Coruscant Nights: Jedi Twilight

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

twilightCoruscant Nights: Jedi Twilight by Michael Reaves

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I went into this book thinking that the Coruscant Nights series was a crime noir story set in the Star Wars universe. Neither crime nor noir are favorite genres are favorites of mine, so to say I went into the book with apprehension is an understatement. I went into the Expanded Universe reading project knowing I was going to read a lot of bad along with the good, and I expected this to be among the former.

While I can see the similarities between this story and the crime genre, but it didn’t read or feel like one. The story is about Jax Pavan, son of a character who featured in Reaves’ Shadow Hunter, and I-5YQ, the sentient droid who also featured in that book, as well as in the two MedStar books Reaves co-authored. Oh, and Den Dhur, the Sullustan reporter from that series, also features in the story. I didn’t mind it much, though, since I-5 and Den are memorable, fun characters to use.

The story is about I-5 trying to track down Jax, but it’s also about two criminals competing to take over the Black Sun syndicate, and Vader trying to track down Jax, as well. The most interesting story of the three plots is the one involving I-5 and his team, but the three plots at least converge in a sensible way. I felt like Reaves tried to put too much story into the book, especially with the Black Sun subplot. That storyline didn’t interest me at all, and I found myself not absorbing the details of it, even as I was reading it.

One aspect of the story I liked was how Reaves addressed how unusual it is to encounter sentient droids in the Star Wars universe. Watching the movies, one would expect them all to be as self-aware as C-3PO and R2-D2, but it turns out they’re the anomalies, along with I-5YQ. In fact, Reaves makes a sly reference to the three of them meeting on an older mission. On the one hand, it’s pretty cool; on the other hand, it makes the universe appear to be much smaller than it actually is, since the same characters keep showing up in all the stories.

Jedi Twilight isn’t the worst Star Wars book I’ve read, but it’s not the best, either. I enjoyed it more than I didn’t, though, which is more than I can say for some other books in the EU. I’m curious to see where Reaves will take this story in the next two books.

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Paper Girls 1

October 28, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

paperPaper Girls 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

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Like “The White People”, Paper Girls came recommended to me through a Stranger Things-alike list, but unlike “The White People”, Paper Girls hits closer to the mark. For one thing, it’s set in the 1980s; for another, the whole parallel-world aspect of the story plays a larger role; for yet another, the core group of characters corresponds well to that of Stranger Things. In fact, a handful of reviews I’ve seen for this title calls it “Stranger Things with a female cast”, which is pretty accurate.

The main character is a 12-year-old girl who begins a paper route the morning after Halloween, and runs into some oddities after avoiding an attack from a group of teenagers and then meeting up with a band of three other girls her age who are also delivering papers. What starts out as merely unusual becomes downright ominous as they encounter deformed people who speak a strange language, while people they know disappear from the streets.

A lot of reviews criticize the story for not giving us a lot of detail about the characters, and for the story moving too quickly, but I found the balance of both to be just right. First volumes of new titles are always mostly exposition, and I felt like Vaughan gave us just enough details of both to keep us engaged enough to keep reading. Plus, this collection ends with an ending that promises more answers (and certainly more questions) to come.

I really dug the artwork here, too. I don’t usually mention the art in graphic novels unless the style is noteworthy, and Chiang’s style is so without being invasive. It’s not a minimal style, nor is it overly detailed. It’s not cartoonish, nor is it lifelike. Instead, it’s just enough to convey what we need to see without taking us away from the story being told.

Paper Girls 1 is all about potential, and Vaughan makes it work remarkably well. I’m not sure if Vaughan is a guaranteed author for me just yet (Y: The Last Man eluded me, and I didn’t find a lot to like about We Stand on Guard), but Saga continues to impress the hell out of me, and now I have Paper Girls doing the same thing.

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The White People

October 27, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

whiteThe White People by Arthur Machen

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I see a lot of reading lists pop up while browsing the web, and since I’m always looking for a good book, I pay attention to them. One was a list of stories to read if you liked Stranger Things, and since I did (and who didn’t?), I thought I’d check some of them out. “The White People” was one of those stories, and since I haven’t read anything by Machen, I thought this would be a good introduction.

“The White People” is an early weird story, which starts off reading like a philosophical treaty on sin, namely because that’s exactly what it is. Two men discuss the nature of sin, and the conversation leads one of the men to lend him a book he has, written by a sixteen-year-old woman who was drawn in to a world of mystery and mysticism through her nurse. None of what she sees or experiences is named; in fact, as the story enters into the big reveal, it ends, leaving us scrabbling for answers. The narrative evokes an ominous dread, especially as the young woman describes the uneasy reactions of other people to what she sees and tells.

I liked this story, but not because it reminded me of Stranger Things; that link is tenuous, connected only by way of parallel universes. Instead, I liked it for its use of atmosphere and unnameable horror. It evokes an unknown sort of response from the reader, one that’s as nebulous as the horrors that populate it. I understand Machen’s The Great God Pan is another exemplary piece of his work, and I look forward to reading it, as well.

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Pay the Ghost

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

ghostPay the Ghost by Tim Lebbon

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Lebbon is, apparently, well known as a horror writer. My only experience with his fiction was through Star Wars, so I was surprised to learn this about him. A book buddy of mine mentioned liking this story in a review of another of Lebbon’s works, and since it’s close to Halloween, and I still like a good horror tale, I decided to give this a read.

Moll’s father lost her on Halloween when she was six years old. The weight of that loss crushed him, enough that he lost his wife, his job, and any hope that Moll would ever return. Almost a year after her disappearance, his wife returns, claiming Moll is alive, and she knows where she is. Now, her father might learn the answer to her disappearance, as well as the answer to the question Moll asked that night a year ago: “Will you pay the ghost?”

Lebbon blends the horror of losing a child with the horrors of the unseen very well. The story is brief — 27 pages — but a lot happens during those pages, plot- and character-wise. It’s remarkable how dense the story is, though it reads quickly and easily. The reunion of the family dynamic, such as it is, represents all that the father has experienced since losing Moll, and when he comes out of the other end of his ordeal, he is no better off than he was before. He may, in fact, be worse off.

Pay the Ghost is a grim story, with no easy answers or happy endings. I understand this has been made into a movie, but I can’t see how the story as it’s written here would work in the longer form. Stories with endings like these are easier to accept in short stories, but longer forms need more complete conclusions. As it is, Pay the Ghost is an excellent example of a horror story, and encourages me to find one of his horror novels.

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Stone Animals

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

stoneStone Animals by Kelly Link

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I stumbled across this novella via a list of creepy fiction, one of many I’ve read, now that Halloween is approaching. Most of them I dismiss for one reason or another. Stone Animals sounded like something I was looking for, horror “done right”, as I so often hope to find. Of course I had to read it.

The story is about a family, one who moves into a house in the country after having lived in the city. It’s a nuclear family, with one on the way, and the youngest son is the first to notice something off with the house. They move in anyway, and the oddities become more and more noticeable to the entire family as time goes on. As this happens, the family becomes more and more alienated to each other.

Link’s eye for detail is impressive. It’s not just in her settings, either; she has a keen eye for behavior and ear for dialogue. She creates the family dynamic realistically, and the unusual things that happen in the house seem natural (as natural as a haunted dishwasher can be, that is). The eeriness of the story isn’t carried by ghosts or poltergeists; instead, Link imbues ordinary things with a feeling of dread, and populates her story with hauntings that can exist in the light of day. That the hauntings extend to the people populating this story makes it all the more effective.

Stone Animals is odd, surreal, and disturbing. It’s literary horror with a Gothic element, done well, and done right. I don’t see that the story would be for everyone — its premise is concerning, its message dismal — but for those who appreciate a thoughtful, off-kilter look at a dysfunctional family, they need look no further.

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Those Who Went Remain There Still

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

remainThose Who Went Remain There Still by Cherie Priest

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Imagine a story like the Hatfields and McCoys, where two families feud over the course of generations. Imagine further that the patriarch of the two families has died, calling all of his family back to read his will. Six men — three from each family — are to descend into a nearby cave where he hid his will. That in itself would make for an interesting story, but Priest does it one better by setting Those Who Went Remain There Still against the backdrop of a monster story, as what the men find in the cave is worse than they imagined.

Like Dreadful Skin, this novella uses multiple first-person narrators, but it’s better handled here than it was in that other novel. For one, she limits herself to just three different narrators, one of whom is Daniel Boone, narrating his part of the story one hundred years before the other characters. For another, she does a better job making them sound distinct.

One of the characters is a member of a spiritual cult, and his ties to the dead allow him to see ghosts, which feature into the plot. It seemed too convenient, especially when, late in the story, another character also sees one, though it’s unclear why he does, or who the ghost is supposed to be. It felt a little tacked on, especially in a story where the monster serves the purpose of the supernatural. I get that if monsters can exist in this world, then ghosts can too, but it didn’t seem necessary, except to steer the characters in the right direction.

Somehow, despite the fact that the two families live close to the caves, none of the men who go into the caves knows a thing about the creatures there. Two of the characters have moved away, so it would make sense that they don’t know, but the rest of the family has stayed there all their lives. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the monsters have been there a long time, and that people have gone missing, so why not address any legends or rumors? The cave is called the Witch’s Pit, after all, so wouldn’t the locals at least not be as surprised when they find the creatures?

The thing is, despite those concerns (which, admittedly, aren’t slight), this novella is still a fun read. It feels more like what Priest did in the Boneshaker series than Dreadful Skin, so readers familiar with her adventuresome style in that series will find something familiar here. The story ends rather abruptly, after a lengthy battle against the nameless creature that lives in the caves, but the journey to that point is satisfying.

 

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Edgar Huntley, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-walker

October 21, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

sleepEdgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-walker by Charles Brockden Brown

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I added this book to my to-read list after reading The Monk, and seeing it mentioned in the foreword as another example of a Gothic novel. So, of course, I expected it to be, you know, Gothic. Instead, what I found was a book that had some Gothic leanings, but was mostly long-winded and rambling and took a long time to get to the point. I suppose I should grant it some leeway, since it was published in 1799, but The Monk was published just three years earlier, got to the point faster, and was a much easier read.

This book contains some of the most stilted language I’ve ever read.

It was natural to suggest to my friend, when expatiating on this theme, an inquiry as to how far subsequent events had obliterated the impressions that were then made, and as to the plausibility of reviving, at this more auspicious period, his claims on the heart of his friend.

In other words, “Dude, she doesn’t like you.” Again, yes, this is from 1799, not 2016, but again, The Monk didn’t read like this. Did this guy get paid by the word or something?

The novel starts out with the narrator, Edgar, explaining who he is. Interminably. Then we get the next section, where he confronts the guy he saw digging under the tree, named Clithero.

(Vulgar side note: I kept reading this character’s name with the break between the T and the H. It was … somewhat distracting.)

In the next section, we get another interminable description of who Clithero is. Then we get some adventure, as Edgar pursues Clithero into a cave on one of his sleepwalking jaunts. There’s some back-and-forth throughout, as Edgar has to keep returning home, and later Edgar finds himself in the caves, lost, in the darkness, and starving. The story picks up, and it’s easier to manage Brown’s melodramatic narrative, which takes us through to the end of the novel.

The thing is, between the time when he follows Clithero into the caves, and later finds himself lost in the same caves, he runs across a guy named Weymouth who says that Waldegrave was holding money for him. He has no proof of any of his claims, though the evidence supports it, and Edgar believes him.and wants to give him the money. I get the feeling Brown is trying to show Edgar as a generous, honorable character, but the interaction is random, and doesn’t serve the story at all.

There are some redeeming features of the story: Edgar is an unreliable narrator, which adds a layer of interest; Native Americans are referred to by Edgar as “savages”, when Edgar is the one who kills them; and it seems to be a parallel to life in early America after the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the novel is a bit of a chore to read, it repeats itself quite a bit, and it takes too long to get going. It’s certainly a book that’s better suited for analysis than entertainment, which makes it an odd book to recommend to a casual reader. While I don’t mind stories that engender analysis, what I look for in a novel above all is story, and the one in Edgar Huntly isn’t sufficient enough to entertain.

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The Dispatcher

October 20, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

dispatcherThe Dispatcher by John Scalzi

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About a year ago, I saw John Scalzi speak as part of his book tour for The End of All Things, and at the engagement, he read the beginning of a new story he was then writing. The Dispatcher was that story, and it was nice to hear the story in its completed form. It was also interesting to see how little changed between that reading and the final product (that I can recall, at least).

The story is a mystery set around the idea that anyone murdered will revive in their own bed shortly after death. It doesn’t work for all deaths, only murder, so there are people whose job it is to efficiently murder people who are going to die during surgery. Scalzi introduces us to Tony Valdez, one of these people, called a dispatcher, who is caught up in the case of a missing person, another dispatcher.

Scalzi is in his usual form here, with crisp characterization and a satisfying plot that moves at just the right speed. Story-wise, it’s just the right length, and doesn’t feel forced into its shorter form, but there were parts of the story that begged for further development, namely in the revivification process. It’s a capricious process — it only works on people who are murdered, it wipes out all injuries preceding and related to the murder, but only based on a specific time frame that no one can determine, and it doesn’t work all the time — but nothing is explained behind the fact that it exists. For it to be such a large part of the premise, I was looking for more answers, but they weren’t there.

In addition, this revivification would have a huge effect on society overall, and I wanted to see more of that aspect of the story. Scalzi examines to some degree how this process affects life in general, but only enough to satisfy the requirements of the story. I would have preferred a deeper examination of it, like what Drew Magary did in The Postmortal, or even what Scalzi himself did in Lock In. What could have been a social examination is just a standard mystery.

Seeing as this is an audiobook, I would be remiss in not speaking to Zachary Quinto’s performance. His voice is velvet, his characters distinctive, and I could listen to him read stories all day long. I had a minor quibble with the way he voiced the detective — it was unfortunately clear she was a black woman before that was addressed in the narrative — but overall he did a fantastic job.

This is a Scalzi work, so of course it’s engaging and intriguing, but anyone looking for an explanation behind the main premise will be disappointed. I’d recommend this to fans of his work, or anyone looking for a well-told (in both senses of the word) story. It’s available free through Audible until November 2nd, so there’s no reason not to enjoy it.

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Last Train from Perdition

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

trainLast Train from Perdition by Robert McCammon

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While I was reading Last Train from Perdition, I was also reading Those Who Went Remain There Still by Cherie Priest. I’m usually reading more than one book at a time, and I usually have no problems juggling different stories, but this time the books were so close in setting and development that I crossed the story wires as I neared the end.

In this novella, we return to Trevor Lawson and Ann Kingsley, vampire and sharpshooter respectively, as they continue their search for LaRouge, the vampire who turned Trevor and turned Ann’s sister and father. Their search takes them to Perdition, where they search for a client’s missing son, but it’s as they take the train out of town that they encounter a threat larger than they expected.

The story hums along, as one would expect from a McCammon novel, but it does falter toward the end. McCammon built his plot and tension very well, enough so that as the final showdown took place, I found myself looking at how many pages were left in the book and thinking How are they going to get out of this? The answer, unfortunately, is that someone else does it for them.

This was the point in the story where I confused Priest’s story for this one, because the group that comes in to save them at the end of the story is a group wielding axes that hadn’t been mentioned before that point, and Priest’s novella opened with a group of lumberjacks clearing a trail through the woods while being pursued by some flying creature. McCammon’s group was such a surprise at that point that I found myself trying to place them, and Priest’s lumberjacks were the only thing I could find. It made a certain kind of sense for a few pages, but then McCammon’s story made it clear I had confused the two.

I don’t fault the story for my confusing the two novellas, but I do fault it for bringing in a deus ex machina and spoiling the conclusion. Granted, things were looking grim for Trevor, Ann, and their small group, but it would have been more satisfying for them to find their own way out of their troubles than to bring in a brand-new group to do it for them. Years ago, I read something that suggested the protagonist of any story is the one who defeats the protagonist, and that the story should be about the protagonist; Last Train from Perdition bucks that trend, and the story suffers for it. On the positive side, McCammon creates an intriguing twist by bringing in this new group, one that will complicate things for Trevor as his stories continue. It seems clear from the way this story ends, and the way McCammon has set up the premise of these two books, that there will be more books about these characters.

My biggest complaint about I Travel by Night was that it felt rushed. Last Train from Perdition avoids this pitfall, but finds others. The story felt more realized and concise this time around, and I would have given it four stars if it hadn’t ended the way it did. Still, McCammon is a writer to trust, so if he releases more books in this series, I expect I’ll read them.

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Imperial Commando: 501st

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

501Imperial Commando: 501st by Karen Traviss

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It’s no secret by now that Traviss was all about the Madaloeans and their culture, but by now, five books into one series with three others that are tangentially related, it’s getting a little tiresome. I enjoy the worlds and characters she created, but how many kids does Skirata have now? Fifteen? Maybe more? Extending that culture among this many novels strains some of what makes the stories and characters interesting, as the novels become repetitious.

In 501st, Darman and Niner are now a part of the Imperial Commando unit, while the rest of their teammates have deserted back to Mandalore. A large part of the novel is devoted to how Darman and Niner are going to make it back to join them, and there’s an additional plot involving Uthan developing a virus that will make Mandalore immune to Palpatine’s biological weapon, but for the most part, nothing happens in this book. It’s 434 pages of build-up for the second half of this series, which, famously, was never written. You can find a summary of what Traviss had in store for her characters on the Star Wars wiki, and it looks like it would have been a good continuation and conclusion to Skirata and his extended family. Unfortunately, it doesn’t save the book from being long, tedious, repetitive, and ultimately pointless.

The saving grace for this book is that people who have already made the journey with these characters through the Republic Commando novels will get one last chance to see them. It’s just a shame that it comes with an unresolved ending. The previous books were self-contained stories that followed a larger arc; 501st is not. Even if the second book had been written and published, I’d still be disappointed that this book is just setup for the next one.

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