C2E2 Comics Hoard: 2013 Books #18,19, 20 and 21


A couple weeks ago, I went to C2E2, a comic book convention in Chicago. It’s a relatively new con – just four years young. It’s definitely a step up from the longer-running Wizard World, just in terms of publishers, artists and guests they get. Which, unfortunately for my wallet, makes it that much easier to splurge on books.

I ended up coming away with four trade paperbacks, which is a solid afternoon or evening of reading material. Rather than do full-blown reviews of each, I’ll do a sentence or two review that lets you know exactly what you need to know.

The Walking Dead Vol. 16: A Larger World
– Even though I love this series, it’s failed to explore new territory in the past few trades. While it took a whole trade to get there, I think 16 is going to push the series back into interesting territory. Rick finds a new group of people to distrust, but in finding them, he may have discovered a way to create a world that’s truly safe. This was still slow, but I was satisfied with the ending.
3 of 5 stars

 

 

 

The Walking Dead Vol. 17: Something to Fear – If they’re setting up another arc on par with the Governor with Negan’s character, I’m in. This issue was brutal, reveals just how difficult Rick’s vision is going to be to achieve, and reminds us of how hard the choices in this world are. This trade felt a lot closer to the stories that made me fall in love with the series, so hopefully they continue to play with these themes.
4 of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

Lucid Vol. 1 – This story felt extremely disjointed to me, nothing more than a series of wise-cracking characters with shallow motivations and dark sides. When I flipped through the book at Achaia’s booth, the art and concept seemed interesting, but this is just one of those books that falls apart upon closer inspection. I don’t know if they’re planning on serializing this with more stories, but I probably won’t be back to check it out.
1 of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

Syndrome: The polished art in this book is really well done – it’s not genre-bending or boundary-pushing, but just plain solid, traditional execution. I found quite a few of the characters intriguing, especially the art director and the actress, but at the end of the book I was left wanting more from them. The concept behind the book is that a researcher and Branson-esque billionaire are trying to cure the evil side of human nature, and their methodology is ripe for lots of great storytelling, but at the end of this book, I felt like the ending was abrupt and trivialized the plot, in a way. Again, not sure if this book will continue with more arcs, but I’ll definitely check it out if they do.
4 of 5 stars


The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Seven: 2013 Book #17


4 of 5 stars

You’d think the year’s best collection would fare a little better than most anthologies, simply because all these stories are supposedly “good.” At the end of the day – it’s still an anthology, all centered around the theme of what the editor thinks is “best.” Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great writing here, and even the ones that didn’t resonate with me still had beautiful prose. And I did enjoy a lot of the stories here, and the editor, Jonathan Strahan, really packs them in.

Overall, I felt like there was too much urban fantasy, magical realism and dystopian sci-fi. Strahan even comments on this in the prologue, acknowledging that sci-fi is in a state of flux – in the past, sci-fi has always been about what we could achieve, humanity bringing out the best in itself via science.

The future we imagined is here, and there are no jet packs.

What’s to say the next twenty years will be different? The tone of this book is decidedly bleak, and the vast majority of the stories are either dystopian sci-fi or post apocaliptic sci-fi. Thinking back, there are very, very few of these stories that would fall into what I’d call Fantasy, and even those are in the urban fantasy / magical realism sub-genre. All this is very “hot” right now, and the editor may have seen his job as capturing a snapshot of what happened in 2012. If so, he probably did a bang up job. However, I’ve got to believe there’s more sword and sorcery fantasy out there. Stuff that feels more medieval, dream-like and epic in scope. I’d even settle for just plain high or low fantasy, but those sub-genres are largely missing from this book.

My favorite story by far was “Two Houses” by Kelly Link. It had an eerie, bordering on horror-ish vibe to it. This sci-fi fiction about a team of deep space explorers reminded me a ton of Prometheus (which I liked, incidentally.) and a few other horror stories with twist endings that I won’t include here so as not to ruin the ending for you. The story does a phenomenal job capturing the feeling of isolation and grief with the imagery surrounding the characters as they move through the spaceship and deal with the loss of their sister ship is haunting. I also enjoyed how Link explored how even though these two ships have been disconnected by a vacuum for years, when the other ship disappears, it has profound effects on the crew. Even though there was a lack of a physical connection, the implied emotional connection was just as powerful.

Collections like these are a must for any fan of the genres. Just because I wasn’t feeling this year’s as a whole, doesn’t mean there weren’t some phenomenal works of fiction.

Buy The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Seven


Leah Petersen Interview and Cascade Effect: 2013 Book #13


5 Questions with Leah Petersen, Author of Cascade Effect

JP: The Fighting Gravity and Cascade Effect universe are set in a future where homosexuality has reached complete acceptance. Currently, there’s a bit of turmoil around the issue, to say the least. Can you talk about the culture of your novel in context with the events of today?

LP: I didn’t write this universe to make any particular point, in fact I was well into writing it before I realized it was even going to have a homosexual character. But looking back, I can see how the issues of the day probably influenced me unconsciously. It was around 2008. I’d moved out of California a few years earlier, but I remembered feeling just stunned when California of all places banned homosexual marriage. I felt…betrayed somehow. And I’m straight.

I think that’s what made it so satisfying to write a world that didn’t just accept homosexuality, they didn’t even notice it as something to accept or not accept. Jake makes a lot of enemies, and has a lot of people who hate him for who he is, things he was born with and can’t change, but none of them ever notice or care about the gender of his sexual partners. The human race still had plenty of prejudices and issues, but that one was so far in the past no one even remembered to mind about it.

JP: Jake is endlessly frustrating as a character – unable to get out of his own way, yet remaining endearing at the same time. What kind of relationship do you have with your main character?

LP: I’ll forever have a weak spot for characters like Jake who you just want to strangle for being so damn sure they’re right and so damn stubborn, that they end up with twice the problems because they cause half of them all by themselves. This is another one that, looking back, I see a lot of the unconscious influence of my own life in his development. I was finally responding the the treatment that worked to control the bipolar disorder that had taken over the last few years of my life. I was intimately familiar with making stupid choices because you felt you HAD to, or that you couldn’t stop yourself, that made no sense to anyone else, or even you, later.

JP: Describe your relationship with writing.

LP: It started out as a way to dump emotion somewhere more productive and has developed into a passion. I always loved writing but felt I didn’t have time for it, or didn’t have good reason to spend my time that way. Once I realized that other people could enjoy my writing too, it became something I wanted to do and be, for myself and not anyone else.

JP: Tell me one thing nobody knows about you. (or, at least, something most people would never guess about you.)

LP: A lot of people who know my secret identity (real-life-Leah) know this one, but it’s not something that comes up in my author persona:

I breastfed both of my children until they were at least three years old. Yep, I’m one of THOSE moms. 😉

JP: What’s next for you?

LP: As far as writing goes, I’m working really hard on finishing up a second draft of a YA fantasy I’ve gotten obsessed with. After that, I’m writing the third in this trilogy, the conclusion of Jake’s story. I’ve got a good bit of that outlined, or written out in my head, and a little of that on paper. I have to give a story a lot of head time before I write. Once I start, it all pours out pretty fast. I’m hoping to see that one out next April.

Find out more about Leah Petersen at her website


4 out of 5 stars

Was super excited to get my hands on an early eBook of Leah’s sci-fi sequel, Cascade Effect – I’d read a version of it long, long ago before it got picked up by Dragon Moon Press, so I was curious to see what it’d turned into.

Petersen seems to be following a similar structure to cinematic comic book trilogies. The first tale (Fighting Gravity) is a pure origin story. Where our hero, Jake, came from, and the process of stepping into a role larger than anything he could have imagined. The second installment explores the consequences of his choice to marry the emperor of the universe.

In case you haven’t read my review of Fighting Gravity, both characters are men. And gay.

Odd that I’d be reading this as the Supreme Court hears cases on marriage equality – but Jake’s world and our world are years apart, both literally and figuratively. In Cascade Effect, the question of whether or not two men can be married isn’t even an issue. Instead, the conflict comes from Jake’s birth and upbringing in the lowest of the slums in Mexico, and the emperor’s high birth.

The strongest part of this book is Jake’s character. After the events of Fighting Gravity, he’s left with demons and secrets he can’t tell even his husband. And everything about his new life wants to reject him. It’s obvious throughout the entire book that Jake is out over his skis, with no idea how to maneuver the political whitewater around the emperor. Couple that with the fact that Jake is maddeningly dense in that he can’t get out of his own way. He’s trying to do the right thing, but he truly is his own worst enemy. In many books, this might lead to an unlikable, annoying character, but Petersen handles it masterfully. You want Jake to turn the corner and be happy, and you root for him, despite his flaws, the entire way.

The are moments of genuine tenderness in the book. Despite the interplanetary sci-fi themes, the political intrigue and the story being set far in the future – at its heard, Cascade Effect is the story of a relationship between Jake and Pete. It’s messy, it doesn’t always work, but it feels real. It’s huge and epic, yet intimate at the same time. Their journey in finding a way to have a child of their own is heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time, something that could have easily been lost in the less capable hands of other authors.

One thing I’m not sure I liked about the book was how much Jake seemed to lose who he was. I suppose that was part of what he was dealing with – in Fighting Gravity he was a brilliant scientific mind, one of the youngest in the universe. In Cascade Effect, he’s little more than the Emperor’s arm candy to many of those around him. I felt it as a reader, but it didn’t seem to come through in Jake’s internal battles. There were a few times when he tried to lose himself in research, but I didn’t feel like losing that aspect of his life was truly an issue for him. Even when one of his scientific endeavors goes horribly wrong, Jake doesn’t question his choices.

Any sci-fi fan would be well served to pick up Fighting Gravity and Cascade Effect. Personally, I can’t wait for the next installment.

Shop for Cascade Effect on Amazon


The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination: Original Short Fiction for the Modern Evil Genius: 2013 Book #16


2 of 5 stars

Pretty typical of an anthology of short stories based around a theme – you get some good, some meh, and some downright boring.

Let’s start with the good. Of all the stories, I tended to like the ones with a more humorous bend to them. Specifically, “The Angel of Death has a Business Plan,” by Heather Lindsley and “Captain Justice Saves the Day,” by Genevieve Valentine. Probably not a coincidence that these both juxtaposed a realistic take on a character with the comic-book-like cartoon sketch of the mad scientist. That dichotomy worked best in these stories, particularly in the email exchanges between the technologically inept Dr. Mason and Brenda in the latter story.

There was a lot of “meh” in this collection for me, and consequently, I found myself growing tired of the same tropes after awhile. In fact, the longest story of the collection, “The Space Between,” I gave up on. There was a lot in this collection that was just plain uninteresting. Nearly every author painted the mad scientist as a caricature, the evil villain with some grand, dastardly plot and pitted against a typical superhero. I much preferred the few stories that explored the idea of a mad scientist in a unique way, like in “The Last Dignity of Man,” by Marjorie M. Liu. In it, a man who’s been given the name Alexander Luthor spends his whole life obsessed with living up to his namesake, in a world where there is no Superman. He is in a position to change the world, and has the power to. He wants to give the world a Superman, but he thinks the only way to do so is make himself the villain.

There are plenty of big name, award winning authors in this collection. Nearly everyone has at least one Hugo award under their belt. Many will probably enjoy it, but I would have preferred a more diverse representation of the subject.


Ready Player One: 2013 Book #15


I loved this book.

A couple people highly recommended it to me, and after reading the synopsis I could tell (unless the author’s style completely grated on me) that I’d love it. As a child of the 80s and a gamer both back then and today, the book was already tailored to appeal to me, and thematically it explored a lot of interesting issues beyond games, but with privacy, consumption and the relationship between our online personalities and our real selves.

The whole thing was pretty brilliant. Here and there, I found myself wishing the author would skip on some of the description and keep the story moving. While his knowledge of retro games and pop-culture is rock solid and obscure, at times Cline gets lost in geeking out on some of this stuff and it makes passages drag. It was definitely the exception rather than the rule, however. For the most part, it didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment.

After reading this – I want to play in OASIS. I’ve dabbled in a couple MMOs, and that sense of immersion – of visiting other worlds, is one of the aspects that appeals to me most. I don’t play Lord of the Rings Online because the game mechanic is innovative or because I like grinding the same quests over and over. I play because the world of Middle Earth is beautifully rendered, and because there’s nothing quite like exploring a universe I’ve come to love and adore.

I missed the book when it first came out, but one of people who recommended this to me mentioned that Cline had hidden an Easter Egg in the book that led to an offline contest for a Delorean, which is a pretty sweet piece of book promotion and also goes hand in hand with the whole simulation within a simulation within a simulation theme in the book. Of course, the contest is long since over, the car long since won, but I hope that one day in my lifetime games reach this level of immersion. Of course, without all the dystopia and human suffering.


Midwestern Gothic Issue 9


There’s a new issue of Midwestern Gothic, and it’s a beaut.

Issue 9 (Spring 2013) of Midwestern Gothic marked a bit of a change for us – I’m not entirely sure what caused it – but our submissions doubled this time around. After a few days I thought it might be a fluke, but as they continued to roll in, it quickly became obvious we had a lot more to sift through than we usually did. The net result of that – we got a lot of good stuff. We had to turn down a lot of good stuff. I met one of the people we rejected at AWP this year, and she asked what she needed to do differently, and I said, “Nothing. Submit another story with that same aesthetic and energy – this time around we just got another story about a similar subject that we liked better.” Uff. A great problem to have, and we definitely ended up with a strong issue because of it.

Probably my favorite of the bunch was a story that meanders to the edge of what we usually take. If a story or poem has surreal elements or is too strongly genre, we’ll typically use that as a way of cutting down the submissions. “The Sting” by William Blomstedt, is very Kafka-esque, in that it deals with a man’s partial transformation. The gist of the story is, a sexually frustrated and inept beekeeper gets stung “down there” and suddenly has ever woman in the small town he lives in knocking on his door. There were quite a few chuckle-worthy moments in the story, and I loved watching the character go from uncertain loner to sexual dynamo in such a ridiculous manner. The danger with a story like this is that it becomes trite or too far-fetched, but Blomstedt struck an excellent balance, and the whole piece has a light-hearted clear voice that makes it a joy to read. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

Bees never seem to know what to do after they have stung someone. It is, after all, a unique event in their lives. A bee’s stinger is connected to the organs in her abdomen. The barbed stinger enters the victim’s skin and it gets wedged like an arrow in the dermal layer. When the bee pulls away from her victim, the stinger stays in the skin and the bee’s stomach and other vital organs are ripped out of the exoskeleton. This trait was evolutionarily selected because it allows the bee’s venom sac to continually pump poison into the predator after it has been separated. The bee dies with the honor of offering her life in the defense of her home and family. Jake always found this fascinating: hive mentality at its finest.

This bee on his arm was going through the confusing transformation from a working member of the hive to a martyr. With her fluttering wings and body spinning around in circles, she reminded Jake of a little, living tether ball. Jake watched the insect in curiosity and sadness. What, if anything, was going through that little bee’s mind? Was she satisfied that she had fulfilled her purpose in life, having done her best to drive this honey-stealing devil away? After a few seconds, her inner organs gave in to the struggle and she pulled her body free, leaving a small trail of yellow gunk along Jake’s arm. ‘What in the world does that feel like?’ Jake wondered as the bee walked a few steps and then stopped to clean her antennae.

This bee could live for another hour but would eventually stop flying and die alone in the grass. Ants or other small insects would dismember the body and eat it, or it would just decompose into a small, smelly mess. Jake decided to aid the process and flicked the bee, sending her flying out of the truck into the high grass. He pinched the stinger out of his arm, which had already started to turn red and form a welt. ‘Well,’ he thought, ‘two stings on the day so far. Let’s see how many more it will be.’ Jake took his veil and gloves from the passenger seat and began to suit up, preparing for the ordeal ahead of him.

Buy a copy of Issue 9 and get acquainted with more emerging and established Midwestern writers.


Hapax: 2013 Book #12



4 out of 5 stars

I thought this was an incredibly strong debut for an author, and I actually struggled with giving it 3 stars or 4 stars. The more I think about it, the more I think I enjoyed the book, especially because Bryski was able to keep me engaged in a story that’s not necessarily in my wheelhouse – one built around themes, characters and settings dealing with religion.

Bryski seemed to borrow from a few different Christian religions to construct the belief system that pervades the Ecclesiat – it felt familiar enough to not get lost in the dogma, but unique enough to be her own. I also thought she did an excellent job not getting bogged down in the particulars – if it was necessary to know an aspect of the religion to forward the story or round out a character, it was included. If it wasn’t, it was omitted.

I also really enjoyed the tension between the differing factions within the church. Normally in a story like this, its the old guard who clings hard to dogma, and the youngsters are the ones who challenge the status quo. It was the opposite in Hapax, with Alesta, one of the youngest leaders of the church ever, taking the hard line stance in end times, while Gaelin, the wizened old monk acknowledging that even the Beast (cast as the well-meaning Satan in the world of Hapax) has a role to play in the world.

The book was well plotted, and her characterization was excellent. Only one felt superfluous to me, Praeton, who is also involved in a twist at the end that I felt was also superfluous. The ending is what knocked this down from a strong 4 to a weak 4 for me, without giving too much away, I thought it was far too saccharine for my tastes. Part of that may be preference, I like my endings messy, and Hapax ends about as clean as you can get. All in all, I really liked reading it, and if Bryski comes out with another book set in this universe or otherwise, I’ll likely check it out.


Farside: 2013 Book #11



2 out of 5 stars

Ben Bova is a fairly prolific science fiction and fact author, and this is my first foray into his catalog. While I thought the concept held a lot of promise and the science behind the fiction was pretty rock solid, I found myself generally underwhelmed by the tale. It’s almost as if he was writing by formula, and a lot of the prose fell flat on the page. New character entering? Spend a paragraph describing them. Important plot point? Have a character repeat it at lease three times so we make sure to get it.

I also found a lot of key character interactions to be flawed. The whole tale is spun as a mystery – when things start going wrong on this remote moon base, it reads as if the author is trying to spin a whodunnit tale of mystery and intrigue. Yet the identity and the cause of all that’s going on can be seen coming a mile away. And despite every character in Farside being a brilliant scientist, they sure are idiots when it comes to human nature. Two competing agencies racing to discover New Earth, with billions of dollars in funding hanging in the balance. Yet the heads of each respective program think nothing of using the same scientist to help them complete their projects. Nor does anyone think of a reason why these rivals might want to sabotage each other.

In fact, the idea that Farside would allow the head of a rival program and a former employee who is now being employed by said program anywhere near their facilities is a giant plot hole. It reduced most of the believability of the plot, and rendered a lot of the characters impotent.

That said, it was still a relatively entertaining read. It moves at a brisk pace, and the threat of discovering New Earth or having the entire base fall prey to destructive influences is enough to keep the pages turning. And Simpson is an excellent character amid a sea of flat personas – his never-say-quit drive and willingness to go to any lengths for the sake of the work amid a group of scientists who seem more concerned with politics makes for a nice tension.


Bull – Men’s Fiction 1 & 2: 2013 Book #9 & 10


Allow me to go crazy here and combine two reviews into one post – namely because they belong to the same literary journal: Bull {Men’s Fiction}. What is men’s fiction? It’s not fiction by men. It’s fiction about men. After reading the two issues I received from the fine gentlemen next to our table at AWP, I can say two major themes run through everything I’ve read – fatherhood and male inadequacy. Most stories contain elements of both, but on the whole a lot of the stories deal with men’s role in changing environments.

Issue 1

4 out of 5 stars

Of the two, this issue was definitely my favorite. Consequently, it also contains the journal’s only female authors. It also contains two stories that play with format and structure, including The Heart is a Strong Instrument by Jon Morgan Davies, in which online avatars and chat is employed to tell a story of a man trying to find love in a (virtual?) environment.

Perhaps my favorite story was Separation, by Tom Bonfiglio. Contains, probably, the best sex scene I’ve read in a lit journal, and its only a paragraph long. The evolving relationship between Jon and Jill is multifaceted and inevitable, and the slippery slope of Jon taking a stand for his beliefs contrasted with his conflict of ending up friends with a convicted sex offender was top notch.

My one disappointment was the interview. Chuck Klosterman is a giant of a Midwestern writer – and major kudos to these guys for landing him. But it felt like any other writer interview, like something you might read in a GQ or Rolling Stone. Bull has an amazing aesthetic going, and I would have rather seen the interview take that tone – exploring masculinity issues with Klosterman rather than talking exclusively craft. Maybe it’s just me.

Issue 2

3 out of 5 stars

Issue 2 contained a couple prior Midwestern Gothic contributors, including a novella by Adam Schuitema. I still liked it, and it was still a strong issue, but it lacked the standout stories (for me anyway) of issue 1.

One exception was Here Be Dragons by Chris Tarry. It tells the story of two men in medieval times, their adventures in fooling entire villages into thinking they are dragon slayers and then moving into the struggles of stay-at-home dadhood. Sounds comedic and filled with delicious satire – which is is. But it also touches on dark aspects of fatherhood, and how two men deal with their new found inadequacy and role in completely different (yet inevitably similar) ways.

Aside from that story – the fiction was strong, and enjoyable to read, but nothing that made me stand up and take notice. Again here, the interview with Donald Ray Pollock was solid, but I’d rather they explore issues of masculinity as it relates to fiction rather than focusing exclusively on craft and biography.

I think they did a commendable job of gathering a variety of different perspectives on “improvement,” the theme tying this issue together. Some men fail, some men succeed, and some stay exactly the same – which is how it should be. From an editorial perspective, I felt like they winnowed around the foundation of what a man has to do to improve himself, which I do believe is a driving force that defines many men. Yes, women strive to improve and better themselves, but for men it is expected. You build, you learn, you craft, you learn from your mistakes, you push forward with ambition. The improvement issue explores what happens when men live up to that expectation, and when they walk away from it.


Cloud Atlas: 2013 Book #8



3 out of 5 stars

Cloud Atlas was an uneven book for me. On the one hand, I thought the structure was brilliant. Loved how he told an interconnecting story across time, spanning 19th century slavers all the way to post-apocalyptic Hawaii and then going all the way back. I thought this technique of bookending the narrative lent itself well to telling stories within a larger story.

Some of these stories, I loved. Essentially, the middle 4 stories in the book worked for me. Hawaii, Korea, Cavendish and Seaboard are all fantastic, containing intertwining themes about politics, consumerism and family. And the characters really are kindred souls drifting across time, as the book jacket suggests.

Unfortunately, the two “bookends,” or the first and second story are dull and seem completely disconnected from the rest of the book, save for a cursory connection. (A discovered book, a penpal across the ocean.) I found myself so bored for the first 140 or so pages that I contemplated giving up. Then, when the book had delighted me and I hit those storylines again, I withheld judgement, hoping I’d appreciate the 2nd half of each of these stories given the context of the middle. I didn’t. The opening and the ending left me with a general sour taste in my mouth, even though I liked the middle bits.

Mitchell does do a phenomenal job mastering different voices and genres. The beginning feels very much like a tale from the old masters (Robinson Crusoe, etc.), while the end dips into solid sci-fi territory with dystopian themes. But even that can’t save the dullness or how flat the first and last 150 pages of the book feels. I’m interested to watch the movie now, to see how they pulled it off. Like the book, I could see it being brilliant, but I could also see it being a failure.