"The Somnambulist" by Jonathan Barnes Twists, Turns and Disgusts: An Excellent Read

I just had the worthwhile experience of cracking the spine of a singular book by Jonathan Barnes -- The Somnambulist. This, Barnes' first novel, takes place in a fictional (ish) London, nearly 100 years ago. The characters are seamy. The setting is a city well greased with the oils of corruption and zealotry. The plot is full of half-mad heroes, unexpected villains, horrid murders and even more horrid sexual acts (though I may be being a bit judgmental here). It has an air of historical fiction, though it is clearly straight, fanciful, completely fabricated fiction. In short, it was just my type of book. 

Okay, I might have fibbed in that last bit. Much like the narrator of The Somnambulist, I have to qualify things to make them completely clear at times. I said Jonathan Barnes' book was a completely fabricated fiction. That is not entirely true and he does rather transparently borrow from other weavers of fine fiction. There are some mentions of true historical characters, mostly writers. There are also some nods to writers such as Mary Shelley and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The former is not mentioned, but her ideas are part of Barnes' plot. It's less idea theft than it is a compliment, I should think. The latter is merely mentioned and it seems the title character is fashioned somewhat after Sherlock Holmes, though his powers of discernment fall short of the mark. 

I have to admit that The Somnambulist got off to a slow start. Not a bad one, just one that failed to hook me right in. The name is theatrical, the events in the first chapters strange and gory enough, it was the wish to know what happened next that was lacking. Nonetheless, it came. Eventually, there were so many characters and twists that I couldn't keep track, but I really wanted to know what was happening. I was combining characters together just so I didn't have to pause so often to remember which unexceptional British surname belonged to which Mister. The characters that do stand out are those at the center of the story. There is no mistaking them, as their features stand out. Oddly enough, The Somnambulist is not the main character, but he is by far the most interesting. Much of the time, I kept reading to figure out where the title character gets the significance that landed him in the title. 

Okay, I'm done giving you the boring details of my experience. Overall, I think Jonathan Barnes did an excellent job. His story reminded me strongly of "The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack" by Mark Hodder, which I also enjoyed. It's worth a read, if you don't mind a few commonly offensive fictional events. 

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: "The Hot Zone" by Richard Preston

If someone were to ask me what the most horrifying book I have ever read is, she might be surprised. Having read books like "The Exorcist" by William Peter Blatty and "The Stand" by Stephen King, among countless other horror novels, you might think that I would choose an obvious horror fiction novel. That is not the case. The most horrifying book I have ever read is a true story about the scariest thing on Earth. That book is "The Hot Zone" by Richard Preston and it is about viruses that produce hemorrhagic fever-- particularly Marburg and Ebola.

The way Richard Preston wrote "The Hot Zone" was unusual, even now, nearly 20 years since its release. He interviewed people involved in the true events, reviewed what is known about them and meticulously reconstructed everything that takes place in the book. Sure, you might say this is not that unusual. People write non-fiction books in story format all the time. Yeah, they do, but they rarely do it with integrity, and Preston did. He took an extremely dramatic tale and somehow managed not to dramatize it further or embellish, as far as I can tell. Most "non-fiction" books written in story format are at least part fiction, in my experience. (Truman Capote, anyone?) That is after taking into account that people do not always give the author accurate recollections of true stories. At any rate, I had never read anything so true to reality yet told like it was virtually fiction until I read "The Hot Zone."

My astonishment at the slick way Preston presented a non-fiction novel is not the only reason I loved his book "The Hot Zone." What I loved about it most is that it gave me an in-depth perspective on something with which I was already loosely familiar. This novel took me from knowing that Marburg and Ebola exist, where they come from and what they do to people to understanding all of these things. I learned about how experts handle outbreaks of these viruses, how handling these killers makes them feel and how helpless even the most seasoned virus hunter can feel against these viruses. I learned exactly what they do to the body, not just what is visible on the outside, which is horrifying enough. During all of this learning, I was also told a story that I knew, but that I did not know as well as Richard did. By the end, I got the feeling that Preston was more familiar with the story he was telling than any individual in it, despite them having lived it.

Now for the horrifying part. I have no method of describing these horrors that could trump or even paraphrase how Preston so cleanly put it. You have to read the book for yourself. However, I only suggest this if you have can stomach understanding that the most horrifying things in the world are not in Stephen King novels. They are in the bloodstreams of the animals and people around you. They are waiting to find their way into yours. If they get in, they will brutalize you worse than any monster ever dreamt up by an overactive imagination. The worst part is that there is nothing an army of heroic doctors can do about it, which is a point "The Hot Zone" makes startlingly clear.

Shelly Barclay

"The Five People You Meet in Heaven" by Mitch Albom Book Review

"The Five People You Meet in Heaven" by Mitch Albom is the touching story of an old man whose death begins a journey to discover the meaning of his life. Yes, the story is about heaven, but even atheists, such as myself, can appreciate the message behind Mitch Albom's story, which seems to be that not everything in life is what is seems. Sometimes we are right when we think we are wrong and vice versa. In the end, you only have to answer to yourself -- in Mitch's version of heaven, anyway.

Eddie -- the main character of the story -- is still uncertain of his life, things he did and things that were done to him, when the moment of his death arrives. He dies suddenly, so he has no time to reflect on these things until he reaches heaven, where he meets five people who shed light on his life for him. As the reader gets deeper into "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," it becomes clear that, despite Eddie's seeming ordinariness, he has not led an ordinary life.

Even without the supernatural twist -- heaven -- in Mitch Albom's not surprisingly popular story, it is quite moving. Albom incorporates deep love, dysfunctional parent/child relationships, war, regret, loss and heroism into humble Eddie's story. Reading it, it is impossible not to sympathize with even the bad choices people make in "The Five People You Meet in Heaven."

This novel really makes you think about harboring negative feelings when life only provides us a single perspective. Mitch Albom unknowingly (or knowingly) asks the question, "Is there something you missed in life that could have changed your mind about something and potentially changed your life?" No matter your religion or perspective on heaven, this book is a must read. It is short, so you can forgive me the time taken if you don't like it, which I highly doubt will be the case.

Shelly Barclay

Difference Between the Novel "Eclipse" by Stephenie Meyer and the Film

Eclipse is the third novel in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. Like every other book that has a film based on it, there are noticeable differences between the written version and the movie version. The first part of the last film -- Breaking Dawn -- is due out in November of 2011. With that in mind, remember that some of the things that are missing from this novel and others may appear in the final film. It is doubtful, but since the film has not been released, we do not want to make any assumptions. So, if there is something in this article that appears later, forgive me for my inability to read the future.

Warning: Book and Movie Spoilers Ahead

In Eclipse, Charlie ungrounds Bella, who was grounded at the end of the novel before it -- New Moon. In the book, this moment happens in the kitchen after Charlie attempts to cook dinner and fails. In the film, it happens in the living room after Bella walks into the house. In both, Bella is released from being grounded and Charlie asks her to spend time with more people than just the Cullens.

One of the major themes of the first half of Eclipse is Bella missing Jacob, but Edward forbidding her to see him. In the novel, this drama begins in the Swan kitchen. Edward tells her it is not safe. She later tries to leave the house and finds her truck is disabled. In the film, the conversation about her safety does not happen until after Edward disables her truck.

In the Eclipse film, Edward lets go of his weariness of Bella going to spend time with werewolves much faster. After she comes home from a visit with her mother, Jacob shows up at the school and Bella leaves with him. In the book, Bella does not leave with him at that time. In fact, she is even taken hostage, in a way, by Alice when Edward goes hunting so that she cannot go see Jacob. She eventually escapes when she sneaks off work to visit him. Jacob also shows up at the school later while Edward is hunting and Bella makes a run for it with him.

In Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer, Jacob calls the Swan residence repeatedly while Bella is in Florida. The reason is that he is not sure if Edward is off turning her into a vampire. In the film, Jacob finds out when he was at the school, not over the phone and there is no mention of the phone calls he was making to the house.

Part of Charlie's condition for Bella being ungrounded is that she spend time with her friends. She does this by offering to help Angela with her graduation invitations. This does not happen in the movie. The friendship between Angela and Bella is played down in the films, while her friendship with Jessica is played up.

In the book, Edward mentions to Charlie that Bella has tickets for them to go to Florida that expire soon. Edward mentioned it against Bella's wishes. It causes a fight between Charlie and Bella, but Edward gets his way and the two go to Florida. In the film, he mentions it to Charlie outside of the police station and there is some discontent, but no argument.

In the book, there is a conversation between Bella and Edward that takes place in Edward's room, on his bed, when he gets a night alone at his house with Bella. The conversation is split in two in the Eclipse movie. Half of it takes place on the bed; the other half takes place in the meadow at the very beginning of the film.

While Bella is being babysat by Alice in the Eclipse novel, Rosalie enters Edward's room and tells Bella about how she became a vampire. She tells Bella about Emmett's history as well, but that history is not in the film. In the film, this conversation takes place on a balcony at the Cullen home after Bella has her hand treated for a sprain. Another difference is that the sprain is a break in the book.

On graduation day in the book, Alice brings Bella an outfit for graduation because she knows Bella has nothing to wear. This does not happen in the movie. It is at that time that Bella figured out the army needed her scent because they were coming to get her. In the movie, this discovery is made later, at the party.

In the book, Eric is the valedictorian at the Forks High graduation. In the movie, it is Jessica Stanley. Another difference is that Eric is Angela's boyfriend in the movie, but her boyfriend is a boy named Ben in the book.

At the end of the book, Bella tells Alice she can plan the entire wedding. Alice reacts by showing her a wedding dress that she already purchased. This scene is not in the film. However, it may be in the next film, given that the movie stopped short of the end of the Eclipse novel.

Shelly Barclay

Plot Holes in Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

As one quick Google search will attest, Stephenie Meyer is notorious for her plot holes that could easily be explained away by magic, but which she chooses to explain with science, amateurishly. Of course, all of these "scientific" explanations come after her books publish, not in the books themselves, not that they are ever satisfying anyway. The first book in her series is not as bad as some of her later books, but it is not exempt from Meyers' plot faux pas. The following are a few of the major ones I personally spotted. Remember, these are just from the first book -- Twilight. I have left out plot holes that are later satisfactorily explained in the three subsequent books.

One of the first things that gave me pause in Twilight by Stephenie Meyer was the selective use of Bella's fainting fits brought on by blood. She faints in her biology class when they do blood typing because she can't stand the smell of blood -- yes, she can smell blood *sigh.* Earlier, she is in a car accident with a boy who winds up next to her in the hospital with "soiled" bandages on his head. There is no mention of nausea or fainting there. This selective use of Bella's weakness continues throughout the series. One can only presume that Stephenie wanted to add that Bella could smell blood and her fainting was the only way she could think of to do it, but it eventually became inconvenient.

One plot hole that I do not blame Stephenie Meyer for excluding is Bella's period -- and every other girl's period at Forks High School. Shouldn't that have had the vampires in a frenzy? Stephenie Meyer tried to explain this one away by calling menstrual blood "dead blood" or so I heard. She could have just said she found the subject distasteful, but she had to say something that makes absolutely no sense. From what I have learned of the subject, menstrual blood -- at least at the beginning of a period -- is not "dead" or "old" at all. It is just mixed with uterine tissue and eggs. It would still smell like blood to a vampire. Weak explanation is weak, Stephenie.

Speaking of blood, where the heck do the vampires store all of the blood they drink? Edward mentions he does not go to the bathroom. The only thing he mentions regurgitating is a bite of pizza. No mention is made of sweat and Myers' vampires are said to be unable to cry. I am seriously disappointed with this one. The vampires in this book should look like tick versions of Jabba the Hutt.

Okay, most people know by now that Stephenie Meyers' vampires light up like disco balls in sunlight. That is wonderful for fairy loving teens and I will not argue the silliness of that right now. What I will argue is their ability to come out in Forks because of the clouds. Mist, clouds and fog do not deter the sun's rays. You can get sunburn in a thunderstorm if it is daytime. Let us say that the UV rays are not the problem, but rather the bright light. Well, that would explain it, if the vampires did not hang out in a school cafeteria, which is presumably well lit, without any glowing effect whatsoever.

The last plot holes in the Twilight novel involve the same part of the story. There is a bit where a vampire intent on killing Bella calls her while she is at a hotel with two other vampires. The vampire that hands her the phone -- Alice -- does not notice the fact that Bella is speaking to said murderous vampire. This is odd given Stephenie Meyers' emphasis on the vampires' acute senses. Later, Bella runs away from two vampires that are protecting her to meet up with the aforementioned murderous vampire. The problem with this is that one of the vampires protecting Bella can see the future the moment someone makes a decision, but she did not stop Bella, despite presumed foreknowledge of Bella's escape.

There is no denying that Stephenie did indeed leave a lot open for scrutiny in her novels. However, these plot holes have not hurt her popularity or her wallet, so I doubt she feels the slightest twinge of regret.

Shelly Barclay