Book review: The Murders of Molly Southbourne

The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a weird story that effortlessly embraces its weirdness.

Molly Southbourne is an only child raised and homeschooled on the family farm under the guise of having hemophilia. What Molly really has is much stranger and deadlier than that. Every time she bleeds she produces a clone of herself that eventually turns murderous and tries to kill her.

The novella is largely framed around the mystery of why this happens while chronicling Molly’s training by her parents on how to avoid making clones and combat them if needed.

Molly becomes very efficient in combating them.

Fed by insatiable curiosity, but lacking the social skills acquired from being out in the world, Molly turns into a clinically efficient young woman, one who knows exactly what she wants, speaks to others with a daring frankness, and pursues her goals with relentless precision. She is admirable, if not entirely likable.

The story does address this, but it feels a bit too late to resonate much. It is there, though. It’s perhaps a case where a longer work would have expanded more on the theme of Molly not really connecting with anyone due to her bizarre upbringing and the freakish requirements for survival she endures.

And while the story is violent and gruesome, and devoid of sentimentality, there is a certain droll quality to the proceedings as Molly literally stacks up the bodies of her bloodthirsty clones.

The ending is neat, but I am unsure how I feel about it. The ride getting there is, well, fun isn’t quite the word I’d use, but it definitely entertained, with prose that moves as crisply and briskly as Molly with her clone-crushing hands.

Recommended, if only because of how all-in author Tade Thompson commits to the premise.

(Note: I did not realize this is apparently the first book of a series–it stands on its own as a quick read, though.)

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Book review: Medium, Sweet, Extra Shot of Geek

Medium, Sweet, Extra Shot of Geek by R. Cooper

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is an odd romance story, and not because of the characters.

Tavio Reyes is a young ex-military man, working as a barista. He is quiet, somewhat intimidating to others, and not entirely sure how to live his civilian life. The counter behind which he makes drinks is his domain, and he works with care and precision.

Tommy O’Shaughnessy is a talkative nerd who also happens to have the sculpted body of a gym bunny for reasons that are never explained. He comes in to the coffee shop to get his favorite drinks and flirt with Tavio.

This goes on for a year and nothing much happens.

Things seem like they might be inching forward when Tommy abruptly introduces his nine-year-old daughter. Tommy invites Tavio to his daughter’s baseball game (so much for a hot date). Tavio reluctantly agrees to go. Tavio does everything reluctantly.

Well, almost everything.

After the game they go to the parking lot and smooch. It’s implied that more happens later.

And that’s it.

While Tavio feels authentic, we never see much below the surface, just a few brief exchanges with his conservative but tolerant mother. Tommy feels more like a caricature, and acts in ways that aren’t just being loud or flamboyant, but a bit baffling, and there is never any insight presented as to why he acts this way. The whole story feels like a mass of detail was left untouched, so we are left with sketches of characters taking the first steps toward romance, after which the story is over.

The writing is fine, and the repetition of certain elements or dialog creates a rhythm that helps build a bit of tension, but it never really goes anywhere with it.

The sudden introduction of the daughter ends up being superfluous–it doesn’t materially add anything to the story, since Tommy having a child is never really dealt with in any detail. She ends up feeling like she was brought in to complicate things, but the complication part was forgotten.

On the plus side, it is impossible to be offended by anything in the story. It is sweet, but like a rich coffee creation, it’s all empty calories.

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Book review: If It Bleeds

If It Bleeds by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a new collection of four short novels in which King gets weird, traditional, and, of course, spooky.

Minor spoilers follow.

“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” is a simple story of revenge from beyond the grave, in which a young boy reads to a somewhat weird old man after school and they form a relationship that yields results even after Harrigan passes on. In the notes at the end, King highlights how he got an original working iPhone to play around with, and a lot of the fun in the story is treating the smartphone as a wondrous thing, even if it maybe rings in places it shouldn’t.

“The Life of Chuck” feels like an experiment and King again notes as much in the afterword. The scenes themselves are interesting, ranging from those instant and unexpected connections that can happen in public (or used to in The Olden Times), to cryptic, terrifying world-ending stuff. But the three pieces, presented in reverse chronological order, never really cohere into a whole. Maybe it’s intentional, maybe King wants the reader to fill in the gaps. In the end, Chuck was kind of unremarkable. Sorry, Chuck.

“If it Bleeds” is the closest to a full novel in the collection, and works as a sequel to The Outsider. Here, the story focuses on another shifter who has assumed the forms of reporters over the years, all the better to be close to the tragedy it feeds on. When it starts to create the tragedy it needs, it begins drawing a little too much attention to itself, and this is where Holly Gibney comes in.

Gibney was introduced in the first novel of the Bill Hodges trilogy, Mr. Mercedes, and as King again explains, was never meant to be more than a slight supporting character. He clearly loves writing about her and her role in each story has expanded as a result. It’s fun to watch her here as the main character, grappling with her family, the new outsider, trying to hold it together, growing more confident, but never too confident. The story itself is pretty straightforward, with few surprises and the actual outsider gets a bit too Campy Villain in the end, but Holly makes it well worth the read.

The concluding story, “Rat” is basically a monkey’s paw story, but King writes it with relish, with flashes of dark humor sprinkled throughout. The story is simple–an English professor struggles to write novels–past attempts having led to nervous breakdowns–but when he comes up with an idea he is certain he can execute, he gets offered a guarantee from an unexpected visitor in the family cabin he has hunkered down in to start writing.

One of the little details I love in the story is how effectively King gets across the idea of Drew Larson driving himself crazy over indecision, where choosing the right turn of phrase becomes a maddening series of endless but equal choices. The scenes with the titular rat are droll and cheeky. Sometimes a writer just wants to have fun with a story, nothing more, and “Rat” delivers that.

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Book review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, I want to express my relief that the trend of every other novel in the last five years having “girl” in the title has not merged with the newer trend of every non-fiction book having “f*ck” in the title.

Mark Manson is a guy with a potty mouth who found himself, started a blog and now has a few books like this one detailing his philosophy for living a better life. At its simplest level, it boils down to (with cursing) letting go of all the things that hold you back, because a) we’re all going to die and b) better to trey something and maybe find what you really want than to not try and muddle along, vaguely unhappy.

It’s not a bad philosophy.

He frames happiness–or rather, the misguided pursuit of what we think will make us happy–as a central problem in our lives. Don’t try to be like a celebrity, don’t just aim to make a lot of money doing whatever, think about what you enjoy, then pursue it as best you can. He uses his own misguided youth as an example of what not to do, and how the sobering, unexpected death of a friend woke him up and put him on a new path. Don’t worry, his advice does not rely on the sobering, unexpected death of a friend to work. Or at least I assume not. A lot of what Manson talks about is not particularly new–he advises against holding “shitty” values, and “rock star problems” (basically not appreciating what you have by unrealistically comparing yourself to levels of success that may be rare or unattainable to most). What makes The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck unique is Manson’s voice. As I said, he has a potty mouth, and there are passages in this book that made me chuckle or even laugh aloud. It helps the presentation a lot–if you’re into a somewhat blue version of getting what is essentially timeless advice on living.

F*cking recommended if you’re not averse to a little salty language mixed in with sensible advice.

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Book review: Full Throttle

Full Throttle by Joe Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are a few things you need to know about Joe Hill. The first is he does not seem to like happy endings. Happy endings do not make him happy. If you are looking for stories of hope or redemption or reconciliation, you will not find them here in any notable measure. The second is that it doesn’t matter, because Hill writes very good short stories, easily moving from fantasy to straight-up horror and stops in-between, while maintaining a tone and voice that is reminiscent of his famous father’s but still uniquely his own. It is a matter of taste when I say I didn’t care as much for certain stories, not a reflection on the talent and skill used to craft them.

Below are mini-reviews of each story. There are minor spoilers, so the non-spoiler summary is: Read this book if you like weird fiction or horror or have enjoyed any of Hill’s previous work.

“Throttle” (with Stephen King): Written as part of an homage to Richard Matheson, this story twists the premise of “Duel” around, making the trucker the hero. Violent and bloody, it is no pun to say this story moves.

“Dark Carousel”: In the notes, Hill confesses to shamelessly riffing on King in this tale of young adults having fun at the expense of the operator of a rather sinister carousel. The premise is absurd on its face, but Hill makes it credible. The ending is great, too.

“Wolverton Station” answers the question, “What would you do if you found yourself on a train in England that seemed to be filled with chatty, refined..and hungry wolves?” Goofy and gruesome, this is the lightest piece in the collection and is good furry fun.

“By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” starts off-kilter and kind of ends the same way. It’s a melancholic story about kids finding what may be the corpse of a fabled lake monster that captures the absurd logic of kids. And adults.

“Faun” is a twist on the mystic-door-to-another-world story that encapsulates the lack of happy endings in these stories. The biggest knock I have here is that none of the characters were especially likable, and I felt that hurt the overall effect of the story.

“Late Returns” is about a bookmobile that seems to attract ghosts. Hill weaves together the various encounters with the protagonist’s own struggle to come to terms with the deaths of his parents. One of the best in the collection, vintage Hill.

“All I Care About is You” features a rebellious teenage girl in the not-distant-future and the Clockwork automaton that acts as her personal assistant for an hour (after she feeds a couple of tokens into it). This one I immediately started thinking of how the girl would get her comeuppance after the story ended. This left me more satisfied with the story than I would have been otherwise.

“Thumbprint”: A tough as hell woman returns from duty in Iraq, only to find herself hunted on her home turf. Again, the story is delivered well, but the characters are unlikable.

“The Devil on the Staircase”: I read the ebook version of the collection, which dispenses with the staircase effect of the type found in the print edition. I’m kind of glad I didn’t have to read the story that way. Again, horrible people doing horrible things. This is probably the weakest story for me. It never seemed to generate much heat.

“Twittering from the Circus of the Dead”: A story told through tweets. I’ve done this, too. It’s a fun way to present a story and Hill pulls it off well here, right down to the cheeky ending. The people in this story are not horrible for a change.

“Mums” is a devastating look at a “separatist” family and how their lives come unglued while tending to their farm. Here Hill takes a page from Paul Tremblay, presenting seemingly supernatural elements that could also be explained by addled minds, dreams and such. Creepy and sad in equal measure, it captures a more extreme side of America that has all too often come to the forefront in 2020.

“In the Tall Grass” (with Stephen King) is an old-fashioned horror story about people getting lost in a field of very strange and tall grass. This has King’s prints all over it, to good effect.

“You Are Released” was previously featured in the Flight or Fright collection and remains one of my favorite Hill short stories. It’s a harrowing look at the end of the world as viewed through the eyes of the passengers on a commercial flight. I don’t know if the story resonates more with me as someone who grew up in the shadow of the cold war, but this one really hits.

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Book review: Seconds

Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Seconds, written by Bryan Lee O’Malley, author of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, is a graphic novel that delights in throwing unintended consequences at its protagonist, an ambitious young chef named Katie Clay.

Katie discovers a notebook and some mushrooms in a secret compartment in a dresser that resides in her suite above the restaurant she works in, called Seconds. The notebook offers the promise to undo something if you write it in the notebook, eat a mushroom, and sleep on it.

Feeling guilt over an accident that causes a waitress to burn her arms in the kitchen, Katie tries out the notebook and mushroom. The next morning the accident has never happened.

From there a spiraling set of complications sets in as Katie tries to fix more and more problems in her life–perceived and otherwise–unaware that there are other forces at work, not the least of which is a very odd girl who seems to roost upon the dresser from time to time, offering cryptic warnings.

The twists the story takes are best read unspoiled, so I won’t go further into the plot, but it honors the tradition of time travel/magic/tech stories where changing seemingly small things can have far-reaching results.

The narration is very much in line with what you would expect from O’Malley, breaking down the fourth well and sometimes even arguing with Katie directly. I love this stuff when it works well–as it does here.

The art takes advantage of the medium, especially as things go sideways and is pretty much a perfect match to the tone and delivery of the characters.

This was an enjoyable “What if?” romp and is, for me, a welcome addition to the sub-genre of using magic/tech to (try) fix the past. Recommended.

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Book review: Following

Following: A Marketing Guide to Author Platform by David Gaughran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David Gaughran’s latest on helping writers is a short volume on creating an author platform. With his usual wit, Gaughran cuts away the marketing hype and reassures the reader that an author platform is basically having an established presence online, not some great convoluted thing that would require a team of experts to assemble (though he does suggest outsourcing some aspects). He offers a mix of general and specific advice on what to do, ranging from what social media to focus on (to no surprise, he says Facebook is the one essential due to its reach, even if you may dislike Facebook as a company) to recommendations for hosting and content management systems (CMS)–and again, he not surprisingly recommends WordPress, which is to CMS as Facebook is to social media, though perhaps with less imperiling of modern democracy.

Much like his fourth (and now free) edition of Let’s Get Digital, Following also comes with a link to online resources that Gaughran promises to keep updated, extending the book’s usability beyond what is contained in the text.

For a beginning author, this is a welcome and even gentle way to introduce the idea of establishing yourself on the internet as a writer, even before you have completed your first book. Gauhgran’s advice is sensible and much of it is based on his own experience–learn from his mistakes so you don’t make them yourself! I especially like the tips that seem small or simple, but could have a profound effect (and may come as a relief to the starting writer), particularly in debunking some common beliefs, such as needing a robust presence on every social media platform, or needing to keep an active blog going. For those who have read Gaughran’s other books on writing, it will be no surprise that he pushes hard on building a mailing list.

Gaughran teases the possibility that Following could be expanded in the future (and this would not surprise me, he has an admirable devotion to this set of books), but as is, it is still an excellent and recommended resource to the aspiring author.

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Book review: Let’s Get Digital, Fourth Edition

Let’s Get Digital: How to Self-Publish, and Why You Should by David Gaughran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For the most part you can just check out my review of the Third Edition of the book–everything I liked about it has been kept in the fourth edition, so I’ll mainly focus on the changes.

The biggest is that the entire book has been rewritten, so it is not merely updated, but now reflects the market as of 2020, with Gaughran offering additional wisdom he’s gathered in the years between editions.

The comprehensive resources have now been moved from the book to a specific area of his website, which allows Gaughran to continuously update them–a welcome improvement that ironically makes the book more useful even as you set it aside.

Gaughran does make a few assertions that he had not previously (or at least that I don’t recall). The biggest, for fiction writers, is that he flat out says you should write series. It’s just the way of fiction now, and unless you’re already a well-established author or writing non-genre fiction, he maintains it pretty much cannot be avoided. He presents clear arguments for this, but it still makes me sad, because I love one-off stories and prefer them to series. He softens the blow a bit by saying that a series does not have to be literal sequels, but can simply share the same setting or characters.

As with previous editions, Gaughran keeps the tone light but the advice is serious, well-researched and backed by his own experience and the experiences he has heard from other authors.

If you are interested in self-publishing or have just started dipping your toes into the experience, Let’s Get Digital is and remains an excellent introduction to new authors. As before, highly recommended.

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Book review: Show Your Work

Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in Austin Kleon’s trilogy of motivational books for creative (and other) types. I read it after the other two, but they can easily be read in any order.

Much like the other books, Show Your Work is peppered with Kleon’s quirky illustrations and art as he provides insights and tips in easily digestible bites. The advice is sound, smart and simple, with each piece built around its own chapter.

This time the focus is on getting your work seen, your presence known and to push aside some long-held conceptions, such as how selling art leads to the corruption of it. One example Kleon points to is how Michaelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel).

The advice ranges from sharing some small part of your process with your audience every day (usually on the social media outlet of your choice) to dispensing with the notion of keeping everything secret, openly sharing how you work, how you do things, so that others can benefit from your knowledge as you may have benefited from the knowledge of others. Kleon is big on community, basically.

This is a good book and a short book, so it’s easy to dip back into it when inspiration or motivation is lacking, or when you feel you are drifting and losing focus.

This one leans more toward creative types, people who make stuff for others to enjoy, but I think anyone who can appreciate the same is bound to get something out of this book.

Recommended.

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Book review: The Nostalgia Nerd’s Retro Tech

The Nostalgia Nerd’s Retro Tech: Computer, Consoles & Games by Peter Leigh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Retro Tech provides just what it says on the tin. Starting with systems in the early 1970s, it provides a summary of virtually every video game console and personal computer released up until the debut of the original Xbox in October 2001.

Each summary includes a generous number of photos, sometimes including controllers or oddball accessories, or more mundane things like the power supplies. Leigh offers both an historical overview and also his own personal assessment on each device, which at times stands in contrast to how I saw some of the systems, accounting for the differences in reception between the UK and North American (and in particular U.S.) audiences.

Each summary concludes with a look at three games from each system: The Must-See, the Must-Play, and the Must-Avoid. A lot of the Must-Avoids are typically obscure fare (no, E.T. did not make the list for the Atari 2600–though it does get mentioned alongside the “winner”).

Leigh keeps the writing light and at times droll, never being afraid to call out lemons and questionable marketing of years gone by.

I was struck by the sheer number of systems that came out in the 70s and early 80s. It seemed that nearly everyone tried to get a slice of the video game pie before the famous crash of 1983. While there are systems that never sold well here in Canada that I was aware of–like the MSX computers, there are many listed here that I was utterly unfamiliar with, even leaving aside the UK-specific machines that never made it over here.

For anyone who grew up when these machines were coming out (as I did), this is indeed a heady dose of nostalgia. For others, it serves as a brief and well-illustrated history of the early days of video games and personal computers. In fact, my only real knock on the book is that each write-up only amounts to a page or so. I would love to see a more in-depth look at the same topic. As it is, I was able to tear through the book all too quickly.

Still, this was an enjoyable look back and an easy recommendation for those who would enjoy seeing the sometimes wacky products that came out in the quest for the early gamer’s dollars (or pounds).

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Book review: How to Sketch

How to Sketch: A Beginner’s Guide to Sketching Techniques, Including Step By Step Exercises, Tips and Tricks by Liron Yanconsky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book review: How to Sketch

This book does a good job in covering all the basics when it comes to learning how to sketch. Author Liron Yanconsky brings an amiable style to the subject as he introduces everything a new artist will need to know and need to have. Starting with the correct mindset, he covers some core concerns and requirements, such as accepting and embracing imperfection (you’re learning to sketch, after all), and the essential quality of being curious and seeking variety in what you sketch. He moves on to suggested materials, some basic techniques on how to use your eyes and even how to hold a pencil.

From there, he covers more specific aspects of sketching, including:

  • Perspective
  • Light and shadow
  • Tones and Textures

The final part of the book consists of working from included photos to produce full sketches of people, landscapes and more.

I suspect that at least some may become discouraged as they try to replicate the excellent results Yanconsky shows for each exercise. At times the sophistication required to accurately capture the scenes feels a bit like those old “Learn to Draw” ads that went from a few scrawled lines in the first panel to lavishly illustrated drawings in the fourth panel. Yanconsky addresses this in a way, urging the new artist to focus on sections, to build a sketch piece by piece when there is a lot to draw. His enthusiasm for the topic certainly helps.

As someone who can draw but not really draw well, I found the first half of the book, with its straightforward lessons on the aspects of sketching, to be quite helpful. While I may never been a sketching whiz, this book has helped me in ways that my own bumbling around wouldn’t have.

Recommended.

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Book review: The Dream Interpretation Handbook

The Dream Interpretation Handbook: A Guide and Dictionary to Unlock the Meanings of Your Dreams by Karen Frazier

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a bargain purchase, using my two criteria for such:

1. Is the book on sale?
2. Is the subject interesting to me?

If the answer is yes, I buy and take my chances if I am not familiar with the author.

I came away disappointed here, for a few reasons. While the book is competently written and is logically divided into two parts, the first being some background and historical analysis of dreams, and the second being a dictionary that defines possible meanings to specific dream events/objects, it ends up having a little too much woo in it and also comes across as a bit facile.

As an example, it’s stated that if you dream about aliens, you may be feeling alienated. I mean, really? Many of the scenarios fit into this kind of literal interpretation, which may make “sense” but also doesn’t require an entire book to illustrate.

In the end I just wanted more and maybe that’s not realistic when it comes to dream interpretation. The author emphasizes repeatedly that you may want to check your personal frame of reference before seeking more universal symbols/meanings to your dreams. This makes sense, but it even further diminishes the value of offering dream interpretation. And a lot of it just comes down to “you may be anxious about [thing]”, unless it’s a dream in which you are flying, one of the apparently few positive dream experiences anyone has.

I have not read other books on dreaming, so I don’t know if this work is representative of the overall body of dream interpretation, and to give author Karen Frazier credit, she provides a decent list of other sources to check out.

Still, I didn’t feel like I got much out of this and can’t really recommend it.

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