Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

It is a common practice these days for publishers to put a series of questions at the end of their more ‘literate’ offerings. The purpose of the questions is to help drive book club discussions, and therefore book club sales. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame Smith is no exception. The last of these study questions reads thus:

Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen’s plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel would be like without the violent zombie mayhem?

This was a question I had asked myself many times while reading the book. If our protagonist, Elizabeth, were not a superlative zombie slayer, trained in the ways of Shaolin and other deadly Eastern arts, what would she do instead? Skimming Project Gutenberg’s archive of an earlier draft of the story, it seems Elizabeth was originally an accomplished musician. That’s not bad, but the motivation of this pursuit seems mainly to attract the best mate possible.

And what of Mr. Darcy, her foil in this early example of the I-hate-you-so-much-I-must-love-you story? Even as a highly refined killing machine he doesn’t bring that much to the table except a generous nature (it turns out – sorry for the spoiler) and a lot of money. Take away his skill with blade and musket and there’s not much left.

So bring on the zombies, I say. Let Elizabeth kill several of Lady Catherine’s ninja bodyguards. Let the final confrontation between Catherine and Elizabeth take place in a dojo, with swords and grievous wounds. Let Mr. Bennett spend an amiable morning with Mr. Bingley trapping, decapitating, and incinerating the undead. Let Mr. Wickham — oh, but there I go spoiling things again. Anyway, let’s give these people some teeth!

As an afterthought, I would be curious to know how well a student would do on a typical exam for the abridged Austen-only version, having read and Zombies instead. Would some teachers decide that reading the expanded version was better than not reading it at all? Would some teachers say quietly to unmotivated students, “If you read the zombie version you can still pull a B”?

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The Delicate Dependency

There are a lot of vampire stories out there right now, most of them occupying the Ann Rice (with Buffy Extensions) World. Rice, I suspect, as primary architect of the AR(wBE)W, is justifyably proud of the impact she’s had on mainstream literature, as writers of every skill level have adopted the AR(wBE)W — some to add interesting twists on it, others because they aren’t inclined (or able) to come up with a world of their own.

But is that really the world vampires would build?

Let’s say you’re a vampire, oh, around the time of the ancient Greeks. Give or take. You have been around for a while, much longer than the fleeting human lives that surround you, and you understand that now you are a fundamentally different animal. A more evolved species. What do you do? Do you run out willy-nilly and vampirize the cheerleader squad and the buffest dudes?

Probably not. You would probably be very selective about who you invited in to your immortal fraternity, choosing the best and the brightest that humanity had to offer. Centuries pass. Your cabal now holds the greatest minds, and preserves lost knowledge. You are part of a secret cult that weilds immense power, subtly. Things are going pretty well, but there’s one problem. People. Those clever little bastards are getting better and better at killing each other, and killing your kind. You see the day coming when everything will change.

Let’s call that day the Victorian Era, a time when Learned Men spoke of the Triumph of Reason over Superstition. Scientific method and exploration are turning the mysterious into the Known at a dizzying pace, and a technology boom looms close behind.

The Delicate Dependency by Michael Talbot is a story told by one of the champions of reason of the Victorian Age. Dr. Gladstone is a physician and a medical researcher. He is rather passionate about influenza (it’s personal) and has devoted his life to understanding the virus. As a result, under a bell jar in his laboratory, he has an influenza virus for which the human body has no resistance whatsoever. It is a supergerm. To him it is a professional triumph, to others it looks more like the first weapon of mass destruction, and an entirely indiscriminate one at that. A global catastrophe waiting to happen.

That’s when the vampire comes to live at his house. Dr. Gladstone wants to study the creature. There is nothing that can’t be explained, after all. His teenage daughter Ursula has other ideas. Yet when the vampire leaves suddenly, it is neither Ursula nor the virus he takes with him.

He has even warned his host: Nothing the vampire do is as it seems.

The language of the book feels authentic to the period, and reads right along. One thing I noticed: adjectives. Lots and lots of them. Dr. Gladstone would never lay something on a desk, he would lay it on an oak desk with teak inlay and gold trim. Rarely is does a bit of setting escape unadorned, even if it’s the third reference to the object. I think this is deliberate on the writer’s part; the good doctor has an eye for the finer things in life and when details of craft or workmanship catch his eye, he will report them faithfully. He is an object-oriented person.

The prose takes its time moving through the story, and much of the action is intellectual, as clues and mysteries mount up. There is a rip-roaring chase or two, however, and you can feel the breathlessness of the characters as they dash for survival. This is a fine read, a story well told, with plenty of surprises and twists along the way.

Note: You’ve really got to want this one, as dealers are asking huge prices for used copies, but as always if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.


The God of Small Things

I picked up The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy off the shelf at a thrift store. “Winner of the Booker Prize,” The cover said in tastefully-restrained block capitals. Winning a major literary award is often a good sign but not always. Sometimes I think an Emporer’s New Clothes Effect takes hold and the judges are ashamed to admit that the opaque prose left them baffled, so they give a prize to a mixed-up jumble of words. Not so in this case. This was a good story written with a clear if creative voice.

Near the beginning of the book (but not the beginning of the story) we are at the funeral of Little Sophie Mol, Loved from the Beginning. Something has happened, something Horrible, but even though it is only days past it has become Something No One Talks About. When Ammu, mother of two-egg twins, goes to the police station and says, “I killed him,” even the police do not want to talk about what happened anymore.

The language the author uses is playful, coining words and bending others to reflect the Indian ears that hear them. The language provides rays of light even when things are dark. In a way the whole book is a Muddled Ramble, a story that builds not through time but through the growth of the words themselves.

The story moves about in time, simultaneously tip-toeing up to the Horrible Events and drifting away through the aftermath. Before, we pass through the trip by the family to pick up Sophie Mol at the airport (cousin of the two-egg twins, Loved from the Beginning) and the events of that trip that set in motion the final run to the Horrible Events. After, we see a home with no life in it, the occupants slowly decaying or leaving, slowly dying. The family business long dead, the Bar Nowl that lived in the rafters of the pickle factory now just a pile of bones in an unused vat. Even the river, once powerful, is dead and sluggish. All that’s left is a pair of two-egg twins, one mute, separated for twenty years.

a) Anything can happen to Anyone.
b) It’s best to be prepared.

What ties all the threads of the narrative together, what really defines the flow of the story, are words. Special words, coined capriciously, that, as the story progresses, take on greater and greater weight, until some of them are almost breaking under the freight they must carry. Later. Lay. Ter. Only when the words are ready can the Horrible Events be told. And after the Horrible Events, there’s only one thing left to tell, one thing that had the power to drive all the rest.

This is the sort of writing that is both humbling and motivating, the sort of story I aspire to write—if I had the courage to really let go. Read this book; you won’t be sorry.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Shadow Gate

“Uh, oh,” I thought as I picked up Shadow Gate. I’d bought it in a hurry while at the Atlanta airport, and I did not look closely at the cover. It was a big fat fantasy novel and I like those, especially when traveling. I didn’t read it on the plane, however, and so it was a few days ago that I pulled it off the shelf of books waiting to be read. That’s when I looked more closely at the cover. “Book two of Crossroads,” the fine print on the cover said. Crap.

“Uh, oh,” I said again as I flipped through the pages in front. There was a map. Not generally a good sign. With trepidation, I began to read.

Things started off well. I met a character who, apparently, had been killed in book one. Only, she’s what you might call “sort of dead”; she can walk around and talk to people and in fact can kick some pretty serious ass. She has become a Guardian, a person with great power and the responsibility to apportion justice in the land. One of the central themes of the book, and one I enjoyed exploring quite a lot, is what happens when those given the power to maintain justice turn around and misuse it instead. This gives all the adventuring and conflict a higher purpose, and many of the people we like are struggling with the issues, and sometimes making decisions that are morally questionable. Add cultural differences and you’ve got quite a yummy stew of ideas.

But let’s get to those two uh-oh’s, warning instincts that I have come to trust. I’ll start with the simplest one: the map. As a rule I’m suspicious of books with maps, for a couple of reasons. Writers often confuse a big stage with a big story, and have people tramping all over the place for no real reason. My story The Monster Within has travel, but there’s no need of a map. I kept the geography unimportant, and focussed on the people in the places. In this case, I looked at the map a couple of times at the beginning, but then gave up on it for two reasons. First, what little information it did impart it did poorly, second, much of the geography that really mattered for this story was off the edge of the map. As ‘outlanders’ interacted I really wished I knew how their domains connected. Oh, well. Ultimately, the exact locations of things wasn’t that important, and when I mentally threw the map away the reading experience improved.

Then there’s the ‘book two’ business. The cover of this book reads:

Shadow Gate Book Two of Crossroads.

What it should say is

Crossroads: Volume 2 of n – Shadow Gate.

Or, as I think about it more, perhaps the title should be:

Crossroads pages 781-1564

When I buy a book, especially in an airport, I expect a there to be a story contained between the covers. Airport selections are limited, and the chance that I’ve read book one of a series is small. Still, optimistically, I began to read this volume, and at first it seemed like Ms. Elliott was on my side. The mostly-dead character awakens, and we fast-forward ahead about twenty years. Many of the characters that are introduced subsequently weren’t even born when Marit became a Guardian (presumably after the end of the first volume), so I got the feeling that we were off to a nice fresh start. There were cultural traits and slang words that seemed to be taken for granted, but I worked through them. The writer could have done a little better welcoming new readers, but it wasn’t a big deal. Then there was a huge battle that was never depicted, but the aftermath drove much of the narrative. Characters appeared only to disappear again almost instantly. Hm. I started getting the feeling that I was seeing events that had been in book one, but were now being shown again from a very limited perspective.

Still, the narrative chugged along with good characters and big developments portrayed from very human perspectives. Morals and ethics of different cultures contrasted and clashed. The nature of the evil that threatens the land becomes clearer, but is plausibly self-justified. Bad people die. Good people die. The bad guys have the upper hand, but we see all the characters heading for a major confrontation. I was hooked.

It was the promise of the major showdown, and lingering hope that my impression at the start that book two was not merely a continuation of book one that kept me going. (Although, would it kill Ms. Elliott to be more selective with pronouns? To start with “he” after a break and go for a page and a half without naming the character is annoying to say the least.) On I read, and as I learned more about the overall power struggle among the Guardians the more interested I became. This was obviously the grand struggle that would span the entire series, while this book would resolve one specific part of that struggle. Wheels within wheels, I thought. We’ll take care of some personal conflicts, perhaps between Shai (who is shy) and the woman who torments him. Or maybe Kesh and Elidar will realize they have a common goal. There are about a dozen of those threads as we draw to the end of the volume, as well as some extra problems caused by conflict in faraway lands.

There is no ending. No smaller wheels within the larger plot. This is not a story, but an episode. It even ends with a cliffhanger. Once again I have shelled out my hard-earned cash to read a story only to discover at the end that I have merely invested in an installment, and I will have to purchase an unknown number of volumes over an unknown number of years to get to the end of the story. I could have set the book down at any point and be no worse off. Books like this should say in big letters: CONTAINS NO ENDING!

Note to Kate Elliott: Let me know when the entire series is published. I liked your writing enough to give the story a try — once you’ve finished writing it.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Bangkok Tattoo

Before I get to the quibbles let me just say that Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett is a damn good read. Interesting characters, many of whom are not particularly good people, fill this story. It follows the story Bangkok 8, but stands alone as a complete story; while having read the precursor will add understanding of some of the nuances, I think one could pick up this book cold and enjoy it tremendously.

On to the quibbles: There are many passages about the contrast between east and west, about the different way that people think in Asia. There are times when Burdett goes beyond the need of the story to present and defend Thai culture and the sex trade in general. After one too many times harping on this theme, it started to feel defensive and even condescending at times. It started to feel western. Our narrator, Sonchai, himself a fairly advanced Buddhist for being a corrupt cop, were he really Thai, would have let events speak for themselves more. Thus the writer’s voice undermines his narrator’s voice, and the story is weakened.

But let’s look past that, shall we? This is a mystery story, but even the question they are trying to answer is evasive. What happened that night in the hotel room when an American was mutilated and murdered seems of only secondary importance. What concerns everyone involved are the consequences of the crime. As various interests try to influence the interpretation of the crime, things escalate. The Americans want to blame Al Qaida. The moderate muslims want it to be a simple crime; they are working to keep politics stable in the south next to Muslim Malaysia. Colonel Vikorn, head of police in the part of town where the crime occurred, wants to keep one of his star prostitutes out of jail. Sonchai’s dead partner has advice that seems to make no sense at all. Then things get complicated.

One of the best things about the narrator is the reverence Sonchai has for his boss. The relationship is a mass of contradictions; Vikorn is a drug-dealing cop and one wily SOB. Sonchai makes the whole force nervous with his ethics but he has nothing but praise for the man who runs the department (and is a majority shareholder in Sonchai’s mother’s brothel). Vikorn falsifies evidence, and Sonchai can do nothing but praise the skill with which he did it. Then there’s Lek, Sonchai’s young partner. The Colonel is glad hear that he’s not gay; he’s merely a transvestite, a female spirit in a male body. The Buddha teaches that this is a natural state and points out that such people must walk a very difficult path. Do not judge; you’ve been one before and you will be again. And there’s Chanya, the beautiful prostitute who took credit for killing the American. Chanya, whom Sonchai has come to love, even while admiring her skill making other men love her.

So, there are lots of people who want different things. Colonel Vikorn proves adept at coming up with evidence that will satisfy all parties. Every time he does, however, a new interest shows up on he scene, or contradictory evidence comes up in a way that can’t easily be ignored. There is a point, maybe two-thirds of the way through, where Sonchai says (I’m paraphrasing but the actual quote is equally straightforward), “that’s the end of the story. There’s just a coda to follow.”

The coda starts out like a well-behaved wrap-up would, then explodes. I don’t want to tell you too much more, but there comes a time when a man must pay for his actions, and sometimes that price can be unpleasant.

It’s hard for me to turn off the editor brain while I read these days. I’m cruising along and sooner or later I hit something that makes me think about the writing rather than the story. I’m happy to report that for this book most of those interruptions were positive; sometimes an unexpected but perfect adjective, other times a satisfying twist of phrase, once of twice a particularly sweet metaphor. The only negatives were when he betrayed the voice of the narrator to beat home that it’s different there. Got it. Thanks. Let’s move on with the story. It’s a really good story.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

The Secret Agent

This evening I picked another book off fuego’s shelves, this one a putative classic. The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, by Joseph Conrad, has proven to be a pretty good read so far. First published in 1907, it is a story based on an actual terrorist attack against the Greenwich observatory outside London. In this version the act is incited by entrenched political forces who want to encourage terrorism so they can better legislate away the freedoms of the populace. The story is a satire, but back in the day it apparently pissed a few people off.

I was reading along, and I hit a section where I really got the joke. Which makes me wonder if there are other sections where I don’t get the jokes. I suspect that many of the character descriptions and actions are steeped in irony that is often lost on me because the vocabulary (and simple Englishness) used to describe them impedes my understanding. This isn’t a comedy by any means, but I think that wry undercurrent is what gives the story life. I just wich I could understand it a little better.

I get the same feeling sometimes with Japanese literature (and cartoons), that there are veins of humor and symbolism that I can detect but cannot fully appeciate. In a way that’s pretty cool; it defines a new area I can learn stuff. Happily, I can still laugh at things like nonsensical street numberings. Some things will never change in London Town, and Conrad deals with the subject with a dry wit that permeates the entire book. His portrayal of ‘revolutionaries’ is not very flattering, to say the least, and many of the good guys don’t come off that well either.

This story came out in what must have been a great time to be literaturati. The novel as an art form was changing dramatically; I mentioned it a while back when speaking of The Great Gatsby, and this work just adds to the muddle of those decades. There’s a couple of decades there where What A Novel Is was no longer clearly defined, and a few writers shook off convention and told good stories their own way. This one has a lot of devices, like non-linear storytelling, that I was surprised to find in something of this era. (Maybe non-linear storytelling was common then. I’m certainly not a expert, but I associate things like that with much more recent literature.)

The story has a slyness which I’m really enjoying. People are working at cross-purposes; even the best of the good guys has a personal agenda. Perhaps the bomb maker has the purest (in the sense of not being diluted) of intentions. I haven’t finished reading yet, but I will soon.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Bangkok 8

At the beginning of Bangkok 8: A Novel, by John Burdett, we meet a pair of cops, former thugs who have had their brains dismantled and reassembled by a Buddhist Abbot. As we learn over time, they are honest cops in a way that makes just about everyone uncomfortable. They are Thai, and from the beginning we learn that cops are not supposed to be honest (otherwise, as one citizen point out, their pay would have to be increased and that would increase taxes).

That, of course is itself an oversimplification. The two are sent to tail an American marine. Two hours later the marine is dead in an unlikely fashion, trapped in a car with a bunch of poisonous snakes on yaa baa, the local amphetamine coctail. One of the cops dies trying to save the american. It is the sort of thing an arhat would do — a buddhist saint. The other cop, Sonchai, is devastated by the loss of his soul brother. It is seen as perfectly natural that he will kill those responsible for his partner’s death.

This doesn’t go over so well with the Americans charged with investigating the death of the marine. Sonchai has had extensive experience dealing with the west; his mother was a prostitute who was kept by a succession of western men in Europe and the United States. Even so, the female FBI agent sent to work with him is a source of mystery and frustration. She, in turn, is baffled by the way the one clean cop in Bangkok idolizes his boss, a gangster in cop’s clothes.

Sonchai is an intelligent man, very observant, who can see his own past lives and feel the histories of the people around him. This does not strike him as odd or even particularly noteworthy. It’s not some secret power he uses to solve cases. It’s just an empathy he has that lets him see below the surface of the people he meets, allowing him to reach conclusions that would be difficult to arrive at logically.

Obviously, the clash between western and eastern thought is a big theme in this story. This theme is made most obvious in the context of the sex trade. Prostitutes, brothels, minor wives, and other more disturbing forms of people selling their bodies for money, security, or even love abound, and give ample opportunity to contrast cultural responses. Sonchai’s own feelings on the subject are very complicated, and are almost as confusing to his countrymen as to westerners.

There are times when the author gets a bit preachy about the subject, and unfortunately one of the preachiest times is the last chapter of the book. It is a satisfying last chapter on some levels, but it actually embraces the very patness the previous chapter openly rebelled against, which is disappointing. The actions of one of the characters in the last chapter defied reason.

Last chapter notwithstanding, this was a really good read. I like stories that effectively portray a view of life different than mine, in such a way that it makes complete sense. This story succeeds admirably on that scale. In addition, it’s not a half-bad mystery. There are a lot of different forces in conflict with one another (some of whom never emerge from the shadows, which is cool), and its got old alliances, betrayals, gut-wrenching evil, and revenge. Not everyone is completely sane.

It’s really not a thriller, thought there are plenty of tense moments, and even some intense ones. The author does an excellent job communicating the extremity of situations (some very bad) without being gratuitous. You see enough to fill in the blanks. I like that in a story. This book was a fun read with plenty of food for thought, and if you don’t mind things getting a little gritty sometimes (although not nearly as explicit as many other things I’ve read lately), then you might want to give this one a try. I’m sure glad I did.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.