Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

I am visiting friends this weekend, so the update may not come exactly this weekend. Go enjoy time with your families and whatnot. I'll probably have it up when you're back. 


Friday, November 19, 2010

Life's Lottery

"Go to 0"
"And So On"
- The Narrator

            I have no idea how I found this book. Seriously. I mean, I've always been a fan of Kim Newman, as he seems to be one of the few (very few) people to criticize horror movies and not have his head wedged firmly in a rather unpleasant orifice. He also did vampires in a very chilling, blackly comic style with his Anno Dracula novels, which essentially tell of a world where vampires rule everything and humans (both sides being a mixture of fictional, historical, and classic characters) either live as the oppressed masses, or are put into prison camps. I've also been a huge fan of Choose Your Own Adventure books, having played them throughout my childhood and even into high school. So I suppose it was only a matter of time, but somehow, this one just fell into my lap and I immediately ordered it off of Amazon. It took me a little while to find it, because I don't think it was released over here (could be wrong about that one) and it's definitely out of print. What pisses me off about that is that there's an incredible market for adult Choose Your Own Adventures in the US, where we kind of look on that sort of thing with rose-colored nostalgia, and a bunch of publishers said "mmmnope, this'll never sell." 

             So yes. Life's Lottery is a Choose Your Own Adventure book for adults, divided into three hundred separate sections. In it, you drop into the head of one Keith Marion. Keith is a fairly average person. He does have a love of pirates and gets better grades in school, but other than that, he's fairly normal. You play through his life several times, making choices each time, always the same way-- in The Man From UNCLE, a classic spy series, does he prefer Ilya Kuryakin, or Napoleon Solo? It's this choice that spins off wildly, from kidnapping schemes to becoming a punk rock record producer, to fighting a large variety of enemies, from body snatchers to things that are better left unsaid and discovered.

           Except...except there are things that keep popping up. Little, offhand things. Who is Derek Leech, for instance, and why does it seem like he owns everything? What's with section number eight and why is it so ominous? And what's with all the spiders? And then there are the sections you can't get to when "playing" the book "properly". Like the section where two doctors talk about Keith having some kind of syndrome (Note: This isn't a spoiler, this is something you can discover fairly early fact, the book tells you the section is there). 

             Life's Lottery is exactly as it appears to be, but on another level, it's not. What it is and what you discover will be entirely up to you...if you decide to read the book beginning to end, you'll have just as interesting time, though the narrator seems to chide you for taking that path...he chides you for a lot of things, actually, as if he has a vested interest in keeping you playing the book a certain way. And, since the narrator is the one relaying all the events to you, everything kind of takes on a nice, chummy flavor. After all, it's in the narrator's best interest to keep you playing. He's got his own reasons and means for doing so, and occasionally will direct you away from areas he'd rather you not be. The narrative voice is really what carries the piece, as it kind of has to. Keith doesn't say very much, aside from those times where you have to choose something for him to say, and the other characters, while well fleshed out (after all, they stay with you from childhood to adulthood), tend to be shadowy-- they're merely other people in Keith's life. Some of them will stay, others will not. 

              The other thing that makes the novel really good is the sense that there is always something more to discover. I've "played" through it several times, once reading the alternate sections, and it's the sense of discovery. You play through it once, you get one possible set of paths. That's fine. You play through again, you get different paths, and different branches. After all, there are three hundred sections, each with their own endings. Only two, however, let you "win". The others say things like "And So On", or my favorite, the one that signals every death you may encounter: "Go to 0." On the way to any number of these paths, the realities of Derek Leech, the mysterious spiders, and even the possibility that you may be playing these lives out simultaneously, with different names taking the place of different versions of you. 

                 I will say this book is not for everyone. Some sequences drag just a little, and others tend to leave you in weird places. You may find the book's secrets distracting, or stupid, and wonder "why did I get through all those pages just to have a reveal like that?" It's experimental to a certain degree, in that every story in it is part of a larger story that you can either take or leave, depending on your view, so if you don't enjoy experimental books, or books that don't have a purely narrative thread, I wouldn't completely recommend it. It's also not very substantial at first glance. Keith isn't exactly a main character that pops off the page, as you're supposed to fill in the blanks. The stories are nice, but feel a little on the light side sometimes, too.

                      But in the end, the book is a whole load of fun. Unlike many books of its kind, it is one you can come back to again and again...maybe you'll discover something different as you read and re-read it, maybe you'll just enjoy it for being a Choose Your Own Adventure book that takes a decidedly odd direction with its concept. Either way, you should find a way to get it and read it, because I guarantee you will never find any other book like it on earth. It's imaginative, inventive, and yes, a little twisted and macabre, and the ride is well worth it.

And So On.

Next Week: A return to the wild world of Steampunk with George Mann's Ghosts of Manhattan

Saturday, November 13, 2010

As an added bonus: Tom Waits!

This is the song that acts as a sort of leitmotif in Sandman Slim, and works as a good tone-setter for the book's film-noir tone. So I thought I'd put it up as a nice addition to the review. The video isn't mine, but I like it.

Sandman Slim

"L.A. is what happens when a bunch of Lovecraftian elder gods and porn starlets spend a weekend locked up in the Chateau Marmont snorting lines of crack off of Jim Morrison's bones. If the Viagra and the illegal Traci Lords videos don't get you, then the Japanese tentacle porn will. New York has short con cannibals and sewer gators. Chicago is all snowbound yetis and the ghosts of a million angry steers with horns like jackhammers. Texas is criscrossed with ghost railroads that kidnap demon-possessed Lolitas to play strip Russian roulette with six shells in the chamber. L.A. is all assholes and angels, bloodsuckers and trust fund satanists, black magic and movie moguls with more bodies buried under the house than John Wayne Gacy. There are more surveillance cameras and razor wire here than around the Pope. L.A. is one traffic jam away from going completely Hiroshima."
- James Stark

                 I have a secret. Or maybe it isn't. Either way, I always wanted to grow up to be Philip Marlowe. Or not even Marlowe, but just someone with that same hard-boiled attitude and dedication to what is right at any costs. Spade, you see, would get the job done. Marlowe would do the right thing, even if it meant the job went to crap. He rarely ever got the girl, the money, or anything more than beat senseless. But things were done right. He survived, he fought, and he always wound up doing the right thing. It was someone I could look up to when I was younger. So when something has that distinct, gritty film-noir flavor, it's already got me hooked. This has led me from good things, like Garrett and Nightside to bad things, like some of the more moronic cyberpunk novels, to weird things, like Crooked Little Vein. 
                 At the same time, I've always had a love of urban fantasy, starting with the book Dark Cities Underground. Urban fantasy seemed darker, somehow, and nastier...more concrete. Interestingly, I seem to have sidestepped most of the modern connotations of urban fantasy, and gone more for the weird ones. And believe me, or maybe just believe the quote above the text of this review, this is a weird one indeed. 
                 Sandman Slim begins with James Stark, the antihero and our protagonist, being spat out of Hell and into a garbage pile. He immediately punches out a man described as a "Brad Pitt lookalike" and grabs his clothes and stun gun. After being stuck in Hell for almost a decade, he's managed to escape and is looking very hard for the people who sent him there in the first place. Within short order, he clears out a bar full of skinheads, finds one of the mages who got him dragged off to Hell, endures several gunshots to the chest, and slices his head off (It's okay, he survives). Stark wastes no time telling everyone he's back home with large, explodey signals, drawing the attention of more than just the mages he's come to kill. Enemies and friends begin charging out of the woodwork as it turns out that Stark's vengeance may not just satisfy his urge for blood, but success may mean saving the world itself. But to finish things off, Stark will have to contend with a Homeland Security-funded angel, satanist skinheads, a sadistic race of dead celestials known as the Kissi, and his archnemesis, the charismatic Mason.
                   What I like most about the book is the feel. It's a good read, but it's a very uncompromising one. Stark is very much on the darker side of the heroic scale: a brutal, caustic man who will finish his quest at any cost, and damn the implications and results. In one of two large, explosive setpieces, Stark destroys a block of Los Angeles fighting with his adversary, Parker. He does not apologize for this act, nor does he seem to feel any regret or remorse, other than letting Parker get away more or less intact. Where most books would be engulfed by their secondary elements (such as romance or fantasy lore subplots) or try to make their hero seem good despite it all, Slim goes the opposite route. Stark isn't any better than the denizens of LA, but his motives are a little more pure. He's a monster, but he's needed because the monsters he fights and kills are ten times worse. In short, Kadrey has taken the crime fiction idea of an antihero back to its roots-- a criminal who does the right thing to further his own motives, rather than to further the greater good. 
                       Another element I like is the way Kadrey sets up his scenes and characters. He has a good grasp of the dialogue, from the tough-guy phrases snarled by the hardened Stark to the down-home platitudes of the Homeland Security chief. He also has a good grasp of set pieces. The climactic battle in a rather twisted specialty nightclub feels like it could have been ripped straight from John Woo, with its gunplay and theatrics. The broad-daylight battle with Parker could have easily fit in a Michael Bay film, if Michael Bay had any sense of taste whatsoever. 
                        If you look at Kadrey's influences and references, you find anime, B movies, the music of Tom Waits, film noir, and gritty crime fiction-- none of which really adapts to a literary style (save the latter), but it all fits together. The images it evokes keep the book moving and keep hitting the right emotional and energetic notes. The references also add a certain amount of cinematic quality to it-- films are more likely to reference topics as vast as anime, Richard Stark's Parker novels, the memoirs of Vidocq, and a great many others, but Kadrey does them effortlessly, without even drawing attention to them. 
                       Another strength the book has is the supporting cast. Stark interacts with a staggering variety of characters, from an enigmatic antiques dealer named Mr. Muninn who seems to know everything about everyone to a hipster girl who works in Stark's video store and wants to learn how to do magic. Each one has  their own voice and their own personality, and aside from some of the "holy warriors", none of them blend together. Add to this the meticulous descriptions, and the book takes on an interesting cast-- you can actually see things happening, rather than simply reading and imagining. It's the cinematic quality that makes the characters "pop out" from the page, and what keeps the book moving along at a breakneck pace.
                         If there are any weaknesses to the book, they would be Stark's personality. He is definitely a tortured man, and you definitely get a sense of that, but it gets to be a bit much when he's a prick even to his friends and those who help him. Sometimes, with people like the angel Alita, this results in amusing exchanges, but one begins to wonder exactly why he's telling his good friend Vidocq to fuck right off? It makes the book as a whole turn away from Stark as a hero and wonder if he didn't deserve to be dragged into Hell, even if he was a good person before he was yanked off and his girlfriend died. 
                          But in the end, despite the flaws of its main character, it is a fantastic book. It takes urban fantasy back to what it was originally-- taking the fairytales, myths, and legends of our time and melding them with the dark, modern setting. It involves a chase scene through Hell, womanizing alchemists, gruesome villains, and a cameo from Satan in which he rifles through a collection of movies on "the Devil", searching for something to steal and watch at home for entertainment. I recommend this book because it's a fantastic read from start to finish (the fact that it pushes all my buttons aside), because it's fun, and because Richard Kadrey takes the genre where everyone else holds back, flinches, and goes "No, no, that's not right." It's an action movie, a payback thriller, and a dark fantasy all rolled into one, it's original, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. 

Next Week: Life's Lottery by Kim Newman, or, if either of my interlibrary loans come through, Kill The Dead  by Richard Kadrey (the sequel to this week's book), or Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

State of the Blog

             Don't worry, this isn't another leave of absence thing. I think I should just be as open with all of you as I should be, as you're the regular readers of this thing, you've stuck with me for almost four months now, and I figure when I make a change, you deserve an explanation and have the right to comment directly to the changes I make with things. 
           That said: I'm going to be switching the schedule, though. I will not be reading Eight Skilled Gentlemen. I promised you guys I would finish the books I review, and let's face it, I just can't finish this one. The other thing is that Master Li is beginning to feel done to death for me, just a little, and what we'd be headed for if I continued is something that a) I wouldn't want to write, and more importantly, b) you wouldn't want to read.
            So instead, our schedule will pick up this week with something a little different. I'm debating whether to go with the urban fantasy noir novel Sandman Slim, or several of the other things I have clustered around the room with bookmarks in them. Rest assured, there will be a review this week. I just can't bring myself to batter through a third Barry Hughart book.


Friday, November 5, 2010

The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox Part Two: The Story of the Stone

"Now let's take a look at reality. Little Hong Wong is indeed taken in hand by the educational establishment and force-fed languages, calligraphy, poetry...following which he's ready to start learning something--mathematics, for example...He passes his examinations and is ready for his first official appointment, and then what happens?"
"A superior who inherited the job from his uncle rams a barge pole up his ass."
"Good boy...Ox, at an early age, a Chinese genius gazes at the path that lies ahead and reaches for the wine jar. Is it any wonder that our greatest men have lurched rather than walked across the landscape as they hiccupped their way into history?"
- Master Li and Number Ten Ox, respectively

           I have a mild problem with sequels to books like this. I suppose the problem started with Harry Potter, weirdly enough, a series I have a mild amount of respect for. The first book set things up with such a sense of wonder and exploration that it was like stepping into a new world and viewing everything for the first time. It felt, honestly, like a vacation. You know, how you go somewhere and stay in a nice hotel, and you absolutely love every moment of being in the city or the small town or whatever, and you think you could stay there forever. To continue the comparison, though, the sequels are the moment you start trying to live somewhere and realize that this has become where you live, and all the things you found so fascinating are now terribly, terribly commonplace. So you have to find new things to do and experience, while all the while the things you used to find so cool become routine.
             Master Li and Number Ten Ox is no exception to the rule. Li's slight flaw is still the same, though Ox is less innocent. It appears that in between Bridge of Birds and The Story of the Stone, Number Ten Ox has become more streetwise and mature in his ways, and less innocent. He's writing his memoirs, which Master Li complains about for making him look "violent and unscrupulous, which is only true when there's a need for it." The story proper opens as Ox casually observes an assassination attempt in our heroes' favorite drinking establishment, the Worst Wineshop in China (yes, the one from Bridge of Birds), located in the Alley of Flies (guess what the wine's secret ingredient is?). From there, they are called to investigate a curious forgery and murder case that quickly turns into an insane quest involving a divine inkstone, a long-dead prince, several folk and fairy tales, and a mushroom-fueled trip to Hell. On their quest, they are accompanied by a concubine and a sound manipulator somehow interlinked with each other in a way that's best left unexplained, who have their own part to play in the mess.
              But it doesn't feel as natural or tight as in Bridge of Birds. Ox is less the innocent fool, which is a bit of a relief, but at the same time, Li feels scaled back from the man who would easily slice off a thug's ear in a bar dispute. There's better by-play, but Ox sometimes feels relegated to a position of observer where in Bridge he observed, but he had just as many insights that helped move the plot along. The plot seems like it's starting to become formulaic, which is bound to happen, but shouldn't in such a way that your readers can guess a few of the minor plot twists because you used them in previous books. The locations have been scaled down from the country-spanning plot of the first book, but some elements seem scattershot. It's as if Hughart felt like writing another book, but didn't have his heart and soul invested in it the way he did the first one. It's actually kinda sad in a sense. The whole thing ends in an anticlimax that barely reaches the highs of the first book, and the big reveals aren't so much reveals as casual observations, as if one trips over gods, monsters, and long-dead handmaidens several times a day.
             Which is not to say that there aren't lovely points in the book. The trip to hell is a high point, as is Master Li petitioning the Celestials to appoint a new goddess of prostitutes, and the bit on the eating habits of monks (for self-mortification). The darker tone of story and the air of desperation as the Neo-Confucianists (a group much like conservatives, but with classical philosophy degrees) have taken power and appointed an Imperial Censor. Master Li's class of people, it would appear, are on their way out where before they were a fixture in the opulent place that is the Middle Kingdom. And the dialogue flies fast and furious as ever, though Master Li and Ox seem a little more cynical than in their previous outing. 
            I suppose my reaction might be mainly to the tone, but it just didn't seem as right to me as Bridge of Birds was. That the villain built up for most of the book was defeated (and that's not a spoiler...there's a third book here, so the heroes have to win in some capacity) in such a handwaved manner that it almost felt rushed. and then the archvillain was presented in too affable a manner for the final confrontation to have any heft. When the loose ends started to get tied up, I was more glad that things were coming to any kind of conclusion. That shouldn't happen, particularly in a book written by someone like Barry Hughart. 
            In the end, I'm not as incensed or angry with the book as I am disappointed. It started out rather strong, sort of like a Chinoiserie version of The Name of the Rose, or a fantasy-historical murder mystery. It ended like a B movie where they ran out of budget halfway through. The whole thing was a solid book, and I admit, if I'd written Bridge of Birds, I'd have an almost impossible act to follow. But solid doesn't cut it when the narrative shows so many flaws, and I can't forgive or give this a pass for so many. It's worth a read if you want to revisit the world of Li Kao and Lu "Number Ten Ox" Yu, but not worthy of a solid place in the series. I have hopes for the third one, though. With certain notable exceptions like Star Wars (Empire, not Attack of the Clones) and Nightside, second volumes usually suck.

Next Week: The series concludes with The Eight Skilled Gentlemen.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Geek Rage Halloween Special!

  So it's finally here. I read, with dubious quality, three of my favorite freaky stories aloud for you, the readers of this blog, with criticism and comments on each one. I have tried to keep the comments to a minimum, but I kind of have a low fast speaking style and love to talk. In any case, hope you enjoy the readings, if not the presentation. I'm still new to the seamy underworld of video, and hopefully I'll catch up with it someday. These were uploaded in single takes (except for one instance where I was interrupted by a phone, and also one instance where I invited someone in to listen to the story and that's an obvious one) In any case:

Part One: "Cool Air" by HP Lovecraft (from Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of HP Lovecraft)

Part Two: "The Specialist's Hat" by Kelly Link (from Pretty Monsters)

Part Three (and our grand finale): "20th Century Ghost" by Joe Hill (from 20th Century Ghosts