Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

20130205-135717Book 16 in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series tells the story of what happens when Rock and Roll music and culture leaks into the Discworld dimension and causes all sorts of mayhem. The novel is similar in concept to his 10th novel, Moving Pictures, which involved Hollywood movie culture.

Imp Y Celyn, a young Harpist from Llamedos comes to Ankh-Morpork seeking his fortune as a musician. Unable to pay the Musician’s guild dues, he meets up with a dwarven hornblower named Glod and a troll percussionist named Lias, to form an unlicensed band. When his harp is destroyed, he finds an unusual guitar at a rather odd music shop. They then decide to create “The Band with Rocks in”. Imp takes on the stage name Buddy (who everyone says ‘looks a bit elvish’ (ie. a combination of Elvis and Buddy Holly), and Lias takes on the name “Cliff”. At one point, Cliff actually says “We’re on a mission from Glod”, an obvious allusion to “The Blues Brothers”. This is Pratchett at his punniest. Later, the recruit Unseen University’s Librarian (an Orangutan — don’t you ever call him an ape) as a keyboard player, but he doesn’t last long. And soon, all over the Ringworld, people become obsessed with music and with “The Band with Rocks In”.

Meanwhile, Death has become obsessed and disturbed by the fact that his memory is perfect, and he decides that he wants to learn how to forget. He leaves his job behind to seek the means to forgetfulness. His Granddaughter Susan is recruited as a temporary replacement. Like her father before her, Mort, she’s not so much a stickler for rules and soon becomes obsessed with Buddy (Imp) and keeping him alive. You see, the Musicians guild wants him dead for playing without paying guild dues.

This is a hilarious book, but the kindle edition is marred by extremely poor editing. Footnotes (which Pratchett uses to great effect) sometimes point to the wrong text, which are the most annoying errors, but there are a lot of others as well. If you aren’t reading a kindle edition, this should not be an issue. But it was for me. But regardless, I do highly recommend this book. I don’t consider it Pratchett’s best, but it is pretty darn funny.

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The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

Charles Stross’s “Laundry” series appeals to me partly because it depicts computer and math nerds (both of which I kind of was, at least at one time) as ‘wizards’ — I mean, literally, workers of arcane magic. One of the major premises of the series is that magic is a logical consequence of advanced mathematics. For example, if you conceive of certain specific mathematical constructs or algorithms in your mind, that it makes your brain attractive to a very specific kind of brain-eating creature from other dimensions (in fact, Charles Stross has vampires in his most recent books that came into being because a team of math quants working for an investment bank came up with such an algorithm, and thus became infected with what they’ve dubbed “V-Parasites”. His vampires are not quite like the traditional vampires of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, or of the more modern take of “True Blood”, but they are still recognizable as vampires. People who are skilled with math and/or computers can, if they are not knowledgeable about the ‘true’ nature of how things work, can accidentally unleash all sorts of creatures, or attract the attention of ancient horrors from other dimensions.

Another premise of his “Laundry” series is that there are various secret organizations in the world that know about this stuff, and who recruit people to defend their government or their nation or the world against all of the arcane dangers, many of which are connected to magic and the occult, and ‘hideous things from other dimensions’. The Laundry is the British version of such an organization. But what they most fear, and what they are almost certain is coming, is the end of the world. They don’t believe that they can stop it, but they sure as hell will try to delay it for as long as possible. And they have code names for all of the various improbably or close to impossible situations that they fear that can lead to the end of the world. It’s mentioned in just about all of the Laundry books — the end of the world is coming, it’s inevitable, and it’s probably closer than you might think.

Oh yeah, and the Laundry books can be very funny at times. The end of the world may be coming, but you can still have a laugh along the way.

Previous books in the series primarily focused on Bob Howard, and we watched his rise from a minor math and computer geek to head of The Laundry, starting in The Atrocity ArchivesThe Rhesus Chart introduced vampires into this world, including the character of Alex Schwartz, a quant who accidentally got infected with the V-Parasites. The latest novel, The Nightmare Stacks now focuses on Alex and how he is coping with his recruitment and training as a low-level Laundry employee, a ‘PHANG’ (the slang/acronym for a vampire), and a young man who feels isolated by both his top secret job and the secrets he has to keep from family and almost everyone else, and the stress of trying to actually have a social life without passing on his infection to others. He’s a young man who is dealing with all of the same problems that most young men do — meeting women, dealing with his parents, with the added difficulty of his total social awkwardness, plus the threat of accidentally committing treason by revealing state secrets, such as what he does for a living.

Alex runs into a young woman named Cassie on the street, a drama student who invites him to a show and after-party — they are performing “Dracula”. Being the socially awkward young man that he is, he doesn’t know how to deal with the fact that this young woman seems inexplicably friendly with him in spite of all of his awkwardness and geekiness. Meanwhile he has to deal with being temporarily relocated to Leeds, which is inconveniently far too close to where his parents live, so all of the excuses he’s been making so that he doesn’t have to deal with meeting the family with all of the secrets he has (such as his thirst for blood, his career change from over-paid bank investment analyst to an underpaid civil servant.  Oh, and yes, his lack of a girlfriend.

I can’t say too much more about this novel without giving stuff away. I know I am not doing a great job here telling you just how much I loved this book.  It certainly starts out slow, and it’s very hard to tell what direction the story will turn. But by the end, it is filled with action and surprises, and danger, and, yes, humor. There’s not as much humor in it as previous books, but it’s still a very cool book.

One thing I really like about this series is that every book seems to be so completely different from another. I have to admit that I was disappointed when Bob Howard, the character who was the focus of for the first several books, was shifted back, and his wife became the focus in The Annihilation Score. Well, the focus has changed again, and Alex is, to a certain extent, dealing with some of the same issues as Bob did in the early novels. So, in that respect, it’s similar to them. But as I said, each novel has a different style and structure to it. We’ve had a spy story, we’ve had a vampire story, we’ve had superheroes. Now this novel is more of  (and I guess this is a bit of a spoiler) is a story about an invasion from (as one character puts it) ‘Middle Earth’. And I did start to feel for Alex and for his various problems, and I really did get into the story, and it builds up to a rip-roaring climax. I really enjoyed this book.

If you want to really get into the series (And I heartily recommend that) I would start with The Atrocity Archives, and then keep on going. I have no idea how he will finish the series, because as I said, it’s all supposed to be leading up to the end of the world, and we get closer and closer to it, with things spiraling more and more out of control with each novel. Hell, I’m simply curious how the  world will deal with the repercussions of everything that happened in THIS novel. This is a series that will hook you and keep you coming back to see what happens next.

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

Book 15 in Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series, focuses once again on the Night Watch of the twin-city of Ankh-Morpork. In Book 8 of the series, Guards! Guards! Captain Vimes met Lady Ramkin, an eccentric noble woman who raises swamp dragons. Well a lot has happened, and the couple is due to be married shortly, and is slated for retirement from the guards. But something evil is afoot as a device has been stolen from the Assassins’ Guild, and people start showing up dead, with holes in them made by a metal projectile. And the Night Watch starts sticking their noses in places that the various guilds of Ankh-Morpork would prefer remain hidden.

Corporal Carrot, the human who was adopted by dwarves has to take charge of the guild and the old guards, Nobbs and Colon are now joined by new recruits Cuddy (a dwarf), Detritus (a Troll), and Angua (a woman with a secret).  The trail of bodies leads them to the Assassins guild, the Beggars Guild, and the Fools Guild. Also returning is Gaspode, the talking dog from Moving Pictures.

Men at Arms is a really good addition to the series. If you’ve enjoyed the books up until now, of course you will read it — it’s very funny, written with all of the humor and skill that the late Mr. Pratchett displayed in his previous novels. But there is also an undercurrent of seriousness here, and all of the gun violence that has been in the news in recent years gives the novel a bit of extra weight. This is not really a political novel, at least not at its core. But there certainly is a gentle political commentary here, as the Discworld experiences its first incidents of ‘gonne’ violence.

The book is good, and if you are reading the series, you shouldn’t skip it. If you want to read it and haven’t read any of the previous books, I would suggest reading Guards! Guards! first. You really don’t have to, but it will make more sense if you do. And if you want to find out about Gaspode, of course you may also want to read Moving Pictures.  But for the best experience, I’d read everything in order — while they aren’t all equally good, there really isn’t a bad book in the bunch.

Beacon 23 by Hugh Howey

I discovered Hugh Howey, much as, probably, most people have, through his landmark Silo science fiction series (WoolShift, and Dust). So I’ve been following him to see what else of possible interest he may come out with. The only other book I read of his so far was his 5 part series Sand, which I also enjoyed.  But if you haven’t read Wool, you really ought to. It’s terrific.

Beacon 23 is a stand-alone novel that, like many of his novels, was originally published in 5 separate parts through Amazon, and then as a complete novel. It tells the story of “Digger”, a veteran who got a bit messed up both physically, and psychologically, in the ongoing war against aliens known as “The Ryph”.  He has PTSD. After the incident, in which he was viewed as a hero, he had his choice of positions, but what he chose was to be a beacon operator, on his own, somewhere out in space. Beacons function kind of like lighthouses in space, telling spaceships of hazards, like debris and asteroid belts and so on.

What actually happened to him is something that he won’t share with most people.  In fact, most of his interactions involve communicating with ships, and with NASA. He doesn’t expect to have to have to deal directly, in person with people all that much, and he likes it that way. The problem is that although he’s no longer a soldier, it seems like the war may be coming to him.

I could strongly relate to the main character of this novel — I am currently being treated for depression and an anxiety disorder and although I don’t have PTSD, and I was never a soldier, I’ve had a couple of traumas in my life. And there were just some parts of the story that rang very true to me. The novel is fairly short and well written. Overall, it was really good.  The only issue I have here, which prevents me from being more enthusiastic about the novel than I am is that the ending does not ring true. I don’t want to enter spoiler territory, so I will say that IF anything like the situation that Howey describes in the book, I don’t think that the epilog would have been what it was. (Is that vague enough?)  As I said, I don’t want to spoil it, because the book IS very worth reading.

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Small Gods

This is the 13th book in Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series. On Discworld, there are many gods, and their power derives from the people who believe in them.  Om happens to be a ‘small god’, who until recently, had no actual believers, in spite of the fact that “Omnianism” is the national religion of Omnia, a very strict religious nation.

Enter Brutha, a young Omnian novice, who has an amazing  memory, but is illiterate, and naive and totally accepting of anything and everything that he has heard (and hence, has come to believe).  Brutha is an actual believer, and hence, Om discovers that Brutha may be his only chance at getting back into the ‘God’ game. Unfortunately, he is now trapped in the body of a turtle, and Brutha is the only person capable of hearing him. To both Brutha’s and Om’s chagrin, Brutha attracts the attention of Equisitor Vorbis, a powerful Omnian leader who upon learning of Brutha’s talents, has plans for him on his trip to the foreign nation of Ephebe.  And as simple-minded as Brutha is, he’s also smart enough to know that it is never healthy to attract the attention of such a powerful individual.

Small Gods is my absolute favorite book in this series so far. It is a brilliant and irreverent satire of organized religion. The fact that in a religious state dedicated to what the priests claim is the ‘one true God’, that no one actually believes except for one very simple-minded naive individual, and that pretty much everyone else is just going through the motions out of fear or loyalty or habit is incredibly ironic. Almost no one questions the Priests or Church doctrine, even when there is clear evidence that some of their claims are factually wrong.

This is Pratchett’s most seriously satirical book so far. Granted, many of his previous novels were not pure parody and also poked fun at and criticised things such as government and city life and the law and popular culture.  But this is his most focused satire to date.  And I absolutely loved it. It also is set in parts of the world that we have not seen before: Omnia and Ephebe, and most of the characters are new as well (though I love the character of Death, and I love his scenes in this novel).

I believe that if you have never read a Discworld novel or story before, that you could start here, and not miss out on much.  But there are some things that certainly would make more sense after reading at least a few of the stories.  If you were to read only one Discworld novel, based on only the books I’ve read, I’d say that this should be the one. That said, you’d be missing a lot of very funny stuff if you did that. But, imho, this is a must-read novel. If I can convince only one person to read Small Gods after reading this review, then I would be happy — I’d be happier if I could convince you to read the entire series, or if I could convince a lot more than one person… But really, this is, in my sincere opinion a great satirical fantasy novel.

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

Witches Abroad coverWitches Abroad is book 12 in Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series. You can read my review of the previous book, Reaper Man here.

Like all witches of Discworld (and wizards, for that matter), Desiderata knows the hour of her death. In preparation for that death, she sends her magic wand to Magrat, the youngest of three witches/friends. She lets Magrat know that by giving her the wand, Magrat will effectively become the “Fairy Godmother” to Emberella, very far away from them, in Genua. And she gives Magrat strict instructions that she must stop the marriage of Emberella to a Duke (who happens to be a frog).  Also, she is requested to not let her friends, Granny Esme Weatherwax, and Nanny Ogg, know about this.

Of course, Magrat can’t help but let her friends know, and so they all go off on an adventure to Genua. Along the way, they meet dwarves and an enigmatic voodoo priestess named Mrs. Gogol, and a zombie named Samedi. They also find out that Magrat is actually one of two Fairy Godmothers concerned with Emberella, the other of whom is much more skilled and experienced, and stands in direct opposition to their purposes.

Like all of the previous Discworld stories, this one is quite funny. There’s a lot of humor in seeing ‘foreign parts’ through the witches eyes. We get to learn what the big deal is with ‘Dwarven bread’ and ‘gumbo’ and ‘Banana Dakris’ and witches hats. It turns out that Genua is kind of a fantasy stand-in for New Orleans, with much of the same culture.

And off-topic, but the book brought back memories of some of the best food I’ve ever eaten (on a budget, or otherwise), outside of NYC. It can be found in N’Orleans. Granted, I haven’t been there since the 1988 World Science Fiction convention, so I haven’t seen it post-Katrina. But if you love food, that’s one of the best places in the US to visit (and don’t worry about the spice if that’s a problem for you — Cajun food, of course, can be quite spicy, but Creole food usually is not). My guess is that like most urban cities, corporatization has not yet fully destroyed its local culture, and turned it into yet another ‘mall-town’ with all chain stores and franchises. Everyone should experience all the variety of culture that America has to offer, before it is totally swallowed up or overwhelmed by food franchises and shopping malls.

Overall, the book is concerned with turning the Cinderella story on its head, which, to me, doesn’t entirely work. I’ll admit it — I’m not a huge fan of fairy tale stories, modernized or otherwise.  I watched a bit of the ABC series, “Once Upon a Time” (mostly with my mom, before she went into the Nursing home).  But once I no longer had that obligation, I  grew bored with it and lost interest. There is a lot of fun to be had with the book. But I found it to be one of the lesser books in the Pratchett series.  But I do still recommend it.

Anyway, my thumbs are up for this book, just not all the way up.

Wild Cards V: Down and Dirty edited by George R.R. Martin

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Bagabond

If you are unfamiliar with the Wild Cards shared universe series, I hope that you will first read my previous article.  This is a non-spoiler review of the 5th book in the series.  But when I say ‘non-spoiler’ what I really mean is that there are no spoilers for that specific book.  Since Wild Cards has several plot threads that span multiple books, just my naming of a character’s presence in this book may give a hint as to what happened (or did not happen) in a previous book.  So you’ve been warned.  If you plan on reading the earlier books in the series, I’d consider waiting until you’ve done so before you read this review.  Otherwise you may find out that character X survives, Character Y does not, and Character Z is really a villain/hero/douche.  OK, you’ve been warned (oh, and definitely read the earlier books — with the exception of book 4, they are all excellent, while book  4 is simply ‘decent’).

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The first several chapters/stories in Down and Dirty take place concurrently with the events in book 4, the WHO tour described in Aces Abroad.  The latter part of the book takes place after that tour.  The book opens with the Mafia deeply embroiled in a gang war against several different asian gangs, seemingly united under the control of an unknown crime boss (but we know who it is from the previous books).  And Brennan (aka Yeoman) intends to take advantage of the situation to infiltrate one of the gangs.  He hopes to work his way up in the organization, so that he can finally confront the target of his vendetta, Kien Phuc, who he knew from back from his time in Viet Nam.

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Brennan/Yeoman

The book has several intertwining stories to it, and fans of Croyd Crenson will be glad to know that this is a Sleeper-heavy book — Crenson appears in several of the different plotlines.  I won’t say that he’s the ‘star’ of the book, but certainly he crosses paths with a lot of people, many of whom regret it.

We also see the return of Modular Man (who was destroyed by Crenson in a previous book) and his creator, Maxim Travnicek, who is just as demented as ever.  Cordelia Chaisson has grown up (mostly) and is in the record business.  The Turtle (aka “The Great and Powerful Turtle”, aka Thomas Tudbury) is dealing with PTSD and thus looking towards permanent retirement — something that would surprise anyone, since the world thinks that the Turtle died on that fateful Wild Cards day, when The Astronomer had his shell napalmed and sunk to the bottom of the Hudson River (Tom escaped with his life, though many other people did die on that day).  We also get to know Dr. Tachyon’s formerly estranged son, Blaise, who is, essentially, a spoiled brat.

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Ti Malice and one of its mounts

Here’s a listing of the intertwining stories, along with their authors (from Wikipedia):

Story Author(s) Description
“Only the Dead Know Jokertown” John J. Miller Yeoman infiltrates Kien’s gang as things heat up in New York’s underworld.
“All the King’s Horses” George R. R. Martin The Great and Powerful Turtle must find a way to get back into his shell.
“Concerto for Siren and Serotonin” Roger Zelazny The Sleeper is hired by the Mob to do a few “special” hits, but is unaware of his contagion.
“Breakdown” Leanne C. Harper Mafia princess turned district attorney Rosemary Muldoon gets Bagabond and Sewer Jack unwillingly involved in the growing gang war.
“Jesus Was an Ace” Arthur Byron Cover Reverend Leo Barnett saves Quasiman‘s life.
“Blood Ties” Melinda M. Snodgrass Dr. Tachyon helps Jokertown prepare to defend itself during the gang war.
“The Second Coming of Buddy Holly” Edward Bryant An Aids-Wild Card awareness concert may bring rocker Buddy Holly — who is still alive in this universe—out of retirement, and will change his life more than he knows.
“The Hue of a Mind” Stephen Leigh An Arab woman with precognition sees the secrets of Puppetman.
“Addicted to Love” Pat Cadigan The parasitic Ti Malice has come to New York, looking for new “mounts” to live through.
“Takedown” Leanne C. Harper The Mob turns against Rosemary as the war goes against them.
“Mortality” Walter Jon Williams Being killed once has given Modular Man a fear of Death that propels his efforts to hunt down The Sleeper.

The quality of the writing here is excellent.  There isn’t a story here that I can say is bad.  Certainly, “The Second Coming of Buddy Holly” seems a little bit out of place, but that is forgivable, considering just how good it is.  I was least interested in the Mary Muldoon/Maria Gambione story line.  She’s never been one of my favorite characters, but I do like some of the peripheral characters in that story, including Bagabond, Sewer Jack, and Croyd Crenson (of course).  I ALWAYS wish for more Brennan someone who really is one of my favorites.  But I’m thankful for what I get.  He both starts and ends the book on high notes.

Now, I have to wait a bit before I can get book 6, Ace in the Hole.  I have it pre-ordered from Amazon in e-book format, and I should be getting it on October 4th.  If you are desperate, you certainly can get older editions of it, but I prefer electronic format because I take my kindle everywhere.  I’m excited about it because, from my vague memory of the book, it was one of my all-time favorites of the entire series.  It’s the culmination of the whole Puppetman story, and it takes place entirely at the 1988 democratic convention.  At least it’s out before election day.

 

George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards

I was thinking about writing a review of the latest book that I’ve been reading, Wild Cards V: Down and Dirty.  But then I thought that maybe before I do that, that I give an introduction to the series as a whole.  This is because, while HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has turned George RR Martin into a minor celebrity, most people don’t know anything else about him, especially the fact that he’s done more of value than “A Tale of Ice and Fire”, the series that “Game of Thrones” is based on.  And my personal favorite of those things has been his creation of “Wild Cards”, and his leadership (along with Melinda Snodgrass) of the writers of that series.

Back in 1980, when Mr. Martin moved to the Albuquerque area, he discovered  a gaming group that several other writers participated in, and he joined up.  One game that they played which was game-mastered by Martin, was a pencil and paper rpg called “Superworld”.  In this game, the players, would create their own super-powered heroes to have ‘adventures’, moderated by the ‘gm’.  From this game, Martin had the idea to create a literary shared universe, that he and his fellow writers/gamers could play in.  And thus, Wild Cards was born.

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In a literary shared universe, the idea is to invite other writers to collaborate and to split up writing duties, within the framework of an overarching plot, created by Martin.  Some of the players brought their superhero creations (with modifications) to Wild Cards, while other writers who were not part of the gaming group were also invited to participate.

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One of several covers for the first Wild Cards books — it pictures Dr. Tachyon landing on earth for the first time, and his living ship Baby is in the background

The first book, titled simply Wild Cards, was a series of connected short stories, that gave the premise of the series, and introduced many important characters.  The premise is that after the end of World War II, an alien who calls himself “Dr. Tachyon” lands on earth to warn that some people from his homeworld were planning on releasing a dangerous virus on earth, as an experiment.  He’s treated with a great deal of suspicion at first, but eventually people start to believe him.  On a fateful day in 1946, the WWII ace pilot, nicknamed “Jetboy” fights heroically to prevent the release of virus “Takis-A” over the streets of Manhattan… and fails, dying in the process.  Thus, the Wild Cards universe is born.

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A cover from Wild Cards 4 that depicts Chrysalis, a Jokertown information broker.  She has the dirt on everyone, and everything but won’t share it… unless there’s someone who can pay her price.

Takis-A is dubbed the Wild Cards virus because it has a different affect on everyone who is infected with it.  90% of people with it simply die a painful and hideous death. People in the world have a name for that — ‘drawing the Black Queen’.

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Steve Jackson Games created a Wild Cards supplement for their GURPS role playing system.  This cover pictures Dr. Tachyon and one an unknown female, being confronted by Fortunato, one of the most powerful Aces in the Wild Cards universe.  Fortunato is a pimp who gains incredible mental powers.  In a twist, he has to recharge those powers though tantric sex.  (yeah, Wild Cards goes there)  Fortunato is one of my all-time favorite Wild Cards characters.

All of those who survive their infection, end up genetically altered.  Thus the Wild Cards infection can be inherited.   About 90% of those with the virus will become deformed in some way.  The theory is that how one specifically is affected has to do with the psyche of the individual.   But it’s usually to the detriment of the person.  People who are so deformed become known as ‘Jokers’.  Many end up living as outcasts in slums and ghettos, the most famous of which is Jokertown in Manhattan.  Jokers include Chrysalis, who has completely transparent skin — when you look at her, you see all her bones and blood vessels and muscles, and Snotman who…. well you can imagine.

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A cover from one edition of the second Wild Cards novel pictures Jube, a simple newspaper salesman who everyone seems to know.  He may be more than he appears to be

A few rare individuals, those who neither die nor become deformed by the virus, actually gain beneficial abilities, and those people are dubbed Aces.  Some, like Thomas Tudbury, decide to put their abilities to heroic use — he uses his incredibly powerful telekinetic ability to become “The Great and Powerful Turtle”. Others use their abilities for more mundane purposes — Hiram Worchester who gains the ability to control gravity, has a brief stint as a costumed vigilante named fatman, but soon turns his powers as a tool to allow himself to eat as much as he wants, and remain relatively weightless.  He opens up one of the most famous restaurants in New York, “Aces High”, where he enjoys feeding all of the celebrities and Aces who come to New York as well as wealthier tourists who come to star-gaze.  A few turn their talents to crime, such as Jennifer Malloy, aka “Wraith”, who uses her ability to walk through walls, to become a rather successful burglar.

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Dr. Tachyon meets Albert Einstein (from Wild Cards 1)

Wild Cards is an alternate history series, in which super-powered individuals exist.  It originated in the same era that produced “Watchmen”, a graphic novel that posed the question “What if REAL people put on costumes and fought crime”.  The people (and even the aliens) in Wild Cards are real people.  Thomas Tudbury, aka The Turtle, who I mentioned above, is one of the most powerful heroes in the Wild Cards universe.  But he suffers from PTSD after a very specific incident that almost kills him.  Dr. Tachyon falls in love with a married woman.  He also is exiled to France when he refuses to testify and name names to congress, in a scene similar to the historic communist witch hunts of the 1950s, where he spends years on the streets as an alcoholic.  There’s also a robotic hero known as “Modular Man” who’s story is reminiscent of Pinocchio.  But in this case, his creator is a psychotic Wild Card infected idiot savant-like genius who really doesn’t care about anything other than himself.

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A cover from a spanish-language edition of Wild Cards 4: Aces Abroad.  It’s one of my favorite pictures of Peregrine, the winged superhero who becomes a talk show host.

Numerous writers have created characters for and written either short stories or novels or collaborated on the mosaic novels.  Melinda Snodgrass, Roger Zelazny, Lewis Shiner, Pat Cadigan, Edward Bryant, Michael Cassutt, Stephen Leigh, Leanne C. Harper, Chris Claremont, and others have all contributed to the Wild Cards universe.

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Jet Boy — a key character of the Wild Cards universe.  His tomb is an NYC landmark and spot for annual Wild Card day observances.

I will say that the series as a whole is far from perfect.  Book 4 (“Aces Abroad”), for example, is a lot less fun than any of the books that came before it.  After the first 6 or 7 books, the series got quite dark, so dark that people started to complain.  I will admit that at some point along the way that I lost interest, partly because a lot of my favorite characters were dead, or inactive, and because of a long gap in the publishing so that I had lost the general thread of the story.  Now that the books are being reissued, i plan to read the rest of them.  But it’s hard to outdo some of the excellent books that appeared early in the series (particularly books 1-3 and Book 6, which is my favorite).

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Brennan, aka Yeoman — he’s a bow-wielding non-powered hero with a vendetta.

Anyway, if you like superhero stories, or science fiction, or George R.R. Martin, then I highly recommend the series, at least the early books (1-7 for sure, granted book 4 is a hiccup, but it’s not bad, and it’s well worth continuing to what follows).  Whether you decide to read further than that, is up to you.  But 1 to 7 are must-reads, certainly for all superhero fans.

Keep an eye out for my upcoming review of Book 5, “Down and Dirty”.

Ex-Isle by Peter Clines

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Ex-Isle is the 5th and latest book in Peter Clines “Ex-Heroes” series.  The series is a kind of mash-up of two different genres — Superhero meets Zombie Apocalypse.  The series so far consists of Ex-Heroes, Ex-Patriots, Ex-CommunicationEx-Purgatory, and this novel.  The general premise is that superheroes exist and when the zombie apocalypse arrives in the summer of 2009, most of them work towards making sure that humanity survives.

One of the last bastions of humanity is “The Mount”, a former movie studio converted into a walled-off community, guarded by the remnants of a military super-soldier program (lead by Captain Freedom), as well as some prominent superheroes.  There’s Stealth, a secretive and elusive woman, capable of disappearing into the shadows — she’s the leader of the community.  There’s also St. George (formerly “The Mighty Dragon”), a superman-like hero, with super-strength, near invulnerability, and a fiery breath.  There’s Zzzap, aka Barry, a handicapped young man with the ability to turn himself into an energy form that is capable of flight at incredible speeds, perceiving energy of all different forms and wavelengths,  and burning things up (at great physical cost to himself).  There’s Madeleine, Aka Corpse Girl, an apparently dead, but animated teenage girl, created through a scientists experiments with nanotechnology to heal his daughter — she awakens every morning with most of her memories erased.  There’s Danielle, who maintains and operates the Cerberus mechanical exoskeleton, an incredibly powerful device that makes her, effectively, a superhero as well.  Unfortunately, Cerberus was nearly destroyed and is months away from being fully operational when the novel begins.  And there’s Cesar, aka “the Driver”, a man capable of merging with any mechanical device (including Cerberus) and controlling it as if it’s his actual body.

This particular novel is split into two separate stories occurring simultaneously.  Barry/Zzzap has been flitting around the globe, trying to locate and communicate with other human outposts.  After a visit to Japan, he stumbles upon a huge floating island consisting of lots of boats and ships tied together. He convinces Stealth to allow St. George, Madeleine and himself to visit with the inhabitants of the island, offer trade, possibly lend them assistance if they need it, or allow anyone to emigrate to the Mount, if they so desire. Meanwhile,  the mount has a major project going on to set up a whole new area for agricultural expansion — it’s dubbed Project Eden and it’s risky because it is outside of the walls of the Mount, and not yet secure. Cesar, and most of the super-soldiers are tasked with protecting the people there while they farm, and shore up defenses.  Danielle accompanies them with the Cerberus armor, to continue repairing it, and lend whatever assistance she can as the suit becomes more fit for duty.

Of course, there would be no story to tell if everything went according to plan.  The floating island is led by another superhero who calls himself Nautilus.  He accuses St. George of being an impostor — he was friends with the real Mighty Dragon, and that’s not him. And meanwhile, suspicions arise at Eden that things there are not exactly as they seem there either.

I have not read any other zombie books, though I understand that in these days of “The Walking Dead”, that they’ve become very popular.  I am a fan of “The Walking Dead” television series and comic books (though I’ve only been reading the omnibus and trade paperback collections, so I’m not really caught up with them).  Of superhero books, I was a minor comic book fan back in the late 1970s, and early ’80s, and have recently started reading a few trade paperbacks from both Marvel and DC.  As far as non-graphical books though, there’s a few good ones out there.  The best of them, imho, is George R.R. Martin’s “Wild Cards” series.  But the Ex-Heroes series is fun as well.  The Zombie-superhero mashup is not perfect, but it’s still good fun.  I’d never claim that these books are anything but what they strive to be — simply mindless entertainment.  But if you like stories about superheroes, or stories about zombies., this series will satisfy your urges.  It’s not the best out there, but it’s good fun.  And the series format keeps you coming back to revisit with your favorite characters.

If you like superheroes (and nowadays, who doesn’t?), and if you like Zombies (like in The Walking Dead), then check this out.  If you like them both, then this series of books will be perfect for you.  I would definitely recommend reading the books in order, to understand the characters better, and to understand how The Mount has survived and grown to the point of the start of the novel, and to learn about some of the earlier events that are referenced.  You probably could catch on to all the important stuff (hey, the zombie apocalypse is pretty easy to get a handle on).  But you won’t get some of the background info, and following the whole larger story from novel to novel is part of the fun.

Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye by Michael Shermer

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Michael Shermer’s newest book is a collection of 75 of his earliest skeptical essays from Scientific American. Some of the articles include additional comments due to new information. In some cases, the original articles had to be trimmed for length to meet SA’s requirements, so extra material may be included in these versions.

I first discovered Michael Shermer when I found one of his books, Why People Believe Weird Things in a big pile of science fiction books at a science fiction convention (this is actually less strange than it sounds — many people who read science fiction also tend to be deeply interested in science, and consequently, skepticism). I simply devoured that book. I also strongly recommend Why Darwin Matters

As a casual reader of “Scientific American”, I was well aware of his column in that magazine — quite often, I would jump directly to it after receiving each new issue. The articles are always intelligent, and concise, mostly entertaining, and they tackle interesting topics, sometimes in ways that I had not anticipated. This collection includes articles covering a diverse set of topics, including human nature and psychology, intelligent design, medical quackery, religion, the parapsychology, and so on.

One of my favorite articles — one that really stood out because of how it related to a recent on-line conversation I had, was actually about probability and the Law of Large numbers. When people talk about miracles, they usually refer to things happening that are not impossible, just extremely unlikely. What Mr. Shermer does is that he uses the Law of Large Numbers to explain that such events aren’t actually unlikely at all, but are, in fact, inevitable.

For example, a common story (and actually, a friend told me of his own similar experience) is that a person has a dream about someone, and the next day, they receive a phone call telling them that the person has died. On the surface, this seems to be most improbable.

“…suppose you know of ten people a year who die, and that you think about each of those people once a year. One year contains 105,120 five-minute intervals during which you might think about each of the ten people, a probability of 1 out of 10,512, certainly an improbable event. However, there are 321 million Americans (in 2015). Assuming, for the sake of our calculation, that they think like you, 1/10,512 x 321,000,000 = 30,537 people per year, or 84 people per day for whom this improbable premonition becomes probable.”

The book is very fast reading, largely because of the brief and concise nature of each article, and because Michael Shermer can present his ideas (and those of others) in very entertaining ways. The articles are divided up into chapters, entitled “Science”, “Skepticism”, “Pseudoscience and Quackery”, “The Paranormal and the Supernatural”, “Aliens and UFOs”, “Borderlands Science and Alternative Medicine”, “Psychology and the Brain”, “Human Nature”, “Evolution and Creationism”, and “Science, Religion, Miracles, and God”. Overall, there’s something for almost everyone interested in science, skepticism and why we often stray away from logic and sensibility in our beliefs. I highly recommend it, and I look forward to future collections of his SA articles.