Friday, December 29, 2017

Review: The Light Is the Darkness

The Light Is the Darkness The Light Is the Darkness by Laird Barron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Conrad Navarro, a modern day gladiator in an underground fighting league, has been searching for his missing sister Imogene for years. His search takes him all over the world and what he finds may devour humanity...

With this book, my quest to read all of the works of Laird Barron by the end of 2017 is complete. Honestly, it took me a little while to get into this one. I was puzzled over what it was supposed to be. At some point, things turned over and I was hooked.

Most of the descriptions I've read for The Light is the Darkness emphasize Conrad's job, that of a gladiator that fights to death or dismemberment in secret arenas all over the world. That part is secondary, I'd say. The Light is the Darkness is more about Conrad's search for his sister and all the secrets he uncovers along the way.

The Light is the Darkness actually feels more like a Roger Zelazny book than anything else, particularly This Immortal, albeit infused with the Barronoid mythos. Like the titular character whose first name he shares, Conrad is one of those capable, somewhat smart-mouthed protagonists that still manages to get way out of his depth.

Barron's prose is as delicious as always, with a poet's gift for phrasing. I caught a few more comic and pulp references than usual, like the one to the Shadow. One of the drawbacks of reading a physical book over an ebook is that you can't highlight things for later reference. There were a lot of sentences I would have highlighted in this one.

The cosmic horror lurks in the background for most of this book, although there are hints of the Children of Old Leech in the background and "time is a circle" was mention a couple times. As Conrad unearthed more secrets, I was pretty sure the book was heading toward a Jim Thompson sort of ending.

The Light is the Darkness is nasty, brutish, and short, quite a good way to spend a cold afternoon. Four out of five stars. Now that I've devoured the works of Laird Barron like an uncaring cosmic worm, I'm waiting patiently for Blood Standard.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Review: The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism by Geoffrey W. Dennis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, I read Edward Erdelac's Merkabah Rider series and was bowled over by the awesomeness, the combination of pulp western and Jewish mystacism. After a couple blog interviews with Ed, he tipped me off to this. My wife got it for me for my birthday and I've chewed on it on and off ever since.

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism is an exhaustive collection of various entries from Jewish myth and it's fascinating. While not something you'd ever want to read cover to cover, it offers lots of interesting morsels. While I initially came for the stuff like Golems and Lillith, I interrupted my wife's reading quite a few times to relate some obscure bit of lore I unearthed. I had no idea how much I'd known of magical traditions originated with the Jews.

It's not a rivetting read but holds a place of honor on my non-fiction shelf next to stuff like Into The Unknown and Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders. I look forward to slowly digesting it over the next thousand years. Five out of five stars.

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Review: The Ranger

The Ranger The Ranger by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When his uncle, the county sheriff, eats a gun, Quinn Colson comes home to Tibbehah County, Mississippi, for the funeral. Turns out his home town is a cesspool and the chief turds are Johnny Stagg, a county official, and Gowrie, a meth-dealing white supremicist. Will Colson be able to clean up his home town?

I've read a couple of Ace Atkins' Spenser books and liked them quite a bit. Some guy has been telling me for years how good they are. He was right yet again.

The words are different but the song sounds familiar. Guy comes back to his home town, finds out the shitbags have taken over, and runs the bad guys out of town. Ace Atkins takes a staple of the western genre and shapes it into something all his own. Fortunately, Atkins makes hay with it.

Quinn Colson comes home and finds himself out of the loop, an outsider in his own back yard. The bad guys have a foothold and most of the town is ready to roll over for them. Quinn and his trusted circle of allies have an uphill battle ahead of them in the form of crooked politicians, crooked judges, crooked cops, and meth dealing white supremicists.

For a book with all of those volatile ingredients simmering in the stew pot, The Ranger is a surprisingly slow burner. It takes a while for all the pins to get set up. While things are simmering, Atkins explores small town life in the south, painting a bleak picture of what things are like in small towns once the money starts drying up. Quinn deals with his mother, his sister, and his old flame.

The ending was everything I hoped it would be, a southern fried version of the fight at the OK Corral. While it stood well on its own, it left me wanting more of Quinn Colson dealing with shitheels in his home town. I don't really have anything bad to say about The Ranger. Quinn was capable without being a super hero and the supporting cast Atkins has crafted has a few books in it easily.

The Ranger was a fun thriller and a fascinating look at life in rural Mississippi. I guess I'm in for the whole series now. Four out of five stars.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Review: Open Season

Open Season Open Season by C.J. Box
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When a man dies in his front yard carrying a cooler, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett finds himself thrust into a mystery, a mystery that might cost him everything he holds dear...

Over the past ten years, I've read hundreds of mysteries and thrillers. There's a stripped down charm to some of them and many of them boil down to the oldest of tales: people being shitheads to each other. When this one popped up on the cheap, I decided to give it a shot. "Wyoming game warden" isn't something that comes to mind when I think of a sleuth.

Open Season starts out by establishing that Joe Pickett is a good man but not precisely on the ball. A guy gets his gun from him and he never lives it down. Joe's a family man, with two daughters and a bun in the oven. His wife is clearly the brains of the operation. When the very man that snatched his gun away from him winds up dead on their wood pile, Joe finds himself neck deep in something sinister.

The rural Wyoming setting was the star of the show for me. Being a hundred miles from nowhere is scary on its own, not to mention throwing in the wildlife and the fact that everyone is packing heat. Box did a great job capturing what life in a dying small town is like. I liked that Joe was a by the book game warden rather than some kind of smart mouth maverick like so many other sleuths.

The setup for the mystery was good but I felt like everything after that was telegraphed. When there are only three prominent characters besides the sleuth and his family, it's pretty obvious that one or more of them is involved in the shady business. I felt like I spent a lot of time waiting for Joe Pickett to catch up.

As much as I've complained, I did enjoy the book and the ending was cathartic enough to be worth it. Box resisted the temptation to make Pickett rush in with guns blazing like an action hero and kept things true to character.

While it wasn't the best mystery I read this year, Open Season was an engaging enough read and I'm open to reading the further adventures of Joe Pickett. Three out of five stars.

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Friday, December 22, 2017

Review: The Far Empty

The Far Empty The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Deputy Chris Cherry finds some skeletal remains on a ranch, it sets him on a collision course with the law of Murfee, Texas in the form of renowned sheriff Standford "Judge" Ross, local hero. Ross's son Caleb carries a horrible secret, that his father is crazier than a shithouse rat...

I've read hundreds of mysteries and thrillers, so many that there aren't a whole lot of surprises left and I've gradually shifted toward horror. This one had enough twists and turns to make me rethink things.

The Far Empty is part modern day western, part slow burning thriller. "What if Lou Ford from The Killer Inside Me had a family and was a lot better at keeping his demons under wraps" is a lazy way to describe the book but that's essentially what it is. Judge Ross has the Texas town of Murfee snowed and only his son suspects the depths his father can sink to.

Chris Cherry is a failed college football star barely limping by in his old home town with his unhappy girlfriend when a rancher finds some remains on his property. Who do the remains belong to and who doesn't want them identified?

J. Todd Scott has assembled a great cast and I can't believe this is someone's first novel. The viewpoints shift between half a dozen or so characters: Caleb Ross, his friend America, Chris Cherry, Cherry's girlfriend Mel, the Sheriff, Deputy Duane Dupree, and new teacher Anne, who is carrying secrets of her own. By the end, I couldn't decide who was the most dangerous: Sheriff Ross, meth-addled Duane, or Mel.

For my money, the hallmark of a good mystery is making me feel like a rube at some point. Scott did a great job with misdirection. He was also adept at building the tension. You know the ending is going to be a bloody train wreck but it was still a hell of a road getting there.

The remote Texas setting was another thing I enjoyed, a far cry from thrillers happening in crowded metropolises. Scott did a great job at capturing what small town life is like, warts and all.

The Far Empty was a fantastic first novel and I'll be ready for the second book in the series once it drops. Five out of five stars.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review: 2017 on Goodreads

2017 on Goodreads 2017 on Goodreads by Various
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

2017 was a busier year than usual for me. I went to Maine, lost my dog of 17 years, and gained a wife and a cat. Thus I didn't read nearly as many books as I would have liked during quieter years.

However, I like to think the overall quality was much higher than in previous years. I was a little more selective and a lot less willing to push through things I wasn't enjoying. Reading is for pleasure, after all, not self-torture.

While I already compiled my 2017 Dantastic Book Awards, here are some highlights.

1. I finally saw the light and devoured most of the works of Laird Barron.
2. The Elephant Who Liked To Smash Small Cars was finally reprinted.
3. I read more than my share of neo-Lovecraftian fiction. Winter Tide, The Night Ocean, The Final Reconciliation, and After the End of the World were the creme of the crop.
4. I tore through most of Hunter Shea's creature features.
5. While the demise of DarkFuse was a shame, I took full advantage of the discounted ebooks. The Winter Box, Corpse Rider, and Fairy Lights were all more than worth what I paid for them.
6. With the rise of ebooks, novellas are back! The following novellas are highly recommended: The Tea Master and the Detective, River of Teeth, Revolver, and Just Add Water.
7. I did a fair amount of rereading, mostly books I initially read in the dreamlike time before Goodreads. I'm happy to say Hyperion, The Talisman, and The Handmaid's Tale all stood the test of time.
8. Other Books I enjoyed in 2017 - The Sound of Broken Ribs, Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook, The Last Place You Look, The Dunfield Terror, Fungoid, and Tampa.

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Monday, December 18, 2017

Review: Fury Of The Orcas

Fury Of The Orcas Fury Of The Orcas by Hunter Shea
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Orcas all over the world are going insane and mauling humans and marine biologist Chet Clarke has been tapped to figure out why. Can he get to the bottom of the orcas' bizarre behavior before he ends up being their next victim?

Hunter Shea and his creature features are always good for a few hours of entertainment. When he sent this one to me, I attacked it like a frenzied orca tearing a kid apart at Sea World.

Sharing a lot with They Rise, Fury of the Orcas is another species on the rampage book, a b-movie funfest in book form. People are introduced only to die horribly. There's chaos, death after death, and the heroes run around like their asses are on fire for most of the book. What can even one of the world's foremost marine biologists do when the seas are awash with blood? In many ways, this felt like They Rise 2.0. If you didn't enjoy They Rise, you'll probably hate this one.

Megapods of orcas are pretty serious, especially once hints of what is causing the rampage is revealed. I like how Shea tied Fury of the Orcas in with They Rise and also Loch Ness Revenge. There seems to be an uber-Shea novel brewing that ties together quite a few threads.

Fury of the Orcas was another fun creature feature from Mr. Shea. Glad I have Megalodon In Paradise sitting on my coffee table already. Four out of five stars.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review: Bones of the Earth

Bones of the Earth Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When a mystery man walks into his office and makes the offer a lifetime, to study dinosaurs in the wild, paleontologist Richard Leyster has no choice but to take him up on it. However, time travel isn't as simple as it first seemed...

Michael Swanwick has been on my radar for years after some praise by China Mieville but I never took the plunge until several of his books popped up for cheap in one of my daily ebook emails.

People either seem to love or hate this book, which I can't fathom. It's was a pretty middle of the road book for me.

The books starts out great. If a shady government type showed up at your office with a ***spoiler*** in an Igloo cooler, you'd be powerless to resist as well. Leave it to the government to muck up a simple thing like time travel with bureaucracy...

The idea of studying dinosaurs in the wild gets complicated by fundamentalist extremists who want to discredit the notion of time travel in order to uphold the young Earth theory. Griffin and company ferret out the mole and try to get our scientists back to the future.

Oh, yeah. Things get timey-wimey right off the bat. Griffin, the military man in charge, works for The Old Man, a much older version of himself. Multiple versions of other characters are wandering around and people in the know are wary of violating the laws of causality and creating time paradoxes.

The meat of the book is the fate of the sabotaged expedition. Swanwick blessedly dipped in and out of their lives and didn't inflict the misery-porn that was their day to day existence upon us. The revelation of who the time travel came from was very satisfying to me, as was the consequences of the rest of the book.

Swanwick posits a lot of questions about dinosaurs, extinction events, and things of that nature. Some of the theories were really fun to think about, like dinos communicating through infrasound.

Oddly enough, I found the science behind the story to me more logical and thought out than the motivations of some of the characters. It's definitely not a character book unless you're into insta-love or insta-hate that later transforms into love. Also, there could have been more dinosaur action.

All things considered, I enjoyed this time travel yarn. Bones of the Earth was a solid $1.99 purchase and I'll be happy to read the other Swanwick books I have on my kindle. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Review: A Stir of Echoes

A Stir of Echoes A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Tom Wallace's brother-in-law hypnotizes him at a party, he inadvertently wakens something in Tom. Now, Tom sees the ghost of a woman in a black dress and can sense peoples' thoughts. But who is the woman in the black dress...?

Sometime in that half-forgotten time before Goodreads, I went on a Richard Matheson binge and this is one of the books I read. I thought I'd unloaded it at the local used bookstore years ago but I stumbled upon it in my basement while looking for something else. Since I'd forgotten most of it in the eons since I originally read it, it was like a whole new book.

A Stir of Echoes is a ghost story but it's also about the secrets people keep hidden from one another. Tom Wallace lives in a neighborhood in the suburbs with a wife, a baby, and another baby on the way. When he suddenly becomes a medium, things slowly go pear-shaped.

It's a fairly creepy tale, told in Richard Matheson's all meat, no filler style. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to find a ghost in your house. Still, the biggest horrors are his neighbors and what they're capable of. I had a vague idea of how things went down but the twists still caught me off guard. As always, Matheson's prose is as smooth as bar of soap and just as slippery.

A Stir of Echoes was really hard to put down, even on the second read. One of these days, I'll have to watch the Kevin Bacon movie. Four out of five stars.

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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: The Tea Master and the Detective

The Tea Master and the Detective The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Shadow's Child, the brain of a mindship, is shellshocked and brewing teas for safer space travel when a consulting detective shows up at her door...

This was a Netgalley find and one of the few Netgalley finds that didn't immediately feel like a homnework assignment from a hated teacher.

Set in an asteroid belt with a Vietnamese-influenced culture, The Tea Master and the Detective has its roots loosely planted in A Study In Scarlet. Long Chau hires The Shadow's Child to brew her tea and take her into the deep spaces to find a corpse in order to study its composition. (Sidebar - From what I gather, the deep spaces are like hyperspace, a medium to speed up space travel. Special teas are needed to keep travelers sane during their journeys.) The body isn't quiet what they expect and the mystery unfolds.

While the story shows its Sherlockian roots in places, that in no way diminishes the enjoyment. I really liked the asteroid belt settings, the deep spaces, hell, the worldbuilding in general. The worldbuilding is seamlessly done. I had a pretty good idea of the history of the world, the technology, and the culture, all without being beaten over the head with info dumps.

Recasting Watson as a ship's organic mind with a traumatic past was a novel approach and in keeping with the rest of the setting. I can honestly say The Shadow's Child is the most well-rounded ship's computer I've ever read about. You don't see the Enterprise's computer having dinner with the computers of other ships! Honestly, Long Chau's deductions and attitude are Sherlockian but she has a lot more depth than I originally thought. I loved the interplay between Long Chau and The Shadow's Child right away. Before I was even finished, I was dreaming of future stories featuring the pair.

Over the years, I've read a lot of detective stories based in other genres and most leave me yearning for gumshoes beating down doors or mannerly locked room mysteries. This one was the opposite of that. Five out of five stars.

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review: Mrs. Caliban

Mrs. Caliban Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dorthy's marriage is stagnant and falling apart when a frogman escapes from captivity. While Dorothy teaches him about the world, she winds up learning a lot of things herself...

I first learned of Mrs. Caliban on Book Riot, I think. I saw it was on sale for $1.70 earlier today and snapped it up.

It's a slim book, probably more novella than novel, but I thoroughly enjoyed this quirky, weird, sweet book. A woman falling in love with a frogman could easily be played for laughs or venture into monster porn territory but their relationship is very well done.

Dorthy is trapped in a loveless marriage, alone and childless, while her husband Fred philanders around. When a 6'7 aquatic monster named Larry shows up, she has no choice but to take him in and make him her lover. Seriously, how had I never heard of this book until recently?

Mrs. Caliban is an exploration of love and marriage, shown through Dorothy's eyes as she explains the ways of the world to Larry, telling him about life, the universe, and everything. Larry's ignorance about most things leads her to questioning a lot of those things herself. Things go pretty well until Larry starts venturing out on his own.

I don't have anything bad to say about this quirky masterpiece. Four out of five stars.

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review: The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When a bomb goes off in the Metropolitan Museum of art, it kills thirteen year old Theo Decker's mother and sends his life forever spiralling out of control, for young Theo walked out of the ruins of the museum with The Goldfinch, a priceless painting, and a lifetime of trauma to deal with...

This book was on my watch list for a long time. I planned on reading it after The Secret History but didn't pull the trigger until it went on sale for $1.99.

This is one of those books I have conflicting feelings over. It's a literary novel and is a fine example of everything that entails, both the things I like and the things I don't. Donna Tartt's writing is as wonderful as ever. She's got a knack for stringing words together, painting vivid images. The various locals all seemed very real: New York, Las Vegas, Amsterdam.

Little bits of philosophy were scattered throughout the text, musings on life, the universe, and everything. Theo goes from one fuck-up to the next, not really imagining any consequences down the line, and things go pretty well for him. Until they don't.

While I think The Goldfinch was beautifully written and very readable, I didn't give a rat's ass about any of the characters other than Boris. Boris was the only one I felt had any real substance. The rest were caricatures, for the most part. Theo didn't show a lot in the way of personality and seemed like a collection of traits more than a character.

Like a lot of modern lit, the book felt like it was trying too hard to be profound at times and wasn't terribly concerned with telling a story. This thing is a whopper at 771 pages and the story could have easily been told, flourishes and all, in half of that. I did like the twists when they happened but it was kind of like seeing a billboard along a stretch of I-70 in the middle of Kansas, something to break up the endless journey.

Near the end, Amanda asked me if I was enjoying it. Enjoy wasn't the word I would use. I'm glad I experienced the book and there were parts I liked quite a bit, most featuring Boris, but there was never a time I wished the book would never end.

In conclusion, I will probably never be on the board that awards the Pulitzer Prize. The Goldfinch is some fantastic writing but not a hell of a lot in the way of a story. Glad I read it, gladder still that it's over. Three out of five stars.

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