Review: Brains, A Zombie Memoir by Robin Becker

Having a fascination with unique, humorous zombies (Shaun of the Dead), I was pleased when I recently had the opportunity to read an advanced copy of Brains: A Zombie Memoir by Robin Becker.

Brains is an autobiographical accounting of the “undeath” of Professor Jack Barnes, who is bitten by a zombie during the outbreak of an unusual man-made virus. When Jack comes back to himself after his death, he realizes that he still possesses one of the talents he had when he was alive: Zombie Jack can write.

So he sets out on a journey to recruit others like himself and track down their creator, Howard Stein, inventor of the zombie virus. Once there, his plans are to use his written words to persuade the humans to give zombies equal rights. “The pursuit of life, liberty, and brains,” Jack writes.

On his journey, he meets Joan, a nurse with a deft hand for repairing zombie afflictions; Guts, a boy who can run like the wind (an unusual feat in a crowd of undead shufflers); Ros, a former soldier who has the unique ability (for a zombie) of speech; and Annie, a teenage girl with a pair of pistols and the aim of Annie Oakley.

At 192 pages, this book shouldn’t have taken me the several days that it did to finish; but somewhere in those several days I came to realize that Jack’s story isn’t just a zombie story. The zombies’ limitations speak not only to the plight of the undead, but also to the elderly, the infirm, and the mentally or physically impaired. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Perhaps I am. My maternal grandmother died very quickly of ALS (Lou Gherig’s disease) when I was 16, and the mental image I have of her possessing a perfectly sound mind while her body deteriorated around her has haunted me ever since.

“The pursuit of life, liberty, and brains,” Jack writes. It sounds humorous – and it is. But written between the lines are the further pursuits of open communication with other sentient beings, the ability to be cared for, of having ones needs met when one isn’t able to do for oneself. Of not being hated, feared, or mocked for what one looks like, or for being impaired physically or mentally.

I had no idea when I picked it up that I would read this short, humorous, light-hearted story so seriously. But I have, and I think that the plight of Professor Jack Barnes, zombie author, will be staying with me for a very long time.

[xrr rating=4/5]

Review: Just Another Judgement Day by Simon R Green

Just Another Judgement Day is book 9 of The Nightside series which follows the exploits of private investigator John Taylor as he uses his supernatural gifts to solve cases in the Nightside.

By Simon R Green

If you’re unfamiliar with this series, here’s a blurb from the book:

In the Nightside, that sour secret hidden heart of London, it’s always three o’clock in the morning and the dawn never comes. Streets full of sin and cellars full of suffering, magic in the air and mystery around every corner; hot neon, hotter music, and the hottest scenes anywhere. Good and bad and everything in between. Dreams come true in the Nightside, especially the bad ones. Everything’s available, for the right price. So shop till you drop, dance till you bleed, and party like Judgement Day will never come.

I’m John Taylor, private eye. I have a gift for finding things, and people. I won’t promise you justice, or revenge, or your heart’s desire. But I will find the truth for you, every damned bit of it.

Welcome to the Nightside. Watch your back. Or someone will steal it.

Each book in the series is a small sip from the world – roughly 250-300 pages in mass market paperback. Each of them can easily stand alone, letting you pick up the story from anywhere without much difficulty. One of the main complaints I’ve read in other reviews of the series is that the author has a tendency to repeat himself, so if there’s anything important you’ve missed, you’re bound to hear it again.

Green’s writing is wonderfully dark and foreboding, and his imagery can be starkly descriptive and occasionally grotesque when the situation warrants it. He does seem to have his favorite turns of phrase, however, which can pull the reader out of the story at the worst moments.

As for Judgement Day itself, I’m still curious as to the over-arching plot lines of the Nightside universe: namely, John Taylor’s enemies and his final destiny. I love the cast of characters and the world that Green has built. The mythology of it all is wonderfully assorted and yet still abides by (most) of its own rules.

With that established, I do have to say that it seems like Judgement Day is another throw-away story that only slowly moves those long arching plots along. I still hold out hope that I’m wrong and each small detail will somehow be woven into the end game; but with each passing release those hopes are getting dimmer. I’ll keep reading, though, if for nothing else than a glimpse at whatever new monster is being introduced this time.

Review: The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker by Leanna Hieber

The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker
The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker

What can I say about Leanna Renee Hieber’s The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker? I could say that it’s elegantly written, with vivid prose that somehow reminds me of The Secret Garden. One could say that comparison is caused merely by the book’s setting in the Victorian era – but I remain convinced that it’s really the prose. Ms. Hieber evokes the setting not only with her descriptions but with her voice and choice of words – which, to my mind, is a sign of a remarkable author. While reading this book, I could almost have sworn that I was back in my Advanced English class, pounding my brain against the many metaphors of Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Kafka or Shakespeare.

Except that none of the above (with the exception of the great Bard himself) managed to capture my attention the way that Percy Parker did. I admit that it was slow going at first. The first 85 pages or so reminded me far too much of that English class, and contained less ghostly action than I would have liked. Also, Percy is like many a teenager – despite her era – and her angsty “Woe is me, I am so ghostly” mantra really grated my nerves. (This, however, is a sure sign that the author has managed to pen a realistic teen point of view, as explained in this review over here. Truly, it is a mark in the author’s favor when a teen character annoys me.) By contrast, once I hit that one-third mark into the book, everything started to roll and I read straight through to the climax in a single evening. Or, early morning, as the case may be.

As for the story, let me sum up. Miss Percy Parker is an eighteen year old girl who’s been raised in a convent. Her mother died and left her with a phoenix pendant and no memories of her. Her only friends have been the ghosts that she can see and speak with. Most live humans who see her believe she is a ghost herself ; she looks as if all the color had been bled from her hair, skin, and eyes. She is accustomed to the fear of those she meets, so her habit is to don gloves, scarf, and dark glasses.

Percy arrives at the start of the book for her first semester at Athens Academy in London, right smack in the middle of the Ripper’s reign of terror. Something about the murders has stirred up the ghostly population of London, and there recently have been many malicious hauntings. These hauntings are combated by a mysterious group of men and women who call themselves the Guard. These six men and women had been possessed by beings of great power at a young age, and tasked with the fulfillment of a prophecy. The Guard have also been long-awaiting their missing seventh member. Except that just when they think they have found her, they realize they have two candidates!

To say more here would spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that it is a delightful tale of trust, betrayal, friendships, and ghostly hauntings. Had I known that this story was so intertwined with the ancient mythology of Persephone and her descent into Hades, I would have made more of an effort to finish sooner. I should have realized it was more than a passing acquaintance, however, when it is said that Percy is not the character’s full given name…

I admit that much of my opinion is affected by the unique take on the old mythology that I’ve loved for decades. I do not begrudge the liberties Ms. Hieber has taken with the story; and I recommend that you shouldn’t either. Some of my affection for the story and the author also lies in the fact that she hails, originally, from my neck of the woods in Southwestern Ohio. I don’t believe I’m too biased, but draw your own conclusions.

On the other hand, I do remain a bit skeptical as to the pace with which Percy’s romance with her mathematics teacher, Alexi, developed. I am, however, always a cynic in that aspect and as such will keep my skepticism mostly to myself. This was not the rollicking, rough and tumble world of the urban fantasy I’ve been reading lately. No, if those books are like whiskey straight from the bottle, then Percy Parker is sipping chardonnay from crystal glasses at a dinner party. I feel smarter for having read it, and I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see this title listed on required reading lists in some distant future. If you want an intelligent, entertaining read – then may I suggest you run right out and pick up your copy now?

[xrr rating=4/5 imageset=tiny_star]

Review: Black and White by Caitlin Kittredge and Jackie Kessler

Ok, I admit it. I have a thing for superheroes. Wolverine. Gambit. Batman. Darkwing Duck. Well, maybe not that last one; but I have a serious weakness for superhuman powers and shiny high-tech toys. And I always root for those heroes who aren’t afraid (or who are at least willing) to be bad in order to do good.

I have to be honest in the interest of full-disclosure. Since first reading a small teaser blurb about Black & White, I’ve been nutty about it. Superheroes? Female superheroes? Female superheroes at odds with each other, one working for good and the other for villainy? Oh, I am so there. I’ll freely admit that I totally went fangirl; but that story’s for another time.

I raved about this book before I read it and now that I’ve finished every delicious page, I have to say that my raving was not premature. Black & White is cover-to-cover superhero girl power awesomeness.

Set over a century in the future, mega-corporation Corp-Co employs the world’s only legitimate superheroes. Extrahuman rebellion is illegal, and anyone daring to lift a hand against Corp is deemed ‘rabid’ and hunted down to be either incarcerated or sent for the ominous-sounding Therapy. Yet for all of that, Corp-Co stands for justice and goodness, with thousands of extrahuman heroes protecting citizens all across the world. Or so say the sound bites, anyway…

Jet is the official hero of New Chicago, known as the Lady of Shadows for the superpower that simultaneously haunts her and allows her to do her duty. Duty is number one for Jet, who strives above all to do nothing but assist and save the citizens of her dear city. She’s haunted by the memory of the father who murdered her mother in front of her; and by the well-known fact that all Shadow powers eventually go insane.

Iridium, ex-classmate of Jet, grew fed up with the media and politicking of Corp-Co years before. She’s given up trying to protect anything but a small sliver of New Chicago (known as Wreck City), where she can negotiate with the prolific gangs to keep a tiny number of citizens safe – including herself. She set herself against Corp years before and now she’s the city’s most notorious (and most wanted) supervillain, playing Robin Hood to the city’s downtrodden and forgotten. Jet has vowed to bring her old friend to justice.

And then the plot thickens.

Oh, I won’t ruin it for you. I’ll just give you a taste. There’s Night, Jet’s mentor, the only other Shadow-wielding superhero on the continent. In my head, he’s Sam Jackson in a cowl. Then there’s Taser, free-lance (and therefore rebel) superhero who’s powers are… electric. He’s teemed up with Iri for now – but is he really friend or foe? If you think you can guess, you’ve got it wrong. Last but not least is Bruce, Jet’s new assistant, who’s obvious sexiness makes her acknowledge the loneliness of her off-duty life. Is he what he seems to be? Or is he a little extra?

Toss in the mystery of a decades-old, defunct genetics lab and a missing star reporter, and you’ve got a recipe for chaos.

Black & White is a wild, fun, irresistible ride. It’s fast-paced enough to read in a day. Just don’t plan on doing anything else until you’re through – seriously. The story is told from the viewpoints of Iri and Jet in alternating chapters, interspersed with flashbacks of their school days together at the Corp-Co Extrahuman Academy.

Read more about it here. Or just go ahead and buy it. You know you want to.  There is a second volume planned for July of 2010 in what has been dubbed The Icarus Project.

[xrr rating=5/5]

Mini-Review: Get Known Before The Book Deal by Christina Katz

Stepping away from NaNoWriMo for a moment to urge all the writers out there to go pick up this book. Never thought about the business side of writing? Those pesky things like audience, marketing, and the dreaded platform? Pick up this book. Seriously. Here’s the Amazon link.

One question I know I asked when I first picked up the book is: “What does a writer who’s only published two books know about platform and marketing?” The answer to that, my friends, is the evidence of her rather large blog following. Enough said. And my personal response to myself on that question was, “Well how many have you published, ya dope?!”

Once I’d gotten through the first couple of chapters (some of which focuses on strictly non-fiction- which I don’t personally write) it became clear that this book will be exceedingly useful. I’ll admit that I read through it quickly. Mostly because I decided that I want to go back and do all the useful exercises I didn’t have the time for on my first read through. If you’re like me and don’t write non-fiction? Don’t worry. There seems to be plenty of advice in store for us fiction writers too.

I was extraordinarily excited to have the opportunity to review this book. I look forward to using it as a real tool toward growing my own platform. Instead of as a doorstop, which is where most of these kinds of books can end up. Well written, informative, and in plain language without pretension.

Get Known, along with Ariel Gore’s How To Be A Famous Writer Before You’re Dead will be my writerly bedside reading, my authorly bibles. Just as soon as NaNo’s over.

[xrr rating=4/5]

Review: Sharing Knife: Horizon by Lois McMaster Bujold

I had the privilege recently to read the Sharing Knife series by Lois McMaster Bujold, courtesy of Eos. This four volume series tells the story of the young farmgirl Fawn and her relationship with the middle-aged Dag. As a patroller, Dag is responsible for walking the land looking for the life-sucking demons known as blight boggles or malices. As a widower, he’s also walking the land looking for death.

Then he rescues the helpless, pregnant Fawn from the slimy grasp of a moderately powerful malice; but not before the creature manages to literally rip the life from her three month old fetus. Dag nurses Fawn back to health, and in the course of doing so falls once again into love. Their love is, of course, forbidden by both their peoples but neither cares.

You see, in their world, there are patrollers and there are farmers. The latter group basically encompasses all the not-patrollers: farmers, merchants, soldiers, and regular people who don’t have the extrasensory powers of the patrollers. It’s a classic case of love bridging the division of right-side/wrong-side of the tracks. There is prejudice and mistrust on both sides and neither group feels very comfortable with the other.

As one-half of a multi-racial marriage, this particular theme struck a chord with me. When Dag and Fawn marry and neither group is really willing to accept them, where will they live? Will their respective families allow them to remain together or try to force them asunder? Where does a young couple make their home when their roots are at odds? Is their relationship strong enough to face the inevitable prejudice and doubt of their friends and family?

Then throw in the fact that these demon-like malices are emerging more and more frequently to face a dwindling supply of kamikazi patrollers willing to donate their heart’s deaths to their destruction. The big question then is – Can Dag stay married to and protect Fawn without walking away from the responsibilities that he’s shouldered for his entire life? Can he convince both sides that they need each other in the fight for their very existence?

One of the central themes throughout the seres is whether one open-minded couple can change the very structure of their world. Horizon doesn’t necessarily come right out and answer that question. By the last paragraph, Dag and Fawn have made a very good start. Some very small social changes, combined with a very dramatically portrayed final battle with an extremely strong and destructive malice, are an excellent start. But Bujold doesn’t give us the answer to that question. She leaves us with the same things we have in this world: A good idea, a head start, and a whole lot of hope.

I enjoyed this series very much. It was a deep, well-woven tapestry with some of the best world-building I’ve ever seen. Stories are like relationships. Some of them reach out, grab you by the heart and leave you breathless, wanting more. The Sharing Knife is more like that solid, dependable guy you once dated. Remember? He’s the one who always opened doors and remembered your birthday, giving you the same flowers every year. You smile to think about him; you enjoyed his company. But you broke up with him a year ago because that “spark” just wasn’t there. I didn’t fall in love with the world, but it was a very pleasant distraction to retreat into for a time.

The age difference between Fawn and Dag creeped me out a little. I understand that Fawn’s youthful eighteen-year-old exuberance is meant to give the fifty-five-year-old Dag something new to live for. I just have to admit that my skin crawled just a little bit every time I thought of it.

I was impressed by the way Bujold managed to portray a one-handed hero without ever making it seem like he was handicapped. Dag’s maiming fit into the story without it being something he needed to “over come” in order to live normally. It simply was an aspect of him, like having dark hair or being tall. Having only one hand wasn’t any more a detriment to Dag than having brown eyes is to me.

Overall, I think this series sits at a very solid B. It’s not something I’ll race to re-read but it’s nice to know it’s there in case I’d like to revisit it.

[xrr rating=3.25/5]

Review: The Twisted Citadel by Sara Douglass

I have to say that this book came at a most convenient time. I had all four of my wisdom teeth removed April 15th. (Yes, American Tax Day. I figured I should get all the pain over with at the same time.) A couple of days later I was in pain, unhappy with my medication and the fact I could barely eat. Or talk. Or sleep. I was impatiently awaiting Jim Butcher’s Small Favor to arrive from Amazon (more on that later). I’d already finished all four of the novels I’d purchased ahead of time, knowing I’d have not much to do but read while I convalesced.

Twisted Citadel is the 2nd book in what, if I remember correctly, will be a trilogy. Middle books are like middle children. They’re usually unobtrusive, yet puzzling, and in the end they tend to leave you surprised and a little bit impatient with their behavior. Who am I kidding? I don’t have children and I was never a middle child. That’s just the way this particular book makes me feel.

I have to admit that I was skeptical as to how believable Ms. Douglass’ could be in melding together what everyone had thought were two different worlds and what was definitely two entirely different plots. The Serpent Bride didn’t entirely convince me that the feat would be possible; yet with Twisted Citadel I’m starting to believe a little bit more. Axis, Stardrifter, and the skraelings seem to be meshing well with Darkglass Mountain and Elcho Falling.

In case you’re confused, this trilogy (termed Darkglass Mountain) is an attempt to merge the world found in The Wayfarer’s Redemption (also called the Axis Trilogy) with those found in Threshold and The Hanging Wall. It can get confusing if you haven’t read all the books involved, which I must admit I have not. While the Axis books were fascinating to me, I haven’t picked up the two stand-alones.

The tragedy of Maximillian and Isabel’s star-crossed love infuriated me in the last book. I thought we had another Faraday on our hands, and I was ready to be furious. However, I enjoyed and heartily approve of the direction this pair took with their relationship at the end of Citadel. I’ll stop there so I don’t ruin the ending for anyone; except to say that such a rebellious and courageous action is proof of an exciting third volume to come.

Overall, I believe Citadel does exactly what it was intended to do. It moves the story forward, provides hours of not-to-be-put-down entertainment and makes the reader impatient for the next installment. At the end of the day, I think that’s what any author could consider a job well done.

[xrr rating=3.75/5]