Sunday, November 24, 2013

The House of Thunder by Dean Koontz

As an extremely fearful flier, I always try to carry a book along which has an interesting story but is easy to read, because I find it impossible to fully concentrate on reading while holding up the airplane. My daughter-in-law recommended Dean Koontz for this purpose, whose books she characterized as "mind candy."

Unfortunately, I think I must have chosen one of Koontz's worst offerings. I know he is extremely popular, and I cannot help but believe that most of his novels are better than this one. I should have been warned by the fact that it was originally published under a pseudonym. Even as "mind candy," it was less than successful.

The plot concerns a genius physicist who wakes up in a hospital with no memories of her past life. Gradually, most memories return, including the remembrance of a fraternity hazing incident from her college days which left her boyfriend dead and her as the testifying witness against four fraternity brothers. She remembers that at least two of the men are dead, and yet she begins seeing all four at the hospital, disguised as patients and orderlies, still looking to be in their early twenties although many years have passed. Are they hallucinations from a brain injury? Is she going crazy? Are they actually ghosts, as they claim to be? Is the whole situation a giant conspiracy with everyone in the hospital involved? To complicate matters, she falls in love with her doctor almost immediately.

This supernatural mystery was never actually scarey, and the solution (which is explained by a character in a very lame method of revelation) is so unlikely as to be laughable, and reveals many, many plot holes.

If I ever read Koontz again, I will seek out a recommendation for a specific title. Surely he has produced better.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Ape House by Sara Gruen

This novel is a bit strange, in that its pieces don't seem to quite fit together.

The most interesting piece concerns the apes--bonobos--and their almost-human abilities to communicate through sign language and the computer. Gruen reportedly extensively researched the work being done with our first cousins, and her account of their abilities is both factual and fascinating. Although she explores the bonobos' personalities to an extent, I kept wishing she had expanded this aspect of the story.

The second piece of the plot concerns Isabel Duncan, a scientist working with the bonobos at the Great Ape Language Lab who is more comfortable with apes than with people. When the lab is blown up and the apes are sold and transported to an unknown location, she must finally trust a few other people in order to secure the safety of her beloved bonobos. This aspect of the story has a tenuous connection to the first piece, although her transformation seems almost to come out of nowhere.

A very large piece of the novel is the account of John Thigpen, the reporter who helps Isabel in her efforts to protect the bonobos. We learn about his employment troubles, his failed-novelist wife and her stint as a television script writer, the couple's in-law problems, the wife's wish to have a baby and the husband's ambivalence about fatherhood, what a good cook the wife is and how sexy she is, and so on and so on. This part of the story seems to have no connection to the ape story at all. In fact, it could just as well belong to another novel altogether, or perhaps be developed as a novel all by itself, with just a bit of expansion.

I could go on and on, mentioning several other subplots that don't seem to have any relevance to the ape story. There's the meth lab explosion, for instance.

I don't understand why some editor didn't step in and tell Sara Gruen to focus on telling one story.

I really wanted to like this book because I found Gruen's Water for Elephants to be charming. The best I can say is that I liked the part about the apes.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

(I just returned from a trip and did not write reviews on the books I read while I was away. So, no, I did not read 4 books in a couple of days. I read fast, but not that fast)

I chose to read this translated Japanese book out of curiosity, because it is alleged by some that the author of The Hunger Games copied it. (She says not.) This one was written first (1999), and it does develop the same premise of teenagers forced to fight to the death, but the resemblance ends there.

Basically, I would say that The Hunger Games was written with pre-teen and teenage girls in mind, with the emphasis being on the character development of a young woman in a dangerous situation, while Battle Royale was written with teenage boys in mind, with the emphasis being on action and blood and gore. The Hunger Games aims for status as "Literature," while Battle Royale is unashamedly pulp fiction.

Here we have 42 participants, all from the same class in school. Only a few characters are followed, so most are just briefly sketched before they are killed in various creative and graphically described ways. Even the main characters are only perfunctorily delineated, so that the focus remains on the action. The fascist society that promotes the battles is only touched upon, and the rationale for the battles is never very clear.

This is not a novel to be taken seriously, even as a young adult offering, but it is fast moving and easy to read and somewhat suspenseful. According to reports, the movie version was extremely popular in Japan, although somewhat controversial because of the extreme violence. For what it is, it is well done.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I have often noticed that the back-cover blurbs of many novels do the books a disservice by overly extravagant praise, especially in their comparisons to outstanding works and authors. The reader is led to expect too much, which most often results in disappointment, even though the book in question may be interesting in its own way. That was certainly the case with this novel, which is compared to the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco, and Jorge Luis Borges. Unfortunately, it did not in any way live up to that standard of creativity and excellence. So even though The Shadow of the Wind is something of a page-turner, with a succession of mysteries and melodramatic events, I was disappointed.

The novel begins in a very promising fashion when young Daniel is taken by his father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where he is permitted to choose one book to adopt, to make sure it will always stay alive. He soon discovers that his chosen book comes with a mystery, because someone has been systematically hunting down and burning all the author's novels. Intrigued, as he grows to adulthood he begins trying to learn the history of Julian Carfax, the author of his Forgotten Book, and of the identity of the unknown destroyer of Carfax's novels. Along the way, he finds an amusing sidekick who helps him in his quest and a young lady to love, a situation which comes with its own set of problems.

Actually, if I had not expected more from this novel I would have given it much higher praise. I will say it is much above average for popular fiction, but that it is not Literary Fiction, such as one would expect from Marquez or Borges or even Eco. I expect most readers would find it great fun to read.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Son by Philipp Meyer

This long Phillip Meyer novel set in Texas is often a page-turner and fun to read, yet I feel that much of the positive hype that surrounds it is undeserved. I would certainly not classify it as "The Great American Novel" or "an epic in the tradition of Faulkner and Melville."

It's hard to know what opinion I might have if I lived in Wisconsin or New York City, for instance, but since I have lived all my life in Texas I'm sure my opinion is skewed. This is how a native Texan sees it. Yet another "foreigner" has written a multi-generational Texas epic, following in the footsteps of Edna Ferber and James Michener. This author is from Baltimore, and even though he now lives "mostly in Texas," he continues the tradition of presenting unflattering stereotypes of Texans. None of the characters are admirable, not even the titular son, the only one with a conscience. Really, you guys, surely some Texans manage to be both successful and honorable.

The action follows three members of the McCullough family: Eli, born in 1836, the first male child of the new Republic of Texas; Peter, son of Eli, born in 1870, heir to infamy as well as to a fortune; and Jeanne Anne, granddaughter of Peter, born in 1926, a woman constantly striving to be accepted as "one of the boys."

The story of Eli, told in first person, is the most riveting, recounting his captivity at age 13 by the Comanche and his life as an accepted member of the tribe. Obviously (sometimes too obviously), much authorial research went into this portion of the story, and the details of Comanche life are vivid and absorbing. Once Eli is returned to white society, the story becomes less interesting, being an account of his overweening ambition and pragmatically ruthless opportunism and outright thievery as he amasses a fortune.

Peter's story is told in first person through his journals, beginning when he accompanies his father Eli and a group of vigilantes on a raid against a wealthy Mexican neighbor because of suspected cattle rustling, as they slaughter all in sight, including the women and children. Though he is tortured by guilt, Peter lacks the strength of character or courage to do anything to stop the carnage or Eli's subsequent fraudulent takeover of the neighbor's vast ranch. In fact, Peter is perhaps fully as blameworthy as the other characters because he recognizes injustice but weakly allows it, doing little more than wringing his hands.

Meyer switches to third person to tell Jeanne Anne's story, which is very definitely the least interesting of the three strands. Her life is extraordinarily uneventful, her ruling ambition not being to make yet more money but being to gain recognition from the male power brokers of Texas as one of their equals. In her attempt to do so, she, also, tramples on the rights of others. Poor little rich girl--making money hand over fist and she still can't get respect. The structure of the novel, which switches from character to character, ingeniously cloaks the weakness of the Jeanne Anne segments in between the more interesting sections.

The apparent theme of the novel, that all land and wealth is acquired by stealing it from someone else, is repeated numerous times in different contexts. In Texas, Indians had stolen the land from other Indians, the Mexicans then stole it from the Indians, and the Texans then stole it from the Mexicans. Blood watered the land and only the most ruthless survived.

Undoubtedly, variations of this scenario have always existed everywhere. And yet this bleak picture of humanity is not the whole story of any land, nor does it reflect the entirety of the history of Texas, despite what the television show Dallas and novels by Yankees might have you believe.