Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fragile Things

Fragile ThingsFragile Things by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5 stars, really.

What a delightful collection of Gaiman's short stories! I was very impressed, liking this even better than I expected. It very nearly got a full 5-stars, but I honestly have a hard time giving that rating to a collection of short stories. They have to really 'wow' me for that. Most of the time the stories, being short, don't really capture the full suspension of belief that's required to become fully absorbed and lost. The more lost I get, the more big stars it'll get.

That said, this is still an excellent work. I had some hesitation, not to read it but certainly in prioritizing it, after I'd read Smoke and Mirrors a couple of years ago. I liked that collection, but it didn't grab me. Certainly not like I was grabbed by American Gods, Neverwhere, or the Preludes and Nocturnes (Sandman) series. But this one certainly did the trick and belongs in the Gaiman canon with those other heavy hitters.

The poetry and other short miscellanies within this book were interesting, and some of them actually made sense (unlike poetry in general which usually comes off to me as fluff). They added a nice interlude between the stories, the meat of the matter.

And those are what makes this a gem.

"Monarch of the Glen" is a novella which serves as a sequel to American Gods. Here we get to see a little bit of how Shadow is carrying on after the events of that novel. This was a nice teaser, making me want a new American Gods novel now. C'mon, Neil. Everybody wants you to write it.

"The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch" is wonderful. Sinister and mysterious and weird.

"The Problem of Susan" addresses some concerns with the Narnia series.

"A Study in Emerald" is just wicked and delightful.

"Goliath" is a nice surprise and very weirdly well done.

"October in the Chair" has wonderful characterization and keeps the reader on the edge of his/her chair.

"Bitter Grounds", "How to Talk to Girls at Parties", "Keepsakes and Treasures", and "Harlequin Valentine" were all favorites too. Though there really wasn't a bad one in the lot.

Yes, it's definitely time for a new American Gods novel, and another story collection while you're at it, Mr. Gaiman.

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WarriorsWarriors by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book as a whole is a good, solid 4.5 star anthology. As with most collections, it has its hits and misses. Happily, more of the latter.

"Stories From the Spinner Rack" - introduction by GRRM. A nice look into the early reading habits of GRRM and his early influences. Reminds me of Dreamsongs I. I need to go back and read Dreamsongs II. 4 stars for the intro.

"The King of Norway" by Cecilia Holland. Nice Viking story that was pretty interesting. The characters seemed pretty good too, or would have with more development. Her style is dry though. If she'd liven that up, I'd be more interested in what happens. 2.75 stars.

"Forever Bound" by Joe Haldeman. Set in the Forever War universe, which I haven't read. But I loved this story, so I'm sure I'll rectify that eventually. His writing is excellent and his universe seems very interesting. 4.5 stars.

"The Triumph" by Robin Hobb. Another top notch story, by the dependable Hobb. It's different for her, as it's a historical piece about Romans in Carthage, but her writing is very good and the story has some cool twists. 4 stars.

"Clean Slate" by Lawrence Block. Another winner. This is the second Block story I’ve read from anthologies this year, and as with the first one, I was very impressed. I love his twisted protagonist villains. An intriguing modern thriller, I’m not sure it really fits the theme of the anthology except in the literal sense. The main character thinks of herself as a “warrior” though that’s more of a psychological tag than a real one. Still, a very good story and one of the better ones so far. 4.75 stars.

“And Ministers of Grace” by Tad Williams. Tad always delivers interesting short stories, and this is no exception. The main character here is a holy assassin in a future universe where there is a war between those of the Book and those that are not. A nice take on the future of religion and colonization. 3.5 stars.

“Soldierin’” by Joe R. Lansdale. This is an engaging and often humorous look at the military service of a former slave recruited to join the Union Army in a post-Civil War area of West Texas. He is placed in an all-black regiment and this tells what happens when they come across some pissed off Indians. 3.75 stars.

“Dirae” by Peter S. Beagle. Weird is how I describe this. It does start to make sense as it gets going but it takes awhile. A very cool concept that’s odd in execution and probably would have worked better in a novel. 3 stars.

“The Custom of the Army” by Diana Gabaldon. Novella length story that’s one of the better ones so far. This is an adventure of Lord John Grey, from her Outlander universe. The story is very engaging as we see Lord John’s experiences first in London, and then in Canada as he’s assigned up there. He’s called to look into the situation of an old friend’s impending court-martial. I really enjoyed this one, but felt a bit let down by the end as everything seemed to wrap up too quickly and conveniently. This is another one that would have worked better as a longer novel. Still, 4.25 stars.

“Seven Years From Home” by Naomi Novik. I’ve never tried this author before, though I’ve heard about her stuff for a few years now. Well, this will probably keep me from trying her novels. This story pretty much sucked. Here we have a future colonization going on with a feud between two factions on a world that the “Confederacy” is looking to bring into its fold. The narrator character gets drawn into this conflict and this story serves as her account/confession of what transpired. The concept was intriguing but the execution was not. The narration was dry and unspirited. I kept fighting sleep and forced myself to finish this one. It was a struggle from the first page to the end. I’ll give it 1.5 stars though. It really should have 1 star, but I’ll be generous and give it another half because the concept was cool enough to consider that. 1.5 stars.

“The Eagle and the Rabbit” by Steven Saylor. Once again we visit ancient Carthage, though many years later than Hobb’s story. This time, we see a slice of history through the eyes of a Carthaginian as he deals with the conquering Romans. It’s a great mirror image of Hobb’s story, showing that in war there is often brutality regardless to what side you’re on. Some of the plot turns were predictable, but no less entertaining for that. It had very nice progression and a satisfying ending, and what more can you hope for from a short story? 4.5 stars.

“The Pit” by James Rollins. Wow. Here we get a gladiator story, but not one we’d expect to find in an anthology like this, or anywhere for that matter. There are twists and turns in this story as well, and they’re not nearly as predictable. This is the best story in the bunch, so far. I could give more details, but that would spoil the reader’s delight as they read a few lines and discover what it’s really about. 5 stars.

“Out of the Dark” by David Weber. Here we have a near-future alien invasion, with some really unexpected twists. I like the concept and I love the scope that Weber approaches this from. I’ve seen that there is now a novel-length expansion of this story. I think that would work nicely, as this has huge potential for more in-depth global coverage. I’m undecided on reading it soon though, as the core of the story was pretty much played out in this novella. Still, one for the TBR. 4.5 stars.

“The Girls From Avenger” by Carrie Vaughn. Carrie tells a story about the WASP pilots during World War II. WASP stands for Women Airforce Service Pilots. These women filled the flying jobs required by the army in the US while the men were overseas in combat operations. They weren’t highly regarded at all, and that’s a shame. Carrie shines some light on what they might have gone through in this story, and I’m glad she did. I always love Carrie’s smooth and reader-friendly writing style and this is no exception. 4.25 stars.

“Ancient Ways” by S.M. Stirling. This was my first experience in reading of Stirling’s Emberverse, though I’ve been eying it for awhile now. This story pushes Dies the Fire, the first novel of the Change, up on my TBR. This was an intriguing look at a future post-apocalyptic Earth, where technology has been stripped away and society is back to the basics. Stirling’s take on that theme seems very original in execution and world building, if this story is any indication. 4.25 stars.

“Ninieslando” by Howard Waldrop. Here’s a weird little story set during World War I, right at the front lines between the British and German forces. There is the ominous No-Man’s Land that separates the trenches where the two armies are entrenched, a kill-zone full of barbed wire and landmines. Of course, there’s something quite unexpected and strange down in there as well. Enjoyable, but too short to fully develop and a little on the implausible side. 2.5 stars.

“Recidivist” by Gardner Dozois. This is the first solo work I’ve read by Dozois. Wow! This one was too short. By that I mean, I wanted more. The story itself was a good length for what it had to tell, but this future post-weird-shit-happens world is amazing. I would love to read a novel about this, and Dozois’s prose is very smooth. Definitely wanting a novel expansion to this one. 4.75 stars.

“I Am Legion” by David Morrell. Here is a story of the French Foreign Legion during the early days of World War II. The premise is good, though the plot is quite predictable. There is a lot of buildup to a climax that you can see coming from a mile away. The execution was ok, but not the most exciting of this collection by any means. 2.5 stars.

“Defenders of the Frontier” by Robert Silverberg. This is almost a “Wow!” story along the lines of the Dozois or Stirling ones, and would be if it wasn’t so dreary. The setting is slightly similar. What I like about this one is the premise. The military saying of “hurry up and wait” is pretty literal here, when the waiting just keeps going on. But with everything, eventually something does change. 4 stars.

“The Scroll” by David Ball. This was a deliciously sinister story, set in 15th century Morocco. What happens when an engineer of war machines gets captured by the Moors and brought to the Emperor’s slave work gangs? It gets interesting when he catches the Emperors attention. 4.5 stars.

“The Mystery Knight” by George R.R. Martin. A return to the land of the Seven Kingdoms, in the form of a Dunk & Egg story. The third novella in the Hedge Knight series, this was a great read. It was so good to get back to Westeros and see a tournament, along with the usual GRRM underhanded behind the scenes plotting. 5 stars.

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Wizard and Glass

Wizard and Glass (The Dark Tower, #4)Wizard and Glass by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is really a 5-star book, and a personal favorite. This 4-star rating is for the audio edition.

Frank Muller is a good narrator and I've enjoyed journeying with Roland's ka-tet with Muller covering the story. His voices feel true for Roland, Susannah, Jake, and especially Eddie Dean. Even for Oy.

But I was disappointed when the tale took us back to Mejis. Here, Muller took an approach with the regional dialect that made all of the residents of Hambry sound like uneducated, ignorant, rubes. Some of them are, so they is, but not all of them.

I love the Western drama of the tale of Susan Delgado and Roland's youth. I'm often reminded of the tension from the movie Tombstone, where every move is like one in a game of chess. Like any wrong move will bring it all crashing down in a hail of bullets and gunsmoke.

Muller makes it sound like an episode of "Mama's Family".

Well, the story is still timeless and an all-time favorite, so it is. Ayyyye. So it is.

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