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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Longevity: What Makes a Writer Worth Remembering?

Someone at Wikipedia has questioned whether a writer's [Richard Parks's] entry deserves to exist. At first, it seems outrageous to suggest erasing a writer's and his work's existence. But when you look at the actual discussion, they define it as the following:
"The person has received a well-known and significant award or honor, or has been nominated for one several times."
I am going to assume that Magnolia677 is just playing by the rules and not someone with an axe to grind.

Interesting questions arise: "What is significant?" "What makes a writer and his work worth remembering?" One can apply the same questions to Wikipedia itself: Who cares if an article is deleted from them or not? Who are they?

However, it is a go-to, community fount of information, which academics tend to discredit, but let's say it is worth keeping because the above quote makes fascinating dissection.

  1. Why does someone need to win an award? I'm guessing it isn't the only measurement that Wikipedia uses when deciding to include or exclude. 
    1. Bestsellerdom or popularity will also be a measure (see Eric Flint below). 
    2. Likewise, Shakespeare and John Milton didn't win awards, yet they are included. There, the measure is academic appreciation (which, one might say, is what the Mythopoeic award is). 
    3. Moreover, even Wikipedia acknowledges that William Faulkner is not known for his award-winning works. Therefore, despite the above quoted claim, this really is not a selection criteria for inclusion in Wikipedia for authors.
  2. Richard Parks has been nominated for five awards, won one. How many is several? Is five not several? (See below for further discussion of what even means to be nominated for the best.)
  3. What is well-known? What is significant? The Hugo award is probably the most famous genre award. The award is exclusive to a group of those who pay to vote and/or attend a convention [World Con]. Last year, they had ~4200 attend and ~7000 with voting privileges. The convention supporters are probably more likely to vote than not. However, voters won't vote for every category. So for any category, let's guess that there's a 50-75% involvement. Let's say 5,000 vote. Let's compare that to the Science Fiction Age poll. Let's say of a 50-60,000 subscriber base, only ten percent vote. In terms of voter numbers, the awards may be roughly equivalent. 
    1. Caveat not in Parks's favor: Note, however, that SF Age Reader's Poll has only one magazine that is up for an award, so the selection/competition is narrower. 
    2. Caveats in Parks's favor: 90%+ of the World Con voters did not read every story in every magazine. Therefore, it is probably safe to call the winner of an SF Age poll, comparatively, as significant as, say, a Hugo award nomination. 
    3. I've read the story in question. It is good but not a major story. It is better than some stories that won major awards.
  4. Not including his award-nominated stories and novellas, Richard Parks has had fourteen stories included in various genre retrospective and year's best anthologies. These are selected by respected writers or editors of the field. Let's call these selected stories, long-listed "award" stories. Let's assign them the worth of half a nomination. That would give Parks seven more nominations (if you prefer a third, then it would be five more nominations). So we end up with the equivalence of ten to twelve award nominations. Is that enough for significance?
  5. Related to #4, if you [who question a writer's significance] agree that someone is significant enough to have a Wikipedia page, and that person says that the writer is significant (whether via book blurb or collecting that author's work or somehow stating that Parks's works stand among the best released in the past, then you must agree the writer in question has significance. (This, of course, leaves out all the Wikified editors like Shawna McCarthy who printed Parks multiple times.) Writers or editors who fit that bill:
    1. Kathryn Cramer (four reprints)
    2. David G. Hartwell (four reprints)
    3. Margaret Weis (one)
    4. Eric Flint (one--who has, by the way, not won as significant award or been nominated  as often as Parks)
    5. Mike Resnick (one)
    6. Jonathan Strahan (one)
    7. Sean Wallace (two)
    8. Rachel Swirsky (two)
The discussion, however, is academic. His collection, Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter (see review), is significant--not the best of its year but among the best. This marks him as a writer worth reading and having a Wikipedia entry (were I to vote on this). Put another way: If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle deserves an entry on the basis of literary merit, then so does Parks.

His novel/collection was not well known enough that people turned to it for award nominations, which is a shame. Like Faulkner's best, sometimes good works do not get the awards nod. Still, people will be reading and passing on via word of mouth that Yamada will probably continue to sell beyond some award winners.

The author should gather his reprinted, award-winning and nominated shorter works into one massive "Selected Works" collection to see if that doesn't help tip the scale toward significance.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Finalist published in Amazing Stories

Amazing Stories published my contest story, "Awake the Snorting Citizens", alongside Alex Shvartsman and David Gerrold. My thanks to the editors, Steve Davidson and Ira Nayman, as well as the superlative illustrator, Darryl Knickrehm of Waylines. Congrats to my fellow writers.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter by Richard Parks

Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter 
by Richard Parks  
Diamond Book Distributors  
Prime Books
Richard Parks has been scribbling speculative fiction for decades with fiction nominated for the World Fantasy, Locus, and Mythopoeic Awards, not to mention short fiction appearing in multiple year's best anthologies. Yamada Monogatari may be one of his crowning achievements.

These tales originally appeared in Shawna McCarthy's Realms of Fantasy and Scott H. Andrews's Beneath Ceaseless Skies, reprinted by Scott H. Andrews, Eric Flint, Paula Guran, Rich Horton, Mike Resnick, Rachel Swirsky, and Sean Wallace. For some reason, I thought the stories were all original and was surprised that they had not drawn more attention, but clearly, hawk-eyed editors spotted the strength of these works.

As the collection title suggests, Yamada Monogatari is a demon hunter, or any supernatural creature menacing the people of Japan. He is a nobleman, but not high enough to be embroiled in messy politics--an outsider with swordsmanship that makes him an excellent hire to investigate awkward family troubles.

Along the way, Lord Yamada picks up a sidekick: Kenji, a priest who drinks too much, neglects bathing, and takes too much interest in the fairer sex. None of which recommends his companionship except his willingness to accompany Lord Yamada on these journeys and ability to create wards and spells when needed.

The duo occupy the same literary ambiance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson with similar charms--except the present company investigate supernatural troubles in Japan, rather than crimes in England. They both present fascinating literary riddles and resolve them, if without providing enough clues for readers to unravel the knots themselves. We are just along for the thrill of the ride. And what a ride.

Here are teasers for the ten stories:
  1. A fox woman seems to have run off with her son. The father wants his son back....
  2. Lord Yamada's former lover, now empress, has been implicated in a scandal....
  3. An ogre menaces wayfarers wandering the countryside; however, she seems uninterested in harming any of them except....
  4. Lord Yamada is kidnapped by his friends and the prince in order to dodge a goddess who sends tsunami of boiling water who seeks devoted follower who abandoned her....
  5. The daughter of a ghost bandit won't allow Lord Yamada and Kenji to exorcise the ghost....
  6. A dead child's bride doll is stolen--it is meant to accompany the child as a companion in the afterlife. Is a rival family trying to stir things up? or something more sinister causing the upheaval?
  7. The bones of would-be robbers lie outside a mansion, left by the ghosts who guard it....
  8. The seven-foot tall corpse of a demon has been stolen, taken from the family of famous demon hunters.... (especially good--perhaps for its implications)
  9. A faceless ghost haunts the walls of a nobleman's compound, but this is no ordinary ghost....
  10. Finally in a fitting finale, characters from earlier stories come together. The fox woman, the ghost of a princess join Lord Yamada, Kenji, and others to protect the upcoming emperor from a plot against him....
I'd have given this five out of five stars but for a few small matters. Two of stories are minor. This alone wouldn't be fair to downgrade a collection since the rest have a curious "dimensionality," thanks to narrative events that seem initially arbitrary but later take on new meaning. The main drawback is that the stories could have built toward a more novel-like experience. Characters do recur, and there are some changes in character. Lord Yamada shows he has loved and slows his heavy drinking. But the changes are minor--little more than one finds in Arthur Conan Doyle stories. 

Still, we read Sherlock Holmes nearly a century and a half later. It wouldn't surprise me if Yamada Monogatari scratches that same itch. I am surprised it was not nominated for awards the year it appeared.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Ghostwatch: BBC Halloween hoax

In 1992, BBC apparently had an Orson-Wells-style Halloween hoax. It has moments of creepiness, but it didn't build as I'd hoped.

What is interesting are the participants/actors who  are struggling to contain laughter, which leads to near perpetual smirks. The doctor keeps hiding her mouth.

I half-suspected the hoax to be a hoax--people traumatized as a result of watching it. Apparently so, if Wiki can be believed.

Here's the wiki entry. This reveals the most fun part: Find the "ghost." I'm afraid I didn't see or experience any of the ghost's secret appearances except for one. It might have been more chilling had they let those appearances last longer than they did. Too subtle for my eyes to register, anyway. Still, it's a fun hide-and-go-seek.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Pixar: Borrowed Time

Note: This is not emotionally cathartic, but it does resonate. How many of us feel the same about our own parents, if not physically (I hope)?

I'd like to think, though, that there's more to the story.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
Open Road Media
General Fiction (Adult)

It boggles the mind: 6,000,000 copies sold. A novel--if it can be called that--about a teacher and her students.

Kaufman had her finger on the pulse of the American zeitgeist of the time. She wrote for Esquire--the first female to do so. Her grandfather was the writer Sholem Aleichem, and her mother also wrote. So writing as a livelihood was accepted in the family.

The format of the novel is related in letters, memos, student essays. No narrative thread carries the readers through this wash of memoranda. Imagine wading through a bunch of teacher memes on Facebook, which this novel is in essence.

It is true that Americans were ready for a change in narrative format. Metafiction hit the literary world in the 1960s, and the New Wave hit SF. An anthology on Points of View, edited by James Moffett, had been out, detailing all the different ways narrative has been presented.

Historically, school integration was in full swing, and people were still uncertain about it as this novel attests.

Maybe this is what drew people to the novel. It seems most appropriate for new teachers, especially English teachers, getting ready to step into the classroom. It still has a great deal of relevancy, too, despite being fifty years old.

The novel treats Sylvia Barrett, a first-year teacher, thrown into the inner-city New York classroom with over two hundred students to teach, with classes of over forty students per class. She has an older mentor who reassures her along the way. She has a love interest in a young teacher who composes Rodgers-and-Hammerstein style lyrics for every educational event. Her students are mostly in love with her, except for a few, one who hates women teachers. Her bosses have a dictatorial style that Barrett doesn't believe is helpful.

Barrett takes a keen interest in her students. A few of them have dramatic events that draw the reader back in after feeling the monotonous onslaught of essays and memos. One student dies due to an unprofessional abortion, another attempts death when the man she falls in love with (a teacher) doesn't reciprocate her feelings.

Finally, Barrett decides to teach at a private school where she can have her own seminar over Chaucer, but things get hectic at her old school. Her request to leave gets lost. And her foot gets smashed in a cafeteria melee. Her students rally around and she returns.

That is the plot. Yes, full of spoilers, but if I hadn't spoiled it, some might put the book down in boredom. An arc does exist. The characters are vividly and charmingly portrayed in all their ungrammatical and misspelled splendor even if the characters are not dynamic.

It has much to teach us about the 1960s, the worries and concerns, which are not wholly alien to today's human yearnings. Even more potent are the trials of the teacher: trying to juggle student concerns with adminstrators' concerns and those of the parents. Even the parents are the same, begging for their kids to pass even if they don't deserve it. If there is a significant difference between Kaufman's era and our own, this must be it. While similar, the helicopter parenting has spiraled upward.

What is amazing about the novel is that all of the future changes (or pushes for change) in education can be found in here. Sometimes it's as a joke, sometimes not. But even what was an educational joke in the 1960s is taken seriously today. It's almost as if the novel is prescient.

This may not be a novel for the casual reader. That is, while I love the format, it doesn't develop characters enough through it. If your fascination runs to education or the 1960s, your interest will not flag. New teachers might steel themselves for the teaching life with this novel, though.

There is also a movie version, starring Sandy Dennis.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Review: The Dig by Brad Taylor

The Dig 
A Taskforce Story 
by Brad Taylor 
Pike Logan is a member of the Taskforce. He is training (and slowly falling for) Jennifer Cahill, a young anthropologist, who has gone on a dig in Guatemala with Pike. She wants to further her career and jumps at an archaeological dig in Roswell, New Mexico. Their affair is slow but mounting and involves awkward if fair turnabouts.

As they excavate in Roswell, they uncover something that says the dig isn't what it seems, and the local henchmen rally to stop them. Pike's time and resources in the Taskforce allows him to unearth what's truly going on.

The suspense here is first rate. The characters involving enough for their genre--if macho-oriented--as one might expect from a military thriller.

I will defer to the author in terms of combat as he was a member of the military's Special Forces. I'm not as certain about the violence as a means to an end. At least, one act to incapacitate the enemy pushed it too far into the gruesome. After all, the guy was a hired local flunky looking for a quick buck. Of course, it's hard to tell the baddie's motives as the readers aren't in his head. But how far is too far? He can be a gentleman with women but how about with men? Couldn't he have done something that wouldn't maim the man for life?

I'm sure the guys who love this genre would gobble this stuff up, but it leaves me wondering about the protagonist: Is he impulsive? Is he giving enough thought to his actions? Will his sense of chivalry drive him to unnecessary damage?

It's one narrative moment, but it impaired my confidence in the character's judgment. Maybe it's something he has to work on, but it'd be nice to see that concern about his impulses addressed if not fully resolved, as this is only a short novel.

However, if you are a human of swift justice and action-packed punches, unpacking human motivations is not your pastime métier. This book cooks up exactly the seasonings you're hankering for. As for the speculative genre, it whets but mostly feints. Its main urge is to pluck those thrill strings.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review: Netwars - The Code by M. Sean Coleman

Netwars - The Codeby M. Sean Coleman
Bastei Entertainment

Looking for a contemporary thriller with an SF feel? Look no further.

In this first episode of six, the author takes us aboard a plane where the pilot, Antony Price--a CEO of security software--is rich and peddles child porn. He receives the following message in flight:

"You will never know me, but I will be the death of you.
I saw what you did -- I see everything you do.
I heard what you said -- I know your secrets.
I know where you went -- I follow you everywhere.
You are not above scrutiny -- I scrutise everything.
You are not above the law -- I am the law.
Don't ask for forgiveness, nor pardon, nor grace.
Just understand this: If you cannot live by the Code, you must die by the Code.
The flight goes down after the chilling if slightly long-winded mysterious sentence is decreed.

Mitchell, aka Strider, is the cyberpunk vigilante of  the world, wielding his own brand of justice to society's secret criminals. Coleman grips us by the throat from the first page. The chararcterization and breadth (that intangible quality that the extends beyond the novel's borders) is not this work's forte. Expect a sharp delineation between good guys and bad. But then thrillers aren't especially known for their characters.

The author promises an in-depth look at cyber security as it is today with information available at his website.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Twin Peaks: Season 1

Twin Peaks is two-season TV series, directed by the auteur David Lynch with his characteristic surreal moments set in a small-town murder mystery. The show attained such a cult status--listed in several all-time top fifty tv shows lists--that writers David Lynch and Mark Frost will return to the series for Showtime nearly thirty years later.
Set up:
Twin Peaks, Population 51,201, is a small set inside Washington state on the Canadian border. Pete Martell, who helps run the local sawmill, discovers Laura Palmer, dead, wrapped in plastic tarp on the lakeshore. The local law enforcement, Sheriff Harry S. Truman and his deputies, are immediately on scene.

Ronette Pulaski stumbles into town in a daze, skimpily dressed, with the same twine marks found on her wrists that Laura Palmer had.

FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper arrives, having been on a similar case where other young ladies have died. The letter J is found underneath her fingernail and implicates everyone whose name begins with J, which is nearly every character on screen.

Discussion with Spoilers:
John Gardner in The Forms of Fiction argues that the form helps create meaning. This can be true if with limited utility. I'll start with the "mystery" as a form that shapes what is and isn't going on here.

We have a crime--murder--and typical clues, such as the letter J. But the show veers from the form in its unorthodox methods of detection, primarily in its use of dreams, clairvoyance, and intuition. We accept this, in part, because Sherlock Holmes our founding father of mysteries, worked with such encyclopedic knowledge that it often seemed supernatural. However, one might attribute their use to scientific observations such micro-expressions or body gestures although none of that is specifically used.

Agent Cooper accepts his dreams and hallucinations as a legitimate form of evidence, and investigates on the basis of them, which no one questions. He throws rocks at a bottle to decide whether a person whose name starts with J is related to the murder of Laura Palmer.

The letter J is not only the name of the perpetrator, but also segues into the name of a culpable place. Even clues have double meanings.

Doubles are everywhere. Nearly everyone leads a double-life relationally--a bad one and a good one. If you're blond in Twin Peaks, your primary relationship is bad. Laura Palmer leads a double life as a popular student, but also a destructive one as a professional call girl who has a cocaine habit, which she uses to force her popular, football-playing boyfriend into the double life of dealing the drug. Palmer doubles again when her cousin arrives (played by the same person, except with dark hair). At one point, the actress plays the doubled cousin doubling as her cousin.

Most of the characters have these double relationships, double employments. Benjamin Horne, for instance, not only owns an above-board lodge and department store, but also has plans for the destruction of the sawmill and its owners, not to mention some stake in the prostitution ring in the casino on the other side of the Canadian border. Canada isn't Canada, per se, but that borderland of personality where people aren't who they display on the surface.

The town and its attitudes and limited locales feel more provincial and casual than a town of 50,000. 5,000 may be more accurate. This, too, might be considered a double: plenty of employment opportunity of a larger town but with the casual and intimate relations of a smaller town.

Interestingly, the secondary double assumes the primary role within the narrative in most cases.

I'd be curious to learn what true-form mystery aficionados thought of the series when it aired. One imagines a lot of grumbling consternation.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Movie: I Am Not a Serial Killer

When I reviewed this, I was unaware that a movie was forthcoming in select cities, but also available on demand. If nothing else, the script should be enjoyable since the source material is [see my review of the novel].

If it's well acted and filmed, you'll be in for a treat. IMDb rates it at 8/10, which is well worth watching in the theater in my book.


Sunday, July 31, 2016

Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov dabbled in mystery and SF, occasionally combining them. Apparently, the first of these, Caves of Steel, is being written as a movie. The BBC made it into a TV movie by in 1964--of which only excerpts exist.

Akiva Goldsman, Oscar winner and screenwriter of I, Robot and Fringe, is slated as the third screenwriter to give it a go for Fox. How many before Fox? It may be difficult to put on the big screen. Another attempt of turning the novel into a "movie"--or, rather, a VCR game:

[Side note: The I-Robot credit will turn off many, but it actually does utilize a number of Asimovian plot turns and verbiage. I, Robot was also a short story, so to fashion a movie out of it is impressive. No, it isn't what Asimov would have written but it keeps and comments on Asimov's ideas--not to mention maintaining Asimov's works in the public eye.  I have only read Ellison's script opening to I, Robot and, though I enjoy the work of both writers, the opening didn't grab me. SF Encyclopedia [John Clute] writes:
"the screenplay itself makes clear how difficult it would have been to translate Asimov's archaic concepts... onto the contemporary screen."
I will try again, later. 
While Goldsman's Batman films and a few others were regrettable, he did a fine job on A Beautiful Mind on other adaptations like I, Legend. Fringe was a romp. Yes, he differs from the original books, but that's okay. They weren't mockeries, but rather interesting deviations. One can always examine the original. One could complain of a Hollywood treatment, but isn't that the point? To sell movie tickets? How many more books were sold because of the movie?]

Earth Detective Elijah Baley is told he must work with a humanoid robot, R. Daneel Olivaw (the "R." stands for Robot) to solve a murder of a Spacer. On Earth, by law, robots don't look like people, but Olivaw does not appear robot-like. This gives Olivaw an advantage (Olivaw threatens violence to Earth citizens) until a rumor circulates that Olivaw is a robot. Baley's own wife hears the rumor which worries her about Baley's safety.

The Medievalists is a society of Earthlings who hearken back to a less technological day of wearing glasses or using windows. They seem benign enough: Baley's boss and his wife are members. But when they make signs to one another at a dining hall where Baley and Olivaw eat and pursue after Baley and Olivaw in a chase scene across slidewalks, they seem a lot less benign.

Though Baley tries to prove his partner, Olivaw, is the true murderer, Baley gets no closer to finding out who did it. In fact, evidence seems to point to Baley himself. The Spacers and Olivaw get what they came for--proof that Earth would have citizens willing to go into space--so that Baley appears to be left to pay for a crime he didn't commit.

However, Baley thinks up a loophole that gives him an hour and a half to solve the crime.

Themes and importance:
Asimov extrapolates a few key speculative ideas:

  1. Overpopulation leads to city overgrowth, to the extent that people fear going outside. Agoraphobia. The works well with the mystery, limiting what characters would and would not do.
  2. Technophobia on Earth leads to Earth's phobia of robots, especially robots that look like humans. 
  3. Technophiles are the few who escape Earth and building colonies. These, the Spacers, are the elite. They do not have disease and comparatively long-lived.
  4. Space colonization is so lovely that Spacers are willing to overlook murder if it can achieve a greater aim.
  5. Being long-lived leads to complacency, which ironically a spacer cannot be. Therefore, the Spacers have to recruit from Earth.

The Caves of Steel has its admirers. James Gunn used it to teach SF--one of the major novels shaping SF. It is one of the first major SF novels to treat robots, overpopulation, and mystery in SF. The theme of the importance of space colonization was common if not ubiquitous.

This last, for me, was the Achilles heel--not because I'm against colonization but because it was above questioning. Spacers (only here, not later) are too benevolent and wonderful. They provide an instant contrast that glorifies colonization and berates those rubes who remain on Earth.

Asimov corrects this in The Naked Sun, creating Spacers with their own foibles, which is the better novel for this and for a mystery that plays a little more fairly. The contrast between societal flaws is fascinating. I'd love this one to become a movie, but it does hinge somewhat The Caves of Steel. So maybe it has to be written first.

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.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Review: The Peculiar State by Patricio Pron

The Peculiar State 
Patricio Pron  
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

The author, Patricio Pron--an Argentinian writer, transplanted to Spain--was unfamiliar to me. The series--A Vintage Short--instead, appealed: the promise of a classic short story. I reviewed one earlier, which disappointed. This one did not.

Towards the end, the unnamed protagonist is a German author, who writes a to-do list:
"1. Give up writing. Think about the death of the novel and the peculiar state of the short story.... 
"3. Go days without changing your shirt. 
"4. Say 'You wouldn't understand' when she asks you why you don't write anymore."
 This excerpt gives a sense of the story in theme, humor, chaos, and story (although #7 is the best and #10 contradicts previous assertions). The humor recalls Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

The German and his wife live in Altoona. He makes his living as a creative consultant, answering cryptic phone calls about chocolate. The results of his opinions dismay him when he spies them on billboards.

As you read, you learn "the peculiar state of the short story" is really the peculiar state of society--a mirror of the strange world the protagonist lives in but doesn't comprehend. It's the kind of taster that makes you salivate for more peculiar stories and their peculiar societies.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Review: The Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Story of Kullervo  
J.R.R. Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
J. R. R. Tolkien needs no introduction. Scholars respect his knowledge of the early European texts like Beowulf. Every year, new readers join the legions of Lord of the Rings fans to be stunned and enthralled by his world-building.

This brings us to The Story of Kullervo, a text based on the Finnish epic, Kalevala. Apparently, Tolkien worked on translating/reinterpreting this when he should have been studying for his classes around 1914, a tale which has a certain charm. The Hobbit was said to be written in 1920, but not published until 1936. The Lord of the Rings came out nearly twenty years later. Presumably, Tolkien took time to polish his novels for publication.

Here's the opening from The Hobbit:

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

Tolkien captures a taste of what hobbits are and are not, in one morsel of a paragraph. The following is a later work, The Two Towers--not as charming but equally evocative and more tense:

"Even as he gazed his quick ears caught sounds in the woodlands below, on the west side of the River. He stiffened. There were cries, and among them, to his horror, he could distinguish the harsh voices of Orcs. Then suddenly with a deep-throated call a great horn blew, and the blasts of it smote the hills and echoed in the hollows, rising in a mighty shout above the roaring of the falls."

Contrast those with this passage from The Story of Kullervo:

"And the wife of Kalervoinen sitting nigh to the window of the homestead descried a scurry arising of the smoke army in the distance and she spake to Kalervo saying, 'Husband, lo, an ill reek ariseth yonder: come hither to me.' "

This is not the same writer. While some passages gurgle as a pleasant stream, others clog like a shower drain full of dog hair. In other words, The Story of Kullervo is juvenilia. Crucial in his formation as a writer? Yes. Formative in his unprecedented world-building? Absolutely. But not a work that Tolkien took time to smooth out the wrinkles.

If you are a fan of The Silmarillion, this book is unmissable. If you are a Tolkien critic or aficionado of early European legends, curious to read how Tolkien has twisted the original, do buy it. Otherwise, sling up your hammock, and prop open the old favorites, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

"The Star Tree" by Jon Lasser

Published in WOTF 32


Missing their wife/mother who took off to a mine on Jiri V, a father and his two boys take the train across Mars (or Mars-like planet) to their new home. However, the younger brother, Marq, wants his cards back. Chiq, the elder, won't go along with this initially, forcing the family to break up, or stick together to do what he wants. The father believes he can swing it but the family will be tired for their first day of work, and they must do it together.

A touching and rich tale with a few developmental issues.

Discussion with spoilers:
The plot here is clearly not the fisticuffs-with-nose-bleed whirlwind. Instead, it attempts to create an emotional moment, which it does with some success. Moreover, it creates a rich background society with some suggested depth.

The plot, emotion, and world-building do not align, though. The background points us toward the fact that these characters are privileged, which leads logically into a tale of class. Instead, the story makes a U-turn toward a tale of a lost love.

The boys attempt to shield their father from horrific news. All well and good, but we need to 1) care about the mother which means flashbacks, 2) understand why they are shielding their father from this, however flawed their reasoning, and 3) come up with the ideal protagonist based on the above decisions. It's not clear why this particular narrator was selected, how he is transformed, or what it means if he is not.

In addition, it doesn't explain how the Mother arrived at a different system, presumably with time dilation effects due to traveling, and the delay due sending information back to the family. Also, how does one lose an entire planet? Maybe that one would be hard to know, but you'd have to ask, and wouldn't everyone be asking? Wouldn't mothers want to send signals back to their children?

If this is a slice off a novel, that might explain the gaps and develop these questions in more depth.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Review: After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain

What would a book read like if Connie Willis chose to write a Philip-K.-Dick style of novel? Probably something much like After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain. Appropriately enough, it was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick award, but maybe it should have landed on other award ballots as well. How many books change when you reread them? You read the same words both times, but you realize something else entirely is going on.

The protagonist, a popular UFO writer and professor, traverses the seventies to the nineties. Before the aliens land, he is a laughing stock among his colleagues. He does find refuge in his wife, Virginia. After the aliens, he is more respected, but he suspects that the identities of his wife--the woman he thought of as his wife--is really an alien, Asket. Asket has also been wife to other friends. She slips into and out of human identities so convincingly that even our protagonist is unsure, requiring the mall security to throw him out of its establishment.

Identity is the core issue here, explored in a subdued Dick fashion. Dick might have escalated the events to a fever pitch. But that is not the story here, which makes the novel in some ways more sinister. Things do and don't escalate. Events the should have escalated in the proper Fifties paranoid fashion, don't. You read one story by the novel's end, but as you turn back to page one and reread, you suspect that that explanation of events is not good enough.

It may take time before Lain's accomplishment here is recognized. After all, the novel begs to be read twice. On my first read, I'd have given the book four stars, but how could I not give five stars to a book that rewrites itself? If there are better books this year, it'll be one heck of a year for literature in deed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

“The Growth of the House of Usher” by Brian Stableford

First appeared in Interzone. It was up for the Interzone Readers Poll, reprinted in genre retrospectives by Gardner R. Dozois and  John Clute, David Pringle and Simon Ounsley. From the collection, Sexual Chemistry and Other Tales of the Biotech Revolution.

The faceless narrator visits Rowland Usher on the Orinoco Delta. They had been civil engineers together in college where they worked with engineered bacteria that rebuilt raw materials into various architectures.
Now the narrator finds Rowland and his father have built a house in memory of his sister, whom they loved dearly--in multiple senses. All of the Ushers have been dying of the same genetic malady

Commentary with Spoilers:

Rowland kicks the bucket, and the narrator spots worm-like creatures who bear resemblance to the sister. They crawl out to cuddle/be cuddled and die.

This follows the "plot" of Edgar Allan Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” if it can be said to have a plot. This story departs enough, twisting so that it maintains reader interest.

Genius title.

Does it comment on where we're headed with societal mores? Although a case could be made (even that genetic monkeying leads to decadent moral decay), the other tales don't support the sudden land change. This tale wallows less in moral decay than in a futuristic Poe. Perhaps that's two sides of the same coin.

Rather, the pivotal final image may have been the seed that the author lacquered around, building backwards logically to create a society in which this might have happened.