Friday, October 28, 2005

Review: "Habeas Corpses" by Wm. Mark Simmons

Wm. Mark Simmons returns to the tale of his half-vampire hero Christopher Cséjthe in his latest novel "Habeas Corpses" (Baen Publishing, $22).

To catch you up if you're not familiar with previous books "One Foot in the Grave" and "Dead on my Feet," Cséjthe (pronounced Chay-tay, for the uninitiated) was given a blood transfusion from a vampire. The transfusion transmitted half the virus that causes vampirism without fully transforming him, making him unlike any creature seen before. In the meantime, he's caused a lot of trouble for the undead community, including in the last book, becoming Doman of the New York clan of vamps.

This time out, Cséjthe is laying low in his secluded home on the Ouachita River with his werewolf lover Lupé, his vampire protector Deirdre and a 1930s Chicago gangster vamp, The Kid. So far, they've been able to repel all the attempts on Chris' life, but then things take a strange turn. First, there's a psychic e-mail, then a special delivery of a still-beating heart in a jar and finally an attack from a nearly indestructible Frankenstein monster.

It all adds up to a trip to New York to finally take the reins of the vampire community there and try to uncover the secrets of this new threat. He soon finds those may be just the beginnings of his problems.

As in the previous two volumes, Simmons layers the story with multiple villains. There's a classic horror monster, a historical bad guy and a technological terror for Chris to tackle. To avoid giving anything away, I'll leave those up to the reader to discover.

"Habeas Corpses," as you might guess by the title, also delivers the same humor that has permeated all six of Simmons' novels. It's been said of him that he never met a pun he didn't like, and it's absolutely true. Readers will also have a lot of fun picking out the pop culture references littered throughout the book. There's just something too funny about an argument between a vampire and a werewolf about whether Buffy or Anita Blake is the best vampire hunter.

As usual for Simmons, "Habeas Corpses" provides a fun romp through the supernatural, classic horror, science and history. The story raises some serious questions currently being tackled in the real world, but refuses to take itself too seriously, a refreshing trait among vampire novels.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

"Marsh Mission: Capturing Vanishing Wetlands" by C.C. Lockwood and Rhea Gary

When photographer C.C. Lockwood and artist Rhea Gary put together "Marsh Mission: Capturing the Vanishing Wetlands" ($39.95, LSU Press) they expected it to provide a glimpse of wetlands that would one day be gone. I'm sure they didn't expect those wetlands to be unrecognizable this soon.

Following the ravages of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, many of the areas photographed and painted are greatly changed from the scenes depicted in this book just last year. But there's still a chance to save them, and that's what this book is all about - drawing attention to some of the beautiful and essential wetland areas of Louisiana that are in danger due to coastal erosion.

The book began with a year-long journey through the wetlands on a houseboat by Lockwood and his wife, Sue. They covered more than 5,000 miles, capturing life on the coast of Louisiana. During that year, Gary also spent time on the houseboat, painting the scenes they came across.

The result is a gorgeous collection of photographs and paintings that leave out no scenes from the area. Lockwood's photographs run the gamut from a spoonbill pelican feeding its young and misty mornings on the bayou to photos of oil rigs and the muddy waters of a diversion canal. Most of Gary's paintings depict the remote landscapes of the marshes in vivid colors. Most interesting are the times when Lockwood and Gary focus on the same subject. It's interesting to see, side-by-side, the interpretations of Lockwood's camera and of Gary's brushes.

Perhaps the most effective and haunting images in the book are in the epilogue, which focuses more on the loss and destruction than the beauty. Particularly striking is the image of a large live oak tree, now dead, its root system exposed and hanging half into the surf of a beach on Cheniere au Tigre. In the background, you can see a camp, with waves lapping at its door, that once had a road and 40 feet of beach in front of it. It's a visceral testimony to the erosion that's occurring on the Louisiana coastline.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Review: "Only You Can Save Mankind" by Terry Pratchett

Best known for his massive Discworld series, Terry Pratchett has also occasionally ventured outside that milieu for a book or two. One of those was the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy in the early 1990s. The first book, "Only You Can Save Mankind," ($15.99, HarperCollins) has just been re-released with a few, very minor updates.

Life hasn't been good to 12-year-old Johnny Maxwell lately. His parents are going through Trying Times, and the Gulf War is plastered on his television screen every night. One of his favorite escapes is a game, pirated by his hacker friend Wobbler, called "Only You Can Save Mankind." Unfortunately, this time when he logs on to blow away the invading ScreeWees, the aliens want to make peace with him. They surrender and ask for his protection.

When he falls asleep that night, Johnny finds himself at the helm of the fighter ship leading the ScreeWee fleet back to its homeworld and protecting it from other gamers. Soon thousands of computer users around the world are turning on the game to empty screens where there should be attacking aliens. Gamers aren't happy, and neither are some of the aliens aboard the ScreeWee mother ship.

On the surface, Pratchett's tale is a fun story of a boy living a video game adventure. It's not exactly a new premise. It's been around since video games first started popping up in the early 1980s, but how many of those stories have you read where the aliens surrender, changing the boy's world view?

And that's what sets this apart from the average children's science fiction novel. Anyone who has ever read Pratchett knows that he's an excellent satirist. While the satire here is a little more obvious than in his usual work, it's just as effective. The constant backdrop to the story is the 1991 Gulf War, which with the smart bombs and other technology was a lot like a video game itself.

Pratchett uses the story to illustrate the dangers of that kind of war and how easy it is to forget that we're shooting at other people. In video games, no one gets hurt. Right?

"Only You Can Save Mankind" is enjoyable for younger readers, but there are plenty of jokes for those of us that remember Atari 2600s, too. I particularly enjoyed a thread on the burned out hulls of Space Invaders that Johnny and the fleet pass. If you missed this one the first time around, now's a good time to check it out.