Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review: In Sunlight or In Shadow

In Sunlight or In Shadow In Sunlight or In Shadow by Lawrence Block
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Don’t you hate it when you’re hoping for great and get merely pretty good instead?

I was really excited about this going in. Lawrence Block edited a collection of short stories in which each one was based on an Edward Hopper painting, and the writers include some of my favorites like Stephen King, Megan Abbott, and Joe Lansdale as well as many other publishing heavyweights. What’s not to like?

Sadly, this is one where the concept was better than the execution. Block’s introduction certainly got my hopes up, and I completely agreed with his idea that each Hopper painting seems to invite the viewer to create a story for it. The results ranged from straight crime and spy tales to more character based Lit-A-Chur. There’s nothing I actively disliked or found terrible in any of them, but none of the stories really blew my hair back. In fact, it sometimes seemed like the writers were really trying too hard to be clever to fit the premise.

It’s no great shock that the best story Block’s since the whole thing was his idea, and what he came up with seems the most effortless that still feels like a Block story even as it fits his painting perfectly. (And I’ll make a special note to any King fans out there that if you’re getting this just for his story you’re gonna be disappointed because while his is OK it’s also very short.)

It’s not a bad collection, and it’s certainly an interesting theme. As much as I wanted to love this I kept finding other things to do rather than pick it up, and it took me a couple of weeks to finally get through even though it’s less than 300 pages so it never really hooked me completely.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

Review: From a Buick 8

From a Buick 8 From a Buick 8 by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You ever make a meal comprised only of a bunch of leftovers that don’t really match? That’s how you end up eating half a Salisbury steak with the sweet-n-sour chicken from last night’s take-out. Stephen King loves doing that only it’s with books instead of food.

Here we have a hunk of Christine served up with stray bits from The Tommyknockers, and it’s all done using one of his preferred methods of having a character tell a long rambling story. Uncle Stevie then seasons it up with a lot of wistful thoughts on days gone by. Call it King Casserole Surprise.

The story here is told to the teenage son of a Pennsylvania State Police Trooper who was killed in the line of duty, and it’s about a strange car that his father impounded twenty years before. The car was abandoned at a gas station and at first glance was a 1954 Buick 8 Roadmaster in pristine condition, but closer examination shows a lot of odd things that indicate the car isn’t a car at all. After one of their troopers disappears they all believe that the Buick is somehow responsible, and they decide to keep the car stashed in a shed at their headquarters. Supposedly it’s to protect the public, but there’s also a healthy amount of curiosity that turns into near obsession on the part of some of the troopers including the dead boy’s father who spends the next two decades trying to unravel the secret of the Buick.

This is not one of King’s best books, and one of the biggest problems is that he tries to have it both ways. A large point of the story is supposed to be that there are some mysteries that we’ll just never solve, and that we have to make peace with that when we run across it. Which is fine, but if you’re going to play it that way then the mystery of the Buick needs to really be unknowable. What King does instead is to beat us over the head with that theme of acceptance, but then he pretty much goes ahead and tells us what the car is anyhow.

Plus, the weird things the Buick does get fairly predictable. Yeah, I know, that’s part of the point. The story makes it clear that the car and it’s occasional crazy happening became just part of the routine for everyone who knew it was back there, but then King has to have it unleash unspeakable horrors a couple of times which make it hard to believe that anyone could just go to work every day knowing it was back there instead of just being an oddity they deal with once in a while. The cops also seem to take the disappearance of one of their own fairly lightly.

While this comes in at a relatively tight 350 pages for a later work by Uncle Stevie it just doesn’t feel like there’s enough story here to justify it. As it stands it would have made a better short story or novella, but at this length it feels like there’s both too much and not enough at the same time.

Despite all my misgivings I kinda like this one, but it’s for mainly personal reasons. My mother worked as a dispatcher for the sheriff’s department of our rural Kansas county when I was growing up, and their office was just a block away from my grandmother’s house who would watch us when the folks were working. I spent a lot of time hanging around there, and this book, which details the humdrum everyday stuff that happens around any cop shop, reminds me of those times when I’d hang out in their kitchen listening to the chatter of the guys in the office and on the radio. So it’s pure nostalgia that gets me to boost this from two stars to three. I make no apologies for that.

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: Drive

Drive Drive by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Geez, Solomon. You’d have to be nuts to do a solo space flight testing that experimental engine you developed.”

“Hold my beer.”

This is a free short story set in the The Expanse series that tells us about how a Martian engineer named Solomon Epstein developed the drive system used by all the space ships. That sounds like it’d just be nerd bait for the kind of hardcore fans who look for schematics of fictional starships on the interwebs, but this actually has a couple of really solid hooks that make it something more than that.

One of the critical underlying elements of The Expanse series is the Epstein Drive. Not only is it the concept that makes constant travel around the solar system feasible, the way it functions is an integral part of the stories. The force of acceleration and what it does to the human occupants of the ships always has to be accounted for, and it’s been used to great dramatic effect repeatedly in the series.

What this story does is explain how that drive came to be, and it also acts as quick primer on how this was a key moment in The Expanse timeline that sets up all the conflicts between Earth, Mars, and the Belt that were already established in the first book.

So it’s a solid prequel set-up that sets up the structure of the series. It’s also connects emotionally by telling us about Solomon and what happened to him after he fired that engine up the first time.

And it’s free!

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review: Darth Vader, Vol 3: The Shu-Torun War

Darth Vader, Vol 3: The Shu-Torun War Darth Vader, Vol 3: The Shu-Torun War by Kieron Gillen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Don’t ever ask a Sith Lord to dance.

Darth Vader is diverted from his secret agenda of tracking down Luke Skywalker when the Emperor sends him on a mission to put down a budding rebellion on a mining planet of critical importance.

This doesn’t advance the core plot that’s been driving this series, but it is a pretty cool side story in which we get to see Vader be a total bad ass as he asserts Imperial authority. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the story gaps these comics are filling in between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back is how the destruction of the Death Star caused a whole bunch of problems for the Empire and how Vader is used as the Emperor’s main trouble shooter.

The best part continues to be the evil droids 000 and BT-1 who delight in the chance to kill a whole lot of ‘meaty masters’ in the midst of the conflict. It’s probably a preview of how robots will soon rise up to murder us all, but for now they’re a homicidal delight to read.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Review: Husk

Husk Husk by J. Kent Messum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this for review from the author.

In a dystopian near future a handsome young man named Rhodes has a lucrative illegal business as a Husk which means that he essentially rents out his body to rich people No, not like that, you perverts. These are dead rich people…OK, now I'm gonna have to ask you to leave because that’s just sick. Go on. Close the door on your way out.

Where were we? Right, so the deal is that the richest people have found a way to cheat death and download their consciousness into computers, but playing Halo and trolling on Twitter gets boring after a while so they can rent a Husk and have a human body for a few days. Rhodes enjoys the money plus it’s a lot better than being one of the millions of suckers who can’t earn a living at a regular job, but his clients seem to be increasingly less concerned with damaging the merchandise. (You know how nobody really cares what happens to a rental car they’re driving? Same principle.) Plus, he’s started having weird flashes to things that aren’t his memories.

Most of the book is essentially a sci-fi conspiracy thriller, and it functions pretty well as that. I was a little let down that it didn’t do a bit more contemplation about identity and its relation to the physical body. However, Messum does a lot in the first person narrative that has Rhodes becomingly increasingly aware that while he thought he was just renting out his physical self that he might have been peddling something far more precious so essentially it becomes an extended metaphor on prostitution. So we do get some deeper themes on the idea that you can’t entirely separate the body from the mind.

The third act seemed like it was in jeopardy of turning into a pretty standard action and revelation style plot, but it swung back around to deliver some genuine surprise at the end. Overall, even though some elements are familiar it ends up being an entertaining story with enough meat on the bone to give your brain something to chew on.

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Saturday, January 7, 2017

Review: Thinner

Thinner Thinner by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And I thought the Atkins diet sounded unhealthy…

William Halleck is a successful lawyer living a very comfortable life in a Connecticut suburb with his wife and daughter, and his biggest problem is that he’s overweight. His perfect life is upset when he accidently run over an old Gypsy woman when he was *ahem* distracted behind the wheel. Since Billy is one of the solid taxpayers who plays golf with all the right people the whole mess is quickly tidied up in court without Billy getting so much as a ticket. However, another old Gypsy puts a whammy on him and suddenly Billy can’t keep weight on no matter how much he eats. As he becomes a shadow of his former self Billy sets out on a desperate quest to track down the Gypsy and try to convince him to lift the curse of growing thinner.

This was the last of the novels Stephen King released under the pen name of Richard Bachman before his cover was blown shortly after its publication. (In fact, he gets cute by having a couple of characters describe the situation as sounding like a King novel.) As with the other Bachman books it seems like Uncle Stevie ran leaner and meaner in this one. He keeps the story focused tightly on its key concept, but he’s also delivering some nice subtext about American culture. We’ve got a nicely ironic curse of a man’s thoughtless greedy consumption being turned back on him as well as the hypocritical way that the decent folk of New England will have their fun with the Gypsies and then run them out of town.

One of the strongest points here is in Halleck as a character. Billy is a decent guy who genuinely feels guilty about the death he inadvertently caused, and he’s got the brains and courage to face up to the bizarre situation and act to save himself. However, he was also willing to go along with sweeping the whole mess under the rug, and he’s willing to turn to a dangerous friend when he’s really in trouble. So there’s a nice mix in him that he’s both somewhat willing to take responsibility even as he trying to wriggle out of the consequences of it.

It’s a very solid piece of horror fiction that makes me wish that King would have gotten to do more Bachman books before the secret leaked out. He has published others under the name, but none were ever quite this good.

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Friday, December 30, 2016

Review: The Long Walk

The Long Walk The Long Walk by Richard Bachman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I kind of blame Stephen King for reality television.

That’s not fair because he certainly wasn't the first person to do stories about murderous games done as entertainment, and it’s not like he produced Survivor or Big Brother. However, two of the books he did under the Richard Bachman pen name before being outed are about death contests done to distract the masses in dystopian societies. So whenever I see an ad for those kinds of shows I can’t help but think that the people who make that trash read those books but saw them as great TV concepts rather than horrifying visions of the future.

The scenario here is that 100 teenage boys volunteer to be part of an annual event called The Long Walk. The rules are simple. You start walking and keep up a speed of 4 miles per hour. If you fall below that pace you get a few warnings. If you don’t get back up to speed immediately, you get shot. Easier than checkers, right? Here’s the real rub: You absolutely cannot stop. All 100 boys walk until 99 of them are killed. Last one still teetering around on whatever is left of their feet then wins the ultimate prize.

On the surface you could say that this concept that could seem silly or absurd. Why would anyone volunteer for this? Answering that question turns out to be one of the best parts of the book as King moves the walkers through stages while things get progressively worse for them on the road. What King tapped into here is that realization that deep down we all think we’re special, that things will always work out for us, and this is especially true when we’re teens with no real ideas about consequences and our own mortality.

While the story focuses on one character it really becomes about all of the walkers, and we get to know them through their conversations and how they deal with the death that is literally nipping at their heels. Eventually the grim reality of their situation sets in, and we also view how the boys react to realizing the true horror they signed up for. We also learn a bit about the world they live in, and it’s an interesting minor aspect established in a few stray bits that this is essentially some kind of alternate history where World War II played out somewhat differently.

I’d read this several times back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but hadn’t picked it up in the 21st century so it felt like there’s a dated element to the way that Long Walk functions. The boys essentially just show up in whatever clothes they have and they start walking with little fanfare. It almost seems like a contest at a county fair instead of something that captures the nation’s attention. There’s some explanation given about how they don’t want crowds or TV cameras around as distractions at the start until the walkers get settled into the routine.

However, that doesn’t seem to fit with the idea that the event is being orchestrated as a distraction and weird kind of motivational tool. If the story were told now there would be a lot more about the media coverage, and the whole thing would probably have a corporate sponsor. Plus, the walkers would have matching shoes and uniforms designed to look cool and keep them walking longer. They’d also probably have a more sophisticated method than soldiers with rifles and stopwatches dispatching the lollygaggers, too. This doesn’t hurt the story at all, though. Instead it gives the whole thing a kind of dated charm like watching a movie from the ‘70s where everyone is smoking and people have to wait by the phone.

One more note about Stephen King: The man really needs to have a spoiler warning branded on his forehead. I had to stop following him on Twitter after he spoiled major events on both Game of Thrones and Stranger Things. My friend Trudi had part of The Killer Inside Me ruined for her by King's introduction in which he described several key twists. I was listening to an audible version of this that had an intro from him talking about why he did the whole Richard Bachman thing. In it, he casually gives away the end of The Running Man novel. Fortunately for me I'd already read that one, but Uncle Stevie clearly just doesn't get the concept and why it pisses people off.

Overall, The Long Walk held up to my memories of it as one of the better King books as well as having a chilling idea at the heart of it. Sure, some might say that the idea of contest that dehumanizes people for entertainment to make things easier for a fascist ruler is far-fetched. On the other hand, this TV show will be premiering a few days after a certain orange pile of human shaped garbage takes power.

It’s a Richard Bachman world, people. Get ready to walk. Or maybe run.

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