Tag Archives: Suspense

On Mira Grant’s “Parasite” (Parasitology #1)

22 Jul
Parasite by Mira Grant

Parasite by Mira Grant explores a near future in which medical tech giant SymboGen convinces the world to become human hosts to genetically modified tape worms. What could possibly go wrong?

On my list of Most Terrifying Things are such horrors as abused apostrophes and Rush Limbaugh’s hypnotic, bigoted radio voice, but right up there near the top are also zombies and parasites. Author Mira Grant managed to tackle both those subjects in her novel Parasite, the first installation of her Parasitology series, which ends up being closer to a mash-up of Animal Planet’s  Monsters Inside Me and Resident Evil. Not as terrifying as Rush Limbaugh misusing apostrophes, but much more enjoyable.

Grant’s particular brand of terrifying things starts in the mind of Sally Mitchell, a young woman who beats all odds and wakes up from an car accident-induced coma. The only problem is she can’t remember a thing. As Sal develops, her family and friends comment again and again that she’s a completely different person. Gone is the bitchy, selfish, temperamental Sally. Sal is kind and inquisitive, respectful to everyone, and deathly afraid of driving in cars. Sal’s life was saved by a medical miracle: SymboGen’s genetically modified tape worm, D. symbogenesis, which cures everything from pet allergies to cancer. Six years after Sal’s accident, she is relearning the way to be human and navigating her celebrity as the girl whose life was saved by a worm. But when other D. symbogenesis hosts start falling prey to an epidemic of sleepwalking, Sal becomes suspicious and tries to uncover the dangerous secrets of SymboGen.

Tape worm

Tape worms and other parasites are creepily pretty in artful photos like this. They lose their appeal when you imagine them wrapped around your brain.

Sal narrates as a story of her medical miracle evolves into a story of political intrigue, conspiracy, and deadly, sleepwalking, worm-controlled zombie people. Remember that Sal woke up from a coma six years previous and relearned everything that makes a human being human. She makes a point to express her trepidation with the English language, and she often comes across as awkward or clumsy with her speech in dialogue. But her running, first-person monologue is perfectly formed, descriptive, witty at times, and sometimes downright lyrical. This isn’t the voice of someone forced to use an adult brain to learn a brand new language. This is the voice of a snarky, educated, well read author of multiple novels.

It’s a rare case when I wish for a little more distance from a narrator, but the more I learned about Sal, the less I appreciated her. Her intelligent narration made her seem fraudulent when she presented herself as a bumbling, naïve victim in her interactions with other people. The lack of consistency in Sal’s character (in addition to her banality in general) hamper what would have otherwise been an interesting story.

But wait! There’s more. In case Sal’s blasé character profile doesn’t do it, the silly plot progressions could certainly deter a reader from picking up this novel. I can’t get over the fairly silly plot progressions. After a near apocalyptic run-in with sleepwalkers on a highway, Sal is immediately grounded for a week her parents for leaving the house without permission. After Sal learns that the horrifying sleepwalking epidemic are truly sentient, genetically modified tape worms taking over their slaver hosts, a series of cliché revelations ruins it all. At other times, plot holes or straight up plot errors cripple the narrative flow just as the story starts picking up pace.

Goa'uld

As far as icky worms controlling their human hosts go, Parasite is by no means the first to go there. My favorite tummy worms are Stargate: SG-1‘s Goa’uld–the worm babies of an alien race that use humans’ easily repaired bodies as hosts.

A friend of mine enjoyed Grant’s Parasite–a friend whose opinion I respect and whose reading tastes I trust–a friend who was able to overlook what may seem like small criticisms in Grant’s writing style, character development, and plot progressions. My review might be relatively harsh for a novel that is shortlisted for the 2014 Hugo Award, but I stand by my two-star Goodreads rating. For a book that is acclaimed and could beat out such a gem as Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice for the Hugo, Parasite falls grossly short of my expectations. The novel had some potential, but the execution was poor. Even the concept was disappointingly derivative. I wish the best to Mira Grant, but if Parasite wins the Hugo, I will pout for days and write something inflammatory on Twitter.

Read this book if … you’re a sucker for zombies and morbid apocalyptic novels. Read it if you’re the one who clicks on that link to BuzzFeed’s “10 Grossest Something Something” article. Read it if you’re not going to focus on logic or details, and you’re just along for the ride.

Don’t read this book if … the booming zombie genre gives you a case of  the Disgruntled Sighs. Grant isn’t the first one to make zombies via little bugs in your brain, and Parasite doesn’t try too hard to be original in any other way. Like me, you may get distracted by the flaws in narrative logic, and there isn’t too much to draw your attention back on track.

This book is like … The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, which tells a very different story about a woman who is a survivor, a survivor with a terrifying burden that leads to incredible mysteries. Kirby Mazrachi barely survived the vicious attacks of a murderer, and she spends her life trying to exact justice. With a much stronger protagonist and sounder sci-fi themes, The Shining Girls

Mira Grant

Mira Grant, whose actual name is Seanan McGuire, really likes zombies, and probably has a thing for sharp, stabby objects.

What is your favorite kind of zombie? George Romero zombies? Resident Evil zombies? Shaun of the Dead zombies?

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On Kobo Abe’s “The Woman in the Dunes”

7 Feb
9998

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe begins quietly, and its decent into madness is so subtle you may not even notice you’re losing your sanity, too, right along with Niki Junpei, while trapped at the bottom of a sandpit.

Not many writers can convey claustrophobia and desperation the way Kobo Abe can. In his iconic The Woman in the Dunes, Abe paints a nightmarish picture: a teacher with a bug-collecting hobby goes looking for a rare beetle in the sand dunes of the ocean shore, and finds himself trapped in a pit like the prey of an ant-lion. His only means of survival is to dig through the night to keep from being buried alive by the sand storms during the day. With him is a solitary, unnamed woman who has lived in a shack at the bottom of the pit her whole life and knows nothing but the endless labor of shoveling sand. Neither man nor woman can escape their Sisyphean task. They can barely survive. They cling to fragments of their shattered sanity. Welcome to the freaky, freaky mind of Kobo Abe.

Written in a close third-person perspective, The Woman in the Dunes gives readers a peak in the mind of the teacher, Niki Junpei. He is the only character who receives a name. He is a man who falls from a life in which he obsesses over beetles to a life in which he obsesses over escape. Junpei’s best means of escape is entreating the villagers who live on the surface of the sand, controlling supplies of water and food to Junpei, the woman, and dozens of others trapped in various pits along the shore. Junpei’s communication with the villagers waffles between threats for illegally detaining him and quiet, apparent submission. His refusal to dig the sand is met by the villagers withholding food and water, and all attempts to escape fail. Slowly Junpei’s will dissolves, under the constant gaze of the villagers and rotted away by the constantly shifting sands around him.

“More than iron doors, more than walls, it is the tiny peephole that really makes the prisoner feel locked in.”

I find the book difficult to describe, because it’s like trying to retell a bizarre dream you had. No one can understand the feeling of surreal eeriness, the unexpected and unbelievable scenarios of one’s own dream. Likewise, Junpei refuses to accept the nature of his enslavement for much of the story because of how unlikely it all is.

Eiji Okada

The 1964 film adaptation of The Woman in the Dunes, directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara, was nominated for best director and best foreign language film by the Academy. Eiji Okada played the frantic, desperate Niki Junpei.

The Woman in the Dunes is suspenseful and frightening, but it goes beyond a simple horror story. Amid the fear and claustrophobia that Junpei experiences, Abe embeds scenes of absolute sensuality. The sand, a character in and of itself, is pervasive. It’s in the man’s and woman’s hair and mouths and eyes. It sneaks into the food they eat. It collects in the folds of their clothing, and slowly rots the wood of their shack. It chafes the skin and grinds on the tongue. With his senses constantly assaulted by the sand, it’s no wonder Junpei and the nameless woman become entangled in a dangerous, violent relationship. These are Abe’s talents: displaying horror on multiple levels, taking normal activities and transforming them into mortal dangers, making you feel desperation along with his characters. This is no light read, but I encourage everyone to check it out. Just be prepared for The Woman in the Dunes to take you to a dark place and leave you there with no ladder out.

“Assuming that man has a soul, it must, in all likelihood, be housed in the skin.”

If for any reason, read the novel to see the illustrations of Machi Abe.

If for any reason, read the novel to see the illustrations of Machi Abe.

On Nesbø’s “The Snowman”

22 May

ed0508bksnowjpg-adb1e53006775feaAs of right now, I’m in the middle of a big change: moving myself, my girlfriend, and a small paunchy cat from Boston to Seattle. Due to my short-sightedness, this means my entire library is in a fleet of boxes that are probably being physically abused by the U.S. Postal Service somewhere in Omaha, Nebraska, or something, and I was temporarily (for like eight or nine hours) without a book to read. Luckily, we have these things called libraries, and I had the pleasure of using one the other day.

I decided to choose a book I normally wouldn’t consider and found myself in the mystery section. Beyond the handful of Agatha Christie novels I read my freshman year of high school, I’m not very cozy with the genre, and honestly, I’d much rather watch Benedict Cumberbatch solve crimes on TV than read about some less Benedict Cumberbatchy solve one in a book.

But alas, my impulses got the better of me and I snatched up Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman. I’m rather glad that I did. I won’t lie: I chose the book for its catchy cover art and relatively tame-sounding title, but Nesbø’s novel (the seventh in the Harry Hole [Seriously?! “Harry Hole?!” Weren’t you thinking of your English readership when coming up with that one, Nesbø?!] series) is anything but tame and much more than catchy cover art.

The Snowman is the moniker of Norway’s first serial killer, who the police discover is kidnapping married women and mysteriously spiriting away their bodies. On the case is Norway’s only officer trained in catching serial killers: the notorious, alcoholic, loose cannon, “I’m-haunted-by-the-lost-love-of-my-ex-who-couldn’t-stand-my-passionate-police-force-awesomeness,” stereotypical Inspector Harry Hole. You can probably guess how the rest plays out in broad strokes.

I will never again look at a snowman the same way. *Shudder* This is like that time after I watched "Signs" and couldn't walk past cornfields for months.

I will never again look at a snowman the same way. *Shudder* This is like that time after I watched “Signs” and couldn’t walk past cornfields for months.

Nesbø uses language as a simple tool for conveyance. It’s a sharp comedown (having just finished Cunningham’s lyrical novel The Hours) when tripping over cold, Norwegian names full of unfamiliar diacritics is the most titillating part of a sentence. On the other hand, Nesbø’s plot moves quickly and fluidly. The story swept me along every which way, and I was happy to go along with the flow. But your lone female police officer has a tight ass and gets emotionally unstable during her menstrual cycle? Groundbreaking.

Now that I have the sarcastic criticism out of my system, I will say Nesbø has what all mystery writers must pine for: the ability to take a stereotypical character and a predictable plot (as far as mystery novels go, there’s a mystery and then it’s solved but the good guy who conquers his demons, learns something about himself, has a revelation at the end and wins), and make something wonderfully entertaining. Nesbø knows how to stimulate emotional response. He knows when to plan his climaxes and when to lull you into a false sense of security. It’s thrilling to realize you, as a reader, are perfectly willing to let yourself be tugged into another person’s fiction.

Nesbø also possesses an undeniable talent for imagery. It’s not the elaborate talent of capital L “Literature,” but it’s enough to create several poignant scenes framed by the stark backdrop of Norway in November. I suppose this is the attraction of Scandinavian mysteries these days: nothing is more bleak than Scandinavia in winter, and nothing is more horrific than blood on snow.

Boy, it sure is gorgeous over in snowy Oslofjord ... but I still don't want to die there. (By Walter_S, Steve's Digicams)

Boy, it sure is gorgeous over in snowy Oslofjord … but I still don’t want to die there. (By Walter_S, Steve’s Digicams)

Don’t worry: there are no spoilers here, per se, but I will tell you to brace yourselves for multiple false endings, Return of the King (the film)-style. Unlike Peter Jackson’s bumpy film trilogy conclusion, Nesbø maintains the high adrenaline for his readers. I felt like I was sprinting through the conclusion, whipping past those false endings with desperate, genuine excitement, not annoyance, and I’m still catching my breath. I look forward to reading more of Inspector Hole in the future, and I would recommend The Snowman to anyone looking for the next mystery genre obsession or just a few hours of escapist fun. (Books like these, though, just make me anxious for the film adaptation.)

On Fowles’s “The Collector”

16 May

imagesJohn Fowles’s debut novel certainly set the bar high. I felt the need to start by reading this book because it seemed to suit me (or suit my obsession with Law & Order: SVU, CSI, and Criminal Minds; a girl can’t have too much crime TV), and I stand by my choice. The Collector follows Frederick Clegg in his project to stalk, kidnap, and woo the object of his affections, Miranda Grey, a young art student of the upper middle class. If Clegg were a young gallant knight or the Earl of Rochester, this story could be romantic, or at the very least, kind of kinky. But Clegg is a loner, a man with little to no social graces who happens to really, really like collecting butterflies, so the story has to go the creepy rout. Fine by me, since Fowles can definitely pull off creepy and pull it off well.

In the first half of the book, the reader is place in Clegg’s head, and learns that our protagonist’s fascination isn’t with sex or any kind of affection that one human normally engenders for another. His is the morbid fascination of a scientist, an amateur entomologist who found the most beautiful variation. He wants to keep her, but as time passes he realizes keeping a living being is quite a bit different from pinning down a dead husk. He learns she isn’t going to cooperate, and the more she struggles against her captor, the more her captor uses force to keep her, and the more he uses force, the more he likes it.

In the second half of the novel, Fowles writes from Miranda’s perspective. She hides a journal in her cell-like basement bedroom and tries her best to stay sane through her writing. She records some of her thoughts of Frederick Clegg (whom she calls Caliban), but mostly ignores him. Instead she focuses on the usual interests of a young woman and artist: love. Or, rather, her crush on an older man.

"I have suffered / With those that I saw suffer!" Miranda, the bleeding heart.

“I have suffered / With those that I saw suffer!” Miranda, the bleeding heart.

Throughout her captivity, Miranda portrays herself as an entitled, spoiled child. Clegg obsesses over her elevated class, her fancy education, her overall superiority over him. Miranda’s attitude toward Clegg/Caliban is that of a burdened mother toward a petulant child. Even while reading passages of Miranda’s journal entries, I can’t help but root for Clegg. Maybe that makes me a bit sociopathic, but Miranda certainly doesn’t make the model damsel in distress, and in that she mirrors Shakespeare’s Miranda: an oblivious child, self-centered and filled with illusion of her own immortality.

By the end of the book, I’m thinking to myself, “I really hope she doesn’t win.” Does this make me a terrible person? But this isn’t the story of good pretty girl versus evil loner man. It’s the story of a young man coming into his own. It’s a story of an awakening sociopath. Frightening and fascinating. And it’s Fowles’s brilliant writing that enables this novel to both frighten and fascinate.

Call me a weirdo, but I was kind of rooting for Clegg. And on another note, when will this be a "Criminal Minds" episode? (From Polyvore)

Call me a weirdo, but I was kind of rooting for Clegg. And on another note, when will this be a “Criminal Minds” episode? (From Polyvore)