Martians, Go Home

August 31, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

martiansMartians, Go Home by Fredric Brown

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Fredric Brown is one of those authors I would have skipped over all together if not for an online article that mentioned how good (and how funny) his novels were. This same article noted that some of his best ebooks were on sale, and ebooks being what they are, I felt pretty good about spending a dollar or two to check out the book. I’m glad I did.

Martians, Go Home is a clever book. It walks the fine line of serious fiction and absurdity, since it has something serious to say about humanity by tormenting us relentlessly with obnoxious Martians who want nothing more than to annoy us. On the one hand, we have Luke Devereaux, who is struggling with his writing, his wife, and his life in general, and that’s the main character story; on the other hand, we have the Martians who force Luke and everyone else on the planet to reconsider how they treat one another, and that’s the main theme. It reminds me a little of Terry Pratchett’s work, as he was also able to balance the serious and the absurd.

The Martians take center stage in the story, as billions of them arrive on Earth at the same time. They’re incorporeal, but that doesn’t mean they’re helpless; they have X-ray vision and the aptitude to learn languages in a matter of hours, so they’re able to learn all of everyone’s secrets. They also have the ability to teleport from place to place, so whenever someone tries to speak, the Martians interfere, telling hidden truths and exposing people in their own half-truths. There seems to be no point to their antics, save to annoy everyone on Earth, since they can’t touch or otherwise interact with humans. And they just. Won’t. Leave.

This novel incorporates the adage “He who is enemy to my enemy is my friend”, as even those countries embroiled in the Cold War are forced to work together to try to rid the world of the Martians. The story jumps between what’s going on with Luke and what’s going on with the world in general, and it’s a good way of pacing the story. Luke as a character serves as our connection to the story, but the world in general is where the science fiction aspect of the story comes into play. Considering that this novel was written in the 1950s makes it even more impressive.

Unfortunately, because the novel was written in the 1950s, there are a couple of unfortunate cultural stereotypes. I have to give Brown credit for not making Margie, Luke’s wife, some simpering housewife (she is, in fact, a smart, strong, no-nonsense, hard-working character), but near the end of the story, he travels to Africa, which is populated with cannibalistic, medicine-man-populated savages. It was one of those moments where, if you were having a conversation with someone and they said something like that, you would have pulled that face (you know the one I mean), leaned back, and said, “Really?

Otherwise, though, the novel is well-written, well-paced, intriguing and engaging, and has an ease of reading I wouldn’t have expected for a novel its age. And it’s funny! My favorite gag is when the unnamed, omniscient narrator asks someone with a thick Cockney accent to explain something in his own words, and then after a paragraph of that, he breaks in and says, “Maybe you’d better let me tell what happened, in my words.”

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Meds

August 30, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

medsMeds by Ray Garton

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Ray Garton is another author I read a lot of when I was a horror buff, and another author I felt like I should return to in order to see if he’s as good as I remember. Meds came up as a random book to read, and it turns out to be one of his most recent novels. It also turns out to be a decent read, though it lacks a lot of depth.

The story is about the medical profession and its dependence on the pharmaceutical industry. Eli, the main character, is a recovered alcoholic who is on an antidepressant that helps him cope with his recovery. One day, he watches in horror as a man brutally beats a young mother and her child, and later he hears stories of a man who murdered his wife and child before committing suicide, and a man who entered a shopping mall with a shotgun and began firing. While he’s hearing all this news, he’s unable to refill his prescription for his antidepressant, which has a warning not to stop taking the medication abruptly. The story begins as he’s finding that his drug is unavailable anywhere in the state, and that he may become a threat to those around him if he stops taking it.

The story is pretty good, even though it takes a while to get going. Garton structures the story in such a way that it’s clear where the story is going to go, but he lets the story build up to its plot at the same pace as it would in real life. We know what’s going to happen, but we still have to watch the characters figure it out for themselves. In a way, it’s like the first season of Fear the Walking Dead, except that this book doesn’t suck.

The characters are well developed, with Eli and his fiancee, Chloe, having a relationship that drives the story. As Eli starts to slide into the downward spiral of his drug withdrawal, it’s easy to worry for him and root for him, even as he starts to do some questionable things, since we know he’s not completely responsible for his actions. The story moves quickly, enough so that as I neared the end of the novel, I knew I was going to be with it until it ended, bedtime be damned. The ease of reading and fast pace of the story reminded me of Bentley Little (without the sexism), though Garton has been at this much longer than Little.

That being said, Meds isn’t perfect. It relies too much on coincidence for some of the key plot points, and some of the characters acted out of their characterization at times. Plus, one of the key characters — a well-known retired journalist — gets involved with the investigation, and I wasn’t convinced that how he got involved was realistic. It was almost as if Garton needed someone like that in the story and introduced him without giving a reasonable rationale for it. There was a rationale, but it didn’t ring true to me. Also, the ending felt a little too pat, and a lot of things happened at the end that simply weren’t believable. I think Garton was trying too hard for a happy (-ish) ending here.

Reading this novel, it’s easy to believe that Garton has his own feelings about the prevalence of prescription drugs in medicine. He has a character in the story talk about how prescription drugs aren’t there to cure your ills, but to help you live with them. In some cases, prescription drugs are there to treat conditions that don’t exist, but that the drug companies want to convince consumers they have. There’s also the heavy marketing that pharmaceutical companies push on doctors to prescribe their medications, and that the high cost of prescription drugs is due to all of the factors that go into that marketing. It’s clear that Garton did a lot of research into the topic, and it makes me want to do some of my own to see if some of what he writes about is fact, because it’s disturbing.

Garton uses that argument as the theme for this novel, and while it adds some depth to the story, it doesn’t add enough to it to make it feel more like a beach read novel. Meds is entertaining to read, and encourages some thought outside of the story, but it’s not the most memorable of stories. It’s compelling and intriguing, and encourages me to keep Garton on my list of authors to revisit, but my guess is the story won’t stick with me very long.

 

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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: The Crucible

August 29, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

23308488Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: The Crucible by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Robert Hack

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First off, I have to say I love the cover of this collection. It captures everything you need to know about the story inside, from the retro-EC Comics look of the title, the barren tree framing the scene, and the white hair and letter drawing the eye to the focus. It’s perfect, and even has a touch of subtlety that the cover of Afterlife with Archie doesn’t have. That cover, along with the praise for the story I read online, made me certain this was going to be my kind of comic.

The story is about Sabrina, the teenage witch from the Archie universe, but gone is the cutesy girl with freckles; in her place is a young woman part of a coven. The author keeps Sabrina’s general background, explaining how she came to be a witch and how she came to live with her aunts, but he makes the story much darker. Much darker. For one, she and her aunts feed on the dead whom they collect from the neighboring cemetery; for another, the ritual Sabrina must take to become a witch involves raising Satan in the woods. This is dark magic here, not the kind of thing we saw on the television show.

Most of the story is spent establishing Sabrina’s background, making the plot only about half of the collection. In addition to Sabrina, Aguerre-Sacasa made Betty and Veronica witches, as well. Sabrina doesn’t live in Riverdale, so Betty and Veronica are part of a different coven. Archie isn’t featured at all in this story, save as an aside that prompts Betty and Veronica to establish the protagonist of the story, but it works. Not only is Sabrina’s name in the title, but the story is also about witches, and Archie has no place there.

I didn’t find the story to be as good as I expected it to be, possibly because it exists a little too far outside the Archie universe. In Afterlife with Archie, there was potential for the story to be too gimmicky, as the reader saw how the author adapted the existing characters into the zombie apocalypse; Chilling Adventures has that same potential, but focused on the one character instead of the whole ensemble. It was a little disappointing, even though the shock and horror of the title was effective.

I’m not ready to give up on the title all together, since the story is only just beginning, but as a standalone volume, The Crucible spends a little too much time on the setup. I’ll be interested in seeing where the author takes the story, since this volume ends on the pivot that should make it more interesting.

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The Clone Wars: No Prisoners

August 26, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

prisonersThe Clone Wars: No Prisoners by Karen Traviss

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This story is about attachment, and how it affects soldiers. The Jedi aren’t supposed to be soldiers, but their training and philosophies suggest they were, long before the Clone Wars began. Attachment gets in the way of soldiers making the right decisions for the greater good, so the Jedi teach that attachment can lead to the Dark Side. We already know that this is true of Anakin, but is it a false premise? He seeks that attachment, yes, but does he fall because of that attachment, or because he’s never developed the maturity to cope with loss? In the movies, his relationships with other people always rang hollow, like he was pretending to care for people when in fact he didn’t really care for them except for how they made him feel. That question of attachment — is it a bad thing or a good thing? — hovers over this novel.

Traviss straddles this line pretty well in the story, showing the troopers as being driven by their attachments, but at the same time recognizing their bias toward an individual for that same attachment. The main plot of the story involves a captain who goes on a mission to save a Republic spy, partly because it’s his mission, but also because she’s his fiancee. Later, we see how the death of a soldier affects the rest of his team, again because of their attachment to the soldier. The story concludes with the idea that attachment is what makes us want to do better, to fight for those we love, and that the cold distance that comes from non-attachment only separates us further.

I had a hard time following parts of this story. In one section, one of the characters was talking to another, and then all of a sudden there’s a third character mentioned as if I should have know he was sitting there, too. I went back to that section of the story and read through it to see where I’d missed it, but it didn’t exist. This guy just popped up out of nowhere.

I also had difficulty with the way Traviss wrote for Ahsoka. She’s portrayed on the show as being young, dressing like a contemporary young adult in short skirts and midriff-baring tops. In the very beginning of the novel, Ahsoka joins the crew of a military ship, and the first thing that happens is the captain makes her cover up in a bulky sweatsuit. The captain claims that it is to fit in with the crew, but he also mentions that her dress will prove to be a distraction. It’s odd to find something like this in a Star Wars novel to begin with, but I was surprised even more to find it in a novel written by a woman. It’s disappointing that the novel perpetrates the idea that a woman is responsible for how a man responds to her body.

I still think Traviss is one of the better EU authors so far, and I enjoy her theme of viewing the clone troopers as people, but I’m kinda getting tired of it, too. I’ve said before that I like the way Alan Moore’s writing focuses on deconstructing and humanizing myth, but the more of his work you read, the more you realize that it’s all he does, and I’m feeling the same way about Traviss’ themes in her novels. I get it: they’re people, they’re noble, they’re Mandalorian. But the stories have reached the point where she’s beating that theme into us over and over again, and it’s tiresome. I would prefer her stories have more variety than this, and it concerns me that there are two more books of hers ahead of me involving the troopers.

On the bright side, she puts the Jedi to use in this story, instead of making them cold, hapless commanders. Aside from Anakin and Ahsoka pulling their weight, we even encounter a sect of Jedi who believe in attachment and have families. They all prove to be useful in the plot, which is something new for Traviss.

The story is decent, and self-contained, but I’d like to see Traviss attempt something else with her fiction. I still look forward to reading the rest of her Republic Commando series, but at the same time, I’m hesitant. Here’s hoping she can make it a little different from the rest of her stories.

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Something Lumber This Way Comes, or, the House from Space

August 25, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

lumberSomething Lumber This Way Comes, or, the House from Space by Joe R. Lansdale and Doug Potter

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Earlier this year, I read The Halloween Mouse by Richard Laymon. I didn’t review it or add it to my list of finished books, because it was a kids’ book, and it seemed too short, with too many full-page illustrations to consider it a full book. I’ve had Something Lumber This Way Comes for a while and started reading it this morning, when I had some time to kill, knowing it was a kids’ book and expecting to treat it the same way I did The Halloween Mouse. It turns out that it’s a bit lengthier, and more narrative-heavy, so I decided to include it. Besides, it was longer than some of the novellas I’ve added to my list this year.

The thing is, I don’t really know how to review a kids’ book. Not only do I not have kids, neither do I know what makes one kids’ book better than another. What I do know is adult fiction, and this book … well, it isn’t for adults. It lacks any characterization or plot, relying instead on the idea of a vampire house to carry the entire book. For kids, maybe this is enough; for adults, the story is best viewed as a curiosity.

There’s an afterword to the book where Lansdale tells us that he wrote this book shortly after The Nightrunners, using the image of a house he had in that story as its inspiration. He wrote the story and read it to his kids, and more or less forgot about it after that. Years ago, Subterranean Press put together a series of books called The Lost Lansdale, bringing back some long lost Lansdale stories, and this was one of them. It’s fitting that a small press brought the book into print, since it doesn’t hold much value outside of Lansdale’s fans.

The story isn’t terrible, but neither is it great. I mentioned in my review of Hot in December that Lansdale is more a writer you read for his style, and this book lacks it all together. There’s a good reason for that — Lansdale’s normal style is definitely not for kids — but it means that the product won’t meet the expectations. It might be fun to read the book aloud to kids, like Lansdale did, but otherwise this is worth skipping, even for fans.

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Hot in December

August 24, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

hotHot in December by Joe R. Lansdale

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Now, this is the kind of Lansdale book one should expect. A random encounter starts off a downward slide into criminal activity, forcing the good guys to make a stand against them and fight their way through. This time around, someone witnesses a fatal hit-and-run. Given that the driver of the car is in a local gang and Tom is the only witness, things get hairy when he presses to be a witness to the crime.

One of my favorite things about Lansdale as a writer is how well he understands the “show, don’t tell” adage of writing. Here’s a good example:

I rinsed them and opened up the washer, put them in, poured myself a cup of coffee, sat at the table and thought about things. The coffee went cold in the cup.

A less experienced writer might tell us “I thought about things for a long time”, but Lansdale shows us by writing “The coffee went cold in the cup.” If I taught a fiction writing class, I would use Lansdale as an example for how to do it right.

This novella exists in the same universe as Hap and Leonard and Cason Statler, and Lansdale throws in references to those characters here. For the most part, they work (there’s reference to Leonard that establishes mood, and could have been anyone, and Cason is an integral character to the story), but the reference to Sunset and Sawdust doesn’t make any sense unless you know the story. Later, Cason tells the narrator that Hap and Leonard would be perfect for what he needs, but they’re not available. The narrator then tells him what we’re thinking: “Don’t tell me about the guys I can’t have.” I wonder what readers unfamiliar with those characters think of the references.

The story hits the usual Lansdale beats, so longtime readers might be able to predict what’s going to happen when, but what makes his stories unique isn’t so much the structure as the way he tells it. There’s a certain cadence, a particular flow to his narrative that I’ve never found in other writers. Other writers may be as compelling or as tight as Lansdale, but there’s simply no one else who writes the way he does.

Lansdale’s novellas are the perfect length for these kinds of stories. His stories are already lean, but stripped down to this length (about 120 pages), they move quickly, enough so that it’s easy to sit down with it and not look up until you’re finished. That wasn’t quite the case with this one (stupid work), but had I not had any interruptions, I would have torn through it like rice paper. Lansdale fans should like it just fine.

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Fiction

August 23, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Quotes) (, )

“We correct in fiction what life gets wrong.”

–Phoebe
(Dana Simpson, Phoebe and Her Unicorn)

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Hell’s Bounty

August 22, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

bountyHell’s Bounty by Joe R. Lansdale and John L. Lansdale

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A few years ago, my wife and I were in the car and heard a song that sounded like a band trying hard, and failing, to sound like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. At the commercial break, the announcer told us that it was the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Hell’s Bounty is the story version of that experience with Joe R. Lansdale.

The story is one of Lansdale’s weird westerns, set in the Old West but populated with demons and other supernatural beings. This time around, a town’s resident bully gets suckered into doing a demon’s bidding, and a handful of townspeople get together to try to stop him. One of those townspeople, our main character, has made a deal with the devil to rid the town of the demon, so he has a strong motivation to finish the job quickly.

The story is peppered with the grim humor, vivid banter, and graphic violence one would expect from a Lansdale story, but somehow still falls short of being one. It would be easy to place the blame on John, since that’s the new variable introduced into the formula, but I can’t find anything about the process of how the story was written. Is it his idea, written by Joe, Joe’s idea written by John, or a true collaboration the whole way through? In the end, it doesn’t matter (it’s still not very good), but I can’t help but be curious.

The print edition may be different, but the ebook is full typos, like “too and fro”, “the but of the shotgun”, “ads up”, “barred teeth”, and an egregious misuse of “breathe”. Throw in more unnecessary commas than ants at a picnic and you have a fine mess. Did no one copy-edit this book before it went to press? And if the print edition is missing these errors, what the heck happened to the book when it was digitized?

Lansdale has written some great weird westerns. Hell’s Bounty is not one of them. There’s nothing wrong with the story, but it doesn’t sing like his other stories do. For a better introduction to Lansdale’s unique style and genre, pick up any of his Jonah Hex collections.

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The Clone Wars: Wild Space

August 19, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

spaceThe Clone Wars: Wild Space by Karen Miller

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Wild Space is the second in a five-book series based on and relating to The Clone Wars, the animated TV show that takes place between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. I haven’t watched the show yet (it’s on my list), so it’s hard to say how they compare, but this and the next three books are supposed to be additional stories that fit in with existing episodes without being novelizations of those episodes.

The story starts off right near the end of Attack of the Clones and reveals how some of the Jedi suspect that there is a relationship between Anakin and Padmé. Padmé is strongly encouraged to discourage it, but as we know from the end of that movie, she ignores that command. A few months later, an attack on Coruscant reveals that General Grievous is leading an attack on the Bothans’ homeworld, which Anakin is dispatched to resolve. Following that, Obi-Wan joins Bail Organa on a mysterious search for a Sith planet. It all seems a little random and convoluted, but I expect all this serves as the setup not just for this novel, but also for the next three.

The story diverges at that point, and instead of following both stories, we instead follow Obi-Wan and Bail, with occasional updates on how Anakin’s mission is going. So the bulk of the story takes place on Zigoola, a forgotten planet out in wild space. There, the Dark Side is so prevalent that when Obi-Wan and Bail crash-land there, it takes all of Obi-Wan’s concentration not to succumb to it. It reminded me a little of Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom in The Return of the King, not just in how Frodo and Obi-Wan must both resist the call of evil, but in how I got tired of reading about it. I get it: The pull is so strong, it takes that much effort to resist it. It just seemed to be more of the same, with Obi-Wan succumbing to hallucinations and reliving all the terrible things he’d witnessed as a Jedi. If Miller had mixed up the assaults on Obi-Wan, it might have been different, but it was just a matter of waiting to see when the next round of mental attacks would begin again.

This is the first book by Karen Miller I’ve read in the EU, and I’m impressed. She does a great job developing her characters, especially Anakin, Padmé, Obi-Wan, and even Bail Organa. The relationship between Anakin and Padmé actually feels real, as does the one between Anakin and Obi-Wan, and, later in the story, Obi-Wan and Bail. In fact, I think I liked Bail’s development most of all. In the movies, he’s a key player in the story, but not much time is spent on him. He seems like a noble, honorable character, played by a great actor, but he still got short shrift compared to the other characters. Miller’s development feels like some long-overdue attention paid to a good character.

In addition, all of the characters feel like the characters from the movies, including Yoda. It seems like getting his dialogue right would be fairly easy, but based on the books where he’s featured more than just as a council member, some authors can’t seem to grasp it. Here, his unnatural way of speaking feels more natural. Also, like Traviss did in the preceding book, Miller shows us Palpatine not just as a chancellor or a Sith, but as both at the same time. It’s refreshing to see his character receive more focus on its duality instead of treating them each as separate characters.

One curiosity about this book is that it’s considered part of the Legends universe, outside of official Star Wars canon. Given that the TV show is considered canon, and this book follows some of the events from the series, I wonder what sets it apart from the official story. Once I get caught up on the canon novels, maybe it will become clearer, especially since Ahsoka is getting her own book later this year.

Wild Space is a decent read, but I feel like it could have been much more. Maybe it will make a little more sense once I start watching the show (my guess is that Anakin’s assignment was the focus of one or two episodes), but the story felt a little disjointed due to its setup. Still, I enjoyed her writing. Miller has written two more books in this series, and I look forward to seeing how she can write a story with a larger plot.

 

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

August 18, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

childHarry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

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Despite being a huge fan of the Harry Potter series, I wasn’t all that eager to read this newest entry. It wasn’t written by Rowling, it was a script and not a book, and it was set outside of the events that cemented the character. I figured that I would eventually get around to it, but I couldn’t get as excited about it as I was when, say, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. That I got to it as soon as I did was only because of a coupon on an already-good deal.

The story is set nineteen years after the end of Deathly Hallows, and is more about Harry’s son Albus and Draco’s son Scorpio than anything else. I’m fine with that — stories set in the same universe but around different characters appeal to me more than additional stories about established characters (though that could be the Star Wars Expanded Universe talking) — but the writer(s?) decide to dip back into Harry’s life to establish the backbone of the story. There’s a convoluted story of time travel and paradoxes in place that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and since that means Albus and Draco go back to the events in the original series, it also means the authors are relying on those moments to carry the story. It has its emotional moments, but only because the story dips back into the most emotional moments of the original stories and replays them for us. What original bits remain feel flat and emotionless.

I won’t spoil the story (such as it is), but somehow the authors don’t understand the appeal of the characters they’re writing about. Harry isn’t supposed to be a bumbling father who spends more time with his work than his family and doesn’t understand them; Ron isn’t supposed to be relegated to being useless comic relief; and Snape isn’t supposed to be an obvious hero. I think their portrayal of Snape is probably the worst part of the story, because in the original series, he had a depth of character due to his hidden motivations, but here the authors bring it right to the front, changing him from a menacing, brooding antihero to being a cliched good guy. That felt like more of a betrayal than anything else in the story.

It’s probably not fair to judge the entire story off of the script alone, since this is a story meant to be seen instead of read. The story seems to move too quickly, and it’s hard to get a sense of the characters through dialogue alone. Also, one of the neat things about the series was how everything was told through Harry’s perspective; even though Harry isn’t the main character of this story, it still jumps around from character to character, which is unusual for the series.

I didn’t expect too much from this story, but it was still disappointing. On the plus side, I feel certain this is going to be released on Blu-Ray within a year or two, and I’ll be able to experience the story as it was intended. I’m still not sure if the story is enough to carry even the performance, but I’ll likely watch it just to be sure.

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