Read and reading

On this page I will attempt to write about or 'review' a couple of books I picked out during the year which I found was extremely good, funny, terrific, classic or just plain crap. Whatever makes them stand out. The worst you can be is average, right?

 A lesson in creativity...
Nekropolis - Tim Waggoner - I purchased this in the wonderful city of York, England about 6 months ago and couldn't wait to start reading it. Coming from indepent publishing house Angry Robot, Nekropolis promises to be weird, out-there, creative and exactly what I'm searching for.

And I wasn't disappointed. 

Nekropolis centers around the character of Matt Richter who is a private investigator in the strange city of Nekropolis, a city inhabited solely by vampires, zombies, werewolves, monsters and the like. When one day he is hired by a sexy, young vampirella to find a powerful artifact, the plot is complete. 

Oh, there's one more thing: Matt is a zombie.

Throughout the book, the plot is ever-present. Waggoner doesn't allow himself to be distracted by the lavishly over-done playground that is Nekropolis. He walks through it as if he lived there all his life. As it turned out, he did. The book was conceived around 15 years ago and Waggoner has been building on it ever since.

Combine the creative setting, the humour and a plot that everybody knows and loves, and you got one wonderful yarn! However, this would never work without the hilarious scenes and situations that Matt the Zombie Investigator gets around every corner. Were there ever be made a film of this, one would gawk at it with mouth wide-open!

Not for the faint-hearted.

'Under the Tome'
Mr. King's 1000-page

Under The Dome - Stephen King - Let's see... I started this last year, before Christmas, somewhere. There was snow... ice... presents... and one of them was Stephen King's latest 1000-page page-turner 'Under the Dome'. Although I was recently disappointed by his 700-page snooze-fest Duma Key, I was very excited when my sister-in-law got me this. I loved the premise from the first moment I heard about it and with the Simpsons-movie still in my mind, I couldn't help wondering what a Serious Writer would make of it.

The story opens with a nice description of how the villagers of Chester's Mill are getting trapped under an immense dome. Nobody knows what it is, nobody knows where it came from or why its here. Dale Barbara ('Barbie') is a retired lieutenant from the US Army who quickly becomes an outlaw for the ad-hoc town government led by 'Big Jim' Rennie. Pretty soon, the town gets divided into two camps with Big Jim turning into a cold and calculating dictator and Barbie becoming an icon of a guerrilla-movement within the town. With the people all the while either trying to find out what is going on or trying to lead their normal lives.

From the first page onwards I knew this was going to be a modern classic. Epic, apocalyptic and harsh. Before the first chapter is over about 20 people bought the farm already and the tone is set. It doesn't let up after that. There's this evil government led by a second-hand car dealer who has his rules enforced by a couple of high-school bullies. There's environmental issues as there is no more wind or water coming into the village. As always, there are people psyche's either going this way or that. There's a meth-lab with a mysterious junkie called 'The Chef'. And to top everything off there's a budding psychopath on the loose. JUST FOR GOOD MEASURE.

An epic yarn like this could easily loose itself in mindless banter about the environment, paying for past mistakes, a government conspiracy or some other drag, but that's only if you're not Stephen King. Although the story has about 10 main characters and 20 or more less important characters, the focus of the story is clear: WHAT IS THE DOME, WHY IS IT HERE, and how THE HELL are we going to stop this rampaging dictator? And luckily, Mr. King doesn't loose sight of this, ever.

There are weak points in the story, but to point them out would be nit-picking. Basically Stephen King has avoiding all the pitfalls that could have doomed this book to a cult-status. With the multiple story lines, the immense amount of characters and the simple premise which could easily been shot full of holes, he carefully works with it and stays in charge of the story. There is nothing that can be said about, except HE'S SIMPLY DONE IT AGAIN!

I have been reconfirmed exactly why Mr. King is one of my favorite authors.

Duma Key - Stephen King - I bought this book about a year ago at the airport without exactly knowing why. After Bag of Bones, Stephen King has kind of lost my interest since that book always felt strained and far-fetched. But since I have very fond memories of his classics such as Misery and Needful Things, I thought I'd give him the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, my doubt were reconfirmed.

Duma Key opens on the aftermath of Edgar's horrible accident at the job site, which takes his right arm and scrambles his brain. It follows him through the collapse of his marriage and his recuperation at a far off Florida Key, called Duma. Here, Edgar, a succesful project developer, rekindles his old love for painting. He also meets and elderly lady whose roots run deep in Duma's history. Soon, he finds out, his talent for painting is being used (or abused) by an ancient and evil force trying to reassert itself in today's world.

Although it's not bad (Stephen King on his worst day could not be 'bad'), it, once again, feels strained and overwrought. Mr. King seems to be struggling for words, scenes are far-fetched and dialogue is strewn with silly one-liners and superfluous cuss-words. The spontaneity is gone and the flow of words seems interrupted and halting. All the hallmarks are there (long character-developing scenes, lovable character dies), but they somehow don't mix very well together. The eventual end-game and solution to the problem seems far-fetched and unbelievable.

On the upside, Mr. King once again managed to keep me reading a book of over 700 pages and that counts for something. He is still a master storyteller who can wield words and characters like no other, but I saw little of that in Duma Key. In the meantime, I've spotted his later Under the Dome and it looks more promising already.

Stephen King Page

Granny - Anthony Horowitz - From warm Ibiza we went to the cold and rain of jolly ol' England. We visited York in the autumn months and found a very nice collection of quaint little bookshops and other odd stores. In one of them I found this book by an old love of mine. Mr. Horowitz has been delighting me for decades now, from ever since I was a small boy to now. I started reading this book as soon as I came out on the streets and had to wait for my girlfriend and from the very first page to the last, it was an utter delight.

The story opens with a wonderful humouristic scene where the family is trying to get away from Granny (the mother's mother) through an airport. The language is simple, since it's a children's book, but invokes such great and funny images that it'll leave you in stitches. This doesn't change.

The book centers around Joe, a young boy, growing up in a loveless home. He gets the sneaking suspicion his Granny doesn't like him. She gives him odd presents that he has to accept and be thankful for. She makes him eat everything he doesn't like and kisses him with her prickly upper lip. But all this is relatively tame compared to what she actually has in store for him.
As Joe finds out more and more about his grandmother he uncovers a devilish plot, concocted by a nation-wide group of grannies who have something horrible in mind for all the youngsters of England and Joe in particular.

I was pleasantly reminded of what I liked about Anthony Horowitz when I was a small boy. The (dark) humour and the mystery are still very apparent in his writing and offer the reader a wonderful experience as they dive into his twisted world.
All the characters of the family are once again larger-than-life, cartoon-ish, and so over the top that your cheeks will hurt after reading the account of their Christmas dinner. Nevertheless, they invoke a sense of innocence and naivety which is heart-warming. All, that is, except Granny, who is just pure evil! And that's the way we like it!

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley - A little leap in time to the warm months of summer where we enjoyed the sights and sounds of the beautiful island of Ibiza. Out drinking all night, we needed quiet days on the beach and that goes well with a good book. So when I found this gem in a harbour front magazine store, I knew it was going to be good.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (I'm a sucker for long titles) takes place in the final days of the old English gentry. At the crumbling family mansion of the De Luce's, eleven-year-old Flavia is conducting her chemistry experiments in a secluded wing of the house. She's a little genius, but frequently pestered by her older sisters. Father hasn't been himself since Mother passed away and the only one keeping the house in order, it seems, is the last remaining helping hand Dogger, a mysterious man that owes Father his life in a grey and distant past. When one night little Flavia finds a murdered body on the doorstep, all fingers quickly point to Father. But Flavia is not convinced. She will need all her wit and intelligence to solve the murder and free Father! And of course, there's getting revenge on her older sisters for locking her in the closet...

Reading it in the sand, with the Spanish sun burning my back and taking the occasional dip in the blue waters, the surroundings naturally helped. Still, with the wit with which this book has been written, the dragging pace of a symphony with equal smart construction, kept me turning page after page after page. The atmosphere of the old English mansion is so well-defined I could almost touch the ivy growing up the crumbling walls. The language is so colourful and rosy, it would get pompous if it wasn't for the humour instilled. It keeps everything down to earth.

The one really carrying this story is, of course, the wonderful character of Flavia. A genius of chemistry at eleven, riding her bicycle around the rural English village and dealing with these infuriating grown-ups that don't recognize her intelligence, could feel construed and forced, but it flows from Bradley's pen with such great ease, it's a joy to read. Keep an eye on this one!

Flavia de Luce Page

Little Hands Clapping - Dan Rhodes - Another Fnac-book I picked up on my trip to Portugal and again picked solely on the strength of the title and the cover. For all those self-publishing authors out there, never underestimate the power of the title and the cover! It's the calling card for your book, both online and offline.

Little Hands Clapping is as weird and funny as the title makes you suspect. We meet the Old Man who lives above a bizarre German museum, showing the various ways in which people commit suicide. He eats crackers in the morning and spiders in his sleep. He becomes strangely acquainted with the village doctor who has a terrible hobby all his own and needs the help of the Old Man in fulfilling this.
Parallel to this storyline is the story of two young lovers (from Portugal, oh the coincidence!) who loose each other when moving out into the real world. The young girl is sent into a whirlpool of depression and suicidal thoughts and finally ends up in the museum of the Old Man. The final outcome of both story lines is written with such wit I re-read it instantly.

Rhodes combines sad romance and melancholy with horror and comedy and does so with fervor. Never the writing wavers, it stands like a brick house, solid as a rock. Many of the jokes will send you hiccuping for the toilet and more than once I had to stop myself from laughing out loud. The larger-than-life characters all seem to have a wonderful air of innocence around them, even the Old Man, which somehow makes them real again, despite the obvious comical basis of the book. Although the story feels more like a short story than a novel, it still counts over 300 pages, so that says something for the pace of the story which is fast. Not a word too many.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer - Jonathan L. Howard - I started 2010 with a trip to Lisbon, Portugal and since it rains cats and dogs in Portugal in March, we ended up in Fnac. Needlessly to say, we left 100 euros lighter and several bags of books richer. One of those books was Johannes Cabal the Necromancer.
I'd picked it out solely on the strength of the title and the cover. The next morning my girlfriend went for a haircut at her local barbershop and since it was raining again, I crawled up in a chair in the corner and read the book almost from start to finish. 

If you like strange fiction, this is your book. For lovers of dark fantasy with enough humour to keep you snickering like a little schoolgirl, this is your book. It deals with Johannes Cabal, by all accounts a very gifted necromancer with all the implications thereof. The book opens with Cabal going down the pits of Hell to claim his soul back from Satan. This scene alone sends you into fits of laughter, but it gets better.
The Lord of Darkness doesn't hand Cabal's soul over without a fight, of course, and coaxes the necromancer into starting a carnival of souls, so to speak. Cabal has to earn Satan 100 souls within a year in order to win back his soul. Cabal, naturally peefed, returns to Earth and immediately employs two hoodlums (whom he kills and turns to zombies) to help him on his quest. Along comes also Cabal's brother whom he turned into a vampire many years ago and subsequently banished to life in a mausoleum. 
Funny enough, it's this vampire brother Horst who later becomes a sounding board for morality as the story spins down a darker path. For the ride of the carnival train throughout the year starts out fun and happy, snatching souls from each and every place in various comical interludes, but turns dark and horrific in the later chapters as the end of the year approaches and Cabal threatens to lose his bet. It's final outcome I will leave for the readers.

Howard combines the horrific with the comical in a satirical tapestry which we recognize from, for example, Terry Pratchett. The hapless helpers, the running gags (the two zombies fall apart more and more as the journey goes on) and the dialogue are all tuned to start you snickering from within until you roar out with laughter. The writing never gets dull. The pace is excellent, switching between the funny carnival scenes and the horrific bits. The ways in which the various demons and devils win the souls of the unsuspecting carnival-goers is both clever and well-written.
The only part where the book wavers just a little is when Cabal is almost loosing his bet and the support of his circus freaks as well as that of his brother. His final showdown with Lucifer feels somehow strained and far-fetched. But this is followed and exceeded by an excellent twist in the plot in the final chapter when we find out exactly why Cabal is so hell-bent on gaining his soul back and even why he became a necromancer in the first place.
We are led to believe we'll be seeing more of Cabal and, as I have noticed around the internet, we have! So I'm guessing I'll be heading back to Fnac again next year!

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