BOOK REVIEW: What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong

What the Hell Did I Just Read (John Dies at the End, #3)What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the third installment in a trilogy that began with “John Dies at the End.” The series takes place in an undisclosed and rundown Midwestern town that is prone to various catastrophic supernatural shenanigans. It’s a humor-horror cross-genre work that is heavier on the former than the latter by virtue of the fact that the tone is consistently lightened by the duo of doofuses’ jokes and unreliable narration – often in the face of apparently calamitous events.

In the first book, the narrator, David, and the titular character, John, consume a drug (street-named “Soy Sauce”) that gives them the ability to see supernatural phenomena to which the general citizenry are blind. This book continues with that idea, but — given their experience with supernatural happenings, limited as it may be – they’ve become paranormal investigators of sorts (usually unpaid and sometimes without anyone asking for their services.) Also, Amy becomes not only a more firmly established love interest to David, but also a full-fledged member of the team – albeit the one that plays straight-[wo]man to the buffoonery of the other two.

The central event in this story is a child abduction that turns into a chain of abductions, but soon it becomes in doubt whether the children ever existed in the first place – or whether they are mass delusions implanted by a monstrous source. The book unfolds as the story of the trio trying to find the “children,” to find out what their true nature is, and then to figure out what to do about them. The villain’s henchman is capable of shape-shifting and takes several forms throughout the book – including that of David, thus casting suspicion upon him.

The author takes an interesting approach to perspective. The perspective shifts between David, John, and Amy, but only the David parts are written in first person (John and Amy are allotted sections from their perspective, but they are written in third-person limited perspective.) There are section headings to clarify whose perspective is being used and so it’s not hard to follow (even context would provide a great clue.) The shifting perspectives serves three purposes. First, one can see points in time during which David is not present, allowing the team to divide and conquer and for humorous confusion to be exploited. Second, it allows one to see the difference between the various accounts of the same event, which is helpful in building confidence about what actually happened — given the unreliable narration. Third, it allows for unreliable narration to be used for comedic effect. John, in particular, is famous for being especially unreliable among the unreliable narrators, though most of his embellishment is along sexual lines. [Amy is the most reliable in that she isn’t prone to flights of fancy. However, she has no ability to see through the shapeshifters and implanted hallucinations, and so she might – in fact — be the least reliable.]

There is not a strong and satisfying conclusion to the story. In part, this is because it’s not entirely clear what really transpired. We know at the end that there is another version of events out there, an account written by a scholar of the paranormal who is a secondary character in the latter half of the book. However, it also seems that the author tries to end one the lesson that sometimes the best thing to do is to wait and see, and not create problems by one’s need to be active. That is a fine lesson, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying conclusion to the story. There is also a muddled motivation of the “missing children.” I don’t think this lack of a definitive ending is about setting up a fourth entry in the series because the author states only vague intentions to (possibly) continue the series at some undefined point in the future. I also don’t think it’s a matter of having painted himself into a corner, but it maybe that he’s trying to say something about what really happened that I didn’t actually get. That’s a risk with so much going on in a multi-perspective, unreliably-narrated book.

There is a humorous attempt to engage with the challenge of mental illness, with John and Amy encouraging David to get help toward the end of the book. [This is also addressed in the epilogue.]

This is certainly a fun read. It’s humorous throughout. The story isn’t the strongest (or perhaps isn’t the clearest.) If you’ve read the other books, or at least the first one, and enjoyed it, I’d recommend you give this one a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Chu, Vol. 1 by John Layman and Dan Boultwood

Chu, Vol, 1Chu, Vol, 1 by John Layman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: January 26, 2021

 

The unique element of this book is its food-centric premise, and – in particular – the existence of food-based extrasensory perception. The central character, Saffron Chu, is able to read the mind of anyone nearby, if she eats the exact same thing that person is consuming as he or she consumes it. Saffron is part of a criminal gang that conducts high-value burglaries. Saffron’s brother, Tony, has a different (and much grosser) food ESP in that he can get psychic impressions from sampling the deceased at crime scenes (i.e. a bit like “iZombie” but he doesn’t have to eat brains; it can be blood or viscera that he tastes.) [Actually, his power is broader than that in that he can get impressions off of anything he eats, except – for some reason – beets, but the tasting of blood and gore is most relevant to his role in this story.] Tony is a police detective.

The story begins with the crew that Saffron belongs to bungling the burglary of a powerful crime boss. Keeping with the critical role of food, the burglary fails because a city-wide outbreak of food poisoning attributable to tainted chicken strikes part of the crew, and only Saffron and her charming, if douchey, Dick Dastardly-looking boyfriend – Eddie Molay – escape. The rest of the story revolves around Saffron and Eddie trying to survive and escape revenge attacks from the crime-lord who they attempted to rob. As the couple is doing so, Tony and his partner are assigned to solve the murders of the burglary-gone-awry from which Saffron and Eddie escaped, as well as some of the subsequent cases that ensue.

Family is a major element of the story’ tension. The cat-and-mouse between Tony and Saffron is only part of this, though it is a central element of the story. These characters are also put in situations in which they must determine if family comes before the other things they value, and they must cope with the fact that whatever they do happens within a familial context – i.e. they each have to face the shame of the family knowing who they truly are.

The art is whimsical, colorful, and easy to follow. The classic cartoony nature of the drawings is beneficial in maintaining a tone that is lighthearted, despite the many gruesome deaths that are depicted in graphic, but comically absurd ways.

This volume collects the first five issues (#1-5) of the series. I enjoyed the story, which was straightforward and entertaining. The premise of the book is unique, if odd — but better bizarre than cliché.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

The Magician's Nephew (Chronicles of Narnia, #1)The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Controversy swirls around this kid-friendly fantasy novel, a controversy not dissimilar to that which plays out among diehard “Star Wars” fans. This book was the sixth of seven books to be written by Lewis as part of what became “The Chronicles of Narnia,” but it’s a prequel that describes the creation of Narnia. Therefore, some people claim that it must be read first because it shows the dawn of the alternate world on which the rest of the series is based. Others, however, insist that the books should be read in the order written, i.e. beginning with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” [Lest one think one is offending the author’s sensibilities by reading this one first, it should be pointed out that Lewis, himself, said he had no intention of writing more than the first volume when he started, and – therefore — it’s not as though reading this one first is an assault on his plans.] While I have no dog in the fight, per se, this is the first book of this series that I’ve read. I intend to read “Lion / Witch / Wardrobe” at some point, as it is one of the most popular books in the series. [After that, we’ll see; I’m not a huge fan of series books.]

The titular nephew is a boy whose mother is ill and his father is working in India, and, therefore, the boy and his sick mom are living with an aunt and uncle. Soon after Digory meets the next-door-neighbor girl, Polly, who will be his partner in adventure, the young explorers accidentally stumble into the uncle’s office / laboratory. The uncle is what Christopher Booker calls a “Dark Father-figure / Tyrant” – i.e. he is a manipulative and cowardly old man who uses others recklessly to his own advantage. In the case of Digory and Polly, he tricks the girl into donning a ring that will send her into a parallel universe, and then he manipulates Digory into going after her so that he can get a report in order to learn what is on the other side (The rings come in pairs and she has no “return ring.”) [Note: for the adult reader — and even many older and / or more sophisticated young readers – the weakest part of this book is the fact that the uncle was able to create these rings when it’s clear he doesn’t even know how they work. This element requires one to check one’s credulity at the door, and just accept the answer is “magic.” It is, after all, a kid’s book.]

The ring transports the dynamic duo to a forest that serves as a transshipment station between worlds. It is a quiet and peaceful place. Once Digory follows Polly through, the natural question arises as to whether they should go straight back home or check out one of the other worlds. They decide to go into another world to see what it’s like. One of the prevailing themes of this book is the very Biblical question of how one confronts temptation. When they get to the parallel world, they find that its inhabitants have been frozen by some sort of magic. The first [major] temptation of the book regards whether they should ring a bell, an action that will have unknown consequences. In a switch on the Bible story, this time the girl is the voice of reason who urges against temptation, while Digory is quite insistent and – ultimately — gets his way. This unfreezes the world, waking up a beautiful “queen” who turns out to be a witch and completing a collapse of the city that the freezing had interrupted. When Digory and Polly escape back to the forest, they unwittingly bring the Witch along with them, and – even worse – she manages to follow them back to their world.

While the Witch doesn’t retain all her magical powers on Earth, she is quite strong and does manage to create quite a ruckus. Realizing he is responsible for the mayhem, Digory realizes he must get rid of the Witch. In the process of trying to get the Witch back to her own world, Digory, Polly, the magician / uncle, a cabman, and the cabman’s horse are pulled into a different alternate world, a world where Aslan, the lion, is in the process of creating Narnia. The Witch escapes off to do mischief, happy to be back in a place of magic. In Narnia, some of the animals are of an intelligent / talking variety, and – as it happens – this includes the cabman’s horse, Fledge.

Digory believes that Narnia, being a magical place, might have something that can save his ill mother. While he tries to get Aslan to give him some such magical medicine, what Aslan actually gives him is an opportunity for redemption, a chance to again face temptation and to decide whether he will do the right thing. This opportunity involves Digory, Polly, and Fledge going on a mission for a magical MacGuffin, a mission that ultimately, Digory – alone — can complete.

I read an illustrated version of this book. The illustrations might be nice for reading to children, though they didn’t add a lot for adult readers, and were fairly sparsely placed throughout the story.

If one can get past the implausibility of the uncle – who is a bit of a doofus – creating these high-powered magic rings that allow trans-dimensional travel, a power beyond that of the Witch who is shown to be in all ways more advanced than the uncle with respect to magic (except, with regards to the rings,) then the rest of the story is reasonably sound for a fantasy novel. I found the book to be engaging and worth reading. As I said, I can’t say whether it is better to read this volume first or sixth, but it does read as a standalone story.

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BOOK REVIEW: iZOMBIE, VOL. 1: DEAD TO THE WORLD by Chris Roberson

iZombie, Vol. 1: Dead to the WorldiZombie, Vol. 1: Dead to the World by Chris Roberson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“iZombie” is the story of Gwen, a zombie who works as a grave-digger to allow her access to ethically-sourced brains (at least compared to the alternative.) Gwen lives in the cemetery, has a colorful cast of friends and confreres, including: a ghost, a were-dog, and the odd human being. The niche idea that separates this from the vast zombie lore is that Gwen takes on memories and personality traits of the ex-owner of the most recent brain she consumes. She then uses this knowledge to do a favor for the deceased, be it solving their murder, or otherwise. In this volume, following visions of the deceased family man leads Gwen back to a spooky house that she and her ghost-girl pal had trick-or-treated at on Halloween.

I read this because I was intrigued after seeing the CW television series which is based upon this comic book. For those who’ve seen the show and are wondering, the book and show have very little in common beyond the premise of a female zombie who takes on memories and personality traits of the former owner of the brain she consumes. In the tv series, the main character is Liv Moore, a doctor in the medical examiner’s office, and the series is much more of a police procedural set in a city experiencing a covert pandemic of Zombification. Both the comic and the tv series are light-hearted takes on zombie tropes, but the tv series reminds me more of “Psych” than it does, say, “The Walking Dead.” [An individual who people believe is a psychic, but who solves crimes in another way altogether – i.e. “Psych” with Zombies.] Comparing the comic book is more difficult, but I would say it has a definite “Scooby-Doo” vibe, except the monsters (e.g. vampires) are real and not the scary ploy of a crotchety old man (and there’s a nefarious guild of monster hunters in the mix.)

I enjoyed reading this volume. It wasn’t as satisfying as it could be because it seemed like it was more about setting up a larger story than it was about telling a story within the volume itself. That is, I was left in a somewhat unsatisfied state of having more questions outstanding than I felt were answered. To be fair, there is a story – i.e. an answer as to why Gwen’s “brain of the month” died, but we don’t really know whether that answer can be trusted because we know the responsible party has some (presently ill-defined) ulterior motive. Perhaps, it is just that, as readers, we enter the protagonist’s world “in medias res” and then are given a huge helping to chew on that will not be paid off until later. The combination of these two factors causes the volume’s story arc to get lost.

I enjoyed this comic book, overall. I will make the unpopular and anti-urbane comment that the tv series seemed a bit cleverer and more intriguing to me. That said, it’s an interesting concept and a nice light-hearted read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

The Hollow PlacesThe Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 3, 2020

 

I’m a sucker for down-the-rabbit-hole alternative world fiction. Kingfisher’s version is eerie and dark, as opposed to the more whimsical and fantastical versions of Lewis Carroll or Neil Gaiman. [While the latter have their share of tense moments, an adventurous person would still chase those experiences, but through Kingfisher’s looking glass is a world that everyone who wanders in immediately wants to escape.]

The book is set in and around a museum in a tourist trap town in the southern US. This museum is what would have been called a “cabinet of curiosities” back in the day, which is to say it combines natural history displays with a bit of a freak show aspect to spice things up. This setting contributes nicely to the story, offering both a suitably weird environment to lend credulity to the anomalous happenings and a suitably creepy environment to make the climax a harrowing experience.

The story revolves around a recently divorced woman named Kara (nickname: Carrot) who goes to live and work at Wonder Museum, her uncle’s cabinet of curiosities. She does this because she’s a gig-economy graphic designer without enough gigs to put her in a home of her own, because she wishes to avoid moving in with a mother who can be overbearing, and because her beloved Uncle Earl could use a hand as he’s getting up in years. When Uncle Earl has to get knee surgery and must leave the museum in Kara’s hands, all hell breaks loose by way of the opening of a portal to a parallel universe.

I should point out that the book isn’t dark and foreboding throughout, the main character and her sidekick / barista-next-door, Simon, provide plenty of comic relief, and we do get a good bit of character development for Kara in early chapters. I think the story benefits from what some might find a slow-burn opening. It’s intriguing to see how Kara is in emotional turmoil in the beginning over her failed marriage and lack of stable income, but then the trials of the story put matters into perspective for her.

Like the Algernon Blackwood novella (i.e. “The Willows”) that influenced it, this story manages to be a chilling and visceral experience without at all being gratuitously graphic or wantonly murderous. While some would classify it “horror,” it might better be considered a tale of the weird. The author does a fine job of creating atmosphere. In one sense, this concision of gruesomeness might be seen as a more impressive than in Blackwood’s story because Kingfisher’s characters are set in their everyday lives and thus the story has to shift between lighthearted and grim – whereas, Blackwood’s story about a couple of guys canoeing a remote stretch of the Danube River was able to be starker throughout. (As I recall, it’s been a while since I read “The Willows.”)

I found this book to be gripping. It kept my attention throughout with a mix of humor, gallows humor, and bleak moments. My most intense criticism involves the description of events leading up to, as well as during, the climax. There were moments where my attention was drawn from the story to asking questions (e.g. why was that so easy? Why was that so hard? Or, why didn’t she do X?) It might just be me, but I felt that in the attempt to maintain a fast pace, the author may have glossed over some challenges. That said, it’s fair to point out that the character is sleep-deprived and terrified at this point, so maybe this approach was (consciously or un-) an attempt to capture Kara’s disjointed state of mind, and maybe I was simply overreading. At any rate, I thought the book resolved strongly and was plotted smartly.

If you like alternative worlds fiction – and don’t mind it being a visceral experience – this would be a great book to check out.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Neil Gaiman Library, Vol. 2 by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 2The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 2 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 24, 2020

 

This is a graphic novelization of several pieces of Neil Gaiman’s short fiction. The component works are all speculative fiction (i.e. taking place where the fantastical is possible,) and – more specifically – most would be classed urban fantasy — though there is a touch of horror.

The book contains four parts, and could be thought of as four stories. However, the first chapter, “Likely Stories,” is actually a collection of tales connected by being told in the same private after-hours club. So, the connective tissue is bar patrons trying to one-up each other with more intriguing stories. The pieces included are: “Feeders and Eaters” (the entry most likely to be classified as horror,) “Looking for a Girl,” and “Closing Time.”

The second story is “Troll Bridge,” and it shows a man’s repeated encounters with a troll who exists in the pedestrian tunnel under an abandoned rail line. These meetings begin when the protagonist is a young boy and continue until he’s middle-aged.

The penultimate story is entitled “Harlequin Valentine,” and it’s about an amorous Harlequin who develops an infatuation with a young woman and begins to stalk her. When he gives her his heart, it doesn’t go as expected.

The final story is “The Facts in the Case of the Disappearance of Miss Finch.” When a writer is roped into a double date in which his date is a dowdy and humorless scholar, the night that had been a train of misery ends in a mind-blowing (if disconcerting) fashion.

This was an excellent read. While it’s a second volume, because it’s short fiction, the book is completely self-contained. One doesn’t need to read the first volume beforehand to follow these tales. Each of the stories is satisfying in itself. I’d read at least one of these stories previously (possibly more) but it didn’t feel redundant because the conversion of the textual stories to graphic ones gives each an entirely different feel. The art is clear and the various styles match the tone of the respective stories nicely. If you like Neil Gaiman’s work, you should definitely check this one out. [And if you’re unfamiliar with Gaiman, I’d recommend you get familiar.]

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BOOK REVIEW: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

The Third PolicemanThe Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Full-disclosure: I’m a huge fan of stories involving mind-bending, surrealist worlds, of which this is a masterful example. I also find dry, absurdist humor of the Monty Python variety to be hilarious, and this book has loads of it. In short, for me this book was a match made in heaven.

The opening of the story is normal enough. There are two characters who seem to be inseparable friends, but – in fact – they are inseparable because they conspired to murder an old man in order to steal his money. One man, the protagonist, fears that the other man (who knows where the loot was stashed) will make off with the money, leaving our lead high and dry. After the two have left time for the heat to die down, the partner (who knows where the money is) suggests they go to retrieve and split it. Recognizing that the protagonist doesn’t trust him, the partner suggests that the protagonist go into the old man’s abandoned house to extract the lock-box that they left behind.

The protagonist agrees, and once he enters the old man’s house, we know that he has tumbled down some sort of rabbit-hole. The reader doesn’t learn what the cause of this shift into a dreamlike world is until near the end of the story, but it’s quite obvious that this isn’t the real world. “Dreamlike” is an apt descriptor. While this bizarre world clearly builds on the world as he knows it, it also defies the logic of the world as we know it. Furthermore, as when in a dream, the protagonist doesn’t recognize the strange logic of how this world operates, nor does he truly recognize how strange people’s behavior is.

The strangeness begins with the protagonist’s discovery of the man he killed – apparently living – in the house. The conversation gets off to an odd start when the protagonist discovers that the old man will only answer yes / no questions in the negative, and so he’s been giving false information about half the time. Their meandering conversation shifts onto the titular “policemen,” who – while vaguely authority figures – are involved in all manner of inexplicable activities from making garments that indicate the length of a person’s lifespan to taking measurements of unexplained quantities for unexplained purposes (or – perhaps – no purpose.) The protagonist reasons that since these policemen seem to know so much, they will surely be able to tell him where the lock-box is located.

As I said, the book contains a lot of absurdist humor. Some of this derives from the policemen’s obsession with bicycles. When the protagonist arrives, they just assume he is there about a stolen bicycle (or bicycle parts) and – no matter how he tries to convince them otherwise – they continue to answer his inquiries about other matters in terms of bicycles. (There’s also a bit of an unexplained obsession with pancakes, as when a difficult problem is called an “insoluble pancake.”)

As I say, I love this kind of book, and I thought this is a particularly skillful and amusing example of the genre. I’d highly recommend it for readers who like their fiction trippy. Despite huge doses of surrealism, it’s easy to follow what is going on in the story, and to distinguish what is real and what is imaginary.

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