Southern Dust – by Caspar Vega – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review

Caspar Vega must be an interesting character.  His books are a bizarre mixture of fantasy/horror and crime drama.  Many of his characters are not the kind of people you’d want to live next door to or even meet.  They range from anti-social to sociopath to worse.  And his books are never linear.  They track back and forth in time and place and skip from voice to voice in unexpected directions.

I’ve read and reviewed two other books by Caspar Vega, “The Pink Beetle” and the “The Eclectic Prince.”  And after each one I confirm both to myself and to my readers that Mr. Vega’s stories are way outside my wheelhouse.  Not that I only read or enjoy light-hearted fare.  I enjoy horror and even crime drama.  But there is something nihilistic about the atmosphere in these stories that is off-putting for me.  I must be getting old.

But here I am again.  I decided to try out Southern Dust.  The premise of the story is that in the near future the Democrats assassinate a Republican president and install one of their own through chicanery.  In response, a revolt in Alabama breaks the state away from the Union.  And in short order a good number of other states also declare their independence.  This story follows the fates of three individuals that collide in this strange new world.

Along with the other suppositions of this world are super soldiers, vampires and black magic.  But the mainstay of the story are the characters.  And they live up to the type that I remember from Mr. Vega’s earlier books.  Even the good guys are very troubled individuals.  The criminals on the other hand can be at least somewhat sympathetic but brutality is their stock in trade.  Murder for hire, framing up ex-girlfriends and bounty hunting all occur but brain-washed undead is probably the weirdest plot device you run into.  And even when one of the characters tries to do a good deed it boomerangs back on him in the classic no good deed  goes unpunished catergory.

I’ll finish my review of this book much as I’ve done with its predecessors, with a mixed message.  This is an interesting book.  But it’s not for everyone. It’s for those who like gritty crime dramas with a staccato, post-modern, minimalist writing style.  Your call.

Monster Hunter Siege by Larry Correia – A Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Review

Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series has been a fun experience for me.  His stories feature heroic monster hunters battling the unalloyed evil of the world’s varied monster population.  The Shacklefords and their associates have turned wholesale slaughter of the undead into a lucrative enterprise but one that has taken its toll on the family.  Included in this attrition are three recent victims who have been turned respectively, into a werewolf and two master vampires.  But what makes it a pleasure is that none of the monsters and none of the hunters ever seem tempted to wax poetic on the need to increase the world quotient of social justice.  The diversity of the characters is measured in species of monsters dispatched or the variety of allied supernatural creatures such as trailer-park dwelling elves, death-metal loving orcs and gangsta gnomes who get featured in a story.  Correia never once discusses the need to ascertain the correct gender fluid pronouns of any zombies before blowing their heads off with a rocket propelled grenade.  So, the books are very much action oriented.  Shooting monsters is their forte.

But I am happy to relate that Larry’s storytelling abilities are definitely becoming more nuanced.  In Siege one of the highlights of the book is a sustained dialog between the protagonist (Owen Pitt) and his nemesis.  In this scene Correia gives the devil his due.  In fact, I think his evil character may actually seal the show.  Of course, there is still plenty of combat and monsters being blown up.  And Larry further clarifies the mythology of his universe.  So never fear, there’s plenty of explosions to warm the heart of all Monster Hunter fans.  But Larry is definitely steering the series into a more complicated plot.  Larry has shown that he is not averse to killing off some of his characters.  And some of that goes on in Siege.  But what is also clarified is that he is braiding at least five separate strands of supernatural intervention and even some of the “good guys” may not get along together.  So, we shouldn’t expect any imminent resolution of the larger threat that has been growing in the background.  If anything, the details at the end of Siege further complicate the future for Owen and his family.  But that’s alright.  Larry seems in control of his material and expanding the scope of the story to epic proportions.

So, if you are already a Monster Hunter fan then the good news is that Siege is a very worthy successor to the series.  And if you are new to the series then rest assured that your investment will pay off with an already good number of sequels to satisfy your monster killing quota and with every indication that Larry will continue to expand the Monster Hunter saga into an urban fantasy franchise comparable in size and quality to Jim Butcher’s Dresden files.  The only shortcoming to the story is that the only mention of Agent Franks is retrospective to the previous book.  We’ll have to wait for the next book to see his smiling face.

For you Monster Hunter Intl. Fans, Larry Correia Has Posted Part X of his Annual Christmas Noun Saga

Larry was the guiding spirit behind the original Sad Puppies campaign and the author of the best-selling Monster Hunter International series.  He’s also an extremely amusing fellow and his Christmas Noun parody is a yearly institution on his site.  The earlier installments are linked there and provide background on the various goofy story conventions involved in the tale.  And it’s free.  Enjoy.

CHRISTMAS NOUN X: THE GHOSTS OF DIE HARDS PAST

2017 Dragon Awards Winners Announced

The results have been announced and just as with last year, the Hugos have been shown once again to be way outside the mainstream.  Of course, not everything I voted for won.  But enough did and enough other stuff that did win was at least recognizable as SF&F.  Sure, there’s some stuff written by SJW allies but at least it was stuff people actually buy so the really egregious stuff was passed over completely.  Here’s the complete list:

http://awards.dragoncon.org/2017_winners/

Kudos to the winners and especially to Larry and the other puppies, sad and rabid, for starting the fire in that dumpster known as the Hugos.  Like anything that’s been shown defective the Hugos have been replaced with something that actually works.

Ray Bradbury – An American Original – Part 2 – The Short Stories

In the first part of this post, I’ve given a little background on how I became introduced to Ray Bradbury’s stories.  After detailing Dandelion Wine, I feel talking about his shorter works is the next order of business.  I own a collection of these called “The Stories of Ray Bradbury” which includes what Bradbury considered his best 100 short stories.  I went through these today and picked out my favorites.  I feel it’s necessary to qualify that statement.  There are more than a few of Bradbury’s best stories that have become components of the longer work Dandelion Wine.  Since I’ve already reviewed that work I’ve left these short stories out of this selection process.

Here are my selections for the best of the best in the same order as they appear in the book:

  1. The Crowd
  2. The Scythe
  3. The City
  4. There Was an Old Woman
  5. There Will Come Soft Rains
  6. The Veldt
  7. A Sound of Thunder
  8. Invisible Boy
  9. The Fog Horn
  10. Hail and Farewell
  11. The Great Wide World Over There
  12. Skeleton
  13. The Man Upstairs
  14. The Jar
  15. Touched with Fire
  16. The Town Where No One Got Off
  17. Boys! Grow Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!
  18. The One Who Waits

Now here’s the thing.  I could easily have added double this number.  Almost all the stories are good.  But these are the ones I especially like.  So, this selection probably says more about me than it does about Bradbury’s best of the best.  But that can be said about any critic’s choices.

An interesting fact I discovered after making this list is that there are at least three stories in this list which I don’t think have any SF&F content in them whatsoever.  They are just studies in human nature.  And yet they appear on this list.  Which I take to mean that Bradbury finds people interesting and knows how to make them interesting to his readers.  Now, that may not seem remarkable, but look at the people writing at the same time as Bradbury.  Let’s take Isaac Asimov.  If you read Asimov’s long or short fiction what you will find is that he is a purveyor of ideas.  But his characters, even his protagonists are ciphers.  There isn’t any emotional content worth mentioning.  And that even counts the scenes where the action is dependent on an emotional response from one of his characters.  He could just as well have been describing billiard balls ricocheting around a pool table.  You might even see the psychological logic of the emotional response but you won’t experience empathy or interest in the character as a human being because of it.  It’s just a plot device.

This was why Bradbury was different back then.  He wrote people in SF&F stories as if they actually were people.  Better writers back then were also doing this to some extent.  Heinlein’s characters displayed more individuality than the average and this is one of the reasons why he is still enjoyed.  But Bradbury brought this to a much higher level.

What else can be definitely said about Bradbury’s stories?  I would say that he almost exclusively deals in the foreground of the picture.  By that I mean that his subjects are almost always face to face.  If Arthur C. Clarke were describing a nuclear holocaust you would see it from orbit.  You would see the ballistic paths of the ICBMs and you would be at the top of the parabola when one missile starts to descend.  And you would see the individual nuclear ignitions across the face of the globe like some fireworks display.  That’s not Bradbury.  With him you’ll see the aftermath of a suburban home on the edge of the kill zone.  You’ll see the toaster in the kitchen and you’ll see the shadows of the family imprinted onto the side of the house facing the gamma ray flash.

Even when Bradbury does write a story of aliens invading earth you are not going to get War of the Worlds.  You’ll get that same suburban neighborhood with husbands and housewives and little Jimmy working on his hobby in the basement.

So now I’ve said a bunch of words about Bradbury’s short fiction.  If you’re looking for hard-core technical sf or even just plain old amusing space opera do not stop at Bradbury.  Move right along.  There’s none of that here.  But if you want to delve into the mysterious world within a world that is the human soul take a trip with him.  It might strike a resonant chord.  Or it might not.  Either way you’ll learn something.

Ray Bradbury – An American Original – Part 1 – Dandelion Wine

 

When I was a kid back in the third quarter of the twentieth century I came upon science fiction in the children’s section of the Brooklyn Public Library.  And so I read Heinlein’s and Asimov’s juvenile sf stories.  As I got a little older I was able to borrow from the adult collection and soon discovered all the golden age authors and some of the newer, edgier writers.  But at a certain point I discovered Ray Bradbury.  I remember he had two collections called R is for Rocket, S is for Space.  But when I read them I found out he wasn’t writing space opera.  In fact, some of his stories didn’t seem to be science fiction at all.  At the time, I didn’t know what fantasy was.  They just seemed to be strange stories.  Later on, I found some of his stories showing up on “The Twilight Zone” TV series and this helped me categorize them as something weird and fun.  But whatever I called him Bradbury was different from the other writers I knew.  Each of his stories had to be evaluated on the merits.  Some of his stories lacked fantasy plot elements and at the time these stories seemed lacking in interest.  Others were almost horror stories and these kept my attention best.  Even his most externally identifiable science fiction stories, “The Martian Chronicles,” didn’t feel like other science fiction stories.  Even if there were ray guns and aliens and space ships it didn’t seem as if these were the point of the story.  They were more like parables or morality tales.  And to a kid this was perplexing.  But I always considered Bradbury as something worth reading.  He was high value.

Fast forward twenty years.  It was the late nineteen eighties.  I was in an old used bookstore in Boston during my lunch hour from a design engineering job I had.  I hadn’t read any science fiction in a while.  I was browsing through a pile of books that had been displayed earlier in the year as summer reading.  There was a used hard cover book with a mylar library-type jacket cover on and a cover painting of a little blond haired boy virtually covering the pavement with his chalk drawings of lines and shapes.  The book was called “Dandelion Wine” and the author was Ray Bradbury.  It was a novel length book and it surprised me because I didn’t remember Bradbury writing many novels.  At the time “Fahrenheit 451” was the only one I could think of.

On a lark, I bought it.  I put it on my bookshelf and figured I’d get to it when the project I was on slowed down.  Well I forgot all about that book and before that project slowed down I had changed jobs and was too busy for reading.  It was about nine months later in July, when I picked it up again.  I was going on vacation with my wife and kids to Old Orchard Beach, Maine for a week.  It’s a very working class old beach resort where middle class people go to sit by the ocean and let their kids dig sand castles and swim.  And later on, you can go down to the pier and buy bad pizza and ice cream for your kids and let them get fake tattoos or go down to the amusement park and watch them be centrifuged in the dozen or so kinetic devices that are used to extract dollars from parents and regurgitated food from kids’ stomachs.  The several years I brought my young family there are among the happiest memories I have.

Anyway, when the family settled in the beach house at night and the kids settled down to reading or watching the TV I picked up Dandelion Wine.  And I was surprised to find I had already read it.  But wait, not really, I’d read parts of it.  What Bradbury had done was patch together a number of his older stories along with transition scenes that tied them together, and make a narrative about a summer for a boy and his family and neighbors in Green Town, USA circa 1928.  What it really was, was an ode to the boyhood Ray Bradbury had lived and imagined in Waukegan, Illinois.  He used the memories of his childhood home and passed them through the story writing algorithm in his head and invented a world that struck me as remarkable.  Here were the mundane short stories that as a kid didn’t click with me because there were no monsters or space ships.  Now they were knitted together to talk about what was magical about being a twelve-year-old boy in a small mid-western town in the early twentieth century with three months of summer vacation ahead of you.  They are stories about family and friends and growing up and living and getting old and even dying.  And they are mostly about being a kid.

Since that summer I’ve re-read that book a dozen times in whole or part.  I mostly read it when I have some vacation time in summer.  This year I’ll be sixty.  When I read that book I’m not even sixteen, I’m twelve.  It’s remarkable.  I didn’t grow up in a small town.  I grew up on the relatively mean streets of Brooklyn, NY.  And I was born forty years after him.  But I can understand what he’s saying and feeling in his alter ego character.  He’s captured the essence of boyhood in its quintessential form, summer freedom.  And the setting is a simpler time and place.  It’s idyllic.  Not realistic but almost archetypal.

I imagine there are many for whom this type of story has no appeal.  It’s not high adventure or technical fun.  But if any of this strikes a chord try the book out.

Changeling’s Island by Dave Freer – A Very Short Review (by Proxy)

 

I have a relative, a boy in seventh grade, who is a ravenous reader of science fiction and fantasy (among other things).  Being a conservative and being allergic to anything smacking of political correct narrative fiction I have made it my practice to pass along the older stuff that I grew up on back in the time before fun was banned.  He digests these old books at a rate that seems almost supernatural.  But recently I bought something modern to see how that would fly.

I had heard good things about Dave Freer’s “Changeling’s Island.”  I ordered it on Amazon but instead of the usual two days, it took about two weeks.  I guess it had to be printed on order.  I did a quick read of the first couple of chapters and found it engaging and appropriate for my young reading machine.  I dropped it off a week ago and hoped he would like it.

Well, I spoke with him today and discovered that not only did he like it, he wanted more of the same.  Apparently, this was good stuff.  I told him I didn’t have any more at the moment but would check for more stuff from Freer.  He was unpleased at my unpreparedness to feed the machine with its new fuel of choice.  In desperation, I foisted off a set of the Foundation trilogy on him that I had been holding onto since 1970, and told him I’d try to do better in the future.  So now I have to find out if Freer has any other young adult sf&f available.  If not I’ll be responsible for disappointing the next generation.  Wish me luck.

The Eclectic Prince by Caspar Vega – A Short Book Review

Back on March 14th 2017 I reviewed favorably Mr. Vega’s novella “The Pink Beetle”.  That was the third installment of his “The Young Men in Pain Quartet Book Series.”  The Eclectic Prince is the first installment but the grouping is only thematic and not sequential so you may sample in any order.  As I noted in my earlier book review, Mr. Vega has a very distinct writing style.  He makes sudden transitions and violent plot shifts.  His characters are not introspective but very impulsive and action oriented.  The plot progresses rapidly but rarely linearly.

The first piece of information to convey is that this is an adult book.  There is a fair amount of sexual content that would be entirely inappropriate for even teenagers (in my opinion).  And there are some situations that are fairly disturbing from the point of view of conventional social mores.

Now for some personal information as a point of reference on my taste in books.  Full disclosure, I’m not typically a consumer of dark fiction.  I mostly inhabit the sunnier climes of story-telling.  I will indulge in something like Red Dragon or Silence of the Lambs if it’s very well written but it’s not my usual fare.

The Eclectic Prince is relatively dark.  There aren’t any good guys to cheer.  The protagonist at various times indulges in violent assault of a stranger and murder of a family friend.  And there are even darker doings that I will not mention so as not to spoil the story.  Suffice it to say he’s not such a nice guy.  And he’s not even justified in the sense that he’s getting revenge on someone who committed a terrible wrong against him.  He’s just a sociopath.

The outline of the story is episodic and consists of different vignettes that are tied together by the fantasy mechanism that underlines the story.  This mechanism isn’t entirely clear from the text and this vagueness adds to the seeming randomness of the plot.

Let me sum it up.  It’s a dark disturbing story of an unsympathetic protagonist, a kind of story that I would not typically choose to read.

But it’s well written, original and engaging in a transgressive way.  Once again Mr. Vega is in the tradition of a noir type story with a fantasy framework to remove the bizarre story from the realm of reality.  This allows some justification for suspending a very heavy bias against such a disagreeable protagonist.  For those who seek out this type of story I can wholeheartedly recommend it.  It is not for the faint of heart.

I haven’t decided whether to delve deeper into his quartet.  This type of story is, as I stated above, not my typical choice.  But maybe when I’m in a darker mood I’ll venture in again for another dose.

A Eulogy for Grimm – Part 2 – The Series Finale

A Eulogy for Grimm – Part 1

 

Spoiler Alert.  If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know, don’t read this.

So, last night I watched it.  Oh, Good Lord.  The only theory that could deflect shame from everyone involved in this fiasco is if the writers had all been fired and instead the Producer’s teenage daughter wrote it, while attending a school dance, while texting her best friends, while breaking up with her boyfriend, during a hurricane.  Even as an ironic joke or as part of a drinking game (let’s say a tequila shot after each important character is brutally slaughtered) it’s unwatchable.  Rather than belabor the point with countless examples of awful television viewing let me cut to the chase.  At the climax of the show the hero is about to betray the world to the devil by surrendering to him this ultimate weapon when he is stopped by a young woman snatching it away.  He then chases her down, beats her into submission and is heading back to surrender it again when his dead mother and dead aunt calling to him from heaven shame him into a debate about fighting back.  But he’s so broken from the beating he’s been given by the devil that the only way he agrees to fight is if his mother and his aunt will fight for and with him.  Think about this for a moment.  A grown man has to be helped in a fight by his mother!  And in fact, most of the damage in the battle is done by his dead female relatives.  This truly represents the low ebb of masculinity on broadcast TV.  After the victory, there’s a sort of alternate reality scene change where all the main characters are alive again and don’t remember any of the climax as if it didn’t actually happen.  Nick starts hugging them all and seems pretty close to blubbering and it’s reminiscent of Dorothy awaking in her bed in Kansas.  “You were there and you were there, and there’s no place like home.”  Good Lord.  Then the very final scene is twenty years in the future and his son and his baby mamma’s daughter (by his mortal enemy and police chief boss) are now Grimms getting ready to head off with Mom and Dad for some good old American Wessen slaughtering.  Good clean fun.  Good Lord.

I confess I liked this show when it first came out.  My only defense is that it was in the early Obama years and I needed something absurd to allow me to think that maybe none of what was going on in the world was real.  After all, if a whole American city could be composed of monsters without any humans suspecting then maybe somehow the world would manage to escape the Obama presidency without mortal damage being done.  Silly me.  Luckily, now we’re in the age of Trump and I don’t need fantasies to distract me.  The reality is bizarre (and entertaining) enough.  So, farewell to Nick and Juliette.  Farewell to Monroe and Rosalee.  Long may you inhabit Wessen-infested make-believe Portland Oregon which is a distinct improvement over the actual horror of SJW infested Portland.

A Eulogy for Grimm – Part 1

A eulogy is supposed to be praise spoken over the deceased at his funeral.  It literally means “good speech” in the Greek.  So technically I suppose this should be called a kakology* because I won’t be saying too much good.  Maybe what this should be called is a post-mortem.

I started watching Grimm when it premiered in 2011.  When it began I thought it was fun.  The special effects were alright and the conceit that just about everyone in Portland Oregon was a monster (called Wesen) hadn’t yet become a reductio ad absurdum.  Also, I hadn’t grown to despise most of the characters yet.

I’ll give my analysis for what went wrong with Grimm.  I think the problem with any of these urban fantasy TV series is the open-ended aspect of weekly TV.  While it is possible to advance the “mythology” component of the show toward some long-term plot line in a way that can be sustained for several seasons, the single episode plot component needs to have some interesting writing each week to prevent the show from seeming repetitive and boring.  I mean, how many ways are there to have the protagonist (Nick, the Grimm) skewer the monster du jour with a sword or a pitch fork or a lawn dart?  Eventually the look of boredom starts showing up even on the well-paid actors’ faces.  This is similar to the problem that occurs on all long-running TV shows but it’s especially dangerous to these fantasy shows because the action is already incredibly close to ridiculous from the get go.  It doesn’t take much to achieve the reductio ad absurdum I mentioned earlier.  After all, hiding the prodigious body count of terminated monsters (who revert to human form upon being deep sixed) is kind of hard to justify over the course of years.  And with just about every individual introduced in the series being a Wesen it seems laughable that they haven’t already taken over Portland and massacred Nick and his friends.

Another problem is the lack of likeability of most of the main characters.   Nick’s girl-friend (Juliette) becomes a Wesen and eventually murders and beheads his mother.  And after Juliette is killed (and then re-animated as an emotionless zombie named Eve) Nick becomes intimate with the Wesen (a hexenbiest or witch named Adalind) that was responsible for Juliette becoming evil.  Her ex-lover (Sean who also happens to be the chief of police and Nick’s boss) goes from being an enemy to an ally to a mortal foe of the good guys,  He is also the step father of Nick’s son.  Basically it’s hard to really take any of the relationships seriously or even remember how we got to where the story stands.  However, over the course of the series, the only character that I didn’t come to despise was Monroe.  Regardless of how idiotic the script that this vegan werewolf clock repairman was given, the actor managed to inject humor and interest in the character.

And finally, the biggest reason Grimm stinks is because the plots are all the same.  The variations for why Wesen were murdering the few humans that exist in Portland or each other were wholly unimportant and extremely boring.

I stopped watching the show a year ago.  When I heard it had been cancelled and only a half season was being produced this year I started watching again.  I wanted to see if a short span allowed the writers to sharpen up the plots and give us something worth watching.  So far it hasn’t.  This Friday (March 31st) is the series finale.  I’ll report back afterwards to document whether they could even salvage that.  I’m not very hopeful.

 

*I prefer transliterating the Greek letter kappa into English with the letter k instead of c.

 

A Eulogy for Grimm – Part 2