Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Founders College Book Sale

I went to the Founders College Book Sale today and was lucky enough to find a bunch of cool older mystery books (and a couple of other books too). Here's my take:
  • Darker than Amber by John D. MacDonald
  • The Turquoise Lament by John D. MacDonald
  • Pale Gray for Guilt by John D. MacDonald
  • Soft Touch by John D. MacDonald
  • The Long Lavender Look by John D. MacDonald
  • The Scarlet Ruse by John D. MacDonald
  • A Tan and Sandy Silence by John D. MacDonald
  • You Live Once by John D. MacDonald
  • The Last One Left by John D. MacDonald
  • Sleeping Beauty by Ross Macdonald
  • The Book of Bourbon: And other Fine American Whiskeys by Gary Regan
  • Archangel by Robert Harris
All that for about $8.00.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, vols. 2-4.

Vaughn, Brian K., George Jeanty and Joss Whedon. Vol 2: No future for you. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 2009.

Goddard, Drew, George Jeanty and Joss Whedon. Vol 3: Wolves at the Gate. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 2009.

Whedon, Joss, Karl Moline and Jeph Loeb. Vol 4: Time of you life. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 2009.

Now this is more like it!

A little while ago, when I reviewed the first volume of the collected Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 series from Dark Horse, I was kind of disappointed. I felt the story telling was choppy and jumbled and that it lacked a lot of the real character development strengths of the original TV series.

Well, the next three volumes of the series are a huge improvement.

They are Volume 2, No Future For You, volume 3, Wolves at the Gate and volume 4, Time of Your Life.

The main V2 arc is a Faith story, wherein Giles employs Faith to do some Council-type wetwork, stuff he wouldn't want to get Buffy involved in. It's a good, compelling read, getting two somewhat less involved characters in V1 back into the main line of Season 8. V3 Brings Dracula back, this time on Buffy's side, battling against some rogue Japanese vampires. V4 brings the futuristic Fray back into the mix, as Buffy travels into the future. V4 also brings Willow back into the main stream of the Season 8 arc.

Each volume also has a shorter stand-alone story, which is basically used for some character development, which often gets a bit of short shrift in the main volume arc.

Over all, I am pleased with how the S8 arc is developing -- just like more season arcs developed. Slowly during the first part of the season, setting up the big push later on. And the Twilight Big Bad arc for S8 is still pretty mysterious, so I'm looking forward to seeing how it develops.

I still have a few quibbles, of course, and I think the biggest is how a lot of the character stuff if peripheral to the main story arc. In the tv series, the character development and the story arc were always very tightly bound, basically one growing out of the other. Buffy and the other characters grew and changed because of what was happening to them, and even by S6 what was happening to them became the main story arc. In the comic series so far, they've much more tended to seal off the plot from the characterization. And I think it's a mistake. We really need to get back into the hearts and minds of the characters by the end of the arc, that's what needs to drive everything else. And if it doesn't happen, it'll be hard to judge S8 as a success.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fox, Andrew. The good humor man. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2009. 282pp.

Andrew Fox's first two novels, Fat White Vampire Blues and Bride of the Fat White Vampire were entertaining and over-the-top, a couple of innovative entries into the vampire cannon. Cinematic and funny, touching and absurd, they were terrific reads if not quite great literature.

Now comes The Good Humor Man. It's a lot of the same things as the earlier books: obsessed with pop culture, very cinematic, funny and absurd although not quite as touching and romantic. On the other hand, it's also a lot more thought-provoking with a satirical edge that's a lot more upfront than the earlier work.

What's it about? Think of it as Fahrenheit 451 for the diet industry. Imagine a future USA where high calorie foods are illegal, and a gang of government-sponsored thugs will raid any high-cal party they find. Imagine if one of the founders of the movement suddenly thinks it's all going too far and that people should really be free to make their own choices in life.

Furthermore, it's also not hard to imagine that Big Food has come up with a few secrets of it's own. Our newly converted hero then needs to save the day.

What results is an amazing road trip into the heart of American food culture – Fat Elvis. Yes, Fat Elvis is the driving force (but not character, remember, it's the future) and inspiration for the book. More than that, I cannot reveal. Anyways, it's all kinda indescribable anyways. Liposuction, for example, is also a strangely important driving force in the novel.

Read it. It's fun and thoughtful and way OTT. In fact, every time you think Fox can't possibly go more OTT, he pulls another fried peanut butter and banana sandwich out of his hat.

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Cooper, Seamus. The mall of Cthulhu. San Francisco: Night Shade, 2009. 235pp.

Seamus Cooper's The Mall of Cthulhu is a seriously strange and funny book.

Okay, here goes. A decade before the main action, Ted, a regular college kid, saves his lesbian best friend, Laura, from a horde of vampires trying to initiate her into their sorority; he's traumatized by having to massacre the whole nest of vampires (including a recently turned frat friend). Ten years later, she's joined the FBI as an analyst while he's unable to overcome his past and is following her from city to city as her career progresses, all the while working a series of McJobs.

Now, he stumbles on a Lovecraftian conspiracy. A bunch of white supremacists are working to bring the Great Old Ones back from their dimension. Ultimately, Ted and Laura work together along with a shadowy yet underfunded government agency to fight them back.

Light-hearted yet still a bit scary, this is a fantastic first novel. Good adventure, engaging characters, some self-deprecating insights into slacker/nerd culture, more-or-less tight plotting, tons of Lovecraft and other pop culture in-jokes not to mention a whole lot of winking and nudging – this is an entertaining melange. I certainly hope Cooper will bring Ted and Laura back for more supernatural adventures.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Maberry, Jonathan. Patient zero. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2009. 421pp.

If the vampire novel is slipping down into the realm of the bodice ripper, it seems to me that zombies are the new vampire – able to actually embody horror without romance or any kind of soft and fuzzy feelings. Zombies mostly evoke fear and terror and a almost fatalistic wonder at the randomness of the universe.

In the hands of a great up-and-coming horror novelist, zombies can be gold. Jonathan Maberry is just such a writer, the award-winning author of the Ghost Road Blues series of horror novels. Patient Zero is another real winner from Maberry, if anything even better than his earlier trilogy. It's a combination zombie horror and medical thriller – a very good example of the kind of hybrid science fiction horror genre that's bound to become more and more popular.

Basically, the idea is that a Baltimore cop is recruited by a secretive government agency to help stop what seems to be a Middle Eastern terrorist plot to flood the world with a plague of zombies that spread quite easily via victims being bitten. The action is non-stop, the main character, Jack Ledger, is quite well drawn, the plot points are a bit of a stretch but well within thriller limits.

One of the most interesting aspects is that Ledger's best friend, who also gets drawn into the fight, is a therapist who helps cops deal with the stress of their jobs, especially when they are forced to shoot someone. Throughout the novel, he's talking both Ledger and us through what it means to be a human being caught up in a whirlwind of violence and death, helping his friend and the other agents cope with what they're going thought at that basic human level. Very interesting and very well done.

Overall, an exciting and surprisingly thoughtful read. Highest marks in the summer reading sweepstakes. I anxiously await sequels.

(Yeah, I know. Zombies and humour. Zombies are strangely funny, it seems. Argh.)

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Frost, Jeaniene. Destined for an early grave. New York: Avon, 2009. 355pp.

Anne Rice, Joss Whedon and the makers of the Underworld series of films certainly have a lot to answer for – turning the vampire genre from a true subset of the horror genre into a rather lame subset of the romance genre. Not that I have any problem with romantic vampires – as long as they're part of a larger field of vampire fiction that also includes evil, predatory vampires. My problem is that the dark supernatural romance seems to be edging out all the rest.

This brings us to Jeaniene Frost's Destined for an Early Grave. Not normally the kind of book I would read, a review copy just happened to land on my desk just as we were leaving for the cottage for a couple of weeks of R&R. So, I took it along. I also read it. Mind you, there were several times in the first 50 pages that I was sorely tempted to hurl it across the room. The romance stereotype characters drove me crazy. The sexy, feisty and tough yet strangely goofy and insecure female lead; the tall, dark, brooding and yet strangely sensitive male lead. The tall, dark, brooding and yet strangely deranged villain. Yeah, they're all there: Buffy, Angel and Spike. The plot and setting also hit all the highlights in the feudal gothic hit parade. Hereditary ruling classes, byzantine rules and regulations that you must just die for, a heroine with secret powers that happens to be the key to everyone's plans.

In the end, though, I did end up finishing the book – as stereotypical as the characters were, the plot had enough twists to keep me turning the pages even if the ending was dead predictable. Of course, it didn't hurt that initially I wasn't quite sure I'd brought enough books at the cottage so I more or less felt I had to read it. In different circumstances I might not have made it much past page 10 much less 50 or 350.

Sort of recommended. Barely.

And speaking of evil vampires, I have enjoyed David Wellington's work and I do look forward to reading the new Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan book, The Strain. It is out there, I just wish the proportions were a bit different.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Whedon, Joss and George Jeanty. The Long Way Home. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse, 2007. 136pp.

Joss Whedon and George Jeanty's The Long Way Home is the first graphic novel collection of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 series from Dark Horse.

When the Buffy tv show first came out, my sons were quite small so my wife and I weren't really adding any new tv shows to our roster. But the show did make a psychic impression because a lot of people I knew were watching it and reported loving it. So, now that the kids are older and all the seasons are on DVD, my wife and I basically gorged ourselves on Buffy, watching all seven tv seasons on DVD over about a seven month period -- watching the last couple of seasons in about two weeks each. The season-long story arcs made them very addictive and easy to watch the episodes in bunches.

Well, we finished the apocalyptic Season 7 a few weeks ago and it seemed like a good time to give the comics version Season 8 a try.

So, what do I think? So far, pretty good but not amazing.

There's about a 12 month gap between the end of S7 and the first issue here where some sort of Slayer organization has been set up in Scotland and that whole process is really glossed over very quickly. I could have used a bit more of a explanation of what went on with that, even if it did slow down the opening action. Which actually makes sense, of course, as the tv show never really worried about using up screen time filling in character relationships and back story bits. If anything, that's my big complaint so far with S8, that the characters and their personal stories are really getting short shrift in favour of some rather frenetic and disjointed action. It's understandable that some of the pacing habits of tv would have to change in comics, but so far I'm really missing the characters and their lives and personal stories.

The overall arc of S8 seems to focus on something called Twilight, and I do sort of see where they're going, but I'm really looking forward to getting a better sense of where they're taking the characters, in particular some of the minor characters like Dawn, who somehow has been transformed into a giant due to a romantic liaison with something called a "thricewise," whatever that is. In fact, that would have been a great story in itself. As it is, it seems to be an excuse to bring back the whiny, petulant Dawn of S6 rather than the more mature young woman from S7 -- a step back as far as I'm concerned. Giles as well is more or less missing in action so far too.

I found the storytelling a bit choppy, disjounted and flashbacky, an odd choice for a book that is presumably aimed quite a bit at comics neophytes, drawn in by the Buffy connection. Something a lot more linear and straightforward would seem to be better suited, especially for the first volume.

So, potential, yes. I'll be reading the rest of the series, for sure, but I'm a little concerned by the first collection that Whedon lost track of what made Buffy such a crossover hit the intervening years between S7 & S8.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Slaughter, Karin. Blindsighted. New York: HarperTorch, 2002. 389pp.
Slaughter, Karin. Beyond reach. New York: Dell, 2008. 573pp

I don't have too much to say about the two books at hand, both by the aptly-named Karin Slaughter. Blindsighted is a fairly typical serial killer novel while Beyond Reach is a fairly typical crime thriller. Although they don't necessarily have high body counts, the violence and mayhem is intense and brutal, earning the author both her name and her crime writer stripes.

Both are well-written and exciting, with a common cast of characters which Slaughter carries from book to book in a couple of vaguely overlapping series. The plots are clever, the pace is breakneck, the characters well drawn, the action at times shocking and surprising. I've read three of her books (Triptych last summer) and I think I'll be reading a whole lot more.

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Sawyer, Robert J. Mindscan. New York: Tor, 2006. 370pp.

Robert J. Sawyer's Mindscan is a pretty decent philosophically-based science fiction novel, a real exemplar of old fashioned sf that's idea driven rather than character or plot driven. The novel is basically a wire frame for Sawyer to explore ideas about consciousness, identity and even some legal issues. And that's fine – he's not really trying for a novel of character here. A weakness of this approach, of course, becomes readily apparent. In my mind, any time a novel gets bogged down in a bunch of long, drawn-out court scenes basically to give the various characters the chance to explain their take on the philosophical issues at hand, well, you know you're in trouble. And yes, the novel comes to a screeching halt when that happens.

The issue? If you download your consciousness into a cybernetic version of your body, is it really you or just some other being (which may itself be a fully conscious and deserving of it's own personhood) that just thinks it's you. The complication here is that the old meat version of you isn't destroyed after the download, it essentially transfers legal personhood to the new being and then retires to a resort on the Moon. What happens if the Moon version wants it's life back?

For all the word salad, data dumps and mind melds that Sawyer presents, in the end I have to say that I did enjoy the book and found it thought-provoking. I just wish the characters and plots were a little more in the forefront.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Summer 2008 reading

A bit late on this, I know, but I'm about to start posting some more detailed reading notes from summer 2009, so I thought I'd clear some of this really old stuff out of the "to be posted" pile.

Here goes:

Clancy, Tom. The sum of all fears. New York: Putnam, 1991. 798pp.

Last summer I read A Clear and Present Danger and it was starting to show some of the signs for Clancy's patented literary bloat. This summer, it's The Sum of all Fears and the bloat has pretty well set in. Overall, it's a solid novel, telling the story of Jack Ryan's involvement in some pretty exciting standard Clancy thriller elements like terrorists, submarine tactics, lost nukes, scheming politicians and incompetent and naive liberals. Mostly pretty good stuff, exciting and involving. However, at nearly 800 pages, the book is easily 200 pages too long. Whole sub-plots could have been removed with no difference to the story. The big, explosive climactic event happens around page 600 with 200 pages to go but should have happened at page 200 with 400 to go.

Turtledove, Harry. End of the beginning. New York: Roc, 2006. 519pp.

Last summer's cottage reading included the first part of this two part series, Days of Infamy. Like with Tom Clancy, summer reading always seems to include a Harry Turtledove novel for me. They're quick and easy to read, light but very involving. The large cast of characters and multiple viewpoints make for quick and lively reading. This one is no different.

To quickly set the stage, Japan invaded Pearl Harbor in December 1941 rather than just attacking the American base there. Days of Infamy told the story of the invasion and initial stages of the occupation. End of the Beginning picks up where Days of Infamy leaves off, following the same diverse cast of characters, both American and Japanese, over the next couple of years, until the US bounces back and re-invades.

A bit slow-starting, I did ultimately enjoy the novel. It does a good job of showing the brutality of the Japanese Imperial forces in WWII, something that's certainly not as well known as Nazi brutality. POW camps and comfort women brothels are among the aspects that are well portrayed. If Turtledove's narrative seems somewhat boilerplate, well, that's the nature of what he does. He churns them out pretty quickly, all using the same basic plan. Knowing what to expect, he doesn't disappoint. On the other hand, I do often wish he would be a bit more ambitious.

Now for some super-capsule reviews:

Clapton, Eric. Eric Clapton: The autobiography. New York: Broadway, 2008. 344pp.

Entertaining, frank and surprisingly humble autobiography of guitar hero Eric Clapton. I enjoyed this one a lot, as would anyone interested in guitar players or the classic rock period.

Smith, Scott. The ruins.New York: Vintage, 2007. 509pp.

Good and creepy, a high quality horror novel with a great ending.

Hill, Joe. Heart-shaped box. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. 354pp.

Very good first novel by Stephen King's son. A quick read with some good characters.

Hassel, Sven. Comrades of war. London: Cassel, 2004. 362pp.

War is hell. Dirty, messy, ugly, violent, not for the faint-hearted, not Hollywood at all, this is a provocative read from a controversial author. Supposedly based on his real experiences in WWII, Hassel stretches credibility quite a bit, but much of it rings true.

Latimer, Jonathan. Soloman's Vineyard. London: Xanadu Blue Murder, 1990. 160pp.

A good period hardboiled noir novel. Snappy dialogue, dangerous dames, perverse plotline, at least for the 1940s when it was written. It's all there.

Slaughter, Karen. Triptych. New York: Dell, 2007. 480 pp.

Yikes. This is one violent and intense thriller. A solid cast of characters, tons of action, good suspense, lots of twists and turns. I look forward to sequels -- and must more Slaughterific summer reading. Yes, the aptly named Karen Slaughter is the perfect summer thriller reading.

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