Thursday, October 18, 2012

Rob DeBorde “Portlandtown” (St Martin’s Griffin, 2012)

When the Wylde family invites their father the marshal to live with them, they have no idea that they will be targeted by necromancers & undead outlaws.  Fortunately, it seems that the Wyldes have a few secrets of their own…

Portlandtown is a fast paced supernatural western.  DeBorde does a great job playing with the mixture of horror and western tropes.  We have evil outlaws, cursed guns, books of black magic, Native American magic, and some zombies for the kids.  The action picks up quickly, & builds towards a climatic confrontation that was hard to put down.

If anything, the sheer number of characters and the pace of the action may work to this novel’s detriment.  While all the characters are distinct, & have their own voices, I would have liked to see more development, particularly of our protagonists.  Everyone seems to have some secrets, and only a few are revealed.

Somewhat problematic is the characterization of two minor characters, Andre & Naira.  They seem at times to be filling the trope of the Magical Negro & the Magical Native American.  However, since this is clearly the first book of a series, with many unanswered questions, I’m willing to wait & see how DeBorde develops these characters in following volumes.

Overall, I found Portlandtown to be an incredibly entertaining read.  I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the story.

Larry Niven & Gregory Benford "Bowl of Heaven" (Tor Books, 2012)

In the midst of their voyage, a troubled colony ship encounters a strange object, a bowl shaped structure half-enclosing a star, with a surface area many times that of the Earth.  The ship’s crew decides to investigate, both out of curiosity & in hope of restocking their dwindling supplies.  Of course the landing party encounters problems, with half being captured while the other half are hunted across the Bowl.  

Early in their adventures, a group encounters a large animal emerging from water.  Amazed, they realize they are viewing a dinosaur.  In a nutshell, that’s my reaction to Bowl of Heaven.  For better or worse, it reads much the same as a hard SF novel from 30 or 40 years ago.  

The strength of the book is the artifact itself.  An immense, self-propelled shipstar (yes, that is the phrase that is used) created from repurposing the mass of a solar system.  Extensively modified, it is home of seemingly hundreds of species and ecosystems.  Benford & Niven develop the Bowl in great detail and apparent scientific rigor.  Fans of SF built around BDOs are sure to enjoy the descriptions.
Benford & Niven provide insight into the people and culture of the Bowl via the use of Memor, an Astronomer of the Folk, as a POV.  Memor is tasked with observation and interaction with the captured colonists.  We learn about the Folk as she contrasts the colonists with herself and her people.  

Given the chase/escape plot of most of this book, the story zips right along.  The colonists race from one danger to another, with their explorations providing an opportunity for the reader to discover and explore the strange world of the Bowl along with them.  It’s a simple devise, but in this sort of novel, where the location itself is the primary interest, it works wonderfully.

Unfortunately, while the object is so loving developed and described, the same cannot be said for our human protagonists.  Their side of the story is told primarily through the POVs of 3 crewmembers, Captain Redwing, Cliff Kammash, & Beth Marble, both biologists.  All three are little more than thinly constructed pieces of cardboard that function more as plot devices or as opportunities for exposition.  Who are they?  What are their motivations?  By the end of the book they were just as enigmatic as they were at the beginning.  

In fact, by the end of the book, I seemed to have as many questions as I did upon the start.  Why were there no military or security personnel on the ship?  Were all the colonists primarily technicians of one sort or another?  Did they really expect to force their way into an alien artifact and not encounter any aliens?  Shouldn’t someone have mentioned that at the staff meeting so that they could plan for it?

Your enjoyment of Bowl of Heaven is going to be directly related to how much you enjoy certain types of hard SF as written 30 years ago.  Be forewarned, this is only the first half of a duology, with the second portion expected next year.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross “The Rapture of the Nerds” (Tor Books, 2012)

How do you talk about life in a world that has fundamentally changed?  That’s the challenge that faced Doctorow & Stross.  Their solution is to provide us with a luddite protagonist, Huw, who is almost as much of an outsider as the reader.  Much like Arthur Dent, Huw is propelled through a series of misadventures that provide Doctorow & Stross with the opportunity to riff on both the singularity and contemporary culture.  

There’s a paradox at the heart of this book.  While its tone is light and breezy, the density of the ideas presently can make for a challenging read.  This book is absolutely not for everyone.  Doctorow & Stross take potshots at every sacred cow within range (and they make sure that there are a lot of them), so if you’re a person who is easily offended, you won’t like this.  Their prose is packed with allusion and references to a wide variety of topics.  Again, this textual density is not something that everyone enjoys.

Why read it then?  At its best, The Rapture of the Nerds allows two of the brightest minds in contemporary SF an opportunity to play in a huge sandbox.  There are as many ideas on a single page as contained in most entire novels.  If you like that sense of immersion in a world of fantastical ideas, you will enjoy the time you spend in this world.

Carter Family Comics

Don't Forget This Song, the graphic novel based on the story of the Carter Family, has been released.  You can read an excerpt over at Boing Boing, or a review at The Comics Journal.  The official blog for the book is located here.

Schedule Announced!

They've posted the 2012-2013 schedule of shows for the Shepherdsville Music Barn.  The complete schedule, plus directions etc can be viewed here.  Here are some highlights:

Oct 19  The Boxcars

Nov 16 The Grascals

Jan 25 James King

Feb 8 The Josh Williams Band

Feb 22 Ralph Stanley II

Mar 8 Dailey & Vincent

Mar 22 Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Alan Licht (ed.) "Will Oldham On Bonnie 'Prince' Billy" (WW Norton & Co., 2012)

Will Oldham has a reputation for opting out of music industry promotional activities.  He just doesn’t do the promotional circuit for each release, with the obligatory interviews, television appearances, etc etc.  That’s why it was a bit of a shock to discover this title.

Alan Licht (a friend and sometimes collaborator) sat down with Oldham for a series of interviews over the course of a week.  This book is the result of those interview sessions.  It reads less like a typical industry hagiography or personality profile, and more like rambling conversations between friends.  That’s why it works.

Yes, the sort of information fans crave is in here:  recording session information, discussion of song lyrics, influences, etc etc.  But much of the fascinating material is the discussion that emerges at the margins:  Oldham’s idiosyncratic views on the music industry, art, film, and how to balance the demands of the commercial and the artistic.

This is probably not for the uninitiated.  No effort is made to bring readers up to speed.  There are no references to reviews or any attempts to contextualize Oldham’s recording history.  However, for those familiar with his catalog, it provides a fascinating glimpse into this idiosyncratic artist.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Greg Ketter (ed.) “Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores” (Prime Books, 2012)

For many readers a trip to an old fashioned bookstore is an opportunity to indulge in certain childhood fantasies.  It is an opportunity to enter a world of wonder and opportunity, to find that book you’ve been searching for, or the one that you never knew that you desperately needed.

Shelf Life manages to capture that feeling.  Originally published in 2002, it contains 15 short stories focusing on books and wondrous bookstores.  Like a good collection of fairy tales, the stories themselves are sometimes comforting and sometimes dark and scary.  Ketter has collected tales from top grade talent, including Gene Wolfe, Ramsey Campbell, Charles de Lint, and Harlan Ellison.

As with an anthology, you may find that some stories resonate with you more strongly than others.  Personally, I felt that the weaker stories were entertaining at worst, and the best stories seem to have stayed with me.