Saturday, January 31, 2015

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

From High [Fidelity] to Low[boy] (and All Between): My 2014 in Books

Well, I failed to meet my goal two years in a row now, as I only read 31 books of a planned 40 (there are only 30 reviews on this blog, since it turns out I forgot to post one back in November). It's rather disappointing because I thought I was a bit closer to my goal, but it turns out I fell pretty drastically short. I did happen to read the first ten books in a manga called Blue Exorcist so if we're counting those as individual books, I actually did meet my goal, but I'm not sure I'd be able to equate manga and novels so I left them out.

I suppose this inability to keep up should make me rethink my goals, but I'm not for 4 reasons:
1) I came closer than I did last year, despite averaging a higher page count
2) I read the longest book I've ever read in my life this year (almost 1200 pages) and that took almost a month
3) I took an entire month off from reading
4) It's really just a bad idea to lower your expectations... I'm sure I'll make it eventually... 2015 FTW!

Like last year, my reading pace slowed down in the summertime. I was actually right on target at the halfway point. It didn't help that I also set reading aside for the entire month of November to attempt NaNoWriMo. I intend to focus on my writing a lot this year too, but I will still shoot for my 40 books.

And now for fun stats!

Number of books read: 31

First book read: High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Last book read: Lowboy by John Wray

Oldest book: The 39 Steps by John Buchan from 1915
Newest book: Blackout by Rob Thurman from 2011

Shortest book: The 39 Steps by John Buchan at 142 pages
Longest book: The Stand by Stephen King at 1153 pages 

Favorite read of the year: Tough choice this year, but I'll have to hand it to Fool on the Hill by Matt Ruff
Least favorite read of the year: Also a tough choice:
 Fastest read: About a Boy by Nick Hornby, which I read in a single day
Slowest read: The Stand by Stephen King, which took me almost a month to complete

Pages read: 9666 (8284 last year)
Average book size, by page: 311 (296 last year)
Percentage of quota met: 78%
Books I reread this year: 4 (the first four in the Cal Leandros series by Rob Thurman)

Most unexpectedly awesome: The Giver by Lois Lowry
Biggest letdown: How can it be anything but The Golden City by John Twelve Hawks? I expected nothing and I was still let down...

# of dystopic books read: 2
# of apocalyptic books read: 3
# of books about unlikely Christ figures: 2 (McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Victor Mancini from Choke)

Most depressing: It's a tie:

Most egregiously offensive: Bad City Blues by Tim Willocks
Most egregiously inoffensive: Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom

Quota for 2015: Well I guess I'll try 40 again!
First book up for 2015: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I'm attempting something different this year. The first 26 books I read will be titles starting with every letter of the alphabet, in order. Should be fun! Thanks for sticking with me; now it's time to get reading... :D


by John Wray
p. 2009

I picked this book up on a whim and although I have mixed feelings about it on the whole, I’m extremely glad I did because I think I may have discovered a new writer to look out for in John Wray.

Lowboy is the story of 16-year-old William Heller—a paranoid schizophrenic nicknamed Lowboy—after he escapes from a mental institution where he has been kept since an incident with his girlfriend, Emily, a year previous. Will takes to the New York subway system—the scene of his fateful episode with Emily, who later joins him on his journey as he tries to ‘stop the world from ending.’ Will is a man on a mission; he holds all the answers but none of them make sense to the people in his orbit, not even to his worried and troubled mother, Violet, Will’s sole family member and the one who is closest to understanding his condition.

Lowboy also tells Violet’s story as she alternately collaborates and collides with Ali Lateef, a missing persons investigator determined to track down Will before he does something violent, for Lateef is sure the boy is a powder keg waiting to explode and that Violet is keeping secrets from him. Violet is not so sure of her son’s ill intentions, and insists on tagging along with the detective to ensure her the boy’s safe return home.

There are some twists and turns in this novel. The revelation about Violet was not particularly surprising to me, as there was plenty of evidence in the language that she was hiding something. I also saw the ending coming, but it didn’t make it any easier. I have a hard time figuring out what Wray was trying to accomplish with this ending. It’s so stark and devastating and really tough to crack for someone who doesn’t think like Will Heller. I would have come away from this book wondering ‘what’s the point?’ but one quality keeps me coming back to the positive side:

I am absolutely in love with John Wray’s character descriptions. The novel had a tendency to meander, but Wray’s language repeatedly brings you back to the center, grounds you in the moment. I could so perfectly picture every movement and interaction of Violet and Lateef and Will and Emily and in a book where dialogue was often a riddle, body language is so important. Even his descriptions of the New York subway system—so lovingly vivid—helped give the novel an identity by making the subway a character in itself. For someone like myself who hyperfocuses on characters and dialogue, everything in Lowboy resonated for its realness. I may not understand what Wray’s overall intentions with this novel were, but his writing style is enough to keep me coming back for more. Sadly, he only has three novels to his name, so there is not a whole lot more to come back to, but I anticipate them all the same.

Who Are You

by Rob Thurman

p. 2012

The sixth novel in Rob Thurman’s series about half-human Cal Leandros starts out a little differently than the others, with a mystery... sort of. Our intrepid narrator wakes up alone on a beach in South Carolina, surrounded by dead monsters and without a single memory to call his own. The reader may know it’s our very own Caliban, but Cal is completely in the dark... until his past shows up to reclaim him in the form of one very protective older brother and a sarcastic puck.

Thus begins the central plot point in Thurman’s Blackout: Cal has lost his memory thanks to a nasty dose of venom from one of the creatures he fought. It’s not any kind of crippling amnesia, thankfully. More the made-for-TV kind of selective amnesia that still leaves the important parts intact. In this case, Cal retains his fighting skills, his knowledge of the supernatural, his overactive emo-angst, and—most impressively—his snarky sense of humor. The first three I could excuse with minimal hand-waving. The fighting skills and knowledge of the supernatural? Sure, I’ll accept that as muscle memory, instinct and luck of the draw. The angst-overdrive is not too crazy either, considering Cal’s situation; hell, I’d be doing a lot of freaking out myself if I forgot who I was and woke up amidst dead creatures. For some reason, it’s the sarcasm I have the most trouble buying. It’s Cal’s background and surroundings that give him that inimitable sass; I just have a hard time accepting that it comes to him naturally.

But I get it, I do. I can imagine Thurman sitting down attempting to try this new thing out and realizing that it was just half the fun with a fundamentally altered Cal. I mean, what is a Thurman novel without crippling sarcasm and dueling wits? So she kept her favorite elements while still giving us a slightly different Cal. Unfortunately, I think this Cal just wasn’t altered enough to create an interesting character development. In fact, I believe Thurman missed a huge opportunity to do something new and unexpected with her central character, and as a result, I was a little let down by Blackout.

I would have loved seeing a dramatically altered Cal, one who has forgotten about all the supernatural, and not just his own demonic heritage. How intriguing would it have been to see him try out being an average guy, to truly believe a normal life was possible... only to find out as his memory returned that he could never be that guy? How intriguing to see if Niko could let his brother go if it meant he could be truly (if ignorantly) happy for once? It would have been heartbreaking, sure, but Thurman’s never been one to shy away from devastating character developments. I would happily have withstood a ‘Cal-less’ novel for the payoff of his inevitable revelation.

Regardless, I did find Amnesia-Cal’s verbal sparring with Niko and Goodfellow to be highly entertaining, more and more so as his memories returned to him and he settled in to his ‘new’ old life. I found myself laughing out loud at the scene when Cal—after finally disposing of the decomposing thorn in his side that was the mummy, Wahanket—charitably adopts the former informant’s mummified pet cats and descends on Goodfellow’s swanky apartment with the whole herd of them. That entire development was pure gold, and I’m glad Cal finally found an animal that likes him in the form of Spartacus.

Cal’s amnesia came at a good time, too. Our favorite half-human, half-Auphe got some hard truths dealt to him in Roadkill, not to mention an ultimatum in regards to his gate traveling abilities. After finding out you may inherit your evil forebears’ cruel tendencies in spite of everything you’ve fought against, who wouldn’t want to run away, forget everything, and start anew? For a while, I actually wondered if Cal’s condition was a mental defense self-constructed or brought on by Rafferty’s meddling, but it really did end up being the Nepenthe spider venom controlling his memories. The only ‘twists’ in Blackout were that a) Niko was re-dosing Cal out of some misguided notion of protection and b) a sort of out-of-the-blue revelation that Cal had living ‘siblings,’ courtesy of failed Auphe experimentation prior to his birth. Not sure why this was included at the end of this novel, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter anymore! Unless, of course, it was just to plant the idea in our head that there could be more ‘successful’ hybrids running around to be dealt with in the future. If that is the case, things could get really interesting. And really, why wouldn’t there be? Why stop at one, especially when that one is so inherently resistant to their ideals? I wouldn’t be surprised if we get an anti-Cal somewhere down the road.

Blackout’s ‘big bad,’ Ammut, is the first lady big bad, but on the whole, she doesn’t differ much from the other main villains. In fact, she is probably the least visible of all the central antagonists, as she barely appears. I guess I’m okay with this; it meant we were spared some banal villain dialogue and it made the whole thing murkier because it’s easy to forget who the real problem is when you’re so far removed from your nemesis. Promise is back, but she stays away for most of the novel, giving Amnesia-Cal some space as he relearns how to accept monsters into his life. The Delilah problem is progressing slowly, but I’m interested to see how it turns out. There isn’t much else to say because the point of view this time around is all Amnesia-Cal. I did get a kick out of his outside take on Niko-as-martyr-brother, if only because it addressed something I’d thought before—that Niko really is perfect and needs a good wake-up call where his brother is concerned. Overall, not my favorite Cal Leandros novel, but it gave me some new things to think about going forward.

Hannibal Lecter's Humble Beginnings

Red Dragon
by Thomas Harris
p. 1981

Red Dragon is the first book in the series by Thomas Harris that features notorious cannibal Hannibal Lecter, a character whose history I am slowly becoming familiar with. My first encounter with Lecter was, like most people, from the 1991 horror film, “Silence of the Lambs,” where he was famously portrayed by extra-creepy Anthony Hopkins. However, my preferred version of Lecter is from Bryan Fuller’s darkly indulgent NBC show, “Hannibal,” probably because it heavily emphasizes the relationship between Lecter and the profiler who originally caught him, Will Graham. Seeing as Red Dragon was the only book to feature Graham as a protagonist, I knew I’d have to read it eventually, and now was the best time for it seeing as a) the long hiatus between seasons has me in some serious withdrawal and b) though things play out differently on the show, judging by the timeline, the events of Red Dragon should start to crop up in the upcoming season, most notably in the form of its chief antagonist Francis Dolarhyde.

It was fun and revelatory reading Red Dragon after absorbing two seasons of “Hannibal.” I can easily see how Fuller was inspired from Harris’ text to translate the psyche of Will Graham to the small screen. I think the show’s portrayal of and casting for Graham is just spot on, although I think the show makes Graham more sympathetic (or perhaps just pathetic) and certainly more complicated. I can see why this was done; if the show is to depict Graham on a long term basis, he’s going to have to throw himself into more complicated plots. The novel version of Graham, as I understand it, plays his part here and quietly lives out a depressing retirement. The TV version of Graham may have mistakenly given me a greater impression of his importance to the Hannibal Lecter mythology, but I have to admit it’s been nice seeing such intense emphasis on Graham’s history, as it is only briefly touched upon in Red Dragon.

I could go on forever about the show, but I don’t want to downplay how much I enjoyed this book. I was enthralled with Thomas Harris’ writing style, and found myself pushing on chapter after chapter even if I had things besides reading that I should have been doing. With the emphasis on Graham’s profiling skills—enhanced as they are by his intelligence, his eidetic memory, and his ability to wholly empathasize with everyone, be they victim or killer—the whole thing sort of read like a really long, really intense episode of “Criminal Minds.” By the halfway point of the novel, we know who the killer is and, through his point of view, we begin to understand his psychosis, but there is still tension in wondering how and when the two will inevitably collide. Dolarhyde, Lecter, Graham, Jack Crawford, Freddy Lounds—these are all powerful personalities whose interactions are like a powder keg waiting to go off. We learn just enough about each character to leave me thoroughly invested in their part of the plot. Freddy Lounds is a bastard you just love to hate. Crawford and his team are efficient and whip smart. And Dolarhyde is downright sympathetic at times. I was surprised to find myself feeling so sorry for him and his relationship with Reba McClane left me feeling really complicated. She brought out the twisted killer’s humanity yet I felt so so afraid for her throughout the whole ordeal.

The only thing I didn’t care for was the abrupt ending and the tacked on twist, especially when I looked back and realized that Will Graham actually did very little to stop Francis Dolarhyde. Granted, only one more body turned up after Graham got involved in the case (and arguably, Lounds’ demise was his own fault), and it can be argued that without the profiler’s involvement, another family might have been slain, but in actuality, the FBI does very little to take out Dolarhyde. He fakes his own death the first time around to get away; Graham and Crawford don’t show up until after and mistakenly assume that everything is over. Their mistake leads Dolarhyde to come back a second time where he almost kills Graham before ultimately being taken out by Molly. The thorough profile on Dolarhyde which Graham spent weeks putting together didn’t quite end up mattering, as they only secured the killer’s identity when he had started to slip.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed this book—its characters and dialogue especially. I look forward to seeing how “Hannibal” will treat this plot in the upcoming season. It’s got to be better than the 1986 version, “Manhunter,” which I thought was doing a pretty good job until about the halfway point when it seems like they rushed to finish it up, cutting and pasting scenes with haphazard care. I could have overlooked the over-the-top cheesy 80s vibe, but I couldn’t forgive the misinterpretation of Dolarhyde. The ending totally misconstrued the profile, which, to me, was kind of the whole point of the book.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Pirates Of The Nuclear Front

A Small Armageddon
by Mordecai Roshwald
p. 1962

Cold War-era satire, A Small Armageddon, was the second of only two fictional novels ever written by Mordecai Roshwald, whose first novel, Level 7, got me into the post-apocalyptic genre to begin with. A Small Armageddon explores similar themes of mutually assured destruction and the threat of the arms race, but unlike the former, it follows a much more irreverent path to get its point across.

A Small Armageddon does not follow heroes; its primary characters are actually the villains: rogue nuclear submarine captain Gerald Brown and religious fanatic, Peter Schumacher. Brown dominates the majority of the novel as we follow his descent into modern day piracy. Brown—an ambitious but deeply resentful man in command of the nuclear-armed submarine Polar Lion—is interesting because he is a character who may never have become the person he did were it not for various influences. If he didn’t carry with him the baggage of his adolescence, always second best to the ‘popular kids’ he resents, he may never have snapped and murdered his commanding officer. If he weren’t so determined to be liked, he may not have gotten the support he needed to support his mutiny. If he hadn’t listened to one dumb kid’s dreamy notions of adventuring, he may never have gotten the idea to resort to piracy. And most importantly, if he hadn’t felt one-upped by Schumacher, the whole affair might have turned out very differently.

Schumacher is also incited to act based on his personal impulses, his being religious in nature. Schumacher, an extremist and fundamentalist, sees Brown’s crusade and is inspired to start one of his own—but instead of requesting strippers and gold, he demands strict enforcement of his moral code, which ends up being more difficult to provide than the strippers and the gold. Both men are in considerable positions of power and no one suspects they are capable of extreme action until they are literally pointing a missile at the world. It’s not enough that Brown and Schumacher are inspired by personal impulses; they are then further inspired to target each other out of revenge. This whole bit of satire just goes to show how dangerous it is to put the nuclear threat in the hands of men. We are quick to incite to anger and far too easily guided by emotion or personal gain. To allow corruptible men access to such savage power as nuclear weaponry can, according to Roshwald, very likely lead to our own downfall.

I did not find A Small Armageddon to live up to its predecessor. Level 7 is the more impressive of the two, as its vague tones and dire conclusion give it a gut punch feel unrivaled here, where the only ones who suffer are the villains (and a couple unfortunate people caught in the crossfire). Still, A Small Armageddon is not without its merits and it still manages to get its point across: it does not matter if you have the best intentions or the worst intentions if the end result is the same.