Recent Book Reviews
A bold adventure into realms unknown
I personally do not read many e-books, I still prefer print books, but I did start an e-book series by J. R. Rain- the Vampire for Hire series. This series is about a P.I. named Samantha Moon, that solves mysteries. She also happens to be a mother of two children and a vampire. I was hooked right from the beginning. But how did I find out about this originally self-published author and series? I downloaded the first book in the series for free from the Kindle app on my iPad and then bought the rest of the series. I’ve gone into the Kindle app on my iPad a few times to see what free books are there and download some. Most just sit on my iPad, unread, unlike the J.R. Rain book.
What does this mean for librarians? Do we need to start collecting self-published e-books? How do we know which books are worthwhile to add to the collection when so many self-published books do not have reviews? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but hopefully we can at least think about them. While there are a lot of unedited self-published e-books, there are many similar to J.R. Rain’s series that our patrons would enjoy discovering and reading through the library.
My husband told me about a website called Smashwords, which is just one of many self-publishing sites. This one allows an author to publish something once and then choose where they want to sell their e-book, including places like Amazon. I would recommend librarians check out Smashwords for self-published e-books. I can heartily recommend The Princess who Wouldn’t Die by J. Kirsch. Yes, its by my husband, also a librarian, but it is a great fantasy adventure with a strong female lead. The only downside is that it is too short- novella length. He is working on the sequel now at least. Besides plugging my husband’s work, I think it’s a good introduction to Smashwords.
Do you have any self-published e-books to recommend? Do you think libraries should collect or review self-published e-books? Please comment below.
This week our column takes a look at a recent trend in vampire horror and science fiction where vampirism is not so much a supernatural condition or curse, but a science based disease. The works discussed here represent attempt to ground the vampire in a more naturalistic way, explore new societies in post-apocalyptic settings, and ask questions who is more monstrous; the vampires or the humans who have survived them.
In near future America an ex-federal agent searches for a girl who may be the key to stopping a viral pandemic. Ninety-three years later a frontier community struggles against the creatures that rule the former United States of America.
The Passage genuinely surprised me. I have not been reading many books about vampires, so I dismissed it. That was a mistake. This is a novel that draws you in as it travels through a near future United States of America, a scientific expedition to the jungles of South America, and a post-apocalyptic future that has much in common with the wild west of the 1880s. One interesting feature of this book is that the author uses multiple narrative styles to tell the story, so it includes e-mail, government reports, television transcripts, government proclamations, and a host of other sources that convey a world rapidly spiraling out of control in the face of disaster. This gives a verisimilitude to the world and helps place the events in context.
Cronin’s Virals (the monsters of the book) are unique, combining several of the trends of modern horror (viruses, fast moving zombies, psychic powers) to create creatures whose horror is born of science and nature as much as the supernatural. The characters are interesting and well developed, and despite a large cast spread across two time periods, their individual voices never get lost. It mixes fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and touch of the western to tell an epic story about the choices we make to survive, and the costs we are forced to pay. Although it is a complete story on its own, it leaves some questions unanswered so as to set up the next book in the series.
The Passage (2010) is the first book of a proposed trilogy. The second volume, The Twelve (2012), introduced new characters, caught up with old ones, and again switches time periods between the pre and post disaster era. A third volume, The City of Mirrors is forthcoming.
A Boeing 777 aircraft lands at JFK with all aboard dead. A CDC team, led by Dr. Ephraim Goodweather investigates, and discovers a mystery that may be the first step in an invasion. Meanwhile an elderly holocaust survivor realizes that a long term enemy has returned.
The Strain, and its sequels The Fall and The Night Eternal, depict a modern society under siege by vampires. The vampires in this series are given a more scientific/parasitic origin, but still retain some of the traditional weakness (running water, garlic, …) yet even these are given logical reasons for existing. This book and The Passage share similar ideas, though have different styles, plots, and themes . The Strain was originally conceived as a television series so it features lots of action and a breakneck pace. However, there is still time for character development and I saw some honest surprises I did not see coming.
The novels are relatively short, so if longer works like The Passage are not to your taste, this provides a similar story in a more compact style. Also, being firmly grounded in the modern day, allows the reader an immediate connection to the story allowing it to jump right to the thrills. If you like fast action, relatively accurate scientific investigation of the supernatural, and heroes who are everyday sort of folk instead of magical warriors of light, The Strain is well worth a read.
The Strain (2009) is the first volume in a trilogy, followed by The Fall (2010) , and The Night Eternal (2011). All three stories are complete, and there do not appear to be any future volumes planned.
Additionally, we will have a chance to see the television version as the FX network will be producing a series based upon The Strain for airing July 2014. It is unclear how much of the book will be covered in the first season, and what if any changes will be made to the work.
Of course nothing is speculative fiction is truly new. Richard Matheson provided his own version of the viral vampire apocalypse in his novel I Am Legend. This is the story of the last human on Earth, Robert Neville, and his quest to stay alive and sane in a world dominated by victims of a plague (who happen to act a lot like vampires). Hollywood loves this book, and has adopted it three times to the screen: The Italian-American Co-production The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price, the 70s remake filled with metaphors on race, The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston, and the special effects laden, big budget blockbuster that misses the point of the original work, I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith.
In my opinion, The Omega Man is the superior film, as no one handles a post-apocalyptic future like late 1960s/early 1970s Charlton Heston.
Everyone’s head of the ghost story of the hitchhiker who mysteriously vanishes from the car. It’s one of those tales that get told around a campfire on a dark night. In Sparrow Hill Road we meet the girl who becomes that ghost.
Rose Marshall died in 1952 after being driven off the road in the dead of night. Since then she’s been wandering the roads of America, still running from the man who caused her death. With the offer of a jacket from a living person, she can become corporeal for a while and has found her calling both helping drivers avoid accident and death as well as escorting on those who couldn’t. As the world changes around her Rose stays constant, until events from her past start to threaten her future.
Originally a series of short stories, Sparrow Hill Road brings them together in a single narrative. The bones of their original form are still visible though, and this is a slightly meandering series of stories that start to coalesce into something bigger and darker than Rose was ever anticipating.
McGuire has a good ear for dialogue, and there’s some genuine creepiness in there as well. Sparrow Hill Road is tangentially connected to McGuire’s InCryptid series, so if you’ve read those you’ll recognize the world Rose inhabits. This is the first book in a new series, and there are definitely plot threads that are left open for further books. I’m looking forward to reading more about the further adventures of Rose Marshall.
It used to be that tracking the latest in cutting edge horror, fantasy, and science fiction films required traveling to film festivals, tracking down second hand videotapes, of staking out the local art house or revival cinema to catch a limited engagement. And living in a non-major film market (or really anywhere outside of Los Angeles or New York) made tracking down these films even more difficult. However recent technological advances have made locating these films much easier. Many films open ‘on demand’ through streaming technology and can be viewed from the comfort of your own home. Smartphones and other wireless devices allow these films to be stream anywhere one desires. Recently three new movies have arrived that have traveled ‘under the radar’ and are worth checking out: a very different take on the vampire movie, a horror/sci-fi film that integrates new technology with old fashioned chills, and a documentary about the greatest sci-fi film never made.
Personally, I think being a vampire in the modern world would be ridiculously easy. Most people think you don’t exist so you do not have to worry about tenacious vampire hunters on your trail, vampire fans would actively seek you out, rendering even the thrill and work of hunting unnecessary. And if you wanted to have any killing on your conscience, you could feed off the blood supply, or the dying, or even animals. The thing that would make a vampire’s existence truly terrible would be how incredibly banality of eternal existence. Nothing ever changes, and the humans, who are like vermin to you or if you are charitable affectionate pets, just keep making the same dumb mistakes over and over. How would one keep from getting bored? Jim Jamusch, a director with an interesting filmography of lyrical movies that serve as mediations on life and philosophy, examines that question in his vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive.
When Adam, a vampire/reclusive musician living in Detroit, appears to be more withdrawn then usual, his wife Eve travels from Tangier to visit with him and rouse him from his depression. What follows is an odyssey of a long married couple attempting to find something to interest them in a modern world that seems to be in decline. Jamusch presents a very different image of the vampire, showing them as erudite artists and intellectuals who have long ceased to be surprised by the world. His vampires do not engage in power politics or have some sort of organized worldwide council to govern their actions. They are just creatures living their un-lives, where the greatest threat to their wellbeing is feeding on contaminated blood and the isolation of their centuries long existence.
This is a richly shot film with stunning visuals, and eclectic soundtrack, and some wickedly funny humor. Those looking for action or a special effects laden vampire showdown will be disappointed, but if you accept the premise of the film it will be found entertaining. Personally, I had become bored with the concept of vampires, but this movie has proved me wrong, and there may still be fresh ideas for these ancient threats.
The modern theatrical experience often runs the risk of being ruined by the bright light of a tiny screen piercing the darkness during a dramatic moment. Yet smartphones and their associated technologies are unlikely to go away anytime soon. Is there way in which these second screen technologies could be integrated into the movie going experience turning a distraction into an asset? The Dutch seem to think so, and in Sci-Fi/Horror film APP, they show us one potential future of this integration.
APP relates the story of Anna, a Dutch psychology student who wakes up one morning after getting black out drunk at a party to find a mysterious app on her phone. The app, named IRIS, appears to be a helpful companion, but gradually reveals itself to be a sinister intelligence, concerned with propagating itself across as many systems as possible. As IRIS targets Anna’s friends and life, she seeks a way to defeat a seemingly invincible foe.
From this description one gets the impression that APP is a decent sci-fi/horror film with some decent scares and shocks, a few surprising twists, and action and special effects that make great use of a small budget; and this is all true. If ARIIA, the artificial intelligence from Eagle Eye (2008), and the ghostly phenomenon from One Missed Call (2003 for the Japanese original, 2008 for the American remake) had a child, it would probably act like IRIS.
What elevates APP above its genre, is the fact that the movie includes the integration of your wireless device into the plot. Before the movie begins you download an app, and start it once the movie begins. At certain points during the film, hidden cues in the film’s sound track activate the app, and provide you with additional content related to the movie. Usually this consists of security camera feeds, background information, and one part where the app lets you know what the villains are doing to try to counter the heroine’s actions. The app vibrates when content is about to start, so you do not have to constantly divide your attention between your device and the screen.
I found the material in the app interesting, and felt it enhanced the cinematic experience. It was not too distracting, and I had the added challenge of having to watch the movie, read English subtitles, and check the app. Of course the movie is perfectly comprehensible without the app, but that defeats half the fun.
At this point I think second screen technology still has a ways to go in becoming more then a gimmick, but it is heartening to see that there are directors out there willing to try to move the horror/sci-fi film the next step into the future.
Imagine if you will that it is the mid-1970s. The benchmark for excellent science fiction in cinema was set by Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. It will be at least five years before Star Wars arrives and ushers in the age of the Sci-Fi blockbuster. But one man has a plan for a science fiction film that will alter human consciousness. Alejandor Jodorowsky, the surrealist Mexican filmmaker of El Topo and The Holy Mountain wants to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune for the cinema. He plans to have it star Orson Wells as Baron Harkonnen; Mick Jagger (of the Rolling Stones) as Feyd-Rautha; and at the cost of $100,000 dollars a minute Salvador Dali as Shaddam Corrino IV, Emperor of the Universe. It will feature art by the French comic illustrator Moebius and an up and coming Swiss designer named H.R. Geiger. Also he plans to have Pink Floyd score part of the soundtrack. Then it all fell apart. However, thanks to the impressive film documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune we get the opportunity to hear from the visionary himself how this film would have come to pass.
One part mediation on the creative process, one part story of how a director assembled a group of established and legendary performers to fulfill his vision, Jodorowsky’s Dune takes the viewer into mind-scape of a visionary director who wants to make a film that will start a revolution.
Through a massive 3,000 page illustrated scrapbook which he had bound and professionally printed, we are given an idea of the film Jodorowsky conceived. He explains how he recruited performers as diverse as French Heavy Metal Band Magma, his own son (who underwent two years of martial arts training to be Paul Atrides), and Orson Wells (lured to the set with the promise of all you can eat French Food) to join his crusade to bring enlightenment through his science fiction masterpiece.
This is a deeply felt film, examining the creative process, as well as Jodorowsky’s own unique perspective on creativity, story, and filmmaking. Knowledge of the book Dune is not essential, and might even get in the way of one’s understanding of the unfolding panorama laid out before the viewer. If one loves cinema or science fiction, one may come to deeply regret that is probably the only opportunity we will ever have to see Jodorowsky’s vision on film*.
*Many of the ideas Jodorowsky’s had for Dune were re-purposed in two comic book series: The Incal (1981-2011), on which he worked with Moebius, of which several volumes are available in English; and The Metabarons (1992-2013), also originally published in French but available in English translations.