Monday, January 26, 2009

Coraline - Neil Gaiman

I had ordered this book long ago when on a whim I was determined to get all of Gaiman's books. I noticed that it was a childrens book so I mentally filed it away. When I saw the advertisements for the movie... I knew that with a 7 year old I would have to watch the film and ripped the book off the shelf to make sure I'd read it before watching the film.

How weird it all is... I read it in just about a half an hour or so... and it was creepy. Little Coraline is bored... both of her parents work at home, but they are always busy with work and rarely have time to play with her. She wanders about their house (a flat converted from a much larger house) and visits with the neigbors. Even when she is visiting with the neighbors, they don't seem to really notice her, everyone talks at Coraline rather than to her. She enjoys exploring and eventually comes across a door in her flat that opens to a brick wall. Her mother explaines that it used to be a door that went into the neighboring flat, but now it's bricked up in case they rent it out.

Suddenly strange things crawl through the night, and a door that once lead to a wall of bricks, opens to a long dark hallway... to a world disturbingly similar to the one she just left... only with frightening and sinister undertones. Coraline shows her strength, intelligence, cunning and determination to find not only her parents, but also to get back home.

As an adult I thought to myself - this book will scare the crapola out of little ones! In the back Gaiman states that the book was frightening to adults and an exciting adventure to children. Perplexed, I handed it off to my 7 year old... expecting it to look as though it had been through a chipper shredder when handed back to me. Much to my surprise... not only did he read it, but there were no nightmares... he was thrilled with it and can't wait for the movie. I'm still perplexed as to how this book brings out such completely different emotions in children and adults. I don't know that the movie will be able to pull it off... I have a hunch that the movie might encourage leaving the light in the hallway on at night.

Still... if you are an adult, don't let that stop you from reading this wonderful book. I wouldn't compair it to Narnia other than a door opens into another world. Think of it more like Alice in Wonderland... and not the Disney version either... or The Wizard of Oz, focused on the scenes with the flying monkeys and the witch.

Highly recommended, excellent novel.

Friday, January 23, 2009

War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

Reviewing classics is always a touchy thing to do… but I’m so freakin proud of myself for reading this book that I had to document it some way. How did I do it? Simple, I read it online with little bits being sent to my email each day… that way I never knew how many millions of pages I had left, and believed that I was making progress.

I have had this book mentioned to me, and quoted to me for years, but I have never met anyone who has actually read it. True the size is daunting… but then again… so is the material. To be honest I didn’t have the first clue what this book was going to be about. It turns out that the reader follows several people, of nobility through the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. When I say several, I mean it… you’ll want to keep a list, and leave lots of room because each person has several variations of their names that are used interchangeably. We follow about 12 main characters and a few other extraneous ones from before the invasion through the end of the conflict. Most of them are nobility and they go through all kinds of soap opera drama, generally self inflicted. Guy A is in love with Girl A but she’s poor, so he marries Girl B who’s really in love with her brother (Guy B I guess) who loves Guy A’s sister (Girl C?), but she tries to run off with Guy C who was just screwing with her head, so now she’s tainted and no one wants to marry Girl C. But Girl C is best of friends with Girl A so they hang out and throw little pity parties for themselves. Meanwhile Guy D is everyone’s pal, who’s married to Girl D who’s really a bit of a hoe, so he wanders about joining clubs and thinking to himself. Then Guy D figures out that he’s in love with Girl C, but she’s still in love with Guy B. Then the war breaks out and all of the guys other than Guy D go to war, and the Girls whine and cry about it… oh, and they move around a lot… seems like they are always packing up and moving… not that they do any of the packing… that’s what servants are for!

So just when we think we are getting a handle on who is who, who they are in love with at the moment, and what the heck is going on… we have a cut scene to – history class… Tolstoy will rant and rave for a bit about war in general, Napoleon, or the idiocy of both Historians and the Russian Military leaders. Okay you think, I can deal with a bit of sarcastic Russian historical education, but just as soon as you get your mind in gear for that – BAM you are knee deep in fighting and trying to remember just who the German guy was and how he was related to all of the people you were reading about before the cut scene.

This book ends up feeling like 3 books mixed into one – a satirical historical text, a family drama, and a wartime epic. Now each in its own is a very interesting tale, but when mashed up together, they can be rather jarring to the mind. I do have to agree with the others that the battle scenes are very well written, and I did enjoy Tolstoy’s commentary on the Russian leadership during the war… and after a while I liked some of his characters. But don’t get too attached to them… Tolstoy has no problem killing off the people you like, and when you get to the end, and are expecting a huge revelation, or some sort of major explosive dynamic finale… the curtain closes without even a spark.

Still, this is a brilliant work… I’m glad I read it, and I wish I knew someone else who had because it would be interesting to discuss it with someone. It will never go down as one of my favorite novels, but it will go down as one of my lifelong accomplishments. Tolstoy’s writing appears excellent (remember, we’re reading a translation so we have to give them credit too) and he has a brilliant wit and handle on his subject matter. I don’t agree with much of his philosophy but it is certainly an interesting topic to read on. If you can make it through 1300 pages of one book, I recommend at least giving this a try.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess

I had “viddied” this “sinny” many times at a young age “Oh my brothers” and it was real “horrorshow” but I had never read the book. Let me tell ya… the language takes a bit to sink in. Even at the end of the book there were bits and peaces that I had to mentally translate to myself. Burgess wrote this from the POV of Alex, a nasty little 14 year old who enjoys theft, burglary, assault and battery, rape and then the dabbles into manslaughter. I say manslaughter because I don’t believe that Alex and his friends intended to kill anyone, they just laid on the beat down a bit too hard.

Oh, and Alex speaks directly to us… the readers, who he refers to as “my brothers” but Alex speaks in a slang that I hear is a mish-mash of Eurasian languages, particularly a lot of Russian thrown in. It takes a while for your brain to process this language. It’s not hard to figure out through context what each of the words means, but it will certainly slow down your reading. The version I read was 149 pages (the original European publishing that DID include the final chapter) and it took me close to a week to finish it. Now I had been told that this was an ultraviolent book… and at the time it may have been… but I didn’t find it to be any more violent than “In Cold Blood” or some other classics that I was encouraged to read. However, the book keeps referring to the goings on as “ultra-violence.” True there are several beatings, a knife fight, a few rapes, drug use, etc… but with the mental translation it took to figure out exactly what was occurring… sure I knew it was wrong, but it didn’t “horrify” me. Then again I grew up in an age where this kind of thing actually does happen. I believe that when this was written, they had a belief that the world was a better place than those of us from later generations believe.

The underlying theme is the question of – if you could force someone to be good… force them to only be capable of doing the right thing… is that good? Or is it better to allow them the option to do evil, provided they have options. What is the “Christian” thing to do in this case? Would God be pleased to see his creations only doing good when they have no choice but to do it? There are other themes running amok through this book, childhood, growing up, the violence inherent in the system, and the futility of rehabilitating prisoners when our prisons are overcrowded and unmanageable to name just a few. There is a lot of meaning in this book, if one can manage their way through it. Some will be turned off by the difficulty of reading the made up language, others will be turned off by the violence… but those who make it through certainly are left with quite a few tidbits to mull over in their minds. I would suggest reading this with someone, or a group, because I assume that the most enjoyment can be reached by really discussing this book with someone. Good luck, enjoy and know that this is a very interesting, vile, yet purposeful book.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The House of the Seven Gables - Nathanial Hawthorne

So far this is my favorite Hawthorn novel, although to say that is deceiving. I have only read “The House of the Seven Gables” and “The Scarlet Letter” which I loathed… even seeing the cover of the “Scarlet Letter” brings on waves of nausea which only large quantities of sunshine and a good dose of trashy horror novels can cure. But that was long ago, and I am a much more mature reader now, besides, people call this a horror novel.

They Lie.

This is not a horror novel… It’s some sort of family drama/morality tale with a smattering of bad romance thrown in. So is it terrible? No, Hawthorn does have a way with words… but I also believe that he thinks his readers have the short term memory of a melon, therefore he has a tendency to continually bash the reader over the head with an idea until he is absolutely positive that even a mouth breathing troglodyte will not only understand, but also have it burned into the interior of their skull.

Short Summary: Loooong ago a maniacal Puritan leader by the name of Pyncheon falsely executed a local by the name of Matthew Maule by claiming he was a wizard and in league with the devil. As he was hung, Maule uttered a curse on both Pyncheon and his descendents. Pyncheon then takes over Maule’s land, plows his house under and builds his own enormous dwelling on top of it – a house with Seven Gables. Flash forward to the 19th century and we have the descendants of Pyncheon, still living in the house and suffering as their family’s wealth, status and sanity have dwindled to almost nothing. The elderly Hepzibah Pyncheon(that’s a female name by the way) is forced to open a penny shop to try to bring food in. Enter Pheobe Pyncheon, a niece who has come to stay with Hepzibah and is full of life and vitality. They run the shop, do some gardening and entertain Clifford (Hepzibah’s brother) all the while living in fear of their cousin Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon who seems to want something from them.

There were some parts of this book I enjoyed, and the over all concept was interesting… the sins of the father shall be paid for by the sons, but there is a lot that is left unexplained. And the reader is never sure if there truly is a curse or if the fear of a curse is what has kept the Pyncheon family down for all of these generations. Their sense of pride is almost a physical character in the book. In truth there is only one likeable character in the book, and that’s Pheobe… and Hawthorn is so determined to make us like her that he goes on and on about everything she does, how she looks, how bloody cheerful she is, how everything is better as long as Pheobe is around… to the point that the reader hopes a ghost either gets her so that we don’t have to read any more about her or grabs the rest of the household so that she can live in peace.

I understand the historical significance of Hawthorn’s works, and his mastery of the language. However this particular book becomes almost as suffocating as the house itself, dreary, stifling, repetitious and sadly… the reader may find themselves searching for a way to escape (much as Clifford does)… lucky for us the escape is much easier than it is for the characters. There are other classics that I would recommend before digging into this one. It’s not a difficult read, after the first 15 pages or so the language clicks and you can read it quite easily… it’s just not an overly exciting read, nor is it an overly rewarding read.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Drop Dead Gorgeous - Wayne Simmons

When I read the first page I got a little worried... Oh NO... It's in Irish Slang! But it turns out that it wasn't that bad (nothing like Irving Welsh or James Joyce!) Though there were a few sayings that I wasn't exactly sure what they meant... I knew that they were profanities of some sort and that's enough.

Short Summary: One day most of the world drops dead... kaput! A small number of people are left standing among the corpses, absolutely befuddled and terrified. Several try to band together, some for support, others to try to rebuild some sort of society. Just when we think they may have a handle on it... some of the corpses aren't decomposing the way they should... and may not stay where they are for long.

First of all, this is not a complete novel, this is the beginning of a series, so don't go into this looking for a neat, tidy ending. To be honest this is one of the most well written zombie novels I've encountered. The characters are interesting, human and deeply flawed. There are some we like and some we detest, but they all evoke emotion of some sort or another. My only complaint about the whole novel is that the character that the author seems most infatuated with... is one of the ones I care the least about. Still, there are plenty of people in this novel for me to root for and against. This is also a very attractive novel, the cover art is great, the feel of the book is nice and weighty without the obnoxiousness of being a hardback.

This novel grabbed me from the beginning and pulled me along like a hooked fish through the bloody messy ending. Excellent novel. Blood, gore, zombies, psycho militants, alcoholics, rapists, crashing helicopters and dead people everywhere... what else could you ask for in a book?

Rated R for sure, with no doubt - for language, violence, sex and zombies

The Epic of Gilgamesh - Anonymous

I'd heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh over and over again from history classes, to the use of it to confirm events in the Bible, but had never bothered to read it before. Perhaps it is the word "Epic" in the title that had conjured up mental images of a giant tome written in verse that deep down I knew I would never comprehend. Then suddenly one day I decided that I needed to at least OWN a copy, even if I never managed to read it. When I opened up my amazon box, imagine my surprise when I pulled out a thin little book of only 128 pages. The introduction is well worth the read, and actually makes up the majority of the book. For people like myself who had no prior knowledge of what the Epic of Gilgamesh really was, this intro is invaluable. It gives not only the history of the tablets, but also goes into the meaning of the tale, and tons of historical information that really added to my enjoyment of the story. The actual Epic goes from page 61-119 and is very interesting to those who have read other mythologies. The characters are very human though I won't say that in today's frame of mind that they are entirely likeable. The story follows King Gilgamesh who is 1/3 human and 2/3 god though the discovery of his brother, their quest to fight Humbaba, their battle with the Bull of the Heavens, and Gilgamesh's search for immortality. To be honest, I wouldn't say that this is a "must read" but it is certainly a very interesting read, simple to follow (at least in this translation) and a real eye opener to the beliefs and customs of the time. I highly recommend this version to those that are reading it outside of a classroom or discussion setting, because the intro was a lifesaver with the background and historical context that it gave. The version I read was the Penguin Classics translated by N. K. Sandar

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Broken Angel - Sigmund Brouwer

So the world has split between the religious fanatics and the non-religious science driven atheists. Separated by a large electrified wall and an even larger moral gap... there is no crossing between Appalachia and "the Outside." Those who live within the confines of the walls are told terrible tales about what goes on "Outside" and anyone who attempts to get there must pass through the land of "The Clan" a group who lives on the border and ascribes to neither side.

But within Appalachia resides Jordan and his daughter Caitlyn... originally from the "Outside" Jordan is hiding many secrets, even from his daughter whom he adores above all else. Caitlyn meanwhile suffers from a disfigurement of the body that no medicine can cure... and something about it has grabbed the attention of both the governments of the Outside and of Appalachia, and now they have sent a merciless group of bounty hunters after her. In a world where everyone is tracked, video cameras are on ever corner and even the horses are GPS monitored... where can she run, and why is it that they all seem to want her so badly?

Though "Broken Angel" takes place in a dystopian future, the focus is not really on that world so much as the relationship between Jordan and Caitlyn, and everyone else's reactions to them. I would have liked to have seen a broader picture of the world that Brouwer created, or more depth and info. Instead what we really have is an extended chase scene from beginning to end with some nice scenery and some interesting concepts that go whizzing by as we continue the chase. The themes and concepts of the book are very simple to pick out - the degeneration of the Church into a corrupt governing body, the thought that a true relationship with God requires no church, the effect of greed and power, the effect of mindless following of faith, Government fear tactics, the government limiting education to increase control... there are plenty more and they are all right out there in the open.

This book is a very simple and fast read... there are a few points of violence that may make some cringe, but as I'm a hardened horror fan they didn't faze me. I wanted to warn you of that since many are touting this as a Christian Adventure novel... which I can sort of see, but DO expect deaths, threats of torture, violence etc. I don't recall any profanity, and the concept of sex is only implied through conversations and looks. On the whole this is a fairly good book and I wouldn't mind reading more from the author.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Jake's Wake - John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow

So I started and finished my first book of 2009, and it looks like this is going to be a good year. Jake's Wake is a fun filled horror fest of zombie-riffic magnitude.

Short Synopsis - Jake is a Jerk... see how close the words are? Jake is scum of the most terrible sort, womanizing, abusing, just plain evil nasty guy. But he's got charisma... and he decides to throw his rock band plans to the wayside and use this charisma to run a church, being a psychotic television evangelist and massing quite a few fervent followers. Then Jake's penchant for womanizing gets the best of him and he ends up dead... but not for long! Those who were closest to him, and thrilled to be finally out of his evil clutches will have an evening to remember when Jake comes home from his own wake... even nastier than before.

This book is hard to put down, it's so out there and yet so engrossing all at the same time. There is plenty of sex and gore in this book to keep those who worship the red stuff happy. As I said... Jake was not a nice guy before he died. We follow three of the women in his life and their new men as they find themselves trapped in Jake's old house with his living and not quite breathing corpse. And Jake has plans for them.

At first the characters are so aloof and filled with hatred that I wasn't sure there was going to be anyone for us to root for, but as the evening plays on several of them begin to shine and give us hope. There are even one or two that the reader will become attached to. We don't get much background on anyone other than Jake, Gray, and the three women, but it's the ones that we don't get the background on that we end up caring the most for.

There are very strong religious themes in this book that might irritate those who hate reading anything along those lines. The book never approaches "preachy" but it's hard not to get into religion when the main baddie was a fake evangelist. There is a lot of subtext here on people who are searching for hope being easily lead, and charismatic leaders who preach the right words being able to control them. The book never degenerates into Christian bashing, nor does it wave the Christian recruiter flag, it is more a commentary of the Jim and Tammy Fay Bakers in the world. But never fear... this book really doesn't rise much beyond a fun filled horror novel, no real thought required.

I have to admit that the ending was unexpected, not all of it, but a chunk of it was out there... strangely if you had told me that the book would end like that, I probably would have said "No, that's a terrible ending!" but as I said, I didn't expect it... and it worked for me. On the whole this is a very strong book with a lot of enjoyable parts and a satisfying ending.