Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Who Controls the Past Controls the Future

Nineteen Eighty-Four

by George Orwell

Published by Plume Books

5 Out of 5 Stars

I've put off writing a review for 1984 because it's simply too daunting to do so.  I liked 1984 even better after a second reading (bumping it up from a 4 star to a 5 star) because I think that, given the complexity of the future created by Orwell, multiple readings may be needed to take it all in.  I thought it was genius the first time and appreciated that genius even more the second time.
Orwell had a daunting task:  creating a future nearly half a century away from the time period in which he was writing.  This future had to be its own complex, independent society, but it also had to be the natural end result of the totalitarianism Orwell witnessed in the communist and socialist regimes of World War II.  That's part of the horror of 1984:  this future is a recognizable one, even in the 21st century.  It's easy to see how those in control can, through manipulation and propaganda, maintain that control simply for the sake of sating their own power hunger.  It's easy to say "no one could ever tell me what to think or what to do," but the Party's use of Big Brother, the Thought Police, the Two-Minute Hate, and Doublethink make it easy to see how a person's ability to think independently and discern fiction from reality can be eroded when there is no touchstone to fact.  Revising and rewriting the past to make certain that Big Brother and the Party are always correct has effectively eliminated historical accuracy.  How can one think and reason in a society where everything is a fabrication?

Another facet of 1984 that I find fascinating is the relationship between Winston and Julia.  Winston claims Julia is a "rebel from the waist down," engaging in promiscuity and hedonistic indulgences forbidden by the Party.  She doesn't care about social injustice or defining "reality"; she only longs for what will make her feel good in the moment and only rebels far enough to get what she wants.  By comparison, Winston is an intellectual rebel, constantly worrying over the issues of truth and freedom and the real, unvarnished past, but limited in how far he's willing to push the boundaries (until he meets Julia).  Together, they make a complete rebellion--physical and mental, but apart they find themselves impotent to stand up to the Party. 

A cautionary tale, social commentary, and exemplary example of dystopian fiction, 1984 is one of those perfect novels that not only entertains, but forces one to think about the danger associated with giving any one person or entity too much power or control over our lives--issues well worth consideration in post-9/11 America.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Voodoo That Fails to Spellbind

Dominique Laveau, Voodoo Child (Volume 1:  Requiem)

Written by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds

Illustrated by Denys Cowan

Published by Vertigo

3 Out of 5 Stars

It seems almost unfair to rate Dominique Laveau, Voodoo Child based upon the 7 issues released by Vertigo before its cancellation.  The problem for me is whether or not to rate the series on what it could have been if it had been given the time to develop its storyline and flesh out its characters, or to rate it based upon what we've got.

In the end, I'm going with what we've got because Dominique Laveau, Voodoo Child brought about its own early demise.  The story places Dominique Laveau in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  The series starts out strong enough, with Dominique soon finding out that she is actually a direct descendant of Marie Laveau, the famous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, and therefore the rightful leader of the secretive Voodoo Court.  The only problem is she's also the prime suspect in the deaths of several Court members.

There's a lot of flashback throughout the work, some of it confusing and unnecessary.  The best parts occur when Dominique is brought into contact with Marie Laveau and her history, as well as several of the deities of Voodoo.  However, these parts are obscured by unclear motivations and a shorthand way of introducing the deities and their importance to an audience who likely know little of the Loa.  It's not long before the series seems directionless and without focus.  If only it had taken more time to let Dominique's story unfold--so much is packed into each issue (new characters, new deities, new background) that nothing has a chance to fully develop or grab the reader.

All of this is incredibly frustrating because there was so much potential here for something fresh and new.  While I'm disappointed Vertigo didn't give it more of a chance, in the end it was the narrative's inability to find its footing more quickly and connect with its audience that's to blame.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Have Gun Will Travel (to Other Worlds Than These)

The Gunslinger

by Stephen King

Published by Viking Adult

4 Out of 5 Stars

Recently, my comrades in literature featured a Dark Tower conversation on (prepare for shameless plug) Shelf Inflicted.  Unfortunately, I was unable to participate because I had not yet read the series.  It felt a little like being the uncool kid who gets picked last for  kickball.  I decided it was time to remedy this.  I was going to prove I could kick that damn ball.

Now I have made vague promises for years to them and to others that, yes, I would read the book and I was sure that I would love it.  Last summer I even went so far as to purchase a copy of the book.  That was as far as I got.  So what was the problem?  After all, I've read a few Stephen King books and enjoyed them.  The problem was that it was a series.  A series where the books become progressively longer.  And if I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times:  I hates me a series.  Because "series"usually translates to "sucking at the teat of the publishing cash cow for as long as possible."  Such novels often recycle the same premise over and over and over again until they have completely worn out that which began as unique and inventive.  They're the Lost of the literary world.  If you can't wrap it up in a trilogy, you have nothing to offer me.

But caving to peer pressure placed upon me by people I both trust and fear, I finally started The Gunslinger.  And so it has begun.

In a narrative as bleak and barren as its landscape, The Gunslinger follows Roland Deschain, the enigmatic gunslinger of the title, as he chases the man in black across a seemingly post-apocalyptic desert wasteland.  The last of his kind, the gunslinger is the ultimate anti-hero--a knight in tarnished armor with polished guns.  He's capable of extreme violence and single-mindedness in pursuit of his prey: 

he stood, screaming and reloading, his mind far away and absent, letting his hands do their reloading trick.  Could he hold up a hand, tell them he had spent a thousand years learning this trick and others, tell them of the guns and the blood that had blessed them?  Not with his mouth.  But his hands could speak their own tale (64).

However, he is also surprisingly tender to the helpless and hopeless who cross his path, like the young Jake, a boy plucked from 1970's America and brought to the nowhere through which Roland is traveling.  This place, while seeming like the frontier of the Old West, may be more than it appears to be as machinery is scattered throughout like so many fossils and everyone seems to be familiar with Hey, Jude.  The gunslinger himself is from New Canaan, a place like a medieval western (imagine A Game of Thrones with guns) where time has suddenly accelerated.  As best as I can tell, Roland's ultimate goal is to capture the man in black and make his way to the Dark Tower, a nexus of time and space, to seek answers as to why this is. 

The novel itself is a mash-up of all that is good:  sci fi, fantasy, western, horror, dystopian, legend, quest.  However, I can see where this book is not for everyone.  It's not a book that explains itself to you so much as happens to you.  If you don't like narratives that offer more questions than answers and leave you with no sense of resolution, then you might want to sidestep The Gunslinger.  I, however, am anxious to start The Drawing of the Three because destination is irrelevant to me at this point.  I just plan on enjoying the ride.

The Mighty and Fearsome . . . Pug?

Battlepug:  Volume 1

by Mike Norton

Published by Dark Horse

5 Out of 5 Stars

I have always suspected that baby harp seals were capable of a vicious brutality that certainly merited clubbing.  Those big black eyes are pools of pure evil.  Battlepug has proven my suspicions correct as it is a giant baby seal that merrily lays waste to an entire Arctic village, leaving only one survivor:  a child hellbent on revenge against this monstrous beast.  The child grows into a warrior and, as all warriors need a noble steed, it is not long before he discovers the brave animal who will carry him into battle:  a giant, wheezing, perpetually happy pug. 

This is just a taste of the weirdness that awaits you in Mike Norton's Battlepug.  While Norton is best known for more standard comic book fare, this story of a Conan-like warrior carried on his quest for revenge by a battle ready pug is just pure fun.  The bizarre and colorful illustrations are often hilarious and always beautiful as they parody comic book stereotypes (such as the muscled and stoic barbarian, the ridiculously buxom and inexplicably nude woman, the mastermind villain whose identity has yet to be discovered by the hero) while simultaneously creating an inventive and imaginative storyline that stands on its own. 

So many comic books take their characters and their stories so seriously these days that it's nice to be reminded of what joy can be found in an unbridled imagination.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

There Are Wounds That Time Will Not Heal

Dirty Work

by Larry Brown

Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

5 Out of 5 Stars

This is one of those books that I use to size up other people.  If you've read Dirty Work and you didn't love it, I wish you well but I doubt I want to know you.  This was the first Larry Brown book that I ever read and, after re-reading it, it is still as powerful and haunting the second time around. 

The novel focuses on two Vietnam veterans in the VA hospital two decades after the war has ended.  Braiden, a black quadraplegic, has spent this entire time in the hospital and his imagination is his only means of escape.  When Walter arrives under mysterious circumstances, Braiden thinks he's found his salvation.  Walter's face was horribly mutilated and shell fragments lodged in his brain cause him to have uncontrollable "blackouts" from which he awakens with no memory.  As these two men talk about their lives as they were and as they are, they revisit the painful landscape of Vietnam and Brown reveals how the war took much more from them than their bodies.  The damage is emotional, spiritual, and mental (as Braiden says at one point, "It do something to you to kill another person.  It ain't no dog lying there.  Somebody.  A person, talk like you, eat like you, got a mind like you.  Got a soul like you . . . You look in somebody's eyes, then kill him, you remember them eyes.  You remember that you was the last thing he seen.") The novel also reflects how it was the poor and, in particular, the black soldiers who were asked to give the most and expect nothing in return--not even valid reasons for fighting. 

Brown's writing is simple, direct, and often bitingly funny when you least expect it.  He knew how to capture the cadences and culture of working class Americans always one paycheck away from the brink of poverty and he always did so with the utmost respect, never denigrating or lessening their value to American society.  When Brown died, we lost one of the finest writers of the American South and this novel is a testament to his gifts.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Lacking in Bite, But Plenty of Suck

Blood Oath

by Christopher Farnsworth

Published  by Jove

2 Out of 5 Stars

After avoiding the vampire genre for so long (thanks to Stephenie Meyer turning it into one giant suckfest of romantic longing), I've lately been wallowing in it.  Between watching seasons 1 and 2 of SyFy's Being Human, reading DC's excellent The New 52 I, Vampire, as well as Scott Snyder's American Vampire, my faith in the genre has been restored.  Bring on the bloodsucking fiends!  So I was more than ready to tackle Blood Oath, which, based upon several excellent reviews, I thought would also put the bite back into the genre.  And my final verdict is . . . eh, not so much.

The premise is promising:  when a sailor is found aboard a whaling ship, surrounded by the ex-sanguinated corpses of his mates, President Andrew Johnson brings Marie Laveau in to bind the vampire to the office of the President for as long as he walks the earth.  As a result, Nathaniel Cade has been our country's best kept secret weapon for 140 years, protecting our country against threats foreign, domestic, and supernatural.  He lives in an off-limits wing of the Smithsonian Institute and uses his prowess as a hunter to serve our country.  The latest threat?  Dr. Johann Konrad may be helping Islamic jihadists create zombie soldiers from the parts of fallen U. S. servicemen.  His credentials for doing so?  He was in charge of Hitler's attempts to create Unmenschsoldaten, soldiers raised from the dead to fight without feeling pain, empathy, or hunger.  Oh, and did I mention that waaaaayyyyy back in the day Johann lived in Castle . . . Frankenstein?

I could hardly wait to wrap my peepers around the words that held so much promise for giddy, ridiculous, blood-drenched fun!  Alas, the more promise offered, the greater the potential for disappointment.  The book reads more like a movie script than a novel and all of the characters are flat and one-dimensional.  The dialogue is groan-worthy; the attempts at humor are weak and obvious; the descriptions are virtually non-existent.

Now, don't get me wrong, I like a good, light read, but I also expect it to be done with a certain flair and panache that keeps me entertained.  If the banter had been witty instead of predictable, if the absolute absurdity of it all could have been embraced without always bringing it back to the seriousness of politics and patriotism, and, most importantly, if there had been a vampire that was interesting, this book would have lived up to my expectations.

The greatest weakness of all was the one thing that, if approached differently, could have saved it.  Nathaniel Cade is perhaps the most boring, tedious vampire you will ever meet in literature.  He shows no emotion, he refuses to drink human blood, he's a tortured soul because of the sins he's committed, he admonishes people for taking the Lord's name in vain, he wears a cross that causes him pain to constantly remind him of his sins.  Put a sweater vest on him and he could be a Republican candidate for president.  Hell, Bunnicula has more of a personality than Cade.  To be of interest, Cade needs a few more quirks and more menace; he needs a dash of the devil in him (like Anne Rice's Lestat).  The one bit that held promise--Cade attends AA meetings to help him deal with his "thirst"--is only briefly touched upon and a brilliant opportunity for hilarity to ensue is wasted.  I wanted Cade to want to raise hell and put a brick under it.  Instead, he's just being compelled by the spell of a voodoo queen and a need to right his wrongs. One gets the sense that, if let off his chain he would promptly waste himself by walking into the sunlight or driving a stake through his own heart.  By the end of the novel, I kind of wish he had.

The Family That Shocks Together . . .

The Family Fang

by Kevin Wilson

Published by Ecco

3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars

Annie and Buster Fang, like so many twenty-somethings, blame their parents for the lack of fulfillment and success they find in their careers and in their personal lives.  However, unlike many twenty-somethings, Annie and Buster may have a valid claim for blaming their parents for their seeming lack of autonomy and self-actualization.  That's because the Fang children's parents were artists--as in Artists (that's right with a capital A and italics).  And not just any kind of artists, but performance artists hell bent on causing chaos in established patterns and the unexpected in the routines of daily life.     

Their parents, Caleb and Camille Fang, are nothing if not utterly dedicated to their art, which involves creating elaborate "happenings" in the most predictable of American venues: the mega-mall.  People lulled into hypnotic trances by muzak, colorful window displays, and giant pretzels are prime targets for the art favored by the Fangs.  Always admonished by their mentor that "children kill art," the Fangs create an unconventional solution to preserve their art and raise their family: Annie and Buster become Child A and Child B, props used by their parents to pull off the increasingly elaborate happenings. 

Flash forward to Annie and Buster as adults.  Both have managed to completely FUBAR their adult lives and return to the Fang family nest for a real world time-out.  Immediately drawn back into the weirdness created by their parents, Annie and Buster revert to their childhood roles.  Buster becomes the sensitive younger child, always anxious to please his parents, while Annie becomes the protective older sister, encouraging Buster to challenge their parents' authority.  Shortly after their return, the Fangs disappear and foul play is suspected by the authorities.  Annie and Buster, however, believe this is another elaborate art piece created by their parents and must examine their seriously dysfunctional relationship with them as they search for the truth.

The Family Fang explores a dilemma faced by every family.  Most parents consciously or unconsciously push their children toward their own personal passions and expect this shared love (whether it be art, football, reading, politics, etc.) to create a bond that no one can break.  Problems inevitably ensue when the child begins exploring the world on his own terms and begins to assert himself as his own being.  In the case of the Fangs, Annie and Buster try to create their own brand of art (in her case, acting, and, in his case, writing), but find that, after years of their parents controlling and shaping the events around them, they are ill-equipped to just let life happen. 

If all of this sounds weird, it is.  But it's also very entertaining and not nearly as dark as one might expect.  Populated with quirky characters and clever dialogue, Wilson's narrative avoids taking itself too seriously by inserting absurdity and humor in all the right places (especially in the scenes where Annie and Buster bicker and banter like close siblings do).  This is a solid 3 1/2 stars and the only reason I didn't give it a 4 is because I enjoyed the first half immensely; however, after the Fangs disappear, I felt as though the shift to the mystery plot was too abrupt and unexpected (granted, that was probably the point, but it just didn't work for me). 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Modern Day Joan of Arc

Alabaster:  Wolves

by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Illustrated by Steve Lieber and Rachelle Rosenberg

Published by Dark Horse Comics

4 Out of 5 Stars

A petite, albino girl with haunting red eyes and cornsilk hair, Dancy Flammarion seems fragile and ethereal. She's certainly the last person one would expect to be a demon slaying bad ass, but where Dancy goes hell is sure to follow.

I had never heard of Dancy Flammarion before I picked up this title by Dark Horse comics.  Dancy is a modern day Joan of Arc, chosen by a fearsome seraph as a divine tool for annihilating whatever lurks in the shadows.  And this angel didn't fall out of some Nativity scene--with four grimacing faces, batlike wings, and a flaming sword, this angel will not be rendered into a Hallmark figurine anytime soon.  Dancy goes where and does what the angel tells her, but not without a little pushback as Dancy is certainly no shrinking violet.  It's her tendency to rebel that causes her angel to abandon Dancy just when she needs it the most.  Now Dancy's only allies are a talking blackbird, the ghost of a werewolf, and her trusty kitchen knife.

This is a clever storyline as one is never really certain if Dancy is a religious zealot, seeing and believing in what is necessary to unapologetically hack and slash her way through the American South, or is she honestly chosen as heaven's lone soldier?  Dancy herself is cognizant of this conundrum, wondering if she's crazy or perhaps the sanest person on earth.  The answers in the end aren't simple and, while I can't say much for fear of giving anything away, create a challenging and complex character that is more intriguing by the final issue than she was in the first.
My one complaint is that Dark Horse has chosen to continue Dancy's story, but only as part of the Dark Horse Presents anthology, a title I'm not particularly interested in following.  Until Dancy returns in her own title, I think I'll check out Kiernan's Dancy novels for more of my favorite kitchen knife-wielding demon slayer.

Flawed Superheroes

DV8:  Gods and Monsters

by Brian Wood

Illustrated by Rebekah Isaacs

Published by WildStorm

5 Out of 5 Stars

I had never heard of DV8, which apparently had a series run before this stand-alone storyline was released.  And chances are I would never have stumbled across it if it weren't for my local comic book guru, Dave, picking it up and saying, "Here, Amanda.  You're going to love this."  Yet another reason to support your local comic book store--it certainly beats the shit out of a generic and often bizarrely inaccurate "Amazon Recommends" suggestion.

But I digress.  DV8 is about a group of genetically advanced superhumans.  "But, wait, isn't this just an X-Men rip-off?" you might be tempted to query.  Sure, the surface similarities are there, but DV8's team of misfits is just that--misfits.  Wood isn't afraid to take them to some dark and twisted places that make the X-Men look like a bunch of goody two-shoes.  And I'm not hating on the X-Men because I do so love them.  The difference here is that X-Men have moral dilemmas, but you know they'll always end up on the right side.  With the DV8 group, you never really know what they'll do.  It's basically what you would realistically expect if people were given superpowers.  Most of us spend our entire lives gaining control of our own impulses, desires, and personalities.  Now complicate that by giving us powers that set us apart from "mere mortals" and you can see where it doesn't take long to find oneself in some morally grey areas.

In DV8, the team (Powerhaus, Evo, Copycat, Bliss, Sublime, Frostbite, Threshold, and Freestyle) are teleported to a planet where primitive tribes fight one another for control.  Having seen the DV8s fall from the sky, the indigenous people believe the gods have fallen to earth.  When they witness the powers possessed by each, it only bolsters this superstitious belief.  The team has no idea why they're here, but assume there must be a purpose as they've each been equipped with a voice chip that acts as a translator between them and the natives.  It's not long until the group splinters along tribal lines, driven by their own issues to either help the people that worship them or abuse their power as "gods" to the point they become monsters. Each chapter follows a single member of the team and his or her specific relationship to the tribe he or she has adopted--and the war that looms in the shadow of their collective egos.

While the ultimate reason for why the team was sent to the planet was  a little bit of a letdown, I enjoyed these characters and the artwork so much that I just didn't care. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Winter is Coming

A Game of  Thrones

by George R. R. Martin

Published by Bantam Books

4 Out of 5 Stars

A Game of Thrones has been plaguing my Amazon recommendations list for years and, for just as long, I've gone back and forth over whether or not I wanted to plunge in and give it a try.  Some sources used words like epic, Tolkien-esque, and masterpiece, so I would promptly put it on my list for my next bookstore visit.  Before I could purchase a copy, though, I would encounter other sources using words like convoluted, complex, and plodding, resulting in my just as promptly striking it off my list.  And so it went until . . .

HBO.  As much as I hate to admit it, I turned to television to tell me whether or not this is a series I would like.  And I was hooked immediately.  Now I wish I had read the books sooner because it's somewhat difficult for me to separate the book from the series as I have never seen a film or television adaptation stick so closely to the original source material.  However, that may be a moot issue as the very fact that I found the book compelling and suspenseful even though I knew what was going to happen is testament enough to Martin's writing.

Told from alternating points of view, Martin vividly captures a wide cast of characters, but I never felt intimidated by keeping up with who is who, nor did I agree with other reviewers who have stated that the plotlines are "overly complex."  I also disagree with those who say the novel has misogynistic tones--the men are strong and (I would argue) the women stronger.  The court intrigues and the Machiavellian jockeying for the Iron Throne amongst the great houses of the Seven Kingdoms is delightfully entertaining: the scheming, the lying, the seducing, the killing--what's not to love?

I'm also impressed with the world Martin has created here.  Admittedly, the world building is not as complex as many other fantasy novels I've read, but I consider the simplicity of his world to be one of its strengths.  Set in a somewhat medieval time period, the fantasy elements are subtle:  there are direwolves, the Others, the ominous certainty that "winter is coming" (a winter that can last generations).  Plus, there's mention of dragons (and everything's always better with a dragon).  However, many writers in this genre try to stuff their novels so full of fantasy tropes that they almost become parodies of themselves.  Martin's work feels as though you're reading the history of another culture or society; everything seems authentic and nothing forced. 

There were a few repeated phrases that began to vex me (such as "breaking their fast" and the blushing, oh, God, the blushing), but I suppose such repetitions can only be expected in a novel of this size.  I also dreaded the Sansa chapters (simply because she's such an unlikable character) and the Bran chapters (though I suspect Bran has the potential to become a favorite character in later books).  These flaws are minor, however, and I definitely plan on continuing with the series as I have the feeling that Martin is just beginning to weave the tangled web of the Seven Kingdoms.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The World and the Heavens Boiled Down to a Drop

Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

Published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics

5 Out of 5 Stars

*The title of this review comes from my favorite quote in the novel:  “She didn't read books so she didn't know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.”  

This is another book I recently re-read that stands up well to a second reading. Hurston's novel, unlike many classics, is as impressive and as relevant today as it was when written.

Hurston's story of Janie, a fair-skinned black woman caught in the time period between the end of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, is the first woman in her family who has the opportunity to be defined as something other than property.  Despite this, Janie is unable to achieve self-actualization or seek out the independence for which she longs; however, this is not due to the racism or prejudices of white society (in fact, there isn't a prominent white character in the book). Instead, Hurston takes a fascinating look at intraracial racism. Janie's obvious "whiteness" sets her apart from the black community. At first, she's envied for her pretty hand-me-down dresses and hair ribbons that she obtains from the kind white family for which her grandmother works.  When combined with her straight hair (which hangs down to her waist), her exquisite beauty, and her light skin, she defies color categorization and leaves the question of "what is black?" lacking a definite answer. Later, she's an outcast because her second husband's "big voice" and quest for power in the all black community of Eatonville comes to be identified with the white masters of days gone by, and Janie comes to be seen in the role of the Southern plantation "mistress."

In addition, Hurston explores the repression of women in a patriarchal society. Janie's grandmother tells her that the black woman is the "mule of the world," the lowest of the low. Janie finds this to be true in her first two marriages, as she is treated like property by Logan Killicks and is later objectified by Jody Starks. It isn't until she meets Tea Cake, a man half her age, that Janie begins to live life on her own terms and not by the definition her man has set forth for her.

Whether you like the novel or not, it's importance to African-American and feminist literature is undeniable.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Long Live the Queen

Queen of Kings

by Maria Dahvana Headley

Published by Dutton Adult

5 Out of 5 Stars

Despite the fact that it combines two of my favorite obsessions--vampires and Ancient Rome/Egypt circa the lifetime of Cleopatra--I almost didn't read this book.  I was leery that it was going to be a bodice-ripper in disguise (nothing triggers my gag reflex like the words "paranormal romance") or, worse yet, a poorly written, poorly researched historical novel with just a dash of fantasy so it could jump on the increasingly burdened Twilight bandwagon.  After weeks of circling it like a vulture over highway road kill, what finally caused me to buy it was seeing that it had Neil Gaiman's seal of approval.  I live by the "WWNGR" code (What Would Neil Gaiman Read?) and so it was done.  I'm pleased to say that the book exceeded my expectations and avoided all of the pitfalls I feared.

In Queen of Kings, Headley has taken a unique approach to reimagining the death of Cleopatra.  I was surprised to find that this isn't exactly a vampire novel and it certainly isn't a rip-off of Anne Rice's Queen of the Damned.  After losing the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra becomes desperate to stop Octavius's impending conquest of Egypt.  She commands her scholars to search for a solution in the form of divine intervention.  What they bring her is an incomplete spell that will allow the pharaoh to call upon the gods of Ancient Egypt.  As the forces of Octavius invade Egypt and a dying Mark Antony is brought to Cleopatra, she uses the spell to call upon Sekhmet, a vengeful goddess of warfare also known as the Lady of Slaughter.  Sekhmet, angry over Egypt's worship of new deities as well as Ra's banishment of her, takes over the body of Cleopatra in return for bringing Mark Antony back to life.  Things go awry, Mark Antony still ends up dead, and Cleopatra is now a servant to Sekhmet's bloodlust.  Now immortal and possessing the powers of a goddess, Cleopatra has all of the weapons needed to wreak havoc on Rome and punish Octavius.  However, she struggles to maintain her humanity as the goddess within her begins to crowd out the woman she was.

The first part of the novel skillfully weaves together historical detail with parts of the vampire mythos (the reasons for why Cleopatra craves blood, can't withstand the light of the sun, and is pained by exposure to silver are all cleverly tied to Egyptian mythology).  After that point, the novel becomes increasingly fantasy based but still manages to bring events back to historical correctness.  As Octavius begins to fear Cleopatra's vengeance, he surrounds himself with sorcerers:  an African tribesman with a gift for controlling serpents and the wind, a Norse seer with the ability to reweave fate, and a high priestess of Hecate who plans to harness the power of Cleopatra/Sekhmet to free Hecate from her imprisonment in Hades.  All of these characters bring a fascinating array of possibilities to the story and, through them, Mark Antony's ghost is resurrected, gods and goddesses are called upon, and we are taken through Hades.

There are flaws in the novel.  Another reviewer said that there's not enough violence given the elements at play here and I agree; Cleopatra often talks a lot of smack about punishing her enemies in cruel and horrible ways consistent with Sekhmet, but, to quote Shakespeare's Antony, she never truly cries "Havoc!  And let slip the dogs of war that this foul deed shall smell above the earth with carrion men, groaning for burial."  There is violence, but it's watered down and certainly not of the kind one would expect as being the right of ancient gods and goddesses, emperors and pharaohs.  Also, it seems as though Headley doesn't want Cleopatra to come across as a villain or a monster, highlighting her true love for Antony, her children, and her country.  While I respect the attempt to show Cleopatra's humanity, there's little in this character to suggest the kind of ruthless intelligence she was capable of or her hubris as a goddess on earth.  It would have been nice to see Cleopatra given more of an edge--she and Sekhmet probably had more in common than is shown here.
In the end, the novel is a fun take on historical events that are as likely fictionalized as the novel itself.  The first part of a planned trilogy, I'm definitely looking forward to the next novel.  I hope I'm not wrong when I say it seems as though perhaps Headley has set the novel up to move out of the ancient period and into more modern times--perhaps a vampiric Cleopatra causing mayhem in 2011?  I'm definitely game for that. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Nothing New Under the Sun

Under the Tuscan Sun

by Frances Mayes

Published by Broadway

2 Out of 5 Stars

At 66 pages in, I'm throwing in the towel.

Somewhere around the age of 22 or 23, I decided I was done with library books.  Now, don't get me wrong, I love and appreciate libraries.  I became a reader because of access to wonderful libraries.  But, as an adult, I'm OCD enough not to enjoy the concept of library books.  Wondering how many people read them while on the toilet, encountering books that smelled like ash trays, finding potato chip crumbs wedged between pages 32 and 33, encountering a sticky cover, or, dear God, whose hair is that?!!?--these are all things that would give me a nervous twitch for days.  Add to that a county library that seemed unaware of the existence of authors other than Nicholas Sparks, Norah Roberts, James Patterson, and John Grisham, well, the choice was clear.  I had to buy my own books.

The thing is, I was so punchdrunk giddy with the idea of buying my own books and not being limited to what was on the library shelves that I was pretty damn bad at it in the beginning.  I bought anything and everything that struck my fancy.  Part of this was also because I was willing to see if I was the kind of person who would like these books that I didn't have access to previously.  A book about a woman moving to sun-drenched Italy and finding herself?  Why not? Maybe I'm the kind of person who could like that.  My shelves are still filled with secret shames I acquired in those heady days of biblio-freedom. 

Let's just say that, today, I am not the kind of person who would ever pick this book up. 

Under the Tuscan Sun is not a bad book.  It's just not a me book.  As far as I can tell, here is the basic premise:

1) Frances and Ed search all of Italy for the perfect summer house and have terrible trouble finding the place that's meant for them (talk about rich people problems, eh?)
2)  Frances and Ed buy the house that speaks to them--and apparently the house is saying, "Freeze!  Gimme all your money and no one gets hurt!"  Because this house needs some serious work.
3)  Frances and Ed perpetually need or get permits, contracts, money wires, and estimates for the bajillion and one things that need to be fixed.  Every time the expense is exorbitant, but, before one can feel sorry for them, they scrape together the money needed with seemingly minimal effort.  It's kind of like the movie The Money Pit with Tom Hanks and Shelly Long--only this time I was kind of rooting for the house. 
4)  Frances and Ed make a quaint little discovery on their property!  Isn't Italy wonderful!
5)  Something else goes wrong with the house.  (Stick it to 'em, house!)
6)  Frances cooks something.  It's always Italian.  It always has fresh ingredients.  It is always fabulous.

It reads like a well-written, but repetitive and ultimately uninteresting diary.

Now, again, I did not finish reading the book, but skimmed through it enough to feel fairly assured that nothing new was ever going to happen.  Other reviews reaffirmed this belief, so I do not feel compelled to read further.  Had this been a travel article, I probably would have been intrigued but I just can't do another 240 pages of this.  And so, Under the Tuscan Sun, ciao!  I'm off to sunnier literary climes.

Not Exactly Golden

The Alchemist

by Paulo Coelho

Published by HarperCollins

1 Out of 5 Stars

***spoilers and bitterness ahead--be forewarned**

I'm not sure that I can capture my utter disdain for this book in words, but I'll give it a shot.  I read this book about three years ago and just had to re-read it for book club.  It was a steaming pile of crap then and, guess what?  It's a steaming pile of crap now.  The main reason I hate this book:  it's trite inspirational literature dressed up as an adventure quest.  You go into it thinking that it's going to be about a boy's quest for treasure.  If you read the back, there are words like "Pyramids," "Gypsy," "alchemist."  Turns out, this is just The Purpose Driven Life dressed up with a little fable.  It's Hallmark Hall of Fame territory set in an exotic locale.  Which pisses me off to no end as I normally try to dodge that sort of thing, but here it is masquerading as the type of book I normally like.  It's clich├ęd, didactic, and poorly written.   

Just as with Aesop's Fables, there's a moral to the story.  And Coelho keeps backing up and running over it just to make sure that we get it (and he capitalizes important key words necessary to understanding it, lest we overlook their significance).  If there's one thing Paulo Coelho can do, it's flog a dead horse. 

Essentially, boy thinks he's happy in life.  He's a shepherd who gets to travel the world, has all of his needs met, and owns a book which he can always trade for another book when he goes to market.  What more can a boy need?  Boy is then told by a mysterious stranger that he's not happy at all.  Why not?  He has failed to recognize his Personal Legend.  Everyone has a Personal Legend, which is life's plan for you.  However, most of us give up on our Personal Legend in childhood.  If you are fortunate enough to hang onto and pursue your Personal Legend, then The Soul of the World will help you obtain it.  All of nature conspires to bring you luck and good fortune so that you can fulfill your destiny, whether it's to be a shepherd on a quest for treasure at the pyramids, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, or, one would assume, a prostitute, drug dealer, or porn star.  Hey, we're all fate's bitch in The Alchemist.  But I digress.  Boy seeks out his Personal Legend and finds it's a long, hard road to obtaining what you want in life.  But with faith, perseverance, and just a little goshdarnit good luck, the boy learns to speak the Language of the World and tap into The Soul of the World and fulfills his Personal Legend.  And what does he learn?  That what he sought was back home, the place he started from.  Oh, silly boy. 

So, in summation, here is what you should learn from The Alchemist:
1)  Dream.  And, while you're at it, dream BIG
2)  Follow your bliss
3)  Don't be surprised if you find obstacles in your way, but you will
4)  It's good to travel and encounter people from other cultures
5)  What we most often seek is right in front of us, but sometimes we
     have to leave home to realize it

To all of these important life lessons, I can only say, "Well, no shit, Sherlock."  If Coelho knew anything about alchemy, he would have been able to transform this crap into gold.  Alas, it's still crap. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Just About Perfect

Cold Mountain

by Charles Frazier

Published by Grove Press

5 Out of 5 Stars

Cold Mountain is quite possibly the most beautiful book I've ever read. It's not for the faint of heart, however, as it's time consuming and requires a great deal of patience.  Frazier takes his time with his descriptions of the landscape and the people as Inman, a soldier broken in spirit by the futility and waste of the Civil War, decides to walk home to Ada and his beloved Cold Mountain. That is not to say that Frazier wastes the reader's time or goes off on unnecessary tangents (although for those who like quick narratives, it may seem that way), but he is in no hurry to rush the novel to its conclusion. To have done so would have stripped the novel of its power as it examines the lives of both Inman, who fears he has lost his humanity, and Ada, a Southern belle woefully unprepared to exist in the harsh mountain landscape of Cold Mountain when she finds herself all alone. What may seem like lengthy transcendentalist-like descriptions of nature actually serve to reveal the inner life of each character and enrich the narrative.

Of the two alternating narratives, I found Inman's the most compelling. His is a Dante-like journey through the "Inferno" of the American South (comparisons could also be made to Homer's The Odyssey). While he time and again encounters people wallowing in depravity and sin in a seemingly lawless world, he also encounters along this hellish journey acts of selflessness and kindness that serve as balm to his soul when he's on the cusp of losing all hope. Ironically, those offering the greatest kindnesses are those who are the most excluded from society (slaves and women). Inman is a man who is capable of violence, but only when necessary. After killing indiscriminately in war, he's determined to do no harm unless it's absolutely unavoidable. It may be because of the violence that is still latent within him that Inman struggles so with the world and his place in it.

Of the reviews I've read, most readers disliked the novel's ending. Without giving away any spoilers, I'll only state that I thought the ending was the only possible one offered in a world consumed by war.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Because Alice in Wonderland Wasn't Messed Up Enough . . .

Return to Wonderland:  Grimm Fairytales Wonderland #1

Written by Raven Gregory

Illustrated by Daniel Leister and Nei Ruffino

Published by Zenescope

1 Out of 5 Stars

If you've ever read Alice in Wonderland and thought, "You know what this story really needs? More tits. And viscera. Tits and viscera for everyone!" then a) you are probably a 12 year old boy who butchers his neighbor's pets in his spare time and b) this collection is for you. 

This is some dark stuff and, folks, I certainly don't mind dark stuff, but this is gratuitous with no cohesive storyline and a complete and utter lack of imagination (I say this because to take Alice in Wonderland and sex it up doesn't require any great creative power--just an unhealthy preoccupation with people's "naughty bits"). Basically, Alice's teenage daughter, Calie goes to Wonderland. Calie encounters exactly all of the same experiences her mother did, only they're all portrayed with a blatant lasciviousness: Calie's built like an inflatable doll and every scene is sexually charged by playing to as many fetishes as possible. And, as if that wasn't enough, it's as though the author is trying to cram as much shockfest violence, gore, and sexuality into the pages as possible. The narrative is so busy trying to shock us that the vignettes with the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts don't serve a real purpose--they simply provide the next platform from which to blow our minds with how daring and edgy the story is. Yeah, well, we've got another name for being sexually daring and edgy without context and storyline: porn. Because that's really what this is, in a subdued form. Whether we're talking about the violence or the sex, it's playing to a certain type of unhealthy libido in a manner meant to arouse.

Back in the real world, Alice has attempted suicide multiple times and lives in a catatonic state. In the meantime, her husband is having an affair and not just any old affair. Oh, no. We wouldn't want to miss out on an opportunity to bring out the whips and chains, would we? So he's having an affair steeped in sadomasochism. And then there's Calie's brother who is exhibiting all the classic signs of a blossoming young serial killer. It's dysfunctional with a capital D, which seems a little overboard when coupled with the level of macabre that is present in Wonderland, too. For either Calie's reality or her Wonderland experience to be dark and twisted would be fine, but the two together is too much.

A Brotherhood Born of Blood and Violence

The Sisters Brothers

by Patrick DeWitt

Published by Ecco

4 Out of 5 Stars

I like reading about bad people in fiction.  And, lest we jump to conclusions, it's not because I'm a bad person myself (at least not in the torture or kill people kind of way; no, the sins in which I dabble are much more pedestrian than that), but it's because I like peering into those dark little corners of their brains.  The most frightening and fascinating realization I come to in such novels is that, really, they're much more like me than I care to admit. 

Take Pulp Fiction, for example, which may be my favorite movie of all time.  Sure, you've got some of the old ultraviolence, but what's really chilling is to see how it's part of the average work day for Jules and Vincent.  Their days are filled with conversations both philosophical and mundane, punctuated by acts of violence that they accept as part of how their world works.  When we think of men who can kill, we think of monsters, depraved beings who have no moral compass, an inability to reason.  While that is certainly sometimes the case, sometimes we find that--behind the monster--there is just a man, one who knows that what he is doing is wrong, but does it anyway: for money, for love, for power.  And what worked for Pulp Fiction is what works for The Sisters Brothers.

Charlie and Eli Sisters are two of the most feared assassins in the West, working for a shadowy figure known only as "The Commodore."  Charlie, the older brother, is ruthless and power hungry, while his brother, Eli, is a sensitive sort who is prone to violence when he becomes enraged--a tool often used by Charlie to his advantage.  Even in adulthood, Eli is relegated to the archetypal role of the younger brother, haplessly following and obeying his older brother, while occasionally challenging Charlie just to see how far he can be pushed. 

The brothers are sent by The Commodore on an errand to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a prospector who has crossed The Commodore in ways unknown to the brothers.  Not that it matters as their job is to kill and not ask questions.  The journey there provides the brothers with adequate time to be attacked by a bear, run into a backwoods witch, visit a brothel, and encounter characters curious and strange.  As the men travel, we see them banter back and forth, every bit true siblings, alternately needling each other's quirks and weaknesses and then engaging in profound conversations about their beliefs and shared history. 

The dialogue between the brothers is the real treat of the novel--witty and peculiarly formal (think Charles Portis's characters as portrayed in the Coen version of True Grit).  As he longs for love, worries about his weight, discovers the joys of dental hygiene, and wrestles with his disdain and admiration for his one-eyed, cantankerous horse, Tub, Eli Sisters is the more relatable of the two brothers.  However, before one can become too attached to either character, a scene of needless and wanton violence reminds us that both of these men are killers and, for all the contemplation of human nature the two engage in, it proves as difficult to put down a gun as it is to pick one up. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Road Worth Traveling

Road Dogs

by Elmore Leonard

Published by William Morrow and Company

3 Out of 5 Stars

This review, much like an Elmore Leonard novel, is destined to be short and to the point. As it should be.

Road Dogs picks up where the novel Out of Sight left off. In Out of Sight we were introduced to Jack Foley, a bank robber whose escape from prison leads to his "kidnap" of U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco. Star-crossed lovers far more interesting than Romeo and Juliet, Jack and Karen are a couple who are meant to be, but can never be. Watching the sparks fly between them and their ongoing banter made Out of Sight one of my favorite Leonard novels.

Road Dogs follows Jack Foley's life after Karen Sisco. When fellow inmate Cundo Rey (a wealthy Cuban with serious outside connections) pays for a high-powered attorney to help Jack reduce the 30 year sentence handed down by a judge aptly nicknamed "Maximum Bob" (for his propensity to always give the maximum sentencing allowed), Jack finds his sentence significantly reduced. And he also finds himself in debt to Cundo. As a result, Jack gets mixed up with Cundo's wife, Dawn Navarro, and various plots from conning a wealthy movie star to robbing Cundo himself. All the while, a zealous FBI agent is watching Jack's every move.

As with all Leonard novels, it's hard to track where the narrative will take us, which is always part of the fun. For me, however, the real joy in a Leonard novel comes from the dialogue. No one, and I mean no one, has a better ear for the natural rhythms of everyday speech than Leonard. He can develop entire characters simply based on their conversation. Little is needed in the way of physical description; you can take the measure of a character simply from the sound of his or her speech.

Despite all of this, this is not Leonard's best novel, but even a mediocre Leonard novel is better than most popular fiction out there today. Foley still comes across as the likable scamp of a bank thief, but it lacks the sizzle that came from his interaction with Karen Sisco. I did enjoy seeing Dawn Navarro again and thought her character is the most interesting in the book. A psychic with a real gift for seeing the future, she opts to make her living pulling cons and waiting to get her hands on Cundo's money. Her constantly shifting persona as she plays one man against another is like watching a reptile blend into its surroundings and waiting for its prey. I wouldn't mind seeing a book turn up in the near future strictly focused on her life after Road Dogs.

I Thought the Apocalypse Would Be More Exciting Than This

Morrigan's Cross

by Nora Roberts

Published by Jove

1 Out of 5 Stars

Take one dead sexy vampire
+ one dead sexy sorcerer
+ one dead sexy witch
+ one dead sexy queen
+ one dead sexy shapeshifter
+ one dead sexy vampire slayer
= one hot mess

This is just . . . well, indescribable.  I found this book on my bookshelf the other day and couldn't believe that I had ever purchased a Nora Roberts book.  A quick look at the back cover held part of the explanation:  "A battle is brewing between the forces of good and evil--a war will be fought across the planes of time--as Lilith, the most powerful vampire in the world, gathers her dark minions around her.  The goddess Morrigan rises up to stop her--and with her, a circle of six . . ."  Okay, maybe not high-brow literature, but it sounded pretty kick ass--I mean the Morrigan, the three-phased Irish goddess of battle?  As I was reading, the other part of the explanation became evident when the receipt from Sam's Club fell out.  I apparently only shelled out a couple of bucks for this when I bought it.  I like to think that, if I had paid more, I would have investigated a little further as to what exactly I had in my hot little clutches.  Oh, sweet irony, I've managed to book rape myself.

I'm all for a little mindless brain candy; after all, I willingly admit to enjoying Sookie Stackhouse novels.  The problem with this book, however, is that Roberts has thrown in every fantasy stereotype and stock plot available to her.  We have time travel, we have locales that lend themselves to fantasy (Ireland--both 12th century and modern day--and New York), vampires and wizards, unspeakable evil versus unbelievable good, alternate worlds, a final battle pre-ordained by the gods, and the list goes on and on and on.  And so do Roberts' descriptions.  Never, not once, did I  have to wonder about what the quilt on the bed looked like or the glass from which a character drank.  Her color descriptions read like paint swatches from Sherwin Williams.  For all this excitement, the plot basically boils down to the following repetitious cycle:  train with medieval weaponry, cook a meal, train with medieval weaponry, discuss magic, train with medieval weaponry, and have mind-blowing sex.  This is, apparently, all that's required to stave off the apocalypse. 

And who has instigated this apocalypse?  Lilith, the world's oldest and most powerful vampire.  However, her motivation for this apocalypse is standard issue power-hunger with only nebulous explanations as to what she actually plans to do with the world once she has it.  She spends her days skulking around the caves off the coast of Ireland, wearing sumptuous clothes (oh, except, for when she's lying around bare-breasted in bed) while preening, whining, and bitching about how, damn it, she can't see her beautiful self in the mirror.   
And Morrigan?  She just pops in every now and then like a good-natured fairy godmother wanting to check on the fate of our heroes. 

Will I be able to resist reading the rest of the books in the series?  That would be a hell yes.  Now please excuse me while I trot on over to Swaptree to hopefully swap this piece o' trash.  

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

It's Pretty to Look At

The Night Circus

by Erin Morgenstern

Published by Doubleday

3 Out of 5 Stars

The Night Circus reminds me of a wedding cake: breathtakingly beautiful and intricate, with an infinite amount of attention paid to every detail. And, while you'll do the polite thing and talk about how delicious it was, in your heart-of-hearts you know that the simple homemade cake you've got waiting for you at home is infinitely better. Because a wedding cake isn't really about taste at all; it's all about flash, panache, and aesthetics. As your fork breaks through all the magic of sculpted icing, what you often find is that it lacks flavor and texture. All the effort went into the external and not the internal. That's how I feel about The Night Circus. It is unquestionably beautiful in its descriptions of the enchanting black and white Circus of Dreams and connects with you on the level of a child's awe and wonderment at encountering a world where the possibility of magic is confirmed.  However, in the final analysis what is missing is a story full of conflict, tension, and developed characters. It's certainly pretty to look at, but didn't resonate with me.

The beginning of the book is filled with promise. Celia Bowen is delivered to her father, Prospero the Enchanter, after her mother commits suicide. Prospero is initially disinterested in the daughter he never knew nor wanted, but becomes intrigued when her anger manifests itself in the movement and breaking of objects in the room around her. Like her father, Celia has a gift for magic--a gift that her father uses to make a living as an illusionist, knowing that his audiences will never suspect what they witness on stage is real and not just sleight of hand. After training Celia to control her powers, Prospero contacts the mysterious Alexander, another true magician, and the two make a wager. Prospero will pit his daughter against an opponent of Alexander's choosing in a challenge that is never clearly defined to the reader. Alexander accepts and promptly plucks Marco, a boy with a love of reading, from a nearby orphanage and begins training him.

{a few spoilers ahead; those still interested in reading the book may want to stop here}

It's at this point that the book has a lot of promise and I'm actually getting excited about the challenge to come. This is also where problems start to surface. Several chapters segue into peripheral storylines not really deserving of exploration as they take the tension out of the challenge between the two magicians. But that's okay, because there's not a lot of tension there to begin with. Celia and Marco are trained for a challenge that's never defined for them. They don't know how the game is played (nor why) and they don't know who their opponent is. Hell, they don't even know what the challenge is until they've unknowingly been involved in it for a while. This is problematic because Celia and Marco have no reason to be invested in the challenge and neither does the reader as we, too, are kept in the dark in regard to all of these matters. It turns out that the challenge is the circus itself, designed specifically as a battleground for the two magicians and the challenge is basically to create additional tents of merriment and delight. That's it. No showdowns, no dramatic monologues, no tension, no pounding of wizard staffs, no ruthlessly executed tactical maneuvers. It's just "I think I'll make a pretty, pretty ice garden" followed by "Oh, he made a pretty, pretty ice garden. I think I'll make a really nifty wishing tree" and on and on it goes, where it stops nobody knows . . . or cares. To completely suck any tension out of this scenario, the two fall in love, which only heightens their disinterest in playing out the game. Their moves and countermoves actually become hidden messages to one another, tributes to the love that will never be.

All of this is not to say that I hated the book. I liked it and I could certainly appreciate the beauty of the descriptions. Some have compared it to Neil Gaiman, which I disagree with as Gaiman would have infused the story with sinister undertones, clever word play to catch the reader off-guard, and a gothic feel. What the book really needs are two magicians who know exactly who they are fighting and why they are fighting--and both of whom desperately want to win. Without that, it's just a tower of lovely icing that leaves you hungry for more than sugar and beauty in the end.

Who Run the World . . . Girls?

Beauty Queens

by Libba Bray

Published by Scholastic Press

2 Out of 5 Stars

Meh. Just meh. Beauty Queens is not at all what I expected. What I expected was a group of beauty queens crash lands on an isolated island and it's not long before the ruthlessness of the pageant morphs into a violent "survival of the fittest" mentality, a la Lord of the Flies. I would have also settled for a dark and biting satire on consumerism and pop culture. Alas, what I got was an increasingly irritating "Girl Power!" message that never quite got off the ground as it never quite rejected everything it didactically preached against. As a message of female empowerment, it has all the depth of Day-to-Night Barbie (oh, how I remember that Barbie in her pink, tailored "go-getter" workplace dress that conveniently converted into a sparkly tulle evening number, proving to little girls that we could be serious and glamorous while we had it all).

To begin with, the novel was far too long and tried to pack in too much for what it was. Beauty queens crashing onto a deserted island is more than enough for a quirky, humorous read, but Bray packs everything she possibly can into the novel: pop culture gags, pro-LGBT messages, reclamation of female sexuality, skewerings of materialism and consumerism, secret lairs and evil mega-corporations. Hell, there's even an evil dictator named Mo-Mo who is a thinly veiled version of Kim Jong-Il. And on top of all of this is a thick layer of "You're perfect just the way you are!" frosting that makes everything A-Okay.

Now I'm a fan of all of these messages (and I especially applaud Bray for including lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters). The problem is that the characters start off as stereotypical beauty queens, focused only on cosmetics, weight, dresses, and winning. The disconnect from society provided by the island gives them the opportunity to explore who they truly are without the consumer and societal "noise" telling girls what they should be. This is all well and good, but the girls seem to undergo an inauthentic sea-change in personality after building a few huts and sewing sparkly banners to attract help. They then become more intellectual, empowered versions of themselves, but no less stereotypical: the prickly feminist, the smart Indian girl, the tough lesbian, the defiant deaf girl, and the dumb bimbo who is trying, like, really hard to be smart. And then there is the tiny contingent of girls who survive for no other reason than to shoot off one-liners and help move the plot along. They're never given any depth or dimension, and are never really referred to by anything other than their "Miss . . . " title. The only interesting character is Taylor, the ultimate pageant girl, who finally snaps and, in a nod to Heart of Darkness and maybe even Tim O'Brien's Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, becomes one with the violence that has always lain dormant within her.

Bray vacillates between slapstick humor and serious messages. While I did enjoy the first few chapters and there were some lines that made me laugh, most of the humor was predictable and inspired only an eye-roll as I turned the page. Unfortunately, the smart stuff, the stuff that needs to be recognized and addressed, becomes lost in the fluff. The novel's own inane silliness ultimately downplays what could have been a more powerful exploration of being a girl in today's society. Or it could have been just a fun powder puff of a novel. Either way, it would have been better than what it ultimately turned out to be. I suppose I could be accused of taking this more seriously than I should have, but I think the same argument could be made of Bray. By the ending chapter, the girls dance their way off the stage while the narrator tells us what they're wearing and gives a synopsis of what their future lives hold. Like Day-to-Night Barbie, they look fabulous and have fabulously successful lives. For the same reason I ultimately got rid of Barbie, I think I'll get rid of Beauty Queens.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Girl Who Wrote Three Reviews


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

by Stieg Larsson

Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

4 Out of 5 Stars

While stranded in a Barnes and Noble for a couple of hours without the book I was currently reading, I started The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo mainly to see what all the fuss was about. I was pretty certain that I wasn't going to like it as I'm generally not a big mystery fan, but saw this as an opportunity to at least have a passing acquaintance with this cultural phenomenon. I was hooked by page 65. Why? Two words: Lisbeth Salander. And why was I so fascinated by Lisbeth? Because she is 4' 11", 90 lbs. soaking wet, and she can still kick your ass.

The plot is fairly convoluted and, in the interest of maintaining suspense, I won't provide a huge plot summary. Basically, journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired by Henrik Vanger, a wealthy but aging Swedish industry magnate, to find out the truth behind how his niece, Harriet Vanger, disappeared decades earlier. Reeling from a set of professional setbacks, Mikael accepts the case though he has little hope of unearthing any new evidence about Harriet's likely murder. As the novel progresses, he hires Lisbeth Salander to help him as he begins to unravel the truth behind Harriet's disappearance and stumbles upon several dark secrets hidden by the wealthy Vanger family.

As previously mentioned, I avoid mysteries because the "whodunit" aspect is usually unrewarding to me. As the daughter of a mother who could, 15 minutes into a suspense movie, point to a character, and off-handedly say, "He did it," I'm fairly adept at figuring it out before the end. But Larsson threw me; I smugly thought I knew who did it, Larsson let me believe I was right (even including a lengthy scene which I thought was building to the denouement), and then--WTF?!?--a twist I never saw coming. I was right, but at the same time was not right. Well played, Mr. Larsson. I thoroughly enjoyed being caught off-guard.

In addition, he had strong and compelling characters in the form of Blomkvist and Salander. Blomkvist is an admirable, yet flawed man (though they are, for the most part, flaws we can easily forgive and make him seem all the more human; most derive from the fact that his passion for his job supersedes what should be more important human relationships). Lisbeth Salander, however, is the real driving force in the novel. I probably wouldn't have made it through the first few chapters of the novel if I weren't eagerly awaiting my next peek at Salander. I've read in other reviews, and agree, that Salander is like a character from a Tarantino movie. She is over-the-top awesome, but that's what is so enjoyable about her. Pierced and tattooed, antisocial, and seemingly emotionless, we learn why Salander is the way she is. Salander is the product of a state-run system that mislabeled her mental state early on; she is the monster created when no one wants to take the time or initiative to properly diagnose an emotionally or mentally troubled individual. Despite what should have been obvious setbacks, Salander is a genius but understandably has some serious authority issues. She is at once a fascinating, yet troubling character that I look forward to reading more about in Larsson's sequels.

The Girl Who Played with Fire

by Stieg Larsson

Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

4 Out of 5 Stars

If loving the Millennium books is wrong, baby, I don't want to be right.

In scanning through the other reviews, I have to concur with many of the problems mentioned: superfluous detail (specific IKEA furniture is mentioned several times--as if I know what any of it looks like just because I have the model number provided, sandwiches are made, coffee is brewed, Billy's Pan Pizzas are consumed); a real dearth of poetic or stylized language; a cast of hundreds (maybe not quite, but it can certainly feel like it); people whose physical injuries should kill them miraculously survive; suspense build-up that has all the subtlety of dramatic chipmunk.

And you know what? Don't care. Don't give a shit. Because all I ask of genre literature is that it tell a helluva good story and Larsson, for all of his sins against the church of high literature, can tell a helluva story. Because a book like this relies so much on plot, here's the basic summary without any spoilers: Lisbeth Salander returns to Sweden after months of living abroad on the billions she stole from Wennerstrom; Mikael Blomkvist is now a media celebrity, though he continues to doggedly search for Salander; Millennium plans to publish a book on the Swedish sex trade (and they plan to name names of police officers and politicians who are involved, as well as bring charges against them upon the date of publication); both Salander and the author of the book become obsessed (for very different reasons) with finding a man named Zala; IKEA's 2010 spring catalog is described in detail; Salander is accused of a double murder and has to go into hiding; and Blomkvist doggedly attempts to prove an uncooperative Salander innocent. Of course all of these plot threads, as well as many others, are brought together in the end.

What makes this novel really work is the character of Lisbeth Salander. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Salander is established as a bad ass you do not want to tangle with. In the movies, we have become accustomed to our female action characters as being towering Amazons with pouty lips, glamorous wardrobes, and double D's spilling out of Victoria's Secret push-up bras. The irony of strong women in film (and many books) is that they have to be model beautiful and highly sexualized femme fatales that are desired by fanboys everywhere. And in Lisbeth Salander, Larsson has created the antithesis to all of that hyper-feminine-but-I'll-kick-your-ass-and-look-good-doing-it bullshit. Salander is not tall, she is not glamorous, she is not beautiful. She's described by others as looking like a rag doll or a teenage boy. She's the last person you would expect to hand you your ass on a silver platter. But if you cross her, you can expect things in your life to go very wrong very quickly.

The other genius thing Larsson has done with Salander in this novel is that she's beginning to evolve. Using her unexpected wealth, Salander has traveled the world and learned more about herself. She's begun to question her previous lifestyle and has realized that she has few true friends--and that it's her fault. Being anti-social and emotionally closed off has always been a defense mechanism for her, but it's beginning to dawn on her that the price she has paid for keeping her guard up may be too high. For the first time in her life, she has the opportunity to live a different life, but she's not quite sure how to go about it. There's an unexpectedly poignant scene in which Blomkvist looks around Salander's mansion-sized apartment and finds that she is only living out of 3 of the 21 rooms. He notes that, despite all of the new furniture, her home is soulless and completely devoid of mementos, photographs, or anything personal; it's as if she's uncertain how to make this a home and the loneliness of her life is evident. Despite this, she certainly hasn't lost her edge and she still lives a life of stringent moral standards, punishing her enemies without mercy and basically ignoring her friends. I also appreciate that Larsson does not set her up as someone who should be emulated (when Blomkvist blames Salander's mental state on her past, Holger Palmgren tells him, "I hope you understand that there really is something wrong with Lisbeth . . . Her problems go way beyond problems she had at home"). To me, Salander is a tragic figure. Sure she's MENSA-level intelligent, has a photographic memory, the ability to kick ass and take names, but who would want to be her? We also learn much more about her troubled background in this novel, which further explains some components of her behavior.

As for the central mystery of the novel, I didn't find it as compelling as that of Tattoo and there's a twist at the ending worthy of a soap opera reveal, but I still enjoyed the ride enough that I've already ordered my copy of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

by Stieg Larsson

Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

4 Out of 5 Stars

I knew the end was coming. I knew it couldn't last forever. I had braced myself for it (or so I thought), and now that it's here I don't know what to say. That's probably a good thing because there's not a lot you can say about The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest without giving away spoilers and there's little new to say.

The book opens with Lisbeth Salander in the hospital and recovering from the gunshot wounds she received in The Girl Who Played with Fire. Under perpetual guard and severely injured, Lisbeth is helpless to act on the events occurring outside of her hospital room. After quite thoroughly stirring the shit in Fire, Lisbeth has made powerful enemies that will not stop until they destroy her credibility or take her life. She's become a loose end that must be dealt with and the only person standing between her and the world that has constantly misjudged and needlessly penalized her is Mikael Blomkvist. This is not to say that Lisbeth becomes needy or dependent on Blomkvist.  While her situation seems desperate, Blomkvist helps return Lisbeth's power to her and she takes an active (albeit secret) role in affecting the outcome of her upcoming trial while Blomkvist makes plans of his own to turn the vitriolic media firestorm against Salander to her favor.

The problems with the novel are the usual suspects: too much detail, over the top and implausible plot twists, subplots that seemingly have nothing to do with the story, but I absolve Larsson of all these sins simply for the creation of Lisbeth Salander. Also, this novel came back around and neatly tied up some subplots that, at the time I was reading them in Tattoo and Fire, seemed trivial and inconsequential. Instead, they turned out to be key elements in affecting the outcome of Hornet's Nest. There may be subplots (such as Erica Berger's cyber-stalker) that would have come back around to play a pivotal role in later novels of the series had Larsson lived.

While other reviewers bemoaned the lack of Salander in this novel, I actually enjoyed the renewed interest in Blomkvist. While he's not my favorite character in the novel, he, like Lisbeth, is a force to be reckoned with. That they both have the same inability to compromise their morals, that both seek retribution against those who have sinned, and both intelligently and precisely use the tools at their disposal to exact vengeance, reminds us of why they made such a good pair in Tattoo. In addition, both take a firm stance on women's rights. Blomkvist says more than once that Lisbeth "hates men who hate women," and so does Blomkvist (yes, yes, he sleeps around, but he's honest about it and expects the women in his life to have the same sexual freedoms enjoyed by men; he does not objectify the women in his life and he never loses sight of who they are as people). Lisbeth and Blomkvist have much more in common than one might initially realize.

As I mentioned in my review of Fire, Lisbeth seems to be a constantly evolving character and this change realistically continues throughout this novel. As others work tirelessly to free her and protect her, Lisbeth begins to come to grips with the idea that she owes other people because they care about her--a concept that is alien to her. That's part of what makes Lisbeth so intriguing. In what direction would Larsson have taken this waif-like BAMF as she begins reaching outside of her protective shell and developing relationships that will sustain her? We, of course, will never know, but I think the final scene of the novel provides a poignant bit of closure to what fate might hold for Lisbeth Salander.

Monday, April 15, 2013

That Warm Fuzzy Feeling

Fuzzy Nation

by John Scalzi

Published by Tor Books

4 Out of 5 Stars

I have never read a John Scalzi novel before, but I certainly don't think this will be my last. Fuzzy Nation is apparently a "reboot" of an earlier science fiction classic, although that's a novel with which I am unfamiliar (so I can't offer any comparisons to how Scalzi's reimagining of the novel measures up to the original). What I can say is that Scalzi's novel is both humorous and thought-provoking.

Fuzzy Nation is set in a future where mankind has successfully managed deep space exploration to the point where we colonize other planets. Of course (and I don't think this is too far off the mark here because, as a species, we are avaricious bastards), our only interest in other planets is purely economic--we strip these planets of the natural resources we've depleted from earth and then we toss the planet aside like a banana peel and move on. This has led to the creation of mega-corporations, Zarathustra and Blue Sky, which make trillions off of their outer-planet mining industries. But ecologists have begun to take note and these corporations find their greedy little hands inconveniently bound by an ever-broadening range of EPA style rules and regulations, the most significant of which is that mining may not take place on planets that have been proven to have sentient life--at any stage in the evolutionary process.

Those who colonize these planets are migrant contractors and surveyors who move where the work is. Jack Holloway is one such contractor. Working for ZaraCorp, Jack is a misfit who seldom responds to anything appropriately, is purposefully antagonistic, and speaks sarcasm as if it's a second language. Jack is an asshole, a quality which I find endearing because he's amusing and you get a sense that, for all of his self-centered swagger, he's actually a moralistic asshole when it matters. The conflict of the novel centers on Jack, who has just discovered a seam of sunstone that could make him (and the generations who come after him) ridiculously wealthy. The problem? He has also just discovered the fuzzys, a cat-like animal that, as the novel goes on, may prove to be sentient. This pits Jack against his former girlfriend (the on-planet biologist), the corporation that must share the wealth with Jack (and whose ruthlessness may imperil Jack's life), and his own self-interest.

Where the novel goes depends upon whether Jack really is a good guy or not, a point that always seems debatable, which is why the use of an anti-hero as the main character is a stroke of genius. The reader hopes Jack will do the right thing, but can never be definitively certain that he will. The other bit of genius is that the evidence suggesting the fuzzys may be sentient is doubtful at best and this ambiguity also calls into question when and how do we decide that life is expendable and when it is not. Overall, I think Scalzi pulls off something very rare in fiction: a novel that makes you think about important issues without being overly preachy and also allows you to laugh along the way.

That Which Does Not Break You

The Wake of Forgiveness

by Bruce Machart

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

4 Out of 5 Stars

This was an impulse buy at Barnes and Noble. I ignored the book at first in favor of looking at the books around it, but I caught the words “Tim O’Brien” during a cursory glance at a book blurb on the cover. One of my rules in life is to pick up anything with Tim O’Brien’s name on it and buy it immediately, no questions asked. To date, this rule has served me well and The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart is no exception.

Set in Texas at the dawn of the 20th century, the novel focuses on the Skala family, which consists of an immigrant father and his four motherless sons. Vaclav’s wife, Klara, dies while giving birth to their fourth son, Karel, and the book focuses on the physical and emotional marks these men carry as a result of her death. The shadow of Klara haunts every page. In a cruel and unforgiving landscape, Klara would have served as the buffer between the physical and emotional demands of pioneer life, between the immigrant and his new homeland, between father and son, and between the sons themselves. Without her, these men throw themselves against each other, against the landscape, and against life itself with a brutal tenacity that can only be born of intense pain and loss.

After the loss of his wife, Vaclav Skala, an ascetic man by nature, becomes even harder and more unforgiving in his dealings with the world. To spare his fine racing horses the detrimental effects of fieldwork, he instead hitches his four sons to the plow. Their time in the harness has left the boys with a peculiar deformity: they all have twisted necks that symbolize their skewed view of the world inflicted upon them by their father. Of all the boys, none are as warped as Karel. Having never known his mother and carrying the burden of guilt for her death, Karel is nonetheless Vaclav’s pride as Karel is a gifted horseback rider whose skills have won his father many a high-stakes gamble. As the novel goes on, the narrative moves back and forth between the story of Karel as a young boy and Karel as a grown man, now alienated from his brothers. The circumstances leading to the severing of the connection with his siblings are revealed as the book goes on and heighten the suspense as the novel moves toward its satisfying resolution.

Machart has created a tragedy that is epic in scope and is often reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s best work (in particular, All the Pretty Horses comes to mind). The language is poetic and so frequently captures the heart of the moment or the quality of the landscape with such a perfect turn of phrase that I often went back and re-read certain lines just to savor them. Another point in Machart’s favor is that his characters are complex and never watered-down; these are hard, often cruel men, but that doesn’t mean they are completely devoid of kindness, poeticism, or intelligence. They are victims of a lifestyle and a landscape that naturally cripples the finest points of humanity to ensure survival in a merciless environment. That any of the characters retain even a shred of their capacity for forgiveness is the ultimate triumph.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Someone Forgot to Add the "Dark"

Justice League Dark:  The Books of Magic (Volume 2)

by Jeff Lemire

Illustrated by Mikel Janin

Published by DC Comics

2 1/2 Out of 5

I really wanted to like Justice League Dark, but the irony is that it just wasn't as, well, dark as I wanted it to be. Maybe that was an unfair expectation on my part, but with John Constantine in the lead I was really hoping for a more mature plotline and something a little grittier. In the end, it's a fairly conventional storyline that kind of plods along without gaining any real momentum. The keys to the legendary Books of Magic have been discovered, bad guys want them, good guys want to stop them, John Constantine may or may not be a good guy as he might just covet the books for himself . . . yawn.

Also, so many characters weave in and out of the narrative in a completely transparent attempt to lure readers into other series that none of them are actually there long enough to be fully developed or fully utilized. I was initially drawn to the series because Andrew Bennett was being introduced to the team, but he pops in and out with such underwhelming results that I could go for an issue or two and completely forget of his existence until I saw an asterisk with "Check out issue # of I, Vampire for this exciting storyline!" When Amethyst from Sword of Sorcery* checks in, I decided I was ready to check out of this series.

*(I've never read Sword of Sorcery, but the covers smack a little too much of She-Ra, Princess of Power, to pique my curiosity. Way too much pink and purple happening there.)

Feminism Without, You Know, The Feminism

How to Be a Woman

by Caitlin Moran

Published by Ebury Press

2 Out of 5 Stars

Quite an uneven reading experience, a fault I largely blame on the marketing of this book. How to Be a Woman is touted as basically "Feminism--now with jokes!" And that's a concept that I could get onboard with. I would consider myself a feminist, I would consider myself moderately amusing at times, and I would consider myself a fan of Caitlin Moran's white streak in her wild mane--a bit reminiscent of the 90's version of Rogue. So, yes, let's do this! I want to feel empowered as a woman, I want to laugh, and I want to re-watch the X-Men cartoons on Netflix!

This was reaffirmed when I heard an NPR interview with Caitlin Moran. She spoke intelligently about a variety of topics facing women and was very humorous in doing so. She sounded like someone I would like: funny, self-deprecating, and smart.

So did the book live up to my expectations? Not so much. The main reason is that instead of a funny feminist manifesto, the book is basically a memoir that should have been titled How to Be Caitlin Moran. Not that that is a bad thing as I still find Moran likable, but I generally do not like memoirs. I was expecting a book of ideas. And there are wide swaths of Moran's life that I simply can't relate to. Other than the chapter I Am a Feminist!, there's surprisingly little feminism in the book other than sprinkling the term "strident feminist" in some seemingly incongruous places (such as "But what am I wearing, now? As a strident feminist, how am I dressed?" [202] in the chapter I Get Into Fashion!). As though there's some sort of feminist dress code? It may be simpler to split this up into what I did and did not like about the book, so without further ado:

What I Did Like About the Book
1. From the chapter on feminism, Moran presents a simple test for women trying to decide whether or not they are a feminist: "So here is the quick way of working out if you're a feminist. Put your hand in your underpants. a. Do you have a vagina? and b. Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said 'yes' to both, then congratulations! You're a feminist" (75). She makes the point that almost every woman in the Western world is a feminist, whether they like being associated with that "dirty word" or not. Even women who say they're not feminists are enjoying the fruits of feminism as there was a time when a woman wasn't allowed to have an opinion, let alone express it. Being in charge of one's reproductive rights is a much larger issue than that of abortion. Deciding for yourself if you want to have one child, fifteen children, or none at all, thank you very much, is a right women haven't traditionally had before. Being able to say "enough already" is certainly a right women should be thankful for as so many women who came before us dropped a kid yearly, preferably sometime between clearing away the breakfast dishes and making supper.

2. Moran's funny, unapologetically irreverent take on everything. I didn't always agree with her views, but admired that she had the daring to say them. If there's one thing you can't claim, it's that she's inauthentic.

3. Her chapter on marriages. Weddings have become ridiculously high-priced events that generally makes everyone involved miserable.  Everyone (with the possible exception of the bride) would rather spend their Saturday in their sweatpants and on the couch.

4. The extremely honest chapter about her own experience with abortion. Agree or disagree with abortion, so many make up their mind without having lived through it or, you know, asking the women of a society what they think. Reading about it from a personal level brings up some interesting points for thought and reflection.

5. Moments like this: "This is the first time I've really been out in the world and met adults. Previously, all my socializing took place on the dance floor and in the bathroom of the Raglan, a tiny dark pit populated by fringed, boot-wearing teenagers: essentially a playpen with a bar. Our innocence was obvious--it shone in our faces the same way our teeth glowed white under the UV light. Yes, people were having sex, and fighting, and spreading rumors, and taking drugs--but it was essentially like tiger cubs knocking each other around, claws velveted. We were all equal. There was no calculation or recrimination. Everything was forgotten after a nap" (117). I just like that.

What I Did Not Like About the Book

1. Dear GOD!!!!! I did not like all of the FREAKING UNNECESSARY CAPITALIZATION that made me feel like I was reading an unhinged TEENAGER'S DIARY!!! And for the love of all that is punctuation, would someone please remove the exclamation mark from Moran's keyboard? Early in the book, I thought this was just an affectation meant to show how the teenage Moran thought and felt; however, it continued, unrelentingly throughout the entire book. Every single chapter title ended with an exclamation.

2. There were some squirm worthy moments: I did not enjoy reading about Moran's early experiences with menstruation. I did not enjoy the suggestion that one should taste one's menstrual blood (there's a reason McMenses is not on the McDonalds menu). I did not enjoy the suggestion that one should name one's vagina and one's breasts. Granted, I'm the type of person who perpetually lives in fear of TMI--Caitlin Moran clearly does not.

3. The suggestion that Lady GaGa is a feminist and should be placed upon a pedestal. To me, a feminist icon should be one who presents ideas. GaGa strikes me more as someone who is reaping the benefits of feminism, but not adding much new to the conversation. She is definitely a polarizing lightning rod, but more in the realm of image and sexuality. She definitely confronts and shatters stereotypes, but beyond that adds little to the conversation.

4. The fact that there's so little feminism in a book supposedly about feminism.