The Return of Harper Blaine

Poltergeist by Kat Richardson

Harper Blaine is back. This time she's called upon to investigate a paranormal experiment at a local university to determine if any of the participants is faking supernatural phenomenon. But then one of the particpants, a ringer put in by the professor to monitor the experiment from the inside, turns up dead, Harper has to face a vengeful poltergiest created by the collective unconscious of the groups.

Poltergiest fixes many of the complaints I had about the first book in the series. The too-good and boring boytoy spends the entire book out of the country (though the much more interesting Quentin is relegated to just a handful of scenes). Harper has had time to learn about the world of the weird and no longer goes around asking things the audience guessed five pages before. Plus the nature of the supernatural problem in this volume isn't such that anyone who's seen a few horror movies can guess.

The major problem I had here was that the experiment isn't well explained. At first we're told that the professor has gathered up a group, told them about a (fictitious) dead woman he wants them to contact and locked them in a room to conduct a seance. Sounds like an interesting psychological study to see how the group manufactures a personality for the ghost, or how the power of suggestion makes them see evidence for the ghost's presense, and the professor's consternation makes sense. Only about halfway through the book does it become clear that purpose of the experiment is to find evidence of paranormal phenomenon. The set-up makes little sense for this -- the professor has rigged the room so he can simulate some supernatural effects and get the group in the right mind, which would only make the Amazing Randi scoff twice as hard.

Still, this is hardly the first mystery novel where the details don't make sense upon examination. The important thing is that following the detective's process is entertaining, and Harper is that.

The Hunters out of Space by Jack Kelleam

Gutenberg text


Jack Odin returns to the underground world of Opal only to find it in ruins. The nefarious Grim Hagen has turned traitor, laid waste to the kingdom, kidnapped the princess Dejah Thoris Maya -- and fled in his spaceship. With the help of the faithful dwarf Gunnar, Odin obtains his own ship and pursues Hagen across the galaxy.

The first thing you have to know about The Hunters out of Space is, it makes absolutely no sense. Maybe if I'd read the previous Jack Odin story that'd be different, but I doubt it. I mean, people living in a Hollow Earth building a space ship? It's like Kelleam set out to write a pastiche of Edgar Rice Burroughs then switched to Doc Smith halfway thorugh. And what's with everyone having names straight out of the Volsungasaga/Nibelungenleid (Gunnar, Hagen, Neeblings, etc.)? It's like a really bad episode of Lost in Space, but less coherent.


Six-Shooters and Bug-Eyed Monsters

The Sheriff of Yrnameer by Michael Rubens

Cole is a cut-rate Han Solo. Hell, he's a cut-rate Lonestar. At least Lonestar had his Winnebago with wings; Cole lost his spaceship because he didn't have enough money to pay for parking Investco IV. This is bad news because Cole owes a lot of money to Kenneth, a multi-eyed, multi-tentacled alien who's threatened to lay eggs in Cole's brain if he doesn't pay up by morning -- which is, oh, about three hours away.

Running out of options, Cole decides to steal his friend Teg's spaceship. Teg -- not a cut-rate Han Solo. Teg's the real thing. He's so good at it that his ship is festooned with advertizements. But Cole nonetheless manages to get the ship.

There is, however, a catch. Teg's already made a deal with Philip and Nora to transport some goods to planet Yrnameer, and they're in no mood for Cole's shennanigans. He reluctantly agrees to help them, as soon as he figures out how to work the damned ship.

Meanwhile, Yrnameer (which is a contraction of "Your Name Here," the official designation for all planets without corporate sponsorship, of which this is the last, legendary, example) has problems of its own. A spaceship full of bandits has crashed near the main township, and the leader demands the Yrnameerians turn over all their crops to feed his men. If only some good-hearted rogue would fall out of the sky to help the Yrnameerians ...

And then there's the corporate research satellite where experimental brain implants have gone haywire and turned everyone into ravening zombies (this is a known hazard of modifying humans, whether through neural enhancement, life-extension, or singing penises (a technology that is thankfully mentioned but never seen)).

As you might guess, Rubens is trying to be an American Douglas Adams. The result is mixed success. The biggest problem is that Rubens doesn't have Adams' ear for funny product names. Guns are called "fire sticks" and FTL is handled through devices called "bend boxes"; companies all have names like InVestCo, which is never going to compete with Sirius Cybernetics.

Rubens other problem is that he's a writer for The Daily Show. While this might sound like a good sign for a humor author, there is a huge difference between writing a funny monologue and a funny novel. Repetitious features of his writing can go unnoticed on TDS because they get spread out over many days and weeks, whereas books get read in a handful of sittings. There's an alien race whose name is unpronounceable by humans (the audiobook renders it by plucking what sounds like a rubberband and sproinging a spring), which gets repeated well past the point where it's amusing.

Nor does writing for a late night talk show give Rubens much experience with plotting. TSoY is highly episodic, with at least one subplot introduced only to be dropped on the next page. But the book is actually best when it's episodic -- whenever the story approaches too near the plot, Rubens tends to get bogged down and forgets to be funny. But individual sections, especially the parts on the zombie space station and the introduction of Peter the 'Puter are hilarious.

Still, the problems are mostly on the level of first novelitis, and while the book isn't up to the standards of Adams or A. Lee Martinez, it's better than much of Pratchett's early work, including the first few Discworld novels. Hopefully in a couple more novels, Rubens will be a solid recommendation.


A Book You Really Can Refuse

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

"The book is always better than the movie" is one of those truisms that people repeat uncritically. But anyone who's widely read knows that's not true at all -- many great movies are based upon awful books. The two most commonly cited examples are Peter Benchley's Jaws and Mario Puzo's The Godfather. Now personally, I don't even think Jaws is that great of a movie, so reading a book that's even worse has no appeal to me. But the supposed awfulness of The Godfather interests me. So when I found a copy of the audiobook for $6 I decided to give it a try.

I overpaid.

The characters have less depth than Mr. A. Square. All the complexity they have in the film is due to the cast. The book tells us how Vito went from a hard-working immigrant kid to the head of a major crime family, but we don't know what went on in his head as he made the decisions. He just moves through the stations of the plot however it serves Puzo's purpose. Likewise with Michael, you can imagine how the death of his girl would push him towards becoming a ruthless mafioso -- and imagine is the only choice you have since Puzo refuses to provide any details of his thoughts.

And then there are the pointless subplots that compose a good quarter of the book -- like the chapter devoted to a minor female character who has a loose vagina. I'm not making that up -- about a twelfth of the book deals with this girl's gynecological problems. It has absolutely nothing to do with the main plot -- the girl's own connection to the story ended fifty pages before, and even that wasn't much more than a couple dozen paragraphs that could've been excised without the slightest effect on the story.

And these are only the artistic flaws with the novel. There are numerous technical and factual errors, such as a girl in 1947 referring to James Dean, eight years before his big break in East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause. Puzo wrote the book in the late '60s; this error is akin to an author today referring to Tupac as a popular musical act in the '80s.

Most of these errors center upon the fictionalized Sinatra character. His plotline -- another one that's barely connected to the main story -- concerns him trying to get a role in a big war movie. But in 1947 Hollywood was done with war films -- they figured no one would be interested now that the war was over. Films like Battleground only got made when there was a director willing to go to the mat to get it made. And the film not-Sinatra wants into is clearly From Here to Eternity -- after the production finishes, he contacts the author (i.e., James Jones), who'd been screwed around by the studio, and kisses his ass so he can get the rights to the guy's next book (Some Came Running), which has a part perfect for not-Sinatra's pal Nino (Dino). But, as with the Dean error, the book is set a decade before FHtE came out.

Reading this train-wreck of a novel, it's no wonder Robert Evans had so much trouble finding a director for the film. Evans was the only guy to realize that the film adaptation could transcend the source material.