Friday, July 20, 2018

Review: Deep Roots

Deep Roots Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Aphra Marsh's quest of resettling Innsmouth to New York, where her confluence runs into a snag: two factions of Outer Ones!

I enjoyed Winter Tide quite a bit so I pre-ordered this. Oddly enough, I was approved for an ARC on Netgalley AND a friend gave me the ebook as a birthday gift on the day it shipped. The stars were right that day.

Anyway, Aphra Marsh's goal of repopulating Innsmouth brings her to New York. She discovers a family with Innsmouth blood only to find the son has joined a cult led by a group of Outer Ones, aka The Mi-Go, aka The Fungi from Yuggoth. Arpha Marsh and her friends are caught in the middle of two rival factions with humanity's fate in the balance.

As with Winter Tide, there's a lot to enjoy here. Ruthanna Emrys takes some Lovecraftian concepts and fleshes them out, taking them away from Lovecraft's fear of the unknown roots. The Mi-Go are a lot more than one-dimensional monsters in this tale, given three (or more, if you want to get non-Euclidean about it) dimensions. The ghouls are also fleshed (heh) out quite a bit, given something of a culture.

The characters are a far cry from Lovecraft's, not falling to pieces with the first brush with the unknown, probably because all of them are part of the unknown to some degree. Charlie is gay in an era where it's nowhere near as acceptable as today and also studies magic. Aphra is one of the last of the Deep Ones. Catherine was host to a Yith. Audrey has something different in her heritage.

The jaunts to the Dreamlands and the trek into the Outer Ones' mine were cool set pieces. The magic system is one of the things I like the best in this series. Magic isn't free and takes its toll. Aphra's learning quite a bit but isn't coming through unscathed by any means.

As I've said many times before, I like the stuff inspired by the works of HP Lovecraft more than the works themselves. Ruthanna Emrys' humanized Lovecraftian fiction is some of the best out there. Four out of five stars.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Review: Driving to Geronimo's Grave: and Other Stories

Driving to Geronimo's Grave: and Other Stories Driving to Geronimo's Grave: and Other Stories by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Driving to Geronimo's Grave: and Other Stories is a collection of tales by Joe Lansdale.

I'm a Lansdale fan from way back so when I saw this on Netgalley, I jumped on it. I've read four or five Lansdale collections but I've never read any of these stories before.

Each tale in the collection is accompanied by an afterword where Joe talks about how the story came to be, which is almost as interesting as the story in some cases. The title story, Driving to Geronimo's Grave, is about a brother and sister driving across depression-era Oklahoma to retrieve the body of an uncle they've never met. It's full of Lansdale's trademark humor and has far more twists than the Oklahoma roads the siblings are driving on.

The second tale, In the Mad Mountains, is a Lansdalian homage to the HP Lovecraft classic, The Mountains of Madness. Joe's tale involves a hole in space and wrecked ships frozen in an iceberg. It's also entertaining as hell and some of the better Lovecraftian fiction I've ever read.

The third story, Wrestling Jesus, is about a young man who learns about confidence and defending himself from an old wrestler. The wrestler, X-Man, wrestles another old timer named Jesus every five years for the love of a dark woman named Felina who has a hold on them. It's pretty much a story of a father-son relationship, told in Lansdale's Mojo style. I texted my wife a few choice lines while I was reading it.

The fourth story, Rapid Robo, is a science fiction tale. Set centuries after a failed alien invasion, a girl leaves her tribe in the desert to find her brother and sister, who were kidnapped by robots. I liked this one quite a bit. I love stories featuring relatively primative people using technology they don't understand and this is one of those. Sheann and Nim's relationship drives the tale, much like in Wrestling Jesus.

The Projectionist, the fifth story, is about the young man who runs the movie projector and the secrets he holds. It's a pretty bad ass crime tale. I know Joe has a few tales that feature movie theaters but this one takes a very dark turn.

The final story, Everything Sparkles in Hell, is about a marshal tracking a quartet of killers in the winter who gets more than he bargained for. This one is a western starring Nat Love, which reminds me I still need to read Paradise Sky.

Driving to Geronimo's Grave was a loaded revolver with a bullet in ever chamber and not a dud in the bunch. It's hard to pick a favorite since I liked all of the tales quite a bit in their own ways. The collection shows that Joe Lansdale can write in a large spectrum of genres and still be the mojo storyteller he's always been. It's an easy four star read.

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Monday, July 9, 2018

Review: The Elementals

The Elementals The Elementals by Michael McDowell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Marian Savage dies, her son and his family head south to Beldame to recover in beach houses that have been in the family for generations. The family splits and takes two of the beach houses. The third house stays vacant, for an ancient evil lurks within...

I read Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga earlier this year and loved it. Michael McDowell has been on my radar ever since. When my cohort Anthony offered to loan it to me, I jumped on it.

I have to think The Elementals is a trial run for some concepts Michael McDowell would later explore at great length in Blackwater, namely a Southern family saga with supernatural elements lurking on the fringes.

The Savages and McCrays have been coming to Beldame for years but have always avoided the mysterious third house. After the death of the Savage matriarch, they head down to Beldame for some r&r. It's India McCray's first visit to Beldame so naturally she's very curious about the third house. It's sounds like it's going to be creepy from the beginning but it's not. Michael McDowell takes his time, develops the Savages and McCrays into characters you can't help but be interested it. Then he torments the poor bastards.

For the most part the story revolves around India McCray and Odessa, the Savage's maid. Odessa knows a lot mroe than she's letting on and India is a teenage busybody with nothing but time on her hands at the sleepy penisula. I have to say that Luker and India are my favorite father-daughter combo in all of fiction with their interesting dynamic. Apart, they're both fascinating but together, they're something else. Lawton's machinations made me hate him more than I feared the evils of the third house. Big Barabara's alcohol problem and relationship to Lawton was sad but I wound up liking her quite a bit.

In addiition to family drama, McDowell paints a very accurate picture of the torturous, oppressive heat and humidy of the south. I broke a sweat while I was reading some of the later chapters. The creepy happenings start at Marian Savage's funeral and gradually grow from there. By the end, it's hard to tell who is going to survive.

Much with Blackwater, I would have read twice as many pages featuring the Savages and McCrays. I enjoyed the characters so much that the horror element could be removed and it would still be an enjoyable book. Four out of five stars.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Review: American Tabloid

American Tabloid American Tabloid by James Ellroy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The fates of three men, Ward Littell, Kemper Boyd, and Pete Bondurant, are forever entwined in the era of mobsters, Fidel Castro, and the Kennedys.

Yeah, that's not much of a teaser but there's no quick way to sum this one up.

American Tabloid takes key figures of the late 1950s and early 1960s and pisses all over them. Ellroy is back to the trinity of sin structure that worked so well in The Big Nowhere and LA Confidential. His three leads, Ward Littell, Kemper Boyd, and Pete Bondurant, rise and fall as they influence key historical events.

Politics makes strange bedfellows and Kemper Boyd is in bed with most of them. At various points of the book, he's linked with the FBI, CIA, the Kennedies, and probably other groups I can't remember at this moment. He's a wheeling-dealing son of a bitch. He was easily the most compelling of the three leads. Ward Littell started off as kind of a weakling and wound up being the biggest bad ass of the three. He also lost the most before winding up on top. Pete Bondurant struck me as the most pragmatic for most of the book and I'm hoping he'll be back for the sequel.

Ellroy doesn't pull any punches in this. The clipped sentence structure is in full effect, so much so that it's a little overwhelming at times. I still dug it. He also isn't afraid to cast aside the myth of the Kennedys being great men. JFK and RFK both come off as tools. J. Edgar Hoover is almost the Dudley Smith of the piece, a master strategist who never really takes the fall.

It was great how Littell, Boyd, and Bondurant were interwoven into the sagas of Jimmy Hoffa, Howard Hughes, and the Kennedys, linking all of them together into a tapestry of lies, drugs, and death. American Tabloid is just as bleak as the LA Quartet in its own way. While Ellroy's Hollywood is a cesspool, his political world is even worse, a shit and vomit-flecked abattoir where everyone is in bed with everyone else and no one can be trusted. By the end, I didn't think any of the three leads would survive to the second book.

American Tabloid was a dark and exhausting read. By the time I was done, I felt like Kemper Boyd had done a number on me with brass knuckles. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Review: The Mating Season

The Mating Season The Mating Season by P.G. Wodehouse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Catsmeat Pirbright and Gussie Fink-Nottle come to Bertie Wooster with their lady problems, he has no choice but to help. Before you know it, Gussie's in stir, Bertie's pretending to be Gussie and Catsmeat is pretending to be Jeeves. Can Bertie get Jeeves to sort things out?

Spoiler alert: Yes.

Way back in 2012-ish, I decided to reread all of the Jeeves novels I read in that hazy time before Goodreads. Then I forgot about that goal until a few days ago.

I read this one ages ago so it was like a new book in a lot of ways. The only parts I remembered were the allusions to Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, since I'm a Dark Tower junkie, and the bit with the cosh.

First, the primer for anyone who has never read a Jeeves book before: Bertie Wooster is one of the idle rich in Edwardian England and Jeeves is his valet (or Gentleman's Personal Gentleman) who specializes in extricating him from trouble.

Like pretty much all of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves tales, this one involves romantic misunderstandings and Bertie Wooster trying his best to sort them out without Jeeves. Once things are suitably dire, Jeeves swoops in with his super-brain and works things out. Not usually by coshing someone, though...

Wodehouse's tales always have a superb rhythym and this one is no exception. You can feel the reversals of fortune coming several pages away. Since I forgot most of this one, I thought for sure Bertie would wind up in stir for a month without the option, It was all sweetness and light by the end, though, as it usually is.

The Jeeves books all tend to blend together in my mind since they all have the same basic plot but Wodehouse manages to take things into different directions each time, keeping them fresh. Wodehouse does his one trick very, very well, I suppose. While I still put The Code of the Woosters at the top of the Jeeves list, this one is still in the upper echelon of Wooster and Jeeves books. Four out of five stars.

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Saturday, June 16, 2018

Review: The Weight of Blood

The Weight of Blood The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When the dismembered body of one of her friends is found, Lucy Dane goes down a rabbit hole of sex trafficking, a rabbit hole that nearly claimed her missing mother decades earlier. Will Lucy discover her mother's true fate before she meets her own?

I've had this book for at least a couple years but forgot about it until I started chewing through my backlog due to my wife's commandeering of the Kindle. It was a gripping read.

The Weight of Blood is told in two threads, one in the past when Lila Petrovich came to Henbane, the other in the present featuring her daughter Lucy. Henbane is a flyspeck town in the Ozarks and I feel like Laura McHugh did a good job capturing the small town way of life, complete with distrust of strangers. The two plot threads were like speeding trains heading toward each other on the same track. You know the end result isn't going to be pretty.

The two mysteries were fairly engaging, although I preferred the Lucy thread. Crete Dane is as rotten as they come but still cares for his family in a twisted sort of way. I felt bad for all the bad stuff that happened to Lila, especially since I knew the worst was yet to come.

The book reminds me of The Roanoke Girls more than anything else, although I preferred The Roanoke Girls. The characters were pretty thin and didn't have a lot of life to them. Lucy and Lila were so alike I forgot which was which a couple times. The writing didn't have much of a spark either. It was pretty basic. While the plot was good, the rest of it could have used more juice.

The Weight of Blood was very readable and I liked it but ultimately didn't have a whole lot of weight to it. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Review: The Impossible Fortress

The Impossible Fortress The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the glorious year of 1987, Vanna White appears in Playboy, sending Billy and his friends in a frenzy to grab that coveted magazine. All Billy has to do is get the alarm code from the stationary store owner's daughter, Mary. Things get complicated when Billy discovers Mary is into computer programming on her Commodore 64, just like he is...

Since my wife comandeered the Kindle to read Anne of Green Gables, I'm chewing through my physical backlog of books. I picked this one up at the Goodreads Summit in 2016. It was a fun little read.

It's funny that the Vanna White Playboy was part of the plot of The Impossible Fortress because that's the one skin magazine my dad had, that I know of. Way back in the day, a co-worker of my dad was dying of cancer and asked him to do the 1990 equivalent of clearing his browser history, retrieving his porn stash from his locker at work. Dad brought it home and said "That Vanna White Playboy is on top of the fridge in the garage if you guys want to look it. Don't let your mom catch you."

Anyway, The Impossible Fortress was fun book. While it's not marketed as such, it's probably best classified as a young adult book. I'm guessing Quirk pushed the nostalgia aspect to grab more readers.

The story is part heist tale, part coming of age. Billy and his friends plan capers to secure copies of the Vanna White Playboy issue. Billy starts having feelings for Mary while the two work on a computer game, The Impossible Fortress, for a contest. Anyone who has ever watched a John Hughes movie knows where things are going.

I found the Impossible Fortress entertaining while I was reading it. The nostalgia doesn't feel forced and doesn't overshadow the story. The relationship between Billy and Mary blossomed pretty naturally and I really wanted them to win the contest. Burglary to retrieve the Vanna White Playboy was kind of a stretch. It's not even a great issue but, then again, many a fourteen year old has done many a stupid thing for a glimpse at naked flesh.

While I found it entertaining, I didn't find it particularly memorable. The only characters of substance were Billy and Mary and the writing was... light, maybe? Unchallenging? Stripped down? The writing didn't have a lot of meat to it is what I'm getting at.

At the end of the day, it's a fun story but The Impossible Fortress isn't anything I'd say people need to go out of their way to read. The story is cute and the nostalgia is fun but that's all there is. Three out of five stars.

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