Reviews

Short Story: I, CTHULHU, OR WHAT’S A TENTACLE-FACED THING LIKE ME DOING IN A SUNKEN CITY LIKE THIS?, by Neil Gaiman – #wyrdandwonder

Image art by chic2view on 123RF.com

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You would think that any cosmic horror, Lovecraft-inspired story – especially one that has Cthulhu’s name in it – would be full of terror and blood-chilling elements, wouldn’t you? Well, think again, because this short offering from Neil Gaiman pokes fun at all the tropes typical of Lovecraftian imagination and turns out to be a delightfully amusing tour of many of them.

Cthulhu is dictating his memoirs to a human scribe named Whateley who, at least judging by the monster’s reactions, is clearly torn between curiosity and (in larger part) awed fear of his host, who starts by waxing poetical about his birth and the place he used to call home: of course, Cthulhu being who he (it?) is, the birth implicated the death of both parents and “home” is a place where a gibbous moon bleeds into the ocean…

Showing a particularly grumpy attitude, Cthulhu goes on by describing an eons-long party which brought him to Earth, where he proceeded to enslave, rule and consume the hapless inhabitants, until… well, no, I will let you discover by yourselves how the rest of the story goes, it’s far better to go into it with no prior knowledge. And far more fun!

Except for the part about feeding the shoggoth, that is… 😀

If you’re familiar with Lovecraft’s narrative style and word choice, you – like me – will laugh out loud at the way they are employed here, turning these cosmic horror themes into a genially entertaining read.

My Rating:

Reviews

A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO CONQUERING THE WORLD (The Siege #3), by K.J. Parker

The third book in K.J. Parker’s The Siege presents once again a story set in the same world as the two previous volumes, but this time not in the City we have come to know through the chronicles of Orhan the engineer and Notker the actor turned leader: here the protagonist is Felix (the lucky), a Robur national sent as a diplomatic envoy and translator to the Echmen empire. 

Felix ended there under a cloud of disgrace caused by an ill-considered liaison which cost him dearly, both physically and socially, and all he wants now is to keep a low profile and read books: easier said than done though, because first he ends up saving the life of a Hus princess-hostage, who was going to be executed because of a grammatical misunderstanding, and then he’s in turn saved by that same princess once it seems that the Robur nation has been obliterated and that Felix is its only survivor. From that moment on, Felix – and the princess – will embark on a journey across the wide world that will lead them to meet its many different peoples, as the former translator starts what can only be termed as an incredible revolution that will change the balance of power through the application of an apparently unplanned conquest strategy.

The protagonists of Parker’s novels, despite their differences, share a common unreliability as narrators, and what’s more they make no mystery of it – Felix is indeed the one who seems to be the most open on the subject, in respect of his predecessors:

I really don’t understand why people go on about how wonderful the truth is. In my experience, all it does is make trouble.

This is even more true here because, as the story moves forward, we learn that what appears as a series of unconnected and unplanned choices ends up generating very serendipitous results that point toward a carefully orchestrated plan. Felix’s narration makes it all look quite accidental, or at the very least the product of inspiration drawn from one of the many books he’s read, but after a while it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that he’s not “encouraging” the outcome from the sidelines.  Especially when he says things like this:

Everything I’ve touched I’ve translated, into one thing or the other.

To further muddy the waters, at some point he makes a mention of his offhand humorous approach to situations, drawing a parallel between it and the ink squids use as camouflage against predators, and adding that under the layers of that protective humor he’s quite scared, but given his unreliability as a narrator it’s not so easy to fully believe him. 

All of the above turns Felix into a character that is difficult to relate to, and there are times when I felt quite annoyed with him – in a half-amused way, granted, but still annoyed, so that I could quite sympathize with the princess when she berated him and looked ready to use physical violence.  And yet, the relationship between the two of them (which cannot turn into a romantic pairing because of Felix’s… unfortunate situation) is one of the narrative delights of the story, with the two of them forming a complicated partnership that nonetheless works on many levels and offers some very amusing scenes, like the ones where Felix translates her profanity-laden speeches into something more diplomatically appropriate.

What truly differentiates this book from its predecessors is that the story follows a journey/quest model rather than being set in the City, which offers the author the chance to have a lot of fun with the different names and customs of the many tribes our two fugitive travelers meet: the travelogue might look somewhat confusing because the book does not have a map, which might have made things more visually understandable, but it’s a minor inconvenience after all, because Felix’s tongue-in-cheek descriptions of these peoples, their history and above all their quirks, makes for an amusing sketch of this world and its inhabitants who, despite the outward cultural differences, seem to share a deep distrust of strangers – but also the inability to resist the translator’s quick tongue and powers of conviction.

At times, the long lists of places and tribes – complete with details about customs and laws – feels like too much information and one could be tempted to skip forward to get back to the main story, but I don’t recommend it, because you might lose some entertaining detail. Granted, these finer points might not be indispensable in the Grand Scheme of Things, but they are often too funny to be missed, like the long, drawn-out story about a man who wanted to make money by selling camels. And in the end, camels DO prove to be quite effective in battle… 😉

In the end I had great fun with the Practical Guide, even though the third iteration of this series reserved little surprises as far as the outcome would be, but like the story it tells, what truly matters here is the characters’ journey and not its end, and in the course of that journey there is great room for fun and a few laughs – and we all need that, from time to time.

My Rating:

Reviews

SECRET SANTA, by Andrew Shaffer

I received this novel from Quirk Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Lussi Meyer is going through a rough patch: having lost her job at a publishing house some months before, she has uselessly hunted for employment for quite some time and is nearing despair. Her last chance lies in the interview she has obtained with Blackwood-Patterson, an old and somewhat stuffy publishing house specialized in high profile books, not exactly the right fit for her previous career as a horror editor, but whatever helps pay the bills will be welcome.

A bizarre (very bizarre!) set of circumstances sees Lussi not only hired but placed in the position of senior editor: the new management wants to move toward a more modern approach to publishing, and she needs to find the “next Stephen King” before the end of the year if she wants to maintain her job.  The reception Lussi gets from her new colleagues is far from warm, and she finds herself the target of some serious hazing, the latest episode being the Secret Santa gift she receives: a weird wooden doll with very disquieting features.

Not long after that, some of her co-workers become victims of freaky accidents, and Lussi comes to the conclusion that the doll is somehow involved: what she doesn’t know is that her own life might be in danger…

I enjoyed this shortish book quite a bit: for starters it’s set in the ‘80s, with many period references I found both interesting and amusing, particularly where the horror scene was concerned since it enjoyed a revival in those years, and Lussi is quite versed in the matter also thanks to her keen interest in the genre from her early youth.  Then there is the eerie background of Blackwood-Patterson, a place peopled by very peculiar characters that would not have been out of place in the Addams’ house; and last but not least the building itself, with its definite Gothic flavor, the old-fashioned look and dark interiors barely lighted by quaint, feeble lamps, and its many shadows lurking from dark corners.

Still, don’t expect to find paralyzing horror in Secret Santa, because the story is laced with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor and peppered with creepy episodes that would be perfectly at home in a parody movie of the genre, as the author delights in poking some fun at its tropes.  Lussi is the perfect example of this tone because, unlike the protagonists of those movies, who seem always destined to some gruesome and bloody end, she navigates her troubles with considerable spirit and, far from being the stereotype of the damsel in need of rescue, she keeps managing to rescue herself very well, and to help others along the way – mainly her friend and horror author Fabien Nightingale.

The element of the creepy doll is certainly the main theme of the story, and another way for the author to indulge in the dark humor running through this book: disturbing dolls are quite frequent in horror, particularly in its visual aspect, and her the doll in question is also a far cry from the kind one would find in a child’s playroom, which adds a few more layers of ghoulishness to the whole recipe.  Mix that with a gloomy, scary building that soon becomes another character in the novel, and you get an amusing page turner that will make you look at the coming holidays from a very different point of view.

Have fun… 🙂

My Rating:

Reviews

The “WOULD YOU RATHER…” Tag

I saw this meme on Bookstoge’s blog and promptly chose to borrow it: these kinds of posts are quite fun to do and after a while they become addictive. Sort of…

1) Would you rather be a vampire or a werewolf?

Not an easy choice… Being a vampire does have certain advantages, like immortality and the ability to bewitch their victims and therefore not having to really work for their supper, if you know what I mean; but on the other hand a steady diet of blood sounds boring – not to say gross – and I would miss being able to spend the days of summer on a beach.  A werewolf, on the other hand, does not suffer from this limitation, but the monthly transformation at each full moon sounds painful and… my goodness, all that hair! What about a third choice? Something like this…?

Much more glamorous! 😉

2) Would you rather use magic or technology for an easier life?

Well, as Arthur Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, so I’m certain that any manifestation that looks like magic is nothing more than very clever technology.

3) Would you rather be invisible or able to fly?

I’d rather fly: after all this has been mankind’s dream since time immemorial….

4) Would you rather have gas or electricity?

Electricity is the winner! It lights and warms our homes, it cooks our food, it can power our cars (ok, we’re still working on that one, but we’ll get there…). There is no downside to it that I can see…

Well, ok, maybe this one…

 

5) Would you rather read fiction or non fiction?

I’m a Fantasy & SF book blogger. What do you think?  😉

6) Would you rather have sweet or savory snacks?

Savory, without doubt. Sweets tire my taste buds after a while, but I never get tired of salty snacks!

7) Would you rather have Indian or Italian food?

Since I’m Italian, and well accustomed with the plentiful array of foods our cuisine can offer, I can be easily tempted to try something exotic. And the food in Indian recipes is as varied and enticing as in Italian ones, so it would be an interesting journey!

8) Would you rather have a beachside house or a riverside cabin in the woods?

The beach of course! I love the sea, I love spending time on the beach or swimming so that the idea of a beachside house is something I’ve always found appealing.

9) Would you rather visit Asia or Africa?

Both. There are places in both continents that I’d like to visit, so a girl can dream, can’t she?

10) If you could only read one genre for a year, what would it be?

Science Fantasy – so I could have the best of both the worlds I love!

 

Adopt this tag! Join the fun!

Reviews

GRR Martin’s ASOIAF: A Gentle Nudge from New Zealand…

It’s no news that readers of GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire have been dealing with the author’s long gestating times between books with varying degrees of patience – or lack thereof, and the not-quite-satisfactory way in which the overall story was wrapped up by the TV series Game of Thrones did little to assuage the readers’ curiosity and their need to see the story and the characters’ journeys developed with the depth they expect from the books published until now.

Over the years some voices have been raised in a less than civilized way, literally demanding the next book in line as if it were their unalienable right, and lately I heard that a silly rumor was being circulated that Martin had actually finished the saga but was keeping the books under wraps as a favor to the TV show, which sounds totally foolish but still needed a public rebuttal by the author.  Which proves that rumors spread faster than a pandemic, and are just as dangerous.

Replying to such absurdity with humor is always the best choice, to the point that playful creations like this one go a long way toward keeping the tone light:

 

 

And that’s the reason I enjoyed immensely this video created by Air New Zealand, which encourages George Martin to find a place where his creativity would flow uninterrupted, inviting him to visit their country.  It’s a delightful way to express the readers’ eagerness to see the next book hit the stands, and it’s full of amusing tongue-in-cheek quips, my favorite being the one about “being nervous as a Stark with a wedding invite”.

Enjoy!  🙂

 

Reviews

Review: SIXTEEN WAYS TO DEFEND A WALLED CITY, by K.J. PARKER

 

I received this novel from the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Sometimes a book surprises you because it turns out to be completely different from what you expected, and in this case that surprise was a delightful one, indeed: I picked up this book on impulse, despite the scant information offered by the synopsis, because that unfathomable instinct that I’ve come to call “book vibes” was strongly drawn to it, and once again it proved to be right on target.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is the story of a siege, and also the story of the man defending the besieged city from the unknown assailants who are cutting through the Robur Empire’s territory like a hot knife through butter. Orhan is a colonel in the engineering corps of the Robur army despite being a “milkface”: the Robur, blue skinned and aggressive, have conquered Orhan’s people and look down on them as inferior, unworthy of consideration, the prime targets for slavery and abuse, but Orhan’s engineering skills have brought him to this favored position that allows him a modicum of freedom of movement and independence.

When a few pirate-like sorties against Robur military depots turn out to be a bold move by an unknown enemy, who is able to provision his army and turn the stolen ordnance and weapons against their former owners, Orhan understands that something dire is afoot and manages to close the gates of the empire’s main city before the invaders can storm the walls.  Not a military man by a long stretch (his favorite catchphrase is “I’m just an engineer”), he is however able to shore up the City’s defenses and to give it a chance of surviving beyond the mere hours that would have been the foregone conclusion if the assailants’ ruse had worked – and he manages this feat despite the ineffective short-sightedness of the ranking officials and the social turmoil always brewing under the surface.

Orhan’s success in what looks like a desperate undertaking comes from the fact that besides his engineering skills, which are quite remarkable, he’s a self-declared liar and a cheat, and he knows how to deal with all layers of society acting as a middleman between apparently incompatible parties, as testified by his greatest feat, the truce he forces on the two rival underground factions, the Blues and the Greens, compelling them to work together for the common survival and making them see reason beyond the age-old enmities, at least for a while; he also knows how to turn to his advantage the scant resources at his disposal, paying for them with somewhat counterfeit coins and carrying on through misinformation and double dealing, which seem to come to him as second nature.  A man more attached to the values of honor and integrity would not have managed to accomplish as much, while Orhan’s flexible standards grant him a far wider leeway – and success.

What’s truly amazing in Orhan’s achievement is that he keeps saving the City despite its inhabitants, who keep seeing him as a milkface interloper, an upstart who should know better than to try and rise above his station, and yet they end up being swept along by the man’s sheer force of conviction – and sometimes his fists, when needed.  One of the driving themes of the story is that of racism and rigid social stratification, and despite the lightly humorous tone employed by Orhan’s first-person narrative it’s not difficult to see how the Robur rule has created the kind of social order in which the dehumanization of some strata of the empire has become an accepted fact of life, even by those who are its main victims.   This is an element that plays an important part in the motivations of the invading enemy and in Orhan’s inner conflict once he learns the nature and identity of said enemy: I don’t want to delve deeper into this side of the story because it should be discovered on its own, but it’s interesting to note how the engineer’s apparently carefree approach to the question offers a great deal of food for thought and discussion on the subject of loyalty, even toward those who don’t deserve it.

Orhan’s personality is a deceptively simple one: on the surface, all he cares about is building things, his pride lays in a work well done and one that endures through time, so that the narrative of the siege is carried out in a humorous, self-deprecating tone that belies his true nature and his past history.  In the course of events, we are made privy to the facts and incidents that made Orhan the man he is now, and as the details pile up we begin to understand that there is more under the façade of the “simple engineer”, including something of a mean streak – not that it comes as a surprise, in consideration of his lying and cheating, but some of those instances shed a very peculiar light on him.  Ultimately, it becomes evident that Orhan is an unreliable narrator, not least because he’s the one dictating the story we are reading, and by his own admission he’s not averse to embellishing some of the facts to shine a more positive light on himself. Orhan gives a whole new meaning to the concept of reluctant hero, since he does not seem to mind embellishing some his deeds, but on the other hand he’s trying his best to avoid the trouble that comes from doing what needs to be done.

One of the best features in this book is its narrative quality, a lightly witty mood that’s kept constant all throughout the story and attains that right balance that’s often so difficult to manage and that K.J. Parker handles with no apparent effort. This, together with a steady pace, made breezing through the book a joy, marred only by what seems an abrupt ending, one that left me with too many unanswered questions and a strong desire to know what happened next. It’s the only blemish I can think of in this story that turned out to be so much more than I bargained for.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE PRESIDENT’S BRAIN IS MISSING, by John Scalzi

 

I stumbled by pure chance on this short story by John Scalzi while searching for one of his earlier books that I missed, The Android’s Dream, and of course there was no doubt that I would read this brief work as well: the title was indeed intriguing, and knowing the author’s penchant for humor I expected to be amused by it – and indeed I was.

Part of the fun in this story comes from my familiarity with shows like The West Wing and its ‘dark side’ twin House of Cards, detailing the dynamics of the White House behind the closed doors the public never crosses, especially where appearances and public image are concerned.

In this particular case however the presidential aides are faced with an unconceivable situation: an MRI scan on the President reveals that his brain has disappeared, and yet the man is still alive and functioning – well, apart from the impossibility to submerge his head in the pool, since every time he tries, the head “pops back up like a cork”.  This is the premise from which the short, hilarious story starts, poking some fun at the intricacies of politics and the dichotomy between appearance and reality: even though the staff’s descriptions don’t give a shining picture of the President – a man who is not exactly brilliant and who won the election because his opponent was involved in a sex scandal during the campaign – they worry about the possibility of a situation they might be unable to deal with, and so they start to search for the cause of the mysterious disappearance, and of a possible solution.

Quick, entertaining and in line with what I’ve come to expect from a Scalzi divertissment.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: MINIATURES – The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi

31258177If short stories can sometimes be a difficult medium, because the compressed space they must be worked in often leaves the reader unsatisfied with the way characters and narrative are developed, this collection of very short works from John Scalzi enjoys a different track record: the humorous nature of these stories lends itself quite easily to brevity and they feel more like well-developed jokes than anything else, or like some of the witty posts with which the author delights his blog’s readers.

So here you will find, for example, a mock interview with a very peeved Pluto, whose demotion from the status of planet still burns deeply, despite the abysmal cold in the fringes of our Solar System: the annoyed ex-planet takes this opportunity to vent some of its displeasure toward some old and new adversaries, the scientific community at large and – quite inexplicably – Phil Collins. Just to give you an idea of the tone of these stories, here is a quote directly from the ex-planet:

[…] people start calling me and telling me I’m the newest planet. And I remember saying, I don’t know if I want that responsibility. And they said, well, you can’t not be a planet now, Walt Disney’s already named a character after you.  That’s really what made a planet. Not the astronomers, but that cartoon dog.

Or we can read the advertisement for a very special travel agency that can send its customers into alternate universes, offering various possible scenarios about a certain event: the example used is the death of Adolf Hitler, and despite the far-from-palatable subject, Mr. Scalzi manages to make you laugh out loud with his vision of alternate futures.  My favorite is the one where the time-frame alteration keeps sending the city of Vienna back and back into the past, transforming it into a battleground for competing armies, until

[…] when the time traveling pro-Magyar forces show up, they are slaughtered by everyone else which is tired of all this time-traveling crap, thereby ending the causality loop.

Or again we are treated to a collection of hilariously crazy tweets the author posted to ease his boredom during a long flight, imagining the assault on the plane’s wing operated by a gremlin bent on plunging the vehicle down to earth.  If you don’t think this could be funny (especially in the case of people who are not comfortable with flight), reading this brief piece will make you change your mind.

Each story is prefaced by a few words about its inception and history, and all of them are accompanied by little drawings that complement the story to perfection.  If you want to spend a couple of light-hearted hours in the company of a favorite author, or if you want to discover John Scalzi’s peculiar brand of humor, this is the perfect place to start.

My Rating:


Reviews

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY #10

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This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.  This week’s theme is:

INACCURATE COVERS

Those books that have nothing to do with the story, or the cover model doesn’t look anything like the actual main character, or it’s a really cheesy cover for a great read!

To say the truth, none of the covers of the books I’ve read in the past few years were really misleading: when I went to check on my GoodReads library, I could not find any that would fit this week’s theme.  So I decided to do a little search for the covers of pulp magazines from a few decades back and there I found exactly what I was looking for.

In those times, garish covers were the accepted norm: monsters from outer space, outlandish aliens and extra-terrestrial landscapes, spaceships of every size and shape – you name it, they had it.

There was one common factor though: the women depicted on those covers were all scantily clad, exotic-looking and either terrorized victims of some evil-doer or being rescued by the muscled hero. And probably had nothing to do with the stories listed in the magazine.   Here are the Top Five that came out of my search:

01In the first one, we see the lady on the cover being pursued by some bad guy and/or alien (he’s bald, and back then most aliens were bald…): they must be hovering in space, and both of their heads are enclosed by a bubble helmet, but while the man is wearing a space suit, the woman sports something close to a bathing suit, with a very, very deep neckline.  In vacuum…

In the second cover, our designated victim is stalked by a spidery-looking2 alien and looking suitably frightened – but no fear! The hero is just around the corner, ready to save her!  And once again, the man is in full EVA suit, while the woman wears a golden bikini. With matching shoes.  After all, you can’t give up on fashion, even in the direst of circumstances!

Third cover – more of the same, with a slight variation: the woman is unconscious, probably terrified by the big-toothed, long-nailed (and bald!!) monster in the background.  Thankfully the hero is carrying her away to safety.  As if we could ever doubt it!

With cover nr. 4 there is a change: in this case the lady is armed and deadly –4 in the picture she seems to have just stunned or killed the “big bad alien” (he’s green AND bald, to offer some variety, no doubt).  The woman’s weapon is still smoking (do energy weapons smoke at all?) and she looks quite resolute – yes, in her space bathing suit, complete with bubble helmet and spiked epaulettes. Oh, and gloves…

5And finally, at nr. 5, another ass-kicking lady, swinging an axe against a many-tentacled monster, while the guy in the background seems to have some trouble defending himself.  The woman is wearing a full-body suit this time, but it seems painted on her, and the conical cups for the breasts look decidedly uncomfortable!

What’s worse, is that there are still some genres where covers with scantily clad people appear in absurd poses: that’s the reason why writers like John Scalzi and Jim C. Hines decided, some time ago, to poke some fun at those covers, while supporting a charitable foundation.  As a “bonus” for this week’s theme, here are both the original cover and the… portrayal by Scalzi (on the right) and Hines (on the left), but you can find more by following the links in this IO9 article. Have fun!

a01                  a02

Reviews

Review: GIOVANNI GOES TO MED SCHOOL, by Kathy Bryson

29604865I received this story from the author in exchange for an honest review.

When Ms. Bryson contacted me about reading and reviewing this novella, I was intrigued by the strange mix of themes offered by the story: humor and zombies. Many would say that there’s very little to laugh about the walking dead, so I was more than curious to see how one of the staples of the horror genre – one that’s very much in fashion nowadays – would fare on a more light-hearted setting.

Giovanni is a young medical student in search of a part-time occupation to shore up his income, as many in his position are pressed to do, and what he ultimately finds is a night shift duty post at the hospital morgue. Our main character is a good, sensitive guy, and his worry in tackling that kind of job is more than understandable – moreover, he probably saw a good deal of B-movies that have done nothing to encourage him, especially since he keeps thinking about his family’s “loving” advice about his choice of career, one that sets both the mood of this story and makes us better understand Giovanni’s mind-frame:

The rest of their family was supportive though (…) They were all supportive. They all told him how proud they were he had gotten into med school, and how hard he’d have to study, how broke he’d be, how he couldn’t date, how he’d have no social life until he graduated, how he’d suffer through residency, and how he’d probably just get fat, grow old, and die alone.

No one could blame the guy for being just a tiny bit apprehensive…

On his very first night on the job, Giovanni must accept custody of the body of an elderly lady that passed away despite the efforts of the medical team upstairs, and even before that happened, he’s been also entrusted with the care of of said lady’s huge, slobbering dog. When in the night Mrs. Harris’ body gets up and starts walking and talking, poor Giovanni’s nightmare is only just beginning.

You will not find flesh-eating zombies here, but just an old lady who seems unable to accept her demise, and this will propel Giovanni on a very strange, mind-bending journey that seems only the first step in a longer one – at least according to what a voodoo-expert hospital orderly tells him: that Mrs. Harris’ case is not an isolated one.

Oddly humorous, filled with comedy-of-errors scenes, this short story is a quick, entertaining read that will give you a new outlook on the whole zombie scenario. And will also teach you how to deal with big dogs suffering from excess salivation. Maybe.

 

My Rating: