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Jonathan Stover (Ontario, Canada)

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Sgt. Rock Archives, The - VOL 02
Sgt. Rock Archives, The - VOL 02
by Robert Kanigher
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 60.99
16 used & new from CDN$ 60.82

4.0 out of 5 stars Rock the War, Feb. 5 2012
Sgt. Rock Archives Volume 2; written by Robert Kanigher and Bob Haney; illustrated by Joe Kubert, Russ Heath, Irv Novick and Jerry Grandinetti (1960-61; collected 2003): Second volume of the adventures of DC's Sgt. Rock and Easy Company in various WWII theatres of war sees Joe Kubert become Rock's primary artist and Robert Kanigher the primary writer.

War stories meant for children and early teens portray war as violent but bloodless, though Kubert's evocative, gritty art nonetheless makes war look pretty hellish. Sgt. Rock's adventures always tended to have a fabulistic quality, in part because like superheroes, Easy Company had far more adventures than could reasonably be accounted for in the chronology of the 'real' world. Instead, the reader gets bracing fables about courage, teamwork, and heroic death.

All of this is narrated by Rock, who sprinkles lessons-learned throughout that narration, explaining why and how he does certain things. Kubert's art is really the star here (ably replaced by Irv Novick, Jerry Grandinetti, and Russ Heath in a few issues).

Kubert was already the comic-book master of suggestion by the time the early 1960's rolled around, the art stripped down to lines and spot blacks, nothing fussy, nothing busy. The faces of the soldiers are distinct, unique, and careworn in places. The backgrounds are detailed when they need to be and suggestive when they don't. The machinery of war looks, for the most part, realistic without drawing attention to itself with too much wanky detail. The overall effect is smooth and memorable, almost soothing -- a textbook example of a comic book meant for children that could be enjoyed by adults, something we see almost nothing of today.

Spider [Import]
Spider [Import]
DVD ~ Ralph Fiennes
Offered by Vanderbilt CA
Price: CDN$ 39.95
10 used & new from CDN$ 9.97

5.0 out of 5 stars No Exit, Feb. 3 2012
This review is from: Spider [Import] (DVD)
Written by Patrick McGrath, based on the novel of the same name by Patrick McGrath; directed by David Cronenberg; starring Ralph Fiennes ("Spider" Cleg), Miranda Richardson (Mrs. Cleg/Yvonne/Mrs. Wilkinson), Gabriel Byrne (Bill Cleg), Lynn Redgrave (Mrs. Wilkinson) and John Neville (Terrence) (2002): David Cronenberg, bless his soul, likes to go places other filmmakers don't, won't, or can't. In the case of Spider, he heads back into the territory of Dead Ringers, giving us a horror story in which there is no catharsis, no growth, and no hope. It's an astonishingly bleak film.

Ralph Fiennes, complete with hair that was apparently an homage to Samuel Beckett (the playwright, not the Quantum Leaper), plays the titular schizophrenic without the bells and whistles someone like, say, Robert DeNiro might have demanded. There's no showiness, no look-at-me-acting scene of yelling or imploring the audience for empathy. Spider is almost completely mute, and when he does talk, he mumbles incoherently.

Spider's been released from a mental asylum into a halfway house when the movie begins, in a rundown, vaguely 1980's-looking urban England. His nickname comes from a tendency he's had since childhood to weave elaborate webs out of string and pieces of rope. He's a pattern maker. But he's also schizophrenic. The patterns he makes, the viewer needs to remember, may look sound, but they're inherently flawed.

The movie takes us through Spider's reminscences of his childhood, of what seems to be an ogre-ish and unfaithful father and a saint of a mother. How reliable are Spider's memories? Therein lies the mystery of the movie, inevitable as death. This isn't a movie to enjoy in a normal way -- it's horrifying, and there's no attempt to make Spider warm and cuddly, a Hollywood madman. He's very sick. And schizophrenia doesn't spring from some easily understandable childhood trauma: it's a disease, a cancer of the mind.

I was exhausted by the end of the movie, and that was from watching it in 20-minute increments over several days. But it was a good exhaustedness. But this isn't Rain Man or A Beautiful Mind. There are no easy life lessons here, no Nobel Prize, no well-meaning brother who learns valuable things from someone with cognitive difficulties, though there are, even for Spider, flashes of clarity amidst the crushing horror. And the clarity just makes the horror worse.

The Best Horror of the Year Volume 2
The Best Horror of the Year Volume 2
by Ellen Datlow
Edition: Paperback
14 used & new from CDN$ 27.52

3.0 out of 5 stars Getting Better, Feb. 3 2012

*Lowland Sea by Suzy McKee Charnas
The End of Everything by Steve Eller
Mrs Midnight by Reggie Oliver
*each thing i show you is a piece of my death by Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer
*The Nimble Men by Glen Hirshberg
*What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night by Michael Marshall Smith
Wendigo by Micaela Morrissette
*In the Porches of My Ears by Norman Prentiss
Lonegan's Luck by Stephen Graham Jones
*The Crevasse by Nathan Ballingrud and Dale Bailey
The Lion's Den by Steve Duffy
Lotophagi by Edward Morris
The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall by Kaaron Warren
Dead Loss by Carole Johnstone
*Strappado by Laird Barron
*The Lammas Worm by Nina Allan
*Technicolor by John Langan

Big, big improvement on the first volume of this series, with more excellent stories and fewer boring ones. I've starred the high points, which run the gamut from near-future apocalypse ("Lowland Sea" by Suzy McKee Charnas) through a bad night at the movies ("In the Porches of My Ears" by Norman Prentiss) to, well, a bad night ("What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night" by Michael Marshall Smith). The Toronto-set Gemma Files/Stephen J. Barringer story does a lovely job of combining both the structure and the content of new media with one of the oldest structures for a horror story (the epistolary format), while John Langan's story presents us with a mountingly dread-filled college classroom lecture on Poe. Recommended.

Batman: Unseen
Batman: Unseen
by Doug Moench
Edition: Paperback
19 used & new from CDN$ 33.56

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Invisible = Invincible, Feb. 3 2012
This review is from: Batman: Unseen (Paperback)
Written by Doug Moench; illustrated by Kelley Jones: Throwback to Moench's 1990's and 1980's work on Batman, some of it with Jones as illustrator. Batman, plagued by doubts about the efficacy of his Batman persona when it comes to frightening an increasingly unfrightened criminal lot, faces an invisible enemy -- a scientist driven crazy by his invisibility serum.

1980's Moench creation Black Mask, one of Gotham's criminal kingpins, plays a supporting villainous role. Jones's art is as interesting and grotesque as it's ever been, and Moench's Batman is a lot more human than most recent incarnations. The invisible villain isn't all that interesting, and Batman seems to have way more trouble fighting him than one would expect. Not a high point for either creator, but certainly diverting. Lightly recommended.

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories
The Imago Sequence and Other Stories
by Laird Barron
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 17.31
28 used & new from CDN$ 13.92

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Men Under Pressure, Jan. 27 2012
Either The Imago Sequence and Other Stories or something I ate gave me a screaming-to-awake nightmare, so that's a recommendation. I even fell out of bed. If I were blurbing this, I'd write "The Imago Sequence and Other Stories made me fall out of bed with horror!!!"

Barron collides at least two things -- the wounded, jaded, unheroic, macho American tough guy from Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy with a Lovecraftian secret history -- that haven't been collided much before to my knowledge.

There's a certain sameness in the overall conception of several of the stories (first-person-narrating tough guy encounters horribly, horrifyingly awry cosmos, gets stripped of his manhood by cackling representative of chaos), but the imagery and the characterization really carry the day. Also, there's a lot of violence towards men. It's like he's trying to balance the scales. Cracks appear in reality. Cracks appear in traditional constructions of masculinity.

It's hard to summarize any of the stories without giving away the surprising horrors that await. Several appear to occur in pretty much the same universe, one that's Lovecraftian without explicitly name-checking Lovecraft's alien pantheon. Much of the action occurs in Washington State and other West Coast areas (Alaska and Northern California both figure), where real-world oddities (the Mima mounds) jostle up against assorted incursions into everyday reality by some truly awful things. Barron's characters are generally doomed, beset by forces that can't be stopped, incapable of action until it's far too late.

One thing done well here is making characters sympathetic whose backgrounds are anything but (a ruthless real-estate tycoon, a leg-breaker, an aging CIA operative, a right bastard of a Pinkerton detective) -- thus, the stories don't reduce down to EC-style revenge horror, in which the supernatural takes vengeance where the natural has failed. And yet that's the basic concept that Barron uses in some of these stories. But what's coming is so awful that no man deserves it. Or maybe he does. I'll be damned if I know. Tough and poetic and occasionally very funny, Barron really is already one of horror's brightest talents. Highly recommended.

Second reading and review (November 2013):

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron (Collected 2007) containing the following stories: Old Virginia (2003); Shiva, Open Your Eye (2001); Procession of the Black Sloth (2007); Bulldozer (2004); Proboscis (2005); Hallucigenia (2006); Parallax (2005); The Royal Zoo is Closed (2006); and The Imago Sequence (2005): Barron's fictional cosmos, in which most and possibly all of these early stories take place, exudes dread. Barron himself is a marvelous writer who seemed to arrive fully formed in 2000, as good or better than all of his contemporaries, and then proceeded to get better over the following decade.

As with H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, Barron's fictional cosmos deploys many of the trappings of supernatural fiction in service to what is really science-fictional horror. What seems to be supernatural is really the result of beings and sciences too far beyond humanity to be fully fathomed by Barron's protagonists. None of the seemingly supernatural beings we encounter is remotely benign.

Humanity isn't so much cattle to many of these beings, per Charles Fort's classic construction, as it is game. Modern, 21st-century game animals, hopelessly doomed by the firepower of the modern hunter, still striving to escape while terrible things laugh at their impotency in the face of torture, death, dismemberment, or worst of all, transformation at the hands and tentacles and proboscises of their tormenters.

What helps set Barron apart from the majority of those who have followed in Lovecraft's squamous, gambrel, rugose footsteps is the nature of many of his protagonists. Most tend to be the hardest of hard-cases: professional killers, enforcers, former soldiers, Pinkerton men. When they come face to face with the ravenous, cloachal, aggressively sadistic god-monsters that populate the dark place of the Earth, they find themselves punching way, way above their weight class. But by God, many of them keep punching. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.

Barron's keen eye for both psychological and physical description is a joy to behold, regardless of the awfulness of what it is he's beholding. Even the worst protagonists seem benign compared to what they're facing.

There's a real sense of pathos in "Hallucigenia," to cite one example, in which a millionaire real-estate developer whose business practices are mostly loathesome but legal -- he specializes in displacing the poor in places such as Viet Nam so as to build factories -- comes up against...something. Something in an abandoned barn in the Pacific Northwest, where many of Barron's stories are set. Is he being punished? Well, no, I don't think so: Barron's universe, like Hemingway's, doesn't discriminate morally in terms of who it kills. Or eats. Or tortures. Or transforms.

There are awful wonders here, and marvelous images, and a measured approach to the accumulation of psychological detail. There are oddities I can't recall reading in any other horror writers. And there's a tremendous amount of re-readability, both to catch all the things you missed the first time, and to make the connections among the stories collected here and elsewhere. The stories can all stand alone, but the various intersections of characters, names, and locations often add extra levels of dread and delight. Highly recommended.

All-Star Archives Vol. 2
All-Star Archives Vol. 2
by DC Comics
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 64.95
18 used & new from CDN$ 40.82

3.0 out of 5 stars Superhistory, Jan. 23 2012
All-Star Comics Archives Volume 2; written by Gardner F. Fox and Sheldon Mayer; illustrated by Jack Burnley, Bernard Baily, Sheldon Moldoff and others (1941-42; collected 1992): In the 1940's, the Justice Society of America (appearing in book-length adventures in All-Star Comics) was what would later be DC Comics's first group of superheroes, created in part to boost interest in the lesser-known characters of the infant DC superhero community (Superman and Batman were honourary members who didn't really participate in the adventures, while other characters that included the Flash and Green Lantern would also become honourary members once they became popular enough, though both those heroes would eventually return to active status as the superhero boom of the early 1940's started to bust at the end of World War Two).

The first few appearances of the JSA involved members meeting to tell stories about recent cases. Quickly, though, All-Star Comics would showcase the evolution of the superhero group, with members first doing solo duty in individual stories oriented around a common quest and then members actually fighting together against a common foe.

The main JSA members at work here include Johnny Thunder, Dr. Mid-nite, Hawkman, Dr. Fate, the Atom, the Flash, the Spectre, and Green Lantern. We also get the first 'bonus' insert story in superhero history, as Wonder Woman gets introduced in a solo story in one issue. Eventually, the JSA would deign to make her their recording secretary, a skill I'm pretty sure life as an Amazon didn't prepare her for.

In this second archive edition, the stories are firmly in the second mode, with the heroes teaming up at the end for the sake of closure. Gardner Fox and editor Shelly Mayer were inventing a sub-generic form on the fly, with no real antecedents unless you want to get goofy and claim Jason and the Argonauts as the first superhero group. Wartime concerns form the motivation for the cases in this book, as the heroes seek to raise money for European war orphans, bust saboteur rings, and secure America from aerial attack with a super-secret 'bomb shield.'

This last quest -- and the last story in the book -- sees Fox finally start to write stories with a certain amount of fanciful 'oomph' to them. The JSA gets dispatched singly through a time-portal in order to retrieve plans for the bomb shield from several hundred years in the future. This allows Fox to finally play with exotic locales (cities in the sky and beneath the sea) and a certain amount of humble-pie for the JSA members, who discover that the average man of the future can mop up the floor with all but the most powerful of them.

Comic-book art in the 1940's could often be pretty awful (the page rates of the time didn't exactly make for a rewarding work situation), though the craftsmanship of the artists would increase as the months flew by. Jack Burnley, a longtime 'ghost' on the Superman comics, draws the Starman episodes here with skill and a certain degree of professional slickness, while Bernard Baily on the Spectre remains one of the more idiosyncratic artists of the early Golden Age. Recommended for superhero fans.

The Best Horror of the Year Volume 1
The Best Horror of the Year Volume 1
by Ellen Datlow
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 28.95
29 used & new from CDN$ 8.26

2.0 out of 5 stars A Disappointment, Jan. 23 2012
The Best Horror of the Year 2008 Volume One, edited by Ellen Datlow (2009) containing:

Cargo by E. Michael Lewis
If Angels Fight by Richard Bowes
The Clay Party by Steve Duffy
*Penguins of the Apocalypse by William Browning Spencer
*Esmeralda: The First Book Depository Story by Glen Hirshberg
The Hodag by Trent Hergenrader
Very Low-Flying Aircraft by Nicholas Royle
When the Gentlemen Go By by Margaret Ronald
*The Lagerstätte by Laird Barron
Harry and the Monkey by Euan Harvey
Dress Circle by Miranda Siemienowicz
The Rising River by Daniel Kaysen
Sweeney Among the Straight Razors by JoSelle Vanderhooft
Loup-garou by R. B. Russell
Girl in Pieces by Graham Edwards
It Washed Up by Joe R. Lansdale
The Thirteenth Hell by Mike Allen
The Goosle by Margo Lanagan
Beach Head by Daniel LeMoal
The Man from the Peak by Adam Golaski
The Narrows by Simon Bestwick

Being the most subjective of genres, horror lends itself to argument when 'best of' selections are made. What scares one person may make another person chortle. Based on my encounters with multiple-award-winner Ellen Datlow's horror and dark-fantasy editing, the two of us don't have particularly complementary tastes. The first volume of this 'Year's Best Horror' anthology series from Night Shade Books seems to me to be an awfully scattershot assortment of stories, with only three stories I'd pick myself for such an anthology (I've starred them, if you're interested).

On the bright side, the technical side of horror writing seems in good shape -- there's nothing badly written here. Some of the stories are dark fantasy stories that aren't particularly horrific; others use tired tropes to unnoteworthy effect; a few offer nothing in the way of endings or even adequate set-up, instead falling into the nouveau-tired school of artsy fragments possessed of a few startling images but nothing in the way of character, plot, or cumulative horrific effect. These last examples remind me of Henry James's 100+ years-old-advice to ghost-story writers: "Write a dream, lose a reader."

The inclusion of two poems doesn't really help things either, while "Beach Head" gets the Ramsey Campbell "In the Bag" award for mislabelling a horrific story with a jokey title. I note this while also noting that Campbell himself flagged himself for the "In the Bag" mistake in the introduction of one of his short-story collections.

One story -- "The Narrows" by Simon Bestwick -- is especially frustrating because it's basically two good stories smashed together to make one frustrating one, as Lovecraftian shenanigans and nuclear holocaust work together in a way that never coheres. The standout here is William Browning Spencer's "The Penguins of the Apocalypse", which uses an old (and unlikely) monster to startling, quirky effect. Spencer's horror novels and short stories generally show a mind attuned to absurdity as well as horror -- he's the closest thing the genre currently has to Philip K. Dick, and God bless him for it. Not recommended.

The Book of Cthulhu
The Book of Cthulhu
by Joe R. Lansdale
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 17.77
41 used & new from CDN$ 8.09

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Book 'em, Cthulhu, Jan. 15 2012
This review is from: The Book of Cthulhu (Paperback)
The Book of Cthulhu, edited by Ross E. Lockhart (2011), containing:

Caitlin R. Kiernan - Andromeda among the Stones
Ramsey Campbell - The Tugging
Charles Stross - A Colder War
Bruce Sterling - The Unthinkable
Silvia Moreno-Garcia - Flash Frame
W. H. Pugmire - Some Buried Memory
Molly Tanzer - The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins
Michael Shea - Fat Face
Elizabeth Bear - Shoggoths in Bloom
T. E. D. Klein - Black Man With A Horn
David Drake - Than Curse the Darkness
Charles R. Saunders - Jeroboam Henley's Debt
Thomas Ligotti - Nethescurial
Kage Baker - Calamari Curls
Edward Morris - Jihad over Innsmouth
Cherie Priest - Bad Sushi
John Hornor Jacobs - The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife
Brian McNaughton - The Doom that Came to Innsmouth
Ann K. Schwader - Lost Stars
Steve Duffy - The Oram County Whoosit
Joe R. Lansdale - The Crawling Sky
Brian Lumley - The Fairground Horror
Tim Pratt - Cinderlands
Gene Wolfe - Lord of the Land
Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. - To Live and Die in Arkham
John Langan - The Shallows
Laird Barron - The Men from Porlock

An excellent anthology of mostly reprinted Lovecraftian stories, all of them dating from 1976 onwards. The Book of Cthulhu is quite heavy on 21st-century Cthulhuiana, which is fine -- most of the stories are excellent, several are harrowing, and many come from relatively small-press magazines and anthologies I would otherwise not have encountered.

There's some thematic grouping here, noticeable from the titles of what I call the Innsmouth Dining section (starting with "Calamari Curls" and running through "The Doom that Came to Innsmouth"), but also apparent in sections devoted to shoggoths, historical Lovecraft, and invasion from space and other dimensions.

The original-to-this-anthology concluding story, Laird Barron's "The Men from Porlock" (Google the title -- it's a literary reference), is one hell of a capper; standouts from writers other than the old reliables like Ramsey Campbell, David Drake, Joe Lansdale, Caitlin Kiernan, TED Klein, and Michael Shea include "Cinderlands", "Flash Frame", "The Oram County Whoosit", "The Shallows", "Bad Sushi" and "A Colder War." Editor Ross Lockhart does a splendid job of selecting a very broad range of approaches to Lovecraftian themes and variations.

Many stories specifically reference the Cthulhu Mythos not at all, instead building upon what Ramsey Campbell has called the first principles of Lovecraft's approach to horror -- the accumulation of telling, often quasi-documentarian detail in service to an overarching concern with the sublimely horrific. Lovecraft's children include all those 'found footage' horror movies currently dominating the marketplace, and stories like "The Oram County Whoosit" present a similar approach, one that's both contemporary and emergent from similar Lovecraftian constructions like "The Colour Out of Space" or "The Whisperer in Darkness."

But we also get some brilliant new takes on familiar themes and creatures in "Shoggoths in Bloom" and "A Colder War", both of which provide a fascinating blend of the Mythos and a fairly 'hard' science fictional approach. The shoggoths in bloom become surprisingly sympathetic; the shoggoths in Michael Shea's nauseating (in a good way) "Fat Face" really aren't sympathetic at all -- but the humans may be worse. A nice juxtaposition of stories using everybody's favourite freight-train-car-sized slaves of the Great Old Ones.

I could quibble with the selection of the stories from some of the writers (I'd pick Gene Wolfe's "The Tree is my Hat" over the already-reprinted "Lord of the Land", which has a somewhat clunky exposition section towards the end; the Lumley story is too much of an early, Lovecraftian pastiche from a writer who improved remarkably over his long career). I could quibble with the selection of some of the stories, though there's really only one clunker here. I will quibble with the copy editing, which is strangely awful in a handful of stories and perfectly fine in others. Weird!!! Highly recommended.

Superman/Batman: Finest Worlds
Superman/Batman: Finest Worlds
by Michael Green
Edition: Paperback
18 used & new from CDN$ 53.92

3.0 out of 5 stars Superbat, Jan. 15 2012
Superman/Batman: Finest Worlds; written by Michael Green and Mike Johnson; illustrated by Rags Morales, Rafael Albuquerque and others (2009; collected 2010): Slight but enjoyable collection of three different story arcs from the now-cancelled Superman/Batman book. Superman loses his powers and Batman gains them; Thomas Wayne and Jor-El meet up in the months prior to Kal-El's arrival on Earth; cute miniature versions of DC's superheroes and villains drop in from an alternate universe. The whole collection is pleasantly Silver Agey, with very little sturm-und-drang. Recommended.

Things to Come
Things to Come
DVD ~ Raymond Massey
Price: CDN$ 11.99
16 used & new from CDN$ 5.85

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Men with Capes, Jan. 15 2012
This review is from: Things to Come (DVD)
Things to Come; written by H.G. Wells; directed by William Cameron Menzies; starring Raymond Massey (John Cabal/Oswald Cabal), Edward Chapman (Passworthy/Passworthy) and Ralph Richardson (The Boss) (1936): Things to Come gives us 100 years of extrapolated human history in about 100 minutes. That doesn't leave a lot of room for characterization, but characterization isn't on Wells's mind anyway -- or at least not the characterization of individuals, as humanity is the evolving character in the bildungsroman presented here.

We follow humanity's rocky road by watching the history of Everytown (pretty obviously London, England), beginning on the eve of a world war in 1936 and ending with humanity's first baby steps into outer space in 2036. In between, we get vignettes of diasaster and rebuilding, and one long middle section setting the hyper-civilized, transnational Airmen against the tribal warriors of bombed-out Everytown, led by Ralph Richardson's engaging barbarian Boss, the only character in the movie I could imagine not punching in the face as soon as I met him. And he's the bad guy!

The visual effects are occasionally stunning -- moreso given the technology of the time. One's reactions to Wells's utopia, built by scientists and engineers who love lengthy declamatory speeches and airplanes with giant wings, will vary depending on one's own opinions about 'human nature', the perfectability of man, and the wisdom of wearing togas and capes all the time. Why did seemingly everyone in the 1920's and 1930's think the citizens of future utopias would wear capes and dress all in white? Recommended.

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