Book Review: Half Resurrection Blues by Daniel Jose Older

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After seeing what felt like the 1,000th tweet about this book, I finally gave in and said, “Okay, okay, I’ll buy the fricking book!” Reinforcement of the lesson for all aspiring authors – promotion pays.
Anybody who reads this blog regularly (hi, you two!) knows what’s coming since I don’t review books that I think are bad. Yep, it’s a good one. Daniel Jose Older seems to be a fairly new author, and I am ever so excited about his books.

HRB is billed as being the first in the Bone Street Rumba series, which is great news because it means we’ll see more of Carlos Delacruz, an “inbetweener,” straddling the line between being alive and dead. Outwardly, this means he’s a little grey and has a very slow heartbeat, but he can walk down the street without anybody becoming alarmed. As for how he got that way, he doesn’t really know. He has no memory of how he died, he just knows that it was violent and that a ghost, his friend Riley, saved him and helped to bring him half way back.

Now Carlos works for The Council of the Dead, a bureaucratic group of ghosts who keep the supernatural community in line – sending Carlos out to hunt those who need to die the real death (i.e. be obliterated) for causing trouble in the living world. The Council sends Carlos to kill another inbetweener, the first he has ever seen besides himself. The job leads Carlos to discover a wider conspiracy to tear down the barrier between the dead and the living. Along the way, he becomes infatuated with beautiful and mysterious Sasha, but is she an innocent pawn or one of the players?

So obviously, totally cool plot, but that’s not the best thing here. Older’s writing is top notch, leaving me wondering how damned good he’s going to be a few years from now. The dialog between characters is fast and edgy. He has a way of seamlessly telling us what Carlos is thinking followed quickly by what he actually says (not at all the same thing, in many cases) that is just plain cool and enjoyable. His characters are slick and the relationships between them are as complicated and fraught as one might expect for a guy who is only half alive and kills for a living.

The other thing I love about this story is that Carlos isn’t entirely a good guy. Not 100% antihero, but he does some shameful things. He doesn’t do them with malice, he feels bad about them later, but he does screw up in ways that cause damage. He’s a supernatural being who manages to be painfully human and relatable. It was one of those books that, faced with only 100 or so pages left, I wanted to read slower to draw it out.

I saw on Twitter that he’s already working on the next one…can’t wait!

Book Review: Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos

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I bought this book, sight unseen, after hearing some Twitter buzz that it was being criticized for having too many strong female characters. This, of course, pissed me off enough that I immediately ordered one for myself and one to give my brother for his upcoming birthday (if you’re reading this, dear brother…um, surprise??).

It wasn’t as much of a risk as it sounds since the buzz was generated by John Scalzi and I figured if he liked it, chances are I would too. Nonetheless, I was prepared to feel a bit foolish and chalk it up to a learning experience if the book turned out to suck.

I finished it in a day and a half. Suck it did not. This book was a ride. It was almost exhausting at times, but more like vigorous-round-of-sex-exhausting, not slogging-up-a-mountain-exhausting…and that’s always a good thing.

The near-future story follows Andrew Grayson – a young, intelligent, self-described welfare rat who enlists in the military to escape his hopeless and seriously shitty life in Boston public housing. He says goodbye to his sad mother and cancer-riddled, abusive father hoping to get a ticket off of Earth and a chance for a new life. We follow him through basic training, where the abundant food alone is enough to make him stay through the hardships of the program.

He makes friends, discovers his skills, and even strikes up a romantic relationship with a fellow (yep, strong female) soldier. All great stuff, but fairly relaxed until Andrew graduates and gets his first assignment. I don’t want to inject spoilers here, so I’ll just say he gets an assignment and many, many explodey things happen. It’s running and shooting and battle tactics and grenade launchers and wanton destruction followed by skin-of-the-teeth survival. It’s basically one damned thing after another for this guy and his unit and we are happy to be along for the ride.

Afterward, Kloos lets us up for a breath of air and then plunges us back into the shit for some seriously surprising space-alien adventure. Awesome stuff, full of both male and female bad-ass characters, great dialogue and quality storytelling. I see that it has a sequel, which I’ll be buying ASAP. Maybe I’ll even get two!

Book Review: Weapon – A Visual History of Arms and Armor

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A few weeks ago, I saw a piece on boingboing.net about a book on weapons. The book is called Weapon – A Visual History of Arms and Armor and it may have been the best $25 I’ve ever spent. Actually, I ordered it from Amazon, so I think it ended up being a bit less than that, but that’s the price listed on the back of the book.

This book is a fabulous resource for weapons of all kinds, from the very first throwing and stabbing weapons of the ancient world to modern firearms being manufactured and used as you read this. It has high-quality photos of most of the weapons along with detailed descriptions of their uses, years of popularity, materials they’re made of, problems with durability or functioning, particular advantages, etc. There is also some great information about the culture and history behind the weapons and the context for why certain weapons and means of warfare evolved.

While I own a few weapons of my own, those are the only ones I feel qualified to talk about or to use in my writing. I’ve ordered other books on firearms, etc. in the past, but always felt like they fell short in helping me understand the weapons such that I could write about someone else using and owning them.

This book changed all that. Reading through it with my little pack of post-its, I was able to go back through my current book to enrich so many of the fight descriptions in ways I would not have been able to without this book and its detailed descriptions and lovely, glossy pictures. An Indian punching dagger that allows my character to weave his hand and wrist through the handle like an extension of his arm allows ever so much more capability and description than would a glorified kitchen knife gripped in his hand.

I won’t even get started on the guns because I could write all day. Great information on ammo, weapons with jamming problems, how firing mechanisms began and how they work now, gun weight, speed of barrel replacement on sub-machine guns, handguns, rifles, grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons! As I said…I could go on.

Information about armor spans from the ancient world to modern military helmets and their composition.

Extremely cool book. In short, if you need to write about weapons, get it!

Book Review: Downfall by Rob Thurman

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God damn, I am a sucker for these books!

I discovered the first of the Cal Leandros series a few years ago while wandering the oh-so-familiar Sci Fi/Fantasy section of a bookstore, just looking around for something new. I don’t know why I picked out Nightlife, the first book in the series. Eye-catching cover, maybe? But then I opened it up, read the first two pages, said a quiet “Oh hell yeah!” and I’ve been buying Rob Thurman books ever since.

The Leandros series is about two half-brothers – Niko, who is human and Cal, who is half-human-half-Auphe (the Auphe being your worst nightmare, bad acid trip version of elves). The series follows the harrowing adventures life brings to them in a world full of monsters, gods, angels, paien, and assholes…oh and a few true friends.

Each book (nine in the series so far) centers around Cal’s struggle not to allow his monster-DNA to take him over and Niko’s struggle to keep his brother alive and intact as they’re hunted, first by the Auphe, and later by creature after creature that the brothers stand against in an effort to do what’s right or at least to make ends meet by taking contract work from the supernatural community.

While the guns, swords, wisecracks, and mega-violent adventuring is a huge draw for me, it’s the relationship between the brothers that really hits the spot. Completely loyal to one another, either would tear apart the world to save the other. Thurman has a great way of capturing the savage toughness of both brothers and dovetailing it beautifully with the painful vulnerability that is their love and devotion for each other.

Downfall, the latest in the series, does not disappoint and may in fact be one of the best. So many, many spoilers…it’s hard to get too specific, but let’s just say that she (Thurman is a woman, in case you didn’t know) had me very worried for a while that this was going to be the last book in the series, or at least the last one in which either brother would be recognizable. I won’t tell you how it ends…but quite a lot changes. If you’re a reader of the series and find that some of the loose ends she left in other books are bugging you…read this one because many things are explained and wrapped up. If you’re not a reader of the series, what are you doing still sitting there?? Go buy the first book, or go to the library, or borrow it from a friend…but do yourself a favor and read it.

Book Review: Jack McDevitt’s Starhawk

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For many years, getting a new McDevitt was kind of like getting a pile of gold. “Gasp! For me? Thank you!” His stories were gripping. His characters were brave, intelligent, competent – damned likeable.

A typical McDevitt had characters embarking on some sort of mission or project only to have something go terribly wrong or to discover something world-changingly significant or both at the same time, like finding evidence of intelligent life on a planet that was about to explode…on which the unfortunate characters had somehow become trapped. The characters would have to figure out an ingenious way of getting out of whatever mess they were in that took every ounce of ingenuity and courage they had. These books were can’t-put-it-down, turn-the-page-faster, action sci-fi brilliance.

In recent years, it seems to me that McDevitt’s books have become…tamer. Still a good read, still books I was interested in buying…but they seemed to have lost something. With the switch from main character Captain Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins to antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his sidekick Chase Kolpath, there was far more talking and going out to dinner than figuring out how to get five people off a planet that was about to explode. Alex and Chase generally had a mystery on their hands and there was often some kind of peril. But it was never anything as harrowing or edge-of-your-seat gripping like the Hutch books or his early non-Hutch books like Moonfall, Eternity Road, and Ancient Shores.

With Starhawk…Hutch…and McDevitt are back. Not perhaps all the way back…but we’re getting close. Starhawk tells an early Hutch story. Before she got her nickname, before she had any of her adventures, before she was even taken seriously by the people who would later count on her for their most difficult missions.

Hutch is a brand new pilot. In fact, she’s on her final testing run to get certified, when something goes wrong. She and her mentor are called upon to divert from their testing flight to rescue a ship full of young girls on a space school trip. This gives us a delicious taste of the old Hutch books with problems that seem to have no solution. The pain and suffering that ensues give an interesting background for what we know from other books are Hutch’s later refusals to give up or sacrifice anyone, even when the odds seem insurmountable.

Once this first experience is under her belt, the book sadly tames up as Hutch looks for a job and experiences her first professional disappointments. While we do learn a lot about Hutch’s early life, we don’t get a lot of adventure. This is not to say that we don’t want to know these things. In fact, McDevitt does a great job of describing what it can be like for a newbie, particularly a female one, making her way through the old-boys network in the dick-swinging world of space pilots. The fact that she’s pretty gets remarked upon with annoying frequency by those (male and female) who she encounters in her job. When young Hutch sticks her neck out to try to do what’s right, she gets labeled as “emotional” by her superior. All too familiar for professional women everywhere and it’s refreshing to see a male author with the ability to describe these things in a way that feels genuine.

While I initially despaired that the rest of the book would remain tame, it turns out that McDevitt was setting us up for a final adventure and we’re treated to another McDevitt nail-biter before the book ends. This was a well-written surprise, but it left me wanting more. It made me long anew for the old McDevitts, full of Hutch in her prime. Her career as a pilot must have held more adventures that we can enjoy. I doubt McDevitt will ever write a bad book, but we know there is so much more to be had. I can only hope that we get more stories like the old ones. Until then I will, of course, buy anything the man writes…but c’mon Jack! We know you’ve got the goods!  Bring us on another adventure!

More Book Reviews – Coming Soon

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I’m going to try something new…ish. I’m still plugging away at writing fiction, but most of my time has been sucked up lately by a big freelance job (read: job that pays the bills and maybe gets us out of debt) so the fiction thing has slowed down considerably. In the meantime, and in an effort to keep this blog from just being me whining, I thought I’d do some book reviews.

Fair warning…if I think a book sucks, I probably won’t review it. If there is one thing I’m learning as I write short stories that other people review, it’s that there will always be people who hate it and there will sometimes be people who love it. And who am I to slam somebody else’s hard work? This isn’t to say that I’ll exclusively gush about every book. In fact, the first review I’m planning to post (Jack McDevitt’s Starhawk) has pluses and minuses, but it’s overall a thumbs up for the book and the author, whose work I happen to love. If I don’t have anything nice to say, I’ll just shut the hell up.

So I hope you’ll find these useful and maybe even entertaining…and maybe you’ll learn about an author you hadn’t heard of before. First one coming soon!