Wednesday, October 10, 2018

100 Ghost Soup by Robert Chansky vs. Merchant of Alyss by Thomas Locke :: Battle of the 2016 Books, Bracket One, First Round, Battle 8 of 8


The eighth and final first round match in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2016 Books features 100 Ghost Soup by Robert Chansky taking on Merchant of Alyss by Thomas Locke. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

100 Ghost Soup: Curiosity Quills trade paperback, 268 pages, September 2016, cover art by Eugene Teplitsky. Seventeen-year-old Bei Jimo has lived his whole life in a Beijing orphanage. He only recently discovered that he was never adopted because of a clerical error in his paperwork that falsely informed prospective parents that he was born without hands. Now, inexplicably, just a month shy of his majority, someone far to the north, nearly to Mongolia, has offered to adopt him. He takes the train to the ghost town of Dongxi, a modern city that was abandoned during construction, where he is greeted by a peculiar man calling himself Mr. Vulpin.

100 Ghost Soup is the first novel by Robert Chansky, whose work I will try to judge as impartially as I can even though he is a member of my writing group. (Protests may be filed with the Fantastic Reviews home office in Buenos Aires.)

Merchant of Alyss: Revell trade paperback, 354 pages, January 2016, cover design by Kirk DouPonce. Merchant of Alyss (pronounced ah-LISS) is the second volume in the Legends of the Realm series. The story begins with an enigmatic wizard appearing and casting spells toward a house, but he is defeated by the house's automatic magical defenses. Later we join our protagonist Hyam and his wife Joelle, whose house it apparently was, as they inspect a shipment of scrolls obtained through mysterious sources. It seems that Hyam has lost his magical powers because his "orb" was shattered at the end of the last book (Emissary). But these scrolls contain writings that only Hyam can see, which allow him to cast a powerful spell without any orb.

Thomas Locke writes epic fantasy and techno-thrillers, as well as historical and contemporary fiction (often with religious elements) under the name Davis Bunn.

The Battle: Through 25-pages, Merchant of Alyss is very standard, run-of-the-mill epic fantasy. Let me emphasize that I do not mean that to sound derogatory. I have 5,000 books in my home. Some are brilliant masterpieces, but sure as hell not all 5,000. I have shelves full of old pulp novels and space operas and swords-and-sorcery adventures, and many is the time I pick up one of those books and open it because I'm in the mood to read something that is just what I'm expecting. It seems to me that's what Locke is going for here: fairly light-hearted adventure with swordfights and wizards tossing about balls of light, and the reader knows just what to expect.

Perhaps I am misperceiving where Merchant of Alyss is headed. For example, early on we see that Hyam greatly misses the ability to do magic, before he stumbles across a library of spells that he can still use. Perhaps the intent here is to show Hyam's descent into darkness because the magic he is doing has addictive properties. But I don't think so. I think Locke just wants the reader to share Hyam's excitement at being able to do magic again. And that's cool. In fact, that kind of predictable adventure story is sometimes preferable to a book where the author is going for brilliant and failing.

Unfortunately for Locke, in 100 Ghost Soup, Robert Chansky is aiming for something strange and different and enchanting, and through 25 pages, he is not failing at anything. Bei Jimo is a sympathetic character whom life has dealt a crappy hand. But when someone finally is willing to adopt him at the eleventh hour, he breaks the rules to jump on the opportunity. When his journey into the far north takes him to a deserted city, the train conductor insists that the train will not stop there but, ominously and much to the conductor's surprise, it does.

The train station is utterly deserted, but for a cart busily boiling water for tea. But when Bei Jimo tries to brew tea, a hidden wire in the cart pricks him and a few drops of blood fall into the cup. At that point, Mr. Vulpin appears. He seems disappointed that Bei Jimo actually has hands, but still insists on drinking the tea as is and promptly signing the adoption papers, at which point everything instantly changes:
The sable man's smile acquires a similar warmth that I cannot pin down to tea, or to him, or—

Or this place. For now, the station is transformed.

Men and women stand around us. A crowd of fifty or more. Above their heads are red paper banners, streamers, all wishing luck, long life, happy birthday.

Some are as solid as the sable man and I; some I can see through, and some at the edges are little more than smoke. The children of smoke hold the hands of parents. All look at us. I leap to my feet, hoping to run from this scene. Sixty years of official disdain for superstition has failed to stamp out a healthy thousand-year-old fear of ghosts. For that is what they are.

"Welcome to the family," says Mr. Vulpin, with a grin as wide as his teeth.
For me, this is a compelling opening, and 100 Ghost Soup is impossible to put down after the first 25 pages.

THE WINNER: 100 Ghost Soup by Robert Chansky

100 Ghost Soup advances to the second round to face A Shadow All of Light by Fred Chappell.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Twin Planets by Philip E. High :: Amy's bookshelf

Title: Twin Planets
Author: Philip E. High
Publisher: Paperback Library (52-392)
Copyright: 1967
Pages: 159
Cover Price: 50¢
Genre: science fiction


Description from the first page of book:
DENNING AND LISTON, SUPER-GENETIC DOUBLES, MUST DISLODGE THEIR WORLDS FROM A TIME-TRACK TO DESTRUCTION!

   Earth and Firma were twin planets - mirror worlds on a single time-track. Now Firma was halted in its rotation around the sun by the Aliens. Unless Denning and Liston, twin humans, could destroy the Aliens and get Firma moving again, Earth would some day repeat Firma's tragedy and be burned to a cinder.
   The Aliens had an incredible array of weapons at their disposal. Denning and Liston had only their courage and their brains.

THE BATTLE WAS ON!  EITHER DENNING AND LISTON WON - OR ALL MANKIND WAS LOST!


Philip E. High (1914 – 2006) was an English science fiction author. His full name was Philip Empson High. He became an avid reader of science fiction as a teenager. His early efforts at writing fiction were rejected. High's first short story was published in a 1955 magazine. He published 14 novels between 1964 and 1979. He also wrote numerous short stories, including a number published after 1997. For many years, from 1950 until his until his retirement in 1979, High worked as a bus driver.


This is another book from my stack of vintage books. I decided to feature Twin Planets because it has, in my opinion, an interesting science fiction cover. The cover shows a domed vehicle, oddly clothed futuristic people, and a cityscape with a tower that wouldn't look out of place in an episode of The Jetsons. From the blurb and the several reviews I read, which were generally favorable, I gather this book involves speculative dangers more common in science fiction of the 1960s than today. My copy of this book is in good condition, although the spine of the book is a bit off square. The cover graphic shown was found on the Internet. As in previous 1960s books I've featured, the pages have yellowed and the print font is small. I haven't read this science fiction book, so I can't say more. Perhaps something from my bookshelf to add to my to-be-read list?

Saturday, August 11, 2018

UFO Hunters, Book Two by William J. Birnes vs. A Shadow All of Light by Fred Chappell :: Battle of the 2016 Books, Bracket One, First Round, Battle 7 of 8


Our seventh and penultimate first round match of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2016 Books pits UFO Hunters, Book Two by William J. Birnes against A Shadow All of Light by Fred Chappell. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

UFO Hunters, Book Two: Tor hardcover, 344 pages, January 2016, cover art from A&E Network. UFO Hunters was a show on the History Channel for three seasons in 2008 and 2009. (How can three seasons fit into two years? That's the magic of television, friends!) William J. Birnes was the host and consulting producer, and now he's converting the episodes into books. Book Two covers the second season of the show (but I have not yet seen a Book Three).

A Shadow All of Light: Tor hardcover, 383 pages, April 2016, cover art by Sam Weber. A Shadow All of Light is something of a fix-up novel, beginning with Fred Chappell's six published stories about his character Falco, most of which previously appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. These six stories fill a bit more than half of the novel. Falco is a young country bumpkin who has decided to make more of himself. So he presents himself to Maestro Astolfo, a famous shadow thief, and Astolfo surprisingly agrees to teach him the trade.

Fred Chappell is a former professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and poet laureate of North Carolina. His first book was a horror novel published, I shit you not, in 1968. The man is still writing strong at 82 years old, God bless him!

The Battle:  The Battle of the Books welcomes not only science fiction and fantasy, but any books that we think may be of interest to SF/F readers. We figure SF/F readers may harbor a secret interest in UFOs because, well, I confess that as a kid I was fascinated with UFOs, ghosts, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, all of that. Also, the title UFO Hunters, Book Two, reminds me of this:


I loved that show!

Birnes cleverly taps into my nostalgia for mysteries like UFOs with a hat tip to Leonard Nimoy and the show In Search Of . . . on the very first page of his book. However, there is no getting around the fact that the years have not been kind to these weird phenomena. If any of them were true, with the technology we have today, there should by now be mountains of supporting evidence. I am old enough to remember when UFO enthusiasts assured us that the reason that aren't zillions of clear movies of UFOs is that we don't walk around with film cameras in our pockets. Well, guess what? Now we do! Show me zillions of clear videos.

So I come to this book with a skeptical outlook, but trying to keep an open mind. Thing is, Birnes doesn't expect me to be skeptical with an open mind. He expects me to be a true believer before I even start reading. This is the opening paragraph of the first substantive chapter of the book, on Roswell:
Don't you love it when the debunkers start to howl about UFO cases being simply delusions of a conspiratorial mind? Ask about a specific case and they demand proof, hard evidence, photographs, UFOs at the White House, and the like. And you, being a good UFO researcher, begin to mention a specific case, regardless of what it is, and the debunker responds, as if you've tripped his gag button, "Roswell." They'll tell you with the voice of empty authority that the case had been totally debunked over sixty-five years ago and any idiot who would still be talking about it should not pass Go, but head directly to an asylum for a long needed rest, multiple shock treatments, and a lobotomy to boot. But you know better. And so do we.
No, I don't know better, and Dude, do not start a book about a supposed real-world phenomenon with an appeal to faith!

Throughout the chapter on Roswell, Birnes fiercely interrogates the government's explanations for what happened—Crash dummies? Why, those weren't yet in use in 1947!—which is totally fine, except that he completely sets aside his skepticism when he looks at the UFO enthusiasts' evidence. For example, he repeatedly touts an affidavit of Walter Haut, the man who wrote the press release referring to a "flying disc" that first created the Roswell controversy. Released after his death, the affidavit Birnes emphasizes says Haut personally viewed bodies and spaceship debris from the crash site. Birnes never mentions, but it took me all of thirty seconds on Google to find, that Haut previously signed an affidavit and conducted an interview saying he saw nothing of the sort, that he just put together the press release at the time based on what others told him. Birnes ignores the change in stories and never asks uncomfortable questions such as: Could it be that the new affidavit helped generate business for the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, which Haut co-founded and which supported his daughter after his death?

Twenty-five pages in, Birnes has already blown his credibility with me, and I've lost interest in his book.

Meanwhile, A Shadow All of Light is off to a solid start. The story moves along crisply, and our earnest protagonist Falco plays off well against his flamboyant and conceited master Astolfo. In addition to his talent with shadows, Astolfo is a master of deduction, giving many of the conversations an entertaining Holmes-Watson flavor.

My only complaint is that the magical acquisition and use of shadows is the only fantastic element of the story, and through 25 pages, we really don't have much idea how that works. Apparently wearing someone else's shadow gives one certain abilities, such as to move more stealthily or to conceal the intentions of one's words. But we haven't seen any of that happen yet. The first chapter deals with a shadow stolen from a notorious pirate, and everyone is terrified the pirate will come looking for it. But shouldn't he be less formidable without his shadow? I suspect this issue arises because the story "Thief of Shadows" shows Falco and Astolfo meeting, so it had to come first in the novel, but it was actually the fifth Falco story published and Chappell may have assumed most of his readers had already seen this type of magic used. We'll wait to see more in the next chapter.

THE WINNER: A Shadow All of Light by Fred Chappell

A Shadow All of Light advances to the second round, to take on either 100 Ghost Soup by Robert Chansky or Merchant of Alyss by Thomas Locke.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Roses and Rot by Kat Howard vs. Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt :: Battle of the 2016 Books, Bracket One, First Round, Battle 6 of 8


Our sixth first-round match-up of the Battle of the 2016 Books features Roses and Rot by Kat Howard going against Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Roses and Rot: Saga hardcover, 307 pages, May 2016, cover photo by Louise Heusinkveld. Roses and Rot was the debut novel by Kat Howard and was a Locus Award nominee for best first novel. Howard also has a World Fantasy Award nomination to her credit. Howard's second novel was An Unkindness of Magicians (2017), and she has a forthcoming collection of short fiction called A Cathedral of Myth and Bone.

Roses and Rot is set in a remote town in New Hampshire, home to an elite artists' retreat called Melete. Our main characters, twentysomething sisters Imogen and Marin, have both been accepted to spend a year there devoted to their art—Imogen is a writer, Marin a dancer. The girls grew up with an abusive mother, of whom Imogen seems especially resentful. Through 25 pages (actually, I read 33 pages—protests may be filed with the Fantastic Reviews home office in Sao Paulo, Brazil) we've met a couple of the other artists, one friendly and one very aloof, as well as Imogen's worldly adviser.

Hex: Tor hardcover, 380 pages, April 2016, cover photo from Getty Images, translated by Nancy Forest-Flier. Hex was also a Locus Award nominee, in the horror novel category. Thomas Olde Heuvelt is a Dutch author of five novels, but I believe Hex is the only one so far to be released in English. However, Heuvelt won a Hugo Award (for "The Day the World Turned Upside Down," which weathered the Sad Puppies debacle) and has been nominated for two others as well as for a World Fantasy Award for his short fiction published in English.

Hex is also set in a small New England town. This town, called Black Spring, has a very creepy resident. In the first chapter she visits the home of the Grant family, the narrative describing her as "a small shrunken woman, skinny as a rail and utterly motionless. She looked like something that didn't belong in the clear golden light of the afternoon: dark, dirty, nocturnal. Jocelyn had hung an old dishcloth over her head so you couldn't see her face." Later we learn that the woman's eyes and mouth are sewn shut. We also learn that this town has an organization called "HEX," devoted to keeping outsiders from attempting to move to Black Spring, using whatever form of manipulation or intimidation proves necessary. In an way, it's a kindness. It seems that once you move to Black Spring (as the Grants did), you quickly become unwillingly attached to the place, to the point of experiencing powerful thoughts of suicide if you try to stay away.

The Battle: As the luck of the draw would have it, this battle pits two dark fantasy novels each set in a sleepy New England village. Through 33 pages, both authors have started their books capably, introducing us to the setting and to some interesting characters. But we must pick one to advance, so how to distinguish between them?

In terms of the prose, I would give a slight edge to Roses and Rot. Kat Howard's descriptions of people and places are consistently concise but elegant, such as a rose garden depicted as "a ballet of thorns and velvet petals and cold, perfumed darkness."

Unfortunately, Howard has been slow to tell us what her story is actually going to be about. There are slight hints of supernatural elements—in the rose garden, for instance, Imogen spots a woman whose eyes appear all black, until the light shifts—but we have no idea yet how those will play into the story. So far, we just know that the story will involve two artistic sisters who resent their difficult mother.

In contrast, Hex grabbed my attention right from the opening, with its enigmatic ghost (I presume), who is mysterious, yet at the same time so familiar to the residents of Black Spring that they can have a family dinner with her in plain view. I'm also interested in the folks behind the "HEX" operation, which is distastefully coercive but actually seems to have people's best interests in mind.

While Roses and Rot has held back too much information through the opening for me to feel involved in the story, I am very interested in where the set-up of Hex is going to take us.

THE WINNER: Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Hex advances to the second round to face Black Creek by Gregory Lamberson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Black Creek by Gregory Lamberson vs. Ageless by Paul Inman :: Battle of the 2016 Books, Bracket One, First Round, Battle 5 of 8


We continue the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2016 Books. The bottom half of the draw begins with Black Creek by Gregory Lamberson doing battle with Ageless by Paul Inman. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Black Creek: Medallion trade paperback, 351 pages, March 2016, cover design by Arturo Delgado. Gregory Lamberson is a three-time Stoker Award nominee, who competed in the Battle of the 2015 Books, where he had the misfortune to go up against Ferrett Steinmetz in the first round.

Black Creek is set in western New York's Black Creek Village, formerly known as Love Canal, the site of an infamous case of toxic contamination in the 1970's. The place is finally being resettled after nearly 40 years. The cover of the book suggests that residents of Love Canal who refused to leave in the 70's have changed in the intervening years, but we have yet to see them 34 pages in. (I read past 25 pages again. Protests may be filed with the Fantastic Reviews home office in Overland Park, Kansas.) What we have seen is a remarkably large hornet, which our main characters—residents of Cayuga Island, just next to Black Creek Village—speculate may be a mutant. At the end of Chapter Two, one of those characters, Paul, spots a seven-foot hornets' nest clinging to the side of his house. He tells his son not to mention this to his mother, and says, "I need to buy some wasp spray. A lot of it." What could possibly go wrong?

Ageless: Inkshares trade paperback, 266 pages, May 2016, cover design by Marc Cohen. Ageless, Paul Inman's first novel, was a winner in Inkshares' Sword & Laser contest, although the book does not appear under the Sword & Laser imprint.

Ageless begins in Italy in 1943, where a young girl named Alessandra watches the Axis scientists who have been abusing her pack up to flee the advancing Allied forces. We jump ahead to 2022, where Mark Richards, an intelligence operative, pursues an assassin through the streets of Washington, DC. Then to 2005 Florida, where an irresponsible gamer named Grey Chapman meets a fascinating young woman called Alessandra. He spots a scrape on her arm, which soon after has healed completely, which is our only hint so far that this is the same Alessandra we already met, who apparently does not age. Alessandra confides in Grey that she just escaped a man who is trying to kill her.

The Battle: Through 25 (actually 34) pages, both Black Creek and Ageless are reluctant to reveal what the story is actually about. Black Creek has a long infodump about the Love Canal toxic waste incident, courtesy of Helen (Paul the hornet master's wife) lecturing her impressively attentive high school students, but no sign so far of the savage and/or mutant Love Canal survivors. Ageless has given us a couple hints that Alessandra has survived some 70 years yet still appears to be a young woman. But she has not confessed as much, and we have no idea what she has been doing or who might be after her.

Holding back the essence of the story is usually a good way to drop out of the Battle of the Books quickly. Since here both authors are doing it, I have to ask, which novel has nevertheless given me enough to catch my interest and keep me turning pages?

Starting with Black Creek, the story begins with some fairly inane dialogue, but I gather that's Lamberson creating a normal-seeming middle American setting, before everything goes to hell. The first hint of hell approaching is the huge hornets' nest. Paul's decision to take that out himself is beyond foolish, reminiscent of the stupid teenagers who split up to explore the haunted house in a bad horror movie. Luckily for Lamberson, I love bad horror movies!

Meanwhile, Ageless has not given me much to keep me going. The two characters we've spent the most time with so far are Mark, a very bland government operative, and Grey, a highly annoying twentysomething who sponges off his parents to get by then fails to show up to work when he finally gets a job. I'm hoping Alessandra herself will be a more engaging character, but so far I don't know that. Add to this slow opening a major stumble out of the starting blocks: there is a ten-page scene in which Mark chases an assassin, which (based on what we know so far) has nothing to do with the plot of this book. As far as we know, it does not matter at all if the guy gets away; this is just here to show us how Mark spends his days. But then only a few pages later, we see Alessandra, who is upset because a killer has been chasing her. But that chase scene happened entirely offstage.

The rules of the Battle of the Books are inflexible. Perhaps Ageless gets stronger as the novel continues. But unfortunately, opening your novel with a long chase scene I have no reason to care about, while telling me about—but not showing—a chase scene that I would care about, that is a quick path to the BotB exit.

THE WINNER: Black Creek by Gregory Lamberson

Black Creek advances to the second round, to take on either Roses and Rot by Kat Howard or Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, June 01, 2018

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel vs. Borderline by Mishell Baker :: Battle of the 2016 Books, Bracket One, First Round, Battle 4 of 8


Our fourth match-up of the Battle of the 2016 Books has The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel going against Borderline by Mishell Baker. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The High Mountains of Portugal: Spiegel & Grau hardcover, 332 pages, November 2016, cover design by CS Richardson & Barb Dunn. The High Mountains of Portugal is the most recent effort from Yann Martel, author of the hugely successful Life of Pi. The book jacket leads us to believe that, like Life of Pi, The High Mountains of Portugal includes fantastic story elements, describing the book as "part quest, part ghost story, part contemporary fable." But through 30 pages (I read a little extra this week — protests may be filed with the Fantastic Reviews home office in Nome, Alaska), those elements have yet to make an appearance.

Rather, the story so far is about Tomás, a Portuguese museum curator searching in 1904 for an artifact, which he believes is a magnificent crucifix, described in a strange 17th Century journal Tomás has discovered. Tracing the object to a monastery in the mountains of Portugal, Tomás borrows an automobile from his wealthy uncle to continue the search. We are not sure yet why Tomás is so obsessed with this lost object, but we sense it relates somehow to the terrible personal losses he has suffered. A few years earlier, Tomás lost his lover, his son, and his father to a disease within a single week. The jacket tells us that Tomás is the first of three characters whose stories make up The High Mountains of Portugal.

Borderline: Saga hardcover, 390 pages, March 2016, cover photo by Jill Wachter. Borderline was Mishell Baker's first novel and is the first volume of her Arcadia Project series, which has continued with Phantom Pains and Impostor Syndrome. Borderline was nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and James Tipree, Jr. Memorial Awards for best novel of 2016.

We first meet Millicent (Millie) Roper, the first-person protagonist of Borderline, languishing in a psychiatric center. Millie has two prosthetic legs, earned in a failed suicide attempt while she was studying filmmaking at UCLA. A peculiar woman named Caryl Vallo visits Millie and offers her a job with the Arcadia Project. She won't say exactly what that entails, but it seems the Arcadia Project needs creative people who have borderline personality disorders but have chosen to manage that condition without psychoactive drugs. The dust jacket suggests the job will bring Millie into contact with bizarre creatures from a parallel reality. Millie follows Caryl to an oddly decorated mansion that instantly feels like home.

The Battle: Through 30 pages, both The High Mountains of Portugal and Borderline have given few hints as to what the main storyline will involve. Rather, both authors have successfully pulled me into their narratives by focusing on their damaged but sympathetic protagonists.

In The High Mountains of Portugal, Yann Martel brilliantly shows us Tomás's internal distress, simply by depicting Tomás walking through the streets of Lisbon:
People stare at him as he walks. Some make a comment, a few in jest but most with helpful intent. "Be careful, you might trip!" calls a concerned woman. He is used to this public attention; beyond a smiling nod to those who mean well, he ignores it.

One step at a time he makes his way to Lapa, his stride free and easy, each foot lifted high, then dropped with aplomb. It is a graceful gait.

He steps on an orange peel but does not slip.

He does not notice a sleeping dog, but his heel lands just short of its tail.

He misses a step as he is going down some curving stairs, but he is holding on to the railing and he regains his footing easily.

And other such minor mishaps.
After a few pages, the reader realizes why Tomás is having these mishaps: he is walking through Lisbon backwards. Tomás literally cannot face a world that deprived him of the three people he loved most all at once.

In Borderline, Millie Roper is a character who similarly finds it difficult to confront the world, with the added element that she blames herself for everything she has been through. Here, for instance, Millie tells her kindly psychiatrist (described as resembling Snow White) that she has decided to leave the psychiatric center (after meeting Caryl Vallo). The doctor asks if she is going back to school:
I set my teeth against a familiar sharp throb of pain, like an old war wound. "Of course not."

"Why 'of course' not?"

"You're not a film person, so you don't get it. Getting into UCLA was a huge deal."

"But you did get in?"

I felt my blood pressure rising. I hated optimism; it served only to remind me how inconceivable the depth of my failure was to normal people.

"Yes, I got in, and then I blew it. Even if they would take me back — which they would not — he's still there.

"Who is?" She frowned. "Are we talking about the nameless professor?"

"He has a name. Just because I won't tell it to you, that doesn't mean I'm making him up."

"Millie, if he's real, and he assaulted you, someone needs to—"

"Stop." I held up a warning hand; I could feel something ugly threatening to open up just under my solar plexus, like a door to a spider-infested crypt. "I am not talking about this."

"If not with me, you need to tell someone. Let the authorities decide the appropri—"

"I said stop it!" I grabbed the box of tissues from the table between us and flung it at the wall. Not helping my case for being functional. My heart was racing; my jaw was locked; my breath was coming fast and loud through my nose. The woman across from me was no longer Snow White but an old hag hawking apples.
This is a young woman who has painted herself into a corner with toxic black paint. After only 30 pages, the reader is desperate to see her offered a glimmer of hope, and the Arcadia Project may be just that.

And for me, that's what this battle comes down to. I find the simple depiction of Tomás's pain moving and the prose of The High Mountains of Portugal quite elegant. But I have not yet been given any reason to care about his quest for a lost crucifix. Meanwhile, I know that the Arcadia Project relates somehow to Millie's personality disorder. It offers a hope that Millie may yet come to better understand her own psyche and to make positive use of her talents as a filmmaker and a person. And that makes me want to keep reading.

THE WINNER: Borderline by Mishell Baker

Borderline advances to the second round to face Company Town by Madeline Ashby.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Company Town by Madeline Ashby vs. Xenowealth by Tobias S. Buckell :: Battle of the 2016 Books, Bracket One, First Round, Battle 3 of 8


For the third battle of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2016 Books we have Company Town by Madeline Ashby doing battle with Xenowealth: A Collection by Tobias S. Buckell. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Company Town: Tor hardcover, 285 pages, May 2016, cover art by Erik Mohr. The eponymous Company Town is a huge floating city called New Arcadia, which the dust jacket tells us is actually a ginormous oil rig. Our heroine Hwa is a young woman with no bio-enhancements, who nevertheless earns a living as hired muscle, serving as a bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada and teaching a self-defense class. While keeping an eye on some of her charges at a protest against Lynch, the megacorporation that has just purchased New Arcadia, she dukes it out with a man apparently brandishing a rifle. In fact, it was a long-range microphone. The fellow carrying it works for Lynch, and is so impressed with Hwa's fighting skills, he offers her a job also working for Lynch, which she is reluctant to accept.

Madeline Ashby is a Toronto writer whose previous books were the well-received Machine Dynasties series, vN and iD.

Xenowealth: A Collection: Self-published trade paperback, 192 pages, January 2016, cover art by Jenn Reese. Xenowealth is a collection of short stories set in Buckell's successful Benevolent Satrapy future history, often referred to as the "Xenowealth series," which includes the novels Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose, and The Apocalypse Ocean. The opening 25 pages covers "The Fish Merchant," Buckell's first published story, in which a fish seller in Macau decides to risk helping the enigmatic Caribbean man called Pepper, and the first half of "Manumission," in which a memory-deprived Pepper tracks down a dangerous woman seeking to get off planet. Buckell's strange aliens have yet to make an appearance onstage.

Tobias S. Buckell, originally from Granada, now lives in Ohio. Xenowealth is a crowd-funded (through Kickstarter) self-published book, as Buckell experiments with how best to earn a good living writing in today's shifting publishing market.

The Battle: This battle is between two near-future science fiction adventures, both with a post-cyberpunk feel.

When judging two so similar books, the first question is whether either author has committed any failure in their execution of the central concept that would knock them out of contention. But Madeline Ashby and Tobias S. Buckell are not about to make matters so easy for me.

Through 25 pages, both Company Town and Xenowealth are very well written, with intricate worldbuilding, strong characterization, and both engaging action sequences and effective quiet moments. This is the type of excellent writing we expect to see in the Final Four of the Battle of the Books. It is the authors' misfortune that they face each other so early in the bracket, and my misfortune that I must already choose between two books I am so far thoroughly enjoying.

Xenowealth starts with the potential disadvantage of being a collection of short stories. Collections can face an uphill fight in the Battle of the Books because even if the first couple stories are very strong, they may not necessarily leave the reader anxious to read other unrelated stories. But Xenowealth is a collection of linked stories set in the same future and featuring the same key character. After 25 pages, I am already absorbed in Buckell's cutthroat future and his sullen protagonist Pepper.

But I am also already absorbed in Ashby's Company Town, and just a little bit more so. A few small points combine to make the difference. First, I am very interested in Ashby's oil-rig city, which feels very lived-in and believable. Second, while both books' main characters are strong and tough, Buckell's Pepper so far seems invincible, while Ashby's Hwa has a hint of vulnerability that makes her to me a more compelling and sympathetic character. Third, there's a dash of humor in Company Town, as when Hwa teases a tough guy she has encountered before, expressing how glad she is that they did a good job reattaching his retina. She is a spunky protagonist in a distinctive future setting, and I want to read more about her.

THE WINNER: Company Town by Madeline Ashby

Company Town advances to the second round, to take on either The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel or Borderline by Mishell Baker.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

The Life Engineered by J-F. Dubeau vs. Asteroid Made of Dragons by G. Derek Adams :: Battle of the 2016 Books, Bracket One, First Round, Battle 2 of 8


By random chance the second match-up in the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2016 Books features two books from Inkshares' new Sword & Laser imprint, The Life Engineered by J-F. Dubeau and Asteroid Made of Dragons by G. Derek Adams. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Life Engineered: Sword & Laser, 240 pages, March 2016, cover art by Eric Belisle. The Life Engineered is far-future science fiction, but if the opening section is any guide, it features flashbacks to more familiar settings.

The novel opens in the year 3594, where our descendants share multiple worlds with robots called Capeks, with a (probably unnecessary) explicit tip of the hat to Czech author Karel Capek, who coined the term "robot." An onslaught of gamma radiation is driving humans into hibernation, to be awakened by the Capeks when the problem is past. But fearing that a subset of the Capeks has created the problem, the humans conceal their whereabouts from most of the Capeks. Flash forward to 5638, when a new Capek is being created, one supposes into a universe where humans are only remembered as legend.

In between these two far-future scenes, however, we meet Mel Paulson, a police officer and modern-day single mother. Mel worries about the effect on her young son of her brutal early morning hours, but then matters quickly get worse as she finds herself in a hostage situation, a crisis that ends with Mel being shot in the head. It turns out that Mel's life was one of hundreds of simulated lives our protagonist Capek, Dagir, has lived through to allow his individual personality to coalesce.

Asteroid Made of Dragons: Sword & Laser, 275 pages, April 2016, cover design by David Drummond. Asteroid Made of Dragons is humorous fantasy, modeled I suspect after Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.

The novel's prologue shows us a theater troupe preparing for a new play, but we have no idea yet how that relates to the main storylines. Then in Chapter One, a goblin researcher named Xenon uncovers an ominous message warning of the coming of Zero. Finally Chapter Two introduces us to (I suspect) our main characters, Jonas & Rime. Rime is a lady mage, Jonas her assistant and bodyguard. We meet them as Rime attempts to escape from stealing her own money back from her bank, pursued by its determined golem guard. This scenario ends with Jonas carrying her back to their rented room. When she wakes, Rime declares her intention to travel to Gilead. Jonas insists on accompanying her, even though we know he was exiled from Gilead for killing his last master.

The Battle: This is a close one.

There were two things I especially liked about the opening pages of The Life Engineered. First, Dubeau built some real tension with Mel's hostage crisis. But it seems that was a one-off bit; I don't expect Mel to return to the story, except insofar as she is incorporated into Dagir's personality. Second, I like the concept of having Dagir live through a series of simulated lives in order to develop a unique personality. In our last battle, I said the key to winning in the first round is to pull me into the story, and after 25 pages, I'm more interested in Dagir's storyline than in the plot of Asteroid Made of Dragons.

Having said that, Dagir's primary storyline is set in the distant future, yet so far the scenes of the future in The Life Engineered have rather a dated feel, as if Dubeau is emulating early Asimov or perhaps even Eando Binder. As far as we know from the narration, the scenes are set in empty white rooms, with none of the strangeness or lushness modern readers expect in far-future settings.

I can still enjoy early Asimov (Binder not so much), but I think G. Derek Adams has the better notion here, going for the style of Terry Pratchett. Of course, Adams is not there yet; one wouldn't compare Asteroid Made of Dragons favorably with an actual Discworld novel, but there are enough funny moments and good lines to say that he is on the right track. For instance, Jonas's surprise at the ease of his getaway while hauling Rime's unconscious form feels very much like a bit Pratchett might have done:
This is one of those times that Master would talk about. Where you were supposed to run into trouble, but Trouble spilled morning coffee on his tunic and got a late start. Jonas could see his master's lean face spreading into a low chuckle. But don't worry, young man. Trouble always keeps his appointments, late or no. Enjoy the days you missed him because he'll be double furious next time around.
Adams pulls even in this Battle of the Books with his amusing writing style, and then the clincher comes in the last few pages of Chapter Two. Rime stutters through asking Jonas if he will come along to Gilead, obviously hoping he will, even as she is uncomfortable at realizing how attached to him she has become. And Jonas declares that he will come, even though he knows that because of his history, she would likely be better off without him. It is the kind of simple but charming scene that makes one want to keep reading.

THE WINNER: Asteroid Made of Dragons by G. Derek Adams

Asteroid Made of Dragons advances to the second round to face Phantom Effect by Michael Aronovitz.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Welcome to Deadland by Zachary Tyler Linville vs. Phantom Effect by Michael Aronovitz :: Battle of the 2016 Books, Bracket One, First Round, Battle 1 of 8


Our first match in the first round of Bracket One of the Battle of the 2016 Books features Welcome to Deadland by Zachary Tyler Linville versus Phantom Effect by Michael Aronovitz. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Welcome to Deadland: Nerdist (Inkshares), August 2016, 398 pages, cover design by David Drummond. Welcome to Deadland is a zombie novel set in the South, the author's home. (New writer Zachary Tyler Linville went to school in Florida and now lives in Atlanta.) After a very brief prologue showing us that someone deliberately spread the plague that turns nice people into disagreeable zombies--no clues offered as to why--the opening 25 pages consist of chapters before and after the apocalypse, from the points of view of young men Asher and Rico. After, Asher wields a baseball bat to defend a girl named Wendy from a zombie. Before, Asher was working at a college café where he met a pretty redhead named Stacey. Stacey invited him to a party, where she had too much to drink. Before, Rico got arrested during a drug-aided hookup in a parked car, to be bailed out by his divorced father, whom Rico deeply resents. After, Rico and a boy named Jayden find shelter in a boat floating just off the coast.

Phantom Effect: Night Shade, February 2016, 285 pages, cover design by Diana Kolsky. Michael Aronovitz has penned two previous novels and two short fiction collections from small publishers. Phantom Effect is a ghost story in which a serial killer is haunted by one of his victims. In the opening 25 pages, our antihero Jonathan Deseranto has just killed and dismembered a young woman, Marissa Madison, but his car has a blowout before he can dispose of the body. When a policeman stops to investigate, Deseranto kills him too, then promptly crashes his car fleeing the scene. As he gets out, the trunk pops open and, impossibly, one of the victims emerges. Deseranto sprints to an abandoned, soon-to-be-demolished Motel 6.

The Battle: We begin the Battle of the 2016 Books with a contest that illustrates what the first round of BotB is all about. To make it through the first round, you need to grab my attention right out of the blocks. Seize my interest with sparkling writing or strong characterization or an intriguing storyline.

Welcome to Deadland may ultimately turn into a satisfying adventure, but the opening 25 pages didn't much grab me. Linville attempts to do that in two ways. First, he shows us the perils of life after the apocalypse, as Asher and Wendy are attacked by a zombie in the opening chapter. It's a decent scene, but doesn't carry much impact, since zombie attacks have become so commonplace in books and media the past several years. I believe that by now it now takes some humor or irony to deliver a line like, "Thank you for bashing his skull in."

Second, Linville tries to draw in his readers by contrasting his dangerous future with the everyday lives our main characters used to live before the apocalypse. But to my tastes, those lives were a little too everyday and a little too similar to each other: Asher and Rico are two young men hanging around parties hoping to get laid. Flipping through the book, I see that Wendy becomes a viewpoint character around page 80. It might have been a good idea to give us her point of view sooner.

Meanwhile, Phantom Effect started to pull me in from the opening line: "I ain't scared, asshole."

The line is spoken by 6' 5" Jonathan Martin Delaware Deseronto, a man who finds satisfaction in killing young women who remind him of his mother. I like Deseronto's tough-guy voice, because it starts to break down almost immediately.

As the book opens, Deseronto ain't scared that a flat tire has interrupted his rainy midnight drive to dispose of the dismembered remains of his latest victim, Marissa Madison. But he starts to feel scared when a police cruiser stops to help. Then he's a little more scared as he crashes his car, now with two victims in the trunk, into a pit at a construction site. Then he's seriously unnerved when he starts hearing noises from the trunk. Could the policeman have survived? And as he scrambles away from the totaled car toward a deserted Motel 6, slipping in the mud, although he doesn't say so, this is the point when the reader knows damn well Deseronto is terrified:
There was a noise, and Deseronto looked back over his shoulder.
Marissa Madison was crawling out of the trunk.
She had already evicted the dead cop, a rumple and twist in the mud, and she was pulling up now, fingers curled around the edge of the lid, the other on the bottom lip, head bent with exertion, long hair hanging in front of her face like a sodden veil. There were hash marks where the body parts had been put back together, and some of them were affixed backward, insectile, sewn with what looked like the fishing line he'd kept in there on a wooden spool, the rough stitching cut off in stingers and barbs. The shoulders flexed and the joints angled in, the spider poised to emerge from the sack.
Deseronto pushed to his feet and turned toward the motel. 
This, dear reader, is a hook.

THE WINNER: Phantom Effect by Michael Aronovitz

Phantom Effect advances to the second round to face either The Life Engineered by J-F. Dubeau or Asteroid Made of Dragons by G. Derek Adams.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Announcing Battle of the 2016 Books, Bracket One

Announcing Bracket One of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2016 Books!

We started the Battle of the Books at the Fantastic Reviews Blog in 2012 as a fun way to try to keep up with the review copies we were receiving.

The good news is we've done eleven brackets of books so far, discussing 176 books! Along the way, we've read some awesome books, discovered some new authors, and gotten some great feedback. The bad news is we still have a mountain of unreviewed books. Although Battle of the Books has allowed us to sample and feature many more books than we could have done otherwise.

Aaron Hughes, our primary reviewer, will be judging this bracket of Battle of the Books.

Of the sixteen books, Aaron selected four "seeded" books that he was especially looking forward to reading (marked with asterisks), placed one in each quarter of the bracket, then we filled out the rest of the bracket randomly. Here are your initial matchups:

First Quarter of Bracket:


Zachary Tyler Linville
Welcome to Deadland
(Inkshares)
vs.
Michael Aronovitz
Phantom Effect***
(Night Shade)



J-F. Dubeau
The Life Engineered
(Sword & Laser)
vs.
G. Derek Adams
Asteroid Made of Dragons
(Sword & Laser)


Second Quarter of Bracket



Madeline Ashby
Company Town
(Tor)
vs.
Tobias S. Buckell
Xenowealth: A Collection
(self-published)



Yann Martel
The High Mountains of Portugal***
(Spiegel & Grau)
vs.
Mishell Baker
Borderline
(Saga)



Third Quarter of Bracket:



Gregory Lamberson
Black Creek
(Medallion)
vs.
Paul Inman
Ageless
(Inkshares)



Kat Howard
Roses and Rot
(Saga)
vs.
Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Hex***
(Tor)


Fourth Quarter of Bracket:

William J. Birnes
UFO Hunters, Book Two
(Tor)
vs.
Fred Chappell
A Shadow All of Light
(Tor)


Robert Chansky
100 Ghost Soup***
(Curiosity Quills)
vs.
Thomas Locke
Merchant of Alyss
(Revell)

To see the whole bracket diagram, click here.

How we do Battle of the Books:

In Battle of the Books, we start with sixteen books as contenders. The books are randomly matched-up in a single elimination tournament bracket. For every battle, a sample of the two competing books will be read by our judge / reviewer, and the book he or she most wants to continue reading (not necessarily the better book!) is chosen as the winner of the match.

We are subjectively judging books after reading *only* a portion of each book.

For first round matches, our reviewer will read the opening 25 pages of both books. Winners advance to the next round. In second round matches, our reviewer will read both books through page 50. Winners advance to the next round. For semifinal round matches, both books are read through page 100. Winners of the semifinals advance to the finals or championship round, in which our reviewer will read both books through page 200, and the book he or she most wants to read to the end will be proclaimed our Battle of the Books bracket champion.

For the complete rules, and how you can get a book in a future bracket of Battle of the Books, click here.

Notes on the books in the field for this competition:

-- All of these books were first published in 2016.

-- Classifying books before you read them is tricky, but this bracket appears to contain 4 science fiction books, 1 science fiction collection, 4 fantasy books, 2 dark fantasy books, 1 urban fantasy book, 2 horror books, 1 mainstream fiction book, and 1 paranormal book.

-- I believe 13 books are by men and 3 by women.

-- It looks 1 book is the first in a series, and 1 book is the second book in a series, and 1 book is a media tie-in.

-- As far as publishers: 4 books came from Tor; 2 books each from Saga, Sword & Laser, and Inkshares; 1 book each from Night Shade, Spiegel & Grau, Medallion, Curiosity Quills, and Revell; and 1 book was self published.


Good luck to all our contenders! Let the new bracket of book battles begin!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Rendezvous on a Lost World by A. Bertram Chandler :: Amy's bookshelf

Title: Rendezvous on a Lost World
Author: A. Bertram Chandler
Tagline: Prisoners of a Cybernetic Paradise
Publisher: Ace (Ace Double F-117)
Copyright: 1961
Pages: 124
Cover Price: 40¢
Cover Artist: Ed Emshwiller
Series: Rim World series book four
Genre: science fiction

Note: republished as When the Dream Dies (1981)

Description from the first page of book:
THE ROBOT ROAD TO FARAWAY

   His was a dream few spaceman ever saw come true. Alan Kemp was an obsessed man - driven by the realization of a dream into the black emptiness between the stars.
   In a rebuilt, second-hand, obsolete space ship, Kemp and his three comrades took off - determined to set up a shuttle service between the planets at the rim of the galaxy.
   But trouble - in the form of two lost colonies, one inhabited by giant mechanical insects and the other by the descendants of a murderous pirate - threatened. Kemp's crew began to wonder: just how much will one man sacrifice to realize a dream?


A. Bertram Chandler (1912 – 1984) was an British/Australian science fiction author. He was born in England. Chandler was a merchant marine officer. In 1956, he emigrated to Australia and became an Australian citizen. He is most well known for his around 20 John Grimes science fiction adventure novels and his Rim World series. He published over 40 science fiction novels and over 200 works of short fiction.


This is another book from my stack of vintage Ace Double books. I decided to feature Rendezvous on a Lost World because it has, in my opinion, a striking science fiction cover, a spaceman confronting a smaller, spider-like robot. Is this one of the "giant mechanical insects" mentioned in the blurb? My copy of this book is in very good condition. As the last book, the pages have yellowed and the print font is small. The cover graphic was copied from A. Bertram Chandler's website, which contains good information about the author. I haven't read this science fiction book, so I can't say more. Perhaps something from my bookshelf to add to my to-be-read list?

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Secret Agent of Terra by John Brunner :: Amy's bookshelf

Title: Secret Agent of Terra 
Subtitle: Vultures from the A-Power Orbit
Author: John Brunner
Publisher: Ace (Ace Double F-133)
Copyright: 1962
Pages: 127
Cover Price: 40¢
Series: Zarathustra Refugee Planets book one
Genre: science fiction

Note: story reworked / revised as The Avengers of Carrig (1969)

Description from the first page of book:
MONARCH OF MONSTERS -- OR MONSTER OF MONARCHY?

   Planet Fourteen --  just a speck on a spacial stereo map, just a world inhabited by a group of barbaric refugees.
   But to Belfeor, it was instant cash. All he needed was an iron hand and a means to dig out its radioactive resources for export to his own world.
   To Maddalena it was a final exam; this would be her last chance to prove herself worthy of Corps Galactica membership.
   To Saikmar, it was a nation and a people stolen from him by cruel treachery.
   To Gus Langenschmidt, it was part of a job he had, watching the skies and helping men who were being enslaved. But how do you help people who don't know you exist and who must not be told?


John Brunner (1934 – 1995) was a British science fiction author. His book Stand on Zanzibar (1968) won the 1969 Hugo Award for best novel. Other notable books include The Shockwave Rider (1975), The Sheep Look Up (1972) and The Jagged Orbit (1969).


I randomly pulled Secret Agent of Terra from a stack of vintage Ace Double books. The shown book cover graphic is from Wikipedia, unfortunately my copy is a bit more worn. The pages have yellowed in the over 55 years since it was published. It's not many pages long but the print font is small. I haven't read this science fiction book, so I can't say more. Although digging out "radioactive resources", as mentioned in the description, sounds dangerous. I'm featuring this book because I thought the cover was interestingly retro looking. Perhaps something from my bookshelf to add to my to-be-read list?