Review: HEART-SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill

In case you want to just know what I thought of the book, here’s my arbitrary yet relevant to the novel rating system:

21 out of 22 Judas Coyne singles

And here’s some ways to buy it, because with that kind of rating, how can you not want to?

IndieBound (for paper versions)

Amazon (for you Kindle havers, or if you don’t care about supporting indie bookstores.)

Barnes & Noble (some of you have Nooks. I don’t pretend to know why.)

First of all, a story. I didn’t think much of the title when I first saw it, because it brought to mind one of those literary “I went walking in Memphis” style stories where the protagonist spends a lot of time working on his inner-self and grows as a person but not a whole fucking lot happens. I also recognized that I was literally judging a book by its title. So I tracked the book down at a Barnes & Noble and read the synopsis on the back, which I will paraphrase. The book is about an aging rock star named Judas Coyne who collects macabre things and bangs younger women, and when he gets the chance to buy a ghost off the Internet does it (because, fuck yeah, who wouldn’t buy a ghost off the Internet. No one I hang out with.). But the ghost isn’t Casper and things go to shit.

I immediately wanted to buy the book for my mother-in-law, who loves Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper and is the single most frustrating human being on the entire planet to buy presents for. I casually mentioned it to her, feeling out whether or not she’d heard of it and she responded with “Oh, I love Joe Hill. I have all of his books.”

God. Damn. It. So much for Christmas being easy.

Anyway, her opinion carries a lot of weight with me, and combined with Mr. Hill’s Twitter feed I decided to give his books a go. I’m glad that I did.

Most importantly, the book is creepy. It has a psychological grossness to it, without being gratuitous. It’s not splatterpunk by any means, but it also doesn’t shy away from hurting the characters in it. And when it does hurt them, it’s deep. Mr. Hill ratchets the tension continuously throughout the story, pausing just enough to let us learn more about characters so we can care about them. The novel is expertly carried by the main character, who I wish was a real rock star I could look at and say that his stuff hasn’t been any good since he went solo except for that one thing he did with Trent Reznor.

But it is more than just a story about a sinister apparition menacing a rock god. The book examines how a disgruntled soul can continue to affect the living, whether it is from a poltergeist trying to murder you or if it’s from the ways you’ve treated those around you. How our pasts  leave reflections on our presents; reflections that can blind us to what is going on around us and, pardon the cliché, haunt us until we can’t help ourselves to a better life. And the heart-shaped box of the title comes into play in various interesting ways, tying the various parts of the story together. In retrospect, the title could not have been anything else.

While the point of view character is Coyne exclusively, I would like to argue that the narrative still managed to take both the damsel in distress and the girl in the fridge tropes and subvert them. The female characters in this book are rich and have agency of their own, and are far from the nitwits running up the stairs to avoid a serial killer, or victims who exist only as a carrot for the male protagonist. All of the characters, actually, manage a roundness that is impressive.

I prefer, for this book, to use “antagonist” and “protagonist” because these characters don’t really live up to the “heroes and villains” paradigm. The protagonists are not saints: they are occasionally selfish and rude, although they are conflicted about it. And while the antagonists are unabashedly evil, there is a certain moral logic to their actions that makes them even creepier. I like that the characters all seem more complex by the end, and that I could still cheer for the protagonists and fear the antagonists.

All in all, I highly recommend this book. I knocked 5% off a perfect score (and you thought my ranking was completely arbitrary…go on, do the math, I’ll wait.). There are some strangely worded sentences throughout that pulled me out of the story, though this could just be my head. It’s the guy’s first novel, and while it’s really, really good, it isn’t perfect. But, it’s damn entertaining, and well worth your time, even if horror isn’t a genre you usually find yourself digging into. Now go click on those links and give the guy some of your money, though I personally wouldn’t blame you if your ran to your library and checked it out, because libraries need love too.

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The Human Division: Episode 1 review

God, I didn’t want to read this first episode.

I mean, I did want to read it. Just not right away. I am a fan of John Scalzi and his Old Man’s War series. But I am also a guy who waits until a TV show is on DVD so he can watch it all the way through in a week. I prefer to read a series of books all at once, so I won’t start Book One until Book 34 is out and everyone is already talking about the next big thing. I am only up to date on The Walking Dead television show because I have friends who were literally pulling their hamstrings trying not to spoil anything that happened two seasons ago.

Additionally, I am really more interested in if a project works as a cohesive whole. Episodic, while difficult, isn’t as high a bar as episodic and unified. I didn’t want to get sucked into the novelty of the book and lose sight of the thing as a whole. I told myself that plenty of people would review the novellas/short stories individually, but few would go in blindly and read it as a novel as opposed to a collection.

But, I signed up for Tor’s newsletter some months back. They sent me a link to download the first episode of John Scalzi’s new book The Human Division. AND LIKE A FOOL I DOWNLOADED IT AND TRIED TO RESIST READING IT.

If you don’t know, this book is being released as 13 separate episodes, of variable length, for $.99 a piece. It works out great, because if you buy the first one and it’s awful to you, then you’re just out a dollar as opposed to $12.98. But if you’re a fan of the series (as I am), it’s like getting the book spoon-fed to you early. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any plans to convert your 13 individual files into a single e-book (like how you can Complete Your Album on iTunes), so if you buy all of these you’ll have SO MUCH SCALZI in your e-reader. But the inadequacies of e-books is a rant for another time. At the very least, these stories are sold minus the DRM so you can travel them between your various devices without hassle.

The Human Division is set in the universe of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. In this first episode the characters are new, with the exception of one minor character from the first book (Harry Wilson). This will be the fifth book in the series, not counting a few short stories and a novella that he’s produced in the universe. You don’t have to have read any of those things to follow what is happening. Scalzi does a really good job of explaining things so that the story stands on its own. If you pick this up and there is an alien race mentioned but no description, you can rest assured it’s not because it was described in another book.

(Caveat: You should at least read this short story, as it takes place right before the events of the novel and is referenced in the text. Also, the incredibly satisfying ending of the third book in the series is given away. So, honestly, go read at least the first three books in the series before you pick this up. The fourth book could probably wait, since it’s the same story as the third, just from a different character’s point of view. But if you’re going to all that trouble, ya know, read that too. But I’m very fond of this series, so I of course am going to tell you to read it from the beginning. But you don’t have to. You just should.)

I guess I have to give you a synopsis or something of the story? Isn’t that mandatory in a book review? Even though, you know, Tor, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the Loch Ness monster, and Felipe Escobar’s strip club blog have summed up the story for you in the hopes that you’ll buy it, I suppose I must stick with convention and sum it up for you.

[Movie Guy Voice]

“In a world where humans are kinda fucked, diplomats are our only hope of survival…”

That doesn’t sound very good, does it? Well, don’t let that fool you. It’s a lot more exciting than that. The story starts off with a bang, and simultaneously creates mystery both large and small. The small one is answered by the end of Part One. The second, bigger mystery encourages you to buy the next chapter.

Scalzi’s stories are carried by banter filled dialogue and a bare minimum of description. The characters are interesting and unique from each other, so it is easy to distinguish them. It’s no surprise that I enjoy his work. They read quick, they’re funny, and the science is presented without feeling like you’re sitting through an lecture that you have no choice but attend. It’d be nice if there were more clues in the text for keeping the different species that he’s introduced in his series straight, but that’s just a nit that I want to pick as it’s not terribly vital to the story itself.

So, the point of all this is, I plan to download this thing a buck at a time for the next 12 weeks, and I think you would not regret joining me on that front. Is this a way that every book should be put out? No, I don’t think it should be. I think some bugs need to be worked out with this system if they do it for other authors. The biggest one that comes to mind is that I couldn’t easily find a site where I could sign up for each episode with one click. That’ll need to be addressed. Think about it: one weaker story kills the momentum and suddenly the next Tuesday clicking that link or pulling a buck out of the bank isn’t as exciting as it was the week before. If you’ve already locked in, though, it’s less tempting to quit. And yes, clicking 13 times on the preorder button does the same thing, but why punish your customers for doing you a favor? Conversely, I can see the argument being made that it’s then easier to unsubscribe as well, which is counterproductive, but I don’t believe a reader is going to write off a collection as quickly when they’ve already made the decision to spend a fixed amount. This is just my uninformed opinion, which as we all know is completely allowed on both the Internet and any discussion of economics. Mostly, it annoys the shit out of me that I can’t go to someone’s site and say “I want this every week” without flipping through 13 pages of Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Those are completely moot complaints though. I’m confident this will be a really good book all the way through when all is said and done. I’m excited by it. You should be too. Go get it.

Review of The Mirage by Matt Ruff

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The Mirage

Matt Ruff (@bymattruff on the Twitter)

Here’s the author’s website, which contains a synopsis, a downloadable sample of the book, and links to buy it. I don’t have a local bookseller to pimp, so I’ll go with pimping the author’s site instead.

At the beginning of November, I was lucky enough to win a copy of Matt Ruff’s book The Mirage with the above tweet. Benjamin LeRoy of Tyrus Books (@TyrusBooks) held a parallel contest with Writer’s Digest. The idea was to write a story in 132 characters and the prize was any eBook I wanted. I love that my words earned me something. I figure the least I can do is write up a review for the book.

My least favorite part of writing a review for a book is giving a synopsis of the story. How much should I put in? If I am a fan of an author’s, in most cases I try not to even read the dust cover until I’m halfway through the book. You can’t always do that, but if you know an author’s voice is pleasing to you or it’s a series that you’ve read for years, it can be fun to just relax and let the story unveil itself to you with no expectations.

Matt Ruff is an author that I will read, sight unseen, because I know he’ll weave an interesting, unexpected tale. When I read his novel Bad Monkeys, all I knew about the book was my wife said, “Read this book.” I knew a little more about this one going in; it received a lot of buzz when it came out. It’s about the 9/11 attacks, but in an alternate way: the story takes place in a world where the dominant superpower in the world is the United Arab States. On November 9, 2001, terrorists from the Rocky Mountain Independent Territories hijack planes and fly them into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in downtown Baghdad. North America, in this world, is a fractured group of independent nations that include a much smaller Christian States of America. The governments are all theocracies to various degrees. Eight years after the attacks, we follow three Homeland Security agents as they investigate a claim among the Christian terrorists that the world is a mirage and that the “real” world is one where America is the superpower.

This book made me wish I knew more about Middle Eastern history. I am more informed on it than most of my neighbors, but it’s not been an area I’ve ever read up on extensively. I honestly would love to discuss this book with someone who was well versed in the history and geography of the region, if only to see what countries from our Middle East parallel with Ruff’s America. As a matter of fact, if I could ask Mr. Ruff one question about his process it would be: Did you divide North America with a picture of the Middle East in mind, or was it just how you pictured our country would be divided if history flipped the script?

For the record, I really enjoyed this book. I haven’t read a lot of alternate history, so I can’t judge it by its predecessors. Ruff gives us all the history lessons we need by starting scenes out with “Library of Alexandria” articles about foreshadowing subjects. Anytime an author needs to explain a part of his world there is going to be a slowing of the narrative, so I thought the Wikipedia-style articles worked and kept the characters from having to do anything unnecessary just so they’d be available for exposition. (“He looked over at the park, that he randomly decided to walk past today for no reason. It was there he stood when he learned about the founding fathers and how they invented cherry cobbler by the sweat of their brow.”) It would have been difficult for him, as well, to justify his character’s motivations without the world building that those articles allow for. Societal pressures play an important role in creating tension throughout, and since these pressures are (to some degree) different than our own it is necessary to explain it.

Even with that world building, however, some of his minor characters’ motivations seemed too convenient to the plot. Many of the political figures from the Bush administration and a few of the important men from the Arab world make appearances, and some are used better than others. Perhaps it’s my own politics and prejudices, but some of the political characters seem to be in the book just for the sake of being in the book and moving the plot along. And hardcore Republicans would probably balk at the light some of the Bush administration officials are shown in (though I personally have a hard time believing that there are a lot of hardcore Republicans who would be interested in a novel that is sympathetic to Arabs or Muslims.). But that’s not to say it wasn’t interesting seeing these historical figures appear. Again, my own politics and prejudices are at play here. (In case you’re wondering I think most of the Bush Administration figures mentioned are cowards who wouldn’t last three minutes without their creature comforts. All the more reason to take this paragraph with a grain of bath salts.)

I especially had trouble with a character that shows up near the end, one that is pretty important to the plot. I asked myself “Why?” for most of the ending, and it felt slightly unresolved for me when it was all said and done. And this wasn’t a nit picky question like “Is the Klingon homeworld from The Next Generation a different one than the one from the Original Series because of Star Trek VI?” This is THE QUESTION on which the book’s plot swings. BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO TAP DANCE AROUND IT FOR ANOTHER PARAGRAPH THIS IS SLIGHTLY A SPOILER ALERT BUT NOT REALLY CAUSE IT’S STILL REALLY VAGUE. Why would someone who isn’t a traitor want things to be as different as they are? I felt like I needed to know more about why this character wanted things to be the way they are. We learn in pretty comprehensive detail the motivations of everyone else in the book, just not this particular, important character. We learn the “How did this all happen” but not the “Why would he choose this” of the events. It feels like a door is left open and a draft is running through an otherwise warm house. THIS IS NO LONGER A SPOILER ALERT EVEN THOUGH IT WASN’T MUCH OF A SPOILER AND WHY AM I WRITING LIKE THIS?

None of these issues I had were deal breakers. The plot moves along quickly and the writing is engrossing. Ruff can set a scene like a ninja working the wings of a Broadway play. The tension ratchets up to a spectacular finish. This book is smart, fun fantasy. Ruff managed to write a book that shows not just two sides of the political coin, but of the religious one as well. Where the characters may wobble a little, they play out the drama in a way that shows that there are two sides to everything. America, Islam, Christianity, and the Middle East are shown to be as multifaceted in this novel as they are in real life. I am looking forward to rereading the book after having seen the journey the characters go on, and that alone makes it worth owning.

I am getting published!

There is a great poetry magazine out of California called Rattle. I am excited to announce that they are going to publish a review I wrote for the book Eating the Pure Light: Homage to Thomas McGrath on September 20th on their website. The payment is an extension of my subscription by one issue, plus they had provided the book. So, I am getting paid a book and a magazine to be on their website indefinitely. I am full of glee. It’s like if you took all the negative feeling from EVERY rejection letter and flipped them over and underneath was this wonderful smelling joy. I am excited.

My goal is still to be published in print. That will happen; I am confident of that. But this feels good and is a vindication of my work. Now to work harder, and get something else. I truly believe you are only as good as your last accomplishment. But I will enjoy this weekend as I watch football and get screwed out of a day’s pay on Monday knowing that I got paid (in books) for something I wrote.