Saturday, September 26, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, Second Semifinal :: Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines vs. A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer

Our second semifinal match in Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books features Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines going up against A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer. The winner, the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 100 pages, will advance to the championship round.

Libriomancer: DAW, August 2012, 305 pages, cover art by Gene Mollica. Libriomancer is the first volume in Jim C. Hines' latest series, Magic Ex Libris. Libriomancer made it to the semifinals by easily beating out Dead Religion by David Beers in the first round, and by defeating Untimed by Andy Gavin in the second round.

The opening pages of Libriomancer introduced us to Isaac Vainio, who has the magical ability to reach into a book he's read and pull out objects described in the narrative. Isaac has had difficulty controlling his power in the past, and so has been relegated to a desk job by the "Porters," who hold authority over magical beings. But some sort of war has broken out among the Porters, vampires, and possibly the first libriomancer, Johannes Gutenberg. In the second 50-page section, Isaac learns of a predicament faced by his sexy dryad companion Lena, and explores the scene of his mentor's murder and the destruction of one of the Porters' archives of magical documents.

A Pretty Mouth: Lazy Fascist Press, October 2012, 227 pages, cover art by Matthew Revert. A Pretty Mouth is a novella collected with four related stories, all of which place Lovecraftian creatures in a slightly odd context. A Pretty Mouth made it to the semifinals by overpowering Destiny's Flower by Linda Harley in the first round with its opening story "A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs," and by getting past Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan in the second round with its story "The Hour of the Tortoise."

The second 50-page section of A Pretty Mouth consists of the story "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins" (which previously appeared in Historical Lovecraft and The Book of Cthulhu) and the opening two chapters of the title novella. These tales take us further back into the history of the Calipash family, a cursed house of English aristocrats. The Ivybridge twins were two particularly wicked but amusing family members who lived in the 18th Century, while "A Pretty Mouth" dates back to the 17th Century, where a misguided young college student is fascinated by his dashing classmate Lord Calipash.

The Battle: As often happens by the time we get to the semifinals, I am enjoying the hell out of both these books and don't really want to put either one down.

In Libriomancer, Jim Hines is having a blast pulling props out of all his favorite science fiction and fantasy books. In the last scene of the opening 100 pages, Isaac uses potions from Alice in Wonderland to shrink himself and Lena down, rides his pet fire-spider into the wreckage of a destroyed building, where he gets in a fight with a powerful vampire, whom he defeats by pulling out a goddamn light saber. How could any genre reader not get a kick out of this?

One scene in Libriomancer that gave me pause was when the dryad Lena admitted her true nature to Isaac. She was created from a ripoff of John Norman's Gor series, in which a dryad is a sex toy perpetually hot for her master. And Lena wants Isaac to be her new master. Deliberately setting up a main character as a blatant sex object makes me cringe a bit, but there are hints that Hines intends to give Lena more control over her own destiny than this set-up might suggest.

Turning to A Pretty Mouth, "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins" is a hoot. I especially enjoyed the sections during the youth of the twins, Basil and Rosemary, as they are raised essentially by an evil stepfather aptly named Mr. Villein. For instance, here the eight-year-old twins are grudgingly invited to a May Day celebration:
Rosemary arrived at the event in a costume of her own making, that of the nymph Flora; when Mr. Villein was interrogated as to his reasoning for such grotesque and ill-advised indulgence of childhood fancy, he replied that she had earlier proved her understanding that May Day had once been the Roman festival of Floralia, and it seemed a just reward for her attentiveness in the schoolroom. This bit of pagan heresy might have been overlooked by the other families had not Mr. Villein later used the exact same justification for Basil's behavior when the boy appeared at the celebration later-on, clad only in a bit of blue cloth wrapped about his slender body, and then staged a reenactment for the children of Favonius' rape of Flora, Rosemary playing her part with unbridled enthusiasm.
While the Ivybridge story is great fun, I confess that two chapters in, the next story "A Pretty Mouth" hasn't yet grabbed me. This may be a case of bad timing for the Battle of the Books: "A Pretty Mouth" started on page 85 and I haven't gotten very deep into it, so don't yet feel excited about the next 100 pages of this novella.

Aside from that small strike against Tanzer, this battle turns on the following passage from Libriomancer, where Isaac explains how the Porters keep libriomancy from getting out of hand:
"Catalogers flag potentially dangerous books. Take David Brin's Earth. He wrote about a microscopic black hole that fell into the planet's core, threatening to devour the entire world. That black hole would be small enough to fit through the pages, meaning any fool kid with magical talent who didn't know better . . ."

"Would it really destroy the Earth?"

"It's tough to say." . . . There were plans upon plans for such world-threatening eventualities, developed by Porter researchers. "We get review copies of every new book from the major publishers and most of the small presses. We usually catch and lock the troublesome ones before they're released to the public, though Harry Potter gave us some trouble."

J.K. Rowling had received a visit from Gutenberg himself, asking her to eliminate that damned time-turner from future books.
And that's why the time-turner never reappears, when it would obviously have been pretty darn useful to Harry in later volumes. Both Libriomancer and A Pretty Mouth pay tribute to great genre works of the past. But when you go the extra mile of actually fixing plot holes in beloved classics, you are too cool to stop reading.

THE WINNER: Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

Libriomancer advances to the championship round to face Osama by Lavie Tidhar.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, First Semifinal :: The Diviners by Libba Bray vs. Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Our first semifinal match in Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books features The Diviners by Libba Bray going against Osama by Lavie Tidhar. The winner, the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 100 pages, will advance to the championship round.

The Diviners: Little Brown, September 2012, 578 pages, jacket illustration by I Love Dust. The Diviners is a young adult fantasy set in the roaring 1920's. The Diviners made it to the semifinals by soundly defeating Sharkways by A. J. Kirby in the first round, and by overcoming Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye in the second round.

In the opening 50 pages of The Diviners, teenaged flapper Evie O'Neill arrived in 1920s New York, determined to make a splash. Evie is rather self-absorbed, but that's partly to mask her pain over her brother's death in the Great War. In the next 50 pages, Evie starts blending into the Manhattan social scene. She also accompanies her uncle, who is summoned to a murder scene as an expert in the occult. Using her strange ability to pick up thoughts from physical objects, Evie sees the victim's brutal murder and learns that an evil presence is loose in New York. Based on cryptic intelligence from her uncle, we suspect Evie will be one of the "Diviners" who will have to battle this presence. Another is Harlem numbers-runner Memphis Campbell, who had healing powers as a child, but abandoned them after they failed him when he needed them most.

Osama: Solaris, October 2012 (published in UK by PS Publishing in 2011), 302 pages, cover art by Pedro Marques. Lavie Tidhar is an Israeli writer now living in London. Osama won the 2012 World Fantasy Award. Osama made it to the semifinals by overpowering The Steam Mole by Dave Freer in the first round, and by defeating Beyond Here Lies Nothing by Gary McMahon in the second round.

Osama takes place in an alternate universe where Islamic terrorism occurs only in the pages of a series of pulp novels called Osama bin Laden: Vigilante. In the opening 50 pages a mysterious woman tasked our hero, a private eye named Joe, with finding the author of the Osama books. In the next 50-page section, Joe explores Paris and tracks down the books' publisher, despite warnings from some American thugs who do not want him to continue with his assignment. While in Paris, he meets another strange woman, who ends up vanishing from his arms, the most obvious of several signs that the reality of Joe's universe is rather tenuous.

The Battle: Judging the Battle of the Books gets difficult once we're to the semifinals, because the books that get this far are usually really good. Both The Diviners and Osama are well-written and mostly successful at everything the authors are trying to do.

Through the first hundred pages of The Diviners, the main protagonist Evie is engaging even though flawed. The narrative is funny when Libba Bray wants it to be, and genuinely chilling even to an adult reader when things get ominous. Bray effectively conveys the mood of the roaring 20s, with a narrative voice that nicely suits the period, for example in this scene where Evie's friend Mabel introduces her to a pair of elderly sisters residing in her building:
The Misses Proctor wore their long gray hair curled like turn-of-the-century schoolgirls. The effect was odd and disconcerting, like porcelain dolls who had aged and wrinkled.

"Welcome to the Bennington. It's a grand old place. . . . Sometimes you might hear odd sounds in the night. But you mustn't be frightened. The city has its ghosts, you see."

"All the best places do," Evie said with mock-seriousness.

Mabel choked on her Coca-Cola, but Miss Lillian did not take note. "In the seventeen hundreds, this patch of land was home to those suffering from the fever. Those poor, tragic souls moaning in their tents, jaundiced and bleeding, their vomitus the color of black night!"

Evie pushed her sandwich away. "How hideously fascinating. I was just saying to Mabel—Miss Rose—that we don't talk enough about black vomit." Under the table, Mabel's foot threatened to push Evie's through the floor.
That is a smart-alecky young heroine that I can get behind!

In Osama, Lavie Tidhar goes for a darker, more contemplative mood, but builds it just as successfully. His lush descriptions of a slightly altered Paris work very well. I love the contrast between Joe's noirish storyline and the excerpts from the Osama bin Laden: Vigilante books, which Joe and the other characters describe as pulp novels, but actually are narrated in a matter-of-fact style and are pulpish only in the sense that things often blow up.

Tidhar does a wonderful job of suggesting through subtle cues that the reality of Joe's universe is fragile. For example, when a bartender says of the odd woman Joe keeps encountering, "She's not all there," we're pretty sure he doesn't just mean she's crazy. Later, when Joe catches up to her again, she says she doesn't know where the fat man who publishes the Osama novels lives:
"Would you tell me if you knew?"

The girl shook her head again. When she looked at him, he felt trapped: he could not move away. The large brown eyes examined him, stripping him down without emotion, looking inside, a doctor checking for tell-tale signs of a terminal disease. "No," she said. "Why should I? He never did us any harm. And he cares, Joe. He cares. Life isn't a pulp novel, Joe, and death isn't either." And she got up and threw her head back and downed the drink, the last drink, and put down the glass on the counter and walked away, and he watched her, and it was another ritual established, another pattern followed, agreed upon, comforting. They both needed comfort, not of sex or even drink but of a reason, any reason, and in the absence of that there were only empty rituals. And the door closed behind her and the couples danced, seeking warmth in each other's bodies, and the slow recorded jazz played on, and the smoke from Joe's cigarette formed Lazarus castles in the air, gray and insubstantial, and he thought, I never told her my name.
Judge for yourself, but so far the enigmatic style of Osama is working beautifully for me.

So how to choose a winner after 100 pages, when both books are well written and entertaining? I want to give you some insightful literary analysis as to why one book is better, but I can't. All I can say is, if I were to declare Osama the winner, I would stop reading The Diviners. But if I were to name The Diviners the winner, I would continue reading Osama; I would not be able to put it down now if I tried. Which is what the Battle of the Books is all about.

THE WINNER: Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Osama advances to the championship round to face either Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines or A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight :: Final Four

We're down to the Final Four in Bracket Eight of Fantastic Reviews Battle of the 2012 Books:

The Diviners by Libba Bray
Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines
A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer

We hope you've enjoyed this tournament so far. Now only four books remain of the starting sixteen. This bracket contained books from across the genre. There were horror novels or dark fantasies, adult fantasies, YA fantasies, and science fiction novels. To get to the Final Four, these books won their first two matches. The other books in the competition, and some of them were quite good, have been knocked out of the running, like in basketball's March Madness.

Judging between books, which can be totally different, based on reading only 25 or 50 pages can be difficult. But our Battle of the Books format allows us to sample and spread the word about many more new books and authors than we otherwise could.

In this bracket, three of the four books which were "seeded" reached the Final Four. The unseeded book which made it to the Final Four is The Diviners by Libba Bray.

Thanks again to all the authors and publicists sending us great books to consider. If you're an author or publicist, click here for the rules and an address to send your book if you'd like to be included in a future bracket.

We have had a great response to the Battle of the Books format. Several future brackets of Battle of the Books are now in the hands of our reviewers, so check back for many more battles to come.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Battle of the 2012 Books, Bracket Eight, Second Round :: A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer vs. Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan

Our fourth and final match in the second round of Bracket Eight of the Battle of the 2012 Books has A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer doing battle with Blood and Feathers by Lou Morgan. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

A Pretty Mouth: Lazy Fascist Press, October 2012, 227 pages, cover art by Matthew Revert. A Pretty Mouth is a novella collected with four related stories, all of which place Lovecraftian creatures in a slightly odd context. A Pretty Mouth defeated Destiny's Flower by Linda Harley to advance to the second round, on the strength of its opening story "A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the-Downs."

The second 25-page section of A Pretty Mouth contains the story "The Hour of the Tortoise," in which a 19th Century author of erotic fiction named Chelone returns to Calipash Manor, the estate where she lived as a child and home of the mysterious Calipash family, whose history A Pretty Mouth chronicles. When the elderly Lord Calipash sees Chelone, he screams at her and promptly drops dead. And then the really weird stuff starts to happen.

Blood and Feathers: Solaris, August 2012, 364 pages, cover art by Pye Parr. Blood and Feathers is British author Lou Morgan's first novel, followed by the sequel, Blood and Feathers: Rebellion. She has also written a YA novel, Sleepless. Blood and Feathers defeated Grim by Joseph Spencer to advance to the second round.

In the opening 25 pages of Blood and Feathers, our protagonist Alice saw her father murdered and met two old friends of her late mother, who revealed themselves to be angels. In the second 25 pages, she learns about the angels and their adversaries, the Fallen. She promptly meets one of the Fallen, who takes the form of a creepy statue (or maybe she stumbled onto the set of Doctor Who?). Soon after, Alice finds herself standing in a pool of fire, a newly discovered talent of hers that means she is very important to the conflict between angels and Fallen.

The Battle: This battle pits urban fantasy with religious imagery against tongue-in-cheek Lovecraftian fantasy. These are each the author's first book, yet both narratives are effective, with the authors carrying off their chosen styles with aplomb. To pick a winner, I'm going to have to get nit-picky . . .

Blood and Feathers strikes me as a solid example of urban fantasy, with some nice images such as Alice looking down to find herself standing in a pool of fire. If you're a regular reader of urban fantasy, I think you'll enjoy it. On the other hand, if you're not a fan of the subgenre, I'm not sure there's much here to interest you.

In contrast, to me "The Hour of the Tortoise" transcends the Lovecraftian style. To start with, the voice of Tanzer's saucy narrator Chelone is witty and distinctive. She offers some amusing commentary about repressed Victorian society. She encounters an intriguing, at times erotic, mystery that's spun out nicely in such a short piece. And when Chelone gets into trouble and tries to send her editor a plea for help, Tanzer trusts her readers to spot the message hidden within the story's narrative.

"The Hour of the Tortoise" is a cleverly written piece that does not require the reader to be a fan of Victorian-era Lovecraftian fiction to appreciate it. It leaves me wanting to read further into A Pretty Mouth.

THE WINNER: A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer

A Pretty Mouth advances to the semifinals to take on Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines.

To see the whole bracket, click here.