Rusty Puppy

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

puppyRusty Puppy by Joe R. Lansdale

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I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading this book. Sure, it’s only been a few months since its release, but (a) I’m a big fan of Lansdale’s, and (b) I try to keep up with ongoing series as the new books release. I finally realized I had fallen behind and read this over a weekend.

Rusty Puppy finds Hap and Leonard in Camp Rapture, where the police are worse than the criminals. Bullies and sexual predators, they begin harassing two young siblings, which leads to the death of Jamar, the brother. Their mother doesn’t believe the story the police tell her about his death, so she hires Hap and Leonard to investigate. They seem the types who can find out what really happened.

Lately, I’ve said that Lansdale is a dependable writer. By that I mean that his dialogue is always sharp, his pacing swift, and his narrative easy. Beyond that, he can tell a razor-sharp story when given the room. His novellas (of which I’ve read several in the last year) don’t seem to give him that room, but a full-blown novel does it. This time around he gives us a novel that’s not just a fast read, but also has a solid plot to carry it along.

As usual, Lansdale touches on (rubs all over it, really) race relations in small East Texas towns. Lansdale makes sure to note that not everyone from a small town is racist, but he makes sure to show us they’re there, despite how much progress we’ve made in the last fifty years. With the real world reminding us there’s still a long way to go, books like Rusty Puppy have more relevance, and thus have a stronger punch.

Look, this is a Lansdale book. If you know him, then you know what that means. If you don’t, then you should start at the beginning and see how Hap and Leonard develop over the years. He’s well worth reading, whether or not you like crime fiction, because deep down, he’s a gifted storyteller. This whole series shows him at the top of his game.

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Mightier than the Sword

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

swordMightier than the Sword by K.J. Parker

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The Emperor’s nephew, under the edict of his aunt, who is running the empire while her husband is gravely ill, is sent to investigate pirate attacks along the coastal cities. From city to city he travels, looking for clues and encountering all sorts of friends and relatives along the way. It seems that just about everyone he knows is in a position of some power in these cities, so his investigation is also a reunion. That they’re all there for different political reasons just might be a clue.

Parker is in his usual form here, with a disarmingly charming narrator whose naivete is in stark contrast against the cynicism of the story. This novella ties in with his previous ones (including The Two of Swords, if I’m not mistaken) in small ways. Books are a central theme of the story, so of course Saloninus is mentioned. I like how these stories all take place in a shared world; it gives the story a larger scope, since the small connections serve as more than just fan service.

Parker’s other stand-alone novellas are clever, setting up a complex series of seemingly innocuous events that play a large role in the conclusion. Mightier than the Sword isn’t as clever of a story as the others, but it does have a good payoff for its setup. It’s still a K.J. Parker story, and it doesn’t disappoint.

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The Force Unleashed

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

forceThe Force Unleashed by Sean Williams

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I’ve only read one other novelization of a video game: The Dig by Alan Dean Foster. It made sense that it could be translated to a novel easily enough, since it was a graphic adventure game that had its own plot. The Force Unleashed is another novelization of a video game, and it’s less than impressive.

The story is about Starkiller, a powerful Force user trained by Darth Vader himself as an apprentice so the two of them can kill the Emperor and rule the galaxy together. Starkiller isn’t even his real name, either; oftentimes he’s just referred to as “the apprentice”, which was distracting and somewhat annoying. Amid missions, Starkiller is also searching for his identity, while he jets around the galaxy with his training droid and a pilot.

The main problem is that the game is a series of missions where the player has to achieve a particular goal in each one. Williams approaches the novel in the same way, giving us sections of missions, each part of a larger story, but the larger story seems inconsequential compared to the individual missions. The missions themselves are fine — they each have a distinct beginning and end — but the overall book feels lackluster because we shift focus so often.

In addition, the characters don’t make a lot of sense. Starkiller is a powerful Force user, clearly serving the dark side, but the story wants to show some redemption. I might be misremembering parts of the story, but it seems like his saving grace is that he hasn’t killed anyone yet, and it’s that act that will truly take him to the dark side. For him to have been trained by Vader, though (and for how long? In this point in the chronology, it seems like Vader has only been ruling for a few years, but this is our first time seeing Starkiller, who’s been apprenticed to him since he was an infant), it’s hard to believe that the opportunity hasn’t come up yet.

The ending of the story also contradicts the canon (even outside of Legends versus Canon), in that the entire story has been a plot for Starkiller to find and reveal the key players in the Rebellion, Bail Organa among them. By comparison, it seems odd that Vader plays a cat-and-mouse game with Leia in Star Wars when he already knows her role in the Rebellion, according to this book. I get that the movie came first, but I wonder why the story tried to shoehorn such a major character into the canon, especially when it didn’t jive with what already existed. None of this is Williams’ fault, either, since he was writing a novel using someone else’s story.

Maybe the game is interesting, but as a novel, The Force Unleashed is disappointing. There’s another book down the line, which is the novelization of the sequel to this game, and I’m hoping it will improve, but if the author is going to have to follow the game script, I imagine it will be more of the same. We’ll see.

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Harrow County: Abandoned

September 26, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

harrow5Harrow County: Abandoned by Cullen Bunn, et al.

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I’m no expert on horror comics, but Harrow County is at the top of my list for that genre. It combines the weird with the graphic, the unsettling with the mood, and it creates an atmosphere that’s unique to the title. Afterlife with Archie comes close to hitting that magic combination, but that series relies a bit too much on what the reader already knows about the characters, while Harrow County fords new territory.

The story this time centers on Abandoned, the four-eyed creature that roams the woods near Harrow County. We learn more about his history and how he ties in with Emmy and her history. We also see firsthand what happens when outsiders come to town in search of the monster they’ve heard so much about, and how it rarely ends well for them.

The first half of the story is okay, but I feel like the revelation should have been more impactful. As it was, I just read it and thought, “Huh.” It makes sense, it fits the story, and it doesn’t stir anything up. Maybe it will have more relevance over the next few arcs, but I found myself much more interested in the hunters who have come to try to kill Abandoned. It encompassed the myth surrounding Harrow County, and gave us new details about it. Plus, it shows us how powerful Emmy has become, and what her choices will mean for the future of the town.

Bunn pulls in another artist for the first two issues in the book, which I wasn’t thrilled to see (Tyler Crook, as far as I’m concerned, has defined the look of the series and should be the only artist working on it), but McNeil does a good job of mimicking his style without it being a straight copy. It helps that she isn’t required to create any new characters for that half of the story.

Abandoned is half-good, half-okay, which still works out to being a decent arc. I hope Crook will remain the sole and constant artist, and I hope Bunn keeps this story going in unusual, thought-provoking directions. The series works best when it does so, and I feel like he’s set it up so we’ll see some consequences in future issues.

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The Moorstone Sickness

September 25, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

moorstoneThe Moorstone Sickness by Bernard Taylor

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Several months back, Valancourt Books had a sale on some of their ebooks. I’ve sort of become a Valancourt fanboy, so of course I bought them all, though it’s taken me some time to get around to them (story of my life). The Moorstone Sickness was one of those books, and when I was prioritizing my ebook to-read list, I bumped this one up, since I had enjoyed Taylor’s Sweetheart, Sweetheart so much.

This book is part of the “Small Town with a Hidden Secret” genre, which is a personal favorite. It’s hard to talk much about plots with these kinds of books. The broad overview of the story is familiar — a young couple is accepted into a small town where the townspeople don’t take that kindly to outsiders — but the story is about discovering that secret.

The story takes a while to get going, which is odd, since I was able to peg the secret by chapter eight (of thirty-two). In that sense, it was frustrating, since I was able to recognize the clues that the main characters couldn’t see. It winds up making them look foolish, and affects how sympathetic they are. I may have been inclined to recognize the clues, knowing I was reading a horror novel, but they seemed to be too obvious.

In addition, the characterization feels a little thin, even though Taylor focuses his attention on Hal and Rowan, the couple. By the end of the story, I felt the connection to them to respond appropriately, but up until then, it felt like they were defined just enough to create a conflict to feed the main plot. The good news is that the mystery — the us vs. them mentality of the main struggle — was compelling enough to keep me engaged in the story.

Tought the story begins slowly, the final events move quickly, taking us through the bulk of the secret within just a few chapters. It worked well enough — I had already figured out what the secret was, so it was just a matter of learning the how — but for such a leisurely beginning, the ending was more like a sprint. I would have liked to have known more about the how, but it wasn’t necessary. I’m learning that this gentle kind of horror that Taylor and Charles Grant did so well rarely explains the heart of their horror.

The story was written in the early 1980s, so it’s stuck in that time period, which could be a problem for modern readers. A large part of the story relies on the characters not being able to reach one another on the phone, and I wonder if readers who have never been without a cell phone would even understand that part. Sure, we get dropped signals, but our constant connections are so much a part of our culture now that I wonder if they would truly get the limitations of a house phone.

I read this in its ebook edition, and I had issues with the way it was formatted. There were breaks within the chapters, some that indicated a shift in scene, others that were just there. About halfway through, I cracked the code — if the next paragraph was indented, it wasn’t a scene break — but it was a little frustrating until then. I kept expecting the scene to jump, but it kept on going like nothing had happened.

Overall, I liked this story, even if it wasn’t as effective as Sweetheart, Sweetheart. Granted, that is considered to be Taylor’s best novel, and it’s the one I read first, so I should expect that the rest won’t be quite as good. Regardless, his narrative style and methodical pacing works well, and the ending took me by surprise. It’s a good read, and a good introduction to the author’s works.

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Darth Vader: End of Games

September 22, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

endDarth Vader: End of Games by Kieron Gillen, et al.

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End of Games brings the saga of Darth Vader between the events of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back to a close. Throughout the series, Vader has been pursuing his own agenda while following the Emperor’s orders, and in this final volume, it all comes together with his final showdown with Cylo, his rival against the Emperor. Everything — Vader’s apprenticeship to the Emperor, Doctor Aphra’s role in Vader’s plans, even the fate of the two murderous droids — comes to a conclusion here, so I’m sure anticipation is high.

The thing is, I could barely get interested in any of it. I’m in the minority in that I didn’t find this series to be interesting at all, but so much of what happens here is forgettable. What makes it even more regrettable is that there’s a decent attempt at bridging the gap between the first two movies in the saga, but the characters feel too wooden, too unrealized to draw the reader in. Plus, I feel like I’m the only one who finds Triple Zero and BeeTee to be more annoying than anything else, so that’s not helping, either.

I know a lot of people like the Darth Vader comic, but I’m not in that group. I haven’t given up on the new Marvel titles all together (for one, I bought a bunch of the ebooks when they were on sale; for another, one of the titles is written by Marjorie Liu, and Cullen Bunn helms another one), but as a starting point, Darth Vader isn’t recommended. Even when my expectations has been lowered, I was still disappointed in them.

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Darth Vader: The Shu-Torun War

September 21, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

shuDarth Vader: The Shu-Torun War by Kieron Gillen, et al.

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The Darth Vader comic series hasn’t impressed me much so far. The stories don’t feel memorable, the art feels too static, and the backstory it’s supposed to fill doesn’t feel significant. It’s supposed to bridge the time between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, showing us how Vader comes to find Luke is his son, but it focuses a lot on other things, including two murderous versions of C-3PO and R2-D2. People seem to love those two droids, but they get on my nerves. They’re trying too hard to be the complete opposite of those two characters, and still maintain that same sort of charm. It’s terrible.

The Shu-Torun War, though, is a different sort of story. It avoids the whole Luke subplot all together, instead telling us of a civil war on Shu-Torun, a mining planet that’s crucial for the Empire to control to build its ships and Death Stars. Vader steps in to control that civil war, only to find himself immersed in the culture and politics of the planet. Once he’s in control of the planet, he still has to control the situation, and that’s where the heart of the story lies.

Aside from the story showing how the civil war develops (and ends), this collection also shows how dangerous Vader is. Gillen captures the character well, showing him as ruthless, unsentimental, cool, and in control, without showing him as emotionless. The Shu-Torun War gives the character a focus outside of trying to find Luke or rule the galaxy; it’s a microcosmic story that has its own arc within the world of Star Wars without the baggage of being a part of the larger story.

I’m still not wild about the art in the series, though it’s detailed and fine. I just wish it managed to convey a sense of action better. There’s a scene near the start of the book where a shuttle crashes into a building, right above Vader’s head, and it looks like a movie still instead of showing any real sense of danger or action. It just is, and it’s disappointing. I don’t know enough about the art of writing comics to know how other writers and artists do it, but this series is the first time I’ve noticed it.

If I were to recommend any single story arc out of the Darth Vader series, this would be it. I think readers could get by with reading just this collection and not lose too much (Doctor Aphra goes missing during the events of Vader Down, so she doesn’t need to be explained, and the two murderous droids aren’t as present in the story), though they may be tempted to read the rest just to get the rest of the story. I don’t recommend it, but I can see readers wanting to do it.

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Vader Down

September 20, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

downVader Down by Jason Aaron, et al.

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Vader Down is one of those most dreaded comic book events: The Crossover. It’s a story that begins with a one-shot comic and then takes us over multiple titles (in this case the Star Wars and Darth Vader Marvel comics) to tell a complete story. Normally, these kinds of events drive me crazy, but Marvel at least had the sense to collect all the different parts together into a single graphic novel.

I hadn’t planned on reading any more of the Vader comics after reading the first two collections, but Amazon had a sale on a lot of Star Wars comic ebooks on May 4th, and my weakness got the better of me. Luckily, Vader Down takes place between the second and third volumes in that series, so I at least read it in the right place.

Vader Down is about Vader finally encountering Luke after the Battle at Yavin at the end of the first movie. They engage in battle over a planet, and then both crash-land onto said planet, though far enough away from each other that they don’t meet face-to-face. The story becomes about their rescue, Luke by Leia and Han, Vader by Doctor Aphra and the two killer droids. It’s not the greatest story, but it gives us more insight into their encounter in The Empire Strikes Back.

This collection is largely forgettable, but it’s intended for people who are current in both the Darth Vader and Star Wars titles. I wasn’t lost, as far as the plot was concerned, but I did feel like I was missing something in the sections of the story that featured in Star Wars. This is another reason I’m not wild about crossover events.

Like the first two Darth Vader collections, the artwork in Vader Down struck me as static, especially in the action sequences. I didn’t get a sense of activity from one panel to the next; instead, it was like I was viewing stills from a movie than an actual movie, which isn’t something I usually get from graphic novels. The artwork is great, and detailed, but it didn’t suggest movement as much as I would have expected. In that sense, it didn’t help the story much at all.

So far, I’ve not been impressed with the new Star Wars comics, but I’ve only read one of them. I look forward to reading the Han Solo title by Marjorie Liu and the Darth Maul title by Cullen Bunn, namely because I like what the writers have done outside of Star Wars. I still have two more volumes to go with the Darth Vader series, but I’ll be reading them more out of obligation than I will anticipation.

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Gwendy’s Button Box

September 19, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

buttonGwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King & Richard Chizmar

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I’ve only read one other piece of fiction Richard Chizmar has written — Dirty Coppers, a novella he co-wrote with Ed Gorman. It was terrible. At the time, I was a big fan of Gorman’s, and I was convinced it was Chizmar’s input that made it bad, and I never read anything else he wrote. I wasn’t purposefully avoiding it, but it wasn’t a name that inspired confidence, either.

Gwendy’s Button Box is making me rethink that position.

The novella starts off in King’s usual, conversational style, introducing us to one of his likable, sympathetic characters, Gwendy, who is twelve years old at the start of this story, in 1974. She’s being teased at school for her weight, and she’s begun running to slim down before she gets to junior high school. One morning, when she reaches the top of the Suicide Stairs, she meets a strange man in a black bowler hat who asks her to take care of a box with buttons on it.

Of course, the box is magical. It has two levers, one which dispenses chocolate candies, the other which dispenses mint condition, 1891 silver dollars, but it also has eight buttons on the outside. The strange man tells her the buttons represent the continents, with one representing whatever Gwendy chooses, and another representing everything. He never tells her what pressing the buttons does, but somehow she knows just the same.

The story takes us through Gwendy’s life, from junior high through her college years, and we see how the box affects her life. It’s mostly good, but it also has a strangely negative effect on her life, though it doesn’t affect her personally. Gwendy is more the box’s caretaker than its owner, and it has its own way of staying in her life. The entire story reads and feels like a Stephen King story.

I read an article about how the collaboration came to be, and the first 7,000 words are all King, with Chizmar picking it up from that point to carry it further, and then they started sending it back and forth for each one to write more to the story. Without knowing that, though, I would have expected it to be mostly King’s story, with Chizmar adding small pieces here and there. That he was able to take a King story and keep it going with the same voice, tone, and style is impressive. I actually have a collection of Chizmar’s stories, which I wasn’t enthused about reading, but now I feel like I have to give it a chance.

King’s Constant Readers will read this book (if they haven’t already; even though it’s published through Chizmar’s specialty press, one can find the book in Barnes and Noble), but anyone who enjoys a gentle, character-driven story should also read it. The story has its moments of darkness and violence, but for the most part, this is, as the title suggests, the story of Gwendy and her box. King’s strongest talent is in his characterization, and Gwendy is proof of that.

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The Madonna and the Starship

September 18, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

madonnaThe Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow

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The Madonna and the Starship is about a group of actors, writers, and producers working together to try to fool a group of potential attacker from going to war. That’s a premise that sounds remarkably like the one in Shambling Towards Hiroshima, Morrow’s other novella that I read about a week before. I’ll admit I didn’t notice the similarity until I was more than halfway through, but when I did, I wondered if these were written this was intentionally, to serve as two sides of a coin. Knowing Morrow and how clever he is, I’m going to guess that’s the case.

Instead of satirizing and skewering monster movies and World War II, Morrow focuses on early television shows and religion. You know, to keep things light. What happens is a television writer and actor receives a message from extraterrestrials who want to give him an award on his science show, but once they land and prove themselves to be who they say they are, they reveal that they also want to exterminate anyone who watches another show about religion and faith. In their eyes, anyone who discards science for the supernatural are too stupid to live, so it’s up to this writer and his friends to come up with a scheme to prove that those viewers are worthy, too.

It’s a hefty premise, but one that should be familiar to Morrow’s readers. This is the man who wrote the Godhead trilogy, after all. What’s interesting about this tale is that he flips the story a bit, going after the die-hard scientists instead of the die-hard religious. The motivations of the main character isn’t to save religion, but to save the millions of people who would be killed over it, but the end result is the same: Leave the religious to do their thing, even while you believe something different.

I haven’t read the Godhead trilogy (yet), but they were the first books of his that drew my attention. At the time, any book that looked at religion from an outsider’s point of view piqued my interest, and I’m surprised I’ve had the books for so long and they’re still unread. These two novellas — smart, engaging, full of real characters, and plot-driven — remind me that I need to move them up the priority. I still have a soft spot for that kind of religious fiction, so I expect I would like them.

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