July 30, 2010

Book Vs. Movie: The Lovely Bones


I like a good ghost story, so The Lovely Bones sounded like it had potential when I first heard about it a few years ago. It had quite a bit of critical acclaim and good word-of-mouth, and Alice Sebold's novel would become one of my all-time favorite reads.
So, you would think that when word got out there was going to be a film adaptation, and it would be directed by none other than Peter Jackson, I'd be quite excited. To the contrary, I instantly thought of the film adaptation of The Golden Compass and how I'd been brokenhearted over how that film turned out compared to the book--and other adaptations over the years. No matter how talented a director Jackson is, the track record for turning books into movies isn't a great one over the long haul. And knowing the subject matter in Sebold's novel, I suspected there was a fair amount of potential for things to go badly.
My first twinge of cynicism towards the film happened when I heard Mark Wahlberg had been cast to play Susie's father, Jack Salmon. I've never understood the appeal of Wahlberg as a marquee actor. Maybe there's a movie I'm missing out on, but after seeing him in films like The Happening and Shooter, he's about as captivating as milk toast.
My first twinge of hope for the film came when I saw the trailer for it. Plus, Stanley Tucci's casting as Susie's murderer was about as perfect a call as you could make. Now there's a guy who can act.
In the novel, the story is told by Susie Salmon, a fourteen year old girl who's been murdered by her neighbor, George Harvey. From a kind of in-between world that's not quite Heaven and not quite the real world, Susie tries to help her family deal with her disappearance and death, as well as try to point the way to her killer. Things do go as she hoped though, as tensions in her family mount and the authorities seem unable to draw any connection between her murder and her killer.
There were moments in reading the book that the story felt a bit saccharine, especially with the depictions of Susie's personal Heaven and her fleeting interactions with her family. Overall though, the book manages to find a balance between drama and thriller. And the books doesn't bog itself down by becoming a story about a ghost wallowing in the past, as she watches her family both disintegrate in ways and find new beginnings.
The movie distills the novel down to two core components from the novel: Susie's (Saorise Ronan) connection with her father (Wahlberg), as he grieves her death and obsessively tries to solve her murder; and her sister (Rose McIver), Lindsey's hunt to find evidence against Mr. Harvey (Tucci) when she's convinced over time he's responsible. It makes sense in a way to really hone in on these two pieces of the story, as they provide the most tension and suspense. However, while watching the film I found a great deal had been spliced out, things that provide a fuller context to things that occur late in the story, particularly among the tertiary characters.
While the film touches on Susie's mother (Rachel Weisz) abandoning the family to seek solace on her own abroad, it's so thinly discussed that she becomes an even less sympathetic character than in the novel. The film makes no mention of her brief affair with the lead detective in the murder, Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli), which is part of the rising tension within the family after Susie's death. And Jack Salmon's interactions with the mother of the boy Susie had a crush on, a rather integral part to his story, is completely omitted.
And while there is a passing acknowledgment of Ruth Connors (Carolyn Dando) and her seemingly paranormal awareness of Susie within the film, she's very inconsequential in the film and used as little more than a momentary plot device. Anyone who has read the book, knows what I'm talking about there.
It's near impossible to pack a whole novel into two hours of movie, but I can't help but feel The Lovely Bones was rushed. It seemed at points that Jackson, and executive producer Steven Spielberg, were more content with dazzling audiences with the special effects used for Susie's ethereal limbo world--a place that really felt artificial to a point that I kept getting sucked out of the story, visualizing Saorise Ronan running around a giant green screen.
Winner: THE BOOK. I enjoyed the movie to an extent, thanks in large part to Tucci's cringe-worthy performance of that creepy neighbor with a sordid past, as well as Rose McIver's scene stealing moments as Susie's sister. But it's a heavily flawed film and does little justice to the rich subject matter offered by Sebold's novel. This was one of those times when a trailer can be accused of false advertising, because I got setup for a big letdown by watching it. I'm sure others who saw this movie were as well.

CymLowell

Rabid Rewind: Donnie Darko

Title: Donnie Darko

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Jena Malone, Patrick Swayze, Mary McDonnell
Writer/Director: Richard Kelly
Released: New Market/ Pandora (2001)
Genre: Thriller

Hailed as a psychological thriller, Donnie Darko gets it half-right--psychological, yes, but not very thrilling. This movie has attained a cult status that escapes me. Aside from being the movie that put the Gyllenhaal siblings on the Hollywood map, I'm not sure where the staying power for this movie comes from.

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the loose screw in the tightly wound machine that is his suburbanite family. Set in October 1988--for the sake of a killer soundtrack and a jab at George Bush Sr.--Donnie has stopped taking his medication for paranoid schizophrenia, subsequently having visions of a giant bunny rabbit named Frank. And Frank bears the prophetic news that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds.

From there the movie sets a course through stylized scenes of high school life, suburban life, and a sullen view of teen life for one disturbed young man. While the movie is pretty good, there were plenty of moments when it felt like an MTV affectation of Hitchockian film making. Teen angst coupled with a surreal tinge of science-fiction (wormholes and time travel) create an interesting blend, but Richard Kelly's message got lost in the medium.

I will say it's a film to be seen or re-seen for, if nothing else, the cavalcade of characters and the actors who play them. Mary McDonnell plays Donnie's mother and manages to steal a majority of the scenes she's in with an understated approach that's refreshing in this movie. Patrick Swayze comparatively goes to the other end of the acting spectrum in his role as the motivational speaker/douchebag. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Donnie's sister and further convinces me that she doesn't age--she'll look the same when she's forty ... because she looks forty now. And even Seth Rogan appears as one of the school bullies that ceaselessly torments Donnie. It's difficult to imagine what a star he'll become in the ensuing years.

I lack the gall to describe this movie as "excitingly original" like Entertainment Weekly did, but there is a dark charm to the movie. The character study of Donnie Darko falls short, however, in a muddled movie that's more superficial than superlative.

July 29, 2010

Rabid Reads: "The Book of Negroes" by Lawrence Hill


Title: The Book of Negroes; internationally titled as Someone Knows My Name
Author: Lawrence Hill
Published: HarperCollins (2007)
Pages: 486
Genre: Historical; Literary
ISBN 13: 978-0-00-225507-3

While this novel would never be described as horror fiction, there is no doubt that some very horrific things happen through the course of this book. And what's worse is that much of what is depicted is based in historical fact.

Aminata Diallo, a liberated African slave, is an elderly woman readying herself to speak in front of the British Parliament on behalf of the Abolitionists at the start of the 19th century. She's to tell them her story of slavery and survival, but as she writes her story for readers, it's easy to realize that hers is a unique story and a spellbinding one.

Abducted by African slave-traders at the age of eleven, Aminata witnesses her parents' murders and her home of Bayo devastated. She's forced to trek to the west coast for months where she is placed on a boat headed for America. She is clever, resilient, and brave in the most deplorable and dehumanizing of experiences, though. Her trek across the Atlantic leads her to even worse conditions. In fact, Aminata's life is absolutely heart-wrenching in the atrocities she must endure and heartbreak she feels as those few who are close to her slip away for one reason or another. There are moments of fortuitous escape and fateful consolations, but they are eyes of hurricanes through a life of hardship beyond measure.

What initially drew me to this book was its critical acclaim among Canadian book lovers. Then, I learned about the inclusion of Nova Scotia as a setting--my home province--and its share in a shameful chapter of slavery and supposed liberation. Each setting Hill writes is vividly shared by Aminata (Meena to those who know her in later years), from the arid plains surrounding her village, Bayo, to the indigo plantation in the Carolinas, to the wrenching cold and fly-infested woods of Nova Scotia, to London, and even back to Africa when she lives in Sierra Leone for a time. The people, the places, and the language are all so genuine while reading--and Aminata's voice so enjoyable to listen to--I nearly forgot at times that this was all sprung from Hill's imagination.

I once heard this described as Forrest Gump set during the slave trade, as Aminata's lifelong journey is such a globe-trotting epic with brief encounters with historical figures and places. But there's no artificial conceit felt from the story in this book's pages. It's the character's unfathomable luck in avoiding death at every turn that provokes a difficulty in suspending disbelief.

I really enjoyed this book, and I'm not often drawn towards historical fiction. And despite the girth of the story, it's easily digestible and you'll likely to want to give it a second read to take in certain scenes that resonate with you after you've finished it. Give it a chance if you ever come across it, even if it doesn't fit into your usual comfort zone of reading material. Lawrence Hill has done an admirable job worthy of the recognition it's received.

July 28, 2010

Meme, Myself, & I: Billy Loves Stu's 1st Meme for Horror Bloggers

Pax Ramano from Billy Loves Stu created his first meme--and, boy, is it a doozy. As a way for the ceaseless, and arguably superfluous, number of horror bloggers to get to know each other a little better, and see where we're all coming from, we now have a blog that looks to be one helluva FAQ. You can find the original BLS edition by clicking here. And if you want to read mine, then just keep scrolling down.

1: In Ten Words or Less, Describe Your Blog:

A: A den for dark fiction, whether books, film, or mine.

2: During What Cinematic Era Where you Born?

A: The Exorcism Era (Early to mid 70's) Though, I wouldn't go near a horror movie voluntarily until The Self Referential/Post Modern Era (1990 to 1999).

3: The Carrie Compatibility Question: Sue Snell or Chris Hargensen, who would you take to the prom?

A: I went stag to my prom, so I'd be happy to switch it up by going with either of them. Maybe Chris as a top pick, though.

4: You have been given an ungodly amount of money, and total control of a major motion picture studio - what would your dream Horror project be?

A: If we're talking books-into-films here, then I would probably look to bring Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show to the big screen. I'm not sure who the right director would be, but the first name that pops into my head is Guillermo Del Toro. As for marquee actors, I don't have any real preference there, so long as they are talented actors. Megan Fox need not apply. As a backup project, I saw some footage of a video-game called Dead Space that looked incredible. Wouldn't mind seeing a film adaptation of that, either.

5: What horror film "franchise" that others have embraced, left you cold?

A: I have never cared for the "Friday the 13th" franchise. Aside from the first movie--a passable piece of slasher fun--the franchise has been nothing but garbage, in my opinion. People got antsy in the pantsy to go see the remake/reboot a couple of years ago, and look what they got: one more Hollywood retread. Jason Vorhees wore out as a character and as a villain a long time ago.

6: Is Michael Bay the Antichrist?

A: I say no, but I am an atheist after all. And even if I was still a Christian, there are more insidious and fearsome elements in the world than Michael Bay and his on-screen excrement. You betcha. His movies lately have been utter shite, though.

7: Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Frankenstein Monster - which one of these classic villains scares you, and why?

A: Frankenstein's monster is my favorite, but as for which one scares me: Dracula. In a confrontation, there's at least a chance to outwit the Wolf Man or the Frankenstein Monster, but Dracula is a guileful demon that could give Satan a good go.

8: Tell me about a scene from a NON HORROR Film that scares the crap out of you:

A: I can't think of any that have genuinely scared me, or even startled me, but the scene in Saving Private Ryan where the doctor has his intestines blown out and he dies a slow, excruciating death--that unsettled me like few non horror films ever have.

9: Baby Jane Hudson invites you over to her house for lunch. What do you bring?

A: Back up.

10: So, between you and me, do you have any ulterior motives for blogging? Come, on you can tell me, it will be our little secret, I won't tell a soul.

A: I first started my blog as simply an online writing journal and haphazard repository for whatever was on my mind. Within a few months though, it morphed into a blog about books because I found writing about myself a bit tiresome and smug. Then I wrote about dark fiction books, since that's where my passion lies. And finally, a blog dedicated to dark fiction in als its forms. Oh, and it still acts occasionally as my writing journal when I've got something I feel is worth blogging about in my own writing life.

11: What would you have brought to Rosemary Woodhouse's baby shower?

A: Baby formula, because breastfeeding would be lethal. And maybe some contact lenses for later on, 'cause folks are going to stare when they see those crazy demon eyes.

12: Godzilla vs The Cloverfield Monster, who wins?

A: Godzilla. For other reason than I hated Cloverfield. I shouldn't take it out on the whole movie or even the monster. It was that a-hole with the video camera I despised.

13: If you found out that Rob Zombie was reading your blog, what would you post in hopes that he read it?

A: I would try to make the case for him to switch from making horror movies to making romantic comedies. He can feel free to keep casting his wife in the films, as I won't be watching them.

14: What is your favorite NON HORROR FILM, and why?

A: Honorable mention goes to The Big Lebowski, but one of my all-time favorites is still The Wizard of Oz. I will never--never ever--get tired to watching that movie. It is quite literally the only musical I can sit through without feeling a compulsion to stab my eardrums with a screwdriver and gouge my eyes out with a rusty spoon. And who doesn't love the Cowardly Lion? Communists, that's who.

15: If blogging technology did not exist, what would you be doing?

A: Pissing and moaning via smoke signals.

Wish List Wednesday #57: Santa Olivia

Wish List Wednesday is a weekly meme I started back in July '09, in which I put the spotlight on a book that is on my wish list--whether new release, blast from the past, or hidden gem.

Jacqueline Carey is a celebrated fantasy author, but more often than not the books by her I see spotlighted on book blogs belong to an on-going series. I would like to sample a stand-alone novel from her before I hunker down with yet another series.

Santa Olivia sounds like the kind of book I might enjoy. A young woman, who's been genetically manipulated to be literally fearless, winds up in a American/Mexican border town and winds up the town's protector. Io9 recommended it for folks who enjoyed the X-Men/Wolverine movies. I would sincerely hope that Carey's writing talents exceed those who penned the screenplays for those movies.

At any rate, the book sounds promising to me when hearing a rough idea of its premise. Does it sound like something you'd want to read?

July 27, 2010

Rabid Reads: "Drummer Boy" by Scott Nicholson


Title: Drummer Boy
Author: Scott Nicholson
Published: Haunted Computer Books (2010)
Pages: 160
Genre: Horror; Southern Gothic
ISBN-13:
2940000838655

I've had Scott Nicholson's debut novel, The Red Church, sitting on my to-be-read pile since the start of the year--just one of many books that I've been meaning to read but have yet to get around to. So, when Scott contacted me to see if I'd be interested in reviewing one of his new novels, I had one of those moments where I looked at my bookshelf with a touch of shame. But I also leapt at the chance to read Drummer Boy, because the premise sounded unique in its approach to the resurgence of ghost stories.

Set in the little town of Titusville in North Carolina during a Civil War reenactment, three friends (Dex, Bobby, Vernon Ray) are hanging out in the woods next to a little cave known locally as the Jangling Hole, which is fabled to be where deserting soldiers from both sides of Stoneman's Raid (the famous battle to occur in the area) hid out to avoid the bloodshed. It doesn't take long for one of the boys to hear noises coming out of the darkness, which kicks off the inevitable emergence of a spirit or two--or more.

Now, I'm from a historically rich and vibrant province, here in Canada, but I'll bet our passion for reenactments pales in comparison to those guys down south.

Anyway--back on topic--Nicholson does a pretty good job in fleshing out the town and characters. Much like when I read his novella, Burial to Follow, it took no time at all to feel like I knew at least a couple of these characters from my own hometown. Redneck mentality seems to be universal, fictional or otherwise. The three boys play off a bit like a trio that didn't quite make the cut for the movie, Stand By Me, but they're likable. Vernon Ray, in particular, and his latent homosexuality plays a bit of a subplot, both as character development and building tension, as his father is one of the more gung-ho reenactors and a bit more culturally conservative than might be needed to embrace a gay son.

It's a ghost story blended with a coming-of-age tale, you might say. The phantoms that have been freed from their untimely tomb could have been a bit comical, as I've seen enough parodies of Civil War vets to have a fairly jaded view, but these ghosties aren't exactly comic relief. They're ready to do battle, and wouldn't you know there's a battle of sorts being reenacted nearby. And the converging of the past and the present and even the foreboding of the future, played out a bit with a land developer that plays an inadvertent role in helping the spirits rise again, all adds another welcome sublayer to this story.

While a ghost story probably doesn't strike you as original, this one manages to find its own niche thanks in large part to the backdrop and that good ol' Southern flavor. It'll likely take a second reading down the road to see how this one shapes up against my all-time favorite ghost stories, but for now I can comfortably recommend Nicholson's work to anyone willing to give it a chance.

July 26, 2010

Writing Like Crazy: More Heatstroke than Pen Strokes

I've been on a bit of a tear writing-wise, though it's unclear how it will manifest itself in terms of publication. Can't be bothered with fretting over what will make the cut and what won't, so it's best just to keep hammering away at the keyboard. But, man oh man, this heat has been crazy. To be more precise, the humidity is what's killin' me. There have been days so hot this month that my brain has shorted out. By two in the afternoon, my thought processes would become mired down, it's as if my brain got caught in a tar pit.

Any writer who minds the heat will probably know what I mean when I say that I've tried writing in the blistering heat and wound up staring at the page in a stupor. I thought the winter had given me seasonal effective disorder. This summer has been chipping away at me without mercy. Now I know how those polar bears in the zoos must feel.

One trick that's helped me has been writing rather than typing. My jalopy of a computer is set up in the hottest room in the house--my bedroom. Heat rises from the first floor to my room, plus the desktop PC throws out its own heat, and since I don't have air conditioning my little oscillating fan has been working overtime. So, while writing I've been retreating to cooler areas of the house with a pen and writing pad to get my stories down. It's a slower process, and a messier one too. The stories are very disjointed from page to page with me writing down whatever pops into my head at that moment. Then, when I can bear an extended session at the computer at night, I hammer out a more coherent version of the story on Open Office.

Writers always talk about routines, finding a rhythm in their writing process, but I wonder if the seasons and the temperature mess with them too. How about you? If you write, do you find the heat and humidity act as a speed bump? Or, are you one of those freaks of nature who thrives during a heatwave?

Side-notes: I thought I was going to have to wait a year for my latest short story acceptance, "The Stand-Ins," to be published. As it turns out, Pill Hill Press is wasting no time in preparing Zero Gravity: Adventures in Deep Space for publication. I've given the story another going over, which I guess you call copy editing--the lingo is something I'm still unfamiliar with--and the anthology should be available for purchase in the not-too-distant future. You can get a peak at the cover and table of contents by clicking HERE.

I have a piece of flash fiction entered in the latest Shock Totem contest, called Whipflash. The writing prompt was a very strange, very macabre song. I didn't much care for the song personally, but it did act as a decent prompt to spark the imagination. And judging from the other entries in the contest, my fellow writers took some very inventive turns with their creative license. Results for the contest should be announced in another week or so, I think, so fingers crossed.

Clarity of Night has a new flash fiction contest open right now, titled Uncovered. The last time they hosted a writing contest I managed to walk away with an honorable mention for my story. I wonder if I can match or better that result. Given the prizes up for grabs, I sure hope so.

I'm also putting the finishing touches on three short stories to submit to different anthologies, all due around the end of the month. There is a short story contest hosted by Pill Hill Press, designed for their anthology, Flesh & Bone: Rise of the Necromancers. Then there's an anthology called Specters in Coal Dust by Woodland Press, involving coal mine ghost stories. And finally, I have a story in mind for Blood Bound Books and their anthology, Rock and Roll is Dead: Dark Tales Inspired by Music. No telling if any of my submissions will make the cut, but the themes for all three anthologies drew me and I had a fun time cooking up each short story.

July 23, 2010

Rabid Rewind: A History of Violence

Title: A History of Violence
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt
Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: John Olsen; based on the graphic novel by John Wagner & Vince Locke
Released: Alliance Atlantis (2005)
Genre: Suspense/Thriller

As a small town kind of guy, the setting of A History of Violence felt at once Rockwellian and familiar. The townsfolk were just so damned chipper and friendly, and to a degree felt a bit saccharine, I had trouble accepting them as real people. But I think there needed to be that kind of visual contrast, since the two homicidal maniacs that descend upon the town in the first act were wildly malevolent.

More than the introduction of two gun-toting, thieving killers to such a humble setting, however, is the intervening actions of diner owner, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), that is really where the heart of the movie is first exposed. The mild-mannered pillar of the community, for a few frenzied seconds, responds to the threat of violence with an equally vicious display and kills the two gunmen. And as his actions become the new buzz with local media, a new dark specter--Ed Harris playing Philly gangster, Carl Fogarty--arrives to confront Tom Stall.

It's an engaging premise for a film that amplifies what already has the potential to be a good revenge-style flick: Is Tom Stall really the Philly gangster Joey Cusack, as Carl Fogarty asserts, and living a life of exile? Or is it that Carl has tragically identified an innocent husband and father as an opposing gangster who tried to tear out his eye with barbed-wire?

On top of that, there is the exploration of Tom's son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), as he reconciles his own passivity and encounters with bullies against the celebrated actions of his father against the two criminals at the diner. The humiliation he endures prior to the incident only intensifies when his father becomes a local hero.

Then there is Tom's wife, Edie (Maria Bello), who wrestles with her own doubts about Tom's identity as Fogarty and his henchmen relentlessly antagonize and intimidate the entire family. It's a pretty powerful bit of acting from her that escapes the threat of winding up that fretful helpless wife, as she shows herself to be equally assertive and confrontational at certain points in the film.

The title of the movie alone should let any audience know that A History of Violence is a not-so-subtle examination of western culture's preoccupation and celebration of violence. The movie walks a line between reality and fable as the story progresses, and the ending shows how scarred a family can be when an outside force imposes itself so suddenly and ferociously.

While I really liked the movie, both on an intellectual level as well as a prurient one, I was surprised at how there was no regard given to the graphic novel which inspired it. Yes, it is acknowledged in the opening credits and the back of the DVD, but in all of the DVD extras no one made any mention of the source material. I heard plenty of praise for the screenwriter who adapted it, Josh Olson--even showing in constantly kissing the feet of David Cronenberg on stage and at Cannes, but no celebration of the men who created the tale. If not for minuscule recognition afforded to John Wagner and Vince Locke, I would have had no idea this movie was either an adaptation or the work of people other than Cronenberg and Olson. A shame, really, as I would like to read the graphic novel to see just how far the movie deviates and becomes its own creature compared to the book.

Nit-picking over writing credits aside, this is a fantastic film. It's not a feel-good film with promise of a happy ending, but it is a great piece of film making and storytelling that people ought to see for themselves.

Rabid Rewind: The Wave

Title: The Wave
Starring: Juergen Vogel, Frederick Lau, Jennifer Ulrich, Christiane Paul
Director: Dennis Gansel
Writers: Dennis Gansel and Peter Thorwarth; based on the novel by Todd Strasser
Released: 2008

When you hear the word "autocracy," you might not feel dread, as it sounds fairly innocuous if you don't know its meaning. "Dictatorship," however, is a word that can set you on edge--especially if you live in Germany, I suspect.

In The Wave, a high school teacher prepares for project week, which will have all students signing up to learn about a particular political ideology. Rainer Wenger, a former punk, has his hopes set on teaching anarchism, but is lumped with authoritarianism instead. Not exactly rock and roll.

So, to make things interesting--mostly for himself--he turns the week-long project into a social experiment with the students who have signed up. Through the duration of their studies, he establishes himself as a pseudo-dictator and lays out the law of the land, all designed to mimic Hitler--but not outright. He makes everyone refer to him as "sir" and instructs the students in calisthenics to promote good health. Students with weaker grades are paired with the more academically gifted, and so on.

But his fun and games become serious as the students in his class start to take things to heart, and the class starts to resemble more of a gang. The students pitch in with the development of the authoritarian system by giving it a name, the Wave, and even a uniform and salute. The kids also start to exert their own authority outside the boundaries of school to the point where they try to indoctrinate others.

The movie was pretty good, and I don't mean "good for a movie with subtitles"--I mean it was good. The characters are painted with shades of gray, and aren't presented as automatons to push the plot. Although the water polo team members--who become the class's team thanks to the "Wave" moniker--do get a bit of the classic "jock" portrayal, the focus isn't on them thankfully. The teacher could easily be cast in a purely negative light, as he ignores the warning signs of his student's behavior outside class, but there is a sympathetic air about him that lets you see where he's coming from. And the loner kid who takes the gang mentality to heart more than anyone is slowly ramped up with each scene he's in, though towards the end you can pretty much see where it's leading.

For a movie that's inspired by an actual experiment from a 1960s era California high school, this movie could have gone down a very dull and clich├ęd road. And even with the German adaptation, it risked becoming too on-the-nose. But, the movie works and really shows that through the best intentions, people can be lulled into a dictatorship without even realizing it's happening.

July 22, 2010

Rabid Reads: "Burial to Follow" by Scott Nicholson (a novella)

Title: Burial to Follow
Author: Scott Nicholson
Published: Haunted Computer Books (2008)
Pages: 41
Genre: Southern Gothic
; Horror

I'm not sure if I'm written a review for a novella before, but I guess now is as good a time as any.

After I was asked to read and review one of Scott Nicholson's new novels, I browsed through the e-books I already had on file and found this novella he wrote a couple of years ago, which I had yet to read. I can't remember how I got it. I don't download pirated material, so I can only assume it was a free download posted somewhere on one of the blogs I visit--heck, maybe it was his.

It's a brief glimpse into the grief of a rural family, the Ridgehorns, that has lost its patriarch. Everyone is collected in the living room of the farmhouse and kind of fumbling through the proper way to discuss his untimely death and what's to happen to the inheritance.

The story is steeped in that rough around the edges Southern charm with a Gothic bent that creeps up on the reader about midway through. The protagonist, Roby Snow, is a young man vicariously related to the family and lends a hand in the kitchen watching over the plethora of food that's been laid out, but which little is being eaten. He seems to have an invested interest in what's to happen to the family now that the father is dead, but it's not insidious and seems to be sincere in his concern for certain members of the family.

Through much of the first half of the story, it felt like there was this odd preoccupation with food. The first scene was in the kitchen, so that stands to reason, but it seemed to go beyond that and I couldn't figure out if it was going anywhere or not. Fortunately, it started to make sense later on, and I was able to quit thinking about that and just enjoy the story.

If you grew up in a rural area, you'll probably recognize a couple of your neighbors in this story--I did. It's a good story with very good characters, but not necessarily good as in likable. If you come across this story, give it a whirl. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Rabid Reads: "Arguing with Idiots" by Glenn Beck


Title: Arguing with Idiots (How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government)
Editors: Glenn Beck and Kevin Balfe
Writers: Steve Burguiere, Dan Andros, Brian Sack, Alan Gura, Pat Gray, David Harsanyl, Carol Lynne, and Carol Williott
Illustrator: Paul E. Nunn
Published: Simon & Schuster (2009)
Genre: Nonfiction; Politics
ISBN 978-1-4165-9501-4

It turns out it was a bit much to ask Glenn Beck to write his own book. I might have known better had I ever subjected myself to tuning into his television or radio shows. But, it seemed somewhat unfair to peg the guy as inadequate to be the sole author of his own book given the only times I've ever heard him speak has been when he's spouted the most inane chatter to be found on cable news or talk radio. He wasn't even the soul editor for the litany of writers who did write this book. He is a brand--an anti-liberal, anti-intellectual, anti-rational soft drink.

That's one of two reasons why this book disappointed me. The other reason was, and this was not the least bit surprising or enlightening, because the book is just another tacky tome of wing-nut ideology. The same tactics are used by any other hyper-partisan manifesto: appeal to the reader by highlighting the worst of the fringe elements on the opposite end of the political spectrum, then apply those "facts" to the rest in a broad generalization. Ann Coulter and Michael Moore do it, so why would I expect the guy who called the Disney film, Happy Feet, liberal propaganda about global warming--why would I expect that guy to come up with something different.

However, if you think Glenn Beck is a stand-up guy with a keen sense of what's really going on in the world, then this is an easy to read echo chamber of a book. Also, if you think that of Glenn Beck, I can't help but question your own sanity--along with his.

If you see this book as a chance to revel in a literary version of Beck's patented form of snake oil crazy, prepare to be underwhelmed. The psychosis witnessed through his maniacal rants and crocodile tears is heavily muted, thanks in large part to the fact that he wrote so little of this book. The craziness is diffused by a quirky sense of humor that misses the mark more often than not, with cartoon captions and not-so-witty asides masquerading as footnotes. For a guy who thinks he's on a mission from God to restore America to its perceived former glory, it's incredibly hard to take the guy seriously--especially when this book is littered with photographs of him mugging for the camera like a Vaudevillian huckster.

Check it out if you have a morbid curiosity and low expectations, otherwise skip it.

July 21, 2010

Wish List Wednesday #56: Lesser Demons

Wish List Wednesday is a weekly meme I started back in July '09, in which I put the spotlight on a book that is on my wish list--whether new release, blast from the past, or hidden gem.

I've heard the name Norman Partridge bandied about once in a while as a name in horror and fantasy literature to look out for. Well, I've been looking, but his is a name among many on my watch list that never appears on my local bookshelves.

From what I understand the guy has a real knack of blending the horrific with the fantastical that is akin to days of yore when "The Twilight Zone" was on TV with Rod Serling looking into your soul. I love "The Twilight Zone" and if an author who can write well and offers a chance to remember those childhood chills, I'm game.

This year marks the publication of a collection of short stories from Partridge called Lesser Demons. First of all, I love the title. Secondly, the descriptions by Subterranean Press of some of these stories makes me salivate.

One story called "The Iron Dead" involves a pulp-style protagonist "with a mechanical hand built in Hell." And other story deals with a mutant spider battling toy soldiers in some dystopian wasteland. Oh yes, this sounds like it's right up my alley.

Have you heard of his work before? If you've read it, what did you think of it?

July 20, 2010

Rabid Reads: "Lanceheim" by Tim Davys

Title: Lanceheim
Author: Tim Davys
Published: HarperCollins (2010); originally published in Sweden (2008)
Pages: 371
Genre: Noir; Thriller
ISBN 978-0-06-179743-9

I'm starting to think Swedish authors are en vogue right now in the literary world. It's not an onslaught, mind you, but there seems to be a growing appetite in North America for Sweden's most promising writers. Tim Davys appears to be the latest, although the name is a pseudonym I believe the writer's nationality is authentic. But instead of girls with dragon tattoos a la Stieg Larsson, or littler girls drinking blood to survive a la John Lindqvist, Davys's focus is on characters that are a bit more plush--literally.
Lanceheim is the second novel from Davys set in the stuffed animal universe of Mollisan Town, with Amberville being his debut and two more novels to follow. Rather than a sequel, this book is a companion--part of a quartet--to the other three novels with only a shared setting, but a separate focus on a particular theme--this book approaching the ideas of faith and loss.
Reuben Walrus--and, yes, he's a stuffed animal in the form of a walrus--is an aging composer in a race against time to finish his latest symphony. It's a race, not only because the symphony is unfinished yet schedule to debut in less than a month, but because Reuben is going deaf. Dreading the inevitable, he becomes desperate and begins to hear rumors of a strange stuffed animal named Maximilian that is known to cure others.
A second narrative is told through the point of view of Wolf Diaz--a wolf, you guessed it--the childhood friend and longtime companion of Maximilian, as he regales readers with the story of his own and Max's upbringing and ultimate persecution for being so darned different. Maximilian is discovered as an infant in a secluded area and adopted by one of Wolf's grade teachers. Max is different because no one can place what animal he's supposed to be, and his stitching is practically invisible. It becomes apparent to readers fairly quickly if they read between the lines just what little--not so little as he actually grows over the years--Maximilian's true nature is.
The story itself, with the two parallel storylines, feels a bit laggard at times, especially when it comes to Reuben's story. That's quite possibly a bias on my part though, as I didn't find the ordeal of a composer losing his hearing all that interesting, nor Reuben to be all that sympathetic. I found myself far more interested in Maximilian's adventures and his nearly satirical Zen state as he attracts devotees to his cryptic parables.
I also found the conceit of using stuffed animals rather than humans to fall away more often than not. There is a smattering of novel scenes that show these plushy protagonists in their anthropomorphic goodness, but most of the time I felt like the story might have worked as well--or better--if they were human. Granted, the concept of newborns arriving and the elderly being collected via ominous trucks that arrive in town to be a welcome device.
The fact that these are stuffed animals is simply a veneer, however, and the important part is the story. As far as that goes, it was a okay read. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, I know, but I felt it was stronger on one of the separate storylines through the first half of the book--Wolf's first person account over Reuben's third person--and I had to wait longer than I'd expected for the two streams to melt into one. I'll be going back to read the first book, Amberville, later in the summer to see if the bigger picture comes into focus for me with Davys's intent with these books. One thing I think is certain is that Lanceheim and its stuffed animals will do as much to confound readers as comfort.
CymLowell

July 19, 2010

These Blogs Have Heart: A Little Love for 5 Book Blogs I Like

Over the past year-and-change of this blog, a few other bloggers have been kind enough to dish out little blog button awards to me as a sign of approval. As much as I appreciate the sentiment, I've been lax in returning the favor--until today.

A while back I whipped up a little graphic on PhotoShop as a lark, but put it out of mind as soon as I'd finished--I do that quite a bit. So, I figure now is as good a time as any to offer a modest spotlight on five book blogs (or blogs that include discussions about books) that I think people ought to check out if they haven't already.

Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia - Celia has been hammering out her blog about as long as me, and she's managed to carve an a pretty eclectic niche as a gal with a diverse range of reading habits. She also has a kindly way of discussing her likes--and her dislikes. She'll review YA and urban fantasy, but she'll dive into science-fiction and even a little horror to boot. Plus, she hosts the occasional contest, plus strikes up some interesting meme topics when the mood strikes her.

Book Junkie - When Brande says she's a book junkie, she ain't kidding. This gal devours romance and other genres like they're going out of style. Romance isn't exactly my forte, but I have been opening myself up to new reading experiences over the last couple of years. And Brande has been a great ambassador for all things lusty and lascivious. Of course, I may be biased on account of winning a contest at the start of the year in which I won a metric ton of books from her.

Dark Wolf's Fantasy Reviews - Mihai (aka Dark Wolf) has been going strong since 2008 on the blogosphere, offering some great reviews of fantasy, horror, and sci-fi titles. He's also a great appreciator of cover artists and what they contribute to the literary world. I've been fortunate enough to be turned on to more than one novel thanks to Dark Wolf's recommendations. And I'm usually reminded of the latest spat of literary and genre awards that have been divvied out when I visit this blog.

Dead in the South - Kent loves horror just as unapologetically as I do, and his blog is reflective of that. One of the great things about the blog is how it'll put me on track to a novel or an author I've never heard tell of, but when I do I instantly want to read that work. It's where I first learned about fellow Maritimer and horror author, Steve Vernon--ain't that something? Plus, being from the south, Kent's got the inside track on some of that great horror coming from below the Mason-Dixon.

Grasping for the Wind - John runs a magnificent blog dedicated to science-fiction and fantasy. The place is like a compendium of reviews, interviews, previews, and aggregated links to even more content to satiate a reader's appetite. I've especially appreciated discovering some of the podcasts the blog provides links to, like Geek's Guide to the Galaxy, Dead Robots Society, and Functional Nerds. If you're not familiar with sci-fi, but want to get your feet wet, you could find worse places to start than here.

So, there you have it. Now, I'll just leave it to these five bloggers to see if they want to pass along the blog button love to five other bloggers they think deserve a little recognition. I've noticed that some of these little blog award things come with provisos requiring other tidbits of information, but I think simply expressing a small testimonial about each blog they choose is more than sufficient.

Thanks again to Celia, Brande, Mihai, Kent, and John for keeping my Google Reader chock-full of bloggy goodness.

July 16, 2010

Rabid Rewind: Avatar

Title: Avatar
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, and Michelle Rodriguez
Writer/Director: James Cameron
Released: Twentieth Century Fox (2009)
Genre: Science-Fiction; Adventure

I think I may be the last person on the planet to bother watching Avatar. I figured this movie would do well, as it was hyped for about a year before its theatrical release, and that buzz just continued to build even after weeks of dominating the box office. But I would never have guessed it would make that much money, to take it to the very top as a money earner in cinematic history. Go figure.

The film itself deals with a well-worn plot. There is an invading force threatening the landscape and the indigenous people who live there, in order to exploit it all for some resource. And like many movies that use this plot, white guys are the villains, mostly--heck, we've earned it after centuries of being dicks to non-whites. The indigenous people are a race known as the Na'vi living on a strange planet called Pandora. And the resource sought by what's left of humanity is an element known as--and here comes one of the laziest attempts in scripting--Unobtanium.

I could go on describing what the film's about, but chances are you've seen it already--or one of the several films it's alleged to have "borrowed" from, like Dances with Wolves. While this movie may have raked in the most money in history, that doesn't mean it's good. That being said, I didn't hate this film like so many of the seething cynics out there who still can't let go of their hate for Titanic. In fact, I quite liked the movie. Despite the familiar plot that contained almost zero amount of surprise, the spectacle of the special effects and the performance of Zoe Saldana as the go-between for Sam Worthington's character--a paraplegic soldier offered to control his dead twin brother's alien avatar--as well as the inevitable love interest. Like I said: no surprises.

But for a movie that became so bloody popular with movie-goers, I was naive to expect something ... new. At least beyond the envelope-pushing CGI and 3-D technology (of which I missed out on because I watched it on plain ol' 2-D DVD). Maybe if I had been sitting in an Imax theater, I would have been entranced by the movie and stepped out of the theater as if reprogrammed like a Manchurian candidate. Perhaps the Avatar fanboys can be called Cameronian candidates. But I saw this film on a level playing field with the rest of the movies I watch, and I saw nothing to convince me this movie was much more than an average sci-fi story with a lot of pomp and press.

The characters were crafted via cookie cutters with practically no original thought at all, and their motivations seemed to shift as if they flew on butterfly wings. Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, and others play characters that are more avatars than the actual avatars depicted in the film, present only to serve whatever plot point arises for Sam Worthington's character. If there is fluidity to this film, I didn't see it because it played out as if on rails over the long run.

Over Christmas, when it was first released, Adam Blomquist summed up the movie pretty well in a Christmas Blockbuster Face-Off against Sherlock Holmes. When it's not wowing you with how pretty it is, Avatar is "boring." Now, I only say that because the movie offers little more than eye candy. It is, however, spectacular eye candy and worth seeing once by even the most jaded movie goer.

Along with the insane amount of success this movie garnered, it accumulated an equal amount of disdain and cynicism towards James Cameron and the film. It's interesting to note, as done by io9 here, how many accusations of plagiarism and "ripping off' other films Avatar received. Whether ripped off or not, it certainly shows that despite how entertaining the film is, it's by no means original and by no means worthy of the hype it received heading into this year's Academy Awards.

I'm going to refrain from hating on this movie, because it is a decent bit of escapism. I just would have hoped for more from such a notorious perfectionist and slave-driver like James Cameron. If this is supposed to be the new apex of movies for this decade, I'm sorely disappointed. But if this is supposed to be one more in a long line of action movies that offer more sizzle than steak, then I am satisfied. Just don't ask me to watch it again--I still haven't been forced to sit through Titanic a second time.

Rabid Rewind: Battle for Terra

Title: Battle for Terra
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Luke Wilson, Dennis Quaid, Justin Long, and Brian Cox
Director:
Written by:
Released: Snoot Entertainment/Menithings Productions (2009)
Genre: Animated; Sci-Fi

I remember when Avatar was at its most hyped last winter, and the groundswell of anti-Cameron sentiment that poured from everyone. Even I voiced some dissent towards Cameron's alleged awesomeness. But I avoided calling the guy a plagiarist, even though there's documented evidence that the guy likes to "borrow" from authors to adapt to his own work. When it came to the sci-fi spectacle Avatar, critics compared it to some animated film called Battle for Terra--as well as Ferngully, Dances with Wolves, and a half-dozen other movies.

Watching Battle for Terra, I can see where folks were coming from, because the basic plot is eerily similar. An alien planet of tree-hugging indigenous creatures is invaded by an armada of humans that seek to exploit the planet's natural resources, and only a single human and his relationship with a female alien can save the day. Does that sound like Avatar to you? Well, it's also Battle for Terra to a T. The key differences between the two films are: Avatar has the weaker cast; and Battle for Terra has the weaker CGI, which is a shame because it's an animated film.

The aliens, known as Terrians, look remarkably like E.T. from the waist up, while below the waist they're a cross between a mermaid and a slug. They fly inexplicably, yet use flying machines to get around--and one even falls from a great height in one scene that left me shaking my head and saying, "but she can fly."

The humans are all that's left, as Earth was destroyed in a interplanetary war between Venus and Mars settlements, and now they have arrived at Terra in a dying ship and need to convert Terra's atmosphere to breathable air, killing nearly all life on the planet in the process. And they really don't seem to mind the moral ramifications. Humanity is plainly cast as the villain with hardly any effort to demonstrate the nuances of such an endeavor, aside from the John Smith type character (voiced by Luke Wilson).

The story is kind of disjointed for such a simple plot. One minute the aliens are living a simple life, yet we learn later on they have their own armada of ships to ward off enemies. For a cartoon, it's a bit aggrevating to sit through as a grown-up. Kids might like it, if there's nothing better to watch, but I doubt there's enough to really stand up against the juggernaut films from studios like Pixar.

It's a pretty ho-hum movie with most visual attention paid to the battle at the end, with all those ships zipping around and shooting laser beams. But as a whole, the movie feels like a bargain basement attempt at a summer blockbuster. It's the kind of movie a kid would get from his great-aunt as a Christmas gift because she saw it in the discount bin at Walmart. Just go watch Avatar, regardless of how much it may have borrowed from this and other movies--at least Avatar will be prettier to look at.

July 15, 2010

Rabid Reads: "Crimson" by Gord Rollo

Title: Crimson
Author: Gord Rollo
Published: Leisure Books (2009)
Pages: 326
Genre: Horror
ISBN 10: 0-8439-6195-3
ISBN 13: 978-0-8439-6195-9
E-ISBN: 1-4285-0613-6

A novel that is heralded via a blurb on the back cover as "Stephen King's It's superior in every possible way" is going to have an uphill battle to impress readers before they even read the first page. I haven't even read It yet, but the notoriety alone told me that the praise from Horror Web for Crimson was on the heavy side for this novel. Still, I wanted to give it a fair shake.

Crimson carries us through three "books" that tell the life of David Winter--in youth, adolescence, and adulthood--along with his three childhood friends, Johnny, Tom, and Peter. As young boys, they spend the night at Johnny's house, which is fabled as the house of Old Man Harrison--a man responsible for some truly sick atrocities in the small town of Dunnville, Ontario. Their youthful hijinks is quickly thrown into the meat grinder, however, when they inadvertently awaken a creature they believe to be Old Man Harrison back from the grave.

The creature targets the boys with devious intentions and haunts them in their dreams and stalks them when they're awake. The torment visited upon the boys in 70s, carries on into the 80s during their adolescence, and even upon the boys who remain in the early years of the new millennium. All the while, the boys are given brief reprieves from their agony, but ultimately they always walk under the hanging blade in the creature's grasp. And it has some very long-range plans in order to break out into the world again to start up the evil it once leveled upon the land.

Reading Crimson, I was a bit torn. I liked quite a few parts of the book and the initial premise of the novel. But the narrative of the story, especially in the time jumps between the three main sections, came off as fractured. The story starts off as a harried supernatural tale of innocence versus evil, but then the focus seems to shift when a couple of the boys in their teens are targeted and manipulated in such convoluted fashion, I had to wonder if the creature had forgotten what his ultimate goal was. Then, the third section of the book goes way off in the left field, changing tone, setting, and direction altogether--it felt like the main story was saved for the very end and all that came before was merely prelude.

The monster in the bottom of the well--where he first appears to stalk the boys--is one helluva gruesome character. His antics come off as tortuous at times, and I had a hard time establishing in my mind what its limitations were within the known universe. At one point, it can manifest bloodcurdling creatures to chase and taunt the boys, and then it seems to abandon all that to hide in a closet and snigger, then creep into the dreams of the boys and torture them psychologically ad nauseam.

As for the boys, especially David Winter, it was kind of hard to root for them because they kept attempting the dumbest antics in order to thwart this quasi-omnipotent entity--I mean, a gun ... to kill the supernatural monster? Really? The naivety of youth, perhaps, but those moments really made be groan while reading. And a scene between David and the creature at one point where there is a huge, huge info dump about the monster's past and true intentions was so artificial in feel, I just about checked out.

The book has redeeming moments throughout thanks to well crafted scenes, including a devastating prologue involving Old Man Harrison's final deeds before killing himself, and some particularly tense fight scenes that take place in a junkyard and a prison. While reading, I felt like the story hearkened to a time in the eighties when these monsters tormenting the young were in high fashion, which was a bit of a nice throwback. And as a Canadian, it's not often I get to enjoy a horror novel that uses a Canadian setting. But for me, the separate parts weren't quite enough to make the whole feel as great as it should have been. An enjoyable read, but a bit of a frustrating one too.