Thursday, October 25, 2012

Book Review: The Night Eternal

The Night Eternal is the final installment of authors Chuck Hogan and Guillermo Del Toro's virus vampire trilogy. Taking place some two years after the events of the first book, The Night Eternal gives us a dystopian view of what our world would become if over taken by a sadistic and totalitarian monster Hell-bent on world domination.
    Apart from the real world monsters of our own history, the creature in question here is The Master - the vampiric overlord who has devastated the planet with atomic weaponry, creating a nuclear winter that is more than ideal for his hive of strigoi, effectively blocking out the sun and plunging the planet into darkness. With the Earth's  unaffected population managed with the allowance of bare bones blue-collar work, and the facilitation of macabre "blood camps", the world does, in fact, keep on turning as Doctor Ephraigm "Eph" Goodweather, Nora Martinez, and Vascily Fet manage to survive and resist, looking for any way to end The Master's reign.
    The heroes of our story are likewise descended into their own Dark Night of The Soul; Eph has secluded himself from the band of survivors he once led, the torment of losing his wife and son pushing him toward coping skills of the pharmaceutical variety; Nora, the former colleague and lover of Eph, is stifled by the kidnap of her mother, and the return of a devil in human form; and finally, Fet, the Russian exterminator whose aptitude for survival and problem solving have placed him in an awkward position of power and purpose.
    The Night Eternal did bring with it a few scares, particularly the blood camps. It was subtle, but the realization that something not too dissimilar took place within our own timeline lent an especially sinister quality, and the complete subjugation of the our race is always a source of disturbance. The vampire horror was fairly downplayed this go around, which I found to be an interesting choice from the writers. Instead, the real horror stems from the dissension within companionship, the parental fear of losing a child to death or estrangement, and the misery of loss.
    As well developed as was the idea for The Night Eternal, I think it would be fair to say that the quality of the series is diminished as the books progress; what had been quirky and novel in the first book became somewhat overdone and cliche, and there's a point wherein you can only travel a two-dimensional plane of character for so long without succumbing to frequent fits of yawning.
    Still, authors of The Night Eternal know how to keep their readers turning the page.  There can be no question that both writers are seasoned story-tellers, as the book's vehicle of plot travels both fast and efficiently enough to move from point A to B;  there's almost no noticing the lack of character depth or the overabundance of obviously manufactured conflict.
    I'm almost ashamed to say that I'm glad to be finished with the series, but I do recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different in a genre that has become hopelessly stagnant. Writers Chuck Hogan and Guillermo Del Toro have no doubt  brought some fresh blood to the table. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Book Review: The Book Thief

" ... I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt - an immense leap of an attempt - to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it...If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. I will show you something." 

So says Death, the narrator of Mark Zusak's The Book Thief, a young adult novel about a little girl named Liesel Meminger, and all that she experiences as a foster child living in a poor Munich neighborhood during the swell of Hitler's power.
    At its center, The Book Thief is a story about words;  the power that they hold, and that can be released upon the hearts and minds of the living - the power to build and nourish, as well as the power to enslave and destroy. Liesel discovers that power when her foster father begins to teach her to read and write, and it kindles within her an obsession that not only fuels her desire to obtain words when and wherever she can, but also her hatred of the Fuhrer, and the mastery he holds over them.  When the mayor and his wife discontinue Liesel's foster mother's laundering services, it isn't long before Liesel sets her sights upon the mayor's house and the irresistible library of books within...
    Given the setting of The Book Thief, it's no revelation that things turn dark quickly, and having Death as the story's narrator is fitting. The prologue does well to convey this fact soon, though I found Death's over-use of metaphor to be abstruse and pretentious. This malady does even out after the prologue, however, and for me it made the prospect of 552 pages far more appealing. Zusak's personification of Death was refreshing, and his detached and omnipresent observer of human life was keen in its handling.
    Even within the shadow of World War II, the book's description of young life does well to convince the reader that the characters of the book are real children, all with the innocence of youth that would undermine Nazi propaganda and question its imposed authority with wonder. In one such instance, Liesel's friend, the adorable blonde-haired and blue-eyed Rudy Steiner, paints himself with coal and dashes through the town in an effort to imitate his hero, Jesse Owens, an Olympic competitor. It was both uplifting and saddening when, after being apprehended, Rudy's father explained to him that even though there was nothing wrong with idolizing Jesse Owens, he now lived in a society where it simply could not be tolerated. 
    As one might expect, events become ever more tense when Liesel's adoptive father honors a debt from a long-gone Jewish friend by harboring the deceased man's son, Max, within the safety of the Meminger home's basement.  With the war festering the soul of Liesel's neighborhood outside, she and Max develop a bond based on mutual respect and admiration for the power of words. While Max busies himself  by sketching and writing within his notebook, Liesel serves as an ambassador to the outside world. The warmth of their friendship rises from the pages of The Book Thief, and is a balanced contrast to the spreading devastation throughout the rest of Germany.
    In an uncommon change of pace, the author typically chooses to reveal the outcome of events and character fate well before the end of a chapter, and the reader develops a clear idea of the books ending well before the last page. It's my notion that the end of The Book Thief would be evident to even the greatest optimist, and the author's skill as a story-teller shines with his ability to avoid cliche in making the events leading to the story's end the most valuable. 
    All said, The Book Thief is a heavy read - not only is it a hefty volume to carry about, but the full spectrum of emotional content will linger ever on after the completion of its last page.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Book Review: Clockwork

Clockwork is an imaginative young adult novel written by Philip Pullman, author of a most notable trilogy of books, His Dark Materials.
    A slim volume, Clockwork (or, All Wound Up, as it's alternately titled) is a dark fairy tale that chronicles three converging story lines: that of a desperate clockmaker's apprentice, and the Faustian lengths to which he'd travel to save face; a novelist whose ad libbed narrations have sprung into a life of their own; and at last, a boy prince whose fate swings in a strange, pendulum balance. All three timelines coalesce within the winter darkness of a sleepy German village, gathering themselves together for an ending that is poignant and worthy of the classic fairy tale tradition. 
    I was not disappointed by Clockwork. Despite its being a short novel for a younger audience, the story is rife with themes quite serious, and I appreciate the author's attempt to advocate the taking of responsibility for one's failures, a consideration of the price of material obsession, and finally, the worth of remaining human in a society that  has grown alarmingly mechanized.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Review: American Gods

"Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end."

This ancient World has long been the spawning ground of Gods and Deity, each one born from the needs and desires of the hearts and minds of humanity. For thousands of years these Gods have thrived, living to serve and, in turn, receive worship. Now, in the United States of America, a country barely 250 years old, new idols of information and industry are born, raised, and revered, forcing the Old Ones - antiquated Gods of creation, blood, life, and death - to battle for their existence, to fend for the prayers and devotions of their creators like street-side beggars...  

  There are many things to admire about author, Neil Gaiman's, novel - the richness of the story is due to a real sense of interest on the part of the author, and it's easy to realize the depth of research that went into the relationships between the various Gods and their counterparts; this achieves an even greater effect when played out between anthropomorphized depictions of deity and human beings, a trick that Neil Gaiman has honed to a perfection over the past twenty-three years. Fans of the Sandman series of comic books will find that this book shares many of the comic's themes - the power of belief and myth, as well as the concept of adaptation in the face of great change; a process which, when faced by some, can only end in oblivion.

    The plot of the novel is moved forward when Odin, The All-Father of Norse myth, places a tremendous wager upon a man called Shadow, a quiet inmate with a penchant for coin magic and Herodotus, as he believes the man will be pivotal in the inevitable battle of the Old Gods and the New. When circumstances provide Shadow with the both the gift of parole and the grief of personal loss, he reluctantly chooses to aid the gruff yet charming personification of the All-Father, tangling himself in a North-western web of  myth, murder, and all the joys of mass-deicide as he spans the continent towards the south-east's own Rock City.  

    American Gods is a story both original in its inception and, at the same time, evocative of the old-school method of story-telling; often I could very well imagine sitting upon the floor of a warm cottage, listening intently to the ever-archetypal Father read aloud from a large book, its weathered pages spread across His lap and aglow in the light of a roaring fireplace ( incidentally, conjuring Neil Gaiman's voice is perfect for this sort of thing). The real fun for me, as a reader, came in trying to identify all of the various Gods included in Gaiman's novel - the casual reader may have no trouble recognizing many of them; others, such as with the case of Mad Sweeney and his Golden Coin, are written in a more subtle fashion, and interested readers may require further study to appreciate their intricacy.

    As fine a story as American Gods is, I found that the the richness of the novel does make it a paradoxical read, and, at times, a bit frustrating.  Like any involved tale, American Gods does possess its subplots, though there are lengths wherein these aspects of the story take up far too much of the actual book. As a result, boredom throughout the second act and predictability may cause some readers to lose their fascination, and the rewards of seeing the subplot through are anti-climactic at best.

    Apart from those feelings, I will say that the world that I live in has been enriched and enlivened many times over by art and literature, and my perception of its beauty has only been clarified and polished by the work of  Neil Gaiman. The author's most prolific creation, in my opinion, Sandman, brought me to a point of transcendence; I was unaware that there were worlds such as those created within its pages, and I was further unaware that my spirit could be moved to the degree that the twelve-volume comic series moved it. I do feel that my adoration of Sandman raised the bar impossibly high for my expectations of American Gods, and it's for the reason that I'm perhaps biased. I feel very strongly that comics are a medium wherein certain ideas are most vividly and best expressed, and I believe that the shortcomings that I perceived inside of this novel stem from this belief.
    Still, I do insist that this book is well worth reading, and I've always professed that the story is what matters most. Simply, American Gods is one of the best ever written. In the least, I hope this book can give those readers who aren't fans of comics a taste of that transcendence, that same glimpse into the grandeur of the Infinite that Neil Gaiman has provided for me over the years.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Book Review: Blood Meridian

"... Their mouths were dry. The desert upon which they were entrained was desert absolute and it was devoid of feature altogether and there was nothing to mark their progress upon it. The earth fell away on every side equally in its arcature and by these limits were they circumscribed and of them were they locus..."

There are few novels that have  left me in the state of ponderous admiration as has Cormac McCarthy's 1985 work, Blood Meridian. Set in the 1840's of a desolate and depraved western United States, McCarthy's novel  chronicles the journey of a young man known only as 'The Kid' as he flees his home at the age of 14, blowing through Tennessee to Louisiana and then to Texas like some anxious and whiskey laden tumbleweed. When the kid lands himself within the company of the brutal Apache scalp hunting Glanton gang, Blood Meridian takes us even further across America on a journey of derangement and isolation, of horrific violence and savagery, leading across the blue mountains and empty wastes of a land that is only known to me as the Old West.
    At once, the book is shocking in its depictions of the cruelty and lawlessness of the undeveloped frontier lands of our country, much to the point that it could be difficult for some readers to move past. The Kid watches with a remote eye as he takes part in the butchering of the natives that he's been contracted to hunt and kill, and I developed an impression that though he was used to the ferocity, he would neither condemn nor condone its performance. These questions of morality are badgered into further examination by the most prominent member of Glanton's gang,  Holden, or "The Judge" - a swollen and hairless behemoth of a man with a terrifying capacity for existential observation of the carnage about them. About the detached nature of The Kid, the sociopathic Glanton, and the collected but equally murderous Judge, these questions churn, and it is through the repeated and urgent attention to this whirl-wind  that the novel moves forward and eventually into despair and death as Glanton's band is dismantled by defection, murder, and massacre.
    To read Blood Meridian is an exercise in adaptability - McCarthy's prose is immediately provocative, but also somewhat complex in its peculiar lack of traditional punctuation and sentence structure, which may lead the reader to re-examine or re-interpret the cadence of some passages. Still, within McCarthy's style can be found the remnants of something far more romantic, ancient even; a story-telling voice that conjures the feelings of elegant but barbarous antiquity.
    Blood Meridian's themes have been the subject of much scholarly study, and its graphic nature has suffered similar scrutiny. The  ambiguous nature of the protagonist's fate has left quite a bit up to speculation, and it too has been the point of study. Personally, I feel that the  violence is essential to these themes,  and I believe that it's taking place within the expanse of the frontier is symbolic of every man's heart and mind - places that can at times seem devoid of reason or familiarity, full of the hostile, unknown or arcane - each of which space is an infinity given over to finding either some sense of meaning and equanimity within its vastness or perishing at one end or the other of a constant pursuit, all alone and naked within the senseless waste. I do sense that the author fully intended for the reader to determine the outcome for The Kid by novel's end, though I found our final glimpse of the Judge to be far more thought provoking.
    I thoroughly enjoyed Blood Meridian, both as a work of outstanding literature, and for the irreplaceable senses it provided - of being a part of something grand, something enigmatic and forbidden - of some kind of exploratory dream from whose outlandish horror and fascination I wasn't certain that I wanted to wake from.  

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Gift of 'American Gods'

 'American Gods' stands tall in its sexy leather bound majesty.

I received over the weekend, much to my delight, a most wonderful birthday gift - a leather bound edition of Neil Gaiman's American Gods! Who else but my loving fiance, Melody, could have procured such glorious thing?
    American Gods has been on my "to read" list for so long that I'm ashamed to disclose the full depth of my procrastination, and it's a wonder. Mr. Gaiman has done nothing but astonish since I first peeked into 'Preludes and Nocturnes' -  Sandman is a series that moved me entirely, and I hadn't had nearly as much fun with a novel as I did with The Graveyard Book. Fortunately for me, with the mass of rabid Neil Gaiman fans that I may sometimes call friends, I've managed to avoid the giving away of American Gods
    How, pray tell? I will never know. Clearly I was meant to read this book unspoiled...

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Book Review: Life of Pi

*painting by Tomer Hanuka*
Did you know that the term 'Robinsonade'  was coined to describe a work of fiction similar to Daniel Defoe's  1719 English novel, Robinson Crusoe?
    I didn't.
     Come to think of it, I never would have had I not completed Yann Martel's imaginative novel, Life of Pi, the story a young Indian boy name Pi Patel. When Pi's family decides to sell their zoo in Pondicherry, India and emigrate to Canada, Pi is thrilled by the wealth of possibility for new experiences and adventure. Though Pi is a devout Hindu (and  an equal adherent  to Christianity and Islam), no faith prevents the tragedy of his family's ship sinking to the bottom of the Pacific as it chugs towards Canada, pulling into the ocean with it Pi's family, their remaining animals, and everything he knew of his Indian home. Now, castaway in a lifeboat, his only companion a starving and malaised Bengal tiger, Pi must rely not only on the visceral instincts of survival, but also his unwavering faith in God.
    Stranded in a circumference of  horizon, Pi is subject to a world that he'd never imagined - from applying  the knowledge absorbed from an upbringing around wild animals, to renouncing his strict vegetarian diet to feast upon the blood, brains and bellies of sea turtles and fish - a world that only expands as his life seems so hopelessly condensed. Contrary to what I would feel under the weight of such hopelessness, Pi  reflects upon the rishi Markandeya, who "fell out of Vishnu's mouth while Vishnu was sleeping and so beheld the entire universe, everything that there is." Though Pi may have been abandoned by the world of men, he never felt abandoned by its God. Here, it is interesting to note that the Japanese cargo ship on which Pi had been traveling is named Tzimzum, which, as I understand, is a Hebrew term used in Qabalistic texts to describe the method by which God's power begins its creative descent  to the material world.
    Initially, one would think that 319 pages were far too many to describe the 227 days survived at sea by one boy and a Bengal tiger - perhaps even 318 too many. However, it was my delight to find that Mr. Martel did not waste one word in excess, each sentence flowing with a near poetry to match the myriad hue of a life lived at sea, and the prism color of faith, misery, hope, and exaltation. Life of Pi has been the first book in some time that I've actually tried to finish in one sitting, if only because I couldn't bear to put it down.
    Would I consider Life of Pi to be Robinsonade in its telling? Both Crusoe and Pi are castaways, but I think that its fair to end the comparison there. While the former exists as an allegorical representation of European conquest and was eventually led to God, Pi's faith in The Lord of The Universe was ever-present. Part of me believes that it was his sincere desire to know God that delivered him into the swell of the ocean's benevolent hostility, and though he did not initially comprehend why, the time to look closely -  at himself, the world, and our relationship to all life within it.
    Life of Pi gave me something more than I've gotten out of many books of late, apart from an ending that not only satisfied, but left me with further questions. Pi Patel gave me a reason to continue having faith, and to search for those answers - to know that all things, no matter how insignificantly small or incomprehensibly vast - are intricately woven together with equal love within the mind of God.