Monthly Archives: August 2011

Review: I Am Legend

I Am Legend
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before vampires were brooding, sparkly and sexy, Bram Stoker and Richard Matheson made them scary. They were creatures of the night, meant to be feared and avoided at all costs.

If it was Stoker that introduced us to the world of the undead blood suckers, it was Matheson who took the genre the next step forward, exploring how the tropes of vampire mythology could be true based on scientific principles of the time.

But to categorize “I Am Legend” as just as vampire story is a huge mistake. As with all of the best Matheson stories, the supernatural element is the gateway to exploring something deeper about human beings. In this case, it’s an exploration of loneliness and the depths it can drive a person to.

Robert Neville is the last survivor of the vampire apocalypse, started when China and Russia unleashed germ warfare as part of a border war. The germ proved too effective, quickly spreading across the globe and wiping out large chunks of humanity. Neville is immune to the disease thanks to a vampire bat bite he got while serving in Central America years before. Neville faces not only the horror of being tormented each night by a hoard of vampires led by his old friend, Ben Cortman, but he also has to live with the guilt that he had to kill his wife and daughter when they were resurrected as vampires by the virus.

As the story begins, Neville is eking out a day to day existence in which his only concerns are ensuring his house is safe from the vampire hoards each night and trying to deal with the oppressive loneliness he feels every waking minute of the day. It’s been a long time since Neville had any company of any kind and the hope of female companionship is just one of the lures the vampires try to use each evening to draw Neville out in a moment of weakness.

Neville’s essential isolation is underlined by his attempts to connect to anything that could possibly be a link to a normal life. Neville feels hopes when he sees an uninfected dog roaming the neighborhood and spends weeks trying to get the animal to trust him. Later he sees what appears to be an unaffected woman and he chases her down like a madman, trying to keep her from fleeing. Of course, what Neville doesn’t realize is that the vampires are evolving and creating their own society. And that to them, he’s become the monster and stuff of nightmares–an unchanged human with no regard to the fact that there are two different types of vampires now–some who are mindless killing machines and others who are evolving into something more.

Neville is typical Matheson hero–the everyman facing extraordinary circumstances and trying not only to come to grips with them but to survive. Unlike many of the movie adaptations (when will Hollywood get this story right?!?), Neville doesn’t start out as scientist but becomes one over the course of the story. Circumstances force him to begin a process of learning and studying to see if a cure is possible and why certain elements of the vampire lore might be true. Matheson’s idea may or may not be scientifically credible in the real world, but they work within the confines of the story and make the entire novella that much richer for it.

One of the good things about “I Am Legend” is that the vampires in it are scary monsters, something to be feared and protected against. But Matheson also shows not only the evolution of Neville, but the evolution of the vampires as well. Early on, the vampires try to tempt Neville with the women pulling up their dresses and Cortland telling him to surrender and leave his safehouse. But as the novel goes along, the vampires become less aggressive in their attack, setting up a devious trap that eventually leads to Neville’s downfall. It’s a fascinating arc to consider and one has to wonder what the vampire society being created might be like once the final page of the story is turned.

“I Am Legend” is a great portal to exploring the literary world of Mattheson. Most editions of “Legend” will include a few short stories to give you a bit more of a taste of how good Matheson can be. In many ways, he’s one of the most prolific and influential writers that most people haven’t heard of. Stephen King often cites him as one of his biggest influences and the more you read of both, the more you’ll see the connection.

“I Am Legend” is a classic of multiple genres and worthy of a read or even a re-read. I’ve read it several times now and enjoyed it each time. If you’ve not read it, put it on the to be read list. If you have read it, maybe it’s time to visit it again and sit back in wonder of how good Matheson can be.

And Hollywood–it’s about damn time you got the movie version of this book right.

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Review: Doctor Who: Shada

Doctor Who: Shada
Doctor Who: Shada by Douglas Adams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Written by Douglas Adams and abandoned due to a BBC workers strike, “Shada” has taken on almost mythic proportions among Doctor Who fans. About a third of the story was filmed back in 1979 before the serial had to be abandoned completely. A VHS release of the story with as much completed footage as was available and linking narration by Tom Baker helped a bit, but it didn’t necessarily fill the empty void left by “Shada”s abandonment all those years ago.

So when it was time to celebrate a milestone anniversary in the history of Doctor Who during the dark time before the show came back, it only make sense that the Big Finish team and the BBC would turn to “Shada.” But instead of remounting the story for TV, it would be told in audio form. And when Tom Baker declined to reprise his role as the Doctor (it’d be interesting to see if rumors will spring up of him revisiting the story now that he’s signed on for a couple of Big Finish stories…though a huge part of me doubts it since he doesn’t really get along well with Lalla Ward), Big Finish decided to ask Paul McGann to take on the role and updated the script to reflect the eighth Doctor.

The result is this audio release, originally streamed on the BBC web site many, many moons ago.

But the question that always strikes me when it comes to “Shada” is–if it weren’t the one lost story that we don’t have any hope of ever seeing in a complete format, what would the reputation of “Shada” be among Doctor Who fans today.

The answer, unfortunately, is it’s just be another mediocre story from what is arguable the least consistent season in the fourth Doctor’s tenure. “Shada” isn’t all that bad, but it’s not all that good either. It’s an interesting story and compared to a lot of season seventeen, it’s quite good. But that still doesn’t mean it’s the great lost classic many fans hope it would be.

It’s got a lot of trademark Douglas Adams flourishes. It explores Time Lord society a bit. It asks some interesting questions and it has some nice moments. But it still doesn’t all quite gel into a complete story in the final analysis. Perhaps it feels padded because it was to run as the season’s six-part serial. Or perhaps it’s because it was intended to be a visual story and not an audio one. Either way, I can’t help but come away disappointed.

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Review: A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords
A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” is everything epic fantasy should be–a richly crafted world, fascinating characters and no abandon when it comes to inflicting horrible fates upon the cast of what seems like thousands.

The third installment in the epic series is the longest, so far, and the best of the series. Building on everything set up in the first two books, “A Storm of Swords” delivers from the first page, grabbing you by the collar and never letting go. The story is an epic one and if you’ve heard that you shouldn’t become attached to any character or set of characters, you’ve heard correctly. Bad things happen to a lot of the characters in this novel and Martin doesn’t pause much to allow you to catch your breath as he moves from one revelation to the next.

There’s not much more I can say about this book and series that hasn’t already been said. It’s epic, it’s compelling and it’s fantasy done exactly right. It’d be a shame to let one more second go by without reading it, if you haven’t already done so. (Assuming you’ve read the first two installments, of course!)

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Booking Through Thursday — Bubble Gum Reading

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You’ve just had a long, hard, exhausting day, and all you want to do is curl up with something light, fun, easy, fluffy, distracting, and entertaining.

What book do you pick up?

A media tie-in novel would be my first choice here.  Possibly something from the Star Trek or Doctor Who universes.   Characters I already know and a universe I’m fond of, familiar with and comfortable in.  Sounds like a perfect way to wind down from a hard day.


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Review: Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s the summer of 1962 and Jack Gantos has been grounded by his mother. It’s not for ruining multiple shirts because of his frequent nosebleeds (Jack’s nose opens up anytime he’s feeling nervous or unsettled). Instead it’s for plowing under his mother’s corn field, even though he was just following his father’s orders. His mother planned to use the harvest corn as a barter instrument and food supply for those less fortunate in the small town of Norville. Jack’s father wants to use the field for a bomb shelter and a runway for the plane he’s fixing up.

Jack’s only respite from his room is helping his neighbor Ms. Volker. Charged by Eleanor Roosevelt to take care of the town’s founding members, Ms. Volker is a former nurse turned obituary journalist who can no longer write or type due to arthritis. Seeing each obit as a chance to give the town a history lesson, Ms. Volker transcribes the obit to Jack who then types it up and delivers to the home town paper for publication.

“Dead End in Norvelt” blends the fictional with the semi-autobiographical into a novel that is sweet, charming and, at times, laugh out loud funny. How much or how little of the story is actually true doesn’t really matter–the story Gantos tells here feels authentic and believable. Some absurd things happen in the story, but Gantos wisely keeps it all grounded, leading to some touching and funny moments. “Dead End” easily transitions from the insightful to the humorous without missing a beat.

This was my first foray into the fictional world of Jack Gantos but it certainly won’t be the last.

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Review: Doctor Who & the Cave Monsters CD

Doctor Who & the Cave Monsters CD
Doctor Who & the Cave Monsters CD by Malcolm Hulke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Malcolm Hulke drew the short end of the stick when it came to the sheer number of episodes he was asked to compress into 126 pages for the Target novels. In his run of Target novels, he adapted multiple six part stories, one ten part story and this seven part story into novel form. And while “The War Games” feels like a bit of a Cliffs Notes version of what actually happens on-screen, “The Cave Monsters” is a bit more successful in compressing this seven-part Jon Pertwee story down into the allotted page count.

Hulke’s adaptation tells essentially the same story as “Doctor Who and the Silurians” but it does it in a bit of a different way. Hulke gives the creatures in the caves names and delves a bit more into their history and motivation. Listening to the audio version of this story, I found myself curious to know how fans raised on this novel might have reacted when they first saw the complete serial years later. In this story, the Silurians have eye lids and they even shed tears at certain points of the story. Sadly, the limitations of the rubber suits don’t allow for this in the television version.

Hulke does eliminate a bit of the running back and forth between the underground base and the center in the story. The Silurians themselves are front and center from the opening of the novel and not held off-stage for much of the first three episodes as we see on TV. (Again, it just shows how you can tell the same story but in a different way based on the medium). He also tries to close some of the loopholes from the televised versions as well as offering some character depth to the supporting cast and crew.

And yet for all that, I can’t say this is the most successful of Hulke’s “Who” novelizations. It’s certainly superior to “The War Games” but it’s not quite as masterful as “The Doomsday Weapon.” It’s odd that one of Hulke’s strongest television scripts is one of his weaker adaptations for the printed page.

Part of that could be that the audio version of this book isn’t up to the usual standards of this range either. Caroline John isn’t in the same league as William Russell or Geoffrey Beavers, but she’s done some solid work on two other Pertwee era stories. In this case, her reading is competent but not great. Especially bad is her attempted Scottish accent for Dr. Lawrence. It ends up sounding like a bad SNL impression of Scotty from “Star Trek.”

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Review: Iron House

Iron House
Iron House by John Hart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They say you should never judge a book by its cover. Or in the case of John Hart’s Iron House, it might be more appropriate to say you should never judge a book by its cover blurb and marketing campaign.

Hailed as one of the best books of the summer, it’d be easy to assume that the story would follow the usual tropes of the action/mystery/thriller genre. A hitman for the mob meets a beautiful woman, falls in love and wants to get out of the game. He’s granted permission by the dying patriarch of the family, but his son doesn’t want to let him go. When our hitman hero finally helps the older patriarch shuffle off this mortal coil, the son decides he has to take out our hero and his new lady love to maintain his hold on power.

On the surface it sounds like something familiar, but Hart wisely uses this springboard to make Iron House something far more interesting and far more compelling. Turns out our hero Michael and his brother Julian were orphans, raised in a brutal orphanage called the Iron House. At a young age, Julian showed a violent streak and when that lead to Julian killing a bully, Michael realized Julian couldn’t survive the punishment to come and took the blame. Julian was adopted by a wealthy senator and his wife while Michael went to prison before eventually being taken in by the mob boss.

The mob decides to target Julian as well as Michael and the girlfriend. Michael sets out to protect his brother but in doing so, he uncovers some secrets about his past.

I’ll admit I was skeptical when I heard all the praise heaped on this book and while I was eager to begin enjoying it, part of me wasn’t sure it could live up to the hype. Those fears quickly vanished as I found myself pulled into this world and into one of the best thrillers I’ve read not only this year but in many years. Hart’s emphasis on characters is on full display here and while you may not necessarily like everything or everyone in this book, Hart makes sure you’ll understand the motivations of each character as well as the way they became the person they are today. This is especially true in the character of the Elena, who starts out the novel ready to dismiss Michael from her life due to his past and his connection to violence but who we see slowly coming to accept that who Michael is at his core is a good man she fell in love with. (To say much more ruins some of her character arc, which you really have to experience to truly appreciate).

I’ve read Hart’s other novels and while they were good, they only hinted at what was to come. With Iron House he not only lives up to the promise of those early books, but he exceeds it. The last half of the novel builds at such an intensity and pace that you may find it next to impossible to put it aside to do other things.

If you’re looking for a great thriller that will not only entertain but also works on a emotional level, this is the one.

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