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.

Book review: The Stand Complete and Uncut Edition

This review was originally posted on Broken Forum.

I decided to take advantage of one of my e-reader’s main strengths by finally reading The Stand Complete and Uncut Edition. I bought the paperback of the original The Stand back in 1980 (I was 15), devoured it quickly and loved it – except for the deus ex machina which struck me as pretty dumb. In 1990 I bought the hardcover of the uncut edition. It’s over 1150 pages long and weighs four pounds. Picking it up to read felt like exercise and I didn’t exercise.

It stayed unread for 20 years.

But I noticed the book in the Kobo store for something like $9 and I thought, “Am I willing to add $9 to the $23 I already spent on the hardcover edition I bought and never read in 1990?” That $23 is what you call a sunk cost, so I put down the nine bucks and grabbed it. There is no danger of the e-book version of The Stand putting my back out when I pick it up and for this I am grateful.

Now the questions were: Would this story still resonate with me 33 years later? Would I even recognize the additions/changes in the uncut edition? The answer to both is yes!

Stephen King changed the time frame of the story from 1980 to 1990 when he added those 400 or so pages back to the text and updated some pop culture references to keep things in order. There are a few minor slips here and there and generally the novel still feels like it’s set in 1980. The 70s vibe resonates clearly, swipes at President Bush (the elder) notwithstanding, but in the end it’s not really a negative. Trying to rework the language and flavor of the story to make it better fit 1990 would have been a fool’s errand.

There’s also a certain level of amusement to be found in how King presents ‘old’ characters like Glen Bateman, a sociologist in his 50s (King was 27 or so when he wrote the book). Invariably they are slow, arthritic — physically enfeebled but usually wise. I’d almost forgotten that sense of immortality you have in your 20s. The world and time stretch out endlessly before you. People in their 50s? Almost dead!

The story itself holds up just fine. The massive sprawl of the uncut edition pulls off the impressive feat of never feeling flabby or excessive. King has fleshed out the characters by restoring scenes that don’t change the story but enrich it. Trashcan Man especially benefits from this, adding a layer of pathos to what was largely just a crazy firebug. I was surprised at how Flagg himself comes across (I realize he appears in The Dark Tower series but I’ve not read that, so I only know him from his appearance here) because I remember him being much scarier in the original. Despite having numerous magical abilities he seems strangely weak and unsure here. The new ending that puts him in charge of a primitive tribe on some remote tropic island is downright funny.

And what about that deus ex machina at the end? I remembered it vividly — the literal hand of God appears and blows up the nuclear warhead, vaporizing Las Vegas, ending the stand with a bang. I don’t know if it’s been changed in the uncut edition but in it the hand is never described as being exactly that. One character refers to it as such and the text offers that it did look like a hand but it feels like King hedges a bit by avoiding the precise phrasing that would state YES THIS IS ACTUALLY GOD’S HAND, PRETTY CLEVER EH? It also seems the hand doesn’t directly set off the bomb, it just pushes Flagg’s big ol’ electric spark into it, underlining how playing with fire (Trashy and Flagg alike) is very very bad. In all, the hand didn’t bother me this time.

If you’re looking for an end of the world story with a large cast of endearing/crazy characters (most of whom smoke a lot, something King himself must have been doing at the time because it felt like every character smoked because the author did) and you haven’t read The Stand, I can recommend the complete and uncut edition (the only one you’ll find new) unreservedly. It’s an often bleak but surprisingly brisk-paced ride.

Book review: Heart-Shaped Box

Having already read Joe Hill’s short story collection 20th Century Ghosts and his second novel Horns, I felt it was time to check out his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box.

This is a tale of revenge as delivered though a mean ghost inhabiting a haunted suit, a simple story, told directly and played out at a brisk pace. It’s lean to the point of having virtually nothing in the way of subplots but that’s okay because the core story is vividly drawn. The main character of aging heavy metal star Judas Coyne could have easily lapsed into cliche or stereotype (imagine Ozzy Osborne being cast in a movie adaptation) but Hill does a good job of making him feel genuine, turning the life or death struggle with the ghost into a chance for Coyne to redeem himself, at least in part, for past sins. Some may prefer the ending to be more Grimdark™ but I was pleasantly surprised and found it fun, even playful.

I can’t think of anything in the way of meaningful criticism toward the story. Perhaps Hill has gotten some of the details of life in a heavy metal band wrong. If so, I haven’t detected them. On the plus side, I especially like how Hill’s characters and Coyne in particular behave realistically and yet believably. There are no ‘walk into a dark room without turning on the lights’ moments. The characters may be vulnerable or out of their depth at times but they’re also smart and resourceful.

Recommended.

Book review: Summer of Night

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons is a semi-autobiographical novel set in the rural Illinois town of Elm Haven in the summer of 1960. The ‘semi’ part is due to the use of fictional characters and unspeakable ancient evil featured throughout the story.

The edition I have is from 2011 and includes a new introduction by the author in which he underlines how much things have changed for kids since 1960, with the ‘safe’ distance they can travel from home being severely reduced and the preponderance of safety measures that act to stifle as much as protect. Like bike helmets or something. The whole thing comes off as a bit of a rant and worse, Simmons spoils a major part of the book without warning. If you happen to read Summer of Night (and as you’ll see I think it is very much worth doing so), skip the intro until after you’ve read the book.

The story begins with the end of school for the summer and the closing of the cavernous Old Central School that the half dozen boys of the self-named Bike Patrol attended. But the school happens to contain a wee bit of very old evil that wants out. The rest of the story sees the boys alternate between idyllic summer days spent playing baseball, swimming and hanging around and running for their lives to escape from the horrors slowly being visited upon their town. All the while they work to figure out what’s really going on and how (or if) they can stop it.

Simmons does a terrific job in capturing classic childhood fears–monsters in the closet (it’s true), things trying to grab you from under your bed (yep, true) and horrible monsters in the dark (true again, and it’s even worse than you imagined). There’s also an undercurrent of ‘teachers are evil’ that will probably delight many a school-aged kid reading this.

As with most horror novels there are a few things–notably a kid’s behavior here and there–that don’t make much sense when you start thinking about it, and the climax feels oddly rushed, as if Simmons was impatient to be done with the story or lost interest once it switched over from nostalgic reminisce to full-blown horror. I also didn’t care for the handful of blatant contrivances Simmons uses to help push the plot along (the smart kid’s father basically invents the telephone answering machine, as one example). Overall, though, it’s an enjoyable, albeit somewhat predictable ride. The recreation of small town America in the early 60s feels authentic as all get-out and the boys, parents and citizens of Elm Haven are all nicely drawn, whether they are upstanding and honest, unrepentant bullies or a bit undead.

You’ll also be glad to never set your eyes on a rendering truck.

Book review: Southern Gods

Southern Gods is one of those books that can be glibly, though accurately, summed up with a trite phrase. In this case it would be “Cajun Cthulhu”. The title holds great promise on what turns out to be a strangely small scale adventure considering the subject matter of gods trying to destroy our world.

The story begins by following the lead of hired muscle “Bull” Ingram, a giant of a man who has been tasked by a DJ to track down a man he’s sent out to sell records to local radio stations. As Ingram journeys across the 1951 south he uncovers dark horrors that suggest the very world itself may be in peril due to malevolent and ancient gods trying to bust on through.

The early chapters are promising. Ingram is a rough but likable kind of lug and the mystery behind the pirate radio station that broadcasts music to go crazy by, along with Hastur, a devilish Blues musician, are set up nicely. Things start to come apart at the Ruby, a nightclub Ingram goes to in order to meet–and kill–Hastur. The scene is a literal orgy of violence that sets in motion the rest of the events and despite the author’s loving attention to every gory detail, the depiction fell flat for me. As I mentioned in the Broken Forum thread and in agreeing there with another poster, Drastic, when you’re openly invoking the Cthulhu mythos as Jacobs does here, sure you can bring your own take to the material but if you stray too far it’s no longer really Cthulhu anymore but its own thing. That in itself isn’t bad but reducing the Necronomicon to a book filled with grotesque imagery that makes you go crazy just looking at it, feels unconvincing. The angle with the music and singing, which struck me as far more interesting and original,  is largely forgotten once the bad books are uncovered, to the story’s detriment.

The ‘love’ interest may as well have come with lug nuts, it was so blatantly bolted onto the plot. The other leading protagonist, Sarah, seemed to switch between being weird and emotional to focused and strong more on the requirements of the story than through any natural character arc. I felt nothing in regards to the daughter Franny’s fate because for most of the book the character is tucked away in the background.

In the end, what started out as an intriguing take on the Cthulhu mythos ends up a disappointment that focuses on the wrong things. I also noticed a strangely high number of typos and grammatical errors in the book. Somewhere in the first half of this book is a great take on the Cthulhu setting but the second half squanders it for what is basically a protracted slugfest. Not exactly what I imagined in a ‘evil gods out to enslave humanity’ story.

Book review: John Dies at the End

I recently finished reading John Dies at the End by David Wong, editor of cracked.com*. This is not a long book but it took nigh-forever to finish reading because every reading session was started just late enough that I’d nod off within 30 minutes. This is not a knock against the book, it would have happened no matter what I was reading at the time.

This is a silly and plot-light tale that began as an Internet thing™ and eventually evolved into an actual book (which I bought via the Internet, thus completing the circle). It follows a pair of dopey guys in their mid-20s as they fight weird-ass (and I use the term literally) demons and other things that threaten to destroy the world as we know it. Apart from an ending that feels a bit like “Uh, how do I wrap this all up?” the journey is fast-paced, absurd and often very funny. The sub-genre of funny horror is ill-served so this is a welcome addition to it.

If you are a humorless monster (and I use the term literally) you may not find this to be a literary masterpiece but that’s okay. There’s already a sequel out for you to froth over. I’m not picking it up yet because it’s still out of my price range but I will eventually. Sorry, Mr. Wong–if that’s your real name (spoiler: it’s not).

 

* I still can’t decide if Cracked was an excellent alternative to Mad magazine or a shameless ripoff. Probably a little of both. The website is nothing like the magazine of yore, which is not a bad thing. It’s just a web thing.

Review: Throttle (short story)

Here’s a quickie.

I read the short story “Throttle” by Joe Hill and Stephen King. It was originally part of a tribute to Richard Matheson called He is Legend (which I’ll likely get to soon) but was recently made available as a standalone ebook. It’s inspired by Matheson’s classic “Duel” (best known as the 1971 Spielberg TV movie) but this variation of the theme, in which a group of bikers led by a father and son are chased by an anonymous trucker through the desert felt a little flat. Unlike the original story, the motivation of the unseen trucker is eventually revealed. Not only is it a huge coincidence but it also makes the story feel a little pat. The father/son conflict among the bikers seemed more to provide a B plot when the truck wasn’t bearing down on them than anything else. It’s not a bad story but it doesn’t really capture the tension of the original. But hey, 99 cents!

Book review: A.D. After Disclosure

A.D. After Disclosure by Richard M. Dolan and Bryce Zabel is one of those speculative books I loved as a kid and still enjoy as a world-weary and skeptical adult. The premise of the book is simple: What if there are intelligent non-humans on the planet right now and their presence is revealed to the world, whether through some undeniable event (a mass sighting of UFOs) or through disclosure (a presidential address in which all the conspiracy stuff of the Majestic 12/Roswell, etc. are all but confirmed)? Through nine chapters the authors explore how disclosure might be handled and what the effects on the world would be. Most scenarios are fairly grim, with long-term social disorder, riots and turmoil as people panic at the thought of an undoubtedly superior species being here alongside us. The book also explores in detail the purpose and motives of the ‘gatekeepers’ who they believe already have confirmation of the ‘others’ as the authors call them and go into detail (and conspiracies!) over how the mass media, working alongside and sometimes taking direction from the government, has stuck to a narrative of ridicule and scorn, to insure the public never takes these ‘little green men’ seriously.

At least we have UFO Hunters on G4.

While the authors clearly believe that the government or some shadowy part of it is concealing the presence of aliens/intelligent non-humans they admit to being uncertain as to who exactly these aliens are and offer speculation that covers everything from time travel to sentient machines. They also believe there is more than one species here and each group may have different purposes or motivations. Some may be here to help, some to harm. Why are they being so secretive? The authors never provide a firm answer but suggest that the repeated sightings and encounters over the last 70 years may be part of a campaign to acclimate us to their presence before the big reveal. They also suggest that our own rapidly advancing technology (singularity by the mid-21st century, baby) may force the hand of the aliens and/or government.

The speculation put forward is interesting, if not revelatory, and fun to think about. The authors get Very Serious regarding secrecy and clearly mistrust government and the media, so if you’re inclined to be a distrustful sort this may resonate with you. I found it a mite overbearing at times but if you assume the authors are being honest, you can understand their conviction because they paint a picture of a government system that has been willfully misleading its people for many decades.

As a popcorn book, I had a decent time with it. Now I must go stare at the sky and ponder.

(This review was originally posted on Broken Forum.)

Book review: Redshirts

John Scalzi’s novel Redshirts is pretty close to what you expect from the title, assuming you know the pop culture reference. In the original Star Trek series a group of main characters would go on an away mission and bring along one or two ensigns, typically dressed in red shirts. Often enough for it to be a seeming pattern, these ‘redshirts’ would die in some horrible way. You always knew who was going to die because it was never one of the main characters (killing main characters is incredibly trendy now with TV series,but back in the 1960s it was relatively rare). Redshirts is set in a Star Trek-like universe where a group of ensigns aboard the Universal Union’s flagship Intrepid begin putting the pieces together and realize that they are all in danger of expiring in horrible ways if they don’t do something.

That something comprises the bulk of Redshirts’ story, one told in a fast-paced style with characters volleying witty rejoinders like phaser fire. Although there are some obligatory touching moments, most of the story is played for laughs and succeeds thanks to a consistent stream of absurdities and the ensigns’ collectively deprecating reactions. Naturally there is also time travel and the story ends with a series of codas that wrap things up in a somewhat gimmicky but still effective manner.

It’s a short, light read and just about the perfect summer book to lose yourself in for an evening or two. Recommended.

Book review: Wildwood Road

I am not the fastest reader so it usually takes me a few weeks to plow through a book. In the case of Wildwood Road (Christopher Golden) I was able to finish it in a mere six days. This was a nice change of pace–a novel that tells its story without any real padding. The downside is the experience almost felt too brief and a bit perfunctory.

It tells the tale of a nigh-perfect couple living in Boston and how a few too many drinks at a masquerade party leads to nearly running down a mysterious little girl on a quiet night road. From there things get weird as Michael the guilty husband tries to set things right by taking the girl back to her home, a ramshackle old house on top of a hill that seems to be haunted by…things. These ghosty creatures do a number on Jillian the wife to scare off the husband from pursuing matters further. More to the point they turn her into Ultra Bitch, which is kind of fun to watch. Golden does a good job in making her a wildly unpredictable force and I was actually fooled–whether by design or not–by a scene in which a friend is asked to ‘babysit’ her, the outcome of which I hadn’t predicted. I was less convinced by the depiction of memories as physical things you can pluck from the air as they float by.

Oh, and the little girl, she wore a peasant blouse and blue jeans. I remember this because Golden mentions it approximately five thousand times over the course of the novel.

The story is told with economy but the omniscient voice is perhaps a little too all-seeing as it hops from character to character. There is very little for the reader to work out for himself as everything gets neatly explained in time. In a way it’s nice to not have things remain murky just for the sake of conjuring up an atmosphere of mystery, but a little more subtlety would have worked, too.

Overall this was a fast, enjoyable, but unremarkable read, a novel I would describe as solidly good.

Book review: The Keep

I bought The Keep in 1982. It only took me 30 years to get around to reading it. Even better, I read it in a format that was unheard of back then, as I picked up the ebook version on the cheap from kobo.com last year.

This was one of a number of horror novels I bought back in the early 80s after Stephen King (you may have heard of him) ignited my interest in the genre (I had bought other books, notably The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror prior but stuck mainly to science fiction otherwise).

F. Paul Wilson’s writing of the story is utterly clear — this is not a tale filled with ambiguity, though there is a mystery when the story begins in 1941, as Nazi Germany continues its conquest of Europe. After a brief prologue the main characters are introduced — a sympathetic German captain named Woermann, his villainous counterpart, Major Kaempffer, a Jewish professor and his daughter and the two mortal enemies of Glenn and Molasar.

When the Nazis set up a defensive position in a creepy ol’ keep in the Romanian Alps it doesn’t take long for very bad things to begin happening. The treasure hunting adventures of a pair of soldiers unleashes a very ancient evil in the keep and leads to a different soldier being murdered every night. Woermann, appalled by the Nazis but loyal to the German army, sends a wire requesting aid and gets it in the form of a vile SS major and his commandos. The mysterious murders continue and in desperation they turn to the Jewish professor to help uncover what is killing the soldiers and ultimately how to stop whatever is responsible.

The question of ‘why not just leave?’ is addressed early on as Kaempffer rules out leaving because it would make him look weak just prior to him being promoted to running a new death camp in Romania. He sets out a schedule by which they must resolve the matter, after which he’ll blame everything on Woermann before moving on.

Wilson neatly draws all of the players together and the initial series of murders is handled effectively, with whatever force is responsible literally creating darkness around itself before viscously ripping out the throats of its victims. For added fun, it briefly re-animates a pair at one point to go flop on the major as he lay in his bed one night. There are a number of twists that are presented broadly enough that they didn’t surprise me, but it was still fun seeing the characters react to events as they unfolded. There is a certain melodrama to some of the passages, especially those between the daughter Magda and Glenn, the reluctant champion of Order who is tasked with vanquishing the evil force trapped in the keep but the overall tone is as realistic as one might expect in a story about ancient evil mucking about with Nazis.

The ending is satisfying, albeit predictable and I was pleased it did not mine the cliches of being Grim Dark™.

This was a quick and enjoyable read. Wilson has no filler here, just a straight-up and ultimately heroic tale mixed in with some early and effectively creepy scenes.