What I’ve Read: 2014

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer (* *)

I finally have the third and final volume of VanderMeer’s wonderful Southern Reach trilogy in hand and what do I do? I run to my library and grab the first volume, Annihilation, to reread a certain passage to make sure Jeff isn’t pulling any fast ones.

Because Acceptance begins with a scene that takes place late in Annihilation, only told from the point of view of a different character. And if the previous two books have taught me anything, reality is a wholly subjective experience in Area X. So I want to see what, if anything, is different in this version of the exchange. Such due diligence is necessary because VanderMeer rarely spoon feeds. A lot of the satisfaction of reading his work is figuring out the bigger picture.

I still have a concrete theory about what the mysterious Area X actually is. Can’t wait to see if I’m right.

VERDICT: It might have been the book. It might have been everything in my life that transpired while I was reading the book. I suspect it was a bit of both. I became preoccupied with real life issues shortly after starting Acceptance, which drastically slowed my reading pace. And just when I was building up a head of steam, I got laid off from my job. Needless to say, I had a hard time concentrating after that. So there were many mitigating circumstances that detracted from my reading experience. But the book bears some blame as well. The narrative is bogged down with obtuse character ruminations about the nature/meaning of Area X. I get VanderMeer’s bigger point, that we’re all Area X — empty vessels that define ourselves through external stimuli from the world around us. And when that world stops making “sense” we go mad in trying to rationalize what is no longer rational. It’s a brilliant and original conceit for an alien incursion. But page upon page of tedious pondering and self-doubt do not compelling reading make. And my real-world issues sapped my patience to wade through it all. There are some highlights for sure — namely the lighthouse keeper Saul’s story, and the conclusion of Control’s arc (See Authority below). But I was otherwise underwhelmed. As I said, it could have been me. BTW, my theory about Area X was totally wrong.

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Turns and Chances by Juliet E. McKenna (* * *)

And so we come to the last of books from my PS Publishing Mystery Box, Turns and Chances. By turns and chances this brief novella will perfectly fill the interval while I await the imminent release of Acceptance, the third and final book in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (see Annihilation and Authority below).

But Turns and Chances has proven to be far more than a placeholder. It subverted my expectations from the second I opened the cover to discover a map of a land called Lescar. You find maps in Big Fat Fantasy tomes, not slim novellas. The subversion extends to the Introduction, where Chaz Brenchley questions the our base expectations of the Fantasy genre, specifically:

“…if Tolkien had been less good at what he did, the range and meaning of the books on your fantasy shelf would have been very different. I decline to lament the sheer quality of his work, but it has led to a constant stream of imitation and reinforcement, such that mainstream fantasy fiction fifty years on is understood still to inhabit the narrow territory of a conservative Catholic with a deep distrust of the modern.”

Holy fuck. This book has given me tons to think on before I’ve even begun to read it in earnest. That’s a good sign. . .

VERDICT: Despite being only 118 pages, Turns and Chances is as pleasantly immersive as any more lengthy Fantasy novel you might name. And it does subvert Tolkien fundamentally in that it questions his (and the Fantasy genre’s) near-blind faith in the benevolent monarch archetype. It’s dense in characters, world building and ideas. I’ve since learned that this is because it takes place in a far larger Fantasy universe that McKenna has used as the backdrop for several book series. Turns and Chances is a side story set in a little-explored part of that milieu, which inspired McKenna to write an entirely new trilogy based on its setting and characters—and more specifically the idea that common people have as much right and power as any noble to determine a kingdom’s fate. Add another author to watch out for on my book buying forays.

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The Walking Dead Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore (* ½ )

Outside forces must have caught wind of this being the year that I re-embraced comics (see Sandman, Sex Criminals and Satellite Sam below) because while staying upstate at my friend Eric’s house, the inaugural collection of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead just happened to be on the bedside table of the room where I crashed. Coincidence????

I’m kind of funny about The Walking Dead television show. From season one it has irked me with its annoying characters, plodding pace and mostly lousy writing. Yet show after show, season after season, I keep watching. And I’ll be damned if I can tell you why (although the second half of season four was actually pretty good).

And everything I’d read about the comic book (from online sources I trust) said that it’s just as bad as the show, if not worse. Which is why I never felt compelled to seek it out. But it found me instead. So of course I read it. And guess what?

VERDICT: The online critics are right. In fact, The Walking Dead comic somehow manages to make the show look gripping and nuanced by comparison. It’s impossible to tell whether or not this is because I already knew the story going in (including the points where it veers from the show) and was just going through the motions. But I don’t think so. I’m pretty good at judging books independently of their adaptations in other media (one usually doesn’t bias my reaction to the other) and even without the show, Days Gone Bye is mostly been-there, done-that. Even by 2003 standards (when the book came out), it doesn’t break any new ground in the zombie genre, its characters are two-dimensional and it in no way compels you to read the subsequent volumes in the series. It’s a monumental blah of a debut. I’m quite frankly stunned that The Walking Dead became so wildly popular among comics readers. They’re usually a much more discerning (and demanding) audience.

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Desperate Moon by R. Andrew Heidel (* * ½)

Desperate Moon is the second-to-last unread title that I got as part of my Mystery Box from PS Publishing some years ago. It’s a signed, limited-edition hardcover collection of three previous Heidel story collections, complete with a new intro by Harlan Ellison.

And so far it seems like I’ve saved the best for (almost) last. Or I really enjoyed the first story anyway, which is about a guy who has a drink with Death at The Slaughtered Lamb in Greenwich Village. I used to go to The Slaughtered Lamb all the time when my wife was going to college at NYU. So the setting may speak more specifically to me than to other readers. Also, the character of Death in the story is female, and the very last thing I read before this was an issue of Gaiman’s Sandman series that featured a female Death. This freaky character continuity gave me a very clear vision of Death in Heidel’s story, which augmented the already familiar setting.

So yeah, I’m immediately digging this collection for some very uniquely specific reasons. I hope I’m not setting myself up for a fall…

VERDICT: As with most story collections, Desperate Moon is something of a mixed bag. The first third of the book is oftentimes laugh-out-loud funny (especially the story “Interview With God”). And the terrific “Liar’s Fate” rightfully takes center stage in the collection. Unfortunately, the last third of the book is filled with short pieces that are more like glorified premises than actual stories. And the longer pieces at the very end get a little too autobiographical for my tastes, as Heidel veers into some bizarre personal territory. But Desperate Moon engages variably throughout, and while I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend reading it, I wouldn’t recommend against it either.

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The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman (* * *)

So I have the comic book bug back. Bad. As soon as I finished my last book I immediately felt like reading another graphic novel. Only I didn’t know which to pick up.

That’s when my friend Audrey (who has slept in my library in the course of dog-sitting duties) reminded me that I had the first volume of Neil Gaiman’s legendary Sandman series on my shelf. I bought it years ago when I was souring on comics and honestly forgot that I had it. (It’s been known to happen when you buy as many books as I do.)

And so far it’s terrific! Thanks for the reminder, Audrey!

VERDICT: I can see why The Sandman helped shoot Neil Gaiman to genre rock star status. This introduction to the character Morpheus takes readers from occult England of the 1800s to modern day Gotham via Hell and back (literally) and offers a fantastically weird companion to the mainstream DCU. Some familiar heroes show up briefly, but Gaiman carves his own eldritch niche out of a familiar comics landscape. With 10 more volumes in the series, The Sandman will make for a great fallback when I’m jonseing for a graphic novel fix.

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The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley (* * *)

I’ll admit, this one is a bit of a placeholder. I’d normally read a book like The Haunted Bookshop when autumn rolls in. But quite frankly I was pressed to get a book out of my library last week and this is the first one I grabbed. So I’m sticking with it.

From what I gather, The Haunted Bookshop is a sequel to another Morley book which I never heard of. But that apparently doesn’t affect this story (or anyway, if I’m missing something I don’t know it yet). And contrary to the title, it’s not a ghost story. The “haunting” refers to the voices and ideas of the late authors whose books line the shelves and it’s more a celebration of reading. Which is right up my alley.

But it’s a bittersweet joy, since The Haunted Bookshop was one of the last books I bought at my local bookshop before it closed down years ago, and Morley’s unfettered celebration of independent bookshops is making the absence of mine that much keener. I miss you Runaway Bay!

VERDICT: What a delightful little book! That’s right, I broke out the D word. The Haunted Bookshop is, in equal parts, a celebration of books, a soapbox for Morley to express his grief over the (then) unprecedented death toll of World War I, and a satiric thriller with an old-time radio show vibe—even though the book came out in 1919. And it works on all of those levels, without any of the plodding stylistic baggage that often characterizes fiction of the period. The prose is brisk and funny, and the Brooklyn setting is charming. Morely is now on my list of authors to seek out in my second-hand book prowls. If you’re more of an e-book type, you can read The Haunted Bookshop here for free, thanks to Project Guttenberg. Enjoy!

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The Freezer by Timothy S. Johnston (* *)

This my second time into the breach with Timothy Johnston. I gave his first novel, The Furnace, a somewhat lukewarm review. But that didn’t stop him from offering up a review copy of his latest novel, The Freezer. And I respect the hell out of that. Thanks, Tim.

The Freezer is a follow-up to The Furnace, catching readers up with Kyle Tanner, a forensic investigator with the CCP, the militaristic government that rules humanity in the far future. When Tanner is called to investigate a death on a mining colony on Ceres, the clues lead him to a scientific station on Jupiter’s icy moon of Europa, where scientists are looking for alien life. (Coincidentally, I wrote all about real-world plans to look for life on Europa in a recent episode DeFlip Side, so go figure.)

I haven’t gotten very far in the book yet, but so far it’s proving to be a tighter read than The Furnace, with an absolutely arresting first line and an enjoyable touch of noir. Here’s to hoping that we have a William Freedman-esque second novel situation on our hands here! (Read my review of Mighty Mighty to see what that means.)

VERDICT: Well, Johnston delivers on setting and action, but I still have issues. Here’s the review, Tim, warts and all. For what it’s worth, I look forward to reading The Void next year.

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Sex Criminals (Vol. 1) by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky (* * *)

Since I enjoyed Matt Fraction’s work on Satellite Sam so much, I thought I’d give his other buzzy book Sex Criminals a try. It’s proving to be another good call.

Main character Suzy is a girl who discovers that she can stop time whenever she has an orgasm. When she meets Jon, who has the same ability, they do what any loving couple in a similar position would do: decide to rob a bank. It’s a unique and intriguing idea, and I look forward to seeing where Fraction takes me this time…

VERDICT: I like Sex Criminals even better than Satellite Sam. To quote myself from DeFlip Side #151: Comics Rejoinder: “Despite its overtly sexual premise, Sex Criminals isn’t juvenile or prurient or even all that risqué. It deals frankly with sex, but within the context of a smart, character driven story. And it’s maybe the funniest comic I’ve ever read.” That about sums it up.

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Satellite Sam (Vol. 1) by Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin (* * *)

And so I go once more into the breach of comic book reading! I vowed to stop reading comics years ago (for many reasons, which I discuss at length in DeFlip Side #59: Comics Relief), but it’s a medium that I’ve always enjoyed. So when I learned about Satellite Sam, I thought it might be time to try again. I’m sure glad I did!

Murder! Sex! Alcoholism! That’s what awaits you in the pages of Satellite Sam. When the star of the daily Sci-Fi kiddy show “Satellite Sam” is found dead in his apartment—amidst hundreds of risqué photos of all the women he’s had sex with—his alcoholic son determines to track the women down and solve the mystery of his father’s death. Set in the hurly-burley days of 1950s live TV in New York, Satellite Sam is like the Mad Men of comic books, only without the basic cable restraints.

VERDICT: Satellite Sam has brought me back into the comics fold, albeit as a “waits for the trade” guy. If you want all the gory details, listen to DeFlip Side #151: Comics Rejoinder. Or you can just take my word for it and give it a try. Either way, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

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The Snowman’s Children by Glen Hirshberg (* * *)

My choice of timing to read The Snowman’s Children is somewhat ironic; who doesn’t want to read about a Detroit serial killer in the winter of 1976 while baking in the 80-90 degree Colorado sunshine on vacation? But if I can count on anyone to give me an immersive read with terrific characters it’s Glen Hirshberg.

The Snowman’s Children so far hasn’t disappointed. It’s Hirshberg’s first novel, but it contains many themes that are hallmarks in his later work: moving ruminations on childhood, friendship and finding your place in the world.

Mattie Rhodes has returned to his old town in Detroit to confront memories and search for his two best friends from the terrible (yet wonderful) winter of 1976, when a serial killer nicknamed the Snowman was abducting and murdering local children. There are some interesting thematic juxtapositions going on here, but Hirshberg is such a good writer that they co-exist effortlessly and intriguingly.

VERDICT: Glen Hirshberg remains in a class by himself. The Snowman’s Children is a remarkable book about coming to terms with love and loss, and letting go. Which makes it sound like some trite pile of Oprahfied nonsense, but trust me on this one. Hirshberg takes readers on a sincere, poignant journey, second only to his wonderful 2010 novel The Book of Bunk (which you should also read if you’re lucky enough to find a copy).

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Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler (* * *)

If Parable fo the Talents proves anything thus far, it’s that Parable of the Sower (see below) is very much a prelude novel. Sower is vital and necessary to set up Lauren’s character and background, but Parable of the Talents is where her true story begins.

I’ve burned through 100+ pages of this engaging, thought-provoking novel so far, and many of Lauren’s strengths seem to be becoming liabilities in her new setting. The Earthseed stuff is also a little more dogmatized and preachy, which is unsettling—but I suspect that’s what Butler is going for. Lauren’s stubborn devotion to the ideals of Earthseed are starting to be at odds with the other good things she has built in her life, and from page one the book implies that disaster is looming. But internal or external? Both? I’m a little anxious about how this one might play out.

VERDICT: Boy does this one take a dark turn! To say that Lauren’s experiences in Talents are harrowing is to put it mildly. Butler pulls no punches in showing the brutal extremes of her future dystopia. But this unflinching honesty is what makes the novel so engaging, and what makes the ultimate resolution of Lauren’s story so affecting. Parable of the Talents is not a story for the faint of heart, but readers who stick with it will be glad that they did.

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Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (* * *)

I discovered Octavia E. Butler in an odd way. She’s long been a genre staple, so a few years ago, I took her novel Wild Seed as a premium for a donation I made to WUSB’s Radiothon–in support of Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction, the radio show which monthly features my DeFlip Side segments. I enjoyed Wild Seed so much that it made my Best Reads list for 2011. So when Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents showed up as premiums in subsequent Radiothons, I snapped them up.

It has proven a wise choice thus far. In the space of 25(ish) pages, Butler has drawn me effortlessly into Parable of the Sower, which takes place in the America of 2021, where ecological disaster and economic collapse have driven people into walled neighborhoods, guarding their precious resources from the mayhem without.

The story centers on Lauren Olamina, a minister’s daughter with unique empathic abilities that allow her to feel the joys and pains of those around her. Lauren is an astutely observant young woman, and her first-person narrative is so engaging (funny, self-deprecating, human) that her world springs to vivid life. I look forward to seeing how she grows over the course of what promises to be a fantastical journey.

VERDICT: Okay, so harrowing journey is more like it. The safety of Lauren’s walled community proves (of course) to be an illusion, and she soon finds herself bereft, alone and wandering north along a California freeway seeking any kind of better life. She wasn’t blind to the dangers around her, and thanks to her preparation, she fares better than she might have. But the real crux of her initial journey is the evolution of “Earthseed,” a pragmatic belief system that she develops to cope with her harsh, savage reality. Parable of the Sower has a kind of Walking Dead vibe, as Lauren struggles to survive with her fellow travelers. And the ending makes jumping right into the sequel, Parable of the Talents, a foregone conclusion.

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Authority by Jeff VanderMeer (* * *)

I ran right out and got this second installment of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy as soon as it became available, and I’m so happy I did. Authority picks up immediately where Annihilation left off (see entry below), but from the point of view of the newly-installed director of the Southern Reach, who is tasked with figuring out exactly what happened on the 12th expedition, as chronicled in the first book.

The neat thing here is that we, as readers, know exactly what happened, but VanderMeer has thrown in a few story wrinkles that we don’t expect either. So as we watch the main character, nicknamed Control, confront his mysteries, we have to confront our own on a larger scale. It’s a weird hybrid meta reading experience and highly enjoyable. Shifting fictional paradigms; I expect nothing less from VanderMeer. . .

VERDICT: Is it September yet? Because that’s when Acceptance, the final book of this trilogy, will be released. And I can’t wait. Authority is a terrific follow-up to Annihilation, a deceptively straightforward narrative that shifts from the specific mysteries of the 12th Expedition into the much larger mysteries of Area X and the Southern Reach. But VanderMeer introduces these enigmas into the story with such finesse that by the final third of the novel you’ll be running alongside Control, wondering how in the hell did we suddenly wind up here? When did this all go sideways? It’s a surreal trip, punctuated by a terrific ending that triumphantly completes Control’s character arc, while propelling the larger story forward. I’m itching to see where Jeff takes us next.

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City of Truth by James Morrow (* * *)

Satirist James Morrow ushers in phase two of vacation reading with his Hugo winning novella City of Truth, which I begun reading on the flight home. Its clever premise and wicked humor gripped me immediately and I found myself laughing out loud many times before I had to return my seatback to an upright and secure position.

Veritas is the titular city of truth, where citizens have the ability to lie removed through an adolescent rite of passage called a brainburn. Dissembling is met with brutal retaliation and even death by the authorities. But main character Jack Sperry likes it that way. His job as an art critic brings him daily into contact with falsehoods — from sculptures to Shakespeare — which he’s happy to eradicate for the greater good. I’m less than two chapters in, but Morrow is plying the wit and wordplay as only he can, and I look forward to seeing where he takes this premise.

VERDICT: Wow. This one took a dramatic turn. When Jack gets a letter from Camp Ditch-the-Kids that his son has contracted a terminal disease, he seeks out an underground faction of dissemblers in an attempt to learn to lie — in hope to help his son survive. Morrow plays with big themes here, empirical truths vs. larger Truth. And while he does so effectively, the satire loses its sharp edges as the story gets more personal. It’s not the wry madcap you’d expect from the initial chapters, but City of Truth ultimately ends up making a much more powerful statement because of that.

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The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (* * *)

Vacation reading has commenced! I was looking for some light, enjoyable reads to accompany me to France, and The Last Unicorn practically jumped into my hands. It’s Beagle’s most popular book, but ironically one of the few I haven’t yet read. In reward for its patient years on my shelf, it has earned a trip to Europe. Verdict when I get back!

VERDICT: It’s Beagle, so it’s terrific. Duh. It was certainly worth the ribbing I took from my travel companions for reading “13-year-old girl fiction.” Forget the cover; sometimes you can’t judge a book by its title, either. But I will say this: it’s also different than anything else I’ve read by Beagle. His signature humor and sweet melancholy are here in spades, but the story is more picaresque and less flowing than I’m used to for ol’ Peter S.. This may be because The Last Unicorn is simultaneously a fairytale and a self-aware parody of fairytales, and as a result you’re always reminded that you’re reading a story. But it’s a terrific story for all that, with wonderfully human characters and none of the snark that is de rigueur for this kind of deconstruction today. As for the plot, it’s about a unicorn who fears she is the last of her kind, and ventures out of her home woods to see if she can find any of her kin. She experiences hardship and misadventure along the way, befriending a floundering wizard named Schmendrick and the indomitable Molly Grue. If you like The Princess Bride, it’s a safe bet that The Last Unicorn will be right up your alley.

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Annihilation by Jeff VenderMeer (* * *)

New work by Jeff VanderMeer is always something to be celebrated. So imagine my joy when I learned that Annihilation is only book one in VanderMeer’s new Southern Reach Triology; and imagine my further joy upon learning that books two and three will be released before the year is out. It’s an interesting publishing model, and if it were any other author I might even call it suspicious. Why release just one book when you can sell three instead? But I’ve read enough of VanderMeer’s work to trust that he’s telling (and selling) the story this way for a reason.

Annihilation tracks four women on an expedition into the mysterious Area X, which is an apparently pristine but somehow alien wilderness that has intruded onto our world and is defined by some kind of border. This is the 12th expedition under the auspices of The Southern Reach, the agency charged with exploring Area X. Preceding expeditions have met bad ends, with members killing each other or vanishing all together. We witness this latest exploration through the eyes of a biologist, who is travelling with a psychologist, an anthropologist and a surveyor. No names are given. The biologist is somewhat taciturn and standoffish, and her strained dealings with her teammates add to the plot’s already palpable tension. It’ll be interesting to see where VanderMeer takes this one.

VERDICT: Okay, I have my own theory about the true nature of Area X, based entirely on my knowledge of VanderMeer’s Ambergris novels. For those similarly versed, I’ll say only one word: spores. But versed or not, give Annihilation a go. Area X is every bit as bizarre and dangerous as you’re expecting, but in completely unexpected ways, and the biologist’s tale is a hypnotic and disturbing one. Annihilation is an intriguing set-up to what promises to be a surreal reading experience.

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Independent People by Halldór Laxness (* *)

I’d never even heard of Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness or Independent People until last summer. And I found out about him because I felt like betting on horses.

Sounds mysterious, but I was in Saratoga Springs at the track and decided to check out the grand opening of the new Northshire Books in Saratoga before heading home. When I was done scavenging the Science Fiction section, I found my buddy Eric sitting in a chair and reading Independent People. He couldn’t stop going on about how great it is, so I asked to borrow it when he was done.

Low and behold, what arrives in the mail a couple of weeks ago? My very own copy of Independent People, courtesy of one Mr. Eric Laugen. And so far he seems onto something. I’m only about 11 pages in, but I’m already immersed in an Icelandic saga rife with murder and cursed keeps and ghosts. It should be a fun ride.

VERDICT: Okay, I know Eric digs unlikable protagonists, but Bjartur of Summerhouses has to be the most hatable fucker in all of fiction. Like you can’t wait for him to wind up face down in a bog, dying slowly, cold and alone hatable. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler. But if you decide to read Independent People you’ll probably wish it was. An Icelandic sheep herder at the turn of the 20th Century, Bjartur finally saves enough money to buy the supposedly cursed and haunted holding I mention above. But the only demon on the property is Bjartur himself, who forces his family to live in misery and privation in service to his ego — which will not permit him to be anything less than an “independent” freeholder. What baffled me most about this book is how it never occurs to Bjartur to live off the bounty of his land through fishing and hunting. Such behaviors are suspect and openly scoffed at, and not just by Bjartur. Of all the cultural mores and superstitions portrayed in the book, this one is never explained and it’s maddening. You want to yell, “There’s no reason for you dopes to be starving with moldy salted cod and stale rye bread!” I don’t know if I’d recommend the book, but I wouldn’t recommend against it, either. Independent People is like a lit class reading assignment that’s not so bad when all is said and done.

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The Ammonite Violin and Others by Caitlin R. Kiernan (* ½)

I received The Ammonite Violin years ago as part of a discount grab-bag deal from Subterranean Press, and it has sat in my library ever since, waiting patiently for its at-bat.

Well here we are, and I have absolutely zero knowledge of Kiernan’s work. But this story collection has a forward by Jeff VanderMeer (one of my favorite authors) and the stories all have a darkly fantastic, mythological bent. So that bodes well.

I’m only about two pages into the first story, though, which is apparently about a mermaid. The writing is on the florid side, so it’ll take me a couple of more pages to settle into Kiernan’s style. Here’s hoping for a dense, interesting read…

VERDICT: Kiernan can write. There’s no taking that away from her. Hence the star. But this book is a fraught fucking downer. The common thread for all the stories in this collection is sexual violence. Man on woman, woman on man, woman on woman, vampire on man, man on mermaid, imaginary Rat King on crazy girl. Anyway, it’s the common thread of the stories I read before giving up on this book. Turns out that I can only tolerate so many variations on the theme of rape before punching out. So if you want stories with seeds of hope or transcendence, look elsewhere. But if you identify primarily as a victim and demand that the world bear witness to every scrap of your pain, the stories in The Ammonite Violin are right up your alley. You should feel right at home wallowing in these pools of ice-cold emotional vomit.

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Mighty Mighty by William Freedman (* * *)

I basically panned William Freedman’s first book Land That I Love, calling it a sour mash of forced cornball humor and stale political satire. You can read the entire review here.

So was I surprised when Bill offered me an advanced reading copy of his new book, Mighty Mighty? Not at all. Bill and I met at a con shortly before I read LTIL, and we have remained friendly on Facebook ever since, in spite of my review. First and foremost I think because Bill is a pro with a great sense of humor. But also I think because I never questioned his talent, just the way he was plying it.

And I’m happy to say that Mighty Mighty is a much better fit for Bill’s brand of gonzo humor. Set in a world where superpowers are so common that heroes are mall cops, M2 is so far equal parts superhero sendup and homage. And some of the superpowers are a genuine hoot (I hope one day to be flicked aside by the World’s Most Manageable Hair). Think along the lines of Venture Bros. and Dr. Horrible and you’ll have an idea of what Bill is going for here.

There are still some stylistic holdovers from LITL, mainly the narrative schizophrenia that refuses to spend any longer than one page with any given set of characters. And boy do I HATE having to read this as a .pdf. Mighty Mighty is my first e-book. I’m going to do my damnedest to make sure it’s my last. Luckily for fossils like me, a bound edition is imminent.

VERDICT: This book is flat-out terrific. Good job, Bill! Read my full, gushing mash note of a review here.

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Skagboys by Irvine Welsh (* * *)

I’ve been a big Irvine Welsh fan since reading his novel Trainspotting many years ago, which remains one of my all-time favorites. Apparently, it’s Welsh’s too, since this is the second time he’s gone back to the well and devoted a book to these characters. The first was in a 2002 sequel called Porno, which was poorly received. So this time Welsh is giving us a prequel, showing us the lives of Renton, Spud, Tommy, Sick Boy and Begbie before the heroin addiction. Actually, we’re talking right before, since I’m only about 100 pages in and three of them have already taken their first hit.

The critic in me has to wonder why Welsh decided to revisit these characters at this point in their lives, because we know where they’re going to wind up. But the giddy Welsh fanboy in me doesn’t care, because I love them all and I’m just thrilled to be spending time with them again. It’s especially poignant to see a pre-addicted Rents with plans, dreams and enormous potential. Mark has always been the heart of these books and Welsh was wise to center Skagboys on him. I think a big part of the reason that people didn’t like Porno was because it was basically a Sick Boy book. You can only take so much Simon…

VERDICT: I can now understand why Welsh felt the need to write this book. Skagboys has a wider scope than either Trainspotting or Porno, detailing the socio-political conditions that paved the way for the rampant spread of heroin in Edinburgh in the 80s. Welsh does this by interspersing short chapters called “Notes on an Epidemic” and I’m glad he did. I always wondered if Welsh was giving us a view into a rarified world of hardcore addiction or was just showing us a few players in a much larger game. Turns out it’s both.

But the history lesson aside, the book is actually very entertaining. As I said, it mainly centers on Mark, but there are equal measures of Simon, Spud, Begbie and Allison. In true Welsh style, the narrative is hilarious, horrific and tragic, often all at once, and even though you know how it has to end, it doesn’t make the final passages any less crushing. Porno felt superfluous, but Skagboys feels necessary.

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Redshirts by John Scalzi (* * *)

I decided to start the year on a humorous note with John Scalzi, though my acquisition of his books is following a disturbing trend. Scalzi’s novel Agent to the Stars was the last book I ever purchased at Borders Books before they shut down for good. And it turns out that Redshirts is the final book I ever got from Best Bargain Books on Long Island, which has since mysteriously disappeared. So if I darken the door of your book shop, hide your Scalzi.

Anyway, in geek circles, “redshirt” has become shorthand for the poor nameless bastards in Star Trek that always die on landing parties. They’re the guys in the red Services tunics, the division of Starfleet that encompasses things like Engineering and Security. So fan wisdom advises that you never beam down in a red shirt. But what if you’re one of those so-called redshirts and you notice the disturbing mortality rates for your kind? That’s the premise of Scalzi’s Redshirts.

When newly-minted ensign Andy Dahl embarks on his assignment aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, he quickly learns to fear for his life and avoid landing parties. Now he’s teamed with his fellow redshirted crewmates to find out what the hell is going on.

VERDICT: I’m glad that John Scalzi is as successful as he is, because this highly entertaining and often hilarious bit of Star Trek fan fiction never would have been published otherwise. It’s technically a parody, but let’s call a spade a spade. It’s The Original Series in everything but name (despite Scalzi’s insistance on using the term Away Team instead of Landing Party). And even though Star Trek gets directly referenced as a fictional television show in the narrative, I think it was more to avoid lawsuits while giving a giant, knowing wink to readers. And as to them, I can’t imagine this book appealing to anyone outside the SF&F/Star Trek fandom community. It’s basically kind of a reverse Galaxy Quest meta Trek send-up with lots of inside baseball. But for those of us in the club, this is as good as it gets. So good, in fact, that Redshirts won the 2013 Hugo Award for best novel. Never underestimate the power of fandom.

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Want more book picks?
Check out what I read in 2013.
Check out what I read in 2012.