Book Review: Grey Cat Blues by J.D. Cowan

J.D. Cowan has finally answered the question of how to distill the sensibilities of a 1950s gang movie with interstellar, quasi-dystopian sci-fi, an 8- or 16-bit era beat ’em up, and dash of rockabilly music.

It doesn’t matter that no one specifically asked that question. All that matters is that we now know the result: Grey Cat Blues.

This is a really fun book that packs a lot into its pages. Imagine The Outsiders meets Double Dragon (complete with the game’s post-apocalyptic storyline) on a forgotten, colonized rain-covered planet straight out of a film noir.

Two-Tone is an ex-member of the Jet Boys, one of the most formidable gangs in Cordova City on the planet Achaea. On the wrong side of 25, Two-Tone tries to live a normal life with a normal office job, his violent past behind him. Until one day he gets a call from his old gang buddy A-Rail to come and have a few drinks. This is where things go haywire.

See, Cordova City is but one of many cities on Achaea, walled off from each other with little contact between them. Gangs are bad enough, but the weird mud-men who attack Two-Tone are something entirely different. They take A-Rail, and somehow Two-Tone ends up back in his apartment. Just a weird night out, right? Not to Two-Tone. There’s no way he’s going to leave his pal at the mercies of those mud-covered freaks. Armed with his chain and a sense of right and wrong–and aided by a mysterious woman who seems to know his phone number–Two-Tone is off on his mission of revenge, which might even include getting the gang back together. And who’s that mysterious dame hanging out at the warehouse where the shadowy mobster Sarpedon, Two-Tone’s target, is holed up?

If this sounds like your thing, I highly recommend Grey Cat Blues. It’s not just the plot which is entertaining–action-packed, full of heart, and hints of a larger world on Achaea–but Cowan’s style. He nails the tone, mixing high technology with sensibilities out of a 1940s hard-boiled crime story. The fights are brisk, the tough-guy patter is spot on, each character has memorable speech patterns and personality ticks, and the mystery keeps you engrossed until the conclusion, which arrives sooner than I would’ve expected.

This is not to say Grey Cat Blues felt rushed. I just wanted it to go on longer.

Continue reading “Book Review: Grey Cat Blues by J.D. Cowan”

Death to Fans

Remember that time Led Zeppelin got a negative fan reaction upon first playing “Stairway to Heaven” in concert, and Jimmy Page cast a satanic hex on them, sacrificing a young virgin live on stage in the hopes that the Lord of Darkness would consume anyone who didn’t support what the band did 100 percent?

Or when Paul McCartney, upon hearing negative fan reaction to the Beatles’ Revolver album, called anyone who didn’t like it a “bloody tosser who lives in mum’s basement and is probably a closet fairy” as he sipped his tea and nibbled on a biscuit laced with LSD.

This also brings to mind John Hughes’ response to people who didn’t like Uncle Buck (yes, these people exist), when he hired actual hitmen to hunt them down and beat them within inches of their life until they posted ads in the newspapers talking about how his movies were the greatest things ever.

And lest we forget the time William Shakespeare famously told a crowd who booed the opening of Hamlet to “kindly fucketh offeth and dieth, thou fouleth Nazi-eths.” But then again, Shakespeare had a massive lisp, so everything he said sounded kind of funny.

(Note: I’m not too sure about all these details, but they probably happened.)

Oh wait, no they didn’t. Because artists from Bach to Rembrandt to Jack Kirby to Prince actually did care about their fans–also known as “the people who pay us money to keep producing our art”–and didn’t piss all over them. Because these people, and many others, for all their quirks, weren’t hate-filled and mentally unstable.

Okay, a lot of them probably were mentally unstable. But they didn’t take it out on their fans! Continue reading “Death to Fans”

Book Review: Praxis by Justin Knight

I’ve always enjoyed the “ordinary people get stuck in a horrific situation and have to survive” trope in stories. Whether it’s a disaster movie, a survival horror video game, or much of Stephen King’s ouevre, there’s something about ordinary people overcoming extraordinary circumstances that’s both entertaining and provides wonderful food for thought:

  • How would I react? What would I do?
  • What skills do I have that would be useful in a situation like this?
  • Would people work together, or turn against each other?
  • Would I have what it takes to make it?

Tales of superhumans with otherworldy abilities are always fun and have their place in my heart. But I equally enjoy seeing if the pre-school teacher or the accountant can survive the monsters that suddenly appeared in their town, or can evade the hostile army that’s invaded their nation.

And then, on the other hand, I also love classic 80s/90s action movies.

Along comes Justin Knight with his novel  Praxis. Described as “blue-collar sci-fi,” Praxis details the experience of warehouse workers from Vancouver, Canada whose company gets the contract to man the recently constructed titular space station.

Justin Knight (artist’s rendition)

Praxis focuses on Mickey Hemmings and his crew as they travel to the Praxis station with their families for a year-long stint. The station orbits Neptune at the farthest reaches of the solar system, and is meant to be a waypoint for intergalactic travel. Unfortunately, a group of hostile alien pirates fleeing justice decide to use the station to make their last stand, and the Earthlings get caught in the crossfire.

First, I love this concept: A varied cast of warehouse workers have to survive an alien invasion on a remote space station millions of miles from Earth. Though I have some plot-related questions that I didn’t see addressed–Why are there no security officers? Why doesn’t anyone have guns?–they didn’t detract from the white-knuckled action . . .

. . . when the action finally arrives.

You see, Praxis is a slow-burner. I have no problem with slow-burners, but I did notice that, according to my Kindle app, the action did not begin until 69 percent of the way through the book.

Now, Knight does something clever with all of this: He really sets the reader up to grow fond of these characters. And the competing narratives (the human’s travels to Praxis and settling in interspersed with our alien pirates being pursued by an alien police force) builds the anticipation.

And when these disparate threads collide, they make a big boom. Continue reading “Book Review: Praxis by Justin Knight”

Book Review: We, the Two by Dominika Lein

Step once again into the weird space between life and death, where souls are food for the strong-willed and the ruthless with We, the Twoby Dominika Lein. We, the Two is Lein’s follow-up to I, the One, one of the coolest, creepiest short stories I read last year.

We, the Two focuses on two of I, the One‘s antagonists, the brother-and-sister team of Hanhoka and Hinim, etheric beings of great power who prey on souls and rule their realms. They make their way to a weird marketplace of souls, searching for souls to consume . . . but strange things are afoot, even stranger than the scene decaying city around them.

First are the cultists formerly devoted to a powerful being called Arcana, who now seem to worship Hinom, much to Hanhoka’s surprise . Then there’s the Soul Hunter who somehow made her way into the realm, capturing souls from under the twos’ noses. Even stranger are Hinom’s intimations that he plans to challenge the Almighty Himself so that their ability to consume souls can continue unabated.  Continue reading “Book Review: We, the Two by Dominika Lein”

What Joy?

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A few days ago, I watched the first three or four episodes of AMC’s Into the Badlands–yes, I know I’m late to the party and that the show premiered in 2015. I’m uncool. Bear with me.

Into the Badlands, a modern take on the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, seemed right up my alley: A cross between post-apocalyptic survival, martial arts, and political intrigue among the feudal barons with a strong aesthetic that manages to combine elements of kung-fu cinema, Westerns, and even a 1930s/1940s vibe. Sign me up!

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Daniel Wu as Sunny.

Except . . . besides being visually stunning–which it is–the show is unremittingly dreary and depressing.

It’s another one of those TV shows where everyone is serious all the time (the acting is pretty stiff, actually), the world is run by the ruthless and the power-mad who will kill anyone who gets in their way, the rank-and-file seem hopeless and similarly bash each other senseless in order to curry what little favor they can, and save for one subplot there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as romantic love.

No thanks.

I know that these are standard tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre, and that nihilism is a hallmark–see, there’s not always hope! Maybe lots of people like this. To me, however, this trend has gotten really old and really flat. In short, it’s kinda beige.

We are what we consume. I’d rather not consume hopelessness, thanks.  Continue reading “What Joy?”

Book Review: Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard

My foray into the works of the early pulp masters continues with my first brush with a Conan story, Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard. Having recently read and deeply enjoying some Edgar Rice Burroughs, I was eager to sink my teeth into Conan.

Metaphorically, you understand.

Howard is best known for creating the enduringly popular Cimmerian, as well as Solomon Kane, among other characters in his 30 short years of life. Although first appearing in the pages of Weird Tales in 1932 in a story called The Phoenix on the Sword, I decided to first read Queen of the Black Coast because I found it on Gutenberg.org and I liked the title.

Robert E. Howard

Queen of the Black Coast was published in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales. It tells the tale of Conan, on the run from soldiers in the port city of Argos, taking passage on a south-bound trading vessel called the Argus bearing goods to trade with the kingdom of Kush.

It only takes a few sentences for Howard to suck the reader in:

Hoofs drummed down the street that slopes to the wharfs. The folk that yelled and scattered had only a fleeting glimpse of a mailed figure on a black stallion, a wide scarlet cloak flowing out on the wind.

Reading that, and the images it conjured in my mind, I was hooked.

Of course, the Argus doesn’t have an easy trip to Kush. In fact, it never makes, being waylaid by the fearsome pirate woman Bêlit as it hits the coast. The Argus‘ captain is killed, and Conan boards the pirate ship Tigress intending to take as many of Bêlit’s strong, black warriors down with him, but he and Bêlit soon fall for each other, and Conan joins their crew, ravaging the Coast.

Eventually, they journey to the mystical and cursed ruined jungle kingdom up the river Zarkheba in search of more treasure. And that’s where things get really freaky.

I was impressed with Howard’s writing. You won’t find deep characterization, internal conflict, or excursions into socio-political issues. This is pulp, baby!

What you get is a story and prose that grabs you by the gut. Conan’s world is brutal, like the man himself. But this world also has a savage beauty that Howard conveys in his descriptions of the jungle and the spoiled grandeur of the ruined city.

Oh, and also the monsters. You didn’t think Conan was getting out of this without tussling with some freaky monsters, did you?

I shall say no more about the plot save that Queen of the Black Coast is fast-paced without feeling rushed, and short enough to be read in one sitting.

It’s fortuitous that I picked this story, as I just finished playing an old computer game called Quest for Glory III: Wages of War for a chronogaming blog I occasionally contribute to. Quest for Glory III takes place in a jungle realm based on both Egyptian society and more traditional sub-Saharan African cultures, and has an incredibly pulpy vibe, complete with lost cities, romance, demons, and a sense of the eerie and mysterious.

That’s what I appreciated the most from Howard’s writing–the way he was so economically able to put you in his world, feeling the unsettling ancient horrors facing Conan.

The jungle was a black colossus that locked the ruin-littered glade in ebony arms. The moon had not risen; the stars were flecks of hot amber in a breathless sky that reeked of death.

Is it a little over-wrought? Maybe. But to hell with what creative writing professors think; this is effective. Continue reading “Book Review: Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard”

Book Review: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a hot commodity these days: people think he’s everything from a savior to, uh, a secret neo-Nazi anti-Semite white supremacist.

No, seriously.

Who he is is a Canadian practitioner of clinical psychology and a professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in myth and symbol and what many call “self-help.” He got famous some eighteen months ago for openly refusing to comply with a proposed Canadian law making it a violation of the law to use the wrong pronoun (“he” when a biological male wishes to be referred to as “she” and that sort of thing). Since then, he’s become lauded by many right-leaning people and loathed by many left-leaning people, mostly for reasons that have little to do with what he actually says or believes.

Whatever. I’m here to talk about his second book, 12 Rules for Life, because that’s what I read. I’m not going to get into the extracurricular stuff except as it relates to this book. Because Peterson has become something of a father figure for a generation of young men, so the story goes, precisely because he doesn’t hate masculinity and doesn’t think it’s toxic. While his message is universal, it resonates with men because he offers a perspective that 60 years ago would’ve been common knowledge, but since the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s have been seemingly rejected by Western society.

You know, stuff like “Speak the truth,” “Stand up straight,” and what has become kind of a catchphrase for him, “Clean your room.”

There’s more to it than that, as we’ll see.

To say the man has become a phenomenon is an understatement. Peterson is everywhere these days, which might explain some of the backlash.

Jordan B. Peterson

I like him well enough. He’s an engaging and folksy speaker–and writer–who tends to ramble, but somehow manages to come back to his main point. It can be a bit annoying at times, more so in print than in person. And while I enjoy his lectures and interviews, I have to say that much of what he says is pretty basic. He just says it very clearly.

Maybe I’m not as impressed as others by 12 Rules for Life because I have a fantastic father. Maybe I’m not that impressed because in a lot of ways Peterson and what he says reminds me of my dad. Maybe I’m just not really the intended audience for this book.

In any event, I enjoyed the book well enough, some sections especially. And while I can’t say I agree with Peterson’s take on everything, or buy all of his arguments, there’s some good stuff in here that offers an interesting way of looking at things, particularly when it comes to Biblical interpretation.

That’s right: Peterson is huge into the Bible. For a non-Christian (I can’t tell if he’s an atheist, agnostic, or whatever else), Peterson sure loves his Jesus. Like, a lot. It’s interesting.

So what is 12 Rules for Life? It’s a self-help book with 12 rules Peterson thinks anybody can use to navigate the chaos of life. I won’t go rule-by-rule, since your mileage may vary on all of them, and I also don’t want to just rehash the book here. Instead, I’ll give you a few points I disagreed with or found goofy, alternated with a few points I found interesting or helpful–dare I call it wise. Here goes: Continue reading “Book Review: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson”