Thursday, June 28, 2012

Desert Places

The edition of Blake Crouch's Desert Places which I got on my kindle has two endings, neither of which is totally satisfactory.  This isn't some sort of meta-fictional game, like Fowles' French Lieutenant's Woman.  Instead, we have the story as published, and Crouch's original idea which all the publishers rejected.

In both cases, we have a seemingly omniscient psychopathic bad guy tormenting protagonist Andrew.  The published version just leaves it at that.  Bad guys are scary, and that's just the way it is.  They can watch your every move, track your private conversations, and survive weather conditions that would kill anyone else.  On the one hand, this is an exciting way to run a story, but as soon as I stopped to think about it, my suspension of disbelief was gone.

The original ending actually has a good explanation for what's going on, but it's so obvious that I figured it out 10 pages in, leaving me a good 90 pages of fairly tedious reading to see if I was right.  Crouch is no Chuck Palahniuk.

I've started the sequel, but I don't see myself finishing it (I've already taken a break to start another book).  It's one thing to have an explicitly supernatural antagonist; it's a whole other thing to have a supposed human who's able to survive being shot and left to die in subzero temperatures more than 10 miles from the nearest habitation.  That's no longer scary, it's just pointless.

She Nailed a Stake Through His Head: Tales of Biblical Terror

She Nailed a Stake Through His Head: Tales of Biblical Terror has a title somewhat belied by its contents.  To me, the title seems to promise looking at the bible stories through a slightly different lens, in which they're actually scary, but at the same time, it seems to me a bit of a tongue-in-cheek title.

The stories themselves are mostly not funny (although one is).  They're a bit of a grab-bag, from fairly direct retellings of biblical stories (Ruth as a vampire, Jonah as a disciple of cthulhu) to ones very loosely inspired by the original (Daniel as a modern-day poet brought in to help with forecasting the future at the firm of Bell, Chase, and Her).  This last was a good story in its own right, and I quite enjoyed it.  The Ruth story was good.  Cathrynne Valente had a story, and, despite the fact that I usually enjoy her writing, I didn't like it at all.

All in all, I'm glad I gave it a try.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one I can talk about without worrying whether I'm giving anything away.  For better or for worse, we all come to this novel already knowing what the twist ending is going to be, which is a bit of a pity.

I tried to read it with blinders on, as if this were a new novel I'd never heard of, which is a difficult thing to do.  The first thing that becomes apparent is that (as the title implies), Stevenson has structured the story something like a mystery novel, in which we don't know the connection between Jekyll and Hyde until the last pages.  On the other hand, a reader can never penetrate the mystery unless he already knows the answer -- there's no rational answer to be found in the text.

And I think that's ultimately part of what drives this story -- the limits of rationality.  Jekyll's rationality holds Hyde in check (as our rationality holds our internal Hydes in check), but cannot kill him.  Further, although we see Jekyll's evil side in Hyde, we never see a wholly good side.  For dramatic purposes, perhaps, a wholly good character is not so interesting, but there are probably ways around that.  Rather, I think that it's an essential part of the somewhat pessimistic point of view of the story; although an evil side can exist by itself, it's not really clear what a completely good side would even look like.  The Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy is not so much good/evil as it is rational/evil.  And yet it's Jekyll's rationality that leads him to freeing Hyde.

For such a short book, there's a lot to think about packed into its pages.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist was one of the first books by Dickens that I read, back in the day.  I should say, started to read, because I couldn't get more than halfway through before giving up.  But in the past couple of years, I've read and enjoyed a few books by Dickens, so I figured I'd give it another try.

I know that Oliver Twist is one of Dickens' best-loved books, but for the life of me I don't see why.  It's not a terrible book, but I felt like it has neither the depth of, say, Great Expectations or the humor of Nicholas Nickleby.  I will say that the penultimate chapter (Fagin's last day on Earth) is very good.  But that's balanced out by the fact that Oliver himself is a cipher, the love story (such as it is) is boring, and the good guys are generally interchangeable.

I'm leaving out the standard Dickens faults, like the extended use of coincidence, because I like the other novels even though they're just as bad on that front.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sharpe's Prey

Sharpe's Prey seems to exist primarily to fill in the hole between Sharpe's Trafalgar and Sharpe's Rifles.  Which doesn't necessarily make it a bad book; rather, it seems a little atypical, in that Sharpe has no particular reason to be in this story.  Sharpe ends up in Denmark during the second British bombardment of Copenhagen.  This part of history was new to me, and Cornwell does a great job bringing it to life.  So from that standpoint, the book is a success.

As a whole, the book is a bit of a downer, which is different from the others.  The British come across as the bad guys, even within the system of 18th century morality.  And it's as much as stated that Sharpe's love interest will be executed once he's in no position to hear about it.  In short, a good novel, just not really what I was expecting.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Out of the Sun

Out of the Sun is a followup to Robert Goddard's Into the Blue.  In that novel, perennial loser Harry Barnett ends up foiling an evil plot and saving the girl, who then says "so long" and leaves.  Out of the Sun picks up some time later, and Harry is still a loser.

I think Harry's character arc is probably the best thing about Out of the Sun.  Although Harry can be resourceful, it's also hard to break the habits developed over a life-time of life beating him down.  Whether it's a case of events conspiring against him (his partner embezzling from their joint business) or Harry sabotaging himself (drinking his life away), things don't work out for him.  So he's taken a very slacker attitude, choosing not to care about anything.  Even when, as in this novel, he decides he wants to care, it's hard for him  to stop sabotaging his own efforts, and this was one of the big sources of suspense -- is Harry going to stop himself, aside from any external issues?

Sword of the Lictor

The Sword of the Lictor is the third of Gene Wolfe's book of the New Sun.  Severian is slowly maturing; near the start of the novel he helps an innocent escape instead of executing her.

This novel also has one of the most obvious Christian parallels, where Severian is taken up on high and offered dominion over the world, albeit in a science fictional context.  At the same time, there's an interesting twist, in that Severian kills the Satan-figure with the equivalent of a karate move, something I don't think we see in the biblical version.  I think this illustrates the complexity of the biblical parallels with BotNS -- Severian is not himself supposed to be Christ, he's merely a man trying to do good and bring light to a fallen world.

Iliad, book 24

I finally reached the last book!  Zeus sends Tethis to Achilles to tell him to ransom Hector's body, and he sends Iris to Priam to tell him that he may go retrieve Hector's body.

Lots of powerful speeches here.  Apollo's protest to the gods at the way they permit Achilles to remain obdurate, Tethis's reminder to her son that grief cannot replace food or rest, Hecabe's protest to Priam that she doesn't want him to go to the Greek camp are all very strong.  We also see Zeus here as the conciliator, finding a middle ground between Apollo and Hera, honoring Achilles without dishonoring Hector.

Richardson comments that book 24 looks forward to the Odyssey, where both have scenes of gods complaining to Zeus about the gods' unjust treatment of mortals, and I found that really interesting as well.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Red Tree

Caitlin Kiernan's The Red Tree falls into the long tradition of the horror novel as journal, often with a preface telling us how the journal came to be found, although its writer is no longer with us.

These novels depend on mood even more than most horror novels, because the final confrontation has to take place off-stage, after the journal has ended.  Not only that, but everything has to happen in retrospect, so to speak, because the journal entries must be after-the-fact.  So these stories rely on the journal entries to slowly build a sense of dread, even as not much may be happening in the outside world.

The Red Tree is an excellent exemplar of the form, with the eponymous red tree a spooky presence through the whole book without itself doing anything overt.  Kiernan has given us a bit of a modernist twist by making the journal unreliable -- Sarah, its author, has mental issues, and admits to making things up.  Even so, I think we're supposed to "believe" in most of the journal, even if only as an insight into Sarah's slide into madness.

I also think this book will repay another read-through; a lot of it has a sort of dream logic that feels like it will make more sense later.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White is absolutely amazing so far (2/3 of the way through).  I've known for a long time that Collins is the "other" Victorian popular writer (he was Dickens's rival), but, although I've read a fair amount of Dickens, I never got round to reading Collins.

I decided to take a chance on it when audible was doing a 3-for-2 deal, and I wanted the other two anyway, and I started this book expecting not to be so impressed, but I was very wrong.  The novel starts out a bit slowly, but within an hour I was hugely enjoying it. First off, Marian Halcombe is one of the best female characters I've run into by a male Victorian writers.  She's more interesting than just about Dickens female, not to mention Henry James's Isabel Archer.  She's funny, opinionated, and bold, and I enjoyed her diary section very much.

Which brings me to the second thing I'm enjoying.  Collins has a different character narrate each section of the novel, each with a different voice -- this is something I expect more out of modernist fiction than the Victorians, and I was pleasantly surprised.  Given a paragraph by any of these characters, one could immediately assign it to the right one.  (Granted, some of them, like the housekeeper are more of a type than a character, but others are really well done).

Third, I'm finding the novel suspenseful, even though it should by rights be pretty creaky stuff by now.  The Woman in White is one of the earliest suspense novels, and the whispered conversations, conniving husband, mysterious foreigner, etc, should are all rather old hat.  And yet...  I found myself wanting to play some sections at double speed so that I could find out the resolution (though I've managed to resist so far).

Of course, the novel has its faults, in particular the villains who are pretty much a type.  Although the villainous Italian count is an interesting enough schemer that he's fun to read about anyway.