Category Archives: Books

Podiobook Review: 7th Son: Descent by J.C. Hutchins

7th Son: DescentBack in April, I mentioned that I was very much hooked on the podcast novel 7th Son: Descent by J.C. Hutchins. I had started listening to the novel in preparation for having J.C. Hutchins on The Round Table and very quickly found myself drawn into the story.

Throughout the summer, I waited patiently for each new episode to appear in my personal feed from Podiobooks, and 7th Son shot to the top of my “Must Listen” list.

The story revolves around seven men who are abruptly pulled out of their normal lives and brought to a top secret facility where their true history is revealed. The seven men couldn’t be more different—from the hardcore marine to the musician to the computer hacker, the geneticist and the criminal psychologist—but they soon find out that they have more in common than anyone could have guessed. In fact, they are all clones of a man known as John Alpha, who engineered the recent assassination of the President of the United States.

Alpha’s intentions are unclear, but he leaves a trail of clues that only the clones—with their unique skills and their shared childhood memories—can decipher. Alpha has also kidnapped the clones’ “mother,” providing further incentive for them to unravel the mystery and follow their progenitor’s twisted path.

7th Son is a tight, gripping thriller with a healthy dose of near-future science fiction thrown in for good measure. Hutchins not only dives head first into cloning and its ramifications (one of the clones is Father Thomas, a Catholic priest who fears that he and his brethren have no souls), he also delves into memory transference and storing an individual’s personality and experiences in a massive supercomputer.

Descent covers a lot of ground, with tendrils of the story reaching out all across the United States and beyond, to military installations in the former Soviet Union. John Alpha has enlisted the aid of a mercenary named Doug Devlin, and in doing so has created his own personal army. To what end? The first book does not reveal the intricacies of Alpha’s plot, but there are two more installments to come.

Book Two, subtitled Deceit is set for release in late September. As with Book One, Deceit will be released in weekly installments, a format that has worked incredibly well so far. Every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, or with some new revelation that leaves the listener hungry for more. If Hutchins can maintain the momentum he built up in Descent, Book Two is bound to be one hell of an exciting roller coaster ride.

Bookstuff: Wild Cards and A Song of Ice and Fire

Once upon a time, I was a member of the Science-Fiction Book ClubActually, it’s at least thrice upon a time, as I seem to re-join every six or seven years for some reason.
and I forgot to promptly return the “Selection of the Month” cardThis happened more than once, and I have several books on my shelf because of it. One other that I can recall off the top of my head is Marrow by Robert Reed, which I’ve not read. Yet.. As a result, one of the books I received was George R.R. Martin‘s A Storm of Swords. I probably would have sent the book back, but I’m a huge fan of a series of books that Martin edited back in the 1980’s called Wild Cards.

The Wild Cards series is a sort of alternative history of Earth, one that diverges from our own history slightly after World War II. The key event is the release of an alien virus into the atmosphere; a virus that radically alters a significant portion of the population of first New York City and eventually much of the world. Those affected by the Wild Card virus gain super-human abilities (Aces), become hideously deformed (Jokers), or die immediately (referred to as “drawing the Black Queen”).

Wild Cards is a collaborative universe, with stories written by George R.R. Martin, Walter Jon Williams (Dread Empire’s Fall), Melinda M. Snodgrass and Roger Zelazny (Chronicles of Amber), to name a few. The authors each created several characters that inhabited the Wild Cards universe, from Doctor Tachyon, the alien who brought the virus to Earth to Father Squid, the Joker priest, to Jack Braun, the Ace known as The Golden Boy (and later The Judas Ace).

Wild Cards: Death Draws Five

The series spans seventeen volumes, but I only have the first thirteen. There was also a four-issue limited series comic book published by Marvel’s Epic imprint, which I own in its entirety, and a GURPS supplement, which I do not. Though I thought the comic book was a merely mediocre, I absolutely loved the novels. I’ve re-read most of them at least twice, and went through all thirteen volumes I own last year. The most recent installment, Death Draws Five was published just last month. Volumes fourteen through sixteen have proven to be somewhat difficult to find, but I’d certainly like to complete the set eventually.

A Storm of Swords is the third volume of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Since I’d enjoyed Martin’s collaborative work in the Wild Cards series so much, I thought I’d give his solo stuff a shot. Rather than jumping into the middle of the series, I went out and picked up a copy of the first volume, A Game of Thrones. I read the first few chapters and then something new and shiny caught my eye, so I set it aside. The novel (which weighs in at 800+ pages) sat on my shelf for several years, until I was looking for something to take to the hospital when it was time for Kyle to make his debut. In the week Laura and I spent running back and forth to the Cleveland Clinic, I managed to read about a quarter of A Game of Thrones, quickly learning that the point where I’d stopped reading years ago was the chapter immediately before the plot took a very interesting turn.Should you happen to be reading/have read A Game of Thrones, I am referring to an event involving a young lad who likes to climb things.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Song of Ice and Fire puts the “epic” in “epic fantasy.” In the first volume, Martin is setting the pieces on the board, but it is very clear that the game is already well underway, and has been for quite some time. It’s a big game, too. Each chapter focuses on one character, and eight characters share the spotlight in A Game of Thrones. Six of the characters are from a single family, the seventh is a dwarf who is at one turn admirable and at another replusive, and the eighth isn’t even on the same continent as the others. All of these characters are involved in a “game of thrones,” attempting to prevent one faction or another from siezing control of the Seven Kingdoms, plotting to take the throne themselves, or even simply watching helplessly as the game is played out around them.

I finished A Game of Thrones just yesterday, and I’m itching to run out and buy the second volume, A Clash of Kings. The fourth volume, A Feast for Crows was released last year, but at about eight hundred pages per installment—not to mention dozens of other unread books on my shelves—I’ve got plenty of reading to keep me occupied until it is released as a paperback. Of course, between volumes two and four is A Storm of Swords, which I already own in hardcover and will probably purchase in paperback just to make the reading experience a little more enjoyable. I should keep that in mind the next time I’m tempted to join The Science Fiction Book Club again.

Movie Preview: Perfume

Perfume by Patrick Suskind (Book)Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer has been adapted for the big screen. I read the book earlier this year, and I’m not sure how I feel about it being turned into a movie. On the plus side, Alan Rickman’s in it, but that alone isn’t enough to guarantee the movie will be good (see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). On the minus side, it’s a movie about a guy (Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, played by Layer Cake‘s Ben Whishaw) with an incredibly developed sense of smell. The book is filled with imaginative, vivid descriptions of the scents that fill Grenouille’s nostrils. How do you translate that to film?

I await the answer with some trepidation.

American Gods

American Gods

The bookmark I’ve been using to keep my place in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a page from the 2001 Mensa Puzzle Calendar. The page is Tuesday, 10 July 2001. This may or may not be the day I originally began reading the book, but it’s probably pretty close. The book was first published in 2001, and I’ve got the hardcoverHardcover books are a pain in the ass to read, especially in bed. After a while, my arms, hands and fingers get tired of holding up the book, so I rarely read more than ten or twenty pages of hardcovers when I’m in bed (I don’t like to read on my stomach). I know the hardcovers look nice on a shelf and all, but paperbacks are simply more convenient. They’re also easier to carry around.. I suppose you could say that I averaged about a hundred and ten pages a year on American Gods, but that would be an oversimplification.

See, I’ve got BADD. I’ll pick up a book today, read fifty pages or so, then buy another book tomorrow and temporarily abandon the old in favor of the new. As a result, my rate of finishing books is pretty sad. At any one time, I’m partway through at least a half-dozen books, if not more.

Sometimes, I can pick up a book I haven’t finished and dive right in where I left off a couple months (or years) ago. Other times, I have to back up a bit, or start all over again. That’s what I did with American Gods a few weeks ago. I picked it up and started from the very beginning.

This afternoon, eating cold lasagna and garlic breadsticks on my lunch hour, I finished the book. I feel inordinately accomplished right now. Not because American Gods was difficult or unpleasant to read, mind you. It’s just that I so rarely complete a book without allowing myself to be distracted by another that when it happens I want to celebrate. Buying The Once and Future King last weekend could very easily have led to the derailment of my Gaiman train”[M]y Gaiman train” is a very suspect phrase. Don’t think about it too much., but it didn’t.

The basic conceit of American Gods is this: as people from far-flung lands emigrated to America in days gone by, they brought their gods (or rather, a copy of their gods), with them. As the great Melting Pot heated up and different cultures blended together, the old gods and their mythology were forgotten. The manifestations of these gods grew bitter as the rites and sacrifices that made them powerful faded into memory and the people of America created new gods of their own, gods of media and technology.

Now, a storm is coming. The gods, old and new, are gathering their numbers to face one another in a great war. The mysterious Mister Wednesday hires an ex-convict named Shadow to aid him in recruiting some of the old gods, and thus begins Shadow’s travels to and from the places of power in America and his encounters with gods, leprechauns, piskies, and a host of other figures from a host of mythologies.

American Gods is dense with strange and wondrous places—from roadside attractions like The House on the Rock to the idyllic little town of Lakeside, Wisconsin—populated with an array of gods, both familiar and foreign. Despite this, the world Gaiman creates seems hollow at times. His descriptions of settings seem to lack detail in some cases, giving the impression of a rough hand-drawing that was never inked or colored. There is also a distinct lack of incidental characters. In motion picture terms, it seems like the director forgot to hire extras to fill the empty seats of the diner where the main characters eat their breakfast.

As a result, when the “real world” is left behind while Shadow walks along the unseen paths travelled by the gods or finds himself moving through a strange dreamscape, the disconnect from reality is incomplete. The world he normally occupies seems so often surreal that these fantastic side trips seem a little less so.

Still, there are times—such as certain moments when Shadow is in Lakeside—when the world seems truly alive and full, and the reader is fully immersed in the richness of the setting. Perhaps Gaiman is painting a more detailed picture with his words, or perhaps the character interactions somehow make the scene more clear. I’m not sure which it is without going back to re-read several chapters.

That hollowness is my only major gripe with American Gods. I found the idea that these gods-made-flesh were walking among us and simply trying to get by in a land where no one prayed, offered sacrifices to or even remembered them to be fascinating. They lead a dull existence, often caught in a monotonous routine, but when Shadow and Wednesday arrive we see glimpses of their former glory that show us just how far they’ve fallen since the days when someone believed in them.

Shadow wanders in a world that doesn’t quite seem like his home. He has lost everything that was important to him and at first he follows Wednesday simply because it’s what he agreed to do. Soon, he finds that he wants some of what has been taken away from him back and seeks to find a way to regain it. The cause seems hopeless, but he pursues it nonetheless. As he pursues his own goal and does the bidding of Mister Wednesday, he eventually learns that his part in the war between old gods and new is much, much more important than he could have guessed.

Shadow is as defined and mysterious as his namesake. On the surface, his motives are simple and clear, his sense of duty and devotion unflagging, yet what truly drives him, what keeps him going when there seems little point in continuing is a slippery eel to catch. He is at once powerful and powerless, engaging and empty, always sympathetic, never cruel. He does what he does because he said he would, yet there is more to the man than simple, mindless persistence. On the surface, Shadow may look like the stereotypical dim-witted muscle, but he’s never anywhere near as dumb as anyone thinks he is.

American Gods turned out to be every bit as good as I thought it would be, and well worth taking the time to read. From start to finish, it is a satisfying story with a few shortcomings that are easy enough to forgive. It’s a book I’d like to read again when I have time to look up each and every location and character and learn more about the role they play and who it was that made them important in their day.

Food of the gods.

“Breakfast for me,” said Shadow. “What’s good?”

“Everything’s good,” said Mabel. “I make it. But this is the farthest south and east of the yoopie you can get pasties, and they are particularly good. Warm and filling too. My specialty.”

Shadow had no idea what a pasty was, but he said that would be fine, and in a few moments Mabel returned with a plate with what looked like a folded-over pie on it. The lower half was wrapped in a paper napkin. Shadow picked it up with the napkin and bit into it: it was warm and filled with meat, potatoes, carrots, onions. “First pasty I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s real good.”

“They’re a yoopie thing,” she told him. “Mostly you need to be at least up Ironwood way to get one. The Cornish men who came over to work the iron mines brought them over.”

“Yoopie?”

“Upper Peninsula. U.P. Yoopie. It’s the little chunk of Michigan to the northeast.”

The chief of police came back. He picked up the hot chocolate and slurped it. “Mabel,” he said, “are you forcing this nice young man to eat one of your pasties?”

“It’s good,” said Shadow. It was too, a savory delight wrapped in hot pastry.

—Neil Gaiman, American Gods

I’ve got to give Mabel credit for not putting rutabaga in her pasty. Nothing ruins a good pasty like rutabagaThe citizens of Cornwall (and maybe a few Yoopers) might be dismayed to learn that the second sure-fire way to ruin a pasty is to serve it with gravy. Pasty should only ever be served with two condiments: butter and ketchup..

The Cornish may have brought the pasty to the U.P. (maybe they really do pronounce it “yoopie” in Minnesota WisconsinFor some reason I had it in my head that Shadow was in Lakeside, Minnesota. It’s actually Lakeside, Wisconsin., but that seems a little lazy for the Yooper in me), but it was the Finns who kept it there. Today, the pasty is closely associated with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as lobster is with Maine, cheese with Wisconsin or cheesecake with New York. On arriving in the U.P. by way of the Mackinaw Bridge, the billboards advertising are omnipresent in St. Ignace and points west.

When Laura and I visit my parents in the U.P., pasty is almost invariably the first meal we have at their house (though I haven’t eaten pasty for breakfast in many moons). There are probably a dozen or so places to buy pasties in South Range, Houghton and Hancock, and only one place to buy a Big Mac. That’s the way it should be.

Hearing the Dark Tower

Dark Tower V: Wolves of the CallaThe Dark Tower V – Wolves of the Calla
Stephen King
Read by George Guidall
ISBN: 0743533526

I own multiple versions of the first four installments of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, including Books I – III in softcover, Book IV in hardcover, Books I – III on CD, and Book IV on (gasp!) cassette. I’ve been slowly acquiring this series on CD over the past year, usually finding each installment for about $20 at Half Price Books.
Continue reading Hearing the Dark Tower

Blasts from the past.

I just stumbled across a list of books I was reading in June of 2003:

  • A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • Perfume by Patrick Suskind
  • Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
  • Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

I have finished only Perfume (very good book). Sad.

To be fair, I’ve read a few books that aren’t on the list since June 2003, too. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I will admit that I could probably add at least another half-dozen books to the “started but not finished” list.

In other news, the bill acceptor on the vending machine that dispenses Starbucks® Vanilla Frappuccino® is on the fritz. My encounter with the vending machines downstairs just now seemed like a bad rerun of a show I didn’t want to see in the first place. In fact, it was also in June of 2003 that I had a similar problem…

[cue wavy flashback lines and “deedle-deedle-dee” sound]
Continue reading Blasts from the past.

Finding the Artist Within: Chapter One

I picked up The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain on Tuesday, then Laura and I took a trip to Pat Catan’s to pick up some art supplies. After we got home, we both did the first three exercises in the book.

  1. Self-Portrait. Not too bad. I squished my head a bit on the horizontal, and I had a real problem with the lips, but it came out much better than I expected.
  2. Portrait from Memory. Simply dreadful. I started and stopped no less than half a dozen times. I tried my maternal grandfather, my maternal grandmother, my father, my friend Rob and a couple of other people and erased my futile efforts in each case. I could see each of these people in my minds eye, but when I tried to focus on their features I failed miserably. According to the author, this is not at all unexpected.
  3. Non-drawing Hand. Weird. The end result came out very lumpy, but it was definitely recognizable as my hand.

I have to read the rest of the chapter so I can get to the next exercise. The author goes into great detail about the assymmetrical nature of the human brain and the studies that have been done surrounding the separation of the hemispheres. It’s all very interesting stuff. Laura and I are (I think) going to try to do the exercises together whenever possible. Perhaps I’ll scan some of the drawings and post them for all to see when I’ve finished.

Multi-Media

After dinner at Max & Erma’s last night, Laura and I did a little shopping at the Barnes & Noble where she used to work. We picked up On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt, Robbing the Bees by Holley Bishop and Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters by Dick Staub, which Laura presented to me and said she wanted “just because of the title”.

I searched for but was unable to find the CD Discozone by The O Zone. Their ridiculously catchy tune, Dragostea Din Tei (AKA Mi Ya Hi), has been in my head all week thanks to that blasted Numa Numa Dance. I’ve listened to snippets of the other tracks on the disc, and I liked what I heard, so I’m looking to buy it (else I’d just download the one song from iTunes). Better luck next time, I guess.

Later, we watched What the Bleep Do We Know?, which isn’t exactly an easy movie to describe. If I had to summarize its content I would do so thusly: Science meets spirituality meets mysticism and they discuss the nature of God, the human experience and mind over matter on a quantum level.