Darth Vader: Vader

June 21, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

vaderDarth Vader: Vader by Kieron Gillen, et al.

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I’ve heard a lot of good things about this title, enough so that I bought the first two volumes when I found them on sale for Kindle. I wasn’t expecting them to be Watchmen-level good, but I figured they might be entertaining. What I didn’t take into account is the main character being Darth Vader, stone-cold killer and all-around totally unlikable dude. Considering this arc takes place between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, I should have realized there wasn’t going to be much sympathy for the character here.

The first volume follows Vader shortly after the destruction of the Death Star, when he has to face Sidious and own up to his failings. He’s sent on a task to meet with Jabba the Hutt, and while there, he arranges for two bounty hunters to do some work for him: one to find out who it was who destroyed the Death Star; and the other to find the identity of the person who may serve as Vader’s replacement (and since the Star Wars universe is lousy with recurring characters, of course one of the bounty hunters is Boba Fett).

There’s not a lot of tension to the story, since it’s hard for us to care about either Vader or Sidious. We see the beginnings of Vader’s feelings toward Sidious, as he feels betrayed when a potential replacement comes into the picture, but even that isn’t enough to make us sympathetic to him. Gillen brings in a secondary character through a chatty archaeologist who pilots Vader around the galaxy, and I couldn’t understand why she hooked up with him. Vader has no love for history as it happened, so why would an archaeologist choose to help him? It might have been different if she had been forced, but she seems cool with helping him, just because he’s on the winning side. Plus, when she’s introduced, she appears to be a carbon copy of Indiana Jones, right down to her dialogue.

It might have been a better read if the artwork had supported the story, but for all the action the story has, the artwork feels static. It’s clear, and shows what happens, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any motion from panel to panel. Instead, it feels like we’re reading dialogue over snapshots of action. I’m not sure what it is about the art that makes it feel this way, but it’s the first comic I’ve read that does.

I’ll go ahead and finish volume two of the series (I already bought it, and it only took an hour to read this one), but I don’t expect much from it, and I don’t expect it will inspire me to read the other two volumes. I’m not sure what it is I’m missing, but it’s far from the story the reviews led me to believe it would be.

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Savage Season

June 20, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

seasonSavage Season by Joe R. Lansdale

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I first read Savage Season about twenty years ago. True to form, I remembered almost nothing of the book before re-reading it; I did, however, know the story, since my wife and I tore through the entire first season of Hap and Leonard on Netflix over the weekend. I also met Joe Lansdale last week at a speaking/signing event, so between the series and the signing, I had him on the brain, and figured this would be a good time to revisit the series.

The story is typical Lansdale, but, curiously, a bit tame when compared with the remaining Hap and¬†Leonard books. That’s not much of a surprise, I guess, since I learned at the signing that he never intended for the characters to become a series, but it was missing some of the oddness that’s become a part of the later books. It’s also the introduction to the characters, so there is a bit more backstory for the two of them than is typical in the rest of the books. Still, Lansdale gets right into the action from the start, bringing in Hap’s ex-wife Trudy to lure him in to a scheme to make all of them some money. Lansdale also populates the story with a handful of strange characters — Trudy’s other ex-husband, an old hippie with plans to use the money for social change; Chub, a fat man who believes himself to be a therapist; and Paco, a bomb-scarred leftover from a sixties revolutionary group — but they’re not quite on the level of who he uses in the other books.

There are differences between the book and the show, which is to be expected, but most of them are fairly minor (instead of a sunken car, for example, they’re looking for a sunken boat). In the show, Trudy seems to want to make amends with Hap, but in the book, she’s just manipulating him for her own gain. That’s probably the biggest change, that and how the two formats portray Angel. She’s about the same, personality-wise, in both the book and the show, but the producers of the show made her much more memorable. Plus, the show introduces us to Angel and Soldier much earlier, so we have time to see how cold-blooded they are. Lansdale doesn’t need that much space to portray them that way, but we do get to see Jimmi Simpson and Pollyanna McIntosh thoroughly enjoy their characters.

(Of particular note: Pollyanna McIntosh also played the pivotal role in The Woman, a movie written in conjunction with a Jack Ketchum novella. Lansdale and Ketchum, and now The Walking Dead: she’s setting a trend for playing some dark, dark roles.)

My favorite part of the show, though, is Michael Kenneth Williams as Leonard. James Purefoy is a fine Hap, but after seeing Williams play Leonard, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. He doesn’t just play the part; he owns it. Still, this is a review of a book, so I suppose I should get back to that.

A few Lansdale reviews back, I mentioned that he is a dependable writer, one you can count on to tell a good story, tell it well, and make it memorable. Savage Season is a dependable story, at least for already-fans. They’ll see a lot of the groundwork for the rest of the series, and see a hint of the style that would later define not just the series, but also all of his later fiction. Folks new to the series have a great place to start with this book, and those of us who already know it will have fun revisiting the start. I do wonder how people who started later in the series feel about this one, in comparison.

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The Pretty Ones

June 19, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads)

prettyThe Pretty Ones by Ania Ahlborn

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Before I bought this novella, I had never heard of Ania Ahlborn. All I knew was that she wrote horror, people seemed to think she wrote good horror, and that this story was only 99 cents as an ebook. I’m always looking for new writers (and good horror), and I figured 99 cents was an easy investment.

The Pretty Ones is about Nell, an introverted, overweight, mousy woman who lives with her emotionally abusive brother in late-1970s New York. She works at an office populated by prettier women, women who get along in and out of work, but Nell is obsessed with living a sin-free life and providing for her brother and absolutely not becoming like her mother. She’s not an easy character to like, because she lets others bully her (aside from her brother, who manipulates her with his silence and insults, there are the Mean Girls in the office), but she is an empathetic character. We understand why she’s the way she is, even if we want to scream at her to be the person she could be.

Nell has a quiet desperation to make friends, but she’s so socially stunted that she doesn’t know how to do so. Ahlborn captures that desperation perfectly, enough so that it was almost too much for me to read. I remember being that kid, the outcast who just wanted people to like him, and this story took me back to those times. It made me angry, first at Nell, then later at myself for ever being that kind of person, and for still having some of those traits, even thirty years later. It was too close, enough so that after finishing half the story in one afternoon, I sank into a depressed funk for the rest of the day. Ahlborn shows us that loneliness and desperation so clearly, it sinks under our skin and becomes a part of us.

The thing is, the best fiction is the kind that gets an emotional response from you, and a negative emotional response is still an emotional response. I feel the same way about Geek Love, a book that was so tough to read that I almost put it down, unfinished, due to how much it offended me. The fact that it could do so, to someone who has read Chuck Palahniuk and Edward Lee, is a testament to how well it was written. The same could be said of The Pretty Ones.

Ahlborn’s character development of Nell is the real point of this novella, which is important to note because the story is somewhat predictable, and has been done many times before. I hesitate to say it’s not original, because Ahlborn’s character study is what makes this novella stand out, but anyone reading this story for its plot will find similarities with other horror and thriller stories.

I didn’t expect much from this novella going in to it, but boy did it surprise me. I knew even a quarter of the way through I had found a new author to read.

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Final Girls

June 16, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads)

girlsFinal Girls by Mira Grant

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As much as I loved the language and writing of Seanan McGuire in Every Heart a Doorway and Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day, I felt like both novellas suffered for being too short. Final Girls, by the same author (oh, if you didn’t know, McGuire and Grant are the same person), has a story that fits its length. The problem here is the story feels a little clunky and weird, as if it were a half-baked idea instead of a fully-formed story.

The premise of the story is that Dr. Jennifer Webb has developed a form of virtual reality technology that she uses as her role as a psychiatrist. Her clients, usually estranged family members, go into the same virtual world together and endure living through horror stories to help reform connections that are either broken, or were never formed. They come out reconnected, though the procedure is not without controversy.

Enter Esther Hoffman, a science reporter whose father died as a result of false memories regained through regression therapy. She sees the technology as a form of that same kind of regression therapy, but Dr. Webb has requested she report on the technology, believing that if she can convince Esther, and if Esther reports that the technology is legitimate, then it will be a huge endorsement toward taking her methods public. Over the course of their initial interview, Esther is convinced to be subjected to a treatment, at which point everything goes south.

That main premise feels like a stretch to me. Grant wants to root the story in the real world, but who in the world would put together a method like this? How can subjecting someone to living through their own horror movie, one that feels so real that it rewires parts of the brain to feel love for people who despised each other before the treatment, be useful? It’s like flooding therapy taken to the extreme.

Plus, the entire thing feels impractical. How would this kind of treatment be preferable to other forms of therapy? How unsuccessful would all those other forms of therapy have to be to justify the costs of research and development of such a system? And once implemented, such a treatment would be ridiculously expensive; Who would be able to afford it?

Overlooking all those points, I had trouble believing that Esther would agree to a treatment. She’s presented as abrasively resistant to any kind of pseudoscience, but willingly puts herself into a situation where she’ll have copious amounts of drugs injected into her body, and then put into a state of sensory deprivation just to write her article. I didn’t buy it, but without her agreeing to the treatment, the rest of the story doesn’t happen.

To her credit, Grant tries to answer many of the questions I asked. The problem is I don’t feel like she answered them well. The story is well written, with relate-able characters, a decent plot, and a palpable tension, but it just doesn’t make much sense in the end.

McGuire’s other novellas were published by Tor.com Publishing, and their narrative reach matched being published at that level. Final Girls is published by Subterranean Press, and I can’t help but feel like it was published there because it was rejected by the more mainstream press. It’s still a decent read (I did give it three stars, after all), but it doesn’t have the kind of punch that the other stories did. I’m still looking for that representative Grant/McGuire story, since none of these stories seemed to be it. I like her style enough to keep reading to find it, though, so that should tell you something.

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Aftermath: Empire’s End

June 15, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

endAftermath: Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig

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Before starting this book, I intended to refresh myself on what came before by reading the plot summaries on the Wookieepedia. This was a mistake. I barely had the patience to get through the summary of Part One of Aftermath, because the entire summary is 4,819 words. Take that and add it to the length of the summary for Life Debt (3,954 words), and you have enough words for a novelette. It’s pretty clear: lots of stuff happens in this series.

For all that happens, though, reading the series is a tremendous chore. There’s so much happening, and there are so many characters, it’s hard to keep up with the plot. The interludes don’t help, since Wendig feels the need to cram as many characters into this story as he can. He even brings Jar Jar back into the story, and I hear that the new canon is trying to distance itself as much as possible from the prequel trilogies.

The book ends the trilogy that’s intended to bridge the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, but it only takes us a little of the way toward the latter story. It sets things in motion, but the real focus of the trilogy is to show how the Empire doesn’t just fade away when the credits roll at the end of Jedi, and how much it takes to actually eliminate the threat. Along the way, Wendig introduces us to new characters with their own trials, and those trials come to a close in the book.

The biggest event of the book is that we finally get to Jakku to see the battle between the Empire and the New Republic. We get to see why there is so much debris on the planet, and what made it important to the Empire overall. I have to give credit to Wendig for writing some engaging action scenes involving this battle. I went into this book expecting to be disappointed, and I think it helped me appreciate the story a bit more. I’m not going to seek out Wendig’s other books, mind you, but I at least was able to recognize that he could get a few things right.

Character names, however, are not one of those things. I’m used to character names in the Expanded Universe sounding like they were made by shaking a box of Alpha-Bits, but Tolwar Wartol? Come on. This smacks of just giving up on creating a new name. Near the end of the story, Wendig tries to make a joke out of it, but it’s a little too late, and if he’s trying to be sly, instead it comes across as being obnoxious.

Wendig doesn’t give us the whole picture of his story, even when it doesn’t affect the narrative for him to do so. There’s an important scene near the middle of the book where it feels like the entire plot has fallen apart, but then fifty pages later, it’s revealed that it wasn’t the end of that particular point, and it’s told to us in an “Oh, didn’t you already know that?” sort of tone. It’s like we’re learning to play a game from Wendig, but he only tells us the rules we’re supposed to know when we come across a situation where they benefit him the most.

I powered through this book only because I committed to reading everything in the EU. After the painful experience of reading Aftermath, and then following it up with the even worse Life Debt, I would have passed on this book all together save for that commitment. I do think this is the best book in the trilogy, but this is sort of like saying The Phantom Menace is the best of the prequel trilogy movies; it may be true, but that’s not to say it’s going to win any major awards.

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Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium

June 14, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

soulsTortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium by Clive Barker

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With Clive Barker, I’m a take-it-or-leave-it reader. I used to read his stuff as religiously as I did Stephen King’s, but over time, I lost interest. I’m not sure why; the man still has a vivid imagination that goes into some dark, dark places, and every time I read another work of his, I’m impressed. I wouldn’t have read this novella, except for the fact that it was part of the Subterranean Press Humble Bundle.

Only, Tortured Souls isn’t really a novella. It’s a collection of six short stories Barker wrote to promote a series of figurines he produced with Todd McFarlane. It’s easy to tell from the stories which figure is the focus of each story, but it starts with Agonistes, a being who can take mortals and make them into nightmares. The book begins with his legend, and then moves on to two characters whom he recreates into something to take revenge. Seeing as this is Clive Barker, this isn’t just a pop-’em-in-the-back-of-the-head kind of revenge; it’s much more torturous and graphic.

By themselves, the stories suffer because Barker doesn’t do much to describe the creatures in each story. Each chapter is prefaced with an illustration, but not all of them are descriptive, and it seems like Barker was relying on the figures to serve as the description. In their original release, this would have been fine, but in a collected book format, we needed more than what he provided. Pictures of the figurines would have been ideal, but I suppose there’s copyright interfering with that possibility.

Also, the stories were written to be standalone, inasmuch as they were released individually with the figures, so a few of them give a summation of the stories that precede them. Again, this makes sense, given their original release method, but as a standalone collection being marketed as a novella, it’s redundant. I’m not sure why the author or an editor didn’t clean up parts like that to make the story flow better.

Finally, for as much as the story is about the two main characters, there wasn’t much connection to them. The stories read more like vignettes, even though they all together made up a larger story, so we don’t get much of an insight into what makes them tick. The characters are who they need to be, no questions asked. Sure, it keeps the story moving forward, but it doesn’t make the reader empathize with what’s happening to them.

The overall story here is interesting enough, and the imagery is memorable, but there’s not much here to recommend it to readers outside of his hardcore fan base. It’s a quick read, certainly, but there are better Barker books to read for people who are unfamiliar with his style. Imajica or Weaveworld would be better places to start for casual readers, though anyone into dark fiction would do better to start with The Hellbound Heart or The Damnation Game.

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Beast in the Basement

June 13, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

beastBeast in the Basement by Jason Arnopp

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Before starting this book, I knew there was going to be a twist in it. I hadn’t heard of the author before, so when I saw something suggesting this was a good, tight read, I checked a few reviews to see what they had to say, and nearly all of them talked about the shocking twist. So, yes, I was predisposed to expect it, but I think even if I had gone into the story blind, I would have been expecting some kind of twist. It was evident the way Arnopp wrote the story that something wasn’t all that it seemed.

To his credit, Arnopp did surprise me. Despite expecting the twist, I didn’t figure it out before its reveal. It wasn’t even a cheat, either, since the story as he wrote it supports the direction it takes. It reminded me of the twist in Shyamalan’s The Visit, not that it’s similar in any way, but in the way it takes you by surprise, and in the way it doesn’t conclude with that twist, but instead takes you a little further into the story once it’s revealed.

For all that, though, the twist seemed a little ridiculous. I’m not saying it’s implausible, or unsupportable, but it didn’t have the kind of impact I expected, given how well Arnott sets up the tension of the story. It was a kind of “That’s it?” moment, and then a shake of my head as it concluded. Like Stephen King’s reveal of Pennywise’s true form, the truth of this story didn’t live up to the setup.

There’s really just one main character in the story, though Arnopp brings in a potential love interest for him. She’s barely defined, and not much of a character, despite being necessary for the main character’s development. It would have been different if he had realized her character more, but as it is, she’s there simply as a means to motivate the main character, and winds up being window dressing.

Arnopp’s previous credits include several screenplays, which shows in this novella. He tells more than he shows, and the pacing is a bit clunky, as it seems to progress too slowly at first, though it does pick up near the end. In fact, I think this story would work well as a short movie, since plot-wise, the story succeeds fairly well.

Ultimately, the story is all plot, without sufficient character development. In some cases, this is OK (Dean Koontz’s Icebound is one of those stories, and I remember tearing through that book in one sleepless night), but here, it feels like a detriment. It’s not a bad story (judging by the number of four- and five-star reviews, it certainly isn’t), but maybe I’m not the right audience for it. Still, it was only 99 cents, and I’ve read a lot worse than this for more money than that.

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The Two of Swords: Part Fifteen

June 12, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords15The Two of Swords: Part Fifteen by K.J. Parker

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This installment of The Two of Swords — the last one to become available — was published in April 2016. According to Amazon, the next installment won’t be available until June of this year. That’s over one whole year that’s passed since Parker last released a chapter of this story. I can’t imagine waiting that long for it; heck, I’m impatient to wait the four months until then! The good news is Parker at least brought the story to a good stopping point before taking that hiatus.

For one, we finally learn the ultimate goal of the Lodge. I’m not going to tell you what that is, but rest assured, we do get an answer. (Maybe. Lord knows, Parker hasn’t been playing us completely straight this whole time, so who’s to say he’s not throwing us another red herring?) We also get a few new characters, revisit some we’ve seen before, and start to see how all these various plot points are coming together. As it is, if Parker had to break the story at a point before taking some time away from the story, he picked the right place for it.

There are actually two chapters to this installment, which was odd, but makes sense, since the second one was only about twelve pages long. It was weird seeing them break within the same ebook, but I understand once this is complete, it will be published as a single volume, so if nothing else, this setup gives us a taste of that. Plus, this isn’t the first time Parker has put two chapters in one installment; it’s just the other one was only three extra pages.

So, I’m kinda bummed that it’s over, but I’m looking forward to what remains. Part Fifteen wraps up some of the loose ends, but we still have a lot of frays that need mending. As good as this first half (?) has been, the second half should be mighty impressive.

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The Two of Swords: Part Fourteen

June 9, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords14The Two of Swords: Part Fourteen by K.J. Parker

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It seems a little late in the story to be bringing in new characters, but Parker does exactly that in Part Fourteen. Chanso, the archer who shot Corason in the last chapter, becomes our point-of-view character, through which we get to see the devastation of war (again), along with some insight into the Lodge. The Lodge has been presented to us as a well-meaning, duplicitous-yet-honorable group that (maybe?) wants what’s best for everyone at the end. The problem is that the ends justify the means, as we see in this installment.

As the story began, I had reservations, since we were dropped into a new group of people, and had to learn about them for most of the chapter. It seemed like a bad time to be bringing in new characters, since the main story felt like it was nearing a pivotal moment, but of course I should have trusted Parker. This chapter, like the Lodge’s actions, was a means to the end, which was to give us further insight into the war and its history. Parker does a great job of showing us complex events through the eyes of people who have only a tenuous grasp of the larger picture, and Chanso is another of those characters.

The good news is the chapters are getting longer again, so it feels like we’re making progress; the bad news is there’s a lot of new exposition to wade through to get to that progress. Whenever I start to question the relevance of where Parker’s taking us, I try to remember that I’ve trusted him this far, and that my trust hasn’t been misplaced. I need to keep moving forward, knowing that Parker is going to give us what we want, even if it’s going to be a little longer getting it than we would like.

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HiLo: The Great Big Boom

June 8, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

boomHiLo: The Great Big Boom by Judd Winick

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I’m a Judd Winick fanboy. I’ve been one since discovering Frumpy the Clown, which pointed me to Barry Ween and Pedro and Me, and then on to HiLo. It’s hard to be objective, though it doesn’t stop me from being critical when I feel it’s appropriate. The Great Big Boom is the continuation of the story of HiLo (and D.J. and Gina).

At the end of Saving the Whole Wide World, Gina got sucked into a portal, her destination unknown to either D.J. or HiLo. It was a tragic ending, and it reminded me a bit of Sara’s story in Barry Ween. I was hoping that Winick would take the story in a different direction, and while he does (I figure Sara’s end would be a bit too dark for the HiLo story), he still borrows from it. I guess I understand that — Barry Ween is an esoteric title, so few people reading the series would know it — but I wish he had gone with a new story. Saying that, though, I should point out that this isn’t just a re-tread of Barry Ween; it’s its own story, just with a few familiar details.

And what a story it is! HiLo learns more about his past here, and we get to see more of the playful banter between him, D.J., and Gina. We also meet a slew of new characters, since the portal they have to enter to save Gina takes them to a completely new world. I felt like the story strayed from its roots by going to the new world, but that’s not to say the story lacks its trademark charm. It’s impossible not to like the main characters, not just because of the way Winick writes them, but also in the way he draws them. He captures the comic and the serious with equal efficiency, and uses them to their strongest effect.

HiLo is an excellent series for kids, but I would recommend it for adults, too. If your tastes run like I do, where you can appreciate something as heavy as Geek Love and something as light as The Mud Flat Olympics, you’ll love the series. Plus, its main characters are people of color, which is still rare enough to treasure in this genre. Do yourself a favor and read these, if you haven’t already. Heck, if you have, go back and re-read them; they’re good enough to read multiple times!

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