Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Maberry, Jonathan. Ghost road blues. New York: Pinnacle, 2006. 472pp.

A great read, a fantastic first novel full of great action, spooky treats and gonzo villains. Basically, there's this hick town which has turned Halloween into a kind of industry, with specialised boutiques and rides. But, little do we know that the town is haunted by an ancient evil that is reawakening after being defeated 30 years before. The good guys are not really aware of what is going on as the bad guys get all their forces in order for the first cataclysmic encounter. The good guys win, of course, but not without some losses. However, this is the first book in a projected trilogy so I imagine that there's lots of carnage to come.

There are some first novel issues here, including a slightly flabby page count, overly precious and smug characters and an over reliance on snappy dialogue. Crow, for example, is far too obviously an idealized version of the way the author sees himself, while Val is equally obviously an idealized version of his adolescent dreams of a powerful, sexy kick-ass women who somehow totally loves the complete goofball main character.

Overall, though, I have to say that there are far more positives than negatives for this novel and I'm looking forward to reading the sequels.

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Malmont, Paul. The Chinatown death cloud peril. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. 367pp.

Now this is a cool book! A phantasmagorical postmodern pastiche-orama, a 1930s pulp plot involving 1930s pulp authors as the main protagonists!

Walter Gibson (Maxwell Grant/The Shadow) and Lester Dent (Kenneth Robeson/Doc Savage) are the main ones, with significant contributions from L. Ron Hubbard, Chester Himes, John W. Campbell, Orson Welles, H.P. Lovecraft, Cornell Woolrich, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Stan Lee, “Otis Driftwood” (I'm not giving that one away...), Blackstone the Magician, even Joe Kavalier gets a mention and Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster get a cameo! And that's not including the ones I don't recognize!

Crammed full of colourful action sequences, daring escapes, dastardly villains with evil plots, weird science, zombies, magicians and evil, cruel editors, it's actually a bit short on plot sanity and cohesion, but it's definitely long on atmosphere and good old pulpy fun. I can't recommend this novel enough. I really enjoyed it, despite a few first novel failings.

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Scalzi, John. The ghost brigades.. New York: Tor, 2007. 343pp.

My Scalzi habit seems to be forming. Last summer I read Old man's war at the cottage, exploring a new author, and enjoyed it a lot. This summer, I did the same thing, this time reading Scalzi's second book in his OMW series, The ghost brigades. And guess what, I loved it too. This guy fits as much plot into 343 pages as a guy like Harry Turtledove fits into an entire seven volume series. Action, adventure, romance, intrigue, loyalty, honour, lively smart-ass dialogue, blood and guts. Military sf with brains and a heart, the courage to ask big questions, to challenge easy assumptions about good guys and bad guys. And I'm not even that big a fan of military sf, most times. Habit forming. I hope there's another Scalzi coming out in paperpack next spring/summer to take with me on whatever travels we get up to. Highly recommended. Scalzi has rocketed to the front of the line of my favourite authors.

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Turtledove, Harry. Days of infamy. New York: Penguin Roc, 2005. 520pp.

A pretty typical Turtledove alternate history novel, nothing more, nothing less. Interesting premise, large cast of viewpoint characters on both sides, lots of plot threads to make room for a bunch of sequels, a fair amount of padding in the text itself in the form of endless repetitions. And most of all, not much plot for a lot of pages.

This one is set in the Pacific theatre of WWII, with Japan invading and occupying Pearl Harbor in December 1941 instead of just mounting a surprise attack. The occupation that Turtledove presents seems suitably brutal, mostly in sync with what we know about the Japanese military during the war. Since Turtledove always has some characters conflicted by their situation in his alternate histories, this one is no different. This time it's the substantial population of Hawaiian Japanese, with the older generations tending to favour their homeland and younger siding with the USA. Of course, the Yankee characters are generally fairly arrogant and self-assured about their innate superiority and it's nice to see them taken down a peg by the superiority of the Japanese forces, leading me to at times root for the Japanese (if only temporarily, the occupation is truly brutal). I imagine that we'll see the American forces get the upper hand in later volumes.

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Armstrong, Kelley. Stolen. Toronto: Random House, 2002. 399pp.

What's the demographic for this novel? I really felt that this novel was squarely aimed at a certain type of fan, the fan of Laurel K. Hamilton & those other spooky sexy romance novels. But could it transcend its demographic and find interest for a 44 year old guy? (Or is a 44yog part and parcel of the demo for a sexy horror novel?)

When you get right down to it, it's all adolescent wish fulfillment, to have power in a world that doesn't recognize your specialness, to have secret powers, to be above the morals of mere humans. Even the good characters are more or less amoral killers, I find the Clay character particularly annoying and smug, even the main character, Elena, seemed a bit of an idealized awkward, gawky adolescent goth: tall, skinny, plain, poor fashion sense, not very accomplished in “real” life, snarky and sarcastic but somehow powerful, sexy, ultra-competent and poised. Not to mention, still somehow able to win the affections of the smartest, most competent, best-looking male character.

A quick outline of the plot: the secret werewolf society becomes aware of the larger world of supernatural beings, including witches, half-demons, vampires and others. The attend a meeting of leaders of these groups to assess the dangers of a group of humans that seems to be hunting and capturing various members of the races. Ultimately, Elena is captured and imprisoned by the humans, financed and lead by a rogue billionaire software geek. Eventually, she escapes with some of the other captured supernaturals, and, well, you can guess the rest.

There's some stuff that's wrong with this novel, mostly that it needed to grow up a bit, to get to adulthood, adult characters and adult situations. The series has a lot of potential, potential I would like to see fulfilled. I liked the first episode of the loose series quite a bit, but this one not quite as much. I do look forward to reading more installments to see how the series and the characters grow, even if the series shifts to the less interesting witches rather than the werewolves. A bit of a sophomore jinx is nothing to abandon the series for.

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Clancy, Tom. Clear and present danger. New York: Berkley, 1990. 688pp

Good ol' Tom Clancy. A bit of technophilia, some serious obsessiveness about “competence” and honour and duty and gadgetry. On the other hand, there's also a strong emphasis on camaraderie, the vital importance of mentors, relationships with friends, the centrality of families – you would almost call the guy sentimental. Every character needs to have a background, a context, an explanation for their strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes it feels like he's taking a stock character out of central casting, but sometimes it hits the right note. Clancy is also oddly pragmatic or even liberal about a lot of traditional right wing issues, like that drug problem as much about demand as supply, women in the military or US involvement in Central America and other developing nations. His characters also always ask questions about what they're doing, ponder moral rights and wrongs of their actions, the nature of good and evil, the nature and purpose of government action. You don't always have to agree with the characters' conclusions, but it's interesting that Clancy feels the need to have them asked and not always even answered completely. There's a lot of grey in a novel you expect to be black and white.

So, what's the big picture plot outline. The novel opens with a horrific execution at sea of a US businessman and his wife and kidson a South American fishing trip. This spins out with the President getting the CIA to launch a real War on Drugs, more no-holds-barred. It gets a bit out of hand with some semi-rogue elements in the government. Some CIA good guys like agent John Clark and new acting Deputy Director Intelligence of the CIA, Jack Ryan, and a whole bunch of army super-grunts need to save the day and get the Agency back on a more legal and ethical track. There's lots of explosions and miscellaneous derring do. I also find it odd that the whole War Against Drugs plot line feels almost like a historical novel. It's a good thriller, but it almost feels like it's about Berlin in 1950. It's worth noting that we don't even see Jack Ryan much until after page 100, and even then he's peripheral to the main action until the very end.

And how does it compare to the movie starring Harrison Ford? The movie more or less successfully mixes and matches some of the characters and plots, extracting some and adding others, figuring out a way to make Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) more completely integrated in the action. Pretty good but since it leaves out all the crazy detail that make Clancy novels so much nerdy fun, it seems a bit bland in comparison.

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