Hot in December by Joe R. Lansdale
Now, this is the kind of Lansdale book one should expect. A random encounter starts off a downward slide into criminal activity, forcing the good guys to make a stand against them and fight their way through. This time around, someone witnesses a fatal hit-and-run. Given that the driver of the car is in a local gang and Tom is the only witness, things get hairy when he presses to be a witness to the crime.
One of my favorite things about Lansdale as a writer is how well he understands the “show, don’t tell” adage of writing. Here’s a good example:
I rinsed them and opened up the washer, put them in, poured myself a cup of coffee, sat at the table and thought about things. The coffee went cold in the cup.
A less experienced writer might tell us “I thought about things for a long time”, but Lansdale shows us by writing “The coffee went cold in the cup.” If I taught a fiction writing class, I would use Lansdale as an example for how to do it right.
This novella exists in the same universe as Hap and Leonard and Cason Statler, and Lansdale throws in references to those characters here. For the most part, they work (there’s reference to Leonard that establishes mood, and could have been anyone, and Cason is an integral character to the story), but the reference to Sunset and Sawdust doesn’t make any sense unless you know the story. Later, Cason tells the narrator that Hap and Leonard would be perfect for what he needs, but they’re not available. The narrator then tells him what we’re thinking: “Don’t tell me about the guys I can’t have.” I wonder what readers unfamiliar with those characters think of the references.
The story hits the usual Lansdale beats, so longtime readers might be able to predict what’s going to happen when, but what makes his stories unique isn’t so much the structure as the way he tells it. There’s a certain cadence, a particular flow to his narrative that I’ve never found in other writers. Other writers may be as compelling or as tight as Lansdale, but there’s simply no one else who writes the way he does.
Lansdale’s novellas are the perfect length for these kinds of stories. His stories are already lean, but stripped down to this length (about 120 pages), they move quickly, enough so that it’s easy to sit down with it and not look up until you’re finished. That wasn’t quite the case with this one (stupid work), but had I not had any interruptions, I would have torn through it like rice paper. Lansdale fans should like it just fine.
“We correct in fiction what life gets wrong.”
(Dana Simpson, Phoebe and Her Unicorn)
Hell’s Bounty by Joe R. Lansdale and John L. Lansdale
A few years ago, my wife and I were in the car and heard a song that sounded like a band trying hard, and failing, to sound like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. At the commercial break, the announcer told us that it was the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Hell’s Bounty is the story version of that experience with Joe R. Lansdale.
The story is one of Lansdale’s weird westerns, set in the Old West but populated with demons and other supernatural beings. This time around, a town’s resident bully gets suckered into doing a demon’s bidding, and a handful of townspeople get together to try to stop him. One of those townspeople, our main character, has made a deal with the devil to rid the town of the demon, so he has a strong motivation to finish the job quickly.
The story is peppered with the grim humor, vivid banter, and graphic violence one would expect from a Lansdale story, but somehow still falls short of being one. It would be easy to place the blame on John, since that’s the new variable introduced into the formula, but I can’t find anything about the process of how the story was written. Is it his idea, written by Joe, Joe’s idea written by John, or a true collaboration the whole way through? In the end, it doesn’t matter (it’s still not very good), but I can’t help but be curious.
The print edition may be different, but the ebook is full typos, like “too and fro”, “the but of the shotgun”, “ads up”, “barred teeth”, and an egregious misuse of “breathe”. Throw in more unnecessary commas than ants at a picnic and you have a fine mess. Did no one copy-edit this book before it went to press? And if the print edition is missing these errors, what the heck happened to the book when it was digitized?
Lansdale has written some great weird westerns. Hell’s Bounty is not one of them. There’s nothing wrong with the story, but it doesn’t sing like his other stories do. For a better introduction to Lansdale’s unique style and genre, pick up any of his Jonah Hex collections.
The Clone Wars: Wild Space by Karen Miller
Wild Space is the second in a five-book series based on and relating to The Clone Wars, the animated TV show that takes place between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. I haven’t watched the show yet (it’s on my list), so it’s hard to say how they compare, but this and the next three books are supposed to be additional stories that fit in with existing episodes without being novelizations of those episodes.
The story starts off right near the end of Attack of the Clones and reveals how some of the Jedi suspect that there is a relationship between Anakin and Padmé. Padmé is strongly encouraged to discourage it, but as we know from the end of that movie, she ignores that command. A few months later, an attack on Coruscant reveals that General Grievous is leading an attack on the Bothans’ homeworld, which Anakin is dispatched to resolve. Following that, Obi-Wan joins Bail Organa on a mysterious search for a Sith planet. It all seems a little random and convoluted, but I expect all this serves as the setup not just for this novel, but also for the next three.
The story diverges at that point, and instead of following both stories, we instead follow Obi-Wan and Bail, with occasional updates on how Anakin’s mission is going. So the bulk of the story takes place on Zigoola, a forgotten planet out in wild space. There, the Dark Side is so prevalent that when Obi-Wan and Bail crash-land there, it takes all of Obi-Wan’s concentration not to succumb to it. It reminded me a little of Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom in The Return of the King, not just in how Frodo and Obi-Wan must both resist the call of evil, but in how I got tired of reading about it. I get it: The pull is so strong, it takes that much effort to resist it. It just seemed to be more of the same, with Obi-Wan succumbing to hallucinations and reliving all the terrible things he’d witnessed as a Jedi. If Miller had mixed up the assaults on Obi-Wan, it might have been different, but it was just a matter of waiting to see when the next round of mental attacks would begin again.
This is the first book by Karen Miller I’ve read in the EU, and I’m impressed. She does a great job developing her characters, especially Anakin, Padmé, Obi-Wan, and even Bail Organa. The relationship between Anakin and Padmé actually feels real, as does the one between Anakin and Obi-Wan, and, later in the story, Obi-Wan and Bail. In fact, I think I liked Bail’s development most of all. In the movies, he’s a key player in the story, but not much time is spent on him. He seems like a noble, honorable character, played by a great actor, but he still got short shrift compared to the other characters. Miller’s development feels like some long-overdue attention paid to a good character.
In addition, all of the characters feel like the characters from the movies, including Yoda. It seems like getting his dialogue right would be fairly easy, but based on the books where he’s featured more than just as a council member, some authors can’t seem to grasp it. Here, his unnatural way of speaking feels more natural. Also, like Traviss did in the preceding book, Miller shows us Palpatine not just as a chancellor or a Sith, but as both at the same time. It’s refreshing to see his character receive more focus on its duality instead of treating them each as separate characters.
One curiosity about this book is that it’s considered part of the Legends universe, outside of official Star Wars canon. Given that the TV show is considered canon, and this book follows some of the events from the series, I wonder what sets it apart from the official story. Once I get caught up on the canon novels, maybe it will become clearer, especially since Ahsoka is getting her own book later this year.
Wild Space is a decent read, but I feel like it could have been much more. Maybe it will make a little more sense once I start watching the show (my guess is that Anakin’s assignment was the focus of one or two episodes), but the story felt a little disjointed due to its setup. Still, I enjoyed her writing. Miller has written two more books in this series, and I look forward to seeing how she can write a story with a larger plot.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne
Despite being a huge fan of the Harry Potter series, I wasn’t all that eager to read this newest entry. It wasn’t written by Rowling, it was a script and not a book, and it was set outside of the events that cemented the character. I figured that I would eventually get around to it, but I couldn’t get as excited about it as I was when, say, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. That I got to it as soon as I did was only because of a coupon on an already-good deal.
The story is set nineteen years after the end of Deathly Hallows, and is more about Harry’s son Albus and Draco’s son Scorpio than anything else. I’m fine with that — stories set in the same universe but around different characters appeal to me more than additional stories about established characters (though that could be the Star Wars Expanded Universe talking) — but the writer(s?) decide to dip back into Harry’s life to establish the backbone of the story. There’s a convoluted story of time travel and paradoxes in place that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and since that means Albus and Draco go back to the events in the original series, it also means the authors are relying on those moments to carry the story. It has its emotional moments, but only because the story dips back into the most emotional moments of the original stories and replays them for us. What original bits remain feel flat and emotionless.
I won’t spoil the story (such as it is), but somehow the authors don’t understand the appeal of the characters they’re writing about. Harry isn’t supposed to be a bumbling father who spends more time with his work than his family and doesn’t understand them; Ron isn’t supposed to be relegated to being useless comic relief; and Snape isn’t supposed to be an obvious hero. I think their portrayal of Snape is probably the worst part of the story, because in the original series, he had a depth of character due to his hidden motivations, but here the authors bring it right to the front, changing him from a menacing, brooding antihero to being a cliched good guy. That felt like more of a betrayal than anything else in the story.
It’s probably not fair to judge the entire story off of the script alone, since this is a story meant to be seen instead of read. The story seems to move too quickly, and it’s hard to get a sense of the characters through dialogue alone. Also, one of the neat things about the series was how everything was told through Harry’s perspective; even though Harry isn’t the main character of this story, it still jumps around from character to character, which is unusual for the series.
I didn’t expect too much from this story, but it was still disappointing. On the plus side, I feel certain this is going to be released on Blu-Ray within a year or two, and I’ll be able to experience the story as it was intended. I’m still not sure if the story is enough to carry even the performance, but I’ll likely watch it just to be sure.
The Clone Wars by Karen Traviss
I recently watched The Clone Wars, the animated movie that falls between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It’s universally reviled, and for good reason: It’s a pretty terrible movie. It has wooden characters, poor animation, annoying character traits, and a baby Hutt named “Stinky”. I watched the movie after watching all of the Cartoon Network The Clone Wars shorts, and wondered why Lucasfilm didn’t just take those two collections and make one movie out of them.
This book is the novelization of the movie, and to say I went into it with trepidation is an understatement. The only saving grace for me was that Karen Traviss wrote it, and I’ve enjoyed her books in the EU most of all. I was pleased to find that Traviss avoided much of what made the movie so terrible. She gives Anakin and Ahsoka more depth, along with Rex, the commander of the clones. The latter isn’t surprising, really; Traviss has made it clear that she has more interest in the clones than the Jedi, and while the story isn’t about the clones, she does bring that sentiment to bear as much as she can with the novel. It works well.
Traviss’ other books also have an anti-Jedi sentiment to them, which she also brings into the story. It works surprisingly well, given that Anakin’s struggle between the Light and Dark Side of the Force makes him a prime candidate for talking about how much he dislikes the council. It also doesn’t hurt that she revisits the theme of clones being seen as more like droids than people, and that the generals who view them as people first get the most respect from the clone troopers.
The story is about the kidnapping of Jabba the Hutt’s son by Count Dooku in an attempt to frame the Jedi for it. The two factions are working against each other, each trying to make sure that Rotta makes it back to Jabba by their hands, not just to prove their reliability over the other group, but also to secure the hyperlanes to the Outer Rim that are controlled by Jabba.
In the movie, about one-third to one-half of the story is about the assault on the temple where the Huttlet is being kept; in the novel, it takes up about 80% of the entire story. I’m not surprised (Traviss likes her war stories), but it made the rest of the story feel rushed and insignificant. In fact, as I was reaching the end of that part of the story, I found myself thinking, Shouldn’t there be another hundred pages after this? How are there only twenty?
In addition, Traviss chooses to interpret Anakin differently than he is in the movies. He still has his doubts about the council and is still an impassioned, impulsive character at times, but first and foremost he’s a respected general to the clone troopers he commands. There’s nothing in the canon to suggest he wouldn’t be, but there’s a disconnect because that kind of behavior suggests a stronger dedication to the Light Side than the Dark Side. Maybe that’s my own interpretation of Anakin interfering with hers, but I feel like Anakin should be — and has been — portrayed as someone more prone to his passions and self-interests more than he is for others, and Traviss’ interpretation is at odds with it.
On the other hand, this is one of the few books in the EU I’ve read so far that doesn’t try to pretend like Chancellor Palpatine and Darth Sidious are two different people. In fact, she goes a step further and gives the reader a glimpse into Sidious’ thoughts as he’s playing the role of Palpatine. Even in Darth Plagueis, which was mostly about Sidious’ rise to power, the author kept those two personalities separate, though he didn’t try to be sly about their being the same person.
The book is a good read because it’s written by Traviss, but it doesn’t overcome how plain the underlying story is. I have to give the author credit for going deeper than the movie, and for giving the story a heftier theme (though even a light theme would have been heftier than the one in the movie). I can’t help but wonder, though, what a novelization of the Cartoon Network shorts would have been like.
Red Queen by Christina Henry
Alice was a lightweight book I read last year that used the Alice in Wonderland world to great effect as a backdrop on a dark urban fantasy about magic, magicians, and a gritty, uncomfortable city. I say “lightweight” because it wasn’t heavy on plot, though it had a strong effect on me. Where Henry took her ideas was a much darker place than I would have expected, which is saying a lot, considering I went into it with visions of American McGee’s Alice in my head. The story was strong on imagery and atmosphere, and when I found out the book was the first in a series, I started looking forward to the sequel.
Red Queen is that sequel. The story takes us outside of the city where Alice took place, a setting she and Hatcher, her companion, expected to be lush and green. Instead, they find a world of ash, where everything they expected to find has been burned, including some of the women they helped free from the evil magicians in the previous book. Still on the search for Jenny, Hatcher’s daughter, they continue east, where they soon find themselves in the realm of the White Queen. What they find there is no less dark or disturbing than what they found in Alice.
Alice took its horror in the form of violence toward women, using some of the more frivolous characters from the original mythology as the instigators. The Walrus, the Caterpillar, and the Rabbit were turned on their heads, and Henry does the same with Red Queen, swapping the personalities of the White and Red Queens. She also turns her focus of horror to children, who are being kidnapped to serve the White Queen.
Like the previous book, the plot of Red Queen is simple, with the author focusing more on the language, setting, and atmosphere to carry the story. Henry gives the reader a recap of the previous story without making it an explicit recap; she wraps the summary up in the narrative of the book, bringing back relevant bits of the previous story where they work best in the current one. It’s well done, and I found it useful since I didn’t remember all of the details from Alice.
Red Queen is on par with Alice, and anyone who liked the first will like the second. Plus, both stories stand alone as well as they do as individual books. I’m eager to see how Henry will conclude this series.
Updraft by Fran Wilde
Updraft is a book that’s been on my radar for a while, but I’ve never gotten around to picking it up (so much to read…). Shortly after I joined Audible, I saw that this title was the deal-of-the-day, and it was hard to resist it at such a low price.
The story is about Kirit Densira, a resident of the bone towers, and daughter to a well-known trader. A young woman, Kirit is hoping to pass her flying tests so she can become a trader like her mother, but an event early in the novel gains attention from the Singers, the law-enforcement group among the towers. Soon, Kirit has to choose between the life she has always wanted, and saving her family and friends. Her choice leads her to discover some of the secrets of their city, and what that means to everyone who lives there.
Updraft seems like a well-told story, even though it borrows from tropes familiar to most fantasy readers. I don’t need something original every time I read a book, but it seems like the story is one we’re all familiar with, set against a unique backdrop, of a society that lives among the clouds. The bone towers are just that: living towers made of bone, with the residents continually rising higher and higher in those towers as the lower levels fill in and eliminate any possible living space. The main method of travel is flight, though there are bridges, made of bone and sinew, built between the towers for residents who can’t or don’t fly.
Kirit feels realized, as do the relationships she has with other characters. In fact, Kirit didn’t feel realized to me without those relationships. There was an extended scene where Kirit is alone, overcoming great adversity, and while I felt like I was there with her when she did, it felt almost insubstantial against her doing the same when other people were involved. Her character felt more defined by her friendships than alone, though I don’t see that as a fault of the character.
It felt like the story took a long time to get going, though that could have been because I was listening to the book and not reading it, and I was only listening to it about a half-hour at a time. Its focus changed about a third of the way into the book, almost too neatly; Wilde needed Kirit to cut all ties with her old life before moving on to the next, and did so without much subtlety. The story became more interesting at that point, but I wish there had been a bit more development to how she had to end those relationships.
Wilde creates a vivid world, and takes time to show us all the aspects of living life in the sky. She could have just mentioned that most people fly from place to place, but instead she spends time giving us the rudimentary mechanics of how they fly. The thing is, she tells us about these towers made of living bone, but doesn’t tell us how or why this came to be. They live so far up in the sky that they’re above a persistent layer of cloud; I expected some point in the novel to give us some clues how that came to be, but it never happened. It doesn’t feel like the story is set on Earth, but the characters are human, not naturally adapted to flight, so something had to have happened to force them upward.
Updraft is the first book in a trilogy, and I was a little hesitant going in because books in series rarely have self-contained stories anymore. I think Wilde did a good job containing the story here, while also giving us glimpses into where the story will go from here. Incredibly, it reminded me a bit of how the Wayward Pines series got started, since here we have a character who has to discover the big secret, and that learning it just opens up larger conflicts. Luckily, this is far better written than those books, but it does make me worry that the next two books will be a single story broken across two volumes.
Compared to Life Debt, Updraft is a more streamlined audio production; it lacks sound effects and music, which I found to be distracting in Life Debt, and the narrator, Khristine Hvam, didn’t stress the narrative the way Thompson did in the other book. Overall, the presentation here is more in line with what I was expecting, and it makes the story easier to follow and understand.
That being said, the names are strange, not just because this is a fantasy novel with unusual names, but also because I was hearing them spoken aloud instead of seeing them in print. I swear, at one point I thought a character’s name was TseTse, like the flies, and given the way the society has a fixation on flight and birds, it might even be her name. Additionally, near the end of the novel, characters who are traders are mingling with characters who are traitors, and it got a little confusing.
I feel like I missed a lot of the details of this story, having listened to it instead of reading it. It’s easy to lose focus on the narration when driving in traffic, and the way I listen to audiobooks, I don’t have a way to back up by a minute or so to rehear things. In most cases, it wasn’t that big of a deal, but I missed a key point about the conclave, and a reveal involving the main character. I still caught the main gist of each section, but had I been reading the book, I could have jumped back and re-read a paragraph or two to get a better understanding. In addition, the story has a lot worldbuilding, and I feel like I needed a better focus to get a clear picture of the world.
I’m intrigued enough to want to read the next book in the series, but I think I’ll opt to read it this time. For all the detail I feel like I missed, and for how the story ended, I think I need to be able to pay closer attention to the story from here on out.
Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers
Tim Powers! This is one of my favorite authors. I don’t follow him on the same level as I do Neil Gaiman or Stephen King, but whenever he has a new book come out, I pay attention. I found Salvage and Demolition on sale and added it to my Kindle collection. When I found myself killing time before a meeting, I pulled this up and started reading. Just a few hours later, I finished it. (And yes, I did make it to the meeting.)
The story is about Richard Blanzac, a rare book dealer who is given a box of books and papers on consignment. He finds a couple of collector’s items, some Ace double science-fiction novels, and a handwritten manuscript of verse. He also discovers that the box somehow has the ability to send him back in time, to San Francisco in 1957, where he meets the author of the manuscript, Sophie Greenwald.
The story has some similarities to The Anubis Gates, which isn’t a bad thing, though the story made me want to go back and re-read that book. Powers brings his clever style to bear here, with the time travel forming a closed loop that maintains the entire story. The story lacks the complexities of his book-length work, but it doesn’t suffer for it; in fact, this would be a good place for someone who hasn’t read Powers’ fiction before, as it encapsulates what makes his work unique. This book is a novella, just over 150 words, so it would only take a couple of hours to finish it.
Powers has a style unlike any other author I’ve read. His characters seem bland, uninteresting, but once they’re thrown into something extraordinary, they take on new life. I think it speaks to how well Powers develops his characters to be likable regardless of how interesting they are. The manuscript in question is a macguffin, there just to keep Richard and Sophie moving forward (and backward) through the story. His narrative is unobtrusive, but not uninteresting. In fact, he reminds me a bit of Connie Willis, in that the story looks effortless, even as it has a profound effect on you.
I’ve said before that Powers’ complex plots are best suited to his long-form fiction, but he can still write an effective story with more limited space. I’m surprised with how much I responded to the main characters of this piece, even as I wondered if I believed how close they became in such a short time. Regardless, it works, and it’s Tim Powers. It was a good read.
Preacher: Book One by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
This isn’t my first dance with Preacher. The first issue came out when I was still into comics (lawn: off), and since I was a Vertigo fan-boy, and they were still flying high with Sandman, Invisibles, and Transmetropolitan, to name just a few, I figured this was going to be my kind of book. So imagine my disappointment when I straight-up didn’t like it.
Novel-wise, I was reading horror almost exclusively at that time, so I was surprised to find that it was too violent for me. Then again, I wasn’t into splatterpunk writers like Edward Lee or John Shirley, either, and if there’s a comic that veers into splatterpunk territory, Preacher is it. In this title, it’s not enough to suggest that someone’s been shot in the head; instead, we have to see the close-up of the trigger being pulled, all the way down to the cratered emptiness of the back of the head. Twice.
Preacher is still too violent for me. I have nothing against violence in service to a story (Game of Thrones, anyone?), but here it seems like it’s done just for the sake of shocking its readers. This fits the general theme of the story — it is, after all, about a preacher who was raised in the most profane way possible to worship God, who is now possessed by an entity named Genesis, who is the spawn of a demon and an angel mating, which came to be shortly after God abandoned his post — but it’s not something I care to see. It’s one thing to have violence in a written story; it’s another to see it in full-color on the page (or on the screen). Plus, like most shock-horror stories, the shock happens so often and so graphically that it eventually fails to shock and becomes boring. Give me something a little more restrained, like the story “24 Hours” in Sandman, and which will haunt your memory for years to come, over this any day.
So why did I decide to read this collection? Well, there are two reasons: one is that I had a coupon to use in the Google Books store, and this was one of the few titles on which I could use it; the other is that a lot of my reader friends like the title, and I figured it was worth revisiting. I won’t lie to you: the story isn’t all bad. I like the development of the characters, even if they’re not the easiest to relate to or sympathize with, and it feels like Ennis was setting up a huge panoramic story, featuring a few characters in the beginning, and then veering the story in another direction. If these characters don’t feature in future stories, then what’s the point of making them as distinctive and pivotal as they are?
The collection contains two story arcs spanning twelve issues, and the first six are there to set us up with the three main characters, their antagonists, and give us a little background into everyone. It’s very busy, and a bit muddled, but the broader strokes of the story are established in that arc. The second arc takes its time, giving us more background into Jesse, the preacher, and there’s an odd nuance to the story, odd because it’s so violent, so degraded, so profane. But it gives such a clear picture into his development that it’s hard not to be affected by it. That’s where the story starts to show some moments of brilliance, and why I can’t dismiss the entire title as splatterpunk claptrap.
I’m not sure if this is a title I’ll finish, but now I can see why people like it. At least, I hope that’s why people like it; if they’re just responding to the ultraviolence, then maybe I don’t want to know about it. If I do decide to finish it out, I’ll see if I can’t find them through the library instead of buying them, though; I don’t see this as a title I’d want on my shelves.