Review: The Case of the Stalking Shadow

Weird Detectives: Recent InvestigationsThe Case of the Stalking Shadow by Joe R. Lansdale

My Rating 3 of 5 stars

Writers of paranormal fiction have a tendency to distance the narrator from the story going all the way back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In Joe R. Lansdale’s short story our narrator recounts a tale he heard long ago from Detective Dana Roberts telling of her very first case spanning twenty years of her life and already a distant memory at its telling – a memory, of a story, of a memory, of a memory. It’s a convenient device to introduce a pre-packaged story without establishing context but lessens the drama. We know she will be fine, and most likely her cousin will be fine, because she is sharing this anecdote at a club in front of strangers.

The mystery itself recalls native folklore, and the dangers that lay in the ancient forests of the American deep south. Dana Roberts, as a young girl, spent her summers on her aunt’s homestead. She and her cousins would play games in the house and on the grounds, but she encountered something unnerving in those woods as a child which plagued her into adulthood. She and her closest cousin, the only one who shares her dread, return to investigate the woods to confront or dispel shadowy figure which haunts them still.

This story works best in the woods. Both through the encounter as a child and again as an adult, Lansdale is able to let the dread creep in. The quite anticipation and breathless flights feel authentic and familiar. The action works pretty well too, but there is a gimmick to the confrontation which simultaneously is too convenient but also not exploited to its fullest once introduced. I don’t think the layers and frames to the story are necessary. One concept underlined several times in the primary frame is that Detective Dana Roberts does not believe in magic or superstition, instead looking for scientific explanations. I think this could have been explored further or reinforced in the investigation. It is an intruiging inclusion to have the detective not only a skeptic, but a scientific meta-physician, only to leave that avenue unexplored.

The Case of the Stalking Shadow is included in the anthology Weird Detectives: Recent Investigations edited by Paula Guran.

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Review: Rust, Volume 1

Rust Vol. 1: Visitor in the FieldRust Vol. 1: Visitor in the Field by Royden Lepp
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rust is a dieselpunk graphic novel which is a little bit Iron Man and a bit Astro Boy. During The Great War allied forces created mechanical soldiers and aerialists with rocket packs. They won the war and a generation later the machines are slaves used for farming and industrial tasks. In the first volume of Rust we are introduced to Roman Taylor, a wheat farmer struggling to provide for his family. He is repairing an old mechanical soldier to help around the farm when a boy with a rock pack, Jet Jones, crashes through his barn. Jet is vary helpful around the farm, but also quite mysterious.

The Goodreads synopsis describes Rust as a “high-octane adventure”, but despite the clever pun alluding to the dieselpunk theme, the story is really more contemplative. Simultaneously telling the story of the war and the struggles on the farm most panels are devoid of dialogue and action. I do think the characters are likable with some depth worth exploring. The mystery aspect has some promise, while the immediate storyline with Jet seems pretty straight forward, the overall history of the war and man’s relationship with the mechanical men is intriguing.

The character art is somewhat inconsistent, but has some very strong panels. The mechanical drawing is excellent. Each of the mechanical men are beautiful and menacing and the motorcycles, tractors, and trees are artfully rendered. The coloration is sepia-tone with very nice smoke, clouds and motion blurs which adds great depth and energy to the story. The volume I have is hard-bound with a cloth-wrapped, embossed cover with foil and printed inlays. The paper and print quality are both excellent. Archaia has published a high quality product for a promising story.

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Review: Phonogram, Volume 1: Rue Britannia

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Phonogram, Volume 1: Rue Britannia
Phonogram, Volume 1: Rue Britannia by Kieron Gillen

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I almost didn’t finish this book. It’s not that there aren’t interesting exchanges, unexpected turns and imaginative presentation. It’s because the story is slathered in pretentious, obnoxious, absurd, smug drivel. I didn’t want to hang out with these people long enough to figure out how their world worked and their place in it… and its not a long book. As others mention you do need an encyclopedic knowledge of some pretty terrible bands, but that doesn’t necessarily bother me. If this was likable, clever and charming I would have enjoyed looking up all the bands and considered it a bonus. If Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life had buried itself in real Canadian post-punk (or whatever Sex Bob-Omb is) it still would have been brilliant and engaging. This isn’t.

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Review: All the Old Knives

All the Old Knives
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All The Old Knives is a masterfully plotted psychological spy thriller. Henry, a CIA operative, and Celia, and ex-CIA analyst, are reunited six years after a disastrous terrorist operation which was never fully resolved. Henry seeks out Celia to find clarity in the events which lead to 120 civilian casualties, her resignation from the CIA, and the end to their romantic relationship. Over the course of a single dinner the novel alternates perspective to tell their individual accounts of the events, both then and now.

This was my introduction to Olen Steinhauer’s writing which combines complex four-dimensional characters with riveting intrigue. I was impressed with the composition of the operatives in the Vienna field office. Each character had a clear role, personality, and flaw. The interior dynamics of the team was rendered deftly to provide for each to contribute, reveal their allegiances and weaknesses. The humanity and vulnerability of the agents sets this apart from so many other books in this genre. Both cinematic and intimate All The Old Knives earns a solid recommendation.

I received this book free from the publisher, Minotaur Books, which is an imprint of MacMillian and St. Martin’s Press through NetGalleyAll The Old Knives will be released for purchase on March 10th, 2015.

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Review: Frankenstein

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Frankenstein
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Frankenstein is a classic novel, that could have been immeasurably improved by being a classic short story. There are aspects I have problems with. Victor Frankenstein is impossibly brilliant, but a painfully forgetful and self-deluded man. I cannot help but wonder where the story could have gone if he had remained engaged in the implications of his creation.

The creature himself is astoundingly well-spoken and far more astute than the tremulant Frankenstein. With his inexhaustible capacity for self-awareness and self-improvement I would hope that he would sequester himself in some Swiss cabin and become a philosopher or poet rather than a murderous wretch. I also cannot think of a more distanced POV than having a meaningless frame story (in the form of a letter to an unseen character) where the actual narrative is told as a dictation, which includes a…

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Review: The Pain Scale

The Pain Scale (Long Beach Homicide)The Pain Scale by Tyler Dilts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Pain Scale is somewhat less personal than A King of Infinite Space and A Cold and Broken Hallelujah which are the first and third books in the Long Beach Homicide series respectively. It loses a bit of the intimacy and unique empathy Tyler Dilts infused the other novels with, but this is still a very good book.

Detective Danny Beckett is back on the job after a lengthy leave due to the fallout from A King of Infinite Space. His descent into alcohol, medication and depression continues as he copes with physical and emotional pain (thus The Pain Scale). His focus on the job is the only thing that seems to keep him going. Second novels in a series are difficult to pull off. This time the murders under investigation involve powerful people and it seems everyone gets involved: FBI, congressmen, military, mafia, and more. It almost gets too big and the characters and their intersecting relationships start to blur, but Tyler Dilts keeps it just grounded enough to prevent this from turning into a “thriller”.

I would have been worried about the escalation (and continued depiction of violent crimes against women) if I hadn’t already read the next in the series which is his best yet. Smart, character driven, and compelling – if you enjoy detective novels, this is a series you should be reading.

Also check out my review of A King of Infinite Space [Long Beach Homicide #1] and A Cold and Broken Hallelujah [Long Beach Homicide #3] which made my Best of Realistic Fiction: 2014 list.

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Review: Hero of the Five Points

Hero of the Five PointsHero of the Five Points by Alan Gratz

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, and they are correct. The illustration (click the link to see the whole image) by Rednose Studio is amazing and absolutely made me want to read this story, but this short story is a mess.

Hero of the Five Points is set in New Rome (alternate New York) in the Five Points region of Mannahatta (Manhattan) with a culture and political climate identical to Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. In this universe the Americas had at some point been under the control of the Romans and their ruins establish the foundation of the cities in a way similar to what you might find Europe. However Europe and the Americas no longer have communication or trade and the First Nations have a more established cultural foothold in this version of the United Nations of America. With characters lifted roughly from the film, our protagonist, Dalton Dent infiltrates the Dead Rabbits lead by Kit Burns, who is a more thuggish Bill the Butcher, and aided by the also undercover Hellcat Maggie.

The forward tells us it is 1853, which is peculiar. In this story Thomas Edison is an old and prosperous man, which of course he would only be 6 years old in our timeline. Lektricity (ahem, electricity) has come and gone with the science of the day taking a steampunk flare featuring dirigibles, steam power (including steam-powered robots with AI), but not ballistics, instead featuring ray guns. The timeline and logic is a mess. Also in the forward it tells us this short story is from the world of the League of Seven series for middle grade readers, but even pre-teens can do a simple to search to figure out when Edison was born. Integrating actual historical places and figures then not establishing a cursory understanding of their actual characteristics reflects the laziness of the writing in general. There is a lot of wild fantastical world building which must be explored in League of Seven because it is simply distracting here.

You can find this and many more short stories for free on Tor.com.

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Review: A King of Infinite Space

A King of Infinite SpaceA King of Infinite Space by Tyler Dilts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my second Tyler Dilts book and before I get into the review I just want to acknowledge that Dilts’ book titles are fantastic, lifted from brilliant quotes tied to the theme, and his music tastes are impeccable. If I ever write a book I want Tyler Dilts to name it and make me a mix tape.

Detective Danny Beckett is a thoughtful and diligent cop, haunted by the violence he has seen on the job and the loss of his wife. He can barely sleep for the nightmares and settles himself a little to frequently with vodka. Neither of these things are out of control, but you get the sense that Beckett is on the precipice and only the job and his partner, Detective Jen Tanaka, keep him from giving in.

Generally in a mystery/crime novel I get pretty disappointed if I can identify the killer in the first interview. While I think Dilts played his hand too early, this isn’t a book which relies on the collar for the drama. The characters, especially Beckett, are so well written that it is the methodical, procedural working of the case that sells the story. The work is hard, slow, and takes its toll. I think it is easy to render a detective who stands as witness for the victim as a sap, or a tired trope of the genre, but Detective Danny Beckett’s portrayal feels sincere. There is an honesty and integrity in the Long Beach Homocide novels which makes them well worth recommending.

Also check out my review of A Cold and Broken Hallelujah [Long Beach Homicide #3] which made my Best of Realistic Fiction: 2014 list.

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Review: Daughter of Necessity

Daughter of NecessityDaughter of Necessity by Marie Brennan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoy alternate point of view stories, or to clarify, a familiar or famous story told from someone other than the original protagonist’s perspective. Wicked by Gregory Maquire is a classic example. I imagine stories like these start as an academic challenge or writing prompt, but to be successful it takes more than cleverness to interweave a seamless story with well known waypoints and motivations. These types of stories (and indeed all fan fiction) are wonderful experiments of empathy.

Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, who has ruled for twenty years in Odysseus’s absence waiting for him to return from the Trojan War. While his exploits are famously chronicled in The Odyssey, her trials and cleverness are only footnotes. One of the strategies she employs to hold off her 108 suitors is to weave the burial shroud of her father-in-law Laertes. She claims she will select a new husband (and King of Ithaca) from the waiting suitors upon completion of the shroud, however each night she unravels her work to delay for Odysseus’s return. We learn all of this in the Odyssey.

In Daughter of Necessity Marie Brennan brings us into the heart and mind of Penelope. You sense the weight of her responsibilities to Ithaca, her son Telemachus, and her husband. Each night as she finishes the shroud and she contemplates union with each suitor she can imagine the chaos and disorder from each selection. She can read all the potential outcomes in the warp and weft of her cloth as she weaves, then unmakes, the shroud. This is beautiful and clever work. Rich with reference to the source material and rightly honors the sacrifices of Penelope who held the throne against all opposition during Odysseys’s lengthy voyage.

You can find this and many more short stories for free on Tor.com.

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