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___MINI-VIEWS #9___

EXTREMELY INADEQUATE THUMBNAILERS OF BOOKS I'M TOO LAZY OR TROUBLED TO ACTUALLY REVIEW, OR, TOO BORED, DISTRACTED, MADDENED TO EVEN FINISH READING.

AND HAS NOW BECOME THE STANDARD DUE TO EXPEDIENCY.

 

 
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PATH TO SAVAGERY by ROBERT EDMOND ALTER, c.1969

Alter's Swamp Sister of 1961 is consummate Hillbilly Pulp, possibly the best swamp story out there. A good part of this is not the plot, but how this menacing and creepy environment melds seamlessly with the characters' interaction, battering them to determined conclusions. Its disaffected undulations are far more significant than any meek human endeavor in its presence. If you fight the swamp, you lose.

Path to Savagery takes place two or three decades past “the Bombs and the Dust and the Pestilence and the Drought”(p.12). The buckled and burnt landscape is void of most life, and, considering its recent radioactivity, is without rain, which makes potable water the end-all-be-all of every endeavor. More hostile than any living eco system of the past, men fight against their most fearful predators.

Other men.

The seeker hero named Falk is a Loner. There are two other groupings of humans: Flockers, who come together as community usually around a defensible water source, and Neanderthals, who brutalize and scavenge everything within their nomadic influence. Both groups have no use for Loners, really. Falk has avoided death by honing his survival skills and keeps most odds even with a Thompson sub-machine gun that no one else on the planet seems to possess. It's a bigger club, but demands a continual search for ammo as almost paramount to finding water. But there's one more thing Falk acknowledges as imperative “in the land of want and privation”(p.27): The Special Girl.

While slipping through a Flocker encampment for water, Falk spies a voluptuous woman dancing for her dinner. All he says to her is, “I have tobacco”, and Faina—“the primogenitor of all whores”(p.95)—is dragging him to her shebang. Later, she bungles robbing him and he ditches her. But Faina is a feisty opportunist with crude but effective female wiles, and Falk reluctantly adds her company to his continuing “one long monotonous prowl, with occasional moments of violent action and unusual happenings”(p.32).

The bulk of the novel concerns their discovery of a bombed-out city, half sunken in the ocean and leaving a labyrinth of forsaken and barely-looted buildings like islands of former, 20 th Century magnificence. But not quite abandoned, as the huge-roomed department store they choose happens to conceal a group of Flockers, despotically ruled by Rann and his queen, Lara.

The Special Girl.

This holocaustic Macy's has everything a scrounger could need, if you don't mind the thick dust, scurrying rats, and no water. It's the ultimate Keep for the times, and, like the feudal fist of Rann, its politics are Machellivian as well. Instead of the world of plants, minerals, and mud as adversarial entities, author Alter leaves the devastated world outside to its inanimateness and chooses the intrigues of the human theater this time, even ending his saga with an epic-like battle between Falk and Rann “naked and empty-handed” (p.146) in the enclosed 3 rd floor. The prize, of course, is Lara.

This is not a subtle or particularly subtextual read. Man is at his basic formula, that of hunter/gatherer, nomad/warrior. Woman cannot exist without his protection, as he is her “strength and courage and intelligence”(p.119). Lara assumes herself as the ultimate prize, something no man could pass over. Falk fools himself by thinking the Special Girl will hitch to his loop of wandering discovery, or that he will submit to the primal pull of birthing society. In the end, the dreamer in him opts for the paired companionship with little fidelity as represented by the earthy Faina.

And author Alter, well, he's singing the Siren song of the proverbial rebel, the victory of choice in 1969. Fortunately, the precepts of civilization create a maturing responsibility that rises eventually. You know, kinda like the wisdom that deters us from killing each other.

 

Copyright 07/15/2011 by Larry Crawford

LUSH LIFE by RICHARD PRICE, c.2008

Author Price sets up his late-night street shooting by starting with the players, guilty or not, creating an immediate who-dun-it curiosity. We're on the Lower East Side , contrasting its Bohemian makeover with its historic turned-to-ghetto roots, blanketed with weary-eyed, police proceduralists. This is not the now-cliché, Hill Street Bluesy bludgeoning of runaway crime and lost souls overwhelming the gatekeepers. The anonymity of pressing city existence becomes the product of the players as much as the creators, while a meaningful life strived-for remains agelessly elusive. Living in the here-and-now by taking over its dreamers in the starting blocks, ambition based on acceptance is used by the selfish as stepping stones for their own, imaginary meccas. The delusion is worse than the crime in that its cancer is deeper, more attached, and harder to throw on the examination gurney for what-it-is-what-it's-not surgery. “Lives abruptly turned inside out by the arbitrary malice of the world” (p.373) is author Price's entry into this labyrinth of lantern shows and deadly gauntlets where the hawking of Atlantic City gaudiness is truer than the reserved deuce at Le Bernardin. Conduct can never manage intent because intent is hopelessly muddled by the extraneousness within the intender. Duty, then, is reduced to guarding the perimeters while the weasels in and about us all fight and hide for brutal dominance and surreptitious control. Because morality cannot administer without agreement, loyalty is the only bond left standing.

This is a study of tradition gone nouveau, as perceived by its inmates. Its digestion has left a mixed scattering of responses as multi-layered and unfathomable as the imbibing personalities at hand. Hardly any of the reactions to this merit applause. The confrontation—the vic's step-up, “not tonight, my man”(p.39)—engenders its study through a myriad of characters clinging to all levels of society. This is heart-felt stuff, because it barnstorms through denial and challenges the easy, thrown-up excuses of externalization and/or inheritance. When someone without malice or defense is murdered, the universal tree of life is shaken to its roots. Then all things must be questioned, searched, pondered. Again, author Price has taken a genre-bound focus into the soul of Literature.

Everyone should read a Richard Price novel once in their life. I read Clockers 40 or so books back and am still trying to bury it. Now, I hafta start all over again.

 

Copyright 07/15/2011 by Larry Crawford

 

THE RED WOLF CONSPIRACY by ROBERT V.S. REDICK, c.2008

 

Silly Wabbit, Trix are for kids.

 

If you recognize this line from an old TV commercial, you are probably too old to enjoy this novel. This is certainly the calorie-coated cereal floating in the traditional high fantasy saga. You've got your petulant, sassy-mouthed youngsters, teenaged, would-be lovers fighting all odds, old wizards from other worlds, potions and spells, scheming inamoratas, monsters, pirates, lotta weird names for things, places and characters, caste and feudal social systems, woken animals of all sizes and shapes, and . . .

A six-hundred year old wooden square-rigger of massive size containing a population worthy of a Renassiance-era Italian duchy surrounded in a hull instead of a moat. As far as I can tell, this seems to be The Red Wolf Conspiracy's only exclusive creation.

What initially struck me in my half-read was the overabundance of treachery. With the exception of the class-crossed lovers tarboy Pazel and ambassador's daughter Thasha—well, okay, there's the Sam Gamgee-like loyalty of fellow tarboy Neeps—no one's to be trusted, engendering an atmosphere of numbing uncertainty in any pursued endeavor or line of reasoning. In this sense, it feels very modern, but contextually it is not long until these traps and contrivances lead to plot devices set up with startlingly inept deus ex machina moments that sneeze up the read like pepper spray. Anotherwords, any truly diabolical stratagems of a Machiavellian mindset becomes glossed with Orwellian aspersion, making it all just words.

Dead at page 271 out of 450, this being the first volume in a series of three at the moment.

 

Copyright 08/10/2011 by Larry Crawford

THE KILLING KIND by JOHN CONNOLLY, c.2001

This is gumshoeing with slightly different eyes, as our 1st person hero can sometimes see through to what he calls the “honeycomb” (Hodder & Stoughton UK, ISBN 0340771208, c.2001, p.3) of the world. There are plenty of supernatural sleuths out there—my mind keeps looping the theme song from Ghostbusters while I'm trying to think of examples—but not many with such a believable cosmology attached to the common detective procedural. Charlie Parker's ordinary world collapsed when his wife and daughter were murdered in author Connolly's first novel, Every Dead Thing (1999). The search and eventual slaughter of the Traveling Man opened the grid for Charlie to see the “interconnectedness to all things, a link between what lies buried and what lives above” (p.272) in our supposed, mundane reality.

The Killing Kind —the third in this series—opens with Charlie called in to investigate an apparent suicide—a young woman with the appropriate name of Grace—by a seemingly-concerned friend of her father, and, just like hornets swarm out of their nest when you bat it, the case rapidly leads to a clandestine and malevolent religious blind called The Fellowship. Links to the past form when the mass grave of the Aroostook Baptists—a commune-like retreat centered on a despotic brimstone preacher named Faulkner that disappeared entirely forty years hence—is unearthed from a washed-out hillside. From the below-world, Charlie hears the voice of one of its child victims cryptically leading him onward, while, in the above-world, there appears a fiendish killer named Mr. Pudd who posts a trail of torturous killings, using scalpels, epee-like knives, or a congregation of recluse and black widow spiders. These two plot threads weave with ghastly pertinence a hangman's noose around pietistic fanaticism using the knots of damnation and salvation as strangleholds. And further, as the battle rages into the ecclesiastical circles of Judaist thaumaturgy, a Golem enters the field.

Charlie, of course, is vulnerable beyond his own mortality. In the above-world, he is in love with Rachael, a psychologist who's about to share his old family home in Scarborough, Maine. Then there's the gay couple, Angel and Louis, who are moral law abiders while being deadly criminals. Beyond the gallows humor and Angel's inappropriate dress code, they are Charlie's reliable backup, and important societal antidotes along the rope of baneful events. That they will face peril because of Charlie's involvement is a no-brainer.

But the driving force is, without a doubt, the anguish, the despair, the sorrow of the narrative voice. Charlie Parker is the noir equivalent to us all; a Just Joe who finds himself with only the wrong choices left, choices that will damn him but choices that his honor and faithfulness will not allow him to debate. He is compelled to act on a higher code of Justice

   

not to undo the past but, by acting further down the line of time, to restore some measure of harmony, some possibility of equilibrium, so that lives may continue with their burden eased and the dead may find peace in a world beyond this one.

--p.273

 

When the rain stops and the sun comes out, the police and news reporters will mull over the bodies, assign blame, and declare the case solved with denouncements of man's inhumanity to man. But Charlie knows there are “some deeds beyond even the potential of human beings to commit; that there are creatures both more and less than human that prey upon us” (p.65). In his narrative, there is no discernible demonic evidence—like in the movies when evil spirits are killed, they burst into sparks or something—that his adversaries were dybbuk, or that the Golem was a specter summoned. But Charlie knows that “the truth is revealed by a misstep and the fleeting sense that something beneath our feet rings false” (p.4), because “this is a honeycomb world” (p.14) and “it hides a hollow heart” (p.3).

 

Copyright 08/26/2011 by Larry Crawford

THE WHITE ROAD by JOHN CONNOLLY, c.2002

Well, pull that "demonic evidence" back in through the window, 'cause Hellspawn's Honeycomb is wide open in this, author Connolly's 4th installment of Charlie Parker's weary road to any dusty Justice. For starters, Angel's pissed at him for not cacking Rev. Faulkner at the end of The Killing Kind, and rightly so, considering the amount of skin and blood lost to the Good Rev's torturous ways. Louis, on the other hand, is just anxious to get down South and blow away some crackers, while Rachael blesses the trip between bouts of morning sickness. Charlie, well, Charlie's resigned to pay it forward with an old attorney friend in South Carolina who's in trouble with a pesky case defending a Black rapist with a dead White girl noosing his neck. Innocent, of course, but it tips the worm can of Klu-Kluxers and Southern powermongers, attracting a school of sharks from the lowest, most-virulent depths of the Honeycomb. More subplots abound, creating the inevitable pattern:

 

a strange joining of disparate occurrences, a series of links between seemingly unconnected events stretching back into the past . . . dragging innocent and guilty alike down beneath the earth, drowning them in brackish water, [and] tearing them apart.

Hodder & Stoughton UK, ISBN 0340821183, p.101

 

This makes for lumbering sections, and its backstory excesses seem to be more fulfilling to a global need in this series' history. Not that the deprived childhoods of Louis and Angel aren't interesting, but the momentum of the plot is sacrificed, like a rattlesnake bulked with a pack rat meal. However, I do admire author Connolly's ability to move from 1st person to 3rd person in such a seamless manner. Minor characters such as militant racist Roger Bowen and his inhuman henchman Kittim are introduced away from Charlie's perception, then stumble back into the plot flow when needed. This is not as disjointed a technique as expected, but it does trip a growing concern that author Connolly is working in a larger landscape than he's usually comfortable with, especially when establishing intimacy with new characters.

As the plot veers away from its starting position and goes to the darkside, author Connolly plants badguys like spike strips through the unfolding chapters, making for quite a Big Bang cleanup at the end. Unfortunately, it feels affective rather than effective, because there's not enough time spent to twist up with terror in their presence. The plot is quite convoluted anyway, with different factions rolling for different bones: Rev. Faulkner is working humpbacked serial killer Cyrus on the girlfriends, the grown-up frat brats keep Mobley as a brutal procurer for anything illicit, Bowen's got Kittim, and Melia's got Tereus. Any one of these could step into a Lecktor-like spotlight, especially Kittim with his shimmering into "something else, something dark and winged" (p.129). He's the only killer to escape and the only one labeled "not human" (p.130). But they all seem to droop in the melodramatic soup while the reader tries to hold onto the strips of plot strings.

In fiction, the fever is always more compelling than the instruments used to combat it, and the balance between off-stage and center stage--the withholds engendering mystery verses the mechanics of solution--needs to be a precisely-timed juggling act with just the right amount of balls moving through the air. Too many balls attempted and it collapses in bafflement then detachment.

Charlie needs to get back to Maine where the dread is bone cold and leave the steamy pathologies to the goth gumshoes who know those fetid waters better.

 

Copyright 08/30/2011 by Larry Crawford

 

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THE BLACK ANGEL by JOHN CONNOLLY, c. 2005

As I've stated a number of times in past reviews, I always have trouble writing about novels I really admire. Here's another example. So, until I can find the inspiration to say something, follow the below link to John's page and read Suzy McKee Charnas' thoughts. She's an author I admire, and she's on my Best SF & Fantasy Works list, which John Connolly is as of now.

The Charnas Review

And here's John's article on Sedlec in the Czech Republic. Plus click on bookcover for more graphics.

 

Copyright 09/18/2011 by Larry Crawford

 

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KRAKEN by CHINA MIEVILLE, c.2010

Starting Kraken, the imagination encountered spouts with such an intensity as to be almost incomprehensible. Words jump off the page in wild assortment—verbs into nouns, adjectives dangling, sentences that challenge grammar in their singularity. It is a whirlpool of wordsmithing, oddly gelled and cohesive only by its ferocious creativity. As the plot evokes more and more Dali-esque imagery, unfolding sceneries jolt like pouncing leopards on crack cocaine. It is a Wild Child's journey into Disneyland as seen through a fractulated kaleidoscope. Step into China Mievelle's orbit, possibly the greatest fantasist since Lewis Carroll and certainly the most audacious one writing today.

 

In London, Heresiopolis, that was always the draw. Some midnight-of-all or other was predicted every few days or nights . . . Believers tried to talk the universe into giving their versions a go . . . The most dramatic of these Armageddonim—London had had to grow used to such arcane plural forms—were events in a kind of society. Spectator sports. To miss one would be a realtheologikal faux pas.

—p.334

Word of the locus had spread among the cognoscenti . . . as if the ends-of-the-world were an illegal rave. [The] space between concrete sweeps of flyovers . . . was turpe-industrial. Scree of rejectamenta. Workshops writing car epitaphs in rust; warehouses staffed in the day by tired teenagers; superstores and self-storage depots of bright colours and cartoon fonts amid bleaching trash. London is an endless skirmish between angles and emptiness . . . an arena of scrubland, overlooked by suspended roads.

—p.357

 

Kraken evolves around the disappearance of a giant squid nicknamed “Archie”—for Architeuthis—floating in its preservative at the British Natural History Museum's Darwin Center in London. To think how anyone could steal such a massive thing including its glass tank is madness. Soon, a man's body is found stuffed in a shortnecked apothecary jar, bewildering as a model of the HMS Golden Hind inside an Old Pulteney scotch bottle. Ever see a time-lapse film of a complex-petaled English peony go from bud to full, majestic bloom? Well, you are about to be overwhelmed in the necromantic underside of a metropolis containing 8 million human beings.

Notice I said human beings, not souls or spirits or devils or angels, or even intelligent protoplasm and ever-morphing dermis, as well as buildings with faces, statues that talk, even dogs, cats, birds and mice working picket lines together. You're gonna meet gobs of non-humans and transformed humans alike. And accept them into your existence as easy as new family members. It seems like Aboveside London is merely a billboard for Baedeker's, while Underside London is, well, hold on, because like sliding into the cockpit of a McLaren F-1, it's gonna take some getting used to all the gadgetry. But the propulsion through this unique space is worth every mach-second of the ride.

Your driver is Billy Harrow, a taxonomiser who lovingly laid to rest Archie in its new home. Now, he's this specimen's tour guide and the discoverer of the plotspring's squidnapping. A young Tom Hanks-like Everyguy, he's baffled, then inquisitive, then heroic. He's immediately joined by a speargun-carrying warrior/soldier named Dane Parnell, newly excommunicated from the Church of God Kraken, in the search for this missing leviathan. The Underside's aether is buzzing that it's a god and that Billy's been enamoured with arcane powers by the Museum's memory angel. But, most cataclysmically, it has a pivotal role in the oncoming Armageddon By Fire.

Their first and most ruthless adversary is Tattoo, a powerful consciousness trapped in the ink on some guy named Paul's back, yet able to command peerless assassin teams like Goss and Subby who can just drink you up in one gulp quick as a finger snap. Fanning out the list of puzzle-addicted seekers is a trio team from the bobby squad's FSRC—the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit—with frontrunner “police witch” (MacMillian UK, ISBN 9780333989500, c.2010, p.212) Kath Collingswood whose arsenal includes “knacks”, a potpourri of low-level but effective spells and charms, and a mouthful of highly-inventive obscenities directed at just about everybody(1). Then there's Marge, lover of Billy's best friend Leon who gets disappeared early on. She represents the no-clue but resolute tyro. She ends up with a spelltrapper I-Pod to keep her defended on the understreets and a reluctant sponsor for the Tattoo-carrying Paul, who's escaped and added to the Most Wanted List.

Along the way, an aquatic cosmology is fundamentalized where the kraken is a god of this world, where mollusk has rebutted molten rock as the core of the earth, and Noah has been translated into guiding a submarine instead of an ark. ”But those chosen for the watered paradise had failed, and God had been wrathful and withdrawn the seas. That landscape of punishment was where we lived, exiled from the ocean” (p.271). It's all Underworld, Underbelly, Underwater Creationsim.

Humping this growing pandemonium clock-ticking an apocalypto to end this “thuggish millennium” (p.286) in probably the next chapter or so, Our Heroes strap on the adjective "Action" and brev down to strip balloons like “we have to go” or “what are you talking about?” or “what do we do?” By the time they face an even bigger archenemy, Grisamentum, who, to beat a fatal disease, has pyroed himself to ash then defronted into ink, Billy and Dane are driving around in a lorry with the sloshing Archie in the back and the seats fulla Londonmancers.

I know, I know, any synopsis sounds like YA, comicbook babble. But this is Through the Looking Glass gone nova, resonating with confections furtively glimpsed by your rational mind, while ringing you like a gong with ecclesiastical brain fucks. But, admittedly, as Mr. Toad's Wild Ride(2) continues, it leaves the conventional tracks for the feverishly-outrageous until the inevitable happens: a leap from the wondermentally bizarre into the smirking absurd. So, if your sustainability seatbelt is not firmly fastened, Kraken can disbelieve rapidly from its surreal stopovers in uncharted territory to deflating dirigibles of Dadaistic nonsense when pie-eyed intellections like rough-up boys with closed fists for heads called Knuckleheads or the staging of two, competing Apocalypses, rumble the night streets of London. Then there's Gunfarmers, whose bullets germinate in ruined flesh to create more, well, guns. And don't forget gangs of Chaos Nazis, Broodists, Sisters of the Noose, and Jason Smyle, the “proletarian chameleon” (p.304), who can hex anyone into thinking they vaguely know and like him.

It culminates in a tidal wave of pataphysical confrontation, confusion, and unbridled egregiousness at the Embassy of the Sea, where Grisamentum's ink-driven paper monsterherds re-animate the dead kraken to meld with its now-zombie ink into persuading a re-write of reality. But this opens to another agenda, an assemblage of history involving “time-fire” (p.468) and Charles Darwin. And, oh yeah, Billy dies, but not really.

Is China Mieville a literary god? And this merely one book of his bible? Well, as far as I'm concerned, there's no jury yet formed to tell if Kraken is genius afloat or blubber below.

(1) don'cha get it, you shitfoxing little cuntwasp muching wanktoast? They're curses!

(2) This 1955 attraction is still operational in the Magic Castle in Anaheim.

 

Copyright 09/18/2011 by Larry Crawford

 

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WICKED THINGS by THOMAS TESSIER, c. 2007

This is a small book containing an even smaller story because it splits its 233 pages with "Scramburg, USA"—a brief novelette that I didn't read—for its 2011 reimagining by horror boutique publisher, Cemetery Dance. This is the familiar formula of registering a detective quest with a fantasy finale, not as intricate as John Connolly's genre fusions, nor as immersed as Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt's vampire shamus series, but then again, author Tessier is a Horror guy, if that's any consolation.

But then again, excuses are like peyote trips: you have to swallow something regurgitatingly-awful to even get in the game.

You know, like a 1st-person point man who is an investigator for the insurance cartels and scores with the only hot women in this novella.

Jack Carlson gets the call on some policy-bending happening upstate(1) and—boom!—the furtive agent in question eats lead, followed closely by his sexy secretary(2). Cops call it a LSMS—lover's spat murder/suicide—but Big Jack probes deeper, especially into a local pole dancer named Kelly. This is not Shakespeare, but something's rotten everywhere, encompassing the "postcard bright and tidy"(Cemetery Dance, ISBN 1587671743, c.2011, p.19) township under the malevolent umbrella of the Order of Saint Michael, an ancient stain brought over by Mayflower-era persecutees. Apparently, this country burg is like Sedona, Arizona, "where the veil between this world and the next . . . is very thin"(p.129) and Storm Constantine's Fan Club can hang out and compare Lucifer to his brother Jesus, because "they are both the way to God"(p.128). Yeah, some more Fallen Angel stuff about all mankind losing its wings when we hit this Earth called Hell. Do you care about the obligatory, tie-'em-nekkid-'an-eagle-spread, exsanguinated sacrifice, or reach-for-it-Indie(3) "unpredictable" conclusion? Well then, don't read this footnote(4).

 

1) this means somewhere Back East that's not Big Apple or Jersey Shore, that has, like, creepy woods isolated enough for hangin' up human intestines like last week's laundry.

2) yeah, she takes first-date, un-safe, dick-tation from Jack. It must be the pocket protector & pen gift set that makes him so irresistible.

3) I know, geekedly obscure, but I got a hotflash from the ending of The Last Crusade (1989): "I can almost reach it, Dad" . . . "Indiana, let it go" . . .

4) SPOILER! so who wrote all this down if the 1st-P protagonist is certainly whacked in the story's last scene? At least there's no pro/epilogue bullshit framing. Have we softened our boundaries of practiced believability since Susanna Moore's damn-the-rules-I-wanna-be-a-famous-person! un-needed mistep ending In The Cut from 1995? Or, are we to conclude that atheist Jack Carlson is "saved" and harping at us from some other-dimensional cloud?

 

Copyright 10/10/2011 by Larry Crawford

 

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ZOO CITY by LAUREN BEUKES, c.2010

Let me see if I've got this straight: you commit murder, you get an animal. And if you're carryin' an animal around Jozi-town, you're forced to live in a kinda District 9 ghetto called Zoo City. I doubt anybody has pets anymore, ‘cause citizens wouldn't want the veil of criminality shrouding their upstandin' reputations. Africa is a continent of many rare and important things, especially the way indigenous people concoct a spirit world bonding them with the Earth, plants, the elements, and, ah, animals. I guess I never thought much about the travail needed for such vaulting imagination to florish next door to a modern, clockwork world.

Because, coming from a 21st Century, techno urban industrial, babbled-by-humans infoverse in a metalstamped landscape held together by computer glue, I had a tough time reading through this fuzzy mystery setup constantly being prodded by its major withhold of getting “animalled”. It doesn't help that author Beukes wants to write fantasy instead of science fiction. It's “magick”, you see, no explanation needed, although there is a hasty insert about a film student turned Afghan warlord fighting with a penquin in a bulletproof vest who is labeled “Patient Zero” of the breakout Zoo Plague (Angry Robot, ISBN 9780857660558, c.2010, p.79). But this is absurdist legendry, isn't it? The allusion is cynical but not informative, I suspect.

The facts are vague, but our heroine, Zinzi December, apparently killed her brother by default, but it was enough to raise up the Undertow to present her with a lifetime Sloth.This opens a lot of user/re-hab issues for Zinzi, as if it's a bona-fide Rite of Passage these days. You know, Birth, Puberty, Addiction, Adulthood, Marriage & Procreation, Death, in any order you choose. There's this druggie guide to guilt, atonement, and resurrection in the symbolism, I think, maybe. I'll charitably limp around the obvious AIDS virus parallel with being under the "zoodar"(p.308) while pointing out some well-placed landmines associated to addicts' behavior, like externalizing the blame so us junkies can think we're “just meat with faulty programming” (p.183). I like to call this the Jessica Rabbit defense: “I'm not bad, I was just drawn that way.” Anyway, Sloth doesn't help Zinzi like Mr. Ed braying out answers and solutions, or Blood findin' cooze for Vic in Ellison's A Boy And His Dog (1969). Sloth pretty much stops at Burden, however cuddley. Too bad, too, ‘cause there's not a lot of sharper tools in the workshop than Sloth. Even Boyfriend—that'd be Benoit supporting Mongoose—seems more of a shadow from the rough draft, and only around to add to the personal betrayals and help with the final Big Boss Battle. The villains, also, are straight out of Casting, led by the Corrupt and Evil Talent Producer—that'd be Odi Huron with Crocodile—who hornswaggles Zinzi into locating his runaway Lindsay Lohan-like teen talent, who is guaranteed to go platinum with her next ringtone release. See, gettin' animalled also gets you a magical ability, hence Zinzi sees empyreal strings to lost things so there's something—like a plot—to hang visions-an'-ideas onto while we stumble around looking for somewhere to drop anchor.

And after mainspring and characterization, what's left? Well, there's atmosphere, I guess. But I never got a sense of placement other than the junkie hovel tour of any major urban slumsite meltdown. Is this Johannesburg in South friggin' Africa or USA Newark?

The writing, however, is smart enough to think this is social satire. Author Beukes has a smug way with sound-byte phrasing, like "mutually assured desperation"(p.57), "relentlessly modern"(p.107), "consumerist sanctity"(p.257), or even "more manicured than a porn star's topiary"(p.87). First-person mouthpiece Zinzi adds just enough weary bitterness to her sass to be endearing, and her flirty brass makes you wanna know more about her “dirty 419 scam habit” (back cover blurb). So, don't get me wrong: I enjoyed reading this book. It was fun. It was, well, like a savory wedge of Swiss cheese where the holes are an important part of its personal identification, but they're still, ah, holes.

 

Copyright 10/25/2011 by Larry Crawford

 

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LOST SOULS by POPPY Z. BRITE, c.1992

 

The voice crested into laughter, lewd and savage. Ghost thought of a blank soul, a being with no morals and no passions except those that could be gratified at a moment's notice, a mad child allowed to rage out of control.

Delacorte Press (ISBN 0385308752), p.188

 

Lost Souls is a runaway train ride through the ill-chosen but embraced sub-culture of disenfranchised youth. In every generation there's this lost and dangerous set of tracks spurring off from the race to maturity. Most of us chance the posted warnings but don't travel much further than we can rationalize. We all have friends who did and never came back. In almost all cases, buried in that continuous warp of immature ego and id battling to smooth out the push-pulls of desire, accomplishment, curiosity, obsession, ambition, enjoyment, et al., along the pleasure and pain of life's directions, there's an emerald-eyed ogre called “excess” just itching to bloat past those safety signposts and drive you straight into Avernus.

The vampires in Lost Souls are perilously close to people you know or at least have heard about living right now in this perfumed and profane world. They are a fascinating combination of Goth Metal heads, Peter Pan's Lost Boys, streetwise junkie thugs and a pack of fearless jackals, as dreamed by a young Brett Easton Ellis channeling a never-old Hunter S. Thompson. This is wanton disaffection engendered from pre-adulthood angst, fantasized into petulant defilement, open mockery, and sheer butchery.

Since there's no plot—well, not much of one, anyway—the strength is on the shoulders of the characters. As to their importance, well, the victim-hero is named Nothing and the seeker-hero is called Ghost, with the oldest, sage-like vampire known as Christian. Atmospherics shine brilliantly in scenes of steamy and seedy New Orleans, the unbridled capital of vampirism a la Anne Rice's theatrical influence. However, Lost Souls is anarchy, not history; it is debauchery, not refinement. This is the celebration of sheer indulgence, and it is coveted in this novel as much as the freedom needed to embrace it. There is also the balancing hope and stubbornness of charity incorporated in the non-vamp but spectral seer, Ghost. The bonds of true friendship stand throughout as the only redeeming force in Souls' ramped-up reality of blood mayhem, omnivoristic sexuality, and brain-bludgeoning intoxication. The characters spend a lot of time picking at scabs or finger painting in fresh blood. They don't take showers and find sleeping in a sweaty pile inside a beater van pleasurable. Their sense of humor is definitely of the graveyard variety.

Yet these vampires are not much different from the human herd. Sunlight doesn't bother them, they don't have straw-like fangs, and blood is not their main dish. They are, however, immortal and quite rare, which are the dissemblances author Brite is emphasizing. Fitting into the vulgarity of their exploits, procreation is not achieved by the neckbiter's blood, but by semen, further black-tarred because the newborn eats its way out of Mommy's womb. And as for chewing, these pre-millennium suckers are all about the sensation of the impetuous kill, not its sustenance. Beyond the fancied control and entitlement whinings so cliché with modern youth, there's a lot of subliminal anger in this imagining, seething around the proverbial target: societal authority figures, especially parental. They file their own teeth, these tween-aged vamps—the pack's average age is 100 years—making for a rather gruesomely-feral savoring on their nightly, nihilistic benders.

The strength of the novel is told in its title, Lost Souls. There's this Jim Morrison-esque longing for fulfillment in rejecting main-street values, then substituting impossible dreams for new meaning to things yet to be found. It is lost, fuzzy thinking, but, while waiting for Word, excessive stimulation substitutes for focused direction. There is really no perception of time past Now to the initiated. It is a refreshing reminder that predatory, legendary monsters should be anything but admired, yet there remains that vicarious tingle to the moral outrage of embracing savagery against humanity. As a result, Lost Souls is easily the most hedonistic, the most ethically corrupt novel you'll read this year, as long as you stay away from Littell's The Kindly Ones, that is.

I don't view Lost Souls as a poorly-written book or a bad read. Quite the contrary. It's contending—in a degenerating sort of way—to join that category I'll call The Schindler's List. You know, those things formed of exquisite energy, emotion and insight, destined for places of importance and influence, but contain such disagreeable yet poignant subject matter that they are difficult, troublesome, and painful to visit, grudging admiration be damned. Throw in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, Plath's The Bell Jar, and Shute's On the Beach, but leave me off the reading group list. As far as Lost Souls go, I just don't want to ever know or meet any of these people ever again, and that includes even you, Ghost.

 

Copyright 11/15/2011 by Larry Crawford

 

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SO COLD THE RIVER by MICHAEL KORYTA, c.2010

Lots of times, reading choices are based on circumstances. Unless you're alarmingly dismal or just the opposite—like carelessly audacious—probably Alive! is not your pick for a plane ride over the Andes. I needed a book to spend a weekend with in the Los Angeles area. To me, Southern California is like an aging resort in such constant renovation and expansion as to be unrecognizable. If you eliminate a century of greedy, dream-seeking immigrants and their feverish terraforming, underneath the L.A. basin buildup is Eden. There's magic in the ground. Disneyland and Hollywood are just two examples of genuine, pervasive visions that have flourished from this portal.

So Cold The River was the perfect pick. We have a failed filmmaker for a protagonist, a William Hearst/Bugsy Siegal wannabe/willbe comboed clone for an antagonist with a BooBoo-like sidekick, a beautiful, caring Nursie-poo for a not-so-estranged wife, and a gym-fit, pug-fisted, Porsche-driving (it's a Cayenne), smart-ass back-up buddy who just happens to be Black. Throw this character list into a quest story that quickly stinks up supernatural, and you've got a Laguna Beach book.

There's even magic in the ground, called Pluto Water. Wow.

Taking a bio-pic job after performance anxiety has wiped out his film career, Eric Shaw sees a comeback in his grasp after he samples some 80-year old mineral water from an eclectic resort in Indiana. This bottled spirit hits him like Stanley's first batch of Owsley Purple, intimately acquainting him with a long-dead thug named Campbell Bradford. Only problem is, it's Campbell who intends on coming back.

 

The critics compare to Stephen King in reviews--maybe for the slight similarity in spooky mainsets between the Overlook Hotel and the West Baden Springs Resort--but this's bait tasting worse than the sulphuric seltzer from Lost River's Wesley Chapel Gulf. Author Koryta is certainly a skilled storyteller and might even be as verbose as King, but he's nowhere near as twisted, daunting, and captivating while turning your hair white. They're both good, but it's like preferring bread toasted or soaked in milk. I say this because my reading experience with these two authors is damn near antipodal: King's horror thrillers gain with intensity until they're impossible to put down, while Koryta's bursts out of the gate like a bird dog, points the way, then settles in while you ramble amicably along to conclusion. It's an attentive read, but not a particularly scary one.

And for no reason, I left this book in Rancho Cucamonga at page 390 out of 508 and just let it bleed out.

 

Copyright 11/17/2011 by Larry Crawford

 

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DOOMSDAY BOOK by CONNIE WILLIS, c.1992

After leering a year at 50's Pulp covers, you'd think I wouldn't be swayed by cheesy, inappropriate cover art, but even though everyone told me this is a benchmark work, I couldn't face reading some Courtly Romance like some girly-man, eh?(4) Then, my consternation got worse when I realized there was no crime theme . . . hey, NO crime theme! I know, you Mainstreamers are shrugging your shoulders, but do you realize how many stories out there in current Cultureville are crime themed? Like, all of them, dude. How unusual to ponder a 600-page novel that finds something more important than criminal transgression.

Yeah, it's called The Black Death of 1348 AD.

The novel is really two stories starting together, splitting into dual timeframes, then regrouping. Somewhat loquacious yet cohesive, it fires off about 50 years ahead of us. Oxford is still oh so ‘90s while strangling in pedantic nonsense, bureaucratic haboobs, squeezed goods and services, and an over-populated blend of protesters, victims, and under-appreciated, scholarly brilliance. Somehow, some way they've discovered time travel, you betcha. A young, female historian named Kivrin is sent back to 1320 for study of agrarian life just prior to the most devastating catastrophe in recorded history, which swiped off about 150 million people—that's 1/2 of Europe—out of a world population base of 350-450 million.

The drop is totally bollixed. Kivrin becomes ill immediately, mushing up her introduction to rural, medieval society with hallucinations and false expectations to the point where she has to plead insomnia to be accepted into the gentry's country household. The Lord of the manor is not present, so Kivrin is befriended by Lady Eliwys and her two daughters—one a child and the other a tween—and her crone mother-in-law who mistrusts Kivrin from the beginning. Beyond the subterfuge, Kivrin's biggest anxiety is finding the drop zone so she can return in 2 weeks.

Meanwhile, back in modern Oxford, what Kivrin has caught ends up the start of a localized viral epidemic that puts the citizenry near death and into utter, disaster-level chaos. With time-net technicians fever babbling and administrators rushing to cover their own, vulnerable backsides, the major bumble of the time transference is missed: Kivrin didn't go to 1320, she's in 1348 amidst the Christmas holidays that brought humanity its worst present of all. The bulk of the novel innercuts these time frames, contrasting lifestyles and belief systems under the threat of a runaway pandemic separated by 700 years of knowledge and understanding.

This middle section swallows up about 2/3s of the oscillating narrative. And, let's face it, to modern sensibilities, the Middle Ages were brutal, tedious, stultifying, and just downright dour. Kivrin smacks into braying ignorance, asinine prejudice, and familiar petty power games beyond the crushing hardships of living without effective medicines, sanitation, or even a working fireplace.(1) It quickly becomes obvious why the Church claimed so much of peasant life: the hope of salvation meant a respite from blistering toil and spirit-crushing despair. All the familiar bullet points are here, from a January/May contract marriage, through odoriferous overwhelm with “excrement and bad meat and decomposition” (Bantam, ISBN 0553081314, BCE, c.1992, p.8), to a decimated population terrorized and perplexed why their god would destroy them in such hateful wrath.

In the current timeframe, the viral spread is deemed less dangerous yet barely contained due to poor planning, inept bureaucracy, vacant leadership, and general denial. Fortunately, dedicated individuals overstep the floundering institutions and its blustering functionaries for successful closure. In contrast, hardly anyone dies before an antidote can be produced. With tongue firmly in cheek, author Willis injects far more humor into these sections: acting head of the History Dept Gilchrist(2) is channeling cartoon Dilbert 's devil-horned boss; teenaged pro tem adjunct Colin grosses out everybody by nonchalantly inspecting his “gobstopper” and substituting “apocalyptic” for “bitchin'” in every exclamatory sentence; the custodian decrying “we're nearly out of . . .” every time he's encountered. And Mrs. Gladdon, the over-bearing mother—her son manages to remain mostly offstage and under the stairway with every girl he can get his hands on—heeding the call from the clouds to feverishly read Scripture to patients too sick to avoid her. Although it falls short of looking like The Marx Bros. at the Apocalypse, the mockery in the current cycle does well to underscore the deadly seriousness of Kivrin's predicament.

With this, the biggest snarls bring perspective: any modern disaster—whether it be AIDS, Katrina, or 911—fades like the latest Adam Sandler comedy when compared to The Black Death. The Dark Ages didn't have a chance against it, and Doomsday Book slyly points out that, even though we now have the medical technology, our own regulatory entanglements and the short-sighted, company-men who manage these corpulent institutions could be just as impotent. This, of course, was contemplated before the 21st Century highlighted the car bomb, suitcase nukes, and the C-4 terrorist vest as further means to mass destruction. Connie Willis has shown us nobility, terror, incompetence, strength and courage of humanity when facing runaway disaster. Let's hope we're prepared for the future, and don't have to resort to blaming China this time.(3)

 

1) chimneys were not introduced into English homes until much later.

2) If there's a human villain, this is him. Even his name is ironic, as “gil” comes from the Irish meaning “devotee”, and Gilchrist's decisions make him as intractable, incompetent, and ineffective as the largest social organization—The Church—was during the Plague.

3) It is theorized that the Black Plague started around 1342 when a flea hopped on a rat in China on its way down the Silk Road via the Crimea to Europe.

4) Talk about Swallowin' Back Dem Words, I loved Lorna Doone! (see review here).

 

Copyright 12/31/2011 by Larry Crawford

 
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