Myth-ing Persons

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

personsMyth-ing Persons by Robert Asprin

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The One About the Vampires

Of all the Myth Adventures books I remember, Myth-ing Persons was the biggie. Not only did it feature Aahz and Skeeve and the rest of the crew, but it featured vampires! The horror nut that I was, I was all over this one.

I remember more details about this book than I do the others, save for Another Fine Myth. I remember how the bazaar used other dimensions to save space in Deva; I remember how the I remember how Skeeve rescued Aahz from the living stone cell; I remember how the vampires first reacted to Skeeve and the rest of the gang. There were some other fun things I either didn’t remember or didn’t realize when I was reading (Drahcir and Idnew, for example), but for the most part this was a re-read to remember all the great stuff from the story.

One thing that’s stuck with me as I’ve been reading these books is how Asprin portrays Massha. She’s strong, independent, and her own person, but how he portrays her as a fat woman in the story concerns me. She’s aware of it, but the way Asprin has Skeeve think about her doesn’t sit well with me. Clearly there’s judgment going on as he evaluates her as an apprentice and a person, due to her weight, and he mostly overlooks her as a woman entirely because of it. The person she is aside from her weight shines through, enough that Asprin avoids stereotypes, and she doesn’t come across as simply the token fat woman. It’s troubling, but not enough to dismiss the entire series out of hand because of it.

Regardless, the story is entertaining, and brings back a lot of fond memories. I understand that these books may not hold up as well as I progress further into the series, but then again, that’s true of most series that don’t run as long as this one does. It’s impossible for me to separate the story from my nostalgia, but I’m still having a lot of fun with these books.

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The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

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

dreamThe Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

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I picked up this novella when it went on sale a few months back. I didn’t know much about it save that it was getting some good buzz, and good buzz + low price = I’m going to read it. What I didn’t know until I started reading it was that it was Lovecraftian, which was a bonus.

Vellitt Boe is a teacher at Ulthar Women’s College in the Dreamlands, and when a student goes missing, having eloped with a man from the real world, she goes on a trek to find her and bring her back. After all, the student is the daughter of one of the administrators of the college, and neither she nor any of the other teachers want the college to close due to a wayward student. The novella is about Vellitt’s journey across and out of the Dreamlands.

I know enough about, and have read enough of, Lovecraft’s works to know when someone is writing about his mythos. I’m not, however, so familiar with it that I recognize all the names and references that populate his works. Such is the case with The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, a novella written in homage and response to “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”. Some of the references are obvious, and others I know are references, though I don’t know what they are.

Luckily, Johnson doesn’t limit her world-building by expecting readers to know the setting. She paints a vivid picture of the Dreamlands, above and below the surface, writing from a female perspective that, I understand, is lacking in Lovecraft’s work. She even makes Vellitt an old paramour of Randolph Carter, bringing in an aspect of the story that Lovecraft couldn’t.

Toward the end of the book, Johnson makes a particular scene a bit too coincidental to believe. Had she set it up a bit earlier, I would have accepted it more easily, but it was a case of “Oh, here’s how she got out of that situation, and here’s how that happened, since I didn’t talk about this earlier.” Beyond that, the story gets on track and concludes expectedly yet unexpectedly, ultimately satisfying.

Johnson’s prose is sharp, and her details vivid. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Lovecraft, but I remember his prose to be dense, requiring a lot more effort than this novella did. I see Johnson’s story as a sort of revisionist history of Lovecraft’s work, making it a necessary read for anyone who is a fan of his mythos. There are fewer unnameable, eldritch horrors, but the perspective and theme make up for them.

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Hit or Myth

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

hitHit or Myth by Robert Asprin

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This is “The One About the Wedding” and “The One About the Mob”, which is a bit of a sticking point for me. This is the shortest entry into Myth Adventures yet, and it contains two full-blown plots. Add into that formula that Aahz doesn’t even feature in one of them, and we have a rather disappointing addition to the series.

See, a lot of what makes the Myth Adventures books so much fun is the banter. Skeeve narrates the stories, so we get his sarcasm and naivete with or without Aahz, but without him, Skeeve doesn’t have anyone to banter with. Asprin fills the role with a couple of other characters — namely Massha — but it wasn’t the same. I get that Asprin wanted to develop Skeeve further and have him come into his own instead of always being Aahz’s apprentice, but I wish he could have done it in a different way.

The series is still going strong, my nostalgia kicking in to keep my interest high, and it doesn’t hurt that they read quickly. Hit or Myth is the first low point I’ve hit, but even then, “low” is a relative term, since I still had fun reading the book. I’ve been able to read these at the pace of one a day, and if this keeps up, I should be able to finish this entire series before the end of the month.

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Myth Directions

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

directionsMyth Directions by Robert Asprin

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Myth Directions is “The One About the Football Game”. And the trophy. I put this first because at some point in the future, I’m going to forget which plot goes with which book, and this will be an easy way to jog my memory.

This is also the one where we meet Maasha and Chumley, the heavyset magician and Tanda’s brother, respectively. As usual, the book starts out with an innocuous trip as Tanda takes Skeeve across several dimensions in search of a birthday present for Aahz. Of course, things go south quickly and the plot rears its head. In the end, Skeeve and the rest of the gang get roped into playing a sports game in order to rescue Tanda and get Aahz his trophy.

The series is lousy with recurring characters, as Quigley makes another appearance. Gus and Badaxe do, too, but Badaxe and Skeeve work for the same empire, and Aahz and Skeeve specifically seek out Gus for the game, but Quigley showing up was about as big a coincidence as, say, Luke and Leia running into each other in the middle of a galactic revolution. I’m fine with it here, though; the series is lighthearted enough that it’s not a bother to find the universe to be so small as to focus just on this handful of people.

Like the previous two books, the story ends suddenly, focusing on the characters above the plot. Skeeve even tells us that he isn’t going to bore us with the details of the game, though he will tell us how they got out of their predicament. Again, I’m fine with it since the characters are the real treat of these stories. I would prefer a more fleshed out story along with a great sense of humor and well-drawn characters (paging Terry Pratchett …), but these continue to be a lot of fun.

Three down and nine to go!

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Myth Conceptions

November 23, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

conceptions.jpgMyth Conceptions by Robert Asprin

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What’s funny about re-reading this series (other than the jokes and madcap adventures within) is that I remember the key plots for the books, I just don’t remember which one goes with which book. I realize I can refer to the books as if they were titles of episodes of Friends; in the case of Myth Conceptions, this is “The One About the Invading Army”.

The original cast of characters is here — Aahz, Skeeve, Gleep, and Tanda — but other characters make their appearances here, too. General Badaxe, Big Julie, and Gus are all introduced, which is also a funny thing about re-reading the series. Asprin wasn’t averse to using the same characters over and over, and it’s fun to see these characters who appear to play a role just in this book who will make appearances again and again throughout the series.

The plots appear to play second-fiddle to the characters. Asprin uses a lot of coincidence and the introduction of new characters to help resolve the plot, and the endings happen quickly. With Another Fine Myth, I got the feeling that Asprin realized that once the story shifted away from Aahz and Skeeve, it was irrelevant, and just wrote out the Isstvan problem as quickly as he could. That seems to be the case here in Myth Conceptions, too. There’s enough of a plot to keep the story going, but the focus is really on the characters. They’re so much fun, though, that I don’t see it as a problem. (Also, it could be the nostalgia talking.)

The trademarks of the series are all here — the banter, the jokes, the fish-out-of-water characterization of Skeeve, and the in-over-their-heads aspect of the plot — so it’s safe to say that anyone who enjoyed the first book will enjoy the second. I can see why I liked them so much as a kid, and I’m glad that they hold up about as well as I remember them.

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The Turn of the Screw

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

screwThe Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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I’ve had this story on my short-list for a long time, since it’s supposed to be a good ghost story. I saw it on sale on Audible, and figured it would be a good time to catch myself up with the story. Plus, Emma Thompson reads it! How could it be bad?

Well, if I had remembered the time I tried to listen to the audiobook of The Return of the King, I might have realized. During that experience, I made it through the entire first disc before realizing I hadn’t really heard a word of the story. The Turn of the Screw wasn’t quite that bad (I seem to have finally developed the kind of attention required to get the story out of the narration), but I still found myself having to focus nearly all of my attention on the story to stay with it. James’ narrative is dense and, frankly, boring. He spends a lot of time repeating himself, talking about the household.

Beneath all that is a ghost story that could be fairly interesting. The main character is a governess who has been hired to take care of two children, whom the governess loves, not just because she has a crush on their father, but also because they’re beautiful, innocent-looking children. The boy has just been expelled from school, though neither the governess or servant know exactly why. When the governess begins seeing what she determines are ghosts, she assigns their presence to the children, a position that’s reinforced by the servant, who says that their description matches that of previous servants at the house. The thing is, the governess is the only one who sees these ghosts, and the entire recollection is told from her point-of-view, giving us the fodder to wonder if the events are real, or only imagined by the governess. The children seem to see the ghosts, as well, though they come across as mischievous, and could very well just be playing along with her.

This approach to the traditional story has been done many times since, most notably and effectively in The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Had James written a more effective narrative around the story, I think I would have liked it a lot. Instead, he buries the story beneath a near-impenetrable narrative full of theme and discussions on the nature of evil. I value story over style, and very much enjoy works that embrace both equally, but James veers too far into style, leaving the story to suffer.

As far as the audio production goes, I was surprised when the story began with a male narrator. It fits the story (the first chapter frames the story as one from a journal by the governess), but Richard Armitage’s name is nowhere on the cover. Thompson reads the story well, but I had trouble with her voices for the governess and the servant. The servant speaks in a shrill Cockney accent, which was more annoying than anything, and even the affect she gives the governess in her more emotional moments was bothersome. I came close to just turning the story off at that point, but I wanted to stick it out. It was just three hours or so.

In retrospect, I should have read this story instead of listened to it. If the story had seemed more substantial or interesting, I might have gone ahead and read the story after listening to it, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend more time than necessary with the story. It has a lot of potential, but suffers for being a bit too literary for my tastes.

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Another Fine Myth

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

anotherAnother Fine Myth by Robert Asprin

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I’m not going to lie; reading this book is pure nostalgia for me. I first read the Myth books when I was fourteen or so, and I loved the heck out of them. I read and re-read them, and last year I saw that there are still books being published in the series. Asprin is dead, but another author has picked up the mantle. Honestly, I’m not interested in any of those, or any of the ones he co-wrote, but the idea of re-reading the series again, as an adult, made me giddy.

The book holds up remarkably well. The plot is a bit thinner than I remember, but it’s mostly exposition, anyway. Skeeve is a bumbling apprentice magician who is befriended by Aahz the Pervect after Aahz is summoned to Skeeve’s dimension and stripped of his own powers. Gleep and Tanda are introduced along the way, and really, that’s all that’s necessary to get this story going. Asprin seemed to know at the time that he was writing a series, not just a single book, and spent the time laying the foundation of what was to come.

The jokes aren’t quite as funny as they were the first time, but how often are they? There was still a madcap feel to the story, and the banter between Aahz and Skeeve worked, and honestly, that was why I was reading the books. They’re like old friends, and a large part of that is because the characters in the book are friends to each other. I was also pleased to see that Tanda is more than just a buxom maid trope; she’s capable and independent and headstrong. I remember her that way, but I’m always a little concerned that stories of this age (almost 40 years!) carry some of the baggage of their eras. Another Fine Myth seems to avoid them.

There are twelve books in the Myth Adventures series, and as much fun as I had with the first one, I expect to have fun with the rest of them, too. If nothing else, they’re quick, short reads, and it shouldn’t take long to plow through them. Right now, I think I need “fun” more than “thoughtful” anyway.

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Jedi Apprentice: The Dark Rival

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

rivalJedi Apprentice: The Dark Rival by Jude Watson

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The Dark Rival picks up right after The Rising Force, following the events on the Bandomeer as Xanatos, Qui-Gon’s former apprentice, seeks to take revenge on his old master. Xanatos is now the head of one of the mining companies on the planet, and he comes in appearing to be willing to work with the existing miners and the Jedi, but the story quickly turns south as more detail regarding his relationship with Qui-Gon reveals itself.

The story is sufficient, but it didn’t have the same kind of lasting appeal of the first book. It’s fifty pages shorter, which could be part of it, since the story doesn’t have as much time to get its legs. The thing is, Watson did a good job with the stories in Legacy of the Jedi, and those were each fifty pages long. I’m not sure why this one feels less substantial, but it does. It still touches on themes that are familiar to Star Wars — protecting the downtrodden, honor above all, etc. — but it doesn’t have the same OOMPH as the other juvenile books I’ve read so far.

I’m still moving forward, though I’ve hit a bit of a snag. I bought all of the books in this series used, and when I went to read The Hidden Past, I discovered that the previous owner had cut whole paragraphs out of the book. So right now I’m waiting on my replacement copy. It’s not like I don’t have plenty more to read, though, so it’s only slowing me down in this series.

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Jedi Apprentice: The Rising Force

November 17, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

risingJedi Apprentice: The Rising Force by Dave Wolverton

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Kenobi, while an interesting read, was a bit of a let-down, since it was less about Obi-Wan and more about the town he helps during the story. What I had wanted was a more in-depth look at our famous Jedi, a closer look at his past and how he became who he was. Luckily, Jedi Apprentice gives us just that, taking us back to when Obi-Wan was going on thirteen, and was yet to be Qui-Gon’s Padawan.

The story itself is somewhat lackluster, with the main conflict taking place between two rival mining companies on their way to Bandomeer. One company is run by the Hutts, the other one populated by Arconans, a race which requires a certain element to survive. The Hutts steal the element, thus trying to force the Acronans to work for them in trade for their lives. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon are on the ship, as well, and that conflict serves as the backdrop for developing the relationship between the older Jedi and the younger apprentice.

Wolverton plays with the reader’s expectations, in a good way. We know that Obi-Wan will become Qui-Gon’s Padawan, but he doesn’t let that lead his story. Instead, he focuses on the relationship between the two, and how it leads to their ultimate pairing. Going in, I figured the story would suffer for the reader knowing where the story would lead, but Wolverton made some wise choices about the story to keep the reader guessing. There are twenty volumes in this series, so there is a lot of time for us to keep guessing.

The Hutts are a little too cartoonish as villains, even spouting some cliched villainous remarks, but the protagonist here is Obi-Wan’s anger and fear. It’s what leads him to Bandomeer in shame, and it’s what drives an initial wedge between himself and Qui-Gon. Those are the enemies Obi-Wan must conquer in order to better himself and lead him on the path to Jedi Knighthood.

The story was better than I would have expected for a children’s book read by an adult. The style is simplistic without the story being so, and the book introduces us to what will be a longer, more satisfying story arc that appears will take place over several novels. Plus, we get to learn more about the history of two characters who haven’t received much attention in the Expanded Universe for adults. I’m in for the ride.

 

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Six Scary Stories

November 16, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sixSix Scary Stories selected by Stephen King

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As part of a promotion of the British publication of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King picked the winner of a scary short-story contest. Out of a pool of over 800 stories, editors winnowed them down to six, from which King picked the winner. He found it tough, tough enough to think that the stories needed to be published together. Six Scary Stories is the end result of that contest. Being the horror nut (and King fan) that I am, of course I was going to read this.

“Wild Swimming” by Elodie Harper was the winner, and is also the story that opens to collection, as well as serves as the inspiration for the cover. I thought that was a little strange. Why not lead up to the (supposed) best story in the collection instead of opening with it? Regardless, the story has a nice eerie feel to it, though I don’t know if I would call it scary. I think it suffers a bit for being written in an epistolary style; the characterization feels lacking, and it forces the conclusion to come from a different narrator.

“Eau-de-Eric” by Manuela Saragosa follows, and is, to me, a creepier story than the winner. Taste is subjective, of course, but I found the idea of a teddy bear that smelled like the memories of a dead father more effective than something still living in an underwater village. It ended rather suddenly, enough to make me wonder if the contest had a story length limit in place.

The next story is “The Spots” by Paul Bassett Davies, and is a different story than what I would call “scary”. It’s unnerving, to be sure, in the same way that fascism is. It’s a more realistic look at what scares, and in the current political climate, it’s even relevant. I guess when I think of scary stories, though, I think of horror, and when I think of horror, I think of the supernatural. This is more a cautionary near-future science-fiction story to me.

“The Unpicking” by Michael Button was the best-written of the six stories, even if I didn’t find it to be as effective as the others. It had the best narrative, felt more self-contained than the rest, and seemed like it had the most to say. If I hadn’t figured out how the story was going to end as soon as the possibility entered the story, I might feel differently about it overall.

“La Mort de L’Amant” by Stuart Johnstone reminded me a lot of “The Near Departed” by Richard Matheson, which is both unsurprising (the author mentions Matheson’s influence in his introduction) and positive. I’ve always had a soft spot for that story, as it’s short and effective, right up to the last sentence. Johnstone does a wonderful job with this story, which was written as a response to “avoid clichés like the plague”.

“The Bear Trap” by Neil Hudson concludes the collection, and it’s interesting to note that three of the six stories here feature stuffed animals. Hudson takes a turn into The Stand territory with his story here, since it’s set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but it’s not a copycat story by any means. It’s a short, sharp punch to the jaw.

This collection is slim — 126 pages, counting the frontispiece, with wide margins and full pages dedicated to the about-the-author and how-King-influenced-me paragraphs that introduce each story. I’m sure the authors are thrilled to be published alongside King’s name, but readers may find themselves wanting more. Certainly, there are other short-story collections at this price point that offer more than this one does.

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