Archive Page 2

30
Dec
12

CBR4 #46: The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving

There are some books that I read and by the time I’m finished with the final page, the tale is already slipping out of my head. I intellectually know I read it, and if prompted I could probably give a reasonable summary of the action, but that’s about as far as it goes. Then there are other books that stick with me. Books that I find myself thinking about days, weeks, months, or even years later. Books whose characters become like old friends, about whom I find myself thinking at the oddest times.

The Hotel New Hampshire falls into the latter category.

It’s the story of the Berry family, a group of odd ducks led by patriarch Win. Win is a dreamer, who leads his family on an epic journey from rural New Hampshire, to Vienna, to New York City, and back again. The family consists of Win, his wife, his father Iowa Bob (football coach and weight-lifting enthusiast), eldest son Frank (lover of uniforms), spitfire Franny, narrator John (who is in love with his sister), gentle soul Lily, oddball Egg, and flatulent dog Sorrow. They have experiences both comic and tragic, meet a cast of bizarre, fantastical characters, and grow together as a family.

This is the kind of story that makes me wish it were a million pages long so I could know everything that ever happened to the Berrys. Even after I finished it, I found myself thinking of them, imagining the things that occurred outside the edges of the novel. The writing was wonderful, and I loved Irving’s turn of phrase. John’s narrative voice is distinct and likable, even if some of the things he does are disturbing at best.

I managed to find a copy of the 1984 film starring Rob Lowe as John and Jodie Foster as Franny. While it was fairly faithful to the source material, the tone seemed wrong, somehow. It seemed like the director couldn’t decide if it was a broad comedy or a drama or a fairy tale or a mix of genres. I think it would be a great project for Wes Anderson to take on, actually. The Berrys are like a New England version of the Tenenbaums, and Anderson is a master of mixing tones and genres. While it’s maybe a little different than his usual work, I think he could really pull it off. Besides, it’d be nice for him to stretch himself a bit–his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, was disappointing to me in that it felt extremely repetitive and altogether too reminiscent of his earlier works.

On the whole, I’d highly recommend this, though I suspect it may not appeal to everyone–it requires a certain whimsical world view, and an acceptance of some of the wilder aspects of the story.

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13
Dec
12

CBR4 #45: The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

I really should stop reading these books about troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. They only seem to make me feel angry, upset, and hopeless about the situation there.

David Finkel spent the majority of 2007 and part of 2008 following a battalion of Army Rangers as they participated in the “surge” in Iraq. It focuses mostly on their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich (by the end referred to by his troops as “Lost Kauz”) and his struggles to try and be successful at a task that seems doomed to fail. They are tasked with improving the situation in Baghdad by patrolling, setting up outposts, and making inroads with the local people. Instead, they spend most of their time avoiding IEDs, being shelled, and trying to navigate the bureaucratic nightmare that accompanies trying to accomplish anything.

Meanwhile, soldiers–ones we have been introduced to and have followed for pages or even chapters–die. Or are horribly maimed. Or are psychologically broken. Their friends, fellow soldiers, and commanding officers have to not only deal with that, but also have to handle the fact that tomorrow, it could just as easily be one of them zipped into a body bag or evacuated on a  helicopter.

Life isn’t much easier for those who get to go home. Many of them must cope with debilitating physical and mental injuries. Their families must try to adjust to these unfamiliar men who have returned wearing the shape of their husbands, fathers, or sons. A section that details a visit to a Texas rehab hospital is completely gut-wrenching.

The worst part of this book is that in the end, nothing has really changed. The unit’s fifteen month mission has basically been a  failure, in that they have not really improved anything. It’s still impossible to know who is on the Americans’ side and who is going to try to kill them at the first opportunity. The Iraqis still live in a state of constant fear and danger, and the the US has done nothing but lose good soldiers for no reason at all.

It’s a well-written, well-researched book, but it’s also extremely depressing and disheartening. It’s absolutely worth reading, but it’s not something you’ll necessarily feel good about once you’ve finished it.

13
Dec
12

CBR4 #44: The Road to Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

This book was my first experience with Lovecraft, and I’m not sure I’m all that thrilled with him. It consists of a number of short stories, spanning the length of his career. They’re all supposed to be dark and spooky, though some are more successful than others.

 There were a few stories I liked. “Herbert West: Reanimator” was pretty good–it’s a tale of an experimental scientist gone made–but it was clearly originally published as a serial, since at the beginning of each section the author goes back and recaps everything that JUST HAPPENED which gets a little annoying. However, a lot of the stories were either unnecessarily long (“At the Mountains of Madness”) or not very interesting. He also, earlier in his career, had a tendency to pull the “Up the tension, up the tension, up the tension…AND THEN IT TURNED OUT HIS MOTHER WAS AN ALBINO GORILLA THE WHOLE TIME! The End” bit more than was acceptable. I mean, I like a good twist ending, but it’s a trick that can be easily overused.

 On the whole, I was not wildly impressed with this collection. Although it definitely had some cool moments, I think this is a genre that was done better before by Poe. Also, I didn’t feel that any of the stories contained any real character development. The characters were put into situations mostly because that was where the author wanted them. I didn’t find myself particularly interested in or sympathetic toward any of them (with the possible exception of the narrator of the “Herbert West” story.) I know you might say there isn’t room in short stories for character development, but maybe if he’d spent less time endlessly describing echoing chambers and tentacled monsters he might have been able to create some more interesting characters.

 Anyway, it’s one of those books you should read as an introduction to help recognize the influence on other authors, but I don’t feel the need to rush out and find any more of Lovecraft’s work.

12
Dec
12

CBR4 #43: Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King

Remember what I was saying about how I love Stephen King, but I sometimes wonder why I bother?

 Stories like The Wind Through the Keyhole are why I keep coming back, no matter how many times old SK burns with with terrible endings or ass weasels or giant spiders. This is a good, solid fantasy novel. There are no tricks, no nonsense. Just a really great story.

 This book takes place during the events of the Dark Tower series, in between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla. It’s not really tied in to the plot of the series–it’s more like an interlude within it. Roland the Gunslinger and his ka-tet find themselves trapped in a building, waiting out a very bad storm. While they wait, Roland tells Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy a tale of his youth. Then, within that story, he tells a scared young boy another story, the tale of Tim Stoutheart. All the stories are reflections of the larger through-lines of the series, but this is also probably the only one that could be read as a stand-alone (with the help of a little explanation in the author’s introduction.) However, reading it within the context of the Dark Tower brings a lot of insight about Roland’s character.

 On the whole, I’d heartily recommend this one. It’s full of the storytelling magic that I look for from Stephen King, and I think that fans of his work (particularly fans of the Gunslinger) will like it quite a bit.

11
Dec
12

CBR4 #42: Dreamcatcher by Stephen King

Oh, Stephen King. I love your work so much, but there are times when I wonder if you’re worth it.

Dreamcatcher is not an utterly terrible book. It is not nearly as painfully dull as The Tommyknockers, but it is not good either. While it has its moments, there is also a lot of unnecessarily gross gore, and the plot is…not good.

The book is the story of four friends–Henry, Pete, Jonesy, and Beaver–who come together once a year at a remote hunting cabin to spend time together and celebrate their childhood friendship. Although they’ve grown apart, they are also bonded by more than just the times they spent together as kids–they have a fifth friend, Duddits, who is very, very special. Although Duddits appears to be just a man with Down’s syndrome, he is actually a LOT more. While the group are spending time out in the woods, a man wanders into their camp, displaying some very odd symptoms. Pretty soon, the four find themselves involved in a situation that could have effects the world over…a situation that their friendship with Duddits may somehow have prepared them for.

Sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? Well, start throwing in alien fuzz, and ass weasels, and an entity called Mr. Grey, and things start going off the rails. Then add a batshit crazy army colonel bent on hiding the truth at any cost. It starts to spiral out of control pretty quickly.

The characters are pretty likable, which is what saves the book from being irredeemable. Jonesy’s lonely battle against Mr. Grey is one of the strongest parts of the tale, and I also enjoyed the brief glimpses of their childhood times together. Each of the friends is well-defined, and I had no trouble identifying with them or rooting for them. Some of the secondary characters are less effective, though I liked what little we saw of Duddits’s mother.

The movie is not great either, though the performances are about as good as possible. Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant (Olyphantastic!), and Damien Lewis star as the four friends, and Lewis’s creepy turn as Jonesy is pretty cool. Morgan Freeman and his eyebrows chew every available piece of scenery as he romps and stomps in the role of the crazy colonel, while Tom Sizemore plays it cool as the colonel’s assistant. There’s also an interesting performance from Donnie Wahlberg (or as I like to call him “The-more-talented-but-not-as-attractive-Wahlberg”) as adult Duddits. However, ass weasels are something that never needed to make it to film, and the plot is a bit too jumbled to really translate well. Much like the book, the movie is not exactly terrible, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it good either.

11
Dec
12

CBR4 #41: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Eleven years ago, James Stark’s friends cast him into hell. Unfortunately for them, he’s escaped. Now he’s roaming the streets of Los Angeles–armed with supernatural weapons, hellion spells, and the skills picked up from spending more than a decade doing battle in hell’s arena with the worst the underworld had to offer–looking for revenge on the people who cast him down and in particular the ones who killed the woman he loved.

With the help of an immortal alchemist, a literal talking head, a mysterious man who sells very mysterious things, an angry angel, an underground doctor, and a video store clerk, Stark discovers that he’s not the only one with an axe to grind…and that the fate of the entire world may just hang in the balance with only him to save it.

I like this book a lot. It reads like a Jason Statham movie–blood, guts, action, magic, fights, and funny one-liners. I enjoyed all the characters, though some were not fleshed out as well as I’d like, since the focus was mostly on Stark and the story was told from his perspective. I was right with him, though, trying to figure out what was going on and predict his enemies’ next moves, as well as figure out whether his friends could be trusted. Obviously, this is not high literature, but it was tremendously entertaining.

This is the first book in a series, and I can’t WAIT to get my hands on the next one.

10
Dec
12

CBR4 #40: Coffin County by Gary Braunbeck

The town of Cedar Hill is one of those places. It’s a place like Derry, Maine or Bon Temps, Louisiana or Sunnydale, California; it’s a place where things are not quite right, nor have they ever been. The town–since its founding–seems to draw tragedy and death like a magnet. From a massacre of the early settlers right up until the explosion and fire at the coffin factory that destroyed an entire neighborhood a few years ago, the people of Cedar Hill have become accustomed to bloody surprises.

Police detective Ben Littlejohn finds himself chasing another one of Cedar Hill’s deadly mysteries when he’s called to the scene of a mass murder in a diner. The murderer has left his fingerprints all over the scene, and Ben hopes it will be an open-and-shut case. Of course, that’s not how it works out. The fingerprints are but the first of many indications that things have gone wildly askew. Soon, Ben is confronted by inexplicable new tombstones appearing in the cemetery, and a video tape that shows something that simply cannot be.

The book also has two shorter stories included–one is about an out-of-this-world showdown that occurs at a rural bar one night, and the other involves the life of some of Cedar Hill’s factory workers.

All three tales are great–spooky and well-written. The first is a little longer than it really needed to be–I think it should have been the same length as the other two–but still absolutely readable. I like the way the stories’ locations and characters tie in to one another, as well as to Braunbeck’s other works (including Keepers and Mr. Hands). I like his work, and plan to read more of his Cedar Hill stories.