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Demon in My View (Den of Shadows)
Demon in My View (Den of Shadows)
by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
Edition: Hardcover
90 used & new from $0.01

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Speaking well with borrowed tongues., July 18, 2002
Every true writer loves the language he works with. Some go as far as to become poets, linguists, philologists. Others become fluent in obscure languages to acquaint themselves with the literary legacies of long-gone peoples (and understand Enya's lyrics in the process). Word by word, each one crafts his peculiar voice, the quality that makes the author's writing unmistakable. Precocious Amelia has no such voice of her own. She uses short words, and she uses long words, but no matter how hard she tries, her writing stays flat on the page, as lifeless and uninvolving as any other hack writer's.
This is a key point: Atwater-Rhodes is a real writer. She has the mechanical skill, and her prose reads quickly and evenly (partly because of the size of the print and the extremely small pages). But she simply does not challenge herself. Amelia can gauge her abilities, and does not overextend (unlike, say, the young Anselm Audley, whose unpremeditated foray into the world of multivolume fantasy has produced a lumbering disaster), but her second novel is written entirely on auto-pilot. One YA cliche dictates another, and before the 100-odd-page book shows a glimmer of meaning, it is over. "Demon In My View" is easily the most contrived and artificial read in recent memory. No character is explored in any depth, no relationship is substantiated, no idea is given legs to stand on. Her millennia-old vampires act like sulky teens, and no rambling about proud bloodlines and anaesthetic saliva can change that. The author seems intent on destroying any possible suspense. The very moment sporty teenage agents of darkness move into Ramsa High, the narration switches over to their perspective, so we can listen in on the telepathic conversations and find out the backstory.
The heavy lugubrium is easily funnier. The characters are never established as personalities, and they simply cannot be taken seriously as they amble about, spitting paltry curses ("Bite me!") and tightly-wadded bits of dialog that positively drips with sarcasm. This is especially funny during a combat scene that lasts fully two chapters.
In other authors' work you can find evidence of rich, full lives, obscure kowledge, professional tidbits, personal insights. As David Gerrold confides in his "The Martian Child", even the earthquake that has just destroyed your house is source material for a writer. "Demon In My View", on the other hand, could have been pulled out of thin air, and probably was. Dull, inane, meaningless.
P.S.: Every novel of this sort must include a line of vicarious gratification. Here is Amelia's - "Jessica well knew she had a body and a face to die for." And, as another reviewer has noted, the way Jessica ignores her mother's death is absolutely disgusting.

Secrets of the Camera Obscura
Secrets of the Camera Obscura
by David Knowles
Edition: Hardcover
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not all things are as they appear in the camera obscura..., June 6, 2002
The camera obscura is housed in a small, box-like, concrete building atop a hill overlooking the ocean surf. The only clues that it isn't a storage shed or a utility space are the worlds - GIANT CAMERA -- painted in black on one side. Which is precisely what the device is -- a giant camera. A series of mirrors reflects the panorama of the Pacific onto a screen in the center of the dark chamber, creating an image that is almost magical in its beauty. It is a sight that has sparked deadly rivalry. It has driven men mad. It has claimed lives. In fact, it's still doing it... right now.
Near the end of my first reading of Knowles' esceptional novella, I asked myself: what authority does the author have to recast the major figures of history as deviants and scoundrels? Does the end result justify his means? In my humble opinion, the answer is a resounding "yes!". Underneath an insipid and meandering exterior, Knowles' novella is a gem of precise plotting, polished tone, and bizarre vignettes (one character is described as having invented the submarine "to escape the world of women on land"). It takes real talent to write something so consistently humorous and puzzling, even upon re-reading (in fact, I suggest reading the book twice - it's a mere 138 pages long, a night's reading).
Even the author's mundane, conversational language and the little, irritating, anachronistic faux-pas he commits so frequently (like art "yet to be hung" on the walls of Leonardo's Vatican, or sugar cubes in Vermeer's Delft) and his main character tries to pass off as historical truth serve to gradually estblish the narrator as a less than sympathetic character.
In the end, the book boils down to the question whether the camera does indeed bear an ancient curse, or if the "patterns of history" are siply products of an agitated imagination. I lean toard the latter, that the narrator is playing out his fantasies in his research journals, but there is no real, unequivocable evidence either way. Then again, who is the blind woman in the photograph? Is Darin as innocent as he claims? What did happen on that foggy night? It's easy to jump to the obvious conclusion, but far more tantalizing to ponder the possibilities.
For what it's worth reading, "The Secrets of the Camera Obscura" is worth reading twice. I hope I have helped you make the decision whether it's worth reading at all.

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos)
Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos)
by Dan Simmons
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.14
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11 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars ..At the Tabard as I lay, redy to wenden on my pilgrymage..., April 30, 2002
On the eve of interstellar war, seven travellers set out on the last pilgrimage to the Time Tombs of Hyperion: the Priest, the Soldier, the Poet, the Scholar, the Navigator, the Detective, and the Consul. Each has been in some way touched by the planet's curse. Each is compelled - by love, guilt, passion, duty, or fear - to return to the beginning place and petition the deadliest, most inhuman creature in the universe to grant him his one wish. One of the seven is a spy for the enemy. The success (or failure) of their expedition will determine the fate of three civilizations.
Yes, there is no denying that "Hyperion" is the work of a master. Dan Simmons is a more than capable writer, versatile, talented, with a wide range of influences. His style is bold, engaging, and assertive (he has a Hugo to show for it).
There is also no denying that "Hyperion" is an ambitious, highly original novel. It is a rich bouillabaisse of genres and narrative structures, loosely adapting the form of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and filling it with jungle adventure worthy of H. Rider Haggard, Philip K. Dickian idiosyncratic mirages, gritty hard-boiled detective fiction, and human drama on par with Card and LeGuin at their best. With a manifold novel like this, variety is at least part of the fun. Simmons perfectly maintains the tones and personalities of his characters, and each of the pilgrims' tales is truly independent.
However, enjoyment isn't part of the recipe. Underneath the trappings of a whiz-bang space opera, the first novel in Simmons' quartet is a subtly repulsive dystopia. The author's galaxy-spanning world-web is a consumerist paradise that has so thoroughly rejected any notion of social conscience, and is filled with such inane, mindless accessory characters, that it is difficult to imagine how it came about. "Hyperion" leaves the reader with no hope for humanity. The novel's mood is perhaps best expressed in its first image: that of a man passionately playing Rachmaninoff on a Steinway while the alien wilderness surges below against the hull of his ship.
Furthermore, it takes a conscious effort to come to terms with the fact that "Hyperion" is told almost entirely through flashbacks, while the central narrative does not really begin until the second book. And while it is useless to complain about the cliffhanger ending, the author might have chosen a more dramatic place to cut off the narrative.
Lastly, entire sections of the book reek of the arrogance of an overindulgent author who is aware of his brilliance. In tale after tale Simmons plumbs the depths of raunchy sex and bad imitative verse (even going as far as to dedicate the sequel to John Keats). Dollops of sophomoric cynicism and non-stop profanity float here and there.
Out of the six tales in "Hyperion", I found three to be unreadable, repetitive, and highly pedestrian. The other three are sublime. It's up to you to decide which ones.

Searching for Dragons: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Book Two
Searching for Dragons: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Book Two
by Patricia C. Wrede
Edition: Hardcover
47 used & new from $0.01

9 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars One step forward, two steps back., April 17, 2002
I'm prone to get offended when someone calls a favorite book of mine a "fun romp." Quite honestly, there is no other way to describe the second book in Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest chronicles. The author throws together a handful of screwball characters and a dull, obligatory plot, and cooks up a forgettable sequel that reads like an episode of a Saturday-morning cartoon show, rather than a stand-alone novel.
Say what: I'll give Wrede the benefit of the doubt and hazard a guess that "Searching" was ghostwritten. It certainly feels like an uninspired effort of a second-rate writer. "Searching" is "Dealing" distilled to a formula and duplicated. Thus, in the first book Cimorene runs away from home, finds out that living with a dragon isn't all fun and games (but still better than being married off to an air-headed princeling), and thwarts the wizards' dastardly plans to usurp the rulership of the dragons' kingdom. In this second novel we again find a young, worthy character embarking on a quest, meeting another person who severely challenges his preconceptions, forming a tentative union, and thwarting the wizards, who this time around have their eye set on the Enchanted Forest's magic supply. The only difference is that the narrative is now centered on King Mendanbar, a remarkably dry character, while Cimorene (in a vastly diminished form) occupies an insubstantial secondary role. Friendship, and eventually romance between the two seem sudden and far-fetched. Morwen's character is expanded, without great success. The author creates a male counterpart for her, Telemain, whose constant jargon is a major nuisance. Other new characters are introduced, but appear too late in the story to make any real impact.
Because of the obligatory non-plot this book is so heavily yoked with, the narrative fairly weezes along. The dialog seems to repeat over and over and over: the characters argue, remind themselves of their goals, urge others to go on, etc. The opening chapaters are largely spent investigating different courses of events, but questions that appear are completely ignored in the end, when everyone is much too busy running around and splashing wizards with soapy water (the possibility of war between the dragons and the Enchanted Forest is mentioned at one point, but quickly forgotten).
"Searching for Dragons" did not answer the one question that I had, which was why the wizards were so perfidious. What malign drive incites them to their machinations? What sort of society produces them? Not much can be deduced from the wizards' last gurgling curses, and they remain the same cardboard villains they were in the previous novel.
The book's humor was hit-and-miss. The parody is aimless and inconsistent. Wrede's portrayal of her fantasy realm is hardly original: the Enchanted Forest is a respectable institution that processes adventurers (much like an amusement park processes its clients); the theme was explored better by Diane Wynne Jones' in her "The Tough Guide to Fantasyland" and Terry Brooks' "Magic Kingdom for Sale - Sold!". Yes, this is light fantasy, but the first had both ambition and bite, while this one has neither. Two nights of silly fun.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 14, 2010 9:22 AM PST

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break
The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break
by Steven Sherrill
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.86
64 used & new from $1.71

13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A maze of eroded myths, a frail hope for tomorrow., April 14, 2002
It is a rare and special book that inspires the reader to respect it, not as an object of art but as a life story of someone we can only know through writing. The truth is, "The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break" is much more about the physical, tangible reality of M the Minotaur's experience than it is about the conceptual fact of his existence. A lesser book would incite a flurry of cannibalistic nit-picking; Sherrill's first provokes thought, and perhaps admiration. To dissemble it would be to diminish its accomplishment, and to ruin the experience of reading along with that.
Thus, given half a chance, I could go on and on about the branching, tangential nature of the narrative, the stream-of-consciousness writing style, the deft interweaving of near-metaphors (like the irritated scarline that divides the Minotaur's body into black and white halves). But I won't. To do so would be to miss the point. Passages like
"The Minotaur watches the crow pull the tissues out of the box until there are no more. Then the bird flies away."
do not feel like artificial devices that the author forcibly introduced into the narrative to feign perspicacity. To misquote artist Paul Klee, Sherrill does not render visible; he renders the vsible. His viewpoint character has no great insights to share. M's vision is all the more piercing precisely because it is unclouded by preconceptions. He is much too human and fallible to achieve any great wisdom, but a lifespan that measures in millennia has eroded what vices and grandeur he once may have possessed.
So, how does one address this novel in its integral, atomic entirety? It is a story of several days' events in the Minotaur's lonely, turbulent life. It is a story about cars, and cooking, and dysfunctional families, and abuse, and concealed emotions. It is melancholy, and weary, and real. It is carried by the quality and strength of its imagery (Sherrill's background as a poet is evident in every scent and sound of the Grub's Rib restaurant).
A touching, delicate, challenging novel. Highly recommended.

Dealing with Dragons: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Book One
Dealing with Dragons: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Book One
by Patricia C. Wrede
Edition: Hardcover
40 used & new from $0.01

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A flight of fantasy with some minor turbulence., April 1, 2002
Princess Cimorene, the youngest of eight, is firmly convinced that she is the only being in Linderwall with a brain in her head. She is, well, different: tall, black-haired, and, to her royal parents' great dipleasure, as stubborn as a mule. She'd rather study sorcery and economics and cooking instead of etiquette or embroidery. Upon finding herself betrothed to the Prince of a neighboring (emphasis on boring) kingdom, she takes a frog's good advice, finds a decrepit hut in the wilderness, and enters just in time for an argument between three voices who may or may not decide to eat her. Thus begins the first story about Cimorene's adventures among the dragonkind.
Consistency is a problem for humorous fantasy on the novel scale, and this light-hearted pastiche runs into its share of slow spells. What elevates "Dealing with Dragons" above the morass of lackluster fantasy is Wrede's energy: she writes with brevity and zest. Still, the book disappoints when it goes from the sparkling fancy of:
"Speaking of dragons, where's yours?" "She's gone to the Enchanted Forest to borrow a crepe pan from a witch she knows."
to a non-story about sneaky wizards and whatnot. Besides primitive villains who are not even funny, the novel suffers from moments of extreme contrivance: small, irrelevant details are always obvious as set-ups for upcoming plot twists (hmm, why did Cimorene pick up a pebble in the Caves of Fire and Darkness?). Wrede very successfully pokes fun at the fairy-tale tradition, only to get trapped in the less appealing cliches of modern fantasy when it comes time to build a plot of her own.
Still, more than a few episodes are both clever and funny (like the knights' continual efforts to save Cimorene from "captivity"). The young princess is a cohesive, effective heroine, while her friendship with the dragon Kazul develops along realistic paths. Two and a half nights of harmless fun. The sequel is already in my reading pile.

Atlantis - The Lost Empire (Walt Disney Pictures Presents) [VHS]
Atlantis - The Lost Empire (Walt Disney Pictures Presents) [VHS]
Offered by 3D Collectibles
Price: $2.88
119 used & new from $0.10

12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars No story, no sense, no fun., April 1, 2002
Here's a Disney cartoon that is so careless about self-consistency, so heedless of logic and common sense, and offends the viewer's intellect and sensibility so constantly, that after watching you will be either very disappointed or very confused.
The good first: "Atlantis" is both pretty and funny. Not spectacular by any means, but it has its moments. Almost every one was featured in a commercial ("Look: I made a bridge!"), but you can expect a pretty picture and a chuckle now and then. The characters are wild exaggerations, memorable and amply humorous.
The rest, however, fares much worse. The story - a feeble distillation of the themes of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic "The Lost World" through the artless violence and brooding tone of Fox's "Titan A.E." - is extremely vague and evasive when it comes to the telling. The film clings resolutely to the most brain-dead, auto-pilot cliches there are: a bumbling genius no one believes, scheming military, ancient technology, exotic yet noble natives... I got confused just trying to remember whether I was watching "Atlantis" or "Stargate".
The perspective darts from place to place. The image is often dark, or obscured, or distant, or in motion; the viewer constantly strains for a better look. The action scenes are strangely bowdlerized. Think James Cameron's "Abyss" edited for children. You see a pilot, then you see his vehicle explode, but you aren't allowed to make the connection.
"Atlantis" does not even try to make sense. You will frequently see characters defy the laws of physics and logical, sane storytelling. As a sort of caveat, below is an abbreviated list of questions that popped into my head while watching.
Let's see: Atlantis exists underwater... in a cave? In an air pocket? Why is there blue sky with clouds above it? If there is a river of lava and a waterfall in Atlantis, shouldn't it be continually bathed in scalding steam? How do you suspend a weight from one chain, when four have already snapped? When attacking a dirigible while riding a mechanical laser-beam-spewing fish, why hack at the balloon with a bone saw? Why not just shoot it? Why, for that matter, does a hot-air balloon burn? How did Rourke hide his death troopers (and their machine guns and motor gliders) on the lifeboats with no one noticing? How did the Atlanteans lose all their advanced technology if it's all still right there, and they're immortal? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Thus, to reiterate: it is impossible to watch "Atlantis" without laughing at all the wrong moments, except as a lights show.

The Dreaming Jewels
The Dreaming Jewels
by Theodore Sturgeon
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.40
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More an adventure story than an SF novel, March 20, 2002
This review is from: The Dreaming Jewels (Paperback)
Here is the one novel that wholeheartedly belongs in the children's section. "The Dreaming Jewels" is so soft, gentle, easy-going, and clear-cut that it hardly leaves any impression on the mind. It coddles the reader, croons reassuringly into his ear. Sturgeon has taken risks and written daring novels ("Venus Plus X", etc.), but this, his debut effort, is as old-fashioned as they come. This is the sort of novel in which the young hero saves the beautiful heroine from the clutches of the nefarious villain and inherits a fortune.
The first mental adjustment the reader must make is to realize that this is a story being told, not narrated. The impression of the author speaking through the book isn't as strong as in some of Heinlein's juveniles, but constant and unremitting. Sometimes Sturgeon injects bits of ad lib humor into the text("Here she generated, on the spot, the most diffuse and colorful statement of her entire life"); unfortunately, at other times he manipulates and obscures certain story elements to create artificial suspense (a young child is passed for a midget; ten years pass with no one noticing; only much later do we learn that the child can change shape). Sturgeon also bleeps his own profanity, which is fairly amusing.
The characters are the greatest disappointment. Introduced as strong, memorable individuals, they gradually become cardboard scenery in the great cosmic conflict between Horty and the Maneater. The Maneater, the manic, scheming master of the freaks created with alien crystals, is perhaps the novel's only interesting character, though even at best a caricature. Horty Bluett, on the other hand, is just the sort of hero you want to stop reading about: a Superman clone who can change shape and size at will, has a perfect memory, and always acts a gentleman.
Despite moments of extreme Dickensian cheesyness and a string of unbelievable last-moment revelations, this two-hundred-page novel is a quick, pleasant read. "The Dreaming Jewels" is far and away one of the author's least successful novels, but its cohesive qualities show just why Sturgeon is a Grandmaster of the genre.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 11, 2010 7:02 PM PST

Heresy Book One
Heresy Book One
by Anselm Audley
Edition: Hardcover
48 used & new from $0.01

21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars To call this a novel - an insult. To publish it - heresy., March 4, 2002
This review is from: Heresy Book One (Hardcover)
Dear. God. What an awful book. Audley's total lack of skill shows frightening consistency. Four hundred pages and none of them worth reading. This is the first book in a very long time I have absolutely nothing good to say about.
Audley's prose is halting, cumbersome, infantile, full of run-ons, and deliberately pompous. Awkward words like "tiredness" keep popping up. The characters' actions are often illogical and entirely unmotivated, while their personalities change arbitrarily from chapter to chapter. Audley's worldbuilding efforts are laughable. If Aquasilva's global ocean is 11,000 miles deep, why do landmasses exist at all? What are "flamewood" and "seawood", besides cheap excuses not to invent real technology? The "mantas" have flown straight out of Star Trek, force-field defenses and all ("Increase shield strength as much as you can, and launch the pressure charges!") The politics of Audley's world are muddled and confusing. Half the countries mentioned aren't even on his map. Who conquered what and when are questions that long for real answers. When a king is assassinated, not only would I have been hard-pressed to identify what exactly he ruled, but that he existed at all. It is also unclear why Aquasilva's organised religion is so totally corrupt. Audley's bad guys aren't even bad as individuals; his Domain is a facelessly nefarious force of such absolute, uneffable evil that it must be hated wholeheartedly and without explanation.
As for the device of first-person narration - wishful thinking. In a certain scene a young woman rather spontaneously teaches the viewpoint hero "the arts of the night", which he finds rather pleasant. The young woman is never again mentioned. Cathan does however, have three other love interests, so that he can swtich between them as situation dictates. Throughout the book it is also revealed that he is a brilliant strategist, a superb swordsman, and the most powerful mage on the planet.
The bottom line is that Audley just doesn't know enough - as a writer as well as a person - to tackle a project of such scale. He cobbles together a semblance of a plot, and then barely manages to keep it from disintegrating. He tries to prove his worth as a storyteller through scrupulous attention to minor detail, which is not only distracting and irritating to the reader, but also exposes Audley's weaknesses, forcing him to demonstrate non-existent technical knowledge. A better writer would have done research... Because of this there are scenes of staggering, jaw-dropping idiocy, such as when Cathan conjures up and is washed away and covered "up to the neck" by a ton - one cubic meter - of water.
I would like to say that the author might improve with future novels, but I doubt he will. Audley shows no particular affinity for fantasy; he is looking for easy victories and takes too many shortcuts to generate anything worth reading. His debut is easily the worst book I've read all year.

Gun, With Occasional Music: A Novel
Gun, With Occasional Music: A Novel
by Jonathan Lethem
Edition: Paperback
114 used & new from $0.01

7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" goes "Back to the Future", February 25, 2002
Lethem's first book is a real mixed bag. It has bright ideas and not-so-bright ideas, some of which he develops more than others, a shambles of a plot filled to the brim with clever scenes and memorable characters, and a nice cheeky attitude of a gumshoe novel transported into a warped, Philip K. Dickian future. Sometimes it keeps you glued to the page. Other times you feel like closing it and walking away.
First and foremost, "Gun, With Occasional Music" is a highly introverted novel. Lethem toys with a mannered, satirical tone that is sometimes irritating but can generate a chuckle now and then ("the dentist swiveled on his heels and disappeared, leaving me there to massage my jaw back into feeling after its brief, masochistic marriage to the top of my wooden desk"). Like Dick, he tosses around a lot of concepts no one takes seriously at first, but gradually become familiar: his big city is populated in part by "evolved" animals ("she was wearing a bonnet and a flowered dress, but she still smelled like the barnyard") and "babyheads", pre-aged children ("in a babybar, the drinking started early"). In fact, echoes of Dick show up in every part of the novel, from the underlying themes of coming to terms with reality and ambivalent ethics. Lethem even begins by waking his character with a rather bizarre contraption, much like Dick in his "Do Androids Dream...?" (Deckard is woken up by his mood organ, while Metcalf wakes up to the musical interpretation of the news), and drugs figure prominently in both authors' books ("Acceptol with just a touch of Regrettol").
The greatest problem is that all this inherited potential is trapped inside a do-not-resuscitate post-structuralist plot told from the POV of a character that has charisma, but is not taken advantage of. Lethem's hero is technically investigating a murder in his own time (his unique sense of duty won't let him quit), but if Conrad Metcalf is "playing it too existentially", so is Lethem: left without a clue, his hero wanders from place to place, tries to wheedle information from people (sometimes very ominous and powerful people, whom he has no apparent reason to visit), precipitates trouble on himself, and the cycle starts over. The pacing suffers, and the tension slumps when it becomes apparent that Metcalf will keep up his valiant and foolhardy efforts despite his lack of success. For a great length of time it seems that the plot leads nowhere. The novel is saddled with scenes of sophomoric foul language, gruesome violence, and rather meaningless sex.
Lethem revives his novel in an unexpected second act that seems as if it was written separately. This isn't the sort of book to have a "Part 2", and Lethem shows great skill in his use of this rather exotic device. "Gun, With Occasional Music" ends with a powerfully written, poignant sequence of scenes that not only resolves every technical detail of the mystery, but also manages to prevent the reader from feeling cheated.
Unimpressive, with moments of occasional genius.

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