Book Review: Writers of the Future, Volume 34

Book Review: Writers of the Future, Volume 34 edited by David Farland

Disclaimer:  I received a download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Writers of the Future, Volume 34

Back before he became involved with…you know, L. Ron Hubbard was a prolific author of stories for pulp magazines, including some for the science fiction category.  In the 1980s, he decided to give back to the field (and self-promote) by creating a contest to find exciting new writers in science fiction, fantasy and horror.  Thus, the Writers of the Future competition.

Each quarter, three submissions from hundreds win the chance to be featured in an annual compilation volume.  In addition, a set of Illustrators of the Future compete to be able to present a picture based on one of the stories.  This is the 34th such volume, which is frankly amazing.

The introduction goes over some of the selection process, including that since these volumes may be appearing in school libraries, excessive violence, explicit sex scenes and rough language will usually knock a story out of consideration.  (Some of these stories come very close to the line.)  Next, there’s a description of how the Illustrators of the Future contest works.

The stories themselves open with “Turnabout” by Erik Bundy, about a traveler who discovers that he is owed one wish by a djinn.  He realizes she is under no obligation not to twist his wish, but what if he can grant her a twisted version of the djinn’s own desire?  Note:  there’s an ethnic slur used, but I think the author is well-meaning.

The final story is “All Light and Darkness” by Ami Henri Gillett.  An AWOL super-soldier attempts to blend in with a stream of refugees, but finds himself getting too involved with two of them, young siblings.  At the same time, he struggles with his own abandonment issues.  There’s some musings on what makes a person human.

In between are a number of other stories, and essays on writing and art from past and current contest judges.  (Mr. Hubbard may have left this mortal coil, but he is very much a presence here.)

Standouts include “The Minarets of An-Zabat” by Jeremy TeGrotenhuis, about a junior bureaucrat in an empire that absorbs all magical schools into its own or destroys those it cannot tame.  He becomes fascinated by the wind-calling natives who are the last major holdouts against the Empire’s hegemony.

Also “Mara’s Shadow” by Darci Stone, an effective blend of horror and science fiction.  In the near future, a Vietnamese researcher happens to be called in to the first known case of a human being eaten from the inside out by moth larvae.  We follow her story as this becomes a worldwide pandemic, with flashbacks to how this all got started about a century before.  Content warning:  there are multiple suicides in this story.

My black and white Kindle does make most of the illustrations less effective, which is a particular shame for Jazmen Richardson’s illustration of N.R.M. Roshak’s “A Bitter Thing.”  This tale of a young human’s relationship with a color-shifting alien relies very heavily on colors as a central theme, and the resulting picture doesn’t work in monochrome.

The one exception is Ven Locklear’s illustration for “Death Flyer” by L. Ron Hubbard.  This chiller about a ghost train lends itself to an evocative picture that works just fine in grayscale.

The cover story reverses the process, with Jody Lynn Nye writing “Illusion” to match Ciruelo’s painting Dragon Caller.  A court wizard is in fact just an illusionist, but when his country is invaded, he must come up with a plan to defend it against very real enemies.  It’s a clever story.

Overall, this is a decent enough collection of stories by writers you probably haven’t heard of before (plus Hubbard and a lesser piece by Brandon Sanderson) but at least some of whom you’re likely to hear of in the near future.   Check it and previous volumes out at your library!

Book Review: The Inkblots

Book Review: The Inkblots by Damion Searls

“What do you see?”

Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922) was a German-speaking Swiss psychiatrist who developed an interesting experiment involving inkblots.  The son of an artist and himself artistically trained, Rorschach was fascinated by visual perception and hoped to use the things people saw when they looked at his inkblots to help understand their minds.  The experiment was surprisingly successful, and the strapped-for-cash doctor barely managed to scrape together enough money to do a first printing of Psychodiagnostics  and the associated illustrated cards.

The Inkblots

Rorschach died short years after the publication of his book, and before he could see the test gain acceptance outside his native Switzerland.  Without its creator to correct any flaws or incorporate new insights, the Rorschach Test became a force to reckon with in international psychology.

This is, according to the introduction, the first full-length biography of Hermann Rorschach, but it’s also a history of his famous creation–which doubles the length of the book.

We learn of Rorschach’s childhood happiness and sorrows, his education in Zurich, his fascination with Russian culture (Hermann married a Russian woman who’d come to Switzerland to become a medical doctor), and his important but poorly paid institutional work.

The inkblots themselves are reminiscent of a children’s game, blotting paper and trying to interpret the shapes.  And some similar psychological experiments had been  tried before.  But Rorschach was the first to craft specific blots, neither too abstract nor too obviously one thing, and to systematize the interpretation of what the examinee saw.

Because the inkblot test interpretation contained both crunchy numbers and fanciful imagery, it could be used in a number of ways.  It was adaptable across language and cultural barriers, unlike many written tests.  So the Rorschach Test grew in popularity and influence, not just in the realm of medical science but in pop culture.  Its imagery resonated in 1940s film noir and 1980s comic books.

But one of the flaws of the test, as Hermann Rorschach noted, was that he’d found something that seemed to work, but not laid a solid theoretical foundation under it that explained how and why it worked.  So the test became itself “a Rorschach test”, with different people reading into it according to their own psychological theorems.  This caused schisms among those who used the test in different ways, and eventually gave rise to a movement that believed Rorschach Tests didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know.

The author of this biography thinks the inkblot test is still of importance, and still of use.

There are black and white illustrations throughout, and two sections of “colored plates.”  An appendix directly reprints Olga Rorschach’s speech on her husband’s character.   There are extensive end notes and an index.

The subject is fascinating and the writing is interesting, though sometimes veering into deep psychology jargon.  There is discussion of famous cases and people involved with the inkblot test, including Adolf Eichmann!

On a side note, Hermann Rorschach was quite a good-looking fellow, and one of the few psychiatrists who could be played by a Hollywood star without suspending disbelief.

Highly recommended to those with an interest in the history of psychology.

Disclaimer:  I received this book from Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  There was no other compensation requested or offered.  Sadly, the BfB site is closing down, so this will be my last review from that source.

And now, how about a scene from Dark Mirror with a Rorschach-like test?

Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway

Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway  by Seanan McGuire

Nancy went through a door to the Halls of the Dead.  She learned to enjoy the skill of remaining perfectly still, and wearing elegant black and white clothing.  When she asked to stay forever, the Lord of the Dead asked her to be sure–and sent her home.  The journey changed her, and Nancy’s parents can’t understand why she isn’t their “little rainbow” any more.  But somehow they’ve learned of a place that might be able to help.

Every Heart a Doorway

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is a boarding school for young people with the “delusion” that they went to another world and want to return rather than stay on Earth.  It seems that a fair number of children every year walk through doors or fall through mirrors or get lost in the woods, and find Fairyland or the Webworld or the Moors.  Some of them never return and are indistinguishable from missing children that just died, but others return by their own will or another’s.  Maybe they aged out, or they broke the Rules, or they just went home to say goodbye and couldn’t find the entrance again.

And a certain number of those returnees are able to adjust to life back on Earth, and get on with their lives, but the ones who can’t and are lucky enough find their way to the Home.  There they’ll live among people who more or less understand what they’ve been through and get education until they can either live with their memories or find their way back where they belong.  (There’s a sister school in Maine for kids who went to the absolute wrong world and need treatment for their trauma.)

Nancy meets Eleanor West (who could go back anytime but no longer has the childish mindset needed to thrive in her Nonsense world), and is made roommates with Sumi, who went to a candy-themed dimension, and has become a madcap bundle of clashing bright colors and energy.    Despite their very different styles, Sumi takes a liking to Nancy and drags her around to meet some of the other students.

There’s Kade, who was tossed out when the fairies discovered he was a prince instead of the princess they wanted.  Jack (short for Jacqueline) and Jill (short for Jillian), whose mentors were a mad scientist and vampire respectively, and left their world one step ahead of a pitchfork and torch-bearing mob.  Christopher, who can make skeletons dance, and twenty or thirty others.

Nancy is just beginning to learn the ropes and settle in when one of the students is mutilated and murdered.  And that’s only the first death.  Nancy comes in for some suspicious as she’s been to an Underworld and the murders started after her arrival, but she’s pretty sure she isn’t responsible.  But who or what is, and why?

This dark fantasy young adult novel is by Seanan McGuire, who does a nice line in urban fantasy and horror.   Kids going to fantasy worlds has been a sub-genre of speculative fiction for decades; Narnia is mentioned (though it’s considered unrealistic by the students–they think it’s just fiction.)  In Japan they’re called isekai stories and are so common that one literary prize banned them from consideration for a year.   But few stories have considered that all these tales are taking place on the same Earth, and what aftereffects that might have.

The proceedings are a bit gruesome, and more sensitive junior high readers might want to skip this one until they are ready.

The writing quality is excellent, and there are a number of fascinating characters.  That said, the majority of the students are self-centered to a degree I found unsympathetic, which may make sense for troubled teens but does not please me.   The mystery aspect was pretty easy for me to figure out, and most savvy readers should figure it out a few pages before the protagonists do.

At some level, this book is metaphorically about how young people find their own identities in adolescence, often very different from what seemed to be the case in childhood, and their parents and other authority figures sometimes are not able to accept this.   This is most directly addressed with Kade, whose parents will welcome him any time he starts calling himself “Katie” again.

This book has been amazingly popular with its intended audience, and there are two more so far in the Wayward Children series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones (prequel) and Beneath the Sugar Sky (a sequel with a very surprising character.)  I am hoping at some point we’ll see the sister school and some of its students.

Recommended to young adult fantasy fans, with a slight emphasis on girls.

And here’s the Japanese equivalent, which is more heavily aimed at boys:

Comic Book Review: Vertigo CYMK

Comic Book Review: Vertigo CYMK edited by Scott Nybakken

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Vertigo CMYK

I don’t talk a lot about colorists.  In most comics, they’re not noticed unless they really screw up, or there’s a particularly striking image.  But they are an essential part of the color comics creation process.  It’s the colorist who makes sure that the characters have the same color clothing and hair from panel to panel and page to page.  The colorist has to choose appropriate background colors that will complement the foreground without hurting the eyes, and create mood with appropriate shades for the circumstances.  It’s a difficult job and one that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

The reason I bring this up is because this anthology comic book is all about color.  It’s named after Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/blacK, the four inks used in tiny dots to create all the colors in the “four color” printing process that allowed color to work on cheap newsprint paper.  For many years it was used both for the Sunday comics and comic books.  The latter are printed on fancier paper now, allowing for more shades and variations, but “four-color” is a history that all comics creators know.  This was originally a four-issue series with each color getting a focus.

The Cyan section leads off with “Serial Artist” by Shaun Simon (writer), Tony Akins (artist) and Andrew Dalhouse (colorist.)  A struggling musician falls in love with a girl he finds “tagging” a building.  When he inherited a funeral parlor, he feels obligated to make a go of that instead.  His girlfriend has an idea for bringing in some business…he really should have asked more questions about that building she was putting graffiti on.

Many of the pieces aren’t full stories, but mood pieces or story fragments.

One of my favorites is “Adrift” by Jody Houser (writer)  and Nathan Fox (artist who did his own colors.)   A bereaved girl has a conversation with her little sister’s “Barbara Jean” doll while they wait for her grandmother’s funeral.  The doll’s garish magenta clashes with the gray tones around her in a way that emphasizes she’s not of this world.

The Black section tends towards…well, darker pieces, but a couple of them play against this expectation.  “Super Blackout” by Gene Luen Yang (writer) and Sonny Liew (art & colors) is about an app that allows you to erase photos on your smartphone–but that’s not its true purpose.  There’s some effective use of app icons to carry the story with a minimum of dialogue.

Each section ends with a story by Fabio Moon, who does all the chores himself.  They form a connected narrative about a vase artisan and his friend who lose one gallery and go in search of another.  The artisan is able to see this loss as an opportunity and sees hope in the future.

While some of the pieces are weaker than others, it’s a beautiful assortment.  I should mention that this is a Vertigo “mature readers” title, so there is some violence and nudity, as well as rough language.  There are stories that involve suicide and rape, both off-page.  (It doesn’t wallow in it like some other Vertigo series have, however.)

I’d recommend this book especially to art students to see how different colorists work with artists and writers to enhance the stories.

Book Review: Double Jump

Book Review: Double Jump by Jason Glaser

Jeremy Chin didn’t notice anything odd about his world until the day it was destroyed by a sparkling dust dumped from an airship.  He dives into a swimming pool, and blacks out.  When he awakens in a hospital, Jeremy appears to be in a different world altogether.  He’s quickly recruited by Steel Serpent, a genetically enhanced soldier with a penchant for hiding in cardboard boxes, and Xartus, a snarky white mage (healer.)

Double Jump

In between deadly encounters, Jeremy learns that he is now in a place called the Lattice which was cobbled together from other destroyed worlds and which seems to run on video game logic.   As he gains other allies and develops strange new powers, Jeremy slowly begins to grasp what the enemy who destroyed his world is up to.  Can he learn the secret of the double jump before it’s too late?

This is indeed a tribute to a certain generation of video games, and many young adults will be able to tell who and what the various characters were inspired by.  The “world inspired by mashing together other fictional worlds” setting is one I’ve seen before (In this particular case, most recently in Wreck-It Ralph) , but it’s fairly well-thought-out here.

Jeremy is very much “the Chosen One”; events (and possibly the universe) revolve around him, he manifests new awesome powers as the plot demands, and he seems to break the local rules of physics.  Mind, this is a fairly common thing in video games, as the story points out.  He also seems to be remarkably unaffected emotionally by the destruction of his world.  Admittedly, the non-stop action doesn’t give him much time to think about that, and there are flashbacks that partially explain his numbness, but I hope that the inevitable sequel will have him dealing with the aftermath more fully.

The flashbacks are perhaps the most innovative aspect of the book; Jeremy’s memories are not internally consistent, something he realizes towards the end of the story.  Indeed, they suggest that the events are not necessarily taking place in “reality” in the physical sense.  I should mention for those who are easily triggered that suicide is a part of the story.

One aspect of the Lattice that may be problematic for some readers is the “Nons.”  There are less than ten thousand freewilled beings in the universe; the rest are automatons that blindly repeat actions and bestow quests.  The “heroes” have long since learned not to care about Nons since the quests are often dangerous and after a while the rewards are not worth it.  Jeremy has not learned this lesson yet, and does help out a few Nons…who know his name.  Hmm….

The female characters are depicted as competent, but there are some digs at the impractical costumes foisted on them in video games.  One, Min, is engaged in intensive study of the “Engine” (the rules that drive the Lattice) in an effort to overcome the embarrassing nature of her powers.

The suicide and some rough language may make this book unsuitable for younger or more sensitive readers; otherwise it should be okay for junior high on up.  (A scene involving Min would boost the rating to an “R” if it were visual.)

I am pleased to say that though this book was self-published, it looks good and has no memorable typos.  Recommended for video game fans and former video game fans.

 

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