Friday, April 22, 2011

To Say Nothing of the Dog

My all-time favorite book. Willis deftly handles time travel, comedy, romance, adventure, historical drama, the truth about cats and dogs, mystery and a touch of metaphysics. Clever and hilarious, To Say Nothing of the Dog follows the historian Ned Henry in a comedy of errors as he travels between Victorian England, the Blitz, and the not-so-distant possible future on a quest to find the Bishop's Bird Stump, solve (or save) a calamity, defeat the Nazis, and possibly stop the universe as we know it from being destroyed. Willis weaves an intricate plot into a creative, cohesive tapestry that defies any attempt at doing it justice in a short description. I've read this book to ragged shreds and still find something new in the story each time. Cleverly constructed, laugh-out-loud funny, likeable characters... to say nothing of the dog.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont

"What's real? What's Pulp?" is the heated debate started by ambitious young writer L.Ron Hubbard one evening at Greenwich Village's White Horse Tavern between the genre's rival icons Walter Gibson(The Shadow) and Lester Dent(Doc Savage). And very soon after they are all embroiled in a mystery that cleverly uses this theme by mixing real details from the authors' lives with bold Pulp story devices. There are many rich details not only of the writers' lives and the publishing business but of the of the era in general; including cameos by a young Orson Wells, Blackstone the Magician, as well as other Pulp writers - even a bit of contemporary Chinese History. Oh, and of course the mystery wouldn't be complete without some unusual events regarding H.P. Lovecraft's death and a surprising enigmatic stranger. A great tribute to the genre written by Paul Malmont.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story by Christopher Moore

For years, people have told me, dude, you'll really love this guy, he has your kinda sense of humor, and he loves the same sh*t we do.

I have read dozens of snippets from Lamb and while I had never sat down and actually read the whole book (I do plan to now), I loved the goofy religious satire, and in world with far too little religious humor, that book seems to be one of the best -- charmingly blasphemous, well written, and just plain cute.

Anyway, Bloodsucking Fiends. Loved it! Funny, a cool little story, believable characters, nice use of fan service to the vampire genre, and did I mention it was funny?

Without really going into too much detail, the story of Jody the vampire is my kinda vamp tale: she becomes a vampire and just deals with it. No big oh my God I can't believe it; much more like wow, vampires ARE real now how do I deal with it?

Just like a real person who has seen a few movies and experienced popular culture would be. I always hate it when in contemporary urban fantasy we have to suffer through pages and paragraphs of the characters NOT BELIEVING in what has happened and acting like they've never heard of a vampire before. Refreshing.

Add to that a collection of highly memorable characters, retail humor reminiscent of Kevin Smith, and you have a highly enjoyable, low maintenance novel. If you have some time, give this one a read. You'll be glad you did.

Review: Sailing to Sarantium

Guy Gavriel Kay has been a favourite author of mine since my mid-teens, when I lucked into a copy of his Fionavar Tapestry at my school's library. His eye for detail, even as he is creating worlds, adds depth and realism to his fantastical histories: this is an author who loves to research and create parallels to real events.

Sailing to Sarantium is the story of a craftsman, Caius Crispin, a mosaicist of skill, with a puzzle-solving and rather open mind. The Emperor in Sarantium is in need of skilled men to build and decorate for him a structure for their god, to replace one that was destroyed in an uprising a few years before. The book is mostly the story of Crispin's journey, with specific encounters that provide insight into his character and approach to the world. It touches on aspects of the history of our own Byzantine Empire, and the various philosophies, sects and schisms of the early Christian church. Crispin's Emperor shares characteristics with the historical Emperor Justinian, who had the Hagia Sophia built after its predecessor was destroyed in riots. The plague that took Crispin's family echoes the outbreak of the bubonic plague midway through Justinian's reign.

Throughout his fantasies, and using that unique quasi-historical perspective, Kay gives insight into aspects of life that affect his modern audience: mob mentality for one memorable example, or how small events in a life can shape it for years. Kay's writing doesn't pose questions and give pat answers: it's meaty and rich and feeds the thinker, with both larger theological issues, like whether one man's experience of god diminishes those of other men; and smaller more personal ones, like how one copes with grief or a loss of innocence.

In Crispin's world, “sailing to Sarantium” means taking a big step on a bigger journey, the making of a life change. Reluctant at first, he commits with intensity to the changes, once he sees that he has really no choice but to go. His journey, not much of it by actual ship, takes him through two soul-shaking encounters – with the old “pagan” ways of the tribal forest folk, who make blood sacrifices to their forest-dwelling, animal bodied deity, and with the roots of his own religion of the sun-god, Jad, though a mosaic in an old shrine.

I am very fond of stories about ordinary but extraordinary individuals: warrior kings and mastermind evil geniuses are all well enough, but both Bilbo and Frodo were simple folk, and the tales that allow simple folk to be heroes are the most accessible, I find. Crispin is not so much a simple man: he's layered with complexities of thought and his past haunts him, but he is a labourer who happens to love and be very good at his craft. I know many people much like him, and admire them as well.

Kay's earlier work, the Fionavar Tapestry touched on the universality of certain myths, and how echoes can be found across many cultures: he did so by making the origin of those myths (and the final resolution to several great tragedies within them) one source world, much as Amber is the source of the shadow-worlds that spin from it in Zelazny's celebrated series, the Chronicles of Amber. In Kay's works, that source world is known as Fionavar.

It's very interesting to me that his first work was about Fionavar, and all his subsequent books make fleeting reference to this legend/heretical philosophy. Even as the Fionavar series introduced the readers to the philosophy of multiple universes and certain theological conundrums therein, each subsequent work has a different theology, religion or philosophy as a recurrent theme. Kay doesn't use the religious ideas thus displayed as a bludgeon of his own beliefs, (indeed, with the varied perspectives of his characters, his own beliefs are anyone's guess), more as a incisive look into our own culture's religious history. The comparisons are less with the historical people or the events of the time, than with the theologies and flavour of those contemporary tensions.

One great grace of Kay's characters is that they never feel too modern. At no point does he snap the reader out of the atmosphere of the time, with overly modern language, attitudes or responses. Even his inventive cursing rings true to the setting and timeframe.

In Sailing to Sarantium, schisms within one belief are highlighted. Eastern and Western philosophies have collided, and through Imperial intervention, come to an uneasy truce. Our craftsman hero is brought to a cosmopolitan and unutterably subtle court, ruled by an ambitious and ruthless workaholic Emperor and his equally ruthless and inspiring Empress. Heathens from the desert threaten in the east, the once-civilized southern states are fractious under the new rulers, and in the West barbarian tribes have only just been conquered. Crispin's story, his companions, and the story of the Empire itself are laid like a tiles in a mosaic into this rich and historically fascinating setting. I am greatly anticipating diving into Book II, Lord of Emperors.