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.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012


" 'Hoom, hum, I have not troubled about the Great Wars', said Treebeard; 'they mostly concern Elves and Men. That is the business of Wizards: Wizards are always troubled about the future. I do not like worrying about the future. I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays.' " 

Book Review: The Wind Through The Keyhole

One of the things that I always loved about Stephen King's Dark Tower series is the writer's take on the subjectivity of fiction - the truths within lies and the underlying reality of what most would consider figments of the imagination. Here, in his newest book The Wind Through The Keyhole, King has gone one step further, neatly splicing a Mid-World fairy tale within the existing story of Roland and his ka-tet, a sort of "Tower Sandwich", if you will.
    The Wind Through The Keyhole does have its place within the Darker Tower series, despite the author having already spoken to its finality. Fitting nicely between book 4, Wizard and Glass, and book 5,  Wolves of The Calla (King himself mentions in the book's forward that it serves as a Darker Tower 4.5), it can be read as a stand alone novel or easily integrated into the flow of the original seven books. I opted for the latter, and I think that the series is richer for its addition.
The Wind Through The Keyhole picks up directly after the conclusion of Wizard And Glass, and we find Roland, Susannah, Eddie, Jake, and of course, Oy, the Billybumbler, road weary and in great need of rest.  Their journey eventually leads them to  the great River Whye, where Oy's  increasingly odd behavior  catches the attention of the ever-watchful gunslinger, sending his thoughts far across the reaches of his memory to remind him of a great and impending danger. Soon, time is short for Roland and his ka-tet, and  he and his companions must batten down the hatches for what appears to be a storm unlike any of them have every seen.
     Falling deeper into memory, and with the elements raging outside of their makeshift shelter, Roland gathers his friends close to their desperate fire to share another tale of his youth, hoping all the while that they may weather the storm that threatens to level the surrounding town and claim their very lives. 
Spanning a backwards track of time, Roland's tale speaks of his days as a newly made Gunslinger, wherein he and his partner Jaime have been sent to the dust-bowl barony of Debaria to investigate a slough of blood-soaked murders. Several locals have been slaughtered at the hands of a shape-changing skin-man - a depraved being with the ability to take the form of terrible beasts - and it is an orphaned survivor, Bill Streeter, that moves us into the second part of the narrative.
    When the tension rises within the local law enforcement, and with the townspeople growing anxious, Roland does his best to calm the young boy. Deciding to lock himself inside the jail's drunk tank with the lad, Roland begins aloud the story of young Tim Ross - a boy who, similarly, lost his father in the face of great tragedy and peril.
 The Wind Through The Keyhole (wherefrom the novel takes its name) examines the life of Tim Ross within his home village of Tree. Tim lives alone with his Mother, and  he lives for both stories and study. All the while, he wishes desperately that his father had not met his end in the volcanic breath of a dragon during a typical logging trip.
    Eventually, Tim's mother re-marries, and the gruff man that has become his adopted father  leads Tim to believe that his life has taken a turn for the worse. What's more, upon a revealing encounter with the town's grim tax collector, Tim begins to suspect that there is more to his father's demise than what he and his mother were led to believe.
    Spurred on by the cold words of the tax-hunting Covenant Man, Tim musters all of the courage that his eleven year old heart can hold and  ventures out into the surrounding unknowns of the Great Forest. Questing to uncover the truth about his father's death and protect what's left of his family from the man who would keep them apart, Tim begins a journey that will change both Mid-World and his  own destiny forever.
The Wind Through The Keyhole was yet another fantastic journey into Stephen King's Mid-World, and I spent many an hour past my bed time turning page after page. It held many of the same components that made Eyes of The Dragon such a wonderful fantasy experience, but with the addition of the familiar technological presence of North Central Positronics, as well as the Covenant Man's seeming penchant for traveling  through space and time to cause mayhem and ruin.
    Also, if you can't figure out who he is yet, you may want to re-read the series, beginning with The Gunslinger, or possibly even The Stand. If you're a newcomer to the series, you're forgiven - you must, however, prepare yourself for the delicious evil that is the Covenant Man. Young Tim's widowed tutor provides him with this apt warning in regards to our fellow: "...And stay away from that dark man, should he appear to Thee. He's made of lies from boot to crown, and his gospels bring nothing but tears."
    The writing of The Wind Through The Keyhole holds all of its Mid-World luster, much to the point that I found myself speaking that way again (much to the annoyance of others, no doubt), and it really felt like the writer had never truly left that place. It's no small wonder that it was so easy to get back into the swing of The Dark Tower's nuance of speech and custom, and it made the further revelations of Roland's character all the more convincing. Being as that Roland has always been somewhat of an enigma to his fellows, the light cast upon his troubled soul was surprising, refreshing, but not without a touch of melancholy. 
    I'm sorry to say that our time spent with Roland and posse is relatively brief in comparison to the bulk of the novels content, but it was no less time fondly spent.  The story of Tim Ross comprises two thirds of the 336 page book, and about four fifths of that story was a delight; the remaining fifth, I'm afraid to say, I felt was somewhat contrived. I've often heard it said that Stephen King has a bolshy habit of screwing the ending of his stories, but I've never really felt similarly until the reading of this book - and hell, what's one faulty ending out of the dozens of brilliant conclusions King has hammered out?  The yarn was spun quite magically, with the fervor of a real literary aesthetic, but the final strands of Tim's bit seemed to be thrown together hastily, as if the story realized that it needed to have found its end ten pages ago and had to self-terminate in the most dignified manner that it could muster.
    That's not to say, however, that  the dignity with which it collapsed upon itself was at all undistinguished! Moreover, that was only the end of Tim's story - when we move back into the present (past), the youngsters Roland and Jaime have still yet to square off against the genuinely disturbing Skin-man of the Debaria barony...
Whether you buy into the things said about Mr. King's endings or not ( I for one feel like those claims are unsubstantiated rubbish), it should not stop you from reading this book. When it comes to story-telling, Stephen King is truly the master, and The Wind Through The Keyhole is another pristine example of what a captivating story should be.
As the boy Roland spoke to young Bill Streeter to calm him within the jailhouse of Debaria, "A person's never too old for stories...Man and boy, girl and woman, we live for them.'
I know that I certainly do, and The Wind Though The Keyhole was an exceptional reminder.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Book Review: Eyes of The Dragon

When you take into consideration my obsession with Stephen King's 'Dark Tower' series, it's sort of hard to grasp how I let his 1987 work Eyes of The Dragon remain hidden from me. Once I finally picked it up, I was enamored - from the moment of its first word, the book's spell held my rapt attention, and its effect held me entranced long after I placed it back upon the shelf.
    Eyes of The Dragon is a traditional tale of good verses evil, and is spun around a cast of kings, dark wizards, and goodly queens and princes. It's narrated in the third person, and the style is reminiscent of classic fantasy literature - a trait that is far removed from King's established voice, but does little (if anything) to detract from the mastery of the man's craft.
    The story proper takes place in the fantasy realm of Delain, one of the many baronies of the already established Mid-World. Though in what particular time-frame the story takes place in Mid-World's history, we're left to some speculation. Suffice it to say, however, that the tale decidedly did take place "Once upon a time..."
    It had already been revealed to me that the story's main villain was none other than The Walkin' Dude, The Man In Black, or, probably as he's best known, good old Randall Flagg. In Eyes, however, he is a magician known simply as "Flagg". While this knowledge hardly seemed surprising, it was the king whom Flagg served that really threw me for a loop.
The King of Delain is one Roland Delain - a dark haired, blue-eyed man of whose slow logic and aptitude for battle and adventure is overtly familiar to those acquainted with Mid-World, and it begs the question of whether or not it is a distant relative of a particular Knight of Eld, or if we're only reading along yet another similar yet parallel level of The Beam.
King Roland is the widower of queen Sasha, the mother of his two sons, Peter and Thomas. Aid and advisor to Roland is the magician, Flagg, whose secret desire for control of the realm is barely kept sub rosa.
    Peter, Roland's eldest and heir to the throne, is introduced as a sort of paragonal good, and it's even mentioned at one point that he may herald the Coming of The White - another nod to the Tower. Treasured by his father, Peter leaves no doubt as to the sort of King he will become, and he may be the last bit of good queen Sasha that is left in the kingdom of Delain.
    Unfortunately for Peter, his brother, Thomas, is not held in as high regard by his father. More slow of wit and temperament, Thomas has grown disillusioned in his older sibling and his father, his feelings poisoned by rejection and the belief that he will never reach the heights of their success - feelings that the nefarious Flagg will no doubt exploit to the ultimate fruition of the story's conflict. Flagg has already sabotaged Roland's family once to the purpose of attaining his ends, and he eventually frames Peter for a murder he did not commit, imprisoning him high and away inside a cold, lonely tower. Crowning Thomas as the new king, Flagg works desperately to maintain his awful hold upon both Thomas and the kingdom of Delain - keeping an ever watchful eye out for those who would oppose his dark will. 
    There are many reasons why I thought his book was amazing, but the one thing that stood out most is the very thing that truly shines  in most of King's work. A lot of the time, his stories demonstrate the ambiguous and often blurred line between fate and random happenstance; luck and providence, even. Perhaps the better word to describe the force that would tip the scale in this statement would be 'destiny'.
I'm a great admirer of this aspect of the author's work, and its presence in Eyes of The Dragon is no exception. Tempting though it may be to share with you the best example of this, it does not seem advisable; part of the wonder of this book is in the simplicity of its story, and to divulge even that part would be to unravel the whole for you, like the frayed edges of so many royal crested linen napkins...
    The book's theme, however, I will touch upon. Its representation of good and evil -  the ever-raging battle of the Blackened and empty heart against that of the wholesome White - holds just enough gray around the edges of the battle field as to not bore the reader completely. It may be the one explicit instance of a gray area that exists between good and evil that, I believe, could be the hinge upon which this story unfolds. Good and bad are opposites of the same polarity, but what do we know of physics in this regard?
Often, King both surprises and delights me with his apparent esoteric wisdom, and I believe that in this book there may be a (strong) suggestion as to the necessity of synthesis between opposing forces or ideals, and that it is within the actions of the in-between that can more effectively eradicate the line dividing destiny and chance.
    As for the story's faithful narrator might say, "I leave that to you, reader, to decide".

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Book Review: Neverwinter

Once more, I've delved into the fantastic world of Dungeons and Dragon's setting of the Forgotten Realms with R.A. Salvatore's new book, Neverwinter.
    Picking up mere ten days after the close of the first book of the trilogy, Gauntylgrym, we follow our hero Drizzt Do'Urden as he is forced to cope with the cataclysmic events that closed the previous book. Treachery and fire having sundered his ties to The Companions of The Hall , Drizzt has been given the freedom to strike out on his own and begin anew.
    Though he knows precious little about the deadly and enigmatic Elf with whom he's become acquainted through the events of Gauntlygrym, Drizzt nonetheless partners with Dhalia Sin'felle, a fierce warrior whose skill in combat may rival that of his own. Her hand in the chaos that has befallen Drizzt is still ambiguous, however, and it's both Drizzt's fascination and suspicion that press  to keep her within his company.  Deciding upon the mutually beneficial goal of investigating the port city of Luskan, the two resolve to work together to uncover a clue to the whereabouts of the Drow mercenary Jarlaxle.
 It doesn't take Drizzt or Dhalia any time to see that Luskan has fallen far from once proud heights. Much has changed since the city fell under control of ruling pirate lords, and any welcome Drizzt may have once received has long run out. Ambushed by a host of vengeful pirates and coming uncomfortably close to an unforeseen demise, the twosome find themselves within instant conflict.  If not for an opposing house of "privateers", the formidable duo may  very well have met their end. Now, believing that Drizzt and Dhalia are indebted, the privateers of the ruling House Kurth have reached out to the Elf companions, imploring them to render their mutually devastating talents to the service of the High Captain of their house. 
    An intriguing offer, to be certain, and most likely profitable. However, will the honorable Drizzt Do'Urden find the pirates life to be one of fulfillment and moral certainty?
    This  question, along with many others, is more than examined during the course of Bob Salvatore's second installation of his new trilogy, Neverwinter. For, unbeknownst to the two elves, Syllora Salm and the evil Tzaz Tam, the Thayan villains of Gauntylgrym, have regrouped within their accursed Dread Ring,  amassing an army of undead horror. Not only will the two elves have these former adversaries to contend with when they inevitably cross paths, but also the Tiefling warlord Herzgo Alegni, who has entrenched himself deep within Neverwinter and has his within his power a deadly servant with whom Drizzt Do'Urden is most intimately familiar.
    I enjoyed reading Neverwinter far more than its predecessor, but it still seemed lacking to me. There's been a certain sense of mediocrity within the last several pages of Drizzt Do'Urden novels, and the moral rhetoric just feels tired and over-bearing these days. The progression of Drizzt's moral code has long been his driving force as a character, but instead of evolving it only seems to drag along rutted circles. The character of Dhalia is interesting, certainly, but as any long-time fan of the series can tell you, she only serves as the moralistic mirror off of which the Drow ranger bounces his conflicted feelings and ethics. While this is not a glaring travesty in the face of good fiction, it just isn't what I'm looking for anymore.
    Nearly twenty books into a franchise, some things never change. There's got to be some reason that we keep coming back, though. Right?
    Sparing every doubt, it is Salvatores's ability to so effectively create a skirmish inside the mind of the reader - from a sword duel in the shadows, to open combat in the streets of a crowded Calimport, all the way across the board to full scale assault between massive armies - that keeps me coming back.  Every blade stroke is masterfully accounted for, every  maneuver dictated with eloquence; the author's dutiful attention to combat, the true essence of Dungeons and Dragons, cannot be ignored. It's no small wonder that the author himself  regularly attends fencing meets and martial arts competitions to better research and portray his blade savvy characters, a dedication which I, for one, am grateful.
    Putting aside the tendency to nit-pick, I'll say that if you're at all a fan of the genre, you will like this book - it's everything we've come to both love and expect from Bob Salavatore, with a couple of extra surprises that you may not see coming. And hey, even if you do, it's entirely worth it to see all of those particular blades spinning and slicing side by side again.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Book Review: A New Earth

Whenever one sets out for something at least resembling truth, I've always found it best to take the bulk-gathering approach;  sifting through reams of alleged facts, and then separating the muddled chaff of opinion from the sweet-tasting wheat of similarity. While similarity itself my not be the truth, placing it under review is  apt to point you in a more favorable direction in service of your pursuit.
    Having just finished my reading of, author, Eckhart Tolle's book  A New Earth, I've got to say that the aforementioned practice of separation has served me well. Borrowing from one of the more prominent biblical verses, the book's title offers a somewhat misleading, yet no less profound glimpse into it's depth of content, and shouldn't be written off at a glance as yet another heap of pseudo-spiritual self-help.
The work deals primarily with our species and it's wonderfully detailed and strikingly imaginative self-concept or ego - imaginative in that it's just that - not at all real.  Exploring ideas and philosophies ranging from Zen Buddhism, Gnostic Christianity, Taoism, as well as Hindu teachings from the Bhagavad Gita, the author seeks to illustrate that we are not the preconceived notions of ourselves, but instead a vast and interpenetrating consciousness that is the formless space wherein the very thoughts of who we are reside.  The author proposes that if we were to focus our awareness onto that space within ourselves - to become present inside of it - then we could all as one people progress and become transcendent.
    It cannot be over-stated that Tolle's A New Earth deserves a crowbar separation from the new-age jargon that seems to have infected the news-stands and bookstore shelves over the past ten years, and should be recognized as the product of an individual who spent ample time studying and reflecting. A graduate of the University of London, Tolle is a speaker of three languages, and has studied both literature and psychology, as well as astronomy. In my opinion, the man who wrote this book  has clearly done his own seeking, his own bulk-gathering of scientific theories and so called 'fundamental truths' from around the globe, then spent an even lengthier time sorting the similarities and constructing a road-map, or what the writer himself refers to as 'Signs That Point To The Truth'. This was something new to me, as I'd never read any other work that appeared so ethical, so unbiased.
    Having myself come from a background of Qabalistic study and practice, it may seem as if my opinion of the book is one of heavy bias;  that it only  reiterates the concepts with which I've become familiar. I tell you now that it's more than a reiteration to me. There are times, in study or practice, that it's all I can do to hang on to one thread of comprehension. A New Earth reflected many ideas that I've examined over the years, but it did so in a way and with such clarity that I had never known before.
    It can be an extraordinarily complex world at times, and there's almost an equally frustrating amount of tomes, texts, and self-made guru's out there just waiting to prove to you the effects of Sturgeon's Law. If you'd like to put Dr. Phil or Madonna on hold for just one minute - just one - you could do no worse than read this book. I was moved, and you can ask anyone - I'm hard to humble.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Book Review: Let The Right One In

I'm very pleased to say that I had the privilege of reading John Ajvide Lindqvists's novel, Let The Right One In. I didn't intend to read another work of vampire fiction, but my lovely fiancee chose it for me in an attempt to cleanse my literary palette (see the last review for the awful details), and she couldn't have offered a book better suited to the task.
    Set  in the author's native Sweden during the 1980's, the story is told from the perspective of a twelve year old boy named Oskar. Timid and very much a solitary lad, Oskar lives with his mother inside the town of Blackeberg, a manufactured suburb of Sweden's working class. Things change for Oskar, though, when he encounters the thin, quiet girl that has moved in next door to him. Immediately, she offers him an explanation - "We can't be friends, and that's the way it is."
    A blunt, but honest statement? Or A Warning?
    Chill and bleak, the story unfolds in a garish juxtaposition of blood and empathy. Oskar, driven by his loneliness and curiosity, befriends the young girl, Eli, against her warning. As the two grow closer,  violence begins to seep from the snow and shadows around the town of Blackeberg. Oskar begins to wonder about his new friend, and why she doesn't leave her windowless apartment until after night has fallen and the sun has disappeared...
    It didn't take long for me to fall in love with this story - the author's tone is clipped but direct, and the somewhat staccato prose paints a minimalist but enamoring image of a youth spent in fear of being alone forever, and the pain of existing at the mercy of both sadistic peers and loved ones alike.  Further, the dim, gray-scale backdrop of Blackeberg serves as an effective mirror to the even darker themes of the book. Stalking around notions of addiction, pedophilia, and the pain of loneliness and lust,  Let The Right One In  may not be for everyone. There were definite moments when I became uncomfortable, and I wondered if I could - or should - go on. I do believe, though, that it's the ability of an author to raise such surges of emotional reactivity that defines and sets them apart, and Lindqvist no doubt excels in this craft.
    Let The Right One In is not without its subplots and supporting characters, and each is vital to the story proper in all of the right ways. I don't think that it would be a kindness to divulge every detail here, but I will say that I am partial to the tale of Lacke and the Blackeberg dive wherein locals Morgan, Larry and Gösta discover that one of their number has become victim of a violent murder. Grief stricken to the point of near sobriety, Lacke's pursuit of the truth surrounding the horror growing around him leads to grim realizations. When Lacke's would-be girlfriend is likewise savaged, his drive for vengeance brings an unwitting threat to the fast bond growing between young Oskar and Eli.
The tale of Lacke's  lone determination to rise from the dredges of alcoholism to avenge the murder of his friend is a superb example of Lindqvist's talent. The plot is interwoven into that of Eli and Oskar's with an effective aesthetic, bringing with it themes of discipline and love, obsession and sacrifice; a synthesis of ideals that beautifully highlights the main storyline without appearing contrived or forced from a veritable pulpit.
    Reading this book changed the way that I interpret a great many things in fiction - horror and suspense, to be sure, but also romance and the sometimes indefinable line between love and sexuality. The apparent youth of some of the characters, paired with the age of others, helped to make these lines feel more thin - more real - until they were perhaps erased all together.
    By  books end, I must confess that I felt used up and somewhat empty, but it was not without a supreme appreciation for the depth of love and personal energy that I believe the author placed into his work. If vampire love stories are your particular vein of entertainment, you may find that this book suits your tastes. However, you must prepare yourself to be vulnerable, and to be moved - and, at times, very disturbed.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review: Twilight

Written by author Stephanie Meyer, 'Twilight' is a young adult novel that explores the life of seventeen year old Isabella Swan and the difficult decisions she must face when she finds that she's fallen into an unexpected romance with Edward Cullen, an older boy - a one hundred and four year old boy - who also happens to be a vampire.  If that doesn't sound thrilling enough, trouble erupts very quickly in their forbidden paradise when Edward realizes that he can barely resist the urge to drain her sweet life's blood, an action that would most certainly change her from a  socially awkward and slightly misanthropic  teen to an even more awkward and far less interesting corpse.
    Reading 'Twilight' was a unique and unexpected experience for me. Like Bella, I too found it  difficult to navigate my way through the mire of uncertainty that she traverses while trying to stay alive and win her beloved's heart. Not only does Mrs. Meyer display an over-use of less than creative adverbs (a Cullen femme's wildly curly dark hair springs to mind), but she also seems unsure of which narrative tense she wanted to use throughout the course of the story.  The moments that I had to re-read certain passages to grasp the flow of information were both numerous and bothersome.
    Existing in it's paperback form at five hundred and forty-four pages (that's four hundred and nine-eight for you hardback fans), 'Twilight' does very little to carry its reader to the climax of the story, making the  task of finishing it a trying one. The first three quarters of the novel are spent in a tiresome back and forth between Bella and Edward, with Bella affirming the validity of her love for the vampire teen, only to have him skirt around the notion of a serious relationship. Of course, all of this takes place with Edward consistently and casually reminding Bella that he could essentially murder her at any given time.  While I'm sure that this sort of banter is marvelous for a fourteen year old girl, it gives rise to a glaring violation of traditional story telling - a distinct lack of a villain or antagonist.
 While one could argue that the forbidden love between Bella and Edward is the story's true conflict,  the fact remains that the actual villains of the story are not introduced until less than a quarter of the way from the end of the book.  Granted, there was a bit of foreshadowing via reports of alleged "bear attacks" in the forests outside the story's town, but it was so vague and sparse that it's easily forgotten, leaving the reader a bit confused as to who these new characters are when they appear or how they're remotely relevant to the story.  What's more, the exposition of the main antagonist  who wants to slowly torture and murder our main character for sport,  describes him only as "average and nondescript."
    I'm sorry. What?
     You mean to tell me that the vampire who has taken Bella captive, intentionally trying to ruin the life of our  main point of view character, is described in such a way as to evoke absolutely no emotional response from me?
    Even by looking at all of the above with a forgiving eye, it's hard to see past Bella's inevitable  rescue at the chalk-white hands of dear Edward. Further, when you see that the whole novel was barely anything more than Edward saving ( i.e.  clutching, hauling, or domineering ) Bella, it's really just not much of a surprise by the end. In point of fact, I don't believe that I've ever been more relieved to reach the end of a novel.
    There are very few redeeming qualities to be found within this book. There is not one character inside of 'Twilight' that exceeds more than two dimensions, and the author's ability to construct a coherent paragraph leaves much to be desired. If you factor in the utter lack of imagination when it comes to character description ( I think that I read Edward's face described as "perfect" at least six hundred and seventy-two times) and the unfortunate truth that there really is no solid story structure, 'Twilight' should by all right have never gotten to see the light of published day, sparkling pseudo-vampires or no. 
    If I could think of only one way to describe this novel to anyone, it would more than certainly have to be "average and nondescript".

Monday, March 5, 2012

Book Review: The Strain

I knew that I'd found a winner in writer/director Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Strain when I realized that I didn't want to be left alone while reading it. You can bet that it went double when the light of the sun traded spaces with the night and its unknowns...
    Quite fittingly, night is where our story begins, along a lonely stretch of JFK tarmac where a derelict aircraft has arrived from Europe. Landing with no apparent signal or notification,  the craft is finally boarded by a CDC response team when bio-terrorism is suspected.
The consternation upon boarding the craft is eminent - all but four passengers are D.O.A. No sign of a struggle or violence. The only other discovery made upon the ghost aeroplane is an elongated and ornate box carved from ebony and filled with rich, black earth...
    If the above set up doesn't sound vaguely familiar, then consider yourself shamed. If it does jingle the bells of recognition for you, don't worry - the writers of The Strain have done more than cut and paste a re-telling of Bram Stoker's classic Dracula. In a keen genre-bending twist, the writers have managed to merge supernatural mythos with modern day paranoia - the cursed blood of the damned has merely been enhanced by the microbe terror of disease and pandemic outbreak.
    The Strain initially focuses on the characters Dr. Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather and his assistant Nora Martinez, the two leaders of the Canary response team responsible for investigating Flight 777. As the pair come closer in their investigation to uncovering what looks to be a massive conspiracy involving a dying billionaire's hellish quest for immortality, Dr. Goodweather finds that he has been blacklisted, thus transforming him into a fugitive on the run from his own government.
While Eph and Kelly dodge the spooks of ghost agencies and government officials, their desperation leads them to the Van Helsing of this story, Professor Abraham Setrakian. A Holocaust survivor of Romanian Jewish decent, Setrakian's haunted past may serve to aid them all in their mutual struggles against the forces of death, as he is one who has encountered the master strigoi and survived. As the city crumbles beneath the weight of spreading infection and death, the renegade vampire-hunting team must make the stand that no one else can.   
    I had a great difficulty putting this book down, but it was not without it's disappointment. The only downside that I found within the 401 pages of The Strain was a certain dryness of the actual characters themselves. At times, it was all I could do to remain convinced of their depth, instead hoping to get back to the horror in the form of Del Toro's God-awful monstrosities. Eph's drives, by way of instance, are a tad formulaic, and it shows in the form of hurried narration and tired dialogue. The vampires, by way of contrast, are given ample attention by way of description, and their motivations are more than clear. After all, how could they not be?
The vampires in The Strain are far from the ethereal beauty of Anne Rice's blood drinkers, or the European romance of Dracula. More akin to Del Toro's monsters from the Blade franchise, these nasties are hairless, red-eyed  abominations, all smooth skin and alabaster, with an elongated talon in place of a middle finger.
The creatures' distinct  feeding habits are a demonstration in grotesquery also. Instead of fangs, the ghouls are equipped with a six-foot long stinger that's rooted beneath the tongue, an instrument that not only extracts blood, but infects the victim as well. With paper thin hide, the capillary worms that carry the disease can be seen wriggling beneath the surface of their skin - just the right touch of gut-turning detail.
    The ways in which The Strain mirror Bram Stoker's work are complimentary,certainly.  I felt like I was going to be disappointed by such a stark borrowing of story, but the narrative is chock full of the style that I've come to admire so strongly in Del Toro ( the immaculate and near-perfect Pan's Labyrinth comes to mind).  As for author Chuck Hogan, I can't say that I'm familiar with his work, but I do know that his novel Prince of Thieves was used as the basis for the Hollywood production The Town.  For what it's worth, The Strain carries with it a highly cinematic feel - however, I imagine that this particular quality owes more to the input of Mr. Del Toro.
    Despite the aggravation of only slightly unbelievable characters, this book was one of the best that I'd read in some time. Even with the Dracula template, The Strain brings its own dynamic and themes, and I believe that they reflect the story with a perfect symmetry. While the story does skirt around the edges of the supernatural or occult, it's still quick to illustrate the depth of human knowledge in the face of the unknown. As Eph's wife observes during a total solar eclipse that precedes the carnage of The Strain, " ... but how could any sentient being not imbue it with some significance, positive or negative, religious or psychic or otherwise? Just because we understand how something works doesn't necessarily mean that we understand it..."
    I couldn't agree more.
    If you're still digging the vampire fiction wave, then I highly suggest that you catch The Strain. I guarantee, you won't be sorry.  You may, however, not wish to turn out the light.