Oxrun Station #3: The Sound Of Midnight

It’s midnight, the witching hour, and the ominous chanting from the orchard hill has been replaced by incoherent screams of terror. That can only mean it’s time to return to Oxrun Station, the supernatural town where evil stalks the streets at night and people don’t always die when they’re killed. Let’s listen to The Sound of Midnight, by Charles L. Grant.

Synopsis:

Oxrun Station is a quiet, peaceful town. It’s children are ordinary, innocent kids. Their favorite place is the toyshop run by Dale Bartlett. Dale Bartlett’s ordinary world is about to end. Nothing is as simple as it seems. Oxrun Station is a gathering place for evil. The children’s games are an ancient ritual woshipping an old and angry god. Their temple is an abandoned orchard. No god can like without sacrifice. Will Dale Bartlett be the next adult to die?

Source: the back of the book, but here a Goodreads link as well

SPOILERS BELOW

The Sound of Midnight has all the elements of a potentially good horror novel: possessed children, a secret cult performing a ritual to awaken their sleeping gods, supernatural murders carried out through fire and water. And, unlike previously-reviewed Oxrun Station novel The Bloodwind, it doesn’t take 3/4 of the book for the story to actually get started: things kick off with a murder right off the bat. So why is it that, despite all that, the book never quite gels?

I think it’s because the supernatural rules by which the story operates are never made clear. Okay, so awakening the Children of Don and Llyr requires a certain number of supernatural murders by midnight on November 1, carried out using the Hound of Culann chess pieces to direct the gods’ wrath; and Dave Campell tried to prevent this by giving the chess set to Dale Bartlett and teling her to sell it to an out-of-towner. Why didn’t he just destroy the pieces? Are they like the One Ring, capable of being unmade only in the fires of Mt. Doom? That’d be a pretty contrived explanation, but at least it would be an explanation – the book doesn’t actually provide any reason whatsoever for Dave’s action. Later, Dale disrupts the ritual and gets the cult leader dragged off to hell by throwing the chess pieces into the supernatural flames summoned by the gods. So I would normally assume that it was only in such supernatural fire that the chess pieces could be burned – except, that it previously had been implied that the very same supernatural fire would not damage the chess pieces. You know, since Hound of Culann pieces were given to sacrificial victims in order to mark them as targets for the gods’ fiery wrath, and would afterwards be found undamaged amidst the ashes and charred remains of the poor immolated suckers who’d been carrying them. It’s hard to be impressed by the characters solving a problem when the rules of the problem don’t make sense. So, rather than it feeling like a natural climax to the story for Dale to figure out how to destroy the chess pieces and disrupt the ritual, it seems like either Dave was an idiot for not destroying the pieces in the first place or else Dale was granted a peek at the script in order to magically know that the chess pieces could be destroyed in this way (and only this way) despite the fact that the same fire had failed to destroy them before. It’s not solving a mystery if the answer just comes out of nowhere.

And then comes the part of any horror novel I like least – the shock ending. It seems to be a rule that, no matter how completely the forces of evil are defeated, no matter how deader-than-dead the monster appears to be, it has to inexplicably reappear or return to life at the end, no matter how little sense it makes. It’s so predictable that my usual reaction is just to sigh, roll my eyes, and pretend it didn’t happen. But The Sound of Midnight managed to not only do this badly, but do it badly in a way I’ve never seen before.

See, Dale is in the hospital after destroying the chess pieces and disrupting the ritual. She has one of the formerly possessed kids, Jaimie, with her and is talking like she’s going to adopt him – which might seem a little strange, considering that she only knows him as a customer of her toy store and recent vessel of an evil god, but remember the law I pointed out in my review of Industrial Magic: any woman who is a protagonist in a supernatural series simply must adopt the first adorable orphan they meet. With Jaimie’s parents now dead, obviously Dale is going to adopt him, no matter how little sense it makes; that’s not the stupid part. No, the stupid part is that he then opens his hand and shows her a Hound of Culann chess piece, causing Dale to go into a screaming fit of hair-tearing insanity. Except… it’s not like this chess piece magically restored itself from destruction. Dale already knew that there was one piece absent from the collection she pitched into the flames, because it was she herself who tossed it away in order to divert the evil fireball manifestation trying to turn her into one of the burnt-offering sacrifices. Even with this one piece still intact, destroying the others seems to have worked: the ritual stopped, the cult leader was sucked into the bowels of the Earths, the children were freed from possession, and so on and so forth. And yet, despite her total victory, Dale is having hysterics like it’s the end of Halloween and Michael Myers has just returned from apparent death to stab her in the last few seconds before the closing credits.

See, usually the problem with the final shock is that it completely undoes the story’s closure: the monster is still alive after all, the evil force kills the final girl just when it looks like she’s escaped, and it turns out the protagonists didn’t actually accomplish one single thing. Here, that isn’t the case – the hero really did succeed, the evil really was stopped for good, the girl really did escape with her life – and yet she’s acting as if she’d failed. I suppose you could argue that fighting the forces of evil so traumatized Dale that the sight of the Hound of Culann triggered PTSD; but if her recent experiences were really so horrible that she can’t bear to be reminded of them, you’d think she wouldn’t be falling over herself to adopt Jaimie – who, remember, spent the past five months possessed by an ancient evil god. But having him living in her house is apparently A-OK; unless he’s holding the one remaining chess piece, in which case it’s time to run screaming for the hills? I don’t get it.

Anyway, since his graven image played such a big role in the plot let’s see what the Hound of Culann himself thinks of this story:

lancercuchulainn

Not amused, huh? No, me neither. The Sound of Midnight can go to the dogs.

Final Rating: 2/5

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Women Of The Otherworld #4: Industrial Magic

We return once more to the Women of the Otherworld in Paige Winterbourne’s second story. It’s time for some Industrial Magic, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis:

The Women of the Otherworld return in this follow-up to “Dime Store Magic,” now available in a Special Value-priced edition. Haunted by a dark legacy, Paige Winterbourne is put to the ultimate test as she fights to save innocents from the most insidious evil of all.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Right from the get-go, Industrial Magic hits a better stride than its predecessor. Whereas Dime Store Magic was bogged down by an opening mired in the mundane world, this story doesn’t waste time getting to the conflict: someone’s killing Cabal members, and it’s going to be up to Paige and Cortez to find and stop them. There is some initial discussion about them turning down the case, and cue eye-roll because nobody is naive enough to believe the protagonists would actually walk away from what is clearly the main plot of the book, but fortunately the murders come at a fast enough pace that this fake tension isn’t dragged out for an unreasonable amount of time (unlike Dime Store Magic, where Paige was refusing Cortez’s help even when she was under arrest because she allegedly hated him that much, despite it already being obvious to the reader that they were going to become a couple).

The main focus of the novel is on Paige and Cortez’s investigation, and it’s done well: fast-paced enough to keep interest, but enough diversions and false leads to avoid the conclusion becoming too obvious too soon. I especially enjoyed the return of Cassandra the vampire, whose disinterest and self-centeredness made her an excellent comedic foil for Paige during the investigation. It’s also nice to finally meet Eve, who we previously only heard about from other characters with very biased views of her, and get a sense of what she’s actually like. On the downside, though, Savannah is pretty much pushed to the sidelines. It makes sense, in terms of the story – she perfectly fits the profile of the type of victims the killer is targeting, so it’d be frankly irresponsible to bring her straight into harm’s way – but I nonetheless feel her absence. Every badass female magic-user in an urban fantasy novel series is required by law to adopt the first adorable orphan girl they come across: Julie from the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, Mia from the OSI series by Jes Battis; the list goes on. It’s because aliens made them do it. By which I mean the movie, Aliens; whenever a writer is struggling with how to make a female protagonist totally badass and yet still in touch with her femininity, their mind immediately goes to Ripley and Newt and the “Get away from her, you bitch!” scene.

The book also lays more groundwork for the future of the Women of the Otherworld series by introducing the ghost world inhabited by the spirits of the departed. Just as Stolen expanded the boundaries of the series from just stories about werewolves to stories about all sorts of other supernatural races, this book introduces an entire additional world and potential cast of characters. I’ll confess to a certain amount of trepidation when a story introduces travel to and from the afterlife, since it runs the risk of trivializing death (I say this as someone who watched far more episodes of Dragonball Z than is healthy) and can raise certain logical questions about what the stakes are for characters who are already dead (the Sandman Slim series, due to having Hell as a major setting, was compelled to introduce a double-Hell for people who die while already in Hell). But it was handled well enough in this book, so I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for the future.

The book is not without flaw, though; most notably, the pacing has a bit of hiccup near the end. When Paige and Cortez fall through the portal to the afterlife while fighting the murderer and have to cut a bargain with the Fates for a way back home, that feels like the climax. With the following chapter as denouement to wrap up all the loose ends, it honestly feels like the story’s complete and the book could end there. Then it turns out the villain didn’t fall through the portal after all, and they have to devote a few more chapters to defeating him for a second time. Not that those chapters are bad or anything, the final confrontation is suitably well-written and suspenseful, they just don’t feel necessary. Going to the afterlife and having to bargain with the gods for a second chance was already pretty much the most dramatic outcome the fight could have – round two isn’t going to top that.

All in all, Industrial Magic is another strong outing from the Women of the Otherworld, and I feel comfortable recommending it.

Final Rating: 4/5

Oxrun Station #9: Tales From The Nightside

A black moon rises. Monsters prowl the streets, formless creatures shift in the shadows, and undead abominations seek to extend their unnatural existence by feasting on the souls of the living. That can only mean one thing: it’s time to return to Oxrun Station with Tales From The Nightside, by Charles L. Grant.

Synopsis:

It’s a collection of short horror stories by Charles L. Grant. There’s no official synopsis available, but here’s the Goodreads link anyway.

SPOILERS BELOW

Technically, Tales From The Nightside is not merely an installment of the Oxrun Station series; it also contains stories set in other horror universes, such as Hawthorne Street. I’m not sure why, however, given that as a setting it’s pretty much indistinguishable from Oxrun Station: seemingly ordinary location with ghasts and ghoulies lurking beneath the veneer of normalcy. Ironically, though, the stories which are not set in Oxrun Station form the superior offerings in this collection. The Oxrun Station stories are, without exception, simply no good. I’ll give you a brief description of them, and see if you can figure out why:

In “Coin of the Realm”, the protagonist Wes, who has never appeared before and will never appear again, meets a horrible fate at the hands of a returning Egyptian god, which has never appeared before and will never appear again. In “Home”, the protagonist Art, who has never appeared before and will never appear again, meets a horrible fate at the hands of Cal Schiller’s little darlings, which have never appeared before and will never appear again. In “If Damon Comes”, the protagonist Frank, who has never appeared before and will never appear again, meets a horrible fate at the hands of Damon’s ghost, which has never appeared before and will never appear again. In “A Night Of Dark Intent”, the protagonist Martin, who has never appeared before and will never appear again, meets a horrible fate at the hands of a group of undead, who have never appeared before and will never appear again.

It’s hard for a story to be scary when it’s so painfully predictable, and it’s hard to get invested in a character who you know is just going to die. One of the strengths of setting stories in a wider universe like Oxrun Station is that you can establish recurring heroes, villains, and supporting characters for the audience to become invested in, building up their characterization through multiple appearances even if each individual story is too short to contain a full character arc. It’s impossible to do this, however, when every protagonist dies at the end of their introductory story and every villain is a mere one-shot menace who never appears again, even if they were still at-large at story’s end. I mean, I didn’t much like The Bloodwind, but at least it had a narrative arc, even if it did move as slowly as molasses: Pat realized there was a supernatural serial killer committing murders using the Bloodwind, uncovered the killer’s identity, and stopped them. That’s a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The Oxrun stories in Tales From The Nightside don’t conclude, they just stop.

The stories from the other two-thirds of the collection are somewhat better, sometimes. They at least don’t all end exactly the same way, meaning it’s possible to read them and feel an emotion other than boredom as you wait for the inevitable conclusion. I still wouldn’t call any of them great, but at least the variety is nice.

I’d say that out of the fifteen stories in the collection, there are three I actually liked – notably, none of them from the Oxrun Station portion. I thought the premise and villain of “Needle Song” were quite interesting, and actually got somewhat invested in the story of Eric and Caren trying to save their street, though unfortunately the ending turned out to be just another variation on the ‘protagonist dies pointlessly without having accomplished anything’ theme the collection has. “The Three Of Tens” likewise managed to be entertaining, despite its heavy use of cliches, what with the little shop that disappears after selling the protagonist a cursed trinket and the ending where the monster seems to be defeated but it turns out it actually wasn’t and is going to be coming back again. It struck me as pretty similar to the Stephen King short story “The Sun Dog”, actually, though without that tale’s thematic cohesion of debt and interest; a connection which I may have made because Stephen King actually wrote the foreword to this collection. The third story I liked was “From All The Fields Of Hail And Fire” because, despite it being another story ending in the protagonist’s death, this one at least had the protagonist die heroically in the act of defeating the monster, thus giving the tale something of a point to it. Plus, I like how evocative the title is, how it paints the picture of snow and burning stone falling down on the field over the monster’s lair after Gary dynamites it sky-high.

But three halfway-decent stories out of fifteen is certainly not enough to redeem this collection in my eyes. Oxrun Station has, once again, failed to entertain or frighten. If you want to read some tales from the Nightside, I recommend you stick to the ones by Simon R. Green.

Final Rating: 2/5

Women of the Otherworld #3: Dime Store Magic

Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble. The women of the otherworld return in their third outing. Buy a potion for a quarter and get three nickels in change; it’s Dime Store Magic, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis:

Paige Winterbourne was always either too young or too rebellious to succeed her mother as leader of one of the world’s most powerful elite organizations- the American Coven of Witches. Now that she is twenty-three and her mother is dead, the Elders can no longer deny her. But even Paige’s wildest antics can’t hold a candle to those of her new charge- an orphan who is all too willing to use her budding powers for evil… and evil is all too willing to claim her. For this girl is being pursued by a dark faction of the supernatural underworld. They are a vicious group who will do anything to woo the young, malleable, and extremely powerful neophyte, including commit murder- and frame Paige for the crime. It’s an initiation into adulthood, womanhood, and the brutal side of magic that Paige will have to do everything within her power to make sure they both survive.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

With Dime Store Magic, the Women of the Otherworld series shifts focus from Elena the werewolf to Paige the witch. This shift allows us to explore a whole new batch of interesting stories: Paige developing a relationship with the sorcerer Cortez, despite the disapproval of her oppressive Coven. Paige uncovering the lost secrets of why witch magic seems so much weaker than sorcerer magic. Paige battling Leah, the telekinetic half-demon who murdered her mother, along with a pack of other supernatural thugs in the employ of a rich and powerful sorcerer Cabal. And… a legal battle in the human court system over custody of Savannah. That last one is really the least interesting, so it’s a shame that’s the story the novel chooses to open with.

The other plotlines are good, mind; it’s just a slog through the first part of the book in order to reach them. In a book about supernatural beings in a supernatural world, the last thing I want to read about is them deliberately refraining from doing anything supernatural. If I was interested in non-magical law procedurals, I’d be reading a John Grisham novel instead. Even when the villains try to raise the stakes by going from suing for custody to framing Paige for murder, it’s still just a mundane problem; it doesn’t really compare to the tension of summoning a demon to try and bite your face off.

At least supernatural conflict does come into it by the time of the climax, and is interesting enough; it’s just a shame I had to wait for it instead of being able to dive in straight off the bat. On the plus side, Paige, Savannah, and Cortez are all interesting characters that I enjoy reading about – though in Cortez’s case, the book again insists on stretching out Paige’s animosity with him for a painfully long time, even though it’s patently obvious to anyone who’s ever read a book of this kind before that they’re going to end up as lovers. This book feels like the first draft came in at half the desired length and had to be padded out.

Fortunately, the subplot Paige’s investigation into witch magic managed to sustain my interest through the subpar first half of the book and get me to the good bits, including a satisfying final confrontation between Paige and Leah and a suspenseful climax where Paige has to save Savannah from herself. It’s ultimately enough that I found the book to be overall enjoyable, despite the slow start. I just hope future books in the series are a bit quicker off the starting line.

Final Rating: 3/5

The Stonehenge Gate

Today, I’ll be reviewing a book which was written when the author was 97 years old. Now that is an incredibly inspirational fact: never give up on your dream of getting published, for even if you think your moment has passed, it is never too late to write a book. But, is it possible to write a good book? Let’s answer that question by looking into The Stonehenge Gate, by Jack Williamson.

Synopsis:

In a basement in New Mexico, four poker buddies and amateur adventurers who have discovered a dark mystery buried beneath the sands of the Sahara desert decide to do something about it.

In the deep Sahara, they find an ancient artifact that will change their lives and the world, forever… a gateway between planets that links Earth to distant worlds where they discover wonders and terrors beyond their wildest imagination.

Jack Williamson, the dean of science fiction writers, masterfully weaves an exciting tale that takes the friends to the far corners of the universe. While one leads an oppressed people towards freedom, another uncovers clues that could identify a long-dormant super-advanced civilization of immortal beings, and the key to the origin of life on Earth.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

And unfortunately the answer is no, no it is not; or, if it is, then this book isn’t it. Sorry to stomp on this inspirational story so quickly, but the problems with The Stonehenge Gate are so large and so apparent that it is impossible to get through even the first chapter without getting the sinking sensation that this book really isn’t going to be all that good.

Partway through chapter one, you see, I ran face-first in to a huge, massive, steaming exposition dump as Ram, out of nowhere, began talking about how his grandmother “Little Mama” told him stories of being taken to hell by metal devils and stealing a key which let her escape through a temple of bones, and spoke of god-folk and the god-mark and the god-blood, and that his hereditary birthmark was the crown of worlds, and also gave him the key to the gate before she died.

Now, this is a massive pile of coincidences. That one of the four people to discover this long-lost interplanetary gate would just so happen to be the descendant of a human from another world who passed through the gate, and just so happen to be from a special bloodline bearing a symbol on his forehead that marks him as a messiah to the people of that other world, and just so happens to possess the magic plot trinket that allows him to activate the gate. This might just barely be able to work if the revelations were strung out so as to occur one at a time over the course of the whole novel, each discovery flowing naturally from the last so that we don’t think about how overall improbable it is. It would also help if they were presented as natural consequences of one another instead of just coincidences: for instance, if Ram had the Four Horsemen specifically looking for evidence of an alien gate in that area of the Sahara because of the stories that Little Mama told him, instead of just going “oh, by the way, that reminds me…” after it was discovered for entirely unrelated reasons. As it is, just placing this huge exposition dump in the first chapter and presenting it as a coincidence snaps the suspension of disbelief like a brittle twig beneath a tank tread.

You know what also might help? If the story was from Ram’s perspective. Will Stone narrates the story, but he never actually does much of anything. It’s Ram who heard stories of the world beyond the gate from Little Mama and learned the language of the natives, Ram who has the royal birthmark and special plot trinket, Ram who is the prophesied messiah come to liberate his people from slavery. That sounds like a main character to me. Not to mention, if Ram were the first-person narrator, his backstory could have been related naturally through flashbacks, reminiscences, internal monologues, and so on and so forth; anything other than him awkwardly giving his colleagues a long speech about everything his Little Mama told him which he never thought important enough to mention up until now.

Then there’s the direction the plot itself takes. When Lupe is abducted by one of the Hoppers, the “metal devils” from Little Mama’s stories, it’s only natural to assume that the story will be about the other three heroes tracking down where they took her and rescuing her. Instead, however, they get sidetracked onto a mission to liberate slaves on the world Little Mama came from. By the time they’ve sorted that out and gotten back to looking for Lupe, she’s already anticlimactically gotten free and gone on her merry way – and the anticipated battle with the metal devils never occurs. The book doesn’t really have a climax; just a very long, very disappointing denouement.

And then there are just the general plot inconsistencies; little things which I might have been willing to excuse or overlook if my suspension of disbelief had still been intact, but as it was just struck me as confirmation that the story wasn’t thought through very carefully. For instance, to name just one example, upon first traveling through the Sahara gate, the Four Horseman find an inhospitable landscape littered with the bones of African animals: impalas and lions and so forth. They conclude that these are animals which accidentally stumbled through the gate and were unable to survive in the harsh conditions on the other side – this right after establishing that the gate only opens for people who are carrying a special key like the one Ram inherited from Little Mama. Where, I wonder, did all those animals acquire keys?

There are hints of good ideas in The Stonehenge Gate, but they never amount to anything; and the story we do get is riven with far too many flaws to be enjoyable.

Final Rating: 2/5

The Black Sun

When I was but a wee young lad, I was browsing the shelves of my local library and came across a certain book. Intrigued by the title and cover illustration, I checked it out and ended up enjoying it greatly. Recently, I saw a copy of this selfsame book on sale for quite a low price, and decided to pick it up. I remembered how much I liked it as a kid; but now, as an adult with so much more experience of great works of the genre, will it still hold up? Let’s stare at The Black Sun, by Jack Williamson.

Synopsis:

In the near future, humankind’s Project Starseed uses faster-than-light quantum-wave technology to send colonists to distant star systems. When the ninety-ninth – and final – ship lands on a bleak and icy world in the shadow of a dead star, the future looks grim for the colonists. First an exploration party disappears without a trace. Soon the colonists are besieged by sabotage and deadly conflict. Meanwhile, though billions of years have passed without life on the iceworld, the arrival of the humans has set something astir. This mysterious entity will determine the fate of the ship, and of a world poised between death and eternity.

Source: the back of the book

Obligatory Goodreads link

SPOILERS BELOW

Right away, I realized that the book probably wasn’t as great as my faint childhood memories of it. The plot, which had struck me at the time as so original and fascinating, now seemed faintly cliche. Indeed, as I was re-reading it, I could not help but to continually draw parallels with the abysmal Lost in Space film (coincidentally released the year after this book came out). Colony ships launched from a dying Earth? Saboteur sent to destroy ship ends up getting stuck on board? Ship travels far into the future as well as to an unknown location in distant space? Landing amidst snow and ice on an inhospitable planet? Well, at least give the book some credit: it doesn’t have a legion of spiiiiiiiiders or an abominable CGI monkey.

But on the other hand, at least in Lost in Space, Dr. Smith saved Judy’s life, thus giving a reason for the Robinson family to spare his life. Roak tries to blow up the ship with a bomb; and instead of being thrown out an airlock without a suit, he gets allowed to join the crew for no particular reason.

Then there’s the cliche that the psychic aliens can only communicate with the youngest child in the cast. I’ve seen this done before many times, in many ways: quite well in Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson, and quite badly in Odyssey by Jack McDevitt. Usually, there’s some flimsy justification as to why the aliens are choosing to route all their psychic transmissions through prepubescent moppets who, while adorable, have no authority or credibility. The reason given in this case is that Me Me has to communicate through Day because it’s easier for children to acquire new languages. The actual reason is, of course, to have everything the aliens say filtered through someone the adults won’t believe, thus preventing the plot from being resolved much quicker.

Speaking of quickness, another issue is that most of the book’s narrative urgency ends up being unnecessary. For most of the story, it seems critical that the characters rush to Skyhold with all possible speed, for Me Me is under siege by winged black shadows. One gets the sense that there are two alien forces at work: Me Me, who is beckoning the human colonists for aid; and the shadows, who are threatening her. As it turns out, however, the shadows were never real; just an ancient racial memory which got mixed up with Me Me’s telepathic call. So really, there was no need to hurry at all – the characters could have taken the trip to Skyhold at a leisurely stroll, and nothing would have changed. It kind of drains away a lot of the tension when you read it with that it mind.

And finally, one more minor quibble. Me Me goes by the name of Day’s stuffed panda because her name has no English translation. Earlier, however, the memories experienced by Kip suggested that it was possible to translate the names to human equivalents: Watcher, Wave Rider, Far Diver, and so forth. But that’s just a nitpick, not something I’d actually dock the story points over.

So no, the book isn’t as good as I thought it was when I was a youth. But even so, there was plenty of enjoyable stuff in it. I was exaggerating before: it isn’t really anywhere near as bad as Lost in Space. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s decent enough that I feel comfortable recommending it.

Final Rating: 3/5

Rabid

I debated whether or not to review this one, since it’s non-fiction instead of a narrative. Ultimately, I decided that it deserved a write-up because it’s an interesting and well-written book, which is really more than I can say for a lot of the other stuff I’ve reviewed up to now. So hey, why not. Let’s take a bite out of Rabid by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy.

Synopsis:

An engrossing, lively history of a fearsome and misunderstood virus that binds man and dog. The most fatal virus known to science, rabies — a disease that spreads avidly from animals to humans — kills nearly one hundred percent of its victims once the infection takes root in the brain. In this critically acclaimed exploration, journalist Bill Wasik and veterinarian Monica Murphy chart four thousand years of the history, science, and cultural mythology of rabies. From Greek myths to zombie flicks, from the laboratory heroics of Louis Pasteur to the contemporary search for a lifesaving treatment, Rabid is a fresh and often wildly entertaining look at one of humankind’s oldest and most fearsome foes.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

…Except not really. “Spoilers” don’t really apply to a work of non-fiction. But I’ve kind of established a format for these reviews, and I don’t want to break precedent.

Rabid is informative, always a plus in non-fiction meant to educate and inform, but it’s also very well-written and entertaining. The importance of this cannot be overstated: I’ve picked up books about theoretically very interesting topics, only to put them back down in a hurry because they were boring as a tax return form or, worse, saturated with an overbearing aura of smugness; the author pausing every few pages to tell you how very clever he is and what grand new insights he has to offer. My efforts to read The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Stephen Jay Gould hit a will when he devoted an entire chapter to explaining his metaphor of evolutionary theory as a three-pronged piece of coral and how oh so much better and more appropriate it is than any other visualization; and as for Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, I may have to give that an entire review of its own.

Rabid wisely keeps the focus on rabies itself, and the cultural impact the disease has had on humanity over the thousands of years that it has afflicted humanity. Rabies is particularly interesting in this regard because it was known even in the ancient world; unlike more modern afflictions, it has had time to become deeply ingrained in legend, culture, and even language (ever heard the phrase “hair of the dog that bit you”?) It’s a fascinating topic with plenty of material for discussion. The book does sometimes wander a bit far from its central topic at times, going on long tangents about mythical dogs, swine flu, and monster movies, but it always manages to find its way back to present more interesting facts.

It doesn’t have the cohesive narrative or dramatic sensationalism of Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, but it is nonetheless a very interesting and informative book on the topic. For those interested in learning more about the subject of rabies, I certainly recommend it.

Final Rating: 4/5

Run

I mostly read science fiction and fantasy books… mostly. But I can be a bit eclectic in my tastes, and occasionally pick up something from a different genre. Sometimes, I even enjoy it. Sometimes… but usually not. Let’s take a look that got my hopes up before crushing them under its heel: Run, by Kody Keplinger.

Synopsis:

Bo Dickinson is a girl with a wild reputation, a deadbeat dad, and a mama who’s not exactly sober most of the time. Everyone in town knows the Dickinsons are a bad lot, but Bo doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

Agnes Atwood has never gone on a date, never even stayed out past ten, and never broken any of her parents’ overbearing rules. Rules that are meant to protect their legally blind daughter — protect her from what, Agnes isn’t quite sure.

Despite everything, Bo and Agnes become best friends. And it’s the sort of friendship that runs truer and deeper than anything else.

So when Bo shows up in the middle of the night, with police sirens wailing in the distance, desperate to get out of town, Agnes doesn’t hesitate to take off with her. But running away and not getting caught will require stealing a car, tracking down Bo’s dad, staying ahead of the authorities, and – worst of all – confronting some ugly secrets.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

What a massive disappointment.

This book started off very promising. It has an interesting structure, alternating between chapters in the present narrated by Bo and chapters in the past narrated by Agnes. It’s an interesting method of narration which throws you straight into the height of action while allowing for surprising twists when fleshing out the events which led to the current situation. An excellent example of what can be done with this sort of format is Iain M. Banks’s Culture novel Use of Weapons, which stands as one of his greatest masterpieces.

Of course, it’s also possible to use said structure poorly, too. For instance, Animorphs #47: The Resistance, where the lack of connection between the alternate stories makes one of them come off as boring and irrelevant. But that’s not really where Run trips up; it handles the pacing and reveals when switching from past to present perfectly fine. No, it succumbs to a far more common flaw: utilizing the hackneyed old “bait-and-switch lesbians” trick.

You see, in the Bo-narrated present-time chapters, they talk about how they love each other and they’re running away together and they’re going to live in an apartment together and buy a cat. Then you read the Agnes-narrated past chapters, and surprise! Agnes has sex with Colt! Turns out she’s straight! Agnes and Bo are just friends! And all those times they talked about loving each other, they really meant “platonic” love! It sure fooled you, didn’t it!?

Yes. It temporarily fooled me into thinking it might actually be an interesting novel, instead of just another non-committal story which teases the possibility of a non-traditional romance only to back out at the last minute in favor of the heteronormative option. Congratulations. The twist at the end of Use of Weapons made me re-evaluate the entire story and my opinions of the characters’ actions throughout; the ending of Run just made me feel angry at being deceived into reading a story by being teased with the prospect of it being something that it wasn’t.

For the record: if you offer someone a drink and then throw it in their face instead, you might very well surprise them, but don’t suspect to receive a positive review afterwards.

I was so very, very tempted to give this book a one just due to the extreme disgust I felt over the bait-and-switch, but I honestly can’t justify that when there are books out there which are just so very much worse. Still: what a massive disappointment. Run, alright. Run far, far away from this book.

Final Rating: 2/5