Thursday, April 30, 2015

Enchanted Pilgrimage

Enchanted Pilgrimage
by Clifford D. Simak
p. 1975


by Rob Thurman
p. 2012

Family reunions are the name of the game in Rob Thurman’s 2012 contribution to the Cal Leandros mythology, as each of the three main characters deal with blasts from the past intent on upsetting their already tumultuous lives. A chain of events brings these shady relatives into Cal and Niko’s orbit and leads the brothers to question whether they can trust someone new (hint: no.) while it leads me to question whether Thurman is capable of something new. (hint: yeahhhhhno.) 

It’s Goodfellow’s kin that sets off the series of reunions as every puck in existence gathers in New York City for ‘The Panic,’ their thousand-year reunion meant to tally their number and participate in a lottery to decide who must reproduce to keep the population going for another thousand years. Robin has opted to hire Cal and Niko as bouncers to keep the situation under control and the results are predictably awkward but undeniably hilarious. It’s important to remember that all the pucks look nearly identical, so even though ‘their’ puck is the only non-participant, due to his ongoing experimentation with monogamy, it’s impossible to escape the sight of Robin fornicating with everything in sight, including variations of himself. Cal and Niko’s front row seats to the orgy of the century were so hilariously outrageous that for a few chapters I almost wondered if perhaps Thurman was attempting to do a humorous filler novel for once. It would have been the perfect place for it—coming directly after Cal’s emotional stint with amnesia, which ended with him wiping out the remnants of his monster-reject family, the last vestiges of his Auphe family tree.

Or so he thought. Naturally, there was one ‘brother’ that Cal missed, and he becomes the central antagonist of Doubletake, and definitely future installments too, considering he’s still kicking it above ground by novel’s end. This monstrosity was one of the last failed experiments of the Auphe, incapable of facilitating their evil plan but still capable of creating gates and very much in possession of the Auphe’s twisted sensibilities. Once he escaped from his captive adolescence, Cal’s twisted ‘brother’ educated himself, taught himself to fight, adopted the name Grimm and relegated himself to the fringes, waiting for his chance at revenge against his race. When Cal robs him of this chance, Grimm switches his sights to Cal, and reveals himself for the first time in Doubletake with a new plan for creating his own destructive race—and he wants Cal’s help to get things started.

Disappointingly, it’s more of the same with Grimm—the slimy, all-powerful villain who talks too much and is evil for evil’s sake. This of course means lots of diabolical monologuing and heavy angst. It also means another villain whose intentions are predictable and not at all relatable. It also means, I am cheated out of my potentially humorous filler novel, but that rude awakening preceded Grimm’s entrance in the form of Niko’s shady relative—his erstwhile father, Kalakos, a gypsy bounty hunter of sorts who is in town hunting down the Vayash Clan’s latest escaped responsibility, Janus. Janus is a monster made of metal and fire and it is intent on tracking down and killing every member of the Vayash Clan (even, according to Kalakos, exiled members like Cal and Niko who want nothing to do with the clan). The brothers reject Niko’s father’s attempt to reach out, but are forced to rely on him when Cal is gravely wounded by Janus.

Kalakos was definitely the thread I was most interested in, of the three family reunions. Where Cal’s interactions with Grimm brought nothing new to the table and Goodfellow’s kin brought only laughs, it is Niko’s reaction to his father that brings the most questions. Cal is loyal to a fault; we know he trusts no one and will choose any avenue that most thoroughly protects his brother, so he leaves the decision to Niko on whether or not Kalakos should be allowed in the picture. As Niko’s estranged father accompanies the boys on their two-way Janus hunt, the latter are forced to ask themselves whether they can forgive Kalakos after abandoning them all their lives.

I’ll admit, I wondered if it could work out. Cal and Niko had accepted others into their circle before. Promise and Rafferty are always on the guest list and of course one doesn’t get more ‘inner circle’ than Goodfellow, who the brothers trust implicitly. I allowed myself to hope that perhaps Kalakos could earn forgiveness and be another capable character for the brothers to rely on, maybe a rogue who pops his head in every now and then to offer support...

... Oh, how foolish that was.

Sure enough, Kalakos not only proves what Cal and Niko knew all along—that he is not to be trusted—but he also completely loses the cool, rational demeanor he’d held for the entire book and spontaneously starts monologuing about how eeeeevil he is. It’s almost like Thurman’s villains cannot help themselves. They just have to prove their evil worth by not shutting the fuck up.

It’s disappointing because there are dozens of ways this could have gone and I imagined most of them. Kalakos could have been on the level and become a new ally, he could have have been on the level and died tragically, the brothers could have not trusted him then regretted it when he turned out to be legit, or they could have allowed themselves to forgive only to be let down. Literally any option that allows some combination of these characters to grow emotionally would have been more interesting than what we got. But instead, Kalakos was a bastard all along, surprising precisely nobody. But we’re going to pretend like nobody saw it coming so he can get his villain on in the final act. Yawn.

I’m being a little hard on Doubletake. I liked it like I liked any of the other books in this series, I’m just hoping for a new take on things soon, a promise of emotional growth, and maybe some new characters for the inner circle. If anything, Doubletake actually took away one of the inner circle in the only surprising twist in the book, which I have avoided mentioning until now because it seems about as relevant in this review as it does in the actual book. What I’m referring to is the revelation that George—Cal’s old psychic paramour—the good-hearted girl next door who exiled herself when Cal refused to let her in—the girl whom we haven’t heard from or spoken to in at least 4 books—was brutally murdered by Grimm ‘off screen,’ so to speak. The truth isn’t revealed to our intrepid heroes this time around, making its inclusion here seem kind of random, but in a good way, like a bullet that has been fired but has not yet found its mark. When that bullet hits, I expect all hell to break loose. I only hope that we get proper chance to say goodbye to Georgie when that happens, because she deserves better than the ending she apparently got.

The Cloud Atlas

The Cloud Atlas
by Liam Callanan
p. 2004

In 2013, I watched a movie called Cloud Atlas and was thoroughly perplexed but entranced enough by it to read the book, which I eventually popped onto Amazon and bought some months later. I didn’t get around to reading it until early this year, thoroughly excited to finally get a new perspective on this complicated story... only to discover I’d purchased the wrong book.

That’s right. Who knew that Cloud Atlas was a completely different book than THE Cloud Atlas?

Well, now at least the two of us know.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, wrote a book published in 2004 and, though it was considered unfilmable, it was eventually the inspiration for the 2012 film. The book I bought on accident, THE Cloud Atlas, was also published in 2004 and written by Liam Callanan and other than the name, has absolutely nothing in common with the film, which is why it’s a bit ridiculous that it took me almost 50 pages to figure out... I honestly thought that maybe there were other stories in the book that they didn’t write into the script and continued to allow myself to think this until the ‘unheard story’ went on for just too many pages to be a ‘cut scene.’

Putting aside my disappointment, I decided to give the novel a chance—it wasn’t too bad, had an interesting premise, and I was already 50 pages in, after all.

The Cloud Atlas is something of a coming-of-age tale set in Alaska during World War II and focuses on a young bomb disposal officer, Louis Belk, and his secret assignment in the remote northern territory seeking out ‘balloon bombs’ released by the Japanese and scattered all about the western half of mainland United States. Since I still thought—for the first quarter at least—that I was reading a book with fantasy elements, I assumed the balloon bombs were the result of fiction, a far-fetched and strange idea given life on the page. Once I realized I was reading the wrong book, I looked it up and apparently it’s all based on real—albeit highly unpublicized—maneuvers by the Japanese army in 1945. Theyreally did release 9000 balloons with incendiary devices and they really did land all over the US and parts of Mexico and Canada, a few even extending as far as Michigan.

Seeing as this ploy was, on the whole, largely ineffective, the project was abandoned before the end of the war, and only 300 or so balloons were reported, but the remains of several are still being found to this day. The balloons only caused fatalities in one single incident, and sadly it was all civilians—a pregnant woman and five children who discovered the balloon weeks after it had landed were all killed when it exploded—but considering the existence of the horrendous Unit 731, the potential of the balloons destructiveness still make for an intriguing story. The threat of forest fires from the incendiary bombs is upsetting enough, but the mere idea of biological warfare enacted upon a civilian population is terrifying; I can easily see why Callanan chose it as the subject of his novel.

As for the novel itself, I wasn’t entirely charmed by it. Though I liked the characters well enough, I thought it could be a bit boring as well. Though it presents itself by all accounts as a classic coming-of-age story of a young man in World War II, I don’t really feel like the protagonist learned or grew much from his experience besides, perhaps, a lasting appreciation for the region of Alaska in which he was stationed and the spirituality of its native people, the Yu’pik.

There is a love quadrangle that doesn’t do this book any favors. I might have overlooked it had one less male suitor been involved but the presence of all four people in the relationship felt out of place and wholly unnecessary in such a richly historical tale of intrigue.

Callanan’s writing style is pretty enjoyable; there were definitely a few parts that caused me to laugh aloud, but they also immediately struck me as borrowing heavily from Catch-22, especially in Belk’s interaction with his larger-than-life commanding officer, Captain Gurley, who is deeply obsessed with discovering and stopping the threat of the Japanese balloons.

I’m not sorry I read this book, though I do wish I’d purchased the right one last year. It ended up being a happy little accident that may not have introduced me to my new favorite book but did teach me some facts about World War II that I had never even heard of prior to this. The Cloud Atlas is certainly a thoughtful and well-composed take on a little-known piece of history. Anyone interested in historical fiction or World War II should certainly give this book a chance.

Bag of Bones

Bag of Bones
by Stephen King
p. 1998

Michael Noonan is haunted.

As the tragic lead protagonist in Stephen King’s 1998 novel, widower Mike Noonan finds him at the center of several dangerous and emotional plots when he retreats to his summer home in an attempt to move on with his life.

Bag of Bones is only my second King novel, and it leans closer to the genre he is best known for: horror and suspense. Indeed, the sprawling, multi-layered story is in turns mysterious, disturbing, tragic and dark. It wasn’t as long as my first King novel, but then few books are. It does, however, share some themes that may be King trademarks, not the least of which is having a widowed male protagonist who could be a stand-in for King himself. In this case, it is a little more transparent: Mike Noonan is a popular author who finds himself unable to write a single word since the unexpected death of his wife, Johanna, some years earlier.

In an attempt to make sense of the strange nightmares he keeps having, Mike decides to go to the location that keeps recurring in them: his vacation house on Dark Score Lake in small town Maine, nicknamed Sara Laughs for its notorious history with an old blues singer, Sara Tidwell. On his first day back, Mike’s life becomes intertwined with that of a young mother, Mattie Devore, and her 3-year-old daughter, Kyra. Reminded of his own childless marriage and attracted to the alluring Mattie—herself a young, tragic widow—Mike becomes embroiled in an ensuing custody battle for Kyra, led by the girl’s paternal grandfather, a multi-millionaire tycoon who is determined to always get what he wants.

Bag of Bones is a long book but it needs to be; there are plenty of plot threads, each with its own respective history, that are thoroughly explored before all coming together at the climax of the story. This is not a gory horror novel, as the suspense relies mainly on ghostly encounters and nightmarish secrets, but there are some starkly disturbing elements, especially that of the fate of Sara Tidwell and her kin and the ultimate fate of Mattie Devore, the latter of which took me especially by surprise. I did not expect King to kill his female lead so violently (after mercifully letting the main couple live in The Stand), but I guess I should have seen it coming. Mattie and Kyra were just so disgustingly precious that they couldn’t possibly be allowed to endure past novel’s end. I mean, where would the story be in that?

Though there were no female-to-female relationships in Bag of Bones (outside of the mother-daughter relationship), the novel is possessed and led by the actions of many interesting female characters: Mattie and Kyra, who provide the immediate action for the plot; Jo, who—though long deceased—haunts Sara Laughs and guides Mike on his spiritual journey to the truth; Sara Tidwell, whose fate began a curse culminating in the final showdown of the present, and Sara Laughs—the house who is herself like a living, breathing character. Even Max Devore’s spindly, prickly assistant, Rogette Whitmore, is a dynamic if villainous character who brings life to the novel, even if she is, at times, a bit over the top. I only wish that Mattie didn’t present as such a disposable character. Arguably the female lead, she should have presented as a stronger character, but she relied heavily on others to save her, and felt like more of a temptation and a complication for Mike than an individual. I have to admit I was a little grossed out by his fantasizing about this girl half his age, and it gets weirder when you realize that Mattie was really only a means of Mike getting what he always wanted (his own child), before being conveniently disposed of. Perhaps that last part is an oversimplification, perhaps not. The story is about the haunting of Mike Noonan, after all, everyone else is necessarily secondary to the story.

I didn’t enjoy this story as much as The Stand; even though it was somewhat shorter, I feel it dragged on at times, or took too long to get to the action, but these were minor points of contention for me. For the most part, I like slow-boiling plots and character-driven stories, as long as they are presented with a modicum of poetry and poise, and Stephen King is wonderful at demonstrating those. It mostly comes down to my genre preferences: The Stand is a post-apocalyptic story, one of my favorite genres, while Bag of Bones, a horror novel, is a genre I’m less likely to be invested in. The fact is, horror stories, to someone as pragmatic as I typically am, require much more suspension of disbelief. If Bag of Bones had culminated in a psychological and wholly realistic finale as opposed to a mystical one, I might have a different opinion altogether.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

American Gods

American Gods
by Neil Gaiman
p. 2001

American Gods is a book I’d been meaning to read for quite some time, penned by Neil Gaiman, whose specialty—I’ve gathered, now that I’m three books in—is taking old school fantasy and mythology and transplanting it into a contemporary setting. With Neverwhere, it was magic and mysticism. With Good Omens it was angels and demons and Horsemen of the Apocalypse. With American Gods, it’s the gods and myths of various cultures. In all three, there is a recurring theme of these legends struggling to fit into a world that has no place for them anymore.

American Gods is so thick and layered that it would be impossible to cover every detail in a few paragraphs. The gist of the story is that a young man named Shadow is released from jail following the death of his wife and finds himself falling in with a mysterious conman named Mr. Wednesday and his strange and quirky associates. Wednesday employs Shadow as a bodyguard and reveals himself, in time, to be the modern American reincarnation of Odin, the Norse god. In this story, the power of the gods is determined by how strongly people believe in them. Some, like Wednesday and his colleagues, are Americanized incarnations of the old gods, brought over from other continents in the old days, and their power has diminished as they get farther away from their origins. Others are new American gods, created and molded by a society whose values have moved on to other things—such as technology and drugs. Both factions are in a sort of cold war which Wednesday believes to be heating up; he has dedicated himself to rallying the troops accordingly for the coming battle, and Shadow finds himself caught in the middle of it all.

That only begins to describe everything that is going on in this heady book. There are tons of vignettes and side stories, some depicting various gods and their histories traveling to the Americas, some about Shadow’s dead wife, resurrected with a magic trick and dedicated to protecting her husband in exchange for a return to the living, and the longest subplot: Shadow’s time hidden away by Wednesday in a small town called Lakeside, where he bonds with the locals. It seems strange that in a book about gods and goddesses and mysterious men in black and the undead that one of the most compelling parts would be Shadow’s attempts at domestication in small town USA and yet, when Shadow is inevitably outed and exiled from the modest life he has created for himself, it is somehow the most heartbreaking part of the story—even more than Wednesday’s ‘death’ just prior.

I was a little disappointed by American Gods, perhaps because the hype exceeded the depth of the material. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed the story, but I also found it a little boring at times, and I think the climax of the book was a bit of a letdown. What prompted me to finally plunge into Gaiman’s book was hearing that it was soon to be developed into a miniseries for cable. Upon reading it, I can see now that that is really the only way it can be translated to screen. A movie wouldn’t begin to cover it all, not even if it were split up into a trilogy, because (as we learned with The Hobbit) there is no logical stopping point for each film. In this golden age of matured television programming, a miniseries would be best, and then only for cable, where the subject matter can be explored on American screens without the restraint of network censorship. I’ll look forward to seeing how the material plays out and may have to check out Gaiman’s other stories set in this same universe.