September 26, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

gripDeathgrip by Brian Hodge


Paul Handler, a DJ in St. Louis, learns that he has the ability to heal people after witnessing a horrible act of violence on a remote broadcast. After discreetly performing healings all over St. Louis, he discovers that his gift has a dark side, as random moments of anger reveal that he can also do harm to people. Struggling with the morality of such an ability, he seeks out the advice of a faith healer to help him manage what he can do. Instead, he finds a hidden cabal that has been looking for someone like Paul for a long time.

Like Hodge’s other works, Deathgrip shines due to its characterization. He creates believable characters (though the antagonist here is a little overblown), and it helps keep the reader moving along. That’s good, because Deathgrip doesn’t have the punch of Nightlife or other works of his.

The story feels a little disjointed, partly because Hodge has his main character give up one life to pursue another. By the time we’re invested in the first life, we’re uprooted and taken to the next one, with all previous characters dropped and forgotten for the new ones. If that were the point of the novel, it might have been easier to accept, but the point is Paul’s abilities, and it didn’t feel like a natural progression of the plot.

It also doesn’t help that Hodge creates a lengthy backstory to explain why Paul has these healing abilities. To his credit, Hodge doesn’t make it an info-dump, but breaks it apart over parts of the book so we’re not taken too far out of Paul’s life to see what happens. Instead, though, the explanation doesn’t seem necessary. That Paul has the ability seems to be reason enough, but without that, then the character of Gabe doesn’t make much sense. Besides all that, the explanation doesn’t feel sufficient. It works well enough, but it’s not like it’s some clever revelation that will amaze the readers; it just feels pedestrian.

I like Hodge well enough, and I think his style is natural and compelling, but Deathgrip doesn’t have a lot of OOMPH behind it. For an Abyss book, it’s above average, but it doesn’t have the same kind of profound effect Tem, Koja, or even Tuttle bring to the imprint. Deathgrip just feels like a trunk book, which is even more unfortunate when you realize this is his fourth novel.

Started: August 31, 2018
Finished: September 23, 2018

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The Space Machine

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

spaceThe Space Machine by Christopher Priest


I was pretty stoked to read this book after having read The Prestige, and as the story began, I found it to be engaging, despite its slow beginning. It reminded me a bit of reading Aickman, in that the book opens with inconsequential scenes that have no real bearing on the plot, other than to lead the reader to it. He captures the characters of Edward and Amelia well, and that was enough to keep me reading through the beginning. Oddly, once the plot began to pick up speed, the story lost its steam.

Part of it, I think, is the fact that it starts off as a straightforward time travel story. These have been done to death, enough so that it makes me question why Priest chose to use this as the central plot of his novel. From what I understand, Priest is an author who challenges the reader with new ideas, or new takes on old ideas, so it was doubly surprising to find a story that was so banal.

As I reached the sixty percent mark of the book, though, it finally clicked: This book is a mash-up of Wells’s The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. Not being that familiar with both books, it took me a while to make the connection, but realizing what Priest was doing with the story didn’t make it that much more enjoyable. It plods along in places, and winds up being boring when it’s supposed to be reaching its pivotal point.

Priest captures the tone and style of an early-20th century book, in both language and theme. It’s odd, though, the things he chooses to focus on to center us in his setting. At around the forty percent point of the book, he pays an inordinate amount of attention to Amelia’s corset, which didn’t seem relevant to me. Was it intended to place us there and remind us of the tenets of that time in society? If so, he has accomplished that in other ways, and I didn’t understand the need to make such a big deal over it.

I did like how Priest characterized his two main characters. Edward is, to be honest, fairly useless. He narrates the story, but he’s less a man of action and more one of reaction. On the flip side, Amelia is a strong woman who can hold her own, despite the restrictions of women during this era. It’s a progressive point in favor of the novel, but not so much that I would recommend people read it to experience it.

As strong as Priest’s reputation is, I can see people wanting to read The Space Machine, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Maybe it would have been different had I read this one before The Prestige (The Space Machine was his fourth novel), but my guess is if I had read it first, I might not have bothered to read anything else. I’m hoping this book is just a fluke in an otherwise remarkable career, especially since I already own other books of his I want to read.

Started: August 30, 2018
Finished: September 21, 2018

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

contactContact by Carl Sagan


I collect quotes from the books I read. I used to write them down on index cards and keep them in a file box. One day I decided to organize them, and I found that the one source that I found to be most quotable was Contact. Its balance of science and faith struck a chord with me, which makes sense, since during the time I read it, I was still struggling with my feelings about God and spirituality.

Now, I’m listening to the book as an atheist, and it’s a different kind of experience. The science component of the book is strong, enough so that I wonder if Sagan originally approached the story as an outline of a thought experiment on first contact, and decided to develop it into a fictional story. Strangely, the faith aspect of the book is also strong, even stronger than I remember. It feels stronger in the movie, as Ellie is presented with having to decide if she believes in something despite the overwhelming lack of evidence to support it, but the book pretty much comes out and says the universe was designed. It surprised me, especially when Sagan seemed to be a full-on atheist.

The book differed from the movie in other ways, including the number of people who travel in the machine. In the movie, it’s just Ellie; in the book, she’s one of a team of five, all of whom are convinced that what they experienced is real. The movie also reinforces that idea (18 hours of static, anyone?), but the book returns the agency to the characters themselves instead of to an outside, unknown-to-the-main-characters scene.

I had also forgotten how much hand-waving Sagan brings to the story. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on the science of how the machine works, but gets away with it by having the scientists of Earth reverse-engineer it to understand it completely. The ending with the aliens is also anti-climactic, as Sagan makes them absentee overseers, with no one getting the answers they want. For it to end that way, I would prefer that the story remain on Earth, with the scientists speculating.

I know Sagan was concerned with the threat of nuclear war in the era in which he wrote the book, but it feels oversimplified and laughable that he uses that as a primary factor for why the aliens contacted Earth. Maybe I’m oversimplifying the threat of nuclear war now, but to look at it now, thirty years on, is like reading about the Red Scare in the 1980s; it’s so far removed that it doesn’t seem like the concern Sagan makes it out to be.

I still enjoyed the book, partly for the nostalgia, partly for the recognition (it was fun to hear the quotes I had written down so long ago), and partly for the characters. Sagan isn’t a bad novelist, even if he isn’t the greatest, either. He relies a bit too much on telling instead of showing, but he also avoids info-dumps. Since he approached science as something to teach instead of preach, that doesn’t surprise me. There are parts of it that sound like they were written for a nonfiction book about first contact, and there are pieces of it that feel borrowed from his other nonfiction books, but it’s a solid examination of the idea, populated with interesting characters.

I dropped my rating a point after finishing this, not because it was bad, but because it didn’t have the same resonance I remembered from the first reading. This isn’t Sagan’s fault, but it is true that what you get out of a book depends on what you put into it, and in this case, losing your faith has a big impact on a book that’s mostly about faith. Still, I’d recommend the book to anyone who enjoyed the movie, since it gives an alternate look at the trip through the machine.

Started: September 6, 2018
Finished: September 19, 2018

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The Walking Dead: New World Order

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

orderThe Walking Dead: New World Order by Robert Kirkman, et al.


I’ve said before that Kirkman manages to keep The Walking Dead a fresh exercise in survival and morality, but I also recognize that there’s going to come a time when it feels like he’s stuck in a rut. That comes to a head in New World Order, where he creates a new antagonist who doesn’t feel so much like an individual as he does a mesh of the Governor and Negan. I get it: Rick needs to continue being the moral reflection of the power-hungry, but there are only so many ways one can characterize those characters.

The good thing is that I’ve said something similar about other collections, and Kirkman still manages to make something distinct and effective come out of the story by the end. My biggest concern now is that he’s borrowing from earlier characters instead of creating a new one. I’ll wait it out and see what he does with it, though. Y’all know I’ve come too far now to give up on the story.

Started: September 17, 2018
Finished: September 17, 2018

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Monstress: Haven

September 20, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

havenMonstress: Haven by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda


It’s getting increasingly harder for me to follow what’s happening in Monstress. I’m willing to admit that it’s more me than the author, but I notice other reviewers are having the same issue with the title. What brings me back to the series, though, is the characters. Maika continues to be a complex, strong antihero, but Kippa and Zinn help temper out her abrasiveness, and they actually get some development this time around. Liu has set up some threads to resolve in future volumes; I just wish I knew which ones had been resolved in this one.

There’s so much to love about Monstress: the matriarchy; the characters; the mythology; and the artwork. The problem is the plots seem to take a back seat to all of that. I’m used to Monstress being a dense book that requires attention, but I wasn’t expecting to get so lost among the details that I couldn’t follow the plot.

Started: September 13, 2018
Finished: September 13, 2018

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Gorilla in My Room

September 14, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

gorillaGorilla in My Room by Jack Ketchum


January 24th of this year was a sad day. It was the day Jack Ketchum died. I didn’t get caught up with his novels until a few years ago, and I found so much thoughtful and meaningful (and also brutal and violent) fiction there, I knew I would read anything he wrote. I had pre-ordered this collection in late 2017, but it took me several months to get around to reading it.

The collection opens with “Gorilla in My Room”, an ultra-short story (less than one page) where Ketchum uses a gorilla living in his room as a metaphor for life. It definitely fits the thoughtful and meaningful categories of his fiction, and it hints at the brutal and violent categories, as well.

“The Western Dead” follows, and it’s a story about zombies set in the old west. It’s an interesting idea (Ketchum notes in his afterword that he wrote the story as part of an anthology that sought to place the origin of zombies far back in the past), and it makes me wonder why we don’t see more zombie stories set in older eras. Are zombies intended to be a modern construct? Regardless, this is a characteristic Ketchum story with the concise prose and disturbing imagery.

Next is “Bully”, and now we’re getting into the usual Ketchum storytelling. It’s about a man who stands up to his abusive father, years after having grown up out from under his shadow. This is a compelling story, made original by the way Ketchum writes it.

“Listen” is a story that covers usual territory for Ketchum – pedophilia. In this story, it’s narrated by one, and he’s tracking down his survivors, hoping to get them to kill him. In the usual Ketchum-revenge style, he doesn’t quite get what he wants.

“Polaroids” is another ultra short, which reminds me of Richard Matheson’s “The Near Departed”. It packs the same kind of queasy punch, but with much more economy.

Edward Lee’s introduction to the collection made me expect “Squirrely Shirley” to be funny, but the events of the story were too horrifying for me to find the humor in it. I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that the kind of horror I like is more subtle and suggestive than what’s usually on offer in the genre, but I still like Ketchum in general. This one just didn’t do much for me.

In “Group of Thirty”, Ketchum imagines what it’s like to finally meet the people who don’t like his fiction. The main character is a thinly-veiled version of Ketchum himself, and he comes up with a good way for him to get out of it.

“Winter Child” is a prequel to Offspring, which just isn’t a favorite of mine. I get that cannibals are horrifying, but when that’s the whole source of the horror and the story, it loses its effect. Here, Ketchum gives us a different perspective on the theme, which helps make the story more relatable. For one thing, the story isn’t just about the cannibalism.

“Cow” is another story set in the Dead River series, and this one is a sequel to The Woman. That story was good, since it showed how much more horrible regular people are from the cannibals, but Ketchum flips the script again and makes it about the cannibalism and the survival. It’s engaging, but doesn’t have the same effect as The Woman.

Ketchum writes a parable with “The Transformed Mouse”, which is interesting, since it doesn’t quite follow his usual type of story. It does make a cool point, though, and it’s written in the lean style Ketchum is known for.

“The Right Thing” is another ultra-short story, about a couple getting rid of a child to keep a pet. It’s an interesting take on the usual “get rid of the pet for the child” dilemma, but probably resonates more with people who actually have kids.

Ketchum returns to pedophilia with “Awake”, an okay story about an aging jazz musician who rapes his daughter. He ends the story in his usual fashion, in grisly revenge.

“That Moment” is an uber-story story (story starter, really; it’s two sentences) about the death of a pet. Ketchum packs a lot of punch in such few words.

“Oldies” is horrific in a different way, as it’s a story told from the perspective of an Alzheimer patient. It’s not graphic or gruesome, but it’s an accurate look at how it is for someone suffering from dementia to deal with the rest of the world.

The collection concludes with “Seconds”, a story about a woman who stops aging after her abusive husband dies. She finally meets someone who cares for her when she’s over seventy years old, but still looks like she’s in her early thirties, and the story goes from there. On the one hand, it’s a poignant story, but on the other, her not aging seems more like a reward for the person who cares for her than one for her. It’s odd, but it’s a different sort of story for Ketchum, which highlights his skills with tenderness.

Most collections I read are hit-and-miss, but this one has more hits than I usually find. It helps that I like Ketchum’s fiction as much as I do, but his style reflects the styles I’m used to from the horror fiction I read in the ’80s. It felt like the stories I remember, and that definitely played a part into how much I liked the collection overall.

Started: September 9, 2018
Finished: September 10, 2018

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Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-suckers

September 13, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

cosmicBubba and the Cosmic Blood-suckers by Joe R. Lansdale


So, here’s an interesting thing: The “Bubba” in Bubba Ho-Tep was Elvis. I had always taken the title to be a reference to the mummy, since it was set in Texas, but since said mummy makes zero appearances in this novel, and another character calls Elvis “Bubba” at one point, I was proven wrong. It makes me wonder what else I’ve taken for granted all these years.

As it turns out, there was a good bit I had taken for granted. In Bubba Ho-Tep, you never get a sense that the narrator is unreliable, so you’re pretty convinced the main character is, in fact, Elvis, but there’s a lingering doubt that he’s just some crazy dude with a strange fantasy. That carries over to JFK, too, more prominently since Elvis himself never quite believes that he’s actually JFK. This novel confirms that both claims are true, which somehow lessens the impact of the original story. It takes that uncertainty and makes it fact, which removes the ambiguity that makes the novella work so well.

The other thing about the novel is that it was just too ridiculous. Yes, yes, Elvis and JFK, in an East Texas nursing home battling an Egyptian mummy, isn’t exactly mainstream, but somehow it worked better than Elvis and the Colonel heading up what amounts to a Scooby Doo gang. Plus, the more the story continued, the less I could hang on to the whole Elvis connection. He sounded and felt like any other character, and when it came back to me that this was supposed to be Elvis, I almost started laughing.

I mean, Lansdale is Lansdale, and reading him is like reading no other author, but even that seemed to be lacking. I find that his supernatural stories don’t have the same kind of brusque charm that his crime novels do, and that’s much more evident when you compare this with, say, Rusty Puppy. They both have the snappy dialogue and the unique characters, but the plot for Blood-suckers isn’t as strong as Rusty Puppy, and the story overall suffers for it.

Look, I’ll read anything Joe Lansdale releases, without hesitation. It’s been a while since I’ve come across a book of his that I didn’t like on some level, but Blood-suckers feels like it’s coming from the bottom of the barrel. It’s about on par with Lost Echoes, my least favorite Lansdale book, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence it’s also a supernatural novel. On the bright side, I’ll be getting around to Jackrabbit Smile soon, so hopefully my experience will improve.

Started: September 6, 2018
Finished: September 9, 2018

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Bubba Ho-Tep

September 12, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

bubbaBubba Ho-Tep by Joe R. Lansdale


Years ago, I was listening to a radio interview with Bruce Campbell, and I remember him talking about his upcoming movie. He said he played an aging Elvis, living in a nursing home and fighting off a mummy with the help of someone who believed he was JFK, played by Ossie Davis. I remember thinking, I’ve read this story, and sure enough, when he mentioned the title later in the interview, it was Bubba Ho-Tep.

I re-read the story because I wanted to have it fresh in my mind before reading its prequel, Bubba and the Cosmic Blood-suckers. It turns out that, between the story and the movie, I remember every single thing about this story. I mean, with a premise like that above, it’s hard to forget, but I remember more details about this story than most other stories I last read about twenty years ago.

Bubba Ho-Tep is a tight story, and it shines thanks to Lansdale’s usual witty narrative. He’s cruder in this story than I recall, but maybe he was just channeling an older, frustrated Elvis. His focus is really on the character of Elvis, so the peripheral characters get some short shrift (the nurse especially needed more attention, which she deservedly received in the movie adaptation), and the ending comes along much more quickly than one would expect. Still, it’s Elvis, mummies, a black JFK, and Lansdale. This story is definitely going to be a winner.

Started: September 6, 2018
Finished: September 6, 2018

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A Little Gray Book of Shadows

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

shadowsA Little Gray Book of Shadows by William F. Nolan


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


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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