Saturday, May 28, 2016

Book Review: Star Wars Bloodline by Claudia Gray

Star Wars Bloodline by Claudia Gray

Hardcover, 336 pages

Published May 2016 by LucasBooks

Non- Spoiler Review...

As a serious Star Wars nerd since watching Empire Strikes back opening day at six years old I have consumed tons of Star Wars media. I understood the decision by Lucasfilm to jettison the previous novels but I admit it bothered me just a little. There are alot of Star Wars novels out there and to varying degrees of quality. The strength of Timothy Zhan's trilogy is well known. As hated as the prequels are by many SW fans my age I thought some of the best fiction set in this universe took place in the clone wars. I was for one example entirely pleasantly surprised by Michael Reeves Darth Maul novel and the Coruscant Nights trilogy that spun-off from that. There are several hidden gems in back catalog. At the same time there were plenty of New Jedi Order clunkers.

When I heard they were doing new novels as connective tissue between Jedi and Force Awakens I was interested. Then they hired very respected writers Chuck Wendig and Claudia Gray, who I had not read but knew we very respected and I was more interested. Then Force Awakens kicked my ass but like many I was left me slightly confused. JJ Abrams learning lessons from the awkward moments in the prequels wisely skipped over-explaining the political nature in the galaxy far far away. I mean I could ride with it, but most of us were wondering who the first order was? Why is there a resistance didn't the good guys win 30 years ago?

After having read Aftermath and Bloodline it is clear that you are going to learn very thing you want to know about the back story in these novels and Lucas books is taking them very seriously. Aftermath was an excellently plotted novel with a massive scope that the effect of the empire's fall on the whole galaxy. Claudia Gray's novel appears to have a more narrow focus on the surface. The novel's lens might be focused on Princess Leia but the whole galaxy is once again on her shoulders.

Gray does an amazing job of realizing Leia and giving us a window into the emotions of woman at the heart of this tale. The weight she carries from surviving the war,being tortured and watching her planet die at the hands of the man she has learned is her father. Gray goes there and succeeds in making Leia a richer more real character. Certainly this novel will add flavor to the force awakens much like frosting does to cake.

Bloodline is an excellent novel. It is one of the best written SW novels I have read, with excellent characters and pacing. It felt like a Star Wars story. It had the adventure, politics, drama you come to expect all tied together with a sense of fun. Like the new film it captures the sense of fun without talking down to the audience. The various characters were as interesting and fun to me as seeing Leia and brief but perfect moments of Han Solo. Six years before the events of Episode 7.

The pilots Seastriker and Greer were great partners for Leia and deserve their own books. But the true heart of the novel for me was Senator Ransolm Casterfo. His political dances with Leia were some of the novels subtlety great moments. His confusion over desire for the order of an empire balanced with his hatred for the abuse Darth Vader brought to his home world was so well done. A collector of empire artifacts but a man with a strong sense of judgement the reader is torn between many emotions with this character. There are moments when you wont like, him, then you will grown to like him and back again. Fantastic character.

As you might imagine the pain of Leia's bloodline and connection to Darth Vader is always under the surface of this novel. It is must read for fans of Star Wars fiction, or anyone who wants to understand the roots of the event of the new saga. I am sold on Claudia Gray. Her novel "A Thousand Pieces of You" sounds awesome so expect a review of that before the end of the year.

As for the spoiler review.................

OK at this point I am going to assume you have either read the novel or have no plans to. that's too bad. You're missing out. But I know I have some friends who just can't find the time to read a book. Last chance.

I know many were confused by the need for a resistance and where the first Order came from after Episode 7. Both Wendig's Aftermath and Bloodline explain parts of the story. In Aftermath Mon Mothma made the bizarre decision that what the universe needed was less military and central control. Bloodline is very much a Leia story but it weaves the political melodrama in very fluid way that episode I failed to do. The factions in the galaxy are forming and fighting. Mon Mothma is sick and Leia is nominated to be first senator. A position of leadership she doesn't want to have.

At the same time she suspects cartels of building illegal armies. The adventure part of the story is great with a underwater base, stolen data and Leia blowing up a whole army. Han comes to the rescue but not in a sexist way. Leia doesn't need him, he is just being a loving husband, which he still is at this point. If you are wondering Ben is off with Luke, Chewie is kickin it at home, Han is off racing ships. Leia is going on secret missions - no biggie. Gray does a wonderful job of making Senator Casterfo instantly dislikable, then when Leia and the reader start to like him he betrays her exposing her secret parentage to the full senate. By the time he realizes he was used and it is too late. Heart breaking ending for a rich character.

So the main spoiler he is that Leia stops an early attempt to build a first order army but exposing her real life father becomes the way the roots of the first order use to discredit her. This forces her out of the senate. Now She knows imperial elelments are at play she is on to them so the novel ends with a meeting between her Akbar and the roots of the new resistance. Perfect.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese

The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese

Hardcover, 320 pages

Expected publication: June 28th 2016 by Thomas Dunne Book

Los Angeles of 2039 is a baffling and bifurcated place. After the Collapse of 2028, a vast section of LA, the Disincorporated Zone, was disowned by the civil authorities, and became essentially a third world country within the borders of the city. Navigating the boundaries between DZ and LA proper is a tricky task, and there's no one better suited than eccentric private investigator Erasmus Keane. When a valuable genetically altered sheep mysteriously goes missing from Esper Corporation's labs, Keane is the one they call.

But while the erratic Keane and his more grounded partner, Blake Fowler, are on the trail of the lost sheep, they land an even bigger case. Beautiful television star Priya Mistry suspects that someone is trying to kill her - and she wants Keane to find out who. When Priya vanishes and then reappears with no memory of having hired them, Keane and Fowler realize something very strange is going on. As they unravel the threads of the mystery, it soon becomes clear that the two cases are connected - and both point to a sinister conspiracy involving the most powerful people in the city. Saving Priya and the sheep will take all of Keane's wits and Fowler's skills, but in the end, they may discover that some secrets are better left hidden.

Lets just start with a little love for how genius the title "The Big Sheep" is for a Phillip K. Dick meets Raymond Chandler hybrid novel. I mean that is what this is - a loving cross between Blade Runner, LA noir and a lot of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang sarcasm. All the ingredients are there. I would think for a great many of you I have already sold you on this novel and that is a great thing. Frankly I admit I am bit jealous of this perfect title for the concept.

This is my second time reading a Robert Kroese novel in 2014 I reviewed "Starship Grifters." "I laughed a lot reading it... This is a bizarro science fiction that does get a lot of it laughs from high concept ideas and clever jokes based on long standing genre clich├ęs. One of my favorites was APPLE (A Planet Perpelxingly Like Earth). Funny concept that turned into a great satire of silly sci-fi stuff."

I liked that book but The Big Sheep is also a big leap for the author in the quality of the work. Once again Kroese uses first person narrative told through the eyes of the hero's sidekick. Our narrator for the story Blake Fowler works for an odd Private eye. They are hired for a case of a missing sheep used in scientific research, and of course this connects to their other case. That of a TV star who is getting notes from her teddy bear. One of my favorite moments comes early. Fowler points out that the TV star Pria is crazy. Keane the private eye replies "She most definitely is. But she is also receiving letters from her teddy bear, and that is worth looking into." What a great way to launch into a LA noir!

I was pretty critical of Starship Grifters even though I enjoyed it but this time I felt Kroese nailed the concept top to bottom. there are alot of story elements, high concept ideas and it is tied together with fan service of the genres being crossed. The B story of Priya Mistry was more interesting that the A story of the sheep and wisely the story flowed that way. The setting of the novel clearly Blade Runner influenced but just a bit darker and slightly more post apocalyptic in moments.

The DZ the ruined parts of LA and how they were created are like interesting bread crumbs leading the path to more stories featuring Keane and Fowler. When need to learn more about Maelstrom and Keane's role.

The mystery unfolds predictably but not in a bad way, we know certain moments are coming but they are done with class. When you pay homage those moments are like slipping into a favorite sweatshirt.This book is worth a pre-order, I hope it finds the audience it deserves. The best thing I can say about this novel is that it like a sci-fi Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The wit- levels are off the chart you''ll be laughing but it more subtle than the authors almost slapstick previous novel. Very well done.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Book Review: The Acolyte by Nick Cutter

The Acolyte by Nick Cutter

Paperback, 304 pages

Published May 2015 by ChiZine Publications

"Jonah Murtag is an Acolyte on the New Bethlehem police force. His job: eradicate all heretical religious faiths, their practitioners, and artefacts. Murtag's got problems - one of his partners is a zealot, and he's in love with the other one. Trouble at work, trouble at home. Murtag realizes that you can rob a citizenry of almost anything, but you can't take away its faith. When a string of bombings paralyzes the city, religious fanatics are initially suspected, but startling clues point to a far more ominous perpetrator. If Murtag doesn't get things sorted out, the Divine Council will dispatch The Quints, aka: Heaven's Own Bagmen. The clock is ticking towards doomsday for the Chosen of New Bethlehem. And Jonah Murtag's got another problem. The biggest and most worrisome... Jonah isn't a believer anymore."

Nick Cutter is a not so secret pen name for author Craig Davidson whose first two books The Troop, and The Deep were very popular in horror fiction circles. It seems Cutter is determined to carry the torch for Bentley Little on novels titled The ___. For whatever reason Craig Davidson is considered high literature, but Cutter is genre. As if he is Clark Kent going into a phone booth and coming out Nick Cutter. Look it is impossible to avoid a little hype when your books come with blurbs from names like Scott Smith (the Ruins) and light weights like Clive Barker and some guy named Stephen King. The acclaim is deserved.

In 2014 I reviewed the Cutter Debut The Troop. "I thought it was an effective and disturbing horror novel that made the best of a lean prose style. The King influence is one the author wore on his sleeve, and was found as much in the strong children characters as it was in the horror elements. Horror readers will be very happy with this one."

in 2015 The Deep "I found myself turning pages and feeling invested in the story. If there was a short fall for me was my interest in what was happening on the surface with the global disease, but I understand it was irrelevant to the story. The ending was not as strong as the build-up but it is impossible to discuss without spoilers. I think this is a must read for serious horror fans. if nothing else to chart the growth of this Nick Cutter Character."

First things first. This book looks amazing. The cover, the interior design, lay-out formatting. Just a gorgeous paperback. Chi-zine really made a pretty book. The structure, the formatting and of course the engaging prose are of equal quality all make a huge argument for physical books. This will look awesome on your shelf and shames New York publishers with their standard books.

This Cutter book is not traditional horror and delightfully very different from each of the books that followed it. I think that the novels each have such very different stories. It is a science fiction dystopia more in the tradition of 1984 or Brave New World than horror. Perhaps might explain why Cutter published this with Chi-zine an indie weird/ experimental/ bizarro publisher instead of the more traditional publisher his previous novels were released with.

Story wise I didn't like this novel as much the two previous ones, but of the three novel the Acolyte certainly was the most important. The themes explored in this novel are interesting and in the light of the events on the day I started reading it took on greater significance. The morning I started read this book NPR was discussing how a proposed Donald Trump ban on Islam would work.

I think the world in the light of the rise of Neo-conservatism needed a god fearing 1984 and the that is exactly what The Acolyte is. An argument could be made that the book is about a decade late, but it is better late than never. This would be a difficult world to envision, an author writing a fascist christian dystopia rides the line between excellent social commentary and goofy satire at all times. In the last act Cutter goes there with issues like abortion and it provides moments as squirm worthy as anything in The Troop.

Jonah is a Dystopian character we can relate to, and the reader certainly does not want to live in this world. His story arc is one that is fairly predictable, but one we needed to take. So I have given all my reasons why this is a great novel what was it that made it not as good as the first two. Maybe it was me but I couldn't get the Christian Bale movie Equilibrium out of my head. That 2002 film was about a similar world where enough emotions were outlawed and a police was formed to track down and arrest sense offenders.

The first act of this novel felt so similar to me I started seeing Bale's face on Jonah and the design of that film in my mind. I never totally got over that reading this book. That said I like Equilibrium which I consider a fun movie so it was not totally a negative. Maybe that is just a me problem.

Overall The Acolyte is a excellent book, the author should be rewarded for writing a daring and meaningful book. The publisher should be rewarded for making such a cool book with a challenging story. By rewarded I mean you should buy it, or read it.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Book Review: The Principle by J.David Osborne

The Principle by J.David Osborne

Broken River Books


"Two hunters come across a bag of money in the woods, a dead drop for two local low-life meth cooks. One of the cooks is content to watch pro-wrestling and wait for the next payday. But the other just can't quite let it go. It's the principle of the matter"

I wish more unproduced screenplays were published in this format. Last year I read Travis Beachum script for the Killing on Carnival Row and really wished someone had the courage to make that movie. It would also be nice to have had it in this nice format to read. I also found myself really wishing someone would find this script by J. David Osbourne. This would make a cool film and could be done without much of budget. The bells and whistles are not special effects but witty dialogue that makes it a true noir.

Osbourne is an author and publisher know for writing super weird crime novels and publishing books in that vein with his imprint Broken River books. His first novel "By the Time We Leave Here, We'll be Friends was like a crazy Russian prison movie directed by David Lynch. The only other one I read was a genius noir novel called Low Down Death Easy Right.

That novel like this screenplay had a total tornado alley noir that captured Oklahoma scuzy-ness the way Fargo paints the great white north.After a father and son hunting discover a bag full of money and take it takes gets off a series of crimes. The money was meant for Beau his monthly payment for cooking meth. Beau comes around town trying to find his money.

Was not sure what to think because I remember Osborne's work for it's unsettling prose more so than dialogue, but I laughed and cringed reading this. What more do you want? Cool read.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Book Review: Towers by Karl A. Fischer

Towers by Karl A. Fischer

Paperback, 84 pages

Published October 5th 2015 by Eraserhead Press

The New Bizarro Author Series 2015-16

After fending off giant monsters for a thousand years, a sentient guard tower is ready to go to heaven with his soulmate. However, the lovers are reborn as lowly humans and forced to live inside the structures they once piloted. Separated by thousands of miles and trapped within menageries of horror, their only hope at being reunited is to turn into giant monsters and roam the wasteland in search of one another.

You know there is tendency to think of bizarro as nothing but Dildo jokes and juvenile humor. Shock and awe marketing of Baby Jesus Butt Plug and Ass Goblins of Auschwitz get the rage of Bill O'Reilly and the WTF's of Boing Boing alike. Nothing wrong with that kinda of bizarro I am all for absurdist fiction many contain deeper themes but for myself I am into the dark bizarro. I know this is a first time writer in the new Bizarro author series but in the 77 pages of Karl Fischer's Towers there are more moments of genius than authors with a dozen books under their belt.

This is pure bizarro fiction a completely surreal setting with a balance between poetic prose and emotional resonance this genre has not seen since Forrest Armstrong's Deadheart Shelters. Don't be fooled by the back cover this is not a cheap Kaiju novel. Sure it takes place in a world long agao destroyed by giant monsters but the themes are love and humanity - expressed in fantastic prose.

Fischer is an excellent writer who manages to balance the surreal concept of humans reincarnated as giant sentry towers and forced after a thousand years to be vivid at moments. There we moments where the prose impacted me with perfectly placed line. My favorite on page 51 "I recorded a memory:the day I woke up in the cellular walls of my corpse."

OK I need more and longer works by this author. Twice this year the New Bizarro Author series delivered big time. Between King Space Void by Anthony Trevino and Towers we have uncovered two excellent new voices that deserve your attention. If you like high lit style weird fiction that has emotional weight and meaning you have found a excellent book. Towers is a great first step here is hoping Karl Fischer needs chance to run a marathon.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Book Review: The Hive Construct by Alexander Maskill

The Hive Construct by Alexander Maskill

Paperback, 368 pages

Published November 1st 2015 by Transworld Publishers

Literary Awards: Terry Pratchett Prize (2013)

"Situated deep in the Sahara Desert, New Cairo is a city built on technology—from the huge, life-giving solar panels that keep it functioning in a radically changed, resource-scarce world to the artificial implants that have become the answer to all and any of mankind's medical problems. But it is also a divided city, dominated by a handful of omnipotent corporate dynasties. And when a devastating new computer virus begins to spread through the poorest districts, shutting down the life-giving implants that enable so many to survive, the city begins to slide into the anarchy of violent class struggle. Hiding amid the chaos is Zala Ulora. A gifted hacker and fugitive from justice, she believes she might be able to earn her life back by tracing the virus to its source and destroying it before it destroys the city—or before the city destroys itself. With its vivid characters, bold ideas, and explosive action, The Hive is science fiction at its most exciting, inventive, and accessible."

This is a really interesting modern cyberpunk-ish techno-thriller about a computer virus that crosses into body horror territory. In this future Cairo nearly every has mechanical upgrades woven into their bodies. So when A virus causes those bio-mechanical upgrades to fail the city falls into chaos and is shut off from the rest of the world. The political reality of this future city is the backbone of the story and drives the characters and plot. Our Point of view shifts but the main character is Zala Ulora who hacks her way back into the city even though many blame her father for creating the virus.

The street protests and resistance cells operating around the city are the most interesting aspects of the story. The kidnapping of powerful member of the city council to me provided the most interesting of the various plot threads. the novel explored several cool settings and ideas exploring the technology. This novel just didn't have the edge it needed, but still there were enough interesting elements to keep me reading. I felt the story of the councilman Ryan was at the same time the most interesting and confunding.

To me the biggest problem was that the novel felt like it was set in America, or somewhere in the west. When I saw that it was set in the middle east, I thought a sci-fi novel in a different cultural setting would be cool. The middle east of the future simply felt to recognizable to me. It was a wasted setting. I feel like Maskill could have benefitted from another year of research on the Arab Spring. That is what I was hoping for a cyberpunk twist on the revolution in the Middle East. Close, but just not exactly what I was hoping for. By the way I have no idea what the title means. No idea at all.

Book Review: Predator Incursion by Tim Lebbon

Predator Incursion by Tim Lebbon

Paperback, 400 pages

Published October 2015 by Titan Books

Tim Lebbon has very distinguished reputation, from solid horror novels, fantasy novels and various tie-in novels in properties ranging from Star Wars to Hell Boy. Lebbon won me over big time last year with the publication of his amazing monster apocalypse novel The Silence. It was my number one novel of the year last year. If you missed my review of The Silence or best of 2015 list here is what I said:

"This novel is in the tradition of British dystopias ranging from Day of the Triffids to 28 Days Later. The Silence is a high concept monster novel that creates terror in the reader by milking every drop of the idea. There is a moment 2/3 of the way through the narrative that was the most brutal scene I have experienced since the ending of the Mist. I knew this scene was coming, it was obvious and Lebbon gave the reader plenty of warnings. Despite all the warnings reading it still hit me like a gut punch. Lebbon never misses beat, using the concept to ramp up the horror."

So yeah I was really wanting to read more by Lebbon, and was really interested in this trilogy when he talked about writing it on the Three Guys with Beards podcast. You see this trilogy known as the rage war is split between the Alien and Predator universes which we know tie together. This first book is supposed to be a Predator novel that pesky species known as the Yautja is at the center. That said this novel is almost more firmly set in the alien land scape, with it's setting and political intrigue as a back drop.

I have only read one other Predator novel and that was John Shirley's amazing "Forever Midnight" which created a feeling of pulpy Heinlein style Sci-fi action story. I loved that novel because it felt like the best kind of military Science Fiction. So the two best things that separate this tie-in novel are found in it's huge scope and that gives it a epic feel that transcends the franchise and just becomes a really neat sci-fi story that just happens in the AVP trilogy.

Happening 300 years after the events of Alien Resurrection, I mistakenly read the entire book thinking the main android character Liliya was actually the character played in the film by Winnoa Ryder. I was wrong but I don't think that hurt the novel. This excellently plotted novel that hops around the galaxy between inter weaving story lines that come together perfectly. This all sets up an intriguing twist for the second novel. Can't spoil it, but I was hooked enough to plan on reading book 2.

We have an android fresh off 300 years floating in a escape pod, a squad of Colonial Marines and Predator expert who are all full developed characters. With a interesting tie to Prometheus and a more forced clumsy nod to predator 2 fans Lebbon did fan service while building a very interesting cosmic horror back drop.

The story of a cult group of humans who traveled into deep space with intention of finding god. These "Founders" are coming back after hundreds of years and their intentions are not good. It is hilarious to see nerds upset with how easy the Yautja (Predators) are being killed in this novel, but it is important to the plot.

I tried to read this without the baggage of the existing franchise and just read it as a Tim Lebbon science Fiction war novel. As that it is a really fun book, as a Predator tie-in novel it is a home run. If you ever thought you might read a Predator novel this is a good one to read.