Those Who Went Remain There Still by Cherie Priest
Imagine a story like the Hatfields and McCoys, where two families feud over the course of generations. Imagine further that the patriarch of the two families has died, calling all of his family back to read his will. Six men — three from each family — are to descend into a nearby cave where he hid his will. That in itself would make for an interesting story, but Priest does it one better by setting Those Who Went Remain There Still against the backdrop of a monster story, as what the men find in the cave is worse than they imagined.
Like Dreadful Skin, this novella uses multiple first-person narrators, but it’s better handled here than it was in that other novel. For one, she limits herself to just three different narrators, one of whom is Daniel Boone, narrating his part of the story one hundred years before the other characters. For another, she does a better job making them sound distinct.
One of the characters is a member of a spiritual cult, and his ties to the dead allow him to see ghosts, which feature into the plot. It seemed too convenient, especially when, late in the story, another character also sees one, though it’s unclear why he does, or who the ghost is supposed to be. It felt a little tacked on, especially in a story where the monster serves the purpose of the supernatural. I get that if monsters can exist in this world, then ghosts can too, but it didn’t seem necessary, except to steer the characters in the right direction.
Somehow, despite the fact that the two families live close to the caves, none of the men who go into the caves knows a thing about the creatures there. Two of the characters have moved away, so it would make sense that they don’t know, but the rest of the family has stayed there all their lives. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the monsters have been there a long time, and that people have gone missing, so why not address any legends or rumors? The cave is called the Witch’s Pit, after all, so wouldn’t the locals at least not be as surprised when they find the creatures?
The thing is, despite those concerns (which, admittedly, aren’t slight), this novella is still a fun read. It feels more like what Priest did in the Boneshaker series than Dreadful Skin, so readers familiar with her adventuresome style in that series will find something familiar here. The story ends rather abruptly, after a lengthy battle against the nameless creature that lives in the caves, but the journey to that point is satisfying.
Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-walker by Charles Brockden Brown
I added this book to my to-read list after reading The Monk, and seeing it mentioned in the foreword as another example of a Gothic novel. So, of course, I expected it to be, you know, Gothic. Instead, what I found was a book that had some Gothic leanings, but was mostly long-winded and rambling and took a long time to get to the point. I suppose I should grant it some leeway, since it was published in 1799, but The Monk was published just three years earlier, got to the point faster, and was a much easier read.
This book contains some of the most stilted language I’ve ever read.
It was natural to suggest to my friend, when expatiating on this theme, an inquiry as to how far subsequent events had obliterated the impressions that were then made, and as to the plausibility of reviving, at this more auspicious period, his claims on the heart of his friend.
In other words, “Dude, she doesn’t like you.” Again, yes, this is from 1799, not 2016, but again, The Monk didn’t read like this. Did this guy get paid by the word or something?
The novel starts out with the narrator, Edgar, explaining who he is. Interminably. Then we get the next section, where he confronts the guy he saw digging under the tree, named Clithero.
(Vulgar side note: I kept reading this character’s name with the break between the T and the H. It was … somewhat distracting.)
In the next section, we get another interminable description of who Clithero is. Then we get some adventure, as Edgar pursues Clithero into a cave on one of his sleepwalking jaunts. There’s some back-and-forth throughout, as Edgar has to keep returning home, and later Edgar finds himself in the caves, lost, in the darkness, and starving. The story picks up, and it’s easier to manage Brown’s melodramatic narrative, which takes us through to the end of the novel.
The thing is, between the time when he follows Clithero into the caves, and later finds himself lost in the same caves, he runs across a guy named Weymouth who says that Waldegrave was holding money for him. He has no proof of any of his claims, though the evidence supports it, and Edgar believes him.and wants to give him the money. I get the feeling Brown is trying to show Edgar as a generous, honorable character, but the interaction is random, and doesn’t serve the story at all.
There are some redeeming features of the story: Edgar is an unreliable narrator, which adds a layer of interest; Native Americans are referred to by Edgar as “savages”, when Edgar is the one who kills them; and it seems to be a parallel to life in early America after the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the novel is a bit of a chore to read, it repeats itself quite a bit, and it takes too long to get going. It’s certainly a book that’s better suited for analysis than entertainment, which makes it an odd book to recommend to a casual reader. While I don’t mind stories that engender analysis, what I look for in a novel above all is story, and the one in Edgar Huntly isn’t sufficient enough to entertain.
The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
About a year ago, I saw John Scalzi speak as part of his book tour for The End of All Things, and at the engagement, he read the beginning of a new story he was then writing. The Dispatcher was that story, and it was nice to hear the story in its completed form. It was also interesting to see how little changed between that reading and the final product (that I can recall, at least).
The story is a mystery set around the idea that anyone murdered will revive in their own bed shortly after death. It doesn’t work for all deaths, only murder, so there are people whose job it is to efficiently murder people who are going to die during surgery. Scalzi introduces us to Tony Valdez, one of these people, called a dispatcher, who is caught up in the case of a missing person, another dispatcher.
Scalzi is in his usual form here, with crisp characterization and a satisfying plot that moves at just the right speed. Story-wise, it’s just the right length, and doesn’t feel forced into its shorter form, but there were parts of the story that begged for further development, namely in the revivification process. It’s a capricious process — it only works on people who are murdered, it wipes out all injuries preceding and related to the murder, but only based on a specific time frame that no one can determine, and it doesn’t work all the time — but nothing is explained behind the fact that it exists. For it to be such a large part of the premise, I was looking for more answers, but they weren’t there.
In addition, this revivification would have a huge effect on society overall, and I wanted to see more of that aspect of the story. Scalzi examines to some degree how this process affects life in general, but only enough to satisfy the requirements of the story. I would have preferred a deeper examination of it, like what Drew Magary did in The Postmortal, or even what Scalzi himself did in Lock In. What could have been a social examination is just a standard mystery.
Seeing as this is an audiobook, I would be remiss in not speaking to Zachary Quinto’s performance. His voice is velvet, his characters distinctive, and I could listen to him read stories all day long. I had a minor quibble with the way he voiced the detective — it was unfortunately clear she was a black woman before that was addressed in the narrative — but overall he did a fantastic job.
This is a Scalzi work, so of course it’s engaging and intriguing, but anyone looking for an explanation behind the main premise will be disappointed. I’d recommend this to fans of his work, or anyone looking for a well-told (in both senses of the word) story. It’s available free through Audible until November 2nd, so there’s no reason not to enjoy it.
Last Train from Perdition by Robert McCammon
While I was reading Last Train from Perdition, I was also reading Those Who Went Remain There Still by Cherie Priest. I’m usually reading more than one book at a time, and I usually have no problems juggling different stories, but this time the books were so close in setting and development that I crossed the story wires as I neared the end.
In this novella, we return to Trevor Lawson and Ann Kingsley, vampire and sharpshooter respectively, as they continue their search for LaRouge, the vampire who turned Trevor and turned Ann’s sister and father. Their search takes them to Perdition, where they search for a client’s missing son, but it’s as they take the train out of town that they encounter a threat larger than they expected.
The story hums along, as one would expect from a McCammon novel, but it does falter toward the end. McCammon built his plot and tension very well, enough so that as the final showdown took place, I found myself looking at how many pages were left in the book and thinking How are they going to get out of this? The answer, unfortunately, is that someone else does it for them.
This was the point in the story where I confused Priest’s story for this one, because the group that comes in to save them at the end of the story is a group wielding axes that hadn’t been mentioned before that point, and Priest’s novella opened with a group of lumberjacks clearing a trail through the woods while being pursued by some flying creature. McCammon’s group was such a surprise at that point that I found myself trying to place them, and Priest’s lumberjacks were the only thing I could find. It made a certain kind of sense for a few pages, but then McCammon’s story made it clear I had confused the two.
I don’t fault the story for my confusing the two novellas, but I do fault it for bringing in a deus ex machina and spoiling the conclusion. Granted, things were looking grim for Trevor, Ann, and their small group, but it would have been more satisfying for them to find their own way out of their troubles than to bring in a brand-new group to do it for them. Years ago, I read something that suggested the protagonist of any story is the one who defeats the protagonist, and that the story should be about the protagonist; Last Train from Perdition bucks that trend, and the story suffers for it. On the positive side, McCammon creates an intriguing twist by bringing in this new group, one that will complicate things for Trevor as his stories continue. It seems clear from the way this story ends, and the way McCammon has set up the premise of these two books, that there will be more books about these characters.
My biggest complaint about I Travel by Night was that it felt rushed. Last Train from Perdition avoids this pitfall, but finds others. The story felt more realized and concise this time around, and I would have given it four stars if it hadn’t ended the way it did. Still, McCammon is a writer to trust, so if he releases more books in this series, I expect I’ll read them.
Imperial Commando: 501st by Karen Traviss
It’s no secret by now that Traviss was all about the Madaloeans and their culture, but by now, five books into one series with three others that are tangentially related, it’s getting a little tiresome. I enjoy the worlds and characters she created, but how many kids does Skirata have now? Fifteen? Maybe more? Extending that culture among this many novels strains some of what makes the stories and characters interesting, as the novels become repetitious.
In 501st, Darman and Niner are now a part of the Imperial Commando unit, while the rest of their teammates have deserted back to Mandalore. A large part of the novel is devoted to how Darman and Niner are going to make it back to join them, and there’s an additional plot involving Uthan developing a virus that will make Mandalore immune to Palpatine’s biological weapon, but for the most part, nothing happens in this book. It’s 434 pages of build-up for the second half of this series, which, famously, was never written. You can find a summary of what Traviss had in store for her characters on the Star Wars wiki, and it looks like it would have been a good continuation and conclusion to Skirata and his extended family. Unfortunately, it doesn’t save the book from being long, tedious, repetitive, and ultimately pointless.
The saving grace for this book is that people who have already made the journey with these characters through the Republic Commando novels will get one last chance to see them. It’s just a shame that it comes with an unresolved ending. The previous books were self-contained stories that followed a larger arc; 501st is not. Even if the second book had been written and published, I’d still be disappointed that this book is just setup for the next one.
Dreadful Skin by Cherie Priest
I have Dreadful Skin as a part of the Cherie Priest Bundle ebook, and I went into it thinking it was a novella. I was surprised to find it’s actually novel-length, and then more surprised to find the book is actually a collection of three shorter, related works. The main character, Eileen Callaghan, is what connects the three stories. Eileen is trying to track down a werewolf.
The first story, “The Wreck of the Mary Byrd“, is hard to follow because Priest writes the story in the first person, but features multiple characters this way. When she introduces them, it’s easy to get a handle on them being different, because the first sentence establishes that this is a new character. Later, though, they begin to run together as she doesn’t make it clear at the beginning of each section which character she’s shifting to. The characters’ voices aren’t distinctive enough to tell them apart, and once the reader gets caught up in the story, it’s too easy to think you’re still reading from the first narrator’s perspective when you shift to another speaker. I couldn’t help but think the story would have been better had it been written from just one character’s perspective, not just for ease of reading, but for strength of story. It felt like one central character would have strengthened the work, as short as it is.
“Halfway to Holiness”, the second story, picks up nine years later at a Pentecostal revival, and has a bit more emotion to it, I think because Priest chooses to stick with one character, Eileen herself. It still moves too quickly, through the plot and resolution, and it felt more like it was bridging the gap between the first and third stories. In this story, we learn that Eileen herself is a werewolf, only more in control of her urges than the one she is hunting.
In “Our Lady of the Wasteland and the Hallelujah Chorus”, the third story, we learn that not only is Eileen a werewolf, but also that the one she’s hunting is the one who turned her. I missed both of these points in the first story, but I’ll admit that I might not have been reading as closely as I should have. The whole multiple-first-person-narratives thing might have distracted me from these points.
The last story is the strongest of the three, because it has the length to develop the characters, and Priest shows off her talent for action and adventure that we saw in the Boneshaker novels. It still ends rather abruptly, with the major events resolved, but without the winding down I expect from stories like these. There’s no highlighting the aftermath of the events (all of which would have huge effects on the town in which they take place), and I felt like the story was missing an extra chapter there at the end.
I like Priest as a writer, and I’ve recommended the Boneshaker series to a few readers, but I can’t see myself recommending this book. It’s too disjointed and uneven. Since I know Priest can do better than this, it’s easy to overlook it, but had I read these stories first, I doubt I would have moved on to her other works. As it is, they’re much better reading than this novel.
Dreamsongs by George R.R. Martin
As far as bargain purchases go, Dreamsongs was the second-best one I made in 2016. I signed up for a free three-month trial membership to Audible on Prime Day, and picked this up (retail value: $63.00) for one of the free credits. It’s 52 hours long. In print, it’s over 1200 pages long. Had it not been for my picking up the signed, limited edition of Joe Lansdale’s The Drive-In omnibus for 75% off, this would be the big winner of the year.
I especially like the introductions to each section, where Martin himself tells the history behind the upcoming stories. I’m one of those people who likes to know the behind-the-scenes stuff for most everything (movies, music, books, even Disney rides), so those pieces were enlightening, and right up my alley. It’s kind of remarkable how much detail Martin can remember for each section.
The first section highlights stories he wrote early in his career, when he was still more a fan than a writer. The first story, “Only Kids Are Afraid of the Dark”, is notable because it was Martin’s first published story. Frankly, it shows. Like Gaiman’s “Featherquest”, this story shows us a few flashes of Martin’s style, but is otherwise a pedestrian story. It was written to feature characters that were included in a comic fanzine in the 1960s.
Next is “The Fortress”, a story he wrote for a history assignment in college. It tells the history of a key concession in the history of Finland, and is compelling, if a little heavy-handed in how it presents the facts. As a story, it seems abrupt and anticlimactic, but it has a nice flow, and again you can see the birth of Martin’s style.
“And Death His Legacy” is a story about politics and revolution, anarchy and martyrdom. There are a lot of stories like this out there, and there’s not much to set this one above the others, but it has a good pace, and should keep the reader engaged.
The next section showcases stories he wrote as he was breaking into the field. “The Hero” is the first story, and is about a space soldier who has served his time and wants to return home to Earth. According to Martin, he submitted this story along with his application as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, which he believed helped his odds in getting that designation. Reading the story, one can believe it.
The second story is a ghost story titled “The Exit to San Breta”. It’s nothing particularly original, as far as ghost stories go, but it’s set against a futuristic backdrop which gives it a touch of originality. It’s not particularly creepy, but it’s well-written and engaging.
Next was “The Second Kind of Loneliness”, a science fiction/horror story that fits right in with the fiction that was being published in the ’70s. If the two earlier stories didn’t indicate that Martin was coming into his talents, this one certainly did.
The last story in that section was “With Morning Comes Mistfall”, one of Martin’s more famous stories. It’s a poignant story about mystery and fact, environment and urbanization. It speaks to people who enjoy genre fiction, and it also highlights the importance of fiction having something to say. Stories that are just story, or just character are just fine, but when a story can be both of those things and have something to say at the same time, it’s even better.
The third section highlights his earliest science fiction stories, and includes some of his best-know works. The first story, “A Song for Lya”, is a story of love, humanity, and religion, and shows that Martin has been “doing it right” for a long time. This story was originally published in 1974, and still has an emotional resonance and theme that could convince you it was written just this year.
“This Tower of Ashes” follows, and is about relationships and love. It’s an odd story that seems like it would have a nice emotional punch, but it backfires in the way Martin presents the narrator. But maybe we’re not supposed to like him; maybe we’re just supposed to pity him.
The next story is “And Seven Times Never Kill Man”, an ambitious piece about the religion of violence. Colonizers from Earth have adopted a religion that justifies their Ethnocentrism and manifest destiny, treating any other sentient creatures as subhuman, subject to execution for not cooperating. It has the right kind of punch, similar to that of “A Song for Lya”, but its theme is much different. One can feel the frustration coming through the story.
Following that story is “The Stone City”, which follows an abandoned crew in a city populated by fox-people (and many other types of aliens). Most of the story follows the main character as he tries to keep his other crewmates alive, but then it devolves into … something. I listened to the ending twice, and then went and read it for myself, and I’m still not sure what happened at the end of the story. It was like the ending of 2001.
“Bitterblooms” follows, and reads more like a fantasy story than a science fiction story. It’s a gentler story, and like “With Morning Comes Mistfall”, it’s a story about the allure of fantasy over reality. It also has a neat nod to Arthurian legend, and has a fun reversal of the adage about advanced technology and magic. It’s not a favorite from the collection, but I liked some of the things the story did.
“The Way of Cross and Dragon” concludes this section, and shows how long Martin was developing the idea behind A Song of Ice and Fire before he even thought about writing it. He already used the names Robb and Lyanna in “A Song for Lya”, but here he features legends of dragonriders, and I swear I heard the name Arryn, and one that was close to Targaryen, while listening to this story. It’s hard to tell from just listening to it, though; in “The Second Kind of Loneliness”, the story featured a woman named Karen and a station named Charon, and I kept getting them confused.
The next section is devoted to Martin’s fantasy stories, and is remarkably slim compared to the other sections; it’s made up of just three stories. The first, “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr”, is about a woman who walks between worlds, and meets up with a gentleman who has been expecting her. It’s a gentle sort of story
The second story, “The Ice Dragon”, almost has a Song of Ice and Fire feel to it, in setting and character. It’s a sad tale of warfare and family, though it’s sad for different reasons than one would expect.
“In the Lost Lands” rounds out the section, and it’s an intriguing look at religion and its purpose. Hint: Martin uses the word “lie” a lot in the story.
The next section is the one I looked forward to the most, since it comprised his horror/sci-fi stories. Unfortunately, it started with “Meathouse Man”, a story that’s as unlikable as its main character, and should come with its own trigger warning. I think Martin was intending to highlight how violence desensitizes people, but I would have liked it had he approached it from a different angle (though I suppose I should feel relieved that the story disgusted me, proving that I’m not yet desensitized).
“Remembering Melody” isn’t quite as visceral as the preceding story, but it’s another tough read due to its unlikable characters. It has a better theme — a burnt-out hippie reunites with an old acquaintance — and is better presented, but it evokes more pity and frustration than the disgust of “Meathouse Man”. It lives up to its genre, though, creating a nice, spooky atmosphere and an ending that should create a shiver or two.
“Sandkings” follows, and is likely Martin’s best known work, outside of A Song of Ice and Fire. There’s a good reason. If you haven’t read it, find it and do so. I’m not going to spoil anything about it here.
The next story is “Nightflyers”, a long piece about paranoia in deep space. I had a hard time following it, due to the number of characters and their interactions, though I blame that on listening to the story as opposed to reading it. I have this in print, as well, and expect to get a better understanding of it when I get around to actually reading it. Something to note is that this story was broken across four chapters, and the second one was of a notably poorer recording quality than the other three.
“The Monkey Treatment” follows, and it’s one of my favorite stories. I’ve never read something as equally horrifying and hilarious as it. I believe this was my first exposure to Martin, and it’s a story that holds up well.
Following that story is “The Pear-Shaped Man”, which won Martin a Bram Stoker award, and is a story I had never read before. I think the story is effective, if a little off-kilter. I find it interesting that Martin uses similar imagery in both this story and “The Monkey Treatment” to evoke horror in the readers and central characters.
The next section highlights Martin’s Haviland Tuf character, who features in the book Tuf Voyaging. The first story in that section is “A Beast for Norn”, a fun story that hearkens back to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, though with a lighter touch. I had a feeling the story was heading where it wound up, since Tuf seemed to be a more empathetic character than the story led him to be, but it was still a fun read. Er, listen.
The second Tuf story in this section is “Guardians”, a curious story about sentience and co-existence. It wasn’t quite as engaging as “A Beast for Norn”, but it maintained the character of Tuf and kept me wondering. I liked how he used the names of the kittens in the story to symbolize what was happening.
The following section is about Martin’s time in Hollywood, and the introduction gives an overview of how he got involved with it, and how he stayed in it. It also includes two teleplays, which weren’t included in the audiobook. In a way, it makes sense. A straight reading of the script would be dull, but at the same time, a script makes a perfect opportunity for a multi-narrator production. They put sound effects in the Aftermath audiobooks, but they couldn’t do it for two shorter works? I checked out a copy of the book at the library so I could read them.
“The Road Less Traveled” is an episode he wrote when he worked on The Twilight Zone reboot, and it’s moving and effective, though nothing new in the world of fiction. In fact, it read like a truncated version of Time and Chance by Alan Brennert, who also worked on the show.
“Doorways” is the script for the pilot of the show Martin pitched to the networks, which has a lot of similarities to the later show Sliders. Interestingly, he pitched his show to Fox, who didn’t pick it up, though he makes no mention of Sliders in his introduction. The story is engaging, and has a few elements I didn’t expect, though it contains a handful of cliches.
Following that section is one that highlight’s some of Martin’s contributions to the Wild Cards series. The first story, “Shell Games”, is the origin story of one of Martin’s characters, but the books are called mosaic novels, because they’re written by different people, all using each others’ characters. Martin includes a character who was a main character in another author’s story, and I felt like I was missing a lot of his backstory to get a good feel for him. The story is more or less self-contained, but I don’t think it works out of context of the larger work.
“From the Journal of Xavier Desmond” is an interlude story that takes place among the main stories in Aces Abroad, and is a look at prejudice through the eyes of a Joker, which is a superhero with a deformity (the superheroes who still look human are called Aces). It’s also a look at all of the social issues that were prevalent in the 1980s — AIDS, hunger in Africa, and the Ayatollah. Again, I feel like the piece would work better in context with the story that would surround it.
The last section of the book comprises a handful of stories that refuse to fit in one genre or another. In his introduction, Martin talks about how fiction, no matter what the genre, can be boiled down to just being stories. To prove it, he gives us “Under Siege”, a science fiction retelling of the same story he wrote for “The Fortress”, way back in the first section of the book. The changes are substantial, though the beginnings of both are, as near as I could tell, identical.
The next story is “The Skin Trade”, a novella I read once years before. My only memory of it was that it involved werewolves, so this re-read was a nice surprise. It’s a big story, comprising at least four chapters in the audiobook, and it does a good job of combining horror with noir. It alternates between two different characters’ points of view, male and female, so the producers had two different people read the alternating sections. I liked the story and the presentation, though it was unfortunate that a disabled tertiary character was continually described as “crippled”.
“Unsound Variations” is a chess story, which is about as exciting as it sounds. Martin manages to tell a compelling enough story (which isn’t all about chess, but serves as its backdrop), but he populates it with unlikable characters. The antagonist was less a complex character and more a petty shell, and that pettiness brought nothing of value to the story. The message of the story redeems it, and once I got to the end of the story, I realized it was one of the stronger stories in the collection, despite its inauspicious beginning.
“The Glass Flower” follows, and is about a game of minds between a Wisdom, a cyborg, and a third character who didn’t seem all that important to the story. I had a hard time getting into it, namely because it was mostly trying to set a futuristic scene, which seems to be more difficult when someone is reading it aloud. Once events were set in motion, it was easier to follow the story, but it was tough getting into at the beginning. I kept getting lost amid all the description.
“The Hedge Knight”, which at the time of this collection’s publication was previously unpublished, is well-known now as the first of the Dunk and Egg stories set in Westeros. I’ve reviewed this story before, and still like it a great deal. I’ll like pretty much anything that expands on the mythology of Westeros, on principle alone.
“Portraits of His Children” is a darker story, with a hefty theme. It looks at a writer who sees other people’s lives as material, and how it can come back and hurt him as much as it hurts the people he uses for inspiration. The ending makes the reader question what has actually just happened, but not in a good way. The story makes perfect sense until the last paragraph, and now I wonder: What was the point?
This is a tremendous collection of stories, most of which are good, and highlight Martin’s distinctive style. I was surprised at how much Martin seems to tell instead of show, though without losing the impact of his stories. He likes the word “wan” a lot, I noticed, and he sure does like the word “song”: Dreamsongs; Songs the Dead Men Sing; “A Song for Lya”; A Song of Ice and Fire. Like most collections, the stories are hit or miss, but there are more hits than misses here, and the hits that are here are strong enough to overcome the weaker stories. This is probably a collection best suited for the more hardcore fans, but it’s a good overview of Martin’s career, good and bad.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is irresistibly quotable. Take this passage, for example:
Every word the right one and exactly where it should be. That’s basically the highest compliment I can give.
That’s pretty much the best review of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry itself, and far more concise than I could be. I’ve mentioned before that it’s hard to write about a book that I love, though I could write hundreds of words on books I hate. Or, in the words of A.J.:
A question I’ve thought about a great deal is why it is so much easier to write about the things we dislike/hate/acknowledge to be flawed than the things we love.
The book is about A.J. Fikry, a widowed, cantankerous proprietor of a small bookstore on an island that is a tourist destination. He sells what he feels like people should be reading, not the latest bestsellers, and certainly not anything with vampires in it:
I’d argue that most people have terrible taste. When left to their own devices — literally their own devices — they read crap and they don’t know the difference.
One day, he returns from his morning run to find a two-year-old girl abandoned in his bookstore, a girl with a huge heart. Over time, A.J. finds that Maya’s heart is so huge, it has broken through and consumed his own, as well:
At first, he thinks this is happiness, but then he determines it’s love. Fucking love, he thinks. What a bother. It’s completely gotten in the way of his plan to drink himself to death, to drive his business to ruin.
Once he has let Maya into his life and his heart, everything begins to change:
The most annoying thing about it is that once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to start giving a shit about everything.
Zevin is a remarkable writer, one who writes with an economy of style and story that reminds me of Jerry Spinelli:
He is a reader, and what he believes in is narrative construction. If a gun appears in act one, that gun had better go off by act three.
Zevin also writes characters who are real, characters who you would want to befriend if you knew them in real life:
The words you can’t find, you borrow. We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone.
This is a book about books, reading, and life, and how stories bring us together:
They had only ever discussed books but what, in this life, is more personal than books?
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a wonderful book that has so much to say. It could be used as shorthand between people who know it:
People tell boring lies about politics, God, and love. You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question, What is your favorite book?
For as much as this book talks about books and reading, though, this book is about love, and what’s more important than love?
We aren’t the things we collect, acquire, read. We are, for as long as we are here, only love. The things we loved. The people we loved. And these, I think these really do live on.
Ichor Falls: A Visitor’s Guide by Kris Straub and Sarah Pharris
Kris Straub is best known for his online horror/adventure webcomic Broodhollow, and for good reason. He captures the town of Broodhollow through its quirks and traditions, its unusual tendency to not remember big, important things, and its otherworldly residents with a charm and grace that belies its unsettling events and characters. Fans of weird fiction who don’t already know about the comic are missing out.
Kris Straub is also known for a short story he wrote that made the rounds on creepypasta forums, “Candle Cove”. It’s been made into a short fan movie on YouTube, and is the first story to be adapted for an upcoming TV show about creepypasta, Channel Zero. It’s also included here, in a collection of short stories about a town called Ichor Falls, which is perpetually shrouded in fog and sits near a wood where time doesn’t pass the same way as it does in the rest of the town.
The stories here are uneven, but the stories that stand out are good enough to overcome the weaknesses of the other stories. “Candle Cove” is the centerpiece, but “Curious Little Thing” (which found itself adapted into Broodhollow) is effectively creepy, as are “Lemon Blossom Girl” and “The Hirsch Camera (1870)”. The stories mostly stand by themselves outside of the conceit of them taking place in a secluded town called Ichor Falls, but the first and last stories bookend the collection into this unusual town that wouldn’t be out of place beside Dunwich or Innsmouth. The last story, “Shining One from Above the Clouds” (one of the two stories written by Pharris), gives us a possible origin to the town, and concludes the collection on a note of uncertainty.
While Ichor Falls isn’t perfect, it’s a fine collection of eerie, unsettling stories. Most of the stories can be found online, but having them together in one place is handy. Plus, readers of Broodhollow may find that the small town they know in the webcomic might have been built on the ashes of Ichor Falls.
Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader by James Luceno
Another sticking point I had from watching the prequel trilogy was why Anakin chose to follow Palpatine, even after Padmé’s death. It seemed like the whole reason he fell to the Dark Side at all was to protect her, and once that left the equation, why stay with him? Surely he would eventually discover that Palpatine had manipulated him as much as he had the rest of the Jedi, so what drove him to stay and serve?
Luceno does a decent job of explaining exactly that. The events of Dark Lord take place about a month after the events of Revenge of the Sith, and even then, Vader is questioning his loyalty. He’s also sitting atop a lot of resentment toward the Jedi, as he’s convinced himself that the Jedi could have prevented his fall had they been more open to other methods of the Force. It’s not the most reasonable explanation, but it fits well with the character of Anakin. Later in the book, after Vader has pursued what surviving Jedi he has been able to find, he convinces himself that some day he will be able to become Palpatine’s equal in the Force and overthrow him to become a Sith master, which is another reason for him to stick around. Together, the motivations work, though I still have some trouble with Vader’s character here.
As mentioned, this story takes place a month after Anakin became Vader, and already he’s showing a great deal of cunning in battle. I know Anakin was a general in the GAR, but he still seemed more impulsive and reactionary in that role than anything else. The books presented him as more skilled, but the movies show him as something else, and I can’t help but fall back to the movie’s presentation of the character when I think of who the character is. I can accept that Vader would learn enough over time to become the cunning Lord, but at this point in the timeline, it’s harder to accept.
The book succeeds well enough with what it sets out to do, but it’s not wrapped up in the best story. The opening chapters are hard to follow, and the characterization here is so slim that it’s hard to even call it one-dimensional. Luceno’s books tend to be better as sources of information than stories, though, so I can accept it. I just don’t see this book being among the essential EU reads like other people do; one could read a summary of the events here and get the same thing out of it.