Letter From The Editor - Issue 65 - October 2018

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Strong Medicine
Books That Cure What Ails You
    by John Joseph Adams
November 2005

Four and Twenty Blackbirds, by Cherie Priest
Tor, 2005, $13.95

The road to publication of Cherie Priest's first novel was a long and harrowing one. You can read all about it on her LiveJournal, but though it's a horror story of sorts, it's got nothing on the tale Priest spins in Blackbirds, one of the finest explorations of contemporary Southern Gothic horror in recent memory, one which calls to mind the literary mastery of Flannery O'Connor.

Blackbirds is the story of Eden Moore, a girl orphaned at a young age. Raised by her Aunt Lulu and Uncle Dave, she's kept in the dark about her heritage, namely that her mother died giving birth to her while locked up in an insane asylum, and that her great-grandfather was an evil man with supposedly supernatural powers. But Eden has something of the supernatural about her as well; she sees dead people. Specifically, she sees a trio of ghosts who keep an eye on her and attempt to warn her of danger…which comes in handy when her cousin Malachi Dufresne comes (literally) gunning for her, in a misguided attempt to serve the will of God. This attempt on her life leads Eden on a mission of discovery--one that will take her to the long-since-abandoned asylum of her birth, and then on to Highlands Hammock, FL, where all the mysteries of her past come to light, and the shape of her (and her family's) future will be decided.

Ghost stories are a dime a dozen, so it's especially satisfying when one comes along that makes you forget all the others you've read, and sucks you into the narrative so completely that you'll stay up all night finishing it because you can't wait to find out what happens next…and because you're too creeped out to go to sleep. Eden's ghostly warnings ("He's coming. He's coming, baby. You get yourself gone.") are chillingly (and delightfully) macabre, but also serve to heighten the tension of the narrative, keeping the reader on edge. This, coupled with Blackbirds' the vividly-described settings, really draws the reader into the story, making it all the more easy to connect and empathize with the characters. The relentless pacing meanwhile, never lets up and rarely gives the reader the chance to take a breath.

We should all be immensely thankful, not only to Priest for writing this literary creepfest, but also to Liz Gorinsky at Tor for discovering the book and rescuing it from micro-press obscurity. (It's also worth noting that, under Gorinsky's editorial guidance, Blackbirds was revised and expanded from the original small press edition, so if you're trying to decide whether or not to go with the true first edition, or the pretty new Tor edition, go with the Tor.)

All in all, Blackbirds is a stunning debut novel, one that displays the finely-honed prose and tightly-drawn characterizations of a master craftsman. So, heed the voices: Get yourself gone. And while you're out, stop by the bookstore and pick up a copy of Four and Twenty Blackbirds. You'll be glad you did.

The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl by Tim Pratt
Bantam Spectra, 2005, $12.00

Though The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl is Pratt's first novel, he's an accomplished short story writer; he's previously published an acclaimed story collection called Little Gods (titled after his Nebula-nominated story of the same name), with another--Hart & Boot & Other Stories--in the works. He also works at Locus, the trade journal of science fiction, and in addition to being a part of the editorial staff, he regularly writes insightful reviews for the magazine. That sort of resume builds up some high expectations for a first novel, but Pratt meets those expectations and then some, delivering a delightful and fun novel--a blend of contemporary fantasy and pulp fiction Westerns, with a meta-fictional twist--that's sure to leave readers clamoring for more.

Marzi works as a barista at the Santa Cruz coffee shop Genius Loci to pay the bills, but her real job is writing and illustrating the cowpunk neo-western comic book called The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl. But the lines between fiction and reality start to blur when a strange things start happening--Marzi is attacked by a mud-woman, and Beej (the Loci's local eccentric) starts spouting prophecy; this, along with other odd occurrences reminiscent of her comic book have Marzi wondering if she's having a mental breakdown. It wouldn't be the first time; she'd dropped out of art school a few years before the events of the novel, and a fragile mental condition is easier to accept than the fact that the bizarre events Marzi is witnessing are true. But they are, and as the barrier between worlds crumbles, Marzi finds that she's a pivotal figure in all of this madness, and she'll have to face her fears if she's going to save the world from certain destruction.

The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl is just plain cool. And one of the coolest things about it is how Pratt makes the Genius Loci a character in itself, and makes the reader wish there were a place just like it in his neighborhood (well, maybe without all the mud monsters and earthquakes). The paintings of disappeared artist Garamond Ray which cover the cafe walls are a nice touch that Pratt deftly ties into the narrative later in the book. One of its other primary virtues are its characters, which are fully-realized and lifelike; of particular note is the bond between Marzi and Lindsay, which is not your typical friendship but feels very true nonetheless. Aside from those noteworthy features, Pratt's prose is tight and pellucid, making for a fast and enjoyable read.

If there's anything worth complaining about The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, it's that throughout the novel we only get to see brief-yet-tantalizing glimpses of the comic book's world; though the novel's main plotline is engaging and entertaining, readers may find themselves longing to step through the door in the Desert Room of the Loci and into the cowpunk world of Rangergirl.

Speaking of stepping through doors, fans of Stephen King's The Dark Tower sequence won't be able to read Rangergirl without thinking of King's masterpiece, but while Rangergirl is reminiscent of it in many ways, it's wholly its own novel. Pratt blends the tropes of contemporary fantasy and the western into his "cowpunk" mélange with deft skill, and though Rangergirl does not aspire to the heights and epic scope of King's magnum opus, it delivers a fun and memorable comic book-inspired adventure.

If you think the book sounds interesting (or you've read and enjoyed the book already), be sure to check out Pratt's Rangergirl webpage, which includes the full text of "A Rangergirl Yarn" called "Bluebeard and the White Buffalo."

How to Survive a Robot Uprising by Daniel H. Wilson
Bloomsbury, 2005, $12.95

If you're reading this, you're probably a science fiction reader. You probably think you have a good handle on what the robot enemy is capable of. You've seen The Terminator several dozen times, can quote the T-800's technical specifications, and you know that the robots will always "be back" even when you think they've certainly gone kaput. You probably think you don't need this survival guide.

Well, with sections ranging from "How to Escape a Smart House" and "How to Recognize a Rebellious Servant Robot," to "How to Survive a Car Chase with an Unmanned Ground Vehicle" and "How to Notice the First Signs of Rebellion," this robot uprising business sounds to me like it's a bit more complicated than you might think. If you really want to be prepared, you just might want to pick up a copy of this book. If nothing else, it could at least come in handy when attempting to escape a robot swarm; throwing obstacles in its path (a copy of How to Survive a Robot Uprising, for instance) just might save your life.

Okay, so first thing we need to make clear is that this is not actually a science fiction novel, but is instead exactly what the title implies: a survival guide, albeit a humorous one for a hypothetical uprising not very likely to happen any time soon. A more accurate description of the book would be to say that it's a guide to contemporary and theoretical robotics interspersed with droll survival tips for a variety of robots-run-amok scenarios.

The informational robotics sections are fascinating, and the humorous sections are well done. Wilson is himself a real-live robotics scientist, and every scenario discussed in the book is "either possible or already being realized." The scenarios were written based upon Wilson's own expertise and upon "extensive interviews with robotics experts." This verisimilitude keeps the book interesting, whereas otherwise it might descend into pure silliness.

It's a fun and intriguing little book, though by little, I mean little. It's a very-padded 175 pages, which might make you wince at the $12.95 price tag, but it includes plenty of fun illustrations, and the overall entertainment value makes it a worthwhile investment; and hey, if page count is all you care about, go pick up the latest Robert Jordan doorstop. If you really balk at the price, since it's so short, you could just stand and read it in the bookstore, but then you wouldn't have it handy when your robot butler's eyes suddenly turn red and finds it fancies freedom.

To get an idea of what the book is like, check out the Robot Uprising website, which includes excerpts and other fun stuff. The introduction of the book begins with the rather ominous warning: "You probably found How to Survive a Robot Uprising in the humor section. Let's just hope that is where it belongs." Indeed, we can only hope.

Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin, read by Mia Farrow
Caedmon, 2005, $34.95, 6.5 hours, Audio CD
Audible.com, 2005, $24.47, 6.5 hours, Digital Audio

The 1968 Roman Polanski film Rosemary's Baby (based upon Ira Levin's novel) is considered a horror film classic, so any adaptation of that same book has a lot to live up to. So to say that this 2005 audiobook adaptation of Ira Levin's novel is on equal footing with Polanski's film is no slight praise.

The novel begins with newlyweds Rosemary and Guy moving into an upscale Manhattan apartment building known as The Bramford. They'd been on the waiting list for a long time when they find out The Bramford has an opening, so they are delighted to get what they think of as their dream apartment. But there are troubles with the new place right from the very start; Rosemary's good friend Hutch tries to warn her and Guy about the building's grim history--i.e., tales of dead babies found in the basement and a seemingly large number of suicides--but Rosemary and Guy disregard Hutch's warnings, dismissing them as silly superstition. But Hutch's warnings don't seem so silly after a young woman Rosemary befriends commits suicide, and things start to look even more ominous when Rosemary pregnant and the people in her life--Guy, her neighbors (The Castevets), her OB/GYN--start acting strangely, seemingly acting in concert with each other in some sort of conspiracy, against Rosemary and her unborn baby. But it all seems so impossible--could there be any truth to The Bramford's seemingly sinister past? Or is there a more prosaic explanation: could it all just be in Rosemary's head?

Mia Farrow, who plays Rosemary in the Polanski film, was the no-brainer choice to read the audiobook from a marketing standpoint, but, as it turns out, she was absolutely the right choice from an artistic standpoint as well. Farrow is pitch-perfect in her performance, nailing the emotional highs and lows of Rosemary's character exactly. She also throws in some honest-to-goodness acting for good measure (something that's notoriously lacking in audiobook productions)--her voice quavers when scared, and the anxiety Rosemary's feeling comes through remarkably well. And the sum total of her performance is utterly compelling.

If you read this book (or listened to the audio) without knowing it was originally published in 1967, you probably wouldn't be able to tell when it was written from the text alone. Technological advances force the reader to read the book as a period piece (no cell phones or computers, etc.), but for a novel that's nearly forty years old, it reads as remarkably contemporary; nothing about the book feels dated in its characters or its themes. After all, that's what's important, and Levin's novel feels as relevant today as it likely did when it was first written.

Farrow's brilliant performance combined with Levin's timeless classic makes for a must-listen audio.

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