Sunday, November 24, 2013

Book Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

Finished book one of Veronica Roth's Divergent trilogy. Will I read book two? Eh... 

The Divergent trilogy is about a teenage girl who must choose in which faction she wants to spend her life. Her world (the crumbling city of Chicago, after some unnamed worldwide disaster) is divided into five factions -- or, for want of a better word, houses -- each known for the qualities they hold highest. Ravenclaw Erudite prizes intelligence and knowledge, Hufflepuff Amity prizes friendship, etc. She chooses to leave the faction she grew up in and switch to Gryffindor Dauntless, known for bravery.

And then the shit hits the fan, and female Harry Potter Tris finds out that she possesses a quality -- Divergence -- that allows her to fight against the mind-control set up by Erudite, and she is at the center of a revolution. 

The book is fast-paced and loaded with UST (as YA dystopian/paranormal/etc typically is), and the writing is solid and the characterizations are fairly good. This series, it should be noted, is about to be turned into a film series, a preview of which you may have seen if you went to see Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Did I mention that Katniss Tris spends her first few weeks in Dauntless learning to fight, even to kill others? 

Look, the capable female heroine is a good thing in novels. We need more of them. But if I read another YA where the teenage heroine is, you know, not really pretty, kind of short, average in most every way, doesn't know anything about defending herself at the beginning but shows REMARKABLE aptitude for causing physical damage (due to her amazingly intense brain!) and is then the love interest of an older boy who is daaaaaamn hot and also a fierce fighter, and then the two of them are at the center of a Revolution and are humanity's Only Hope for averting war, I shall shoot myself in the eye with a bow and arrow.

But let's get back to the basic premises, where most of my issues lie. Because people like to read about girls kicking butt, and if it's decently written, I could probably go along with it yet again.

I just didn't buy that people would separate into these factions and that, especially, they did not interact, to the extreme that their children are told that if they switched factions during the Sorting Ceremony on Choosing Day, that they could never see your family again (okay, once a year for a couple of hours). Even in HP, the houses -- while having their own dormitories and sports teams -- interact during classes and at mealtimes and, well, whenever they like. Dating, etc. That's natural. The system in Divergent does not, in any way, seem natural. 

Also, the folk in each faction seem to be wrapped up completely in the cloak of their faction. Where are the free thinkers? There should be rampant underground groups, worriedly discussing the choices they've made personally and as a faction. And who among us is just one set of ideals? There are radicals everywhere, to be sure, but we are all multi-faceted and far more subtle in our opinions and thoughts than Divergent would have us believe.

Also, there seems to be a tremendous amount of technology in the book, yet most people are living in near-poverty. I understand that in the aftermath of worldwide disaster, there would be no processed foods and luxury goods. But these people, as a whole, have little. And yet... They've got crazy-good computer programs and a rainbow's array of mind-altering serums. The people in Amity seem to have some advanced hydroponics going on, developed in conjunction with Erudite, but they don't have loads of fresh produce?

And why, pray tell, are the "factionless" (those who chose a faction but it didn't work out) forced to live in outlying areas, nearly starving? What sort of "ideal" community of the future thought that that  was a good idea? "We're going to raise ourselves up, and be better than our stupid forefathers, so let's marginalize these people for no good reason!"

So Tris learns to fight, must make some tough decisions, finds out that there is more going on than meets the eye (and the brewing war is not thrust upon us suddenly; there are loads of small clues), and ends up in the middle of the revolution. There's tension, suspense, lots of action, and it's fast-paced. A page-turner. If I could just get past all those niggling questions...

One last, little thing: Eric is a pierced Snape. Just saying. Longish dark hair, hooked nose (!!!), casual cruelty while teaching, suffers from jealousy and insecurity, makes bad decisions by joining with the Death Eaters Erudite evil-doers. I bet you that in book three, Eric has a change of heart forced by some dramatic incident that tears him apart, and he must join with the rebels, but they don't trust him. Someone tell me if that happens!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

On losing a fish, and my mind--

There's a fine line between sanity and thinking your computer is a malevolent entity. It's a line I play with sometimes; it's so easy to go over. It almost feels freeing, and fun. Sometimes I can't help it. For instance, the tiny tetras in the fish tank must have thoughts and desires and philosophies that correspond to some I've known occurring in the human mammal. Right? Maybe I just want to make it more difficult for myself to take the sick fish out of the tank; maybe anthropomorphizing fish and computers is a form of empathy, and not crazy cat lady talk.

But what if the computer really is showing me only what it thinks I should see? Maybe what's on the screen is a digitally curated show that only my pea-brain can comprehend. Then why frustrate me with bank account totals that don't make sense, or lack of access to fairly safe, unassuming sites? Why not placate me with constant GIFs (pronounced with a hard G, of course) of Muppets jumping around a stage and singing? Or cat videos?

Maybe all cat videos are put there by the internet. Do we know for sure that Grumpy Cat has a human owner? Who does not have a chip implanted behind one ear, a digital tether to their home computer? Will my computer shut this down before I can hit "publish"?

The fish was placed in a tupperware bowl full of his/her tank water and then sealed and placed in the freezer. I took a twenty minute shower, about the time it takes for the fish to pass. To die. I hate saying the word, or "kill." I killed my fish. But my (human) friends tell me this is the humane way to stop the life force from leaking out kill a fish. Or a reptile. Things I didn't really want to know, honestly.

My computer tells me that the password to the Onstar site is incorrect. I don't know how much more of this I can take. I just re-set it last week! What is going on! Am I unable to handle the vast, intelligent technology of what is essentially Siri for my car? Who determined that?

Tune in tomorrow, when I take a stab at normalcy one again. Historically, results have been varied, so I make no promises.

p.s. the other fish in the take are fine. thanks for asking.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Review: The Traveling Vampire Show by Richard Laymon

It's a hot August morning in 1963, and 16-year-old Dwight is mowing the front lawn, shirtless. Along comes his two best friends, Slim (a girl) and Rusty, with a flyer that Rusty pulled down in town, advertising a Traveling Vampire Show. One night only, at midnight, adults only--natch.

And so begins the game of "Where's the shirt?"

Just kidding. Kind of. Richard Laymon's novel, winner of the 2001 Bram Stoker award, is replete with violence and a few truly terrifying scenes, and finishes with a nuclear boatload of WTF horror and gore. But I think I'm going to remember this one for the escalating sexual tension that laces nearly every page of the book (including those WTF gore-tastic scenes at the end), a sexual tension carried along by a nearly unending swapping of shirts: Slim is often borrowing one of the boy's shirts, or their shirts are ruined and must be abandoned, or they swap for odd reasons. This leaves our boys with typical teenage angst regarding their bodies, and typical teenage boy lust over seeing a naked female back or one of the many, many, many side-boobs. In addition, there is much abandoning of underwear for dubious reasons (it's in the dryer??? you couldn't find another pair? in your own house? and no shorts?), and except for the females over forty, bra wearing is mostly disregarded. Actually, we may assume that the mothers in the bridge club aren't wearing bras, either, because. Just because. It's that kind of a book.

Here's the thing. The events of this book take place over a single day, starting in the morning with Dwight mowing the lawn and culminating in their eventual visit to the Traveling Vampire Show. Stretching the various movements of a pack of teenagers on a summer day might be okay--look at Stephen King's Stand By Me, to which this is inevitably compared. The swirling emotional maelstrom that is a teenager is well-documented here, if taken to extremes. The issue is that, eventually, the reader just wants them to get to the damn show, already.

By the way, when they do, it's pretty much well-worth it. And it keeps entirely to the over-the-top sexual tension and violence of the rest of the book. Is there really a vampire? Are they really in danger? Will Dwight and Slim ever get it on? Why the hell are there so many vicious dogs running around this little town?

Find out the answers to the first three yourself. As to the fourth, if you figure it out, let me know.

And should you be confused by this review, let me say this: I'm confused. The writing is clear, the characterizations are strong, the story is unlike any other I've ever read, and to be fair, there are apparently a legion of Richard Laymon fans who appreciate his style of blatant eroticism and horror. But it was the kind of book which left me feeling disturbed for atypical reasons. And wondering why people would swap worn, sweaty socks with each other. Because eww.

Overall? This is unusual, unique horror, and for four bucks, it's well worth the price of admission to the show.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Free Short Stories from Tor

I love Tor for the single reason that they publish an unending stream of high quality short stories -- for free.

In the weekly email, this gem: The Oregon Trail Diary of Willa Porter by Andy Marino. Willa's in the care of her aunt and uncle, after her father's DISGRACE and her mother's resulting breakdown. Her guardians have decided to move across country, and so Willa, her aunt and uncle, and her cousin are traveling by wagon across the open plains of the midwest towards Willamette, Oregon. All is going as well as can be expected with two pre-teen girls, one of whom can roll eyeballs with the best, when dead birds begin to fall from the sky and a rain starts that won't end.

And the rot starts.

A perfect juxtaposition of black humor and growing, seeping dread, told in Willa's voice, I loved this one and read it twice.

Tor also recently released an e-book, Some of the Best from, 2013. Also free -- did I mention I love Tor for all the superb, free short stories?

There you go. Get yourself a cup of hot tea and a nice fluffy blanket, a soundtrack of snoring dogs and purring cats, and curl up on the couch today.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

FF Monthly Contest; Review: Equoid by Charles Stross

Fantasy Faction, one of the largest fantasy (and SF and horror and...) sites, has a monthly flash fiction contest. November's theme is "Doors." Subs must be between 500-1500 words, and both prose and poetry are accepted. I've submitted my first entry, The Dragon in the Attic, a 1300-word YA dystopian horror about a little girl with her very own dragon. Sort of.


So have I enjoyed anything I've read lately? Well, yes! Until recently, I'd never heard of the Laundry series. Then Charles Stross's Equoid was a KDD and I picked it up. Thanks to Worlds Without End, who tweet Random Reads of past F/SF award-winners and Kindle Daily Deals in the genres.

Apparently, the Laundry in question is a secret agency in London that investigates and battles aliens, Eldritch horrors, urban myths come alive, and that sort of thing. From what I gather from reviews, Laundry tales are typically full of biting humor and satire, and no small amount of gruesome, chilling scenes. Without having read any of the others, I'd have to say that Equoid is perfect.

*note: Many reviewers thought that this book could be read as a standalone, but they weren't sure. As a reader new to the series, I can definitively say yes, one can read this by itself. I understood enough of the Laundry and the world it inhabits to enjoy this novella immensely.

Bob Howard is dispatched to Ruralshire to investigate a report of a unicorn infestation. Equipped with a series of letters written by H.P. Lovecraft, a number of requisition forms for carnivorous equines that begins around the early 1900s, and his trusty ward and warrant card, he soon realizes he is in way over his head.

Foully, viciously, disgustingly, horrifically over his head. Think tentacle pr0n and demon horses with mouths full of steak knives for teeth, not to mention a side of zombies and computer programs that suck the soul out of those who open them. And unicorns, it should go without saying, are not at all sparkly and lovely creatures.

How this all makes complete sense and ultimately, cleverly, snaps into place for a thrilling ride is testament to Stross's writerly abilities. And the whole thing is, indeed, full of bits of humor, gallows and a heap of bureaucratic satire, both.

My only problem -- and this is a personal thing, for which I should probably be thankful -- is that I have quite a difficult time imagining tentacled, gelatinous, amorphous Eldritch horrors. Always have. You can describe the thing as much as you like; until I open the garage door and find one waiting behind the kiddie pool and snow blower, I shall not likely ever be able to understand it.

Equoid is a novella. I read it in an evening, and loved it. As Stross writes a fair bit of these Laundry stories, long and short, I'll be picking up more.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Book Review: Horde by Ann Aguirre

Holding your breath for that other book review? Sorry, I work weekends, and I'm just getting to it.

I talked about two books, both the third in their respective series, being disappointments. And while I've found much less to grumble about with this one, there are still a few issues.

Prolific author Ann Aguirre, who writes a lot of YA and who competently handles genres from dystopian, sci-fi, to steampunk while melding genres at will, took on the zombie novel with the first of her Razorland sage, Enclave. It was a Kindle Daily Deal in September, and with its fairly solid reviews and interesting premise, I was intrigued.

Deuce is a young girl living underground, in what used to be the subways, in a small enclave. Her people divide themselves into three archetypes, Builders, Breeders, and Hunters. She's always yearned to be a Hunter, has trained for it, and is about to be given her opportunity to prove herself against the "Freaks" as they're known. Her only problem is that she's just been paired with the outsider, Fade.

Fade's already lost one partner, and because he wasn't born into the enclave but rather found them and was warily accepted into their ranks on the basis of his fighting skills, everyone pretty much avoids him. Deuce isn't pleased.

Soon enough, she and Fade are caught up in dangerous assignments and, worse, Deuce is beginning to realize that perhaps the enclave isn't as well governed and well-run as she thought. Independent thinking comes with some difficulty to her; Deuce long ago drank the punch. But with the evidence piling up in front of her eyes, and with their own ouster and her friends' apparent backstabbing, she must learn the truth of the world below and, frighteningly, above.

As she and Fade learn to rely on each other and fight their way through a post-apocalyptic landscape, they develop a more intense relationship that goes beyond hunting partners.

And if you've ever thought that what a good zombie novel is lacking is hot and bothered romance, you would be right!*

I finished Enclave in a single day, immediately purchased the second book, Outpost, finishing it in a day, and then I waited impatiently for a month until the last of the series, Horde, was released. Are the first two that good? Oh, yes. The third? Well...

Let me get past some basic issues with the series: While Aguirre is a terrific plot master, and she can write action scenes like nobody's business, and she deftly handles the "hot and bothered" parts with spine-tingling aplomb, the actual nuts-and-bolts of the writing is difficult to ignore -- if you're as anal as I am about things like tense and, mostly, paragraph and sentence structure. Clunky sentences abound, not to mention an astounding number of paragraphs that consist of unrelated ideas. There's an awful lot of telling, not showing, as well. And sometimes, dialogue -- especially Deuce's -- comes across flat.

I used to be heavily involved with the Harry Potter fandom, and I was always receiving rec's for fics. Some of them were awfully written, and when I would say that, people would say, "Yeah, but the story is GREAT!" I learned that for many, story trumps all else. I, personally, like a total package -- a well-written, grabs-you-by-the-throat story. But since I managed to get past my misgivings and fly through the first two Razorland books, I imagine many of you will, too.

But the third book. Woe, the third book.

Much as I discussed in my previous post regarding my disgruntlement with Lynch's Republic of Thieves, authors with great ideas tend to start out gangbusters, but then fall flat. So did the Razorland series. It's my opinion that Aguirre wrote herself into a corner, starting out with Enclave and not really visualizing how this all might turn out. Book three, Horde, ends with a deus ex machina -- of sorts. Yes, some hints were dropped in book two, but still, there are so many holes that it loses a lot of credibility. In addition, someone really needs to be in charge of continuity. For instance, in book two, Deuce catches her first sight of the Freak encampment, and she thinks, "It must be a thousand strong." In book three, Morgan asks her how big the horde is, and she replies that she can't count that high, but she saw 500 beans once and it might be more. What? Unfortunately, that happens way more than it should.

Additionally, there's some pseudo-science thrown in to validate the change the Freaks/Mutants are going through, and the speed with which they are changing. There's an entire timeline that doesn't make much sense.

Suspension of disbelief is paramount in order to enjoy most fantasy, sci-fi, etc books. Just don't stretch it too much. Horde, unfortunately, stretched mine to breaking.

Aguirre is a very popular author, for good reason. While I'm ultimately dissatisfied with the ending to the Razorland series, there's a lot to like, and I would certainly give her other books a chance. As for the Razorland series, if you like dystopian YA, and you want a female protagonist who is bad ass while still caring deeply for her friends and partner and who is often altruistic, look no further. It's got that in spades.

*As you probably realized, it's not about zombies at all, in the typical sense, but mutated humans. I thought it was a zombie novel at first. But mutated humans are every bit as good as zombies and deserve the same respect! ;)

Friday, November 1, 2013

Book review: Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

It's Friday, and I just finished the second of two books I have been eagerly awaiting for quite some time now. Both are the third in their respective series. They came out within a week of each other, and I raced to finish the first so I could get to the second.

And for the second time in two weeks, I am muddled in confusion and very disappointed.

Let's start with Scott Lynch's Republic of Thieves, one of the most highly anticipated books of the year--or the past five, as, much like GRRM, Mr. Lynch slowed down considerably since his first two books: the fantastically inventive and genuinely charming The Lies of Locke Lamora and its sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies. Also much like GRRM, the first book hooks you, drags you breathlessly along to a heart-stopping finale, and drops you back in your chair, blinking and wondering what happened to the last twenty-four hours of your life.

I never expect subsequent books in a series to live up to the first. You're living a life of unmet expectations if you do, my friend. But I'd like them to be solid additions, even if they are a bit uneven in places, a bit lacking of that original luster.

I found RSURS to be just that, a solid sequel. It was quite different, but at the end of the day, it's all about the magnificently scheming Locke getting in over his head and losing nearly everything. Here's a man who lives by the adage, Nothing gained if nothing tried. And boy, does he try. In spectacular and spectacularly clever, over-the-top fashion.

So far I've left out the details of the first two books, because A) I expect if you're here wanting a review of RoT, you've already read the first two, and B) because, at the end of the day, despite my disappointment with RoT, I'm hopeful later books will rectify it, and so I'd love you to pick up Lies if you haven't read it.

But here be spoilers for Republic. Stop reading now if you haven't read it.




Okay, first issue: Sabetha has been built up for two books, a mystery woman who looms larger than life over Locke, and it's clear he worships her.

Why the fuck why?

Seriously, that's my question. Is she strong, independent, ambitious, and smart? Yes. She's also self-centered and selfish, plagued by bizarre insecurities, and incapable of considering Locke's feelings in any matters concerning her. Look, either let the guy down permanently and don't lead him on (and don't misuse his deep love for you to, I don't know, POISON HIM), or make a commitment. Have you ever seen a flightier character? The slightest reason to go running from him and she's gone. "Ack! Locke is only interested in me for my red hair! He's the least shallow person I know and has spent years devoted to me but ACK! It can only be for my hair!" Or here's another, in case you think I'm trotting out teen Sabetha unfairly: "Gasp! He may or may not have been a bondsmage in the past who lost his memory but still has some buried love for a deceased red-haired wife and, while I have no evidence but a shifty bondsmage's tale, I shall leave him after at last having passionate coitus! The ultimate sock-it-to-the-balls!"

Please insert multiple other accounts between the years Sabetha was a snotty, self-centered teenager and when she was a self-centered grown-ass woman who should have gained some perspective. If she had changed over the years, I could've gone along with her treatment of Locke when they were young, because we're all stupid between the ages of 13 and 18. But she hasn't changed, and while she constantly demands Locke see things her way and apologize for shit he hasn't even done, she never stops to consider his point of view or his feelings.

I could go on about Sabetha, but let's stop here. Sadly, I think Patience's prophecy in the final section alludes to her becoming pregnant. If so, I will be even more disappointed because two very intelligent characters who understand that their chosen lifestyles are dangerous have had unprotected sex. Come on.

Next issue: Flashbacks are somewhat annoying and almost always add nothing to the plot. So they are here. Cut all the play stuff from the flashbacks and the reader would still understand the dynamic of the Locke/Sabetha relationship. While little was said about it in earlier books, there's enough to go on. The flashbacks to their youth felt like filler.

Which means there wasn't enough meat on the bone for the current storyline.

Lies and Red Seas both had twisty plots that I scrambled to keep up with, and I marveled at the intelligence of Locke (and so, Mr. Lynch). Republic feels like two parties slinging stones at each other across a field. I never quite bought that their actions were in order to secure election wins. If you look at modern-day elections, there's quite a bit of mudslinging and bending the truth and secret deals coming to light and scandal, scandal, scandal, not to mention that it's clear what the parties stand for. I never understood the difference between the Deep Roots and the Black Iris parties; they seemed to be mostly a stage for Locke and Sabetha to work out their relationship. Which, as it turns out, never happens.

Harmless alchemical smoke bombing of party headquarters? Rousting of spies? Bureaucratic annoyances? *yawn* The closest we came to real intrigue was Sabetha's use of Nikoros's addiction to infiltrate Locke and Jean's inner circle.

Last issue: Patience's reveal of Locke (maybe, possibly, if you squint and want to believe it) as a bondsmage with extraordinary power and talent, who fucked things up and has now re-homed his soul, as it were, in another body. I adored Locke from the first book because he was nothing special at first glance: he's short, kinda thin, undistinguished brown hair and eyes. He looks like an average Joe, maybe less than an average Joe. There's no tall, strikingly handsome, broad-shoulder thief with a mouth full of blindingly white teeth here. No movie star. He's not even a Luke Skywalker, who looks like an average guy but who apparently has a midi-chlorian count that's off the charts, dude, due to his impossibly powerful parentage.

And so, any one of us could be a Locke Lamora. We can rise above our current station merely on brains alone!

But what if Locke isn't just some average guy with determination and smarts? What if he's actually a powerful bondsmage?

I liked it when Locke and Jean defeated the Falconer on their own terms. I liked their non-magical solution to, essentially, tethering the motherfucker. Good stuff. Go, Team Muggle!

Now it's like Locke just got his letter to Hogwarts, and so he isn't one of us, after all.

Le sigh.

While I have some major issues with Republic, I can say I immediately felt at home upon the first page, for Lynch has a straight-forward, engaging writing style, and one comes to the Locke books for, among many other things, the colorful banter (at which he excels) and well-drawn characters. Jean, for example, is still not just the muscle but the heart of the duo, and remains as intelligent as ever. And Lynch's worlds, so different in each books, are fascinatingly immersive.

And then there's that last part, in which we find out the Falconer is ambulatory once again.

Now we're set for a great fourth book.

Do I hope for less Sabetha and a Locke returned to form? You bet.


The second disappointing read, which I referred to many thousands of words ago above, will be deferred until tomorrow. I feel drained after having vented my frustration with Republic. But let me say this: I read a lot of books. For one to inspire me to this level of frustration, while making me desperately wish for the next book now, it can't be all bad. I still recommend The Lies of Locke Lamora to those who've never heard of it with all my heart.