Wolverine

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

wolverineWolverine by Chris Claremont & Frank Miller

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I came into comics too late to read Wolverine right off the shelf, but man, did I know about it. It was a grail title of mine, since I loved Wolverine’s character, but it was always too expensive for me to buy to read. At some point, I wound up with the first issue, but I never got any further than that with the story. That first issue starts out strong, though, with an opening line as iconic as “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed”: “I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do best isn’t very nice.”

From there, we follow Logan hunting a bear that’s been left for dead, but has instead gone on its own killing rampage. He finds the bear, kills it, and expresses remorse over the act since it had been driven to it; then, he tracks down the man who poisoned it but didn’t kill it, fights him, and sends him to jail without any regrets. It sets the tone of his character, and shows him being more animal than man. In short, it defines all that is Wolverine.

Then, it moves to Japan. Mariko is Logan’s love, back in Japan and not accepting or sending letters. He goes to Japan to track her down, and becomes enmeshed in some crime drama related to Mariko’s new husband. That’s the point where the story goes off the rails and stops making sense. The Hand is involved, but it’s hard to tell what’s driving the crime gangs, and what their business actually is. For the story, Claremont only makes it clear that they’re criminals, and organized. I guess he feels like this is all we need to know.

What we do need to know, apparently, is Logan’s backstory. We get it at the start of each issue. In four or five panels on one page, we get his name, hear about his mutant healing abilities, his adamantium-laced skeleton, and his claws. Even at the time of the title’s publication, people knew who Wolverine was, and he was already a fan-favorite. Readers didn’t need it reiterated with every issue, but that’s what we get.

Released back in 1982, Wolverine is a comic that shows its age. At its time, it might have been a little progressive; it seems like Claremont did some research into Japanese culture instead of just populating the story with offensive stererotypes, and having a female assassin might have bucked some trends at the time. Thirty-five years later, the culturalism comes across as stereotypical, and the female characters are little more than story-dressing. Mariko doesn’t have any depth outside of her being a daughter, or Logan’s love, and the assassin, Yuriko, is inconsistent. During a fight, she’s cut by a sword, and Logan notes that she doesn’t make a sound, because she’s tough like that; later, she’s threatened by a crime boss, who grabs and twists her wrist, and she cries out, saying, “You’re hurting me!” That she falls in and out of a relationship with Logan only reinforces that inconsistency.

I hadn’t known Frank Miller had done the art in this book until I started reading it, and it’s sufficient. It feels kinetic, and isn’t done in such a way that things aren’t clear (in fact, there’s a scene where, mid-fight, Logan pulls an arrow from his arm to use against another assassin, and it’s done subtly enough that it’s not obvious, nor does it fade into the background), but parts of it made me laugh. Every time Logan snikts his claws, each one has to gleam in the light, and there were times when his mouth would be wide open in a yell (the better to show off those animalistic canines, my dear), only to be saying one word, quietly. The artwork didn’t always match the mood of the story.

I’ll freely admit my expectations were too high for Wolverine, but man, did it let me down. It’s too much a product of its time to hold up well so many years later.

Started: September 28, 2017
Finished: September 28, 2017

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The Two of Swords: Part Nineteen

December 28, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

swords19The Two of Swords: Part Nineteen by K.J. Parker

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The way this chapter flows, it feels like it’s the end of The Two of Swords. Things are wrapped up (and, finally, explained) in a way that leaves me satisfied, with major characters reaching the ends of their arcs and machinations seemingly concluded, so this feels like the place to end the story. The thing is, I ordered all of the remaining parts of the book back in April, and those show four chapters to go. Granted, that was April, and who knows what could have happened between then and now?

I think I would have gone into this chapter with a different mindset had I known this was going to be the final chapter. Instead, I went in thinking things would be drawn together in anticipation of the conclusion, so I never felt like that was going to be it. By the time I finished it, though, it was pretty clear this was the end of the story.

It’s been an interesting journey. Throughout the story, it was difficult to determine what was truth and what wasn’t. The layers of subterfuge are many, and so interconnected that it almost takes a spreadsheet to keep up with what’s a double-cross or quadruple-cross. I may have been able to keep up with the characters more had I been reading the story in collected formats, and had I been able to read them back-to-back from start to finish. I was actually surprised I could remember enough details from chapter to chapter to keep up with everything.

Before this book, my exposure to Parker was through his novellas, and those tend to read as stories that lead up to an unseen conclusion, sort of like The Sixth Sense, but with fewer ghosts and more humor. I didn’t expect him to follow that structure here, so I was excited to see how his longer stories would develop, and I wasn’t disappointed. I plan to read the rest of his fiction within the next year or so, and I hope I haven’t messed it up by starting with his most recent works and then going back to the beginning. At the very least, I look forward to seeing him develop the shared universe of these books.

Started: September 26, 2017
Finished: September 26, 2017

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Shadow Games

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

shadowShadow Games by Michael Reaves and Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

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The premise of Shadow Games is that a superstar singer has to hire a bodyguard to keep her safe from obsessive fans and other threats while she’s on tour. So, yeah, this is The Bodyguard set in the universe of Star Wars, in what is the most unlikely meshing of stories I’ve yet seen in the Expanded Universe.

Amazingly, the story isn’t that bad. It’s not the most exciting novel I’ve read so far, but it moves as well as any of the other Star Wars books, and touches on enough of the usual tropes one would expect to find in the book. The downside of those usual tropes is that it becomes obvious what’s really going on when the bodyguard is sensing the singer isn’t telling him everything he needs to know. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you can’t figure it out by the halfway point, maybe you’re new to the world of Star Wars.

I wouldn’t rank Shadow Games among the worst the EU has to offer, but neither is it the best. That’s a sentence that perfectly illustrates the saying, “damning with faint praise”, but this isn’t exactly a book to get too excited about. Fans of Reaves might like it, since it follows his usual style.

Started: September 18, 2017
Finished: September 23, 2017

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The Girl with All the Gifts

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

giftsThe Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

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I was thrilled to find out that M.R. Carey is the same person as Mike Carey, who has written, among other things, The Unwritten, one of my favorite comics series. Once I knew that, I expected a lot out of the book. I was both excited and apprehensive about that, because … well, high expectations and all that.

The weirdest thing about the book is how the publisher tried to distance the book from what it’s about: zombies. Had the book been written in such a way as to make this a surprise reveal halfway through the book, I’d understand, but by the end of the second chapter, it’s clear what’s going on. I get that the market is oversaturated with zombie novels right now, but the story’s strong enough to stand on its own, regardless of its type; why not just embrace it?

The second-weirdest thing about the book (and possibly the dumbest) is that they’re not called zombies in the book. Sure, fine, whatever, The Walking Dead did it, too, but what they’re called in this book are “Hungries”. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone coming up with this term, and then for it to be distinctive enough for it to stick. Aside from it sounding stupid, it doesn’t make sense from a narrative standpoint, either.

Luckily, these are the worst things about the book. Carey has a natural writing style, enough so that there’s nothing there to take you out of the story. The few times I was interrupted while reading, I had one of those story-drunk moments where I had to consciously shift from the book world back to the real world, I was so deeply into the story.

The main character of the story is Melanie, an intelligent ten-year-old girl who lives in an underground cell and is moved, strapped down in a wheelchair, to a classroom five days a week. The first act of the story is told from her perspective, so we get a look into her life, but we have to make some assumptions about her life and living conditions, since she doesn’t know as much as the other characters in the book. I love that kind of storytelling; it’s almost like a riddle, and I like to see how long it takes me to crack the code.

The other main characters wind up being one of the teachers, a sergeant, a scientist, and a soldier, and at the beginning, they’re all cliches. Carey excels at characterization, though, so they don’t stay that way. In fact, the character arc of the sergeant is fantastic, and might be my favorite part of the story. The second and third acts bring in perspectives from all these characters, and it helps to understand them better, so much so that we come to understand the characters who are supposed to be the antagonists. It’s well done, and strong.

I understand that the ending is polarizing among readers. Some love it, some hate it. I didn’t have a problem with it, namely because as I learned more about what caused the zombies, I didn’t see any other way to end the story. It also followed the main theme of the book, so I didn’t feel like I was cheated by it. On one hand, I understand why folks hated it; on the other hand, I don’t see that Carey had any way to get around it.

The Girl with All the Gifts is an actual original take on the zombie story. It’s hard enough to come up with an original story, period, and to see one in an overused genre is refreshing and exciting. I understand there’s a prequel/equel/sequel to the book, and I’m eager to see what else Carey can do with the idea. I just hope my expectations for that book (which are higher now than before) don’t ruin it for me.

Started: September 20, 2017
Finished: September 21, 2017

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The Two of Swords: Part Eighteen

December 25, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords18The Two of Swords: Part Eighteen by K.J. Parker

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We’re reaching the point of the story where things are winding down, but where things are also fraying in the usual Parker style. It’s hard to tell what’s actually going on, not for lack of clarity, but because there’s so much intrigue happening through the Lodge that it’s hard to tell what’s happening at their command and what’s being said to happen through their command. Telamon is caught in the middle of it all, struggling to figure out where her loyalties lie. Axio and Oida, of course, don’t help her understand it much, since they’re as much at odds with each other as the Belot brothers.

This is a lengthier chapter, namely because we learn more about the instability of the Lodge as the war appears to be drawing to a close. I’ll admit I got a little lost in the telling of this chapter, partly because of the way the story bobs and weaves, but also because I kept thinking I should remember more details about parts of it. The story revisits old settings, and I felt like I was missing some significance of some appearances and references, since it’s been so long since I’ve read the other chapters. I’m not willing to go back and re-read them again at this point, but I do plan on getting the printed volumes when they’re released. When I do re-read them, I’ll try to take notes so I can keep everything straight.

For such a complex plot, the chapter-by-chapter release isn’t ideal. I’m surprised I remember as much as I do from the earlier chapters, but that disconnect doesn’t help, especially when so many months have passed between parts two and three. I’m eager to see this through, to see exactly how the Lodge plays in to the plot, and to see how the events ultimately play out. Parker’s novellas bring his plots together well, and if he can bring those same deft skills to The Two of Swords (and why couldn’t he?), I won’t be disappointed. I’m just ready to get there.

Started: September 19, 2017
Finished: September 19, 2017

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The Troop

December 22, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

troopThe Troop by Nick Cutter

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A year or so ago, I stumbled across a list of obscure horror novels I “Probably Hadn’t Read”. I was pleased to see that I had read most of them, but was also pleased to add a few other books to my list, including this one, written by the author of that list. (To be clear: He didn’t add his own book to the list. The overlap was enough for me to check out his own stuff.) I had high hopes going into it.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed. It started off feeling juvenile and amateurish, both in its style and tone, as well as its content. The sentences are short and choppy, and it makes the story feel insubstantial. It winds up being all action, all plot, and while I can’t say it’s without theme, it does feel pointless.

The book is graphic enough to teeter on the border of splatterpunk, which doesn’t help matters. The central horror of the novel is body horror, and Cutter has an almost gleeful tone in how he portrays that horror. It’s effective in its own way, but it feels like it goes too far. It’s one thing to make the reader uncomfortable; it’s another to make things as gross, graphic, and cruel as possible. It makes it feel like a sadistic fifth grader wrote the book, wielding his own fears without subtlety or grace.

With that simile, I should point out that Cutter sure does love using them. They’re everywhere. At one point, I counted three on one page alone. He uses so many of them that he starts reaching for them, such as “… sweat squeezed from the skin of his brow … like salty BBs”, or “… withered like to halves of a cored-out squash forgotten for days on a countertop”, or “They washed [them] … carefully, the way you’d wash oil off a baby mallard.” They’re odd, jarring, and ever-present, so if you don’t like them, you’re out of luck, like a scoutmaster infected with a parasite.

It doesn’t help that Cutter populates the story with a bunch of kids, few of whom are sympathetic. Plus, they’re all stereotypes: the bullying jock; the fat nerd; the sociopath; the cool kid; and the angry one. It’s almost like The Breakfast Club meets The Thing, only without the subtlety or atmosphere of either.

This book is terrible. Its one saving grace is near the end, when Cutter finally makes two of the characters likable enough to care what happens to them. The writing style, the structure, the characters, and the plot, though? Those should have been tossed. I don’t even see the point of it.

Started: September 15, 2017
Finished: September 19, 2017

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The Comfort of Strangers

December 21, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

strangersThe Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

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This isn’t the kind of book I would normally read, but I stumbled across it twice in The Book of Lists: Horror when authors listed books that weren’t classified as horror, but may as well have been. Having read it, I can see why: it’s a stark look at sexual obsession and how it affects people. It takes a while to get to the central issue of the novel, but even as McEwan is setting up the story, we get a sense of things being not quite right.

Colin and Mary are a couple vacationing in Venice, and their relationship is strained. A chance encounter with an expatriate from London puts them back on track, but that encounter leads them down dark roads that ultimately end in tragedy. In relation to other works of horror, it feels a little tame, but for a book that’s well within the literary canon, it shows a darkness its contemporaries tend to avoid.

McEwan does a great job capturing the setting and the main characters in the first chapter. His style is crisp and precise. In addition, he captures the relationship between them, which is arguably more important than the characters themselves. They and the secondary characters in the novel are drawn a little thin, but I feel like this is intentional; the book is more about relationships and how we let them define us, so it makes more sense to focus more on what exists between the characters rather than the characters themselves.

This is an unusual book, in that it might be darker than readers of literary fiction would like, but it doesn’t feel dark enough for casual readers of horror. For readers who like examinations into the darker side of humanity, though, it’s a perfect fit. It’s not a favorite among dedicated readers of the author, but as an introduction to him, it stands as a strong work. I understand he has a few other novels that perform dark examinations like this one, and I’ll have to add those to my list of books to read.

Started: September 17, 2017
Finished: September 17, 2017

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Blue Rose

December 20, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

blueBlue Rose by Peter Straub

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Blue Rose is a novelette, a precursor to the Blue Rose trilogy that began with Koko, and Penguin published it in a small, thin book as part of their 60th anniversary. I found it at a used bookstore, and thought it wouldn’t hurt to add it to my to-read stack. It was cheap, it was short, and it was Peter Straub. I never got around to reading Koko and the rest of the books in the series, but this is the man who wrote Ghost Story and Shadowland, for crying out loud. You don’t pass up an opportunity like that.

The story is about Harry Beevers, the protagonist from Koko, but it tells a story of his childhood. It shows his sociopathic tendencies, but puts them into the perspective of his family. Straub doesn’t ask us to sympathize with the boy, but he does suggest that we understand him a bit better. It turns out that this story was written before Koko, which is a bit of a surprise, if only because A Special Place was published after A Dark Matter, and the former was a shorter work that attempted to show us more into the main character of the latter.

Even when Straub wrote supernatural fiction, he wrote about human darkness. Here in his later works, he turns his full focus there, where his stories do more to disconcert than to reassure. These stories have become more an more interesting to me, as I shy away from traditional horror and focus more on psychological horror. I’ve said before that external evil is somewhat reassuring, since we can remove it, and parcel it away; it’s the evil that comes from within that is less predictable, more horrifying.

Blue Rose isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t answer the reader’s questions, and it doesn’t end with an easy conclusion. It shows us what lies beneath, and makes us question who among us could be capable of such things that we see in this story. Fans of horror will probably appreciate it the most, but fans of literary fiction that examines the darker side of human nature will find a lot to pick apart.

Started: September 16, 2017
Finished: September 17, 2017

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Death Troopers

December 19, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

troopersDeath Troopers by Joe Schreiber

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I’ve given Schreiber a hard time in the past. It’s not that I don’t think he’s deserving of it (don’t forget that in Chasing the Dead, he had his protagonist attacked by giant lobsters in her car), but while reading Death Troopers I realized that he’s a pretty good writer. He doesn’t fall into the trap that some authors use, where they tell us what a character is feeling; instead he describes what they’re feeling, and pretty accurately. He’s a good storyteller, too, which is pretty necessary when you write a zombie novel set in the Star Wars universe. This was apparently a big issue for the hardcore Star Wars fans, but I thought it was a fun read.

Schreiber populates his novel with the right kinds of characters for a zombie story — those who doubt and those who accept, those who take advantage of the situation, and those who turn out to be heroes, and those who sacrifice themselves for the rest of the group — but the progression from doubting to accepting is pretty fast. Also, near the end of the novel, one of the antagonists has a change of heart, which was unexpected, which would have been fine, except it remains unexplained. Why have a character turn around and save characters he was forcing out of escape pods 150 pages earlier? I don’t mean that rhetorically, either: Why? That explanation was completely missing from the story.

Speaking of sections of the story that make you ask “Why?”, there’s the fact that Han Solo and Chewbacca show up halfway through the story. It feels too much like fan service over storytelling, especially when this is supposed to have happened close to the events that put the two characters on Tatooine in Star Wars. They don’t even have the Millennium Falcon with them at the time of the story, since the book takes place in a prison ship.

Still, I had a fun time reading the book, but I didn’t expect it to be a groundbreaking novel, either. Fans of horror should love it (two of the tertiary characters are named Phibes and Quatermass, so there’s a lot there for the fans to discover), though they may want to start with Red Harvest. That book follows Death Troopers in publication order, but it also lays the groundwork for what creates the zombies. They make a decent duology, but I can see why people looking for traditional Star Wars stories don’t like them.

Started: September 15, 2017
Finished: September 16, 2017

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The Wind Through the Keyhole

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

windThe Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King

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It’s time. Time is the wind through the keyhole. King mentions this in the center story (because this is a story within a story within a story), and I’m still not quite sure I understand what it’s supposed to mean. We look in a keyhole, but feel the wind blowing through it, and that’s time? Mkay.

I waffled over when to read this book in the overall series. At first I thought I would read it within the chronology, which is after Wizard and Glass but before The Wolves of the Calla, but in the end I figured reading it in publication order made more sense, since chances were, King would try to retcon something else.

The middle story (“The Wind Through the Keyhole”) is a fairy tale or legend, but it ties in with the larger story in which it appears, since another “RF” appears within. Clearly, within the world of the tower, it’s supposed to be real and not fiction, which is sort of annoying, but not so much as this story being shoehorned into the larger Dark Tower saga. The framing device of the story (the ka-tet takes shelter from a starkblast — a severe cold front — and Roland tells the story of him and Jamie taking on the skin-man, which in turn contains the story of the legend) doesn’t advance the story of their quest at all, so why include it at all? The front of the book tells us this is “A Dark Tower Novel”, not a part of the series proper, so why force it? Why not just have it be a story of Roland’s earlier days and leave it at that?

The second story (“The Skin-Man”) is short, and serves as the framing device for the legend, and doesn’t serve much purpose other than that. It gives us an additional look into Roland’s character after the events of Mejis, but it doesn’t tell us anything more than what we already know. It feels like the whole book was written just to tell the tale of “The Wind Through the Keyhole”, which winds up being the largest percentage of the book anyway. King admits in the foreword to the book that he wrote these stories intending them to be the start of a collection of stories set in Mid-World, but instead crammed them together into this one book. It’s a compelling story, told in his usual style, and it puzzles me why he didn’t just save it for a later release.

(I lie. I know why he did it: $$$.)

“The Wind Through the Keyhole” is the best story here, but it doesn’t add anything to the larger mythology of Roland and the tower, so I don’t see it as a necessary read, even for fans of the series. It just adds a few pieces of fan service here and there, and force-fits it into the larger series. If King ever does get around to publishing a collection of stories set in the world of the tower, I would hope he divides the two central stories apart, and removes the framing device of the ka-tet altogether. I think I could appreciate the stories were he to do that.

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