Monday, April 30, 2012

Review Policy

I like to read and review books. You have a book that you would like me to read and review. We're in a good place to make a mutually beneficial exchange, I think. There are just a few things that you should know:

You do not need to be a regular reader of the Hat Rack to get a review, but having some idea of what I like to read may be in your best interests. Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction are my core focus, but I will read outside of those genres. If your book is Middle Grade or a Paranormal Romance, however, you'd best look elsewhere.

Reading and reviewing are not the only things in my life. Even if they were, I have an ungodly huge stack of books at any time. If I agree to review your book, I am not lying. I will do so. But it will take some time. Maybe several months.

If I read your book, I will review it. Even if I hate it. Some of the negative reviews I've done on this site are downright brutal (see here and here, for examples). Read those and imagine it's your book. Only mail me a copy if you are okay with that possibility.

I do not have an e-reader and will not review e-books.The author, content, length, and whatever else you care to name is irrelevant. If it is not a physical copy, I am not your man.

I am not interested in self published or vanity published books.

All of that look okay to you? Still interested in a review? Excellent. Email me at nskteh[at]gmail[dot]com.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Jack Hight - Siege

Jack Hight's debut novel centers on the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, and it's hard to imagine a more dramatic backdrop for a story. Unfortunately, Hight may not be the greatest of writers to bring such a drama to light. The writing is cliché, shallow, and, save for the inherit awesomeness of the events it recounts, not even particularly exciting.

Evidently not one to dodge the thick of things, Hight eschews adding some imagined character and instead centers things on Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, one of the siege's most important figures. Longo, as he's referred to in the book, was an Italian nobleman who came to Constantinople with seven hundred of his own men to add what he could to the city's defense. Upon his arrival, he was placed in charge of the land defenses. In the novel, his role's rather more feisty still. Here he's an escaped Janissary who lives to get vengeance for his family, slain by the Turks. Towards this end he's created a ragtag band of fighters, including the bawdy "huge bear of a man" (p. 17) Tristo and the young former slave of the Turks, rescued in the novel's opening chapters by Longo himself, William, whose role in the group can be pretty safely summed up by mentioning that Tristo calls him "young pup" (p. 286).

As for the decision making abilities of this historically brilliant leader, well, those can probably be shown by his actions in the prologue. After joining a crusade to kill a single, specific Turk on the other side, Longo notices that his side starts losing. Instead of helping out, he decides that the logical thing to do is to "play dead" (p. 2) and, once the fight's over, take on the entire Turkish camp by himself. He tries this, but after killing multiple men in close combat, barely escapes with his life. Just to make things more amusing, we hear that the leader who just faked a heart attack so he could enact his personal revenge in the most illogical way possible "blamed himself" (p. 17) for the men of his who died in the battle. Yep, Longo, that sounds pretty damn warranted.

The arc at the novel's center is Longo's, for, much as Siege is the tale of Constantinople's fall, it's also the story of Longo learning to live again. The reason? Love, of course. In the course of defending the city, Longo falls for the Princess Sofia, and their romance is tenderly foreshadowed by him repeatedly noticing "the soft curves of her cleavage" (p. 238). Come the novel's end, he's realized that "There were things more important than revenge" (p. 326).

Sofia is also one of the novel's viewpoint characters, described by the jacket as a "stubborn princess," a reader of philosophy, a swordfighter to rival many of the men around her, and fond of utterances like: "Princess is a pretty title, but I would gladly trade it for a chance to choose my own destiny, to do as I wished, love who I…" she cut herself short. (p. 242) As you've no doubt surmised, Sofia's not going to win any contests in originality; she's a tad too filled with Disney Princess spunk for that, a bit too reminiscent of Arya Stark before Martin pushed the cliché to fascinating and terrifying conclusions. Still, Sofia's not dislikable. I know that sounds like damning with the faintest praise, and maybe it is, but she has her endearing moments.

Of course, she and Longo's beautiful love is taking place in a city upon the brink of destruction, and it's time for us to turn to those destroyers and besiegers, the Ottoman Turks and their Sultan Mehmed II, the third of our central characters (the three people that the jacket informs us will "decide the fate of an empire"). It is, alas, with the Turks that many of the novel's problems arise. Mehmed's a young Sultan desperate to prove himself after gaining the throne, then having his pop take it back, and now being given one last chance. So far, so good. Unfortunately, Hight pushes the (quite interesting) relationship between Mehmed II and his father, Murad II, into realms of needless inaccuracies. The opening chapters give Mehmed credit for a whole slew of victories that were, in actuality, his dad's. Then there's the quite amusing moment when, after hearing that Mehmed's acclaimed conqueror by the people, Murad asks him, "What have you conquered?" (p. 41) Seeing as Mehmed didn't get that title until after he'd taken Constantinople (and so, you know, conquered something) the question's really quite a good one.

The problems with the Turks go beyond historicity, though. We stay at a respectable distance from the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, and the lovemaking of Longo and Sofia's quite a beautiful thing, but the narrative never stops dwelling on Mehmed's depravity. It's rather telling, I think, that the two main words we get in their original tongue are sword (yatağan (p. 4)) and penis (sik (p. 46)), even if we thankfully don't get the same word for both. Speaking of cocks, or rather the lack thereof, we've the harem politics to deal with, where two unlikable women scheme against one another without, with one exception, ever accomplishing much. The main problem of all that is that, as it just about never reaches back and actually effects the main story, it's just a detour, and one the reader will probably rather speed through to get back to you the whole Constantinople thing we're in this for.

The harem politics, though, does rather lead to the treachery at the novel's center. Though center doesn't really cover it. There is treachery everywhere within this novel, one huge scheme that seems to have little idea of its goal and a thousand players, each of which often acts in totally incomprehensible ways, assassinating the people they themselves have put in place and so forth. The highlight of all that is when one official goes to speak to the Sultan in order to tell him about a secret way into the city. It's a trap, though, and he tries to kill the Sultan. But his secret way in was perfectly good, for some unimaginably nonsensical reason, so, once his assassination attempt fails, the city's doomed. Nice going. Key to the general theme of treachery, though, is Isa the poisoner. We're told that "poison dealers like Isa […] existed" (p. 406) in the historical note that ends the novel, and that's all well and good, but I can't help but think that those poisoners probably weren't much like this. Isa is a fifteenth century secret agent, well able to slaughter his way into the heart of the sultan's court and to defeat anyone at all who stands against him.

The rest of the cast, unaware of the treachery deciding just about everything behind their backs, takes a brief break from their love interests to defend the walls on the final day. The battle scenes here and elsewhere in the book are competently done, if not excellent. Hight gives us some sense of the strategic overview, but most of our time is spent in the close up, behind our heroes as they hold the line. Really, the worst part about the combat is the amount of it; random battles against poorly tied in Spanish assassins serve to dull the fights that count. Then again, battle really is what holds this book together, fight scenes the moderately adrenaline-pumping glue that propels the not particularly deep or original characters into the reader's mind.

Every part of Siege that tries to rise above the simple existence and grandeur of the city and then its destruction is forgettable, shallow, or has been seen innumerable times before. The action is adequate but not exemplary, a phrase that could describe most of the book and would suffice if it did have one excellent element to make it worthwhile. It doesn't.  Nothing about Siege is incredible but the history it's immersed in, and, much as Constantinople's a great story, Hight has nothing much to add to it. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Haruki Murakami - Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

There are things that cannot and should not be explained. (p. 85)

As a longtime reader or two might know, this is not the first time that I've read Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. It was, actually, the first of the Murakami novels I read and, at the time, I knew that I liked it but didn't know what to make of it besides that. Since, and as a result of that first exposure, I've read, reviewed, and loved several of Murakami's novels, and yet, as time went on, it was this one that outlasted them all in my thoughts. About a year after that first read, and several months after the book's in-absentia rise to the position of one of my favorite novels, I reread the book and found it lived up to every one of my expectations. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is Murakami at his best, at his most playful and his most insightful. [A note before we begin: there are SPOILERS aplenty in the following.]

Information is key and king in Hard-Boiled Wonderland's Tokyo, and, from the beginning, the conflict over it is what dominates and threatens the world. Devoted to the preservation of knowledge and its exclusivity we have the system, and the system is the state. (p. 160) Arrayed against them are the factory, dedicated to the breaking of the system's codes and the revealing of its revelations. Our dear protagonist, a member of the system, is drawn into the conflict by a neutral, eccentric and brilliant scientist whose breakthrough discoveries, we're told, could spell the end of the world. (p. 128)

All of this is, as the narrator observes, your classic cops-and-robbers routine, (p. 33) and it's from there that the book's noir comes from for this is as much a crime novel as it is a Science Fiction one, a surreal fantasy, or a work of pure Literature (much as I hate the term applied as a genre) – which is to say, of course, that's it's somehow both not at all and the very exemplar of the form. Of course, Murakami's usual vivid colors are in full force here, as is his floating and flowing surrealism, all of which is obviously antithetical to the orthodox noir of a Hammett or a Goodis

That dismissal, though, misses the narrator's endlessly witty and even insightful observations, often, in the very purest tradition of noir, showing the bizarre nature of it all and the narrator's insignificance and even powerlessness before it, albeit always with a special Murakami twist:  I was a leftover wrapped in black plastic and shoved into the cooler. (p. 21) The writing here is a constant toying with intentional absurdity (Walls a toasted off-white, like the muffins I eat for breakfast. (p. 7)) and profundity, blurring and even obliterating the lines between them: There must be as many paths of human fat as there are ways of human death (p. 8) or: Even cast aside, clothes know a permanence that eludes their wearers. (p. 374)

But while the System/Factory conflict drives the first part of the novel, and while it's never really silent, the reader comes to realize that it's the symptom rather than the cause of the problem. Progress is pure, devoid of good or evil intent, but the pursuit of it and the actualization of its fruits are deathly dangerous: It's this pure focus, exclusive of all view to loss or gain, that's seen science achieve such uninterrupted advances. […] [But] the purity of science often hurts many people, just like pure natural phenomena do. (p. 253) Ultimately, the question of its possession by good or evil is irrelevant, for progress and knowledge hold all the potential for our misery and harm: Civilization […] faces serious crises because science is used for evil – or good. (p. 29) 

The promised end of the world does come, or at least the end of a world: Actually speaking, it isn't this world. It's the world in your mind that's going to end. (p. 270) The looming apocalypse does come, but it does so in personal form, the scientifically-caused dissolution of the narrator's mind and soul, leaving him in an inner world of his own consciousness, cut off forever from what we view as reality. 

That brings us to the second of the book's two threads, that entitled The End of the World and taking place entirely within that unreal world created by the scientist's machinations and growing in prominence as the novel progresses. This is a world made up of a single, isolated town, surrounded by a perfect wall, overlooked by a clock tower that has long forfeited its role as a timepiece. (p. 38) It's a world that's the opposite of the outside, one that remains forever unchanged (p. 14) and where absolute peace can be found in mindlessness, motionless existence, for it's our intellect that leads to all the so-beyond-natural ills of the world. As one character in this inner setting says, lay down your mind and a peace come. A peace deeper than anything you have known. (p. 318) 

Murakami does not just allude to this deeper realm and leave us to draw our own conclusions. No, he shows it to us in chapters that alternate with the jagged coolness of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland and could not be more different. As the narrator is more and more submersed into this peace the tale circles absolute stillness and absolute zero, each chapter resplendent with the fading remnants of true awareness and bursting with a languor so brilliantly evoked that the reader's thoughts, too, drift in ever smaller currents, relaxing and weakening as the heartbeat slows and wonder grows. Here, in this world, there is everything and here there is nothing, (p. 385) and it's a perfect nothing. (p. 86)

Murakami doesn't just raise questions. No, as crushing waves of melancholy and an almost agonizing beauty imbue every word of the novel's ending chapters, Murakami's brief but deep epic of thought reaches two successive peaks. The first is the justification of progress and striving, no matter its cost. For the utopia of absence that the End of the World shows us is not only devoid of loss but also of gain, not only misery but also joy: The absence of fighting or hatred or desire also means the opposites do not exist either. No joy, no communion, no love. Only where there is disillusionment and depression and sorrow does happiness arise; without the despair of loss, there is no hope. (p. 334) For, as we come to see, Love is a state of mind (p. 334) and cannot exist for those who have no mind. But then comes the so-understandable, so heartbreaking finale to it all. For the narrator, though now fully conscious of the costs, cannot leave behind the peace that he's found. He stays, immersed in the harmony and perfect nothing of that dreamed and conflict-free world.

The level of cool and grandeur, in their corresponding sections, does come at the expense of plot. As the narrator quips at one point, this isn't the kind of thing they show on TV. This drama was a lot more complex and with no discernible plot. (pp. 112-3) While "no discernible plot" really is going a bit too far, it's not far off in terms of effect. Though a lot happens here, none of it is gripping in a roller coaster, plot boiler, gotta find out what happens next kind of way. This is, rather, the kind of book where the narrator can observations and wit power on unhindered through a scene where he may be, say, stabbed in the gut with a knife. While such a distance could certainly leave many a book powerless, though, Murakami effortlessly keeps you engaged with his characters, prose, absurdity, and with the reality of his setting. What's most surprising about the last of those is how real the day to day world of the characters is, no matter how impossible the events within it become. Murakami accomplishes this through a deft weaving of the mundane into the fantastic, having his characters prepare food and live their lives all around the plot and, of course, by utilizing his characteristic barrage of references, which here include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 2011: A Space Odyssey, Turgenev, and Borges, to name just a few.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World was written early in Haruki Murakami's career but exemplifies, nonetheless, so many of his strengths. It's true that this is the most out and out genre of the Murakami novels and stories that I've read, but my affinity for it goes deeper than that. The world here is filled with fantastically daring ideas glimpsed from the shadows and approached head on. The writing is filled with, in one section, always dancing wit and, in the other, surreal majesty. The book, throughout, is a entertaining to read, fun from first word to last, and also a work of stunning power and sorrow, a novel that's joyous, poignant, and profound.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Publication v6

Over the last year and a bit, I've had a fair few publications to announce around these parts. In case you couldn't tell from the posts, I was grinning from ear to ear for each of them and, just maybe, doing a bit of jumping up and down. Well, I've another of them, and this one's a big deal. Maybe the biggest since the breakthrough of the very first. Though I haven't yet gotten to review one of their issues, Beneath Ceaseless Skies is one of my absolute favorite places to find fantasy stories. Just a few days ago, they accepted my story "Beyond the Shrinking World." To make an awesome thing even more awesome, this is not only my first fantasy sale, not only the sale of my longest story yet (by far), and not only a sale to an awesome market, but my first pro sale. So yeah, I'm pretty excited. I'll keep you guys updated as I know more.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

James Herbert - Sepulchre

From what I'd heard of James Herbert before cracking open Sepulchre, he was a prolific British horror (or "chiller") author, a writer not considered great but certainly considered fun. Unfortunately, Sepulchre, my introduction to the man, nails the "not great" part of that better than the "fun" one. Sepulchre straddles the line between thriller and horror. Wait, no, that's not quite right. It sits awkwardly between the most clichéd deep ends of the two, the one making no attempt at all to engage with the other besides fouling up its every passage. Then again, either one of these tissue-thin plots would, on their own, be not only little more effective but  utterly unable to carry a novel. The book's thoughtless using of several troubling horror tropes is disturbing, but its real problem is that it's just not very good.

The prologue and first chapter, five pages between them, set up just about everything you need to know about Sepulchre with one exception. In the prologue, we get some brief discussion of how the Sumerian's early history has been wholly lost to us and the (rather groundless) conclusion that there might be a "good reason" (p. 2) for this. The first chapter, meanwhile, shows resident Irish badass (Liam when he's vulnerable, Halloran when he's not) mowing down some IRA kidnappers with a sub machine gun. And, in the dead zone between unexplored mysticism and senseless slaughter, you have your novel.

But, like I said, that's misleading in one crucial respect. Despite its thorough thoughtlessness and lack of depth, Sepulchre is a slow moving novel. Structurally, one imagines that the horror portion's meant to be a slow building of atmosphere and dread, that the thriller is meant to be giving us time and subtle clues to work out some elaborate web of deception for ourselves. But the prose is too simple to evoke atmosphere, and the plotting's too simple for there to be anything to work out. There is, by my count, a single plot twist in the novel, which makes me wonder if the London Free Press review (presenting more plot twists and turns than one has fingers) was written by a no-fingered man. Herbert's writing is the kind that, if coupled with constant scares or gunfights, could serve passably to move the plot along and generate some fun for us all, but it, and his characterization, is totally incapable of sustaining the novel alone.

Our main man is the aforementioned Halloran, a bodyguard working for the security company Achilles' Shield. He is, from the first, an enigma in the way that only a cliché can be: There was something about his eyes… He looked like a man who could be cruel. Yet there was a quiet gentleness about him too. Cora was puzzled. And interested. (p. 22) So yeah. Ruthless tough guy with a heart of gold, or at least I think that's what we're supposed to be inferring from the repeated mentions along the above lines. From what we actually see, Halloran thinks of nothing but being a professional and perfect bodyguard, acts in the most professional manner, and the only thing he works to prevent harder than security breaches is actual character development. He comes in an enigma, and he'll be damned if he dies having gained an iota more depth.

Halloran is called in to protect Felix Kline, a psychic that finds underground mineral deposits for Magma Corporation. Kline's an arrogant and obnoxious fellow who looks "nothing like a genius, and nothing like a wizard" (p. 35) and surrounds himself with various detestable characters and may be far more ancient than he appears. After a fair bit of doing not much in the city, the whole procession, Halloran included, heads off to Kline's estate, Neath. I'll let Herbert give you your introduction to the place:

There were dark places in Neath, corners, niches, which sunlight could never touch, rooms gloomed in permanent dusk, corridors where dust motes seemed to clog the air, halls where footsteps echoed in emptiness. Yet there were also areas of dazzling light, the sun bursting through leaded windows with a force intensified by thick glass; these were cleansing places, where Neath's dank chill could be scoured from the body, although only briefly as other rooms, other corridors, were entered, brightness left behind like some sealed core.

Halloran explored and found many locked doors. (p. 98)

Wow, sounds pretty great, right? Claustrophobic and oppressive and choking on mysteries. Reading that paragraph, I was ready to forgive everything that had come before and ready to settle in for a creepy as hell ride. I don't think I'd be spoiling things too much if I say that doesn't happen. In fact, that paragraph is, I'd say, not only the only prose that is actually in any way noteworthy as prose in the novel but also the only moment of particularly effective writing in the entire thing.

Once Halloran gets to Neath, he sits around, and he and the reader wait for something to happen. It takes its sweet time coming. Until it does, we spend chapter after chapter (after chapter) receiving clues about Kline's evil nature that could only be said to be subtlety building to a devastating reveal if you've not only not read a horror novel before but likely have never read a novel and maybe are not fluent, or even conversant, in the English language. Among these clues are chapter long backstories of the four men closest to Kline. Allow me to distill them: we've got an American serial killer, a Polish cannibal, and two degenerate Arabs that prove to be homosexual rapists.

I know, I know, that last one's not exactly politically correct. If it's any consolation, I don't think Herbert's actually quite as prejudiced as he appears. Just slavishly dedicated to horror tropes and utterly tone deaf as to their implications. The gay torturers and rapists aren't all that's here. In addition, Kline's personal assistant, the Cora that was "interested" (p. 22) in Halloran above, is being steadily corrupted by Kline, and it takes the form of sexual deviancy. Cora has been twisted into a lover of…  bondage! Halloran, everyone's favorite ruthless killer and prudish lover, is of course "dismayed" (p. 146) by this. Of course, one of the times he fucks her, it's a tastefully written rape scene, a right "ravishment" "against her will," but she soon "could not help but respond," (p. 220) so that's all okay.

As I've already discussed, the novel's thriller and horror elements are essentially unconnected, save that Kline feels some threat's nearing him (as comes clear at the end, it's a threat he brings on himself, so I'm not really sure what he was sensing, but anyway). The majority of the book overtly focuses on the thriller plotline, which is developed through such nonsensical lapses in thought as the chiefs of the boydguarding company being, themselves, completely unguarded. The horror plotline is supposedly simmering in the back of all this before bubbling to the surface and taking control, but, as I've no doubt made clear, it doesn't exactly do this.

Come the end, everything does come to a head, even if all the drama and (far too long in coming) action is clichéd enough for the momentarily captured hero to shout "you're crazy" (p. 318) and "this is insane" (p. 321) at the monologue-spouting villain. The core of that monologue is Kline telling us that he's part of a conflict that "still goes on" (p. 319), where one side is "evil for evil's sake" (p. 371) and in the service of the devil, of Bel-Marduk, and the other serving the later-coming Christ. Of course, there's really nothing at all about this celestial struggle until the last sixty pages, but what the hell, we see more than enough of Kline to be able to imagine a multi-millennia quest to kill his master and him. All our cards on the table (Kline's evil! the Sumerian allusions amounted to nothing at all beyond a generic ultimate evil! everything's just about as you thought!), we proceed through our rather stuttering conclusion, one that takes place long after the reader's grown bored of caring for anyone at all in it, and then, thankfully, to the end.

Sepulchre is basically all of the worst clichés about horror novels rolled into one. The characterization's flat, the plot's predictable, gore and violence are treated with all the care and subtlety of a toddler finger-painting in blood-red and shit-brown, the morals displayed are nonetheless narrow-minded and sexist and prudish, and we end with a nice happy shoot out and a destruction of the Big Bad. Most damning of all, it's boring. You've better things to do than read Sepulchre.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Martin, Nightflyers, and The Speculative Scotsman

If you exit the Hat Rack, take a right, and cross the Atlantic Ocean, you might find yourself at the Speculative Scotsman's. But while we may be a tad geographically distant, we're a fair bit closer in terms of content. And so, when Niall asked if I'd be interested in doing a guest post on the SS while he tours these here states, I responded with a multi-paragraph version of "Hell yes!" The piece's up now, a review of George R.R. Martin's Nightflyers novella that hopefully does both the story and the blog it's hosted on justice. And above and below it is praise for this here Rack that just can't be good for my ego...