The Murders of Molly Southbourne

January 16, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

murdersThe Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

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Molly Southbourne was taught four simple rules from a very young age:

If you see a girl who looks like you, run and fight.
Don’t bleed.
If you bleed, blot, burn, and bleach.
If you find a hole, find your parents.

The reason is also simple: Whenever she bleeds, she creates a perfect, murderous duplicate of herself.

It’s tempting to go deeper into that premise, but to do so takes away the joy of discovering this odd, compelling story. Thompson thought it through, from beginning to end, and tells us exactly what it would be like to grow up with this sort of affliction. By all rights, the story should read like a clinical report on her condition, but Thompson frames everything through the eyes of Molly herself, and makes it come alive. It’s not that we learn about her affliction; it’s that we learn about Molly.

The only tripping point in the story is near the end, when Thompson attempts to explain Molly’s affliction. He also attempts to make the story into something larger, using a framing device around Molly’s story, which only gets in the way. I understand this is the first book in a series, which is disappointing, since it’s hard to see what else Thompson would have to say about Molly. This novella feels self-contained, with questions left to be answered, without them having to be answered. That’s not to say I won’t read the next book in the series, but by itself, this story is fantastic.

A word of advice: Start this book when you have the time to finish it. It will suck you in like a Dyson, and nothing short of your house catching fire will take you away from it. Before this novella, I had never heard of Tade Thompson; afterward, I was adding his other books to my must-read list. It’s an incredible read.

Started: October 24, 2017
Finished: October 24, 2017

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The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion

January 15, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

lambThe Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy

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I think it’s fantastic that Tor.com Publishing has put a focus on underrepresented groups as writers and as characters in their publications. It brings to focus people who have been kept in the background, who have been forced to keep secrets, and the more we read the books with those characters, by those writers, the more we grow to accept them. The sooner this can happen, the better.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion features a variety of characters, including trans characters and gay characters, and uses them to tell a story about a vindictive spirit that preys on the hunters. The story is set in a commune called Freedom, Iowa, where a group of anarchists have created an idyllic place where all of those who have been cast aside by society can live. Our narrator enters the town in search of answers regarding a friend who had lived there before going off to commit suicide, and what she finds, along with an open market where people can take the food they need, open gardens where everyone contributes, and the freedom to make choices outside of societal expectations, is a blood-red, three-horned deer that kills and eats the hearts of predators. Unfortunately, that includes humans.

This is a novella with something to say, and Killjoy doesn’t shy away from saying it, loudly and clearly. It reads more like a treatise on anarchy than it does a fairy tale, and Killjoy highlights the pitfalls of such a society as much as the benefits. It’s a story that bleeds its meaning through the plot, and while I’ve enjoyed that kind of story in the past (Laurie Penny’s contribution to this line of novellas was particularly good), here I found myself less interested. Part of me feels too old to get behind the idea of a commune. They appealed more when I was younger, but now I see the reality of them, where one person with a desire for power can easily corrupt the system and destroy it for everyone else.

The story moves quickly. It feels like Killjoy is more focused on her treatise than the story, so characterization isn’t as strong as it could be. They waver between good and bad, which could be another point of the story, but it’s hard to get invested in the story since they don’t feel realized. Killjoy is a good writer, and creates a good story, but it doesn’t sing like it could with better characters. Had it been a longer work, with more time to develop the characters, maybe it could have been more impactful.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion isn’t a bad book, but I’m afraid people will finish it wanting more, but not in an “I can’t wait for the sequel!” kind of way. It doesn’t feel unfinished, but neither does it feel incomplete. It just feels rushed, which is a shame, since the message and the plot feel substantial. I understand this is the first in a series, so maybe that will come. As it is, though, I’m not convinced I’ll be reading the next installment.

Started: October 23, 2017
Finished: October 24, 2017

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Mapping the Interior

January 12, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

mappingMapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

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I keep hearing a lot of good about Stephen Graham Jones. He’s considered to be one of the “new horror” authors creating a buzz, and since I’ve touched on John Langan, David Nickel, and Laird Barron, I figured it was time to touch on Jones, too. He’s written a bunch of stuff, though, so I started with Mapping the Interior, since it’s newer, and since it’s short.

The story is about a young Native American boy who sees his dead father walking through his house one night. From there, he begins an investigation, one which doesn’t just answer his questions about his father, who died when he was four, but also raises new questions about himself. The story has a focus on Native American culture, but shies away from using that as the source of the horror. This is refreshing, since older horror uses Native Americans as tropes instead of characters, and it certainly helps that Jones is himself Native American.

Jones’ imagery is fascinating. He creates a sense of disquiet through the events. The narrator’s father becomes more and more substantial as the story progresses, and the ways he interacts with the physical world make him more unnatural than if he were just a ghost. Jones avoids the tropes of the genre, and writes in a style that leaves the reader feeling a little out of sorts. He works hard to make the story effective, and it pays off.

Part ghost story, part coming-of-age story, and part surreal look at the world around us, Mapping the Interior is a cerebral horror novella that keeps you reading. It’s engaging and thoughtful, eerie and unsettling, and doesn’t rely on easy answers or conclusions. I feel like I’ve only just touched on what the novella has to say, and I can see myself revisiting it in a few years’ time to see what else I can discover in the story.

Started: October 21, 2017
Finished: October 23, 2017

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The Red Threads of Fortune

January 11, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

threadsThe Red Threads of Fortune by J.Y. Yang

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Rumor has it, you can read the two books in Yang’s Tensorate series in any order. Based on that rumor, I picked the order in which Goodreads has the books ordered in the series and started there, with The Black Tides of Heaven. I made the right choice, because if I had started with The Red Threads of Fortune, (a) I would have been lost, and (b) I’m not sure I would have continued with the series.

The focus of Tides was on Akeha and Mokoya, twin children of the Protector, and their early life. Threads shifts away from the twins to a degree, showing us what they’re like as adults. By now, the characters have grown into the different personalities they became at the end of Tides, and have moved on to life, not without each other, but at least focused away from them. The main focus of Threads is Mokoya, as she hunts a rogue naga that threatens the city where she lives.

Threads is less interesting, since it shifts its focus away from the relationships. The character Mokoya is now isn’t as sympathetic as the one she was in Tides, and what relationships she does have in the novella feel more forced. Her development feels authentic, but where she goes in this book with that development simply isn’t as interesting. The story does have more of a plot than the previous book, but when Yang writes the first book to focus on character, it’s jarring to then shift over to a book that’s primarily plot.

How much you like this book may depend on where you start with the two books. Chronologically, Tides comes before Threads, and gives us more insight into the characters than the latter book. Those readers who start with Threads, though, might be disappointed by the shift from plot to character, but I still feel like they would be confused by events in Tides. Yang is still a strong writer, and I’m in it for their next two books, but I’m hoping the attention will shift back to the characters and their relationships for those books.

Started: October 16, 2017
Finished: October 20, 2017

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The Black Tides of Heaven

January 8, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

tidesThe Black Tides of Heaven by J.Y. Yang

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I’m a sucker for a novella, and for a novella that’s getting lots of positive buzz. Tor.com is doing a great job with them (and with promoting the non-male, non-cis, non-white authors and stories), so it was a no-brainer that I would be reading Yang’s contributions to the line. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Black Tides of Heaven is a book that pairs with The Red Threads of Fortune, and I waffled over which to read first. In the end, I decided to follow the series as Goodreads had cataloged it, so Tides it was. It introduces us to a handful of characters, like the Protector (think Mommy Dearest with wizarding powers and a ruthlessness that would make Cersei Lannister sit up and pay attention) and Head Abbott Sung (Atticus Finch with magical powers), but the two main characters are the twins, Mokoya and Akeha, who are birthed by the Protector to honor a debt she owed the Head Abbott, and also to manipulate it so he didn’t get what he expected out of the deal. At the age of six, the twins are adopted into the Grand Monastery and are taught how to use the Tensorate magics.

Yang is a talented wordsmith. They create scenes effortlessly, imbibing them with all the senses to ensure you feel immersed in their world. Their characterization is deft, as they develop the twins to be more complex than first appearances would suggest. The Head Abbott and the Protector run the risk of being cliches, but Yang adds a few twists and turns to their development to keep you guessing. The story develops out of the relationships among all these characters, so the plot feels natural, and no development ever feels forced. The characters in their world are born sexless and adopt a male or female persona whenever they feel comfortable, so “they” is used to refer to single persons, as well as groups. It takes some adjusting to flow with the story, but this is more a limit to the English language, and not a problem with how Yang tells the story.

My only complaint about the story is that it feels rushed. The first half of the book takes its time to show and reveal the characters, but the second half feels like Yang was rushing to get to the end and still be able to call the book a novella. As I mentioned, the development isn’t forced, so nothing strikes me as Yang cheating the reader, but I would have liked more time spent with the characters as they make their significant decisions. The good news is Yang doesn’t sacrifice the emotion of their story, but since they develop the characters so well, that’s no surprise.

Yang’s style has shades of Sanderson in it, but their voice is all their own. The good news about this novella is it’s the first of four, and I can move straight into the second one. I’ll be paying attention to Yang’s future books, and I know I’ll be reading the second pair of books as soon as they’re released.

Started: October 12, 2017
Finished: October 16, 2017

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The Two of Swords: Part Eighteen

December 25, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords18The Two of Swords: Part Eighteen by K.J. Parker

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We’re reaching the point of the story where things are winding down, but where things are also fraying in the usual Parker style. It’s hard to tell what’s actually going on, not for lack of clarity, but because there’s so much intrigue happening through the Lodge that it’s hard to tell what’s happening at their command and what’s being said to happen through their command. Telamon is caught in the middle of it all, struggling to figure out where her loyalties lie. Axio and Oida, of course, don’t help her understand it much, since they’re as much at odds with each other as the Belot brothers.

This is a lengthier chapter, namely because we learn more about the instability of the Lodge as the war appears to be drawing to a close. I’ll admit I got a little lost in the telling of this chapter, partly because of the way the story bobs and weaves, but also because I kept thinking I should remember more details about parts of it. The story revisits old settings, and I felt like I was missing some significance of some appearances and references, since it’s been so long since I’ve read the other chapters. I’m not willing to go back and re-read them again at this point, but I do plan on getting the printed volumes when they’re released. When I do re-read them, I’ll try to take notes so I can keep everything straight.

For such a complex plot, the chapter-by-chapter release isn’t ideal. I’m surprised I remember as much as I do from the earlier chapters, but that disconnect doesn’t help, especially when so many months have passed between parts two and three. I’m eager to see this through, to see exactly how the Lodge plays in to the plot, and to see how the events ultimately play out. Parker’s novellas bring his plots together well, and if he can bring those same deft skills to The Two of Swords (and why couldn’t he?), I won’t be disappointed. I’m just ready to get there.

Started: September 19, 2017
Finished: September 19, 2017

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The Twilight Pariah

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

pariahThe Twilight Pariah by Jeffrey Ford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Two of Swords: Part Seventeen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Feasting Dead

November 29, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

feastingThe Feasting Dead by John Metcalfe

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The Feasting Dead is another title in my Valancourt Books project, and since so many of those have been so good, I had high hopes for it. I also learned this novella is one of the books Stephen King recommended in Danse Macabre, so of course my expectations were that much higher. Like so often happens when I get my expectations up, I wound up being disappointed in the story, though I think it has a lot to do with reading the story out of its context.

Colonel Habgood is our narrator, but our main character is his young son, Denis, who makes a friend in the groundskeeper named Raoul who works at a French estate. The friendship becomes an obsession, and when his son moves back to England with his father, Raoul shows up and worms his way into their household. Shortly thereafter, Denis takes ill, and remains that way for several weeks. Meanwhile, dogs bark at Raoul, and word has it that when Denis is out with Raoul, he appears to be talking only to himself. The Colonel is left to solve the mystery of Raoul, despite his son’s protests for him to stay.

The story was originally written in 1953, and during that time, it might have been something new and original. Now, 64 years later, it feels out of time, out of place, and not nearly as effective as horror being written later. It’s not that my sensibilities are too outdated (I’m finding that the Valancourt reprints from the ’70s and ’80s are better than the stuff being published today), but what I look for in horror is a fresh perspective, either through the horror itself or in how the story is told. The Feasting Dead has its moments, but it’s nothing fresh. The characterization feels light, the atmosphere is thin, and the ending feels weak.

There’s some effectively eerie imagery in the story — Raoul’s face is such that no one can get a sense of what he looks like, and he remains featureless throughout the story; a scarecrow features in the third act, and every time the Colonel sees it, it appears to have moved — and it starts strong, but the middle portion of the story is comprised of a lot of hand-wringing that grows tiresome and doesn’t do much to move the story forward.

Metcalfe makes the narrative somewhat difficult to read, as he chooses to write out the stammering of characters speaking under stress. Using this device once or twice would have been fine, but Metclafe uses it frequently, enough for it to slow down my pace. Also, the story is set partly in France, so the narrative is peppered with French words and phrases. Some of them are easily understood through context, and others are translated in the narrative, but there were enough that stood on their own and forced me to translate them to understand their impact that it slowed me down considerably, enough so that the novella took my almost an entire day to read, when normally it would only have taken me a few hours at most.

Over sixty years ago, this might have been an effective piece of horror fiction; today, it pales in comparison with works that came later. Writers like Poe and Lovecraft continue to entertain and chill, so I can’t help but feel like it’s more than just its era that makes it less effective. The story is fine, but it’s nothing I would recommend over, say, Michael McDowell or Bernard Taylor.

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Invisible Fences

November 16, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

fencesInvisible Fences by Norman Prentiss

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Before reading this novella, I thought “Quiet Horror” was a realm to which only Charles L. Grant belonged. He’s still a one-and-only (the atmosphere he creates is unique), but Norman Prentiss is an author who understands it well enough to do his own version of a Charles L. Grant story. Invisible Fences is it.

The title refers to those devices used to keep dogs in yards, using a collar and an underground perimeter line. The author expounds on the idea by telling us how parents create invisible fences for their children: don’t cross this street because a car could run you over; don’t go into the woods because the junkies shoot up back there; don’t leave the yard because we don’t trust the people who live down the road. Sometimes it’s for our own good, but it’s the self-inflicted fences we create that can do the most damage, like when we stop leaving the house after one of our children dies.

The story takes its time building up the narrator and main character, from the time he was around eight to the time when he’s in his thirties. He tells us the story of his childhood and those fences, and despite the point sometimes eluding us, the story is strangely compelling. Prentiss has a natural style that draws us in, and he has an eye for detail and an ear for dialogue. It’s disarming, all the more so when the ball finally drops and we understand the reality of what we’ve been reading. It’s chill-inducing.

Like Grant’s In a Dark Dream, the story builds up toward its ending. Parts of it seem unimportant, and readers might find themselves questioning the point of it all; all I can say is “Hang in there.” It will come.

I had already added Prentiss to my “authors to read” list, thanks to his short stories in the Dark Screams anthologies I read, but Invisible Fences reinforces that decision. I’m not sure if all of his stories have this quiet effect, but it only took two short stories and a novella to see how effective he is, so I’ll be here for the long haul.

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