Previous month:
December 2012
Next month:
February 2013

Underground Reading: Top of the Heap by Erle Stanley Gardner

This is the latest installment in our new caper - a scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime mystery, in order, one every week. You can follow along here.

Top of the HeapAt last, we have mediocrity!

Ok, that's a little harsh, but Erle Stanley Gardner's Top of the Heap (2004, originally 1952) has neither the edge nor the flair that distinguished the first two Hard Case Crime books. Our first 'ok' book in the series.

Mr. Gardner's Donald Lam (of the 'Cool & Lam' detective agency) drily engages in detective work spread across two cities - Los Angeles and San Francisco. And 'dry' is the operative term. Despite the author's efforts to introduce twists, turns and the occasional personal stake, Lam never seems particularly engaged (with one exception, to come later). Instead, he connects the dots from one location to the next, unravelling a particularly bitty collection of crimes. There's murder, gambling, bank fraud and blackmail, but without Lam seeming to care, all the villainy in the world can't make up for a lack of tension.

The Cool and Lam series ran for almost thirty books between 1939 and 1970 with Mr. Gardner churning them out under the pen name of A.A. Fair. The overwrought, avaricious Bertha Cool is the senior partner in the relationship, although she's little more than window-dressing in Top of the Heap.1 Cool acts as something of the foil, yelling at Lam to stop fooling around and focus on money-making cases (it is easy to picture her as Axel Foley's boss), but is otherwise a non-starter. She lurks in the background making threatening noises about dissolving the partnership, but Lam is - as he seems to be in all things - curiously disengaged. (He's equally measured about his rather phenomenal financial success that occurs over the course of Top of the Heap. Not a particularly emotive man, our Donald Lam.) 

Continue reading "Underground Reading: Top of the Heap by Erle Stanley Gardner" »

The Kitschies: Railsea and The Broken Isles

Broken-isles-mark-newtonThe hardest part about the judging process is acknowledging when a book cannot be judged fairly. As a young award (4 years!), we're still adapting and shaping the awards process. Transparency is important to us, as is the opportunity for all books to receive their fair shot. We rotate the judging panels every year to to ensure that all submissions may be considered as objectively as possible.

It is important to us that the conversation surrounding the Kitschies remain focused on the books themselves. It became immediately apparent to us that there were two among the many 2012 submissions which we were not in a position to judge objectively. To repeat our eloquent phrasing from last year, this sucks.

Mark Charan Newton has been one of our favourite authors since he first put pen to paper. His Legends of the Red Sun is a four-book saga of the New Weird, concluding with 2012's The Broken Isles. His books are always challenging, fiercely progressive and wildly imaginative, and The Broken Isles is exactly the epic finish that the series deserves. (There's an excellent review of it at Fantasy Faction.)

Railsea-china-mievilleUnfortunately (for Mark), these authorial interests - coupled with his professional experience in social media and publishing - are why we invited him to sit on the Kitschies' board when we set up as a not for profit association in June. This conflict of interest prohibits us from judging The Broken Isles, and so it is with heavy hearts that we must excuse it from the competition.

China Miéville won the inaugural Red Tentacle for The City & The City (2009) and was a finalist in both 2010 and 2011. Railsea (2012) is his latest mind-bending, genre-spanning effort. It is a young adult retelling of Moby Dick that manages to fuse together high adventure, political philosophy, steampunk, daybats, natural history and post-apocalypticism in the way that only Mr. Miéville can. (Our favourite review is by Penny Schenk.) As one of the judges was a beta reader for Railsea, we must regretfully excuse it from this year's competition. 

Both The Broken Isles and Railsea are excellent books and we recommend them heartily for consideration for other awards. 

The Inky, Golden and Red Tentacle shortlists will be announced on Friday, 18 January.

Why "Genre" is Poison

Red Dragon from Monster Manual (TSR)A few years ago, shortly after I had jacked in a low-flying job in magazine publishing to go freelance, a friend asked me what I planned to write. “I have an idea for a novel or two,” I replied.

“Oh, yes? What kind of thing?”

“Fantasy,” I replied, and he frowned.

He wondered why I’d wanted to write in that genre – not because he thought it was bad, simply because it was a genre that didn’t appeal to him. As a genre, fantasy never chimed with him.

Oh, did I mention this friend writes Doctor Who? (Not all of it, just a few choice episodes.) So it might seem odd that he doesn’t like fantasy, yes? Ah, but. What do you think of when I say “fantasy”?

My friend and I didn’t talk much more about that idea. (Although I did mention a second idea, which he liked a lot: a woman falling in love with a man half her age via the medium of an online fantasy roleplaying game.) But I got the sense from what he said that he didn’t like things like elves and dwarves and magic swords – which is certainly what many people probably do think when I say “fantasy”. And (and I say this with the utmost respect to my friend) when many people start to picture elves and dwarves and magic swords, the gates of their mind shut tight and that is that is that. My fantasy idea didn’t have any of those things. Doctor Who doesn’t have any of those things. Ironically, the online gaming story idea was full of elves and dwarves and magic swords – and yet my friend liked that one more because he could see it was about a woman falling for the wrong man.

Continue reading "Why "Genre" is Poison" »

Friday Five: 10 books that should win the Hugo Awards (but probably won't)

Our first Friday Five for 2013 is a doozy, with two of the interweb's more thoughtful genre reviewers swinging by to chat about the Hugo Awards. As you may have noticed from the recent inundation of "'I'm eligible!" posts, nominations for Science Fiction's Most Biggest Award are open. Anyone attending the 2012, 2013 or 2014 WorldCons can (and should) nominate their favourite works of the year. 

Alas, even the Most Biggest Award can't catch everything. We challenged Justin (Staffer's Book Review) and Glen (here, there and everywhere) to come up with the titles that should win a Hugo... but probably won't.


Bennett The TroupeThe Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett

There isn't a better writer in genre fiction right now than Robert Jackson Bennett. He's smart, funny, and meaningful. I put The Troupe first on this list not just because it's the best book I read this year, but because Bennett the obvious choice last year to win the "Not a Hugo" (John W. Campbell Award) and he didn't even make the short list. This leads me to believe that given the same pool of nominators he will be forgotten again in 2013. I'm sure The Troupe will win other awards, namely those that aren't trafficked by genre super fans, but it really deserves to win something of a higher profile. The Troupe, and all of Bennett's novels, deserve a wider readership.

Sharps by KJ Parker

Sharps isn't one of the five best books I've read this year. I put it on this list though to emphasize how bad the Hugo voting pool can be. KJ Parker's books are brilliant. The writing is understated and efficient, with plots that are tragic and heart breaking. But, KJ Parker doesn't really do fantasy. At least not in a traditional sense. A Parker novel is always obviously set in a second world, but like Earth insofar as that there is little to no evidence of the arcane or impossible. Instead, the novels are always grounded and, dare I say, authentic. Parker has never been nominated for a best novel Hugo and I would be stunned if that ever changed. Sharps isn't her best work, but it is a very good one and is certainly better than many novels that have been nominated in recent years.

Continue reading "Friday Five: 10 books that should win the Hugo Awards (but probably won't)" »

The Kitschies: 2012 Submissions by the Numbers

We've received a record number of submissions for The Kitschies for 2012, both in volume of books and number of publishers and imprints sending books to us. We're pleased as (rum) punch, as the award has continued to grow from year to year.

The first year of The Kitschies, Anne and I went through a shade under 70 books. This year, the two judging panels - Patrick Ness, Rebecca Levene and I for the literary side, Lauren O'Farrell, Gary Northfield and Ed Warren on the cover art - have been discussing more than two hundred entries.

Math is fun, so I've taken the liberty of putting together a few charts:

Continue reading "The Kitschies: 2012 Submissions by the Numbers" »

Underground Reading: Fade to Blonde by Max Phillips

Fade to BlondeThis is the second installment in our latest caper - a scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime mystery, in order, one every week. You can follow along here.

Max Phillips' Fade to Blonde (2004) is Hard Case Crime's second title and first original (non-reprint) mystery. 

A twisty-twisty period piece, Fade to Blonde's shamus is Ray Corson. Ray came to Hollywood to be a screenwriter, spent some time as a boxer, spent even less time as an actor and is now an odd-jobs man, doing whatever it takes to break even. As the book begins, he's fixing the room on a house for a dodgy contractor. But it doesn't take long for his luck, such as it is, to turn. 

Rebecca LaFontaine (a fake name, and she gleefully admits it) needs some muscle. Lance Halliday (these wonderful names!) has threatened her, and Rebecca thinks the best defense is a good offense. She'll give Ray the (slightly depleted) contents of her purse if he'll get Lance out off her back. Preferably for good.

Ray's got a vicious temper. One of the first scenes in the book has him threatening his lying contractor with a length of chain. But cold-blooded murder isn't in him. He takes Rebecca's cash and asks for time, then starts doing a bit of snooping. 

Halliday, it seems, is a man with many, many vices. A failed actor (who isn't?), he's now producing films of the pornographic variety. Hollywood's got no shortage of desperate female talent, and Halliday's doing well with his home studio. As if that weren't angle enough, Halliday's also mixed up with the local mob - a grandfatherly figure named Burri and an ice-cold dope peddler named Lenny Scarpa. And, just to add icing to the cake, Halliday's threats against Rebecca - with whom he's clearly obsessed - are getting more and more elaborate. There's lye involved, plus a whole gang of lusty hillbillies.

Continue reading "Underground Reading: Fade to Blonde by Max Phillips" »

The House of Buckland

Buckland and the octopusFew figures are as revered in our household as William Buckland , D.D., F.R.S., Dean of Westminster, President of the Geological Society and first President of the British Association (1784 - 1856).

He was a wonderfully eccentric genius -  trained his horse to smell out mineral deposits, attempted to devour one of every species (seriously!), ate the heart of a king and mentored Britain's greatest generation of scientific minds. 

Nowadays, Buckland is remembered primarily for his bonkers behaviour and secondarily for his scientific contributions.* But in all aspects of his life, the dude was stone cold awesome. (That's Victorian slang.)

The home of William Buckland, as described by Thomas I. Sopwith, who visited it in the 1830's:

"Dr. Buckland's house is one of those venerable fabrics which form the principal quadrangle of Christ Church. As soon as the old-fashioned door is opened, abundant evidence is presented that the residence is that of a zealous disciple of Geology. A wide and spacious staircase has its floor and even part of its steps covered with ammonites, fossil trees and bones, and various other geological fragments, and in the several apartments piles upon piles of books and papers are spread upon tables, chairs, sofas, book- stands, and no small portion on the floor itself"

Continue reading "The House of Buckland" »

Underground Reading: Shoe-Bar Stratton by Joseph Bushnell Ames

Shoe-Bar StrattonShoe-Bar Stratton (1922) is about as Western a Western as ever wearily wandered West. "Buck" Stratton is the owner of some grazing land outside of Paloma Springs. He'd bought it immediately before heading off to war, and now, back from Europe, he's looking forward to returning to his cowboy life.

BUT WAIT... unscrupulous double-dealers have rustled Buck's whole ranch! The Shoe-Bar is now the property of Mary Thorne, who runs the ranch with the aid of Tex Lynch. Mighty mystified, Buck signs on as a lowly hand under the nom de cowboy of Bob Green. He's not sure what Mary and Tex are up to, but he's keen to figure it out.

The forces of good and evil align swiftly and predictably. Mary is a petite blonde with a bit o' pluck to her (there is, in fact, a chapter called "Nerve" in which Mary has some). She's a prisoner of both the opposition and her own gullibility - convinced that Tex and his cronies mean nothing but the best for her. On her side are Buck and one of the younger hands, an impressionable youth with a crush on Mary.

Against her, the clever and sinister Tex. The ranch boss is, amongst other things, suspiciously attractive - a lot of supposedly-straight cowboys are going on about Tex's piercing dark eyes and rosy cheeks. There are also some dodgy mobsters (seriously), some grumpy minions and a pair of sneaky Mexican servants - imagine Gollum with a disgracefully transcribed accent, and you're approaching the racist glory of Pedro and Maria.

Continue reading "Underground Reading: Shoe-Bar Stratton by Joseph Bushnell Ames" »

The Kitschies: Inky Chili Sunday

Today marks the first judging meeting for The Kitschies - Ed Warren, Lauren O'Farrell and Gary Northfield are all trekking to our Secret Headquarters to leer at 2012's cover art. 

Inky Tentacle 2011Neither Anne nor I are judges this year, so our role is solely to "faciliate their judgementalisms".

Obviously, this includes chili.

Today's batch:

  • Lean beef mince
  • Lean pork mince
  • Onions
  • A couple thingers of tomato goo
  • Red kidney beans
  • Bell peppers (red and orange, if it matters)

Various stuffs and accoutrement, including (but not limited to): 

Continue reading "The Kitschies: Inky Chili Sunday" »

New Releases: Deadbeats by Chris Lackey, Chad Fifer and INJ Culbard

DeadbeatsDeadbeats (2012) is the latest spectacular success from SelfMadeHero. Written by Chris Lackey and Chad Fifer, and illustrated by INJ Culbard, this graphic novel unleashes Lovecraftian nasties in a Jazz Age setting. 

Set in 1924, three jobbing musicians are playing a wedding in Chicago. When Lester, the African-American trumpeter is sent out back to use the 'guest-house' bathroom, he catches one of the family (and Family, if you know what I mean, fugeddaboutit) forcing his affections on an unwilling woman. After a moment of indecision, Lester breaks the mobster's nose. He grabs Hank (pianist) and Willie (drummer, alcoholic and comic relief) and hits the road in the hurry.

Desperate to get out of town, Lester ("desperate is my middle name!") takes a commission from a preacher's daughter in rural Illinois. For a funeral, no less. The three musicians snatch at the opportunity and head out. 

From there, things get weird (and Weird, if you know what I mean, R'lyehwgah'naglfhtagn). The funeral is no funeral (although there are lots of dead people involved) and the preacher is no preacher (although there's certainly an angry god or two). Cue: chanting, tentacles and mayhem.

Continue reading "New Releases: Deadbeats by Chris Lackey, Chad Fifer and INJ Culbard" »