Monday, August 21, 2017

Non-fiction Review of Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding



I grew up in a very rural area.  (Population of my township—not quite town—was 450.)  White collar jobs essentially limited to doctors in the regional hospital, bank execs, and the occasional, lucky entrepreneur (all in the next town over), the majority of people are salt of the earth: laborers, teachers, mechanics, clerks, farmers, housewives, shop owners, the elderly, etc.  And, like so many other small towns (and townships) in the latter part of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, my area is affected by poverty and higher usage of illegal drugs.  A close relative of mine, in fact, died of an overdose recently.  Believing I had an understanding of why, I nevertheless jumped at the chance to read Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town (2009) to find out just how country music, big truck tires, and a low-key sense of howdy could be so affected. 

A mix of case study and research journalism, Methland grounds itself in the empiricism of small town of Oelwein, Iowa, all the while connecting the dots of the town’s meth problem to the larger sectors of pharmaceuticals, criminal law, sociology, and politics.  From the town’s mayor to one of its biggest addicts, the police chief to one of the region’s major dealers, Mexican drug cartels to government legislation, FBI officials to the owner of Oelwein’s most popular watering hole, the key players locally are given space to present their view, even as research into the breadth and history of meth legislation, distribution, manufacture, logistics, drug labs, and other vectors are presented at the local, national and international levels.  In short, Reding cannot be accused of leaving a stone in the arena of methamphetamine abuse, unturned.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review of Moskva by Jack Grimwood



If one reads books long enough, there are certain types of fiction that get old, very quickly.  Adhering too closely to formula and adding nothing with style, some detective novels, for example, wear themselves thin within a few pages.  Seeming to forget that it’s possible to write familiar material in an engaging manner, things like prose, writing between the lines, presentation, making bolder assumptions of reader intelligence, and other elements of more sophisticated fiction get tossed aside in favor of trying to write the latest bestseller.  Thankfully, Jon Courtenay Grimwood does not forget.  His 2016 Moskva (as written by “Jack Grimwood”) is a brilliantly styled murder/espionage story set in Soviet Russia in the 1980s that does nothing new in broad terms, and yet does everything flawlessly at the detail level, resulting in a roughly familiar yet highly engaging novel—the perfect relaxing read. 

Tom Fox is in exile, of sorts.  British intelligence angry at a rash choice he made involving the deaths of others, he has been sent to Moscow on a low-grade assignment to gather information about the influence of religion on the state.  Set in the mid-80s, Soviet power is in effect but on the wane, meaning more government officials are reaching out to attend the social gatherings of the city’s various embassies, including the British.  Meeting one such important Soviet official at a gathering, Fox likewise runs into the daughter of the British ambassador at the same party, a rebellious fifteen-year old named Anna who reminds Fox of his own daughter, now dead.   The teenager turning up missing in the days that follow, Tom is called into the diplomat’s office and his mission quickly changed from information gathering to investigating a missing child.  The trouble for Fox is, the deeper he digs, the deeper the implications for Anna, British-Soviet relations, and even his own life.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review Slade House by David Mitchell



Four years passing between David Mitchell’s 2010 The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and 2014’s The Bone Clocks, it’s fair to say the author took his time working on the latter.  With the 2015 publication of Slade House, it’s also fair to say he had some material on the cutting room floor.

A frame narrative, Slade House tells the story of five people who, in some way or another (usually death), get themselves involved with the mysterious, titular abode and the Anchorites (beings who consume people’s souls to remain young) who live there.  The incidences occurring in a nine-year cycle the Anchorites require to keep the ritual alive, the five people’s stories slowly concatenate into a moment that irrevocably changes the future of Slade House forever.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Review of Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick



The German legend of Johann Georg Faust has been reworked and revisioned multiple, multiple times over the centuries.  From Goethe to Bulgakov, deals with the devil leading to one’s loftiest desires are abound.  Contemporary writers likewise throwing their hat in the ring, in 1997 Michael Swanwick delivered Jack Faust.  Running with the legend’s roots but taking a societal rather than personal approach, Faust is tormented by the world’s knowledge, but he is not the only one…

Opening on a familiar note, Johann Faust begins the story burning the books in his library.  Declaring the majority of written knowledge to be rubbish, he frightens his assistance Wagner with his antics.  Soon enough Faust is contacted by a demon from another galaxy calling himself Mephistopheles, and made an offer: all the knowledge in the world, no strings attached.  Believing in the quality of his fellow human beings and that the knowledge will be used for good, Faust accepts the offer, all the while Mephistopheles secretly assumes it will lead to humanity’s downfall.  Turns out, both can somehow be right.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Review of The Old Axolotl by Jacek Dukaj



In many ways, the ebook has revolutionized reading.  It brings to the table aspects of interaction that are simply impossible with the standard paperback, from size considerations to word searches.  I can fit thousands of books in a tiny space and find out how many times the word ‘esoteric’ appears in a given text.  But does anyone believe the format has been fully explored?  Jacek Dukaj, in his 2015 The Old Axolotl, believes no.   Seeking to push the medium to the next stage of its evolution, Dukaj tells a dynamic, post-human story that complements the evolution of ebooks in abstract terms.  Caught somewhere in the crossfire of Charles Stross on the aesthetic side and Stanislaw Lem on the thought-provoking side, yes, it’s an ambitious novel—if that is the name for such a medium.

A radioactive horizon effect wipes humanity from the Earth at the beginning of The Old Axolotl.  The only people who “survive” are those able to upload themselves to data infrastructure before the horizon line hits, most of whom are online gamers.  Arising in the aftermath are varied societies of mechs powered by the uploaded personalities.  But it’s a limited existence.  Eventually reaching a ceiling of knowledge that AIs and machines can achieve, the mechs begin to face similar ontological quandaries as humanity currently does.  The proposed solution is the creation of new biological lifeforms the mechs call axolotl.  But where does life on Earth evolve from there?  

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Console Corner: Inside



Of the Nintendo generation, I was raised on 2D platformers.  From Super Mario Brothers to Contra, Metroid to Castlevania, such games worked with the limitations of the 8-bit system.   When the Playstation and Nintendo 64 came around and 3D games became a realizable possibility, a new world opened to gamers—for as blocky and clunky as it seemed to be.  But as consoles and computers increased in power, the lack of realism began slipping away.  Today, games like Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid: Phantom Pain, and Horizon: Zero Dawn present characters and settings just a hair removed from live stage action cinematics.  Why then would a developer utilize such powerful technical potential to go back and create a 2D platformer?  Playdead’s 2016 Inside is the perfect answer.

Building off the style and premise of their earlier Limbo, Inside throws a young boy into another black and white world fraught with puzzles and peril.  But gameplay and theming has significantly matured.  Where Limbo was a procession of puzzles with little to nothing linking the parts, albeit clever, Inside creates cohesion twixt its brainteasers.  Using a common aesthetic, the placement of related background elements, and recurring motifs, the game builds a story that, dare I say, synthesizes into a holistic vision, a vision that asks veiled but poignant questions regarding free will.  More than just a standard 2D puzzler, it’s an experience wherein the individual pieces aggregate into a larger whole that will have the player pondering the thinking, and not just how to solve certain puzzles.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review of Upon this Rock by David Marusek



Even Adam Smith knew, the market is not kind.  And when you have a market saturated by minimum viable products (i.e. easily accessible, watered down slush), then it’s likely the more subtle, intelligent material for sale will be overlooked.  In short, I thought the market had chewed up and spit out David Marusek years ago.  His stories “The Wedding Album”, Counting Heads, and the like were just too niche, too sophisticated to be appreciated by a wider, paying audience which typically supports writers’ careers.  And then last month in NetGalley I find his return.  More than fifteen years since his last published effort, David Marusek is back with the first in a planned trilogy of science fiction novels: Upon this Rock (2017, Stack of Firewood Press). 

Set on the very edges of civilization in the Alaskan wilderness, Upon this Rock opens at the border of a national park where the park service and a fundamentalist Christian cult are at odds over land ownership.  Poppy Prophecy, tyrannical leader of the cultists, exerts control over every aspect of his family’s lives, from clothes to punishments, daily activities to prayer.  Preaching the apocalypse is nigh, he prepares them for nuclear winter in an abandoned mine that may or may not be on park property.  Jace Kuliak is one of the park rangers caught up in the feud.  A hard-working, pot-smoking young man, he finds himself not as passionate about irritating Poppy’s family as some of his fellow rangers, and is content enjoying the beauty and peace of the park and his daily work.  But one evening both Jace and Poppy witness a strange light in the sky that seems to descend onto the park.  The object eventually found, nothing is the same for the rangers in the aftermath—Poppy’s cult family, Jace, or the world.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers



Tim Powers is for me a writer whose development is more obvious than a lot of others.  I cringe reading such early efforts as An Epitaph in Rust and The Drawing of the Dark.  One can see a wonderful imagination on the page, but not the talent to execute on a line by line basis.  In The Anubis Gates, On Stranger Tides, and Dinner at Deviant’s Palace a synthesis starts to be seen.  I daresay The Stress of Her Regard (1989) is the transition point from those novels to where we see Powers today, as Last Call and the novels which follow feature the author in his best form.  Thankfully, unique imagination has remained a constant throughout. 

The Stress of Her Regard was Powers’ most ambitious novel to date.  Daring to feature some of the English language’s most renowned poets as primary characters—Bryon, Shelley, and Keats among them—the resulting storyline tells of a British doctor, Michael Crawford, and the bad luck he has while out drinking the night before his wedding.  Accidentally leaving his ring on a statue, he returns the next day to find the object now clenched in a stone fist, unable to be loosened.  All goes well in the wedding, however, that is until the next morning when Crawford awakes to find his new bride’s body mutilated in terrifying fashion beside him.  A whole world of dark horrors slowly unveiling itself in the aftermath, Crawford escapes Britain, but does so into the arms of a creature which would rather have him dead.  Cognizant of the lamia’s true power, he turns to British poets who are traveling the continent for help.  Trouble is, they too are haunted in their own way.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review of Nation by Terry Pratchett



Mythopoeic if there ever was, Terrry Pratchett’s 2008 novel Nation is an Adam and Eve clash of native and western values, with the cream that rises to the top taken to drink.  A wave from a tsunami wave carrying the native Mau and the colonial Daphne to the same beach, slowly the survivors of Mau’s tribe and Daphne’s shipwreck begin appearing onshore, fleshing out the two sides’ differences but forcing them to establish compromises—yes, as only Pratchett can write.  

It should be stated that Nation is not a Discworld novel.  Pratchett sticks to the real world, but given he does nothing to change his style of writing, nevertheless feels very much like a Discworld offering.  Mau, Daphne, or any of the other characters could quite easily appear on the streets of Ankh-Morpork.  Thus for anyone concernd non-Discworld = non-Pratchett, fear not: Nation could not be mistaken for anything but a Pratchett offering.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review of The Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell



David Mitchell’s oeuvre, as relatively small as it it to date, has nevertheless covered a range of plots, settings, and characters.  But fitting in there, sometimes small, sometimes big, always seems the Orient, and most often Japan.  From the Japanese man working in the jazz shop in Ghostwritten to the main character and setting of number9dream, Japan seems to play a role in most of Mitchell’s works.  In 2010’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell turns to the island nation for setting, specifically the Sakoku era, but does so from a majority European perspective.

Believing that accepting a clerk position with the Dutch East Indian Company in Japan for five years will land him the woman he desires once he returns to the Netherlands, Jacob de Zoet reluctantly says goodbye to his homeland and makes the long ocean voyage to the other side of the Earth at the opening of the novel.  The outgoing company steward leaving behind a trail of corruption, de Zoet has been sent along with a strong-minded captain with the mission of setting things right to get commerce flowing with the Japanese on the up and up once again.  Japanese restrictions on European presence in Nagasaki highly intemperate, de Zoet is disappointed to learn that none of his cultural hopes or expectations have any real hope of being fulfilled.  From language to Japanese daily life, all are essentially cut off.  But de Zoet does strike up something of sympathetic relationship with the Japanese translator, and from it meets the local European doctor who is allowed beyond the walls of the stockade, and through that has talks with a woman that may just change his mind about returning to the Netherlands, Miss Aibagawa.  With Dutch power fading in the Orient and English power on the rise, trouble looms in the backdrop, even as de Zoet hacks his way through the rough characters he must work alongside each day.  When an English ship is spotted on the horizon, cannon doors open, trouble starts brewing.