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WILLIAM MEIKLE

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Book Review – 5/5 stars to THE ABOMINABLE by Dan Simmons

The AbominableThe Abominable by Dan Simmons

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was wary approaching ABOMINABLE. I liked his other recent works, DROOD, and THE FIFTH HEART but felt both were bogged down somewhat by too much detail. And judging from the reviews I’d seen, ABOMINABLE was getting tarred with the same brush.

But I needn’t have worried. There is indeed plenty of detail here, especially of climbing gear and clothing, and the acts of climbing itself, but it serves the story better than in the other books, and where DROOD especially felt somewhat claustrophobic and dense, ABOMINABLE feels much more expansive and open, and gives a real idea of the joys of being on top of the world, and the freedom that can be felt there.

I hate heights. They make me go weak at the knees, and just reading some of the scenes here had almost the same effect, a testament to Simmons’ way with a descriptive passage.

Simmons’ prose is as excellent as ever, and the narrator, Jake, feels fully formed and alive. It’s a tale of derring-do on the world’s highest peak of course but it’s also about friendship, and adversity, and conquering obstacles. There’s also much in the latter part of the book that reminds me of some of Alistair Maclean’s adventures, with skullduggery in snowy landscapes.

It takes twists and turns I wasn’t expecting, and the title of the book might seem like a misnomer to some, as expectations of snowmen are a bit of a red herring. That doesn’t detract from the story. It’s a hefty book, but it doesn’t seem like it, and I thoroughly enjoyed Simmons’ return to the cold landscapes he evoked so wonderfully in THE TERROR.

Quality stuff, and highly recommended.

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Book Review – 3/5 stars to EARTHQUAKE WEATHER by Tim Powers

Earthquake Weather (Fault Lines, #3)Earthquake Weather by Tim Powers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

EARTHQUAKE WEATHER was, unfortunately a bit of a slog to get through. Powers mashes together the worlds and characters of LAST CALL and EXPIRATION DATE, but although, like all Powers books, it had its moments, there were just too many characters that I didn’t care about, and too much time spent with them all bickering while sitting around in a variety of rooms or vehicles. You know that long bit of the AVENGERS movie where they all act like spoiled kids? It’s a bit like that, but goes on for longer.

The Fisher King mythology took too much of a back seat to the ghost plot devices for me in this one, and, like EXPIRATION DATE, I felt it suffered because of it. Personally I’d have liked more focus on the Tarot and archetypes to take center stage instead of the bickering characters and multiple real, and ghostly, personalities.

But again, like EXPIRATION DATE, a sub par Powers is still better than most everything else. It’s just that my expectations had been set too high after the brilliance of LAST CALL.

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Book Review – 3/5 stars to EXPIRATION DATE by Tim Powers

Expiration Date (Fault Lines, #2)Expiration Date by Tim Powers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tim Powers is one of my favorite writers, but EXPIRATION DATE isn’t among my favorite of his books.

I’ve started and stopped it several times in the past, but this time I have the next in the loose series, EARTHQUAKE WEATHER to read and I was determined to push through and get to the end. But to be honest, I found it a bit of a slog.

It’s as well written as any of Powers’ books, but I don’t think the central idea of ghosts being able to be caught and sniffed as a kind of psychic cocaine is strong enough to hold this rather rambling plot together. That, and the fact that the main protagonist is an eleven year old kid who gets a ton of shit thrown at him in the story rather turned me against the whole thing from an early stage.

There are some of the great visual touches and dexterity with a sentence that we expect from Powers but too much of the story consists of people going somewhere to get something, then going somewhere else to get something else, then meeting someone who will tell them where to go to get the next thing. It’s like a modern L.A. version of a rather dull Dungeons and Dragons adventure and as such I found myself flicking pages to get to the good bits.

I think the main problem is one of too many point of view characters. We could have lost the lawyer completely from the story and it wouldn’t change it a bit, and likewise the female psychiatrist was often just hanging around to be someone for one of the protagonists to talk to.

Still, even second rate Powers is better than most other things, and there was enough to entertain me to make sure I made it to the end this time.

Onward to EARTHQUAKE WEATHER…

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Book Review – 5/5 stars to LAST CALL by Tim Powers

Last Call (Fault Lines, #1)Last Call by Tim Powers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My first read of 2017 straddled the old and new year, which is pretty apt for a tale of the death of an old king and the ascension of a new one.

LAST CALL is a dazzling jewel of a book. Powers pulls out all of his vast array of literary tricks, and not for the first time drags his Jungian archetypes to center stage to show off for him.

In this one we get Fisher Kings, blasted lands, fools and knaves, queens and one eyed jacks, all vying for control of the Kingdom and the power that comes with the role of the new King in a plot centered around the casinos of Las Vegas and the surrounding area.

So there’s that, but there’s also an almost noir feel to the book, like Raymond Chandler filtered through the eyes of a burned out poker player ready to cash in his chips for the last time.

As ever with Powers there’s wonderful characterization, tremendous set pieces, wild flights of fancy, and lyrical flourishes of brilliance.

This one won the World Fantasy Award in 1993 and fully deserves every plaudit thrown at it. It hasn’t dated either – you can still feel the desperation and despair in those Vegas casinos, and still see the lost and fractured people chasing their places in the Kingdom.

The old King wants to be reborn in a new body at the start of a new cycle, and will stop at nothing to avoid slipping away into the waiting dark. But the throne comes at a price, one that many others are also willing to pay. There’s a game being played, a high stakes one, and Powers makes sure the tension is ratcheted up all the way to the final hand.

It’s a great, great novel, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone with a taste for dark tinged, modern Arthurian Fantasy.

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Book Review – 4/5 stars to DROOD by Dan Simmons

DroodDrood by Dan Simmons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suspect DROOD is the Marmite of novels set in the Victorian era. Like all Simmons’ recent work, it is meticulously researched, but there also lies the problem, for he cannot stop himself from showing us that research on the page – not only the bits that are pertinent to the story, but too many of the bits that are merely interesting, but flow-stopping. As in another Simmons exploration of a literary figure, that of Henry James, in THE FIFTH HEART, we get details of dinner parties, lists of famous literary guests, and explanations of public buildings works that do nothing to further the story.

That said, I enjoyed the book enough to give it four stars, for as a writer, it is a fascinating glimpse into how we tell stories, both to ourselves and our audiences, and also how such stories take shape and form – and a certain degree of reality.

It also touches on something a lot of writers know but don’t talk about – the almost crippling at times green wave of envy and self loathing that comes when one of your friends has wild success. They’re still a friend, you still love them, but there’s that little voice, deep down, willing to commit murder in the face of their happiness… or maybe that’s just me. 🙂

Simmons’ control of point of view and the mechanics of the writing itself are as masterful as ever. The narrator is a fully realized character, although I doubt the real Wilkie Collins was quite so unreliable as portrayed here, for the prodigious quantities of opiates consumed would surely have left a man quite unable to write such great works as The Moonstone and The Woman in White.

His friendship with Dickens, and the way it affects Collins and his work, are nicely depicted, and there are some glorious set pieces, in a train crash, in the sewers under London, and in the descriptions of Dickens’ live performances.

You don’t need to have read either Collins’ or Dickens’ work to appreciate this book, but it does help to have done so, to provide context for a lot of the conversations between the writers, and also the final mystery of Drood himself.

I did like it, and it might have got five stars, if it had been two or three hundred pages shorter and tighter.

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Book Review – 5/5 stars to DECLARE by Tim Powers

DeclareDeclare by Tim Powers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

DECLARE is Tim Powers’ take on a British, Le Carre style spy novel, with his own added supernatural twists. And as such, it’s a resounding success. What starts in murky waters in the British spy services quickly spirals out into the history and final culmination of a decades long investigation into what might or might not inhabit the high peaks of Mount Ararat, the reasons why the Russians are so interested, and the motives, ulterior mostly, of one of the most famous spies of all.

Powers’ decision to weave this tale in and around the known facts of Kim Philby’s life in the secret services is a brave one, but having facts and actual events involved serves to anchor the story in reality and allows the flights of fancy and supernatural to feel more rooted. As ever, Powers’ narrative is a fractured one, but the aforementioned Philby life story serves as a backbone that holds the whole thing together, even the more outlandish sections.

Powers’ way with a sentence is much in evidence, and there are the trademark lyrical flourishes that, in this story even more than some of his others, reminded me much of some of the work of Roger Zelazny.

It’s a largish book, near 600 pages in the edition that I read, but I breezed through it , for despite the sometimes dense exposition which shows the depth of research that was undertaken, at its simplest, this is a love story, and what with that, and the added thrill of the Le Carre like machinations, I loved it, and read it in two sittings over two days.

Highly recommended.

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Book Review: The Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon

The Dreaming JewelsThe Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“They caught the kid doing something disgusting out under the bleachers at the high school stadium and he was sent home from the grammar school across the street. He was eight years old then. He’d been doing it for years.”

Come with me back to 1971. I know it’s a scarily long time ago, and many of you weren’t even born, but picture a wee Scots lad, 13 years old, and a science fiction geek in love with Asimov, Clarke, Wells and Wyndham. That’s me that is. I’d also read a few of Dennis Wheatley’s books by then, and I’d been thrilled by the horror / satanic aspects of the old bigot’s work, but his upper-crust characters were so far removed from my Scottish council estate life that I couldn’t identify with them at all.

One day that summer I was in the local library looking for something new as I’d burned my way through my aforementioned favorite authors. A name caught my eye – Sturgeon, which I knew was a kind of fish, and thought was a strange name for a person. But it said it was science fiction on the front, so I took it home.

I quickly found out it wasn’t really science fiction at all – but I was hooked after the very first paragraph anyway, so that didn’t matter any more. The Dreaming Jewels isn’t really science fiction. But it’s not really fantasy either, or horror. It’s what gets called Dark Fantasy these days. I imagine back when it was first published in 1950 they had a bit of trouble classifying it, containing as it does child abuse, sex changes, murder, infidelity and some close to the bone innuendo. It also has magic, carnivals, puppets, scenery chewing bad guys, extraterrestrial lifeforms, acts of selfless heroism, and a lovely twist ending that fits just right.

And there is definite horror along the way, including the aforementioned child abuse, and one of the best descriptions of what it means to be a frightened child I’ve ever come across. It’s all quite Bradburyesque in some ways, but with a harder edge – less misty sentimentality for a bygone era, more down and dirty.

As for the plot – on simple reading, it too is Bradburyesque. An 8-year-old boy named Horton “Horty” Bluett, runs away from his abusive family and takes refuge among the “strange people” in a traveling circus. Carrying only a smashed jack-in-the-box named Junky, Horty is hidden away, and disguised as a girl. The owner of the carnival, Pierre Monetre has discovered intelligent extraterrestrial life in the form of crystal-like jewels and is attempting to use them to get magical powers. As it turns out, Horty is the key to Monetre’s plans, and will be the only one powerful enough to stop him.

Now, that reads very pulpy, and in some respects it is, but Sturgeon knew how to put flesh on simple bones. You believe in all the characters in this book, some grotesque, some plain evil, others full of love and hate and despair all at the same time.

That first read opened my eyes to what was possible in genre fiction outside the names I mentioned earlier. It led me almost directly to Bradbury, and to Lovecraft a few months later. A couple of years after that some chap named King came along and changed everything again, but I’ve never forgotten the impact The Dreaming Jewels had on me.

It stands up well to rereading too. I read it again today before writing this and was drawn in all over again. It’s a lovely, lovely book, and I recommend it to all horror fans.

This review first appeared in THE BOOK THAT MADE ME section of the GINGER NUTS OF HORROR site in JAn 2014 ( http://gingernutsofhorror.com/books-t… )

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Book Review: 5/5 stars to THE DEAD ZONE

The Dead ZoneThe Dead Zone by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At its heart, The Dead Zone isn’t a horror novel at all. It’s a love story, a bitter-sweet tale of a love that might have been. Johnny’s relationship with Sarah runs through the middle of the story, the glue that holds Johnny together when everything else seems bleak and hopeless.

I think everybody knows the plot – Johnny wakes from a long coma with the ability to see the future – and what he sees is bleak – unless a single man can be taken out of the equation early. The moral implications, the ‘would you go back and kill Hitler if you could’ argument drives the story along.

Several themes that would recur in later King novels turn up here – the roads not traveled, a good man trying to do the right thing against seemingly impossible odds, and the corruption of the soul that comes with power. But it is Johnny, the broken man, that gets our whole attention. He’s a fully realised individual, one of King’s great strengths, and we feel his pain and confusion, firstly after the accident, and then, with increasing hopelessness and horror as his ‘gift’ demands its price.

I first read this on its initial publication, more than 35 years ago now, and I wasn’t sure about going back to it. I was worried that my feelings for it might have been colored by repeat viewings of the Cronenberg movie, and also by the somewhat lacklustre TV series from a few years back. I needn’t have worried. As ever, King pulled me in, and I got through it in two sittings with just a coffee break in the middle.

I believe I enjoy it more now than I did then – back in ’79 I was only a lad of 21 and I didn’t really identify with Johnny’s lost years, lost love or fear for the future. An older, more cynical me saw much more of myself in Johnny than I did then, and I do believe it’s risen up the ranks in my list of favorite King novels to somewhere near the top five.

Stilton is a great, slimy, villain in counterpoint to Johnny’s inate goodness, Sarah is as sweet as I remembered her, Johnny’s sacrifices tugged at the heartstrings, and the grace note at the end at the graveside did something it hadn’t managed before – this old cynical fart had a wee tear in his eye as he put the book down.

Five out of five stars, and I definitely won’t wait another 35 years before reading it again.

(This review originally appeared in the KING FOR A YEAR review project in 2015, hosted by Mark West ( http://kingreviews2015.blogspot.ca/ )

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Book Review: Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin

Fevre DreamFevre Dream by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the best written vampire novels I have read. A real pleasure after having waded through so much tripe elsewhere.

GRRM knows how to write, and how to plot.

The main character in this book isn’t really a person at all… it’s a steamboat, the Fevre Dream. It is built by a Captain, and his strangely pale partner. Together they take to the river, getting involved in trying to set fast times and race other steamers.

Things hot up when it becomes obvious that the pale partner has night-time interests. He is hunting for others of his kind. And when he finds them, we get to some of the most vicious vamps in literature, along with their equally vicious human “pet”

The characters are all vividly drawn, especially Abner, the steamboat captain who just wants to be on the river, in a big boat.

And GRRM has enough twists and turns in the plot to keep the reader interested through until the end, which comes with a perfect grace note. There won’t be a dry eye in the house.

They really should make this into a movie.

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