Thursday, October 18, 2007

Baltimore, or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire

Baltimore, or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden (2007, Bantam Books)

Acclaimed writer and artist Mike Mignola (Hellboy) teams up with prolific horror and supernatural fiction author Christopher Golden for this wonderfully original vampire tale.

Set at the end of World War I, Baltimore is the story of three strangers, united only by their mutual acquaintance with Lord Henry Baltimore: a surgeon, a sailor, and an aristocrat. The men are summoned to an inn, and they spin their personal tales of terror to one another as they await the arrival of Baltimore himself.

Inspired heavily by Hans Christian Anderson’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Baltimore is a well-crafted allegory of the long-term futility of war and the dehumanization that can come those who are in the trenches. The various stories that make up the books are excellently layered inside of other stories, and are tinged with an ample amount of Lovecraftian eeriness. Mignola also contributes numerous monochromatic illustrations to the story, enhancing the feel of the story.

Baltimore is a must-read for any fans of great horror tales, and a great way to wind up to the impending Halloween season.

Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Author's Website

Sunday, October 14, 2007

30 Days of Night

30 Days of Night by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith (2003, IDW Publishing)

Niles' and Templesmith's 30 Days of Night series of graphic novels eschews the romantic view of the vampire made popular largely by Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles series, and brings them back to what they were for generations before: monsters. There is no doubt that the bloodsuckers of this series are anything other than evil.

30 Days is set in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost settlement in the United States, where the sun stays up for 30 days out of the year, and down for another 30. Something evil is coming to the sleepy little town, though. Something with sharp teeth and a hunger for blood and flesh...

Niles' quick and terse story is complimented by Templesmith's horrific and somewhat vague art. 30 Days of Night is exactly what any horror story should be: fast, bloody, and frighteningly disorienting. With the impending release of the film version of 30 Days of Night, you'll want to rush out and (ahem) sink your teeth into this one.

Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Author's Website
Illustrator's Website

The Book of Joby

The Book of Joby by Mark J. Ferrari (2007, Tor Books)

Freelance illustrator Mark J. Ferrari makes his fiction debut with The Book of Joby, a hugely ambitious epic of modern fantasy. By turns hillarious and tear-jerking, the story mixes Arthurian legend with ages-old mythological archetypes (coming of age, the harrowing of hell, e.g.), reincarnation, and the religious philosophical debate of free will versus predestination.

God and the devil make the same pact they have made countless times before: will God's chosen champion renounce Him and turn to evil when all hope seems lost? This time, however, the stakes are nothing short of the entirety of creation. So it is that nine year old Joby Peterson is unknowingly chosen. The story follows Joby as his life becomes a never-ending cycle of crushing and tragic mediocracy.

The Book of Joby is a well-crafted example of modern fantasy, and an utterly absorbing read filled with well-imagined sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. Keep Ferrari's name on your list of new authors to watch for.

Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Author's Website

The Other Side of Silence

The Other Side of Silence by Natasha Mostert (2001, Hodder and Stoughton)

Natasha Mostert's books are wonderfully-woven tales of mixed psychological and supernatural suspense, and her second novel is no exception. The Other Side of Silence is the story of Tia Theron, a university professor in Johannesburg, and how she becomes embroilled in a plot to change the face of music, and possibly the face of humanity, forever. It's a little like Darwin's Radio meets Wuthering Heights with a techno soundtrack.

Like Mostert's other works, this book is filled with tension, obsession, and an almost cloying gothic atmosphere. The subject matter in this novel is a bit esoteric for the average reader, as the storyline centers around sound and scale theory as well as the idea of decentralized information processing, and is set in South Africa. Mostert, however, does a commendable job in giving enough background information that most readers won't feel completely lost. Her portrayal of Johannesburg, in particular, is on par with any of Gibson's gritty near-future cities.

While there are a couple of small and inconsequential inconsistancies, The Other Side of Silence is a gripping read.

Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

Author's Website

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (2006, Bantam Books)

While I am a huge fan of fantasy literature, sometimes all the elves, dragons, and wizened old wizards can become a sort of Gandalfian test pattern. So it's always nice to find a well-written non-Tolkien fantasy novel.

Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora is among the best of this genre. Though it is built upon such solid foundations as Robert Aspirin and Lynne Abbey's Thieves' World anthologies, Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar novels, a bit of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, and some Charles Dickens for good measure, Lynch's work is definitively of his own making.

The sprawling city of Camorr, built upon the elderglass ruins of an ancient and mysterious civilization, owes much to medieval and renaissance Italy – for instance, the fact that the city is criscrossed by many canals and waterways. The thieves and ruffians of Camorr, united under the powerful and clever Capa Barsavi, have come to a lucrative and well-balanced Secret Peace with the constabulary and nobility of the city.

Into this city is born Locke Lamora, a boy with a knack for getting into trouble. Orphaned at an early age, Locke is taken in and raised by the Gentleman Bastards, the smallest gang in Camorr. As he grows, Locke eventually takes leadership of the gang, spinning con after con designed to secretly flaunt the Secret Peace. When a mysterious assassin, known only as the Gray King, begins a systematic execution of the Capa's men, Locke and his Gentleman Bastards find themselves juggling an ever-growing number of schemes, each more desperate than the last, hoping the entire thing doesn't collapse around them.

The best thing about The Lies of Locke Lamora is that it's the first book fo a series. So if you're looking for a great fantasy novel that isn't just more of the same old elves, dragons, and wizards, give it a read.

Rating: 4 Stars

Author's Website

Pattern Recognition and Spook Country

Pattern Recognition and Spook Country by William Gibson (2003 and 2007, Putnam Publishing Group)

A little over twenty years ago, William Gibson changed the face of science fiction literature, quickly becoming one of the premier authors of what came to be known as the "cyberpunk" genre. While many before had written predictive tales of what may come to pass, Gibson and his contemporaries did it in a very timely and stylish way.

Now that we are well entrenched in the twenty-first century, reality has had a chance to catch up to Gibson's future. Pattern Recognition and Spook Country are both set in the current day, which is every bit as eerie as Gibson's former vision.

Pattern Recognition is the story of Cayce (pronounced "Case") Pollard, whose allergic sensitivities to corporate trademarking make her a freakishly accurate divining rod for product trends. What starts out as a typical job for an advertising consultancy called Blue Ant rapidly turns into a hunt for the source of a series of internet video clips that has created its own subculture. The investigation leads to various stops around the world, and keeps Cayce constantly questioning everyone's motives, including her own.

Spook Country is the interwoven tale of three main characters: Hollis Henry, a former goth rocker turned freelance journalist who is working for a magazine which may or may not exist, but is most assuredly a subsidiary of a corporation called Blue Ant; Tito was born in Cuba before he came to New York and took up his waiting life in a shadowy criminal family trained by ex-KGB operatives; Milgrim is an addict of anxiety drugs whose life has been taken over by a man who may or may not be working for the government. As the stories begine to intertwine, everyone begins to feel the paranoia of living in a culture where consumer technology is strangely analogous to intelligence tech. Hollis' investigation of a new form of art combining virtual reality and GPS technology leads to a secret cargo container that has been circling the globe for years. As the container nears port, the players come together, both behind the scenes and through numerous catspaws, for something big.

While not directly linked in story, both novels take place in the same present day world, with Blue Ant and it's corporate powerhouse (the unlikely-named Hubertus Bigend) tying together secrets and conspiracies. If Gibson's past patterns hold true this time around, we can expect his next book to be the glue to the trilogy, bringing characters and plots together for something mind-blowing.

Rating: 4 1/2 Stars each

Author's Website

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Crooked Little Vein

Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis (2007, William Morrow & Company)

For those not familiar with the man, Warren Ellis is the creator of reknown graphic novel series Transmetropolitan, Planetary, and The Authority, among others. While he has published a couple of non-fiction works in addition to his sizable writing credits in the graphic novel world, Crooked Little Vein is his first fiction novel— and what a debut it is!

Imagine, if you will, that some shadowy government organizarion has created a child spliced from the DNA of William Gibson and Chuck Palahniuk. Now imagine that this child has been raised on nothing but Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, Japanese monster movies, and internet porn. Continue to imagine that shortly after this child has come to late adulthood in a post 9-11 climate, he has been taken to a remote one-room shack containing a table, a chair, and a typewriter, illuminated only by a bare 60-Watt lightbulb. He is promptly injected with a solution of Red Bull cut with the ashes of Hunter S. Thompson and told to write a novel capturing the current American zeitgeist. That imaginary novel would only begin to approach the sheer strangeness of Crooked Little Vein.

Down-and-out private eye Mike McGill has always had strange and horrible luck. With a little more than three dollars in his bank account, Mike is given a job he can't refuse: retrieve a magic book written by the Founding Fathers— a backup Constitution and mystical reset switch for "American" values. As he pursues the elusive text, Mike's bizarre luck never lets him have a moment's peace. From movie-night with a group of Godzilla bukakke fetishists, to his new polyamorous tattooed goth-punk assistant/ love interest, to strangely illuminating conversations with serial killers on airplanes, Crooked Little Vein will hurtle you through the deviant underbelly of America and confront you with practices so offensive that you never even though to want to be disgusted by them.

Though Ellis makes Palahniuk look like Barney, his severely twisted prose is more than just pure shock, it is undercut by a feverishly strong intellect. Crooked Little Vein poses societal questions on par with such great names as Orwell and Huxley, while truly leaving the reader to draw their own meaning from the story.

Readers should be warned, though, that this is not a story for everyone. If you are easily offended or "grossed-out," you would probably do best to move on. If, however, you have a twisted sense of humor and a proclivity for the bizarre, you don't want to miss out on what will hopefully be the first in a long line of novels from Ellis.

Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Author's Website

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Midnight Side

The Midnight Side by Natasha Mostert (2001, HarperCollins Publishers)

Mostert's fourth novel, Season of the Witch, holds the honor of being the first review, as well as the catalyst, for Libram X. The Mignight Side was her debut novel, and illustrates that her work started off strong and only got stronger.

The Mignight Side is the story of Isa de Witt, a South African architect who receives a cryptic phone call late one night from her cousin Alette, who currently resides in London. Not long after, Isa is contacted by an attorney who informs her that Alette was killed in an automobile accident. The only problem is that Alette was dead when she called Isa. Thus, Isa travels to London to attend to her cousin's estate, and the three mysterious envelopes left to her, and is pulled into a world mystery, lust, and revenge from beyond the grave.

Like Season of the Witch, The Midnight Side is a tale of obsession, and uses many similar themes of duality, reflection, and balance, all topped off with a supernatural twist. The novel, however, stands on its own, blending the stock market, patent law, lucid dreaming and post-mortem communication into a masterful tale of suspense. The Midnight Side is at once wonderfully tense, psychologically horrifying, and obsessively romantic, and is full of excellent plot twists.

A few bits of ungainly dialogue and occasional repetition creep in here and there, but readers of her later works can see how strong her brilliance was even in her debut. The Midnight Side is a definite must for those who love a good supernatural suspense.

Rating: 4 Stars

Author's Website

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman (2007, Pantheon Books)

Superheroes are a big industry these days, what with the multi-million dollar box office blockbuster franchises from both Marvel, DC Comics, and plenty of smaller-press companies. Not to be outdone, video game designer Austin Grossman pens Soon I Will Be Invinvible, a unique yet eerily familiar novel about superpowered heroes and villains.

The story alternates between the point of view of incarcerated supervillain Doctor Impossible and amnesiac cyborg superhero Fatale. CoreFire, the world's most popular hero, has disappeared and the remaining members of his now defunct superteam, the Champions, set aside their differences and reform the team to solve the mystery. Fatale is recruited for the new team along with other newcomers, including the enigmatic figure of Lily— a former villain herself, and known associate of Doctor Impossible. Meanwhile, Impossible himself escapes from prison to put his latest and most diabolical plan for world domination into effect.

Grossman knows his comics lore, and Soon I Will Be Invincible is thickly layered with familiar comic book plot and character archtypes. He does an admirable job of balancing these traditional archtypes with a bit of realism that makes his heroes and villains much more than just two-dimensional personas. The whole falls somewhere between classic Golden-/ Silver-age comics and more "realistic" popular sources like Alan Moore's Watchmen and the fledgling NBC hit Heroes.

While the story does suffer from the occasional lapse of logic (even comic book logic) and confusing prose, it is a commendable first work. Throw on some tights and a cape, lock yourself away in your own Fortress of Solitude and give Soon I Will Be Invincible a read.

Rating: 3 Stars

Author's Website

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bad Monkeys

Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff (2007, HarperCollins Publishers)

The first words ever to meander through my brain in relation to Matt Ruff were, "Oooh, pretty!" This might seem strange to some of you, but that would simply mean that you've never seen the nearly obscenely neon dadaist cover of Ruff's sophomore novel Sewer, Gas, and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy. His latest novel, Bad Monkeys, can best be visually described as intriguingly creepy, with its hazard yellow jacket and macaque-shaped Rorschach blot cover. But far from being just an author with great-looking books, Ruff is a master storyteller who is only getting better with each novel he publishes.

Bad Monkeys tells the story of Jane Charlotte, who sits in an interview room in the psychiatric wing of a Las Vegas prison after going on a violent rampage in a casino, then telling the police that she works for an arm of an invisible group dedicated to fighting evil. As she tells her amazing and unbelievable story to the psychiatrist assigned to her, the edges between fantasy and reality begin to blur, until they finally become completely insignificant. From trying to expose serial killers in her youth to NC (Natural Causes) guns and Mandrill bombs to quantum-powered DNA-specific X-drugs, Ruff not only twists the plot, but totally reverses it on multiple occasions.

This novel reads like a combination of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, a Phillip K. Dick novel, and a Terry Gilliam movie, though Ruff manages, as always, to tell his story in a voice that is completely and uniquely his own. In Bad Monkeys, he brings together elements of all of his past works: the uncertain psychological aspects of Set This House in Order, the far-out pop culture and action of Sewer, Gas, and Electric, and the epic and sweeping archtypal conflicts of Fool on the Hill.

Bad Monkeys demands to be read: so go pick up a copy, read it with the lights low... and for goodness' sake, don't be a Bad Monkey.

Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Author's Website

Three Bags Full

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann (2007, Flying Dolphin Press)

The "cozy mystery" genre really isn't my cup of tea, laced with arsenic or not. German author Leonie Swann's Three Bags Full, however, uses a gimmick that was nearly impossible for me to resist: crime-solving sheep.

When their shepherd is found with a shovel sticking out of him, the sheep of George Glenn's flock reluctantly endeavor to discover who in the tiny Irish village of Glennkill killed him. Lead by Miss Maple, the smartest sheep in Glennkill (and possibly the entire world), the investigation draws in the rest of the flock: Sir Richfield, Othello, Mopple the Whale, and many others. The resulting adventure is moving, comical, and strangely enlightening.

The only downfall to Swann's story is that sometimes the prose gets so wrapped up in telling the story through the eyes of the sheep that it becomes confusing and disorienting to human readers. It's hard to say whether this is due to the actual writing or the translation (Three Bags Full was originally published in German, but these spots are, thankfully, few and far between. Swann runs the gamut of comedy, drama, tragedy, and suspense, and always keeps the reader guessing as to the real answers to the mystery right up until the end.

Fans of british mysteries will find Three Bags Full to be familiar territory with a new and interesting twist. All but the most vehemently anti-mystery readers are sure to find something here to warm up to as well. With a debut like this, Leonie Swann is definitely an author to keep an eye on.

Rating: 3 Stars

Thursday, June 28, 2007


InterWorld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves (2007, Eos Books)

It's no secret that Neil Gaiman can do no wrong in my eyes. One day, he may prove me wrong, but after 15 years, I don't think so. His young adult collaboration with Reaves certainly hasn't.

High school sophomore Joey Harker couldn't find his way out of a paper bag with a map. He's always getting himself lost, even in his own house. One fateful day, he manages to get himself lost so badly that he winds up in an alternate reality. Things only seem to go downhill from there as he encounters reality-hopping technocrats, world-conquering witches, and a secret army dedicated to keeping the balance - made up entirely of alternate versions of himself!

Gaiman is no stranger to children's literature, but InterWorld is his first real foray into the young adult action/ adventure genre. Reaves brings a world of experience writing for such television series as Star Trek: the Next Generation and Gargoyles to the mix, making this novel a wonderful story in what will hopefully become a fully-fledged series. Readers of the Pendragon series and James Patterson's Maximum Ride series will find a lot here to interest them.

InterWorld will be a very quick read for most adult readers, but is enjoyable by sci-fi/ fantasy and action/ adventure fans of all ages. There are a few minor editing issues, and sometimes the first person story lapses into language that doesn't seem appropriate for a high school sophomore (even one who can Walk between realities). The only real problem that crops up is a fairly major contradiction in the plot near the end of the story. As a whole, though, InterWorld is simply brilliant.

Rating: 4 Stars

Author's Website

Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (2007, William Morrow & Company)

For those not in the know, Joe Hill is the nom de plume of Joseph Hillstrom King, son of Stephen King. With parentage like that, it's impossible not to compare the works of father and son. While fully rooted in the genre of horror, however, Heart-Shaped Box is not your father's (or his father's, for that matter) ghost story.

Ex-heavy metal rocker Jude Coyne has spent his years of retirement at his old farmhouse with a rotating cast of goth-girl groupies. A collector of the macabre, he happens across an online auction for a dead man's suit, complete with haunting spirit. With money as no objective, Jude purchases the suit, and in short order finds the dead, as well as his own past, catching up with him.

Hill's first novel is hip and modern, and owes more to Japanese-inspired horror films like The Ring and The Grudge than the more traditional American horror story. The ghosts in Heart-Shaped Box are subtle and invasive, and it's sometimes hard to figure out where the supernatural ends and the psychological begins. The book is highly cinematic, and I would be quite surprised if I didn't see this story make its way to the big screen in the next couple of years.

While Heart-Shaped Box is a great read, it is still Hill's debut novel, and sometimes it shows through. While the plot and action are excellently-paced, the characterization sometimes suffers, particularly when it comes to Jude Coyne. Jude's age only seems to give him problems when it's immediately important. One moment, he might be bounding up stairs without a thought while the next he is bemoaning his aging joints. Also of peculiar note for me was Jude's beard. I was almost a third of the way through the book before it was mentioned that the main character possessed a rather long beard. This was somewhat jarring, as I had not pictured him that way. It seems like something that would have been rather easily remedied early in the book.

All in all, though, Heart-Shaped Box is an addictive read, and Joe Hill is definitely an author to watch.

Rating: 3 Stars

Author's Website

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Season of the Witch

Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert (2007, Dutton Books)

Computer hackers, remote viewing, alchemy, witchcraft, and memory; while it may sound like a typical episode of Coast to Coast AM, these are actualy pivotal elements in Natasha Mostert's stunning fourth novel, Season of the Witch. In the tradition of Neal Stephenson, Mostert manages to take these and other seemingly disparate elements and weave them together into a mesmerizing whole.

The story is centered upon remote viewer turned info-thief Gabriel Blackstone, who is hired by a prominent London citizen with ties to Blackstone's troubled past. The job seems simple enough: find out what has happened to his client's estranged and missing son, last known to be in the company of high society sisters Morrighan and Minnaloushe Monk. As he investigates the mysterious Monk sisters, Blackstone quickly discovers that this missing persons case has become a case of murder. The deeper he delves into the mystery, the more he becomes bewitched and entranced by the sisters. But which is his love, and which is a murderer... or are they the same person?

Part muder mystery, part supernatural thriller, and part gothic romance, the story pulls you in as more and more layers are revealed. At the same time, the characters are well-developed and each seems to reflect or balance aspects of others, both major and minor. The concept of duality is an important part of witchcraft and alchemy, and so serves as major uniting factor between the story and the characters themselves.

Fans of Anne Rice who have been lamenting her exit from the realm of the supernatural need look no further for the heiress to her legacy. But make no mistake; far from being a clone or write-alike, Mostert's writing is sincere, authentic, and stands out from the pack. Her prose is a perfectly executed balancing act of story and characterization, and her depiction of London rivals Rice's New Orleans in its swelteringly gothic romanticism. Season of the Witch fairly drips with seduction, sensuality, madness, and obsession.

Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Author's Website