Sunday, June 15, 2014

Book Thoughts: "The Golem and the Jinni" by Helene Wecker

So, it's been a while. Like, a really long while, and here's why:

This book about killed me. Seriously, I know I put this book in my Top Ten Tuesday post on beautiful book covers, and the book in person is even better than pictures online, but I was so incredibly disappointed with its contents that I'm not even sure how to articulate it. Just getting myself through it took several weeks, and I can honestly say it wasn't worth my time.

A shame, really, since the premise was so promising. A golem, an anthropomorphic creature made of clay from Jewish folklore, and a jinni, a supernatural spirit from Arabic mythology, meet in 1899 New York after having arrived from their homelands by means largely beyond their control and struggle to conceal their identities from the people around them. According to the dust jacket:

"Meeting by chance, the two creatures become unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures, until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful menace will soon bring the Golem and the Jinni together again, threatening their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice."

Unfortunately, almost none of this happens until the last 300 pages. You spend the first 200 bouncing around between characters and time periods, digesting massive info dumps, only to realize as you're closing in on the nearly 500 pages of this book that most of it was completely unnecessary. There are whole character arcs that don't need to exist for the story to function. You get the feeling that Wecker thought she was making some kind of grand statement about human nature by using all these characters and back stories, but the execution is incredibly clunky and drawn out, not to mention pretty par for the course in terms of these Forrest Gump-style "normal life through the eyes of outsiders" stories.

There were massive portions of The Golem and the Jinni that I just skimmed over because they were so boring and pointless. Wecker takes pains to articulate various aspects of both Jewish and Arabic culture (the backgrounds of herself and her husband respectively), but again, little of this information actually matters. At its core this story could have taken place anywhere during any time period, and the pages and pages spent on cultural exposition don't serve to ground the story so much as just add to its bulk.

Here's the problem in a nutshell: "show, don't tell" is Creative Writing 101. The Golem and the Jinni is almost exclusively tell. That's why it dragged, and that's all there is to it.

Title: The Golem and the Jinni
Author: Helene Wecker
Published: 2013, HarperCollins
Pages: 486
Would Recommend: Obviously not. If you cut out about 150 pages or so you'd have a much better book, but even then it would still just be ok.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Top Ten Books About Friendship

This week's Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish is Top Ten Books About Friendship. I wound up choosing mostly children's books, since those tend to be the ones that present friendship in its purest, sweetest form. Lots of animals, too.

The American Girl Historical Series': I don't know the official name for these series', but I think just about every girl reads at least one of two of them during their childhood. If you somehow don't know about these books, there are a bunch girls, each from a different time period and place, and they all have a series about their lives and the stuff going on in the world around that time. Samantha was always my favorite, because she looked the most like me. She's an extremely wealthy girl growing up in the early 1900's who befriends the servant girl who works next door. All the girls in these books have pretty great-ass friends, and the stories revolve around all those pre-adolescent issues still relevant today while mixing in a good bit of American history. Good stuff.

Winne the Pooh: Come on, now. Who wouldn't put this on their list? This book, along with The House at Pooh Corner are some of most precious, adorable books around. There's a sort of magic to childhood that allows you to befriend your toys, along with the backyard animals, and go on adventures with them, and no one has captured that magic more effectively than A. A. Milne. When they all throw that party for Christopher Robin because he's growing up and moving on? Don't get me started. Don't

Good Omens: I suppose this falls into the "unlikely friends" category. Basically, an angel and a demon team up to prevent the end of the world because they enjoy living on earth and don't want to go home. There's a whole cast of fun characters, a lot of mix-ups and silliness (the Antichrist is accidentally switched at birth and sent home with the wrong family), making for a entertaining and irreverent read. Aziraphale and Crowley, the angel and demon at the heart of the story, are both likable characters with an unlikely but very believable friendship.

The Giving Tree: Heaven forbid you wind up in a friendship like this. The first time I read this book I was quite young. We were at a funeral home, and I found it in an area that was set aside for children to play quietly or read while the adults payed their respects. I was extremely affected by the story of a tree giving up everything for the boy it loved, and even now there's something about that last image of the old man sitting on the stump that just hurts my heart. Still, looking at it from the tree's perspective, the whole thing seems pretty thankless, doesn't it?

Wind in the Willows: There's a particular chapter that made me pick this one, called "Dulce Domum". Rat and Mole have been living together for a while, and are on their way home from something or other when they by chance come across Mole's old home. It's been shut up for a while, and Mole's kind of bummed out and embarrassed when they get there and he sees how plain and run down it looks compared to Rat's house, but Rat just gushes about the place, helps Mole clean up, and by the end of the story they've got a whole party going. It's great to have friends who can sense when you're upset and care about what matters to you, even if it's outside their own area of interest. Rat's a good friend, guys.

Natsume's Book of Friends: A manga about a young boy (named Natsume, oddly enough) who sees spirits, and has spent his whole life being passed from home to home since no one understands his odd behavior. Now he's finally starting to meet people he can be himself around, both human and other-than-human, and throughout the series we see him slowly start to open up and make friends. Some of them know about his abilities and some don't, but this series is as much about Natsume's mundane interactions in the human world as it is about the supernatural. The stories are so sweet and beautifully told, I wish more people read these books.

The Incredible Journey: If you somehow made it through childhood without either reading this book or seeing Homeward Bound, this is the story of two dogs and a cat who are separated from their humans and travel hundreds of miles on their own to get back home. What's amazing about this book is that Burnford was able to convey the bond between these three pets without the use of dialogue. These pets are very much animals, no talking, no spontaneously acting in ways contrary to their nature. Thanks to that, not only do you learn about the animals and landscape, you get a classic story about survival and friendship, all without overly humanizing its protagonists.

Frog and Toad: Basically, the complete opposite of The Incredible Journey. This short series follows a completely anthropomorphic frog and toad as they live their very cute, simple little lives. What else can I say?

A Thousand Splendid Suns: Talk about heartbreaking. Basically, this story spans fifty years, detailing the lives of two Afghan women and the circumstances that bring them together and pull them apart. The two main characters are forced together by outside circumstances, and they find solace it each other. One of my older female cousins lent this book to me when I was in middle school and it's stuck with me ever since. It's a story about resilience and quiet strength and, while at times a bit heavy-handed, it remains a both honest and readable portrayal of female life in this part of the world.

As for number ten, I couldn't think of one. There are obviously other books about friends that I've read, but I wanted to keep this confined to books that were significant to me in some way specifically due to the friendships portrayed, so there you have it. For the most part it looks like I prefer animals friends to people. But I'm sure that's fine, right?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Book Thoughts: YA Potpourri

As I said in my last post, with no cable or internet to distract me, I got a lot of reading done this past week. Several of the books were YA novels that had been highly recommended to me for quite some time now, which I finally decided to break down and read, in spite of the fact that I tend to dislike YA. It's not that I have an issue with the genre itself, it's just that I find the plots and writing in many YAs to be a bit watered down and overly focused on romance. There are exceptions, of course, but that's my general takeaway.

On that note, here are the YAs I read this week and my brief thoughts on them:

The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd

This is a retelling of The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells, imagining that said doctor had a daughter he left behind in London, and that this daughter comes to his island to find out what he's been up to. Sounds like a good enough premise, but sadly play into just about every cliche that made me step away from the YA genre. We have a female lead who we're constantly told is strong and independent, but still spends most of the novel getting pushed around and saved be various men. We have a shoddy love triangle. Perhaps most disappointingly, we have what could have been a halfway decent stand-alone novel that's pointlessly being stretched out into a trilogy.

On the plus side, it was faithful to the plot of Doctor Moreau on several points, and used some of the old characters in clever new ways. If the author hadn't sacrificed more interesting areas of the plot for romance, I think this could have been a great read. The writing style could also be a turn off, depending on whether or not you need to have your historical fiction told in a historical voice, because the narrator's voice in The Madman's Daughter is unmistakably modern. I personally found it off-putting. There are two more books in this series, one based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the other on Frankenstein, but judging how Doctor Moreau was treated in this first offering, I'd rather just reread the originals.

Title: The Madman's Daughter
Author: Megan Shepherd
Published: 2013, Balzer + Bray
Pages: 420, though my copy had 19 pages of extras, including a short story, and the first 17 pages of the sequel, Her Dark Curiosity
Would Recommend: Not at all. I was glad to see a new take on a classic that hasn't been done to death like Dracula or Alice in Wonderland, but that's where my happiness ended. There's actually a scene where our protagonist stands helpless off to the side in a burning building while her two potential lovers wrestle on the floor for her affection. Megan Shepherd claims she wanted to explore gender issues in this book, so thanks for that, I guess.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Walton delivers exactly what she advertises, both beauty and sorrow. Magical realism done magnificently, this is a story told by Ava Lavender, a woman born with wings, about her life and the lives of her mother and grandmother. The heart of the plot involves young Ava and the man next door who becomes convinced she's an angel, but the overall theme is the two-sided nature of love, it's ability to either bring strength or destruction depending on the people and circumstances.

I'm not sure what I can say about this book to convey the effect it had on me. The writing is absolutely gorgeous, succinct yet descriptive, poetic without getting too flowery. Almost everything in this story is devastatingly sad, yet the words steer you from one tragedy to the next so gently and, ultimately, with just a twinge of hope. Magical realism quite naturally links to poetry in my mind, both using the unreal to convey something more true than any literal description ever could. Some people enjoy this type of writing, while others do not, and that difference is what will ultimately decide how you feel about this book.

Title: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Author: Leslye Walton
Published: 2014, Candlewick Press
Pages: 301
Would Recommend: At least give it a try, even if magical realism isn't your thing, since a well written book should be just about everyone's thing.

Angelfall by Susan Ee

As a former religious studies major, I can't begin to explain how happy it makes me to see a novel about religious subjects, like angels, that appears to have actually been well researched. I don't think I can go into much detail without spoiling the book, but the way this author used the concept of the Watchers and the Nephilim was both true to the source material and delightfully inventive. Maybe "delightful" is the wrong word to use for a post-apocalyptic novel, but that's the best word I could think of. I truly found this book delightful.

The end of days has come, angels have descended from on high to rain down fire and brimstone on humanity. Our protagonist Penryn is just trying to survive with her wheelchair-bound sister and schizophrenic mother when she accidentally stumbles into the middle of an angel-on-angel fight that results in the kidnapping of her sister. The only chance Penryn has of finding her sister, Paige, is by teaming up with the injured and wingless angel left behind, a warrior named Raffe.

On the downside, the first half of Angelfall is pretty slow. A lot of getting-to-know you awkward banter and budding feels from our main characters when I feel there should have been more worldbuilding. A whole book into this trilogy and we know next to nothing about why the angels are attacking, where they come from, or how the world as a whole is faring. If things hadn't kicked off the way they did in the second half I wouldn't have many good things to say, but boy, did things kick off. It helps that the romance wasn't tied up neatly in a bow for us at the end, either.

I think what made me like this book so much is that Susan Ee clearly knew what she was talking about. Penryn's mother isn't TV schizophrenic, she's real, pitiful and terrifying, obviously as well researched as the mythology behind the plot. I hope we see more of her in the next books, because her character is just phenomenal. I hope we see more of the angels, and more action too, because I'm excited to see what this author can do when she's not putting her leads through silly and stilted attempts at flirting.

Title: Angelfall
Author: Susan Ee
Published: 2012, Feral Dream
Pages: 283
Would Recommend: Yes. Definitely yes. I'm usually not one too forgive an uneven story, but the direction this goes in is just so interesting, plus it's a story about angels that manages to make them flawed and intriguing, rather than completely perfect. Not to mention that we've got a "strong female lead" that's actually strong for once. Imagine that. Overall, a really nice effort.

So there you have it, my foray into YA. It was better than I thought it would be. I know there are poor offerings in every genre, but for some reason I've read a disproportionate amount of sloppy YA, so I'm pretty gun-shy about picking up YA novels, even if they're well received. If you're reading this, feel free to recommend one you feel is worth the read. Maybe I'll give it a shot.

Life Time: Lightning Strike

To make a long story short, lightning hit the house last week. There was a tornado warning all night, which resulted in myself and my coworkers spending most of the night in storm shelter, and I came home to find the cable was off and the stove didn't work. Nothing too serious. However, in the morning I found out from my parents what happened, that several plugs throughout the house were now useless, along with the water softener and, most disconcertingly, the A/C and furnace. I don't know if it's spring where you are yet, but here in Ohio it's still pretty cold. Luckily my aunt was able to loan us an electric heater to keep the main rooms in the house warm.

Even so, it's not like we're suffering in any way. We're lucky no one was hurt, that everything broken can be replaced. The strangest part has been doing without television or internet for a week. For my parents it meant watching a lot of old movies they dug up around the house, for me it meant a lot of reading, not to mention a lot of quiet. I've said before that my car radio is broken, and how odd the silence can be driving home in the middle of the night. It's even more so to have that silence continue, for it to follow me through the front door and up to my bedroom, to stay with me until I get back to work the next afternoon. Thanks to my odd hours, the chit chat I share with coworkers is sometimes the only human interaction I have all day. For it to be some of the only sound I hear at all, well, let's just say I'm glad we've got the cable and internet turned on again.

Is it weird that I kind of wish I had been here when the lightning hit? I feel like the coolest part of the story has been taken from me, and all I got was the annoying aftermath. According to my parents it was just a really loud boom, no sparks, no dramatics, just boom. Which is pretty lame, actually. This story is lame. I'm sorry I bothered you with it, I just wanted to talk about what's been going on lately, I guess. I'll leave you with this picture of Luna, one of our cats, who got so cold last night she made herself into a snugly blanket burrito:

Hopefully everything's going well with you, whoever you are, whenever you're reading this. I hope you're as happy and safe as a kitten burritoed up in a blanket.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Book Thoughts: "Love Letters to the Dead" by Ava Dellaira

This review is going to be a little different.

I have a hard time with books like these, because they're simultaneously too close for comfort and completely alien to me. If you haven't already heard about Love Letters to the Dead, it's essentially The Perks of Being a Wallflower with a female protagonist. A young girl named Laurel has just started high school and is given an assignment to write a letter to a dead person. She chooses Kurt Cobain because he was her older sister's favorite musician, who just passed away the previous year. She continues writing to Kurt, and other famous people who died young, and it is through these letters that we learn about Laurel's life and the mystery surrounding her sister's death.

A lot of people are saying this book is similar to Perks, but I found Love Letters to be almost too similar. The plots are practically identical, they're both written entirely in letter form, even the side characters have similar story lines. Laurel's voice is also inconsistent, veering from beyond-her-years poetic to immature and stilted exposition: "I did this. I did that. It was fun." I found her difficult to believe.

There was a portion of this book that I found really upsetting on a personal level, and that's the letter Laurel writes to Kurt where she goes on a "how could you do this to your family" rant. It bothers me because the whole "suicide is selfish" argument is in itself entirely selfish. You are essentially telling someone, "I know you're in a lot of pain right now, but why don't you think about my feelings for a minute?" If someone's at the point where they can no longer tolerate the weight of their own existence, piling guilt on top of that will only crush them. This argument bothers me every time I see it.

It bothers me because I've had this argument in real life, and that's why books like this are difficult. My own struggles with anxiety, depression, and suicide make books like this an exercise in reliving dark days I still haven't completely left behind me. However, unlike the main character in Love Letters, or in Perks, I don't have a traumatic incident in my past to point to and say, "There it is. That's why I'm like this." I have no explanation to offer the people I alienate, frighten, or hurt with my behavior. It's like my blood is full of pressurized explosives, like little land mines, and every point of contact causes an, unnoticeable from the outside, yet very real and painful detonation. I find it hard to touch anyone, even people I love.

I've had plenty of people insist that there must be something, some big bad adult who hurt me as a kid, but there wasn't. There were those who made things worse, who told me it was my fault I felt anxious and alone because I wasn't right with god, wasn't praying enough, but as far as I can tell the land mines have been in blood since birth. I'm still in the process of learning how to live with them. Part of me still hasn't recovered from the way this problem was handled in my adolescence, the insistence by some that I just wasn't trying hard enough. It's even harder to deal with those that persist in pushing their half-baked theories, often based on media representations of "people with problems", since the simple truth that I'm like this because I've always been doesn't satisfy them.

So that's why I have a hard time with books like Love Letters to the Dead, they perpetuate the idea that anxiety and depression are caused solely by outside sources, and that everything can be fixed easily enough with the help of friends, family, and falling in love. Especially falling in love. I hate that more than one well intended person has told me I'd feel better if I got a boyfriend, and I know it's because they saw Garden State or some shit. Like that's seriously what you should do when you're falling apart, invite someone else into your cesspool of a life. What you need to do is recognize the beast inside yourself and take steps to tame it. Other people can help, of course, but the only one who can save you is yourself.

Oddly enough, that's the one part of Love Letters I appreciated. One of Laurel's older friends tells her at one point that she's the only one who can save herself, and she takes this to heart, though I still felt she relied too much on her love interest in the end. Is it strange to bring the conversation back to the book at this point? Because I'd like to.

Abuse is a very real thing, and those stories need to be told. I try not to let my personal experience get in the way of what an individual story is trying to accomplish, however, this book just wasn't great. The whole situation with the sister felt implausible to me. Is it really possible she didn't know what was going on with a setup like that? Couple that with flimsy characters, shoddy research (you don't learn anything about the people Laurel writes to you couldn't find in a two minute Google search), and the plain fact that this whole story has been done before and done better, and you wind up with a book that just wastes your time.

Title: Love Letters to the Dead
Author: Ava Dellaira
Published: 2014, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Pages: 323
Would Recommend: No. If you want a story about self discovery and coming to terms with a troubled past, read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. If you somehow haven't already.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Top Ten Book Covers I'd Frame As Pieces of Art

Time for another Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish, and this week is "Top Ten Book Covers I'd Frame As Pieces of Art." Off we go:

1) Paradise Lost by John Milton
This cover in person is so pastel and soft, a nice contrast to a story about the devil.

2) Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Usually I find covers with people on them tend to show those people as either overly glossy and perfect or totally generic, but this face really draws you in. The bright colors and detail are eye-catching, as well. 

3) Rant by Chuck Palahniuk
As a kid, I remember being fascinated by these books that showed the human body layered over with transparencies, one for muscles, one for veins, and you could lift them off one by one until there was nothing but a skeleton on the last page. Anyway, this cover reminds me of that. 

4) Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
Iconic. Seriously, I love that little guy so much. This book means a lot to me both as a reader and a writer, so while it might not seem like much, it looks like art to me.

5) Daytripper by Gabriel Ba
Is picking a comic cheating? Hope not, because there's several on this list.

6) Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
Shel Silverstein is a master of the bittersweet. Have you seen The Thinker of Tender Thoughts? I think this book in particular shows a good use of cover space.

7) Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse by Ben Templesmith
Yeah, this guy was on the last list too, so what? Who else would put so much work into a equally horrific and stunning piece of art just to add the tagline "It Only Hurts When I Pee"?

8) The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Just a great work of art, what else can I say?

9) Saiyuki Volume 1 by Kazuya Minekura
This is my all-time favorite manga, and pretty much my favorite series in general. Back when there was next to no variety in the manga available in bookstores -- you had Sailor Moon, InuYasha, and whatever CLAMP was offering at the time -- the grit and detail of Minekura's style stood out. It's also the first time I found myself thinking "Woah, that cartoon man is beautiful." Never mind I just said "the first time." I'm doing fine.

10) The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Ok, this one I haven't actually read, but I've have my eye on it for a while and I think the cover's just splendid. Hopefully the inside is similar.

So there you have it, a day late thanks to my lack of foresight and working night shift. Better late than never!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Book Thoughts: "Daughter of Smoke and Bone" by Laini Taylor

This book has been floating around my periphery for years, but for some reason it wasn't until my last stop at the library that I saw it and thought "now's the time." At first glance the 400+ pages seem like quite an undertaking, but it's YA, so the font is large and the language light. It only took me three days to read.

In terms of plot, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is pretty weak. Basically, a young girl raised by monsters has spent her whole life collecting a wide variety of animal and human teeth for some unknown purpose, and she discovers what's really going on and her true identity. I won't go into too much detail, but there's humans, seraphs, chimera and, of course, a war. There's almost always a war going on in these supernatural epics. You'd think with all that the story would be action packed, but really it's almost entirely exposition and worldbuilding. That being said, the world presented in this book is surprisingly unique and compelling and, as the first in a series, most of the exposition is totally necessary. Mostly I can forgive it because it isn't boring.

Taylor's writing style is deceptively simple, describing settings and characters with immaculate detail, but almost without you even noticing, coaxing you down into her world like a lullaby. One of the best thing she's managed to do here is take very well known and cliche ideas and twist them just enough to keep you guessing. We have angels versus demons, but who's the real transgressor? We have Romeo and Juliet, but with a completely different, still tragic end. There was also an unexpected and worthwhile commentary about colonialism, manifest destiny, and the justifications for unjust actions in war. I was impressed with the flow of ideas in this book, and how the author managed to pack them all in without weighing the prose down.

There was romance in this book, and for the most part I found it pretty lackluster, but the turn at the end got my excited for what's coming next. Overall that's how Daughter of Smoke and Bone my me feel, excited for where the story's going in the following books. It seems this first installment is primarily a platform for the rest of the series to stand on, but it's well built and beautifully rendered, and hopefully a sign of good things to come.

Title: Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Published: 2011, Little, Brown
Pages: 418
Would Recommend: Yes. If you're as burnt out on the young adult genre as I am, allow this book to reinvigorate you. It has new, interesting concepts, and a lot of fascinating creatures to boot. Something for just about everybody.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Top Ten Books to Read If You Like Scary Movies

Since I'm all about a good bandwagon, I've decided to take part in Top Ten Tuesday, brought to you by The Broke and the Bookish. This week is "Top Ten Book to Read If You Like (TV Shows, Movies, Plays, Etc.)" and I chose Top Ten Books to Read if You Like Scary Movies. I picked books based on how visceral my reaction was to the story. A lot of horror novels just aren't that scary to me, since it's easy to separate yourself when the situation isn't physically presented to you, but these books found a way to get past my defenses and either startle me, disturb me, or just keep me looking surreptitiously over my shoulder, even after the last page. Off we go:

1. Night Shift by Stephen King: Of course, you've got to start with Stephen King, he's basically mandatory. This is a collection of short stories, including classics like "Children of the Corn" and "Jerusalem's Lot" along with several lesser known tales. I find that King tends to over-explain the monsters in his novels, taking away most of their mystery and, as a result, their power. In Night Shift, however, each story just does its job and wraps up. No filler. "The Boogeyman" in particular resonated with me, and I still find myself thinking about it sometimes when I see my closet door slightly open. Was it like that when I left? Am I sure?

For Those Who Like: Well, Stephen King movies, obviously, though most of these stories are more creepy than horrifying, and some of them will just bum you right out. So if a general sense of unease is your thing, here you go.

2. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: This book was crushing this first time I read it. Basically, it chronicles the death of Addie Bundren, and her family's subsequent journey to fulfill her final request to be buried in the town of Jefferson. It's dense, stream of consciousness, told from multiple perspectives, and doesn't allow the gray world presented to be touched by a single ray of light throughout. Seriously, you can tell almost immediately that not one good thing is going to happen from cover to cover. The cement cast was especially disturbing to me, as was the sense that none of the characters could even imagine escaping their fates.

For Those Who Like: The Road was the first movie that came to mind, or Children of Men. Something post-apocalyptic. Even if that's not the book's setting, it still has that wandering, hopeless dread. Get ready to get depressed!

3. Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk: This is the only book I've ever read that I didn't want to have in my house afterwards. Seriously, I gave it away. Haunted has an overarching plot concerning a group of writers who've come together for a retreat, and intertwines their short stories and (bad) poetry through the main narrative. Things quickly spiral out of control at the retreat, but Palahniuk isn't content to just make his point and go home, he had to make sure he's beaten you clear to death's doorstep with every form of the grotesque imaginable. It's not gore to be funny or gore to make a point, it's just gore for gore's sake, and you really get the sense that the author had a blast writing it.

For Those Who Like: Stuff like The Human Centipede or the Saw sequels, movies that revel in human depravity. Blood and guts and such.

4. This Book Is Full of Spiders by David Wong: This is actually a sequel, the original being John Dies at the End, but Spiders can very easily be read on its own. Basically, there are these spider-looking parasite beasts that take over people's brains, but it's honestly hard to sum this one up in a single sentence. It has sci-fi, horror, comedy, and a genuinely unique and interesting take on the done-to-literal-death zombie genre. This book is equal parts funny and scary, which is difficult to manage. I'm a huge fan of this one, if you couldn't tell, so it would be easy to go on and on. Just read it.

For Those Who Like: Think the Evil Dead franchise, post reboot, or Funny Games (the Austrian one). Hot Fuzz and Zombieland are similar to Spiders in comedic tone, but lack the genuine fear factor. Oh! Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. Just thought of that one.

5. The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski: I said Haunted was so intense I couldn't keep it, but The Painted Bird is on a completely different level. It follows a young Jewish boy as he wanders through various Eastern European villages during World War II. Just about everything that could possibly happen happens. There's torture, bestiality, rape, incest, and it's all presented through the eyes of a child too young to be outraged. That's what so upsetting about this book, the matter-of-fact way all the abuses are presented, and the disturbing yet somewhat inevitable lessons the boy takes away from his experience. This book is mired in controversy from its portrayal of Eastern Europeans to Kosinski's potential plagiarism, but stands the test of time as a gutting portrayal of true atrocity.

For Those Who Like: The original Oldboy, Antichrist, The Woman, something that gets at the really dark places, makes your insides cold.

6. Inferno by Dante Alighieri: Even though The Divine Comedy has three sections, everyone loves Inferno. As my professor said when I read this for college, "No one wants to read about paradise. They want a show." The best part about this epic is that Dante included real people he actually knew, describing in minute detail their sins and condemning them to increasingly impressive punishments. Imagine that happening today, someone publishing a massive book describing their moral and political opponents being boiled alive and whatnot, it would stunning. I don't know if reading this book will actually scare anyone, but the fact remains that just about every representation of hell that's come after Inferno has been influenced by it, so it's worth reading for that alone.

For Those Who Like: What Dreams May Come, the Hellraiser series, anything with hell in it, basically.

7. Welcome to Hoxford by Ben Templesmith: This one's a comic, because I couldn't make this list without including at least one. Hoxford is about inmates in a new kind of superjail that, of course, is not quite what it seems. It boils down to a pretty basic survival plot, but it's just done so well that you don't mind one bit. The art is also amazing. Templesmith knows how to make gore look glorious.

For Those Who Like: Cabin Fever, 28 Days Later, just your regular old lighthearted bloody fun.

8. The Trial by Franz Kafka: A man defending himself against unknown charges and unknown accusers is a frighteningly hopeless and plausible scenario. Anyone who's ever had to fight an uphill battle with bureaucracy can imagine this all too well. The whole farcical process, the way the the main character is ushered through it, the way no one around him sees the absurdity, it's a simultaneously humorous and humorless read. After all, society is made of humans, but functions as a machine, and those machinations will not stop for any individual. People are crushed by it every day. Fall out of step, and it could easily be you.

For Those Who Like: I thought of Orson Welles, then remembered that he actually made a film of The Trial in 1962. Welles and Hitchcock. The stories are older than you are, and you already know the endings, but they remain just as compelling as they were when they were new.

9. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist: Vampires! Well, vampire, but still. We start with a young boy, alienated and bullied, who meets a young vampire with problems of their own. A friendship develops and, despite all the horrible things that happen, there remains a sweetness to this friendship that holds to books together. Lindqvist is could at juxtaposing tender scenes with terrifying ones, the beautiful with the truly ugly. There is something of a sequel in the title piece from Lindqvist's short story collection, Let the Old Dreams Die, that adds even more bitter sweetness to the story. Bittersweet. That's the best way to describe this one.

For Those Who Like: Dracula, Interview With the Vampire, Nosferatu, vampires with both bite and melancholy.

10. Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark by Alvin Schwartz: This one is an Amazon link, since you pretty much have to buy this one used. The original was illustrated by one Stephen Gammell, and honestly, the illustrations are what make this book the classic scare monger it is. Newer versions don't have the same pictures, possibly because they are really, really scary. The stories themselves aren't bad, either, but seriously, go look up Gammell's illustrations. I'll wait.

For Those Who Like: Goosebumps, obviously, Are You Afraid of the Dark? All things creepy and nostalgic. The old Twilight Zone was my poison back in the day. Whatever kept you up all night giddy as a kid.

Well, there you have it, a bunch of books and movies to think about next time your not interested in sleeping. I, however, am a worked of the Night Shift, and seeing as the sun is now rising, it's about time for me to turn in.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Book Thoughts: "The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi" by Mark Hodder

This here is the fourth book of the Burton and Swinburne series, the third of which I previously reviewed here. No picture of this one, since I borrowed it from the library, but rest assured this copy had the ugly North American cover style I ranted about in my last review. Unfortunately, outward appearances were the least of this book's problems.

Without giving away too much about the whole series, The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi takes place in an alternate Victorian era in which Queen Victoria herself has been assassinated. This assassination involved time travel, which caused a massive deviation from "real" time that not only dramatically altered everyone's lives, but the very nature of time itself. From the time of Victoria's death, a mysterious person by the name of Abdu El Yezdi has been controlling history by communicating via mediums with England's major political figures, but has suddenly stopped. Several influential doctors and scientists are being kidnapped as well, and it's up to our titular Burton and Swinburne to figure out what's going on.

I was stunned by how disappointing this book was. The first three Burton and Swinburne books were so good -- like really, really good -- and I was pretty excited to see where things were headed next, but this was a total letdown. It had many of the same ingredients from the previous books, such as meticulous attention to detail and a clever mix of historical and fantastical elements, but instead of the usual fast-paced and compelling story, we got a drawn out homage to Dracula.

Seriously, a huge portion of this book is a retelling of Dracula, and it pissed me right off. It's not even a particularly inventive retelling, which is next to unforgivable when you're dealing with a story that's been done and redone as often as Dracula. The 100+ pages spent on this endeavor felt like a total waste of time. This portion of the book also felt oddly disconnected from the rest of the story, as if we started out zipping down the interstate, then had to take a really long detour through nothing but cornfields for a few hours before getting back to the main road.

The final straw for me was the treatment of the female characters. There are precious few women in the Burton and Swinburne world, but they have always been strong, intelligent characters who stood on their own, and never served as mere male motivation. However, due to the Dracula framework, one of the strongest women in the series is reduced to the role of Lucy Westenra. No one should be reduced to Westenra status, left to whimper and swoon while all the big strong men figure out what's going on and fight to save her. It was a massive demotion for the character and I felt a bit betrayed by it.

However, there were some good points. After all the tragedy in Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, it was fun to see all the main characters getting back together. Also, the ending provided just enough of a teaser to keep me optimistic about the series as a whole. Book five is forthcoming, and the first three were strong enough for me to forgive The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi, provided this is a one-time thing.

Title: The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
Published: 2013, Pyr
Pages: 381, 395 with notes and background info on the real life characters
Would Recommend: Not as an entry into the Burton and Swinburne world, since it's definitely the weakest in the series. Read The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack and go from there.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Book AND Movie Thoughts: "Odd Thomas" by Dean Koontz

Truth be told, I completely forgot about this series until a few weeks ago, when I saw Odd Thomas sitting on the new release shelf in my local video store (yes, we still have those here). I remembered having read it in middle school and liking it quite a bit, so I decided to not only give the movie a shot, but dig in to the whole series all over again. The results were mixed.

I'll start of with the original. Here's my copy, which has held up remarkably for being eleven years old:

Our protagonist, aptly named Odd Thomas, can see dead people. The dead can't speak, but they still manage to communicate with Odd in order to solve crimes, find closure, or just hang out with someone who actually knows they're around. Odd can also see these sort of shadow-beasts he calls bodachs, the presence of which always indicates some sort of impending tragedy. The story revolves around his noticing unprecedented numbers of these bodachs gathering around certain individuals in town and his puzzling together what's going on and how to stop it.

Upon rereading, the story isn't quite as great as I remember. It's not that the novel is bad, it's just that I've since read books that do the whole I-see-things-no-else-does trope in better and more imaginative ways. Also, since neither the spirits or bodachs can affect the living world in any way, at its core Odd Thomas is less of a supernatural thriller and more of a story about an amateur detective with a little ghostly flair thrown in. Overall, it's a quick and pretty fun read, but nothing that will stick with you afterwards or make you think too hard. Literary popcorn, you could say.

The movie was similar. The biggest crime here was the overly-stylized editing: a lot of jump cuts alternating with dramatized slow motion of seemingly random events. This seemed to be an attempt at playing up the comedic elements of the story. Unfortunately, not only did it largely fall flat, it took away from the more somber moments. In the end you had both a comedy that wasn't quite funny and a tragedy that wan't quite sad. At least the movie spared us the tedious and largely pointless meeting of Odd's parents, which in my opinion took up way too much space in the book and was nothing more that an attempt to garner sympathy for a main character who didn't really need it. The film also does a much better job at foreshadowing than the book, so there's that.

So, after spending nearly a week of my life with this character that amounted to little more than a "meh", I still went ahead and read the next two books in the series since they were available at my local library. Here are my mini reviews:

Book Two, Forever Odd: If the first book was literary popcorn, this here was stale bread. I was thoroughly annoyed with how boring and linear the plot was, not to mention that, for a character who reminds us at least once every few chapters how much he hates guns, Odd sure doesn't hesitate to grab and use one whenever the opportunity arises. In this book Odd's best friend is kidnapped and blah blah blah, it seriously doesn't matter because this book was a waste of time and I almost didn't even finish it. Lastly, Odd tells us this best friend of his is more like a brother, except we didn't hear one word about him in the first book, and how much do you want to bet we never hear about him ever again?

Book Three, Brother Odd: No brother/friend here, that's for sure. That being said, I'm actually glad I persevered up to this point, because Brother Odd finally delivered what I'd been looking for in the previous books. This one takes place in a monastery and incorporates some science fiction elements that really energize the story. We got some interesting characters, and a plot that actually developed instead of just telling us everything outright. I'm not sure if this book is objectively good, or just seems so in comparison to the others in the series, but it was enough for me to request the forth Odd installment at the library. I'll let you know how it goes.

After my second week of Odd, I'm feeling cautiously optimistic. If the rest of the series goes the way of Brother Odd, it should be a fun ride, but for now I think this entry has gotten bulky enough, so I'll leave you with the details for the movie and first three Odd books:

Title: Odd Tomas
Studio: Fusion Films
Run Time: 93 minutes
Would Recommend: If you're a big fan of the book, you may very well like this movie a lot. Otherwise I'd say it's not worth going out of your way to see.

Title: Odd Thomas
Published: 2003, Bantam Dell
Pages: 399
Would Recommend: Don't let the page count fool you, this book is a quick, light read, and fairly entertaining. Check it out if you're looking for something along those lines.

Title: Forever Odd
Published: 2005, Bantam Dell
Pages: 334
Would Recommend: No. So boring. The story here is almost entirely self contained, as well, so you could easily skip over this one if you're interested in the series. Anything you need to know going forward is explained in the opening of Brother Odd.

Title: Brother Odd
Published: 2006, Bantam Dell
Pages: 364
Would Recommend: Again, a pretty light read in spite of the page count. Also, a compelling story with interesting characters, so yes, I'd actually recommend this one.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Life Time: Jobs for the Jobless

It feels odd to be employed, really employed. This is the first full-time job I've ever had in my life, and while I'm grateful to be working, it still feels weird. Never mind I'm in a field I never even knew existed, let alone wanted to be involved in. Never mind I have to live with my parents again just to make ends meet. The weird part is this:

I work night shift. Now, I've worked nights before during my several stints in retail, but never consistently, and never scheduled in such a way that I never saw the other occupants of my house. As of right now I get home after my parents have gone to bed, wake up after they've left for work, and leave before either of them get home. It's like this way-too-big-for-me house is haunted by the most helpful ghosts. Food appears randomly in the cupboards, the trash finds its way to the curb whether I move it or not. It's only on the weekends I remember that, oh yeah, other people have been living here, too. They've been doing all the things. Aren't they kind.

Obviously I'm lucky to have such nice people in my life, willing to shoulder so many of my expenses while I try to get on top of my student loan debt. Not everyone has that. Even so, this new schedule is messing with my brain. There are times when I feel like I'm the only person there is. My work is mostly solitary, followed by a drive home in the middle of the night with no one else on the road. All my drives are silent thanks to a short somewhere in my car radio, meaning I can't play it without killing the battery, but silent drives at night are something else. I find myself thinking out loud or making dumb jokes to no one. It's probably a good thing there's no one to see me, since I'm not sure how sane I look any more.

I just spent the last several months unemployed, feeling sorry for myself, and moping around the house. Even so, now that I'm working I feel like my world has gotten smaller. Maybe it's because most of my time now belongs to someone else. It's not like I was doing anything exciting with that time before, but I could have if I wanted to, and that possibility no longer exists. A world of infinite potential has been reduced to one of finite reality, and I think part of me resents giving up my daydreams.

None of this is the job's fault, of course. It's a good job. I've just spent so long getting by without one that's it's hitting me quite hard.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Thoughts: "Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon" by Mark Hodder

I'll start by saying this is the third book in the Burton and Swinburne series, and that this series is one of my favorites. Usually I prefer standalone novels, but there are a choice few series that manage to hold my attention, this one being extra rare in that it's also steampunk. Also, can I take a minute to talk about the UK versus the North American covers? Look at the copy I have:

I bought this, along with the first and second Burton and Swinburne books, while living in Scotland. The three don't look identical, but they all have the same sort of visual vibe. Now click here and see what this same book looks like in North America, and again, the other books printed here have the same vibe. Unfortunately, I don't want the North American vibe. The fourth book is already out, but I'm seriously waiting until it comes out in paperback in the UK before adding it to my collection so it will match the rest of my set. I normally never care about these things, but in this case I seriously can't stand how ugly the North American covers are. It's difficult for me to fathom how those covers even got created in the first place, let alone approved and put on actual books.

Anyway. Burton and like most steampunk series' in that it's a alternate history set in the Victorian era, but unique in that the alternate timeline itself plays a huge role in the story. There is a specific point where an aberration in time occurred, creating a steampunk world that shouldn't exist. Each novel has its own self-contained story, but all of them contribute to a larger story about the warping and altering of time. This is all managed without bogging the books down with too much theory or exposition, so even if you're not acquainted with these sort of ideas, it's easy to find your way.

I don't know how much more I can say without spoiling any of the previous books, but several subplots come to heart-wrenching conclusions, and I can't wait to get book four just to find out where the characters can possibly go from here. It's something Hodder does that a lot of series' authors can't: make you legitimately concerned over the fates of his main characters. Usually there's a sense of security around ongoing series' protagonists such that, no matter what situation the author puts them in, you as a reader know they're going to be okay. The final book is one thing, but if there's another book ahead you can be sure the main guys are going to make it. Hodder managed to make me forget that on several occasions this time around.

It's especially difficult to bring suspense to a novel involving time travel, since there's the possibility of everything that's happened so far being undone, making any attempt at peril fall flat. Expedition teeters on this line a bit, but thankfully stops short of rendering the whole plot useless. I'll end by saying again that this is book three in an ongoing series that starts with The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, followed by The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, then Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon. All good stuff. Great, even.

Title: Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
Published: 2012, Snowbooks Ltd.
Pages: 645, 668 with notes on the real people and events references throughout the book
Would Recommend: Yes, to anyone interested in steampunk that amounts to something more than just backdrop, or someone unfamiliar with the whole genre looking for an easy in.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Book Thoughts: "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy

It's rare that a book sticks in my head, with lines of it resurfacing in quiet moments before bed or while driving (it's always silent while I drive, a story for another time), but this book has refused to leave me alone:

From the outside it looks surprisingly pleasant, but I assure you it is not. Not a whole lot happens in terms of plot: a pair of twins is reunited 24 years after being separated due to their involvement in two people's deaths, and the book alternates between the events leading up to their separation as children and their meeting again as adults. If the story had been told in any other way I would have lost interest, as there's nothing here I haven't seen before but, my god, the way this story is told.

The God of Small Things is like poetry. Words, phrases, and images circle back on each other and develop as you read, lulling you into the book's world and bestowing a sense of flow, even beauty, to the many heinous things that occur. It's mentioned at one point early on that memory tends to rush past large sections of out lives and linger extra long in a few select places, and the story is told similarly. Weeks are rushed over or skipped entirely, while a few hours will take up almost one third of the book. Many of the sentences are cut off, words and ideas presented as if they're simply rising up from the bedrock of memory. It's stunning.

I got this while out shopping with a friend. She said I would love the writing style, but failed to mention that's all I'd find to like. Like I said before, if this same story had been told in any other way, I wouldn't even be talking about it anymore. But I read The God of Small Things several weeks ago, and here I am still talking.

Title: The God of Small Things
Published: 1998, HarperCollins
Pages: 340
Would Recommend: Yes, if you're up for reading something heartbreaking and gorgeous. WARNING! This book does contain a scene of child molestation, so if this is a trigger for you, you may want to stay away.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book Thoughts: "The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart" by Jesse Bullington

In case anyone comes across this blog and wonders why on earth I'm reading books that came out ages ago, it's because I've decided to, before accumulating any new books, to first get through every book currently on my shelves that I've yet to read. Some of them have been sitting around unopened for five years or more, and that's just ridiculous. One such book is The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington, which I bought shortly after it was published back in 2009. Yeah.

The premise here is fairly straightforward: two grave robbing brothers, named Hegal and Manfried Grossbart, journey from their home in Germany to Egypt, or "Gyptland", to track down their grandfather's fortune. Not something I would typically be interested in. I can't remember exactly why I picked it out back in 2009, but I'm guessing it had something to do with the cover art:

Cool, right? Plus, I've seen them on comics before, but this is the first non-illustrated book I've come across that has a content warning. On the back cover, in tiny red print it says "*Contains strong language and scenes of graphic violence*". Considering the people on the front cover come together to form a skull, I could have guessed as much, thank you. So, is Grossbart really the depravity parade the cover makes it out to be?

Basically, yes. It's not that this is the goriest book I've ever read or anything, but the violence is both descriptive and constant. It's also pretty gross. Just about every other page someone is soiling themselves or having a limb chopped off or soiling themselves while getting a limb chopped off or getting crushed by a horse or stabbed or shot or some other means of execution you'd never even thought of before. A ton of people die in this book, and Bullington wants to make sure you know exactly how all of it went down. All the descriptions are very matter of fact and don't linger, but the sheer quantity of them can be overwhelming, so if that type of thing bothers you, I would say to stay away from Grossbart.

I don't usually enjoy books this violent myself, but there was something in this story that endeared me and kept me going. The way it's written is reminiscent of the stories and fairy tales from the medieval period in Europe, and you get the sense that these stories, along with the modern fantasy novels that pull from them, are lovingly derided through Bullington's work. In fact, Bullington says in a short interview in the back of the book that he intended to satirize "dull literary devices and archetypes" and "take the romance out of grave robbing." He does both amazingly.

It was this satire, that you could tell was equal parts celebration and mockery, that drove the story for me. I studied medieval literature as part of my courses in college, so much of Grossbart felt familiar in a sick sort of way. It was just earnest enough to make itself compelling, but tongue-in-cheek enough to carry me through the drudgery of its gore and relatively common story line. In the end I enjoyed myself, though I find myself wondering what that means about me as a person, but I'm sure it's fine. Right?

Title: The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart
Published: 2009, Orbit Books
Pages: 425, 450 including bibliography, interview, and excerpt from another novel
Would Recommend: Yes, to those with strong stomachs and a desire to see old world fantasy turned on its head.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Life Time: Aggressive Poops

Over this past Christmas, my parents got me a hedgehog, a pet I've been wanting since I was in high school. Her name is Nettles, and she looks like this:

This is her second home, and her previous owners did not spend that much time with her. It's for that reason that they decided to find her a new place, but as a result she's currently quite skittish and still getting used to being around people. We've been making progress over the past few weeks, but this is about earlier on, when I first changed her bedding.

Since I was on my own, I figured the best way to keep her from getting lost was to put her in the giant exercise ball her previous owners gave us. Once I was done I noticed she had only moved about four inches the whole time. Specifically, just enough to roll herself out of the puddle of urine spreading across the carpet. I figured she'd gotten scared, but once I got her out of the ball I realized she'd pooed in there as well. So, maybe she'd just eaten or something. Is it possible to be so frightened you pee and poo simultaneously? Either way I had to clean the ball, so I decided to scoop the poo out with a tissue and rinse the thing in the bathtub.

However, cleaning the ball out meant involved getting my face close enough to notice that, whatever all she'd done while she was in there, it smelled vile. Like, impossibly bad for the amount of time it had been there. At that point I wondered if fear or happenstance were the only possible motivations. Because it smelled angry.

It wouldn't be the first time I'd been the victim of aggressive poops. Once while I was hiking I felt something hit me in the side. My first though was it had to be a pebble or some kind of large bug, but I looked down and saw that I'd been blasted with an extremely powerful stream of bird poo. The perpetrator was in the shrubs alongside the trail, staring right at me as if to say, "That's right, and what are you gonna do about it? Nothing." And I didn't.

There were also two instances of attack poops during my time working at a department store, one in the elevator, the other in Lawn & Garden. Of the two the elevator poo is more interesting, since it was a moving target by nature of its location. An elderly couple told me it was there, but before I could get to the elevator to shut it down, someone else got inside. I said "HEY" really loud, but the guy just turned around and pushed the button to go upstairs. Right as the doors were closing I saw him jump a bit, like he'd just been startled by a poo he didn't expect, then he just kind of shrugged and the doors closed.

He saw the poo and accepted it. I don't know if it was apathy, some kind of deep and unshakable inner peace, or if he just genuinely didn't mind human poo. In any case, I felt like I'd learned more about him in those few seconds than some of his closest friends and family would ever know.

It was this guy I channeled while cleaning Nettles' exercise ball. I searched myself for the power to shrug in the face of foul-smelling insanity, but failed. Instead I spent the whole time fighting dry heaves. Then I checked on Nettles again, and she was the happiest she'd ever been since we got her. She was prancing around her newly clean cage, snuffling everywhere like the whole world was a new and exciting place she'd never seen before. I caught her attention and she looked at me with the same smug glint in her beady black eyes that bird had on the hiking trail. "You can do nothing."

Like I said, we've been making progress, and so far this is the only aggressive poo incident we've had. Hopefully the last, but who knows? She's figured out who really has the power now, so until I'm able to accept the poo, I'm basically at her mercy.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Thoughts: "The Road Home" by Rose Tremain

This is the book I received for World Book Night 2013:

Sorry it's a bit blurry, it's the sort of problem that could be solved with just the amount of effort I'm not willing exert right now. Shame. You can see the important bits though, namely that the cover is a picture of a cover, with shadow effects and everything. I found this pretty amusing when it was first given to me by one of my creative writing professors in Scotland. As a result, it doesn't have any of the praise blurbs and such that appear on regular books. It does, however, have a poem on the inside of the back cover, which I greatly appreciated. My copy has "Song" by Christina Rossetti, which you can read by clicking here.

It took me a while to get to The Road Home because of a prejudice on my part. I opened it the day I got it, only to close it after reading the second sentence: "Lev wore a leather jacket and jeans and a leather cap pulled low over his eyes and his handsome face was grey-toned from his smoking and in his hands he clutched an old red cotton handkerchief and a dented pack of Russian cigarettes."

That sentence killed me. Not a comma to be had, and "and"s as far as the eye can see. There are several sentences like that in The Road Home and, maybe it's just me, but I find something juvenile about this sentence structure. It's also frustrating as a dyslexic, since I rely on punctuation to break sentences into easier to digest pieces. At the time I was looking for a quick read so The Road Home was set aside. It was only this past week, while attempting to organize my bookshelves, that I came across the book again and decided to give it another try.

The plot is fairly straightforward: Lev has recently emigrated from an unnamed Eastern European country to find work in London. He meets people in this unfamiliar city that help him find his way and, when tragedy strikes back home, he finds a way to combine what he's learned in his new life with what he loves about his old life to save the day. Not groundbreaking stuff. However, there are virtues. Tremain's descriptions, when they aren't "and"ing themselves to death, are so detailed and engrossing you can't help but find yourself knee-deep in Lev's world.

If that were all, I would have said this was an average story told in an above average way and moved on. However, that isn't all. More than once I read things in this otherwise average story that still make my skin crawl just thinking about them. Our main character nearly strangles his romantic interest at a party, and later forces himself on her in a child's bedroom. It's left intentionally unclear whether or not the act was consensual. He laments to his friend that he's pretty sure he raped this woman, but this is met with little more than an "oh, darn", and the book fully expects us to still be sympathetic to his character.

At another point we're introduced to two gay Chinese men, who are portrayed as incredibly feminine and childish. The childish part is what bothered me. They seduce Lev while he's drunk, insisting that they're providing a service, just helping him out, giving sexual favors to make Lev feel better. Their touch is described as "like a girls", and when Lev leaves them, he cuddles them "like children" and thanks them for their services. The whole thing just felt very predatory and creepy.

By the time the happy ending rolled around, I wasn't rooting for the main character anymore. It would be one thing if we were meant to feel conflicted by Lev's behavior, but the book makes it pretty clear that Lev is supposed to be the hero. Flawed, maybe, but in an "aren't we all" sort of way. Unfortunately, I lost all empathy the minute he described the woman he potentially assaulted as "his animal" with "irresistible greed for the male..."

It was hard not to put the book down for a second time, and truthfully, I wouldn't have been missing much if I had.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book Thoughts: "Fluke" by Christopher Moore

I hate being told when to laugh. I hate when a story grabs me by the elbow and drags me towards the joke, pointing at it the whole way, shouting, "See?" With that in mind, here's my copy of Fluke by Christopher Moore:

Incidentally, how can someone be as well hidden as that New York Times blurb suggests Moore is and still be a "national bestseller"? I've always been interested in the presentation of books: the blurbs, cover designs, review snippets, etc. Fluke isn't the prettiest book I've seen, but I do like that Moore's books have a unity in their presentation, and this volume looks like it's meant to sit alongside the copy of Lamb I picked up a few years back. Lamb, though flawed, was an enjoyable read, and I expected the same of Fluke.

Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings starts with marine biologist Nate Quinn studying humpback whales when, all of a sudden, he sees one with "Bite me" written across its tail. Crazy, right? Don't you want to slap you knee just thinking about it? Good thing, because this irreverent whale jump starts a whole series of increasingly odd events until things take a turn for the science fictional.

It's this turn that seems to bother people in other reviews I've read, but I thought it was intriguing, and Moore deserves credit for describing these otherworldly elements as quickly and effectively as he does. Worldbuilding can easily weigh a novel down, especially when it begins over one hundred pages in. Instead I felt that, after wandering around giggling at itself for fifteen chapters, Fluke was finally going somewhere.

However, the vast majority of the story goes by with little to no real conflict and, once the danger finally presents itself, it disappears shortly afterwards doing almost no damage whatsoever. It feels like something really cool could have happened here, but we wound up with an otherwise decent yarn truncated by a clunky, poorly-tied knot. Everything is fine. Everything always was, for the most part, fine.

If the characters had been better developed, I think I could have forgiven the plot, but even the protagonist's personality doesn't go anywhere beyond "horny scientist", so the others never stood a chance. There's the "loyal friend", the "sexy assistant", and the "comedic relief" who, admittedly, does make me laugh at one point when they pay someone in marijuana and he offers to list this in the expense report as "Nugs, dank". Even towards the end when the sexy assistant has so many things revealed about her at once that, collectively, they cease to be shocking, her personality is resolutely one-dimensional.

What's worse is we never find out why "Bite me" was written on that whale's tail in the first place. We find out how it got there, but never why, and its whole existence is pretty much a red herring. Even so, in the end it was lines like "Shoes off in the whale!"and "In the big picture there be madness" that I could practically feel waggling their eyebrows at me that really left me disappointed.

There were also some jokes about feminism and homosexuality I felt were dismissive (one character becomes a lesbian because she literally gets her fill of dick, then refuses to say anything too nice at her ex-husbands funeral because it may upset her current lover). Overall, I had expected better. Fluke is the worst I've seen from Christopher Moore, and hopefully it stays that way, because I do intend to give him another try. If you're reading this, do you have any recommendations? What, in your opinion, is Moore's best work? What's his worst?