Straw Boss

Straw Boss by J R Evans is a novella tie-in with Straw Boss: A World of Adventure for Fate Core. A lot of times that might seem like a warning sign, as game tie-ins aren’t always so great; but this one is not only perfectly good as a stand alone without any need to know about the game, but also a well done spoopy October read in and of itself. The only thing that I didn’t get from the novella was what the title references, but the narrative quickly builds its world and premise, and explores it well, and the creepiness creeps up on you to an end that I didn’t see coming. There’s new bits of the world revealed all along the way, in a story with flashbacks, that feels very well supported and developed.

The story explores one character’s experience at a particular cult compound in the rural United States, as well as, episodically, a road trip to return a kidnapped child to her mother. But, as one says, things are not as they seem. The framing premise is that there’s a cult of Scholars, founded by John Dee, that exists around the world; and that they adopt orphans whom they train to become possessed supernatural warriors. If you’re a fan of shows like Supernatural and the idea of the Men of Letters, this cult is kinda like that, but maybe with a bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Watchers and The Following mixed in. Basically, you get to conquer your demons and put them to work for you in the game while on the frontlines between dark and light in a mix of mundane reality, myth, and magic.

At one point, I was amused to see that Murmur seems to get a few cameos in places for some reason. Murmur’s seal showed up on the TV show Sleepy Hollow, back in 2013, on S01e08, as an “Egyptian hieroglyph”, which I found risible, and was pretty much the point when I gave up on that show. Then in 2016, Murmur showed up in Erwin and the Method Demons. So, as an aside, what I’m saying is that Murmur cameos are a thing. Case in point.

The Straw Boss novella does a solid, standalone job of telling an interesting story that would make a good read for October, or another time. Whenever. Murmur murmur murmur. Also, check out the game world supplement!

I made 3 highlights.

Descent Into Hell

Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams is an amazement. I was taken by the curiosity of the Endymion Press cover of this book having a unicursal hexagram. So, I think I picked this up without really knowing much about it other than the oddity of its appearance. But, in the end, this was fantastic to finally find.

This is quite a wonderful, convoluted, interesting story! There’s moments that seem to presage the style of the Beats, and a grand theory of a kind of Christian magic detailed here; but it’s an intensely written episodic twisty tale mostly drawn with magical realism, but that reaches some great creepy and supernatural heights.

I didn’t feel that this supposedly “Christian” book was particularly so. At least it didn’t put me off at all, so it was not preachy but rather well woven in. And the particular magical theory of exchange and substitution described is quite interesting to see developed, and something to consider for one’s own personal experiments. I’m curious to learn more about Williams’ Companions of the Coinherence, and if there’s much to be found on that topic.

I was on a Gothic binge for a while, and this is a great bridge from there to here. The writing is luscious and thick, but there’s a newness to the pacing and the style. There’s as much inbetween-ness to the action as the novel itself, for me.

Reading this wasn’t, I’d say, easy, but I felt it was well worth the effort to get far enough in that I was drawn to finish. I’m wildly impressed with this book enough that I’m very interested in what others by Charles Williams might be like.

I must admit that I was not really aware that Charles Williams was one of the Inklings, along with J R R Tolkien, whose writing I’ve adored, and C S Lewis, whose work I cannot seem to enjoy. Because I couldn’t ever get into C S Lewis, I think I pretty much gave up on exploring the work of Inklings other than Tolkien. I regret not ever having read anything by Williams until now.

I also didn’t recall knowing Charles Williams was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. If you don’t know already, for those into esoteric traditions, you will find out that Charles Williams is one of us, part of our cultural inheritance, and someone whose work is worth getting to know.

This story is an experience worth having. I highly recommend it.

I made 149 highlights.

Civil Disobedience

I wanted to like Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau and had high hopes, nay, even the expectation, that I’d like this book. But, Thoreau comes across as an ignorant Uncle Joe Bubba who rants about the gubmint being evil ‘cuz it tells folk what to do and gets in their way, but who lives willfully rejecting its benefits and being a cantankerous selfish scofflaw.

To his credit there’s an arc here where, apparently while writing much of this from a jail cell for, I gather, tax evasion, maybe as a noble abolitionist protest, but maybe not, he realizes, from looking out his cell window at the unfamiliar sights and later walking around in town, that organized collective governance is actually useful and an important part of successful civilization. Well, at least he seems to have come around, but not without being a jerk for too long.

But I don’t really think or feel I got a good or proper discussion of any thoughtful use of civil disobedience from Thoreau in this at all. It’s historically interesting though, and I suppose that’s something. Good to have read it finally, either way.

I made 76 highlights.

Glitch

Glitch by Hugh Howey is a far too brief vignette to be good, but isn’t bad. It’s an okay short about a robot gladiator who becomes sentient which causes a moral dilemma and struggle for control. It’s like an excerpt from, or a pitch for, a larger story, but after the end I didn’t really need anything more from it. I’m not sure there was much there that hasn’t been told before more fully and quite well in other similar stories, such as classics like Thomas J Ryan’s The Adolescence of P-1 as just one example.

I made 5 highlights.

KLF

KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money by J M R Higgs isn’t hardcore history and reads a bit like a magazine article in tone and tempo, but it’s got a lot of history I didn’t know about, both directly and tangentially related to KLF, especially around Discordianism, that I found very interesting, and it was a timely read for the resurfacing of the group this year.

I made 258 highlights.

The Infinity Gauntlet

The Infinity Gauntlet by Jim Starlin, Ron Lim, and George Pérez is pretty understandably epic in scale. I don’t know how the upcoming Avengers movie can get to this story without more setup than we’ve seen so far. But, who knows? I’ve heard rumours that they might not start with this story right away, which means I started in the wrong place. Oops.

It really seems like a huge story arc designed to launch Adam Warlock into an eternal hall of fame at the expense of the entire Marvel universe. Jim Starlin’s Adam Warlock. Jim Starlin the writer of this story. Nothing suspicious here at all, nope.

The cosmic elements are the best. There’s panels with Doctor Strange, Adam Warlock, Celestials and Eternals that knock it out of the park with delicious cosmic visuals. There’s some mind bending bit here to love.

There’s also a cameo of a Trump property getting natural disastered that gave me mean chuckle.

But really, it’s Doctor Strange who gets some of the best visuals.

The framing story is that Thanos is desperate for Lady Death’s love. It’s kind of pathetic, and perhaps a funny commentary on desperate but unrequited nerd ideas of “love”. The framing story seems stuck on repeat for most of the series, until the story catches up to where Thanos is at; then the story gets stuck on repeat as the writing plays the same sequence of heroes trying to defeat Thanos while Silver Surfer or someone doubts Adam Warlock over and over for a while.

But there’s some great “who’s it” with the Infinity Gauntlet including a couple steals and a fumble to liven things up.

As stuck as it may seem repeating in places within this collected volume, it isn’t anything I’ve read before elsewhere. It’s new, but repeats within itself a bit, is what I’m saying. But, it’s good, and, where it does internally new stuff, it does it really well. There’s tons of visuals and moments that struck me, and which I hope to see on the big screen eventually as a bonus.

In the end everyone returns to where they were, except Thanos and Adam Warlock, who both, sort of, escape the cycle of statis, ironically by getting stuck in a different, or maybe the same, from a certain point of view, cycle of stasis.

I’m certainly curious about the rest of the Infinity Gem Saga, but that’s a lot of material. I hope it stays fresh across the whole sequence of 6 collections. It’s a bit daunting and I feel like I got a good complete story in this collection alone, so I’m not super hype about the rest, to be honest. In that sense, this volume is a nice complete thing in itself without feeling left tricked into needing to read anything else.

Botchan

Botchan by Soseki Natsume, translated by J Cohn, is something I’d been meaning to read for, well, a couple of decades now. I’ve had a physical copy longer than I can recall when I got it, perhaps a gift from my Grandmother. I’ve tried getting into it a number of times, but just couldn’t. I finally did.

The most serious attempt at this book was in the 90s when I was taking Japanese 101 at Seattle Central Community College. I had a Japanese friend outside of class that was shocked to see I had the book with me, and that I was reading it, because it was such a deep and specific cultural phenomenon. I ended up saying it was a bit boring, and I didn’t really think much of it. I didn’t finish it. In fact, now that I’ve read it, I don’t think I got very far into it at all, that time.

I still don’t like it. It’s a story about a bunch of awful people being awful and nothing good comes of any of it. The main character is infantile, rash, and gullible. Everyone else is also deeply flawed. They stay that way.

There’s an awful lot of what appears to me homophobic but gratuitous preoccupation with criticizing how feminine other males are. Ironically there’s a scene where the main character is totally mesmerised by the flexing, bulging muscles of a compatriot.

There’s also few female characters at all, with three that appear for any meaningful amount of the story. The first is Botchan’s nanny, who constantly lavishes praise and care on him with an irrational, one might say economically dependant and sycophantic, way that fails to be recognized as such. There’s a beautiful woman who is fickle and the object of a conspiracy who is mostly seen from a distance, when seen at all. There is an old landlady who always cooks sweet potatoes for dinner and is, as it turns out, a useful gossip. There’s others mentioned in passing, but this is really to extent of it.

And, pretty much everyone is miserable or awful to each other, and usually both, including the narrator. It is strange, in a way, to think about how this story is, as described in the front matter, as probably being pretty biographical, because the narrator seems to be to be an ass. The front matter seems to describe the main character as a kind of heroic rebel, but no. Not close. He’s constantly getting tricked. He constantly jumps to conclusions based on hearsay from people he doesn’t trust. And so on.

And, there’s not really any character arc for anyone in the story. In fact, in the end, not much changes. The same awful people just, probably, keep on being awful. That’s the worst part, I guess. I somewhat identify with the situation of being surrounded by people that I can’t really trust, who are up to something; and if I say anything about what they’re doing they just say I started it and I look bad but they’re the assholes. That whole bit of bullshit is too familiar. This story doesn’t resolve that for the characters and doesn’t offer any insight into a way out; except to take some petty revenge then pack up and leave. Maybe that is the only answer then, as it’s kind of what I’ve ended up doing in similar situations.

I just don’t see how this is a “treasured novel” with “timeless popularity” or “a hilarious tale about a young man’s rebellion against ‘the system'”. Maybe I really missed it without the deep and specific cultural or period context. But, unless someone can enlighten me to what’s there but not there, it’s a miss for me. There’s no treasure here. I felt the ploding passage of my time while reading it. It’s painfully not funny at all. He’s not a rebel against any system, just largely oblivious and angry to no ultimate effect. It’s a bleak and boring pastoral about unending pervasive and dismal angst not worth remembering.

Still, it’s well written. It’s an experience of a moment in time in another culture that made me think about life. I’m not glad I read it, but I’m glad I’m done with it.

I made 14 highlights.

The Copper Cascade

The Copper Cascade: A Virulent ChapBook by Kneel Downe, foreword by Steve Taylor-Bryant, is the “first in a series of Virulent ChapBooks which introduces readers to the characters and concepts of Kneel’s universe”. Apparently there’s a giant and complex VirulentBlurb corpus from which this collects a coherent short selection of extracts, but it stands well enough on its own. The constructed story itself reads to me as as a kind of alternate X-Men tale, of superheroes and villains, mainly from the point of view of the Magneto-like character Dark Deliverance, and interviews by the detective Kurt Lobo. I’m not super interested in diving into the deep water of the entire corpus, but this was interesting and complete in itself. So it could serve as the first step down the rabbit hole, or be a quick satisfying read. For me, it’s going to be the latter.

I made 8 highlights.

The Goat

The Goat: Building The Perfect Victim by Bill Kieffer was something I picked up because it appeared on the Hermetic Library ad spaces through Project Wonderful, and had a pretty compelling illustration with interestingly bizarre description. Turns out it really was quite interestingly bizarre. The erotica part wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it was a good story of strangeness in a world of magic, where the magic part is a part of the story but is more ambient than a character. The erotica is there, but it’s not really the main thing either. I suppose I’d say the story seems largely an exploration of dysphoria in a real but also allegorical way as it might present in a world full of magic. Still, the magic doesn’t show up right away, almost comes as a surprise at first, and builds throughout until the final twist. The world, the magic and the story all seemed well developed and believable (and I remember thinking … this is like Shadowrun, but in the rust belt). The final twist made me leap back to the cover to see if there was a clue I missed, and I’m not sure; maybe it’s there but maybe not. There’s probably some trigger warnings for abuse needed, but it is billed as twisted and subversive, and that it is, so there you go. Well, it’s a creative story in an interesting world, even if you’re not there for the homo-erotic S&M; and if you are, then, there’s something extra for you.

I made 5 highlights.

Parallel Lives

Parallel Lives by Parker Gordon is a wibbly-wobbly astral time-travelling puzzle-solving caper. There were points where I thought the narrative got a little unclear, a couple times it seemed the narrative was treading the same bit again without reason to do so, and maybe a couple things didn’t feel like they got resolved in the end. Maybe it could have been done in half the number of page, but I don’t regret getting through them. Overall it was an engaging and interesting story of strange big society-level and believable small interpersonal-level battles engaged across time.

I made 53 highlights.

Little Boy Lost

The Librarian: Little Boy Lost by Eric Hobbs is a neat framing pastiche which sets up a premise where the Astoria Public Library (in nearby-ish to me Astoria, Oregon!) is magically connected to famous public domain fantasy worlds from other books, like Neverland, Wonderland, Oz. I couldn’t help but be interested in a story with a magical library. Definitely targeted at a younger audience, but it was still interesting enough as, mentioned already, a pastiche and a bit formulaic in places. I’m not likely to read the next installment, but it was good for a lark, and I’m sure it would be more fun for someone more in the directly intended audience.

There was one interesting thought I had while reading this that I’m not entirely sure was intended, but one of the themes is how the characters in the famous stories are trapped by the writing to repeat the same thing over and over forever. “It was the curse of living a life controlled by words on a page” was something I highlighted. They are trapped by the words in their books. This seemed an interesting allegory for me about people who let themselves be trapped in their lives by books, whether for escape or as sacred volumes. The thought I got from this was that people curse themselves by such things, and don’t let themselves live their own creative lives. To be sure, there’s a creative cosplay and fanfic way to engage with personally meaningful books, but there’s also a way to become small and narrow and diminished. The former seems fun and fine for everyone. The latter seems a true curse to not only themselves but the rest of us as well.

I made 6 highlights.

The Golden Key

The Golden Key: And Other Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm by Philip Pullman collects three tales that presumably didn’t make the cut into Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version. It’s a bit like an outtakes reel, especially since in the introductory material Pullman seems to be shitting on these stories a strange amount. I started to wonder if this was something he was forced into doing, that he didn’t want to do, like Kurosawa being forced by his studio to do Sanjuro as a sequel to Yojimbo (so he went off the reservation, and subverted expectation).

I wasn’t familiar with these stories so they were new to me. Anyhow, they aren’t all that bad. There’s some good moments. It’s short.

I made 10 highlights.

Alighting on His Shoulders

Alighting on His Shoulders: Ten Tales From Sideways Worlds by T Thorn Coyle is a collection that hits so many different genre buttons it makes its own meta music. There’s a wide variety on offer here and within the ten stories there’s a lot of different things to like. For example, there’s a couple that reminded me of Charles de Lint‘s Newford sequence, there was an angels on earth Supernatural / The Prophecy offering, there was a modern gothic fairy tale feeling in another like The Night Circus or The Devil’s Carnival and maybe a little bit of Killer Klowns from Outer Space for me, and more. Each of the ten stories collected in this brief volume hits some grand genre button for me, and the whole feels far more engaging and fully realized than the short length of the volume would suggest.

Although I’ve long been familiar with T Thorn Coyle from her works on more occult subject matters, and have, to be clear, met her in person several times and so on; this was my first encounter with her fiction. I can honestly say that I’m definitely a fan, and can highly recommend this collection on its own merits.

Also, in passing, I wanted to mention that the work on the ebook formatting and production was extremely well-done, enough better than many and most that I noted it.

I made 22 highlights.

RIDE

RIDE from The Janos Corporation purports to be written by a pulp-era writer Henry Abner, and from “newly discovered manuscripts … currently being edited and released” after his death.

The fictional author Henry Abner is described as “the pen name of hard-boiled fiction author Henry Abner Sturdivant” who “had a long career in law enforcement, and served as the chief of police of Washington, Georgia from 1921 until his death in July of 1935”. When I looked there were no authoritative external references anywhere other than a Wikipedia page presented with a straight face for Henry Abner. I pretty much convinced myself that Henry Abner is as much a literary fiction as “his” works. Turns out now that Wikipedia page has since been deleted and there’s a talk page about Henry Abner’s page as hoax. Guess the actual author also created a gallery of shopped images which I didn’t find when I was looking, until now. But, you know, well played, I suppose: a little bit of promotional fun.

This book is first in the Tales from the Goddamned Lonely Universe series, for which there is another volume. There’s a third volume which is the first in The Goddamned Lonely Universe Saga, apparently a different series. Nothing new in either sequence has been released in the interim between my read and this review, and there doesn’t appear to be any discussion of other volumes on the JanosCorp website, so maybe that’s all we get, but if this collection is any indication of the others that’d be a shame, especially as it seems like there were plans for more.

RIDE is a collection of stories held together by the presence in them of a particular robotic taxi. I found a feeling of familiar fictional future here. The taxi reminds me of the one driven by Korben Dallas in The Fifth Element, and the neo-noir setting seems quite similar to the gritty, grungy future New York in that film. My mind also included Harry Canyon’s taxi story from Heavy Metal. There’s interstitials between each story with in-world ads, which adds a kind of Verhoeven touch, that for me included by indirect reference the feeling of Robocop‘s Detroit. The stories don’t feel dated; since, you know, they aren’t actually old that makes sense. It’s a fun and interesting collection for fans of the genre to dig in, and suggests a lot of promise for the other “Henry Abner” books, which I’ve already added to my to-read stack.

I made 4 highlights, but, hey, it’s short!

The Housekeeper and the Professor

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa is a emotionally strong and heartfelt story of a woman hired for a time to be care for a former professor of mathematics who is suffering memory issues due to an accident. The woman, her young boy, and the former professor come to care for each other and have a meaningful brief, almost accidental, time together.

I find that I wanted there to be more mathematics integral to the story than there were, and to to be more core to the way the story develops, implying the philosophical thoughts and feelings. The professor might as well have been a professor of baseball, but, I suppose, to be fair, the professor’s mathematics was reflected in the story by his love of baseball, and that allowed the mathematics itself to be unintimidating and approachable. But I kinda wanted more from that that I got.

Overall, a nice story that provides, for a few moments, a wholesome but emotional journey and character study.

I made 25 highlights.

I Am Legend

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson is a post-apocalyptic, last human alive, vampire story that is delightful and adds a couple deep new twists to the genre that are still fresh even after the intervening years since the original 1954 publication date. Somehow I hadn’t ever read this before, and I’m glad I finally did. Moreover, reading the story makes the 2007 big screen adaption with Will Smith even that much worse than it seemed at the time; gods, they really screwed that up, and how!

I made 39 highlights.

Pines

Pines by Blake Crouch is the first installment in the Wayward Pines series and inspiration for both the Wayward Pines television series and many additional Kindle Worlds Novellas. I read this in conjunction with the audiobook read by Paul Michael Garcia.

I enjoyed the first season of the television series. Were there additional seasons? I’m not sure what was happening in my life, but I stopped paying attention. But, the first season was good. I think I must be, if what everyone else says about themselves is true, one of the few fans of M Night Shyamalan stories; I really dig how he subverts expectation through creative narrative. The Wayward Pines series seems extremely well aligned to that style and perfect for his stewardship in bringing the book to a live action series.

But, I wish I’d not seen the live action adaptation before reading this, as I really had a difficult time feeling like I wasn’t just repeating the same ground with which I’d become already familiar. The story and twists were just not repeatable experiences for me, and reading the same story didn’t reveal any new depth or any surprises. Perhaps that speaks well for the way the series was developed, but I’m afraid it may just be that the story was too thin and shallow, in spite of the wild premise, to provide joy when experienced more than once.

And, if truth be told, I’m not really a fan of how this was written. I think the audio narration by Paul Michael Garcia did a yeoman’s job adding emotional depth and emotional changes to the written word otherwise missing. Overall, the writing seemed unemotional and formal, almost like an episode of Dragnet. Not only was that awkward, but there were some writing choices that were just bizarre, and jarring; for example, at one point, a dangerous and deadly creature is described as leaping like a ballerina, and I can be pretty damned sure the image that appeared in my brain was not intended by the author, and was not in service to the story and destroyed my immersion in it at that moment. Sometimes words are used just to use them, without really being in service to the story.

However, the idea of the story is still compelling. If you’ve not worn out the novelty it would provide, by seeing the series, this could be worth reading. It’s a cool premise.

Also, I have a hard time being so tough on the writing as the back material in the book makes it clear how this was the culmination of 20 years of inspiration provided by the revolutionary phenomena of David Lynch’s original Twin Peaks. That’s a worthy progenitor that lends gravitas to the book that is missing in and of itself. Oddly, that’s a bit like how much more I liked M Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water after watching the bonus materials, revealing a warmth of heart I didn’t get from just the feature, but that provided a welcome halo effect after, making the whole better.

I made no highlights at all.

Pride and Joy

Runaways, Vol. 1: Pride and Joy by Brian K Vaughan and Adrian Alphona is a story of six friends that stumble upon a shocking super-powered secret about their parents, and discover their own secrets in response to their parents as they become a team in spite of themselves. They become their heroic selves and find they have meaningful purpose for being in the world. The art and writing are not complex, but, even still, a lot happens in these first 8 issues in the collection. Also, the promise and premise provides ideas that are complex, and offer a depth for those looking for it. I hope the rest of the series develops those potentials further and eventually reveals itself to be narratively as superpowered as the heroes.

A live action adaptation of Marvel’s Runaways, once planned to join the cinema releases, is now scheduled as coming to Hulu in November 2017, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out.

Who Goes There?

Fantastic novella Who Goes There? by John W Campbell is, of course, the inspiration for The Thing movies, including the 1953 The Thing from Another World, John Carpenter’s masterpiece rendition, and a re-remake that I’ve not seen. For some reason, the ebook version I read is no longer available, perhaps there were rights issues; but it can be found still in an edition with an introduction and screen treatment by William F Nolan, which I didn’t have in my edition, so I mention that only in passing.

As great as Carpenter’s rendition was at fulfilling the story as written better than the older movie, there’s still elements that were not brought fully to screen. So, even having seen both the previous movies several times, and Carpenter’s an untold number of times, if I’m honest, there was still a novelty to reading the original story that revealed a whole new dimension in the narrative to explore. There were places where the story shows its age, but it was still a damned fine experience of creep and paranoia. For example, the initial character descriptions are pretty stock manly men for heroes and degraded manliness for those not heroes. Another example is that the absolute end was a bit of stale period B-movie coda that wasn’t quite as great as the rest. But it is, ultimately, more than just what it was.

I made 12 highlights.