30 July 2011

Books: Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde (2004)

It’s been a little over two years since the events of The Well of Lost Plots, and Thursday Next has decided to leave Jurisfiction and the Bookworld and return the real world with her now two year-old son Friday. She has decided to finally get her eradicated husband Landen back from the Goliath Corporation, but soon finds herself in charge of protecting Hamlet, whose play has been mashed up; then there is a villainous fictional character that has delusions of grandeur. Then she has to deal with a 13th Century prophecy and an all-important croquet match, all while trying to find a job and dodging a hired killer and her time-traveling father.

While the essential one-jokeness of the premise of this series is starting to show, Fforde still manages to bring his clever literary abilities to the forefront, giving us readers some pretty brilliant plotting, a whole slew of bad puns and jokes and supporting characters from the works of Beatrice Potter to the Cat from Alice in Wonderland. The novels continue in the vein of Monty Python, but I see Fforde as more a heir apparent to the late Douglas Adams, whose Hitchhiker’s Guide is still, in my opinion, one of the best parody’s of a genre anyone ever produced. I mean, American’s love Monty Python, and perhaps see the silliness as a homage to that group (which I think it is), but if I were British (which Fforde is), I would consider this series more of a homage to Adams style of making fun science fiction. While Fforde makes fun of literary works and popular fiction (where beloved English romance writer Barbara Courtland becomes Daphne Farquitt), his love of it makes this series so good.

As with any multi-volume series, it does take time for the writer to sort even out their World Building and get into the plot, which is where Something Rotten excels at in this fourth novel. And by plot, I mean he breathes more life into the characters, and gives us a better understanding of her father’s time-traveling life, along with a clever ending that sort of changes the direction of this series.

24 July 2011

Books: A Winter Haunting by Dan Simmons (2002)

Dale Stewart, who along with a bunch of childhood friends battled an evil entity that had taken over his old school and town, returns to Elm Haven, Illinois 41 years later. He is a mess of man, full of demons of his own, having left his wife and two daughters for a coed in Montana, who has subsequently left him.

He has returned home, and moved into Duane McBride’s old home –the same boy who was murdered by the evil stalking Elm Haven back in 1960. Here Dale, who seems to have forgotten all of the events of that summer when he was 11, tries to write a novel, in hopes of exercising the demons that seem to haunt him, hang on him like an ill-fitting coat.

But, as Stephen King once wrote, the past has a way of coming back, and Dale must come to grips with the fact he may be going insane, or the ghosts of his past are more real than he ever thought possible.

Dan Simmons is not subtle about Dale’s psychological issues, and hits the reader over the head rather bluntly with the Henry James comparisons, giving a near detailed description of the James’ The Jolly Corner. And Simmons also uses Duane as sort of window into Dale’s mind, but his memories are only limited to when he was a child and up until his death. You are left, in the end, as to whether Duane was a real ghost or part of Dale’s tortured mind.

This sequel, however, moves much more quickly than Summer of Night, as I read this in just under 24 hours, feeling that I needed to know how this would turn out. So while it reads like a summer beach novel, it does more going on than one gets from those typical novels.

A Winter Haunting is a much different novel than Summer of Night, less nostalgic of a time gone by and more thriller of the mind, something Stephen King has been doing for the last 15 years or so in his tales; which is why I like King even more than I did when I started reading him 30 years ago. Sometimes the human psyche is more scary than any ghosts.

23 July 2011

Books: Summer of Night by Dan Simmons (1991)

Dan Simmons is an “insanely prolific, multi-genre writer,” writer Barbara Ehrenreich said during a review of Simmons historical/supernatural tome Black Hills, which was published last year. Indeed, Simmons began his career in the mid-1980s with the horror genre, before breaking big with his science fiction novel Hyperion, which would spawn 4 novels in what became the Hyperion Cantos series. He continued in the sci/fi genre in the early 2000s with Ilium and Olympos. He’s also published three mysteries starring the detective Joe Kurtz. He also began writing historical novels that took on true stories, such as the fate of the lost Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage, and wrapping a supernatural story around it. And while 2007s The Terror was overlong, and perhaps did not need a “monster,” and could have stood on its own as history of that time, it’s still an absorbing drama. Simmons continued his historical fiction tales with 2009s Drood, a brilliant alternative biography/horror tale of the last five years of writer Charles Dickens life.

While Black Hills is sitting on my book shelf to be read (and have, at this time, little plans to read his Hyperion Cantos series), I picked up 1991s Summer of Night. The novel, set in the summer of 1960 in a distant town near Peoria, Illinois, the book does resemble Stephen King’s 1986 novel IT. And while I say that, it’s not done as a disservice to Simmons novel. I say it only because they have very similar themes. While IT took place in both 1957 and the mid-1980s, and Summer is set in a few months’ time period in 1960, both novels feature pre-teen kids battling an ancient evil that have taken over their small towns, King’s Derry, Maine and Simmons Elm Haven, Illinois.

Five boys, Dale Stewart, his brother Lawrence, Mike O’Rourke, Jim Harlen and Kevin Grumbacher are having the best summer of their lives when they discover, through another boy, Duane McBride, that something is not quite right about their town, including the Old Central School. Duane convinces the others to help him discover the truth, only they all start to run afoul of whatever evil is haunting the town and in particular, the school.

As with most horror novels, the central premise is pretty silly, even King’s IT has a child killer that looks like a clown and who turns out to be an ancient alien who can’t seem to defeat a handful of children, but King was able to pull it off with deft plotting and characters that were believable, almost real (something I’ve been say for 30 years about King’s work, because no matter how high concept the premise is, King can create wonderful humans who you swear are people you know). Simmons characters are pretty interchangeable here and ill defined; you sometimes get confused as to who was who. Plus, if this was just the way Simmons remembered his childhood, it appears he has created a town full of alcoholics (which include most of the parents of these boys) and racists. I know it was 1960, but still, it seems a bit extreme (though I never grew up in a “small” town, so maybe this is the way he remembers it?)

And, of course, the adults here are clueless to what’s actually happening in there town, able to pass it off with gossip and logic right out those B style 1950s monster movies.

Still, I did not find it a horrible novel, just a bit depressing. The paperback clocks in at 600 pages, and we could have easily seen about 250 of those pages excised, but it does hanker back to a time when I thought America was innocent, the 1950s. Setting the book the in the summer of 1960, just before Kennedy was elected, just before the world and the US teetered on a knives edge due to racial imbalances, Summer of Night evokes –or tries too – the last summer of innocence in a small town in central Illinois.

20 July 2011

Dark Shadows to return in comic form

Television's original reluctant vampire is back! Barnabas Collins is re-adjusting to life under his vampiric curse. Haunted by terrifying dreams of his age-old lover and nemesis, Angelique, and fighting his bloodlust, Barnabas fears that danger lies ahead for all who live at Collinwood. Meanwhile, Barnabas's ally and trusted friend Dr. Julia Hoffman is harboring secrets of her own. Written by Stuart Manning and drawn by Aaron Campbell, with covers by Campbell and superstar artist Francesco (Black: Panther: Man Without Fear, Swamp Thing) make sure to get the horrifying Dark Shadows #1!

10 July 2011

Books: The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde (2003)

In the third Thursday Next novel, we see that our favorite LiraTech –still longing for her eradicated husband, all while being pursued by Hades sister, Aornis - is taking a much-needed vacation inside Caversham Heights, a never-published detective novel inside the Well of Lost Plots. It is also a good place to be while waiting for her child to be born. As a cover, she must pretend to be the character she is replacing. In the book, she encounters two Generics, students of St Tabularasa's, who have yet to be assigned to a book, and DCI Jack Spratt, a detective who partners with her in investigating a murder. Stil under the apprenticeship with Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, Thursday continues her struggle Yorrick Kaine - a fictional character (from Lost in a Good Book) - loose in real world, but another person from the real world has entered the BookWorld and is working with Kaine that could destroy the entire Well of Lost Plots.

While perhaps the weakest of the three so far, the book is still a fairly brilliant parody of book publishing, about reading and writing. It also takes a swipe at readers who seem to enjoy reading the same formulaic plot over and over again (the “works” of James Patterson come to mind, along with every romance novel ever written). And like the first two, Fforde leaves a lot of character development out, with the exception of Thursday of course, in favor of clever puns, bad jokes and silly humor. And as any longtime reader would enjoy, the idea of interacting with the characters of your favorite books is an altogether brilliant idea.

Its Fforde’s unrelenting creativity that drives these books, and I look forward to see what is up his sleeve, hoping that the novels don’t get as formulaic as he makes fun of in this volume.

02 July 2011

Books: The Passage by Justin Cronin (2010)

For me, the biggest issue I had with Justin Cronin’s apocalyptic novel, The Passage, was I could not get emotionally attached to any of the characters. He starts out with a good idea, and spends 250 pages setting it all up, and then just as the novel appears to really kick in, it falls off a massive cliff and only recovers –somewhat - towards the latter half. What’s in between is nothing but bland, undefined characters –mostly like the red shirt security guards on the original run of Star Trek – who you really can feel nothing for.

The Passage begins around 2018, and lays the ground work for what later would be a post-apocalyptic world that is overrun by vampire-like beings that are infected by a highly contagious virus. What begins as a project (NOAH, one the many Bible references throughout the novel) to develop a new immunity-boosting drug based on a virus carried by an unnamed species of bat in South America eventually becomes the virus that transforms the world. Then the novel jumps ahead more than ninety years later as colonies of humans attempt to live in a world filled with superhuman creatures who are continually on the hunt for fresh blood.

One of the reasons I stopped reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series was due to the 50 million characters he introduced (well that, and the I got bored). And like Jordan’s characters, most, if not all of the ones featured here, are one dimensional at best, and at times, I could not tell one from the other. The all seemed…so disposable.

The only potentially interesting character is Amy, yet she is strangely underused here (but that may change, as I’ve learned this is the first book in a proposed trilogy). And while I tried to like the characters, like teenage Caleb, I never felt any emotional attachment to him (which is unusual for me). And as for the colony –which resembles in structure Brian Matthews 2005 novel New Wilderness – Cronin seems to go out of his way to make it the most boring thing.

The novel is also about 400 pages too long, and is filled with a bunch of needless, often pointless scenes. I suppose, maybe, Cronin needs this stuff, cause it might pop up in books 2 and three (due, apparently, in 2012 and 2014), but right now, it all seems just filler between the first 250 pages, and the last 100 or so.

As I write this, I scratch my head and search my brain to figure out why this book was so hugely popular last summer when it came out in hard cover and why it appeared on so many Top 10 lists for 2010. It’s not well written, and nowhere near approaches the classic end-of-the-world novels like The Stand, On the Beach, or The Road. It fails to scare and, what I consider its biggest flaw, it fails for the reader to care about anyone.