Books I've read recently.
This Keene guy is unstoppable. I have read a lot of his books in a very short amount of time, and I keep waiting for them to get boring, or predictable, and it keeps on not happening. I keep thinking that I'm gonna get tired of his style, if nothing else, and need a break. Again, not happening. They just keep on being outstanding, and "Ghost Walk" continues the streak, following up "Dark Hollow" with a story that is less a direct sequel than a parallel novel. "Dark Hollow" main character Adam Senft is a secondary character here, but the really fascinating stuff in this book all involves Levi Stoltzfus, a character Brian has described on his website as "the Amish Repairman Jack" (referencing F. Paul Wilson's excellent series of novels). Stoltzfus is a much more supernaturally focused character than Wilson's Repairman Jack, but the comparison makes sense, and the really great thing about Levi is that he exists in "Ghost Walk" not as a force for evil or a good but ultimately hapless character who is set upon by forces outside his reckoning, but an honest-to-god protagonist who recognizes what he's up against and has the power to fight the evil forces he's facing. This is the sort of protagonist we do not generally see in Keene's novels, which is probably why so many of them end in a manner somewhat reminiscent of George Romero's series of "Living Dead" movies. One might consider "Ghoul"s Timmy Graco as a similar sort of protagonist, but even when compared to Timmy, Levi is obviously much more powerful and aware of what he's up against. His presence in this book helps bring in a new element, not previously seen in Keene's novels, which will hopefully appear again in the future--perhaps in the person of Levi himself.
The plot of "Ghost Walk" revolves once again around LeHorn's Hollow; this time, two years after the events of "Dark Hollow", a man named Ken Ripple has decided to hold a charity ghost walk in the woods near LeHorn's Hollow, in celebration of Halloween and in order to honor the memory of his wife, who passed away at a young age from cancer. However, unbeknownst to Ripple, a lone hunter in the nearby woods has stumbled upon a gate of some sort, which he has unknowingly opened and allowed an evil presence into the world. By the time the ghost walk opens on the night before Halloween, the evil presence in the woods is poised to have come all the way through the gate, at which time it will overrun the world. However, Levi Stoltzfus discovers what is going on pretty quickly and, with the help of local reporter Maria Nasr, he puts a plan into motion that will stop the evil forces gathering in LeHorn's Hollow.
This book was fast-paced and scary, featured extensive character development not only for the protagonists but for several other minor characters, which were given room to grow beyond the one-dimensional cutouts that often appear in these more minor roles in horror novels, and finally, most importantly, it gave you someone to root for--someone who, for once, seemed like he might have a chance at success in his objective of stopping evil. This might just be Keene's most fully realized novel, and with him pumping out books at an incredible rate and growing as a writer in leaps and bounds from one to the next, he seems poised to be two or three times as good in another few years. Which is something that I've said before, I know, but only seems to become truer with each new book of his I read.
Crooked Little Vein, by Warren Ellis
The tale of a down on his luck private eye hired by a presidential cabinet member, who also happens to be a stone junkie, to track down an alternate version of the Constitution of the United States that has gone missing and could change the political climate of the U.S. completely were it to come to light now, "Crooked Little Vein" is straight insanity from one end to the other. Assuming you have a strong stomach and a sensibility that is not easily offended by blasphemy, disrespect towards institutions of government, or Fall-of-Rome-level sexual deviance, you will certainly enjoy it thoroughly. I blew through it in one afternoon, nearly in one sitting, and had a blast with it the entire time. Now, I've read a lot of Warren Ellis's writing for the graphic novel format, and a lot of his essays, and I always enjoy it thoroughly, but one point I have to make where "Crooked Little Vein" is concerned is that it is not his magnum opus, by any means. This book, a madcap travelogue that basically becomes a romp through every type of sexual deviance that you can think of (and at least one or two types that you haven't thought of), is one of his lighter works. It does touch on important ideas that often come up in Ellis's work--the importance of the internet as a way to provide power to the common citizen, freedom of expression as represented by sexual deviance and body modification--but for the most part, this book is a hilariously decadent and depraved twist on the sort of dry wit that is so endemic to England. Imagine Hunter S. Thompson and Douglas Adams collaborating from the great beyond, and channeling the results of their efforts through ... well, Warren Ellis, I suppose. At any rate, while it is not as serious in tone as, say, "Black Summer", it is definitely as skeweringly satirical as "Transmetropolitan", and has some of the over-the-top sensibilities found in "Nextwave". Fans of Ellis's previous work will no doubt find a lot to love here, no matter which of his writing styles they enjoy the most.
Gardens Of The Moon, by Steven Erikson
I enjoyed this book while I was reading it, but it automatically loses a star by virtue of the fact that I was reading it for a month. Granted, I took a lot of breaks--finishing a magazine here, reading some comic books there, catching an occasional chapter of a much lighter and more immediately gratifying John Waters book sometimes when I just couldn't take any more--but even still, it should not have taken me that long to read this or any book. Consider, if you will, the fact that it took me just under two weeks to read Neal Stephenson's "Anathem", which is almost 300 pages longer than "Gardens Of The Moon". This book may have been an enjoyable slog, but it was a slog nonetheless. It was written in an incredibly dense manner, which made me tired and feel like I should put it down and do something else after, on average, 20 pages or so. Even when I got to the end of the book and was really interested in the outcome, I was still only getting through 40 or 50 pages per day, if that.
That's my big problem with this book, but it's mostly offset by how much I enjoyed the actual story the book told. One thing that was very important to my enjoyment, and on which I must congratulate Mr. Erikson, was how well-drawn, multi-dimensional, and fully realized his main characters were. Considering that there were upwards of a dozen, and that we got significant looks at the inner emotional lives of at least five of them, this was not an easy feat to achieve. Even more impressive is the fact that he did so against the backdrop of an epic fantasy genre that typically slaps down some stock one-dimensional stereotypes as characters and moves on. In fact, for a writer of epic fantasy, Erikson did a great job of defying many typical stereotypes of the genre. "Gardens Of The Moon", wonder of wonders, is not a quest novel. It does not present an epic battle between forces of ultimate good and ultimate evil. No, instead it gives us multiple forces, all with independent goals of various natures, and shows them battling, forming alliances, and generally working to achieve their goals in whatever manner is necessary. All of the characters have some degree of sympathy to the reader, no matter how they are aligned, and all of the characters make choices at one point or another that the reader will find him or herself looking upon unfavorably. This novel's plot is the stuff of life--chaotic, sometimes nonsensical, and certainly not easily understood in black and white terms. Factors like magic, a polytheistic pantheon that interacts with mortals, multiple races of intelligent beings, warring empires, and cities that operate on a near-anarchistic level and would prefer to be free to continue such operations, all further blur the lines of this narrative and provide interesting colors and depths.
This book was recommended to me as an epic fantasy novel for people who don't like epic fantasy novels, and I can certainly see why. In fact, I'm left with some mild degree of curiosity about its sequels--of which there are 9, only 6 of which are currently available in the US. However, after working at a fantasy-oriented bookstore for 8 years and watching fans of lengthy series that are still being written rejoice and suffer with the changing of release dates, I don't really see myself pitching into the further volumes of this series with any kind of real urgency. This is especially true in light of how long a lot of future volumes were. If this book was a slog for me (oh, and it was), then how much slogging must I be prepared to do in the face of future volumes that are 200 to 300 pages longer than this one? No, I think I'll hold off for at least a few months before picking up another of these books. I can't imagine that I will stop with the series here, though--despite the major strike against it, I did enjoy this book.
The Great Derangement, by Matt Taibbi
When Matt Taibbi first started writing about politics for Rolling Stone, I was very impressed with him. He actually let his feelings about the issues, the politicians, the behaviors they engaged in and the positions they took come through. He wasn't afraid to call someone an asshole or the son of the devil or whatever he might say to his friends while sitting around at a bar ranting, and this combined with his intelligent and incisive analysis of the things he was writing about combined to make him the best political writer Rolling Stone had had since the heyday of Hunter S. Thompson. As time has gone on and I've become less and less interested in Rolling Stone for their music coverage, I've started to flip directly to any piece in the magazine written by Matt Taibbi the second I get the new issue. He's worth the price of admission all by himself, and this book-length analysis of a couple things he's written about at much shorter lengths for Rolling Stone in the past was particularly welcome in my eyes.
In "The Great Derangement", Taibbi goes undercover as a lost soul looking for guidance at the megachurch of Texas pastor John Hagee, who received a lot of no-doubt unwelcome attention earlier this year for his ties to John McCain and his inflammatory statements about the Catholic Church, Jewish people, and Iran. Taibbi discusses Hagee's Christian Zionism in the book, but he spends a great deal more time just explaining what it's like to be a member of Hagee's megachurch on a day to day basis. One thing that might surprise my fellow liberals who come to this book looking for righteous indignation and putdowns of those not like us might be how easy it quickly becomes to empathize with those Taibbi meets and gets to know within Hagee's congregation. While they are often guilty of repeating asinine political talking points fed to them by Hagee and his minions and absorbed unquestioningly, these congregation members are generally concerned with the same things as anyone else in America in 2008 who isn't rich enough to avoid being concerned about everything. Later in the book, Taibbi draws comparisons between these lost souls and similar ones on the left, specifically those drawn in by the "9/11 truth movement", which Taibbi spends some time debunking but far more time reminding us is made up of concerned citizens just like us.
The larger point Taibbi makes, in making clear that right-wing evangelical Christians and left-wing 9/11 truthers are just as alike as they are different, is that the average Americans who make up the large majority of this country have been de facto disenfranchised by the workings of the American government. They may have the ability to vote for different political representatives, but at a time when, at least on issues of economy, the two political parties that control the country's political offices are united in supporting the desires of big business instead of helping with the needs of ordinary Americans, those ordinary Americans are not given a choice in elections that will actually help them improve their lives. They're forced to pick between opposing cultural forces, and neither the culturally-left party nor the culturally-right party are going to do anything to improve their situations in their daily lives. For these reasons, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum find themselves turning to explanations that help them make sense of this problem, whether they be conspiracy theories or apocalyptic religious visions.
Taibbi's overarching point in all of this is that we, the average Americans, need a sweeping change to our political system, one that expands far beyond the dictates of party and cultural affiliation. This book was written before the beginning of the presidential primary of this past year, and in its epilogue, written slightly later, Taibbi mentions feeling some hope for both sides of the political spectrum at the sights of the Paul, Edwards, and Obama candidacies. However, as he points out, even if candidates like these are able to get into office, it's going to take more than that to heal the American distrust of their political system and bring people back to a point where they look at the world rationally instead of through the prisms of nonsensical and easily debunked explanations for the world.
I enjoyed reading this book very much, and did end up relating to both the evangelicals and the conspiracy theorists within its pages, but the person I related to most closely was Taibbi, in his inability to pick one particular viewpoint and make a stand on it. In the introduction, he questions whether he himself is not, in the end, the villain of the entire book, by virtue of his going undercover, and of his looking down on people who at least have a viewpoint, a position on which they've taken a stand. He finds himself envying this ideological sure-footedness even as he questions its basis. That's something I sometimes feel myself.
This book is very much worth reading, but don't go into it looking for it to make you feel superior, or to avoid questioning your own superiority. Even for the most enlightened of us, this massively entertaining book is also quite disturbing.
Three Bags Full, by Leonie Swann
I was not expecting to enjoy this book. I am not normally someone who likes the cute-animals-solve-a-murder subgenre of the mystery genre, and I really tend to despise the cozy end of the mystery genre in general, so I didn't go into it expecting much. I was reading it for a book club I was in, and I didn't pick it up until the day before our meeting to discuss the book. For that reason, I didn't have time to get through the entire book before the meeting, but I was surprised to find myself flying through it, and enjoying myself thoroughly the entire way. I was further surprised to find myself reading 3/4 of it in the day and a half between when I started it and my book club meeting, and finishing it as soon as I woke up the next morning. It surpassed my expectations completely.
Leonie Swann's narrative of sheep who live in a meadow in Ireland who find themselves attempting to solve the murder of their beloved shepherd, who read them romances and detective stories in the evening, is really a story of the sheep themselves. Surprisingly, there is much attention paid to fleshing out the characters and personalities of the sheep in the flock, all 16 or so of them. I found myself particularly liking Othello, the taciturn black sheep with much mysterious experience of the outside world, and Mopple, the happy-go-lucky ram who loves to eat and remembers everything. Other fleshed-out characters include Zora, a philosophical sheep who likes to stand on the edge of the cliff that borders their pasture and stare down at the sea below; Miss Maple, the smartest of the sheep, who does most of the ratocinating where the mystery of George the shepherd's death is concerned; Sir Ritchfield, the flock's aging lead ram, who is starting to forget things; and Cloud, a sweet and tender ewe who isn't the smartest sheep in the flock by any stretch, but makes up for it with her friendly and charming personality.
The sheep need to engage in some rather non-sheeplike behaviors at several points in the story in order to determine the identity of George's killer, and these elements of the story might have grated in the hands of a lesser writer. However, Leonie Swann's sure-handed narrative and character construction keeps the reader from ever losing confidence in the tale they are reading, and makes the entire adventure quite believable, as well as a lot of fun. Perhaps the most entertaining aspect results from the flock's limited understanding of human phrases and terminology. They spend the entire tale believing the town priest's name to be God, and at one point, when Satan is mentioned as a possible metaphorical culprit for the murder, the sheep dismiss this idea out of hand, as they know Satan, a goat who lives near their pasture, and they know he wouldn't do anything like that.
The humans in the story are judged rather differently than they might be in a story that was written from the point of view of humans. Ham, the town butcher, is seen as a black-hearted villain, despite the fact that most of the townspeople seem to like him, and Beth, a lady who used to bring George Biblical tracts, is seen as disturbing because the sheep find her smell unappetizing. But in the end, it seems like maybe the sheep know more about people than we do, and their strange, removed perspective on all the events of the story bring insights to light that might not occur at all if we read the story from the point of view of other humans involved in the tale.
There is apparently a sequel planned, and I'm not sure how much I will like that one, as the idea of a murder being solved by a flock of sheep starts to lose a lot of credibility in my mind once it happens more than once. However, considering how much better this book was than I expected it to be, I would certainly be willing to at least take a look at a sequel.
My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up, by Stephen Elliott
This book is made up of several short stories, all of which are quite short, leaving the book a mere 120 or so pages in length and therefore not quite worth the $14 they were charging for it. However, I enjoyed the stories within nonetheless, and would read more writing by Stephen Elliott if given the opportunity.
The stories in this book focus on Elliott's sexual experiences, mostly consisting of being on the receiving end of brutal beatings. As a submissive, this sort of thing is what he wants out of his sex life, but it's mixed with drug problems, flashbacks to his disturbing and unhappy childhood, and a life generally lived on the edge, in crappy apartments and the back seats of cars. It's a memoir of sorts, but Elliott claims to have published it as fiction because he doesn't want to have to be responsible for the truth of his own memories. It's therefore hard to know what of the events the book describes actually happened and what didn't, but it seems likely that there's some basic truth to all of these experiences.
In some ways I could relate to Elliott's experiences within the book. I didn't have anywhere near as rough of a childhood as he did, and my sex life was never anywhere near as intense and fucked-up as he describes his as being in this book, but I have some tendencies towards the BDSM side of things myself, and his desires and fetishes made a fundamental kind of sense to me, even if I'd never take them anywhere near as far as he and his lovers in the book did.
I felt like the real story being told in this book, the story that one gets when all of the individual, single-event-based stories are added together like this into a (not quite) book-length single work, is that of a person with a lot of mental problems and a sexuality he doesn't really understand trying to come to a point where he is able to accept himself and his sexuality, and find a healthy way to express both. By the end of the last story, he seems like he sort of kind of does just that. At least a little bit. It's a happy ending of sorts, and by that point in the book, it's a welcome one.
Cycler, by Lauren McLaughlin
This was a quick read, and probably the only part about it that I didn't like was that it ended so quickly that I was left wanting a lot more from its storyline. However, the back cover says that McLaughlin is working on a sequel, so that's good at least. And I'm sure that part of the reason this book is shorter than I wanted it to be is that it was written for a young adult audience. Nonetheless, I do wish it were a bit longer. The big ending blew by me so fast that I couldn't help but feel that it needed a little more detail.
On the whole, though, this is a very engaging story. Jill is a cycler, which means that, for the four days before her menstrual period begins, she changes into a boy. Her mother is a very straightlaced suburban type, and finds this transformation appalling. For that reason, her mother has taught Jill to use meditation to erase all of her memories of her time as a boy. Perhaps for this reason, or maybe just as a side effect of the cycling change, the boy she changes into has developed a personality of his own, named Jack, and has started to chafe at the periods of imprisonment that make up his experience of life. You can imagine where the story goes from here.
I found the parts of the story that were narrated by Jack to be a good bit more enjoyable than Jill's sections. I wouldn't say that Jack is a more likable character, but since Jill spends most of her life with no memory of the imprisonment Jack goes through, she has come to be a pretty well-adjusted teenage girl who is generally not concerned about anything more than a prom date. Jack's sections are full of teen angst and snarky frustration, and therefore I found them more compelling. I'm hoping he has a bigger role in the sequel, although that probably won't happen since he only exists for four days out of every month.
I was also really happy to see the book exploring concepts of gender and sexuality in a complicated fashion. I don't want to go into detail with the ways it does so, as those would constitute spoilers, but I will say that it's nice to see people avoiding and even condemning the standard gender binary that society tries to force all of us into. This kind of more complicated, questioning outlook was some of what I was looking for when I picked up a book about a person whose body switched between genders, and though it didn't go quite as far as I might've liked it to (blame the young adult audience it's being directed toward for that), it got into these issues enough to satisfy me. I have high hopes for the sequel where this element in particular is concerned.
Shock Value, by John Waters
This strange and thoroughly entertaining book was less like a biography of John Waters (how it was initially explained to me) and more like a zine he'd written and turned into a book. There is no real chronology to the stories in the book; instead, it begins with a chapter about the making of "Pink Flamingos", then jumps around from chapter to chapter without any real rhyme or reason. A chapter about Waters's childhood fascination with disasters is followed by chapters about how much he loves Baltimore, his cross-country pilgrimages to attend highly publicized trials, interviews with his favorite movie directors (Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis), and chapters devoted to his favorite actors to work with, Divine and Edith Massey. Interspersed between these chapters are chapters that tell about the making of his other movies and about his struggles with censor boards, but at least half of the book is less an autobiography than Waters excitedly discussing his various fascinations. None of this is a negative thing, however--all of the chapters are equally entertaining, and Waters is just as good at expounding upon his unique worldview as he is at telling stories from his life. The many pictures distributed throughout the book are also great fun to look at, mixing images from his hard to find early movies with pictures of his bizarre company of actors in their day to day lives, without all the crazy makeup and costumes in which he generally decks them out. Unfortunately, the book ends in 1981, the year he wrote it, and other than an introduction written in 1995, we get nothing about the last 25+ years of his life. I doubt there are as many good stories from that period as there are from his early days, but nonetheless I'd like to hear them. I hear he has other books, so I should probably track them down and see if they can fill in the holes left by "Shock Value". That said, this book is incredibly entertaining, and anyone with a taste for "bad taste" will enjoy it thoroughly.