Friday, May 27, 2011

I Remember You

With I Remember You, Harriet Evans attempts to combine two genres, and the result's not quite what it could be.  Genre number one, the classic chick lit romance, works fairly well - except where genre two interferes.  Genre two, the mysterious family saga, not only doesn't work at all but takes away from the other aspect of the book.  Overall, the book felt like The Thirteenth Tale mushed up in a sandwich with The Finishing Touches, with not quite enough mustard or pickle.

The main story begins as boring Tess* goes home to boring Langford from dreary London, having been dumped by her caricature of a posh London boyfriend.  (I'm skipping the overly sentimental and foreshadowing prologue part.)  She then reconnects with her immature and unappealing best friend from childhood, Adam, who still lives in his childhood home and hasn't yet bothered to clear out any of his dead mother's things, even though she died when he was eighteen and it's been thirteen years.

There's a long and overall pointless** trip to Rome in there somewhere, and some stuff about the old lady who lives across from the pub and was the daughter of the local great family.  Her backstory could have been dramatic and interesting, but was instead unsympathetic and dreary.  Really, the concept of dreariness keeps popping up over and over again here.

Am I forgetting anything, other than the completely and utterly predictable ending?  Well, the book's way too long - thank you, pointless mysterious family saga drama that has no real place here - and the secondary characters are unconvincing.  That's about it.  It kept me less bored for a couple of hours than some other books have in the past.  It looks like this book, unlike others by Evans, was not a bestseller, so that reassures me; however, the title is stupid, and that makes me angry.  Two and a half stars within its genre.

* This requires clarification.  Often, in the beginning of a chick lit novel, the heroine is "boring" as in: in a rut and in need of new shoes, a manicure, and someone to have sex with.  I don't mean it that way at all.  I mean the character is boring.  To herself, and to the reader, and presumably to the other characters as well.

** The only point was to introduce a secondary love interest for boring Tess.  Since anyone who's ever read a chick lit story before already knows, after page one, just how this book is going to end, it was pointless.  QED.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Damsel in Distress

It's hard to know where to begin either in describing or in praising P.G. Wodehouse.  He is perhaps most famous for creating the brainy butler Jeeves and his feckless young master, Bertie Wooster, and it's undeniable that the stories featuring this duo are some of Wodehouse's best.  What's interesting about his lesser-known and even arguably lesser works, such as A Damsel in Distress, is that they're paradoxically much better novels.

For those of my readers unfamiliar with Wodehouse, I should give a few words of background.  His stories take place primarily in England in the 20s and 30s; topics include golf, romances with chorus girls, and pig-husbandry, although that fails utterly to do Wodehouse justice.  He is the undisputed master of the fine arts of simile and metaphor, enough already to be going along with; his skill with the complex comic plot is second to none.  His gift for naming his characters* transcends any flights of imagination ever displayed by fantasy writers, even the best of them.

When all of these qualities combine, the whole truly becomes better than the sum of the parts; the Jeeves stories display these powers to their fullest.  And yet, amidst all the lightness and silliness and frantic slapstick, although silver cow-creamers are stolen, scandalous memoirs are written by Earls in their dotage, and plots are hatched to keep the moody French cook from defecting from Aunt Dahlia's household, Wodehouse's most sparkling stories stories fail to absorb the reader the way other novels, less brilliant but more human, are able to do.

A Damsel in Distress isn't as funny as any of the Jeeves oeuvre**, and it's not as ridiculous as the Blandings Castle novels.  It is, however, a perfectly charming and often quite amusing novel about young love in the English countryside, a subject Wodehouse tackled often, generally with his tongue firmly in cheek.  In this case, the romance seems more genuine, the characters are more real, and the result is an enjoyable story - with just enough mistaken identity, plotting servants, absent-minded old gents, and chorus girls to make it true Wodehouse.

I recommend any Wodehouse whole-heartedly, and I recommend A Damsel in Distress without reservations. Four stars, in any genre.

* Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps and Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright spring to mind.  Anyone expecting their first child and bored by all the classic baby-name-book choices?  Thank me later.

** Also recommended: the TV series.  The DVDs are available from Amazon.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Breakfast at Stephanie's

Apparently, this week's theme is books with overly clever or punning titles.  Breakfast at Stephanie's, which I picked up and started to read about ten minutes after I finished the cleverly titled Admission, does not have any high-class hookers, middle-class gigolos/novelists, embarrassingly fake Japanese men, or even a jewelry store.  The cat has a name.  You get the picture, I'm sure.  Nonetheless, I have the unpleasantly nagging suspicion that Sue Margolis chose the heroine's name specifically so that she could make a punny titular allusion*.  To be fair, Stephanie does cook breakfast for her friends a couple of times - the title itself is sufficiently on-topic, if not all that descriptive - but there's just nothing there to link the book back to Breakfast at Tiffany's in any way, meaningful, thematic, or otherwise.

Aside from this immediate one-star deduction, the book quickly lost at least another star or two simply for not being very good.  None of the male-female interpersonal relationships are realistically drawn, not that this sets them drastically apart from the male-male and female-female interpersonal relationships.  The plot's not particularly interesting or fresh: single mother runs into former almost-flame, kid's father reenters the picture, friends have love problems, single mother has career aspirations that are unrealistic but turn out to be possible with a little self-esteem, whatever.

And then aside from these issues, there are the really puzzling bits.  A Southern producer, one of several poorly humanized secondary characters, has very few lines, and most of them are just like this: "Why, ah am as excited by the prospect as a possum up a gum stump," and "If you don't mind my saying, little lady, you are as perky as a ladybug's ears at planting time."  If Sue Margolis doesn't mind my saying, this character's just about as hi-larious as a hornet's nest shoved right up my nose at any time of the year.

The midget whom the heroine hires as her agent isn't precisely a barrel of laughs, either; he hits on her at just about every opportunity, waggling his eyebrows, ogling her cleavage, leering, and so on, and each time Margolis tells us that Stephanie didn't notice that the little fellow was attracted.  Each time, without fail.  After the first time, which is clumsily written to begin with, it just becomes strange.  Either Margolis has a bizarre chip on her shoulder about women who don't see midgets as valid potential sexual partners or she's just a poor writer.  I would also accept both.

I'm giving Breakfast at Stephanie's a low two stars, within its genre.

* Lest you think that this is an accidental aberration to which I'm overreacting, Margolis's other books include Neurotica (neurotic erotica, I presume?), Sisterica (sisters/hysteria, probably), and one I shudder as I type: Apocalipstick.  Breakfast at Stephanie's is at least a pun, rather than the kind of portmanteau word one would expect to find in a ticking briefcase.


Clever, double entendre titles are also a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel Admission is perfectly titled: it's about an admissions officer who struggles with admitting to a great secret she's hung onto for seventeen years.  And on the other hand, it's just a little too cute and a little too perfect, which describes the novel adequately as well.

Coincidences are at the heart of most fiction, and most lives.  Who hasn't sat around with their friends, usually a bit drunk, and speculated on how your lives would have been different had you and your spouse/best friend/girlfriend not been in the same coffee shop at the same time/at the same college/on the same bus?  Well, yes, your lives would have been different; but then again, that's how you meet anyone: anything is a coincidence in retrospect.  Which is why I'm not too harsh a judge of coincidence in fiction.  Truth is actually stranger.

In the case of Admission, even my tolerant attitude toward coincidences had to stretch more than a little.  I can't describe the coincidences I'm referring to - the whole book is built around one particular event, and while I fully expect anyone who's paying attention to figure out the great mystery within thirty pages or so, why not let you have your own fun - but believe me when I say that even the greatest credulity will be strained by some of them.

Otherwise, Admission is a perfectly decent novel.  Korelitz manages to pull off a fair amount of melodrama with a light enough touch that it never becomes obnoxious.  In fact, she's a good writer, with the exception of a couple of stylistic nit-picks that wouldn't, perhaps, bother anyone but me.  My biggest peeve was her overuse of the emphatic double negative: "not unrelated" and the like.  It's a good construction, and I use it myself, but Korelitz could have turned a few of those into positive constructions and it wouldn't have hurt the book.  She also tends to repeat words that are just unusual enough to pop out at you: "... she said unkindly" and "preemptively" or "preemptive" being the two that stuck with me.  There were a couple of places in which a word other than "preemptive" actually would have been more accurate, and that bothered me even more than the repetition.

Within its genre - contemporary fiction - I give Admission a solid three and a half stars.  The plot isn't worth that much, and really should be more of a two and a half, but I'm adding a full star for the simple fact that the writing style isn't self-conscious or pretentious.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Remember Me?

Sophie Kinsella, who's also written as Madeline Wickham, is a pretty generic chick lit author.  I don't mean any disrespect; it's not easy to write a novel at all, let alone the many that Kinsella's managed to turn out over the last few years, but the fact is that none of Kinsella's books are particularly memorable, though all are competent.

Which is a good lead-in to Remember Me?, which is a moderately entertaining story of an average young woman who has a car crash and loses the memory of three years of her life - three years that happen to include her marriage, her promotion to an executive position at her company, and a full personal transformation from your generic haphazard funky twenty-something chick lit heroine to a generic driven ambitious beige-suit-wearing chick lit villain.  When she wakes up, she's her old self again, and the predictable hijinks ensue.  There are one or two less-predictable twists, but none of the characters stretch beyond two dimensions.

I didn't actually remember much about Remember Me? from my first reading, which is why I gave it a second run-through today before giving it a write-up.  At least I recalled a vague outline of the story, which is more than I can say for the other amnesia chick lit novel on my shelf, Caprice Crane's Forget About It.  I'd write a few words about that one, too, since it's so on-topic, but honestly, I took the author's advice.  I think the girl in that one fakes amnesia and then gets real amnesia, oh-so-ironically, a few pages on, but don't quote me on that.

My biggest problem with Remember Me?, aside from its plot reaching 80s soap opera levels of originality, is its length.  It's a respectable 389 pages, in my trade paperback edition, but those pages fly by fast - editors really need to stop thinking readers won't notice when they monkey around with the font sizes and spacing.  If I'm going to spend a few dollars escaping into a light and fluffy world in which acrylic nails and frosted cupcakes are important, then dammit, I want those nails and cupcakes to occupy me for at least two days of scattered reading time.  If I can get through two books in a day, those books had better cost less than five dollars together.

Remember Me? gets a respectable three stars within its genre, despite the fact that it's written in the present tense.  The half star I would have deducted for usage of the present tense is balanced out by the half star I've added to acknowledge the fact that Kinsella is a sufficiently skillful writer to use the present tense without making me want to beat her with a semicolon.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Wise Man's Fear

Before I begin, I have to offer a quick apology to my gentle readers (and a more sincere apology to my angry readers, because I'm much more afraid of them) for my absence last week.  The book I'm about to review was responsible for two or three days, and doing things that didn't involve books, horrors, accounted for the rest.

Now, back to our regular programming: The Wise Man's Fear, Patrick Rothfuss's sequel to his bestselling first novel, The Name of the Wind, and the second entry in The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy.

I'll start by admitting I've been waiting for this book, more or less patiently, for a couple of years now; when it was supposed to be released last spring, I went to Borders in a fever of excitement and left a cursing, shambling, disappointed shell of an Editor.  Despite what publishers and Amazon reviewers may have you believe, decent non-crap fantasy novels are released as rarely as a unicorn is seen outside the pages of a crappy fantasy novel; it was a sad, sad day for the Indiscriminate Reader.  Now, though, I'm actually quite pleased about the delay for one reason: the space between books one and two, and the opportunity I had to get unexcited again, left me much more prepared to comment dispassionately on The Wise Man's Fear*.

The final verdict: I'm on the fence.

Let's back up.  In The Name of the Wind, readers were introduced to Kvothe, the young son of a group of traveling musicians and players whose culture and lifestyle were clearly borrowed liberally from the gypsies.  Traveling with them for a while is a magician of sorts, who fascinates Kvothe with tales of the University, where science, history, languages, and magic are all taught in equal proportion.  Kvothe's father, as the story begins, is at work on a song about a group of mythological bad guys called the Chandrian; very soon after the story begins, the Chandrian prove themselves less than mythological by showing up and slaughtering Kvothe's family.  He survives, and he sets out for the nearest major city with the intent of getting himself to the University as soon as he can to satisfy his thirst for knowledge about the still-mysterious, albeit no longer legendary, Chandrian.

Without giving away too many spoilers, it's safe to say that Kvothe spends most of The Name of the Wind at the University: he meets a young woman whose provenance is meant to be fascinatingly mysterious, he makes friends, he makes enemies, and he studies.  There's a bit of action, certainly, so don't get the impression that there isn't; and it's a fun book, no doubt about it.  It's just that . . . well, we'll get to the just that in a moment.

The Wise Man's Fear is framed in the same way as the first book.  In both, the narrator is Kvothe himself, telling his story from the lofty and world-weary vantage point of a man a little under thirty.  Kvothe is, at this chronological point in his tale, presumed dead, and he's running a village inn under an assumed name; he tells his story to a scribe who tracks him down and discovers his true identity.  Here's a brief excerpt from his story, an excerpt which also appears on the book jacket:

My name is Kvothe.

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings.  I burned down the town of Trebon.  I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life.  I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in.  I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day.  I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me.

Discerning readers may detect a faint note of arrogance in the above.  That theme is carried all the way through both books; Patrick Rothfuss clearly thinks Kvothe is just about the coolest, and Kvothe agrees with him.  What's hard to put your finger on is how much of this is meant to be tongue in cheek.  While I've already seen Kvothe do some of these things in the first two books (I won't say which, I promise), so far, he's a college student.  Harry Potter goes to Oxford, just a little bit, although I'll admit before even finishing the sentence that that's a little too harsh.  I get that reputation is a big theme in these books; Kvothe purposely spreads rumors about himself, and more rumors are eagerly spread by others.  I can see where Rothfuss might be going with this, but the message is just a little too muddled to compensate for the disconnect between the overblown narrative frame, in which Kvothe is the most famous man in the world, and the text so far, in which he's a college student.  A smart, bad-ass college student, no doubt, but a teenager all the same.

It's even harder to know how much Rothfuss identifies with Kvothe, or rather, how much of the books are wish fulfillment.

And that's the just that I referred to above.  All fiction is wish fulfillment to some extent: escape from reality, identification with someone whose life is more exciting than one's own, the opportunity to mentally travel somewhere one otherwise could not.  But there's a fine line between an author constructing a main character and a world he finds interesting, in order to fulfill the wishes of the readers, and an author projecting his own desires so strongly onto a character that the story begins to feel unrealistic.  In a previous post, I talked about characters who are smarter than their creators, and the issues that arise in such literature.  The corresponding problem that arises in fantasy is caused by characters so outside the norm that they become disproportionate to their world.

The greatest fantasy offender in this regard (and in fact in almost every other way, but that's a story for another day) was Robert Jordan, God rest 'im.  Rand, one of the protagonists of the Wheel of Time series, suffers badly from awesomeness overload.  He's the most powerful magic-user around - for those of you who may be familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, which is overall the best reference material to consult when reading Jordan anyway, Rand's a level-20 mage in a magic missile-using world - but that's not enough.  No, he is also so attractive to nubile, busty young women that three of them, each hotter and more libidinous than the last, fight over him, cry over him, and eventually agree to share him.  As I recall, Rand just shrugged and went with it.  He felt a little bad about screwing around with all of them, but you know, he wasn't going to choose or anything, so their solution worked for him.  The way it was written made me uncomfortable, and not because of the subject matter; I was uncomfortable because I felt like I'd just been given a peek I deeply didn't want into Robert Jordan's personal fantasy life.

Kvothe isn't quite this unbalanced, and I'm not saying that Rothfuss is as prone as Jordan to put his own fantasies straight onto the page.  But Kvothe, as a character, is just a little too awesome in ways that feel to me like Rothfuss's idea of how awesome he would like to be, and the often-realistic way in which Rothfuss gives Kvothe the typical problems of a teenager just isn't enough for counterbalance.  One romantic fumble doesn't erase fifty pages of a sixteen-year-old displaying sophisticated social analysis, technical know-how, and overall badassery.  Kvothe is a bit on the smarter-than-his-creator side, too; he's supposed to be a genius, and yet there are moments when information is presented and the reader is able to put it together well before the character.  That's no fun for anyone, and it weakens the suspension of disbelief that's more important in fantasy than in any other genre.

But beyond any of this, I had one issue with The Wise Man's Fear that I just couldn't get past.  I get that fairy tales, of which this book is a conscious echo, have stylistic elements one might not find in most fiction.  Rhyming dialogue, for example.  And if the rhyming dialogue in the book had been confined to those scenes in which Kvothe interacts with fairy folk, I'd have kind of dug it - but it pops up in several random places in the book, as if Rothfuss just couldn't resist rhyming whenever good rhymes occurred to him.  It was distracting.  It was irritating and overused.  The book's losing a whole half star because of it.

I should end this review with some positive notes, however, since the book overall was entertaining and competently written (and I mean this as high praise, given the competition).  The Kingkiller Chronicle isn't a Tolkien redux.  It's not sword and sorcery, despite the presence of both swords and sorcery.  There's no gratuitous creepy sex, which has been such a recurring theme in the last decade or two of fantasy that it's going to get its own post one of these days - and huge props to Rothfuss for that.

And my highest praise for this book: as I said above, much of the background material is clearly pulled from fairy tales and folk stories.  The way Rothfuss handles this is refreshing in two important ways.  One: he has obviously gone directly to the sources for his inspiration, rather than depending on muddled interpretations of folklore as already presented in other fantasy novelists' stories; two: only someone who truly understands, loves, and delights in the tone of proper fairy tales would be able to imitate them so successfully.

The Wise Man's Fear, minus the rhyming penalty, ends up with three and three quarters stars within the fantasy genre.  I recommend Rothfuss's books wholeheartedly to anyone who loves fantasy but is tired of reading about dragons.

* Should the author of these books stumble upon this review, be it noted: I am in no way encouraging a further delay in the release of book three.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Monday Classic: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Since the new Jane Eyre movie just came out, it seems like as good a time as any to take a look at the Brontë sisters.  I don't feel prepared to comment on Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre at the moment, not because I haven't read it a hundred times, which I have, but because I haven't read it recently.  It's on my to-read stack at present, and a post on that can wait.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was written by Anne Brontë, the youngest of the six Brontë children.  It's an interesting book for a variety of reasons, not least because it stands in great contrast to the two other most famous Brontë works (Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights); while Anne indulged in a fair amount of melodrama, just like her sisters, Wildfell Hall is a much more realistic story.  The wild-eyed frothing moor-beasts* of Wuthering Heights are nowhere to be found, and there are no madwomen confined in attics.  There's an alcoholic husband, an assault, and some pretty sordid affairs, but overall the subject matter is tame compared to Anne's sisters' most famous works.

Perhaps due partly to the fact that the heroine of Wildfell Hall was written as a relatively normal person, rather than a psychopath or sociopath (Catherine Earnshaw Linton and Catherine Linton Earnshaw respectively, yes, you read that right**, of Wuthering Heights) or as an eccentric (the eponymous Jane Eyre), she's become something of a feminist literary icon.  While Jane Eyre and the two Catherines are all a bit too strange to be viewed through the lens of normal psychology, Wildfell Hall's heroine is sane enough that her actions, whether socially acceptable or not, can be interpreted as being carried out by a person who at least knows and cares what society expects of a normal individual.

The book begins when a mysterious widow with a young son moves to a small village and slowly becomes friends with a local almost-gentleman farmer.  The widow, it transpires, is not a widow at all, but instead the runaway wife of one of the most one-dimensionally unappealing men in the history of literature.  He drinks, curses, gambles, lies, gets fat, sleeps with the governess, abuses his wife, sleeps with his friend's wife, drinks some more, feeds liquor to his toddler son, curses, gets more fat, drinks a great deal more, and finally becomes really unpleasant.

Feminist critics love the fact that it was considered a somewhat shocking turn when this man's wife eventually up and left him.  Many critical mills have been gristed with Wildfell Hall, and some of the essays and books produced are actually interesting, believe it or not.  From a critical perspective, the way the heroine deals with her husband and then deals with leaving him is the most interesting part of the book.

From the perspective of the casual reader, the novel's both smoothly written and entertaining.  Some may find the characters not to their taste; there's a good point to be made that with the exception of the hero's younger brother there's not one really likable character in the whole book.  With that said: Wildfell Hall easily earns three and a half stars overall.  There are weaknesses to be found, but they don't outweigh the pleasures.

* The protagonists.

** Wuthering Heights is a copyeditor's worst nightmare.  Heathcliff (who, like Madonna, needs only one name to express the power of his awesome) loves Catherine Earnshaw Linton; instead, he marries Catherine's sister-in-law, who is then Isabella Linton Heathcliff, and they produce a son, Linton Heathcliff.  Catherine Earnshaw Linton's daughter Catherine Linton eventually marries Hareton Earnshaw, thus becoming Catherine Linton Earnshaw; Hindley Earnshaw is by this time long dead, but his initials, confusingly, live on.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Getting Rid of Matthew

When I pick up a novel for a dollar on the clearance rack of Half Price Books, I don't expect much.  Usually I also don't get much, Candace Bushnell, ahem, so this one was a pleasant surprise.

Along with any of my readers who've read extensive chick lit, I've seen my share of novels about women involved with married or otherwise unavailable men, and there are few surprises to be had at any turn.  This one amused me right up front: the book starts with the heroine's married older lover actually leaving his wife for her.  He shows up on the doorstep, suitcase in hand - just after the heroine, having spent a few really pleasant days alone without any visits or calls from him, realizes that she doesn't actually like him that much after all.  So now she has this annoying old guy in her apartment.  Bummer.  And hence, the title of the book.

While that plot twist in and of itself wouldn't have been enough to make me a fan, the protagonist's inner monologue converted me.  I hate it, I really, really hate it, when reviewers maunder on about an author's "unique voice," which is usually their go-to praise when the author in question can't put together a grammatical sentence.  "Unique voice," much like "evocative prose," is often also code for overuse of metaphors that look like they recently went through the Kitchen Aid.  That said, sometimes an author really does have a striking voice, and Jane Fallon's was consistently angry and violent and often at odds with the light subject matter.  The heroine's a bit of a foul-mouthed bitch, to be completely clear; she's often unsympathetic, which made me feel a bit more at home with the novel as a whole.

This book's a solid three and a half stars on the chick lit scale; I therefore recommend it seven-tenths-heartedly to anyone who reads the genre.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Monday Classic: Twenty Years After

Now here's a Monday classic that is in fact a classic according to Oxford University Press*, but which you'll never find on any high school reading list, anywhere.  I attribute this to the fact that Twenty Years After, Alexandre Dumas's first sequel to The Three Musketeers, is as exciting as any book could be and only marginally depressing, unless you're particularly attached to Charles I's head**.

Twenty Years After picks up precisely where you would expect it to, in chronological relation to The Three Musketeers.  D'Artagnan, now serving Cardinal Mazarin (the great Cardinal Richelieu's successor), is given a mission: to find his three friends and bring them into the Cardinal's service.  There's quite a bit more going on; Paris is in turmoil, as it seems as if Paris has always been.  I see no reason to give a plot summary, as Dumas is so much more fun when you read his books without any spoilers.  No summary could do his intricate plotting justice.

What I will say, though, is that Twenty Years After is a true sequel to the great Musketeers, not only in its content (the major villain in Twenty Years After is intimately connected to the villain of the previous book, and the political intrigue is both involved and deadly), but also in its tone.  While our heroes have grown older, and in some cases wiser, they are nonetheless as ready to draw swords or to climb up to a lady's bedroom in the middle of the night as they ever were.  Dumas is also the master of drawn-out revenge and poetic justice, a talent he most perfectly displays in The Count of Monte Cristo but from which he gets plenty of mileage in both The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After.

I don't think I need to recommend Dumas to those who already enjoy a good sword fight with plenty of aristocratic French insults thrown in.  Cloaks are thrown back, hats are shot off with pistols, all kinds of limbs are run through; I can never get enough of this.  For any of my readers who feel the same, I'd be preaching to the converted.  And if any of my readers aren't fans of this style, then there's nothing I can say except, please do enjoy the new Philip Roth, since someone has to.  Dumas can be more than a little melodramatic at times; characters turn purple with rage and bite their handkerchiefs to pieces in moments of great emotion (no, I'm not making this up).  This might be a drawback for some, but I'm about to tell you why it shouldn't be.

Paradoxically, Dumas is to my knowledge both the greatest writer of melodrama and also one of the best writers of true, heart-wrenching drama ever to pen a novel (and sometimes on the same page).  I attribute this to characterization.  In The Three Musketeers and its sequels, d'Artagnan and the eponymous three are consistently dramatic, rather than melodramatic.  Even in moments when you should be rolling your eyes at the over-the-top quality of it all, they hold you spellbound, while secondary characters often go noticeably over the top at the drop of a chewed-up handkerchief.  I don't know if the contrast is simply down to Dumas's investment in these characters, or if he actually thought about how he would write them differently from their supporting cast.  Honestly, I would vote for a combination of both.  But anyone who dismisses Dumas as a writer of melodramatic historical potboilers should think again.

In that vein, I'd like to comment on one of the most striking aspects of Twenty Years After, a quality which is also possessed by all of Dumas's best works.  Dumas managed to consistently write thrilling, often funny stories which also have a melancholic feel running all the way through.  This sadness of event and theme, which appears in The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, is given full rein in the final book, Ten Years Later, which is generally published (including by Oxford World's Classics) as three books: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Valliere, and The Man in the Iron Mask.

In last week's Monday classic post on David Copperfield I challenged my readers to prove they were not Cylons by reading A Tale of Two Cities.  Tears at the closing lines = you are human.  A reader of mine suggested Old Yeller as an equivalent barometer of humanity, which is fair enough.  The last few chapters of The Man in the Iron Mask are on much the same level.  The first time I read that book, I was wearing my glasses, and they were so fogged and dripping with tears that I could only read about three sentences at a time before cleaning them yet again.  The Man in the Iron Mask still has the same effect on me to this day, after an estimated ten readings over the last sixteen years.  Twenty Years After, which I've read at least as many times, is still just as delightfully suspenseful (yes, even knowing what happens, there's suspense - it's the magic of Dumas) and touching as it always was.  Five stars overall and in its genre.

* The best current paperback editions of almost any Dumas novels are those put out by Oxford World's Classics.  They reprint older translations, and while I know that there are people out there with a strange mania for new and modern translations . . . think about this for a moment, everyone.  If you were writing something now, in contemporary French, would you think a translation into English made by someone idiomatically familiar with contemporary French would be better than a translation made by someone magically imported from 1845?  The reverse holds true as well.  The Dumas translations done in the 19th century are just plain better.

My favorite translation of The Three Musketeers is currently being published by Dover, and I highly recommend it as an introduction to Dumas.

** After 1649, Charles I wasn't either, unfortunately for him.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Lost World & Other Stories

Arthur Conan Doyle is primarily known for creating Sherlock Holmes, and the sheer number and quality of stories he turned out with that protagonist would be enough to give any writer enduring fame, even if he'd never written anything else.

It turns out, though, that Conan Doyle wrote a mind-boggling number and range of books and stories*.  His historical novels, which include The White Company and Sir Nigel, are right up there with any other historical fiction you could find: they're accurate to their periods, exciting, funny, and expressive of great emotional range all in equal measure.  I recall the Napoleonic Brigadier Gerard stories, which I admit I haven't read in about a decade, as being a cross between Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time and Don Quixote, with a dash of P.G. Wodehouse thrown in.

And then there are his adventure stories and science fiction, which include The Lost World and the other stories published in this volume.  Anyone who's read and enjoyed the works of H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, or H.G. Wells, whose books are the best comparisons I can think of for this one (and which are probably good comparisons, since both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, I now realize, are mentioned on the back cover of my copy of the book), will either already know about The Lost World or will be delighted to hear that it exists.

In The Lost World, the belligerent, bristling, and brilliant Professor Challenger sets off to find a part of the Amazon jungle rumored to contain prehistoric fauna - living dinosaurs, in short, an idea that sets London afire with speculation.  He and his companions, journalist Edward Malone, Professor Summerlee, and big-game hunter Lord John Roxton, are a strangely assorted bunch; Professor Challenger, who is perhaps even more of a genius than he arrogantly believes himself to be, bullies and insults them all throughout.  In the hands of a writer as skilled and imaginative as Conan Doyle, this group might make for entertaining reading even if all they did was go to the grocery store.  Add in some pterodactyls, and believe me, the use of pterodactyls in this story is epic, and the book's dynamite.

I mentioned in a previous post that Conan Doyle was the only author I've read who consistently makes his genius characters seem believable.  Sherlock Holmes is one; Professor Challenger is another.  It's clear to me, both from Conan Doyle's characters and from the breadth and depth of his own intellectual pursuits, that he was quite the genius himself, and not just a genius of a writer.

The other stories in this volume feature the same characters, and The Poison Belt, The Disintegration Machine, and When the World Screamed all live up to the standard of quality set by the title story.  The volume's one weak point is The Land of Mist, which features spiritualism as its main theme.  Conan Doyle was quite the spiritualist and student of the paranormal, and he wrote several books attempting to validate the existence of paranormal phenomena and convince the skeptics.  Those books, or at least the ones I've actually seen and read, are weird beyond my ability to describe**, but at the very least they were openly written as arguments for the existence of spirits and similar.  The Land of Mist is a spiritualist manifesto masquerading as fiction.  Its essential dishonesty, if you're aware of Conan Doyle's leanings, lessens it greatly as a story, and the plodding earnestness with which it's written makes it dull.

I can't recommend the book too highly, however, and anyone who's missing out on Professor Challenger and company is missing one of the greatest treats in speculative fiction.  Five stars, both overall and within its genre.

* Wikipedia, as usual, has a carefully categorized and to my knowledge complete bibliography.

** I thought The Coming of the Fairies, which I was lucky enough to find a rare copy of many years ago (it has since been reprinted), was a joke until I looked it up.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sex and the City

I apologize for writing about another book by Candace Bushnell, but this one, which I read - more accurately, endured - a few months ago really deserves a mention, if only because it is, to my knowledge, unique.

Let's backtrack a moment.  Anyone who's ever had a favorite book adapted into a visual medium can attest that it's rarely an improvement.  About the best one can hope for is that the movie, TV show, or miniseries in question will be as enjoyable as the book; often the results are mediocre, and almost as often, disastrous*.  Sex and the City is the one true exception I've found to this rule.  I'm guessing that the world's die-hard fans of the Sex and the City TV show and/or movies aren't going to be reading this blog in great numbers, for demographic reasons it would be pointless to attempt to analyze.  I'm assuming, though, that most of my readers will have at least seen an episode or two of the show, if only because it's always on around one in the morning when the only other choices are infomercials.

So think about the show.  Think about its glib, glossy writing; its shallow, morally bankrupt characters; its meaningless (I think they were meant to be deep, or at least insightful) meditations on subjects ranging from the tragedy of being ten years older than women with perkier breasts to the best way to have casual oral sex in your office with the UPS delivery guy without being caught by someone who might, you know, expect you to be working.  Or doing something less completely gross, take your pick.

Got those charming images fixed in your mind?  Now the kicker: compared to the book, the TV show was appealing, thoughtful, tasteful, and intellectual.  Really.  Anyone who thinks that the TV show's attitude towards women is empowering in some way**, and that this translated from the book, should check out this short excerpt***:

Friday night.  Skipper Johnson drives out to Southampton, where he has arranged to meet friends at Basilico: four women, all in their late twenties, who work at Ralph Lauren, and who, to the naked eye, are indistinguishable from one another.  Skipper finds their bland prettiness comforting, as well as the fact that there's a small herd of them.  It means that he doesn't have the burden of trying to keep one of them entertained for the evening.

To get the most out of this brief excerpt, which is, I assure you, if anything less offensive than most of the book, I will turn to some of the close reading skills I honed in my high school and college poetry classes.  Let's all mentally travel back to some distant classroom, everyone, and see what the above really has to say for itself.

"friends": This usage accords well with the general meaning of this word in the book Sex and the City.  It does not imply respect, affection, or even a modicum of positive feeling that goes beyond the sexual or utilitarian.  (Can/will this person have casual sex with me in the next five minutes?  Can I somehow become more famous or make money because I know them?)

"four women, all in their late twenties": The show does carry this particular prevailing attitude through from the book quite well.  The characters, who are in their mid to late thirties, unmarried, and clearly feeling pretty insecure about it despite their posturing, leave no stone unturned in the quest to mock or belittle younger women.  The characters - in both the book and the show but more so in the book - are portrayed as believing that it's bizarre and inexplicable why men would prefer bouncier busts and better attitudes than theirs.  News flash: the average man, given a choice between a shallow, vapid, bitchy woman pushing 40 and a shallow, vapid, slightly less bitchy woman in her twenties will choose the almost equally unappealing but hotter version.  Every time.

"indistinguishable from one another": Same deal.  The possible argument that the (female) narrator is just trying to satirize the attitudes of the man in question falls down when you compare the tone of this section to the tone when the narrator is seeing the world from her own perspective alone.

"bland prettiness": Translation: they lack character and intellectual weight compared to women in their late thirties (like the narrator, natch), but they're pretty - which is enough reason to dislike them in and of itself for a woman who views all other women as rivals and enemies.

"a small herd": This one is too easy.  Young women = cattle, with all that implies.  Moving on.

"the burden": God, it's so much effort to actually engage a woman for a couple of hours.  Why can't they just put out without the trouble of conversation, like the women in their thirties do?  Also, note the repeated implication that it doesn't matter, to Skipper, to the women, or to any observer, which of them he has sex with at the end of the night.

In conclusion: the names of many of the characters, and their general milieu, were drawn from the book, along with several extremely unpleasant general attitudes.  But the show's creators added a storyline (the book's even more episodic than a TV series is by nature), the strong female friendships which are most touted by fans, and anything that anyone might find appealing about anyone in the show, ever.  Despite her persistent narcissism and lack of values, the TV show's Carrie does display some affection for her friends and some capacity for romantic love.  This is not drawn from the book.

As the observant reader will have already noted, the excerpt above is in the present tense, as are significant other portions of the book.  I would have given Sex and the City half a star for style and for its general lack of anything approaching content or meaning.  One quarter of a star is all that's left after adjusting for verb tenses.

* All three films in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, case in point.  Anyone who wants to argue this, you'd better have read the books at least two dozen times, and be prepared - not just willing, but prepared - to discuss every detail of every plot line and character, every casting choice, all major and minor themes, and the amount of grease someone strangely chose to put on Viggo Mortensen's hair.  Seriously, you could deep-fry a chicken on his head.

** Do I really need to say anything here?  Is there someone who truly thinks that a woman who gets down on her knees and gives, ahem, oral pleasure to random strangers in her place of work - or anywhere, for that matter - is an empowering female role model?  Anyone?  Bueller?

*** Warner Books, 2001, pages 97-98; this edition.

Further reading: another take on Sex and the City, which is at least as funny as anything ever published by The Onion, only British and even more tasteless.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

How Low Can You Go

For the last couple of days I've been immersed in an extremely long nonfiction work; as a result, I've had little fresh meat to throw to the readerly lions.  So today, I'd like to host a special event: let's talk boring, depressing, soul-crushing, and overflowing with despair - let's talk high school reading lists.

When I think of how the typical high school reading list is made, I picture a dingy conference room filled with bitter (possibly non-tenured?), angry professors whose most prominent defining characteristic is that they hate children and everything about them.  "Let's crush their spirits," one says, perhaps the crazy-eyed one at the end of the table.

"No," says the next, the one with very thin lips, nose hair, and a Ph.D. in education; "Let's not stop there.  Let's beat every ounce of hope, optimism, and faith in the goodness of mankind out of them so thoroughly that alcoholism, three broken marriages, and reality TV will be all they can muster the energy for when they graduate."

At that, there's a chorus of ayes, and The Grapes of Wrath, Ethan Frome, The Sun Also Rises, King Lear, and The Scarlet Letter all make the list immediately.  All five of these have the advantage of being both incredibly dull and almost ludicrously depressing*.

Then we get into the sort of dull and sort of depressing category, which includes such classics as Oliver Twist (really damn dull, depressing until the very end), Of Mice and Men (not long enough to be all that dull, but depressing as hell), The Great Gatsby (characters too irritating to make the book not feel boring, pointlessly depressing Modernist ending), Lord of the Flies (boring if you're not a sadist, really depressing), 1984 (so boring that one suspects Orwell of trying to indicate through style how dull a perfectly organized dystopian society would be; depressing from beginning to end; not as good as either We or Brave New World, works comparable in theme which were both written before 1984), and Wuthering Heights (not all that boring, except when no one's acting insane, which is rare, but generally depressing nonetheless).

I know that I'll get some disagreement on which of these books are actually boring and which are not, and that's fair**.  I can accept that someone, perhaps not someone with either good taste or a sense of decorum, but someone out there, might enjoy reading The Sun Also Rises.  That person will never change my mind about that book.  I will say this for it: I gained some self-knowledge while reading it, that being that I have no interest at all in the inner workings of a relationship between a man with no testes and a nymphomaniac, something about myself of which I had been blissfully unaware.

Granted, there are books typically assigned in high school that break out of this pattern.  But overall, it seems that being as thrilling as moldy cheese and as cheerful as a five-car pileup on the highway are the two major criteria used to pick books for kids to read.  If the goal is to convince young readers, overall, that their time would be more entertainingly and cheerfully spent watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, then the strategy for assigning high school reading is just what it should be.

Based on these criteria, I fully expect The Road to be assigned to English classes nationwide at any moment.

* Actually, Ethan Frome is beautifully written - it is a great book.  But it's kind of slow, and what it lacks in boredom it more than makes up for in how much it makes you want to jump off a bridge after reading it.

** Debate about the boredom-inducing qualities of these books is to be expected.  I'll be dumbfounded if anyone wants to argue that they don't represent a cross-section of life's, and literature's, biggest downers.

The White Road

There's an unfortunate tendency within the fantasy genre for books to decline in quality as a series progresses.  I'm certainly not pegging this to any difference between the talents of writers in general and the talents of fantasy authors; since fantasy is a genre overpopulated with series compared to some others, it's hard to know how much of the typical decline is attributable to aggregate author ability and how much to the inherent weakness of the series format: you can't always find that much to say, long-term, about a given set of characters*.

Lynn Flewelling disappointed me, although she did not overly surprise me, with the poor quality of The White Road, the fifth book in a series she began in 1996 with Luck in the Shadows.  The Nightrunner series follows Seregil and Alec, pseudo-nobles (in a socioeconomic rather than moral sense) who steal, spy, and mix themselves up in whatever political intrigue happens to be going at the time.  Two people, both of whom have shared household accommodations with me at different times, independently read this series, both of them when they were bored and raided my bulging bookshelves out of desperation.  Both of them, independently, began referring to the series as "the gay thieves."

This is more than a coincidence.  While the first couple of books have quite a bit more going on than that, the characters' identities as gay thieves are pretty central to the plot and to the character development, to use an only marginally applicable term.  As the series progresses, the fact that the thieves are in fact gay becomes overwhelmingly important to the plots and themes of the books.  Just as a series of books focusing on how a pair of heterosexual lovers like to have sex with each other and potentially with other heterosexuals would become incredibly dull after a while, so does the Nightrunner series become monotonous, if not at all times strictly monogamous.

My reaction to the first two books could be summed up as: Cool.  I like reading books about thieves** and assassins.  (Full disclosure of personal bias: I always play the rogue character class in any given RPG video game.)  These books are at least of average quality, which qualifies as an Epic Win (to make a bad pun, given the usual sweeping plots in fantasy novels) given the crud available at the bookstore.

My reaction to the third book: Okay.  That was okay.

The fourth book: I effing get it.  They're gay.  And they're thieves sometimes, too, but mostly they're gay.  Gay!  Got it.

And by the time we get to the fifth book, The White Road, the quality of the actual writing had declined sufficiently that even a much stronger plot, and a much decreased focus on the overwhelming tendencies of the main characters to have gay sex, frequently, would not have saved this book from being not quite worth the time or the $7.99 cover price.  I think this writing quality issue may have a lot to do with a pre-built audience; a certain proportion of those who bought the first four books were counted on by the publisher to buy the fifth book no matter what, and the onus of luring new readers pretty much remained on the first book, which is much better.

Even so, there's no excuse for sloppiness.  One might even say that there's less excuse for sloppiness when, as in the case of The White Road, it's possible that the sloppiness was calculated to some degree.

Overall lesson to be learned from this book: Unless you are writing erotica, the sexual orientation of your characters will not carry a story.  Homosexuality can certainly be an interesting addition to a fantasy's complexity, but it can also become just another gimmick to set a book apart from otherwise comparable books without any homosexual relationships.

The White Road gets two stars within its genre***.

* There are exceptions on all sides of this question.  Whatever your opinion of the Harry Potter series in general, it is very arguably true that book 7 was in fact much better than book 1, with a consistent rise in quality all the way through.  The book series begun with Anne of Green Gables offers an opposite perspective: this is a non-fantasy series of 8 books in which quality noticeably declines after book 4, and arguably after book 3.

** Highly recommended example of the thief-fantasy sub-genre, should that be your dish of tea: The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch.

*** For fantasy readers - and while there are books within the fantasy genre which have much to offer readers who don't typically go for fantasy, Flewelling's books are not among them - I do recommend the first two Nightrunner books and also, more strongly, Flewelling's Tamir Triad, which begins with The Bone Doll's Twin.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Monday Classic: David Copperfield

As a weekly feature, I think it might be fun to consider classic works of literature - not as they are usually perceived*, but as I perceive them.  This is often different.

David Copperfield, full disclosure, is my favorite Dickens novel.  I know, I know, Great Expectations is the one that gets on every great books list, and it is superior in most ways.  But I read David Copperfield at a formative age, and I enjoyed it so much that it's been my favorite ever since, even after re-reading it several times.  A Tale of Two Cities comes close, partly because I'm a sucker for people getting their heads removed in just about any way or context, and partly because it has the best opening and closing lines in literature, bar none**.  It's also extensively referenced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which in my opinion gives both the book and the film a certain additional cache***.

In short, we'll proceed with the assumption that I'm prejudiced in favor of David Copperfield.  Even objectively, the book contains some of Dickens's most striking characters: Mr. Micawber, the permanently penniless shabby-genteel friend of the protagonist's, is endlessly quotable, and plotting, 'umble Uriah Heep is one of the best villains ever written.  David Copperfield was also Dickens's favorite among his own books, which he admits in the author's preface to the work, and which makes reading it somewhat more interesting if you're interested in Dickens in general.

The book's great flaw is its eponymous hero, who's a bit of a weak reed, to put it kindly.  To put it less kindly, he's kind of a spineless jerk.  And, since we're dishing out uncensored abuse here, he's also an idiot.  Many of his life decisions evoke a reaction similar to that experienced when, in a horror movie, the next one to be whacked hears the funny noise, puts down their cell phone and gun, and goes to unlock and open the door.

Since Dickens is the undisputed master of the long and convoluted plot****, I will spare myself and and you the attempt to summarize heavily.  In brief, the novel follows David from his childhood on, and he makes a career for himself, marries, and meets a wide variety of classic Dickensian types.  Since David's (many) narcissistic blunders are realistic overall - narcissism and poor judgment being common among the young - the book hangs together despite the hero's unappealing moments.  I'll give David Copperfield four stars overall, because it's truly a great novel, despite the fact that it's a classic.

* Classic works of literature are usually perceived in one of three ways: 1) as some form of Marxist/feminist/queer/colonial repression/oppression narrative, 2) as being really boring (often a justified view; keep your eyes out for a post on Steinbeck one of these days), or 3) as being great in every way because they're, you know, classics.  Any Dickens novel could easily fall under any one of the three.

** I won't insult my readers by assuming ignorance of these opening and closing lines.  I will refresh all of your memories, perhaps.  Opening line: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . ." and so on, with many other flowery "it was" constructions.  Closing line: "'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.'"  If this last line, in context, doesn't bring tears to your eyes, you are a Cylon.

*** It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is nothing, not even classic literature, that is not improved by being related even tangentially to William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban.

**** In English.  The overall international title is held by Dostoyevsky, who earned this distinction for The Possessed.  No one will ever convince me that Dostoyevsky himself had any idea which character was which or what they were doing at any given time.  Honorable mention goes to Robert Jordan for his fantasy series The Wheel of Time; it's necessary to express the number of characters in that series in scientific notation in order to fit it on a standard sheet of letter-size paper.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Road

I didnt want to read it.

So dont.

His apostrophe use is both incorrect and inconsistent. He'd. Dont. Um.

Thats bad. Shouldve or maybe should've edited the book. Or written it better.

Where are we going, he said.

I dont know.

This book seems to have no purpose. I'd read it if it had a purpose.



Or, to summarize: Cormac McCarthy's The Road is what I'd describe as a one-cigarette book. My patience for it, in short, lasted just as long as it took me to smoke one American Spirit (and that's a slow-smoking cigarette; I gave it a fair shake). Why the mindset and thinking process of the clearly pre-apocalyptically educated protagonist of the story needs to be represented with sentences that would shame a kindergartner* is beyond me; I can see how the style is supposed to enhance and inform the subject matter, and the brutally sparse landscape, but I can't see that it works. The New York Times describes the book as being "written with stripped-down urgency"; yes. So is a McDonald's menu, but no one ever accused that of being "an exquisitely bleak incantation" - although, come to think of it, that's not too far off the mark.

I agreed with the NYT review on one point and one point alone: that Cormac McCarthy has "high standards for despair." He does indeed set a high standard for despair. I despaired within 15 pages, which is pretty much a record for me.

It's hard to give this book a star rating, since I couldn't make it through the whole thing; the portion I did read, and the flip-book style overview I took of the rest, earn it one. I hear that there are cannibals later on, which immediately elevates it to two stars and yet does not provide sufficient temptation to read further. If the cannibals had appeared earlier in the story, say on page one, and had eaten the main characters and then themselves, leaving no one alive to be written about - well, that would have been one cigarette well spent.

Final verdict: two stars, one for McCarthy's stamina in typing so many apostrophe-less contractions and one for the cannibals.

* Anyone who wants to debate Cormac McCarthy's style with me, and try to convince me that it's just so avant-garde and post-whatever that I don't get it, bring it on. I can strike a facile, post-feminist, post-postmodern post-structuralist intellectual pose with the best of 'em. And yes, I know what that means. Do you? Hah. Loser.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Emily Ever After

Because this book seems overall to be a good-faith (pun intended) effort on the part of its two authors, Anne Dayton and May Vanderbilt, I'm a bit sorry that it left me so utterly indifferent. The story, of Christian Emily's experiences trying to work in publishing in big bad amoral New York, is the sort of thing that might, and clearly did, make some agent and publisher say, "Well, that's kind of fresh, let's go with it." (Of course, since both authors work for a publishing house, it would be disingenuous to suppose that they faced the same type of barriers to their literary ambitions as the average chick lit novelists.)

Unfortunately, that's where the freshness ends. I'd like to go all reviewerly at this point and maunder about the novel's subtext, but there's nothing subtextual, subtle, or otherwise sub- about this book. Practicing Christians have a stronger attachment to traditional moral values than the average hard-drinking gold-digging New York socialite, according to Dayton and Vanderbilt. Okay. The rest of the book's messages are on about the same level of groundbreaking novelty.

Equally new and exciting are the characterizations, which vary from one-dimensional to dull, depending on the number of lines of dialogue a character gets. The only character who sparked a moment's interest was Emily's boss, who shows up at work on Halloween in a full Darth Vader costume and persists in speaking in movie quotes all day. I'd have liked him for that if he wasn't such a platitude-spewing tool the rest of the time, and also the vehicle for one of the book's several yawn-inducing plot twists.

My greatest disappointment with the novel, though, was Emily's background. She's a conservative Christian from southern California, an exemplar of a real group that's rarely depicted in contemporary fiction; I was born and raised in southern California, I was homeschooled, several of my close family members attend church regularly, and I grew up with kids who, like Emily, were the children of hippies-cum-Christians. In other words, I know of what the authors speak. But it's clear that the authors don't, because the Emily they depict is so utterly lacking in the type of socialization that anyone, and I do mean anyone, would get growing up in SoCal. My conservative, Christian, high-school-aged sister has a subscription to Vogue - this in a household without TV, video games, cursing, or permitted dating - and this, along with many other anecdotes I could offer, makes it seem ludicrously unlikely that Emily would have thought khakis and a pink sweater with black Oxfords would be a hip bar-going outfit, as she does near the beginning of the book.

In other words, the main character is a poorly-drawn cliche who reflects little of the real culture from which she was supposedly drawn. Now, if Emily had shown up at the bar in a Darth Vader costume, this would have been a much cooler book.

I would give this book two stars, except that it's written in the present tense. One star.

The Finishing Touches

When I read this book the other day, I was feeling pretty down - the beginnings of food poisoning, as it turned out - so I'm not discounting the possibility that the distraction this book offered made it seem much better than it otherwise might. That said: I'm giving this book a solid intra-genre four stars, and an overall rating of three.

I'm not going to describe the plot in detail. A young woman goes back to London to help her adoptive father fix the family business, a finishing school for young ladies. Hijinks ensue. That's really enough to be going along with.

Hester Browne's The Finishing Touches offers everything a chick lit distraction typically ought: a protagonist in search of her own identity, two handsome hero options, fashion, a few catty bitches, one best friend, and a happy ending. As per usual, the heroine's identity turns out to be what it always was, more or less, the handsomer of the two heroes is the right one and the other is totally okay with that, the catty bitches get their comeuppance, and the ending is, as I mentioned, happy.

What makes this book a little different is that most of these outcomes are achieved with a minimum of strain to the reader's credulity, despite the fact that the whole plot hinges on the heroine's slight mental disability: she can't always seem to figure out what's going on, even though the reader can*. Since this weakness is common to almost all romance and chick lit works, however, and Browne depends on it less than most, I'm not going to quibble too much. Touches doesn't even approach the level of "Huh?" disconnect found in many novels of this type, in which the heroine is described as intelligent, observant, bright, and so on, and then shown chewing her lip in desperate thought as she tries to figure out if the hero, who has just asked her to marry him, given up a billion-dollar business deal so that her drug-addict brother can stay out of jail, and flown her to Barbados so she can recover from losing her retail job, actually likes her or something.

We won't even get into the "independent" heroines who inevitably become hysterical during thunderstorms, can't change a tire, and are overcome with existential dread when asked to attend a cocktail party with people who have more money than they do. Marriage and children are usually the romance/chick lit heroine's endgame, and feminist scholars everywhere decry this as proof that the independent romance heroine is anything but; I beg to differ, since forming a family unit and passing on your genome seem like pretty basic urges, no matter what your standpoint on the universally invoked patriarchal straw man may be. By all means, look for a man and a house in the burbs, but for God's sake, ladies of literature, water goes in the radiator, not the oil tank.

End rant.

In short, the protagonist of Touches, while sometimes a little dim, isn't more so than the average person, and is therefore mostly realistic. The plot hangs together pretty well. The book has some real moments of funny, contains generally painless dialogue, and overall entertains for a couple of hours. It's definitely worth the four dollars one might pay for it at a used bookstore**.

* This is unusual in contemporary fiction, and Browne gets a big gold star for narrative flow. Contrary to what most reviewers seem to believe, when the readers don't have the slightest frigging clue what's going on in a work of fiction, the inevitable conclusion is not that the author is a visionary, a master of evocative prose, or a genius poised to transform the American literary landscape. It means the author can't write.

** Also unusual in contemporary fiction.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


My cousin and I have a love-hate relationship with one another's taste in books. We both love Sherlock Holmes, which is a big point of intersection, and we both love science fiction. And then things get ugly.

One of our longest-standing debates is over Frank Herbert in general and Dune in particular. The coz is Herbert's most enthusiastic cheerleader, and I can see his point of view: if you can skip over the unintentionally hilarious homoeroticism of a bunch of manly men riding giant worms together, Dune has a lot to love. The technology and the backstory are interesting and detailed, the atmosphere is immersive, and Herbert pulls no punches when it comes to killing off half the cast of characters within the first quarter of the book, including some of the ones it's clear Herbert himself really liked. This is not easy for a fiction writer to do.

I'll try to limit the spoilers from here on out. Brief teaser for anyone who hasn't read the book or seen the movies: Paul Atreides is the scion of a noble house which has just been given the governorship of Arrakis, a desert planet which is the universe's only source of a spice that indirectly makes space travel possible. This seeming honor, coming as it does with the opportunity to make a hell of a profit, is actually a double-edged sword, and it seems that the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV, might have it in for Paul's father, Duke Leto. Meanwhile, back on the ranch, Arrakis is inhabited by the Fremen, a mysterious race which manages to live in the desert despite the general opinion of everyone else that it's impossible. Oh, and there are giant worms that live in the desert and pop out and kill everybody all the time, which is awesome.

That's the scenario. I hope it makes the book sound appealingly interesting, because it is: it's one of the most solid sci-fi tomes out there, and not just in the sense that it's big enough to stop a door with.

The reason I'm not on board with the rah-rah-Herbert program isn't the plot, and it's definitely not the world-building, and it's not even the characters, per se. The problem is that Herbert wasn't satisfied with writing one of the most entertainingly inventive science fiction novels ever. He wanted to write something philosophically meaningful. This is a bad idea 99% of the time, and when the author intends to write something with deep meaning, rather than simply doing it by accident, it's a bad idea 100% of the time.

Bottom line: Herbert was not as smart as he thought he was. In Dune, he makes the same mistake that Orson Scott Card commits in Ender's Game and in most of its sequels*: he assumes that when he uses his utmost mental acuity to construct super-genius characters, he a) is not limited by his own intelligence in how intelligent his characters can be, and b) is smarter than all of his readers. Or one of the above. I can't actually tell if Herbert and Card think they're smarter than everyone, or just think (wrongly) that they can convincingly write characters much smarter than they are, but the end result is a bunch of disappointingly obvious conclusions arrived at by genius characters who were slower to find the answer than many of the readers.

The only author in my experience who managed to write a convincing super-genius character was in fact Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle, first of all, was clearly smarter than most, and then he used some clever literary tricks to pull off a character even smarter than he himself was. That's for another day, though.

I give Dune a solid four stars overall. I give the David Lynch film version four stars as well; the trailer will make it clear why, but: Kyle MacLachlan. Sting. Manly men riding giant worms together to the strains of the best 80s guitar ever wailed. Kyle MacLachlan and Sting fighting each other with knives. Read the book and watch the movie, but for the love of God don't read the Dune sequels unless you really enjoy books that aren't very good, like I clearly do.

*The mistake that Orson Scott Card made with the Ender's Game sequels that aren't kind of unjustifiably condescending is that they really suck. Speaker for the Dead, I'm looking at you.

The Mind From Outer Space

This type of book is frequently distinguished by its cover art - but in this case, the art is somewhat blah: no mostly naked women, disembodied brains, or even saucer people. The author's name, though, really does distinguish this one. Eando Binder is in fact a nom de plume - who would have guessed? Otto and Earl Andrew Binder wrote as a team, and chose Eando as a combination of their names. It's unfortunate that their writing proved to be as scattered and nonsensical as their choice of a pseudonym.

The Mind From Outer Space is truly a marvel, in its own way, but its great weakness might be described as a certain lack of anything that might, under other circumstances, have made a good sci-fi. You know that frustrating it-almost-worked phenomenon? Well, The Mind From Outer Space doesn't cause it. And yet, it has everything: astrally projected sea serpents, the lost continent of Atlantis, a yeti, a possessed motorcycle - and a flying saucer. This last is, when our hero Thule Hillory discovers it, lying crashed in a bush right off the main road, where it has apparently been for 35,000 years. Only, you know, no one noticed it when they were building the road.

Another plot weakness, although it might be fruitless to attempt to enumerate more than a few, is that the main disembodied-mind alien villain travels billions of light years across the galaxy to find something which has been hidden on Earth, and then finds Earth - and then, once here, is unable to find Mount Everest. Despite, I must add, being psychic, and in the same room with three or four people who all know where Mount Everest is. I am also forced to the assumption, based on the villain's lack of geographical knowledge, that his ancient planet did not have reference books, or Wikipedia.

In order to properly convey the wonder of The Mind From Outer Space, allow me to provide a few samples of Eando's writing style. This is near the beginning of the book.

"I've got something to tell all of you," said Hillory, drawing himself up and facing the small group. "The android didn't suddenly turn killer. Something entered him - animated him."

At their surprised murmurs, Hillory went on to tell how the saucer skeleton and motorcycle had both menaced himself and Merry.

From this brief excerpt, it's pretty easy to extrapolate the entire first third of the book. Moving on, the intrepid Hillory meets the disembodied alien who had inhabited the dead saucer person and the motorcycle and the android, in turn - he cleverly traps him, actually, beneath a psi-net. No, it's not explained any more fully than that.

A moment later, the unspoken but perfectly clear thought-words came. "Quite clever, earthling, this trap. I underestimated you. I did not think your kind" - he said it as if speaking of lowly worms - "capable of such psi refinements."

"You can skip the lordly attitude," snapped back Hillory. "Now, just who are you? And I might remind you that if you don't care to answer my questions, I'll just drop the net lower so that it collapses in on itself and leaves no space for you . . ."

"No need for childish threats," came back scornfully, yet a bit fearfully. "Why should I not answer you? I am Jorzz!"

The name had been given pompously, flourishingly.

To recap: Jorzz announced himself scornfully, fearfully, pompously, and flourishingly. (To anyone who can manage to say something in all of those adverbial states simultaneously, I will send a box of chocolates.) Now, not to give too much away, but Jorzz somehow escapes the fiendishly clever psi wire bag trap thingy in which Hillory had imprisoned him, and escapes - to attack once again, this time as a yeti on the top of Mount Everest. In case anyone's wondering, Jorzz finally finds Mount Everest by following Hillory there. Score one for Jorzz!

Hillory and his companions find a strange black cube on the mountain, and then dive for another one in the ocean. In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that they are being assisted in this search by a supercomputer named Brains, who scans the locations of the black cubes from a metal "scroll" found in the saucer. I will not sport with your intelligence or patience by transcribing any of those passages here. Be that as it may, Jorzz, this time in the guise of a half-astrally projected sea serpent, is defeated again - with the second cube almost in his semi-ghostly jaws.

The third and fourth cubes - thankfully, there are no more - are found in a cave in Africa and in space, respectively. Things seem to be proceeding according to plan. However, at the last moment, Jorzz takes over an indestructible android and hypnotizes all of Hillory's scientific colleagues, including the charming girl-technician, Merry - and it appears that this final plot twist has undone our heroes.

Not so. I'm sure the suspense is killing anyone who's stayed awake through this recap of Hillory's terrifying adventures, and so: spoiler alert. The end of the story comes when Jorzz, whose name I think might be one of the best in sci-fi ever, is thwarted in his plans to reconstruct his alien planet and take over the galaxy. Is he, you may ask, thwarted by Hillory's ingenious use of science? By some sort of deus ex machina, or perhaps, under these circumstances, a deus ex saucer? No.

Jorzz meets his end when, in attempting to use a time-shaker pistol (don't ask) of his own design and construction, he shoots himself. He was, it transpires, holding the device . . . backwards. Conveniently, the time-shaker pistol was the only weapon capable of destructing the indestructible robot, and thus the human race is saved from what actually sounded like a pretty mellow and generally bearable fate.

While it's entirely irrelevant to the (quote unquote) plot of The Mind From Outer Space, there's one more excerpt worth including here, if for no other reason than to give any environmentalist blog readers an immediate coronary.

Hillory and his companions go to the Amazon jungle, at one point, on a wild goose chase - they have been (temporarily) misled by the fiendish Jorzz. Hillory is moved to comment on the geographical region, as they approach in their psi-bubble (again, don't ask).

"Brazil has done a good job of clearing some of the jungleland and converting it into cattle ranges," commented Hillory. "But much of it is unreclaimed. It's still the wildest patch of tropical jungle on earth."

And there you have it. Let's hear it for Eando Binder, Jorzz, and
The Mind From Outer Space: one star for quality, five stars for awesomeness.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Swapping Lives

The back cover copy of Swapping Lives begins: "What if a successful, single Londoner and a comfortable, Connecticut mother of two were to walk in each other's shoes for a month?" Unfortunately, the answer is, Who cares? The book follows a single thirty-something women's magazine editor and a married Desperate Housewife type as they, spoiler alert, swap lives. The early-onset I'm-not-entirely-fulfilled midlife crises that prompt this switch are so utterly self-indulgent that even Candace Bushnell would raise a Grey Goose Cosmopolitan in salute. Only when UCSB, my alma mater, finally makes a few breakthroughs in that brand-new nanotech building they spent so many bazillions of dollars on, will it be technologically possible to produce a small enough violin.

Also, if I had a dollar for every time the phrases "keeping up with the Joneses" and "the grass is greener on the other side" appeared in this book, I'd have as many dollars as the author.

However, this book might hit three stars (on my subjective, genre-influenced scale) were it not for the verb tenses, which veer wildly from present* to present perfect to past perfect to simple past, sometimes within the same paragraph. As it is, I'm giving it one and a half, or perhaps I gave it one and a half? Or, alternately, I had, or possibly have, given it one and a half. Are you confused yet? I was. Both Jane Green and her editor seem to inhabit a world in which nothing happens in sequence. For example, the book was clearly published before it was edited.

*I won't lie: I have strong feelings about the present tense, which has NO PLACE in fiction narrative, save for very specific purposes ("You are eaten by a grue"). But if you must use the present tense, then damn it, stick with it.