Book of the Year 2017

 

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The year is coming to a close, and I wanted to reflect back on some of the best books I read in 2017. Plus, I figured I’d start an annual “Book of The Year” award. I mean, this is a blog after all, and blogs gotta have awards and lists.

Keep in mind, this lofty accolade is MY 2017 book, meaning it didn’t have to be published this year. I just had to have read it in the past 365 days.

Some highlights from this year included Birdbox by Josh Malerman, War of the Worlds plus Blood, Guts, and Zombies by HG Wells and Eric S. Brown, and Good as Gone by Amy Gentry.

One book eclipsed all of these however, and managed to land the prestigious award.

The winner is…

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Book Review: “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness has been considered for most of this century as a literary classic, and also as a powerful indictment of the evils of imperialism. It reflects the savage repressions carried out in the Congo by the Belgians in one of the largest acts of genocide committed up to that time. Conrad’s narrator encounters at the end of the story a man named Kurtz, dying, insane, and guilty of unspeakable atrocities.

Oh Joseph Conrad, could you ever have imagined you’d get such conflicting reviews about your work on social media over a century after you wrote it?

Of course not, but at least his book has staying power.

I picked Heart of Darkness back up for the first time since high school, after watching “Apocalypse Now” on basic cable, and thought to myself “Let’s see if this little book is as dense as I remember it being.”

Yup.

This isn’t an easy read, nor is it particularly cheery or fun. It’s not the type of book you crack open to feel good about on a short flight or relaxing at the beach, but it’s not without merit.image of book cover of heart of darkness

The novella is a condemnation of imperialism, specifically Belgian atrocities in the Congo, and a bizarre misadventure heralded by an unreliable narrator. The subject matter is intense, and it speaks to capacity for evil that men are capable of.

I enjoyed Heart of Darkness for what it is, and it’ll definitely challenge readers more than the standard YA vampire novels that are churned out these days. I’m just glad that this time around I didn’t have to write a 4-page essay about the deeper meaning behind Kurtz’s last words.

If you’d like to grab a copy of this classic, you can use the affiliate link below and help support this blog.

Heart of Darkness (AmazonClassics Edition)

What I Liked:

  • The main character isn’t the narrator. This is kind of easy to miss, but Marlow is telling a story, and the narrator is an unnamed person sitting on a boat listening to him.
  • It’s one of the best examples of the “stream of consciousness” style in classic literature
  • The story is evocative. Its themes still resonate today.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • This story defines “purple prose”. Conrad was great at description, and loved his unnecessary words. That, along with the “stream of conscious” style can make things difficult to follow at times.
  • This book is a denouncement of European colonialism, and as such, features a LOT of racism. There are all sorts of metaphors and even some allegory in Heart of Darkness, but not when it comes to the racism. That’s just right in your face. If you’re sensitive to reading about things like that, it may turn you off.
  • The language is dense. At times I found myself re-reading passages just to assure I really understood them. It took way longer to read than a 100 page book has any right to.

 

BOOK REVIEW: “The War of the Worlds, Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies” by H.G. Wells & Eric S. Brown

THE CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION TALE THAT WILL EAT YOUR BRAINS! 

Never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal. 

Panic descends upon planet Earth once more as H. G. Wells’s terrify- ing cosmic invaders blaze a path of fiery destruction across Victorian England, leaving thousands of undead in their wake. Our adventurous narrator must survive the apocalyptic alien threat while fighting off rag- ing, bloodthirsty zombies. Who will triumph when man, Martian, and flesh-eating monster meet? Packed with fearsome supernatural creatures at every turn, Wells’s original masterpiece is scarier, gorier, and more suspenseful than ever!

I’ve been meaning to get to this one for a while.

I had a hankering for some undead horror lately, and I finally pulled The War of The Worlds, Plus Blood, Guts, and Zombies from my TBR “To Be Read” list. It’s a “blood enriched classic” in the same vein (pun intended) as the more well-known Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which means a piece of classic literature is given over to a horror author to create a “mash-up” story by blending in horror elements. It’s a fun idea that yields mixed results.

Luckily, War is a winner.

wowbgz.jpgThe first thing to know about this sub-genre is that you’re reading literature. These books are roughly 80% original material, so if you don’t like old time-y prose and dialogue, you’re best to skip it. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or PaPaZ, as some call it, wasn’t my cup of tea because I didn’t enjoy wading through Jane Austen’s story a second time just for a few scenes of ninjas fighting zombies. Luckily, I had a much better experience with the subject of this review.

War of The Worlds was excellent source material to create a zombie mash-up from. At it’s core, War was already science fiction about a supernatural invasion, so it was a great foundation to throw the undead onto. Eric S. Brown has written numerous satirical horror stories and books, and was a good choice for a co-author. He blends the ghoulish violence and gore into the original work so well, in both plot and prose, it feels like it was always there.

The premise is that a zombie outbreak ensues when the Martians unknowingly bring some outside entity (space bacteria?) with them during their invasion. The undead nightmare becomes an issue for human and Martian alike, and is well designed as an ever-present threat woven through the story. Brown is also adept at penning graphic violence, and his description of death and destruction really delivers on the Blood, and Guts part of the title.

I highly recommend War as an entry point into the “blood enriched classics” series, and for horror fans in general. It’s a cool spin on a classic story, and it reads quickly even weighing in at over 300 pages. If you or someone you know loves alien invasion stories, zombies, or both, put it on your list to read. (You can buy it on Amazon using the affiliate link below.)

The War of the Worlds, Plus Blood, Guts and Zombies

What I Liked:

  • Great adaptation of a classic story
  • Brown seamlessly meshes zombies and gore into the source material
  • Old timey narration is funny when describing horrific violence

What I Didn’t Like:

  • A couple parts from the original story dragged
  • Some of H.G. Wells/Brown’s language was confusing at times, required re-reading

BOOK REVIEW: “Damnificados” BY JJ Amaworo Wilson

Damnificados is loosely based on the real-life occupation of a half-completed skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, the Tower of David. In this fictional version, 600 “damnificados”—vagabonds and misfits—take over an abandoned urban tower and set up a community complete with schools, stores, beauty salons, bakeries, and a rag-tag defensive militia. Their always heroic (and often hilarious) struggle for survival and dignity pits them against corrupt police, the brutal military, and the tyrannical “owners.” Taking place in an unnamed country at an unspecified time, the novel has elements of magical realism: avenging wolves, biblical floods, massacres involving multilingual ghosts, arrow showers falling to the tune of Beethoven’s Ninth, and a trash truck acting as a Trojan horse.

Steering away from my normal track of horror and dark fantasy, I recently read Damnificados by JJ Amaworo Wilson. Published back in 2016, this heavily fictionalized story based on true events delves deep into magical realism. It’s a mix of humor, human drama, and fantastical events that is entertaining if not flawed.

cover art of book damnificadosDamnificados essentially tells its readers a legend. The legendary tale of Nacho Morales and his struggle to keep together a community of people after they successfully take over an abandoned tower in the center of a city. The story is told in present tense which lends an urgency to the writing. Wilson’s prose is excellent, especially his detailed descriptions of locations and events. I found myself laughing and re-reading certain sections simply for the pure enjoyment of the printed words.

On the flip side, the book’s pacing is tough. For a novel clocking in at under 300 pages, some portions drag heavily. New characters are constantly introduced and there are a few world-building subplots that were unnecessary, if not entertaining. The overall plot was straight forward and could probably have been told as a novella, were it not for the elaborate descriptions and prosaic experimentation (one chapter features a 4-page long sentence). As the saying goes “middles are hard”, but I’m glad I put up through the minor slog to reach what was a satisfying ending.

As someone who has written satire, I appreciated Wilson’s often tongue-in-cheek tone and the positive message he portrays even in light of the struggles the characters face in his book.

If you’re at all interested in political fiction, magical realism, or stories told as legends, you may want to grab Damnificados and give it a read. You can purchase a copy from Amazon using my affiliate link, provided below.

Damnificados: A Novel (Spectacular Fiction)

What I Liked:

  • Excellent prose and voice.
  • Wilson’s humor and effective political satire
  • Literary experimentation

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Middle section dragged
  • Plot/story was sacrificed in spots for purple prose
  • Some members of ensemble cast felt underdeveloped

BOOK REVIEW: “The King In Yellow” By Robert W. Chambers

The King in Yellow is a book of short stories by American writer Robert W. Chambers, first published by F. Tennyson Neely in 1895. The book is named after a play with the same title which recurs as a motif through some of the stories. The first half of the book features highly esteemed weird stories, and the book has been described by critics such as E. F. Bleiler, S. T. Joshi and T. E. D. Klein as a classic in the field of the supernatural. There are ten stories, the first four of which (“The Repairer of Reputations”, “The Mask”, “In the Court of the Dragon”, and “The Yellow Sign”) mention The King in Yellow, a forbidden play which induces despair or madness in those who read it.

I recently borrowed an audio book of The King in Yellow (support your local library!) as part of my Halloween reading list. I’d heard so much about it, and how it inspired many other works of horror I enjoy. I felt like Halloween season was the right time to check it out.

Unfortunately, I have mixed feelings about it.

king_aceI’ve never read (or listened to) a book that I was so conflicted about. I’m a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft and early weird fiction from the turn of the 20th century. I also enjoy hoity-toity literature with complex prose, so The King in Yellow should be right up my alley.

Here’s the thing: I loved the first half of the book. It was great! The stories weave semi-related tales of dread and supernatural menace, interspersing lines from the frightening play that is the common thread between them.

The second half of the book is what lost me. Chambers totally changes gears and spins tales about bourgeoisie life in wartime France. This portion of the book supposedly “evokes thematic feelings of dread”, but if they are in there, I couldn’t find them. There are few if any references to the King, and a thematic shift from horror to romance and longing. I kept waiting for something to tie the second half back to the first, but it never happened (the ending arguably has a call back to the first story, but its weak). The prose and language remains excellent, but begins to ramble and turn purple, eschewing story-telling for overly dramatic description. I was disappointed since I enjoyed the first half so much.

Can I recommend this book? Sort of.

If you’re a fan of “cosmic horror” (H.P. Lovecraft, Weird Tales) or video games like Bloodborne and Dark Souls then the first half of The King in Yellow is in your wheelhouse. “The Repairer of Reputations” up through “The Yellow Sign” along with “The Prophet’s Paradise” are must reads. Everything else can be ignored, especially the final three installments that begin with “The Street of the First Shell”. Fortunately, the nature of the book (short stories) allows it to be consumed this way.

I can see how portions of Chambers’ work inspired so many future writers and artists. The King in Yellow was certainly a groundbreaking work for its time, and portions of it still hold up today. If you’d like to see what all the fuss is about, you can buy a copy off Amazon (or read it for free on Kindle) using the affiliate link below.

The King in Yellow

WHAT I LIKED:

  • Initial quartet of stories are excellent works of classic horror
  • Fanciful, engaging prose
  • Themes of madness and existential dread

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

  • Inconsistent themes in latter half of book
  • Latter stories are just American bohemians bemoaning their upper-middle class lifestyle while in Paris. Extremely boring.