Posts Tagged ‘books’

Devil’s Cape by Rob Rogers

July 27, 2008

Devil’s Cape was a bit like the recent birth of my daughter: lots of set-up followed by a mad dash toward the finish line followed by a feeling of satisfaction.

not appealing

Mud colored covers: not appealing

Yes it’s an oversimplification of what new fatherhood feels like, but I’m not working on a lot of sleep here.

Rob Rogers’ first novel is a fascinating look at superheroics in a real world setting (and I realize how trite that idea is these days).  He sets his epic in Devil’s Cape, a pretty crappily named city that might as well be New Orleans.  It’s a tale of burgeoning heroes in a city where heroes don’t last long and where villains, especially the super powered kind, flourish.

It’s obvious Rogers has put a lot of thought into the world he has created.  There’s a map of the city at the front of the book, and the slow ramp up to the fisticuffs feels less like a tedious history lesson and more like the tease before a big show.  Readers get a full picture of what Devil’s Cape is like and what it means to be a force for good or evil in the city, and it’s that type of world building that can and, if the ending is indication, will lead to a series of stories I look forward to reading.

The book isn’t without flaws, of course.  The set up is a bit too long and I think the book would’ve benefitted from culling 30 or so pages.  The rush to the end really is a rush in that the climax is over in the last 20 or so pages, and that’s really not giving the finale the attention it deserved.  There are few sections that feel over written where Rogers tends to fall in love with his descriptions of Devil’s Cape, but you can forgive a first time author that transgression.

Speaking of which, there’s one thing about the book’s construction that I feel the need to mention.  I always thought the book’s title was the first thing audience’s should see, especially when the author is brand spanking new.  When it’s Stephen King or someone like him where the author is the draw, I understand the author’s name being on top in a huge font.  In this case, though, it strikes me as odd that the title is at the bottom of the page and is the same size as Rogers’ name.  Just a thought, really, and I don’t have much other to say than, “Huh, that’s weird.”

In the end, I truly enjoyed my time spent reading this book.  I liked it enough to think that I never really gave it a fair shake since I couldn’t read more than 20 or so pages at a time.  Plus, it will always have a positive connection to my life since I finished it while sitting in the delivery room, waiting for the labor-inducing drugs to take effect.

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Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs

July 1, 2008

This never happens in the book.  I wish it had.I always thought memoirs written for or by old people, but the subtitle on the cover of my book says “A Memoir.”  I suppose I could be wrong, but this is really more of a collection of essays in the life of one truly screwed up kid than it is a memoir.  That wouldn’t be quite as catchy and succinct as “memoir,” I suppose.

I’ve also always assumed that memoirs are supposed to teach readers something, and this book epically fails to do that (unless the moral of the story is that Burroughs’ life growing up really sucked).

The narrative, such as it is, involves young and screwed-up-in-the-head Augusten going to live with his mother’s psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, and his family.  The Finches live in squalor and don’t do much of anything that could be considered approrpiate.  They believe kids should make their own choices starting at a young age (say, 10 or so) and therefore there’s no discipline or structure in the house.  Surprisingly, this does not turn out to be a sound parenting strategy.  I know.  I was just as shocked as you.

Burroughs’ parents are just as horrible, with his psychotic mother failing to care about him at any point in his life and alcoholic father never paying attention to him at all.  If he wants readers to feel better about their childhoods well, mission accomplished.

Strateagery!

This author has been compared to David Sedaris, and for a while there I thought that was pretty accurate.  He sees hilarity in the minutae of life and is just level-headed enough to be a reliable narrator.  He reports on the characters around him with a kind of detached bemusement that fits the tone of the book, and he’s a willing participant in enough tomfoolery to be interesting.

What sets him apart from Sedaris is his inclusion of several instances of statutory rape.  Young Augusten, having confided in an older gay man, is soon having sex with this man.  Augusten is 13 their first time together, while Neil is 31.  Their relationship lasts 2 years, and is the most unsettling, flat-out disgusting thing in the book.  As uncomfortable as it is for me to type that and you to read it, it’s all the more so unnerving to read it in Burroughs’ words.  Sedaris doesn’t hide that he’s gay, but he doesn’t invite us into his bedroom quite as readily as Burroughs does.

It’s this part of the book, sprinkled throughout the narrative, that I think damns everyone involved.  No one is concerned enough that an adolescent is carrying on with a thirtysomething to do anything other than cluck their tongues.  No one encourages the relationship, but no one calls the police, either.  It took me a long time to get past these few sections and get back to enjoying the read, really, and that’s a shame.

The people in Burroughs’ tale are fascinating in their absurdity and he’s a talented enough writer to convey just how off-the-wall his situation is without the book dissolving into fantasy.  For a non-fiction book (well sort of, Burroughs has been accused of fabricating portions of the text but these claims were never proven) it’s a true page turner.  I wanted to see what happened next, and you don’t see that often in non-fiction.

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

June 23, 2008

OK, I\'m sufficiently creeped out. You?After watching the mostly OK until it gets unbelievably gawdawful Will Smith movie and reading about the many people upset by the unfaithful celluloid adaptation, I decided to check out the source material for myself. Needless to say, fans of the book have quite a case for hating the Fresh Prince’s little flick as the only things the two have in common are the title, the main character’s name, and Robert Neville’s efforts to cure a disease. Of course, the diseases are different, but that’s beside the point.

I should begin by admitting a bit of ignorance that ended up coloring the way I viewed this story. You see, I thought it was a novel when I purchased the book from a local Borders. Despite looking at the table of contents at the begining, I had no idea the titular story was a novella and that the rest of the pages were filled up with short stories. I was pretty surprised when the wheels are set in motion for Neville to meet his fate, simply because I thought there were over 100 pages of story left to go. Once I realized otherwise, I think I came to appreciate the story a bit more, if only because you don’t see novellas published much these days.

But on to the story itself, and not my obliviousness to certain context clues. It was fine, I guess. I knew it was a vampire story going in so that didn’t effect my enjoyment of the tale. I suppose a lot of this would’ve felt revolutionary 54 years ago when it was first published, but in today’s post Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and (to a lesser extent) Blade world it feels average at best. The joy in reading this came from recognizing just how many authors/screenwriters/filmmakers Matheson has influenced.

To save money, I bought this ugly thing.Unfortunately, Matheson’s writing is serviceable at its peak and annoyingly stilted at its nadir. Neville’s throat moves way more than any normal man’s should, and I think that’s how Matheson thinks people show emotion. I stood in front of a mirror for a few minutes trying to make my throat convey depression or anger, but all I saw was a dude swallowing a lot. It doesn’t help that Neville isn’t the most sympathetic of protagonists, either. Sure, his situation sucks worse than any situation in the history of the world, but when we meet him he’s been living like that for several months. By that time he should’ve quit his bitching already.

In the end, I felt for Neville despite how unlikable I found him to be. Matheson gives us enough of a picture of his life that we can’t help but want him to live. When you put yourself in his position, as any responsible reader should do, it’s easy to see how important making friends with a dog would be or how odd it would be to hear the sound of your own voice after not speaking for weeks at a time. While I can see why so many people enjoyed Matheson’s work and hated seeing it mishandled so poorly, I can’t count myself among those who care all that much. Maybe if I was born 50 years earlier.

A quick note about the short stories: They range from surprisingly decent to so bad I was mad at my eyeballs for showing me such drivel. There’s a quote on the back cover from Stephen King that proclaims, “Books like I Am Legend were an inspiration to me.” Having read most of the King canon, I can certainly see that’s true. Sadly, King is a much more talented writer than Matheson and the comparison goes badly for the latter. There are certainly some good ideas in those short pieces, but very few of them live up to the promise of their premise.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris

June 18, 2008

Since my posts keep getting longer, I’m going to try and limit myself to a capsule review of David Sedaris’ newest book of essays. Here goes:

At least the skeleton isn\'t worried about lung cancer.

Sedaris breaks no new ground here, and that’s the most damning piece of criticism I could come up with. Aside from the final essay (if you can still call an 83 page piece an essay), any of these entries could have appeared in any of his other books. And when I think about it, parts of the book’s last essay, covering his efforts to quit smoking while living in Japan, would’ve been right at home in Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Once again, readers are provided with stories about his family, about the trials and tribulations of living in a different country, about his relationship with his longtime boyfriend, and about his too-many-to-count neuroses. Gone are the stories of his early adulthood and drug use, only to be replaced by more adult concerns like buying gifts for others, traveling, and art collecting.

I’m most assuredly making this sound boring and tedious, but nothing could be further from the truth. Granted I’m a fan of the man’s work and therefore I’m hardly the most objective critic, but this book was worth every penny of the $14.29 I paid Amazon for it. The author has a gift for finding humor and insight in the mundane, and that talent is on full display here. He also has a knack for turning clever phrases in unexpected ways. I was constantly surprised by how much I was laughing while I read (especially as I tore through that final essay), and that’s a delightful thing to be able to say. Few established authors these days retain the ability to surprise their readers, and this made the experience of reading When You Are Engulfed in Flames that much more gratifying.

No really.  This is fun!

Most importantly, I had fun while I read this book. Yes, fun; the noun most often associated with amusement parks, video games, and drinking one’s self into a coma. Like the school boy who waits an hour to ride the roller coaster only to have the ride last less than 30 seconds, I didn’t want the experience of reading to end and was genuinely disappointed when it did.

I know that a lot of the essays in the book were printed elsewhere, but I don’t care. I’m not a pretentious twit and therefore don’t read The New Yorker or The New York Times or anything else associated with New York and therefore had never read these essays. Nor am I a haughty NPR listener, so I hadn’t heard him read anything on the air.

I was free to enjoy this material as though it were new, because to me it was. This isn’t Sedaris’ best book, but it doesn’t need to be to remain an enjoyable read. To prove it, here’s a selection culled from a longer essay. Buen provecho.

Echelon, by Josh Conviser

June 13, 2008

Few things are more exciting than mounted security camerasI’m about to hate on this book pretty hard, so right now I’m wishing I hadn’t sold it to the local used book shop.  Now I’m open to the “can you be more specific?” critique.  I’m also open to misremembering since it’s been awhile.

Simply put, Echelon is the worst book I read this year.  It’s so bad that I won’t include an Amazon link because I’d prefer no one blame me for buying it.

The plot revolves around Ryan Laing, a kind of government agent brought back from the dead through the use of nanodrones.  He starts to figure out that Echelon, an electronic surveillance system that sees everything, Big Brother style, isn’t being used properly.  A beautiful (of course) hacker joins him, and the two travel around the world looking for the secret to controlling this high tech All Seeing Eye of Sauron.

There are some good, appropriately science fiction-y ideas in the book, but everything is marred by a story that was a bit too predictable (up to the ending-that-leaves-open-the-possibility-of-a-sequel) and dialogue that ranks high on the Unintentional Comedy Scale.  Add to this what I read as a cheesy, romance novel level relationship between the protags, and you’ve got a book I was barely able to finish.

Our main character is also our main problem here.  Laing is too powerful, thanks to his drones, and therefore is never in danger.  He talks like an 80s action hero, and takes a beating better than actors in old Western movies (seriously, how many haymakers did the brawlers shake off in Shane?)

In one scene, Laing ends up on some kind of repurposed oil platform full of guards.  They see him and yell for him to freeze.  He responds with a simple “Not today,” and then starts a-swinging.  The overwhelm him, and start a-beating.  Conviser writes that they basically turn Laing’s genitals into mush, but other than that there’s no sense of consequence.  BLAMP! should be used way more

Most men would scream if just one beefy security guard smacked them in the junk with a nightstick.  Laing is apparently dead from the waist down because, while he mentions that it hurts, having his manhood used as a speed bag doesn’t effect him.

I found the romance between Laing and the chick whose name I can’t remember nor find online to be groan-inducingly bad as well.  I get they have a connection and the tension under which they live will inevitably bring them together, but Conviser’s descriptions of their feelings had me wondering when he’d be using the phrase “quivering loins” in a sentence.

I remember thinking that the plot got in the way of itself a few times.  I can’t elaborate on that too much, but I thought it bore mentioning.  There are double crosses and twists and turns that didn’t resonate, but that might be because I was into skimming-so-I-can-finish-this-damn-thing mode by that time.

Conviser, who seems like an affable fellow based on what I’ve read on his personal website, his Amazon.com postings, and his “Big Idea” entry on John Scalzi’s blog, has a knack for description.  It’s clear he has a specific vision for this universe he’s creating, and that he’s certainly passionate about his work.  I just wish that enthusiasm translated better onto the page.

History for the Masses

June 12, 2008

 

When people find out I double majored in History and English, they assume I know all there is to know about past world events and the correct way to use effect and affect. I am then forced to remind them that history is a pretty big subject and than no one knows how to use those words correctly. Then I hand them their fries and move on to the next customer.

  

In attempt to bring important, fascinating historical events to the general public, James L. Swanson gives us Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. While everyone knows the basics, I’d wager that most people haven’t given such a monumental incident in American history much thought. Of course, I say that because I was one of those people content to know that Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater, but that’s beside the point.

 But how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? 

This exhaustively researched account has something for everyone: There are action scenes, as when one of Booth’s accomplices tries unsuccessfully to assassinate another target. There are character studies of Booth and the people who helped him on his way. There are flat out crazy people to point and laugh at, like the man who ultimately ends the standoff between Booth and his pursuers.

  

The details surrounding the assassination are especially shocking when viewed through today’s lens. In the span of eight hours, Booth conceived of and prepared for his plan and enlisted the help of several conspirators. Most people can’t decide what to have for lunch in less than 90 minutes these days. But I digress.

  

Swanson’s book truly is the treasure other reviews would have you believe it is. Readers get the full picture here: how Lincoln was feeling about the end of the Civil War; the resentment felt by a great deal of Southerners; the details behind just how such an audacious act was pulled off; and the hardships that came with coordinating a nationwide search in the age of the telegraph.

  

I enjoyed my time reading Manhunt and found myself staying up late to read, something I don’t normally find happens when I read history texts. Since I was ignorant of the details surrounding the manhunt, I found something on each page that I could marvel at. There were plenty of times I nudged my dozing wife to say, “Honey, listen to how crazy this is!” so I’m sure she was happy when I finished the book.

   

My one complaint, and it’s a fairly sizable one, is that Swanson engages way too much in speculation. For example, there are several instances for which no historical record exists. I’m thinking in particular of the moments when Booth is on the road or hiding out in a forest. Swanson will write something like, “We can’t be sure what Booth thinking or feeling in these moments, but he might have wondered…” Or we’ll be treated to, “No one knows what Booth said to his friend in those days, but we can surmise that they talked about…”

 

In a word: no. No we can’t surmise. No we can’t speculate. And no, we can’t ever know. And that’s fine. Rational, intelligent people are fully aware that there are moments of history we won’t be privy to. There’s no need to fill in the gaps with what amounts to historical gossip. It got so bad, and I got so irritated, that I started skipping those sections completely, not even skimming them like I did when I first encountered these wastes of pages.

  

On the whole, however, I found Manhunt to be an engaging read that wasn’t hard to get through (as many historical books can be). I liked my time spent reading, and I came away feeling better about myself since I actually learned a thing or two.

Outer Dark, by Cormac McCarthy

June 9, 2008

Outer Dark coverLet me get this out of the way: I don’t quite know how to review a book by Cormac McCarthy.  When someone’s been called America’s greatest living author (or something to that effect), it becomes more difficult to say he sucks.  Luckily, I don’t feel that way, but I haven’t read all of his books so there’s always a chance.

 

Most recently, I tackled Outer Dark, McCarthy’s second novel.  Published in 1968, it combines something I love (violence) with something I hate (stupid people).  Plot reads as follows: Culla knocks up his sister Rinthy and then leaves the baby in woods to die.  The baby is picked up by a traveling junk dealer, only to be eventually killed in a gruesome way by a trio of truly horrid men who flit in and out of the narrative like the Violence Fairies.  Rinthy, seeing through Culla’s clever ruse, goes looking for the baby and meets several kind people along the way.  Culla goes looking for Rinthy and meets with hard luck and the Violence Fairies.

 

In a way, Outer Dark is the perfect novel for someone who’s heard about how great McCarthy is and wants to try his work out.  I say this because it’s short (bonus!) and relatively easy to decipher.  Culla is guilty of several bad deeds, and therefore meets with nothing but trouble in his quest to find his sister.  Rinthy is sweet and innocent and a bit dim and therefore encounters kind folks eager to help her in whatever way they can.  Violence is brutal and arbitrary and carried out by men you will rarely see coming and who will eventually steal your boots.  It’s not full of lush descriptions and historical allusions like Blood Meridian, although McCarthy does try to emulate local dialects as organically as possible and that leads to a few head-scratching, “What in the hell are they saying?” moments.

 

I can’t say that I fully enjoyed my time spent reading Outer Dark, and I can’t point to one specific reason.  Culla and Rinthy are dumb enough that we’re probably meant to assume they’re products of inbreeding themselves.  Their adventures aren’t really compelling enough to make up for this, and the routes they take toward their respective goals are so haphazard that I was never sure if I wanted them to succeed.  The people Culla meets are too often content to assume he’s a thief (he is) and a murderer (he’s not) and therefore conflict comes his way much as it would were he in a bad sitcom.

 

Most importantly, I didn’t find Outer Dark all that satisfying of a read, and this is a problem I’ve had with other novels by this author.  When I closed the book, I felt good for having read another in the McCarthy canon, but I wasn’t all that pleased with the book’s resolution.  Although I disliked Rinthy, I could see how desperate she was to get her baby back and how much in love she was with him (or at least the idea of him).  I wanted this sad, dense character to find some measure of satisfaction in life.  In the end, however, we were both left wanting.

Tainted Love

June 7, 2008

So, I have been on reading a lot of novels about cyborgs recently for a project I am working on.  One book that came multiply recommended was The Ship Who Sang, by Anne McCaffrey.  Like Ender’s Game, this is a book that I had heard about for years but never actually read.  Overall, I was entertained but ultimately disappointed — though perhaps unfairly (more on that later).

But first, a bit about the book.  The premise of the novel is that severely physically disabled persons are fitted to command space ships as a way of providing them “life” and mobility that they would not otherwise have had.  Their bodies are left complete and encased in the center of the space ship and obviously there is a great deal of training that goes into it.  It is interesting that McCaffrey suggests multiple times that the bodies are intact — so clearly cyborg by extension rather than revision.  Our protag — Helva, in this case — cannot live without the ship but somehow her “essential” humanness is preserved — literally in fluid.  Very womblike.

Each brain ship as they are called are paired with a brawn.  Hijinx ensue. 

Ok, now on to my unfair criticisms: 

Unfair, first off, what I read as a novel was originally a series of short stories.  Expectations for continuity, characterization, etc are much different in a novel than short stories around a common character.  It was exactly these things to which I thought the novel gave short shrift.  Her first brawn, Jennan, was very important to the entire set but only appeared in the first.  The development of their relationship was brief but yet the emotional attachment she had for him influenced her throughout.  Further the establishment of her as “the ship who sang” and why that was significant was there but not fleshed out (no pun intended) enough.  I was wanting more. 

Secondly, unfair, because not only did I read in a different format but 47 years after the publication of the first story.  While it no doubt broke much of the ground that later cyborg novels plant their seeds in, there were things that gave me pause.  For instance, here is Helva, smart, powerful, with all the possibilities for independence (from running missions without a brawn to when she fulfills her contract and work for herself) and she chooses, nay desires and needs, a male brawn.  She accepts temporary and female brawns very reluctantly.  And, there is an emotional need for love that is being fulfilled no doubt.  But, it seems to resonate more as gendered rather than cybernetic.  Helva willingly places herself under the control of men and seems happy doing it — especially given the last chapter where she selects a brawn who does not fit the physical profile of typical brawns (an aptly named group) and she joy with which she describes being bossed around by him at the end of the book.   I must keep in mind that this series of stories was started in 1961 and 1969 so in a very different in terms of gender.  And, to be fair, Helva does outwit her superiors to get the man she desires — which was more subversive in the 60s than today. 

Oddly, the man she chooses is obsessed with her, wanting her to know she looks like so he constructs a model based on her DNA and claims that she is beautiful.  He also knows the code which would open her shell (metaphor, perhaps?) and be able to physically see and hold her — though that would apparently kill her.  Thus, he has to love her purely emotionally.  This clearly bothers him since he is an apparent playboy and spends the night before joining her at “pleasure establishments.”  Thus, he does have to come to grips with his physical versus emotional desires.   You know, the more I write about this book, the less disappointed I am.   Perhaps, there is a suggestion here about what makes a good marriage.

One final note on covers:  Though I am not sure whether or not McCaffrey oversaw the cover art for her novel or not.  I found these two covers for the book particularly interesting. 

I find this first cover to be rather loaded visually.  It deals directly and oppositely with the question of physicality in the novel.  Helva is literally disembodied from the ship (which would be her actual appearance) and she apparently is Farah Fawcett (or at least has her hair).  No question here, Helva is still pretty and thus valued according to those parameters.  Secondly her body disappears into the landscape with two well-placed and exploding volcanoes — mixing both the maternal and the sexual.  Finally her actual body — the ship — is quite phallic and positioned not to represent her but rather the brawn perhaps.  Ultimately the cover is quite dissonant with the novel for me.

The second cover comes from the edition I read.  Here, again, Helva has long flowing hair, quite pretty with striking eyes and lipstick.  So, again, the focus on her physicality, something none of the characters — including Helva — can ever know.  Unlike the previous cover, she is connected to the ship.  However, notice that her face appears in the white exhaust of the once again the extremely phallic ship.  It does not take much imagination to see what is being suggested here.  In order for this to happen, she is looking backwards not forwards – despite the movement of her hair.  Finally though the positioning could always be worse, note the number and proximity of the planets on the cover. 

This is by no means an exhaustive search of covers but these cover do suggest something quite different from what is encountered inside. 

 

   

Judging Books by “Covers”

June 6, 2008

We all do it of course.  Cover art is important as the quality of printing and binding.  But, I recently become painfully aware of other covers which I read or — in this case — choose not to read. 

A good friend of mine has been lobbying for years to read Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card and while I didn’t specifically refuse, I did drag my feet.  A couple of weeks ago, I was in the bookstore looking for a mass-market book to take on the plane.  Again, Ender’s Game came up but this time I was unable to find another book to buy instead.  So, reluctantly I bought it.  The “cover” for me here and why I was avoiding the book was general lack of comfort with Card’s politics.  Despite it’s status as a Hugo winner and the recommendation of a friend with good taste, I guess I still feared some sort of conservative brainwashing. 

Needless to say — I was wrong on numerous levels.  It was a book that captivated my attention and held it non-stop.  I had to curtail my reading for a day so I would have anything left to actually read on the plane.  It was a very compelling narrative with great characterization.  I was clearly wrong to let this particular “cover” keep me from enjoying a true SF classic. 

It was not the sympathetic portrayal of the military that I expected.  Quite the opposite.  I truly enjoyed the contrast between Ender’s significance and fame and Peter’s significance and anonymity as well as how they both desired to and managed to switch positions.  I would have liked to see of Peter’s rise to fame/power as a further contrast to Ender.

My primary concern with the novel is that toward the end the narrative pace (and time elapsed) picked up considerably and it seemed to start looking forward to a sequel rather than relishing in the story being told.  Even though the plot line was clearly done, the novel didn’t feel over but nor am I particularly inclined to seek out the next book — despite getting past this cover.

I guess some people never learn.