Review of White Cat by Holly Black

June 24, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

LISTENING LIBRARY - White Cat by Holly BlackWhite Cat: The Curse Workers, Book One
By Holly Black; Read by Jesse Eisenberg
1 |MP3| – Approx. 6 Hours 41 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Listening Library
Published: May 11, 2010
ISBN: 9780307711816
Themes: / Fantasy / Urban Fantasy / Con men / Curses / Magic /

I wake up barefoot, standing on cold slate tiles. Looking dizzily down. I suck in a breath of icy air.

Above me are stars. Below me, the bronze statue of Colonel Wallingford makes me realize I’m seeing the quad from the peak of Smythe Hall, my dorm.

I have no memory of climbing the stairs up to the roof. I don’t even know how to get where I am, which is a problem since I’m going to have to get down, ideally in a way that doesn’t involve dying.

[…]

I’d dreamed of a white cat. It leaned over me, inhaling sharply, as if it was going to suck the breath from my lungs, but then it bit out my tongue instead. There was no pain, only a sense of overwhelming, suffocating panic. In the dream, my tongue was a wriggling red thing, mouse-sized and wet, that the cat carried in her mouth. I wanted it back. I sprang up out of the bed and grabbed for her, but she was too lean and too quick. I chased her. The next thing I knew, I was teetering on a slate roof.

A siren wails in the distance, drawing closer. My cheeks hurt from smiling.

Eventually a fireman climbs a ladder to get me down. They put a blanket around me, but by then my teeth are chattering so hard that I can’t answer any of their questions. It’s like the cat bit out my tongue after all.

Born into a family of curse workers, Cassell doesn’t have the magical powers to be a “worker.” Curses come in all shapes and sizes from transforming victims into something else down to emotionally influencing people. All that is needed is the touch of a finger. This makes gloves much more than a fashion accessory since they are a necessary item of protection.

Curse work is illegal so curse workers are all either part of the powerful crime families, con workers, or exist with their secret on the edges of society. Cassell’s family owes allegiance to a powerful crime family and working cons is as normal as breathing. In fact, working the con is the thing that makes up for not being a worker and Cassell eyes the world from this vantage point, which makes him a solitary figure with few friends.

Cassell has a dark secret, a problem with sleepwalking, and a family who specializes in running cons. He also lost the love of his life, Lila, long ago. However, he put that all behind him and is concentrating on life in boarding school and building a normal life, along with keeping book on the side. (Hey, a guy has to have a little spending money, right?) So when a white cat begins following him everywhere, terrifying dreams bring Lila back into his waking thoughts, and those dark secrets begin surfacing again, Cassell begins to suspect that he is a pawn in a complicated con game.

Can he out-con the pros and solve his problems? Well, of course he can or what would be the point of reading the book? The fascination is with watching Cassell have to admit that he needs help from others, seeing his longing for family ties even as he fears that he may have been betrayed by them,

Holly Black has a fully realized alternate world where the presence of curse working and magic define much more than Cassell’s personal problems. There is a slight but interesting subplot about an organization that is working for “worker’s rights.” The government has begun pushing a testing program, urging workers to come forward and be identified. Family loyalty along with the inner workings of crime families are also interesting embellishments to the plot. The magical abilities described are fascinating, as is the concept of “blow back” which besets anyone who works a curse. Nothing is done with impunity so you’d better be darned sure you want to curse someone because you will suffer some sort of severe reaction in turn.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is that Cassell is an unreliable narrator. What is more, he knows he is an unreliable narrator as he is afraid that he is too influenced by dreams or that his memory has been worked. Everyone around him is fairly unreliable as well since Cassell is never sure when someone is working a con or being natural. Although some major plot twists are fairly well telegraphed ahead of time, this hardly matters because we are so concerned with the fact that Cassell may be working a con we don’t see or that he is being conned himself.

The story is narrated by Jesse Eisenberg, who is probably best known for portraying the awkward college student in Zombieland or the equally awkward Mark Zuckerberg in Social Network. His trademark delivery works perfectly as the story is told by Cassell who is equally as awkward as either of those movie characters. Furthermore, Eisenberg alters his voice slightly but effectively to portray different characters: a fortune teller, Cassell’s mother, his roommate Sam, and the crime boss all get slightly different intonations which perfectly convey character. I would have liked the book anyway as a straight read, but with Eisenberg’s narration I bought it hook, line, and sinker. Just like an average mark, in fact.

It is called urban fantasy but didn’t really feel that way to me. It is fantasy because of the curse working element but other than that there are precious few fantastic elements. Likewise, it is labeled YA, but aside from the age of the narrator and some elements like having to attend classes, it didn’t feel like something written for younger readers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. What can I say? I like con stories. I like the universe Holly Black created. Jesse Eisenberg’s narration pulled me into the story so I stayed there long enough to care about a boarding school student with an interesting set of problems. I also liked the fact that the story arc was concluded in this book except for one element which obviously serves as a bridge to the second book of the series.

It’s just plain fun all round and moves at a fast, addictive pace. Recommended.

Posted by Julie D.

Review of Thinner by Stephen King

March 20, 2009 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Audio Drama, Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Thinner by Stephen KingThinner
By Stephen King; Read by Joe Mantegna
9 CDs – 10 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Published: 2009 (reissue from 1984)
ISBN: 9780143143901
Themes: / Fantasy / Horror / Gypsies / Curses / Magic /

I put off reading Stephen King’s Thinner for the better part of two decades. The dust jacket description—lawyer runs down gypsy and is cursed to become, well, thinner—seemed like a decent short story stretched out into a novel. The premise just didn’t grab me.

As it turns out, my fears proved ill-founded. Thinner is an entertaining little novel that is, at its heart, about big concepts, including guilt, the dangers of not accepting responsibility for one’s actions, and the ruinous, generation-spanning cycle of destruction wrought by revenge. Thinner is positively short by King standards (about 300 pages), moves quickly, and contains a couple nasty little shocks that keep you on your toes and leave you feeling unsettled.

I’ve stated before that Stephen King was, in his early career, batting very nearly 1.000 as a writer. If you take a look at his work from 1973’s Carrie through 1987’s Misery and The Eyes of the Dragon, King was consistently great. I submit that The Tommyknockers (1988), written at the height of his drug and alcohol problems, was the first true misstep in King’s career. Now that I’ve finally read Thinner (released in 1984), I find that my rule holds true. It’s a fine book from King’s classic period.

Thinner tells the story of Billy Halleck, an overweight lawyer who gets distracted while driving home (his wife is giving him a handjob) and accidentally runs down an old gypsy woman crossing the street. Halleck avoids what should have a manslaughter conviction because the judge is an old golfing buddy and lets him off the hook. But Halleck can’t escape the scales of justice. The ancient father of Halleck’s victim curses Halleck by laying a scaly finger upon him and uttering the single word, “thinner.”

In the coming weeks, Halleck’s weight begins to drop alarmingly. When the doctors rule out cancer, Halleck realizes that the gypsy’s curse has taken root. The rest of the novel features Halleck chasing down the gypsies to get the curse lifted as his weight plunges from a high of 252 pounds to half that.

King has the problem of trying to convince the reader that a steadily weakening lawyer from a wealthy Connecticut suburb is capable of exerting enough pressure on a stubborn gypsy clan to lift the curse. He neatly sidesteps this problem by introducing the character of Richie “The Hammer” Ginelli, a minor mafia boss and a former client of Halleck’s. Ginelli assists Halleck by lending his unique and persuasive “services” learned in the hard-knock school of organized crime.

There’s a lot to recommend in Thinner. Taduz Lemke, the old gypsy with the power to curse, is a wonderful character, an ancient soul (over 100 years old) from the old world, the last of the Magyar chiefs. Although he’s initially unlikeable, King renders Lemke and the rest of his gypsy clan sympathetic. Though they are dirty and uneducated, and routinely skirt (and cross) the boundaries of the law, the gypsies are treated with open hostility from the hypocritical communities that they visit. Men like Halleck view the gypsies as an unwelcome disease in their safe and pure suburban communities, which are actually corrupt at the core with their unequal systems of justice, “old boy” networks, and inherent prejudices. When Halleck claims that Lemke’s daughter is equally at fault for the accident, since she didn’t look before crossing the street, he shows his unwillingness to accept responsibility for his own actions. Worse, Halleck took advantage of an unfair system of justice and never had to pay for his (and his wife’s) carelessness. Lemke’s curse is a painful lesson in admitting one’s guilt: “There is no push, white man from town,” Lemke says, again and again throughout the story. “No push.”

If you’re a Generation X-er you’ll appreciate the 1980’s time machine that is Thinner. In it you’ll find references to Apples and TRS-80s, Thunderbirds and Novas. Halleck’s family physician casually blows cocaine during a checkup and it doesn’t seem out of place here, given the period. Halleck’s daughter is mentioned as playing a year long game of Dungeons and Dragons.

Thinner contains very little horror until the end and is more accurately classified as a thriller, which may be why King adopted his (unsuccessful) pseudonym Richard Bachman during the book’s initial release. In Thinner, King was attempting something a bit outside his reputation as a horror author.

Veteran actor Joe Mantegna provides the narration for Thinner and he is magnificent, particularly in his portrayal of Ginelli (no surprise here, given that Mantegna has appeared in various gangster films). I’ve previously railed against the inclusion of music in audio books, but this version by Penguin makes excellent use of it, in particular its use of a chilling, off-putting theme whenever the gypsies—or Halleck’s alarmingly plunging weight—are mentioned.

Posted by Brian Murphy

Review of The Greatest Horror Stories of the 20th Century

May 19, 2005 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

Horror Audiobooks - The Greatest Horror StoriesThe Greatest Horror Stories Of The 20th Century
Edited by Martin Greenberg; Read by Various Readers
4 Cassettes – Approx. 6 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Dove Audio
Published: 1998
ISBN: 0787117234
Themes: / Horror / Fantasy / Science Fiction / Urban Fantasy / Magic / Curses / Telepathy / Childhood / Demons /

“Featuring some of the masters of the genre, past and present, The Greatest Horror Stories Of The 20th Century are as remarkable for their literary value as for their scream factor. Whether you are a passionate horror lover or a devotee in the making, you will find much to entertain. Listen for screams as ancient and unspeakable evil meets the modern psyche.”

Judicious use of musical cues are the only enhancement to these horror stories. Twelve horrific short stories, to be sure, but are they truly the greatest of the 20th century? Read on, MacDuff….

“The Graveyard Rats” by Henry Kuttner
Read by Michael Gross
A creepy Lovecraftian tale that almost could have been written by H.P. Lovecraft himself. It was first published in Weird Tales’ March 1936 issue. A worthy addition to the list of The Greatest Horror Stories Of The 20th Century list and Michael Gross does a good job with it. And by the way, the R.O.U.S.’s probably don’t really exist.

“Calling Card” by Ramsey Campbell
Read by Juliet Mills
First published in 1982, Ramsey Campbell’s entry in this anthology is more confusing than scary. Juliet Mills is fine but she couldn’t help unravel what we’re supposed to be afraid of. Something about a nice old lady and her mailman delivering a 60-year-old Christmas card?

“Something Had To Be Done” by David Drake
Read by John Aprea
First published in Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine’s February 1975 issue, this is an excellent Vietnam War era is a freakshow of the ‘coming home in a bodybag story’. It combines the friendly fire and frag stories of that war with the accelerating fear of the supernatural – the tension builds until the closing moment – very similar in tone and quality to Robert R. McCammon’s Nightcrawlers. Reader John Aprea does good work with good material!

“The Viaduct” by Brian Lumley
Read by Roger Rees
“The Viaduct” is a Stephen King-ish tale without the supernatural element – two boys make an enemy of another and come to a sticky end. This is the longest tale in the collection, overly long in my estimation. I was amazed how little content this story has, especially for its length, none of the characters are sympathetic and by the end I was almost rooting for them all to be killed- just as long as it was done soon. Ineffectual because of its length and exploitative and I don’t mean that as an insult, it plays, if it plays at all, on fear without telling us anything about ourselves or anything else. On the other hand Roger Rees’ reading was just fine. “The Viaduct” is in my opinion not up to the standards of some of the stories in this collection.

“Smoke Ghost” by Fritz Leiber
Read by Beverly Garland
An early Fritz Leiber yarn, “Smoke Ghost” posits what a ghost from an urban industrial society would be like, as opposed rattling chains, old bed sheets and creaky haunted houses of the pre-industrial age. Frighteningly well written and very well read. First published in Unknown Magazine’s October 1941 issue.

“Passengers” by Robert Silverberg
Read by William Atherton
William Atherton did a very nice reading of this Hugo Award nominated and Nebula winning short story (1969). “Passengers” is more SF than horror but it is 100% worthy of inclusion. It is about the uninvited guests who wouldn’t leave. These evil aliens have invaded the Earth telepathically and at unpredictable times, seize control of a human mind and force a person to do… things(!). Society has adjusted, but not every individual person will go along with all the conventions humanity has adopted to deal with the “Passengers”. Silverberg’s story examines a relatively small SF theme, stories involving involuntary control of one’s body… think the character of Molly in Neuromancer or the Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s short story Sitting Around the Pool, Soaking Up Some Rays or Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters – it is a horror story because it speaks to such a violation of one’s body. Also interesting is the counterfactual raised by the premise – illustrating how difficult it is to determine exactly where the boundary line between free-will and determinism lies.

“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner
Read by Patrick MacNee
Set in 1942, “Sticks” is a World Fantasy Award nominated story (1974) that is decidedly Lovecraftian in content and execution. Think Blair Witch Project meets pulp magazine illustrations and you’ll get the idea. Narrator Patrick MacNee does fine work with it too. With all this inspired by Lovecraft storytelling I only wish they’d included some of H.P.’s original prose, but in lieu of that “Sticks” is a good substitute.

“Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper” by Robert Bloch
Read by Robert Forster
First published in Weird Tales’ July 1943 issue “Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper” is actually a better story than it reads now. What seems a mite cliched today was quite fresh in 1943 and this tale was one of the earliest works of fiction to use ‘the ripper redjack’ – something that is relatively common today. Some narrators have a voice that grabs you and won’t let go, Robert Forster is one of them, his range is good, he does a great English accent on this one too – but its his cadence and his gravelly voice that pull me into his orbit every time. Well read and a good yarn.

“The Small Assassin” by Ray Bradbury
Read by Alyssa Bresnahan
Alyssa Bresnahan, professional full time narrator and AudioFile Magazine Golden Voice, does a very good reading of Bradbury’s short story. “The Small Assassin” is about a young couple and their first child; everything would be okay if only the newborn would only accept the world outside the womb. Horror as parenthood – who’d of thunk it? Newly minted parents probably. This tale was previously recorded by Ray Bradbury himself by pioneering audiobooks publisher Caedmon.

“The Words Of Guru” by C.M. Kornbluth
Read by Susan Anspach
Originally published under Kornbluth’s “Kenneth Falconer” pseudonym, in Stirring Science Stories’ June 1941 issue. Well regarded despite its pulpy exposition, “The Words Of Guru” is a genre-crosser full of cosmic demonism and full-tilt weirdness that comes to a thundering crash just minutes after it starts.

“Casting The Runes” by M.R. James
Read by David Warner
I was quite lost listening to this one. I couldn’t tell who was speaking much of the time, this has to do with the fact that many of the characters aren’t given names and the fact that the way this tale was written it would flow far easier on the printed page than it does aurally. In the paper version some names are blanked out (as if censored), David Warner does his best to fill in these gaps which are unreproducable in audio, but ultimately his efforts are unsuccessful. Magic and curses. First published in 1911!

“Coin Of The Realm” by Charles L. Grant
Read by Louise Sorel
Reminiscent in theme of Neil Gaiman’s style of urban fantasy, “Coin Of The Realm” is an interesting tale of the employees of a toll booth on a lonely highway who occasionally collect some very odd coins from the drivers on their road. First published in a 1981 Arkham House collection entitled Tales from the Nightside.

Posted by Jesse Willis

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