A Little Gray Book of Shadows

September 10, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

shadowsA Little Gray Book of Shadows by William F. Nolan

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I found out about Borderlands Press’s Little Book series way too late to get in on a full collection, but they’ve published some short story collections by some pretty heavy hitters, including Laird Barron, Joe Hill, Joe Lansdale, and Neil Gaiman. When the publisher announced their newest wave of Little Books, they hinted at getting one from Stephen King, so of course I jumped on the chance to get a set. A Little Gray Book of Shadows is the first in this latest line of collections, and it contains seven stories by the writer best known for co-writing Logan’s Run.

The first story, “Saturday’s Shadow”, was a little puzzling to me. It’s a story about obsessions, tied in with movies, but it was hard to say whose obsession this was, since the narrator is unreliable. He described the hallucinations as someone else’s, but it’s clear the narrator is unhinged, too. It didn’t do much for me, and it didn’t help that the style used a lot of parenthetical asides that threw off the pace of the narrative.

“Vympyre” follows, and is more a prose poem than an actual story. It’s about a vampire’s “life” passing before his eyes as he dies a true death, and he reflects back on all the history he’s seen during his existence. It’s fine, but it’s nothing spectacular.

The next story, “Lonely Train A’Comin'”, is a more traditional story, and starts out strong. He captures the emotion of a character whose sister has gone missing, and is grieving her loss. The story peters out toward the end, and rushes to a conclusion that’s not all that satisfying, but given how well Nolan captured his main character at the beginning of the story, it’s well worth the read.

Next is “The Partnership”, an odd story that, honestly, feels pretty pointless. It’s grisly and disturbing, but not for any particular reason. It’s not splatterpunk, but neither is it a subtle take on the genre that will settle with you long after you finish the story. It’s just kind of blah.

“The Yard” is the next story, and is fairly forgettable. I read it just last night, and had to struggle to remember the details just to write this review. If this had any point of meaning beyond just being a horror story, it went over my head.

Then there’s “Dead Call”, which is about a character receiving a call from a friend who died the previous week. It’s not an original premise, but what Nolan does with the idea is actually interesting. It doesn’t have a strong finish, but it’s a short, shocking story that manages to get under your skin without any violence or gore.

“Alex” concludes the collection, and is the only original story of the seven. It’s a strange story, because it’s either an homage to Stephen King, or a fictional gripe against the author’s success. The tone doesn’t make it clear, so it’s hard to tell what point Nolan was trying to make with the story.

Like any short story collection, Shadows has its hits and misses. For the most part, I’m not the audience for short stories, but I do appreciate a good, effective story when it packs the right punch. This collection just doesn’t hit that mark for me, but Nolan is a well-respected author, and the reprints were taken from well-regarded anthologies. I’m perfectly willing to admit that it’s just me.

Started: September 4, 2018
Finished: September 5, 2018

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Black in Time

September 7, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

blackBlack in Time by John Jakes

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OK, how can anyone know this book exists and not want to read it? We have John Jakes, famous historical novelist, who wrote a novel set in the 1970s about a black militant and a white supremacist chasing each other through history trying to keep the other from creating his own version of utopia. Isn’t this pretty much begging to be read?

I mean, let’s be honest: This is a terrible idea. It’s a decent enough premise, sure, but a white man writing what is, in effect, a blaxploitation novel is a terrible idea. The black characters like fried chicken, they jive talk, they know karate … as much as Jakes is trying to be progressive, he relies a whole lot of stereotypes when writing his black characters. In his foreword to the book (the edition I read was a reprint), Jakes notes that he’s proud of the book, but even that was written in 1980. I wonder what he thinks of the book now.

Beyond that, though, this isn’t even that great of a time travel novel. Jakes plays fast and loose with the whole changing-the-past-affects-the-future aspect of the story. By the end, he shows what a black utopia would look like (don’t forget those stereotypes), but other, minor things, like taking and using a handgun in the 6th century BC, or someone attempting to strangle Ben Franklin at a public appearance, don’t have an effect. I don’t imagine they would change the timline, but surely a history book or two would change based on this stuff, right?

Given that the book focuses on race relations, and has a main character who’s a white supremacist, one should expect some offensive language. Aside from the liberal use of the N-word, Jakes has the white supremacist (Billy Roy Whisk, which is an excellent name for such a character) talk about trying to kill “Martin Luther Coon” before he has a chance to start his movement. And to be fair, Jakes doesn’t come across as someone who endorses such language; he’s giving all that to the characters we’re supposed to despise. I’m just giving potential readers full warning.

Parts of it are a little hard to understand, since he’s using slang that was common in 1970, but the context makes it easy to understand what he’s saying. The only time I was unsure was when he used the word “scrogged” to describe how a character took out a guard. I wasn’t sure if that meant killed or just knocked unconscious, but within a page, it was made clear. Plus, I have a new word to add to my vocabulary!

Despite all that, the story is readable, and if you can stomach how cheesy and dated much of the book is, it’s pretty entertaining. Granted, much of my entertainment came from chuckling at how bad it was, but it was enough to keep me rating the book just one star. I would actually recommend it to people, but more as a curiosity than a book that will change someone’s life. It’s one of those “If you want to read this based on the title alone, you’re good” kinds of books.

Started: September 2, 2018
Finished: September 4, 2018

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Hard Merchandise

September 6, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

merchandiseHard Merchandise by K.W. Jeter

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*yawn*

For better or for worse, I have committed myself to reading all of the Star Wars books. Some have been exceptional, most have been mediocre, but only one so far has been downright bad and embarrassing to read. Jeter’s entire Bounty Hunter Wars trilogy, though, is the first one I’ve read that was outright boring.

The characters in this series are flat, the plots are unengaging, and the action is more likely to put you to sleep than to keep you interested. It’s a shame, too, because Jeter’s ideas are pretty cool, and his outlook on the Expanded Universe is a bit darker than expected, but he doesn’t do much with those ideas. It doesn’t help that the character everyone probably wants to read about — Boba Fett — feels more like an incidental character, since Dengar and Neelah come across as the central characters for the entire series.

Speaking of Neelah, at one point in the book, around the 100-page mark, Jeter refers to her as “the female Neelah”, which threw me. Irrespective of the fact that this is the final book in a trilogy, in which she’s featured prominently in the story, this isn’t even her first appearance in this book, where she’s already been established as female. Why make such an odd distinction in the narrative? It wasn’t even a quote; it was part of the narrative.

I’ve been more engaged reading program code, or watching a PowerPoint presentation, than I was reading this trilogy. It’s just terrible, moreso because it had the potential to be something a lot better. I wouldn’t recommend this book or series at all.

Started: August 21, 2018
Finished: September 2, 2018

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A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts

September 5, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

moonA Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin

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I’ve been fascinated by space and space travel since I was a kid. I used to have a copy of Our Universe, and it became one of my most-read, most dog-eared books, since I would pore over it any chance I had. When I was browsing Audible looking for my next audiobook, I stumbled across this one, and figured it would be a good way to pass the time driving to and from work. It wound up not just being a good choice, but the best choice.

Chaikin approaches the story of the missions in an interesting way, focusing on whatever makes the next mission different from the next. He covers in great details the minutiae of the journey to and from the Moon with Apollo 8, the first mission to complete the trip, but by the time he gets to Apollo 11, he skips those parts and focuses solely on the landing and the moon walks. Apollo 13 is covered in great detail, since the mission was one of survival, not of achievement, and the later missions were covered by their moon walks and goals, which grew with each subsequent mission.

The author takes a risk by writing about the Apollo missions in order, since Apollo 1 resulted in the fire that killed three astronauts. It’s a downer of a story, and isn’t the best one to capture the hope and glory that surrounded later missions. Still, this was how the Apollo program happened in real life, and the program opened with this tragedy, which is tragic not just due to the loss of three lives, but due to what it represented to the program, the organization, and even the country. The loss of the mission was as huge as the loss of life, and Chaikin captures that well in his telling of the story.

Chaikin writes about the astronauts and other key figures of Mission Control and the program overall as they become relevant to the story. He tends to focus on their characters, touching on other related people in their lives only briefly. He mentions that one astronaut from the early mission had a wife who turned to alcohol to help deal with the stress of being an astronaut’s wife, but he doesn’t mention how — or if — that was something ever resolved. Chaikin keeps his focus on the astronauts themselves. This makes sense based on his source material (he interviewed all of the astronauts to research the book), but at the same time, these are important facts about the story that are never discussed beyond bringing them to our attention. Wives, children, and support staff are only mentioned when it’s relevant to the astronauts’ stories.

One thing that threw me about the narrative was how Chaikin would write about events from the past, as if they were happening at that moment. He would sometimes use words like “yesterday” or “tomorrow” or “later” to describe a different event, even though the rest of the story was told in the past tense. It was an odd choice (why not “the previous day” or “the next day”?), and it’s not something that happened all the time, but it was frequent enough to raise my eyebrows.

Bronson Pinchot narrated the audiobook, and I don’t think there’s a better narrator they could have chosen for the book. When the story gets tense, he narrates with excitement and breathlessness; when the story tells of the astronauts’ reactions to the grandeur of space and the Moon, his voice becomes soft and awestruck; when the story covers life-and-death decisions that must be made quickly, Pinchot tells us so quickly, frenetically. He doesn’t just tell the story, he performs it, and I’ve about decided that I will listen to any audiobook if Pinchot is narrating it.

The book concludes with an epilogue that shares what the Apollo astronauts did with their lives after going to the moon. It’s an enlightening finish, as some of them became religious, others dropped out of space aeronautics all together, and others dropped out of the public life all together. Only one of the astronauts would stay with NASA long enough to participate in the space shuttle missions, while the bulk of them moved on to business ventures as wide-ranging as real estate to becoming CEOs. It helps to show how grounded the astronauts were, and how their trips to the moon were as much of a job to them as the rest of us have to our own daily grind.

A Man on the Moon is a book for anyone fascinated with space or history or engineering or dedication. We’re nearing the 50th anniversary of the first moon walk, and when we reach that date, it will have been forty-seven years since we last sent someone to the Moon. By then, it will be forty-seven years since we sent a person to any other object in our solar system. As Chaikin writes in his afterword, “How could the most futuristic thing humans have ever done be so far in the past?”

Started: August 8, 2018
Finished: August 30, 2018

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Serafina and the Black Cloak

September 4, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

serafinaSerafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

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I lived in and around Asheville, NC for several years in my twenties, so when I first heard about Serafina and the Black Cloak, I figured it would be a matter of time before I read it. Set at the Biltmore Estate during the turn of the century and having a supernatural angle, the story seemed like it would hit all of my interests, and I was surprised it took me a few years to get to it. I think I could have waited a lot longer and it wouldn’t have bothered me.

The book isn’t bad, necessarily — it flows well, and has compelling characters — but it feels clunky. It’s clearly a juvenile book, since it lacks some subtlety in its storytelling. The characters and themes are drawn with broad strokes, and the plot feels more like it’s just loping along from one point to another instead of feeling developed and fleshed out. Plus, the big secret about Serafina becomes obvious at about the quarter-length point of the book, but Beatty doesn’t come out and tell us directly about it until near the end. I’ve heard “But it’s a kids’ book” as a defense, but it’s hard to claim that anymore, when the Harry Potter series raised the bar for how complex and subtle a juvenile book can be.

Beatty’s narrative is also a bit awkward in places, particularly in his similes. When he goes with the story and lets the plot unfold on its own, it’s fine, but then he throws in something like “Her corset felt like Satan’s bony hand…”, and the whole thing falls apart. I think authors are trying so hard not to write cliches that they come up with something so ridiculous that it doesn’t make sense, and pulls the reader right out of the story. Nick Cutter’s The Troop was another story that did that, though admittedly, Black Cloak isn’t that bad.

Serafina and the Black Cloak is the first in a trilogy, and while I enjoyed how Beatty wrapped up the characters in this story, I don’t feel the need to read the rest of the series. For one, now that Serafina’s secret (such as it is) has been revealed, that mystery won’t carry the story any more. For another, the story simply doesn’t wow me enough to make me want to continue. I’m somewhat curious to see how some of the relationships develop over the series, but I’d be satisfied just to read a summary of the next two books to see how they’re resolved.

Started: August 27, 2018
Finished: August 29, 2018

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Lost Futures

September 3, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

futuresLost Futures by Lisa Tuttle

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Lost Futures is the sixteenth book in the Abyss imprint, and is one I recall as being one of my favorites back when I read them in the early 1990s. I was so excited to re-read it, even as I had a feeling I was carrying too much nostalgia for the book, and was setting myself up for disappointment. I’m happy to say that I came out of this thinking that it was still a solid, effective read.

This is a book about choices: the permanent, irrevocable choices of our past and how they affect our future. Claire, the main character, is living a lackluster life, one filled with a brother who died due in part to her neglect when she was younger, a string of ex-boyfriends who either left or were pushed away, and a job that pays the bills, but doesn’t excite her. When she starts getting glimpses of other versions of her life, where she made different choices, she begins thinking of them as alternate universes based on quantum physics. In short, whenever a choice is made, the universe splits to accomodate realities where one choice was made, and another for a different choice. It’s the Schroedinger’s Cat thought experiment, on a grander scale.

So, Lost Futures is more science fiction than one would expect from the Abyss imprint, but it’s still horror, because Tuttle looks at the realization that our past is fixed, no matter what. We can struggle with the agony of missed chances or poor choices, but eventually we have to come to terms with our choices instead of dwelling on what could have been. Plus, as the story progresses, we start to wonder which personality is reality, and whether or not what Claire is experiencing is real, or all in her mind. Tuttle plays with that convention very well.

Things happen quickly in the book. The idea of alternate universes is revealed in chapter two, so the story isn’t about working up to that reveal; instead, we’re looking at Claire’s self-examination for much of the story. Early on, Tuttle creates a strong friendship between Claire and Sophie, an old college roommate, but she drops that thread by the end of the book, which I feel is a disservice to that relationship. Aside from being a positive representation of female friendships, Tuttle has Claire focus instead on the man with whom she wants to have a relationship. Even though we only have a brief glimpse at that character, the relationship between Claire and Sophie felt stronger, more significant, and should have been revisited.

Lost Futures is a thoughtful book, and is a good representation of what the Abyss imprint was trying to do: focusing on internal horror instead of demons and other ghoulies. It appears to have gained a cult status since its first publication, and was even nominated for a couple of literary awards the year it was released. I’m pleased to see that it holds up as well as it did the first time I read it, nearly twenty years ago.

Started: August 21, 2018
Finished: August 26, 2018

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I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land

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

travellerI Met a Traveller in an Antique Land by Connie Willis

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I’ll read anything Connie Willis publishes. In addition, she’s a writer who goes right to the top of my reading list when I get a new book of hers. That’s a small list of authors for me, but Willis has proven time and again she’s at the top of her game, and it looks like she’s going to be there for a long time.

I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, unfortunately, is not her strongest work. For an author who excels at characterization and complex plots, this novella feels oddly straightfoward, and is even rather heavy-handed. Our narrator, Jim, a professional blogger whose expertise is supporting obsolescence (?), stumbles across what he thinks is a bookstore while trying to escape the rain in New York City. The rest of the story is Jim discovering the secret behind the bookstore (which holds hundreds of thousands of books, which his guide continues to tell him aren’t for sale).

The thing is, Willis makes it obvious what that secret is, so we’re along for the ride while his guide goes on a rant about how libraries get rid of books that don’t get used, or how people throw out old books because they don’t see any value in them, or how books just waste away over time. As a reader, I understand where Willis comes from in that argument; as a librarian, though, I don’t understand what she expects libraries to do. She delivers a passionate argument, but she doesn’t offer any alternatives to weeding a library collection, other than to create a fantasy library that solves the problem she sees. I was never hesitant to discard materials from the library when they no longer served a purpose (seriously, who needs a book on DOS 3.0 in the 21st century, or a book about professional frisbee players from the 1970s?), so the point of this novella didn’t hit the mark with me.

Despite that, this novella is exactly what Willis fans would expect from her. It contains books, has a lovestruck character, and a large part of the story centers on a comedy of errors. It’s just not her best work. Compared with the brilliance of Doomsday Book or Bellwether or Lincoln’s Dreams, Traveller falls flat because it doesn’t contain those elements that best define her books. Existing fans will devour the story, and enjoy it, but I can’t help but feel like they’ll finish the book wanting to re-read one of her earlier, better works. This novella is like hearing the cover of a favorite song on the radio and wishing you could hear the original instead.

Started: August 26, 2018
Finished: August 26, 2018

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The Black God’s Drums

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

drumsThe Black God’s Drums by Djèlí P. Clark

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Set in a steampunk, post-Civil War, post-slavery New Orleans, and featuring a touch of African magic, The Black God’s Drums is the latest in the Tor.com novella series. Famous for featuring authors and characters that have often been overlooked in genre fiction, the imprint is something I’ve championed since I first discovered it, recommending them not just for their social awareness, but also because there are some fantastic stories there. I went into this novella with high expectations.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite hit all the marks I hoped for. It’s definitely a compelling story, but it rushes through a lot of the plot, and hurries through the conclusion, enough so that the novella feels more like a first draft of a novel rather that a completed novella. I’ve said before that books have to be long enough to cover the stories therein, and here, it feels like Clark was working to fulfill a maximum (or in this case, minimum) number of words to qualify as a novella. Plus, being set in a steampunk New Orleans, the story reminded me too much of Ganymede by Cherie Priest, which was the advantage of being a fantastic book, as well as an appropriate length.

There’s a lot of potential here, but by the end of the story, I couldn’t get excited about the characters or the story. Clark is a talented writer, and has a strong narrative style, but the story lacks the elusive OOMPH to make it a classic. It just wasn’t my thing.

Started: August 24, 2018
Finished: August 25, 2018

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The Prestige

August 27, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

prestigeThe Prestige by Christopher Priest

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I’m always a little nervous when I read a novel that was the basis for a movie, when I’ve already seen the movie. I’m afraid I’ll pull too much of the movie into the book, and I won’t be able to pick up on the subtlety of the original story. Luckily, the book starts completely differently than the movie does, so I was able to at least start the story fresh.

On the bright side, I think it helped a lot to have seen the movie before reading the book. The Prestige is one of those novels that, by itself, requires a couple of reads to understand the full story. Knowing the twist, and knowing how the ending will play out, helps in some of the more difficult sections of the narrative. Not to give anything away, but the structure of the first section of the book would have been a lot more difficult to understand without already knowing the ending.

One thing I noticed while reading the book is how unbelievable parts of it are. They don’t seem as crazy in the movie for some reason. While watching the movie, I could acknowledge that the science was questionable, but I was so caught up in the events and trying to figure out where the Nolans were leading us, it didn’t affect me as much. In the book, they were somehow much more unbelievable. Part of it is the major differences in the ending; in the end, how the Nolans concluded their story sat more easily with me than how Priest concluded his.

The bulk of the story and its intricacies, though, are all Priest’s. He deserves the credit for how engaging, twisty, and unexpected the plot is, in the same way that Robert Bloch deserves that same credit for Psycho. He also structures the story differently, telling it in an epistolary style through journals of the two magicians. Interestingly, Priest chooses not to intertwine the stories; instead, he tells all of Borden’s story, and then shifts to Angier’s. By itself, it works very well; having watched the movie first, it’s a little jarring in how we get almost to the end of the movie before we shift gears and go back to the beginning.

Like the tricks themselves, the story is one of prestidigitation, making it one that rewards careful, attentive readers. Much of what we need to know about the plot and its twists are made clear in the beginning, if only we know what to identify as the keys. I’m not saying I’m one of those attentive readers (there’s a good chance I would have missed a lot of them had I not seen the movie), but those who like a good mystery would enjoy this book. I highly recommend it.

Started: August 12, 2018
Finished: August 22, 2018

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Slave Ship

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

slaveSlave Ship by K.W. Jeter

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After being so disappointed with the first book in this series, I went into the second book with lowered expectations. It helped at the start — it felt like it was a little bit better — but by the first third of the book, it felt like I was reading the first book all over again. It wasn’t engaging, and I felt myself lucky if I were reading twenty pages a day.

Like the first book, Slave Ship flips between two timelines, one during the events of The Empire Strikes Back, the rest about halfway into the events of Return of the Jedi. This time, I at least recognized that Jeter was using a framing device by having Dengar telling Neelah what happened in the past. I don’t remember that being the structure in the first novel, but as long as it took to get through it, and as hard as it was for me to pay attention to it, I could have just missed it.

Also, by this book, the Bounty Hunters Guild has been disbanded, which was news to me. Did it happen in the first book and I just missed it? (I’m willing to admit this is likely the case.) Or is it like the Clone Wars and it happened between entries in the series? Now, don’t think that you won’t know this is the case, though; Jeter tells us over and over again that it’s been disbanded, thanks to Boba Fett. It’s sort of like “With great power comes great responsibility” in Spider-Man: You’re going to hear it again and again and again.

Jeter still has some cool, cyberpunky ideas, which are rarely seen in the Expanded Universe, so I think it’s refreshing to see them here, but he doesn’t do much with those ideas. His characters are flat, the plot seems forced, and he uses a lot of info-dumps. His action scenes are also flat, and since there are a few battles that take place, that’s unfortunate.

Speaking of characters, that of Boba Fett feels off. I know he’s supposed to be a ruthless character, but Jeter makes him this emotionless, manipulative character who doesn’t quite gel with how I perceive him from the movies. Ruthless is one thing, but sociopathic is a little different. Plus, we never get any of Fett’s point of view, so we never know what his motivations are. I’m sure that’s intentional — Fett has always been a mysterious character — but as much as he’s featured on the covers and summaries of the books, I expected a bit more attention paid to his character.

So, I’m going to finish the series (I’ve come this far, and I’ve already committed to reading all the EU books, for good or ill), but the second book hasn’t given me any reason to change my mind on its quality. I’m tempted to just read the Wookieepedia entry for the third book so I can jump ahead, but I’m a slave to my projects. I won’t expect it will change my mind about the series, though.

Started: August 9, 2018
Finished: August 21, 2018

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