24 May 2016

Books: Chicago By Brian Doyle (2016)

In what is essentially a love letter, a sweet valentine to Chicago, author Brian Doyle delivers, with great skill, a novel about a certain time in the city I was born in (though grew up in its suburbs) with such intimate detail, the reader can easily feel the strum and thrum of the city, smell the empanadas of Mrs Manfredi, and smell the waters of that great lake where the city grew up around.

“On the last day of summer, some years ago, a young college graduate moves to Chicago and rents a small apartment on the north side of the city, by the vast and muscular lake. This is the story of the five seasons he lives there, during which he meets gangsters, gamblers, policemen, a brave and garrulous bus driver, a cricket player, a librettist, his first girlfriend, a shy apartment manager, and many other riveting souls, not to mention a wise and personable dog of indeterminate breed named Edward.”

Having been born there and lived within its shadow for most of my life, Doyle’s Chicago reminds me why I still love that sometimes difficult city, and why LA (where I live near now) will never be anything but runner-up. 

It begins in the fall of 1978 and into the early 1980s, and the unnamed narrator (obviously Doyle himself) gives us is sensory data of Chicago –“the sounds and feelings of things” where “buildings crowded the streets;” a Chicago with its “bone-chilling cold, and shuffle of boots leery and weary of ice, and the groan and sigh of buses coming to a stop, and the whir and whine of evening traffic on Lake Shore Drive;” along with “the shriek of trains leaning into the curves of elevated tracks near Wabash and Wacker.”

I remember everything that happened in this book, know of the all the places he mentions, of the gangs and Archdiocese (Doyle worked at US Catholic Magazine) that ruled with an iron fist while ignoring the corruption around it. Then there was the snowstorm of 1979 that paralyzed the city and ultimately cost the Mayor his job (and the rise of Jane Byrne, the cities first and so far, only female mayor). But ultimately the book is less a history of that time (though it is), but more about what Chicago has done, has always done, to the people that were born, raised, and died there and the many who came to it seeking a new life and then move on, and that imprint on the soul it leaves. Even me, now eleven years nearly gone since I made the somewhat rash decision to leave, still miss the city, the friends I made and wonder of its skyline. 

Chicago, for me, is a gorgeous novel, filled with some interesting characters, human, canine, and concrete alike, and takes me back to a time when I thought there was no better place to live. It should be required reading for many Chicagoians, as well as those who visited and have felt a longing to go back.

19 May 2016

Books: Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (2016)

As a Constant Reader of Stephen King, when he likes a book he goes out of his way to praise it and that means I’ll have to read it (much as King did with Fieldwork from a few years ago). Getting high praise from the master of horror is a good sign that Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex, his first novel to be released in the United States, is a force to be reckoned with. 

“Whoever is born here is doomed to stay 'til death; whoever settles, never leaves. Welcome to Black Spring, the seemingly picturesque Hudson Valley town haunted by the Black Rock Witch, a 17th century woman whose eyes and mouth are sewn shut. Muzzled, she walks the streets and enters your homes at will. She stands next to your bed for nights on end. Everybody knows that her eyes may never be opened. The elders of Black Spring have virtually quarantined the town by using high-tech surveillance to prevent their curse from spreading. Frustrated with being kept in lockdown, the town's teenagers decide to break their strict regulations and go viral with the haunting, but in so doing send the town spiraling into the dark, medieval practices of the past.”

It’s a well-written book, but as mentioned before in other posts, I don’t find these books scary; I won’t have nightmares as this book gave folks when it was published in the Netherlands. Perhaps my rational mind understands the fantasy aspect of this and many other books in this genre and accepts them as entertainment. It is creepy and atmospheric, though, and that works very well. My only complaint may be that it takes too long to get the book going. The authors spends an inordinate amount of time setting up the books final set piece, but I felt the lead up was, at times boring. But that’s just my opinion, as I still think it’s a worthy read.

The authors note at the end explains that while Nancy Forest-Flier translated the book from Dutch to English, Thomas Olde Heuvelt speaks fluent English. While he explains why he updated the book for an American audience (here), I feel slighted that this book is not a true translation –that the Dutch version is slightly not the same and has a different ending. While I understand from a business point of view why this was done, I’m disappointed that I will not be able to read it as the author originally released it (though he did write the new finale in English himself). 

Heuvelt is the author of five novels and many short stories. His work has appeared in many languages, including English, Chinese, Japanese, Italian and French. In 2015, his story The Day the World Turned Upside Down was the first ever translated work to win a Hugo Award. Two more of his stories have been nominated for both Hugo and World Fantasy Awards.

12 May 2016

Books: Boy's Life By Robert McCammon (1992)

I’ve kind of always thought that Robert McCammon’s 1992 novel Boy’s Life was a variation on Stephen King’s 1986 classic It (as I felt his Swan Song may have been a reworking of The Stand). But to my surprise, the book has little to do with that novel, beyond the era it is set (1964 instead of the late 50s). And while there are monsters here, they are of the more human variety, but there is more than a whiff of the supernatural as well.

“Zephyr, Alabama, is an idyllic hometown for eleven-year-old Cory Mackenson—a place where monsters swim the river deep and friends are forever. Then, one cold spring morning, Cory and his father witness a car plunge into a lake—and a desperate rescue attempt brings his father face-to-face with a terrible vision of death that will haunt him forever.  As Cory struggles to understand his father’s pain, his eyes are slowly opened to the forces of good and evil that are manifested in Zephyr. From an ancient, mystical woman who can hear the dead and bewitch the living, to a violent clan of moonshiners, Cory must confront the secrets that hide in the shadows of his hometown—for his father’s sanity and his own life hang in the balance.”

In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of the King short story The Body (which became the film Stand By Me), with its sort episodic look at small town life a few months after the Kennedy assassination. And Cory’s search to find the secret of the dead man in the lake takes on a more serious route, with some hair-raising adventures both by himself and with his boyhood friends.

So while there are tinges of the supernatural within, the book plays out like a typical coming of age story, which also has a murder mystery and a heart pumping thriller at its center. It’s a well-written valentine to growing up before the world really changed in the mid 1960s, when milkmen were facing extinction due to huge grocery stores coming in with their plastic jugs instead of glass. 

A bit over-long, which I seem to comment on a lot, but I’m still glad I found this book not to be what I thought. And it proves that eventually I will get to the books I’ve always wanted to read, even if it took 24 years to do it. It also means, sadly, I’ll never live to read them all.

07 May 2016

Books: Uprooted By Naomi Novik (2015)

After complaining about the humdrum predictability of Michael J. Sullivan’s fantasy The Rivria Revelations series, I then pick up Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and I’m enchanted into a highly designed, almost beguiling fantasy of wizards, Kings, and a wickedness known only as the Wood. 

“Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood. The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her. But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose."

Novik, is a second-generation American; her father is of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry, and her mother is an ethnic Pole. After writing eight books in the Temeraire series (a ninth and final volume is due later this year and one I’ve not read), Novik decided to mine her own parents legacy in folklore and mythology of Eastern Europe for this novel. And while Uprooted certainly carries the many tropes of fantasy novels before, Novik does a splendid job of upsetting the apple cart here on those expectations (something Sullivan did not do, and thus I pass on his other work). Agnieszka (author pronounces it ag-NYESH-kah) does not have an easy life once living with the Dragon. As a matter of fact, it sort of borders on child abuse –and the set pieces through the malevolent Wood are pretty horrible stuff. And while the book could’ve used some humor to offset the darkness, it shines with greatly with wonderful characterization and a new and very original way to present these old stories. 

This appears to be a rare stand-alone fantasy novel, which I liked in many ways. But if Ms Novik were to continue, I might be inclined to follow.

26 April 2016

Books: The Crown Conspiracy By Michael J. Sullivan (2008)

So what I thought was three books turns out to be six and while that is fine, I’ve decided not to continue on reading this series.

I’ve been reading fantasy novels for decades and I’ve reached a point where this genre no longer surprises me; it's all the same, predictable and bland. But I'm still drawn to the field, so I'm always looking for someone, anyone to take those same tropes and give them a fresh re-telling. If I was fourteen, fifteen and just discovering fantasy, I may have been impressed and want to continue on, but Michael J. Sullivan is the reason why I find this sort of fiction difficult to enjoy now: he's a talented author rolling out same old, same old. Sigh.

As mentioned in a previous post, I had read The Crown Tower, the first book in Sullivan’s prequel series to The Rivria Revelations, which the author originally self-published as six books (The Crown Conspiracy, Avempartha, Nyphron Rising, The Emerald Storm, Wintertide, and Percepliquis). When Orbit acquired them, they repackaged the six books into three omnibus volumes (Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire, and Heir of Novron) containing two books each. While this was a fiscally responsible way to do this, I was sort of put off by this design, if only because I would’ve liked them re-issued separately. But that is just me. 

Anyways, after reading The Crown Tower, I decided to begin reading the original series, despite some reservations. Those uncertainties arose due to some negative reviews I read, in particular a 2012 appraisal from the site StrangeHorizons that tore the novel(s) to shreds. And while Good Reads was filled with positive appraisals, the doubts I had about The Crown Tower I took in after completing that book sort of affected my views on The Crown Conspiracy (or Theft of Swords…this is very confusing). This is why, at times, when searching for a new writers, going to Good Reads, going to the comment section on Powell's or other e-retailers can influence me. Sad, but true.

In the first book, we are is introduced to Royce Melborn, a skilled thief, and his mercenary partner, Hadrian Blackwater, who make a profitable living carrying out dangerous assignments for conspiring nobles until they become the unwitting scapegoats in the murder of the king. Sentenced to death, they have only one way out. 

Yeah, that’s about it. What I find, and sort noted in the prequel book, was The Crown Conspiracy plays out more like a Western than a true fantasy novel. Or, if you like, a meshing of medieval England(?) with every trope of that genre has put to paper and film (and are the elves here supposed to be replacements for the Native Americans or black people, or a combination of both?). There is a wizard, though Sullivan skips on actually explaining anything about how magic works here. At times, it seems the idea of magical aspects in his world comes across more as a myth; it seems to have all existed long ago and nobody is sure if the tales are true or made up children stories.

While Sullivan skimps a lot on the World Building themes that can bog down other books in this genre, he tries to build up the supposed animosity between Royce and Hadrian, which if you read anything on the series, indicates they supposedly hate each other. I mean, while they may approach the same things in different ways, they both seem to respect each other. Of course, The Crown Conspiracy takes place twelve years after The Crown Tower (which introduced the characters), so I guess they founded a mutual appreciation society in those years.

But the biggest problem with this book is how everything, and I mean everything, lands at the corner of Convenience and Coincidence. Part of the problem lies within the premise to begin with. How could two extremely smart men as Hadrain and Royce fall for the job that gets the story going? Sullivan clearly paints them as highly intelligent thieves and mercenaries, and the ease in which they stumble into the trap makes them astoundingly stupid.  Then, as someone aides in their escape, they meet Myron, the lone survivor of destroyed Abbey, who also has an eidetic memory and (conveniently) is also the son of a rival to man who hatched this convoluted plot to begin with. With Myron in tow, he’s now able to tell Hadrain and Royce the long history of this land in great detail. And while people with Myron’s ability exist, I found this way of telling the story rather contrived and unbelievable. While I understand the need for exposition, the choices made here seem lazy.

Then let’s get to the villain of this piece, which is clear from the moment he’s introduced. I never doubted for a movement that Uncle Percy Braga (Percy!!! Yeah, beyond Percy Jackson, almost all fictional characters named Percy turns out to be villains –or misguided like Percy Weasley in the Harry Potter books) was the architect of this coup. This upsets me more, because it’s so obvious. I mean, after some 40 years of reading, it is hard to surprise me, but, as noted, the challenge for me when finding new authors in a genre I have been reading that long is how they take the same themes and twist them in a new direction, much what George R.R. Martin did -even if I've not completed that series.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that Michael J. Sullivan is going offer us nothing new here. And while I enjoy the sometimes sitcom-style banter between Royce and Hadrain, it’s not enough to continue on reading the other five books in this series. 

And what about the prequel books? I do have the second book eventually coming from the library, so I may end up reading it because it needs to be transferred in. But I also now see why Sullivan admitted he has no idea how long the prequel series will continue, as I noticed in this book the tendency to have characters mention events that took place in the past, but Sullivan does not go into detail with them. This indicates to me some of those previous adventures that only got a sentence or two, will be expanded into prequel novels, like the history between the men and Gwen which was explained in The Crown Tower

But, alas, I have many, many other things I do want to read, so this writer and this series will now end here.