Friday, April 5, 2013

Sam Thornton collects souls and he may have just kick-started the Apocalypse

Dead Harvest
Chris F. Holm
Angry Robot, 2012
Available Now

Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Reviewer: Trudi

This was a blast -- a seamless mash-up of pulpy noir goodness set in a gritty urban landscape featuring soul Collectors and very bad ass mofo angels and demons. Who would I recommend this book to? Fans of the movie The Prophecy most definitely. And to a lesser extent that movie Fallen starring Denzel Washinton and Elias Koteas (I love Elias Koteas).

And if you've ever been a fan of Supernatural's angel-demon-apocalypse epic story arc then this is most definitely the book for you. Even though Dead Harvest is laced with all the delicious tropes of detective noir fiction, I would find it hard to believe that the author hasn't also been influenced by the Winchester Family Business. The references to 'vessels' and 'meat-suits' and fallen angels, and 'free will' and souls and a war on earth between the hosts of heaven and the legions of hell... well, I know the writers of Supernatural didn't invent this mythology, but they've certainly put their own stamp on it in a way that shines through the pages of this book with the brightness of a soul ripped from its mortal host.

Speaking of which -- even the way the souls are harvested. I could not help but be reminded of this:

Not that you have to be a Supernatural fangirl like myself to enjoy this book. Not in the least. Soul collector Sam Thornton is a great character -- and while I had an easy time picturing him as Dean Winchester -- he's also cut from the mold of classic hardboiled detectives. He's an anti-hero with a past. He's stopped consciously looking for redemption but somewhere deep inside he still hopes for it. Even though his line of work whittles away his humanity one job at a time, Sam still manages to hold on to some of who he used to be. He smokes, he drinks, he curses. He's not impervious to fear, or to making stupid mistakes. Or to still long to "do the right thing."

Never in his wildest dreams though, would he have imagined himself smack dab in an otherworldly conspiracy between angels and demons to kick-start a war on earth to bring on the apocalypse.
You think either side wants a war? When last it happened one-third our number fell -- and all because a son of fire refused to kneel before a son of clay. You couldn't begin to understand the world of shit that would rain down upon us...
While this book is largely a plot-driven, action piece, it also contains some great snappy dialogue that had me snickering a few times:
Just because you're thinking about stabbing somebody doesn't mean you have to be a dick about it.

"Is he - I mean, do you have to go..." she stammered. "Is he in hell?"
I laughed. "Near enough - he's in Staten Island."
The best part about Dead Harvest? It's a series and the sequel The Wrong Goodbye just became available.

This is an Angry Robot book. If you've never heard of these guys, check them out. They are publishing some wickedly fine shit. I've become so enamored of their catalogue that I've given them their very own Goodreads shelf. High praise indeed.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

FOOL ME TWICE: Fighting the Assault on Science in America
Shawn Lawrence Otto

Rodale Books
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 4.9* of five

The Publisher Says: "Whenever the people are well informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.” But what happens in a world dominated by complex science? Are the people still well-enough informed to be trusted with their own government? And with less than 2 percent of Congress with any professional background in science, how can our government be trusted to lead us in the right direction?

Will the media save us? Don't count on it. In early 2008, of the 2,975 questions asked the candidates for president just six mentioned the words "global warming" or "climate change," the greatest policy challenge facing America. To put that in perspective, three questions mentioned UFOs.

Today the world’s major unsolved challenges all revolve around science. By the 2012 election cycle, at a time when science is influencing every aspect of modern life, antiscience views from climate-change denial to creationism to vaccine refusal have become mainstream.
Faced with the daunting challenges of an environment under siege, an exploding population, a falling economy and an education system slipping behind, our elected leaders are hard at work ... passing resolutions that say climate change is not real and astrology can control the weather.

Shawn Lawrence Otto has written a behind-the-scenes look at how the government, our politics, and the media prevent us from finding the real solutions we need. Fool Me Twice is the clever, outraged, and frightening account of America’s relationship with science—a relationship that is on the rocks at the very time we need it most.

My Review: The most unnerving reality in today's social, political, and educational reality is that science, which you are benefiting from this very second as you read this review on the Internet, is underfunded, undertaught, and underapprecitaed by the people of the USA and their political overlords. The reason for this is that an insane religious know-nothingism has infected the Body Politic with a conservative (in the worst possible meaning of that never good term) resistance to accepting reality as it is, instead of how one fancies it should be. This book quantifies the horrors on their way down the pike as this horrifying metastatic stupidity continues unchecked and even promoted by the small-souled fear-mongering Yahoos, in the original Swiftian sense, who shout and rail and spew on Fox "News" and the related echo chambers.

This book is exactly as tendentious as my book report is. If you don't already agree with its premise, then you're unlikely to consider picking it up. Which is a pity, in my view. For those of us who already agree, this acts either as a call to arms, or a horribly depressing reminder of how the New Dark Ages have already begun. For make no mistake: Stupidity has more gravity than intelligence, and hate has more than enlightenment. Science has proven too many times that gravity always wins for me to have any hope that Good will triumph over Willful Ignorance.

Please prove me wrong. Read this book and get energized to fight the Yahoos. Please.

Welcome to the City...Hope you get out Alive


Felix Gilman


Reviewed by: Terry
4  out of 5 stars

If it hadn’t already been appropriated by novels about punk-rock elves and brazen private eyes that have sex with werewolves then “Urban Fantasy” would be a perfect designation for Felix Gilman’s debut novel _Thunderer_. Of course this type of story isn’t new. Writers have been examining the rot and corruption (as well as the fascination and glory) they see at the heart of our urban civilization at least since the days of Rome, the great archetype of the City in western culture. The conflict between the mob and the establishment seems to have been present from the beginning, a continual war and contention for rulership of the people and places that make up our urban centres. This isn’t new in the realm of genre fantasy either, from Brian Aldiss’ The Malacia Tapestry, to more recent works by the likes of Mieville and VanderMeer, the city and its constant dance between progress and corruption have been a favourite subject. I was already a fan of Gilman’s prior to reading this, but _Thunderer_ really impressed me given that it was the first novel he had published. His writing style, as I noted in my review of The Half-Made World, is very fluid. It goes beyond mere ‘transparency’, but isn’t showy or laboured either; it easily carries the reader along with his tale and makes a high page count seem to fly by in no time at all. I imagine that no matter how large a book of his was it would never be plodding.

Gilman’s tale in this book mainly centres on three characters: Arjun, the chorister and semi-scholar from a far-flung mountain monastery searching for his lost god and hoping that it can be found in the god-haunted confines of the archetypal city of Ararat; Arlandes, soldier and captain of the forces of the Countess (one of the many civil authorities vying for power and glory in the great city) who has suffered a tragic loss and become a symbol by turns both beloved and hated by the citizenry; and Jack Silk, a young boy who manages to escape from his imprisonment in a workhouse with the help of one of the city’s gods and who is granted an ambiguous gift by its passing. All three of these characters are somehow connected to the figure of Doctor Holbach, a man who could be considered scientist, wizard and priest in equal measure. Holbach is, like Arlandes, a member of the Countess’ court and ultimately is the creator of the great flying ship the Thunderer which becomes a symbol for all that is both right and wrong with the city. He is also the centre of the Atlas, a project that has been driven underground by the powers that be, but which continues to gather to itself the many discontented artists, scientists and intelligentsia of Ararat in the monumental effort to map out the city in its entirety. This is a prospect that is not as simple as it might seem on the surface, for Ararat is a city infested by gods (though some might call them haunts or demons) and the gods shape the city through their interaction with it, moulding and changing the landscape according to their whim. As one character notes: “The gods are the city. The city is us.” Yet the Atlas-makers persist in their hopes of creating the Grand Unified Theory of Ararat; a theory that might let them control and shape the many wild forces that control and shape their world. This is, of course, anathema and heresy to the political and religious powers that be, though even they are unaware of the real danger that such researches into the nature of the gods and the city might bring about in the wrong hands.

One could really argue, however, that the true main character of _Thunderer_ is Ararat itself. It is the greatest of all possible cities, it *is* all possible cities. Its sheer size encompasses more than simply space, but time and meaning as well. It is the ever-changing City that seems to exist in all dimensions and none, that crosses through all times and encompasses all of what we mean when we say the word: City. The city itself is not medieval or renaissance, Victorian or modern, but it seems to have aspects of all of these, growing and changing in a way that has little or nothing to do with linear progress.

The plot itself, however, revolves around the three protagonists already mentioned and their interactions with the City and each other. The opening of the book, and the catalyst for the action of the novel, is ultimately centred on the arrival of one of Ararat’s long-absent gods, the Bird, whose appearance heralds both the rise of Jack Silk and the creation of the titular Thunderer, a great flying warship that, through Hollbach’s magical science (or scientific magic), has also harnessed some of the Bird’s power. Arjun is on a quest to find the lost and gentle god of his people, known only as the Voice. It is a god of song and quiet harmony that would seem out of place with many of the gods he encounters in Ararat; the City’s gods are strong and uncompromising, gods of power, control, death and rebirth and Arjun soon becomes lost in the tangled streets these gods create, hoping against hope to find his lost purpose. Jack becomes a folk-hero, a child granted powers by the god of speed, freedom and flight and becomes a wild Peter Pan (there is even a neat homage to Peter Pan vs. the Pirates), gathering to himself all of the lost children of Ararat, breaking them out of prisons and workhouses and fighting the temporal and religious powers that sent them there. Both Jack and Arjun are touched directly by the gods of the City, one in power and joy, the other in choking darkness and despair. They become fey and strange to those around them, obsessed with their own altered perceptions and often viewed as mad. They have been changed by their experiences and can no longer comfortably live a life of normalcy for they stand outside of the range of normal human understanding, though many try to share vicariously in their god-touched experience. Arlandes is touched by a god too, though not in the direct metaphysical way that Jack and Arjun are. He is plunged into despair and anger by loss, through a seemingly unintentional sacrifice to the same god that granted Jack his great abilities during the process that created the great engine of destruction that shall become his emblem: the Thunderer. In following all of these characters, and the gods that empower them and their City, the story examines the birth of legends, the ways they change and, ultimately, how they die.

The ambiguity of the characters Gilman has created is refreshing. Is Jack a revolutionary messiah, bringing freedom and justice to the oppressed, or is he a vicious, deluded child living out a boy’s violent fantasies in the name of his god and only ostensibly for the people? Is Arlandes the tragic and romantic hero of the great ship which protects the people, or is he a violent and angry thug doling out retribution against the world? Is Arjun an enlightened and peaceful seeker of the truth, or a deluded weakling looking for something outside of himself to fill up his life? The answer, in all cases, seems to be both. Ultimately as each of the characters fulfills the role the City seems to have selected for them things begin to unexpectedly change, and even spin out of control, for it is not only the Atlas-makers that are trying to learn the secrets of the City. It appears there are others with arcane knowledge that they use for less selfless purposes and we soon find that the gods and their ways are not to be tampered with. It was always known to its inhabitants that Ararat had a cycle of life and death, good and bad, and things always turned on this eternal wheel. The gods would inevitably change the City, but these changes were somewhat understood, at least at a gut level, by the people of the City, but what happens when someone dares to change the nature of the gods themselves? It is this danger that proves to be the ultimate conflict into which the characters find themselves drawn. The conclusion of the novel is somewhat open-ended, but I still found it to be satisfying and since there is a sequel I look forward to further following the winding streets of Ararat.

Also posted at Goodreads

Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here...


Peter Watts

Tor Books

Reviewed by: Terry
4 - 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wow. This was a tough one. It was a very good hard sf book that I don't think I'll be coming back to anytime soon. As others have said: "abandon all hope ye who enter here." A well written, excruciating exploration of the human "problem" where it turns out that it really is a problem. How do you take a book whose central premise seems to be that the development of self-awareness in human evolution was a wrong turn that wasn't meant to happen at all? That it was in fact contrary to the entire development of intelligence throughout the rest of the universe that only occurred due to a fluke in the evolution of a competing species? Talk about being alone in an uncaring reality. Watts manages to take Lovecraft's primary hobby horse and make it work in a way that is truly frightening in its utter nihilism. This isn't a scary universe because Watts tells us so (as it would have been had Lovecraft wrote the tale), it's scary because he shows us so. 

Our primary filter for information is Siri Keeton, a man with literally only half a brain. Due to a childhood trauma he was essentially lobotomized and given computer processors to make up for what was removed. Siri obviously lost a lot during the process, but "gained" the ability to be the ultimate "Chinese Room" for humanity...for all that was worth. His whole life he has been trying to understand even 'baseline' humans and his facility with doing so, with looking at the human enigma on the surface and from the outside, and parsing it correctly has led him to become a professional conduit between these baseline humans and the posthuman entities they have created and made to work for them. He is a uniquely appropriate narrator for this tale as his very mode of existence showcases Watts' entire argument in microcosm; and interestingly his entire development as a character is the reverse of the development of the story and even of the universe itself. Siri's story starts and ends as a very lonely one, but for very different reasons. 

Another fascinating element of the tale is the fairly unique use of vampires as an off-shoot sub-species of humanity originally destroyed due to humanity's self-awareness and then brought back by high science to be our servants. These are probably the most frightening vampires I've yet come across in fiction, not only because of the pseudo-scientific "plausibility", but primarily because of what we eventually discover about them in the story's conclusion. 

I will say very little about "Rorschach", the alien entity with whom humanity attempts to communicate in this tale of first contact, except to say that the Lovecraftian enigma of its seeming indifference to human existence is truly chilling in its implications. Far more than any dreaming Cthulhu, Rorschach is an entity whose strangeness is truly to be feared.

All in all this was a rewarding, though deeply uncomfortable, read.

Also posted at Goodreads

The Cut

The CutThe Cut by George Pelecanos
Dan's Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Price: 14.99
Publisher: Reagan Arthur / Back Bay Books
Available: Now

When an imprisoned drug dealer hires Spero Lucas to find out who's been stealing his product, Spero takes the case. Can Spero recover the stolen weed and collect his forty percent?

The Cut is a breezy crime tale that reads as smoothly as an Elmore Leonard. Pelecanos makes Washington DC as much of a character as Leonard does with Detroit and Miami. Spero Lucas is a compelling lead, an ex-marine who works as an investigator. The drug case he's taken quickly spirals out of control. However, the case wasn't as interesting to me as Spero himself.

Spero's a complicated man and no one understands him but his woman. Or maybe I'm thinking of someone else. At any rate, I liked the idea of an Iraq war veteran who's having trouble adjusting to normal life. His tastes in food and Jamaican music further endeared him to me. The guys he goes up against are pretty well drawn as well, particularly the Holley family. Pelecanos' bad guys have relatively reasonable motivations and come off as real people rather than caricatures.

One thing I really liked was that Spero's brother is an English teacher and has his students read crime books, like Richard Stark's The Hunter and Unknown Man #89 by Elmore Leonard. That's a class I would have loved taking back in the day. Spero listening to Ernest Ranglin and King Tubby also sweetened the deal the for me.

That's about all I have to say. If I had to complain about something, it would be that I wanted the book to be about twice as long. I'll be reading more Pelecanos in the near future.

Also posted on Goodreads

King Suckerman

King SuckermanKing Suckerman by George Pelecanos
Dan's rating: 4 of 5 stars
Price: 7.99
Publisher: Dell
Available: Now

It's 1976 and everyone's talking about King Suckerman, the new blaxploitation flick that's in the theaters. When Marcus Clay and Dimitri Karras wind up with a pile of cash after a drug deal gone wrong, everyone's after their hides, including a thug named Wilton Cooper and his gang, and an Italian named Tony Spags, who wants his money and his girl, who's shacking up with Karras. Can Clay and Karras give the money back without getting killed?

Here we are, the second book in George Pelecanos' DC Quartet. Pelecanos weaves a tale worthy of Elmore Leonard, set around our nations capital around the time a film called King Suckerman has everyone's attention. Pelecanos continues to develop the Washington DC of the Pelecanosverse, as Kemper calls it.

It's a pretty straightforward crime tale about ill-gotten gains and murder. What makes it so good is Pelecanos' writing, specifically how well he develops his characters. You've got Cooper, Claggett, and the Thomas brothers, the killers of the piece, Spags and Tate, the lowlifes in over their heads, and Clay and Karras, the regular guys caught up in things. With the exception of the Thomas brothers, the characters are all well drawn and fairly realistic. Cooper was so slick I almost wanted him to live through everything. The action is pretty intense when it happens and the dialogue is almost as smooth as Elmore Leonard's in his prime.

Interesting side note, I bought Eldorado Red by Donald Goines at the same time I bought this. Imagine my surprise when Goines makes a cameo appearance in the tale.

Much like The Cut, I can't really find anything to complain about with King Suckerman. Pelecanos is quickly climbing the ranks of my favorite crime writers.

Also posted on Goodreads

Alcohol and Drug Fueled Madness

Frank Sinatra in a Blender
Matthew McBride

New Pulp Press
Available Now

Reviewed By Brandon
5 out of 5 stars.

Frank Sinatra in a Blender.  Now THAT is an eye-catching title!  I was given the option to pick any novel from New Pulp Press in exchange for a review and when I read the title of Matthew McBride’s book, the choice was easy.

Nick Valentine is the definition of a raging alcoholic.  If there’s a bottle of booze within reach, you bet your ass he’s going to down it.  Same goes for painkillers, cocaine and any other drug he can get his hands on.  Nothing appears to be off limits.  If not for the fact that the narcotics helped him produce results, he’d certainly be lying face down in a ditch.  Nick is called upon by the St. Louis police to aid in the investigation of an apparent suicide by a credit union employee.  When said credit union is then the subject of a robbery, Nick gets caught up in the search for a missing duffel bag stuffed with cash.

If Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino were capable of reproducing and they then raised their offspring on Frank Miller’s Sin City graphic novels, they would grow up to be Frank Sinatra in a Blender.  This novel defines that old saying, “moving at breakneck speed“.  I found myself having to re-read certain passages and pages because I was trying to keep up with just how fast the author was progressing the story.  If you’re expecting a lull in the action, you’re going to be disappointed.

I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed this.  It’s one of the first times I can remember reading a novel and thinking, “Damn, I wish I could write something like this“.  Not only does the plot lend itself to so many twists and turns, the dialogue is a breeze to read.  Any detective novel can often go from good to great if the writer gives us a memorable character with a compelling inner monologue.  Sure, the mystery is the driving factor behind the novel but the central character is what turns one book into a long running series.  Let’s just hope McBride isn’t finished with Valentine just yet.

I’ve heard that New Pulp Press puts out some really great fiction and given how much I enjoyed this novel, I can certainly see myself visiting this publisher again.  Easy 5 stars.

Also posted at Every Read Thing.