Six Wakes

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

wakesSix Wakes by Mur Lafferty

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One of the conceits of this novel — that people can clone themselves and load their consciousness into the clone, only losing whatever memories were recorded since their last backup — has been done before, most notably (in my memory) in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I’ve gotten fed up with Doctorow’s self-promotion in and out of his works, so I figured I could see what a better writer would do with this conceit. Lafferty takes it in a new direction and does a great job with it.

Six Wakes is a locked-room mystery, as the clones in question are on a spaceship heading to a distant world, but they all wake up to find they’ve all been murdered. There are only the six of them aboard the ship, all of whom are criminals, so suspicions begin to fly once they discover they’ve lost twenty years of their memories, the cloning machine has been sabotaged, and the ship’s computer isn’t responsive. The race is on to discover their killer before they all face real death.

By itself, this would be a compelling story, but Lafferty makes it more than that. She addresses moral issues related to cloning, privacy, and secrecy, and those themes weave in and out of the story. It makes the book more significant, without sacrificing the story. Lafferty’s characters are easy to like, and every character in the story has the means and the motivation to be a suspect.

Six Wakes was a finalist for three science fiction awards this year, and for good reason. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes a good mystery, a good science fiction story, or a good moral dilemma story. I guess I would recommend it to anyone, period.

Started: May 4, 2018
Finished: May 12, 2018

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Lady

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

lady Lady by Thomas Tryon

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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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All Systems Red

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

redAll Systems Red by Martha Wells

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Meet Murderbot. Murderbot is a half-robot, half-organic construct that’s been hired to assist an excavation crew doing a survey on a new planet. Murderbot has disabled the governor in itself, allowing it to do such things as ignore direct orders, skip scheduled upgrades, and not follow its own directives. In short, Murderbot has become a sentient entity without any restraints. Luckily, “Murderbot” doesn’t accurately describe itself.

This novella is an intriguing look at human/robot relations, as told from the perspective of the robot. There may be more to Murderbot’s organic side than this story lets on (it doesn’t have complete recall on some events that happened in its past), but the way the story is told, it feels like it’s more robot than organic. That being said, this is the first in a series of novellas, so maybe that’s something we’ll learn in a future volume. Regardless, Murderbot has an empathetic side, as well as other emotions that her human co-workers didn’t expect to see.

I’m a reader of the webcomic Questionable Content, and as I was reading this story, I kept picturing Bubbles as Murderbot. As such, it made me envision Murberbot as female, even though there’s nothing in the story to support it. Due to that connection, or possibly to the fact that the author is female, Murderbot felt female to me throughout the story. I don’t know if other readers got that feeling out of the story; I’d be curious to know.

The story is set in a science-fictional world, but at its heart, it’s a mystery. The story opens part of the way into the excavation, and we learn that a good chunk of their information has gone missing from their files. At that point, the characters have to learn who’s behind the sabotage, before things turn deadly. The structure of the story feels like a whodunnit, and I see one other review has labeled it as a hard-boiled story, which I get, though I don’t necessarily agree.

Either way, this is a sharp story with an engaging narrator and likable supporting characters. It doesn’t quite reach the four-star level with me, but that’s likely due to having high expectations going into the story. All Systems Red is getting tremendous hype, not unjustly, but I was expecting something a bit more wowie-zowie out of it based on it all. I’ll definitely read the rest of the series, though.

Started: October 11, 2017
Finished: October 11, 2017

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Coco Butternut

May 5, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

cocoCoco Butternut by Joe R. Lansdale

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The award for the most ridiculous book title of 2017 is … Coco Butternut! Yes, I know it’s only mid-February (well, it is as I write this. It appears this is going to be scheduled for publication in July, so greetings from the past!), but I’m fairly certain that, of all the books I’ll read this year, this one will win the prize. It’s just a little ridiculous.

It’s not irrelevant, though, since the name of the book refers to a prize-winning dachshund, which you can see on the cover over there. He’s long dead, as long as his owner, but when someone digs up the mummified dog and uses him as ransom, the deceased owner’s son pays a hefty amount to get him back. Of course, this isn’t Hap and Leonard’s first rodeo, and neither is it our first time reading one of their books, so this event spawns an investigation into the dognappers that gets more and more complicated.

This is a formula that Lansdale uses in his Hap & Leonard books, but his stories never feel formulaic. Coco Butternut takes us through familiar locales, with a familiar cast of characters, with his familiar brand of storytelling, meaning that those of us familiar with all that are going to have a good time. This doesn’t mean we’ll find it to be the gosh-darned bestest book read EVAR, but it does mean we’ll have fun while on the ride.

I’ve noticed that Lansdale is beginning to show more of the other characters in this series instead of relying on just Hap and Leonard, and in some ways, this is good. It gives the series a fresh feeling, especially with Brett, who’s becoming more and more a full-fledged character and less Hap’s girlfriend. Chance, Hap’s daughter, is another story. Here, she feels wooden, shoehorned into the story as an obligation and not as a necessity. I can’t remember her character being much more than that in her previous appearances, but I can’t say that for certain. Either way, here she feels like a distraction.

Coco Butternut is a bit better than Hoodoo Harry, but not quite as good as Briar Patch Boogie. These Hap & Leonard novellas don’t have the same kind of punch as the full-length novels in the series, but they’re a nice snack to have between courses of the main meal. Fans will like it; those new to the two characters would be better off starting at the beginning of the novels.

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The Dispatcher

October 20, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

dispatcherThe Dispatcher by John Scalzi

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About a year ago, I saw John Scalzi speak as part of his book tour for The End of All Things, and at the engagement, he read the beginning of a new story he was then writing. The Dispatcher was that story, and it was nice to hear the story in its completed form. It was also interesting to see how little changed between that reading and the final product (that I can recall, at least).

The story is a mystery set around the idea that anyone murdered will revive in their own bed shortly after death. It doesn’t work for all deaths, only murder, so there are people whose job it is to efficiently murder people who are going to die during surgery. Scalzi introduces us to Tony Valdez, one of these people, called a dispatcher, who is caught up in the case of a missing person, another dispatcher.

Scalzi is in his usual form here, with crisp characterization and a satisfying plot that moves at just the right speed. Story-wise, it’s just the right length, and doesn’t feel forced into its shorter form, but there were parts of the story that begged for further development, namely in the revivification process. It’s a capricious process — it only works on people who are murdered, it wipes out all injuries preceding and related to the murder, but only based on a specific time frame that no one can determine, and it doesn’t work all the time — but nothing is explained behind the fact that it exists. For it to be such a large part of the premise, I was looking for more answers, but they weren’t there.

In addition, this revivification would have a huge effect on society overall, and I wanted to see more of that aspect of the story. Scalzi examines to some degree how this process affects life in general, but only enough to satisfy the requirements of the story. I would have preferred a deeper examination of it, like what Drew Magary did in The Postmortal, or even what Scalzi himself did in Lock In. What could have been a social examination is just a standard mystery.

Seeing as this is an audiobook, I would be remiss in not speaking to Zachary Quinto’s performance. His voice is velvet, his characters distinctive, and I could listen to him read stories all day long. I had a minor quibble with the way he voiced the detective — it was unfortunately clear she was a black woman before that was addressed in the narrative — but overall he did a fantastic job.

This is a Scalzi work, so of course it’s engaging and intriguing, but anyone looking for an explanation behind the main premise will be disappointed. I’d recommend this to fans of his work, or anyone looking for a well-told (in both senses of the word) story. It’s available free through Audible until November 2nd, so there’s no reason not to enjoy it.

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The Lost

January 19, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

lostThe Lost by Jack Ketchum

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Ketchum’s best works are those with innocuous beginnings, which grow in tension and slowly spiral out of control over the course of the novel. The Lost is the opposite, where he begins the story with a big shock, and then takes us forward to the time where the police are still trying to nail the guy they know committed the act, but can’t find the proof to put him away.From that point, the story follows a structure that will be familiar to Ketchum’s loyal readers — we watch the central psychopath go on a slow downward spiral of violence and insanity. The opening scene is important to the story, but it was a different approach to the story than his previous books had.

The other difference was in how Ketchum chose to develop his characters. In his other works, he creates a character who we watch develop into someone who horrifies us, but this time he creates a character who’s already a psychopath, playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the local police. That’s not to say that the story is a procedural mystery, but the novel takes a while to hit that familiar Ketchum pace. It takes getting halfway through the story before it picks up.

I also think Ketchum does his best work when he focuses on just one character, instead of bringing in a larger cast. The Lost has several different characters floating about, with the antagonist and his two hangers-on, the two other women the antagonist becomes interested in, the cop working their case, and the ex-cop who still has an interest in the case. They all feel developed (though Katharine felt out of place; her character seemed to be an attempt to contrast Ray’s personality without the violence), but it was a lot of attention paid to his characters. This clocks in as Ketchum’s longest novel, and I think that affected the novel’s pacing. Where he does shine in this novel is in creating the dynamic between Ray and his two cronies, Tim and Jennifer. It’s not a complex relationship, really, but it creates another point of tension that underlies the central story. It carries a feeling of importance, like maybe there’s something in that triangle that will eventually bring down Ray.

Where Ketchum has, in the past, created antagonists who can be understood if not forgiven, here he just creates a character with no redeeming factors whatsoever. No real reason is given for why he’s the psychopath he is. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in fiction — some antagonists don’t need any development beyond making him a bad guy — but when Ketchum has proven that he can do more than that, it’s a disappointment when he doesn’t.

The Lost feels like a Ketchum novel, but at the same time, it doesn’t. The style and content will be familiar to Ketchum’s readers, but the novel lacks some of the heart found in his previous works. The tone of the novel is colder than his others, which could be due to the finality of the ending. Stranglehold also had a less-than-happy ending, but it felt like it had more warmth somehow. Readers of horror and dark thrillers will likely enjoy it, but I’d point them toward his earlier novels before this one.

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A Quiet Night of Fear

November 1, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

A Quiet Night of FearA Quiet Night of Fear by Charles L. Grant

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My random book-picker program selected two Grant books back-to-back. I’m a little surprised, especially since both books were purchased on the same order, back in the spring. It’s a little eerie and strange, which is really perfect when you think about the sort of fiction that Grant tends to write.

A Quiet Night of Fear is more science fiction than horror (despite the fact that the publisher classified this as “Fantasy Horror”), and is at its heart a mystery, but it’s still a bit dark. Grant did excel at horror, after all. The story is set in a future where televisions have been replaced with comunits, and androids are becoming commonplace among the rich. A well-known comunit journalist takes a vacation at a resort where a string of murders is starting to take place, and despite not wanting to get involved, she does.

The story was lacking in Grant’s usual atmosphere, but it did have some good character studies. It even touches on bigger themes than I’ve seen in his previous works, as he looks at discrimination and profiling through the androids. As far as the mystery goes, I figured it out about halfway through the story. Maybe it was because I was already familiar with Grant’s storytelling style, but it seemed obvious to me how the story would end.

The book was peppered with typos, which was annoying, but nothing was quite as bad as seeing the author’s note following the novel titled the “Afterward”. I can accept a few typos in a book, but some editor had to fall asleep to miss that one.

The afterword of the novel explains how the novel came to be. It’s based on an award-winning short story that he was attempting to turn into a television movie, and when the deal fell through, he had enough of a new story to write a novel for another deal. It’s a short book, and a quick read, and feels like a Grant novel, but it doesn’t quite compare with his other works. Hardcore Grant fans should read it, just to experience a different kind of story from him, but I’m not sure I would recommend it to general readers.

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The Name of the Rose

July 14, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

The Name of the RoseThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

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This book took me longer than expected to finish.  It’s a heavier book than I normally read, which certainly contributed some, but it’s not so heavy that it’s unreadable, or incomprehensible.  No, what really caused the delay was me downloading You Must Build a Boat to my device and spending nearly every waking hour for over a week playing that stupid game.  I probably could have finished this book in a week, otherwise.

I’ve read one other Eco book, Foucault’s Pendulum, close to twenty years ago.  It wasn’t an easy book.  As I recall, I thought the story was intriguing, but the philosophy bogged me down.  I also remember that there was a pivotal scene at the end of the book where one of the characters said something important.  In Italian.  Without a translation.

So, I get it — Eco knows lots of stuff, and he wants to make sure you know that about him.  The Name of the Rose is another book like that, with more time devoted to discussing history and philosophy than to the story itself.  I hate to come across as anti-intellectual, but when it comes to my fiction, I prefer for the story, not the philosophy, to take center stage.  When the philosophy services the story, that’s great, but when it’s the other way around, I wind up feeling like I have to slog through pages and pages of philosophy before I find the next nugget of story.

The thing is, to take the history and philosophy out of the book would be to remove its context, as well.  So much of the story is anchored in its time and setting, and a story set in an abbey would be less of a story if one didn’t discuss the context of the abbey, again in its time and setting.  What story remains would be engaging still, but it wouldn’t be as relevant.  Look at the movie adaptation of the book to see what the story would be without the context.

For what it’s worth, the story here is really good.  Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk, is accompanied by his scribe, Adso of Melk, to investigate a death at an abbey.  Brother William is a Sherlock Holmes-ian character, perceptive and wise and thoughtful, and how he investigates the death is intriguing and interesting.  The story is one of politics, history, intrigue, and mystery, complete with questionable characters, red herrings, and a satisfying conclusion.

The construct of the story is significant, too, as the story itself is three layers deep: the book has a foreword written by a scholar that suggests this book is a found manuscript written by Adso; the prologue is narrated by Adso himself, suggesting that the story to follow is one written many years after the events of the story; and then there is the story itself, again narrated by Adso.  By the end of the story, years have passed, and it’s difficult to know if Adso is a reliable narrator.  Eco doesn’t present him as such, and monks were known for their prodigious memories, but how accurately can someone remember events from so many years ago?

Overall, I enjoyed the story, though I got bogged down with the history and philosophy Eco included.  It’s hard to say who the audience for the book is; the mystery is intriguing, but it has so much other discussion in the novel that it seems like it’s geared toward religious scholars.  Still, casual readers might enjoy it as much as I did, but I wouldn’t recommend it without reservation.

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The Fifth Heart

May 31, 2015 at 5:49 pm (Reads) (, )

The Fifth HeartThe Fifth Heart

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Henry James the author and Sherlock Holmes the character.  It’s an unusual pairing.  What puts the two together?  How did Simmons even come up with that idea in the first place?  The story is ultimately a Holmesian story, complete with disguises and recurring characters, but what made the author think to pair him up with an American writer living in England, and then transport them both back to the US?

At first, I thought the story might be similar to something Tim Powers would write, with the factual events of the story being actual facts, and the rest of the story explaining what went on behind those facts.  I didn’t do a great deal of research, but it appears that James didn’t even travel to the US during the time in which this novel is set.  It’s just a Sherlock Holmes story featuring an American writer.  I don’t know how else to explain it.

James’ inclusion in the story, though, isn’t just a random assignation, though; the mystery of the novel starts and ends with the writer’s acquaintances, and that James gets involved is a part of the story and the mystery.  In short, though, Holmes is investigating a suicide that he — and at least one other person — believes to be a murder, and during the course of the investigation, he’s also trying to determine whether he is a fictional character or a real person.  The second point is more theme than plot, but it comes up often enough so that the reader doesn’t forget that’s part of the story, too.

I don’t know Henry James’ work well enough to speak to how well Simmons captured his voice, but Samuel Clemens and Sherlock Holmes are captured extremely well.  The point of view shifts between James and Holmes throughout the book, and the voices are distinct in each part.  Clemens is an incidental character here, but when Simmons gives him a voice, it’s in the one you would expect to hear.  The same is true of Teddy Roosevelt, who also appears as an incidental character.

The thing is, James, Clemens, and Roosevelt were all real people, and Holmes is a fictional character.  It seems like just an author’s lark to throw them together to see how events would unfold around them, but there are moments where the characters become self-aware to some degree, and then the story starts to feel meta.  That feeling isn’t the point of the story, but it intrudes just enough to feel like the author is winking at us from just off-screen, and it was disappointing.  It wasn’t quite Stephen-King-writes-himself-into-his-own-story disappointing, but it felt like Simmons was being dishonest with his readers.

I liked the story, and the detail that Simmons brought to the story.  It’s no secret that Simmons does a lot of research for his novels, and he brings that research into the narrative, but he manages to do so without the story reading like it’s a lesson.  It’s wrapped into the story well enough to be informative without being overbearing, which is impressive when you stop and realize just how much detail he’s putting into the story.  The mystery feels like it could exist side-by-side with Doyle’s stories, though to be honest, I haven’t read enough of the original Holmes stories to be able to compare them that well.  Based on what little I do know, though, it feels like a Holmesian story.

Something else to note is that Samuel Clemens is featured in this book, as well as in Fires of Eden, which also featured Cordie Cook and Mike O’Rourke from Summer of Night.  It makes me wonder if Simmons, who does a little Stephen King-like world-building of his own among all his novels, has decided to make Mark Twain a part of the world that includes the Borgia Bell.  If so, it’s an intriguing thought, especially with his sly references to people as characters, and characters as people, that he brings up in The Fifth Heart.

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Dead Aim

May 21, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

Dead AimDead Aim by Joe R. Lansdale

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As much as I like the Hap & Leonard series, reading several of the books back-to-back probably isn’t recommended.  Each book makes a show of comparing Hap with Leonard in how they deal with the terrible things they sometimes have to do, with Hap brooding over some thing or another, and Leonard telling him he copes with it because he knows those things had to happen.  Hap broods some more, but manages to come to terms with them.  For now.

While it’s an interesting contrast between the characters, and while it highlights the differences between how they justify their morality, it gets tiresome to read it over and over again.  Read as they’re published, the books probably don’t have that kind of repetition to them; read over a single weekend, they do.

Also of note is the number of times we read about Leonard’s obsession with vanilla cookies and Dr. Pepper.  I swear, Hap & Leonard 11 is just going to be about Leonard’s trip to the dentist.

Dead Aim is another novella about the length of Hyenas, and is probably the more memorable of the two stories.  Hyenas was straightforward, with no real twists and turns to the story; Dead Aim goes a little bit further, and makes more of a mystery out the circumstances.  It’s still not as deep as the Vanilla Ride/Devil Red diptych, and unlike Hyenas, it’s not a good place to start with Hap and Leonard, but it was a more interesting, engaging read than Hyenas.

It’s a little strange to review this novella based on everything else Hap and Leonard, but it does make sense to get an idea of where it sits within the entire series.  Regardless, anyone who’s come this far with the pair should like this story, too.

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