Books I have recently read.
I discovered Neal Stephenson with "Cryptonomicon", which was published almost a decade ago now. It blew me away with its epic length, its fascinating, multi-layered plot, its occasional moments of unexpected, gut-busting hilarity, and its clear, incisive writing, which was often put to use in explaining complicated scientific concepts in easy-to-follow terms that any layman (including me) could easily understand. The combination of all of these factors made "Cryptonomicon" so enjoyable to me that I soon began to tell people that Neal Stephenson was my favorite author, an assertion only given further weight when I devoured his back catalog and found it all to be outstanding (particularly "Snow Crash"). A few years after "Cryptonomicon", Stephenson released the sprawling Baroque Cycle, a trilogy that served as a prequel to "Cryptonomicon" and stretched to nearly 3000 pages in combined length. If anything, I may have enjoyed this trilogy even more than "Cryptonomicon"; it was obvious that his writing style was maturing, that he was reining in his tendency to go off on tangents while still utilizing such tactics on occasion (much more judiciously now), and that his word choices were becoming even better, his writing style even more clear than it had been before. His widely discussed switch from composing on a word processor to writing longhand with a fountain pen no doubt had something to do with his occasional restraint, but also avoided damaging his propensity for the epic explorations that drew me in in the first place. Now, with "Anathem", Stephenson expands even further on the maturation process that was obvious in "The Baroque Cycle", as well as mixing the cyberpunk futurism of earlier works like "Snow Crash" and "The Diamond Age" with his more recent studies of science's past in "The Baroque Cycle".
"Anathem" takes place on a planet called Arbre, which is much like Earth as far as environment, but has a somewhat different history. It takes place in what seems at first like a monastery in a lot of fundamental ways, but soon reveals itself through details to be quite different. Rather than focusing on worship of any god, the inhabitants of this monastery--which is co-ed and does not require celibacy of its inhabitants--devote themselves to studying principles of science and mathematics. They engage quite often in what we here on Earth would call Socratic dialogues, and discuss and work with a lot of important principles that come from our own scientific past--although on Arbre, things like Platonic forms and the Pythagorean theorem are named after different philosophers.
Almost immediately after the book starts, Apert begins, which is a 10-day ceremony at the beginning of each year in which certain inhabitants of the cloisters all over the world (and there are many, though "Anathem" revolves around one in particular) are allowed to interact with the outside world. The main character in "Anathem" is Erasmas, who is a Decenarian, also known as a Tenner, meaning that the gates of his area of the cloister open only once every 10 years. This book takes place in the year 3790, and therefore, during Apert, Erasmas sees the outside world for the first time in 10 years. Other inhabitants of the cloister get out every year (the Unarians), still others only every hundred years (the Centenarians), and there is even a part of the cloister that sits atop a nearby rocky crag, where the inhabitants are Millenarians; in other words, their gates only open every thousand years. The first third or so of the book (aka 300 or so of its 900 pages) merely deals with the events that occur during and surrounding Apert. This portion of the book is very entertaining, and we learn a lot both about the mathic world (for this is what the cloisters are called in the world of "Anathem"--maths) and the world outside, which is the sort of technology-saturated world that one can imagine existing on Earth in another century or so of unchecked development. However, it's hard to tell where the overarching plot of the book is taking us. In fact, such a thing doesn't become clear until halfway through or thereabouts, and at that point, Stephenson leaves off the considerable world-building that he's done in the first half of the novel and begins a more straightforward adventure/problem-solving plot that takes us through the rest of the novel. I don't really want to reveal anything that this later plot entails, as I would feel bad spoiling the first half of the book even though there is much that comes after it. Suffice it to say that all of this is very enjoyable and quite picaresque at points (much like parts of the Baroque Cycle). Some may feel that the earlier, less plot-oriented sections of the book are too long and involved, but on the contrary, by the end of the book it becomes obvious that all of the setup that goes on towards the beginning is essential in order to make the reader completely understand what happens in the end.
By the end of "Anathem", I felt every bit as blown away as I had when finishing "Cryptonomicon", "Snow Crash", and the Baroque Cycle. Stephenson once again builds up an entire world that I end up spending weeks immersed in, and when it all ends, it's hard to let go. It does help that he seems to have fixed his previous problems with abrupt endings that plagued some of his earlier books--he supplies us with a dozen-page epilogue that ties up all the loose ends the main plot left hanging--but still, it's always tough separating from one of these epic novels. "Anathem" is without a doubt one of the best books I have or will read this year, and I'm sure I will go back and reread it multiple times in the years to come.
Kill Whitey, by Brian Keene
For a quick-n-dirty gore/horror read, it doesn't get better than this. Brian Keene returns to the territory of "Terminal", an earlier novel of his in which he explores the world of down-on-their-luck working-class Pennsylvanians. "Terminal" has been hailed by some as Keene's best work, but I've honestly liked everything else I've read by him better. The idea was good--a broke-ass yo-boy with terminal cancer decides that the only way to provide a legacy for his wife and young son is to rob a bank--but the execution didn't work too well. Keene spent too much time in "Terminal" on setup and exposition, and devoted too little of the book's length to the action--the part when the bank actually got robbed. I suppose he might have been trying for depth of character, but instead it just felt contrived. The middle third of the book was a boring slog.
Thankfully, he fixes these pacing problems in "Kill Whitey". Furthermore, the plot is less cliche and better executed. The book begins with Larry, the narrator, and three of his friends ending up at a strip club after getting off the night shift at a local warehouse where they work. Larry finds himself smitten with the most beautiful stripper in the club, who we soon learn is an illegal emigrant from a former Soviet republic, forced to work in the strip club in exchange for passage to the U.S. by the Russian mafia who got her here and who run the club. The big boss at the club is a scary motherfucker named Whitey, so called because all of his hair is dead white, which makes him look rather frightening. Due to his infatuation with a stripper who doesn't know he exists, Larry starts spending all of his free time at the strip club. Then one night, a surprising chain of events unfolds that brings him into contact with Sondra, the stripper, and also puts Whitey on his trail. Whitey is a tough customer, and he isn't going to stop pursuing Larry until Larry kills him. The problem is that Whitey is exessively, and in fact unnaturally, hard to kill.
All of this gets into motion during the first fourth of the book, and from there it's a nonstop thrill ride. Larry tries to escape Whitey, Whitey just keeps coming. Larry beats the hell out of him, stabs him multiple times, even shoots him... he just keeps coming. There's plenty more to come, of course, but I don't want to spoil too much of the book for you, so let's leave it at that in terms of plot.
One thing I did find incredibly well-done in this book, and it's not something that is generally a strength for Keene, is the characterization of Larry and, to a lesser extent, the other major characters in the book. We learn early on that Larry's life is relatively empty; other than his work buddies, his parents, and his cat, he doesn't really see anyone. This makes him a prime target to fall in love with a stripper, which he very quickly does. All of this is eminently plausible, and Keene pulls it off because, in contrast with what he did in "Terminal", he doesn't belabor the point, or give us too many scenes of angst-ridden brooding to drive it home. Larry tells us of his situation, and then moves on with the story, but it's believable and easy to relate to, and it informs his actions throughout the rest of the book. This newfound ability to provide a character with real depth, which also showed up in "Ghoul", another of Keene's most recent works, is a welcome addition to his skill set, and one that will hopefully help him continue to improve the way he already has over the last couple of years. I loved "Ghoul" every bit as much as "Kill Whitey", and I haven't read "Dark Hollow", "Dead Sea", or the soon-to-be-released "Ghost Walk" yet, so I'm not ready to declare "Kill Whitey" Keene's best work. But it is easily the equal of anything else I've read by him, and stands head and shoulders above anything he was doing three years ago. This is a writer to watch. If he's this good now, less than a decade after his first book was published, imagine how good he could be in another 10 years.
The New York Four, by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly
This is an original graphic novel by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly, the team that brought you Local. I loved Local, and was glad to get this new tale from them, especially when I saw almost immediately that it had a very similar feel. It's the story of four girls who've moved into Manhattan to be freshmen at NYU. It especially focuses on Riley, a girl with overprotective parents who has learned to live on the internet rather than in real life. I hate to say it, because I could tell how pathetic it w...more This is an original graphic novel by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly, the team that brought you Local. I loved Local, and was glad to get this new tale from them, especially when I saw almost immediately that it had a very similar feel. It's the story of four girls who've moved into Manhattan to be freshmen at NYU. It especially focuses on Riley, a girl with overprotective parents who has learned to live on the internet rather than in real life. I hate to say it, because I could tell how pathetic it was as I was reading it, but I really related to the way Riley quickly developed a text-message only relationship with a boy who stuck his email address into her jacket pocket during a show. I could also relate to the way that all of the girls found their lives becoming much more complicated than they ever expected as they got more into the groove of college life. Same sort of stuff happened to me, and sometimes it was very hard to maintain focus on the things I was actually there to do. The way the story ended made me really sad--I saw the opportunity for an upbeat ending, and I assume Wood and Kelly did too, but they went in a very different direction and left things quite open-ended... though not looking like they're headed in a very good direction. I wonder if they're planning a sequel? I wouldn't mind if they did one, but in a way I think this version of the story was pretty perfect by itself.
The Devil You Know, by Mike Carey
This is an excellent story from a writer who has made his name writing graphic novels. In "The Devil You Know", Mike Carey makes clear that his skills transfer well from the graphic arts to pure writing. The main character in "The Devil You Know" is Felix Castor, an exorcist who lives in an alternate version of our world where ghosts, demons and zombies are facts of everyday life. Castor is similar to John Constantine of Hellblazer in his gruff personality type, love of cigs ...more This is an excellent story from a writer who has made his name writing graphic novels. In "The Devil You Know", Mike Carey makes clear that his skills transfer well from the graphic arts to pure writing. The main character in "The Devil You Know" is Felix Castor, an exorcist who lives in an alternate version of our world where ghosts, demons and zombies are facts of everyday life. Castor is similar to John Constantine of Hellblazer in his gruff personality type, love of cigs n' booze, and mastery over supernatural manifestations. In this book, he's hired by an archival library to exorcise a ghost that has been haunting the library for a couple of months and is growing steadily more violent. Generally, when hired to exorcise a ghost, he does the job without worrying about why the ghost is there in the first place. But this time he gets curious, and starts trying to figure out where the ghost comes from. And that's when the trouble starts. Before the whole thing is over, he's run afoul of Eastern European mob figures, unscrupulous fellow exorcists, a paranoid zombie who still retains his original intelligence and extreme focus, and a lot of other fascinating characters, not all of which are paranormal in origin but all of which have the potential to be very dangerous. This novel is 500 pages long and yet I was swept right up in its quickly moving wake, enjoying every minute of it. I could definitely see similarities to the work of other English writers of dark-fantasy comic books, such as Alan Moore and Warren Ellis. However, Carey's distinct voice outshines his influences and makes this, his first prose novel, well worth seeking out. He's apparently got a sequel out now in hardcover, and I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for that.
Running With The Devil: The Best Of Hail Saten, Vol. II, by Brian Keene
I've been reading Brian Keene's writing since 2001. Halloween 2001, actually, because on that day, the bookstore where I work had a signing featuring half a dozen horror writers. None of them sold too many books, which was honestly par for the course back then--we were in a shitty location. But because we weren't all that busy, I had time to talk to the writers that were there. I was wearing an Emperor shirt, and Brian Keene and I ended up talking about metal for 20 minutes. He struck me as a really cool guy, and I bought the book he was selling that day--"No Rest For The Wicked: Redux", the second of three versions of his first short story collection. It had some horrific editing mistakes in it, and not all of the stories were great, but I could see some real talent there, and over the next few years, I kept up with his career as he got a mass-market deal with Leisure and released "The Rising", the zombie novel that brought him to widespread attention. When "The Rising" was released, he came back to the store for another, more well-attended signing, and in the years since then, he's made it back down a few more times. I feel like I've gotten to know Brian a little from our time hanging out during those signings (and, a couple times, afterwards at the bar). We don't agree about everything--sometimes he likes bands I hate, and sometimes I hold political views he thinks are crazy--but I really like him. He's a good dude.
I think that bit of personal history has something to do with my enjoyment of these collections of blog entries that he releases every so often. I can hear his voice in the way the entries are written, and sometimes I know the stories I'm reading from hearing them from him one of the times we hung out. They're engaging in the way Brian is engaging as a person; sometimes he's a bit rough around the edges, and sometimes he's a bit harsher than you might like him to be, but he's always honest and he's always sincere, and in the end, no matter how brusque he might be, the fact that he's a really good guy always shines through.
I don't think the fact that I know him and see him in these entries is the only reason I like them, though. Brian's good at telling stories, and he has a lot of interesting ones to tell. "Running With The Devil" dates from the time period when "The Rising" had first become successful, and covers the next year or so in his life, including the book tour he did for the sequel to "The Rising", "City Of The Dead". Some truly nutty things happened to him on this tour, and in addition to all of that, he had a lot of serious issues on his mind, relating to his personal life. The journal entries he wrote during that time are written with emotions close to the surface, so they aren't just interesting stories--they're stories you can relate to. I don't know what happened in Brian's life around that time; he doesn't say in the book, and we never discussed it in person. It's not important, though. His struggles with religion, his responsibilities and obligations to his family, his relationships with friends and fans, and his idea of who he is as a person are all easy to understand. We've all been there. We all know what it's like to suffer, and to be unsure of your place in the world.
"Running With The Devil" is like getting a letter from a good friend going through a hard time. It makes you worry about what's going down with him, even if there isn't anything you can do to help. And it makes you see your own life in a slightly different light. Some of the stories crack you up, and some of them might make you sad, but in the end, it's just good to hear from Brian. It's good to know that good people are out there fighting the good fight. I'm glad he's able to tell his stories in an engaging, eloquent manner, and I'm glad he puts these collections of often-ephemeral blog writings out there in a more permanent form. I enjoyed reading them, and I'm sure I'll come back to this book in the coming years.
The New Fear: The Best Of Hail Saten, Vol. III, by Brian Keene
Picked this one right up the second I finished "Running With The Devil". In some ways, it was a relief after the sense of emotional and metaphysical struggling that dominated that book; "The New Fear" seems to come from a more balanced perspective, a slightly less turbulent point in Keene's life, than did its immediate predecessor. This book is less focused than "Running With The Devil" as well; if it has a theme, said theme is Adam Senft, Keene's fictional narrator...more Picked this one right up the second I finished "Running With The Devil". In some ways, it was a relief after the sense of emotional and metaphysical struggling that dominated that book; "The New Fear" seems to come from a more balanced perspective, a slightly less turbulent point in Keene's life, than did its immediate predecessor. This book is less focused than "Running With The Devil" as well; if it has a theme, said theme is Adam Senft, Keene's fictional narrator in his novel "Dark Hollow". Originally, he'd planned a marketing campaign around that novel that involved him pretending to be a real author named Adam Senft on the internet, only revealing the hoax when "Dark Hollow" was released. However, after that novel lost its initial publisher, delaying its release by about two years, Keene gave up on this plan. So, shortly after the book begins, the Adam Senft conceit is thrown by the wayside in favor of general stories about book tours, horror fiction industry whackjobs, and the trials and tribulations of living on several isolated acres in rural central Pennsylvania. He mixes these stories with advice for aspiring authors, generally delivered in a curmudgeonly tone reminiscent of his personal heroes Hunter S. Thompson, Howard Stern, and Spider Jerusalem (who is actually a fictional character created by Warren Ellis). The tone of this volume of blog entries is remarkably even, especially for the notoriously manic Keene... until the very end, when something quite shocking and unexpected occurs. I don't want to ruin it for you, so I'll say no more than to mention that the last 50 pages or so change the tone of the book completely. One starts to see the rest of the book in a completely different light. And if anything, this is why I didn't give this volume five stars, like I did "Running With The Devil"--knowing what I learned at the very end, I found myself wishing that the big reveal had come earlier. I guess at this point I have no choice but to wait for Volume 4. And believe me, I will be doing so anxiously.
Dark Hollow, by Brian Keene
I don't generally get on a one-author kick. Usually, no matter how much I enjoy a book, once I've read it, I'm in the mood for something else, another style. And yet this is the third Brian Keene book I've read in a row, and the fourth this month. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the first two of the three in a row were collections of blog entries; the switch from non-fiction to fiction might have been enough to keep my interest from waning. That doesn't seem all that likely, though--"Dark Hollow" is, out of all of Brian Keene's horror novels, the closest in setting, characterization, and events, to his real life. Adam Senft, the narrator, is a midlist author living in semi-rural central Pennsylvania. He and his wife have tried to start a family but have been traumatized by multiple miscarriages--Adam is starting to seriously question his faith in God, both as a being that exists at all and as a being that is benevolent rather than uncaring or actively hateful towards his creations. Adam has been banging out contractually obligated sequels to his surprise-hit first novel for a while, and has finally reached a point where he can focus on what he really wants to write. He wakes up every morning, walks his trusty dog Big Steve, and then sits down and writes all day, while smoking lots of cigarettes and drinking a ton of coffee. If you, like me, have read "Running With The Devil" and "The New Fear", you'll recognize this guy. In fact, at the end of "The New Fear", Keene admitted that he'd written "Dark Hollow" as a sort of therapy in order to purge the traumas that had happened in his life during the time period immediately before and during its writing. In this way, it's no more about a satyr living in the woods behind a small central Pennsylvania town, kidnapping and bewitching the women of said town and forcing the men of the town to take up arms against it, than "The Rising" was about a zombie apocalypse, or "Terminal" was about a bunch of no-future yo-boys robbing a bank, or "Ghoul" was about three suburban kids dealing with a monster coming to life in their neighborhood cemetery.
I felt that "Terminal"s Tommy O'Brien was somewhat of a weak characterization, and that "The Rising"s Jim Thurmond was better but still not perfect. However, "Dark Hollow"s Adam Senft stands with "Ghoul"s Timmy Graco as Keene's best and most three-dimensional characterization yet. As I pointed out, Senft is basically an alter ego for Keene, and that helps, just as Timmy Graco was an alter ego to Keene's 12-year old self. However, there's a good reason writers are exhorted to write what they know; it helps them bring stories to life. Because, see, it's not plot that's most important in fiction. Especially in genre fiction, most plots are the same few stories told over and over. We, the readers, care because of how vividly the characters are brought to life, and how much we come to care about those characters. There are as many possibilities for unique characters as there are people in the world today. In fact, probably more. They are the difference between bad books, decent books, and great books. Because of how vivid a character Adam Senft is, and because his wife Tara, his neighbors Merle, Dale, Cliff, and Cory, and even his dog, Big Steve, are nearly as vivid, "Dark Hollow" is a great book.
Despite my downplaying of the importance of plot, storytelling is still important to any novel, and Keene handles it well here. The action scenes are riveting, and there are some serious scares at certain points during the book. There's only so much originality he can bring to the basic framework of this storyline, but he manages to do so, providing a lot of relatively obscure detail concerning rural Pennsylvania folk magic, aka "powwow", and further expanding upon his Labyrinth mythos, which he's touched on in several of his books, most notably "The Rising" and "City Of The Dead". The antagonist in "Dark Hollow" being a satyr, there's a good bit of sex-based activity woven into the basic horror of the book, and in a lesser writer's hands this could get embarrassing quickly, but Keene manages to add in the lurid details without ever overdoing it and forcing the reader out of the story with sophomoric lewdness.
In the end, I don't know how this book could possibly be improved. SPOILERS START HERE: Even Keene's rather depressing tendency to end all of his books on a very downbeat note is tempered here. The world doesn't end, and not everyone dies. Things don't come out wonderfully either, with everyone living happily ever after. Truth to tell, I think he strikes a very proper balance between totally downbeat and the sort of cheesy, implausible upbeat ending that a lot of lesser horror fiction reaches for--probably the sort of thing that inspired Keene to make so many of his endings so dark. To a great extent, both in this book and other recent work of his, he has stopped engaging in his tendency to overcompensate for those sorts of endings and struck a balance that can best be described as... realistic. The ending of "Dark Hollow" is about as plausible an ending as one could imagine for such a storyline. It's every bit as good as the book that has preceded it.
And you know what? Now I'm just excited to read more of Keene's books.