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.

Advertisements

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Madonna and the Starship

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

madonnaThe Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow

—–

The Madonna and the Starship is about a group of actors, writers, and producers working together to try to fool a group of potential attacker from going to war. That’s a premise that sounds remarkably like the one in Shambling Towards Hiroshima, Morrow’s other novella that I read about a week before. I’ll admit I didn’t notice the similarity until I was more than halfway through, but when I did, I wondered if these were written this was intentionally, to serve as two sides of a coin. Knowing Morrow and how clever he is, I’m going to guess that’s the case.

Instead of satirizing and skewering monster movies and World War II, Morrow focuses on early television shows and religion. You know, to keep things light. What happens is a television writer and actor receives a message from extraterrestrials who want to give him an award on his science show, but once they land and prove themselves to be who they say they are, they reveal that they also want to exterminate anyone who watches another show about religion and faith. In their eyes, anyone who discards science for the supernatural are too stupid to live, so it’s up to this writer and his friends to come up with a scheme to prove that those viewers are worthy, too.

It’s a hefty premise, but one that should be familiar to Morrow’s readers. This is the man who wrote the Godhead trilogy, after all. What’s interesting about this tale is that he flips the story a bit, going after the die-hard scientists instead of the die-hard religious. The motivations of the main character isn’t to save religion, but to save the millions of people who would be killed over it, but the end result is the same: Leave the religious to do their thing, even while you believe something different.

I haven’t read the Godhead trilogy (yet), but they were the first books of his that drew my attention. At the time, any book that looked at religion from an outsider’s point of view piqued my interest, and I’m surprised I’ve had the books for so long and they’re still unread. These two novellas — smart, engaging, full of real characters, and plot-driven — remind me that I need to move them up the priority. I still have a soft spot for that kind of religious fiction, so I expect I would like them.

Permalink Leave a Comment

River of Teeth

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

teethRiver of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

—–

This much is true:

In 1910, Robert Broussard, a US Senator from Louisiana, introduced a bill to import hippopotamuses from Africa so they could eliminate the water hyacinth that was invading the state’s waterways, and also to solve the meat shortage in the US. It didn’t pass, but only because of one vote.

I know, right? Not only do you want to read more about the American Hippo Bill, but you also wonder what the US would be like had it passed. I get it. Sarah Gailey gets it, too, and wrote River of Teeth based on that piece of American history.

I’ll admit it: I bought this novella just because of the premise. Gailey’s alternative history is entertaining and has a clean, precise style, but it fails in other ways that makes it hard for me to recommend it. One thing is that she starts her story earlier, setting the American Hippo Bill in 1857 instead of 1910.

I think I understand why she did this — for the type of story she wrote, the US in 1910 didn’t fit what she wanted to do. She had to back it up a bit, make the US a bit more of a Wild West setting so her characters and plot wouldn’t be out of place. I just don’t understand why she didn’t tell that story in a different setting instead of rewriting the history that much. That brings me to the other thing that I didn’t understand about this novella, which is: Why isn’t this story about the American Hippo Act?

Gailey tells us a story of a ragtag group of adventurers on a caper (sorry, operation) to rid the hippos from the Mississippi River and flush them into the Gulf of Mexico. We have a diverse group of characters, including a bisexual male, a large French woman, a pregnant woman, and Hero, a character who is referred to as “they” through the course of the story. It was somewhat puzzling, because Gailey never addressed why that was the case. My guess is that Hero is intended to be genderless, and “they” is the closest non-gendered pronoun she can use, but it was distracting, and caused me a lot of confusion when they were introduced.

The group also includes a straight white male, who was presented as the most boorish, racist, sexist character ever seen. He was more loathsome than the antagonist, and he was — thankfully — killed off before the caper really got started. I couldn’t help but wonder why he was included, since he didn’t contribute anything to the narrative, save to show that the main characters were the opposite of him. Gailey adds a bit about how he had a history with the organizer of the operation, suggesting that he was there for him to get revenge, but it never happens, and I just couldn’t see the point.

River of Teeth is about these characters and their operation, which was fine in and of itself, but dammit, I came to this story for the hippos, and I didn’t get enough hippos. They serve as a backdrop, but that’s about it. At the end of the book, Gailey provides a timeline of how the hippos came to be in the river, and I wondered why the book wasn’t about that, instead of what I had just read.

In addition, key scenes in the story didn’t seem developed. Gailey takes time to introduce the characters, giving each of them traits necessary to pull off the caper, but when it comes time for them to use them, we don’t always see it happen. One character uses her skills to collect explosives, and another character manages to retrieve their weapons after they’ve been collected, but it all happens off screen. Why take the time to create these characters with their skills if we never get to see them in action? Was this originally a longer work that Gailey condensed to make it fit the novella format?

One of the characters is French, and Gailey chooses to write part of her dialogue in her accent, but it’s inconsistent. She’s not writing it out in phonetics (thank the stars), but she does have her drop her lead Hs, so she would say “‘e” instead of “he”. The thing is, sometimes she does say “he”. It’s a minor thing, but when you go that route in a story, it’s important to stick with it.

Gailey is a good writer, and she tells an entertaining yarn, but River of Teeth isn’t the story I expected. It’s not that I don’t want a story to surprise me, but when a story is promoted to death over its connection to the American Hippos Act, I expect that to be the core of the story. I wouldn’t discount Gailey all together over this book, but I’m not sure I’ll be on board for the rest of this series.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Shambling Towards Hiroshima

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

hiroshimaShambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow

—–

Reading a James Morrow story, I expect parts of it to go over my head. He marries a love of genre with a literary style, meshing satire with reality, theme with plot, and poignancy with characterization. That he manages to write at that depth and still tell a compelling story speaks to his skills as a storyteller, as well as a literary darling.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima is part love letter to ’40s and ’50s monster movies, part apology to Japan for what our country did to them in World War II. The two themes come together well, and with no surprise. Scholars have written much about the Godzilla movies reflecting the concerns of Japan after surviving two atomic bombs, so there was already a wealth of information for Morrow to use for his story. He injects a wry sense of humor into his version, though, as the giant lizard creatures in his story are very real.

To wit, Morrow creates an alternate history where the Manhattan Project has stalled, but the generals are still looking for something sufficient to scare the Japanese into surrendering. Enter the Knickerbocker Project, where geneticists have engineered violent, giant iguanas to set loose on Japan to destroy its cities. The thing is, the generals don’t want to send the lizards to Japan without giving the ambassadors a chance to report back on what the US army can do and hopefully engender a surrender. After all, the US will lose troops, too if the war continues down its path.

The plan is to build a scale model of a Japanese city and let a baby giant lizard loose on the model to show the level of destruction they can bring to Japan. Unfortunately, the young lizards are docile and loving, and about as destructive as a flock of butterflies. Enter Syms Thorley, a B-movie actor who is well known for playing monsters, and an elaborately contructed giant lizard suit that can roar and breathe fire, among other things.

The story is told from Thorley’s perspective, as he’s writing a narrative of his time during the project, ostensibly as a suicide note. He jumps back and forth from reminiscing to telling us how his life is now. He’s writing from a hotel room, where he’s staying as a guest at a movie convention, having celebrated receiving a lifetime achievement award for his works. His writing is interrupted by different people — a staff member, a prostitute, and a convention attendee — that gives us a chance to see him reflect on his time involved with Project Knickerbocker. He’s by turns proud of the work he did and ashamed of his part in the war, which is the real thrust of the story. By the end, we get a full story of the project and its aftereffects, where the satire clears like a fog lifting and we learn the point of this novella.

Morrow is a fantastic writer, and Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a fantastic story. It’s not perfect (the ending feels rushed, and shifts in tone so suddenly that it’s jarring), but it tells an engaging story through a likable character and has a strong message. I haven’t read enough of Morrow’s work, but Shambling Towards Hiroshima encourages me to get to it. I’ve had his Biblical satires for years, and need to move them up my to-read list.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Cold Cotton

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

cottonCold Cotton by Joe R. Lansdale

—–

I haven’t caught up with all of Hap and Leonard just yet (I still haven’t read Rusty Puppy, for some reason), which might have been a mistake before reading Cold Cotton. Within the first couple of paragraphs is a spoiler of sorts. It’s nothing major, I don’t think, but if you’re one of those that doesn’t want to know anything about future events, you should get caught up with the rest of the series before reading this novella.

This time around, Hap is having a little trouble with Li’l Hap, which sends him to a doctor, who in turn sends him to a psychiatrist, and in true Hap and Leonard form, that’s when everything goes south and they get caught up in events bigger than they expected. Why these things are unexpected is anyone’s guess, since every time they get involved with anything, it turns into something bigger than expected.

Leonard gets short shrift in this story, as it’s really a Hap and Brett story. Leonard appears, but the story is really theirs. Lansdale’s trademark dialogue is present, but without Leonard, it has to come from other, newer characters, which is always a little strange to me. I read Lansdale for that dialogue, but it always feels weird that everyone Hap and Leonard encounter talk that way. I’d miss it if it weren’t there, but based on the people I talk to through the course of the day, I’m not convinced that everyone is smart enough to carry of that kind of wit.

The novella has a lot of typos, which is regrettable, but I did buy and read this book as soon as it became available. Maybe future releases will be corrected, but I still feel like some copyediting would have done the book a world of favors.

Cold Cotton is a solid entry into the world of Hap and Leonard, but it doesn’t change the world. Familiar readers will find the usual off-kilter characters and snappy dialogue, and it may bring in new readers, but honestly, the novels are better. Still, it’s a must-read for already-fans of the series.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Agents of Dreamland

August 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , , )

agentsAgents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

—–

Agents of Dreamland is my first exposure to Caitlín Kiernan. I’ve known of her for a long time (I even had a copy of Silk for a long time), but she never pinged my radar enough for me to read her work. Later, I found a quote of hers where she discarded the use of plot in creative writing, and I, being a function-over-form reader, figured she wasn’t for me. I kept hearing good things about this novella, though, and I figured it was time to try her out.

I’m glad I did, because what I found is a story that has some plot (just enough, really), but excels for its use of language, atmosphere, and mood. It’s a piece that draws on The X-Files as much as Lovecraft, and it paints a picture of a moment that presents a terrible future. It flows through time, and introduces us to a couple of characters who appear to be on the same side, but are only marginally so. We don’t get caught up in their relationship, nor are we presented with the characters in such a way that we find ourselves immediately relating to and caring for them, but that’s not the point of the story, so it’s hard to complain about it.

Kiernan has an hallucinatory style to her narrative that’s a perfect fit for a story like this. Lovecraft’s nameless horrors have always resembled something from a bad acid trip, and here we have a writer who embraces that style with her writing. She also peppers the story with some named horrors lifted right out of our reality, giving the book a sense of reality, and reminding us that we don’t have to look far to find something to fear. The novella is an unsettling piece of work.

Suffice it to say, I’m impressed. I’m not sure if her style would sustain me over the length of an entire novel, but I’m more willing to give her a shot now than I was before. Agents of Dreamland strikes me as a perfect starting point for Kiernan. I can see that she wouldn’t be a writer for just anyone (heck, the jury’s still out on whether she’s one for me), but readers who like the dark and questionable and enjoy stories that aren’t traditionally told should give her a chance.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Perfect State

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

perfectPerfect State by Brandon Sanderson

—–

It seems like whenever I read a Brandon Sanderson novella, I learn of another Brandon Sanderson novella that’s escaped my attention. I wasn’t aware of Perfect State until I finished Snapshot, so of course I had to add it to my list. I started and finished it a lot faster than I expected.

Perfect State starts off telling us about an emperor who is immortal and all-powerful (well, almost; he’s still working on controlling the weather), but it quickly veers out of fantasy and straight into science fiction when we discover that the emperor is living in a computer simulation. This isn’t a spoiler, mind you; it’s revealed within the first ten pages or so. What makes it interesting is that the emperor knows he’s living in a simulation, and that his powers come from the master computer that runs the simulation. It hasn’t stopped him from ruling for hundreds of years and finding more and more challenges to keep him engaged. Then he receives a mandate from the master computer, to find a woman (a liveborn woman, not a Construct) and mate with her. The computer even gives him a list of available women, ranked by compatibility, to make it easier for him.

Sanderson creates an interesting world here, and it’s easy to like Kairominas, the emperor, but the story seems like it has too much wasted potential. There’s nothing extraneous to the story, mind you, but to spend so much time creating this kind of world and using it for such a brief story makes it feel underutilized. I’d like to know more about the other liveborns in their own worlds, and how they feel about being pawns in a simulation. Maybe Sanderson was trying to avoid the tropes of this kind of story, but I can’t help but feel like this is a setting ripe for a larger, more complex kind of story.

Knowing Sanderson as an author, though, there’s a good chance that he’ll revisit this world to tell those other stories. I imagine he’ll stick with telling them using novellas, which will limit the scope of the setting, but maybe he could write them as a series of its own, creating a novel-length story over the span of four or five novellas. That’s just me dreaming, though; there’s no indication this is Sanderson’s plan.

Overall, I enjoyed the story. It was better than the Legion stories, but not as good as The Emperor’s Soul. It’s probably on the same level as Snapshot, which is fitting, since that’s the story that led me to Perfect State. The hardcore Sanderson fans will like it best, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an entry point for readers new to him. It just doesn’t show off his strongest talents.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Dread Island

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

dreadDread Island by Joe R. Lansdale

—–

Dread Island is a story Joe Lansdale wrote for an anthology called Classics Mutilated. In it, the authors take classic stories and mash them together with other genres to see what comes out at the other end. In Dread Island, Lansdale mashes up Huck Finn, Uncle Remus, and the Cthulhu Mythos (along with a dash of Peter Pan) to create what can only be described as some super-mojo storytelling, as one would expect from Lansdale.

Lansdale captures the voice of Mark Twain well, which is no surprise since his East Texas style lends itself to that voice. The themes of his fiction are also parallelled with Twain’s, since they both look at racial injustice in the South. Of all the writers to write like Mark Twain, Lansdale is the best choice; of all the writers to mix in Uncle Remus and Cthulhu into Mark Twain’s style, Lansdale is probably the only choice.

Like a lot of Lansdale’s short stories and novellas, Dread Island is intended for Lansdale’s most hardcore fans. Fans of his Hap and Leonard stories, or his East Texas mysteries like Sunset and Sawdust or A Fine Dark Line, might not be prepared for this much of an oddity, especially if they haven’t read, say, “Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland” or “Dog, Cat, and Baby”. Lansdale’s delving into his weird oeuvre here, which is much weirder than his standard fiction.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Snapshot

July 7, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

snapshotSnapshot by Brandon Sanderson

—–

Another month, another Sanderson novella. The last two Mistborn books came out within about six months of each other, the next Stormlight Archive book is due out before the end of the year, and here we have another novella that appears out of nowhere. Seriously, does this guy ever sleep?

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. The Emperor’s Soul was one of those novellas, and it’s one of the finest works of fiction I’ve read this year. The two Legion novellas weren’t the best things I’ve ever read, but they were readable and engaging. The same could be said of Snapshot: not great, but good.

In Snapshot, technology exists that allows people to recreate an entire day. We’re not talking about a hard-light holographic projection like the Danger Room, but an actual recreation, all the way down to the quantum level. Though expensive, the technology allows police officers to revisit a crime scene to find evidence that’s been overlooked. When the story opens, this is exactly what’s happening.

In the afterword, Sanderson talks about how he separate science fiction and fantasy — in science fiction, writers try to realistically extrapolate the future, while in fantasy, writers explore an effect, justifying it through worldbuilding. I mention that because I find Sanderson’s fantasy to be much more convincing than his science fiction, which is odd, since for me the heart of a story lies in its characters. For whatever reason, Sanderson’s fantasy characters are more relateable than his science fiction characters, and I wonder how much of that is tied into the worldbuilding. Granted, the only fiction of his I’ve read that I’d consider science fiction are this piece and his Legion novellas, so I wonder if it’s more due to him not having as much space to develop his characters (though Shai and Gaotona in The Emperor’s Soul were remarkably realized).

At its heart, Snapshot is a detective story, using science fictional technology, and true to form, Sanderson doesn’t resort to using the usual tropes one would find in that genre. He has two cops investigating two crimes in the Snapshot, doing their best not to create any diversions that would alter either crime scene. While inside, they discover another crime, and begin investigating that one, too. What they find, though, is beyond what they expected.

The story is a good one, and is well told, but it lacks the OOMPH that some of his other stories have. Fans will eat this up, as will anyone looking for something new in a detective story. I wonder if more casual readers would like it, but Sanderson’s style is natural, enough so to draw the reader in to his world. Snapshot is a solid read, even if it’s not among Sanderson’s best works.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Reunion

July 5, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

reunionReunion by Rick Hautala

—–

I tried re-reading Rick Hautala’s books last year, but gave up on them three books into his bibliography. They weren’t that substantial, and I questioned his portrayal of women in his stories, so I moved on to other writers. This year, I discovered I had a novella of his among my e-books, and figured I would give him another shot.

Reunion is the story of a young boy, thirteen, who’s out camping with his best friend when they get it into their head to crash a party out at the country club. Parallel to this story is one involving John, a man in his mid-forties who’s desperately trying to attend his class reunion. The two stories intersect in strange ways, and Jackie, the thirteen-year old, is given much to consider.

This isn’t a horror story, though it has some supernatural elements to it that probably make it fantasy, though even that is a judicious use of the term. Hautala has to bring his two main characters together, and he uses the simplest method possible to do it. The story isn’t about its fantasy, though; it’s about the lesson Jackie has to learn.

One of Hautala’s skills is in capturing the emotions of his characters (I still have a vivid memory of how menacing a croquet mallet was in Dark Silence), and he uses them to great effect in this story. We have to understand John’s emotions to understand his part in the story, and we have to understand Jackie’s emotions to understand the consequences of the events, and we get them through the story. That the story is a little underwhelming isn’t the fault of the emotions as much as it is the structure of the story.

Hautala spends a lot of time creating John, the adult character, though the structure suggests he’s a bit of an incidental character. The story starts out alternating chapters between Jackie and John, but once John has served his purpose, his chapters stop, even though we’re only about halfway through the novella. I expected the novella to maintain that structure, so it was odd when it veered off in a different direction. It’s necessary to get John’s point of view to get the whole story, but how Hautala incorporates the two stories doesn’t feel natural.

Reunion shows me I shouldn’t dismiss Hautala due to his earlier works, but neither does it make me want to run out and read everything else he wrote. I have a couple of his later novels in my to-read stack, which I still plan to read, but beyond that, I’m just not that interested. Maybe those other novels will change my mind (especially if they’re structured more naturally).

Permalink Leave a Comment

Next page »

%d bloggers like this: