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Shelf Indulgence

Books. Reviews.

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Aftermath
Chuck Wendig
Dhalgren
Samuel R. Delany
Jackals
Charles L. Grant

The Store

The Store - Bentley Little Five books in, and I have to concede that Little tells a pretty good tale. The Mailman is the standout, and The Ignored is the one that I should have ... well, ignored, but his stories still build up in a regulated fashion. I like the way his books keep building suspense from the beginning to, if not the end, at least to about the 85% point in the book. I can't deny that he seems to have difficulties closing the deal, but the build-up to that point is palpable. It's pretty amazing.

This time, Little takes on the mega corporation retail stores like Wal-Mart. He makes some astute observations about what it means to small towns when those businesses move in and begin to take over. There's a predatory vibe that comes along with the businesses, and what I've read about their practices in the real world is reflected in the book. Of course, Little takes it to extremes, and it's somewhat reassuring to see that he makes the motivation behind the greed and assimilation a kind of nameless, supernatural evil; it beats the fact that people are just greedy for more, more, more.

I'm a little torn between the storytelling and the apparent misogyny within. I started noticing the way Little treated his female characters with The Town (one of the characters thinks his daughter has been coming on to him, and in his paranoid killing spree, he shoots her right in the crotch), but that kind of treatment had been in the other two books I'd read. In The Ignored, rape was seen by some of the Ignored as an acceptable way to exact revenge on those who ignored them. Then again, none of the characters who were acting on this kind of behavior were the good guys; they were the possessed, the evil, or the despicable (all of which, coincidentally, sound like three unpublished Bentley Little books). Still, it's bothersome that Little relies on this kind of behavior to define how bad his characters are. There are other ways that he could show how terrible his antagonists are.

At the same time, I think of the criticism that George R.R. Martin and the producers of Game of Thrones received for having Ramsey Bolton rape Sansa Stark in the last season. I had a hard time accepting the criticism for a number of reasons, one of which was, "Have you seen what that Bolton kid is capable of?" He's a twisted character, but he's established that violence, torture, and sex are all kind of interrelated for him. He and his girlfriend chased down another woman, and then had sex after killing her; the scene between him and that same woman in Winterfell was tinged with violence; and then there was the whole deal with Theon. Plus, Martin drew on real history as he wrote this story, and rape was a common method of punishment and warfare during Medieval times. Yes, it's terrible, but it's historically accurate.

The difference, I think, is in how Martin created those women characters in his story. They're strong and powerful in their own ways. They recognize that their positions in that era are not strong, and that their strongest weapon is their femininity, and they use it in different ways. Cersei uses it to gain power through other people; Sansa uses it to stay hidden, pretending to be innocent and unaware while gathering intelligence; and Arya uses her "weak girl" persona to trick everyone into underestimating her. The characters, to me, are strong feminist characters, despite the fact that they live in a world that doesn't value or recognize them.

Little, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have that kind of prescience with his female characters. The women raped in The Ignored were tertiary characters at best, brought in just to be raped, and the daughter in The Town was shown making poor choices, leading up to a gang bang before she was killed. She was punished because of her femininity, not despite it, and I think that's the divide I keep having to cross when I read Little's books.

Still, the story is compelling, and even thoughtful. It makes me want to stop shopping at any megastore corporation and spending all my money at local stores. I've justified shopping at Target, Publix, and Costco because they treat their employees better than some other megastores I could name, but still, those are as much megastores as Wal-Mart. The book doesn't make me afraid of those stores, but it does get me thinking about the real-life consequences that they bring to communities.

Bazar złych snów

Bazar złych snów - Stephen King Ah, Stephen King. I am one of his Constant Readers. I used to rely on him for great novels and stories, but he's veered into hit-or-miss territory, with the misses coming more frequently than the hits. King's last short story collection was like that, but when he did hit it just right ("N."), it made up for all the other lackluster stories.

King put a small foreword at the start of each story, telling a little about how he came up with the story. I like seeing how different people approach the creative process, so I enjoyed these little behind-the-curtain glimpses.

"Mile 81" -- I didn't re-read this one. I read it earlier this year as an e-book, and thought it was one of King's more pointless stories. In a short foreword to the collection, King suggests that the stories reprinted here have been changed somewhat, but I thought so little of the first read that I didn't see the point in subjecting myself to it again. You can read that review here if you'd like.

"Premium Harmony" -- King notes in the foreword to this story that it came about after reading a lot of Raymond Chandler. That's an author I haven't read, so I can't speak to how well King imitates that style, but I didn't see the point to this story. It was perfectly readable (King!), but nothing special.

"Batman and Robin Have an Altercation" -- Finally, a story with a point! It wound up being a little too neat and tidy for my tastes, and probably wrapped up too quickly, but it had an interesting narrative. It was sad and poignant.

"The Dune" -- This story is reminiscent of old Richard Matheson stories. That's certainly a good thing, even if King can't quite reach the summit that Matheson reached so often.

"Bad Little Kid" -- It's interesting how King's horror has developed over the years. What started with Carrie and The Shining became something a little more cerebral, and less explained. "Bad Little Kid" is a good example of that latter kind of story. It's very easy to get wrapped up in this jailhouse confessional story.

"A Death" -- This is an unassuming story about someone accused of murder. What makes it special, though, is how King clearly and distinctly sets in the Old West without writing about shootouts, saloons, and the Pony Express. His setting skills are deft.

"The Bone Church" -- King writes poetry. I sort of forgot about that. Poetry doesn't do much for me. Despite this one being more narrative than poetry, I still didn't get a good sense of it.

"Morality" -- King released a book five years ago called Blockade Billy. It included a bonus story called "Morality". Why include a story that's already been printed in one of your collections? I didn't re-read this, but I did read and review Blockade Billy several years back.

"Afterlife" -- Here we have an interesting look at the afterlife through King's eyes. I'm not sure that I'd call it thought-provoking, but it was a little humorous to see his take on Purgatory.

"Ur" -- This is another story where I'm a little peeved that it's in the collection at all, since I was under the impression that this was an OMGKINDLEEXCLUSIVE. I read it earlier this year after buying it as an ebook, and didn't think enough of it to re-read it, despite the fact that it's been updated to reflect newer technology. You can see my original thoughts about it here, if you choose.

"Herman Wouk Is Still Alive" -- The tie to Wouk is tenuous, but two of the characters in the story are poets. Though, the story really isn't about them. This story is kinda weird. And depressing as hell.

"Under the Weather" -- This story, however, is a nice inclusion. It was an additional story included in the paperback printing of Full Dark, No Stars. I don't like cheap tactics to get folks to buy a book more than once, so being able to read it here is nice. It's a nice story that hearkens back to what you might find in Skeleton Crew, even if the ending telegraphs itself about four pages from the end.

"Blockade Billy" -- See my comments on "Morality", above. I didn't re-read this, either.

"Mister Yummy" -- King writes a lot about old age. I get it -- you write what you know, and he's in his late sixties, and has survived a pretty near-death experience. Also, this is the second story in this collection to feature Alzheimer's.

"Tommy" -- More poetry. I still don't get it.

"The Little Green God of Agony" -- King channels his own rehabilitation after his accident here, but puts his own little twist on it. It seems to end a little too abruptly, but it was an interesting read.

"That Bus Is Another World" -- Most of the stories in this collection feel more like vignettes than actual stories. This is another one. I'm always amazed at how well King can pull the reader in to one of his stories without much visible effort.

"Obits" -- This reads a little bit like earlier King, especially "Word Processor of the Gods". This one isn't quite as hokey as its predecessor, and it's certainly darker, but it still doesn't quite reach what he used to do.

"Drunken Fireworks" -- This story, for me, is the big winner of the book. It doesn't presume to be anything deep or meaningful, but that might be why it works so well. It's a humorous look at a fireworks battle that goes on for three years, and it has a solid start, middle, and finish, complete with some palpable tension over how it's going to end. I'm not sure it's worth the entire collection, but it's a great story.

"Summer Thunder" -- King also has a knack for poignancy, which exists in all of his stories, but is present in some more than others. This is one where it's much more present.

So, I'm a little bummed that four out of the twenty stories -- a full 20% of the stories, and 1/3 of the entire length of the book -- were material I'd already read. I wouldn't feel as ticked about the two e-books if I hadn't been led to believe that they were e-exclusives, but why he included the stuff that had already been anthologized is beyond me. The writing in the stories is clear and compelling, as always, but there weren't any stories that made me say, "This is the King I remember." As I've said in previous reviews, you just can't go back to what you used to do.

U-Boat War

U-Boat War - Lothar-Günther Buchheim I'm somewhat amused by the fact that I read this book while also reading Bentley Little's body of work. Little's books are all named using the article-noun convention, usually in reference to something plain and innocuous, making them about as evocative as a brown suit. Anyone who's read Little before knows that his stories will be anything but plain, but new readers wouldn't get that sense from the titles.

The Abominable follows that same naming convention, but one could hardly call the name innocuous; the title is portentous, and if nothing else, it gives us a pretty good idea of what we'll find inside. Based on the title alone, readers could expect to find mountains, snow, and possibly something supernatural. The book is about an attempt to be the first to reach the top of Mount Everest, and while there's mention of yeti here and there (oh, those superstitious Sherpa!), the title could be about them, or it could be about the mountain. As Simmons shows us time and again, scaling Everest is one narrow escape from death after another, as the conditions up there are constantly trying to kill you.

Because if there's one thing Simmons likes, it's research; if there's anything Simmons likes more than research, it's showing his readers how much research he did. I think The Abominable is to mountain-climbing as Moby Dick is to sailing. At least half of the book is a series of info-dumps conveyed from one character to another (some in an unrealistic fashion) about Mount Everest, mountain climbing, equipment used in said climbing, or how once you cross 26,000 feet, your body is slowly dying. Simmons wants to make sure we get that last point, too; he tells us so at least three separate times. Peppered throughout all that preparation are hints of what the plot will be, and scenes that remind us Simmons still knows how to tell a gripping story, but it really doesn't get going until about page 300.

Once it does get going, the reader is in for a treat, as they are with most of Simmons' work. All that research lends a credibility to his writing, which is complemented nicely with his characterization and pacing skills. Even though the info-dumps and exposition lead to a lengthy, somewhat uninteresting first half of the book, it's hard to say how well the story would work without all that backstory. I think the story is worth persevering through all that introductory material, but I'm not sure I would consider this one of Simmons' best works; I would recommend new readers start elsewhere in his catalog.

I'm not wild about the framing device Simmons uses for this story. Ostensibly, it's a found manuscript story, and Simmons writes a version of himself into the foreword and afterword of the book, telling us how he "discovered" this work. I didn't understand the point of it, since he could have easily used the same framing device using a different character to convey the story. Plus, the story is intended to be a recollection of events that occurred some seventy years before. I always have trouble with those kinds of stories, since I'm not convinced that someone would have such vivid recall of conversations and events so long after taking place, and here, we have the narrator recalling someone else recalling perfectly another conversation. In at least one case, he recalls perfectly, seventy years later, what another person said to him in French, which he didn't even understand at the time. I have a hard time remembering details of events from just last week, so it's hard for me to believe in that kind of complete recall.

He also tells the story in the present tense, which is odd, since it's supposed to be written so long after the events. He addresses that point as he enters the third act, but it's not all that convincing to me. Plus, in that story, the narrator references things that happen in the future, even as he's telling the events in the present tense. It seems like a poor choice, especially when the narrator coyly references future events without the prescience of someone telling the story from the future. I mean, at one point in the story, we know he's talking about Hitler, but he refuses to say that specifically until someone else clarifies that for him. It just didn't work for me.

All that being said, Simmons captures the perseverance and dedication of the climbers, and the realities of attempting something so physically daunting and seemingly impossible. He shows the humanity of his characters contrasted with the heartlessness that's necessary to complete the climb. The story inspired me to do some of my own research, and I stumbled across an article about a climber who, near the summit, was exposed, immobile, but still alive, and left by over 40 other climbers who passed him on their way down from the summit. He eventually died, and the article raised the question of whether or not anyone should have done anything for the climber. Rescue missions on Everest are frequently fatal, and people can only spend about 48 hours in the Death Zone anyway before perishing; spending time trying to help a climber who may have already given up can mean leaving two bodies on Everest instead of one. It's chilling, but it's also the reality of the situation. I would imagine that most climbers are aware of the risks, and accepting of their deaths in those situations.

The book got me thinking, and I enjoyed the ride, despite some minor concerns over how Simmons structured the story. Already-fans should definitely read it.

The Sandman: Overture

The Sandman: Overture - J.H. Williams III, Neil Gaiman I try not to get too excited about new Sandman stories. I mean, Endless Nights and The Dream Hunters were entertaining, but they weren't as good as the main series, to me. As a friend of mine once told me, you can't go back, creatively, no matter how hard you try. So I tried to manage my expectations for Overture, but it's Neil Gaiman. And it's Sandman! I was probably lost before ever cracking the shrink on this book.

This volume collects the six-issue miniseries that tells the story of Morpheus before issue one of Sandman. All we know at the start of the series is that he's been captured, after returning, exhausted, from another universe. According to Neil's foreword, that story had lingered in his mind from the start of the series, but he never knew how to incorporate it into the series as he had planned it. Over twenty years later, he's returned to the story. The thing is, how do you return to that time? Van Halen attempted to do it with A Different Kind of Truth, and only revealed how much they've aged, and even Steven Spielberg has admitted that there's no way he could create Close Encounters of the Third Kind now that he's lost the naivete he had when he did create it. Can Neil do what others couldn't?

In short: yes. Neil managed to capture the wonder and magic and glory that he captured way back with the original series. Endless Nights and The Dream Hunters felt like revisiting a world with different stories in mind, but Overture is going back and telling a story involving the original characters. It felt like it could have been written and published within the same time frame as the original series, which pleased me to no end. This was the Sandman story I had been hoping to read with those other two books.

Along with collecting the story, this edition also collects some behind-the-scenes interviews with the creators. Neil's contributions were more silly than serious, but the artist, letterer, and even the colorist chimed in with how their creative process works, and I was fascinated by it. When I read graphic novels, I tend not to linger on the artwork too long, but the interview with J.H. Williams III made me realize how much the art leads how you read the story, and how something like the layout of the artwork can affect your emotions. It was a fascinating look at the process.

Meet the new Sandman, same as the old Sandman. Fans of the series will not be disappointed.

The Town

The Town - Bentley Little I've said before that I feel like I've outgrown horror. I still like a good scary story, but the genre overall can be insipid and ridiculous. The stories can depend too much on gratuitous scenes of sex and/or violence, and some of the scenes that are supposed to be scary are just laughable. For a long time, my go-to example for that sort of scene was one from Joe Schreiber's Chasing the Dead, where the protagonist is attacked by overgrown lobsters from the back seat of her car. Now, though, I'm going to have to use one from The Town where one of the characters gives birth to a Saguaro cactus. That was the first point in the novel where I just about gave it up.

Later, one of the secondary characters is attacked by a book, the Bible, specifically. It gains life and starts flying around the room and attacking him. He throws the book off, but it flies back at him, undeterred. Does this sound like Army of Darkness to anyone else? In Army of Darkness, the story at least had that undertone of campiness to make us recognize the scene has humorous, but Little is attempting to go full horror with his version of the same scene. I'll laugh at both scenes, but only one of those was intended to be humorous.

The story is about a small, off-the-beaten-path town that has a high percentage of Molokan Russian residents. The town has a history of hauntings, which have been idle for many years. One of the people who moved away years ago returns with his family, and with his return comes a new wave of murders and inexplicable events.

I realized with this book that Little does a lot of telling instead of showing. His narrative moves quickly, and it's easy to get caught up in his stories, but it doesn't have a lot of subtlety, either. It's also disjointed, without much focus. It's like he had a grand idea to make the story about the terror of a haunted town, but then he got too bogged down with trying to make the next killing more creative than the last. It reminds me of the Final Destination and Nightmare on Elm Street movies, where they just devolve into different ways for people to die. There were a couple of unsettling, creepy moments in the story, but you have to wade through all of the tertiary characters getting killed off to find them.

As I was reading The Town, I was continually reminded of Stephen King's Desperation; both books are set in Arizona, in a small town that exists off the grid, feature an abandoned copper mine, and are about evil spirits that exist in said town. To Little's credit, the story is different enough that no one would ever confuse the two books, but every time I was reminded of the setting, I thought of Desperation. I think Little has more of a claim to the setting than King, but it was still distracting.

Oh, and Little also has one of his characters buy a book by Phillip Emmons, which is Little's own pseudonym. *eye roll*

Speaking of King, the story feels like it owes a great deal to The Shining. Little takes the concept of the hotel slowly driving its caretaker mad and applies it to an entire town. The man who has returned to the town is the one being driven mad, so the territory is somewhat familiar. In fact, there's an odd moment near the end of the book where he's apparently trapped, but is later freed without much mention on how he was un-trapped. I think Little was attempting to throw in an homage to the ghosts freeing Jack from the freezer, but it also felt like there was a large section of the story missing that would explain that. But then I realized that the rest of the novel is enough of a mess to conclude it was just poor writing.

Little is a decent enough writer, but this book is terrible. I've not reached the point where I've given up on him, but I wouldn't recommend anyone start with this book. Or even read it after reading his better books. It's just not worth it.

The Ignored

The Ignored - Bentley Little I work in a large corporation. I'm sort of a faceless drone, the kind of employee who's given one task after another as they become a priority for the higher-ups. We have a few hundred people who work in my building, and I'm the kind of person who nods and smiles and says "Hello" when passing people in the hallways. I'd say one in about ten people actually respond to my greetings; there are even some who will make eye contact for a split second, then immediately avert their gaze to something on the other side of the hall. I even get that sort of treatment from people I've worked with on previous projects. I don't get it. I've never understood what people have to lose by being polite, by acknowledging that someone standing near them exists.

The Ignored is about being someone like me, taken to the extreme. Here, the main character isn't just ignored; he's invisible to other people. It's a gradual sort of disappearance that begins with coworkers not noticing him, and then slowly becoming someone who doesn't even exist to anyone else around him. At first it's unnerving, but later it becomes troublesome. Later, he realizes that he can get away with anything, including murder, and what starts off as something frustrating becomes something liberating.
The main character, Bob, is not very likable; in fact, he's pretty pathetic. Little shows his helplessness and frustration well, but he also gives Bob the character trait of not wanting to do anything about it. He fights with his girlfriend, telling us that he knows she's not to blame, but does it anyway; he goes on for a few paragraphs about how they don't tell each other "I love you", and even feels like he should, but he doesn't; he has opportunities to confront his asshole supervisor over his behavior, but he never does. It's a kind of self-fulfilling self-destruction, and it's frustrating to read it. Once he goes through his liberating transformation, he goes on a sort of junior-high binge, doing all the things he's always dreamed of doing, and it's hard to be sympathetic to him when he seems so immature.

Then there was the moment in the story where another character defends rape, and even convinces Bob of it. I never got the feeling that Little himself was defending it, but it was certainly a questionable manifesto to include in the story.

The story jumps all over the place, and it made me feel like Little started the book out with a premise, and just started writing from there. The first quarter of the book was tight, and followed the same growing tension that was such a critical part of The Mailman, but then it started taking a lot of jaunts outside of the main story. Later works by Stephen King feel a lot like that, and I can't help but feel like Little was writing this story without a clear idea of where it was going. The middle of the book felt like it meandered too much.

On the plus side, Little has a knack for capturing his characters' emotions well. This particular passage stood out to me:

"It was a bad end to a bad day, and I can't say that I was surprised. It seemed somehow appropriate. So many things had gone so wrong for so long that what would have once sent me into paroxysms of panic now did not even phase me. I just felt tired."

It's not just that he captured that moment so well; it's also a moment we've all experienced, allowing us to relate to the character. Here are a couple more examples:

"All of a sudden I felt strange wandering from shop to shop alone, anonymously, not noticed or known by anybody. I felt uncomfortable, and I wanted to be with Jane. She might be busy studying, she might not have time to do anything with me right now, but at least she knew who I was...."

"Even if no one else was aware of me, I was acutely aware of them."

I find his writing style, in general, to be on point and thought-provoking outside of the story itself.

I wouldn't consider this the best of Little's works, and given that I've only read three of his books so far, that's saying something. Had I started here with his books, I might not have felt enough interest to go any further; it's a compelling story, but it suffers from a lack of focus and an unsympathetic main character. Luckily, having seen what he can do with The Mailman, I'm willing to consider this one a fluke and keep on reading his books.

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick I first read this book twenty years ago, when I first discovered the author. I don't remember thinking much of it at the time, but that was also the time when I had been reading horror almost exclusively, and I'm not sure I was in the right place to appreciate a book like this at that time. I went on to read more of his stuff, but this novel was where I started. The show's upcoming release on Amazon prompted me to revisit the novel, since I figured I would be better able to appreciate the story now.

What I remember most about reading Dick's work is how he played around with the idea of reality and how we define it. The Man in the High Castle is an ambitious look at the same theme, though it's not obvious at the start. The story begins by telling us that the United States lost WWII, and that the country is now jointly occupied by the German and Japanese governments, on the eastern and westerns halves respectively, with a neutral, ungoverned zone between the two. Given the other well-known works by Dick (Total Recall, Blade Runner, and The Minority Report were all based on his work), it would be sensible to assume that this story would involve questionable reality, or possibly even time travel, but no, the story is a quiet look at two disparate governments at work in one country, and what that would mean for the residents of that country.

The Japanese rule their part of the country as fairly as possible, allowing the culture of their occupied territory to continue, despite the fact that they still must govern under German law. The Japanese rule affects the culture in turn, creating an odd hybrid of both cultures existing together. To show this, Dick adopts an odd narrative style when it is in the PSA (the region occupied by the Japanese). The sentence structure is clipped, making it reminiscent of how the Japanese tend to speak English as a second language. It's not just in the dialogue of the Japanese characters; the narrative itself when the story is set in the western region follows that style, even when the point-of-view is not a Japanese character.

About half of the story is about an antiques dealer in the PSA, and how he deals with this new society. He attempts to be a part of it, assuming the new social graces and statuses, and he's very focused on how he is supposed to present himself to others based on their station. A simple trip to a businessman to deliver a piece intended as a gift takes on several levels of importance, not just for himself, but for the people he encounters on the way. The scene is lengthy, and illustrates the new rule better than if Dick had taken a few pages to summarize it all.

The meaning of the book seems pretty clear -- humanity will persevere, even through the darkest moments of its history -- but I struggle to understand the point of it all. The plot and characters are very thin, reducing the story to being about a book that gives an alternate history within this alternate history, where the US wins the war. The book is forbidden in the German-occupied region of the country, but allowed in the PSA and the neutral zone, and gives a different perspective on what happens at the end of the war. To further obscure the meaning of it all, the alternate history within this book is different from the reality of our own history. And one of the main characters is obsessed with understanding why and how the book was written.

As for what the book has in common with the television show, I think the answer is "Not much." The premise has been borrowed, but much of what happens in the first two episodes of the show don't even exist in the book. The book that drives the story is a movie in the show, which is understandable, but the rest of it has been changed significantly. At first I thought that the show was backing up and showing details that took place before the events in the book, but that proved not to be true. I don't see how reading the book will spoil anything regarding the show, though.

My rating of this book won't change with this re-read, but I can take more from it this time around. It's just not the sort of book I usually read, and it's not the sort of book I would expect from Dick. This book seems to stand alone from the rest of his body of work.

An English Ghost Story

An English Ghost Story - Kim Newman Yay for more Kim Newman! And yay for my random book-picking program giving me one more spooky novel to read before Halloween! It took me a little longer than that to finish it, but at one point on Halloween night, I was sitting in an easy chair with this book in my lap.
Like a lot of ghost stories, An English Ghost Story is about the implosive disintegration of a family. Oddly, the story doesn't start out with the perfect nuclear family; as it begins, the family is presented as an idyllic unit, but small hints are dropped here and there to suggest that life hasn't always been this easy.We only start to get a sense of what has happened in the past once the family settles into life at the Hollow.

The setup of the story was engrossing, mostly due to Newman doling out the family's history a little bit at a time. We only know what's happened in the dynamic when it's necessary for the story, but we always know that there's something important there. Since the mood of the ghosts reflect the mood of the family, as more of that history is laid bare, the ghosts become more aggressive and direct. That in turn creates stress for the family, creating a feedback loop that keeps growing until someone on one side or the other decides to break the loop.

I'm continually impressed with Newman's talents as a storyteller. When I first read Anno Dracula so many years ago, I was impressed with how he integrated most of the famous vampires into one story, but for some reason the story didn't speak to me at the time. This year, I felt differently enough about it -- and I still think The Bloody Red Baron is the best of the entire series -- and this novel reinforces that impression. He has a natural style that draws the reader in, and his knowledge of the genres he writes in are reflected in how he structures his stories.

I wanted An English Ghost Story to be more than it was. I enjoyed how he started off the story, and how he drew the parallel between the hauntings and the family dynamic (it's not original, but he creates it well), but once the story took that turn into being an actual ghost story, things became weird and surreal, to the point where it was hard for me to follow what was happening. I understood the broad points, but felt like I missed some of the details along the way.

Overall, though, a ghost story by Kim Newman is a treat. I'd recommend it to fans of his, as well as to fans of haunted house stories overall. It's not the most original haunted house story, but it does its thing well enough that it should be appreciated by fans of those stories.

The Mailman

The Mailman - Bentley Little The first time I heard of Bentley Little, it was regarding this book. The Revelation had won the Bram Stoker award, but The Mailman seemed to be the book that captured so many people's attention. I don't know why it took me so long to getting around to reading it, because all that I had heard about this book was true.

The premise of this novel is pretty silly -- a new mailman starts working in a small town, and uses his position to wreak havoc on the residents -- but I'll be damned if it doesn't work. It works remarkably well. Little perfectly captures the atmosphere of the story, the helplessness of the residents, and the horrors of what the mailman will do. He was able to construct a well-executed story out of a flimsy premise, and it's brilliant. It may not hold up as well to readers who've never lived without high-speed Internet (this was published in 1991, after all), but for those of us who remember paying bills by check, staying in touch with people through letters and phone calls, etc., it's a little chilling to realize how much our lives once depended on the mail.

The story stands alone as an original work, but it also plays homage to "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street", since the mailman uses his power to set the residents against one another. The horror isn't just that the mailman has control, and has inhuman powers that help him wreak havoc, but it's also that regular people can be driven to the point where they snap. It also reminded me a little of Needful Things, which released the same year as The Mailman, where fortune and favors serve only to trap those who receive them.

The horror runs a little deeper than that, but Little builds his story up so effectively that just seeing a lone envelope sitting on a counter can creep you out.

Little pushes the boundaries of taste in a few scenes. He's overly graphic in how he describes some of the situations. It's not enough to say that someone committed suicide with a shotgun; he has to go into great detail describing the blood spatter, the remains of the body, and what pieces wound up in which locations. It veers into splatterpunk territory, which makes the story feel juvenile. The descriptions add nothing to the rest of the story, save to gross out the reader. His descriptions are vivid, and memorable, but in these cases unnecessary.

The story isn't deep, and parts of it feel underdeveloped, but it's certainly effective. It's a different sort of horror story than Dark Harvest or The Elementals, but Little captures the fear of a small town threatened by on outsider extremely well. Anyone looking for a well-told, creepy tale of an outsider slowly infiltrating a small town (and this being Halloween, who doesn't?) wouldn't go wrong reading this one.

Quiet Night of Fear

Quiet Night of Fear - Charles L. Grant My random book-picker program selected two Grant books back-to-back. I'm a little surprised, especially since both books were purchased on the same order, back in the spring. It's a little eerie and strange, which is really perfect when you think about the sort of fiction that Grant tends to write.

A Quiet Night of Fear is more science fiction than horror (despite the fact that the publisher classified this as "Fantasy Horror"), and is at its heart a mystery, but it's still a bit dark. Grant did excel at horror, after all. The story is set in a future where televisions have been replaced with comunits, and androids are becoming commonplace among the rich. A well-known comunit journalist takes a vacation at a resort where a string of murders is starting to take place, and despite not wanting to get involved, she does.

The story was lacking in Grant's usual atmosphere, but it did have some good character studies. It even touches on bigger themes than I've seen in his previous works, as he looks at discrimination and profiling through the androids. As far as the mystery goes, I figured it out about halfway through the story. Maybe it was because I was already familiar with Grant's storytelling style, but it seemed obvious to me how the story would end.

The book was peppered with typos, which was annoying, but nothing was quite as bad as seeing the author's note following the novel titled the "Afterward". I can accept a few typos in a book, but some editor had to fall asleep to miss that one.

The afterword of the novel explains how the novel came to be. It's based on an award-winning short story that he was attempting to turn into a television movie, and when the deal fell through, he had enough of a new story to write a novel for another deal. It's a short book, and a quick read, and feels like a Grant novel, but it doesn't quite compare with his other works. Hardcore Grant fans should read it, just to experience a different kind of story from him, but I'm not sure I would recommend it to general readers.

The Nestling

The Nestling - Charles L. Grant I think my random book generator understands that we're coming up on Halloween. Even after going outside of it for once to read Dark Harvest, the last two books it's picked have been horror novels. Given the season, it's hard to complain about it.

The Nestling is set in the southwest, which is unusual for Grant, but the story is about the tensions that exist between the Shoshone and the whites in a small town, so it makes sense to relocate to that location. Most of the novel focuses on the tensions that exist between the groups, with the supernatural element arising from that tension. Grant uses the setting as a means to rely on Native American mythology to source that supernatural element, which was somewhat bothersome. In his previous books, minority characters are used less for their character and more for incorporating some sort of aspect of that culture to give a reason for the supernatural events. It seems exploitative, and I prefer his novels where the supernatural just is, without trying to anchor it into any particular culture.

The book is a good example of Grant's style. It has the long, slow buildup of characters and setting, interspersed with some supernatural events so we don't forget we're reading a horror novel. There was less atmosphere in this novel than there was in his Oxrun Station books, which could be due to the setting. I would say that atmosphere is better associated with dark, gloomy spaces, instead of bright, hot places, but The Elementals proved me wrong on that point. There were a lot of characters in this book, too, enough so that I found myself several times having to flip back to remember which character was which. Many years ago, I got in the habit of having a scrap piece of paper with me when I read a book, so I could jot down characters' names and a brief bio; I wish I'd thought to do that with this one.

At best, the book is just OK. It has some big-name blurbs on the front and back cover (King and Straub), so I was hoping for more. Even being accustomed to his style, the book felt underwhelming. I'd recommend it for hardcore Grant fans, but even for folks who are hardcore horror nuts, I'd recommend most any of his other books over this one.

Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America: A Field-to-kitchen Guide

Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America: A Field-to-kitchen Guide - David W. Fischer Welcome to Outer Earth, an eighteen-mile diameter ship that orbits 300 miles above planet Earth. On Outer Earth live the last remaining million humans, eking out their lives on a ship that's slowly falling apart. Some of those million people make a living being couriers, running packages from one end of the station to the other, no questions asked. But then Riley Hale mistakenly looks in her pack and sees what she's delivering to Oren Darnell, the chief engineer of the Air Lab. Thus begins the story of Tracer.

Tracer is first and foremost an action novel. I say this because the story suffers in a lot of other ways. The characters feel very flimsy to me, especially the antagonist. Boffard attempted to give him a motivation, but in the end, he came across as being a Snidely Whiplash caricature. That the other antagonists fell in line with the ideology of the main antagonist seemed unrealistic to me. The protagonists weren't much better, and it felt like Boffard was populating the story with the usual cast of characters featured in any YA novel.

Speaking of which, I couldn't help but feel like this was written as a YA novel. I don't have a problem with them, mind you, but I like to know what I'm getting into when I start reading a book. There was no indication anywhere that this was a YA book, and it certainly wasn't marketed as one. It reminded me of The Flight of the Silvers in that some of its content doesn't reflect a typical YA book, but the narrative and the story do.

The story also depends a lot on coincidence and luck. The main characters are resourceful, sure, but when a character gets written into a corner, with no easy way out, Boffard gives them a serendipitous easy way out. Again, this is an action novel, so some of this is expected. I'm doing my nitpicking thing again, because by about 10% of my way into the story, I started seeing a lot of problems with it.

For some reason, the present tense voice didn't work that well for me, either. I've read other books written in the present tense that didn't bother me, but for some reason, it grated on me here. Part of it was when Boffard went into a flashback in the middle of another scene -- it would be written in past tense, and then the jump back to the present tense jarred me. My guess is that he wanted to give the story more of a sense of immediacy this way, but I can't help but feel it wasn't necessary.

The story jumps through a handful of different characters, each chapter being told from the point of view of one of them. This isn't a problem, but for some reason, Boffard writes one of those characters' voices in the first person, while the others are in the third person. It seemed like an odd thing to do, and that choice, in addition to writing the novel in the present tense, meant he made two unconventional choices in how he wrote the story.

The book is currently only available as an ebook, and as I was reading, I kept checking to see if the book had been self-published. The writing feels amateurish, unedited, almost like the writing in The Martian and the Silo series, both of which started out as self-published works. And, oh, the cliches Boffard uses. They made me wince. At one point, without irony, he has a character shout "Don't you dare die on me!"

I couldn't help but think of the first two-thirds of Seveneves as I was reading this book, since the story does enter into a survival-in-space-despite-someone-trying-to-sabotage-it mode once the action gets underway. What I remember about Seveneves was its theme, that space does its best to kill you, and the focus of the entire story was what was required to survive it; Tracer seems to touch on that theme, but for the most part life in space seems pretty easy, easy enough at least to support slums, open markets, courier services, and the like. That seems pretty impressive, and implausible, considering that the station has only been in space for 100 years. I'm aware that the stories are significantly different, but it doesn't help to have read this book after the detail Stephenson went into regarding how difficult it is to survive in space.

Despite all that, Boffard did manage to surprise me a time or two as he wound up the story. And it's not like I was struggling to stay in the story; the book moved quickly, and the action scenes were written well. It just needed a lot more character development and a more traditional narrative style to raise this book from good to excellent. It did have enough good for me to consider reading the next couple of books in the series.

The Elementals

The Elementals - Michael McDowell When I think of Gothic fiction, I think of damp castles, in darkness, maybe located in a moor, with storms wailing outside, the howling of the wind and the patter of rain at the windows the lonely accompaniment to the events that take place within those castles. The Elementals is a fine piece of Gothic fiction, but bucks all the trends by setting it in the hot, humid beaches of Alabama in the middle of summer, where the sun removes all shadows.

In the story, three houses stand on a secluded beach on the Gulf of Mexico, called Beldame, all identical, save for one, which is slowly being claimed by a sand dune. Two families, now joined by marriage, own the three houses. When the matriarch of one family dies, the rest of the family decides to return to Beldame, where they intend to spend the summer. India, the youngest of the family, becomes intrigued by the third house despite the fears of her father, her grandmother, and the housekeeper. Ultimately, India leans why they are all afraid of that third house.

At the start of the book, I felt like it would be a bit of a challenge to read it, since "white knuckle" and "fast paced" were not words that came to mind to describe the narrative. The pacing was more deliberate; McDowell took his time in creating the setting and the characters, letting the horror develop from those two components, as any good story should. Once the story was underway, though, I was hooked. It's always easier to write about books I don't like versus books I do, since it's easier to pinpoint what doesn't work versus what does, but I will say that naming the estate Beldame, or "a malicious and ugly woman, especially an old one", was brilliant. I thought this book was fantastic.

I've said before that I still like a good creepy story, even though I feel like I've outgrown horror overall, and The Elementals is an excellent example of a good horror novel. I recently finished Norman Partridge's Dark Harvest, another example of a good horror story, but it's nothing like this. When all the dark, portentous evil of a story like this can exist despite the heat and the sun, it makes it that much more threatening.

Dark Harvest

Dark Harvest - Norman Partridge Normally, when I finish one book and move on to the next, I make a random selection from a list of what I have to read to determine which one is next. This is to avoid the "last in, first out" problem I normally have when reading books. I'm making an exception with Dark Harvest, since I've read so much good about it, I like a good horror story, and we're making our way toward Halloween. I had to move this one to the top of the list while it was still timely.

The story is about Halloween, and an unusual, supernatural ritual that a small town puts on every year. It's reminiscent of "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, but it takes the idea behind that story and instead wraps it up in a white-knuckle series of events that teases you with the details of what's going on behind that ritual. You can get more details off the back of the book if you want, or you can do as I did and just read it based on all the good reviews about it and let it surprise you.

For all the good I heard about this novella (it received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, as well as a listing among their top 100 books for that year; it won the Bram Stoker Award the year it was published; and the blurbs in the frontispiece are from well-respected horror authors), as I was reading it, I felt like it was more a run-of-the-mill supernatural story than anything else. But then I reached the halfway point of the book, and I started feeling the hairs on my arms stand up. Not from fear, necessarily (it's been a long time since I've been truly scared by a book), but from knowing that Partridge was taking me places that would surprise me.

The narrative is a little different, with parts of it being told in the second person, as if the narrator is speaking directly to the reader, and there's a certain lack of subtlety to the story. The story is set in 1963, which isn't obvious because of the setting, or the characters, or much else in the story. Partridge mentions a Vincent Price double-feature at the local theater, and one of the characters wears Chuck Taylors, but neither of those tidbits defines 1963; Chucks are still popular, and how unusual would it be for a local theater to show a Vincent Price double-feature around Halloween in 2015? No, the way we know that the story is set in that year is because the narrator keeps telling us so. But once the story takes its turn into the final stretch, all that is ignored.

I've read Partridge before, but it's been so long that I don't remember any of the details about those works, but I do recall that his stories moved along at a breakneck pace. Dark Harvest does, too, and since it's a shorter work, it only makes it fly by more. I finished the book in a couple of hours, and enjoyed the ride. Given the expectations I had going into it, that says a lot. Anyone looking for a good Halloween story should track this down and save it until the 31st to read it in one sitting.

The Flight of the Silvers: The Silvers Series

The Flight of the Silvers: The Silvers Series - Daniel Price It takes a lot for me to abandon a book. I don't do it often (though I feel like I should), but even if I'm not liking a book very much, I still tend to finish it. The Flight of the Silvers is a book I feel like I should have abandoned, because once I realize that I don't like a book, all the things that are wrong with it start jumping out at me, and I start to nitpick. I realized about 200 pages into this book that I didn't like it, so this review is going to be a whole lot of nitpicking.

First, the narrative is very odd. It's clunky, and kept tripping me up with its awkwardness, but by about fifty pages into it, I started to get a handle on it. I remember having the same response to Joe Abercrombie's style in The Blade of Law. Each time I picked up the book, though, I found myself having to get used to the style all over again.

The story is odd, too. There are odd things in the story, and odd things take place, but that's not what I mean; the flow of the story just doesn't make much sense. There are a lot of events that take place in the story, but outside of that, nothing much happens. I had the feeling like the story was moving forward, but not going anywhere, and when I reached the end, I realized that this novel was just lengthy exposition that could have been a summary at the start of the next novel.

Parts of the story strained credibility with me, too. At one point in the story, our six main characters are hiding within the hotel where they're being sought, some of them going in and out of the building without being noticed. I find it hard to believe that anyone in a highly secured area -- we're talking about a location where armed government guards check everyone as they enter and leave the building, and refuse entrance to people without keys -- can sneak in and out through the lobby wearing a pulled-down ballcap and sunglasses without raising suspicions, or that someone who looks like that can walk right up to the reception desk and check in without luggage, using cash, and not have anyone step up and arrest him right there. I found that harder to believe than all the superpowers the main characters exhibited.

For some reason, Price referred to three of his characters by their hobby or profession or state as much as he did by name: Hannah was "the actress"; Zach was "the cartoonist"; Amanda was "the widow". Given that these identifiers had little to do with the plot, it mystified me why he kept reminding me of what they did. It wound up being more distracting than anything else.

I was also troubled by how he had other characters act toward the female characters in the book. Other characters consistently remarked to them about their attractiveness, and in one case, a couple of characters are shown looking up another's skirt. Later, a new character refers to the female head of the investigative team searching for the main characters as "Hon". I don't know why, as it didn't seem to impact the story in any way, but Price seemed intent on subjecting his female characters to this kind of misogyny. There's also an inordinate amount of attention paid to Hannah's breasts, from male and female characters. I'm not sure what's up with that, save to constantly remind us that she has them, they're large, and people notice them.

The characters didn't seem consistent to me, either. Conveniently, there were three male main characters and three female main characters, so everyone paired off as the story progressed, but seemingly at the whim of the author. Plus, they weren't drawn well enough to care much about them; they felt more like props than fully realized characters.

Despite the range of ages of the characters (early teens to late twenties) and some of the content of the books (violence, sex, and language), the book read like a YA book. It's not marketed as one, and doesn't strike me as one, but the way the characters acted reminded me of teenagers. In fact, some of the teenagers in the book acted more mature than the older characters, at least until the author needed them to act more appropriate for his needs.

The book isn't awful -- it was readable enough to keep me going, and the action scenes were done fairly well -- but the story itself isn't all that meaningful. It reminded me of Twilight, of all things, since it, too, was pretty readable, though nothing significant happened. Unfortunately, this first volume of the series didn't impress me enough to want to read the rest of them.

The Revelation

The Revelation - Bentley Little After my attempt to read Ramsey Campbell's body of work went bust (The Doll Who Ate His Mother's popularity befuddles me, and I gave up on The Face That Must Die after realizing that none of the characters were in any way likable), I started looking for other horror authors to read or re-read. I remembered Rick Hautala and Ray Garton were writers I once followed, but then I remembered Bentley Little's curious style of horror, and that I had read only a couple of his books, and decided that he would be the best place to start.

I was surprised to find out that this was a re-read for me. I read it way back in 1999, and don't remember much of anything about it. I would have thought that some of the imagery would have stood out to me, but nothing pinged my recall. The story is enough of a run-of-the-mill supernatural, religious-war-between-good-and-evil horror story to not stand out for being unique, but it's still an entertaining, gripping read. I see that I also read two other Little books over the years, neither of which I can recall, so I get the feeling what makes Little's fiction stand out is how he tells the story, not the story itself. Of course, I haven't made it to The Mailman yet, so maybe that will change my mind.

Little has a natural style that's reminiscent of Stephen King. The two styles are distinct enough to be unique, but it was always easy to pick up the book and catch up with the events. His characterization skills are great; he populates the novel with a lot of characters, and none of them feel like copies of each other, nor are they forgettable. There were moments where a minor character's name is mentioned, and I couldn't remember who he or she was, but Little provided enough context to jar my memory. For such a large cast, this was helpful.

The trick to writing a good horror novel is to create a world where the supernatural events follow some set of rules, and stick to those. Random events and sudden revelations without any foreshadowing can ruin a good spooky story, but Little avoids that. A lot of important information is conveyed through dreams, but the supernatural as Little creates it supports that kind of communication. There's also the need for effective scares and a high creep factor, and the novel has that, as well. Some of the scenes felt gratuitously violent, but what made them effective was the oddity, the sense of things in the normal world being a little off. There was just enough atmosphere to the story to make it appropriately brooding, without it being dense with detail.

The story still isn't perfect. The main character is married to a woman who played a major roles in the events, but she wasn't written to be a main character. She was realized enough for the reader to connect to her, but not so much as to make her a major player in the events, even though her role was important. Plus, her character is inconsistent. Without giving anything away, she reacts strongly to a major event in her life, but within a few chapters, she's supportive and accepting of it, and by the end of the story, it becomes her major motivation. It seemed a little off.

This was Little's first published book, though, so I can forgive much of that. The story told is a good one, enough so that I don't have any hesitation to read more of his books.