Book Reviews

A Dance With Dragons
A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A series about sex, scheming, and killing veers off into one more about managing unruly forces. While it’s interesting in the sense that all problems are essentially interesting, it’s also tedious.

I feel like a standard model chapter for George R. R. Martin runs like like this:

1. Describe the people and what they are wearing.
2. Describe the food. All the food.
3. Have a somewhat interesting conversation.
4. Have the characters leave and go to their respective rooms.
5. Interrupt them with something REALLY EXCITING, but leave this scene quickly for a new chapter. Don’t return until the reader’s forgotten what was so exciting about this part of the story.

The trouble with Feast for Crows and Dance with Dragons is that often the cliffhanger ending wasn’t even very interesting. I used to console myself while reading the boring parts of these books by assuring myself that hey, at least there would always be something crazy at the end of every chapter. Not so a lot of the times lately. Some chapters really were just food, clothes, and exposition.

I’m also sick of two things: people traveling all the time (just get there already! GAH! I’m tired of boats!), and GRRM refusing to let his dragons spread their wings.

I did love the last few chapters, but I’m irritated that I had to wade through a thousand pages to get there.

The more I think about it, the more I love books like Clive Barker’s Imajica, which tell their whole epic story in one volume.

I’m still in A Song of Ice and Fire for the long haul (damn you, GRRM, and your cliffhangers! damn you, damn you, damn you!!), as overall it’s an amazing story and a fascinating world. But these last two books should have been better, or shorter.

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Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: Director's Cut
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: Director’s Cut by Jhonen Vasquez
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A brilliant, extremely violent graphic novel that tells the story of a madman (and cartoonist) named Johnny (friends call him Nny), driven by forces he doesn’t understand to keep a wall in his basement covered in fresh blood, lest the demon behind it should break free. Johnny has an affinity for his sweet little neighbor kid Squee, an unlucky little guy whose parents ignore him and leave him at the mercy of the well-meaning but always-terrifying visits from Johnny. The art and the lettering convey an emotional imbalance with energy and wit. I could really almost hear the voices of the characters as I read.

I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan of Happy Noodle Boy, which is the comic that Johnny draws, though it did make me laugh a few times.

Really, though, the book is a stylish examination of the pursuit of a more autonomous life. The main character steals the show, naturally (who doesn’t like a smart and effective madman?), but the supporting characters, such as Squee and Devi (the, ahem, “girl who got away,” who really is the girl who got away) and Mr. Samsa (the name given to the cockroach Johnny believes keeps returning to life — “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to kill you again, Mr. Samsa”) and Nail Bunny and the Doughboys — all contribute to a satisfying whole.

The artistic style is a little like Nightmare Before Christmas after everyone involved did a few more hard drugs. There’s plenty of delightful detail in every frenzied panel.

It’s incredibly sick and smart and fun. Perhaps not for everyone, but definitely for me.

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The Halloween Tree
The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eight boys go trick-or-treating to a haunted house, only to find a spooky figure, who goes by the impressive name of Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, ready to whisk them all away on an historical tour through the many variations of All Hallow’s Eve. While discovering the true meaning of Halloween, the boys also struggle to find and save their lost friend, a real boys’ boy named Pipkin.

There are only two problems with this short book: 1.) Bradbury can often be a bit of an All Boys School kind of writer, and this work ratchets that to the extreme; 2.) it’s sometimes a little list-like in its cataloging of all the versions of Halloween that have existed over time (“the Druids did this and the Romans did that and the Christians did something else and now let’s go see about the Mexicans!”).

But to hell with it, because I LOVE this book! Bradbury’s gift for language is at its strongest here. Everything is gorgeously described–from the notes played by the wooden planks of the haunted house’s porch, to a triumphant affirmation of life itself as a boy runs a gauntlet of a hundred mummies, Bradbury’s prose casts a powerful spell.

A powerful work and a poetic meditation on how we deal with the fear of death, this book is the best indictment of the current state of the holiday ever written.


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Creepshow by Berni Wrightson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just doing a little weekend comics reading … saw this on the shelf, felt like reading it again. Glad I did.

I’ve adored this book since I was a kid; decades later, it still brings a twisted smile to my face. I used to compulsively read the EC Comics that served as inspiration for this collection, and, while I love those too, I think King’s stories surpass the source material. I’ve read this comic collection more than I’ve seen the film version, and I think I prefer the book for whatever reason.

Standout lines for me: “It’s Father’s Day, and I want my cake!”; “I want to measure the bite marks.”; “I’ll shoot you dead!”

Also, kudos to the concept of a man listening to a television preacher talk about salvation while his own personal doom approaches. Very slick. And I like the monster in the crate as example of a man’s id, restrained, then broken free, then suppressed. King’s symbolism there is top notch.

A few problems: in “The Crate,” I don’t find the initial reactions to the monster at all believable. When you see a man pulled into a crate, I’m pretty sure I would at least open the lid and try to pull the guy out. And then I WOULD get the police. Or someone. RIGHT AWAY. And I would not leave the scene. That was all a bit clumsy, but overall still a great story.

Another problem I noticed this time around is that some of the really revelatory panels are not very well-placed in the book. Too easy to see the surprise event coming.

Of course, I know these stories so well it doesn’t really matter to me, but for the first-time reader, I imagine it wouldn’t be so great to see a panel of someone blowing their brains out before it was obvious that was going to happen.

But anyway, I’m being picky. Overall this collection is diabolical, memorable, campy fun.

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A Feast for Crows
A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oh, does someone want to sit the Seastone Chair? Oh really? Oh, someone else wants to sit the Iron Throne? Anyone feel like bending the knee? Yeah? No? Maybe? Why don’t you all just fight about it some more. Game of Thrones = a very vicious game of musical chairs.

Oh, so much sitting and sitting and bending! Where will it all end? Hopefully not in the tower cells with the hundred princesses of Dorne, because I barely know where that place is.

I kid. This book continues the long saga of the wars of Westeros, only this time it does so without any dragons. Truth is, this book is mostly exposition. I’d say it’s probably 65% exposition, 35% holy-crap-what-the-hell-just-happened awesomeness. So much boring stuff; so many alarming surprises–and often all in the same chapter!

I mean, is there any chapter in this book that doesn’t introduce new characters? It’s a bit ridiculous. On the one hand, it helps make the universe the story takes place in feel real. On the other hand, I don’t care about so-and-so’s step-grand-uncle’s second wife’s bastard child twice removed, replaced, saddled, and betrothed.

I’m making things and words up here, because that’s how it all starts to read to me after a while.

That said, the overall stories continue to be a blast. What can you do but read on?

So glad I’m done with this one so I can get back to reading about the dragons.

Dragons. Not Dorne. I’m making a t-shirt.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was a sophomore in high school in 1993, I wrote a big preposterous novel that culminated in a school shooting. I’d read The Basketball Diaries, seen Pearl Jam’s (apparently misunderstood) video for “Jeremy,” and read King’s short novel Rage, so it really didn’t seem anything special to me to write something like that. It was angst-ridden wish-fulfillment of the most obvious kind, sick with its own melodramatic self-righteous anger and autobiographical details. By the time I finished it, I hated the main character only slightly more than I hated myself. I vowed to grow up, and when I wrote my next novel I made it about a girl so it would have less of a chance to be about me.

Then came all the real-life school shootings, and I started to feel even worse–superstitiously complicit, or at least guilty of some kind of thought crime. Watching the CNN coverage of Columbine made me sick to my stomach, and part of the reason I felt so horrible was because of the manic glee I’d had writing some of the worst scenes in that idiotic novel.

So when I heard someone had written a well-reviewed book about a high school massacre, I recoiled. There was simply no way anyone could get it right, and, besides, that was my book. If anyone was going to write it, it should’ve been me.

Well, after reading Lionel Shriver’s book, all I can think to say is: I was so wrong. I knew nothing about this subject, and I’ve just been schooled by a master. I’m so grateful someone better than me took this subject on. Shriver gets everything right in this book, and keeping the novel in the point of view of the mother of a teenager who goes on a killing spree in his high school is a masterstroke.

The plot centers around the efforts of Eva Katchadourian, mother of Kevin Katchadourian, nicknamed KK by the press (which recalls both the initials of Kipland Kinkel as well as, yes, disturbingly, my own), who is in jail after murdering nine people, to put together what it all means and why it happened and come to terms with her culpability as the parent of a murderer.

The triumph of this novel is its ability to put you in the mind of a woman tortured and psychologically abused by her own progeny. Reading this as I did after The Psychopath Test, I found myself often making mental checkmarks as Kevin displayed classic sociopathic tendencies. But even so, this is not a book interested in labels or easy answers so much as it’s a book about the mysteries of character, even Eva’s own. Was she abused by her son, or did she abuse her son? There is no objective answer. There was certainly a war between mother and son, but at the same time it could also seem like an agonized love affair. It’s all so disturbing and uncomfortable and compellingly readable.

Not to mention Shriver’s wonderful prose style, which is literate and still easy to read. It’s great writing that doesn’t attract attention to itself, which is really tough to do.

One thing I still don’t like is the title, which is just a little too “the more you KNOW” and after-school-special-ish for me. But so it goes.

This is one of the best horror novels about being a parent that’s ever been written.

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Nohow On: Company / Ill Seen Ill Said / Worstward Ho
Nohow On: Company / Ill Seen Ill Said / Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Read? Somehow read. Seen? Say seen. Somehow seen. Say book. Say book where no book. Say hands. Say hands where no hands. Say hands where no hands hold book. Say book in hands. Say words in book. Say stare. Say stare. Say stare on. Be stared on. Say stars. Words. Stare at words. See words? Say see words. Say ill seen words with stare. Say stare on. Say stare on until no stare on. Ill stare on. Understand? Say understand. No. Not understand. The book? The stare? The hands? Say one. Now two. All three. Or none. Say three. Three stars. Until no stars. Said three stars until no stars. Best worse no better. Somehow none. Somehow all. Somehow three. Either or none. Does it matter? Say so. Be said so. Read on. Until no read on. Until no book in hands.

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The Children of Hurin
The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hurin, a typical Tolkien hero who is a renowned warrior and a good friend of Elves, is captured and cursed by his nemesis Morgoth (proto-Sauron, for those familiar with Lord of the Rings), imprisoned in a chair on a mountain where he’s forced to watch tragedies befall the family he left behind when he went to war. Namely, those tragedies happen around his son Turin, who is a great warrior who means well yet cannot escape the grim curse he lives under. Everything Turin does pretty much ends badly for all involved.

It’s a reeeeeeal downbound train, this one. It starts ominously, gets bad, and then gets worse. This is not the happy-go-lucky romp through the forest of The Hobbit, although there is a dragon! (And a good one, too.)

Christopher Tolkien did a great job putting together this novel, which he fashioned from assorted fragments let by his father. After a clunky opening dumps a dizzying number of names on the reader, the story settles down and becomes quite readable and engaging. The thematic repetition of the attempt to jump across a chasm was a very nice touch. And, as always, the detail of the world is delightful. Turin is a nicely complicated character.

Overall, it feels a bit like a bridge between the more optimistic worldview of The Lord of the Rings and the more nihilistic of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.

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Last Days of the Dog-Men: Stories
Last Days of the Dog-Men: Stories by Brad Watson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eight great short stories about people, dogs, life, light, and darkness. Watson can write the hell out of a sentence while telling some of the most surprising stories you’re likely to find. These are rough Southern pieces, steeped in an unflinching but fair view of humanity, recommended for serious readers who aren’t looking for sentimental Disney-ish stories about people and the pets they love. A few of these qualify in my opinion as flat-out horror stories. So … be warned. Marley and Me this is not.

Standouts in the collection for me are the title story, “Agnes of Bob,” and “Kindred Spirits,” but really they’re all terrific. I’m always inspired by Watson’s prose and gift for the unexpected.

Highly recommended for adventurous readers who don’t mind some harsh realism.

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The Sisters Brothers
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This fast-paced Western tells the story of the two Sisters brothers, Eli and Charlie, who’ve been hired by the Commodore to go to California and kill a man for allegedly stealing something from the Commodore. What it’s really about is the relationship between the hard and bold Charlie, who accepts their mission out of idolatry of the Commodore, and the softer-hearted, obese Eli, who questions their mission and the value of doing work for the Commodore at all.

None of which accurately describes what I adored about this novel, which was a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining trip. For me, it’s all about Eli’s obsessions, which include his brother, his broken-backed horse Tub, the newly-discovered art of brushing his teeth, and the women who are kind to him along the way. I found it impossible to not like and care about Eli, even if he was at times just as much a cold-hearted killer as his brother.

The final act of the novel is something perhaps I’ll like more as time goes by, but on first read it felt just a bit flat for me, and I thought the ending, while good, was slower than the rest of the book, which had until that point moved at a near-perfect pace. Still, deWitt’s genius is all in the details, from the horses to the beavers to the River of Light. There’s always something on the page worth reading, and surprises everywhere.

Funny, sad, thoughtful, and so incredibly easy to read — I really recommend this one.

I just hope when the inevitable film version comes out they cast Tucker & Dale instead of Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill.

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