Two Creepy Reads

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Title: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Author: Jack Finney
Genre: Classic Sci-Fi
Pages: 224 (6 hours, 39 minutes Audiobook as read by Kristoffer Tabori)
Rating: 4 of 5

The otherworldly “what is going on?!” suspense of this book hits the exact tone that I like when I read a creepy story. Sure, everyone knows the gist of the story by now, and the “science” is a bit hokey and dated, but it can still ratchet up the tension if you take it on its own terms.

That said, one aspect of the story grated a bit, even if it was a “product of its era.” The protagonist’s leering, condescending tone toward women got old really fast (and the bored, macho tone of the audiobook narrator really emphasized it). At one point his love interest kind of calls him on it, but her overall demeanor goes right along with it.

Overall, if you want a quick suspenseful read and are willing to overlook a bit of B-movie style hokeyness and product-of-its-era casual sexism, this is worth your time.

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus Audiobook By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley cover art

Title: Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus
Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Genre: Classic Gothic
Pages: 222 (8 hours, 20 minutes Audiobook as read by Simon Vance)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I know that this classic is widely lauded as a work of pioneering genius. I even understand why: we have the cool backstory of how the book came to be written, we have the hubris of Victor Frankenstein, we have the tragic “monster,” we have the question of who is to blame for the “monster’s” evil, and we have all kinds of other great themes and wonderfully gothic moral dilemmas. But for all that, I have a hard time appreciating this book. This is the third time I’ve read this, and it just annoys me every time no matter how much I want to like it.

Victor Frankenstein is such an absurdly overemotional, egotistical drama queen that he just makes me roll my eyes in disgust the whole time. He seems to spend most of his time swooning, languishing near death, and moping around because he’s just soooo overcome with emotion. He’s so self-absorbed that he can’t be bothered to tell anyone that there’s a powerful, murderous “creature” on the loose thanks to him…not even when it could potentially save people’s lives by doing so! Victor’s melodramatic twit act that morphs into vengeful monomania when there’s nothing left to lose is just too much gothic nonsense for me.

Betrayers’ Backstory

The Horus Heresy Volume One (The Horus Heresy Omnibuses Book 1) by [Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Ben Counter, James Swallow]

Title: The Horus Heresy, Volume 1
Authors: Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Ben Counter, & James Swallow
Genre: Grimdark Military Sci-Fi
Pages: 1433
Rating: 3.5

The first time I started reading the Horus Heresy series, I quickly gave up in annoyance. Having now read quite a few Warhammer 40,000 books and become acquainted with the lore and characters, I decided to give it another shot. This time I found it much more interesting, approaching it as a detailed history of how the WH40k universe came to be.

The five books in this omnibus (Horus Rising, False Gods, Galaxy in Flames, The Flight of the Eisenstein, and Fulgrim) tell a coherent story of pride, corruption and betrayal from multiple points of view. I am more convinced than ever that there are no “good guys” in this universe. There are just bad guys who maybe mean well (the xenophobic manifest-destiny-spouting loyalists bringing the “light” of atheism and iron-fisted rule to the galaxy) and worse guys (rebelling against the Emperor but for purely corrupt, increasingly vile reasons). If you don’t mind ultraviolent grimdark, it’s an interesting escapist read complete with huge action set pieces and rather ham-handed philosophizing on honor, religion, tyranny, etc.

As far as style goes, the storytelling is competent (though some authors overuse certain stock phrases or words) and the plotting of the series so far is well executed. Some key events are covered in multiple books from different points of view but never in a way that is needlessly repetitious. There is a decent balance between each book telling of a complete enough set of events that you don’t feel cheated of an ending and each book contributing to the overall story arc of the series.

Random aside: One fun thing to watch for as you read is that Graham McNeill seems to slip in little nods to other SF&F…in Fulgrim I spotted a subtle passing reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and in his Forges of Mars omnibus I noticed an homage to The Princess Bride and one or two other little things.

As I’ve said before with other Warhammer-related books, this isn’t great literature by any stretch of the imagination, but it is entertaining escapist sci-fi.

Several Series Continued

Today I have for you some short-ish reviews of the most recent book I’ve read in several different series:

Title: Heroes (Fry’s Greek Myths series – Book 2 of 3)
Author: Stephen Fry
Genre: Mythology Retelling
Pages: 352
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This was every bit as good as the first book in the series! This time he focuses more on the human heroes like Heracles, Theseus, and Jason (though the capricious meddlesome gods are still very much in evidence, of course). I would again recommend the audiobook as you get not only Fry’s witty phrasing, but his humorous intonation. As with the first book, Fry keeps the personal interpretation and commentary to a minimum (though I would say Prometheus is his favorite character with repeated emphasis on humans “outgrowing” or superseding the gods). The story stops short of the Trojan War, and I am looking forward to listening to the third (and final?) book in the series that covers those events.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by [Patricia Highsmith]

Titles: The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground (Ripley series – Books 1 & 2 of 5)
Author: Patricia Highsmith
Genre: Crime Novels
Pages: 288 each
Rating: 3.5 of 5 & 2 of 5

I’m not sure quite what to make of these books. They follow the escapades of our sociopathic protagonist as he pursues the good life through fraud, manipulation, and occasionally murder (but only if it’s absolutely necessary). Pursues might actually be a bit strong of a word because he kind of drifts along taking advantage of opportunities as they happen. The first book was interesting as a character study of a horrible person, but the second one felt like a tired attempt to cash in on past success and had a completely implausible non-ending that seemed like the setup for a sequel. I’ll probably try at least one more book in the series out of morbid curiosity, but I don’t have high expectations.

Artificial Condition: The Murderbot Diaries by [Martha Wells]

Title: Artificial Condition (Murderbot Diaries book 2 of 6?)
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 160
Rating: 5 of 5

This series continues to impress and entertain. This novella picks up almost immediately after the first one. Murderbot (a more-or-less-illegally unfettered AI security cyborg) takes its first independent contract while trying to understand its past, pass for an augmented human, navigate awkward interactions with actual humans, and watch some of its vast store of downloaded entertainment programs. A shipbound AI (ART) provides a lot of help (and entertainment value) throughout the book, and hopefully will put in encore appearances later in the series. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing this series.

Rabbit Rabbit

Rabbits: A Novel by [Terry Miles]

Title: Rabbits
Author: Terry Miles
Genre: Ready Player One wannabe Sci-Fi
Pages: 423
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: June 8, 2021
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

This book is a pretty close approximation to what you would get if Franz Kafka took a break from writing The Trial and tried to rip off Ready Player One (with way fewer 80’s pop culture references) but then got bored and abruptly ended it.

The plot centers around a nebulous “game” (informally known as rabbits) played in the real world. No one is supposed to talk about the game. No one is sure what the prize is, who runs it, or if they are actually even playing it. Oh, and just for good measure, people sometimes die or disappear while playing. Playing involves spotting seeming coincidences and subtle links that lead you to clues in a process which repeats until ????!

Our hero, a less than mentally and emotionally well-adjusted individual known simply as K, become involved in trying to fix the most recent iteration of the game, and it’s hard to say much more without spoilers. It’s all pretty trippy as ideas thrown around include the Mandela effect, the multiverse, quantum computing, obsession, conspiracy, mental and emotional trauma, and much more.

If the author had managed a halfway satisfactory ending I probably would have given the book 4 stars. I rather enjoyed the weirdness of it all (in spite of fairly flat unappealing characters and an F-bomb every couple pages), but the ending felt completely rushed. It explained very little and left myriad loose ends. It’s probably supposed to feel “mysterious” and “open ended,” but to me it just felt incomplete (and possibly a bit lazy on the author’s part). Obviously, your experience may vary, so don’t let me discourage you if this sounds like your sort of weirdness.

Rock Hard Sci-fi

Title: Project Hail Mary
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Hard Sci-Fi
Pages: 496
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: May 4, 2021
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

Andy Weir is back with more of the hard sci-fi magic science that made The Martian such a success! Our hero (a scientist of some sort) wakes up in some sort of spacecraft to discover that he is the sole survivor of some sort of desperate mission to save earth from some sort of extinction-level peril. Unfortunately, he has amnesia.

The story alternates back and forth between his gradually returning memories and his work toward understanding what is going on and trying to save the world. It is difficult to say much more than that without robbing the reader of the joy (and/or heartbreak?) of discovery as events unfold.

As with Weir’s previous books, detailed descriptions of scientific analysis, problem-solving, and emergency-surviving take center stage (with frequent dollops of wry humor). He doesn’t necessarily tell you all the math involved, but if science bores you this is not the book for you. Of course, this is science fiction so there’s some pretty speculative stuff here too (more so than The Martian). Personally, I loved it!

I would say that this is Weir’s best book yet. The Martian is a close second (let’s not speak of Artemis), but the plot of this book allows for a lot more character development. Something or someone called Rocky is a big part of that, but no more spoilers. Both the more fully developed characters and higher stakes really had me hooked. I usually alternate between 3 or 4 books at a time, but I read this one straight through. I highly recommend this for fans of science, science fiction, and/or survival stories!

PS One other thing that added to my enjoyment of the book was that it had a lower profanity level than previous ones. I know that isn’t a big deal for most people, but I appreciated it (and it made sense in the context of the story).

Mixed Mini-Reviews

Time for some mini-reviews so that my reading doesn’t get too far ahead of my reviewing. No theme here other than that I read them all over the last couple weeks.

Title: The Infinite and the Divine (Warhammer 40,000)
Author: Robert Rath
Genre: Grimdark Sci-Fi
Pages: 368
Rating: 4 of 5

This book focuses on the rivalry between two immortal necrontyr (think soulless ancient Egyptian robots with absurdly advanced technology). The conflict between the scholar and the mystic plays out over millenia, making for a slower more thoughtful plot than usual in WH40k (though there are still plenty of action set pieces involving humans, eldar, orks, and more). Warhammer 40k will never be great literature, but this is better than most.

Title: Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth:
12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice
Author: Thaddeus J. Williams
Genre: Applied Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 250 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 3.5

I think that the author did a much better job delivering on the “without compromising truth” part of the title than the “confronting injustice” part. The book was essentially a critique of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and related social justice ideas. The author raises valid concerns that Christians should consider before wholeheartedly adopting this way of thinking/acting (without denying the existence and seriousness of racism, sexism, etc.), but I didn’t feel like he offered a fleshed-out, rubber-meets-the-road Christian alternative.

Title: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England
Author: Ian Mortimer
Genre: History
Pages: 416
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This unusual history book focuses on day-to-day life in Elizabethan England rather than big historical events (though those are mentioned as background, of course). This is by turns fascinating and tedious, depending on what topic is being discussed (some of them go on way too long). The slightly tongue-in-cheek delivery as a guidebook provides added entertainment value. If you’re interested in British history, this is worth your time (though if you listen to the audible version you should bump it up to about 1.3X as the narrator is soooo slow).

Title: The Classic Slave Narratives
Authors: Olaudah Equiano, Mary Price, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs
Genre: Slavery Autobiographies
Pages: 536
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Anyone who is tempted to buy into the odious “slavery was a largely benevolent institution” lie (which, for some reason, I have heard floating around lately) needs to read firsthand accounts by enslaved people. This volume contains four of the classics. It is not easy to read about the brutal, hypocritical inhumanity of slave-owners (and their enablers in the North), but those who do not learn from history…

Slowly Unfolding Sci-Fi

Title: Skyward Inn
Author: Aliya Whiteley
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 336
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Publication Date: 3/16/21 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review)

This book grew on me. Our protagonists (Jem and her son, Fosse) both come across as continually sullen and petty, a pet peeve of mine. I give the son a pass because he appears to have some sort of autism spectrum issues, but Jem is just annoyingly sulky, whiney, and contrarian for most of the book. This character type annoys me so much that I almost quit about a quarter of the way through, but I’m glad that I didn’t.

The worldbuilding and slowly dawning realization of what is really going on make this a fascinating book. I can’t say too much without ruining the joy of discovery, but here’s the very basic setting: Some sort of interstellar gate has allowed humans to travel to another resource-rich planet, Qita, which they quickly gain control of due to the passivity of its monocultural inhabitants. Most of our story is set in a part of earth that has chosen to largely withdraw from modern society (very little technology, no space travel, etc.). There, Jem and her Qitan partner run the Skyward Inn, serving a Qitan brew that allows people to experience and share intense memories. The slowly unfolding story explores themes of identity, relationship, memory, and more.

The narration takes some getting used to as it jumps between first, second, and third person. Normally, I’d find this obnoxiously pretentious, but it makes sense in the overall framework of the book. Overall, if you don’t mind thoughtful, low-action sci-fi, this is definitely worth your time.

Warhammer Sampler

Title: The Hammer and the Eagle:
Icons of Warhammer
Author: Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Guy Haley, etc.
Genre: Grimdark Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

This anthology serves as a perfect introduction to the most popular characters in the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar universes. By page count, the split is approximately 70% WH40k sci-fi and 30% Sigmar fantasy.

Some familiarity with the Warhammer history and universes is helpful but not necessary for enjoying the grimdark escapist vignettes of violence (you can always check a wiki if you’re completely lost). Characters run the gamut through space marines, commissars, inquisitors, witch hunters, stormcast eternals, and a massively overpowered dwarf.

Before this, I had not read any books in the Age of Sigmar universe. However, I had read a few of the older Warhammer fantasy books (mostly Gotrek & Felix) and found the characters seriously overpowered…and the new Sigmar version seems to amp that up even more. I doubt I’ll be picking up any books from that side of things, but I did appreciate the chance to sample the universe.

On the 40,000 side, I recognized a handful of the stories from other anthologies, and several of them are a bit unsatisfactory as stand-alones since they were originally written to bridge a gap between two novels. Other than that, they were decent military sci-fi. I still prefer just about any character to the flat, overpowered loyalist space marines, but it’s all good/grim escapist fun with a nice variety of characters (and some variety in storytelling, though there’s only so much you can do in a universe where “there is only war”).

Overall, a decent collection: story-wise I’d give it 3 stars (my usual rating for most things Warhammer) and tack on an extra half star for the broad sampling of characters.

Flat Franchise Fiction

The last three free eARC books I received from NetGalley were franchise fiction, and I’ll be reviewing two of those today. No one expects great literary genius from shared-world, movie spinoff sci-fi, but I was hoping for a little better than what I got. Thank you to the authors and publishers for the free copy via NetGalley (this in no way affects the content of the reviews as we shall see).

Marvel's Black Panther: Sins of the King Episode 1 by [Ira Madison III, Mohale Mashigo, Geoffrey Thorne, Tananarive Due]

Title: Marvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King
Authors: Ira Madison III, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, Mohale Mashigo, Geoffrey Thorne
Genre: Superhero
Pages: 183? (not quite sure…numbering in the eARC was squiffy)
Rating: 2.5 of 5

The episodic plot of this book would make a decent movie or TV series. There’s plenty of action, intrigue, brooding, magic-science… all the usual superhero stuff. I would pay to watch that movie.

However, what works in a movie, cartoon, or comic book does not necessarily work in a novel. Much of the writing was stilted and clunky (to say nothing of uneven since different “episodes” were written by different authors working singly or in pairs). To be charitable I’ll assume the problem lies in the genre rather than the authors’ writing talent…I have tried a couple other (DC) superhero novels in the past and found their writing similarly awkward. Perhaps superhero stories need to be told in a visual medium?

Title: From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back
Authors: Too many to list
Genre: Star Wars Fanfiction Short Stories
Pages: 576
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Any short story collection is a mixed bag, and the mixture in this collection tends toward the “meh.” You can only read so many stories about the evacuation of Echo Base, Vader force-choking an incompetent, or the chaos caused by Lando’s announcement that the Empire has taken over Cloud City before they all start blending together.

To me, the more memorable stories focused on what main characters were doing/thinking when off-camera. Perhaps some of the ones from the “everyman”/”everystormtrooper” point of view would have stood out if there hadn’t been so many of them (and let’s not forget the compulsive need to check the “woke” box by having all 3 or 4 instances of (non-explicit) sex/romance be LGBTQ). Overall, if you’re a big Star Wars fan, you’ll probably enjoy at least some of this collection, but (as with many thematic anthologies) you should only read a story or two at a time to keep the “didn’t I just read this?” feeling at bay.

Creepy Mini-Reviews

My reading is starting to outpace my reviewing again, so it’s time for some mini reviews. In honor of October, I’ll focus on my recent horror/gothic/weird reads. Presented in order read:

Last Days by [Brian Evenson, Peter Straub]

Title: Last Days
Author: Brian Evenson
Genre: Cult-related Horror
Pages: 200
Rating: 3.5 of 5

There’s nothing supernatural in this crime novel, just the horror of human beings with wicked hearts and weird beliefs. In this case, the belief that voluntary amputations are pleasing to God (the more, the better!). The plot follows a former cop who suffered a traumatic injury and is now being forced to investigate a crime related to the internal workings of this amputation cult. This was a disturbing, disorienting read with moderate amounts of profanity and a lot of gore. Don’t read the intro as it contains spoilers (and is pretty pretentious besides).

The King in Yellow Rises [Annotated] [Illustrated] [Translated]: The Lost Book of Carcosa (Lovecraftian Librarium 3) by [Charles Baudelaire, Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, Lord Dunsany, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Schwob, Kent David Kelly]

Title: The King in Yellow Rises
Authors: Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Robert W. Chambers, and Others
Translator (and Editor?): Kent David Kelley
Genre: Classic Weird Fiction
Pages: 246
Rating: 4 of 5

This volume collects Robert W. Chambers’ original King in Yellow stories as well as classic works that influenced or riffed on his ideas. There is no denying the quality of the stories contained here or their influence on later weird fiction and cosmic horror. The editor (I think it is the same person listed as the translator) is what cost this book a star. I appreciate him rounding up these stories and printing them all in one place, but his commentary is sporadic and uneven in style. He wraps up the book with a rambling section about these stories’ influenced on H. P. Lovecraft and then apologizes for not including any Lovecraft stories (yet) because he’s not sure if they’re in the public domain…but he promises to add these and others later if he is able. It all felt a bit unprofessional.

Title: The Invisible Man
Author: H. G. Wells
Genre: Classic Sci-Fi
Pages: 167 (usually quite a bit shorter, but this was an illustrated edition)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This isn’t really horror/weird, but the invisible man was one of those classic black and white movie monsters, so I’m including it here. This is a pretty slow book, taking way too long to get to the big reveal that this mysterious stranger is an invisible man (which seems especially pointless given its title). After we finally get that out of the way, things get a little more interesting as we see how being invisible might affect a person mentally and morally. Add in some solid cat and mouse stuff toward the end, and it’s an interesting enough read.

The Necromancers Kindle Edition

Title: The Necromancers
Author: Robert Hugh Benson
Genre: Moralising Gothic Fiction
Pages: 196
Rating: 2 of 5

This book amounts to little more than a warning against Victorian era spiritualism (as well as any other dabbling in communication with the dead). As a Christian I wouldn’t disagree with the overall point, but it’s a pretty dull read for the most part. After a lot of breathless hinting about the grave spiritual dangers and some minimally described seances, we finally get some real creepiness and ill-defined spiritual confrontation around the 85% mark. Meh.

The Abyssal Plain: The R'lyeh Cycle by [William Holloway, Brett J. Talley, Michelle Garza]

Title: The Abyssal Plain: The R’lyeh Cycle
Editors: William Holloway & Brett J. Talley
Genre: Splattery Cosmic Horror
Pages: 300
Rating: 2 of 5

The four loosely linked short stories in this volume describe a world in which “the stars are right” and the old ones have returned. Cthulhu’s spawn rampage across the drowned world as civilization falls apart and strange cults rise. As with any anthology, quality varies, but the first story was just too much for me. It was about life-destroying decisions and addictions with Lovecraftian elements as a mere backdrop/counterpoint. I guess it was clever in that it showed that realistic graphicly described human misery is more disturbing than splattery sci-fi, but the torrent of profanity, booze, drugs, vomit, adultery, abortion, theft, murder, and other human misery and self-destructive behavior was more than I wanted to read. The other three stories were fairly standard (if extra splattery) post-apocalyptic Cthulhu fare that could definitely hold their own within the genre.