Book Review: The Servant of the Bones

As a bit of a diversion from the regular vampire lore, in The Servant of the Bones by Anne Rice we are taken to the hay days of a crowed chaotic Babylon. At times rambling on in non-essential dialogue this story is rich in detail and character development not to mention vivid descriptions of places and people long past. A very long time ago a young boy sacrifices himself for the Jewish community in Babylon under the impending rule of King Cyrus. His reward is to live forever on as a powerful spirit neither completely alive and certainly not dead. Passed on from master to master Azriel eventually ends up in modern day New York where he becomes a pivotal component in the plan of a mad mastermind set on bringing about his version of the End of Days.

Before all that however we travel with Azriel and we see through his eyes the world as it once was. All this we are told by Azriel himself as he re-told it to Jonathan a writer who trapped himself for the winter in a remote lodge surrounded by miles of snow. The setup of an old tired spirit telling his life's story to a listener who has the power to write it all down appropriately is perhaps not a novel one, but it certainly works in this case. Although the story starts out very slowly with lots of re-starts, as Azriel puts in more and more detail, right around the middle of the novel things start to pick up and accelerate towards the ending.

After thousands of years of being immortal and mostly omnipotent, Azriel is confronted with a situation he can't change. He can't prevent the death of a young girl, something we later read has many more personal repercussions for our 'hero' dead or alive. The more he tries the less he seems to have a grip on his physical world around him and he can't prevent those around him he cares about to not perish at the hands of baser minds. Or can he? We are treated here to a well thought out and well told story on humanity as experienced by a being far from human. At times dragging on and at times too fantastical for its context, this novel his highly entertaining and engrossing.

Book Review: Mister B. Gone

Once a great promise is handed to the reader in the first utterances of a text it must be fulfilled, even if it does turn out to be a threat. If the author promises suspense then we must find ourselves suspended. If a mystery is insinuated then a reveal is in order. Failing to do so can render an otherwise brilliant book disappointing. In Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker we have such a problem. From the very first page, and from then on every other page, we are informed we are going to regret reading the story and that we must burn the book immediately. We will not even reach the end of the text because we will find out how the demon addressing us has come to be captured in our particular copy and how that might have consequences for us. A bold statement you think. Everyone knows the text can't harm us but we might at least expect a remarkable tale that explains how this all came to be. The point the first person author tries to make is completely wasted since It would be equally silly to claim King Kong will snatch us from our theater seats because he can see us trembling from beyond the white screen. Yet every page of this novel plays upon this very concept, the repetition of which becomes annoying. Then again all this is told by a demon and perhaps that's what they do down there.

It must be said that Barker is a good storyteller with a rich and rather disturbing imagination. Especially the first chapters where our protagonist demon is dragged from the ninth level of damnation up to our own not so innocent plateau is rendered quite believably. But do we feel sorry for the young abused demon? Or should we not care since this innocent victimized character behaves just as abominable as you might expect? Barker creates constant confusion as to how we should regard about the characters and their fates. The result is that by the time we arrive at the much anticipated ending we don't care either way and we find we've focused mainly on narrative. As in: the interesting events and tidbits from a brief alternative history. Clive Barker is rather good at this weaving of facts and fictions and it is the immersive properties of the story that makes the book worth the read.

There is one aspect of the book that is rather excruciating and unnecessary, besides the broken promise that is. If you happen to buy the book new, then at first you might think the pages are made from recycled paper and that the publisher had made the wonderful decision to cast the book in the same disheveled fabric as the story. There are some subtle markings on the paper that suggest a slight burning or careless disuse. To my utter astonishment I realized that these blemishes and paper discolorations were the effect of the printing process and effectively every page contains a background image roughly repeated every 4 pages.

Beyond the Uncanny Valley

Recently I watched a few old movies that represent my fascination with Hollywood. You could say they were the inspiration on why I wanted to work there. Not so much anymore but that's a different story. Recently I figured out that there's a new strange flip side to the way we are able to portray fictionalized reality in film. It doesn't work anymore. In the late 80s when special effects started to mature, but when it was all still real-life monsters in rubber suits, we were scared by rubber puppets that looked incredibly monstrous but we could always tell they were fake. Somehow there was some comfort in that. We tried to make it as real as possible but there was always an edge we could not get beyond. Fake always looked fake but perhaps it looked fake in its own special way.

Let's take what is perhaps the quintessential example: the movie The Thing. Ironically they're making a prequel so we'll see how my analysis holds up when the film comes out. One major leap forward in special make-up effects in this horror film from 1982 was the notion of abstract creatures. Nowhere in the film can the makers be accused of using a man in a rubber suit. Even the rubber puppet approach isn't really apparent here. But still, even though the effects are monstrous and horrific, we're never fooled by them. This is not because they do not look ultra-realistic but because there's a style to them enforced by the materials and techniques used.

This all changed with the advent of computer graphics. Nowadays anything is possible, but more importantly we're now in a situation where there is no more discernible signature in the picture. There isn't a cue anymore that tells our brain what we're seeing isn't real. Our mind knows this and we don't believe for a moment were watching an actual creature, but what we see is many times more disturbing because the images we see now either lack all markers that we're watching something fake, or they contain all the triggers that tell us it's real. Which is which and is that important?

Recently I watched the movie Splice, which is both a movie about what it means to be human and about how we treat other people we see as different. Contemporary horror movies impact us in a completely different way. With the new techniques in visual effects we can strip away another layer of comfort and can show anything in explicit detail. If we can show anything does that mean we should show everything? Nothing we can imagine we can't show and perhaps we can now imagine more because we know we can show it. Maybe the film The Human Centipede is an example of this. If we can visualize anything we think of, does that still mean everything has the same impact value as before? For example, since we knew everything was clearly fake in the film The Thing, we used our imagination to fill in the blanks. If imagination isn't necessary anymore because everything is rendered in explicit, and where possible accurate detail, then our brain doesn't have to add anything and will take what is given 'an sich' or at face value.

This is not generally a problem until you realize that the biggest added value to entertainment is what you bring to the table yourself. If we can't interpret or add by our imagination then it doesn't matter how explicit or realistic the visual detail is, we can't do anything with it. When I watched Splice I felt exactly that. I could not do anything with the visual information presented. I only felt repulsed by what I saw, even when the visuals represented what was supposed to be an alluring female physique. Even the fact that the film makers combined aspects of animal and human features didn't make much difference to the impact, it was what it was and there was nothing to add or interpret.

Book Review: The Witch's Boy

Fairy tales are usually for kids, but not this one. The Witch's Boy a dark story about what happens when humans explore all of their horrible human ways is part bildungsroman, part fable and part a commentary on human behavior. Or perhaps a better description is that the novel is a rich set of observations on the contradictory nature of human behavior. None of the characters are completely good as we normally see in fairy tales, but there's something human in all of them. Not all of the evil characters are truly bad, which is also a well known trope of this genre. That doesn't mean the novel is a bad mix of everything, it is a well crafted and satisfying story. We learn about an ugly boy who is found in the forest by a witch. We learn nothing about the boy's background and all we know is that even as a baby the boy is ugly as sin. No matter how ugly and revolting the boy is and no matter how much the old witch hates the outside world, she can not resist but take the boy in and nurture him. In this task she is assisted by a large bear, a smartass cat and a demon.

In rapid succession the boy, is adopted mother and everyone around them are flung through a rapid series of experiences that each teaches them about their roles in life and the harsh reality we all have to learn to cope with. Only at the very beginning do we think nothing is different from any other fairy tale. Lump however starts off as an innocent little boy, who through circumstances transforms into the ogre he thinks he looks like and after which everything ends unsuspectingly appropriately (although not happily ever after). The exact same can be said of all the other characters, they exist in what feels like a real world where everything makes perfect sense without the fairy tale perfection. Even though the world is fantastical and anything can happen, Michael Gruber instills his characters with such humanity that we can understand the bad choices they make when under the irresistible influence of magic or the impossible to cope with struggles of human existence.

Interwoven will all the magical bravura are numerous references to well known fairy tale stories. Famous characters from stories like Hansl and Gretl or Pinocchio make their appearance but in slightly different ways then we expect them to, which adds another layer of depth to the story another unexpected aspect for us to take in as readers. All this is in aide of an author who shows us that things don't always turn out the way we expect them to, but that those endings are perhaps more satisfying then if everything turned out perfectly. The story deals with loss, love, beauty and its repercussions, jealousy, power and the many disappointments we all deal with throughout our lifetimes. Quite a lofty goal to pack into a novel but Gruber pulls it off splendidly. If you're not afraid of a book that plays with established stereotypes and if you're willing to suspend your belief that good is always perfect and bad is always evil, then you will be highly satisfied with this read.

Book Review: The Eyre Affair

In general we do not really care if a story or plot is clever, not even in mystery novels. We're pleasantly surprised by a good ending and we gasp if it turns out the narrator is the murderer. But we're not gasping because of the cleverness of the plot, we're gasping because it was that particular character who we thought had to be innocent that turned out to be the killer. Sure, it's ingenious how the the plot was plotted but we're more involved in why the antagonist hated the murder victim. It's the human drama that we're picking up on.

With the Eyre Affair we're stuck in a novel that is incredibly clever. Much too clever for its own good and unfortunately character development suffers greatly because of it. There's a strong female protagonist who for all intents and purposes acts like a guy if we hadn't told she wasn't. This by itself isn't important, we're currently inundated with all kinds of strong female leads who appear to be confused as to what strong means and figure it must be the masculine version. We're introduced to a villain who just will not die, but we know he must. Lots of cleverness is going on from page one and we learn that Dodos exist again through gene splicing. We also find out that there is such a thing as a Special Operations department for the protection and preservation of important literature and most astonishing of all we're told the Crimean War is still going on. The incredibly evil and elusive Acheron Hades thrives in all this oddness and has established an evil lair in the now separatist state of Wales. He has capture Thursday Next's uncle who devised a machines that can transport anyone into a work of literature. Of course it can also extract a character from a novel or story.

Through many literary alliterations and allusions we're shoved through many remarkable events as Thursday attempts to stop Acheron from messing with the the story of Jane Eyre and in the process get her aunt lost in a poem. The plot bubbles along relentlessly and predictably and we know that in the end Acheron must be defeated and it must be done in a rather clever way. Everything is wrapped up nicely and all's well that ends well. But it doesn't sit well. True, the novel is an interesting romp through an alternative history and reality with lots of twisty turns, but for some remarkable reason the story isn't as immersive as would be expected from a book who's premise is that stories can come to life. It is difficult to pinpoint what's lacking. Perhaps there was too much emphasis on the clever bits, or perhaps the author didn't elaborate enough on some obviously open questions: how did Acheron become the evil creature he is? The Eyre Affair makes for an entertaining and refreshing read, but not enough to go through all the sequels.

Book Review: A Visible Darkness

If you have a strong stomach, a tendency to get lost in extremely immersive novels and you don't mind a protagonist sleuth who never solves anything, then this book is for you. A Visible Darkness stands apart from other detective fiction in that it exemplifies how a novel can have an idiot for a main character and a plot anyone can see coming (and most reviewers do) while at the same time keeping you on the edge of your reading chair because you do not want the completely realistic world to end. As the third book in the series around Magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis, who is a blend between prosecutor, police detective and civil servant, this novel does not bring anything new. Perhaps that is exactly what we want and what the authors had in mind.

In the rural village of Lotingen in Prussia magistrate Stiffeniis has yet again been summoned by the French invaders to solve the gruesome killing of one of the women who collects raw amber from the Baltic sea. Stiffeniis complies after the French promise to clean up the filth that has been left by the French army as they marched through the magistrate's home town. Hanno Stiffeniis soon realizes the French want this mystery cleared up as soon as possible because the crime interferes with their amber mining operation on the Baltic coast. The magistrate rumbles through the story from one colorful character to another who each in term tell him exactly where to go next for valuable information. Part of the charm of the novel is the vivid description of the lifelike people the magistrate encounters. We learn about the practice of medicine during the Napoleonic era, we come across plenty of descriptions of living conditions but mostly we find out what biological mysteries kept the people busy. Europe around 1810 was in social, theological and mostly scientific turmoil. After the many new discoveries of the previous hundred years had been absorbed and made available at the major universities, scholars began to slowly separate alchemy from biology. Around the time this novel takes place that separation was still in full swing and the core of the book revolves around those who can not tell the difference between the two.

It is difficult to rate a novel such as this on only one scale. The writing quality and historical detail is far better than anything out there, but the protagonist has to be one of the dumbest sleuths ever encountered in literary history. Most readers will have found out what's really going on in the book more than a hundred pages before the main character does and from that point on reading the text becomes extremely tedious. Unlike the other novels in the series, this one doesn't satisfactorily explain the motives of the killer and we're left wondering about an abundance of details that apparently have no point. With all the shortcomings the novel still works but it does so in a surprising fashion. We're used to stories that have cliffhangers.

Traditionally cliffhangers are stories where a clue is withheld right at the end and we need to get the next installment or read the next chapter to find out what happens next. In a lot of modern novels the cliffhanger is replaced by the Worldhanger. What I mean by that is that we're put in a situation in a story where we want the fictional world to continue and for that to happen we need to get the next installment or read the next chapter. The books by Michael Gregorio are an excellent examples of Worldhangers but there are others. Thinking in terms of a Worldhanger or a story designed to keep you in an imaginary world are becoming more and more prevalent. It also explains the mysterious attraction of such books as The Historian or Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell, in which nothing really happens and nothing is actually resolved. This phenomenon of a Worldhanger explains why readers finish a book such as Visible Darkness even though a tremendous amount of content is truly disgusting and difficult to get through even with a strong stomach.

Book Review: The Revolt of the Angels

Sometimes you read a novel which has a great idea, a well thought out concept and a style that completely nullifies all of the amazing thoughts embedded in the work. The Revolt of the Angels is such a book. Much like Paradise Lost and Dante's Divine Comedy, the novel takes on such big concepts as the ever raging conquest of heaven and the eternal struggle between good and evil. In this case however God (or Good) is shown to be very human and not as all powerful or righteous as we have assumed it to be and Evil is portrayed in very much a humanitarian way doomed to suffer for all his misdeeds. By diminishing humanity's role in the novel and by describing unearthly beings as us humans, we gain more insight in what it means to be human. This book is not about angels at all, it is about people.

A guardian angel by the name of Arcade, after leaving heaven, discovers a vast library somewhere in Paris. Through his readings he discovers that much is to be admired about humans and that God is not as almighty or as all Awesome as we so far have assumed. Through his human charge, Arcade, the guardian angel discovers that earth's population is at least half made up of former angels. Acrade having discovered human knowledge and the limits of his creator sets out to bring about a revolt of those angels dwelling here on earth. But as angels do when they are no longer part of the heavenly abode they soon fall in love with our lowly customs and habits. If the earthly angels manage to take over heaven is for the reader to discover and I will not reveal much more.

Frans Anatole, as Somerset Maugham irritably noted in his imaginary autobiography: The Summing Up, was completely enamored with the language and writing style of the 18th century. Through the first couple of chapters the reader is perhaps slightly unnerved or confused since here and there the author hints at placing the book in contemporary times, meaning early 20th century. But when Anatole starts describing both cars, buses and sword duals in the same paragraphs things get a bit confusing. A saving grace throughout all this is a steady sense of humor, which ultimately carries the story. It does work, the story does work and it is difficult not to be pleased by the grace with which Frans Anatole describes complex issues. Religion is completely left out of this novel, impressive for a book that discusses the fate of God, the Devil, Humanity and a legion of miscellaneous angels. But it works, it does work. Anatole brings deities on our level without diminishing their important, their grace or their divinity. At the same time he shows us how we all in our own ways can be angelic.

With all the flowery language and choice of stuffy otherwise boring 18th century characters, it is interesting to wonder what would have happened if the setting had been more contemporary. Did Anatole's writing style hamper his message? Could he have won more than one Nobel prize, or are all the choices appropriate? Maybe we're too used to slick language designed to move the reader through at text as smoothly as possible. Perhaps Somerset Maugham would have liked this novel if it had been written in the style of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

If there is a King of the Cliffhanger then it is most certainly Stieg Larsson. Like many other readers I had to get through the first one hundred pages or so but then a completely new novel unraveled at high speed. Two themes are interwoven which together generate a story you breeze through. We follow two protagonists desperately trying to get their lives on track after having been unjustly treated. The older Mikael will have to go to jail for printing an article accusing the head of an industrial cartel of many different kinds of criminal activities. We also meet Salander, a fierce young women living on the fringes of society through mishaps and many unfortunate events. Through their shared experiences and compatible personalities they bond and unmask the perpetrators of a series of horrible murders. Even though the book reads like a Harry Potter where you will spend 12 hours continuously reading until you're done, you're not left with a satisfied feeling other than that you now know exactly what happened in the story.

In this novel we see modern female roles played out in a sightly different way. None of the women in the book are described as classically beautiful or even pretty. Physical attraction and aesthetics are alluded to but never explicitly mentioned or defined. What makes the female protagonist modern is in the way she responds to the brutal attacks on her: she fights back like a man with a similar kind of brutality and aggression. Wouldn't we by now expect modern female protagonists to have survived the women's liberation and handle abuse in a feminine way by for example creating as situation where men harm themselves through their stupidity? Men are described as either plain and nondescript or violent and terrorizing, so nothing has changed there. Using generalized and stereotyped people makes them easier to digest and the plot easier to follow, and although the people in the novel are a bit flat, they do seem real. Besides the treatment of the characters the author uses intense physical abuse and mental anguish as a means for the reader to find their own relief. You want to know how they get themselves out of these desperate situations and how they revenge themselves on their tormentors. It is an often used plot mechanic where you are setup with a situation difficult to handle in real life but safe to experience in a book and where you resolve your own discomfort because the bad guys are punished in the end.

When reading this novel it is difficult not to draw connections with Dan Brown's writing. Both use very basic sentence structures with superficial or stereotypical descriptions of people and places. Lots of exposition using common sense reasoning and common descriptions of places and behaviors allow us to fully understand the motives of everyone in the book. Both Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson know which details to put in to give the reader a sense of immersion without detracting from the incredible speed by which the book can be read. Most importantly both authors know what interests us and they know how to keep us focused. Larsson goes one step further however. After he wraps up all the ends of the major plot he pretends there is a complete second novel to be finished and he picks up the regular pace as if none of the other events had ever happened.

Tempera or Tempest?

Already close to fifty, a phenomenal age compared to his fellow citizens, Francesco Maria Del Monte shuffles towards the end of the dungeon tunnel. He has trouble walking but his eyes are as sharp as ever, as sharp as the first time he laid eyes on The Cardsharps. A painting unlike any seen before in Italy and which to Francesco truly symbolizes the Renaissance. Life has not been easy for the aging patron of the arts ever since he acquired both the painting and the artist some years before. More and more the sponsor and hopeful Pope finds he can't control his young pupil. Then again would he want to, because the more tempers flare the more majestic and expressive the paintings become. This time however Francesco came too late and could not prevent disastrous calamity.

It takes Francesco ages to reach the cell at the farthest end of the dungeon and when he finally reaches the stone bench, permanently placed in front of the thick metal bars, he nearly collapses before he can reach a hand towards the marble slab to steady himself. His arrival isn't noticed. Not unlike a caged lion thick with madness after roaming the same restricted space for so many years so is the person inside the crossed bars pacing back and forth with eyes wide and mouth muttering unintelligible words without making a single sound.

"Caro!" Francesco shouts as he swings his legs around the stone bench to face dungeon cell. For a while the old man stares and follows the restless figure in front of him trying to make out if the young man is talking about something or is merely lost in madness.

"Focus Caro, wake up!" he yells. No response.

Francesco shakes his head, casually takes out an orange from his magnificent cloak and starts peeling.

"I have another commission for you", Francesco begins, "at least I had one until this morning. By now the Condottieri have I'm sure been told of your deed and the rest of the story has been picked up by the scrupulous courtesans to whom I still owe money and favors. Mario thinks you're dead already and he might not be wrong for long. But all this is of course up to a higher power because my own ended when you killed that man. Who was he anyway? Did he claim you slept with his wife? or worse, did he insult your work? Tell me, what was it?"

Complete silence.

The man behind bars, wearing an expensive but dirty evening garment, continually runs his hand through his thick black hair but never looks up from his imaginary and completely soundless discussion and ignores Francesco.

"Look, quite frankly I don't care what you did. You killed a man? Fine, I'm sure you had your reasons. Will this end your career? Maybe, but most likely not. I might never become Pope but I still have some powerful friends and we can get you out of here and out of this situation. I knew the moment I heard the news that you might still go on painting somewhere, but never more for me."

Francesco briefly halts to stuff two slices of orange in his mouth. For a moment he considers tossing the remaining halves into the cage but they would go unnoticed he imagines.

"So there, what's to be gained from this visit you might wonder? I want to know how you are possible my young friend. How can there be one such as you? Leonardo did not go around killing people, although he did have a hand in many deaths, but that's besides the point right now. What I mean is that Titian, your grand teacher, behaved himself. God rest his soul, how he would rise from the grave if he knew of your transgressions. Caro, how is it that someone like yourself who can't even hold his drinking cup steady can paint a vase of flowers in such detail it can't be distinguished from the original? How? Tell me how? How come a person such as yourself who hacks and slashes the first man who contradicts him can find the patience to pick up a brush and for hours work on painting a single ring? I've seen you work Caro, you're a different person. You're not this, this thing in front of me. Who is that person Caro? Tell me? Who are these two creatures?"

Francesco Maria Del Monte would leave the prison without his answer. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the man behind bars, would also leave the prison but would never completely recover. He would paint many more masterpieces but never for Francesco. Francesco would live to a very old age indeed for those times and as he passed the age of 80 he still actively supported the arts and artists directly, but he would never figure out the mystery that was Caravaggio.

Caravaggio wasn't and isn't the only example of this strange duality between focus and calmness, utter rage and despair. Many filmmakers who have portrayed Rembrandt believe the great artist also had similar shifts. Rembrandt's career ended with a painting that could easily be described as the first incarnation of abstract modern art. It is a rough draft using broad strokes and blotches of paint, not the kind of work Rembrandt was also capable off, not the refined and incredibly detailed work in some of his earlier paintings.

We will likely never know what possessed Caravaggio or what the man was really like when he was painting but the mystery remains and is a compelling one and asks the basic question: what temperaments are needed for great genius and how can two such completely different people inhabit the same mind and still create such wonders of art?

Book Review: Aspects of the Novel

If you've been working your way through academic papers, college textbooks, etc, then you will truly love reading this clearly written book on how the inner technical aspects of how novels are created. For anyone curious as to how writers go about their work, or if you're just looking for inspiration from a seasoned author, I highly recommend reading Aspects of the Novel. You may not agree with all of the statements but I'm sure they will be illuminating and help you formulate your own opinion on how stories reach us.

The first few pages are rather annoying and quite unlike the rest of the book which was created from a number of lectures by E.M. Forster. Usually people use the excuse that complicated things can't be made understood with simple language. Forster demonstrates this can in fact be done and does so gloriously. In this slim little book he gives us his perspective of why stories work and why they touch us. 

Forster discusses such logical constructs as plot and narrative shape, but he manages to interweave that with a wonderful explanation on how fictional characters live in these strict models. What you take away from reading this is not a deeper understanding of how narrative works or how to create a masterpiece of fiction. Neither will it help you to pick apart a book such as War and Peace but it will form an excellent foundation and guideline to find further readings and understanding.

Most importantly Forster leaves every reader of his lectures the choice on what parts of his explanations to accept or reject and he does so himself of aspects  of many famous novels. If anything this book provides clarity and a way to start thinking of why we like stories so much.