Widow’s Point

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


Widow’s Point by Richard Chizmar & Billy Chizmar


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


Prodigal by Melanie Tem


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

armadaArmada by Ernest Cline


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

spectersSpecters by J.M. Dillard


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


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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Mandelbrot the Magnificent

May 16, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

Mandelbrot RD4 BLACKMandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska


What a moving story. It’s semi-biographical, drawing inspiration from the life of Benoit Mandelbrot, who grew up as a young Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied France. Ziemska uses as many real details of his life as possible, but also introduces a magical aspect to the story through Mandelbrot’s understanding of mathematics and the Sefirot, an important piece of the Jewish religion.

The story is by turns heartbreaking and inspiring, lyrical and haunting. It’s about mathematics, yes, but it’s also about loneliness, identity, and safety, which is important considering its setting. It also has some effective prose, like this:

“‘God?’ I asked.
“Father shrugged. ‘That’s a simple word used by those who would be terrified if they knew the whole story.'”

The story is a novella, meaning you can read it in one sitting, likely in just an hour or two. Do so. It’s well worth your time.

Started: March 22, 2018
Finished: March 22, 2018

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Blood Colony

May 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

colonyBlood Colony by Tananarive Due


MAN, it took me a long time to finish this book. I like Due’s style, and her plots have been interesting, but somehow Blood Colony took me about three weeks to finish. Even other, drier books haven’t taken that long. Somehow I just couldn’t stay engaged with this story like I did with her other two books (though The Living Blood took me about two weeks).

I do like how Due shifts her themes around from book to book. Each one has been a look at immortality, but where My Soul to Keep was a personal look, and The Living Blood looked at it from a more epic perspective, Blood Colony is a mixture of the two, since Due introduces us to a competing group of immortals while showing us Fana as she attempts to become her own person. As the two groups intersect, we see that the blood reveals a new power, and what it suggests is chilling. It’s reminiscent of Carrion Comfort, in the way that the immortals can control other people, but it’s not a carbon copy thriller.

I like where the book takes us, but I felt like it was a lot of story for not a lot of payoff. Part of it, I think, is how much ground Due has to cover. Not only does she have to give us the history of the new group of immortals, but she also has to show us what’s happened with Fana over the last fifteen years or so. Since both stories take us to the same conclusion, we need them both to get the whole story, but it can sometimes feel long-winded.

The characterization feels weaker here, too. It may be due to Due bringing in so many characters, but I didn’t feel the kind of connection with Fana and Jessica like I did in the first two books. I expected it to be the other way around, since by now I should be familiar with them, and Due wouldn’t need to spend as much time developing them, but somehow I felt the distance. The book forces them apart, so the distance there is physical, but I didn’t expect that to be true of them in the story, too.

Due gives the story a good depth, showing Jessica and Fana having started up a commune to disperse the blood for its healing effects, but the story doesn’t have the same OOMPH as the first two books. There’s one more book left in the series (so far; apparently, readers thought this would be the final book in the series, which would have been a disappointment), and I’m hoping Due can bring it back with that book. I’m eager to be finished with the series so I can move on to other books on my list.

Started: February 25, 2018
Finished: March 18, 2018

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

lady Lady by Thomas Tryon


Two of my favorite horror novels are The Other and Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon. Both are creepy, atmospheric novels of the horror people can commit against each other, and both have lingered long in my memory, enough that I’ve re-read them multiple times. I thought it might be time to broaden my knowledge of Tryon’s other books, and saw that Lady was set in the same fictional town — Pequot Landing — as those other two books. I figured that was a good place to start.

On the plus side, Lady maintains the same kind of atmosphere as the first two books; on the minus side, this isn’t a horror novel. That’s not really a bad thing, but I think readers react to this book expecting it to be like Tryon’s first two books. He creates a recurring sense of Gothic menace throughout the book that creates a mini-mystery that serves as the plot of the book, but for the most part, the story is a slice-of-life one, told from the perspective of a man recollecting his time growing up in Pequot Landing.

Though Woody narrates our story, it’s really about Lady, the enigmatic woman who lives across the street from them in their small town. She goes through phases, sometimes social and effusive, other times hiding herself away in her home for weeks at a time. Woody tells us how he perceived these shifts in behavior from his younger, more innocent days, while being honest about his infatuation with her. Eventually, he learns what drives this behavior, but not without learning lessons that force him to grow up.

I saw another review that compared this book to Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, and I agree with that assessment. Both stories are looks back at a more idyllic, innocent time, through the eyes of characters who are growing up and learning more about reality. They both take different approaches to their reminiscings, most notably though how they approach nostalgia. Bradbury embraces it and celebrates it, while Tryon seems to look back at youth with an appreciation, eschewing nostalgia for a more realistic look back at childhood and growing up. I think it helps that Tryon uses social issues to drive character growth in the story.

I can understand readers being disappointed that this isn’t The Other, Part Three, but I found this book to be entertaining and memorable. Readers who enjoy Tryon’s style will enjoy it, so long as they understand going in to the book that it’s a divergence from Tryon’s first two novels. It would be a shame if readers overlooked the book simply because it isn’t horror; what it is is a well told tale about growing up in turbulent times.

Unfortunate Musical Connection: “Lady” by Styx

Started: March 4, 2018
Finished: March 17, 2018

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The Walking Dead, Vol. 29: Lines We Cross

May 11, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

linesThe Walking Dead, Vol. 29: Lines We Cross by Robert Kirkman, et al.


If you already like The Walking Dead, and if you’ve been reading it long enough to make it to volume twenty-nine, then there’s not much I can say about this collection to get you to read it. Chances are, you’ve beat me to it. Plus, I’ve reviewed enough of these collections so far to give you a good idea of what to expect out of the series, even if you’re not reading it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it gets harder and harder to review these collections (unless they’re not very good) the longer I read the series.

A couple of notable things here is that Kirkman introduces a new character to the saga, and that character is weirder than the last few characters he’s introduced. He also manages to make Negan out to be a fully sympathetic character. Sure, it took several story arcs (and several years) to reach that point, but it’s an impressive feat, nonetheless, since he came into the story bashing Glenn’s head in with a baseball bat. Considering that Kirkman makes him sympathetic without sacrificing the character traits that make him so unlikeable makes it even more impressive.

Plus, it was interesting to see how Kirkman manages the death of a significant character in the comic, when the show did such a poor job of managing the death of a different significant character in the latest season. I’ve said before that the show does a disservice to the story and the characters of the comic, but seeing how differently they’re handled, almost back-to-back, is enlightening.

I’m a committed reader, so I’m going to keep reading the series until Kirkman runs out of story. I recommend it to viewers of the show who are growing tired of the runaround and back-and-forth nature of the plot (not to mention if they want to see an Andrea who’s worth reading and a Rick whose character isn’t inconsistent), and want to see what the show could have been. I’m not one who thinks a TV show or movie should be exactly like the book, but the story in the comic is simply a better one.

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

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Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook

May 9, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

lostLost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook by Christina Henry


A good five-word summary of this book is: Peter Pan as a sociopath. And it makes perfect sense.

Think about it. He’s impulsive, manipulative, insincere, unreliable, and exhibits superficial charm. He’s also smart and self-centered. Even in the context of the original story, he’s a textbook sociopath. Henry takes this idea and uses it to develop Peter Pan’s origin story, told through the eyes of James, later to become Captain Hook.

The pivotal point of this story is Charlie, a new recruit to the island, and the youngest boy Peter has ever brought to the island. Only five years old, Charlie is adopted by James, who has always served as the protector of the Lost Boys. Their relationship makes Peter jealous, since James is supposed to be Peter’s best friend, and over the course of the book, we see the relationship between Peter and James break down. Along the way, we find out what keeps Peter young, how he meets Tinkerbell, and how Captain Hook came to be Peter’s enemy.

Henry has had good success with translating children’s stories into darker, adult tales, and part of that success is in how well she draws her characters. The main characters here (James and his circle of friends) are convincing, and the relationship they share feels real. Their personalities and challenges carry the story, and it’s them who kept me engaged. Parts of the story didn’t work for me (the origin feels somewhat simplified, and Henry incorporates beings who don’t live on the island in the original work), but overall, it was riveting.

I’ve started listening to nonfiction audiobooks, since I find I can focus on them better than I can audio fiction, but Lost Boy was an exception. I found it on sale, and liked Henry’s Alice books, so I figured it was worth a shot. I’m glad I gave it a try; Lost Boy kept my attention from start to finish.

Started: March 8, 2018
Finished: March 11, 2018

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