Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The News About Shipping

(With apologies to Annie Proulx)


Special thanks to my sister-in-law, Jenny, for the B&N gift card that funded the purchase behind part of this week's shipment. Though my birthday was in October, I felt it important to wait for a few good buys (and coupons) to pop up. And lo, I found them:

*The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
*Countdown City by Ben H Winters
*My Best Friend's Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

While those three arrived Monday, May 23, the week's real prize came the following day:

*The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

None of the authors, at this stage, are foreign to me.


I read THE LIBRARY AT MOUNT CHAR over the winter. It was a chance (real) library find, a case of a cover selling a book. After I and my wife tore through it, it was a foregone conclusion that we'd get our own copy soon enough. One could categorize it as science-fiction or (urban?) fantasy or horror; it sits at a crossroads, or happily exists outside of regular genres. 

Concerned with a missing "god" of sorts and his tantalizing, up-for-grabs repository of knowledge/power (the titular library), LIBRARY tells a winding story that jumps back and forth along its timeline, teasing even with its revelations, peppered with shock-and-awe action, an enigmatic, compelling lead - all under the steady control of major new novelist, Scott Hawkins. There's no doubt I'll just buy his next book (sorry, DG Library).




COUNTDOWN CITY is the second in the Last Policeman trilogy. A comet is earthbound, with nothing to be done about it - no roughnecks in the wings (not wanting to miss a thing) waiting to blow it sky high. It will hit; Earth will suffer. Humanity...probably won't be in a good place for a few dozen centuries. 

The first book followed the title character as he investigated a suicide - quite the commonplace event - that just seemed wrong to him. Whether I was just in the right place or Winters really does write that well, it ended up as one of the best mysteries I've read: tonally unique, with an earnest, atypical protagonist that could maybe only exist in this ten-minutes-to-midnight world. I have elevated expectations for the sequel.





How many authors write compelling furniture catalogs? Hendrix managed this in his breakthrough novel, Horrorstör, about a haunted Ikea-like store and the employees who, well, don't exactly do battle with the ghosts...but certainly do something, and do it humorously with mixed supernatural success.

MY BEST FRIEND'S EXORCISM is "an unholy hybrid of Beaches and The Exorcist," according to its own description. After Abby and Gretchen have a somewhat wild night, Abby realizes her best friend is not really herself. Or, she is...but she's also someone - or something - else, too. 

Bonus: it's also another great piece of production design (like Horrorstör), with yearbook-like pages, clippings and notes here and there.



There's nothing more I can add to the praise about The Passage trilogy, by Justin Cronin, than what is floating around. It's really that good, people. You'll fly through the hundreds of pages, absorbed fully in his world, desperately wanting the story to go on and on.


The epic - set before, during and centuries after a vampire-like apocalypse - concludes in THE CITY OF MIRRORS. It's on-deck for me, as it should be for you.


-Erik


Monday, November 17, 2014

HPB Trips: Goodbye, money!

Oh, what a beautiful diversion from our real errands!

Two Saturdays in a row (Nov. 1, Nov. 8) I attempted to drop the CR-V at the dealer for an oil change and a looksee at some small issues. Despite calling ahead, and being told of course we could drop in, when we got there they said, "too busy." I made an appointment for Tuesday night (spoilers: I forgot about it), and then we decided to salvage the trip with a little book-buying at Half-Price Books.

I wish I could say the four books I bought were long on my wish lists, but alas....


      

[Redacted - already had, returned]
Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman - I honestly thought Mandy might like it more than me, so maybe I'm not so evil. First in a series
Seed by Rob Ziegler - I thought this was a horror story by the same name (that one by Ania Ahlborn), was disappointed it wasn't, but then fascinated by the story anyway!
The Two-Bear Mambo by Joe R. Lansdale - love me some Hap & Leonard (coming soon to a TV station near you!); this is the third in the series.

Oh, and Mandy and Olivia might have bought some, too....

...and the following Saturday, while waiting for the oil change and actual service desired a week prior (spoilers: they said they didn't have time, schedule an appointment), I wandered across a busy LaGrange Road and wide, wind-swept parking lot to HPB yet again. After getting these five, I made the foolhardy decision to pop into PetSmart and get some cat litter. The 35 lb tub might have a handle, but it was not designed for long walks, as it whacks your leg and tries to trip you up, much like the cat waiting at home for the fresh poop gravel. I got some strange looks in the Continental Honda waiting room as I stumbled through the door, red-cheeked and breathy, clutching 35 lbs of cat litter to my chest, a plastic bag of gently used books spilling onto the floor. "No, no, I'm fine. Just practicing late life senility. Who wants to play buried treasure at the beach?"


Books legally obtained:
The Family Trade by Charles Stross - I've read some of his hard sci-fi, but only heard about this fantasy-ish diversion. First in a series
Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist - author of Let The Right One In, another promising horror novel from a country of disturbed novelists.
Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher - I was looking for his first book, but this is a good consolation prize.
Definitely Dead by Charlaine Harris (bargain shelf, $1) - no matter how bonkers the show turned out, the Southern Vampire mystery books have a certain low-key charm to them.
Replay by Ken Grimwood (bargain shelf, $2) - I read a loaner copy a few years ago, but bought this for Mandy. The book is wonderful! You should all be so proud to be having a copy!


This would be why we have five substantial bookshelves in the house of unread books. We love books and encourage others to do so as well. 







-EMH

Saturday, October 25, 2014

37. Sourcery by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #5)

After the gut-turning weird fiction of Laird Barron and the dark mind of Gillian Flynn, I needed a change.

DISCWORLD! Come for the tropes, stay for the casual nudity.

It took me three tries to get into Terry Pratchett's mind, but once I was there, you'd be hard-pressed to dig me out with a fork. This is the third Discworld book I've read this year (I'd link to previous reviews at this point, but we all know I'm writing these out-of-order), and they just keep getting better and better.

Sourcery is the fifth book, the story of a "sourcerer" or human well of wild magic. Long ago, other sourcerers laid convoluted waste to large swaths of the world, leading a magical detente and a non-binding agreement for wizards not to father children. For you see, wizards are the eighth son of an eighth son, and sourcerers are the eighth son of an eighth son of an eighth son. And, as the story opens, we find out that one was just born to an angry wizard father who creates a prophecy to cheat Death (the personification of which is not amused).

The rest of the book is the collision course between the (slightly) older boy-sourcerer and those traditionalist forces at the center for Discworld wizardry, the Unseen University. And, happily, this brings the inept wizard Rincewind back to the fore.

For those who can't remember (who can blame you?), Rincewind was the arguable main character in the two-book story that started off Pratchett's series, The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic. A failure at practical wizardry, he knows in his heart of hearts that he was meant to be a wizard. Accompanied by the Luggage (a carnivorous travel chest), the two are flung into the midst of a growing magical war that could tear the Disc apart!! Also there are barbarians, a talking hat, a well-read orangutan and the threat of the Apocralypse, the apocryhal apocalypse, an event no one is exactly sure will happen or, if it does, when that will be or what will presage it.

I enjoyed this one, quite a lot. There were a few dragging passages, but not a whole heck of a lot. These Discworld books are short, and Pratchett, while long-winded for the occasional comedic purpose, practices concise writing at all steps. He doesn't even add extra pages for chapter breaks - because there are none! More than his previous four books, he succeeded in painting the otherworldly locations and battles without flowery language. And knowledge of language is maybe Pratchett's strong suit. It allows him to twist convention and seed each page with his astounding wit.

Pratchett's humor walks a fine line between the goofy and the dry; I'd say it's the presence of satire mixed in that tempers the zanier moments. Given that this is the third book of his I've read this year, I've found myself wondering why it took so long and if, perhaps, being American is some impediment to discovering his quintessentially British work.

(Or maybe it's because of a slipshod publisher not knowing how to market these books here.)

Have you read other Discworld books before, but somehow skipped this one? If so, pick it up, and you'll enjoy it.

I would not recommend it for first-timers, however. Either of the previous two (Equal Rites, Mort) are a little more intro-friendly. Of course, since I read all series in publication order (the order intended by the author's subconscious creative self), I should just guide you to that two-part story mentioned earlier. It's really works best as one book.

I leave you with the original* wraparound paperback cover art, by the late Josh Kirby.


-EMH

*I've seen the same image a few other ways, either the background changed or slightly different coloration. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

36. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

 


Holy.
Fudging.
Shirt.

Ms. Flynn, color me impressed. This is a messed up story*.

I honestly don't know what I can say about this book, made even more famous by the spot-on movie that was just released, that won't ruin any of the numerous twists, turns and shocks.

In brief: it's Nick's anniversary, and he comes to find an mess up living room and no wife. Signs of a struggle? Maybe. He calls the cops, and off we go. The story alternates from Nick's perspective (first person-past, narrating The Search) and wife Amy's diary (starting with the entry right after she and Nick first meet, years before). The back and forth is very frustrating, as each chapter is a guaranteed cliffhanger.

And that's all I can say. It's wonderfully written - one of the most controlled narratives I've ever read. Flynn never lets go of the story in any way, nor can you tell if she ever took any diversions that weren't part of a tight outline (even if that outline emerged after a few chapters when she was writing).

Because of that control, the love-to-hate them characters, the fully realized world that is nonetheless described to us by unreliable narrators, this book gets 5/5 without hesitation.

Nominated for the Edgar Award for best novel in 2013, she lost to Dennis Lehane. Come on, people! Lehane has enough awards cluttering his shelves. Flynn deserved it more.


-EMH

*There are twisty endings and then there are things like this that would madden a corkscrew.

Friday, October 17, 2014

35. The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron

In it's starred review, Publisher's Weekly says, "Barron intensifies the emotional impact of his fiction by providing protagonists who ultimately realize that their doom is inevitable and drag the reader down with them."
 
I could not agree more, in all that good and bad that goes with it.
 
 
 
The stories included:
 
 
"Old Virginia" (CIA agent protects a "psychic" asset circa Cold War; of course, it all goes to hell)
 
"Shiva, Open Your Eyes" (narrated from the perspective of a "monster" with a PI on his tail)
 
"Procession of the Black Sloth" (US ex-pat in Hong Kong finds that nightmares can seep into reality as he tries to untangle corporate espionage)
 
"Bulldozer" (Pinkteron agent hired PT Barnum hunts a killer who stole a Necronomicon-esque book)

"Proboscis" (an actor tags along with the poor man's Dog the Bounty Hunter team hunting a not so normal wanted man)
 
"Hallucigenia" (a wealthy man struggles to find answers after his wife's terrible accident)
 
"Parallax" (A famous artist's wife goes missing - as in vanishes from existence)
 
"The Royal Zoo is Closed" (end of the world...? Eh. Weak)
 
"The Imago Sequence" (a wealthy man tasks his thug/friend to acquire the final two paintings of a triptyche...paintings that, when taken together, could drive a man MAAAAAD!!)
 
 
Barron is categorized as a writer of "weird" fiction, meaning he traces his influences back to authors like Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood, etc. - those folks who brought a sense of the unknown, cosmic terror to bear on us puny mortals. How can one man fight against malice that plots across eons. You can't, sorry, just start dribbling with madness.
 
I have a confession to make: I've never read Lovecraft, the popular face of weird fiction/cosmic horror. Though I have one of the Del Rey collections, it's sat collecting dust (and evil!!) for several years. I infrequently pick up short story collections, and while I've heard his style is good in small doses, such as short stories, I always want to read a whole book. Putting a bookmark in and thinking I'll come back to it always leads to failure*. So my knowledge of the Lovecraftian mythos is based on Wikipedia skimmings, pop culture references and BOOM Studios' early HPL comics.
 
After reading Barron, however, I may have to brave the abyss.
 
These nine stories are not all winners, but are all imaginatively written and uniquely crafted to bring forth an unsettling dread in the reader. To get criticisms out of the way first, the stories that hit a bum note were few: "Zoo" is an odd sketch that's too short to matter, "Proboscis" wasn't terribly engaging and "Bulldozer" feels like it's missing a little something. That's not to say they are bad. "Bulldozer" is a good story, and "Proboscis" just needs a little tweaking.
 
But here's the great thing. You might be thinking, "So 1/3 of the book is meh? Why bother?!" Those are three of the shortest stories, taking up a small number of pages. The meat of the collection rocks it on all creepy fronts.
 
Other reviewers have gone into the "manly man-against-Unknown" theme running through the majority of the stories. If you've read any of these "reviews," you can tell I'm not a literary critic. Barron does write stories with depth, not just a linked progression of cheap scares and gore. Whatever praise and acclaim he's gotten over the last decade or so is clearly deserved. Yet he's also writing modern pulp horror. I don't want to confuse you into thinking that they aren't intelligent or that they are out and out "literary" fiction.
 
There's a lot of prose that could be considered florid (like weird fiction masters of yesteryear) and diversions into our characters' heads that provide a greater understanding of their motivation than you would expect to find in a genre book (should you be an NYT reviewer). He finds a happy medium. My biggest worry as I started "Sloth," the first novelette of the collection, was the wealth of description and becoming drowned in it. I'm not a big fan of describing every little thing about the setting (or even the character - leave something to the imagination), and he seemed, until I got into the groove of his writing, to be an over-writer.
 
I realized, however, that his descriptions, though complex and with the potential to be flowery as a old woman's couch, were easily digestible.The language was evoking comparisons to normal touchstones in everyday life. Why create a metaphor that ends up confusing the reader?
 
His strongest stories are the title novelette, "The Imago Sequence," "Parallax," and "Procession of the Black Sloth."
 
The potential in "Imago" is easy to see: an everyman is looking for paintings that carry with them a curse to drive the viewer mad - if viewed in sequence. Well, our protagonist has seen the first and found it sticking in the back of his mind, bringing terrible dreams. What could go wrong when his boss/friend asks him to hunt down the other two? As both a title and concluding story, it stands tall above the rest as an expertly written piece. Of note is the inclusion of a lot of dialogue. This might sound silly, but Barron's stories are not talky, and that can hurt them. More dialogue and less creepy introspection and exposition is a good thing (and serves to break up mammoth paragraphs).
 
I won't say much about "Parallax," but the slow unwinding of the main character's backstory, centering around the ongoing hunt for his vanished wife, is not to be spoiled.
 
I made the mistake of reading a large chunk of "Procession of the Black Sloth" while eating. DO NOT DO THIS. In fact, don't eat anything immediately before, during or right after you read any of these stories. The mental unease he creates is swiftly transferred to your stomach once you start munching away on something. Why? You don't know if that food is going to suddenly turn into maggots as you chew. There, now you share my pain. "Sloth" is all eerie moments and some frightening, very visual scenes of pure horror. The main character has been hired to find a corporate spy in his company's Hong Kong office. The spy work, living the double life, isn't healthy for him, and on top of that, the apartment block he lives in was probably built on an ancient Chinese burial site for all the bits of eeeeevil seeping through the gaps. It's all a downward spiral, and you cannot help but ride it with the character.
 
 
I rated it 4/5 on Goodreads, and I'll stand by it on reflection.
 
 
-EMH
 
 
*Notable exceptions:
Sherlock Holmes - I have the two-volume Bantam mass markets and have read two of the novels and paused before diving into the short stories.
Stephen King's novellas -  I tend to read them one at a time, here and there, though I power thru his story collections.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Mind the yawning chasm

(No mere gap here!)

It's been some time since I've posted here, and to that shortcoming all I can say is we sold our house shortly after the last post, moved into and partially renovated the new abode and had a kid in the interim. O, sloth!

Much like I tried to do 2 years ago, I'd like to jump in and start giving short reviews of the books I've read over the year(s). Since I started in 2012, I'm also going to revisit that year and 2013, posting reviews as of their respective year (if not exact date read). This way, you get the new fresh and on top, and the older books will slowly form an archive you can delve into as you find yourself enraptured by my lyrical reminiscences.

Maybe if I ever get caught up I'll delete this post and no one will be the wiser!


-EMH

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

1. Rats by Robert Sullivan

I dig these sorts of books. Singular in focus, quirky, infotaining, pop history without being brainless. Rats is exactly what it claims to be (and a little more, my only complaint): "Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants." Sullivan spent a year (by happenstance starting no long before Sept. 11, 2011) observing a dogleg alley in Manhattan, close to Wall Street, and in this book chronicles said alley's vermin inhabitants.

Honestly, it's pretty good.

Sullivan explores the nature of the "wild rat," but also uses it as a lens to focus on certain aspects of the city, population expansion, trash and disease. He also digs into the rat itself, its social habits and habitat, how it thrives, its negative image in the broader culture (and really, it's sort of deserving of it) and how it will always fit into our ecosystems. The rat, its life based around our detritus, certainly says something important about our way of life (right? Yeah, maybe).

Of particular interest are the times when he first observes them and sees how they start rummaging through trash bags, their wriggly bodies seen only as bulges roaming underneath the black plastic of the Chinese restaurant's garbage sacks. We all know rats exist in the alleys and sewers of "the world," especially the city, but rarely do we get the opportunity to examine their behavior. Nor do historians or zoologists care about these four-legged flea factories save when their actions coincide with an outbreak of plague. But they are a fascinating animal on their own, able to survive and thrive in a variety of locations and environments. It's that history we get into over the course of the book, their crossing our paths.

Yet...it's these diversions from the more zoological aspect of the book that didn't always carry water for me. The rent strike in large part because of rat infestation - yeah, that was interesting social history. But not all of the rest. I will admit, I wanted more of his stories observing from his camp stool across the street from the alley, further detail on all aspects of the urban (and beyond) dwellings.

Wouldn't it have been great if he followed an exterminator on a long-ranging underground excursion, not to find the rat Shambhala, but just to see these hidden dens in full flower. Not that his trip with some city trappers wasn't informative, but I love the nature documentaries that stick the camera down into the nest, follow the creek's bottom dwellers: a zoom lens on the micro among us. He certainly looked at the city's trash and visited more than one exterminator (once more proving they aren't all crazy chemical-spewing, kill-happy stereotypes).

Reading this, I didn't find his presentation gross, but I'm not squeamish when I'm just reading about something. Perhaps, in the oily fur, some of these scenes would be a little much (no, not in the slightest, says the kid in me). This is pretty good urban zoological history; just don't expect it to have quite the breadth of a book written by a true biologist. Sullivan's eye looks to the social impact and tangents for healthy chunks of this slim book.

Still, not disappointed that I read it, and I will absolutely read more by him (such as The Meadowlands, about the maligned NJ swamp home to an abundance of wildlife and pollution in equal measures).

And how about that cover! One of the best I've seen. One more time:



3.75/5

-EMH