Monday, December 31, 2012

My Year of Reading: 2012

My Year of Reading: 2012

Welcome to 2013! Another year of reading in the... um.... books.

This marks the beginning of the third year I have kept this blog. In that time I have written up on every single book I have read in that time. I've blogged through sickness, vacations, typhoons and pregnancy. I'm the blogosphere's version of the postal service! I've even managed to maintain the blog through the first six weeks of my daughter's life. Why stop now, hey? Here's to continued reading success in the new year.

I'm not one for memes, though I like to follow what others are reading. I think reading challenges are a clever idea, but I've never felt compelled to force myself to do more or less of anything literary. I see a lot of bloggers stating that they will read ten classics this year or that they will endeavor to finish at least five books over 700 pages or that they will read more non-fiction or Charles Dickens or less erotica or whatever. I respect the diligence and discipline, but I've always considered the act of reading (no matter what I am reading) as diligence and discipline in and of itself. Furthermore, reading challenges often narrow a person's reading rather than broaden it. So I vow to continue reading whatever I may get my hands on over the next twelve months.

So what's new in 2013? Well, for one thing, I will be sharing a portion of my reviews with the good people over at I Read A Book Once.... If you haven't been over there yet, I sincerely urge you to do so. Jonathan is doing some stand up work and the resources he is amassing put this little corner of the net to shame. And since this blog is strictly reviews I might even get around to posting a rant or two along the way. I'll be sure to let everyone know when I have posted something new over there.

Otherwise, let's get to the main event, shall we? We're all here to get a load of my year end lists. And without further ado, here they are in no particular order...

Best Fiction of the Year

1. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
This novel absolutely blindsided me. When someone asks me my favorite novels, this one always seems to pop in my head.

2. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
I could have chosen any one of three of the George R.R. Martin novels I read this year, but I'll go with my favorite.

3. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
This is one of those solidly written novels that you carry with you for years. 

4. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro made my top five last year and manages to find his way on again with this nuanced masterpiece.

5. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides
Speaking of making my list two years in a row, Here's Eugenides again. I had wanted to read this novel for ages and it did not disappoint.

Best Non-Fiction of the Year

1. Bossypants by Tina Fey
The great thing about this book was that its awesomeness was completely unexpected.

Yeah, sure the writing is atrocious but I double dog dare you to read this book without a)bawling and b) becoming a huge Anvil fan.

3. Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein
Perhaps it was the impending birth of my daughter, but this diatribe on the insidious marketing strategies aimed at young girls really struck a chord. Everyone with a daughter should read this.

This book got a lot of undeserved slack. It's a very open and honest book about parenting and worth reading.

5. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics by John J. Mearsheimer
Anyone even remotely interested in the larger workings of world politics should read this book. Whether you agree or disagree, Mearsheimer presents some compelling evidence.

Worst Books of the Year

Note: I'm not implying that these are bad books when I list them as the worst books. These are books that either disappointed me or failed to live up to certain expectations. I still stand in awe of the fact that these people are able to sit down and write novels. I have unwavering respect for that.

After Cloud Atlas, how was Mitchell ever going to maintain expectations? This book is fine, but ultimately disappointing.

2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
...and a million YA readers wept. Sorry.

3. The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

4. The Story of O by Pauline Reage
Shocking erotica that failed to shock or eroticize. Fifty Shades of Snore.

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carre 
Seriously, WTF was going on?

Anyway. Hope everyone had a great New Years and I look forward to continuing the blog into 2013.

Every House is Haunted

Every House is Haunted
By Ian Rogers

Note: This is my first review in partnership with the good people over at I Read A Book Once.... Although all the reviews I write for them will also appear here, I encourage everyone to pay the site regular visits as it has lots more news, reviews and author interviews. I'm excited to be part of the team.

A blues guitar player whose name I cannot recall once said that the blues isn't about the notes a musician plays, it's about the notes he doesn't play. Horror works in exactly the same way. A horror writer is responsible for providing a precise amount of detail that is necessary to frighten a reader. No more, no less. Not enough detail and the reader cannot picture the scenario, too much detail and you eliminate the fundamental criteria in all scary stories: the reader's imagination. It's a literary balancing act that is often destabilized by a writer's overwhelming desire to add more (in this case unnecessary) detail. The writer should provide only what is absolutely necessary for the reader to conjure up the most horrifying aspects of their own imagination.

As P.T. Barnum may or may not have said: "Always leave them wanting more." While this is true of virtually every situation in life, this truism is especially true for horror writing. Good horror should end in a hair-raising climax that wraps up enough (but never all) of the story's loose ends. The unresolved (or unrevealed) issues at the end of a horror story are the most crucial. In my humble opinion, horror should leave the reader alone with their own imagination as to what happens next. Does Carrie rise from the dead and terrorize the town of Chamberlain? There should be room for infinite imagined terrors to occur in the readers mind after the last word has been written.

The reader, on the other hand, has responsibilities of their own when entering into a horror story. He or she must enter into a horror story with an open mind, devoid of preconceptions and biases and prepared unequivocally to suspend their disbelief beyond its usual boundaries. Unlike other genres of fiction, I make it a policy to enter into a horror story with no expectations. If you project your expectations onto a writer they are bound to disappoint. I will hereafter refer to this phenomenon as the Late-Era Stephen King Anomaly.

So as you can see, horror fiction is a social contract of sorts between a writer and a reader. A symbiotic relationship that, when it works, results in extraordinarily fun reading but when it doesn't.... egads!

So it was nice to sit down with Ian Roger's new collection of short stories with a wide open mind and be pleasantly surprised to find an eclectic anthology of stories that are not only well-written but also offer the precise amount of detail while leaving all the climaxes as open ended as possible. No awkward reveals, no detailed descriptions of monsters that never, ever live up to expectations and no not once was I disappointed with an ending. That's a difficult feat to achieve.

Every House is Haunted is a loosely intertwined collection of stories that range from paranormal to science fiction to strict horror. I'm not going to summarize over two dozen stories for you, so you'll just have to go find this book yourself if you are interested. I will tell you that it is cleverly divided into five sections, fittingly entitled The Vestibule, The Library, The Attic , The Den and The Cellar. A literary house tour, if you will.

Although Rogers notes in his introduction that his greatest influence was Stephen King (and who am I to question that?) I thought his style throughout the collection was predominantly reminiscent of Robert McCammon's short fiction. However, "The Tattletail" is a nod to J.K. Rowling. H.P. Lovecraft is manifest in "Charlotte's Frequency" and, most tellingly, "Winter Hammock" evokes the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut. Certainly not literary lightweights. If Rogers is running on even half capacity compared to those writers, you can't miss. I'll go so far as to say he's pacing them rather well, indeed.

Of course, I don't want to imply that Rogers doesn't have a distinct literary voice. He most certainly does. But short fiction is a difficult genre. The writer has to get straight down to business, often at the expense of details that either the writer or the reader would have otherwise like to have been privy. Maintaining the trust of the reader is difficult when you are trying to craft as story only 20 pages long. It doesn't take much to disappoint a reader in a short span. So voice and pacing become an especially important aspect, one that Rogers handles adeptly. One does not want the same voice in each and every story. A certain amount of homage is an ingenious way to ensure each narrative employs a different tone and voice.

So what, exactly am I rambling about? Is this book any good or not? Should you go out and buy the damned thing or not bother? Well, like most titles in the horror genre, this is not the sort of collection that is going to win over new fans. There is little to no cross-over potential here. If you like romance, you'll find none of the cross pollination one finds in titles such as Twilight. However, if you are constantly on the lookout for new and interesting work in the paranormal genre, this is a can't miss title. Well crafted stories, well crafted characters, no condescension and boat loads of fun to read. In Every House is Haunted, Ian Rogers doesn't play all the right notes.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Feast for Crows: Book Four of A Song of Ice and Fire

A Feast for Crows: Book Four of a Song of Ice and Fire
By George R.R. Martin

Note: I promise, there are no overt spoilers in this post.

Trying to avoid Game of Thrones spoilers on the Internet is like trying to shield yourself from the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan two decades on. Everyone knows that Spock was going to die in the end and everyone knows A Feast for Crows is the weakest of the Song of Ice and Fire series. Or so the Internet would like you to believe.

I admit it, I had put off reading the fourth installment of the series because it has been roundly discussed over the Intrawebs that this book is the bad apple in the proverbial bushel, the weakest link in the maester's chain, if you excuse my nerdiness. If Sesame Street did a 30 second bit on the series it would the one thing that doesn't belong. If A Feast for Crows were a movie it would be Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or The Godfather III. If it were television, it would be the first season of The Simpsons. If it were music it would be post-David Lee Roth Van Halen. Hell, even George R.R. Martin himself felt the need to write an epilogue to this installment explaining why it is the way it is. Apparently he had to divide the fourth installment into two books to accommodate the entire story. Fine by me. He shouldn't apologize or explain his work. All this awesomeness came out of his head and nobody else's. He reserves the right to tell his story the way he wants. To hell with us critics, right? So what if A Feast for Crows is different.

And make no mistake, A Feast for Crows is indeed the odd man out of the series in a lot of ways. Rather than continue the stories of Bran Stark, Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister, Martin opts to introduce narratives from a host of other characters, most notably Cersei Lannister and a bunch of Vikings, I mean Iron Islanders. As well, Martin introduces a few extremely dull characters from Dorne (yawn). But seriously, if you have been on Team Cersei through the first three books, this is the book for you. A solid 40% of the book is told from the perspective of the cruelest of the Lannister clan. By the end of this novel I'm not sure whether I want to punch Cersei in the throat or take her out for a nice seafood dinner. Either way, I don't think her behavior would have been at all believable without the first hand account of why she does what she does. If nothing else, one could regard A Feast for Crows as a primer for all things Lannister.

Furthermore, by adding characters into the narrative mix Martin fleshes out the situation in Westeros a lot more. Up until now, the happenings in Dorne, the Vale and the Iron Islands, have been sorely ignored. This was the first novel in which I got the feeling that things were afoot in all corners of the realm. Though I'm going to be honest here... I'm still entirely uninterested in what is happening in Dorne. Who cares about the Dornish? They are even less interesting than the Tullys.

And despite radio silence from my two favorite characters (Daenerys and Tyrion) and a complete lack of The Others, Martin hasn't abandoned all the familiars. Sansa and Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth, Jaime Lannister and Samwell Tarly are all represented and their stories have progressed sufficiently. And the absence, for a novel, of Varys was refreshing. Don't get me wrong, Varys is a great character, but he's creepy and there was enough Robert Arryn and The Brotherhood Without Banners in A Feast for Crows to keep the creep factor high.

So, to make a long blog post short, A Feast for Crows isn't as bad as people say it is. It's different, that's for sure, and it doesn't follow the formula of the previous three novels and there is absolutely zero Tyrion represented (that did sting) but it's all logical progression and I finished the novel excited to sink my teeth into A Dance with Dragons. Am I glad to be over the hump? Yes. Was it as painful as it could have been? Well, if I had read this when it came out and had to wait a year for the next novel, yes, it would have been. As it stands, I can start A Dance with Dragons any time I want and that makes a load of difference.

Previous reviews in this series:

A Game of Thrones
A Clash of Kings
A Storm of Swords

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


By Bob Fingerman

What is it about the zombie genre that makes it such a tenacious sub-genre in our popular culture? Certainly it is not the nuanced characterization of the walking undead. From the opening scene of George Romero's 1968 genre-setting film Night of the Living Dead  to present, zombies, with very few exceptions, have been rather two-dimensional in scope. They are reanimated corpses who have a singular existential urge: to devour human flesh. Not the most rounded characters. And yet they seem to have more staying than vampires, wizards and werewolves which lend themselves to complex characterization.

So what gives?

The difference is the secondary characters. While other similar styles of horror focus the narrative on the specific creature (be it vampires, werewolves or what have you), what many people fail to understand about (most of) the zombie genre is that the zombies are actually inconsequential to the story being told. Zombie lore, at it's finest, is social satire. The writer or director uses the notion of a zombie apocalypse as a way in which to render society down to a microcosm of our complex social networks. Zombies focus the multitude of humanity's ills and places them under a microscope for the writer or director to examine in detail.

The zombie element is simply a clever and visually exciting backdrop to the real story: the human drama unfolding in the farm house or the shaping mall or the tenement building. When zombie lore strays from this nowhere-to-run motif it often falls flat on its face (note: this does not include anything that is written or filmed from the perspective of the zombie... that's genre deconstruction and worthy of its own discussion. See Dust). George Romero himself is guilty of straying in some of his more recent work, especially Day of the Dead.

All this is not to say that those working within the zombie genre are entirely reined in with respect to how they tell their story. There is still more than enough creative leeway within the genre to sustain it for years to come.

Case in point, Bob Fingerman's novel Pariah. The novel begins months into the apocalypse. The streets of New York are wall to wall zombies. A group of people living in a building in (or near) the Bronx have barricaded themselves inside their own building and are slowly starving to death and/or going crazy. As with so much zombie lore, each character represents a specific social stereotype that the author wants to throw into his own personal meting pot. What would happen if we put a misogynistic jock, an elderly Jewish couple, an artist, a woman who has recently lost her husband and infant daughter, the son of a mid-western Jesus freak and a middle aged black dude all together in a tiny space? What if they couldn't leave? How would that pan out?

This story could just as easily take place on a lonely spacecraft in deep space or a collapsed mine or an Antarctic base during the winter. Really, it would work in any local that offered no immediate escape. It would just be difficult to explain how an elderly Jewish couple ended up in Antarctica. That's where the zombies come in handy. It doesn't hurt that they are creepy and gory and scary as well.

This is what Fingerman understands so well. Rather than try to re-invent the wheel, Fingerman stayed true to the spirit of that old farmhouse in Romero's original film. Pariah is very much about humans trying and failing to co-exist in times of extreme duress.

But if that was all there was to Pariah, why would it merit such a lofty discussion on the nature of zombie lore? Thankfully, Pariah brings more to the table than simply another retelling of the same rat-in-a-cage trope. Fingerman, in what can only be described as a moment of undead clarity, introduces the concept of zombie immunity. What if specific individuals, for whatever reason, repelled the walking undead? What if certain people were simply unappetizing to zombies and could walk among them entirely unmolested? How would that work?

Pariah isn't a perfect novel. I found that Fingerman threw far too many pop culture references into his dialogue and internal monologue. While I fully understand the pervasive nature of books, music, films and the like, I don't think that people living under these conditions would reference SCTV or Dumb and Dumber that often. A lot of the pop culture references felt shoehorned into the narrative as a way for Fingerman to sound off about his own views rather than develop his characters. Unless, of course, he was insinuating that the sum of our culture doesn't amount to anything more than what we know about The Addams Family. In that case, this book is even more depressing than I initially thought.

But that's a minor inconvenience to an otherwise thought-provoking addition to the zombie oeuvre. I'm not one for spoilers so I'm just going to urge those who enjoy all things zombie to read Pariah. I'll admit that if you aren't a fan of the genre I don't think this will be the novel to turn you on to zombies, but if you, like me, crave all things living dead, this is a can't miss novel. It maintains all of the standard features that drew you into the zombie sub-genre to begin with, stays true to the mythology established by George Romero and throws just enough monkey wrench into the cogs to leave you asking more questions that it answers. Pariah is certainly a next step sort of work and, in time, should be considered canon for the keepers of zombie lore.