Book Review: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential

Anthony Bourdain’s death hit me kinda hard.

I usually don’t get too torn up over celebrity deaths– they’re people, just like the rest of us, which means they’ll eventually die, just like the rest of us. Which … is something of a grim thought now that I type that out. I blame these short winter days.

In any case, I absolutely love Bourdain’s body of work. From the outside view, he had the best job in the world, getting to go to beautiful places and eat delicious food. But on top of that, Bourdain had a genuinely open mind, and a real desire to show other people some of the cool stuff he found during his travels. To think that someone with so much going for them, not to mention what he did for so many other people– ‘tragic’ seems to small a word for it.

But! I come not to bury Bourdain, but to praise him. As awhile back I snagged a copy of his first book, Kitchen Confidential. And now I’m finally getting around to reviewing it. Yaaaaay. (Fun fact– I initially snagged this book to have something to read on a plane ride, and it turned out the dude two seats down from me was reading the same edition. Go fig).

kitchen

He looks so young!

In any case, Kitchen Confidential is the book that put Bourdain on the scene and kickstarted his career as an author/travel TV guy. In turn, Kitchen Confidential is based on a 1999 New Yorker article, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.”

Equal parts memoir and tell-all expose about the resturant industry, Kitchen Confidential gives a behind the scenes look at just who is making your food. There’s a surprising amount of sex, drugs, and rock & roll in any restaurant’s kitchen, as most of the people who fall into cooking as a career literally cannot do anything else. Kitchen Confidential is full of oddball characters Bourdain dubs with nicknames like Bigfoot, Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown, or Beth the Grill Bitch.

Kitchen Confidential is essential reading for anyone in the restaurant industry– or anyone even thinking about it. I know I’m certainly not cut out for the gig; just reading the “Day in the Life” chapter (which a day in the life of a head chef, natch), was exhausting. Bourdain admits he’s prone to hyperbole, but I get the feeling he’s not exaggerating much here.

Kitchen Confidential is littered with ideas that Bourdain would return to again and again in his work, both in books and on TV. There’s the love of food and travel, of course– but also an open mindedness towards people and culture of all kinds, seeing as of how the average New York kitchen is staffed with immigrants from a half dozen countries. There are darker bits as well, as Bourdain gives hints to his own struggles with drug abuse and the depression that would eventually destroy him.

The problem with reviewing a good book is that there’s often not much to say about it, rather than “go read this!” But still, go read Kitchen Confidential. It’s a funny, humanistic work that’s equally capable of making you hungry or turning your stomach. So go, check it out– and then have dinner at some hole in the wall restaurant you’ve never visited before. It’s what Anthony would want you to do.

Advertisements

Book Review: Jim Butcher’s Brief Cases

There was a time when the release of a new Dresden Files novel meant I’d pick it up the hardback the day it came out.

Was.

I’m older and more cynical these days– and, well, while I will certainly read terrible and schlocky novels, but at least I’m a bit more self aware about it? I’ve been giving Butcher the side-eye for awhile now, ever since Skin Game. The kicker is, the weird conservative themes of “old stuff is better than new stuff!” and “sex is weird and scary” has been baked into the series since the beginning. I just started reading the series when I was too young and dumb to really notice. Still, I was in the mood to read some urban fantasy, and the library had Brief Cases, and here we are.

brief cases

Harry Dresden STILL doesn’t wear a hat. 

Brief Cases is an anthology, assembling a bunch of Dresden Files short stories that had been previously published in other Urban Fantasy collections over the years. If you’re not familiar with the Dresden Files, they’re a pretty influential Urban Fantasy series, centering around one Harry Dresden, wizard P.I. Though over the course of the 15+ books they’ve moved away from magic-noir pastiche to big sprawling fantasy adventures.

Some writers are masters of the short story, using the form to explore new ideas that might not warrant a whole novel. Asimov comes to mind, or Steven King. Butcher … isn’t quite on that level, but those two kind of set a high bar. A lot of the stories in this anthology are pretty formulaic: Harry Dresden butts up against some aspect of modern life (only with magic in it) and then winds up saving the day through the proper application of mayhem. Rinse and repeat.

Way I figured, the short-story format would either trim the various Dresden stories down enough that there wouldn’t be enough time for the weird conservatism … or the stories would just keep on being the same kind of problematic over and over again.

I’ll let you guess which way that went.

There’s some interesting stuff going on in Brief Cases, as several of the stories aren’t set from Harry Dresden’s perspective. Butcher takes the opportunity to get into the heads of other characters in the series, ranging from the supernaturally-informed crime boss of Chicago, or Harry’s apprentice, Molly (more on her later), or Harry’s dog, or … Butters.

Butters, for the record, is the polka-loving dork sidekick character who, in the span of the last two or three books, has acquired a magic skateboard, a hot redhead werewolf girlfriend, and a freakin’ holy lightsaber. He’s basically the GM’s little brother’s character in a World of Darkness game. Harry has gotten steadily more and more powered up over the course of the series, so I figure Butcher turned to Butters for the obligatory “nerd wish fufillment” character. I groaned when I found out there was a Butters story in Brief Cases, but … turns out, it didn’t make me want to throw the book across the damn room.

–because a couple of other stories did it first.

See, there are two stories centering on Dresden’s apprentice, Molly. And giving sidekick characters room to shine is usually ripe for storytelling. Except … Molly is like really hot you guys, and Butcher keeps on fixating on that aspect of her character.

For example, the first Molly story starts with her in the shower, washing someone else’s blood off of herself after a monster hunt gone bad. Kay. Molly then goes on to explicitly state she’s not as good at wizarding as Harry Dresden. Which … well, feelings of inadequacy can leave room for character development, sure. It’s just that, paragraphs later, Molly (who’s been living on the streets as a magic vigilante) makes it a point to shave her legs.

Huh.

Now, I’m not a woman, nor am I covered in blood, but … priorities?

And it gets worse.

Because it turns out that Molly has gotta go rescue somebody from some dark elves, and one option that’s bandied about is that Molly could just bang all of the dark elves so they’d set their prisoner free. HUH. Now, the story doesn’t go this route, but it’s still there. Heck, it almost would’ve been better if the story did go in that direction, as then it’d at least be honest porn, I guess?

And then, in the heist-ish infiltration mission, Molly makes it a point to explain to her accomplices (including Butters’ hot redhead werewolf girlfriend) the power of The Rack. It’s mostly just a tongue in cheek excuse to make Star Wars jokes about boobs. Yuuuuup. It’s frankly unnecessary to what could otherwise be a fun little Charlie’s Angels-type romp.

AND IT GETS WORSE.

So the second Molly story is set a couple of years/books after the first one. Along the way, Molly got a powerup to becoming the Winter Maiden of the Fae Court for … reasons I honestly can’t be arsed to remember. Which means she gets a bunch of rockin’ ice magic … as well as a super enhanced libido. Kaaaaay. And, after a fight with some squid-faced Lovecraft-ripoff cultists, it’s then revealed that, even as horny as Molly is, she literally can’t get laid, because that would push her from “Maiden” to “Mother” and then the whole Fae court would get thrown out of whack. So if Molly does get hot n’ heavy with somebody, she hulks out into a literal monster and mauls the dude she’s with.

Which … well, naturally brings up questions about non procreative sex, or any number of creative alternatives … which Butcher promptly ignores because in the Dresden Files, sex is scary and dangerous so wizards should use abstinence-only sex ed. Even (and especially) when the very nature of magic is swirling around to turn the hot blonde character into the literal embodiment of the virgin/whore dichotomy.

Yuuuuup.

In fairness, things aren’t all bad? As there are a couple of stories in Brief Cases that focus on the things that make the Dresden Files unique: the mixing of modern life and weird magic stuff. So there’s a story where Harry gets hired to lift the Billy Goat Curse from the Cubs, and a story where Harry gets called into jury duty. Butcher even gets into some deeper themes (at least deeper than the typical slam-bang adventures) in some of the stories, ranging from bullying to parenthood.

The stories collected in Brief Cases have publication dates ranging from 2010 all the way up to 2018. If I were more ambitious, I’d compare the stories’ publication dates to that of the main books, and work out some kind of timeline of just how weird Butcher gets with each passing year. What’s interesting, however, is that the more recent stories are less problematic, which … well, isn’t a high bar, but still. The first story in the anthology (published in 2017) is easily the best, as it’s a sort of prequel, following a lady wizard-cop in the old west who teams up wtih Wyatt Earp to fight necromancers. And the story never even talks about her boobs! Go figure.

It’s enough to make me wonder if Butcher’s just tired of writing Dresden Files books (seriously, he’s been doing this since 2000), and is just chomping at the bit to do something, anything, that’s different. It’s not quite enough to make me forgive the series’ myriad other flaws, however. I’m curious if the next “proper” Dresden Files novel is gonna have the same drooling, adolescent view of women that’s been the norm for the last fifteen books. Which … when you put it that way, seems more likely than not.

But yeah. There are a couple of fun ideas hidden in Brief Cases, but Butcher’s continual reversions to form (most notably in the two Molly stories) make it fairly disappointing overall. There are a couple of good stories hidden in there, but I really can’t recommend Brief Cases to anyone but the hardest-core of Dresden Files fans. And if you’re that into the series, you’ve probably read a bunch of them already.

Book review: Jy Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven

I guess I’m officially on board with Tor’s ‘ebook of the month’ thing. Because, well. Free books! Good free books, even! Isn’t that nice?

So yeah. November’s offering was Jy Yang’s The Black Tides of Heaven. I didn’t know much about the book going in, though a friend of mine recommended it pretty highly. But hey, Asian-themed fantasy is always fun (I will not shut up about Fonda Lee’s Jade City, for the record. You guys should go read it).

tides

The Black Tides of Heaven centers on twin siblings Akeha and Mokoya, children of the Protector, who’s basically the Empress of the nation the book takes place in. This alone would be enough to make their lives interesting– but on top of that, Mokoya sees magical visions of the future, which makes her an invaluable tool to keep her mother in power.

There’s a lot going on in this novella. For one, in the world of The Black Tides of Heaven, children don’t have any gender until they choose to be “confirmed” as male or female. Playing around with gender is a pretty common thing in sci-fi– I mean, there’s The Left Hand of Darkness, or Commitment Hour, or any number of other works that I haven’t even heard of yet. However, Yang (who identifies as genderqueer) puts a more realistic spin on things. In books like LeGuin’s or Gardner’s, the gender-bending is the result of super advanced, hand-wavey technology that’s done more or less in an instant. In contrast, Yang makes confirmation an ongoing process- there’s mention of compression bandages, surgical procedures, and even “confirmation medicine.” Of course, the aforementioned doctors have access to magic, which makes things considerably easier …

Sidenote: Yang names the magic system “The Slack,” for the record. It makes sense, given it focuses on the connection between various things … but at the same time it also makes me want to call magic-users “Slackers.” Which Yang does not, for the record, but still.

redlight

There are no ska bands in The Black Tides of Heaven, for the record. 

But yeah. The matter of choosing one’s gender in The Black Tide of Heaven is thematically parallel to Mokoya’s gift of prophecy and the ensuing questions of predestination … which Yang doesn’t really go into. Instead, The Black Tides of Heaven focuses on Akeha as he flees from the oppressive palace of his mother to fall in with the Machinist’s rebellion, as we’re gonna get some pretty standard “Technology vs. Magic” stuff, apparently–

–only that gets glossed over as well. Y’see, the book is written in several sections, each one several years after the previous. So we’re left with just fleeting glimpses of adventure or romance (and even a love triangle) as the book goes on. And then Yang brings in literal magical nuclear weapons– which … aren’t really used or explored in any depth. So I guess the book’s about the relationship between Akeha, Mokoya, and their mother? Maybe? Only that just gets kind of wrapped up matter-of-factly by the end, too.

The Black Tide of Heaven is interesting in that it’s a weird book with a lot of ideas– really, too many ideas in too few pages. It’s well written, but it feels incomplete. Yang also wrote a novella about Mokoya, The Red Threads of Fortune, but reading the blurb about it on Tor’s website makes it sound more like a sequel than a proper companion volume. Which is kind of a shame, as on paper, I should love a book set in a vaguely Chinese setting where people fight with weirdo kung-fu magic and have pet velociraptors (oh yeah, there are dinosaurs, I forgot to mention that). There’s just not enough room in The Black Tide of Heaven to really do everything it sets out to do. In comparison, one could look at A Shadow In Summer, which isn’t quite as kitchen sink-y as The Black Tide of Heaven, but has enough room to deal with its heavy subject matter.

So yeah, I … guess it’s a testament to Yang’s writing that I want to read more of it? Even though I’m a bit leery, as reading the blurb to The Red Threads of Fortune makes it sound super rad (Mokoya uses a pack of velociraptors to hunt giant flying snakes!) but I have the feeling it’ll wind up being a bit unsatisfying like this book was.

Still might read it anyway, even though I’m calling it now that there won’t be enough dinosaur action.

Book Review: Fearless, by Jack Campbell

Fearless is the second book of Jack Campbell’s “Lost Fleet” series– I read the first one, Dauntless some years ago, back before I had this blog going. It was okay enough, even if it didn’t leave a huge impression on me. And so, when I stumbled across a bunch of Campbell books at a used book fair, well, here we go. Went ahead and dropped the buck on the second one– but left the others in the bin. Terrible, I know.

fearless

The Lost Fleet series center on Captain John “Black Jack” Geary, your typical square-jawed space captain type. After his ship gets destroyed in a space battle, Geary goes into stasis in an escape pod … for a hundred years. In the century since his “death,” Geary has been elevated to the status of a legend– which is the sort of thing that can be understandably inconvenient. Especially when the fleet’s admiral is killed in a bad-guy ambush, and so command falls to Geary, since he’s the most senior officer present. And so, Geary must lead the titular lost fleet the thousands of light years back home. So it’s basically Captain America plus Honor Harrington with a little bit of Battlestar Galactica thrown in. Got it.

The universe of The Lost Fleet is more nuanced than that of the so-called “Honorverse,” but only slightly. Y’see, one of the conceits of the setting is that, after a hundred years of intergalactic war, all the smart officers have died horrible deaths, and so what passes for strategy boils down to LEEEEEROY JENKINS. Geary, understandably, is horrified at this, and so, by re-introducing military discipline and tactics like “maybe let’s not charge at the enemy right off the bat,” he becomes the most dangerous fleet commander in the galaxy. At least, when his subordinate officers listen to him. There are more than a few “traditionalists” who chafe under Geary’s command– at which point they inevitably charge off and get shot to bits by the bad guys. It’s not quite as stark as the “competence as morality” thing in the Honor Harrington novels, but the stupid is laid on pretty thick. Which is entirely the point, but still.

Surprisingly enough, Fearless ranks pretty low on Mil-SF Bingo. Check it out!

MIL BINGO FEARLES

Seriously, Geary doesn’t even punch anybody by the end of the book. What’s up with that?

A lot of this comes Fearless’ scope. Instead of dealing with the politics behind the big space wars of a broader Mil-SF book, or the actions of a tight-knit group of adventurers you’d see in a proper space opera, Fearless is all about how Geary handles his fleet in big, solar-system spanning engagements where they have to worry about inertia and acceleration and communication delay limited by the speed of light. Heck, the cover lies to you, ’cause Geary never even picks up a minigun in the whole dang book.

The tighter scope is both good and bad. On the one hand, the book never gets bogged down in poorly thought out politics. (Though it’s worth noting that the Syndics, the series’ bad guys, are more hyper-capitalist evil than weird-liberal-evil, which is nice). Campbell served in the Navy, and he applies his knowledge of shipboard life and military tactics to the book very well. This said … well, there’s honestly not much happening beyond the space battles. Or, well, there is, as Geary grapples with his legacy and tries to keep his more rebellious officers in check … but I couldn’t help but expect more from the book.

Don’t get me wrong, the space battles are quite good, and there’s some neat stuff going on in them, but … that’s it. There are a few hints as to larger scope stuff for the rest of the series, but my basic wikipedia-ing has told me that it takes Geary six(!) books before he gets his fleet back home, at which point he turns around and starts fighting aliens for another half-dozen books, and … uh, yeah. I guess I don’t quite see how Campbell can keep things fresh over so many novels. Again, I’ve gotta compare the Lost Fleet series to David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels, because they’re both about big naval-ish fleet action. Weber’s books follow a logical progression– Harrington starts commanding one ship, then a handful of ships in a task force in the second book, a large fleet in the third– and that’s as far as I’ve read, ’cause I hear the later ones aren’t as good. Whereas, in Fearless, Geary and his fleet are slightly closer to home by the end of the book, with a few vague thoughts on what’s going on elsewhere in the universe, but … that’s it. It’s less “The Empire Strikes Back” and more “Early to Mid Season Filler episode of DS9.”

But hey, sometimes you just wanna read about spaceships shooting at each other, and that’s certainly what Campbell likes to write about. I might even go on to read the other books in the series, though I’m also inclined to skip a couple of ’em to get to the parts where stuff is, y’know, happening.

Book Review: How to Invent Everything

If you and your friends are cool (read: nerdy) enough, there are certain topics of conversation that will inevitably come up. “What would you do in a zombie apocalypse?” is probably the most common one, but just a little ways behind it is “what would you do with a time machine?” which in turn leads to “what would you do if your time machine broke (and/or The Doctor ditched you) and you wound up trapped in the past for the rest of your life?”

For that last one, Ryan North’s got you covered.

invent

The conceit of How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler is right there in the title. The book is written as a manual for the FC3000 rental-market time machine. After a brief FAQ on the mechanics of time travel (changing the past creates a branching, alternate timeline separate from your own, so you can’t Grandfather Paradox yourself or anything) the manual notes that the FC3000 can’t be repaired if it breaks, so you’re stranded in time. Oops.

Thankfully, you’re not entirely screwed, as the rest of the book acts as a “cheat sheet” on how to rebuild civilization from scratch. It details everything from abstract knowledge like inventing language and mathematics, to more practical stuff like growing crops and making beer, up to more industrial knowledge like making steel and internal combustion engines.

Ever since Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (itself something of a parody of ‘lost island’ literature of the time), there’s been a stock plotline for ‘marooned-in-time’ stories. You probably know the gist of it already: get yourself nearly executed by the primitive and superstitious people of the time period, then impress them with some feat of derring do and/or demonstration of future knowledge (predicting an eclipse is a popular one), and then use your superior technological insight to defeat whatever the problem of the day is, usually through the invention of gunpowder. Also the hero may get to make out with a princess at some point, too.

North takes a far different approach in How to Invent Everything. Instead of the vaguely colonialist implications of a ‘traditional’ time travel story, North takes a more optimistic approach. There’s no formula for gunpowder, for example– instead, North focuses on how deceptively simple modern technology could be used to improve the quality of life for a whole civilization. Something so simple a a birthing incubator (literally a warm box to put a baby in) has the potential of increasing an infant’s chances of survival by one third. It’s a deceptively simple thing that wasn’t used in medicine until 1857– even though agricultural incubators for poultry & eggs had been used (in one way or another) for thousands of years prior.

North swings between a sense of snarky frustration and a genuine appreciation for human ingenuity throughout the book. On the one hand, it took humanity ’til 1200 CE to invent buttons, but on the other, North often marvels at all the cool stuff humanity has come up with over the years (like, y’know, civilization) and highlights the opportunity for the marooned time traveler to improve things for humanity as a whole.

Of course, it’s somewhat hard to condense the whole of human civilization into four hundred pages or so. Entire libraries have been written on any given subject covered in How to Invent Everything, so a lot of stuff gets fairly abstracted. More diagrams would’ve been nice– particularly on more complex devices such as batteries, generators, and the Pelton turbine. Though while the practical knowledge may be a bit shallow in places, How To Invent Everything incidentally has a use for the non time traveler. It’s a breezy, approachable (if not always chronological) history of human technology, listing out some of the basic underpinnings of how and when certain things were invented, and how they’ve influenced us today.

Oh, and as a side bonus, I supported this book via Kickstarter, which means that I got a rad time-traveler’s bandanna as well. It’s understandably less comprehensive than the book itself, but hey, it’s still better than nothing. I may have to put together a time traveler outfit for the next con I wind up going to.

bandanna

So yeah, I don’t envision myself getting warped through time anytime soon, but How To Invent Everything is well worth keeping on your bookshelf. It’s a fun and educational bit of pop-science–

–which you might be glad to have around. Y’know. Just in case.

Book Review: L.E. Hall’s Katamari Damacy

Quick, complete the following song lyric!

“Na, na na na na na na … “

A) Hey Jude

B) BATMAN!

C) Katamari Damacyyyyyy.

If you picked “C,” congratulations! You are a SUPER NERD. And also you’ll probably want to read Katamari Damacy.

katamari

Published by Boss Fight Books, L.E. Hall’s Katamari Damacy is about the 2004 PS2 game, Katamari Damacy. If you haven’t played Katamari Damacy, well … you should probably fix that. Whimsical and surreal, it’s a game that really defies genre. You don’t shoot anything, or race anyone, or even jump on turtles. Instead, the point of Katamari Damacy is to roll a ball (called a katamari) over various objects in order to build up more mass, which lets you roll up bigger objects, and so on and so forth. Here’s a video that shows it better than I can describe.

A lot of ink (and exponentially more computer bandwith) has been spilled, debating “are video games art?” And, well, as much as literature, cinema, or painting, it’s become increasingly clear that video games are a medium. A new, exciting medium, that is still finding its own legs. In Katamari Damacy, L.E. Hall describes the production and history of a game that can absolutely be counted as ‘art.’ Heck, Katamari Damacy is even included in the Museum Modern of Art’s video game collection (alongside other works ranging from Myst to Street Fighter II to Dwarf Fortress), so that’s how you know it’s official.

Where many modern releases are huge, sprawling affairs, with hundreds of people working on delivering a shinier incarnation of an established genre or franchise, Katamari Damacy’s uniqueness stems from the man behind it, Keita Takahashi. Trained as a sculptor, Takahashi brought a new perspective to video game production, which meant that Katamari Damacy is truly something new in the pantheon of video games.

Hall does well in telling the story of Katamari Damacy’s production, reception, and eventual legacy. It’s a neat, well-researched peek into the workings of a Japanese video game company (at least in the early 2000’s). Furthermore, L.E. Hall provides a lot of context for various quirks of the game that might just be written off as “Japan is weird” by an audience that didn’t know any better. For example, the King of All Cosmos is based heavily on a sort of Japanese drag stereotype from Japanese television, remixed to show him in a position of heterosexual authority while still wearing tights and a rainbow cape.

Boss Fight Books tend to fall on a spectrum. Some of them are personal stories, where the author draws on their own memories and connections to a particular game, viewing it through that lens. Others are more objective, merely laying out the history and themes of a given game. Katamari Damacy falls on the latter spectrum– I’m not sure if Hall even uses the word “I” in the main text outside of interview quotes. Thankfully, the tale of Katamari Damacy is hardly dry, so Katamari Damacy is still an engrossing read.

So, if you dig quirky video games and/or how they can be viewed as capital-A Art, Katamari Damacy is well worth a read. It’ll definitely make you want to go play some Katamari Damacy, too, so that’s probably a good sign.

… I’m gonna have that theme song stuck in my head all week now.

Book Review: The Lord of Castle Black, by Steven Brust

With October (and therefore Hallowread) past, it’s time to switch from random horror novels to, well, random other-genre novels. Which brings us to The Lord of Castle Black. Frustratingly enough, I found the first volume of the trilogy, The Paths of the Dead, and the third one, Sethra Lavode, in the same dollar-bin … but it took me years to find that second book, which I spent like FOUR dollars on. (Which is totally worth it, I will note). But hey, now that I’ve got the full set, we can get things going!

“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” as the old cliche goes. It’s a piece of advice I’ve ignored many a time, as I found myself drawn in by some surreal or outrageous bit of artwork. (Quite often on a Baen novel, but that’s neither here nor there). For The Lord of Castle Black, however, that old adage is very, very true. As The Lord of Castle Black is an absolutely wonderful book … with an absolutely terrible cover.

castleblack

“Shouldn’t I at least have some chainmail bikini girls hanging around? Conan would have chainmail bikini girls hanging around.”

Technically, the cover art here is accurate. But it’s boring.  I mean, that is the titular Lord of Castle Black on the cover. Just kind of … sitting there. With a sword. Looking bored. And that’s it. I can only presume the artist got the assignment on a Friday morning and just hammered it out real quick because he was about to go on vacation or something.

Which is a damned shame, as The Lord of Castle Black is a brilliant novel. Or, well, part of a brilliant novel. As it’s technically the second volume of a larger work called The Viscount of Adrilankha. At least, that’s the gimmick.

Y’see, The Lord of Castle Black is written in the style of Alexandre Dumas, to the point where there are several character-to-character analogues between Brust’s novel and The Three Musketeers. Tazendra, who’s basically Porthos as a lady-wizard, is my favorite, for the record. The conceit in the series is that The Viscount of Adrilankha is an in-universe text, serving as a pop-history story that is also a prequel to Steven Brust’s other (notably grittier) fantasy novels. It’s convoluted, yes– but intentionally so, and that’s part of the fun.

The Lord of Castle Black (and really The Viscount of Adrilankha) is a sprawling fantasy adventure, detailing an Empress reclaiming her birthright in an empire torn by civil war and magical disaster. It’s got the sorceresses and warlocks and floating castles of a Big Ongoing Fantasy Series, combined with the duels and secret affairs and general wit of a proper Swashbuckling romp. A great deal of the book is devoted to the ninth (or tenth, depending on who you ask) Battle of Dzur Mountain, in which the Empress’ fledgling forces (led by the D’Artagnan analogue, naturally) defend themselves from the much larger armies of the pretender to the throne.

The stakes are high, and the cast is huge– but at the same time Brust tells the story in a breezy, rollicking manner which is quite often laugh-out-loud funny. The verbose chapter titles themselves can be great gags in their own right, and Brust never lets a witty quip go unsaid (or, er, unwritten). Think something along the politicking complexity of Game of Thrones … only without the swearing and incest and pessimism.

While I enjoyed every page of The Lord of Castle Black, I honestly couldn’t recommend it to a first-time reader. Things jump right into the swing of it, with the book starting on “Chapter the Thirty-Fifth.” You really should read The Paths of the Dead before reading The Lord of Castle Black … but really, you need to read Five Hundred Years Later before that, which really needs one to read The Phoenix Guards to really start from the beginning.

These days, I tend to stay away from super-long series, but in this case I will heartily make an exception. (Plus, well, five normal-sized novels is a lot more manageable than eleven of Robert Jordan’s door-stoppers, but I digress). So! If swashbuckling elves in fancy hats sounds like your cup of tea, go nab a copy of The Phoenix Guards, and then enjoy watching the characters grow over the course of several more witty, entertaining adventures.

As for me, I’ve got a copy of the final book in the series, Sethra Lavode, laying around, so I’ll probably be getting to that sooner rather than later. I probably won’t have to keep referring to the cast of characters chart at the beginning of the book that way.

Hallowread ’18, Part 6! Grady Hendrix’s We Sold Our Souls

Heavy Metal is the only kind of music in which it’s acceptable, if not expected, to write songs about dragons.

For this reason alone, you could say Heavy Metal is the nerdiest of music genres, but there’s more to it than that. The complexity and skill in a lot of heavy metal songs can appeal to certain parts of the geek-brain, and on top of that, there are dozens of sub-genres and sub-sub genres under the “Metal” banner that there’s always stuff for nerds to quibble over. Thrash Metal is different from Power Metal which is different from Death Metal which is different from Doom Metal and so on, ad infinitum.

souls

Which brings us to the most Metal of books I’ve read this year, Grady Hendrix’s We Sold Our Souls. Hendrix knows his way around the horror genre better than anybody– last year’s Paperbacks From Hell is an essential read for fans of paperback horror. In We Sold Our Souls, Hendrix builds on the sub-sub-genre of 80’s era Satanism-Music-Scare Horror Fiction (it’s a thing) and really makes it his own.

Sidenote, while I will heartily encourage you to read We Sold Our Souls in any means you can get it, I really, really recommend you pick up a physical copy. The hardback is a wonderful piece of work– I mean, just look at the black-trimmed pages here. Appropriately metal.

IMG_1267

And if that wasn’t enough, if you look inside the dust cover, you get backwards song lyrics! Even better!

IMG_1268

We Sold Our Souls centers on Kris Pulaski, formerly the tough-as-nails lead guitarist for 90’s metal act Durt Wurk (I forget how to do umlauts in this word processor so just pretend they’re there). She’s currently a night manager at a Best Western, as her musical career collapsed once Durt Wurk’s lead singer (and Kris’ former best friend) sold out to create Nu-Metal super-act, Koffin. (You can tell Terry’s evil ’cause of the Nu-Metal thing). When Terry announces Koffin is going on one last tour, Kris digs her guitar out of the basement and sets on a cross-country trek to confront Terry and find out just what the hell happened all those years ago.

Of course, since this is a horror novel, things get much darker from there. The title of We Sold Our Souls comes out to be very, very literal, and soon Kris finds herself the victim of an enormous otherworldly conspiracy. On the surface, the ‘getting the band back together’ aspect of We Sold Our Souls kind of reminded me of that of Meddling Kids— but Hendrix soon takes a far grimmer and more unpredictable take with the book. The whole thing is a roller coaster ride, as every time it seems Kris is back on track, Hendrix yanks the rug out from the reader with a new plot twist or betrayal. It’s honestly a little exhausting, to the point where I only read a couple chapters at a time (at least until I got to the final act, which barreled downhill to an appropriately metal finale).

We Sold Our Souls is a horror novel, and it does feature unknowable demons and scenes of gory murder. These face rippings are fairly rare, however– which makes them hit all the harder when they do. The real horror of We Sold Our Souls is in its scathing portrait of modern society. Hendrix depicts banal, strip-mall, rust-belt despair unflinchingly, in a way that hits a lot harder than a story about a haunted guitar ever could.

It’s no coincidence that We Sold Our Souls has two female viewpoint characters– Kris, and a young (and broke) Koffin superfan named Melanie. Hendrix mines the simple, everyday horror of something so simple as a woman walking across a parking lot by herself. Bleak, harrowing stuff– though it serves to make Kris’ return to ax-wielding form even more triumphant.

Music runs through the soul of We Sold Our Souls. I mean, it is a heavy metal horror novel, after all. Hendrix highlights the appeal of metal to weirdos and outcasts– but he doesn’t just stop there. Hendrix touches on music as a whole, and takes special care to highlight metal’s origins in country & blues. There’s even a really great (and unexpected) scene featuring Kris & Melanie bonding over Dolly Parton.

You don’t have to know the difference between Dethklok and Sabaton to enjoy We Sold Our Souls (but at least being down with Black Sabbath probably helps). It’s a hard-hitting, hard-rocking, mosh-pit of a novel, definitely worth your time.

Hallowread ’18, Part 5! Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero

Scooby Doo is one of the most successful (or at least most enduring) cartoon franchises out there. One might even call it a “cultural institution” depending on how pretentious you’re feeling. Whatever term you use, Scooby Doo has cast a long shadow over pop culture for the last couple decades, to the point where it gets name dropped in just about anything involving teenagers and/or monsters. I mean, heck, Buffy and her friends referred to themselves as “Scoobies,” but that show was always pretty self aware.

With that in mind, I’m kind of surprised I haven’t stumbled across more Scooby Doo references in books– well, that is until I stumbled across Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids. As one can imagine from the title, Meddling Kids wears its influences on its sleeve, from the title, to the oft-mentioned Zoinx river that runs near the town in which the action takes place, to probably a bunch of other references I missed in my casual reading.

meddling

There are a lot of easy jokes to be made about Scooby Doo: Velma’s a lesbian, Shaggy is like, totally stoned man, and who the hell wears an ascot anyway? Thankfully, Cantero goes a little bit deeper than that. Not much deeper, but at least there’s more to Meddling Kids than the cheapest gags.

Meddling Kids centers on the Blyton Summer Detective Club– or, well, what’s left of them. See, back in 1977, the quartet of kids (and their non-talking dog) stumbled across … something. It was supposed to be just a guy in a mask, but what they found left them shaken. Thirteen years later, they’re not in good shape. Peter (the leader) died of an overdose. Kerri, (the brains and the hot one) is an alcoholic, Andy (the tomboy) is wanted in a couple of states, and Nate (the, uh … other one) is in an insane asylum, where he hallucinates Peter’s ghost. So, y’know, they’re not in a good place.

And so, in 1990, Andy gets the gang (or what’s left of them) back together to return to Blyton Hills and find out what really happened way back when. Sleuthing (and mayhem) ensues. Especially when it comes out that Nate found The Necromonicon up in the attic of the obligatory creepy mansion. Oh, and there’s also a race of horrible monster-things lurking beneath the lake, along with an ancient slumbering god.

Yep. It’s Scooby Doo meets H.P. Lovecraft. Heck of a mashup, that. Though I feel I must note that this crossover’s been done before.

By Scooby Doo.

fred and cthulhu.png

Get ‘im, Fred!

Scooby Doo: Mystery Inc was the 2010 incarnation of the franchise– and arguably its best. It was a very self aware show, with metaplot and references aplenty. I mean, in addition to doing a Lovecraft episode, Mystery Inc also did a ska episode, a riff on the Saw movies, and even a loving tribute to the oldschool kaiju flick, War of the Gargantuas. And that’s just the highlights I remember off the top of my head. It’s really the best Scooby Doo show ever and you really need to go watch it. (And now I want to re-watch it, but I digress).

But hey! Meddling Kids has more to it than an off-kilter crossover. I mean, it deals with the PTSD that ensues when otherwise innocent kid-detectives find themselves confronted with mind-shattering occult horror, where the ghosts and monsters are real–

Oh wait, Scooby Doo did that too.

scooby super

The Scooby Doo crossover is the only Supernatural episode I’ve ever watched, for the record.

To be fair, the Supernatural/Scooby Doo episode came out in 2018, well after the publication of Meddling Kids. So I can’t fault Cantero that. What I can fault Cantero for, however, is that despite the book supposedly being set in 1990, the characters read more like they’re modern-day pop culture nerds. It’s a minor thing, but it’s really jarring.

For example, there’s a point where Andy uses the word “kawaii” to describe Kerri’s hair … except I’m pretty sure the word didn’t enter the common parlance until the dawn of the internet. Andy doesn’t even have the excuse of being a VHS-era otaku, either. Or, for more defined anachronisms, there’s a point where somebody talks about how the bad guys always attack Jackie Chan one at a time … even though Jackie Chan didn’t really become well known or popular in the U.S. ’til the release of Rumble in the Bronx in 1995. Again, you could argue that one of the characters just watched a bootleg of Police Story or some other classics at some point (even though there’s no indication of this). But arguably the worst example of this is the point where somebody makes a quip about Captain Planet, and how Heart is a shitty superpower. But here’s the thing: Captain Planet didn’t premiere ’til September of 1990 (and it hardly seems like something a bunch of PTSD-addled twentysomethings would watch).

Meddling Kids is supposed to take place in April of 1990.

Am I being overly nitpicky? Maybe. But the thing is, I was able to look these facts up with the most basic of Google-ing. That Cantero didn’t do such easy research just seems lazy and badly edited. It’s almost like Cantero wrote Meddling Kids intending to set it in the modern day, only to dial the timeline back to make it more of a direct Scooby Doo riff.

Complain as I may, Meddling Kids is a fun, serviceable adventure. Though even then, it wasn’t quite the best fit for a Hallowread, er, read, because it feels a little toothless. Oh sure, there’s plenty of swearing, and dozens upon dozens of bootleg Deep Ones get shot and mangled and dismembered by the surprisingly badass former-kid detectives … but at the same time, there aren’t many human victims on the other side of things. Like, spooky skeletons to stumble across? Sure. But Meddling Kids never uses the proper Horror tropes of introducing some rando just so they can be messily dismembered by the monster of the week. Of course, I may be a little biased, having just read the gory, giddy, and glorious mayhem that is The Wolf’s Hour.

All and all, Meddling Kids is kind of like, well, a Saturday morning cartoon. Or maybe a Saturday evening cartoon– something shown on Adult Swim. If you can get past the anachronistic tone, and if you’re not expecting anything too deep or too horriffic, Meddling Kids is a fun little trip. It’s fun and fast paced– creepy, but not too creepy, and every so often there’s a rollicking action scene where a bunch of greebly monsters get dismembered. Oh, and there’s even a bit of lesbian romance in there too, so bonus.

Guess Cantero had to make the Velma joke after all.

Hallowread ’18, Part 4! The Wolf’s Hour, by Robert R. McCammon

What if Captain America was a werewolf?

Capwolf-2

That was a rhetorical question!

Incidentally, The Wolf’s Hour was published in 1989, while the Captain America storyline pictured above was published in 1992. Could the guys at Marvel been influenced by this obscure Robert R. McCammon novel?

Probably not. As Michael Gallantin, the werewolf commando protagonist of The Wolf’s Hour is a bit more akin to James Bond; he speaks several languages, drives fancy cars, and sleeps with beautiful women. Unlike James Bond, however, Gallantin is also a werewolf. A werewolf who kills a lot of nazis.

wolfhour

Hell. Yes.

This is actually a re-read for me, as I first read The Wolf’s Hour back when I was a kid. I’m fairly certain I was too young to read it, and found the book someplace it probably shouldn’t have been. Like, I’m pretty sure the sci-fi section (well, more of a sci-fi shelf) at my old high school library was stocked solely with random cast-offs donated by some alumni or something.

So yeah, The Wolf’s Hour is a genre mash-up of a horror novel with a WWII commando thriller. It’s got everything you’d expect from a pulpy WWII thriller: evil nazis, brutish henchmen, death traps, doomsday weapons, femme-fatale spies, and so on. On top of that, as a horror novel, the book also features ludicrous and over-the-top violence. People get shot, stabbed, werewolf-mauled, exploded, thrown into spinning propellers, melted, run over by trains, and so on. A lot of these horror victims are nazis, though, so you don’t need to feel bad about it.

Oh, The Wolf’s Hour isn’t just violent– it’s got sex, too! For the first two thirds of the novel, there’s at least one sex scene per section, because Gallantin is super sexy, you know. Why should vampires get to be the sexy monsters, huh? Though the book wasn’t quite as explicit as I remember it being … but I may be saying that just ’cause I’ve been on the internet too long. Really, the sex scenes come off as something you might see in a certain kind of romance novel, balancing that fine line between purple prose and outright boning.

One interesting note about The Wolf’s Hour is that Gallantin (along with the pack of werewolves that raised him) is the only supernatural creature in the novel. There’s no secret nazi occultists or anything– just an evil SS officer who likes chemical weapons. On the one hand, this means we don’t get the crazy mad mayhem of an allied werewolf commando fighting cyborg zombie Hitler or whatever. Though on the other, I guess McCammon was going more for a vibe of “You know who the real monsters are? Nazis. Fuck those guys.” Which, y’know, is an idea I can get behind. And even though Gallantin is just as vulnerable to regular bullets as he is to silver ones, the resulting conflicts still can be pretty one-sided. But, again, it’s nazis getting their faces bitten off, so I’m cool with that.

So yeah. The Wolf’s Hour is a pulpy, arguably trashy read. Which is just the thing for October, honestly. If you’re in the mood for some boobs and gore, The Wolf’s Hour certainly delivers. And as a bonus, Wikipedia tells me McCammon wrote a sequel collection of stories centered around Gallantin– I’ll have to see if I can track it down at some point.