Sunday, December 16, 2018

Book Review: Hoosier Hysteria by Meri Henriques Vahl

Hoosier Hysteria: A Fateful Year in the Crosshairs of Race in America

by Meri Henriques Vahl

Paperback, 336 pages

Published July 2018 by She Writes Press

When this review is over you might not believe that I was rooting for this memoir. The fact is that I wanted to like this book and I made it to the last page. The thing is I just don't think it is a good book. I understand why it is marketed as "A Fateful Year in the Crosshairs of Race in America." Certainly, it is a better hook than "An awkward year in a college freshman's life," but that subtitle would have been more accurate.

Look Bloomington is my hometown, my father was a professor at IU, without that connection to the history of the community I grew up in I would never have made it through this book. This could have been a very important look at a historic moment in a turbulent time at Indiana University. You see Bloomington is now a liberal and progressive center of a very red state in Indiana. The transformation that happened since this author arrived at a very racist college town to what it would become is interesting. The problem is we don't see that transformation, we just see a freshman find a bunch of problems and not return. In fact the story doesn't even really give an arc to the person at the heart of the story. I suspect that the author found herself while at Berkley but we are kind of just told in the bio, not in the actual story.

Meri Henriques Vahl came to Bloomington in 1963 and became the first white student at IU to be roommates with two black students. She also got involved in the protest of Alabama governor and ultra-racist George Wallace. Sounds interesting right? Yep, that would make a fascinating book, instead, we get page after page of her day to day life like signing up for classes, bad dorm food and awkward dates with an asshole radical and her crush on the head of folk music club on campus.

WHAT?????

Look I get it that she was writing a memoir, but she had to know that her observations and what she saw around her were more interesting and important to history than how nervous she was about music school auditions or the hunky graduate student she had a crush on. Her roommates had the far more interesting experience and I found myself wishing that I was reading Pixie's memoir instead. After a year the author left IU and missed out on the very radical activism and change that came in the years that followed. Now that is a story I would like to read...

Good thing there is a non-fiction book called Dissent in the Heartland by Mary Ann Wynkoop, that is the book I think people interested in the history of race relations and Indiana should read. I admit I was hoping for a memoir from someone in that position. I am certainly not upset I read this book, I got a good picture of this woman's experience. It just seems a little bit of unintentional white privilege and hubris that she spent so much time on her dating life and not the fascinating story she was so close to. I understand she might not have known many of the details but that is what you do research for.

In the acknowledgments, the author points out that many publishers passed on this book and I see why. Whoever wrote the back cover description did a great job selling this book, I just wish we got to read THAT book.

Book Review/ Podcast episode: The Man In the High Castle by Philip K Dick

The Man In the High Castle by Philip K Dick

Paperback, 259 pages

Published June 1992 by Vintage (first published October 1962)

Hugo Award for Best Novel (1963)

Tähtivaeltaja Award (1993)

Multi-episodes series of Dickheads coming soon dedicated the Man in The High Castle. The novel and the Amazon series.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Book Review: Florida by Lauren Groff

Florida by Lauren Groff

Hardcover, 275 pages

Published June 2018 by Riverhead

National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2018)

Kirkus Prize Nominee for Fiction (2018)

OK this book is a tad bit out of my wheelhouse as I am a horror and Science Fiction critic and writer. I like to read genre and while I consider myself a consumer of the smarter end of that spectrum I don't generally read "literature." By that I mean the stuff that is put on the literature shelves in Powell's books. In the eight years, I lived in Portland and shopped at Powell's I only bought Brian Evenson books out of that section. So let's face it I am not the target audience here.

I picked up Flordia because Dan Bloom the Cli-fi Blogger mentioned it on his blog. As an author of a Climate change novel myself, I was interested to read the state of the art by authors writing about it. I knew nothing else about it or the author. I went in so cold I thought it was a novel as I started reading it.

First thing I can say is that Lauren Groff is a great writer I can tell already. This book took a little bit to hook me but once I got into it I was sold on her ability. Her use of language is so strong and evocative that I am positive I never want to live in Florida. I don't think I could pay this book a higher compliment. The heat, the humidity, the snakes, the mold the dipping uncomfortable swamp living dripping off the pages.

as with any short story collection, there are stories of varying strength and weakness. The first story was not the best opener in my opinion. It was a great example of how to write a setting, but the vague character that seemed to be an author stand it didn't work for me. That said at that point I thought I was reading the first chapter of a novel. The second story was one of the strongest of the collection. "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners" is a great vivid tale that could have sustained a novel. The setting and characters were rich and stick with you like something that doesn't quite wash off your hands.

I don't know if it was an intentional theme but Groff appears to share my fear of the creeping effect of climate change. That is what interested me in this book and so it should not be a surprise that the stories that focused on such impacted me the most. My other favorites "Flower Hunters" and "Snake stories" were favorites. I don't remember the title of the story set in the storm but that one showed that Groff knows how to add suspense something, not all MFA literature types can do.

Overall I liked this book and the best thing I can say is that I intend to track down her novel at some point. Climate change is a horror as great as the nuclear threat my generation lived with as children. The difference is it is a slowly creeping up on us. It is a monster in the shadows reaching out to grab up. It is not a jump scare but a building suspense. Lauren Groff captures this with subtly through most of the pages of this book.

Mostly she is doing this surgery with a scalpel, but a couple times the hammer comes out. "She is no longer frightened of reptiles, she who is afraid of everything. She is afraid of climate change."

Don't miss out.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Book Review: Elevation by Stephen King

Elevation by Stephen King

Hardcover, 146 pages

Published October 2018 by Scribner

I was surprised by this one. Normally there is a lot of build up for the release of a new Stephen King novel. considering King is known for doorstoppers like Under The Dome and IT that top 1,000 pages this will get called a novella. It is technically beyond the novel word count. So this kinda slipped out and SK fans were given a late 2018 treat.

The reviews so far are pretty mixed but I was surprised to see a few negative reviews from serious constant readers on twitter in the early days of this release. I tried to go into with an open mind and judge for myself. I am not sure why there were so many negative comments about this short novel, it is not really amazing or anything like that. No one is going to accuse it of being groundbreaking.

I really did not like The Outsider, I am not one to give Uncle Steve a pass just because I love him as a human being. I mean I watch all the interviews, I love all his tweets. I greatly respect the man but write as much as he does, take the risks that he does you are going to put out a stinker or two.

This story is dedicated to Richard Matheson and it has that feel. I enjoyed it. I didn't love it but I also thought some critical comments were a little overblown. sure it was sentimental, that is a strength of the story. I thought it was unfairly the goodreads choice for horror novel of the year. Not just because it should have been Tremblay's Cabin at the End of the World, but this is pretty light horror. I mean it is horror, it would be scary to be the main character or his friends, but this novel is more in the vein of the Green Mile or Shawshank. I mean we need Darabont on this movie right away.

Elevation is the story of a man named Scott, an older gentleman who lives in Castle Rock and discovers that he is losing weight quickly. His body is not changing, nor is doing anything different. He is simply wasting away slowly. You might be thinking this is like Thinner, but it is a very different story. The B story centers a Lesbian couple that moves to Castle Rock to open a vegetarian restaurant. Scott is the first to break the ice and really accept the couple for who they are.

I know some thought the liberal political stuff was heavy-handed. I have read some reviews that found this unnecessary, but I think they are overestimating the progression of rural Maine, and suggest that King is probably right to send this message. Subtle or not. It comes off heavy-handed to those who live in liberal areas, but I don't think Castle Rock is super liberal. Scott's compassion towards Missy and Diedre is a core to the book that gives weight to the story. (Pun intended)

I understand how some readers might be annoyed with stereotypes that the characters fill, and that is a valid criticism. I certainly had that problem last year with Sleeping Beauties (co-written with his song Owen)that novel reinforced so many patriarchal stereotypes it really hurt my experience. If you want to talk about a novel with cringe-worthy generational tactless politics Sleeping beauties is much worse. The number of times Scott the POV character pointed out how great Deidre's legs were hurt worse each time.

I read many comments that the characters were one-dimensional, while they are cookie cutter characters who fulfill silly stereotypes they at least growth in multi-dimensions. I think most people are not getting that this story is about what it feels like to fade away with age. Scott as a character also learns quite a bit about himself and in the short pages all the characters have an arc, a simple one but they all grew.

I know I already mentioned Tremblay's Cabin at the End of the World. Not only is it a better horror novel, but it carries some of the say Trump-era desire to humanize marginalized people and does it with more subtly. It feels natural in that book. Far be it for me to tell King what to do but it seems this book was banged out, perhaps sitting on this draft for a bit and coming back to would have made it better.

I liked the story, I liked the metaphor for old age but the book lost two stars in my ratings for all the cringey stuff. I know it ruined the experience for many readers. It didn't ruin my experience but it certainly hurt it. I think if you go in prepared for it, it might not hurt as bad. The thing is there are at least 20 books in the genre alone this year I would suggest you read before this one. recommended for Stephen King completionists only.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Book Review: Dry by Neal Shusterman, and Jarrod Shusterman

Dry by Neal Shusterman, and Jarrod Shusterman

Hardcover, 390 pages

Published October 2nd 2018 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

I am on record as saying that the movement for Cli-fi fiction is the most important fiction movement we have going. So in an effort to put my eyes where my mouth is I am reading lots of climate fiction from this year. In that effort I saw lots of buzz about this YA novel called Dry. Adults don't be scared away from this book. Yes compared to the *finger under nose* high lit novel I just read and reviewed this is a simple story with young adult motivations. I am sure that will annoy many of us adult readers. Teenagers can come off as annoying to adults in fiction but that often happens when they are written accurately. I give the authors credit for putting a focus on young readers because ultimately they are the next generation and getting them to care about Climate action is important.

I knew nothing but the title and that it is about Climate change before digging in. This book is as much Climate horror as it is Cli-fi. Once I dug into the plot I was very excited by the concept. This novel takes place mostly in Orange County south of LA during an event called the great Tap-Out. Early in the novel Arizona and Nevada decide to turn off the water coming from the Colorado river. In this sense it is like a YA successor to Paolo Bacigalupi's The Water Knife. That book dealt with the political aspects of the river and the management of it.

This novel is about the tap and fresh water being shut down for Southern California. This is a great set-up for a survival story and that is what is at the heart of this story. A group of teenagers cut off from their parents as well as the most basic aspect of life - water fight for survival. The authors have constructed a tightly plotted story with fully realized characters in this environment.

The story cuts between five survivors but most of the pages center around Alyssa and the neighbor Kelton who has had a crush on her. Both teenagers are typical when suddenly the water is gone. This is quite a change of lifestyle for the characters and in 350 pages we feel like we have gone on a journey.

It is impossible to read this book and not get the message that our place in the ecosystem here in southern California is delicate. To someone one not familiar with these issues it might seem the authors are over-blowing this crisis. The reality one of the most tightly populated parts of our country depends mostly on one river. I am very aware of this because of the research I did for my latest novel also a southern California Cli-fi novel Ring of Fire.

Look I really, really dug this novel but that is partly because it is somewhat of a spiritual cousin to my novel. While Dry takes place in The OC and mine in San Diego so much of the themes are similar. Dry is more tightly focused on the water issue, and has no supernatural/ more out there Sci-fi elements. None the less I think the two books compliment each other in message, geography and bleak fight for survival.

Is it perfect? I loved it enough to give it five stars but I had little problems. Anyone who reads my reviews knows I am not a huge fan of first person narrative. In this case where the POV shifts the first person style made even less sense. Without spoilers I also think the epilogue undercuts the power of the 350 pages before it. I think the authors blinked like Speilberg did in his War of the Worlds.

None the less I think all the good far outweighs my tiny nitpicks. Dry is an effective horror novel, YA or not it is an important novel for our time. It deserves to be on the shelf next to eco-horror classics like The Sheep Look Up. The novel does all the things it is supposed to do in telling a story, but the bottom line is you will be haunted by this book when you close it for the last time. The reason is it will be impossible to read this book and not think about what Water means. You can't turn on the tap ever again without it being there somewhere in your mind.

This book should be read.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory by Richard Powers
Hardcover, 502 pages Published April 2018 by W. W. Norton Company

I had never heard of Richard Powers or that this book was short-listed for the Man-Booker prize when I put the book on hold on it at the library. At the time I saw it mentioned in a tweet by Dan Bloom who promotes Cli-fi fiction. My hold took three months to come through and by the time it was here I had forgotten about it or why I wanted it so I went in cold.

The Overstory is high literature, the kind I respect but don't often read. I like things about this kind of fiction but generally prefer a story told simply. There is nothing simple about the prose or narrative at the heart of this book. The first one hundred pages of this novel could easily lose a reader like me but I sensed a inter-weaving plot and it was enough to hook me for a slow burn.

That first part of the novel connects several unrelated people and is more story collection than novel or so it seems. The only connection these people share is to the natural world to be more exact they are connected to Trees. This book is very much about trees, and look I love and understand the power of trees but this book really goes overboard on the tree the parts of the book are named "Roots,"“Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seed,”

The characters go from having no connection to being deeply entangled in the radical environmental movement. Woven into the story is the characters deeply held convictions that the earth needs defended. It was cool that so much attention and energy was given to the importance of Trees as needing ethical standing. The characters are really well written and given honest feeling motivations. This important because in movies and book that depict animal and eco activists they are often made to look really silly. The movies 12 Monkeys and 28 Days Later are perfect examples.

While the book feels bloated and repetitive at times there is no doubting that Powers is a great writer. The prose is often beautiful balancing the wonders of nature with the conflict of human beings. There are moments when the book has you ready to do anything to save the planet and pages later feel hopeless at the futility.

This is no monkeywrench gang (which is a better if you want to experience this world - better yet Eco-warriors by Rik Scare) none the less this book is much prettier prose wise and will reach many more people. I am not sure this book will have this effect on everyone but the depth of feelings I felt reading the book ranged from anger, hope and then the book brought to me the crushing reality that most activism as well intentioned as it is will ultimately fail and be crushed by this culture. I think the purpose of the story was the wonder and power of trees and the importance of fighting, and I hope that comes through.

I think most will read this and feel the call to defend nature what ever the costs and hope it does. Either way anyone who enjoys eco-fiction or the importance of the Cli-fi movement should give this a shot. Powers is certainly a better writer than me, but I have to say he focused the story on elements I wouldn't have and missed things that help connect me to an experience. I mean the horror writer in mean thought the whole scene with the pepper-spray and the lock down is something I have witnessed with my own eyes and watched on video and this book didn't begin to capture the feeling or horror of it.

This book probably is 200 pages longer than it NEEDS to be but if you except that aspect of it this is power and important story.With the way humans treat the planet there really is no issue more important and if that doesn't win this book awards it should at least have your attention.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Podcast Book Review: Vulcan's Hammer by Philip K Dick

Vulcan's Hammer by Philip K Dick
Paperback, 165 pages Published August 2004 by Vintage (first published September 1960)

Dickheads podcast!

PKD's 7th novel Vulcan's Hammer is considered by many, including Dick himself, to be his worst. But one of our three Dickeads counts it as his favorite so far. Can you guess which one? Plus: Salty ass supercomputers. Bread & Butter Sci-Fi. And a walking simulator.

Book Review:The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself by Sean Carrol

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself by Sean Carrol

Hardcover, 480 pages

Published May 2016 by Dutton

I was overdue for reading this book, earlier in the year I discovered Sean Carrol's podcast Mindscape. I enjoy the podcast quite a bit. It is basically this super smart Caltech theoretical physicist talking to other smart people. The episodes are hit or miss for me depending on the guest but when I saw the title of this book I knew I have to read it. I love cosmology and the big picture, I know I understand these things better than I should. One of the highlights of my year was when Dr. Brian Keating in my Dickheads interview with him told me I had missed my calling as physicist. Yeah the whole sucking at math thing prevented that, but I love thinking about these cosmic issues.

Dr. Keating himself called this book "Poetry for Physicists", and the writing is indeed very deep and profound. Carrol tackles the meaning of life from basic thought to the creation of the universe. To say this book is mind expanding is really selling the experience short. It is funny to me that books that explore history, culture and politics are often called must reads, and yet most books that explore the very existence and meaning of life from a scientific perspective rarely are.

Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking might be the last time, but unlike that book I think the Big Picture is much easier book to get a handle on. This book has better chance to be understood if people give it the chance. Sean Carrol not only explains the science, but gives it relatable human meaning.

“Poetic naturalism is a philosophy of freedom and responsibility. The raw materials of life are given to us by the natural world, and we must work to understand them and accept the consequences. The move from description to prescription, from saying what happens to passing judgment on what should happen, is a creative one, a fundamentally human act. The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it.”

Keep in mind that the chapter on Poetic Naturalism begins with a discussion of the Richard Matheson written episode of Star Trek the Enemy Within and the ethic of cloning via the Transporter. That is more fun than sticking to straight forward academic theory. That was the first of several parts that took the book to a different level for me. Some times it is something fun like that then other times it was intense ideas.

Even when I disagreed with him I liked that he got me thinking...

“The trick is to think of life as a process rather than a substance. When a candle is burning, there is a flame that clearly carries energy. When we put the candle out, the energy doesn’t “go” anywhere. The candle still contains energy in its atoms and molecules. What happens, instead, is that the process of combustion has ceased. Life is like that: it’s not “stuff”; it’s a set of things happening. When that process stops, life ends.”

When the candle flame is put out the smell of the wax often floats in the room, I refuse to believe that when the process of our bodies stops that the things that make up our spirit ends. I like that this book prompted me to think so intensely on the subject.

After all this science the Big Picture ends with a very human chapter.

“The idea of “Ten Commandments” is a deeply compelling one. It combines two impulses that are ingrained in our nature as human beings: making lists of ten things, and telling other people how to behave.

So instead Carrol ends with Ten Considerations number 9 really struck a chord with me. "We can do better than Happines." Creativity, art, knowledge, activism. Your existence in this massive universe is kinda of a miracle, and there is nothing spiritual about that. I am talking cold rational science. You are damn lucky to be here, and damn lucky to have a cool book like this to prompt how you think about that universe. Yeah read this one.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Book Review: An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim

An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim

Hardcover, 309 pages

Published July 10th 2018 by Touchstone

Look I really thought this sounded cool at first. I was rooting for this book. I am going to keep this kinda short.

Ocean of Minutes is a sappy time-travel romance that was going for Time Travel's Wife vibe but it was such a confusing and flat mess I just couldn't get into it. I'll try to explain the plot to you but in doing so I think I found the key problem. The plot is all over the place and doesn't make much sense. The main point of view character is Polly she falls in love with Frank, but wait they are already married. The romance was highlighted in well written but poorly placed flashbacks. Oh yeah there is a pandemic killing almost everyone. Don't worry about the details This novel is not super interested in that aspect of the story. By the way the romance during the end of the world was kinda what hooked me when I was browsing the book at Mysterious Galaxy.

Don't worry about the end of the world in 1991, because humans have invented Time Travel. You can only go back 12 years, and there are airports for time Travel. Only people with valuable skills like our main character's ability to uh... restore furniture give you the pass to travel to the post plague future. So the idea is we are supposed to learn why Polly is so devoted Frank and why after they get sent to separate futures why they would look for each other.

I think this is a sci-fi book that would work better for non-sci-fi readers. The world building is terrible, and worse it seems inorganically driven by the needs of the plot. Many round pegs are forced into square holes. I could have forgiven this if the characters worked for me better. There were moments, like when Frank got her furniture back from an asshole ex-boyfriend. Mostly I felt totally uninterested or invested in the world, the characters and had very little desire to finish reading.

I think Non sci-fi readers could probably over look many of these elements. A less critical eye might be able to just let this story go on it's merits. Not for me. Lim certainly has talent. I just not sure sci-fi is the best use of her talents. I know I was hard on this book but I would actually give her second novel or short stories a shot.

That said for time travel romance I say stick with Somewhere in Time by Richard Matheson.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Book Review (Podcast) Dr. Futurity by Philip K. Dick

Dr. Futurity by Philip K. Dick

Paperback, 169 pages

Published August 9th 2005 by Vintage (first published February 1960)

What happens when a mild-mannered doctor is thrust into a whacky future devoid of white people? This 1960 novel started as the impossible to find novelette Time Pawn written way back in '53. Join us in exploring Dr. Futurity. Plus: The Bronchitis Ward. Danzig. And The Big Bang Theory guy murders the rapper Sir William S. Drake.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Book Review: Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

Hardcover, 328 pages

Published April 2018 by Ecco

If you have read my blog or reviews at all you will know I am a big believer in the Cli-Fi literary movement and consider myself apart of it as both an author and critic. In my role as critic I feel a great responsibility to promote works of Cli-fi because I consider these novels to be as valid a form of social commentary like the novels On The Beach and Alas Babylon were at the height of the the arms race. We are at a crossroads where every look into the horrors that climate change unchecked is likely to bring are important. I hope that one day we will get a classic that reaches the mainstream. I am trying to read as many of the major works of Cli-fi that I can and boost the signal for the great ones.

That leads me to this novel Blackfish City and the author Sam Miller. I was first turned on to this novel by hearing Miller as a guest on one of my favorite podcasts Geek's Guide to the Galaxy. If you are paying attention, being a guest on Geek's Guide is common way I find authors. Indeed one of my other favorite reads of the year Freeze Frame Revolution by Peter Watts was found that way. Your take way at this point is you should be listening to Geek's guide...back to the book.

This novel takes place in a the near future after the majority of the world is in full ecological collapse. The city is Qaanaaq built in the arctic circle by various multi-national corporations. I picture Manhattan floating in the middle of the fog drenched northern sea. Tall buildings and over populated the people are spread between the eight arms of the city. They have had to adapt to a crazy lifestyle that is divided by class and skill, some are the rich who bought their way out of the mainland and the Refugees turned workers who do the dirty work. A disease called "The Breaks" is spreading among the poor,and the frayed edges of the this society are starting to show.

When the novel kicks off we meet a woman riding a killer whale who is known as a "Orcamancer." When this happened in the opening chapter I thought I was reading the wrong book. I was expecting cli-fi neo-noir and Cyberpunk influence. Don't worry we get there quickly. It belongs in the tradition of speculative fiction novels that explore the nature of the urban landscape. The tradition has a great history with some of my favorites being Simak's City from the fifties, John Shirley's City Come A-Walkin to the more modern like China Mieville's Perdido Street Station.

This novel has a diverse set of characters and bounces between multiple points of view with good rhythm. You gotta pay close attention to details for example. Soq for example is a non-binary character I think some of the older more traditional sci-fi readers might get lost. There are excellent characters throughout some we grow to like such as Soq and Fill, some like Podlove who challenge us. My favorite was Kaev a professional fighter who has taken a few more hits than he probably ever should have.

This book balances lots of things I love in a novel. Miller has lots of plates spinning from world building, well drawn characters and clear but not heavy handed messaging. If you look at the issues he is able to address from the climate horrors,post-scarcity culture, classism, refugees and at the core the many ills of capitalism. It might seem like he was writing a political paper but it is all subtly slipped into the story naturally. You end up with a super smart politically driven neo-noir novel that reminded me of a urban Snowpiercer with plenty of PKD influence for my Dickheads. (Working on getting this author on Dickheads in the next few months)

My favorite quote of the book was "Money is a mind, the oldest artificial intelligence. Its prime directives are simple, it's programming endlessly creative. Humans obey it unthinkingly, with cheerful alacrity. Like a virus it doesn't care if it kills its host. It will simply flow on to someone new."

So yeah I really loved this novel. Was there any weakness? The spiritual meets technological aspect of the psychic polar bear and Orcamancer was probably my least favorite part. That being said it still worked fine for me. It connected this very modern cyberpunk noir tale to the spiritual traditions and natural wildlife of the region of the world it takes place in.

I suspect this novel will be on my best of list at the end of the year. I think it should be essential reading for it's Cli-fi nature alone, but as a work of sci-fi aside from the message it is a must read. It will be compared to Kim Stanley Robinson's 2140, I am surprised as anyone to say this, but this novel tackles similar themes but is a better novel with the message more clearly stated. High praise but Blackfish City earned it.

David Agranoff is the Wonderland award nominated author of 5 novels including his latest the Cli-Fi horror novel Ring of Fire out from cult horror publisher Deadite Press.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Book Review: The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas

The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas

Paperback, 336 pages

Published August 2018 by Tachyon Publications

This collection is mostly weird fiction that doesn't fit exactly into any genre but the connective tissue is smart well thought out stories. Mamatas is a politically savvy hard to define writer. I have read three novels of his my favorite being Love is the Law released by Dark Horse.

This collection is not the author's first but it is his first in some time. Best part is it comes with a re-edited early short novel. My favorites of the short stories were the ones when Mamatas explored the nature and thinking of the pulp writers he is descended from. I have feeling this author knows that if he lived in the golden age he would have been one of them.

The best example of this was the stories Tom Silex, Spirit Smasher which explored the legacy of the lost pulp writers and the role that women played in the golden age. Some male writers of the era had unsung women helping them and in the case of James Tiptree (her real name was Alice Sheldon) were not even men. Certainly Andre Norton was a writer many never knew was a woman. It is a fun story but I like that it made a subtle point about pulps and gender.

The more political stories like the Diesel punk (That should be copyrighted) story We Never Sleep and The Great Armored Train about Trotsky show Mamatas as both a radical thinker but a historian of theory. I like the title story's brief but fun look at modern Berkley counter culture. I would like a Mamatas novel set with this backdrop.

The novel Under My Roof is the highlight for me. This story or a smart kid whose father declares their home a free state and builds a DIY nuke is funny as it is thought provoking. I liked the straight-forward but witty prose.

There is only one weakness for me in this collection. Some of the stories like Lab Rat and espically North Shore Friday got a little too cute for me. I understand and respect Mamatas trying to experiment with form. I generally understood what he was trying to do but both stories kinda lost me.

Forgive me but I would like go on a little tangent about the author Nick Mamatas the personality. I am not sure he would find this as the compliment I intend it to be when I say he is Internet age Harlan Ellison. What I mean by that is he is a sharp smart writer who flirts with genre but is hard to pin down because he doesn't write typical inside the box fiction. At the same time he developed a following with his razor sharp live journal entries, blog posts and social media presence. Ellison grew into a creepy old man troll with scary gender politics but there was a time when Ellison was the genre writer with sharpest political points of view. (Note Mamatas wrote two excellent online pieces about Harlan, search "Don't let Harlan Ellison Hear This, and Rest in Anger if you don't believe me.)

I would never want to be on the bad side of a writer who is clearly intelligent and a wit ninja. but for some reason a few have picked online fights with him. I like to think I get along with everyone, well almost everyone in the genre community. The only person I don't get along with is a self published author and editor who I shall just refer to here as Captain Pajama Pants (AKA Asparagus Head). This person for some reason has picked many fights with Nick. This is hilarious to me because their place in the genre community are opposites.

Nick is everything this ego manic thinks he is. The problem is Captain PJ pants thinks he is god's gift to genre. He has not been able to publish hardly anything he didn't do himself. While Nick is widely published and has blurbs from some of the most respected authors in the field, has received praise from Publisher's weekly and NPR. Watching Nick tear about said self-published blow-hard was fun enough but watching him satirize him in his novel I Am Providence, and also get a dig in on him in the story notes of the Great Armored Train is beyond satisfying.

On that note, as a writer I enjoyed the story notes probably most of all in this book. This is a great collection worthy of your time. Mamatas as person might come off as abrasive online, but his talent cannot be denied. As a persona in the genre, I think he is needed. I don't always agreewith him, but I always pay attention. You should too.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Audio Book Review: A World Of Horror edited by Eric J Guignard

A World Of Horror edited by Eric J Guignard

Paperback, 330 pages

Published September 10th 2018 by Dark Moon Books

So this review is on youtube give it a listen...

Book Review: Halcyon by Rio Youers

Halcyon by Rio Youers

Hardcover, 377 pages

Published July 10th 2018 by St. Martin's Press

It is really hard to for us to rationally deal with the massive acts of domestic terrorism and killings that have plagued america in recent years. It is natural that horror novels are starting to deal with such issues. That is at the heart of this novel, but it doesn't dominate the story. At the heart of this novel is Martin Lovegrove and his two daughters who appear to be random victims after a school shooting at a near-by school. Out of this crisis Martin moves his family to a beautiful isolated island between the the borders of Canada and New York.

The Forgotten Girl was one of my favorite reads of last year. Rio Youers is a very talented writer who has recently had some mainstream success. the last novel was a very Firestarter like psychic road thriller. Through strong characters and intense moments that book just really hit for me. The last moment of the school shooting is exetremly powerful. There is also a moment of pure tension that happens out at the middle of a lake that showed the authors skill at creating suspense.

This new novel is being marketed as a thriller but come on now, it is a pure horror novel. Once again Youers plays with psychic characters, although it is more subtle in this novel than the last. However when Youers brings the terror it is as strong of a horror novel as you could hope for. This cult that separates itself from society may appear peaceful and serene but of course they are up to something darker and more deadly.

I read this book based on the strength of the author's last novel and went in totally cold on the plot. I feel the first one hundred pages were setting up a totally different book. The second half was better than I expected. As far as a horror novel about a cult I personally preferred Nick Cutter's Little Heaven that had a more supernatural McCammon/Barker feel to it. If you are a fan of modern horror Rio youers is certainly a writer that you need to follow. I think His novels Westlake Soul and The Forgotten Girl worked a little better for me, but this is certainly a strong entry.

As a piece about Trauma it is a good companion to another 2018 release Burning Sky by Weston Ochse. Read both if you ask me.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Book Review: That Which Grows Wild by Eric J. Guignard

That Which Grows Wild by Eric J. Guignard
Paperback, 296 pages

Published July 17th 2018 by Harper Day Books

I was excited to dive into this book because I have read many books edited by Eric Guignard but this was my first time reading his own fiction at length. This is a thick well put together collection with 16 tales of dark and horror fiction. As a editor EJG has shown a great eye for horror fiction that are strong in theme and meaning.

My favorite thing about this collection was how traditional it was. This is a great example of old school horror fiction. EJG shows that he is a student of the genre, and in several cases he uses tried and true tactics of the genre to create stories that hang around after you close the book. If I am being honest there was nothing that really broke new ground. That is OK, because this is a very comforting exercise in a writer delivering exactly what I expected with great skill.

The opening story "A Case Study in Natural Selection and How It applies to Love" was a interesting opener. At first I thought the idea seemed similar to Joe Hill's novel the Fireman. When I looked at the copyright I realized that this story was published earlier. Both take place during a end of the world where people randomly catch on fire. That is pretty much all they have in common, the thing was I was disappointed in Joe Hill's novel and thought this story did more with the idea in 20 pages. More importantly EJG ties in some important social issues to this story.

This one is a Cli-Fi story and very much addresses global climate change. Since I personally think this is an important subgenre at the moment I loved this aspect. "The temperature rose another degree, bringing the weekly average to one hundred nineteen. Used to be, Late-November was a time to pull out those light sweaters from the back of the closet. Now every breath is a gasp, like choking on a blanket of dust. Your lungs burn, your eyes dry out, your head aches all day, you feel dizzy."

That is powerful stuff and it should freak us all out.

My favorites include Certain "Sights of an Afflicted Woman," "Last Days of the Gunslinger, John Amos" and tops for me was a short one called "Footprints Fading in the Desert."

The gunslinger story was a weird western that had monsters and a flood. The idea was not exactly mind bending but it was just really well composed.

"Sights of an Afflicted Woman" was the best concept in the collection with the creepy idea of a woman who can see germs. This one was executed with such skill that I think most readers will feel their skin crawl as they read this. The plague setting of the story was also very effective world building.

"Footprints Fading in the Desert" is a very straight forward old school horror story. It felt to me like a Twilight Zone episode. It is a simple concept but executed perfectly. This was such a perfect horror story I thought of it like a a long form perfectly drawn out math problem. The story needed perfect atmosphere and timing of it's reveals and it is textbook. this is the time of story that should be taught to young writers.

Lovers of well written short horror fiction cannot go wrong with this collection. I am looking forward to reading more of Guignard's fiction. I would love to read a novel. I think fans of traditional horror should not miss it.

Book Review: Nightflyers by George RR Martin

Nightflyers by George RR Martin

Mass Market Paperback, 295 pages

Published November 15th 1987 by Tor Books (first published 1985)

Literary Awards:

Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novella (1981)

This will be short as I am just reviewing the novella. I wanted to re-read this classic as the SYFY channel is set to turn it into a series soon. When I was young there was a direct to video movie made based on this novella. Now the cover of the books says a "Major motion picture." Major may be a strong word to use as the most famous person involved in the production was Catherine Mary Stewart. Doesn't ring a bell? If you are my age you'd know her as the Last Starfighter's girlfriend or the lead in the weird zombie movie Night of the Comet. That reminds me I need to see Night of the Comet again - because I am sure it will totally live up to my memory. As cool and amazing of an idea as Nightflyers was, this movie did not have the budget or the resources to pull it off.

This movie is the reason I bought this paperback in the day and read George Martin decades before HBO launched him to the point that he became a SNL character.

So SYFY channel being in the George RR Martin business makes sense. The thing that makes the most sense about it is that at 104 pages Nightflyers just scratches the surface of the ideas contained. Written in 1978 I am assuming GRRM just was not at the point of writing sprawling epics yet. It is a story that can and should be expanded.

This is a masterpiece of blending Science Fiction and horror. Long before event horizon Martin crafted a perfect deep space haunted house. The Nightflyer is haunted by ghost but in true genre blending fashion the ghost inhabits the AI at the heart of the ship. Royd is the captain but his relationship with his vessel is more like Norman Bates and his mother. While Martin manged to seed these horror tropes he also does the work of far future world building. in 104 pages a full universe is built and very different human culture is ripe for exploring.

It is amazing to know this was written during The Carter administration and holds up perfectly story wise. The biggest negative the sexual nature of the female characters are male nerd fantasy bullshit. Considering how Rapey Game of Thrones is this made me more uncomfortable, I hope SYFY ejects that aspects of Karoly.

Over all Nightflyers is a must read Sci-fi classic that should be read as is before the TV show changes our perceptions of it.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Book Review:Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

Hardcover, 341 pages

Published September 2018 by William Morrow (first published in the UK May 2018)

Cross Her Heart is one of the books I most looked forward to this year. I admit I miss Sarah Pinborough the supernatural horror writer. I am sure there are thousands of new fans that have just read the last two novels that might not jive with the heartbreaking end of the world novel Deathhouse or the grim dystopia of the Dog Faced Gods trilogy but to me they are some of the best novels I have read in the last decade. While the shift away from horror is a little bit of a bummer for me it is not heartbreaking as say Poppy Z Brite's shift to what I consider unreadable food porn novels.

Behind Her eyes and Cross her Heart mark a new direction but it is one I totally get behind because in the end they are amazing reads. the latest Cross Her Heart is a masterpiece of parallels and reversals. I should say that this is a twisty turny narrative that is better if you know nothing going in, and that is how I did it.

These are thrillers in the Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train style and if you trust me stop right here and read it.

OK minor spoilers ahead but mostly focused on theme not plot details. At it's heart is a thriller that is entirely about the bonds of friendship between women. The main character Lisa has a friendship with her co-worker that parallels one from her childhood. One is toxic one and one is lovely. It is one of the strong points of the book. As a male reader I really enjoyed seeing a thriller that was focused so heavily on the friendship of women.

The novel starts with a misdirection that if you read without any prior info really makes you think the novel is going one way. The story has a couple serious twists but all of them feel earned to me. SP is a writer is in full command of her narrative tool box and Cross Her Heart is a great example.

At the heart of the story are great characters. If Lisa was not a fragile and needy mother, If Ava was not typical thoughtless teenager it wouldn't work. If Marilyn Lisa's friend was not in a complicated (at first) relationship then the book would be a heart-less story of twists. The heart gives all the turns in the story weight. Personally I felt very deeply for Lisa and Marylin.

The other really great thing is the prose is tight, there is no fat on the bones here. Coming in at 341 pages I feel most writers would take 700 pages to tell this story. SP drills down to what is important keeps the pace moving and is master at skipping the parts you don't need. Cross Her heart is another example of why Sarah Pinborough is a master story teller.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Book Review: Ball Lightning by Liu Cixin, Joel Martinsen (Translation)

Ball Lightning by Liu Cixin, Joel Martinsen (Translation)

Hardcover, 384 pages

Published August 2018 by Tor Books (first published 2005)

A few years ago Cixin Liu's Three Body Problem became a surprise bestseller. At this point very little Asian science fiction had been translated into English. Not only was it a commercial success but the first novel won the Hugo. It is not Hyperbole to say that the Three body trilogy is a series filled with Astonishing ideas. Liu Cixin is an author of fantastic ideas that is what makes his work special.

I enjoyed the first Three body Problem novel, and really liked his novella in Invisible Planets. When I saw that his pre-Three body novel was getting a translation I was excited to check it out and went in totally cold. Ball Lightning is a more grounded story in the sense that it doesn't leave earth but the imagination involved is still epic in scope.

The best moments of the novel come when the author explores the quantum universe. What if we discovered electrons the size of our heads? What if we found atoms that operate the same way but fill but exist in a macro style beyond our comprehension. What kind of weapons could be made? What impact would it have on science?

If you notice I talking about the ideas off the bat and not the character and plot which are thin. Not non-existent but very thin indeed. The main characters whose name I don't even remember witness a natural phenomena that reduces his parents to ash in front of him. This act of ball lightning is rare but he makes it his mission to learn the science.Over four hundred pages the novel follows his research and the various forces that want to harness his discoveries.

I gotta be honest I found this story just interesting enough with it's weird science concepts to keep reading but I really didn't enjoy this book. One other interesting note in the translation happens after China ends up in a war towards the end of this near future novel. The translator/editor went to great lengths not name the enemy in this war. At one point when they are setting up to attack enemy and the aircraft carriers are named. They are three U.S. aircraft carriers named including the Carl Vinson which is often docked here in San Diego. I understand why they were afraid to just say it. We are the enemy in the novel and I was OK with that.

Overall I think readers should stick to the story in Invisible Planets and The Three Body Problem. There are a few interesting and thought provoking ideas but not enough. This could've been and should've been a short story or novella in my opinion. Just not enough story or characters to justify the number of pages involved.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Book Review: Exploring Dark Short Fiction #2: A Primer to Kaaron Warren

Exploring Dark Short Fiction #2: A Primer to Kaaron Warren

by Eric J. Guignard (Editor),

Kaaron Warren(Contributor)

Michael A. Arnzen (Contributor)

Michelle Prebich (Illustrator)

Paperback, 204 pages

Published May 2018 by Dark Moon Books

Last year when the first Exploring Dark Short Fiction Primer book was released featuring a tribute to Steve R Tem I was excited about the potential of these. Before I get into the content let me tell about the series. These are beautiful books, they look amazing and the quality of the production is some of the best I have seen by a independent publisher. When you add the commentary by PH.D Michael Arnzen, everything from the lay-out, to the art is top notch. When you add it to the amazing fictional content you have incredible value at $13.95. Each book comes with six stories, commentary, interviews, artwork and more.

So this book is dedicated to the work of the Australian Author Kaaron Warren who I had only read once before. I gave her debut novel Slights 5/5 in 2010. At the time I said "Slights is disturbing and the most original psychological horror novel I read in years. It seems very Chuck Palahniuk influenced." So I was way overdue to read more work by the author and excited to check out her short fiction. One of the exciting aspects of this series is you get a chance to meet the author.

Reading this book you get to know Kaaron Warren comes just as much from her story as her introduction as you do the interview. I didn't know that this author grew up around Hare Khrisnas. This lead to an author who thinks out of the mainstream. Warren's tales are not predictable and are hard to pin as traditional even though she often picks one of the oldest tropes in horror the ghost tale. This book alone has several interesting and thoughtful takes on ghosts.

The collection kicks off with a really strong fantasy "Guarding the Mound" that has a epic scope that plays with the eternity of the after-life and manages to make a subtle statement about patriarchy. Other highlights for me includes "the Wrong Seat" and "Crisis Apparition."

"The Wrong Seat" is very short but powerful story about a ghost that haunts the bus she was murdered on. "Crisis Apparition" is a story that Warren talks about in the interview. Reading about the inspiration and seeing how she wove it into a story is really great way for young authors to learn about short story construction.

That is the thing, this is a entertaining book, the stories are great. You will learn about the author but as much as it is primer for the author it is also a great education tool for short fiction in general. Editor Eric Guignard is doing exciting stuff with this series and Dark Moon Books in general. He is one of the hardest working folks in the indie horror scene and it is paying off. His name on a book is a mark of quality. This series is just starting but in a few years I suspect these books will help a new generation of authors learn the ropes.

Either way Dark Moon books is raising the bar, good news for all horror fans.

Book Review: All Hail the House Gods by Andrew James Stone

All Hail the House Gods by Andrew James Stone

Paperback, 134 pages

Published July 2018 by StrangeHouse Books

All Hail the House gods is the second book by bizarro newcomer Andrew J Stone. I enjoyed his darkly humorous debut Mortuary Monster when it came out last year. I enjoyed that novel enough though it was a little out of my wheelhouse. It was a weird enough of a book I am not sure it was directly in anyone's normal reading pattern. That is a good thing. It was like a surrealist hammer novel with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

There is a certain sarcasm that comes with AJS's work but in All Hail it is a much darker vision with a few funny turn of phrases. Stone is a word smith and the tightly composed prose is what sets this super bizarre dystopia apart from other works of Bizarro fiction. The plot is about a society where people are forced to breed and sacrifice their children to the House gods. This is a not so thinly veiled totalitarian state and makes this novel almost a surrealist take on the Handmaid's tale.

It certainly seems timely as the supreme court is in the balance with the swing vote that might crush Roe V Wade happening any day now.

The book comes to a head when the two parents at the center of the story decide they have had enough. What I liked about All Hail The House Gods is that it is a political and revolutionary story told in a surrealist way. Responding to the times much in the way Deadite has intended to do this year with releases like the school shooting themed novel Crisis Boy by Garrett Cook and My climate change novel Ring of Fire.

This is a good time for topical bizarro and if you like your weird thoughtful and with a message you can't go wrong with Andrew Stone's second book. It was a slow start for me but once I got into the themes I was to ready to hail the house gods.

Dickheads Podcast: Human Is Story Vs Film

Which do you prefer? The Dickheads podcast takes on our first episode of the acclaimed series Electric Dreams. Plus: Angsty Dick Theories. Alien parasite adultery. And a possible ass for Bryan Cranston.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Book Review: The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts
Paperback, 192 pages Published June 2018 by Tachyon Publications

I am not sure how I never read Peter Watts before but somehow I missed out. This book first got on my radar when Luke Barrage and Juliana of the Science Fiction Book Review podcast did an episode about a few months back. After listening to fifteen minutes of that episode I paused it and went to reserve a copy. I am glad I did and thank you Tachyon publications for sending Luke a copy because that is how it entered my books-a-sphere.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution is a mind bending science fiction novel that packs in more ideas and story into it's 192 pages than some novels three times its length. One of the hardest parts of space based hard sci-fi is for the writer to express the scope and size of the universe. When we look into the universe the distance and amount of years are beyond what most stories can contain. We can talk about distances that stretch thousands of light-years and journeys that would last thousands if not millions of years but it is a a different challenge to create a narrative with such scope. That is the cool thing about this novel - it doesn't shy away from this reality.

Watts is a scientist and the book comes off as hard science but in the afterword he admits to what he calls "handwavium." I think to the layman it all sounds convincing down to the black hole drive built into the center of the hollowed out Asteroid turned generation ship. When the story starts the main character Sunday Ahzmundin explains that they the mission is in its 66th million year since they left earth. If they had gone backwards instead of forward they would be in the time of Dinosaurs.

Sunday remembers earth because she only wakes and/or is brought back to life really for six days at time every few thousand years. The Mission is run by Chimp a HAL-9000 like AI, and the humans take turns waking when needed to build the Gates. Their purpose is to travel around the galaxy building wormhole gateways that will be a travel system for humans. The problem after millions of years building he gateways no humans have followed them.

Sunday and her fellow human travelers begin to wonder if the human race still exists and that leads to the question of what are they doing. They are already on their second trip around the milky way. Chimp doesn't question, he will keep the mission going until the heat death of the galaxy and humans fear they will be stuck with him.

So the question becomes how do you organize a revolution/ mutiny when you are only awake a few days every thousand years and the ship itself is a thinking machine?

I loved Freeze-Frame Revolution in part because of the massive cutting edge mind expanding ideas but also the human core of characters who development is not ignored. Watts has a biting tone and it is clear if you listen to interviews with him he is not in the routine of taking shit. This is a masterpiece of science fiction and has sold me that I need to read all Peter Watts that I can get my hands on.

NOTE: I went back and finished the Science Fiction Book review podcast and discovered that there are a couple of short stories also set in this universe. I'll have to read them at some point.

Here is the link to the SFBRP episode:

http://www.sfbrp.com/archives/1441

I also recommend this interview on Geek's Guide to the Galaxy:

https://geeksguideshow.com/2018/06/20/ggg315-peter-watts/

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Book Review: The Cabin at The End of The World by Paul Tremblay

Cabin at The End of The World by Paul Tremblay

Hardcover, 272 pages

Published June 26th 2018 by William Morrow

When Donald Trump won the election I went to work the next day in a state of disbelief as many of us in California did. It was hard to grasp how the rest of the country saw such a different human being asking for the most powerful job in the world. It was a really interesting time in our country. The system is designed by the framers to focus on two main political parties and the two sides in America rarely see the world the same way.

Written just after the election Cabin at the End of the World is horror novel that builds scares in part from that disconnect. Comedy is often built on a foundation of set-up and punch-line. Effective horror novels are built on a foundation of tension, suspense and placing the reader in fear for the characters. The set-up of CATEOW is genius because it not only sets up those elements but explores the themes that plague our nation every time we watch the news.

Sound like hyperbole? I was worried about that. You see my first experience with Tremblay was his break-out hit "A Head Full of Ghosts." I really liked HFOG, but when I read it, but I had heard so much hype it was almost impossible for the book to live up to my expectations. So I am nervous to do the same thing to you reading this review. The problem is Cabin at the End of The World is that good. I don't use the word masterpiece lightly and I have to use here.

The story opens with seven year-old Wen. She is outside her Dad's vacation cabin in New England near the Canadian border. This first chapter is an amazing hook when a stranger walks out of the woods and starts a conversation with the young adopted daughter. This conversation is nerve wracking to read and it perfectly sets the table with all the ingredients for the perfect horror novel. It ended up unfolding a little differently than I expected.

This novel worked on every level for me but I will say I was happy I went into it cold. I didn't know anything about the story so I hope I have sold well enough to go buy/read this novel. Still need to hear more....

This novel is Tremblay's attempt to tackle a horror sub-genre he is not a big fan of. The home invasion story. This one may or may not include a supernatural elements. As the invaders claim that they are here to prevent the end of the world. They didn't know each other but came together because of shared visions. They believe the only way to prevent their visions from coming true if Eric, Andrew or their daughter Wen choose to sacrifice a member of their family.

Is it real? are they crazy? This novel contains tons of gut wrenching suspense, the pages turn quickly and all he while Tremblay tells a story that explores belief and perception. Those questions are asked as a family goes through a brutal terror and thus it makes the novel a harrowing experience.

No horror novel works if you can't put yourself in the shoes of the characters. Eric, Wen and Andrew are a beautiful family. PT writes this family with care, love and attention to detail. It never feels unnatural, gimmicky or exploitative that the leads are a gay couple. They just are great parents, and thus they are the heart of the novel. Certainly in the days after the election when Pence is a heart beat from the presidency and the right-wing controlled all branches of government it was not a stretch to view the LBGT community under assault. It is just another level this novel works on.

Anyone who thinks of this novel as a simple horror are missing the point. This is a multi-layered novel that packs massive amounts of entertainment and meaning into a book that is less than 300 pages. Eight months into the year it is easily my read of the year so far.

Dickheads Podcast/ Book Review: Eye in the Sky by Philip K Dick

Podcast video for visual learners:

Eye In The Sky is PKD's 5th published book and a Dickhead favorite (so far.) We have a lot to discuss in our longest episode yet. See Dick's world through our eyes. We have also introduced a new section this episode where we answer your questions. Plus: PKD bullied by editors? PKD VR. Jaunty little tunes. And Dick's mom.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Book Review: How to Set Yourself On Fire by Julia Dixon Evans

How to Set Yourself On Fire by Julia Dixon Evans
Paperback, 312 pages Published May 8th 2018 by Dzanc Books

I have to admit something right off the bat. On paper, reading the back cover description of this book there is no way I would normally have chosen to read this book. I would have shaken off the idea as just not for me. The old saying about judging books by their cover can be extended to many aspects of books which are complete experiences. I read this book because frankly I like Julia. She is a San Diego writer and yeah I naturally root for San Diego writers. I have read a few of her stories and they have all been great. More importantly for me I have seen Julia read/ perform her fiction before and I started this book knowing absolute zero about the plot. I got it and read it purely on the strength of the author.

Now that said I would LOVE, LOVE, LOVE to see her tackle a horror novel, I mean she has written some great horror short stories but I have to admit to you loyal blog readers this is NOT a horror novel. It has some dark humor, but HTSYOF is a excellently written character focused novel.

Set here in San Diego this novel is the story of Sheila who struggles with life a little. She is temp who hates working and is reeling from the death of her Grandmother. Her life is thrown upside down when she finds a box of extra martial love letters in her Grandmother's shoe box. Before these letters the most exciting thing in her life was masturbating to PBS and ease dropping on her neighbor Vinnie's skype calls with his daughter on the east coast. For hilarious reasons Vinnie's daughter ends up moving out west to live with her father. She and Shelia strike up a friendship over the love letters and finding her Grandmother's long lost love Harold C. Carr.

I want to note that for some reason I pictured the Character of Vinnie, as Vinnie Paul of Pantera which made some turns with the character hard for me to take but that is a me problem.

OK back to How to Set Yourself on Fire. So yes Sheila is not exactly what I would call a winner, but she is such a excellently written character as are all the side characters in the piece. Vinnie, his daughter Torrey and Sheila's cringe inducing mother all make this book a page turning experience. I think the weird thing is that this is somewhat of a coming of age novel even though the main character is an adult. Shelia has alot of growing to do.

The most effective moments of writing are found in the moments of parallels, found between Shelia and the letters. Shelia wanted to believe in the romance as much as Harold Carr did. It is not her love story on the surface but it doesn't make it any less heart-breaking. There is a love story here, not a romantic one but Sheila, Vinnie and Torrey come together in a way that is heartwarming. A less talented writer would have spelled out this happy ending, but Julia Dixon Evans is to good a storyteller for that.

Five stars, big thumbs up. Another woman coming out of the San Diego writing scene this a first novel we should all salute. She might not have the sales of Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone, but Evans wrote the better novel in my opinion. Read this excellent novel!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Book Review: Now That You're Here by Amy K. Nichols

Now That You're Here by Amy K. Nichols
Hardcover, 304 pages

Published December 9th 2014 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

This is not a typical read for me. It is not that I have not read the occasional YA novel that I thought was interesting, either in concept or an author who interested me. In this case I met the author Amy Nichols briefly at a comic-con party. I was impressed by her knowledge of Science Fiction and clearly obvious attention to science in her work. When she explained what this novel was about I knew I would want to check it out.

Now That You're Here is not written with an audience like me in mind. This YA sci-fi novel has a sub-title 'When Worlds Collide Hearts Break.' I think the target audience is nerdy hopeless romantic teenage women. I am a nerdy hopeless romantic so that was more than enough for me. Some of the romance was syrupy sweet, but I kept in mind the target audience and was enough to enjoy the story telling craft of the romantic elements.

So keep in mind these romantic moments are woven into a ultra-nerdy tale of multiverses, alternate realities, chaos theory and super sciencey science fiction. The story follows Danny Ogden who is fighting for survival in a dystopic Phoenix Arizona when suddenly he is thrust into a reality - Maybe our reality. He wakes up in English class, and things are different. His parents are dead, he lives in a foster home, there is still a functioning democracy in america and the outsider artist he had a crush on Evee Solomon is a straight A student. Evee becomes his one hope, she is the one who believes him.

Together two souls born in separate realities come to together to solve the mystery and seek a solution for Danny. Will he go home? If he does can he ever see Evee again?

None of this works without excellently written characters I liked all the characters I was meant to like, and was annoyed and hated the ones I wasn't supposed to like. Nichols does lots of things well, she weaves a story that handles, character plot and complex science very well. The most impressive trick is doing all these things in a story that manages to make it appealing to a young reader. I was super entertained and flew through this book in three commutes. I am looking forward to reading book two!

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Book Review: Burning Sky by Weston Ochse + Update with a interview

Burning Sky by Weston Ochse

Paperback, 420 pages

Expected publication: September 25th 2018 by Solaris

There is a long and storied tradition of military science fiction. One author Weston Ochse knows well. His last trilogy of novels were firmly in the vein of that sub-genre best known for classics like Forever War and Starship Troopers. As for military horror there are random novels here and there but the undisputed master of this sub-genre is Weston without a doubt. Starting with the Seal Team 666 trilogy that were like a special forces take on the X-files. This sub-genre was inevitable and in less capable hands it could have been very hard to handle.

Weston has experience, he has served in Afghanistan and over 55 countries that brings us to Burning Sky. There is one human being with that much military experience who also teaches English and creative writing. Who else could write such a heavy novel set is Afghanistan that combines experience, horror, fantasy and has a thoughtful message. On top of that Burning Sky is well written and explores the very nature of violence and war that plagues our species. Yeah that sounds heavy because it is.

This is also a fun novel at times, with entertaining action, monsters, ancient gods and Philip K Dick worthy time shifts and alternate realities that will remind readers in all the right ways of Jacob's Ladder. There is a What the hell is real twist that is so well executed I was shocked when Weston told me in a e-mail that he has not read much PKD. That is a round about way to say this is a mind expanding cross genre read that I can't recommend enough.

Much like his last Grunt trilogy Burning Sky is very much about PTSD, but Burning Sky takes that theme and goes beyond. This novel is about what drives war. It explores the deep trauma not just of the warriors but society. The book points to key moments covered by the news in the last few conflicts that lead to Trauma that we felt collectively. The theme is expressed so beautifully in some of this novel's most horrific moments. As a writer, reader and fan of Weston I honestly pumped my fist in the air at one of these moments.

I enjoyed the Seal Team books, I like Grunt Life and respected the heck out of it. Burning Sky is masterpiece that I am more impressed by the longer I think about it. If you like your horror, political and thoughtful I would say you should pre-order this novel. It will be on my best of the year list for sure.

Couple of notes on this review:

1) We have a already recorded a long form audio interview with Weston Ochse for the Dickheads podcast that will be posting in a few weeks. The first half is spoiler free. The second half is a serious deep dive into the craft of the novel. I recommend reading the book and listening to the whole thing. Weston has alot to teach us.UPDATED WITH THE INTERVIEW:

2)I have to say off the bat that I was torn. When Weston Ochse offered me a chance to read his as yet unreleased new novel I was excited but he didn't have physical books yet. I am not much of an e-reader and trying to upload this PDF to my kindle taught me that it didn't work anymore. Thus this was my first experience reading an entire novel on my phone. That was not easy for me. So my process for tagging pages and taking notes was a little off.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Ring of Fire book signing at the Verbatim table during the San Diego Festival of Books

Press Release for the signing!

San Diego Author’s Novel Addresses Climate Change and The Horror of California Wildfires!

Long before the publication of his sixth novel, Ring of Fire, San Diego author David Agranoff had been in the trenches fighting for environmental causes. With two decades of environmental and animal rights activism in his wake, Agranoff believes that the timing of this novel’s subject matter is unsettling.

“I’ve been working on this novel since I first had the idea during the Cedar fire in 2003. It seems that now, in 2018, our entire world is on fire, and the time for action is running out. I honestly hate the feeling of being right.”

In the August 2nd issue of The Economist, the magazine stated it well: "EARTH is smoldering. From Seattle to Siberia this summer, flames have consumed swathes of the northern hemisphere. One of 18 wildfires sweeping through California, among the worst in the state’s history, is generating such heat that it created its own weather. Fires that raged through a coastal area near Athens last week killed 91. Elsewhere people are suffocating in the heat. Roughly 125 have died in Japan as the result of a heat wave that pushed temperatures in Tokyo above 40°C for the first time."

With a local setting and a global perspective, Agranoff released Ring of Fire through the world’s largest cult horror publisher Deadite Press. “Ring of Fire is both a horror novel and a warning about global climate change. It takes place in San Diego, surrounded by massive wildfires. Inside the fires, our city becomes ground zero for a storm of environmental disasters, from cancer clusters, to polluted drinking water. It is a horror novel, with some sci-fi elements at work.”

Agranoff considers himself a part of a new literary movement called Cli-fi, using speculative fiction to address the issues related to global climate change.

“There is a history of addressing environmental issues in sci-fi dating back to the 60’s, but the stakes have never been higher. I wrote Ring of Fire to be a scary and entertaining horror novel. I think San Diego readers will be enthralled when reading about the end of the world right here. I hope the message gets out too.”

David Agranoff will be signing copies of Ring of Fire at the San Diego Festival of Books at Liberty Station on August 25th. The Ring of Fire signing will take place at the Verbatim Books table from 11 am until noon.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation by Ken Liu (Editor, Translator)

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation by Ken Liu (Editor, Translator)

Hardcover, 383 pages

Published November 2016 by Tor Books

Science Fiction should be a universal language, in many ways it translates better than comedy, which is much more dependent on delivery. I have always loved to read Sci-fi and horror translated from other cultures, the Russian Nightwatch books, the many novels of Stanislaw Lem and various Japanese authors have been favorites.

I have long been a fan of Chinese story-telling, besides having a shelf of Wuxia (kungfu high fantasy) movie DVD's I followed that passion to the hard to find translations of those classic novels. In research for my Chinese Vampire novel Hunting the Moon Tribe I read the classics of Chinese fantasy like the bizarro collection Tales From a Chinese Studio and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. So in that respect I am not a totally averege American genre readers coming to this work, not to mention that I also read few years back the Ken Liu translated The epic Chinese novel Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin'

I reviewed here on my Blog and said: "a really interesting novel, and not just for the fact that it is a rare that a Chinese science Fiction novel published here. That is very significant. The story can't take place in an American setting with the main character losing parents to a Chinese work camp. It is hilarious that the novel is marketed as having "The scope of Dune and the commercial action of Independence Day," anyone reading this novel hoping for that will be disappointed. It has more in common with Asimov's "The Gods Themselves."

So I don't know how I missed that this book existed but until a recent tweet by local San Diegan and bestselling author David Brin mentioned this collection. Glad he did because I am really enjoyed this collection. I enjoyed the variety of voices and styles and feel like I have learned alot about Chinese sci-fi and I want MORE!

The book has four essays, one as introduction from the translator and three in the caboose. Liu smartly reminds the american audience that Chinsese sci-fi can not be stereotyped with one voice or style anymore than American sci-fi can.

The collection starts off with a super weird horror tale called Year of the Rat by Chen Quifan. This story of soldiers in a battle with genetically enhanced neo-rats was a bonkers and a great kick off to the book. The story was imaginative, dark and gritty. The City of Silence while being a homage to 1984 also feels just as Black Mirror or Twilight Zone influenced. The very modern concept of society that takes internet censorship down to the very words we use and this story extends the blurred line between internet and real life. That balance is clearly a huge part of our lives.

Each story is good, all the authors have wonderful voices but it was the neo-noir PKD like stories that hit me perfect. My favorites included the neo-noir "The Flower of Shazui" by Chen Quifan, the high concept story about class "Folding Beijing"by Hao Jingfang and the techo-dsytopia of "The City of Silence" by Ma Boyong. As dark and gritty as they were "Tongtong's Summer" by Xia Jia was equally sweet. Many of the stories have a Black Mirror vibe to them, and it had me thinking that a season of Black Mirror directed by Asian filmmakers set in China, Korea and Japan would be amazing and many of these stories would be perfect. Liu Cixin the hugo award winner ends the collection with a weird and powerful story "Taking Care of God" This story about an advanced civilization that seeded our species and have returned. There are several amazing deep crazy space and physics ideas in this story.

Despite being translated by the same person the stories had a different feel, although Liu has a way with words and in that sense it feels unified. It might seem like hyperbole to say this, but this was a totally amazing experience. I liked every story in this book and I loved three of them. I think this is an important read. Not only will you get mind expanding and interesting Sci-fi but you'll learn about another culture. Can't say enough good things about this book.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Book Review: It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Paperback, 380 pages

Published October 2005 by NAL Trade (first published 1935)

When talking about this novel (in 2018) it is pretty much impossible to escape the connection to Donald Trump. I mean the NY times published an essay by Beverly Gage three days before Donald Trump was inaugurated as president with the headline was "Reading the classic novel that predicted Trump..." I admit that was my primary motivation in reading this novel. My father was reading a different classic by Sinclair Lewis I knew that he had written this novel that I had remembered reading about it maybe in college. Talking about that other book I asked my father about it and he said he had not read it. So one of us had to read it right?

I knew that it would be interesting to read it in light of the new president, I no idea others had the same thought, and in fact many had.

Written in 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote this novel over the summer in a clear and obvious attempt to make a point before the 36 election 82 years ago. In that election the democrats were in a primary battle between FDR and a candidate who was a very Trump like rich populist who was the governor of Louisiana Huey Long.

Lewis was very worried about Long bringing fascism into power if he defeated Roosevelt in that election. He had some far left views about redistributing wealth but he was also extremely racist. Lewis saw this democrat as being America's answer to fascism. The on the nose title makes the point and the 300 plus pages are are like a hammer pounding away at the idea.

What makes this novel interesting is that when it was released it was a dystopian work of speculative fiction. 82 years ago it is still dystopian sci-fi but it has become an alternate history novel not unlike Philip K Dick's Hugo award winning classic Man in the High Castle. I say that in that it re-writes history to explore a nightmare past that never happened. The comparisons to Trump ended up being far less interesting to me than thinking about how the novel is totally different based on when it was written verses when I was reading it.

It is important to note that Lewis was warning his readers about Hitler more than three years before the Germans invaded Poland. So I was surprised by the mentions of concentration camps as I was not sure that anyone in the U.S. knew about them at the time.

Sinclair Lewis paints a grim vision and it is one worth reading but I think the comparisons to Trump are over blown. For one thing the dictator in the book Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip is a far leftie who wants to redistribute wealth. On the other hand he is driven to power by a Steve Bannon-like figure who was his campaign manager turned Secretary of State, Lee Sarason. In It Can't Happen Here Sarason writes his candidate's book, and forms his ideas about crushing his opposition. It is not long before they are shutting down papers (Fake news!), Opening camps (see the border crisis) and centralizing power (see how Trump has destroyed agencies like the EPA) so there are similarities.

While Trump was manipulated into sacking Bannon, Buzz was over thrown by Sarason. I think the comparisons are interesting considering the book was written in 1935 but it is not that close. I mean close enough to be impressive. I think this is an important novel but i think the most interesting thing to discuss is how it as a work of political fiction exists then and how it exists now.

The story is OK, the characters are pretty dry, and the events are interesting enough but without the historical aspect I am not sure how interested I would have been. It should also be noted that the former newspaper man Jessup in the book leads a revolution in the end while most in America are putting their hopes in the former director of the FBI to save them from Trump.

It Can't Happen here? I am sure some pointed to this book as commenting on LBJ, Regan, GW Bush and now Trump. It does talk about all those leaders and it will continue to comment on future leaders, that is until we get a better system. It is a classic for a reason. It has happened here, not as bad as europe but we have let little forms of fascism take hold and novels like this are important reminders what we need to do to keep liberty a thing.