Reading at the Gym III: The Coode Street Podcast

•January 14, 2016 • Leave a Comment

[2016-01-14 6:10am] 35 minutes walking and running around the Venice, Wade, Pacific, Moore block. This was a proof of concept. How well do I run on a cold morning. Could I possibly run down to the beach (2.3 miles) and back for a morning run? Actually, strike that. There’s a bus that runs regularly along that route, so I really only need to be comfortable getting to the beach. 2.3 miles is cake! I’ll top up a TAP card and try this next week.

Just as I wasn’t actually in the gym, I wasn’t actually reading. I listened to the tail end of Episode 257, the last episode recorded in 2015, and the start of Episode 258, an interview with Jim Minz.

I’m always amused when Gary and Jonathan ponder how people are supposed to stumble across new (to them) writers in a podcast where they’ve given dozens of reading recommendations. I know that an insider baseball (actually science fiction) podcast like this isn’t going to be where the average reader discovers the gems of science fiction, but it’s one of MY favorite ways to dive deeper into the field. To the extent that I go on to recommend books, the seed of those recommendations often start here.


Review: 1984 at The Broad Stage

•January 14, 2016 • 1 Comment

1984 by George Orwell, a new adaptation created by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillian, runs through February 6, 2016 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California. 101 minutes with no intermission. I attended Wednesday January, 16th.

The play opens with Winston Smith writing in his journal. He writes the year 1984 followed by a question mark. We see this both on stage and projected large on the white acoustic tiles at the top of the single room that will be the set for all but the final act. A disembodied voice narrates what Smith may be thinking. A jarring sound, a darkened stage, bright strobe lights toward the house and the rest of the cast joins the stage.

Much of the world of George Orwell’s 1959 book is present in this stage production. It’s been decades since I read it in school, but much feels familiar. Perpetual war, constant surveillance, power for the sake of power and all of it wrapped in newspeak.

The multimedia that was used in the opening to show the journal is used to great effect (though not constantly) throughout the play. It’s easy to question the reality of a certain off stage set. The editing of history is visualized. A propaganda snuff film might as well of been produced by ISIS.

Winston Smith (Mathew Spencer) is a brilliantly confused presence on stage, driving the core narrative. The rest of the cast morph moment to moment from his contemporaries, to memories, to a book club in our future debating if the book 1984 is fiction or truth or both. Scenes freeze and restart and refrain and fugue. The disembodied voice returns occasionally.

Whereas most of the play is engaging with occasional and jarring scene transitions, the final act introduces a new set and a spectacular level of discomfort. It’s powerful and drives home the point but is not easy to sit through.

I’m amazed how much was packed into a non-stop hour and 40 minutes. I have the distinct desire to reread the book, a desire I’ve not had for years. This is the second play I’ve seen in this venue and once again I feel like the intimacy and relatively small stage manage to amplify the production rather than constrain it. I highly recommend you catch a showing if at all possible.

Reading a the Gym II: Zer0es by Chuck Wendig

•January 12, 2016 • Leave a Comment

[2016-01-11 6:15pm] 30 minutes on the recumbent bike. 5 minutes on the stepper (need to figure that one out). 30 minutes on an elliptical.

Read 12% of Zer0es by Chuck Wendig. The hackers continue to do their thing. The 5 we’ve been following continue to bond, Breakfast Club style. The larger plot thickens.

Reading Chuck Wendig reminds me that I want to write about the new Star Wars canon I’ve been reading up on, but at the moment, I’ve worn myself out and must sleep.

Reading at the Gym I: Temper by Alex Hughes

•January 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment

[2016-01-08 ~10pm] Recumbent bike for 20 minutes followed by a little over a 5k on the treadmill.

Temper, the novella I was reading, is a companion piece to the novella Fluid, the most recent stories in Alex Hughes Minspace Investigations series. Fluid follows the telepath Adam, who has been the central character, whereas Temper covers the same time period from the point of view of Cherabino, Adam’s partner and frustrated love interest.

Adam’s struggle with addiction has been central to the series, so it feels right that Cherabino have her own internal struggle when we’re seeing the story through her eyes. For Cherabino it’s the titular “temper,” her “fight or flight” reflex that’s light on the flight. I’ve gotten used to Adam thinking about how various tech will interfere with his ability and how crowded rooms will strain his ability to concentrate and, as a telepath, what other people are thinking. It’s refreshing to see the same world, a high-tech, future Atlanta with sever restrictions on computers, through the eyes of a well worn police woman. Her stray thoughts are mostly self reflective, trying to remain focused on the task at hand while her stable life crumbles around her.

Perfectly serviceable mystery as always, with a solid introduction into how both Cherabino will handle working as a private investigator instead of a cop. She’s getting used to lying and playing on the various assumptions people have. I wasn’t that satisfied with the ending to Fluid, but it works much better as a counterpoint to the ending of Temper. It’s been established that Cherabino and Adam can’t sleep together for … reasons … and Cherabino’s struggles with that were great to see from her point of view.

After reading these I’m definitely ready for another Mindspace novel. I’m glad Hughes is still writing even if she’s no longer with a major publisher.

Review: California Bones by Greg van Eekhout

•September 19, 2015 • Leave a Comment


I have purchased 2 copies of this book. A signed hardcover and the Kindle version which I did most of my reading from. A few weeks ago Tor sent me a copy of Dragon Coast, the third book in this trilogy (out this week in hardcover). That reminded me I’d really been meaning to read this. As I write this I’m 21% into Pacific Fire the 2nd book (also purchased on Kindle) and that brings us to this review.

I was listening to Episode 246 of the Coode St. Podcast and Gary described the Paris of Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings thusly: “There’s something to be said for extracting the magic inherent in a City.” I immediately thought of the Los Angeles of California Bones. He takes something uniquely Los Angeles like the Venice Canals, extracts the magic and turns it up to B (for Bones and also hexadecimal for 11). We end up with the same traffic jams on the 405, but they’re boats because the freeways are now giant canals. Disney, the La Brea Tar Pits, street performers, art museums, castles, all get this treatment. Burgers, Tacos and Chicken and Waffles however are sacred and will be immediately recognizable down to the grease stain.

I’ve been watching through Mission Impossible, the TV show (thanks Chris) and so that’s what was running through my mind as Daniel assembles his team. I’d heard Greg read the scene that introduces Moth, the Muscle, but I enjoyed the mix of familiar location, dark humor and intense violence just as much the second time through. Daniel provides the big magical guns. An ex-girlfriend is their safe cracker (and so much more). There’s an “inside man” that’s less than open about why they’re involved. And there’s a shapeshifter named Jo. I love shapeshifters. Also, a shapeshifter as the fantastified (a Gary word from the above mentioned podcast) version of Mission Impossible’s Rollin Hand is another perfect example of how Greg extracts the magic. The job comes from an untrusted source, but it’s personal and impossible and just like a good Mission Impossible episode, it’ll take an autocratic dictator down a notch or two.

Another bit of media my mind wanted to draw parallels to while I was reading was Star Wars. A very specific point, almost the big bang of the expanded universe – 1st half of the 90’s, Timothy Zhan is writing the his trilogy and there’s a comic series (dark horse?). Anyway, it’s all a bit jumbled at this point, but somewhere in the mix there Luke embraces the dark side, the emperor is back and I feel dramatic irony for decades because nobody else seems to remember all of this crazy important character development. There are parallels.

There’s a small heist before the big heist and there’s a rather compelling B plot that gets wrapped into the A plot quite nicely. I did a search for “flay” in the text (as you do) and was surprised to only find 3 occurrences. When your core magic system involves cannibalism, there’s going to be gore on the page but Greg balances it at that point that a horror fan will feel it adds to the story, yet the squeamish reader shouldn’t be turned away.

And then there’s that element at the core of this story that’ll appeal to a Bacigalupi fan. Osteomancy is magic derived from consuming the bones of magical creatures. Most of these creatures are extinct. It’s a non-renewable resource … controlled by a few powerful individuals. It’s also a magical lesson in bioaccumulation. Greg is much cooler than Al Gore.

I’ll be reviewing the rest of the series and will hit on some of the cooler spoilerific points of this novel. Greg is pretty good at the whole foreshadowing thing.

Thanks for visiting. Buy all of Greg’s books.

Review: The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque

•February 16, 2015 • 1 Comment

From the Publishers Weekly Starred Review:

Add dangerously unstable characters speaking with delicious floridity, unexpected bursts of macabre humor and violence, and a gender-bending subplot that subtly picks up steam, and you have a standout literary thriller.

The first story I read by Jeffrey Ford was The Empire of Ice Cream and that delightful tale of synesthesia firmly lodged him on that shelf in my mind of authors to watch. It also remains one of my most frequently revisited memories of the Sci Fiction website, which at one moment in time was the sun which my view of the internet revolved around. Somehow, I’ve managed to read little else by Ford over the years. I was alerted to this particular novel by a promotional price on the eBook.

In New York 1893, an accomplished painter, Piambo, is offered a strange commission to paint the portrait of a woman solely based on the stories she tells hidden from view behind a screen. There’s quite a lot of money at stake and from the offset it feels like an extrapolation of the tug of war between the commercial and creative needs of a professional artist. Each tale she tells of her childhood and later history is more fantastical than the next and draws strange parallels with Piambo’s experiences.

One by one even the most unbelievable of her stories is validated or in some mundane way explained, yet the narrative tapestry she weaves and increasingly strange events Piambo witnesses progressively increase the feeling that our painter, narrator is doomed. However, Piambo’s desire as painter and his personal philosophy strive to present the truth of a subject, not just their outward appearance. We see this in the opening of the book as he paints an idealized portrait of wealthy donor while none to subtly implying the truth by including in the frame wilting flowers in an expensive vase and goldfish bowl. Another example bookends the novel as Piambo considers a series of landscapes his self portrait.

The particular creative driving force of our protagonist subverts the manipulations of his subject. It’s clear from the beginning that she derives some sense of satisfaction from asking the impossible from a talented individual. As the story progresses it becomes clear that she’s mentally disturbed and has over the years managed her deteriorating mind by dressing it up as creativity and showmanship. The power play she initiates with a truly talented individual in Piambo is a last ditch effort to gain control of her sanity. It may have worked in the past, seemingly transferring the worst of her mental issues to various egotistical artists, but in this case she’s revealed for who she is and is undone.

Ford expertly pieces this story together, each narrative twist, whether part of Piambo’s adventures or Mrs. Charbuque’s stories or the introduction of colorful side characters are all in dialog. The result is a delightfully self referential piece that attempts to answer twin identity related questions raised explicitly by the narrator early in the novel: “What have I become?” and “What am I now to do?” It answers them in spades in the context of the novel, but I’m left asking them about myself. Part of my answer was to write and publish this review. I’ve struggled with putting my thoughts in order for much of what I’ve read in the past few years and I’ve missed the dialog that putting my thoughts online provides. Hopefully this will help break that rut.

Thank you Piambo. Thank you Mr. Ford.

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque (Kindle)

Review: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

•September 1, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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I was asked the other day (at the SFWA reading) how I find new science fiction books to read. I answered: in the case of A Stranger in Olondria it was the The Coode Street Podcast. There are other podcasts. The Writer and the Critic and Adventures in SciFi Publishing are just 2 examples which have turned me on to plenty of great books. I get recommendations from the big blogs like SF Signal, io9 and Some sites specialize in recommendations, like my Tag Shadow or Worlds Without End. There are too many genre book bloggers to name. All the major genre magazines also review books, with Locus giving the most in depth look. Following awards or reviewing Amazon’s best seller list will give you plenty of fodder.

In the case of The Last Policeman, it was NPR’s Crime in the City segment that turned me on to the series. I’m always a bit giddy when I discover “my kind of book” via a main stream outlet like this. It means “regular people” might be reading the stuff I love. We’re already in the realm of genre fiction when we’re talking about mysteries, but I’m a sucker for a good mashup and that’s what we have here.

The earth has received a death sentence from a large asteroid that’s on a collision course. That’s the one science fictional element, the what if, in an otherwise contemporary story. It’s enough to cause the fabric of society to unravel. The first person present tense (how else would you tell a story in a setting with such an expiration date) narrator is a young police detective named Henry Palace. The novel opens with a victim that seems to have hung himself in the bathroom of a McDonald’s. Palace has a feeling that it’s not just a suicide. However, suicide (particularly by hanging) is rather popular in these end times and laws have even been changed to avoid wasting resources on such cases. The investigation encounters road blocks at every turn.

Bit by bit we learn more about the asteroid hurtling toward earth. How it was discovered. How the percentages dropped from astronomically unlikely to 100% certain. How the world reacted. How Palace seems to be reacting a bit different from everyone else. He’s wanted to be a detective his entire life and so that’s what he’s going to do no matter what else happens. We learn more about the detective and his little sister. But mostly we learn about Peter Anthony Zell, the victim at the opening of the book. He viewed the world through a lens of statistical risk assessment. He was perfectly suited for his job in insurance.

In the background is a cast of characters acting on base impulses. People are attacking their bucket list with vigor. People are embracing religion. People are aggressively pursuing conspiracy theories. People are rethinking pursuits that take longer than 6 months to bear fruit. Our narrator is pragmatic and we see all of this through his analytical viewpoint. It doesn’t seem to matter who is crazy and who is insightful unless it has a bearing on his case.

This book (and I’d assume the rest of the series, Countdown City and A World of Trouble so far) are a careful blend of the pre-apocalyptic setting and the traditional mystery novel. Definitely a more subtle and serious mashup than the Quirk Classics the author has also written. The case gets resolved, but mysteries only deepen in the underlying setting. Along the way, we get a litany of Apocalyptic pop culture 101: “that REM song,” On the Beach, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, etc. This is of course another great way to find reading recommendations if you’re reading a contemporary novel.

The Last Policeman won an Edgar award, which gives it impeccable mystery cred. It’s sequel won the Philip K. Dick award giving it solid science fiction cred. On the basis of this book and those awards I’m excited to read the rest of the series.