What I’ve Read: 2013

October Dark by David Herter (* * * ½)

Now this is more like it! Undeterred by my miserable experience with Moontown (see below), I eagerly started the next title in the Earthling Halloween Series, October Dark by David Herter. And holy crap is it awesome. I’m only about 35 pages in and I can tell it’s going to be like nothing I’ve ever read before—in an extremely good way.

Here’s what I know so far: It’s 1977 and 13-year-old Will and 19-year-old Katie are on the run from some nefarious force that will fully manifest on Halloween. Will is apparently a clairvoyant, and he uses something called the Pee Chee to guide his actions—kind of like the I-Ching, but the Pee Chee is a school folder filled with homemade cards that feature Sci-Fi and Horror pop culture references: magazine clippings of pioneering special effects artists, TV guide listings for The Twilight Zone, old film ads. Will and Katie are seeking guidance from a retired stop-motion animator who has been fighting the same dark force for years. From what I’ve gleaned, the pop culture memorabilia—or the ideas they represent—somehow thwart the evil.

Needless to say, the fandom references fly fast and furious, and I’m having a ball. But Herter isn’t some masturbating fanboy. The pop culture references are obviously ancillary trappings of a far more complex story and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

VERDICT: October Dark is the book so nice I read it twice. Let me explain. I started October Dark shortly before Halloween and immediately fell in love with it. But I got so busy during the holidays that Christmas was suddenly looming and I had only gotten about 300 pages into the 500+ page story—and that mostly in sporadic dribs and drabs. So I decided to start over and give the book the attention it deserved.

I’m so glad I did, because David Herter has crafted something truly unique and wonderful in October Dark. The nefarious force I mentioned above is embodied in the guise of a local late-night TV horror host named Orlac, who is really Henri Mordaunt, an undying magician intent on resurrecting an ancient evil with the aid of an antique optical device—the Magic Lanthorn—that ensnared him when he was a boy in the 17th Century. When Will—an amateur SFX filmmaker—discovers Mordaunt’s plan, he teams up with Lester Deerton, a protégé of SFX pioneer Willis O’Brien (inventor of stop motion, animator of King Kong), who first tangled with Mordaunt in the 1930s. The fantastic imagery and artistry of Deerton’s and O’Brien’s creations offer protection against the Lanthorn. And all of this is augmented by the coming-of-age story of Will and his best friend Jim during the summer of Star Wars.

Needless to say, October Dark is brimming with references to fantastic cinema and its architects and will strike a particular cord if you grew up in the 70s and early 80s. Thanks to this book I now scour the TV listings for all the old movies it celebrates. The only things that stop me from giving it four stars are rampant typos. It appears that Earthling Publications somehow went to press with an unproofed galley copy instead of the final edit. One page even has the author’s notes to himself about how he should set the scene. As a book collector, this makes me happy, because if Herter ever achieves the level of success he deserves, this uncorrected first run will be highly sought after. And the mistakes don’t substantially detract from the story because it’s so damned good. But there’s just no reason for it. Despite this, Earthling Publications Publisher Paul Miller deserves big-time kudos for publishing this gem.

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Moontown by Peter Atkins (*)

First off, let me start by saying that I love Earthling Publications. It’s a small press outfit that puts out beautiful editions and I’m always eager to see what they have coming around the corner. Part of their lineup is a continuing Earthling Halloween Series, clearly the feather in Publisher Paul Miller’s cap. Earthling is also usually the first to offer new titles by Glen Hirshberg, a favorite author of mine. So when I got the Hirshberg book Motherless Children in the Halloween offering last year, the book collecting completest in me took over and I decided to buy whatever other Halloween titles were available.

Which is why I’m now reading Moontown by Peter Atkins. Moontown is about Shelley Campbell, who has the ability to enter other people’s dreams. She works at a university helping both adults and children overcome fears that are manifest in their dreams. She so far hasn’t bumped into Dennis Quaid, but she has noticed a disturbing recurrence of one dark figure haunting the dreams of adults and children alike. And that’s about as far as I’ve gotten.

So far, Moontown is maddening. Atkins is apparently unable to write a simple, declarative sentence. His overwriting is driving me up the wall. On top of this, the “scary” dream imagery is pretty stock and the characters are two-dimensional and kind of annoying. I’m rooting to the shadowy entity. Something tells me the verdict on this one ain’t gonna be pretty…

Did I mention how much I love, respect and admire Earthling Publications?

VERDICT: There’s no sugarcoating it. This book is fucking awful. The shadow figure reads like a thinly veiled Freddy Kruger, and I don’t doubt that it actually was Freddy Kruger at one time. Turns out Atkins has many horror screenplays to his credit, including a couple of the later “Hellraiser” installments. I’d bet money that Moontown is a reworked “Nightmare” spec script that never sold. Which I guess is why it doesn’t feature characters so much as what Atkins thinks book characters are supposed to be. The only thing more vexing than the lazy, clichéd cast is the outrageous overwriting.

Just for kicks while reading the book, I tried to predict how Atkins would overwrite the sentence, “Shelly screamed.” Here’s what I came up with: “Horror crept up her spine and Shelley felt her mouth involuntarily contort into a circle as a tortured sound—piercing, atavistic, unbidden—gave shape to her deepest fears.” Here’s what Atkin’s actually wrote: “There was a high-pitched animal keening in the air that Shelley thought for a moment was the latest horror to issue from the thing’s mockery of a mouth until she realized it was in fact the atonal melody of her own terror.” I honestly don’t know which is worse.

I frankly expect more from Earthling Publications, which has published some of the greatest fiction I’ve ever read. I’m calling this stinker the exception to the rule.

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Forever by Pete Hamill (* *)

Forever is a departure for me, as it’s a bit more mainstream than I normally go for. But my friends Jason and Laura recommended it very highly and even went so far as to entrust me with their hardcover edition. So I’ve taken the plunge.

Forever tells the story of Cormac O’Connor, an Irish immigrant who arrives in New York City in the early 1700s and never leaves. Somehow, Cormac can live forever (hence the title) and Hamill uses his life to chronicle the rise and rich history of Manhattan. It’s an interesting concept, made more intriguing by the fact that Hamill also wrote Snow in August, which is a movie I really enjoyed.

But so far the writing is leaving a lot to be desired, as Hamill has a tell-don’t-show style that I find endemic in many mainstream novels. To compound this, he spends more than 100 pages on Cormac’s unrealistically idyllic Irish boyhood, loaded with enough sentimental treacle to induce a diabetic coma. Luckily the story picks up a bit when Cormac gets to New York, but this one can go either way. I hope we’re not in for another I Know This Much is True debacle (click the 2012 link in What I’ve Read below).

VERDICT: Okay, we dodged the IKTMIT bullet, but Forever really lived up to its title. It should have been about 150 pages shorter. The primary reason it overstays its welcome is because Cormac is very hard to warm up to. He’s kind of a mope, and even when he took an active role in the history happening all around him (mainly in the earlier parts of the novel concerning the Manhattan slave trade and the American Revolution) he never really came to life as a character I wanted to root for. By the time the book got to 9/11, I was thoroughly done with him—which is kind of ironic because he was supposed to symbolize the city’s undying endurance and determination to live on. It might have been more effective if Hamill had presented a celebration of the city’s rich history, but instead he wallows in melancholy nostalgia. It also didn’t help that every woman in the novel is either a saint, a witch or a whore. I’m adding a star, however, because I now know a lot more about the city’s history. So there’s that, I guess…

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (* *)

The release of a new Neil Gaiman book is always a cause for celebration, and I was especially happy that The Ocean at the End of the Lane was being touted as adult fiction. Neil tends to stray into YA quite a bit, and though I love Coraline and Stardust, I also loved the scope and complexity of American Gods, and the more middle-aged themes in Anansi Boys.

And while I could perpetrate the façade that I’ve just begun the book and express hope that it’ll progress beyond the predominately YA themes I’m encountering thus far, at 180 pages there was no way it was going to take me more than one sitting to read this book, so let’s just get to the…

VERDICT: Despite how they’re marketing it, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is largely a YA title, with a little sex, nudity and violence sprinkled in. And not only that, it explores themes that Gaiman already covered much more effectively and entertainingly in Coraline. It’s like Coraline-light, without any of the fun and weirdness that made that book such a delight. I don’t know why Gaiman felt compelled to cover this ground again, but I hope he has it out of his system once and for all. I remain a huge fan and look forward to his next book.

A quick aside: this book also features reality-eating crows, the use of which I questioned in The Beautiful Land (see below). Are reality-eating crows based in some kind of mythology, or is this just a wild coincidence? Anyway, sorry, Mr. Averill.

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Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross (* * *)

So here’s the deal. I finished Saturn’s Children while on vacation recently in Manchester, Vermont (see my gushing review below). Later that day, I visited a great indy bookstore there called Northshire Books and there it was, Neptune’s Brood. I had no idea Stross wrote a sequel to Saturn’s Children and I snatched it up with greedy, unexpected delight.

As a rule, I usually don’t read two books by the same author in a single year, mainly to maintain author diversity in my annual DeFlip Side “Best Reads” segment. And since Stross always makes it into my top five, I’m especially conscious of pacing myself when it comes to his work. But in the case of Neptune’s Brood I’m chucking my rules. I enjoyed Saturn’s Children so much that I couldn’t resist diving right in to this unlooked-for follow-up.

Neptune’s Brood apparently takes place centuries after Saturn’s Children, and the robots have moved beyond the solar system to colonize the far-flung stars. But there’s a new wrinkle: humans have been resurrected. Dubbed as Fragiles, this latest strain of humanity (they’re not the first or even second stab at reestablishing the species) make up a quasi-religious order with a mission to propagate amongst the stars.

Enter robot Krina Alizond-114, who is on a mysterious mission of her own, to find one of her sibs on the water planet Shin-Tethys. Her fastest route is aboard a ship belonging to the Church of the Fragile, where she books passage as a hired hand. But unbeknownst to Krina, another of her sibs is tracking her, intent on killing her and taking her place. And at 40 pages in I still have no idea why. But so far Neptune’s Brood is proving an entertaining extension of the Saturn’s Children universe. I wonder if Freya will show up?

VERDICT: Okay, Freya does not show up, and the resurrected humans don’t play as big a role as I thought they might. But Neptune’s Brood is another enjoyable outing, perhaps most remarkable for its central theme: debt. I guess that doesn’t sound all that exciting, but through Krina—who was born into indentured servitude—Stross is able to present reality through a prism of debt and how it shapes not only society but our very corporeal reality. It’s a fascinating take that lends a layer of richness and complexity to what might otherwise have been a retread of Saturn’s Children—so fascinating, in fact, that I’m looking for the book Debt: The First 5000 Years, which Stross quotes at the story’s outset. This one’s really making me look at things in a whole new way. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in Stross’s head.

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Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross (* * *)

I admit I found the cover of Saturn’s Children problematic for two very obvious reasons; not because I have anything against massive, gratuitous cleavage (quite the contrary). It just gave me pause in this context, because Charles Stross is one of the most cerebral writers I’ve ever come across. Trying to reconcile the lowbrow image with my highbrow expectations crossed too many wires in my head. So Saturn’s Children sat unread on my shelf for years.

I’m an idiot, because this is such a good book so far. The human race is extinct and the robots they created populate the solar system. Freya Nakamichi-47 is one of the last in a line of pleasure robots that no longer have masters to service, becoming increasingly alienated in a society straying ever further from human norms. But a distress call from one of her far-flung sibs sets Freya on a trip across the solar system, cluing her in that her kind may have another usefulness she doesn’t yet suspect—or so it seems a few chapters in.

Stross rightly calls Saturn’s Children a Space Opera and dedicates the book to Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. And their joint influence is readily apparent, with Stross even quoting Asimov’s three famous laws of robotics at the book’s outset. I can’t wait to see his new spin on these SFnal conventions.

VERDICT: Where do I begin? Let’s start with Freya. She’s Stross’s most likable protagonist since Bob Howard in his Laundry Series. Stross was obviously having a ball writing this book. The world building is ebullient and seemingly effortless. The story itself is somewhat more conventional, a kind of “reluctant spy” thriller that treats us to a fantastic tour of this future solar system. But it’s not all neat-o space stuff. I’ve never been much of a fan of Asimov’s Three Laws, since they’re largely thematic straw men, created mainly so Asimov could write stories about circumventing them. But Stross examines them in troubling depth, and discovers a darkness there that is now so glaringly obvious that I can’t believe I never saw it before. Freya’s wonderful humanization probably has much to do with this. Anyway, it’s a good book. Read it.

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Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi (* * *)

Agent to the Stars holds the distinction of being the very last book I ever bought from Borders before the chain closed down a couple of years ago. I went in on the final night and there were a bunch of copies of Agent still on the few remaining shelves. But since I really liked the only other Scalzi book I’ve ever read (The God Engines), I figured I’d pick it up. The fact that it cost a quarter probably also had something to do with it.

In the forward, Scalzi calls Agent his test novel—the book he wrote just to prove to himself that he could write a book. It has since been published in various forms, but he says the mass market paperback edition is his final version. The title is just the play on words you might expect. Up-and-coming Hollywood agent Tom Stein gets the client of a lifetime: Joshua, the emissary of an alien race called the Yherjak that wants to make first contact with Earth. Tom’s job is to figure out how they can do so without sparking mass hysteria.

Full disclosure: I started to read Agent to the Stars in 2012 and quickly made it my car book—the book that I keep in the car for when I have to wait on an oil change or an airport pickup or whatever. Which is why it took me so long to finish. But that’s in no way indicative of its quality, so let’s get to the verdict.

VERDICT: Agent to the Stars is a wonderful, funny book with likable, quirky characters and a breezy plot that’s easy to remember—in other words, the perfect car book. Despite months between readings, I was able to immediately re-immerse myself into the story each time. Under normal circumstances, I probably would have finished this book in a weekend. But despite my unorthodox approach, Agent has put me firmly on Team Scalzi. I’ve bought four more of his books and I look forward to reading all of them.

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The Man in The High Castle by Philip K. Dick (* * *)

Aside from it being Dick’s most famous title (with the exception, perhaps, of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), I had absolutely zero knowledge of The Man in the High Castle before diving in. And it was quite a leap of faith, because I’ve had trepidation about reading anything else by ol’ Horselover Fat ever since reading the VALIS trilogy a few years ago—or more accurately, forcing myself to finish it.

But the opening pages of The Man in the High Castle have thus far quelled my fears. Presenting an alternate history where the Allies lost WWII, High Castle takes place in a San Francisco ruled by the Japanese, in an America divided between Japan on the West Coast and Germany on the East Coast, with a set of neutral buffer states in the Rockies and the plains. The characters are interesting so far, as is the heavy Eastern philosophy, illustrated by the prominence of the I Ching. I’m curious to see where this one goes.

VERDICT: This turned out to be an intriguing and surprisingly straightforward book—straightforward by PKD standards anyway. Don’t get me wrong, there’s reality-bending aplenty, and overarching themes that question the nature and legitimacy of the various “realities” that appear in the book (and by extension, our own). But they’re presented in much more cogent, compelling, non-batshit-crazy forms than I’ve experienced in other Dick novels. I also have to thank my wife for much of my enjoyment. Her longtime hobby of researching WWII made me passingly familiar with many of the historical figures presented in the book, and I could better appreciate the interesting ways their roles differed in this alternate timeline. It added an enjoyable wrinkle that I would otherwise have been largely oblivious to. So thanks, honey! Of course, there are some of Dick’s distracting trademarks to contend with as well, most notably his obsessive need to write himself into every one of his books. Who else should I have expected the titular man in the high castle to be? But give this one a go. You’ll be glad you did.

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The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill (* *)

The Beautiful Land leapt onto my radar in a big way while I was perusing lists of new fiction online. Here’s the part that resonated: a guy who can create new timelines decides that he wants to create the perfect timeline for him and his girlfriend and destroy all others. SOLD!

Even better, it’s a Berkley Publishing title—the same Berkley Publishing that bought and published a certain Quantum Leap book I wrote a jillion years ago. So I just contacted my friend and onetime editor Ginjer Buchanan, asked for a review copy, and badabing badaboom, The Beautiful Land is on my doorstep. Sometimes it’s good to be in the know, you know?

I’m only about four chapters in, but it’s a fun story so far. Stay tuned for a verdict, followed by a full review.

VERDICT: Unfortunately, this one didn’t live up to my expectations—which, it turns out, were slightly wrong. Main characters Takahiro and Samira are trying to stop a mad scientist who’s attempting to eliminate all timelines except one, not the other way around. It’s still an interesting premise but the execution just didn’t quite gel for me. For one, the mad scientist was literally a mad scientist, as pulpy and clichéd as they come. And the alternate realities that Tak and Sam visited were fairly pedestrian versions of our reality, albeit damaged by the evil destructive plot—personified in the form of reality-eating baby crows (?). Frankly, there were times when I almost put the book down because character motivations/actions were too scattered and the story became just too silly—and I’m a guy who can suspend copious amounts of disbelief. Kudos to Averill, though, for presenting two interesting, likeable protagonists.

As for a full review, I don’t have much more to say, so I just don’t see the point. But here’s a good one by Ana Grilo on Kirkus Reviews. She appreciated the writing and characters far more than I did, but she’s spot-on about the plot and story problems.

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Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe by George Johnson (* * ½)

I actually stumbled upon Miss Leavitt’s Stars at Book Revue in Huntington when I was looking for another book in W.W. Norton’s “Great Discoveries” series. The “Great Discoveries” books have a very distinctive cover/spine design that helps them stand out in often jumbled Science sections, so I lit upon this one fairly quickly and grabbed it. Chalk it up to fate. The $7 price didn’t hurt either.

This slim volume recounts the story of a woman named Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who worked as a “computer” at Harvard in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, cataloging stars photographed on glass plates. At the time, the size of the universe was a largely philosophical question, because there was no mechanism for measuring it. But Leavitt apparently devised a way, or we wouldn’t have this book now would we? Scientific history is the bomb. And even if Miss Leavitt’s Stars isn’t, Johnson has already mentioned one thing in a throwaway, parenthetical phrase that has inspired a future DeFlip Side segment—if not a full scientific history novel of my own…

VERDICT: Here’s how that crafty Henrietta did it: when studying photographic plates taken from telescopes, she discovered variable stars—stars that seem to cyclically grow and shrink. What’s more, she noticed that variable stars of the same magnitude (apparent brightness) pulsed at the same cycle. Therefore, if you found a faint, distant star that varied at the same frequency as a closer, brighter one, you could assume that they were of the same magnitude. And by using something called the inverse square law, you could use that difference in brightness to determine just how far away that fainter star was. It took astronomers a little while longer to triangulate the distance to nearer stars, but once they did, Miss Leavitt’s discovery gave them a quick way to calculate the size of the visible universe. Pretty fucking cool, huh? Miss Leavitt’s Stars isn’t a gripping page turner, but it does hammer home the beauty of mathematics. Astronomy and space science fans should enjoy it.

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Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson (* * *)

Vortex is the third in a series of novels by Robert Charles Wilson that began with the 2006 Hugo Award winning Spin, in which the stars disappear as some unknown power places the Earth in a kind of stasis envelope. For every Earth year, millions of years pass in the outside universe. I called Spin “the most engaging hard Science Fiction novel I’ve ever read” in a recent “Best Reads” segment.

And I’d call its 2007 follow-up, Axis, engaging even if not strictly necessary—which isn’t bad when you’re in sequel territory for a relatively stand-alone novel. But the deeper I get into Vortex, the more I suspect Axis was necessary, as a prequel to the events of this book. Vortex takes place both shortly before and long, long after Axis, and I’m having a ball witnessing how Wilson spins the story from two different directions. I can’t wait to see how everything collides, and what role (if any) the events of the original novel Spin will ultimately play. I feel like this one is going to be special…

VERDICT: I often let my own enthusiasm and expectations get the better of me, and that was almost the case with Vortex—until the last, stunning chapter. Not stunning in an OMG! twist way, but for the breadth and eloquence of its ideas, and the masterful way it tied the entire novel together. Truth be told, Vortex is mostly a fair to good book throughout. But the final chapter boosts it into solid three star territory. And if you do read it, you’ll better understand my mania for transhumanism. Oh the possibilities! Who’d want to miss them?

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A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (* * * ½ )

Put this one on the list of venerated Science Fiction classics I’ve never gotten around to reading. But I found a neat (and cheap!) trade edition on a recent visit to The Strand bookstore in New York City and it felt like the right time to finally dive in.

And I’m delighted with this book thus far. Miller wrote A Canticle for Leibowitz in 1959, but his style and sense of humor show no signs of the hard aging I find endemic in Golden Age Science Fiction stories. Granted, I’m not that far in, but the initial chapters feel completely contemporary. And they’re funny to boot.

Set in 25th/26th Century post-nuclear war America, the story centers around Brother Francis, a young monk who finds a fallout shelter in the desert containing relics of the Beatified Leibowitz, which include an old blueprint, a shopping list, and a hastily-scrawled note. Just why an order of post-apocalyptic Catholic monks are venerating the memory of a (I’m guessing) rocket scientist from 1959 remains to be seen. But if these early chapters are any indication, the explanation will be an enjoyable one.

VERDICT: Enjoyable doesn’t come close. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a great novel on many levels. Complex yet accessible. Deadly serious but extremely funny. Doggedly sincere but dripping with irony. And the characters are wonderfully layered, likeable and relatable. This post-apocalyptic tragi-comedy will enrich your life and stick with you. It also gets big points for widening my narrow view on organized religion. I wouldn’t say I’m a convert, but I can better appreciate its capacity for preserving knowledge during dark times. Read it. I can’t guarantee any epiphanies, but you certainly won’t be disappointed.

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Kraken by China Miéville (* * ½)

After my positive experience with A Memory of Light, I want to keep the good reads going by turning to an author who has rarely let me down. Enter China Miéville, who has featured in my yearly “Best Reads” shows several times—most recently in January for his YA novel Railsea, which I named as my Best Read of 2012.

Kraken obviously revolves around giant squids in some form, though it’s not clear just how at 25 pages in—and since I like to remain as spoiler free as possible, I don’t even permit myself to read cover flaps with authors I trust. Call it a quirk.

But if you need more, here’s what I know so far. Set in present day London, the initial chapters of Kraken deal with the seemingly impossible theft of a giant squid from the Darwin Centre at the London Natural History Museum, told from the POV of curator Billy Harrow. Some suspicious characters and a mysterious symbol indicate that Billy’s about to descend into a mess of squid-centered Miévillesque weirdness. And if you need more than that to get you cracking on Kraken, you obviously don’t know Miéville.

VERDICT: So yeah, the discovery of a squid cult drives Billy into a mystical London underground of obscure/absurd religions rife with mystical occult powers and dangerous magical beings. This foray into real-world Urban Fantasy reads kind of like a mash-up of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Charles Stross’s Laundry series, and exemplifies both the best and worst aspects of Miéville’s writing style. Find out why in my full review.

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A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (* * *)

At long last, the end is here. The final volume of The Wheel of Time arrived on my doorstep recently and I gleefully dove in to finish the sprawling fantasy epic that I stared way back when I was 19 (I’m 43 now, so yeah, it’s kind of a big deal).

But you know what? And after all my ups and downs with The Wheel of Timemy bitching about how terrible the series had gotten in the later volumes and my elation at its resurrection at the hands of Brandon Sanderson who took over after Robert Jordan’s death, my relief that there was finally a light at the end of the tunnel—after all of that, I felt a pang of sadness once I had truly settled into the narrative. Because it dawned on me. THIS IS IT. No more Rand. No more Mat or Perrin. The story is finally over. After two decades, I won’t have a new Wheel of Time book to read, and that’s kind of a bummer. I didn’t feel this way with Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, and I don’t anticipate feeling it with A Song of Ice and Fire—both of which I absolutely love(d). So I guess these characters have affected me more deeply than I realized.

In any event, I’m already about half way through A Memory of Light and a full review will follow. While you wait, check out the Featured Book Review box in the sidebar for my thoughts on the most recent volumes in The Wheel of Time series.

VERDICT: Well, it’s over. And was it good? A resound YES on that front. Sanderson wraps up Jordan’s magnum opus in grand style, fit for the scope and ambition of the late author’s vision. But does A Memory of Light redeem the Wheel of Time series over all? Find out in my full review!

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Where or When by Steven Utley (* * ½)

Keeping the time travel/small press momentum rolling (see Timeswitch below), I decided to dive into this collection of time travel stories from writer Steven Utley—a signed, limited edition which I got from PS Publishing some years ago in my Mystery Box.

The initial stories in Where or When have proven interesting, but brief—more time travel notions anchored around forceful central characters rather than full-blown stories. But they’re entertaining, nonetheless. PS describes the collection as “mosaic” so it’ll be interesting to see how the stories begin to build upon one another.

Sadly, Steven Utley died from cancer on January 12, 2013, mere weeks after being diagnosed. Rest in Peace, Mr. Utley.

VERDICT: This was an enjoyable collection, and I wouldn’t recommend against it. But classifying it as a mosaic novel is a bit of a stretch. The method of time travel featured in the stories does evolve somewhat, and those forceful characters I mentioned are broadly-defined enough (strong-willed female time traveler, mysterious evil time traveler) that I guess you can pretend they’re the same people from story to story if you’re after a slightly more cohesive reading experience. But that’s a little beside the point. Utley purposely serves up vague archetypes in order to explore broad questions of the human condition. What’s really remarkable is how effective the stories are in that regard. I can’t remember any of the character’s names, but I’m still mulling over many of the ideas they expressed. A pretty neat trick.

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Timeswitch by John Gribbin (* * *)

Continuing the theme of unbeatable small press sales (see Empties below), I’ve cracked open my recently acquired copy of Timeswitch from PS Publishing. I’ve gotten a lot of books from PS over the years, but I’ve never shelled out for one of their ultra-high-end editions—until now, anyway. The deal was too good to pass up: only £12.99 for a tray-cased, signed, limited edition, jacketed hardcover (which works out to about $30 when you throw in shipping). And Timeswitch is just one of two books I snagged.

Speaking of which, Timeswitch opens up in an alternate 1960s England, where the world is besieged by global warming, and environmental disaster threatens humanity—a byproduct of the scientific-industrial revolution of the 16th and 17th Centuries ushered in by the likes of Kepler and Newton. Erstwhile physicist-turned-historian Jan Ricardo is brought onto a secret government installation called The Complex, where his old college buddy has discovered a microscopic black hole that he hopes to use for time travel—which is as far as I’ve gotten. Judging from the title, I’d say it’s a safe bet that Jan will become the traveler, charged with averting the Earth’s environmental catastrophe. I’ve barely begun, but so far Timeswitch has really sucked me in. And since Gribbin has several advanced degrees in science, I’m thinking his speculations about time travel should be plausible as well as enjoyable.

VERDICT: I enjoyed Timeswitch, despite knowing where it would end up even as it began. One of the most gratifying aspects of the book is that Gribbin adheres to a scientifically plausible model of time travel, including a multiverse of ghost realities all vying for existence. And Jan does indeed become the time traveler, tasked with delaying scientific advancements in order to offset the climate change destroying the planet. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m surprised I can find almost nothing on the Internet about it outside of the publisher’s website. Timeswitch deserves a wider audience. The book also includes the funny bonus article, “A Do-it-Yourself Time Machine.” Gribbin is now on my list of authors to buy.

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Empties by George Zebrowski (* *)

I picked Empties up during a recent half-price sale at Golden Gryphon Press, one of my favorite small presses. I will always be indebted to them for introducing me to Charles Stross in general, and his Laundry series in particular. And Jeffrey Ford as well. Unfortunately, I don’t know if they’re long for this world. The website has been static for months, and no new titles have been announced for quite some time. The good news is that the half-price sale is still going on, so you can still get some great deals on some unique titles that you can’t get anywhere else. Please support them if you can. I don’t want them to go away.

Anyway Empties is about a New York City detective trying to solve cases where bodies are turning up without brains, with no indication of how they’re being removed. It’s a supernatural horror that’s gotten good reviews. I go in with tempered expectations however, since police procedurals tend to leave me flat. But based on a few of the passages and observations in the opening chapter, I have a good feeling. And I haven’t even gotten to any of the neat stuff yet…

VERDICT: There is much to like about Empties. Many of Zebrowski’s observations are truly thought provoking. And once I got into the groove of his laconic, socially phobic and oftentimes ponderously obtuse main character William Benek, I really grew to like him (it finally clicked when I started seeing him as actor Misha Collins’ character Cas on Supernatural—a perfect fit, right down to the rumpled raincoat).

But it wasn’t enough to compensate for the story, which was initially interesting and creepy, but ultimately devolved into a jumble of repetitive ruminations and a series of inexplicable (in)actions by Benek and his adversary. It was as if Zebrowski got through exploring the novel’s central theme about two-thirds of the way through and just ended up spinning his wheels. Unfortunate.

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Rain in the Doorway by Thorne Smith (* * ½)

It’s a new year, so what better way to kick things off than with some madcap alcoholism and misogyny courtesy of Thorne Smith? Most people know Smith for his Topper novels, but he wrote a string of risqué comedies throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s that involved copious amounts of drinking, sex and vaudeville style dialog between the characters. And Rain in the Doorway is the raciest one I’ve read yet.

The main character Hector Owen is standing in a department store doorway in the rain waiting for his horrible, unfaithful wife, when the door behind him opens and a hand emerges, yanking him out of the rain—and, apparently, life as he knew it. Owen is quickly made partner, given a line of credit and unfettered access to all of the salesgirls, all of whom are far more aggressive than he is. It’s good, old fashioned, dirty fun.

An extra bonus for me is that I found this affordable 1933 first edition copy of Rain in the Doorway at the Argosy Book Store in New York City last week during a wonderful year-end visit with my beautiful wife. It’s gonna be a good 2013!

VERDICT: This is flat-out midlife crisis, middle-aged male gonzo fantasy, where all the women are running around in various states of undress and literally asking for it. Oh, except for when Hector needs some comfort during a hangover, in which the lead bimbo turns into a saintly mother figure that cradles his aching head to her soothing bosom. I’ll leave it others to sort out the rampant Oedipal psychosexual subtext on which Rain in the Doorway is built and just say that I enjoyed this romping comedy for what it is—a lascivious lark. The jokes are corny and drag on for far too long in most cases, but Smith remains in a loony class by himself.

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Want more book picks? Check out what I read in 2012.