11/22/63 by Stephen King (* * *)
I’m suspending the Intro/Verdict format here because I read the mammoth 11/22/63 in a four-day marathon for a very specific reason.
My friend Albie Burdge, creator and host of The Quantum Leap Podcast has decided to do an event podcast centered on the upcoming Hulu TV series 11.22.63, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. And he has asked me and my QL Podcast colleague Skipper Martin to host.
He got this crazy idea because Skipper and I went on for over an hour one night about King and his work, and it was a lively discussion because we didn’t always see eye to eye. The Hulu series premieres on Presidents Day in 2016, and we’ll do a number of shows about the book leading up to that, so it behooved me to get up to speed ASAP.
I pretty much stopped reading King after my huge disappointment in Needful Things about 20 years ago, and have returned to his work sporadically in the time since with varying results. I thought Misery was a masterpiece; I punched out of The Dark Tower series at the end of book four. So I had some trepidation going into 11/22/63.
But I loved the book. Ostensibly, it’s the story of Jake Epping, a high school teacher who travels back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination; but it’s so much more than that. Once Jake settles into the past, the real story begins, and saving Kennedy becomes almost tangential. It was like settling in with old King favorites like Pet Semetary and It. It also didn’t hurt that a good portion of the novel takes place in Derry shortly after the events of It and has some character cameos.
Skipper and I will be discussing the novel at length, and then the TV adaptation. We’ve already taped some interviews with actors and the production staff, and even have a bonus show in the can. Click here to learn more and subscribe to 11.22.63: An Event Podcast. I hope you’ll be listening.
Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente (* * *)
Catherynne M. Valente pinged my radar in 2009 with her novel Palimpsest, about people with tattoos of partial maps, who can go to the alternate reality represented on the maps by having sex with someone who has a tattoo of an adjoining map (it’s been a while, but that’s the gist). I loved the premise, and Valente’s writing was good, but the narrative unfolded in my mind as if tinted by the same depressing blue filter that Zach Snyder used for Man of Steel. The bleak tone really diminished my enjoyment.
So when I stumbled across Valente’s new novel at the bookstore and saw that it was called Radiance, irony alone demanded that I pick it up. If she could lend her considerable imagination to a brighter, more entertaining story. . .
Here’s what I read on the first line of the dust jacket interior: “Radiance is a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood — and solar system — very different from our own…”
Oh, Catherynne. You had me at “decopunk.” Sold!
Radiance seems right at home with the Scientific Romances of Wells, Burroughs and Verne, following the fantastic journey of filmmaker Severin Unck as she rockets around a solar system of fantastically inhabited planets. Severin comes from an old Hollywood family and there’s some kind of mystery plot, but I honestly don’t know much about that aspect of the story because I’ve been dazzled by promises that Severin will be “investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars” and that’s all I really need to know to be excited about reading this book.
VERDICT: There are books you read and books you rise to; Radiance is the latter. At once an alternate history, Scientific Romance and cosmic fairytale, Radiance turned out to be less fantastic travelogue (though it is that) and more of a shaggy dog story centered on the disappearance of main character Severin Unck. The story unfolds in non-linear snippets of film scripts, interviews, gossip columns and fantastic set pieces that range from gritty noir on Uranus to gothic Plutonian melodrama. Decopunk indeed. This is the most richly imagined, ambitiously written book I’ve read in a long time; and though it didn’t resonate with me on any deep emotional level (hence the three stars instead of three-and-a-half or four), the sheer craft and spectacle on display cannot be denied or overstated. A must read for lovers of the fantastic, and fans of books that demand you meet them on their own terms and not yours.
Rage Master by Simon Clark (*)
Well what do you know? As I was reading 20th Century Ghosts (see below), Rage Master — the 2015 Earthling Publications Halloween Series offering — hit my front stoop. Considering that I just got through my Halloween Series backlog, I decided to go with the spooky flow and dive right in.
It’s tempting to say I’ve saved the best for last, because Rage Master feels more like a proper novel than The Bones of You and The Halloween Children (see below). A takeoff on werewolf mythology, Rage Master follows the misadventures of brothers Kavell and Sebastian, two of about 30 or so of the last straggling remnants of a hominid subspecies dubbed Dog-Heads, which evolved separately from humans in the northern wastes of Russia (think canine-ish Neanderthals). Dog-Heads can be extremely dangerous, as a hormonal attack called The Rage hits them about once a month, turning them into flesh-eating killing machines. World governments have been covertly hunting and exterminating the species throughout the 20th Century, and Kavell and his clan are the last ones left.
While traveling through the south of France, Sebastian gets tangled up with a human girl, and when Kavell goes out to find his brother, he gets into a scrape of his own. Now both brothers are on the run from mercenaries who want to kill them.
Here’s the problem. While I’m mainly enjoying Rage Master, Clark’s writing is starting to drive me nuts. He has a tendency to repeat himself. For instance, one elderly character wears a medical bracelet, and if she suffers any ill health, it will set off an alarm and flashing red lights on a matching bracelet that her daughter wears. I know this unequivocally, because Clark has told me so every time the bracelet is mentioned. Every. Single. Time. In the space of 20 or so pages.
The book is written mainly from Kavell’s first-person POV, so I don’t know if that and other instances of stylistic clumsiness are supposed to be indicative of the character’s unpolished voice, or if they’re genuine flaws in Clark’s style. But either way the result is the same. It’s very annoying.
And I have to call Earthling out for a fairly heavy amount of typos. I’m unforgiving when critiquing indie authors about avoidable mistakes like this. I can’t let Earthling off the hook simply because they’ve published two of the best books I’ve ever read. In fact, I’ve been letting them coast on that for a while now. So I’m as curious as anyone else to see what my verdict is going to be on this one…
VERDICT: This is an awful book. By the end, the ham-fisted writing and the constant repetition had gone from annoying to infuriating. I’m a careful reader and I always try to approach anyone’s work with attention and respect. But I became so disgusted with Rage Master that I did something I’ve never done before: I scanned the final 80 pages just to have done with it. And I missed nothing. Repetitive prose, repetitive chase scenes and the big reveal of the so-called Rage Master that went nowhere. What a waste of time. So let’s tally: one book I absolutely loved, and four that I disliked or downright hated. I think I’m done with Earthling’s Halloween series — unless all the future titles are by Glen Hirshberg and/or David Herter.
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill (* * *)
If your dad is Stephen King and you decide to follow in his horror-writer footsteps, inevitable comparisons will ensue. Here’s mine:
Joe Hill is amazing. The stories collected in 20th Century Ghosts are, so far, better than anything Stephen King has written since Misery. In fact, the last time I read a horror collection that sucked my in so effortlessly was probably in middle school when I read King’s Night Shift or Skeleton Crew (I forget which I picked up first). And 20th Century Ghosts is proving better than both of them, too.
Maybe it’s because I’m primarily a novel reader, but story collections sometimes frustrate me. Just when I settle into a narrative it’s over, and then I have to mentally shift gears — oftentimes reluctantly — and immerse myself into an entirely new story. It can feel like jumping hurdles, and it always detracts from my overall reading experience. But Hill’s style is so engaging that I’m feeling none of that. Each story has draw me right in, and they’re really good to boot.
Hill deals with many familiar horror tropes, but gives them a fresh spin. The requisite ghost story, the titular “20th Century Ghost,” is as poignant as it is haunting; the requisite vampire story, “Abraham’s Boys,” features Abraham Van Helsing and his sons and isn’t really about vampires at all; and the wholly original “Pop Art,” about an inflatable boy, is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read, period, in any genre. In his introduction to the collection, author Christopher Golden calls “Pop Art” “transcendent” and I can’t think of a better word to describe it.
Hill straddles a line between the populist style that made his dad famous and the literary style of recent horror authors like Glen Hirshberg, meandering from one style to the other as the story requires, and pulling off both with equal skill.
So yeah, I’m excited. And saddened that I didn’t pick up the original PS Publishing edition of 20th Century Ghosts when I had the chance.
VERDICT: What a terrific collection. Additional standouts include “The Cape,” a tale about a sudden superpower which is kind of predictable, but fun nonetheless, “The Black Phone,” about a kidnapping gone bad (or good depending on your point of view) and the vividly surreal “My Father’s Mask,” which I read twice, because it’s even more enjoyable when you know where the story is going. Joe Hill is now on my radar. I hope his novel-length work stands up to the promise of these stories.
Afterlife With Archie Vol. 1: Escape from Riverdale
by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla (* * *)
Suspending the Intro/Verdict format because it takes, like, an hour to read a graphic novel. Especially when it’s a graphic novel that I’ve been putting off reading for the better part of a year, waiting for Halloween to roll around. And Afterlife with Archie was worth the wait.
In case you’re one of the nine people who hasn’t heard about it, Afterlife with Archie takes all of your favorite Riverdale teens and chucks them into the middle of a zombie apocalypse. And zombie patient zero is none other than Jughead Jones. Devastated by the loss of his pooch Hot Dog, who gets run over, Juggy brings the corpse to Sabrina and begs her to bring it back to life. The teenage witch complies, and world-undeadening complications ensue.
Needless to say, this book goes very dark. It’s rated Teen+ with good reason, and there’s a ton of adult subtext added to the character relationships, which neatly augments the bloody storyline. And boy, is it bloody. Francesco Francavilla’s artwork is as gruesome as it is gorgeous.
This title hits a special vibe with me, because I didn’t read superhero comics growing up, I read Archie. So in addition to being a great book, Afterlife with Archie is pressing all of my nostalgic buttons. I can’t wait for the second volume to come out in January. Something tells me I won’t be waiting until next Halloween to read it.
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss (* * ½)
The Halloween Children is the 2014 offering from Earthling Publications’ Halloween series, the last of my backlog. I’m only 18 pages in, but it’s already spookier and more engaging than 2013’s The Bones of You (see below).
So far, The Halloween Children is about Harris and Lynn, a married couple with two children. The family is quietly fraying, and Lynn may be crazy, as she’s a bit paranoid about her son Matthew and the way she feels he’s always slyly watching her — though she can never catch him in the act. Meanwhile, Harris feels Lynn coddles their daughter Amber to the detriment of both children; what’s more, he doesn’t seem to like the girl very much. And there are already hints of the supernatural.
Freeman and Prentiss have managed to strike a creepy, uncomfortable vibe right off the bat. Maybe it’s because the parents aren’t spouting platitudes of unconditional love for their kids, and the latent resentments and fractures could pay off in big, uncomfortable ways when the eerie shit goes down and choices have to be made. Or maybe I’m reading too much into this and setting myself up for a fall. But I’m already sucked in. See you on the other side.
VERDICT: The characters of Lynn and Harris are well-drawn (especially Lynn — she’s fucking hateable) and the writing is atmospheric and effective, but for all that The Halloween Children never quite equals the sum of its parts. Probably because the last third foregoes contextualizing the dark and genuinely creepy actions of Matthew and Amber, trading motivation and explanation for a cavalcade of nightmare imagery. Still, the book manages to end on a chilling and ominous note. Unfortunately, all that does is make it seem like you’re reading a flashback/origin sequence of a much larger novel. Think Stephen King’s It with only the childhood parts.
The Bones of You by Gary McMahon (* *)
October is here and that means it’s a seasonally appropriate time to dive into my backlog of Halloween books from Earthling Publications.
I’ve mentioned this here before, several times, but it bears repeating that Earthling Publications — probably my favorite small press — releases a new book yearly for its Halloween Series.
The Bones of You is the 2013 offering, about a divorced dad whose new rental house turns out to be next door to a house where a bunch of children were murdered, one on every Halloween, some years prior.
I’m only in the opening chapters, which have thus far focused on protagonist Adam’s saddish backstory. But the supernatural elements are building slowly, and let’s just say that here there be ghosts…
VERDICT: Two things about The Bones of You kinda annoyed me. First, the prose is padded in a way that makes me think McMahon’s chief concern was bulking word count. In one scene, it takes Adam an entire paragraph to turn on a light. There are sequences that don’t add to the overall story and it’s filled with throwaway observations. Adam sees graffiti and tells us that he didn’t bother to read it. That makes no sense. To see a word is to read a word. Little things like that irk me. Second annoyance: Adam is completely ambivalent about the supernatural phenomena in his house. If a box of books just suddenly appeared in your empty basement while your back was turned, or you found your daughter sleep-talking to a ghost, what would you do? Stay, of course, and barely think about it! Eddie Murphy has a NSFW routine about this. Anyway, Bones of You is a cool idea told from the wrong POV. There’s a much bigger, more interesting story going on, but readers are on its periphery, trapped in Adam’s mopey, first-person narrative. I’ll call this one a missed opportunity.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (* * * ½)
I’m once again suspending the Intro/Verdict format this time out because I tore through this entire novel before updating this page. So let’s get right to it.
Great Expectations is my new co-favorite book by Charles Dickens, on par with A Christmas Carol, which I read every year. That’s not saying much, since a quick mental inventory reveals I can only compare it to A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist. I’m far less versed in Dickens than I thought!
That notwithstanding, Great Expectations is funny and terrific. It’s about Pip, an orphan who gains a mysterious benefactor and goes off to London to realize his Great Expectations. The characters in this book are so well drawn and enjoyable that I had a hard time putting it down. It does occasionally veer into Victorian melodrama, but those elements are amply balanced by Pip’s engaging journey into manhood, the relationships he builds, those he leaves behind, the mistakes he makes and his acceptance of adult responsibility and accountability — all executed in Dickens pithy, wry style.
There’s realness and truth in Dickens’ writing, and his ideas resonate just as effectively in the 21st Century as they did in the 19th. Read this book!
Taken in the Dark of Night by Daniel Howard (* ½)
Since publishing my novella The Seeker through DeFlip Side Press, I’ve joined a number of indie author groups on Facebook. And it’s my new association with that community that put Daniel Howard on my radar, and what led me to request a copy of his book for review.
Taken in the Dark of Night is Howard’s debut novella, featuring the protagonist James of Darkwood, who is apparently the main character in a multi-book Fantasy series by Howard. An author’s note at the beginning of the novella calls Taken a stand-alone story that takes place between the first two James of Darkwood books. But as yet, neither of those longer books is available. I understand Howard’s strategy here: draw readers in with a shorter book, drum up interest in the main series so book one has a strong release, make a little bit of dough in the process. It’s a good business model. But it all hinges on the strength of Taken in the Dark of Night.
And so far the book is promising and problematic in equal measure. As the title implies, Taken in the Dark of Night is about a little girl who gets kidnapped by a gang of bandits, and the story shifts between her point of view and that of James, who is hunting the men who took her. James is an Eloria’an, kind of like a Tolkienian Elf, and the narrative alludes to his dark and tragic past. Howard isn’t breaking any new genre ground here, but that’s okay because he enjoyably plies the standard Fantasy tropes. And while his prose is a bit straight forward for my tastes (as evidenced by the on-the-nose title), he does have a flair for well-paced action sequences.
But the book is riddled with typos, with one on almost every page, and when you combine those with occasional formatting issues, it really distracts from the story. Which is a shame because the writing isn’t bad. Anyway, I’m only about 1/3 of the way through, and a unicorn has just made an unexpected appearance (see what I mean about tropes?) so I’m intrigued enough to read on. But my verdict on this one could go either way. Stay tuned for that, as well as a full review.
VERDICT: This is a likeable, solid two-star debut sabotaged by typos and poor presentation. Read my full review here.
Serenity Vol. 2: Better Days by Joss Whedon (* *)
I’m suspending the Intro/Verdict format this time out because I read this in one go. So let’s get right to it.
Better Days is a trade collection of the second Serenity comic book mini-series published by Dark Horse, which takes place in the Firefly universe at some point before the Serenity feature film. Which means that it features the entire series cast that you know and love.
And this book grabbed me right from the start, in a way that its predecessor, Those Left Behind, didn’t. The characters, pacing and humor were on par with the best episodes of the series and it was a blast.
But then Mal does something so uncharacteristically selfish and dickish in the last two pages that it not only sours the book for me, but places a permanently unpleasant pall over the character in my mind. I don’t know if Joss wrote himself into a corner he didn’t know how to get out of, or if it was a deliberate choice, but I just can’t fathom why he would so cavalierly sacrifice Mal’s integrity.
Am I alone on this? I know Firefly fans are legion and I’d appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below.
Galápagos Regained by James Morrow (* * *)
James Morrow is not just one of those writers whose work I enjoy. He’s one of those writers whose work inspires me. When I was writing my novella The Seeker, the entire time I was thinking, “How would Morrow do it?” Needless to say, the arrival of a new Morrow book is always kind of a big deal around here.
And Galápagos Regained is proving to be a delightfully loopy Scientific Romance. When out-of-work actress Chloe Bathurst gets a job on the estate of Charles Darwin, she takes charge of his menagerie of exotic beasts and learns of his theory of “descent with modification.” As it happens, London is being scandalized by the Great God Contest, which offers a £10,000 purse to anyone who can irrefutably prove the existence or non-existence of God. As it also happens, Chloe’s father is imprisoned in the workhouse for outstanding debts. So to help her dad out, Chloe steals Darwin’s idea, presents it as her own, and embarks on a voyage to the Galápagos to collect the specimens she’ll need to prove “her” theory and win the prize.
Of course, this being Morrow, there are huge questions about philosophy and deity being bandied about, but they’re grounded in the roguish charm of Chloe Bathurst, who really doesn’t care one way or another. She just wants the money. Chloe is Morrow’s best protagonist since Jennet Stearne in The Last Witchfinder, and her globetrotting adventures are like Jules Verne meets Robert Louis Stevenson starring Hayley Atwell. And I don’t know how to recommend something more highly than that. Can’t wait to see where this one goes!
VERDICT: Galápagos Regained is a smart, entertaining and amusing addition to Morrow’s esoteric body of work. And as with the best Scientific Romances, it’s not about the destination, but the journey. Because while the story ends up about where you’d expect, it does so in unexpected ways, with Chloe’s travels leading her down some bizarre physical and emotional byways. In all candor, I liked The Last Witchfinder better, and found the themes in The Philosopher’s Apprentice more challenging; but Galápagos Regained soars when you take it for what it is, and what it is is Morrow’s unabashed love letter to Charles Darwin, and his gift of an unassailably rational worldview.
On Basilisk Station by David Weber (* *)
David Weber got on my radar when he appeared as the author guest of honor at Long Island’s I-Con Science Fiction convention a few years ago. He was smart and funny and convinced me by the dint of his personality to give his books a shot. So I was very happy when I found a discounted copy of On Basilisk Station, the first novel in his most popular series, featuring his most popular character, Honor Harrington.
But here I am three chapters later and I’m seriously wondering what all the fuss is about. So far a huge chunk of the opening scenes has been given over to describing Honor’s looks, as she and other characters ruminate on the fact that she’s striking or handsome rather than beautiful—all of this before mentioning the smarts and accomplishments of the newly-minted Captain. Yet for all that, Honor has come across as kind of trite and pouty so far. And most of the rest of the time has been given over to expository flights of world building awash in tedious military politics. I feel like I’m reading a middling Star Trek novel (meaning no disrespect to Trek authors, which I once aspired to be).
A few years ago I gave myself permission to abandon books that didn’t have me hooked by page 100. In Basilisk’s case, that coincides with the start of chapter nine. You have six chapters left to do your stuff, Honor. Get cracking!
VERDICT: You made it by the skin of your teeth, Harrington! I was all set to give On Basilisk Station the old heave-ho, but in the final chapter before the cut-off point, that Star Trek feel reasserted itself in a positive way. When the crew arrived at the titular Basilisk Station, the story took on a DS9 vibe, and the ensemble cast began to gel. We’re not talking the Dominion War story arc here. Think a solid season two effort. For the non-Trekked among you, that means just enough story to string you along. But for all that, I never came to really care about the characters. And the epic final scenes involve a screamingly obvious Chekhov’s Gun that you can see coming from the very first. (And that’s not a Star Trek reference. Look it up.) I don’t regret reading On Basilisk Station, but I don’t plan to run out and find its sequels, either.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (* * * ½)
Ever since reading his excellent The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I always grab Michael Chabon’s books when I see them. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has been sitting on my shelf for a few years now and the time just felt right for it.
Mysteries follows new college graduate Arthur Bechstein as he embarks on his first post-grad summer, determined to make it one to remember.
Unfortunately, as I thumbed open the book, the top review blurb on the first page invoked the name of Holden Caulfield. My heart sank. But I’m happy to report that Art isn’t anything like that whingy douchebag. Nor is he an 80s version of Ben Braddock. Instead of wallowing in cynicism, disillusionment and self pity, Art is thrumming with joyful observations of the world around him, and he sees nothing but possibilities. He’s a smart, witty protagonist and one that I’m happy to be spending time with.
Of course, the disillusionment might be looming around the corner; but while Chabon often does dark, he never does bleak (in my experience). I have faith that Art will persevere, no matter where his story takes him.
VERDICT: I was right on both counts. The promise of spring and growth of summer inevitably give way to a sobering autumn, but through it all Art becomes stronger and emerges as his own man. It’s an emotionally resonant, truly remarkable novel, and all the more so when you consider that it was Chabon’s first (hence the extra half star). I also learned in the afterward that Chabon is a fellow Science Fiction nerd. So that doesn’t hurt either.
Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb (* * *)
I’m finally caught up writing about my California reads (see Parnassus on Wheels, Royal Assassin, The Void and American Morons below) so I’ll resume my usual Intro/Verdict format.
Assassin’s Quest is the final book in Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy and I couldn’t wait to find out the ultimate fate of title assassin FitzChivalry after the harrowing events of Royal Assassin.
Quest is a much different book than the others in the Farseer series. The first two are primarily castle-bound stories, dealing with palace intrigues, politics and betrayals (trust me, it’s not as boring as I’m making it sound). True to its title, Assassin’s Quest is a much more traditional quest fantasy, as Fitz ventures across and beyond the Six Duchies that constitute his corner of the world in search of justice and revenge. It’s a grueling road that Fitz must travel, and Hobb seems to delight in putting him through hell. But the story is all the more engrossing for that, and while I assume Fitz makes it out alive (thanks to subsequent books set in the same universe) I have no idea if that will necessarily be a good thing…
VERDICT: Hobb made quite a few left turns in this book and it played out nothing like I envisioned. And that’s half of what made it so awesome. The other half was the solid cast of characters, old and new, whose compelling arcs combined to make Assassin’s Quest one of the most unique third volumes of a Fantasy trilogy I’ve ever read. There are defeats and victories, but they’re nothing like fans familiar with the genre might expect. And Fitz’s story comes to a thoughtful and poignant conclusion. Had Hobb not continued on with the character in later books, I’d count this as a satisfying end. But as Fitz goes on to have further adventures in several more books, it’s all I can do to not spend the rest of the year reading nothing but Hobb.
American Morons by Glen Hirshberg (* * ½)
I started American Morons before leaving for Los Angeles (see Parnassus on Wheels below), and thanks to my wonderful wife the book was waiting for me exactly where I left it when I got home. What’s better, I was able to finish it sitting out on my deck as spring hit Long Island.
This is the third story collection by Hirshberg I’ve read (see my reviews of The Two Sams and The Janus Tree) and I’m sad to be done with it because now I’m totally up to date with his oeuvre (aside from a couple of small chapbooks that he puts out yearly to compliment his Rolling Darkness Revue shows) and I have to wait for his new stuff like every other schmuck.
While the seven stories gathered in American Morons aren’t collectively as good as those in his other collections, Hirshberg’s writing is always enjoyable and his ideas are always compelling, despite my satisfaction with how he may have executed them. The best tales in this bunch are: “Devil’s Smile,” a lighthouse/shipwreck/monster story; “The Muldoon,” about a young girl coming to terms with her grandfather’s death amongst the malevolent ghosts of his past; and “Like a Lily in a Flood,” the collection’s spookiest, most surprising story. Definitely give American Morons a go, but if you’re unfamiliar with Hirshberg’s stuff, start with The Two Sams or The Book of Bunk first.
The Void by Timothy S. Johnston (* *)
Having brought no other books with me to California (see Royal Assassin and Parnassus on Wheels below), I broke out my iPad and dove into a .pdf copy of Timothy S. Johnston’s The Void to finish off my trip.
The Void is the third volume in Johnston’s The Tanner Sequence, which follows the space-faring adventures of far-future homicide investigator Kyle Tanner. I gave mixed reviews to book one, The Furnace, and book two, The Freezer, and so came to The Void with equal parts interest and trepidation. Tim and I have become friendly, and it’s always hard to pass judgment on the work of someone you like.
But that’s not why I’m going to forego a full review this time out. As it turns out, The Void is in keeping with the style of the earlier Tanner books, including the same strengths and weaknesses. My reviews of The Furnace and The Freezer already cover those, so there would be little point rehashing them. This time out Tanner is stranded between our solar system and neighboring Alpha Centauri, tracking a serial murderer on a disabled ship. There’s action and mystery and nefarious plots aplenty and suffice it to say, if you liked the first two books of The Tanner Sequence, you’ll like The Void.
The thing I liked most about The Void is that Tanner finally gets some much needed character growth. The ending left me smiling, and Johnston teased the story he might be telling next. Until then, Tim…
Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb (* * *)
As soon as I finished Parnassus on Wheels (see below) I fished Royal Assassin out of my carry-on bag and continued a California tradition.
Royal Assassin is the second volume in Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, and I read the first volume, Assassin’s Apprentice, on a trip to California a few years ago. I really enjoyed that book, and as luck would have it, I found copies of the rest of the series late last year—just in time for another foray into the west.
Royal Assassin takes up the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, royal bastard and King’s assassin, immediately following the events of Assassin’s Apprentice. Fitz was a child in the first book, and in this volume, we watch him grow into a young man, torn by his duty to his noble lineage and his desire to be his own man and have the kind of life he wants. The story features old enemies, old friends and many truly life-changing developments for Fitz that bring his story forward in ways that are equally harsh and compelling. So compelling in fact, that when I wasn’t working or sleeping in California, I was reading Royal Assassin pretty much nonstop. And the stunning ending had me cursing the fact that book three, Assassin’s Quest, was sitting in my library in New York, thousands of miles away.
Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy pioneered the type of gritty Fantasy that has now gone mainstream with George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Suffice it to say, if you like A Song of Ice and Fire, then you’ll like The Farseer Trilogy.
Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley (* * *)
Holy crap has it been a long time since I updated this section! I spent a month working in California, and then spring sprung and demanded I pay attention to my yard (and all the fine bayside dining establishments my area has to offer), and here we are several months and books later. So I’m once again going to suspend my usual “Intro/Verdict” format until I reach my current title.
And Parnassus on Wheels is such a wonderful place to begin! I read it on the plane to Los Angeles and I couldn’t have asked for a better kick-off to my trip.
Parnassus is the prequel to Morely’s The Haunted Bookshop, which I read last year and loved. The Haunted Bookshop features a character named Robert Mifflin, a Brooklyn bookseller circa 1919 who often pines for his Parnassus, a travelling bookmobile from which he sold books and spread the love of reading in rural pockets along the Eastern seaboard. So it’s kind of fitting that I found my copy of Parnassus on Wheels in Saratoga, NY—just the kind of town Mifflin would have visited at the turn of the last century.
I called The Haunted Bookshop a delight in my 2014 review and Parnassus on Wheels is equally enchanting. What’s more, it features a strong, independent female protagonist, Helen McGill, who, at the ripe old age of 39, decides to meet her impending spinsterhood head on, by buying Mifflin’s Parnassus wagon and setting out for a life of independence and adventure. This is revolutionary stuff for 1917! Morley’s prose is brisk, charming and funny, his characters are likable and engaging, and Parnassus on Wheels makes for a wonderful afternoon of reading.
Though I’m an advocate for buying actual books, Parnassus on Wheels is now in the public domain and available for free online. So there’s really no excuse for you not to read this book.
The Off Season by Jack Cady (* *)
Jack Cady hit my radar in 2005 with his wonderfully soulful novel The Hauntings of Hood Canal. Since then, it has been my mission and pleasure to search for his work in used book shops and bargain bins; because whenever I find one a unique and terrific read is all but assured.
Cady has a style that can best be described as mythic, and though he strays toward supernatural horror, his stories always have a realism about them that make you believe that they could be happening somewhere in America’s hinterland, just off the beaten path, on the margins where our reality intersects with something more profound.
So far, The Off Season is no exception, taking place in a remote seaside village in Washington, where the present and the past co-exist and ghosts are as common as the living. And I already know that I’m in for a treat when I come across a sentence like this on page two: “Along uptown streets Victorian mansions congregate like parishioners sitting through an eternal sermon of rain and mist.” Talk about arresting prose.
But The Off Season is also a comedy, and Cady has an odd, homespun drollness about him that usually manifests as wry fatalism. I can’t wait to see what he does when he’s trying to be intentionally funny. So I guess you can say I’m excited to be reading this book.
VERDICT: Ugh. This is the second Cady book running that fell flat for me. We obviously have very different ideas of what constitutes funny. If you’re tickled by a cat who sings in Portuguese, or jokes that go something like: “Barb comported herself like a Methodist, but cursed like an Episcopalian,” then you’ll find The Off Season uproarious. I honestly just don’t get it. But still, the book was filled with ghosts and colorful characters and had a neat ending, hence the second star. I’m now evenly split with Cady’s work. His novel The Hauntings of Hood Canal and story collection Ghosts of Yesterday were both terrific. But my disappointment with The Off Season and McDowell’s Ghost really leave me wondering if I’m still a fan. A lot is riding on that next book…
Satellite Sam Vol. 2: Satellite Sam and the Snuff-Fuck Kinescope
by Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin (* * ½)
After wading through the dense Island in the Sea of Time (see below) I needed a light, literary palate-cleanser. And the second Satellite Sam collection seemed just the ticket, collecting issues five through ten of the ongoing comic book series.
Set in the early days of live TV, the story centers around the apparent murder of Carlyle White, star of the wildly popular kiddie serial Satellite Sam, and his son Michael’s attempt to track down the killer—who is probably one of the scantily-clad women in the hundreds of kinky photos that Michael found in his father’s secret apartment. Think Captain Video meets Auto Focus, and you get a sense of what this seedy noir is going for.
But while I’m still enjoying the setting, the story is meandering all over the place, with the murder mystery taking a back seat to Michael’s descent into the sins of his father; and backing that up is a series of disjointed character studies of the book’s large cast. I don’t mind this. I just hope that Fraction eventually weaves all of these threads back into a satisfying main narrative.
VERDICT: Though I have mixed feelings about this volume of Satellite Sam, it does reinforce my new policy of reading comics in collected trades. Had I been reading this as a monthly title, my interest might have petered out somewhere around issue seven. But reading the trade helped me see the issues as part of a larger whole, and I was more willing to stick with it, even if it sometimes wandered aimlessly. But while the story could be tightened up, I’m still enjoying the premise. And Fraction does bring things into better focus by the end, so I have hope for issues 11-15, which may also be the series’ last. I’m also adding a half star for the extra materials featured in the trade, namely an enjoyable interview where artist Howard Chaykin regales us with seedier tales from his past. And the Cadet Corey Tijuana Bible is right at home in Satellite Sam’s celebration of pop culture’s dark underbelly.
Island in the Sea of Time by S.M. Stirling (* ½)
I recently took a trip to Nantucket and, as is my wont, I checked out the local independent book stores. I always go to the “local interest” sections to see if the place I’m visiting has any interesting history or lore. And that’s where I discovered Island in the Sea of Time.
Nantucket is the titular island in Stirling’s book, which, after a freaky firestorm in the sky, gets transported back to 1250 BC. The first third of the book has been taken up with the reactions of the characters who took the trip with it.
Unfortunately, I’ve found these characters a little tedious so far, from the priggish native Nantucketers, to a no-nonsense Coast Guard captain whose ship was caught in the storm, to a visiting history professor who has a little too much ready knowledge about many of the esoteric challenges the islanders are facing. I hope the characters become more vibrant.
That being said, I’ve finally settled into the narrative and the story is picking up a little. It’s also nice that I can envision the Nantucket scenes, because I visited most of the places the book talks about (it’s a small island). I really like Nantucket and plan to return. I hope to be able to say the same for the follow-up volumes to this book…
VERDICT: Island in the Sea of Time holds a special distinction for me. It’s the first book I’ve ever read where I wished that every single character would be dead by the end: the phlegmatic “ayupping” bore who winds up running Nantucket; his entitled, self-righteous librarian wife; the joyless, worldweary Coast Guard captain; the Noble Savage who has absolutely zero culture shock, despite going from a pre-literate Bronze Age tribe to a 20th Century village practically overnight; the cartoonishly evil bad guy who breaks away from the Nantucketers—the entire annoying lot of them needed to die. It might have been more interesting had the time-displaced Islanders faced a few setbacks in adapting to their new environment. If their stoic Yankee sticktoitiveness had failed in the face of a harsh, primitive reality, it could have led to a societal schism that, in turn, could have given rise to a much more believable antagonist, with motivations more compelling than “megalomaniacal, imperialistic sociopath.” But instead of a gripping story, Island in the Sea of Time reads more like a “what if” exercise bogged down with uninteresting detail and tedious characters, with a bad guy thrown in just to provide an excuse for some off-island action. It was a chore to get through. But here’s how messed up I am: I’m still so intrigued by the premise that I’ll probably pick up the subsequent volumes in the series to see how things play out. If anything, I may just get those character deaths I’m looking for.
The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross (* * * ½)
I’m doing away with my usual “Intro/Verdict” format this time around because I read The Rhesus Chart in its entirety before getting around to updating my site and let me just get to it and say:
Oh my god, this fucking book!
The Rhesus Chart ranks among the best of the Laundry novels, right up there with The Jennifer Morgue—which completely blindsided me, because it’s about vampires. I mean, what’s more played than friggin’ vampires? But the genre fatigue is nowhere in sight as Stross cleverly inserts vampires into his Laundry universe, and dumps them square into Bob Howard’s lap.
The Rhesus Chart is in many ways a return to form for the Laundry series, as it takes place squarely within the inanely bureaucratic confines of the top secret British occult agency, reacquainting us with old characters and expanding on new ones. But the real reason the story works so well is because Stross uses it to advance Bob’s story—and the entire Laundry series—to a scary, unsettling new level. I’m not gonna sugarcoat it. If you’re a longtime Laundry fan, parts of this book will really upset you. But kudos to Stross for bravely moving into CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN territory. I can’t wait for The Annihilation Score to come out later this year.
The Cobbler of Ridingham by Jeffrey E. Barlough (* * * ½)
(NOTE: I started this book in 2014 (hence the Christmas references below). But I was only about half done when the New Year came, so I rolled it over into my 2015 reads. Full review to come soon!)
After everything that has been going on in my life (see the verdict for Acceptance on my 2014 list), diving into Jeffrey E. Barlough’s latest Western Lights novel is just what the doctor ordered. Barlough’s pseudo-Victorian style and antiquated, wintry settings have gone a long way towards putting me in the Christmas spirit.
Unfolding in the Fenshire region of his sundered realm that was the backdrop for previous Western Lights novels Bertram of Butter Cross and A Tangle in Slops, The Cobbler of Ridingham is the best Fenshire story so far. It’s dark and atmospheric and delightful. It also helps that I’ve been reading it by the fire with a glass of sherry at hand. I feel like I’m with main character Richard Hathaway in the mystery that’s unfolding during his visit to Haigh Hall on the frozen marshes outside of Ridingham. I can’t wait to finish it, but don’t want it to end.
Thank you, Mr. Barlough.
VERDICT: Not only is The Cobbler of Ridingham the best Fenshire story, it may very well be Barlough’s best Western Lights entry yet. It’s a masterful balance of atmosphere, character, humor and mystery, and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s also a sequel of sorts to the third Western Lights novel, Strange Cargo. Full review to come soon, but read this one right away. It’s a gem!