Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Interlude: Finding a Little Seoul

For the first time since Liv and I have started traveling together, we chose to set the itinerary aside and just make most of our decisions on the spot. We got lost. A lot. We lost our way around subway stations, around underground markets, even in the streets just behind our cheap hotel. Downtown. In the suburbs. But then again, we didn't mind getting lost. We laughed and smiled when we walked around in circles or got off at the wrong stop or lost count of the bridges during our nighttime stroll along Cheonggyecheon Stream.

It always pays to smile.
At The Stories of King Sejong and Admiral Yi
At the Changdeokgung Palace grounds
A mecca for lovers of K-drama
The view from the N Seoul Tower
At Insadong's colorful Ssamziegil

And when we remembered, we'd find a quiet place for coffee or tea. We'd alternately save and splurge, the same way we'd alternately rest our tired feet and keep on walking with drinks in hand. We'd talk about the lives from which we've taken respite, hug our coats and drinks a little closer, and make sure we'd always have a reason to smile.

This moment was one of mine.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Experiment.

By the time this post goes up, I should be in Korea, getting my fill of trendy little cafes and charming indie pop bands (wait for me, Standing EGG and Sweetpea!) and fangirl delusions. I've nixed Lonely Planet for Chinggay Labrador's Popped Too. I have Korean phrases written down on trusty index cards for emergencies: Please don't make it spicy or Where is the toilet?

But the real experiment is trying to go for about a week without checking my mail or my blog or my play-by-post RPG. Maybe it will work. Maybe I'll find myself experiencing major withdrawal before the week even begins. But here's to exploring the world outside my computer. See you!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel (Elias Anderson & EC Belikov)

Though the premise of Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel makes it look like your standard-issue adventure fare, it plumbs unexpected depths to make the reading experience quite worth your while. It opens strong on the action as it tells the story of the crew of the airship Masamune: its captain Violet, mechanic Tibbs, and former Inspector Moriarty now on the wrong side of the law.

The prose is certainly hardworking. It never lets the reader forget its steampunk roots as it weaves generous descriptions and terminologies into the alternative western story. I didn't feel that there was an excess of information provided; the wordbuilding was on-key. Unfortunately, there are times when the text descends into dry, almost didactic narrative of the tell, not show variety ('Moriarty now sat down to a hot meal and thought back at that fiery day, seven months ago, when what was now his family, for better or worse, had come together' p20) and forced sentiment (Violet compares a suitor to 'a lone rose in the middle of a pallid desert wasteland' p32). Thankfully, the uneveness doesn't last long. At 30,000 or so words, things tend to move pretty quickly. Aside from an obligatory origin chapter, the action is managed well, each move calculated, nothing wasted.

I was ready to write this off as a run-of-the-mill action-adventure story when the last few chapters happened. This is when things really get interesting, and it switches the dynamic of the story from a oneshot adventure session into a harsh moral dilemma. Although there are already hints of issues cropping up in previous chapters (most intriguing for me was the Augmentation Society and its implications), what occurs in the last third of the book is a major turning point not just for the story but for the world it inhabits.

I thought the characters here were a mixed bag. Take Violet, the captain. I don't adhere to the school of thought that to escape female stereotypes, a beautiful woman must be anti-female; in this novella, Violet hates dresses and heels, hates being ordered for, hates being reminded that she is a woman. Even when her past is revealed and in the light of what had happened to her, I believe we can expect more challenging characterizations from our authors than the shopworn variety. I'm also not convinced of Moriarty's role in this enterprise. I'm guessing his presence in the triumvirate is to be the moral compass, the everyman that may give the readers familiar ground, but so far there is little development in his area. The most intriguing character in my opinion is Tibbs, whom at first I had written off as a mere third wheel. In the course of the novel he had leaped to the forefront as a gamechanger. Most of your questions about the characters are answered by the time the novella closes, and I appreciated that the authors didn't feel the need to tease the readers more than was necessary.

One thing that greatly bothered me in this book was the way Violet, Moriarty, and Tibbs treated Harris, a secondary character who had the job they needed to fulfill theirs. Suffice to say that it left me just as horrified as what Parker had been doing at his ranch. Whether it had been deliberately made to add to the existing issues of the book or not, it had me reassessing my opinion of the crew.

Let's talk marketing and branding for a moment. Judging books by their cover is a reader-response that most authors must deal with. Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel's own cover is cleanly-executed but it has grim and serious quality to it. While it does echoes the heavier themes that the novella bravely tackles, I also think the tough alternative western, action-adventure aspect of the novella could be further highlighted to draw more interest to the e-book. Another suggestion would be tighter editing. The western slang adds color and can't be faulted, but the novella could use another editing eye (with careful attention to comma use).

Despite my problems with the uneven prose, I still found this a solid effort and a laudably courageous start. It looks like there is plenty to look forward to -- both in action and in character growth -- as the rest of the series unfolds.

This review is cross-posted to Adarna SF. The authors provided a free copy for this review.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Coffin Dodgers (Gary Marshall)

Crafting a believable mystery based on an oddball premise can prove to be a challenge, but one that Gary Marshall embraces with tongue-in-cheek wit and panache. Coffin Dodgers is a light, fast-paced mystery punctuated with genuine comic moments and the usual concerns of a twentysomething life: boredom, work, romance, and the presence of beer. It slightly borders science fiction, with mentions of newspapers with video clips and cars that take care of everything but the steering (although if those were already common occurrences in your part of the globe, you can always chalk it up to my third-world ignorance), but as a whole I feel that Coffin Dodgers is still hewn closer to an alternative present than a truly futuristic sci-fi scenario.

One of the most impressive things about Coffin Dodgers is its conversational tone. Matt is an effective narrator, drawing the reader into his life with ease. He brings familiarity into a world where the bingo hall is one of the most packed places during the weekends. In fact, it’s not just Matt — his friends Amy and Dave are realistically drawn as well. Their banter feels genuine and unaffected, insanely proliferating the novel with nicknames for the people around them (Sleazy Bob, the Yellow Man, Rodeo Rick, to name a few). Their fun and reckless spirit is consistently carried throughout the rest of the novel, encouraging me to imagine Coffin Dodgers unfolding as a movie, that crazy sleeper hit with actors of the indie-slacker persuasion.

This debut novel starts out strong, quickly establishing the mood and parameters of this new world. In just a few wry paragraphs, Marshall outlines the reasons and consequences behind the silvering of the population — one that almost feels plausible. He is also quite careful in letting Matt and his friends function within the scope of their capabilities. They are able to act, reason, and attempt to unravel the conspiracy without calling on James Bond’s arsenal. Their go-to gadgets? Camera phones, online-bought bugs, a sound engineer’s equipment. Again, plausibility in just the right amount.

Coffin Dodgers moves quick enough to let you forget some of its flaws before you realize they were even there. My main concern is that the characters are pretty much WYSIWYG and have little development throughout the course of the book. The antagonists, in particular, are quite cookie-cutter and do nothing to save this book from its predictability. While I can’t fault the book for its pace, I can’t say the same for the way it wraps up the mystery. You know that moment in an action movie when the hero is confronted by seven thugs and you just wonder why the other six are politely waiting their turn instead of rushing at him all at once? I had similar moments while reading this. I felt that the antagonists were just missing that ruthlessly smart gene that would have evened the field. I understand that the ridiculousness of the situation is created by using current universal stereotypes of the elderly, but I was a bit disappointed that longevity in this world didn’t amount to much bad-assery.

Despite these hiccups, I really commend Gary Marshall for coming up with a well-written (and well-edited) debut mystery. There are moments in the book that subtly move into the realm of social commentary without having to try so hard. Irreverent tone notwithstanding, it feels much more polished than the usual indie e-books that I’ve come across — definitely worth an afternoon read.

This review also appears on Adarna SF, an awesome collective for reviews of indie speculative fiction. Please visit the main site :) The author provided a free copy for this review.