Saturday, December 15, 2012

"Deathstalker" by Simon R. Green

The Iron Bitch - her Imperial Majesty Lionstone XIV - ruled the human Empire with fear. From peasants to masters of the galaxy's most powerful families, all were subject to the queen's unpredictable decrees of "outlawing" and death.

Owen Deathstalker, unwilling head of his clan, sought to avoid the perils of the Empire's warring factions but unexpectedly found a price on his head. He fled to Mistworld, where he began to build an unlikely force to topple the throne - a broken hero, an outlawed Hadenman, a thief, and a bounty hunter. With their help, the Deathstalker took the first step on a far more dangerous journey to claim the role for which he'd been destined since before his birth...

With breakneck action against a backdrop as wide as the universe, this stunningly told tale is Simon R. Green's most extraordinary novel yet.

A long fan of Green's, I first thought about reading the Deathstalker series while working my way through one of his Secret Histories entries (Eddie Drood enlists the help of a Deathstalker, though for the life of me I can't remember which one). The idea sat on a back burner of my reading brain until I found a copy on Amazon for a penny + shipping. Well, why not, I thought? If it's good, great. If it's horrible, not a huge investment, and I could always donate it to the library.

This is a much different sort of work than what I'm used to with Green. Instantly I noticed that this is in third-person narrative, meaning I might get the chance to see a lot more than usual. (Both the Nightside and Secret Histories series are told from a first-person perspective). "A lot more" is putting it mildly. This book has everything - heroes, villains, beautiful women, space travel, an "Imperial Force" which brings up all sorts of thoughts of huge armies and certain space opera movies, cyborgs, regeneration machines, stasis fields, etc. There's even an arena (called appropriately enough, The Arena) where gladiators of sorts fight against each other to the death, just as in Roman times. At over 500 pages in mass market paperback, this thing is truly epic. And of course, now that I'm finished with it, I find myself wanting to continue with the next book in the series - and keep reading until I'm done with the Deathstalker Saga. Hopefully that will happen before the next millennium.

Anyway, back to Owen and his tale of woe. As the story opens, Owen is about to make love yet again to his girlfriend, only to be attacked by her as she tells him he's been outlawed - wanted dead or alive. Owen kills her and begins his life on the run, something he's not very good at, as he's forsaken the usual Empire intrigues for a life as a historian. Rescued by smuggler Hazel D'ark, he continues running for his life, picking up Hazel's friend and bounty hunter Ruby, tracking down the legendary rebel Jack Random, and bringing his ancestor, the original Deathstalker, out of stasis. There's Oz, Owen's lifelong AI friend and protector, who saves his galactic rear end more than once. And there's Tobias Moon, an augmented man aka Hadenman, who leads them to the Darkvoid, hoping to awaken his fellow Hadenmen from their arctic slumber.

While reading of Owen's adventures, the reader is also introduced to several of the clans or Families of the Empire: the Campbells, the Wolfes, the Schreks. The Empress herself and her high court are also introduced, and yes, the similarities between this court and those of Europe back in the day will not be lost on anyone. There are court intrigues galore, as well as costumes that sound like they wouldn't have been out of place in those same European courts. And while I appreciated being able to see all the characters and get all the background, it's a lot to take in, and sometimes a bit distracting. At first, that is.

Green's masterpiece with such a huge cast and what appears to be a sprawling plot is this: as you're reading and reading and reading, you start to see the small, almost infinitesimal, connections. Then those connections become threads, and those become wires, and suddenly - it all makes sense. It takes talent to bring these seemingly separate stories together in a way that doesn't feel like they've just been mashed together. And while I love Green's first-person, snarky narratives, this book is just as good if not better. It's definitely on the more serious side, as befits a tale as epic as this one. There are still a few moments of comic relief, but overall, Green plays it serious here.

I highly recommend this for science fiction fans, and fantasy buffs would probably enjoy it, too. I look forward to the next installment of the series, which I so desperately want to read right now. But I think I'm going to give myself a break and read some shorter, lighter works over the holidays. 'Til we meet again, Deathstalker.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"Syndrome E" by Franck Thilliez

Already a runaway bestseller in France, [this book] tells the story of beleaguered detective Luci Hennebelle, whose old friend has developed a case of spontaneous blindness after watching an extremely obscure film from the 1950s. Embedded in the film are subliminal images so unspeakably heinous that Lucie realizes she must get to the bottom of it - especially when nearly everyone who comes into contact with the film starts turning up dead.

Enlisting the help of Inspector Sharko - a brooding, broken analyst for the Paris police who is exploring the film's connection to five murdered men left in the woods - Lucie beings to strip away the layers of what is perhaps the most disturbing and powerful film ever made. Soon Sharko and Lucie find themselves mired in a darkness that spreads across politics, religion, science, and art while stretching from France to Canada, Egypt to Rwanda, and beyond.

With this taut U. S. debut, Thilliez explores the origins of violence through radical science in a breakneck and erotically charged thriller rich with shocking plot twists and profound questions about the nature of humanity.

One of the best things about the Goodreads First Reads contests is winning books that you've never really heard of by authors you're not familiar with. This book certainly fits the bill, as it wasn't on my radar before entering the contest, and I certainly hadn't read anything by the author before now.

What's weird is that I know I read the description for this book, and yet, when I won this copy, I still had the wrong impression as to what it was about. I think it's the whole movie = spontaneous blindness thing; I was picturing something along the lines of the horror movies The Ring, and this is about as far from that as you can get.

The book starts out a bit slowly, as there's a lot of character introduction, exposition, etc. The reader is only allowed as much information as the main characters, so we're trying to figure out the mystery just as Luci and Sharko are. At times, this works really well, and at others, just like the police, I found myself frustrated that I couldn't fit the pieces together fast enough. And as I've found with other translated works, there's a bit of a wall between the work and the reader, leaving it sometimes feeling a bit more like a report than a work of fiction. Thankfully, this starts to subside as the reader becomes accustomed to the translator's style, and that's when the book starts to pick up.

It's hard to describe what this book is about. It works on several different levels: police procedural, dialog on mental illness, thesis on violence, etc. What I can say is that I really enjoyed it, and I highly recommend it to those following this blog. I'm hoping that Thilliez puts out another book soon, preferably one that sees the return of Luci and Sharko. But I will probably read whatever he chooses to put out next.

"My Heart is an Idiot: Essays" by Davy Rothbart

Davy Rothbart is looking for love in all the wrong places. Constantly. He falls helplessly in love with pretty much every girl he meets - and rarely is the feeling reciprocated. Time after time, he hopes in a car and tears across half of America with his heart on his sleeve. He's continually coming up with outrageous schemes, which he always manages to pull off. Well, almost always. But even when things don't work out, Rothbart finds meaning and humor in every moment. Whether it's confronting a scammer who takes money from aspiring writers, sifting through a murder case that's left a potentially innocent friend in prison, or waking up naked on a park bench in New York city, nothing and no one is off limits.

But as much as Rothbart is a tragically lovable, irresistibly brokenhearted hero, it's his funny, insightful storytelling that's the star of the book. He is a true original, with a spirit of adventure and a literary voice all his own - "an intriguing hybrid of timeless Midwestern warmth and newfangled jive talk" in the words of Sarah Vowell. Each essay in [this book] shows how things that are seemingly so wrong can be so, so right.

I won this as a Goodreads First Read. Good thing, as I have to say I'm not overly impressed with Rothbart. Oh, his writing isn't bad at all; he's quite good at setting the scene, describing the events, etc. But these essays come off as the whining, "life owes me" plaints of a 30-something hipster. Everything comes across as larger than life, with Rothbart creating a persona that I, quite frankly, didn't enjoy.

The author keeps talking about his pitiful love life, and yet, in "Shade", he writes about the various girls he's dated in an attempt to find someone that matches his "dream girl" - Shade, a character in the movie Gas, Food, Lodging. Wow, no pressure for these girls, huh? Of course he's unsuccessful in his quest - she's a fictional character!

The only piece that I felt the slightest connection to was "New York, New York", a wonderful bit of writing about the author traveling across the country to New York City to see the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. My guess is that this voice is the real Davy Rothbart, and this guy, I like. I just wish he'd shown up in more of the collected essays.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

"What My Best Friend Did" by Lucy Dawson

For Alice, life's a bit too boringly grown-up lately - weekends at weddings and baby showers; celebrating friends' transitions to a life she isn't quite up for yet; and a sweet, stable boyfriend she suspects she's outgrown. So when she meets Gretchen for the first time, it feels a bit like falling love. Gretchen, with her air of impulsiveness and intuitive style, is that rarest of treasures: a true friend who knows how to have fun. Plus there's Gretchen's gorgeous brother, Bailey, who might turn out to be exactly what Alice needs. Before she knows what's hit her, Alice's brilliant new best friend is turning her world upside down - seemingly for the better.

But Gretchen has a dark secret, which, like a time bomb, won't stay hidden forever. There explosion may teach them both more than they ever wanted to know about how female friendships can go frighteningly wrong.

I intend to discuss this book as if all readers have read it. If you have NOT read this book and think you will sometime down the road, I would stop here. SERIOUSLY.

This was a rough read, folks. The book has some issues, the characters have issues, the editing has issues... I'm reminded of a line I once heard by a comedian, something along the lines of "Let's get them a magazine rack - they've got a lot of issues." That would definitely apply to this book.

OK, the book/plot first. I am not a fan of the present story framing the past story. Dawson does a good enough job of making it clear what time period we're in, which is good. However, it still feels "jumpy" overall, leading to some of my displeasure. Also, the book starts off with Alice at the hospital, the emergency with Gretchen, the angst of trying to reach others (Tom, Bailey) - then goes back to when Alice first met Gretchen. We, the reader, don't even know what exactly has happened to Gretchen when the flashbacks begin, only that it must be something terrible, possibly life-threatening, for the opening to be so dramatic. Once we go back in time to that fateful meeting, the story starts dragging, becoming the typical "I'm comfortable with my life but boy I wish something would happen" sort of tale. We're properly introduced to Alice and Tom, and immediately we find out that Tom sees their relationship as long-term: buying a place together, getting married, possibly even having children. Alice freezes up, realizing that while she loves Tom, she's not ready for that sort of commitment, and why, oh why, must he try to have this sort of conversation right before she leaves for the States?

The back and forth continues as we see Alice's friendship with Gretchen blossom at a rapid pace. Perhaps the only thing I did like was the reaction of Vic, Alice's best friend who moved to Paris to be with her handsome love, Luc; Vic is naturally a bit jealous of Alice's "new best friend", feeling a bit off herself in a foreign land with no new best friend herself. Of all the characters in this limp moral tale, I liked Vic - and she's the only one. That's problem #2 - character development. Honestly, these people are rather harsh, almost none of them likeable, and often not what I would consider to be fully-developed. I will grant the author that there are a lot of characters on the canvas, but still, wouldn't it have been more interesting if Paolo, flatmate to Tom and Alice, has been fleshed out a bit? As it stands, he's merely the hot roommate who happens to have sex with Gretchen at crucial moments. Also, I thought Bailey needed to be more than the guy that lured Alice away from Tom (not hard to do, grant you, but still...). There is some back story given by him during a scene with Alice, one where he describes the first time Gretchen goes off the meds and tries to hurt herself. I knew I was supposed to pick up on the fact that he feels responsible for her, but wouldn't it have been better to have him tell me that? And to see it more than once? Again, I would have been much more invested in his blossoming love affair with Alice with more development of his character, or at least, I think I would have.

Then there's Alice herself. This novel is told from the first-person perspective, so everything we know is from Alice's POV. That is, until chapter twenty-nine, when the author suddenly shifts and has different scenes from a third-person POV. Here's Gretchen's doctor coming in to work, amazed that the "overdose girl" is still alive. Suddenly we go back to Alice's first-person POV, then we're watching Bailey as he wakes and gets ready to go to the hospital (everyone had left to get some rest, reassured that they had time before Gretchen "woke up"). Then we see Tom, then it's back to Alice, and oh my - I'm getting dizzy. Anyway, back to Alice. Even while she was getting to know Gretchen and gushing to Vic about how wonderful it is to have someone to hang out with again, I didn't like her. There's just something off about her; maybe it's the way she doesn't want to take responsibility for anything that's happening to her (her wanting to lie to Tom about being attracted to and kissing Bailey, for instance, even though it's clear she sees no future with Tom), maybe it's because it's obvious from the start that she's hiding something major from everyone at the hospital. In any case, at one point I was really hoping she'd get her comeuppance, and I don't know that that's what the author was going for.

I also had a hard time with how mental illness was portrayed in this book. What could have been a very touching, yet difficult subject comes across more as a simple plot device. Yes, Gretchen and her brother both explain to Alice what it's like for Gretchen, how scary it is to be "ill", and I thought the author did a great job in the scenes where Gretchen tells Alice how she feels when she's on her lithium, and off it. There could have been much more said on this subject. What really bothered me was Dawson's decision to have Gretchen be a completely manipulative witch, one who seems to blame her illness for her actions. Instead of a frank look at manic depression, we get something more along the lines of a bad movie plot. I think it would have been brilliant if Gretchen had explained why she pretty much stole/destroyed Alice's life; was Gretchen doing it because she couldn't stand to see someone be happy? Or did she do it because she wants that sort of life so badly herself?

Finally, there are some editing issues that will seem nitpicky to a lot of readers. But keep in mind, anything that basically pops you out of the story is bad, be it editing or character development or whatever. In this case, it was quote marks - specifically the use of double quotes within double quotes. I would have written it off as some British thing, or perhaps a peculiarity of the publisher, but half-way through the book, the correct way to quote someone within dialog started showing up, the old single quotes within double quotes. To this reader, it was like nails on a chalkboard. And it had me wondering - with tighter editing (which not only includes basic grammar and such, but also spotting plot holes, character weakness, etc) would this have been a better book? Possibly. We'll probably never know.

Now, having said all this, here's the weird thing: I found myself racing through the last 50 pages or so to find out how this would end. Not in a skimming-so-I-don't-have-to-read-it-all way, but in a biting-my-nails-because-I-can't-wait-to-see-how-this-ends kind of way. I know, right? How did that happen? I honestly don't know. I can say that when I finished the last page, I was sort of glad at how it ended, and also a bit disappointed as well. It's one of those books that leaves you hanging, as you'll never really know what happens. Sigh.