Friday, June 29, 2018

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

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

Paperback, 272 pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Book Review: The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

Paperback, SF Masterworks, 240 pages

Published February 2013 by Gollancz (first published 1955)

Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (1956)

Leigh Brackett may not be a household name to most Sci-fi fans in this day and age but she was a ground breaking writer during the pulp era. At time when Ace was publishing most of their science fiction in doubles Leigh Brackett published dozens of space operas and fantasies ( that took place on Mars and Venus) far enough back that it seemed possible. One thing that made her a trailblazer is she didn’t hide her gender like a several women writing at the time.

She is most often remembered for the screenplay she wrote just before her death for the Empire Strikes Back. She also wrote several classic westerns and noir films like Rio Bravo and The Big Sleep. The word is that her screenplay for Empire was very different from the final product that was greatly over hauled by Lawrence Kasdan. So What? George Lucas thought enough of her space opera to give her the first crack. It is cool that Brackett was one of the first people to sit down with Lucas and has out the story. I think in high school I bought a couple of her books because she wrote Empire I have vague memories of reading them. During the Solar Lottery episode of Dickheads (the PKD podcast I co-host) we talked about that book being a double with Leigh Brackett novel. That book sounded interesting. I looked it up at the library and they didn’t have it. They did however have The Long Tomorrow and It was considered a masterpiece of 50’s post apocalypse fiction. Anyone who has read my blog for anytime knows I love a good end of the world story.

It was a cool surprise for me by the time the book showed up on my library holds and I got around to it, I had forgotten what it was about. Interesting timing as I was about to read Carrie Vaughn’s sequel to Bannerless that is set in a similar world. It is interesting to compare those novels and how they reflect the fears of the times. Brackett’s novel is inspired by the very real nuclear fears of the 50’s while Vaughn’s Bannerless books see the reset of the world being a outcome of environmental waste and climate change.

The Long Tomorrow is one hundred years after a Nuclear war in the Midwest. This is a very different novel from the bulk of Brackett’s but it is a hero’s quest just like many of her books. This quest is more Tom Sawyer than Frodo because the midwest of this future has gone back to the primitive, not by choice they are survivors. That said the beliefs and laws of this society have adapted and despite surviving books the idea of embracing technology and going back is a big no no.

So enter our Hero Len Coulter who is very focused on the journey to find the city where technology and the old world are embraced. Along the way there is a love triangle with his brother, and many adventures. He dreams of this place and the central question of the third act is this dream all he believed it would be. The society that survived is fighting to prevent any of the seeds that destroyed the past world from being planted again.

You may be thinking – I have read or seen this story one thousand times, and this story is cliché. Well this novel was released in the 50’s so this is one of the trailbliazers along with Alas Babylon and On the Beach. It is the reason for the Cliche and is very different.

The Long Tomorrow shows its age at times, but I am glad I read it. It is a classic of the genre and it is important that we don’t lose these classics. I wouldn’t say it is a barn burner, but it has enough important themes and its role in the genre is undeniable. Yeah you should read it.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Book Review: Chasing New Horizons by Alan Stern & David Grinspoon

Chasing New Horizons by Alan Stern & David Grinspoon

Hardcover, 320 pages

Published May 1st 2018 by St. Martin's Press

One the hottest debates in the space nerd community over the last couple years surrounds the little planet Pluto. Out at the far reaches of our solar system Pluto has only been known to our science since the 1930's when Clyde Tombaugh using math and an analog telescope proved that there was another object out beyond Neptune. Eventually this planet was given the name Pluto, and in recent years it was demoted from Planet to Dwarf Planet. Look I am not a planetary scientist but being small in my opinion should not count against Pluto. Dwarf people are still people. Dwarf planets are planets.

We as a species had not been to Pluto, if you are not as into these things you might wondering why neither Voyager went to Pluto despite going deeper into interstellar space. Voyager 2 was supposed to but the mission was altered to do a pass of Saturn's moon Titan, they just couldn't pass up the amazing science at the mission planner's finger tips. Pluto again got the diss.

In fairness we as a species had not explored Pluto so we didn't know much about it. That was until 2015 and the New Horizons spacecraft. Once human beings sent a space craft called New Horizons we learned a lot so of course it was a no-brainer that we did it right? This book is not just the story of the journey to the planet but the one taken on earth to make it happen.

I know this is not the typical book I review, I mostly review horror novels and science fiction. I was sold to check out this book by the authors when they appeared on one of my favorite podcasts "The Weekly Space Hang-out." That show is linked here:

We learned so much about Pluto and the excitement level from space fans and the general public I assumed it was smooth sailing from earth to the millions of miles away in the deep solar system. This book is a fun read because it not only tells you the story of the planet but the mission and the human beings at the center of it.

I am not sure people understand the joy and excitement that mission planners feel at moments like the "Fly-by" or the Phone-home when a hibernating space craft wakes up after months alone in the void, but that is much of what makes this book special. Of course on the surface those things are cool but when you know the struggles it took to launch it makes it all the more intense.

I don't think most outsiders understand the tension involved in launching the spacecraft for example. You have a limited window when the planets line up. You have to hurdle your space craft at the exact right time 30,000 miles an hour into space. Get it wrong and it is for nothing. You also spent millions and millions of dollars to build 1 functioning machine. Spent years building, testing and loading software. No re-do's and not to mention you are putting it on a rocket. This book got the drama of that moment, the dueling proposals and planning right.

Even though I knew they made it to Pluto I shared in the ups and downs as a reader rooting for them. Once the spacecraft got into space the story of the science was compelling. We learned that Pluto has 5 moons, got video of the amazing dance the planet does with it's moon that is almost the same size. Who knew we had a binary planet in our own Solar system? (check out the video below) The topography on Pluto was so much more interesting than we expected. in the end the mission was beyond NASA and the planners wildest expectations and it is still going with another Kieper Belt object getting a fly-by this upcoming New Year's day.

In the end I suggest this book to people interested in space or science. New Horizons is a spacecraft built by human hands that has gone to the farthest depths of our Solar System. This is an amazing achievement and no matter how craft we send out into the solar system we should not lose sight of that. We need to celebrate the success of the mission but also the heart of human determination at the core of it.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Book Review: The Outsider by Stephen King

The Outsider by Stephen King

Hardcover, 561 pages

Published May 2018 by Scribner

I am no different than many in the horror community, I grew up on Stephen King, he is the biggest and most popular writer of dark fiction in the history of the universe. For better or for worse he is a writing machine with more books published that is hard to even consider. With probably more than a trillion published words it can't all be good can it? Nah I am of the belief that for most of his career I like or love 60 % of his work. 30% is iffy, and 10% is just bad.

I certainly prefer the early novels and stories but I have liked recent books. I loved 11/22/63 and count me in the group that enjoyed Doctor Sleep. For the first 200 pages of the Outsider I was sure this book was going to be in the 60% of positive. None the less we end up in the iffy category.

Look I a firm believer in outlines for novels, King writes without a plan, and often I think the bad habits he gets into are directly a result of not having a clear plan. The first 200 pages really start off with a creepy set-up. Imagine for a minute you are Coach T. Terry Maitland is a respected teacher and youth baseball coach. Everyone in his small town of Flint City knows him.

The novel kicks off when Ralph a cop who becomes our primary POV publicly arrests Terry Maitland during a little league semi-finale. The arrest is for the brutal sexual assault and homicide of a local kid. The thing is Coach T has a rock solid alibi, and at the same time DNA evidence against him. Thus sets up the mystery. How can this man be at two different places at the same time? The strength in the book is the set-up, for 200 hundred pages we have a set-up for a perfect mystery, the only answers possible are impossible. I am trying to stay spoiler free as it is the twist around the two hundred page mark that changes the path of the novel and not for the better. (I will go Spoilers later)

At that point the novel went off the rails for me, most of my enjoyment of the novel was all in the first act. The middle act is devoted to investigating other cases that relate to the main story. Another case entirely that is related in that it is a murder impossibly in two places at once.

There are excellent moments through-out, I was never bored but the book I envisioned when I was 100 pages in was a much better story than the one we ended up with. The characters were good, and I enjoyed the experience enough to give the book 3 out of 5 stars. That may be a little kind. Over-all I can't recommend this book when there are so many horror authors coming up that are doing more exciting things with 0.0000000000001% of the sales.

You just can't spend 250 pages going in the wrong narrative direction, and then recycle a monster from Desperation. No matter how good the set-up or characters the second half has to deliver.

SPOILERS: The problem in The Outsider starts with the second act. SK focuses the story on the investigation, showing and telling us the details of the various cases over 250 or so pages. I understood what was happening 30 pages into this and I wish King trusted his readers. This was being promoted as King returning to scary supernatural horror, the cover was so rad I was looking forward to that. Devoting so many pages to the procedural just zapped the potential for the book to scare.

Who am I to tell the master how to write a scary book but I learned it first from King himself? In the wake of Coach T being killed on the steps Ralph should have been convinced still that he got the right guy. The town should have been relieved, and they should have been heroes. That way when another murder happens, that is when the questions begin. But also the town has to be afraid of another killer. Then Ralph on to the monster/vampire that doubles people situation would have to fear that he could trust no one in town. Anyone could be the active killer still out there. After the first 100 pages that is where I thought the book was going.

There are excellent moments in the Outsider still. The scene where the double with Tattoo's comes to warn Ralph's wife that he has to stop was great, but the missed opportunities were too much.

Side note: Is SK getting paid by Wal-mart? because one characters love for Wal-mart gets mentioned over, and over. It actually becomes a plot point. What up with dat?

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Book Review: Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

206 pages, Hardcover

Published April 2018 by Little, Brown Books Hardcover for Young Readers

I found this book scanning my local library's app for the new Stephen King book in the just ordered page. The title and the cover looked interesting although I had no idea that it was a YA book. I know I am not the target audience but I kept that in mind as I was reading. This is my first experience with Jewell Parker Rhodes, so I do not know how this fits into her wider works but I certainly hope to check out her adult fiction. Don't think for a minute that this being a YA book that it would shy away from issues it does not. This book tackles gun violence school bullies, social injustice, classism and the Black Lives Matter movement. It is amazing that in 2018 that such movement needs to exist but here we are. I recently shared a article on social media that compared the public reaction to two football that took a knee publically in the cases of Colin Kapernick and Tim Teabow. The differences in the reaction was stark.

It became clear that some didn't understand why Kapernick was taking a knee. While not sitting as he first did he saw it as a way to respect the flag while still bringing attention to the FACT that unarmed black men(mostly) were being gunned down far too often. It was hilarious when a friend with a straight face tried to tell me what Kapernick was doing "wasn't about race." It is a good racism test to find out if people are more outraged by symbolic acts of patriotism before sports than they are the actual murder of unarmed black men.

It would be awesome if we lived in a post race america, I like many others thought Obama becoming president was a positive sign for that post race future. I didn't see it going the opposite. Lets face it racists are scared.

So Ghost Boys is a scary book. In no way is it written to be horror, although as a horror writer I found myself thinking often about how that would look. It is not myopic or one sided it does not demonize the police officer who shot the main character. That was a interesting trick. The story follows Jerome a 12 year-old boy who is shot while holding a toy gun. He meets other ghosts of violence but mostly he hangs around his family and the family of the officer who shot him. He can only be seen by one person the daughter of the man who shot him.

I thought this was a dark and effective novel but as it was written for middle grade readers it stopped short of some themes it could have hit. One of the best elements of the novel was when Rhodes brought in the cases of real life victims like Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. It is a good reminder that these kids are NOT just political cards to be played. This debate happens about real life people and families. It is crazy that in 2018 this book and the simple message that black lives matter has to exist. This is a book that should never have been written and I am sure the author agrees.

That said - read it. It is a excellent reminder that humans are at the heart of this issue.

Book Review: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Hardcover, 525 pages

Published March 6th 2018 by Henry Holt Books for Young Readers

Hard to believe this is a first time author - the kind of success this book is having is nothing short of a literary Cinderella story. I don't want to take away from Tomi Adeyemi's talent as she is loaded with it. but I have seen some interesting reaction to her quick rise in the local writing scene. I know one local author who was straight up annoyed and angry that several books in he couldn't sell anything and look at this first timer being the bell of the ball. I also talked to one writer who seemed to think this was normal and that all authors had this happen and when her book came out the same would have all the same things happen to her.

First novels don't normally strike like this. For me personally I am so stoked for a local San Diego writer. The good news is the book is worthy. Think Afrocentric Lord of the Rings. High fantasy with plenty of magic, adventure and fully dynamic characters. Adeyemi herself seems charming so it is hard for me to feel anything but joy for this kinda of success. That said lets be clear this is not normal. When I say Cinderella I mean it is not normal to have Stephen King tweet out your unboxing video, or to be on good morning America or sell your film rights before your first novel is even released.

Children of Blood and Bone takes place in an entirely fantastical fantasy world, complete with a detailed map inside the the cover of the hardcover book. We get little idea of when or where in the universe this place is but we can tell that this an Afrocentric world. At this time in this land we are ten years after magic disappeared from the world. This happened when a nasty king named Saran raided the lands killing Maji's and taking Talismans from the people. Our hero Zalie is on the hero's quest and she hopes to restore magic. There is a well done love story with a member of the royal family but the details of the plot are less important to me.

It is a standard fantasy plot, it is the images and world itself that makes the book a fun read. We have seen this plot on a hero with a thousand faces, but not often this face. Not in this world and the journey is fun. The narrative is first person, which anyone who reads my reviews knows I am not a fan of. That said this first person style switches POV from chapter to chapter. Thus we get different view points and thus it subverts the problems I normally have with that style of story telling.

The narrative is paced well balancing the three main points of view with a good rhythm and well placed reveals. You may see some of the twists coming if you have read fantasy novels but that is OK because it is all done with a great and original feeling attention to detail. The customs of this culture and the magic they practice is fresh and new. That breathes life into the classic format.

I really enjoyed this read despite it not being my genre. As for my fellow San Diegans I say read locally.

Book Reviews: Han Solo at Stars End by Brian Daley and Scoundrels by Timothy Zhan

Han Solo at Star's End by Brian Daley
Hardcover, 187 pages Published March 12th 1979 by Del Rey (first published January 1st 1979)

I read these books in an effort to get hyped for the release of Solo, this more than any other book was the one I wanted to read. A Han Solo novel written when only A New Hope existed,even though I read many many years ago. It is cool because when author Brian Daley wrote this he had no rich canon or universe to rely on. He just had this one movie and the Han Solo in that movie was the one who shot first and tipped the bartender for cleaning up Greedio's corpse. I read this book the week before seeing Solo.

The rest of the efforts to write Han Solo in movies, books and comic were writing about General Solo. In the light of the character who rightly was changed by seeing the sacrifice of Luke and Leia. It makes sense that Han Solo is a changed person. Solo as a movie rightly writes a character who is the foundation of both those sides of the character we know now, what makes this book special is the author Brian Daley had only the super rogue Han solo to go off of.

Han and Chewie are a little more simple in this book but it doesn't suffer for it. AC Crispin who was a excellent tie-in writer did books that address the wider EU and I like both series in different ways. I like the artifact nature of the sorta-out of date Star wars book. In this book Han is not afraid to get his hands dirty, a lot of attention is paid to the operation of the Falcon. I got the feeling that the Falcon in this book was slightly more important to Han than Chewie. Then again this is early in their friendship.

This part of the star wars universe is a creation of Daley, as he didn't have much to go on. The corporate authority is never seen again, and neither are the interesting two droids Bollux and Blue Max. I found myself liking them more than I expected. While there for greed of course Han and Chewie end up being reluctant heroes.

As for Scoundrels. I admit I did not really finish this book. I did a lot of skimming. I know Zhan was trying to do Ocean's 11 in the Star Wars universe but it didn't work for me. Then again it is not super fair for me to say much more.

A few thoughts on the film Solo. I know a few have made the point that this film was not needed. I think there is an argument that Solo is a better character with his back story being mythology. That said I think it was fun for fans to see this story realized. I think the first twenty minutes were rough, and I was a bit worried. After Chewie shows up the movie gets better. I think Solo adds a cool window on the Star Wars universe. Did we need it? Nah but I think having a different window on the galaxy far, far away adds depth to it all. Seeing the universe from the underground was cool to me.