Friday, July 31, 2015

Science Fiction: Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

A couple of years ago I had read Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker and was impressed enough that I decided I would read any other newly published books of his. So here I am having read last year's Tigerman and ready to give my views on it. For me, Harkaway writes the kind of science fiction that I find accessible. The worlds he creates aren't so far out there that someone like me has a hard time keeping up.

The Situation: Lester Ferris is a sergeant with the British Army and is more or less ready for retirement. Never married and with no kids, Lester has certainly served his time in the army and is ready for a break. So he has been assigned to the island of Mancreu, biding time until the island is to be evacuated and then destroyed. Due to the toxic pollution that can be found there, Mancreu as an expiration date, and the citizens know it, including the young boy that Lester has befriended. The kid is smart, great with computers, has a love for comic books, and is able to navigate the seedy streets of the island on his own. But Lester worries that there isn't anyone to take care of him. And if there isn't, he would be more than willing to step into that role.

The Problem: Mancreu may have an expiration date, but it also has plenty of people managing to make a living on it. Some of these people are making their living in less than honest ways, making the island a dangerous place to be for someone who doesn't know what they're doing. The mysterious and dangerous fleet of ships that sits offshore are enough of a threat when things are quiet and calm, but things get worse as society begins to devolve into violence at the announcement that the end of the island is near. When a good friend is killed, the boy assists Lester is making a suit - more like a costume - that leads to the stories of Tigerman: a hero of sorts who takes on criminals in the search for truth and justice. Unfortunately, both truth and justice remain illusive on an island that is to be destroyed within days. And while Lester and the boy bond over Tigerman, the furry hero may not be what either Lester or the boy needs to survive.

Genre, Themes, History: I gave this post the heading of science fiction only because of the boy's affinity for comic book references and chat speak. Also, the creation of Tigerman himself kind of reaches outside of the realm of possibility. But really, I can see how some people would not necessarily see this book as falling under science fiction. It may even lean more towards fantasy. Since Lester is a sergeant in the British Army, there is plenty of discussion regarding politics and the roles various countries are playing in Mancreu's future, especially when it comes to the fleet of ships sitting just offshore. Lester is British, but Kernshaw, the man he seems to take orders from the most, is American. Then there is the Japanese scientist Kaiko Inoue, who is doing research on the pollution that has given the island its death sentence. The whole thing is a very international affair with almost every major country having something to lose or gain when it comes to the island's future. Then there is the relationship between Lester and the boy, who is never really given a name. Lester learns it at some point but manages to forget it immediately. The sergeant feels incredibly paternal towards him, but feels as if he would lose him if he were to ever admit it. The book isn't all about masked quasi-superheros saving the day, but also what it really means to be a family, and the hero you want to be versus the hero someone actually needs.

My Verdict: While quite good overall, this book has long stretches of Lester over thinking between short bursts of action. One thing I certainly wish the story had more of is Tigerman himself, although I kind of understand why it doesn't. For one, Tigerman is crazy and gets into a lot of trouble. There is only so much of that kind of action one person can take, even if they are wearing a heavily armored suit. Plus, the more exposure Tigerman got the more of a chance Lester's real identity would have been revealed. Even so, I wanted to see more from him. And while I understand that all of the politics and military discussion was necessary because of Mancreu's situation, it would have been nice to have had less of it, and just more story in general. Also, there are long periods where the boy is mysteriously absent, and it is never quite clear what all he is doing when Lester isn't around. I feel like I was only able to get some of what was going on much of the time, probably because there was so much there, and Lester had a habit or exploring every possible avenue. 

Favorite Moment: When Lester makes his first appearance as Tigerman and impresses the boy immensely, leading him to proclaim the Tigerman is "full of win."

Favorite Character: It would be easy to choose Lester, as he is a decent guy who cares for this boy that he really has no official ties to, but I also liked Kaiko Inoue. She is another character I wish there had been more of, but the little bit that was there was enough to convince me she was worth liking.

Recommended Reading: Naturally, I recommend Harkaway's Angelmaker, which I think I liked slightly better than Tigerman. It is a very different novel, and certainly falls more within the science fiction genre.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Historical Fiction: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I picked up Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North after it was named the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. I typically don't go for books that deal with war and POWs in intense detail, but I decided to put all of my nerves and squeamishness aside and dive right in.

The Situation: Dorrigo Evans grows up to be an Australian doctor in the time around World War II. Before becoming a soldier, and later a prisoner of war in Thailand, Dorrigo meets Ella, and it is assumed that they will someday be married. He loves Ella tremendously, but that love soon pales in comparison to how he feels about Amy. It is only after an initial encounter with Amy in a bookstore that he learns that she is actually the much younger wife of the uncle he had traveled to visit. But despite this, the two end up falling in love anyway despite that complications that can come from it, and the other two people they are each supposed to be in love with.

The Problem: While serving in WWII, Dorrigo ends up in a POW camp in Thailand under the Japanese. While he may be put into a leadership position and therefore spared some of the heavier work, his responsibilities as a leader and a doctor still take their toll. He does his best to take care of the sick and injured, while also placing them on light duty and keeping them from the most grueling work. But in the end, his attempts to save those under him prove useless under the harsh command of the Japanese. Plus, it is while he is captured that Amy will learn of his death, even though the report is false. And even after enduring the awful conditions of the POW camp, and witnessing the needless death of those around and under him, Dorrigo will return to a woman he no longer loves, mostly because his heart is still tied to his uncle's wife.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical novel set mostly in the early 1940s during WWII. There is a brief glimpse into Dorrigo's early life, and later chapters do explore the life he made for himself after the war is over. A lot of the novel is also told from the point of view of several of the soldiers that were under Dorrigo while in the POW camp, some of whom will survive to return home, while others will not. The reader even gets some perspective from some of the Japanese and Korean soldiers who were responsible for the harsh conditions the Australian soldiers endured while they were captured. Many of the Japanese and Koreans will be brought to justice later as war criminals, while others, much like the Australians, will go on to live normal lives and die normal deaths. Ultimately, this book is a love story, but it talks about war and survival more than anything else.

My Verdict:  This is not really the type of book I usually pick up. I am always somewhat wary of historical fiction because there is only a certain type I truly enjoy, and the ones that center on war do not fall within that category. With that being said, I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would. And it is very much about war, and about the extremely awful situations that POWs during WWII had to endure. Some of the content is ridiculously graphic and hard to read, but I still enjoyed the book and would recommend it to others. And it didn't feel like the book was graphic just for the sake of being graphic...more like it was graphic for the sake of just being real and honest. I can see why it won the Man Booker Prize and recommend it even to those who may not gravitate towards stories about war and death.

Favorite Moment: When Dorrigo and Amy see each other years later, but the encounter doesn't go quite as many readers would imagine it would.

Favorite Character: Darky Gardiner is one of the soldiers under Dorrigo's command in the POW camp. He isn't the smartest of strongest, or even the most well-liked soldier in the bunch, but he seems to be the most compassionate and the one most able to keep his spirits up despite the horrible situation he is stuck in.

Recommended Reading: I would recommend A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, a novel about two doctors risking their lives to save a little girl, set during the conflict in Chechnya.   

Friday, July 17, 2015

Nonfiction: As You Wish by Cary Elwes

I'll admit it. I had never actually seen The Princess Bride all the way through until a couple of years ago. It had been on my parent's television in the house I grew up in many times, so I remember many scenes, specifically the epic battle of wits between the Man in Black and the Sicilian Vizzini. But for whatever reason, as a child, I never saw the movie all of the way though, but I knew it was beloved by many people my age. However, that didn't automatically mean that once I sat down to watch it that I was going to enjoy it just like everyone else. I had tried that with other so-called classics that I had missed out on when I was younger and the result was me not being able to finish them (Labyrinth, I am looking in your direction). Of course, The Princess Bride was different in that I loved it, and I understood why it was so quotable. And if I hadn't liked it, there is no way I would have read the actual book, or read As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes.

Genre, Themes, History: This is of course a nonfiction book about the behind-the-scenes adventures that went on while making The Princess Bride, a movie that was adapted from the book of the same name by William Goldman. The book's author, Cary Elwes, portrayed the male lead in the film, Westley/the Man in Black. Starting with getting the call from his agent that director Rob Reiner wanted to meet with him, Elwes tells the story of the making of the now classic movie, with periodic inserts from others who either acted in the film or were involved in its production in some way. The reader gets insight from Reiner himself, his partner Andy Scheinman, Robert Wright (Buttercup), Mandy Patinkin (Inigo Montoya), Billy Crystal (Miracle Max), etc. The only ones we don't get to hear from are the ones who, sadly, have passed away, such as André the Giant and Peter Falk. And it seems as if Elwes has left nothing out as he talks about what it was like to work everyone; the excruciating training he and Patinkin had to do for their epic sword fight; how smitten he was with Wright; how great Reiner was to work with; and even how he suffered two injuries during filming. It is a book Elwes took on writing after attending the 25th anniversary for the movie. And I am sure that fans that are far more loyal than I am are grateful for it.

My Verdict: I am sure I would have gotten even more out of this book had I been a loyal fan since the movie came out in the 1980s. But even though I am late to the party, I still thoroughly enjoyed this book and the stories it told, even the ones I had already heard. Reading from Elwes' point of view about wrestling the Rodents of Unusual Size and drinking with André the Giant is better than reading facts and trivia off of IMDb, which is is also fun. Elwes continues the story well after the movie was done filming, talking also about how Fox didn't know how to market it, how it was moderately received, and then how it had ultimately exploded into the popular phenomenon it is today. I would recommend this book even to those out there who, much like myself, aren't necessarily die hard fans of the movie. It is simply an enjoyable read and a fun behind the scenes look at a wonderful movie, written by the Man in Black himself.

Favorite Moment: Any time Elwes tells a story that has André at the center, I was thrilled. He was apparently the very definition of a gentle giant and the sweetest person alive.

Favorite Character: I get that it's weird to pick a favorite character from a nonfiction book, but I am doing it anyway. From the book, my favorite was absolutely André the Giant. From the movie, my favorite character is most certainly Inigo Montoya. 

Recommended Reading: One of my favorite memoirs of all time is Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. It is a different kind of book from As You Wish, mostly because it focuses on the career of one man as opposed to the behind-the-scenes action from one film. And it is written in the fun and easy-going manner that only Martin could pull off.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Classic Fiction: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

The full title of William Goldman's classic is The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. What many people don't know about The Princess Bride, especially those who have only seen the movie and not read the book, is that the story we now know containing Buttercup, Westley, Inigo, Fezzik, and all of the rest is originally an abridged retelling of another story by S. Morgenstern...or at least that is how the story goes. Goldman simply cut out the boring parts and gave his readers what he figured they wanted: love, adventure, sword fights, hand-to-hand combat, giant rodents, a Fire Swamp, white horses, and even a Zoo of Death.

The Situation: The story that Goldman is wishing to retell focuses on the love between Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world, and a farm boy, Westley. The two have fallen in love with each other, and Westley decides to seek his fortune in America so that he may come back and be able to have Buttercup's hand in marriage. But just after Westley sets sail, his ship is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, and he doesn't take prisoners. This news reaches Buttercup, and after believing that Westley has died, resigns herself to living without love. But since she is the most beautiful woman in the world, she has caught the attention of Count Rugen, who brings her to the attention of Prince Humperdinck. After hearing that The Prince isn't after love, only marriage, Buttercup agrees to be his future queen.

The Problem: The Prince actually isn't all that interested in marriage. It is something he has to do as the heir to the throne. Just as his father got married and produced a male heir, so he must do so as well. Even before he and Buttercup can be married, she is kidnapped by three men, who clearly intend to kill her. The leader is a humpbacked Sicilian, and following his orders are a sword fighting Spaniard and a giant. And if that wasn't bad enough, there also seems to be a mysterious Man in Black following all of them, whose intentions are unclear. Buttercup has already decided that she will live the rest of her life without love. If she survives her present ordeal, she'll be married to someone she doesn't care for and who doesn't care for her. But if her trio of kidnappers succeed, she won't even live to see her wedding day. And then of course, there is still the mysterious Man in Black.

Genre, Themes, History: The Princess Bride is a fantasy/adventure novel that satirizes the genre. It has plenty of adventure with sword fighting, giants, kidnapping, pirates, sand pits, large rodents, torture devices, and even a battle of wits over poisoned cups of wine. And while there are moments that are incredibly serious, and people do die, it all happens with an undercurrent of hilarity and ridiculousness. Even the trio of kidnappers, with their incredibly sinister plot, will cause the reader to laugh out loud as they interact with each other and attempt to outrun the Man in Black. Scenes involving incredible and painful torture seem to be written with the author winking at the reader, making the scenes almost comical despite the seriousness of what is happening. There is a reason the book was made into such an enjoyable and well-loved film that is now one of the most quoted movies ever. It is a family-friendly story that even adults can enjoy. And as it is supposed to be an abridged version of an S. Moregnstern story - who doesn't exist as author by the way, and neither does his book - there are a few interruptions by Goldman himself throughout the text presented in red letters. And of course, these interruptions are the author once again winking at his audience and acknowledging what is really going on.

My Verdict: Seeing as how Goldman wrote the screenplay for the movie, it wasn't surprising that the book and the movie are incredibly similar. So for many people who saw the movie first, there won't be many differences to point out between the two. Many of the little one-liners that we have come to love from the movie are also in the book. Really, the biggest difference between the two is that there is no sick grandson being read to by his grandfather. So it is easy to say that I enjoyed the book just as much as I have enjoyed watching the movie and think other people will feel the same way.

Favorite Moment: The epic final showdown between Inigo Montoya and Count Rugen.

Favorite Character: With the movie, Inigo is my favorite character, and that does not change with the book. I don't know if it is his intense commitment to avenging his father's death, or the scene with the Count in the castle, but I have always liked him the best. 

Recommended Reading: There could be a few options here. For the whole family-friendly adventure story with elements of fantasy, I recommend L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. For the story within a story angle, I recommend Michael Ende's The Neverending Story. Also, I think readers would enjoy S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Horror Fiction: Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn

It's been a good long while since I have been able to cover a book that falls into the category of horror fiction, and Ania Ahlborn's Within These Walls seemed like the perfect candidate. The synopsis promised a haunted house, ghosts, and a mysterious cult leader. And with everything that went on in the book, I wouldn't have been surprised if there was also an Indian burial ground and creepy possessed children.

The Situation: Lucas Graham hasn't published a successful book in years. So when Jeffrey Halcomb, a man who was accused of killing a woman and her baby, while also convincing nine others to kill themselves, reaches out to him and offers him the story subject he has been waiting for, he naturally jumps at the opportunity. After having been arrested in 1983, Halcomb has kept completely silent about what happened in the house in Pier Pointe, Washington. He is willing to give Lucas, and only Lucas, an interview, but in order to receive something every media outlet and true crime writer has wanted, Lucas must stay in the very house where Halcomb committed his crimes. His wife, Caroline, is against uprooting the family from New York and moving halfway across the country, even if it is for the writing opportunity of a life time. Of course, she has no idea he already said yes.

The Problem: Before Lucas even introduces the idea of living in a former murder house in order to get the story of what really happened there, his relationship with his wife was already strained. And the one with his preteen daughter, Virginia, isn't much better. While Lucas and Virginia pack up to head to Washington, Caroline gets ready for a trip to Italy, with the man that Lucas knows she is cheating on him with. And while he is glad to have his daughter along with him and possibly a chance to fix whatever is broken between them, Lucas worries about his daughter finding out the real reason they are going to Seattle, and what really happened in the house they are now staying in. As time moves on, and Lucas' dream opportunity slowly turns into a nightmare, he still manages to hold on to the quickly fading hope that he'll get the story that will save his career. Meanwhile, Virginia is able to find out all about the house and Jeffrey Halcomb on her own, leading to her own side project. But with strange things beginning to happen in and around the house, it is clear that whatever motives they each may have for this trip are secondary to someone else's.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a horror novel set partly in modern day, and partly in the early 1980s. For the most part, the story follows Lucas and Virginia as they coexist in the house in Pier Pointe. But the entire story of what happened back in 1983 is also revealed slowly throughout the book, leading up to the day of the gruesome murder/suicides. A big part of both stories is the charming and enigmatic cult leader Jeffrey Halcomb, a man who managed to gather a following out of lost, addicted, or abandoned runaways and convince them that he is little less than a god. At first glance the group looks like a band of traveling hippies who never stay in one place too long and refuse to get real jobs, while operating out of the belief that the individual is nothing and that personal sacrifices are made for the good of the group. Halcomb makes the young recruits feel special; assures them they are not alone; and offers them safety and love, something they are all too eager to except. But his darker more sinister objective soon surfaces, and the more committed members of the group remain undeterred and still believe in their leader. It is an eerie look at what one person can convince someone else to do by saying the right words and being attractive enough. And it is the kind of terrible parenting that Lucas and Caroline offer up to their daughter Virginia that cause otherwise grounded people to follow someone like Halcomb.  

My Verdict: I am all about horror stories that are sufficiently terrifying without being crazy bloody. And this book fits that perfectly. Having people live in a haunted house where an awful murder and mysterious suicides took place is creepy enough. Simultaneously tell the story of a charming cult leader who seems to be able to get pretty much anyone to do what he wants, and you've got more than just a ghost story. Jeffrey Halcomb is the ultimate villain, pulling strings that people don't even realize are being pulled, including his most devoted followers. It's the kind of story that makes you wonder if Halcomb is really the charming and manipulative, or are the people he picks that broken and desperate? Maybe it is a little bit of column A, and a little bit of column B. Either way, it is an unnerving tale and one that makes you ask yourself how far you would be willing to go to please someone with an attractive personality, offering you everything you've always wanted. 

Favorite Moment: I'm not sure I can pick a favorite moment. Everything in this book is incredibly dark and there isn't one part that stood out that I can say I really loved.

Favorite Character: Again, I don't think I can pick anyone. Everyone in this book is either crazy, annoyingly desperate, or just stupid...or some combination of all three. Halcomb convinces people to do ridiculous things so easily. And just when it starts to look like someone has a will of their own, it is either too late, or the easily fold under the slightest pressure.

Recommended Reading: Marisha Pessl's Night Film follows another writer as he is trying to uncover the true story behind a famous director of cult classic horror movies after the mysterious death of the director's daughter. There are no ghosts, but there is a (seemingly) haunted house and many "followers" of the famed director and his movies.