Book review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susannah Clarke) is one of those books I’d been meaning to read for some time and I finally picked it up last year. Perhaps fittingly I have also taken my time in finally committing to a review. Unlike the novel, I will be brief (this is is no way a criticism of the book, its length is perfectly suited to the tale it tells).

This is a dense yet whimsical novel, one that is amazingly polished for being the author’s first. Clarke vividly depicts an alternate Victorian era where magic exists but has fallen into disuse, something that the titular characters first separately then jointly work to change, with unexpected results for both.

Strange and Norrell are each in their own ways difficult men who do not always get along with others, with Norrell being a near-misanthrope. The married Strange is more accommodating to others and bolder, putting aside Norrell’s studied approach to reviving magic in favor of grand displays of magic done on behalf of England in its wars against the French. The conflict between the men forms one of the main pillars of the story, with another being the abduction of several people by a malevolent fairy. Clarke does a terrific job in bringing the various events together, employing archaic language that gives the feel of being a history recorded by someone who lived in the time.

Each chapter includes footnotes that are often pages long and that Clarke apparently expected these to be rejected by the publisher. Their addition adds a quirky scholarly feel that further contributes to the book’s presentation as historical artifact. At the same time, the author occasional intrudes to offer a pointed opinion about one character or another. It’s something that could come across as twee but Clarke handles it confidently.

I have not read many alternate history novels (actually, I don’t if I have read any) but this still strikes me as being an excellent example of the genre. Recommended.

Book review: The Best New Horror 6

When I picked up The Best New Horror 6 (Stephen Jones, editor) I didn’t realize it was first published in 1995, so this made it not just an anthology of horror stories but also a bit of a trip down memory lane because as hard as it is for me to wrap my head around, 1995 was nearly twenty years ago.

Without any overall theme driving it, this collection covers everything from splatterpunk to Lovecraft homage, with plenty of sex, drugs and rock and roll mixed in. Overall I found the stories worthwhile, without any I actively disliked.

The introduction by Jones is a rather exhaustive look at the year in horror writing, along with a forecast of doom for the genre in the years ahead, a curious way to set the tone for the stories he has collected. Likewise, the book concludes with a look back over notable people related to the horror industry (book, film, TV) who have died that year. It’s been twenty years since Claude Akins died. That seems kind of weird to me.

My favorite stories were:

  • Sensible City (Harlan Ellison). The world’s best curmudgeon writes a horribly fun tale of just desserts about a pair of thugs who take a very wrong turn. This one has a neat Twilight Zone feel to it and is written with a nice economy and droll wit.
  • Sometimes, in the Rain (Charles Grant). A moving story about old age and the ghosts that haunt those still hanging on.
  • Isabel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring (M. John Harrison). Another tale that uncoils its horror quietly, about a woman obsessed with flying and unfortunately getting her wish.
  • The Alternative (Ramsey Campbell). Another Twilight Zone-ish story about a family man with everything who seems to have an alternate life where he has nothing and what happens when the two collide.
  • The Singular Habits of Wasps (Geoffrey A. Landis). A Sherlock Holmes story told from the perspective of Watson that blends Jack the Ripper with alien intrigue.
  • Out of the Night, When the Full Moon is Bright (Kim Newman). A long story that weaves together two narratives, one about a modern British journalist riding along on police patrol in near-future Los Angeles, the other about a werewolf in the past that co-ops (or creates) the Zorro legend.

I didn’t dislike any of the stories, which is surprising for me, as I’ve found horror collections to be notoriously uneven. The weakest was probably “Dead Babies” and it wasn’t bad at all, just a very conventionally told horror tale. Recommended.

Book review: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I try to read a few classics or pseudo-classics every year and the first one I tackled for 2014 is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because all of Lewis Carroll’s work is in the public domain, which means it is free, baby, free. And the ebook edition I read is based on the original 1865 edition that includes John Tenniel’s wonderful illustrations.

Here’s one of them, courtesy of the Wikipedia article. I love these. Yes, enough to marry them.

Having never read either of the Alice books and getting the ebook edition, which weights exactly zero of anything, I had no idea the story was so short and finished it in a day. As befits the literary nonsense genre it belongs to, the story is filled with absurd imagery, copious amounts of word play and puns a-plenty. My biggest surprise was probably how daft Alice is, often having long and odd conversations with herself and obsessing over her size, among other things.

This was a pleasant read but one that did not leave me necessarily hungering for more.

Book review: This Book is Full of Spiders

This Book is Full of Spiders is David Wong’s pseudo-sequel to John Dies at the End. Unlike the latter book, Spiders has a much tighter narrative and is darker overall, though the irreverence, drunkenness and general ineptitude of the main characters carry over from the first volume.

The title is also accurate. Arachnophobes will be left squirming uncomfortably at the giant piles of spiders that lead to a kind of zombie apocalypse in Wong’s hometown of [Undisclosed].

What I like most is the way Wong balances the disparate elements and makes them all work. The protagonist is flippant, his best friend ridiculous, yet you are made to care about them. There are scenes that are both horrifying and moving. There are photos of John’s penis. Repeatedly.

Wong writes dialogue that is both direct and believable, even when (or especially when) people are discussing things that are outrageous or terrible. The only lapses are minor ones–he relies a bit too much on happenstance and coincidence to move the story along at certain points, but never to the point where it seriously detracts. Likewise, the conceit of never naming the town–in order to keep people from going there and having bad things happen to them because the place is so screwed up–falls apart after he describes the town being a headline all over the world after it is placed under quarantine. That and a video shot there gets 18 million hits on YouTube. Not so much [Undisclosed] anymore.

Overall, though, This Book is Full of Spiders builds nicely on the groundwork laid in John Dies at the End and is–dare I say it–a more mature book. Plus, how can you resist a story where the author describes his hair as looking combed by an angry cat?

2013: The Year of Reading Copiously

Thanks to a long work commute I read a whopping (for me) 23 books in 2013, with a 24th finished in the first few days of 2014. 2013 was the first year I did not read any paper books. I still have a stack of them threatening to topple over (the stack is not that high, just poorly arranged). I have to admit I am thoroughly in like with being able to cart around a four pound Stephen King doorstop in an ebook reader that weighs a few hundred grams. And yes, I know I mixed imperial and metric there. I still can’t make myself think in kilograms for some reason.

2013 was also the first year I subscribed to the two magazines I read regularly in digital format. I find the 9.7″ display of the iPad works reasonably well but if someone handed me a larger tablet that didn’t weigh a ton I wouldn’t kick it out of bed, either (Samsung has just announced a 12.2″ tablet, actually, though like much of Samsung’s stuff it seems kind of plasticky and cheap, though it won’t be priced that way). The two magazines are Runner’s World and Writer’s Digest, by the by.

My favorite book of last year was probably the seven volume The Dark Tower series, which I gorged on in the last few months of the year. King going meta almost ruined it but he makes it work and the conclusion didn’t feel like one of his typical “well, I’ve run out story” endings.

I also quite enjoyed Vernor Vinge’s space saga A Deepness in the Sky and the quirky, quaint Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Sussanah Clarke. Rounding out my list of favorites was David Wong’s John Dies at the End, a very silly, juvenile and altogether enjoyable read.

I’m still working on reviews on some of the books I read in the latter half of the year and who knows, I may even update my sad and neglected Goodreads page. Stranger things have been written.

Book review: The Kraken Wakes

John Wyndham’s 1953 novel The Kraken Wakes is at times quaintly British and outdated but still an intriguing portrayal of a truly alien attack on Earth.

Telling the story from the first person perspective of Mike Watson, a reporter with EBC, a fictional competitor to the BBC, the novel chronicles three phases of an alien invasion that starts with red meteors plunging into the deepest parts of the world’s oceans–a frontier that no human had visited back then (and few have visited since). For a time there is no immediate connection between the meteors and any kind of alien incursion. This changes when great quantities of sludge churn up from the deeps, suggesting an intelligence at work.

Investigation leads to unseen retaliation, as a bathysphere sent down to investigate is compromised and its crew of two killed. Britain responds by dropping a nuke into the deep but they have no way of knowing what happens. The aliens then disrupt shipping with unknown weapons that shatter ships apart in moments and follow by sending remote-controlled and/or organic “sea tanks” to attack coastal populations, snaring people and dragging them back to the ocean depths for unknown purposes (food? entertainment? both?) The tanks are discovered to be very vulnerable to explosives and are for the most part repelled.

This leads to the third and final phase, with the aliens warming the ocean’s waters, causing a precipitous rise in sea levels across the globe. The aliens clearly don’t want to share their new home with landlubbers.

The main characters of Mike and his co-worker and wife Phyllis, are witness to several events directly and their employer the EBC uses them to present stories covering the drawn-out invasion. The meat of the story takes the form of long monologues by characters recounting incidents or expounding on what can or must be done. This creates a bit of a distancing effect, in spite of the husband and wife team being intimately involved or witness to much of the action. It does allow Wyndham to recount various opinion pieces and the prevailing mood of the public and government, which lends a journalistic “witness to history” feel that somewhat compensates for the distancing effect of the monologues. A large part of the novel details the reaction of the world to the years-long invasion events, with public interest waxing and waning with activity and governments generally disinclined to take more decisive action. It’s somewhat depressing in how authentic the reactions and actions feel. Basically humanity waits until it’s too late.

The science is kept fairly low key and holds up credibly due to the vagueness–and the fact that nukes are the answer used most often. The most outdated part of the novel is the still-entertaining back and forth between the West and the Soviets, with the Soviets playing up the rhetoric against the fascist, capitalist West (and trying to blame every alien attack on them, while they only wish to preserve Peace with a capital “p”).

Perhaps my least favorite part of the novel comes right at the end. Wyndham paints an increasingly bleak picture of a world greatly depopulated and only just hanging on above the rising water and appears about to end the story on this depressing and uncertain note. Instead, a person delivers a message to Mike and Phyllis on their newly-made island refuge that the Japanese have created a sound-based weapon that kills the aliens dead and everything will be peachy after all (apart from the depopulation and newly terrible climate, that is). The revelation comes so late in the story that it feels like a deus ex machina, a happy face sticker to make the reader feel better about things.

Still, it’s not enough to detract from the overall story and it is clear the surviving people still have a long struggle ahead of them to restore society to something that doesn’t get regularly eaten by possibbly jelly-like beings living five miles below the ocean surface.

Also I don’t think I’ve read a novel where two characters refer to each other as “darling” more than this one. Maybe it was the style (of writing) at the time.

Book review: Fade-Out

Spoilers ahead. Read at your peril!

I first read Fade-Out back in 1978 when I was an impossibly shaggy-haired 14 year old. I read the revised edition in 1987 when I was a svelte-haired 23 year old. And now, over two decades later I have read it a third time, as a fuzz-haired 48 year old.

This time around I read the revised 1987 text in ebook format. The revised edition doesn’t change the story in any notable way nor does it add to its length, as most of the revisions are just updated pop culture references. Somewhat humorously, the politics remain the same, something that would have altered more drastically if author Patrick Tilley had held off for a few more years (when the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 and 1991, respectively).

The story presents an unfolding mystery that starts with a global “fade-out” of all radar systems that lasts 22 minutes. This proves to be quite a bother, especially for airplanes, but everyone gets through it okay. Tensions between the U.S. and USSR ramp up as the Americans suspect Russian shenanigans.

When a large craft with unusual reflective properties appears in orbit, the U.S. again fear the Soviets have developed some Star Wars-style space weapons platform (before Star Wars even existed, how prescient!) Another longer fade-out occurs and when it ends the craft is gone. It’s later discovered that a meteorite that crashed at Crow Ridge, Montana may be related and the government is all over the place like the NSA on your tweets and likes*.

The story follows the government team assembled to investigate the site in Crow Ridge, among them nebbish Arnold Wedderkind, science advisor to the President, General Mitch “tolerates civilians only to a point” Allbright, the head of Strategic Air Command, and and Bob “everyman” Connors, special advisor to the President. And of course, the President (who is daringly depicted as Italian American).

What this group finds at Crow Ridge is a dome-shaped object rising out of the ground. It’s made of an incredibly hard crystal-like substance and is impervious to testing. Beneath its translucent surface is a creepy pattern that looks like a brain cortex. With no fanfare the object blankets the immediate vicinity with a mini fade-out, making most electrical equipment and vehicles non-functional. This goes away in time and the science team sets up shop, with Allbright and the military mucky-mucks waiting for the first sign of hostility so they can start a-shootin’.

Instead, the dome reveals a complex hatch that opens and lets out a large mechanical spider-type thing. It appears to be weaponless, a probe of sorts, so it is observed, rather than shot.

The 1978 paperback edition luridly depicts the spider terrorizing Washington, something that never actually happens:

Fade-Out book cover

It got me to buy the book, though, so I can’t properly condemn the bait and switch.

Over the course of the story, the mystery of the dome and spider deepens, with their enigmatic presence and a sudden reappearance and spread of the fade-out effect prompting discussion of military options up to and including, effectively, nuking it from orbit (except actually from a jet).

The worst aspect of Fade-Out is probably the maleness of it. The few female characters are peripheral–not a bad thing, necessarily–but are treated somewhat disrespectfully. It brought to mind the R.E.M. lyric “a simple prop to occupy my time”. This is a bad thing. I suppose you can defend this by saying the male characters are the ones out of touch, not the author, but it doesn’t quite ring true. The characters also have the habit of engaging in philosophical debates that don’t sound like actual people conversing but rather the author playing out different points of view for the reader’s benefit.

Despite that, the story itself is intriguingly presented, with no easy answers or pat revelations. The scientists struggle against the unknown technology, trying to divine the purpose of machinery that defies testing and reveals little about an overall purpose. There is the feeling that perhaps a test is being conducted but to what end is left an open question.

If you like your science fiction set in the here and now (well, the here and now of 1987–there’s nary an iPod in sight) and filled with riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas, you may like Fade-Out’s depiction of Man vs. Mysterious Machine. I liked the premise enough to nick it for a short story.

 

* reference to the NSA’s vast snooping program, which will hopefully seem quaint and outdated in a few years

Book review: A Deepness in the Sky

I’d never read any of Vernor Vinge’s crazy space stories before but A Deepness in the Sky came highly recommended by friends and Vernor Vinge is an awesome science fiction author name so who was I to refuse?

To summarize the plot would be difficult. Basically you have three groups in a story that, thanks to deep sleep/stasis employed by all three, spans many decades but with characters aging much more slowly, though still getting older. It all takes place 8,000 years in the future and apart from the snazzy tech on display, paints a curiously depressing view of our future.

The three groups are:

Qeng Ho: Or as I call them, Capitalists Ho! These are people who love to trade and trade to love. Their goal is to trade as far and widely across the universe as possible. They are loosely federated with no real formal government structure.

Emergents: As the name suggests, these people recently emerged from a dark age and although technologically advanced in many ways, they are kind of bad, evil and whatnot. They aim to conquer and subjugate and conscript people into working as virtual computers by means of a mind-altering effect known as Focus.

Spiders: Living on a planet creatively dubbed Arachna by the humans, this is a race of large, intelligent spider folk. Like Earthlings, they are divided into factions and have a tech level similar to mid 20th century Earth, with space travel just becoming a possibility. The system they live in is the focal point of the overall story, as it features an improbable sun that burns normally for a few decades before effectively shutting off for a few centuries before lighting again. The humans, again demonstrating their cleverness, call it the OnOff Star.

For some reason the two human groups think this mysterious system will hold untold riches/power/something and they each dispatch fleets to secure the spider world. Deception and a surprise attack by the Emergents against the Qeng Ho leads to the survivors being forced to work together for decades while waiting for the spider technology to develop enough for them to appropriate it so they can all get back home and screw you, stupid spiders and your dumb OnOff sun.

The bulk of the story follows a large cast of characters, switching between the three groups and weaves in an exhaustively detailed level of the technology–everything from “localizer” nanites a-plenty to 3D holo displays that don’t require glasses or anything. This may sound glib but Vinge actually makes it all sound very believable, intriguing and yet commonplace to the people of the story.

Vinge also weaves in layer upon layer of deception and intrigue, sometimes tipping the hand for the reader to see, other times leaving it an open question on who can be trusted–if anyone.

I especially liked the depiction of the spiders. For a long time their actions and voices are identified by Focused interpreters who can only hear their transmissions and this creates a more human vision of them. That carries through to the spider sections of the story, with only occasional references to their spider-ness–“eating hands”, welts for holding babies on their backs, perches to sit in rather than chairs. And yet they have everything a good civilization would want: vehicles to tool around in, nice homes, clothes (of a sort) and, of course, nuclear weapons. It’s only when the humans and spiders meet that you really appreciate just how alien they are. And yet still adorably cute, somehow.

This cuteness would not probably translate to a film version. Unless they were depicted as Muppets.

I really enjoyed Vinge’s world building, something I’m not usually much into (and a large part of why I skip book series) and the sophistication of the plots the various characters act upon are equally interesting. The bad guys get what they deserve, which is always cathartic, especially after some of the vile things they perpetuate over a very long period of time.

If you like grand scale science fiction with deep (no pun intended) worlds and ever-twisting, slow-burning plots, you’ll love this. Unless you’re an arachnophobe, perhaps.

Book review: Twilight Zone Anthology

The Twilight Zone Anthology (2009) is a collection of 19 short stories commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the original The Twilight Zone TV series. Each story is book-ended by a paragraph that simulates Serling’s introductory segments and closing narration from the show. You’ll have to imagine him standing there, head cocked at that familiar angle, cigarette burning away in his hand. The effect is perhaps not as successful in print format.

As expected with most collections the quality of the writing varies, though there are no real stinkers like in Poe’s Children, my most hated anthology of all time.

It opens with a bizarre story set during World War II where a soldier suffers delusions and/or tells stories to his compatriots as shells rings out around them. Making it even more bizarre is the rather inept formatting of the different segments, a sadly common occurrence in ebooks. One day publishers will realize that ebooks do in fact need to be handled differently when it comes to formatting. Anyway, I’m going to spoil the twist of “Genesis” in the spoiler text below:

[spoiler title=”Genesis spoiler”]It turns the protagonist is Serling himself, telling stories that will later form episodes of the series.[/spoiler] The twist is cute but the story is curiously bland and could have been excised from the collection.

“A Haunted House of Her Own” is a nice modern ghost story variation with bonus revenge fantasy and twist included, though a few parts of the setup are a bit too convenient (almost inevitable, really).

“On the Road” is one of the standouts, where two hitchhikers from 1970 meet again through happenstance decades later. It’s a story that is sweet without being sentimental.

“Puowaina”, set in Hawaii prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, is a vivid tale of premonition and inevitability.

Whitley Strieber’s “The Good Neighbor” is a nightmarish story of revenge by fire, with alien weirdness tossed in. Whether you believe he’s had contact with “visitors” or not, there’s clearly something fuelling his disturbing depictions on the subject.

Many of the other stories are perfunctory, inoffensive but not particularly memorable. “The Wrong Room”, for example, has a tragic twist that doesn’t resonate because the setup for it is simply too much to swallow, a neat concept that fails its own ambitions.

Overall this was a nice collection. I don’t mean “nice” in a dismissive way. Most of the stories are good and worth reading but I wasn’t compelled to immediately grab the follow-up to the anthology. I may eventually, because speculative fiction is not one of the better-served niches in short story format.

Book review: Under the Dome

As a gift I got Stephen King’s Under the Dome, his latest mega-book* filled with a cast of thousands. This was the hardcover edition so it was heavy enough to double as a weapon to bludgeon with. It proved too unwieldy for my daily commute so I picked it up in ebook form and started in, hooked by the simple yet undeniable high concept of “What would happen if an essentially impenetrable invisible dome suddenly cut off a small town from the rest of the world?” If you guessed “very bad things” you would be correct!

King is adept at handling a large cast of characters and in Under the Dome he does a good job of giving the various characters distinct personalities that you will like, hate or just plain loathe. Especially loathe.

Spoilers ahead without spoiler tags. If you haven’t read the novel and plan to, read on at your peril!

Overall I liked it. For a big fat book the pace moves along quickly. In fact, the pace also seems too swift, with with everything in the quaint burg of Chester’s Mills going to hell in just a few days. I kept flipping back and forth between thinking it was unrealistic that civility and social norms would collapse so quickly and accepting that this is exactly what would happen. Shorter: people suck. King plays on that big time.

For the citizens of the town it doesn’t help that their corner of Maine is under the thumb of second selectman Jim Rennie, as vile a villain as King has ever written. At times almost cartoonishly evil, Rennie is perfectly rotten to the core and many a reader may find themselves distracted mulling over the horrible end King has in mind for him, because surely someone as evil as this man (who has gotten away with murdering his wife before the story begins and finds murdering people who get in his way kind of like eating a bag of Lay’s) is going to come to a fitting end.

Ah, the end, the bane of so many otherwise outstanding King stories. On the one hand the ending of Under the Dome works well enough and King certainly doesn’t try to pull a fast one on the reader. Quite to the contrary, the ending is heavily foreshadowed and is the ultimate Very Bad Thing that happens to the hapless people caught under the big bubble. But it also feels a bit like a cheat because it deliberately subverts and destroys nearly everything that has happened in the story up to that point. All of the machinations of Rennie and his cronies literally go up in smoke (and lots of fire), which is convenient in terms of bringing events to a conclusion but I am left wondering if the story would have been better served by letting the dome persist and have the battle between Rennie and his opponents play out over weeks or months rather than a mere four days.

Still, this is a case where the journey is still worth it even if the destination isn’t entirely to your taste. Some of the science is wonky and certain plot points are a inconsistent or little too convenient (people become very bad shots at the worst times) but none of this bothered me, not even Chester’s Mill–a town of less than 2,000–being home to the largest meth lab in the U.S. Hey, why not?

Under the Dome may have its flaws but it’s still an interesting, if depressing, take on how tenuous our civilized world is.

* distinct from his other books, which weigh less than four pounds

Book review: American Gods

I recently read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (preferred text edition). I’ve never known any of the plot details of the book, reaching back to its debut in 2001 but the title alone, so simple yet evocative, has always intrigued me. In the years since the book’s release I’ve experienced assorted movies and stories by Gaiman, so I’ve became familiar with his work and style. When the ebook version of American Gods went on sale I snapped it up and dove in.

The preferred text edition adds about 11,000 words, which is a fair chunk, but having not read the book before, I have no idea what was added or changed. There didn’t seem to be any conspicuous padding, so I can tentatively declare the additions a success.

Overall I enjoyed it, though I was never fully engaged by the protagonist, Shadow. Even the reveal at the end didn’t quite make up for how glibly and readily he accepted all the weirdness suddenly appearing in his life. But maybe some people (especially in a world where gods literally walk the earth) are more adaptable than others.

Gaiman does his usual excellent work at weaving the fantastic and mundane together, something that works especially well with a backdrop that amounts to a road trip across America. The Lakeside scenes are especially good at capturing that quaint, almost mythical (ho ho) small town feeling.

There’s not much else to say, except that this edition includes a bizarrely exhaustive set of reading material at the end of the book, including classroom discussion topics, deleted scenes and more. The classroom stuff made me feel I was back in my grade 10 English class. I’m not altogether certain I liked that. :P

The post that isn’t about running (it’s about books)

I’ve been posting nothing but jogging updates for awhile now, which for everyone not me are pretty dang dull.

However, I have read a bunch o’ books lately and will be putting up reviews of them soon™. They are:

  • American Gods
  • Under the Dome
  • The Twilight Zone Anthology
  • A Deepness in the Sky
  • Fade-Out

I’m now casting about for my next read and will probably dive into something tomorrow. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Diving into my e-reader would probably just crack the display.