2013 Book Reviews
The bad news is that the sci-fi show Fringe is over. However the good news is that it recently received a second life through Titan Books. So far, the publisher has released two stories set in the program’s universe, with a third on the way for 2014. Titan’s novels are written by Christa Faust and provide backstory for your favorite characters: Olivia (Anna Torv), Walter (John Noble), and Peter (Joshua Jackson). Each book features a single character on the cover and concentrates on him or her, like Faust’s tale Fringe – The Burning Man, which takes place during FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham’s childhood.
Starting with an incident during Olivia’s early years as a test subject for the drug Cortexiphan, The Burning Man quickly introduces us to the substance’s mysterious supernatural effects on her. Then we move forward a bit, to the events that cause her to shoot her abusive stepfather, and to her ensuing encounter with a man named Tony, who forms a bizarre physiological attachment to her. Driven to madness by this condition, Tony is locked away in an institution, although eventually he’s released and sets out on a quest to kill Olivia. By this point, she is at a New England boarding school with her younger sister Rachel, who Olivia realizes she must also protect from this psychopath. Can the lone teenager save her sister and herself though?
What’s great about Christa Faust’s Fringe – The Burning Man, is that it provides depth to Olivia’s past that the show often could only accomplish entirely through exposition. It’s intriguing to uncover more details behind her traumatic relationship with her stepfather and to discover how she became a career-driven crime fighter. You receive deeper insight into her troubled relationships with men and the reason for her emotional reluctance with romantic entanglements as well.
Faust’s pacing is perfect, so her story moves quickly, similar to an episode of Fringe. Although the narrative focuses on Olivia, Faust shifts perspectives effectively between various characters to give you a full picture of the action. Like Dunham herself, Faust’s prose is efficient and descriptive, with no nonsense. Occasionally she veers into a pop culture reference or silly analogy, although her writing is otherwise straightforward. The only place where Faust’s voice feels off is in the book’s epilogue. With the adult Olivia, her words take on a hyper, stream of consciousness style that doesn’t match the earlier chapters. However given the book’s already quick rhythm, if the whole thing was constructed with this frantic voice, it could have been even more compelling yarn.
If you’re looking to get your Fringe fix, Faust’s novels from Titan are a good way to do it, but be sure to savor the first two outings, because the next one doesn’t arrive until March.
Have you ever reached the end of a book and felt completely confused about what happened? Maybe you had a hard time with one of those “classics” filled with symbolism that you were forced to read in school. I’m not talking about tomes like that though. Have you ever been totally befuddled by a modern, run-of-the-mill novel? If you still answered “No,” you’re lucky, because I can’t say the same after finishing Danie Ware’s sci-fi/fantasy tale “Ecko Rising.”
I can normally handle science fiction literature, but I’m not used to fantasy. At first I thought my inexperience with the genre is why I didn’t get “Ecko Rising.” However as a fairly intelligent person capable of processing complex concepts daily, that rationale didn’t make sense to me. I also wondered if I struggled because Ware’s novel is the first in an intended series. Perhaps I needed to read another one to grasp her yarn? That couldn’t be it either, since I’ve gone through other multi-volume story arcs and still understood the first book. After much thought, I deduced that the reason why I couldn’t comprehend “Ecko Rising” is that it’s just not well-written.
Ware herself is not a bad writer. I know that seems contradictory for me to say, so I’ll explain. She proves her talent with a creative premise, vivid prose, and a fast-paced narrative. Although she doesn’t explain many of the specialized terms that exist in her unique worlds, which is why “Ecko Rising” is confusing as heck. Characters in her story speak in bizarre dialects with weird slang and jargon that doesn’t get defined. Ware starts using these terms expecting you to somehow pick up their meaning based on their context, something that isn’t easy. A map at the front of the book gives you some frame of reference on places at least, but it doesn’t help that much.
Ware’s story focuses on Ecko, some sort of bionically enhanced assassin living in London. His gadgets allow him super strength, speed, and stealth that make him a force to be reckoned with. While on a mission, he blacks out and wakes up in a mysterious world with no technology, strange characters, monsters, and magic. As dark forces descend upon this peaceful land, it seems like Ecko is the only one who can save it. Is he dreaming? Is this place a virtual reality test for Ecko set up for someone’s amusement? Or scariest of all, is it real?
A testimonial on the back cover for “Ecko Rising” describes it as “The Matrix meets Game of Thrones…” which I think is a fairly accurate comparison. There’s this constant mind game going on with Ecko and the reader about whether his environment is a computer simulation just like “The Matrix.” And the fantasy elements combined with Ware’s multiple simultaneous storylines and intense sex scenes feel very much like “Game of Thrones.” Most of the erotic portions are titillating, however I could have done without the book’s messed up rape passage.
Ware’s locations that she constructs for “Ecko Rising” are fascinating places to inhabit, brought to life by descriptive language that is quite colorful, even if it has a tendency to be a bit repetitive. She always keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, intertwining several perspectives at the same time, which makes it easy to get through this 500-plus page novel. Unfortunately if you’re like me, you’ll reach the end, wondering what it was all about and why you stuck around.
Don’t let the upbeat title of Stephen King’s “Joyland” fool you; his novel is no lighthearted tale of youthful exuberance. Although the book shares its name with a fictional amusement park where happy memories are made for children, the titular grounds in this paranormal, coming-of-age crime thriller have a much more tragic history for adults. Would you expect anything less from The Master of Horror?
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If you’re a fellow sci-fi buff, you might cringe when you learn that I never read any of Isaac Asimov’s “Robot” series. Comically, the closest I came, was seeing the 2004 film adaptation “I, Robot,” which I’ve heard is not particularly faithful to his work. And although the flick introduced me to Dr. Susan Calvin, a major character from Asimov’s books, I didn’t really remember Bridget Moynahan’s portrayal of her. Given this lack of familiarity with Asimov’s collection, I was essentially a blank slate when I started reading Mickey Zucker Reichert’s novel “I, Robot: To Protect.”
Reichert’s book is the first tale in a new trilogy inspired by Asimov’s original series. Luckily enough for me, it’s non-canon, so I wasn’t missing anything by jumping into this universe now. “I, Robot: To Protect” operates like a prequel, exploring Dr. Susan Calvin’s residency as a young psychiatrist at a cutting-edge Manhattan hospital. During her time there, Susan becomes an assistant to a mysterious research study, where patients are injected with experimental nanobots to help diagnose and treat mental illness. Her life is thrown into chaos however, after a previously non-violent patient suddenly commits an act of terrorism. Was the attack caused by the nanobots? And if it was, who’s programming them? More importantly, can Susan stop the next incident from happening before more innocent people are hurt?
At first, I was disappointed that a novel with “Robot” in the title, actually had little to do with mechanical men. Reichert reminded me of Asimov’s famous 3 Laws of Robotics and intrigued me with a robotic character that works with Susan at the hospital, but her yarn is more of a medical thriller than a sci-fi one. A large part of that angle probably has to do with Reichert’s own specialized knowledge that she contributes as a medical doctor. What’s shocked me about this narrative tact is how Reichert managed to make clinical terms and diagnoses fascinating to a layperson like me. I think that comes from the detailed and logical process that Reichert creates for Susan to assess and treat her patients.
As captivating as the medical portions of the novel are though, they have a difficult time sustaining momentum over the course of the story. I felt like I was reading an incredibly slow burn thriller, that seemed like it should pick up at any moment. But by the time I finally got the action and frenzied excitement that I was expecting, it was all over quicker than I wanted it to be. In that way, I thought that “I, Robot: To Protect” wrapped up too hastily, without proper explanation and closure.
Reichert’s smart, sassy characterization of the talented, headstrong Susan Calvin is amusing to read and the ease with which she makes a medical thriller accessible to the average person is truly impressive. However, for her next installment in this series, I hope that she’ll add more science fiction elements to the plot, along with a tighter pace, and a better developed final act.
I, Robot: To Protect is available now on Amazon and in stores from Roc Hardcover Publishing.
Nothing can keep P.I. Dan Chambeaux from his work, not even death itself. In author Kevin J. Anderson’s humorous horror-themed novel “Death Warmed Over,” the zombie private investigator rises from his grave to continue business as usual; well, the closest to usual that his business gets. Along with his partner, attorney Robin Deyer, Chambeaux, aka Shamble, serves citizens of paranormal New Orleans, recently redubbed The Big Uneasy. Their agency Chambeaux and Deyer provides much-needed legal and investigatory services for supernatural beings in the city’s Unnatural Quarter.
Surprisingly, Chambeaux and Deyer have more than enough cases to keep them busy. Shamble’s own untimely murder and the poisoning of his girlfriend-turned-ghost Sheyenne, are just two of the ones he’s tackling. His docket also includes a vampire harassed by humans, a wealthy werewolf’s messy divorce, a witch harmed by a spell book’s typo, a ghost locked in a creative property dispute with his heirs, and an unwanted relative haunting his family. Handling them all won’t be easy, because as Shamble says, “The cases don’t solve themselves.”
The funniest and most fascinating part of Anderson’s tale, is the complexity of his clients’ legal issues. Concrete concepts such as life, death, marriage, and property have become a lot less black and white now that ghosts, zombies, mummies, witches, and werewolves occupy the land of the living. As a result, Chambeaux and Deyer have to help their clients navigate difficult, often silly situations to forge legal precedents, which ensure equal rights for everyone. Who knew the afterlife could be so hilariously complicated?
Similar to film noir and pulp detective literature, the novel’s events are recounted in the first-person from Shamble’s perspective. This style flows well for the most part, but it does grow a bit tiresome because Shamble has a tendency to repeat himself when describing his appearance, habits, backstory, and romantic past with Sheyenne. Additionally, the type of humor that Anderson uses has difficulty finding the right audience. It’s too old for teens, although not quite mature enough for regular adults. Jokes are occasionally lewd and involve pop culture references to various movies and television shows in the horror genre, yet they don’t seem efficiently targeted toward a specific group of readers.
Another thing that “Death Warmed Over” struggles with in the beginning, is connecting all Shamble’s smaller cases in a meaningful way. For a portion of the story, Shamble’s work feels very procedural, and better suited to television’s episodic nature. Also, Anderson doesn’t do a great job of explaining how all of these supernatural beings started showing up in the first place. However, as he progresses, Anderson ties everything together effectively, so that he gives you a sense of closure, while still leaving room for future novels with this character.
Speaking of future novels, Anderson has the opportunity to build a beloved series with his next Dan Chambeaux adventure, but whether he will or not, still remains to be seen. To do that he’ll have to refine his approach to the character’s narration, hone his humor toward a more particular audience, and start connecting Chambeaux’s minor cases to the major plot earlier.
If artist Frank Miller drew a run of the comic “Prince Valiant,” it might look something like Ben McCool and Mario Guevara’s “Nevsky: A Hero of the People.” Not only is McCool and Guevara’s medieval graphic novel based on actual historical events like Miller’s “300,” but it has comparable stylized violence and glossy polish as well.
The similarities between the two techniques end there however. McCool and Guevara ink their characters and settings in vibrant colors such as blues, reds, and greens that really pop off the page. They rely very little on the dark colors and shadows that Miller uses to create depth. Plus, instead of pouring on blood and guts by the bucketful, their book eschews Miller’s explicit imagery in favor of a more restrained method for showing violence. Despite the multiple large battles in “Nevsky: Hero of the People,” the gore in them never feels excessive.
This graphic novel also differs from “300” because it takes a grounded approach to its title character, Alexander Nevsky, portraying him as a heroic leader and genius military strategist without overly embellishing his exploits. Nevsky defends the Russian countryside by using a believable combination of bravery and smarts against both Mongolian hordes and Teutonic knights who attempt to conquer and enslave his people. Much like the Persians in “300,” Nevsky’s enemies possess a blinding overconfidence, except their armies and weapons don’t live in the realm of fantasy. As you might expect, their arrogance is something that Nevsky capitalizes on with his brilliant battle plans.
What’s fascinating about “Nevsky: A Hero of the People” is that it’s not simply based on real events. McCool and Guevara are actually adapting Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s famous 1938 film “Alexander Nevsky.” For those who are unfamiliar with Eisenstein’s movie, the graphic novel includes interesting written pieces at the beginning and end that provide appropriate historical context. They describe the circumstances that led Eisenstein to shoot “Alexander Nevsky,” its glowing reception in Russia, its important cultural significance, and its vital impact on Eisenstein’s career.
As tribute to this great picture, the authors bring Eisenstein’s sprawling epic to life on the page, creating a compelling and immersive experience. Its only real detriment is that at points the dialogue between the characters feels a bit stiff and old timey, although that seems to be a function of the faithfulness of their adaptation. Aside from that minor stumbling block, “Nevsky: A Hero of the People” is a fun, fast, surprisingly educational read.
Ever since I devoured Dana Fredsti’s thrilling zombie novel Plague Town last April, I’ve been anxiously awaiting its sequel Plague Nation. Thankfully I was rewarded with it earlier this month, and got a chance to start it during my morning commute. I found myself on the edge of my seat, literally so absorbed, that I didn’t even realize I had gotten on the wrong train. Now that’s gripping zombie literature!
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Anytime something claims to be the “complete” guide to a subject, I’m immediately skeptical of its “completeness.” Asserting that your piece is the be all and end all resource about a topic is pretty bold, carrying with it an air of arrogance. However that self-assuredness is completely justified in the case of Nicholas Pegg’s 700 plus page tome, The Complete David Bowie, which was recently re-released in an updated and expanded edition by Titan Books.
Pegg’s lengthy introduction celebrates the chameleonic David Bowie for his ability to change appearance, persona, and music to suit changing artistic interests. He comes off as very defensive of Bowie, responding to criticisms that the man lacks attention span and his own unique style. Although Pegg argues quite deftly that Bowie self-identifies more as a performer than a musician, using new types of sound and characters to explore themes of space travel, faith, mental health, and isolation that he’s been grappling with throughout his career. By placing Bowie in this light, Pegg opens a fascinating door to helping you better understand the complicated facets of this enigmatic artist. It’s also the perfect setup for what follows in Pegg’s guide.
Throughout The Complete David Bowie, Pegg uses a shorthand when discussing Bowie’s works, which thankfully he lays out in the beginning of the piece under a section called “How to Use This Book.” Pegg’s volume is as complete as you can possibly get when it comes to Bowie, discussing songs from A-Z, albums, live performances, BBC radio sessions, videos, and Bowie’s work as an actor. There’s a fantastic section called “Dateline” as well, which is literally a 54 page timeline of Bowie’s career covering all aspects of his artistic pursuits.
The two column text format for each page means that this work is jam-packed with juicy details. Everything in Pegg’s book is meticulously researched and written, containing fascinating insight and behind-the-scenes information quelled from multiple sources, including but not limited to interviews with Bowie and his collaborators. For instance in his section on songs, Pegg includes details about different versions of songs, circumstances surrounding their recording, if bootleg copies have surfaced, and even notable covers by other musicians. If that’s not thorough, I don’t know what is.
If you’re a casual Bowie appreciator, beware; you might not have the fortitude to digest a volume of this breadth. However, if you’re a hardcore Bowie fan looking for the Encyclopedia Bowieca, you won’t be disappointed with The Complete David Bowie. The subject matter and its precise presentation will be enough for you to want to read this book cover to cover.
The Complete David Bowie is available in stores and online at www.titanbooks.com.
Full disclosure: author Daniel M. Kimmel is my friend, and my colleague in The Boston Online Film Critics Association. However I can honestly say that I would have loved his book Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide, regardless of whether I knew him personally. Kimmel’s debut novel is brilliant satire of the film industry, which also happens to be a hilarious, heartwarming science fiction story about unexpected friendship.
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Back in December when I was mailed an Awards Season screener for the animated film Rise of the Guardians, I also received a hefty companion book The Art of Rise of the Guardians by Ramin Zahed. Since it took me a few weeks to watch the screener and I didn’t want read the volume without having seen the film, I’m just finally getting around to sharing my thoughts about it.
My favorite parts of the movie were its character design and its fresh, imaginative approach to popular figures from children’s folklore, so reading a book about the creative process that went into building this story was actually quite fascinating.
The foreword by actor Alec Baldwin who plays North, the Santa Claus character in the movie and the preface by author William Joyce, who wrote the novels which became the basis for the film, don’t add much to this book’s experience. Both passages are mostly self-celebratory pats on the back.
However the remainder of the book provides deep insights into the design of the characters and locations in the film, exploring the rationale for why the artists and animators went in specific creative directions. When you read these passages you’re surprised by the commitment everyone has made to the project, as well as the level of thought that these folks put into every artistic decision. Even the appearance of specific locations was influenced by how the characters would actually interact with the environments if they were real.
The volume features beautiful artwork and concept drawings organized into logical chapters based on each Guardian in the film, the villain, and the world home to regular humans in the story. Full captions for the images are missing which is slightly disappointing, although if you’ve seen the film, they’re relatively self-explanatory.
My favorite section of this book tackles a specific sequence in the movie, walking through all of the departments that contributed to the finished project and how their individual efforts came together. It’s helpfully mapped out visually with a fold out poster. What’s deceiving about this poster and awkward about it though, is that you can’t remove it from the book. It seems like you should be able to because it’s difficult to fold back in without ripping.
If you really enjoyed Rise of the Guardians, The Art of Rise of the Guardians is worth a read and will make a terrific coffee table book, but if you haven’t seen it you won’t get nearly as much pleasure from its dissection of the movie’s magic.
The Art of Rise of the Guardians is available online and at www.insighteditions.com.