Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review - Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh

Soft Apocalypse
Will McIntosh
eBook (Nook)
218 pages
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Publication Date: March 29, 2011
ISBN-13: 978-1597802765
ASIN: 159780276X


“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper”
- T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

Have you ever wondered what the end of the world might look like if the actual events leading up to it happened slowly, over years or decades? Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse is an unusual end-of-days story in that the devastating changes that force the collapse of modern civilization do not happen over-night in a tragic flash of all-out nuclear war or global pandemic disease but in a slow, some would say, glacial, multi-layered sequence of events. Unemployment is estimated at a staggering 60%. There are the destitute, the sometimes poor, the always poor, and, as in every age throughout history, the filthy rich. But the jobless middle class has become a mobile nation. Tribes of those who were once office workers, film makers, artists, accountants, or secretaries have lost their positions in The Last Great Depression and now roam the country-side freely. They subsist only on what they can find in the wild or by what they can barter with neighboring tribes for drugs, alcohol, sex, or energy. Outbreaks of designer viruses and the spread of bio-engineered super-bamboo erupt where least expected. Some of the most deadly viruses are neurologic, others flesh eating, and still others cause zombie-like symptoms. Strange things – gases, diseases, pollutants, industrial wastes and whatnots - are rumored to be floating in the air making the gas mask the newest fashion accessory. In Soft Apocalypse we see something completely unusual in a story of this nature - the end of the world is coming but its many miles down the road and moving rather slowly. We’re able to take a step back and sneak a bird’s-eye-view at it and while we can’t stop it we can contemplate the events that lead up to it.

In my opinion, and for what it’s worth, I believe that the Soft Apocalypse may be a more realistic and authentic finale to our way of life than the so-called big bang. I think McIntosh’s idea of a lumbering catastrophe that takes years to develop is a brilliantly creative departure from the formulaic tried-and-true cataclysm story. The suggestion that the end of the civilization will culminate in a slow, erosional collapse rather than a quick “wow-look-at-all-those-bombs-falling” event is an intriguing notion. So, in his version of the apocalypse the world does not end in a single, major tragic event but, over time, in a slow, many-fingered, multi-causal string of unfortunate incidents that force almost every aspect of society to fail.

Soft Apocalypse is, in my estimation, an excellent debut novel. It is well-written, fast-paced, and the amount of detail McIntosh has included concerning his vision of a disintegrating society is disturbing. One could almost say he’s founded a new and creative genre of post-apocalyptic story - the Slow-pocalypse or the Decline-ageddon or, better yet, the Soft Apocalypse. Whereas past writers of this form typically resort to the immediate or near instantaneous destruction of civilization Soft Apocalypse depicts a sluggish yet steady decline as society morphs from the norm in measured increments. There are other works that give us the feeling of this slow death (Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney come to mind) but this is the first time I’ve actually read an account of the gradual deterioration fully fleshed out in all its gruesome and morose phases. It proves that in the right hands an interesting concept that’s become almost cliché can be re-written from a fresh, original, and imaginative perspective.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading

Will McIntosh Author Home Page

Will McIntosh Audio Interview

Soft Apocalypse Short Story

Tor.com Review of Soft Apocalypse

The Alternative’s Book Review Rant

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Album Review - On Our Own by Secret Season

On Our Own
Secret Season
The American Studio


In an ever-expanding search for alternative music that is both diverse and unusual, that skirts the mundane, that lives outside the boundaries of the generic, I was introduced to the Secret Season (Mark Moogalian and Isabelle Risacher). On Our Own is their debut album and, in my estimation, it is well worth the price of admission. While admittedly not for everyone On Our Own overflows with haunting, moving guitar work and features a sultry-voiced lead singer (Moogalian) that somehow manages to channel both a young Lou Reed and a mature Joe Strummer at one and the same time. The background vocals by Isabelle Risacher are evocative and ethereal and everything that features her voice is full, smooth, and suggestive of Aimee Mann, Thao, or Hannah Georgas - especially on Sight Seein’ and Lost and Found.

The Secret Season has an Indie/Alternative-pop-minimal sound and the more I listened to the album the more enjoyable I found it. The addition of a really good bass player might help expand their sound but that’s only a minor flaw. What could push this band into greatness, in my opinion, is that it might not be a bad idea to hand over the lead vocals to Isabelle Risacher for a song or two. I just couldn’t get enough of her haunting voice and a lead vocal or two by Isabelle won’t hurt the cause (but, then again, I am partial to female lead vocalists.)

The guitar work on All the Money Says is reminiscent of the lead guitars of the Allman Brothers and the vocals on Till Tomorrow cross over into a swirling, psychedelic Beatle-esque-ness. The hook from Sight Seein’ will keep you humming it in your head for days and the title song On Our Own is a haunting reminder that we are all alone. It also has a nice, but too-short, 70’s guitar rift on the back end. The best songs on the album are Sight Seeing’, All the Money Says, Till Tomorrow, and Dusk Till Dawn.

In the end On Our Own is a decidedly solid debut album from a new band that has yet to hit full stride though I think they will in the not too distant future. I look forward to their sophomore release.

4 stars out of 5

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

On Our Own Track Titles:
Mr. Farride 0:34
Patience 2:57
Sight Seein’ 3:44
All the Money Says 4:44
Lost and Found 3:35
You Only Keep the Love 3:33
Be Still 2:54
Till Tomorrow 3:43
On Our Own 2:54
Dusk Till Dawn 3:26
Sometimes I wonder 3:59
Total 35:19

Secret Season is -

Mark Moogalian : voice, guitars, percussion, edrumz

Isabelle Risacher : voice, keyboards, flute

Album blurb:


Franco American alternative music duo with pop, rock and blues influences. The lyrics are original, poetic, the melodies are rhythmic and airy: eclectic guitars, sober and mysterious keyboards, beautiful vocal harmonies.

Additional Reading /Listening:

Secret Season on iTunes

On Our Own samples

ReverbNation Page

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Book Review - Blood of the Reich by William Dietrich

Blood of the Reich
William Dietrich
Trade Paperback
Uncorrected Proof
432 pages
Publisher: Harper
Expected Release Date: June 28, 2011
ISBN: 978-0061989186


Sometimes a book is published at exactly the right moment in time and Blood of the Reich may have hit the jackpot in the way of timing. By that I mean that it may eventually sell a lot of copies due to its timely publication in correlation to the World War II Nazi stories that currently inundate the news. The Associated Press published an emotional article this past week about the grandchildren of high-profile members of the Nazi Party. Also, this week, an Ohio autoworker, John Demjanjuk, was found guilty of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder, one for each of the Jews exterminated during the six months that he worked as a guard at the Sobibor death camp in Poland. This may well be the last Holocaust war crime to capture the public’s attention. The timing may ultimately also help sales of Blood of the Reich.

I enjoy historical fiction and World War II is especially fascinating to me, a child of a WWII veteran. Throw in some action and a little suspense and you have something that piques my interest. However, while Blood of the Reich has its moments, especially the intriguing pre-WWII story line, it fails to pull all the sub-plots back together into a neatly-bundled conclusion. Some suspense/action writers (Steve Berry and James Rollins, for instance) have the remarkable talent of putting us at the edge of our seats and then, as the story concludes, drawing all the sub-plot arcs together into a compact, complete, and satisfying climax. While Dietrich tells a good story and makes a descent attempt at bringing it all together I think it could have been done much better. Indeed, the closer to the finale I got the more hurried it felt. I suspect this had more to do with publication pressure rather than actual writing skill but since I have never read anything by Mr. Dietrich before this is only a guess. However, it felt to me like a book that was forced too soon out of the writer’s hands. On the other hand, perhaps Blood of the Reich might have been more impactful and my opinion less negative had the story not already been told so well by Spielberg, Lucas, and company in the Indian Jones saga. Still, for the die-hard WWII suspense fanatics out there, you should probably check this one out for yourselves.

3 ½ stars out of 5

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

William Dietrich

William Dietrich’s Official Website

William Dietrich Wiki Page

William Dietrich Interview

Blood of the Reich

Blood of the Reich Amazon Pre-order Page

Blood of the Reich Review

Current News

Associated Press “Crimes of the Fathers” Story

New York Times Demjanjuk Coverage

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review - Embassytown by China Mieville

China Mieville
Trade Paperback
(Advance Uncorrected Proof w/ generic cover)
Genre: Science Fiction
368 pages
Publisher: Del Rey
Scheduled Release: May 17, 2011
ISBN: 978-0345524492


I was beyond delighted to obtain an early copy of China Mieville’s new novel Embassytown. I can tell you with the utmost confidence that this book is an exceptional read in every respect. It is, in fact, China Mieville’s most important work to date. Not only should it be instantly promoted to Science Fiction classic status but it will forevermore be compared to the great works from the past. Embassytown is an extraordinary feat of fiction and a brilliant work of artistic expression. Its concepts evoke the SF New Wave period but with its own New Weird twist and a Hard Science Fiction edge. The aliens are truly outside of our understanding; their Language doubly so, making them so different from us as to be totally, absolutely unknowable. We may scratch the surface of the Ariekei, or the Hosts as they’re known in Embassytown, but they are so xeno-singular that we could never truly comprehend their race. Mieville’s in-story language is stunning, visual, and conceptual but more than that the entire storyline is language-centric. That it’s not our form of verbal communication and is almost impossible to understand (it’s spoken from two mouths simultaneously) only makes this narrative more intriguing.

The story takes place on the planet of Arieka, in the city of Embassytown. Avice Benner Cho, an Immerser (an extraordinary human able to endure the severe physical and mental effects of travelling through the sub-reality arcs of the universe), has returned home to Embassytown, a melting pot of Hosts, humans, and exotics that share the Ariekie’s home planet. Only genetically manipulated humans, known as Ambassadors, are able to understand and communicate with the Ariekie. But then a new, unexpected Ambassador arrives and the delicate cultural and diplomatic balance of the entire planet is tipped.

China Mieville’s world-building prose makes the reader work harder than most writers. I repeat, everything he writes challenges the reader. His choice of language requires you to think, to understand, to grasp, before proceeding. But the pay-off for your hard work as a reader is worth every minute spent in concentration. This story reminds me very much of other demanding works by past masters. It’s suggestive of Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai project, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Whipping Star, Mervin Peake’s Titus Groan, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren which in my estimation are also challenging but valuable reads. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling Embassytown difficult. It simply demands more of the reader’s attention than most Science Fiction. It may be hard at first to decipher some of the terminology but once you get the hang of it, it grows on you. Mieville’s Embassytown slang is inventive and some readers may feel disappointed that the novel did not come pre-packaged with “The Mieville Lexicon.”

Speaking of inventive, as in some of his earlier works Mieville creates a bizarre alternate-world full of machines, buildings, weapons, vehicles, furniture, ships, and robots. But those found in Embassytown differ from objects in his other works because unlike them we know exactly where these are made. They are grown by the Hosts using advance methods of bio-technology. There’s furniture with skeletons and internal organs and vehicles that breathe and contain body fluids. Houses made of skin with antibodies scurrying about the house on the prowl for intruders. Even the Hosts themselves are described as insect-like and equine, with sharp hooves and antler-like eyes. From those of us who’ve read China Mieville before we’ve come to expect these strange creatures/constructs at least once in each of his stories but Embassytown is full of them adding to the artistry of the world he has built.

While Embassytown is, on the surface, a Science Fiction novel with all the elements of the genre – sub-reality space flight, alien contact, terra-forming, bio-engineering, etc. it is mostly a work of language. Particularly that part of language that allows the lie, the fib, the… untruth. It appears that the Ariekie suffer from a racial oddity. They crave “that which is not” or what we call the lie. Who better to teach the Hosts the art of telling a lie than humans? But this misuse of their language is a drug to them. It is addictive and intoxicating and its dependency may ultimately destroy their entire culture.

I suggest you head out to your local book store this morning and purchase your copy of Embassytown. You’ll definitely want this one in your library and you certainly won’t be disappointed with your choice.

6 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:


Official Mieville Page

China Mieville Wiki Page

China Mieville Author Page Amazon.com

Unofficial Mieville Website


Embassytown Wiki Page

Embassytown Publisher Page

Embassytown Excerpt

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book Review - The Jefferson Key by Steve Berry

The Jefferson Key
(Cotton Malone 07)
Steve Berry
Trade Paperback
462 pages
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Scheduled Release Date: May 17, 2011
Advance Readers Copy – Amazon Vine
ISBN: 978-0345505514


Disclaimer – The copy used to review Steve Berry’s The Jefferson Key was received as an ARC from the Amazon.com Vine Program. In addition, I’d like to mention that I currently own all seven of the books and have been a fan since the first installment (see complete list below for the books in the series.) I’ve enjoyed reading every one of the Cotton Malone books and have previously given either four or four-and-a-half star ratings to each of the six previous volumes. So you know what’s coming…

But first, a short word regarding the main character, Cotton Malone.

In my estimation, Cotton Malone should go down in history as the literary equivalent of such heroic champions as James Bond, Mack Bolan, and Doc Savage. Mr. Berry’s ex-Justice Department operative retains many of the same attributes as the other three but he is also something more. He is the quintessential male action-adventure character with a suave and sophisticated persona but is also thoughtful and dignified and, more importantly, extremely likeable, even to the most pedestrian or casual of readers. He is described as possessing great physical strength and endurance, is sharp-witted with an eidetic memory, and holds a mastery of everything related to working undercover. To those who love exemplary thrillers he is the perfect protagonist. He has a sixth sense for side-stepping trouble and is always one step ahead of his pursuers (even when he appears not to be.) In my opinion, he should be considered one of the most memorable characters of our time. Whether that happens or not is up to the masses to decide. Cotton Malone, however, is important enough in the pantheon of outstanding secret agents to be mentioned separately from the book here and to be included with the other greats of the genre. And, so I have.

And… on to the book review.

An assassination plot against the President of the United States has been discovered and Cotton Malone, unwittingly lured to the scene of the crime, races to stop it. But, along the way, he unearths chilling evidence that links all four past Presidential murders, Lincoln in 1865, Garfield in 1881, McKinley in 1901, and Kennedy in 1963 to a group known simply as The Commonwealth, a secret society of pirates first assembled during the American Revolution. Their work unfinished, they have targeted the President for elimination. Even more disturbing than the attack on the most powerful man in the world is the secret buried in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution that might provide the Commonwealth unlimited power.

With as memorable, fast-paced, and exciting an opening as I’ve ever read The Jefferson Key is another excellent example of a clever plot filled with mystery, intrigue, and action. Berry has the uncanny ability to pull you into the story and not let you back out until the last word. Add an intriguing main character, questionable government activity, loads of action, and a self-serving secret society and you have all the elements of a perfectly crafted thriller. I like to read to escape and most of what I read does just that. With Mr. Berry’s work, however, I also seem to be completely entertained throughout my escapism. Bonus, for me… and for you too. I recommend Steve Berry for mature readers of all ages and genres.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

The complete Cotton Malone collection consists of the following seven books and one short story:
0. The Devil’s Due (2006) Short Story (as part of James Patterson’s Thriller
1. The Templar Legacy (2006)
2. The Alexandria Link (2007)
3. The Venetian Betrayal (2007)
4. The Charlemagne Pursuit (2008)
5. The Paris Vendetta (2009)
6. The Emperor's Tomb (2010)
7. The Jefferson Key (2011)

Additional Reading:

Steve Berry

Official Author Page

Author Wiki Page

The Jefferson Key

The Jefferson Key Amazon.com Page

Author’s Book Page

Bonus material - Cotton Malone Dossier

The Jefferson Key Excerpt

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Review and Bonus Interview - Wearing the Cape by Marion G. Harmon

Wearing the Cape
Marion G. Harmon
Kindle Edition (eBook)
Amazon Digital Services
Cover by Jorge Velasquez


When Hope Corrigan is almost crushed beneath the collapsed expanse of a bombed out Chicago Interstate she realizes that her life has taken a dramatic turn. To be sure, cement dust, crushed cars, leaking gasoline and oil, and the haunting screams of the injured and dying still surround her and have barely settled when she finds that she has suddenly been physically altered. In the midst of her trauma an unexpected superhuman transformation has taken place and Astra, a new, “breakthrough superhero,” emerges from the rubble in her place. Due to the distress of the bombing Astra (Hope’s superhero persona) is now able to lift heavy objects, rapidly heal her own wounds, and fly to great heights at great speed. Her future has abruptly and unequivocally been derailed. But life as a “cape” is not all it’s cracked up to be. Public expectations have gone through the roof and superhero privacy is almost non-existent. Not to mention the target she’ll become if she chooses superhero-dom over the mundane activities of a college freshman. Hope/Astra must now make a decision that will affect the rest of her life.

Wearing the Cape is a magnificent blend of diverse superhero mediums. It contains aspects of the Watchmen (graphic novel), The Avengers (cartoon), Superman (the movie), Iron Man (comic), and Dr. Horribles’ Sing-Along Blog (webisodes) all mixed into a unique alternate reality and then rolled up into one incredibly fast-paced and well-defined narrative of superhero goodness. And, here’s the best part for you the reader. Harmon’s prose is appetizing, succinct, and precise. Where other writers might take paragraphs to write a scene or two Mr. Harmon does the same in a single sentence. There are no long expositions or unneeded descriptions, no monotonous monologues, and no drawn out paragraphs that go nowhere. Here’s an example:

“The honey light of the sunrise behind us painted the city with warm colors and long shadows. A brisk wind off Lake Michigan worked its magic to clear the air, leaving the sky a jewel-like, perfect blue unblemished by clouds.”

I don’t know about you but when I read this I fell perfectly into that moment. Early. Sunrise. Long shadows of morning. Pristine, cloudless sky. And, remarkably, the same precision is used to describe the superheroes, the villains, the battles, and pretty much everything else in the story.

One exceptionally appealing concept here is the integration, the inter-weaving, if you will, of alternate pop-culture aspects into the background of the story. What would a newly made superhero think? What would they do? Would they worry about their choice of costume? Their super-name? Would they read Barlow’s Guide to Superhumans cover to cover? Would they be curious as to who’s on the cover of Hero Beat or Power Week or what’s going to happen on the next episode of Protectors? Of course, the answer is… yes, to all of the above.

The main antagonist is comparatively unique and intriguing, as well. He’s dubbed the Teatime Anarchist because of his vaguely British sound and his published manifesto accusing the US government of conspiring to cheat citizens out of their civil liberties. His activities begin as nonlethal pranks but they soon escalate to Interstate bombings and the murders of lawmakers, politicians, and civilians. But who is the “real” Teatime Anarchist and what is his agenda?

Marion G. Harmon’s Wearing the Cape is not only a wonderful and surprising read but his concise writing style and the interesting twists and turns of the plot kept me swiping pages on my iPad post-haste (and well past midnight on a few nights.) In short, Wearing the Cape is fun, diverting, enchanting and highly entertaining. Recommended to geeks, techies, Trekies, Science Fiction, Superhero, and comic book fans of all ages.

Oh, and one last but very important word about this book. As some of you may have guessed by now my reading list is very, very long. (Trust me, the three six-foot-tall stacks of “to-be-read” novels never seems to get any smaller.) So, I didn’t expect to get to this one for at least four weeks but when I opened the eBook and started reading I simply couldn’t put it down. Wearing the Cape muscled its way to the top of my reading heap and I’m happy it did. Kudos to Mr. Harmon for catching my attention in the first few pages of his book and keeping it till the last. It’ll do the same to you.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Amazon Kindle Page

Marion G. Harmon on Writing “Wearing the Cape

Marion G. Harmon Bio Page

Wearing the Cape Excerpt

Wearing the Cape Page

Exclusive Interview with the Author:

Q. Being a huge fan of graphic novels myself I certainly understand the desire to tell a story about superheroes and evil villains. What inspired you to write Wearing the Cape?

A. The whole thing began with the thought "How would the real world deal with superheroes?" Just to ask the question is to come up with a lot of fun themes; for one thing we'd regulate the hell out of them (agencies, certification, insurance, psychiatric evaluation, after-action reports...). And of course we'd make huge celebrities out of them, a whole other can of worms. Not all of it would be good--kids killing themselves trying to achieve "breakthrough," for example, is a statement on the human cost our own fame-and-beauty obsessed culture.

Q. Do you have plans for developing other stories set in this same universe? Is a sequel in the making?

A. I am currently writing the second book, Villains Inc., to be published in October. Behind that is at least one more sequel, and two more books (a piece of science-fiction humor, Worst Contact, and a YA adventure story, Tales from Sitka-By-The-Sea).

Q. Is the character Hope (A.K.A. Astra) based on someone you know?

A. Hope is more of a composite of culturally influential Action Girls--I confess that when I began writing her I was almost certainly heavily influenced by Veronica Mars and Buffy Summers; both examples of why you should Fear The Cute Ones. But we all know somebody who doesn't normally look or act confident or competent, who turns around and surprises everybody when it all hits the fan.

Q. How much time did you spend on research? And what specific sources, if any, did you consult for Wearing the Cape?

A. While I'm not a huge comic-book collector, I have been reading them all my life. In Wearing the Cape I set out to break or twist as many of the traditional superhero-tropes as possible, but this didn't require research--just rereading my favorite titles. One resource I discovered in the course of writing WtC, which I recommend to anybody who wants to consider Deep Questions of superheroes and morality is Superheroes and Philosophy (Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way), edited by Tom and Matt Morris.

Q. Where are you from? County, City, State… Where were you educated?

A. Another planet. Actually I was an Air Force brat who grew up all over. I finally settled in Las Vegas, where I got my masters in history before going into financial planning.

Q. When and why did you begin writing? Is it something you’ve always known you wanted to do? Or did it creep up on you?

A. I've been writing for myself all my life; if the internet had come along just a bit sooner I'd probably have become a compulsive writer of fanfic.

Q. When did you first consider yourself a writer?

A. The day I decided on a self-imposed deadline for WtC.

Q. Tell us a little about your publishing experience. Did you expend a lot of effort to have your book published? What are the pitfalls? The rewards?

A. This could fill an essay. In 2010 I submitted query letters to nearly one hundred literary agencies. In early 2011 I decided to self-publish so that I could move on to the next book. I'm still discovering the pitfalls and rewards.

Q. Outside of the good versus evil motif is there a particular message in Wearing the Cape that you want readers to understand?

A. I really just wanted to tell a good story. As I wrote it other themes emerged, but I didn't write WtC with a "message" in mind.

Q. What book(s) are you reading now? Which books have most influenced your life?

A. Food for another essay. As a kid I discovered The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, and those two sets of books inspired my love of fantasy stories and told me what heroes should look like. I am currently reading Bridge of Birds, an epic (and hilarious) adventure in Chinese fantasy by Barry Hughart.

Q. Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

A. Choose One? Terry Pratchett; he tells beautiful stories of grand adventure and human drama with incredible humor.

Q. What was the hardest part of writing your book? Conversely, what was the easiest?

A. Ideas were the easiest bit. Knowing when I was finished was the hardest.

Q. Do you have any advice for other writers, especially new writers?

A. First, get a reading group, locally or online; without people who will tell you when your writing stinks, you'll never be any good. Second, don't wait to publish until your writing is perfect.

Q. Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

A. Yes. Comments are welcome.

The Alternative would like to thank Mr. Harmon for his time.

P.S. One of the decidedly worst things about blogger is that you have to have a PHD in HTML to get spacing to work properly on the website. Obviously, I only have a GED.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Book Review - The Silent Land by Graham Joyce

The Silent Land: A Novel
Graham Joyce
262 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-53380-5


*** NOTE: This review contains THE SPOILER for this novel – Read no further if you have not finished or intend on reading this book. ***

     I wanted to like this book. I really did. Graham Joyce is a very good writer, has an elegant voice, and has written some very entertaining stories (i.e. “The Tooth Fairy” and “Requiem” among others.) But this one I just don’t “get.” Everywhere I look I see four and five star reviews for it. On Amazon.com, LibraryThing.com, and many independent blogs I see the same lofty praise. High-profile writers esteem its virtues publically. Write praiseworthy reviews. But, is this book truly deserving of all the admiration? Unfortunately, in my opinion, I have to say no. The Silent Land is a mediocre read, at best. The climax, which builds from the opening scene, does not deliver the surprise and shock that it should. While Joyce’s final message is a powerful, even spiritual, one it’s also belabored and the delivery method, rather than flowing with prose, drags the plot along. The central idea, the “surprise” ending, is in itself as cliché now as the phrase “I see dead people!”

     Here are some of the reasons why I think this story fails.

     A. Too much orchestration. By that I mean many of the scenes are dramatic enactments pre-staged to make the final payoff more spectacular. To give it that “wow” factor. Sadly, most readers will figure out at least half the ending by page fifty. It doesn’t help much that the reader is often sent on a tangent to deflect from the book’s conclusion which to me ends up reading more like a bad Hallmark movie than a suspenseful thriller.

     B. Giving the pay-off away (over and over again). Subtle vignettes of death abound in this story. Towards the end of the book the story takes a step sideways as the final days of the main characters father’s are recounted. While powerful stories in themselves I have to wonder why they needed to be added here. Joyce flirts with the “shocking” climax of the story over and over again which makes it anything but impactful when we finally do reach it.

     C. Inaccurate advertising. The book is billed as “intrigue,” that will “thrill readers” and is a “dark suspense novel.” I found little intrigue and even less suspense in this book. As a matter of fact it felt more like a love story than a thriller to me. I believe Joyce was attempting to build tension and suspense as the story progressed but it never quite came to fruition. The story lagged (and I lost interest) in a few places and the plot suffered because of it.

     D. The two main characters are somewhat one-dimensional, banal, and under-developed.

     There is very little that is new, unique, or exceptionally creative here so the best I can rate The Silent Land by Graham Joyce is a low three. And so I shall.

     “Near perfect?” “Tour De Force?” These are just a few of the venerable notes I’ve seen in reviews for The Silent Land.

     Scratching my head in amazement, I have to wonder why. 

     Perhaps I should stick to SF&F Speculative Fiction…

3 out of 5 stars

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional Reading:

Author’s Website

Author Wiki Page

 Author Page on Worlds Without End

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Book Review - Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

Retribution Falls
Chris Wooding
Spectra (Ballantine Books)
June 2009
Trade Paperback
461 pages
ISBN: 978-0575085152
Cover Art by Stephan Martiniere


     With a cast of characters seemingly drawn from the scripts of Firefly, Star Wars, and Pirates of the Caribbean and a story that plots like an action-adventure video game Chris Wooding has created a superb new series and, in the process, has fashioned an enjoyable sub-genre with the publication of Retribution Falls. Wooding has invented an innovative and fresh style of speculative fiction that I like to call “PiratePunk.” (Yes, I said it, arrrggghhh, PiratePunk. So keelhaul me.)This story contains elements of the high seas, steampunk, magic, buccaneers, phantasmagoria, science fiction, mutiny, adventure, mystery, fantasy, political intrigue, and a whole lot of swashbuckling for good measure. (Or would that be Swashpunkling?) The flying machines in this story are not slow-moving dirigibles or hot-air balloons but quick, aggressive machines with as much attitude as altitude. And much like the works cited above the ships are almost as famous as the stories themselves (Serenity, The Millennium Falcon, and The Black Pearl, to mention a few.) So to, Wooding has produced the Ketty Jay, a formidable air ship with its own pair of fighter jets that act, in essence, as characters themselves.

     The crew of the Ketty Jay, a motley band of brigands, pirates and cut-throats at best, include a daemonologist, a tortured man with a price on his head, a nine-foot tall golem, a gung-ho fighter pilot, and a ghost of a woman who may be transforming into something, well, not quite human. (You have to read the story to get the whole picture.) Early in the narrative the crew is forced to discover why they were deceived into destroying an airship that killed more than a dozen passengers, one of whom was the son of a high-ranking nobleman of the kingdom. At least three of the seven (nine including Bess, the golem, and Slag, the cat) crew members are hiding something tragic from their pasts, or so we are led to believe. And the Captain, Darian Frey, is a complex, multifaceted character with a tragic past that, and again I use the above mentioned stories as an example, bends morals like Captain Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly and has similar physical attributes, is extremely likeable like the blockade runner Han Solo from Star Wars, with perhaps the confidence and bravery of Indiana Jones and the irreverence for authority of Captain Jack Sparrow.

     An interesting afterthought occurred to me after I finished reading Retribution Falls which was reinforced when I read the Torque Control review below. This story cries out for treatment by the film media. I know, I know. You’ve probably heard this all before about other stories you’ve read. But this one truly has it all. Gun- and sword fights, magic, Pirate- and Swash-punk settings, golems, fistfights, card games, lost love, torture, politics, murder, dog-fights, religion, betrayal, revenge, and the fast-paced flow of gripping entertainment. Add elements of video game play, anime, and the blockbuster action-adventure which is scattered methodically through-out the narrative and it would parse well as an action film (IMHO). Retribution Falls was a fast, fun read that kept me up a few nights in a row turning pages and I enjoyed it so much that I’ve ordered the next book in the series Black Lung Captain as well as Wooding’s Fade, which I’ve heard is also a pretty good read (but not part of this particular series.)

     All in all, Retribution Falls is one of the most pleasurable books I’ve read so far this year and I recommend it for those who enjoy Firefly, steampunk, adventure, magic, Star Wars, swordplay, fantasy, and gun fights. Did I mention Joss Whedon?

4 ½ stars out of 5

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

Additional reading:

Official Author Website

Strange Horizons Review

Fantasy Book Critic Review

Torque Control review

Joe Abercrombie’s Review

Ketty Jay Logbook Very nice addition to the Ketty Jay world is this logbook kept on-line and posted to by Captain Frey. Enjoy!

Excerpt of Retribution Falls

Books in the Series:

Tales of the Ketty Jay
1. Retribution Falls (2009)
2. The Black Lung Captain (July 2010)
3. The Iron Jackal (July 2011)
4. “Unnamed 4th Book” (2012)

The Crew of the Ketty Jay (Wickfield ironclad-class cargo-combat hybrid)

Darian Frey – Captain and owner of Ketty Jay
Gratharian Crake – Daemonologist
Jez – Navigator and a transforming Mane
Silo – Engineer/Mechanic
Malvery – Doctor/Medic
Pinn – Fighter Pilot
Harkins – Fighter Pilot
Bess – Golem and watchdog and…
Slag – Ship’s cat and rat catcher

     Last word: Almost every review of Retribution Falls that I’ve read offers some comparison to Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Indeed, I’ve done it here myself and that’s before I ever read another review. Most espouse that the resemblance is not a bad thing (or is a good thing) and it is an apt judgment, but only as it applies to the general plot and concept. Yes, the crew is similar. They skirt the law, have scrupulous associates, take questionable work, have chip-on-shoulder attitudes, and find themselves in trouble more often than not. But really, those are the only similarities. ;-) Being a confirmed Browncoat I happen to love the idea of a book that resembles Firefly and a ship that lives and breathes like Serenity and perhaps that swayed my opinion when rating it, though I’d like to think that my reviews are based on the merit of the story and not because of similar familiar work that has come before. Regardless, Retribution Falls manages to stand well on its own and had Firefly never been born the comparisons to Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean would still be made. You know why? Because good art is recognizable but is often difficult to find and define. But, those who do see it recognize it for what it is, a rarity waiting for its moment to shine. Retribution Falls does just that.