Shock and Awe

by David Isaak

This was weird. The idea is that some billionaire is gathering ex-military and paramilitary types in order to pull off nuking Mecca.

This is kind of the horse pill you have to swallow to read this. And one of the weird things about it, is that the book takes such care to craft the details about the various forms of munitions—and I have no idea if it’s right, but it’s convincingly portrayed—that you get the sense the author really cared about what he was writing. He didn’t just slap together a few preconceptions about firearms (which he totally could have). Even if he was wrong about the weapons (again, I’m not saying he is, I’m saying I couldn’t tell), he wasn’t lazy.

But…what a weird premise, in need of some fleshing out. “We’re going to blow up Mecca because that will neuter the Muslim threat.” Really? You know, I’m not even going to say that’s wrong; it seems to be a fantasy for some. But I without substantial backup, there’s a serious chance that your characters are just going to look like insane idiots.

But I got past that. Isaak is not a hack, as noted. So he rewards your reading with several very good sequences, and the plot hangs together pretty well at the low-level. (This is kind of the opposite of most novice writers, who rapid fire the high-level stuff at you with sloppy low-level know-what-I-mean stuff.) There’s decent suspense at several points, and you end up caring about the characters.

The characters are another weird point, though. A great many of them seem to have come from the redneck cliché store. I hate saying it because, again, a lot of work went into this, but it felt like the author was drawing heavily from popular media portrayals of gun enthusiasts, militia, etc. He fleshes them out as the story progresses, thankfully.

The last odd thing is the denouement. I won’t do spoilers—even though this is pretty incidental to the 400+ previous pages—but if you’re gonna do a batshit conspiracy theory type story, the payoff should be something other than the fairly pedestrain sorts of left-wing fantasies that typified literature of the Bush years. (This is not a spoiler, but it’s intimated repeatedly, for example, that Bush himself would kinda-sorta be happy to see Mecca nuked. That’s a bizarre claim.)

I still kinda liked it overall. I really felt like the author got into the action scenes in a way that most authors kind of glide over. Flaws aside, the book as such held together pretty darn well. I don’t think the book sold well—I think I got it when a friend of mine who was running a book review site forwarded it to me—and sadly the guy hasn’t written another one.

The Thin Man

by Dashiell Hammett

Love Hammett, but had never read this story, and don’t recall if I ever saw the movie. (I did see the sequel, which was wonderful.) I didn’t realize this, but The Thin Man was Hammett’s last novel, but I don’t know if that’s why I didn’t quite find it as accessible as, say, The Maltese Falcon or not. I felt like it was too steeped in the moment, even for me, who loves the era. But I found myself lost occasionally by things the author assumed I would know.

That said, Hammett is a delight, as always, and the mystery is full of proto-noir-ish goodness. He does such a good job of getting you to see the characters’ views of the mystery, it’s easy to get suckered in to their confusions, too. As such, the conclusion makes sense and at the same time comes as a bit of a surprise, too.

Magic

by William Goldman

I picked this up at a library sale, thinking it was related to the ’70s movie (which I haven’t seen) about a ventriloquist dummy run amok, and was surprised that the dummy doesn’t show up in the book till the end of act I. (I don’t know, I guess I just figured the dummy would be front-and-center right off the bat.)

Anyway, it is the basis for the Richard Attenborough movie with Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret and Burgess Meredith, which performed modestly at the box office and didn’t make much of a splash in the year that had GreaseSuperman and Halloween.

Oh, the book? It’s fine. Goldman can write. He can construct characters and a story. It’s a fairly breezy read. Cynical as all get out. The stinger is gratuitously cynical, I think, and very ’70s.

The Story of Atlantis and Lost Lemuria

by William Scott-Elliot

I picked this up because I read somewhere it was inspirational to Robert E Howard for his Conan stories. But I don’t think that’s true; at least nothing I’ve read anywhere in Howard (Conan or otherwise) fits, apart from the name “Lemuria” (I think) and I think there’s a reference to the Hyperborean age in Atlantis. Oh, and I think I recall something about Akkadians in Howard. But I can’t really connect what’s written here to what Howard wrote, which always struck me as very “real” feeling.

This is two books: The first is on Atlantis, and it is as woo-woo as you can imagine. Scott-Elliot was a theosophist, someone who sought “direct knowledge” of the mysteries of existence. Which sounds okay, I suppose, but I think what it amounted to was entering into a trance and “writing history”. I won’t even comment on whether such a thing is possible or if the things here are true, but they are pretty wild and reminded me uncannily of how I build fantasy universes for stories and games (except that I deliberately try to avoid fact).

The funny thing is that the second book starts out very solid (wrong by current lights, but not implausible for the science of the time) with descriptions of possible other land masses. I hadn’t even noticed it was the same author! Then it starts to reference the first book and goes right back in to the woo-woo.

It was kind of cool. I had just finished Foucault’s Pendulum which is centered on how conspiracy theories craft their theories using each other as references, which is the hallmark of the theosophists of this time. Eco mentions Blatavasky numerous times, as does Scott-Elliot. And I think Haeckel came up in Foucault as well.

Also, although I didn’t realize it at the time, both this and Eco are reflected in the Machen book I read The Secret Glory which is also about hidden truths and the quest for the grail. It’s always fun when books intersect like that.

Alien

by Alan Dean Foster

When I realized I wouldn’t be able to read my “E-is-for-Eco” book before bedtime (because I’m trying to avoid looking at screens at night), I figured I would head on to “F” for nighttime reading and this was by Alan Dean Foster, who is I think a competent writer.

But there’s not a lot here. Movie novelizations are tricky at best. Make a movie based on a book, and you can pretty much do whatever. Make a book based on a movie, and you’d probably best not deviate much. At the same time, I think Foster ghost-wrote the novelization of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (Roddenberry took credit) and I seem to recall that had a little more depth than the movie. But this was literally decades ago and also the only other time I read a novelization of a movie.

So, yeah, this is the story of Alien, which is a decent one. It lacks the movie’s style, acting, and shock value, which is about all that movie is. But I didn’t have to look anything up, which is all I was asking for in a book.

Foucault’s Pendulum

by Umberto Eco

I enjoyed Eco’s The Name of the Rose enough to where I was actually looking forward to this rather thick read, and it is very much like that other book, “only more so”. Fundamentally, it’s a kind of mystery, and a tale of group madness and Eco really knows how to put a story like that together.

At the same time, if Rose was steeped in 14th century medieval history, this book is steeped in six hundred years or more of conspiracy theories. Much like Rose it’s not actually a “hard read” in the Joyce-ian sense: The grammar is straightforward and the author doesn’t use language to try to obscure his meaning.

But, man, oh, man. It’s not enough to know about the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Masons, Kabbalah, alchemy and other European delusions. The author spends a chunk of the book in Brazil and details distinctions between the various forms of (what most of us would probably call) voodoo.

I noticed something as the book wore on: Latin and French weren’t translated but German and old English were. I take this to mean Eco understood Latin and French, but not German and Old English. So his audience was limited to people who understood those languages. And who also possess a highly idiosyncratic subset of knowledge. You could probably fit everyone in the world who could read this book without a ton of references into a small room. I doubt it was actually read much at all when it came out.

But I knew, going in, that this would be the case, so it didn’t bother me. (It did take me longer to read because I’ve been trying to avoid looking at screens before bed, and I do most of my reading before bed.) If you wanted a bibliography of historical conspiracy material, this would serve.

What did start to bother me toward the end of the book was Eco’s godlessness. I had this problem with Rose because I didn’t feel like he actually understood sincere religious belief but (perhaps ironically) it bothered me more here, because all of his characters are of the same sort of areligious mold, and most of their thrashing about seems to be the result of this.

Eco was obviously aware of this. A quote beginning a late chapter says something about the loss of faith in God results in a search for meaning through conspiracy. That didn’t make it any less annoying to me, especially as regards to the main character’s search for meaning ending in a rather diminished and prosaic fashion, with no small overtones of nihilism.

It’s not bad, as a book. Eco could plot, he could write, he could write serviceable male characters. (His female characters strike me as implausible, except in how the male characters regard them.) He uses that most awful of authorial cheats, the hallucinogen, to create a sense of wonder that he can then back out of or use to create doubt in the reader’s mind about whether something supernatural is occurring. (This is the literary equivalent of pulling off the mask in “Scooby Doo”.)

But ultimately, I wondered who Eco’s audience was, and I came to believe it was: himself, and people who had his exact same knowledge of esoterica, i.e., himself. And I can’t believe most people are going to find the work involved reading this to be sufficiently rewarded by the story itself. If you’re like me (and I know I am) and you like the research aspect, you’ll probably enjoy the overall effect.

But the difference between me and Eco is that I know there aren’t a lot of people like me. 😉

Growing Up with Manos: The Hands of Fate

by Jackey Neyman Jones, Laura Mazzuca Toops

As Joel Hodgson notes in his introduction to this book, Manos: The Hands of Fate was not the best riff MST3K ever did—not by a long shot. It has become the most notorious for a variety of unclear reasons, one of which is that it is bad in many of the right ways. Although, unlike, say Plan 9 From Outer Space, with its goofy throwback to ’30s-era horror, Manos is also bad in ways that make it a “hard watch”.

Jackey Neyman Jones has diligently researched the topic for her book, which is also based on many of her own personal recollections, as she played “Debbie”, the young daughter of the poor saps who are drawn into The Master’s web of…web of…well, whatever it was The Master was doing up there in San Antonio.

The paradox of the movie (and many like it) is that the very person who has the personality to cause a movie to suddenly spring up in the deserts of Texas is the very person who will aggressively work against the things that might make a decent film. (This is so frequently true in low-budget film-making as to be a cliche.) In this case, our culprit is Harold P. Warren, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in this film.

Some of the stories sounded familiar. If you’ve ever read the brilliant Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, you may recognize the bombastic tales of artistic excellence, overshared profits (that never were), and a charismatic ringleader a bit over-convinced of his own brilliance. And Warren was no Wood, that’s for sure. Warren seems to have had a fair bit of talent at his beck-and-call (which he exploited ruthlessly), and a fair bit of talent in making others’ talent look bad.

The making of Manos included many fixtures of young Jackey’s life: Her father was The Master, and he expertly manipulated her into playing Debbie. Her mother made the (wonderful) black-and-red hands costume The Master wore. The wild sculptures on the set were the work of her father’s, and he had some hand in the special FX as well.

But only part of this book is about the making of Manos. A fair portion is about Ms. Jones, her adoration of her father (who played The Master), and how after a period of estrangement, the sudden re-emergence of the film allowed her to re-connect with her father. You can really understand how the author became the virtual mascot of the MST3K crew, introducing “The Mads” and being at the premiere for the recent MST3K reboot, because people coming together over truly bad (but sincerely made) films is what that show was all about.

There’s a lot of fun stuff about the post-MST3K “Manos” craze, which has been truly phenomenal, with stage productions, sequels, and even a video game based on it. Another (sad) cliche is that, when the whiff of fame and wealth came around, a lot of would-be Warrens came out of the woods to try to exploit it.

There’s a chapter toward the end called something like “Little Debbie reveals all” and, thankfully, she does not. It’s enough to have the arc of her life separating and reconnecting with her dad without the sorts of highly intimate details that fuel some more self-indulgent works. The effect is to be touching without being, you know, gross. (The sort of subtlety missing from, say, the film in question.)

Anyway, this definitely joins Nightmare and The Evil Dead Companion on my list of great low-budget movie-based reads. Much like the MST3K episode that features it, this book is a testament to how even a bad movie (one of the worst even) can result in good things.

Lone Wolf and Cub, Omnibus 3

by Kazuo KoikeGoseki Kojima

So, here I am on volume 3 of the Omnibus, having read a dozen of these stories about this assassin who chops people up while pushing his son around in an increasingly aggressively armed baby carriage, and you’d think maybe this stuff would start to get stale.

If a Westerner did this, it would end up schlocky. Or worse, campy.

But the sincerity of this, where the authors’ earnest passion for the topic neither blinds them to the harsh realities of the time (as one might see, e.g., in a child’s tale about knights) nor drives them to exaggerate the harshness (as one might see, e.g., in a modern Batman or Superman movie), is matched by the artistic skill of its execution.

It’s as if, for every episode, the authors realize that they must bring something new: A new take on the rolling hills or the rice paddies or the brutal battle, sure, but also some new view on a point-of-view, or a historical event, or a character.

For example, this volume features a law that allows a child to be beaten for a crime. I doubt, historically, it was ever used on a toddler like Daigoro, but this story sets up the tension between a thief and lawman, and Daigoro’s sense of honor (as modeled by his father) to create a starkly dramatic moral dilemma. The very exaggeratedness of the situation creates genuine high drama.

In retrospect, I suppose the amazing thing is that you don’t fear for the toddler—Daigoro’s fate was sealed a long time ago—but for everyone else’s soul who would allow something like this to happen.

I’m eager to read the next volume!

Twilight Journey

by L. P. Davies

I don’t know why I picked this one out of all the “D”s. When I started it, it seemed so much like The Artificial Man that I wondered if I grabbed the wrong book. Also, the dystopic nature, though not thoroughly described, felt very much like the one in that book, and I had a recollection of that one as being a 2- or 3- starrer.

Just now checking I see that I gave it four stars, which is what I gave this one—all the while reading it and thinking “Now, this is much better than that last!”—which I suppose comes from reading a bunch of dystopic ’60s/’70s sci-fi, and probably from having read 70 books or more in-between the two.

And it’s true that this era of science-fiction is particularly displeasing to me—especially the dystopic stuff, which is a risible (and worse, what might be called “anti-book:The Toynbee Convector|76783]”) as all of the past several decades’ climate change horrors—and of course most of that eco-horror stuff began back in that era—but for Davies, it’s merely a convenient (and doubtless an instantly recognizable setting for readers of the time).

The “scientific” premise of this book is also particlarly nonsensical: A scientist invents a kind of internalized virtual reality that works through words translated into electrical currents and fed into the brain of a subject. This internalized VR is “more real than real” to the subject. OK, so far, so good—or at least not totally ridiculous.

The ridiculous part of this is that the scientist perceives (and the book’s reality accepts) this as being a good educational tool. An hour of dreaming is equivalent to an hour of experience. This begs the question of why not just have people have the experience, but its primary use is for history and, of course, those past times don’t exist any more.

The first problem one has with this is that the virtual experiences, as described by Davies, are particularly flat and unconvincing. They’re like sets from the Twilight Zone or Star Trek: Mostly just facades for people to recite lines in front of. (And such stilted lines.) Since Davies is a writer (and a good one), he surely had to realize that anything going from words->images was going to be heavily influenced by the subject’s understanding of those words. No mention at all about what happens with words the subject didn’t understand; I guess we’re to presume that a word can be translated into a generic electrical impulse that itself contains the precise semantic content of the word. (The mind reels!)

So, here I am picking at the premise, yet still I give it four stars, and here’s why: Our hero is laying down his life in anticipation of his device being abused by those in power. That is, he sees the potential for abuse, for mind-control, for a totalitarian state, and he’s ready to sacrifice himself to stop that.

Or is he?

Is that, in fact, what’s going on at all?

So, you get hooked on the suspense aspect, and then the characters end up being largely admirable (if not perfect) to various degrees, with just a few dodgy ones, and even those somewhat dismissed. And contrary to The Artificial Man this book works by having a large scope that is focused down to a very narrow, very personal and very believably heroic point.

I like that. I admired how it was done. And it made it easy for me to overlook the premise.

The Devil Is A Part Timer #1

by Satoshi Wagahara

I promised myself I would shelve the books I had left out on my last A-Z run before starting on “A” again. I lied. (Though I did finally shelve them, and I’m only up to “D”.) But then, the whole point of this project was to read the hundreds of books I had accumulated over the years but not yet read.

So, having plucked this book to read before I go on to my L.P. Davies novel—that’s another kind of lie.

Heh.

On the other hand, these are called “light novels” for a reason. Despite clocking in at 240 pages, the pages are dialog-heavy and it was no strain to breeze through this in a couple days. So, it’s minor sin, or perhaps a little white lie. But it’s also a breeze because it’s cute and funny, and a nice little send-up of a lot of popular Japanese tropes.

Last year, to try to connect with “the younger generation” (my kids, really), I started watching some anime on their recommendation. My previous attempts at watching anime (going back to before they were born) had been a decidedly mixed bag, as Japanese tropes can seem as dumb to Westerners as I imagine Western tropes seem to the Japanese. But with my kids making suggestions, I had found some series to watch that were quite good. (Doubly challenging, as I find TV series increasingly hard to bear.)

But I saw this whimsical show titled “The Devil is a Part Timer” and watched it, and then turned them on to it. And it became something we all enjoyed for a variety of reasons.

The typical story of this type has a super-powered teen learning how to control his or her powers at a school in preparation for some horrible situation that exists, or is about to arise. Being teens (and more importantly, being aimed at a teen audience) this means that teen angst and melodrama is given a backdrop of epic magnitude.

TDIAPT, on the other hand, begins at the end of an epic battle, when a defeated Satan flees to earth to escape The Hero, and finds himself a powerless human teen, struggling to make ends meet with his sole minion, and being pursued by the Hero, similarly reduced in condition.

It’s not really a “fish out of water” scenario in the usual sense of humor coming from people misunderstanding the little things that are common knowledge in modern life; our other-worldly characters seem to have a good grasp on the events and trends of the day. But where a more typical anime might have an existential struggle punctuated with melodrama on the level of who takes whom to the prom, TDIAPT imposes the epic drama of its back story on the banalities of everyday life.

So, instead of two warrioresses fighting for their lives against some kaiju (giant monster) and one suddenly crying out “Why wouldn’t you let me borrow that dress?”—and I swear I’ve seen something very much like this—the Devil will celebrate the $1/hour raise he gets as taking him another step toward full-time employment which is just another stepping stone to conquer the world!

The bombast coming from such events as making the rent, buying a refrigerator, or the betrayal when the demon’s general discovers that he has been sneaking out to the occasional movie—which occurs when they are locked in an epic, existential battle, come to think of it—provides a lot of laughs.

But one of the other reasons it’s so popular around here is that the Devil loves his job, and does it very well, much to the surprise of those who know him. My son, on viewing the series, said it had given him a new perspective on employment. If the Devil can work a job like MgRonald’s with enthusiasm and see his path to world domination from it, my son figured he could, too. He’s highly technically skilled, so he doesn’t have to, but it’s always a good thing to remember that honest work is honest work, and there’s no shame in it.

It’s not a bad reminder for anyone.

The series hews to the book remarkably closely, making some condensations and allowances for things, but that should tell you again how “light” this is: The 240 pages are effectively shrunk into about six episodes, or about 144 minutes, from the Devil’s arrival in Japan to the big reveal of Things Aren’t Quite What They Seem Back Home in episode six.

A few jokes have been added to the series that are not in the book, and some exposition—things that make you shrug and say “Huh…well, that’s anime for ya” in the series—is provided so that the book actually makes a whole lot more sense, conventionally, then the series. There’s also a little more insight into the Devil’s (and Hero’s) psychology, which is somewhat murky in the series. It’s clearer that his plans for world domination are sincere, but not all that menacing.

Anyway, I did enjoy it. And I can see why all these Japanese kids (in anime and movies) have bookshelves full of these light novels. You could literally read all eighteen books in the series in a month, I’m guessing, without breaking a sweat.
—-
On re-read, it’s not as “unwritten” as I recalled, and there is a kind of meticulousness to the plotting. It’s not (at least in its English translation) something you’d read for the density of its craftsmanship, though. I re-read it as a prelude to reading volume 2.