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The Ray Bradbury Chronicles: Volume Two (1992)
based on the stories of Ray Bradbury
Bantam Spectra

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The second volume of comic adaptations of Bradbury’s stories. Again I was drawn to the more abstract style of “A Piece of Wood” and another story of two people from different times having an encounter, “Night Meeting”. Also included is “Come into My Cellar”, which I thought was a lot more effective in the original story, “Punishment Without Crime”, “Rocket Summer & The Locusts” and the neat colourized old EC Comics piece, “The Flying Machine”.

"Night Meeting"

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The Ray Bradbury Chronicles: Volume One (1992)
based on the stories of Ray Bradbury
Bantam Spectra

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A collection of Ray Bradbury’s stories that have been adapted into comic-book form by various artists. I believe they put out four of these volumes, I have the first two, and re-read them recently. The different artists bring different styles and feels to the stories, from the sort of generic future world you might expect in Buck Rogers, to the very artistic and idiosyncratic.

"Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed"

The best adaptations here are “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” which creates a great atmosphere with its brown hues and cut-up abstract style, and “The Dragon” which in a few short pages tells a very effective story of crossed time streams, one of my favourite Bradbury themes. Also included are “The Golden Apples of the Sun”, “Marionettes, Inc.”, “The Toynbee Convector”, and newly coloured from an old EC Comic, “I, Rocket”.

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Breaking and Entering (1988)
by Joy Williams
278 pages
Vintage Contemporaries

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Liberty and Willie are a Florida couple in their 20’s who spend their time breaking into other people’s vacation homes, living there for a time, and they leave without taking anything but make sure to let the homeowner know someone was there. The novel doesn’t have much of a plot, though as it progresses the two start to drift apart.

This was very much a book of two halves. In the first half or even first two thirds I was quite engaged with the story and enjoying it. But the last part changes the tone considerably, and from there it’s a real chore to get through. It’s even fairly clear where exactly this happens — according to the book, it includes a few parts that were published as short stories earlier, and it’s one of these sections added in, which goes back to the couple’s experiences as adolescents, which really breaks up the feel of the book, and makes it hard to feel for any of the characters, since they come across as being very unpleasant.

I do like the cover though, it matches the book aesthetically. Actually, this book is so modern even the entire text is set in a sans-serif font, something I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered before in a novel.

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The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956, 1994 collection)
by Richard Matheson
351 pages
Tor

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The concept of this novel is really right there in the title and the cover image, not a lot more to say than that. The story alternates between the protagonist’s days in the cellar when he is smaller than a spider, and flashbacks from earlier days, when he started shrinking from his original six-foot-two height. The novel takes up about 2oo pages, and the rest of the book is filled out with a collection of nine stories, the most notable among them being Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, Duel, and Button, Button.

Richard Matheson is, in my opinion, an excellent second-tier writer. It may be a bit mean to say, but even at his best, it’s like there’s something slightly missing, or perhaps all of his events and plotlines are just a bit too transparent. He’s somehow much more suited for film and television adaptations, maybe because the visual element and the input of others adds flesh on the bone, and ambiguity to the simplistic.

I’ve read a couple of other Matheson novels, Hell House and  I Am Legend, and I think that this one is the best of them. There are some very poignant moments, especially when the protagonist shrinks down to the point where he can be victimized by adults and children alike. My favourite sequence is when he meets a female midget at a circus, and they find a lot in common between them, but of course there’s also the big difference in that she has always been and always will be that size, while he was tall and will continue to shrink.

I thought the stories were of hit-and-miss quality.

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I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990)
by Joyce Carol Oates
98 pages
Plume

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This novella tells the story, through the eyes of her granddaughter, of a woman of the early 20th century who didn’t fit into the rural upstate New York world she was born into. Edith, or “Calla” as she likes to call herself, is an odd child, red-haired and half-wild, and her family decides she needs to be married off as soon as possible. They find an older bachelor they hope will be a good fit, but there is little connection between the two, and Calla prefers to spend her days roaming the countryside rather than taking care of her children or socializing with her husband’s family. She finally makes a strong connection with someone when she gets to know a travelling black man who does work on their farm as a water dowser, but the affair is doomed.

This story has a very strong gothic-romantic-poetic feel to it, to the point where it was a bit too much for me personally. Though it would probably depend on the reader. The story is mostly ‘told’ rather than actually ‘shown’ through events, so you don’t feel that close to any of the characters. It reminded me a bit of Oates’s novella Black Water, which was also short, somewhat repetitive in narration, and which also didn’t really work for me.  I think I prefer Oates when her work has more of a spirit of realism.

The title of the novella is the main reason why I wanted to read this, since I just found the sound of it intriguing. It’s the title of the painting by Fernand Khnopff that appears on the cover:

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Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1935)
by James M. Cain
115 pages
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

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The narrator of this short and direct crime novel is Walter Huff, who begins by doing his job as an insurance salesman, checking in on a client whose policies need to be renewed.  He instead meets the man’s wife, and from the moment she suggests that her husband needs to get some accident insurance – preferably without her husband actually knowing about it – he realizes that she means to kill her husband and collect the money. She romances Huff into joining her scheme, and pretty soon the insurance agent is not only using his knowledge of the industry to try and construct a perfect scheme, but also planning on collecting a double indemnity via an accidental death occurring during train travel. Of course, it wouldn’t be a hardboiled crime novel without things going wrong, and more things going wrong on top of that, and near the end Huff needs to decide if he will let an innocent person suffer for his crimes.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in the 1944 film

The story comes at you very briskly, and the whole thing is over in a little over a hundred pages. It’s a gripping story, and the back cover has a pretty accurate quote from the Saturday Review of Literature: “No one has ever stopped reading in the middle of one of Jim Cain’s books.” I think in the end I do place this book slightly below the other one I’ve read by Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice, if only because the characters do not feel quite as fleshed-out here, and except for the scheming wife, you sort of need to read in your own motivations for the actions of the characters. But it’s still a pretty great hardboiled read.

The novel was turned into a notable 1944 film noir, though from what I remember, I think the end plays out much differently in the film than in this book.

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Time and Again

Time and Again (1970)
by Jack Finney
399 pages
Fireside

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Time travel stories usually come with a fair dose of both fascination and frustration.  Fascination in journeying to another time, either in the future, or, in this case, the vanished past. Frustration from the almost inevitable logical traps and inconsistencies that the narrative falls into. If you go back into the past, and change something that changes everything in the future, the future that you came from no longer exists.  You can think about it until your head hurts.

This book takes a somewhat unique approach to time travel, as it is not achieved by any kind of machine but is instead an exercise in consciousness, where the narrator and main character, Si, is launched back into the New York City of 1882 after joining up in a government experiment that involves the prospective traveller entirely immersing themselves in the artifacts and thoughts of the era they want to travel to.

People skating at Central Park, with the Dakota apartments in the background, the narrator's key to the past

When Si finally gets there, the author’s research pays off, and you are immersed in so much detail that nobody should feel shortchanged on the world of the past this novel creates.  However, the narrator does also involve himself in both a developing romance and a mystery, and I felt these added plots side-tracked the story and led to the book being too long, and wearing out its welcome before it was over.

I think my main problem with the story is the way that the narrator paints the past as being unquestionably better than the present in every way, an idea that I find not only incorrect, but an unfortunate product of a sort of soft-headed nostalgia that leads to bad escapist fiction and bad attitudes towards life. I guess my gut reaction against those sorts of views presented in the book limited my enjoyment of it.

I have been to New York City on a few occasions, and I did find it enjoyable to contrast the present-day city with the detailed past presented here, and I think other readers with similar personal experiences will get the most out of this book.

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