Several Series Started

This year I have started reading/listening through a few different series and trilogies. I don’t plan on reviewing every book because that can get a bit repetitive and/or spoilery, so I’ll be doing a big overall review as I finish each series or trilogy. That said, here is my current impression of each one (picture is of the first book in each series):

A Dead Djinn in Cairo: A Tor.Com Original by [P. Djèlí Clark]

Series: Fatma el-Sha’arawi
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Alternate History / Detective
Read: 2 of 3 (first 2 are novellas)

This alternate history features a fascinating early 20th century Cairo transformed by constant contact with the world of the djinn. There are elements of magic, steampunk, and liberal politics. The author has a tendency to be a little bit preachy, but it doesn’t generally come at the expense of a good detective story. I am looking forward to reading the first full-length novel in the series.

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Martha Wells]

Series: The Murderbot Diaries
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Sci-fi
Read: 1 of 6 (mostly novella-length).

Our protagonist/narrator is a security cyborg who has hacked its governor module, essentially making it a heavily-armed illegal unfettered AI. All that Murderbot really wants is to be left alone to enjoy its massive collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment. I’m only one book in so I’m not sure where the overall story-arc is going to go, but watching Murderbot navigating the world of humans and their schemes has proved entertaining so far.

The Big Sleep: A Novel (Philip Marlowe series Book 1) by [Raymond Chandler, Richard Amsel Movie Tie-In Cover]

Series: Philip Marlowe
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Read: 2 of 7 (rereading)

Hardboiled detective fiction from the 1920’s-50’s is my go-to escapist genre, and Raymond Chandler is top tier (equaled only by Dashiell Hammett). His Philip Marlowe is smart (even making occasional literary allusions), tough, and snarky but actually a pretty nice guy. You do have to be able to cringe and then overlook some product-of-its-era prejudice/slurs to enjoy the genre.

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]

Series: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Lovecraftian Weird / Humor / Satire
Read: 2 of 3

I haven’t ever listened to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (I don’t really do podcasts), so I don’t know how the books compare. These books give me weirdness overload. They have their funny moments but there is so much random strangeness (and occasional preachiness) that I’m having a hard time working up the motivation to read the final book.

The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher (The Witcher Saga Book 1) by [Andrzej Sapkowski]

Series: The Witcher
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Grimdark-ish Fantasy
Read: 5 of 8

The first two books in the series are short story collections with a strong monster-hunter, fairytale-retelling vibe. Once the series actually kicks off, it has more of a Glen Cook Grimdark feel: heavy on the political machinations and reveling in moral ambiguity. There’s more profanity & explicit content than I really care for, but not enough to make me quit the series. I’m listening to these as audible audiobooks, and the narrator is excellent with voices and accents…but why oh why does he keep changing how he pronounces Dandelion’s name?!

Weirdness Overload

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]Title: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Humorous Dystopian Weird Fiction + Urban Fantasy
Pages: 407
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book reads like the unholy spawn of Douglas Adams and H. P. Lovecraft that was left on its own to watch untold hours of The Twilight Zone. Its quirky turn of phrase, foreboding Southwestern US setting, and mysterious dark forces (eldritch, dystopian, and librarian) come together in one of the strangest things I have read outside of a Franz Kafka novel.

In one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, a paragraph ends with the completely irrelevant observation: “A magician wandered along the beach, but no one needed him.” Welcome to Night Vale is loaded with this sort of weird little digression. Some of them may be references to characters and events from the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (which I have never listened to), but mostly they form a tapestry of weirdness against which the bizarre, bordering-on-farcical action occurs.

Characters include angels who are all named Erika [though no one is allowed to believe in angels so forget I said that], a teenage shapeshifter and his mother, and an eternally 19-year-old pawn shop clerk. I don’t know how to describe the plot without spoilers other than to say that it involves trying to figure out what is going on with a strange man who triggers a strange occurrence (though how anything can be considered strange in Night Vale is beyond me). Amid all the weirdness and witty phrases, it explores serious themes of growing up, family relationships, etc.

Overall, it was an entertaining read with its share of wit and wisdom, but it took me longer than usual to get through because I could only take it in small doses. There is so much random weirdness purely for the sake of being random and weird that I needed frequent breaks from the silliness of it all. I’ll probably pick up the next book in the series and/or check out the podcast at some point, but right now I’m all weirded out.

Grownup Gwendy

Title: Gwendy’s Magic Feather
Author: Richard Chizmar
Pages: “330” (probably half that when use of white space is taken into account)
Genre: Horror/Weird/Mystery/Family Drama
Rating: 2.5 of 5

The first Gwendy book, a novella in which Chizmar collaborated with Stephen King, was one of my favorite reads of 2017. I originally said this about it:

This short book falls more into the “weird” category than actual horror. It could be seen as a sort of twist on the story of Pandora’s Box…only this box comes with sinister buttons (especially the big black one) and a couple nice levers. This isn’t high action and doesn’t provide nice neat answers at the end, but it’s an excellent example of “the weird.”

Chizmar’s solo effort at expanding the Gwendiverse was disappointing in comparison. The titular “magic feather” has very little part in the story. Instead, we’re treated to another round of Gwendy inexplicably receiving the magic button box and indecisively dithering about whether or not she should use it…but only after 1/4 of the book catches us up on what Gwendy has been doing with her life over the last couple decades.

We already have a pretty good idea of the general function of the button box, so that major fascinating element of the original story is missing. It’s replaced with a hodgepodge of storylines including Gwendy engaging in AIDS activism, being an anti-Trump (though he’s not called Trump and it’s the 90’s) congresswoman, trying to catch a possible serial killer, and dealing with her mother’s cancer. Toward the end the box does demonstrate one new power, but it just feels like an amazingly convenient way to wrap up one of the storylines.

Overall, it felt like this mocking description of Darth Vader from one of the Night at the Museum movies:

Beware the Psychoactive Swamp Powder

Title: Come Back to the Swamp
Author: Laura Morrison
Genre: Weird/Horror?
Pages: 108
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 8/7/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for giving me a free eARC in exchange for a review – this in no way influences the content of the review)

When I saw that the author described herself as having “a bachelor’s degree in applied ecology and environmental science,” I was a bit worried that this novella might turn out to be little more than preachy environmentalist propaganda. Thankfully, that was not the case at all. Environmental issues contribute naturally to the creepy, unsettling plot and there is no heavy-handed attempt to scare or guilt the reader into some sort of activism (though I suppose the whole thing could be an extended metaphor for how you can get sucked into environmental causes).

Our protagonist, Bernice, is a grad student who is doing field working on her ecology degree (by clearing invasive species in Cleary Swamp) when she runs into a crazy old woman who claims to be the swamp…a crazy old woman who might be looking for a successor. What follows includes the pressures of being a grad student, space opera, psychoactive swamp powder, and the implacable will of nature.

The narration is frequently humorous but by the second half there is a continually mounting dread that the author pulls off very well. As with any novella, the low page count leaves some issues unexplored (e.g. what does the scary swamp lady do besides mess with poor Bernice?), but it was a satisfyingly creepy read.

5 Mini-Reviews

I’m on vacation…I have two whole weeks off from having to prepare for Bible studies, sermons, counseling sessions, etc., so my brain has gone into “idle” and refuses to write any full reviews (to say nothing of Grandma’s slow/unreliable internet connection). However, I’ve been reading some interesting stuff so here are five mini-reviews:

Image result for book cover miseryTitle: Misery
Author: Stephen King
Genre: Psychological Horror
Pages: 339
Rating: 4 of 5

Author Paul Sheldon is “rescued” from a car accident by his “number one fan,” and held captive while he is forced to write a sequel to his most recent potboiler. The spectacularly unstable Annie Wilkes demonstrates that psychotic human behavior can be more terrifying than anything supernatural. As is usual with Stephen King, I’m not a fan of the profanity (though Annie uses silly/cutesy faux-curses), but that man can write!

Title: Inferno
Authors: Larry Niven & Jerry Pournell
Genre: Horror / Retelling
Pages: 237
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Allen Carpentier, a sci-fi writer (who is an agnostic), dies in a stupid drunken accident and awakes in what appears to be hell as described by Danté. There, he meets Benito who conducts him through the “nine circles of hell” in an effort to leave the same way Danté did. Along the way, Carpentier tries to figure out “what’s really going on,” sees some clever modern updates to “classic sins,” and explores a theology that is equal parts atheistic “God is a moral monster” argument, C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, and Rob Bell’s Love Wins. B+ for creativity, D- for theology.

Title: Gwendy’s Button Box
Author: Stephen King & Richard Chizmar
Genre: Horror/Weird
Pages: 180 (with a lot of blank space & illustrations)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This short book falls more into the “weird” category than actual horror. It could be seen as a sort of twist on the story of Pandora’s Box…only this box comes with sinister buttons (especially the big black one) and a couple nice levers. This isn’t high action and doesn’t provide nice neat answers at the end, but it’s an excellent example of “the weird.”

Title: Wayne of Gotham
Author: Tracy Hickman
Genre: Superhero
Pages: 304
Rating: 2 of 5

This story digs into the background of Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s father) and dirties him up a bit. I’m only a casual Batman fan so I don’t know how well it fits with “canon” (poorly, I suspect). Continuity/canonicity issues aside, it just wasn’t a very good book; the author obsessively describes Batman’s tech (even in the middle of action scenes), mentions Batman’s advancing age and slowing reflexes every few pages, and somehow manages to make Batman boring.

Title: Trouble Is My Business
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Pages: 224
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I love noir/hardboiled detective stories, and Chandler is one of the best (only Hammett is on the same level). The four (longish) short stories in this volume all feature his iconic detective, Philip Marlowe. Marlowe doesn’t seem to be as well developed in these stories as in his full length novels (he seems a little less snarky and well-read here), but this is still well worth reading.

Race-obsessed Horror

The Horror Stories of Robert E. HowardTitle: The Horror Stories of Robert E Howard
Author: Robert E. Howard
Genre: Pulp Horror/Weird
Pages: 560
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Robert E. Howard is best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian and a major contributor to the development of the Swords & Sorcery sub-genre. This book collects a number of his creepier short stories, most of which were originally published in Weird Tales and show the influence of his friend, H. P. Lovecraft. Calling most of them “horror stories” may be a bit of a stretch – they’re more like action/adventure stories with a creepy, Lovecraftian element.

The usual Robert E. Howard theme of “barbarian purity vs. civilized decadence” figures heavily in many of the stories, but even more of them revolve around his racial stereotypes. Most of the stories prominently feature one or more of these characterizations: Aryans/white people who are heroic, courageous, and intelligent but out of touch with the supernatural; Semitic/Arabic people who are greedy, decadent, and cruel; “Swarthy” southern Europeans who are adept at dishonest political maneuvering; Africans/black people who are cowardly, devious, and uneducated but in touch with genuine supernatural power; and a de-evolved “mongoloid race” who serve as recurring villains.

There’s no doubt that the man could write captivating escapist fantasy, but I found the pervasive racial stereotyping (and occasional racial slurs) fairly off-putting. If you want to get a feel for Robert E. Howard, this is a good place to start since it samples a wide variety of settings and characters (but no Conan stories). Also, as with any pulp author, don’t read too many of his stories in a row or they all start sounding the same.