October 23, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

toplinToplin by Michael McDowell


Toplin is not a horror novel. It elicits a wide swath of emotions — sadness, pity, disgust, and despair, to name a few — but it doesn’t quite horrify. It’s dark, but to call it horror suggests it’s something it’s not. Horror is a genre for people who like to embrace the darkness; Toplin is for the kinds of readers who like to confront it.

The book is a look into the mind of a deranged man where nothing can be taken at face value. He’s the most unreliable narrator, convinced of his own perfection in a story where everything is wrong. We follow his manias for a few days when his perfectly ordered world is thrown into disarray, all thanks to a simple sign in a store window.

Toplin is a book that can’t be trusted. It’s weird and surreal, a result of insanity that barely touches on reality. Its imagery is disturbing and disquieting, its conclusions vague and inconclusive. It succeeds at what it wants to do, which is take us into a disordered mind, and its intimacy brings us closer to the darkness that most of us would like. It reminds me somewhat of American Psycho, especially in the attention to and obsession with detail our narrator brings to the story.

McDowell has done something noteworthy with Toplin, and those who can stomach the ride and follow the twists and turns of its narrator will find an unusual but effective story. It doesn’t attempt to reassure the reader, nor does it provide a simple way for readers to decipher what’s real and what’s not. This is a book for readers who like a challenge, and for readers who want to stare into the darkness without flinching.


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Han Solo: Rebel Dawn

October 20, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

rebelHan Solo: Rebel Dawn by A.C. Crispin


With Rebel Dawn, Crispin gives us a Han Solo with which we’re familiar. It makes sense (this is the closest we get to the events in Star Wars, so he ought to be by now), but in the previous books, we only see hints of him. Still, Crispin is showing us Han’s development, so seeing hints in the previous books is to be expected.

Rebel Dawn also takes us back to the plot that started this trilogy: Bria; and the drug trade on Ylesia. More to the point, we finally get closure on the relationship between Han and Bria that began in The Paradise Snare, while we see what becomes of that drug trade some ten years later. We get to see characters who have featured in the other two books, and we also get to connect this story with some of the events that are mentioned in Star Wars. Specifically, we see how Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando, and we see the events that led to Han dumping the spice that put him on Jabba’s bad side.

The thing is, Crispin moves so quickly through those events that if you blink, you might miss them. These are seminal moments in the world of Star Wars, and I would have liked to have seen more time devoted to them. Instead, we get a lot of backstory for other characters, enough so that Han doesn’t feature for a good third of the story, save for a few interludes to keep us posted on what’s going on with him. Near the end of the book, we do get a definitive answer about the apparent misuse of the word “parsec” regarding the Kessel Run, which is nice. If anyone tries to raise that argument with you again, just point them to this book for clarification.

I noticed in this book that Crispin tells a lot, which hurts her characterization. The characters were still drawn well, but some scenes felt emotionless, when they should have been key moments where the reader should have felt something for the characters. Instead, we get a sense of their feelings, even when we should be feeling grief or anger over what’s happening.

The trilogy is strong, but I can’t help but feel like it could have been so much more. Crispin spins a good tale, and I powered through the last half of this book in one day, but it lacked the OOMPH that would have made this a great series. Still, it ranks among the better books in the Expanded Universe, and I’d recommend it for folks wanting to delve outside the movies to see what else the EU has to offer.

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Down Among the Sticks and Bones

October 19, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

sticksDown Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire


So far, the only works I’ve read by McGuire/Grant are her novellas. They’ve been fine, with intriguing ideas and near-perfect language, but they haven’t been great. In a way, they feel like they’re not quite long enough for the ideas they contain, despite being so well written that I want to gush about it; Down Among the Sticks and Bones, however, is the perfect story for its length.

The novella is about Jacqueline and Jillian, twin sisters whose parents raised them under strict rules: Jacqueline (never Jack) to be a tomboy to make up for her not being the son her father wanted; and Jillian (never Jill) to be the pretty princess her mother desires. This book is the sequel to McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway, so we know ahead of time that the two sisters will find their way into a fantastical world, tinged with darkness, where they grow to become themselves.

The story McGuire tells here is wonderful, in so many ways. Her characters are lively, her settings are vivid, and her atmosphere bleeds through every page. Her language sings, and the emotions she conveys in the story are real. It has true heartbreak and grief, frustration and joy. These are all traits that have been present in her other novellas I’ve read, but here everything comes together perfectly. It has a fatalistic tone for the ending, most likely due to it being a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway and me knowing how it would ultimately end, but that could be a projection on my part. The story felt stand-alone and self-contained.

McGuire was already on my “authors to watch” list, but knowing that she can write a five-star story like Down Among the Sticks and Bones, I can now add her to my “authors to read” list. Given how prolific she is, it’s going to take a while before I can get caught up.

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Hell Hound

October 18, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

houndHell Hound by Ken Greenhall


Like Elizabeth: A Novel of the UnnaturalHell Hound has a clue buried in its title, though it’s not as obvious as its predecessor. The story is about a dog, yes — a bull terrier — but the “Hell” of the title isn’t. It refers to the one who keeps him.

The story is told partly from the dog’s perspective, so we see how he — Baxter — thinks regarding the people around him. It’s dark, not because the dog is evil, or possessed; he’s simply a dog, driven by his own desires outside of society’s constraints. His identity is wrapped up in power and control, and he chooses to use it to his own advantage. We can’t blame him for his nature.

Hell Hound is chilling partly because Greenhall toys with our assumption that dogs adore us. We view them as pets, but we forget they’re animals. Hell Hound reminds us of what they are, beneath the trappings we put on them. He also reminds us how close we are as animals, paralleling Baxter’s motivations with our own. We can’t blame Baxter for his nature, because he’s a dog; humans, though, have evolved beyond that. Or so we believe.

The book’s main theme is that of sociopathy, not just in Baxter, but in the people near to him. The way Greenhall reveals the animals in humans, he’s suggesting that were we to remove the safeguards of society and civilization, we would be as sociopathic as a dog. As he presents his characters in the book, this isn’t hard to believe.

Also like Elizabeth, the story is told with an economy of words, but a wealth of atmosphere. Greenhall places words like a watchmaker places a gear: Everything is significant, and nothing is out of place. He uses a dispassionate voice to create dread, and he creates his plot in such a way that nothing is unexpected. We know where the story is going; we’re simply along for the ride until we get there, expecting the worst. As another reviewer put it, we’re dragged along by “the madness of pure unfettered rationality”, and it all happens in 150 pages.

Greenhall makes some astute observations along the way. They’re not reassuring, but they have a ring of truth, enforced by the events of the story. One particular example:

Carl had taken on an affection and a responsibility, but Sara was not sure there was virtue in that alone.

These gems are buried throughout the story, there to evoke the same sense of dread and nihilism as the plot itself.

Hell Hound is a fantastic book, but it’s dark. Readers looking for easy answers and happy endings should look elsewhere. Those who don’t mind a walk through graveyards and junkyards late at night, though, should seek it out.

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Elizabeth: A Novel of the Unnatural

October 17, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

elizabethElizabeth: A Novel of the Unnatural by Ken Greenhall


I’m not one to worry about subtitles, but in the case of this book, it’s important. It’s not “strange” or “weird” or “occult”; it’s “unnatural”. It’s a specific word, used to evoke a specific feeling, enough so that it feels like it’s part of the proper title, and not an attempt to classify the book.

That “unnatural” is such a specific, evocative word isn’t a surprise; Greenhall was apparently the kind of writer who took his time to find the perfect word for every sentence. Elizabeth reflects this, as he tells his story with an economy of words. A lot happens in this brief (152 pages) novel, but it never feels like it moves quickly, or that the author is skimping on the details. Instead, he creates mood and atmosphere in as little as one sentence:

In the night I would hear the slopping of the lake against rocks, and half-awake, I sometimes mistook it for the sound of someone choking.

Greenhall’s imagery is unsettling, as is the story. It’s not a graphic, in-your-face kind of horror, nor is it the quiet horror of Bernard Taylor or Charles Grant; it’s the kind of story that creeps under the skin and stays with you long after it’s finished.

The story won’t be easy for everyone. Its main character, Elizabeth, is fourteen, and involved in a sexual relationship with her uncle that she initiated. This isn’t a spoiler, though; aside from being made clear in the early part of the novel, it’s a central part of the story. The story is sensual, sex being an important part of it, but it’s never explicit. Greenhall suggests the activity, and by doing so shows off his talent for showing, not telling. That a fourteen-year-old woman and a late-thirties man maintain the relationship suggests that the “unnatural” in the title is about more than just the supernatural.

The point of the story, though, isn’t the sex. It’s important to the plot, but what Elizabeth is about is power. Elizabeth recognizes that she has power through sex, and isn’t afraid to use it. For her, sex isn’t about love or intimacy, it’s about strength.

Elizabeth is our narrator as well as our main character, and it presents an interesting dilemma: Is she reliable? Near the beginning, it’s easy to think that what she’s telling us is only in her head. Later in the story, it’s harder to tell. Knowing is important, though, since it determines if Elizabeth is the antagonist or the protagonist.

Greenhall isn’t as well known in the canon as other authors from his time, which is a shame. Elizabeth proves that his writing is precise, his horror suggestive, and he understands how to unsettle instead of scare. Valancourt has done a great job republishing these lost classics, and I look forward to more by him, as well as other authors in their catalog I have yet to discover.

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Brilliance of the Moon: Scars of Victory

October 13, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

scarsBrilliance of the Moon: Scars of Victory by Lian Hearn


After over 1000 pages, the Tales of the Otori comes to a close as Takeo finally fulfills his destiny and exacts his revenge on those who started his journey at the very beginning of the series. As befits the saga, his journey is filled with sacrifice, betrayals, and honor, and it all comes together in Scars of Victory. As the title suggests, Takeo is likely to win, but at what cost?

For the series to be that long, I’m surprised that the story feels less epic than other fantasy stories. One part of it is that the series isn’t a traditional fantasy, but the main part is due to the story being more personal than other epics. A Song of Ice and Fire is a sprawling epic with a large number of characters, but Tales of the Otori is about Takeo and Kaede. Other characters and events play into the story, too, but by centralizing her focus, Hearn gives intimacy to the story, bringing the reader closer to her characters than the events that drive their stories.

It feels like little happens in the series, but Hearn’s style of writing belies how much actually takes place over the span of its 1300 pages. I believe I’ve mentioned her gentle style in each of the reviews preceding this one, but it’s true: Her narrative lulls you into a false sense of peace. I love that style.

It’s hard to think of who I’d recommend read these books. They don’t follow the traditional epic fantasy structure, despite being a part of that genre, and they aren’t strictly historical novels, either. I guess I’d recommend them to anyone who finds their summaries intriguing, and would suggest starting with the first one and seeing if you take to it. I’m not sure what I expected from it, overall, but I was surprised I liked it as much as I did.

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Forever Peace

October 12, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

peaceForever Peace by Joe Haldeman


Much has been made of this book not being a sequel to The Forever War. Despite its similar title, and despite it appearing in omnibus editions with that book and Forever Free, it exists in its own universe, and covers themes not touched on in The Forever War. The only connection I could find was a town called Mandellaville, but that’s more an Easter egg than an actual connection.

The story is about Julian Class, a soldier in the US army fighting a war in South America. This is a future war, where the soldiers are locked in to battle suits, which in turn control battle suits out on the field. The good news for such a setup is that when a suit in battle is damaged or destroyed, its pilot survives (usually); the bad news is that it creates dependencies and other psychological effects on the soldiers.

The first half of the book is largely a rehash of the themes and details from The Forever War, showing life as a soldier in a future army. With the second half, the true story begins, forcing me to readjust what I was getting from the story. What precedes this shift is necessary, but it makes the novel feel like two stories: a war story; and a futuristic thriller.

Haldeman shifts between first and third person sections in this book (there are no chapters, only section breaks), which struck me as off. Some of those sections allow for a viewpoint other than Julian’s, but most of them could be told from his point of view without much change, and I wonder why the author chose to write the story this way. Even for the sections written outside of his viewpoint could have been included in the first person, since the story references the future in vague ways, suggesting the story is written as a reminiscence of Julian’s. It makes the story feel like Haldeman sat down with an idea and started writing just to see where it would go.

The story is thoughtful, and the second half shows that the author can write plot-centric stories as well as military stories, but it feels schizophrenic. I enjoyed it enough to give it three stars, and I would recommend it, but with some hesitation. It’s good, but not OHMYGOSH good.

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Brilliance of the Moon: Battle for Maruyama

October 11, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

battleBrilliance of the Moon: Battle for Maruyama by Lian Hearn


Tales of the Otori has been about Takeo and Kaede, first and foremost. The plots are complex enough to keep a reader engaged, but the real focus of the books have been the two main characters and their relationship. Their stakes have risen, and the plots against them are circling closer, as we enter the third act of the saga. Given that the last book ended on a cliffhanger of an ending, none of this is a surprise.

Hearn brings in a new point-of-view character here, Shizuka, which felt odd to me. It was necessary to bring her in to tell all the angles of the story, but to bring her in so close to the end of the story feels clunky. I feel like authors should know which characters will be central to their story from the beginning, and use them as POV characters from the start so they won’t be introduced so suddenly later in the story.

Her style continues to enchant, and her characters are intriguing. Nothing stays still as Hearn takes us through to the events that will conclude the series, but there’s still a gentle, susurrating pace here that lulls you into a false feeling of complacency. It’s a strange dichotomy, but it works remarkably well.

Battle for Marumaya isn’t a book to read by itself; you’ll need Scars of Victory on hand to finish this series quickly. Of course, the book isn’t one to start with, either, since if you do, you miss out on Takeo and Kaede’s relationship developing over the previous two books. Take my word for it: start at the beginning.

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Grass for His Pillow: The Way Through the Snow

October 10, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

snowGrass for His Pillow: The Way Through the Snow by Lian Hearn


This book is the end of Grass for His Pillow, the second book in the Tales of the Otori, and it has the same structure as most second-books-in-a-trilogy: It ends without much resolved. Hearn brings a couple of subplots to a close here, but for the overarching, political plot that covers this entire series, the book raises the stakes and takes us to the heart of the conflict, and then steps away and lets us wait for the next book.

Luckily, I have the next book(s) in hand to keep the story going, but this kind of structure annoys me. Unfortunately, this is how trilogies work now. I’ve noticed it ever since The Matrix Reloaded, but I expect it’s been going on since before then. There are exceptions (The Obelisk Gate didn’t leave me hanging as much as I would have expected, and The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect second-movie-in-a-trilogy in that it does all it should for the larger story while maintaining a structure all its own), but lately it seems like those second books have to end in such a way as to guarantee readers will return for the third. I’d boycott them all together if I didn’t get invested in them for two books.

Hearn tells the story in her unobtrusive style, which is wonderful. Stuff happens, but it always feels like you’re along for a gentle ride, even as it does. Takeo and Kaede continue to serve as the central characters, and their relationship defines the story. The third book, I expect, will bring the overarching plot to a close, as all the preparation and setup of the first two books will collect there, but all of it derives from their relationship.

Hearn continues to tell a good story, though it suffers from being book two in a trilogy. Readers who have come this far with the story will want to keep reading, and those who might be interested in the premise should start at the beginning. It takes a little while to get into it, but once you are, it’s hard to quit it.

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Across the Nightingale Floor: Journey to Inuyama

October 6, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

Across the Nightingale Floor: Journey to Inuyama by Lian Hearn


journeyJourney to Inuyama is the second part of Across the Nightingale Floor, the first book in Hearn’s five-book fantasy story set in an alternate feudal Japan. It picks up right after the first part ends, and serves as acts two and three of the book. Where we learn of Takeo and Keade’s histories in the first part, in the second part we see them come together, where their lives will become intertwined. Their stories take place against the backdrop of the lords’ politics, in which they will serve a large part, but the story is about Takeo and Keade first and foremost.

Hearn writes well, with her style and characterization carrying the story. There’s a plot to Journey to Inuyama, but Hearn’s narrative takes center stage. It’s not purple or overly distracting; it simply flows well, carrying the reader along in its gentle yet relentless pace. At times, it feels like nothing’s happening, but when you pause long enough to think about the plot, you realize she’s keeping you engaged without any tricks.

Readers of Sword of the Warrior will want to read this book (and should); anyone else attempting to start here will be lost. These are not two books that serve as first and second books in a series; together, they are one story. Anyone with an interest in Japanese culture would enjoy these books, but I would hesitate to recommend them to any fans of traditional fantasy books. The fantasy element is so light that they might find themselves disappointed.

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