narfna’s #CBR5 Review #79: Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

I’ve heard good things about Chuck Wendig, and I do enjoy his blog quite a bit, but I’d been reluctant to try his fiction. It sounded a bit more gruesome and, er, intense than what I usually like to read. But when I read his Big Idea post on Scalzi’s website, I knew I at least had to check this one out. I mean, cornpunk? Come on.

In Mr. Wendig’s words, the idea for this book started out as a joke:

“I blog five days out of seven at terribleminds and sometimes the blog posts come easily and other times they come like I’m trying to perform a root canal on a velociraptor and one of the times the blog post came easy was one where I talked about – and asked people to submit their own – SomethingPunk derivatives. You got cyberpunk, dieselpunk, bugpunk, and so forth, and I thought it’d be a whole sack of hoots for folks to invent their own silly SomethingPunk subgenres.
One of my suggestions was “cornpunk.”

I wrote:

The yaddayaddapunks generally posit a world essentially fueled by the yaddayaddathing, right? Everything runs on steam in steampunk, cyberpunk shows a world ineluctably married to futuristic corporate computer culture, and splatterpunk reveals a future where everything is based on an economical ecosystem of gore and viscera. (Okay, I might have that last one wrong.) If you were to assign our current day and age a Somethingpunk name, you might think of it as “Oil-and-Cheeseburger-Punk,” but that really doesn’t have a ring. But. But! Everything is also based on corn. I think with a few knob twists and lever pulls, you could crank that up and offer up a crazy moonbat podunk dystopian future-present where all of Western Civilization is powered by corn and corn-derivatives. It’s all silos and cornfields and giant mega-tractor-threshers and it’ll be all “Great Depression II: Sadness Boogaloo.” And fuck me if this didn’t start out as a joke but now sounds completely compelling. I call dibs! I call dibs on cornpunk! And niblets, too! Corn niblets! I call dibs on corn niblets because they are delicious!

Well, I was pretty much done for after reading that. Even if I didn’t end up loving the book, he’d piqued my interest enough that I pretty much needed to read it right away. I didn’t end up loving it, but I still think it was worth it.

Here are my main thoughts about Under the Empyrean Sky:

1. For most of the book, the story falls victim to the standard YA dystopian plot arc. If you’ve read any amount of YA at all, you can probably guess where most of this is going. This mostly applies only to the worldbuilding.
2. HOWEVER. That standard YA worldbuilding is almost entirely covered with a thin layer of Wendig’s own special brand of whatever it is he’s got going on in his head. The cornpunk thing was by turns mind numbing, intriguing, and horrifying. He’s created a nightmare world out of Americana: farmland, corn, the Heartland . . . they’re all cursed in this book, and it’s bleak as fuck. It actually reminds me strongly of a dystopian version of The Grapes of Wrath.
3. Relatedly, one of the reasons I wasn’t feeling this book in the beginning is that it did remind me so strongly of The Grapes of Wrath, a book which I do not like. In fact, for whatever reason, I really can’t stand books or movies that are set in and around the dustbowl and the Great Depression. I hate them. So that definitely affected my reading of this book.
4. Though it was well-written, and the characters were three dimensional and interesting, I didn’t actually like any of them, so it wasn’t really that fun to read about them.
5. The ending really picked up and once a certain thing happened, I was interested in seeing where else Wendig would take his story, now that he’s got the intro bits taken care of.

All in all, worth checking out even if it wasn’t necessarily my thing — it’s DEFINITELY better than most of the YA shit that gets published these days. And who knows, maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to try some of Wendig’s adult fare. Although I doubt it. In her review of Double Dead, my Goodreads friend SJ strongly implied that one might need brain bleach while reading, and the need for brain bleach is a pretty strong deterrent (I don’t really like zombie books, either). Anyway, Wendig seems cool, even if his books give me nightmares, even his YA ones (seriously, guys, corn everywhere like a virus, people going sterile and getting tumors all over the place . . . gag).

[3.5 stars]

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #70: Requiem by Ken Scholes

requiem fantasy

The fourth book in the Psalms of Isaak series continues the very weird and original story that involves steampunk robots, world-ending curses, weird magic powders, and a bunch of powerful wizards who live on the moon. It’s a pretty cool story, but unfortunately my experience of reading it wasn’t ideal.

I received an ARC of the first book in this series in 2008 and I gobbled it up. It was a teensy bit rough getting into the storyworld for me, in the way that it sometimes is with new fantasy books that have complex worlds to build for their readers, most of them from the ground up. But the story and the characters were intriguing, and it was a ridiculously fast read. The second book was published six months later. I had a bit of trouble getting back into the story and trying to remember what was going on, but only a bit. The third book was published a year later. I had a significantly harder time getting back in to the story and trying to remember what events had led up to what was going on. My problems weren’t helped by the complete lack of any exposition in the series.  If you don’t remember exactly what has happened before in this series, you are screwed. I was of two minds with this. While I appreciated not being talked down to by the author, and liked that he assumed I would be smart enough to catch on to what was happening, the fact was that it had been two years since I’d started the series and in the interim, I’d been filling my brain with hundreds of other new books and cramming for my Master’s Exams. I caught on eventually, though, and enjoyed myself thoroughly. And then Scholes didn’t publish the fourth book for three more years. The result of this? I was completely and utterly lost for the first third of this book, and still not completely sure of myself for a good part after that.

I’m not sure how fair of me it is to judge this book based on my particular reading experience, but I can’t give this book any higher than three stars because the fact is that being that confused by a story (especially when I’m used to kicking pretty much any story’s ass that I read) was not a fun experience, and that made me resent the book. Look, I’m not sure what Mr. Scholes could have done about this, aside from writing the book faster*. Maybe something as simple as a brief summary of previous books at the beginning? Again, I appreciate that he didn’t feel the need to make callbacks and re-explain things he’d already explained in previous books, but come on. And it’s not even like I could turn to Wikipedia or some fan-made wiki for plot summaries or anything, because these books aren’t widely read, and those things just don’t exist. In order for me to have fully appreciated the events of this book, I would have had to re-read the first three, which is something I had neither the time nor inclination to do.

*I’m pretty sure a couple deaths in the family contributed to the slower writing pace for this one, and I get that. I’m not a total dick.

If any of you plan on checking this series out (and despite the tone of this review, I would suggest doing so if you like fantasy), I would highly recommend waiting for the last book to be published and then reading them all in a row. If I’d have done that, I’m pretty sure this would have been a four star read (although to talk about the actual book instead of my feeeeelings, part of me felt this book, unlike the last three in the series, was sort of treading water, not wanting too much to happen before the finale).

But, Mr. Scholes, please for the love of God, help me out next time? Just a little. I’m trying really hard to like your series, but I’m only human, here.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #68: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

ocean“But standing in that hallway, it was all coming back to me. Memories were waiting at the edges of things, beckoning to me.”

Perhaps WHAM!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” isn’t the best background music for writing what feels like a very personal review of a very personal book, but it’s what I’ve got to work with. I’m not sure what I was expecting this cafe to play over their loudspeaker — friggin’ “Carmina Burana”? — when I’m so obviously having a moment over here, but it wasn’t the best of the 80s. On the other hand, since I have one of those pseudo-poetical bullshit souls that make connections between things that are in actuality not connected at all, it kind of feels right that I’m writing about this book, which is so concerned with memory and childhood, to what was essentially the music of my own childhood (minus the omnipresence of the Beach Boys — I had a very Beach Boy filled childhood seeing as my parents are old as fuck). Anyway, I don’t think I’m entirely out of place being all sentimental and nostalgic here.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a short book, but packs a wallop. Our unnamed narrator (whom I can’t help but identify with Gaiman himself) arrives at his childhood home just after attending his father’s funeral, and soon makes his way down the lane to the Hempstock farm, where sitting by their pond and drinking tea, memories he hasn’t thought of in years begin flooding back to him, memories of a man who stole his family’s car, and killed himself in it. His suicide sets off a chain of seemingly insignificant events that brings our narrator into contact with things equally wonderful and frightening.

“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

I am twenty-eight years old, and I have never felt like an adult. Not once. I wake up every morning, drink my coffee or tea, eat my breakfast, and go to work. I pay my bills. I write thank you notes (although less than I should). I say please and thank you and I try to get along. But inside I feel like I’m just pretending. Inside, I’m still that kid trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up. The only difference between myself at twenty-eight and myself at twelve is that it’s getting harder and harder to work all the pieces of my life into a cohesive narrative. As a kid, things were bright and sharp and full of wonder, and I remembered all of it all the time. Now, I can barely remember what I had for breakfast, let alone the way it used to feel when it was raining in Arizona when I was eight and I built umbrella bush forts and pretended to make magic potions out of dirt and berries. Everything seemed bigger when I was a kid, and now the world feels small and big at the same time, but not the good kind of big, where you can’t wait to see what’s next. The bad kind of big where you don’t know where to go next and nobody is there telling you what to do and how to do it. Instead, there’s the constant feeling of missing something that was never there in the first place.

There’s a pond in this book that contains an ocean. This is impossible. This pond is a small thing that secretly contains an infinity, most of which has been forgotten by someone, or everyone, or which is simply too big to hold in one place at the same time. It’s really hard to put into words. The bigger the feeling, the harder it is to express it with something as prosaic as language. But then again, that’s what the book is for, not this review. When I was finished with it, I immediately got up off my bed, put the book down on my bookshelf, and said, “Huh.” I then burst into tears, for no outwardly explainable reason. I’m still not entirely sure of the exact reason, to be honest.

“I do not miss childhood, but I do miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from the things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.”

This is not a young adult book, so stop putting it on your YA shelves. This is not a book for a young person to appreciate. A young person would read this book and think, well, yeah, this is how the world works, because they haven’t forgotten anything yet. This is a book for adults who have forgotten, not what it was like to be a child, necessarily, but how to get back to that place in your head where ponds can be oceans and magic exists, and there’s something more beyond the horizon than your next day at work, the next slog of your increasingly sped up humdrum life.

“Father Figure” is now playing on the overhead, so that’s my cue, I think. Lord, what was George Michael thinking.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #48: The Green Mile by Stephen King

greenUgh I’m in such a bad mood right now, guys, and bad moods are not conducive to writing reviews. Certainly not good reviews. So right up front, I’m just warning you this is going to be a shitty review. I promised myself I would write at least a review per day until I was caught up, and dammit, that’s what I’m going to do.

I’ve never seen The Green Mile. I DVRed it from AMC the night before Michael Clarke Duncan died and it’s been sitting by its morbid little self ever since. I’m afraid to watch it. The only reason I read the book is because I’m tutoring this high school kid and I let him pick a book to read so we could work on his skills and shit, and this is the book he picked because that kid fucking loves Stephen King. So it was like the reverse of when teachers make you read things in high school, which is a kind of trippy thought I just had right now as I’m pulling this review out of my butt.

Anyway, it was a pretty good story. It got a little repetitive at times, but I love stories with conversational narrators. Also stories about prisons. And weird mystical shit (even though I totally didn’t even know that part was coming.) It’s like, one second this is a prison book and I’m thinking I’ll get something along the lines of The Shawshank Redemption except with Death Row, but then all of a sudden WHABAM WELCOME TO NARNIA MOTHERFUCKERS.

Stuff I know: this book is really good for teaching high school kids about motifs, themes, and recurring images. Michael Clarke Duncan was born to play the role of John Coffey. Thank God for penicillin. Stephen King’s brain is crazy. I still haven’t seen The Green Mile.


narfna’s #CBR5 Review #39: Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

14739231A naked old man holding a gun shoots and kills NYPD Detective John Tallow’s partner of five years, and that murder — aside from being devastating and emotionally traumatic for Tallow — leads to the discovery of an apartment full of nothing but guns. Two hundred plus guns, adorning the walls, the floors, all in some mysterious pattern, and each and every one is linked to an unsolved Manhattan murder within the last twenty years. John Tallow is stuck with this career ending case when he should be home grieving for his partner.

I really, really liked this book, even though it was a little bit more violent and bleak than my usual tastes. Also, I say it was bleak, which is technically true, but Ellis is such a good writer it doesn’t even matter. Plus, it’s funny as hell. Tallow himself is a bit of a killjoy, but Ellis’s narration, and his creation of inspired CSU characters Bat and Scarly (who become Tallow’s de facto partners in solving the case), is just fun. He also does something right by letting us inside the mind of the killer, who we meet really early on. Very early on this transforms the central question of the narrative from Who killed all these people? to Who is this man and why does he do what he does? Tallow figures it out as we do. The nice thing about Tallow is that the story frames this murder investigation as a wake-up call for Tallow’s psyche, which has been deep underwater for what seems like decades. As the case becomes more complicated, Tallow just gets smarter.

This is almost the perfect crime thriller. It’s super smart. Ellis’s prose is witty and unique, with just the right amount of gore and cynicism, balanced nicely with pure action adrenaline, cool surprises, and humorous banter. He also has a nifty way with thematic undertones. You could read this book as a straight thriller, but he’s also got some stuff to say about memory, history, and violence. He’s also friggin’ obsessed with maps. All the characters you would expect to be here are here, but they’re also a little bit twisted, with just the right amount of character flavor. The result hits all the crime thriller pleasure spots, but also makes you think you’re reading something really unique and sort of revolutionary.

I really had only two complaints about the book. First, Warren Ellis is British. He does a nice job with New York for the most part, but take that statement with a grain of salt. I’ve never been to New York and all I know about it I know from movies and television and super catchy hybrid soul/hip-hop songs. Where it really shows is in the dialogue. Mostly the dialogue was pretty normal, but every once in a while Britishisms would just slip in, particularly when he was writing for Bat and Scarly. My other complaint is that I felt the ending was a bit short-shrifted. It built and built and built with all this lovely tension, and then it just sort of . . . ended. I got the feeling there could be sequels from the way everything in the case was downplayed, like Tallow and Bat and Scarly haven’t seen the last of each other. If that’s the case, I certainly won’t complain.

Also, Warren Ellis kind of scared me before I read this, but I’m going to check his other junk out now because I liked this so much. (I don’t think I’ll ever be reading Crooked Little Vein, though; that just sounds like too somethin’ somethin’ for me.)

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #16: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke

I’m sort of reluctant to actually write this review. Like the feeling of it will be akin to opening up a vein, or getting punched on an old bruise or something. Which is weird, because the raw-wound nature of the sadness that permeates this book is not something that I’m really familiar with in my real life, so I guess it’s a testament to the power of Clarke’s writing that I feel like just by writing about the things that happened to her characters that I will be exposing myself to those feelings as well. And that’s something I didn’t actually anticipate writing in this review, as I just now realized it while I was typing.

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is a hybrid speculative fiction, capital ‘R’ romance, mad-scientist fairytale about a robot and the girl who loves him. It’s honestly one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, and it was deeply unsettling in parts, but the overall sum of those parts was a book that is brave and confident and full of deeply felt emotions.

The titular mad scientist’s daughter is Catarina ‘Cat’ Novak, whom we follow from the age of five through to adulthood. She lives with her mother and father in a semi-isolated backwoods house in a small town. Her father is well-liked, but also sort of secluded and mysterious when it comes to his work, and her mother is emotionally aloof. One day he brings home a man named Finn and introduces him as Cat’s tutor. Cat is at first deeply suspicious of this new character in her life, but they quickly form a bond, one that makes everyone but her father nervous and uncomfortable. See, Finn is an android, a robot under perfectly manufactured skin; his brain is a computer. This doesn’t matter to Cat as she grows up, but as the story goes along, it’s made abundantly clear that no matter how much Cat (thinks) she sees him as a person, other people do not feel the same way, and that in turn affects the way she sees him and treats him as well. As Cat grows up, Clarke navigates her emotional terrain as she struggles to justify her feelings for Finn as a person, to choose between the things she wants and the things that would seem to make her life easier. I don’t want to say much more, because Cat’s process of self-discovery is the main arc of the book.

I only had a couple of issues with the book, and they’re both sort of related to one another. The first is that, while it was beautiful (the prose is wonderful), the unrelenting sadness in Clarke’s tone got to be a bit much. I needed a little bit of levity here and there, especially near the middle when Cat was having the hardest time. Clarke’s words seeped into my brain and I almost succumbed to Cat’s depression, too. The second thing is Cat herself. And this is something she herself acknowledges by the end of the book, but it didn’t stop me from being annoyed with her when she did really dumb things that hurt the people she professed to love. She was passive to a ridiculous degree, and it was frustrating to read about as it was happening. Aside from that middle part, though, the book is a quick read that packs a powerful punch.

I would definitely recommend this book to almost anyone. I only say ‘almost’ because I’m sure there are people out there who don’t like love stories or stories about robots, but I have a hard time believing those people actually exist. I mean, if you can’t appreciate a good robot story I don’t even know what to do with you.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #8: A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

2696267I was doing so well with my review writing until I got to this book, just plodding along reading and reviewing, reading and reviewing. And then I got to this fucker. Not only did it traumatize me the whole time I was reading it, but just the thought of writing about it felt like re-living that trauma (and this isn’t even taking into consideration that the task of writing about this book even without the added pressure of traumatization would be a difficult task). So I am now way behind on my reviews. Thanks a lot, Walter M. Miller, except you can’t read this because you’re dead (but we’ll get back to that later).

A Canticle for Liebowitz is a classic of the sci-fi genre, although there’s barely any science fiction in it at all, excepting the unexplained presence of one character and a bit of spaceship flim-flammery near the end. Mostly, it’s a story about how humanity is doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again (and also a story about how part of making those mistakes is struggling against making them as well). Take the circular thematic nature and nuclear weapons of Battlestar Galactica + the social commentary of 1984 + monks and Catholicism and you’ll have a close approximation of A Canticle for Liebowitz. Actually — and I believe I said this in a status update or a tweet or something while I was reading — I think this book is better, or at least more relevant to us now today, than 1984 is.

Because did I mention about how it’s fucking terrifying?

The novel is structured essentially into three smaller novellas that intertwine with one another. The first begins in a post-apocalyptic, post-civilization wasteland, some seven hundred years after the world was annihilated by nuclear weapons and the surviving world’s citizens responded by blaming scientists and people of learning: burning books, spurning education, and lynching those related in the streets. The titular Leibowitz is revered by an order of Catholic monks deep in the desert as one of the few men to successfully attempt to preserve books and knowledge in the face of a world gone mad — for six hundred plus years they have been working to canonize him as a saint. Leibowitz himself was murdered in the streets, essentially turning him into a martyr, and now the monks in the Order of St. Leibowitz follow in his footsteps, working to preserve and further learning, and shed some light on places long kept in the dark.

The first section ends on a rather bleak note, setting the stage for parts two and three, which take place, respectively, right at the dawn of a new age of enlightenment, and at the second coming of the end of the world.

Miller’s novel takes place in a world almost completely devoid of hope, which is what made it such a devastating reading experience for me. He writes about fear and violence with a frightening accuracy, and the ending of the novel all but condemns humanity as a species, a pessimism which is only counterbalanced by the way his monks mix a love of learning with their faith in a higher power. I was raised Catholic so this especially hit home for me, seeing a world in which those who champion educational enlightenment and spirituality don’t necessarily have to be at each other’s throats. But even in the oasis of the Abbey of St. Leibowitz, its inhabitants cannot be protected from the blunders of the species they belong to.

I’m not sure this is a book I’ll be reading again, and if I do it won’t be for years and years, but it was a book I’m glad I read the once, even if it was written by a man who was so disillusioned by the world that he eventually killed himself rather than having to face it any longer. I think books like this are important in making us ask ourselves tough questions, but I’m also the kind of person who prefers to look at the world with a little bit more optimism, so this kind of story isn’t one I’d like to read often. Especially if the ending is going to give me nightmares for weeks. I mean, seriously, you guys? It’s pretty fucked up. Smart and really well done, but fucked up nonetheless, which is what is keeping me from giving what might otherwise be called a modern masterpiece five stars.

[4.5 stars]