Four Roads Cross

June 30, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

roadsFour Roads Cross by Max Gladstone

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I had high hopes for the Craft Sequence. It came recommended to me by a friend of mine, and I had already planned to read it based on an article Gladstone wrote about how character drives story. The first book, with its integrated world-building and fascinating ideas, certainly impressed, but the more I read of it, the less interesting they get. With Four Roads Cross, ironically, I realized it was because the characters didn’t resonate with me. They weren’t two-dimensional, but neither could I relate to them.

Four Roads Cross is the first book in the series that feels like an actual sequel. It follows chronologically from Three Parts Dead, the first book published (if you didn’t know, the two chronologies don’t fit together), and it features not just Tara Abernathy, one of the main characters from that book, but it also touches every main character from all of the books in the series. The plot centers on Kos Everburning and Alt Coulumb, but with the revival of Seril, Kos’ old lover, it brings into question the reliability of all the loans taken out against Kos.

(Which, I believe, could be another aspect of the stories that grew tiresome: the whole lawyer-banking aspect of the magic system. It was neat for one book, but over the course of the entire series, it’s about as exciting as paste.)

There’s another book coming near the end of this year, and I’m waffling over whether to read it. On the one hand, I can’t imagine reading it right now, after struggling to get through this one for several weeks; on the other hand, if enough time passes between these books and that one, maybe I’ll find something more to like in it. It’s hard to say, but I’m at least not going to cancel my pre-order just yet.

Like Full Fathom Five, there are a lot of interesting pieces in the story, but overall it strikes me as dull. I’m well aware that I’m in the minority with that sentiment — the two- and one-star ratings on Goodreads account for a mere 4% of all ratings — but I stand by it. I have no special feelings for urban fantasy, though, and I recognize that reading these books all together as I did didn’t help, but there it is.

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Riptide

June 29, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

riptideRiptide by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

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I first heard about the legend of Oak Island when I was nine or ten, and it’s been a low-level obsession since then, enough that I’m honestly surprised when I discover people who haven’t heard of it. It has pirates! Treasure! Booby-traps! And it’s been around for over 200 years! How have people not heard about it?

Riptide is a fictionalized account of that legend, and this isn’t my first time reading the book. That would have been fourteen years ago, during a vacation at the beach. To say I loved the book is an understatement; combining the legend with being at the beach and tearing through the book in a day or two meant I loved the book. Preston and Child did a great job of translating the story into a ripping read, so when I needed an audiobook for a long road trip, Riptide was at the top of the list.

Of course, combining a re-read with an audiobook means I’m more likely to see the foibles of the story, like the paper-thin characters, the overuse of adverbs, and the story telling more than showing. There are also the technical elements of the story that I questioned (does earth really slow radiation like the authors claim? Would a doctor really not be able to identify radiation poisoning based on so much evidence?), but I still enjoyed the hell out of the story. My affection for the legend of Oak Island apparently knows no bounds (I’m also watching The Curse of Oak Island on the History Channel, though I’m behind on it).

Look: If you haven’t heard of the legend of Oak Island, you should research it. There’s a good article located here, though you could run a Google search on “Oak Island money pit” and find a ton of other resources. If that kind of story intrigues you, you should read Riptide. It’s not a perfect work, but it’s damn good, despite its issues.

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Scooby Apocalypse: Volume 1

June 28, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

scoobyScooby Apocalypse: Volume 1 by Keith Giffen, et al.

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There were three reasons I had to read this book:

1. Keith Giffen. I’m a long-time fan of Ambush Bug.
2. J.M. DeMatteis. Two of my favorite comics are Brooklyn Dreams and Moonshadow.
3. Afterlife with Archie. It was much better than I expected it to be.

Scooby Apocalypse is another gritty horror reboot of a kids’ franchise, only it’s handled much less evenly than Afterlife with Archie. The writers of that title had an understanding of the characters they were writing, and maintained the characters while putting them into an unreal situation. Giffen and DeMatteis ignored the characters of the original cartoon, save for the high points (a talking dog; a hipster companion; Velma’s smarts), and went off in their own direction with the characters.

Velma is probably the biggest change, since she’s not that likable a character. She’s part of the science lab that’s caused the apocalypse of the title, but she’s cold, distant, and seemingly uncaring. Daphne is a TV reporter, working on a show about mysterious mysteries that airs on the Knitting Channel (?), and is a determined, upwardly-mobile personality. Scooby is a regular Great Dane turned into a cybernetically enhanced dog thanks to experiments in Velma’s lab. Shaggy is a dog trainer at the lab who takes a liking to Scooby because he’s considered a failure for not being as assertive as the other dogs. Fred … well, Fred may as well not even be there, for all he contributes to the story. And, true to the original show, the less said about Scrappy, the better.

It’s possible to take the characters and update them successfully without taking away from their characters; Scooby Doo on Zombie Island darkens the tone, advances the franchise, and tells a good story, all while staying true to the characters. Scooby Apocalypse, on the other hand, does none of these things. Even as it attempts to make the tone more serious, it does so in such a way as it’s easy to laugh at the attempt.

Speaking of laughter, the jokes here fell so flat as to be embarrassing. Shaggy still says “Zoinks!”, Velma still says “Jinkies!”, and Velma’s last name is still Dinkley, but these reveals are deliberately played for laughs, at the characters’ expense. The characters aren’t even friends, save for Shaggy and Scooby, which means it’s harder to sympathize with them as a group, especially when they don’t even trust each other.

A key element of the story in the book is how Daphne doesn’t trust Velma, since she was a part of the lab that released the plague that created all of the monsters. Velma insists that it wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did, and the two of them spar about this particular point for the entire. Dang. Book. We get it: We can’t trust Velma, because Daphne doesn’t. We don’t need it repeated to us every three pages or so. It became tiresome, especially when Daphne would begin to trust Velma, only to suddenly shift back to not trusting her after something else happened.

The artwork is fine, but I was disappointed to see a gratuitous panty shot in the comic. Yes, Velma’s skirt is pretty short, and yes, running from monsters means she’s less likely to worry about what’s showing than, say, surviving, but it’s not necessary to the story.

Stories about monsters and zombies are rarely subtle, but they can approach their subjects with a subtlety if done correctly. Scooby Apocalypse is not one of those stories. Despite the collection ending on a cliffhanger, I won’t pursue this title any further. I blame myself for getting suckered into the premise, but I blame Afterlife with Archie for starting this kids’-books-as-horror-comics trend.

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Last First Snow

June 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

snowLast First Snow by Max Gladstone

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I tore through the first half of Last First Snow, which isn’t something I could say about Full Fathom Five. I’m not sure why, save for the fact that there wasn’t as much world-building to deal with before getting to the heart of the story. This book revisits locations and characters already shown in the Craft Sequence, so it moves straight in to the characters and their conflicts. Curiously, one of the criticism I see of the book from other reviews is that it had a slow open. Go figure.

Last First Snow returns to Dresediel Lex, the setting for Two Serpents Rise, and even focuses on two of the central characters from that book — Temoc and the King in Red. Elayne Kevarian from Three Parts Dead also makes an appearance, as she’s trying to broker a peace between Temoc and the King. See, it’s been forty years since the end of the God Wars, where these two faced each other in battle; now that they’ve ended, they’re trying to find a way to live peaceably with each other. The book wouldn’t be interesting if it were an easy process, though, would it?

I have mixed feelings over how Gladstone approached the book. On the one hand, we already know Temoc from an earlier book, set later in the timeline, so we know what’s going to happen with his family; on the other hand, knowing future events creates some nice tension in the story, as we’re waiting to see when it happens; on yet another hand, though, knowing that it’s coming, we have to be convinced that what happens is for a good reason. Me, I’m not certain I’m convinced.

*spoiler*

Temoc nearly kills his son in order to imbue him with the power of his gods, before abandoning his family to go back to fight with his people. One of the central conflicts of the story is loyalty to family over loyalty to the group (Temoc being the leader of his people), so I get that he struggles with it, but it seemed too harsh for him to weigh his son’s life in that same struggle.

*end spoiler*

It’s hard to determine who the protagonists and antagonists are in this story, because while Temoc appears to be the protagonist, he does some terrible things to achieve his goals. By the same token, the King in Red is set up to be the antagonist, if for no other reason than he sees people as expendable, and relishes in death and destruction, but for at least half the book, you’ll find yourself rooting for him. Maybe the point of the book is that one can’t draw those lines too easily, that heroes and villains are not so clearly cut.

I powered through the end of the book, namely so I could move on to the next one and be done with the series. There’s a lot to like in the books, but reading them together like I did didn’t work for me. They got boring to me after a while, and I feel like I’m missing something that they’re not resonating with me like they do with other readers. To each their own, I guess.

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The Walking Dead, Volume 27: The Whisperer War

June 26, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

warThe Walking Dead, Volume 27: The Whisperer War by Robert Kirkman, et al.

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This is what I expect from The Walking Dead: action; zombies; fighting; drama; emotion; sacrifice. It’s part of the reason I like the comic more than the show. At the very least, the characters in the comic are consistent, and never forced into being what they need to be for the plot. Lately, the show has been so focused on Negan and his insanity that it’s lost sight of what makes the entire story interesting. Even the last collection felt underwhelming, for the same reason. Kirkman keeps the story on track, though, and reminds us that he still has it in him to write a good arc.

The title of the collection pretty much summarizes the events. Rick and his gang go up against the Whisperers and their horde. They’re a spooky bunch, with some effective tactics, and the story is creepy, not just because of the zombies, but because there’s actually something to fear with the Whisperers. Security and humanity are at risk here, much more than they were when Rick and Co. went up against Negan, Inc.

Speaking of Negan, he’s back, as we already knew from the previous collection, and maybe he’s up to something, and maybe he’s not. Either way, we see a side of him not seen before. Kirkman actually gives us a moment where we sympathize with him, after presenting him to us in such a way as to make us want to see him dead up until now. It doesn’t change a thing about his character, but it tells us more about him than we already knew.

The Whisperer War is The Walking Dead back on track. I can’t help but think how much better the show would be if they would just stick to the characters as the comic presents them. At least we still have the comic, going strong, to let us see the potential behind the show.

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Full Fathom Five

June 23, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

fiveFull Fathom Five by Max Gladstone

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I always expect there to be a bit of time at the start of any book for me to get into it. Sometimes it takes a handful of pages, other times it takes me a few pages; it’s the ones that take several chapters or longer that make me take pause and ask if this is something I really want to read. It’s a good thing I had read the first two books in the Craft Sequence, otherwise I would have given up on this book a lot sooner, since it took me about 200 pages to get a feel for what was going on in Full Fathom Five.

Strangely, for a book that’s part of an already-established world, clearly defined in the previous two books, this book took its time in building up the story. Looking back, there’s nothing I could identify as anything to cut; instead, the first half of the book is just straight-up boring. Gladstone creates another vivid culture, this time based on Hawaii, and includes some vivid touches that will linger with the reader (the Penitents … brrrrr), but he also makes the first half of the book about two characters going on and on about either running away (Izzy) or trying to decide what to do next (Kai). Being paralyzed by indecision is certainly a relatable characteristic, but it makes for a less interesting plot.

The central premise of the story is that the workers on Kavekana create idols into which people can invest their Soulstuff, instead of relying on the Gods. It works fairly well, until one of them dies, though not before exhibiting signs of life. See, the idols aren’t sentient; they’re barely even conscious. When Kai believes one of them has spoken to her before it dies, it sends her down a rabbit hole of mystery and intrigue.

Up until about page 250 or so, I had planned on giving this book two stars, tops, but Gladstone does manage to weave his meanderings into a decent plot that encouraged me to give it 2.5 stars, rounded up to three. Plus, this book is the chronological end of the entire Craft Sequence, and the way Gladstone concluded everything with a touch of ambiguity surprised me. On the other hand, some of his style grated on me, like the way he would use “Izzi’d” or “Kai’d” instead of “Izzi had” or “Kai had”. This wasn’t in the dialogue, nor was the narrative in the first person; it just felt too lazy and informal for the story.

So, I’m a little disappointed, though I should also note that my feelings about the entire series are lower than other readers’. Urban Fantasy doesn’t do much for me, which could be part of it, but it doesn’t have that kind of OOMPH I get from other authors and books. The stories are good, and engaging, and even progressive (I love that he puts such a focus on women, people of color, and LGBTQs for his main characters), but they don’t feel as fun to read as other stories. Your mileage may vary, and I’m not giving up on the series yet, but Full Fathom Five is the least interesting of the books so far.

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Darth Vader: Shadows and Secrets

June 22, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads)

shadowsDarth Vader: Shadows and Secrets by Kieron Gillen, et al.

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On the one hand, it’s intriguing to see a version of Darth Vader where he’s not just a patsy for Sidious. After the prequel movies, I wondered why Vader would boy down so easily to his master, when it was clear to everyone (and should have been clear to Vader) that he had been manipulated into his position. Sure, the whole Rule of Two could explain it — stay quiet until he was powerful enough to kill his master and assume power — but that came late, and the disconnect between Vader in the original trilogy and the Vader who would be presented in new context based on the prequel trilogy was too great. So seeing a Vader who’s connecting the dots and realizing Sidious cannot be trusted is a welcome turn of events.

On the other hand, it still doesn’t put his position in the original trilogy into any further context. We can suspect that Vader is making plans to kill Sidious, based on The Empire Strikes Back, but the way he so easily delivers Luke to Sidious in Return of the Jedi doesn’t jive with that interpretation. Is he expecting Luke to be the one to murder Sidious so the two of them can rule the galaxy together? If so, what’s with all the “I sense good in him” stuff that Luke keeps spouting through the movie? Or are we supposed to take the long view and decide Vader saw that Luke would kill Sidious and let it happen to redeem himself? If so, why was there that extended scene of Vader looking back and forth between Sidious and Luke when Luke’s getting electrocuted?

As much as I like Star Wars, these have been my sticking points about the story for a long time. I delved into the Expanded Universe in the hopes of getting more detail about the gaps Lucas left throughout the series (because there are a lot), and I still haven’t had these questions answered sufficiently. I hoped that the Darth Vader series would provide some answers, especially with it being new canon, but it just muddles through a fairly boring story without making much progress between the movies. Vader is still on his own mission, trying to determine who it was that blew up the Death Star, and that involves him getting involved not just with bounty hunters and a thinly-veiled, gender-twisted, evil caricature of Indiana Jones, but also with petty thieves. Vader has to have the money to fund this search, so a couple of the chapters in this book involve the heist. Oh, and the murder droids. I forgot to mention them in my review of the first book, but come on. IG-88 is one thing; bringing in more assassin droids, especially ones who strongly resemble C-3PO and R2-D2, is a bit ridiculous.

The artwork continues to be troublesome, as it doesn’t convey any sense of action. It shows action, yes, but there’s no feeling of movement from one panel to the next. They appear to be static images of action in progress, which is surprising, since the artwork is otherwise clear. I had some issues with the way the artist showed Aphra, the archeologist. It’s not quite cheesecake artwork, but it’s clear he’s using her as a means to titillate the reader. There’s a lot of unnecessary focus on her crotch, hips, and chest. Considering her character is flat and uninteresting, it feels like she’s only in there for the younger male readers.

The story here is marginally better than Vader, but only because it shows some of the complexity of Vader’s character. The story just isn’t that interesting. It’s not so good that I want to buy the rest of the books in the series, but it does encourage me to read this series through to the end. They’re quick reads, and I’ve come this far with it already. Maybe I can find them at the library.

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Darth Vader: Vader

June 21, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

vaderDarth Vader: Vader by Kieron Gillen, et al.

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I’ve heard a lot of good things about this title, enough so that I bought the first two volumes when I found them on sale for Kindle. I wasn’t expecting them to be Watchmen-level good, but I figured they might be entertaining. What I didn’t take into account is the main character being Darth Vader, stone-cold killer and all-around totally unlikable dude. Considering this arc takes place between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, I should have realized there wasn’t going to be much sympathy for the character here.

The first volume follows Vader shortly after the destruction of the Death Star, when he has to face Sidious and own up to his failings. He’s sent on a task to meet with Jabba the Hutt, and while there, he arranges for two bounty hunters to do some work for him: one to find out who it was who destroyed the Death Star; and the other to find the identity of the person who may serve as Vader’s replacement (and since the Star Wars universe is lousy with recurring characters, of course one of the bounty hunters is Boba Fett).

There’s not a lot of tension to the story, since it’s hard for us to care about either Vader or Sidious. We see the beginnings of Vader’s feelings toward Sidious, as he feels betrayed when a potential replacement comes into the picture, but even that isn’t enough to make us sympathetic to him. Gillen brings in a secondary character through a chatty archaeologist who pilots Vader around the galaxy, and I couldn’t understand why she hooked up with him. Vader has no love for history as it happened, so why would an archaeologist choose to help him? It might have been different if she had been forced, but she seems cool with helping him, just because he’s on the winning side. Plus, when she’s introduced, she appears to be a carbon copy of Indiana Jones, right down to her dialogue.

It might have been a better read if the artwork had supported the story, but for all the action the story has, the artwork feels static. It’s clear, and shows what happens, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any motion from panel to panel. Instead, it feels like we’re reading dialogue over snapshots of action. I’m not sure what it is about the art that makes it feel this way, but it’s the first comic I’ve read that does.

I’ll go ahead and finish volume two of the series (I already bought it, and it only took an hour to read this one), but I don’t expect much from it, and I don’t expect it will inspire me to read the other two volumes. I’m not sure what it is I’m missing, but it’s far from the story the reviews led me to believe it would be.

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Savage Season

June 20, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

seasonSavage Season by Joe R. Lansdale

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I first read Savage Season about twenty years ago. True to form, I remembered almost nothing of the book before re-reading it; I did, however, know the story, since my wife and I tore through the entire first season of Hap and Leonard on Netflix over the weekend. I also met Joe Lansdale last week at a speaking/signing event, so between the series and the signing, I had him on the brain, and figured this would be a good time to revisit the series.

The story is typical Lansdale, but, curiously, a bit tame when compared with the remaining Hap and Leonard books. That’s not much of a surprise, I guess, since I learned at the signing that he never intended for the characters to become a series, but it was missing some of the oddness that’s become a part of the later books. It’s also the introduction to the characters, so there is a bit more backstory for the two of them than is typical in the rest of the books. Still, Lansdale gets right into the action from the start, bringing in Hap’s ex-wife Trudy to lure him in to a scheme to make all of them some money. Lansdale also populates the story with a handful of strange characters — Trudy’s other ex-husband, an old hippie with plans to use the money for social change; Chub, a fat man who believes himself to be a therapist; and Paco, a bomb-scarred leftover from a sixties revolutionary group — but they’re not quite on the level of who he uses in the other books.

There are differences between the book and the show, which is to be expected, but most of them are fairly minor (instead of a sunken car, for example, they’re looking for a sunken boat). In the show, Trudy seems to want to make amends with Hap, but in the book, she’s just manipulating him for her own gain. That’s probably the biggest change, that and how the two formats portray Angel. She’s about the same, personality-wise, in both the book and the show, but the producers of the show made her much more memorable. Plus, the show introduces us to Angel and Soldier much earlier, so we have time to see how cold-blooded they are. Lansdale doesn’t need that much space to portray them that way, but we do get to see Jimmi Simpson and Pollyanna McIntosh thoroughly enjoy their characters.

(Of particular note: Pollyanna McIntosh also played the pivotal role in The Woman, a movie written in conjunction with a Jack Ketchum novella. Lansdale and Ketchum, and now The Walking Dead: she’s setting a trend for playing some dark, dark roles.)

My favorite part of the show, though, is Michael Kenneth Williams as Leonard. James Purefoy is a fine Hap, but after seeing Williams play Leonard, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. He doesn’t just play the part; he owns it. Still, this is a review of a book, so I suppose I should get back to that.

A few Lansdale reviews back, I mentioned that he is a dependable writer, one you can count on to tell a good story, tell it well, and make it memorable. Savage Season is a dependable story, at least for already-fans. They’ll see a lot of the groundwork for the rest of the series, and see a hint of the style that would later define not just the series, but also all of his later fiction. Folks new to the series have a great place to start with this book, and those of us who already know it will have fun revisiting the start. I do wonder how people who started later in the series feel about this one, in comparison.

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The Pretty Ones

June 19, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads)

prettyThe Pretty Ones by Ania Ahlborn

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Before I bought this novella, I had never heard of Ania Ahlborn. All I knew was that she wrote horror, people seemed to think she wrote good horror, and that this story was only 99 cents as an ebook. I’m always looking for new writers (and good horror), and I figured 99 cents was an easy investment.

The Pretty Ones is about Nell, an introverted, overweight, mousy woman who lives with her emotionally abusive brother in late-1970s New York. She works at an office populated by prettier women, women who get along in and out of work, but Nell is obsessed with living a sin-free life and providing for her brother and absolutely not becoming like her mother. She’s not an easy character to like, because she lets others bully her (aside from her brother, who manipulates her with his silence and insults, there are the Mean Girls in the office), but she is an empathetic character. We understand why she’s the way she is, even if we want to scream at her to be the person she could be.

Nell has a quiet desperation to make friends, but she’s so socially stunted that she doesn’t know how to do so. Ahlborn captures that desperation perfectly, enough so that it was almost too much for me to read. I remember being that kid, the outcast who just wanted people to like him, and this story took me back to those times. It made me angry, first at Nell, then later at myself for ever being that kind of person, and for still having some of those traits, even thirty years later. It was too close, enough so that after finishing half the story in one afternoon, I sank into a depressed funk for the rest of the day. Ahlborn shows us that loneliness and desperation so clearly, it sinks under our skin and becomes a part of us.

The thing is, the best fiction is the kind that gets an emotional response from you, and a negative emotional response is still an emotional response. I feel the same way about Geek Love, a book that was so tough to read that I almost put it down, unfinished, due to how much it offended me. The fact that it could do so, to someone who has read Chuck Palahniuk and Edward Lee, is a testament to how well it was written. The same could be said of The Pretty Ones.

Ahlborn’s character development of Nell is the real point of this novella, which is important to note because the story is somewhat predictable, and has been done many times before. I hesitate to say it’s not original, because Ahlborn’s character study is what makes this novella stand out, but anyone reading this story for its plot will find similarities with other horror and thriller stories.

I didn’t expect much from this novella going in to it, but boy did it surprise me. I knew even a quarter of the way through I had found a new author to read.

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