Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Lit Geek
  Book Reviews by James Maxey
June 2009

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron

Laird Barron can write. I promise you that if you pick up this collection and pick nearly any story at random from the table of contents, you're going to be selecting a well-crafted, suspenseful tale that will leave you wondering about monsters. What might be lurking in that old barn out in the field you drive past every day? What horror might be hiding amidst the shadows of your attic? Or even lurking in your photographs albums, unseen if you look at them directly, yet there, in the corner of your eye, as you turn away?

Barron writes Lovecraftian horror, where humans are able to live happy lives only as they are ignorant of the larger reality. Whenever any of Barron's catch glimpse of the truth, they are sure to pay for it with their sanity, if not their lives.

My personal favorite story in the anthology is a good representation of Barron's gifts. "Bulldozer" is the tale of a Pinkerton detective in the old west, tracking down a serial killer with no intention of bringing him back alive. The story starts off with the protagonist in a bad spot--he's just had his hand bitten off and we're deep inside his head as he struggles to stay alive. We then bounce through a series of flashbacks where the Pinkerton man is tracking the killer down through opium dens and whorehouses and the most lowlife bars imaginable. The deeper he explores the mystery, the more he realizes that the man he's chasing is only the vessel of a much larger evil. When he finally encounters the evil face to face, it's an unforgettable literary moment, a masterful presentation of an encounter between a man and a force too large and powerful to truly comprehend. Read this story, and you will be a fan of Laird Barron.

That said, I do think there's a paradox present in this collection. The collection is weaker as a whole than the individual stories within it. Barron has a formula for his stories -- it's a good formula, but it's also one he seldom varies from. His protagonists are always burned-out tough guys one step removed from an actual authority figure. He's writing about bounty hunters and corporate spies, private detectives and ex-CIA men. The pattern is always clear: They encounter something strange, and are drawn into something stranger. It never ends well. In isolation, I doubted I would have noticed the formula. In the collection, I spotted the similarities by the third story, and by the fifth story I found myself anticipating the broad details of the story before I even read it. Every story is good, but the collection could have benefitted by a bit more variety.

The Stepsister Scheme by Jim Hines

This is a review of both a book and an experience. To date, every book I've reviewed for this column has been a freebie. Publishers send me free books; I get to pick and choose what I'm going to read. The Stepsister Scheme is the first book I'm reviewing here that I actually paid for.

It's also the first book that I've ever read on my cell phone. Back in March, I was at Stellarcon and I watched as someone downloaded Mur Lafferty's Playing for Keeps to their I-phone using the Kindle app. I was skeptical that reading on a cell phone could be comfortable, but they let me try the phone for a few minutes and I found the text to be easy enough on the eye. Unfortunately, I don't have an I-phone. Instead I use a Palm Centro, with a screen roughly two inches square, half the size of the I-phone screen. Still, I was intrigued. I started investigating and found that there's an e-book format called eReader that works on the Palm OS. I downloaded the free program, then went shopping.

The Stepsister Scheme was an easy choice. Jim Hines' typical reader, I suspect, skews much younger than me. I have a 15-year-old friend who loves his work. It's lighthearted, fast-paced adventure, full of action and bad puns. The Stepsister Scheme is Hines' most recent book, just released a few months ago, so it seemed appropriate to review for this column. His books are relatively thin for fantasy novels; for my first attempt at reading a book on my phone, I didn't want to start with a manuscript as thick as a phone book. I also appreciate that Hines writes short sentences. Laird Barron, for instance, can shove sentences into his writing that would probably not fit entirely on the little screen I was reading from. Hines, on the other hand, keeps his prose lean and clean.

The characters in the Stepsister Scheme are three fairy tale princesses -- Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. Hines approaches each of them as superheroes. For instance, Cinderella had little animal friends who talked with her and helped her clean, so in the book she retains this ability as a type of animal telepathy. Snow White, whose mother was a sorceress, has taken up the family business and uses magic mirrors to perform a variety of typical fantasy magics, from healing to scrying. Sleeping Beauty, before she was cursed, was gifted by the fairies with grace; now awake, her fairy grace is turned toward swordsmanship and fighting. The extra attributes Hines brings to the characters are clever touches. Since Cinderella spent her childhood cleaning, whenever there are fights she's quick to offer advice in the aftermath. ("Soak that shirt in some vinegar and that blood will come right out.") Snow White, as the fairest maiden in the land, is something of a flirt who isn't afraid of using more than just magic to get men to do her bidding. Sleeping Beauty is always the one who stays up all night to keep guard; after a century of sleep, she's had her fill of it.

The story is driven by a fairly standard formula: Each chapter exists to frame a fight scene, and each fight scene exists to introduce the next bit of the puzzle as Cinderella seeks out her wicked stepsisters, who have kidnapped her prince. The humor here is rather broad; puns, fart jokes, and clever quips made while bonking the bad guy on the head are par for the course. It's not sophisticated, but it's also unfailingly fun. It was well worth the $7.99 I spent on it.

Except, shifting from critiquing the book, and commenting on eBooks in general, I'm not sure why eBooks are sold at the same prices as paperbacks (and sometimes more.) Presumably, there's no manufacturing, shipping or inventory costs. Obviously, as a writer myself, I want to make as much money from each book that I can, and I want my publisher to keep enough money to thrive and keep publishing books. Still, as a reader, it seems that if I'm providing my own media, I should get at least some price break.

However, aside from my gripes about pricing, I have to say that my skepticism toward reading books on my phone is now completely vanished. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I might even prefer it an actual printed book. The two advantages I discovered of the eBook were availability and usability. First, I always have my cell phone with me. In the past, I've found myself with a few extra minutes of time on my hand and wishing I had a book with me. Now, since I always have my cell phone, I always have books at my fingertips. It's very easy and natural to pull out the phone and spend five minutes here, ten minutes there, nibbling away at a book.

Second, I'm someone who likes to read while eating lunch. I've broken the spines of many a paperback trying to keep its pages open. I've also stained the pages of more than a few books with grease and ketchup. With my book on a cellphone, I just prop up the phone and set the book on autoscroll. The text rolls up at a speed I select, and I can read while I have both hands free to handle my food. I was worried I'd find it easy to get distracted and lose my place, but I actually think I may be more focused. The constantly moving text holds my eyes and my attention.

Some anticipated downsides: I enjoy reading in the bathtub. I imagine I could put my phone in a zip lock bag and read easily enough without risk to the phone. But, I've not yet been brave enough to put this to the test. I've had too many friends fry their cellphones after dropping them into various liquids, and I don't wish to join their ranks. Another favorite place to read is in bed. I will sometimes read until the book drops from my hand. I worry if I do that with the cell phone, I will drain the battery. When it's in book mode, the screen is on bright and doesn't time out. I don't know how long it will go before it runs out of power entirely. I suspect it won't be long before I find out, however.

Read more by James Maxey

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