Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Two in one

 Normally, I'd write separate reviews for Owlflight and Owlsight, but since they're part of the same Mercedes Lackey series, and the second book is mostly a reverse image of the first...

Keep in mind this is the last series the author has written in what could be considered "modern" in the setting. There may be a few short stories set after this, but everything else she's written after this has been set in an earlier place on the time line, bookwise. 

The series opens on the orphan Darian, apprenticed to the wizard Justyn in the remote Valdemar village of Errold's Grove on the edge of the Pelegir Forest. Darian's parents were trappers, who vanished during the Mage Storms. Barbarians from the north attack the village, and Darian winds up running in to the forest and finding a group of Hawkbrothers from K'Vala Vale who are working on establishing new leylines and Heartstones. Darian gets adopted by them, and helps free the village from the barbarians, running off with the Hawkbrothers for Magic training. 

In the second book, we meet Keisha, the adolescent Healer for a much more prosperous Errold's Grove and her sister Shandi. Keisha is a strong willed girl who can't find proper training for her Gift, since she can't leave town to go get it. As such, she's on the verge of becoming a hermit by the time Shandi gets Chosen and Darion returns, with news of another Barbarian clan moving south towards the village. 

Darian reestablishes K'Valdemar Vale not far from Errold's Grove, where Keisha comes and gets her gifts trained. The Barbarians do wind up reaching the edges of Valdemar, however, this time, as Firesong, Silverfox, Kerowyn, and Eldan are around (mainly to update everyone on how everyone who survived the Storms is doing now), things go much more easily, as we find the Barbarians got sent south by their totem to find a cure for a disease the Mage Storms brought. Much negotiation later, and a cure for Summer disease later, Ghost Cat Clan is now firmly colonized nearby. 

Now, this series was the one she was releasing when I first got hooked into the setting, so it was the first I was reading around the same time as everyone else, so it does have a special place on my shelf. (To give you an idea, I bought the paperbacks at WaldenBooks using their discount card.) Does she more or less have a formula when it comes to plotting? Yeah. Does that prevent me from enjoying long sojourns into Valdemar? Hell no. While I enjoy more adult fantasy, it's nice to have some old fashioned cozy traditional fantasy to read through. And these, while more rustic than her normal adventures, fill that role very nicely.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Like Noir, with more seeds

 One of the ladies I work with loaned me Harlan Coben's Stay Close, which, while not someone I have read previously, still managed to write an interesting yarn. 

The story centers on 3 people in particular, all of whom have a connection to an Atlantic Missing Persons case from 17 years prior. We have Megan, who 17 years ago went by Cassie, who worked as a stripper at La Créme. She's currently a suburban soccer mom of two kids, who lives 2 hours from Atlantic City. We have Ray, who was a photojournalist, but who now works for a fake paparazzi firm. (We literally meet him giving the paparazzi treatment to a 13 year old Jewish boy for his Bar Mitzvah.) And we have Detective Broome, who's seeking a missing person from 17 years ago. 

Then we have several oddball supporting characters, like a police chief on the take, the father of another missing person, and two psychotic Christian Camp Counselors who like to plot campfire song orders before torturing people for information. 

By the end, we know exactly what happened to the missing person, why it happened, and everyone more or less returns to their old lives a little bit wiser. 

That's skipping a hell of a lot of detail, but it is a mystery of a sort.

Anyway, while I enjoyed this, the logic really requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. Not to mention, much like Atlantic City, there's a seedy nature to the narrative that makes you want to wash grease off your hands every scene, like a white trash Lady MacBeth. 

Would I read this author again? Probably. But he's not something I'd particularly seek out all that often.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Not quite grimdark, but getting there

 Found out recently that Benedict Jacka had released two more of his Alex Verus novels since I last looked, and Forged came into my possession. 

So. 

We're again dealing with the consequences of Alex being hunted by the Council, whatever plans his former master Richard has, Rachel/Deleo's pursuit of him, and Anne being possessed by a rather powerful djinn. The latter involving Anne's vendetta against her tormentors,  including crucifying a rakasha who had once been using her in his club. 

Several things happen in this, almost none of which particularly involve the Dark Mage plot line. Really, we're mainly concerned with Anne's djinn fueled plots, particularly since she wants to play Oprah and give Alex, Luna, and Variam jinni of their own. (She's nothing if not generous.)

We do see what will likely be closure on the Rachel/Deleo storyline, as old girl has some major Freudian consequences when she enters Elsewhere. 

And one of Alex's biggest threats from the light council gets dealt with, as Alex first gets his hand on Levistus's  AI that provides blackmail material, but then manipulates Anne to help deal with Levistus himself. 

While I enjoyed this,and he hasn't quite hit Butcher levels of "How Morally Grey can I make my narrator before people stop reading?", it is getting dark in here, and while the author is British and I assume most of the political shots are aimed at Parliament, more than a few of those shots go wide enough to hit just about any government. On the other hand, he seems to be quite content to explore the "Y" axis between kivertine and authoritarian vs concentrating on on the rather middling "X" axis of Good/Evil.

With the next book on reserve at the library, I'll be interested to see what happens next.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Electric Boogaloo

 Many years ago (like 2002), I found David Bergantino's Hamlet II: Ophelia's Revenge on the sale rack at the library I used frequently. I remember reading it then, but it's been a while since I last slogged through this. 

I'm sure most folks have a general idea of the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and this is essentially the same story with the addition of another vengeful ghost running around Elsinore Castle, the ghost of one particularly angry spirit who's been in a bog for several centuries. 

But first, we open on a football game between Globe University and Fortinbras University, as QB Cameron Dean pulls a trick play to win the game by pretty much climbing over geeky freshmen Rosenberg and Gyllenhal. A late hit in the end zone reveals a vision of Cameron's father, who tells him that he was murdered by his Aunt Claudia, and Cameron is to be the agent of his vengeance.  Cameron is summoned by mother Gerti (who's currently shacked up with Claudia), to be informed that in a few weeks, on his 21st birthday, he is to inherit a family estate in Denmark. 

Anyway, the book past that hits several of the same beats as the play, with changed names and circumstances. (Cameron hires a band in to sing of how Claudia killed his father, pretty much everyone dies....) The difference being that Cameron and his entourage's (He invites the entire team and a guest to go along) happens to wake up a certain vengeful spirit who somehow wound up in a bog after Cameron's twinned soul forsook her. Ophelia wastes no time possessing most of the minor characters, usually women, causing them to drown while strangling their men, in her wrath against love.

Amusingly, two characters who are pronounced dead, don't end up dead, really. Indeed, it's revealed that the terror of the events have lead them to realize their love for one another, which is a bit better than getting shipped to England to get executed on arrival. 

Honestly, the problems with this novel it shares with Shakespeare. The first act drags, and drags badly. Once Ophelia wakes up, things improve, and one gets the sense that the author, like several goth girls of my acquaintance think Ophelia should have had a beer and a one night stand when Hamlet went off on her rather than swimming in peat. 

I mean, Hamlet is not my favorite. Bergantino does well updating it for a modern audience, but it's still the same old story with some new window dressing.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Foul Ball

 After seeing a recommendation on one of my Facebook groups, I wound up getting Zak Salih's debut novel Let's Get Back to the Party, which frankly feels like it could have used a better editor and some better suggestions on how to tie this mess together. 

This is not to say its not worth a gander, but more that if there's a point to this, it's not particularly obvious, or hidden so well as to be nonexistent. 

The book is bookended by watershed moments, we open on the day the Supreme Court legalized marriage, and we end a few days after the PULSE massacre. In between, we follow around two childhood friends, who's live interact maybe 3 times in the current era of the narrative, and never particularly satisfactorily. 

The first friend we meet is Sebastian, who's moved to the DC suburbs into his father's new home, as his father is teaching for two years on the Carolinas. Sebastian has recently broken up with his boyfriend, who really doesn't want the life Sebastian does. Sebastian's flame dame Dani drags him to a gay wedding, where he encounters Oscar, who grew up in the same neighborhood as him. Indeed, they have a history we get occasional glimpses of. They exchange numbers, and proceed not to contact each other for several pages. 

Oscar, who works for an ad agency and sees gay marriage as a bad thing, since it flies in the face of what he sees gay culture to be, spends the reception on Cruze, eventually arranging a meetup with someone at an older gay bar in DC. Who ghosts him, because yeah. Anyway, Oscar ends up meeting an older activist who wrote a few books celebrating his hedonism and libertine mores as a young man. They form a friendship.

Sebastian, in his job as an AP English and AP Art History teacher at a fairly well off high school, winds up becoming an advisor for the school's LGBTQ+ group. Which is all well and good until he starts getting close to one of his 17 year old students. Not quite Nabokov close, but getting there. (I mean the closest we get to something approaching really inappropriate is Sebastian putting the boy's hoodie on a pillow and cuddling it all night. Everything else that happens between them is really just awkward mildly obsessive stuff.) 

Oscar finds out the author is writing a book about him, and finds that his libertine idol is no longer quite the firebrand he once was. Indeed, the pages Oscar reads aren't celebrations of Oscar's one night stands, but more pity for Oscar. 

At it's heart, the relationship between Oscar and Sebastian is a miss. The brief interactions we see of them as kids basically reflect some of the unfinished business we all bring forward into adulthood, but the shared intimacy here is more like the scene in the US version of Queer as Folk where Michael explains his obsession with Brian. Not deep, but more like a fantasy interrupted. And the fact that both are left with no answers, no resolution, more just a "somebody that I used to know" kind of vibe towards each other.... I realize this is likely a more realistic thing that indeed does happen in real life, but the build up to that unresolved note just isn't present to make me feel much of anything for either character. 

I mean, if Mr. Salih writes something else, I'll read it, since his writing style is interesting, but this novel is a lot underdone.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Dire Omens and Portents

 So, while most of the shocking revelations from Bob Woodward and Robert Costa's Peril were mostly revealed prior to publication. the book itself paints a much more interesting portrait than the tidbits sizzling to sell the book in the first place.

Chronicling from late 2019 to early 2021, we start with Joe Biden deciding to run for the nomination, proceed through Donald Trump's reelection campaign and COVID, and end up around the end of Biden's first 100 days in office. All with authors' style of presenting a timely backed with facts and the soul of a prosecutor presenting a case. (Hey, I read All the President's Men; other than Woodward and Bernstein describing themselves as scrappy and handsome, which is not discussed here, the writing style hasn't changed much.) 

One can wonder if the figures treated most sympathetically here were ones who talked to him, or if some of the folks regarded as villains are actually not as bad as presumed. (In particular, Bob Barr is portrayed as less an architect of the obstruction of justice as more in trying to explain to his boss exactly what the Constitution says about the electoral college voting. Lindsay Graham also is portrayed as being one of the few trying to get Trump past the post election lies that the former guy has seemingly swallowed hook, line, and sinker. Generally agreed upon as being wretched hives of scum and villainy Ivanka, Jared, and Mitch McConnell even get more favorable press here than Trump.) 

I'm sure one of the biggest critiques people will point out in relation to this (and really ALL books with either author) is their politics; frankly, one gets the impression politics doesn't matter as much as effective administration to either of them. That seems to be the big conclusion on the end of the era, while they think Trump did good with getting the vaccine out and approved (it's mildly amusing, since that same fight to get treatment or some kind of prevention into the hands of people played a big part in the narrative of the last book I reviewed on here), the complete lack of any sort of plan to do anything with it AFTER getting it out doomed the response. Well, that and going out of the way to downplay the risks of the virus, prophylactic measures that could have helped, and indeed, playing up to his base, what could have actually been a much more effective thing almost died in the womb. 

This would be one of the big lessons in here. Projects that affect an entire planet need competent administration on several levels to work. 

The events of January 6th, 2021, get a lot of discussion. As is the perilous line that certain members of the Legislative branch have to walk to "keep the base happy" vs the actual mortal danger they were in. Since we end before the current crop of (pardon my language) batshit conspiracy that overtook some of that branch in trying to justify what so many of us watched live on TV, this wasn't explored as deeply as it really really needs to be by people who can at least present as being an objective observer. (Yeah, we all, myself included, can get caught up in a narrative that may or may not be the full story.)

Of note, they avoid, for the most part, discussing the nuttery that is "QAnon", although Guilianni comes off as a complete and total idiot in the eyes of almost everyone. 

When we get into Biden's first 100 days (almost a welcome relief at this point), we get deep into the structural faults that exist in the Senate that didn't particularly exist during Biden's tenure in both the Senate and his days as Veep. (This is a discussion that also deserves a deeper dive somewhere, as the Senate generally had a reputation for having less hot heads than the House, which has changed over time as ideologues have won races for state seats there. This is not to say that ideologues haven't served in the senate, I can name several from the past few years, but more that there does seem to be a heck of a lot more unwilling to do anything now than there were, and the narrative does point this out in a few places, pointing at the strained relations between Missouri's Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley. I look at my own state, where Rob Portman (who I disagree with on a lot of things) is retiring, and we're already getting TV ads from folks more in the vein of Hawley running for the seat. 

My conclusions after reading this could be stated as follows; While some things are black and white, much of the stuff leading to those events were much more gray than anyone was portraying. While the villains remain villains, some of them were less Bond Villain, and more MCU villain. Unless there is accountability, we run the risk of repeating everything again.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Meh (An X-ers reaction)

 I for the life of my don't remember requesting Never Silent: ACT UP And My Life in Activism by Peter Staley, but it showed up, so I read it. And I spent a lot of my time reading it trying to figure out how the heck to review it. Bear with me here.

For those who don't know, Staley got involved with the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) in NYC fairly early on, after having worked as an investment banker who happened to be gay and have HIV. (To qualify this, his diagnosis was originally AIDS Related Complex [ARC], a diagnosis that no longer exists, and even if he did at a few points hit what has since become the t4 levels that qualifies for a diagnosis of AIDS, the diagnostic criteria was not there during the periods his cells were under the threshold.) He got involved, and got semi famous. 

Here, he chronicles his highs and lows in ACT UP, TAG, AIDSmeds.com, and more recent forays into COVID. 

This includes more than a little name dropping, dissections of long ago fights, Crystal Meth addiction, surviving while others were dying and the guilt that comes with it...

Rather than rehash this, let me just try to break down the good and the bad with the narrative as presented.

THE GOOD:

30ish years since the start of where the narrative picks up, he's got a lot of perspective, so the immediacy of things that came out during the era is not as present. (This could also be listed as bad.)

His descriptions of actions taken is vivid and compelling, as we hear about the ACT UP event where they interrupted the New York Stock Exchange to protest price gouging on AZT ($10,000 a year at the outset), sit ins at companies to get better trials for people who might benefit from the trial medications, inflating a condom on Jesse Helms's house...

His memories of people in the movement, and the tribute he pays to them, even if he disagreed with them. No man is an island, and he was a visible part with a lot of support.

His honesty in discussing addiction, STDs, and survivor guilt. All of these are things that don't often get brought into the light, and it's refreshing to see someone examine it from the eyes of experience. 

 His chapter concerning consulting on Dallas Buyers Club was eye opening. 

THE BAD:

Unlike Cleve Jones's memoir, we don't get a couple chapters of romance with a hairy Greek man; we do get a chapter on Staley's coming of age with 8 men in 7 days in London. I understand why it's here; despite his other faults, he's fairly libertine with his attitudes towards sex... it just felt a bit like braggadocio. 

I couldn't help but feel that his recaps of the internecine fighting that lead to him leaving ACT UP was one sided. I realize this is autobiography, and therefore a chance to justify his actions, but I keep wondering what the logic the opposition using in those fights. I mean, frankly, I likely would have been on his side in the situation, as his Inside-Outside strategy is more in line with the activism I joined in 1994, but I can't help but feel that we're missing half the discussion. And what little is presented of the other side, I can see why people would be resentful of his actions. 

While he does sort of acknowledge his own privilege as a white man from the Upper Class, there's a hell of a lot of Classist rhetoric thrown in unconsciously.) Seriously, at one point, after going on about going on disability after leaving the banking world, and having no real employment, he talks about withdrawing a larger amount than I make in a month from his bank to cover an impromptu recon trip. When he discusses how more well off white men got better treatment faster, there's a bit of acknowledgement, but not much. 

Based on his age, he's basically at the tail end of the Boomer Generation, and it shows quite a bit. 

I was kind of sad he really didn't get into actions that actually made the news in my small hometown, like the Die-In at St. Patrick's Cathedral. 

His complete erasure of Gen X when discussing the "Second Great Silence" (the first being Reagan, the second being the dying down of publicity after the 3 drug cocktail became the norm, making most viral loads undetectable and mostly affordable) and the advent of PrEP (Truvada, or PreExposure Prophylaxis.) He spends some time praising millennial activists, while completely ignoring any and all things Generation X did and still does. To be fair, this is Boomer ideology at its ugliest, and thus, MEH.

While I appreciate his addiction and recovery didn't dominate the entire narrative, 10 years of addiction and recovery takes up 2 pages and doesn't tie in to the narrative beyond that. 

 FINAL TAKE:

Whether or not he's taking all the credit for what ACT UP accomplished and whether those accomplishments could be credited to ACT UP to begin with are always going to be up for debate. However, he does a good job on shedding some light on events that quite a few of us did not really get exposed to in the time period discussed.

Young Cordelia

 I should have written this up a few days ago, but work has been nuts.

At a long ago library sale, I picked up Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar, which is another chapter in her Vorkosigan Saga, focused on Miles's mother, Cordelia. (As I mention when I review books in the saga, I have yet to read a Miles book. However, Cordelia, Ethan, and her World of Five Gods series are some of the best books I've read. So, eventually....)

Cordelia Naismith-Vorkosigan has newly married Aral Vorkosigan, following some events that evidently happen in a prior book. As the current Emperor of Barrayar is dying, he appoints Aral to be Regent for his son, who is 5ish as the story opens. Cordelia is gravid with child, and Aral is trying hard to find a balance between the Vor class (Aristocrats, usually with the title of Count) and much more socialist plebes. 

Aral's attempts at progress (at this point, a new continent is being terraformed, and a new colony being built on Sergyar) are being resisted by hardline counts, who have some control over the military. This leads to a few assassination attempts, including a gas attack on him and Cordelia, which threatens her foetus. Cordelia, coming from Beta Colony, has no issues putting her son in a Uterine Replicator with an experimental treatment to try to prevent the side effects the poison and the antidote from killing Miles. 

Of course, one Count in particular tries to stage a coup; however, the young Emperor escapes to the Vorkosigan estate and Aral makes arrangements to get him somewhere safe. Cordelia also escapes, and winds up leading a small raid on the capital to save her baby. 

As I keep saying, McMaster Bujold is a fantastic author, and her Sci-fi, while not hard core tech, is some of the best I've ever read. Well worth the read.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Threefer

 A while back, I bought a 3 in one volume of James Herbert novels for the last novel included, one that was advertised in a pulp paperback I read as a kid. 

Any rate, let's break these down.

The lead novel, The Fog, sadly has nothing to do with John Carpenter's 80's film. Instead, we're in a small village in south central England where an Earthquake manages to unleash long buried genetically modified germs that make hosts violent. (The book was published in the early 70's, but it kind of reminds me of the more recent Mad Cow outbreak.) Our hero, Mr. Holman, is a former government man, who somehow gains immunity from the germs, but given the cloud of yellow germs has an almost sentience going on, it's a long process trying to stop it. The narrative here tends to drift a bit, as we get occasional scenes of what happens to people caught in the fog before everything resolves at the end. 

In the middle lies The Spear, wherein Mr. Steadman, a former SAS and Mossad Agent now working as a gumshoe goes up against a British-German conspiracy involving the Thule Society and the Longinius's Spear. 

And last, we wind up with Sepulchre, in which Mr. Halloran, who also worked in Army intelligence, but who now works for a company protecting people from kidnapping, ends up dealing with a client trying to bring back Bel-Marduke. 

All three are breathless and pulpy reads, albeit enjoyable breathless and pulpy reads. There are prescient bits in here; in The Fog, an infected pilot steers his jumbo jet into a major London landmark, for instance. 

We also have some problematic bits and a few mixed bags thrown in. One particularly bad part is the reveal of a hermaphrodite in The Spear, whose reveal is met with revulsion and a severe beating. Both The Fog and Sepulchre include minor gay characters, which is rare in that era of horror; however, in both, the gay guys are on the bad side. On the other hand, they fact that they're gay doesn't make them evil in these narratives, they just have other evil acts they perform that do. 

Fun reads, but definitely from a different era. 

Monday, November 15, 2021

It's a different world

 My brother, Charles Ebert, published an anthology of his short fiction titled A World Where Sandy Never Died and Other Worlds, which I finished up a few days ago (and haven't had a chance to review yet, because of my hideous work schedule this week.)

This work collects 12 stories, 11 of which were published elsewhere, and each comes with a preface talking a bit about the story. Most fall somewhere under the umbrella of "Soft Sci-Fi" or "Near Future Sci-Fi", although more than a few are under different headings.  

Honestly, I was happy a story I heard him read out loud at a convention was included here ("Hauntings"), since it's almost a play on Beetlejuice in terms of trying to get rid of a problem tenant. 

We have a much more "could be current" story in "The Ossuaries", where the connections between historical atrocities and our modern age come really into focus, as does the choice between fulfilling a dream or temporarily preventing an echo or a previous atrocity. 

I enjoyed the title story, which concerns people people slipping between universes to find albums from artists who died in our world but survived in others. While I'm not as passionate about the artists mentioned in here as the author is, I kept picturing other ways to enjoy such excursions, and wondering if one could build a much larger story on world presented here. 

For me, those 3 are the highlights of the collection. They're all good and well written, but these three are the ones that stuck with me. I believe this one is on Amazon, so if you have some extra cash, give it a whirl.