Book Review: N0S4A2 by Joe Hill

n0s4a2 - hill

 

Title: N0S4A2

Author: Joe Hill

First Published: 2013

Genre: Fiction – Horror, Suspense, Supernatural

What are the elements of a truly good horror story? Well, in this writer’s humble opinion, what separates a great horror novel from a cheesy ripoff is the author’s ability to transform the ‘ordinary’ into the ‘terrifying.’ Granted, a good idea isn’t the only requirement here—execution plays a big factor. The novel has to be well-written, descriptive, and well thought out. And I’m happy to say that Joe Hill’s N0S4A2 meets all these requirements, and more.

N0S4A2 is the complex story of Charlie Manx and Victoria “Vic” McQueen. At the start of the story, we see the former as a near-comatose serial killer, who was known to be most active in the 1980s to the early 1990s. Manx kidnapped and presumably killed children, abducting them using his untrackable 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith, which curiously enough, bore the vanity plate N0S4A2. According to Manx, he was bringing the kids to Christmasland, where pain could never touch them, where the pockmarked moon winked at passersby, where clouds weren’t really clouds but cotton candy.

Vic, on the other hand, was Manx’s downfall—as Manx was hers. She’s not quite his final victim, but he does break something in her. When Vic traveled the Shorter Way Bridge as a teen, she discovered the truth about the ageless Manx and Christmasland. She found out that she and Manx shared a similar talent—the ability to tap into the mind’s inscape and use the alternate realities created by their distinct identities to further their means. For the young Victoria McQueen, traveling through the long-sunk covered bridge was a way to locate anything or anyone. In Manx’s case, it was the ability to use his Wraith to bring his kid of choice to Christmasland, where he sucked the youth and the good out the child.

Their first encounter had Vic scarred for life, and Manx in what seemed like a permanent vegetative state. But as is the case with most horror stories, the monster doesn’t stay down for long. Manx recovers and exacts his revenge on Vic, by taking her son. Ultimately, N0S4A2 is the story of a mother’s unconditional and saving love—though it is, by no means, a sap account.

In N0S4A2, Joe Hill doesn’t skimp on the shock factor and the horror. By juxtaposing the ‘warm’ familiars, (things we associate with love like mothers, children, and Christmas), with the stuff of nightmares (mommy rapists, zombie children with rows and rows of needle-like teeth), Hill creates a fascinatingly frightening world that keeps you guessing on whether or not good will prevail.

Now, I don’t scare easily—at least, not when it comes to horror stories. But N0S4A2 has all the essentials of a truly scary read. Though I highly recommend this to most everyone, this is not for the easily queasy or the faint-hearted.

Rating: A+


Kristel Marie Pujanes

Book Review: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Sirens of Titan and Bob Dylan2

Title: The Sirens of Titan

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Genre: Science Fiction

First Published: 1959

Grade: A++++++

 

The Sirens of Titan may be Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, but it’s also one of his most sure-footed and successful works. In this book, Vonnegut attempts to answer the ultimate question–”What is the purpose of man?” And this he does with copious amounts of dark humor and much aplomb. In true Vonnegut fashion, he introduces a wholly human character caught in the maelstrom of chance. Malachi Constant, our unfortunate protagonist, is both likable and unlikable. At the very least, he is strangely relatable. Despite being a billionaire, (the richest man in America), there is an emptiness that gnaws at Malachi, an existential dilemma he can’t shake. He waits to be given purpose by God or the Cosmos, or whoever it is at the end of that endless phone line that stretches through Space.

Purpose comes in the dubious form of Winston Niles Rumfoord, the only human being to have ever been chronosynclastically infundibulated. Rumfoord had ridden out to space with his faithful dog, Kazak, when his ship ran straight into a chronosynclastic infundibulum. This space phenomenon enables Rumfoord to see all things in the past and in the future. It offers Rumfoord a type of omniscience that would be god-like, had it meant that Rumfoord was exempt of whatever it was Fate had in store for him. The trade-off to gaining almighty knowledge is that Rumfoord and Kazak were spread thinly throughout time and space. They began to exist in a wave phenomena that enabled them to materialize on Earth, Mars, and Mercury in predictable intervals while staying properly stuck in Titan.

Rumfoord and Malachi’s paths cross when Rumfoord asks his wife, Beatrice, to invite the latter to one of his materializations. There, Rumfoord reveals Malachi’s fate to him. Malachi and Beatrice were set to be sent to Mars where they would fall in love, have a child, and grow old in the beautiful Saturn moon, Titan. Rebelling against this idyllic albeit forced setup, Malachi does what he can to make Beatrice hate him–and he succeeds for a time. It almost seems as if Beatrice and Malachi would never cross paths again,  but as is one of the greatest themes in The Sirens of Titan, there is no escaping fate. And true to Vonnegut’s style, Malachi and Beatrice both suffer tremendously before something too distorted, something too similar to resignation to actually be called a ‘happy ending,’ takes place.

The next time we see Malachi, we see him as Unk. A low-ranking infantry officer in Mars who has just had his memories erased for the nth time. This is an unusual case in Mars. Usually, you get your memories wiped clean once, get your antenna installed, and you’re obedient and thoughtless as sheep soon after. But in Unk’s case, he always manages to regain thoughts of Earth and past memories, sometimes with the help of his best friend, Stony Stevenson. He always seeks out his mate, Beatrice, and child, Chronos. He always imagines Earth to be a better place where he can be with his family at last. In Unk, Malachi has become the opposite of who he always thought he was. As Unk, Malachi could live without a penny to his name but with the dream of family and friendship to get him through whatever fix he was in.

Now, with such noble dreams, one would expect Unk/Malachi to get the happy ending he’s after. Maybe Malachi could escape to Earth with Bea and Chronos, grow some potatoes. Be a self-sustaining family with little contact with the outside world. But to end the book this way would equate to pussy-footing around life. Like most talented and sadistic writers, Kurt Vonnegut knows the value of a relatable hero. He knows the appeal of the long-suffering protagonist. He doesn’t waste the chance to play up the dark comedy called human existence.

At the start of the story, Malachi’s name is explained to the reader. Malachi means faithful messenger. This is the root of Malachi’s early existential drama. He awaits the message he’s meant to deliver, he waits for a higher purpose. Turns out, his purpose was to create Chronos with Bea. Chronos becomes the faithful messenger in the story. He delivers a piece of metal to Salo, a Tralfamadorian traveler marooned in Titan. Salo, himself, is a messenger–a machine designed by human-like creatures from the planet of Tralfamadore. Salo was sent into Space to travel billions of years in search of a specific alien civilization. The piece of metal (Chronos’ good luck piece) is the replacement part Salo needs to fix his ship. In the end, Malachi did find purpose, he did find his place in the great scheme of things. But did he really find purpose or was he only ‘a victim of a series of accidents.’ From the all-knowing and all-seeing perspective of God and any other chronosynclastically infundibulated being, is human life merely a straight line, or even a tiny, fixed point set against the vastness of the Cosmos? Is there no higher purpose? Or if there is, is it a purpose worth living for?

Like a seasoned pro, Vonnegut has his main character (and the reader) jumping through hoops, suffering burn after burn. And yet, on Unk goes. Against all odds, Unk goes–that you almost wish for a deus ex machina, for a red herring of sorts. You think ill of Rumfoord and shake your fist at his cruelty, only to realize that his life was the biggest joke in the book. There are a lot of emotions to be gone through in The Sirens of Titan. There are a lot of surprises too. And while the bleak nature of the book’s humor may make you want to let go of the book and seek some sunshine, you always go back to it, because quite frankly, it’s that good. It’s more than just a page-turner, it’s a thinking piece. It’s a fecking good piece of literature that thankfully sticks.

The Sirens of Titan is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. Worth recommending to anyone interested in Science Fiction, Philosophy, and great literature, in general. If you loved Slaughterhouse Five, this would be right up your alley.

Book Review: City of Glass by Cassandra Clare

City of Glass-Clare

 

Title: City of Glass

Author: Cassandra Clare

First Published: 2009

Genre: Fiction, YA

 

Plot Summary: At the end of the second book, Clary discovers that the only way to save her mother’s life is to go to Alicante, the City of Glass. But Jace has other ideas. He thinks the trip will be too dangerous for Clary. When the former, (and the rest of the gang), leave Clary stranded in New York, she takes matters into her own hands. She finds a way to Alicante—and there, she discovers secrets about her family’s past. She also meets Sebastian, an intriguing young man, who Clary feels inexplicably drawn to. Meanwhile, Valentine’s doing everything he can to take the Shadowhunters down—and this time, it looks like he succeed.

Let me start off by saying, ‘Welcome back, Cassandra Clare!’ For a minute there (reading City of Ashes), it felt as if Ms. Clare was rushing to meet several deadlines and just packing clichés and old material into her ‘new’ books. The good news is that, compared to its predecessor, City of Glass offers more, in terms of character development and plot depth.

Granted, Clary still hasn’t grown into the strong female protagonist she can be, (a matter of turning potential into the actual, I assure you), but you see a semblance of maturity in her actions in this book. In one particular scene, wherein she rushes recklessly into the unknown, only to risk her life and Luke’s, she actually feels guilt over her brash actions—especially after Luke berates her for her thoughtlessness. She also plays a pivotal role in making sure things turn out well for Luke in the end, which one can consider a thoughtful act.

However, I think the opportunity to improve her further—to turn her from besotted child to thinking woman—has also been thwarted by the introduction of another potential romance . I don’t know… but must romance always cloud one’s vision? To be honest, I feel as if romance is Clary’s ultimate weakness. I don’t know how she finds time to find a boyfriend, make out with a brother or two, while saving the world and trying to find a cure for her mother’s magical coma. (Whatever happened to focus?) And no, saving the day near the end of the book with a superpower that would make any team virtually unbeatable won’t make up for all the bratty episodes the reader would have to plod through. In the end, rune-making and casting felt a bit like a cop out. It’s too much, too good—a step below deus ex machina.

And yet, I still enjoyed City of Glass. I enjoyed the book, because despite all this, it remains gripping, promising. It has tremendous potential for greatness. Plot-wise, there’s a uniqueness to it. The major twist in this third book offers clarity to the story while opening the possibility of a ‘new’ direction for the succeeding books. It really is a good plot. It’s just that, at times, the execution feels rushed. The plot suffers with what sometimes feels like formulaic writing. Not that I have anything against fictional love triangles, but the sheer volume of triangles in this book is also starting to become confusing: Jace-Clary-Simon, Aline-Jace-Clary, Jace-Clary-Sebastian, Isabelle-Simon-Maia, Luke-Jocelyn-Valentine, Celine-Stephen-Amatis—am I missing anyone else?

In the end, I feel that this is the type of book one ought to read if you’re already hooked on the Mortal Instruments Series. But if you’ve already had your misgivings since City of Bones, proceed with caution.

Grade: B

Book Review: City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare

city of ashes-cassie clare

 

Title: City of Ashes

Author: Cassandra Clare

First Published: 2008

Genre: Fiction, Young Adult

 

Plot Summary: The Mortal Instrument Series resumes with the mysterious killings of Downworlder children. The big question on everyone’s minds is whether or not Valentine is behind all these attacks. When the Shadow Sword goes missing, things get worse for Jace. Since word got out that he’s Valentine’s son, he’s found himself in the middle of a tough Nephilim investigation. As for Clary, she’s got her hands full trying to find a cure for her mother’s mysterious coma while dealing with the fact that the boy she likes is actually her brother.

Here’s a common problem for most YA sequels—they’re hardly as good as the first book. While I’d love to say that City of Ashes is an exception to this generalization, Cassandra Clare’s follow-up to City of Bones is a bit lackluster for me. It’s not the premise, it’s not the plot. As I mentioned in my last review, Clare has a really interesting story in her hands. Yes, you have the standards—the werewolves, the vamps, the faeries—but the world of the Nephilim seems pretty original to me.

The problem lies in a number of the book’s characters. Though Clary appears marginally better (more mature) in City of Ashes, it seems that she’s mellowed only to amplify the massive communication breakdown between the adults and the teens in this book. We’re not talking about the basic misunderstandings between parents and their kids—we’re talking about life-changing and life-saving secrets being withheld, the lack of listening between both parties, and the overall daftness of 90 percent of the adults in the novel. It actually seems as if Luke is the only reasonable adult in the bunch. Even Jace comes off as a bit of a brat at the start of the story—and I actually like his character.

All in all, I found this to be a bit of a hard read. The good news is that it does have a few redeeming factors that would make someone like me want to read on further: (1) you see a lot of growth when it comes to Simon’s character, (2) you have a solid plot line with a neat twist, and (3) better action scenes. Despite its character flaws, it’s also, still, a page-turner. So, if you’ve started City of Bones, and you liked it enough, I recommend going for City of Ashes. Otherwise, if you didn’t like the Mortal Instruments’ first book, you might not want to bother with this one.

Grade: C+

Book Review: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

Clare_City of Bones

Title: City of Bones

Author: Cassandra Clare

First Published: 2007

Genre: Fiction, YA

 

Plot Summary: When 15-year-old Clary Fray stepped into a New York nightclub, the last thing she expected was to become a witness to a murder that no one else could see. Things take a dive from there. Her mother goes missing and she ends up almost getting killed by a monster in her apartment. She wakes to find herself in the middle of the war between good and evil—a war between Shadowhunters and demons.

With the influx of Young Adult novels in the market, what makes City of Bones from Cassandra Clare a worthy pick?

Well, it really depends on when you’re coming from. I say when, because my choice to pick up this book has to do with history that I have (albeit one-sided) with the authoress. About a decade ago, I found her famous (though in some circles, infamous) fanfics: the LOTR: The Very Secret Diaries and, of course, the Draco Trilogy. Had a few quick laughs with the LOTR fic, but when it came to the Draco Trilogy, man, was I hooked. I would check for updates every week, and would stay up rereading each chapter. At that time, I was still using dial-up prepaid internet, and I thought Cassie Clare was probably the wittiest writer around. Of course, I was also 17, and was yet to meet Wifi, Nick Hornby, or Kurt Vonnegut.

**The fact that Aidan Turner is playing Luke Garroway in the Mortal Instruments film is, of course, added incentive for me.**

Suffice to say, I read the book out of curiosity. I wanted to see if City of Bones was as good as Draco Dormiens. What I found was that when it came to the characters of the book, City of Bones was, in a way, Draco Dormiens. Clary Fray, the 15-year-old protagonist of the Mortal Instruments series was painted as this impetuous, fiery, and passionate redhead—and I couldn’t help but think back to how Clare had written Ginny Weasley in her Draco Trilogy. And Jace Wayland, the sexy, damaged, platinum-haired bad boy of the story, was Clare’s Draco Malfoy. Of course, this is not to say that the novel wasn’t good; but for one who’s loved Clare’s past works, I just found the similarities a bit jarring. It also made it impossible not to compare the two.

On its own, I’ll have to say, City of Bones is actually a REALLY GOOD YA book. It’s creative, imaginative, and scandalous. It has all the elements of an enthralling ride—angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, forbidden love, mysterious bad boys, at least two love triangles, and even incest! Believe me, Clare just upped the ante for countless other YA writers with the incest plot. I mean, who else has the outgoing guts to do that in YA, other than VC Andrews? Genius! The book, judged on its own, is definitely a page-turner.

Except… It didn’t quite live up to what I had expected from Clare. Maybe it was Clary, and the fact that I didn’t exactly find her all that likeable. At times, she seemed more concerned about her relationship with Jace than the fact that her mother was missing and most probably dead. I found that unreal. It’s actually a bit of a peeve of mine, when a YA female leads get too caught up in the romance aspect that she fails to see how the world is falling apart. What can I say? I’m a strong believer in appropriate emotional reactions and investments.

Pace-wise, I found it a bit dragging at times too. The action scenes weren’t particularly exciting, except the scenes with the werewolves, which were really good. And lastly, lastly, lastly. Compared to the Draco Trilogy, I thought City of Bones was somewhat less witty. There were no laugh-out-loud moments for me. And you see, that was what I expected from Cassie Clare. That was what I remembered most about her writing. She had a way of drawing a chuckle out of you when you weren’t too busy rooting for one love team or the other.

That being said, I still think of City of Bones as being a pretty solid summer read. The plot is definitely interesting and promising. And despite Clary’s shortcomings, you do see her mature as the story progresses. The rest of the characters are also likeable enough. Jace is a flawed character, but the vulnerability that belies his cocksure attitude makes him a lovable male lead. Isabelle has her comic moments. Ah, and Simon. Poor Simon, is probably the most relatable character out of the lot. You can’t help but root for him despite the all-too-obvious rejection headed his way.

All in all, City of Souls is a good read that will make you want to pick up a copy of Clare’s second book, City of Ashes.

Grade: B

Book Review: Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

smoke-gaiman

 

Title: Smoke and Mirrors

Author: Neil Gaiman

First Published: 1998

Genre: Fiction, Short Story Collection

Smoke and Mirrors is, summarily, an interesting collection of short stories and poems from Neil Gaiman. Though most of the works in the collection have been published in magazines and anthologies, a handful of these gems have never appeared in print. I suppose this ‘unveiling’ of ‘never-before-seen’ works, this illusion of exclusivity, is all part of this book’s allure.

But to me, what really makes Smoke and Mirrors an irresistible piece of fiction is how it shows the development of Gaiman’s writing. In creating a pastiche of past works, the author creates a roadmap to his success—success being defined within the confines of this paragraph as finding one’s voice and reaching a specific caliber of writing.

Gaiman makes the reader’s journey easier by writing a lengthy introduction that discusses the origins of each work. I say lengthy, because there are about 30 works in Smoke and Mirrors, and a summary of each one’s backstory is carefully typed out by the author himself. Though these works aren’t arranged chronologically, you can find each story’s original publication date on the notes section of the book. By going back and forth between the notes section of the book and the actual story, one gains perspective when it comes to the shifts, improvements, and general changes in Gaiman’s writing style.

Another thing I loved about this book is the variety it offers. To be honest, I’m not particularly keen on Gaiman’s tech-centered works or his brand of erotica (which isn’t bad, really… just unexpected),            but I do love his fantasy and detective stories. As for his poetry, I found his sestina to be absolutely superb. The rest, I felt, would’ve been better fleshed-out as shorts rather than poems.

All in all, I found Smoke and Mirrors an interesting and exciting read worth recommending to all Gaiman fans and lovers of the Strange.

 

Grade: A-

Book Review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad-Jennifer Egan

Title: A Visit from the Goon Squad

Author: Jennifer Egan

Genre: Fiction

First Published: 2010

Uncategorizable, experimental, but like most of its characters, unsinkable—A Visit from the Goon Squad breaks the usual mold of Fiction, then comes out victorious in its ultra-realistic portrayal of life. This Pulitzer-winning (2011) offering from Jennifer Egan is told in a non-linear (time-wise) and non-traditional format.

Is it a novel or a pastiche of short stories? Whatever it is, it’s one complex and gripping piece of literature that engages the reader and commands the reader to sit still and pay attention. Blink and you might lose the thread that links all the stories together. What Egan does in A Visit from the Goon Squad is she gives you glimpses of the lives of a number of highly different, and yet, interconnected characters. Okay, that’s oversimplifying it. She doesn’t give you a glimpse of their lives as if you’d know each character at a single glance. She lets you in on specific moments of the characters lives, and encourages you to put two and two together.

Mind you, this isn’t a piece of fiction that you can breeze through without going back a page or two to digest what’s going on. And yet, that’s what keeps the reader (this one, at least) hooked. You’ll end up trying to guess who’s next. Which minor figure in the current chapter will become the next chapter’s main protagonist? How does this character figure into the whole story, if ever, there was a ‘whole story’?

Now, normally, I would attempt to give you a brief summary of the book—and give me a second or two, and I will try—but it might be an ambitious attempt on my part when it comes to this one. You might just have to trust me when I tell you that this is a book worth reading. Either way, here goes nothing: [SPOILERS AHEAD]

A Visit from the Goon Squad starts off with a 20-something woman named Sasha, and her attempt to curb her kleptomania. We learn in the next chapter, that she works as Bennie’s personal assistant. Bennie is a recording executive whose mentor, Lou, discovered him when he was a bassist in his high school band, Flaming Dildos. Lou had a bit of a fling with Jocelyn, Bennie’s bandmate, who was also the sort-of girlfriend of Scotty (their guitarist). Of course, this was all before Bennie married Stephanie, a PR agent who tried to bring back the flagging career of the aging has-been rockstar, Bosco. Bosco, seeing something special in Stephanie’s brother, Jules, decides to give him the exclusive story to his ‘suicide tour.’ We learn that Jules actually has the writing chops for this story, after all, he was a former journalist whose career ended when he tried to rape a Hollywood starlet named Kitty Jackson. Kitty, will eventually work with La Doll, Stephanie’s former boss, as La Doll tries to soften the image of a foreign genocidal general. La Doll, who was once the toast of Hollywood, saw the collapse of her fascinating career during a huge PR spectacle that was simply too hot to handle. Of course, during the time of the PR fiasco, Sasha would’ve been a young prostitute in Naples—right before she went back to college where she met her future husband, Drew. The two will eventually move to the desert to raise their two kids. As for Bennie, at the end of the book, he would’ve found a way to bring back Scottie’s career through working with Alex, an old fling of Sasha’s.

So, Complex? Oh, YES. Confusing? Yup, a bit. Compelling? Definitely. All in all, this is a book that I highly recommend to anyone looking for a good read.

Grade: A+