Feb 22, 2011

Covering Covers: Scratch Monkey - Charles Stross

Cover Artist: Gregory Manchess

Hot off the presses, Subterranean Press is offering a previously unpublished Charles Stross novel, Scratch Monkey, for what looks to be an extremely short time. Somehow or other, they acquired a very limited number of copies (the entire print run was 800 books) and Stross is a tremendously popular SF author. If you are interested in scoring yourself a copy, head over to Subterranean Press and order immediately. I wouldn't be posting this if I hadn't already guaranteed a copy of Manchess's fantastic artwork for my own bookshelf.

Regarding the book itself, I understand it to be one of Stross's earlier novels. I'll be interested to see how Stross's writing has evolved over the years although I'm a little apprehensive as to why the book wasn't published in the first place. Hopefully, it's a question of length and not one of quality. There's certainly no denying the Strossian characteristic of the summary:

Scratch Monkey is the 2011 Boskone Book by Boskone’s Guest of Honor Charles Stross. It contains his previously unpublished novel, Scratch Monkey, an essay about writing the novel (Scratching, and a second essay about a writer's view of publishing. The novel is set in the distant future, when humans have spread through the galaxy, physically and virtually. We are not alone; we have created a race of AIs, the Superbrights, to administer and expand the virtual side of our presence in the Milky Way. Oshi Adjani works for a Superbright, traveling to worlds where her Boss cannot go, and solving the problems he has set her. One success reveals a secret of the Superbrights, so the Boss forces her into one last, deadly mission, with her freedom as her reward for doing the impossible. The full-color dust jacket is by Gregory Manchess, the Boskone 48 Official Artist.
The aforementioned essay is comically titled "Scratching The Itch" and as a fully fledged bibliophile, I can tell you that this book promises to do just that. Exclusive content, limited print run, and gorgeous cover art? I'm just glad they didn't stick a three figure price tag on this guy. I've already ordered my copy. If you are legitimately interested, sooner is better than later.

Feb 20, 2011

Ever Wish You Could Pay Me To Go Jump In A Freezing Cold Lake?

Good news! Now you can.

[Author's Note: Please forgive the personal nature of this post. The only other time I will post on this topic is with proof of completion. Regular banal content will resume shortly]

This year I'm returning to the Polar Plunge circuit for the 2011 Chicago edition to raise money for The Special Olympics.

That splash is me, immediately regretting my decision.

The Special Olympics mission is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills and friendship with their families, other Special Olympics athletes and the community.

If you don't know what The Special Olympics is all about, they are essentially an organization whose primary goal is to provide arenas for children and adults with intellectual disabilities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in a world where they are frequently excluded for being "different". Besides the events themselves, they also promote understanding and respect for a demographic that is all too often marginalized or maltreated.


It's an organization that is very near and dear to my heart. My younger (and awesomer) brother Peter was born with Down Syndrome and he's enjoyed countless Special Olympics events over the years. He loves geeking around just like me, and while I disagree with him about the quality of Spiderman 3, I couldn't ask for a nicer brother. I'm really hoping he can come jump in with me this year.

I did the plunge two years ago on a balmy 42 F degree day (the water temp was 33 F), and I would need Neil Gaiman's literary expertise to properly illustrate exactly what that feels like. My best effort would be to imagine getting slapped in the face by an Eskimo with a frozen halibut who hasn't paid the heating bill because he spent all of his money on liquid nitrogen and Vanilla Ice tickets. On Hoth.

Yeah. That cold.

Then double that and add three. It's cold, mind numbingly so.

So when I end up curled in the fetal position at the bottom of my shower, your support will help me remember why I did it in the first place.

Hopefully my donation total will surpass the water bill.

If you want to contribute, you can sponsor my insanity here. You could also sponsor my wife (who committed to plunge if I raised over $500) here. No donation is too small and any amount will be appreciated.  If you don't, normal posts will resume tomorrow, and you can forget you ever read this.


Feb 18, 2011

Quick Thought of the Day

"I don't judge a book by its cover but a good cover will get me to judge a book"

Feb 17, 2011

My (Almost) Dinner With Ken Scholes

I jetted out of work today at a quarter to five with the intention of driving out to Schaumburg to participate in a little meet and eat with fantasy author Ken Scholes.

He's excited for pizza.

Now, I was looking forward to it. I've never really done the convention thing and "local" book signings always seem to be out of reach. (Note To Publicists: a book signing in Oak Brook, IL is not a book signing in Chicago.)

A two hour drive (each way) is not "local"

But when I went to retrieve my car, it apparently had gotten a head start. After a few frantic moments, my wife and I discovered that, fortunately, it hadn't been stolen. It had just broken THE CHICAGO CODE.

You see, after the snowpocalypse a few weeks back, the snow never melted. It just got pushed to the edge of the road, sharing the room that us Chicagoans use to park our vehicles. A fortnight and a few sixty degree days later, some of that snow has melted - apparently enough to free up a space between my tires and the curb. Even though I was parked in line with all the cars on my street, that curbside gap made us "road obstructions" and earned every car on the steet a trip to the local impound lot. Bear in mind, my car had been parked in the same spot for over a week: I didn't start to obstruct traffic until yesterday.

The orange color means it's full of vitamins.

So instead of an enjoyable evening spent conversing with one of my favorite authors over pizza and drinks, I journeyed to Lower Lower Lower Lower Wacker. For those of you familiar with Chicago, Wacker is the street next to the river. Lower Wacker is the street below that, with garage parking for high rise hotels. It's also where the car chase scenes for The Dark Knight were filmed. Lower Lower Wacker is the street below that, where hotels receive shipments of food in exchange for dumpsters full of refuse. At this point, the pigeon to pedestrian ratio is borderline incalculable.

He's was just trying to reach sunlight...

[As an aside, you should have a relatively simple way for pedestrians to get to a towing yard. For some reason, I can imagine a lot of people going there sans cars. Just a thought. Or you could space your stairways blocks apart with no discernible direction between them. Your call.]

I'm pretty sure James Cameron just made a movie about this.

Flash back to the pedestrian yeti, black with grime and weary with travel. One level below Lower Lower Lower Wacker is hell. The level below that houses the impound lot. I suspect Orpheus had an easier time with retrieving Eurydice.

How much? I thought Sisyphus had it bad.

As ridiculous as the whole situation was, I didn't take it out on the unfortunate minons. The employees at the impound facility didn't deem my car to be obstructing traffic, they didn't schedule the towing, nor did they tow the car itself. They're just doing their jobs in a city where not everyone has one. So I was polite and friendly, despite my irritation at missing my dinner with Scholes. I got my car in a relatively quick amount of time, probably about 45 minutes (only about 2 hours in DMV time) which is more than can be said about the divorcee whose driver's license didn't match her credit card, the middle-aged man whose credit card didn't have room for a $190 charge, or the probable illegal immigrant whose only form of ID expired in 1996.

The only thing worse than being here is working here.

At least my $170 towing charge (in addition to the $75 parking ticket x2) earned me a renewed respect for the relative financial security I'm fortunate to possess. There are a lot of people out there for whom getting a car towed would be much more than an inconvenient adventure.

Yeah, kind of like that.

So I didn't get to meet Mr. Scholes or return home with a signed book or two. I'm a bit disappointed but at least I gleaned a story out of it. There's no denying it was an interesting experience, albeit one I'm not keen to repeat.

How was your Thursday? Anyone make it to dinner with Ken?

Feb 14, 2011

Covering [Hypothetical] Covers: Behemoth - Scott Westerfeld.

Over on his blog, Scott Westerfeld is showing off the German cover of his latest book, Behemoth. Hidden behind the jump, is what the US cover would have looked like if vengeful demons had not possessed the art director over at Simon Pulse.
Cover Artist: Unkown.

Excuse me while I go print this out and Scalzi it to the edition I already have, which sadly looks like this:

Cover Artist: Unknown


If you don't understand my frustration, here is what the original Leviathan cover and the what-should-have-been cover to Behemoth would look like side by side.

Barking spiders, what were they thinking?

Feb 10, 2011

YetiStomper Picks for February

Yeah, yeah, it's late, I know. I blame it on the epic Thundersnowpocalypsageddon that ravaged my city last week. You better get reading, it's almost March.

King of the Crags - Stephen Deas

A Memory of Flames, Book 2 - Deas returns to his dragon centric world with the gorgeously covered King of the Crags. If you haven't read the first volume, The Adamantine Palace, imagine a stirfry of flying reptiles, political intrigue, and legendary prophecy covered in treacherously dark chocolate sauce. (February 1 from Roc)

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore - Benjamin Hale

Stand Alone Novel - This is one of the 2011 Debuts that I am most interested in. Now, I don't know a lot about the author but I do know that I rarely see a premise as intriguing (or as weird) as Mr. Hale's debut novel. Essentially, Bruno Littlemore is a fictional memoir written by the world's first chimpanzee to develop the capacity for speech. To make matters more bizarre, it's also a love story. (February 2 from Twelve)

Thirteen Years Later - Jasper Kent

The Danilov Quintet, Book 2 - It's 1825 and thirteen years (obviously) after the climactic events of Twelve, trouble has found Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov once again. For whatever reason, Russian history and blood-thirsty monsters seem to work well together - a fact that Jasper Kent takes full advantage of as he continues to expand the scope of his planned quintet. Kent is crafting an outstanding tale of epic proportion and I can't wait to see where this goes. (February 8 from Pyr)

The Heroes - Joe Abercrombie

Realm of The First Law, Book 5 - This is must read fantasy. Abercrombie's first trilogy challenged all preconceptions about what a fantasy trilogy should be. His follow up, Best Served Cold, returned to the same world with a vengeance, wreaking havoc on the idea of revenge. In his latest, Abercrombie takes on war itself, redefining what it really means to be a hero. While Abercrombie works within the boundaries instead of expanding them, his execution is flawless and I have never read a better action writer. Abercrombie is the reigning king of blood soaked fantasy - don't miss out.  (February 7 from Orbit)

Desert of Souls - Howard A. Jones

Dabir and Asim, Book 1 - After years of Western European overload, don't be surprised to see other cultural elements creep into your fantasy novels. While I don't have the numbers to back it up, I would posit that manuscripts featuring Arabic and Islamic influences probably didn't sell like Twilight rip-offs over the last decade. But just because publishers weren't buying them doesn't mean they weren't being written. As irrational avoidance gives way to acceptance again, a lot of these overlooked books are going to reemerge. One such book is Howard A. Jones's Desert of Souls. The first in a series of novels further expanding Dunne's shorter work, Desert of Souls features a pair of 8th century Arabic adventurers as they attempt to determine the fate of a lost city said to be destroyed by God himself. Think Arabian Nights as written by Arthur Conan Doyle. (February 15 from Thomas Dunne)

Midnight Riot - Ben Aaronovitch

Peter Grant, Book 1 - Ben Aaronovitch has done something which I didn't think possible - replaced Joe Abercrombie. Not as the reigning king of fantasy mind you, but as the alphabetical alpha (or double alpha as the case may be) of the science fiction and fantasy department. As such, Aaronovitch will likely be the first name greeting hungry eyes in search of new books and I wouldn't be suprised if the former Doctor Who becomes a fast favorite, particularly for fans of Harry Dresden or Felix Castor. Peter Grant, Aaronovitch's protagonist appears to be a melding of the two, combining the paranormal police portion of Dresden with the British flair and necrocommunication skills of Castor. Midnight Riot was also just published in the UK as Rivers of London and will soon be followed up by a sequel, Moon Over Soho. (February 1 from Del Rey)

YetiStomper Pick Of The Month: Normally a hard decision, this month's pick is simple - The Heroes. I don't mean to take anything away from any of the other titles; Joe Abercrombie's fifth book is just that good, not to mention the fact that the chapter entitled "Casualties" is the Platonic Ideal of how to write an action sequence. With memorable characters, tight plotting, and more than the recommended daily dose of witty banter, The Heroes is flawlessly executed fantasy.

YetiStomper Debut Of The Month: Despite only picking six books this month, three are actually debut novels. While the alternate history and Arab inspiration behind The Desert of Souls is intriguing and I'm always a sucker for paranormal procedurals like Midnight Riot, the premise behind The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is simply to unique to pass up. Add in Hale's literary accolades and you have a debut that is hard to pass up.

YetiStomper Cover Of The Month: Cover art for genre fiction is all too often riddled with stereotypes. Cloaked warriors wielding swords against fantastic beasts. Spaceships streaking across a strangely hued planet. Whatever the hell Baen is trying to do. And then there are the dragons, king of all cliched cover creatures. But even as traditional as they are, it's hard to pass up a cover as well executed as that of King of the Crags. I love the blue tones, the detail of the dragons, and the clean lines of the text treatment. Who says you can't reach the target audience and still stand out from the pack?

Anyway, as always, if you are interested in more details regarding any of the above books, just click on through the Amazon links. I'm more interested in telling you why I recommended them rather than simply what the books are about. Let me know if there is anything I may have missed in the comments. I'm guessing there is something I'm forgetting with only two books on the radar.

You can view previous installments of YetiStomper Picks here.

Feb 7, 2011

RIP Brian Jacques

Over the weekend, the world got a little less wonderous with the passing of Brian Jacques, bestselling fantasy author mostly known for his tales of Redwall Abbey. Brian passed away from a heart attack at the age of 71.
Personally, Jacques's work had a huge impact on my childhood and I doubt I'm the only child who explored the woods intent on stumbling upon his world of imaginary talking rodents. Some of my fondest memories are lazy summer days spent in the company of noble mice, vile rats, cunning foxes, and epic badgers and his words were one of the things that drew me into genre fiction.

I expect to have some more thoughts later on Jacques and the impact of his work but right now my thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. Brian Jacques was an amazing writer whose words captured the imaginations of millions of children, he will be missed.

Feb 3, 2011

Covering Covers: Flashback - Dan Simmons

Cover Artist: Unknown

This. Please.

Artists take note - this is a great cover. It's striking without being off-putting and simultaneously recognizable and mysterious. It attracts the right kind of attention, the kind that isn't accompanied by weird looks on the bus. Reagan Arthur has hit a home run, and based on the brief summary provided, I wouldn't be surprised if Dan Simmons has done the same.
The United States is near total collapse. But 87% of the population doesn't care: they're addicted to flashback, a drug that allows its users to re-experience the best moments of their lives. After ex-detective Nick Bottom's wife died in a car accident, he went under the flash to be with her; he's lost his job, his teenage son, and his livelihood as a result.

Nick may be a lost soul but he's still a good cop, so he is hired to investigate the murder of a top governmental advisor's son. This flashback-addict becomes the one man who may be able to change the course of an entire nation turning away from the future to live in the past.

A provocative novel set in a future that seems scarily possible, FLASHBACK proves why Dan Simmons is one of our most exciting and versatile writers.
Versatile...I guess that's one way to describe a genre author that was drafted into the "big leagues" of literature. Simmons has dabbled in niche markets with his last few books - it's only a matter of time before he gets the mainstream attention he deserves. Look for Flashback in the "respectable" section of the book store this July.

Feb 2, 2011

Yeti Review: Red Harvest - Joe Schreiber

In A Few Words: Disappointing in almost every way, the only thing scary about Joe Schreiber's Red Harvest is the fact that a major house considered it publishable.

-It's only 241 pages.

-Arguably unedited
-Repetitive plot ignores all of the inherent potential in the setup
-Entire plot threads do nothing but detract from the story

The Review: Brainless. Stumbling. Grotesque. Unrelenting. It's doubtful that Joe Schreiber was trying to be "meta" in writing his latest novel. At the same time, it's hard to ignore the similarities between Red Harvest and the single-minded zombie hordes contained within. The recipe behind Red Harvest is a standard one: an unexpected outbreak of an unknown pathogen results in a zombie menace from which the uninfected must escape. Yet even with the variety of spices found in Lucas's far, far away galaxy, it's about as palatable as a plateful of raw gray matter.

And it's certainly not the extra flavor that ruins the dish. Star Wars tie-in fiction has never claimed to be high art. Intended to sell first and entertain second, critical acclaim might not even be on the list of priorities. But even with lowered expectations, Red Harvest marks a new nadir for a franchise that has been slowly declining for over a decade.

Essentially, Schreiber's latest boils down to a repetitive sequence linked together more tenuously than the entrails of one of his victims. Wasting no time on character development, Schreiber quickly assembles his cast of paper-thin characters - Hestizo Trace (Jedi Botanist), Rojo Trace (Jedi brother and Liam Neeson wannabe), the Black Orchid (talking plant) and Darth Scabrous (generic bad guy) - before throwing them into the plot. After a brief setup and a little Force magic to introduce the zombie threat, Schreiber's writing soon devolves into little more than copy-and-paste carnage. The zombies surprise, attack, get "killed", are presumed dead, surprise again, infect someone, and are finally dismembered or eluded. It's splatterpunk at it's most gratuitous and it fails even at that.

The highest compliment I can pay to Red Harvest is that the first fifty or so pages are merely forgettable. Until page 53, on which Schreiber blatantly "borrows" [read "plagiarizes"] a key quote from 2009's action/revenge film Taken. Everything is downhill from there.
"Listen to me, Trace told him. I don't know who you are, but I am in possession of a very special set of skills. If you bring my sister back right now, unharmed, then I'll let you go. But if you don't, I promise you, I will track you down. I will find you. And I will make you pay." [pg. 53]

After this, it only gets harder to keep reading, and judging from the gradual decline in quality, the assigned editor might agree. That is, if an editor actually touched the manuscript after the outline phase. Based on the sheer number of awkward metaphors and continuity screw-ups, I wouldn't be suprised if they hadn't. And these aren't minor fanboy nitpicks about the number of fingers a particular alien has or the way that a character's motivation contradicts a single line of movie dialogue. These are blatant errors, the "Wait...What?" lines that force you to reread prose that in no way deserves it. At one point, a character slits his wrists in one scene and is alive and well in the next. At another, Schreiber apparently forgets which character bit another, temporarily reversing the vector/victim relationship. Maybe the editor assumed that he understood resuming a plot thread where it left off isn't optional, but Schreiber apparently likes to push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable narrative.

Even as egregious as these "hard" errors are, they are almost welcome in comparison to the softer ones; those of story direction, pacing and thematic structure. It should be simple - a lone Jedi Knight has to stay alive in the midst of a bloody battle between cut-throat Sith and bite-throat Zombies, relying on her wits and the self-interested nature of evil to survive. By turning them against each other, she just may escape the planet alive, possibly in the company of a redeemed soul or two. Throw in a few meditations on the corrupting nature of evil and power and a handful of unique set pieces and you should have a winner. Instead, the Sith students are written like Slytherin drop-outs, turning a batch of potential adversaries into a cadre of whining red shirts. Instead of a dynamic conflict that changes with the ratio of Sith to Zombies, Schreiber gives us the same encounter again and again with no direction or distinction.

Schreiber also missteps with the inclusion of the entire Rojo Trace subplot. Even without the unforgivable Taken reference, his character contributes little to the book and if anything detracts from his sister's character by implying that she is incapable of saving herself. Gender politics aside, his role is completely superfluous as further evidenced by the illogically rapid pace with which he moves through his portion of the story. In not quite three pages, Rojo manages to connect the dots between footage of getaway vehicle and the identity of the bounty hunter, the Sith Lord who hired him and the location of the Sith Academy through a sequence of coincidences that would leave the cast of CSI rolling their eyes. It's like an outline with transitions and there is no reason why Rojo wasn't red penned out of narrative existence.

The only fathomable excuse is that at a mere 241 pages, the editor couldn't cut anything and still justify the $27.00 price tag on the jacket. Or even worse, the manuscript was turned in at 400 pages and what went to print was the "good" stuff. Either way, the end result is pure and utter drek and the reason why tie-in fiction has the reputation it does today.

The scariest thing about Red Harvest? The fact that it sold enough copies to get on the New York Times Bestseller List.
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