mini-reviews: dark matter, sleeping giants, lathe of heaven, frankenstein

I haven’t traditionally thought of myself as someone big into science fiction, but looking back at recent reads (and even further back), I think I can safely say it’s a genre in which I’m at least casually interested. Here are four recent sci-fi books I read and enjoyed:

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is the first book I purchased after moving to Singapore last year. Jason Dessen is a regular guy with a family he loves and a normal job teaching physics at the local college. One night after drinks with a friend, he is kidnapped, beaten, and blacks out. When he wakes up, Jason is inexplicably rich, famous, and wildly successful in his career, but at the apparent expense of his perfect home and family life. Nothing is as it was the night before. What happened? I read Dark Matter in just a couple of days. It’s a thrill ride from page one, very plot driven—it reads like a movie, with a lot of action-packed scenes and great “big questions” about lofty philosophical scientific ideas and also normal life choices we all make. It wasn’t the deepest book, but enjoyable and definitely a good one for fans of The Martian. [Read in August 2016.]

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel has a dark, fascinating premise: pieces of a metallic giant robot, thousands of years old, are discovered scattered deep below the surface of the Earth. A team of science and military experts is tasked with uncovering the mysteries of these pieces—who placed them on Earth? When? How? Why?—as well as assembling the robot and figuring out what it’s for. The epistolary format kept the pace going nicely, making this an engaging read. However, I wasn’t crazy about the love triangle, and didn’t feel connected to the characters as a whole, though I did like that women have prominent roles here. I’m not really compelled enough to continue with the series, but I did like this one on its own. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

I’ve been curious about Ursula K. La Guin‘s work for a while now, and my friend Lee back home suggested starting with The Lathe of Heaven. George has a problem: his dreams literally come true. He dreams it and wakes up the next morning to find the world and history has changed. George seeks the professional help of a psychiatrist, who has nefarious plans to exploit George’s unusual gift (curse?). I think it was a great introduction to La Guin; this one made me think a lot about facing your inner darkness, manipulation, responsibility, and more. If you had the power, would you play God? Would it be okay to disrupt the natural order of things, disrupt nature and change? There is so much to ponder in this short book. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I nearly DNF’d Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but ultimately I’m so glad I stuck with it. Again, the Classics seem to work better for me as audiobooks. Frankenstein is so much better than any movie depiction I’ve seen (except Young Frankenstein, obviously!). It questions the complexities of humanity and society, and examines identity, compassion, companionship, acceptance and belonging, and more. Dr. Frankenstein’s “monster” is created—without a woman’s assistance, mind you, what is the significance there?—as a full-grown adult with the mind of a child, still having to learn the world and his place in it, and finds rejection, violence, and terror awaiting him outside the lab. This cautionary tale disguised as a monster story is deeply layered and more philosophical and less traditionally “horror.” I listened to an ensemble cast read the original 1818 version, not the edited and revised 1930s version. I’ve heard the Mary Shelley’s experiences leading up to and while writing this book are more interesting than the final work itself, so I’ll have to investigate that further! [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

mini-reviews: recent stephen king reads

Continuing on my recap of scary books… in the last year I read FOUR Stephen King books! Well, three novels and one short story collection 🙂

I listened to The Lawnmower Man and Other Stories from Night Shift last October as an impulsive, last-minute attempt to participate in Dewey’s Readathon… I’m the worst readathoner! But these short stories were fun enough. “The Lawnmower Man” was nothing like the terrible movie… but honestly I’m having a hard time remembering anything about the story! “Quitters, Inc.” was probably the best and most intense, with “The Mangler” probably had the highest “classic scare” factor. Funny story: a few years ago I was up late at my gramma’s house with my cousin watching TV; she only had 4–5 channels. We landed on this ridiculous, terrible movie where a guy was driving around and getting freaked out by ghosts of dead people he knew in high school. It was so bad and cheesy! I had no idea it was a Stephen King story until I heard “Sometimes They Come Back” in this collection. Bottom line, it’s a decent, standard, old-school collection from King.  [Listened to audiobook in October 2016.]

I bought this copy of ‘Salem’s Lot in October 2015 on a road trip to Denver and finally got to it a year later! What can I say about ‘Salem’s Lot. It didn’t hold my interest and imagination the way that King’s other work has, like Pet Semetary11/22/63, and It. ‘Salem’s Lot is kind of a play on Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the whole arc of the story or the ending, but here’s the gist… Ben Mears, a writer, returns to his hometown to exercise his personal demons. There, he connects with a priest, a woman, and a boy. A stranger has also moved in to the mysterious Marsten House in the town, and eventually strange things start happening and people start dying… or are they really dead? It’s old-school horror and the violent fight scenes were excellent and action packed. I love how King writes kids—they have potential as characters and heroes that King brings out wonderfully, although I do wish he wrote women as strongly as he writes kids and men. [Read in October 2016.]

When I was a kid, I watched the godawful miniseries based on The Stand, so I knew this iconic, religious good-versus-evil tale set in post-apocalyptic America. In April this year, I started getting pretty excited for the new It movie—that one wasn’t available on my library app but The Stand was at the time. I’m just always blown away by King’s world- and history-building in his novels, and how fleshed out he makes every single character, whether major or minor. The beginning was fantastic—when the world goes all to hell thanks to to the deadly virus Captain Trips. The climax was a let-down for me… but as is often in King’s chunksters, he devotes so much time and energy to the characters and world-building that the story itself gets neglected and he “phones in” the climaxes. But this is still an epic, classic King book! Randall Flagg is easily one of the greatest villains in literature. Just because I like torturing myself, I rewatched the miniseries after finishing the book. Just as bad—no, way worse than—as I remember. UGH. Terrible production quality! Too literal! Costuming/music instantly dates it! I can’t believe that it was produced the same year as cinematic achievements such as Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

Another great, classic King story in all its cheesy, creepy, page-turning glory is his 1986 masterpiece It. This is another good example of King’s astonishing attention to character development and world-building. By now most everyone should know the synopsis: in 1957, kids start dying gruesome deaths or disappearing in Derry, Maine at the hands of the mysterious, demonic clown Pennywise. Four kids who call themselves The Losers’ Club have a showdown with Pennywise, and vow to return to Derry if his evil ever resurfaces. Almost 30 years later, it does, and they do, in an attempt to end Pennywise’s terror once and for all. Steven Weber’s audio narration was FANTASTIC, one of the best I’ve ever encountered on an audiobook. While I think King is a masterful storyteller and I’m always captivated, I did have a problem with Beverly. This goes back to my earlier comment about King’s archetypal interpretation of women and girls in his writing. OF COURSE Beverly is a victim. She’s also the love interest of EVERYONE. That said, she DOES kick some butt in the book, sadly not so in the new film (which I did really like!). Again, because I’m a glutton for punishment, I rewatched the 1990 miniseries. Again… terrible! Except, of course, for the inimitable, genius Tim Curry as Pennywise. Anyway, despite the female characters being clichés as usual, It is super memorable, with many legit terrifying scenes, and I’m looking forward to the second movie! [Read book and listened to audiobook in August 2017]

mini-reviews: house of leaves, the troop, and dead mountain

This year I’ve been watching more scary movies, but last year I spent more time reading scary books to get in the right frame of mind for Halloween! Here are three books I read last October:

Wowza. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves wasn’t quite what I was expecting—more spooky than terrifying—but I really enjoyed it, especially the story at the book’s core (the house). A young man named Johnny discovers an old academic manuscript written by a dead blind man in his apartment building. The manuscript describes a film documentary, titled The Navidson Record, on a house that defies logic, as it is apparently larger on the inside than the outside, constantly shifting its shapes and dimensions, and the family that lives there. House of Leaves is the manuscript, footnotes and all, as well as Johnny’s commentary, the documentary’s transcripts, and other random things. However, it appears that there’s no evidence The Navidson Record film exists. This is a book that people seem to either absolutely love or absolutely hate. It’s by no means an easy read, being ergodic, postmodern literature where you have to really work to follow the text, laid out in all sorts of ways (backwards, upside down, different colors and fonts, one word per page, footnotes that make you skip around to different pages… it’s like a treasure hunt). Johnny’s interjections were annoying at first but grew on me as it progressed; I found his devolving psychological state very interesting the further I got into the book. Danielewski’s debut here is really imaginative and I loved how the layout forces you to interact with the book in an unconventional way. What a mindf**k! [Read in Oct. 2016.]

The Troop by Nick Cutter is a great old-fashioned scare. A scout troop is on its annual, traditional camping trip on a deserted island in the Canadian wilderness when a pale, sickly stranger appears at their campsite. All hell promptly ensues. It’s creepy, gory, gross, and weirdly a lot of fun in a twisted kind of way. I giggled and eeeeewww‘d a lot while reading this fast-paced, gross-out novel. Even though The Troop isn’t particularly groundbreaking and its characters and plot are somewhat stereotypical, it’s still a good mix of campy horror and science fiction. [Read in October 2016.]

I can’t quite remember if I watched Devil’s Pass first, or picked up Donnie Eichar’s book Dead Mountain, but my interest was piqued about a year ago on this subject either way. In 1959, a group of skilled young hikers died under mysterious circumstances in the Russian Ural Mountains, on the side of a peak known as Dead Mountain. Forensics at the time revealed they experienced an apparent sudden panic, ripping the tent walls to escape and fleeing without donning appropriate gear for the freezing temperature. The hikers’ bodies were discovered to have either met violent ends or frozen to death, with some having trace radiation on their clothes, and one even missing a tongue. This event, known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident (named after one of the hikers), lead to decades of questions in Russia, and Dead Mountain is Eichar’s investigation into the tragedy. The author pores over the hikers’ diaries and photographs, newspaper clippings, government records, and more. He conducts countless interviews with friends and family, and retraces the group’s path himself. I appreciated the level of detailed research here. Sometimes the author inserting themselves into the narrative doesn’t work so well, but in this case I was utterly fascinated nonetheless. He reaches a solid conclusion (which does NOT mean the mystery is definitively solved), but he does explore all possible theories as to why and how these kids died. The 2013 movie Devil’s Pass was a fun “found-footage” mockumentary take inspired by the Dyatlov Pass Incident, and it also inspired a few music albums. I’m still intrigued. [Read in October 2016.]

reading recap: august 2017

August was a good month! I went to Thailand, had a friend visit here in Singapore, saw Kronos Quartet for the first time, finished my first-ever commissioned drawing, and read seven books:

  • Difficult Men (audio) … Brett Martin, read by Keith Szarabajka
  • The Monster of Florence (audio) … Douglas Preston, read by Dennis Boutsikaris
  • The Fact of a Body (audio) … Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, read by author
  • Borne … Jeff VanderMeer
  • A Fine Balance (audio) … Rohinton Mistry, read by John Lee
  • It (paper and audio) … Stephen King, read by Steven Weber
  • Flowers of the Killer Moon (audio) … David Grann, read by various

I still want to start moving away from so many audiobooks for a while and focus back on paper soon. It felt great to read a couple books on paper this month (well, one and a half—I went half-audio, half-paper with It). I think I need to just slow down and set aside some time every day to sit with a physical book. My visit home in June–July, the Thailand trip (where I met up with a bunch of old friends from Kansas City), and another friend coming here to Singapore way overstimulated me and now I’m having trouble sitting still!

All the non-fiction I read this month was great, but my favorites were the novels A Fine Balance and BorneA Fine Balance is one of my favorite books anyway—I read it on paper in 2012 so this time on audio was a re-read. It’s just a beautiful, heartbreaking book. Bleak, but I loved it. I’m not sure I could write a better review now than I did in 2012 (link), but the audio was just as good. I really enjoyed Borne for it’s straight-up weirdness. I really liked VanderMeer’s Annihilation so I had Borne on on my radar when it was announced. Post-apocalyptic city terrorized by a building-sized flying bear? Yes. Yes, please. It was strange and fantastic.

I finished IT just in time! I’m looking forward to seeing the first movie when it comes out soon. To get prepped, I also re-watched the 1990s miniseries version. Just terrible! Except for Tim Curry, he’s perfection as Pennywise, but other than his performance that version can go float in the sewer. Yikes.

My non-fiction reads were mostly about murders, and one about TV show production. I recently started re-watching The Sopranos again, so Difficult Men was a great companion to that, but it was more about the creators of The Sopranos and shows like it rather than what I was expecting, the rise of the anti-hero protagonist in popular media and culture. That’s okay, it was still an interesting behind-the-scenes look at one of my favorite shows. The Monster of Florence and The Fact of a Body were similar in that they were investigations into mysterious real-life murders, while weaving in the authors’ personal stories as well. Flowers of the Killer Moon was my favorite of these non-fictions from August. It was also an about true murders—the 1920s killings of members of the Osage Indian Nation of Oklahoma, and how the FBI arose from the investigation of these murders. I enjoyed David Grann’s The Lost City of Z a few years back so I was excited to read this one, too, and it was just as compelling as Z. The amount of American history left out of the history books and our general educations is staggering, and Killer Moon is just one more example. We need these books and acknowledgement of our true, shameful past in America.

For September, I’m going to get through my Best Friends International Book Club’s current picks (A Colony in a NationThe New Jim Crow, and Bitch Planet, Book Two), as well as Killing Pablo (too late for the release of Narcos season 3 on Netflix, but it’s a real page turner! I’ll be through it quickly) and Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Singaporean writer Balli Kaur Jaswal and loaned to me by a friend here. On audio, I have to finish up ZeroZeroZero (also a good companion to Narcos and Killing Pablo), and I just got The Heart’s Invisible Furies off hold. It’ll be another good month, and I’m sure I’ll surpass my Goodreads goal of 70 books for the year.

monthly recap image

the beautiful bureaucrat

I couldn’t resist checking out The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips after seeing it all over the book blogs, despite the mixed reviews. Edited from Goodreads:

In a windowless building in a remote part of town, the newly employed Josephine inputs an endless string of numbers into something known only as “The Database.” After a long period of joblessness, she’s not inclined to question her fortune, but as the days inch by and the files stack up, Josephine feels increasingly anxious in her surroundings. When one evening her husband Joseph disappears, her creeping unease shifts decidedly to dread. As other strange events build to a crescendo, the haunting truth about Josephine’s work begins to take shape in her mind, even as something powerful is gathering its own form within her. She realizes she must penetrate an institution whose tentacles seem to extend to every corner of the city and beyond.

I feel like I’m in the middle on this one. It wasn’t as crazy and out there as I was expecting, and not quite as good overall as I was hoping. But I did like it enough to finish it (very short anyway, only about 170 pages) and I was left thinking afterwards. There seemed to be quite a few religious themes, or more like subtle undertones. For most of the story, Phillips takes the reader along on a compelling mental thriller, set in a familiar yet slightly dystopian future. The money struggles and futile, mindless job toiling will be recognizable to many in today’s economic climate… but it is quirky with enough twists and turns to make it interesting and not boring.

I wish the characters had been more fleshed out (they were described with one major physical attribute—bad breath, pink outfit, etc.) and the anagram wordplay was so annoying (“Gonna yin. Nag inn yo.” like that) that I started skipping over those parts. The end wasn’t executed as well as all that lead up to it; it was rushed, conveniently tied up. I feel like The Beautiful Bureaucrat could have either been shorter or longer than it was. Despite these minor quibbles, it was a real page turner right up until the end.

Read from September 5 to 6, 2015.

the thief of always

I always seem to find my way to at least one YA book a year, and Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always was a great pick—right up my alley. From Goodreads:

Mr. Hood’s Holiday House has stood for a thousand years, welcoming countless children into its embrace. It is a place of miracles, a blissful rounds of treats and seasons, where every childhood whim may be satisfied… There is a price to be paid, of course, but young Harvey Swick, bored with his life and beguiled by Mr. Hood’s wonders, does not stop to consider the consequences. It is only when the House shows it’s darker face—when Harvey discovers the pitiful creatures that dwell in its shadows—that he comes to doubt Mr. Hood’s philanthropy. The House and its mysterious architect are not about to release their captive without a battle, however. Mr. Hood has ambitious for his new guest, for Harvey’s soul burns brighter than any soul he has encountered in a thousand years…

The Thief of Always was one of my husband’s all-time favorites as a child, one he had read many times. The night he started his recent re-read a month or so ago, he quoted the first line to me before he even opened the book:

The great grey beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.

Great opening. I wish I had read this as a kid! This was the first Clive Barker book I’ve read, and it is reminiscent of Neil Gaiman or Lemony Snicket in its inherent creepiness and sense of dread… while somehow managing to be kind of cute in a way. It’s a very imaginative story with twists and turns, and I’ve thought of it quite a few times since I finished. I loved the dank danger of the lake, and the rapid changing of the seasons. If I have a quibble, I would have liked to learned more about some of the characters, Lulu especially—the quiet girl Harvey encounters who was at the Holiday House when he arrived. And the backstories of Rictus, Marr, Jive, Carna, and the rest.

Another thing that was really great about the copy I read was Barker’s own black-and-white illustrations. They were defined, nuanced, and greatly enhanced the macabre scenes and menacing characters.

I was disappointed to learn that attempts at making a The Thief of Always movie have fallen through! It would translate fantastically to film, especially since this was a book readers of all different ages can enjoy.

Read from April 9 to 12, 2015.