Saturday, November 17, 2012

Book Reviews-The Book of Cthulhu, Inside HBO's Game of Thrones, Hard Feelings, Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack

The Book of Cthulhu
edited by Ross E. Lockhart
H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was one of the greatest fantastic fiction authors of all time. Although he was influenced very much by Poe, Dunsany and Machen among others he created his own mostly original mythos, much of which was set in his beloved New England and drew equally as much on his nightmares and dreams as previous authors and American myths. Lovecraft never made the big time during his life and died in an impoverished state from stomach cancer. He was mildly popular as a pulp writer but that barely paid his bills. As Lovecraft was also an intense nativist and racist for most of his life, his financial situation was especially galling to him. He thought a man of his origins and intelligence deserved better from life. He would no doubt be amused then to learn that in the years since his death his writings, stories, musings and letters have created an ever growing genre of fiction and long list of admirers. When Stephen King writes "H.P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale" that means something.

Ross Lockhart is an author and editor of Night Shade books who evidently discovered H.P. Lovecraft the same way I did, thru a since discontinued and now collectible 1980 edition of Dungeons and Dragons Deities and Demigods. This edition (which in good condition sells for $139-$200) contains game versions of various H.P. Lovecraft created monsters, aliens and deities. It evidently piqued Lockhart's interest to seek out H.P. Lovecraft derived or created fiction just as it did mine and who knows how many other countless people.

This anthology contains twenty seven short stories that are in set in for lack of a better word the Cthulhu Mythos. Cthulhu was probably Lovecraft's best known creation. He was an alien being of godlike powers and malign intent who was trapped beneath the ocean in a dead city. Fun fact: Cthulhu also happens to have been the inspiration for the god worshipped by George R.R. Martin's Iron Islanders. When the stars are right Cthulhu will awake from the dead and rule the earth. But even his dreams are dangerous to humans. And Cthulhu is not the only entity that wants to get back on the earth or into this dimension. There are other creatures of greater power who are either hostile or indifferent to humanity in the same way you are indifferent to most of your skin flora.

Some of the standout stories contained include "The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins"  by Molly Tanzer in which a feckless wizard tries to steal his cousin's wife only to wind up in worse trouble than he could have imagined when her children are born; "A Colder War" by Charles Stross, in which the great powers of the world compete to harness not just nuclear weapons, but the far greater destructive capacity of the Great Old Ones; "Bad Sushi" by Cherie Priest, where a Japanese War veteran and sushi chef extraordinaire, discovers something is definitely wrong with the new sushi supplier; "Jeroboam Henley's Debt" by Charles R. Saunders in which an 1930's African-American finds some links between voudun and even older magic; "The Crawling Sky" by Joe R. Lansdale where a Reverend who hunts things that should not be has to battle hostile small town sheriffs and bad meat to get a fix on his latest target. These were all good reads. Many of the stories are set in small towns or the country.
I heartily recommend this book. If you are already a Lovecraft fan you will be amazed and amused to see how different writers use his influence. If you never heard of Lovecraft the stories very much stand on their own. This book could be your gateway drug to Lovecraft's works. Most of the stories are very realistic in their way.

Inside HBO's Game of Thrones
by Bryan Cogman
I received this as a gift from someone whom I had earlier convinced to read George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Paying it forward works sometimes, what do you know. This is a lavishly bound padded hardcover book that clocks in at just under 200 glossy pages. It's not quite coffee table sized but it is nonetheless something that would excite interest on your coffee table.

It is just what it sounds like and then some. It features a preface by Martin himself who details his own work in Hollywood and his skepticism about the plausibility of turning his series into a televised series. He thought it was impossible, in no small part because he deliberately wrote A Game of Thrones and its sequels to be masterworks of prose, creations that had to be read, not watched to be fully appreciated and enjoyed. Then Martin met David Benioff and Dan Weiss and found they were convinced they could bring his literary creation to visual life at HBO. Martin thought them mad but they persisted and the rest you know. Benioff and Weiss provide the foreword-a short interview.

The book is divided into five sections (The Wall, Winterfell, King's Landing, Westeros, Essos) In each section the various actors, directors, writers, producers and other personnel give their impression of the part they helped create, how they understood Martin's work or Benioff's and Weiss' subcreation and if their part is over, what they learned or if they are still around what they expect for the future. Don't worry there are no spoilers contained within. This book goes over both HBO seasons. There is judicious background from the books provided to answer any questions you might have had if you have only watched the show.  There are oodles of set photos, insider stories, jokes, prank scripts that were never used, storyboards, etc.  A favorite seems to be writing a character's (fake) death in a particularly humiliating or ridiculous manner and then giving the script to the actor/actress to get their reaction. One thing which I never thought of but which could make sense is that Jack Gleeson, who plays King Joffrey, says that Joffrey's only role models are Robert and Cersei, who are each bad parents and quite morally challenged. Some of Joffrey's behavior is that of a brat who needs a stern but loving father figure. Maybe. I really enjoyed all the behind the scenes discussion concerning the Battle of Blackwater. Good stuff.

Hard Feelings
by Jason Starr
Often I'm not a fan of first person narratives because nothing ever happens unless the narrator is there to tell you about it and you never get to see what anyone else thinks. But for this book, first person is not only the best way to tell the story it's difficult to imagine any other choice the author could have made. This is a incredible and yet simple piece of writing that is concise without being abrupt. Much like the movie The Man Who Wasn't There, the protagonist in Hard Feelings makes some choices that seem rational if you look at each choice separately but taken together the decisions put him in a bad spot. I guess you could call this neo-noir writing. There are also some pretty funny elements in the story. It has a lot of cynical black humor.

Richie Segal is a mid thirties computer infrastructure New York salesman. He's not having the best life. He jumped ship to a new job for a greater base salary and more responsibility but it looks like that was a bad decision. He hasn't made a sale since he arrived. His peers are starting to make fun of him. His bosses are calling him into office for pep talks and later thinly disguised threats to shape up or ship out. To make matters worse, his attractive wife Paula is not only making more money than Richie in her financial services job, but their marriage and sex life is starting to suffer. Richie's wondering if Paula is getting her biscuits rolled somewhere else. The company's top salesman, Steve Ferguson, has been assigned to "mentor" Richie. Richie doesn't like Steve at all. Richie is fearful that this is just the last step before termination. He's probably right about that. When people start talking about "action plans" and checking what time someone arrives to and leaves from work, the person they're discussing is on thin ice. At a previous job I knew one guy that used to roll in around 9:30~10:00 when regular start time was 6:30~8:30. He was sadly surprised when the business team agitated to get him fired and the IT boss finally acceded to their wishes. But I digress..

A lot of Richie's anxiety, sexual dysfunction and work problems stem from flashbacks of his abuse, physical and sexual, at the hands of a childhood bully, Michael Rudnick. In a strange coincidence Richie bumps into Michael on the street. Richie takes steps to erase those bad memories. It seems as if things are looking up for old Richie. He may yet be the Alpha Male he always thought he could be. Of course it wouldn't be much of a story if that were the case. This is really intense claustrophobic story that you will zoom through. It's just over 200 pages but you can finish it in a couple of hours. Starr is an entertaining writer who really knows how to draw the reader into his world. I can't overemphasize how well paced this book was. There are times when you will be screaming at Richie not to do something but of course he goes ahead and does it anyway.

Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack
by M.E. Kerr
Did you ever see the ABC Afterschool Special that was based on this book? If not then you missed a treat. The book is aimed at young adults but can certainly be understood and enjoyed by people at any stage of life. It was written in the early seventies. Cynicism hadn't become required or passe at that time so some of the irony and cynicism on display in the book actually feels fresh. If I remember correctly it was actually a shout out to Kurt Vonnegut by a character in this book that made me pull down a Vonnegut book from my parents' library and start reading. Maybe. That was a long time ago.

Anyway the book has a lot to say about parental-child relationships, family ties, addiction, first loves, toxic behavior and how people ask for help when they don't know how. It does all this in less than 200 pages so there's no bloat here and very few wasted words.

Tucker Woolf is a fifteen year old who has to give his cat away because his father, who has lost his job as a professional fundraiser, has suddenly gained an allergy to cats. He gives the cat away to one Susan "Dinky" Hocker, a fat girl a year younger than Tucker. Dinky likes to eat and as a result Tucker's cat starts to get as fat as Dinky. Tucker still visits the cat as often as he can and one day decides to go give Dinky a piece of his mind about overfeeding his cat and for that matter herself. But Dinky's parents have a new houseguest, one Natalia Line, Dinky's cousin, a girl of exquisite beauty, who once tried to kill herself. Tucker is smitten and starts finding excuses to go visit Natalia. Tucker's parents, especially his mother, a magazine columnist, find this incredibly amusing.
Dinky's parents are socially liberal professional do-gooders who are always railing about social responsibility to drug addicts, the impoverished, the minorities, etc but are either indifferent to or downright cruel to their daughter. Dinky gets a "friend" of her own, the fiercely intelligent and extremely overweight P. John, who also has an extremely liberal father who also is more interested in the masses of people than he is in his own son. Out of teen rebellion and a cry for help P. John takes up quite reactionary views. As Dinky can't get the attention and love she needs from her parents she takes some steps that can't be undone. I really liked this book. It brought back some good memories. If you are a New Yorker, the city is lovingly described.
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