Book reviews by genre

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.”

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.

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.

“The end of the world will not come without a war.”

Tooth and Nail by Craig DiLouie

Imagine you’ve been deployed to the Middle East, for longer than anyone dreamed would be possible when the war started. You’re finally getting to go home. It’s emergency duty in New York City, but it’s still home. There’s an epidemic. It’s everything the swine flu was feared to be and then some – extremely contagious and up to 5% lethality. There is no vaccine, which is unfortunate as some of the sick experience symptoms much like rabies – dementia, paranoia. They become … dangerous.

That’s the nightmare in which Charlie Company’s Second Platoon find themselves in Craig DiLouie’s 2010 novel Tooth and Nail. It’s a gritty take on the zombie apocalypse, fought on the streets of New York. The military framework is a natural – where else would you want to be during a zombie war than in the best funded military on Earth?

The characters aren’t cookie-cutter cannon fodder or stereotypical power-crazed officers. They react in spectrum of ways – selfish, loyal, craven, implacable. They have to contend with the tension between following orders and the prospect of having to fight other Americans that have been infected by the virus. They also face rapid breakdown in services, lack of supplies and medicine, and a public that is demanding, self-centered, and terrified. And then there are the sick people. The “Mad Dogs,” as they become known.

Zombie stories play out all kinds of cultural metaphors, and this one is no exception. It can be seen as an intense take on the morality of combat in a civilian zone, where the line between civilian and non-combatant and soldier, regular or guerrilla, erodes.

The main character is the Army itself – the culture, language, rituals, rules and tools. The individual cast members are embedded in this matrix, to such a degree that sometimes they stand out sharply, but their features sometimes fade and they move as gears in the military machine. DiLouie’s Army is detailed and believable. The reader feels as if she is there with the soldiers as, often with grim humor, they struggle to fulfill their orders amid chaos and panic.

I won’t be surprised when I hear this book has been picked up for a movie. It would be a welcome addition to the genre – an inside view of a powerful army faced with defeat from a foe that fights with tooth and nail.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

N. K. Jemisin’s 2010 debut The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a fascinating speculative fiction, set in a world in which gods not only exist, they also war, fall out of power, and can become enslaved by mortals.

The main character, Yeine, is the nineteen year old leader of her small tribe, a matriarchal culture in which men’s aptitude for glory and bravery is dismissed much like women’s is in contemporary American culture. Daughter of a royal who abdicated her position to marry into the tribe, she is drawn into a deadly competition for a throne and her life changes quickly when she becomes enmeshed in the political intrigues of the capital city.

The world Jemisin builds is rich with mythology. The sibling gods of night and day and the goddess of twilight warred against each other, one dying, another becoming enslaved, and the last used by royalty to rule their world. The exploration of the fate of the gods as it entwines with Yeine’s is engrossing. This is the first of a trilogy, I am looking forward to the next installations.

Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk. Love him? Hate him? Wish you could escape the Horror genre pigeonhole and claim your space on the General Popular Fiction shelves  as  seemingly effortlessly?

His 2009 book, Pygmy, escalates an output already far out on the edge. After the excesses of Rant, I was curious – what comes next? I appreciated Rant as a response to the popular obsession with Fight Club. How do you respond to men punching each other in Mexico City, inspired by a movie based on your book? Why not give your loving public a character who gains his charisma from rabid rodents. A charmer who demonstrates his love by infecting his lovers with rabies. “Emulate this, suckers!”

So, Pygmy. It’s in dialect. A entire-book-sustained first person, English-second-language, sometimes punny, always awkward, voice. Our narrator, an exchange student from an unnamed Communist country, probably China, takes advantage of the bleeding-heart American academic exchange program to infiltrate a typical American family, with a mandate to impregnate as many girls as possible before implementing mass destruction.

I confess, after the male-on-male rape scene in the first 30 pages, I had to take a break. I read two Jim Thompson novels and then came back and finished Pygmy. It was disturbing. Some of it was funny. None of it seemed like a movie Brad Pitt could be in.

The rape scene was particularly disturbing. It wasn’t completely gratuitous like the traditional male-on-female rape scene. It impacted the rest of the story. It was described with great detail. It could be instructional for that all-too-common young man that describes his losses at Halo as being “raped,” although the chances of such a fellow reading this book are probably slim.

I can’t say I like this book. The metaphors never fall in to focus, the narrator is yet another murderous pervert. There is a strong female character, and there was some possible redemption to be found in the end. Is it worth the journey? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

Shorts – crime, fantasy, horror

Foolproof, a 2009 novel by several authors, Barbara D’Amato, Jeanne M. Dams and, Mark Richard Zubro. It’s a NYC-based mystery/crime novel, which starts out very strongly with an affecting portrait of 9/11 seen through the eyes of two Twin Towers survivors that happened to both be late for work that day. It eventually deteriorates into silliness – the main characters become 007-esque anti-terrorism globetrotters. A Bill Gates analog blackmails the president to further his scheme to take over all the oil in the world. Entertaining but doesn’t really live up to those first chapters.

Vengeance Child by Simon Clark. A nicely done 2009 horror story about a child that accompanies bad fortune. I enjoyed the dilemma the main characters found themselves in. A child is a reluctant harbinger (or is it instigator?) of violence and death. What would you do if confronted with such a child? Can you imagine it ever being right to torture or kill a child?

The Gates (of Hell are about to open/”want to peek?” or “mind the gap”) by John Connolly. I really wanted to like this 2009 book. It fits my penchant for books about heaven and hell, and it features the Hadron Super Collider. The narration is in a chatty, directly-addressing-the-reader, copiously footnoted style reminiscent of Terry Pratchett, and the episodic adventures of a young main character were evocative of L. Frank Baum. I even appreciated the production quality, the cover art, text fonts and such are quite attractive. But (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?), I fell out of love with it on footnote number 12. “It is a curious fact that small boys are more terrified of their babysitters than small girls are. In part, this is because small girls and babysitters, who are usually slightly larger girls, belong to the same species, and therefore understand each other. Small boys, on the other hand, do not understand girls, and therefore being looked after by one is a little like a hamster being looked after by a shark.” Etcetera. This big spoonful of gender essentialism, topped with a cherry of “women are some strange species that is not human” put me off. Already feeling like this book didn’t like me, I wasn’t as ready to suspend my disbelief of the stereotypes, gender insults, and general derivative nature of the story. This may more about me than about this book, but it took the fun out of it for me.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker. A 2010 gothic horror novel masquerading as a “women’s” book. I appreciated the bluntness of the harsh story, the painful explication of a woman who has to marry her rapist, without ever directly naming it for what it is, and how the fallout from this affected an entire town. But, the first-person omniscient narration made me sea-sick. As the narrator described events and thoughts she couldn’t possibly have witnessed, I couldn’t decide if she was supposed to be making things up, or magic or what.  The narrator was a fascinating woman. She had some form of giantism, and the cover made me wonder what the Sociological Images blog would make of it. You can have a look at their post on women’s body types as depicted on book covers  here, but the general gist of it is that even if a fiction book stars a main character who is a “large” woman, the woman pictured on the book cover will be thin. In this case, the book cover features a heavy looking mannequin.  The author may have had little to no input on the cover image, but I still find it fascinating that the publishing house would opt for a headless mannequin rather than actually depict a large woman. Regardless of the cover art, I will be looking forward to Baker’s future books.