Monday, November 20, 2017

Book Review: Sea of Rust by C.Robert Cargill

Sea of Rust by C.Robert Cargill

hardcover, 384 pages

Published September 5th 2017 by Harper Voyager

This is the first novel I have read by C.Robert Cargill but I am certainly familiar with his writing. I discovered this book while browsing the new releases at my favorite local bookstore Mysterious Galaxy. I knew Cargill's work under the Aint It News Pseudonym Massawyrm. I also of course seen his films Sinister and Dr.Strange. I was sold when the book was described on the back as a "Post Apocalyptic Robot Western." I knew if he could deliver on that promise we had seriously cool story on our hands. Some of the marketing did however have me scratching my head. The publisher called it a twist on the Martian, which makes zero sense. Specifically considering Post apoc robot western sounds way better.

This novel takes place in a world that is fifteen years beyond the death of the last human being. After a brutal war fought between humans and five major AI mainframes. In the aftermath the mainframes are fighting for control of the earth. Our point of view character is a former service robot named Brittle. Many of the service robots identify with genders as they were set up to interface that before the fall. Brittle is now a scavenger searching the barren landscape that had once been the American midwest.

Brittle has to find parts to keep operating, and the struggle becomes harder when a competing robot attempts to kill her, and worse one of the mainframes is targeting her for assimilation. If that was not enough she meets a robot with a important secret the attention of the mainframe may not be a coincident.

Sea of Rust is a bold as hell concept for a science fiction novel, and it comes with it many, many narrative challenges. Cargill is clearly a very serious writer who takes great care with every minor detail. In a novel like this the story requires master level world building. Cargill nails almost all of it. From the history of the great war and how that history unfolds in the selective memories of Brittle, to the post human landscape and the fact that robots would never use things like smell,taste feelings of the like.

Is it perfect? No but pretty close and that is saying something because of the challenge. Cargill did break a major rule of science fiction by including entire chapters of info-dumps. These were found in alternating chapters within the first act of the book. Normally this is a big No-no in sci-fi but it worked for me. as these chapters progressed they tied more into the narrative by connecting to Brittle's story. There were a few times in the third act where I felt the robots were acting a bit too human. It was easy as a reader to forget these are machines and as an author myself I understood the challenge Cargill had. He had to walk a fine line telling a story about machines to consumers who are human. That is a narrative magic trick.

Overall I think Cargill did a amazing job with the world building and it is no small narrative feet to make a story with all machine characters feel visceral and relentless. One of the best science fiction novels I read this year. Now I am going to have to go back and read his other novels.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Book Review: Strange Weather by Joe Hill

Strange Weather by Joe Hill
Hardcover, 432 pages Published October 24th 2017 by William Morrow

I was not shy about my feelings on Joe Hill's last book The Fireman. While it had moments early and late the middle of the book was so bad to me I considered it my biggest disappointment of the year. I loved the concept and I am a Joe Hill/ King family fan so believe me I wanted to like the book. I just couldn't.

So I am very excited to say Strange weather is an excellent collection that carries on his fathers tradition of the four novella collection that started with Different Seasons and done so well recently in Full Dark No Stars.

That is the last time I will mention the family I promise. Hill is a fantastic writer who crafted four novellas that were very much in his voice. One of the things I really dig about these novellas is they are all three pretty different in style and they don't really compare to anyone else. That is really cool aspect of the book. Each novella is very different and has their own strengths. the first and third novellas are a bit more experimental and all of them are interesting.

"Snapshot"is excellent piece. I first read it in the Joe Hill issue of Cemetery Dance magazine, and something even cooler is he said in the notes he started hand-writing in Portland 2013. Cari, my buddy Ivan and I went together to see that event at Powell's so that was neat. I think the title changed from Snapshot 88, it is a somewhat experimental mystery that takes the narrative and wraps it around a story about dementia. What is cool is as the characters spiral into insanity the narrative loses it's form and becomes more and more strange. Well done.

The second novella "Loaded" is a very political story about guns. In many ways it has a Crash like feel with many stories that seem unconnected weaving together. It was surprisingly well plotted for a writer who openly disdains outlining, and said he hand wrote the first drafts in the novel. The main character is a unlikable dude, a gun nut mall security guard who appears to have ended a mass shooting and declared a hero. there are just a few problems, he has a restraining order from his ex, and the shooting appears to have some unexplainable moments.

This novella is really well written but I suspect conservative readers will not enjoy the point of view.

The third novella is in a sense is the title novella. I mean it is called "Afloat" but if any story is about Strange Weather it is this one. I have a feeling this one will divide readers. certainly it is the most bizarro story and least marketable concept. Personally I found this one to be solid - pun intended. The story of a skydiver that moves back in forth in time during the narrative and gets progressively more surreal as it goes on. There are plenty of powerful moments although I do think a shorter short story version might have been even more impact.

The last novella "Rain" is up my alley as it is a weird post apocalypse story and come to think if it it is a fitting for the title as well. It is about a storm that hits Colorado. The main character travels across the landscape with the mission of informing her father in law that her partner is dead. This is is a darker than dark story that for me was far more impacting in it's short pages that all of Hill's last novel "The Fireman"

Over all I enjoyed this collection, I think it is a must read for Hill or King fans. Joe Hill does a fantastic job of expanding his voice. Big Thumbs here. For a discussion on Strange weather with fellow critic Marvin Vernon:

Friday, November 10, 2017

Book Review: End of the World Running Club by Adrian J. Walker

End of the World Running Club by Adrian J. Walker
Paperback, 464 pages Published September 2017 by Sourcebooks Landmark

There are certain books that when I read them I know long before it is finished that I reading something that will be there at the end of the year when I make my top ten of the year. This is not a little deal. I hit my reading goal of the year with 70 books with this one. The End of the World Running Club is a masterful epic of post apocalyptic fiction. This is my favorite sub-genre of horror in fiction and is my favorite I have read since Brian Evenson's Immobility. The best British end of the world novel since One by Conrad Williams. In a tradition of novel that includes the Stand and Swan Song, it should be noted The author of both those books have now blurbed this book. Infact it was this tweet that lead me to read it:

@StephenKing

THE END OF THE WORLD RUNNING CLUB, by Adrian J. Walker. This one's a real find. I got a copy in Toronto. Might not be published in the US.

7:17 PM - 12 Oct 2017

EOTWRC is a novel that pushes almost of my buttons. The story is set in Scotland and follows Edgar Hill, he is not going to win father or husband of the year awards. He avoids home by overworking. He forced into survival mode by the end of the world, over night the north hemisphere is hit by hundreds of asteroids. They survive this event by huddling in a cellar. Weeks later they hear a helicopter that takes them to a base where survivors are gathered. While out collecting supplies Edgar and a small group of survivors miss a series of helicopters that are taking survivors to southern England to meet rescue ships. These ships are leaving around Christmas Day in Cornwall will take the survivors to unaffected South Africa.

After waiting a few days they realize no rescue is coming back for them. They have a month to get 550 miles, the problem is the roads are destroyed. Cars, bikes, none of it will work. And despite the fact that Edgar has never been into fitness they have one choice. Run. Pretty much a marathon a day, across the wasteland and through the weather.

What follows is a nerve-racking suspense filled novel that feels like a journey for the reader as much as the characters. The Running part doesn't even start until almost 200 pages in. No matter the building of the characters and universe are done with amazing skill. As a reader generally who doesn't like first person narrative, this in no way held me back from enjoying the story it was so well told.

That is not to say the early moments of the book are a slow build. One of the most harrowing moments of the novel was on page 46 shortly after the asteroids fell. Walker used tried and true methods of suspense building to make the possibility of someone on the other side of the cellar door terrifying. There were several moments in the book that worked well enough that I dog-eared the pages.

There are moments where Walker checks the boxes and hits us with some very trope heavy aspects of the post Apocalypse novel. The camps with the new world tyrants and the like. This doesn't distract from the over all product. Each of these detours from the run at the heart of the novel help deepen the narrative. It gives the journey higher stakes at every turn. By the end of the run we are fully invested.

Certainly I felt a kinship with Ed. I don't like to run, but force myself to do it. He doesn't want to run, but when he is left behind he finally realizes what his family is worth to him. Through the pain and hardship his need to see his family grows. There is a chapter in the book where he highlights the moment where his body excepts the running. When his body gives in and he figures out why people do it. It is a powerful moment in a book filled with them.

I don't use the word masterpiece lightly, but hot damn this book is. There is one scene (page 361) that I didn't feel was earned when a character had a random item they needed to escape a situation that I don't remember being mentioned earlier. It was the only moment I rolled my eyes at. I felt that was a little cheap and forced. A minor thing consider how powerful the book was over all. At the same time there were moments of horror done so well (like page 384) that used setting, sound and atmosphere to such wonderful effect, that is what I will remember.

Oh yes I should mention, I decided this year to only read books released in 2017/16 basically new releases. I understand a version of this novel was self-published in 2014. I suspect this edition is a new edit, and basically a new book. So it fits.

The book is almost 500 pages but it is quick read as the story cooks. Once the main characters take off on their run, the journey not only explores survival, themes of family but the limits of endurance. If you like end of the world fiction you MUST read this novel, if you just like a good story then you probably should read it. I think it was amazing.

Book Review: Pinball Punks by Dave Anderson

Pinball Punks by Dave Anderson

Paperback, 200 pages

Published September 14th 2017 by East Falling

This is a really cool example of what is good about DIY publishing, and look I am not always a fan. I believe in the gatekeepers generally when it comes to publishing. That said there are a few times that a book comes our way that didn't stand a chance finding a traditional publisher. Lets face it a punk book makes more sense DIY than many. Anderson has a book on his hand that is off-beat and fun but it is not a concept that I think screams market-ability.

It does not fit into a standard genre, not horror, not new weird and while it is bizarro it is one that doesn't feel like it should be close on the shelf next to Eraserhead press or Raw Dog Screaming Press books. That is not a knock. The book is strange for certain and at times absurdist, but it is not so weird that it exists sorta in a recognizable reality. Certainly the people in this book listen to alot of the same bands we do.

This is the story of a punk band called the Piss Rats who is just about to start a U.S. tour. I sure I will not be the only person who will wonder if this book was written before or after Trump got elected. In this world there is a dumbass president but this one is way cooler than the one we have in the real world. Because of a e-mail suggesting the country kick start it's economy by creating a network of pinball machines, the president who wants to be called Mister Awesome hires the The Piss Rats to promote the idea.

Before long the president is on tour with the Piss Rats. That is when things get weird. There is alot of wonderful moments in this book and I laughed throughout. It took me awhile to finish this book because honestly it is not exactly my type of book. I am a horror guy. I did enjoy the punk rock of it. You can tell Anderson is a legit hardcore kid, who grew-up going to shows. That is perhaps the biggest strength of the book. The reality is we need more, and more punk fiction. Good punk fiction.

In that sense Pinball Punks is a fun read and I happy to have it on my shelf. Punks looking for more punk stories need to pick this book up.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Book Review: The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

Hardcover, 487 pages

Published August 2017 by Crown Publishing Group (NY)

(first published January 2017 in England)

More than 100 years old War of the Worlds is about as classic as science fiction gets. The novel is one thing, but when you add the radio drams, TV shows and various films the reach of WoTW is hard to measure. Every first contact or alien invasion novel, TV show or film since is in it's shadow. Normally I would think it was a pretty ballsy move to write a sequel that is in many ways the first earliest sci-fi novel. I know there are examples from Frankenstein and more that predate it but in many ways WoTW is the first true classic of the genre that balances depth with pulp appeal.

Kudos to the Wells estate who authorized this, Baxter appears to be the guy to do it. He is a self professed Wells expert who already wrote a sequel to The Time Machine, and From the research he did into not only the original but the history of the times - he was the right before for this job. That is what makes this book something really special. The details and history of the novel is treated just a carefully as the history of the early 20th century. Real life figures play into this novel that takes in and around the 1920's.

The aftermath of the first Mars invasion has effected the entire planet. Germany and Russia are at war and france has fallen to Germany. But everyone comes together for one foe. There is a limited peace as Mars and Earth's orbits are in opposition around the sun. Everyone is tense as they orbits are about to line up. Once they do the Martians return The war is on and wider, in slow motion humanity watches the launch of the Martian attack and have time to prepare.

The war in this novel is wider and more global seen through the eyes of a unlikely narrator. The Sister-in-law of the first book's POV Walter Jenkins. Julie Elphinstone is a fantastic voice for the book, a strong female lead in a era that was still filled with sexism. I admit I was surprised by the choice but it worked great for the novel. Characters often underestimated her, and as she becomes important to the war effort she comes into her own.

Without major spoilers there are major surprises throughout the solar system in this novel. Baxter uses research done in this century to add flavor but he also is willing to use ideas that would be considered out of date. I liked that he mostly used the science of Mars that would have existed in 1920. With a tiny dash of modern knowledge for flavor.

As a war novel Massacre of Mankind works quite well, as an Alien invasion novel it works even better. As a sequel to War of the Worlds it worked for me but keep in mind it has been 30 years since I read the novel. So for me it works really well. Oddly I have never read Baxter before. I think I need to fix that. I really enjoyed this novel. Was it amazing? Not really but it was very solid and Baxter deverves alot of credit for the depth and research he brought to it.