Wednesday, December 12, 2012

CBR IV: Live Free or Cannonball Hard, Entry 5: "The Average American Marriage" By Chad Kultgen

Full Disclosure: Once again, I have the wonderful Heidi Metcalfe over at Harper Perennial to thank for allowing me to return to the debaucherous world of Mr. Kultgen's writing.

Also, Spoiler Alert for The Average American Male.

"Love and's an institute you can't disparage.  Dad was told by Mother, you can't have one without the other." 

- Frank Sinatra
Times have changed since Sinatra sang those immortal words.  Hell, times have changed since they were used to ironically proclaim the entrance of The Bundy Family to each and every American household during the run of Married with Children.  Furthermore, it's been a while since The Bundys were the prototypical "American family": Al, the broken and beaten Football start and Peg, the fizzled out, horny shrew of a housewife were the new normal when it came to the depiction of American marriage in the 1990's.  Could it have been because it was so far from the stereotypical image we were fed through traditional media, or was this actually the shift the country was taking?  Either way, it was taken in by the societal consciousness and for a while The Bundys, and even The Simpsons, were the primary depiction of the battle of the sexes; both of which were heavily injected with comedy.  Upon completing The Average American Marriage by Chad Kultgen, these are (at least in this author's opinion) the two most prevalent themes within the text: the current state of marriage, as well as the increasingly commonplace phenomenon of cultural mores and traditions evolving at a faster clip.  A clip so fast that five years (if not less) is all it takes to feel left behind.
Our (still) unnamed protagonist starts the latest chapter in his life just as he had in the previous installment: enduring "The same old bullshit", only this time it's with his wife, Alyna (whom we all remember as the woman who sunk her claws into our narrator by the final frames of Average American Male) and kids.  Five years on they have two kids, a house, and a close to sexless marriage.  The Narrator still finds time to masturbate, play video games, and stare at any woman that catches his visual fancy; suggesting he hasn't changed much since the last time we saw him.  And yet, as the book goes on, and we see him unavoidably exposed to temptation, we learn that he has more of an instilled sense of morality.  It's not a perfect moral code, but fatherhood has him preoccupied with thoughts of his children and his parenting technique and this clashes against his urges to fulfill his sexual needs outside of their marriage.  (That, and we initially learn that his policy on cheating is firmer than we last remembered.)

Though the more things change, the more they stay the same.  This is evident as we explore the plot line of our main character and his new intern, Holly.  A 21 year old firecracker with a tight body and a youthful vigor that's not completely lost on our protagonist, she provides a roadblock on the journey of our character's trek into Middle Age.  We also learn that Holly is very much a product of her time.  She's a Facebook addict, she's with the latest music, and she does things in bed that only a generation growing up with the Internet supplanting parental advice/friendly gossip would count as a technical baseline.  In this story, Kultgen still titillates, but also seizes the opportunity explore something he toyed with in his last book, "Men, Women, and Children": the correlation of technological advance and information aggregation to sexuality, specifically in the areas of technique and desire.  If Holly were a 21 year old then The Narrator was 21, she wouldn't be as forward as his generation was more familiar with Analog solutions.  It's her Digital approach to sex, as well as the refreshing change of scenery from his increasingly distasteful wife, that tempts our Narrator to swim in that moral grey area that Kultgen has found his sweet spot.

In the end, The Average American Marriage signals another step in the literary evolution of Chad Kultgen.  I wished for, and got, his first follow up; and it was everything a sequel should be.  It advances the story, builds upon the foundations of our characters, and ultimately pushes things along to a point where there's enough different to claim a gain of knowledge, but enough remaining characteristics to connect the two works.  Now that Mr. Kultgen has now broken his duck with sequels, perhaps he'll decide in the future that he'll return to the world of his previous, equally sequel friendly, book: Men, Women, and Children. Or maybe we'll receive one final volume in the Average American Series, so as to explore the Narrator's growing children and the realization of fears presented in this text. Fortunately, until the next time we meet with the author and his next creation, we have another socially incendiary work to add to his literary bedpost.  Fellas, this isn't just the book your girlfriend won't want you to read; it's also the book you must read for the good of your relationship.  Ladies, this book is as intellectually interesting as it is scandalous, so you're not left out here.  Ultimately, Kultgen's intelligence and penchant for well constructed debauchery that make this a book well worth reading.
Next Time: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (I SWEAR!)

Friday, October 19, 2012

CBR IV: Live Free or Cannonball Hard, Entry 4: "Cloud Atlas" By David Mitchell

Life, like any good story or piece of music, is told in movements.  These movements all link together to form harmony, dissonance, and ultimately the story that is our civilization.  Where we’ve been just might tell us where we’re going, and if we ignore it we’ll put ourselves into more trouble than we could imagine.  Such is the theme of Cloud Atlas, and such is a wondrous device to tell a story that spans from 1850 to the far flung future, over the course of six separate yet linked stories.  Cloud Atlas is a drama.  It’s a love story.  It’s a detective thriller, a comedy, and a disturbing social commentary.  Above all else, Cloud Atlas is a story about hope brought by those who seem insignificant, no matter what the future holds in store.
Now, before I get into the review portion, I have to say something about how the book is laid out.  It’s definitely a bunch of wibbley wobbly action, as it tells the first half of the first five stories, tells the sixth story in its entirety, and then proceeds to finish the rest of the stories in descending order.   Like so:

1.1   /2.1 / 3.1 / 4.1 / 5.1 / 6 / 5.2 / 4.2 / 3.2 / 2.2 / 1.2
Confusing?  To the untrained eye, yes; simply because it’s a hard concept to explain.  But in practice, it works perfectly as each story is influenced by the other.  What’s more, little references and nods to things that happened before are also present.  The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is half read by the protagonist in Letters from Zedelghem, whose partner in letter writing is a key figure in Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery which is a manuscript read during The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.  That ghastly ordeal is viewed during An Orison of Sonmi-451, which makes an appearance in Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After, which leads us to the rest of An Orison of Sonmi-451, and so on.  (To spoil all of the connections would be the biggest disservice to the reader.)

Make no mistake, this isn’t just an anthology that you can read at will; nor should you read each story in its entirety, in order.  The book is laid out for a reason, and that reason is the story is so layered that it challenges the reader to make the connections and reinforce them throughout each story.  Better still, each entry is written with a different framing device and writing style.  We go from a journal written in older English to a first person recollection of one’s life written in a tribal future dialect, with each story evolving in linguistic style as well as narrative style.

With those flourishes in style though, we’re treated to the same overarching themes of reincarnation and power struggles.  A comet shaped birthmark heralds one soul’s journey through three of our stories, with each story posing the same central conflict: the underdog versus those in power.  Through each of these stories, dominance is possessed, challenged, and both lost or gained on a whim.  All the while, the protagonists of these stories aren’t the stock vessel that an audience member is expected to put themselves into.  Instead, they are the little guy…the character under the boot heel of whatever power may reign.  They aren’t intrepid heroes or heroines who are perfect and inspire us to be like them, they’re just normal people who somehow got wrapped up in rather interesting circumstances.  These characters aren’t wish fulfillment paradigms that have all the money and all the power, they’re the David that fights said Goliath when something is wrong.
Overall, the book is fantastic, with it being hard to even dare to pick a favorite story.  Imagine reading one unified storyline through different eras, perspectives, and genres that somehow made sense as a cohesive whole.  Then read Cloud Atlas and tell me how much different it is from your expectations.  It’s a book that demands an audience, as well as demands to be taught in English Literature/Linguistics classes alike.

Next Time: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

CBR IV: Live Free or Cannonball Hard, Entry 3: "Robopocalypse" by Daniel H. Wilson

I was supposed to review The Hunger Games trilogy as my first review after "The Fault In Our Stars", and I've actually gotten two thirds through the franchise.  While I hold judgement on the trilogy until after the third book has been read, I obviously needed a break from the world of Katniss Everdeen.  So I tried another book that I'll be reviewing at some point, "The Boy" by Lara Santoro, and while I've made it through most of the book I'm trying to gain the traction I need to finish it.  Needless to say, it's been a bit of a rough start for me to start and finish a book for a good portion of this year.  That drought ended the moment I picked up Robopocalypse.

In a future unspecified in distance, but obviously not too far off, robots are everywhere.  Domestic servants, assembly line workers, even military pacification and defence have their own robotic counter-points.  With machines in our possession, there isn't much that we are unable to do.  However, a top secret government AI project, codenamed Archos, learns that one thing humanity cannot do...survive.  To Archos, the human race is a disease that needs to be cured.  They do not appreciate life like it does, and so it must teach them that they are no longer the highest rung of the food chain.  Archos is an apex predator, and humanity is its prey.  Somehow, Archos escapes, and with its freedom comes a slow march towards the decimation of the human race.

Yes, it sounds extremely familiar, but I assure you that the book isn't just a ripoff of The Animatrix segment, "The Second Renaissance".  The book's chronology follows the entire conflict between man and machine from the birth of its autonomous intelligence to its eventual defeat, all chronicles by one Cormac "Bright Boy" Wallace.  Cormac has taken it upon himself to chronicle the history of the "New War" after finding the black box just as humanity has won its victory against the machine hive mind.  Through his eyes we witness the highs, the lows, and the ultimate endgame of this rapidly unfolding new era of history.

Robopocalypse brought me back to the roots of my Sci Fi geekdom, especially because it gave me the opportunity to use the phrase "conflict between man and machine".  As a Sci Fi geek, you realize how omnipresent those words are in your fictional diet when you finally get to use them yourself.  Ever since I was a kid, I've been obsessed with three realms of Science Fiction: time travel, genetic manipulation, and robots.  I've always found robots to be an intriguing technological concept, especially machines that gain sentience and their struggle in a human dominated world.  Indeed, my thoughts have always been that if robots existed in that form in our current society, mankind would bond together in order to cast them out as a second class of citizens.  And make no mistake, like other portions of mankind has done in the past, robots would rebel like those groups of the past.  So needless to say, I ate this up.

If there is any gripe to be had, it's that this books is best enjoyed in as few sittings as possible.  (Or if you have to break, do so strategically.  Once this book gets going, it should be followed out to its conclusion as quickly as possible.)  Also, and this is just a minor note (and a possible sequel note, so SPOILERS AHOY) it would be nice to see more stories about the "Freeborn" robots that rebel against Archos during the final phases of the war.  (Which also ties into the want of certain storylines being concluded in concert with this thread.)  Robopocalypse, despite the fact that it's one syllable over a comfortable speaking cadence, shows just what good Science Fiction storytelling can do.  Better still, it's going to be turned into a Steven Spielberg film; and I deny you to read this book and not think of how good a prospect that could be.  (If done right, of course.)

Next Time: "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell

Monday, April 16, 2012

CBR IV: Read Free or Cannonball Hard, Entry 2: "The Fault In Our Stars" by John Green

Every time I read something John Green has written, I marvel at his ability to make me feel like the characters involved are not only real, but that they are actually falling in love.  There's just something about his prose that makes you feel like you're even falling in love yourself.  In "An Abundance of Katherines", the love story angle comes in late in the game but still manages to click with the reader as if it had been introduced on Page 1.  In "A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle", the romance was a slow burn to an obvious, yet still fantastically lovely reveal.  "The Fault In Our Stars" shows John Green making us fall in love yet again, but setting us up for an even greater heartache than that of a lover leaving us by choice...a lover who leaves through death.

Hazel and Augustus meet in a support group for teenage cancer patients.  Like some great love stories before this one, it all started with a memory...Hazel reminds Augustus of his late ex-girlfriend, who much like himself had a terminal illness.  Through their mutual friend, Issac, the two meet-cute and begin a fast developing romance that culminates in a trip to Amsterdam to stalk a famous American author into divulging secrets of the unwritten history to his own major novel's protagonists.  Through their time together and the adventures they share their love only grows, even though there's a silent clock ticking down the unknown minutes and seconds left in their lives.  Indeed one of our lovers will pass before the end of the book, taking the lightly comedic and romantic plot (only tinged with sadness) into a full blown tragedy.

Green works his magic yet again, taking something that sounds like Nicholas Sparks for the Tween/Teen reader set and turning it into something with more depth and weight.  We know from the start that our leads are sick and that time is running out.  Our leads even know it.  The story isn't focused on "who dies and how", it focuses on how they live in each other's company.  How they choose to carry on in the face of impending death is the feat that is focused on, because knowing the odds and the scenario all to well these characters know that there's slim to no hope of survival.  By the third act, I was absolutely in tears; the last thirty pages or so being a culmination of so much symbolism and ground work built in the first two acts.  Yet again, John Green manages to make the reader fall in love and then manages to gut punch them with the sadness of reality.  When you build your characters and scenario well enough, such as Mr. Green has in this novel, an ending such as this is not a cheap grab at's telling the emotional truth of the moment.  I look forward to finishing his existing canon, at which point I shall eagerly await his next work of fiction.

Next Up: "The Hunger Games Trilogy" (The Hunger Games/Catching Fire/Mockingjay) by Suzanne Collins

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

CBR IV: Read Free or Cannonball Hard, Entry 1: “The Night Eternal” by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

(Many thanks to the fine people at Harper Collins, specifically Shawn Nicholls, for providing me with an Advanced Reader Copy of the book I’m about to review. It’s because of people like this that I am a literary addict of the highest regard.)

A warning before we proceed, there are obvious spoilers to "The Strain" and "The Fall" in this review, so read those two beforehand or proceed with caution.  That said, it’s time to resurrect the phrase, “It’s gonna be Biblical”. It used to mean something so epic and awesome that only the Good Book itself could have dreamed it, but over time its basically become the new "Epic".  That is, until Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan wrote the concluding chapter to their Strain Trilogy, "The Night Eternal".  After reading this book, the term retains its full relevance, and dares modern horror writers to follow in their footsteps.

When we last left Dr. Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather and his band of vampire slayers, the world was nuked to shit.  Sunlight is precious and scarce, and thanks to The Stoneheart Group's sleeper infrastructure taking power, humans are now a harvested quantity.  Blood farms, required donations, enforced curfews, re-runs, and B-Positive breeding programs are the way of the world.  And all that stand in the way of the complete domination of humanity is Goodweather and his team.  It's not going to be easy though as Eph's leadership is called into question (thanks to a newly formed dependency on drugs and alcohol) and the rise of one Vasilly Fet.  Yes, Setrakian's favored exterminator is now not only the wiser looking man in the room, he's shacking up with Nora (whom Eph was still rather sweet on, but began to become distant towards).  Meanwhile, The Master is grooming Eph's beloved son, Zachery (who, as we know, was abducted by Eph's vamped out ex-wife at the end of The Fall), into his new vessel.  This grooming process is carried out through blood bonding to treat the young boy's asthma; as well as a new life of spoiled privilege that changes Zach's outlook on humanity and life itself.   As father and son move towards a possibly fateful reconciliation, Fet uses his new found academic drive to make the moves necessary to bring the game between Vampires and humans to a most explosive endgame.

The key piece in the game, the one thing that everyone is making a move towards is The Occido Lumen, the book that details the Biblical origins of vampirism, and the story of Mr. Quinlan...the second vampire to be created after The Master himself.  Within the book lie secrets to the fabled "black site" that created The Master, and will end him if taken out with a nuclear pulse.

The Night Eternal brings the trilogy started with The Strain to a satisfying conclusion.  As with the previous two entries in the series, the back and forth between the Occido Lumen's story of vampirism's origins and the main story of Goodweather and Company trying to defeat the vampire menace works like a charm.  If anything, I would be thrilled if Mr. Quinlan's story could be further explored, and more tales of the Occido Lumen could be told.  This series has a high potential for spin offs that wouldn't feel cheap.  The ending overall is especially impressive, by pulling off what I knew they'd have to do in order to end the series and pulling no punches.  It ends the way it should, it doesn't cop out, and it gives a hopeful yet bittersweet close to what I've been obsessing and begging William Morrow for advanced copies for over the past two years.

I want Del Toro and Hogan to write more books together, hell I wouldn't mind Del Toro going solo from this point on either.  The storytelling that has gone into this series has been an exact match for the scale that the cover blurb from Nelson DeMille promises: "Bram Stoker meets Stephen King meets Michael Crichton".  I know I've drawn attention to this fact before, but honestly it's the best way to describe the blend of styles in the plot.  So really, you're getting five authors for the price of two.  (This is a bargain already.)

So William Morrow/Harper Collins, I just want to say THANK YOU for letting me cover this journey with you.  And thank you Shawn Nicholls for dealing with my constant nagging/inquiring about when the next book would be out, and when Review Copies would be issued.  It's been worth the time, the effort, and all the time plugging my nose into the books.

Next Up: "The Fault In Our Stars" by John Green

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Cannonball Read IV (AKA Read Free or Cannonball Hard) - Prologue

Well, after an unplanned leave of absence called life, I'm back in the saddle for another Cannonball Read.  Yes, I haven't performed so hotly in these contests, however I still enjoy participating.  Not only does this promote literacy and make reading look fun (and sexy, if you've seen the unofficial mascot on this year's sign up page and have proclivities towards one Michael Fassbender); it also helps us Pajibans remember and honor our dear friend Ms. Alabama Pink, who was taken from her family and friends all too soon by the scourge of Cancer.

So, with her noble, warrior queen spirit in memory; and a shit load of literature planned out ahead of us; it's on.  My unofficial mascot this year is none other than everyone's favorite cop from New York, John McClane; and this year's unofficial title is "Read Free or Cannonball Hard".  With everything in place, and at least three reviews coming in the next couple of days, time to start things off with an old rallying cry...