Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Forbidden Planet

So, the library happened to have the second book in Lori Handeland's Shakespeare Undead series, Zombie Island, which while not quite the unexpected treat the original volume was, still wound up being really fun to read.

Unlike the original volume, this one more or less stays focused on one Shakespeare play, as Kate, feigning death, has been been packed into a coffin on a ship bound for the New World by her husband, thus robbing Shakespeare of a crypt to awaken her from. Said ship gets wrecked by a storm, and only Kate and her husband survive the wreck. Shakespeare, having been clued in by the ghost of Nounou as to what's going on, ends up giving chase in another ship, that also gets wrecked in a storm and lands him on the island.

The island is inhabited at the outset by zombies raised from several passing ships; Kate and her husband; Will; a sprite named Ariel; and a certain wizard named Prospero, who is using the sprite to wreck ships to create a zombie army to retake the kingdom he has lost. His first encounter with the husband doesn't end well, as he curses the husband to become as bestial on the outside as he is on the inside, thus creating a Caliban.

Anyway, the five characters slip in and out of the passages, as everyone but Ariel and Prospero start killing zombies, and everyone but Prospero has relationship issues. Prospero here has plenty of issues, but most of them are related to magic and insanity.

All's well that ends well, though, as Prospero's lineage gets revealed at the end as does the lineage of another monarch of the time, those who should be together wind up together, and we have a bridge to another book, should the series ever continue.

While more current pop culture references do crop up occasionally, this book largely stays close to the plot of The Tempest, minus some of the larger themes and the masque at the end of Act IV. It also wind points for giving Caliban a better ending than the play.

Makes me kind of sad there seem to not be any books after this.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Thanksgiving ghost story

This past week, before I left on vacation, I grabbed the first book I could find on the shelf on my way out the door. In this case, it wound up being the Young Adult classic, Crash Course, by Nicole Davidson.

The set up is fairly standard, 8 high schoolers go out into the woods of for an SAT prep course over the extended Thanksgiving break at Deep Creek Lake with just a teacher keeping track of them. We have Kelly, who's going mainly because Thanksgiving has been awkward since her mother left; Paula, who's boyfriend has already gotten an appointment to the Air Force Academy most of the way across the US from Maryland; Isabel, a new student who's along to make friends; Angel, the goth girl who goes out of her way to be strange an unusual; Jeff, the wrestler who has a crush on Kelly; Chris, the football player trying to get into UCLA who also has anger issues; Nathan, the guy from the wrong side of the tracks who plays foil most of the book; and Brian, Paula's boyfriend. Watching over everyone is Mr. Porter, an unpopular teacher who no one knows why he's doing this.

We focus mainly on Kelly throughout the book, with occasional passages covering another character briefly. (Although to be honest, the prologue lets out more information than we should have, as astute readers will likely figure out half the mystery early on.) Essentially, Deep Creek Lake is cold and has an underground creek that feeds the lake in the middle. Legends tell of young Susquehanna lovers who returned to the lake after finding their tribe slaughtered, and asking Gweemush, the underworld guardian what to do. Needless to say, his answer was to join him, so they drowned themselves.A story that Isabel tells around the fire the first night. The next morning, before dawn, a scream awakens everyone, and we run out to find several characters outside the cabin who shouldn't be, and Paula claiming Brian had been in a boat in the lake with a stranger who pushed him in to the lake.

With no bus coming back until Sunday, and no sign of Brian or his body, Mr. Porter sets off to get help. He never returns. The seven folks left start becoming more and more at odds, as everyone secrets come out. Nathan gets stabbed, but survives, even though he's mostly unconscious.

Eventually, Kelly pieces everything together and like a young Miss Marple, brings all the truth of the weekend to light.

While there are some fairly major plot holes, and a premise that seems largely unlikely in the modern age (one supervisor? no way to contact the outside in case of emergency?), it does provide an amusing distraction that holds up several years after publication.

She actually wrote a sequel a few years later, but I don't remember the name of it, nor did I particularly like it. But that's neither here nor there.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Every ending is a new beginning

Sure of You, which until the late 00's was the end of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, remains a painful book to read.

We're in 1988 San Francisco, with Michael and Thack now living together at the north end of the Castro, and Mary Ann and Brian still in their luxury condo atop the Summit, while Mrs. Madrigal still runs her house on Barbary Lane.

As we open, Michael and Brian are partners in ownership of Plant Parenthood, while Mary Ann has a morning show that's part Oprah and part Springer. Mrs. Madrigal is getting ready to go to Lesbos with her daughter Mona for a month or so.

Burke Andrew, last seen running from the cannibal Episcopals in book two, is back in town, offering Mary Ann a syndicated show based in New York.

What follows is the end of Brian and Mary Ann, mixed with Michael's fear about what his 600 T-cells mean in the face of something on his leg, and a few interludes on the beaches of Lesbos.

The problem is that we never really see what has become of Brian and Mary Ann, since their ending is almost bloodless, even as they hurt each other. We see Michael trying to play peacemaker, and Thack becoming more militant as the dying continues. (Seriously, he builds a trellis with hopes of getting pink roses to make a triangle shape on it.) We see Bill Rivera again, last seen in the bushes with Father Paddy at the end of book three.

We also get something similar to ________ ________ back in book three, as we meet the Rands, he a fashion designer, she an admin at the rehab clinic he went through. Rand, who raises money for AIDS with Liz Taylor, but professes his heterosexual love for his wife everywhere he can, is also sleeping with every man who will say yes. That friction between personal and public life really lies like a shark under the waters of the plot, as we discuss the end of Arch Gidde, who died suddenly of "Liver Cancer".

I'm happy we as a society have seemingly gone well beyond this "Hide the faggots in the closet" mentality, but here's a striking reminder of how we swept the dying under a rug and pretended they didn't exist. Something that many of us missed due to age or being dead.

I still cry at the end, even knowing how it all comes out. It hurts. It's not the howling pain that consumed book four, but more the pain and anger of those who have been denied any kind of dignity or acknowledgement of who they are or their personhood.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Blank verse and no reflection

So, among the many piles of books around the house from various book sales, I happened to find a copy of Lori Handeland's Shakespeare Undead, which happily filled my time this week.

We're quite typically in Elizabethan England, following around one playwright at the Rose theater, who just happens to be a necro-vampire, able to see ghosts and raise the dead. In opposing chapters, we have Kate,  who's husband has land in the New World. That said husband is away most of the time is a good thing, as it allows Kate to hunt an increasing zombie population through the streets of London while disguised as a boy. The two meet and fall in some kind of love, with both hiding secrets.

In this mix, we have a plot of foulest treason versus the monarch, who does show up towards the end; an interfering nurse, who eventually gets locked up in the stables as a plague victim; and more verses and plot lines out of the folio that should likely be legal. (There are even a few future plots thrown in, as we see Willy have visions of The Wizard of Oz and The Sixth Sense.)

For the most part the Shakespeare references are the well known ones, although even then I likely missed a few; and the plot breezes along quite nicely, poking fun while also honoring the source materials.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

End the cycle

So, after more years than I care to count, I've joined the rest of geekdom and finished Russ T. Howard's The Ultimate Helm, the final book in the SpellJammer Cloakmaster Cycle.

We again join Teldin on his voyage to meet the legendary ship, which he technically found at the end of the last volume. The ship responded by attacking his Nautiloid. Anyway, as we begin, the legend impales Cloakmaster's ship, and three survivors board the SpellJammer, joining the human population living on the back of the Manta Ray.

And promptly get attacked by every non human population living on the SpellJammer, all of whom have heard the legend of the Dark Times heralded by the arrival of the Cloakmaster.

So, basically, the entire ship goes to war, all the different fleets come join the war, and eventually, after being reunited with Estriss the Illithid and Cwlanas, the elf maid from book 1, and a psionic projection of the kender Gaye, we finally find the final secrets of the SpellJammer.

(As a side note, given that pretty much the gnomes of Krynn are about the only ones who know anything about SpellJamming in general, one is hard pressed not to imagine the Silvanesti, models of elven grace and xenophobia, watching people get kidnapped by aliens, and not wonder how that went over. Redneck elves.)

While this is a satisfying conclusion to the series as a whole, the war for the SpellJammer and the various factions vying for control really isn't that well fleshed out. One never gets a sense of the intrigue floating aboard the ship. And frankly, the serious contenders for taking out Teldin are almost cartoonish in their villainy. Unlike book 1 which took a turn for the very dark during the Neogi torture scene, this one has the villains doing the equivalent of tying the helpless maiden to the train tracks while twirling a moustache.

So, honestly, while the finale is actually really good, the build up to everything is rushed and silly. But I'm happy I read it anyway.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Oh yeah, this is where Mary Ann gets evil

Hey, it's the second part of the twofer, with Volume 5 of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, Significant Others.

Again, we're mid 80's and dealing with AIDS and its impact on San Francisco. Michale has been diagnosed as HIV antibody positive and has been mostly virginal since that result. His friends are trying to change that. So, when he meets Thack on Alcatraz as part of a dying friend's bucket list, a new relationship gets planted. Mary Ann, on the other hand, is now running her own local version of Donahue, and is going to appear on Entertainment Tonight. Brian's uptight nephew arrives in town, leading to Brian to find one of his old conquests to deflower him. Mrs. Madrigal is trying to save the wooden steps leading up to Barbary Lane. Mona is dating a post mistress in England. DeDe and D'or are headed to Wimminwood, while DeDe's mother's husband Booter is headed to the Bohemian Grove. We meet Wren Douglas, the plus sized model, who ends up getting hired by Booter for an extended weekend.

Things get complicated as Brian ends up heading north with Thack and Michael as he deal with his own HIV scare (This alone leads to one of the most painful exchanges in the book), Booter's friend dies, sending him drunk in a canoe down river, and DeDe and D'or start fighting about trends in feminism and lesbianism of the era. (DeDe, being a Dowry Dyke, is a lot more conservative than Radical D'or, D'or wants to go topless, DeDe doesn't, DeDe pulls a security shift at the festival and winds up letting rednecks in who trash the place, D'or lusts after lesbian poet Sabra....)

With Booter floating down the river, he misses an appointment with Wren, who calls in Thack and Michael to find out what happened. Brian ends up joining Wren and finally working through many of his issues by talking with her. Booter winds up at Wimminwood, captive of Rose, the authoritarian head of security.

It all eventually works, out, and Brian does eventually tell Mary Ann what happened. The one question I wind up with has to do with Sabra, whom I assume is a cypher, much the way ____ _____ was for Rock Hudson a few books back. The question is whom she's supposed to be.

This installment has a bit more humor than the other two books in the middle third, but it also has a bunch of meditations on love and loss, and occasional new beginnings. Probably the best of the middle three.

Go with the flow

Twofer again tonight, starting with Nigel Findley's return to The Cloakmaster Cycle with The Broken Sphere. 

There isn't that much to say about the plot of this installment of Teldin's adventures in the Phlogostein, since most of the book is an extended chase from Crescent to the eponymous Broken Sphere wherein he can find the fabled SpellJammer.

On one hand, this one does have a few advantages; with the return of Julia, we get a better reason that recycling as to why characters keep returning to the series after being presumed dead, and we also get a lecture on why late stage capitalism in Medieval space is just as bad as it is in post modern time.

Unfortunately, this is still a big "Sail here, find out there are traitors and spies on the new crew, meet an old cast member who may or may not be bad, find out who the actual big bad is an their motivations, then proceed on the quest."

Which, honestly, isn't poorly written, and indeed features a Beholder in human disguise as a crewman. It's more that we've have 4 books prior to this really following a similar formula. I am happy they decided to enter an Elvish concept of a person to whom fate bends around as a reason why people keep wondering in and out of the story.

It's just, if it weren't for the appearance of the legendary ship at the end, this book would have been filler.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Just a faded reminder of who I used to be

Many years ago, like when it got released, I first read Christopher Rice's A Density of Souls. I just finished rereading it again today.

We open on Stephen, Meredith, Greg, and Brandon, still in Elementary School, playing hide and seek in one of New Orleans' cemeteries. Stephen doesn't play as much as he goes and sits in front of his father's tomb. A thunderstorm breaks out, Meredith stumbles on Greg grinding on top of Stephen. Brandon yells out as he hits home base, they discover the gate is locked, and they're trapped. Brandon freaks, Stephen calms them with a poem his father wrote.

Cut to first day of school at Cannon Academy as the gang starts their freshman year of high school. Stephen has fallen out of favor, as Brandon and Greg are football players and Meredith quickly joins the ranks of the popular girls. Stephen, effeminate and fey, becomes outcast. Meredith and Greg start dating, Stephen becomes a theater geek. The rift between the friends gets worse as Brandon affixes a note reading "FAG" on Stephen's back in English class. This leads Stephen to crying in the theater and introducing Jeff, a football player with theater pretensions, who gets kicked out by the teacher, who blames the athletic department for Stephen's ouster.

Freshman year passes, Stephen goes to Rome and sees handsome men he wants to sleep with. Sophomore year, Stephen gets a car that Brandon and Greg destroy and spray paint "Cocksuckr" across the windshield. Jeff picks up Stephen after school one day, takes him to the river with beer, and punches Stephen's V-card. While it snows in New Orleans. Anyway, Jeff's ulcers act up, so he has to sit out the Playoff game, making Greg quarterback for the last game before the state championship. Brandon gets kicked out of the game, shattering his helmet on the bench on his way out. Greg's parents are late arriving, and Greg's little brother gets run over by a garbage truck. At the funeral, Greg's mom goes nuts, and is escorted out. Later that evening, Greg commits suicide.

Then we skip ahead 5 years, and the southern gothic kicks in, as we have Jeff return to Stephen's life until he gets blown up by a bomb Brandon planted, Meredith goes to the asylum where Greg's mother is catatonic, and Brandon's older brother, Jordan enters the picture. We also get to see the rather pained relationship between Stephen's mom and Brandon's mom.

By the end, we finally find out everything that happened in the Bishop Polk bell tower the night Greg died,  we know the true relationship between certain characters, even as they remain blissfully unaware of it.

My initial response is about the same as it was several years ago, there's a heck of a lot of plot holes and a bunch of trying to imitate his mother, characters that are the worst sort of privileged white rich kids, adults who are as bad as their children, but.... much of Stephen resonates with me on many levels, which makes it a good read, even with the flaws.

On the other hand, rereading it managed to swing me back into some of the headspace I was in when I first read it, which wasn't a good place emotionally. But that discussion belongs elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

That's Snow Ghost!

Teldin Moore is back for more in The Radiant Dragon, book 4 of the Cloakmaster Cycle.

We open on a Reigar captain finding the fabled SpellJammer, only said Reigar isn't. She's really a space dragon who also has one of the Ultimate Helms that are supposed to allow a person to control the ship. Whatever said dragon sees on the ship leads to her reverting to her draconic form and destroying the ship she was captaining.

From there, we rejoin Teldin on his current Helm, a really understaffed ship that gets attacked by Illithid slavers, who happen to be hosting Estriss, last seen floating in the void a few books ago. (This series recycles characters so often, I feel like I'm watching a soap opera half the time. I half expect the last book to involved every dead character to be waiting on the SpellJammer.)

The Elves rescue Teldon and his Half-Elf navigator and Gnome engineer, who in turn wind up rescuing two Dracons and a Space Gypsy from a Beholder. The Elvish ship is piloted by Vallus Leafblower, last seen also two books ago on Toril. Speaking of Toril, we wind up briefly in Evermeet on Toril, as Vallus and the elves are trying to convince  Teldin to go get the SpellJammer and bring it to bear on the Scro in the Unhuman War. The Scro, in the meantime, are trying to get the cloak themselves as well as bring a new weapon to bear from the prison world Armstice, where entire generations of goblinoids have lived in ice caves for generations following the first Unhuman War. And an elf joins the crew, na,ed Raven Moonbeam, who's a legend among the elves.

Anyway, we eventually all wind up on Armstice as the Swan Ship (the elvish ship Teldin sort of commands) has to make an emergency landing. We find out about the Insectare plotting with one of the clans of Bionoids (Elven creations that transform from Half Elf seemings to giant battle insects) to take out the Scro and the Elven fleet. And we find out who Raven really is.

 There's a lot going on here, and it mostly hold together.  If nothing else, we've at least been shown that the living ship that looks like a manta ray with a city on its back does indeed exist and a way to reach it eventually. Two more to go.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

This is why I don't live in a high rise.

Finished up Riley Sager's Lock Every Door today while waiting at a dealership.

With each book written under the name, the pacing of the thrillers improves, and indeed, we get the final twist roughly 2/3 of the way through the book, allowing for the full revelation to really resonate with its consequences.

Basically, we're following around Jules, an orphan from Pennsylvania couch surfing with a friend in New York City. We know bits about her past, that her sister went missing and her parents died, leaving her overflowing with debt. We learn she had a job, got laid off, then came home to find her boyfriend screwing someone else, thus leading to her sleeping on Chloe's couch.

As such, Jules in thrilled to find a job listing looking for someone to apartment sit for $1000 a week at the swanky 12 story Bartholomew on the Upper East Side. Said building is also the setting of a beloved book Jules and her sister used to read.

Anyway, Jules gets the job and moves into 12A next door to Dr. Nick. She meets one other house sitter in 11A via messages passed on via dumbwaiter. Ingrid is flighty, but she bonds with Jules early on.

Then Ingrid vanishes the next day. Jules, flashing back to her sister's disappearance, starts trying to find her. And we meet some of the other residents of the Bartholomew, like a Soap Opera Actress, a retired senator, Dr. Nick, and of course, Greta, author of the beloved book.

Eventually, as things progress, another apartment sitter vanishes, the book veers off into Ira Levinson before turning into Robin Cook.

Honestly, as I said before, the pacing has improved as the books get written, and this one is very entertaining. Indeed, I almost felt like yelling at our protagonist as she hooked up with one person who was hinted at being really bad.

Fun read, can't wait for next year's installment in abandonment theatre.