Saturday, October 29, 2005

Dead in the West - Joe R. Lansdale

I'd almost caught up on verdicts. Then I went and read three books in as many days.

After reading something that had as much impact as City of Saints & Madmen, any book that follows has its work cut out for it. So, I deliberately chose something that wasn't trying to be genius (not that I wanted a repeat of The Phantom Menace experience) and this one had 'pulp' written all over it. As well as 'zombie western'. Really, I couldn't go wrong.

It always takes me a couple of pages to adjust my gears for a book that is shooting for pulp. The initial metaphors and similies make my inner editor cringe, until said inner editor realises that they're totaly deliberate and unshamefully so, and shuts up. Didn't take long to do that, in this case, as I spent a while staring at the cover.

Big bosomed young lady clings screaming to big muscled hero who is fending hordes of zombies off with a shotgun. (Although he's not actually using the shotgun the traditional way, he's swinging it around like a club, which I can't imagine is nearly as effective.) Brilliant!

The small town of Mud Creek is cursed, oh woe, and they asked for that curse, what they did to the medicine man and his woman. And only one man can save the town! Reverend Jebediah Mercer! Who's currently having a severe crisis of faith! And drinks! And kills! And oooooooooh! His troubled soul! God has sent him to this forsaken town to test him, in several different ways if his reaction to Abby, the Doctor's daughter is anything to go by.

I had a lot of fun with this book. Lansdale is consistent with his pulp and cheesy, and mixes it in with horror quite well. Zombies don't frighten me. It's hard to work up fear about some that shambles, that even I can easily out run. But damn, these ones grossed me out. Bits hanging out, bits of goop and ick everywhere. Ick. Ick ick ick.

The end did surprise me, because I'd forgotten exactly how zombie stories worked. It's okay, I remember now.

Verdict: Much fun, although not for everyone. I know I have a very high tolerance for cheese (I enjoyed Van Helsing after all), and this is cheese very well done.

Friday, October 28, 2005

In the morning, ninjas try to garotte me.

They have, dare I say, an unholy alliance formed with the spiders of suburbia. In the night, the spiders drift down across the foot path, casting a line of thread which resides perfectly at throat height for someone of my stature. No one else walks these footpaths until I do, on my way to work. I feel the threads break on my throat. They're trying to lure me into false sense of security. It won't work. I'm onto them. In winter, I wear a scarf, and now summer is coming, the sun is at just the right angle to reveal those infernal lines.

In the evening, ninjas try to cripple me with caltraps.

They have, dare I say, a blasphemous alliance formed with the snails of suburbia. They creep out after dark, crossing from one side of the footpath to the other, just like the metaphorical chicken. It is dark. There are few street lights. The walk home is crunch, crunch, crunchy. I rue that these snails sacrifice themselves for so useless a cause, for my guard will never be lowered.

In the afternoon, the ninjas get fed up and try to kill me with a swarm of bees.

I don't know why they decided a swarm of bees hanging around a street light at the end of the road was an efficiant way to do me in, because it wasn't. Bee swarms are pretty easy to see, and thus, easy to avoid. But ninjas must know they've failed, so I walked through the swarm. Bees don't really fuss me. They were just buzzing around, doing their thing, which had nothing to do with me.
Which I think has lulled me into a false sense of security, because when I walked home that night, I passed the lamp post and they were all there. All of them. Huddled in a tight clump. Still. All of them, watching me. It turned my heart, in that instance I caught it out of the corner of my eye. They've been there for a few days now.

My time is coming. Doom is at hand.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

While ZZZ Hunting

I dreamed that terrorists blew up the World Trade Centre in Melbourne. This was a bit of a drag, considering I actually work in the WTC. Thankfully, I wasn't there at the time. I'd swapped my 9-5 shift for a 3-11.

Instead, I was in a shopping centre, deadling with an idiot. Not a terrorist, just an idiot opportunist with a gun, who wanted everyone's money, as they do. But hey, I'm a hero. I ran around the shops grabbing their big canvas sale banners, threw them on him, tackled him, and had a mad wrestle for the gun, which I won. No one else helped though, of course not.

Then the alarm went off.

And I went back to sleep, and dreamed that I had to spend the night in a haunted church. Naturally, this freaked me right out, until I saw the ghost. Who happened to be a four inch tall blue-glowing dancing baby.

Still, it upset the dogs.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

While ZZZ Hunting

I went to Mars in my dream this morning. Although I've never been to Mexico, Mars reminded me of it. Red dirt. Dirty shopping strips. Put-put-bang cars. It was always night there, always a sky full of stars.

I can't quite remember why I was there. I think I was part a space shuttle mission, testing out a new-old spaceship. We arrived. My parents weren't at the base to pick me up, so I had to get a lift with one of the other astronaughts. It turned into a school camp of sorts, full of people I have no real desire to see again. Even in my dreams, my High School people happen around me, not to me.

But I couldn't stay long. I had to get home, to earth. For some reason, instead of taking a space ship, I was expected to accomplish this with a cream coloured toyoto corolla as old as I am, which didn't actually start.

Mars, quite clearly, is a hole.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

City of Saints & Madmen - Jeff Vandermeer

I just found seven words of interest on the spine. Now I'm tempted to forgo this verdict and spend my time putting these words where they need to go, but perhaps not. Wouldn't want to end the world. This is the price I pay for buying hardcovers and then putting the dust jackets aside so they don't get damaged. There's an entire story on this dust jacket, and only now have I read it.

It's a good sized book. Just the right amount of heft, with a loose spine that isn't too stiff, and cover art that is just gorgeous.

And it has pictures.

I'm not so old that I don't get excited over a novel with pictures. Not even pictures, do some fancy formatting, get carried away with borders, use footnotes: break the monotonous block of text, and I'll adore it for no reason. The King Squid plates are fantastic, and the Disney mushroom dwellers hold a special place in my heart.

City isn't a novel, but it's not quite a collection of short stories. It could be the dossier of a man gone mad, a hallucination, it could be an anthropological study of a city on no map of ours. Whatever you chose it to be, it is brilliant.

(Oh no, she's going to gush.)

Dradin, In Love
It's a false beginning to the book. It is, perhaps, the only adhering-to-the-standard-definition-of short story. The reader is Dradin, who has just stumbled into Ambergris from the jungles, and as we are new to the city, so is he. Not a walking tour, but a shamble, a stagger, and a run for your life. Dradin is a sad man, and instead of wanting to shake his naivety from him, I just want to pat him sadly on the shoulder. It's a rich story, so very textured, and Ambergris completely overwhelms all else. It isn't a setting, it's a character, and we quickly learn so much from it. Full of life, of wonder, of mess, and full of death. The Festival of the Freshwater Squid unsettles me, whenever it is mentioned. This is the only good look you'll get of that Festival, and I didn't want to look any further. O thought this story was wonderful, beautifully written, and yet, so quickly overshadowed.

The Hoegbottom Guide to the Early History of Ambergris
Suddenly, from literature to comedy. Should I have found this so amusing? It's non-fiction, a historical account of the city, dotted in highly opinionated and subjective footnotes from a snooty history who has, I think, a severe chip on his shoulder. I do love pieces of history, and I swallowed this whole. It was wonderful. I sat on Flinders Street Station at 11.30pm, not used to catching trains after dark and more than a little threatened by the vagrants that wandered the platforms, and this story made me forget all that. No, it isn't a story. The mushroom dwellers fascinate me, as all things that are mysteries must. The Silence chilled me, left me raw and horrified, especially that little gesture, what they did leave behind. I thought this was the best in the book. I was afraid everything would be left standing in its shadow.

The Transformation of Martin Lake
It's good to be wrong.
I'm hopeless at writing about that which I truly love. Things that get me into a tizzy, things that make me giddy with delight and incoherant with joy; I'm left gobsmacked. This story gobsmacked me. I use the word brilliant too much, but it is, it's an amazingly brilliant story. It narrates one of the greatest events in the life of Martin Lake, a soon to be famous painter, broken up with pieces artistic criticism and history. One stream of what really happened, and another stream of what others guess might have possibly happened. The chasm between truth and speculation is enormous, but usually they're on the opposite sides. No one could have guess what truly happened, it seems wild, crazy, more like rumour that the speculation does.
But most of all, what won me over was the paintings.
This story doesn't have pictures, but in the art historian steam, there are descriptions of Lake's work, after the event. They were beautiful. I came out of that story feeling heavy, that I would never be able to see the paintings described. I want to, oh I want to.

It is the footnotes, the art history, that makes Ambergris not a story, but a city. It lives.

The Strange Case of X
This controls the rest of the book. Alas, the twist at the end came as no surprise for me, for it was what I'd assumed from the first page. I thought that was all that story was, until it hit me. Vandermeer was doing something I'd never seen before, doing something I can only think of as brilliant, brilliant, and entirely unapologetically.

The chapbook on King Squid had me in stitches, at work no less. "Remove your tentacle from my birthing canal immediately!" and my favourite:
Their annual celebration, held at roughly the same time as the modern day Festival, culminated with the choosing of one man to hunt the scuttlefish. Given that the average Mothean Scuttlefish, flattened against the riverbed, forms a circle roughly six feet across and that their primary defense consists of stuffing as much of their invertebrate bodies as possible down their attacker's mouth and other available orifices- at which point I choked and died, and had to explain to my supervisor exactly why I was dead. Not one of my finest moments.

I was quite entranced by The Cage. It was a strange story, but Vandermeer knows how to work mystery, how to drop the right revelation that is not a revelation at the right time. An air of quiet menace fills the entire story, as mushrooms can only ever be quiet, soft, and still.

He merged the writer with the world, the world with the writer.

This book left me tizzy. I didn't enjoy it, it enjoyed me, and blew me away. Tizzy, giddy, terribly excited by all that had been done, and all the possibilities that could follow. I enjoy so many books (except The Phantom Menace), but there are only a very few, a mere handful of books that shake the foundations of my mind, break down the walls, and give me the opportunity to build something new. This is one of those very rare, very special books. There is no writer out there who should not read this, there's so much too learn from simple good writing on a sentence level, to genius.

But genius can't be learned.

Verdict: Please, do yourself a favour, and read this. Please. I beg you. The tizziness must be spread.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace - Terry Brooks

I'm not even linking to this one. Stop looking at me like that. I found it for $5 in a remaindered pile, and I had a SW hankering. Don't worry, I suffered the full consequences of my folly.

Never read any of Brooks's novels, and have no desire to change that. The only piece of writing I've read of his was a short story in Legends II, which completely failed to impress me. It was far too simple, too easy, and reminded me of stories I'd written when I was in high school. (They weren't very good stories.)

Admittedly, Brooks was given a crap story to begin with here. The movie of EpI is just sloppy, and I'm being nice there. I'd come to this book assuming that he had fixed it up a bit. Made it more palatable.


The first page should have warned me, but I'm an idiot. Either he, or his editor, in fact both of them, need to be taught about commas, and shifting perspectives within a sentence. I'm not fond of the latter, not at all, but it is possible if you use commas wisely. Unfortunately, he doesn't use commas. At all.

Okay, so it isn't well written, I can deal with that, I said, and promptly ignored everything that happened on a sentence level, which left me with the characters and story itself, which really wasn't much better.

Oh, Anakin.

We hates him, we does.

You thought he was bad in the film, he's seriously bloody ugly here. He's perfect. He's a golden haired angel, with such a big heart, and everyone loves him, and he loves everyone, and he helps out little old ladies, and total strangers and is soooooo good it made me want to vomit and smack him around. Children aren't like that. Sometimes they are, but not ALL THE TIME. They're children. In fact, NO BODY is like that. Not all the time, and not in the depths of their hearts, but noooo, Anakin is peeeeeeerfect.

Surprisingly, I didn't mind Jar-Jar Binks. Perhaps because I had to concentrate to figure out what it was he was saying. I have picked up the unfortunate habit of saying "Okie-day!"

And then, about half way through, I just stopped. It wasn't worth my time. I even knew how it ended, fancy that.

Verdict: Don't. Just don't. Jedis can't save this.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales & - Anna Tambour

(What's this, you cry, a verdict?)

I began chewing this book whilst stuck at Heidelberg Railway Station. The next train wasn't due for ten minutes, and wasn't going to my stop anyway, so as I slouched against a street light waiting for my brother to pick me up, I started on the first story, Klokwerk's Heart. In it, I found a flavour that would suffuse through all of Tambour's other stories: delight. It is, I think, her greatest strength, that she has mastered that incredibly hard atmosphere that is joy, happiness, and love, without the added bedbugs of trite, cliche, and sloppiness. They're warm stories, friendly stories, stories that want to be your friend and hold your hand for a while. And yet, even as they're wooing you, some of those stories are down right nasty. Here, I'm thinking of The Eel and Crumpled Sheets and Death-Fluffies.

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the CĂ©vennes left me in stitches. Told through the eyes of the donkey that is Stevenson's sole companion, it was full of practical, no-nonsense observations from said beast, and a brilliant insight into exactly why donkeys are unwilling to go where ever they're asked to go. The last line, however, was the crown.

Valley of the Sugars of Salt is a beast of a story, but a gentle beast. It is perhaps the story that contains the most love in it, a peculiar sort of love that comes from the orchid and its special trees to its tender. Tim, a man with too much money, has taken it to his head to revive a virtually extinct species of fruit tree; the medlars. Medlars are a peculiar fruit that is best eaten when near putrescent, close to being rotten through, and looking just the same. (No, it doesn't sound all that appealing, does it?) His scheme to set the gourmet world afire with them falls through, for aesthetic reasons, but he choses not to give up the orchid, having found a peace there he has never known. The trees themselves have the most personality in the story, rascals the lot of them, telling stories and jokes night in and night out, to the delight of the spiders, birds and beasts around them. It was such a warm story, I felt the strong urge to go out and hug a tree once I'd finished.

The Ocean in Kansas was a lovely, whimsical piece, and I think the world would be a better place if more people gave into such flights of fancy.

And then there was Monterra's Deliciosa, the true beast of the book. A giant rambling story that wandered about the place, looking over here, investigating over there, taking its time to get to where it was going. The journey was worthy of the end. Food, something that Tambour paints vividly in all her stories, was rife throughout, as a country boy moved up and out in the world of high class chefs and restaurants. (What they did to the pigs!) But I couldn't have predicted where it was going, and didn't. I won't reveal it here, as it is something best discovered yourself, but it left me shocked, and slightly nauseated. Still, good writing is good writing, and it was very good.

These are but a few of Tambour's works contained in the collection. It is my preference to read collections all the way through; I do not break them up with other stories, I treat them as any other book. As such, it was wonderful to witness little nods and smiles that went from one story to another. The medlars snuck in a couple of times to say hello, her fascination with lips and food spread about. Although none of the stories are related, it lent them a feel of connectivity. They were all part of the great mind of Anna Tambour.

Verdict: Different, always unexpected, brilliant.