Archive for February, 2012

24
Feb
12

CBR4 #14: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

As much as I like them, I will admit that most zombie books are basically the same. Usually, they start out with things being normal, then the zombie apocalypse happens, the survivors are thrown into disarray, and eventually they band together and try to fight back after discovering that no help is on the way and the only people they can rely on are themselves. Lucky for me (and probably you too) this book is different.

This is the story of a man who is nicknamed Mark Spitz. Before the zombies took over the world, he was perfectly average. No matter what he did, he always ended up in the comfortable middle of things. He was neither very good or very poor at anything. Then the world fell apart and it turned out that he was good at surviving, if nothing else.

When the story starts, Mark and his teammates Kaitlyn and Gary are employed as “sweepers”. At the time, the government has been reestablished, and things are starting to proceed forward with all the grace and expediency one can expect from a burgeoning bureaucracy. The Marines had come in and cleared a large part of Manhattan of the rampaging dead, building a wall around their clear area. Now the teams of sweepers must go through and eliminate any stragglers. “Stragglers” are zombies who don’t eat or chase, but just remain frozen like statues in some aspect of their former lives–opening the copy machine, standing on a corner waiting for a (long burned-out) light to change, window-shopping through a broken, empty window. The idea is to make this part of the city inhabitable again.

The frame of the story takes place over the course of three days, filled out with many flashbacks from Mark Spitz’s life. He also spends time philosophically musing over the state of the earth and his place in it, and what place the zombies might have in the future of the country.

The writing in this was great (I read it directly after Johnny Gruesome and the adjustment was a little tough, because the language in this was so dense and full of top-shelf vocabulary). I identified with each of the characters, all of whom were distinct and relateable. Mark Spitz’s voice is great, defined by a certain cynical humor. The story was sometimes confusing due to the lack of chronology, but it always came back together and moved on in a new direction. The plot was also very original and different than a lot of the other entries in this genre. In general, this was just a great book to read. I highly recommend it.

24
Feb
12

CBR4 #13: Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R. A. Scotti

This past summer, there was a lot of hullabaloo about hurricane Irene. The idea of a hurricane hitting all the way up in here in New England with any kind of strength seemed somewhat ridiculous. Hurricanes are a southern thing, right? Something that people in Florida and Louisiana and places along the coast down there have to worry about, not those of us in Boston! Turns out, that wasn’t true this summer, and it certainly wasn’t true in September of 1938, either.

R.A. Scotti has put together an informative, well-researched book about what happened when a giant hurricane struck along the northern Atlantic coast. Due to lack of communication between the few weather tracking bureaus at the time, no one expected the storm. It hit as a category five, with an unimaginable fury: destroying hundreds of houses, uprooting trees, derailing trains, killing numerous people, and changing the landscape of the New England coast forever.

The author tells the stories of several groups who managed to weather the storm, riding on the storm surge on cars, a roof that had torn free, or even a set of outdoor steps. As a result of the devestation, the federal government began to make reforms in how weather was predicted and how knowledge could be shared in order to avoid such a tragedy in the future.The storm’s ferocity and unexpected arrival was a terrifying reminder at the time that although men were making great strides in technology, nature could still be unpredictable and destructive.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in disaster history or in the science of hurricanes.

17
Feb
12

CBR4 #12: Johnny Gruesome by Gregory Lamberson

(Here thar be spoilers, me hearties. Though if you read this review and are still tempted to read the book, I’ve clearly done it wrong.)

You may have noticed in the course of the hundreds of reviews I’ve done over the past few years that there have been very few books to which I’ve had a strong negative reaction. Mostly I can find SOMETHING likable about each story.  If a story has something going for it — interesting plot, relateable characters, gripping language–I am willing to overlook a lot. I can suspend my disbelief if I think it might be worth it. I can even appreciate things that are bad, as long as they are bad with aplomb. (Hence my Nicolas Cage obsession, obviously.) Even things that I don’t particularly like, I mostly feel pretty “meh” about. I don’t get worked up into Lewis Black-style rage.

Johnny Gruesome is the rare exception to that rule.

Eric is a senior in high school, and his best friend is Johnny Grissom. They have been best friends since elementary school, even though Evan is more traditional and Johnny is a bit of a rebel and trouble-maker (He likes heavy metal music and has LONG HAIR!) One night, Eric and Johnny are out with Johnny’s girlfriend Karen and their friend Gary, and there’s a car accident. Johnny gets a little crazy, and Gary kills him, despite Eric’s somewhat pathetic efforts to the contrary. The three teenagers decide to make it look like an accident, so they push Johnny and his car into the freezing river. Then he comes back and starts killing EVERYONE!

This is the basis of the plot. There are some minor subplots that go nowhere, but for the most part it’s just Johnny killing people he doesn’t like. And Eric doping around not knowing what’s going on for 90% of the book.

Let’s look at some reasons this book is bad:

1. Plot: Most of the main characters are in no danger most of the way through. They’re barely even threatened for the first half. Johnny instead spends some time changing his clothes and hanging out before heading out to kill a bunch of characters we’ve perhaps seen once. Johnny kills the local priest who apparently maybe molested him. He kills some of the guys on the wrestling team who were douchey to him when he was alive. He kills everyone who works at the funeral home, as he felt they violated him somehow while preparing him for his funeral. He sexually assaults his home room teacher. He murders Eric’s girlfriend, whom he liked when he was alive. He kills Karen and Gary. And then he tries to kill Eric. Luckily, Eric manages to escape with the help of the home room teacher and her husband the “acting” police chief (a big deal is made about how he’s not really the chief, but it’s one of those subplots that goes nowhere). Then he traps Johnny in the river because he read on the internet that ghosts can’t get out of flowing water. Seriously. That is the plot. Johnny spends the majority of his time in his room at his house being pissed off, going out occasionally to kill people and get moisturizer to keep his skin from all rotting off (I AM NOT KIDDING).

2. The writing is bad. This book is written like it’s a YA novel, except the dialogue, drug use, sexual situations, and graphic violence make it totally inappropriate for children. It’s not a stylistic choice, as far as I can tell. I think the author is just kind of dumb. I mean, he’s happy to describe a woman having her head pulled open with a crowbar, but expressing any true emotional impact or interesting extraneous detail is apparently beyond him. Actually, the only time he even makes any real attempt at description is when he’s going for a gross out–whether it’s stuffing the local rich jerk’s decapitated head in a deflated basketball, the aforementioned crowbar assault, sodomizing the priest, or Johnny trying to kiss the homeroom teacher with his rotting tongue. Perhaps if he’d put even a smidge of that energy into creating a passable environment or believable dialogue or subtlety of emotion he might have ended up with a better book.

3. The characters were poorly fleshed out. Their motivations didn’t make sense, and sometimes were directly contradictory. Before death, Johnny was a rebel, but a good-hearted one. He was tough but loyal to his friend, difficult at school but not mean-spirited. Then he suddenly becomes evil. I mean, I suppose it’s because he was killed, but I just didn’t buy the about-face in personality. There was no conflict in him. As a reader, I couldn’t wrap my head around the transformation, and the author did nothing to help. Eric is merely dull and useless. He wanders through the story suffering generalized anxiety, pondering at the spree of horrific murders. Eventually he confides in the teacher, who insists he go to the police. Then later he decides to go ALONE out to the icy river to confront the murderous wraith…which is how he ends up almost drowning in an ice coated river. The women in the story are even worse. One is a junkie, one might as well be named “Doomed Romantic Interest”, and one is both a hysterical victim and also such a dope that she nearly shoots Eric while trying to rescue him. The minor characters conform to their particular stereotypes–arrogant jocks, asshole rich jock, sad alcoholic dad, half-witted former athlete, creepy funeral home family, sleazy drug dealer–without adding anything at all new, different, or interesting.

Clearly, this book wanted to be Stephen King’s Christine. The difference is that ChristineGrissom with his ironic glow-in-the-dark skeleton t-shirt. Plus, that book has SUBTEXT. Christine, at its heart, is about the destructive effect that addiction can have on relationships. This book at its heart is a direct-to-DVD slasher film starring a former porn start and some 80s sitcom actor who just got out of “Celebrity Rehab.”

This book was goddamn stupid. Every single facet of it was poorly planned and poorly executed. Frankly, I find it INSULTING to my intelligence. It gives me a pain in the middle of my forehead, like any moment blood is going to start shooting out my nose. If any of you still feel the need to read this abomination after what I’ve said about it here…well…I’m not sure we can be friends anymore.

17
Feb
12

CBR4 #11: Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham

Margery Allingham’s detective Albert Campion is not really very appealing. His decision to pretend to be stupid might be useful for the process of detection, but it doesn’t make for a very pleasant reading experience.

In this mystery, Albert is trying to protect an American judge from the murderous intentions of the dangerous Simister gang. Nevermind that we don’t really know much at all about the Simister gang aside from the brief mention in The Crime at Black Dudley. Suffice it to say that they are apparently very sinister and very dangerous. The American judge is clever but curmudgeony. His son is dashing and worried. His daughter is very beautiful and cries all the time. Albert’s young friends with whom he secrets the judge are young, dashing, and worried, but in a much more British way. There is also a clueless art dealer, some colorful local people, and a chatty sneak thief. The characters are mostly entertaining, and I particularly liked Albert’s friend Biddy and his large, criminally-inclined manservant, Lugg. Unfortunately, I didn’t like Albert himself, which makes reading book in which he is the main character rather difficult.

The mystery itself was all right, and the plot moved along at a reasonable clip. At the end, when Albert stopped pretending to be an idiot and actually let his true self shine through, I finally really got into it. Too bad it took so long for that to happen.

This is definitely in the vein of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. I’m told that the books get better as the series continues, but it may be a while before I make another attempt.

16
Feb
12

CBR4 #10: The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage is sort of a book about vampires. It’s kind of like ‘Salem’s Lot, but on a world-wide scale. It’s also sort of a book about post-apocalyptic life, and how humans will survive when life as they know it suddenly ceases forever.

There are three main sections to this story. The first takes place in modern times. In the mountains in Colorado, the government is working on a special secret experiment. A group of scientists brought back something potentially revolutionary from the Amazonian jungle. Unfortunately, it’s more dangerous than they’d realized. And it’s not helping that they’re testing it on death row inmates. Agent Brad Wolgast and his partner are tasked with going and getting the inmates to volunteer for the trial, which doesn’t bother him too much. When the next target turns out to be a little girl, though, he begins to have second thoughts. And that’s right about the time things go haywire.

The next section is set a hundred years in the future. It focuses on a young man named Peter who lives in a small fortified community. The middle chapters are a lot of exposition about what happened during the cataclysm and how Peter’s world has come to be. It’s frankly a little draggy, and I wished the author would have perhaps cut it down just a bit. Although it’s interesting to see how different life is for Peter versus the way things were for people in the first section, not a lot HAPPENS. It’s not until the third section, when Peter and a group of adventurers set out on a quest that things begin to get interesting again.

Except for the aforementioned slow middle, this was a great book. The characters were well-detailed, and even though there were quite a few of them, they all were distinctive. The plot was put together well, and it kept me interested nearly all the way through. Even during the slightly dull parts, I kept reading because I was so invested in the characters that I HAD to know what was going to happen to them. There were some predictable moments and also some cool surprises.

Apparently Justin Cronin is at work on a sequel, and if that’s the case I am very much looking forward to it.

16
Feb
12

CBR4 #9: Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner by Michael Baden

I know, I know–once again with the medical examiner books. I’m sorry, but I just can’t help it. The whole process is so interesting to me. I’m consistently amazed at the amount of information a forensic specialist can pull from tiny bits of biological evidence.

Dr. Michael Baden is one of the more famous medical examiners in the country–he worked on many historic cases, including the investigation into the Kennedy assassination, John Belushi’s death, and the OJ Simpson case. He’s also had a television program detailing his work on HBO.

The book was well-written, and Dr. Baden tries to be educational without being too dry or boring. There are a variety of cases with a variety of outcomes, and each attempts to be illustrative of a specific technique or method.

Unnatural Death is a pretty good example of the genre, though it necessarily goes over some of the same ground covered by the previous works. I will say that Dr. Baden spends more time that I thought necessary complaining about the politics involved in being the medical examiner in a large city. He had a bunch of political and legal issues that occurred back when Ed Koch was the mayor of New York City. I kept forgetting that the book is more than twenty years old, so all these slights were still fresh when he wrote it. I found it a bit petty and unrelated to the focus of the work, though.

On the whole, this is a pretty good read, and the fact that so many celebrities and famous cases were mentioned lends itself to a certain type of prurient interest. I confess that while I mostly read because I find forensic pathology fascinating, I am (like most people) not immune to a little celebrity gossip now and then.

03
Feb
12

CBR4 #8: The Keep by F. Paul Wilson

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. The concept was interesting, some of the characters were really great. It just seemed like the author came up with a great concept and then kind of phoned it in for a while. The romantic part of the plot was not only distracting but kind of stupid. The fact that my favorite character in the whole thing was a German army commander doesn’t really bode well, to be honest.

The basic plot begins when a German commander is ordered to move his troops to a fortified building that over looks a pass in Romania. The German high command is planning to move through the pass to the town of Ploiesti in order to both secure fuel supplies and set up a new “work camp”, and they want to be sure they will have a clear path. The commander is uncomfortable with the order, uncomfortable with the direction things have been taking with regard to “work camps,” and is frankly not feeling very optimistic about the building. The walls are covered with strange metalwork crosses, and the atmosphere is deeply creepy. And that’s BEFORE his men start to be murdered in the night. He sends for help and a group of SS men (along with their arrogant leader) are sent to help out on their way to Ploiesti. The SS leader believes the local villagers are staging opposition. But then something happens to convince him, too, that things are not at all the way they should be.

The story continues on, gathering to the “keep” a disabled Romanian Jewish scholar and his beautiful daughter as well as a mysterious man with an even more mysterious mission. They end up having to defeat what might be the ultimate evil.

See? Doesn’t that sound interesting? And it should have been! Something is eating Nazis! Is it evil? Is it helping? What is the deal with all the weird obsequious villagers and the lack of birds? Unfortunately, it sounds more exciting than it turned out to be. The origin story of the evil was pretty lame, and despite some excellent creepy moments along the way featuring the German soldiers and the Nazis, the finale was kind of a let-down. Plus, as I mentioned before, the romance was saccharine at best.

Though I wasn’t crazy about The Keep, I plan to read another book by Wilson. There was a lot of potential here, and the characterization of the German leader (he was definitely my favorite character in the whole thing) was pretty good. I’ll let you know if the next book lives up to my hopes and makes this one worth reading in retrospect.