Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Deadfall Hotel by Steve Rasnic Tem

Deadfall Hotel
by Steve Rasnic Tem
2012
****
4 stars - difficult to describe
ALR Yellow - some nasty beasts, some animals are killed


This book is described as a combination of Franz Kafka, Stephen King, and Edgar Allen Poe. That's what got me to try it out. But it isn't really that at all. It's something totally unique, something difficult to classify. I put it in Science Fiction because that's where I found it in the library. It isn't really that either.

Richard Carter, unemployed widower, responds to an ad in the paper. A rather obtuse ad, but he needs a job. He's got a daughter to support and he's pretty pinched for money. The job turns out to be apprentice caretaker at the Deadfall Hotel. Jacob Ascher, current caretaker, is on hand to show him the ropes. 

From the dust cover:
"It's a terrible place. As the seasons pass, the supernatural and the sublime become a part of life, as routine as a morning cup of coffee, but it's not safe by any means. Deadfall Hotel is where Richard and Serena will rebuild the life that was taken from them... if it doesn't kill them first."

Not quite horror, not quite mystery, not quite philosophical musings. A little bit of each. The writing is hypnotic and I found myself consuming the entire 300 pages in just a few sittings. To tell more would be to provide spoilers. From other reviews I've read, people love it or hate it. Not a lot of in between. 

There'd been fewer official check-ins than usual, however. Jacob didn't appear surprised. A few guests had shipped themselves to the hotel in crates and barrels, and Jacob had wheeled the containers up to their reserved rooms without fuss. A family had checked in: short people in tight brown coats, the parents no bigger than the small children. And then there was the naked man covered in bite marks and sutures, who'd wandered in from the woods without baggage, and Jacob had taken him up to a room immediately. Richard was glad Serena hadn't been down in the lobby for that one.

One warning I can provide. You'll never look at cats quite the same way again. Bit of a chilling chapter involving cats.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian
by Andy Weir
2011
****
4 stars - way cool Martian adventure
ALR Blue - no animals on Mars


Mark Watney. Left for dead on Mars. Not dead, but all alone.

An unexpected and fierce dust storm forces an emergency evacuation of Mars by the crew of an expedition mission. It's not their fault they thought Mark was dead. He'd been blasted off into the countryside and his spacesuit wasn't transmitting any life signals. It was either leave him or get the entire crew killed.

Mark's got no communication with either the space craft (now headed for home) or Earth. He's got some food, some water, some oxygen, and a NASA created habitat to live in. Now what? 

Well, with nothing but time, he draws on his skills as a botanist and his NASA training to start solving his issues one at a time. 

The story is comprised primarily of Mark's journal entries, but does have a few chapters focused back on Earth (once they realize he's still alive). Written by an actual smarty pants engineer, the book takes us through Mark's problem solving exercises, all completely plausible, without getting too bogged down in technical detail.

For me, one of the highlights is that there is no tedious attempt at human interest background. Mr. Weir could have dedicated chapters to flashbacks of Mark's life on Earth leading up to the pivotal event or (worse) some dumb romantic entanglements at NASA. Nope, instead the reader is kept firmly in the present and that's great. Staying alive on Mars is interesting enough. No need for mushy stuff. 

It's easy to see why this book was optioned for a movie. I hope they don't muck with it too much. It's a great story just the way it is.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Chocolate Clown Corpse by JoAnne Carl

The Chocolate Clown Corpse
by JoAnne Carl
2014
***
3 stars - perfect little cozy
ALR Blue - no animals


Clowns, chocolate.... murder! 

Sometimes, a safe, cozy mystery is just the ticket. 

Lee Woodyard runs a chocolate shop and is married to Joe, an attorney. Sometime last year, Moe Davidson, local clown, and owner of the Clowning Around store was murdered. No worries, the perp was caught and is going to trial, or is he? What really happened? Things just don't add up.

When Moe's family rolls in to town to sell the store, Lee gets curiouser and curiouser. Why is Moe's widow trying to hire a lawyer? Did the guy in jail actually confess or was he just confused? And who is that dude bidding against her for the now defunct Clowning Around store?

It's all very light, very cozy, and wraps up tidily in the end. Just what you'd expect from a cozy. I liked the characters and the mystery. Just enough tension to keep me going. Since Ms. Carl is quite prolific, I can look forward to many more of these charming stories.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Cursor's Fury by Jim Butcher

Cursor's Fury
by Jim Butcher
2006
*****
5 stars - edge of the seat action and adventure
ALR Green


Why can't we all just get along? Sheesh. The High Lord of Kalare has decided now is the time for him to take over the Realm. No way! He's concocted some pretty awesome fire power from the sky and kidnapped family members of the defending lords to give them pause before launching a counterattack. It's up to Countess Amara and her husband, Bernard, to join forces with the evil Lady Aquitaine against a common enemy.

Meanwhile, our hero from books one and two, Tavi (he without special powers) has been sent undercover as a low ranking officer to ride things out in safety in the realm's lowliest ragtag group of legionnaires. It's not as safe a hiding place as originally thought. The Canim wolf people are attacking by the tens of thousands and Tavi's legion is the only thing standing between the good guys being overrun by beasties.

Once again, Jim Butcher delivers an exciting saga of great battles, heartbreaking losses, stunning victories. In fact, pretty much the entire last half of the book is comprised of battles being fought on multiple fronts. With combatants who can control the forces of wind, earth, fire, and water, some pretty outlandish stuff goes on. Woo hoo! What a ride!

Bonus, that, as in the previous books, the cover art reflects an actual scene from the story. Yup, that's poor Tavi turning around to see scary water lions looming over him. Like, hey, what's up with that? Watch out, Tavi!

The characters are great. Lots of strong female characters as well. Female warriors plying their trade alongside their male counterparts. 

Early in the book, when informed of the scale of the coming attack, some of the leaders of the Realm refuse support as they feel it's all been blown way out of proportion. I loved the response they are given (and think these words should be spoken to many of the members of the US congress - perhaps citizens as well).

I suggest you find an alternate shortsighted, egomaniacally ridiculous reason to blatantly, recklessly ignore an obvious threat to the Realm simply because you don't wish it to exist.

Right on!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Big Dead Place by Nicholas Johnson

Big Dead Place
by Nicholas Johnson
2005
****
4 stars - I'll never watch a documentary about Antarctica in the same way again
ALR Green - but very sensitive readers are warned of brief depictions of animal abuse


Antarctica. It's not the pristine, good will, camaraderie, adventure place you might have imagined from reading news reports and watching documentaries.

Nicholas Johnson offers up a "grunt's eye" view of living and working in Antarctica. Sure, in the beginning there was nobody there. Just penguins, seals, and some determined explorers. But now it's a big deal. There are 1200 summertime residents and 200 winter residents. Why are they there? Well, yes, a big part of it is to continue scientific research. But once you get enough people, you're going to have to start bringing in support staff. 

The management of the American support staff is contracted out by the US government. Their responsibilities include construction, food prep, and waste management. Waste management is no small thing as everything introduced by people has to be removed from the continent and sent back to the US for "processing." Yup, that includes poop. 

The easiest way to summarize Mr. Johnson's depiction of the cadre of contract support staff is "sweat shop." These are workers who spend long days trying to get the job done while abiding by the somewhat arbitrary rules laid down by the mother ship. It's not pretty. 

Actually, just a few weeks before the tourist ship arrived, a few tons of sausage buried in the ground during a previous era had been discovered by a Fleet-Ops operator who was drilling into the earth in preparation for a new building down by the sea ice. With the drill he struck a noxious pocket of primeval sausage slime that squirted onto his face, searing his eye with a swift yellow infection that puffed up half his face and put him out of commission for about a week. The earth-sausage mixture was excavated from the frozen ground and dumped in piles beside the road, where a squad of GAs was dispatched into the feeding swarm of skuas to separate the meat from the rock and to throw it into triwalls that we banded up and loaded in milvans to be exported to the United States.

The writing is a bit haphazard. There are passages of brilliant description, but also some stories where it is difficult to know who the players are or what's really going on. That's OK, and he still gets four stars for being a whistle blower on "the man" and how governments can lose sight of what's really going on at their outposts. 

Mr. Johnson was not awarded another contract to work in Antarctica after his book came out. Instead, he went to work in Kabul, Afghanistan, and came back a changed man. He returned suffering from depression and drinking heavily. Despite getting clean and sober, he found his existence unbearable and took his own life in 2012.

Is Mr. Johnson's depiction of life in Antarctica exaggerated? Perhaps. But it is completely plausible. It's how I imagine things devolving on the Space Station or on any settlement we might ultimately make on a new planet. He doesn't tell any stories that don't jive with my experience of human nature and large corporations. 

Know also, that images and stories that come from Antarctica are very carefully orchestrated. We want positive press. We want to see the good deeds and brave people. We don't want to know about people getting fired for being injured on the job or questioning decisions. We don't want to know about ill workers getting bumped from evacuation flights so the higher profile scientists can have a seat. We certainly don't want to know about the maniacal behavior of the early "heros" of Antarctic exploration.

Oh, and one more thing. Why is the US really so firmly established in Antarctica? Is it all about scientific inquiry or is it also just a little bit about being able to claim ownership, should that continent ever become a politically strategic base?

It's a sad book.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Chill Factor by Rachel Caine

Chill Factor
Book Three of the Weather Warden Series
2005
**
2 stars - are the weather warden and I going to part ways?
ALR Blue - no animal characters


Even though this was a two star book, I'm putting the next book in the series in my reading queue. Maybe this volume was just a glitch because I liked the previous two a lot.

Weather Warden Joanne Baldwin continues her adventures. Kevin the creepy has holed up in Los Vegas with his Djin (genie in a bottle) and is planning some sort of apocalyptic event. Somehow, he's sucking the magical forces out of the area and building up his powers. Call in Joanne Baldwin. Her mission? Get through the force field around Los Vegas and neutralize Kevin.

I still like Joanne Baldwin. She can take a licking and keep on kicking. I still like the whole weather warden concept, along with the Djin and other non-human entities. But this entry in the series lacked the panache of the previous two.

First of all, it would appear that books 1-3 must have been one book since they collectively take place in the span of a few weeks. That annoyed me. Secondly, not enough cool weather magic, too much plot and talking. I fear Ms. Caine slipped from the literary concept of showing me what's happening to just telling me what's happening. 

Fear not, Ms. Caine, you still have my attention and I'm going to give Joanne another opportunity to wow me.