Saturday, December 19, 2009

Book Review - Eternity Road by Jack McDevitt

Eternity Road
Jack McDevitt
Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0061054275
416 pages

Lean in closer, my reading friends…. Closer still…. That’s better!

I have a secret to tell. I am totally hooked on well-written post-apocalyptic fantasies that reflect broken and collapsed civilizations. Throw in a bit of half-working technology, a few cannibals or bandits, and a mythical “Haven” that holds all the answers and its all the better. Make it a road trip through the decimated countryside of an under-populated, over-demolished America and you have “Eternity Road.”

Now, I know that there are quite a few naysayers out there who have taken potshots at this particular work and I have to wonder why. Yes, post-apocalyptic stories are legion and only a few seem to rise to the top (i.e. “A Canticle for Liebowitz,” “Deus Irae,” etc.) but I believe there’s always room for more. In other words “been there – done that” does not necessarily equate to a merit-less contribution. Especially when penned by a gifted writer. And, make no mistake; Jack McDevitt is a very talented writer. Here’s why “Eternity Road” should be on your reading list and why you should not listen to the negative reviews.

Small pockets of civilization remain after the world has been devastated by an unnamed calamity. In Mississippi the community of Illyria is just beginning to reemerge from the destruction. Within the community is the Imperium, a throw-back university whose sole purpose is to unravel the mysteries of the artifacts and the history left behind by the “Roadmakers.” (That would be us, my silent readers.) Over the years, the hint of a rumor remains. “Haven” exists! Haven, the one place the apocalypse has left untouched. Where the world remains as it did in the days of the “Roadmakers.” A place where technology rules, knowledge is readily available, and everyone leads a life of ease.

Enter Karik Endine, the only survivor of a failed mission to locate Haven. After his return to Illyria he becomes despondent, closed off to his friends and acquaintances, and silent about the details of the disastrous quest. Ten years elapse and Endine moves further away from his family and friends. Finally, the mysterious and untold deaths of his companions become too unbearable to deal with and he commits suicide. After his death the discovery of a Roadmaker book in his possession, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and a journal of unusual sketches causes some Illyrians to believe that Endine may have located the lost Haven. But if he did why would he keep silent all those years? Based on this new information and using the sketches as a roadmap a small band of six companions set off in search of the mysterious city of Haven.

The narrative of “Eternity Road” is, in my estimation, riveting and is in some scenes reminiscent of medieval fantasy (see the works of J. R.R. Tolkien and Raymond E. Feist for example). Especially when McDevitt describes the many ruins of the ancient Roadmakers civilization, or when the band leaves the Crooked Man, a tavern at the edge of civilization, or when they try to cross the Wabash River.

In the semi-literate society of Illyria, books hold a certain fascination. Even those who are illiterate tend to understand their importance for rebuilding society. Other reviewers have called the process of literacy decline unlikely in McDevitt’s scenario but I strongly disagree. When people are forced to live off the land, to farm and scrounge and work long days simply to survive then literacy, schools, and books will take a back seat. That people will revere the written word under these circumstances is most probable. We only have to look back at our own not-to-distant past to see the truth. At the turn of the last century the majority of illiteracy occurred in rural, thinly populated farming communities where people worked long, hard days and had little time for reading. The literate minority were regarded with something equivalent to awe and there was a social stigma attached to those who could not read and write. The Illyrians would not look upon books as curiosities, as some might think, but rather as a means to become a better more advanced and knowledgeable society.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

One other thing I believe, and this is important to me personally, is that with the deaths of many of the golden age writers, Heinlein, Clarke, Vonnegut, to name a few, we as avid SF readers are going to need other talented writers to replace them. I think Jack McDevitt fits that mold. His stories are intelligent, quirky, and contain enough science to make them believable yet he still manages to make them enjoyable to read. With the newfound popularity of Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, and Historical Science Fiction, which I enjoy immensely by the way, we still need throwback writers who can successfully expand our imaginations. Jack McDevitt does just that.

If you’re not sure what I mean pick up any one of McDevitt’s “Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins” books; The Engines of God (1994), Deepsix (2001), Chindi (2002), Omega (2003), Odyssey (2006), and Cauldron (2007); or his “Alex Benedict” books; A Talent for War (1989), Polaris (2004), Seeker (2005) and The Devil's Eye (2008).


By the by, McDevitt has won, or been nominated for, a number of prestigious Science Fiction awards:

* Nebula Best Short Story nominee (1983) : Cryptic
* Philip K. Dick Award (special citation) (1986) : The Hercules Text
* Nebula Best Short Story nominee (1988) : “The Fort Moxie Branch”
* Hugo Best Short Story nominee (1989) : “The Fort Moxie Branch”
* International UPC Science Fiction Award winner (1993) : “Ships in the Night” (first English language winner)
* Nebula Best Novella nominee (1996) : “Time Travelers Never Die”
* Arthur C. Clarke Best Novel nominee (1997) : Engines of God
* Hugo Best Novella nominee (1997) : “Time Travelers Never Die”
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (1997) : Ancient Shores
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (1998) : Moonfall
* Nebula Best Novelette nominee (1999) : “Good Intentions” (co-writer Stanley Schmidt)
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (2000) : Infinity Beach
* John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel nominee (2001) : Infinity Beach
* John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel nominee (2002) : Deepsix
* Nebula Best Short Story nominee (2002) : “Nothing Ever Happens in Rock City”
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (2003) : Chindi
* Campbell Award winner (2004) : Omega
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (2004) : Omega
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (2005) : Polaris
* Nebula Best Novel winner (2006) : Seeker
* John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel nominee (2006) : Seeker
* John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel nominee (2007) : Odyssey
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (2007) : Odyssey
* Nebula Best Novel nominee (2008) : Cauldron

Related Website:

Jack McDevitt’s author site

Jack McDevitt Wikipedia site

ISFDB Website

Google Books

Michael Swanwick’s profile of Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt’s Facebook fan club

Jack’s own explanation of how “Eternity Road” came to be

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Book Review - War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

War for the Oaks
Emma Bull
Orb Books
Trade Paperback
ISBN: 0765300346
336 pages

It’s not often that someone invents a sub-genre but Emma Bull did just that when she wrote “War for the Oaks” in 1987. The book is a pioneer of urban fantasy which I’ve labeled as Urban-Magic-Rock and Roll, if you will. Somewhat dated by the description of the clothes and the musical influences and set in Minneapolis (of all places) it is filled with supernatural and mythological characters and occurrences.

“War for the Oaks” is the story of Eddi McCandry, a musician who finds herself unwillingly forced into the world of faerie which is embroiled in a conflict between the embattled factions of light and dark.

Eddi has had a rough night. Not only has she broken up with her boyfriend but she’s quit her band. Little does she know that things are about to get even more tangled than they already are. On her way home, in a brooding, pensive state, she is stalked by a mysterious man and his menacing dog. Later they turn out to be one and the same creature, a phouka. This shape shifting prankster enlists her as the cornerstone in an ongoing battle between the good fairies of the Seelie Court and the dark and dangerous Unseelie Court, ruled by the Queen of Air and Darkness.

Eddi soon finds herself embroiled in a battle for survival between the two warring factions of fairy-world while simultaneously attempting to reconstruct a new band and in the process, a new life. Meanwhile, her emotions for her stalker take a slow three-hundred and sixty degree turn. Her resentment toward the phouka for dragging her into the war develops into gratitude for his efforts to protect her against the dark queen, and subsequently turn into devotion and then love. The story culminates during a battle-of-the-bands between Eddi and the Queen of Air and Darkness, which decides the fate of both faerie courts, as well as the fate of the supernatural creature she loves.

Pop-Culture, Mythological, and Literature references:

* The Queen of Air and Darkness – A novel by T.H. White originally titled “The Witch in the Wood.”
* The Queen of Air and Darkness – A story by Poul Anderson.
* In Celtic mythology and folk-lore, the wisdom of darkness is often expressed by powerful goddess figure known as The Queen of Air and Darkness.
* Phouka - Variants: pooka, puca - No fairy is more feared in Ireland than the phouka. This may be because it is always out after nightfall, creating harm and mischief, and because it can assume a variety of terrifying forms.
* Seelie Court - is a term used in Scottish folklore to indicate a group of light fairies. The Unseelie Court then indicates the opposite.
* Robin Goode - probably a reference to Robin Goodfellow, aka Puck the mythological fairy of mischievous nature.
* Daoine Sidhe - The divine Fairy folk of Old Irish folklore.
* Glaistig - this creature of Scottish Mythology is described as a beautiful woman with dusky or gray skin and long blonde hair. Her lower half was that of a goat, usually disguised by a long, flowing green robe or dress.
* Brownie – is a type of hob or hobgoblin and are said to inhabit houses and aid in tasks around the house; a legendary creature from Scotland and England.
* Redcap - A Red Cap or Redcap, also known as a powrie or dunter, is a type of malevolent murderous dwarf, goblin, elf or fairy; they are frequently seen on battlefields picking through the possessions of the dead and wounded.
* Bands and musicians mentioned: Prince Rogers Nelson aka Prince; Peter Gabriel; The Beatles; Kim Carnes; and Bram Tchaikovsky, among others.
* Rowan berries - In ancient times the rowan was referred to as the Tree of Life and the red berries have ensured that it is held in high esteem by many pagan traditions, for red food has been traditionally seen as food of the Gods.
* St. John’s wort - For thousands of years, people considered it a magical herb with supernatural powers, as implied by its Latin name, Hypericum perforatum, which means “over an apparition.” * Local Minneapolis locations mentioned include: Nicollet Mall; Minnehaha Falls; Como Zoo and Conservatory; the Minneapolis College of Art and Design; and at First Avenue.

A word about my rating of this book: I originally awarded this book 4 and ½ stars for character development, readability, scene description and overall style. But because of the creative and unique qualities it represents and its inventiveness I awarded it an additional ½ star for a total of…

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Book Review - Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow

Homer & Langley
E. L. Doctorow
Random House
ISBN: 1400064945
Autographed Copy
224 pages

Confessions of a book reviewer:

Confession One: I currently own a number of E. L. Doctorow’s novels but I’ve never actually read any of his works. That is until Homer & Langley. (I never understood what I was missing but now have something to look forward to.)

Confession Two: I had not heard of the Collyer brothers before reading Doctorow’s loosely based account of these very real yet tragic characters. Being a Midwesterner this particular story had never come to my attention.

Back Story:

Homer and Langley Collyer were the sons of a successful doctor and as such grew up in the relative comfort of pre-World War I Manhattan. They lived and died in a brownstone mansion in Harlem, which was in a fashionable and trendy neighborhood when it was originally purchased. Both brothers attended Columbia University. Homer received a degree in admiralty law and Langley earned a degree in engineering. As the neighborhood deteriorated and after the abandonment of their father and the eventual death of both parents the brothers inherited the mansion and became hermits and hoarders in their own home. Electing to remove themselves from society the two men began to hoard an eclectic list of items; tons of bound newspapers, books (law and medicine), mechanical contraptions (including a working Model T), scientific oddities (jars of medical samples), and numerous household appliances and knick-knacks. When burglars, who’d heard they were hoarding cash, gold, and jewelry attempted to break in the men closed off the house and set traps to deter additional would-be thieves and intruders. In the end the massive hoarding (over 134 tons of clutter) and the improvised traps would prove their downfall. Both men were found dead in 1947. Homer succumbed to starvation after the death of his brother and Langley was crushed to death by one of his own traps.

Book review:

I found E. L. Doctorow’s style lyrical, provocative, and spellbinding and “Homer & Langley” is beautifully written and wonderfully illustrative of character, place and time. Told in the first person by Homer Langley the story engrossingly recounts the genesis of the hermetic attitudes adopted by the men and gives us an insight as to how and why their world changed so dramatically over the course of their lives.

Doctorow takes minor liberties with the time line in which the Collyer Brothers lived but it in no way deters from the story itself. He succinctly presents world events through the lives of the brothers as they intersect each other. Beginning just after World War I and culminating in the 1980’s we follow the brothers through their failing health and their troubles with the utility companies, banks, and neighbors. Knowing full well at the beginning of the story that it was going to end in tragedy I was, nonetheless, captivated by the details and Doctorow’s prose. If Homer Langley had lived to recount his memoir this is much what it might have been. Doctorow handles the Collyer’s history as it was surely meant to be. Insightful and tragic yet full of the spirit and nature of men trapped by circumstance he gives voice to a family that could not do so on their own.

As the narrative glides through the decades Homer and Langley are befriended by a gangster, invite friends and neighbors into their home to dance, turn their home into a safe haven for immigrants, take up with a group of counter-culture hippies, and then plunge into the depths of ill-mental and physical health and paranoia.

In the final chapters of the story, after Homer has become completely blind and when he’s lost most of his hearing, a sympathetic character tells him, “You think a word and you can hear its sound. I am telling you what I know – words have music and if you are a musician you will write to hear them.” This is, I believe, Doctorow’s Creative Doctrine and he certainly follows the law to the letter in this story. Lyrical, musical and emotionally evocative “Homer & Langley” is a must read.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book Review - Wrack & Roll by Bradley Denton

Wrack & Roll
Bradley Denton
Popular Library/Questar
ISBN: 0445203064
Cover art by Richard Corben
eBook edition: 1001 pages

“Wrack and Roll” is one of those hard to define books. Part Urban Fantasy, part Science Fiction, part space-race story, and part counter-culture expose Denton connects them all together into a funny, witty, and frightening mixture of a world that teeters on the brink of self-destruction.

Upon opening the book one of the first things I noticed was the creative language. My first impression was that it was a weak attempt at urban hipness but it soon became apparent to me that it was much more than that. It was the language of an arrogant counter-culture, of die-haired, tattooed, body-pierced anarchists that fit perfectly with this new and oddly almost-alternative universe. With words like “scrod” and “jackbugged” (and I’ll use them both in a sentence momentarily) “Wrack & Roll” gives us a sense of a world that easily might have been.

One of the best things about this novel was Denton’s fleshing out of his alternative universe and its history. Not only does he change the way that world politics evolve but he’s given it his own contingent antagonists and the language to go with them. This is an alternative world of the Straights and the Wrackers, two diametrically opposed cultures. The Straights are the moral majority, the corporate slaves, and the monotonous Joe Q. Public types while the Wrackers are the sub-culture “off-the-grid” rock and roll performers and their fans.

“Wrack & Roll” personifies the “Butterfly Effect,” that part of chaos theory that states that small variations in any event may produce major changes later. In this case, President Franklin Roosevelt dies when he chokes on a chicken bone in 1933 and Patton rolls into Russia after the fall of Germany which changes the world’s political climate. And while the United States still leads the space race the accidental death of a most beloved musician and celebrity astronaut, Bitch Alice, on a visit to the moon in 1967 causes the unexpected destruction of the entire U.S. Space Program. Her last words? “Trash Dallas!” Why Dallas? It’s the home of the fictional National Organization for Space Science (a veiled reference to NASA). In 1979, Bitch Alice’s daughter, the Bastard Child Lieza, goes on tour with her band “Blunt Instrument” to stop the war between the U.S. and the Anglo-Chinese Alliance and prevent total world annihilation. I won’t give away the ending here but it is pure WRACK & ROLL.

And now for that sentence I promised you.

I’ve written some scrod-awful reviews in my time but most of them were because I was jackbugged out of my mind at the time. I hope this isn’t one of them.


4 out of 5 stars

Related Websites:

Brad’s author site:

Author Wikipedia site:

Bradley Denton Internet Science Fiction database site:

Wrack and Roll Internet Science Fiction database site:

Denton Interview:

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Book Review – Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake
Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 0747562598
384 pages

It only seems fitting that since I’m currently reading Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood” that I review her dystopian masterpiece “Oryx and Crake” as well. Both are set in the same apocalyptic future universe with events that run parallel and simultaneously to each other and contain some of the same characters and places. Perhaps, I thought, it’s a good time to construct a tandem review. (“The Year of the Flood” 2009 to follow.)

Are we doomed to repeat our mistakes?

What if synthetic genetic biology, horizontal gene transfer, and bio-engineering had no restrictions or laws? What would the world become if these scientific pursuits were allowed to evolve and experiment unchecked and without repercussion? What if a scientist with unscrupulous morals and unlimited resources decided to play god, believed that humanity was flawed beyond salvation, and was arrogant enough to think that he could do better? This is the setting, albeit a harrowing alternative one, of the world of “Oryx and Crake.”

Crake is a prominent scientist at HelthWyzer, a biotech corporation, and he decides to create his own version of a utopian society that will live harmoniously with each other and with nature. The genetically engineered results, part-human herbivores that are programmed to have sexual intercourse only during specific breeding seasons are the last remaining “humans” in a society that has engineered itself into extinction. The “Crakers” have been created without cultural conflict, without inhibitions, without anger or hatred. But in the process of creating the perfect society something else has gone horribly wrong.

Civilization has collapsed. An unidentified plague or disease or “waterless flood” has been released. Only a very few survive. The innocent Crakes, the moral compass of the “people,” Snowman, the mad/brilliant scientist, Crake, and his rescued paramour, Oryx are the last remaining members of the human race. Bizarre bioengineered, hybrid creatures roam the barren lands, civilization has disappeared, and the Crakes must learn to live in this brave new world. Can Snowman point them in the right direction or are we doomed to repeat our mistakes?

I’m not entirely sure how it happened but the first few books of Atwood’s that I read were her dystopian works, “The Handmaid’s Tales,” Oryx and Crake,” and most recently, “The Year of the Flood.” Each is an exceptional snap-shot of a world that could easily ‘become.’ Unlike most of the other dystopian fantasies I’ve read Atwood does not spend 300 pages extolling the evils of man, pushing and poking her point until it blurs into a political agenda. Instead, she proposes an alternate scenario of a “what if” world and allows her imagination to roam freely within it. And she does it expertly and with an edge that makes it so believable that we should make it required reading in every corporate setting that touches bio-engineering in any form. It should be read in high schools to deter would-be scientists from becoming too amoral. It should be read by government as a cautionary tale. Quite simply, it should be read!

There is something absolutely compelling about Atwood’s characters, her settings, and her science. The characters are so endearing that they almost become family members, the settings so natural yet surreal that they resemble the universe next door, and the science so believable as to be frightening. An enjoyable read… but with consequences.

5 out of 5 Stars

Main Characters:

* The Crakers – An innocent group of bioengineered children and the inheritors of the Earth.
* Snowman (Thickney) – “Father” figure and protector of the Crakers and an old classmate of Crake.
* Crake – a brilliant geneticist/mad scientist who devises a plan to rid the earth of Homo sapiens and replaces the current “destructive species” with a more peaceful and environmentally friendly human-like creature: the “Crakers.”
* Oryx - a mysterious woman symbolically related to a waif-like girl from an online child-pornography site that begins to haunt Crake as an adolescent and whom he “rescues.”

Xeno-transplanted and genetically engineered creatures:

“wolvogs” (hybrids between wolves and dogs),
“rakunks” (raccoon and skunk)
“pigoons” (pigs and baboons, for organ transplants)

Related Websites:

Margaret Atwood Official site:

Margaret Atwood Wikipedia Entry:

Margaret Atwood Society Page:

Official Oryx and Crake website:

Google books:
Wikipedia Entry:


Publisher Site (Year of the Flood):

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Book Review – Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Sarah Canary
Karen Joy Fowler
ISBN: 978-0452286474
Trade Paperback
304 pages

I’ve neglected reviewing this unusual book for far too long and since I’m currently in the middle of at least five reads (see sidebar) I thought I’d post my review of “Sarah Canary” by Karen Joy Fowler during the interim. So stay tuned for a profusion of new reviews in the coming weeks. With that in mind…

I have a weakness for hard to place works, especially those with an historical undertone. (See previous posts – World War II essentials, “Those Who Went Remain There Still,” “The Book Thief,” etc.) Sub-genre? Fantasy, science fiction, mystery, Western, non-fiction, horror it makes no difference to me. So this particular work was appealing from the very first page. And, I was not disappointed.

Who is Sarah Canary? And you’ll ask your self this question a number of times throughout the story. And just as often your perception may change. Is she:
A. A lost, pampered member of an aristocratic family?
B. A runaway suffering from a congenital mental defect?
C. A simple feral child raised by forest creatures?
D. An alien outcast banished to Earth?
E. All of the above?
F. None of the above?

The answer is… seven! (I’ll get back to this later.)

Set in the logging region of Washington Territory in 1873 “Sarah Canary” tells the story of a white woman who wanders unexpectedly into a Chinese railway workers’ camp. She is despondent and silent but captivating. And everyone she meets falls under her strange spell, including Chin, a Mandarin scholar working on the railroad; B.J., an escaped inmate from the Territorial Asylum; a union survivor of Andersonville Prison; Adelaide Dixon, a suffragist feminist on a lecture tour; and Harold, a huckster who wants to put Sarah in his traveling side-show. What do they all have in common? They are all discards of society and they all hold their own unconventional perceptions of reality. And, for some unexplained reason, they all see in and want something different for Sarah.

In addition to the flowing narrative Fowler adds quotes from Emily Dickinson before each chapter and interesting news fragments from the era to help provide clues for us to follow as we read. The historical facts give us a perspective of the times and the Dickinson quotes correspond to the action that takes place in each of the chapters. So much so, that they appear as if Fowler wrote them herself. An extraordinary feat of research in and of itself.

Fowler has given us a fine piece of historical fiction, one which manages to remain thoroughly entertaining in spite or perhaps because of the powerful and abstract nature of the subtext which is clearly alienation and perception.

Who is Sarah Canary, then? My answer “seven” above is meaningful in its meaningless. It really doesn’t matter who she is. What she is is a representation of the alienated. She is an outcast and Fowler asks us all take a step back and recall our own lonely moments, our own times of confusion, our own prejudices. And, in the end, the moral is this… even a true alien can find companionship, understanding, and empathy from complete strangers; sometimes, without even looking for it.

Sarah Canary has all the elements of good science fiction, gripping history, the suspense of mystery, and the excitement and action of a Western. In the end the book is genderless, belongs to no one genre, and yet somehow seems to fit them all. It is a retrospective on human nature, superstition, prejudice, and cultural differences and Fowler forces us to examine our own feelings concerning them in minute detail.

4 out of 5 stars

Related websites:

Author site:

Author Wikipedia Site:

Author page Internet Speculative Fiction Database:

Sarah Canary page Internet Speculative Fiction Database:

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Monday, October 12, 2009

Classic Book Review - Midnight at the Well of Souls by Jack Chalker

Midnight at the Well of Souls
(Book One of the Well World Series)
Jack L. Chalker
Del Rey / Ballantine, New York, NY
Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0345297695
Cover Art: H. R. Van Dongen
360 Pages

If you’ve never read anything by Science Fiction Master Storyteller, Jack Chalker, I suggest you immediately open a new browser tab, head over to B & N or Amazon, and purchase the entire Well World series. I’ll wait…

Back now? Good.

From the unique and creative imagination of Jack Chalker comes the Well of Souls.

Imagine a world designed by a long-extinct alien race using a planetary super-computer to xeno-form 1560 different hexagonal environments. Each “nation” is unique and home to a different intelligent alien, mythological creature, or sentient animal species. Hex 1, for example, may contain an earthlike atmosphere with citizens that resemble centaurs. Hex 2, in comparison, may harbor an alien ghostlike race that breathes and thrives on pure cyanide. Hex 3, a mountainous region, is populated by sentient giant wasps, Hex 4, a water-land dominated by mermaids. And so on…

Now, imagine your spacecraft has crash-landed on this planet and you’re forced through a zone gate (the Well of Souls) to be transmogrified into an alien species. And not just any species but the one best suited to your mental, genetic, and physical disposition as detected by the computer. You are then transported to your “home” Hex with your memories intact but buried inside an alien body. Now, survive…

This is the general premise of the Well World series. But wait, there’s more… The story begins with a monumental discovery followed by a series of murders. Mystery mounts when the murderer and a group of innocent, would-be rescuers are transported to the Well World. What follows is a combination of high drama, intrigue, politics and science all monitored by a planetary machine with a god complex. There are races of pure magic and others who hold secrets to super-science. Some are technologically advanced. Others have no resources whatsoever. Some are carbon based. Some are not. What do they all have in common? They’re all in search of the meaning of life and they lust for the power to control the Well World. Within the story you’ll encounter spaceships and evil dictators and scientists set on ruling and using the Well of Souls for their own purposes. There is slavery and debauchery, innocence and confusion, surprise and compassion, and love and hate. And that’s just the first few chapters.

The Well of Souls houses a thousand improbable well-gates built by a technologically advanced race (The Markovians) whose memory has been lost to time. Nathan Brazil, loner, space captain, enigma finds himself companioned by a mysterious mermaid, a bat-like man, and an impassioned female centaur. But Nathan Brazil's metamorphosis is more mystifying than any of the others and he’s beginning to regain a long-suppressed memory which may unlock a powerful secret at… Midnight at the Well of Souls.

Main Characters in “Midnight at the Well of Souls”

  • Nathan Brazil, an enigmatic freighter captain with a mysterious past

  • Datham Hain, a drug trafficker (“sponge” which causes an incurable, degenerative brain disease) and slaver

  • Wu Julee, Hain’s sponge-addicted servant transformed into a centaur

  • Elkinos Skander, a brilliant (and psychotic) archaeologist transformed to a fish

  • Varnett, an exceptional mathematician with an agenda of his own

  • Vardia Diplo 1261, a diplomatic courier transformed into a sentient plant

  • Serge Ortega, a former freighter captain reborn on the Well World as a six-armed half-walrus, half-snake being with political pull

The Complete Series:

Well of Souls
1. Midnight at the Well of Souls (1977) 5 out of 5 stars
2. Exiles at the Well of Souls (1978) 4 ½ out of 5 stars
3. Quest for the Well of Souls (1978) 4 ½ out of 5 stars
4. The Return of Nathan Brazil (1979) 5 out of 5 stars
5. Twilight at the Well of Souls: The Legacy of Nathan Brazil (1980) 5 out of 5 stars
6. The Sea Is Full of Stars (1999) 4 out of 5 stars
7. Ghost of the Well of Souls (2000) 5 out of 5 stars

Watchers at the Well
1. Echoes of the Well of Souls (1993) 4 out of 5 stars
2. Shadow of the Well of Souls (1994) 4 out of 5 stars
3. Gods of the Well of Souls (1994) 4 out of 5 stars

Entire Series Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 stars

Related websites:

Wikipedia site:

Google Books:

Well World Wikipedia site:

Jack L. Chalker at BookRags:

Internet Speculative Fiction Database:

Baen Books page:

Unfortunately, it appears that Jack’s official website ( was abandoned sometime after his untimely death in 2003.

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Why Book Reviews Are Important To Me (A Mission Statement) by The Alternative

The other day I was asked by a speculative fiction blog writer to participate in a survey concerning this blog and its content. The main idea was to identify the most popular single entry here and write a short paragraph telling why that post was considered the most heavily trafficked. This got me thinking and I realized that I’d never really contemplated why I maintain and write this review blog. Reviewing books just sort of happened one day; was a natural result of reading for enjoyment and wanting to share my experiences. This is especially true of the works that make an impact on me or are remarkably or exceptionally enjoyable, creative, or unique.

So, why do I review the books I read? What’s in it for me?

The answer is both simple and complex but also obvious. I love books! But what exactly does that mean? Simply, I adore the locations that books take me, the feelings they evoke in me, the situations they take me to, the sights, the sounds, and the smells of exotic unimaginable places. Mysteries, aliens, murders, wars, politics, religion… speculative fiction has them all. And this is perhaps the main reason I love the genre so much and why I choose to share my thoughts here. My love of the written word is an addiction, an obsession, and has become a way of life.

I love books so much, in fact, that I have many thousands of them in different formats and styles. I use an electronic reader, my phone, computer files, and of course, the universal standard known as paper to read them. I collect anthologies, signed editions, magazines, novels, chapbooks, novellas, and every imaginable combination thereof. And, I have found merit in each and every one of them. Even those I have panned in review. You see, I truly understand how damn difficult it is to write. Even something as uncomplicated as this paragraph went through a painstaking process. Why? Because I wanted to get it right. I wanted to write it in such a way that you would understand exactly what I wanted to say. The same is true of the novelist. They understand what writing takes out of them and what they take back from it. And they want to get it right.

Complexly, there is a satisfaction I get from reading that cannot be attained through any other form of entertainment. To me a book begins as a skeleton. Bare-boned, it has no real flesh. It is a printed story. Words on paper. Even the great classics and my favorite books start out this way. But what I do with that story in my own imagination, using my own experiences, my own intelligence, my own faults, desires, imperfections, is much more than the sum of all its parts. I fill in the blank spaces, the colors and the characters and the scenes and the smells, with my own perceptions as I understand them and turn them into something better than simple words on paper. The author strings a series of words together to make a cohesive story but I bring life to the words. In my hands a book becomes a living breathing entity that lives in my imagination. Conversely, your experience will be similar but completely different then mine. This is what the literary critic Edmund Wilson meant when he said, “No two persons ever read the same book.”

A movie, by comparison, leaves very little to internal machinations. The images are presented in live action for two hours. You do not have to labor for nor supply any of the filler, any of the detail. They are forced upon you through visuals, by the filmmaker’s grand perception of the movie, and all of us sitting in that theatre see those same images. Colors are dazzling. Special effects are mind-blowing. Characters are visualized, flaws and strengths and all, but all the work has been done for me by the cinematography crew. There’s nothing left for me. In a book the characters, scenes and places evolve, grow, change and become much more than an image on the screen. They become an entire world created in the mind. And once they’ve left the page they become a permanent part of us. We will never be the same person we were; will have changed because of it. Sometimes those changes are poignant and easily identifiable, others times they are incomprehensible, waiting to be explored but we are changed none-the-less.

As many of you already know I try to review a book not by repeating what I’ve read but by trying to give you a better understanding of the essence of the story. Repeating a story in your own words is not a book review. It’s a synopsis and you can get that by simply reading the book flap or the back cover. What I hope to do here is to give you, the reader an idea of what the book meant to me as I was reading it and why I’ve rated it as I have. My insights are recorded to give you a better feel for what I’ve read so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not you might like to read it yourself. Hopefully, I’ve been successful. If I have please let me know: Add a comment here, become a follower, check a reaction, send me an e-mail and let me know your thoughts. Is this as worthwhile to you as it is to me?

Delving deeply into a story and telling you what it means to me is admittedly a difficult task. And I’m certain that I don’t always get it right. But I do hope that what I say, what I feel, about a work gives you a better understanding of the story. Whether you agree with me or not is beside the point. That we contemplate the merits of the work, gain an understanding of the skill used to create it, and feel the depth of the characters and their emotional impact on us, and the feelings we experiences when traveling to that other world is of utmost importance. If I personally can do that better, for even one of you, then I know that my work here is not in vain.

Thank you all for visiting this site and for returning.

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

P.S. The very professional speculative blog I spoke about earlier can be found here:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Book Review - Those Who Went Remain There Still by Cherie Priest

Those Who Went Remain There Still
Cherie Priest
Subterranean Press 2008
ISBN 978-1-59606-179-8
Fantasy/Horror/Historical Fiction
Signed, numbered edition (113/200)
Cover art by Mark Geyer
170 pages

“Those Who Went Remain There Still” is an Americana folk tale with a macabre and horrifying spin. It is, in essence, a tale of monsters, both real and imagined, human and… other, with elements of folklore, family history, and a feud that spans over ten decades. But it is much more. Bringing together components of family, local and national history, Priest has a knack for getting close to the characters and places that she creates. What’s more, she has the remarkable ability to make you feel close to them as well. In doing so she weaves a tightly knit tale with wonderful characters that live off the page.

The story shifts between the perspectives of one of the U.S.’s most enigmatic real-life trailblazers, Daniel Boone to a group of strong frontiersmen that are loosely drawn on the author’s own ancestors.

The year is 1775 and Daniel Boone and his crew of axmen are cutting a trail through the Cumberland Gap of Kentucky. But they’ve disturbed the nest or hunting grounds of something that is hateful, spiteful, smart, and mad as hell at them for trespassing. One night they are attacked by this strange flying creature (larger than a bear it reeks of death and ruin) and a single man goes missing. Every few nights the creature returns and every few nights another man disappears. In a subsequent attack the beast is injured and Boone and a volunteer head off into the dark forest to finish the job. After battling and killing the beast they dump the body into a nearby cave.

One hundred years later the Coys and Manders are summoned back to their home town after the death of the eldest family member. Six men, three Coys and three Manders, are chosen to enter the “Witches’ Pit” a cave where the last will and testament of the deceased patriarch has supposedly been hidden. Choosing three men from each clan the deceased tries to quell the feud posthumously by forcing the two clans to cooperate together to locate the will. What the six chosen men don’t know is that Boone and his axmen did not completely finish the job they started and something wicked, evil, angry and hungry is waiting for them in the depths of the cave.

While horror is not one of my favorite genres and only a very few good stories have held my attention in the past this folk tale was written so beautifully and with such an ear for the historical folklore and myths of the Kentucky mountains that I could not put it down. In a way it reminded me of Orson Scott Card’s “Alvin Maker” stories which I enjoyed immensely but there was something different about “Those Who Went…” Priest shows a great deal of pride in her heritage and her characters are believable, earthy, rugged and confident individuals. And, there is magic… or the unknown woven throughout. Perhaps because Priest includes fictional representatives of her own family it is clear to me that this was a subject she really cares about. Perhaps, more authors should do the same. All in all, this is a fantastic work of speculative fiction. No finer words of praise might be said than, “I’ve become a fan!”

A word about the included Chapbook – The small Chapbook, “Those Who Went Remain There Still (How it Really Went Down.)” which was included with the purchase of the signed version of the hardcover of the same name, is a short essay concerning the author’s use of verbal family history woven into American history and the creative imagination used to write this wonderful piece of (too) short fiction. Using verbal family tales as a baseline the author mixes components of the fictitious life of Daniel Boone with the fear of darkness and deep caverns, a century’s old family feud, the possible cooperation of six very different men, and creatures not quite of this earth. An interesting and informative addition to the text.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book Review - Desolation Road by Ian McDonald

Desolation Road
By Ian McDonald
PYR (An imprint of Prometheus Books)
Published 2009
ISBN 978-1-59102-744-7
Trade Paperback (Reprint)
Cover Illustration by Stephan Martiniere
363 pages

Too long out of print Ian McDonald's “Desolation Road” is superb, highly entertaining science fiction and an exceptional first novel.

McDonald is frequently compared to many of the great classic Science Fiction writers, and for good reason, his style and creative devices are poetically unique. Elements of Walter Miller's “Canticle For Lebowitz,” China Meiville’s unique world building, and a remarkable similarity to Fred Pohl and Robert Heinlein’s storytelling skills are evident. Ian McDonald is, in my estimation, one of our most talented Science Fiction novelists and “Desolation Road” is the best Science Fiction I’ve read in some years.

“Desolation Road” where time begins and the road ends.

Teraforming, time travel, living machines, assassins, chronokinetics, a powerful evil corporation, politics, mystical powers, robots, super-tech weapons, labor strikes, and an assortment of the most amazing characters ever created McDonald is ready to steal the spotlight from the classic Science Fiction writers of yesteryear. A unique voice in an ocean teaming with competition McDonald will, in my estimation, stand the difficult test of time.

Bizarre characters like the mysterious greenperson; Dr. Alimantando, the time traveling founding father of the town of Desolation Road; Persis Tatterdemalion, the now grounded, once high flying, stunt woman, and her Astounding Tatterdemalion Air Bazaar; and Adam Black’s Wonderful Traveling Chataqua and Educational ‘Stravaganza, to name just a few, will draw you in. You’ll be dismayed each time you have to put it down. Expect to stay up late reading this one! “Desolation Road” includes and provides insight into most of the basic themes of great Science Fiction but far more than that it is creative beyond your wildest imagination.

Thanks PYR for bringing back this out of print gem!

5 out of 5 stars

More information about Ian McDonald can be found here at Wikipedia and here at the author’s LiveJournal site “Cyberabad”

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Book Review - The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia

The Secret History of Moscow
By Ekaterina Sedia
Sony eBook version
Prime Books
ISBN 978-0809572236
November 2007
617 (eBook) pages

“The Secret History of Moscow” is the story of a magical underground alternative world that lies just beneath the surface of Moscow. It is a mysterious place that is populated by gods, legends, and characters drawn from Russian literature and fairy tale.

When people in and around Moscow begin to disappear it becomes the task of four unlikely heroes to unravel the mystery, discover their whereabouts, and save them. An out of work painter, the unstable sister of one of the missing women, a gypsy, and a paper pushing policeman join forces with some of the oddest characters of Russian myth, folklore, and legend to help solve the mystery.

A very enjoyable read with mystery, myth, mayhem, and magic as the central plot devices Sedia weaves an interesting story that pulls from Russian history many of its darkest legends and characters. Mix in a bit of the Russian Mob, a few mythological gods, and a magic spell or two and you have "The Secret History of Moscow." Entertaining and fun!

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Classic Book Review - Deathworld by Harry Harrison

By Harry Harrison
Stanza eBook version (iPhone)
Classic Science Fiction

“Deathworld” has all the elements of a classic Science Fiction great and lives up to its name; spaceships, high tech weapons, psychic communication, battles, intrigue, action, and bug-eyed monsters. But more than all this it is a legendary story.

First penned in 1960 “Deathworld” is typical of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. The hero is larger than life, the antagonist(s) are creatures right out of Stephen King's imagination, and as an added bonus it contains one of the deadliest alien planets ever conceived.

Harrison, unfairly, receives a lot of bad reviews for his style and is sometimes rated as a “B” Science Fiction novelist. While not as popular as many of his contemporaries Harrison has something that many do not. An exceptional sense of humor! Read a few of the Stainless Steel Rat books and you’ll know what I mean.

“Deathworld” was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1961 and lost to “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller which is another excellent read.

After almost fifty years it still lives up to expectations and delivers great entertainment.

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Sent from my iPhone

Monday, September 07, 2009

Book Review - Gunpowder by Joe Hill

By Joe Hill
PS Publishing
ISBN 978-1-848630-14-7
81 pages (Novella - 22,600 words)

Gunpowder is an aptly named unstable planet out on the galactic fringe. It is a cold, bleak, desolate place selected for terraforming. The technicians, however, are not your run-of-the-mill scientists but a group of not-quite-human children who have had their DNA manipulated. They have been created to breathe and live in the atmosphere without mechanical means and, more importantly, they have psychic abilities that will help them achieve their goal. But they are outcasts from Earth and the hope is that they may one day save it from a future devoid of resources.

Then war comes to the galaxy and the boys’ unique psyforming capabilities are enlisted by a mysterious stranger sent by the military. With nothing more than the power of their imaginations they can create the raw materials for missiles powerful enough to destroy moons. They can dream into existence spacecraft strong enough to fly through a supernova without being damaged. They can give the universe a military force so powerful that no one would dare defy it. And the military wants them as weapons. The question is… do they want to become soldiers for a society that has cast them off?

And one child, the deficient boy, without a psyforming ability and with the word VOID imprinted inside his glowing eyes, holds the key. What sacrifice might he make… for love?

Joe Hill’s first published venture into the realm of Science Fiction rates a resounding YES! If Gunpowder is a prologue to more stories set in this same multi-verse I can only hope that they are published soon.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Book Review - The Women of Nell Gwynne’s by Kage Baker

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s
Kage Baker
Subterranean Press
ISBN: 9781596062504
Publication Date: June 30, 2009
122 pages
Illustrated by J. K. Potter

“The Women of Nell Gwynne’s” is a Victorian steampunk murder-mystery with characters and locations reminiscent of a Dickens novel. Nell Gwynne’s is a high-class bordello in London that caters to Parliament, nobility, and the aristocracy. While servicing these distinguished men the women of Nell Gwynne, a highly unusual group of whores, attempt to uncover and collect political secrets for use by their employer the GSS, a super-secret scientific agency that protects the Crown.

While attending a diner party held by a British nobleman, Lady Beatrice and her fellow ladies-of-the-evening, uncover a scheme to sell anti-gravity technology to the highest bidder. After the various groups retire to their bedrooms for a night of frolicking the host is found murdered and the women take it upon themselves to investigate. As well they should. Mrs. Corvey, the madam, and her stable of working girls are no ordinary whores. They are strong, smart, capable, and not above kicking some high-brow ass when needed.

This compact and well-written novella is filled with intrigue, turn-of-the-century dialogue, steampunked technology, murder and mystery and sets up a universe that will hopefully become a recurrent one in Baker’s universe of strange and exciting times and places. An enjoyable, entertaining, and quick read I, for one, hope to see more of “The Women of Nell Gwynne’s” soon.

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeastern Wisconsin

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Book Review - The Affinity Bridge - George Mann

The Affinity Bridge
(A Newbury and Hobbes Investigation)
George Mann
Tom Doherty Associates
ISBN: 0-7653-2320-6
334 pages

“The Affinity Bridge” is an action-adventure steampunk mystery of the first order. George Mann combines Victorian era dialogue, a murder mystery, zombies, automata, dark magic, the macabre act of brain switching, and dirigibles to tell a truly interesting and exciting story. In the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Who, and The Avengers, “The Affinity Bridge” introduces the team of Sir Maurice Newbury and Ms Veronica Hobbes, agents of the Crown (Scotland Yard). Together, they are enlisted by the Queen to discover the cause of an air balloon crash and the unknown identities of the victims. Mann weaves an intricate tale of mystery and adventure whilst visiting the seedier sides of Victorian London and manages to write it in such a way that you believe you’ve traveled to an alternative Victorian history such as you’ve never seen the likes of before. The intrigue, dialogue and plot are first rate and you’ll even be surprised by events a time or two. Well worth the time and money spent!

4 stars out of 5

The Alternative
Southeastern Wisconsin

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Book Review - Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey

Santa Olivia - Jacqueline Carey

Format: Trade Paperback, 341 pages
Publisher: Grand Central
Cover Design: Alan Ayers
Release Date: May 29, 2009
ISBN-10: 0-44619817X
ISBN-13: 978-0446198172

Santa Olivia is an urban, post-apocalyptic novel concerning a small community caught in a battle of borders and subsequently set apart from the rest of America by the military. A plague threatens the U.S. and the border with Mexico is sealed. Santa Olivia, a small Texas town, is isolated between the walls of the two paranoid countries. The tale of the Garron family (and the town itself) is a study of human alienation, the loss of technological amenities, and isolation. But it is also one of strength and survival under the most demanding of situations. Carey's strength is by far the modeling of her characters. They become so real that you'll begin to feel their emotions after only a few pages. The story delves into the raw emotion of abandonment (on many different levels) and confronts the issue in a very unique way.

Loup Garron is the child of an incarcerated mother and an “enhanced” father who shows up in the cordoned off city of Santa Olivia. A stranger and “different from other men,” he is befriended and then loved by Loup's mother. As the story unravels we find that Loup’s father was a genetically engineered human who has super strength and that fear has been completely engineered out of him. When Loup is born in the town square under the statue of Santa Olivia many take it as a sign of protection. But a few years later Loup's mother dies from the plague and she and her brother are forced to move to the local orphanage. Loup’s brother, Tommy, begins working at the local boxing gymnasium and realizes that if he becomes a boxer and beats the favored Army boxer he will win freedom for himself and his sister.


But Tommy dies in a fixed prizefight when his opponent is switched with a twin that is also “enhanced.” Loup picks up the mantle and trains to destroy the man who killed her brother. In the end, she wins the fight but is taken into custody when the military realizes that she too is “enhanced.” She is tortured and beaten but, with the help of an improbable ally, eventually escapes to Mexico.

Note: According to legend, Saint Olivia was the beautiful daughter of a noble family. At the age of thirteen she was kidnapped and taken as a slave. Impressed by her virtue and beauty her abductors permitted her to live in a cave as a hermitess. Later, she began to perform miracle cures on the local sick. Consequently she was imprisoned and tortured. She was sentenced to be burnt to death, but the flames would not touch her. She was finally decapitated. Her sainthood is celebrated on June 10th.

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Book Review - Death's Head Series by David Gunn

Death’s Head Series
David Gunn

1. Death’s Head (4 ½ stars out of 5)
2. Death’s Head: Maximum Offense (4 stars out of 5)
3. Death’s Head: Day of the Damned (4 stars out of 5)

When it’s time to put down those dusty classics, the recommended high-brow literature and your lengthy summer reading list I suggest you pick up any one of David Gunn’s Death’s Head books. They are the Science Fiction equivalent of the action adventure blockbuster movies you’ve come to know and love. The stories move faster than the speed of light and are quite literally jammed with swearing, shooting and screwing (not necessarily in that order.) Between the three S’s however, you’ll find great storytelling, sharp dialogue and quite a few unique literary inventions. Wait! That just doesn’t give justice to Gunn’s work. There is backstabbing, compassion, evisceration and even a bit of technological tom-foolery. Yes, I said it – tom-foolery. How else do you explain the computer chip resurrection some characters achieve? But take my word for it this is not a cheap sub-plot to play god. There is logic and purpose behind the concept. You’ll feel it before you truly understand it.

The Death’s Head books are military Science Fiction the way it was intended to be written and the way it must be read. The characters are the meanest, nastiest, toughest survival-types you’ll ever meet and they find themselves in impossible situations under unbelievable odds. Yet, they still manage to stay sane and complete the missions (well, most of them anyway.) Two of my favorite creations are the talking gun (and a smart-ass to boot) and a cognizant, sentient planet. You really have to read them to understand the complexities involved. But believe me when I tell you that it’s absolutely worth it. I’ve been reading the series since the publication of the very first book and I wait impatiently for each next installment to hit the bookstores. (I haven’t done that since Harry Potter!) This is great solid, throw-back military Science Fiction and I assure you that you won’t be wasting your money if you purchase every book in the series.
The Alternative
Southeast, Wisconsin

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Book Review - Personal Effects: Dark Arts

Personal Effects: Dark Arts
J C Hutchins and Jordan Weisman

“Personal Effects: Dark Arts” is a bleak, noir story of gruesome multiple murders and the physiatrist assigned to interview the suspected criminal responsible. But there is so much more to this story then I ever expected. It is a dark mystery with a very unusual and highly unique concept. Packaged inside the front cover and included with the purchase is a myriad of physical clues. Included documents, photographs, and personal effects provide minute clues and added enjoyment to the story. The files of ephemera add to the mystery and the unsolved murders. Sticky notes with phone numbers, funeral cards with websites, driver’s license, credit cards, etc. all provide evidence to the actual architect of the numerous heinous crimes committed. The story, in short, might have stood well on its own merits but the addition of the physical evidence made it much more enjoyable for me and is a unique concept that I've never seen before.

The protagonist, Zach Taylor, a psychiatrist who practices art therapy, is given the case of one Martin Grace an ex-CIA operative who has a sordid past. Martin is incarcerated at the Brinkvale Psychiatric Hospital with a case of psychosomatic blindness and accused of multiple murders. Zachary finds himself involved more deeply than he anticipated when he is dragged into the dark world of Grace.The climax is a blend of clues gathered through the narrative with additional help from the included personal effects.

This mystery is highly accessible to even the most novice reader buts hold untold secrets for even the most experienced viral alternative reality gamer.

Good fun and a fun to read especialy for those who love to unravel mysteries by themselves.

4 out of 5 stars
(added points for all the extras)
The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Monday, August 10, 2009

Book Review - Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

“Sandman Slim” is by no means a literary masterpiece and thank the demons below and the angels above that it isn’t. It is, however, an extremely dark urban fantasy littered with the dead bodies of angels, demons, humans, magicians, civilians, Kissi, and Hellions, to name just a few. And one Hell of a good read!

The main character, Jimmy “Sandman Slim” Stark is forced by an evil cadre of magicians into Hell where he lives for eleven years fighting demons, monsters and worse in Lucifer’s battle-arena of the macabre. Returning to earth, with the help of a magic amulet, he finds that during his absence the magicians who sent him to the Inferno have also murdered his girlfriend. Bent on revenge and with a little help of his own magic Stark begins an epic search for the men who sent him to Hell and killed the love of his life. Along the way he is befriended by arch-angels, alchemists and monsters and hunted by demons, magicians and police.

Kadrey definitely knows how to spin a dark tale. His language, while offensive to some, fits the character of the story perfectly. Gritty, dark, angst-ridden and graphic the dialogue and fight scenes are coarse, bloody and down-right mean spirited. And to me that’s exactly what made this book spark. How could you not write noir razor-blades about a character this flawed and angry? Besides, if you had to deal with half the bad-asses Stark had to you’d be pissed off too! Beheadings, ritual sacrifice, demon weapons, magic, monsters and gore… just the way I like my back-alley fantasy!

4 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Book review - The Stranger Book One - The Labyrinths of Echo - Max Frei

“The Stranger,” the first book in “The Labyrinths of Echo” series, is comprised of numerous who-dun-it mysteries that are set in a magical new dimension. When Max, the protagonist, leaves his own dimension into Echo he finds himself befriended by a strange Magician named Sir Juffin Hulley, The Most Venerable Head of the Minor Secret Investigative Force. The two men strike up a close friendship after Max is discovered to have magical skills himself. Russian novelist Frei knows how to tell a good story. Every chapter in the book is a new mystery with dark magic running throughout each. From a demon inhabited mirror, to a Grand Magician who is attempting to beat death by murdering innocents, to the creation of a New World (alternative city) by a ‘good’ magician, each story is well told and told well.

“The Stranger” is reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” and Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” stories but with much more action, “The Stranger” is set in a magical Victorian dream world accessible only via an enchanted trolley. Frei has developed well-rounded, believable characters and places but his real strength is his dialogue and the developing friendships of the characters. I always find it compelling when a new author tells a good story set in an alternative world. Especially when done from a unique and creative angle. This is one of those tales.

Engaging and entertaining this book receives 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

From the book flap:
Max Frei’s novels have been a literary sensation in Russia since their debut in 1996, and have swept the fantasy world over. Presented here in English for the first time, The Stranger will strike a chord with readers of all stripes. Part fantasy, part horror, part philosophy, part dark comedy, the writing is united by a sharp wit and a web of clues that will open up the imagination of every reader.Max Frei was a twenty-something loser-a big sleeper (that is, during the day; at night he can’t sleep a wink), a hardened smoker, and an uncomplicated glutton and loafer. But then he got lucky. He contacts a parallel world in his dreams, where magic is a daily practice. Once a social outcast, he’s now known in his new world as the “unequalled Sir Max.” He’s a member of the Department of Absolute Order, formed by a species of enchanted secret agents; his job is to solve cases more extravagant and unreal than one could imagine-a journey that will take Max down the winding paths of this strange and unhinged universe.

Note: Max Frei (Russian: Макс Фрай) is the fictional narrator of ten Russian fantasy novels which make up the “The Labyrinths of Echo” series (“Лабиринты Eхо”), as well as several other novels. He is also presented as the author of these and other works, although in an additional twist of fantasy, it has been revealed that Max Frei is actually a pen name of Svetlana Martynchik and Igor Stepin the true creators of this literary icon.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Book Reviews – Essential World War II Stories

Five in one book review

The following five stories depict the human condition under the most severe of inhuman circumstances. From various perspectives each novel shares the story of genuine people (if not in reality then in essence) caught under the Fascist boot heels of the Third Reich during and/or after World War II. In Night by Elie Wiesel we are told the true story of Wiesel based on his own experiences as a teenaged Orthodox Jew inside the notorious concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. In Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief we see life in Germany from the perspective of a loving family caught up in the Nazi stranglehold of nationalism while not truly believing. Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor's Tale, a graphic novel of superb quality, recounts his father’s experiences of eluding capture by the Nazi’s in war-torn Warsaw. David Benioff’s City of Thieves provides us with an insightful yet gruesome vignette of life in Leningrad during the siege and occupation of rural Russia by German storm troopers. And The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass is a fictional account of the absurdities of life in Danzig, Germany during the war. All five stories capture the duality of humanity amidst the horrors of survival, suffering, and the will to persevere in the harshest of conditions under extreme duress. There is abomination and hatred in every one of these stories, they are, after all, images of World War II, but more than that is the inherent idea that love, tenderness and the human spirit will overcome all odds. I recommend all five highly.

Elie Wiesel – Night
Markus Zusak - The Book Thief
Art Spiegelman - Maus: A Survivor's Tale
David Benioff - City of Thieves
Gunther Grass -The Tin Drum

Elie Wiesel – Night

Night is the hesitantly told story of Elie Wiesel and his family and their experiences in the German concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Wiesel suffered his teenage years as a prisoner in both prison camps and vowed never to speak of his experiences there. In Wiesel’s own words, “To be silent is impossible, to speak forbidden.”

Because of his lost spiritualism and faith in mankind he kept his word for ten years but was persuaded by French novelist Francois Mauriac to complete it for the world. Night exposes Wiesel’s struggles during and after the Holocaust and it is brilliantly written and emotionally charged. This true documentary will upset your sensibilities but the spirit of the man who endured it will most certainly lift yours.

Though not as well-known as The Diary of Anne Frank Elie Wiesel’s Night is just as compelling and heartbreaking and should be on your essential WWII “To Read” list.

5 stars out of 5

Markus Zusak - The Book Thief

The Book Thief is, in my estimation, an incredible read! From the clipped-quick style to the controversial content this is truly a magnificent story. Zusak relies on the rare ability to entrance the reader and stir emotions long subdued and held in check. He shows us that all people are capable of incredible evil and delicate, heart-rending good. Although labeled Young Adult this is by no means a children’s book. It is the height of World War II, Nazi Germany 1939-1945, and we understand from the outset that an unnatural tragedy is in the making but Zusak surprises and delights us with this powerful tale and while we all know what’s going to happen in the end I couldn’t help myself from turning pages at a furious rate to see how it would all play out. With a creative and unique plot device and a macabre twist Zusack mixes the voice of death as the narrator and the reluctant collector of souls and the enclosed world of pre-teen Liesel, the book thief of the title. Her first stolen book? The Gravediggers Handbook which should give you a pretty good idea of where this story is going to takes us. There is much to love about this book; the characters, plot devices, twists and surprises will keep you entranced throughout.

5 out of 5 stars

Art Spiegelman - Maus: A Survivor's Tale

The strength of this story is the true account of the elder Spiegelman’s struggles to survive the Holocaust as a Polish Jew in Warsaw. It is interspersed with the author’s troubled relationship with his father and the strength of the two to tell the story. The father because he has never before spoken of his experiences and the son to understand the pain and suffering his father endured.

All the characters in this work of art are represented as ethnological animals, an insightful and creative machination on the part of the artist. The Jews, for example, are depicted as scrawny mice (thus Maus, German for “mouse”), the Nazi’s as plump over-fed cats, and the Polish military officers as prodigious pigs. The only humanistic renderings in the book take place during the back story of the suicide of the author’s mother. But these graphic depictions do not distract from the powerful demonstrative story of the struggle to survive not only the worst war of our time but the worst moments in human history. In fact, they serve only to enhance it.

Wonderful storytelling and exceptional art make this a must read for the historians as well as the emotionalists among us. This book is a unique combination of docu-drama, biography, and comic-strip all rolled into one and it works on a grand scale.

5 out of 5 stars

David Benioff - City of Thieves

City of Thieves is a coming-of-age voyage (to find a dozen eggs no less) in the war torn city of Leningrad, Russia. It is the winter of 1941 and the German Army has besieged the city. Rations are non-existent, citizens are dying by the hundreds, and everyone lives in fear of being overrun by the enemy. They have no alternative but to fight for survival. Lev and Kolya, young teen-age Russians, are arrested, Lev for looting a dead paratrooper, and Kolya for desertion. With their arrests both are destined to take a short trip that ends with their backs poised against a wall brushed with blood. But before their execution in the face of a firing squad they are given a reprieve by the city’s acting military commander. They are ordered on a mission to find a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake. They are given less than a week to complete their task and their ration cards are confiscated. Without a means of obtaining food what else can they do but try and fulfill the task. But in a city that has resorted to cannibalism where could they possibly find what they search for? The story develops as the two young men head off in search of the prized components.

Based on the true-life adventures of Benioff’s grandfather we are transported to a city that has fallen on the hardest of times. Starvation, desperation, and self-preservation are the only law in Leningrad and that image of desolation and destruction lays the groundwork for the rest of the story. The quest for eggs takes them to a private whore house in the woods, to Russian partisans in the rural outskirts of the city, and to a German military camp where the final stand-off is played over a chess set. Benioff explores the grief and indifference of the characters while they hide from snipers, infiltrate a line of captured prisoners and eventually find what they were looking for. Peace!

This is a true heart-rending story written with love, care and consideration. Well worth the read.

4 ½ stars out of 5

Gunther Grass – The Tin Drum

By far the oddest of the books reviewed here The Tin Drum is a direct contrast between art and war. The underlying theme is that art has the power to overcome the inhumanities of war in society. The theme of performance, music and art permeates throughout the novel.

The Tin Drum is the fictional autobiography of Oskar Matzerath and is a masterpiece of surrealism and characterization and is an exact counterpoint to City of Thieves. Oskar, at the age of three, voluntarily wills himself not to grow up after receiving a tin drum for his birthday. He develops a strained high-pitched singing voice that he uses in various ways; breaking glass, defending his drum (which he is never without), breaking and entering, tombstone inscribing, and entrancing his audience.

Much like the Russian masters Oskar’s autobiography is also the biography of his family and its history and the book delves into the manic lives of the people who affect his life. His mother, her husband Alfred, his mother’s lover and many others who cross paths are all tragic characters of the first degree.

With convoluted interwoven relationships, extramarital affairs, traveling troupes of dwarf clowns, front line battle antics, criminal anti-establishment youth gangs, jazz music, fortune and fame, tombstone engraving, the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, music recording deals, murder, a dismembered finger, and an insane asylum this story has something for everyone. You must read it to get the full effect… Try as I might, my words could never suffice.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast, Wisconsin

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Book Review - The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book has received a lot of 4 and 5 star reviews all over the internet but quite frankly I don't understand why. Perhaps Gaiman's reputation and his previous work accumulated higher marks than the book really deserves. Perhaps only his uber-fans are leaving reviews or they’re using a more liberal grading system than normal. I do think Neil Gaiman is a brilliant writer with a unique style but this particular story falls far short of his other work. After multiple homicides on page one nothing happens (and I mean absolutely nothing) for the next hundred pages or more. Slow and plodding The Graveyard Book does not deliver, in my estimation, and I’m afraid it will not stand the test of time. Even as a children's book it's very weak. You’ll forget about this story ten minutes after you’ve finished reading it.

2 ½ stars of 5

The Alternative

Southeast, Wisconsin

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Book Review - Nitt-Witt Ridge by Crash Gordon

Nitt-Witt Ridge (A Big Sur Freak Fable)
Crash Gordon
Three Graces Press
212 pages

A book review (of sorts):

Recipe for a maniacal romp through a Dada-esque Wonderland.

1. One antagonist: A sadistic serial-killing black and chrome lizard-rooster (disguised as an evil mother-in-law or, as a tremendous robotic chicken [and the phallic implications here are legion]) - Check

2. Two unsung and unlikely heroes: Philo the flying wonder owl-boy and his dad, Harley, the absent, tree-habitating naturalist – Check

3. One ancient soul: The sage, unparagoned Captain Nitt-Witt himself, Art Beal - Check

4. A pinch of hallucinogenic wonderment: The smoke from an exploding hamster (inhaled voraciously) and the rare Ecuadorian bonsai papaya tree bud (ingest two only) - Double Check

5. Stir in a mixed bag of offbeat, avant-garde characters: Imagine the combined characters from Cannonball Run, the Island of Doctor Moreau, and the WWF Wrestling Federation and you begin to skim the top - Check

6. Crank up a full portion of mood music: Led Zeppelin IV (preferably on vinyl) - Check

7. Add 4 ozs. of absinthe and a few Carlsberg Elephant malts - Check

Mix them all together in the climax at the Helldorado parade in the dead of summer and…

Viola !!!

Nitt-Witt Ridge

Crash Gordon delivers this unprecedented and extraordinary Zen Koan-like novel with a voice as confident and alluring as the ancient Greek philosophers, but with much more humor. This is a solid offering from a first-time author who has the voice of a more mature writer. Featuring an unpredictable cast of characters this short but bittersweet psychedelic, semi-autobiography is considerably more grassroots and elemental than anything by Richard Brautigan and is hipper, tripier, and trendier than Jakucho Setouchi. Listen… the flaming “crotch-o-lantern” is not the craziest thing you’ll read in this book, nor are the exploding canines, or the befeathered chrome-metallic serial-killer. Did I mention that the story climaxes in a duel between our heroes and a psycho-killer using unlikely weapons like a Husqvarna 268 chainsaw and a carving knife?

On a more serious note I must say that you will discover the entire range of human emotions in this story.

Both the Yin and the Yang are represented here. There is a profound sense of loss and abandonment layered throughout (especially in chapters 22, 23 and the last two). There is angst and anger which is deep and believable but tempered by the promise of the good to come. There is also the tender beauty of earned redemption, found love, new hope and unexplored life. For all of these things and more I think you, yes you, should purchase a copy of Nitt-Witt Ridge today and devour it. In the process you’ll become – something more than you were!

Art Beal, wherever he may be, certainly met a kindred soul in Crash Gordon. I think he'd approve. I know I do!

5 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast, Wisconsin