NaNoWriMo Storybundle

For you writers out there, there’s a new NaNoWriMo Storybundle. It offers up twelve writing books to help you on your way. I’m tempted to get it just because I used to do a lot of reviews of writing books, and they’re fun to read. But I have so many other books to read too, and it’s been a long time since I reviewed any writing books.

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Review: “Selected Stories: Horror and Dark Fantasy,” Kevin J. Anderson

Pros: Some gripping stories
Cons: Breaks in mood
Rating: 4 out of 5

Kevin J. Anderson’s Selected Stories: Horror and Dark Fantasy is definitely good, but I preferred his Selected Stories: Science Fiction Volume 1. There’s a handful of stories in here that are humorous, and while I definitely agree with Anderson’s assertion in the introductions to these stories that horror can also be funny, some of them were just so silly that they disrupted the feel of the book. When I settle in to read something described as horror and dark fantasy, I’m definitely looking for a certain feel. Humor can leaven that, but I prefer that it not get too silly. There are also a few stories that are a little cartoonish or ham-handed in one way or another, such as the opening story set in Tucker’s Grove (Anderson has a number of dark stories set in this fictional town). That said, there’s plenty of delightful, spine-tingling, downright chilling material in here as well, so the book as a whole is well worth the read. Just a content warning for you: there is one brief, frank rape scene in here. It’s handled well (i.e. it isn’t lurid or prurient), but it might be a tough scene for some readers.

I enjoy the Tucker’s Grove stories, but some are definitely better than others. There’s a humor piece about a man who goes to great lengths to track down Dracula for entertaining reasons. There are several werewolf stories, including a nicely chilling one set in the middle of nowhere and a rather silly one set in Hollywood. The humorous story about resurrecting a one-hit wonder metal singer starts out well but gets over-the-top goofy at the end. There’s a fabulous story about an antique camera inhabited by an incubus, which delightfully manages to include the phrase “psychic moebius strip.” There’s a Dan Shamble, P.I. story set at a cosplay convention that is just a bit of silly fun.

I think my favorite stories were some of Anderson’s very short flash fictions. “Age Rings” was the first story in this book to truly make my jaw drop. It’s short enough that I can’t really say anything about it without giving too much away. The same can be said about a chilling Christmas story later in the book.

There’s a delightful piece that explores the origins of the pieces of Frankenstein’s monster, deftly interweaving the tales. There’s also a story about a drummer who bikes through Africa, only to discover a mysterious little town that is the source of some truly unusual drums. A few chilling ghost stories round things out, mostly set in various historical periods.

On the whole I recommend Anderson’s collection of dark fantasy and horror tales. Maybe if you’re expecting the bits of silliness they won’t break the mood for you quite as much as they did for me, and there’s plenty of good, chilling material in here.

They were like ghosts from his past who had come–not to haunt the General–but to let him haunt himself.

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Review: “Residue,” Steve Diamond

Pros: Interesting premise
Cons: Main character lacks agency; doesn’t make me want to read more
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Steve Diamond’s Residue (Jack Bishop) (Volume 1) follows Jack Bishop, a teenager in high school whose father disappears under mysterious circumstances while working for a company called Helix. He ends up working with Alex (Alexandra), another teen who is way deep into Helix’s business. He discovers she can read minds, and he starts developing the ability to pick up on psychic “residue”. It seems that something(s) escaped on the night that his father went missing, and the pair of teenagers is going to have to work fast to stop the body count from piling up.

I think this is meant to be a horror novel, but it never gave me that shiver that I look for in horror. There are some dark things that happen, sure, but they didn’t feel visceral to me. I never really believed that the main characters were in true danger. That disappointed me. I wanted to feel what was at stake.

The characters are interesting, but aren’t given a whole lot of depth. Alex’s main character traits are “reads minds” and “likes guns a LOT”. Jake… uh… is a nice guy, I guess. We know he’s supposed to grow into some funky powers, but that doesn’t go all that far in this volume. We never get to see what these two are like under “normal” circumstances, so we have nothing to compare to when they’re under fire.

It would be nice if Jake had any real agency in his own story. Instead, he spends nearly the whole time being told what to do by Alex or by a mysterious man they call merely “the Insider”. He doesn’t particularly go off and do anything on his own. He doesn’t instigate much. When he isn’t being told what to do, he mostly waits to be told what to do. Also, the Insider is pretty much a full-time deus ex machina. He sees all, knows all, can accomplish all.

If there’s anything in here that might hold my interest, it’s either the budding relationship between Alex and Jake or the mysterious “Sentinel program” of which Jake is an unknowing part. However, both are barely hinted at here, and it isn’t enough to make me want to seek out and read the next volume.

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Keeping up, oddly enough

I’m a little surprised I’m managing to read and review a bunch of books and keep my grades up, at least so far. Grades obviously come first, but I’m hopeful I’ll be able to keep this up! I may not be taking many Spring classes as I’m already taking the last of the courses needed for my major that I can take before applying for the program itself. Anyway, that means I might be able to read a bunch of books in the Spring, although after that things will probably get a bit busy. The program is supposed to be roughly equivalent to at least a full-time job. Lately I’ve been having fun reading Storybundles, and the Amazon Dark Corners collection, and a handful of things by favorite authors like Ilona Andrews. Reviews to come soon–I have a bunch queued up so even with two exams this week I’m keeping up!

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Short Take: “Miao Dao,” Joyce Carol Oates

Pros: Utterly engrossing
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Joyce Carol Oates’s novella Miao Dao (Dark Corners collection) is a surreal story about an adolescent girl who’s having a hard time with her blossoming figure. She tries her best to hide in plain sight–a trick she learned from the feral cats who live next door to her–by wearing baggy clothes and hunching forward. She flees from the boys who tease her. Her father divorces her mother and leaves the two of them and Mia’s two younger brothers, and soon another man comes into her mother’s life–a man who, over time, starts displaying too much interest in Mia. When someone calls Animal Control and clears out the feral colony, Mia takes in a tiny white kitten she calls Miao Dao.

I have almost no idea what to say about Miao Dao. It’s a surreal, smooth narrative that’s hard to describe. It has an unearthly, dream-like quality to it, and sometimes reality seems a bit fluid. It’s hard to say much without giving things away; I’ll just say that while the ending is a bit hard to totally make sense of, it’s muddled in a way that seems to add to the story (in my opinion) rather than subtracting from it. If you need all your details spelled out for you, this isn’t a story for you. But if you don’t mind feeling a little strange and disjointed by the end of your horror fiction, then give this a read. Certainly if you’re a Joyce Carol Oates fan you’ll have much to look forward to here.

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Short Take: “There’s a Giant Trapdoor Spider Under Your Bed,” Edgar Cantero

Pros: Hilarious, terrifying, and uniquely imaginative all at the same time
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Edgar Cantero’s There’s a Giant Trapdoor Spider Under Your Bed (Dark Corners collection) is a remarkably short read (took me maybe a half-hour all told), but it was definitely worth the time. In it four children having a sleepover share a ‘game’. There’s a giant trapdoor spider under the bed. The shadows are antimatter. The mirror people want revenge. How will they survive until morning as the rules get more and more complex?

I enjoyed this story so much. The kids are so careful and creative in how they follow the rules, and once each one comes up with a scenario, “It’s a fact now.” You’ll be on the edge of your seat as the kids navigate the power going out, a flashlight that doesn’t always work, and the fact that they left their wands outside the house. There are some entertaining Harry Potter references that sell the story. All in all, this is a seriously fun short story!

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Review: “Singularity,” Bill DeSmedt

Pros: Fascinating premise that goes to even more fascinating places
Cons: Very talky; didn’t convince me to read the next book
Rating: 4 out of 5

Bill DeSmedt’s Singularity (The Archon Sequence Book 1) starts with the Tunguska event–a seeming meteor that exploded above Siberia and left no crater. Scientist Jack Adler, however, believes it was something else–a particularly tiny black hole that then became trapped inside the Earth. He has set out for Siberia with specialized equipment in the attempt to pick up a trace of the singularity beneath the Earth’s crust. Meanwhile, Jonathon, a consultant, is being targeted by a covert government agency that wants him to renew a college friendship with an old Russian comrade of his, Sasha, in an attempt to get close to Sasha’s boss. Marianna, who works for this government agency, goes along with John to sell the story and spy on the Russians on a yacht trip to London. Her group believes they’re smuggling some Russian scientists who might be capable of working on weapons of mass destruction. As you can well imagine, at some point these two plotlines collide.

This is a long book, and there’s a lot of talking and explanation going on. A lot. If you find sciency explanations in your fiction to be interesting, this should be fine. If you prefer action… well there’s definitely some of that too, just not nearly as much. At least the action is good, including assassinations and rooftop extractions among other things. There’s even a touch of mysticism to liven things up.

The characters aren’t bad. I’m a little annoyed at the stereotype of a female lead who has to consider her own… assets… in the mirror. Given that Jonathon certainly notices those assets, it wouldn’t have been hard to just show that through his point of view. Also, sex scenes that involve comparisons to vacuum cleaners Are Not Sexy, and I don’t think the author was going for silly/ridiculous, which is how things ended up. I never felt emotionally invested in any of the characters, which is probably why I don’t have any urge to go out and read the two sequels. They just didn’t pull me in at all. Sasha was probably the most interesting character and he wasn’t even one of the leads.

It’s hard to say much about where they go with this black hole theory without spoiling parts of the end of the book, so I’ll just say I thought it was good. It’s one of those things where you think you aren’t sure how it’s going to get where it’s going, then suddenly you’re left thinking, oh yeah, it really couldn’t have gone any other way, could it? Also, there’s at least one really cool revelation that sets the story apart a bit from others of its kind, even if it’s something that isn’t really made a big deal of.

It’s a good book with a neat premise, but like I said, it didn’t make me want to read more.

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Review: “A Country of Ghosts,” Margaret Killjoy

Pros: Excellent work on characters and setting
Cons: Pacing; unrealistically idealistic for me
Rating: 3 out of 5

Margaret Killjoy’s A Country of Ghosts follows a journalist named Dimos Horacki as he’s embedded at the front of a war. The kingdom he lives in is trying to take over a neighboring country, and he’s been assigned to follow and profile famed war hero Dolan Wilder. Only Dimos has a tendency to say what he thinks, and after Dolan gets his hands on Dimos’s first dispatch to his newspaper, Dimos is sent on a deadly little raid that doesn’t stand a chance. Captured by the enemy, realizing he’s been set up to die, he decides he’d rather learn about his country’s enemies. Their odd anarchistic “free” society perplexes him, but he comes to love the people he’s with, and settles in to help them defend themselves.

The overall pacing of the book just did not work for me. The action of the war was good, but I wish Killjoy had interspersed more action with the talking parts of the novel. Instead, it’s action/talking and society-building/action. It’s very clunky and results in some tediously boring chapters, especially when compared with earlier, faster-paced material. The characters spend a great deal of the narrative on convincing various villages to contribute to the defense of their homeland, and on introducing Dimos to the unique character of the new world he’s in.

Now for that world-building. The setting is extremely well-detailed, and it’s easy to see the countryside and towns as Dimos and his new companions ride through them. That utopian anarchistic society, though… I just can’t buy into it, no matter how detailed and carefully thought-out it is. I guess I just can’t believe there’s that much generosity across the board in humanity any more, that they could all support each other like one big happy family with no economy and no bartering. We’re literally told there’s no poverty. At least Killjoy doesn’t try to depict everyone as lovey-dovey–in fact as a whole the society seems a bit grumpy–but I suppose recent politics have left me with too little faith in humanity at this point. I just can’t buy into it at the level it’s shown here.

The characters have depth and interest. It’s easy to tell them apart, and they have plenty of personality. There are a few names that are a little too similar, but it’s a minor problem.

All in all, the pacing and the super-idealism don’t work for me. If you think those things wouldn’t bother you, then you’ll probably enjoy this tale–I know an audience exists for these things, it just isn’t me this time.

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Review: “The Soul Eater,” Mike Resnick

Pros: Fascinating, lyrical tale
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Mike Resnick’s The Soul Eater is elegantly over-the-top in its depiction of future society, both the grimy, gritty outer worlds and the high-styling inner worlds. Nicobar Lane is a killer–of animals, that is. When people want stuffed-and-mounted exotic beasts from far-flung planets for their museums, they come to him. He’ll take any commission save one: he won’t go after the Dreamwish Beast. After all, it isn’t real! It’s a myth, a creature made of energy that lives in the vastness of space and subsists on dust clouds. Then he runs into something inexplicable while on a hunt, and he starts to ask questions about the beast. He finds someone who claims to have seen it, and before long he’s off searching for the beast. Something about it shocks him to the very core, and he becomes determined to destroy it, going so far as to hunt down a member of a dying alien race that knows how to kill it. But killing a telepathic beast who can make him feel its fear and pain isn’t going to be easy.

There are definite shades of Captain Ahab in Nicobar Lane. He becomes obsessed, a mere shell of himself, liquidating all of his resources and then stealing more in order to pay for his food, water, and fuel. All he can think about is destroying this unusual beast, even though he doesn’t understand it at all. Is it a monster? Is it searching him out because it wants something from him? The relationship between these two is fascinating, and well worth exploring.

There are few characters in this story, but the ones there are have been well-drawn. My favorite is a colleague of Lane’s who runs a bar, brothel, and other dubious emporiums.

There isn’t much more I can say without spoiling the story. It’s one of those tales that’s less about the events and more about the character’s inner journey. It isn’t an action-fest. I really enjoyed it, and I’m happy with where it went.

Please note that there is a short story in this book AFTER the “Author’s Note” at the end. Be sure to catch it–it’s easy to miss!

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Dark Fantasy Storybundle

There’s a new Dark Fantasy Storybundle up for grabs. I just can’t keep up with these things!

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