Sunday, October 30, 2011

Briefly: Nick Hornby, Slam (2007)

Hornby, Nick, Slam, London: Putnam Books, 2007. 309 pp (hardcover, below)
_________, Slam, London & New York: Penguin Books, 2008. 342 pp (my edition, paperback, right)

Look for other reviews, quite all over the place, of Slam at Goodreads.

Fans of Nick Hornby will recommend any other book of his as a launching pad to get to know the author. Indeed, High Fidelity and About a Boy seem the most popular. I ended up starting with Slam simply because I had a copy lying around that a neighbour had tossed away, and I was only half-way through when I learned that Slam is a Young Adult novel. Perhaps that says a good amount about me, needing to be told the genre of this book, or any mainstream book, but whatever the analysis I was a bit sorry to have made that discovery, since it prejudiced my reading a little. I have not jumped onto the YA bandwagon, and don't plan to write any YA material myself, and yet I am glad that there is an emphasis on YA fiction since it promotes literacy and gets people to unplug themselves from social media and be handed some form of food for thought. Personally I'm an adult reader of adult fiction, I enjoy the classics, Eastern European fiction and things on the darker side. I read horror, short stories of all genres and lesser known literature (or "general fiction") which I like to write about, and here I am, with my two university degrees, adult writing and adult reading, caught in public reading a YA novel! For shame!

(Of course I'm being sarcastic. I still remember that poor guy in a university creative writing course who, without an ounce of self-consciousness, went on an informed spiel about the progression of Stephen King's writing,. Rather than listening and, god forbid, learning something, most others in the group were busy being noticeably annoyed that the impostor's name was even mentioned. They were even more annoyed when I started asking serious questions, prolonging the lecture. Really, how dare someone interfere with the course that they are paying for in order to help provide education? I'm surprised either of us managed to graduate and make a reasonable transition to the greater part of society. )

Okay, so I sort of enjoyed Slam. Whether classified Young Adult or Geriatric, the book was somewhat enjoyable but altogether frustrating. I laughed at times and was surprised at times. Laughing and being surprised are part of a positive experience. I was also annoyed at times, even frustrated. I'm no expert on adolescent or teen psychology and won't pretend to know the latest theories on how Hornby or anyone can affect the young mind by creating such an irresponsible, self-centred teenager... Wait. Isn't the point of being a teenager to be self-centred and irresponsible? Sigh... Hornby gets away with it.

What frustrated me the most was the lack of purpose and direction. No, the book is not a warning against teen parenthood or skateboarding. (If you haven't read the novel, it's told through the point of view of a sixteen year-old skater named Sam who knocks up his gorgeous girlfriend. Yes, she's gorgeous, of course she is, as Hornby--I mean Sam (no I don't) keeps reminding us.) The lack of direction, more so than purpose, deposited a sediment of doubt for the novel's overall effect, and that doubt was proven true when, after reading each milestone Sam and Alicia must experience, I am left thinking that the scene is exactly as I'd expected it to be. Though is was consistently funny.

Sam is telling us of two years of his life, from meeting the sexy Alicia to impregnating her and becoming a father, with lots of rambling, repetition and fine humour. The humour is really the only thing that makes the book worth reading. Perhaps a young adult would enjoy it on different levels, everything the constant dropping of pop culture references to the self-deprecating humour. I must say that Hornby is sensitive to Alicia's plight, in many ways more so than to Sam's, which is great for any young male reader to grasp the point of view of the one most affected by the pregnancy.

Minor spoiler. There's something Hornby does in Slam that I truly enjoyed. At about page 100, when I was starting to wonder if the story was actually going anywhere and looking over at my shelf for something I would much rather read, Sam, while talking to his Tony Hawk poster, gets "whizzed" into the future. He awakens when his son, evidently named Roof, is a few weeks old, and must go through the day without really knowing what's going on. I liked the touch and really don't care (in fact, prefer) that no explanation is given. A great, original touch, I felt. Now, the purpose eludes me, except that at the end we get another future "whizzing" and hence a brief epilogue of Sam's post-novel life. An annoying aspect of the "whizzing" is that Sam keeps mentioning it, to the point that every time he said "...that time when I got whizzed into the future," I was ready to give the book a slam of my own.

The title refers to Slamming on your skateboard, taking a nasty fall, and how Sam slams in life by knocking up the gorgeous beautiful sexy Alicia.

Overall it is not a book I would recommend.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Douglas Clegg, The Nightmare Chronicles (1999)

Clegg, Douglas, The Nightmare Chronicles, New York: Leisure Books, 1999. 360 pages

Overall 8/10
At Goodreads
Douglas Clegg's friendly website.

For some months now I've been wanting to read something by Douglas Clegg, having seen his paperbacks in various bookstores. I picked up this copy of The Nightmare Chronicles a few days ago in a Dubai second hand bookshop called Book World, for 16 dirhams (about 4.50 CAD). The book shop, of moderate size, is stocked full with titles, more than reasonably priced, and you can even return a book in condition and receive 50% of what you paid. Damn good idea, I think. Only problem is Book World deals mainly in bestsellers, mostly recent, so you won't find anything obscure. Also, one of the two employees continuously interrupted me by pushing books under my nose: "How about this, sir?" "You like Dan Brown, sir?" "Lots of people like this author, sir" ("this author" being Sidney Sheldon, who I've never read). The experience was becoming a nightmare chronicle of its own; I like to browse and to be left alone. Especially in a second hand book shop.

Digressions aside, I was truly impressed with this collection, and was not surprised to learn that it received the 1999 International Horror Guild Award for Best Collection, and the 1999 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection.

There is not a single story in the collection I did not like, and there are at least three that really stand out. What I like about Clegg, or at least about these stories, is that they are well written, patiently constructed, with a healthy emphasis on characterization. The thirteen stories were published between 1993 and 1999, two of which were original to the collection. The stories are framed by a narrative in which a woman named Alice (a name that is interestingly given to at least three other characters throughout the stories) and her two sons have kidnapped a boy for ransom. It turns out that this boy is not quite of this world, and has the ability to project nightmares onto his captors. The nightmares he projects are the thirteen stories. While the framing narrative is unnecessary, and not as well constructed as the stories themselves, it is still nonetheless interesting.

There are a number of themes & ideas that appear throughout the work. There is emphasis on religion, relationships and skin. Religion appears in various forms, from misled zealots to avenging angel-monsters. Relationships vary throughout, from unfaithful lovers to masculine prison love, and all forms of familial relations, and its the tightness of some of the relationships that makes the threats in the stories all the more frightening. When the horror is endangering someone with whom we've formed an emotional bond, there is more at stake. Finally, skin makes several appearances throughout. Clegg deals frequently with human skin and the strange worlds that we hide underneath. We have skins acting as trophies, metamorphosing, housing other creatures and even embodying strange worlds. We even receive brief lessons regarding insects and exoskeletons, that, unlike us, have their soft spots safely on the inside. Overall, the skins in these stories generated a better framework than the story of Alice and the kidnapped boy-devil, and I enjoyed Clegg's ideas regarding skin so much that I waited for its appearance in each piece.

There is also a nice "Afterword" in which Clegg briefly details the influence for each story. I always appreciate these touches.


Underworld    7/10     (Phantasm #3, 1996, as "Underground")

Aspiring writer Oliver takes his pregnant wife Jenny to a Szechuan restaurant in Palladin Row, a forgotten street in New York City. Shortly thereafter Jenny is murdered, and a year later, still dealing with his grief, Oliver visits the Szechuan restaurant, and looking through its boarded windows he believes he can see his dead wife. The story is written in a distant first person voice which helps us to quickly pass through the details of Jenny's death, which is a good thing since the story is not about her death, but about... something entirely different. Clegg does well in putting the story's necessary details together and delivering a quick read that, while offering nothing straightforwardly shocking, does offer an ending that makes the reader think, considering the implications of what just happened.

Spoiler: Now, learning that the infant spent a year being looked after by an imp or devil of some kind, I wonder how Oliver can integrate it into society. I don't mean psychologically or emotionally, but practically. Will he show up at the hospital and try to explain that he just retrieved his son from hell, and can he please have a birth certificate? And what would later be the birthplace listed on his passport? What would he tell his friends or even his lover? But all this aside, there is a nice ambiguity to the baby's existence since he was fed by hell's minions and we can wonder how he will turn out. Of course, the main point here is that the creatures of hell can be creatures of compassion. Or maybe the kid was just darned cute.

"Underworld," under its original title "Underground," was selected for inclusion in The Mammoth Book of Best Horror: Volume Eight, edited by Stephen Jones, NY: Carroll & Graf, 1997.


White Chapel     7/10     (Love in Vein: Twenty Original Tales of Vampiric Erotica, edited by Poppy Z. Brite and Martin Harry Greenberg, New York: HarperPrism, November 1994)
Journalist Jane Boone has been conducting research on the elusive killer Nathan Meritt, "The White Devil," or otherwise known as "The Hero Who Skinned A Thousand Faces." She has travelled with her photographer Rex and two wealthy tourists to a secluded region of India where she believes he has taken refuge, a place called "White Chapel," where the jealous Monkey God resides.

Among the horror sub-genres that tend to bore me (usually because so many are so alike) is that of the ancient gods and their spells that still linger in the modern world. Yet Clegg has managed to put together a dark fantasy that works beyond the stereotypes of the sub-genre, that has little to do with silly mortals seeking fortune only to fall under a spell they are too rational to believe in. For one thing, the god is nearly mortal and hence more accessible (especially compared to the run of tales that appeared in the 1930s and 40s). "White Chapel" touches on notions of the inner self in conflict with the public self, and the negligible difference between pleasure and pain. With a mostly straightforward telling, a foreign land imbued with its smells and sights, along with its well-drawn characters (though the dialogue and accents did at times distract), Clegg's modern version of the ancient gods tale, with its modern horror inclinations (the references to serial killing and child abuse) is well worth a read.


O, Rare and Most Exquisite     7/10     (Lethal Kisses, ed. Ellen Datlow, Millennium, 1996.)
In the nursing facility of a retirement home, a seventeen year-old boy meets Gus, a sickly retired gardener. From a tin box filled with sand, the old man produces a withered flower, and recounts his woeful tale of love for his former employer, and of the strange woman who loved him and gave him the rarest and most beautiful of flowers.

A strange and strangely touching story, I wonder only how someone as enchanting as Moira can love someone as bitter and selfish as Gus. It is certainly, among other things, a story of misplaced affections and , aside from Moira, the consequences of selfish desire.


Only Connect. (The Conspiracy Files, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Scott H. Urban, NY: DAW Books, August 1998) 7/10
Jim sells train tickets at a small Connecticut railway station, and the night the train derails, killing seventy-nine, Jim is struck with an incredible headache and hallucinatory visions. The visions continue to strike at different points, transporting him into the body of Mrs. Catherine Earnshaw, a middle-aged resident of an English hospital. The name Catherine Earnshaw is of course a nod to Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

Among the most straightforwardly suspenseful stories of the collection, due to the mystery of its premise. "Only Connect" is reminiscent of some of Philip K. Dick's work, like Time Out of Joint (1959), as well as the excellent The Outer Limits episode "Tempests," (1997) as we try to figure out which reality is the "real" thing. A strong story, I found it slightly weakened by the bookend paragraphs, the cautionary framing voice that detracts from the story's focus. I wonder if this were an afterthought, or something requested by the editors.


The Fruit of Her Womb     6/10     (Phantoms of the Night, edited by Richard Gilliam and Martin H. Greenberg, NY: DAW Books, June 1996)
Retired high school teacher James Richter and his wife Jackie move into an isolated California home to enjoy a peaceful final decade. They soon learn, however, that a previous owner of their new home, Joe Redlander, murdered his entire family. Rather than being disturbed, Richter is intrigued and his interest in the mystery soon turns to an obsession.

Not an original idea by any stretch, the story is nonetheless well written, and the strong characterization of James, Jackie and their relationship salvage this otherwise weaker story. The problem is that it ends as one would expect such a story to end, and that the Egyptology and Persephone myths seemed glossed over, as though mere excuses for the supernatural occurrences; though the ambiguity with the supernatural works well. The story also features the visuals and scents that help make Clegg's stories so concrete.


The Rendering Man     8/10     (Cemetery Dance #19, Volume 6, No. 1, edited by Richard T. Chizmar, Winter 1994. pp 37-47)
In 1934 Oklahoma, eleven year-old Thalia Inez Canty and her big brother Lucius take care of the family farm while their parents are away at work. When they find the corpse of their sow rotting in the dirt, they take it to the Rendering Man, for he pays well for dead things, skilled at finding a use for their different parts.

Among the strongest stories of the collection, "The Rendering Man" is very well written, revealing itself patiently through well-rounded scenes and strong characters. The story contains some rewarding surprises, and a great connection between internationally and historically significant atrocities, and the atrocities humans are capable of on a quieter scale, closer to home. More allusions to skin and our inability to hide from who we are.


The Night Before Alec Got Married     8/10     (Palace Corbie #5, Vol. 3, No. 1, edited by Wayne Edwards & Helen Homan, Lincoln NE: Merrimack Books, 1994)
Among a preppy crowd of socially hungry twenty-somethings, a couple of guys search the streets for the perfect prostitute for their most popular friend's bachelor party.

The story is narrated by one friend to another, so there is an interesting mix of first and second person narratives that is unusual and refreshing. The second person "you" is inherently aimed at both the intended, unnamed character and the reader, yet since the unnamed character is such an immature buffoon, the fact that we the reader is included in the "you" adds an element of humour, especially when we're told early on that we managed to get two of our fingers shot off. The humour helps highlight the notions of human relationships, particularly the trappings of social acceptance and how one's entourage defines one's self. The narrator's focus on homo-eroticism is a fitting detail. Beyond this there is, of course, a truly creepy element that is revealed only at the end.


The Ripening Sweetness of Late Afternoon     7/10     (Dante's Disciples, edited by Peter Crowther & Edward E. Kramer, White Wolf, 1996)
Travelling preacher Roy Shadiak returns to his hometown of Sunland City hoping to atone for a double murder he committed many years before. In the meantime, however, Sunland City has been plagued by monstrous angels who swoop down at midday to carry off any townspeople who may be wandering outdoors.

A compelling story with a truly disturbing idea and a good ending. I felt the story did take time getting to its core, a feeling I shared with three stories in this collection; the preamble of Shadiak's wanderings and the slow-paced return could possibly have been shortened. I was also caught by the grammatical ambiguity of the opening: "Sunland City was the last place in the world Jesus was ever going to come looking for Roy Shadiak. // He returned to his hometown in his fortieth year..." The "He" can be either Roy or that other person, but of course it's referring to Roy.


Chosen     8/10     (The Nightmare Chronicles, NY: Leisure Books, 1999)
Rob Arlington lives alone in an over-priced, roach-infested apartment building in New York City. One night as he's doing laundry in the basement, he discovers something truly horrific in one of the garbage disposal shafts, which soon paves the way for something even more disturbing.

My synopsis is vague since I don't want to reveal even the slightest plot point of a truly creepy story. "Chosen" is not only disturbing, but featuring yet another patiently-told tale with solid characters and atmosphere. Moreover, the story is well focused, and though a little longer than most, it never feels overly-long. The second of my three favourite stories in the collection. Interestingly, protagonist Rob has turned forty, the same age as Clegg, assuming he wrote it the year before the story first saw print in the collection.


"The Little Mermaid"     6/10     (The Nightmare Chronicles, NY: Leisure Books, 1999)
Divorced middle-aged Alice lives by the beach. She has been noticing an old man collecting shells, and when she sprains her ankle he quickly comes to her aid. As they talk he mentions that when he was a boy he believed in mermaids, and now that he is growing old his youthful beliefs are returning.

The second story to first see print in the collection, it is not as engaging as "Chosen" but is nonetheless a good read. Disturbing, certainly, but I seem to prefer Clegg's work to be a little longer, since I enjoy his attention to detail and characterization.


Damned if You Do     7/10     (Cemetery Dance #16, Volume 5, No. 2, edited by Richard T. Chizmar, Spring 1993. pp 4-11)
A sixty-three year-old man is burying his wife in his yard. I won't expand so as not to ruin any surprises. A good read, it manages to garner sympathy for the elderly killer.


The Hurting Season     7/10     (Deathrealm, edited by Mark Rainey, Fall 1993. pp 7-10)
Theron wonders why his father has to hurt. Living completely isolated across from Tangier Island, off the coast of Virginia, has made his family notorious for their differences. When a Yankee reporter 's car breaks down nearby, Theron sees it as an opportunity to stop his father from hurting. Another story with a slow start, but again it's well written and the reporter's appearance alters the pace and builds to a great climax. A story of the middle-of-nowhere outcasts along the lines of Deliverance, but nothing like James Dickey's novel; this story is told from the point of view of the member of the outcast family rather than the civilized outsider. Theron, however, is only partly an outsider as he questions the family traditions. He is, however, inevitably fated to follow those traditions. How touching.


I Am Infinite: I Contain Multitudes     8/10     (Palace Corbie 7, eds. Wayne Edwards and John Marshall, Lincoln, NE: Merrimack Books, 1997)
A man in prison is given the opportunity to escape by a wizened inmate who everyone believes is God. An incredible story, deserving of the recognition it has received. I've always liked prison stories, and not only is the concept of this one, along with its fantastic ending, highly original, Clegg's emphasis on relationships and basic human needs is well characterized and well written.

Nominated for the 1997 Bram Stoker Award, Superior Achievement in Short Fiction, and included in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Eleventh Annual Collection (Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling), July 1998. Hopefully it will find its way into a popular anthology.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park (1990)

Crichton, Michael, Jurassic Park, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, November 1990 (hardcover)
Crichton, Michael, Jurassic Park, New York: Ballantine Books, September 1991 (paperback)

For other editions, see Jurassic Park at Goodreads or ISFDb.

My response to Michael Crichton's best-known work was surprising: I was glued to the novel and highly entertained. Despite its contentious science, half-formed characters and overly long sequences, Jurassic Park is a good read. The set-up is long yet interesting, as Crichton speculates about the details of bringing dinosaurs back to life, along with the tightly considered aspects of creating and running a dinosaur amusement park. Indeed the set-up is the stronger portion of the novel, since the latter half is burdened by the overly long chase and attack sequences, and the over-written, often annoying rantings of mathematician Ian Malcolm.

Malcolm comes across as Crichton in disguise. A raving chaos theorist, he is the antithesis to Jurassic Park's creator and mad corporate man, John Hammond (perhaps the first mad scientist who isn't actually a scientist at all, though corporatism is a form of modern science). Both characters are portrayed as narrow-minded in their obsessive world views (Malcolm unintentionally), though we see that Crichton's sympathies lie with the mathematician if only because his long-winded rants remain unchallenged by other characters, aside from Hammond's "I don't know what you're talking about.

What Malcolm and Crichton are talking about is the notion of responsibility. Using science, nearly anyone can create a remarkable wonder or discover a fascinating aspect of the Earth's past, yet humans fail in that they do not consider the consequences of their creations or their discoveries. While striving for accomplishment, humans are destined to harm the world around them. This idea is highlighted by a scene late in the book when Hammond manages to blame nearly everyone for the failure of his amusement park, from his grandchildren to the local hired hands, leaving out only the reader and Crichton himself. (Imagine that for a a great postmodern twist: "It was the author's fault for writing this novel, Hammond insisted.")

Among Malcolm's many empirical and overblown statements is: "Discovery is always a rape of the natural world. Always." (284) Though his opening statements are interesting, he loses credibility with Crichton's inability to have him stop. (Thankfully I like to end my own points quickly, though some of you currently entangled on the internets are probably thinking "Not quickly enough.")

The difficulties with these passages are essentially related to character. The many characters in the novel are unfortunately handled quite poorly. Crichton inserts brief character descriptions at certain points, keeping them brief so as not to interfere with the fast-paced plot. The characters remain mostly sketches, delineated with familiar traits (computer wiz Dennis Nedry is a junk-a-holic, computer operator John Arnold is a nervous chain-smoker, while park warden Robert Muldoon likes to nip from a flask, which he oddly seems to discover only late in the book). The kids can get annoying and repetitive, and some characters seem to disappear despite having a strong initial presence, in particular Dr. Ellie Sattler, the only adult female character of note.

Jurassic Park is yet another work that would have been more successful if shortened. I would easily bite off about fifty or sixty pages, and the dinosaur-attacking-kids sequences and Malcolm's rantings would be my first victims. The reader is fairly certain that the kids will not be among the victims, so these scenes lack suspense. I believe Crichton, despite the violence and occasional profanity, was hoping to reach a younger audience along with the adults. Specifically he seems to have wanted a younger male audience, as he mentions more than once that young boys are inherently interested in dinosaurs, and Timothy is far more heroic than little sister Alexis. This need explains the emphasis on adventure alongside the smart nerdy boy, while the tom-boy girl eventually proves to be less of an athlete and more of a whiner.


List of Characters (excluding minor players; notice how a number of characters have first names as last names.)

Dr. Alan Grant, paleontologist
Dr. Ellie Sattler, paleontologist
John Hammond, Jurassic Park creator
Dr. Ian Malcolm, mathematician
Donald Gennaro, legal counsel for InGen
Robert Muldoon, park warden
Dr. Henry Wu, geneticist
John Arnold, computer operator
Timothy Murphy, Hammond's grandson
Alexis "Lex" Murphy, Hammond's granddaughter
Dr. Harding, veterinarian
Ed Regis, publicist
Dennis Nedry, computer programmer
Dr. Martin Gutierrez, medical doctor
Bob Morris, Environmental Protection Agency
Lewis Dodgson, Biosyn representative, InGen competitor



Testing a new map (as of 24 December 2015)