Friday, November 28, 2008

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (literary fiction)

I hesitate to slap a derisive label like "chick lit" on anything, but author Sara Gruen's third novel is a prime example of the worst kind of "women's fiction"; Water for Elephants was obviously written by a woman solely for other women, with no attempt to be realistic from the male point of view. Instead it perpetuates the romantic ideals set forth by Harlequin and its ilk — heights that no three-dimensional male can ever reach. (No wonder it was a word-of-mouth bestseller.)

This is shown most strikingly through Gruen's protagonist, Jacob Jankowski. He does not talk, think, or act like any (straight) man I have ever met. The purpose he serves, it seems, is to stand in for a lot of women's idea of what a man should be. When a man looks at another man and calls him "unshaven" with the implication that what he really means is "unclean," you know you're nowhere near reality. This type of man lives only in fiction.

Gruen even makes Jacob a virgin (though old enough to have a degree from veterinary school) so that when he and the female lead finally make it to the bed (which is inevitable in this world), it more closely match the unspoken wishes of her audience.

(Now, understand, men's fiction is no better from the woman's point of view, with the hero more often than not bedding the female lead, who then conveniently dies so he can have access to a series of new women without guilt for the expense of a succession of prostitutes. I'm not saying it's any better, but at least it's marketed to men and not a general audience.)

Gruen relies so much on stereotypes from romance novels (or even just their covers) and "chick flicks" that none of the characters in Water for Elephants ever feels like a real human being but simply an archetype playing its part in her story. The writing flows nicely, and the story is somewhat interesting if you don't mind melodrama.

Also, Gruen manages to humanize people who have previously been seen as freaks, but this was all for nought when I never believed that the narrator was telling me the truth about his gender. I actually kept waiting for that to be a "twist" in the story, and in fact was disappointed when it never came.

Plus, if a man were really telling the story, he would undoubtedly have recognized the sophomoric unintentional hilarity in the following passage: Teams of men are ... raising enormous poles.... I pass a group of ten throwing their combined weight against a single rope as a man off to the side chants, "Pull it, shake it, break it! Again—pull it, shake it, break it! Now downstake it!" [p. 34].

(Yeah, that's what she said!)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Jesus Coyote by Harold Jaffe (a novel based on the Charles Manson Family)

The devoted followers of the charismatic Jesus Coyote (whom they call "Soul") have perpetrated a heinous act under his instruction: the gruesome murder of actress Naomi Self (the 8-months-pregnant wife of Polish director Jaroslav Hora), her close friend and ex-lover "hairdresser to the stars" Don Francisco, and five others including Phillip Morris heiress Kristin Barrett and Czech national Viktor Hus. But after four months, the governor's task force of LAPD, FBI, DEA, ATF, National Guard, and other "experts" have unearthed "no viable suspects."

Author Harold Jaffe expands on the concept of his short story collection 15 Serial Killers with the novella Jesus Coyote, a "docufiction" not very loosely based on the exploits of the Manson family. Using the documentary format of letters, transcripts of interrogations and phone conversations, and selected first-person accounts (from the killers and the victims) — concluding with a one-on-one interview with Coyote himself — Jaffe pieces together a gripping narrative that hews closely to the facts while retaining the fluidity of fiction.

This format gives Jesus Coyote a verisimilitude that the usual linear narrative storytelling would not. And Jaffe's stark style is such that, except for the name changes, the story reads like truth. If the real names had been used, I would just about believe everything actually happened as written (though Jaffe admits to some timeline shifting in an author's note).

Short at 150 pages, Jesus Coyote is by no means a quick read; the text is dense and rich with detail and characterization with not a sentence out of place. (I don't remember seeing any typos, either — always remarkable for a small press product.) Jaffe inclusion of revelations (based on his research) about certain characters was the single touch that affected me more than anything else; it made me see them as real people — with interests and passions of their own — and not just as the cult that mindlessly followed their leader.

This was unexpected, and with all the books I read, I'm always impressed when one surprises me. For this and the other reasons above, I feel like Jesus Coyote will live large in my memory — it's certainly one of the most fascinating books I've read this year.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Survivor by J.F. Gonzalez (extreme horror)

Under the guise of an extreme horror novel, author J.F. Gonzalez has managed to create, with Survivor, an emotionally resonant moral commentary on the underbelly of society, showing how the top and bottom blend until there is little or no difference anymore.

Brad and Lisa Miller are on their way to a romantic vacation (where she will announce her new pregnancy to him) when with the unwitting help of the police, Brad is arrested and Lisa is kidnapped. The kidnappers are snuff-film producers, and Lisa was the specific request of one of their best clients. She'll soon be a movie star unlike she ever imagined unless she can somehow bargain her way out, letting her maternal instinct guide the way.

But that's only the beginning. Gonzalez expands his novella Maternal Instinct into a gripping full-length novel that is better than a novella expansion has any right to be. He layers on the suspense and makes Survivor into a real page-turner, despite its horrific subject matter.

The killings put on film are graphically depicted in the prose, which will put off some readers who are more used to the tongue-in-cheek horror of Richard Laymon or Edward Lee. Gonzalez touches on the reality of the situation in a way I've previously encountered only in Jack Ketchum novels, which makes the interpersonal violence even more disturbing. He also approaches an aspect of murder rarely encountered with any depth in horror novels: the consequences. Every character's actions in Survivor have definite and unavoidable repercussions, and Gonzalez folds them all into his believable plot.

The decision Lisa makes in order to attempt her escape has perhaps the most horrifying outcome of all, the effects of which are felt throughout Survivor — much like in the best work of Gary Braunbeck — in both tangible and intangible ways. What this all adds up to is a book that impressed me far more than I expected it to, and one that I continue to think about over a year after finishing it. (I never intended to review it, but I had to get all my thoughts out and down in some organized fashion so they'd stop buzzing around my head — so here they are.)

The early part of Survivor is not as well written as what follows and contains a good deal of unnecessary repetition — something that, as a proofreader, is a real pet peeve of mine. There are also a couple of unrealistic character autobiographies (where they tell the histories of how they got in the snuff-film business) that slow down the story but do serve to make them more three-dimensional. All of the majors, however, were well drawn so that I can still picture them clearly in my mind even now.

Out of a fairly straightforward novella, J.F. Gonzalez has constructed a multilayered novel with a least three genuine surprises. Survivor can be read as simply a fast-paced and entertaining (if gruesome) horror novel, or also as a statement on family dynamics and their potential outcomes. If Gonzalez's other novels are this impressive, he will have a new fan in me.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Red Sky in Morning: a novel of World War II by Max Allan Collins writing as Patrick Culhane

Max Allan Collins's second mainstream novel under the Patrick Culhane byline, Red Sky in Morning, is a marked improvement over the first, Black Hats. Once again the action takes place in the past, but this time all the characters are fictitious, with only mentions of famous personalities — and a much closer connection to the author's own past.

Ensign Peter Maxwell has had it easy during his stint in the U.S. Navy, spending his days heading the chorus and spending his nights with his pretty wife, but there's a war going on around him, and damned if he doesn't want to be part of it. So, the newly promoted Lieutenant Maxwell and his best friends — known collectively as the Fantail Four, a vocal quartet best known for their Ink Spots impression — sign up for duty aboard the U.S.S. Liberty Hill Victory, an ammunition ship with an all-"colored" crew and an openly racist captain. (Liberty Hill is Maxwell's hometown, and he sees this as an omen.)

Slowly, the Four realize they've put themselves into a potentially life-threatening situation — a point the nearby Port Chicago disaster drives home — but they decide to do what they can to make it work, including teaching the mostly illiterate crew how to read (especially the "no smoking" signs posted next to the explosives).

But when the white X.O. (executive officer) and then a black crewmember are murdered, Maxwell is promoted to the post, then relieved of his duties to investigate the crime. He makes his first executive decision by choosing another black crewmember (and fellow jazz enthusiast), Seaman Ulysses Grant Washington — known as "Sarge" from his years as a Chicago homicide detective — to accompany him on interrogations, and to essentially run the investigation.

The murder mystery is well plotted and satisfyingly solved, but the real appeal of Red Sky in Morning lies in the characters' relationships and in how Culhane/Collins shows them realistically, not shying away from popular conceptions (and epithets) of the era. This way, we are offered a complete portrait of a time and place that is likely not very familiar even to World War II aficionados.

Red Sky in Morning was inspired by stories Collins's father (the book is dedicated to him) told him of his own time in the Navy, making this his most personal book yet. The author states that the book is mostly fictional, but that several details are lifted from those reminiscences.

The rest came from Collins's imagination and his usual exhaustive research of the setting and period. He and co-author/research associate Matthew V. Clemens (see My Lolita Complex) plotted the story together, much like they did for Collins's CSI novels. With Red Sky in Morning, Culhane/Collins once again showcases his inimitable skill at making a time period come alive. I for one am glad that Max Allan Collins, Sr., shared his experiences with his son, so that he could in turn share them with us.
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