Monthly Archives: September 2013

Book Review: My Brief History

My Brief HistoryMy Brief History by Stephen Hawking

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

How does one review someone’s life? It’s probably one of the harder things to do, especially with such an icon as Stephen Hawking. I’ll admit that I’m one of those people who has a copy of A Brief History of Time, but I haven’t read it yet (I’m going to, I swear!).

My Brief History by Dr. Stephen Hawking is his personal memoir. For those who don’t know who Stephen Hawking is, he is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist and the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge. He predicted the radiation emitted from black holes (Hawking radiation), and has worked extensively on a grand unifying theory. Some consider him to be the smartest man alive. He also has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known in the United States as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which has left him paralyzed in a wheelchair and only able to communicate through a speech synthesizer.

The first thing the reader will notice is how short his memoir is, which may trouble the reader. This apprehension is not without merit. Hawking discusses his family and early life, his studies at school, developing his theories, and how he eventually became a Director at Cambridge. And all this in a very small space.

It’s difficult to criticize a memoir without feeling like you’re criticizing the person’s life. So I’ll emphasize that my criticism of My Brief History is only a criticism of this book, not of Hawking himself.

The problem is that this book feels very rushed. Hawking talks about his life, and even discusses when they discovered he had ALS and how it’s progressed over his life. But he glosses over a lot of the detail. If you’re looking for an in-depth description of what it’s like or his feeling about living with a serious and progressing disability, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Hawking spends comparatively much more time describing the thought process and work that went into his scientific theories that made him famous. He gives some background on what went on behind the scenes while writing and publishing A Brief History of Time, but nothing really juicy or controversial.

Coming away from this memoir, it feels like Hawking wasn’t really that into writing it. It’s clear what he’s most interested in talking about (science), but doesn’t seem that interested in discussing himself personally. He does say that the public focus on his disability has made him a little uncomfortable, and he wouldn’t mind if people simply focused on his work, but he also recognizes that it gets people paying attention to scientific achievements. It feels like he wrote this book more for demands to know more about him personally than any real desire to tell his story.

If you’re looking for anything new or revelatory about Dr. Hawking, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s a very concise memoir that’s mostly devoid of any controversial content, which is what most memoir-readers are going to look for. I suppose this says something about Dr. Hawking’s character, that he’s led a good life and been mostly focused on his work. But at the same time, the reader might feel like this book is a waste of time to read, with only minor gaps in what we already knew about him being filled in. However, when looking at Dr. Hawking’s work, whether time can actually be wasted is beyond the scope of this review.

My Brief History earns a very middle-of-the-road 2.5 black holes out of 5.

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Book Review: Hemlock Grove

Hemlock Grove: A NovelHemlock Grove: A Novel by Brian McGreevy

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

All right, let me get one thing out of the way: Yes, I read this book because of the Netflix series. I have a sick compulsion to read books that movies or television shows are based on so I can understand the source material and supposedly have a greater appreciation for the adaptation. Note the use of the word “supposedly.”

Now for a second disclosure: I have not finished watching the Netflix series yet. I’m about halfway through it at the time of this writing. While the Netflix show seems relatively faithful to the source material…well, that’s not necessarily a good thing. I’ve delayed writing this review because I’ve had trouble figuring out a nice way to describe how much I disliked this book (for example, I was going to mention how this book is on par with Twilight but with homosexual undertones, but saying this book has undertones would be giving it too much credit for subtlety). I wouldn’t go so far as to simply rewrite Roger Ebert’s infamous review of “North,” but this book is still pretty bad.

Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy primarily follows Peter Rumancek, a Gypsy teenager who has recently moved to the town of Hemlock Grove (and the novel’s resident werewolf) and meets rich kid Roman Godfrey, who Peter identifies as an upir. While there’s no direct explanation what an upir is until the end, it doesn’t take much work to figure it out. After some gruesome murders of local teenage girls, the two decide that it’s up to them to find out who is responsible. Why them and not the police? Because we wouldn’t have much of a story then, would we?

This where things begin to fall apart and fast. These two teenagers are actually stupid enough to think that it’s up to them to solve these murders. Aside from the supernatural element that they detect, why them? It doesn’t help that these characters are never made out to be smart in any other respect. Roman is a pompous, self-centered rich kid and the only person he cares about other than himself is his sister, Shelley, who has her own mysteries, and his cousin Letha, to a lesser extent. Peter has some street smarts. Some. But he doesn’t have much else other than his werewolf sense powers.

A big problem with this novel is that it doesn’t take much work to figure anything out. The references to classic monsters of horror are numerous, and pretty much slap you in the face (Shelley is a blatant reference to Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein). While I am ragging on it, this is probably the most clever part of the book. The author also drenches the prose in symbolism. You can’t get away from it, but it doesn’t add anything to the book. It adds no mystery, and is nothing but a distraction without any real payoff. It becomes obvious very quickly who the killer is. As for other side stories, these don’t provide much mystery or payoff, either.

Now, I’ve seen mysteries that aren’t really mysteries before, and these tend to be used as character vehicles, so while we don’t get attached to the story, we still want to follow the characters. But with Hemlock Grove, I didn’t want to follow the characters, either. They’re just so stupid and unlikable. Roman is a spoiled rich brat, Peter is rather two-dimensional, Olivia Godfrey is just a nasty control-freak, Letha is a ditz, and Dr. Pryce (guess who he’s a reference to) is a creep. The most interesting and sympathetic character is Shelley, because she’s the only one that shows any real character development. And she doesn’t even talk.

Overall, Hemlock Grove is a bloody mess. While there are a couple of minor elements that could be called clever, the characters and story are so dumb and predictable that I would have to say this book should be skipped. Don’t fall prey to my problem. You don’t need (or should even want) to read the source material if you’re only interested in the Netflix series. Move along, and avoid this one.

Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy earns 1 Ouroboros out of 5.

Book Review: Kitten

KittenKitten by G. Arthur Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who needs a fourth wall?

Not G. Arthur Brown, and especially not in Kitten, part of the 2012-2013 class of the New Bizarro Author series, meaning that this is his first published book. As a freshman effort, how does it stack up?

In Kitten, you really get two stories. The first story follows Amaand (not a mispelling), a mother who is concerned about a dead girl with perfect teeth (or undead, as she is a result of her father-in-law’s experiments) visiting her son, an ex-husband who very publicly tells everyone about how he feels she wronged him, and a strange man called the Collector who has an unhealthy interest in the dead girl, her son, and her son’s kitten that is not a kitten but rather a weird deformed squirrel thing that vomits postal stamps from around the world. That’s just one story.

The other story involves the kitten who is not a kitten, although now it’s a kitten, wandering a strange land after being forcibly removed from the previous story into his own story and trying to find a way back to the original story. Still following me? There are lots of pop culture references in this one, and Brown seems to like playing with the reader this way throughout much of the book.

That bring me to the odd feeling that this book gives the reader. Aside from being the most surreal of this year’s class of NBAS books, it’s also an experimental novel on a fundamental level. Brown’s characters acknowledge the reader more than once without directly addressing them, and acknowledge the writer of this story. The characters even realize that they’re characters in a story. It creates this weird meta feel which makes the book genuinely unpredictable. At times, the story even comes off like it could have been one of Brown’s fever dreams. Just look at the cover!

The editing is actually pretty good, something that’s been an issue in the bizarro genre on more than one occasion. Does this make it a good novel? Not in and of itself, but if you’ve read my previous reviews, you’ll know that poor editing is a pet peeve of mine, and that’s something that I can’t fault this book for.

If you’re looking for something that’s not just weird but downright surreal, but at the same time is relatively tame compared to most bizarro books when it comes to sex and violence, you’ll have a good time with Kitten. However, if this is not something you’re looking for, you will probably not get much out of it. The book definitely has a certain charm and a sense of fun, but it takes a particular mindset to get into it. Aspects of the story do remain incomplete, but for the purposes of this book and the story the author wanted to tell, it remains relatively self-contained. This is his world after all, something which we get reminded of. While not perfect, Kitten is worth the short time it takes to read, even if it could trigger fever dreams of your own.

Kitten by G. Arthur Brown earns 4 international postage stamps out of 5.

Book Review: Son of a Bitch

Son of a BitchSon of a Bitch by Wrath James White and Andre Duza

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aw, who’s a cute wittle puppy? Who’s a coot wittew puppy? Who’s a…AH! AH! AH!

Son of a Bitch is a collaborative work by Andre Duza and Wrath James White and recently published by Deadite Press, the horror imprint of Eraserhead Press. The story is simple: A creature who is part demon and part dog is born and wreaks havoc, particularly after it is possessed by the soul of a hitman. The book is bloody and gory, nearly to excess, but it is a horror novel, so as long as don’t mind huge amounts of blood, guts, and violence in the book’s short run, you’ll know what you’re getting.

The characters are well-developed, or at least as well developed as you can expect with such a short novel, so they’re developed about as much as they need to be. We learn what we need to know during the course of the book, including the basic personalities, the motivations, etc. The characters are simple in this regard, but not unbelievable, especially given the short time we’re given to know them, kind of like meeting someone at a party and you get to know them but not in any deep sense. The story is sound, even if it follows a very typical structure, with plot points placed at almost exactly the right spots. It works, even if it would have been nice to have a little more innovation.

The overall feel of the book is hard to describe, which is part of the problem. While officially a horror novel, something I don’t dispute, it has more of an “Evil Dead” feel where it’s tempered by a dark humor. Therein lies the central problem with this novel. It takes a little too much of an “Evil Dead” approach, and not always successfully. This requires some explanation.

When mixing humor into any genre other than a comic novel, but especially in a horror novel, the jokes can get taken in one of three ways. The first is that the audience gets the joke and laughs with you at the right time. This happens a few times in this novel, so kudos to the authors there.

The second is when the joke goes over the audience’s head. They simply don’t get it and only a few audience member will get the joke. Not an ideal situation, but not exactly the end of the world. The story simply moves on without acknowledgment of the attempted humor.

The third way a joke can be taken is one that should be avoided at all costs. This is when the audience gets the joke, or the attempt at a joke, but doesn’t find it funny. In stand-up comedy, this would be the typical “groaner” or even a “boo.” This only works if completely intentional and followed by a joke that acknowledges how bad the last one was.

Unfortunately, in literature, you don’t usually get such a followup as it’s generally ineffective. And sadly, there’s a few times this happens in Son of a Bitch. In a few places, the reader realizes that the situation is absurd or there’s an attempt at a joke, but it falls flat, mostly with the juxtaposition of the serious and violent situation the characters find themselves in. While I can respect the heavy risk the authors took with this approach, I also can’t ignore when they missed the mark.

The reader should also be warned that the book has a heavily “urban” feel to it (you probably know what I mean, but if you don’t, I’m referring to racial stereotypes). If you’re uncomfortable with racial epithets or references, this book is probably not going to sit well with you, even if you’ve got a generalized sense of humor, and I point this out because of certain sensitivities that I’ve witnessed in society. I, for one, didn’t mind and felt that it added character to the novel while at the same time acknowledging those stereotypes and ridiculing them in the process. The dialogue itself is a bit striking, but you get used to it. Like “Pulp Fiction,” it’s mostly reminding us that this book is not about nice people. Pretty much every character is not someone you would want to have anything to do with in real life, from Demetrius, the dog breeder who breeds dogs mostly for fighting, or the hitman Warlock. Whether this book actually makes you like the bad guys is questionable as they really aren’t likable and Demetrius is only barely redeemable. But in this context, they have a strange way of working. Up to a point.

Son of a Bitch is not going to be for everyone, but what it does, it generally does well. At the same time, it misses the mark a few times with the humor enough to border on an identity crisis, whether it should be funny or a horror novel, or if the jokes are simply in poor taste. The characters are developed mostly for the purposes of the story, but anything outside the context of the story tends to be lost and remain mostly unacknowledged.

Son of a Bitch by Andre Duza and Wrath James White earns 3 cuddly attack puppies out of 5.

Book Review: Penetralia

PenetraliaPenetralia by Jordan Krall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Okay, we need to get one thing out of the way: The title of this book, Penetralia, is not actually as dirty as it sounds. The definition is:

1. the innermost parts or recesses of a place or thing.

2. the most private or secret things.

Okay, so you can get your mind out of the gutter.

Okay, now put your mind right back in that gutter.

Penetralia by Jordan Krall is a hard book to get your head around. You’re constantly slapped around by images of physical and sexual violence, and yet there’s a constant promise that there’s going to be a grand revelation of wisdom through these actions. The story follows a family who is seeking through violent experiments on unwilling subjects/victims for an ultimate Wisdom as prescribed through ancient texts. The grown-up brother and sister, Philip and Elizabeth, are conducting these experiments on their own in their father’s absence, who dresses in a plague doctor costume and is away for unknown reasons but will be returning soon.

Right away, you will realize that it takes a strong stomach to get through Penetralia. Krall has never shied away from gross and violent gross imagery before. In some books, like Squid Pulp Blues for example, he seemed have a strange obsession with characters releasing their bowels at inopportune times. In Penetralia, Krall has kicked it up more than a couple of notches. Almost from the get go, you’re shown that this is a very incestuous family, and that some of the experiments performed on their subjects/victims to reveal the ultimate Wisdom involve extraction and consumption of numerous bodily fluids and substances. Seriously, do not read this right after you’ve eaten. I have a cast-iron stomach, and even I felt a little queasy after one of the early scenes where Philip consumes one of their subject’s vomit.

If you can get past this (or even if these parts were cut out or rewritten), it’s not so much a story about torture, murder, and incest, but becomes a story of an extremely dysfunctional family that suffered continual and extreme abuse at the hands of their patriarch. While Philip resents his father for the abuse with every fiber of his being, he still does everything he can to continue his father’s work knowing full well that he will never earn his father’s approval. Elizabeth, on the other hand, has a case of Stockholm syndrome, loving her father deeply even for or because of the abuse she has suffered, despite knowing in the back of her mind that what she has suffered through was horrible and violent.

This made the book very frustrating. Krall is a great writer, and the prose is brilliant throughout, clean (not counting the gross imagery), and quick to read, even with making you stop to reread something or think about a particular scene carefully. But the imagery felt unnecessary to what would have been a fascinating story, and even distracted from it. The disturbing images felt like they were put in for sheer shock value. In that respect, they do their job well. But the story underneath it is actually very interesting. The story of a dysfunctional family who finally come to terms with the abuse they’ve suffered and confronting their abuser is actually quite engaging, but it becomes buried in the shock scenes so heavily that it’s difficult to see. You practically get two separate books, one for shock value and one for a heartbreaking story, but the two don’t mesh well and are constantly fighting for your attention.

Overall, Penetralia has some great writing, a potentially powerful story, and vivid if disturbing imagery. I know that Krall has recently moved away from writing bizarro fiction, and Penetralia may have been his swan song in the genre. It’s certainly a strong and powerful way to bow out, but it was a little too extreme for my tastes. I sort of wish he had bowed out sooner and written Penetralia with more focus on the story than the imagery, which based on his False Magic Kingdom series he can clearly do. Don’t get me wrong. Krall has a real talent for descriptive imagery and storytelling, but in Penetralia, those to forces seem to be at war with each other rather than support each other, making it confusing and not my particular cup of tea.

Penetralia by Jordan Krall earns 3 plague outfits out of 5.