6-Pack Book Reviews

2 10 2010

Shalimar the Clown by Salmon Rushdie (4 out of 6 Highland Imperial Kashmir IPA): Rushdie’s sprawling epic wanders from wartime France to Kashmir across the Middle East and then on to America. The narrative flows across time and across characters and their genealogies. It is at times dreamy and fantastic while retaining a harsh well-researched realism in its depiction of modern religious fanaticism, notably fanaticism of the Islamic variety. One scene clearly depicts this fear of Islamic fanaticism as an assassin successfully serves a fatwa against a secular author who wrote a book critical against extremist thought. This scene brought Rushdie himself to my mind considering how it mirrored his well-known past troubles with Islamic extremists.  Many of the ideas and themes in the novel are clearly defined and poignant, and the critiques don’t stop with the fundamentalists. It also criticizes the cultures which help these fundamentalists germinate, including America. Unfortunately, this mishmash of characters grows a little fuzzy, but this can be forgiven thanks to the poetic language (typical of my experiences with Rushdie). It feels like the story follows various threads for too long, taking too much time away from the emotional thrust of the story and the protagonists. The protagonists almost become secondary characters at times. It feels like the author loses his focus sometimes, and as a reader, it made for a difficult reading experience (not that I couldn’t read it – more that I was growing a little bored and didn’t always want to read it). The end result of this fractured narrative is that it diluted the emotional impact which might have strengthened his social criticisms.

Mr. Hands by Gary Braunbeck (4 out of 6 Coors Light):    An interesting horror romp. At times the narrative flowed into a poetic stream of consciousness style that worked well as a way of bringing the reader into the mind of the protagonist. High literary aspirations are on display throughout this novel in the pacing, character development, settings, and language. Reading this novel reminded me of the kind of books Robert McCammon was putting out in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  He, too, could deliver great stories focused on the very human aspect of horror and make sympathetic characters. The supernatural stays out of the tale for almost two-thirds of the novel. During this time, it is primarily a drama and exploration of grief that is very well-written and resonates on an emotional level. The last third, the part that was an actual horror novel suffered in that it felt a little rushed to me. The earlier natural horrors were more terrible than the supernatural horrors – in fact, I felt the book might have worked better as a straight drama instead of as a supernatural horror story. All the same, I enjoyed the story and look forward to reading more books set in Mr. Braunbeck’s Cedar Hill cycle.

The Changed by B.J. Burrow (5 out of 6 Miller Light) – A fun zombie romp with a measure of political and social satire tossed in for good measure. What more can I say? It was a fun, light, and quick read – literary candy for the horror/zombie fan. Recommended. Good Halloween reading!

Fungus of the Heart by Jeremy Shipp (5 out of 6 Blue Moon Belgian White) – This is a truly excellent selection of short stories from perhaps the most sensitive member of the modern Bizarro literary scene. His stories manage to be both weird and heartfelt. While not afraid to go into some bizarre and sometimes low-brow places, Shipp doesn’t resort to gross-out humor to make his points. For example, I found his reflection on the nature of war, especially in regards to recent controversies surrounding the use of torture, to be enlightening and extremely well-presented in a story set during an ongoing war between gnomes and trolls, “The Escapist”. Despite the ridiculous premises and titles of some of these stories, there is a lot of heart and serious thought fueling them just beneath the sometimes absurd surface. (*Disclosure: Received free electronic copy prior to release of book for review from author who has been an online friend for a few years now, but honestly, this had nothing to do with my enjoyment of this collection. Being familiar with Shipp’s work, I expected to enjoy the book, but was pleasantly surprised by how much I truly loved this one.)

Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin (4 our of 6 Cherry Coke) – A fantasy novel for young readers from one of my favorite SF authors. I am now an adult, not a young adult, so what follows will be a review based on the experience of an adult reader. While enjoyable, Gifts did not live up to previous reading experiences for me. A good, quick read, but I did not feel it covered much in the way of new ground. The structure was a fairly typical and somewhat predictable fantasy bildungsroman. My main problem is that the protagonist, a young male, felt poorly drawn at times. He seemed like a woman in the shell of a young boy, if that makes sense. I know from experience that Le Guin can create good, complex male characters, but this young teenager felt a little unbelievable to me. An influx of testosterone during teenage years tend to make the average male mind a mess of lust and rage and joy and sorrow – there are a lot of extremes; this was not captured adequately. The protagonist was too calm and collected for most of the book. There was some rage hinted at but never acted upon, and there was very little in the way of lust (which in one form another, pretty much fuels the average male mind between the ages of 13 to, oh I don’t know, say 113 – I hate to generalize this way, but it’s true *shrugs*). This character was kind of hard for me to buy into – the lust factor doesn’t have to be dealt with directly and/or explicitly, but it should be noticeably there to create a believable young male character. (I have similar qualms at times with the Harry Potter character, but at least that guy goes after a decent ‘snogging’ from time-to-time.) However, the idea of unwanted “Gifts” was intriguing, and the fantasy world was well-drawn. I can see a lot of potential in the world-building, and, despite some perceived flaws in characterization, I did like the two main characters and their budding relationship. Based on the potential on display, I still look forward to reading the sequel. If I were a high school or middle school teacher, I could see myself recommending this book for younger readers. The idea of unwanted “Gifts” could present an opportunity for interesting classroom discussions, I think.

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (4 out of 6 Colt 45) – I touched on this book in an earlier blog post (https://southernweirdo.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/best-worst-line-ever/). Overall, an enjoyable read about a literal baptism by fire and the tragic romance which follows. Not as complex, original, or as beautifully written as advertised by the multiple high-profile cover blurbs, but it really is a solid debut novel. I find myself wondering what Davidson will put out next? He does show promise. I found this book to be a quick and fairly enjoyable read despite some qualms with the narrative structure and style.

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