Saturday, March 10, 2012

Book Reviews- Rising Phoenix, The Historian, Best of HP Lovecraft

Rising Phoenix
by Kyle Mills
This is what I call an airport book. It is quick to read; it's not super challenging but not a horrible story either. It's perfect for wasting away a few hours but it's not something you would kick yourself for not reading. The story is not too far fetched although the execution and characterization might need a little work. Then again it WAS the author's first book so who am I to be critical?

Anyway the story opens by describing two government law enforcement officials with quite different ideas about the proper way to interrogate suspects. DEA agent John Hobart doesn't see anything wrong with starting with a beating and moving on from there. FBI agent Mark Beamon isn't above smacking an insolent known mob enforcer but he is disgusted when he discovers his partner Hobart in the process of breaking a junkie's arm, primarily for kicks. Beamon turns Hobart in. But Hobart is a MUCH better political player than Beamon is and manages to avoid serious sanction by resigning while Beamon gets a reputation as an untrustworthy maverick. Fast forward a decade and change. Beamon is still just a few levels above where he started while Hobart is the VERY well paid security chief and troubleshooter for the right-wing televangelist Reverend Blake (think Pat Robertson) who uses the loyal and completely amoral Hobart for all those jobs he'd rather not know about.

Blake preaches against sin -especially drugs- and is devastated when he finds out his own son was smoking marijuana. Out of a sense of bombast and pride he starts to discuss with Hobart the best way to stop usage of illegal drugs. The completely pragmatic Hobart suggests poison. The Reverend doesn't want to know details but gives Hobart the go-ahead after publicly firing him.
Hobart recruits (evidently he had been thinking about this for a while) a group of specialists (and virulent racists) to poison the supply of illegal drugs (cocaine and heroin only). They intend to stop people from using drugs and if they happen to kill a bunch of minorities that's a bonus for them.  Drug use starts to drop but this is not popular with the Colombian Cartels or American Mafia (who are seeing their revenue drop) or the FBI (who are being mocked in the press). The FBI calls in Beamon to lead a task force (and be a sacrificial lamb if need be). Of course as he gets into the case Beamon starts to pick up a sense of familiarity about his unknown opponent's moves. The President is caught between a rock and a hard place as he wants to look competent while at the same time keeping an uneasy eye on the growing political support that the poisoning of the drug supply is getting.

As I mentioned this was not a great novel but I didn't expect it to be. The author is the son of a former FBI agent and has some useful insights into how that bureaucracy works. Unfortunately, except for Hobart most of the characters are pretty flat. I did like reading about the (ahem) ever so slightly different research techniques of the Colombian Cartels and the FBI, the rivalries between different law enforcement agencies and petty but dangerous office politics. The Mafia hoodlums and street hoods are not written that well. But the book moves swiftly and all in all is a fun read. Hobart is not a mustache twirling villain and doesn't do stupid things just to move the plot forward.

The Historian
by Elizabeth Kostova
This is a story about an unnamed woman who is the daughter of a widowed history professor. One night while scrounging through her father's library she finds a strange book that is mostly blank but has the picture of a dragon in the middle and has the words "My Dear and unfortunate successor..". She shows this to her father and the not so dynamic duo (she's a teen and her father must be in his early fifties) embark upon an adventure across Eastern Europe and Turkey, in search of the historical (and current??) reality of that most notorious member of the Order of the Dragon, an enthusiastic but doomed defender of Christendom, Vlad Tepes, known better as Dracula.

Sounds like it would be right up my alley yes? Well no. This is NOT a horror novel though it has some minor elements of that. Vampires evidently do exist. This is an extremely well researched literary novel with lots of gothic, travelogue, and romance elements. I wouldn't say I hated this book but it just wasn't what I was looking for. You could almost say for six hundred pages "And then nothing happened". The author is quite talented but like all too many writers these days could have used a stricter editor. Her love of history, reading, and the peoples and cultures of Eastern Europe shines through.

Things change. Perhaps it is no longer important to some people that the city known as Istanbul which today is in the country of Turkey was not in its origin Turkish but Greco-Roman. At one time it was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. It became a center of Christianity and lore and named Constantinople. But it was savagely sacked, first most treacherously by Western Christian crusaders in 1204 and later by Turkish Muslim invaders in 1453. We tend to think of colonialism as something that Europe has done to others. But for centuries the Turks were the brutal colonial power in Eastern Europe. In some aspects there's still bad blood today because of this. Kostova fills in some details. But the characters and pacing simply aren't strong enough to really give this a great rating. It is being made into a movie. I suspect that the movie will be more entertaining than the book was. To be fair, if you are into the idea of conspiracies, secret societies and the like, you will at least be somewhat positively inclined to this book. Again, though, it's NOT a horror story. The obvious comparison is to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

I love hanging around libraries, bookstores and restaurants no one else knows about. I love the thrill of discovering esoteric knowledge or new food dishes. But I don't necessarily want to read 600 pages about doing those things. The one character who DOES come across vibrantly is the beautiful and mysterious Helen Rossi, another historian, and the narrator's mother. Rossi's story and that of the narrator's father unfolds in old letters and diaries which are found. The joy, wonder and yet sorrow that we may feel when we read letters or writings of departed parents or grandparents is captured well here. It is always somewhat amazing and slightly unbelievable to me to look back through time and realize there was a point when you didn't exist and your parents had other interests. And of course, as the narrator discovers, there are some things about your parents that you probably didn't want to know.

The Best of HP Lovecraft
If you read a representative sampling of H.P. Lovecraft stories a few truths about the man become rapidly apparent. (1) He was a racist with an especial hatred for black people. (2) He wasn't big on dialogue. (3) He never wrote a short sentence when he could use a longer one instead or used a modern word when he could use an archaic word.(4) He loved New England. (5)The man was one of the most influential horror writers the world has seen. Stephen King himself wrote that "H.P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the 20th century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale".

Lovecraft came from a old American family that had fallen on hard times. Both of his parents suffered from mental instability and died in mental wards-his father may have had syphilis. His grandparents didn't properly handle the small money his parents left behind. Additionally Lovecraft had a nervous breakdown and dropped out of high school. As a writer he was constantly impoverished throughout his life. The yawning gulf between his real life circumstances and what he thought his race, intelligence and heritage should have entitled him to was a source of constant frustration to him and ironically was likely a source of some of his best (albeit most racist) work. Lovecraft was a somewhat shy scientific atheist who famously pronounced himself rather indifferent to sex. This dislike of intimacy and distrust if not disgust of the feminine pops up in all sorts of interesting places throughout his work and may be worth examining in some future blog post.

Okay. So what stories are contained within? Well the book is titled The Best of HP Lovecraft and it lives up to its title. "The Colour Out of Space" is pure sci-fi and foresees the effects of nuclear radiation when a meteorite hits an isolated Massachusetts farm. "The Shadow over Innsmouth" tells the story of a fishing town fallen on hard times that makes deals with evil beings from the ocean but in fact it's a well disguised description of Lovecraft's id fears about immigration and interracial mingling.  "The Thing on the Doorstep" is the best body snatcher story I've ever read bar none. "The Dreams in the Witch-house" ponders if advanced physics are merely catching up to what evil sorcery had done years ago. "The Dunwich Horror" is almost a parody of Biblical stories, with a half-human "savior" figure trying to bring his father, a God from Outside, back to earth, not so that humanity can be saved but rather that the earth can be "cleared off".

"The Rats in the Walls" shows off Lovecraft's profound debt to Poe, while "The Silver Key" does the same for Dunsany. "The Call of Cthulhu" is probably the best known story contained in this collection. An evil alien God that was ancient before humanity even existed has been trapped at the bottom of the ocean. But every so often the stars are right and he awakes and attempts to free himself from his watery grave. And so on. Lovecraft did write a few traditional ghost stories e.g. "In the Vault". In those he actually used more dialogue than was his normal practice and showed, or he would write shewed, a good skill at capturing the idiosyncrasies of Yankee accents.  Lovecraft was a materialist. Most of his evil Gods were "evil" in the sense that a developer destroying a habitat is "evil" from the animals point of view. The developer couldn't care less-that is if they are even aware of the animals impacted. If you are tired of horror, sci-fi or fantastic stories that are little more than exercises in trying to write the most explicit sexually and physically offensive material possible you might want to go back to the beginning and give this collection a chance. Of course you will have to overlook some occasionally unpleasant political points of view but the man was after all born in 1890. But for creepy atmospheric gothic AND modern horror, no one did it better.
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