Thursday, April 5, 2012

Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

You ever met a person on a date and there was nothing really wrong with them but the conversation never really sparked? Like, the conversation was pleasant and they were attractive and they laughed at your jokes, but a day or so later you look at your cell phone, consider texting them, and go "meh"?

That was my relationship with Relic.

I don't get along well with science.

I really wish I did. I champion reason and logic over superstition and servitude, I love when Neil deGrasse Tyson shows up on The Daily Show, and I have worked in the tech industry for years. You'd think I'd be better at this stuff but when anyone tries to explain anything math or science-y my brain takes a little ADHD journey to the magical land of unicorns and rainbows, where my poet's soul traipses through fields of gilly flowers and there are no scaaaaaary numbers.

Oh hell, I might as well post the whole damned Patton Oswalt bit.

So I wasn't really ready for the whole techno-thriller explosion of the 90s. I did read and love Jurassic Park but that novel had dinosaurs. DINOSAURS! Otherwise, all the books pretty much read the same. There are pages and pages of some expert explaining shit to me, a bunch of non-characters reinforcing whatever the expert explained, some one-off chapters of a dumb ass security guard getting slaughtered, and a bunch of interesting but over-explained action scenes at the end of the novel.

People I know who love science stuff love this book. One of them recommended it to me when we were teenagers (hi, Erica) and I really liked it then, but I couldn't quite seem to get back into it. If it's the sort of book that's right for you, have at it. It's not really my scene.

I did like the bit in the Amazon with all the adventure-scientist cliches. And I loved how ridiculous Agent Pendergast was. He's goddamned clown shoes. I kept forgetting that he was from the Deep South and probably talks like Andy Bernard doing a Southern Accent, because with his highly mannered turn of phrase and unflappability it read like he was one of those stick-in-the-butt British detectives. "I daresay, a lizardman is eating my brain! What a sticky wicket!" Also, he's a goddamned ex-Green Beret! EVERY HERO IN BOOKS IS GODDAMNED SPECIAL FORCES! Is the only career options for former special forces soldiers to star in trashy novels? Romance novels get Navy SEALS and thrillers get Rambo. What ever happened to the poor, unloved infantry? Don't they get cool stories? Or in the wonderful world of fiction everyone who joins the military become forced to take a turn sniping Somali pirates from the back of a Navy ship?

I say this with love. Pendergast and his sidekick D'Agosta were the best parts of the book. They defied authority, strove to protect people, and were fun to watch bumble around failing to find anything.

For all the science in the book, the logic ultimately falls short.

There's a killer in your museum and you continue with the opening? No.

You hire a guy to write a book and you get anal about the very, very minor indiscretions he finds? No.

I'm getting better at spotting the mechanics behind constructing a story and I know when roadblocks are artificially laid down to add conflict to the story. The amount of hostility that the characters encountered from their superiors seemed inflated and artificial. I get that careers are in jeopardy, but there's something in the museum eating people's brains. Come on!

Good story, not my thing.

Also, kothoga is a better name for the monster and Mbwun is a better name for the tribe.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Snow by Ronald Malfi

Before we get started, a couple quick rants.

When a character in a book starts ranting about how bad ass and shocking and not politically correct they are, like Kate Jansen does in her first scene, I get turned off. "Politically correct" is to conservatives what "dive bar" is to hipsters: a meaningless buzzword denoting...I dunno, authenticity? How cool you are?

Whatever, son. My people don't even say that shit anymore. Besides, Kate Jansen is a terrible character. She's one of those female characters that male horror writers constantly create: boorish, abrasive, overly pleased with herself, and probably into obnoxious 80s hair metal. She's set up to be the love interest because...I guess every story needs one? but I can't really say I was rooting for her to make it out of Woodson alive. And, of course, there's a scene where the male characters are trying to convince her to listen to them even as she tries to assert herself. One of 'em says something to the effect of "We'll worry about women's lib later. This is about survival!"

First off, who in this day and age says women's lib? Second, ugh, get over yourself. I have a feeling that, if I were to meet Ronald Malfi, we wouldn't get along. Which is a shame. He's got more game than most genre writers.

Anyway, on to the show.

So, snow, huh? Ever get the feeling that horror is running out of ideas?

Maybe that's harsh. I mean, there's meat on them bones. Part of the reason The Thing is so effective is that snow isolates and entraps. You can't move around easily, cars break down and get buried, and between the howling wind and the whirling snow you can't see a damned thing. I once hiked through a freak snowstorm heading for a date and it was like walking through an empty apocalyptic world.

So, snow can be scary. And there's some really scary stuff at the beginning of the book. The poor doomed quartet pick up a wandering man lost in the snow. He's out of his head, distant and babbling about his missing daughter. As they're driving along and the man's behavior becomes more erratic, the others begin to doubt there is a daughter at all, until the protagonist sees her in passing only to discover she has no face...

Woo! That's some good stuff! I was really excited about this book until it turned into another damn zombie novel.

That's right. It's another damned zombie novel.

More to the point, it's a story that feels like someone wanted to write a zombie story but knew they were played out. It's still a siege story where people struggle to get what they need while hordes of dead people try to eat their flesh. There's guns a'blazin' and people a'dyin' and all you need to do is switch the travelers for homesteaders and the skin-suits for Apaches and you have the original siege western.

American paperback horror novels read more or less the same. It's like a recipe. Insert:
1) Monster or killer with a strong visual description. Check. Snow flurries with lights at their core, scythes for hands, and the broken meat puppets the control.
2) A bunch of people who might as well have "future victim" tattooed on their heads? Check. Nan, Fred, the poor doomed Shawna.
3) Religious weirdo screaming like a schizophrenic Baptist and who is likely more dangerous than the monsters? Check. The fat kid in the church whose name currently escapes me.
4) Guns, guns, guns! Plus the ability to pick up a firearm without any training and instantly shoot like Chow Yun Fat in The Killer? Check. They raid a gun store, grab pistols, and the rest of the book turns into runny runny, shooty shooty.
5) A big fucking explosion at the end? Check. The last remaining sheriff's deputy, who I kept picturing as looking like a bald Henry Rollins, takes out a bunch of the monsters by opening up a gas tank and shooting a flamethrower into it. This ain't no gothic horror, people! This is 'murrican horror! With guitars and people who swear and explosions and cannibals! Fuck yeah!
6)Characters in the middle of a crisis taking a moment to flash back to their personal issues? Check. Kate pauses the story to talk about her non-engagement and Todd talks about the time he had a problem with gambling but was able to pay the guy, who beat him up anyway, which makes good business sense for a loanshark.

A friend of mine who happens to be a proper southern lady (hi Lauren) has a theory about women: they're either ladies or broads.

I think stories are the same way. Stories can be divided roughly into high-falutin' tales and roughneck blue-collar yarns. It's sometimes tricky to separate the two. I'd argue that Joe R. Lansdale's work is tales disguised as yarns and The Yattering and Jack is a yarn told by a guy who usually tells tales.

Snow is definitely a yarn. It is definitely better than most, but it's still a type. You can quantify it, dissect it, and tune it. I've read a bunch of novels very similar to this one and it's sorta like comfort food. I try to keep to my healthy diet and big-city pretensions, but sometimes homeboy just wants a bacon cheeseburger.

I would definitely come back to Malfi. I think he's a good writer. Every now and again he'd come up with a simile or description that took my breath away. The dude has a bit of a poet to him and I respect poets.

I think he's a good writer. I'm betting this isn't his best book.

Also, I have a bad habit of writing fanfic and as I was going through the novel, I kept thinking "this could be improved with Jedi."