The Living Blood

April 30, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

bloodThe Living Blood by Tananarive Due

—–

The Living Blood is the second in Due’s Immortal Africans series, and given the way My Soul to Keep ended, I expected the book to pick up right where the first ended. I wasn’t quite prepared for it to start slightly before the ending and carry us through the events of that ending in more detail. It’s almost like the prologue for this book was swapped with the epilogue for the first one, the way it all fits together.

The good news is that this isn’t a bad thing. My Soul to Keep ended in such a way as to suggest it was the start to a series, and The Living Blood shows us more behind Dawit’s culture, and how Jessica fits into modern society as a new part of that culture. It’s brilliantly paired with a single widower searching for Jessica as the miracle cure for his son, who is dying of leukemia. Due takes us through the heartache and turmoil of having a sick child, and having to make the decision to leave that child behind to find a cure, knowing he may die before he can return. It’s harrowing in a way that’s not usually seen in standard horror.

The story here is more expansive, and feels more epic, than My Soul to Keep. I enjoyed that book, but The Living Blood gives it more depth to make it more important, more significant. Soul looks at the idea of immortal Africans on a personal level, while Blood looks at it from a larger perspective. The two books together make a nice duology, which will make for interesting reading since there are two more books in this series.

Less horror and more dark fantasy, The Living Blood is an excellent continuation of Jessica’s story from My Soul to Keep. I can see this book appealing to a wide audience — horror readers, fantasy readers, even readers of alternate history — and it’s easy to see that its roots lie in horror, but Due rises above the tropes of the genre with this book. It even has hints of the scope of A Song of Ice and Fire, especially if she continues down the path she’s forged here. I’ll be an eager reader of the rest of the series.

Started: February 11, 2018
Finished: February 25, 2018

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Nightlife

April 27, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

nightlifeNightlife by Brian Hodge

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A new drug has arrived in Florida from the deep jungles of South America, and Justin Gray, a convicted drug dealer and recovering user from St. Louis trying to make a new life for himself, is introduced to it by a local dealer. He witnesses its use in a nightclub, along with its animalistic, murderous aftereffects, and then finds himself engaged in a war with the dealer. Justin finds himself allied with a South American native and the woman with whom he is developing a relationship, along with the jungle magic that is the source of the drug’s effects….

I’m not much of a back-cover blurb writer, but that’s a decent summation of the story. Does it sound cutting-edge? New and original? Or anything else that Abyss was supposed to be in the 1990s? No? OK, good. That’s how I feel, too. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the premise, but for Abyss to follow up The Cipher, which was all those things, with this book just feels like a step backward.

Nightlife is another re-read for me, and I should note that I was a huge fan of Hodge’s after reading this book. Twenty years later, it’s still a solid read, but it’s not as good as I remember it. For one thing, Hodge uses a lot of sentence fragments in his narrative. He drops the subject of his sentences. Picking it up with the next sentence. Assuming the reader will carry the thread. To his credit, he usually makes it work, but it comes across as distracting to me. I can see a writer doing this kind of thing when the action kicks in and he’s trying to carry that frenetic pace through to the narrative, but Hodge does this a lot, even when he’s just describing a character walking into a room. It didn’t sit well with me.

The readability improves as the story progresses and the characters become clearer. The story is still pretty dated, though, with cordless phones being the newest technology. Hodge takes great pains to show his characters extending and compressing the antennas on these phones, as if it’s the most important part of a scene. I can’t blame Hodge for not including cell phones, but the rest of the story stands somewhat timelessly, so it’s jarring to run across something as antiquated as a land line.

Plus, this is a very male book. The central characters in the fight are Justin, the drug dealer, and the South American, all of whom are testosterone-laden men. They’re different in their own ways (Justin is sensitive, the drug dealer is Scarface, and the South American is a noble warrior), but they’re the focus of the battle. Angel, Justin’s love interest, plays a role, but she’s less central. It doesn’t help that a major conflict for Justin to overcome is Angel’s role in a porn film she made before they even met, or that Angel feels guilt toward Justin over it and worries that he’ll leave her over it. Hodge gives her reasons for all this, but it just feels out of place from 2018, where society is (mostly) progressive enough for this to be his problem, not hers.

Still, the story is solid, the characters are engaging, and the plot is compelling. It’s just surprising to find that a book published in 1991 has to be viewed as a product of its time the same way a book published in the 1950s should be. It has been over twenty years, but there’s still a part of me that feels like the 19-year-old reading this for the first time, and it doesn’t feel like so much has changed in that time. Maybe that’s just me complaining about getting old, though.

Started: February 13, 2018
Finished: February 25, 2018

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Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

April 26, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

hurryAstrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

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DOES WHAT IT SAYS ON THE BOX.

To wit, the book tells you pretty much everything you need to know about astrophysics. It tells you about the Big Bang, black holes, quantum mechanics, relativity, and anything else you could think about physics as it applies to the universe. Tyson avoids talking about math and formulae, focusing instead on the concepts instead of the proof. It’s a great introduction to astrophysics, though I wonder if it will prepare the reader enough to make the leap to, say, A Brief History of Time.

I listened to the audio edition of the book, narrated by the author, and it was a fun listen. Tyson has a fun charm, which carries over to how he narrates the book. For me, Carl Sagan will always be “my” astronomer, just because of my age, but Tyson does a great job relaying the larger points of his science, delivered in short, easily-understood chunks. It’s a perfect book for people who look at the title and think, “Hey, that’s me!”

Started: February 7, 2018
Finished: February 12, 2018

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The Empire Strikes Back

April 25, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

The Empire Strikes Back by Donald F. Glut

—–empire

Reading a novel that inspired a movie is one thing. You get a lot more detail and background into a story than what winds up on the screen, and it’s usually worthwhile to read a novel after (or before) seeing the movie that was inspired by it. Novelizations are different, though. You usually just get a rehash of the events from the movie, with a few extra scenes thrown in for flavor.

The Empire Strikes Back is first and foremost a novelization. It’s like reading a narrative of a screenplay, which is exactly what it is. By itself, it lacks emotion and connection, since Glut doesn’t delve any more deeply into the characters than the movie does. I would actually expect it to have more emotion, since I already have the characters and events imprinted on my brain, but somehow it still comes across as dry and inactive. Glut’s descriptions are fine, but it’s hard to tell if they’re evocative, again because of my memories of the movie. Events move quickly, and feel emotionless. This was the case with the novelization of Star Wars, too.

Strangely, I don’t remember this being the case with the prequel novelizations. Events moved quickly there, too, but I felt more of a connection with the characters. Is it due to narrative styles changing over nearly forty years, or is it because I’m more familiar with the original trilogy than I am with the prequels? I guess I won’t know for sure until I get to the novelizations of the new trilogy.

This isn’t a book I would recommend, since it doesn’t add anything new to the universe (aside from the fact that Yoda was initially supposed to be blue), and since the movie does such a better job with presenting the characters. It makes me wonder how many people still read novelizations of movies, since I haven’t come across one that does anything better than the movies themselves.

Started: February 7, 2018
Finished: February 11, 2018

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Childhood’s End

April 24, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

endChildhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

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I’ve read other Clarke classics over the years. Rendezvous with Rama stands out in my mind because it was such a let-down. I remember it being very dry, namely because it felt like Clarke was writing a scientific paper, not a book. I was hesitant going into Childhood’s End, because I didn’t want it to be another experience like that, but I had heard such good things about the book, I couldn’t resist reading it. Unfortunately, this book didn’t connect with me, either.

Childhood’s End begins with the arrival of aliens, much like the beginning of the movie Independence Day, but without the disastrous consequences. Instead, these aliens are benevolent, bringing the societies and cultures of Earth together over hundreds of years. They’re also dictators of sorts, since there are a few things they will not allow, murder and crime being some of those things. The book takes us through the events of their visit, from the beginning to the end, which occurs hundreds of years later.

The story starts out with more character, which helped me think the book wouldn’t be a repeat of Rama, but by the end of the first section of the book, the characterization had fallen apart. Clarke doesn’t give enough time to develop the characters beyond being a device through which to portray how the events would affect people, so it’s hard to get emotionally invested in what’s happening in the story. He makes an effort, by having the Overlords live long enough to bridge the span of time that separates the start of the book from the end (and relativistic time effects help one character return several hundreds of years later), but it never feels genuine. The book is divided into three distinct sections, set in different times, and I couldn’t help but feel like a trilogy of books, one for each section, would have been better. At the very least, it would have given Clarke more time to develop his characters.

The ideas behind the book are interesting, but don’t feel as revolutionary as they likely did in the 1950s when this book was first published. An important part of the story involves the people of Earth having all their needs taken care of at no personal cost, allowing them time to develop significant works of art and technology. It feels like a celebration of communism and socialism, which must have been shocking to its original readers.

Speaking of technological developments, one of the rules the Overlords is that the people of Earth cannot develop interstellar travel. As they tell us several times during the book, the stars do not belong to us. It’s a tiresome refrain, but by the end of the book, we at least know the reason why. Just don’t expect it to be an uplifting conclusion.

Like Clarke’s other works, Childhood’s End is a good idea, wrapped up in a mediocre story. I think this book will wind up being more memorable than Rama, thanks to how its ideas resonated with me at this time in my life, but it’s not a book I feel like I can recommend. Reading a summary of the story on Wikipedia would give you all you need to know about the ideas, without having to trudge through a less-than-impressive story. I guess I can see why it’s considered a classic, but it lacks the timelessness that other classics have.

Started: February 4, 2018
Finished: February 11, 2018

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Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film

April 23, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

fiendSilver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film by Patton Oswalt

Patton Oswalt. I find that people either love or hate him. He’s outspoken, ascerbic, and unrelenting, but he’s also loyal, apologetic, and self-deprecating. It’s an odd mix of characteristics, but they help to put me firmly on the “love” side of that spectrum. This was my first foray into his memoirs (on audiobook, narrated by Oswalt, which was a huge plus), and I can say that I’ll likely listen to the rest of them.

Silver Screen Fiend is his second memoir, and focuses on his rise as a comedian, actor, and person, told against the backdrop of a self-destructive obsession with movies. If you don’t know much about movies before going into this book, don’t worry: Patton will fill you in. For several years in his formative career, he was obsessed with becoming a filmmaker, enough so that he watched as many movies as possible. Armed with his movie reference guides, he pored over the history of film, finding esoteric movies at small theaters, studying techniques and styles like they were providing him life. His knowledge of classics, modern and old, is extensive, and his love of the entertainment comes through in the book.

The thing is, an obsession with watching films doesn’t equate into making them, and the more Oswalt watches films, the less he finds himself making them. In fact, for the entire time of his life he covers in this book, he doesn’t make a single film. He continues to rise as a comedian, and even gets bit parts in movies, classic and otherwise, but he never achieves the dream he had for himself for so long. That, to me, is the point of the book: Do what you say you want to do, and don’t get caught up in the research.

Silver Screen Fiend is a book that will appeal to fans of Oswalt, fans of film, and anyone who has ever let an obsession with something override the desire to do that very thing. I regret that I didn’t start with his first memoir, but I’ll definitely add it to my audiobook list.

Started: February 5, 2018
Finished: February 7, 2018

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My Soul to Keep

April 20, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

soulMy Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

—–

My Soul to Keep is another book I remember from my horror days. At the time, black writers and female writers were not well-represented in horror, so it was surprising to find a well-regarded book written by a black female author. I bought it and kept it for many years, but never got around to reading. Now, twenty years later, I found the time to read it, and I’m glad I did.

The story is about Jessica, a happily married journalist with a young daughter whose life is upturned when members of her family and friends wind up murdered. Despite her love of David, her husband, evidence keeps pointing back to him as a murderer, but what she finds there is far more significant, and far more revealing, than she would have expected. That revelation forces her to question her love for him, and the stability of her family.

The book is reminiscent of good ’90s horror. It focuses on character, plot, and development above all else, even though its themes are deeper than the standard fare of its time. For all the white male authors who dominated the genre, it’s refreshing to see a book from that time that presents a different perspective, but still fits in easily with the other books on the shelves.

The story trends more toward dark fantasy than horror, as Due’s story reveals something bigger than just an investigation into a serial killer. I don’t want to reveal too much, but the name of the series of books that starts with My Soul to Keep is a bit of a spoiler. I like how Due takes the story through these twists, without ignoring the threads that began the plot. By the end of the book, there were a few too many coincidences for me to keep from rolling my eyes, but Due’s prose and plot kept me reading enough to keep me up late to finish the story.

I was impressed with this book for several reasons, not the least of which is how well it holds up twenty years after its first publication. It could easily have been released today, among Jemisin’s and Okorafor’s classics, but it’s interesting to see how Due’s novel helped pave the way for those epic storytellers. After finishing My Soul to Keep, I went and ordered five other books of Due’s, and I can’t think of any higher praise for the author. This book is the first in a series of four, and I plan to move on the rest of the series immediately.

Started: January 27, 2018
Finished: February 6, 2018

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The Cipher

April 19, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

cipherThe Cipher by Kathe Koja

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For me, Dell/Abyss defines what horror was in the early 1990s. Stephen King blurbed the entire line, and the publisher swore the books would be cutting-edge. They could have done no better than to start with The Cipher, Koja’s first novel, featuring outcast characters and surrealistic imagery and horror.

This is a re-read for me, and I went into it with some trepidation. I remembered the book as being avant garde, Koja’s style unorthodox and confusing. It definitely remains avant garde, even twenty-plus years later, but Koja’s style was more straightforward than I recalled. She definitely breaks some grammatical rules, but not in such a way as to interrupt the flow of the story. I just found it odd that I remembered something far more unusual.

Part of it, I think, is the content of the story. Koja’s main characters, Nakota and Nicholas, aren’t likeable; Nakota is a bully, and Nicholas has no motivation. The story, though, hums along with a high level of interest when they discover a hole in their apartment building, which leads into another dimension. Koja avoids the usual tropes this would present for a science fiction story, and instead focuses on the lengths the characters go to discover more about the hole’s effects. Nakota’s interests are dark and perverse, so her obsession with the hole is in how it deforms reality, and since Nicholas is obsessed with Nakota, he follows in her interest. This is where the horror enters, since the imagery and theme do more to mess with our heads than the actual progression of the story.

The story, for all its darkness, is about the search for meaning. Nakota looks for it through the hole, and Nicholas looks for it through Nakota. This microcosm is affected by the hole, and as this relationship grows more complicated, so do the effects of the hole, and their search for meaning becomes more important. It’s hard to say whether or not they find it, but the story doesn’t feel incomplete as a result. I give it 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 because it was so far ahead of its time.

The Cipher could easily be a part of the modern new horror, with its surrealism and nihilism. Koja definitely started, or was part of, that revolution, and she tells an effective tale here. It’s hard to recommend it because it comes at the reader so strongly, but folks who like stories about characters on the fringe of society would find a lot to like here. At the very least, it’s affirmed my decision to read through all of the Abyss books to see how they hold up so many years later.

Started: January 31, 2018
Finished: February 3, 2018

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Five Stories High

April 18, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

fiveFive Stories High, edited by Jonathan Oliver

—–

If not for Tade Thompson, I never would have read this book. When I was looking for the rest of his books after reading Molly Southbourne, this one bubbled up, and when I saw that K.J. Parker was also a contributor, I knew I was going to have to read it. Two of my new favorite authors writing ghost stories? Sign me up!

The book features five stories, all interconnected through a single house, where strange things happen. The editor weaves a sixth story among the rest, through interludes, but the stories all occur in the same place. Nina Allen introduces us to Irongrove Lodge through her novella Maggots, which is a disconcerting look at how difficult it would be to replace someone in your life. It’s an effective piece, and it highlights how focusing a lot of attention on the ordinary and mundane can raise the tension, as the reader asks himself, “What’s so important about this plain old stuff that the author wants us to see it in such great detail?”

Parker’s story follows, and could easily have been set among his other novellas featuring Saloninus. Priest’s Hole is, as far as I know, Parker’s only non-fantasy work under that name, even though it reads exactly like his fantasy work. That it’s set in the modern day is so weird, though. Parker still sets up his story for a nice, unexpected dunk shot, but where those endings felt so profound and emotional in Purple and Gold and Mightier than the Sword, here it felt anticlimactic and confusing. The motivation of the character didn’t fit with his personality, and I found myself questioning why he would do what he did.

Thompson’s story, Gnaw, is smack in the center of the collection, and is easily the best of the bunch. It’s creepy af, and is full of foreboding atmosphere and disturbing imagery. I think it helped that I read this story all in one sitting (the others took me a couple of days at least to finish), but it reminded me a lot of what worked so well in Molly Southbourne. I’d be totally fine if Thompson decided to focus just on horror for the rest of his career.

The next story, The Best Story I Can Manage Under the Circumstances, was by a new-to-me author named Robert Shearman. It’s a strange story, reminiscent of the “new wave” of horror, but here the surrealism of the story eludes me. The story feels random and pointless, but at the same time, it feels clear that the author had something in mind for this story by writing it. What it is, though, is beyond me. I can’t even remember many of the details, save for it having an irreverent tone.

Skin Deep by Sarah Lotz concludes the collection, and it reminded me a lot of Wylding Hall, in that it’s a recollection of past events by several different people. Lotz captures the different voices well, and does a good job of having us believe the victim is innocent. She gets an assist from the other stories in the volume, since by now we know Irongrove Lodge is up to something, enough so that this would have read differently had it been the first story in the collection. The story fails a bit by bringing in the character everyone else is talking about and giving us her perspective, but it works well in every other respect.

The linking story, written by the editor, doesn’t add anything to the collection, and I feel like the book would have been better off without it. There’s also a lot less haunting than I would have expected based on how the book is marketed, but the stories still have a disconcerting edge, especially Thompson’s contribution. I’m not sure how well these stories would read separately, since the later stories seem to build off of what’s come before, but they’re all available individually if you just want to read the stories by the authors you know you like.

Started: January 22, 2018
Finished: January 30, 2018

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Razor’s Edge

April 17, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

edgeRazor’s Edge by Martha Wells

—–

I have a friend who has been pushing me to read Martha Wells, so I was pleased to see that she had contributed a novel to the Star Wars universe. I figured it would give me a chance to see what she can do, without having to put any of my other reading projects on hold, since this was the next book in the chronology. The good news is I’m impressed with what she can do.

This book is the second of a planned trilogy called Rebellion and Empire, each one featuring one of the three central characters from the original movies: Luke, Leia, and Han. Razor’s Edge features Leia, but where Honor Among Thieves was an all-Han novel, Razor’s Edge features all three characters. The story is still Leia’s, though, since the story focuses on Alderaanian pirates and how the destruction of the planet, and Leia’s role in the Rebellion, affect them, before and after they meet her in the story. The events become more involved as the story progresses, but that theme pervades much of the novel, and that’s the how and why this book is Leia’s story.

After finishing the book, though, I didn’t feel that way. I felt like Leia got the shaft here, that she deserved a better story than this one, and that the story was serviceable, but not memorable. It took me some time thinking about the story and its themes before I realized that Leia was the focus here, and that her actions were important. It’s more subtle than what Corey did with Honor Among Thieves, and it also make me think this will be the book I remember most out of this trilogy after months and years have passed.

If this is a sampling of what Martha Wells can do, then I look forward to reading more of her books. Thanks to that friend, I’ve already added more of her books to my to-read stack. Now I just have to work the rest of them into all of my different reading projects.

Started: January 19, 2018
Finished: January 27, 2018

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