#CBR 5 Review #13: Sometimes There Are Monsters, by J.T. Warren

I don’t remember buying this book. It’s been weeks since I finished reading it, and my memories of it have faded a bit. What hasn’t faded: hoping I picked this up while it was being offered free for kindle or something, because I really hope I didn’t spend money on this.

I dislike giving bad reviews, but to say much of anything kind about these stories would be unforgivably dishonest.

The stories themselves range from poorly written and offensive to merely bland and derivative. The case for this book is not helped by the author’s smug notes following each.

Then women in these stories are obnoxious obstacles, victims to be murdered and tortured, and passive beings who do nothing about their own fates. The plots are basic and unsurprising. The gore is meant to be shocking, but since none of it’s new, it’s all very trite.

Scrolling back through the stories to refresh my memories has only renewed my distaste for the whole thing. There is one story that shows promise, but the whole thing hinges on an action so unspeakably stupid it ruins everything around it.

I will say that the stories seem to be roughly arranged in order of publication, starting with one written in high school. The quality of the writing does improve, but there’s nothing here I’d recommend to anyone.

#CBR 5 Review #11: Aberrations, edited by Jeremy C. Shipp

http://boldbookblog.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/aberrations.jpg?w=152&h=210I don’t remember buying this book. I suspect I stumbled across it during a time when it was free on Kindle, and it waited until I finished off one book and wasn’t in a place where I could look for another.

It’s been a few weeks since I read this, but a quick glance through the table of contents has refreshed my memory of most of the stories. The good thing and the bad thing about anthologies is the potential for extremely scattered results. It helps to find an editor whose preferences align well with your own, but even that’s never a guarantee.

These stories cover a lot of ground–among others, a hired assassin meets the mothman, a fighting couple runs afoul of bigfoot, there’s the requisite zombie story, and one very strange bus trip.

So how were they?

I’m having a hard time reviewing this. None of the stories were especially terrible. Some were rather predictable. One irritated the crap out of me by riffing on the idea of spider hawks, but swapping the genders in order to create a more usual story using rape as a device for the sake of shock. I’ve honestly completely forgotten a couple of them.

One story, in some ways, was well worth the entire anthology. The Hounds of Love, by Scott Nicholson, was genuinely chilling…a beautiful exploration of psychopathy and abuse and a deeply twisted understanding of love as a tool and weapon.

The last story in the collection, From Hamlin to Harperville, by Kealan Patrick Burke, is a really interesting riff on pied pipers that I enjoyed quite a bit, too.

In all, this was a quick read, and I enjoyed most of it. I don’t know that I’d recommend it to anyone, but I’ve got a few authors to look for in the future.

#CBR 5 Review #10: This Book is Full of Spiders, by David Wong

tumblr_mcyjb5QfjV1riham4o1_500I read John Dies at the End a while back and enjoyed it quite a bit. I think, when trying to describe it to a friend, I went with, “A little like Lovecraft on a really bad trip as filtered through a 12 year old boy’s sense of humor.” It was unhinged and ridiculous and a lot of fun. I’ve since seen the movie and…enjoyed it not as much as the book.

I never heard nearly as much about the sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders, Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It. Most of what I heard was pretty positive–it’s a stronger book with better writing and a more coherent plot. I’m game for that.

So, how did the new book go over?

I have to agree with the other reviews I’ve read. It is, by nearly any standard, a better book than its predecessor. There is a clear plot, the writing is definitely a step up, the ideas the author is trying to communicate are clear, and I did laugh while reading it.

Where John Dies at the End was a sort of Lovecraftian mess, This Book is Full of Spiders is more about zombies (or at least, society’s obsession with zombies) and contagion and shady government agencies and the disconnect between person and people, among other things. It’s even got a little about sacrifice, which is a subject I find deeply fascinating. I think the real meaning of sacrifice is often missed, and I think David Wong got it right here.

However…I don’t know. I didn’t feel like the plot in the first was all that incoherent or episodic. There was a kind of free-wheeling ridiculousness that was extremely charming about the first. It was a better book, but the joy wasn’t really there. This seems like something that’s my problem more than anything.

#CBR 5 Review #9: Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant

Steampunk-Lincoln-steampunk-1038417_600_750I love anthologies.

I live alone, and my house has two bedrooms. The extra bedroom could have been a guest room, but instead it’s full of bookshelves. An entire bookshelf is filled with nothing but anthologies, and I’ve read every one of them.

They’re easy to enjoy–after all, if a story really is terrible (and I don’t know if my luck is good, my standards are low, or what, but stories I’ve considered irredeemable have been few and far in between), it’s not much of a time commitment to finish, and the next will probably be better. That can make them rather hard to review, too.

Steampunk! is…surprisingly…filled with steampunk stories. I kind of hate to delve into definitions, if for no other reason than that steampunk has gotten notoriously difficult to pin down, but for the uninitiated, steampunk is basically a kind of Victorian retro-futurism. Science fiction by way of the age of steam. There are dozens of blurred edges with other subgenres that often fall under the same heading if for no other reason than that steampunk is just easier to say, but there’s gearpunk and clockpunk and dieselpunk and mannerspunk and gaslamp fantasy and…yeah. Jules Vern and HG Wells are frequently cited as inspirations, along with Shelley and Lewis and others. There’s a lot of crossover with Lovecraft and weird fiction.

I could go on, but I’m here about one anthology, not about an entire culture.

One point very much in this anthology’s favor is its central conceit: it promised an entire collection of steampunk stories in which not a one took place in Victorian England. Since one story took place in London that was, to all appearances, quite Victorian but for the typical technology of the genre, I’m not sure if I misread or was mislead. All of the other stories took place elsewhere, however, and in a variety of times: Victorian Canada, modern and post-apocalyptic America, ancient Rome, and other worlds altogether.  Two of them graphic rather than straight written word. Some of them stretched the definition of steampunk so far as to border on unrecognizable, but I think the ability to do just that is both a strength and weakness of the genre.

I didn’t dislike a single one of these stories, and when I looked through the table of contents, I found I could recall details of each, too. That’s very good: it can’t be a sign of a strong story when you forget about it almost as soon as you’ve finished it.

The Summer People by Kelly Link was a standout, set in modern America and one that I felt stretched the definition of steampunk but that has also managed to stick with me and probably will for some time. Steam Girl by Dylan Horrocks, again set in the modern world, is another favorite of mine. Two outcasts in school are drawn together and bond over one’s stories of Steam Girl. I was honestly reminded of what Spaceman Spiff from Calvin and Hobbes might become if Calvin hangs onto his rich fantasies as he grows.  The Last Ride of the Glory Girls by Libba Bray was both set in another world and in an Old West that felt familiar, and the story left me breathless. Cory Doctorow’s Clockwork Fagin was a lot of fun and left me with a far better impression of him than his story in Welcome to Bordertown.

I find I can keep going. Those are a few of my favorites, but it was hard to stand out in this collection. If you’re entirely unfamiliar with steampunk, I can’t decide if I’d recommend this or not. I’m inclined to say it’s a perfect collection to introduce someone new to the whole thing, but at the same time, I’d deliberately departing from the earlier roots, so maybe it’s a better second place after some familiarity has been established?

If I step back from questions of genre, the answer is far easier: these are great stories. If you dig science fiction and fantasy, it would be hard to go wrong picking this one up.

#CBR 5 Review #8: Abhorsen, by Garth Nix

abhorsenAbhorsen picks up so immediately following the end of Lirael that they may as well be read as a single book.

It makes reviewing it really hard because saying anything at all about what happens in the book is pretty much a big spoiler for what happened in the previous book.

If you’re interested in reading these books and haven’t read up to this one yet, then I’ll leave it at this: do pick these books up. Do read them. Whether you’re an adult or a teenager, this is a rich, fascinating world full of characters that have stayed with me for more than a decade and a half. There’s a short list of books I’ve read more than once, and a very, very short list of books I’ve read more than twice. All three of the Old Kingdom books are on that very, very short list.

If you have read the others, if you don’t care about spoilers, or you have no intention of reading these books, but you’re mildly curious anyway, read on.

At the conclusion of Lirael, we learned that Lirael never received her Sight because she’s a daughter not only of the Clayr, but of the Abhorsen. She learned earlier in the story that she’s a Remembrancer: she can see into the past instead of the future, and to do so, she must step into Death. Since she went in so readily after learning about Death and since she voluntarily read the Book of the Dead when it was presented to her, this revelation wasn’t much of a surprise to anyone but Lirael and Sameth.

At the same time, Sam learned that he’s not the Abhorsen-in-waiting: he’s a Wallmaker, the first in many, many generations. He greets the news that he can pass the mantle of Abhorsen to another and that his calling really is building the wonderful things he’s always loved, he’s relieved and content.

Lirael, who spent her life eagerly waiting her Sight, is somewhat less thrilled. It’s hard to learn that a life’s dream will never, ever be yours. But she’s discovered that she has a family she never knew about: she’s got a sister in Sabriel, a brother in law, and a niece and nephew.

Nicholas is in deep with Hedge, the necromancer, and the thing he’s digging up that never should have been bothered. Of course, nothing buried and warded and left to never see the light of day will always find its way back.

Ready to take on their new roles or not, Lirael and Sam have to set out to save Nicholas and maybe the whole world.

Abhorsen continues with the themes of duty and fate, but also adds in a lot more about family and bravery. The first time I read this book, I tore through it as fast as I could, completely absorbed in the story and eager to devour every last word. When I reread it, I often fell into the same trance.

I am so, so glad I came back to read these books. They’re brilliant, and I missed a great deal of the brilliance by not paying enough attention before. For example, we’re finally told who the Disreputable Dog really is. The first time I read the book, when the truth was revealed, I literally dropped the book. I was shocked. On rereading more carefully, there was a hint the moment the Dog appeared. There were many more hints, and some of them were so clear they bordered on spelling it out. Same with Mogget.

The craft that went into the world and the characters is a joy in and of itself. The story built on the details laid out each step of the way. Even the little things, like Sabriel’s friend Ellimere who died at the end of the first book and Sabriel’s daughter Ellimere who was born about a year after the events of that book.

I said it before, but I’ll say it again: I recommend these books. They’re worth reading not just once, but multiple times.

#CBR 5 Review #7: Lirael, by Garth Nix

liraelAfter discovering and loving Sabriel while I was in high school, I sort of kept Garth Nix in mind as an author I’d like to follow. I think I found Shade’s Children long before I discovered there were two more books set in the Old Kingdom: Lirael and Abhorsen. I don’t know how long I might have gone without discovering them if I hadn’t walked right into a big display with all three in a book store.

I don’t honestly remember if I bought one or both of them on the spot or if I had to wait, but either way, they both still reside on a shelf in my library.

These are books I’ve recommended to friends many times, and I know at least one person actually picked them up and read them and loved them as much as I did. When trying to get other people to read them, I’ve said that they’re young adult novels only in the age of the protagonists and the lack of graphic sex. The world building, the quality of the story, even the levels of violence and horror hold up against an awful lot of epic fantasy out there.

So, following after revisiting Sabriel, how did Lirael hold up?

Beautifully.

I stand by my old assessment. While I do see a little more youth in the story than I did when I first read it, I would still absolutely recommend that teenagers and adults alike pick up these books.

These books take place in the years following the events in Sabriel, picking up 14 or so years after and moving forward to 18 or 20 years after. (Spoilers follow for Sabriel, maybe. I mean, knowing only the title and the genre, you should probably walk in knowing this is more or less where the story was leading).

Sabriel is Abhorsen, Touchstone is king, and they’ve gone on to have children. They’re rebuilding the Old Kingdom and winning it back from the free magic, the dead, and the chaos that ate at the kingdom in the two hundred years leading up to the story in Sabriel. Sameth, younger child of Sabriel and Touchstone, is set to become Abhorsen-in-waiting, and he steps into the story as one of our main characters.

Lirael, at the outset of our story, is a daughter of the Clayr. We were introduced to two of the Clayr in Sabriel. They see the future, and they are the descendants of one of the founders of the Charter–along with the Abhorsen and the king. On Lirael’s 14th birthday, she still hasn’t gotten her Sight, and she’s the oldest child in the glacier–the Clayr become adults on receiving their Sight, but no one has Seen Lirael. She stands out in other ways, too, since the Clayr tend to be blond and dark skinned, while Lirael is pale with dark hair. Since the Clayr are so concerned with the future, they’ve all managed to miss Lirael’s increasing isolation and depression, so there’s no one to step in before Lirael decides her 14th birthday is the perfect time to throw herself from the mountain.

Good timing (and a little hesitation when reality comes to greet her from the top of the mountain) brings Lirael face-to-face with some of the most powerful Clayr in the glacier. To give her a little direction to keep her from dwelling too much on her perceived faults, Lirael is given a job in the Library of the Clayr–a library that is absolutely on my list of fictional libraries I would totally visit if it were possible.

Prince Sameth, meanwhile, is finishing off his last year in school on the other side of the Wall. When he and his cricket team are attacked by a necromancer named Hedge, Sam bravely plunges into Death to save his friends. He learns the hard way that bravery and good intentions don’t do a lot more than set you up to get your ass kicked. In addition to some physical injuries, Sam is left with some wounds to his soul and a severe phobia of Death. Not really a healthy fear in an Abhorsen-in-waiting.

During that same attack, Sam’s best friend Nicholas Sayre runs headlong into the necromancer. When he’s mistaken for the prince, he has a fragment of something dangerous implanted in him. At first Hedge is furious that he didn’t get his intended victim, but since Nicholas is the nephew of the Prime Minister, he isn’t precisely useless, either.

Years go by in the Glacier, and during which Lirael creates a dog sending for company that ends up being far more than she intended. But the Disreputable Dog proves to be a good friend, and the two of them pass the years in adventures in the library while Lirael quietly uses the books at her disposal to become a formidable Charter mage in her own right.

When the Clayr finally See Lirael, they don’t come to her with the news she’d been expecting all her life: instead of getting her Sight and becoming a true Daughter of the Clayr, Lirael is allowed to view a single vision, then she is sent away from the Glacier to do something everyone is very certain is extremely important.

Meanwhile, Sam has been doing his very best to avoid touching the Book of the Dead, even though he knows he’ll have to pick up his mantle as Abhorsen-in-waiting. When his friend Nicholas sends a letter to tell him he’s crossing into the Old Kingdom for a visit, and he’s going to the very place that has been the center of a lot of trouble for years. Sam sees the perfect opportunity to put off his duties as Abhorsen-in-waiting while hopefully saving his friend, and who could blame him for doing that?

This book continues the ideas and themes of duty that were so prominent in the first book. It brings us somewhat more fragile characters, and also explores destiny and dreams, and whether or not it’s right to follow the path you’ve been given or the one your find for yourself.

I feel like this book earned its place on my shelf all over again.

#CBR 5 Review #6: Finder, by Emma Bull

btown_wallpaperI cannot be objective about this book. I cannot be objective about anything to do with Bordertown.

The thing is, I don’t know if I should be.

If you enjoy urban fantasy, you owe a debt to Bordertown, to Terry Windling and to all of the authors who breathed life into this amazing, heartbreaking, dirty, beautiful, terrible, dream-soaked town. When the first books, Borderland and Bordertown, were printed in 1986, they were unique. These weren’t once upon a time, far, far away. No, in the 80′s, what the humans knew as elfland (don’t call it that to the elves’ faces) reappeared. A regular American city got caught right on the border. Which city isn’t known–maybe it’s a little bit of every city. It became this place that doesn’t belong anywhere, where the magic and the tech work only sporadically, and it didn’t take long before it filled up with kids from both sides of the border, all either running from or running to something.

I came to Bordertown a little backwards, which is guess is the only way to find it. While looking at filk, I discovered Banshee Blues, by Maureen S. O’Brien. I went looking for that book, Life on the Border. Funny enough, it was the last one I found.

It was the 90s, and I was in high school. I was this lost, stupid kid, just like the kids in the stories. I always felt a little lonely, even when I was with my friends, and I had felt like I didn’t belong as long as I could remember. When I went to summer camp, we were shown the ‘wishing tree’ on the grounds, and I snuck away from my camp and to the wishing tree to ask it to send me home. I didn’t know where home was, I just didn’t know it was here.

Bordertown gave me a home.

I’ve got all of the anthologies. First editions. I consider them the crown of my collection, and even though I would desperately love to know someone else who has read these books and who has loved them, I can’t bring myself to lend them out. I can’t risk them not finding their way home.

What I hadn’t read was the associated novels. I don’t yet have copies of them, either. But they were released on kindle not long after the most recent anthology, Welcome to Bordertown, was released. The very last was Finder, by Emma Bull.

Orient, who got his name for his ability to find anything, and his partner, Tick-Tick, have been in short stories in the previous anthologies, so picking up this story was like coming home and being greeted by old, dear friends.

Orient is fey, a kid from the World who went a little different when the Realm came crashing back into our reality. Ask him where something is–something that either you or he definitely know exists–and he’ll know where it is. Not like he can tell you its exact location, but like there’s a string drawn between it and him–tug, tug, tug, it’s over this way.

Everyone coming to the Border has a reason to leave behind their old life. Get to the Border and you shed the past. A few weeks and you’ll have a new name, a new look, a new life. So it doesn’t seem like she’s playing by the rules when cop Sunny Rico shows up to threaten Orient with the life he left behind in the World.

The thing is, there’s a new drug in town. Someone’s feeding runaways something that’s supposed to turn them into real elves, and then they’ll be able to cross the Border and enter the Realm, which has so far been completely barred from humans. The problem is, the kids who take it are changing, and then they’re dying ugly.

No matter how angry Orient is about how he’s been dragged into it, it’s not the kind of thing he can leave alone.

If you love urban fantasy, I cannot recommend Bordertown highly enough. If you’re thinking about dipping your toes in urban fantasy, this is a good place to start. If you’ve never been to Bordertown, is this particular book where I’d recommend you’d start?

Not necessarily. I think if you’re new, a better place would be The Essential Guide to Bordertown, which has beautiful stories perfectly framed by a travel guide to Bordertown written by the kids who ran away and made a home there. I don’t know anyone who’s read the books, but most of the people I know have heard portions of the Guide that I read out loud. There’s also Welcome to Bordertown, which brings Bordertown into today.

And once you’ve read those, if you’ve got a kindle, absolutely pick up Finder (end Elsewhere and NeverNever). They’re amazing, and at their prices as of my writing this, they’re an absolute steal.