Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book 10 – Heart-Shaped Box

By Joe Hill

A record six books completed in a single month! Mind you, most of ‘em were fairly lite (including this one), but there were previous years where I’d be lucky to read six in as many months.

Heart-Shaped Box I finished in about 3 days. To quote Mount Benson, Joe Hill’s debut novel is indeed like Stephen King-lite (MB also provides a nicely pithy synopsis ). Supposedly marketed as a modern-day ghost story, I hardly found it scary, or even creepy (especially if you compare it to Peter Straub’s genuinely spine-chilling 1979 novel Ghost Story). But it did make a pretty good supernatural thriller, with a couple of surprising twists, a decent buildup and well-drawn characters.

It’s easy at first not to be sympathetic to the aging, self-absorbed heavy metal rocker, Judas Coyne, and his mouthy Goth girlfriend, Georgia/Marybeth (who’s young enough to be his daughter). And it’s easy to dismiss the ghost story gambit since the mystery of the haunting is revealed quite early on. Hill is a competent enough writer to draw you into his narrative and get you to eventually relate to his protagonists. I like how Georgia/Marybeth gets all tough and assertive when things get crazy. In many ways, she’s psychologically stronger than her ol' beau, though she becomes a little self-sacrificingly clich├ęd towards the end.

I didn’t realize until the person who lent me the book pointed out to me that Joe Hill also wrote the compelling Lovecraftian horror comic, Locke and Key. Though I wasn’t wowed by Heart-Shaped Box , it was still an engaging page-turner. Hill definitely has more Gothic sensibilities than his dad, and if anyone else ever lends me his other stuff, such as 20th Century Ghosts, I would not hesitate to check that out too.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Book 9 – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

A Xmas gift request (thanks hubs!) that was exactly what I expected: an indulgently fun and silly romp, though I found the martial arts stuff a little over the top. Like just because it's trendy now to have Kill Bill type warrior women who studied kung fu from Shaolin monks, doesn't mean the Bennett girls have to follow suit. Can't they just be really good swordswomen?

It was also helpful that I haven’t read Pride & Prejudice in almost 20 years, so I didn't have to bother with comparing the mash-up version with the original. But from what I can remember, all the characters and the general plot of the original story is basically intact. And Grahame-Swift, for the most part, almost seamlessly integrates the zombie action sequences and gory bits into the mix.

Ironically, reading this 21st century zombie update of this Napoleonic classic makes me want to read more Jane Austen, as well as seek out the 1995 UK mini-series AND the 2005 movie starring Kiera Knightley, both of which I haven’t seen yet! Though I don’t know if I’m ready to take the plunge and watch Becoming Jane. We’ll see…

But can't wait 'til THIS movie adaptation comes out!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Book 8 – BUtterfield 8

By John O’Hara

Appointment in Samarra was a great book. When Olman was getting rid of old boxes from his parent’s basement, I spotted an old paperback of BUtterfield 8 (not the cover shown here), which I salvaged from the giveaway heap.

The only thing I knew about B8 before reading it was that O’Hara was inspired by the 1931 news story of Starr Faithfull, an attractive young woman whose body was found washed up on a Long Island beach. She apparently drowned, but nobody could conclude whether it was accident, murder or suicide. Reporters uncovered a life of loose morals and constant imbibing, as well as a lurid childhood past which involved being molested by a former Boston mayor. All of which O’Hara makes reference to in his dramatization of Faithfull’s short life, embodied in his character, Gloria Wandrous.

I both admired B8 and was quite frustrated by it at the same time. It’s definitely messier than Samarra, but still has trademark O’Hara moments of incisive savagery. He depicts with cynicism and wit the blurred dichotomy between sheltered middle-class suburbia (where Gloria is from) and the down-and-out speakeasy scene of 1931 Manhattan (which Gloria is drawn to). Yet the character of the heroine lacks depth, making it hard to relate to her. The novel begins with her waking up in the depths of despair, but the novel never really explores how this despair originates. Gloria is more like O’Hara’s archetype of the lost woman.

Yet he does give us many an awesome passage about Gloria living the fast life, such as:

…the thing that about that time became and continued for two or three years to be the most important was drinking. The Dizzy Club, the Hotsy-Totsy, Tommy Guinan’s Chez Florence, the Type & Print Club, the Basque’s, Michel’s, Tony’s East Fifty-third Street, Tony’s West Forty-ninth Street … —these were places where she was known by name and sight, where she awed the bartenders by the amount she drank. They knew that before closing she would be stewed, but not without a good fight… She drank rye and water all day long. When she remembered that she had not eaten for twenty-four hours she would go to a place where the eggs were to be trusted, order a raw egg, break it in an Old Fashioned cocktail tumbler, shoot Angostura bitters into it, and gulped the result. That night she would have dinner: fried filet of sole with tartar sauce. Next day, maybe no food, maybe bouillon with a raw egg. Certain cigarettes gave her a headache. She would smoke Chesterfields or Herbert Tareytons, no others.


Here is a character who’s ahead of her time, but because she is a woman I got the feeling she was going to be punished somehow, like getting murdered or committing suicide. Gloria was involved with Liggett, a married man old enough to be her father who both loved and hated her, and Eddie, a friend whose love for her went unrequited. I thought one of these men would end up killing her. But in the end, Gloria’s sordid life somehow gets redeemed when she finds “her calling” to settle down, of all things! She and Liggett end up together on a steamboat ferry: he agrees to leave his wife and family, and she agrees to marry him. Gloria confesses:

“… You think because I’ve been around like a man and I’m ready to settle down. That’s not the reason why I’ll be a good wife… Do you want to know the real reason? Because it’s born in me. My mother. I was thinking today what a wonderful wife she was to my father, and still is after all these years. In a way of course you’re right. Living the kind of life I’ve led then finding out that there’s only one life for a woman.”

So yeah. I found the ending very disappointing. Even though O'Hara excels at making hard-boiled critiques about class and American society, he lamely cops out to the sexual mores of his time. Then there's Gloria’s anti-climactic death where she merely falls off the ferry in a freak accident and gets sucked under a paddlewheel.

Perhaps O'Hara intended a meaningless and trivial death for someone who was supposed to be tragic, beautiful and damned. But dramatically, it just didn't do it for me. I'd rather have Gloria killed for living the life she wanted to live (as in living like a man), or killing herself because she couldn't live the life she wanted to live, than to realize she wanted to live a conventional life of a woman in the 1930's after all, and then suddenly die in a stupid accident.

BUtterfield 8 is uneven in its execution, but there are still many great passages that give you a sense of how ironically hedonistic and tumultuous those times must have been, and how a wild young woman caught up in that scene might have lived. But it definitely had some pretty serious flaws too.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Book 7 – Shutter Island

By Dennis Lehane

I’ve been catching up with some "movie novels", and Shutter Island is one of them. I deliberately refrained from consuming any reviews or trailers related to the recent theatrical release, and it had paid off. Olman kind of regrets having given it such a quick, half-hearted review. But you can’t really write about Shutter Island without giving too much of it away.

Definitely the perfect book to read while you’re on vacation, especially during a long layover at the airport (which is exactly what happened a week ago). Shutter Island is tight, compelling and sucks you right into its strange, isolated world and its freaky insane asylum, Ashecliffe Hospital - where nothing is quite as it seems. You see the story unfold from the perspective of U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, and it’s only quite a bit later in the novel did I start to question the integrity of his judgment.

As a gothic thriller, it has everything going for it: action, drama, mystery and suspense, with elements of the macabre and the supernatural. Good stuff!

p.s. I just noticed that Somnambulist also gave a positive review too.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Book 6 – Wild Jack

By John Christopher

One of the rare moments where I ran out of books to read during my trip! I had to resort to one of several male-oriented books in Olman's handy possession. So I ended up choosing the young adult adventure book, Wild Jack, which Olman also just conveniently reviewed

I totally agree with Olman’s assessment, and quite enjoyed this straightforward futuristic tale of an uber-privilieged city boy who gets wrongly accused of treachery by an unknown enemy and gets sent to a juvie labor camp on an isolated island. He befriends an American and Japanese fellow and they eventually escape in a tiny sailboat. They end up lost in the wilderness until they're discovered by a group of noble savages led by educated ex-city dweller, Wild Jack.

I agree with Olman that although the novel ended happily, our young hero Clive never gets the chance to avenge the betrayal that got him in trouble in the first place. And that unresolved issue is something that can definitely be followed up in a sequel. Unfortunately, this novel was short enough that I finished it during our 7 hour layover at the Miami airport. So I ended up buying a pocket paperback of Shutter Island at a newstand – its review coming next!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Book 5 – Galapagos: A Natural History

By John Kricher

The majority of tourists who visit the Galapagos are pretty ignorant about the natural history of the islands, including myself. Tourists go to the Galapagos to behold its exotic uniqueness and most are content with the introductory information provided by the local guide. Maybe I’m a bit of a geek, but I had assumed many of my fellow passengers of the Galaventure II would also supplement their learning with books such as this indispensable guide.

Before the trip, I had read the first half of the book, which is perfect because it outlines the volcanic origins and geological development of the Galapagos archipelago, and how the various ocean currents affect the climate, and thus the overall ecology of the islands. Even though I was alarmed when I realized that we were in the middle of a not so mild El Nino (which can have a devastating affect on marine species), I learned that this is a phenomena that is part of the natural patterns of life.

The flora and fauna of the Galapagos are mainly identified as endemic, local or introduced. Since no natural history is complete without some account of its evolutionary history, it seems that all life on the Galapagos had originated from the mainland at some point. Kricher also talks about some notable human visitors of the islands, and helped to dispel a few misconceptions I had about how the Galapagos Islands influenced Darwin’s theory of evolution.

I also learned that in the 1920’s, the island of Floreana was also colonized by a few Euroeccentrics. For the Wittmers, who would’ve thought that their first and only neighbour would also be German? To make matters worse, along comes a rambunctious Austrian baroness with her two boy toys, arriving with the assumption that she would become the empress of Floreana. Suffice to say, these exploits became fodder for Frau Wittmer’s published memoirs.

Kricher is an ecologist, biology professor, as well as an ecotour guide, so the book is well-written in a way that it’s obvious the author is passionate about his subject. It’s nicely structured for the first-time visitor to the Galapagos who's interested in learning about its unique natural history without being bogged down by a lot of scientific detail. I enjoyed the sections where he writes about the well-known Galapagos species, as well as devoting an overall description about each island and their highlights. He also devotes a chapter explaining the brief history and conservation mandate of the Charles Darwin Research Station, and how the population growth and tourism industry have impacted the islands. All in all, I found this a very helpful, educational and engaging book.