Saturday, April 30, 2011

Review of Water For Elephants

I vacillated between 3 stars and 4 for this, but after our office book club discussion I settled on the 4. Water For Elephants is a memorable book, and I would recommend it to almost everyone.  Being a fan of the science fiction and mystery genres, I wasn't as thrown off by Gruen's alternating time-periods as some would be; most of the novel is told in flashback and the jumps between times are fewer and farther between as the novel progresses. What happens during Jacob's time with Benzini Brothers is the real story here and the modern sequences are simply framing and used to heighten tension.  So if the modern scenes had been cut, would the novel have been as effective? I personally think so.  While the modern scenes flesh out Jacob's character and do add the secondary tension (how did he get from his life with the circus to a miserable retirement home?), I think they could just as well have been done without. Gruen creates more than enough tension in primary, secondary, and even tertiary storylines surrounding the circus.  She does this not only through the four main characters (Jacob, Marlena, August and Rosie) but also by letting Jacob interact with secondary characters (like circus owner Big Al, Walter the dwarf, and Camel the roustabout) and even tertiary characters (Carl, Pete, the other animal handlers and the other animals) and letting their own problems influence Jacob's actions.  Two major scenes near the end pull most of these characters together magnificently.  And Gruen's descriptions of the world of the traveling circus are terrific -- she gives us all the pomp and circumstance and color we expect from a circus setting, but also brings in the miserable living conditions and dirt around the edges that the workers and animals dealt with. Her ability to mix the colorfulness of the musical BARNUM with the bleakness of the Showtime series CARNIVALE so perfectly really impressed me.

My only real complaint would be in how patly everything wraps up for Jacob after the major events of circus portion of the book -- the explanation of how he got from circus to nursing home feels a little too perfect, a little too "let's wrap everything up and have no loose ends." That might be what keeps me from giving the book an even higher score; to explain further would be to risk spoilers for those who haven't read the book (or seen the movie) and intend to.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Review of Terror in the Navy

Book 28: Doc Savage: The Terror in the Navy by Kenneth Robeson, 122 pages, Bantam,  .50 cent cover price (picked up at a used bookstore for $1)

The Premise:
A mysterious force appears to be pulling US Navy vessels into reefs to wreck, as well as pulling planes out of the sky and smaller boats under water. Doc Savage gets wind of the situation and investigates, alongside his usual 5-man team and cousin Pat.

My Rating: 2 stars

My Thoughts: The cover says this is the 33rd of Doc's adventures, reprinting in paperback from from its original pulp magazine publication in the 1937. It contains all the classic pulp elements, but I can't say it's the most exciting Doc Savage adventure I've ever read. I enjoyed the banter between Monk and Ham, as usual. And the banter, such as it was, between Doc and his cousin Pat is also fun: Pat wants to be in on the action, but Doc doesn't want his female cousin in danger at all. She finds a way to be involved anyway, of course.  The author drops the usual batch of red-herrings to make it seem like different characters are actually behind the goings-on, although it's fairly obvious early on who is actually in charge.  A fun, breezy read and not one that requires a lot of deep thought.

Review of Books of Magic 1

The Premise: (from the back cover) Timothy Hunter is just like any other thirteen-year-old boy in London ... except for the tiny fact that he might be the most powerful magician of his time. When four strangers offer to show Tim the realms of magic, he begins a journey beyond imagination. Wizards pursue him, danger threatens at every turn, and he discovers powerful forces that want him on their side -- or dead.  Based on the popular graphic novel series The Books of Magic, originally created by Neil Gaiman and John Bolton.

My Rating: 2.5 stars

My Thoughts:  I wanted to love this. I really did. I am a huge Tim Hunter fan from when the original BoM mini-series was released by DC/Vertigo back in 1989, and I've followed most every iteration of the character since then. I love Harry Potter, but Tim will always be closer to my heart because I met him first. Somehow, this series of paperback adaptations of the Neil Gaiman, and then John Ney Rieber, comics made it past me when they originally came out. I tripped across this one in a used bookstore. I was excited. By the end of the book, I appreciated the hard spot writer Carla Jablonski was in but even understanding the challenges she faced didn't mitigate the fact that I was disappointed with the book.

So let's talk about that hard spot Jablonski was in. She had to take a property many young adult readers will look as as a "Harry Potter knock-off," and adapt existing comic-book scripts into paperback form. In addition to the difficulty of adapting comics to prose, she had to deal, at least in this initial book, with the fact that most of the characters Tim encounters, including the so-called Trenchcoat Brigade who introduce him to magic, are DC Comics characters with complex histories of their own that are both peripheral and integral to Tim's story.  I'm sure copyright issues are to blame for the herky-jerky nature of Tim's trip through time (the Altantean sorcerer he meets is never named in this version as Arion in this version, and thus the reason for his crotchety response to Tim's presence feels a bit awkward and ill-explained, for example) and his tour of the modern era (DC couldn't really force Zatanna out of the story without changing the very nature of it, but I feel like there were more DC magical characters in the original story).

Once Tim heads into the Realms of Faerie and the Far Future, the story falls into a bit of a better rhythm. Jablonski had one advantage over Gaiman: she had access to the stories written by John Ney Rieber that flesh out Tim's family and school life, and was able to drop names and descriptions into this book to make the introduction of those characters in the second book a little less awkward. The book shines for the brief time where Titania, Queen of Faerie, and her court are on the page, and you can see that Jablonski really does like Tim Hunter and wants to tell his story well.  But once Tim is journeying into the future, the book returns to feeling like a straight adaptation; I never really got a feeling for Mr. E's motivations in the original story, and it doesn't play any better in this version -- I still feel like Mr. E is less a character than he is a plot device (unlike Tim's other three guides -- John Constantine, Dr. Occult, and even The Phantom Stranger -- who at least feel like characters with greater depth from the way Jablonski handles their dialogue and interactions with Tim).

I will probably seek the next book out in used bookstores, because it's not fair to judge Jablonski solely on her version of what would probably be the most difficult Tim Hunter story to adapt (precisely because of how much it relies on knowledge of the rest of the DC Universe and how magic operates therein). Perhaps once she's into adapting stories that are purely about Tim and his discovery of his abilities, her own talents will shine better.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review of Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction?

 Book 27: Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction? by T. S. Blakeney, isbn 9781883402107, 134 pages, Otto Penzler,  $7.95

Blakeney's biography is one I've often heard about but only just came across in a used bookstore, in the reissue edition from Otto Penzler books. Blakeney wrote this in 1932 and Penzler reissued it as part of his "Sherlock Holmes Library" in the 1990s.  I have to say that while it was a fun read, I can't say I was as impressed as people implied I should be. The chapter on Holmes' relationship with Scotland Yard is fun without a doubt. The bulk of the book is an attempt to put Holmes original published adventures in chronological order -- I don't know if Blakeney was the first to do this but he certainly wasn't the last. Not being quite the Holmes devotee others are, I can't say whether I agree or disagree with Blakeney's logic concerning the placement of stories that have no internal dating or are dated inconsistently, but I can say it seemed logical to me and was fun to read.

The back cover copy says the appendices discuss Dr. Watson's second marriage -- and one does, but barely long enough to refute an earlier researcher's theory without Blakeney advancing an alternate name. The appendix refuting the theory that Holmes and Moriarty were the same person fares a little better in terms of length and commentary.

A fun read, and one I'm sure the Holmes aficionados I know have already read more than once.

Friday, April 15, 2011

review of A Hundred Words for Hate

I'm growing increasingly disappointed in the Remy Chandler books. I love, love, love the concept of an angel who willingly leaves Heaven after The War is over, choosing to walk among humans and behave as one, who then gets pulled back into all manner of battles that are epically Biblical in nature. I love Remy/Remiel's divided nature (Seraphim vs. Human personalities). I love the basic concepts Sniegoski comes up with to fill Remy's life with adventure: the return of the Four Horsemen, the real fate of Lucifer, and now the possible return of the Garden of Eden. I've enjoyed the author's twists on Biblical folks like Samson, Delilah, Noah and others.

But somewhere in the last two books, I've discovered that Sniegoski's execution of those concepts just doesn't work for me.  I finished this book because it's a Remy Chandler book and I love the character -- but I felt none of the excitement, drama, and concern that I should have felt considering the concept of the book overall and the twists it puts in place for the main series characters (Remy and his cop friend Steven Mulvehill most of all, and also Remy's dead angel friend Francis/Fraciel).  Largely, this felt like a place-holder book, a moving of chess pieces: the events surrounding Francis spew directly from the end of the previous book, and the events involving Mulvehill seem intended to set up his character arc for the next book ... and in Mulvehill's case particularly it feels like what happens to him has little or no bearing on the actual main plot or even a secondary plot.

So why is Sniegoski's style not working for me?  A few reasons, I think. One is that his style just feels too sparse. To me, the books feel like they'd rather be television episodes. The scene changes (especially those that occur mid-chapter and jump from one character to another) feel like there should be commercial breaks inserted, or at least dramatic-close-up-theme-music being played over a brief fade to black.  The dialogue is occasionally repetitive (and more than once, exact phrasing is repeated in describing two different characters, something an editor should have caught) and feels perfectly detective-show-cliche.  I'm okay with sparse scenery descriptions that allow the reader to imagine what things look like, but Sniegoski goes beyond sparse into bare-minimum in a way that works against my mental picture instead of allowing it to form.

Another reason might have to do with one of my pet peeves about series fiction. I find that  typically authors go to one extreme or the other -- they either tell us too much about the events of previous books, thus bogging down the current book's pace, or they tell us too little to remind us of where the characters are coming from in relation to the new book, so that we have to struggle to determine if what we're seeing is character growth or just inconsistency on the author's part. This time, Sniegoski falls into that latter group. If an author is going to use a book's b-plot to make major changes to a character's status quo, we need enough detail to understand why that change is important, and I don't feel like we got that in the case of either Francis or Mulvehill -- both of whom have life (or after-life)-changing experiences in this book.

Finally, there's the fact that my reaction to most of what happens in the book is to ask "why should I care about this moment, this supporting character? Should I be trying to place it all in context with the previous books? Is it worth the effort?"  After a while, I gave up trying to tax my brain, and I gave up caring very much. I don't want to give up completely, but I suspect I will not rush to read the next Chandler book as soon as it comes out.

review of Mockingjay

I'm giving this the same rating I gave Book Two. Although Collins does a good job of incorporating the important information about the events of books one and two into the action here without resorting to "info-dump" style writing, I still don't think you can pick this book up and run with it without having read the earlier installments. That's part of the reason for the slightly lower grade than book one received. The other reason is that the things that made book one so interesting and such a fast read (the fast pace of the prose; Katniss' innocent inability to understand the actions of her peers in context of the bigger picture; Katniss' inherent inability to trust anyone) are now feeling a bit predictable and old hat, until near the end.  I found myself, in this volume more than the other two, wanting to tell Katniss to get her head out of her ass and start picking up on the not-so-subtle comments of those around her. In book one, I was fine with Kat not realizing that Peeta's love for her wasn't an act; by this book I was aggravated at the things Kat took for granted and failed to connect on. (I'd say more on that score, but I don't want to spoil anything for those still intending to read the books.)

What redeems the book and keeps it from dropping to a "three" rating is most of that ending. Kudos to Collins for not delivering on my jaded expectations as to who would live and who would die. (Okay, at least one of the deaths near the end was expected; but one most surely was not, at least by this reader, and the two deaths I most expected did not happen at all.)  The very very end (as in the last three pages or so) felt a bit rushed -- which is saying a lot in a series that moves as fast as this one does -- but that doesn't detract from the emotion and turns of the 50 or so pages that precede those three.

I have to say I am glad I read these books. I may have gotten aggravated with her at times, but I like Katniss. I like Peeta and Gale and Prim; I even liked Haymitch and Finnick despite the initial dislike accorded their actions when they first meet Katniss.  I also have to say I understand why my friends who have kids find the series increasingly uncomfortable. It's sort of like reading Stephen King's PET SEMATARY -- you don't want these things happening to kids you actually know, and by the end of these books you feel like Katniss and Co are kids you know. You also recognize that they are for the most part older than their years.

Review of Name of the Wind

This is another book I struggled to rate; part of me is expecting to be lambasted for giving even this low of a score, and part of me wants to drop it down to a 3. I know how much this books means to so many people (and in fact one of the friends who loves it so much read it because I pointed it out in a bookstore and said "yeah, I've heard great things about this one..."), and I wanted to like it more than I did, but ultimately I felt it was Very Good, but not Unequaled.
 So what did I like or admire (not always the same thing)?  I give full marks to Rothfuss for writing an epic fantasy in first person, with the Hero of Legend telling his own story not-so-many years after the fact. Kvothe, once he gets on a roll, has a voice that must be paid attention to even if you don't believe half of what he's saying.  And the details of the world-building are terrific -- I really felt like I was "in" the cities with Kvothe,  the workings of the world make absolute sense, there's a great internal logic to everything that is clear and yet allows room for mystery.  The tactic of "here's the real story behind the story" has been used before (one of my favorite instances being Parke Godwin's FIRELORD, a novel of King Arthur narrated by Arthur, which starts with the classic phrase "who you are depends on who's telling your story.") but Rothfuss elevates it with his use of language, and what I perceive to be his willingness to allow us to dislike Kvothe.

Because honestly, when it comes down to it -- I do dislike Kvothe. And I'm sure I'm in the minority in that opinion, but hear me out. Framing sequence or not, what we get once Kvothe starts talking is a man who claims to want the truth of his story set down to contradict the legends and fabrications that have grown about him and his deeds, but who in actually is building that myth himself. There are points where the adult Kvothe says that events have been exaggerated and yet his own version of those events is structured to cast him as something larger than human and greater than those around him. Every woman he encounters eventually swoons in his presence or feels he can do no wrong; every man is either his fast-and-best friend or his sworn enemy, or not important enough to rate much more than a name (with the exception of a few of the University Masters, the only characters who seem truly ambivalent about Kvothe).  Now -- disliking Kvothe does not equal dislike of the book. Like I said, Kvothe has a voice that must be listened to, once he gets moving. For me, that took close to 300 pages; proportionately that's about as much time as I give any novel to make or break.

What did I dislike? The framing sequence and interludes slowed the pace of the book down -- and in a book where it takes 700 pages to lay out the hero's childhood (and not even all of that!) and only barely touches on the legendary things he supposedly did, a slow framing sequence feels deadly. I understand the reasons it exists (Why is Kvothe telling his story, and to whom? And what are the current events that may bring him finally out of "retirement"/hiding?) but everything that happens in the present feels unimportant at this point. I'm sure by the time the Chronicle is done, those events will have taken on greater significance, but by then I'll probably have forgotten the Smith's Apprentice's name and what he did to earn Kvothe's respect.  I also disliked the incredible amount of detail in Kvothe's rememberances -- again, for someone who claims to want his truth put down clearly, he spends an awful lot of time recalling details of what people were wearing and how often they sneezed (okay, that's an exageration, I don't think he ever mentions sneezing or any other bodily function -- but in retrospect it sure feels like he was that detailed in his account). There's a certain willing suspension of disbelief in first person narration -- no one can possibly remember exactly what everyone said in any given situation -- but I felt like at points Kvothe (thus, Rothfuss) took it a bit too far. Perhaps almost 800 pages x 3 books is a bit much for that suspension.

So, for me personally, the book doesn't quite live up to the hype. I'm glad I read it, and I will read THE WISE MAN'S FEAR (book two) when it comes out in paperback. The book is still good, and Kvothe's voice is still interesting to me.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Review of Vampire Relationship Guide

I'm going to break this down into The Good and the Not-So-Good to try and keep my thoughts a bit more on track than the first draft of this review turned out.

The Good: This may be one of the funniest genre pastiches I've ever read. Vampire (and other supernatural creature) Romance is a huge market right now, and in 90 pages Evelyn Lafont manages to crack wise about almost every trope of the genre. I haven't even read that much supernatural romance (urban fantasy of the detective/crime realm is more my cup of tea) and I found myself smiling or laughing or nodding knowingly throughout the book.  The main reason I enjoyed the book is that it does not take itself too seriously. The book is a fast easy read with lots of funny dialogue and wink-wink-nudge-nudge humor regarding the current obsession with sexy vampires.  The author also does a nice job of taking all the standards of vampire lore and giving them the tweaks necessary to make them work in her world without straying too far from what is "canon" about vampires: they drink blood because the magic in their bodies prevents them from making new red blood cells; channels in their teeth draw the blood directly into their circulatory system; drinking blood is an act of sustenance not sexuality; anything that would cause a vamp to lose blood or that would destroy blood cells will eventually kill them (not just a stake to the heart, but any gaping bleeding wound, etc). The main character, Josie, is a bit of a rural rube in her thirties -- almost too innocent despite claims of being jaded -- that is a perfect send-up of the young-nubile-innocent heroine trope.  The lead vamps, Gregory and Walker, fit the standard romantic types as well.

The Not-So-Good: Because of the length, there is not a lot of obvious world-building beyond those basics of vampirism, and what other world-building details are mentioned are inconsistent throughout the book. For instance, we are told early on that Vampires are as publicly recognized a minority as any other group you can think of and that laws have been passed declaring that businesses must stay open 24 hours a day to accommodate those who cannot go out in the sun; there's no detail on how long ago Vampires "came out," or how readily they were accepted into mainstream culture. This creates a problem for our main character: vampires are common enough that it's apparently fairly easy to find them, and yet Josie knows so little about vampire culture that she asks incredibly personal questions at the absolute most wrong moments. I realize Josie's questions are a way to get the basic info about vampires mentioned above into the reader's path, but the result is a main character who in social situations is either incredibly stupid (this stuff should be mostly common knowledge and she doesn't have that knowledge despite her vamp-obsession) or incredibly insensitive (she knows what she's asking is a bit personal, but asks anyway, almost like she has no verbal filter between her brain and her mouth).  I'm leaning towards the former, because I like the idea of Josie as a play on the young-nubile-innocent heroine and if she's knowledgeable-but-insensitive I don't think I like her as much.

The Part I'm Undecided About:  As the book moves from "meeting vampires for sex" to "our heroine is in danger, who will save her" tropes, the plot either becomes burdened with holes large enough to drive a hearse through or becomes a pastiche on the action/adventure genre. i can't speak for the author or her intent, but I have plans to interview her and hopefully will get some insight. I'll post a link when I put the interview up on my website.

Overall, though, I recommend VAMPIRE RELATIONSHIP GUIDE to anyone who enjoys vampire romance fiction and likes a good send-up of genre tropes. I suspect Evelyn Lafont will be continuing the series (otherwise why call this Volume One) and it will be interesting to see how she maintains the tone of this volume.