Book Review: Academy Mystery Novellas

Title: Academy Mystery Novellas
Editors: Martin H. Greenberg & Bill Pronzini
Publisher: Academy Chicago Publishers
Genre: Mystery
Length: Short Stories

mystery

Mysteryyy!

Rating: 4 tweaks out of 5

I recently read four volumes of the Academy Mystery Novellas in preparation for beginning my own work on a series of mystery short stories intended for a young audience. Imagine my surprise when a research exercise became a truly enjoyable reading experience.

The novellas are organized into five volumes: Women Sleuths, Police Procedurals, Locked Room Puzzles, Great British Detectives, and Women Write Murder. Unfortunately, I only read the first four. There are four novellas in each set, and they are all amazingly different from each other, despite falling into the same category. Some are traditional and serious while some are humourous. Some involve murder, others theft, and some kidnapping. The only common thread between them was that I could not once anticipate the ending, and every time I found myself thinking, “Of course!” when I arrived at the whodunnit.

I admit I have never been one to read mystery, so more experienced readers might find these stories quaint. But I adored them. My one big objection to the mystery genre is that the plot and the mystery is the focus, and I am a character-driven writer and reader. However, I found that in these works of the masters, such as Mignon Eberhart (The Calico Dog), Cornell Woolrich (The Book that Squealed), and Georges Simenon (Storm in the Channel) to name a few, the characters have amazing depth. They are each complex and interesting, particularly when motivations clash and murder is involved.

I recommend these anthologies to anyone new to the genre (like me) because they offer a huge variety and demonstrate that the mystery genre is more than hardboiled private detectives, shooters in shadows, and bodies surrounded by chalk outlines.

Website:

http://www.academychicago.com/acadmystnovella.html

About the Editors:

Martin Harry Greenberg (March 1, 1941 – June 25, 2011) was an American academic and speculative fiction anthologist. In total, he compiled 1,298 anthologies and commissioned over 8,200 original short stories.

Bill Pronzini (born April 13, 1943) is an American writer of detective fiction. He is also an active anthologist, having compiled more than 100 collections, most of which focus on mystery, western, and science fiction short stories.

Book Review: In Our Hands, the Stars

Title: In Our Hands, the Stars
Author: Harry Harrison
Publisher: Arrow Books
Genre: Science Fiction (Hard)
Length: A comfortable 217 pages
Series: None

Rating: 5 tweaks out of 5

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One characteristic of great science fiction is to leave the reader asking questions of themselves, their societies, and human nature. The fiction aspect, whether a new planet, a new technology, or some scientific advancement, merely allows the author to provide a catalyst that prompts these questions.

In Our Hands, the Stars is an example of science fiction at its best. I should mention, though, that it is hard science fiction. There are no big adventures, fire fights, or creepy aliens. The fiction aspect of the narrative is relatively small: A physicist in Israel invents a device that can allow interstellar travel, using something like an anti-gravity field. The physicist, knowing that the device can be easily weaponized, flees his own war-torn country. He goes to Denmark, where he and a colleague perfect the device and put it into use for the benefits of the entire planet, not just their own nation. The device, called the Daleth Drive, is eventually implemented for travel to and building of a base on the Moon and Mars.

The real meat of the narrative, though, is not in the new technology, but in the way that the world’s nations react to the sudden advancement of one very small, very quiet country. The Danish people fight violent incursions by spies, hide their activity through subterfuge and bait and switch tactics, and fend off political pressures from supposed “allies.” The people who are involved in the development of the device are threatened as well. The wife of the ship’s captain is an American citizen, and is pressured by her government to obtain the secrets of the Daleth Drive. Harrison explores her relationship with the captain in how he deals with this conflict, leaving me with the sense that these were real people needing to cope with a real issue.

Harrison gives us a conclusion that some may find unsatisfactory. The original creators of the Daleth make incredible sacrifices in order to protect their technology and keep it out of the wrong hands, but the sacrifice is, in the end, ineffective. I found this ending insightful and unsettling, as Harrison points out the flaws in our current security-focused society.

I recommend this book to anyone who appreciates well-described hard science fiction, slow-building tension, and who asks difficult questions of themselves and their society. This book is not for anyone who wants a light-hearted adventure with a tidy conclusion.

Author Bio:

Harry Harrison began writing science fiction in the 1950s and is currently one of the top-selling SF authors around the world. Best known as the creator of the cosmic thief the Stainless Steel Rat, and for his Deathworld and West of Eden series, he is also the author of Make Room! Make Room! which was turned into the movie Soylent Green which starred Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson. His novels have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list and in 2009 he was awarded the Damon Knight SF Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Website:

http://www.harryharrison.com

Book Review: The Puppet Masters

Title: The Puppet Masters
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Publisher: Doubleday (1951)
Genre: Adult science fiction and action
Length: 175 pages (reasonable)
Series: None

Rating: 3.5 tweaks out of 5

Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters is a classic, genre-defining novel that gave birth to a legion of other stories about aliens arriving on earth and enslaving the human race. It is definitely worth reading, if only to see what Heinlein predicted back in 1951 and to get a taste of how the people back then envisioned their world, the universe, and the future. Personally, there were aspects of writing style that I picked up on and hope to employ in my own work. The few issues I had with the novel could be credited to the times in which it was written.

In The Puppet Masters, “Sam” is an agent in the employ of a secret intelligence organization that protects the United States of America and answers only to the president. He goes on a mission with his boss, the “Old Man,” and “Mary,” a red-headed beauty and equally dangerous agent. Their objective: To investigate reports of a flying saucer that landed in Iowa. What they find is, to all appearances, a prank. However, they can smell that something is fishy, and they notice people are acting strangely and wearing mysterious humps on their shoulders. So begins the war between humans and Titans, the slug-like parasitic aliens from a Saturnalian moon. Sam plays a vital role in defense and eventually offense against the Titans in a quick, energetic read.

To writers in the 1940’s and 50’s, the solar system and the universe provided a fertile garden for creatures and ideas. Every planet had life forms, including Venus and Mars, and humans travelled freely between them. On the future Earth, cars fly, cosmetic surgery takes seconds, phones are implanted, and marriage is a financial transaction. Heinlein made some very interesting predictions about technology and society. As a sci-fi writer, I hope to make similar leaps so that someone reading my work sixty years from now can laugh or nod in wonder.

I most enjoyed Heinlein’s skill in keeping his narrative bouncing along. The Puppet Masters races forward at breakneck speed, with minimal description. That’s not to say that it was lacking in anything. Heinlein managed to describe just enough, keeping my imagination alight with visions of flying cars, heater guns, and alien races. His dialogue and narrative voice are sharp and witty, and he doesn’t spend time in long conversations. The plot itself suffers from no issues that I saw. Everything is tight and makes sense, and carries the reader to a satisfying ending.

The biggest issue that I had was that the female protagonist, Mary, goes from a dangerous secret agent to a meek and fragile wife character in the snap of Heinlein’s fingers. Her dialogue drops from witty repartee to repetitions of “Yes, dear.” This was disappointing for me, though I suppose it shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering the time period. Perhaps in conjunction with this issue was the lack of strong characters. Sam was a sturdy fellow, as was the Old Man, but everyone else was faded, leaving me somewhat dissatisfied.

Those were small irritations, though. I recommend The Puppet Masters to anyone who enjoys science fiction and uncomplicated adventure.

Author Bio:

Robert Anson Heinlein (July 7, 1907 – May 8, 1988) was an American science fiction writer. Often called the “dean of science fiction writers”, he was one of the most influential and controversial authors of the genre in his time. He set a standard for scientific and engineering plausibility, and helped to raise the genre’s standards of literary quality.

He was one of the first science fiction writers to break into mainstream magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post in the late 1940s. He was one of the best-selling science fiction novelists for many decades. He, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke are known as the “Big Three” of science fiction.

Book Review: Reamde

Title: Reamde
Author: Neal Stephenson
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: techno-thriller
Length: 1056 pages (behemoth-sized)
Series: None
Rating: 4.5 tweaks out of 5

This was my first book by Neal Stephenson and my first example of a techno-thriller. To begin with … I loved it.

Reamde took a lot of work to get into, but it was well worth the effort. Stephenson is like a mason of writing, laying down layer after layer of information that, though seemingly unconnected to the plot, eventually became pertinent. These layers, each of them described in extensive and vivid detail, gave me a lot to chew on while reading the first few chapters, until the real meat of the plot began.

With masterful skill, Stephenson wove together several different threads, starting with Richard and Zula Forthrast. Richard is the billionaire founder of a massive multiplayer online role playing game loosely based on World of Warcraft, called T’Rain. In Reamde, currency can pass from the world of T’Rain to the real world and back again. Remember this, it becomes important later on. Now, I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just leave you with a list of the many, many characters you’ll encounter in this cat’s cradle of a narrative.

Zula’s boyfriend, Peter, is the catalyst, launching Zula into a whirlwind adventure that crosses the globe. She is kidnapped by the Russian mob, befriends a Chinese woman, tracks down a Chinese group of young hackers with the help of a Hungarian hacker, meets and earns the respect of a former Spetsnaz mercenary, is helped along by an agent of the MI6 and an American military captain, and enters a firefight with a Welsh Jihadist at the homestead of a survivalist family in the forests of Washington State.

Oh yes, and there are guns, guns, guns, and enough technological information to make you think you could cut it as a hacker yourself (believe me, I tried).

Have I caught your interest yet?

The plot is a rollercoaster built on a scaffolding of intricately described scenes, actions, and characters. As a reader, you’ll be swept away on adventures that toe the line of ridiculous, but manage to stay safely on the side of plausible. Stephenson’s skills come through here; the amount of detail he includes makes it difficult not to believe that these people and situations aren’t real. I found myself wanting to travel to the locations that Stephenson’s characters ran and fought their way through.

Unfortunately, Stephenson’s strength could be viewed as a weakness. The immense level of detail can be overwhelming and can distract from plot and character development. Despite being over a thousand pages long, only ten days pass in the world of Reamde, making it a dense story. Think the density of dark matter. Depending on your preferences, you may dislike this immersive quality of Reamde. This is no quick “beach read.” However, if you want a story that will tackle you to the ground and toss you into a vivid technological world, then this is the one for you.

Author Bio:

Neal Town Stephenson (born October 31, 1959) is an American author and game designer known for his works of speculative fiction.

His novels have been variously categorized as science fiction, historical fiction, cyberpunk, and “postcyberpunk.” Other labels, such as “baroque,” often appear.

Stephenson explores subjects such as mathematics, cryptography, philosophy, currency, and the history of science. He also writes non-fiction articles about technology in publications such as Wired.

Website: http://www.nealstephenson.com

Book Review: Boneshaker

Title: Boneshaker
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Adult fiction, steampunk/fantasy
Length: Reasonable
Series: The Clockwork Century

Rating: 3.5 tweaks out of 5

Boneshaker begins in the Outskirts, the lands surrounding a walled portion of downtown Seattle in 1880, with Ms Briar Wilkes, a labourer in a water filtration plant, encountering a biographer for the mad scientist and inventor, Leviticus Blue. Why, one might ask, is part of 1880 Seattle all walled up? And why would the biographer of a mad inventor talk with Briar? The answer, dear reader, is Zombies.

In 1863, Leviticus Blue was hired by the Russian government to build a drill that would tear its way through ice and rock to get to the Klondike gold. So Blue built a machine. And then that machine tore its way through the Seattle underground, right through the bank vaults (most of which probably held Klondike gold, to be fair). There were earthquakes and toppled buildings and a great deal of property damage, but the worst consequence was that the machine broke into a vein of subterranean gas that had a rather unfortunate property: it turned living people into the living dead. The gas escaped and devastated several square blocks of Seattle. It would have done more damage, but they erected walls to contain it and everyone who could flee did so.

Sixteen years later, Briar was living with her son, Zeke, in the Outskirts just outside of the Seattle walls. Briar was Blue’s wife. Since he apparently single-handedly destroyed Seattle before disappearing, she was not well liked. But she got by and took care of Zeke while she was at it. One thing she could not do, though, was tell Zeke the truth about what happened to his father, Leviticus Blue. Zeke, an intelligent and headstrong youth, did not take Briar’s silence well and decided to break into the city to discover the truth.

Briar, knowing the danger he would face, went after him.

And so begins the adventure of Boneshaker, the story of a mother going after her son. There were airships and airship pirates, a princess, zombies, survivors, damp tunnels, gadgets, a one-armed woman, a masked man, and zombies. The point of view bounced between Briar and Zeke as they explored and encountered the inhabitants (both undead and alive) of apocalyptic Seattle, which gave me an excited little thrill as they got closer and closer to each other. The secondary characters were each unique and fun, the plot was relatively simple, Briar and Zeke were smart and fun, and the action was delightfully gory. The environment, though, was where Priest really shone. She created an exceptionally realistic world in and under Seattle, where the inhabitants must deal with the threat of the gas and the zombies, and the immensely more terrifying and dangerous threat of other living humans.

To cap it off, Boneshaker ended on an immensely gratifying twist, which left me satisfied after reading.

Boneshaker didn’t have flaws so much as minor annoyances. Although Briar was a strong and highly competent fem-protagonist, she was almost too strong and competent. For one, she was a crack shot with a shot gun that she had apparently locked away for fifteen years, and she didn’t have a history as a woman of the law or anything similar. At times, the quantity of environmental descriptions became overwhelming and I began to skim over them, though this may be an issue with the reader rather than the book. There were a few too many places where fortunate happenstance played a leading role; I found myself thinking “Well, isn’t that convenient” a little too frequently for my tastes. However, as I said, those were irritating but barely took me away from the plot and character.

I found Boneshaker to be a fun and easy read, without any deep thought required. I recommend it to anyone looking for a satisfying example of the steampunk genre with a dash of horror and action/adventure, but not if you want something that will linger in your mind.

Author Bio:

Cherie Priest is the author of twelve novels, including the steampunk pulp adventures Dreadnought and Boneshaker. Boneshaker was nominated for both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award; it was a PNBA Award winner, and winner of the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Cherie also wrote Fathom and the Eden Moore series from Tor (Macmillan), and her novellas Clementine, Dreadful Skin and Those Who Went Remain There Still are published by Subterranean Press. In addition to all of the above, she is a newly minted member of the Wild Cards Consortium – and her first foray into George R. R. Martin’s superhero universe, Fort Freak (for which she wrote the frame story), will debut in 2011. Cherie’s short stories and nonfiction articles have appeared in such fine publications as Weird Tales, Subterranean Magazine, Publishers Weekly, and the Stoker-nominated anthology Aegri Somnia from Apex. Though she spent most of her life in the southeast, she presently lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband and a fat black cat.

Website: http://www.cheriepriest.com/

Book Review: The Court of Air

Title: The Court of Air
Author: Stephen Hunt
Publisher: Del
Genre: Adult fiction, steampunk/fantasy
Length: Tolkein-esque
Series: Jackelian
Rating: 4 tweaks out of 5

Stephen Hunt’s The Court of Air is a nutrition-packed meal of a book. Hunt has created a world, nay, a universe, to play in, and you’re going to learn all about it. Each sentence is a meaty mouthful, each paragraph another description of new technologies, societies, characters, and magic. I would call this novel immersive because you go deep into the world and it doesn’t let you out until it’s had its way with you. The only drawback to this is that it gets too easy to skim over the details and miss out on some of the colours in Hunt’s complex painting.

We start with an introduction to Maggie Templar, a beautiful, fiery, red-headed orphan with a love for reading and an independent, no-nonsense attitude. Maggie is a Good Guy, with very little in the way of quirks and generally likeable. She inherits trouble (often dangerous trouble involving assassination attempts and the need to run like mad) and wholeheartedly accepts the need to deal with it. In the course of learning about our fem-protagonist, we are introduced to Middlesteel and Jackals, a city of steampunk wonder in a strong nation of merchants and warriors. There are steampowered, sentient robots, a variety of humanoid races, and a whole lot of politics. Cool stuff.

Next, we are introduced to Oliver. Oliver is the male protagonist, also an orphan, also very clever, a Good Guy with nearly no bad qualities to speak of, and cursed. Sort of. As a young child, he was lost in the fey mist, a doorway into another world, exposure to which has a tendency of mutating people. Well, when it doesn’t kill them. Most people who stumble into it are found and confined to an asylum. Those who aren’t too terribly disfigured, though, are offered jobs in the Special Guard. Back to Oliver. He spent years in the mist, but exhibits none of the symptoms. He’s basically under house arrest, for fear that one day he’ll wrap himself in a cocoon and pop out the next day as a beautiful butterfly of mutant destruction.

But I digress. The adventure is complicated and exciting, pushing the world to the brink of destruction at the hands (mandibles?) of a race of insectoid demi-gods. Our intrepid orphans must scamper about, hunted and in constant danger of death, or worse, with the aid of an extensive cast of characters. There are political conspiracies and behind-the-scenes espionage within the society of overseers, the Court of Air, and within the anti-aristocrat political system of Jackals. There are flame-throwing gypsies, sewer ostriches, wizards, air ships, steam-powered knights, submarine captains, secret agents, secret-secret agents, biologic experiments, sentient guns, criminals, and a whole heap of other awesome things. Oh, and live sacrifices. Lots of those.

I enjoyed reading this novel quite a bit. Hunt has a definite way with words and an ability to juggle nations’ worth of people. He flung out handfuls of threads, heaps of them, and managed to tie them all together by the end. Masterful.

My only complaint is the density. With such a huge world, and our protagonists’ habits of racing across the entirety of it, the novel’s background overcame the storyline. By the time I finished learning about the machinery and methods of the giant transaction engine computers in Middlesteel and the diseases that can cross from computer into the human mind, as fascinating as it was, I had trouble remembering why the characters were there. The characters themselves were a small army, and I found myself, on occasion, wondering why they were there and why Hunt was telling me so much about them. Again, all these little details were amazing, very rich, but they tended to overshadow the plot.

To conclude, you should read this if you enjoy a fantastic tapestry of a brand new world populated by fascinating characters, and if you like your protagonists clever, powerful, and Good. You may not enjoy it if you prefer anti-heroes, light reading, and complex character relationships, or don’t like to see character death. Otherwise, have at ‘er!

Author Bio:

Born in the sixties in North America, Stephen Hunt is a genre writer usually residing in Spain and the UK.

Before embarking on a career in publishing – magazines, newspapers and books – Stephen went to University in the UK, getting a BA (Hons) in Marketing, followed by two years of study at the London Institute (Saint Martins, the London College of Printing, Camberwell College of Arts, Chelsea College of Art and Design and the London College of Fashion).

After running the online operations for various large newspaper and magazine publishers, and the odd bank or two, Stephen found enough success from writing to become an author full-time.

Stephen’s early pieces of short fiction – mainly ‘cyberpunk’ works – started to appear in the early 1990s in various genre magazines such as ProtoStellar, Expanse, Roleplayer Independent and Hologram Tales.

His first book, the fantasy novel ‘For the Crown and the Dragon’, was published in 1994. It went on to sell thousands of copies in paperback and got praise in reviews as diverse as Locus, the Guardian, Science Fiction Chronicle, Arcane, Broadsword and various other newspapers and genre titles. The novel and its related short fiction sparked a sub-genre, flintlock fantasy, which crosses the tropes of Georgian and Napoleonic history with the conventions of the fantasy universe.

Apart from visiting his relatives in New York and spending time with his family in the UK and Spain, Stephen enjoys painting, Spanish cooking, shooting, reading, collecting comics, comic art and pulp works, and generally nerding about on his PC and Mac.

Website: http://www.sfcrowsnest.com/author/index.php