Thursday, July 19, 2018

Book Review: Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Hardcover, 263 pages

Published November 2017 by Harper

I know I first heard about this book while listening to a podcast and I want to say it was NPR's Fresh Air but I could be wrong about that. Broken into three narrative parts, each feels a little different from the other but not enough that you'll feel like you are reading a new book.

Louise Erdrich is an award winning writer, and I could tell that she is amazing. I certainly who am I to give a bad review to an author who won the national book award and was a finalist for the Pulitizer. I mean she is clearly a great author, but sometimes writer and idea don't mesh well together. I just think this sub-genre benefits from certain skills and abilities that are honed by writing and reading genre fiction. It is like the difference from being a native and tourist. I think Erdrich is a dystopia tourist.

I enjoyed the first act best, when the author was using a little more humor and weirdness in the prose. once the story got into the societal effects that drive the plot is when the book lost me. This is a case of a very talented literary author trying her hand at genre, and in my opinion not really doing it justice. It felt like it was an attempt to be a Climate Change themed re-telling of The Handmaid's Tale. While Atwood doesn't really consider herself science fiction or speculative fiction she really is. She understands one basic thing that Erdrich didn't. You have do at least some world building in a dystopia, this book has almost ZERO world building.

FHFTLG is very rightly getting dinged by some for being a little too much like the Handmaid's tale. I could have lived with it if it was at least an advancement over the influence. A good case in point is Robert McCammon's Swan Song that owes an awful lot to King's classic The Stand. The thing is I can live with that because honestly I think Swan Song is better.

Unlike the Atwood classic that examines the whole culture of the story we get a few random paragraphs that just left me thinking that we are missing the point. I like character driven stories but in this genre you have to balance that impulse with giving the reader a understanding of what is happening to them. Cedar Songmaker is a GREAT character in a empty shell of book that fails explore it's own plot.

In this case it is future heavily effected by the effects of global climate change. I am very passionate about stories addressing these issues. I am always on the look out for authors who are tackling climate issues. I wanted to like this but just can't give it a thumbs up. I have been seeing this on a few lists of must read climate change influenced fiction and I have to say that there are lots of better entries in that canon.

Erdrich is a great writer, far better than many of us who are writing cli-fi, but just can't see this as a a great example of climate change in speculative fiction.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Book Review: Blood Standard (Isaiah Coleridge #1) by Laird Barron

Blood Standard (Isaiah Coleridge #1) by Laird Barron

Hardcover, 336 pages

Published May 29th 2018 by G.P. Putnam's Sons

Laird Barron is not a surprise or a revelation to those of us who read horror and dark fiction, I have read short stories in various collections and reviewed The his collection Imago Sequence in 2012. I was a big fan of the reality bending novella The Hallucigenia. It is a strange family drama that twists through the lens of an horrific injury and hallucinogenic episodes. Barron is known for weird, sometimes surreal stories that highlight the darkest notions of horror with a cosmic sense of dread. It is not light or breezy reads. His weird fiction simply is not for the mainstream.

The one brush with the mainstream the works of Laird Barron enjoyed was being one of the many works of new weird that influenced the wildly popular first season of True Detective. As a dark fiction fan I really enjoyed Barron's work but just didn't see how something so weird could get wider appeal. It was close with lots of attention and being name dropped in several True Detective articles didn't hurt, but as good of a writer as Barron is it just is not mainstream accessible. That is praise as far as I am concerned but that doesn't help Laird Barron pay the bills.

On the surface the idea of LB turning to a work of mainstream Hammett,Leonard, Chandler, or Ellroy-like crime might seem commercially motivated. My response to that is Yeah, so what? No one can read the 336 pages of this novel and not feel the authors passion for the genre of crime. Honestly I am five times into Laird Barron the crime writer as I am the horror writer.

This is a masterpiece of tough guy crime, and that has everything to do with an author who clearly is intelligent with the ability to write highly literate prose,a stylist, but also with the experience and bravado to write effective macho-ma-cheese-mo. It is the balance that makes Tarantino great in film and Elmore Leonard great in any format. It is weird at times but there is nothing supernatural. If you didn't think Barron could write a book with a different bag of tricks think again.

I'll admit if his name was not on the cover Laird Barron is not the first name that would have come to mind reading this. It is a change of pace. It is the story of Isiah Coldridge a massive man who worked as a mafia enforcer up in Alaska. After attacking a gang leader up north he is beaten badly, his life is saved because of the respect that the gang leaders have for his father. His Dad is ex-military and a hunting buddy. I suspect later in the series we will more about his father's ties to crime.

Isiah is a big ugly and oddly smart tough guy. He is a great lead character. To heal from his almost fatal experience he is sent back to New York near his estranged father to heal. Living on a farm life seems back to normal until the granddaughter of his hosts goes missing and he is positive it is tied to several crime families, nazi skinheads and a truckload of trouble.

It also has a fight scene that rivals the Oldboy hallway fight. I loved this:

"I charged. Everything happened fast after that.

Behold the essence of violence. It's not martial arts or slick John Woo gunplay. Those things don't function under the pressure that violence exerts upon its participants. Hand-to-hand combat is decided by velocity and initiative. Ferocity,tenacity, mass and a reckless negligence toward one's own continued existence - that's what wins the battle. Except on this occasion I had no interest in winning.

I wanted to annihilate the world."

I laughed and cringed a bunch. and there were lines through-out that I dog eared because they were funny. Favorites include:

"I've done many dark deeds in my misbegotten life, but until today I've never beaten to death the president of a white supremacist gang. As you might guess from my swarthy complexion and unsightly scarring, it has been near the top of my to-do list."

Or...

"Disobey me and I won't report you to the cops, I'll come to your house and put a hurt on you. Four out of five doctors agree, it's tough to wipe your ass with a hook."

For fans of Barron, this might be too dramatic a change, but I hope not. I don't think it fair to characterize this novel as retrained, because it is badass and crazy at times. Barron is in the zone and I personally prefer it and am more excited for the crime stuff from him in the future.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book Review: Star Wars: Last Shot: (A Han and Lando Novel) by Daniel José Older

Star Wars: Last Shot: (A Han and Lando Novel) by Daniel José Older

Paperback, 368 pages

Published April 2018 by Del Rey

I read plenty of EU Star Wars books back in the day. I know many of the fans felt burned when Lucasfilm reset the canon and ejected the EU. I was OK with it even though I spent a lot time reading them. One of the things I like about how it is being re-done at this time is the strength of authors is much higher.

Take this Han and Lando Last shot. Daniel Jose Older is a author I respect. I have a couple books on my shelf I have meant to read, I admit I have yet, but I have listened to a few interviews with him and I have read several short stories of his. I knew he was a excellent and thoughtful story-teller so I was excited to dig into this one.

I was rewarded with a solidly plotted non-linear time jumping adventure story with larger stakes than the average SW novel. What is most impressive about this novel as a Star Wars tie-in is how the story uses seeds from the the latest film (SOLO). This would not be that special of a thing except that it takes place in the narrative into events between episodes 6 and 7. It is hard to discuss with out spoilers, and I was happy I went into the book pretty much blind. I mean this is for hardcore SW nerds but if you were just wondering about the writing and storytelling I would say it is great. Even better is DJO does a wonderful just of bringing the humor and weird aspects of the SW to the forefront. He does this while telling a twisting and exciting story.

So that said I will talk spoilers from here on out. Last Shot is pretty well split from it's focus on both Han and Lando, and certainly jumps from different eras. I am not sure what it means in Star Wars when it says Now, 15 years ago or 10 years ago. What is a year in a society spread across many worlds? I know don't over think it. ( I understand in the new republic time is based a year on the capital but whatever) The events pre-Solo are said to be 15 years before the events when Ben Solo is a toddler. my only confusion with the was math and timelines. That said I eventually just forgot about the numbers and rode with it.

The stakes in this novel are bigger than a ever for a Han Solo novel, sure there is a smuggling run to kick off the story and in a well plotted twist they end up facing a galaxy spanning threat. This all ties back El3 and a droid rebellion she helped to start before being uploaded to the falcon. How awesome is that?

I don't have much else to say other than the characters are recognizable and that is important for a tie-in. DJO is clearly a talented writer and even if I was not already interested I would be now. Shadowshaper was already on my to read list but I am going to bump it up now.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Book Review: The Hematophages by Stephen Kozeniewski

The Hematophages by Stephen Kozeniewski

Paperback, 326 pages

Published April 2017 by Sinister Grin Press

They say in marketing that you have to hear a pitch a couple times before it hooks you. That I am afraid is why we talk so often about our books. This is a classic example. I first heard of this novel and Kozeniewski on The Horror Show with Brian Keene. When Kozeniewski was on the podcast the second time he talked about this book and I thought the novel sounded right up my alley. I requested it at the library as I do many books. (By the way if you can get a library to to get an author's book that is better than just buying a copy)

I checked the library website a few times but every time Brian Keene mentioned Kozeniewski on the podcast which is often I would think about The Hematophages. So a few months back I bought a copy and saved it for an airplane read. Yesterday thanks to a delayed flight and long lay-over I read this book in about 4 hours during a trip from Indiana back to San Diego.

The Hematophages is a blend of horror and science fiction. Kozeniewski is most well known for his zombie detective bizarro novel Brain-eater Jones. I hope this novel signals a blending of genre he will continue. The story of Paige Ambroziek a young woman who has lived the majority of her life on a space station. Paige's history makes her a perfect narrator, because she has no experience out in the ink(cool slang for space) or being on worlds. This fish out of water aspect is thankfully not used for comedy but is subtly applied to help world-build in the narrative.

Paige is a student who has expertise on ship salvage and is given a mission by a mega-corporation to find the wreck of a famous spaceship lost for hundreds of years. The major problem with this operation is the ship is on a fleshworld with oceans of blood. I enjoyed the universe of this novel that involved nasty corporations, wormy blood drinking monsters, cancer-ridden zero-g Mutant pirates (the Skin-wrappers) and a planet with bat-shit crazy ecologically that was more surreal than hard sci-fi.

It is clear that Kozeniewski was inspired by Aliens and the Thing and working from that sense he came up with a cool hook for this kind of Sci-fi tale. Once he got to the insanity of the Fleshworld I was sold. If it seems like I am harsh or critical of the book it is important to that I am doing that because I really really LOVED it. There were just a few things that kept it from being a masterpiece for me. That is no slight, I loved it and I think you should read it. It is 1,000 better than most attempts to marry sci-fi and horror.

Let us start with what is great about this novel. I liked that Kozeniewski didn't bother trying to explain the science of deep space travel. He assumes in this first person narrative Paige would expect understanding from her readers. When writing about a coast to coast car trip do modern writers feel the need to explain the science of cars? I suspect that will turn off a few sci-fi readers stuck in their ways, but I found it was refreshing. My mind filled in the gaps.

The world(universe)building is effective, with enough clever and sometimes funny elements like the opening interview and the skin-tight airlocks. The Skinwrapper pirates who lived in zero-G for so long they barely looked human were so well realized that Nia was one of my favorite characters. The paranoia in the second half is well done, never going overboard but just enough to give us a sense of distrust the survivors at the end felt. The planet is soaked in blood before the over the top gore comes in but it is done in smart was, including a fantastic chapter break in the last act that got a "Oh shit" out of me.This universe that Kozeniewski has built is rich and deserves more stories set in it.

That said I had a few minor problems. I have seen the society in this book described as Matriarchal. It is true that in this future men are extinct and referred to as the dead gender. This is a cool set up, and certainly enjoyed this aspect of the novel. I might be nitpicking without men or patriarchy the society is not matriarchy it just is. I felt like this culture just seemed like any other corporate structure in our world. There was not enough of what makes a a woman's society for me. There was some ball-busting and macho behavior that I think undermined the potential of a different looking future with-out us men.

Sci-fi has played with those gender roles as far back Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness and bit more subtle in Carrie Vaughn's Coast Roads books. I loved the idea of a all-woman culture but thought that was weakest part of the execution. If Kozeniewski returns to this universe needs some attention to that aspect.

Also one aspect that this novel is rightly getting lots of praise for is world-building. The Fleshworld is a crazy and cool place that this novel visits. The problem for me is that it is very similar to the world of Splatterjay from the Neal Asher novel The Skinner. I suspect Kozeniewski has not read the Skinner, but the eco-system of the Flesh world is very close. The Skinner is my favorite Sci-fi novel of the 21st century so it was a little hard for me to ignore. In the end they are different enough that I am glad both exist.

The Hematophages is one of the best books I have read so far this year. It is bold and weird science fiction that feels old school and insane at the same time. It is bizarro, dark sci-fi and horror in equal measure. A super neat book that I am glad I picked up. It is a little bit a parallel of Aliens, A reversal of Carpenter's The Thing (paranoia with all women) and with a world-building that reminded me of Neal Asher's The Skinner. That is a good mix.

Podcast Book Review: The Man Who Japed by Philip K. Dick

The Man Who Japed by Philip K. Dick

Paperback, 168 pages

Published November 2002 by Vintage (first published 1956)

PKD's third released novel is sci-fi take on communist China with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. The world building, characters and sci-fi humor are all top notch in this novel. PKD was coming into his own here. The ending was panned for being a rip-off of Swift's Modest Proposal and it sounds like rightly so. I didn't write a full review because we broke it down on the Dickheads podcast. For a full and detailed review listen here:

My Dickheads interview of UCSD Physics professor Brian Keating

Professor Brian Keating is an astrophysicist with UC San Diego’s Department of Physics. He and his team develop telescopes to study the Big Bang. He is the author of over 100 scientific publications and holds two U.S.Patents. He received the 2007 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers at the White House from President Bush for a telescope he invented and deployed at the U.S. South Pole Research Station called “BICEP". Professor Keating became a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 2016 and is the author of Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science's Highest Honor, selected as one of Amazon.com’s Ten Best Nonfiction Books of the Month and one of Nature Magazine’s Six Best Books of the Season.

Brian Keating - briankeating.com/

Brian's Book - amzn.to/2sa5UpA

TEDX - www.youtube.com/watch?v=T22s4jCZ4Ho

I had the chance to interview Dr. Keating for the Dickheads podcast. I am not gonna lie when Dr. Keating said I missed my calling and should work in the Physics lab was a pretty great moment for me.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Book Review + Interview: The Wild Dead (The Coast Road #2) by Carrie Vaughn

The Wild Dead (The Coast Road #2) by Carrie Vaughn

Paperback, 272 pages

Expected publication: July 17th 2018 by John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books

As the co-host of the recently launched Philip Dick podcast Dickheads I was first clued into this series when the first Coast Road novel Bannerless won the Philip K Dick award for 2017. So a few months back I read and reviewed that novel for the blog, but also interviewed Vaughn for the podcast. (linked below) I was a big fan of the first book. I loved the anarchist and social themes and thought it was excellently woven into a Leguin-like five stars out of five novel.

I was excited during the interview that Carrie said the sequel was almost out and that she would send me a copy. I loved the world of the coast road, a post collapse California coast that has turned to a more just society. Enid is an investigator in this mostly utopia she doesn't get alot of work, and in the wake of the the rare murder that she solved in the first novel she has been able to relax a bit.

Now she is training Teeg a young investigator, and her family is eagerly awaiting the birth of their first child as they were just given their first banner. Enid and Teeg are called to a far off town on the south edge of the coast road to settle a dispute. It seems like a simple task a man wants to maintain the family house that is about to fall down a cliff. The community considers it a hazard and wants the investigators to tell him to let the house go.

It seems like a simple case when the body of a young woman no one can identify washes up on the shore. Now for the second time Enid must solve a murder. Vaughn writes another great mystery, what I really enjoyed about this one was I had no idea how she would ever solve it. There are hundreds of mystery novels put out each year but the thing that makes this one special is the setting.

The post-modern world setting and the social dynamics are really interesting. The victim was from the wildlands beyond the coast road where there is no organized society. One excellent element of world building Vaughn pulls off is the people in the wild lands. She does a great job making them feel almost inhuman, like they are a different species. in fact she actually reminds the reader at one point that they are just human, and it struck me because I did need that reminder.

Before Enid goes to the wild lands I was not even sure how she would identify the victim. Without spoilers this mystery is really well done. Perfectly weaving the fascinating social and political dynamics of this bizarre post-ecological collapse attempt at utopia.

The characters are strong, and the narrative is perfectly structured with surprises and reveals. This is a very worthy sequel to Bannerless. Both novels are masterpieces in my eyes. When this book comes out July 17th Mystery fans, dystopian fans, and political sci-fi fans should have this book ready to go. The Bottomline is this: The Wild Dead is a perfect sequel that ups the ante on all the elements that made Bannerless great. A masterpiece of socially aware world-building and mystery that will entertain as it makes you think.

In case you missed it here is my Dickheads Podcast interview with author Carrie Vaughn: