pages of overwrought prose to give us painful insight into the main character and his relationship to his psychic powers.  Harry Bronson is a brilliant engineer and inventor of a new, more efficient car engine.  He has almost no memory of his childhood or of his parents who died in a car crash when he was ten.  After an encounter with a psychic researcher and a quack doctor, he comes to the realization that he has psychic powers, a concept he has always secretly loathed.  He searches for his foster sister who also happens to be psychic, and together they unlock the secrets of his past and try to overcome the terrible inevitability of life with these powers, insanity. 

The prose is actually pretty good.  It’s very much like the prose of many of the grand masters of SF, technical, yet personal.  And the character development of Harry and his foster sister Ellen is strong.  The supporting characters were a bit cardboard, like the rich overbearing, opinionated foster father and the goofy business sidekick.  But the book lost a lot of its momentum through the long passages of Harry and Ellen doing their investigation into their past, the phenomenon, and those gone insane from their gift.  Throughout the book, I couldn’t help feeling that the plot was simply another variation of “Flowers for Algernon”.

What saves the book from a two star rating is the last page.  There’s a huge reveal that’s mind-blowing.  In retrospect, I could see the allusions to it, and it is masterful and really disguised.  I think any reader, even knowing that there’s a twist at the end like me, will not see it coming.  I actually had to read the ending twice to make sure I read it right.  And that’s where I realized the greatness of del Rey lies.

By definition, this is soft SF, in that it deals with the soft sciences.  My feeling is that hard SF people who like a lot of intricate detail will enjoy this book even without hard science descriptions. And the writing style is very much like other Grand Masters.  In retrospect, I probably would have had a better first exposure to del Rey by going to the bookstore and finding a cheap, tattered, out of print collection of his short stories.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Steel Remains

Book One of the Land Fit for Heroes Trilogy
Richard K Morgan
Completed 5/1/2014, Reviewed 5/6/2014
5 stars

“The Steel Remains” is a very dark, high fantasy novel, the first in a trilogy.  It follows three war-heroes, drawn out of semi-retirement for different reasons, then find themselves thrown back together to battle strange, immortal, and terrifying beings from another dimension.  What makes this fantasy dark and intriguing is that despite being heroes, the three are marginalized people discontent with where their lives were leading. 

Ringil Eskiath is the renowned hero of Gallows Gap, a major battle in the war between the human-Kiriath alliance and the Scaled Ones, and he is gay.  Ringil, or Gil, lives in self-exile, away from his family and the country that gruesomely put to death a lover from his youth.  Now he lives above a tavern, trading room and board at an inn for battle stories and demonstrations with his trusty Kiriath-made sword, Ravensfriend.  After years of living like this, Gil’s mother turns up and asks him to help find a cousin who has been sold into slavery to cover debts incurred by her late husband.  With much reluctance, Gil accedes to his mother’s request, and returns home to Trelayne to begin the search.

During the war with the Scaled ones, Ringil had two friends, Egar Dragonbane and Archeth Indamaninarmal.  Egar is from a “barbarian” tribe, where as a hero of the war, has been given the honor of leader of his clan.  Being more warrior than leader, and having been exposed to the larger world outside his less advanced community, he spends most of his time dallying with young women and butting heads with his brothers and the shamans.  Archeth is half human, half Kiriath, and a Lesbian.  She is the last of the Kiriath people, who left the world after the war.  Now she spends her time running tasks for the decadent Emperor of her home in the Southern Continent.    

Our protagonist and his two comrades leave their homes for different reasons, but soon come across evidence that suggests that the Aldrain, a legendary race of immortals, are devising a war with the humans to reclaim the world for themselves. 

There were several things that I loved about this book.  First, it’s very dark.  In the opening chapter, Gil battles a disgusting, giant, maggoty creature, created to help speed the process of decaying corpses, but which have evolved possible intelligence and a nasty sense of humor.  That set the tone for the whole novel, despair and decay punctuated by laughable absurdity.  But there is not much difference between Gil’s world and ours, perhaps only in degree.  The time is after a great war and the great nations are at peace.  However, there is tension between the continents, the people are restless, and there is a rise of religious fundamentalism and uber-nationalism.  Slavery has returned as a legal way to deal with the crushing debt that many people, especially veterans and their families, have incurred.  And if you’re gay, it doesn’t matter that you’re the greatest hero of a war that saved humanity, you’re still scum.

The character development is superb.  We spend a lot of time in the heads of our heroes, or more correctly, anti-heros.  All three fell isolated, restless, and at least a little discontented with where life has taken them, and certainly disappointed with the world around them.  Their ennui is profound.  But they rise to the challenge as supernatural events seem to be bubbling up around them.  I also found the Aldrain a really intriguing race.  Even though Gil spends a fair amount of time with one of the Adrain, and later a whole contingent, there is still a mysteriousness that surrounds them and their motives.

I only had one complaint about the book.  As is not uncommon in contemporary planned trilogies, there is an awful lot of backstory interwoven in the first book.  I’m not fond of long reflective scenes breaking up the narrative.  But I was actually impressed that Morgan weaved it in quite well.  Only a few times did I consciously think, “ugh, here comes some more backstory.” 

I should note that the sex and violence is quite blunt and explicit.  Blood squirts everywhere and on everything.  The sex scenes are unapologetically raw.  I read a few reviews which indicated the reviewers’ squeamishness over the gay sex, but they failed to take note of the similarly graphic straight sex.  There’s even indication that there might be a major plot point to Gil’s relations with one of the Aldrain, besides manipulation.  To me, it felt like turn around was fair play.  I’ve read many books with explicit and often pointless straight sex scenes.  Here at least, all the sex so far has felt germane to the plot and character development.  The main character happens to be gay, so the majority of sex scenes is gay.  There’s no judgment except for how the characters judge themselves.  So as a warning, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it in line with the rawness of the universe and characters Morgan created.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a large scale fantasy.  I really enjoyed the characters, and it was a great having a gay main character.  I relished the rawness of it.  The mood itself had a sensuality to it that simply enveloped me like a virgin wool hooded cape.  I can’t wait to read the second book, and hope the publishing date of the third, originally scheduled for August, doesn’t get pushed back past its current release date of October.  5 stars. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Hugo Winner Review: 1974 Rendezvous with Rama

Arthur C. Clarke
Finished reading 3/15/2013, reviewed 3/15/2013
3 stars

In general, I have mixed feelings about Arthur C. Clarke’s writing.  “Rendezvous with Rama,” like other books I’ve read by him, reads like an excellent non-fiction work.  Clarke’s forte lies in his scientific imagination and his descriptions of these scientific wonders.  I also really enjoy his writing about what’s happening internally and externally to his characters. 

Where I get frustrated is in his characterizations.  I understand what his characters are doing and thinking, but not necessarily what they’re feeling.  His characters have no arc.  They don’t grow from their experiences.  Their interactions are sterile.  They are simply a part of the documentary. 

When I began this book, I realized it was another Space Odyssey.  It had the same plodding dryness.  I was worried I’d be bored with it.  I was pleasantly surprised when I was taken with the story and found myself reading it voraciously.  When I finished it, though, I felt a little empty, like I had missed something.  I think it’s because I felt like I do when I watch a documentary that includes dramatic re-enactments:  intrigued, but thinking they should have told me what the people did rather than show me.

Some of that drama is good, like the Jimmy Pak’s flight of the Dragonfly and the conflict created by the Hermians.  But I didn’t feel like I really go into anybody’s skin.  I was just watching the activity from the outside looking in.

I also would have liked Clarke to expand upon the religious angle.  I like when science fiction plays with religion.  He gave us a taste with the Cosmo Christers, but I would have liked something more than an amuse bouche.

While reading “Rama,” I really wanted to give it four stars.  Instead, I took off a star to placate that emptiness I felt when I was done.