HARD SPELL is the first in a series of "Occult Crimes Unit Investigations." The litmus test of the first book in a series is, Does it make you want to read further? And I can say that, without the use of foreshadowing or cliffhangers, it did.
Somebody is killing the vampires of Scranton, PA, in creative and ritualistic ways. Stan Markowski and his partner work the nightshift at the Scranton PD, Occult and Supernatural Crimes Investigation Unit, or "Supe Squad," and they catch the case. It leads to darkness, danger, and even Wilkes-Barre.
The plot takes interesting twists and turns, and the characters of Stan and his partner Karl are individual enough to stand out from the run of supernatural detectives glutting the market these days. Stan narrates the story with a noirish tone that's lightly humorous without relying heavily on metaphor, with a voice that's charming and endearing.
12:09pm: Read: Fifty Degrees Below, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Robinson must do some of the most intense research in science fiction today, and, while there are times when it seems that he wants to make sure the reader gets the full benefit of this, he never commits the crime of being boring.
Well, not exactly.
This book, like its predecessor, is somehow both a page-turner and very slow-moving. I don't know how he does it: primarily by presenting engaging characters in complex and interesting situations, I suppose.
Our focus in this volume is almost entirely on Frank Vanderwal, who, while not exactly a secondary character in the first volume, was not exactly the primary character. In the aftermath of the great flood that nearly destroyed Wahington, DC, he takes to living in a tree in a public park, commuting to his job at the National Science Foundation. His life is taken up by his work (trying to keep global climate change from getting even worse) and his attempts to live an "optimodal" life, including his desire to "be always generous" and his fascination with a woman he has barely met (but who has responded to him positively).
Meanwhile, the winter after the flood turns out to be horrendous, a record-breaker, hitting the titular temperature in DC and causing many deaths and much damage to the already-stricken city.
Meanwhile, Senator Phil Chase (boss of another viewpoint character, Charlie Quibler) announces -- at the North Pole -- that he is running for President. The race mostly takes place in the background of the story, but provides a constant undertension that builds throughout (the book ends on Election Night).
Robinson writes well and clearly. He ends on a double note of hope that should echo through the third book.
A young boy who lives in books and doesn't really know he's sad meets Lettie Hempstock, a girl from a strange family. This family has a duckpond that they call an ocean.
He accompanies Lettie on a journey into the Lands Beyond the Fields We Know -- no, he doesn't call them that! -- and fails to follow her instructions, thus letting a Thing into our world. Not a great and powerful thing; Lettie calls it a flea. But it twists his world and threatens his life, and only the Hempstock women can do anything about it. But whether they can save him remains very much in doubt.
This is a strange and wonderful book, which can be read in an evening, and probably should be. Gaiman's clean style serves the story well, and contributes to the feel of the story without getting in the way of the story.
In the 22nd Century, most of our energy and materials problems have been solved by the creation of interstellar gateways. The North family (all clones) has created on the planet of St. Libra a huge bioil farm which supplies a huge percentage of humanity's energy wants. (How the continued and accelerated use of carbon-based fuels ties in with a 22nd Century that seems not to have suffered greatly from global warming and rising sea levels, is unexplained.)
Twenty years ago, a first-generation North and all his household, except for one woman, were murdered in a peculiar and brutal manner on St. Libra. That woman has spent the last twenty years in jail.
Now, in Newcastle, another North is murdered by the same method. It looks like Angela Tramelo's claim that a monster killed Bartram North may be true ... but Sid Hurst, a detective for the Newcastle police, has to track down the killer despite a lack of evidence. They don't even know which North is dead. None of them seems to be missing.
Tramelo is rescued from jail by the agent who had brutally questioned her twenty years earlier and drafted for an expedition to St. Libra to find out if there is a sentient species there after all.
Sid's investigation and the St. Libra expedition both go very wrong very fast. Sid tries to salvage his career; the expedition tries to survive. The two main plots (and some lesser but vital plots) alternate and not only illuminate each other but affect each other in various ways, ultimately tying together in a (not-entirely-unexpected by experienced SF readers) revelation about the nature of the St. Libran killer.
As always with Hamilton, there is a vast cast of characters, many of whom are given back stories. This tendency is more in control than in some of his previous novels: many of the back stories actually tie together and influence current events in logical but unexpected ways. And the characters live and breathe.
The plot is tight and nothing wasted; I can't imagine telling the story effectively in less pages, which is kind of a litmus test for long books. Cutting out any of the viewpoint characters would detract from the overall impact.
Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has been living in the Canadian outback (yes, I know that's not the right term) for over a year, drinking and trying to forget killing Jean Grey. He wakes up every night screaming from dreams of her.
He is picked up by a young Japanesse girl, Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who wants to bring him to Japan. A man Wolverine knew in WWII, now a billionaire, is dying and wants to say goodbye -- and give him a gift. When he arrives, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) offers to take from him the burden of immortality. "You can have a normal life," he proposes.
Wolverine turns him down, but, after a night in which his dreams confuse Jean Grey with Yashida's doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova), he finds Yashida dead.
At the funeral, Yakuza try to capture Yashida's daughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Wolverine and Yukio pursue, and amidst much action Wolverine discovers (by way of some bullets) that his magical healing powers aren't working.
Well, that's the setup. The rest is plot, complete with a rather predictable (and implausible) romance thrown in. Betrayals left and right complete the picture.
Thomas Ward has grown up a great deal during his apprenticeship to John Gregory, the Spook of Chipenden. He has faced terrible things including the Fiend himself, and always come out victorious.
Now he learns what he must do to destroy the Fiend once and for all, and the price is terrible - he must sacrifice Alice, whom he loves, at Hallowe'en, in a dark ritual using three sacred implements. The moral difficulties grow and grow.
And so does the danger. A group of Romanian witches and demons have taken up residence on the edge of the County, and are hoping to summon their vampire-god to track down the Fiend's head so it can be restored and the Fiend freed. Thomas must face vampires, demons, witches, betrayal, and finally a dark god - much of this without the aid of the Spook.
Delaney builds suspense masterfully, to the point where this book is _almost_ too much for a YA audience. But not quite. He knows when and how to hold back the fear and grossness. But he ups the ante with each book; I wonder whether Book Thirteen will be too much?
7:53am: 25 years ago today...
...Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwah calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for writing a "blasphemous" book. (It wasn't.) Khomeini's successors are still ruling Iran. It is not a civilized country.
4:05pm: Read: The Sub, by Thomas M. Disch (2014-10)
I devoured the first three of Disch's "Supernatural Minnesota" novels, as this new uniform edition calls them, when they first came out; alas, I never saw a copy of THE SUB in its original edition -- it was there and gone, poof.
These books (THE BUSINESSMAN, THE M.D., THE PRIEST, and THE SUB) are marvels of wit and irony and pure spite against the people up amongst whom Disch grew up, if not indeed the entire human race.
The titular sub is not a submarine but a substitute teacher, Diana Turner, who loses her job just in time to take care of her sister's husband and daughter, as said sister (Janet) is going to jail for a year for taking a shot at said husband (Carl Kellog). Janet and Carl live in Janet and Diana's childhood home, where, it turns out, the ghost of their abusive father awaits Diana.
As his revenge for something I won't give away, he gives Diana the power of witchcraft - specifically, the power to turn people into their animal totems against their wills. She does it for the first time to a man who becomes a stag and is killed by his own hounds (Diana, geddit?) Other animals begin to accumulate on the Turner farm, and ... well, I'm not going to spoil the _entire_ plot here. But it's delicious, and evil is paid for in a variety of ways by a variety of people. The characters are well, if brutally, drawn, and their interactions (which start out almost soap-operatic) orchestrate to carry everyone, human ghost or animal, to his or her proper destiny.
There's a foreward by Elizabeth Hand, but I recommend reading it after the book. It gives too much away.
Stephanie Harrington (Honor's ancestor) and her treecat partner Lionheart is invited to Manticore for three months' advanced training in forestry. Her only regret is leaving behind her boyfriend Anders when she knows he'll have to go home to a distant planet in a year or so.
Meanwhile, a clan of treecats has been left (by the fires in the previous book) without a home range. Camped on the edge of another clan's range, they are living precariously at best, and they don't need George R. R. Martin to tell them that winter is coming. Violent conflict between the clans seems inevitable.
Anders and Stephanie's friend Jessica are the real protagonists of this volume. They ultimately realize that they must intervene to stop the violence and save the landless 'cats. But how? The answer is actually pretty much foreseeable by any intelligent reader, but none the less satisfying for that.
6:08pm: Read: The Man With Nine Lives, by Harlan Ellison (2014-8)
Ellison's first science fiction novel (and he hasn't written but two real SF novels), published in 1960, has recently been reissued, "revised and expanded," as _The Sound of a Scythe_. I'll probably read that eventually; but in the meanwhile, I had been curious about this early novel. So when I found a copy, I bought it.
It's definitely early Ellison. The brash tone is unmistakably, the imagery palpably, and the characters recognizably Ellison's.
It's a revenge story, about a man who spends his life, or many years of it, seeking to kill a man who's done him wrong. What Ledermann did to Emory is almost unimportant to the plot; what matters is that it drove him to the extremity of attempted murder and then, when foiled, to obsession with killing Ledermann. The obsession takes him across weird worlds and strange shapes, and, when he finally has Ledermann at his mercy (can one really "spoil" a novel that's been out for fifty years?) - has a moment of seeing and doesn't kill him.
This is the only point in the entire novel that fails to ring true. It's as if Ellison wanted to give a message of some sort and distorted his character to bring it about. (Well: Gerson, of Jack Vance's epic "Demon Princes" revenge novels, carries out his revenge and finds it, or himself, empty. Would that have been any better here? I don't know.)
It's a good read, all told, and a short one - half of an Ace Double (remember those?), which, I am told, is the first such ever to have both sides by one author. The other side is a short story collection, _A Touch of Infinity_, every story of which I've read elsewhere, so I shan't be further damaging this old, fally-aparty book by reading it.
4:29pm: Read: Forty Signs of Rain, by Kim Stanley Robinson (2014-7)
If I could grab every Republican in the world by the shoulders and make them read just one book, this would be the one. Not because it's the best book I've ever read, or my favorite, but because it explains and dramatizes climate change in terms even a Tea Party Republican can't ignore.
(It does not make, or try to make, a specific case for anthropogenicity; it simply assumes it, which is problematic, but I suppose deniers gotta deny.)
It's the first in a trilogy about "science in the Capital," and as such is fabulously rich in detail about how the NSF and Congress actually work, with a guest appearance by the (a) President. There are four main characters:
Anna, a department head at NSF. She is married to Charlie, a part-time Senatorial advisor, and they have two children who are fabulously well depicted. They are both desperate, in their different ways, to get the government to do something about the climate.
Then there's Frank, who works for Anna and dreams of going back to UC San Diego. He sees everything in terms of primate behavior until he has a moment of insight that changes everything for him.
Finally, there's Leo, who works for a biotech company in trouble in the San Diego area. Naturally, the company is connected to Frank, which brings everything together.
The story takes place "the day after tomorrow," when the Arctic ice is breaking up every spring, (oh ... wait ... that was "the day after tomorrow" in 2004, when this book was written. Now it's ... well, you know ... ) and one of the new players on the global front is the League of Drowning Nations. The Republicans in America are still denying that anything but a normal adjustment is going on, and obstructing any attempt to do anything about it.
(Come to think of it, maybe I shouldn't give this book to Tea Partiers. They'll just whine about its "bias.")
Not a lot actually happens at the level of plot, until near the end, but the buildup is deeply involving and at times quite funny. I shall certainly read the sequels.
Wolfe himself contributes bookend stories to this anthology. One made me laugh, one very nearly made me cry.
Of the stories, the best, to my mind, is Michael Swanwick's "The She-Wolf's Hidden Grin," a tribute/homage to Wolfe's novella "The Fifth Head of Cerberus," and set in its world. Also very strong are contributions by Neil Gaiman, Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress, and David Brin, among others. The only story I found weak was William C. Dietz's story set between the first two volumes of the Book of the New Sun, which don't work for me either plotwise or stylistically. And the Gene Wolfe "What the Hell is going on here anyway?" award goes to Marc Aramini's "Soldier of Mercy," a response to Wolfe's "Soldier" series about the amemorious Latro, who may o rmay not be in this story.
4:28pm: Seen: The Butler (2013)
It is a complete travesty that Forrest Whitaker is not on the Oscar ballot for this.
I mean, yes, he's been so good in so many things that it's easy to overlook him. And the whole cast is good -- this is an actor's movie, and there are so many good actors in it that it becomes a game of Who's That? -- to which end I'm (mostly) not going to list cast. But Whitaker, as Cecil Gaines, totally kills it.
The story is simple with plenty of complexities thrown in. Gaines is a young man in the rural South in the 1920s when his daddy is killed by the white boss. The lady of the house (Vanessa Redgrave, who also kills it) takes him in as a "house nigger" and teaches him the rudiments of serving.
When he gets older, he runs away before the boss kills him too. He winds up in service at a hotel, where an older black man teaches him the secrets of how to make the white guests happy: simple secrets like "never look them in the eye," and "anticipate their wants and needs." From here he moves to a hotel in Washington, D.C., where he meets his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and, in the early 1950s, is taken into service at the White House.
Here he serves under Eisenhower, JFK, ... up through Reagan, and maybe beyond, rising to be a maitre d'. When, exactly, he retires isn't quite clear to me. But he lives to see the election of Barrack Obama.
Meanwhile, the entire drama of the Civil Rights movement, Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Vietnam, and (again) beyond that takes place around him, personified particularly in his older son, Louis, who is an activist and a powerfully drawn character indeed. The father-son divide is perhaps the central conflict of the film, and as Cecil's bewilderment at his son's behavior turns to anger and finally to acceptance and pride, Whitaker ... oh, yeah, I already said: He kills it.
So the movie is a life story. It is also one of the finest love stories I have ever watched. The chemistry between Whitaker and Winfrey is amazing. (And I don't mean sexual sparks; I mean a portrayal of real love over decades.)
So...I don't want to say too much more, because I'm already gushing. But see this.