November 11, 2019

Review: The Twisted Ones

The Twisted Ones The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

T. Kingfisher, also known as Ursula Vernon, has been publishing award-nominated and -winning stories for quite a while. Her stories are combinations of magical whimsy and pragmatic, ordinary characters. This is the first novel of hers I've read, and it's a lot darker than the stories I've read of hers to date. But it takes the same basic situation, of an ordinary person thrown into an extraordinary situation, and steadily ratchets up the dread and terror.

Melissa, aka Mouse, is a freelance editor who gets roped into clearing out her grandmother's house after Grandma's death. Grandma was a bitter, nasty old woman, and also a hoarder, something Mouse doesn't discover until after she and her redbone coonhound Bongo arrive at the house. (It matters a great deal what kind of dog Bongo is--as Mouse admits in her writeup of events, if Bongo had been a border collie, she wouldn't be here now to write down what happened.) The house is in the middle of the North Carolina woods, surrounded by loblolly pines, kudzu, a very strange rock in the back yard, and woodpeckers--or what she thinks is woodpeckers--going tap tap tap.

The first night she is there, Mouse discovers a journal left behind by her late step-grandfather, Frederick Cotgrave, and as she reads it, a particular phrase repeats itself over and over: And I twisted myself about like the twisted ones. Cotgrave is trying to find the "Green Book," which his wife, Mouse's grandmother, has taken from him and hidden, and he writes down as much of it as he can remember in his journal. Thus we have a story within a story, which slowly unfolds as Mouse's story does, giving clues to "the twisted ones" and "the holler people."

This is a slow, stealthy escalation of terror, until halfway through when all hell breaks loose. Suffice to say you will never regard the word "effigy" in the same way again. Kingfisher is in complete control of her story and characters at all times. Mouse, like so many of Kingfisher's (and Vernon's) characters, is not a hero, or a badass; she's muddling through as best she can, gradually rising to the occasion as the situation gets worse. She is surrounded by several well-drawn supporting characters, particularly Foxy, the sixty- or seventy-something next door neighbor. Foxy is a delightful character, and I would love another book about her. All the characters are relatable, everyday people, and you really care what happens to them.

Kingfisher also gets that horror and humor can live side by side, and she deftly plays with the absurdities of the tropes she is writing about. There are multiple laugh-out-loud moments in this book alongside the multiple creeptastic moments (especially the Last Stand in Grandma's Kitchen at the end of the book). This book (according to the Author's Note at the end) is in conversation with, and inspired by, a turn-of-the-century (the last century) horror story, The White People, by an author I've never heard of, Arthur Machen. I'm not sure if the "white" or "holler" people were meant to be the Fae--in one way it sounds like that, with their hidden gateways to faerie mounds in alternate worlds, maybe in Wales and maybe not--but these White People are like no Fae you've ever read before.

This is one fine, scary book, but let me assure you the hound doesn't die: in a lot of ways, he saves the day, in his lovable dimwitted manner. And if you, the reader, never want to step into a hoarder's house again, and if you particularly don't want to deal with leftover doll collections...after closing the covers of this book, that's perfectly understandable.

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November 9, 2019

Review: Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction

Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kröger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a very ambitious project: gather together the unknown, forgotten, overlooked and underappreciated female pioneers of horror and speculative fiction. There are the usual suspects, of course: Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison, Tanith Lee, Anne Rice. Unfortunately, to an extent, this book became the victim of its own ambition. I appreciated the obvious research that has been put in, especially for those writers I've never heard of before. At the same time, I wish some of these writers had been expanded upon, and excerpts and analyses of their stories included. As it is, though this is a worthwhile book, it ends up being a rather superficial one.

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November 8, 2019

At the Movies: Terminator: Dark Fate

I chose this poster because this image is the heart of the movie, as it should be. In the first movie, and the second to some extent, Linda Hamilton was overshadowed by Arnold Schwartzenegger. In Terminator 2: Judgment Day (one of my all-time favorite films), the iconic image of Sarah Connor, bulked-up and deadly with her biceps and ponytail, has lingered indelibly in the minds of many women (along with Sigourney Weaver's Ripley) as a badass female action hero who has no regrets and takes no prisoners. Hamilton did not appear in the next three movies, and Terminator Salvation killed her off in favor of Christian Bale's scenery chewing. Genisys, the soft reboot with Emilia Clarke, both made me long for Drogon to swoop in and flame the day and made clear that any movie without Linda Hamilton, even if Schwarzenegger is present, is not a true Terminator movie.

This one is.

Some have blasted it as being a retread, and in one sense it is--it does have to follow the already established formula. We won't get into the absurdities of this universe's time travel, as they make no sense. The only way to even kinda-sorta reconcile the paradoxes is to subscribe to the multi-branch theory: the act of time travel in and of itself creates a separate timestream. In this film, Skynet was indeed defeated in T2, and that future withered on the vine. Unfortunately, the nasty sentient AI rears its head once again, in the form of Legion, an AI built for cyberwarfare that shut down civilization once it gained sentience and started the entire machines-hunting-humanity scenario all over again. (One wonders exactly what sort of malcontents are building and programming these AIs, as inevitably the first thing they do once they gain self-awareness is try to wipe humanity off the face of the earth. Also, I guess there must have been some cross-pollination of the timestreams, as the mechanism Legion uses to vault its Terminators into the past is the same, or very similar to, the one Skynet had. Still, don't make your brain hurt by trying to come up with a logical explanation for any of this.)

The difference that immediately defines this entry in the series is the very first scene. After a snippet of T2 recapping the story, we move to 1998, and Sarah and John Connor on the beach in Mexico. They're laughing and happy, thinking they're home free, when lo and behold another T-800 pops into existence, strides across the sand, and....





(For further spoiler separation, here's another shot of Linda Hamilton's silver-haired, unashamedly sixty-something, still badass self.)

.....kills John right in front of a horrified Sarah.

This is a bold stroke that immediately makes clear the point of the story, which should have been evident from the get-go. For all the Ah-nuld hype and quips (and he gets in some zingers in this film, with a perfectly timed deadpan delivery), this is not his movie or his series. It never was. This is Sarah Connor's story, and this movie drives that home, even if another Terminator movie never gets made (as is probable, it seems, from the film's disappointing box office).

There follows the usual running, fights, and final climactic showdowns, with another important difference: Legion's new target, and the champion sent by the resistance to act as a protector, are both women. The latter, Grace, is an "augmented" supersoldier from the future, and the former is Dani Ramos, the young woman of color who, as it turns out, is not destined to give birth to the leader of the Resistance--she is the leader of the Resistance. Even Sarah doesn't realize this right away, understandably so.

Arnold doesn't make his appearance until more than halfway through the movie. Our triad of Dani, Grace and Sarah make their way to his ranch in Laredo, Texas, where he is living a quiet life as "Carl," owning his own drapery business and living with a Latino woman and her son (although not in a physical relationship, as he explains. I'm glad. That would have been icky). In the twenty years since he killed John Connor, he has, as he says, "grown a conscience," to the point that whenever he senses the (technobabble) "chronomatic displacement" that comes as each of Skynet's previously dispatched Terminators pop into the timeline, he texts the location to Sarah, and she goes and blows them away. (How she gets the money to do this or even live off the grid, as she is a wanted fugitive in all 50 states, is left unexplained, unless "Carl" is also texting funds to her bank account. Again, don't think about this too much.) Sarah nearly blows a gasket when she sees Carl, but Dani, who is starting to assert herself and shows us a glimpse of the leader she will eventually become, manages to talk her down. They decide to set a trap for the new Terminator, luring him into a "killbox" and using an EMP to shut him down.

(One thing I definitely miss in all of this is Robert Patrick's T-1000. That marvel of special effects in T2 still holds up today, and Gabriel Luna suffers by comparison. The way they try to make up for it in this film, turning Luna's Rev-9 into a black-goop Terminator who can split itself in half, separating the metal skeleton from the flowing goop, doesn't really work. Luna doesn't have Patrick's unstoppable icy malevolence, either.)

The final showdown occurs inside Hoover Dam, after aircraft chases and a lot of murky underwater scenes, and both Grace and Carl end up sacrificing themselves to save Dani...only in Carl's case, it's not so much for Dani as "for John," as he tells Sarah when he dies. And thus we come full circle, with Sarah Connor the mentor to the future leader of the Resistance (as apparently this timeline's destiny with Legion is still on track), driving away to prepare for her fate.

I can't imagine Dani having a better teacher.

This film is not perfect. But I loved this movie anyway, because of one thing: it gets Sarah Connor, and it gets her right. I suppose this must be attributed to the return of James Cameron, who evidently talked Hamilton into reprising her role. I'm also glad Schwarzenegger was reduced to supporting status. This would have had to happen anyway, since the dude is 70, but fortunately they resisted the temptation to de-age him in all his scenes as they did in the first. (And no one thought to, or had time to, comment on the fact of a Terminator getting wrinkles, thickening in the middle, and growing a bit bald.) This is the end of Skynet's Terminators (one hopes, anyway), but it is not the end for Sarah Connor--and her story has a wonderful, satisfying conclusion, as befits this groundbreaking character.

Go get 'em, Sarah.

November 3, 2019

Review: Containment

Containment Containment by Caryn Lix
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the second book in a series, following on the heels of last year's Sanctuary. I did like this book, enough to pre-order the third one....but it does have its problems.

I characterized the first book as "the Young Avengers meet the Xenomorphs." The series takes place in a corporate-controlled future, with metahumans being born after the arrival of alien probes fifty years previously. The first book took place on the space station/prison Sanctuary, with its cohort of teenage superheroes coming under siege by aliens. Our protagonist, Kenzie Cord, is the daughter of parents aligned with the megacorp Omnistellar, the owner and operator of the station, and unbeknownst to her an "anomaly" herself. Over the course of the first book, she comes to question everything she has been taught, discovers the truth of her past, and throws in with the group from Sanctuary battling the aliens.

This book continues Kenzie's story, and the kids she has taken up with, her new-found family. The biggest failing in this book is its uneven pacing and often silly plot twists. The first book was taut and suspenseful, but this one has a bad habit of dragging. Kenzie and her group get captured way too often, and although due to their various superpowers they are usually able to break free, this tail-swallowing circle gets tiresome after a while. Someone should have taken an axe to the middle of this book and tightened up the plot. Also, Kenzie's powers are expanding, and so are the other characters'. (Apparently their powers are a direct result of genetic manipulation due to the aliens' life cycle. This doesn't really make much sense, so don't dwell on it too long.) This is handled rather well, better than the overall plot, and the last few chapters do feel a bit better paced. Of course, we end on a cliffhanger, with all the dangling threads to (hopefully) be wrapped up in the third book.

Having said all this, the moments of characterization are where this book shines. Kenzie's PTSD from the first book is acknowledged and dealt with (even if the reason for it is reversed in the dumbest plot twist of the book), and all the main characters show satisfying growth. I wish the pacing could have been kept under better control to allow the characters more of these interesting moments. This book really seems like it could have used another draft and a firmer editorial hand. Hopefully the final book will overcome these problems.

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October 29, 2019

Review: The Outside

The Outside The Outside by Ada Hoffmann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book melds several genres into its own thing, and while for much of the story it's a slow burn, by the end I couldn't put it down. Fascinating worldbuilding mixed with an unsettling version of Lovecraftian cosmic horror (and the even more unsettling concept of quantum supercomputers mutated into humanity's gods and conquerors) and you end up with a creepy, unique, unforgettable tale.

Much has been made of this book's protagonist, Yasira Shien, being autistic (and her antagonist, Dr. Evianna Talirr, obviously is as well, though it's not as directly stated). I appreciated this, but Yasira was not the most interesting part of the book to me. Her character was well drawn, but a few of the side characters (particularly Tiv, her lover, and Enga, a totally badass, cynical cyborg) are worthy of books in their own right. The focus is mostly on Yasira throughout (with some viewpoint sections from Akavi Averis, an augmented servant of Nemesis, one of the AI Gods).

What disturbed me more than anything else were some of the worldbuilding nuances. This far future of humanity has its own new, twisted religion--supercomputers that have ascended to sentience and made themselves gods, complete with their own (patently false) history and myths. (A lot of this is revealed in the book and article snippets at the beginning of each chapter.) We don't meet any of the Gods as such, just Their creations--humans turned into "angels," chosen and modified with so much technology their brains are half organic and half silicon chips, and in the case of Enga, whose bodies are implanted with weapons that would swat a Terminator away like an insect. Ordinary humans are second- and third-class citizens, restricted in their movements and technology--they're forbidden from progressing past old-fashioned vacuum-tube style computers, for example--and treated with a smug patronization by the servants of the AIs, who think said humans should be grateful for everything the AIs have done for them. If you dare to object to this setup, you're called a heretic, and captured, tortured and terminated.

Into this uneasy status quo comes Yasira, who invents a new power source that, unbeknownst to her, links to and sucks in the titular Outside, Hoffman's version of the Lovecraftian mythos--an extradimensional universe full of myth, monsters, and metaphysical concepts of time and space (time and space, along with everything else, is "lies," according to Evianna Talirr, a motif repeated through the book). The Outside was first discovered by Yasira's mentor Dr. Evianna Talirr, who disappeared three years ago. After the Talirr-Shien reactor malfunctions and destroys the space station where it was built, Yasira is dragged into the quest to hunt down Dr. Talirr, who has evidently been facilitating increasingly dangerous Outside incursions to further her own agenda.

The story revolves around Yasira's pursuit of Evianna Talirr, and the slow reconstruction of her character, as she comes to question everything she has been taught to believe. This is a slow, deliberate progression, befitting Yasira's character. I like Yasira and Evianna well enough, but truthfully, I would love a prequel to this universe, showing how it came to be. How humans came to accept quantum supercomputers (and the characters know they are supercomputers, originally built by the present generation's ancestors) transforming themselves into all-seeing Gods, and the fact that after death, their consciousness and memories are harvested by said supercomputers to maintain their own supremacy and existence (and even before one's death, if you want to become a "sell-soul")--well, that would make a terrifying tale in its own right, it seems to me.

This is some of the most original worldbuilding I have ever read. I loved it. I'm grateful for this book's slower pacing, to give the reader time to absorb what's being presented. And the ending, which sets Yasira and her lover Tiv up to lead the rebellion against the Gods--well, my goodness. This book's sequel (if, as I fervently hope, there is one) will be an insta-buy for me as soon as it comes out.

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October 19, 2019

Review: Middlewest, Book One

Middlewest, Book One Middlewest, Book One by Skottie Young
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was recommended to me on a website where I hang out. It's something I would never have stumbled across on my own, because I've perused one of the author's previous graphic novels (I Hate Fairyland) and wasn't impressed. This one, however, has a better storyline and characters, and the art is bright and bold.

Abel is a young boy with a talking fox sidekick and an emotionally abusive father, who flees after his father loses his temper and reveals himself to be a tornado monster. (The talking fox is revealed on page 6, so we see right away that the town of Farmington is not quite set in our world.) The story follows Abel's flight and the monsters and others he encounters, including trolls, crow monsters on a train, and a wizard. Abel's father left a brand of power on his chest, and it soon turns out Abel is a budding tornado monster himself. In a desperate attempt to stop this, Abel hunts down the carnival troupe of a mystic named Magdalena, takes up with them, and begins to make a home for himself.

One thing I appreciate about this comic is that it isn't rushed. Some comics (Marvel is particularly prone to this, I think) just push too much into 12 pages, or whatever the average issue size is. This one takes its time unfolding its storyline, characters and worldbuilding, and lets them breathe. This can be a fine line to walk, juggling between deliberate and slow, but this graphic novel succeeds. I came to care about the characters and want to know what happens to Abel, particularly since this volume ends on a massive cliffhanger. Which is an annoyance, of course, but it just about guarantees that I'll pick up Volume 2 when it comes out.

Give this a try. I think many of you will like it.

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October 12, 2019

Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Vol. 1: High School Is Hell

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Vol. 1: High School Is Hell Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Vol. 1: High School Is Hell by Jordie Bellaire
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an updated reboot of the Buffyverse, as is clear from the cover--Buffy is holding a stake in one hand and a cell phone in the other. The first issue starts with her already having gained her powers and moved to Sunnydale, just like the show (which I watched religiously during its run). There are immediate differences: Willow is already an out lesbian and sporting the chin-length bob of later seasons, not the longer hair of the first; Cordelia is an actual nice person, not a "mean girl"--although from some remarks she makes, I wonder how long that's going to last; Spike and Drusilla make their appearance right away; Anya is already running the magic shop; and Robin Wood from Season 7 is a teenager at Sunnydale High.

If all this sounds overstuffed, it kind of is. This volume covers the first four issues of the comic, and for the most part it feels far too rushed. It seems like Jordie Bellaire is trying to get the Scooby Gang back together too fast, without letting the different relationships evolve naturally. For example, Buffy meets and hangs out with Willow and Xander in the first issue, and elicits enormous laughter when attempting to explain the existence of bumpy-headed vampires to them; and yet only two issues later, when she confronts Spike and Drusilla, they come charging in with a shovel and a baseball bat to help her. The shock of and reaction to their discovering that demons and vampires are real things, and the Hellmouth is in Sunnydale, is completely glossed over.

All that said, I will pick up the second volume. I just hope the pace slows down a bit and the characters are given some room to breathe.

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October 11, 2019

Review: Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You

Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You by Scotto Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a neat little tale of Lovecraftian horror and rock and roll, encapsulated perfectly by the cover blurb: "Moore understands a key truth about Ziggy Stardust: Rock and roll messiahs are really fucking scary."

One could say the central figure of this musical horror story, Airee Macpherson, is sort of a genderbent Ziggy Stardust. If one defines a "genderbent Ziggy Stardust" as a "psychopathic criminal from a future dimension," who is using a sinister marriage of music and occultism to blast open a portal to return to her dimension. Our story is narrated by an unnamed music blogger who stumbles upon a new band, Beautiful Remorse. The very first chapter, Track 01, describes the effect this music has on him (or her? The story doesn't specify either way):

Time stopped while I was listening to it. Elation swept through me, as if I could die now, secure in the knowledge that I had at long last heard the most beautiful piece of music in the world and if I never heard any other music ever again, it wouldn't matter, because all music after this was going to sound like shit anyway.

Our music blogger hunts down the band's singer, Airee Macpherson, and scores an interview with her the following night at the band's show in Houston. Thus begins a steadily ratcheting tale of terror and suspense, one track at a time, with Beautiful Remorse's musical horror virus spreading throughout the land. The blogger is complicit and admits it, refusing to leave the tour even when band members are sacrificed onstage. There's obviously a Lovecraftian feel to all this, even if Cthulhu isn't mentioned (especially when Track 07 opens the wrong portal and a giant tentacle comes through). With Track 09, Airee finally manages to open the right portal, and disappears into it after leaving our narrator with Track 10 and a promise: if anyone ever wants her to return, just play the track and she'll come back to finish what she started.

The last chapter, "Coda," picks up the story ten years later, when--you guessed it--the final track gets loose on the internet. The song's name? "Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You." Which is a shivery bit of meta, ending on a promise of unopposed mayhem. This is a taut, well-written horror story that's worth your time.

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October 10, 2019

Review: The Haunting of Tram Car 015

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Last year, P. Djeli Clark wrote the excellent novella "The Black God's Drums." This novella takes place in a different world, an alternate-history Cairo where alchemy is a real thing, magic works and djinns and various otherworldly beasties exist. This makes for several interesting worldbuilding concepts, including one where Egypt kicked the British out forty years before and there is a Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Our two protagonists, Hamid Nasr and Onsi Youssef, are agents of said Ministry.

What starts out as a seemingly simple case--the haunting of a tram car by an unknown supernatural being--steadily escalates into a crisis. This story is well paced and tightly written, and the world is something I would like to explore further. Clark tells this story with a great deal of droll humor that had me laughing out loud more than once. Having said all this, I didn't like this as much as "The Black God's Drums." But it is worth your time.

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Review: Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water

Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This novella started out very promisingly. The protagonist, Bee, and her lover Chela are trapped in a cave system; Bee doesn't remember what they did to be marooned there, and Chela refuses to tell her anything beyond that they're telepaths and they killed four thousand people. The first three chapters are very good, intriguing and well paced. Then another telepathic voice intrudes on Bee's mind, the mental voice of the wife she's forgotten, and Jasmine breaks Bee out of the Matrix-like hold she's in....

And the whole thing goes downhill from there.

Honestly, I wish the editor had insisted the author chop the remaining four chapters right on out. This is simply not the story that should be told, in my opinion; it's not well thought out and characterized at all, and the worldbuilding (what there is of it) is severely lacking. The end reveal (who Chela really is) had me rolling my eyes. It's sad, because I would have read the heck out of a story featuring Bee and Chela trying to escape from their prison, and exploring whether Bee really is a mass murderer. I only rated this book (barely) two stars because of the first half. The book felt like a cheat, setting itself up to be one thing and then doing a completely unearned turn in another direction.

Don't waste your time with this one. I'm afraid you'll be disappointed.

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