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!