Review: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

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Let me just start this right off by saying: gosh diggity dang this book is fantastic.  I’m a big fan of the Locke and Key series by Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez, namely because Hill does such a fine job really tapping into the wonder of the fantasy genre.  And like Locke and Key, in Hill’s newest, the hefty NOS4A2, the reader follows along in a multiple decade spanning adventure.  The characters are quirky, unstable even, and a near disproportionate amount of them are big time comic nerds, but they never read as artificial (Plus I am biased, I rooted for Lou, the chunky comic nerd father more than anyone).  Hill works with a largely female cast, deftly tackling the theme of what it means to become an adult and the real life and imaginary horrors that accompany that.  It’s a long, arduous journey through hell spent with Vic McQueen and one that never falters though at times she does. 

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Perhaps it is his years of experience in the comic business, but Hill has a knack for writing extremely clear, no-fuss dialogue. It is what really allows the reader their greatest insights into the characters, as well as making less work for the Narrator, so that he can focus on the all important plethora of gruesome, horrifying and fast-paced action scenes that will assure the next time you hear Jingle Bell Rock playing that you will shudder more than usual.

What really sets NOS4A2 apart from most of the other fantasy/horror out there, in my opinion, is the self-awareness present throughout. Nothing bugs me more in horror movies or novels than when some over-referenced mythological creature goes on a killing spree, and the world acts as if they have never heard of the notions of aliens, werewolves, or vampires.  Unless the time period is antiquated enough where people would not have heard of those types of things, it really just doesn’t make sense.  Half the TV shows and movies that exist right now are about those things.  Hill embraces the worlds created before this one, those of his own previous works and other authors as well (even some of Stephen King’s worlds, he has not forgotten the face of his father apparently).  There were multiple times while reading that I found myself thinking “wow, this is just like this book or that book,” and on cue Hill basically says to the reader’s face: ‘Yes, I know it seems like that world, but it isn’t.  That world is next door.’ 

NOS4A2 marks an exciting new chapter in Joe Hill’s career. I highly recommend this one!

 

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REVIEW: I Travel By Night by Robert McCammon

I have a Robert McCammon bias.  I’ve read nearly all of his books, including the awesome ongoing Matthew Corbett series.  It’s always struck me as odd that none of his novels or stories have ever made it to the big screen (then again maybe that’s a good thing).  I tend to regard him as the cult-status equivalent of Stephen King in my mind, but the truth is that bunching him in there with King isn’t quite right.  McCammon’s writing style is unique in the world of fantasy and horror.  I’ve heard him called verbose by some, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.  McCammon creates extremely visual characters and scenes, action sequences that pop off the page, and hardly ever at the expense of the story or the depth of the characters.  He is one of the few authors that on multiple occasions I actually found myself missing my bus stop because my hands were gripped around one of his novels.

More people than usual laughed at the cover of an older novel, Wolf’s Hour by McCammon when I was reading it, and telling them that it was about a British/Bolshevik spy who is also a werewolf, battling Nazis did not help the matter (I think it’s a cool cover…).

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The fact of the matter is, cover and back cover blurb aside, Wolf’s Hour still remains one of, if not my favorite McCammon novels.  There is romance, political drama, a coming of age story, and yes a ton of great Nazi massacres at the hands of our werewolf hero.  Check it out.

But that’s not why we’re here.

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“He had not been born this way.  No one was.  It was lost in the mists of time who the first one had been and what agreement had spawned such a condition, but now they were legion.”

McCammon’s newest, a much too short novella entitled I Travel By Night follows Trevor Lawson, a southern Civil War soldier turned vampire living in Louisiana in the wild west era.  He works as a for hire vampire fighting against vampires, and shape shifters, as well as hunting down the omniscient and mysterious Dark Society, the key to Lawson’s humanity.  Though the length of the story bothered me a bit, it is mostly for selfish reasons because I could not help myself and read it all in one sitting.  The truth is McCammon packs in a wealth of information about the characters we meet, their pasts, and the new and interesting twists on the vampire myth that he throws into the mix.

McCammon balances gracefully as he does on the edge of ‘fantasy/horror’ and ‘literature’, finding the humanity in each of his characters, and using it to give life to his story, driving it along at breakneck speed.  Already with a vampire novel under his belt, I appreciate that McCammon chose to go in a new direction with this one.  They Thirst is a great play on the vampire myth as well, and I Travel By Night is a reorganized version: new rules and a new history, set for a fun serial where we learn bit by bit about Lawson and the world he lives in, his abilities, and about the Dark Society that is both his enemy and his last hope of redemption. I highly recommend this one and all of McCammon’s works!

Let’s just hope that there’s a plan for another one soon.

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Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

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The stars have gone out, and the world is suddenly stuck inside of a time-morphing membrane, causing time to pass on Earth at a fraction of that of the universe outside.  What are the Hypotheticals–the omnipotent presence causing time to go all wibbly wobbly–and what are its plans for humanity?

A lot of the fun in Spin is not knowing what to expect.  Time has become an almost non-factor, as the characters watch billions of years pass outside of the Earth in a few decades.  Because of it, Time itself becomes a major character in the story.  Planets evolve and develop life, stars live and die, and the sun races towards a fiery death all in the blink of an eye. I won’t spoil any more of the story, but I will say that what stands out in Spin is the cast of characters, who do not seem like cardboard cutouts or the personification of a moral or idea, as is often the case in heady science fiction. You feel for the characters very much, the lifelong secrets between them, and the bitter rivalries and lost chances at love.  It’s like Philip K. Dick had a week long Downtown Abbey marathon.  It’s a wonderfully written book, and highly recommended.

On to discussion ideas, and some thoughts (and mostly unanswered questions) I have.

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Reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Childhood’s End by Clarke, Spin left me wondering about the nature of free will versus determinism in a world like this one.  Like the black monolith in 2001, in Spin the Hypotheticals are a greater life force moving human evolution along its path as it sees fit.  And in so doing, humanity realizes that its goals and accomplishments in what may be “the next step” of evolution are only stepping stones towards a greater evolution, mirroring that of the Hypotheticals. The idea of removing the barrier between the notion of “God,” or a god, and evolution makes the question of free will versus determinism a difficult one to answer.  Evolution and God become one single idea, and in so doing God becomes a tangible idea, more than a set of morals to follow, an actual personified being.  A tangible idea that humans can strive to be equals with.  So human scientists and physicists “play god” but without the overarching fears of, say, Victor Frankenstein.  Whatever kind of god the Hypotheticals are, they don’t want to punish us with guilt and hell dreams, they want us to play along.  And while the idea of the Hypotheticals does not necessarily supplant the idea of a single benevolent God, it makes you wonder where the element of free will enters into the equation, if at all.

Does the existence of something like the Hypotheticals mean free will doesn’t exist?  Though in the end we may possibly end up taking the place of these higher forces, are we still just making predetermined choices based on their unseen motives?  And if so, does that lessen the value of our work?  Or are the choices we make between the lines, the little alterations of the greater work, the smaller events that are sometimes forgotten, enough to constitute free will?  These are some things that I am left wondering with, and maybe you have thought about as well.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Comic Review: East of West Issue #1

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                                     “The dream is over.”

      These words, superimposed over an image of four scorched red pillars, reaching above a desert floating in space.  Stars fill most of the frame, reminding me a bit of those paintings done by sidewalk artists in Mexico and other hot tourist locations.  You know the kind, where the artist uses a few cans, a knife and some spray paint and in a few moments has created a pretty stunning landscape in space.  Most of them appear to pose the hypothetical question: what if the Mayans had cracked light speed technology and populated alien planets, erecting temples and hip-ball stadiums?  That is not to say that the first page of Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s new series, East of West, looks like it was painted in ten minutes on some street corner.  In fact, the art is spot on, tasteful and never has the appearance of being overly digitized (which drives me crazy in comics, almost as much as CGI blood used in TV or movies, it just looks so cheap and fake).  In fact, it was the art that really struck me upon first reading.  I found myself staring at pages for minutes on end, taking in the starry, bleak landscapes and the shifts in tone and color.  Not to mention the hefty size of the comic was quite appealing, and I will admit that was what drove me to it initially.  Any single issue that sports over thirty pages is worth a buy in my opinion, the usual twenty three to twenty seven pages is never enough to get yourself fully invested and tide you over for a month (or more) while you wait for the next issue.  That’s not to say go out and buy every giant issue you see on the shelves, one must discriminate unless you want to end up underneath a life crushing stack of Archie comics.  But intuition served me well in this case. 

East of West is set in the near and distant future, in a world perpetually on the brink of disaster.  The four horseman of the apocalypse are one short of their full crew, leaving War, Famine and Conquest to duke it out on their own, all while trapped in the bodies of children, much to their chagrin. 

The issue is structured in such a way that one gets the impression of a miniseries or a movie beginning.  Following the brief prologue there is a page that boasts:

“The things that divide us are stronger than the things that unite us.”

 

Turn the page again, and the title of the comic is introduced across a full two page spread.  Something in the familiarity of that aesthetic choice got me really pumped to continue reading.  It planted the seed in my mind to view this story as if it were on a big screen, an idea that lent itself extraordinarily well to the story, and got me on the right track right from the outset. 

Earth as it exists within the story consists of seven separate nations, trapped in a never ending civil war where racism and a steady dose of fear keep everyone with their hands resting on their gun belts, ready to fire at a moment’s notice.  Hickman and Dragotta effortlessly use those themes–the rampant disregard for law and order–and adapt the style of the comic to be representative of the times this world lives in.  The characters set in the present are all gunslingers, frequenting futuristic saloons while maintaining the aesthetic of the Wild West, and yet still managing to convey that we are most certainly in the future.  While the idea of “now” is a bit obscure, the cited first year apocalypse is set in 2064 which places a large portion of the story in some vague spot after an extended civil right, in between the end of the 20th century and the year 2064. 

The issue, as I said, is super sized so we are afforded a lot of preliminary information that is setting up a complex story consisting of multiple timelines, characters and possibly planets. We see a soldier of the civil war turned preacher, a peaceful Native American turned soldier, and a powerful Asian leader, all united by a cryptic prophecy known as “The Message,” forebodings of the coming apocalypse.  We see a lone gunslinger with a dark past, pursuing a bloody quest.  We see corrupt politicians, betrayals, genocides, receive prophecies, and ill omens. 

It’s great to see a new series come about that feels so fleshed out with just the first issue.  I feel similarly about Brubaker and Phillips’ series, Fatale, except I feel that at times Fatale can be so muddled in its context and timeline that it becomes difficult to follow.  East of West boasts promises of epic proportions, setting us up for a cataclysmic adventure where you are not sure who to root for, because the lines between good and evil seem not to exist anymore, hell even the soldiers of the Union are racist in this world. 

What is to come next for this series is very hard to predict, but I feel very confident in saying that whatever does happen, it is bound to be kick ass!

So head down to your local comic store now and pick up a copy, because the first printings are going fast!  Or else head here to Comixology and get a digital copy and read it on your phone computer pad device thingy!

http://www.comixology.com/East-of-West-1/digital-comic/JAN130468

 

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Enough Books To Make Me Wonder Whether I Was A Book Too

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I read a lot.  Incessantly.  Chances are, nine times out of ten if you run into me on the street or public transportation I am reading or at least have a book on me.  I have even mastered the ancient forgotten art of Read Walking, lost with the extinction of my ancestors, the great Rahoosh civilization, around the beginning of the 15th century.  I wouldn’t call my reading habits a compulsion, because that implies that I get no pleasure from it, which is not true. Most of the time my reactions while reading are far more verbal than when I am watching a TV show or a movie.  When I was younger I treated books almost as if they were alive. I never folded pages over. I was mortified at the idea of breaking a book’s spine, and would cringe when others would.  At a very young age, upon witnessing someone break a book’s spine I would yell “would you break a little chipmunk’s spine?!” or some other bizarre comment.  It was bad.  Reading was more of a peeking into my books, like something might pop out and punch me in the face.  You could never tell if I had even read the books that were quickly stacking up in every corner of my house.  While at the time it felt like a science, in retrospect I look back and wonder what the hell I was thinking?  That’s not to say that nowadays I go out of my way to crack the spine of every book I read, but I don’t have that nagging fear that if I do, the same author’s other books will come when I’m sleeping, and leave a burned book at the foot of my bed.  When I was little my perception of books were that they were a little overwhelming.  The fact that I was attempting to read mostly Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Ayn Rand did not help in the anxiety.  It might be an understatement to say I didn’t full grasp what was going on in any of them, but still enough to realize that all of the characters in all of these books were just so horribly sad. 

Soon I moved on to horror novels, and found Stephen King had replaced Dostoevsky, Richard Matheson instead of Tolstoy and James Herbert instead of Ayn Rand.  I won’t get into the fine distinctions between what classifies something as “literature” and why “horror” must be a separate section in your (now endangered) local book store, but I found books like Cujo, Pet Semetery, or I Am Legend spoke to me on a much more personal level.  For example, Cujo is about more than what you imagine when you think of the story from the movie adaptation–a dog with rabies, set on killing everyone–what struck me was the family, and really hoping that they would be okay, and that this killer dog was actually still the loyal guardian of the family, struggling with his own very literal demon.  He was merely a catalyst to get this family to start examining their lives and where things may have started to go wrong.  I had seen the movie before I read the book and remember thinking that it was a bit silly, but the book completely flipped those ideas on their head.  Cujo had made me cry!  I remember thinking how bizarre that was, that maybe I could chalk it up to teenage hormones running rampant, messing with my mind.  But it wasn’t hormones, it was just that it was actually a fine story disguised as a trashy horror novel.  Something most people, even people who enjoy Stephen King, move right past without giving a second thought. 

From there I expanded my horizons even further: science fiction, fantasy, mystery thrillers, etc.  I soon found no book would be daunting, even a 1000 page Russian classic, if you could find the humanity within, the personal struggle that is really driving the story along. The Cujo, if you will. Because that goes above and beyond critical reading, or searching for metaphors and rhetoric, its a universal theme that everybody can grasp at some level.  And that is what I enjoy searching for and exploring when I read.

Which brings us back to why we are all here today.  I have a near compulsion to discuss or at least relay what I read to anybody who will listen.  A big problem for me is that generally nobody I knows reads the same books that I do (which granted does not stop me from relating an entire story’s plot in one sitting), so I find myself very often asking questions about books, movies or comics that no one I know has an answer for.  Hopefully you enjoy discussing these things as well (or else what the hell are you doing still reading this??), and this blog can serve both in allowing me an outlet and a useful resource for like minded people out there, searching for recommendations and opinions.  

What I’d like to do here is offer that, on whatever book I happen to be reading (old or new), comic, TV show, movie, etc.  I want to find what makes a story that anybody can relate to because of its exploration (or lack of) the human experience.  You know, questions like why do we feel a greater need to cry when you see an animal die in a movie, but if a human dies in that same movie you could feel next to nothing? How do stories manipulate our perception of the world to serve their own needs, or vice versa?  I don’t know.  But maybe we can dig deep enough to, if not actually answer these questions, have discussions that make you think even further. 

What I really hope to accomplish is to broaden your horizons.  Some of you may shy away from the idea of reading books deemed as horror novels, but I really think that anybody could find something that speaks directly to them, from any book so long as it is written well.  Maybe you feel sort of trapped within a genre and you don’t know why, like I did with old classics when I was younger.  You feel some sort of vague responsibility to only read within your selected genre.  But there is a whole new world of literary works out there that you would never have given a second glance that actually could change the way you look at the world.

So here’s what to expect:

1. Reviews based on books, movies or TV that strike my fancy.  I will try primarily to speak, instead of heavy plot summaries (because nobody likes spoilers), about the human experience within these stories, and if they transcend the traditional genre divides that exists between “literature” and basically everything else.

2. Weekly updates on comics as they arrive in stores, letting people know what new series I have been checking out and have something worth saying or art that is really cool.  Maybe soon I’ll be able to even link it up to a website so you can read about the new comics I’ve picked and you’ll be able to click a button that puts that issue in a box with your name on it at your local comic store…it all depends on how this goes!

3. Hopefully soon, depending on how many people are interested in these postings, an interactive book club where I can join you as you read through a book and hopefully incite some good discussions.

4. Probably going to be some general musings popping up every once in a while as well.

I’m going to make sure that I play it close to the chest as much as I can, and only really delve into the themes and ideas that are universal and go above and beyond a particular time and place, and speak to you as a person. 

So come along with me to places that probably only the Doctor could take you: whether it is imperialist Russia, or imperialist Russia in space 1,000 years in the future, where humanity has devolved into toad creatures, because chances are even these toad people from the distant future have struggles that we can find in ourselves and relate to. 

-N.A.

 

 

 

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