NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

G. Rodriguez's 'Triumph' illustration
I read Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box shortly after it came out in 2007. It was a good read although somewhat unsatisfying for reasons I can’t articulate now. Recently I saw the book titled NOS4A2 and mentally sounded it out, laughed, grabbed it off the shelf and only then recognized the author’s name from the previous book.
It’s good. The main character, Victoria McQueen, is tragic, powerful, funny, flawed through no fault of her own. The book doesn’t delve into why she is the way she is. The focus is on the action that comes from her reactions to her special abilities.
The plot rotates around people with special abilities, various powers to make dreams reality, to find objects, people, and places, to travel instantly, to suck the life from others and live forever. The characters that are good suffer physically from their powers. The character that is bad doesn’t seem to suffer much from using his power.
With it’s shifting between dreamlike interior landscapes to the real world, it reminds me of Stephan King’s collaborations with Peter Straub (The Talisman, Black House). Even though the second half of the book is an extended chase scene, it’s sustained well. There are a few portions of violence doled out to characters that I had to skim over, wincing, but it was a quick read for an almost 700-page book. The illustrations by Gabriel Rodriguez are clean and perfect and add a lot of flavor. The endpaper illustrations are particularly nice. I also see there is a graphic novel treatment of the book. There are many violent and shiver-inducing scenes and characters that will lend themselves well to the graphical format.
It isn’t until reading the afterword that I twig to the fact that Joe Hill is Stephan King’s son in the real world. This is also the first book I’ve ever read in which a major plot point is embedded in the “note on the type” at the very end.

“In between the beginning and the ending of the work, I went for a motorcycle ride with my dad. […] It was a happy ride, following him along his back roads with the sun on my shoulders. I guess I have been cruising his back roads my whole life. I don’t regret it.”

My New Skype Password

I  don’t use Skype very much. When someone asked me to install it on their computer today, I had to reset my password. I have to do this because Skype makes it very hard to remember your password for their product, and they make you use your password to do anything.

First, I go to skype.com, but I can’t simply download a copy of Skype to install.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know it says “Download Skype” but after I click the button the next page requires me to  either log in with my Skype account or fill in three screens of information, a new email address and a capcha to create a new account.

 

 

 

I have an account but since I can never remember my password and try to guess, I fail twice and get a lock-out message.

 

 

 

 

 

I then get a reset token emailed to the address they have on file. At least I can remember my email address.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After receiving the email and clicking the reset link, the real fun begins. The Skype site does helpfully say that my new password must be at least 6 characters, including 1 number and 1 letter.  So I enter a 9-character password with a couple words and letters and numbers strung together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I continue trying different combinations of words and numbers and get the same message over and over. They’re into complexity, so I try a long phrase of words and numbers. Oops, there’s a maximum character limit they haven’t mentioned until now.

 

 

 

 

I finally give up and enter a totally random string of numbers and letters, which guarantees that the next time I need to install Skype on a computer, I will have forgotten the password and will have to start back at the beginning.

Or I can go to download.com next time and get a copy of Skype there.

Ob-XKCD

The Stranger by Max Frei

The Stranger by Max Frei

The Stranger is a slow-moving, epic dream-work. First published in Russia in 1996, it was finally released in English translation in 2009. The author and narrator, Max Frei, is an underachiever night-owl who has recurring dreams of another world. Near the beginning of the book, Max is rewarded for his persistent dreaming with a job in the dream world, and instructions on how to get there. Skeptical, he tries – and succeeds in entering Echo, the city he’s been dreaming about. He is given a job working the night shift for “The Department of Absolute Order,” something like a city police investigative bureau. He acquires new friends and responsibilities with his new position, and eventually comes into some very strange powers.

It reminds me in some ways of China Miéville’s books about strange cities. And in some ways it reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork city guard, although the humor is not as broad. But mostly, it’s unique and not easy to describe. The language is strangely formal, perhaps an artifact of translation. It has a surreal feel, appropriate for a novel set in a dream. The ‘authorities’ are strangely unmoved by the murders and mysteries they encounter.

I did not discover two additional delightful features of The Stranger until several weeks after I had finished it. First, the author, Max Frei has written many more books set in this dream world called Echo, and second, Max Frei is actually a pen name of Svetlana Martynchik. The bad news is that as of 2010, only this first volume of her many books has been translated into English.

Short reviews

Mini-reviews of recent books. 5-star scale.

Bloodshot, Cherie Priest, 2011 ****
A vampire private eye/thief/assassin novel. I know, you’re rolling your eyes. “Another vampire story?” But really it’s pretty good. The narrator is a tough blood-sucker.  Unlike the cover illustration, she’s got a flapper haircut and big black eyes. She and her cast of interesting accomplices rack up the body count, yet are generally motivated by loyalty and responsibility. I’m looking forward to the next installment of this series.

Devils’ Due, a Starcraft II novel, Christie Golden, 2011 *
I’ve played a lot of World of Warcraft, and have read some of Golden’s WoW novels. They were OK. I have not played Starcraft II but apparently it involves embittered military men-turned-criminals using prostitutes, ripping off prostitutes, then beating up angry prostitutes. It didn’t seem like a game I want to play. I didn’t finish the book so technically it’s possible it got better.

Naked Cruelty, Colleen McCullough, 2010 **
Ms. McCullough has a thoroughly unpleasant imagination. Most of the people in this New York-based police procedural are horrifying in one way or another. I read the whole thing even though it made me feel grimy.

Other Kingdoms, Richard Matheson, 2011 ***
This book tastes like a Charles de Lint novel left out in the sun too long, overripe and fermented. A 80-something author of schlock horror novels reminisces about his teenaged, post-WWI experiences having sex with a witch and a fairy. It’s probably best not to dig too deeply into the meanings behind the voluptuous and vengeful witch-as-mother and the childlike, self-sacrificing, fairy-as-sister love interests. Lots of mythic detail of war and magic, with a likable narrative voice. I’ll probably continue to read anything Matheson cares to write.

Kirsten Bakis – Lives of the Monster Dogs

Lives of the Monster Dogs is a  surreal and melancholy first novel from 1998. A twisted young American named Augustus Rank develops a taste for vivisection and disturbing surgeries on animals. In the 1870s, rather than being jailed as a sociopath, he is taken in by a doctor. He migrates to Canada with a group of fanatical scientists yo fulfill his goal of creating a breed of super-dogs to use as an army. They work on his project for four generations – he is long dead when they finally perfect intelligent dogs, with human hands and voice synthesizers grafted on to them. The dogs revolt and kill their creators, then travel to New York City, where they become celebrities. They build an elaborate castle in the city, move into it, go insane, and die. (Believe it or not, this isn’t really spoiling the story, the main narrator makes most of this clear from very early on.)

The surreal and complex imagery, the themes of mental sickness and murder, evoke Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind.

Monster Dogs
is a strange slide into oblivion for the dogs. One feels not only sadness for them, but also discomfort from empathizing with something so alien, and a tinge of relief that there is a ‘solution’ to them. Well worth reading.

How Google shapes what you see

Google manipulates search results in several different ways. It gives you results depending on where you are geographically, using your IP address to determine where you are. It collates what other people in your geographic area have been searching for and suggests locally popular search terms to you. It also changes your search results based on your own previous searches and currently open browser windows. You could say that Google spies on your other open web browser tabs, and changes your search results accordingly.

In this example search below, you can see I was looking for “78rpm” – and search result #8 was a Tom Waits related item. That’s kind of a peculiar return to have in the coveted top 10 – why is it there, when Tom Waits’ career started years after 78rpm records went out of style?

If you look at the other tabs that are open, you can see I had been doing searches for Tom Waits album art. The 78rpm search was completely unrelated to the previous searches, but Google made some heavy-handed assumptions that if I ever searched for Tom Waits, I will always want Tom Waits in my search returns. Not a very good theory, actually! In fact, this search return seemed so strange that I then tried the same search term on a computer that did not have the same search history.

The Tom Waits entry did not show up until around return number 44 — it didn’t appear until the fourth page!

What does this say about how Google is shaping what I see? How often do seekers go to the fourth page of a search? What am I missing when Google privileges some information over others, based on a secret recipe that I can only guess at, making decisions about what it thinks I should be seeing? Where might we end up, letting one company be our portal to information, if that company is shaping what it lets us see?

 

The Wolf and the Crown by A. A. Attanasio

Published in 1998, The Wolf and the Crown is the third book in A. A.  Attanasio’s telling of the King Arthur myths. It follows the young king Arthor through the first year of his reign. He must prove to his subjects that he is a worthy king, and must prove to himself that he is a good man even though he fell prey to his witchy half sister’s seductions. This book is very different from its predecessors. The chapters are short, perfect two-page cliff hangers that whirl the reader between the various characters and situations. This book holds more horror than the ones that came before, but is leavened with great humor. It focuses on Arthor’s humanity, but doesn’t neglect the elements of the strange and magical one would expect from  Attanasio. Gods old and new, ghosts, witches, demons, angels, vampires, dwarfs, elves, stolen and misplaced souls, the hell that is our present day, the fabulous world tree that is the magnetic field surrounding the earth, the hollow hills above the dragon at the heart of the earth, heroic adventure, selfless sacrifice and a monkey, it’s all there in a tapestry of magic and realism. Attanasio isn’t bound by any of the old tellings of this myth; he takes the characters and elements and makes them uniquely believable, uniquely his own. As in many of Attanasio’s books, such as his first novel Radix and 1993’s The Moon’s Wife, the heroes are deeply flawed and take on painful journeys of self-discovery and change.