Monday, September 28, 2009

The Ruins by Scott Smith

A train wreck. I think that's the best way to describe this book. I only followed the lives of these characters out of a morbid curiosity. It makes me feel much more debase to admit that I actually wanted to see how bad this got rather than doing the smart thing... I should've put the book down when I could tell after the first two hundred pages exactly what the other three hundred would entail. Still, since this is a review rather than a ranting session, I guess I should start at the things I liked about this book and then work my way down to the reason why I believe reading it was a waste of my time.

The first thing I enjoyed about this book was the language in which it was written. I have to admit that the author has a "way with words." He paints elegant pictures with language and provides enough detail that you get a real feel for every scene. I could almost literally see everything in the novel with my mind's eye in excruciating detail, down to even sometimes feeling ill from the images he described. He really does have en elegant writing style that pulled me onward, making me want to see more if nothing more than the simple pleasure of how vivid the image was that he created, like watching a movie in my mind rather than reading a book.

I also admit, the characters were incredibly believable. There isn't much dialogue to see the thoughts and motives of the characters, but throughout the book there are glimpses into each of the main characters' subconscious thoughts and memories that make them more than simply three dimensional; they almost seem real. I went to school with these people. I guess my first problem was the fact these were the people I went to school with that I didn't like.

The characters had the sort of naivety that I would expect from teenagers rather than young adults. They made friends with two strangers on the beaches of Cancun in a few days, and trusted them wholeheartedly enough to follow them to a ruin in the middle of the jungle that someone already warned them not to enter. Not only that, but they practically didn't prepare for the hike, not even buying enough supplies to last them more than a day or bringing a knife and first aid kit with them. I've never been a girl scout, but even I know better than to go on a hike without carrying a knife, a first aid kit, and extra supplies if I don't know exactly how long my journey is going to take. Not to mention the most obvious setback, they had a cab drive them to the trail eleven miles into the jungle and then didn't arrange for anyone to pick them up, realizing at this time their supplies will be inadequate but pressing on anyway.

As they got closer, they also realized that the ruin is near a shanty town full of dangerous looking people (the descendants of Mayans) that seem intent on making them leave the area. The fact they continued onward after all of these setbacks made me lack sympathy for their plight. And, while they were fleshed out characters, they did still seem like stereotypical examples of the boyscout, the slut, the whiner, and the jock. They even made fun of this fact later in the book which made me chuckle at the irony of it all. This is probably why my favorite characters were the most mysterious ones out of the group, the German man they made friends with on the beach and the Greek man that couldn't speak any English.

Yes, that's right. I disliked all of the main characters and liked the two that you didn't get to know. This is probably because the others possessed obnoxious character flaws that made them unlikeable. Characters do need flaws, but when the flaws begin to take over halfway through the book, you stop caring about the characters simply becoming annoyed by them and unsympathetic when something bad happens to them. That's what happened to the main characters, they began to give themselves over to being petty and annoying to the point I just stopped caring about them.

Here is one of my biggest problems with the novel. I'm not giving much away by telling you that the supernatural antagonists in the book are a group of vines. That's right, man eating plants. The absurdity of it was too ridiculous to suspend disbelief. Yes, there are Lovecraftian monsters that are plants that can somehow seem terrifying, but these did not. All I could think of was "FEED ME, SEYMOUR," and expected the plants to start breaking into song and dance at any second, especially since the plants could also talk and think. You never determine if the plants have a hive mind or are the extensions of some larger scarier monster, but they can even set traps and have a malicious human-like intelligence. Plants don't scare me. Besides, the characters, as things turned out, were their own worst enemies. This book could've been written without the plants and the result probably would've been the same, only my opinion of it might've been better.

I should've stopped reading it, but I kept trying to say it was the journey that mattered. However, when I did reach the ending, I realized that in this case that wasn't true. It was the most cliche ending a horror novel can have. Well, the second most cliche ending. I'm not telling you what it is, but I think you can guess. I'll give it this though, at least it didn't turn out to be "and it was all just a dream," in the end, but it might as well have been for all I'm concerned. Five hundred pages, an entire week, and a letdown like that just made me want to strangle someone with vines myself. This ending was the type of thing I would expect from a short story, not a five hundred page novel.

The quote on the cover is from Stephen King, "The best horror novel of the new century." Maybe it was at the time he said that, but I certainly hope that isn't the case now. I'm sorry that this review is so scathing, but I have to be honest in my assessment. I will say that by the end of the book I did have some attachment to a few of the characters. The ending made me realize that, but not enough to justify standing on a hill for over four hundred pages and predicting just about everything that was going to happen.

Sadly, I knew the vines were the enemy the moment they stepped on the hill. Like I said, I wasn't giving anything away by telling you that, and I also knew they could mimic sound the moment they heard the "cellphone ring." I'm afraid I'm a bit too good at picking up on symbolism and things of that nature, but I think it wasn't just me this time. I think the book was predictable. I don't recommend it, and it doesn't surprise me it became a movie, but I'm not going to see it. Still, I did glean an appreciation for attention to detail that I don't get from most books from this one, and for that, I do commend the author. I'm afraid I won't be sampling any of his other work though.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Halloween Happiness...

Well, it's getting close to time for my yearly Halloween Party. I don't know why, but Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. (Christmas is more important because of what it represents, but Halloween is more my style, though I do have a Christmas party every year too.) It's just so much fun to dress up, carve pumpkins, bake sweets, and of course, have a party. Plus, I love the change in the weather. I've had more than my fill of summer already.

I'm glad to say that this year we should have a good selection of movies. With Netflix, we've downloaded several classics such as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," the original "House on Haunted Hill," "Nosferatu," and "The Phantom of the Opera." Also we've recently acquired Stephen King's "IT" and the remake of "House on Haunted Hill." We're viewing them to decide which ones to show at the party, but the point is, this year we should have a wider selection. (Also, it's just nice to have an excuse to watch more horror movies. I actually had never seen "IT" until I decided to review it for the party and I'm glad to stay it stuck close enough to the book to earn my approval.)

Also, we almost have everything we need for our costumes. I've always wanted to dress as Alice in Wonderland with my escort as the Mad Hatter for Halloween, and it looks like this year it's going to happen. I have a pretty good Alice costume and I've already made a few minor adjustments to make it tasteful (if you buy any kind of woman's costume now-a-days, it seems that they design them to show as much skin as possible, something I'm not very comfortable with. I might have lost nearly eleven pounds now so I don't think I look bad, but I still have my modesty...). Still, the props are what make the outfit since I have a white rabbit stuffed animal and a grinning cat pillow that looks a lot like the Cheshire cat. I'll carry a basket with the props separately for the full effect. Now we just need to finish up Joel's costume. He has a nice dress shirt, vest, bow-tie, black shoes, and dress pants that will work, and even a pocket watch, but he still needs the most important parts of the costume--a old fashioned style coat and, of course, the HAT.

I'm thinking of carving Alice in Wonderland style pumpkins this year since I really can't top the Nintendo themed pumpkins at the first party, and that will at least fit the theme of our costumes. A creepy grinning cat face would be pretty cool, and I might be able to pull of some face silhouettes like the drawings from the book. We'll see. We're also throwing around the idea of a sweet tea styled alcoholic punch this time, since we almost always do a mixed fruit/cranberry juice punch. (We want to do a few different things this year.) I still don't know what refreshments we'll be providing, but I do know we'll have some sort of meat (usually meatballs or little smokies), lots of candy, popcorn, chips and dip, and probably some sort of Halloween cake or cookies.

As for activities there are movies on in the main room, a rock band room in the back for those that are into that sort of thing, and an extra room for board games, table top RPG's or possibly classic video games this year (Hopefully we can set that up since that was a request last time). And this year, no drunken mishaps...definitely no drunken mishaps. We'll be calling cabs if we have to. ;-)

Hopefully we'll see you there!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Shriek: An Afterword

Just a fair warning, there are spoilers later in this review. Trust me, I hate spoilers for books. I'll never forget when my friend Bob ruined the ending of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince for my husband by describing a Saturday Night Live skit that did the same thing. I had kept it secret for so long, I think I took off Bob's own hat and smacked him with it...but I digress. The point is, I try not to put spoilers in most of my book or movie reviews, but since my one real complaint about this book is the ending, I feel I have to say something about it. Still, feel free to read up until I tell you to stop if you don't want the ending spoiled. (I'm not sure why I'm so worried about this. There isn't much of an ending to spoil, which is kind of the point of my complaint. Even if you read the "spoiler" more than likely there won't be much spoiled for you.)

Well, I just finished the novel Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer, and I must say I'm pleasantly impressed. When I first started the book it was a slow start. It's written from the perspective of a woman born into a family of historians (I knew what I was getting into), but, even knowing that, I thought it was too academic for my standards. Still, the pace really began to pick up after the first few chapters and by the time I reached the second half of the book I was totally hooked. I couldn't put it down for several days and reading it became the highlight of my week.

One of the best elements of this novel is the setting. I really should take lessons from this book on how to develop my own setting. The city of Ambergris is as much of a character as the people telling about it, dynamically changing throughout the book and going through stages as much as the characters themselves. The world was so well thought out that it felt like the journal was describing a real place, especially by the end of the book. And, I have to admit, the caverns underground with the "gray caps," a race of mushroom people, was incredibly well done.

I thought originally that the idea was kind of cliche (I know, I write vampire fiction, I have no room to talk), but it was downright impressive. The fungal weaponry and the vivid description of color as opposed to the drab real world actually painted an image with words. The gray caps became incredibly mysterious beings with a purpose and at the same time terrifying monsters as the book progressed.

Here's my one complaint (those who want to read the book without knowing the ending, turn back now.)

Sadly, the novel ends without telling us everything. The ending feels almost abrupt and forced. We never find out what the machine is that the gray caps are building beneath the city, or if they are ever going to conquer the city or simply leave to go back to their own world. We also don't know if there's going to be another "Silence" that will make the remaining inhabitants of the city disappear, or what "the Silence" actually was in the first place. There is mention of a "Shift," where the city is going to suffer much worse than it did during the "War of the Houses," something that was bad enough, but we never find out what "the Shift" is. You also don't find out what happens to the narrator of the novel at the end.

I'm one of those people who gets attached to the characters enough to want to know what happens to them. In the Dark Tower Series, I had to follow Roland into the Tower, not because I like seeing the destination rather than the journey, but because not reading any further felt like abandoning him. In this case, Janice Shriek abandoned me. You never find out if she put on the glasses to follow her brother Duncan underground. You don't know if she finds a way to cheat death once she gets there. You don't even know what was in Duncan's trunk that he left for her.

I like to think she did go, since she wanted to escape the world that she no longer belonged to, but there is also the possibility that she was simply pushed in front of a car at the end, which in my opinion is very anti-climactic. (After the story ends, one of her friends writes a short description of how he found the manuscript and why he decided to publish it. He also says that there was someone fitting Janice's description pushed in front of a car).

I enjoyed the book and I do recommend it. Still, hate the fact that it left me hanging and left so many unanswered questions. That was Duncan's style of writing in the novel, creating answers that only asked more questions, so maybe that was done purposefully as a commentary to that style. But, that doesn't mean I have to like it. Jeff VanderMeer might be working on a continuation, but I seriously doubt it, so sadly I'll never know the answers. Still, overall, a very good book.