Monday, May 31, 2010

Review: The Gates

There are few things worse than being a small boy people overlook — especially if you know for certain the world is about to end and no one will take you seriously.  Just take the case of Samuel Johnson in The Gates, John Connolly's amazing and terribly entertaining novel.

Samuel Johnson, age eleven, and his dachshund Boswell decided to beat the rush and go trick-or-treating a few days early.  The Abernathys at 666 Crowley Road were first on the list, and they were none too pleased to encounter him.  As he sat on their fence and pondered what his next move would be (considering the whole beat-the-rush gambit had failed so miserably), he was drawn by a blue light emanating from the Abernathy basement.  And what he saw made him run straight home.

You would, too, if you saw what came out of the bright blue hole the Abernathys conjured up with the words they didn't understand in a book they couldn't properly understand but read aloud anyway.  (Evil, especially the kind with a capital "E," has a way of getting people to do that.)

Despite Samuel's feelings of isolation, he is not alone — and finds the unlikeliest of allies.  He also encounters the most malevolent of foes, both with and without scales, horns, pitchforks and Internet connectivity.

Connelly has a fabulous sense of humor as he follows the happenings in Biddlecombe on the cusp of Halloween.  However, he never betrays his characters, especially a young boy with problems of his own: his father recently departed, his mother preoccupied with her life change, the babysitter who was almost bearable until she got a boyfriend, a demon who needed that bag of jellybeans more than he himself did — and now Mrs. Abernathy.  On some days, even one stray pink throbbing tentacle is way too many.

The author knows when to take his story seriously, which adds to the tension and enjoyment of the novel. Connolly already walked that tightrope successfully with The Book of Lost Things, another glimpse into the tension and confusion that is puberty.  In both of these books, Connolly takes the familiar and holds it up to the light at just the right angle where things look different enough to be fascinating in a whole new way.

Please read this book.  It is a delight and one I heartily recommend.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fill In the Gaps: An Update

I haven't completed another Fill in the Gaps book lately, but there's a reason for that: I've been hijacked by Ray Bradbury.

Can you blame me?  I read Neil Gaiman's article about Ray and had to read the story he mentioned, so I got a hold of his short stores.  (Ray's, not Neil's.)  (Though I have those, too.)  I just couldn't put it down.  (For the record, the collection I grabbed was The stories of Ray Bradbury, which I checked out from the library.) (Until I got my own copy, that is.)  I have re-read a few of my favorites ("There Will Come Soft Rains," "The Sound of Thunder") and hit a few others that made me laugh, think and wonder.  (It's been a while, so a few are like new again.)

At about the same time, I read "The Call of Cthulhu" in The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre.  (It's on my list.)  May I say: Yikes!  Good, but yikes nonetheless.  I had to re-read the description of the small idol a few times because it was too bizarre.  And the rituals, my stars, the rituals.  Will Cthulhu rise for good?  Will I have to read the entire Cthulhu series to find out?  Do I have the courage?

I could not put Ray's short stories on my Fill in the Gap list because I have read and followed him all my life.  H.P. Lovecraft, however, is a gap I must fill.  Gladly.  (Well, I think gladly. David will tell you, especially if Mr. L affects me as Dan Simmons has.)

So Lovecraft and Bradbury it is.  Join me, won't you?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Review: Horns

Joe Hill is a great writer whose work is full of surprises.  His novel Heart-Shaped Box led me to create a new bookish term: Reading Buddy (someone who reads a book with you; in the case of scary books, your Reading Buddy remains in the room — in person or by phone — while the book is read).

I expected the same thing with Horns.

It's not that kind of book.

Don't get me wrong: that is a good thing.  I don't think my imagination could take that kind of ride again so soon.

The story is compelling, heartwrenching, simple and yet terribly, terribly complex.  After a night of drinking that leaves a gaping hole in his memory, Iggy Parrish wakes up with horns growing out of his forehead.  It's not the first horror of his life.  He spent the last year mourning his love, Merrin, who was raped and killed — crimes for which Iggy was suspected, but never formally charged.  (If you wonder what's worse than going to jail for a crime you didn't commit, just ask Iggy.)  In fact, that's what he was doing the night before he woke up with his horns.

The horns come with a gift (of sorts): those who see him confess to their truest, deepest secrets or, maybe, sins.  He can wield power over them, those whom he encounters and those who seek his counsel (or permission).

Ig is not untouched.  He already has soured on love after the loss of his soulmate and a year of people thinking the worst of him.  Is he still the man Merrin loved, or has he become the kind of man who deserves the horns and everything that goes along with them?

Hill does not disappoint with this story.  There is a logical progression with the story, which becomes more bizarre with each page but makes complete sense within its boundaries.  However, I did not find it frightening.  Instead, I saw it as a psychological case study of power and fear, right and wrong, temptation and redemption.

I liked many of the characters in this story, especially Iggy.  Those who have read my reviews know, for me, the strength of a story hangs on its characters.  Hill is gifted in his character development.  No matter what happens — and often because of what does happen — the characters become more real and solid.

I really enjoyed the story, but I found the conclusion less than satisfactory.  A central mystery unfolds with the story, but the revelation feels anti-climactic and, because it it too well-kept a secret, it also feels irrelevant.  I did, however, appreciate and agree with the story's resolution.

I recommend this book, and you'll want to make sure to share it with your like-minded reader-friends.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Dead Poets Remembrance Day: Are You In?

Just when I thought it was safe to post a holiday list, They come out with another literature-related one.  ("They" always do.)

The Dead Poets Society of America is promoting its new holiday: Dead Poets Remembrance Day.  Held on October 7, the date of Edgar Allen Poe's death, the holiday remembers all of the poets who have come before us.

The society is ramping up to that bash by having Dead Poets events in nearly every state.  In Virginia, it's at the Edgar Allen Poe Museum in Richmond.  In Maryland, it's at Poe's grave.  (Do I see a trend here?)  In D.C, they leave Poe alone.  Check out the list on the link from the Dead Poets Society Web page.

A little macabre?  Sure.  But if you can't love a dead poet, who can you love?