A Night in the Lonesome October

April 13, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

lonesomeA Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny

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This is one of those books I’ve owned for years, decades, even. It’s a holdover from my “All Horror, All the Time” phase, but I’ve kept it over several moves and purges because it was a Roger Zelazny book. I finally got around to reading it, namely because I was shifting some books around on my shelves, and this was the one book I couldn’t fit onto the shelf once I had reorganized everything. Hey, it’s not the weirdest reason I’ve decided to read a book.

The story is comedy horror, an homage to classic horror stories and authors like Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, Jack the Ripper, and Lovecraft’s mythos. It manages to straddle the line of comedy and horror well, with the laughs and chuckles genuine, even as the story becomes more and more serious as the story progresses. It’s narrated by Snuff, a dog whose master is named Jack. They’re part of a coven of sorts, and the most important month of the year — October — has just begun. What makes the month so important only becomes clear as the story progresses, and this is apparently a common characteristic for a Zelazny novel — figuring out what’s happening.

As fun as the story is, it wouldn’t be complete without Gahan Wilson’s illustrations. The book is broken down into 31 chapter, each one accompanied by a full-page illustration. Sometimes the illustration occurs before its context appears in the story, but for the most part, they happen at the same time. Even when they don’t, though, they don’t spoil the story.

The book is compelling and readable, funny and serious, and a real joy for anyone who enjoys horror. It’s a fun ride, suitable for readers of all ages, but readers who are familiar with the source work Zelazny pastiches here will get the most out of it. It was apparently one of Zelazny’s own personal favorites of his books, as well as one of the last he wrote. It’s a good book with which to leave his legacy.

Started: January 17, 2018
Finished: January 19, 2018

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian

April 9, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

diaryThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie

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Open up the front cover of this book and read over the praise heaped upon it. Go ahead, take your time; there are about four pages for it all. I’ll wait.

*whistles*

All done? Great. I just wanted you to get a feel for what others have said about it, because I want to say that it is all deserved. This is a fantastic book about coming of age against all odds, set firmly in the real world, against a culture about which we should all know more. It has pain and happiness, failure and success, humor and sadness, sometimes all happening at the same time.

Alexie creates vivid characters. Arnold, our main character and narrator, stands out among them all, but not at the expense of Rowdy or Penelope or Gordy, or even Arnold’s parents. They all stand out as unique individuals, even though they’re part of Arnold’s story.

Alexie also gives us a closer look at what it means to grow up on a reservation. This, I think, is the most important part of the novel. Anyone can relate to the Arnold’s trials, but it’s important for kids — privileged white kids especially — to see what it means to grow up outside of the establishment. I’ve heard (and believe) that reading fiction makes people more compassionate and empathetic; this book will certainly do so.

While not a graphic novel, the book is heavily illustrated, and those illustrations serve an important part of the story. Arnold is a cartoonist and artist, so those drawings give us further insights into what he thinks and, more importantly, what he sees. Ellen Forney captures the heart and sensibility of the story through her illustrations, enough so that it would be hard to imagine the story without them.

This is a fantastic story. It reminds me somewhat of Stargirl in subject and theme, even though they’re very different stories. If I had to pick a favorite between the two books … well, I wouldn’t be able to do it. Both books are vivid, readable, engaging, and important. If someone came to me asking for a recommendation for one over the other, I would have to tell them to find more time to read them both. They’re just that good.

Started: January 14, 2018
Finished: January 18, 2018

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The Conformity

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

conformityThe Conformity by John Hornor Jacobs

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In the previous two books in Jacobs’ trilogy, he borrowed heavily from existing horror stories, but made his stories unique partly through Shreve’s voice. In The Conformity, he mixes up his formula, and I question if it works as well as he thinks it does.

For one thing, what he borrows from horror is a little too distinctive to borrow: He adopts the giant-person-made-up-of-regular-people idea that Clive Barker used in “In the Hills, the Cities”. I’ve never seen that trope used in any other horror story, namely because it’s so distinctive, an author wouldn’t be able to get away with it without looking like a copycat. It’s not the point of Jacobs’ story like it was in Barker’s, but still, it was impossible to read this book and not think of Barker’s story.

For another, Jacobs goes outside of Shreve to narrate parts of the story, and I don’t understand why he broke that formula. In regards to the story, it makes sense — Shreve is knocked unconscious for several days, and it’s up to others in the Society of Extranaturals to continue the story — but since Shreve can now jump into anyone’s head and experience their lives directly, I question why Jacobs didn’t use this as a way to show what the other characters are doing.

The pacing of the novel feels off, too. The ending comes rather suddenly, when Jacobs spends pages and chapters showing us a side-quest that never serves a purpose to the overall story. It feels like Jacobs was padding the story to get to a certain page-count, which is still odd, when he could have spent more time drawing out the ending of the book instead.

I didn’t thing The Conformity was bad, but I can’t deny I was disappointed, either. Jacobs started out telling a unique, if familiar, story, and then ended it in a way that was weaker than the first two books. I still liked the trilogy enough to want to read more of his fiction, and I would still recommend the series to readers looking for a unique take on a coming-of-age story, but I feel like the author didn’t quite stick the landing here. Consider this book a 7.5 performance from a 9.8 athlete.

Started: December 8, 2017
Finished: December 13, 2017

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The Shibboleth

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

shibbolethThe Shibboleth by John Hornor Jacobs

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A shibboleth is, according to Wikipedia, any custom or tradition that distinguishes one group of people from others. In the case of Shreve and Jack, our main characters for this sequel to The Twelve-Fingered Boy, this is the power they have. These powers are important to a group called the Society of Extranaturals, which is the group for which Quincrux, the antagonist from the first book, is trying to recruit the two boys.

Jacobs takes a risk with this novel, separating both Shreve and Jack at the start of the book. It was their relationship that carried the story, and the first half of the novel is just about Shreve. Luckily, Jacobs still uses that relationship to define Shreve’s state of mind, even though he’s not present; in fact, it’s his absence that drives Shreve’s character. Eventually, the two characters reunite, but this series continues to be a coming-of-age story, and one of the risks of growing up through the teen years is friends growing apart.

The story will likely remind most readers of X-Men, and fans of Stephen King will see some influence from The Shop, the secret agency that recurs throughout his middle-era books. Like The Twelve-Fingered Boy, though, the book does its own thing with borrowed themes, and stands on its own well enough. It’s much darker than either influence (yes, some parts are even darker than Firestarter), and Shreve’s voice stands out to make the book unique.

Since this is the middle book of a trilogy, it ends at the darkest moment for the main characters, leading us to the final showdown in the third book. Jacobs sets up the events well for the conclusion, even going so far as to play with our expectations for how it will develop. Following the tone he’s created with the first two books, the third should be just as impressive.

Started: December 4, 2017
Finished: December 8, 2017

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The Twelve-Fingered Boy

February 19, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

twelveThe Twelve-Fingered Boy by John Hornor Jacobs

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Shreve Cannon is a big-wig in juvie. He’s the connection if you want candy, and he knows how to use people’s sweet teeth to get what he wants. That all changes, though, when Jack, the new kid, shows up. He seems to be the usual newbie, crying at night and keeping to himself, but Shreve figures he’s something special because of his twelve fingers. And then there’s the thing that happens when Jack gets angry.

The premise isn’t anything new, but Jacobs brings a new voice to this kind of story, through Shreve. He’s a standard juvie/jail tough guy, at least as much as his front will allow. He winds up being more compassionate and sympathetic than one would expect, since his tough guy image is related to his position as the candy supplier. He still talks like a tough guy, though, and he serves as the narrator, which makes it a little difficult to get into the story, since his voice can be off-putting.

Jacobs also makes the story bigger than just Jack and Shreve, but what sells the story is the relationship between the two boys. It’s a coming-of-age story set against the background of developing powers, those powers serving as a metaphor for developing into the adult they will become. It’s a compelling story, with strong characterization, and even if parts of the story seem like they’re heavily borrowed from Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort, it’s unique enough to stand on its own.

This is the first book in a trilogy, though, so be forewarned that the story Jacobs is writing is larger than the one that exists in this book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but just know going into the story that you won’t get all your questions answered here. Jacobs raises a lot of them, so it’s best to be prepared going forward.

Started: December 1, 2017
Finished: December 3, 2017

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Cloudbound

January 19, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

cloudboundCloudbound by Fran Wilde

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There are a lot of things Wilde does right with Cloudbound. For one, the first couple of chapters serve as a nice summary of what happened in Updraft, the first book in this trilogy, which is useful, since I last read that book over a year ago. Like that book, Cloudbound also wraps the story around some fascinating ideas and themes, which help to elevate what is, to me, a mediocre story, to something a little more interesting.

The book picks up a few months after the events of Updraft, and this time Wilde shifts the narration from Kirit to Nat, one of her oldest friends who wound up fighting her to help save the towers. To say their relationship is strained is being generous; there’s a tremendous loss of trust between the two, and it drives their characters for the bulk of the book. Unfortunately, the characters didn’t spring to life for me. Kirit is mostly a background character, with the focus shifting back to the troubles between the Spire and the towers, neither to which she belongs. She’s an outcast, despite her role in bringing the corruption to the towers’ attention, so she gets very little page-time in the book.

I don’t find fault with Wilde shifting attention from one character to another. There are a lot of people in her Bone Universe, and it helps broaden the universe to show that it takes more than one hero to keep that world going. It’s just that none of the other characters are as interesting as Kirit. She does a good job of creating a diverse cast of characters, and gives them proper motivations, but I couldn’t get interested in them.

The other weird thing about the story is that it ought to have engaged me. Plot-wise, it was interesting, and expanded on what the Bone Universe is, but somehow I felt disconnected with it all. It reminded me a lot of the Craft Sequence, in that the narrative itself couldn’t engage me, despite the wealth of great ideas within.  I also noticed how Wilde uses sentence fragments a lot, I’m guessing for effect. Or because she felt it provided a narrative punch. (Yes, that’s my attempt to show how she was using them.) For me, they were more distracting than anything else.

I’m not sure if reading Updraft would have made me more aware of these issues, since I listened to the audio production for that book. I get the feeling the sentence fragments would have been less obvious, but I’m not sure about the rest. I do know that I remember pieces of Updraft fairly vividly; time will tell if Cloudbound will stay with me as well.

As I was reading this book, I figured I might have been done with the series, but then she went and ended the story the way she did, and I get the feeling I’ll be back around for book three. I know it’s already out, but the stories didn’t strike me as good enough to buy the books in hardcover, so I’ll likely wait until the paperback is released to get caught up. If my library carried a copy, I’d get it from there, but as it is, I don’t mind waiting. I have a lot of other books I’m more interested in reading right now, anyway.

Started: October 19, 2017
Finished: October 27, 2017

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Archie: Volume Four

December 11, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

archie4Archie: Volume Four by Mark Waid and Pete Woods

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In the afterword of the first volume of the Archie reboot, Waid noted that when he started writing the series, he hung a sign on his bulletin board that read, “First, do no harm.” It served as a reminder to tackle the characters honestly, as members of the Archie universe, and to maintain the themes and feelings of the original series. He’s accomplished this in the allegorical sense, but with Volume Four, he shows that he’s not necessarily abiding by that rule in the literal sense.

(Spoilers ahead.)

This volume packs an emotional punch, as the Betty/Veronica question continues to be a central part of the title, and also because Betty winds up in a serious accident by the end, serious enough that she flatlines before coming out to learn she can’t feel her legs. I’m a little torn by the reveal, because I can’t deny that it’s effective, but I also wonder if this is just a narrative ploy to drive Archie back to Betty. If that’s the case, then it makes Betty’s character pretty worthless, doesn’t it?

The accident is the result of a drag race between Archie and Reggie, and comes in mostly out of nowhere. Betty catches wind of it, and attempts to prevent it, but it forces her off the road, where she is seriously injured. Somehow, the two male characters come out of it with hardly a scratch, and it’s hard to tell how they react to the news, since the volume ends on a cliffhanger. Waid suggests this will be a big thing for Archie (and for Reggie, though for different reasons), and it all sits uncomfortably with me. Betty has been strong and independent, and unless this turn of events is there to make Betty stronger, it all feels like a girl-in-the-refrigerator moment. I’m withholding final judgment until I see where this part of the story goes, because it can go either way from here.

As for the other stories, we see less of Cheryl Blossom (though her story takes an unexpected turn), and there’s a cute interplay between Jughead and Veronica that’s endearing, but the story is overwhelmed by the Betty arc. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it was nice to see some other characters get some time in the spotlight. Moose even gets some panel time!

Unfortunately, so does Reggie. Reggie was never a likable character, so it’s no surprise that he’s nobody’s friend in the reboot, but Waid seems to be trying for Riverdale’s own version of Henry Bowers, instead of an obnoxious prankster. There’s an air of finality around his pranks that didn’t exist in the old series, and it feels like it goes too far in the revamp.

Despite my concerns, I still think this is a solid volume, with some effective storytelling. It relies a bit too much on coincidence and might be pushing characters into making decisions that don’t support their characters, but it’s definitely memorable. I’m eager to see how Waid will wrap up this storyline in Volume Five.

Started: September 5, 2017
Finished: September 5, 2017

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The Girl from the Well

December 1, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

wellThe Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

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Whoof, what a mess. It feels like there could be a decent story buried in the narrative — a young boy with tattoos on most of his body begins to see a ghost who is avenging other dead by killing their murderers — but the writing is so bad it’s hard to find it.

The ghost is our narrator, which is part of why it doesn’t read well. Our main character is the young boy, Tarquin, and his aunt, Callie, but we never see what’s happening in the story through their eyes. Instead, we have the ghost telling us what’s happening with them, so we’re removed from the events and emotions of the story. The only real connection we have with the characters is through their dialogue, which is so poorly written that it’s embarrassing.

The dialogue feels consistently stilted and forced, and winds up coming across as insincere. Tarquin’s main way of communicating is through sarcasm, which doesn’t come across well in the story, and since we have to learn of their backstories through conversation, we get a lot of info-dumps through the dialogue. The story moves quickly as a result, so there’s no subtlety, no easing our way into the story. Instead, we get a teacher who immediately believes one of her students when she tells her she can see a ghost, and a therapist makes an immediate breakthrough against a patient’s hostile reticence to talk. We don’t see any struggles or introspection about any of this; we’re expected to take it at face value.

As a result, the characterization is flat. Callie cares for Tarquin, as does his father, but we don’t get a sense of that emotion; we only know that about them because we’re told it’s so. Tarquin seems to come to care for the ghost who is our narrator, but again, we don’t get a real sense of why. Despite her being a murderous thing, the ghost takes to Tarquin and Callie immediately; she even admits to them that she’s not sure why she feels that way. In the end, neither do we.

Chupeco has an odd style to her writing, where she will

break

up

her sentences across paragraphs, apparently as a means of drawing attention to the tension of a moment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well as she thinks it does. For me, it just slowed me down, forcing me to parse the sentence instead of experiencing the story.

In another author’s hands, The Girl from the Well could have been a fantastic horror story. As it is, it’s clunky, poorly developed, and poorly written. The book is marketed as YA book, which means I maybe should give it some slack for being more direct, but there are plenty of YA and juvenile books that don’t pander that way for me to ignore it. Chupeco has written a sequel and an additional book, but I won’t be reading either.

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Usagi Yojimbo: The Hell Screen

November 2, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

screenUsagi Yojimbo: The Hell Screen by Stan Sakai

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Every time I review an Usagi Yojimbo book, I say the same things: strong storytelling; bold artwork; vivid characters. The Hell Screen is no different, since Sakai is still a natural at all of those things. His established characters ring true and honest, and his newly-introduced ones, while less developed, are drawn well enough to serve their purpose in the stories.

The theme of this volume seems to be rain, as the stories all take place during thunderstorms. The first two stories have an overlap I haven’t seen in Sakai’s stories before, where they diverge in the midpoint of the first one. The second story begins at that divergence, which felt odd (as near as I can recall, Sakai has never gone back in his timeline, though he’s used flashbacks before), but it made sense once I understood what he was doing.

I say this every time I review an Usagi Yojimbo book, but if you haven’t yet read these books, you should. They have appeal for all readers of all ages, and the storytelling is so good that it’s a shame not to experience it. You have a long way to go to catch up (this is volume 31!), but it’s worth it.

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Archie: Volume Three

August 25, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

archie3Archie: Volume Three by Mark Waid & Joe Eisma

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I’ve been reading the Archie books for as long as I can remember. I have memories of begging my parents to buy me the newest digest on display at the grocery store, and I remember reading them over and over again. I had my favorite characters, and I took sides on the whole Betty/Veronica running plot (Team Betty!), so it’s safe to say I was invested in the series as a kid.

The thing is, I don’t remember Cheryl Blossom. At all. I might have been too old to be reading Archie when she was introduced (Wikipedia says that was 1982), but even if I was, she didn’t make an impression. The way Waid introduced her in this volume made it clear she was an established character he was re-introducing, but for me it was all new. It didn’t feel like Waid was expecting the reader to know the character in order to not have to create her backstory, but it did feel like he was playing to the audience more with her character.

She’s not a likable character (she’s not intended to be), but she’s being presented as a third interest for Archie’s affections. While Archie is still the klutzy, clueless teenager he’s always been, Waid hasn’t presented Archie as being so clueless that he won’t see through her act. Maybe that’s forthcoming; this volume is more interested in establishing her character and putting events into place to bring her to Riverdale. Regardless, I’ll be interested in seeing how Waid puts the two character together.

As I said above, this book is all about Cheryl and getting her to Riverdale, but all of the events leading us that way feel forced. It made some sense for Hiram Lodge to send Veronica to a European boarding school at the end of Volume Two, but it still felt strained. Waid even succeeds in making her return feasible, but Cheryl’s move was a little too pat to be believable. The pieces fit well enough, and thinking back on it, I can’t see where Waid cheated to pull it together, but I’m not sure why he felt the need to move Veronica to Europe to do it.

Waid has done a good job so far with reinventing Archie for the modern world while staying true to the characters, but it feels like he stumbled with this arc. Now that the characters are all back on one place, the story should pick up and get back to what it’s done well so far, but getting there was a bit of a disappointment.

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