Song of Kali

October 27, 2008

Song of Kali by Dan Simmons was a fitting book to follow Fangland in that they both dealt with destructive, ancient evil awakening and seeking to take over the world.  In Song of Kali, Simmons explores whether an entire city can be evil and rotten. 

Writer and editor Bobby Luczak, his wife and baby daughter travel to Calcutta to obtain a new manuscript reputedly written by a famous Indian poet long thought dead.  Though warned by several people not to go, Bobby blithely heads out.  The Calcutta he encounters is nasty, dirty, backwards and full of misery.  Everyone seems to have an agenda, and what Bobby naively envisioned as a simple acquisition of Das’ manuscript is anything but that. Somehow Bobby becomes entangled with a murderous group of Kali (fun fact: one of our servers at work is named Kali, which amuses me) worshipers who do not hesitate to sacrifice humans for their goal of bringing the goddess of death to life.   Soon everything begins to go horribly, horribly wrong for Bobby and his family. 

Song of Kali was Simmons’ first novel and as he demonstrated in The Terror, he is a master at evoking atmostphere.  If nothing else, Simmons succeeded at making you feel and smell the stink and heat of Calcutta, see the misery.  You almost want to take a bath after reading the book.  He also succeeded at creating a palpable sense of terror.  You know something bad is going to happen.  As I’ve said about other books, you know it will end up badly.  And you pretty much know what is going to wrong from the beginning.

The book was a quick read, and overall, an ok one.  There were a few fantastical elements that seemed a little out of place for a book so grounded in reality otherwise (the whole Kali issue); I had a similar impression about the end of The Terror. Some have called this book racist, but I don’t know about that.  It doesn’t paint a great picture of Calcutta or its residents, but it was set in 1977 and written around 1985, and attitudes were different then.  Bobby’s character was a little too naive. For an effort by a first-time author, it wasn’t bad at all.

Also recommended: The Terror


Fangland: Not as much bite as I had hoped

October 26, 2008

So continues my Halloween reading (finished before Halloween but not posted until afterwards). Fangland by John Marks is yet another variation of the classic Dracula tale with network news as one of the targets. Evangeline Harker is an assistant producer on The Hour, a successful, venerable network news show that resembles 60 Minutes (with good reason since Marks used to be a producer on that show). Newly engaged and disliking her job, she heads to Romania on an assignment to vet the mysterios Ion Torgu, supposedly a major Eastern European crime lord. Once there, Harker meets Clementine Spence who tries to warn her about evil in the area by telling her about her former experiences as a type of missionary.  Harker meets Torgu and goes off with him and is infected by his virus-like type of vampirism.  She disappears and reappears months later with little recollection of what happened.  Meanwhile, the virus appears to be infecting the offices of The Hour (that happen to overlook Ground Zero) back in New York when people and equipment begin behaving strangely and mysterious deaths and suicides start to occur.

I think that this book would have been better if Marks had stuck with one idea and developed it.  In addition to the Dracula adaptation, he tries to make statements about NYC in a post-September 11 world as well as pointed, insider jabs at documentary news shows and network politics.  The storylines don’t blend successfully.  The biggest failure is that he leaves crucial details vague.  I assume he did this deliberately, but it was the wrong decision in my opinion.  We never quite find out what happened to Evangeline when she was with Torgu.  There is mention of some “obscenity” that she does that protects her from him, but what Marks describes doesn’t seem that obscene, so I’m unsure what the obscenity was.  The end is vague as well.  Something happens…but what is unclear.  This vagueness is a problem when Torgu doesn’t use fangs and turn people into vampires the “traditional” way: what he does with the string of words he constantly chants (locations of horrific massacres throughout history) is unclear.  Marks is trying to say something about terrorism and the allure of death and biological agents (I think), but honestly, I’m not sure what. 

The format is a bit confusing as well.  The story is told from multiple points of view through diary entries, email and narrative.  The story is framed by the account of someone who is entirely peripheral to the story.

This novel has gotten really good reviews, which baffles me.  Readers hail it as the best adaptation of Dracula ever and laud Marks for the profound things he is saying.  What book did I read?   It was hard to get into, hard to follow and took me longer than I thought to read.

Read Stoker’s Dracula instead or some of Anne Rice’s first few novels about Lestat (I personally was always more partial to The Vampire Lestat over Interview with a Vampire.  But that’s just me).

Dante’s Equation: Physics and Mysticism Collide

October 21, 2008

So behind, so behind.  Let’s see if I can remember what this book was about.

I am no great math or science scholar.  I maintained a disbelief in atoms until, oh, a few years ago (not really–it was simply incomprehensible to me that we can know something so tiny exists) and geometry is beyond me (you should see my SAT math score…I think I scored barely more points than you got for showing up and signing your name).  For some reason, though, I really enjoy reading books that involve physics (though I tend to skim over the math).  Maybe it is that physics keeps getting stranger and stranger and less and less logical, and I like to think there are other universes (universi?) and ways we could reach them.

I picked up Jane Jensen’s Dante’s Equation because it wondered what would happen if an equation for good and evil was discovered.  Cool! What an idea!  I remember my 11th grade U.S. History teacher who said that science is the “how” and religion is the “why.”  Jensen’s book seemed to embody that idea.  It marries Kabbalah and physics.  Strange bedfellows you say?  Maybe not.  During the Holocaust, mystic thinker Rabbi Yosef Kobinski vanished from Auschwitz under mysterious circumstances.  Decades later, another rabbi and an American journalist for a New Age publication have become obsessed with Kobinski and the formula for good and evil he purportedly discovered.  Kobinski’s formula is amazingly similar to research being done by Dr. Jill Talcott, who stumbles upon the effects of energy waves on humans and other living entities.  The government is also pursuing Dr. Talcott and any remnants of Kobinski’s formula to keep its application for itself since the formula can alter both physical and spiritual states.  All parties involved suddenly disappear and find themselves experiencing Kobinski’s formula of good and evil.

Jensen’s book is like two books.  You have the first part which is fairly well-grounded in Talcott’s research and cold, single-minded pursuit; the rabbi’s obsession with dogma and ritual and growing obsession with Kobinski; the journalist’s willingness to use anyone to obtain fragments of Kobinski’s manuscript and of course, the mystery of just what Talcott’s research is uncovering and exactly what Kobinski’s theory is. 

The second part begins after the main characters disappear.  It’s interesting in its own right, yet it is here where Jensen’s plot begins to stumble a bit.  It’s hugely ambitious.  It is in this second part where the “Dante” of the title comes in. You know.  Dante… He of the Divine Comedy and the Inferno, its best known part?  The Dante of let the punishment fit the crime and different worlds for each type of crime/sin?  That’s the basic component of the theory of good and evil.  Without giving away too much, it’s not as simple as the bad characters go to a bad place and the good to a good one.  Humans are much more complex than that.  There are degrees of badness and goodness, and that degree will determine what type of world you will find yourself.  Each character lands in a very unique place, places well-suited to each of them and their personal demons.  It was this part of the novel that stretched my credulity.  Jensen tried to make this part of the novel as realistic as the first part, but it still seemed too fantastic.  Interesting experiment, though. 

Once the characters return, they find themselves fundamentally changed and determined to prevent any more of Kobinski’s work from landing in the wrong hands. This ending rang a little false too.  It was like they all returned with a “make love, not war” mentality that seemed a little hippy-ish even for this liberal.  It seemed a little bizarre.

I commend Jensen for what she was trying to achieve in this book.  I like that bad and good weren’t black and white and that there are degrees of badness and goodness  I believe that.  No one is wholly good or bad.  Ultimately, the overall effort was a little uneven, but it was still a good read.

Hell House: Come on over!

October 16, 2008

I LOVE Halloween.  Love it!  I don’t know if it’s part of the fact that I love fall, love all things pumpkin, look great in orange or what, but it is one of my favorite occasions.  I respond strongly to the siren call of All Hallow’s Eve. Therefore, I decided to inject a little Halloween spirit to my reading by checking out some books that fit the season.

Hell House by Richard Matheson was a good, quick read and not a house I would like to visit.  Yes, I can talk a good game but wimp out very quickly when it comes to putting myself in scary situations (I think my shriek of terror may still be echoing in that vault in Edinburgh that a friend and I toured –cockily I might add–on a ghost tour. How mortifying).

A scientist, his wife, and two mediums (sounds like a bad joke)–one of whom was the only survivor of a previous attempt to study the house–agree to a wealthy publisher’s offer to spend a week studying the phenomena there.  Each person has his or her own motives. The publisher, near death, hopes to have confirmation of life after death.   The scientist wants to prove his theory about parapsychology being simply energy and nothing paranormal.  Ben, the lone survivor from the last attempt, wants to survive the house and give it another go and trying to figure out its mystery.  Florence, the spiritual medium, sees it as her opportunity to free restless souls and earn money for her church.  And the scientist’s wife can’t live without her husband.  

The house in question is officially named the Belasco House but is referred to by all as Hell House.  It isn’t just any haunted house.  Emeric Belasco, the former owner, created a culture of debauchery and violence in the house that led to many deaths.  Previous attempts to study the house have led to more death and madness.  Who is haunting the house?  How many are haunting the house?  Is it being haunted at all or are the manifestations in the house created by the mediums themselves?  Settle in and find out the answers!

I can tell a horror novel/ghost story is getting to me when I can’t read it too late in the night.  I felt a little uneasy reading it at 1am and had to put it down, and after I cut out the lights, I was afraid I would see something nasty staring back at me through the window.  So right there, that response elevated this novel above the run of the mill horror story for me.  It’s not a perfect book.  I’m still a little unclear about what happened at the end, and some of the events seemed written so vaguely that it was difficult to tell whether it was a dream/nightmare or really happening.  The pace was a little slow at times, too.  I felt like Matheson left a lot unsaid and unexplained in the story and characters which probably helped (even as it frustrates) because it allowed the reader to use her own imagination.  It’s a good technique for a horror story since it amps up the scariness.  And yeah, the group of people getting together to study a haunted house is a cliche in the horror genre.

I worried the book would be a trifling confection with nothing more than a ghost going “boo” once or twice, but there were some genuinely shocking scenes and plot developments.  Sexuality and horror seem to go hand in hand.  This was my first encounter with Matheson, and I was unaware of how much he had written that I recognized (from their film versions anyway).  I’m going to have to read more of him.  It’s rare that you can find an enjoyable, genuinely scary, fairly well-written horror story.

I’ll have to think of some good, scary books to recommend for Halloween.  What are your favorite horror stories?

Dirty: the librarian fantasy

October 5, 2008

Who knew I had erotica on my shelves? It’s October and more importantly a mere 7 weeks until Bibliophilia’s idea of heaven: the local library book sale. Noting that I still had several unread purchases from last year’s book sale, I decided to make some room and picked up Dirty by Megan Hart. Mon Dieu! Now you would be justified in asking exactly what I thought the book would be about being titled Dirty.

Dirty is the story of Elle Kavanagh, seemingly uptight corporate accountant whose self-imposed celibacy is tested when she meets Dan Stewart.  Elle is that rare woman who is more comfortable with casual sex than relationships.  Though she wants to see him but not date him, her feelings for him and unexpected desire for a real realtionship soon cause an awakening within her that forces her to face events from her childhood that keep her from having a normal relationship.

This was a pretty well-written book.  It had a plot and while sex was central to it, the relationship between Dan and Elle was the main point.  I’ve read one of Hart’s other books (there goes my carefully-crafted story about just picking a book randomly from the shelf), and Hart has an interesting and distinct voice.  Elle is very cerebral and reflective, yet you don’t feel like you know her all that much.  You know only what she reveals.  I was a little frustrated by how long it took to reveal what Elle’s issues were because I was beginning to think that she was just crazy or that the revelation wouldn’t be worth the hundreds of pages it took to get there. It was pretty grim, so I suppose it was worth the wait.

I liked how Hart took the idea of casual sex and flipped so that it was the woman who sought it while the man ended up wanting a relationship.  I did think there was a bit too much sex and that she could have made her point with less.  It got to the point where it seemed like she was throwing it in there because this was a “naughty” book and expected of her.  After several encounters, it started to detract from the plot (here I am dissecting the amount of sex in a book.  how bizarre). 

Sometimes I wonder what the point of books like this are.  I am no stranger to smutty romance novels with their heaving bosoms and quivering manhood, and it is tempting to dismiss this as only a contemporary romance novel.  It’s not.  Romance is most definitely secondary.  Maybe even tertiary. Is it to write a book filled with lots of sex and craft a plot around it?  There is something rather detached and mechanical about the book.  It’s like you know it’s a naughty book and are reading it only for its naughtiness.  Is there a book that melds both hot, wild action with a really, really good plot?  I’d say Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be a good choice (feminist revulsion notwithstanding); after all, they both involve men “awaking” repressed women.  But Lady Chatterley’s Lover is considered a classic. Dirty is what…”adult” fiction? Erotic fiction?  

I wondered how I would post about this book.  I planned a quick post to acknowledge that I had read it, but I surprised myself by having a lot to say.  So yes, dear reader, I knew exactly what I would be reading when I pulled it off the shelf 🙂

The Wedding Machine: Appalling

October 5, 2008

My wasting time with, er, reading, The Wedding Machine is the result of a recent “dash and grab” trip to the library on a Friday afternoon on my way home from work.  I thought it sounded cute:  4 Southern women responsible for planning proper events for the births, marriages, and deaths in their community and how this “machine” breaks down as they plan their children’s nuptials.  What’s not to like?  I thought it would be a light, sweet book.  A quick, easy read.

First of all, the South of South Carolina and further south must be very different from my experience in North Carolina (and I was born and raised in a small town–cue John Mellencamp).  Ray, who has inherited the propriety mantle from the previous generation deplores change whether it be Northerners, changes to her church, her free spirited daughter, etc.  Ray classifies everything that is not the way she wants or thinks it should be as deplorable.  Through her eyes, difference is seen as something abhorrent.  Hilda, the princess, has driven away her husband through her inability to connect with him by not revealing her childhood sexual abuse.  She reacts to his leaving her by locking herself in her house and not coming out (and this is a woman in her 50s!).  Kitty B, whose wedding in the late 60s opens the novel, has come to despise her husband for what she believes are fabricated illnesses while he apparently despises and blames her for the oft-mentioned death of their infant 25 (or 27–we’ll get to that later) years ago.  The sad thing is that they have two other living children and it is apparently their dead infant who is always on their mind.  And Sis, poor Sis, lost her fiance in Vietnam and has never married.  And apparently remains a virgin still. 

WTF?  These women were pathetic.  The narrative is set in the present, yet jumps back often to various points in the women’s past.  And speaking of the timeline, frankly, I didn’t understand it.  Hart referred to certain spans of time but then things like the births and ages of children didn’t make sense.  Could she not do the math?  I was confused about when things actually happened. 

I confess that I never would have touched this book if I had noticed that it was considered “inspirational” fiction.  It’s just not a type of fiction I enjoy.  However, I gave it a chance and finished it, and I was perplexed where the “women of faith” designation came in.  Yeah, sure, these women went to church and considered their church important to them, but they did not act remotely Christian.  Ray was busy judging everyone around her, and their church showed up only when it was a plot point or setting for a wedding or baptism.  Honestly, if the book hadn’t had the “inspirational fiction” label provided by my library system, I would have never known.

The only good thing I could say about this book and these hateful, sad women is that it was a quick read.  I read it in a couple of hours.   Maybe it’s a generational difference: I am over 2 decades younger than the women in the book.  Maybe my mother would be able to relate.  But I just didn’t think these women were good characters.  There was little to like about them.  Why must books–even modern books–set in the South be so pathetic?  I felt the same way about Girls in Trucks.  I fully believe that there are ways that an author can depict Southern traditions and quirkiness without making Southerners seem so pitiful and one-dimensional. Surely?