Monday, June 24, 2013

Suggest a Title! Win a Prize!

It may not have escaped the attention of very alert readers that the Indiscriminate Reader has just a touch of the old OCD. Punctuation errors weigh on my mind, tiny inconsistencies in plots prey on my soul, and in this case, I haven't yet reviewed books by authors whose last names start with I, L, N, O, P, Q, U, V, X, Y, or Z, and it's driving me nuts.

Now is your chance to see the Indiscriminate Reader post the review of your dreams! Provided, that is, that the author's last name starts with one of the letters above and/or that you agree with my eventual review -- so not all that likely. Let's rephrase. Now is your chance to see the Indiscriminate Reader post another review!

Pride, honor, and a grim satisfaction at being proved entirely right about yet another piece-of-crap book will prevent me from turning down even the most spiteful and sadistic of suggestions* (talking to you, Cousin E.), but I urge my gentle readers to try to think of something I might actually enjoy.

So write a comment, write an email, or just give me a call (Hi, Mom!!), and suggest! Your prize will be the review. Really, that's it.

* With one exception: I will not, under any circumstances, read or review any book by Stieg Larsson. No matter how many kinky girls with tattoos ride big symbolic motorcycles through the pages of those books, nothing can make me wade through hundreds of chapters of stiffly translated Swedish politics in order to get there. You can withhold ice cream forever. I just won't.

Monday Classic: The Scarlet Letter

Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Genre: Utter, miserable crap
Original Pub. Date: 1850

For the seven people in the western hemisphere who remain blissfully unaware of this pernicious work of student-torturing literature, The Scarlet Letter is about adultery, mystical signs in the sky, and a nasty little demon child who exists only to add another layer of metaphor to the novel.

The depressing and unedifying plot: Hester Prynne, who is married and not living with her husband, but assumed to be single by her Boston neighbors, sleeps with one of the local ministers, gets pregnant, bears a daughter, and then is publicly shamed with a scarlet "A" for "adultery" that she has to wear sewn to her clothes. She refuses to name her lover, and the useless coward lets her suffer alone -- probably because he's a spineless douchebag, although other interpretations doubtless exist. Hester's nasty, one-dimensional doctor husband shows up and blackmails her into not revealing who he is; he then spends the rest of the book taunting her and trying to figure out the identity of Hester's lover.

This is, allow me to note, the one and only point in The Scarlet Letter at which anyone does anything with which a normal person could sympathize. Of course the betrayed husband wants to know who slept with his wife. And, sensibly, he thinks the jerk ought to be punished just like Hester is. After this brief moment of clarity, the novel meanders on to the next crazy person . . .

Pearl, the baby daughter, who grows into a psychopath child. When the authorities try to take her away from Hester, you'd think this would be a relief, but for some reason Hester fights to keep the horrible little yelling creature with her, and the story goes on. There's some more blackmail and taunting, and pointless wandering in the woods. That fills up most of the middle of the book. Finally, because even the more literary editors of the nineteenth century had to be telling Hawthorne, at this point, that something had better happen sometime or the publication deal was off, Hester and her lover agree to run away together and start over in England.

Scarlet As appear on the lover's chest, and in the sky, and for all I know in the whole of Boston's Puritan breakfast gruel, and then the lover and the husband both die. Not, mind you, in any kind of exciting way -- a duel, aliens, an invasion of the French, etc. -- but just because they're both sick and lame. One of the two, I think the gross husband, leaves Pearl enough money that she gets to go to Europe and live happily ever after; meanwhile, Hester lives a dull and A-emblazoned life until she dies too, at which point she's buried next to her lover under a tombstone with, you got it, a dumb scarlet A on it. Why? Because nothing in this novel gets to be vowel-free.

Other questions include: Why didn't they just go to England in the first place and live happily ever after? Why didn't Hester go somewhere else with her baby before her horrid husband tracked her down and/or she was publicly shamed? Why did Arthur, the stupid lover, not act like half a man and step up? (He was feeling guilty, you see, so that absolved him of doing anything practical like supporting the woman he loved or taking care of their child. Makes sense.) Why didn't Hawthorne just take some damn anti-depressants before he wrote the third most* purposeless, demoralizing novel of all time? And what is the deal with that crackhead Pearl, seriously?

So few of these questions have answers. Maybe most of the above are covered by "Hawthorne was being paid by the word"? Four stars for the author's beautiful writing, clever use of symbolism, and philosophical, ethical, and theological scholarship; two stars for using those in place of logic, sympathetic characters, and/or a plot in which something happens about which someone gives a damn.

* 1) The Grapes of Wrath and 2) The Sun Also Rises (see the two-haiku reviews of these for more details).

Friday, June 14, 2013

Howl's Moving Castle

Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Genre: Fantasy/YA
Original Pub. Date: 1986

I'm not sure how I missed this one, since I was a bit of a Diana Wynne Jones junkie as a kid, but it somehow never made it into my hot little hands until a couple of weeks ago. I still haven't seen the movie, and I don't intend to -- anyone looking for an adaptation review, go elsewhere.*

Like all of Jones's books, or at least those I've read, Howl's Moving Castle is an object lesson in what other young adult fantasy authors are doing wrong. Of course, it was written in a kinder, gentler age, when it wasn't considered standard for tween girls to fantasize about losing their virginities to much older men who turn into animals on the weekend. So there's that.

Also like all of Jones's books, or at least those I've read, this book features a complex plot, a dash of slapstick, and a little bit of actual menace for savor. As the story opens, our heroine Sophie is lamenting the fact that she's stuck at home making hats while her two younger sisters are off following their dreams (a bakery and witchcraft lessons, respectively). As the eldest, fairy tale law decrees that she can't have any adventures -- at least until another witch takes a dislike to Sophie and turns her into an old woman out of spite.

Sophie runs away and ends up joining the moving-castle household of the charming, undisciplined lothario Wizard Howl, who's also under a curse. Other characters include a fire demon bound to serve in the fireplace (who refuses to be cooked over unless he gets some of the bacon), an apprentice wizard, a semi-sentient scarecrow, sisters in disguise, some witches, and the king. Trying to describe the plot would merely give spoilers, so suffice to say this is a charming, light read suitable for anyone who's sick of angsty vampires.

Lately I've complained about how all the mainstream fantasy book lists I find are actually made up of young adult fantasy. The strong implication was that young adult fantasy isn't very good, so it's time to qualify that statement. Adult fantasy isn't very good these days, either; the big difference between the two seems to be that in adult fantasy, the gross vampire sex takes place right in front of the reader, while in YA fantasy it often happens off-screen, as it were. Or, if the YA fantasy is of a different stripe, no sex happens at all, and instead all females within range are forcibly empowered, whether they like it or not.

This doesn't generally apply to YA fantasy written before the last fifteen years or so, and so all negative commentary on the subgenre should be assumed to apply only after that cut-off point. No one is empowered in Howl's Moving Castle, off-beat sexual antics are (appropriately for the target age group) frowned on a bit, and the story's entertaining. Three and a half stars.

* Gosh, I think I'm really getting the hang of that increasing blog traffic thing!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Administration

Author: Manna Francis
Genre: Science Fiction/Erotica
Original Pub Date: ??

The Administration is a series of novels, novellas, and short stories, all of them comprising one total narrative. At present, the series has several books' worth of words, and I'm not going to bother listing the various titles in their online and print incarnations. If you're interested in finding out more -- and I recommend strongly that you change your mind if you are -- you can find the whole series by Googling the author's name. I'm not even going to provide a link, because there's no way to get a sponge and 409 into all the little crevices of my blog.

You may have gathered that this series wasn't my favorite. Why, then -- and I realize this is a perpetual question from my imaginary audience of thousands (Hi, Mom!!) -- did I read most of it*, including the first full novel and a selection of novellas?

That's not an answer I have readily available, maybe because most of what usually passes for thought and interest in life was drained out of me by the dull, grinding repetitiveness of this story. I think I kept reading because so many great reviews on Goodreads praised the series for its creative, detailed dystopian setting, awesome sex scenes, and deep character development, and I kept waiting to see if any of those aspects of the book would appear. (Spoiler: they didn't.)

Let's take each of these alleged elements one at a time. First, we have the setting, "New London," which is just like regular London except that buildings are made of glass and metal, everyone talks on little earpiece headsets rather than handset phones, and computers are all touch screen.

I mean, what an imagination, right?

Then there's the eponymous Administration, almost the EU under a different name. I don't have a window into Francis's brain, but if this isn't intended to be biting political commentary on the fact that the EU is basically a reboot of the Committee of Public Safety, then the author has no sense of humor. Without a few of the slightly more futuristic gadgets (brain-reading interrogation equipment, for example -- oh, no, wait, we've almost got that too), the Administration could have been literally the EU government under a different name. While I couldn't agree more that it's dystopian, the setting basically whisked me away to a world in which everything is exactly as it seems.

Next: the awesome sex scenes. Objectively, if you like bondage, I guess they could be okay. Not good. Okay.

And on to character development, a.k.a. strike three. There are two main characters in this series: Toreth, a mean, nasty sex addict/occasional rapist who works as an Administration interrogator and investigator, and Warrick, a hot, suave, sophisticated computer programmer** who gets involved with Toreth after a couple of murders that take place while the victims are using Warrick's company's virtual reality technology. Both of these characters left me cold. Toreth is a sociopath. Not a seeming-sociopath using a lack of outward emotion to disguise deep feelings, not a semi-sociopath who kills lots of people in the service of some twisted morality, but truly a self-centered bastard who doesn't experience normal human attachment and lacks all empathy. It takes real skill to write a true sociopath who can still inspire interest and sympathy in the reader -- Exhibit A: Jane Emerson (Doris Egan) and her character Tal from City of Diamond -- and Francis doesn't have it.

Warrick, on the other hand, acts like an S&M robot throughout most of the series. His only motivations appear to be his corporation, which ceases to be a priority as soon as he wants to get laid, and sex, which seems like it might pall after a while, particularly when your chosen partner is unpleasant, rude, cheats constantly, and has all the personality of an alcoholic blowfish. Both of these characters are utterly, irredeemably charmless. The one-dimensional secondary characters, who exist only to warn Warrick that Toreth is bad for him or to codependently enable Toreth's gross personality disorders, are better only in that they appear less frequently. I guess these reminders that the relationship is sick and stupid exist so that we can root for those crazy kids to make their star-crossed relationship work? Or maybe the author really does have a sense of humor.

I'm starting to feel a little sick myself just thinking about these crappy people and their horribly disgusting antics***, so let's move on to the reason why this series is getting one star rather than the generous one and a half I might have granted otherwise.

This series is boring. I think the kind term for the meat of the first book's narrative might be "police procedural," but you could get the full experience of the first novel in The Administration by getting a job as a sheriff's office filing clerk, doing your job for 80 hours straight, and then hitting yourself with a riding crop a few times.

Toreth goes to Warrick's company office. He interviews several people; their responses, no matter how easily -- oh, how very, very easily! -- they could be summarized in two sentences, always take ten paragraphs. No dialogue is paraphrased. Then, Toreth goes out into the hall and gives some predictable orders to his staff. Did the witness tell Toreth there was a problem with the security tapes? There will then be a page of Toreth telling his security tape person to check all the security tapes.

If we're very lucky, there are then more witnesses, whose enthralling recitations of their movements to and from the company lobby will be recounted in every detail -- and in their own rambling words. After a few more rounds of this, with explanations each, single, time of how Toreth set up the camera for the interview, or noticed that someone else had already set it up for him, he leaves the company offices.

Back in his own office, he then reviews all the files. At length. And then the other files. And then the interview transcripts. And then some other files come in. He reviews those. Then, he calls someone in some other department and asks them for an update. None of this thrilling dialogue is paraphrased, either, because who would want to be left out of the loop?

No sex scenes, no matter how spicy, could compensate for page after weary page of watching one of the least engaging characters I have ever encountered do paperwork. As with The Road, I don't think even a sudden attack of cannibals could have saved this story. One star.****

* Not quite all. Unlike one of the protagonists, I'm not a masochist.

** At least the author has an imagination sometimes.

*** And I wish I meant the bondage. Out of bed, these characters display even more mental problems than they do in it.

**** A quick note about star ratings for self-published (but reasonably polished) works like The Administration. I'm never going to review a self-published book that doesn't meet at least some basic standard for mechanical writing skill. I fully support self-published authors, since the mainstream publishing industry leaves something to be desired, and this means 1) I'll offer self-published authors who meet a minimum standard for professionalism the same respect I'd give normally published authors and review their books on the same playing field (for good or ill), and 2) I'm not going to stoop to picking on delusional losers who can't even write a coherent sentence but insist on putting their work out there anyway. (This doesn't mean I won't pick on delusional losers who can't write a coherent sentence and who have also been edited by a nominal professional, ahem, E.L. James.)

Monday, June 10, 2013

King Lear: A Two-Haiku Review

King Lear, by William Shakespeare

Which daughter is best?
Not the one who acts all nice.
No, that's too easy.

Instead, I'll wander
around this dumbass damp moor
until we all die.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The God Eaters

Author: Jesse Hajicek
Genre: Fantasy/Gay
Original Pub. Date: 2006*

Browsing last night on Goodreads for something, god please anything, new to read, I had a horrifying (if belatedly logical) realization: the many shelves of Teen Paranormal Romance one can find at Barnes and Noble, if one is sufficiently unlucky, aren't just there because someone in the corporate office hates America and wants us all to die. They're there because that's actually what the fuck people want to read. Look at any "fantasy" book list on Goodreads; they're all actually young adult romance between people whose names have apostrophes in them, or who own pet unicorns, or who "empower" young women by representing nontraditional gender roles -- though, to be fair, only in the same ways that all other young adult romance protagonists represent nontraditional gender roles. You're not going to find any teen paranormal heroines genuinely enjoying swigging Scotch, or having meaningless sex with a stripper and then high-fiving their friends.

So if you're wondering why I'm trolling the depths of the Internet searching for off-beat self-published fantasy like The God Eaters, wonder no longer. The gay fantasy I've been finding is some of the only fantasy written for adults that's out there right now. It also tends to be a little more creative; since most of these writers know full well that their destiny, without self-publication, is to molder in a towering New York slush pile for all eternity, there's a little less incentive to stick with commercial genre trends. Not to mention that after reading a few Twilight-like junior estrogen fests, it's kind of nice to start a book absolutely certain that it won't include any horny adolescent girls. And boys whine less, even gay ones in books.

The main characters of The God Eaters did whine a bit more than I had patience for in places -- this is very much the deeply wounded soul redeemed by love kind of story, a Regency rake courting a bluestocking made both gay and magical -- but overall, I was impressed with the quality of the characterization. While a little emo, the protagonists were appealing and rounded enough. It probably helps that I have a weakness for the closet-romantic cold-blooded killer trope, as shown in my review of Villains by Necessity; these guys wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea.

I was actually impressed with the quality overall, especially given that I read a self-published online version of the novel. I found some typos, but frankly fewer than one would usually find in a mainstream publication. The writing quality was generally good, much better than the average for a self-edited manuscript.**

So with these housekeeping details out of the way, let's move on to the meat: the fantasy part of the fantasy novel in question. I was underwhelmed by the world as a whole, although the individual settings were well-described and vivid. The God Eaters takes place in a thinly disguised 19th century American West, with the Native Americans turned into some other type of native people with a name I can't bother to remember. The white imperialists (because what would a contemporary fantasy be without white imperialists?) are all conservative religious types who follow one god out of the many who used to be running around amok. (I'm willing to forgive this, though, simply because the great god of the oppressed native folks also turns out to be a prick.) Not the most creative use of history to create a fantasy world, but I give some points for fictionalized North America rather than fictionalized Europe or the Middle East.

On the theme of "not terribly original," some never-revealed proportion of the population has magical Talents*** that make them able to throw stuff around with their minds, start fires, read emotions, and so on. Our Talented heroes, as the story begins, have both been arrested for different crimes (the bluestocking wrote seditious pamphlets, the cold-blooded killer cold-bloodedly killed a whole bunch of people). Instead of receiving the usual summary execution, they're sent to a special creepy prison for magical prisoners in order to be experimented upon, oppressed, and generally cackled at by mustache-twirling Nazi types.

After the predictable escape, our heroes strike out across the desert, have a few adventures with starvation and floods and so on, and also fall in love. That part is all right -- I thought the author wrote a fairly compelling romance, even if the fantasy part of the novel was a little vague in places.

Eventually, in between running around in the desert and getting in fights (also not a bad part of the story), they figure out that both of them are kind-of sort-of aspects of some gods who have been driven into hiding by the white imperialists' god, whom they must then defeat.Since the god-eating part of the story appears shockingly late in the novel for being in the title, I'm sorry to spoil the story somewhat by revealing it, but since it's not so badly done, it's worth mentioning as a positive for The God Eaters. I've reviewed two other books recently that featured that good old people-turning-into-gods chestnut, The Rifter -- which pulled it off -- and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which emphatically didn't. While this book is nowhere near as good as the former, this author did manage something that the author of the latter did not: turning people into gods without resorting to ellipses, sentence fragments, or incest in order to disguise a lack of logic.

The God Eaters gets a solid three stars within contemporary fantasy, although I wouldn't go higher than two and a half compared to non-contemporary fantasy. It's very hard for me not to give this book more stars than it truly deserves; it was such a relief to find a fantasy novel that wasn't aimed at twelve-year-olds.

* This is the publication date for the paperback version that I found on Goodreads. I think the electronic version has been around longer than that. No one really cares about these details anyway, so let's all go back to the blog post and forget how OCD I am, m'kay?

** Actually, I have no proof that it was self-edited, but a few comments left by the author about having accidentally uploaded older versions of the story suggested it. If it was, then I compliment the author on his skills. The prose is nice and tight in most places, it flows well, and I was never confused about what the hell was going on, which is sometimes hard to pull off when a writer edits his own work.

*** Yeah, yeah, but at least it's better than "Gifts," right?