Sunday, 30 October 2011

A Rare Find - Stephen King Lecture at the University of Dayton (Ohio)

Aimless browsing on the web can sometimes uncover hidden treasures. The other day I came across a real gem for all Stephen King fans: A lecture by Stephen King at the University of Dayton (Ohio) from the deepest, darkest 1980s.

The complete talk is broken up into eight parts, includes a Q and A session at the end and, as a special treat, King reads his short story The Reach, which was later published in the short story collection Skeleton Crew (1985).

Being a Stephen King fan nerd, I enjoyed this immensely. Even though the quality of the video seems pretty poor at first sight, don't be put off. Picture and sound are surprisingly clear, once you have hit the play button.

As a "historical document", this is a must for every King fan - not just because of Mr King's caveman beard and the mid - lecture cigarette (those were the days...). As usual, uncle Stevie is hilariously funny and provides a considerable amount of insight into his writing process, especially when talking about the background and development of his novel Pet Sematary at the very end of the lecture.

This relic certainly deserves more than six thousand views on Youtube:

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

To Kindle...or Not to Kindle

A pressing question...I know. With advertising for the Kindle as well as other e-Readers virtually everywhere, I have found myself thinking about the pros and cons, and, I am afraid, the answer is "No!" - I shan't be kindling, at least for the time being.

Having considered all of the advantages e - Readers have to offer, such as saving precious storage space, portability as well as access to rare and out - of - print books, I am still not convinced that e-Readers are the right route for me.

Thinking back to my time at university, my course required me to consult a wide variety of online publications. Confonted with the choice of reading them from the screen of my computer or printing them off, I always favoured the latter. I am aware that e - Readers should not be compared to simple PDF files and that the general reading experience is said to be akin to reading a printed text, but the similarities between the text display of an e-Reader and the text on a computer screen are all too obvious, at least for me. I feel that the screen separates the reader from the text and the text, stored in and displayed on an electronic device, somehow loses its physical presence. Perhaps it's just me, but apart from enjoying a good book, I also enjoy handling the book itself and, if applicable, being mesmerized by its cover art.

Deriving enjoyment from the handling of books comes in many different forms. Firstly, there is the aspect of having the physical books sitting on your shelf. Easily accessible and within reach whenever I want to pick them up. In my case they are grouped either by author or by genre. From time to time, it's necessary to clean the shelves and dust the books. When doing this, I often come across things I left behind amongst the pages. This could be as mundane as old bookmarks (or any type of flat object that could have served as a bookmark) or things that were tidied away as they were cluttering a space somewhere else, such as photos or greeting cards. I always feel that items stored in my books build a connection between myself and the book. This could be a photo or a train ticket, thus reminding me of a trip or the time in general when I read a certain book. Then there are second - hand books or charity shop books. Most of these have unique signs of wear or at least an indication of previous ownership, making the object all the more interesting. Compare this to the clinical sterility of an e-Reader.

Secondly, there is the aspect of cost. E - readers command a relatively high price tag. At this point, I usually calculate how many second - hand books I could purchase for the price of a Kindle, making an e-Reader a rather bad choice from a purely monetary point of view. The charity shops and second - hand book shops are full of cheap paperback copies. To "consume" these you are not required to purchase a specialist device. Just go in, choose a few books that interest you, part with a pittance and read for hours ever after. It really is as simple as that. Tying in with being stingy in general, I enjoy using my local library, especially for nonfiction, classics and foreign language novels. Even though it's only a small library, it's full of interesting titles, which are available for free, provided you do not let the fines mount up.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the proponents of e-Readers always highlight their portability. Portable they may be, especially when compared to a hardback, but I am not so sure whether an e - Reader would be suitable for the kind of journey I have in mind. I tend to read a lot of my books during my commute to and from work. Selected paperbacks are crammed in my handbag and get squashed by my lunchbox, umbrella and keys simultaneously. Now would I risk exposing my e-Reader to the carnage that goes on in my bag? I don't think so. Another downside is that e - Readers require charging. Now, I forget to charge my mobile phone on a regular basis and I am sure I would be faced with the same dilemma when owning an e - Reader. Tough. No charge - no reading time.

These are the main arguments that prevent me from making the jump into e-Reader ownership.  Perhaps one more is worth mentioning. As already discussed in other blog posts, I am a great fan of book cover art and illustration; and I fear that both will be threatened by the expansion of e-Readers. As an art form, both are generally under - valued and the craftsmanship of illustrators has traditionally not been sufficiently recognised. Removing the reader one step further from the physical experience of the book is likely to exacerbate the existing predicament of illustrators in particular and book illustration in general.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Judge A Book By Its Cover

Most book lovers also have an appreciation for cover art and, personally, I always find myself strangely drawn to the book covers of fantasy and science fiction novels. I am aware that this may not be to everyone's taste, but I - for one - enjoy looking at it.

I recently found a number of flickr groups paying tribute to cover art and cover artists. Whilst some might not see the point of photographing the covers of the books on your shelf and sharing these images with others, in my humble opinion it is a jolly good idea.

By no means representative, but nevertheless a first impression of what is on offer over at Flickr, here is a selection of book covers featuring in the group "Hi - Res Science Fiction Book Covers":

Idol Hands - A Rosco Little Adventure20,000 Leagues Under The SeaThe Gods Hate KansasBreakfast Of ChampionsRobert A. Heinlein - The Star BeastOrphans Of The Sky
After Many A Summer Dies The SwanThe Gods ThemselvesThe Rest Of The RobotsRed PlanetThe Killer ThingThe First Men In The Moon
The Island Of Dr. MoreauRobert A. Heinlein - Red PlanetOrson Scott Card - TreasonRobert A. Heinlein - Have Space Suit, Will TravelRobert J. Sawyer - End of an Era (Back)Robert J. Sawyer - End of an Era
Peter F. Hamilton - The Temporal VoidDan Simmons - HyperionDan Simmons - The Rise of EndymionDan Simmons - The Fall of HyperionLarry Niven & Jerry Pournelle - FootfallLarry Niven - Ringworld's Throne
And this is an overview for the "Books of Fantasy"  group

Rothfuss, Patrick - The Wise Man's Fear (2011 HB)The Official Marvel Comics Try-Out 1984Far West Vol. 1Fentasy ArtLegendary Creatures of Myth and Magicel descubrimiento de las brujas
Erikson, Steven - Reaper's Gale (2009 PB)AD&D 1st Ed. Oriental AdventuresBarry Windsor Smith Archives Conan Volume 1La historiadoraEl secreto de la isla de las ballenasA Matter of Magic by Patricia C. Wrede
Just a few books . . . .Warding of the Witch World by Andre NortonImperial Lady by Andre Norton and Susan ShwartzFlight of Vengance by PM Griffin and Mary SchaulbThe Duke's Ballad by Andre Norton and Lyn McConchieAtlanis End Game by Andre Norton and Sherwood Smith
Ciara's Song  by Andre Norton  and Lyn McConchieDare to Go A Hunting by Andre NortonThud! by Terry PratchettThe Magestone by Andre Norton and Mary SchaubChildhood Favorites & TeaErikson, Steven - The Bonehunters (2008 PB)
Books of Fantasy, a group on Flickr.

These groups are just a taster for what is on offer - the perfect destination for an afternoon's browsing and to gather inspiration for your to - read - list.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Review of John Ajvide Lindqvist's Let The Right One In

I borrowed "Let the Right One In" from my local library. Whilst checking the book out, the librarian commented that it was among the best books he had read for a while.That sounded promising. Glancing over the book cover and the usual snippets of praise that are taken from newspaper reviews, I noticed that one reviewer likened Lindqvist's style of writing to Stephen King's. Even better, I thought, and started reading on the bus home.

Prior to reading, I did have a vague idea what the story was about. In short, a "gritty" novel on vampires set in Sweden. (Gritty - that's the critics' favourite adjective when passing their verdicts on Scandinavian literature. Hence, it had to be included somewhere in this review.)

I was soon to find out that this is only half the story. Lindqvist's novel is as much a modern vampire tale as it is a story about bullying, social isolation, social injustice and sexual exploitation. All this is set against the backdrop of Sweden in the 1980s - the very country, which  is usually presented to the rest of Europe as the shining beacon of consensus democracy with broad societal approval for its welfare state and all things social democratic. Compared to this, the dark atmosphere of Stockholm's anonymous suburbia of sink estates, broken homes, teenage violence, substance abuse, petty crime and sexual deviancy (the book is teaming with peadohiles) in Lindqvist's tale might come as a bit of a shock.

At the beginning of the story we meet Oskar - a perpetual outsider, who is bullied at school and who in turn harbours dark fantasies about the various ways, in which he would like to inflict revenge on his assailants. He collects newspaper articles on serial killers in a scrapbook, lives with his mother, a single parent, in one of the apartments on the estate, regularly wets himself out of fear of his bullies, commits petty theft and shows signs of suffering from an eating disorder. Very early on, it becomes clear that Oskar has virtually no one he can confide in - until he meets Eli, this is.

At first, Oskar assumes that Eli is just another girl living on the estate, but admits to himself that certain things about Eli are rather strange. He only ever sees her at night and even though the temperatures are dropping sharply at the onset of the Swedish winter, Eli is skimpily dressed and doesn't even seem to feel the cold. There is also a rather pungent smell about her and following their first encounter, Oskar thinks that she looks utterly unhealthy. Assuming that the person sharing the apartment with Eli is her father, he blames parental neglicence for Eli's wayward appearance. Despite all these oddities, Oskar is intrigued by Eli and the two begin to meet up regularly in a playground just outside their homes - much to the dismay of Oskar's mother and Hakkan, Eli's middle - aged "housemate". What Oskar doesn't know, however, is that Eli is a two hundred year- old vampire in the guise of a twelve year - old, and that she shares her apartment with a paedophile ex - teacher, who goes on occasional killing sprees for his "beloved" Eli, both to provide her with much needed nutrition and to potentially earn her affection in bedroom. The ensuing story is part vampire tale, part thriller and a story about the quirky friendship between Eli and Oskar.

I was surprised when I saw that the publishers of "Let The Right One In" in Germany, where the book's title is "So Finster die Nacht" (roughly translated: The Night So Dark), have chosen to market the story as a thriller.  Lindqvist has written a modern vampire tale that also contains elements of a thriller, but it is primarily a vampire horror. 

Despite or  perhaps because of the recent hype around this  genre, vampires are not everyone's cup of tea. Unlike the creations of other authors in the field, Lindqvist's vampires are not at all suave, good - looking or attractive. If you are looking for another Edward, don't read Lindqvist. Lindqvist's vampires are troubled creatures, haunted by their existence and their past as well as deeply constrained by their way of life. This is true for Hakkan, who chooses to be turned into a vampire, and Virginia, who becomes infected, as well as Eli, who has been living as a vampire for two hundred years. Lindqvist's vampires are deeply rooted in the grim reality of the overall setting created by the author.

What comes with the territory of any vampire novel are the rules the author imposes on his vampires. Lindqvist's vampires are physically strong, yet burn up when exposed to sunlight, they are deeply disliked by cats, spend their days resting in bathtubs, take invigorating baths in blood and have to be invited before entering a room. Unfortunately, Lindqvist only allows us very brief glimpses into Eli's past and it remains rather vague how he / she came to be a vampire. Whilst this move adds to the mystery surrounding Eli, I still would have liked a little more background on Eli's past.
A lot of readers have remarked on the seemingly never-ending amount of graphic violence in the novel. Being a horror novel, one would and should expect that the book contains quite a few gory scenes. Whilst this may not be to everyone's taste, I have no problem with the depiction of violence. However, I didn't think that the gore emanating from the vampires was half as upsetting as the abuse Oskar is subjected to by his peers. Although substantial, the vampire elements of the book are only one part of the novel. Oskar's story - the story of a lonely boy with no one to confide in bar Eli - constitutes the real horror and makes for uncomfortable reading.

In fact, uncomfortable describes very well, how I felt during most parts of the book. This, however, isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as the story holds your attention and you want to carry on reading. For two thirds of the story Lindqvist certainly managed to keep me in his grip. Towards the end, however, and whilst the author was busy to tie all narrative strands together, my reading pace dropped and I think I must have stopped caring about the story, its characters and their fate.

I have experienced this phenomenon before, unfortunately in the context of novels written by  one of my all - time favourite authors: Stephen King. As regards Lindqvist and the claims of the critics, there are certainly a number of similarities between Lindqvist and King. Lindqvist has a similar way of depicting his characters' thoughts (mostly incomplete sentences in italics that interrupt the narration from time to time), he enjoys ridiculing organised religion and has a similar sense of humour. Unfortunately, his book also suffered from the problems encountered in so many of King's novels: the rushed, slightly unbelievable denoument at the end of the book. Perhaps, one could say that this is a common problem within the horror / fantasy genre. Perhaps, this applies to certain authors and certain novels in a variety of genres. Unfortunately, Lindqvist's storyline got out of hand and by the time I got to the end of the book, I simply lost interest.

My verdict in short: 3 out of 5 stars - For the best part, this novel is a gripping read interspersed with a lot of intelligent social commentary and Lindqvist certainly knows how to shock his readers. 

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Stephen King's Pet Sematary - Summary and Review

Pet Sematary was my first Stephen King novel. Though not a major disappointment, the book did not fulfil the expectations I had in mind when starting off. Since I finished it, I have not lost the feeling that King could have explored so much more.

The basic plot of the story can be summarised in a few sentences: Louis Creed and his wife Rachel move together with their two young children, Ellie and Gage, to Maine, where Dr Creed takes up a new job in the Univeristy’s medical centre. Soon after settling into their new home, Dr Creed becomes friends with Jud, his elderly neighbour, who has lived in the house opposite all his life. Jud takes the Creed family on an excursion to the Pet Sematary, a place where local children bury their dead pets. Most of the pets buried in the cemetery are victims of the heavy traffic on the road, which also happens to run past the Creed family home.

Stephen King's Pet Sematary Book Cover

A few months down the line, whilst Rachel and the children are spending Thanksgiving with Rachel’s parents in Chicago, the Creeds’ cat, Church, is run over by a lorry. Initially, Louis is at a loss and does not know how to break the news to his daughter. During the very same night, however, Jud comes up with a solution to Louis’s problem and takes him beyond the Pet Sematary to an ancient Micmac burial site, where Church is subsequently entombed. A few days later Church returns, but only his outer shell resembles the tomcat he once was.

Nevertheless, life goes on in the Creed family household, and even though the cat’s behaviour has altered significantly, the events of this fateful night remain Louis’s secret. Tragedy returns when Gage, the youngest child, is fatally injured on the same road. Unable to cope with his son’s death, Louis decides to bury Gage at the Micmac burial ground against Jud’s ominous warnings…

Contrary to the experiences of other readers, I found Pet Sematary a very emotional read. Rather than inducing feelings of suspense or fear, in my opinion, the novel conveys the moral message that, even if we had the power to awaken the dead, it is more fruitful (and safer) to come to terms with the death of a loved one. King was most convincing when talking about Louis’s feelings of guilt after his son’s tragic death.

Altogether I felt that the book was too long and contained too many, superfluous details. At the same time, following Gage’s return and his somewhat inexplicable killing spree, it felt that King was almost in a rush to bring the story to its conclusion. Whilst he fills pages talking about the return of the tomcat and his altered appearance, it is hard to form an impression of Gage after his return from the burial ground.

Frankly, I couldn’t quite understand why he would return and kill both Jud as well as his mother straight away. The story therefore effectively ended when it could have become most intrigiung. Rather than killing most of the characters off, I think it would have been quite interesting to witness Gage interact with the remaining members of his family.

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