12.21.2008

The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov

The White Guard
The White Guard
I've been wanting to read this short novel for a while, ever since I first discovered Bulgakov. I like reading novels about Russia, especially ones written by Russian satirists. One of my life goals is to finish reading The Master and Margarita. The White Guard is one of Bulgakov's early novels, written about a family in Kiev (I presume) during the winter of 1918-1919.

Reading this book was a lot like reading an extended series of vignettes. There wasn't much plot to speak of, but that wasn't the point of the book. The point of this book, for me, was to show the chaos that people lived with as Russia went from World War I to the Soviet Union and the Russian Civil War. When you think about it, you'll realize that Russia was at war in some form or another from 1914 all the way to 1921 and beyond. In reading this book, you get a little bit of a sense of the choas. Unless you're well-versed in Ukrainian history (which I am not, despite my best efforts with Wikipedia), you have about as much idea as ordinary Kiev citizens at the time had of what was going on. Throughout the book, Bulgakov gives you brief glimpses of all the rumors flying around. There are German soldiers left over in Kiev from the way, Symon Petlyura's citizen army, and Bolshevik's on the way from Moscow and St. Petersburg. In general, I knew what was going to happen, but I didn't know what was going on during that winter. It was kind of refreshing, instead of frustrating. Most of the time when I'm reading about impending historical disasters, I want to yell at the characters to get the hell out and head for a safe country.

In the middle of all the chaos, the story roughly follows the experiences of the Turbin family and their friends and acquaintances. Their downstairs neighbor is stocking up on money and supplies for when the Bolshevik's show up. The male members of the family and their friends all decide to volunteer for Ukrainian nationalist forces, to defend the city against Petlyura. Unlike what the title of the book would have you believe, the men aren't really tsarists. They're just not Socialists. Two of the men--the eldest brother Alexei and his friends Karas and Myshlaevsky--have some army experience. Myshlaevsky was a WWI veteran. But the youngest brother, Nikolka, had only been to the military academy and only has some basic training under his belt. The sister, Elena, is left by her German husband at the beginning of the book, and spends a lot of the rest of the time worrying about her brothers.

I can understand why this book wasn't published in the Soviet Union until the 1960s. None of the conquering forces in this book is shown in a particularly good light. And the tsarists and nationalists aren't painted as entirely evil. Instead what you get in this novel, is a ground view of the Revolution and the beginning of the Civil War, where men are given rifles and told to shoot at the other guys without being told why. Throughout the invasion of Kiev by Petlyura, Bulgakov keeps showing orders being phoned in by anonymous officers to posts where most of the men have deserted and/or the equipment is malfunctioning or broken. Cadets are ordered to reinforce other platoons only to find that those platoons are missing in action.

One thing that always strikes me when I read a book about either the Russian Revolution or the French Revolution, is how quickly people start turning on each other, at the anger they feel towards each other and towards the government. Having never experienced such a thing in this country, I don't think I'll ever understand.

12.14.2008

The Hero of Ages, by Brandon Sanderson

The Hero of Ages
The Hero of Ages
I once heard Sanderson speak at a local university and he said that one of things he was good at as a writer (and probably why he was chosen to finish Robert Jordan's series) is ending things. Unlike a lot of other epic fantasy writers, who like to write quadrilogies and quintilogies and however else you can refer to those long, long series. At least, when Sanderson says he's going to write a trilogy, you know that the story is going to end in book three.

And what an ending it was! The Hero of Ages was totally worth the wait.

At first (about the first 200 pages), involved a lot of set up and a lot of repetition of ideas from the first two books. It was a little irritating, having things and ideas repeated every couple of chapters. But at about the page 250 mark, things really started to get interesting. Sanderson set up such an apocalyptic scenario that I wasn't sure how the protagonists were going to come out on top. I had a really hard time putting to down last night.Oh, it was nice to read a book where the loose ends got tied up.

There were so many things that I liked about this book that I'm going to have to write this out in a list:

1. Religion and faith. Even though I'm not much of a churchgoer (I only go on Christmas Eve to sing carols), I am fascinated by religions. In The Hero of Ages, the character Sazed is searching through all the lost religions that he knows, trying to find one that will give him solace, since he lost the love of his life in the previous book. One of Sazed's duties was to remember all the tenets and beliefs of religions that were wiped out a thousand years ago. As he goes through the list, he keeps finding logical inconsistencies. To which, I thought, duh. Whenever he would eliminate another one, I wanted to tell Sazed that religion is not about logic, it's about faith. It doesn't matter that they don't make intellectual sense.Towards the end of the book, Sazed does realize this and does start to believe. And because he believes, Sazed helps to save the world with his knowledge of how the world used to be before the powers of Preservation and Ruin started fighting each other.

2. Science. Part of what was causing the end of the world was how out of whack the characters' world was with its own science and natural processes. The planet was too close to the sun, so the Lord Ruler (evil overlord from book one) created volcanoes to put enough ash and particulate matter into the atmosphere to cool off the planet. And that problem led to other problems, which led to more problems.

One of the ideas that keeps getting repeated in this series is that every action has a consequence. So, in the middle of all this religious talk is Newton's law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When the characters all charge ahead trying to fix all the new problems instead of undoing them, they make things worse. Hence, the whole end of the world thing.

Interestingly--and I kind of hate to give this away--but the answer to restoring the world came from all the religions that Sazed remembered. Because they were all created before the Lord Ruler started messing with physics and biology, they had the information needed to undo the "problem-solving" measures.

3. Duality. This was one of the things that held my attention all through. In the first book and for most of the second, I didn't realize (probably as Sanderson wanted) that the world was caught in a dualistic struggle between equal and opposing forces: Preservation and Ruin. Preservation is, just like the name says, the force that keeps things alive and opposes Ruin. Ruin is the desctructive force, and keeps things changing. They're both necessary as long as they're in balance with each other.

The duality helped keep me reading once I got to the interesting bit, and made it hard to for me to figure out how the world was going to survive. I mean, you can't defeat a force of nature can you? And if you destroyed Ruin, then things would stagnate and stop changing. You need change as much as you need a preserving force. At first, I thought it was a little odd that Sanderson chose Preservation to match up against Ruin. I understand destruction, but isn't destruction's opposite creation? Of course, then the forces wouldn't have had to work together to create and the plot would have been a lot more one-sided, not to mention totally different.

4. The ending itself. The ending of this series was just magical, in both senses of the word. I loved it! It's kind of hard to describe, because you really need the background of the first two books. It was amazing to see it all come together the way that it did. I don't want to give away more than I already have, so I'll stop.

Run, don't walk, to read this book. If you haven't read the series, go get it.

12.07.2008

Pandemonium, by Daryl Gregory

Pandemonium
Pandemonium
Daryl Gregory's Pandemonium is another one of those rare books that I really wished was longer than it was. I picked the book up from the library yesterday and read the whole thing in one go; I just couldn't put it down. The premise is absolutely fascinating, and I would have loved the opportunity to learn more about the world that the author created.

As the back cover of the book says, the world of Pandemonium is just like ours except for the fact that some people get possessed by cultural archetypes, Jungian archetypes--not demons. When possessed by archetypes like the Truth, the Kamikaze, or the Little Angel, the possessed person has to act out whatever the archetypes role is: as a judge punishing liars, crashing planes, or giving dying people the kiss of death (respectively). The book is intersperced with short stories about particular appearances by the archetypes. I would have loved to have read more about those, but the book is only 288 pages long. Damn, I wish that it would have been longer.

The story is narrated by Del, a man who was once possessed by the Hellion (a Dennis the Menace-like troublemaker). After a car accident, he realizes that the Hellion is still with him and he begins a quest to try and have the archetype exorcised before he hurts someone. Along the way, Del discovers the reason why the archetypes started possessing people in the late 1940s.

Let me back up. At the beginning of the book, I was surprised to see so many different archetypes that I wasn't all that familiar with. Granted, I'm no Jungian expert, but I had never heard of the Kamikaze before, for example. It didn't fit in with the more traditional archetypes like the Father or the Trickster. Without giving away the other big plot twist, Del discovers that the archetypes are really coming from comic books from the Golden Age of comics. At first, I was a little dismayed by this revelation. I mean seriously, comic books? I was really interested in the idea of the collecctive unconscious and all the Jungian stuff. That's why I picked up the book in the first place. But I saw the comic book explanation as next to the aliens as deus ex machina plot device that I really hate. (I'm look at you Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Stargate.) But as the idea grew on me, I found that I could go along with it and evevn start to enjoy it.

I don't think I can recommend this book too much. I really enjoyed reading it, and I sincerely hope that Gregory writes more like it. I don't care if he uses the same characters, I just want another book set in this world. The premise is so rich that I don't think I could ever get bored with it. Absolutely fantastic.

11.16.2008

Mendoza in Hollywood and The Graveyard Game, by Kage Baker

Since I've been participating in NaNoWriMo, my reading has tapered off a bit. If I weren't I would be further ahead in this series of novels about the Company, time traveling historians and preservationists, by Kage Baker. Last year, I read the first two books in the series. And I only recently found the rest of them at one of the local public libraries.

Mendoza in Hollywood
Mendoza in Hollywood
Mendoza in Hollywood is the third book in the series. It follows--as you might guess--Mendoza, a botanist we met in the first two books. Her job is to preserve samples and genetic materials from plants before they go extinct. In this book, she's sent to preserve plant materials before the 1863 Los Angeles drought destroys them. After her mission is completed, she meets a man who is like a clone of her first love, an Englishman who died a martyr's death in the sixteenth century. Since the action takes place in and around Los Angeles, many of the Company characters talk about early Hollywood and stage screenings of films. Mendoza herself spends a lot of time reminiscing about her life and pining for her dead Englishman. The pacing of the plot in the novel really started to drive me nuts after I had reached about page 250 and the main action of the story hadn't really started. It was like reading Dune again; it's all backstory and then the plot happens in the last 100 pages of the book. Yeesh.

The Graveyard Game
The Graveyard Book
The next book, The Graveyard Game, was better. More action. More plot. Things definitely happened in this one. We get to spent time with Joseph, the man who recruited Mendoza during the Spanish Inquisition. The story begins with Joseph and Lewis, another Company man who fell in love with Mendoza, trying to find out what happened from her after the events of Mendoza in Hollywood. As they follow her trail, they find that other Company agents are disappearing after they uncover Company secrets or start to ask awkward questions. This book is clearly setting you up for the rest of the series.

As I've read these books, I've gotten the impression that I might be reading one really long book that just happened to get published in parts. Nothing really gets resolved; you just learn more about the Company and its history. Sure, there are plot arcs in these novels, but they're small compared to the overall story.

11.09.2008

Swallowing Darkness, by Laurell K. Hamilton

Swallowing Darkness
Swallowing Darkness
Yes, I caved and bought a copy of Swallowing Darkness, the latest Merry Gentry novel. The reviews I've seen have led me to believe that it might not be horrible. I finished it just a little while ago, and it looks like Hamilton is keeping up the good work she started in the previous volume. There's much more plot here than sex (by a significant margin) and some loose threads got tied up at last. I actually enjoyed reading this, much more than I've enjoyed the previous volumes.

The only real problem I had with this book was the repetitive dialog. It seemed like every time a new character would enter the scene, we would have to go back over what had already been discussed. It was frustrating. I mean, how many times do we have to hear that Merry's going to have twins? After a while it started to read like filler, and I think the book would have been a lot shorter if you trimmed the fat a little bit. I have noticed that dialog has been a growing problem over the last several books, in both series. With the exception of lecturing professors and one retired librarian I used to work with, no one I know speaks in paragraphs or repeats things over and over again without getting really irritated with whoever they're talking to.

I know that the series is not going to end here. Hamilton has said so herself on her blog (read here). But what worries me is that, in the post I just linked, Hamilton says we're going to see quite a lot of Merry being pregnant. I realize that the enemies that were defeated in Swallowing Darkness were only defeated temporarily, and there's Taranis, who needs to be taken down. But I wonder how much of that stuff (in my mind, the really interesting stuff) is going to get dragged out while Merry's busy being preggers. I've gripped about pacing before, so I'm hoping that the pacing of these latest books is not a fluke, and is a sign of Hamilton moving on to the next thing.

Fingers crossed, anyway.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake is Margaret Atwood's second dystopic novel, after The Handmaid's Tale. It's a totally different story, though. In The Handmaid's Tale, society used religion to tear itself apart. In Oryx and Crake, it's science. If you think about it, it's kind of a mad scientist tale. This book is chock full of things to think about, beyond the role of ethics in science. There's the education system, where liberal arts are considered the ultimate waste of time. There's the games they play, like Blood and Roses and Qwiktime Osama.

The story is narrated by Snowman (formerly known as Jimmy), whose best friend was the mad scientist in question. Snowman shows you want happened after the plague, with the new society that Crake (the mad scientist) created before he died. But a good chunk of the story is also told as a series of flashbacks, to the worked before the plague.

One of the things I've always liked about novels set in the near(ish) future, is the way that the author extrapolates from the present. They take what's going on now and expand on it. In Oryx and Crake, Snowman's world was highly commercial. Anything could be bought and sold. The world was segregated into pleeblands (for the plebians) and Compounds, gated communities for company employees with malls and clubs and golf courses. But the most interesting thing, I think, is what happens to science. I've always been interested in the story of Dr. Faustus and stories where science runs ahead of ethics, and people start to experiment without thinking about the consequences. In this novel, that's exactly what happens. The employees of these companies create pigs hybrids that grow multiple organs for transplants, modify genes to create designer children, and search for medical procedures that can turn back or stop the aging process. There's no regulation at all. Meanwhile, diseases are mutating at alarming rates and running through the population like wildfire.

The mad scientist in this story, Crake, joins a company that creates the ultimate sex drug--an uebervaccine that kills any STD that also sterilizes the user. But Crake uses the drug to spread a plague with absolutely no cure. Within a matter of weeks, just about everyone is dead except Snowman and Crake's genetically modified humans.

The point of this book isn't really the plot. Nothing much happens, plotwise. It really is more like a series of images and concepts for the reader to ponder on a while. Even though a lot of it was disturbing (especially that Blood and Roses game), I really enjoyed reading it. I'll be thinking about this one for a long time, just like I did with The Handmaid's Tale.

11.02.2008

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

The Road
The Road
The Road reminded me to two other writers I've read: Ernest Hemingway and Alan Garner. It reminded me of Hemingway because there seemed to be only five adjectives and adverbs in the whole book and because there was a dearth of women. And it reminded me of Garner (I had to read Strandloper for a literary analysis class), because it seemed like McCarthy had written the book the same way Garner did, like he spent as much time un-writing it as he did writing it. There was almost no exposition or backstory, and there was barely any punctuation. When you read the dialog in this book, it's really easy to lose track of who is speaking. There are no chapters, just small breaks between vignettes or scenes.

The Road is the story of a father and a son traveling through a blighted landscape. You never learn why everything is burnt, or why most of the people are dead. All you know is that there's ash everywhere; it's cold; and nothing grows anymore. It's one of the bleakest landscapes I've ever come across. At least with the global pandemic novels, those who manage to survive can keep living once they figure out how to work the land again. This novel is one of the most depressing books I've ever read, because even if the unnamed father and son found a safe place to hole up for a while, you knew that the food would eventually run out. While the boy eventually finds a new family to take care of him after his father dies, it was still a depressing ending because I couldn't see that they had anywhere to go that would support life for long.

Perhaps those are the big differences between literary science fiction and regular science fiction. In regular science fiction, you have a) people explaining things and theorizing and b) people who are working on figuring our and solving the problem. Even in the bleakest genre book, there's still hope.

10.31.2008

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, Part II

I meant to share this quote in my review of Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, just to show that the book is not as dry as you might think.
"Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs," I said. "We have a protractor." "Okay, I'll go home and see if I can scrounge up a ruler and a piece of string." "That'd be great." (320)

Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

Born Standing Up
Born Standing Up
I saw Steve Martin on The Daily Show earlier this week, where they were promoting the paperback copy of Born Standing Up. As I watched Martin on the show, I was reminded of home much I enjoyed listening to my copy of Let's Get Small, one of his comedy albums. My library fortunately had a copy, so I grabbed it. Plus, who can resist a man in bunny ears?

As the subtitle suggests, this is a memoir of Martin's stand up years and early life. Part of the reason that I picked this book up is because I knew that Martin had studied philosophy and language in college, and I knew that this had influenced his comedy. I wanted to see how it all came together.The people who know me know that I sometimes have a pretty surreal sense of humor. I love Steve Martin's stand up; it's silly and it's bizarre and it's smart.

As I read this book, I learned some of what I wanted to learn. But this book is really more of a reminiscence, a journey through Martin's memories and mementos. This is about a 200 page book, but images of Martin's early days take up a lot of page space. Perhaps the most valuable thing I learned in this book was why Martin gave up his stand up. You have to admire someone who has such artistic integrity that he can let it go when it's no longer relevant, when it doesn't grow and evolve any more, and when you're ready to move on to the next thing.

10.29.2008

X-Rated Bloodsuckers, by Mario Acevedo

X-Rated Bloodsuckers
X-Rated Bloodsuckers
I read X-Rated Bloodsuckers because I needed to read something that I didn't have to think about too hard, since I had spent the previous week reading Anathem. Avecedo's book is his second novel to feature soldier turned vampire turned PI, Felix Gomex. And, in spite of the title, this book was not packed with sex. (Nor was the last book, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats.)

Not much to say about this book actually. What I like about them, though, is that Acevedo does different things with the vampire legend, while staying true to the old myths. Vampires can go out in the day, but they have to wear a lot of sun block. They can hypnotize people with their gaze, but they wear contacts to hide the tapetum lucidum in their eyes. (Tapetum lucidum is the name for the reflection you see in the eyes of predators, like cats and wolves.)

I think what I liked best about this book was a new character, a mestizo named Coyote. Just like the trickster, Coyote is irreverant, exasperating, and hilarious. He claims to be the son of La Malinche, and attempts to make rat chorizo among other things. The scenes with him were dazzlingly funny and interesting, and I wished that Acevedo featured him more.

10.28.2008

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Anathem
Anathem
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson, is the kind of book that makes me glad to have had a college education. If I hadn't taken all those philosophy and history classes, I think I would have been a lot more at sea than I was. It seems like every chapter in this book references some major idea or event in astronomy, physics, Platonic philosophy, or world history. The physics was particularly challenging, because it seemed to run the entire course of history, from Aristotle to Plato to Planck and beyond.

I'm actually kind of impressed that I managed to read this book in a week.

The plot revolves around a young monastic type named Erasmus and his friends as they figure out how to deal with invaders from other dimensions. In Erasmus' world, there are a series of monasteries (concents) where people choose to live their lives contemplating, not God, but science. They spend decades, centuries, and millenia solving seriously advanced problems in mathematics, astronomy, physics, communication, biology, and so on. After Erasmus' mentor, Orolo, discovers what appears to be an alien ship orbiting their planet, the monastery system gets thrown into chaos when the outside world starts calling on experts from all different disciplines to solve the problem.

While the plot of this story is fascinating (I liked it even though I don't like stories with aliens), the history of this world is even more interesting and, at times, more richly described than the plot or the characters. Some details are missing, but you learn just about the entire history of this Earth-like world. And it's clear that Stephenson must have spent years conjuring it all up. Not only are there wars and religions, but there are important scientists, military leaders, books, cults, and scientific concepts and models.

Because of the way Stephenson chose to tell his story, it's not too hard to absorb all the information he's trying to convey. The plot enfolds slowly, and the characters spend a lot of their time "in Dialog." Just like Socrates and his students, the characters ask big questions and talk their way through thought experiments, referencing prior authorities on the matter just like scholars in our world do. Sometimes when they're nattering on about some detail about polar orbits or semantics, you get really tempted to skip ahead a few pages. Bit of it read like something you'd read in one of Plato's works. But once the characters make their way out of the monastery (or concent), the plot really picks up the pace.

One of the things that make this book hard to read (apart from all the science), is the invented language. Some readers, myself included, can find invented langauges (especially when you're meant to recognize the English origin of the word) very irritating, and a barrier to not only enjoyment, but comprehension. At first, I was afraid that this was going to be another Stephenson book that would kick my ass before page 100. I actually had to make the conscious decision to just let stuff like the invented vocabulary go, and not try to puzzle everything out before I could really get into the book. After that, I could speed through 150 pages at a go.

I did like this book, and I can totally see myself reading it again. But for others who want to get through it, you might want to read it near a computer, so that you can Google the science and read up on certain scientists and philosophers in Wikipedia. While you read it, you can just feel yourself dredging up things you learned as an undergraduate.

10.18.2008

The Reapers, by John Connolly

The Reapers
The Reapers
I hardly ever do this, but I skipped a book in a series. I didn't read the latest novel in the Charlie Parker series, The Unquiet. It's sitting on my shelves waiting for me to get around to picking it up. The last John Connolly book I read was Bad Men. But I was trolling one of the local public libraries, and found a copy of The Reapers on the new book shelf. It's not really a Parker novel, but he makes an appearance. Instead, this is about a couple of Parker's friends, Louis (a former hitman) and Angel (a former thief). But I always like Louis and Angel, so I figured what the hell.

While the novel is nominally about Louis and Angel, it's narrated for the most part by Willie Brew, a mechanic that Louis bailed out of debt many years ago. While Willie is a pretty good narrator, it made me feel like I was getting the story second-hand. And I didn't really like it. It took away some of the tension that I look for from mysteries and thrillers. I think that's a big part of why I didn't like this book as much as I liked the earliest Parker novels. The other reason is that a lot of the characters spend their time being introspective rather than acting. I probably came to this book with the wrong expectations. I think what Connolly is trying to do (and has been trying to do) is use his characters to explore the effect that a life of violence has on your soul (or anima or whatever you care to call it). Consequently, it feels like the whole dramatis personae needs a good dose of prozac or something.

What I liked the most about this book was the character descriptions when a new character would come on the scene, like this one of a pair of enforcers:
Unfortunately, there are individuals whose physical appearance comdemns them to a certain path in life. The Fulcis looked liked criminals, and it seemed inevitable that criminals they would become. The possibility of their cheating fate was further hampered by their emotional and psychological makeup, which might charitably be described as combustible. The Fulcis had fuses so short they barely existed. As time went on, a great many medical professionals...attempted unsuccessfully, to balance the Fulcis' moods by pharmaceutical intervention. What they discovered in the process was quite fascinating, and interesting papers for professional and academic study might well have resulted hand the Fulcis been willing to stay still long enough to cooperate in their formulation. (257)
Connolly still has his magic when it comes to the noir-ish passages. His language is elegant and unusual. And the book was really good in places where he let his inner noir take over. But looking back at the foreshadowing in the first Parker novels, I can see why Connolly has turned introspective in these later books. I'm not sure if I'll keep reading the series, though. I want more plot in my books, more action, more suspense.

10.12.2008

Vicious Circle, by Mike Carey

Vicious Circle
Vicious Circle
I am so glad that Carey wrote another book in this series! And that it came out so soon after I got my hands on the first book. The first book, which I reviewed earlier, was The Devil You Know. Vicious Circle picks up a couple of months after the events of the first. This one was a little less violent than The Devil You Know, but it was just as interesting and, possibly more disturbing than that debut novel.

As in The Devil You Know, our hero starts out with two cases that, at first glance, don't look like they have anything to do with each other. Castor is asked to find the ghost of a young girl by her parents. Then, he is asked to consult on a case for a demon who apprenticed under him until she could get certified as an exorcist. Plus, there are a couple of loup-garous on his tail, inexplicably trying to keep him from finding the girl's ghost.

When I started to read The Devil You Know, I had some doubts about an author who had gotten his start writing graphic novels. But Vicious Circle in particular is packed with mood- and scene-setting language, and details that make the whole story richer. I really believe that Carey did his homework, because there are scraps of Latin and a lot of Greek, details about magic and history, and a general plausibility that helped keep me in the story. I love it when authors use facts and scraps of the truth to make their stories believable. It hooks me every time.

I started reading this book yesterday, and I had a hard time putting it down. I was totally hooked from the first chapter and didn't manage to put it down until 2:00 in the morning. Good job I started the book on a Saturday. I'm also glad that I managed to pick this book up after I had read the first, because I would have been pretty lost. Carey is very good at explaining things without sounding like he's explaining (one of my pet peeves in books is when a character or a narrator starts discoursing about history or philosophy or sociology and brings the plot to a screeching halt). But you need to start at the beginning in order to get the whole story.

10.11.2008

The Living Dead, by John Joseph Adams

The Living Dead
The Living Dead
I usually end up reading something scary in October. This year, it was an anthology of zombie stories collected and edited by John Joseph Adams titled The Living Dead. I'd read a review about it on the Publisher's Weekly web site about a month ago, and it sounded really good. When I got my hands on a copy, and saw that some of my favorite authors had contributed, I got even more excited to read it.

Some of my favorite stories included:

"Malthusian's Zombie" by Jeffrey Ford. This is a government-created zombie story and what I really liked about it was how Ford used psychology and medical science to explain how you could make a zombie.

"How the Day Runs Down" by John Langan. This may be my favorite story in the whole thing. Langan tells the story of how a town managed to survive an outbreak as a play, with some elements of Sherwood Anderson. You get characters standing up on stage to tell their part of the story. The narrator is, I think, the angel of Death (and he doesn't know much more than the regular people about why people wouldn't stay dead).

"The Almost Last Story by the Almost Last Man" by Scott Edelman. This story features Romero-type zombies, and it's about a writer who manages to hole up in a library during an outbreak. He keeps starting stories (but not finishing them) in order to try and make sense of what's going on. As Edelman's story progresses, the writer starts to wonder who he's writing these stories for and if there's any point to writing them if there's no one alive to read them.

"Sparks Fly Upwards" by Lisa Morton. This is a post-zombie outbreak story about survivor's who have given up a lot of their rights in order to live in a safe community run by an ecological nut. They've even give up the right to reproduce without asking permission. This story is about a couple who find themselves with child, but without permission to keep it. This is one of the stories that I really wish had been expanded into a novella or even a full length novel. There is a lot of interesting stuff going on here, and I really would have liked to see Morton spin it out. I wonder if the characters in the story would have put up with their leader much longer.

Normally, I don't read short stories. For me, it always seems like the story ends just when I was really getting into it. I like long stories. Just a few years ago, I didn't even like to buy novels that were less than an inch thick. But I discovered while reading The Living Dead that there was no reason I had to read every story. The stories in here were so diverse that I didn't have to worry about losing the overall point of the book by just reading the stories that interested me.

There was a lot of variety in this book. You get the usual Romero-type zombies, government-created zombies, space zombies, far-future zombies, fantasy zombies, and on and on. There were even a couple of stories in here that didn't actually have any zombies in them. There really is something here for any type of zombie fan.

As I read, and picked and chose stories, I kept wondering what it was that drew me to these stories. I think what interests me is not so much the zombies themselves, but how people react to them. I really liked the stories that involved some kind of survival element. The stories with non-violent zombies didn't interest me at all, and I skipped a lot of those. And I think what interests me about these stories is that all the bullshit of modern life--bills, taxes, the DMV, etc.--goes away and we get knocked several rungs back down the civilization ladder. When that sort of organization goes away, it's like we have to start over and re-learn how to live and work with each other and survive. I don't know what other people get out of zombie stories, but for me it's always more about the political science and sociological stuff than trying to scare the crap out of myself.

9.28.2008

Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith

Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith
Child 44
Reading Child 44 by Tom Rom Smith is almost like reading Kafka's The Trial*. The whole judicial apparatus was alien to me. While I could kind of understand the logic (such as it was) behind it all, I found the process of accusation, arrest, confession, trial, and punishment to be surreal and frightening. When I picked this book up, I knew there was going to be a political element. How can you write a book set in Russia in 1953 and not address the political element? When I picked it up, I was expecting a book predominately about the mystery. But after finishing it, I think this book is really more about the Soviet criminal and judicial system than it was about the mystery.

The murders at the center of the mystery are based in part on some real serial murders, like the case of the Rostov Ripper, Andrei Chikatilo. Some of the murderer's pathology is also based on Chikatilo. But I have to agree with some of the negative criticism I read when this book first came out. The end, at least the resolution of the murders, is a little weak. The protagonist, Leo Demidov, and some of the minor characters work out some of the pathology to explain the murderer's motives and methods but at the end it seemed like Smith abandoned some really plausible and interesting psychology in order to shock his readers. As I read parts of the end, where the killer explains his behavior, I found myself thinking, What?! Hang on a minute. Some of it just didn't compute.

In spite of this, I would still recommend this book to mystery readers who are okay with violence above the cozy mystery-level. (Writing that reminds me of some times when I was doing reader's advisory and people would ask for mystery recommendations. I would always had to ask what their capacity for violence was. Could they read James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell? Or did they prefer Sharyn McCrumb and Diane Mott Davidson?) At any rate, this book is very dark and very grim. But I would recommend this book because of the political element. At first, I was a little skeptical of how Smith described how things were done. It all seemed very extreme. I had heard of how officials and managers would manipulate statistics to make it look like things were better and more productive than they really were. But I was surprised to learn that murders were either not investigated, or they were pinned on likely suspects that were outside of Soviet society for one reason or another, i.e. the insane, political criminals, homosexuals, etc. So, our hero Leo, has to overcome his faith in the system and then fight just about everyone he comes across in order to find the killer.

Another hard thing to come to grips with was the fact that, once someone was denounced, they were presumed guilty. Plus, no one tried very hard to clear them if they really were innocent. Apparently, the defense had to use the same witnesses as the prosecution. Even a couple of hundred pages into the book, I was still having a hard time accepting all this, probably because 1) I grew up in America as an American citizen and 2) when I was born, the Cold War was pretty much over and by the time I was aware of what was going on in the rest of the world, it was all over. So I have always grown up with the idea that you're innocent until proven guilty and without being told how bad the Societ Union and Soviet Communism was. At the end of the book, Smith gives a little summary of the books that he read as research, books by Russians like Solzhenitsyn** or by scholars of Russian and Soviet history.

In the final analysis, I would ding this book a couple of points for the killer's pathology, but I would award major points for its characters, the plot, the accuracy of the historical setting, how the author builds and builds the tension, and for its treatment of the political element. I liked this book so much that I read it in less than two days.

----

* Weirdly, when you type The Trial into Barnes and Noble's web site, Kafka's novel comes up tenth. Come on people, read your surrealists!

** No matter how many times I reference this guy, I can never remember how to spell his name.

9.25.2008

The Broken Window, by Jeffrey Deaver

The Broken Window, by Jeffrey Deaver
The Broken Window
Have you ever read a book that really picked up on things that are happening now and exaggerated them, just a bit, to create something frighteningly real? The Broken Window, the latest Lincoln Rhyme mystery by Jeffrey Deaver, picks up on very real concerns about privacy, data mining, identity theft, and electronic shadows. This book doesn't showcase a lot of Rhyme's criminology and forensics know-how. It's more about demonstrating how much electronic information there is floating around out there about us, our electronic shadow.I miss the forensics, though. There's a lot of computer wizardry in here instead.

In this book, the killer is constantly referred to as the man who knows everything. Because he knows how to mine data--gathering data from many different sources and putting together a profile of someone--he knows how to mess with people's financial data, criminal records, medical records, all sorts of things. It's like he can attack you without ever coming near you. This isn't exactly new territory for Deaver; he wrote about a criminal with similar access in The Blue Nowhere. But in this book, Deaver takes the idea farther. Not only can the baddie get near his victims, but he can use his knowledge to frame other people.

The Broken Window is a cracking read. I whipped through it in about six hours. I was completely hooked by this one. Deaver peppers this book with his trademark (well, I consider them trademark) cliffhangers and plot twists, so you never really get to relax until the end. Which is exactly how I like my mysteries and theories.

9.20.2008

The Scourge of God, by S.M. Stirling

The Scourge of God, by S.M. Stirling
The Scourge of God
The Scourge of God is the latest installment of Stirling's Emberverse series, set in a world where electricity, explosives, and steam power no longer work. The first trilogy dealt mostly with survival and government. But this second trilogy is definitely taking a more metaphysical turn. Even though the first books were peppered with religious discussions, these latest books are going even further down that road.

This book picks up right where The Sunrise Lands left off, and I have the feeling that the next book is going to do the same thing. In this trilogy, we follow the descendants of the people who survived the Change as they follow their destinies. It may sound a little melodramatic to say it that way, but one of the thing to older generation of characters keep remarking on is how seriously the younger people take things like honor and guest-right and legends and destinies. It's like finding yourself in one of those old legends about Roland or Siegfried or something.

It's a little hard to write about the plot of this book, because you really need the background for the previous four novels. In a nutshell, Rudi and his fellow questers continue to travel east and visit a neo-Buddhist monastery, neo-Lakota, and the remains of the American Midwest. They are still pursued by agents of a very creepy cult that has its own army. The cults army is also gearing up for war against our protagonists' parents back in Oregon. When I got to the end of this book, it was clear that I wasn't going to get a real resolution to anything. It's one of the flaws of setting out to write a trilogy that the middle book always feels like a link between the first book and the last book.

As always, what keeps me interested in these books is seeing how the remnants of the American way of life and history are shaping up in this post-Change world. I like seeing how words and traditions and such evolve over time. (This is a big part of why I liked A Canticle for Liebowitz so much.) One of the most interesting things to see is the split between people who decided to use what they knew of pre-Industrial history and society to create new societies, and the people who tried to hold on to American ways of doing things. Stirling has a couple of his characters posit the idea that the United States is impossible to restore without mass transportation and continent-spanning communications systems. After all, this is a modern country and Oklahoma, the last of the lower 48 states to actually become a state only became one in 1910. Plus, telegraph lines popped not long long after the mass migrations of settlers came West.

9.14.2008

Christopher Durang Explains it All for You, Six Plays by Christopher Durang

Christopher Durang Explains It All For You
Christopher Durang
Explains it All For You
This morning I finished reading this collection of plays by Christopher Durang. a while ago, my brother turned me on to this playwright and I remember really liking the anarchic absurdity of it all. I also got to see my brother perform the lead role in The Actor's Nightmare, and it was just hilarious.

This collection contains some of Durang's most well-known works, like Titanic and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. I enjoyed reading this collection. But as I read it, I realized how hard it is to fully appreciate a play when you can't see it being performed. There are stage notes and annotations that help, but a lot of Durang's comedy really hinges on how it's played on stage. There's a lot of casual violence in here, and if you read it with out taking the notes and the intentions into account, it's sometimes very hard to see how it could be funny.

My favorite piece in this collection is The Actor's Nightmare. Durang explains that a lot of actors have a nightmare where they have to perform in a play they haven't rehearsed or don't know at all. In this play, George Spelvin finds himself in the middle of performances of Hamlet, Private Lives, a fictional piece by Beckett, and, I think, A Man For All Seasons. It's really funny to see how Spelvin keeps trying to go along with it.

9.13.2008

The Devil You Know, by Mike Carey

Well, now that I'm done graduating, job hunting, moving, and settling into a new job, I finally have time to just sit and read. Hurrah.

The Devil You Know
The Devil You Know
I just finished reading Mike Carey's debut novel, The Devil You Know, about a London exorcist. Like a lot of other contemporary fantasy novels, there's something big that makes this world different from our own. In this case, the dead aren't staying their graves. Not in a Dawn of the Dead sort of way, but in a taking care of unfinished business sort of way. The main character, Felix Castor, uses music to get rid of the hauntings.

I was hooked by this book right away. I kind of had my doubts because Carey used to write graphic novels.  I should know better, because I'm a big fan of Neil Gaiman and he started out writing graphic novels, too. Plus, Carey wrote some of the Hellblazer books which feature exorcist John Constantine. I guess I was just worried about a first time novelist not having pictures to back up the words. But the world of this novel is wonderfully detailed and fully realized.

This novel begins with Castor being called in to exorcise a ghost from the Bonnington Archive. But as he talks to the employees and gets to know the ghost, he realizes that he can't just get rid of her and collect his pay. A few days into the job, he finds himself playing detective--not only trying to figure out what happened to the ghost, but trying to find out who is responsible and trying to get a bit of revenge for the ghost.

Carey also knows how to spin out a mystery and build up tension. Not only did I have no clue whodunit, but I was actually worried about Castor when he went up against the bad guys. The solution was a total surprise, too, even though the clues where there. I never felt like I was being jerked around like I do when I read Agatha Christie. This was a really good read, and I look forward to reading the next books if Carey turns this into a series.

6.15.2008

Fire Study, by Maria V. Snyder

Fire Study
Fire Study
Fire Study follows Magic  Study and Poison Study, a pair of books I discovered last year. This book wraps up the plot threads started in Magic Study. I find that I don't have a lot to say about this book. It feels a lot like the second half of Magic Study. In this novel, Yelena finds out who is really behind her enemies (and who is behind those puppet masters). And, with some help from her friends and allies, she foils their plots and save her countries. But apart from some revelations about our heroine Yelena's magic, there isn't really anything new in this novel. I enjoyed seeing the characters again, though.

One thing I will say about this book is that it's Dickensian--but not in a good way. In a lot of Dickens' novels, there are tons of amazing coincidences and things just falling into place and making everything shiny so that the hero and/or heroine can have a happy ending. There was a lot of that at the end of the book. It was remarkable how Yelena's plan to save the day all comes together with just a few words to her friends. A lot of that master plan happens off-stage, as it were, and very quickly. So quickly, it's rather unbelievable. The last fifty pages or so felt really rushed.

After I read the ending, I wonder if Snyder is going to write more books in this series. The news from Snyder's website tells me that she plans a new series--set in the same world--but featuring different characters.

6.10.2008

Barking, by Tom Holt

Barking
Barking
One of my co-workers got me hooked on Tom Holt a while back. I've been working my way (slowly) through the backlog of titles Holt wrote before I got clued in. Barking is the newest book, and tells the story of Duncan Hughes, a lawyer-turned-werewolf who has to fight off vampires, hostile werewolves, an undead shapechanger, and his inability to do math.

One of the things I love about writers like Holt and Terry Pratchett is how they can take an absurd little idea like, in the case of Barking, someone being out of step with reality by 0.1% and spin 400 pages or more of absurdist plot around it. Barking is wonderful absurd. It hooked me right from the start. (I read more than 250 pages of it last night before I made myself pack it in.)

I think this book was the perfect storm for me. It had great characters. At first, I was a little leery of the main character, Duncan Hughes, because he sounded like many of the mild-mannered wimps that often get sucked into evil corporation/contemporary fantasy novels. But Duncan surprised me. Well before the end of the book, he was tough and wily--just what you want in a werewolf. It had a fantastic (in both senses of the word) plot, with plenty of twists and turns. There was even a false ending in there, for good measure. And it had humor. I've mentioned before that a book has to be extraordinarily funny to make me laugh while I read it. Barking had me laughing through out. It was a very fun read.

6.07.2008

Infected, by Scott Sigler

Infected
Infected
Infected, but Scott Sigler, is one of the many books I've picked up recently. I'm not sure why, but I always end up buying more books than average during the summer. This book is another one that I read about on John Scalzi's Whatever blog, in one of the Big Idea posts.

This story is told in several parts. One plot follows a man who has the infection, a mysterious and very scary type of parasitism. Another follows the doctor tries to figure out what's going on. A third is told by a government agent (working of the CIA but not an official member of that organization) who is trying to keep the public at large from learning about this disease. The last plot thread is a third person narration of the progress of the disease.

As I read this book, I found Perry's plot (the guy with the infection) and the thread about the disease the most engaging and the most horrifying. As the disease progresses, you get to see how far Perry is willing to go to eradicate the parasite. And things get pretty graphic. I think part of what got to me about this book--and a book hasn't gotten to me since I read The Stand the first time--was that it was medically graphic. As an academic librarian, I've seen so many pictures in journals of surgeries and dermatologic conditions in medical journals that my imagination didn't need a lot of help picturing what Sigler was describing. (*shiver*)

*SPOILER ALERT*

But I have to say that the ending pissed me off.  I hate it when it turns out that it was aliens all along. It always feels like a cop out ending, especially when the author does so much research into epidemiology and microbiology. (I was impressed.) And in this case, I think there are so many scary diseases and parasites out there that you don't need to bring in extraterrestrials. Up until it turned out it was aliens, I was hooked. And freaked out. Which is what you want from a horror novel.

6.03.2008

Shining Through, by Susan Isaacs

Shining Through
Shining Through
Susan Isaacs' book, Shining Through, has a bad reputation, primarily because the movie version--by most accounts--sucked. Even though I kind of liked the movie, I can only watch it when I'm sick or other wise not in a critical mood. I've always been kind of curious about this book, especially after I read on Wikipedia that the movie omitted about three-quarters of the book. I spotted a copy of this book in my library's book sale items, which are kept near my work area, and asked to borrow it.

Shining Through is the story of Linda Voss, a half-Jewish, half-German native of Queens New York. The first three-quarters of the book shows the love affair between Linda, a bilingual legal secretary, and her boss, John. The last quarter of the book (the move bit, essentially), is where most of the action is. Because of her accent and knowledge of German and Germany, Linda manages to become a spy for the OSS. It's still over the top, but it's a fun, mindless read.

I don't have a whole lot to say about this book (because it's fluff), but I will say that having read the first three-quarters of the book doesn't really add the to the story I knew. It does, however, make me like Linda a lot more. In the movie, Linda's a bit bland. She's brave and quick, but in the novel she's wonderfully snarky and full of personality.

6.01.2008

The Edge of Reason, by Melinda Snodgrass

The Edge of Reason
The Edge of Reason
I saw this book discussed by the author on John Scalzi's blog, Whatever, as a part of his big idea series. In this series of posts, Scalzi asks authors to write about their inspiration or their line of reasoning about the premise of their books. The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass appeared a couple of weeks ago, and I happened to see it when I went to a Barnes and Noble a little over a week ago. In her big idea piece, Snodgrass wrote about her thoughts about the ongoing conflict between science (reason) and religion. Her idea was to take that struggle and amplify it, to the point where there's an out and out war between the two.

The Edge of Reason, the protagonist is an Albuquerque policeman turned paladin, Richard. After saving a young witch, he finds himself right in the center of this long-running war, working for Kenntniss, the embodiment of reason. Unlike a lot of other horror/mysteries, you know exactly who the bad guy is. What the good guys have to figure out how to take him down. Fortunately for Richard, he has friends to help him, especially since Snodgrass seems to have given him an extra helping of internal character conflict.

a lot. It's like we enter a kind of holding pattern where nothing much happens. The characters hunker down for the big showdown that you know is coming. It almost kills the wonderful tension, the buzz, that Snodgrass builds up in the first quarter of the book. It reminded me a little of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, where you have a great premise, characters, etc., but all the plot seems to happen at the beginning and the end of the book and the middle is just there to connect the two.

The other problem that I have with this book is the ending. I don't like it when the ending of the book is basically a set up for the next book. I have no problem with series, but I hate it when the point of a book is to set you up for the next book. If your characters are compelling and the story is intriguing, why make your ending a cliffhanger? Or worse, just a pause? If you've read this blog before (or you've talked to me about books), you know how much I dislike it when books don't have endings. I like plots to stand on their own for the most part. If an author wants to have the story from book one lead into book two, why not write a bigger book? I have no problem reading long books. (In fact, I tend to skip over books with spines that are less than an inch in the bookstores. I like long stories). Or, if you really want to have more than one book, why not end the first book a little sooner, like after the big showdown?

5.20.2008

I passed!

Normally, I don't do personal announcements but this is too big. I got my grades back for my last semester of graduate school. I have a 4.0 and am, officially, a Master of Library Science. In a week and a half, I will get hooded in our belated graduation ceremony.

Merde Happens, by Stephen Clarke

Merde Happens
Merde Happens
Merde Happens is the third book in Clarke's Merde series about Englishman Paul West's attempts to live with an alien race: the French. The first two, A Year in the Merde and In the Merde for Love, were wonderfully hilarious as West encountered the absurdities of French language, bureaucracy, and women. In Merde Happens, Paul goes to America as a consultant for the British Tourist Authority. His job is to oversee a series of tourist events and try to help Britain win a competition to be the World Tourist Capital. On his trip, Paul realizes that most of the events' organization has been outsourced to India and that he is really overseeing a series of catastrophes waiting to happen.

I read Clarke's books for two reasons. First, there's the absurdity factor. I love authors who take strange circumstances and create absurd situations and let them develop into side-splitting scenarios, and Clarke has a knack for piling merde on West until everything spins out of control. Second (and this ties into the first reason I read Clarke), is that Clarke is very talented at highlighting the absurdities of culture. I know that every culture's rules and habits make sense to the members of that culture, but when you're an outsider like Paul, a lot of things seem downright odd.

But I'm starting to think that Clarke needs to move on. While I sympathized with Paul as he dealt with a series of incompetents and weasels, it's that I think the character has lived its useful life. Paul has stayed remarkably naive and seems to have learned nothing about dealing with foreign cultures after his years in France. He's not a good communicator. I found that I kept getting frustrated with Paul's inability to explain himself to people. And I particularly got fed up with Alexa, Paul's girlfriend, because she never gave him the opportunity to really explain himself. Not that I'm really comparing this novel with Othello, but I think that the plot problems in both could have been averted if all the characters had attended group therapy sessions.

The other thing that annoyed me about this book is that I kept waiting for Clarke to treat American culture the same way he treated French culture. I mean, he had a bit of a go at our out-sized restaurant meals, our tendency to sue instead of dealing with accidents, and such. But I don't think Clarke took full advantage of his setting. Perhaps it's because, as far as I know, he hasn't lived in the United States or been over here as long as he's been in France and England and doesn't really know us.

While I enjoyed parts of this book, I found it to be disappointing over all. But I still want to get my hands on Talk to the Snail, because I think it has great potential to be very funny.

5.15.2008

The Outlaw Demon Wails, by Kim Harrison

The Outlaw Demon Wails
The Outlaw Demon Wails
I know that I'm not reading "serious" books right now, but I just finished my last semester of graduate school. My brain needs a break. For those of you looking for serious literature, I am going to start reading A Tale of Two Cities soon for a book club.

So, The Outlaw Demon Wails. This is the sixth Rachel Morgan book by Kim Harrison, and I think I like the series more and more as it goes on. It's a contemporary fantasy and, yes, there are vampires. But this is one of the few series I've seen that actually gives face time to other fantastical creatures. In this case, demons, witches, elves, and pixies. (This is also something I like about Charlaine Harris.) There's a wealth of legend and myth in the Western tradition. It seems like a shame not to use it.

In this book, Rachel Morgan again faces her nemesis: Algaliarept. She also has to deal with a murdering elf who is trying to save his species from extinction, a mother who is trying to set her up with a nice guy, a vampire who's in love with her, and her own missing memories about who killed her last boyfriend. There's a lot going on in this book and Harrison does a great job of pacing. I could feel the tension building as I read, but it didn't do so fast that I felt like I was losing track of the twists and turns. I've read a few books were so much happened in two or three pages that I would have to go back and re-read them just to figure out what the hell was going on.

The other thing that I liked about this book is that things got wrapped up and we can no move on to new, interesting things. I always wonder a little about series writers, and how much they plan out in advance. I've read that James Lee Burke, for instance, has no plans when he sits down to write and others will map everything out. Laurell Hamilton, according to her blog, writes ideas down on post-its and uses them to kind of storyboard her books together on her office wall. (I read in a recent entry of hers, that she's had ideas on her wall for so long that the post-its have stared to fade.) So I wonder about multi-book arcs. I appreciate that you can build characters and stories over several books, but I think you have to be careful about it so that it doesn't seem like you're going over the same ground over and over again.

5.13.2008

From Dead to Worse, by Charlaine Harris

From Dead to Worse
From Dead to Worse
Yes, I'll admit it. I read vampire novels. This weekend, I read From Dead to Worse, the latest Sookie Stackhouse novel. What I like most about these books is that, unlike a lot of other contemporary fantasy/vampire novelists (*cough* Laurell Hamilton *cough*), the story isn't bogged down in unresolvable character problems or sex, even though this is the eight book of the series. These books rely on plot, and Harris isn't afraid to wrap up plot threads and move on instead of spinning them out over two or three books. She brings in new characters; she actually kills off old characters who've served their purpose to the plot.

For those who aren't familiar with this series, Sookie Stackhouse is a Louisiana barmaid in a small town who is telepathic. Over the course of the last seven books, she's gotten inextricably involved in the vampire and supernatural communities. For me, this book felt like a clearing-the-deck sort of book. A lot of old plot threads were wrapped up. It feels like Harris is going to move on into new territory in the next book. (Hurrah!) I don't really want to say too much about this book because, if you're interested, you've probably read the other books and I don't want to ruin how things turn out.

I will say that I really liked this book. Part of this satisfaction may be coming from the fact that I feel frustrated when I read other vampire/contemporary fantasy novels. After a while, they get so bogged down that the books feel like quagmires. With Harris and Stackhouse, I always feel like progress is actually made. The rest of the satisfaction comes from the fact that Harris can make you laugh, feel apprehensive, worry about the characters, feel curious about what's going to happen. She's a very fun writer to read.

5.01.2008

I am Legend, by Richard Matheson

I am Legend
I am Legend
I saw I am Legend when it first came out. The theater was packed with people, and we all jumped and gasped during the movie. It was the most terrifying movie I had seen since 28 Weeks Later. So when I saw the original 1954 novel on the shelf at my new favorite used bookstore, I snagged it. As many horror fans know, Matheson's I am Legend has now been made into three different movies. I haven't seen the first two, but the Will Smith version was good enough for me.

I've read that I am Legend is also one of the inspirations for the zombie genre. I can well believe it now. It's got all the elements: mass infection, seemingly invulnerable walking corpses, a few survivors holed up in fortified buildings, tensions about the fate of mankind. This book has all of these. And its all packed into a little more than a hundred pages. I'd read descriptions and such, but it seemed (before I read the book) like a lot of material to get through. Plus, I'm used to movies only showing or telling you half of the story.

I am Legend is also a very sparely written book. Even though you get the main character, Robert Neville, thinking and talking about whether or not he should just give up, if there's anything worth fighting for, etc., this book is mostly about Neville's day to day life: repairing his defenses, finding food, and so on. In retrospect, Will Smith's Neville seems a lot more human, more emotive, than Matheson's original. The original Neville is kind of hard to like, because he's been through so much horror and because he's had a lot of hard decisions to make. He also doesn't get many moments to show his humanity to the reader, where Smith had several episodes added into the movie script for that purpose.

Another thing that interested me in this book is now Matheson and Neville use science to explain the infection, with some of the original vampire legends thrown in. The bacteria that causes vampirism in this novel reminds me a lot of Max Brooks' zombie virus. At one point, Neville raids the Los Angeles Public Library to learn all he can about hematology and bacteriology and, through his research, you learn a lot about how the epidemic spread. (I also appreciated the shout out to libraries there.)

As I was reading the book, I realized that with a lot of these end of the world stories and movies, you rarely get one that's set entirely in the epidemic. You get flashbacks and hints, but I don't know about one that just does the outbreak. Curious. I'm trying to think right now of a book or movie that qualifies, but I'm coming up blank. Maybe Darwin's Radio? I don't know, but I think it would be interesting to read one since one of the things that draws me into these books is the mentions of what happened. I really like trying to piece those together.

4.30.2008

Resistance, by Owen Sheers

Resistance
Resistance
When I think of the word resistance, I think of people fighting at all costs to fight off an invader. I know a little bit about the civilians fighting the Nazis in Russia, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, and other places. So when I picked up Resistance by Owen Sheers, I was expecting to see some of that ferocious fighting.

Resistance is one of my favorite types of novels. It's an alternate history. But it's not just any alternate history, it's a World War II alternate history. Like Len Deighton's SS-GB, Resistance is set in a world where the Soviets lost the battle of Stalingrad, where the Nazis figured out that Britain and the United States were lying about the target of the D-Day invasion and fought off the invasion. In this world, the Nazis invaded England. Even though Sheers' alternate history required a lot of things to go wrong for the Allies, he makes it seem terrifyingly plausible. All through the beginning of the novel, as I read along with the English characters, I felt a lot of dread as the Nazis made their way inland and started to subdue the English.

The novel follows three different characters. Sarah Lewis, the first protagonist you meet, lives on a farm in an isolated Welsh valley. One morning, she wakes to find her husband missing. Later, she discovers that all the men from the valley are gone, with no explanation. The second character we met is George, a man who was pulled into the British intelligence service in a peripheral way. He's only supposed to be activated if the Germans invade. The third character is Albrecht Wolfram, a Wehrmacht captain who is sent to patrol Sarah's valley. As the novel progressed, their story lines intersect.

One of the main issues that the British characters have to wrestle with is whether or not they'll capitulate to the Nazis. It's a hell of a lot safer to listen to the Germans' proclamations, but they are all told over and over again by the British government-in-exile and by they British military and by their peers that they need to fight. Sheers lets you know what the penalties are for resistance though, because the Nazis learned a lot of hard lessons from the French, Russian, and other resistance groups. So, when I said in the beginning that I was expecting a lot of fighting, you can see why if you read that Wikipedia article. But this novel isn't really about fighting, its about living in difficult times and making very hard choices.

As you read through this book, you start to feel sympathy for characters who, in the normal course of things, you wouldn't feel any sympathy for. There were a couple of times in the book, where I thought about the Holocaust victims. When I read a book about World War II or see a movie about the war, and the victims of the Holocaust come up, I always think, "Hold on, guys! Stay alive until 1945 and you'll live through this." But I always get an awful feeling when I'm reading an alternate history where the Germans win.

3.24.2008

Agent Zigzag, by Ben McIntyre

Agent Zigzag
Agent Zigzag
I request that my local library buy this book, because it sounded like such a hoot that I thought a lot of people would by interested in it. Agent Zigzag, by Ben Macintyre, is the true story of a double agent named Eddie Chapman.

Eddie Chapman was a not-so-small-time crook in the 1930s. He helped run a gang of safecrackers in London. (Well, not so much safecrackers, since what they really did was blow them up.) He was captured by British police on the island of Jersey and put into prison just before the war started. When the Germans invaded the island, Eddie saw a chance to get out and volunteered to spy for the Germans. As soon as he got back to England, he immediately turned himself in and volunteered to spy for Britain. For the rest of the war, he was a British spy and managed to keep the Germans convinced of his loyalty all the way until the end of the war. There are a couple of comments in the book from the British agents (part of the Twenty Committee) about why Chapman became a double agent and why he chose to go back to the continent after being relatively safe in Britain. The conclusion seems to be that he did it for the adventure. He must have been one of those guys who needs constant, terrifying excitement in order to be happy.

Agent Zigzag has two things going for it. First, the story is incredible. If it weren't so well documented, you'd have a hard time believing any of this was real. Chapman was incredibly charming and lucky; he got away with things that I don't think anyone else has before or since. Second, Macintyre does a wonderful job writing this story with the flair that it deserves. One of the reasons that I don't read non-fiction much is because I often find them slow going, dull in many places, and/or the writers don't have the knack for making the subjects come to life. The people in this book pop off of the page and there is rarely a dull moment.

I read this book in about three days. This is a personal record for me; it's the shortest time I've every spent reading a work of non-fiction. If you know any WWII buffs or people who are into espionage, I really recommend this book.