Friday, November 28, 2014

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin -- Book Review

Photo: Hardcover for the book, from its Wikipedia page.  Not the edition I read.

You ever notice the longer a book is, the less you have to write about it?

Anyway, I suppose you wouldn't be reading this review if you haven't already a) read the book; b) seen the HBO series; or c) both, so I won't waste time writing about things you already know.

I'll just point out my favorite parts of this book.

1.  It reads very quickly.  Because it's 1,009 pages, this is no small thing.  Martin doesn't seem to get the recognition for his writing that he deserves.  I'm impressed by his vivid descriptions of just about everything.  Typically, overlong description is probably what Elmore Leonard meant when he said he tried to not write the parts people skip.  But when you're world-building as Martin is here, you really do have to describe almost everything.  This can be tedious in lesser hands.  But I found myself not skipping these parts.  In fact, I didn't skip any parts.  And a neat writerly trick I noticed from him: his sentences have much more alliteration, assonance and consonance than you'd think they would.  These things make the pages move.

2.  Daenerys's trip through the House of the Undying Ones was unbelievably well-written.  (And a figure in there murmurs the title of the entire series: A Song of Ice and Fire.)  Martin somehow encapsulates the themes of the entire series in one trip through this house, and does so both literally and figuratively--and mysteriously.  No small feat, since I've seen the episode already.  But seeing the show does not take away anything from the reading.  If you've been holding back for fear of that, don't delay any longer.

3.  The battle for King's Landing at the end was amazingly taut and suspenseful--again, no small feat, considering I've seen the episodes.  Even though you know what's coming, you're quickly turning the pages.

4.  Martin is able to delve deeply into all of his characters.  This is a helluva achievement because a) he writes about some women, notoriously difficult for a male writer to do; b) he gives equal time to every character, and there's a lot of them; c) he somehow holds it all together without confusing the reader; d) he knows just when to cut away from a character, and he knows just when to come back to a character; e) he doesn't fall into a pattern with his character cuts; he'll go away from a character and come right back to him again, then not return for many chapters.  In other words, it's not always A then B then C and then back to A again.  He cuts to and fro depending on what his story dictates.  I can tell you from personal bitter experience that all of this is not easy to do.  Agents and editors say not to write from too many POVs for a reason.  This may be the exception that proves the rule.

5.  The book is great even though the series follows it very, very closely, with only minor exceptions.  (And one or two major ones.)  But, again, no small feat, since I've seen the episodes and the episodes parallel the book very, very closely.

Anyway, even if you've seen the show, you should read this.  In fact, because you've seen the show, you should read this.

And I don't normally like these kinds of books.  World-building, sword-and-sorcery, knights and fair ladies, medieval stuff...not normally my thing.  Epics in general, especially fantasies, are not for me.  It took me over twenty years to read the three Lord of the Rings books.  I've never even tried to read any of the Harry Potter books (though I have them all).  I'm just too damned impatient for long books and long series.

But, as I mentioned, these may be the exception that proves the rule.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber -- Web Sleuths and Cold Cases

Photo: The hardcover's hardcover, from this website at Simon and Schuster.

Though a little dry at times, The Skeleton Crew is a work unlike anything I've read before: a nonfiction piece about web sleuths, people who match missing people with unidentified bodies, thereby giving closure to the families of the dead and, to boot, solving a cold case.

That such people exist is a surprise, and yet not, to me at the same time.  Mostly the web detectives are obsessed people with a personal void to fill.  Some are siblings of someone murdered, or someone missing.  Todd Matthews, the man the book revolves around the most, had siblings die very young--just a few years old--and he thinks he's perhaps trying to resurrect them, in a way.  He doesn't really know.

But he solved the now-infamous case of Tent Girl.  In this book you'll also read about the still-unsolved case of the Lady of the Dunes, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  Another case, of a young redhead killed in the desert outside of Las Vegas, haunts me still.

And you might be surprised to know that as many as 40,000--and perhaps more--unidentified bodies take up space right now in coroner's offices throughout the U.S.  More find their way into the unidentified statistics every day.

And they're not all homeless, addicts or prostitutes, either.

One article I read today--similar to this book but not in any way connected to it--concerned a woman who lived under a ton of aliases for over thirty years before she committed suicide in Texas.  Who was she, really?  Nobody knows--including her husband.  She'd covered her tracks that well.  Her latest driver's license was of a name she'd stolen off of an 18-month old's gravestone in Idaho.

Then there was the story of a woman who was kidnapped, sold to a man who molested her and married her (yes).  She's not dead, of course, but she tells the story of a woman, from her exact same situation, who was killed by the man she'd had to marry.  Who was this other girl?  Nobody knows.  She'd just been taken off the street, sold to some guy, and re-named.  And now she's dead, and nobody knows who she is--not even the guy who kidnapped her.

So who's The Lady in the Dunes?  The woman who had her head bashed in and her hands chopped off to hinder her identification?  Nobody knows.  And there's thousands of people like her, unidentified, unknown, unburied and ungrieved-for, all over the country.

Fascinating, in a sad, morbid, I-can't-believe-it kind of way.

And definitely worth reading, if you can stomach it.

It's written by Deborah Halber in a literary-mystery kind of way, weaving interconnected stories, flashing back, coming back around again.  You have to pay attention, but it's easy to do if you care enough.  I found myself Googling some of the nicknames and some of the victims, and reading a few of the websites mentioned in the book.

I even gave a passing thought to trying it myself.  Me, the web sleuth.  But I won't. 

I know better.  It's too depressing and too addicting, and I'd never recover.

The writer in me sees a good novel in here somewhere.  I'll add it to the list of manuscripts-to-come for now.  I've got to return the book to the library, but I'll look to buy it soon, so I can own it when I start to write my web-sleuthing novel.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Revival by Stephen King

Photo: The book's cover art, from its Wikipedia page

Another compulsively-readable book by Stephen King, Revival is one of his recent best.  A mish-mash of Frankenstein (thematically) and Lovecraft (in plot, Otherness, and The Angry Ones, as well as some fairly fearsome Gods) and Hieronymus Bosch, it reads like a first-person confessional (which is a well King has tapped for some time now) and it ends with one of the more horrifying things that King--or anyone I've read--has ever written.
Especially if it's true, if that's really what's waiting for us Afterwards.  If you've ever seen Bosch's Seven Deadly Sins or his Garden of Earthly Delights, you'll know what I mean.  Nasty, disturbing and memorable stuff.  This book's ending--and the potential ending for us all, good or bad--are just that: nasty, disturbing and memorable.  Frightening, because the "good" or "bad" doesn't matter.  The ending depicted here isn't the ending of the bad.  It's the ending of all of us.

In recent interviews, King has said that the views expressed by the narrator are not necessarily his--a fact that any reader is well aware, in anyone's writing.  But he has also said recently that he thinks about Death and God a lot (which King fans have always known), and that he does believe in God.  Sometimes he says that there has to be a God, because otherwise he would not have survived his accident or his addictions.  (This begs the question: Since others have not survived being hit by a car, or concurrent alcohol and coke addictions, does that mean there isn't a God?  Or does God simply not want them to live?)  Lately, King's been using Pascal's Wager to express his views.
(Pascal's Wager has always seemed like a cop-out to me, but it's really not meant to be.  And as I get older, and I contemplate that slab of stone more and more, Pascal's Wager sounds infinitely more rational.  Though I don't know how one can live a life as if one believes in God, which is what the Wager advises, if one truly does not believe.  But I suppose an agnostic like myself could pull it off.)

This is actually not much of a digression, as a belief in Something is very much at the core of this novel.  Picture an agnostic who grew up with devout, religious parents, and throw in some family tragedies, a wasted life of coke and booze, and some Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror, with Bosch's view of a potential eternity in Hell and a Frankenstein theme, and some hellish chaos on Earth at the very un-Stephen King-like end (after all the Frankenstein / Lovecraft / Bosch stuff), and you've just about got the narrator and his story.

There are some other horrors until then as well, neatly tucked into this novel.  There's a car accident you won't soon forget, and a dream about dead family members that those of us with dead family members will all relate to--and not happily.  And his ending after the ending (a writing style I've pointed out in my last ten or so reviews of King's work) is even more unforgettable.  It's debatable, in fact, if the first or second ending is more horrible.  Since I don't believe in the existence of the first, and since I very much believe in the existence of the evil--or of, worse, the tragic inexplicable--portrayed in the second, I'm going with the latter.  You watch the news, you see this.

The writing is as compulsively-readable as always, but--finally!!!--here are some horrors, terrors and chills, too.  If forced to rate out of five stars, I'd say this is a four--only if compared to his truly great stuff, like IT and The Shining.  But compared to his most recent stuff--some of it quite terrible, and sometimes, at best, rather pedestrian--Revival would get five.  Though the title refers to the revival of the narrator and a few of its almost-dead characters, it could well refer to King's horror writing as well.

Read it, regardless.  And then Wikipedia Pascal's Wager, if you have to, and tell me whether it makes more pragmatic, rational sense than it may have in your youth.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Comic Con 2014 in Providence, Rhode Island

Photo: The entrance for this year's Comic Con in Providence, Rhode Island.

Photos: Hundreds of people, if not more, stood in line outside the Convention Center, in howling wind and rain, and never got in.  These were amongst them.  I took the shot of these cold, disgruntled people as I left the Con and went to my car.  The line started in the lobbies, went downstairs, then started again at the doors outside, snaked around the building, and ended past these people, in front of the garage I parked in.  Poor souls.

I had a great Saturday at Comic Con, though it apparently turned into a horror show for everyone who arrived after 12 p.m. or so.  Ticketmaster or the Convention Center (they're playing tennis with the blame) never stopped selling tickets, so that thousands of people past the max showed up.  When I left at about 3:30 p.m. (I got there at 8:30 a.m., waited with hundreds of others in The Dunk--as opposed to many hundred who waited outside in the cold, wind and rain--until the doors opened at 10:00 a.m.).  But when I walked out at 3:30 p.m., there were hundreds of people waiting in the lobbies, another hundred or so downstairs, and many hundreds of others outside in a long line, in a pouring rain.  Most of those outside never got in at all!

But I did.  Got there early, despite the protests of my friends, who said I was crazy, that it wouldn't be crowded.  (Though driving there was a breeze; took about 20 minutes.)

I spoke to, got pictures of (and with), and got autographs from:

1.  Anthony Michael Hall (Very nice and humble.  Different than I'd heard, and he'd lost a lot of weight since The Dark Knight.  I was his first fan of the day--he was about a half-hour late, as were most of the other celebs.)

2.  Karen Allen (Still very pretty and funny-feisty.  Same exact smile and laugh.)

3.  Michael Biehn (He's had a stroke, or he has MS or MD or something similar.  Looked really, really bad, more of a walking dead than Scott Wilson or Seth Gilliam.  Really too bad; one of my favorite 80s actors.)

4.  William Katt (The Greatest American Hero, though I still prefer him in the original Carrie.  Looks about the same; very fit and looking good for his age.)

5.  John Rhys-Davies (His last name is pronounced like Davis; didn't know that.  I prefer him as Sallah from Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Karen Allen, though he's very good, of course, as Gimli in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I got his autograph and Karen Allen's on the same Raiders picture.)

6.  Seth Gilliam (Father Gabriel from The Walking Dead.  Extremely fit and lean and athletic-looking.  Very energetic, positive, pumped kind of guy.)

7.  Took a break from autograph-hunting to sit in the audience for a panel discussion with Karen Allen and John Rhys-Davies speaking of Raiders.  I went to the mike and asked a question to them about being directed by Steven Spielberg, as I had also been "directed" by him as an extra in Amistad.  A friend took a video of me asking my question, and their 5+-minute answer.

8.  Scott Wilson (Hershel from The Walking Dead.)  He had by far the longest lines of any celebrity there that day--much longer than William Shatner and the other Trekkers.

9.  Eliza Dushku.  I've only seen her in True Lies, long before she was in Buffy, and Angel, and other things I never saw.  Had a couple of bags stolen from her by a guy Channel 10 said was wearing "an Egyptian costume."  Maybe Sallah?  Incredibly, unbelievably beautiful, far more than the "supermodels" and "models" there.

Not a bad day, despite being packed in like sardines (since the Con violated fire safety laws and went way over the limit), and despite, once again (as at Terror Con in the same building), dealing with a staff who didn't know anything about anything.  At both Cons combined, I asked the staff about ten questions--mind-boggling things, like "Where's the nearest exit?" or "Where's the ATM?"--and each time I was told, "I don't know."  Literally, each and every single time.

So there's a lot of stuff for a lot of blog entries.  I'll cover one at a time, in the order I got their autographs, or their picture.  The list above is the exact order.

There'll be lots of pictures of the celebs and of their autographs, plus a bit on what they were in and how those movies or shows effected me.  Hope you like 'em.