The Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo and the Lost Legacy

October 31, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

legacyThe Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo and the Lost Legacy by Brian Daley

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If John Jackson Miller can write a Wild West story set in the Star Wars universe (Kenobi), then I suppose I should give Brian Daley some slack for writing a treasure hunt story set in the same. It seems like an odd choice, though, especially considering this was only the fourth book that expanded on the movies. I get the feeling Miller was looking to do something that hadn’t been done in the Expanded Universe, but at the time Daley wrote this book, he could have done anything. Why this?

The story isn’t bad, but it is slow and somewhat emotionless. It has its moments (Bollux and Blue Max are the most realized characters here), but the romantic sub-sub-subplot between Han and Hasti is about as convincing as the one between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. I had my concerns that the book would be a two-star affair, but I have to admit, the race for the treasure is engaging enough, and how Daley concludes the race is clever, and works surprisingly well.

What’s weird about the book is I kept thinking I was reading an Indiana Jones book, not a Star Wars book. The race for the treasure, the discovery of the truth of the legend, and solving the riddles of finding the treasure itself would work well for another Indiana Jones story. (At the very least, it would be much better than Crystal Skull.) It also didn’t hurt that I kept envisioning the same person as the lead character.

Daley gets Han Solo, even if the overall story doesn’t quite fit him. The story fits into the EU in the sense that it ends with a loose end that will tie it in with the first movie, but Daley doesn’t go into much detail over it. I like Crispin’s trilogy better, since she fills in that detail, but the two trilogies together make for an intriguing backstory to science fiction’s favorite scoundrel.

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Dark Screams: Volume Six

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

screams6Dark Screams: Volume Six, edited by Brian James Freeman & Richard Chizmar

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Like the other two volumes of Dark Screams I’ve read (one and two), I bought this because it was only 99 cents. Also like the other two volumes, the stories are a mixed bag. To make things worse for this one, the bulk of the collection (nearly sixty percent!) is made up of one long novella, which had already been published by Cemetery Dance, at which both of the editors work. Even at 99 cents, I feel a bit gypped.

It starts out with “The Old Dude’s Ticker”, an unpublished story of Stephen King’s from when he was publishing short stories in men’s magazines. It’s a retelling of “The Tell-tale Heart”, and in the foreword, he notes he’s “not sure what [the editor]’s problem with it might have been”, but having read it, I feel like I have some insight. It’s not original or interesting, nor does it have anything to say.

Lisa Morton’s “The Rich Are Different” follows, and is about an author who visits a wealthy family which served as the inspiration for a scathing novel about the rich. It’s well written and engaging, and it kept my interest, but the twist at the end was a bit stupid.

“The Manicure” by Nell Quinn-Gibney is the next story, and tells the story of a woman who has a neurosis about her nails. It’s effectively squicky (Quinn-Gibney channels a feeling we’ve all felt and can respond to), and it has a suggestive ending I appreciate.

Norman Prentiss contributed a story, “The Comforting Voice”, and it’s the second story of his I’ve read. I like his style, and he has a way for honing in on the things that disturb, so I’ll likely add him as an author to follow. This story is about family and children, and touches on darkness without delving into the supernatural. Like any good short story, it ends without resolution, and leaves the reader thinking about the future.

“The Situation” is Joyce Carol Oates’ contribution, and she’s an author who’s often over my head. The story is a brief one, and is another of her examinations of cruelty, paired with some disturbing imagery. It opens with one scene of cruelty and ends with another; either one will be the more wrenching of the two, but which one bothers you the most depends on what you bring to the story. Highly recommended.

The last story in the collection is The Corpse King by Tim Curran, which is the novella I mentioned above. It’s descriptive and atmospheric, and feels like a well-written story, but it doesn’t do much for me beyond that. It’s set in 19th-Century England, and concerns a pair of grave robbers. Curran paints about as bleak a portrait of the time as possible, spending several thousand words telling us how unpleasant life is at that time. That the main characters are desecrating graves and stealing bodies makes them about as sympathetic as lampreys, and Curran makes sure we know how disgusting it all is. The novella is mostly description, which gets somewhat old (seriously, how many times do we need to have the smell of putrefaction described to us?), and it suggests that Curran revels in being disgusting. The whole thing felt juvenile to me, especially when he has his characters talk to each other in crass banter. It got old fast, and I went through the whole thing waiting for it to get better. It never did.

So, out of six stories, three seem worthwhile, and they make up a small percentage of this collection. The three good stories are enough for me to rate the entire thing three stars, but by themselves, they would be at least four. The deadweight of the other stories drag them down, but for 99 cents, I’d recommend those three stories. Try to avoid the others, if you can resist them.

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The Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo’s Revenge

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

revengeThe Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo’s Revenge by Brian Daley

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Han Solo at Stars’ End was an entertaining, if flawed, novel, though it was much better than L. Neil Smith’s Adventures of Lando Calrissian. For one, Daley has a better understanding of the characters he’s writing; for another, the story feels like it belongs in the Expanded Universe, while Smith’s novels felt like they had been retconned to fit in with Star Wars. One thing I have to credit both authors with is the lightheartedness of some of the scenes; so many of the EU novels take themselves so seriously it’s hard to imagine there being any “walking carpet” scenes in them, but Smith and Daley both made sure to include them.

Han Solo’s Revenge is a slightly better story than Stars’ End, thanks to Daley giving us more depth to Han Solo and Chewbacca. Han is most remembered as a rogue, a miscreant, a space cowboy, but his character arc in the movies makes him very much a hero. Daley chooses to examine Han’s penchant for lawlessness, making him much more a man who does work for payment instead of morality. This isn’t to say he’s remorseless or without a moral compass, but we see more of that side than we do in the movies. True to the movies, though, Chewbacca is the more moral of the two characters, driving Han to do the right thing even when he’s reluctant. It suggests that the longer the two hang around each other, the more heroic Han will become. It segues well into the stories of the movies.

One thing I like about Daley’s books is he pays attention to the kinds of details usually important to science fiction, but overlooked in the Star Wars universe, like planetary gravity and atmosphere. They change from one planet to another, and the characters note the need for breathing gear or lighter steps. This is a big plus for me. I’ve grown accustomed to Star Wars eschewing these necessities, but it’s nice when an author gives it its proper due.

While I wouldn’t put Daley’s books in a top ten list of EU novels, they’re still solid reads. I’d place them a little beneath A.C. Crispin’s take on Han’s earlier life, but they do give us additional insight into Han as a character. For that, I’d recommend them to readers looking to learn more about a character they already love.

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Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga

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

waterBlackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga by Michael McDowell

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Blackwater is a series written by Michael McDowell in 1983, long before Stephen King wrote his own novel-in-serial-form with The Green Mile. It’s an ambitious piece of work, covering fifty years of the Caskey family, who have owned one of the mills in Perdido, a small, river-bound Alabama town, following a catastrophic flood in 1919. From that flood appears Elinor, a mysterious woman with a hidden past who isn’t completely human, and begins to worm her way into the family.

McDowell was raised in Alabama, and if The Elements didn’t prove that he understood the South and its culture, Blackwater certainly does. This is a piece firmly embedded in the South, in its language, manners, humor, and atmosphere. Even the names of the characters — Sister, Mary-Love, Early, and Danjo (Daniel Joseph), to name just a few — reflect a culture that’s purely Southern.

Additionally, the story itself is told in a Southern way, in that the aberrations of the culture are never explicitly stated, but instead hints at them to allow the readers to draw their own conclusion. One character is introduced as having “the stamp of femininity”, seemingly in a whispered voice with raised eyebrows. The meaning is clear, even if the words aren’t spoken aloud, and this style is used when referring to Elinor. It’s not just that the characters speak around what makes Elinor different; the narrative itself dances around it. Characters in the story gossip, as does the narrative itself.

The story covers a long time, over multiple generations, and as such, sympathies shift from character to character as time progresses. McDowell creates a subtle air of menace and otherworldliness with Elinor, suggesting she’ll be the antagonist here, when in truth the matriarch of the family is the one to watch. This is another Southern characteristic, of the women, despite being considered to be less than the men, being the ones in control.

The way McDowell creates the family is brilliant. They span the emotional gamut with pettiness, honor, deceit, manipulation, and love despite the antagonism. It’s all there, and it feels real and genuine. It certainly helps that McDowell has 900 pages to spend developing them, but what makes the story shine is that despite there being at least a dozen main characters, none of them are dismissable or forgettable.

The story does have a supernatural element, enough for it to be considered horror, but its Southern-ness is its true charm. When you examine all the pieces of the story that make it Southern, though, it’s no surprise this is a horror novel. At the end of book four, I felt my heart beating faster, and rubbed down the chills on my arms. It wasn’t just that McDowell had created a genuinely creepy moment; it was a palpable reaction to the dread, fear, loss, and relief that went along with the scene. It’s a perfect, perfect moment that’s possible thanks to McDowell creating his characters with such care.

The atmosphere of both the horror and Southern genres complement each other perfectly, and since McDowell eschews violence and viscera for moments that elicit shivers, I can see this being a book as much for lovers of Southern fiction as for fans of horror. Either way, this is a brilliant, effective story that deserves a much wider audience. I can see this being a great story for creating a television series.

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The Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo at Stars’ End

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

endThe Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo at Stars’ End by Brian Daley

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When I started reading the Star Wars books (at least, once I committed to reading all of them), I decided to read them in chronological order. Past experience with other series suggested this wasn’t the best idea, but it seemed like a good way to introduce myself to the Expanded Universe. Now that I’m starting to get into some of the older books, though, I see that I’ve made a mistake.

In Han Solo at Stars’ End, one of the plot points revolve around Doc, a mechanic for criminals and other scoundrels, having gone missing. What’s cool is that A.C. Crispin’s Han Solo trilogy, which precedes this chronologically but succeeds it in publication order, ends with a reference to Doc, setting it up to flow directly into this series. In a way, it’s neat to see how a later author uses an earlier story to support their own, but in another, I feel like I’m missing a lot of other Easter eggs by reading these all out of order.

The book itself is okay. It’s written well, and has an engaging plot, but it doesn’t have much of an emotional connection. I found myself checking out a lot during some of the longer narrative bits, which is something I found happening a lot with The Adventures of Lando Calrissian, though I think Daley’s book is written better and feels more like Star Wars than Smith’s books did. I feel like I missed some portions of the story, but at the same time, I feel like I didn’t miss anything at all, since there weren’t any loose plot points that I could see. It just didn’t feel significant at all.

I get the feeling that had I read this when it was first published (1979; it was the second EU book, written even before The Empire Strikes Back), I would have enjoyed it a lot more. Now, though, that the Star Wars universe is so expansive and rich, it feels oddly constrained, given that it wasn’t as dependent on anything that came before it. It’s a quick read, by any means, and it’s a neat piece of history when it comes to Star Wars. I wouldn’t recommend it for casual readers, though.

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American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition

October 24, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

godsAmerican Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman

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I first read American Gods in 2001, right after its release. I remember surprisingly little of it. I mostly remember images, scenes, quotes, and ideas, with the plot going right out of my head. I just finished watching the television show, and figured I should refamiliarize myself with the entire story, and was surprised to see there was a “preferred author’s text” edition. Naturally, I decided to read that version. I toyed with the idea of re-reading the original printing, but after looking up the answer on Google, I discovered the changes appear to be small, incidental ones that make little difference in the plot, along with a new foreword and afterword, as well as a deleted scene that appears outside of its context in the story.

The story is about Shadow, an ex-con who has just been released from prison a few days short of the end of his term when his wife dies in a car accident. On his way back for the funeral, he meets an odd man who wants to hire him as a bodyguard/errand man/assistant sort of position. This encounter is the first in a series of odd, otherworldly encounters with a series of characters, none of whom are what they appear to be.

The story is also about gods, religion, faith, and belief. This, I think, is the reason why I remembered images, scenes, quotes, and ideas more than anything else: The bulk of the story is about ideas. Gaiman peppers the story with old gods in the same way Kim Newman peppers Anno Dracula with other fictional vampires. The novel is its own Easter egg hunt, enough so that I was hitting Google every time a new god showed up (and enough so that I can see real value in an annotated edition of the book).

When I first read the book, I was impressed with its premise, but less so with its execution. I still don’t see it as the quintessential Gaiman book (I still point to Stardust for that), but my take on the novel improved with this read. I think it helps to have seen the show, since it helped anchor some of the characters in my head. They’re not as difficult to place as, say, the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, but having Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle in my head definitely helped (even if their physical appearances in the book were different).

I saw some new aspects of the story, too, which is typical of a re-read. Knowing some of the secrets that were to come later in the story helped me isolate some of the foreshadowing and uncover the clues. Most important, though, was the way Gaiman wove the Native American gods into the story. I missed that the first time around, which is surprising, since there’s a recurring theme and character who makes it pretty obvious.

Plot-wise, the story still seems a bit thin, especially for a 750-page book, but there’s a lot to pass through on the way to the conclusion. The middle of the book feels circuitous and almost pointless, but it’s Gaiman’s way of introducing us to more gods and tying them to the main theme of the novel.

I’ve read a lot about how the showrunners have gone off-book, but I was surprised to see how faithful the show has been, even with its changes. The biggest change seems to be in Laura, Shadow’s wife, and Mad Sweeney, a six-foot-tall leprechaun, in that they expand their back stories. It seems like they’re also playing around with the plot, though, based on the conclusion of the first season, which doesn’t exist at all in the book. I’m intrigued to see where it goes, though, especially considering that Gaiman is also one of the producers of the show, and presumably signed off on the changes that have been made.

I’d recommend American Gods to anyone with an interest in mythology or anyone who hasn’t yet read anything by Gaiman. Given that this edition exists, I don’t see why someone wouldn’t choose the expanded edition over the original text, unless they’re just curious to do the comparison. I expect a lot of people will be reading it, thanks to the show.

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Toplin

October 23, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

toplinToplin by Michael McDowell

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Toplin is not a horror novel. It elicits a wide swath of emotions — sadness, pity, disgust, and despair, to name a few — but it doesn’t quite horrify. It’s dark, but to call it horror suggests it’s something it’s not. Horror is a genre for people who like to embrace the darkness; Toplin is for the kinds of readers who like to confront it.

The book is a look into the mind of a deranged man where nothing can be taken at face value. He’s the most unreliable narrator, convinced of his own perfection in a story where everything is wrong. We follow his manias for a few days when his perfectly ordered world is thrown into disarray, all thanks to a simple sign in a store window.

Toplin is a book that can’t be trusted. It’s weird and surreal, a result of insanity that barely touches on reality. Its imagery is disturbing and disquieting, its conclusions vague and inconclusive. It succeeds at what it wants to do, which is take us into a disordered mind, and its intimacy brings us closer to the darkness that most of us would like. It reminds me somewhat of American Psycho, especially in the attention to and obsession with detail our narrator brings to the story.

McDowell has done something noteworthy with Toplin, and those who can stomach the ride and follow the twists and turns of its narrator will find an unusual but effective story. It doesn’t attempt to reassure the reader, nor does it provide a simple way for readers to decipher what’s real and what’s not. This is a book for readers who like a challenge, and for readers who want to stare into the darkness without flinching.

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Han Solo: Rebel Dawn

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

rebelHan Solo: Rebel Dawn by A.C. Crispin

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With Rebel Dawn, Crispin gives us a Han Solo with which we’re familiar. It makes sense (this is the closest we get to the events in Star Wars, so he ought to be by now), but in the previous books, we only see hints of him. Still, Crispin is showing us Han’s development, so seeing hints in the previous books is to be expected.

Rebel Dawn also takes us back to the plot that started this trilogy: Bria; and the drug trade on Ylesia. More to the point, we finally get closure on the relationship between Han and Bria that began in The Paradise Snare, while we see what becomes of that drug trade some ten years later. We get to see characters who have featured in the other two books, and we also get to connect this story with some of the events that are mentioned in Star Wars. Specifically, we see how Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando, and we see the events that led to Han dumping the spice that put him on Jabba’s bad side.

The thing is, Crispin moves so quickly through those events that if you blink, you might miss them. These are seminal moments in the world of Star Wars, and I would have liked to have seen more time devoted to them. Instead, we get a lot of backstory for other characters, enough so that Han doesn’t feature for a good third of the story, save for a few interludes to keep us posted on what’s going on with him. Near the end of the book, we do get a definitive answer about the apparent misuse of the word “parsec” regarding the Kessel Run, which is nice. If anyone tries to raise that argument with you again, just point them to this book for clarification.

I noticed in this book that Crispin tells a lot, which hurts her characterization. The characters were still drawn well, but some scenes felt emotionless, when they should have been key moments where the reader should have felt something for the characters. Instead, we get a sense of their feelings, even when we should be feeling grief or anger over what’s happening.

The trilogy is strong, but I can’t help but feel like it could have been so much more. Crispin spins a good tale, and I powered through the last half of this book in one day, but it lacked the OOMPH that would have made this a great series. Still, it ranks among the better books in the Expanded Universe, and I’d recommend it for folks wanting to delve outside the movies to see what else the EU has to offer.

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Down Among the Sticks and Bones

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

sticksDown Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

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So far, the only works I’ve read by McGuire/Grant are her novellas. They’ve been fine, with intriguing ideas and near-perfect language, but they haven’t been great. In a way, they feel like they’re not quite long enough for the ideas they contain, despite being so well written that I want to gush about it; Down Among the Sticks and Bones, however, is the perfect story for its length.

The novella is about Jacqueline and Jillian, twin sisters whose parents raised them under strict rules: Jacqueline (never Jack) to be a tomboy to make up for her not being the son her father wanted; and Jillian (never Jill) to be the pretty princess her mother desires. This book is the sequel to McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway, so we know ahead of time that the two sisters will find their way into a fantastical world, tinged with darkness, where they grow to become themselves.

The story McGuire tells here is wonderful, in so many ways. Her characters are lively, her settings are vivid, and her atmosphere bleeds through every page. Her language sings, and the emotions she conveys in the story are real. It has true heartbreak and grief, frustration and joy. These are all traits that have been present in her other novellas I’ve read, but here everything comes together perfectly. It has a fatalistic tone for the ending, most likely due to it being a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway and me knowing how it would ultimately end, but that could be a projection on my part. The story felt stand-alone and self-contained.

McGuire was already on my “authors to watch” list, but knowing that she can write a five-star story like Down Among the Sticks and Bones, I can now add her to my “authors to read” list. Given how prolific she is, it’s going to take a while before I can get caught up.

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Hell Hound

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

houndHell Hound by Ken Greenhall

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Like Elizabeth: A Novel of the UnnaturalHell Hound has a clue buried in its title, though it’s not as obvious as its predecessor. The story is about a dog, yes — a bull terrier — but the “Hell” of the title isn’t. It refers to the one who keeps him.

The story is told partly from the dog’s perspective, so we see how he — Baxter — thinks regarding the people around him. It’s dark, not because the dog is evil, or possessed; he’s simply a dog, driven by his own desires outside of society’s constraints. His identity is wrapped up in power and control, and he chooses to use it to his own advantage. We can’t blame him for his nature.

Hell Hound is chilling partly because Greenhall toys with our assumption that dogs adore us. We view them as pets, but we forget they’re animals. Hell Hound reminds us of what they are, beneath the trappings we put on them. He also reminds us how close we are as animals, paralleling Baxter’s motivations with our own. We can’t blame Baxter for his nature, because he’s a dog; humans, though, have evolved beyond that. Or so we believe.

The book’s main theme is that of sociopathy, not just in Baxter, but in the people near to him. The way Greenhall reveals the animals in humans, he’s suggesting that were we to remove the safeguards of society and civilization, we would be as sociopathic as a dog. As he presents his characters in the book, this isn’t hard to believe.

Also like Elizabeth, the story is told with an economy of words, but a wealth of atmosphere. Greenhall places words like a watchmaker places a gear: Everything is significant, and nothing is out of place. He uses a dispassionate voice to create dread, and he creates his plot in such a way that nothing is unexpected. We know where the story is going; we’re simply along for the ride until we get there, expecting the worst. As another reviewer put it, we’re dragged along by “the madness of pure unfettered rationality”, and it all happens in 150 pages.

Greenhall makes some astute observations along the way. They’re not reassuring, but they have a ring of truth, enforced by the events of the story. One particular example:

Carl had taken on an affection and a responsibility, but Sara was not sure there was virtue in that alone.

These gems are buried throughout the story, there to evoke the same sense of dread and nihilism as the plot itself.

Hell Hound is a fantastic book, but it’s dark. Readers looking for easy answers and happy endings should look elsewhere. Those who don’t mind a walk through graveyards and junkyards late at night, though, should seek it out.

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