Paper Girls: Volume 4

May 31, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

girlsPaper Girls: Volume 4 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

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Finally, we get some answers! Vaughan has been raising more and more questions with each volume, and with Volume 4, we start to see what’s going on. We don’t get all of our questions answered, but we at least start to see some of what is happening behind the scenes.

This is the second time in the series that we see one of the paper girls interacting with her older self, and I hope this isn’t going to be a trend. It was cool and funky and startling the first time it happened, but the second time around, it feels a little stale. Will each of the girls run into her older self at some point in the story? If so, will the whole device grow tired?

I still like what’s happening in this series, so it’s not like I’m going to stop reading based on that one sticking point. I’ve just grown accustomed to Vaughan writing strong, strange, thoughtful stories, so I expect something more than just retreading an old device. I’m just glad we’re starting to get a better understanding of the bigger picture; I vowed at the end of the last collection that if he didn’t start revealing something of the story by now, I’d stop reading.

Started: April 14, 2018
Finished: April 14, 2018

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Harrow County: Dark Times a’Coming

May 30, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

darkHarrow County: Dark Times a’Coming by Cullen Bunn & Tyler Crook

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Things are moving quickly in Harrow County. Emmy is struggling to maintain the haints while Beatrice is testing her own powers, all while the Family is moving to usurp Emmy, and Hester Beck’s return is imminent. Does it feel like things are coming to a conclusion? If so, that’s no surprise; Harrow County is ending with its next arc.

This news was a surprise to me, since I don’t follow the titles I read outside of when the next collection is due to be released. It also saddens me, because this series (aside from one collection that seemed superfluous) was strong, with realized characters and smart, thematic horror. Harrow County has been Good Horror since the start, and that’s a hard thing to find in recent years.

So, if you like horror, if you like Good Horror, and you haven’t read Harrow County yet, get on it. You’re missing out, and since the series will be ending before the end of the summer, you have a chance to binge through all of it in one sitting. You won’t be disappointed.

Started: April 14, 2018
Finished: April 14, 2018

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Obsessed

May 29, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

obsessedObsessed by Rick R. Reed

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What’s the worst book you’ve ever read?

(I know thinking about it makes you angry, but bear with me.)

Hold the image of that worst book in your head. Think about what made it so bad. Was it weak characterization? Characters who did things that made no sense? Or was it full of inane detail that didn’t do anything for the story? Was it a tired, overused plot?

I don’t know what your worst book is, but I can assure you that Obsessed is worse than that.

Obsessed is one of those books you use to justify writing that novel you’ve put off for years, because if something this bad could get published — by Abyss, no less! — then there’s nothing holding you back.

Started: April 9, 2018
Finished: April 13, 2018

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Joplin’s Ghost

May 28, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

joplinJoplin’s Ghost by Tananarive Due

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I’ve enjoyed Due’s novels so far, but I wasn’t expecting to read Joplin’s Ghost so soon. I’ve been working my way through her African Immortals series, but when I started the fourth book, it felt like the characters in the beginning were supposed to be familiar, even though I hadn’t met them before. Then, near the end of the prologue, there was a mention of Scott Joplin, and I realized that Due was pulling two of her stories together for this book. Since I like reading these things in order, I figured I needed to set My Soul to Take aside and read Joplin’s Ghost to get caught up.

The story is about Phoenix Smalls, a singer who’s on the brink of superstardom when she starts having visions of Scott Joplin, the early 20th Century ragtime composer. It’s no spoiler to note that she’s being haunted by Joplin’s ghost, but how Due handles the haunting is pretty brilliant. The story shifts back and forth from modern times to Joplin’s day, telling both their stories. There’s a parallel between their lives that drives the haunting, but Due makes that parallel thematic as she examines how creators balance their desire to make art with their need to make money.

I prefer Joplin’s story to Phoenix’s, namely because Due includes a gangsta rap subplot in the modern day that doesn’t do much for me. The story does better when it focuses on the two of them, and while the subplot plays an important role in Phoenix’s story, it feels a little cliched and stereotypical. Due has shown over multiple novels that she eschews cliches and stereotypes, so it felt strange seeing them in this book.

I’ve enjoyed Due’s African Immortals series, but I really enjoyed Joplin’s Ghost. She notes in her afterword that she did a lot of research into Joplin’s life, and it shows. She realizes his character well, as well as Phoenix’s, and as their stories intertwine, she story shines its brightest.

Started: March 30, 2018
Finished: April 12, 2018

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Widow’s Point

May 25, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

point

Widow’s Point by Richard Chizmar & Billy Chizmar

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The “found footage” horror story has been done to death. I saw The Blair Witch Project in the theaters twenty-nine years ago, and even then, it wasn’t an original idea. I get that writers like to go back and do their own version of their own genre’s tropes, but where some authors can make the story original enough off of style alone (Stephen King’s “1408”, for example), the Chizmars can’t quite give this story the depth or presentation Widow’s Point needs to make it stand above the other examples.

The story is about an author, Thomas Livingston, who writes nonfiction books about the supernatural, and arranges to spend the weekend in a lighthouse with a checkered history. The site of suicides and murders, the lighthouse has been fenced off for years, since even trespassers have a habit of ending up dead. Livingston, looking for his next bestseller, and against the advice of the owner of the property, moves in to record his experiences on camera and audio. The story is told through those notes, which, of course, are the only things recovered from the lighthouse at the end of the weekend.

Widow’s Point has some effective scenes, both in imagery and atmosphere, since the Chizmars are going more to unsettle than to scare. Some of the details from the story will stay with me, but I can’t say that the characters will. Thomas is an unlikable character (he’s intended to be so), so the events feel somewhat removed, so I can recognize the effectiveness of the events, but not the effectiveness of the story. We learn the history of the lighthouse through Thomas’ residency, and it’s interesting, but without that connection through the character, the story reads more like a “nonfiction” account rather than a ghost story. Maybe that’s intentional. Regardless, the story remains a little flat.

This novella was published by Cemetery Dance, Richard Chizmar’s own publishing house, and he’s described as a “NYT Bestselling Author” in the blurb. While technically true, it seems disingenous not to note that he received that accolade for being the coauthor of a Stephen “The Reason Why ANY Co-Author Would Be a NYT Bestselling Author” King novella. Either way, this novella feels like it’s been self-published, and that Billy is Richard’s son, this feels way more self-promotional than I like. I’m still looking forward to A Long December, though.

Started: April 8, 2018
Finished: April 8, 2018

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Prodigal

May 24, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

prodigal

Prodigal by Melanie Tem

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Two names seem to still have some clout from the Dell/Abyss line: Kathe Koja is one; Melanie Tem is the other. Both are known as authors who write unusual books that are more about unsettling than scaring, and are (so far, at least) closer to the “cutting edge” that the publisher claimed these books would be. Prodigal was Tem’s first novel, and it shows what to expect with her career.

The story is about a family of nine who, as the story opens, is still recovering from their oldest son, who has run away. Told from the point of view of Lucy, the third-oldest child who is eleven years old, we get a somewhat skewed look at the state of the family. We see the grief and the denial of the parents, the anger and confusion of the children, and the interference of the family’s therapist, but through the eyes of a character who doesn’t have the maturity to understand much of what she sees. She’s still in the “I hate you!” stage of her emotional development, and as her family slowly crumbles around her, we see a pattern emerge among the oldest children and how they relate to their parents and their therapist.

Prodigal is not out-and-out horror. It contains disturbing imagery and characters, but Tem gives us hints at things being not right, as opposed to giving us the shock of the monsters fully revealed. Events are ordinary, but hardly mundane, and when Tem does show us events that aren’t normal, or even natural, they stand out even more against the backdrop of the family. Her horrors stand in as representations of the Brill family dynamic, but since they’re told to us from Lucy’s perspective, we know that they’re actually happening, since she’s not old enough to understand allegory or metaphor.

This book is another re-read for me, but I didn’t remember any details of the story as I read it. This doesn’t surprise me; when I read this book for the first time, I was looking for out-and-out horror, and I’m sure it disappointed me. Like Lucy, then I didn’t have the maturity and experience to recognize the book for being as effective as it is, but now, I can recognize it as the achievement it is. Prodigal, almost thirty years after its first publication, is still relevant.

Started: April 2, 2018
Finished: April 8, 2018

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Armada

May 23, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

armadaArmada by Ernest Cline

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Yes, yes, this is a blatant rip-off of The Last Starfighter. I think that’s been pointed out often enough that I shouldn’t repeat it, but I don’t want anyone to think I missed it. I don’t see how anyone could, though, since somewhere in the first few chapters, Cline mentions that the whole thing sounds like The Last Starfighter. Had this been some sort of homage or pastiche, I could understand, but no, he just keeps on going with his story like it’s no big deal.

Now, since this is an Ernest Cline novel, it’s chock full of ’80s pop culture references. The thing is, in Ready Player One, they were useful for the story; here, they’re just shoved in. Cline makes sure we know that the main character is obsessing over his dad, who died when he was young, and was himself an ’80s pop culture geek, but it doesn’t ring true that this guy (and his friends!) would be quoting so much from that time. It feels forced and gratuitous, and doesn’t serve any purpose to the story.

To Cline’s credit, he does go outside the Last Starfighter trope and doesn’t make this a straight carbon copy, but not enough to save the story. The characterization is uneven (like RP1, the only important character here is the narrator; everyone else is just there to support him) and even inconsistent, and the storytelling style feels awkward. The main character’s mother didn’t even feel realistic, since she’s the perfect mom for someone of the narrator’s age — hot, cool, and understanding. I don’t want him to go to the other end of the cliche and make her the overbearing stereotype, but somewhere in the middle would be nice. Like I said, though, she’s not important to the story, save to let him keep working at the local game store and playing games during all his available free time.

I get that fiction is wish fulfillment on the part of the author, but there’s a not-so-fine line between wish fulfillment and Mary Sue-ing. I enjoyed the hell out of RP1 when I first read it (though I now view it from the perspective of the other side of Gamergate and Gatekeeping), but I think it’s safe to say that Wade and Zack are stand-ins for Cline. It’s a readable book, but it doesn’t have any staying power, thanks to the poor narrative and the hand-waving (and very sudden) ending. That this was titled Armada: A novel by the author of Ready Player One tells you enough about how the publishers felt was the best way to sell this book.

Started: March 24, 2018
Finished: April 1, 2018

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Specters

May 22, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

spectersSpecters by J.M. Dillard

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Even twenty-seven years ago, books about child molester serial killers were cliched. That premise doesn’t automatically mean a story using it would be terrible, but Specters doesn’t do much original with that idea. That this was one of the first books published under the “Cutting Edge” of the Dell/Abyss line is that much more disappointing.

To be fair, Dillard does a good job with the story. She writes well, and her characterization is convincing. Bruder, the antagonist, could have been evil simply because he molests children, but Dillard doesn’t rely on just that to make him evil. He’s a bad person because he lacks empathy and treats people as disposable; the whole molesting children thing is just an extension of all that. He begins to break down toward the end of the story, but that could be because the author is making him more and more unstable as his insanity goes deeper and deeper. The parts didn’t cohere into a solid enough story for me.

Dillard also plays around with the idea of the story being a supernatural one, since Bruder sees ghosts or he could be seeing hallucinations brought on by his own deeds. It’s vague enough that the reader can try to guess, but then she also gives the two protagonists (twins) a psychic connection. So it suggests that the supernatural is real in the story, even though it would be more effective to have us guess at Bruder’s ghosts.

Specters is definitely better than Dusk, and doesn’t smack of ’80s/’90s-misogynistic horror like Nightlife threatens to do in places, but I don’t see this as being on the level of what Dell/Abyss promised. So far, it seems like the books from the line written by women hold up better than those by men, but I’m only four books into this project so far. We’ll see.

Started: March 20, 2018
Finished: March 30, 2018

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The Power

May 21, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

powerThe Power by Naomi Alderman

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I was stoked to read this book. I had heard a lot of good about it leading up to its US release, and when I did finally get it, my wife read it first and loved it. She wanted to re-read it as soon as she finished it. She gave it five stars. She wanted me to hurry up and read it so we could talk about it. So of course I did.

I like the premise of this book. It’s a lofty one, feminist and thoughtful, and I walked away from the book feeling like it was a necessary read. “Necessary”, though, doesn’t mean “Favorite”. I just didn’t love it as much as my wife did.

Part of it could be the simple reason that I’m male. Though I don’t use my position to hold power over others, and though I never use my privilege against others, I can’t deny that it’s never happened simply because I haven’t actively done it. I have a habit of smiling and saying hello to people as I pass them in the hallways at work. Men don’t always respond; women, I noticed, almost always respond with at least a smile. After several months of observing this, it dawned on me that women might feel like they have to respond, thanks to hundreds of years of cultural conditioning where they learned that snubbing a man’s attention could be dangerous. Men, however, have the luxury of receiving or ignoring attention from anyone else without the risk of harm.

The Power takes the idea of women suddenly having the ability to control electricity, and how that simple act begins to shift the balance of power from men to women. Alderman has a good idea here, but I can’t help but feel like her approach is heavy-handed. This idea, written by a different author (like Margaret Atwood, who blurbs the book), could have been a fantastic read. Alderman’s version, though, feels more like a hammer to the temple than a gentle shock to the extremities.

Alderman frames her story through four characters — three women and one man — who approach this shift in power in different ways. One woman becomes a religious leader; another uses her power to wrest control of a family dynasty into her hands; the third woman is a politician who uses the power to rise to her own power, even as she attempts to hide her own abilities. The man, a reporter, documents the shift in power from other countries, but still believes that his privilege will carry him through the shift without harm. Alderman uses him to represent the minority, and shows how limiting and oppressive it can be to be in that position, but wisely uses him to portray the male arrogance that has a hard time going away.

One thing I liked about Alderman’s approach is that she doesn’t create a utopia out of a female-led society. It would have been easy to make the shift in power resolve all the problems, but she instead shows how power can corrupt whoever has that power. We see the same problems arise in the matriarchy as we see now in the patriarchy. I hesitate to call it a dystopian novel, since all it is is a reverse reflection of our current times, but then again, I’m a straight white male; as bad as things get in this society, I’m still in pretty good shape. Maybe to those without the power, our current society is a dystopia.

The book lacks a certain subtlety that could make this a five-star book for me. I didn’t like the religious plot, and I felt like the framing device of the book being a manuscript written by a man sent to the author for review only hammered home some of the points Alderman made through the narrative. It gave her a chance to put in a last dig at the current state of things by asking the author if he considered publishing it under a female name, but I feel like she could have covered that in the story itself. As such, I rate the book 3.5 stars, rounded up to four because this does feel like an important book.

Started: March 18, 2018
Finished: March 29, 2018

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Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

May 18, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

dotPale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan

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I read something recently about Carl Sagan and atheism. I always suspected he was adamantly atheist, but it turns out that he avoided labeling himself as such. In short, Sagan’s position was that he didn’t have enough evidence to say God didn’t exist, so he couldn’t say for certain that he wasn’t. Those close to him said that he was as close to atheist as one could get without using the word, but that he didn’t do so tells us a lot about how he viewed the world — with evidence.

Pale Blue Dot seems, to me, to focus heavily on atheism. The “Pale Blue Dot” soliloquy (if you haven’t read it, look it up; it’s freely available on the web) strongly suggests it, and Sagan himself dances around the idea that there is no God, even though he never comes straight out and says so. He looks at how our Solar System developed, how life developed on Earth, and how we’ve explored the Solar System, all from a very humanist, look-what-we’ve-accomplished perspective. Most of the book is Sagan explaining how we explored and examined our Solar System, but the first two chapters take a very careful, affirming look at atheism.

As much as I enjoyed learning about the other planets and how we explored them, I found myself missing the historical, philosophical perspective Sagan brought to science through Cosmos. Where there is history to discuss, Sagan does so, but it’s not on as grand of a scale as it is in his most famous book. We learn of the search for life in the Solar System, the highs and lows of discoveries and failures, and the persistence of humanity to want to get the answers to the question, “What’s out there?”

Four years ago, when we landed Philae on comet 67P/Churyamov-Gerasimenko, I said to some co-workers, “Humanity just landed a science lab on a comet traveling over 41,000 miles per hour, over 317,000,000 miles from Earth.” I was excited and inspired, seeing what the combined intellects of so many people from so many different countries could accomplish, and it was probably as close as I’ll ever get to a religious experience. One doesn’t need religion to feel inspiration or affirmation; sometimes we can get it from our major accomplishments. This, I think, is what Sagan is telling us through Pale Blue Dot.

Started: March 16, 2018
Finished: March 28, 2018

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