The Twilight Pariah

December 15, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

pariahThe Twilight Pariah by Jeffrey Ford

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So, apparently Jeffrey Ford has been around a while. I’m surprised I haven’t heard of him, but then again, Laird Barron and John Langan eluded me for a while, and they’re the closest authors I can think of to compare to Ford. It’s taking me a while to catch up with the “new horror”, so I guess I should forgive myself for not knowing about Ford.

The Twilight Pariah is a novella, and focuses on a group of three friends, who were close in high school but are now in college and see each other a lot less. Their summers are their times to reconnect, but during the summer before the narrator’s senior year, the three are pulled into an impromptu archaeological dig by Maggie, the lone female in this group of friends who tends to lead the others on their group projects. The dig takes place at an old, abandoned house in their hometown, and what they turn up in the dig changes their summer in unimaginable ways.

Ford is an accomplished writer, and knows how to turn a phrase: “A cloud of smoke from his constant cig habit hung above him like a blank thought balloon.” He keeps the story moving along at a brisk pace, while also keeping the characters’ own concerns front and center along with the plot. Aside from the story being about a haunting, it’s also about how childhood friends grow apart, and Ford writes the story in such a way as to have us question which conflict is more tragic.

One thing I found to be unique in this story is how Ford approached the haunting itself. The supernatural isn’t broached like one would approach a wild animal, with tentative steps and one hand out in front of us; the supernatural is the wild animal, leaping out without pretense or warning. Ford eschews the slow build-up of of unnatural happenings leading up to a big reveal, instead choosing to start with that reveal to raise the tension as high as possible right from the start. This might be a decision based on the length of the work, since it wouldn’t work as well for a full novel, but either way, it was a surprise and a shock, which is a nice reaction to get from a horror story.

The story isn’t without some issues (the pace moves almost too quickly, and the secondary characters are drawn so thinly they’re almost transparent), but the rest of it works so well, it’s easy to overlook its shortcomings. I like Ford’s style and the way he thinks, so I’ll have to add him to my list of authors to watch. I’d like to delve into one of his novels before going full-hog into his backlist, though.

Started: September 13, 2017
Finished: September 14, 2017

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Snowblind

December 14, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

blindSnowblind by Christopher Golden

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This isn’t my first time with Christopher Golden. Aside from the Aliens book I read at the first of this year, I also read Of Saints and Shadows, over 20 years ago. At the time reading that book, I got the feeling that the story and narrative were serviceable, but nothing outstanding. The Aliens book left me with the same feeling, though by the end of the book, I felt like his characters were genuine. When Snowblind showed up on a sale list earlier this year, I decided to give him another try.

Unfortunately, Snowblind doesn’t change my mind. Golden’s characters still feel vivid, but he populates the book with so many of them, it was easy to get lost in the first third of the book (and sometimes even after then). There’s a reason all those characters are there (this is a horror novel set in a small town, with lots of residents), but they’re introduced to us through one blizzard, and then re-introduced to us twelve years later, when another blizzard is about to occur. It’s easy to get a little lost in the shuffle.

On the other hand, Golden does a fantastic job of capturing the dilemmas the characters face amidst the horror, and because he focuses on so many characters, the dilemmas are different among all of them. It helps ground the story, giving us several ways to relate to the characters, especially considering that, once we understand what’s happening in the story, we start to ask ourselves these questions before Golden shows us what the characters do.

The story has a good premise, with spooky scenes, unsettling monsters, and a touch of atmosphere, but it never feels vivid. The characters are drawn well, but not so well that I felt their emotions through the page, and the plot takes about half of the book to reveal itself. The book winds up feeling off in ways, but not so much that it’s not keeping the reader’s attention. The exception to all those concerns is the penultimate character, where, despite my feeling somewhat frustrated with the story, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to see how it all ended. By then, I was fully invested in the characters and their stories.

Back when I read Of Saints and Shadows, Christopher Golden was a new author; now, over 20 years later, I see his name all over the horror genre. It doesn’t surprise me, considering how well he pulled the story together by the end, but I think his books would need to have a killer premise for me to want to read more of his. Ararat is one of those books, but I don’t see the need to track down all of his books to catch up.

Unfortunate Musical Connection: “Slow Ride” by Foghat.

Started: September 6, 2017
Finished: September 13, 2017

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The Two of Swords: Part Seventeen

December 13, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

swords17The Two of Swords: Part Seventeen by K.J. Parker

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Parker does some remarkable things in his fiction. Case in point: With Part Seventeen, he begins the story in media res, even though it’s smack in the middle of a larger story. He also manages to pick up the story right after Part Sixteen, in that we know what’s happened to Telamon to bring her to this situation, and we know why. It’s a testament to his characterization and plotting skills that he can drop the reader right into the middle of the action and know that his readers won’t get lost.

The story continues with the saga of Telamon and Oida, and I noticed with this chapter that Parker is no longer titling the chapters after the cards in the deck. Now, the chapters are simply “One” and “Two”. My guess is these two most recent parts will be part of the third book in the later print publication, and since the major players in the story have been introduced by now (and are now finding themselves all up in each others’ stories), there’s no need to maintain that convention. Luckily, I’ve kept a list of the chapter names and characters of each so I can try to puzzle out how this story will end.

Musen, the tall thief from chapter two (and twelve, I see from my notes), also makes an appearance, as does Saevus, the slaver who last (maybe first?) appeared in the last chapter. It feels like all the random threads Parker has used up to this point are starting to come together in a weave, and it’s an intriguing one. Finishing out this series encourages me to finally get around to reading all of Parker’s fiction, so I suppose I’ll add that to the list of reading projects I have ahead of me. At least I’ll stay busy.

Started: September 12, 2017
Finished: September 13, 2017

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The Dark Tower

December 12, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

towerThe Dark Tower by Stephen King

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As I was finishing this book, a friend of mine noted that it was clear to him that epic fantasy wasn’t King’s normal genre, and that the story felt like it was unfocused and was more a loose concept than a firm plot. I couldn’t help but agree with him, since, to me, it feel like King only ever wrote about what was interesting to him at the time when he wrote the books. It explains why the early books have such a different feel from the last three books, and why there’s so much deus ex machina in this particular volume.

At one point in the story, King acknowledges the use of deus ex machina in the story, but recognizing the use of it (with a sly, author-as-character wink to the reader, no less) doesn’t make it any less of a cop-out. It wasn’t just that the author uses these devices; instead, he had to drop himself into the story to provide them so the plot could keep moving. Considering that King (the author, not the character) also inserts himself into the story as a narrator to tell the reader about things that will happen, it gets a bit too metafictional for my tastes. If you’re going to go that route, you should at least make the book a satire.

Speaking of the deus ex machinas, Patrick Danville had to be the worst of the bunch. I’ve read before that the true protagonist of any story is the one who defeats the antagonist at the end, and that stories should focus their attention on the protagonist. Based on how The Dark Tower ends, Patrick Danville is the true protagonist of the story (and, in turn, the entire series), but we don’t even see him until past the halfway point of this book. I know he was featured in Insomnia, but it’s never explained how he came to be in End-World, and it’s never explained how he gets out, either. He’s literally brought in to serve a purpose — defeat the Crimson King — and then taken right back out again. He’s as much a tool as any of the other characters in the story, all there to support Roland in his damned quest.

Speaking of the other characters being tools, Eddie, Jake, and Oy all die on the quest to the tower, which is to be expected, since that was in the prophecy Walter gave Roland in the first book. Susannah, though, chooses to leave him before reaching the tower. I didn’t understand that move at all. Yes, this is Roland’s quest, not theirs, and yes, the ka-tet is broken as soon as Eddie dies, but several times in the story, Susannah tells Roland that she’s in it for the tower. Why does she back out at the end? King attempts an explanation, but it doesn’t sit well with me, because Susannah’s supposed to be the one who’s best among the gunslingers, and is principled enough to stay on the journey. King doesn’t convince me that she would make that decision.

The Dark Tower is a long book, mostly because it comprises several distinct stories: Jake and Callahan versus the vampires; stopping the Breakers; saving Stephen King; fighting the Dandelo; and then the final approach to the tower itself. Each of these stories could have been novels unto themselves (and with as little as happened in Song of Susannah, I was surprised they weren’t), and the end result is that unfocused feeling my friend noted about the series. It’s most prevalent here, since the other stories have their own plots and stories to carry them. A lot happens, but most of it is rushed, giving the book the feeling of being too short and too long at the same time. I think the cyclical ending is a good fit for the series, but it’s marred by King’s “foreword” where he tries to discourage you from reading it.

I’m glad to have re-read the series, but my conclusion is it’s overhyped. It starts off strong, but in the end, it gets overwhelmed by the multiverse King created to support the tower. By itself, it doesn’t have the epic feel of other epic fantasy series, but when you look at the entire multiverse, it does. Unfortunately, that means the actual series is flat and uninteresting, and the central character of the entire thing isn’t the most sympathetic character of the series. At the very least, this has been an enlightening read.

Started: September 2, 2017
Finished: September 12, 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 Two of Swords: Part Sixteen

December 8, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, )

swords16The Two of Swords: Part Sixteen by K.J. Parker

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The Two of Swords has returned, and it returns in style! This chapter focuses on Telamon and Oida, and also introduces us to Saevus, a slaver. Parker shows us the economics of slavery, demonstrating how Saevus is working to help the people. It’s tongue-in-cheek (and I can’t help but wonder if the pronunciation of the name is part of it), but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t come across as a somewhat sympathetic character. It’s a large part of what makes Parker’s fiction work so well, considering that so many of his characters are despicable, but still likable.

Telamon is the central character here, and she’s one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire thing. It makes me wonder if she will wind up being the main character, along with Oida. The story began with a broad cast of characters, but as it progresses, we’re narrowing down to just a handful of characters, seeing how the others played in to their story. I like the development; I’ve mostly read just Parker’s novellas, where the focus stays on one or two characters, so it’s fun to watch him work from a broader palette.

The stories are to be collected and published in three print volumes before the end of the year, so it’s safe to say we should be getting the end of the story over the next few months. I’ve been waiting since February to get the rest of the story, which is pretty good, considering it had been late 2016 when the last chapter was published. I’m just glad I was able to remember enough of the story to not have to flounder about trying to remember the details from the previous chapters.

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

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Off Rock

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

rockOff Rock by Kierna Shea

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Jimmy Vik works for an outer space mining company, drilling what needs drilling out of asteroids and such. His ex-girlfriend is his boss, which complicates things when he finds a vein of gold in his mining shaft, and comes up with the grand idea to smuggle it off the rock to live high on the hog. The problem is, smuggling something off the rock is a lot more complicated than it looks, and as every potential smuggler already knows, it never goes as planned.

Off Rock is a heist novel, and pretty much nothing else. Shea tells an engaging, ripping tale, but he sacrifices characterization and theme for his plot. Near the end of the book, he tries to give the story a point, but it feels clumsy and forced, and it’s ultimately unnecessary, since the story doesn’t require one. We’re simply along for the ride, and aren’t looking for anything deeper than “Will he pull this off?”

Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend, Leela, is a bit troublesome, not because she’s his boss, but because her character takes an about-face near the end of the story. There’s a reason for it, but it doesn’t feel true, and it feels like Shea forced it in there because he needed it, to give the story a (kind of) happy ending. The other secondary characters also serve their purpose, but feel inserted into the events, again because Shea needed it, not because the characters were significant enough on their own.

The beginning of the book has a lot of info-dumps through dialogue, making the characters sound unnatural. I work in IT, so I get that some conversations require passing along a lot of technical information, but somehow these didn’t feel realistic. Beyond that, the dialogue focuses on the heist, and is less necessary to relay a lot of information to the reader (or I just stopped noticing it), but it was tough getting into the book at the start.

Regardless, Off Rock is a romp of a read. It doesn’t try to be anything else than fun, and even if Shea gets a little bogged down in the snarkiness and irreverence of his characters, he still succeeds. I’m not sure if it’s the kind of book that encourages me to read everything else he’s read, but if you’re looking for the science fiction equivalent of a beach read, Off Rock is it.

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Song of Susannah

December 6, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

susannahSong of Susannah by Stephen King

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I didn’t have high expectations going into this book. It was my least-favorite of the entire series the last time I read it (2004), and I went into this re-read expecting to be disappointed. True to form, I liked the book a bit better than I did the last time, namely because I lowered my expectations, which of course sends me down this rabbit-hole of thinking where I question whether I know a good book or not, since how I feel about it depends on where I am in my life, what I think about it before starting the book, and what I bring into it when I start reading it. I feel like I shouldn’t have an existential crisis over how I feel about reading a book.

The book is still an interstitial volume, one that progresses the plot of the larger story, but doesn’t do much else. And it does go on: half of the book is Mia/Susannah giving birth to the Chap, and lord, does it take a while to get there. We have to get Mia’s background and story, and we have to take them to New York in 1999, and we have to show how much Mia is a fish out of water, etc., etc., etc. It feels long-winded and tedious, even though King’s telling of events moves along at its usual breakneck pace.

The other half of the book introduces Stephen King himself as a character, which is a contentious part of the story for a lot of people. I’ve said for years that this device is either stupid or brilliant, and I’m never sure which it is. I’ve always leaned just a skosh more to the “brilliant” side of the scale, because it makes sense for a writer to be tied in to the survival of the tower, and when you look at how much the tower permeates his other work (and the fact that King created the tower), it makes sense for that writer to be King. On the other hand, I recognize the amount of ego that goes into him using himself as a character, so the balance is still pretty close.

Anyway, both stories are important to the events that will happen in The Dark Tower, but I question whether we needed this much space to develop them. Wolves of the Calla was also long-winded, and the central plot of that book only tangentially related to the larger story, enough so that I wondered why the ka-tet didn’t just get what they needed to know while passing through the town. I think the reasons are: (a) we wouldn’t have Father Callahan as a new character in the story (no big loss); (b) we wouldn’t have any foreshadowing of Mia and the Chap; and (c) we wouldn’t have Black Thirteen and the door. I still can’t help that we could have had all that without a 900+-page Old West story.

The whole bit with Mia and Susannah was tedious, but I found myself liking the part of the story about Stephen King and the other characters in Maine. Of course, Roland and Eddie stumble across another no-nonsense gunslinger character in their adventures (two, if you count Deepneau), and the scenes between them and Calvin Tower were amusing. It still feels like these events could have been told more quickly, but at least I found myself entertained enough with half of the story.

Heading into the final volume in the series, I find myself more worried than anything else. The story has taken a turn from how he told the first four books, and I’m worried that I’ll be ultimately disappointed with its conclusion. I know what’s going to happen, but I don’t remember all of the details leading up to it, and with Wolves and Song feeling less like Dark Tower books than the first four books, I dread to see how it will play out. I remain committed, though, Constant Reader that I am, so I guess I’ll report back once I reach the clearing at the end of the trail.

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Chalk

December 5, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

chalkChalk by Paul Cornell

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Chalk is not an easy read. It’s about bullying, and it’s about perpetuating a cycle of violence. It begins with a shocking, permanent act of violence committed on someone who doesn’t deserve it, and then takes us through a harrowing journey of revenge that doesn’t satisfy.

Chalk is an important read. It’s about bullying, and it’s about perpetuating a cycle of violence. It begins with a shocking, permanent act of violence committed on someone who doesn’t deserve it, and then takes us through a harrowing journey of revenge that doesn’t satisfy.

Chalk is not a book with easy answers. It’s not a book with sympathetic characters. It’s not a comfortable book; instead, it will leave you feeling hollow, worn out, conflicted.

Chalk is a readable book. It’s a compelling book. It draws you in with a flat, emotionless tone that belies its content, making the shock even more impactful. It leaves you with a “Did that really happen?” feeling, which is itself exacerbated by an unreliable narrator.

Chalk is a book you can trust.

Chalk is not for everyone. It’s a tough book, but worth the effort. It’s the literary equivalent of finishing a marathon, or swimming the English Channel. It’s not perfect, but its imperfection makes it even better.

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Wolves of the Calla

December 4, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

callaWolves of the Calla by Stephen King

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It’s tough writing a review of this book. I’m such a King fanboy it’s hard to be objective, but this was also the point where the whole Dark Tower-ness of King’s works had begun to annoy me. Black House preceded Wolves of the Calla by a year, and introduced us to the concept of the Breakers; Hearts in Atlantis also preceded the book by a year, and introduced us to the concept of the Low Men; and since five years had passed between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, that was about all I could get regarding the Dark Tower. Both concepts are used in Wolves of the Calla, and I can’t help but wonder if they would make sense at all without me already knowing those two stories.

The Dark Tower is like the Star Wars movies, and the rest of King’s fiction is the Expanded Universe. Unfortunately, in King’s series, the EU is much more important to understanding what happens in the main series. To extend that analogy, King went back and revised The Gunslinger, even going so far as to change a key part of Roland’s character in his own “Han shot first” moment, and he chalks up the ridiculous amount of coincidence in the stories to ka, which may as well be the force.

King also peppers the story with more references to “nineteen”, possibly the most annoying thing about this cycle. Why this suddenly became important is beyond me, but admittedly, I haven’t made my way to the end of this series to see if its relevance becomes clear. My guess is that its relevance is hidden in the revised edition of The Gunslinger, which I have no interest in reading. Even more annoying are the fan sites about the number, because they use any format possible to find as many references as possible to nineteen in any of his works, including ones that preceded Wolves of the Calla. Some are straightforward (adding up a string of numbers), but others are ridiculously convoluted. Case in point: In The Dead Zone, “Herb turned fifty-two, Vera fifty-one, and Sarah Hazlett twenty-seven. Johnny had been in his coma for four years.” ((52 + 51 – 27) / 4 = 19). The last time I encountered mental gymnastics that complicated to prove a point, I was reading The Bible Code.

Wolves of the Calla also introduces Father Callahan from ‘Salem’s Lot because … well, to be honest, I’m not sure. My best guess is King wanted to hang yet another novel on the Dark Tower line, but at least a third of this book is telling Callahan’s story after the events of ‘Salem’s Lot. I’m thinking King will introduce vampires as an important part of this saga (I can’t remember many of the details from the last two books), but it’s annoying that he’s waiting until the last half of the series to introduce something that will be important to the journey. He wrote the last three novels in a rush, making them more one story broken across multiple volumes, which is fine, but the first four books don’t feel like that, and I feel like they’re better books because of it.

The writing in this book is different from that in the other four books, which surprises me. There are still all the King characteristics in the book, but the pacing and the style feel like a different writer. This isn’t limited to The Dark Tower, either; I think I started noticing this change with Bag of Bones, which followed a lot of change in King’s life. There was the accident, of course, but he also changed publishers, and (I assume) editors, which could account for the changes. That line started to blur after The Tommyknockers, but settled in with Bag of Bones (at least, that’s how I recall it happening).

Wolves of the Calla‘s main story is that of the Calla, and the obligation the gunslingers have to help them keep their children from being kidnapped and “roont” (which brings me to another frustration: Why does King have to invent a new dialect for every book in this series?). I’ll admit it’s an interesting story, and even admit that it adds to the mythology of the tower, but it’s still an aside (with Father Callahan being an additional aside), when by now people are probably ready to see the ka-tet finish their journey to the tower. At least when this book was published, readers knew that the last two books weren’t that far off.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my re-read of this series, it’s that the story is all about context, and if you’ve not read all of King’s works, then you’re missing a lot of it. I can’t imagine what people think reading Wizard and Glass if they haven’t read The Stand, and neither can I imagine what it’s like to read Wolves of the Calla without having read ‘Salem’s Lot. The real, honest, complete way to read this series is to find a chronological list of King’s works, and start from the beginning. I suppose that’s a brilliant marketing ploy by King, but it has to be frustrating to be a reader who’s only interested in The Dark Tower.

 

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