Sunday, September 19, 2021

Book Review: Hammers on Bone

book cover for Hammer on BoneJohn Persons is a private investigator with a distasteful job from an unlikely client. He's been hired by a ten-year-old to kill the kid's stepdad, McKinsey. The man in question is abusive, abrasive, and abominable.

He's also a monster, which makes Persons the perfect thing to hunt him. Over the course of his ancient, arcane existence, he's hunted gods and demons, and broken them in his teeth.

The story opens with the kid in Persons' office, looking to hire him for the job. Persons' dialogue is all 1930s-40s gumshoe, including using terms for women that would be considered sexist today ("dame", "skirt", "broads", etc.), but excusable for the time period. Khaw follows it up by creating a juicy noir atmosphere.
The cold feels good, real good, a switchblade chill cutting deep into the cancer of a thousand years' nap.
But as chapter one starts winding down, I realize that the story isn't taking place back then, it's contemporary.
These days, it's all bae and fleek, bootylicious selfies and cultural appropriation done on brand.
It was jarring, and no explanation was given. It would've made more sense to either place the story back several decades or update Persons' slang to something more fitting of the times.

I loved the way Khaw made use of scents to describe how Parsons interacted with his environment.
There's a pervasive smell in the hallway. Not quite a stench, but something unpleasant. Like the remnants of a molly party, or old sex left to crust on skin.
Khaw then uses that scent imagery to let the Lovecraft vibe seep in.
The stink grows strong: less human, more maritime malfeasance. A reek of salt and hard use, of drowned things rotten with new life.
Until it's staring at us, straight in the face.
In his agitation, his skin splits, spreads to frame a moist blue eye, cataracted and lethargically sullen.
From here on, Khaw goes all in on body horror visceral imagery that echoes Lovecraft.
The thing in his neck is a blasphemy, a mutagenic outrage of flesh, an insult to man and beast and all of us that came crawling out of the ocean before.
But by the time the story reaches its climactic battle, I grew weary of the constant fleshy metaphors in the narrative. The whole sinew, squishy flesh metaphors, and too many eyeballs references lost their impact on me. And the battle itself, which had been built up to be this epic clash didn't really feel epic to me. It was kind of over before I knew it.

What I thought was much better was the epilogue. The conversation that takes place there between Parsons (There's a second book and Parsons is in the blurb so that wasn't a spoiler!) and the acolyte was really enjoyable. Khaw brings in a deity that Lovecraft rarely used and thus got to shape said deity in an interesting way that, for me, made up for things.

4 stars.


Monday, September 6, 2021

Book Review: Wizard by John Varley

book cover for WizardThis review will contain spoilers if you haven't read the first book in the series, Titan.

Several decades have passed since Captain Cirocco Jones and her crew had their ship torn asunder and dragged aboard Gaea by one of her sub-brains. Once Cirocco and Gaby made the arduous journey up the spoke to confront her, Gaea apologized for the actions of the rebellious subordinate that committed the attack. In the interim, Gaea has negotiated peace with Earth, established embassies there, and opened herself up to Human tourists, albeit in limited quantity.

Two travelers have come to the world of Gaea in hopes of receiving a cure for their afflictions. One is Chris, who suffers from dissociative identity disorder and was fine until he was forced to go off his meds. The other is Robin, a judgmental epileptic from a lesbian Wiccan society that believes all men are rapists. Neither has quite the meeting they'd hoped for with Gaea and must prove their mettle as "heroes" by completing an epic journey or quest to satisfy the capricious god.

Cirocco was offered—and accepted—the role of Wizard, a position second only to Gaea herself. Cirocco would travel the world of Gaea, acting as her representative and messenger, and granted perpetual youth. But the passage of time and other unfair responsibilities have taken their toll on her, and she's fallen into alcoholism. Gaby has also been awarded perpetual youth, but hers was earned through work as a civil engineer, building and maintaining a trans-Gaean road and way stations. She hates to see Cirocco suffer and resents what Gaea has done to her friend.

Gaby and Cirocco are planning a trip to circumnavigate Gaea, a periodic responsibility, and invite Robin and Chris along in hopes that the journey will give each of them a chance to "do something heroic." Four Titanides also come along for the journey. The multi-sexual centaurs are excellent craftsmen and prove invaluable companions to the Humans. But there's more to this trip than just touring the kingdom and finding opportunities for adventure. For Gaea has far outlived her expected lifespan, and her ability to give a shit is less than her desire to be entertained.

Once again, Varley utilizes a quest as the primary story structure and, like so many journeys, the characters are not the same at the end as they were at the beginning. Robin is forced to re-examine her beliefs and prejudices while Chris must learn how to balance his opposing personalities, in essence, passion versus logic. While Varley uses him as a counterpoint for Robin, he also represents all humans in the complex love-hate relationship the Titanides have with us.
"Humans brought alcoholism to Gaea. We have always enjoyed wine, but the beverage you call tequila and we call"—she sang a brief melody—"which translates as Death-with-a-pinch-of-salt-and-a-twist-of-lime, has addictive properties for us. Humans brought venereal disease: the only malady of Terran origin that affects us."
Varley isn't shy about using the Titanides to point out our species' faults, but he also recognizes that we are capable of so much more.
"And there are among you individuals with life burning so brightly within them that we are dazzled by your brillance."
My one complaint would be that a scene where Gaby discovers the identity of the antagonist who has been orchestrating malevolent events against them and confronts that person took place off screen. While we are later told about the confrontation, it would've been better for the story if the reader was shown it rather than told about it.

While Titan and Wizard were published only a year apart, Varley's writing is so much better. Characterization is much stronger and he did it without sacrificing worldbuilding. In fact, it's even better. There's less focus on numbers and more on substance. And the pacing never drags. Varley figured out how to fill the spaces between dramatic events to hold the reader's interest. The surprise ending is the icing on the cake.

4.25 stars


Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Goodreads' Problem With Trolls and Extortion

I just learned about this today. In a nutshell, indie authors with a high visibility on social media—particularly those with progressive politics—are being targetted by extortionists. Typical message:
Failure to comply with these demands results in authors getting slammed with hundreds of one-star reviews on Goodreads. The company is typically slow in its corrective actions.

All indie authors know how difficult it is to get readers to check out their work. It means putting yourself out there on social media (the introvert's equivalent of smelling sweaty socks) to get the public's attention. Many authors choose to discuss topics of personal interest to them. And if there's anything we've learned over the last few years, doing so puts a target on your back. As their audience grows, the trolls take notice.

Amazon used to have a sock puppet problem, but then it found ways to restrict reviews to verified accounts by simply making use of data it already had (verified contact info, purchasing history, etc.). Since Amazon owns Goodreads and offers potential readers easy to access links to buy said book, you would think that they would make every effort to ensure that the number one social media site for books was free of crippling attacks on their revenue stream.

Thanks to Monica for bringing this to my attention.


Thursday, July 29, 2021

Titan by John Varley

book cover for TitanThe first manned expedition to Saturn discovers a new moon, but closer examination reveals it to be a huge space station.

Wait. What?

All kidding aside, the station is in the shape of a Stanford torus, albeit a thousand times larger. Attempts to dock with the station go horribly wrong for Captain Cirocco Jones and her crew. Stranded on the station, they have no choice but to find who's in charge in hopes of finding a way back to Earth.

Titan was published in 1979 and is the first book in John Varley's Gaea trilogy. I didn't find out that this was a series until after I'd read the third book, Demon. During the 80s, I'd joined a science fiction book club that sold hardcovers for paperback prices. Demon was one of the books I bought along with Varley's standalone Millennium. I enjoyed both, but I didn't find my way back to this series until recently when I'd heard that Varley was having heart surgery. But I digress.

At first blush, Varley's space station comes across as another Big Dumb Object (BDO). I admit to being a sucker for this type of story. Ringworld, Rama, the Halo videogame, etc. In BDO stories, exploration of the BDO is often the story itself. Cirocco's search for her crew runs parallel to her exploration of this strange new, and manufactured, world. But Varley's BDO has more going on that just a bunch of humans poking around in a sterile alien vessel or the ruins of an advanced civilization. Fantastic alien creatures are met. The sentient ones have a unique culture and speak of Gaea, the entity in charge. And so, Cirocco sets off on a quest to find Gaea, whether Gaea is an alien, a committee, or computer.

Varley was one of the few men in sci-fi that wrote strong female protagonists in the 70s. Cirocco Jones is the first woman to command a NASA mission, and the pressure of it weighs on her, though I wish that it had been explored a bit further. Instead, Varley explores sexual freedom among his characters. Bearing in mind that this was written in the 70s, Varley imagines that on long space missions, the crew will likely pursue sexual relationships because that's what people do. Details are light, just enough to give the reader an idea of what's going on. Once on the space station, Varely takes things a step further, not just among the crew but the aliens as well. With regards to the crew, non-binary relationships are explored. Among the aliens, the titanides have multiple sex organs, so keeping their genders sorted out would probably require a spreadsheet.

Personal transformation is another theme explored by Varley. Each of the crew go through some sort of change once they're on the station. While some changes are benign, like suddenly knowing how to communicate with the various alien species, others are darker. Certain aspects of one's personality are magnified. A loner finds herself transformed into one of the alien species who lead a solitary, predatory existence. Another finds his toxic masculinity magnified, leading him to become a rapist (again details are fortunately kept brief). No one in the crew is untouched, and how they respond to adversity under these circumstances is itself a transformative event.

Titan is all about discovery: a new world to explore, new life forms to interact with, self-discovery among the characters. I'll admit that sometimes the story bogs down in the space station details. I felt that Varley had to satisfy the gearheads by throwing out specifications about the place to justify how and why it works. While the place is wondrous, sometimes the wonder wore off with the minutiae. And the quest itself seemed rather long with rather little to offer the reader between momentous encounters. But the payoff in the end was worth it. What Jones discovers about Gaea is far from expected for just a BDO.

3.5 stars


Sunday, June 27, 2021

Book Review: Lost Kin

Book cover for Lost KinAfter the events in Liberated Harry Kaspar has been relocated to Munich. As he enters the final weeks of service as an administrator for the military government, his life is good. He resides in a nice house with cushy amenities, has a former WAC girlfriend, and the locals appreciate his efforts to restore some semblance of pre-war normalcy. And then a cop shows up on his doorstep one night informing him that there's been an incident and his brother may be involved. Having not seen nor heard from his brother for several years, Harry's interest is piqued, though for a German-American, he knows this could be a scam, or worse. What follows is an investigation into a murder, black market sales of the spoils of war, and old scores that demand to be settled in blood.

There are elements of noir in this story. Harry's girlfriend has a bit of femme fatale to her which both excites and worries him. Meetings with informants take place in dark alleys and secluded rooms, forcing Harry to always be alert for the double cross. The atmosphere of downtrodden Munich is leaden with cold autumnal rain and early snow. And the American military government is seen through a lens of world weary cynicism.
She knew so many majors, colonels, and generals, all rearguard types who'd never seen combat but rode desks like gladiator chariots except their shields were their puffed-up chests done up with medals of every color, the swords their sharp tongues and stern memos, the feints and thrust their back-room whispers and leaks applied with extreme prejudice. Opponents cowered, colleagues awed, and mistresses swooned.
As with Liberated, Anderson has done the research. The deal that FDR and Churchhill made with Stalin in Yalta would soon turn out to be a Faustian bargain. I don't want to spoil it, but Anderson explores an aspect of that here as a way for the two brothers' paths to cross again.

Lost Kin is a strong finish to the Kaspar Brothers trilogy. The noir elements spice up the intriguing plot, and Anderson's characters are well-developed. I got caught up in their predicament as Anderson entwined their fates with historical events. I'd recommend the series as a whole for WW2 historical fiction fans looking for something different from that time period.

4 stars.


Friday, May 14, 2021

Book Review: The Wrong Stars

book cover for The Wrong StarsA ragtag crew of humans and posthumans discover alien technology that could change the fate of humanity... or awaken an ancient evil and destroy all life in the galaxy.

The shady crew of the
White Raven run freight and salvage at the fringes of our solar system. They discover the wreck of a centuries-old exploration vessel floating light years away from its intended destination and revive its sole occupant, who wakes with news of First Alien Contact. When the crew break it to her that humanity has alien allies already, she reveals that these are very different extra-terrestrials... and the gifts they bestowed on her could kill all humanity, or take it out to the most distant stars.

This was a fun read. Likable characters trading quips and jovial banter. There was action, but the peril didn't seem all that perilous in that the crew always seemed to have a workable solution at hand. Dare I say that it was almost too easy?

Pratt writes an all-inclusive character ensemble with regards to gender, but didn't make it the focus of the story. People just were who they were. With a monstrous evil alien race lurking about, no one gave a shit about what made their motor hum, if you catch my drift. While that works for me, if you're unsure, you'll be relieved to know that there were no details on "engine maintenance."

Having said that, the main romance in the story is a bit over the top. They were like two hormone addled teenagers. Actually, that might be an insult to teenagers. More like what TV execs think teenagers are like. Some of the conversations were just too cheezy. Plenty of eyeroll moments.

If you go into this looking for a beach read, you'll be fine. The science is light, and many things are handwaved away. It's best if you don't look too closely (It's about as far as you can get from Stoss, Reynolds, and Watts as you can get and still be sci-fi). The point is that it's a light-hearted, fun, sci-fi adventure with a cheezy romance.

3.5 stars.


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Book Review: Liberated

book cover for LiberatedIn the early days of post-war Germany, Captain Harry Kaspar has been assigned by the US military government to oversee recovery efforts in the town of Heimgau. Unfortunately, the post is already occupied by Major Membre. It seems that the office that assigned Membre supersedes the one that picked Kaspar, and obviously the major outranks the captain.

Kaspar and Membre butt heads from the start. Besides smarting from missing out on the position that Kaspar feels should've been his—he trained for it after all—Membre comes across as a self-serving opportunist, more interested in personal gain than helping this Bavarian town start over. Kaspar heads off in a huff to survey the town when he discovers three German men lying in the road, evidentially tortured and murdered. He now has a mystery to solve.

With the aid of Katarina, a former German actress, Kaspar navigates black markets, systemic corruption, the aftermath of the Holocaust, and a disgruntled conquered populace in an effort to solve the murders and right some wrongs, all while trying to avoid getting killed.

Anderson's story was born out of research he did in Munich to get his master's in history. Besides touching on prejudice towards German-Americans stateside, the book calls attention to Allied looting in post-war Europe. While it might be dismissed as stealing from Nazis, it should be noted that the Nazis stole it from innocents. Be sure to check out the afterword to get an idea as to the extent of the theft.

While the story was intriguing and rooting for Harry was easy, Liberated didn't resonate with me quite as much as the previous work—The Losing Role, a story about Harry's brother Max who fought for the Germans—did. I feel that certain characters weren't as developed as I think they could've been. Still, I liked it and plan on reading the next book in the series.

3.5 stars