The Seeker: A Novella of T.R.U.T.H.The Seeker: A Novella of T.R.U.T.H. by Christopher DeFilippis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With “The Seeker,” Christopher DeFilippis moves from the safe confines of the critic to the anxiety-ridden world of the author subject to critique. That is a bold endeavor, and he’s to be applauded for it.

This novella makes for a good confidence booster. DeFilippis has a concept that can’t be shoehorned into an anthology-constrained short story format and, although it promises to yield sequels, isn’t yet a full-sized novel. Fortunately, the advent of ebooks has created a space where a story like this can find its own length.

“The Seeker” follows a time-traveler named Billingsly as he encounters a collection of other adventurers as he is misdirected out of his native time stream and into the realm of myths and legends. His mission is ill-defined — he’s part of a collective of Seekers who are looking for absolute truth by delving deeply into the past where, apparently all the good ideas come from. They do this in order to capture insights that can be used to forearm humanity against bad decisions in the future. (Why they don’t travel to the future where, one would assume, there might be more relevant good ideas is not explained, nor is the method of sorting through all the Ginormous Data for the best possible idea. Maybe in the sequels.) The plot quickly switches to a battle for survival against the monstrous inhabitants of this non-place.

(I should note hear that DeFilippis has written one novel prior. It is a “Quantum Leap” tie-in, which explains what I inferred was a “Swiss cheese effect” when Billingsly first arrives on the scene.)

The best features of this work is DeFilippis’s facility for dialogue. He gives great patter. He is also good at shifting gears on the fly into short, declarative sentences that reflect a change of tone into action, suspense, or horror.

But he needs to broaden his game from here. Characterization would be a place to start. The two best-drawn characters are Billingsly and his companion Griffin. All we really know about either of them for most the story is that one is American and the other is British (and invisible). Coming in with the preconceived notion that Billingsly is from a far future in which nationalities are irrelevant, his being easily identified as a “Yank” gave me pause. We also are given little information about how or why he became a Seeker. DeFelippis would be well served to move beyond the generic hero stock character.

Unless his purpose is to lampoon such stick figures. Like I said, he gives good patter. His sharp-tongued dialogue could be better put in the service of skewering such characters than in trying to distinguish one.

As a self-published novel, “The Seeker” shows a few seams — punctuation glitches, repetitive sentence structures, and so on — that another review cycle would’ve caught. Still, there is a good deal of genuine wit here, as well as dramatic tension and some big ideas.

I’d like to publicly welcome Chris back to the authorial pool. I look forward to what he can do with the Seekers of T.R.U.T.H. as he develops his sea legs.

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Wade of Aquitaine

Wade of Aquitaine by Ben Parris

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A rousing, well-researched historical adventure taking place in a crucial but obscure time in western culture. There is wit without crudity, romance without bodice-ripping and action without gory detail. Well paced and appropriate for all audiences.

Expect more good things to come from the talented Ben Parris!

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The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hard to believe that there was ever a time when a book asking the question, “What if the Allies had lost WWII?” wouldn’t be considered hackneyed. But this was the first and best of the bunch. I particularly enjoyed the meta-alt history of “What if the Axis had lost WWII?” with all its amusing wrongheadedness. It makes a great point: The victors write the history — even the alt history.

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The Windup GirlThe Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So far, so great! If you like William Gibson, you’ll love Paolo.

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In the Mean TimeIn the Mean Time by Paul Tremblay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Paul Tremblay is singularly talented. Adept at setting a mood, disciplined in stripping away the non-essential, insightful at creating sympathetic characters, he exudes writerly skill.

So why did I give his anthology In the Mean Time only three stars? Because there is one key element that he is uneven at: storytelling.

You can’t call this book a collection of short stories. Some of them are stories and some of them are better described as vignettes. I could imagine submitting “The People Who Live Near Me” or “There’s No Light Between Floors” to my crit group and here them whine, “That’s cool, but does anyone ever do anything?”

These works have their place, but they don’t necessarily appeal to my old-fashioned, provincial taste for plot and character arcs. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the collection overall.

The longer works tended to appeal to me. “It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks” and “We Will Never Live in the Castle” were absolutely brilliant. The first two stories, “The Teacher” and “The Two-Headed Girl” drew me in to Tremblay’s darkly lit world and made me want to stay. They were followed by “The Strange Case of Nicholas Thomas” — which read like a New Weird story written just because some BFA adjunct assigned Tremblay’s class to write one — that made me think twice about reading on.

But ultimately, I’m glad I did.

And that’s despite the looks I got from people in restaurants and other public places as they saw this pink, glittery book in the hands of a man in his 40s. A closer look at the cover would have shown the main character(s) of “The Two-Headed Girl” wearing a two-collared T-shirt, and that the cover art was a sly send-up of the YA novel geared toward morose teenage girls and assigned to eighth-grade classes a decade later once these ugly ducklings come back to roost as middle-school English teachers. I never felt so self-conscious of what my book looked like to other people since I was reading Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South, which featured a glossy rendering of Robert E. Lee in full battle regalia. (I definitely recommend reading that book, but I strongly recommend against sitting on a park bench along Washington’s Georgia Avenue while you’re doing so.) I’m such a huge fan of Erik Mohr’s art, which has graced so much of ChiZine Press’s portfolio, that I hesitate to suggest that this time he may have outsmarted himself. Even so, I can’t say enough positively about Mara Sternberg’s interior illustrations.

Ultimately, I look forward to reading more from Tremblay. I’d definitely take a look at a novel-length work from him. My sense is that, as a storyteller, he needs more room to run.

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Major KarnageMajor Karnage by Gord Zajac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really liked this one.

Gord Zajac’s Major Karnage is unpretentious. It doesn’t aspire to be great, just to be good at what it is: a fun, action-packed beach read or airplane wall that will keep you entertained while you got time to kill. And at that it succeeds magnificently.

The title character inhabits what appears to be a world just different enough from ours to protect the author from trademark infringement suits. Initially kept in an asylum to control his hair-trigger temper, he escapes to go on many adventures and in the end (not much of a spoiler) save the world.

There’s not much subtle about this book. The protagonist is the good guy, and anyone who helps him is also a on the side of the angels. Everybody else is an evil villain. It’s that simple. (Foul language in itself doesn’t turn a hero into an anti-hero, folks.) Don’t waste your time looking for layers.

That is my main criticism of Major Karnage (which, again, I enjoyed immensely): that there’s no potential for divided loyalties or for things not being as they seem. If I were telling this story, I’d keep the reader guessing about whether or not Karnage really is crazy, the world really is under attack, and his “troopers” are actually figments of his imagination. But then it would be my book, not Zajac’s, and I’m sure he made the decision consciously. It’s a tradeoff, and I’m coming around to believing that Zajac’s 600-rounds-a-minute pacing was a better choice than all my nits about characterization and subtext.

Still in all, if you’re looking for a book to hold in one hand while you’ve got a can of beer in the other, this is the one you’re looking for. Enjoy!

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The Half-Made WorldThe Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m neither a Steampunk nor a Weird Western fan — or at least I wasn’t until I read The Half-Made World. Felix Gilman creates a fully-made half-made world, internally consistent and rich in detail. It’s easy for readers to imagine the scenery in their minds’ eyes because the author has done all the hard work.

The half-made world, as stated above, is fully made, but it seems to me the characters were only half-made. The two protagonists are (gasp!) a well-traveled rogue of a man who finds out he’s capable of greater nobility than his rakish exterior would indicate, and a bookish woman who finds out she has far greater gumption than anyone ever gave her credit for. The villain pursues them with the type of dogged determination which you might admire were it not in support of such a debased cause.

Originality of plot and character, though, isn’t the point. It’s the world-building. It’s the scenery. And it’s a refreshing theme. (All the causes are debased!)

From beginning to end, I enjoyed HMW as a summer read. The story wasn’t terribly original, but the telling of it was. I look forward to Gilman’s further works.

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A Dark MatterA Dark Matter by Peter Straub

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A three-star review is a solid performance from a three-star author, but Peter Straub is a five-star author. I was expecting better. That’s all I’ll say here, as I expect to have a blog interview with the man himself very soon. (

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How to Write Science Fiction & FantasyHow to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My son and I really enjoyed reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game together, and it was a genuine thrill to meet the author who, by coincidence, dropped by our town on a book tour only a couple weeks after we finished.

Mr. Card was gracious in his demeanor and generous with his time and attention both toward my son and toward myself, an aspiring genre writer. Since then, he’s actually initiated contact via Facebook and has been most encouraging. So I’m going to be favorably disposed toward anything coming from his hand. (And I do catch some flak about this from some friends among the hipper elements of the genre community, who consider him a hater and take that as license to hate back.)

That doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy it necessarily, just that I’m going to give it a chance. Prentice Alvin, for example, left me cold.

But this is a review of his How to… book. And it’s mixed.

On the plus side, it’s well-written and sets the proper tone for what is at heart a novella-length advice column.

On the minus side, this just isn’t essential advice. Mr. Card doesn’t say anything that’s flat-out wrong, but his advice is obvious. This is cross-at-the-green-not-in-between stuff. Maybe this would have been helpful to me six or seven years ago, but I’ve long since figured most of this stuff out on my own.

On the neutral side, it’s dated. The names and addresses have changed, and such statements as, “If you have a computer with a modem” trickle with quaintness. But Mr. Card’s advice suffers more for its lack of depth than from its lack of currency.

One of his truisms is that you should write the best story you can today, even if you know you’d be able to write something better next year. With that in mind, I hope Mr. Card write this book over. Not an update, like any 20-year-old self-help book could use. I mean, start with a blank screen. Twenty years ago, I’d have said “blank sheet of paper”. If he can write a book that not only updates such expressions, not just updates the specific points about world building, story construction, writing well and the business of being an author, but actually reflect what he considers important now, I’d be interested.

Mr. Card, you consider yourself a Biblical scholar, as do I, so let me put it to you in the terms of our shared avocation. Hebrew Scripture’s two best advice columns are attributed to the same author, King Solomon. But he wrote them at different stages of his life and, thus, the suggestions he offers are starkly dissimilar without being blatantly contradictory.

Thnk of your 1990 work as your Proverbs. Time for you to write your Ecclesiastes.

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Sarah CourtSarah Court by Craig Davidson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Imagine Thornton Wilder and Edgar Lee Masters had a child. Now imagine they were really, really bad parents. That would explain Craig Davidson and his life-where-I-come-from horror opus, Sarah Court.

It’s the interlocking stories of three generations of five disfunctional families living along a dead-end street of a working-class suburb. They come in and out of each others’ lives, doing each other known and unknown harm. They are petty, vindictive, self-aggrandizing and hell-bent for bad ends. And that would be fine, especially in a horror novel, if they weren’t so very unremarkable.

The conceit of Sarah Court is that it’s written from multiple points of view to demonstrate the author’s ability to inhabit different characters. Unfortunately, the POV characters, with the exception of the truly sympathetic Patience Nanavatti, sound very much the same. They’re all given to oddball similes — which are actually kind of cool — and slipping into present tense — which seems to be required by ChiZine Publications.

And I’m guessing this involved an argument between the author and the editor, but someone insisted on there being a non-human actor to serve as a speculative element. Ultimately, this afterthought is never firmly characterized as a demon or an alien or even if it truly exists as something besides an hallucination. And it doesn’t matter to the plot or to the development of other characters. It’s strictly a graft-on.

That aside, Sarah Court is an unrelenting look at how cruelly people treat other people, particularly if they’re in dangerous professions, engage in criminal victimization, are children, or are parents. It’s the human condition laid bare, and a challenge to stare at it without glancing away.

If you’re into that sort of thing.

I’m not. But when Chuck Palahniuk, Clive Barker and Peter Straub all give you back-cover blurbs, I’m going to read your book.

I won’t say I was disappointed in Sarah Court. (And why “Sarah”? It’s a lovely name — the name of one of the few Biblical characters that nobody has anything snarky to say about. It was my grandmother’s name.) I just didn’t get into this book. So why not? Allow me to offer my impression of the author through an analogy:

You know that friend of yours from high school whose life is music? The guy whose entire weekend wardrobe consists of Yes, Pink Floyd and Rush concert shirts? His Facebook page lists Mr. Holland’s Opus and Immortal Beloved as his favorite movies? The one who owns every PDQ Bach book? And he still, to this day, can start a story straight-faced with the phrase, “One time, at Band Camp …”?

Remember the last time he shoved his iPod in your face and told you, “Hey, you really got to hear THIS! This guy is AMAZING! He’s going to change music FOREVER!”

And so you stick those who-knows-where-they’ve-been buds in your ears and press “play”. And what comes out is, to you, the most cacophonous, irritating, unpalatable collection of noise you could ever tolerate.

You know it’s not the artist’s fault. He’s a genius. The gap here is that you, the mass-market consumer, are not sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate the exotic craftsmanship which now confronts you.

Some musicians are destined to eschew the popular support that they might or might not crave but instead influence and be inspired by other musicians.

Maybe Craig Davidson is fated to be the Captain Beefheart of horror writers.

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Katja from the Punk BandKatja from the Punk Band by Simon Logan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Let’s see: Frenetic pacing? Check. Unique, distopian setting? Check. Strong, believable, sympathetic-but-imperfect characters? Check. Unpredictable twists? Check.

So why did I like this Simon Logan’s “Katja from the Punk Band” but not love it?

I’ll confess that this was my entre into “industrial” fiction, which is apparently cyberpunk without the cyber. I expected more of a speculative element than just the setting, which is apparently some mash-up of immediate-post-Soviet eastern Europe and the East Village circa 1981 (the year “Escape from New York” was released).

I like a story that moves quickly, and “Katja” does that. I also like the narrative technique of telling parallel stories from different POVs, which I believe traces its DNA back to the 1999 film, “Go,” directed by Doug Liman from John August’s screenplay. But this approach suffers a couple pitfalls. First, on more than one occasion I could have sworn that somebody moved my bookmark while I was replying to a text. Second, it necessitated a persistent present tense. Although I’m not allergic to that approach, I think it’s overdone and that, more often than not, it’s a poor creative choice. I’m not saying it doesn’t work here, but the last book I read was Tony Burgess’s “People Live Still in Cashtown Corners”. What is it with ChiZine Publications and putting “-s” or “-ing” at the end of every verb?

I suppose it’s safe to say that “Katja” had everything I wanted, but a dash too much of it. Logan is still, I believe and sincerely hope, at the beginning of a long and impressive career and I expect that he’ll continue maturing in his craft. I look forward to his next outing.

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People Live Still in Cashtown CornersPeople Live Still in Cashtown Corners by Tony Burgess

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hadn’t been aware of Tony Burgess until about three months ago. I was flipping through channels and found — on IFC I think, but maybe it was FearNet — a zombie movie I’d never seen or heard of before, and it was only 10 minutes in. It had the unlikely title, “Pontypool,” which suggested correctly that it was a low-budget indy — one set, enough awkwardly paced dialogue to suggest that second takes were a rare luxury — but didn’t imply anything to do with zombies. A zombie movie without the word “Dead” in the title, or any reference to a time span (“Night,” “28 Weeks”).

But the characters were well drawn and fresh (except for the obligatory expository character who just had to be a scientist with a middle-European accent, the kind of guy Rocky Horror made fun of almost 40 years ago), and the acting was good. I was hooked at the first massed attack, off-camera of course.

The ending credits noted that the movie was based on the novel “Pontypool Changes Everything” by Tony Burgess.

So when ChiZine sent me a stack of books and among the titles was Burgess’s new work, “People Live Still in Cashtown Corners,” I felt like I won the lottery. (I’d actually won 11 ChiZine publications in a raffle, but it just keeps getting better.)

I used to be a slush reader for an on-line SF/F ‘zine and, after a couple paragraphs of first-person, present-tense narration, I usually started writing the rejection letter. It’s a tiresome contrivance in most writers’ hands. But Burgess makes it work here. The narrator is a fascinating character, but not a terribly complicated one. I could buy that he lived in an eternal present tense. His story offers insight into how we decouple who we are from the things we do, and the random elements that populate both spheres in those Venn diagrams that define each of us.

This is a horror novel, heavy on the splatter, but there’s a lot more going on. I don’t know if this is what Burgess intended, but here’s what I took away from it: What if Meursault from Albert Camus’s “The Stranger” flees the scene of the Arab he kills at the end of Part One and goes on a rampage with guns, knives and axes?

This is blood and gore for the overly ironic, chain-smoking, absinthe-drinking set. More!

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Chasing the DragonChasing the Dragon by Nicholas Kaufmann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Taut, well-told horror.

In this update of the legend of St. George and the Dragon, Nicholas Kaufmann combines two elements that are usually mutually exclusive: breathless pacing and vivid word pictures. Throw in zombies, dispatch them artfully in single combat and through conflagration, and what’s not to love?

I bought into the story completely, enough to let pass the parade of flat characters and a denoument you could see coming from Chapter 2. So it’s a four-star book, not a five-star book.

I fully expect Kaufmann’s next book to earn five stars. Can’t wait!

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Lady Lazarus (Lady Lazarus Trilogy, #1)Lady Lazarus by Michele Lang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Twilight” meets “Diary of Anne Frank” meets “Inglourious Basterds”. I’ve never seen anyone merge Kabbalah with urban fantasy elements before. Extra credit to Michele Lang for setting it in Europe at the brink of World War Two, as opposed not only to present day but also to the actual war. This being fantasy, there’s the hope that the war and all that went with it could be avoided in Lang’s universe. I appreciate all the research that went into crafting this universe, as well as all the love and care.

Looking forward to the sequel!

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Hunger (Riders of the Apocalypse, #1)Hunger by Jackie Kessler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a YA about a 17-year-old, anorexic girl. It wasn’t written for me. But I enjoyed every page. Kessler’s style is clean and efficient and she excels at drawing characters who are believable and sympathetic, regardless of the reader’s background.

Can’t wait for the other Horsemen books!

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The Golden HelixThe Golden Helix by Theodore Sturgeon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Uneven anthology, but I see why the man is so influential.

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Soldier of the MistSoldier of the Mist by Gene Wolfe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a recovering TV addict who’s catching up on reading some substantive authors whose works (I’m embarrassed to say) I’ve missed entirely: Vinge, Farmer, Dick, Knight, Sturgeon, Malzberg, the list goes on.

Wolfe is on that stack. I get the sense that the Soldier series probably isn’t the best introduction to this author. Clearly, the writing is excellent and the protagonist is a compelling figure. But I don’t see what the fuss is about. Still, there’s no denying that there is a fuss, and it’s being made by people whose opinions I greatly respect.

So let me ask you: If you could read only one Wolfe book, what would it be?

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Dying to Live: Life Sentence (Dying to Live, #2)Dying to Live: Life Sentence by Kim Paffenroth

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Satisfactory zombie novel, fascinating social commentary.

Truman, The undead philosophy professor, is clearly Dr. Paffenroth’s “Mary Sue” character. From his perspective, we see an interesting take on the survivors of the zombie plague — living and otherwise. It’s his insight into the human condition that makes this book work; the best parts are all from his POV.

The rest of the inhabitants of this world are kind of flat, and the author doesn’t take full advantage of dialogue’s power to establish character. Zoey, the other main character, writes about events that happened when she was 12 years old but, as it’s hinted in the first chapter and formally stated in the epilogue, she is a few years older as she’s telling the story. Even so, it reads very “Podkayne”-esque in between, as if an adolescent girl is telling you what happened to her last weekend. But that voice can toggle without warning to a much more mature, erudite voice. Truman’s voice. And the same voice of every other character in the novel who isn’t either an evil raider from the outlands or a moaning, cannibalistic ghoul.

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Sybil's Garage No. 7Sybil’s Garage No. 7 by Hal Duncan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bought it on the strength of Readercon readings by E.C. Myers (whose well-crafted “My Father’s Eyes” is thematically very similar to a short WIP of my own, damn him!) and Amal El-Mohtar, who is now officially my favorite living poet.

Other high points are stories by Amy Sisson, Sam Ferree (got to be a pseudonym — it’s a story about The Ferryman), Hal Duncan, Anil Menon and Terence Kuch. Editor Matthew Kressel has eclectic tastes and a keen eye for new talent. Definitely plan to buy #8 when it comes out — if I don’t rate a contributor’s copy, which I’m going to shoot for.

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The Wall of AmericaThe Wall of America by Thomas M. Disch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was unaware of Tom Disch before ReaderCon 2010, when Konrad Walewski introduced me to his works.

Unaware, but apparently nobody is unfamiliar. It’s hard to believe this rebellious, gun-toting, gay-liberating, tattooed outlaw is the same guy who wrote The Brave Little Toaster and the original treatment for The Lion King.

This collection of his work shows his diversity, which is another way of saying it’s uneven. Through the first three or four stories I wondered, “What’s the big deal about this guy?” But as I stuck with it, I’m glad I did. “Canned Goods” was essentially a one-liner joke, but a funny one and it encouraged me to keep reading. “Bunny Steiner,” “Voices of the Kill,” “In Xanadu” and others were wildly entertaining.

He pushed a couple of my “fail” buttons, though: “Torah! Torah! Torah!” got much of the book of Genesis factually wrong, conflating the story of Abraham and Sarah with that of Jacob, Rachel and Leah. (Disch went to Catholic school. No excuses!) And some of his stories, “Bunny Steiner,” “Man Who Read a Book” and “Slaughter Rock,” were riffs on the business of being a writer or a creative artist based in New York — which always struck me as lazy and self-indulgent material.

But overall, I’m very much impressed by this writer who was as once prolific and silenced too soon. But Disch would’ve been comfortable with that contradiction. It certainly wasn’t his most jarring.

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Ship Breaker (Ship Breaker, #1)Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well written but, toward the end, not well edited. The plot becomes predictable, and how many times can an injury “blossom with pain”? About half a dozen by my count.

Bacigalupi creates an internally consistent world depleted of all natural resources except human ingenuity. This appears to be the same world as “The Windup Girl” and “Ship Breaker” is essentially “Windup” for young readers (not too young). And, as a YA book, this is an absolute triumph. The sketchy characters and straight-on pacing will appeal to youths from middle school through college.

And, until it becomes a stock, swashbuckling clipper chase to save the fair maiden, it works for grown-ups as well.

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The MagiciansThe Magicians by Lev Grossman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There was a lot of buzz about this book, many authors whose works I admire and opinions I respect lent blurbs to the cover, and Mr. Grossman was gracious enough to sign the copy I bought at the Columbus Circle B&N.

But I walked away a little disappointed.

There is enough great, descriptive prose and sharp-turning plot points to keep one turning pages, but the whole thing seemed derivative. Sure, on one level it’s an homage to C.S. Lewis’s fantasy worlds, but that doesn’t give license to introduce elements from every other pop culture reference from Tolkein to Star Wars. Over and over again, it’s like that scene in Jeepers Creepers when one character says to the other (I’m paraphrasing), “Let’s go down that ladder into the dark cellar,” and the other replies, “If we were in a horror movie, that would be a dumb thing to do.” I couldn’t go 20 pages without being reminded I’m reading a story.

What Grossman brings that is original is putting contemporary, youthful angst into the fantasy setting, which is refreshing. The characters seem real enough, as if they were based on the author’s own circle of friends from college (I don’t know if that’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me). But what makes them real is that they are wholly unremarkable people. I got my own friends from school, thank you; the characters in The Magicians just aren’t intriguing to me. They’re just another gaggle of self-involved, emo hipsters.

Maybe I’m just too old for this book.

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The Peace War (Across Realtime, #1)The Peace War by Vernor Vinge

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My first exposure to Vinge, who comes so highly recommended from so many sources.

I was a little disappointed with how conventional the novel seemed, but maybe that’s because I’m so late to the table and maybe the conventions have come to conform to Vinge’s vision. I can see how he must have influenced writers from Gibson to Bacigalupi and will give Vinge another chance, perhaps with one of his better known works.

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Doomsday Book (Oxford Time Travel, #1)Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Connie Willis is a rare master of balancing drama, adventure and humor. I am proud to count her among my favorite authors and, if I may presume, my most cherished literary influences.

She is also an amazing researcher. It takes me out of a story when a lazy writer doesn’t do their homework. I was in Willis’s story every step of the way!

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Titan (Gaea, #1)Titan by John Varley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Always been a big fan of Varley’s short game but never gave his longer works a try. I’m glad someone talked me into it. It might be a while before I get to the rest of the series, but I definitely will revisit this compelling universe.

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RedshirtsRedshirts by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a very tricky piece of fiction to write, but John Scalzi was every bit up to the challenge. On the one hand, the story is so meta that there has to be a winking relationship between author and reader. You won’t find yourself lost in the story because you’ve seen this story so many times you can’t take it seriously. On the other hand, Scalzi adds layers of texture, characterization and internal consistency that combine to making this a fun read. Whether you love Star Trek or hate it, you’ll enjoy how this book sends it up. If you’re indifferent to Trek — and there are a couple of you out there — read the first couple chapters and see if it grabs you. It really is an outstanding piece of storytelling.

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Hominids (Neanderthal Parallax, #1)Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Robert J. Sawyer nails it, as always. He starts with a great idea, then adds fleshed-out characters and places them in an internally consistent and scientifically viable world. Perfect pre-mix, just add ink.

“Hominids” doesn’t just ask, what if? It asks, why did? Neanderthals, as Sawyer points out, had bigger brain cases and even bigger brain-to-body ratios than homo sapiens sapiens. The were physically stronger with sharper senses. Their brow ridge had an actual purpose, as opposed to chins which don’t. So why did our subspecies outlast them?

The what-if is equally cool. Sawyer imagines a world not just of cavemen in business suits, but a modern, technologically sophisticated, scientifically capable culture that never adopted agriculture or the military-industrial complex.

Sawyer is a genius and a talent and deserves all the recognition he gets. I’m a fan boy!

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MetatropolisMetatropolis by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best shared-world book I’ve ever read, particularly Jay Lake’s contribution.

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11/22/6311/22/63 by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Simply the best King since The Stand, IMO.

He even nails the landing, which has always been difficult for King. If the all-time master of horror has a weakness — and he does — it’s that his endings look more like he ran out of gas than he took us to a destination. In this case, there’s a satisfying, sense-making terminus, which was the icing on a very well-baked cake.

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NOS4A2NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joe Hill is very much his father’s son. That’s a compliment, of course, but kind of a gauche one. First, let me state I really, really liked this book. But second …

It. Was. Just. Like. Reading. A. Stephen. King. book.

Joe, you’re an outstanding writer. I look forward to you stepping out from your father’s shadow and establishing your own voice.

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The Forever War (The Forever War, #1)The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book!

I’m usually very selective about the military SF I read, but this was thoroughly entertaining, well written, and with characters I found myself caring about deeply. Deservedly a classic!

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A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I appreciated this more as a cultural touchstone than as a pleasure read. But that’s me. There’s a lot to recommend Le Guin’s most noteworthy work, but I’m just not that big a fan of the genre. I’m more a SF than a fantasy reader, so a lot of the Earthsea universe didn’t appeal to me. Certainly, Le Guin is a masterful storyteller and, without her, there’s no JK Rowling or GRRM or Lev Grossman. I’m glad I read this novel, but mainly for its significance than in its own right.

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Lost and FoundLost and Found by Alan Dean Foster
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Considering how much I’ve enjoyed Foster’s work in others’ universes, I was tremendously let down by the tone, style and pacing of this work. It’s unworthy of such a proven master of the craft.

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To Your Scattered Bodies Go (Riverworld, #1)To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A great concept, but it doesn’t really hold up. The eurocentrism, which is forgivable considering the era in which it was written, is really over-the-top patronizing after a while. Considering how well other Farmer works (“… Purple Wage,” frex) remain fresh, I’d suggest looking at his more obscure works instead.

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Ex-Heroes (Ex-Heroes, #1)Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I began working on
Mighty Mighty
, I was unaware of Peter Clines’s excellent work of pioneering superheroes-versus-zombies thriller. Although I can’t claim Ex-Heroes as an influence, I can say Clines set a very high bar, and I view it with far greater favor than I do Adam Christopher’s 7 Wonders.

Clines’s sequel, Ex-Patriots is next on my nightstand!

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A Clockwork OrangeA Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the rare times that the book and the movie are both great, and neither ruins the other for you.

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The Halloween TreeThe Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A classic that ought to be taught at the 6th grade level every October. A good, creepy YA adventure before the term was coined, also an informative anthropology lesson.

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What We Still Talk aboutWhat We Still Talk about by Scott Edelman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Scott Edelman is perhaps the most underestimated short story writer in all of science fiction.

He reminds me a little of Jack Finney in his gentle tone. Edelman proves that you can have conflict and taut plot lines without getting nasty. His stories are, for the most part, love stories of a fashion. As a marketing ploy, he might try releasing these same stories with a cheesy nom de plume, slap a guy naked to the waist on the cover and sell “What We Still Talk About” as paranormal romance.

Of the eleven stories in this Fantastic Books anthology, my favorite was “Together Forever at the End of the World,” although I’d have to concede “Choosing Time” was probably the best written from an objective, craft-wise point of view. The last story, “My Life is Good,” marks a sharp left turn in theme, style and narrative voice from all that preceded it — so I liked that one too.

Edelman is an accessible author in terms of both his prose and his outgoing personality. He’s a fixture around the convention circuit throughout the Northeast, so I recommend buying “What We Still Talk About” today, then asking him to sign it for you next time you see him.

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Dead City (Dead World, #1)Dead City by Joe McKinney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought “Dead City” to help me pass the time as I crossed over two oceans. An unexpected benefit is that, as we ended up in a non-Anglophone, TV-deficient country, I found myself with four 11- to 13-year-olds going through Tube withdrawal. A late-night, two- or three-chapter reading-by-flashlight from “Dead City” was just the substitute they needed. I couldn’t get them to listen to a complete sentence from me the whole week, but they listened to McKinney without interruption for at least 20 minutes every night!

As suited as it was to the early teens, this old fogey was debating whether to give “Dead City” three stars or four. McKinney obviously had some first-novel yips to work out in this book, and I attribute some of that (repetitiveness, unintentional rhyming, etc.) to the editor. Ultimately, based on the bonus feature — the first five chapters of the sequel, “Apocalypse of the Dead” — I believe McKinney found his voice and is deserving of the “Gentlemen’s Fourth Star”.

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ChimerascopeChimerascope by Douglas Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Douglas Smith is an outstanding writer. Then again, Roy Halladay is a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher, but he can’t throw a change-up.

The Chimerascope collection highlights Smith’s prodigious strengths, but by exposing weaknesses that I wouldn’t have known about no less bring up here if only his best works had been included. This doesn’t happen very often, but the flaws in this book have more to do with the editing than the writing.

This anthology is my first exposure to Smith, so here’s what I take away: He is a fundamentally strong author who commands sparse yet evocative description and presents characters who are unique enough to be believable yet archetypal enough to shoehorn into the short-story format. The most amazing thing about his craft is the way he takes an experimental, ignore-all-the-rules approach to selecting a POV, then executes it flawlessly.

What takes me out of his stories, though, is trope. Smith does SF a whole lot better than he does fantasy. The first and last stories are absolutely Chimerascope’s best — and that at least should accrue to editor Julie Czerneda’s credit.

Let’s look at the last one first. “Memories of the Dead Man” is a retelling of Mad Max. That’s not a slam; it’s a compliment. The lone, damaged hero riding to the rescue was already a moneymaker to the eighth-century scop who wrote Beowulf. The main issue I had with “Dead Man” is that the main character, Bishop, had what were in essence supernatural powers — which weren’t really necessary and we don’t know the extent of them until the climax. (My nit is that a character who calls himself Bishop is chasing after a bad guy who’s referred to as Pope — an intentional choice, and a bad one.)

“Scream Angel” lives in a universe where humanity has taken to the stars and, ruled by a greedy and all-consuming Corporation, exploits the plentiful life around it. This was pretty standard sci-fi even before Ridley Scott took the first lens cap off to film Alien. But the reason why it was so familiar is because, damn it, it works. And it works as well as ever when Smith is at the keyboard. His sequel “Enlightenment” wasn’t as successful because it devolves into metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that seems out of place in the far-future setting.

Are we detecting a pattern?

When Smith is writing real science fiction — whether it’s far-future or post-apocalyptic, he is at his best, which is really, really good. But when he lapses into fantasy he is, at best, hit-or-miss. “The Red Bird” is an interesting, Japanese-themed adventure that is one of the better fantasy stories. “By Her Hand, She Draws You Down” is a compelling dark fantasy that could be mainstream horror if it had a dash more grue (but better that it doesn’t). “New Year’s Eve” is a quarter century too late to qualify as cyberpunk and you can’t even call this science fiction anymore, since the real science around virtual reality is a whole lot cooler than what we Smith shows us here (Doug, for $400 you can get Xbox with a Kinect controller and two games). I didn’t like “The Boys Are Back in Town” because a) the-mythological-gods-hang-out-in-a-bar has been done to death (Patrick Thomas, for one, revisits this every few months) and b) mythological gods make horrible heroes and villains in contemporary settings because the author can pretty much make up their strengths and weaknesses as he goes along; as Bruce Campbell might say, “Good? Bad? I’m the one who’s omnipotent.”

Most annoying of all was “The Dancer in the Red Door”. It’s a paint-by-numbers urban fantasy, and I knew what I was in for as soon as I realized that the fabulously rich, immensely powerful protagonist was named Alexander King — which couldn’t be more trite if his middle name were Wellhung.

On the plus side, “State of Disorder” was one of my favorites. Again, it’s familiar territory, but it’s sci-fi territory. Set in the present day, it shows how a person’s fortunes can change as the result of small happenstances. It asks the question, “What if I can go back and change the happenstances that made my life less than optimal?” We’ve all asked that. A lot of us have written stories about that. Smith does it with equal, copious measures of heart and brain. “Going Harvey in the Big House” is far-future sci-fi that’s hard to describe without spoiling the ending — let’s just say it’s worth it.

Ultimately, I’m giving this book four stars. Two-thirds of the stories are well worth the read so, on average, the collection as a whole is. A shorter or better selected Douglas Smith anthology would’ve gotten five-out-of-five from me. I certainly look forward to where his work might take me in the future.

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Skeleton Leaves: A CollectionSkeleton Leaves: A Collection by Helen Marshall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whenever one of my genre magazines arrives in the mail, I tend to skip past the poems.* I just never thought of myself as a verse-y kind of guy. But when I’m presented with poetry in such an unavoidable form as a reading (where I discovered an innate appreciation for all things Amal el-Mohtar) or a short collection, I’m enthralled.

Helen Marshall’s Skeleton Leaves is the kind of work that makes new poetry fans. With less than 40 pages of text — and those pages having poetry’s requisite wide margins — it’s a quick, easy read. It has a familiar theme, with so much of it harkening back to J.M. Barrie characters like Peter Pan and Wendy Darling. (Careful, Helen. I hear his heirs are quite litigious.) But most of all, it positively demands to be read aloud. Much of it is darkly stirring, so I’d guard against reciting it on the bus. But if you’re looking to get better acquainted with a particular someone who tends to dress in black, read Herman Hesse and think too much, then read that person excerpts from Skeleton Leaves’ “Prophetic Sonnets” section. It’s pure Goth woo.

Kelp Queen Press printed only 150 copies of Marshall’s work, and I have No. 83. Hurry up and buy this!

*Exception: Space & Time, whose poetry submissions are shepherded by the ever-talented Linda Addison.

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On Basilisk Station by David Weber

Rounding up from 2.5.I didn’t hate it, but I read it in tandem with Jack Campbell’s Dauntless and, as much as I was rooting for Honor Harrington, I was left disappointed. The genre certainly needs more strong, female protagonists and has more than enough Black Jack Gearys, but the plotting, pacing, storytelling and technical verisimilitude are all on the Lost Fleet’s side.

Sorry. Wish I had better news.(less)


Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling

Loved this book!Haven’t read Stirling before, although I’m a big fan of the homophonously surnamed cyberpunk author, Bruce. Dies the Fire creates a world inverted from Eric Flint’s from the Ring of Fire series. In this one, late-20th century Earth is plunged into a physical universe where the laws of physics that moved us beyond rudimentary steam power stop working in an instant.

Who will survive? Mostly the lucky, although luck favors the well-prepared. What I really enjoyed about Dies the Fire is that the author recognizes there are as many paths to success as there are to failure, and presents a broad panoply of ways to move forward from survival to thriving. The characters get a little hard to keep track of, but just go with it. Well worth the read.(less)


The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

The Leftovers
by Tom Perrotta

read in January, 2014
Rounding up to four stars, really a 3.5.Perrotta writes with a wit that is, although a bit too dry for my tastes, abundant. I like the approach of inverting the proportion of people who are taken away in the apocalypse — 2% gone instead of 2% remaining. And I respect — but respectfully disagree — with the author’s choice to focus entirely on one small town and in particular one dysfunctional family. I’d like to see more about how the bigger picture changes: Does the economy improve because all these jobs opened up, or decline because all these productive people disappeared/are grieving? Does our technological house of cards start crumbling because, while it was difficult to find a competent network engineer or neurosurgeon before, now it’s downright impossible?

The reason why I rounded up is to provide a point of comparison for the HBO series, which stinks. The book is merely the work of an author who’s trying too hard to guess what his audience wants to see rather than provide them with a new vision. As misdirected as it might be, there is a point and a tone to the book, and the series totally misses both.(less)


Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1)
by Dan Simmons

read in January, 2014
Can’t believe it’s taken me this long to catch up to this. Hyperion belongs on the same shelf as Star Maker or Foundation or, of course, The Canterbury Tales.

Rogue by Michael Z. Williamson

by Michael Z. Williamson

read in January, 2014
I’ve been spending more time than I should chatting with Mad Mike on Facebook, and it was high time I actually read one of his books. On advice from others, I settled on Rogue as a good starting point.Loved it!

Williamson writes the way he thinks, on many levels. You’re sure to get the surface sarcasm, and maybe some of the contextual irony. But you really have to look for the sardonic subtext and the Easter eggs of scorn. He bets the farm that the protagonist doesn’t have to be lovable, and wins big.(less)


Dauntless by Jack Campbell

Outstanding military space opera. The author’s understanding of military culture and the profession of arms is clear from every line. My one nit is that the main character is the quintessential WASPy commander, straight out of Forbidden Planet. He’s perfect in every way. And when that’s pointed out to him, he tells the reader that this is just how others perceive him. So aww shucks, he’s modest too.Still, a great adventure and the opening act of a saga that shoots Honor Harrington out of the sky.(less)

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Fight Club
by Chuck Palahniuk (Goodreads Author)

read in January, 2014
One of the most enjoyable reads in a long time, especially considering the jet-black subject matter. No matter how dark the thoughts, the tale is told with affable quirkiness. I’m glad I read it before seeing the movie. I’m even gladder I read it *after* I finished my recent novel, “Pitch Ribbons” which, I’m told, has some of the same narrative feel. This was the first Palahniuk work I’ve read; it won’t be the last.(less)

Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer

by Robert J. Sawyer

read in January, 2014
Pacing is a little leaded and character-driven subplots rely too heavily on coincidence, but otherwise, solid Sawyer. I liked it a whole lot better than the hash ABC made of it, but I liked the Neanderthal Parallax books better than FlashForward.

One thought on “Reviews

  1. Pingback: What you should be reading when you’re done with my books | Auctor Lanx Satura

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