In October of 2004, I was enjoying the second month of a semester abroad in Merry Old England. East London, to be exact. And by that time, the girl in the flat above me ('flat' is British for 'apartment,' or in this case, 'dorm,') had become by very best friend. Shortly after Hallowe'en, she put a book in my hand and told me I had to read it, I would love it. Now, I should tell you upfront that being introduced to a book this way -- having it thrust on me and being told I absolutely have to read it because it's wonderful and I'll love it -- is not the best way to get me to read it. I'm just obstinate that way. If someone forcefully suggests something to me, my knee-jerk reaction is to do the opposite, or to ignore the request entirely. But in this case, the book was a three-part anthology including Neil Gaimain's Stardust, Neverwhere, and the short story and poetry collection Smoke and Mirrors. Neil Gaiman has been my favorite dark fantasy author ever since.
I've read pretty much everything in Gaiman's collection by now, but Neverwhere is the one that hooked me. It takes place in contemporary London, except that it's divided into two fiefdoms: 'London Above,' the real-world London that we know, and that I came to love while living there; and 'London Below,' the fantastical netherworld that exists just under the surface. The basic idea is that all the vagrants, beggars and street musicians of the city - all the people you'd normally give only passing attention to, before forgetting about them completely - are people who have 'fallen through the cracks' of normal society, and thus become part of this underworld community where 'normal' becomes an idea of the past, and nothing is as it seems. The two Londons coexist fairly independently of one another, but they are linked, and anything that happens in one can affect the other.
Normally what I look for in a book before anything else are good characters. If I'm not emotionally invested in the people in the story, I'm not going to care what happens to them. The characters in Neverwhere are indeed compelling - the two hitmen, Croup and Vandemar, double as legitimately scary villains and a comic relief duo; the protagonist, Richard Mayhew, is a lost everyman who's struggling to come to terms with the surreality of London Below; and Door, a young girl with a unique power and an unassuming personality, is a refreshing change from the damsel-in-distress staple. However, what drew me to this story was not the characters, but the setting and atmosphere. Delving into a fantasy world set in London while I was living there was only half the fun. The other half was the way that this world was realized. If you've ever been on the London Underground (that's British for 'subway' or 'metro,' sometimes called simply 'the tube') then you've probably taken a double take at the odd names tacked onto the stops. Earl's Court? Blackfriars? Hammersmith? They might as well be names for acts in a trippy sideshow. And in this novel, that's not too far from the truth. Earl's Court is an empty train car that's home to the decrepit nobleman Earl, and his long-suffering band of loyal followers. Blackfriars is a monastery of very secretive and elite monks, always dressed in black robes instead of the usual brown. Hammersmith is a giant - here meaning not just big, but a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk type of giant - who works as a blacksmith at the traveling market held weekly by the residents of London Below.
Sometimes I wonder if Gaiman came up with this story purely as result of wondering what in the world was going on with those names. I'm sure he's not the first to wonder about that, and he probably won't be the last. There are real stories behind the ridiculous names on the London Underground, surely. But what Gaiman gave us is more frightening, more whimsical, and altogether more magical than anything we could learn from a history book.
HBO's new series True Blood is up and running: a campy, raunchy, unexpectedly hilarious look at vampires in rural Louisiana. I'm not an HBO series watcher in general, but when I found out this particular show was based on the Southern Vampire novels by Charlaine Harris, I became curious. So in preparation, I decided to have a look at the written series first, the better to point out flaws such as bad casting and altered storylines (one of my snobbier traits, born out of Book versus Adaptation elitism) when the show actually went to air. My conclusion: the show is indeed lacking. But the books are wonderfully addictive in all the best ways.
Alternately referred to as the Sookie Stackhouse novels, Harris's homey, supernatural world centers on a young cocktail waitress with the aggravating ability to read minds (sounds like fun until she has listen in on the horny drunks she serves every night) and her relationship with vampire Bill Compton, one of many vampires worldwide who are trying to 'mainstream' - to coexist peacefully with the humans. The Japanese have perfected a formula for synthetic blood, originally intended to be used for hospitals, but a worldwide side effect of this breakthrough is that vampires have 'come out of the coffin' so to speak and, since they no longer need humans to feed, want to rub shoulders with the regular folks and have a shot at being proper citizens.
One of the things I find bothersome about vampire fiction is the tendency to portray vamps as beautiful and physically perfect in every way. Anne Rice is guilty of this too, as much fun as she is otherwise. In Harris's world, there are a few vampires who follow the classic 'tall, dark and handsome' motif, but most of them are refreshingly unique. One is a Texas cowboy, complete with the ten-gallon hat and string necktie; another is a Civil War veteran with a pronounced Deep South accent and old-fashioned mannerisms to match; there's even a self-declared geek sporting pinstripes, thick-rimmed glasses and oxford shirts.
I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see the vampire myth brought out of the realm of Victorian Gothic romanticism and into the realm of homespun realism. Although it might not be enough to attract readers who aren't into vampire lore to begin with, it is a fabulously entertaining take on what might actually happen in the real world if vampires existed, and how the general populace would react to their presence. In addition to being a supernatural adventure with tons of humor and romance mixed in, Harris's books are a commentary on racism, homophobia, gender roles, and other civil rights issues that we do actually deal with on a daily basis. Vampires are just another group perceived as something other than 'normal,' comprised of beings who have good and bad qualities just like everyone else.
Think you know everything there is to know about being a geek? Think again, true believers: Much to learn you still have. But fear not! Brian Briggs has pulled together a truly delightful how-to guide to help veteran geeks, would-be geeks, and geek watchers expand their knowledge of this multifaceted and richly detailed culture.
Equal parts survival guide and good-natured spoof, Briggs's BBook of Geek has it all. Have trouble keeping up with the bloggers and their idiosyncratic language? This book can help. Still don't know what LARP stands for? You will. The BBook is broken up into helpful genre-specific sections such as literature, movies, and gaming, the better to help the well-rounded geek find what he or she needs quickly. Also, for your entertainment, there are countless lists on topics such as 'Top 11 Signs You Shouldn't Board That Spacecraft,' and many (surprisingly difficult!) quizzes designed to test your knowledge of your fandom of choice. Is 'Boss Nass' a Star Wars character or a Hip-Hop artist? Is 'Red Tornado' a superhero or a household cleaner? Believe me, it's harder than it looks.
There is a wealth of information here that will surprise and amuse you, but a word of warning: there are tongue-in-cheek 'facts' interspersed among the real truths of geekdom. (Example: "LOLcats can be traced back to ancient Egyptian drawings of cats with hieroglyphics that roughly translate to: 'I can haz pyramidz?'") And let's not forget the hilarious newspaper clippings with titles like "Blizzard Selling LifePacks for Scheduled Downtime in World of Warcraft," and "Thirty-Two Arrested in Poorly Conceptualized LARP."
The only complaint I have about this book is that it left me with an unavoidable sense of how little I truly know about geekdom in general. My own geekiness is confined to a spare few areas that I know way too much about--I'm not what you'd call 'fluent' in Elvish, but I can tell Sindarin from Quenya when I hear it--but my knowledge of gaming and comics is sorely lacking. And to that end, I'm glad that a guide exists to help fill in those gaps, at least a little.
It's a rare person indeed who can convey a genuine affection for and kinship with a given culture at the same time that he's shamelessly harpooning it, but Briggs pulls it off. Even if you have trouble separating the real facts from the clever jibes, chances are you will learn something new, and laugh your head off doing it.
Please welcome the newest addition to the Weekly Geek family, Laurel Fuller. Laurel will be writing The Ravenous Bibliophage - a feature not afraid to tell you what books are crap and why. Enjoy! --Chris
We've all seem them in the window as we walk past Borders or Barnes and Noble. The flat black covers with the striking red-and-white imagery, wrapped around a set of (now) four novels as thick as the later Harry Potters. They are the Twilight series, Stephenie Meyer's wildly successful vampire romance aimed at teenagers and whoever else gets the urge to read Young Adult books every now and then. I started reading them because A) I like vampires, and B) I want to write fantasy-horror for a Young Adult audience one day, and I felt like sizing up the competition. The good news is the series is finally, finally over; the bad news is I vaporized a solid two months reading every word.
continue reading "The Ravenous Bibliophage: Stephenie Meyer - Breaking Dawn"