Monday, May 30, 2016

Review: 'Salem's Lot

'Salem's Lot 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When writer Ben Mears moves back to 'Salem's Lot, a sleepy Maine town he spent a few years living in as a child, he has bitten off more than he can chew. 'Salem's lot is home to an ancient evil. Can Ben Mears and his friends stop the vampire in their midst before falling victim to his lust for blood?

One of the great things about getting older is that old books magically become new books after ten years. I forgot most of the wrinkles of this one so I figured it was a good time to give it another read.

'Salem's Lot owes a lot to Jack Finney's Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers. In the case, the pod people are replaced by vampires! Stephen King does a great job portraying small town life and then destroying it. While I remembered the bare bones of the plot, most of it had been lost in the sands of time so it was a pretty suspenseful read the second time through.

Ben Mears is the first instance of what has become a Stephen King staple over the years: the writer as the main character. In some ways, Mears is a prototype for the protagonists of Bag of Bones and The Dark Half. Mears, damaged by the death of his life, moves back to 'Salem's Lot to try to resume writing. Good luck with that.

The characters other than Ben Mears were an interesting crew. Too bad most of them are dead or worse by the end. I'd read a second book featuring the two survivors dealing with the fallout from this one.

If I had to pick one thing to gripe about, it would be that the ending itself seemed a little easy. After everything that came before, it was kind of a whimper rather than a bang. Also, I had to wonder why they didn't just burn Barlow's hiding place down and be done with it.

40 years later, Stephen King's sophomore effort is still a fine read. His Dracula meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers tale is just as suspenseful as the first time I read it. Four out of five stars.

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Friday, May 27, 2016

Review: The Time Machine

The Time Machine The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Victorian-era scientist calls together a group of men and tells them of his recent adventure, a trip through time...

I had intended to participate in a reading of this with the Distinguished Society of Pantless Readers but once I had a taste, I wolfed the whole tale down in one sitting.

The Time Machine is probably the first time travel story and definitely a spiritual ancestor of every time travel story since. The nameless time traveler whips up a time machine and travels through time. What could be simpler?

The Traveler goes to the year 802,000 and encounters the descendants of man, the Eloi and the Morlocks. Wells uses the Eloi and the Morlocks to illustrate the class differences in his own time but the Traveler's speculation on the haves and have-nots sounded very familiar, a nice bit of timeless social satire. After some misadventures, he returns home and no one believes him. To show those assholes, he goes on another jaunt and was never head from again. At least at the time of the Time Machine's publication.

The Time Machine broke a lot of new ground. It was probably the first time travel story and it could be argued that it was both the first dystopian sf story and the first Dying Earth tale. It's also not much of a stretch to call it an ancestor of the planetary romance genre as well. There's not a lot separating The Traveler from John Carter of Mars, if you think about it.

While there's a lot of fun timey-wimey stuff going on, Wells' prose isn't easy to digest. Part of it is the writing style of the time and another part is that science fiction was still in diapers at the time this was written.

Wells' depiction of future Earth was a very memorable one, one that influenced countless authors that came after. Adjusting for the time period, The Time Machine is a fun yet somewhat difficult read. Four out of five Sonic Screwdrivers.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Ten Bookish Questions

Arthur Graham infected me with this meme. And syphilis.

1. What book is on your nightstand now?
I don't have a nightstand.  My coffee table is currently occupied by 'Salem's Lot and the Poison Artist.

2. What was the last truly great book that you read?
The last truly great book I read was Misery by Stephen King.  Prior to that, it was True Crime Addict by James Renner, coming to better book stores near you in October.

3. If you could meet any writer – dead or alive – who would it be? And what would you want to know?
I'd like to meet George Pelecanos and I'd probably bug him about ska and reggae bands.

4. What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
People are usually surprised that I've read Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong and 40-something books by P.G. Wodehouse.

5. How do you organize your personal library?
I don't have much of an organizational scheme these days.  The unread books go on shelves apart from the read ones.  Books in a series are grouped together.  Beyond that, it's every book for himself.

6. What book have you always meant to read and haven’t gotten around to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed never to have read?
I read what I want to read so there's no embarrassment.  I've been meaning to read Moby Dick, War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine but my life will be complete if I don't.

7. Disappointing, overrated, just not good: what book did you feel you were supposed to like but didn't? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Dan Brown is overrated, which leads me to my next point: Just because thousands of other people got hoodwinked into reading a shitty book doesn't mean you have to.  Bestseller status does not equal quality.

I've got a pretty good bullshit detector so it's very seldom I pick something out that I don't like or don't feel like finishing.

8. What kinds of stories are you drawn to? Any you stay clear of?
The stories that hook me are ones that I don't feel like I've read a hundred times before.  I steer clear of multi-volume fantasy quest stories, romance, mysteries that star an ex-military guy, and anything with the words 'conspiracy', 'constitution', 'American Way of Life', 'patriot', 'assassin', 'FBI', 'CIA', or 'terrorist' in the synopsis.

9. If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
The president is pretty busy.  I'd probably push The Man from Primrose Lane on him, though.  That was a bad ass book.

10. What do you plan to read next?
That's a very personal question.  I should actually start the Poison Artist at some point and I've got Drunk Driving Champion by Eric Hendrixson on deck.  Beyond that, I'll probably burn through a few detective books.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stephen King shares some stories of his past and some writing tips.

This was either my fourth or fifth time reading this. I got it for Christmas around the turn of the century and I've buzz-sawed through it a few times before. The first time, I was just cutting my writing teeth. Now, with seven or eight first drafts of novels writing around, I came to the book with a completely different perspective.

Most books about writing, as I've said before, are by people I've never heard of, and are akin to a psychic handing out lottery numbers. If he or she can predict that, why aren't they using the lottery numbers for themselves? Since Stephen King is the big kahuna, I figure he could teach me a few things.

The biography chapters were my favorite the first time around and were still the most fun to read. I had vague recollections of these chapters, such as little Stevie needing fluid drained from his ears, and King's substance abuse. As a man who's skated close to the substance abuse abyss a couple times over the years, his cautionary tale seemed very familiar.

The writing advice was helpful but this was in no way my favorite book on writing. It seems Old Stevie makes a lot more up on the fly than I'm comfortable doing. Still, his advice on omitting needless words and the second draft being the first draft less 10% seemed helpful. Sticking with your first word choice also seems like sound advice.

I'd forgotten there was a section of 1408 included, in first and second draft forms. It was an interesting look behind the curtain and made a lot of sense.

Anyway, if you're looking for writing advice, you could do a lot worse than sitting at the feet of the King for a few hours and absorbing what he has to say. I'll try to apply his lessons the next time I write something. Four out of five stars.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review: Misery

Misery Misery by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To celebrate completing a novel, writer Paul Sheldon goes on a champagne-fueled drive in the Rocky mountains. He winds up in a near fatal car crash, but never fear. He's rescued by Annie Wilkes, his #1 fan...

I watched the film version of Misery in those antediluvian days before Goodreads, hell, before the Internet, and decided to finally read the novel when it showed up on my BookGorilla email one day. It was $2.99 very well spent.

Misery is a tale of obsession, addiction, and obsession. I wrote "obsession" twice but it's a such a big theme I thought it was justified. Annie Wilkes is obsessed with her favorite series of books starring Misery Chastain, written by that dirty birdie Paul Sheldon. Paul is obsessed with finishing the book Annie has demanded of him and probably addicted to writing. Also to codeine.

I've said it before but I'll say it again. If Stephen King wasn't addicted to scaring the bodily fluids out of people, he'd be a literary writer of some renown. The guy can flat out write. Just because he cranks out a best seller more often than most of us go to the dentist doesn't mean he's the real deal.

The scariest horror stories are the ones that could actually happen and Misery is one of those. Who among us hasn't had visions of being held captive when driving through a remote locale? Annie is so much more than the scene-chewing maniac she could have been. She has dimension and believes she's in the right, which is the mark of a great villain. Her background is very fleshed out and my heart sank as I learned her past along with Paul. How the hell was he going to escape that monster?

Paul's journey is painful, both to him and to the reader, thanks to King's skill. I had to make sure my foot was still attached a couple times. Annie puts him through hell and he finally gives her a taste of her own medicine but the ending is far from happily ever after.

As is usually the case, the book was a notch better than the movie. I've been easy with the 5's this year but I'll give this one a cockadoodie 5 out of 5 stars just the same.

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review: True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray

True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray by James Renner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

True crime writer James Renner researches the disappearance of Maura Murray as his personal life goes up in flames.

I got ARCs of this from Netgalley and from Random House.

On the heels of reading The Man from Primrose Lane, I just had to read more James Renner. When two opportunities to read this fell into my lap, I had to take advantage.

Maura Murray went missing after wrecking her car one snowy night. She was never seen again. True crime writer James Renner picked up the scent and dug into Maura's past while embarking on an unintentional journey of self-discover, finding himself in jail, dealing with substance abuse issues, and discovering he may, in fact, be as damaged as the guys he's chasing.

True Crime Addict is written in a style very much resembling the crime fiction I've come to know and love, making for one gripping read. I read most of the book in one sitting, neglecting both household chores and my girlfriend until I was finished. The ending irked me a little until I remembered I wasn't reading fiction. I was cool with it after that.

The case were very serpentine, as real life usually is. Again, I forgot I wasn't reading fiction for most of the book. As I said, the style was very engaging, the opposite of the other true crime book I've read, The Monster of Florence.

I really want to gush over all the details of the book but it's best if you go into it unspoiled. It was one phenomenal read. James Renner is my new George Pelecanos in that I will now track down and devour his books one by one until there is a James Renner-shaped void in my life. Five out of five stars.

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Friday, May 13, 2016

Review: The Avengers: The Kree-Skrull War

The Avengers: The Kree-Skrull War The Avengers: The Kree-Skrull War by Roy Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

War has broken out between the Kree and the Skrulls and the Avengers are caught in the middle! The Kree Skrull War is one of the most revered storylines in the history of the Avengers. Thanks to Marvel Unlimited, I was finally able to read it.

The Avengers roster at this time, for those keeping score, is Goliath (Hawkeye with Hank Pym's gear), Scarlet Witch, The Vision, and Quicksilver. Anti-Kree sentiment is on the rise on earth, due to some suspicious activities by Captain Marvel and the existence of a Kree fortress in Alaska. Things escalate when The Avengers protect Captain Marvel from an angry mob and Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man disband the Avengers!

Or do they... They do not. Those were Skrulls. Things continue to escalate. The Vision collapses and Ant-Man goes inside to investigate. The Skrulls take Quicksilver, Captain Marvel, and The Scarlet Witch prisoner and Rick Jones is abducted by the Kree. The gang have a huge battle in Attilan before finally heading into space. The Avengers battle Skrulls while Rick Jones, the Supreme Intelligence, and Captain Marvel do all the heavy lifting.

There were a lot of good moments in these issues. Neal Adams and the Buscema boys did a fantastic job on the artwork. Roy Thomas' writing was ahead of Stan Lee's but still nowhere near today's standards. It got the job done though.

I loved the Vision in this. He's conflicted over his status as an android and his feelings for the Scarlet Witch. The finale with Rick Jones and Supreme Intelligence was also pretty bad ass. Ant-Man going inside the Vision was Hank Pym's finest hour. On the negative side, it took forever for the Avengers to actually get involved with the war. The Avengers almost seemed like spectators, taking a back seat to Rick Jones, Captain Marvel, and the Supreme Intelligence.

All things considered, this was a pretty enjoyable trip into Marvel's history and a fun story. 4 out of 5 stars, adjusted for the passage of forty-something years.

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Review: A Gambler's Anatomy: A Novel

A Gambler's Anatomy: A Novel A Gambler's Anatomy: A Novel by Jonathan Lethem
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alexander Bruno is a professional backgammon player. After a run of bad luck and a chance encounter with a classmate from high school, Alexander leaves Singapore for Berlin, where he winds up in the hospital after suffering from a seizure of some kind during a game. It seems Bruno has a nearly inoperable tumor and only a doctor in the US can do the operation, a doctor that lives near Bruno's former classmate.

I got this from Netgalley.

My only other exposure to Jonathan Lethem was Gun, With Occasional Music. When I saw this up on Netgalley, I decided to give it a shot.

A Gambler's Anatomy is a delightfully odd and wonderfully written book. Bruno's voyage into self-discovery is painful, grotesque, and somewhat sweet at times. Jonathan Lethem is very talented, phenomenally so, in some instances. I caught my mouth watering a few times at his descriptions of food and Bruno's surgery made my face hurt. His word play, use of allusions, and descriptive skills were dead on in this one. I have no complaints of any sort about the writing.

The characters were quirky but not unrealistically so. Stolarsky referring to Bruno as Flashman was pretty accurate since Bruno does a few Flashman style things in this one, including not really improving much despite everything he experienced.

The plot was secondary to everything else, which is the one ding I'll lay upon the book. Bruno was a passive lead, for the most part. There really wasn't much of a build toward a decisive ending. The antagonist just gave up and Bruno wound up back where he started. I know the journey is supposed to be more important than the destination in most books of this type but it would be nice if the journey wasn't a huge circle. Four out of 5 stars.

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Monday, May 9, 2016

Review: Galápagos

Galápagos Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One million years in the future, a man recounts humanity's origins in the Galapagos islands.

This was the third Kurt Vonnegut book I've read and my third favorite. Actually, it reminds me of one of Grandpa Simpson's rambling stories that circles back on itself, only with novel-y bits like themes and messages and such.

Galapagos is part satire, part cautionary tale. There's a shipwreck on Galapagos and it turns out those people are the only ones who can reproduces. I'm pretty sure this is mentioned in the first two pages. Anyway, one million years in the future, humanity is a whole other species.

Galapagos deals in evolution, environmentalism, and anti-war. Also, humanity's "big brains" are blamed for most of their problems. The world of Galapagos is in a global economic crisis. Yeah, a lot has changed since 1986...

The book is actually pretty funny with Vonnegut's dark absurdist humor being the star of the show. I interrupted my girlfriend's Harry Potter reading with this, easily my favorite quote:
“I didn't know then what a sperm was, and so wouldn't understand his answer for several years. "My boy," he said, "you are descended from a long line of determined, resourceful, microscopic tadpoles-- champions every one.”

I enjoyed this fairly well and devoured it in three sittings. I didn't like it as much as Cat's Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five, however. I think it was the circular nature of the narrative that got me. If Galapagos was a road trip, it would have been thousands of left turns in order to go fifty miles in a straight line. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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Friday, May 6, 2016

Review: Good Morning, Midnight: A Novel

Good Morning, Midnight: A Novel Good Morning, Midnight: A Novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Augustine lives alone an an observatory at the north pole, living out his days doing what he loves when everyone else evacuated. Sullly is an astronaut on the way back to Earth from Jupiter. How will their lives intersect?

I got this from the fine folks at Random House.

Good Morning, Midnight is a story of loneliness, time, and deciding what's important. The two main characters, Augustine and Sully, both live lives of isolation. Augustine is an astronomer at the north pole and Sully is a Specialist on a space voyage. Both have their ways of life uprooted. Augustine meets Iris, a mysterious girl left behind after the evacuation and Sully suffers loss and hope on the Aethir.

Lily Brooks-Dalton paints some awesome scenery. Both settings were very well realized. I shivered a few times during Augustine's parts and felt pretty claustrophobic at times during Sully's. On the surface, it feels like a science fiction story but it's really an exploration of loneliness, drive, and isolation.

I guessed the connection between Augustine and Sully early on. I think Iris' origins were left intentionally ambiguous. By and large, I can't think of a whole lot to complain about. The writing was crisp, I cared about the characters, and I was pretty enthralled by the whole thing.

Caution - Possible Spoilers: There was some ambiguity I didn't care for, though. I wouldn't have minded finding out what catastrophe befell Earth while the astronauts were away. Iris possibly being Augustine's fever dream the entire time cheapened his thread, I thought. I think some people won't like that Augustine and Sully never actually meet. I was fine with that part, though.

Good Morning, Midnight was above and beyond the simple science fiction novel I thought it would be, riding the line between sci-fi and serious literature. Four out of five stars.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Review: Carnifex: A Portent of Blood

Carnifex: A Portent of Blood Carnifex: A Portent of Blood by D.P. Prior
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Carnifex Thane is a member of the guard in the dwarven ravine city of Arx Gravis. When the Scriptorium is robbed and a sacred text goes missing, the unchanging way of life in Arx Gravis is threatened and Carnifex Thane's life soon spins out of control...

I won this in a giveaway at Bookwraith's book blog.

Confession time: While I played Dungeons and Dragons back in Hyborean Age, I'm not a fan of today's kitten squishing epic fantasy. However, pulp-style fantasy in the vein of Leiber/Howard/Moorcock? Sign me up!

Carnifex is a tragic tale of loss, fate, destiny, and cultural stagnation. Arx Gravis is a stifling Dwarf city where outsiders are forbidden. No one gets in or out. The lower one goes in the Ravine City, the rougher things get. Baresarks and pit fights are commonplace at the bottom. Carnifex Thane is the son of a miner and a member of the Red Cloaks, the guards who never see much action. Things change when a thief steals an ancient text.

Carnifex's life soon circles the drain. The way of life in Arx Gravis is questioned, a golem attacks, and a dwarf who had very little loses what little he has. And that's just the beginning.

D.P. Prior crafts a tragedy in the Elric mold. The writing reminds me of Moorcock, David Gemmell, and other fantasy writers who know how to tell a complete tale in less than six kitten-squishing tomes. The world building is very well done, seamlessly worked into the text, revealing the culture of the dwarves of Arx Gravis without beating the reader over the head with dwarven marching songs and things of that nature.

I knew nothing of The Nameless Dwarf or D.P. Prior before I entered the giveaway for this and that's a shame. Carnifex is a throwback to the days of Ace paperback fantasy and bloody good fun. Four out of five stars.

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