Monday, August 31, 2009

Book Reviews: The Strain

Before I give my review of The Strain, you should know two of the things in horror that make me happy: 1) Guillermo Del Toro, and 2)Post-Apocalyptic settings. Sure there are lots of other things in horror that make me happy, but when you add this specific film-maker to my favourite horror sub-genre, I am going to get very, very excited.

Guillermo Del Toro (pictured to the right), for those of you who don't know, is the director of the Hellboy films, Pan's Labyrinth, Blade II (basically a remake of his own superior film Mimic), and one of my favourite ghost movies ever, The Devil's Backbone. His movies are bizarre, magical, and (to me at least) quite thought provoking.

Post Apocalyptic fiction is my personal favourite sub-section of horror; forget trying to escape serial killers, monsters, and ghosts, what would you do when the whole world gets f**ked up beyond repair? From the great ones (Swan Song, The Stand, Earth Abides) to the laughably cheesy ones (Night of the Comet), to the televised ones (Jericho, Jeremiah) this genre is my personal favourite and don't be surprised if I do a top ten list of both post-apocalyptic movies and books on it in the future.

Now, when I found out that these two great flavours of horror were going to be paired up in not one book, but a new horror trilogy I was ecstatic! To be honest though, even though I pride myself on keeping track of these types of books and movies, this one slipped under my radar, and I ended up noticing it at first in the book section of my local grocery store.

I read the book in just over two days and here (with as few spoilers as possible) is what I thought.

Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

If you like Horror, or Vampires, or Guillermo Del Toro, or action-packed reads, this book is definitely for you. Like a great disaster novel or film, it is structured in a way that you have an ensemble of main characters to invest in, and a race against time (even though you know they can't totally win - the book is the first part of a trilogy after all). The villains are great, every chapter ends with a mini-cliff hanger, and I finished the book desperately wanting the next one (May 2010).

I tend to judge books on two criteria, so let's check it out:

1) Would I read this book again? - yes, definitely yes.
2) Would I recommend this book to a friend? - yes, that's what I'm hoping to be doing with this review.

Looks like The Strain is a definite winner for me. But hey, let me know what you think.

I'll be doing a weekly review on great genre books I've found, alternating between classics and new stuff - feel free to send any suggestions my way!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Things I've Noticed #2: Junior High Girls Scare Me

As a huge fan of horror novels, I'm always on the lookout for my next good scare; you know a book that will give me both the Heebies and the Jeebies. The problem is, a couple years ago I started to run out of new books by my favourite authors.

So I started to think back to great horror novels people have recommended to me in the past, and then it hit me, I still hadn't read V.C. Andrews.

When I was back in junior high, and reading all the Stephen King a young boy could read, I couldn't help noticing that the girls in my school were all reading the same horror novel; Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. Now I like my horror to be pretty up front with Vampires, monsters, apocolypses, or Monstrous vampires fighting in an apocolypse.

Being 13 at the time and therefore unwilling to speak to girls I was only able to judge this book by the title, and in that respect it came off as pretty weak. I mean, come on... Flowers? What the heck is so scary about flowers? Yes, I admit Day of the Triffids is about killer plants so maybe it could be cool, but if girls liked it, it must be pretty weak, or so I thought at the time.

Little did I know that this would be one of the freakiest books I have ever, and I mean EVER read. This book shook my faith in the way horror should work, the way families should work, and the kind of girls they let into junior high.

For you fellows out there - I have consistently found that although many girls have read this, barely any boys have - the plot is pretty simple. After the death of their father, four young children are taken by their mother to their grandparents place and are kept in the attic until their mother feels it would be safe to let their grandparents know the kids exist. They stay in the attic, alone, getting no human contact except from their evil grandmother for years. Eventually, it becomes obvious their mother is not going to let them out and then the book focuses on an escape attempt by the kids and includes a scene I don't think I was old enough to read yet (I was 30 at the time), never mind the 12, 13, and 14-year-old girls who were reading it back in Junior High.

Seriously, this book has to been read to be believed, and no, the movie does not do the book justice.

Never let it be said that boys own the rights to horror fiction, after reading this book I think we just like some horror fiction, because, sweet cheese and crackers - the stuff Junior High girls like to read in the horror genre scares the crap out of me.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

You owe it to Yourself #2: Genre Hopping

Like most teenagers, I was pretty opinionated.

Horror fiction was awesome, Romance fiction was not. Movies with explosions were cool, movies with emotion and dialogue were not. Dragonlance was awesome, Forgotten Realms was not. The most important thing of all was this... Stephen King was cool, Louis L'Amour was that western writer my mom though was cool, and therefore definitely, definitely was not.

And like most teenagers, I was not shy about saving my piece. Picture me in Grade Eight, wearing my Coke (TM) T-Shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. Kind of a scrawny kid with freckles and dark hair that stuck out at all angles. Most days I'd be holding some Role-Playing Game manual (D&D or Robotech were my favourites - more on those later), as well as whichever novel had most recently grabbed my attention. At that point it was probably something by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman, as the Dragonlance series was just beginning to blow my freakin' mind.

Now if you were looking for an opinion on a western writer, isn't this exactly the kind of kid you would ask?

"Louis L'Amour?" I'd say in my know-it-all thirteen year-old voice, "why would I read something written by Louis the Love?" Yup, I was full of witty statements backed by my knowledge of junior high French.

Fast forward about a decade. I'm now 23 years old, married, and working at a video store. I've spent the last ten years of my life reading horror, SF, fantasy and comic books and am looking for a change. So one day I ask my mom if she's got anything good to read.

"Well there's always Louis L'Amour." She states. My mom has his complete works in her basement. The collection is massive, I mean this guy wrote nearly a hundred novels, more than a dozen books of short stories as well as a couple non-fiction books and books of poetry. For some reason I decide; Why not? I'll give the guy a try.

And let me tell you something. Louis L'Amour is the MAN! This guy's books are filled with action, adventure, romance, and some of the coolest guys I've ever had the pleasure to have read about. Two quick examples:

Tyrell Sackett, a lawman in the 1860's who when called by another man to draw, walks right up to him, guaranteeing them both certain death if they shoot and slapping the other guy across the face!

Mathurin Kerbouchard, a twelfth century runaway who in one novel become a galley slave, pirate, scholar, doctor, and alchemist and travels from England to Alamut, the assassins fortress in Persia.

I'm not sure which way I most benefited from reading the works of Mr. L'Amour. My reading horizons were widened, It was the first time I read all of an author's works in publication order, and I was able to show myself that my mom can pick some pretty great writers.

I guess I'd have to go with the last one. So here's what I'd like you to do this time; step outside of your comfort zone, pick a genre you are not necessarily familiar with and give it a chance. You might just find that some of the books you've turned your nose up to may actually end up being your favourites. Come on, you owe it to yourself.

Thanks Mom.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Things I’ve noticed: Dune really wrecked Science Fiction

Okay, first off, yes I like the book Dune, the story is engrossing, the characters are neat and the concepts are pretty freaking cool. My problem with Dune is not its endless sequels or any of the movie adaptations, it’s simply this:

I believe that since it was published in 1965, Science Fiction as a genre has suffered.

A little background, I’ve been spending the last few years reading a lot SF, I’m still very into horror and love a good fantasy, but my inner twelve-year-old loves to dig into a good SF novel and be blown away by all the cool ideas and characters (and ray guns). One of my favourite things about SF is that the sheer amount of stuff that those authors pack into these books is unbelievable.

Case in point: Double Star, by Robert A. Heinlein – in less than 200 pages Heinlein gives us space travel, political intrigue, thrills and chills, and the obvious inspiration for the Kevin Kline movie “Dave.”

Now Dune gives us a lot as well; space travel, economics, guilds, family drama, mysticism, desert people, sand worms, and martial arts. The problem, to do all of this Frank Herbert needed a lot of space, 517 pages of space, and to be fair, with the incredible amount of stuff Herbert put into the book, he needed all of it.

Now Dune went on to win all sorts of awards, and is credited by many SF fans as a personal favourite or even the book that turned them onto SF. My problem is the effect Dune had on SF as a genre. Basically, people looked at it and instead of saying, “Wow – you can have this kind of massive family drama/economic intrigue/war story/mystical journey all in the context of SF”, they said, “Dune must be awesome because it’s really long.”

So after 1965 all SF started to get really, REALLY, BIG. I mean, look at this – I've lined up my copy of Dune with three SF books that had been written in the previous decade (Double Star and Starship Troopers by Heinlein, and Mission of Gravity by Clement), all of them award winners, all of them critically acclaimed, and all of them barely adding up to the page count that is DUNE.

The trend of writing bigger SF books never stopped. Have you looked at the page count of recent SF? These things are monsters, often coming in at just under a thousand pages and the worst thing is a lot of it feels like filler, and I am not the only one to notice this.

In the end, people focused on the wrong thing – the comic industry made the same mistake after “The Dark Knight Returns” when they chose to focus on violence and grit rather than looking at the superhero mythos from another angle (which is done brilliantly by the way in both the film “The Incredibles” and the comic series “Astro City”)

Faulkner stated “kill your darlings” as advice for writers when revising their work. Seriously guys, I like reading a new book every couple of days and these SF novels are turning into one and two week long endeavors which any author in the fifties could have gotten down in less than 200 pages.

Give me back my pocket sized paperbacks!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

You Owe it to Yourself

You know what? I hate it when people tell me that they love vampire movies.

Especially when they don't mean it. Here's the thing, I LOVE Vampire movies, everything from the classic (Nosferatu), to the cheesy (Vamp), to the amazing but flawed (I Still say Near Dark is the best Vampire film you will ever see, IF you leave 20 minutes before the end), to the perfect (Let the Right One in), so when someone says that they are a Vampire fan I think we've got a lot in common.

But 9 times out of 10 what they mean to say is that they are a Twilight fan.

Now here's the thing, I've seen Twilight, and even though it has some pretty big flaws (They can't go out into sunlight because they SHINE!?!), I can understand that it is pretty popular right now.

So here is what I want all you Twilight fans to do:

Say that you are a HUGE Twilight fan. And you know what? if by HUGE Twilight fan you mean a huge Robert Pattinson fan, than say you area HUGE Robert Pattinson fan.

I won't be mad, honest, the guy is a teen idol in that emaciated, can't be bothered to do his hair and probably gets called "Miss" or "Young Lady" a lot, kind of way that is popular these days.

What I will get mad at is if you say you love Vampire movies when you don't really.

Look, it's the same thing as saying you're a huge fantasy fan because you own Lord of the Rings on DVD and still have all your old Dragonlance books from high school. If you haven't read any new fantasy written in the last five years, maybe it is better for you to say you are a big fantasy movie or classic Dragonlance fan.

In the end, here is what I want you to do. I want all of you to be the best fans of whatever you like that you can be. If that means Robert Pattinson, then fine, learn about the guy, check of the movie Little Ashes, or even dust off your Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire DVD. If you're a die-hard Dragonlance fan, pull those books down from your closet and give them another look, or maybe go to the use-book stores and pick up one of the more than 50 new Dragonlance tiles that have been published since 2000.

In the end what it comes down to is a little bit of effort - Right now my favourite show is Dexter - I'm a Dexter fan, but when I tell people that, I explain that I mean I'm a fan of the show - I've never gotten around to reading the novels, and you know what, as long as I'm clear about what I'm a fan of, that's alright by me.

Because in the end, you don't own your fan status to me, or your friends, or even to Robert Pattinson; in the end you owe it to yourself.