Myth-fortunes

January 17, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

fortunesMyth-fortunes by Robert Asprin & Jody Lynn Nye

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The gang is back together! That’s a sign of hope, isn’t it? I mean, the series has continued to spiral down in quality, and I’ve tried to chalk that up to the dispersal of the corporation and the books focusing on individual characters. Surely Myth-fortunes, the last book Asprin was involved in writing, could bring it back from that decline, right?

The answer is yes, though it’s still not up to the level of the earliest books. We’re back to a group effort with Skeeve front and center, with no extra chapters told from another character’s point of view. This time, the crew is given an assignment in an Egyptian dimension to determine the source of recurring accidents on the build site of a pyramid. Of course, the pyramid is being built by personal funds, with the folks reserving the higher bricks on the pyramid recruiting people to purchase the lower bricks. The more folks one can get in on the lower bricks, the less the higher bricks cost. Yes, this is a pyramid scheme pyramid.

Ba-dum-ksh.

So, the sense of humor is back, but in some places it’s strained. The dimension is called Ghord, which is so named to work its way up to a Gordian knot pun, but the walk to get there is so long as to hardly make it worthwhile. Everything about this novel is long, which is one of my complaints about the entire second half of the series. The first books were mostly less than 200 pages, just enough for the plot and some character development and little else. These all hover around 300 pages, and it seems like the stories ramble in more than one place along the way. Strangely, the end of the book rushes in like air filling a vacuum, though that’s also a throwback to the original, Asprin-only books.

It’s hard to believe there are two books left in this series. Already it feels like the series is straining to maintain its character, and I dread to see what the books will be like without any input from Asprin. We’ll see, though, since I’ll be reading those, too.

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Sweetheart, Sweetheart

January 16, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sweetheartSweetheart, Sweetheart by Bernard Taylor

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The Elementals by Michael McDowell was my first foray into Valancourt Books, a publishing company whose goal is to reprint classic, atmospheric horror novels (among other subjects). It was a great book, as was Robert Masello’s Burnt Offerings, another of their reprints, so I’ve started paying attention to them. Sweetheart, Sweetheart is another of their reprints, and it’s also the book Charles L. Grant thought was one of the best ghost stories ever written, so of course I had to read this one, too. I found it on special on audio book and got started on it right away.

David Warwick, an English expatriate living in the US, has a twin brother back in England. When he misses a birthday card from him one year, he gets a foreboding sense of dread and makes the trip back to England to see him. Once there, he learns that his brother and his wife died within days of each other, only a week or so before. He moves into the cottage that was left to him, and tries to learn the circumstances around their deaths. As he does, he finds secrets, history, and suspicion, all surrounding not just their deaths, but also the cottage in which they lived.

The novel is a slow-burn ghost story, with Taylor giving us the details of it piece by piece. Some may find it slow, but I appreciated the deliberate pace of the story. If nothing else, it built up the tension and increased the atmosphere. As the story progressed, I starting wondering how much of the story was real and how much of it was the haunting. By the end, I didn’t have to wonder.

I had trouble with David’s character, because a lot of the trouble he creates could have been avoided had he spoken to other people more. While trying to figure out the mystery behind his brother’s death, he speaks plenty, but when he starts to suspect problems with his wife and his housekeeper, he clams up until things get out of control. He seemed passive-aggressive and whiny, but maybe that was the point. He didn’t strike me as an unreliable narrator, but his character was annoying.

The first half of the book moves slowly, but isn’t unimportant. Taylor has to go a long way back to set the scene for the book, and that involves going back to David’s life in the US before he goes back to England. It helps create the atmosphere and the character of David, and even the tangents and red herrings are necessary to build the tension. It just might take a while before the reader is caught up in the events, but by the time he is, he won’t be able to stop.

The narrator, Matt Godfrey, is wonderful. His voice is a bit raspy, but it fits the story. He captures the voices of his characters well, and adds just enough to the telling so he’s not just reading the narrative, he’s performing it. There are a lot of characters that make up the history of the cottage, and it’s easy to lose track of who’s who without going back to listen to previous chapters, but other than that quibble, there’s no reason to read the book versus listening to the audiobook. The production is outstanding.

That the book is considered to be a classic is no accident. It’s a perfect example of a Gothic horror novel and a modern horror novel. It eschews violence and gore for a subtler, more effective horror that creeps up on you as slowly as the story. Any horror fan should read this book; it’s damn near perfect.

Unfortunate Musical Connection: “The Hero’s Return” by Pink Floyd

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The Last Witness

January 13, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

witnessThe Last Witness by K.J. Parker

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The Last Witness is the next in a series of novellas I have to read, though I can’t remember what, specifically, made me interested in it. I’m sure it was an article or tweet or something, but I can’t recall what it was. I’m glad it piqued my interest, though, as the story is a good one.

The main premise is that the narrator is a man who can take people’s memories from them. It’s a nifty talent, especially for those who have something they need to hide, and he gets involved with a man and his son, who have important things for him to cover up. They’re so important that he’s unwillingly coerced into becoming a part of their schemes. It’s a gritty sort of story, a fantasy hardboiled mystery, noir to the core.

The story is compelling, even if it doesn’t have one of those grab-you-by-the-throat beginnings that are part and parcel of those read. It pulls you in slowly until you find yourself unwilling to part from it. It’s told in the first person, so our narrator reveals what he knows about his life, or at least as much as he can.

The Last Witness touches on themes of truth and memory, and how the latter defines the former, so of course at one point in the story he questions what he knows about his own life. It has a philosophical angle, too, as he realizes that history is only a memory written down, and that if you can change a memory, you can change history before it happens. It’s a running theme throughout the story, since we have a character who has that power in his own hands.

There’s a flighty aspect to the narrative that doesn’t surprise me, since I discovered that the author is a pseudonym for Tom Holt, and I’ve read one of his books. It was a lighter, comedic fare, which is evident here, despite the book having a heavy theme and a depressing outlook. The style isn’t detrimental, but it does belie the subject matter within. Also, Parker has some clever turns of phrase that made my chuckle, like the narrator describing someone else “looked at me as if I were a spelling mistake” (even though he used that particular phrase twice), which is indicative of his other works.

I enjoyed the story, for its entertainment value and for what it has to say. It gets a little tedious toward the end, making it less than perfect, but I think the rest of the story makes up for it. It’s a solid read, with an urban fantasy flair to it that I think would appeal to a lot of readers.

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The Ape Man’s Brother

January 12, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

apeThe Ape Man’s Brother by Joe R. Lansdale

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There were two strikes against me as I started reading this novella. First, I’m not too familiar with the Tarzan stories. I mean, yeah, I know who he is, but I haven’t read any of the books, so my knowledge of the character and series is only superficial. Sure, I knew the story was going to be a riff on the Tarzan mythology (with a title like The Ape Man’s Brother, how could I not know? I’m not an idiot), but I didn’t realize it was going to be a more-or-less complete retelling of his origin.

Secondly, I haven’t read Lansdale’s Ned the Seal books. I wouldn’t have expected this to be a strike against me, but apparently the story is set in that same universe, which explains the strange geography of the United States. At first, I thought Lansdale was channeling Philip K. Dick with how the US was split into a European-led eastern half and a Japanese-led western half, but maybe he still is. I haven’t read those books to get a clear idea of why that’s the case.

(For that matter, why set this novella in that universe at all? Or will that make more sense to me once I read those books?)

The story is, as I mentioned above, a retelling of Tarzan’s origin, told through retrospection from the perspective of Cheetah (not his real name, he’s quick to tell you). In true Lansdale fashion, it’s a profane retelling, including the sexual exploits of both Tarzan … er, The Big Guy, and Bill, our ape-like narrator. Bill tells us how The Big Guy arrived in their hidden wilderness, how they were later discovered, and how they went back to the US to learn to be civilized. It’s less an adventure story than I would have expected for a Tarzan story, but it still winds up being a compelling character study.

Much of the book relies on description, which is fine by itself, but Lansdale is known for his snappy dialogue, which is mostly missing. There are still his unique turns of phrase, but without that dialogue, not only does it feel less like a Lansdale story, but it also distances the reader from all the characters but Bill. Without having a better idea of the characters outside of what they mean to Bill, we lack a better connection to the other characters. On the bright side, Lansdale is showing us that the ape-like narrator is more human than any of his human companions, so maybe that’s intended.

I get the feeling I should have caught up on the Tarzan books before reading this novella, but what I did know seemed to be enough. The story is compelling and interesting enough, though Lansdale has done much better than this with his other stories. In the grand scheme of thing, it’s better than, say, Prisoner 489, but not as good (not nearly as good) as his Texas noir stories. It’s lodged firmly in the middle, making this story only for the completionists.

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Myth-chief

January 11, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

chiefMyth-chief by Robert Asprin & Jody Lynn Nye

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I’m kind of shocked with how far these books drop the more I read them. I wasn’t expecting too much from the co-authored books, but even then, I find them lacking in so many ways. Myth-chief is no exception to that rule, and maybe I’m predisposed to not like them after being continually disappointed, but it drops so far that this doesn’t even feel like a Myth Adventures book.

The chapter quotes are back, which is nice, but then we get another book told through multiple first-person narratives — Skeeve and Aahz. This time they’re facing off in a challenge to determine who will serve as President of M.Y.T.H. Inc., since there’s some bad blood between Skeeve and the rest of the organization. That in itself is odd, since there’s been no indication until now that Skeeve’s departure was anything more than a mutual understanding. Sure, there was confusion, but I never got the feeling that the others felt left in the lurch, especially when we saw enough other viewpoints so we could see more than just Skeeve’s perspective on the issue.

I think what the authors tried to do here is give us an accurate look at what it’s like in a group of friends when one of them needs time alone. They try to give us the full spectrum of reactions, from disappointment to understanding to full-out hurt feelings, and while I give them credit for trying, the books aren’t about any of that. They’ve always been light-hearted and fun, so this turn of events is a bit of a let-down.  In addition, the books work when the characters are all working together toward a common goal, and here we literally have members of the team competing directly against each other. It doesn’t fit the style of the previous novel, and even does a disservice to the established characters. The ending brings it back around enough to remind us that, yes, these people are a team, and yes, they’re friends, but it takes a long time reading characters not acting like themselves to get there.

It seems like the next book will see the entire team working together again, with all of the nonsense that’s preceded it set aside, but that will be the last book that Asprin had any involvement in before his death. Too little, too late, I imagine, even though Nye does take up the mantle for two solo-written books to continue the series. Unless something major changes in the last three books, I don’t see myself continuing this series once I get caught up.

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The Great God Pan

January 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

panThe Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

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Whenever I read these older works of fiction, I feel the need to do more of an analysis of them than I do on modern fiction. It’s a holdover from my English classes, I think; these are works less to be enjoyed, and more to be analyzed. I felt the same about The Monk and Edgar Huntley, but I’m not sure what to say about The Great God Pan, other than the fact that it’s a precursor to the weird horror that Lovecraft popularized.

The story is about a young woman who undergoes a procedure to allow her to see the great god Pan; unfortunately, as soon as she sees him, she goes insane. From that point, the story follows an observer to the procedure, who, years later, is trying to convince the public of the existence of the devil after hearing lurid stories of a young girl who spends her days in the woods with strange creatures. At the end of the story, we learn that this young girl, who grows up to be a woman whose associations with men drive them to suicide, is the first woman’s daughter, and it’s suggested that she is the daughter of Pan.

Stephen King has written that this story is one of the finest horror stories ever written, and I’m not sure if I would agree. It’s certainly effective in its suggestion of horror over any overt scenes of horror, but the conclusion seems obvious once the story gets going, so it’s easy to see where it’s going and what everything means. It was controversial during its time for its suggestion of sexual activity, but it’s tame compared even to The Monk, which was written previous to this story. What sets it apart is how Machen wrote about unnameable horrors as opposed to devils and demons, and I suppose its place within the timeline of the horror genre is what makes it significant. It ushered in the wave of weird horror that Algernon Blackwood and H.P. Lovecraft wrote so well.

The Great God Pan isn’t a difficult read, nor is it a long one; it’s just not as interesting as I had hoped. A suggestion of horror is fine (I prefer it, in fact), but there needs to be some specific sort of horror to scare us with these kinds of stories. Machen went a little too subtle here, and the story suffers for it.

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Myth-gotten Gains

January 9, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

gainsMyth-gotten Gains by Robert Asprin & Jody Lynn Nye

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So, the first thing I noticed when I started reading this book is that it’s lacking the fake quotes at the start of each chapter. I remember reading years ago that Asprin took as much time coming up with those quotes as he did writing the novels, so I suppose I knew it was coming. It’s a further sign that the later books aren’t really in the same class as the early books, and another sign that artists can’t go back and recapture what made their early works unique.

In this novel, we go back to Aahz as our first-person narrator, and as in Myth-taken Identity, it doesn’t feel right. This time, he buys a talking sword that leads him to other talking treasures, all of which make up the legendary Golden Hoard. Aahz’s motivation here is the promise that one of them will be able to restore his magikal powers. Of course, nothing goes strictly as planned, and that’s how the caper is run.

I was disappointed in the title, since it’s not quite a pun; the phrase is “misbegotten gains”. I suppose that looked a little weird on the cover, though, and doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. It was a sticking point for me, though. The whole book was rather boring, too. It didn’t have the kind of charm of the other books, and even though Tananda also features in the story with Aahz, it felt like this was just Aahz doing his thing.

That speaks to a larger issue I have with these co-authored books, which is that Tananda just takes on the role of the sex kitten. Whatever personality she had in the original books has been excised, which is weird, since Nye is now co-authoring the books. I felt like her influence made Massha a better character, but if that were the case, then why didn’t it roll over to Tananda, as well?

The number of typos in this book is embarrassing, not just because they’re there, but also because credit is given on the verso page to the company that copyedited and proofread the book. I’d think that if my company’s name were attached to a project, I would make more of an effort than this, but at least they were consistent; instead of semicolons, they put an apostrophe instead.

I only have a few more books to go in the series, and they appear to be pretty short, so I’ll persevere, but these aren’t nearly as interesting as the earlier books. Maybe the nostalgia carried more weight with those books than I realized.

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Blood Dance

January 6, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

danceBlood Dance by Joe R. Lansdale

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Lansdale has written a lot of weird westerns. It’s sort of what he’s known for. He’s written fewer straightforward westerns, but Blood Dance is one of those. It features a man seeking vengeance for a murdered friend, train robberies, Indians and scalping, mining for gold, and a whole mess of other western cliches. It also brings in Wild Bill Hickok and General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn, so in true Lansdale fashion, he brings all he can to the party.

The story isn’t anything special, either as a western or as a Lansdale novel, but Lansdale is at least reliable. You know what you’re getting with him, and even though the stories don’t usually stray far from his usual formula, you’re going to be entertained. That our erstwhile narrator runs into two legendary figures of the Old West strains credibility, but it at least cements the book into “western” territory.

The foreword goes into weird places, as Lansdale writes about reading an adult western, which is to say a western written with lots of sex as opposed to a western written for an adult audience. It’s a backward way of telling us how he got interested in reading and writing westerns at all, which I guess is the connection between the memory and the story. Still, it was kind of odd.

Blood Dance is a decent enough read, with enough Lansdale touches to keep me interested, but it’s no classic by any means. Lansdale even acknowledges this fact in his foreword, which makes me wonder why he issued it for publication at all. I respect Lansdale’s skills, and that he can now release material based on his name alone, but all these do is make me wish for the next Sunset and Sawdust. I have yet to read The Bottoms or The Thicket, so I may still find one yet.

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Class Dis-mythed

January 5, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

classClass Dis-mythed by Robert Asprin and Jody Lynn Nye

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If there’s one book in the new series that feels like the old books, this is it. Skeeve, in his self-exile from M.Y.T.H. Inc. to learn proper magik, is saddled with several people who want to learn magik themselves, so he becomes the teacher to a bunch of apprentices. They’re a various crew, all related to other characters who have appeared in the series (one of them is the nephew of Markie, who was last seen as the antagonist in Little Myth Marker), and Skeeve comes up with ways to teach them the practical uses of magik, even though some of his students know more than he does.

What makes the book feel familiar is the student-teacher relationship between Skeeve and his students. It’s strained at times — there are multiple students, so that relationship is broken across several characters, and that relationship doesn’t feel consistent — but for the most part it works. Skeeve has moments where he can speak at length to different subjects, which is something I hadn’t realized was missing in these new novels. The puns still seem forced, but the rest of the humor feels more natural, and the novel starts to show signs of the charm that made the early books so entertaining.

The ending was a bit of a let-down for me, as it took what felt like the end of the story and took it a bit further — about 80 pages further, in fact. Skeeve has finished his training, and we finally learn why the students were so determined to learn, and why they acted so strangely in a few scenes. It felt like that could have been the next book in the series instead of a tacked-on ending at the end of the third act; in fact, that whole part of the story felt rushed, so I wonder why the authors didn’t make that the next book in the series. I think it would have worked well standalone.

The books in this second half of the series are definitely not as good as what Asprin did by himself, but at least here I started to see some of the hints of what made those other books so much fun. I hope I see that again in the remaining books.

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Myth-taken Identity

January 4, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

identityMyth-taken Identity by Robert Asprin and Jody Lynn Nye

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Like Myth Alliances, this novel veers from the usual Myth Adventures formula by including first-person and third-person narration. In addition, it tells the first-person part of the story from Aahz’s point of view, but it doesn’t feel like the Aahz from Asprin’s solo novels. I guess it makes sense — we only see Aahz how Skeeve sees him, but now we get to see what’s going on with him without seeing him through someone else’s perspective.

Myth-taken Identity feels less pointless than Myth Alliances, but it doesn’t make the story any more exciting. Much of the book is about Aahz, Massha, and the rest of their team looking for the people who are using Skeeve’s credit card to stop them ruining his reputation. There’s a lot of running around and going in circles, without much plot development happening. I felt like a lot of the story could have been cut without interfering with the plot, but by and large, the story is a big improvement over Myth Alliances, even if it’s not as much fun as the original books.

Aahz doesn’t feel like Aahz here. I think the authors are trying to give us insight into how he feels about Skeeve, but it feels insincere. It’s not that I don’t think Aahz cares, but the authors seem to work too hard to show us how much he cares, ignoring the fact that Aahz covers up his emotion with a lot of blister. Maybe it’s unavoidable, given that he’s telling the story, but it fails to feel like a Myth Adventures novel because Aahz doesn’t feel right.

On the other hand, we get more insight into Massha, which is a relief. Massha was a developed character in the solo Asprin novels, but I always felt like her appearance and her weight were what Asprin wanted to focus most on. Here, we get someone who’s more body-positive, and I can’t help but feel like that’s Nye’s input into the story. Asprin always made Massha smart, but he seemed to have a hard time overlooking her physical appearance; I think a woman’s input into the character is valuable, and helps make the story and the character better.

Even though this is an improvement over Myth Alliances, I still don’t see this half of the series as necessary reading. It still lacks the charm, fun, and wit of the original books, but since I’ve committed this far to them, I’m going to see them through to the end. I’ll let you know if anything changes.

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