Archive for October, 2012

26
Oct
12

CBR4 #39: Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson

I have recently had to admit to myself that I have become a Trekkie. Mind you, this DOES NOT mean that I am going to put on some go-go boots, pick up a phaser, and go stand in line to catch a glimpse of Leonard Nimoy. But when you live with a person who has to have Star Trek playing in order to go to sleep at night, you pick things up, whether you want to or not. Now, I don’t know much about the original series, since The Boyfriend does not understand camp and thus does not enjoy the original. I have, however, seen pretty much every episode of Next Generation, Deep Space Nine (ugh), and Voyager at LEAST once, probably multiple times. I’m not aware of every piece of trivia, but should the conversation turn to Klingon battle philosophy or the plight of the oppressed Bajorans, I can hold my own. I have even been known to say things (out in public, no less–how embarrassing) like “We are not the Borg! Just because one of us knows something doesn’t mean we ALL know it!” It is this shameful side of my personality that made this book so much fun.

Night of the Living Trekkies takes place at a Star Trek convention in Houston. Army veteran Jim Pike works at the hotel where the convention is taking place. He lives a life of trying to avoid responsibility, since his time in Afghanistan has led him to loathe being responsible for anyone but himself. However, things begin to get weird at the convention–and not in the normal kind of way. Jim finds himself leading a small group of survivors through what seems to be a zombie apocalypse. He has to figure out a way to keep his team–including his younger sister, a red-shirt, a Klingon weapons maker, and Princess Leia–alive long enough to escape from Houston. Along the way, they also may discover the source of the epidemic.

This book is hilarious for those who enjoy both zombie stories and Star Trek. The winks and nudges are all there, but the story is good as well. Sometimes in parody stories the author will expend more effort with the jokes than on  the plot or the characters–that’s not the case in this book. I thought that the characters were all distinct and sympathetic, and that the plot moved along in a reasonable way.

If you don’t have a basic working knowledge of Star Trek, this book is not for you. If you don’t find the idea of a zombified, costumed marching band called “The Seventy-Six Trom-borgs” funny, this book is probably not for you. If you are looking for a major departure from the traditional zombie story genre, this book is not for you. But if you think that you could get behind some good old-fashioned bat’leth battles and zombie fleeing, you might get a kick out of this one.

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26
Oct
12

CBR4 #38: Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman

I suspect that Chuck Klosterman (much like fellow Chuck, Palahniuk) is one of those authors that you either love or hate. Either you love him–because the thoughts that he’s writing down mesh perfectly with the things that you have already been thinking, and the conversations he’s having are things that you either already discuss or wish you could, and the connections he’s making are connections you’ve either already made or at least understand completely–or you hate him–you find him a whiny first-world hipster who wastes entirely too much time thinking about 90s sitcoms, soft rock, and Axl Rose.

I fall into the first category.

People have been recommending Klosterman to me off and on for years, but somehow I never got around to reading him before. (Sometimes, when a whole bunch of people recommend a book and tell me “Oh, this is SO YOU!” I find that reading the book turns out to be a disappointing experience which just makes me think my friends don’t know me very well.) It turns out that he’s exactly what I’ve been looking for in the “non-fiction essay” genre. I mean, I like David Foster Wallace, but he can frankly be a bit heavy for me. Klosterman, on the other hand, is definitely fluff…but well-written, INTERESTING fluff.

The essays in this book run the gamut through pop culture. My particular favorites included his take on how a comparison between Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson is not only apt, but a reflection of the way society has changed since the 1950s, how you are either a Celtics person or a Lakers person and why this influences your world view, and the one documenting his travels with a Guns n’ Roses cover band. I found the writing to be both funny and intelligent, and his wide grasp of both pop-culture and general culture remarkable.

To sum up, Chuck Klosterman is like the friend I’ve always wanted but never had–a sharp, witty misanthrope willing to spend hours eating cereal and discussing the cultural ramifications of Saved By the Bell. As a person who once wrote a paper comparing Hester Prynne and Rizzo from Grease, I can relate totally. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, best to just move on to something else.

12
Oct
12

CBR4 #37: Dark Echo by F. G. Cottam

I love ghost stories. LOVE them. The problem is that I insist ghosts have a purpose–I don’t like when an angry spirit shows up somewhere and is just evil for no reason. I like ghosts to have back-story. I want them to have history. And in a ghost story, I want the characters to find that history. I want to uncover it as they do–I want to feel like I too am racing to try and put the pieces together before it’s too late. Dark Echo was an excellent example of everything that I want in a ghost story.

Martin Stannard is a disappointment to his father, titan of industry Magnus. Martin had a talent for boxing, but wasn’t a successful boxer. He tried to enter the priesthood, but couldn’t stick with it. He is a nice enough guy, and successful in his own way, but his father has never been quite satisfied. Therefore, it’s rather a shock to Martin when his father tells him that he is going to purchase and restore an antique sailboat, which the two of them will then sail across the Atlantic to the US. The trouble is that the boat gives Martin very bad vibes. Its history is murky and full of bad luck and tragic death. And its first owner, Harry Spaulding–an American playboy who was an infamous commando during WWI–is cloaked in vaguely unpleasant mystery. Martin’s girlfriend Suzanne takes time away from her research into Irish hero Michael Collins to do some digging into the Dark Echo and Harry Spaulding. What she finds makes her wonder if she will ever see Martin again.

This is the first ghost story I’ve read in a while that I’ve found genuinely spooky. The writing was tight, and though it got a teensy bit bogged down in the middle, the last third rocketed along at an excellent pace. Suzanne was a wonderful heroine–using her talents in research to figure out what was going on and put all the pieces together. She was not a victim, but an active heroine in the story. Martin and his father were also likable characters with reasonable motivations. And the ghosts…well they’re pretty great too, in their own ways.

I’d absolutely recommend this to anyone who enjoys a well thought out ghost story, or just a great story. I tore through it as fast as I could because I couldn’t wait to find out what was going on and what Martin and Suzanne were going to do about it.

12
Oct
12

CBR4 #36: Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales by William M. Bass and Jon Jefferson

I have read quite a few of these books by top-notch medical examiner/forensic pathologists, and there is quite a bit of room between the best and the worst. Some are procedural, some are poorly organized, some are either too personal or too clinical, and some are just boring. Death’s Acre isn’t any of those things. It’s a really excellent, interesting, and educational book, with a little bit of everything. And it’s held together by a narrator with a wonderful, avuncular, self-deprecating voice.

Dr. Bill Bass created and oversaw the University of Tennessee’s “Body Farm,” where dead bodies are used in experiments (related to insect activity, decomposition, etc) to advance the cause of forensic science. The work done by Dr. Bass and his students has helped solve and successfully prosecute murder cases all over the world. Knowing how long it takes for a dead body to break down under a specific set of conditions can be the key to setting an innocent man free or convicting a guilty one.

The book is (ghost)written from Dr. Bass’s point of view, and he is an engaging narrator. He mixes together scientific facts and theories, history, and cases he’s worked on with his personal history and hilarious anecdotes (for example, his need to buy his wife a new blender, or how he discovered that good fences do indeed make good neighbors). He also details the struggles he had when he began the project, both from the University and from the public. It’s a great story and it’s told well. I’d highly recommend this to anyone with an interest in forensic anthropology.

As a side note, I am very seriously considering donating my body to the Body Farm should something happen to me. I think it would be a fitting end for someone so fascinated by murder mysteries!

12
Oct
12

CBR4 #35: Catch Up 2: Electric Boogaloo

In my ongoing attempts to catch up with my blogging for the Cannonball Read, here are five more mini-reviews on books I have read (I was going to add “recently” to this sentence, then realized that I read some of these in July, which is no longer considered “recent”. Oops).

1. Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris: These books just keep getting stupider and more outlandish, but I still keep right on gobbling them up. They are the literary equivalent of Velveeta, but I just can’t quit them. In this entry (allegedly the next-to-last in the Sookie series), there is a mystery, and some complications, and some stupid vampire politics, and stupid faerie politics, and Sookie Gets In Trouble Yet Again! Her relationship with Eric is down the tubes (boo, I really liked Eric) and there are just waaaay too many characters. I’m kind of glad this series is ending, because I think the author’s been tired of it since somewhere around book eight. I’ll read the final one when it comes out, but I’ll breathe a sigh of relief when it’s over. (The show became so unbearably stupid last year that not even Alexander Skaarsgard could tempt me to watch it anymore. And that is saying a lot about the level of stupidity, because he is VERY PRETTY.)

2. The Dead Path by Stephen Irwin: Nick Close sees dead people. Unfortunately, he only sees them repeat their final, fatal moments…over and over and over again. Even worse, one of these tragic souls is his beloved wife. Needing to get away from the scene of her death, he goes to visit his parents in his home town, only to find that his problem has followed him. And his hometown can be a dangerous place, particularly for children. Now Nick must use his dubious talent to find a way to stop the evil that lurks in the shadowy woods. This book wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t anything particularly thrilling, either. Nothing about it was especially memorable, and it didn’t exactly keep me awake at night with terror.

3. Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy: This is like a coffee table book of death and insanity. Author Michael Lesy has combined creepy photos from the late 19th century, taken by a little-known Black Falls, WI photographer with snippets from newspapers and medical records from the time–all from the same desolate area of Wisconsin. It reads like a litany of misery, death, disease, mental disintegration, and generalized anguish. I watched the documentary film narrated by Sir Ian Holm, which was pretty interesting, though creepy. However, the book is almost too much, and too morbid. I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone unless they were very interested in that area and time period. Plus, the author’s introduction and end-note are about as artsy-fartsy and pretentious as you can get without wearing a beret.

4. Pariah by Bob Fingerman: Zombies. This time, the main characters are the residents of an Upper East Side apartment building. They survived the initial apocalypse, only to find themselves beginning to starve. Luckily, a teenage girl comes walking through the throngs of zombies, able to move among them without being bothered. She’s their savior, but who–or what–is she? Where does she get her ability to move unnoticed amongst the undead? The apartment building’s survivors are both grateful and suspicious. And a few of them are not very nice people. In fact, they’re just as dangerous as the drooling hordes outside. This isn’t a great zombie book, but it’s not the worst I’ve read. There are flashes of ironic humor, and most of the characters are sympathetic. I didn’t think the main mystery of the plot was adequately explained, but it wasn’t all that bad.

5. The Pariah by Graham Masterton: This is another story about a widower who sees his wife’s ghost. However, John Trenton isn’t the only one who sees his wife Jane. And Jane’s ghost is not content with quietly haunting–Jane is angry. So are the other ghosts in the coastal town of Granitehead. As John comes to find out, something happened in Granitehead long ago that the town’s forefathers kept a dark secret. The problem is, that dark secret is starting to get out. Not a bad book, though I found it a bit draggy through the middle.

And there you have it — five books for the price of a single Cannonball Read entry! I have been reading a lot of horror stories this year (can’t seem to get enough of them) and it’s a genre that has a LOT of variation in quality. I’ll be getting to some better examples later on. For now, this is what you’re getting. 😉 Enjoy!

12
Oct
12

CBR4 #34: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Sometimes I think that as much as I love his supernatural brick-sized books, Stephen King’s real talent shines best in novella form. Some of my very favorite of his work are novellas (The Bachman Books and Different Seasons, particularly) and while I enjoy his more extensive work, I think that the shorter form reins him into telling tighter stories. After all, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” is a novella, but the story is epic.

In Full Dark, No Stars, King presents us with four novellas and a short story.

In the first tale, “1922” a man makes a confession and regrets the choices he made in his life. This may or may not be a supernatural story (it depends a lot on your interpretation of it) but it is definitely disturbing. It’s tough to decide whether to condone or condemn the main character, and I’m sure that the side you take will color your view of what happens and your interpretation of the narrator. This one has some great historical context to it as well, and the narrator’s voice feels pretty authentic.

The second story, “Big Driver” feels less like a Stephen King story and more like one of the thriller novels I tend to enjoy. The main character is a writer (shocking!) but a female for a change. On the way home from a book signing, she takes a shortcut that turns out to be a big mistake. There’s nothing supernatural in this one at all, but it’s still an edge-of-your-seat story with some very good twists and turns. The character of Tessa is determined and tough, despite the horrific things that happen to her.

“Fair Extension” returns us to the realm of the supernatural, and is another story that is colored by the reader’s interpretation of it, since the ending is a bit ambiguous. Dave Streeter is an average man living a fairly average life. Then he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer and things start to come apart. One day he meets a strange man sitting at a table out by the airport, and this man offers him a trade. The rest of the story was the result of that trade on Dave and the people around him. As I said before, this story is definitely open to interpretation, and I found myself waiting for the other shoe to drop, and trying to figure out if that made me a bad person…or if the fact that I was happy that it didn’t was what made me a bad person! I’ll admit this was my least favorite of the novellas, as I didn’t feel it had the urgency of the others.

The last novella, “A Good Marriage,” is another story with absolutely no supernatural elements, but it also kept me on the edge of my seat. Darcy Anderson is a housewife who considers herself the epitome of the American Dream. She has two wonderful children, a nice house, and a husband who has a good job and does things like lead a boyscout troop. Unfortunately for Darcy, she makes a disturbing discovery about a secret her husband has been hiding in the garage. Darcy’s struggle to figure out how to deal with this revelation is gripping, and I liked her as a character. It’s another piece that feels very different from most of King’s work, but is a taut little thriller.

Finally, the short story “Under the Weather” (which isn’t included in all editions of the book) is just a quick amuse bouche in a William Faulkner sort of vein. I can’t say too much about it without spoiling the surprise. It’s a trick, and it’s an old trick, but it’s still a good one.

On the whole, I think this is one of Stephen King’s better story collections. I’d say it could stand with Different Seasons (in my opinion his very best novella work, with the exception of “The Breathing Method”) or The Bachman Books. I’d highly recommend it, even to those who might not normally enjoy King’s work. This is him working at his best, sharp, quick, and mesmerizing.