CBR #117 – Dusting Fools Left and Right

The Girl of Hrusch Avenue & Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

The Powder Mage series has been on a lot of best of lists and it’s easy to see why.  An excellent entry into the fantasy genre, we’ve got an almost colonial universe — men with sabres and single shot muskets — coupled with massive magic users.  One group is the Privileged, folks who don white gloves to commit heinous destructive magics.  And the other are Powder Mages, men and women who snort gunpowder to enhance senses and create explosions and shoot more actively. It’s a cross between the British colonialism and the wild west, and it’s fucking AWESOME.

The Girl of Hrusch Avenue is a prequel novella and I read it before the first book.  It works, in that it’s an introduction to the main characters of the novel more or less, a few years before they appear in Promise of Blood.  It doesn’t necessarily spoil anything.  It actually kind of deepens the wounds of the characters — seeing them in a positive light before the dimness that pervades them later.  The novella gives you plenty of bloodshed and gruesome cruelty of the world, casual swearing and the meanness and caste system.  It’s a nice primer.

Promise of Blood gets into the meat of things and boy howdy does it.  We’re immediately thrust into a coup by the Field Marshal Tamas, the man in charge of the powder mages.  It quickly spirals from there into a story full of gruesome gory battles — people exploding, torn apart by explosions or slashed open with blades.  Bullets battering heads, uniforms soaked in blood, people nearly dying.  It’s high carnage, and it’s excellent.  Into that we set several intriguing story threads — inspectors trying to root out traitors, a god returned, ancient mages with more power than the Priviliged, double crossing, triple crossing.  It’s high drama, and it CONTINUES to be excellent.

I’d highly recommend this series if you’re less enamored with the elves/pixies element of fantasy and more into A Song of Ice and Fire.  Especially if you really wished there were more people exploding into entrails and using pistols to shoot each other in the face.

CBR #116 – If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out

E-Squared by Pam Grout

When the missus tells me to read something, I read it.  I’ve made that promise to her, and I’ve kept it.  I’ve said, I will take this with a grain of salt, and I may not agree or cotton to everything, but if you think this is something that I could get benefit from, I will read it.  With almost all of the self-help spiritual type stuff, I always treat it as buffet.  I think all religion should be approached this way.  Take a little here and there and fill yourself up until you’re satisfied.  If you just went to a buffet, and only ate plate after plate of mashed potatoes, you’d be unsatisfied, and everyone around you would think you were an asshole and they’d be right to think that.  Especially if you explained the benefits of only eating potatoes and then proceeded to castigate anyone who dared to eat otherwise.  Fuck potatoes.

Anyway.  Pam Grout builds on the foundations of A Course in Miracles and The Law of Attraction and so on and so forth.  She kind of expects you’ve already parsed this ground.  So again, it’s all about intention and positive thinking and living in the now.  There’s nothing wrong with this.  The Secret dumbed down this approach and handled it stupidly.  But just because an idiot spouts something in a shitty way doesn’t necessarily make it untrue.  Yes, most people thought this meant you just wish your problems away.  Which is not quite the case.  Or that you have to ask crystals or aliens or life forces.  Which is not really true either.

Grout bases this off of the field of potentiality which is what she calls The Universe or God or whatever your name is.  She shortens it to The FP, which is extra hilarious to me, after watching the movie The FP.  Watch that movie.

Anyway, she purports nine actual experiments you can perform to represent the principles she puts forth.  Nothing’s particular new here. Except she expects you to own wire hangers and have time to grown potato plants. FUCK POTATOES.

I was about 50/50 on my experiments.  It didn’t take me 21 days to read the book, but to do the 48-72 hour waits between experiments.  Again, I already believe in positive intention and manifestation.  My missus proposes that I’m an epic manifestor when it comes down to it.  I don’t try, and draw things in.  I’m still working on that.  I’m not exactly a super positive person.  But I’m trying.

Grout’s kind of tapping into the marketplace like everyone else.  So if you’re into that kind of thing, I don’t think you’re going to suddenly believe more.  And I don’t think this is more easily digestible than Esther Hicks and Napoleon Hill.  Again, didn’t change my life, but didn’t ruin it either.

CBR #115 – Gravity With Levity

The Martian by Andy Weir

From page one, I was totally hooked on Andy Weir’s The Martian.  From the first few lines, I knew I’d spend the entire book with a character I liked.  It’s a survival story, just like Cast Away or 127 Hours or Buried.  Only the lead character isn’t some kind of keening asshole.  He’s really likable.  And he’s determined to stay alive.

After being marooned on Mars, Mark Watney tries to figure out a way to stay alive using what’s been left behind.  He’s MacGvyer’s the fuck out of everything, tearing down and repurposing billions of dollars of high tech equipment in an effort to survive.  There’s hopefulness and hopelessness in equal bounds, and Weir does an excellent job of making us really like Watney.  It starts out like a journal, but quickly we get involved with the JPL folks in Pasadena and the NASA folks manning the mission.  It becomes this globe spanning effort as the world watches as they try to rescue Watney.

All the characters are strongly developed, and now I’m even more eager for this to work as a film. I can see how they’d want to parse it down for a PG-13 rating, but the language is part of the charm of the book.  Watney’s f-bombs are fucking hilarious and well-timed.  There’s something wonderful and freeing about an astronaut swearing like a sailor.  Just like when Buzz Aldrin punched that moon-landing conspiracist right the fuck out.

Weir published this for fun and cheap on his site, and it became an international bestseller and for good reason.  I really hope more people glom on to this.  It’s easily one of the best books I’ve read this year, if not this best book. I highly recommend it.  Both for its tension and for its superb humor.

CBR #114 – Set Phasers to Nostalgia

Armada by Ernest Cline

I am a tremendous fan of Ready Player One.  It seems to me a perfect assortment of this kind of Willy Wonka meets Wargames and the layering of 80’s references is terrific.  It’s a great throwback, plumped full of easter eggs and still with a riveting story.  So when Cline decided to take on space invaders, I was totally in.  I love The Last Starfighter, Ender’s Game, and to some extent he crams in Iron Eagle.  Anything that makes you care more about Jason Gedrick is alright by me.

But this one’s a little too.  I don’t know.  It’s a little too everything.  The premise is there, but in this one, it feels like it’s like some sort of referential fois gras.  There is SO MUCH packed into this one.  It’s like someone called out Cline after Ready Player One, and his reaction was, oh, you thought that was too much, I will FEED YOU 8-BIT UNTIL YOU DIE.

There’s probably an element of truth to the government bolstering the video game industry to train the youth to operate war machines.  If you told me Cline discovered this from a hacker friend, I would full on fucking believe you.  Every meal at Fuddrucker’s tells the horrible truth of consuming America’s Army.  I’m sure Doom level-hacker issued in a new gen of kids who could take killing to the next level. Now that we’ve got drones and our robotics are getting more improved, we creep ever closer to a Nintend-of-the-world scenario.

But the story here isn’t that strong.  It just feels very boilerplate.  Obviously, Cline is referencing the whole golden child finding glory in video games.  But he stays so close and obsessive.  It’s almost an overload.  And you can’t patch a weak story with nerdstalgia.  I’ve tried.  It’s not a bad book, but it’s a little underwhelming compared to Ready Player One.  Though honestly, that’s a hell of an act for anyone to follow.  I’ll definitely still be eager for the next Cline book, but if this trend is the case, it might just be too much of a good thing.

CBR #113 – I Fall To Pieces

The Heart Does Not Grow Back by Fred Venturini

I really have no fucking idea what I expected from this book, nor did I expect to dig this so much.  It’s kind of an updated Christine — a dork becomes inexplicable best friends with a jock and falls in love with a super pretty popular girl — but instead of a car, it becomes a dark superpowers story.  I don’t say superhero, because I don’t think anyone’s a hero in this.  Everyone’s a selfish asshole, and while that could kill most books, it totally works here.  It’s not a happy story, but it’s kind of a love story.

Dale Sampson is kind of a mopey nerd dick.  And then one day, Mack, the school baseball superstar, befriends him.  It’s not a nice friendship.  Mack is a womanizing, foul-mouthed assclown.  He’s a fucking sentient Maxim magazine.  His heart might be in the right place, but his dick does most of the talking.  He’s the kind of guy who’d rub his fingers under your nose to make you smell the pussy on his fingers and then berate the girl for being a slutty cunt.  Dale believes he’s meant for greater things.  That they’ll all be stars.  And he becomes enamored with the more popular of a set of twin girls.  Dale’s trying to get with her.  Oh, and then there’s a school shooting.

That’s when Dale discovers he has regenerative powers.  So he takes a dead end job to make ends meet after his mother dies from cancer and then discovers that the lesser of the two twins has an abusive drug-dealing husband.  So he decides to try to sell his organs on the black market to help her get out of the relationship which she might kind of codependently want to stay in.  I told you this wasn’t a happy fucking story.

It then swings out to Hollywood in this sort of grand guignol reality TV evisceration, and from there things keep escalating.  While this may seem cartoonish, Venturini cements it in really horrid truth.  It’s wistful, because you can believe in people going to these lengths.  If you woke up with supernatural powers, you wouldn’t fight crime.  You’d find a way to make money off it.  Because that’s our ugly world now.

CBR #112 – Hollywood Boulevard of Broken Dreams

Killing Pretty by Richard Kadrey

The Sandman Slim series is just so excellent and ludicrous.  A half-angel/half-demon who used to be a pit fighter in hell now acts as a pseudo-private eye in Los Angeles, while trying to save the world he kind of fucking hates.  It’s a cigarette smoking, black coffee, whiskey shooting motherfucker of a story, and I love it.  It’s up to the seventh book now, and it’s kind of gone into True Vault Hunter Mode.

The world has been saved from potential armageddon.  His long time girlfriend has been “killed” and is trying to deal with her new persona and face.  His video store is trying to make ends meet — so they start showing alternate versions of famous films, The David Lynch Return of the Jedi, the Steve McQueen version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Stark no longer has his magic powers of shadow slipping.  And yet most of the same shit is still in effect that he always has to deal with.

Oh, and Death is dead.  Kind of.

So Stark has to deal with solving the mystery of who tried to kill death all while trying to keep his own life afloat.  It’s actually kind of a hopeful story for Sandman Slim.  But if you’re into hardboiled detective stuff with a smoky flavor of hell, I cannot recommend this series enough.  I have no idea what Kadrey plans to do next, but he’s really awesome at setting up dominos that payoff way later in the series.

CBR #111 – It’s Just Like The Da Vinci Code! That’s Not A Compliment!

Seven Wonders by Ben Mezrich

I’m a tremendous fan of Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction.  Bringing Down the House was an outstanding read, as well his work on the founding of Facebook and other assorted asshole-nerds-becoming-badasses stories.  His style lends itself to making the facts sizzle. Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate to fiction.

An international mystery cabal thousands of — maybe decades — no definitely hundreds of years has hidden Indiana Jones like traps at all the locations of the Modern Wonders of the World.  If you want to know what they are, watch An Idiot Abroad.  But each of them contain a piece of serpent that when combined make a — you know I give up.  It’s something to do with Amazons and at least three secret cults working together against each other and the Mitochonridal Eve.

Mezrich lays out exposition like you’re watching a sexual harassment info-film from the 1970’s in the walk-in freezer at a Shoney’s.  His characters aren’t helped.  While he’s got an arsenal of females who kick ass, they all suffer from sexy lamp syndrome.  His lone female grad student could literally have been played by an iPad.  The main villainess has zero fucking motivation to be trying to stifle the effort.

Our heroes whisk across the globe to the various wonders as if they are using a GameShark on an old SNES RPG.  The main guy is the worst.  He spends most of his time miffed that the female lead doesn’t smile more.  Yes, you’re racing time and death against this mission — that neither of you really can afford (which is addressed earlier and then kind of shrugged off) — but spend a little time making another clip for the sexual harassment video.  C’mon, milady, how’s about a grin?  I know Indiana Jones wore a fedora but FUCK YOU.

Honestly, it’s just lifeless and cheesy, a desperate and hollow attempt at cloning the latest archaeologo-avenger.  It’s shameful, boring, and slapdash.  Mezrich should stick to the facts.