Sunday, April 23, 2017

Book Review: Aftermath: Empire's End (Star Wars: Aftermath #3) by Chuck Wendig

Aftermath: Empire's End (Star Wars: Aftermath #3) by Chuck Wendig

Hardcover, 423 pages

Published February 2017 by Del Rey Books

Look this is a Star Wars novel. It is the third in a trilogy. I reviewed the first two. The Aftermath trilogy is meant to tell the story of the events after Return of the Jedi. I know alot of fan boys were upset the novel that was promoted as the Journey to The Force Awakens and that it was not about Luke, Leia and Han on every page. I have never understood the bad reviews.

Even though books 2 and 3 of this trilogy do not have the journey tag this is the book that most sets up Force Awakens. Empire's End is about the battle of Jakku that left the ruins of the empire behind.

Why was it such important battle fought on a random world. This book will answer those questions. I know that is the thing that will sell most nerds but come on there is alot to the aftermath trilogy and it is common theme with it's readers.

I fell in love with the characters. Sure I was impressed by Wendig's ability to tell an epic SW story but more important than spinning the galaxy spanning story is creating character like Sinjar and Norra Wexley who were likable SW characters.

One of the problems that the prequels suffered from was that no one liked the characters. I liked that Wendig made Characters that felt like Star Wars. Mister Bones certainly fills the comic relief droid, Timmin the young idealist in the mercenary crew in general they are fun characters, by the end I was thinking I wanted more novels with them. Norra and Jas both have moments of great-ness and in this novel the way they separate is handled with style. But the most interesting character is Sinjir. Not because he is the first openly gay character in Star Wars although that is cool. What makes Sinjar cool is his position as ex-imperial enforcer turned empire war criminal hunter. Very cool.

Book one was the most direct story of the first days after ROJ, even over lapping, and introduced the new characters. Book two dealt with the battle for the Wookie home world and Book three is mostly a set up for the battle.

All three are character driven and fun. The two things that made this a entertaining read (by that I mean the whole trilogy) and something I think SW fans should read. It comes down to why Jakku? Does it add depth to the star wars universe and is fun at the same time what more do you want?

Book Review + Author Interview: The City, Awake by duncan b. barlow

The City, Awake by duncan b. barlow

Paperback Published March 2017 by Stalking Horse Press

This review comes with it's fair share of bias. I have to explain how that works for me. When I like a person or artist I root for them to do well like anyone else. When that artist is a friend I have known for years it doesn't mean I will like everything they do. Duncan Barlow is someone I got to know through the hardcore scene. Some of his bands Guilt, By the Grace of God and especially Endpoint were huge parts of my teenage and young adult life. That is not to say he hasn't played on records that I didn't like. I am able to be critical, I say that so you can understand just how much I liked this book. I liked Duncan's first novel Supercell Anemia but I loved this novel.

In the 90's midwest hardcore scene shows were a little like mini-family reunions. Duncan was always someone I looked forward to seeing and chatting with when I saw one of his band's name on the flyer. He was one of the first people I talked to about my dreams to one day be a writer. We shared similar challenges with leaning disabilities. In my case I found my dyslexia to be crippling to my desire to write. I can point to one inspiring conversation with Duncan outside a show in my hometown that lead to me feeling that I had to pursue those dreams.

Thanks Duncan. OK so the novel...

The City, Awake is a early contender for my top ten reads of the year. It is very hard to talk about the book without spoilers in my opinion. The strengths come in the reveals and the inventiveness with which the author puts his cards on the table. So this review will have a spoiler warning at some point and then we will talk more openly after that.

The City, Awake is a genius surrealist noir that perfectly balances character, narrative drive and experimental prose. It opens with a note in a man's pocket. "You are David. You were made in God's image. You are the author of all language,emender of sins." After a few chapters we see David get the same note in other moments. Sometimes he excepts the note, but in one case he doesn't except insists that his name is Saul and through Saul we look into the mystery. in other tracks David is sometimes closer and further from the truth. Beyond that we see some traditional noir tropes.

Saul/ David hunts for clues in a city that is not clearly defined as real, and throughout the narrative we can never feel safe that we are in a real setting. Delightfully weird, The City, Awake is an experience. It has the effect of feeling like we are are being lead by expert. Very different types of books but it reminded me of the reading experience that I had reading Brian Evenson's The Warren. Read it, Read it!

****Spoilers ****

So one of the things that impressed me most about this novel was that I was fooled for 150 or so pages. The first chapter is numbered 7, the second is numbed 18, some chapters are numbered 23, and 30. When David wakes up at different points with the same note I assumed as I think most readers will that we have a lead with Amnesia. We do have a lead with memory issues, but those numbers were not time signatures as I thought they were. The Reader certainly should feel that way because Barlow is setting up a excellent twist. The numbers represent Doppelgangers number designation in a wider plot.

The slight of hand was well executed, perfectly fair and had me perfectly fooled. For this reason alone the novel is worth the money and effort. Well done.

END SPOILERS

I have known duncan for 27 years, since he was guitarist of one of my favorite bands Endpoint when we were both in high school. So I was excited to interview him for the review. I hope you enjoy. It is raw no editing, just a chat by old friends.

We talk about his novel the City Awake, writing and how we both struggled to adapt to dyslexia to become authors. 10 minutes spoiler free. From 10 minutes in to about 30 is about the book the last half hour is about general writing.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Book Review + Author interview: Grunt Life (Task Force Ombra #1) by Weston Ochse

Grunt Life (Task Force Ombra #1) by Weston Ochse

Paperback, 432 pages

Published April 2014 by Solaris

I am a huge fan of military sci-fi, there is certainly nothing wrong with it being written by people who have never served and some of it is very good. Heinlein never was in the military and neither was Scalzi and Old Man's War is probably the best novel in the sub-genre this century. Certainly Grunt life is the most IMPORTANT military sci-fi novel of this century. Probably the most imporant since A certain Vietnam vet wrote a sci-fi novel by the name of the Forever War. There is a little something extra when you have novels like the Forever War written vets like Joe Handleman or the works of Weston Ochse.

Weston Ochse is a Bram Stoker award winning author who started his second military fiction trilogy with Grunt life. The first was a very good pulpy horror/ monster trilogy called Seal Team 666. In three books the Seal team team took on creatures and conspiracies that took them around the globe fighting monsters (I reviewed the first book last year). Of course one of the strengths Ochse who spent decades in the military or contracting over seas brings is a sense of reality many author couldn't.

Grunt life is the story of Benjamin Carter Mason who attempts suicide in the opening pages, he is prevented from doing that and given a choice. You can kill yourself now, or die for us and do something important. Mason is unsure but gives himself over to train with a group of mentally ill and suicidal soldiers that make up Task Force OMBRA.

Ombra you see has been preparing for the day when the invasion comes. They know some very alien force is already preparing the ground work. The non-humans are called the Cray, who are testing humans with acts of mind control that result in a epidemic of violent acts that appear random. A whole novel could have been built out of OMBRA's research into these events.

That however is not the point, we are very tightly focused on Mason. Written in first person this forces the narrative to stay with the main Character and away from generals, world leaders or a global view of the alien invasion. This is Grunt life after all. I want to be careful to remain spoiler free but the really smart thing Ochse brings to this military Sci-fi sub-genre is including victims of PTSD as twist on the classic Dirty Dozen set-up.

This is a military sci-fi novel that is much deeper than a surface action novel. A story about PTSD, that explores the issues related to the trauma that is all to common in warriors. The novel is also very much about what it means to be a grunt and of course the title suggests that. Without giving away the back half of the book it is not just the main characters who have an arc.

Seal Team 666 was a fun book, one I really enjoyed but damn Grunt Life is 1,000 times better. So yes read it.

Since I had met and talked to Weston a few times I asked him if I could interview him to make as a bonus video for my youtube channel/ this blog. We try not to spoil the book for the first 10 minutes, but after that we do mild spoilers. Here is the thing the last 20 minutes are real nitty gritty details about writing the book. I think all authors could learn from the discussion. So yeah here it is.

You can download the audio for a limited time here on my soundcloud page:

https://soundcloud.com/david-agranoff/weston-ochse-interview

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Book Review: Nod by Adrian Barnes

Nod by Adrian Barnes

Paperback, 261 pages

Published September 1st 2015 by Titan Books (first published November 2012)

Literary Awards:

Arthur C. Clarke Award Nominee for Best Novel (2013)

One of my favorite sub-genres of fiction skirts both science fiction and horror but comes down mostly in the horror camp. It is the odd high concept end of the world novel. Nod is one of these novels that hinges on a excellent concept.

Global insomnia, seen through the eyes of our two main characters Paul and Tanya. Paul is one of the few who can still sleep.Tanya is with the majority of our species struggling to sleep. As the days drag on society starts crumble. Food is not being made, restaurants are not opening, the basic functions are coming slowly to a halt. The premise comes built with a excellent ticking time bomb built in. How many days before you become ill? How many before you lose your sanity? In the vacuum new religions pop up and not surprising those desperate for sleep that they would look to the sleepers for answers. Paul becomes a reluctant prophet.

Adrian Barnes is a great writer but I am not sure he is as strong of a pure story-teller. Maybe that is not fair but I think writing horror it is good to have certain finely tuned techniques. I just found myself feeling through-out the story that we were missing moments of suspense and dramatic tension. In the back of the Titan edition that I read included a interview with Barnes so I consider this information fair game for the review. The author makes clear that he is not a genre writer. Which is fine, lots of non-genre authors have written excellent pieces of science fiction horror from Cormac Mcarthy's The Road to Mary Doria Russel's The Sparrow there are great examples.

In this case Barnes has a neat concept, interesting characters, well written and involving prose. So there is plenty to like the problem I had with the book is that I wanted more of the tension building between Tanya and Paul for example. I thought about moment where he might wake up and find her not in bed in the early days. Maybe chapters devoted to her tension listening to him snore, watching him dream when she was tortured by the inability to sleep. I think a genre author who knows the field better might not miss the idea of how tense it would be to sleep 5 or 6 days in knowing the world was filled with people losing their minds not sleeping near by. Barnes did work well with the ticking clock of sanity but even that could have gotten more targeted attention.

Last in the story there is a chapter that takes place on a U.S. naval vessel that is a classic example of telling, meaning events took place outside of the narrative. Technical things aside I think the novel has alot of interesting things to to say about life, death and our culture. Paul is very outspoken character and his eye into the end is interesting one. Even if I though I was critical of this novel I read it fast and there is no greater compliment I can give a book. As for high concept apocalypse you will see many such titles on my best of the year blog posts heading back years now. Novels like Tim Lebbon's The Silence and M.R. Carey's The Girl with All the Gifts are strong examples of this kind of novel. Both were written with incredible skill. Going back a little farther the poetic example of John Shirley's The Other End and his gonzo end of the world novel Demons.

I bring up those other examples because they all balance high concept with excellent plotting and construction. Nod was good read, one I was glad to have. Those interested high concept end of the world novels should add them to their list. As much as I enjoyed it I could not call it a masterpiece. Shout-out to my co-worker Andrea for lending me the book. Clearly she has eye more my taste in books!

Book Review: 13 minutes by Sarah Pinborough

13 minutes by Sarah Pinborough

Paperback, 405 pages

Published July 2016 by Gollancz

US edition summer 2017

Sarah Pinborough is one of my favorite authors. So when I say this was not one of my favorites of her novels understand something. It is still a GREAT book and really that just says so much about her entire catalog.

13 Minutes is indeed a brilliant YA murder mystery. It is funny because it was marketed as YA,I believe that is because it is about teens. At the same time the paperback has "not suitable for younger readers." This book will be released in U.S. this summer and there is a degree that the YA classification could hurt it with adult readers. I hope not because what it says about teens in this social media era would be good for more adults to see.

This novel is a murder mystery that involves teens, social media and bullying. On the surface it is the story of Natasha a teen who is found in the river, brought back from the brink of death no memory of the events before she died for 13 minutes.

There is a cast of friends and frenemies who are involved. Being a modern tale of murder and teenage women alot of the story unfolds in text, social media and the like. Pinborough does an excellent job of using the different media to unfold the story. This is similar to the technique Stephen King made famous in his first novel Carrie. The POV switches are jarring at times sometimes feeling random but they are not at all random. Pinborough places the POV changes intentionally to drive the story and she is always in control.

This novel about teenage women in England feels correct but of course how do I know what those teens think like. that is important because the the motivations and the narrative drive are so closely tied to Becca an old friend of Natasha (the victim) and her group of friends who embrace the name "the Barbies" for their social circle.

The ending is not as jaw dropping as Pinbrough's next book Behind Her Eyes but that is OK not every ending has to be a stunner. it is just as good a feeling when the end of a book can get you to raise your eyebrow and say 'Huh.' I think this ending does a little more of that. 13 minutes has alot to say about the world teenagers live in, and one that i think would be good for young women to read even if some moments are intense. Adults have good reason to read it as well as a tiny window into the pressures of the cool kids at school in this modern world.

The murder, or attempted murder in this case is a Mcguffin that sets the wheels in motion. 13 minutes is an exploration of modern teenage social dynamic and in that sense it is a much deeper novel then it appears on the surface. Like I said at the start of this review this is probably my least favorite Sarah Pinborugh novel that I have read so far, that is not a insult by any means. The Dog Faced Gods trilogy is my favorite horror trilogy, Behind Her Eyes is a masterpiece and mayhem and Murder were excellent examples of an author stretching out of her comfort zone(by writing a period piece). So You know what 13 minutes is a great read and one you should check out...after Behind Her eyes if you are a thriller type. If you are horror reader start with A Matter of Blood. Either way read some Pinbrough.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book review: Ratings Game by Ryan C. Thomas

Ratings Game by Ryan C. Thomas

Paperback, 349 pages

Published May 2008 by Cohort Press

Ratings game is a book I have meant to read for years. The second novel of San Diego based horror author Ryan C. Thomas is a bit of a departure from his first novel The Summer I Died. A decade has passed since those first two books came out and we have had a chance to see the potential RCT showed grow into several books and reputation for character driven horror.

I really like the left turn that RCT took with this second novel, his first release was a masterpiece of extreme horror. It would have been easy go straight back to the blood drenched success of The Summer I Died right away. RCT did eventually do two sequels (on my to read list) but this novel has a very different tone.

Blending social commentary, satire and the occasional gore soaked serial killing. Ratings Game is the story of Roland Stone and Doug Hardwood. Two new York based TV anchors who are on the edge of aging out of the industry for good. After an encounter at a bar they both realize what they need is a big story attached to their names.

It starts when Roland finds the body of a homeless man already dead. He claims the murder with a letter sent to him at the station, he names the killer and the ratings soar. Not to be outdone Hardwood is on to him and stages his own more violent murder with a letter that comes in the mail to his station. On the outside it looks like two killers engaged in a game, but of course it is a boost in the ratings and viewers they want. What follows is a novel that is a smart mix of Anchorman and American Psycho.

On the surface the concept is pretty silly, which is why the novel goes the route of satire. This was a smart move that RCT has crafted a fun novel that captures the "it bleeds it leads" world of news. The two killers "the Chef" (Stone) and Cassnova Carver (Hardwood) bring the gore and style to their murders. This is something Thomas brings to this novel mainstream satires would have strayed away from.

If there is a weakness in the novel it is the sexism of the characters while probably accurate got a bit grating to me. Ratings Game was just as funny as anything I have read from Jeff Strand who is considered the king of horror comedy. I laughed alot reading the book and I really appreciated that it was so different from his first book.

Excellently plotted and structured to deliver a well timed story. If you have not read any Ryan C. Thomas I would start with The Summer I Died, that is just a perfect horror novel. That being said Ratings game is probably a better more dynamic example of what Ryan C. Thomas is capable of.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Book Review: Among Madmen by Jim Starlin & Daina Graziunas

Among Madmen by Jim Starlin & Daina Graziunas

Paperback, 268 pages

Published 1990 by Roc

This is a short but wickedly intense read written by a married couple and long time comic book creators Jim Starlin and Daina Graziunas. Released in 1990 this is apparently a lost classic that was blurbed by Stephen King and George Romero at the time of it's release. I think I first heard of it when Brian Keene mentioned it in a interview on Dread Media, I just happened to be in a used bookstore an hour later and found it for $2. Sold.

I am surprised I had never heard of it because it's post apocalypse setting a gritty characters make it right up my alley. It is a cool book with lots of little pieces of art through out and starting each chapter. It is also very ahead of it's time by taking the zombie novel and adding the berzerker element.

The story of Tom Laker a vet and former NYPD cop who moves with his wife after a virus starts slowly turning the population of into berzerkers. He has become the sheriff of this small town and is trusted to protect the community. Laker is a great character his anguish bleeds off the page. He is trying desperately to hide the fact that his wife has the disease and is at times trying to kill him.

Matters are made worse when a band of raiders are making there way to the small town and someone inside is helping set them up. As we head toward the final battle Tom has to confront his world and family falling apart at the same time.

This novel packs alot of story and emotional punch into it's short page count despite being just over 200 pages it feels epic. Tom Laker and his psycho deputy Benny are both really strong characters who carry alot of the novel on their shoulders. I was less impressed with the story line between Tom and his wife Maria. It just didn't work for me but I feel for Tom when it came to a head.

The placement of the art was an issue. Some of the art spoiled the coming narrative since it appeared a page or two ahead of events in the prose. That said a few times this was used to actually add to the suspense. This is a must read for folks who really enjoy dark, brooding end of the world stories. In that sub-genre it is pretty classic. If that is not a strong motivation for you I don't think it is essential reading.