Tuesday, September 30, 2014

'Station Eleven'

Among all the recent novels with post-apocalyptic themes (something strangely popular right now), there shines a few gems;  'The Passage' by Justin Cronin, and 'Wool' by Hugh Howey come to mind.  And don't forget the little Young Adult gems that crowd our bookshelves.

We can now add another:  'Station Eleven', written by the talented Emily St. John Mandel.

Like 'The Passage' and 'Wool', I found it hard to stay away from Mandel's book. I brought it to work so I could read it during my little coffee breaks.  I read it before I fell asleep.  I finished it while soaking in the bath tub.

It is phenomenal.  And brilliantly presented.

There are no zombies or vampires in this one; I think 'monsters' such as those would just weigh down the story.  The fact that a flu pandemic has destroyed almost the entire population of the earth is scary enough for me.

Film star Arthur Leander is performing King Lear on stage when he suffers from a heart attack.  Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, rushes to the stage in order to save his life.  Standing nearby is child actress Kirsten Raymonde, who is watching in horror as Jeevan performs CPR on Arthur.  While Jeevan is walking home after failing to save Arthur's life, snow begins to fall and a terrible flu begins to spread.

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with a group of performers called the Traveling Symphony. They move their way across an altered landscape, playing music and performing Shakespeare plays for people who thirst for news and entertainment.  Along the way, they enter a settlement run by the Prophet, a man who claims to be 'the light', but is darkness personified.

The story seamlessly weaves in-and-out of time, telling Arthur's story, and Miranda's (his ex-wife), and Clark's, one of Arthur's oldest friends.  But the story really belongs to Kirsten, a strong, vital young woman who doesn't remember much of the world before the fall of their civilization. She and her group are trying to outrun the Prophet, hoping to reach the Museum of Civilization before they are caught.  

Coincidence abounds in this well-told story, events you see unfolding without surprise until they reach their natural conclusion.  Each character is so true, regretting their choices as they remember their pasts.  They long for electricity and running water and cell phones. They miss the internet and television.  But the day-to-day struggles soon become a way of life and technology becomes part of the dust of history.

As for the title, it represents a graphic novel that Miranda had spent years creating.  It is the tie that binds, it is the fantasy that captures their imaginations in many different ways.  

Author Emily St. John Mandel

Mandel has a gift for great prose and character development. She made me care, she made me feel quite scared, but most of all, she made me want to read her previous novels.

This copy of 'Station Eleven' will be going back to the library, but you can be sure I'll be buying a copy of my very own.

Because this Book Hog has a feeling she'll be reading it again.

'Station Eleven' is currently available at your local library and favorite independent bookstore.  ISBN 978-0-385-35330-4.  If Book Hog had thumbs, she'd give this book five.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

'The Last Kind Words Saloon'

It's been a while since I read a western novel.  The last, I believe, was 'True Grit', written by Charles Portis.  I reread that novel every now and then.

When I learned that one of my favorite western novelists, the great Larry McMurtry, had written 'The Last Kind Words Saloon', I had to settle down and give it a go. I love his books, be they contemporary or set in the old west.  I prefer his westerns because he paints such a stark canvas.  He writes so well of the base emotions of the human animal, and the exchanges between the men and women are so well played.  I especially love the fact that McMurtry's women are strong, intelligent and can take care of themselves.

I still kick myself because I didn't buy a first print/first edition of his masterpiece, 'Lonesome Dove'.  I was managing a Waldenbooks when the book first appeared, and I borrowed a copy.  Couldn't put it down.  But I didn't buy it.  Book Hog hangs her head every time she hears that title mentioned, or as she runs through the list of Pulitzer Prize winners. If I could kick my own ass, I would. 

'The Last Kind Words Saloon' is a quick read, but effective, nonetheless.  With his mastery of simple words and blunt emotions, McMurtry brings us the tale of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, and Charlie Goodnight, one of the memorable characters from 'Comanche Moon'.  And there is also Nellie Courtright, the irrepressible heroine from 'Telegraph Days'.

It is near the closing of the American frontier, and Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday are whiling away their time in Long Grass, Texas by drinking, whoring, and contemplating their next move.  Jessie, Wyatt's wife, is the bartender at the Last Kind Words Saloon, which is owned by his brother.  It is in the midst of their boredom that Lord Ernle, a wealthy English baron, comes to town accompanied by his companion, the beautiful San Saba. Lord Ernle is set on becoming a cattle baron and becomes business partners with Charlie Goodnight.

Tracing the friendship of Doc and Wyatt from the town of Long Grass to Buffalo Bill's Wild West show in Denver, the tale finally ends in Tombstone, Arizona, site of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a novel quickly read, but it contains McMurtry's vivid imagery and blatant sexuality.  My only beef is that the chapters were too damn short.  Which means, fellow reader, that the book wasn't long enough. We can perhaps blame McMurtry's love of book collecting (he does own a famous book store in Archer, Texas), something that probably takes up a lot of his time.  But many famous writers have written short novels; an idea gets lodged in their brains and it begs to be released, even if it's only a few short chapters.  

Author Larry McMurtry
I can't get upset about the length of the novel; I love it and appreciate it.  But, still.....

Perhaps someday, Mr. McMurtry will take us back to the days of the Texas Rangers, when they were young and hotheaded and vital.

Before they grew old and quietly witnessed the death of the Old West.

'The Last Kind Words Saloon' is available at your local library and favorite independent bookstore.  ISBN 978-0-87140-786-3

Thursday, September 25, 2014

'The Cuckoo's Calling'

Years ago, when I was working at our local B. Dalton bookstore, young kids would come in and ask me if we had something called Harry Potter.

Then I asked myself, "Who in the hell is Harry Potter?  And why is he so popular?"  So, I went to the kid's fiction section, found a book entitled, 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone', and checked it out.

I was up until 3 a.m.  I couldn't put it down.  "Damn!" I said aloud.  "Why can't I write this well?"  Not only was the story so intriguing, the magic so fun, but the characters were very, very memorable. And that was the beginning of my love for Harry Potter, an experience that brought me back to children's fiction, which lead to my passion for Young Adult fantasy novels.  

J.K. Rowling is a gifted writer, no doubt about it, but I wondered if she would be able to veer off the fantasy course and write something for adults.  When I heard that she had finally written such a novel in 2012, I found a copy of 'A Casual Vacancy'...and was bored bored bored.

Did I mention I was bored with it?

But I didn't give up on her.  Like I said, she's gifted, and I know she had something in the works (although I was really really hoping it would be another Harry Potter book.  The hope is still alive).

And voila!  'The Cuckoo's Calling' (written under the pseudonym 'Robert Galbraith') arrived in 2013.  I couldn't put it down.

It begins with the death of a world-famous model.  When she falls to her death from the balcony of her London home, most people think she committed suicide.  But her brother, John, doubts the stories and hires private detective Cormoran Strike to investigate.

Strike is a war veteran who is wounded physically and psychologically.  Dumped by his fiancee and forced to live in his office, he thinks his life can't get any worse.  But he soon finds that his temporary secretary, Robin, is his lifeline.  Together, they find that the suspects' alibis aren't what they seem as they dig deeper...and closer to danger.

'The Cuckoo's Calling' is a great mystery; full of suspense and Rowling's trademark twists-and-turns, and even a touch of humor.  But underneath it all is a great character study of a man in despair.  A man who is aware of people's shortcomings (especially his fiancee) and isn't afraid to admit that he was still pulled in.  Yes, Cormoran Strike is brilliant and memorable, indeed, yet Robin, his secretary, is a character who will stay with you, too. Young, pretty, and recently engaged to a man who doesn't want her to work in such a dangerous profession, she has a clever mind and contributes a great deal to the investigation. They really make a good team.

So, although she didn't give us another Harry Potter book, and although she didn't return us to a fantasy world, Jo Rowling brought us a story that will gain her a new fan base.

The one-and-only J. K. Rowling
As for me, I'm eagerly waiting to read 'The Silkworm', number two in the series.

Thanks, Jo.  I knew you couldn't stay away.

'The Cuckoo's Calling' by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling), is available at your local library and favorite independent bookstore. 'The Silkworm', volume two of the Cormoran Strike series, was published in 2014.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

'I Could Pee on This'

A slight diversion from my normal serious reviews...

But it's worth it.  Especially since we all need some humor in our lives.

Just a few days ago, a very generous company donated tons of books to our non-profit thrift store, and I was in Book Hog heaven!  My stack of 'wants' grew the longer I sorted through boxes, but one special little book grabbed my heart.  It grabbed my heart so much that I couldn't help but read some of the contents to my kitty-loving coworkers.

'I Could Pee on This' is perfect.  So perfect, in fact, that 
I just had to take it home immediately. Filled with angst-ridden 
(and piggy) poems 'written' by cats, I had many a belly laugh which brightened my day.

Francesco Marciuliano is better known as the as the illustrator/writer of the comic strip, 'Sally Forth', but now he's gained great renown with this purrfect little book.

An example (I dare you not to laugh, cat lovers!):


Her new sweater doesn't smell of me
Author Francesco Marciuliano with Boris & Natasha

I could pee on that
She's gone out for the day and
 left her laptop on the counter
I could pee on that
Her new boyfriend just pushed
 my head away
I could pee on him
She's ignoring me ignoring her
I could pee everywhere
She's making up for it
 by putting me on her lap
I could pee on this
I could pee on this

The rest of the 'poems' are so funny and so 'right on' that I couldn't help but read it over and over.  As the 'owner' (or better known as 'the Food Lady/Litter Box Cleaner) of the Evil Plan Bureau, these poems have given me a greater insight into the inner workings of the minds of my little clowder.

So, if you want something light, something humorous, something that's rather...strange, read 'I Could Pee on This'.

But don't let your cats catch you.  God knows what evil plans they'll hatch.

'I Could Pee on This', published by Chronicle Books, can be found at your library and favorite independent bookseller.  ISBN 978-1-4521-1058-5

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

'The Magician's Land'

Now that life has settled down a bit, I'm able to fully appreciate the new books I have stacked on my bed table (although Michael, my rescue cat and newest member of The Evil Plan Bureau, loves pushing them to the ground).  

My 'hold' list at the library is starting to move along.  And the book I've been eagerly awaiting came in not long ago.

I first read Lev Grossman's fantastic fantasy novel, 'The Magicians', a while back, and I was thoroughly impressed.  A cross between Harry Potter and Less Than Zero, it really didn't offer me a safe moral, but, instead, gave me pause to consider the complexities we all face when we reach adulthood.  Should we leave our childhood passions behind?  I like to think that we always carry our much younger selves with us, the self who is full of enthusiasm and innocence.  Our better self.  I tend to celebrate the child within me every day.  Without it, I'd be a very boring Book Hog.

It's funny, but after reading the second book in Grossman's series, 'The Magician King', I wasn't so taken with the fact that most of the action took place in the mythical world of Fillory. The real-world challenges that the main character, Quentin Coldwater, faced felt more stimulating.  But that doesn't take away from Grossman's writing; I find no fault in that.  I love fantasy.  I love the worlds that inhabit fantasy author's brains.  I still wish I could attend Hogwarts, and Narnia seems like such an exciting, dangerous place.  Even Fillory has a fantastical side...until you discover it's underlying darkness.

Which is exactly what Grossman and his band of characters reveals in his new, and final 'Magicians' book, 'The Magician's Land'.  Here, we finally see what happened to a few of the merry band of Quentin's fellow Brakebill students.  And it isn't necessarily...pretty.

At the end of 'The Magician King', Quentin Coldwater has lost everything: His ability to return to the magical land of Fillory and his closest friends. He returns to Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, where he takes up a teaching position...and finds that his past is catching up with him. Together with Plum, a student with an interesting family history, they seek out buried secrets and an entrance back into Fillory.  Meanwhile, Janet and Eliot, the rulers of Fillory and Quentin's friends, set out on a quest to save the land they all love...but at a price.

Author Lev Grossman
The fact that those left behind in Fillory are still 'of this world' is no small feat.  When Grossman could easily have taken away Janet and Eliot's 'real world' characteristics, he instead left them just as they were.  They are still sarcastic, with separate real world longings.  Yes, their magical abilities are still in place, but it was rather satisfying to find that some part of their former lives were successfully transferred to a place beyond imagining.

And Quentin, still longing for Alice.  I felt his pain and remorse.  I felt the pain of his descent into adulthood, although it did make him a stronger person.

This last book has brought the series up from the Harry Potter-Less Than Zero vibe.

And I hate to see it end.

'The Magician's Land', the final book in Lev Grossman's 'The Magicians' trilogy, is available at your local library and favorite independent bookstore. ISBN 978-0-670-01567-2

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

'Geek Love'

When I learned that the new season of 'American Horror Story' would be titled 'Freak Show', I immediately knew what book I had to reread.

Of course, it was 'Geek Love' by Katherine Dunn.  If you haven't read it, and you're a lover of 'American Horror Story', you HAVE to give it a try.  It's uncomfortable, it's angry, it's frustrating. But it affects you like no other story. Even 'House of Leaves', which is pretty bizarre in its own right.  Portland author & poet Katherine Dunn once wrote an advice column ('The Slice') in the '80's for 'Willamette Week', a newspaper published in Portland, Oregon.  I eagerly read it, just for her writing.  She was brilliant.  And she still is.

'Geek Love' is the story of a family of circus freaks.  The Binewskis breed (via the use of drugs and toxic chemicals) their own exhibit of human oddities: Olympia (the narrator), an albino dwarf; Arturo the Aquaboy, a man with the ambition of Genghis Khan; the conjoined twins, Iphy and Ellie; and Chick, the psychic 'normal appearing' brother who can move objects with his mind.

Olympia has a life-long devotion to Arturo, a fish-man who knows no limits, a man who takes over the operation and demotes his father to less-than-zero. But Olympia has a secret, a secret that lives close to her.  A secret that does not know how close she is to this family of circus freaks.

Author Katherine Dunn
Filled with joy and sorrow, fatalism and confusion, 'Geek Love' is a story that is a good accompaniment to the soon-to-be fourth season of 'American Horror Story'. Every time I read it, I am amazed at the flow of the story, at the love Dunn feels for each of her characters.

It is weird.  It is strange.  It's a classic.


It. Is. Wonderful!

'Geek Love' by Katherine Dunn, can be found everywhere!  Check your favorite independent bookstore and your local  library!