August Book Reviews

13 08 2010

As always, completely subjective and unprofessional. One man’s trash is another man’s successful yard sale. J 

1)      Horns by Joe Hill (2 out of 6 Miller Light): I’m a huge fan of Joe Hill. I loved his debut short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. It is at the top of the shelf when it comes to single author collections, right next to my copy of his father’s collection, Night Shift. The short story, “Pop Art,” is perhaps one of the best stories about young friendship that I have ever read. I also enjoyed Hill’s debut novel, Heart Shaped Box. This novel, however, I struggled with. I loved the first third (even the first two-thirds) of the novel. By the time I got to the end, however, I was glad it was the end. In fact, it took me a long time to get through this one because there were times when I just didn’t want to pick the book back up. To be fair, this book has an amazing premise: a regular – if strongly depressed – guy wakes up one day with horns on his head and some demonic powers to go along with these new appendages. When he walks into a room, people tell him their deepest, darkest secrets. They feel compelled to act on their darker instincts whenever the protagonist enters the room. The first few chapters are great fun – nicely drawn set pieces. I don’t know exactly where this book went wrong for me. Perhaps it was all those flashbacks? Perhaps it was the fact that the good vs. evil theme wasn’t as fully utilized as I would have liked? Perhaps it was the fact that while we are told by this novel again and again and again that we should have “Sympathy for the Devil”? Yet, why we should have such sympathy was never really explained. I think I prefer the Rolling Stones song. Anyway, despite a few twists and turns, I found the ending to be unsatisfying and strangely predictable for such a strange and surreal novel.  I blame sophomore slump. I still look forward to reading Hill’s next novel.

2)      Blanket of White by Amy Grech (4 out of 6 Shock Top): As is often the case with single author collections, I found this one a little uneven. There were some really good stories and a few that just did not click with me for whatever reason. A few highlights would include futuristic vampire tale, “EV 2000”; post-apocalyptic survival tale, “Perishables”; and “Damp Wind and Leaves”, a sweet little story about a young man finding romance while mourning the loss of his childhood at a family Halloween party.  *

3)      Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (5 out of 6 shots of bourbon): I recently reread this highly influential novella for the first time since college. Wow. It’s not an easy read by modern standards but well worth revisiting. There are two schools of criticism regarding this work to note. One, a more modern interpretation, insists the novella is racist and prejudiced and downright useless in many ways: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Image_of_Africa:_Racism_in_Conrad%27s_%22Heart_of_Darkness%22 . Scroll down in the link and you see another interpretation insists that Conrad was a product of his times and that the “racist” symbol is the result of “political correctness run amok.” As for my reading, I fell somewhere in-between these two schools of thought. I found the descriptions terribly racist. The African natives are shown as mere beasts in many scenes, so I completely understand Achebe’s criticisms. There is some terrible stuff in the text. Yet, I think it is extremely important to remember these older attitudes that were so prevalent during  Colonial times and not sugarcoat our own history. British Colonialism was not a perfect enterprise (and I know this is an understatement), yet it deserves to be studied fairly, warts and all. Also, since the story is filtered through dialogue – the primary storyteller is not Conrad but a separate character – it can honestly be argued the story is not as racist as it first appears. In fact,  Marlow – the primary storyteller – is not exactly reliable or even all that likeable as a narrator. Also, at times, the story satirizes the absurdity of British colonists and the process of colonization itself. The colonists are often portrayed as extremely naïve creatures, completely out of their element, and only motivated by love of money in the form of ivory. I would argue that the colonists are shown to be the lesser race in some ways throughout the course of this novella. There’s a lot of depth in the story, a lot of different ways to read into the themes and set pieces, and in my reading, I found the overall effects was a quite harsh critique of colonialism. While the language is raw and offensive by any modern reader’s standards, it was also the language used by the common denominator at the time and accurately captures the prevalent mindset of that culture at that moment in history. But over and above all of these other thoughts, the writing and overall structure of the story is absolutely amazing and holds up quite well in stirring an emotional impact.  Recommended with reservations.

4)      Ray in Reverse by Daniel Wallace   (5 out of 6 Southern Pecan Brown Ale): A fictional biography, written with a backwards chronology, about a recently deceased man in Heaven looking down and sizing up his life. At times touching, at times humorous, at times frustrating, but overall, a really great quick read. Recommended.   

5)      Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan (3 out of 6 Bud Light): Why do I keep reading hard science fiction from this era? Flat characters (no females to mention really, except for that old sexy secretary trope). Lots of smoking and bourbon. It was Mad Men with scientists (but not quite as awesome as that kind of sounds). Infodumps galore. Over-explaining everything (and I mean everything) through dialogue. Yet the central premise is interesting, and I liked the way Hogan championed scientific theory and critical thinking. I say take it or leave it. *Shrugs* It is entertaining at times despite its flaws. It has that much going for it. Not bad, but not great either.

Next month: The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, The Changed by B.J. Burrow, and whatever else I happen to feel like reading. J

*Received as electronic copy for review.

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