Monstress: Haven

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

havenMonstress: Haven by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda

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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

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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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Altered Carbon

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

carbonAltered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

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Altered Carbon is one of those books I’ve had for a while, based on its reputation. Once Netflix announced they were working on a show based on the book, I decided to bump it up my list so I could be familiar with the story before the show began. It took a while to read, in part because it’s lengthy, in part because the plot is complex, and in part because it’s very, very dark. It’s hard to be eager to return to the world of Altered Carbon when it’s so full of torment, torture, and cruelty.

The story is tightly plotted, with every detail from the story playing some role in its conclusion, and Morgan captures the characters and the mood of his story very well, so it’s not that this is a bad story, or even a good one that’s poorly written. It’s clear that Morgan is a talented writer, but this book isn’t comforting in any way. I saw one review of the book that praised it as a return to cyberpunk, but if this is what cyberpunk is about, then I might have to write off the genre all together.

Of particular note is that I started this book shortly after finishing Lafferty’s Six Wakes, which also handled cloning and transferring consciousness to new bodies, so I kept imagining that system whenever the process was referenced in Altered Carbon. It didn’t hurt the book, but I do wish I had waited a bit longer between books to let one technology settle in my mind before tackling another one. Then again, I don’t read a lot about books I want to read, so I didn’t even realize that was a core part of the story.

I waffled between three and four stars for this book, and I settled on three, because the book wasn’t a “good time” read. I’ve read dark, nihilistic fiction before and liked the stories (Chalk by Paul Cornell is one), but Morgan’s angle is a bit too dark for me. I had intended on reading the other two books in the Kovacs series, but after the dismal look into the future that is Altered Carbon — and the similar hopelessness of Market Forces and Thirteen — I think I’ll quit after the first book. I just don’t want to have to enter that world again.

Started: May 13, 2018
Finished: May 30, 2018

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My Soul to Take

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

takeMy Soul to Take by Tananarive Due

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It’s been a long haul to get through this series. I’ve liked it, but when each book is 400+ pages, with tiny type, and limited time to read, it makes for a long reading project. I started the first book at the end of January, and finished the last one days away from May. It also didn’t help that I had to include Joplin’s Ghost, which was another hefty book.

Speaking of Joplin’s Ghost, the reason I read it was because the main character of that book, Phoenix, is a central character in My Soul to Take, but I couldn’t really see why. Her character plays a role in Fana’s story, but I couldn’t see why it had to be Phoenix, as opposed to another character, even one that had already been introduced. My guess is Due included her so readers would feel compelled to read her other book, like I did. As good as it was, I appreciate it, but it also aggravates me.

By now, so much has happened to change the core immortals from My Soul to Keep that it seems like they’re all playing fast and loose with that immortality. It seems like everyone’s getting immortal now, which makes the whole premise less special. Granted, the story has shifted away from the immortals to Fana and Michel, who are now basically gods, and how they view the rest of the world. The way the book ends means that Due could return to this series again, but I hope she doesn’t. I think the more time she spends with the story, the more convoluted parts of the story become.

I know it sounds like I didn’t like the book or the series, but I did. Due is a talented writer, and I like how she develops her characters, but three months with one series is a long time, and it might have bred some contempt on my part. I would recommend it to readers of modern fantasy and horror, but maybe they should parse the series out over time to avoid burning out on it.

Started: April 14, 2018
Finished: April 28, 2018

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Blanky

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

blankyBlanky by Kealan Patrick Burke

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The start of this novella is fantastic. It captures the grief of the main character, Steve, who has recently lost his 11-month-old daughter to SIDS, and whose wife has left him to come to terms with her own grief. We see his own struggle to return to some semblance of life, alone, without support. It’s heart-breaking. This is only the start of the horror, though, which involves the return of Blanky, the blanket that may have caused his daughter’s death, and that he presumed was buried with his daughter.

To say more would spoil it, but rest assured the story is vivid, atmospheric, creepy, and truly disturbing. Burke’s imagery is effective and horrific, but it’s the situation Steve finds himself in — and how it affects his tenuous sanity — that lingers. He captures emotion well in this story, and that alone is enough to recommend it to fans of horror.

I’m not as sold on the ending, though. It’s intended to be ambiguous (the final chapter is supposed to leave the reader wondering which version of this story is actually true), but it’s more Life of Pi, less “The Lottery” in how Burke sells it to the reader. As it is, the ending feels like a cop-out, like he’s pulling the rug out from under us. There aren’t any hints left in the story for us to contemplate, save for the final one which suggests Steve’s version of events is the real one.

Regardless, Burke is a writer to read. His storytelling skills shine, and the way he can build up a scene and its dread is something I haven’t seen in a while. Readers of horror would probably like it best, but anyone who wants to see talent would do well to read Blanky.

Started: April 26, 2018
Finished: April 26, 2018

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Blood Colony

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

colonyBlood Colony by Tananarive Due

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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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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

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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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The Godsend

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

godsendThe Godsend by Bernard Taylor

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I hate reading an author’s works out of order. Aside from the fact that I lose seeing the author develop a style through his works, it also means I take a step backward, as few writers write their best books first. In the case of The Godsend, I found a fine book, full of claustrophobic horror, slowly-mounting tension, and a narrator who may or may not be reliable, but I also found a book that isn’t quite as good as Taylor’s follow-up, Sweetheart, Sweetheart.

The Godsend is about a couple with four young children who meet and befriend a pregnant woman they meet at a lake. During a visit to their home, she goes into labor and has her baby before stealing off in the middle of the night, leaving her daughter behind. Efforts to find her go nowhere, and after a length of time, the couple adopts the baby. Shortly thereafter, things begin to go downhill.

Published in 1976, The Godsend came out during the craze that followed The Exorcist, where every author was trying his or her hand at the possessed-child horror genre. This isn’t a genre with which I have a lot of familiarity, but The Godsend stands out by not being a typical possessed-child horror novel. It plays with the tropes of the genre, using the expectations of the reader to build tension. The story winds up being quieter than one would expect, based on its cover and summary, but it’s clear that it’s intentional.

Taylor suggests there’s something not right with their adopted daughter. She’s preternaturally smart, strong, and clever, which doesn’t just raise his alarms, but also raises the reader’s. The thing is, the story is told in the first person from the father’s perspective, so it’s hard to tell if we’re seeing what actually happened, or if we’re only seeing things through his own interpretation of events. The story begins with him telling us about their adopted daughter from some point in the future, so how he recalls the events could be skewed. The question is, if he isn’t a reliable narrator, then how do we interpret the terrible things that happen in this story?

The Godsend is unsettling, in that it forces you to ask uncomfortable questions. It uses ideas and themes that aren’t new to the genre, but Taylor combines them in a unique way, and tells a wildly readable, engaging story to boot. I can see why Sweetheart, Sweetheart is considered his best work, but it would be a disservice to The Godsend to overlook it by comparison.

Started: 10-27-2017
Finished: 10-31-2017

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Bird Box

January 2, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

boxBird Box by Josh Malerman

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So many books, so many different ways to hear about them. I have so many now that I can’t remember how Bird Box came to my attention. A friend of mine recently asked how it was I hadn’t actually read this one yet, so I bumped it up my list, and I’m glad I did. This is an outstanding book in a lot of ways.

The premise is a good one: Something has happened in the world, and it drives people to kill other people and then themselves. It’s somehow tied to something people see, so in response to the threat, people learn to live inside, with their doors closed and their windows covered. When they do have to venture outside, they do so with their eyes closed, or blindfolded. The story opens on Malorie, a mother of two four-year-olds who finds herself having to go outside to save herself and her children.

Malerman sets the tone of this story immediately, in the first chapter. Aside from capturing the mood and the atmosphere of this kind of story, he also puts the reader immediately off balance by making his readers pay attention to understand the setting and the characters. He doesn’t explain it all immediately; instead, he introduces to Malorie and then tells us her story through (mostly) alternating chapters between the present and past. He tells us this story in a style that uses short, sharp sentences, in the present tense. It creates a feeling of immediacy, and keeps the story moving at a breakneck pace.

Bird Box has shadows of The Road, in that they’re both about parents trying to protect their children in a bleak, desolate world. They’re hardly similar, though, since Malorie’s approach to parenthood is so different from the father in The Road. She uses fear and pain to reinforce the lessons she has to teach her children, making her either the worst or best mother in the world. Her methods are harrowing, but so is the world they live in, and she does it all in an effort to protect the children. We may not agree with what she does to raise them, but we at least understand why she does it.

Like most post-apocalyptic horror, Bird Box focuses on who the real monsters are in situations like these: the survivors. It’s a common theme, and while it works, it’s somewhat tired. I don’t fault the author (we are, after all, the worst monsters because we choose to be horrible to each other instead of it just being our nature), but I would like to see a story in this genre take a different approach. How Malerman approaches the human monster in his story works well, even if the way he sets it up is a bit clunky.

The ending is also a bit clunky, partly because Malerman attempts to inject some hope into his story at the end. It doesn’t come easy for Malorie, but it feels like everything is wrapped up too neatly for this kind of story. I can appreciate it for being the breath we take at the end of a long swim upstream, but it’s at odds with the tone of the rest of the story. I would have preferred more ambiguity, a hint at the hope to come instead of the full-on happy (-ish) ending we get here. If it had ended before Malorie had all of her questions answered, it would have been a more effective ending.

Those issues aside, though, this is a novel that works remarkably well. It conveys a mood like few other books I’ve read, and it maintains a taut tension from beginning to end. Fans of horror in general should like it, but I would also recommend it to readers who enjoyed The Road. They’re different in lots of ways, but their similarities can’t be denied.

Started: September 29, 2017
Finished: October 10, 2017

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The Comfort of Strangers

December 21, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

strangersThe Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

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This isn’t the kind of book I would normally read, but I stumbled across it twice in The Book of Lists: Horror when authors listed books that weren’t classified as horror, but may as well have been. Having read it, I can see why: it’s a stark look at sexual obsession and how it affects people. It takes a while to get to the central issue of the novel, but even as McEwan is setting up the story, we get a sense of things being not quite right.

Colin and Mary are a couple vacationing in Venice, and their relationship is strained. A chance encounter with an expatriate from London puts them back on track, but that encounter leads them down dark roads that ultimately end in tragedy. In relation to other works of horror, it feels a little tame, but for a book that’s well within the literary canon, it shows a darkness its contemporaries tend to avoid.

McEwan does a great job capturing the setting and the main characters in the first chapter. His style is crisp and precise. In addition, he captures the relationship between them, which is arguably more important than the characters themselves. They and the secondary characters in the novel are drawn a little thin, but I feel like this is intentional; the book is more about relationships and how we let them define us, so it makes more sense to focus more on what exists between the characters rather than the characters themselves.

This is an unusual book, in that it might be darker than readers of literary fiction would like, but it doesn’t feel dark enough for casual readers of horror. For readers who like examinations into the darker side of humanity, though, it’s a perfect fit. It’s not a favorite among dedicated readers of the author, but as an introduction to him, it stands as a strong work. I understand he has a few other novels that perform dark examinations like this one, and I’ll have to add those to my list of books to read.

Started: September 17, 2017
Finished: September 17, 2017

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