Thursday, September 18, 2014

Fire Birds: A Review

Shane Gregory's Fire Birds is the third book in the zombie-apocalyptic King of Clayfield series.  We reviewed book one here, and book two here.  This is the third book, and possibly final book.  Most of the local loose threads, and more than a few new threads, get tied up in this one.  But with one group not accounted for (they could just be dead), the author has left himself open for a fourth book. Previously I had listened to the first two books in the series, with less car-time at the moment, I decided to read this one on the Kindle.

We went over the authors biography in the review of the first book, so we won't repeat that here, other than to remind folks that Clayfield is in reality the Western Kentucky town of Mayfield where the author works as a museum director.
The King of Clayfield series features mostly slow zombies, with only the fresh one being fast.  As we start this book, the collapse is almost a year old and well into summer. Our hero has been left to his own devices on a large fenced in farming property outside of towns.  The zombies are starting to rot out, and you don't see the new ones so much any more.  Missing his missing girlfriend, his loneliness seems to be wearing him down.
Well, people, living people, start to show up.  And man does life get complicated.  His lost love arrives, but having thought the hero was dead, she has a new boyfriend in tow.  It also becomes obvious that she is not so much a sweet innocent person, as one who makes a survival strategy of adopting to the cultural environment around her.  It gets very sticky, very fast.
What makes this series interesting is that the characters are entirely believable.  There are some extremely annoying people, who still make themselves useful at times.  The bad guys have fairly normal motivations, they are just rather forceful in satisfying those desires.  The baddies are also an odd mixture of annoying, revolting, inept, and deadly: sometimes all within the same person.
Both the good guys and bad guys make series mistakes.  Recovering, or taking advantage of those mistakes almost seems to be one of the lesson of the novel.  You need people to create a co community to survive within, but those same people can get you killed just as well.
So did I like it?  Yes I did.  I would certainly recommend it to the zombie-crowd, but with the zombies not being quit as important as they rot away, it starts looking like a more reality based survival novel. Easy supplies are running low, and differing strategies for survival become an issue. 
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high.  Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting.  Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation.  Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
We gave a 5 to the first one, and a 3 to the second one.  This one has a few moments of silliness, but they are much more plausible than the second novel.  The hero's combat abilities are toned down, and the combat seems to be fairly realistic.  You shoot at people, and miss.  You shoot again, and hit, but they don't die right away.  Issues of long term supplies are an issue, as well as the long term mental health issues plaguing the survivors of the collapse.  There are still zombies, so we will knock of one point and call it a 6.
Readability is easy.  The flow of this novel is better than the first two, and they were both 7s. So again we have a 7.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sunshine State: A Review

James Miller's Sunshine State is an apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic with regards to Southern Florida, novel set in the somewhat (`12 years?) future.  The collapse is brought about by a combination of resource depletion, global warming, and lots of crappy policy.

James Miller (1976-) is a native of London.  He studied English literature at Keble College, Oxford and has an MA in Anglo-American literary relations from UCL. In 2006 he completed his PhD in African-American literature and civil rights at King's College London.  Miller is known for a confused literary style of mash-up novel.  His first novel Lost Boys combined Science Fiction, Horror, and the Thriller genre with strong anti-Western overtones.

Sunshine State, is a retelling of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  The United States is in a state of slow collapse, ruled by a brutal Christion Fundamentalist government.  The story is of a British agent who has been sent to the United States to make contact with an agent that has appeared to have gone rogue, and is hiding out in the now abandoned "Zone" of Miami Florida.  It is told with a somewhat disjointed timeline, with the agent, Mark Burrows, having many fill-in flashbacks explaining how his personal situation came to pass.

The novel is intended to portray realistic events, but does so in a progression and style that is surrealistic.  It is hard to get too involved with the story line, because at least superficially, it mimics both Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and even more so the movie, Apocalypse Now.  But with elements of both.
This is confusing, because the theme of the novel, does not really fit well with either the movie, or this book. In the novel, the hero, starts in "civilization" travels, into the jungle, and then returns back to civilization. By the time you return back, you are aware (if you pay attention) that civilization itself is a bit of an illusion.  That the "horror" of the novel is the lack of substance to the civic-religion of the modern world, and the starkness of the abyss beyond.  The movie, along with this book, is coming from a society that is far less assured of its "civility", and acts as more of an indictment of the fallen nature of our ideals.  It is not a terror of the void, but a terror of a collapse of culture. The "horror" is what we do. Although not obvious, the two themes are almost opposites in their understanding of human society, and what they are trying to portray.

All of which would be fine if this novel stayed with consistent, versus cartoonish, reality.  You have clansmen-like government agents, running around the infidel, and a whole variety of thuggish characters in U.S. and British government employment, who just aren't the sensitive type. It veers into John le CarrĂ© territory with its indictment of  fighting evil, with your own brand of evil, with British Special Forces explosives experts taking the place of the spies.

It just doesn't work.  The original novel is a very tight 73 pages. This one clocks in at a flabby 344, with very little in the way of thematic expansion other than the author complaining about additional (presumably metaphorical to today's world) evils within his imaginary future.  It is interesting that British authors seem to think that an elected, transparently obvious, theocratic state, is a likely outcome for near the near future United States. Simon Morden in his Kingdom Come at least felt the need to go through a lengthy justification to make it plausible: nothing like that here.

So no, I didn't really like it.  But it is a shame because sprinkled throughout the novel are bits and pieces of interesting scenery and images, that if more tightly wound, would make for a more interesting affair.  The author seems to be intentionally going for a literary-through confusion effect here, which tends to negate some good individual bits of story telling.

We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high.  Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting.  Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation.  Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.

The author has a clue about weaponry and such.  He don't think he knows how to use them, but he seems to have done a reasonable job of the research.  I don't think you really want to use a under-barrel grenade launcher with explosive warheads in tight room to room clearing in American style construction, but I'm sure there is some flash-bang lethal military version that would get the job done.  Our hero, has the almost mystical ability to avoid notice, a good trick for a covert ops guy.  But the real failure in realism is to build a speculative future, and then not invest it with a tightness of logic to make it believable.  I can see some pretty nasty possible futures, but not for a moment does this one seem like anything other than a British-base politically correct, points-scoring exercise.  It is a 3.
Readability is low. The disjointed action makes for very little of the paging turning effect: unless your just in hurry to get done with it, and move onto something different.  The chaotic, and often unclear, cut aways to alternate story/reality threads accelerates toward the end of the book,.  Presumably intended to add a sense of confusion and unease, they simply muddle an already thin storyline.  It is an intentionally literary 2.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Neena Gathering: A Review

Valerie Nieman's Neena Gathering is a post apocalyptic novel set in a somewhat near future West Virginia after chemical/biological weapons of mass destruction have destroyed the main cities of North America in a bloody civil war between the already fractured pieces of the United States. [pause for breath] Originally published in 1988 by Pageant Books, this novel had been brought back by Permuted Press with a new cover.

New Cover

Original Cover. Note, Neena looks more like the gal in the first, but the tone of the story is closer to the second.

Valerie Nieman (alternate)(she was Valerie Nieman Colander on first printing) (1955-) Born in Jamestown, New York, she moved to West Virginia to get a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism (1978). She is an award winning poet,  and novelist.  Her other novels seem to focus on rural working folks lives and difficulties. At the time this was written, she was homesteading in West Virginia in a home she and her husband had built, and working as a reporter at a small daily paper.  She went back to school in her 40s to get a Masters of Fine Arts degree from Queens University in Charlotte, NC. She now lives in Greensboro, NC and is an associate professor teaching creative writing at North Carolina A&T University, and is the poetry editor of Prime Number Magazine.  This was her first novel, and the only apocalyptic one.

Neena, our heroine, and the main narrator of our story, is an orphaned teenager who, 8 years prior, had been sent by her mother to live with her Aunt in the Hills of West Virginia.    Where in West Virginia?  The nonexistent Middleton is noted as the nearest town.  Well the Tinker who brought her out of Maryland was leaving from Hagerstown, MD, and the Cumberland Gap (following Interstate 68) will take you to the area of Fairmont, West Virginia (present population ~18,000), which along with zip code 26554, gets referred to as the Middleton District.  Fairfax is also somewhat near Pittsburgh, PA which is referenced as being somewhat proximate.  It's not a lock, but seems reasonable to me.
Neena lives with a strict no-nonsense Aunt, who obviously cares for her, but lacks a sense of humor or play.  The Aunt is noted as being a bit of a homesteader-style survivalist, and makes her living by trading the various herbs, and plant materials that are available to those who know how to find and use them.
The story begins with the surprise arrival of the  aunts younger brother's: that is Neena's Uncle. The Uncle is very different, unlike the Aunt, who only cares about non-fiction, facts, and work, the Uncle loves poetry, classic literature, and does have a sense for enjoyment.  He also brings more mixed blessings.  While he is adds a strong back to their small household, he uses it to grow corn to be made into moonshine. The moonshine actually makes sense, because without water transport, alcohol is the easiest way to ship grain products without spoilage in this new low tech society. Thus our Whiskey Rebellion has a little more serious implications than bunch of backwoods folks arguing over moonshine.
The problem with the Uncle, and the moonshine, is that he likes to drink a little too much. In addition, he quickly becomes possessive, in a creepy sort of way, of the budding red head that is Neena.  He also has a rather violent, unforgiving nature, with a bit of a flash temper: traights not improved by alcohol.  Neena, with previously no experience open affection or enjoyment is both tempted, and nervous of his advances.
The final main character is a trader who lives a few hills over.  He is calm, capable, educated, and strong. But he was caught in one of the chemical attacks, and his outward appearance is a bit monstrous.  He is bitterly disliked by the intolerant Uncle, and the two quickly become antagonists.
The story would now be called a YA (young adult) coming of age story. I don't think 'YA' was the marketing vehicle it is today, so it is written in a more adult, literary style than most of today's fare.  The author has an obvious love for nature, and the wild abundance available to the knowledgable forager.
There are a number of sub-themes that run throughout the story, but the author doesn't tell you what they are, she simply tells her story and lets you draw your own conclusions.  There is the obvious distinction between the, possibly less effective, herbal remedies and the lost wonders of modern medicine.  But while the herbs may not be as potent, they also are not part of the chemical/biological industry that weaponized the medical process.  A medical technology, that helps to eradicate a large percentage of the North American population, is of course a mixed blessing. 
There are a lot of dangers in this world. Cholera, the red death, is back.  There are crazed (understandably) apocalyptic religious folks, and marauders.  But the author, I think, is much more realistic than the more combat orientated apocalyptic authors.  As an example, what do you do when marauders are around?  You hide near your property, leaving just enough of the little you have behind so that they will take it and go in piece.  If they get destructive, and their numbers are not too large, than you might intervene.  I think the authors work as a newspaper reporter gives are better sense of what types of craziness, and kindness, people are capable.  The character interactions, both with the major players, and minor ones, always have a certain "realness" to them.
Well did I like it?  Obviously from what I have written, I did.  It has a little bit of the eras nuclear war "death of the cities" feel to it.  The Archdruid, is always mystified about where the current scenario for everyone running out of the cities into the countryside comes from, and thinks there is no historical basis for it.  Well the basis is the World War 3 -nuclear war apocalyptic novels that started in the 1940s, and this book fits in well with that theme.  As an aside, he is correct that flights from cities in a disaster are unusual, but they did come during certain pandemics/plagues where the obvious locus of the disease was the city and its population.  Poe's Masque of the Red Death is all about such an attempt at escape.  Oddly enough though, in reading Braudel's Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800, he notes that the Italian city states had problems during the frequent famines of the folks from the countryside piling into the cities, as only they were wealthy enough to have a large grain reserve on hand.  So while the cause of disaster doesn't fit in with the current fashionable crop of zombies, pandemics, and EMP-bursts, and as such does feel a little "off", it is none-the-less perfectly serviceable to get the job done.
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Realism is pretty straight forward.  Other than the slightly futuristic nature of the events, the United States had already broken up into warring factions before the bombing started, it is very much concerned with life in the here and now.  As a homesteader, the author knows how much time is involved in getting things done, and the labor involved in running a small homestead.  It is a 6.
Readability is straightforward.  It has a calm and collected pacing, so while you are concerned as to what Neena will do, and how things will turn out, it isn't a page turner.  It is literary enough that some basic knowledge of a few very well known classics is slightly helpful.  But isn't critical.  As I noted there are a number of sub-themes, but the author does not beat you over the head with mysto-symbolism that is impossible to untangle. You can choose to think through the implications as you wish.  It is a literary 6.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ecko Rising: A Review

Danie Ware's Ecko Rising is a mashup novel featuring a cyberpunk character from a dystopian sci-fi  world thrown into an apocalyptic, Dark Lord style, fantasy setting: tech versus magic. This novel is intended as the first in a series of three, with this novel stopping at a reasonable enough resting point, but not completely standalone in nature with regards to tying up loose threads in the storyline.

Danie Ware, originally from, East Grinstead in West Sussex, Great Britain (south of London on the English Channel), now lives in London with her son and two cats.  She has been a shop manager, actuarial technical clerk, document designer, ERM, kiss-a-gram girl, crew at the local theatre, a fitness instructor, and a member the Territorial Army, before becoming the publicist and event coordinator at the bookstore and specialty retailor, Forbidden Planet. one suspects it is these important retail and social-media connections which has helped push this book to the front of the marketing fore. Rarely has a first novel been so blurbed!

In an interview, she does show that she has some insight into the flavors of apocalyptia:
The apocalypse to avoid is the slow, strangling destruction of the planet, the critical overpopulation and struggle for resources, the death of our flora and fauna, and that final scrabbling bid to secure power and profit that won’t last anyway…
But look on the bright side - we do get all those pictures of abandoned theme parks.
In terms of the apocalypse I’d prefer? If I had to choose, it’d be the zombie version, Pavlov or not—because I do still have a cupboard full of old re-enactment weapons, and can just about remember which end is the pointy one. Plus: the enemies are clear and obvious and you won’t wind up in a cell for thumping one with a sword.
Or, for pure glamour points, maybe the epic meteor strike? Five minutes of frenzied Instagram goodness, and then BOOM.

She notes Michael Marshal Smith's Only Forward, as a must read, and I assume her mashup of genres was inspired by this work.

The originating world of our anti-hero Ecko, is that of a William Gibson-style techno dystopia.  The workers of the world are ground under with complacency drugs and housed in closet sized abodes, while the 1% get to play, and enjoy Machiavellian intrigues against each other.  The pawns in these intrigues are various bad actors, some of whom have a lot of technology worked into their physical features to give them something of an edge.  As one of these bad actors,  Ecko is a smart-alecky, fast, sneaky assassin, with a few tricks up his sleeves.

The first, relatively short portion of the novel, is filled with Ecko being on a stealth mission into a hostile corporate complex that turns bad.  In the explosive aftermath of failure, Ecko finds himself in a Tolkien, or maybe Fritz Leiber-like, fantasy world.

The fantasy world is played two ways in the novel (as noted in this video), one is that he is actually in a different world, and one is that he has been hooked into a machine and the powers-that-be are messing with his head.  Ecko vacillates between both possibilities, but tends to view it all as one big game: a game in which he is the anointed hero of the plot.  And as the author notes, he is about as unsuitable a hero for a fantasy plot as you are going to find.

Both worlds are fairly androgynous with males and females taking fairly balanced roles in the proceedings.  Although this isn't too stunning in the modern world of massive firepower, or a cyber-punk enhanced one,  it is a little odd in a fantasy setting where presumably muscles would normally count.  If you want everyone equal, why not just have people using poison weapons.  Would that make the fighting too unheroic?  Too unmanly?  The heroes and heroines are so over the top kick ass that it's not all that terribly realistic in any case.  Normal folks are just there as fillers in the casting.

She describes the magic as "elemental" with a passion-based delivery system.  Historically this tends to be the domain of the hedge-magic folks, because in real terms, being passionate about something is not always a terribly effective way to make a real change in the system: particularly if there is someone equally passionate in the opposite direction.  But I agree, the Dungeons and Dragons spell book approach is a bit cumbersome for an adventure setting; So passion it is.

So what you have is something of a the typical high fantasy quest, in a low fantasy setting, with a cyberpunk ninja-type who thinks he is the hero of a computer game.

Did I like it?  It was o.k. I give a qualified approval.  The combat, while fantastical, is well done. The evil villains are less stock characters than a lot of characters in supposedly realistic thriller, little less the  militia-apocalypse fare.  They are also fairly clever.  

Unfortunately, the many portions of interesting storyline and insight are mixed in with such stock fantasy and cyberpunk pabulum that you tend to get jarred out of the immediacy of the moment.  There is some odd, and to honest, often pointless shifting of viewpoints.  The novel would have been a lot more interesting with fewer points of view. Some of the folks, presumably put there for information purposes, The Bard (Roderick), The Demigod Savior (Rhan),  The Apothecary (Ress) work hard to suck the life out every scene they are in with pointless babbled ponderings.  In a world that is half played as a Matrix-style unreality, why on earth would we care about the Tolkien-like attempts at a mystic prehistory.  Particularly when much of the fare is as much low fantasy, as high.  Do we care what this gutter rat collapsed fantasy world's Gods are planning?  In net, it is somewhat interesting as a fantasy story.  If you don't like fantasy stories, I doubt this is one you will like.

We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.

The book is not realistic.  The author is more interested in story points, then in a depiction of the reality of the world.  Even within the fantasy world, the combat, though interesting, is very hero-based.  Only heroes' or villains actions will have an impact.  The likelihood that someone mundane will do anything other than die, or act as a witness to important events, is small.  Although the magical "spells" are not as powerful as in some fantasy settings, it is still very much a fantasy book: a 1.

Readability is a little low for a book with so much action.  There is a lot of philosophizing.  Given the length of some of these ramblings, it is often hard to understand the point of some of them. The length of 524 pages knocks it down one notch from the midpoint: a 3.