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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Devil's Only Friend by Dan Wells (John Cleaver book 4)

The Devil's Only Friend  
by Dan Wells 
Tor Books 
General Fiction (Adult)

John Wayne Cleaver returns... this time with a posse. Of sorts. He's working with a team of special investigators to uncover serial killers who are actually demons in disguise.

I read this prior to reading the first novel in the first trilogy. Like many series mysteries, the books can be read without prior knowledge of earlier novels although it might be better appreciated as a series.

This is the first in a new trilogy for Mr. Cleaver. He's grown up (or getting there at 17) and working for an organization investigating the supernatural, so they can't reveal themselves to the police. Included are Nathan, genius but not well liked; Kelly, their cop in residence; Diana, security specialist from the USAF; Linda, leader of US's secret war against the supernatural; Brooke, possessed by an ancient demon named Nobody, which knows a lot about the demons or the "Withered" they are pursuing.

Their first test is a Withered kidnapping a girl Another kills children. Who is it? And how is it done? But these Withereds are only warm-up acts for a much more powerful one concealed behind others.

What works for the novel are the speculative eye-kicks. Wells develops these demons and their history in surprising ways. A broader sense of the secret world is slowly peeled back. What's not as strong is the narrative voice. The first novel concentrated on the voice with humorous dark edge. Some of that humor is still here, but far more sparse.

To an extent, this is more of a mystery in whodunnit department than the first novel. However, it's hard to say that the novel is intended to "play fair" as far as giving enough clues that the reader might have guessed.

Can you get by reading this novel without the earlier books? Yes, but I'm not sure you'd want to.

The latest novel in the series is Over your Dead Body. Impoverished, Cleaver and Brooke, with the hundred-thousand personalities that her demon Nobody stole over the millennia, head off on a road trip on the trail of another Withered. They hunt demons. On their own.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Review: I Am Not A Serial Killer (John Cleaver Book 1) by Dan Wells

Recently, I've read a few novels that blend the speculative and mystery genres with mixed success. So I wondered what made a good mystery that also scratches the speculative itch.

When it comes SF, Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun and "The Billiard Ball" both do well--not to omit Larry Niven's Flatlander. Asimov and Niven work the more difficult territories of "whodunnits": displaying a cast of criminals, shifting blame until we land on the criminal at the end. They do not shirk the responsibility of creating speculative societies in the meantime. Niven, if I recall correctly, said he wouldn't write another SF mystery as obeying the two genres was too difficult.

"Howdunnits" explore the criminal's methodology. While you may know who the criminal is, you can't convict him without evidence.

There is also the "whydunnit" which is usually the exploration of a criminal mind--sometimes within the mind of the criminal. A famous example would be Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart."

When it comes to recent fantasy mysteries,  I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells actually melds a few of these. The narrator, John Wayne Cleaver, is a high school student whose mother is a mortician. He helps embalm the bodies. The first part of the narrative, oddly enough, is a description of how this is done. This is a pretty risky step to take, but Wells successfully surmounts the limitations by creating a narrator buoyant with dark humor--a kid so fascinated by serial killers that he fears he might become one himself. His very name mirrors not only John Wayne (All-American hero) but also John Wayne Gacy (notorious serial killer) and, of course, an infamous murder weapon.

He does his best to look "normal" and fit in with most teenagers, but his mother notices a small part of his fascination and sends him to get psychological help. Later, when he thinks he spies the work of a serial killer in their small town, she excludes him from the joys of embalming since he likes it too much. This exacerbates the problem.

There is an element of whodunnit here since the identity of the killer is not immediately known, but we are not privy to an analysis of suspects. Instead, it is more of a howdunnit and whydunnit. First, Cleaver is a serial killer in the bud, trying to nip it, which makes fascinating reading. Next, he shifts to typical serial killer MO's. Once he finds his suspect, he hones in on the how and why of his suspect and how he might stop the killer from killing again.

The ending itself is potent as Wells manages to make us feel two ways about the killer. The main reason the novel as a mystery succeeds is that it redirects our attention from whodunnit to why/howdunnit. The  If you like mysteries and horror, this is a must-read.

Wells deserved more attention for this novel that he got initially. Perhaps that was a function of the risky opening. Still readers can still remedy that. This one should be one of Wells's longer lived works.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a Doorway 
by Seanan McGuire  
Sci Fi & Fantasy

Nancy fell into a portal world of the dead where she had to keep still as a stone so as not to be noticed. Now that she's back home, she wants to return. Instead, her parents ship her off to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children--a school where kids who still love their portal world and long to return, even though to do so would harder than lightning striking twice.

Nancy befriends other girls at school: Jack and Jill, twin girls; Sumi, Nancy's new roommate. When one of her new friends loses her hands, the girls fall under suspicion. They band together to find out who did it and to stop them.

One of the tale's strengths is that McGuire carves each major character sharply to life. Another is that we have come to a meta-grappling with the portal fantasy, coming up with overarching rules for these systems. Third, we have a story about magic systems that actually doesn't directly involve any such system. Cool stuff.

The Achilles heal is the mystery. We are presented with a murder mystery, which piques interest, but the sleuthing is minimal. Like many mysteries in SF, the mystery plot is underutilized.

A minor blemish: The story pops open an unnecessary can of worms:

" 'Why are there so many more girls here than boys?' 
" 'Because "boys will be boys" is a self-fulfilling prophecy,' said Lundy. 'They're too loud, on the whole, to be easily misplace or overlooked; when they disappear from the home, parents send search parties to dredge them out of swamps and drag them away from frog ponds....
"It made sense, in its terrible way. Most of the boys she'd known were noisy creatures, encouraged to be so by their parents and friends. Even when they were naturally quiet, they forced themselves to be loud, to avoid censure and mockery." 
Few boys would nod, "So true." Really, parents don't look for missing daughters? What might a Gallup poll show? Moreover, it privileges girls (via pity), and what boy wouldn't also want to go? Why would boys read such a book, otherwise?

If the story hadn't drawn my attention to this, I might not have noticed that the boys born as boys were essentially spear-carriers and buffoons.

Write a story about an all-girls school, and make no excuses. A beta-reader must have complained where were the boys. Who cares? Stories with all boys or girls are fine. Better to execute swiftly than to back up and back fill a pseudo-psychology that doesn't mirror reality. Besides, all-boys or all-girl stories call for a different dynamic from the norm. It could excite reader interest.

This is a tiny part of the story--one page out of 176--and no doubt it distorts the weight it should have in this review.

Aside from these missteps, the story is thoroughly enjoyable and recommended for fans of portal fantasies everywhere.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"Möbius" by Christopher Weber

Appeared in Writers of the Future 32.

Detective Elizabeth Arus, who investigates gene crime, is on trail of a gene hacker. When she corners him, she is stabbed and loses consciousness.

After she awakes, her father hovers over her. He says that she had been knocked out and drugged for four days since her health required this. But what her colleagues tell her about the scene of her last memory--half of her blood discovered at the crime but not her body--and what her doctor father says about no cuts found on her body, do not add up. The answers she digs up unearths a larger secret.

Discussion with minor spoilers:
Weber's style is facile, akin to popular writers. While not especially evocative, it does enthrall. His tale here has a cool premise and mystery although the ending serves up "The Lady or the Tiger" keeping it from tackling the larger issues at stake. Since the title doesn't play an integral role in content, it suggests a more thematic use (perhaps like John Barth's "Frame-Tale" from Lost in the Funhouse or Samuel Delany's Dhalgren) although this use is not immediately evident unless we are meant to believe this has happened many times before, which the text has not indicated.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Writing Talk: Conversations with top writers of the last fifty years by Alex Hamilton

Writing Talk:Conversations with top writers of the last fifty years 
by Alex Hamilton  
Troubador Publishing Ltd  
Nonfiction (Adult)
Arts & Photography
Alex Hamilton open this book of interviews with how he came to write the book: first, his first novel; next, his interviews from twenty-five years, working with The Guardian.

Hamilton interviews genre and literary authors alike. His interviews do not mirror the writerly interest of most interviews, but usually focuses on the business end of writing and larger scale issues of each genre.

Hamilton is there on scene when the New Wave writers, like Brian Aldiss and J. G. Ballard, were making their mark. Hamilton opens the readers' eyes to where those writers felt like when it was, visiting 1968 and 1979.

For dedicated readers of SF, looking to bone up on the genre's shape, should find this book a boon. He also interviews literary, crime, romance writers, as well as cartoonists and poets.

Writers interviewed include:

  1. Harry Harrison, 
  2. Brian Aldiss, 
  3. Michael Moorcock, 
  4. Kurt Vonnegut, 
  5. Martin Bax, 
  6. Russell Hoban, 
  7. Joseph Heller, 
  8. Angela Carter,
  9. John Wyndham, 
  10. Dennis Wheatley, 
  11. Stephen Donaldson, 
  12. Lionel Fanthorpe, 
  13. Stephen King, 
  14. Daphne du Maurier, 
  15. Ian McEwan, 
  16. Jorge Luis Borges, 
  17. Graham Greene, 
  18. Pablo Neruda, 
  19. Joyce Carol Oates, 
  20. Margaret Atwood, 
  21. Norman Mailer, 
  22. Jacqueline Susann, 
  23. John Updike, 
  24. Mickey Spillane, 
  25. Ed McBain, 
  26. George V. Higgins, 
  27. Derek Marlowe, 
  28. Patricia Highsmith, 
  29. John D. MacDonald, 
  30. Chester Himes, 
  31. Eric Ambler, 
  32. Edmund Crispin, 
  33. Harold Robbins, 
  34. Brian Freemante, 
  35. Michael Innes, 
  36. Colin Watson, 
  37. H. R. F. Keating, 
  38. Julian Symons, 
  39. M. M. Kaye, 
  40. Lucilla Andrews, 
  41. Fiona Richmond,  
  42. R. K. Narayan, 
  43. Muriel Spark, 
  44. Erskine Caldwell, 
  45. George Mackay Brown,
  46. Regine Deforges, 
  47. Bernard Malamud, 
  48. Isaac Bashevis Singer, 
  49. H. E. Bates, 
  50. Jorge Luis Borges, 
  51. Christopher Evans, 
  52. Herbert Harris, 
  53. David Jones, 
  54. Tambimuttu, 
  55. Basil Bunting, 
  56. Tom Pickard, 
  57. Jeff Nuttall, 
  58. Stuart Montgomery, 
  59. Gavin Ewart, 
  60. Larissa Vassilyeva, 
  61. D. J. Enright, 
  62. Alas Ross, 
  63. Norman Thelwell, 
  64. Herge, 
  65. Charles Addams, 
  66. Beryl Cook, 
  67. Denis Gifford, 
  68. Gunter Grass, 
  69. Beryl Bainbridge, 
  70. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 
  71. Chinua Achebe, 
  72. Arthur Koestler, 
  73. Gore Vidal, 
  74. Anthony Burges, 
  75. E. L. Doctorow, 
  76. Romain Gary, 
  77. James Michener, 
  78. Edward Upward, 
  79. J. P. Donleavy, 
  80. Rebecca West, among others

Thursday, June 16, 2016

"Images Across a Shattered Sea" by Stewart C. Baker

Published in WOTF 32

Driss and Fatima pull a buble from the panoptic shard, guessing what it might contain: some strange knowledge. Instead, they find themselves.

Two centuries years earlier, Jen and Hog send out the shards to learn something about the future. It just contains visual images, but they glean information from that--whether the future is live-able and how.

Then they receive a vision of a near-future that seems to offer certain doom.
Discussion with spoilers:
Baker offers a great speculative conceit. It begs the question of how our actions affect the future. The last image is affecting, perhaps illustrative of what many hope will happen revolutionarily to our present society.

Problematic is that the protagonists have little impact on the narrative, swept along on a techno-mystical wave. However, that suggest something thematically intriguing: that we have little impact. Maybe it will all turn out right in the end, but a god-in-the-machine will resolve. Contrary to popular opinion today, you don't have to agree with a particular theme for it to stimulate thought.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Review: Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

Wylding Hall 
by Elizabeth Hand  
Open Road Integrated Media  
Mystery & Thrillers
Nominated for the Locus and Shirley Jackson awards.

Windhollow Faire, a fictive sixties folk band, decide to hole up in Wylding Hall, a large house where the band planned to practice for their second album. Partially, they are trying to distance themselves from the death [suicide? murder?] of their lead female singer, Ariana. Her loss is a major blow as her voice and looks brought attention to the band. Julian Blake, lead male singer and songwriter, had been in love with her, to the jealousy of Lesley Stansalclass, the new female lead.

The problem comes when the band members realize that they are not the only residents in Wylding Hall. Maybe the only living ones...

The story is told by the former members of Windhollow Faire and their producer, photographer, and critic. This is the highlight of this novella/short novel. It creates a pitch-perfect voice of the rockumentary. Hand captures the feel of the genre so well, this alone is worthy of reading, acclaim, and award attention.

With so many voices shaping the story, especially a tale from years past, one might expect more contradiction. However, with so many voices, if they had contradicted one another, the reader might have wound up thoroughly disoriented. So it's just as well that contradiction was not a feature. Plus, one assumes that the material in a rockumentary has been shaped by a film's editor to tell a cohesive story.

It takes a little while to come upon the speculative elements. If you've read Elizabeth Hand's other works, this may come as no surprise. Wylding Hall, when she does it explore it, has a spooky if magical atmosphere. The horror aspect is subdued, leaving the reader with a prescient photograph and the mystery of one missing [dead?] band member. All of which adds up to the most famous accidental album of their era.

This one of the best novellas published last year. Well worth the price.