jump to navigation

Review: Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand August 24, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
Tags: ,
add a comment
Cover of Elizabeth Hand's Wylding Hall

Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall

I noticed I’ve been remiss in reposting my Netgalley reviews here, so I’ve posted a bunch of them tonight and scheduled a couple of others to pop up at the appropriate times. I quite like Netgalley; I may only have found half a dozen or so books to buy for my work library collection, but I’ve had a good number of books of personal interest. A review in exchange for a free advance ebook copy is a good deal. Especially when the publishers are nice enough to provide epubs. PDFs often end up not looking too good on a small screen, and reading a whole book on my iPad, unless it’s specifically designed for a larger size (like graphic novels), is less than ideal. All of this building up to the review for possibly the best thing I’ve read through Netgalley.

One of the best books I’ve read through Netgalley. You know you’ve enjoyed reading something when the first thing you do afterwards is buy more of the author’s books. I’d read at least a couple of Elizabeth Hand’s novels years ago but lost track of what she was doing. I’m rectifying that.

Before reading Wylding Hall, I read a recent interview with Hand in which she mentioned some of Alan Garner’s books as being favourites of hers. Garner wrote novels about Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, sometimes overtly fantasy, sometimes more strange and suggestive of fantastic elements. Ancient myths being replayed or echoed in the modern world were at the heart of novels like The Owl Service, which was filmed as a TV miniseries. A band of young English folk revivalists took the book’s name for their own, doing a new take on 1970-style English folk rock — which brings us back to Wylding Hall, a book about a fictional version of one of those bands and what may be a Garner-like ghost story they find themselves caught up in.

Wylding Hall takes the form of an oral history about a band and the mysterious events that occurred when they recorded their classic album at an old house in the English countryside, with the surviving band members, their manager, a journalist, a band member’s ex-girlfriend, and a local talking about what happened — the strange events in the house, the mysterious girl, the lead singer’s disappearance.

There’s a lot of nostalgia for early 70s books and TV shows like The Stone Tape, and for the music scene of the time (Hand acknowledges the recent book Rob Young’s Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music). Wylding Hall ties in with that without being a pastiche, by virtue of telling the story in the oral history format, with the characters being able to look back on the story’s events from the present day. It’s a technique that works well.

This is a fresh take on the classic ghost story. Highly recommended.

Advertisements

Review: The Little Men by Megan Abbott August 24, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
Tags:
add a comment

Another Netgalley review.

Megan Abbott’s early novels were retro noir from a female perspective, a fresh take on classic crime fiction. Considering both the real world sexism of the era and the obsession with masculinity in a lot of that era’s crime fiction, Abbott’s women were welcome and overdue. Her last few novels moved to the modern day, but I was pleased to see that The Little Men is a return, if brief, to the past. (It’s part of a series of short stories published in limited print editions and as ebooks, apparently.)

In 1953 LA, a young woman who’s given up on dreams of stardom and become a makeup artist moves into a bungalow with a haunting history. It’s almost too short a story, as the last dozen pages or so rush through a number of revelations and twists. But still, it’s great to see Abbott revisit this kind of noir storytelling. It feels like it could have made a good episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Twilight Zone.

Review: Doctor Who: The Drosten’s Curse by A. L. Kennedy August 24, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Doctor Who.
Tags:
add a comment

Another Netgalley review.

Well, that was different. But ultimately quite good.

A.L. Kennedy contributed one of the Time Trips short stories, The Death Pit, a quirky Fourth Doctor story with more than a hint of Douglas Adams. This novel begins with story and expands considerably upon it, adding more characterization to its original characters. It drags a bit at times, and becomes perhaps rather less of a Douglas Adams type of thing — or at least less of the kind of thing people seem to think of when they think of Adams. The side of his work that deals with love and sadness rather than his unique style of humour is still present.

Ultimately, it’s a monster story about a monster that would rather not be one, and a story about people who are better than they realize, and the Doctor who helps them get there.

Though the stories couldn’t be much different, I found myself thinking of the title of a Harlan Ellison story, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World. What starts off as quirkily funnily horrific and becomes genuinely darkly horrific for a while becomes touchingly emotional.

I’ve read some criticisms of the book from people who were grumpy that they wouldn’t have bought The Death Pit if they’d known this was coming… well, it was a bit odd, but it doesn’t tell you anything about whether it’s a good story, does it? Likewise people complaining about it not getting Douglas Adams right… that may not be exactly what Kennedy is trying to do. As I’ve mentioned above, I thought the pacing was a bit off, with a bit too much time on some parts of the story and not enough on others. But by the time I reached the end I found it a satisfying and entertaining tale that captured the Doctor well and introduced some new characters I wouldn’t mind seeing again.

Review: Doctor Orient by Frank Lauria August 24, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

Another Netgalley review.

Supernatural pulp fun from the 1970s.

If you’re a comic book fan, this description will seem familiar: a man with an alliterative name, a former doctor with injured hands who learned the mystic arts from an aged mystic in the Himalayas. He now lives in New York City dealing with supernatural threats. He has black hair with a streak of white. His name is Stephen Strange, also known as Marvel Comics character Doctor Strange.

Or maybe it’s Owen Orient, Frank Lauria’s character in a series of novels. Several were published in the 1970s, another in 1991, and the latest just last year.

The similarities are certainly there, but there are some significant differences as well. Strange fits into the Marvel universe; he’s almost a superhero. Strange also tends to draw upon entirely fictional sources of power and magic — the Vishanti, for example. Lauria, on the other hand, drops references to pretty much anything you might have found in a new age/witchcraft bookshop in 1970. Satanism, Christian exorcism, the I Ching, reincarnation, telepathy, yoga, it’s all in here somewhere.

The Strange approach works a bit better for me because there’s only one impossible system to accept. Lauria dances around the issue of how all of these systems can be true and effective when they come from incompatible belief systems. But it’s only a novel, after all.

And as a novel, it’s fun. Orient has a group of supporting characters who put me in mind of the support teams old pulp characters like the Shadow and Doc Savage had. There’s a villainous Satanist for an enemy, people fighting possession and temptation, a swinging nightclub that’s a front for more evil goings-on.

More than a Doctor Strange knockoff, it’s a revival of the psychic detective tale for the age of The Exorcist. I read most of the books back in the 1980s (and two installments of a backup comic strip in the short-lived Scorpio Rose comic) but figured I should revisit the beginning before reading the latest book in the series. One thing missing that I remember being more of a part of the later books is the adult content.

Anyway, if you’ve never read any of these but you used to like Doctor Strange or 1960s and ’70s supernatural horror movies, give it a try. It’s dated, it’s a bit flaky, and this first novel isn’t as well-paced as I remember some of the other books being (there’s a lot of scenes of characters sitting around talking), but it’s entertaining in a style that was shooting for hip and now is pure retro. Someone should try to do Orient as a comic again. Or a low-budget movie.

Review: The Shadow: Midnight In Moscow by Howard Chaykin August 24, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
Tags: ,
add a comment

Another Netgalley review.

One of these days I should do a more in-depth thing on The Shadow. There’s a lot to get into. But for now, a quick review of a graphic novel collecting a recent miniseries.

The Shadow has sometimes been well served by the comics medium, and sometimes terribly. Howard Chaykin has produced some fascinating and compelling work and, well, some not so much. This isn’t their first encounter, and it’s probably not as groundbreaking as Chaykin’s first Shadow tale back in the 80s. However, it’s a solid take on the character and his supporting cast, a respectfully pulpy tale with a bit of mad science, a Communist femme fatale, and plenty of violence. Fun, and it feels more faithful to the old pulp magazine concept than some of the other recent adaptations.

Review: The Doctors Are In by Graeme Burk and Robert Smith? August 24, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Canadian content, Doctor Who.
Tags: ,
add a comment

Another Netgalley review.

Burk and Smith are longtime Who fans who’ve become prolific writers on the show. Both used to write for Canadian Doctor Who fanzine Enlightenment, and now they produce books.

There’s certainly no shortage of nonfiction books about Doctor Who. What was once a long-cancelled cult British TV series has become a worldwide phenomenon with millions of new fans who don’t know all the show’s history… and plenty of longtime fans who enjoy arguing obscure points of lore and debating which Doctor was best. So, obviously, there’s an audience for books like this.

As to this particular book– the emphasis is on the Doctors as characters. It’s not another episode guide — they’ve already done that sort of thing. Instead, each chapter puts a Doctor in context, with a few paragraphs on the production and writing of the show in that era, background on the actor who played the Doctor, information on the Doctor’s companions and a pick for top companion (and classic foe), a long look at the Doctor’s personality, some great and not so great moments, and then separate opinion pieces on the Doctor and his era from the two writers, and finally separate and definitely opinionated reviews of a handful of key episodes.

While the structure of the book means it’ll be helpful to newer fans, it’s the battles of opinions between Burk and Smith that’ll draw in the more knowledgeable fans. We’re suckers for opinionated takes on the show and its stories; there are several whole series of books dedicated to arguing the merits of different Doctors, eras, and episodes. Unlike some I could mention, this one delivers in relatively breezy, casual takes; not a lot of long drawn out critiques of colonialism here.

Overall, a good read for a broad audience of Who fans, suitable as an introduction or a source of arguments. I may have to look at their other DW books now.

(Incidentally, the ECW books I’ve bought in print form recently include an option to get the ebook at no extra charge. Not sure if they still do it, but it’s a nice incentive.)

Review: Sorrow Lake by Michael J. McCann August 24, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Canadian content.
Tags:
add a comment

The original Netgalley review:

Cool to see a mystery novel set not too far from where I live. This one starts promisingly, then slips into a lot of expository lumps about Ontario Provincial Police procedure, then finally starts to increase the action and suspense. By the end I was glad I stuck with it, but it was a bit of a slog at times earlier on. With luck, the next book won’t need to establish quite so much of the procedural side of things or the introduction of a whole cast of characters. I’ll be willing to give it a shot.

That was a pretty short review, wasn’t it? Well, looking back, I think I liked it more than the above would suggest. I can still remember how I visualized some of the scenes and settings of the book, which is a good sign. Bring on the next one.

Review: Dividend on Death by Brett Halliday August 24, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
Tags: ,
add a comment

Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne doesn’t seem to be very well known these days, despite the private eye starring in a series of novels over a few decades, as well as movies, TV series, comics, and the pages of Mike Shayne Detective Magazine. Likewise for Brett Halliday, a pen name initially used by one writer but eventually adopted by quite a few others.

I only remember reading one of the novels before now, a solid PI novel from the 1950s, but I liked it enough to be open to more, So the Mysterious Press/Open Road series of ebook reprints is a good opportunity to get reacquainted.

Dividend on Death is the first novel, published in 1939. It’s a complexly plotted private eye tale involving beautiful women, gangsters, a rich family, what may be a counterfeit painting, and a high body count. It’s more subtle than Mickey Spillane, not as literary as Raymond Chandler, not as innovative in its writing style as Dashiell Hammett. But it is very much in the classic hardboiled PI mode, with violence and double-crossings and a hint of sex.

Older mystery readers who remember Shayne better should be happy to see the books showing up again. For those who missed him, this is a good place to start,

Review: Weird Space: The Baba Yaga by Una McCormack August 24, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
Tags: ,
add a comment

Another Netgalley review.

Now that was entertaining. Una McCormack has written a lot of TV tie-in material in the universes of Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Blake’s 7, but this is her first non-tie-in novel, and it’s as good as her past work led me to expect.

This time McCormack is working in a shared universe, Weird Space. Looks like it was created by Eric Brown. I’ve read a few of his earlier books but not the first two in this series, not that it matters. The book works as a standalone novel. You learn everything you need to know through the course of the book.

Basically, this is a suspenseful space opera novel, in a classic style that shouldn’t alienate readers who are used to TV and movie space operas like Star Wars or Blake’s 7 more than the works of Iain M. Banks and others who’ve gone farther with the concept. There’s an authoritarian interstellar human government, an alien species with whom humans warred but are beginning to coexist with, spaces on the fringe where the Expanse has no power and crime and anarchy prevail. A new threat has arrived: the Weird, a species whose encounters with humans have been destructive and terrifying. The Expanse government is preparing for war, but some Expanse intelligence agents think there may be another way and risk their lives to search for it.

The book becomes something of a chase through space as protagonists come together to find a planet that may lead to peace instead of war — but they’re being pursued by people with a very different agenda and the willingness to kill whoever stands in their way, and the main characters don’t always trust each other. The book’s ending is a bit abrupt, though satisfying; it’s possible that some of the threads are to be picked up in a future novel.

Finally, something that shouldn’t be noteworthy but may be of interest in light of raging conflicts in science fiction fandom: most of the leading characters in the book are women. Some are survivors, some are fighters, some are mothers, some are all of the above. What they all share is that they’re believable characters in a tale full of action, mystery, and suspense. I’m tempted now to go back to the earlier novels set in this universe, and I’d love to revisit it in another novel by Una McCormack. Looking forward to what she does next.

Review: Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville August 24, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
Tags:
add a comment

Another Netgalley review.

China Mieville can be a challenging writer. Novels like Perdido Street Station are dense with ideas, description, and event, building new worlds over the course of long novels. The City and the City is shorter and streamlined but still bends the reader’s mind with the novel’s core conceits.

In short form, Mieville can still challenge the reader, but it’s a lot easier to work through a short story than a 500 page novel. The stories here are as strange, allusive, and elusive as you’d expect, but tend to be much more focused. Each story delivers its payload — Ballardian short story, straightforward horror story, New Weird/magical realist tale, or carefully observed look at a character in a strange situation — so you still get all the Mieville variety and complexity. You just get it in more manageable doses, with a tighter focus.

Some readers may also be pleasantly surprised by the types of stories here. A few, as mentioned above, have a distinct hint of JG Ballard about them, not something I’ve really noticed in his novels.

All in all, this is a solid collection of work from one of the writers shaping the future of speculative fiction.

Review: Bodies graphic novel by Si Spencer August 24, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
add a comment

Another Netgalley review.

Newsarama says, “BODIES is exactly the kind of book that one would want and expect from Vertigo.” And for me, that was the problem. It felt like something I’d already read before, a combination of classic Vertigo titles, Alan Moore comics, and so on.

On its own it’s an interesting take on how to tell a complete story in a fixed number of issues, and the future segment is the most original of the four story lines. Everything works and comes together, It just feels like what you’d expect from Vertigo, though when it started Vertigo was about the unexpected.

Review: Justice Inc Volume 1 graphic novel August 24, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
Tags:
add a comment

Another Netgalley review.

A crossover that works, with a set of legendary characters. The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Avenger were classic pulp characters from the 30s who’ve had occasional comebacks over the decades. I first encountered each of them in the 1970s. The Shadow was my favourite, followed by the Avenger, but they make an interesting team, each member having a very different story and way of working, but each fighting evil in his own way.

This story is perhaps a little overly complicated, bringing in villains and supporting characters from each character’s stories, and bringing several historical figures along for the ride. The latter get short shrift here once the story kicks in, but the momentum means that doesn’t matter too much. The story doesn’t make the mistake many comic crossovers do of having the heroes fight each other or work at cross-purposes for half the story before teaming up, but it doesn’t forget the very different approaches and priorities of each hero, either.

The book probably works best for readers who have at least a little idea of who these guys are, but it could work as an introduction to a new reader — one that might well encourage said reader to try not only each character’s other comics, but their original adventures as well. I liked this one a lot more than the last related title I read, The Shadow Now.

Review: Galaxy Quest: The Journey Continues graphic novel August 24, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
Tags:
add a comment

Another Netgalley review.

Well, that was a bit frustrating.

I’m one of those people who think Galaxy Quest was one of the best Star Trek movies, so I’m happy to see something like this. But… four issues is too short. The story doesn’t really get a chance to build or throw any complications at the characters. It also looks like the comic didn’t have the rights to use the movie cast likenesses, so at times it’s hard to tell who’s who. And I didn’t really care for the art; a bit sketchy, too many characters with their mouths hanging dramatically open all the time, occasional bits of manga influence randomly appearing. Maybe it’s just me, but I find a clean representational style works better for tie-in material.

The story itself is okay, making an interesting use of a key development from the movie, but it needed more room to breathe. There’s not much humour and not much character work. Another two issues or more would have helped.

If, as the end suggests, there may be more to come, here’s hoping for a few changes.

Review: American Neo-Noir by Alain Silver and James Ursini August 24, 2015

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

Another Netgalley review!

Silver and Ursini have been responsible for several of the key books on film noir over the last couple of decades, so I was glad to see this. But it wasn’t quite what I expected. Frankly, it’s not the kind of book you’ll necessarily sit down and read through for a few hours. It is, however, something you can flip through, refer to, and learn from. It covers so many movies so quickly that it doesn’t really go into depth on broader subjects. Instead, it breaks the several hundred movies that are covered into chapters by subject or movie type and races through dozens of movies, a few per paragraph, situating each within its own modern context and also pointing out connections to the classic noir era. And boy, does it find a lot of neo-noirs out there.

The book doesn’t do any in-depth chapters defining neo-noir or anything like that. That’s not what this book is for. But any classic noir fan can have a look in the index for a favourite movie and see if it gets discussed as a link to a few modern movies that may be worth investigating — and, likewise, someone who’s seen a lot of the modern movies but doesn’t know the roots can find some good pointers to classic movies they may well enjoy.

The book is well presented with a lot of colour photos — well, if you want to demonstrate an obvious break between noir and neo-noir, colour will do it. The book covers the movies you’d expect and, if you’re like me, a lot you missed along the way. Like the other books I’ve read from Silver and Ursini, this one makes me want to see a few movies. So, mission accomplished.