Reading Wrap-Up: August 2016

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Grendel by John Gardner (My Rating: 4/5) Grendel is the story of Beowulf but from the perspective of the monster, and it’s done very well. Grendel is sympathetic, but he’s never censored. Meaning he is a monster that kills people and sometimes eats them, but you still feel bad for this guy who has no friends, no purpose, and views the world as being very pointless. I’ll say there were a lot of philosophical nuggets in the text that I know were going over my head, so if you’re more into that than I am, you might get even more out of this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it for those readers who are more interested in monsters than in buff heroes.

The Fireman by Joe Hill (My Rating: 2/5) I did a whole separate review for this, and it’s left me with nothing else to say. Trust the review was very negative and I’m disappointed. Fair warning. I hope his next project leaves a better impression on me.

The Secret Books of Paradys I and II by Tanith Lee (My Rating: 4/5) Lee was at her best when she was writing fantasy fused with horror, and this was pretty satisfying. This volume was two books collected in one, and the first was a series of three novellas all set in the city of Paradys. The three stories were all strong, but the middle story was so incredibly engaging it left the other two feeling a little pale in comparison. The second half of the book was more satisfying overall as it consisted of one, whole plot told in interconnecting short stories. So, yes, I don’t even know how to classify this book, because the storytelling is experimental, and mostly it’s short form but you should read the whole thing straight through and not cherry-pick.

Paradys is like a paranormal, alternate history version of a French city. Anyone who goes there will find both their most perfect desires laid out before them and the most intricately woven nightmares. Most of the time things don’t work out so great for people who get involved in the bizarre happenings in Paradys. There are vampires, angels, demons, ghosts, ancient curses, but none of it is derivative. Each bears Lee’s particular stamp. If you’re looking for something gothic, spooky, and different, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu (My Rating: 4/5) I must’ve stayed in that sort of mood, because here we have a classic vampire tale that is the definition of gothic. A young woman makes a strange, new friend. Then she starts falling ill. A tale as old as time really, and that’s maybe where the story does lack something. For its time, it must’ve been truly shocking when you find out Carmilla is a vampire. In 2016, we know it immediately. There’s also a small scene of random racism and an ending that felt a tad rushed. Otherwise it’s a classic worth looking into. Especially with the strong nudging between these two girls that their infatuation is far more than friendship.

Chocky by John Wyndham (My Rating: 4/5) It had been far too long since I’d read one of Wyndham’s novels. This one was a little more on the friendly side than previous works I’d read. I think you could make a decent family film out of this one. That’s not to say there wasn’t conflict and it wasn’t interesting. But most of the troubles the family faced were the result of an “overly emotional” mother with some added drama at the end. In fact, I felt like I was reading an E.T. predecessor with the plot of this book. Just like with The Midwich Cuckooos, I’m not a huge fan of Wyndham hijacking the story to mutter “women” and roll his eyes, but otherwise it was a short book that entertained.

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Apocalyptic Reads: Part Two

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I’m back with more apocalypses. Be sure to check out part one if you haven’t already. It’s full of great recommendations, and here are some more. Though these are world-ending scenarios of the weird variety.

birdboxBird Box by Josh Malerman. This one got a great deal of hype last year, and this is a rare case where it was deserved. The scenario here is that creatures, coming from who-knows-where, are among us. Looking at one of these creatures results in instant psychosis. It can cause you to hurt yourself or others, and this phenomenon is spreading like an epidemic. The story bounces back and forth between when this first began and a point in the future where our main character is trying to take two children down the river to a safer place. Blindfolded.

This is the most claustrophobic book, as you can well imagine. It’s people trapped in a house where they can’t even look out the window. Going outside, and they sometimes have to, becomes an incredible ordeal. More importantly, as with any book of this nature, they’re trapped with each other. The tension builds to a crescendo that is shattering. Just this one time, listen to the hype.

Demons by John Shirley. I may end up being the only one to truly love this bizarre masterpiece, but I feel it’s worth a shot to share it. On the surface, this one is simple. We get something like a Biblical apocalypse, and I say “something like”, because mainly that means just what it says on the tin: demons. Crazed, violent demons of a few, strange varieties appear and start to, well, kill people. Horribly. And they’re everywhere. It’s gruesome, and the recommendation definitely applies to you if you’re a horror fan.

The story is told in two parts. That initial touchdown of the demons and how they’re dealt with. Then a second part where a man gets involved in such a weird way that I don’t dare spoil it. Please read it. If you’re like me, and you want books off the beaten path with stories that you didn’t think anyone would have the nerve to write, read this book. Read anything by John Shirley really, but this one especially. The climax in the second half of the book is something I will never get over. And I mean that in the best way possible.

bloodmoneyDr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick. Now I am allowed the incredible privilege to talk about Philip K. Dick. He’s always written about broken societies and imperfect futures, but this one really is about a world that has ended and is limping back to life. Typical of any PKD book, trying to summarize this is going to be almost impossible. There’s a bomb that goes off, and several, disparate characters are affected. There’s a blending of their stories, and each of them is unlike anyone you’ll ever read about.

We get the initial incident, and then the rest of the story is concerned with how they survive after that. They rebuild and form a community. But don’t think for a second this is by the numbers, because things get so very weird. Thanks mostly to the presence of a character named Hoppy, a mutant with mind powers. Like Demons, this needs to be experienced to be believed.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. We open with a man with bandaged eyes waking up with the feeling that something has gone terribly wrong. The night before, there was a meteor shower that blinded everyone who looked at it, which was most people. So Bill Masen is now a man with sight in the world of the blind. The really unfortunate thing is, in this world, there are also Triffids. Plants that can walk, sting, and kill. When you have sight, they’re fairly easy to avoid. But now the Triffids have the advantage.

I didn’t expect what this book delivered. First off, what a different scenario, am I right? The combination of a random epidemic of blindness and these sentient plants was pure magic. Wyndham also writes beyond that, with all those survival trappings about helping others and when you have to run instead of help. How to repopulate the earth, which becomes a tough conversation about monogamy and survival and choice. There’s a lot here to absorb in a short space, and I can promise it will surprise you.

catscradleCat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. Like PKD, Vonnegut wrote a lot about the end of the world or our inevitable terrible future. This particular one is about ice-nine, created by Dr. Felix Hoenikker. It can turn water into an irreversible solid. So if dropped in the wrong place, it could destroy the entire world’s water supply. He’s put it in the hands of his unstable children, which means we’re probably all goners.

Like all of Vonnegut’s work it’s an eccentric fable, a satire told with humor but holding a kernel of sad horror within it. It’s considered one of his best, and I won’t argue with that. It’s definitely one of his most popular. If you wanted to get into his work in general, this would be an excellent place to start. Or end. Get it? Bad joke. I’ll stop now.

Five more books for your end-times needs. If you want to support this blog, check out my Redbubble Shop. As always, happy geeking!

Review: The Fireman by Joe Hill

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Welcome to what is going to be a negative review of the newest Joe Hill book, The Fireman. I waffled and seesawed about whether I should write a separate review for this book or leave it for my end-of-the-month wrap-up. Ultimately, I have to give this its own space, because I have too much to say about it. I wouldn’t want to bog down a wrap-up with this, so here we are. If you loved this book and don’t want to see someone pick it apart, definitely skip this. If you’re still interested, here we go.

My dislike of this book isn’t due to any single thing. There were many factors here that left me sour. Let’s start with what might end up being the most controversial one. This book, for whatever reason, clearly has a feminist theme. This is not a problem for me in theory. I consider myself a feminist, and I read feminist fiction from time to time. The issue was that it read like a man, who barely grasps what feminism is, trying to write a fictional manifesto. As if he was told that feminism means women are awesome no matter what they do and men are always disgusting, nasty villains (unless you’re Doctor Who… I’m getting to that). Women who do awful things are forgiven while men who do awful things are punished violently. If a man seems innocuous or innocent, unless he’s a child, he will be revealed to be some kind of monster, in some cases without any explanation in what’s clearly meant to be a “twist” but comes off as poor writing. It’s all very warped and heavy-handed and actually antithetical to feminism itself.

Now let’s get to the Doctor Who part. That’s who John AKA The Fireman basically is. Doctor Who with a new coat of paint. A thin one at that, because it was pretty transparent that Hill’s love of British TV informed John’s character entirely. This is a problem that spread throughout the book, not just with John. Harper is Frannie from The Stand, and there’s a moment where he socks you in the face with it so hard that it’s irritating. In fact, there are plenty of characters who are ersatz Stand characters. Nick, the deaf boy. Harold Cross, the sexist, junk-food-cramming smart guy. He mashes a few Dark Tower references in the mix, one that he repeats just to be sure we heard him, I guess.

What could have been cute and inviting for fans of Doctor Who and Stephen King becomes an obvious attempt to garner favoritism in the quickest, easiest way possible. These references aren’t sneaky. They’re so blatant and loud that they smack of creative bankruptcy. One of the reasons I’ve been a fan of Joe Hill from the beginning was because his ideas were off the beaten path. His characters were his own and not cut from anyone else’s cloth. I can’t say that here. The characters that are memorable are outright copies of characters done much better by other writers. Everyone else blends into this mash of who-cares.

This is also the longest shortest book ever. Let’s unpack that so it makes a bit more sense. The font was huge. The margins were huge. It’s as if the publishers wanted this to seem like it was 750 pages when it was closer to 600. In other words, not actually that epic with a lot of rushed plot points that should’ve been lingered on. By the same token, this book should’ve been 500 pages. For every interesting tidbit he rushed, there was something else he poured over and drew out that seemed entirely pointless. Stuffing the book with a romance that I simply wasn’t feeling. Letting the characters sit around and banter at each other when there was a real crisis going on. The sort of thing I expect from lesser writers but not Hill. And therein we have a book both too short and too long. Very frustrating.

While we’re on a roll, here’s a pet peeve. It’s something Stephen King does, but compared to this book, he does it sparingly. Ending a chapter or section of a book with a warning that BAD THINGS ARE COMING. For example, a character will say, “that’s okay, because we’ll be there soon.” Which is followed immediately by the line LITTLE DID THEY KNOW THEY’D NEVER GET THERE. He did this over and over and over. To the point that there was no tension. No suspense. I didn’t care. I knew everything that would happen a chapter ahead of time. Zero subtlety. It irks me with King, too, but this was above and beyond. I don’t need an author to be constantly winking at me, and at some point I’ll start asking if that wink is a spasm and maybe they should see a doctor.

The worst sin of all is that I’m already starting to forget this book. It was intended, and he really pounds this home, to be Hill’s The Stand. It’s not that good. It doesn’t even come close. I could rattle off the name of every character in The Stand and their backstory and what they contributed. Even tertiary characters. I struggle to remember Harper’s name sometimes, and she was the central figure in the story. This didn’t only fail to live up to those standards. It’s not even memorable on any level for me.

That truly sucks, because I love Joe Hill. I’ve loved every other book he’s written, and maybe that’s why I’m being so harsh, because he’s taught me to expect the best from him. So when so much less than that comes across, I’m stunned. I don’t know what happened here. Maybe he needed an editor who loves that red pen a little more. Maybe this needed another pass. I can only hope the next one is better.

If you’re not too pissed at me for this negative review and want to support this blog, check out my Redbubble Shop. As always, happy geeking!

5 Short Book Recommendations

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Sometimes you need a book for the afternoon. Something quick and satisfying to make you feel accomplished or to help you get through that book challenge. Here are several recommendations that will do just that. From all sorts of genres, so there should be something here for everyone.

I’ve seen several people do this, but in particular I was inspired by Jean at Bookishthoughts. She limits herself to very, very short books, and I might be a bit more lax on that, but rest assured they will be short. I’ll give page counts of my editions with each one to illustrate how short we’re talking.

Grendel by John Gardner (152 pages) This is a retelling of Beowulf from the perspective of its first monster, Grendel. This was a recent read, and it coupled with the new video Jean made about short books inspired this article. It’s a mix of fantasy with a bit of horror. It has lots of poetic and philosophical bits thrown in to make it a very in-depth read despite its short length. Gardner does a fantastic job of giving Grendel a lot of character and making his point-of-view, even though it’s very bleak, relatable.

A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut (145 pages) A non-fiction book of essays and artwork from Vonnegut’s later years. It’s a little sad, because he discusses how he has given up on trying to convince humankind to be better than we are, but it also can’t help but be great. Because it’s Vonnegut. So it can be sad, yes. And amusing. And illuminating. And all the things Vonnegut is but in a smaller space.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (162 pages) This is a short story collection comprised of fairy tale retellings, but don’t look for them to be Disney-fied. Like their dark origins, these are bloody and strange. They also take on a decidedly feminist slant if that is something you look for in your literature. It’s fantastical and darkly entertaining. I especially recommend the title story and “The Company of Wolves”.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (162 pages) Another short story collection. This one a translated work from Japan. Like The Bloody Chamber, this is dark and bizarre. All the stories are linked to one another, and that becomes kind of a treasure hunt as you read. The whole collection, for me, ended up feeling very dreamlike. Unlike anything I’d read before. If you want a different experience with a set of short stories, try this out.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (113 pages) Everyone ought to try this one, simply because it’s a classic. Also, it’s a play, so it reads even faster than a book might. We follow Willy Loman as the American dream crumbles all around him. It’s tragic, real, and a pretty important read. I was shocked by how much the story and its characters moved me. It will catch you off guard.

Expect I will do one of these again, since there are no end to the shorter books, the sort you can read in a day, that are worth your time. If you want to support this blog, check out my Redbubble Shop. And as always, happy geeking!

T5W: Authors I’m Waiting on Another Book From

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This is my first Top 5 Wednesday, but I liked the topic enough to give it a try. T5W was created by gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Thoughts on Tomes. This week’s topic is all about waiting on that next book. So who did I choose?

5. Stephen King. This is such an easy answer. I’m always waiting on the next Stephen King. Luckily, he’s very prolific, so whatever comes next won’t take long. The reason it feels like a wait is because I devour everything he puts out as soon as it’s in my hands, so this is more a case of me being greedy.

4. Gillian Flynn. Again, this is a given. I’ve read everything she’s written, so now I want the next one. She put out a short story, “The Grownup”, as a teeny book, but that really wasn’t the same as having a full-length novel. I know she’s part of the projected titles for Hogarth Shakespeare, but as you can see, we shouldn’t expect her play on Hamlet until 2021. I really do hope she has something planned between now and then, otherwise that’s quite a wait.

3. Thomas Harris. I know. Who am I kidding? He’s the author that when people fuss about George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss, I drag him out. It’s not even that I want another Hannibal Lector novel. I think he’s mined those depths sufficiently. I want something, anything, else that he has in mind. He wrote the most thorough thrillers with such vibrantly real characters. I’ll take anything at all.

2. Josh Malerman. There is an upcoming book listed on Malerman’s Goodreads page as untitled, and it hasn’t really been updated. I’m sure he intends to write more than just Bird Box (an incredible horror novel, by the way), and I’m very eager to see what he has up his sleeve. His first novel was so original and terrifying. We need more fresh voices in horror fiction, and I think he could be a great one.

1. Bret Easton Ellis. It’s been a while since Imperial Bedrooms came out. For the most part, he’s been doing a podcast and working on films. Call me entitled if you want, but none of that satisfies me. I have not once been reading one of his books and pined for him to make a movie. Of course not. I want more books. This isn’t the longest wait between books that Ellis has ever had, but he seems like he wants to make a new record. I’m frustrated by that. Can you tell?

What authors are you waiting on? Let me know in the comments. And if you want to support this blog, check out my Redbubble Shop. As always, happy geeking!

Review: Stranger Things Season One

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Like many right now, I’ve fallen in love with the Netflix original series Stranger Things. It was tailor made for someone like me. It’s set in the 80s with an accurate aesthetic. There are references galore to the 80s mainstays with a special emphasis on Spielberg and Stephen King. It’s a horror-heavy science fiction story with a mystery to unpack as the series plays out. They couldn’t have asked for an easier audience to hook than me.

What makes Stranger Things work for everyone, in my opinion? For starters, the references are fun but not essential. By that I mean that you needn’t be an expert on early King or have watched E.T. and Alien. That makes it more fun certainly, but you don’t have to be on the inside of every nod to another work. It works on its own.

That’s where what Stranger Things does is unique in our current, entertainment atmosphere. We’ve all heard it said that we’re stuck with remakes, reboots, and adaptations. Stranger Things is none of that. Yes, it’s an homage to the things we love that have come before, but it’s not only that. It’s original. One of the best examples of that is when we reach a moment that looks like it’s about to play out exactly like a famous scene from E.T., then it’s beautifully subverted. It handles the same situation from that film in a much darker and frankly more badass way. I feel like that was The Duffer Brothers, the show’s creators, telling us that it’s all well and good to nod to the things that came before, but you better do something different with it. Otherwise, what is the point in perpetually repeating ourselves?

We have the group of kids getting in way over their heads. We have the mysterious girl with powers. We have the washed-up cop trying to do the right thing. We have the frantic mother of the missing boy. But we also have nuance and character development and fantastic acting to go along with this familiar territory. It’s not stale, and it’s not cliche.

When talking about this, I have to mention the monster. The Demogorgon. When it first appeared, I thought we were headed toward alien abduction territory, and I felt myself yawn inwardly. There’s not much that hasn’t already been done with that, considering The X-Files has spent ten season and two movies covering the topic. Then it went in a direction I didn’t foresee, and the Demogorgon became one of the most existentially, cosmically frightening creatures I’ve ever seen in fiction. Many horror writers would blush upon realizing they’ve never managed to be this scary before. As a horror fan, I want to recommend this show based on that. You will find yourself with that dawning fridge horror, understanding slowly how terrifying a creature like the Demogorgon really is. It would actually be preferable if all he did was eat you.

Even beyond that, the great story and the great monster, this show has an incredible emotional core. It will rip your heart out, put it back, and rip it out again several times over. For only eight episodes in all, it packs such a punch. That ending was deliciously ambiguous, too. Bring on season two, please!

I hope this review convinced some of you to try the show. It’s a solid 5/5 from me. If you want to support this blog, check out my RedBubble Shop. I just recently put up two designs inspired by Stranger Things. Buying, sharing, anything at all helps me out a lot. And as always, happy geeking!

Quill’s Reading Wrap-Up: July 2016

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The first thing I’d like to address is that this blog has suffered thanks to real life getting a bit complicated. Due to an illness and a couple of wisdom teeth going bad (related? I can no longer tell), I have been out of sorts. This past Wednesday, I had said wisdom teeth removed surgically, and I’m still recovering. But I wanted to do this wrap-up before it became no longer relevant. Because I am still recovering, go easy on me if this wrap-up seems scattered. As is always my way, despite everything, I got lots of reading done. So let’s get started!

Jazz by Toni Morrison (My Rating: 5/5) Toni Morrison is smarter than me, and so it makes it somewhat challenging to talk about her books and feel as intelligent as they are. This is the second in a loose trilogy that begins with Beloved and ends with Paradise, each book taking on a theme from Dante’s The Divine Comedy. This one being purgatory. I am ill-equipped to go on about that, but I can say this book did feel like people caught in limbo, waiting for judgment, waiting for the moment when their lives can continue. It also, as the title implies, plays like a jazz riff. All these discordant notes are sounding together, and they seem as if they don’t gel, and then suddenly they do. This book is nothing short of genius, and I can’t praise it enough.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix (My Rating: 3.5/5) Hendrix’s latest horror romp was fun but not as fun as Horrorstor, its predecessor. It takes on female friendship really well and feels very authentic, and I loved it for that. But the horror wasn’t that horrifying. It had its moments. There’s one scene in particular that will have you swearing off milkshakes for a while. But ultimately it was a very bloodless horror novel. It seemed like it wanted to appeal to the YA crowd, and in that way it pulled a lot of punches. I prefer fearlessness in my horror, so that definitely affected this book’s score. Still a worthy read if you love demon stories and the 80s.

The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey (My Rating: 2/5) This could become a rant. Easily. This book was so over-hyped. This was treated like the second coming of the genre, and it fell so far from that mark for me. I didn’t see the originality here that everyone else seems to. It felt like a typical zombie romp to me. The characters were kind of infuriating, especially the “well-meaning” teacher. The entire thing felt very anti-science. And the ending was enough to make me want to chuck the book across the room. What did it have going for it? Melanie was a great, memorable character. Otherwise, skip it.

The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan (My Rating: 4/5) A cosmic horror pastiche owing its roots to Lovecraft and his New England terrors. Count me in. It was as great as that sounds. My one cautionary word would be that it’s a very slow burn. It builds this feeling of dread until we arrive… not at answers or surety of any kind, which is where the story really taps into something primal. The whole idea of this tree feels ancient and unknowable, and the narrator is so unreliable that we can never be sure what we just read. Very effective, psychological piece.

The Well by Catherine Chanter (My Rating: 5/5) This one completely caught me off guard. I saw it at Dollar Tree (yes, for one single dollar) and remembered I’d heard someone talk about it. So I tried it. And it was amazing. Psychological thriller meets literary fiction, and it works beautifully. This was actually a good book to read right after The Red Tree, when you’re still in that sort of mood. You want more of an unhinged narrator and their odd point-of-view. You want that unnerving atmosphere just a little longer. Highly recommended.

A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick (My Rating: 5/5) This is only the book I’ve been waiting my whole life for. I love stories that deal with a group being isolated and forced to rely on one another under dire, horrific circumstances, and here we have it as written by PKD. Therefore the group is full of unstable assholes, and the horrors they’re met with challenge the idea of reality itself. Just brilliant. Every time I read one of his novels, it becomes a new favorite, and this is no exception.

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud (My Rating: 2/5) Unfortunately, while this was considered the next great thing by many, it left me feeling very sour. Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Google that if you’re not familiar with the term and bask in my pain. There’s also the fact that while it had a great premise, it wasn’t used all that well. The story was nihilistic and negative and yet wanted to be a love story. And it was anti-medication for the mentally ill. Phew. There was some beautiful art to be had, but otherwise a really negative experience.

Gutshot by Amelia Gray (My Rating: 1/5) To get one star from me, a book has to be truly bereft. I have to be able to tell myself I got nothing out of this, even remotely. I don’t give that rating out lightly. So here we are, at a book that left me feeling completely empty. The stories were so short, with absolutely no meat to them, that they left no impression. The ones that attempted profundity were so obvious that it felt like a hammer to the head. Even if I could say, “well, that was sort of clever,” it really just emphasizes how pathetic a statement that is, trying to throw this poor collection a bone it really hasn’t earned.

The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley (My Rating: 4/5) A really unique piece of speculative fiction. It felt like an alien invasion, which I really loved as there aren’t enough books that tackle that idea anymore. It had a dream-like quality with beautiful prose, the story taking place in a world without explanations, which made the whole experience even more indescribable. It’s short and odd and a great diversion. I wish the ending had packed more of a punch, but otherwise this was fantastic. I look forward to exploring more of this author’s work.

Lungs Full of Noise by Tessa Mellas (My Rating: 4/5) This is what Gutshot wishes it could be. An eclectic collection of work tackling all sorts of dark topics and odd behavior. And written impeccably. A couple of the stories went so far into left field that they were a bit challenging to read with their experimentation, I admit. But with gems like “Beanstalk” and “Dye Job”, it’s still very worth your time.

Done! Now I don’t know precisely when I’ll be back to blogging regularly, but the wrap-ups are not going to get neglected, I promise. As always, happy geeking!