Wednesday, June 19, 2013

DC Hardcore, 1940's Edition

St. Martin's Press (1996)
Anthony Vacca's rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The sad truth about modernism? It failed.

 What do I mean by that? Well, if you’ll allow me to sum up the goal of the movement in a very simplified manner, then modernism was about artists—in this particular case, authors—trying to create works that would let people know how horrible a thing World War I was and how no one must ever let a thing like that happen again.

 Came to pass that things didn’t quite work out that way, and so most of these authors went headlong into various modes of self-destruct. That’s why authors like Woolf, Hemingway, and Faulkner (just to name a few) didn’t take too long in putting an end to their time here in a world seemingly perpetuated by misery.

But to be blunt, the real crime is not the loss of these great minds, these old men and women: the real bitch is that we sent so many more young men to die in places they never even knew existed.

 Kids like Pete Karras and Joe Recevo. These two boys, best friends and natives of Washington DC, went to fight their separate wars overseas; and by the dumb chance, managed to come back home to resume their God-given rights of finding that American Dream.

 In James Crumley’s Dancing Bear, the author writes, “I have learned some things. Modern life is warfare without end: take no prisoners, leave no wounded, eat the dead--that's environmentally sound.”

 I bet Karras and Recevo would be hard-pressed to argue with that logic; because even though the two have returned as “heroes” neither are really prime candidates for good citizen material. So the two find work collecting for a local thug named Burke. But where Recevo seems content living off being a bully towards all the local businessmen, Karras isn’t cut out for the line of work. If anything, Karras is playing at being a gangster so he can avoid getting a real job with all those boring responsibilities that seem to go along with being an adult; and, of course, so he can keep hanging out with his best friend Recveo, driving cool cars, catching boxing matches, chasing women, you know, all the ways two buds have a little bit of fun in the late 1940’s.

 That is until Karras finds out the hard way that being a gangster doesn’t really mean you can also be nice and carefree. And so, physically and emotionally humiliated, Karras finds himself working as cook at a local diner.

 And here’s when the book gets good. The diner is owned by Nick Stefanos, a name any casual Pelecanos fan will recognize. But no, this isn’t the Nick who narrated that amazing trilogy of PI novels (A Firing Offense, Nick’s Trip, and Down By the River Where the Dead Men Go) but instead this is his grandfather, “Big Nick.” This is the man who would one day shape Nick into the deeply moral man will one day become. Even though little Nick isn’t here for the action of this book, we get to see first-hand what kind of man his grandfather was and why it is he revered the man.

 In fact, these are my favorite parts of the book. Nick’s Bar and Grill is one of the first establishments in the city to make the change over to being a place ran by a white man that has an African-American clientele. In Washington DC of the 1940s, this is no small feat. Nick runs his restaurant with a casual pride that is hard not to admire. He treats every person he meets fairly, and in turn is liked by most people. And when Karras it at his lowest in life, it is Big Nick who gives him a job so he can feed his young wife and child, but also he is the one who helps Karras learn how to walk like a man again.

Karras knows that he owes this man a lot, so when that local thug Burke decides that Big Nick needs to start paying him protection money, there’s Karras ready to fight at his side. The only trouble is that in Burke’s corner is also Karras’s childhood friend Joe Recevo.
The novel ultimately becomes a struggle of identity for these two men as they try and figure out the nature of themselves and what they are willing to fight for. But Pelecanos does not let his sights end there. The author sets out to create a panoramic of his beloved city by inserting various other plot threads that interweave with this tension between the gangsters and Big Nick’s crew.
Another childhood friend of Karras’s, Boyle, is a cop who wants to make it big by being the one to catch the maniac who has been cutting up prostitutes over the past couple of years.

There is also a country boy who has come to the city to find a sister that has gotten herself mixed up with heroin and a nasty pimp. The kid becomes quickly lost in the city lifestyle but soon finds a set of friends when he starts working at Big Nick’s for money to live off of while he hunts for his sister.

 These threads are interesting but neither mystery offers unexpected revelations to the story. Neither feels tagged on, however. Instead, the hunt for the sister and the hunt for the serial killer help to further flesh out Karras and Recevo as well as push events to their ultimate bullet-ridden climax.
And while all the crime fiction elements of this novel are satisfying, the true joy comes from the character studies of Karras and Recevo. The war waged between the two becomes the war of self, as Karras must assess just what exactly is his life. And let’s not forget the atmosphere in this novel: Pelecanos brings the different sections of his city alive with a fistful of sights, smells, and, of course, sounds, via dozens of references to all the different genres of music starting to develop in the post-war years. (You can see Pelecanos is having the most fun when Karras finds himself talking jazz in a dangerous black night club.)
The Big Blowdown is the first of four books that make up the author’s DC Quartet, where he maps out the past half-century of the city’s history. In earlier books, such as Shoedog, I made claims that Pelecanos was just doing his best imitation of authors he idolized, like Elmore Leonard. The easy comparison here would be with James Ellroy who rewrote the last fifty years of American history as a crime novel. But although Pelecanos’s novel shares some similarities with the Demon Dog’s work, the Big Blowdown is wholly a unique work by a unique voice within the crime fiction canon.

It's not easy being a god

War in Heaven

David Zindell


Reviewed by: Terry
4 out of 5 stars

David Zindell’s space opera books, that started with the stand-alone _Neverness_ and continued with his “Requiem for Homo Sapiens” trilogy (of which this volume is the conclusion), always scratch that itch I have for Dune-like space opera. You’ve got the baroque world-building of a far, far future of humanity in an interstellar diaspora that combines elements of medieval and pre-industrial societies with ‘magical’ technology and gleaming ships that fold space; you’ve got bizarre human enclaves (sometimes almost reminiscent of Jack Vance, though with less obvious caustic humour) so that societies of warrior-poets, pilot-mathematicians, scientist-philosophers, autist-savants, and priest-kings all rub shoulders in a bewildering and colourful throng; you’ve got philosophical ruminations on the purpose of life, the tragedy of love, and the power of hate; all-in-all its heady stuff that hits that sweet spot in my belly that little else seems able to satisfy.

I’m at a bit of a loss for how to appropriately review this book though. It’s the third book of a trilogy (the other two of which I have not reviewed) all of which are built upon the initial stand-alone book _Neverness_. I can’t say much about this volume’s plot without rehashing much of what came before and thus committing spoiler to the Nth degree. Perhaps plot-wise it is enough to say that our hero, Danlo wi Soli Ringess (the son of _Neverness_'s hero Mallory Ringess), has returned from his great quest into the Vild carrying not only tidings of hope, but also of possible doom for the cosmos. Not only is a rogue star-killer ship searching for the ancient homeworld of the Order of Mystic Mathematicians and Other Seekers of the Ineffable Flame in a quest of vengeance, but the very gods themselves (super entities of moon-sized brains and ‘bodies’ that stretch across solar systems) are at war with each other, some vying to destroy, others to save, the galaxy. To top it all off Danlo’s oldest and dearest friend (also his greatest and most dangerous enemy) has taken control of the Way of Ringess, the religion that worships Danlo’s father as a god, and threatens the balance of the universe with his own mad scheme. So far, so epic, right? Well, the book more or less lives up to this potential as we move into the final phase of the story that Zindell built up over two other volumes (three including the initial story of Mallory Ringess himself). 

This final volume of the story reminded me most strongly of Herbert’s work in _Dune_. As in the Dune series there are many ruminations on a ‘Golden Path’ for humanity and the dangers of prescience when applied to human action (though Zindell seems to have a much more optimistic take on its uses than did Herbert). Also, like Herbert’s Muad’Dib, Zindell’s Danlo (and Mallory before him) partakes of the traits of both god and man. The travails of this power, along with the ability to turn the multitudes of humanity loose in a religious frenzy upon the galaxy, are examined in Zindell’s work no less than Herbert’s (though in ways that differ enough to make this an interesting examination instead of simply a rehash). This does mean, however, that there are often times when Zindell slips too far into his pseudo-philosophical/mystical ruminations (as Herbert did himself) as Danlo finds himself continuing his own personal quest to near-godhood. I imagine it’s hard to deal with these themes, especially within the grand scale of space opera, without falling into the trap of excessive explication and over-extended internal monologues from time to time, but be aware that they are here in case that kind of thing annoys you. All in all, though, the tension of the many threads of the story is held together by a fairly quick-paced plot and world-building that truly seeps out of the pages. There is more than enough tragedy in this series to sustain several epics, and the sheer scale of the possible (and actual) destruction on display screams “SPACE OPERA!” in flashing neon...but that’s a plus in this genre. There are times too, when Zindell’s creation of a pacifist hero, while interesting in itself, can grate on the nerves (for me at least). While Danlo’s devotion to the principle of ahimsa (“Never to kill or harm another, even in thought”) may be noble, the ends to which he is apparently willing to take this principle sometimes stretched my credulity…but then maybe I’m just a cynic. Still and all if you’re in the market for truly epic space opera that tackles trans-humanism, galaxy spanning star-faring, wars to end all wars, planetoid computers, and hints of man’s progress towards godhood (and yet still manages to ruminate on things at a truly human scale: tragedies of life and death, the intertwining elements of love and hate, and the conundrum of violence vs. pacifism) then crack open the first stand-alone volume, _Neverness_ and see what you think of the universe Zindell has created. If that wets your appetite then I would urge you to continue on with this truly kitten-squishing epic of galaxy spanning philosophical adventure.

Also posted at Goodreads

Walk like an Egyptian

Soldier of Sidon

Gene Wolfe

Tor Books

Reviewed by: Terry
4 out of 5 stars

Gene Wolfe’s third volume of the Soldier series is divorced from the first two in several ways. The most obvious is the fact that it was written 17 years after the last volume, leaving quite a cliffhanger for contemporary readers (and actually no indication that there would even be a sequel). The other is the fact that even in-story the events occur at a significant remove from those that transpired in _Soldier of the Mist_ and _Soldier of Arete_. As Sidon opens we find that Latro has been living back at home, apparently with his wife, for some time (though given that this is a Gene Wolfe book I’m not sure if I quite believe that everything is exactly as it appears) though his condition is no better than when last we saw him and he tends to sit despondently in front of his door where the word “Riverland” (aka Egypt) is written (apparently he believes that going to this distant country will enable him to heal himself…we’ve heard something similar before I think). Latro is visited by an old friend, the Persian ship captain Muslak who is one of the few remaining links to the previous two volumes, and his friend promptly decides to bring Latro with him as he just so happens to be taking a shipment of goods to the Nile delta.

What follows is an adventure similar to what we have already seen Latro undertake, though this time the setting is ancient Egypt and Nubia and the secondary cast of characters is different. In a nutshell Muslak’s ship is commandeered by the Persian satrap of Egypt to cruise down the Nile and discover anything that may be of use to him from the countries to the south. Travelling in this band are a Persian magi and his Egyptian priest-scribe, an Egyptian sorcerer-priest, two “singing girls” (aka temple prostitutes who become the “river wives” of Latro and Muslak), an Athenian wine-merchant, several eldritch familiars, and various sailors and soldiers. As before Latro is pulled in several directions by the machinations of the various gods and supernatural creatures he is able to see, as well as by the all-too human people who want to make use of him for their own ends. Aside from the new locale I have to admit that I didn’t notice a lot of difference between this volume and the others and little, if any, final resolution is forthcoming from Wolfe. Still, I enjoy being in Latro’s company and seeing the ancient world (both natural and supernatural) through his eyes.

I like the way, throughout the Soldier series, that Wolfe is able to make the gods into a real living and breathing element of the civilizations that spawned them. They don’t come across merely as archetypes or placeholders (though they do indeed serve those purposes, at least partially), but they are also not just humans with superpowers. There is something distinctly ‘other’ about them that seems equally tied to their roles as both stewards of particular elements of creation and embodiments of basic aspects of the human psyche. Within this ‘god-as-archetype’ role, however, they still retain distinct personalities that elevate them beyond being mere ciphers. The gods of Egypt seem different from those of Greece not only in their physical forms, but also in that they seem to have a less vested interest in Latro. I got the sense from the first two volumes that the Greek pantheon had a specific purpose in mind when they ‘recruited’ Latro as a pawn to their internecine fighting, but while the Egyptian gods are more than willing to make use of him, they seem to be doing so for much less personal reasons. Of course I still have no idea what exactly those reasons were for the Greek pantheon, so the jury’s still out on that one.

As in the other volumes Latro is once again led by prophecy to visit various temples along his path, this time following the Nile river to its source. Various gods and powers meet him along the way and help or hinder him as they see fit. He overcomes a variety of vicissitudes including enslavement, betrayal, and abandonment; he also meets an unexpected old friend in a time of great need, but ultimately ends this phase of his adventures perhaps worse off than he was when he started and on the verge of yet another seemingly hopeless quest. One hopes that this cliffhanger will be resolved in a subsequent volume and that the wait won’t be another 17 years.

Also posted at Goodreads

The Forbes 25 Reviewers - #7 Stephanie Sinclair

Today's guest is Steph Sinclair.  She also posts at Cuddlebuggery.

How did you discover Goodreads?
I was Googling a YA series, trying to find the release date for the next book when I ran across Goodreads. I'm pretty sure I created an account then (this was back in 2009, maybe?), but I never really used it until much later. And when I did start using it, I didn't review much.

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences?
Well, I have a bunch, but I'll stick to the more positive ones. ;)

Teaming up with my co-blogger Kat Kennedy to create our blog is probably the most memorable. I've met some really great people by hanging out on Goodreads and she's definitely one of the best.

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of.
Blythe Harris. Her reviews are hilarious! Whenever I'm curious about a new release, I can always count on her to brave the storm to read it first and take a bullet for the team. Also, Christina (A Reader of Fictions) because, my god, that woman reads a lot of books every year and writes the best critical reviews.

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads?
I was really displeased with it. Goodreads has come to be my "internet home", so the acquisition felt like such a sell out especially considering how Goodreads had *just* finished giving Amazon the one-fingered salute a year ago when the cut off our access to their catalogue. I was proud that Goodreads was going to do its own thing, but this feels like a slap in the face to people who have invested so much time here.

Amazon says they won't ruin it, but I have my doubts. The minute Goodreads starts censoring my reviews, I'll be the first to leave.

How many books do you own?
Surprisingly, not that many. I only own my very favorites that I know I'd read again. Perhaps around 20. But I do get an influx of books every month from publishers for review. However, most of those are given away after I've finished.

Who is your favorite author?
This is probably cliche, but I do admire J.K. Rowling. Not just because I love and grew up with Harry Potter, but because I think she's a class act. She's remained humble despite her riches and you can tell she's never forgotten where she came from. I also love Karen Hesse for her poetic novel Out of the Dust that I feel has really left a mark on me. And, of course, Dr. Seuss.

What is your favorite book of all time?
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban hands down. I have read that book until the cover fell off.

What are your thoughts on ebooks?
I like ebooks a lot. Most of my books are in eformat because I simply don't have the space for a personal library. Usually, if I love an ebook, I'll go out and find the hardcover.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
I think it's really changing the publishing industry some ways for the better and other ways, not so much. But that's mostly traditional publishers' fault for not changing with the times. It's great to be able to find an amazing book like Angelfall that's only $.99. Though, honestly, I would have gladly paid hardcover price for it, since I loved it so much. I can only wonder what a traditional publisher would have done to ruin that book.

But on the other hand, we now have a lot of situations that straddle fandom ethics: Pull to Publish Fan Fiction. Precedents have already been set now and I worry that we'll start to see less originality as a result. I hope I'm wrong.

Any literary aspirations? 
Not really. I'm not hoping that I one day become an author, but I think it would be nice to work in the publishing business in marketing. I love reading and promoting books and if I could do it for a living? Even better.