Thursday, June 27, 2013

Extinct Doesn't Mean Forever - edited by Phoenix Sullivan

    2012; 212 pages.  New Author? : n.a.   Genre : Anthology; Speculative Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7*/10.

    18 short stories about various creatures, most of which have either gone extinct or are about to become so.  There are dinosaurs and cave bears; ghosts and aliens; Neanderthals and angels.  There is romance and humor; tragedy and sci-fi; new beginnings and post-apocalyptic endings.

    In short, there’s something for everyone here.

What’s To Like...
    The stories are grouped in somewhat chronological order.  That gives a bit of structure to the Extinct Doesn’t Mean Forever, although it also means you’ll be reading all the dinosaur stories more or less together.  A lot of the authors seem to be from Australia, which gives parts of the book a refreshing Down Under “flavor”.

    The Amazon blurb for this book gives a one-line teaser for each story; I won’t repeat those here.  As with any anthology, I found some of the stories to be riveting; others were yawners.  You're entitled to form your own opinion about which ones are the yawners, so I'll content myself with listing a couple that I thought were the cream of the crop.

(01) Last Seen (Amanda le Bas de Plumetot)
    A powerful story about the recently-extinct thylacines to lead things off.  My favorite of the bunch.
(02) Past Survivors  (Sarah Adams)
    Both saber-tooth tigers and relationships are hiding in the hills around Los Angeles.
(15) Blood Fruit  (Shona Snowden)
    Mankind’s hope hangs by a thread.  That's not good news when Vin and Levo are holding the thread.
(16) A Thorny Dilemma (Rory Steves)
    Bio-engineering gone wrong.  So why am I chuckling?
(17) Invoice H10901: 3 Wooly Mammoths (Robert J. Sullivan)
    Parallel worlds meet the Law of Supply and Demand.

    The last thylacine died in the Hobart Zoo.  Locked in a cage, she stared out through the lattice of wire to the distant warmth of the keeper’s house.  Alone all the long nights, she paced, fretful, the unfamiliar sound of her nails clicking on cement.  She was surrounded by the stink of bears, the roar of lions, the shit-hurling culture of monkeys, the press and flow of humans.  The last thylacine was imprisoned between concrete floor and iron bars without even a kennel’s shelter.  (loc. 100)

    “Do you remember the Angel Genome Project?”
    God, not again.  She opened a financial report on her computer and stared at the numbers without really seeing them.  “Yes.  What about it?  They were going to sequence the genome of whatever it was they found in Iran.  Angels, they said.  We’ve got the mammoth parks and the Neanderthal town.  Let’s clone angels, have ourselves a park with cherubs, a wish-fulfillment fantasy with merry-go-rounds and everything.”
    “Such a cynic, girl.  You used to believe in science.”  (loc. 1585)

Kindle Details...
    Extinct Doesn’t Mean Forever sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  ANAICT, this was Phoenix Sullivan’s first stab at editing/compiling an anthology.  She also has an eclectic triad of her own books on Amazon.

“What does mankind do with endless power and no boundaries?” (loc. 2688)
    As seen in the “best of” choices given above, my favorite parts of EDMF’s were at the beginning and near the end.  That speaks well of Phoenix Sullivan’s effort as the editor.  Having two stories about the thylacine tiger seemed a bit redundant, but maybe I’d feel different if I was an Aussie.

    I have to believe that trying to write a gripping tale of speculative fiction in a scant 10-20 pages is quite the challenge.  World-building and character-development have to be done quickly and efficiently.  Some of the writers were more successful at this than others, but kudos to all of them for giving it a try.  7 Stars.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Carpe Jugulum - Terry Pratchett

   1998; 378 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book #23 in the Discworld series.  Genre : Comedic Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    Plans are being made for the naming ceremony of the newest addition to the Lancre royal family, and King Verence and Queen Magrat are sending invitations to all sorts of people in the surrounding lands.

    The witches are invited because, well, Magrat used to be one of them.  The ruling Vampire family from neighboring Uberwald are also invited.  Is it really a good idea to invite vampires into one’s realm?  They are sort of, well you know, sucky creatures.  Oh well, we’ll just have to trust they’ll behave.

    Now whatever happened to Granny Weatherwax’s invitation?

What’s To Like...
    The Discworld witches take center stage here, and that’s always a treat.   There’s also an Igor, DEATH, and the initial appearance of the Nac Mac Feegle in a Discworld novel.  But that’s about it for familiar faces, since the story is set in Lancre and Uberwald, two places far removed from Ankh Morpork.  But we get to meet lots of new folks, including the Magpyr family, rulers of Uberwald, who wish to expand their horizons.

     Carpe Jugulum appears to be Terry Pratchett’s endeavor to combine Undead Horror with Discworld Spoofery, which frankly is no small challenge.  I can’t think of another Discworld novel where I’ve actually worried for the safety of some of its heroes.  As usual, there are other themes.

    Urban Legends.  Pratchett has loads of fun with anti-vampire weapons – garlic, holy water, wooden stakes, and whatnot.  Sometimes they work; sometimes they don’t.

    Inner Voices.  The full-figured witch, Agnes Nitt, and her “thin woman trying to get out” have a major role her.  Indeed, all the witch characters are more fully developed than usual.

    Organized Religion vs. Paganism.  Or, Mightily Oats vs. Granny Weatherwax.  Actually, Terry Pratchett puts them on equal footing, and deftly weaves the circumstances to where they have to work together to defeat the vampires.  Very kewl.

Kewlest New Word...
Scry  (verb) : To foretell the future using a crystal ball or other reflective object or surface.

    A movement made her turn.   A small blue man wearing a blue cap was staring at her from the shelves over the washcopper.  He stuck out his tongue, made a very small obscene gesture, and disappeared behind a bag of washing crystals.
    “Yes, luv?”
    “Are there such things as blue mice?”
    “Not while you’re sober, dear.”  (pg. 80)

    Granny Weatherwax had a primal snore.  It had never been tamed.  No one had ever had to sleep next to it, to curb its wilder excesses by means of a kick, a prod in the small of the back or a pillow used as a bludgeon.  It had had years in a lonely bedroom to perfect he knark, the graaah, and the gnoc, gnoc, gnoc unimpeded by the nudges, jabs, and occasional attempts at murder that usually moderate the snore impulse over time.  (pg. 366)

“Once people find out you’re a vampire they act as if you’re some kind of monster.”  (pg. 274)
    All the witches are present, but center stage belongs to Granny Weatherwax.  She’s up against foes that are stronger, faster, and probably more intelligent than her.  Their leader, The Count, is able to anticipate her every move, and he will not be satisfied until Granny has been utterly and permanently defeated.  That makes for an exciting ending, albeit one that is just a tad bit contrived.  But this is Discworld, and ‘contrived’ is often the norm here.

    Carpe Jugulum was an entertaining read.  The mixing of horror into the storyline means that this isn’t the zaniest Discworld novel you’ll ever read.  Rincewind would never have fit into the story.  Nevertheless, there is sufficient humor, and the themes are thought-provoking.  8 Stars.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Shells of Chanticleer - Maura Patrick

    2013; 226 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Dark Fantasy.  Overall Rating : 8*/10.

    16-year-old Macy Winters is at death’s door, due to an infection that has developed into sepsis.  The final thing she hears while lying in the hospital bed is the doctor debating whether to put her in an induced coma as a last-ditch effort.

    The next moment, she wakes up in a comfortable bed, with two other girls greeting her by name and welcoming her to the village of Chanticleer.  Superficially, it seems like a teenage paradise.  But there are lessons to be learned, and the place has its dark secrets.  Like sometimes a kid will simply disappear overnight.  They say he “tipped back”, but who knows for sure?  And no one wants to talk about the shells.

What’s To Like...
    The target audience for The Shells of Chanticleer are young-teenage girls, probably up to Macy’s age (16).  As such, there is no sex, cussing, nudity, or violence.  There is some Romance, naturally, but it’s limited to kissing and cuddling.

    The storyline is original.  The characters are all well-developed, although a couple of them (Rafe, the Prime Minister, etc.) seem to have a brief time in the spotlight, then fade into the background.  Bing is uber-kewl, though.  You’re going to enjoy meeting him.

    Macy is an inquisitive sort, and it’s fun to “walk alongside her” as she tries to unravel the various secrets of Chanticleer.  There are lots of twists along the way to keep you guessing as to what’s going on.  Macy’s ultimate issue (“Should I stay or should I go?”) is masterfully resolved, and not in the way I anticipated.

    “Wow,”” I said.  “So you’re saying that I’m a wimp?”
    “Well, I wouldn’t use that word.  We are not pejorative here, as a rule.  But you are a little unbalanced.  What I mean is you need a better blend of imagination and reality.  We don’t want to see your real potential buried under a lot of imaginary fears and self-imposed roadblocks and anxieties.”  (loc. 681)

    “I have to keep playing mud soccer until I enjoy it,” she said.  “And I hate it.  Hate.  It.  Did you have fun?”
    “I liked it,” I said.  “Mud comes right off.  It’s no big deal.”
    “Yes it is,” Zooey insisted.  “It’s full of microbes and germs and deceased insect particles and larvae and cricket casings.  It’s horrid.  By the way, you need to put those clothes in a plastic bag out in the hall so someone will take them away.”  (loc. 1443)

Kindle Details...
    The Shells of Chanticleer sells for $0.99 at Amazon.  At the time of this review, it is Maura Patrick’s only book at Amazon.

“It’s Chanticleer, a benevolent world, though it might not always seem so.” (loc. 971)
    There are a few inconsistencies towards the end of The Shells of Chanticleer.  Macy’s final challenge is quite the paranormal romp, which contrasts to all her humanly-contrived challenges up to that point.  Also, the history of Chanticleer is partially revealed, but gaps remain and there are some pesky loopholes in the logic.

    We’ll skip the details due to spoiler concerns, but give props to Maura Patrick for not being afraid to address the whys and wherefores of the place.  And I frankly doubt that YA girls who read the book are going to get hung up on the world-building mechanics.

    I found the pacing and storytelling of TSoC to be excellent.  Despite not being the target age or gender for the book, it was a page-turner for me.  Perhaps more of the Chanticleer’s history/mystery will be dealt with in a sequel.  8 Stars.  Add a half-star if you’re a girl, and another half-star if you’re aged 12-15.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Fall of House Nemeni - M.D. Kenning

   2012; 222 pages.  Full Title : The Fall of House Nemeni (Allmother’s Fire).  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Science Fiction (sez I); ClockPunk (sez the author).  Overall Rating : 4*/10.

    Fallen, fallen, fallen is the great house Nemeni.  Domin, the head of this powerful family, and his wife, Vinessi, are gone.  Domin’s brother, Genissi, has fled for his life, taking Domin’s three children to safety with him.

    But that was ten years ago.  The children are now grown.  Their assumed identities have held.  And revenge still smolders in their hearts.

What’s To Like...
    The world-building is innovative – a bunch of islands floating in the air (see book cover) between two suns – One Above, One Below.   The islands are inhabited; and you can travel by airships from one to another without any breathing difficulties.  This solar system setup boggles my scientific mind, but let’s not get too hung up on the astrophysics of it.  After all, this is fantasy.

    All of the characters are well-developed.  The book starts out with lots of action – Domin fleeing for his life.  There is an interesting interplay of Magic (“Clockwork Grand Laws”) versus Religion ("Cogs of the Universe”).  Spells versus prayers.  M.D. Kenning presents them on equal terms, which I like.  The ending doesn’t tie up all the threads, but it does logically set up the next book in the series.

    Alas, there are some serious issues with TFoHN, starting with the typos.  Theirs/There’s; Lead/Led (the two tenses are not spelled the same); Than/Then; plus dozens more.  I normally don’t comment on typos because self-published authors can rarely afford professional proofreaders.  But their frequency here really detracts from the story.

    Then there are the run-on sentences.  These are by nature clunky, but the author seems averse to using commas.  This makes the run-ons almost unfathomable unless you read them multiple times.  One example : Even the food that was now sitting warmly in Genissi’s belly as he reclined on a velvet laden couch and watched the kids talk excitedly together had been delivered to their door that lead inside the tavern (not the one that lead to the door in the alley) by one of the inn’s maids and she did not see who received the meal later.  Wow.  There are lots more like that.

    Finally, there is too much Telling, and not enough Showing.  There are pages upon pages devoted to what’s running through the various characters’ minds.  It would have been much stronger to convey these thoughts via actions in the storyline.

    Three words.
    These were the bywords of the Nemeni family, and three words could not sum up Genissi any less in most people’s eyes.
    Those were much more accurate descriptors of the laughing stock of the Nemeni family.  (loc. 463)

    Sivana of course had no way to know for sure exactly how much time had passed.  The rotten smell of her own sick being on her clothes however invited the possibility she was not in a spiritual afterlife.  Not once in the teachings or songs did she remember anything about vomit existing in the Sun Below or in the arms of the Allmother.  (loc. 3722)

Kindle Details...
    The Fall Of House Nemeni sells for $2.99 at Amazon.  This is reportedly Book 1 of a trilogy.  M.D. Kenning has one other book available for the Kindle – Mandatory Paradise – also for $2.99.  I think the latter is unrelated to the Nemeni storyline.

“Are you touched by the Sun Below?” (loc. 1784)
    For me, The Fall of House Nemeni comes off as a novel-worthy concept, but still in rough-draft form.  That’s unfortunate because, although the basic plotline grabbed my interest, the project is incomplete.

    The writing needs to be polished up (add commas, break up the long sentences).  A good editor/proofreader needs to be utilized (a writer doing this himself just doesn’t work).  Finally, the first-draft needs some beta-readers.  Mom and Aunt Martha won’t cut it – it needs people who will tell you what is confusing, clunky, and/or just plain boring.  And every five minutes, the phrase “Show!  Don’t Tell!” should be mentally chanted.

    Admittedly, polishing, proofing, and rewriting are not as fun as creating the first draft, but they’re just as vital.  This will be a great book - and a great series - once those steps are taken.  4 Stars.  For now.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Evolution - Stephen Baxter

    2003; 646 pages.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Historical Fiction.  Overall Rating : 9½*/10.

    Human evolution?  Yeah, I know all about it.  Before we were “us”, we were cavemen.  Before that, we were apes or gorillas or something.  And before that we were monkeys.

    No wait, that’s not it.  Somewhere along the way we split off from the apes.  Before they became gorillas.  And monkeys came after that.  So did the Neanderthals.

    No, that’s not it either.  Tell you what.  Let’s read Evolution, and then we’ll have a much better grasp of how we got from the way-back-when to the here-and-now.

What’s To Like...
    Stephen Baxter opts to start with the first primates, lemur-like creatures that lived 65 million years ago.  That’s a good choice, as this allows him to bring in dinosaurs and the comet that wiped them out.  The initial ancestor, dubbed Purga, is from a species called purgatorius, which you can read about in Wikipedia (here).

     The first third of Evolution deals with the primates; the next half deals with the hominids; and in the final couple of chapters Baxter hypothesizes on where we’re going evolution-wise.  You meet a new character with each jump through time, so in effect this is a series of short stories.  The pressure is on the author to make each one unique and entertaining, while introducing a short-term character that you’ll quickly bond with.  He succeeds marvelously.

    For me, the high point is the critter-killing comet, and it is spectacular how Baxter gives you a feel for being on Earth when the upheaval hits.  The blast may have wiped out 90% of all life, but 10% did survive, and it is fun to read just how those lucky few may have managed to beat the odds.

    Each subsequent chapter introduces a new step in the evolutionary trail, along with an important new event or discovery.  Examples : bipedalism; tool-making; religion, etc.  Baxter also spends time explaining (speculating, actually) how the brain evolved and functioned differently at each step along the way.  I was completely captivated. 

    For the most part, Evolution is not science fiction.  There are no invaders from outer space or wookies piloting starships.  Also, there’s a lot of mating going on.  This fits nicely with the subject matter, but if references to genitalia bother you, you might want to give this a pass. 

Kewlest New Word...
Etiolated (adj.) : Feeble; having lost vigor or substance.

     “You know, even after a couple of centuries’ work, we have dug up no more than two thousand individuals from our prehistory: two thousand people, that’s all, from all the billions who went before us into the dark.  And from that handful of bones we have had to try to infer the whole tangled history of mankind and all the precursor species, all the way back to what happened to our line after the dinosaur-killer comet.”  And yet, she thought wistfully, lacking a time machine, the patient labor of archaeology was all there was, the only window into the past.  (pg. 5)

    She took the thrower from him, set the spear in its notch, and made as if to throw.  “Hand, throw, no,” she said.  Now she mimed the stick pushing the spear.  “Stick, throw.  Yes, yes.  Stick.  Throw.  Spear.  Stick throw spear.  Stick throw spear...”
    Stick throw spear.  It wasn’t much of a sentence.  But it had a rudimentary structure – subject, verb, object – and the honor of being one of the first sentences spoken in any human language, anywhere in the world.  (pg. 336)

“In the clearing, dinosaurs dreamed.”  (pg. 11)
    There are two sobering truths I took away from reading Evolution.  First, we humans may be the epitome of evolution, but the process will continue.  Second, it is inevitable that there will come a day when we are knocked off (or knock ourselves off) the top of the predatory food-chain.  The last part of Evolution speculates as to how this might play out.  It is rather grim and humbling, but then again, we go to KFC and munch on  the glory that was once the dinosaurs.

    The quibbles are miniscule.  Stephen Baxter gets preachy for a few paragraphs towards the end, and I still haven’t grasped the purpose/meaning of the epilogue.   But these are a half dozen pages of so-so in 640 pages of fantastic.  The excellence overwhelms.

    9½ Stars.  Evolution is akin to Jean Auel’s The Clan Of The Cave Bear, but much more epic in scope.  If you enjoyed TCotCB (don’t get me started on the rest of that series), this novel is going to suck you in.  Ditto if you’re the type of person that goes to the Smithsonian and spends 95% of your time in the hall where the dinosaur skeletons are.