Monday, December 24, 2012

City of Dark Magic

Author: "Magnus Flyte"*
Genre: Shelved as general fiction in order to sneakily attract a wider audience; Fantasy
Original Pub. Date: 2012

Books are rarely more disappointing than when they could have been really good and failed to hit the mark. In this way, City of Dark Magic is actually more of a letdown than, say, Fifty Shades of Grey, which had no potential whatsoever.

Our protagonist, Sarah Weston, is a Ph.D. student whose specialty is Beethoven. Her mentor goes to Prague to work on the opening of a new museum that includes a collection of privately owned Beethoven artifacts; he then dies mysteriously after recommending Sarah be offered a job as his assistant.

When Sarah arrives to take over the professor's work, the descendant of Beethoven's princely patron is there, along with an assortment of more or less caricaturish academics (the lesbian weapons expert, the lecherous red-headed Englishman, the delicate blonde china expert, and so on). There's also a dwarf and some Russian spies, alchemical drugs that cause time to implode, and secret tunnels beneath Czech castles. One would think this recipe, combined with the very funny one-liners that appear in this book just often enough to tease the reader, would produce a winning literary dish.

Sadly, one would be both wrong and out $16 plus the relevant sales tax. Despite this book's plot potential and occasional witty humor, it's hampered throughout by a plodding, dragging, continual abuse of the third-person limited point of view. Characters don't simply do things, they think, decide, or wonder about them instead. This is such a common problem in fiction that I don't know why someone hasn't set up a whole writers' workshop to deal with it yet. I've gone on a rant about this problem before, so feel free to go back and read that before continuing on with this one. Ready? All right.

Let's say I wrote my reviews the way Nicholas Sparks and "Magnus Flyte" write their books:

E. Worthington decided to write a review of City of Dark Magic. She thought that maybe someone would want to read it. Should the review be short or long? Well, E. decided, it would almost certainly be long, because she had never in her life managed to write anything without several long digressions. Didn't she write something completely extraneous about pickles at some point? She was fairly certain she had. Pickles made her think of the random and slightly jarring sex scenes in the book she was currently reviewing. That probably revealed more about E.'s mental processes than she would probably have liked to reveal about her mental processes. Shouldn't we get to know a character a little more before we're told about how she once had sex in a hotel janitor's closet,  E. wondered, or is that what passes for character development these days? E. decided to give the book two and a half stars, but thought that was perhaps generous under the circumstances. The readers probably thought they were glad all of the reviews weren't written this way. Or maybe they decided that they preferred this style, in which case they should go read City of Dark Magic immediately.

* This is obviously the pseudonym for Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch, the two writers referred to in the back cover of the book as the author's "representatives." If you're going to use a pseudonym, use a pseudonym, and don't put cutesy author photos of yourselves in the back, okay? What's the point? Making me just a little more disgusted with your faces than I otherwise would be, you irritatingly smug hipsters? Then well played, ladies, well played.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Literary Showdown: Twilight Vs. Fifty Shades of Grey (Part III of the Twilight Review Series)

To read my previous relevant reviews before diving in: Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight, and New Moon.

Because I put off reading Twilight as long as possible and had a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey gleefully shoved into my hands by an actual evil sadist (thanks a bunch, Cousin E), I read E.L. James's fanfiction knock-off before I'd read the original material.

I'm now halfway through the Twilight series, and if I were Stephenie Meyer, I'd be cringing with embarrassment every time Fifty Shades was mentioned. See, Twilight is stupid. No doubt about it. But Fifty Shades is much worse: it's a mindless misinterpretation of already stupid ideas that, despite the elementary simplicity of the source material, manages to completely miss what little point Twilight has.*

Fifty Shades of Grey is essentially a Twilight cargo cult. Allow me to explain for those of you too lazy to follow the link to Wikipedia. During WWII, both the Americans and the Japanese used Pacific islands as airbases. The native islanders saw mass quantities of food, clothing, and ammunition brought in after the airstrips were built, and came to a perfectly straightforward and illogical conclusion: that the structures and the soldiers' ritualistic activities magically caused cargo to appear.

When the soldiers left, they took their cargo with them. The locals then built replicas of the airstrips, radios, planes, and so on out of wood, and walked around waving their arms like the guys who used to direct the aircraft. (Spoiler: it didn't work, although one group got some nifty photos of Prince Philip.)

James's apparent writing process is a similar correlation-causation error. What I can only assume she saw in Meyer's books was a girl whose boyfriend is much stronger than she is, who could easily hurt her if he's not careful, and who by the very nature of the relationship is in a position of power, both physical and emotional. She saw a man who exerts control over a woman as an expression of love. She then figured that if she built a story that superficially resembled Meyer's, it would be a decent story too.

While this is to some extent the balsa-and-reeds outline of Meyer's books, it also misses everything that makes these elements work. Edward is stronger because he's an immortal vampire. Christian Grey is stronger because . . . he's a dude? I don't know. Christian could easily hurt Ana if he misuses his bondage toys, something he could immediately and easily choose not to do simply by putting the whips and chains away in the closet with his dusty collection (I can only assume, given his personality) of My Little Pony toys; Edward could hurt Bella just by bumping into her, completely by accident. Edward, in short, can't help being a vampire. Christian could easily help being a jerk.

The most obnoxiously out of place Edward-trait in Fifty Shades is Christian's stalkeresque controlling behavior, though. While it's certainly cheesy, and eye-rollingly juvenile, Edward's over-the-top protectiveness makes sense in context, as he's dealing with a naive teenage girl who's being hunted by vampires and werewolves and whatnot who actually want to kill her. What does Christian protect Ana from in Fifty Shades? Umm . . . mostly the potentially life-threatening experience of having a beer with her friends, as I recall. That and his own insistence on rough sex. Ooh. How romantic.

Ana is also a skewed knock-off of Bella. While Bella (one-dimensional as she may be) is represented as an oddball who longs to be a weird bloodsucking immortal monster and wants nothing to do with normal people her own age, Ana seems to want all the regular college stuff Christian drags her away from. She wants to go to a bar, have a drink, hang out with her roommate. Christian stops her every time, very much in Edward's manner but without any of his justification.

Much as I hate to say it, I really don't hate the dynamic between Edward and Bella. Edward's much older, he's irritating, and he's sometimes high-handed. But -- and this was a big but for me** -- he's also a virgin, and he's never been in love before. That gives them one point of parity, one experience they can have for the first time together. I've seen Meyer mocked for her characters' abstinence before marriage, and you know what? I'm on her side on this one.*** That was the only way she could establish some equality in the relationship, and for me, it's the only thing that makes their romance seem . . . what's the technical term? Ah, yes. Not icky. If it also happens to reflect her religious views****, then who cares?

From Mormonism, poorly imagined supernatural beings, and many, oh so many words, Stephenie Meyer managed to create a mostly inoffensive tale of dull, melodramatic romance. From lost-in-translation-across-the-pond Mormonism, poorly imagined rip-off normal beings, and many, oh so many misused words strung together with the wrong punctuation marks, E.L. James managed to create just about the worst thing I've ever read.

This Literary Showdown is officially called in favor of Stephenie Meyer, whose books both suck and are the cause of suckage in others, but do not at least cause my brain to implode.

* Curious about what the point of Twilight is? Look for the next in the Showdown series: Twilight Vs. Harry Potter. Because I'm a grown-up, and my reading habits reflect that.

** Yep, I like them. I cannot lie.

*** Not to mention the fact that the literary critics who are quickest to scoff at a romance between virgins are also quickest to shriek when someone of a more morally conservative persuasion criticizes erotica, lambasting said prudes for their lack of open-minded tolerance for people who hold opposing views. Maybe those critics should chip in with Laurell K. Hamilton and Alanis Morissette and buy a dictionary so they can all look up the meaning of "irony" together.

**** More on that in an upcoming sequel review.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

New Moon (Part II of the Twilight Review Series)

Author: Stephenie Meyer
Genre: Fantasy, or "Teen Paranormal Romance"
Original Pub. Date: 2006

To catch up with Twilight before reading this review, see Part I of the series.

I wouldn't say that New Moon, the second book of the Twilight series, was actually the most boring read of my life. It wasn't quite a page-turner on the level of Carl D. Meyer's 2000 thriller Matrix Analysis and Applied Linear Algebra, but it did contain slightly more action than Karl Marx's Das Kapital*; New Moon has at least two chapters worth of plot to fill out its 563 pages.

During pages 1 through 358 inclusive, 1) Edward goes away so that Bella can have a normal human life without him, 2) Victoria (an evil vampire) is hunting Bella, and 3) Bella's stereotype-Native American friend Jacob turns into a werewolf. Since point 2 was already established in the first book, that one doesn't count. That leaves us with "Edward goes away" and "Jacob is a werewolf." The first had to happen, or else New Moon would have been precisely the same as Twilight. The third was painfully obvious in the first book when Jacob told Bella all about the legends of his ancestors turning into wolves to fight vampires. I guess I have to count it, though, because if I don't, this book really has no purpose at all. Wait, hang on a second . . .

Then, on page 359, Bella jumps off a cliff into the ocean because she has hallucinations of Edward's voice telling her to be careful when she does something dangerous.** This makes complete and total sense from both psychological and narrative perspectives, as I'm sure we can all agree.

After many dull pages of Jacob rescuing Bella from the water, Edward's sister Alice shows up on page 378. Apparently, Edward found out Bella had jumped off a cliff but didn't know she survived (you don't need to know how this happened; trust me, you're happier this way), and decided to go to Italy (?) where there's a nest of ancient vampires who run a city, though no one notices this (!?), who bring in groups of tourists to feed upon, which no one notices (!??!), and step out into the sunlight, thus revealing himself as a vampire (wait, couldn't he just be some asshole in glitter makeup?), and thus induce the ancient vampires to come and kill him. In public, where you'd think that a gang of glittery dudes in monk robes mobbing some shiny American teenager and ripping him limb from limb might add somewhat to the conspicuousness of the situation's oddity. Or not. OK, guess they know best and all.

On page 452, Bella stops Edward from running out into the sunlight. Not coincidentally, the back-of-book spoiler quote also appears on page 452***, aka the first page on which something finally fucking happens.

Then there's some nonsense with the Italian vampires, who tell Edward and Alice that they have to turn Bella into a vampire, because she knows too much.

But wait, you say, doesn't that mean that she gets turned into a vampire and therefore, something really exciting happens? Hell no. They just talk about it, because this is a Twilight book. Get with the program.

On page 476, we finally learn something more about Bella beyond her tendency to probe the depths of her own navel. Turns out, like Edward with his mind-reading and Alice with her ability to see the future, Bella has a special special gift of her own: no one else's abilities work on her. Yep, she's such a black hole of talent that she's not just useless herself, she is the cause of uselessness in others: she makes other people less cool just by being in their presence.**** I can't say that came as a huge surprise.

The remaining 87 pages contain nothing but Edward and Bella being reunited, sitting and talking about being reunited, discussing the implications of their reunion (primarily, that they are reunited), and occasionally walking somewhere while reunited and talking about how united, re- or otherwise, they are. It's not boring at all.

To sum up the plot: charitably, let's allow Edward's departure 20 pages, Jacob's big reveal 20 pages, Bella's cliff experience 10, the rescue of Edward from his own poor planning another 10, and the Italian vampires yet another 20. These are pages on which things actually happen that living, sane people who are awake and not in a coma or mentally deficient might conceivably want to read about. So what about the other 483?

Simply put:
www.funnyjunk.com
After Edward's departure, Bella shuts down, shunning her friends and going through the motions of her life. It's, like, so sad. She feels, like, like she has a big gaping hole in her chest, a hole that, through constant repetition, becomes both suggestive in kind of a perverted way and gross in an I'm-now-regretting-picturing-that sort of way.

The hole is introduced on page 118:

It was a crippling thing, this sensation that a huge hole had been punched through my chest, excising my most vital organs and leaving ragged, unhealed gashes around the edges that continued to throb and bleed despite the passage of time. Rationally, I knew my lungs must still be intact, yet I gasped for air and my head spun like my efforts yielded me nothing. My heart must have been beating, too, but I couldn't hear the sound of my pulse in my ears; my hands felt blue with cold. I curled inward, hugging my ribs to hold myself together. I scrambled for my numbness, my denial, but it [sic] evaded me.

So, she knew rationally (??) that her lungs must still be intact. OK. Her heart was also beating, that's good, but I'm a little concerned that Bella (or Meyer) thinks that one could hear one's pulse with an organ other than the ears. Or maybe Bella typically hears with some other organ, like a kidney, and that was one of the excised vitals? Can hands feel blue? Oh, God, I'm so confused. Either that, or this is the worst description of a terrible mushroom trip I've ever read.

Ready for the rest of the ragged hole montage?

But what if this hole never got any better? If the raw edges never healed? (124)

The hole came back, the way it always did when I was away from Jacob, but it didn't throb so badly around the edges. (193)

The pain twisted in familiar patterns through my body, the jagged hole ripping me open from the inside out, but it was second place, background music to the chaos of my thoughts. (267)

I'd thought Jake had been healing the hole in me -- or at least plugging it up, keeping it from hurting me so much. I'd been wrong. He'd just been carving out his own hole, so that I was now riddled through like Swiss cheese. (273)

And that is where the metaphor officially took a turn for the wrong, wrong, wrong, and just kept getting wronger:

The hole -- holes now -- were already aching, so why not? (276)

I twitched as the pain lashed around the edges of the hole. (347)

I could feel the ghost of the hole, waiting to rip itself wide again as soon as he disappeared. (507)

That's by no means a complete listing of Bella's holes, simply the ones on pages I marked as particularly noteworthy while reading.

Along with the holes, the unused 483 pages of the book contained a few more gems. If you read my previous review, you may recall that Bella had some problems with with undefined things that were stronger than butterflies in her stomach. In New Moon, the butterflies get serious:

Butterflies assaulted my stomach as I thought about turning my head. (376)

And eyes are unwilling:

I glanced at him, ripping my unwilling eyes off the Mercedes. (379)

And, last but not least, this quote from page 558, which perfectly sums up the whole New Moon experience:

"Never," I whispered, still locked in Edward's eyes.
Jacob made a gagging sound.

One and a quarter stars.

Coming soon in the blockbuster Indiscriminate Reader Twilight Review Series: a comparative analysis of Twilight vs. Fifty Shades of Grey and reviews of Eclipse and Breaking Dawn. In other news, I'm drinking more than usual.

* New Moon doesn't contain the phrase "means of production," either, which gives it a small edge. Then again, no one moans about their stupid boyfriend in Das Kapital. Maybe I'll call it a wash.

** This is a minor quibble, compared to other quibble-worthy material in the book, but I kept thinking throughout New Moon that it would turn out that Edward really was talking in her head, since he's actually psychic and you know, that might be kind of marginally cool? But no. It really was all a hallucination, because they're so in love that she knows what his voice sounds like or something? Dude. By that logic, my dentist, Morgan Freeman, and the guy who does the Jack in the Box commercials are all my true loves.

*** Alert readers may recall that Twilight's spoiler quote was on page 195. This book is therefore 257 pages more pointless than the first, which seems about right to me.

**** Twilight itself functions in the same way. Don't believe me?

See? Not even James Dean could pull this off.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Moby-Dick: A Two-Haiku Review

Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

Call me Ishmael --
at least I'm not called Queequeg.
It could be much worse.

Black is white; white, black;
whole chapters of this nonsense,
all for some dumb whale.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Need Help with Your Writing?

I stopped in at Half Price Books yesterday to buy Eclipse and Breaking Dawn, the third and fourth (and final) books in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. While checking the clearance rack to see if I could get them for less than the $14 or so I eventually paid* for them, I picked up Swallowing Darkness**, thinking it was the first book in Laurell K. Hamilton's Merry Gentry series.

Turns out it's the seventh, so that's a fail on my part (and on the part of the out-of-order publication list in the front of another book in the series, to be fair), but I'm going to read it anyway, of course. More fail!

To find out where I'd gone wrong***, I visited Hamilton's website and browsed around. I discovered the FAQ page. Apparently, Hamilton gets a lot of requests for her help with people's writing**** -- or at least, she would really like everyone to think that she does -- and so she has posted an answer to this question:

www.laurellkhamilton.org

Let's look a little closer, shall we?

The rights to all content, typos, irony, and unjustified condescension are reserved to www.laurellkhamilton.org.

So . . . this is my first time looking at this FAQ, I have in fact politely looked at the FAQ instead of contacting Hamilton or any of her many representatives directly, and I am, for my trouble, made to feel that I have somehow imposed upon her time by looking at her FAQ page before bothering to go comb through all of her old blog posts. And isn't the point of an FAQ page sort of to, I don't know, answer frequently asked questions in one place so that readers don't need to go searching through blogs, pervious***** or otherwise?

Allow me to assist Hamilton by adding another FAQ for her:

Q: Should I ask for writing advice from Laurell K. Hamilton?

A: No.

* Silence, peanut gallery. I keeel you.

** Heh heh. Heh heh heh heh. That sounds dirty, Beavis. Also, I'm pretty sure that's actually what that title refers to. Review coming soon! (Heh heh heh heh.)

*** Yes, buying the Twilight sequels, thank you, I get it.

**** Kind of like asking Hitler for a gefilte fish recipe, but whatever.

***** As you might have guessed, her other blogs are impervious: to logic, to reason, to spelling, perhaps to water. Maybe most of them are about condoms, umbrellas, and duct tape. Search them and see!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Twilight (Part I of the Twilight Review Series)

Author: Stephenie Meyer
Genre: Fantasy, or "Teen Paranormal Romance"
Original Pub. Date: 2005

When I was eleven, I decided cookbooks were for squares and mixed up two batches of bread entirely by guesswork. The first I dyed green, dubbed Christmas Bread, and forced upon my mom and stepdad while they were just waking up from a nap and too sleepy to resist. They still haven't forgiven me for this. The second, Oatmeal Delight, was the remains of the Christmas Bread batter with added oatmeal and sugar. We flung it out the back door into the snow. Come the spring thaw, it was still there; not even the starving forest animals would touch that nasty green lump of slime.

For anyone not following (Not you, Mom, you're the smartest!! My Christmas wish list is in the mail.) this very clear analogy to the Twilight series, allow me to elaborate. Twilight contains all the ingredients that ought to go into an exciting, romantic fantasy thriller. Lives are put at risk*, hearts are broken**, and extravagant promises are made***. Sadly, these ingredients appear to have been assembled by a drooling buck-toothed space monkey, the characters have all the depth and appeal of a spreading pool of vomit**** steaming fragrantly in the noonday sun, and the plot is so utterly without twists that the spoiler quote on the back of the book appears on page 195.

I doubt I have any readers who are blissfully unfamiliar with the basic story. And I do mean basic. A boring seventeen-year-old girl moves to a crappy little mold-stain of a town in Washington and falls in luuuuurve with a weird kid who turns out to be a 104-year-old vampire. He falls in luuuuuurve with her because her blood smells good (and let's just not go there, shall we?), and then he saves her life eight or nine times as she stumbles around getting almost eaten by another vampire and run over by classmates. Yup, that's about it.

Writing this review, I'm reminded of a segment (starts at about 6:50 in the first video) in Red Letter Media's review of The Phantom Menace in which people were asked to name salient qualities of the characters from Star Wars Episode IV versus Episode I, without referencing appearance. For Han Solo, they came up with descriptors like "roguish," "arrogant but charming," "a thief with a heart of gold,"  and so on. For Queen Amidala, "monotone" and "Natalie Portman" were the best they could do.

Twilight has left me in a similar position. Other than the fact that every character in the book is a retard, I can't think of a single characteristic for any of them that goes beyond the superficial. The heroine, Bella, is clumsy and calls her parents by their first names. She likes to cook. That's all, I guess, except for her delicious personal odor. We're told over and over again (mostly through the other characters' slavish praise -- I guess having yummy bodily fluids makes you "interesting" and a "diabolical" plotter in times of crisis?) how awesome and well-read and mature she is, and yet she never does or says anything above the intellectual level of window-licking. Typical Harlequin romance heroine syndrome, in short. We're told she's smart, and then she runs into traffic because the Greek billionaire knocked her up and her hair extensions fell out. That's Bella.

Her paramour Edward is strong and fast and has cold skin. He likes Bella because she apparently reeks of air freshener and iron supplements. He plays music well, and frankly, I'm less impressed that he plays the piano and more surprised he's only gotten good at one fricking thing in a hundred years. He also goes to high school over and over again in different places in order to blend into society, an idea that, in the hands of a competent writer, could be extremely amusing. Given that Edward begins dating an actual high school girl, though, it just comes off as a pedophile's supernatural fantasy rather than a teenage girl's, which is how Twilight is marketed. Edward and his equally young-looking vampire siblings' attitude toward life can be summed up in the immortal words of Matthew McConaughey:


To recap, then, we have one dumb teenager who trips over her own feet a lot, and one pedophiliac blood-sucker, who both fall in love at first sight based on B.O. and plot necessity.

Then we get to the really batshit insane stupidity that fills the other 5% of this book's 498 (!!!) pages. The only weakness of the vampires in this series, besides their tendency to lust after children and drink human blood? They glitter in the sunlight. Glitter. Like little shimmewing pwincesses covered in sequin fairy dust made from the sparkly tears of the unicorns that die horribly in a fire every time Stephenie Meyer rings a bell or touches her keyboard. Just to be clear, sparkly princesses are typically girls.

Yep, that guy's clearly straight.


































I mean, who needs all those hideously unsparkly and unsexy vampires created and adapted by other writers and filmmakers:

Gag me with a spoon, right?
Closeted-gay Tom Cruise in a gay-club white ruffled shirt playing an actually gay vampire is still less gay than Edward Cullen. I probably could have just reviewed this book with that one sentence.

And yet, gentle readers, how could I deprive you of a few samples of the writing that's swept the hearts, minds, other [ahem] parts, and wallets of teenage girls and potentially sex-offending adults everywhere? While Meyer's writing style isn't quite as bad as her characterization, plotting, and continued existence, it's still no walk in the forest with a glittery shaved-chest dude who wants to borrow your nail polish and then suck your blood.*****

There's her powers of description:

My head spun around in answerless circles. (139)

As I crossed the threshold of the cafeteria, I felt the first true tingle of fear slither down my spine and settle in my stomach. (145)

I dressed quickly, something stronger than butterflies battering recklessly against the walls of my stomach, my argument with Mike already a distant memory. (221)

It's something, and it's stronger than butterflies . . . that really narrows it down. I've got it! Stegosauruses! No, how about tow trucks? My gag reflex? Obviously not Bella's digestion.

The house was timeless, graceful, and probably a hundred years old. (321)

The cabbie's question punctured my fantasy, letting all the colors run out of my lovely delusions. Fear, bleak and hard, was waiting to fill the empty space they left behind. (441)

There's also the emotion seeping from every page, an oozing, suppurating, repetitive emotion no penicillin could cure:

His anguish was plain; I yearned to comfort him, but I was at a loss to know how. My hand reached toward him involuntarily; quickly, though, I dropped it to the table, fearing that my touch would only make things worse. I realized slowly that his words should frighten me. I waited for that fear to come, but all I could seem to feel was an ache for his pain. (246)

He closed his eyes, lost in his agonized confession. I listened, more eager than rational. Common sense****** told me I should be terrified. Instead, I was relieved to finally understand. And I was filled with compassion for his suffering, even now, as he confessed his craving to take my life. (272)

Anything not worth writing is worth writing twice, I guess?

He was too perfect, I realized with a piercing stab of despair. There was no way this godlike creature could me meant for me. (256)

Lucky you: he's a pedophile!

He lifted his glorious, agonized eyes to mine. "You are the most important thing to me now. The most important thing to me ever." (273)

And then there are the just plain old WTFs:

"You know Bella, Jacob?" Lauren asked -- in what I imagined was an insolent tone -- from across the fire. (121)

Imagined?

There was a basketball game on that he was excited about, though of course I had no idea what was special about it, so he wasn't even aware of anything unusual in my face or tone. (129)

Leaving aside the fact that I'm not sure what that sentence means, Bella's constant inexplicable knowledge of what other people are and are not aware of becomes pretty grating by the end of this book. So does continuing to live.

It was quiet except for the whirring of the machines, the beeping, the dripping, the ticking of the big clock on the wall. (477)

Similarly, Twilight was an awesome read except for the main characters, the secondary characters, the plot, the descriptions, the dialogue, and occasionally the punctuation. One and a half stars.

Stay tuned for further installments in the Twilight review series -- I'm reading the sequels now. FML.

* The readers'.

** The readers'.

*** "Oh God, I promise I'll quit smoking and drinking and repent for all my misdeeds and volunteer at a soup kitchen every weekend if you'll just please oh God make the book end now and let Stephenie Meyer break all her fingers and be unable to type ever ever again . . ."

**** I provided this after I finished the third chapter.

***** And while this doesn't sound all that great to me, apparently it's the hottest chick fantasy since the eighties' glorious explosion of fictional pirate-rape, so let's just roll with it.

****** Take note please; this is the only time this concept appears within Twilight.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Villains by Necessity

Author: Eve Forward
Genre: Fantasy
Original Pub. Date: 1995

A good contrasting companion piece for the partial-birth aborted monstrosity Mistborn, Villains by Necessity offers a slightly different twist on the forces of good vs. forces of darkness trope. In Mistborn, the forces of good have failed, and our bumbling moron heroes have to start all over again with the ultimate fight against the ultimate evil: a crappy plot device. Villains by Necessity, on the other hand, takes place in a generic fantasy world shortly after Good has triumphed over Evil, Light has conquered Darkness, and insert any other capitalized cliché you can think of.

Most of the evil people and creatures have been either exterminated or "whitewashed," leaving the world a gooey, cheerful place that almost anyone would find sickening. (Just imagine if Nicholas Sparks ruled the world with a fluffy pink fist, and you'll get the picture.) There are a few baddies still running around: our eponymous protagonists, who band together to find the crystal pieces that will open the Dark Something-or-Other and restore balance to the . . . you know what, it doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter at all.

Villains by Necessity is utterly ridiculous in every way. Our anti-Dungeons & Dragons party villains, the assassin, thief, dark sorceress, black knight, centaur, and druid, bumble around a map similar to those I used to draw when I was nine and thought I could improve on the maps in The Lord of the Rings. Doggerel verse leads them from one silly adventure to another, pursued all along by a band of hypocritical "heroes" with dumb names. The plot twists are, to say the least, a bit predictable.

And none of that matters either. I love the hell out of this book.

Cheesier than a stoner's pizza this book may be, but it has something both delightful and difficult to define; for lack of a better word, I'll call it charm. Sam, the assassin, is a character archetype I particularly enjoy: the stone-cold killer with a heart of, if not gold, then at least something warmer than stone.* Forward manages to make him both convincingly ruthless and also kind of sweet, like the dorky guy who couldn't get up the courage to ask you to prom, only a homicidal lunatic. His dwarven thief sidekick provides comic relief in much the same way that Gimli doesn't in The Lord of the Rings.** The sorceress is a pointy-toothed cannibal, the druid isn't really evil, and the black knight has a secret, while the centaur is just along for the ride. They are all such stereotypes.

And yet. Each of these characters grew on me in a way I might find shameful if I hadn't long ago given up decent human emotion, along with tequila shots, black nail polish, and a few other vices.*** There are some truly hilarious moments in this book, too.**** The denouement, while utterly expected, is also satisfying; the characters all find just the destinies they ought, based on their character classes characters.

Villains by Necessity might not be everyone's steaming potion of bat's wing, but I give it a +12 modifier. Er, four stars.

* Such as pizza. A killer with a heart of pizza would be just the ticket.

** In the books, I mean. Let's all pretend the dwarf jokes in that sickening travesty of a movie trilogy never happened, all right, along with everything else in them?

*** Although one might reasonably argue that I abandoned shame before drinking the tequila shots and wearing the black nail polish.

**** For any of the six other people who have read this book: Gnifty Gnomes, guys. I need say no more.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Duchess By Night

Author: Eloisa James*
Genre: Historical Romance
Original Pub. Date: 2008

Unusually for me, I have very little to say about this book, unless it's to make the general comment that it is, like most of Eloisa James's other books, decently written, entertaining, and a good example of a fun genre.

Oh, what the hell, I guess I do have something to say. I originally picked up one of James's books to see what Avon's been doing with the historical romance subgenre, since it's one that has a lot of potential -- Georgette Heyer, anyone?** -- but one that's lately turned into an orgy (pun intended) of anachronistic peeresses-having-barn-sex and oiled-up guys in kilts. Don't believe me?

Should you, God forbid, wish to read this book, visit www.victoriarobertsauthor.com.
And yes, now that you mention it, I did make that photo as offensively large as possible. Please take a moment to savor the equally offensively large offensive pun, and do also note the tantalizing tag line scrawled across one of Fondle-Me-Sword McBreezy's golden-brown shoulders.***

The cover of Duchess By Night is better than this one, almost by default, and I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that the book is better too, though I haven't had the pleasure of reading X Marks the Scot.

Like most of Avon's historical romance publications -- or those I've read, anyway -- Duchess By Night has a more restrained attitude, in addition to a more restrained cover, than entries in many other publishers' similar lines of sex-in-postchaise stories.**** Harlequin's books, for example, almost always require the hero and heroine to jump into bed with each other with unseemly haste. To give Harlequin's writers a little bit of credit, the heroes frequently don't finish the job that way. Even so, it's hard to build up much sexual tension, or plot of any kind, when the driving force of the first few chapters is all aimed at getting two people unclothed. Two people, let us recall, who are almost always rich and titled, and therefore surrounded by servants and others -- not to mention the morals of the period, but let's not even bother with those. Harlequin so rarely does. In short, Jane Austen these books ain't.

Eloisa James's books take a little longer to reach a climax, let's say, although they do contain plenty of . . . postchaises. I'm not sure if this reflects James's preferences or Avon's editorial preferences -- given what I know about the industry, I'm guessing the latter, with James choosing Avon as a publisher partially based on that good fit -- but the fact that the first sex scene is often in a double-digit chapter makes Avon's historicals in general, and this one in particular, more interesting as novels rather than just sexy corset time interspersed with a few lame attempts at plotting.*****

Duchess By Night is part of a series, and as such contains multiple secondary characters who all have their own sexy and corset-y books. And further as such, it would be sporting with your patience to really describe much of what goes on here. Suffice to say, a duchess dresses as a man and goes to a scandalous house party in the country. There are a few farcical misunderstandings; as in most of James's books, the plot and tone are strongly influenced by Shakespearean comedy. There are truly funny moments, the characters aren't too annoying, and if you're looking for a light fluffy read, you could do much, much worse.

Since you might have gathered that from my point of view one review (more or less) covers most of James's books, let me clear up the great mystery that's no doubt been tormenting my gentle reader(s) (Hi, Mom!!): I chose this one because of the dedication page. In the context of my recent read, Laura Lee Guhrke's Mara, Daughter of the American Revolution The Charade, it seemed worthwhile to post an example of truly flawless author etiquette as a counterpoint.

Georgette Heyer, inventor of the Regency romance, also dabbled in the 18th century (in which Duchess By Night is set). Heyer's The Masqueraders (1928) features a woman wearing men's clothing who becomes friends with a man who then discovers her secret. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the only point of similarity between the two books. The plots are otherwise entirely different, the characters are completely dissimilar in every way, and honestly, most people wouldn't even notice the small loan James took from Heyer for this one.

The dedication reads: "This book is dedicated to Georgette Heyer. Though a few writers before her did dress women in male clothing (Shakespeare comes to mind), Ms. Heyer's brilliantly funny cross-dressed heroines set the standard for all modern romance novelists."

How gracious is that? Duchess By Night gets 2.75 stars; it wasn't a great read, but it was perfectly acceptable, if forgettable. Eloisa James, on the other hand, gets about a million stars for style and courtesy.

* Not, not, NOT to be confused with E.L. James. Now that's a similarity that would have most decent writers tearing out their hair in frustration.

** Hah! Reviewers can use foreshadowing too!

*** Pam cooking spray, then 425 degrees for half an hour.

**** While I'm not discounting historical romances set in other places and times, let's face it: when we think of the genre, we think 1770-1830 in the British Isles.

***** Since I've already ranted about novels vs. romance novels, please feel free to catch up before reading on.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Genre: Science Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 2012

Some reviewers have the common courtesy to review previous books in a series before diving right into reviewing a sequel; as you can see here, here, and here, just for example, I'm not one of those, so read on at your own peril.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is, depending on how you count it*, the fourteenth entry in the Vorkosigan Saga, a long-running space opera extraordinaire following the adventures of a highly dysfunctional, highly intelligent, and highly entertaining family of aristocratic military crazies who range across the known galaxy, leaving broken hearts and mayhem in their wakes. Most of the books focus on Lord Miles Vorkosigan, born short and deformed due to his mother's gestational exposure to a military biotoxin. His tactical genius and talent for intrigue let him get away with having a lot more fun than he probably ought to be able to.

From reading reviews of other books in this series, I've noticed that some readers are annoyed with Bujold's habit of writing the books entirely out of their in-universe chronological order**, despite the fact that she provides a handy-dandy chronological list in the back of each book for those among us too stupid to figure it out for themselves. I happen to like this. Some of the books cover pivotal turning points in the main characters' lives; others are a little less important to the overall plot arc, and I love it when Bujold goes back and fills in some gap in the history she's told so far.

This is somewhere in between. It's almost a standalone title, since it follows Lord Ivan Vorpatril, Miles's cousin and an important secondary character in most of the other books, but it also includes far too many in-jokes related to the previous books to be a good intro to the series as a whole.

As the in-jokes (and Bujold's dry, witty sense of humor in general) are one of this series's greatest charms, I would highly recommend starting at the beginning and reading the series all the way through. And not just for that reason; the earlier books are much better than this one for a whole host of reasons, the series-itis that afflicts Captain Vorpatril's Alliance being first among them.

I've written about series-itis before, when I reviewed Charlaine Harris's Deadlocked. This is a phenomenon that primarily manifests as flatness in previously well-rounded characters, perhaps better expressed as characters becoming caricatures of themselves. While Alliance isn't as bad in this regard as Deadlocked or the latest Stephanie Plum book, it definitely veers in that direction. (For those readers who are already familiar with this series, Emperor Gregor is the worst victim here.)

It's too bad that this book suffers from such a major flaw, because it's otherwise a good entry in the series. The last, Cryoburn, took a bizarre left-turn into a completely different narrative style from the rest of the series. Some people (you know who you are) really enjoyed that book; it left me exhausted, both from the effort of pretending I wasn't disappointed and from the clearly cathartic emotions the author poured onto the pages. Worse, it really suffered from series-itis, because there was no damn way in the world anyone would give a damn about it if they hadn't already read the rest of the books. The main character's struggles -- and particularly the struggle he encounters at the end, though I'm trying not to give a spoiler here -- have no emotional resonance taken out of context of his previous experiences.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance reverts back, in tone, to A Civil Campaign (which is, both chronologically and in the order the books were written, a couple of books before Alliance). The title character's marriage (as the title would indicate) is central to the story, and this marriage brings with it a pack of genetically modified and pseudo-criminal in-laws, a couple of awkward formal parties, and the utter destruction of a historical landmark. In other words, Bujold at her farcical comedy-cum-occasional tragedy best. As a result, this entry in the series was stronger. I appreciate what Bujold was doing with Cryoburn, but it just didn't showcase Bujold's strengths.

As an unapologetic nerdy fan of all things space opera***, I've always loved the Vorkosigan Saga. There are quite a few books to which I'd give, again, an unapologetic five stars, and most would get four. Captain Vorpatril's Alliance scrapes a three and three quarters -- not that such a rating isn't respectable, mind you. It's just not up to Bujold's standard for this series.

With deep regret, feeling as I do that this recommendation marks the end of an era: Lois McMaster Bujold, this should be the last of the Vorkosigan books. Leave this series behind while you're still arguably on top.

* A couple of the books I've included could reasonably be counted as a different series, sort of, and I've also left out a couple of books that are tangentially part of the same series. Feel free to debate passionately amongst yourselves.

** For any of those readers who happen to stumble on this review: get over yourself, princess.

*** My ultimate dream is to see Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen performed by someone in a mugato costume, but I'm not holding my breath.
Just imagine the poison-fanged soprano goodness.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Literary Showdown: The Charade Vs. Mara, Daughter of the Nile

The Charade
Author: Laura Lee Guhrke*
Genre: Historical Romance
Original Pub. Date: 2000

Mara, Daughter of the Nile
Author: Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Genre: Historical Fiction/YA
Original Pub. Date: 1953

I always know how a romance novel is going to end. So does every other reader of the genre; it's one of its unique charms. Saying I know how The Charade is going to end, leading me to review it before I've even finished it, therefore, isn't going to make anyone sit up and take notice.

Let me reiterate, then: I know exactly how this book is going to end, and not because it's a romance novel. I know how it's going to end because I've read Mara, Daughter of the Nile, Eloise Jarvis McGraw's much better book upon which The Charade is blatantly and, I presume, shamelessly based.**

In Mara, Daughter of the Nile, a young slave girl attracts the attention of not one, but two Egyptian noblemen, both of whom want her to work as a spy at the court of Queen Hatshepsut -- one for a rebellion against the Queen, and the other for the Queen, ferreting out the leaders of the rebellion. The rebellious young lord is handsome, mysterious, and has right on his side; Mara's freedom and future are assured if she betrays him, but of course, and she's put in quite a pickle*** by the clash between her self-interest and her conscience.

I'm not going to give any more spoilers for this book, because it is absolutely in my top ten favorite books of all time, ancient Egypt obsessive that I am, and I don't want to ruin it for anyone. If you haven't already read this book, go get it right now. Five stars.

Now, on to The Charade. It opens with a young fellow standing off to the side of a marketplace in 1775 Boston, watching a ragged young girl steal some food and befuddle some other guy from whom she also steals. Mara opens with the title character stealing some food in a marketplace and befuddling a young man while the hero watches, and that, combined with the double-agent book cover blurb, was enough to send me Googling. I found this review, in which someone else (who'd read the whole book) picked up on the fact that The Charade is a borderline rip-off of Mara.

Unlike that reviewer, who thinks this is okay -- she compares this act of rewriting to writing a romance inspired by a fairy tale**** -- I'm only finishing this book because I paid for it. That reviewer says The Charade "succeeds as a work on its own," and while I agree that it's not the worst book I've read by a long shot, it's also a) very bad form to, ahem, adapt something that's not even in the public domain yet, and b) very bad form to not just borrow the outline of a plot, or steal a character here and there, but write a book over again virtually scene by scene.

I give Guhrke credit for transposing the setting successfully. All of the elements work; a slave becomes a transported indentured servant, an agent of the Queen becomes an agent of the King, the idealistic young rebel playing two roles (lazy aristocrat and commoner with a purpose) stays sexy across all space-time locations, and even the carnelian amulet the hero of Mara wears transmutes to a medal of the Sons of Liberty.

However, I can't forgive this author for the lack of any acknowledgement that this story isn't her own. Let me put this in a way all of my readers between the ages of about 27 and 40 will understand/give a crap about. Reading The Charade is like listening to "Ice Ice Baby." We all know that riff is from "Under Pressure," and no matter how many times Vanilla Ice tells us it's not duh duh duh duh duh duh duh, yo, it's actually duh duh duh duh duh duh ting duh or whatever, it's still David Bowie and Queen. Rather than take the high road à la MC Hammer***** and his sampling of Rick James, Guhrke just goes ahead and pretends that this awesome, exciting plot and these fun, sexy characters were all her own invention.

Also, and doubly unforgivably, while this book isn't bad enough to be the "Ice Ice Baby" to Eloise Jarvis McGraw's "Under Pressure," it's no better than a "Can't Touch This" compared to a "Super Freak." For the mediocre writing but great (unoriginal) plot and scenes, I'd give The Charade three stars. Since it's about one and a half steps up from plagiarism******, let's go with that number of stars.

Final judgment in the Literary Showdown: plot, characters, writing quality, and originality are all in favor of Mara, Daughter of the Nile.

* Does anyone else suddenly want a pickle? Anyone? Has my love of puns finally taken over my brain? I don't know, but I still want a pickle.

** To be fair, I guess it's possible that Laura Lee Guhrke is weeping all over the altar of a Catholic church in a hair shirt right at this exact moment.

*** Seriously, that wasn't even on purpose. I really want a goddamn pickle now.

**** If you're looking for one of these, which actually can be pretty fun, I recommend Eloisa James.

***** And there's a phrase I never thought I'd type.

****** Disclaimer: to my knowledge, there are no actual words from Mara, Daughter of the Nile that have been copied and pasted into The Charade. The similarities, however, warrant a note from the author crediting McGraw as an inspiration at the very least.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Monday Classic: Camilla, or A Picture of Youth

Author: Fanny Burney
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1796

As per usual, when I deign to review a bestseller, it's a bestseller from a previous century. Ah well.

Camilla is my least favorite Burney novel.* Why am I reviewing it, you might ask? For one, it's the first one I saw when I thought it might be fun to review a Burney novel and glanced up at my bulging shelves of 18th century doom. For another, I frequently irritate people who bother to listen to me in person about these things (Hi, Mom!!) with rants about my least favorite fictional "hero" of all time, Edgar Stick-Up-The-Ass Mandlebert, and figured I might as well finalize my rant for posterity.**

While Camilla is the titular heroine of the novel, the book also relates the upbringing and romantic adventures of her sisters, Eugenia and Lavinia, and her cousin Indiana. Edgar is Camilla's father's ward, and he grows up with the girls and the three sisters' brother, Lionel.

There are many more names of this sort. I will spare you. All of the main characters, named or unnamed here, are upper-class English ladies and gentlemen of their period; if you don't already know all that entails, go look it up and then come back.

The first part of the book deals with these characters' early youth, during which it's established that Indiana is gorgeous and has the personality of a custard, Camilla is naive but not stupid, Lavinia is utterly forgettable in all respects, and Eugenia is . . . well, let's just use this snappy quote from Wikipedia to sum up her lot in life:

Eugenia is disfigured [by smallpox] but survives, only to suffer a tragic see-saw accident which leaves her further maimed and crippled.***

Because she's too shy -- for, I think, perfectly legitimate reasons -- to venture out in public much, Eugenia spends her time in reading and study, becoming quite the learned scholar. She also happens to be the only truly appealing one out of the whole brood. Her main function in the novel is to induce guilt in others; she almost never does this on purpose, though, being too kind and pleasant for that, which creates a dysfunctional family dynamic with which almost everyone with a family will be familiar.

Camilla herself isn't so bad; the family as a whole is the dullest passel of sermonizing morons that you could ever hope to find, but she, toward the middle of the story, finds a few friends of her own who are the sort of witty, sophisticated, wig-sporting drunkards who gave the 18th century a good name. Unfortunately, she's hampered in her efforts to get a life by dear, beloved Edgar.

Ah, Edgar. He unites all the qualities a young lady swoons over in one misogynistic, self-righteous, egocentric, lecturing, self-satisfied, priggish package, all tied up with a ribbon made from his unjustified sense of entitlement. Presumed to be as good as engaged to the lovely Indiana -- because of his own shallow taste in women and poor judgment, I might add -- he moans about it until he's able to dump her and pursue Camilla instead. But horrors! Camilla too proves unworthy of the ultimate gift from God, Edgar's love, when she is kissed -- only once, and entirely against her will -- by another man. Edgar flees this scene of female iniquity, cast down into a pit of despair because one he had almost thought pure enough to receive the fire of his holy loins (but only in matrimony, of course, don't think for one second he's actually red-blooded or anything) should, through being physically weaker than some jerk who got her alone for a second, allow herself to be so filthified. When she could have had HIM!

To Camilla's credit, she finds his reaction just a touch over the top, and he eventually has to grovel a bit to get her back.

To her eternal discredit, he gets her back.

Typically for novels of this period, the bare bones of the story (four girls get married) are filled out with melodrama galore, beginning with the smallpox infection/tragic see-saw referenced above and ending with an elopement, and including a forced marriage, gambling addiction, a debtor's prison, and a crazy but well-meaning uncle in there somewhere for seasoning.

There are many fascinating observations one could make about the way Camilla illuminates the social order, conventions, and manners of its time. As all of those observations have already been made in detail by prosy Ph.D. candidates, let us just take all of the feminist academic claptrap as read and move on to the interesting part: what should have happened in the end of the story if Burney had had me to nag her.

If she had, "Frances," I would have said, "Fanny is a silly name. I shan't address you by it, although I regret to inform you that posterity will remember you that way. Camilla should ditch that ass Edgar and let him run off with Dr. Marchmont, his dreadful woman-hating tutor. The two of them are actually soulmates, and in another time would wear matching starched pajamas to bed together at night while being closeted investment bankers by day."

Please picture Fanny Burney taking copious notes. "In addition, Frances," I would have added, "The tragic see-saw was a stroke of bloody genius, don't let anyone tell you differently, but Eugenia deserves better than to be the second choice of a crazy poetry loon. However, he's good looking, so I suppose I'll let that pass. Remove Lavinia entirely, as she serves no purpose but to marry her uncle's old friend's intolerably pudding-faced and pudding-brained son and to pad your word count."

And lastly, I would have told her that Camilla really ought to have married the man who pulled her aside and kissed her (rakish, foppish jerk though he is throughout much of the book), because a) he actually seemed to like her, unlike perfect prissy-pants Edgar and b) he stuck around and helped her obnoxious brother while Edgar ran off to bitch -- endlessly! -- about how much he hated all those nasty gross women, leaving Camilla in the lurch when she needed a friend the most.

In a slightly more feminist-theory vein, since it seems I can't help myself, Camilla, like Evelina, contains several female characters who are explicitly portrayed as significantly more intelligent, witty, and knowledgeable than the men around them. (It's hard not to think Burney put a bit of herself into the slightly older, brilliant female secondary characters who populate her novels, this one included.) The fact that these women are not often considered praiseworthy by the other characters is interesting mainly because sarcastic, intelligent women generally haven't been appreciated much anywhere or at any time. Feminists would say that's because help, help, we're being oppressed; I'd say that it's because no one, male or female, likes being mocked by someone smarter than they are; and Fanny Burney would probably say, just live like a decent human being and to hell with anyone who thinks you're strange. That's one of the many reasons she's one of my favorite writers.

She's also a favorite writer of mine because she's a damn good writer. As the book's subtitle A Picture of Youth would suggest, Camilla offers realistic, funny, and often pathetic portrayals of every weakness and error that youth is prone to. I first read Camilla when I was too young to realize how stupid young people are, but it's grown on me since then.

I did say that Camilla is my least favorite Burney novel. Even so, and despite Edgar and his perfectly ironed underwear****, I still prefer it to most other books. Four stars.

* If anyone cares, Cecilia, Evelina, Camilla. These can be easily distinguished from other first-name-named novels of the same period, such as Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, by the fact that the heroines aren't threatened with rape quite as often. I'm fairly sure Camilla has only one rape, which ends, unusually for the genre, in marriage. As I recall, Pamela is one long and tedious attempted rape broken up with a few passages of moralizing, while Clarissa actually includes at least one completed rape, and also a nifty brothel.

** This in no way excuses anyone I know from listening to this rant again, in person, at any time of my choosing. (Sorry, Mom.)

*** You really have no choice but to love a novel that includes a tragic see-saw accident.

**** I can only assume.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mistborn

Author: Brandon Sanderson
Genre: Fantasy
Original Pub. Date: 2006

Enough with the decent, enjoyable books I've been reviewing lately. Bring on the hopelessly muddled garbage!

Today's useless trash is Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, a fantasy novel that has all the crystal clarity of Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, the fast-paced action of Robert's Rules of Order, and appealing characters right out of Teen Beat magazine.

As anyone who pays attention to fantasy publishing already knows, the late Robert Jordan's family and editors chose Sanderson to finish Jordan's ponderous, creaking edifice: The Wheel of Time series. I applaud their judgment. I can't imagine anyone whose skills make him more suitable to pick up the torch and finish Jordan's epically mediocre, incoherent, minor-character-plagued tour de force.*

Mistborn scores over The Eye of the World, the first book in The Wheel of Time series, in two important ways: first, it is not a The Fellowship of the Ring rewrite, and second, it introduces only a mercifully limited trilogy plus one extra book, rather than Jordan's ever-extending monstrosity. It scores significantly below almost everything else ever written, however.

While most of the characters in this book are so featureless as to be interchangeable, I suppose I'm obligated to say a word or two about the main protagonists. Vin is your typical fantasy-novel waif, skinny and starved, poor and downtrodden, please-sir-I-want-some-more only with extra plucky kick-ass-babe on top. She's also the only final true eternal hope of all mankind and whatever too, natch.

Magic in this world is based on the magicians consuming solutions of suspended metal particles, which they then "burn" to produce various parlor tricks. Most allomancers can only burn one metal, but there are a few who can burn all of them; Vin's one of the latter.** The book's other somewhat original idea is that many years before, the heroes of old failed in their quest to unseat the lord who ruled over them, Sauron the White Witch Shai'tan the Goa'uld System Lord Ra the imaginatively named Lord Ruler. Along with a wacky crew of metal-burners and other crazy kids, Vin sets out to free her people from the chains of oppression, overthrow the ultimate evil of the world, and presumably get everyone a coupon for a free sandwich from Subway. Along the way, she falls for some douchey lord. Predictable "oh, you're an aristocrat, and I'm an ash-covered urchin with no bust," "I'm a lord, and while I feast, the people suffer, oh I'm so evil" angst ensues.

All of this may sound pleasantly familiar to anyone who's ever walked through a bookstore or watched a Lifetime original movie, so allow me to get to Sanderson's unique talents, if I may. First, there's his gift for non-stop action and intricate spy plotting. The plan to defeat the Lord Ruler resembles nothing more than a marketing committee meeting without a Powerpoint presentation to keep it on track, and it goes a little something like this:

Four to eight paragraphs of the assembled plotters saying "Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?"

Six to ten paragraphs of "We need to overthrow the Lord Ruler." (Chorus of agreement from the assembled plotters.)

Eight to twelve paragraphs of "The city guard is going to make that difficult." (Chorus.)

Nine to eleven paragraphs of "Our master plan, Pinky: we will distract the city guard." (Chorus.)

Assorted number of pages of "That's a good plan, Brain!"

Two to three pages of "So to sum up, we're going to distract the city guard and overthrow the Lord Ruler." (Chorus: Turkey sandwiches for all!!!!!)

Rinse, repeat.

Eventually, this brilliant plot goes into action, along with whatever part of the nervous system causes uncontrollable yawning.

Sanderson's second claim to literary glory is his gift for phrasing. Consider this gem, from page 416***:

Vin followed, following him as he rushed up a nearby hill.

Usually I'm all in favor of authors eschewing thesaurus abuse in favor of simple language. Apparently, there's an exception to every rule.

Mistborn: one and a half stars.

* With all respect to Robert Jordan, may he rest in peace. The man might not have been able to write noticeably, but he sure could type.

** Surprise.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Deed of Paksenarrion

Author: Elizabeth Moon
Genre: Fantasy
Original Pub. Date: 1988-1989

As the person who shares living accommodations with me and five or six thousand of my closest printed friends can attest, I almost never get rid of a book. For example, there's a pile of potential discards by my desk. It's been there for, oh, two years or so, and it includes such gems as Tad Williams's Stone of Farewell, the second, please note, in a crappy fantasy series whose first book I neither own nor recall reading. It came from a thrift store, the cover's bent in half, and I think it has mold on it.

Apparently, it's only going to leave the house when it's pried from my cold, dead, ink-stained fingers.

With that context firmly in place, the one and only reason I haven't flung The Deed of Paksenarrion out of the window, drowned it in a vat of potassium hydroxide*, or taken it to Half-Price Books and then used the resulting nine cents to buy myself a much-needed aspirin, is that I haven't reviewed it yet.

Tomorrow, D of P, prepare to meet your richly deserved fate: sent in disgrace and ignominy to the nearest used book store, there to stew in your own fetid juices until some other poor fool staggers along and reads you.

To be fair, I might not be made quite so indignant by this book were it not, in fact, a trilogy printed in one massive omnibus volume precisely the size and shape of a lump of rotten eggs squished into the precise size and shape of a large trade paperback. Comprising 1024 pages of tiny print, the book could easily hold an in-depth look at something fascinating: individual monographs on each and every one of Barack Obama's hallowed nose hairs, for example, or perhaps an analysis of all urine samples taken in Minnesota since 1952. Alas, such opportunities were wasted, and we're stuck with Sheepfarmer's Daughter**, Divided Allegiance, and Oath of Gold.

It will surprise no one familiar with this trilogy to learn that their primary inspiration was the Dungeons & Dragons paladin character class. For those of you who spent your high school years*** not sitting in your mom's basement covered in cookie crumbs, beer spills, and shame, paladins are the knight in shining armor type characters, who derive their power as warriors and magic-users from their pure and noble virtues. Paksenarrion, through the course of these three masterworks of reimagining a pen and paper role-playing game's suckiest character class****, develops from an ugly, dull, strong, stupid, boring, virtuous sheepfarmer's daughter into an ugly, dull, etc. etc. Warrior of Good, and three cheers for character development, right?

It's been a while since I read this, nor would I inflict any details of the profoundly unmemorable first two books on my gentle readers even if I could. So let's just skip ahead. Quick warning to my easily grossed out readers (Hi, Mom!!): this book is an example of the ewwww trend in fantasy I mumble about on occasion.

In the third book, Oath of Delivering My Manuscript on Time, Paksenarrion has offered yon loyal troth or whatever to some hot young king who treats her like furniture. I think this was supposed to be a clever post-feminist reversal of the classic Medieval trope of a pure knight and his platonic courtly-love relationship with a beautiful lady in whose name he sallies forth and kills ogres and whatnot. Honestly, I found the whole relationship between the two utterly embarrassing and sad.

On the other hand, if Paksenarrion's deeds had been limited to yon ogre-slaying, you know, that would have been cool. There are a few good gender-bending chicks in this sort of story; I'm particularly fond of "The Girl Who Pretended To Be a Boy" (out of Andrew Lang's The Violet Fairy Book). Most recently, there's George R.R. Martin's character Brienne of Tarth, who's marginally less stupid, although just as much a cliché, as his others.

But no. Paksenarrion goes along, taking names and kicking ass, and for some reason staying in love with yon  pretty-boy, and then for no actual reason at all -- I mean NONE, guys, it's completely unnecessary -- she lets herself get captured by a bunch of orcs.

Who then gang-rape her for most of the rest of the book. Yep. That's her deed, right there. Getting raped by orcs. For a long time. Many, many pages, so many pages that I wondered how Elizabeth Moon had the stamina to type so many scenes of orc-rape*****. Hell, I started to wonder how the orcs had that much stamina.

That's the deed. That's IT. And then, no longer virginal****** but proud to have . . . honest to God, I really don't know what, or whom, all that orc-rape was in service of. She escapes, and the king's like, "Dude, sorry you were gang-raped by filthy monsters and stuff when you really didn't need to be . . . how about a nice shiny medal, 'cause I'm going to marry this hot virgin who's never been raped by an orc?" And she's like, "WOW! I wuvs you 4evah!" And the audience is like, "What the bloody hell just happened?"

Half a star.

* No chemical critiques, please, that's just what I happen to have in the garage.

** Nope, not going where you think it's going. Wish it had.

*** And, ahem, perhaps many other years too, but we won't go there . . .

**** OK, dude, fine, rangers suck marginally more. But only a little, and only because they can't use plate armor and still have all their abilities.

***** I also had the impression that the orc-rape wasn't supposed to be titillating. Not that orcs raping people is necessarily my cup of tea, but if it was meant to be exciting, then I guess I could get behind that, so to speak. Moon seems to have intended a holy martyrdom sort of experience rather than a boom-chicka-wow-wow kind of experience, and so I was doubly baffled. Truly, I didn't understand the purpose of the orc-rape; as far as I could tell, it didn't actually accomplish . . . anything, even a brief flicker of guilty pleasure for the less respectable sort of reader.

****** Understatement of the century.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Chauffeur and the Chaperon

Author: C.N. and A.M. Williamson
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1906

It's rare that a book lets me down as abruptly as this one did about a quarter of the way through. It starts out very promisingly, beginning with two upper-class English girls who unexpectedly inherit a boat and decide to blow their cash on hand on an irresponsible and slightly improper houseboat jaunt through Holland. Given that this is set in contemporary 1906, the girls really shouldn't just go by themselves, but they throw all caution to the winds and run off from England to an equally civilized place inhabited by equally stuffy upper-class (but Dutch) people, decency be damned!

They quickly meet some appropriately rich and charming love interests, one of whom disguises himself as a boat tour guide, and the other of whom hires an elderly chaperon so that he can go with them (the chaperon's actually a beautiful young woman in disguise, of course -- I figured this out so quickly that I don't think it's much of a spoiler), and there's another guy along for the ride.

Unfortunately, what was a sprightly, charming, Wodehousian farce in the making quickly turned into a well-written but jaw-droppingly detailed travelogue of Holland. Now, I'm all for a good travel narrative. I like the kind in which some red-nosed old looney-tunes waxes nostalgic about the accommodating charms of the maidens of Phlegmenstein-Schnützel, where lager flows like the mighty Rhine all evening and sour vomit gushes like the frolicsome Danube come morning. This is not one of those.

No, The Chauffeur and the Chaperon is the kind that's all about hats. Specifically, Dutch hats, bonnets, helmets, and any other type of headgear you can think of. The husband and wife author team, C.N. and A.M. Williamson, also offer a few digressions into the always fascinating minutiae of Dutch doors, doorknobs, walls, windows, window frames, shutters, floors, cookware, dishware, flatware, shoes, ducks, bridges, so many miserable canals, roofs, food, and in short, any material object that can be catalogued by two obsessive-compulsives with no pity or mercy of any kind.

To be fair, an avid student of turn-of-the-century Dutch culture would find this book an inspiring, nay, even orgasmic read. For those of us with lives and stuff like that, it's the literary equivalent of having all your teeth kicked in by an extremely boring Williams-Sonoma clerk in wooden shoes.

I will grant that the descriptions held my interest at first. They're beautifully written; no complaints there. But then you turn the page, and you're like, dude, more fucking hats? And then you start to wonder if maybe just nuking the place would solve this rampant hats-and-canals problem, and then you start flipping through looking for the actual story. Which does reappear, and it's fun when it does . . . which is why I can't pan this book.

The part that's a novel earned a solid three and a half stars. The travelogue part gets four stars for detail and one for its unhealthy hat fetish. I'm going to go with three stars overall; it's easy to turn pages as quickly as necessary.

For the other person in the known universe, besides the Indiscriminate Reader, who might actually enjoy reading weird Edwardian social comedies (Hi, Mom!!), The Chauffeur and the Chaperon and others by the same authors are available for free thanks to Project Gutenberg.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Room with a View

Author: E.M. Forster
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 1908

I've been trying my best to get through The Longest Journey, according to my edition's introduction E.M. Forster's favorite among his own novels. So far, despite the objectively small word count, the title's proving to be an understatement. If my experience is any indication, it's subjectively the equivalent of taking the Greyhound from Rio de Janeiro to Miami, with a brief stop in Vladivostok along the way.

This, therefore, isn't a review of The Longest Journey; look for one of those in about the year 2379, at this rate.

The same introduction describes A Room with a View as Forster's "most optimistic" work, which I think is literary-critic code for "low body count."* It's certainly my favorite among Forster's novels, his opinion be damned. Made more famous by the truly lovely 1985 Merchant-Ivory film**, A Room with a View follows the romance of Lucy Honeychurch, an upper-middle-class English girl, and George Emerson, a solidly upper-lower-class young Englishman. They meet in Italy, where they're staying at the same hotel. George and his father offer to trade rooms with Lucy and her chaperone, since the ladies are terribly upset that their rooms have no view of the picturesque surroundings. After some comically protracted dithering, the chaperone agrees; she does insist, however, on taking the young man's room herself for the sake of propriety, even though it's the better one.

This is the kind of satire at which Forster excels, and the overall lightheartedness of the novel keeps his attitude from becoming too caustic, as it does in most of his other works. Lucy and George return to England, end up living in the same neighborhood by a series of more or less realistic accidents, and are forced to choose between their natural feelings and the expectations of their parents and acquaintances. It is all So Very, Very English, Old Chap.

The great downfall of Forster's works -- present in this one, too, although the charm and atmosphere of A Room with a View far outweigh its faults -- is, paradoxically, the same as his greatest critical asset. All of his novels explore tension between the natural and the artificial, between truth and the fictions about themselves that people try to present to the world, and between feeling and reason. Social mores vs. philosophical morals in twelve rounds, ding! Forster had a keen eye and a pen that could slice diamond; he's the malicious man's P.G. Wodehouse, if you will. There's endless material for more or less mind-numbing Ph.D. theses in Forster's works.

I'm sure that among those many long papers there's at least one that discusses the flipside of this: Forster himself was such a product of the same environment that generated his targets that he often doesn't realize it when he is, himself, being a bit of a stuffy prat. Natural, honest emotion is something for which to strive, and yet one can't really be like that, you know, there must be some standards, Forster seems to say. That the tension present in his works was also present in the author is unsurprising, and it definitely contributes to the interest of the novels. It also creates a certain chaos within them. One's never quite sure what Forster's message is, because I don't think he ever got it straight in his own mind.

This book almost deserves five stars, but there's something just a little off-putting about Forster's style that holds me back. Observant readers may have noticed that I'm a sucker for authors who seem to like their protagonists, and Forster, at best, reaches a sort of indulgent contempt. Four stars, and highly recommended to anyone who likes books with vicars and butlers in them.

* Both The Longest Journey and Howards End are non-stop death from beginning to end. However, lest any readers get their hopes up, please note that none of these deaths involve any excitement or action of any kind. Rather, one gets the impression that now and then a character keels over from sheer Britishness and/or a lack of proper tea service.

** The movie has amazing scenery: Julian Sands takes off his clothes, and there's also some good shots of the Italian countryside.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Juliet, Naked

Author: Nick Hornby
Genre: General Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 2009

While reading a Nick Hornby novel, one will never be moved to ask, "But is it ART?" I mean that as high praise, and I think Hornby himself might take it that way. If you have to ask if something's art or not, that means that it's either boring, pretentious, or ugly -- and it also means it's certainly not art.

Whatever other qualities Juliet, Naked may possess, artistic or otherwise, there is one thing that it is: a good novel. Whether or not that makes it art, I will leave to other people* to decide, but it certainly makes the book a standout in a dreary wasteland of witty, wise, warm, wonderful explorations of what it means to gently and lovingly probe the depths of humanity's journey towards something philosophically trite. Did I say that out loud? I meant, of course, that being a good novel makes Juliet, Naked stand out amidst other contemporary literature.

A brief digression, gentle readers. It has recently come to my attention that the subtitle "A Novel," originally appended to book titles in order to tip off potential buyers that the book might actually be fun to read**, now means "This Book Is Not a Novel, and in Fact You Will Deeply Regret Buying It; You Really Ought to Get the One with the Shirtless Man on the Cover If You Want to Enjoy Yourself." None of Hornby's novels have "A Novel" on the cover, because he's a rational man with a well-earned confidence in his own abilities and the mental faculties of his readers. He trusts us to figure out on our own that his novels are novels. The increasingly hysterical protests of his less-talented colleagues, as they beg us to pretend they even know what a novel is, fall a little flat in the face of Hornby's ability to, you know, actually write one. "A Novel," in short, functions a bit like the "Don't Panic" on the front of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. You might not have had any doubts before, but now . . . either the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal is coming your way, or you're holding something written by Jonathan Safran Foer. Either way, your day just went to crap.

I won't pretend that the content of Juliet, Naked is particularly groundbreaking, or that the plot is unpredictably original. The book opens with Annie and Duncan, fortyish Brit academics who've been together for an uneventful fifteen years, touring the United States by following in the footsteps of Tucker Crowe, a reclusive ex-rock star with whom Duncan is unhealthily obsessed. Because running the Tucker Crowe fan site and listening to all of his music over and over again constitutes the majority of Duncan's life, Annie has taken an interest over the years, even going with him on his bizarre fan-boy vacation.

When they get home, a new release of acoustic demo tracks recorded as a prelude to Crowe's most famous album is in the mailbox, and Annie and Duncan's different reactions to the new CD kick the story into motion. They both post reviews on Duncan's website; Annie hates the tracks, and Duncan loves them. Guess who gets an email from Tucker Crowe praising their review?

The story follows along fairly predictably from there. Or at least, the bare bones of the plot are what you might expect them to be. But Hornby's characters fill up the spaces in between, and his sense of humor and affection for the people he's invented make this novel more than the sum of its parts.

Juliet, Naked isn't Hornby's funniest book (that's High Fidelity, hands down), but it's still often hilarious, because Hornby can't help but see the humor in the way people can't stop messing up their own lives. It's not his best book, either. But it does display something that's increasingly rare in books these days, whether or not they're "A Novel": a sense that the author genuinely likes other people, foibles and all. He doesn't try to elevate his characters to the point that Mother Teresa begins to look like a puppy-kicking bitch in comparison, and he doesn't patronize them for having normal lives, and he doesn't condemn them for perfectly normal flaws. He just presents us with recognizable friends and neighbors, albeit friends and neighbors with pithier-than-usual mental monologues.

Nick Hornby's previous works have set a high bar, and Juliet, Naked doesn't quite measure up to some of them. Nevertheless, it gets three and three quarters stars. It may or may not be ART, but it won't make you wish you'd gone with The Highlander's Blushing Virginal Kidnap Victim instead.

* And by other people, I mean wankers.

** Before the first English novels were published, all books in this language were either the Bible, precepts for a virtuous life written by fat Shropshire vicars with bad teeth, or Latin verbs. There were no exceptions. It took some time to convince the public at large to give reading a try once novels were invented, and clear labeling helped the publishing industry get over the hump.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Grifters

Author: Jim Thompson
Genre: Crime
Original Pub. Date: 1963

For a refreshing change of pace, I thought I'd review something that isn't a heap of one-star fantasy garbage. Believe it or not, many good books inhabit my overloaded shelves, though a reader of this site (Hi, Mom!!) would rarely know it. Today's pick: The Grifters, one of relatively little-known crime novelist Jim Thompson's best tales of confidence trickery, brutality, depravity, alcoholism, and theft.

It's odd how little Thompson is known, given how many film versions have been made of his books. In 1990, this 1963 book became a movie starring John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and Annette Bening -- and a good movie, at that. It perfectly captured the tone of a typical Thompson story: grim, twisted, and hilarious in much the same way that Maupassant's short story "The Necklace" is a real knee-slapper.

There are two movie versions of Thompson's The Getaway, although neither of those stick to the jaw-droppingly creepy ending as originally written.* French directors have made more movies from his works and seem to understand their point a lot better than American filmmakers do, and that really ought to tell you all you need to know.

The Grifters chronicles the fall of career con man Roy Dillon, who stays under law-enforcement radar by only working small cons and moving around. His favorite is "the twenties,"** and he's just pulled one of these in the opening -- but he got caught, and he's staggering out of a bar in agonizing pain after a quick and richly deserved blow to the stomach. Roy's mother, who had him when she was an adolescent and raised him . . . oddly, turns up, visiting in town while fixing some races for her mob boss. Roy's shady older girlfriend and the mother, who look startlingly alike (something the movie screwed up -- Thompson's not-so-subtexts really are a little too much for Hollywood, it turns out), don't exactly hit it off. Crime, vice, and depravity ensue, but probably not in quite the way you would expect.

Jim Thompson is set apart from the vast legion of pulp crime fiction writers by his two great talents, which in some of his works -- this one among them -- amount almost to genius, if you like that sort of thing. First is his extraordinary imagination. Like Jack Vance in science fiction and fantasy***, Thompson isn't the first writer to come to mind when the average reader thinks of his genre, but he is perhaps the most original. Any plot twist, any character archetype that's appeared in a hard-boiled suspense novel, well, Thompson used it first, and probably to better effect than whatever writer you're thinking of.

Besides that, Thompson has the extraordinary ability to present his characters objectively. That's much harder than it sounds. Every person makes moral judgments all day long; I usually find that reassuring, myself, liking to live in a world not populated entirely by sociopaths. Thompson clearly wasn't a sociopath himself -- but he was able to write like one. His characters are nasty, and many of them are sociopaths. Since the reader isn't manipulated into justifying or condemning them, one can simply be pulled through the story without getting bogged down in the meaning of it all.

To put it another way, Thompson is postmodern in precisely the way that my favorite ole' standby of the literary movement, Douglas Coupland, isn't. Coupland sees the imminent end of civilization as an opportunity to forge meaning out of every otherwise insignificant event; his characters make as many connections as possible to avoid the existential loneliness of a world without purpose. Thompson's characters live in the same landscape of cheap, disposable pleasures, but they're simply hell-bent on getting them as cheaply and disposing of them as quickly as possible. For them, an unexamined life is the only kind worth living; examination only reveals the rot beneath.

For a nihilistic, haunting, unpleasant great time, call Jim Thompson. The Grifters: four stars.

* For anyone who has seen one of the films but not read the book, the spoiler appears in white text here, because I simply can't resist. Highlight to read: So, at the end of the movies, the two get away clean. In the book, they go to Mexico, where they've found a sort of retired-criminal resort paradise where they can enjoy their ill-gotten gains in comfort and security. What they don't know, until they get there, is that you can live there forever as long as you can pay. Food, lodging, anything you want and on any level of luxury: it's all available, but all for a price. Once their money starts running out, they start cutting back on their expenses. And once the criminals' money is gone, they tend to want to leave, but sadly, they can't -- that's another bit of fine print not publicized in advance. All the residents get, at that point, is a daily ration of stew, on the house, until they don't even get that anymore. What's in the stew? Yep, that's what's in the stew.

** I once had someone try this on me when I was working retail, and I was very proud of the fact that I was able to correctly name the con due to a youth (obviously not entirely) misspent reading Jim Thompson. For those of you who are interested: you pay for something small with a twenty dollar bill. You get your change, and as the clerk has just handed it to you, you fish the necessary dollar out of your pocket. With an ingenuous smile, you say, "Oh, wait, I have exact change," and hold out your hand expectantly while handing over the dollar. The clerk, if the con is working, will say, "Oh, right, your twenty," and hand it back to you, at which point you should have gotten into your car and away before he quite catches up. Bingo, nineteen free dollars. Of course, this would have been a much more attractive game in 1963, when nineteen dollars was worth about what $140 is now.

*** Although I would hesitate to compare them in any other way, as they differ in all others. Someday I'll write about Jack Vance. In the meantime, please read any one of his amazing books immediately.