Monthly Archives: April 2015

Surf Ninjas

Surf ninjas / A.L. Singer

Yes, I’m serious. If one of the rights of the reader is the right to read whatever they want then that must include junior novelizations of terrible movies. Luckily for the reader who chooses to read this one, it’s one of the rare adaptations to another medium that ends up even better than the original.

Chiefly due to the lack of Leslie Nielson’s “acting” talents

Plot summary

For those of you who do not remember the plot of this cinematic classic, Surf ninjas is the story of two brothers, rescued from a tiny island nation in Southeast Asia by an American who proceeds to raise the children as his own.

The brothers eventually become way cool surfer dudes. Unfortunately, their best friend is Rob Schneider.

After being rescued from mysterious assassins by Zatch, the brothers discover that they are the sons of the royal family of Patasan.

What follows is a wacky adventure as the brothers attempt to free their homeland from a brutal warlord.

So how is it?

It’s a junior novelization of a movie featuring Leslie Nielson and Rob Schneider. It improves upon the original by virtue of being silent and thus sparing the reader from these two comedic “legends”.

But seriously as far as J Fiction goes it’s not immediately terrible. It tells an adventure story about a family featuring not only a single father but also a single father raising nonbiological children of a different race.

While the Southeast Asian nation is fictional, its culture isn’t usually the butt of the jokes. So while it still is a weak attempt at cashing in on a destined to be ephemeral film it’s not horrifically problematic or racist (which would have been pretty easy given the premise). Instead it’s almost a commentary on the dangers of imperialism and the way Americans use pop culture to blind themselves from serious human rights abuses.

Did I mention that in the film version, Rob Schneider does a Scottish accent?

As is standard for junior novelizations of family films, some of the more “adult” aspects have been toned down. The “car surfing” scene has been cut, as has the “brothers don’t surf” line. Neither one if them was particularly important anyways and the book doesn’t really suffer for it. Zatch’s eyepatch is explained away as hiding a lazy eye for no apparent reason. The classic “money cannot buy knives” jokes as well as using a Game Gear to tell the future remain, which is all you really need.

Recommendation

If you’re looking for a recommedation about a junior novelizations of a 1993 film then your library is either terrible or you’re at Goodwill.

Either way, as far as early chapter books go it’s not terrible and it’s definitely better than “educational” books like Pay attention Slosh.

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Deadtown

Deadtown / Nancy Holzner

Based on the title, cover art, and promotional quote on the cover* (something about “a great new take on zombies”) I thought Deadtown was going to be a zombie apocalypse book. I was wrong.

It’s actually a transparent, heavy-handed civil rights metaphor.

*Yes prescriptivists, it should be a “quotation” not a “quote” because one is a noun and the other is a verb but 1) this is my blog and I do what I want 2) linguistic prescriptivism is really just the slavish devotion to a static form of an evolving language at some arbitrary point in the past that even then didn’t reflect English as she is spoke and finally 3) my academic background is heavily built around Classical Chinese which doesn’t distinguish between nouns and verbs so that has influenced my English to some extent

Plot summarie

Deadtown is a bük abowt a Welsh shapeshifter hu hunts demons (done taking a stand on the linguistics issue now). Set in a World where Supernatural Creatures live openly but have almost no civil rights and are forced to live in a ghetto called Deadtown, Victory must balance her boyfriend’s civil rights campaign, shepherding the world’s most irresponsible zombie, and saving all of Boston from the demon what killed her father.

So how is it?

Heavy handed but not terrible.

The civil rights metaphor lacks the unfortunate implications of the social aspects of the Golgotham series, but it’s not handled with much subtlety or class. Like, in comparison X-Men is a masterwork of subtle social criticism. If you’ve seen the DystopianYA twitter (and if you haven’t, go check it out it’s amazing), the metaphor isn’t any less heavy handed here. Sometimes it ends up seriously stretching the willing suspension of disbelief (police refuse to prevent the kidnapping of a young girl who looks human, has no supernatural powers, and who is genetically indistinguishable from a normal human, all because there’s a possibility that she might not be human).

Other than that it’s not bad. I was interested enough to check out the sequel. The zombies really aren’t that unique as far as urban fantasy goes despite the cover’s claims, but it’s not a “zombie” book. The action is competent and Victory is a decent character, although her continued support of her apprentice in the face of her constant life-threatening failures to exercise the slightest but of judgment and her continued relationship with urban fantasy’s worst “Bad Boyfriend who is only there until the real love interest shows up and who will stick around long enough to force the protagonist to choose between the jerk with no redeeming qualities and the one she’ll end up choosing”.

Recommendation

It’s perfectly serviceable but flawed enough that it’s not something I’m likely to recommend. Maybe as a last ditch recommendation for a genre fan who has already read everything else but that’s it. The Elemental Assassin series (horrible name aside) does pretty much everything this series does but better (aside from being set in Boston) so I’d recommend those for somebody looking for a more action packed series, or the Edie Spence books for somebody interested in the “let’s stick all the Universal monsters in one book” schtick. I’d recommend the InCryptid series before any of the above though.

Cryptonomicon

Cryptonomicon / Neil Stephenson

Going to break things up now for a book that is (arguably) not sff at all.

Cryptonomicon is really two books in one. The first book is a story about cryptographers during World War II, while the second book is set during the 1990s and features the descendants of the characters from the first book as they attempt to set up a data haven.

The two stories are connected in many ways but Stephenson leaves it to the reader to figure out what those connections are.

Plot summary

See the previous paragraph.

So how is it?

It’s pretty good if you can get through it. I’ve read it several times and each time I’ve enjoyed it for different reasons.

Both stories are largely about highly intelligent but socially awkward people. The book does a good job of being about technical issues without reading like a tech manual (I’m looking at you, Kim Stanley Robinson). There’s one section that features a couple of pages of code, but it’s not necessary to have any understanding of what that means. 

Most of the technical stuff is techbro in jokes and in no way integral to understanding or appreciating the book.

The World War II segments are funny and present a side of the conflict that frequently goes unnoticed. Alan Turing appears, as does Reagan and MacArthur. It’s kind of a Forrest Gump situation. It’s a fun story featuring viewpoint characters on both sides of the conflict.

The 1990s segments are a little trickier. They are considerably less focused and at times it seems like a serie of unconnected events. There is a coherent narrative here but it’s mostly buried under an exploration of 90s techbro culture.

I initially felt like the 90s half of the book was an extended paean to techbro types. There are plenty of swipes at academics and others who “don’t get” technology and/or engineering. It’s somewhat off putting and the stereotype of the effete bleeding heart professor who tries to save the world but is incapable of understanding people who do “real” work is so tired it needs a bottle of. Klonazepam and a couple decades of sleep.

So on my second read through I really didn’t enjoy the 90s segments. The third time around I saw them in a different light, as the dotcom heroes aren’t exactly portrayed entirey positively either. What’s interesting is that the forerunners of a lot of modern techbro culture are here: weird love of guns, technocratic ideals, naïveté about the groups most likely to invest in a data haven, even nofap shows up.

So I enjoyed those segments more when I viewed them from that angle, that they were foreshadowing a lot of the coming problems with the tech industry. The caricaturization of academia is still somewhat grating but bothers me less now than it did then.

The ending comes out of nowhere and draws on a minor plot point mentioned early on and then never referenced again. It’s a mess but the rest of the book is pretty good.

Recommendation

This is a good crossover novel. Historical fiction aficionados will like the WWII narrative and sff fans will appreciate Stephenson’s obvious geek cred and affection for the community.

I still hesitate to recommend it sometimes because of the number of stories I’ve heard about people struggling to finish it. It’s also a book that gets better with a second reading. 

So I recommend it to patrons who like all those war stories since it’s the closest thing I’ve read, an occasionally recommend it to parents of teenagers frustrated that their kids won’t read “real” novels.

It’s length is intimidating, which is the book’a biggest stumbling block. It’s a great vacation read and a go to for fans of Dan Brown and Clive Cussler. It’s less intellectually dishonest than the former and less racist than the latter.

Nightshifted (Edie Spence novels)

Nightshifted / Cassie Alexander

True story: every time I see the cover of this book I initially misread it as “Nightshift Ted”, which I assume would be a contemporary fantasy novel about a janitor who is forced to clean up after the apparently mandatory vampire/werewolf conflict.

It’s actually about Edie Spence, nurse working the night shift in the … Supernatural ward of the county hospital.

I think there’s definitely something to a satirical urban fantasy about the put upon janitor of the supernatural.

Brief plot summary

Edie Spence works the night shift on Y4, the hidden ward of the county hospital where the werewolves and vampires and zombies go. Attempting to fulfil a dying patient’s last wish, Edie finds herself over her head and involved in some sort of conspiracy or something involving vampire child pornography (seriously).

So how is it?

Just okay, but I keep checking the series out from the library so it has something to keep me reading.

My immediate impression was that the author has obviously read Nightwatch and played Vampire: The masquerade.

Since then I’ve realized that it could just be that she’s mining from the same cultural well, but the nature of the supernatural detente seems reminiscent of Nightwatch and the structure of vampire society is remarkably similar to V:tM. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I have I be honest; the vampire vs werewolf plot is one that holds no interest for me. In fact, despite my love of urban fantasy the very presence of vampires and/or werewolves (especially werewolves) is an immediate strike. It’s a setup I just don’t find compelling. I’ve been reading more vampire books lately but as far as urban fantasy sub genres go the only one I like less than vampires is werewolves.

Coupled by the fact that Cassie Alexander is a practicing nurse, so the whole thing has that “nursey” tone* (not that there’s anything wrong with that. Some of my best family members are nurses), this book was facing an uphill battle to get me to enjoy it.

*I don’t really have a better way of putting this. There’s just a way of talking and writing that nurses seem to have. Spend some time browsing Pinterest if you don’t know what I mean, there’s plenty of study guides and inspirational material for nurses and it all has that same feel. My inability to articulate this is one of the many reasons I am not even a semiprofessional critic.

I did end up enjoying Nightshifted. Its saving grace was that it didn’t focus too heavily on the minutiae of the supernatural creatures and focused more on the characters and their relationships. That it wasn’t chock a block full of vampires lurking around being sexy and mysterious helped a lot. The character “Grandfather” helped too.

One thing: my library separates mass market paranormal romance (shelving it with romance) and urban fantasy (shelving it with sff – although 75% of the mass market sff at my library is urban fantasy). This series is with the sff stuff but on the paranormal romance – urban fantasy continuum Nightshifted is closer to paranormal romance, both in style and in content. So be aware of that.

It does make me wonder: where’s all the queer paranormal romance? Everything I’ve read in the genre has been super heteronormative. Kind of disappointing.

Recommendation

It’s not bad but I wouldn’t go out of y way to recommend it.

It’s good paranormal romance, an if you’re in to the “human woman gets involved with vampires/werewolves” style of paranormal romance this is a definite recommend.

For urban fantasy fans it’s more of a tentative recommendation. I’ll quantify it with a checklist below. Add/subtract what applies to you and see if this is the right series for you

[+1] fan of urban fantasy

[+2] fan of paranormal romance

[+1] fan of the vampire/werewolf thing

[+1] you’re a nurse

[+1] liked Nightwatch but thought it was too scary

[+1] prefer a “normal” human protagonist

[+1] fan of White Wolf RPGs

[-1] hate paranormal romance

[-1] dislike explicit sex scenes

[-1] tired of the “old Universal monster movies” approach to urban fantasy

[-1] looking for a kick butt heroine and/or extended Hollywoodesque action sequences

[-1] looking for something funny, light, or nonviolent


The hum and the shiver (Tufa books)

The hum and the shiver / Alex Bledsoe

Still without a computer so things will continue to be somewhat bare bones.

The hum and the shiver is one of those books that I came to with virtually no expectations. It had been recommended to me by a family member but it took me a whole to find it (mostly because I kept forgetting to look for it). Once I did get ahold of it, all I could remember was that it was set in Appalachia and focused on an isolated ethnic group. And music was involved somehow.

I think that coming in with no idea of what to expect was an important part of why I liked it so much, so I’m going to be a little more cryptic here. I’ll be taggin more sparsely as well to avoid revealing any secrets.

I read it in a single night while my spouse was out of town, listening to Tre Lux on repeat and periodically interrupted by a cat who is obsessed with curling up in the pages of hardcover books.

Eventually, I grabbed a decoy book so I could read in peace.

I think at least some of my enjoyment of this book stems from the really pleasant reading experience. I’ve been wanting to reread it lately but have been putting it off until I have the house to myself for the night.

Plot summary

In an isolated Appalachian county, a war hero returns home after injury and imprisonment. A young pastor attempts to get to know the strange people living there. A tabloid reporter comes looking for something he can’t really define.

So how is it?

It’s really good, if I haven’t made it clear enough already.

The hum and the shiver is a different kind of contemporary fantasy novel. The setting makes calling it “urban fantasy” inappropriate, even if that is the more common term.

This isn’t one of those series with at least one new entry a year. It’s not a book about saving the world or defeating monstrous evil.

In fact, for most of the book it’s barely recognizable as a fantasy novel. The elements are there, but the magic is closer to the magic of Tolkien’s elves or hobbits. It’s subtle, not even recognized as magic by most, but it’s there.

The hum and the shiver is a quiet book. Like the slow paced lifestyle of its characters, it’s not in a hurry to reach a spectacular set piece with a triumphant showdown.

Bledsoe creates a world firmly rooted in its characters. The major theme is self discovery, where the visitors and inhabitants face truths that they hid from themselves or that were hidden from them. There are no great surprises here for the reader, especially for readers with a background in the proper folklore, but the book isn’t boring nonetheless.

Recommendation

The hum and the shiver is a great book. Still, it serves a drastically different audience than most of the urban fantasy I’ve reviewed here. The sedate pace and lack of two fisted action contrasts pretty seriously with things like The Dresden files.

It’s still worth a read. Bledsoe is an expert at combining “literary” and “popular” entertainment (Dark Jenny, for example, which features a knight named Bob but also delves pretty deeply into an analysis of Arthurian mythology) and so the twitchy video games and action movies type might not get their kicks here but broader minded readers should enjoy.

I write a lot about the appeal of fantasy or science fiction novels to those who “don’t read” that stuff. The shiver and the hum is probably one of the better books for those readers. Tolkien via Dungeons and Dragons is nowhere to be found, and the heavy character focus and introspective tone should appeal to fans of the “white problems” novel. (I think fans of those books call it “the great American novel” but I like my description better)

Singer of souls

Singer of souls / Adam Stemple

And now, back to urban fantasy, but first an administrative note:

It’s probably going to be at least two weeks until I have access to a computer again. As a result I may be deviating from my normal schedule somewhat and the reviews will be a little more bare bones for a while.

Back to the book.

Singer of souls is an urban fantasy novel in the “music has magical powers” and faerie subgenres. Stemple is the son of famed author Jane Yolen, and her influence is definitely visible. Still, I have some serious problems with this book that make it very hard to recommend.

Plot summary

Douglas is a street musician and recovering drug addict. In an attempt to leave his old life behind, he moves to Edinburgh to live with his grandmother. 

Told he must support himself, Douglas distinguishes himself as a busker by creating songs that tell the life stories of whomever is willing to pay. Faeries get involved.

So how is it?

It starts out great but the ending is horrifying. 

Singer of souls does a good job of portraying Douglas as a flawed person sincerely trying to better himself but who struggles with temptation. The famously amoral sidhe are portrayed convincingly, and even the Seelie come across as far more dangerous than in most modern novels.

It was initially a book I was happy to recommend, but there’s a sudden shift towards the end where the book turns grotesquely violent and then Douglas makes a discovery and the whole thing jumps the rails and it becomes a really disturbing story about the depths of human cruelty. 

It’s not just that the tone shifts, the characterization takes a drastic turn and suddenly characters are acting completely differently for no real reason.

I’m guessing that it’s Stemple’s attempt to write a cautionary tale about the abuse of power, or its corruptin nature, but it’s not handled well. If the transition was more gradual (which would require a much longer book, this one is really short) it might work but as published the ending made me feel literally ill.

By the end of the novel, there are no even remotely sympathetic characters left. I’m not going to put it in the “terrible books” category in deference to how good the beginning is, but it’s only a whisper from there.

Recommendation

Only read the first 150 pages or so.

The content at the end (including torture and sexual servitude) is going to be a major stumbling block here.

Good for angsty teens looking for something with shock value, or for those with stron stomaches who don’t mind a drastic change in tone.

Alternative recommendations:

Rosemary an rue / Séanan McGuire

War for the oaks / Emma Bull – the gold standard for musician meets the fae novels. It turns out Bull was in a band with Stemple so interpret that however you like.

Thomas the rhymer – just because. Does the whole dark faerie tale thing ifinitely better.

A confession (part 3), or, what ends when the symbols shatter?

Now it’s time for me to speak a little more abstractly.

I want to make it clear from the start that I’m not attempting to police anyone’s musical taste. I’ve been trying to explain why I became increasingly uncomfortable with a specific artist and decided that I couldn’t in good conscience continue to support them.

One clarification I’d like to add is that when I talk about having been involved in the neofolk subculture/Death in June fandom I’m talking about very peripheral involvement. I’m not really a joiner and I don’t generally like to get involved with “groups”. I frequently say (jokingly but not really) that I find people who agree on things untrustworthy. As a result none of my friends share more than a couple of my interests and I’m not one for organized group activities. 

So when I describe myself as having once been involved with the neofolk subculture that means I had a couple of friends into the genre and I commented once or twice on a blog or two about the subject. I may also have had a half a dozen conversations on tr subject with non fans. The closest I ever got to going to a show was seeing Earth at the Empty Bottle last year (Douglas P’s refusal to tour was one of the things I liked about him). So DI6 fans can say that I was never a “true fan” and that what I’m saying reflects an upstart outsider’s misperceptions.

I’m largely interested in where we should draw the line. A common theme I’ve seen in the ex neofolk crowd is rejection of artists who have collaborated with the more problematic members of the scene. I’m not sure that’s exactly productive but I understand the impulse. 

David Michael/Tibet, for instance, was intimately connected with Death in June during the relatively early part of the scene. But if we reject Current 93 because of his association with DI6/Sol Invictus/whomever we ignore that those collaborations ended decades ago, and that it becomes easy to tar other artists with that same brush. 

I interpret Tibet/Michael’s wide variety of collaborators as indicative of his friendly outlook. It’s possible I’m being too charitable here, but Current 93’s recent support of artists like Baby Dee is a great thing to my mind. Of course, Michael/Tibet was also a supporter of Tiny Tim who wasn’t really any less racist than Douglas P is, not to mention his homophobia. Still, as I’ve mentioned above I think that anyone who portrays themselves as flawless or who will only associate with people who aren’t problematic in any way is at best lying to themselves and at worst actively trying to conceal something. So I don’t really begrudge David Michael/Tibet his acquaintances.

One point where Douglas P and I are in total agreement is that the words we use are important am potentially powerful. Which is one of the reasons I don’t really listen to his music anymore. I think DI6 is carelessly using imagery and language that is potentially quite dangerous, regardless of whether or not the symbolism is sincere.

David Tibet has made similar comments about his break with the OTO: that actions and words have consequences and thoughtlessly playing around can have potentially tragic real world consequences. 

It seems like Douglas P thinks that Current 93’s music is similarly irresponsible. In the end it comes down to ideological differences. I reject Douglas P’s libertarian perspective and so see his use of fascist imagery irresponsible, whereas he sees it as an emphasis on the importance of individual responsibility and self control.

The question I end up asking myself constantly is “if I acknowledge that nobody is ideologically|morally|spiritually|whatevery perfect, where do I draw the line?”

I still listen to Pat the bunny’s early work (the pre-rehab stuff he won’t touch now) despite the fact that I have serious problems with some of the lyrics (I wait outside of a cop’s house / holding a twelve gauge). I have problems with some of his new stuff too. I don’t think fantasizing about murder is cool, and I think he ends up undermining his anarchism somewhat by drawing an arbitrary distinction between the people who hold up the current political system and everyone else. 

I justify it to myself by pointing out that Pat constantly, in lyrics and in interviews, makes it clear that he’s not actually advocating murder, that he’s really just venting his frustrations. I am somewhat suspicious that this is a pretty thin justification and that a more likely reason is that Pat’s politics are closer to mine than Douglas P’s are and so I’m willing to forgive him more.

I think that the case of Death in June is interesting because it presents a different question than with Orson Scott Card or Marion Zimmerman Bradley or Ezra Pound or Adam Baldwin. In those cases it’s a question of avoiding art that is not necessarily problematic in itself because of the problematic views of its creators. In the case of Death in June it makes me wonder about the reverse: do we avoid problematic art by people who aren’t necessarily themselves problematic? I’m not saying that Douglas P isn’t problematic, but he’s not significantly more right wing than the current Republican Party. His personal views are frequently reprehensible, and I don’t intend to whitewash that. But what if the same music was being made by somebody who wasn’t a little too close to Le Pen for comfort. 

I guess Anne McAffrey would be a good example. Some of her work is seriously questionable in its portrayal of consent (and the age thereof).

I’m tempted to say that the answer is even easier: if the work itself is problematic then there’s really no reason not to stay away. At what point do the problematic aspects overtake other positives in the work? It’s a question that comes up all the time when reading classic fiction, but it’s also less pressing because most of those authors are dead and not in a position to benefit.

It’s a question that doesn’t really have a simple answer. I nearly quit reading Apropos of nothing because of how tone deaf it got at times. Perhaps the best recent example is the work of David Dalgish, which earnestly attempts to address serious issues but ends up failing miserably. It’s possible that The warded man falls into this category.

I know people whose response has been to pirate that material so that the authors don’t benefit economically from their prejudice (A did this with NSBM), but that doesn’t address the “words have meaning and can this be dangerous” or the “creeping fascism” issues.

I don’t know. What I do know is that I was a fan of Death in June, albeit a slightly uncomfortable one, and I eventually reached a point where I was uncomfortable with my own attempts to justify the problematic stuff.