Saturday, December 24, 2011

Book Reviews- Night Watch, Salem's Lot and more

Night Watch
by Sergei Lukyankenko
There are of course just tons of books about the battle between Good and Evil. You might say in some respects that's a central human feature. What makes an act good or evil? Is there any real difference? Who has enough foresight to tell? Is it all a question of point of view or does actual good and evil exist independent of our actions? After all if cattle could talk they would no doubt say, with some justification that human beings are pure evil and nothing but that. These questions and  many more are explored in Night Watch, an entertaining opening to a fantastic fiction tetralogy by Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko.

Night Watch is thematically somewhat similar to Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series but Night Watch is quite firmly written for adults. There is a subset of superhumans who have always existed alongside humanity. These people call themselves Others and are the source for all of the myths about angels, demons, and other supernatural creatures. Others may not initially be aware of their powers but by natural events or training usually become familiar with them before adulthood in most cases. Others are divided into good (Light) and evil (Dark) and have roughly equivalent powers.

Thousands of years ago the Light Others and Dark Others gathered for a final cataclysmic battle to decide the fate of the world. However each leader realized that the two sides were too evenly matched and to fight it out would destroy the world. A truce was reached and a treaty signed. This allowed each side minor licenses to behave according to their nature-for example a Light Other Magician could heal people but then a Dark Other vampire could get a free hand in attacking someone. Each side created police forces to monitor the other side for treaty violations or unauthorized magic. The Light Others created the Night Watch while the Dark Others created the Day Watch.

The book opens in Moscow with the cynical Light Other, Anton Gorodetsky, being taken from his mundane desk job and thrust into field work-something he claims to be no good at but soon develops surprising aptitude for. Anton's first assignment involves a normal seeming human boy who can nonetheless enter levels of reality that should only be accessible to Others as well as trying to find out who cursed a beautiful young woman and if that curse is powerful enough to destroy all Moscow. 

Anton is cynical because his ultimate boss, Gesar (head of the Night Watch) never tells anyone the whole story and will not hesitate to manipulate or sacrifice his troops if that is what some unknown objective requires. Anton's cynicism deepens when he learns that some of the good he does rebounds to the Dark's benefit. And Anton nearly loses it when he discovers that some of the 20th century's worst regimes, wars and genocides were actually started or helped along by the Light, which was ineptly attempting to bring about heaven on earth. The Dark is always growing stronger, thanks in part to the nature of humanity. Anton and his fellow Night Watch agents are always struggling not to break the Great Truce or just take control of people and MAKE them do right-which is of course exactly the sort of thing that Dark Others do. Night Watch is an interesting read which places some deftly hidden philosophical musings inside of urban fantasy.

Salem's Lot
by Stephen King
This was the second Stephen King book I ever read and probably hooked me for good on his prose style. King has an uncanny skill to depict realistic characters, get inside their heads to let you know what they're thinking and make them react in very honest ways to some fantastic situations. In some respects this is a resetting of the Dracula story in 1970's America but it's not just about supernatural evil.

It's also about all the everyday evils that occur day in towns large and small across America whether they are acted upon or not: greed, spousal abuse, adultery, bullying, child rape and abuse, bigotry and closed mindedness, lust, poverty,  substance abuse and murder. These things all have more impact on us than a singular Evil. In one of the book's ironies, before the true nature of the supernatural evil visiting the town has before apparent, a Catholic priest, Father Callahan bitterly resents the newfangled Church , which is concerned with feminism and civil rights and anti-war issues. He wants to confront Evil with a capital "E". Later, he gets his chance but the results are not quite to his liking.

If you haven't read this book, well you should. And if you have already, heck it's worth a read again.The book is divided up into four sections:
a) the introductions of the main characters and a sketching of the past evil that afflicted the town and may have attracted Barlow; 
b) the unsettling arrival of Straker, who is a sort of John The Baptist to his vampire master Barlow, in that he prepares the town for Barlow's coming;  
c) The arrival of Barlow and the growing number of dead  or turned citizens even as most people can't believe what's going on; 
d) The rejection of subterfuge as Barlow openly declares himself and battle is joined.  
The vampire here, Barlow, is not one of the modern pansexual pretty boy vamps that flitter and flutter in and out of Twilight or True Blood. Barlow is made of much meaner, uglier and forceful stuff. He's not looking for his lost love nor he is going to fall in love. He does not simper. He's an undead killing machine who enjoys doing what he does-pure monster. It's a shame that the modern version of the vampire myth has swung so far away from its core-a dead thing that drinks blood-but thankfully that's the trope that King used here.

Again, King created a very wide array of characters who all deal with this threat in different ways. Some deny; some leave town, some hide, and a very few decide to fight back. This book was a very worthwhile addition to the modern vampire mythos. Salem's Lot is one of the scariest vampire books ever written and if you have an overactive imagination it's probably not something you should read at dusk or at darkest midnight.

by Rex Miller

The late Rex Miller was certainly not everyone's cup of tea. Although he was associated with the splatterpunk genre, that description was too limiting. His writing as he freely admitted, came from some painful places, some of which he didn't care to describe in depth. As he wrote in a Dark Muse piece, "..evil exists. [It] needs to be cut out of the herd and incarcerated."

Frenzy is a short novel that is a battle of wits between two Midwestern men, Jack Eichord, a detective who specializes in taking down serial killers and Frank Spain, a mild mannered St. Louis based man who also happens to be the country's best hit man. Spain is primarily associated with the Midwest Organized Crime Families (St. Louis, Kansas City, and ultimately Chicago). Spain takes no pleasure in his job. It is just something that he does. Spain does not let his wife know of his business which unfortunately turns out to be a mistake and later a tragedy for Spain.

His wife Pat, is tired of Frank's constant absences and infrequent amorous attention. She comes to believe he's a wimp so she cheats on him with their insurance salesman. He catches her but does not kill her as he still loves her and Frank only kills on business. Pat leaves and takes their teen daughter Tiffany with her. Under her mother's less than attentive care, Tiffany falls in with a fast crowd. On a visit from Tiffany , Frank tries to correct this but overreacts. Tiffany runs away with her no-good boyfriend who turns her out into prostitution and later much worse activities. Ultimately she's murdered. Frank is devastated. 

However Frank is beyond enraged when he discovers that the people who murdered his daughter ultimately worked for the same Mafia group HE did. As far as Frank is concerned they're ALL responsible and they're ALL going to pay. The Mafia's number one murder machine goes off the reservation, leaves sanity behind and comes to the attention of Eichord, who doesn't understand at first that this is an intensely personal killing spree that he's trying to stop.
This book was short (300 pages) and to the point.

332nd Fighter Group-Tuskegee Airmen
by Chris Bucholtz
Something that many black professionals hear starting out is that you have to be better than your white counterparts in order to get the same level of recognition. This is real. And although Herman Cain's aborted farcical Presidential campaign shows the custom may be subsiding somewhat this requirement was almost literally law in the 1940's. 

The fact that the men of the 332nd Fighter Group rose to this unfair and harmful rule was impressive. That they did so while literally fighting for their lives was actually amazing. The Tuskegee Airmen experiment was actually designed to fail. Many people wanted to show that blacks lacked the ability to lead, the intelligence to process vast amounts of information quickly, and above all the guts to tangle with the enemy.

The 332nd Fighter Group-an all Black group proved all of their doubters wrong and actually made a reputation for themselves as an elite fighting group. They were able to boast of over 111 confirmed aerial kills, the sinking of a German destroyer and most importantly of never having lost any bomber they escorted to enemy attack (though this last has recently been questioned by some revisionist historians).
This was an enjoyable book to read and showed a side of World War 2 that is virtually always left out of history books and movies-the dashing, devil may care, cigar chomping, flight scarf bedecked fighter pilot-who is black. This book makes liberal use of primary and secondary interviews with Tuskegee Airmen as well as tons of photos and information from the National Museum of the United States Air Force.  One reason for the success of the 332nd Fighter Group, besides the intense desire of the men involved to prove their detractors wrong,  was the command presence of the group's leader, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis (pictured here) who made it crystal clear to his men that their primary mission was to protect the bombers no matter what. 
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