You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Saturday, July 28, 2012


Neonomicon is a graphic novel written by Alan Moore and Antony Johnston and drawn by Jacen Burrows. The novel is very dark and explicit. It expands on the Cthulhu mythos by horror writer H. P. Lovecraft.

The opening section is about an FBI agent named Aldo Sax, a person who can see the connections in different cases. He tracks the murders to a nightclub where he finds a band singing in a strange language. Sax finds a drug dealer who agrees to sell him a new drug. However what he finds is not a new substance but a new language. When Sax is introduced to the language a whole new world of experience and thought is opened to him. While he believes what he now sees is the real truth, he slides into insanity and eventually murders a victim.

The rest of the novel follows FBI agents Gordon Lamper and Merril Brears as they follow through on the case years later. Brears is a woman who has had issues with sex addiction and a nervous breakdown before rejoining the bureau. Their interview of Sax in a mental asylum consists of them asking him questions and him responding in his strange new language. When they track down the same nightclub and drug dealer they end up finding only a crime scene with the body of his mother. The drug dealer himself vanishes.

In the third section Lamper and Brears follow a lead to a small coastal town. Here is where the story gets dark and weird. They go undercover and investigate a store that is a combination sex shop and occult emporium. The owners are fan of Lovecraft and are obsessed with his world. The characters in the story know the Cthulhu mythos, just like the reader, only in the story the elder ones are real. This technique blurs the distinction between fiction and reality and makes the horrific events feel more real. Referring to fictional characters and events as fiction (fiction that is widely known in the real world) and then seeing them come alive in the story is a literary feat. If the characters had not known of Lovecraft but only encountered these strange creatures, it wouldn't have had the same effect. This technique melds the fictional world of Cthulhu with the real world of Lovecraft.

The events that follow are horrific and disturbing. Brears must face her inner demons of her past as well as real threats. The artwork is gritty and graphic. The artist is adept at showing the human characters and the fantastic visions given life by the language of the elder ones. Two pages where Sax descends into madness consist of four nearly identical panes of him staring out at the reader as he calmly explains to his victim why he is carving him up. This graphic novel leaves a deep impression. The story is compelling, mixing sex and violence and the occult. The art brings out the dangerous emotions in the story. Together they make a memorable book. A-

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Rereading The Hobbit

There are very few books that I ever reread. I guess there are just so many new books to read out there that a book has to be very special for me to reread it. I have read J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy several times, most recently as the movies were released. And while I read The Hobbit then too, I knew it would be exciting to read it to my children in anticipation of the first Hobbit movie being released this winter.

I won't go into a synopsis here since the story is very popular and there are summaries elsewhere. Instead I will go with my biggest impressions and things that I noticed this time around.

The most interesting facet is the character of Gandalf. The wizard serves several purposes. His first task is of bringing together Bilbo and the dwarves. Gandalf sees something in Bilbo that he thinks would make him a good adventurer (a Tookish element). After fulfilling his role as instigator, he then becomes the helper, showing the party the way and helping them out of sticky situations like with the trolls. Gandalf is absent when the troll encounter begins, allowing the party to get into trouble, but arrives just in time to save everyone. Later he serves as an intermediary between the dwarves and Elrond, and later with Beorn. He helps the dwarves get out of trouble with the goblins, but only uses a small amount of magic: enough to kill the goblin chief but not enough to completely remove the threat.

Gandalf's importance becomes most evident with his absence. When he leaves the party at the entrance to Mirkwood, Bilbo is enabled to step up and help the dwarves out of trouble. This is a common element in myths and legends. The special helper character must step away from the story and stop helping the hero to allow the hero to find his potential. (I am also reminded of Curious George, who was always separated from the man with the yellow hat in order to get in trouble.) In Mirkwood Bilbo's character arc goes way up and he start to see himself not only as a solid member of the party but as their savior.

Bilbo's importance reaches its peak when they reach the Lonely Mountain and he sneaks inside and talks to Smaug. Once he enters the mountain, the plot follows directly via a cause and effect chain. The final events of the story leading up to the death of Smaug and the final battle are plotted very neatly. My kids enjoyed the parts with the dragon and enjoyed following Bilbo through his adventures. My favorite part is still Mirkwood, especially the time when the dwarves are imprisoned and Bilbo must help them escape. I'm not sure whether this is my favorite because of Bilbo's ascendance as I described above, or because Mirkwood is dark and dangerous and the escape from the elves so ingenious. Still, as a whole the story is just a good on the third or fourth reading, through a child's eyes or through an adult's eyes. A

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Saturday, July 07, 2012

The Magicians

In The Magicians, Lev Grossman has created something more than your standard coming of age/school of magic/magical land story. The protagonist is a teenager named Quentin who is a typical specimen of the breed. He is anxious for his future and moody, and despises his parents due to their general lack of interest in his life. Yet Quentin is obsessed with magic and the magic world of Fillory from books that he has adored since childhood. Quentin goes to a college interview but finds the interviewer dead of an apparent heart attack. A paramedic who arrives insists he take the envelop on the man's desk and Quentin is astonished to discover that it contains the manuscript for a supposed long lost sixth novel to the Fillory series. But even more astonishing is that he soon finds himself transported to a magical school Brakebills where he is given a series of admittance tests along with other candidates. For the final test, he surprises himself by conjuring magic and he is admitted to the school.

Quentin's parents are spelled to not worry about the strange unknown school that he enrolls in. Quentin's separation from his parents is a bit abrupt and severe, but I take it as symbolic of what all teenagers long to do. The break enables him to focus on his studies and rarely return home. He becomes friends with a girl named Alice who is also a very intelligent overachiever. Indeed all the students at the school are geniuses and overachievers. There's a strong competition between all of them. He and Alice are promoted to the next class ahead of schedule, providing some friction to a boy named Penny who didn't make the cut. They start hanging out with others who have the same focus in physical magic, a boy named Eliot and a girl named Janet. Janet and Eliot's cynicism and hedonism infect Alice and Quentin.

The story takes a dark turn when Quentin tries to play a trick on a teacher and ends up letting a strange and powerful spirit take over the classroom while the teacher and the students are frozen for most of a day. The spirit takes the form of a man in a suit with a branch in front of his face. His presence strikes fear into the students. Quentin feels guilty about his transgression and especially that one of the students died, but he doesn't confess that he may have enabled the spirit to transgress into this dimension.

One of the fun things about this novel is that each character is distinct with his or her own agenda. Janet is the headstrong one with contempt for the school administration. Eliot is the hedonist. Alice sometimes broods and has a dark secret. Quentin is both drawn to them and sometimes fearful of them. This gives the story a complex and grainy feel.

When Quentin and his friends graduate they are aimless for a good time, in the tradition of many young adults, even magicians apparently. But suddenly Penny approaches the group with a big surprise, he has found a magical button that will enable them to travel to Fillory. The whole group is excited. Quentin especially is determined to play out his fantasies and have an adventure in the magical land. The group jumps into Fillory, but not before a pair of betrayals sets a dark tone to the adventure. What they find in Fillory surprises them all.

This book is very enjoyable to read. It takes several different subjects each of which could support a story in its own right. Quentin is a typical broody teenager yet we immediately identify with him. We want him to go to Brakebills and learn magic; to fall for Alice; to explore Fillory and find answers to the questions left open by the last book. The travels through Fillory are fraught with perils of a magical land as well as the torment of the group falling apart with infighting. Quentin discovers that even though he has reached his childhood dreams there are dark elements that can ensure he will never be happy again. A-

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Friday, July 06, 2012

The Night Circus

The circus has a special place in film and fiction as a place where magical things occur. I am reminded of the recent shows The Cape and especially the last season of Heroes, where a circus full of people with special powers transports magically to different locations. The circus in The Night Circus also appears suddenly in spots where it wasn't the night before. This circus shows its patrons magical wonders that they can't find anywhere else.

The story revolves around a young man and young woman engaged in a long term magical competition at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The competition is grand but mysterious--the two do not even understand how they are to win. At first they do not even know who the other competitor is. When her mother dies, Celia Bowen goes to be with her father, the magician Hector Bowen, also know as Prospero the Enchanter. Prospero immediately sees the magical gift in her. He contacts his longtime rival to arrange setting up the competition. The rival, known as the man in the grey suit, goes to an orphanage to find a boy. When the children are older, their father/mentor has each of them put on a ring that binds them together as it dissolves into their fingers.

Over the years Celia and Marco gain knowledge of magic. Celia masters the manipulation of matter and Marco becomes a master of illusion. Celia is invited to join Le Cirque Des Reves. The Cirque contains wonders that can't be found anywhere else. Celia comes to be a dominant part of the circus as her inventions keep the circus itself going. Marco directs the circus from afar as the assistant to the director, yet his influence grows in secret. It is Marco who first realizes that Celia is his opponent, yet he cannot work against her since he starts to fall in love with her.

This story treads the fine line between mysterious and confusing. The narrative is enjoyable, even though the conflict is largely implicit and behind the scenes. There is some intrigue and a death or two; the secret forces behind the circus want to stay hidden as the circus takes on a life of its own. While the characterization is strongest with the two opponents, the other characters are lifelike and some rise to influence the story in unexpected ways. The writing infuses the circus with a dreamlike mystery. Different people see different parts of it and it changes with the influx of new performers. I found the story enjoyable even though at times it was underwhelming and I found myself wondering if there should be more. In a way it is like the circus, providing surreal entertainment to create awe. B+

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