Bubba Ho-Tep

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

bubbaBubba Ho-Tep by Joe R. Lansdale

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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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I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land

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

travellerI Met a Traveller in an Antique Land by Connie Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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The Black God’s Drums

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

drumsThe Black God’s Drums by Djèlí P. Clark

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

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

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

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

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The Descent of Monsters

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

decentThe Descent of Monsters by JY Yang

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My first thought on starting this book (you know, after “Yay! Another book by Yang!”) was “UGH, another epistolary story!” It’s not that I feel the structure is overdone, and it’s not even like I’ve read so many of them lately that I’m sick of them; no, I just have issues with the technique overall. I think it’s because my own memory is terrible, and I have to believe that someone can remember conversations so well that they can jot them down, verbatim, long after they’ve taken place. Unless the author is trying to present an unreliable narrator, I have a hard time accepting it.

Yang takes it a step further by having one of their characters jot things down in a journal as things are happening. At one point, the narrator is writing things down in the back of a cart on the way to a confrontation, and even comments on how bumpy the ride is and how horrible the writing must be. They even have the character stop in the middle of a sentence. It felt unnatural and forced, which took me right out of the story.

The thing is, the rest of the story flowed so well that I didn’t even pay much attention to the epistolary structure. Yang alternates between sources, so we get two different perspectives on one event, and it helps keep the tension high and the story moving. It reminded me of the best pieces of the first two novellas in the series. Unlike the first two books, which supposedly can be read in either order, Descent should be read after those two, since it builds off of events presented in the earlier books.

Folks who read the first two books should definitely read this one, but if they did, then they probably already have. For anyone else, if you’re interested in Eastern fantasy stories with genderfluid characters, you should make your way back to the first book and get reading.

Started: August 11, 2018
Finished: August 11, 2018

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The Expert System’s Brother

August 8, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

brotherThe Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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I’m a card-carrying member of the “Read Anything Adrian Tchaikovsky Writes” club. I regret getting into his fiction so late in his career, but after the brilliance of Children of Time and then the witty cleverness of Spiderlight, I went ahead and bought a full membership. The Expert System’s Brother is just the latest in a series of impressive books that play around with genre conventions to make an original, memorable story.

With this novella, Tchaikovsky drops us into a primitive yet futuristic world, and begins to parcel out what we need to know about the setting on a need-to-know basis. Oddly, it doesn’t feel forced, nor does it feel like Tchaikovsky is making it up as he goes along; instead, it feels realized in a way that suggests he is intimately familiar with the world and knows how to set the stage without having to reveal all of his tricks. In fact, as you read the story, the impenetrable title begins to make more sense, until you understand it well enough to understand the clue it gives you regarding the story.

Tchaikovsky injects the story with a questioning-authority theme by examining zealoutry and mob mentality. Two passages stand out to me in this regard:

When we surround ourselves with people who call evil good, how quickly we accept their definitions and speak them back, round and round until every way we experience the world is tainted by it.

It is a great poison, to know you have a destiny and that everything you do is right by default.

The latter quote is reminiscent of one from Spiderlight, but it’s poignant and thoughtful enough that I’m not going to complain about seeing it twice.

While the book didn’t wow me like Children of Time or Spiderlight did, it kept my interest and played with my expectations. I like books that do that, and the way Tchaikovsky manages to do that with all of his books keeps my interest piqued. Besides, Children of Time is just so damned good that I feel like I have to lower my expectations since it seems to be the story he was working toward from the day he started writing. This is probably a 3.5-star story, but I bumped it up to four because Tchaikovsky continues to impress me.

Started: July 24, 2018
Finished: July 30, 2018

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Come Closer

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

closerCome Closer by Sara Gran

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I’ve seen this novella described as literary horror, which is timely, since I just finished another novella that could be described as literary science fiction. In that review, I asked what made a story transcend genre to be considered literature, and I concluded that it has to do with how well the author depicts their main character with an everyperson quality. Gran doesn’t quite accomplish this here with her main character, Amanda, but she does capture the decline of a relationship as one person descends a downward spiral of madness.

Come Closer is about a woman, Amanda, who finds herself possessed by a demon. At first, it seems like Gran is using the possession to play with our expectations of the character. In the beginning, it’s easy to wonder if the possession is real or if it’s all in Amanda’s head, but as the story progresses, we realize that no, this is a genuine possession. By the end of the story, though, we’re left wondering again, though not in the way we might expect.

The story has a sense of inevitability about it, especially as you near the end of the book and realize there’s not much room left for Amanda to return from her possession. Things get worse and worse, and the story grows bleaker by the page, where you’re left wondering just how far Gran is going to take Amanda. The answer is “As far as she can.”

I enjoyed this book for its straightforward, no-nonsense style, which is steeped in doom but strangely lacking in atmosphere. Gran’s style makes the horrific stand out even more, like a blood spatter against a clean white sheet, and she excels at grabbing your attention without being graphic. This book is Good Horror, and anyone who wants a dark look into the human (or demon) psyche would be well advised to read it.

Started: July 21, 2018
Finished: July 23, 2018

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Prime Meridian

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

primePrime Meridian by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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You might believe this is a science-fiction novella, and for good reason. It’s marketed as one, it’s set in a near-future Mexico City, and Moreno-Garcia is a known genre author. The story itself, though, isn’t a typical science-fiction story, though it doesn’t suffer for it.

Amelia, twenty-five and struggling to get by in Mexico City, dreams of going to Mars. She’s had the dream since she was younger, and even had plans to go, but life, especially for a young woman in Mexico City, gets in the way. An ailing mother, a weak job market, and an apathy born of lost opportunity conspire against her wishes. Working as a friend-for-hire as her means of support, she struggles to find meaning while living with her sister and children, but there’s none to be found.

Prime Meridian is a story that could exist as literature or science fiction, as the science fictional elements are all in the setting. The story is a character examination, looking at one lost soul who represents all the disadvantaged young adults looking for identity in a changing world. Remove or replace the science fictional elements, and you’re left with a story that could be published in a literary magazine.

Which, of course, begs the question of when a story crosses from genre fiction to literary fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro managed it with Never Let Me Go, and Margaret Atwood accomplished that feat with The Handmaid’s Tale (among others), so what sets them apart? It can’t just be the character studies, since there’s plenty of genre fiction that does the same. I think it has to do with how well the author can make their main character an everyperson, someone who captures the zeitgeist of that moment. Moreno-Garcia does so with Amelia, who represents the disillusioned Millennial generation.

The story is oddly compelling, considering that it’s not plot-driven. Moreno-Garcia knows how to pace her story to keep the reader reading, introducing more and more pieces of her story until she brings us to the end of this arc in Amelia’s life. It’s a gentle story, and while it doesn’t end with all the answers, it answers just enough to ease our curiosity. What happens next is up to us.

Started: July 20, 2018
Finished: July 21, 2018

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Rolling in the Deep

July 17, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

deepRolling in the Deep by Mira Grant

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I didn’t intend to read two McGuire books back-to-back like this; it’s just the way my reading list shook out. I like her style, so it’s not like I don’t want to read her stuff, but I usually try to space an author out more than this. Interestingly, I’ve read several of her novellas, but none of her novels as yet.

Rolling in the Deep is about an ocean expedition, ostensibly to discover mermaids, but funded by a network known more for its B-grade monster movies and questionable documentaries (think the SyFy Channel). The ship is filled with ship personnel, cameramen, hosts, scientists, and fake mermaids, so of course personalities clash, long before the secret of the mermaids is actually revealed. Characterization is Grant’s strongest skill, since she creates characters who you root for or against so strongly that it’s impossible not to get caught up in the story itself. I just wish there had been more to the story here.

A good three-quarters of the story is the setup, where we meet the characters, and then the last quarter of the story is a fast-moving conclusion where everyone dies (no spoilers there; this is noted in the first few pages of the story). There’s a lot of potential to the story, where characters could be heroes or villains once the chaos erupts, but it feels wasted as Grant rushes through the final act.

There’s a full-length novel that follows this story, and I’ll jump right into it next. I’m hoping the greater length will allow for a more measured conclusion, since I enjoy Grant’s style enough to want to keep reading her, even though I’ve only read one book that thrilled me (Down Among the Sticks and Bones). I’m looking forward to seeing what she can do with a full-length novel.

Started: June 18, 2018
Finished: June 23, 2018

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Beneath the Sugar Sky

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

sugarBeneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

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The Wayward Children series is everything a good fantasy should be. It has interesting characters, all of whom could play the lead role in their own story, and all of whom play an important role in the mysteries that are unique to their home. As much as I loved the conceit of Every Heart a Doorway, though, I wasn’t thrilled with the story. McGuire won me over with Down Among the Sticks and Bones, so of course I was going to read Beneath the Sugar Sky. In the end, though, I didn’t like the story as much, even though it worked perfectly well.

McGuire takes the characters she created in her first book and writes an adventure story that uses all of their different skills, but it doesn’t have the kind of impact Jack and Jill’s story did. I think it’s because the story of Sticks was personal, while the other two books are more ensemble stories, so we don’t get to stay focused on any one character. What characters are here are sympathetic, and we get a good sense of their motivations, but I’d prefer to read Cora’s story instead of going on an adventure to help Rini (who, to be honest, was a bit of a prima donna).

Like the other books in the series, Sugar has great characters, diverse characters, great ideas, great themes, and a strong narrative. I just wish it had been another standalone story instead of a group adventure. I feel like McGuire created her cast of characters in the first book, and now it’s time for us to read their individual stories. Of course, without an ensemble book every so often, we’d run out of characters, so I can’t complain too much.

Started: June 20, 2018
Finished: June 21, 2018

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Time Was

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

timeTime Was by Ian McDonald

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I’ve seen a lot of reviews that gripe about how the story of this novella doesn’t match the blurb on the back of the book. I get that — you want to read about what’s on the box — but I went into this without knowing what it was about, other than a good introduction to McDonald. What I found was a fantastic story about love, history, and time travel, told as a mystery in some of the most beautiful language I’ve read. I can’t help but feel like those reviewers are missing the forest for the trees for not examining the story on its own terms, instead of how it was sold to them.

I’m very much a function over form reader, though I can appreciate good narrative when it doesn’t overwhelm the story. McDonald is a poet, creating succulent sentences that force you to slow down to appreciate them. He’s also a great storyteller who creates vivid characters to drive a compelling plot. In Time Was, he tells the story of a bookseller who stumbles across a letter in a book of poetry, which in turn leads him down a rabbit trail of history and science.

This is my first time reading Ian McDonald, but it won’t be the last. I’m curious to see what he can do with a full-length novel.

Started: June 14, 2018
Finished: June 17, 2018

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