Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a novel about how people attempt to cope in a cold, harsh world. Don't let the fact that the main character has autism fool you into thinking this is a novel about autism. Author Mark Haddon has admitted to doing little research on autism for the novel. What the novel gives us is a different perspective on life, through the eyes of Christopher Boone, whose condition serves as a sort of tunnel vision lens, yet allows him to see things most people fail to notice. He lives by a set of rules that help him cope with the irrational and chaotic nature of the world. Of course, we all live by some set of rules, some set of guiding principles that allow us to do the same. What makes Christopher different is that while most of us learn to accept the irrationality of life, Christopher is doomed not to.

Christopher likes to interact only with a small set of people. At school he talks with his school mentor, Siobhan, about things he doesn't understand. He lives alone with his father ever since the death of his mother. His mother's death has made him more acquainted with his neighbor, Mrs. Shears, who helps his father out. His routine begins to change, only slightly, when he comes upon Mrs. Shears' dead poodle, stabbed with a garden fork. After an unpleasant encounter with a police officer who dares to touch him, Christopher decides to do some detective work and solve the mystery of the poodle's murder.

Becoming a detective means leaving his safe shell and stepping out of his way to ask people questions. Christopher doesn't much like talking to people because he doesn't understand body language. In fact, Christopher doesn't like a lot of things. He doesn't like the color yellow. It's a bad day when he spots four yellow cars in a row on his way to school. Conversely, he loves the color red, which means that sighting four red cars in a row means it will be a good day. He also doesn't like it when people use facial expressions to communicate because he doesn't know what they mean. He hates the use of metaphor because it confuses him. What Christopher does love is math. He is very logical and will probably be a very successful mathematician. The chapters are numbered by prime numbers rather than in direct sequence. Haddon is so good at convincing us that Christopher exists that it made me wonder whether Christopher is a version of himself, to some extent.

The novel revolves only loosely around the death of Mrs. Shears' poodle because the story, as told in the first person from Christopher's perspective, goes off on numerous tangents. These tangents are often amusing or revealing in some way, and they help explore the mindset of Christopher as well as what he values. Other things that are more important than the death of the poodle happen, but the poodle's murder is significant because it makes Christopher step outside his comfort zone. He appears to be the perfect sleuth, capable of sticking to the facts and not letting his imagination spoil his investigation. He considers all possibilities and eliminates the improbable ones. He even fancies himself a sort of Sherlock Holmes and talks extensively about some of the Holmes novels (as a warning, if you have not read Hound of the Baskervilles, Christopher shamelessly spoils the ending). Yet Christopher lacks an important tool to be a good detective - social recognition. What would be an obvious solution to this investigation for most observers is overlooked by Christopher because he, ironically, fails to put two and two together.

Some have compared Christopher Boone to Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye, and I can see the resemblance. Caulfield, like Christopher, has a narrow view of the world. Where Caulfield sees everyone as phonies, Christopher seems to regard others as intellectually inferior. Both novels make use of the unreliable narrator, in that a reader not making full use of their critical reading skills might be mistaken in believing they are meant to adopt the narrator's viewpoint. However, with Christopher things are made more challenging by the fact that he is an intellectually gifted individual. You may find yourself with a nagging doubt or suspicion about something Christopher hasn't perceived, yet Christopher's undeniable logical intelligence will have you second-guessing yourself.

In Catcher in the Rye, one of the defining moments of how Holden views himself is when he likens himself as a rescuer of children, saving them from running off the edge of a cliff. He believes he holds the key to truth in a world of phonies, yet the reader sees otherwise. Christopher has a similar moment when he compares the way he sees the world to how others see the world. When most people gaze at a field and are asked to describe it, they may mention there were cows and a house and other details, all vaguely described. Christopher, however, will go so far as to tell you how many cows were there and how many had black spots and how many had brown spots and then how many spots each one had. He believes his way is superior, even though Siobhan admits this level of detail would be overwhelming to most. What Christopher misses out on, however, is the beauty of such a field. He takes it all in and simply plugs it into his mathematical brain.

Though the novel is written from Christopher's point of view, and though the reader has plenty of reason to sympathize with him, the character with which I made the greatest emotional connection was the father. The two most poignant moments in the novel involve him. We can sympathize with Christopher because he does suffer, yet his emotional state can be difficult to grasp. This novel does an excellent job of putting readers in the perspective of somebody with autism. However, I kept putting myself in the shoes of Christopher's father, thinking about just how difficult life would be to have to raise a child like Christopher. I mentioned in the first paragraph that the novel is about trying to cope in a difficult world. From Christopher's perspective, we see, in a peripheral way, how his own parents have attempted to cope with raising an autistic child. Raising a child is hard enough, but raising a child who emotionally does not develop the way most people do, who throws violent tantrums when things don't happen a certain way, is a trying experience. Christopher's father is a rare person who is able to do this with love, care, and patience. Not everybody is able to handle the difficulties life throws at them as he does.

The novel is very entertaining, with lots of laugh out loud moments and plenty other thoughtful ones. Christopher dives into all sorts of tangential subjects, but always from his fascinating perspective. The only parts I object to are some repetitive action scenes toward the end, where less detail may have been better. Yet, at the same time, Mark Haddon follows through with the logical impulses of his narrator. It's amazing the way Haddon is able to keep up Christopher's performance, including all the little details that go along with being Christopher. Haddon writes with such a precise style that Christopher is able to come to life as a person all his own. And when we root for Christopher to achieve his goals, we're rooting for an imperfect person to be successful in a difficult world, because if there's hope for Christopher, there's hope for any of us.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, by Annabel Pitcher

In the United States, the word terrorism brings to mind the 9/11 bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Though the United States does not face acts of terror on a daily basis, as those of some nations do, the psychological toll from this attack still resonates today. Almost anybody in our modern world should be able to relate to Annabel Pitcher's debut novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, where the attack (fictional) occurs in England's Trafalgar Square. Pitcher aims the novel at a younger audience by making her main character a boy who was too young to have felt this tragedy deeply. This makes her novel a good place for young teens to contemplate the emotional impact of a terrorist attack on its survivors, yet it doesn't quite have the depth to move adult audiences.

The main character, Jamie, lives with his father and his sister, Jasmine, whose twin, Rose, was killed by a bomb five years before. Since that time, Jamie's mother left the family for a man named Nigel, and Jasmine dyed her hair purple and began to dress as a goth. His father has turned into a raging alcoholic and quit his job, which makes one wonder how he ended up with custody of the kids. What sort of mother would let her children live with a man like him? Jamie was five when the attack happened, so he doesn't remember it very well. He also doesn't remember Rose. To him it's just an eccentricity that his father keeps an urn containing her ashes on the mantelpiece, and it's an annual tradition to head out to the water and contemplate dumping the urn's contents.

Jamie's family moves to a new town, out of London, where Jamie must now attend a new school. This is a christian school, so it's a little surprising that one of the students is a Muslim girl named Sunya. Sunya instantly becomes an object of fascination to Jamie. He is curious, not about her garb, but because his father has developed an intense hatred of Muslims since Rose's death. He makes daily visits to anti-Muslim websites and believes all Muslims are insane suicide bombers at heart. So it's distressing to Jamie that Sunya takes an immediate interest in him, yet her sunny personality eventually wins him over.

This serves as the main plot, but there are several subplots, including Jamie's and Jasmine's struggle to take care of themselves while their father spends his days passed out or vomiting in the toilet. There's conflict when Jasmine introduces her new boyfriend, of the green-haired, spiky mohawk variety. And Jamie obsesses over the day his mother will finally pay him a visit, as she has promised. Multiple subplots are fine, but their downside is that they stretch the story too thin and none of the plot points are strongly developed.

Pitcher does a nice job of writing from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy. The writing is crisp, in the unsophisticated voice of a young boy. Sometimes the sentences flow breathlessly, as the narrator keeps them alive by adding another "and" to the end. This isn't necessarily how ten-year-olds talk, but it is accurate about how they write. Periods are sometimes forgotten, or the problem is that kids haven't quite grasped the concept of a sentence just yet. Sometimes this writing grows repetitive, with too many sentences having the same breathless structure, yet it's never dull.

Memory is another area Pitcher gets right. Too many stories, both in books and the movies, provide characters with photographic memories. These teenagers or adults remember everything, but the reality of memories is that they fade over time. That Jamie barely remembers his sister is understandable, and it's believable that his grief for her is almost non-existent. Perhaps Pitcher does go a little far in portraying Jamie's amnesia, though, when you consider how traumatic the event was. Most faded memories tend to be of everyday sorts of things, but when a bomb explodes right in front of you and blows your sister to smithereens, that's a memory that will have very vivid indentations on your mind. This is just an example of how Pitcher tends to deaden the emotional impact of her story, and it seems to be a trend followed by many young adult novels.

Another problem is Pitcher's tendency to portray other characters and issues as one-dimensional. Jamie's father's alcoholism seems less realistic than hyperbolic. His mother's abandonment is hard to believe considering what a loving family they were before the bombing. Sunya is often unrealistically, if not eerily, bubbly. You have your standard classroom bully who acts like an angel in front of the teacher, and the teacher who seems to hate most children. The plot goes into odd places later because Pitcher doesn't take the time to fully develop any one scenario. The only characters who have any sort of depth are Jamie and Jasmine, yet even there you'll find a strong note of melancholy and not much else.

As a novel aimed at young adults, the above-mentioned problems aren't quite so bad. There is some value to be had for young teens, and parents can take relief in the fact that the bomb violence as described in the novel is artfully, not graphically, portrayed. More than likely girls will enjoy this more than boys. Not to say Pitcher unsuccessfully writes from the perspective of a boy, but Jamie has a feminine feel, such that I was unaware he was a boy until his name, James, was mentioned. There's also the element of romance between Jamie and the Muslim girl, Sunya, that will leave boys less inclined to read this than girls. Throughout the entire novel, the only friends Jamie has are girls: his sister Jasmine and Sunya. The only boyish thing Jamie does is participate in soccer in a brief episode. It's unfortunate the novel goes the route of romance because the age of the two characters involved makes this unlikely. Not that the romance involves any making out, but it does involve the desire to hold hands and for Jamie to catch a glimpse of Sunya's hair underneath her hijab. To make matters worse, the romance is predictable and lacks spark.

The novel feels much more episodic than cohesive, and those episodes use predictable story arcs. The romance plot, for example, has Jamie's feelings for Sunya bounce between love and hate several times throughout the course of the novel. One moment he wants nothing to do with her, then he craves her attention, and then he remembers that Muslims killed his sister and ignores her, and so on. It grows irritating after a while. Random plot threads dominate the bulk of the work, involving the aforementioned soccer game with all of the usual elements involved in that kind of story line; an inevitable encounter between Jamie's father and a Muslim, which blows up in unrealistic, poorly-written fashion; Jasmine's new boyfriend and what her father thinks of him; Jamie desperately awaiting his mother to finally visit (seriously, what is wrong with that woman?); and an audition for Britain's Got Talent. This seems like a lot to happen to a ten-year-old in such a short span of time, but it wouldn't be so bad if it was done with more cheer or more originality.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Review: Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Unaccustomed Earth is not only the title of Jhumpa Lahiri's second collection of short stories, but the theme of this work and perhaps her entire canon of work. For a woman born in London to Indian immigrants and spending most of her life growing up in the United States, the theme is appropriate. Her characters seem heavily drawn from her own experiences, all of them American born with Indian parents (usually born in India and raised in the United States). This sets up plenty of room for culture clash, not just between different nationalities but also between different generations and the two sexes. Lahiri's themes are largely universal because everyone deals with culture clash in some fashion, large or small, and everyone at some point in their lives must tread upon unaccustomed earth.

This 320+ page collection features eight mostly powerful stories that deal with characters finding themselves on new ground. While they are rather long for short stories, they rarely fail to captivate. "Unaccustomed Earth" starts the collection, a story about an Indian-American woman named Ruma, her widowed father, and her young son. The story spans a week, but it provides a lengthy glimpse into the lives of both major characters, including the heartbreaking details of the death of Ruma's mother. Her death sends both Ruma and her father into unaccustomed earth emotionally, though it's her father who makes a new man of himself, while Ruma can't seem to reconcile this change. The dual perspectives lend this story a lot of weight, and the story is particularly effective in portraying the love Ruma's father develops for his grandson, Akash. This story may be the collection's best, based on how intimately it lets the reader into the lives of these characters.

In "Unaccustomed Earth" there is a trope found in several other stories: a distant husband and father. Ruma's father was emotionally aloof from family life, and only the death of his wife changes him, as he suddenly realizes the dreams she is no longer able to accomplish. The trope of the distant father then grows into one of a father who learns to care. This trope appears as well in "Hell-Heaven," seen in the husband who agreed to an arranged marriage only for the sake of convenience, which leaves an emotional vacuum in his wife's life. "Only Goodness" has a father who keeps his mouth shut about his son's delinquent behavior until something needs to be said. And in "Nobody's Business," a woman is engaged in a long distance relationship with a man who wants their relationship as private as possible. "Unaccustomed Earth" has a second man, Ruma's American husband, whose only presence in the entire story is by phone. This distance (though stern with expectations) shapes the personalities and ambitions of the characters in these stories.

Many of Lahiri's characters are very similar. Her female characters are largely successful and ambitious, taking up prestigious, well-paying careers and starting up small families. The material success of these characters seems to come effortlessly, a PhD earned in the matter of a few sentences, but the emotional success of Lahiri's characters is less certain. No matter how wealthy, there are matters beyond one's control that shape their emotional states. My favorite story, "Only Goodness," is the only one with a character whose problems prevent him from entering this material success. The story is told from the perspective of Sudha, but it's her younger brother, Rahul, who becomes an alcoholic and drops out of college. Sudha's successes are continuously paralleled with Rahul's struggles, and seeing Sudha watch her brother descend into such depths is heartbreaking.

"Only Goodness" is one of several stories where the story's perspective character is not the one where the major conflict revolves around. It's Rahul the reader cheers for and wants to see do well, though we may sympathize with Sudha's feelings. Similarly, the main conflict in "Hell-Heaven" revolves around the perspective character's mother, and in "Nobody's Business" a college student finds himself interested in his new, and beautiful, roommate, who is clearly having some relationship troubles. Then again, this is not all that uncommon in stories. The intrigue in The Great Gatsby revolves around Gatsby, though the story is told from the perspective of Nick Carraway. And in Hitchcock's Rear Window, a crippled James Stewart imagines plots unfolding in his backyard as he spends his days watching his neighbors. Sometimes the source of greatest conflict happens to others and not to us, but it always has some affect upon us.

"A Choice of Accommodations" and "Nobody's Business" both feature male protagonists (the collection is split evenly between male and female protagonists), and each one is about the main character's fascination with a woman who is just out of his reach. In "Choice" Amit is a married man who has agreed to attend the wedding of a woman he had a large crush on in college. His wife harbors some jealousy over this woman, and despite his assurances otherwise he fantasizes about some sexual encounter with her. Paul, in "Nobody's Business," is perhaps the college version of Amit, though maybe more nerdy, with an infatuation with the new woman in his life, Sang, whose boyfriend wants very little to do with her friends. "Choice" works by looking nostalgically at youth, the regrets of sexual encounters that didn't happen, and it also ends on the collection's most climactic note. I liked "Nobody's Business" better because I relate more to the college student, and his troubles feel more real because they are not about a distant past.

"Hell-Heaven" is the only story that doesn't work. Told in the first person from the young girl, Usha, the story fails to provide a strong sense of her character. The central action is between her mother and the man her mother falls in love with, Pranab. The story never succeeds in engaging the reader with any character, except maybe the friendly Pranab. When Usha begins describing sexual feelings towards other men, it feels like a distraction from the main action, and when Usha's mother makes a startling reveal at the end, it doesn't feel like it was earned. Fortunately this story occurs early, and so its memories become buried in the wealth of the rest of the stories.

Unaccustomed Earth ends with three stories about the lives of two characters, Hema and Kaushik. The first story, "Once in a Lifetime," takes place when Hema was a young girl, and Kaushik's family lived with her family for several months. "Year's End" switches to Kaushik's perspective when he's a little older and shows the impact of his mother's death on himself and his family. Kaushik, an aloof wanderer, wants nothing to do with his new stepfamily at first, and ultimately his feelings lead him to becoming a traveling photographer for the New York Times. "Going Ashore" alternates between Hema and Kaushik, as both are approaching middle age, both with successful careers, and both inevitably wandering into one another. Of these three stories, the second and last are the best. Lahiri avoids pinholing her writing into a genre, such as romance. The romance is largely glossed over, and the final story doesn't end the way you might think, or want.

The only problem I have with Lahiri's writing is her heavy use of exposition. Interpreter of Maladies was an excellent collection of short stories, but I struggled to enjoy her first novel, The Namesake, because her use of exposition watered the story down too much. The stories here are longer than in her first collection, and sometimes the exposition feels like too much. Writers are always given advice to show, not tell, but exposition is largely a style of telling. Lahiri tells us endlessly about many details, large and small, about her characters. It's as though her character notes have been transposed onto the final product, and sometimes the reader doesn't get to discover details so much as be told them, which has less of an impact otherwise.

However, Lahiri writes superb exposition, and if one were to learn how to write exposition, she would be a perfect model. She still manages to evoke strong feelings through her expository passages, and slows down now and then to show some action, usually very strongly written. Lahiri has an attention to detail that is surprising. She notes all the little things a person might feel, and this makes her work feel true to life. Her characters feel real, and her plot works out as one might expect in real life, not always with surprises, though not necessarily predictably. The best writers always manage to contradict the conventional wisdom of how to write, and Lahiri does that by successfully evoking strong emotion through a style whose job is to tell, not show. Lahiri does not always uses exposition successfully, but her stories are so powerful and feel so evocative, that it doesn't seem to matter how she tells them. Her words are simply magic.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: Horns, by Joe Hill

If Joe Hill is hoping to take the reins of horror from his father, Stephen King, then Horns looks like a pretty good bid for that spot. That's not to say Hill is a copy cat of his father. He demonstrates a writing style and voice all his own, though with the occasional flourish his father might provide. Hill writes with a voice more terse, a little more dry, than his father's, but also with the occasional comical remark that's so surprisingly funny you might find yourself laughing out loud. Where Hill truly shines is in his character development and the pacing of his story. He slowly, carefully reveals exciting new developments to his plot, to the changes in his main character. It's a shame that the conclusion turns out to be your usual hero/villain showdown, with all of the cliches it. However, almost everything leading up to those final moments is sublime.

Ignatius Perrish wakes up to the worst hangover of his life. It's so bad, in fact, he has sprouted devil horns on his head. Not only that, but people begin behaving oddly around him. The receptionist at the doctor's office discloses that she wants to scream at a woman whose child is misbehaving in the waiting room. When Ig sits next to this woman, she touches his arm and he suddenly sees all of her bad deeds. Then she unabashedly tells him of her desire to kick her daughter in the ass, literally. What Ig, and the reader, gradually begin to realize is that with these horns comes a supernatural power that causes people to want to act out their darkest desires, but only if Ig grants them permission. He can't even hold a normal conversation with his parents or brother. This is even more terrifying when you discover certain details about his past.

I won't reveal too much, because there's a surprise early on I don't want to spoil. The novel gradually feeds us information about Ig's past life. We learn that his girlfriend, perhaps even soul mate, Merrin, was raped and murdered just the past year, and the entire town thinks Ig committed the crime. But the case never went to trial because of a fire that destroyed DNA evidence. With his new powers, Ig learns things from people, awful things that have to do with what they think of him. He goes to his church to see if Father Mould can help, only to learn the pastor believes Ig should hang himself. Also, Father Mould has been having an affair with Merrin's mother. Ig becomes wary about meeting other people because of these terrible revelations. At the same time, he finds it thrilling to take revenge on those who speak so cruelly about him, forcing them to act out on their dark desires in ways that hurt them.

Part of what makes the novel work so well is the complexity of its main characters. Ig is the good guy in that he has enough of a conscience to deny most people to act out on their dark desires. Yet he's still human. He can't help but act on his baser desires for revenge and power because it excites him. There's something cathartic about his ability to do something evil and get away with it. Even the novel's villain has complexities. This is important to bring up because it's one area where King struggled (or maybe didn't care so much). Most of  King's heroes and villains are one-dimensional characters (with varying degrees of effectiveness) who tend to act predictably. A King hero has only minor flaws, while a King villain has absolutely no redeeming qualities. Hill, on the other hand, aims for more human complexities.

When I say Hill's writing style is dry, I don't mean it as a criticism. His voice is mostly straight forward, get to the point, with the occasional parenthetical quip. His humor is told dryly, though often to hilarious effect. Hill's writing is also witty, without being obvious or showy. One example of his wit is the novel's title. Horns most obviously refers to the pair of horns growing from Ig's head. Yet we also learn that Ig's father made his fortune playing horns, and his brother Terry has also made his fortune doing the same, while Ig's asthma prevented him from following suit. Horns, then, may symbolize the past and/or missed opportunities.

Hill is at his most thought-provoking when discussing religion. He twists themes of good and evil on their head by positing the devil as the good guy. Ig is, after all, an incarnation of the devil, yet he is repulsed by the dark secrets people reveal to him and forbids most from acting on them. In a sense, then, the devil serves as a moral authority above those who feel the influence of his horns. Hill relishes in the idea that God and the devil are partners more than they are adversaries. The devil punishes sinners, and if God wants sinners punished, aren't the two on the same side? Ig comes to a lot of interesting, and sometimes funny, conclusions regarding religion that some may find controversial, but the open-minded will enjoy pondering.

For the most part, the novel's pacing is superb. The way Hill slowly reveals Ig's powers is exciting. Here is an author who knows the virtues of patient plotting. The story begins in the middle of the action, with Ig discovering his horns, and then it goes backwards so the reader can learn more about the major players and events that give the present more significance. The rest of the novel goes back and forth between the past and present until the reader has a near complete picture of Ig's relationship to Merrin and others, as well as what happened the fateful night Merrin was killed. A few of the flashback chapters were superfluous. This is especially true regarding the villain. Explaining why a character becomes a villain tends to ruin the magic of the story. Some people are just evil, no explanation needed.

The real disappointment I have is with the ending. It devolves into your usual action showdown, involving a battered hero and a villain who takes a breather to explain everything. Worst of all, this happens twice. People complain about the way King ends his books, and sometimes he does end them in bizarre fashion, but I prefer non-traditional sorts of endings. The ending to The Dead Zone was excellent, and it made sense. According to King, Hill helped change the ending to 11/22/63, which I thought had a disappointing ending because it playing things safe. Plenty of people will be happy with the ending to Horns, I'm sure, because it's comfortable in its use of recognizable tropes. I feel like it's an insult to the care Hill put in the rest of his story. Nonetheless he shows remarkable talent. I look forward to seeing Daniel Radcliffe star in the title role of the movie. I also look forward to reading more of Joe Hill's work, as I'm sure he will be a mainstay for a long, long time.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: Reap the Whirlwind, by Robert Sells

Imagine the horror of discovering a $7000 charge to your bank account for porn you never purchased. Your first thought might be what your girlfriend will think. Your second thought would be to call the porn company to remove the charge. However, as Whit Emerson, main character of Reap the Whirlwind, soon discovers someone did a very convincing job of making it appear he did purchase that porn. This someone, as it turns out, is a self-aware computer system, called Hal, that has access to anything and everything internet-related. What Robert Sells' novel is concerned with is society's reliance on computers for just about everything. It shares themes with Terminator, in that humans have unwittingly created the next being to conquer the Earth, as well as the movie Eagle Eye, which shares a lot of similarities. While Sells' second novel has some horrifying passages, the story moves far too quickly to have a chance to develop its characters or situation, and that's a shame.

The above mentioned Whit Emerson is a successful young freelance writer. He has a beautiful, but cold-hearted, girlfriend who enjoys sex but not affection. On the day Whit finds the porn charges to his bank account, his life takes a very fast nosedive. He loses his job and several close friends have either died or turned up missing. Then he becomes a fugitive when he's charged with heinous and false crimes. All of this has something to do with machines, and it seems that somebody, or something, doesn't want Whit to publish his article about how people are becoming too addicted to computers. He realizes his only chance of survival is to flee.

The novel also follows Jimmy Northup, a detective who's been tracking down a bank thief. This plot seems unconnected at first, but its purpose is to introduce a character who will come in handy later. Other characters to join the fray are an old buddy of Whit's, named Steve, who is a computer genius; Steve's sister, Mary, whose personality is the exact opposite of Whit's girlfriend; and the biggest computer expert of them all, Little Lion, who turns out to be different than you will imagine. Many plot details are predictable, such as the girl situation. When there are only two young women in the story, and one is a cold-hearted bitch, it's pretty obvious who the hero will end up with. Also, while Whit is clearly the protagonist early on, the story shifts its protagonist label to Jimmy about halfway through. This is tricky because it is Whit we are rooting for early on, but he becomes lost in the clutter of characters who pop up later on.

Sells has some very effective passages. The way the computer system, Hal, dispatches of Whit's boss by providing him an incorrect reading of his insulin level is terrifying enough. But when two paramedics continue to administer more insulin at the recommendation of the ambulance computer, that brings the terror to a new level. Sells does an excellent job of showing just how much people view computers as an authority. When one of the paramedics expresses doubt, the other tells him that he's not a doctor, so what does he know? Sells also toys with our trust of machines in other ways, such as when it turns out Hal somehow has the ability to mimic other people by phone. We know that machines are capable of some form of rationalization. Just look at Watson, on Jeopardy, who demolished his two human opponents. Sells wants to take a look at what could happen if a machine is capable of evil.

The problem is, this idea is not developed to its fullest. The perspective of the book is self-contained to a handful of human perspectives who try to hide from anything internet-based. So we don't have a chance to see what Hal is capable of, except toying with hospital readings and hacking surveillance cameras. Also, Hal seems to have access to much more than he should. He has access to anything on the internet, but at times he seems to know exactly what Whit is going to do, such as who he is going to call and why, when Whit has only spoken his intention out loud and in person. Does Hal have ears? The novel also takes for granted our gullibility as it relates to computers. We live in an age of skepticism, and when a computer does something that goes against our experience or knowledge, people are likely to believe the computer has made an error. This is especially true of trained paramedics in the situation mentioned above.

The novel plays out like an action flick more than a speculative piece of fiction. Events happen far too quickly, new people make an entrance without much background, and nothing is developed as much as it should be. The characters are thin and seem to act more so as the plot requires than out of their own character traits. Character behavior also changes on a whim. For example, Jimmy, the middle-aged detective, acts like a child by belching and banging on a piano during an important meeting. This seems unbecoming of a master detective, and it also serves to mask the severity of the situation. Sometimes the characters forget to take the situation seriously, so it's easy for the reader to forget as well.

The novel has compelling ideas and brings up important questions, yet I wish it had slowed down enough to develop its characters and situations. There were moments I was terrified and I wish Sells was able to keep that terror going. Robert Sells has some talent, and I wish him the best of luck with his next book.

I received a copy of this book from the author in return for an honest review.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Review: 11/22/63, by Stephen King

11/22/63 poses itself as a novel about a man who seeks to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but I think it would be more accurate to call it "Memoirs of a Time-Traveler who just so Happens to Attempt to Thwart a Major Assassination." Stephen King did extensive research for this novel, not just on Lee Harvey Oswald, but also on the time period itself. This is not your usual time travel story where the hero transports directly to the event he hopes to thwart. Jake Epping, the story's main character, instead arrives five years before the assassination, no closer. In order to pass the time, Jake, aka George Amberson, makes a new life for himself. In return, the science fiction plays second fiddle to George's teaching career and romance life. The book certainly has its gripping moments, and a pretty good romance thrown in the mix, yet somehow it is at its least compelling when dealing with JFK and Oswald.

Jake Epping is a thirty-five year old English teacher from Maine. He enjoys his job, particularly his adult education class, where he reads the harrowing story of the school janitor, Harry Dunning, who witnessed his father murder his whole family. Now enter Al Templeton, the owner of a restaurant whose burgers are so cheap customers suspect the meat consists of roadkill and stray cats. One day Al seeks Jake in order to tell him a story so unbelievable he first has Jake experience it himself. In a pantry in Al's Diner exists a wormhole to September of 1958. You may stay there as long as you like (though you will age just the same) but when you come back to the present (whatever may constitute the "present" when time travel is possible) only two minutes will have passed. Al wants Jake to finish a job that lung cancer prevented him from finishing: to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy.

The consequences of time travel and of changing history is discussed in great detail. A good portion of the early parts of the book are devoted to a discussion about the consequences of time travel. Jake even asks, apparently hoping to show Al how bad of an idea it all is, what would happen if you kill your own grandfather. To this, a bewildered Al hilariously answers, "Why the fuck would you do that?" Al has already confirmed that changing events in that version of the past does affect the present he and Jake belong to, thus removing the possibility of a parallel universe. However Jake is not satisfied with the minor change Al makes and wants to know what will happen if you save a life - say, Harry Dunning's entire family. It is this that decides Jake's mind. He will go. Al sets up an identity for him as George Amberson, a man mysteriously working in real estate and having sports knowledge that will help him win some large bets. While Al recommends laying low and not getting involved with anyone, George sees no reason why he can't find a job to fill up his time.

Here we come to the second plot, which is arguably the main plot, a romance between George and the sexy school librarian, Sadie Dunhill. Of course, George has no desire to form a romantic connection at first, but when your first meeting involves accidentally copping a feel while saving the clumsy Miss Dunhill from an embarrassing fall, that's destiny. Besides, love is timeless. While I enjoyed Jake's and Al's conversations about time travel and the possible implications in saving the life of JFK, King's story is at its best when covering the life of George Amberson in the small town of Jodie, Texas, as a school teacher and the man of Sadie's dreams. The problems involved in this romance are obvious. George is a man with literally no past and a mission that will, sooner or later, conflict with this romance. The romance is giddy and joyful as well as heartbreaking.

Though Jake Epping is a thirty-five year old from the year 2009, he has an old soul. This is one of the disappointments in the novel. Jake is right at home in the late '50s, early '60s. King could have had some fun with Jake's culture shock, yet he conveniently avoids the issue. Jake is a man with fifty years worth of knowledge that nobody else could possibly have, yet King loses any opportunity to have fun with this. When Jake does slip up, it's to sing "Honky Tonk Woman" by the Rolling Stones, which isn't that far off. King lost a golden opportunity for Jake to sing "Enter Sandman" or "Bawitdaba," at least something radically different from what was played in the '50s and '60s. But Jake's tastes in pop culture seem to follow more closely to King's than those of a modern young man. His knowledge of obscure '50s pop culture suggests King forgets it wasn't Jake who did extensive research into the era. This lack of culture shock comes as a surprise, since King handled it so well, and to hilarious effect, in The Drawing of the Three, when his gunslinger Roland finds himself in a world completely unlike his own. Perhaps King wants to say something about the adaptability of people, but I also think he takes this adaptability for granted. People thrown into an unfamiliar world don't adapt so easily.

The novel is at its weakest when Oswald is in the picture. King spends a good deal of time having George listen in on conversations between Oswald and others that add nothing of value to the story. The main reason for listening in on these conversations is for Jake to make sure that Oswald did not have an accomplice. Today, there are still plenty of unanswered questions surrounding the assassination of JFK. King did some heavy research, though it seems the authors he chose were heavily biased towards Oswald as the lone shooter, when there is compelling evidence to suggest a second and still plenty of files not released to the public that could shed more light on the issue. Still, that's not the point. For his novel, King does need to swing one way or the other, and Oswald as the lone shooter is the most likely theory. When it comes to speculation, King chooses the simplest routes. Even Oswald is little more than a one-dimensional villain: vile, cruel, a bore who loves to talk on and on about communism, and a wife beater. He has absolutely no personality and does not feel like a real person.

Character development has never been King's strong suit. He does a good job of providing characters with colorful dialogue and putting them in interesting scenarios, but mostly his characters strike one-note chords. This is only problematic because these characters engage in predictable, robotic fashion when certain events arise. George is reminiscent to King's more likable and sympathetic hero, Johnny Smith, in The Dead Zone. Both characters have a secret knowledge which harms them in some way. However, where George's secret knowledge harms him only physically (aging), Johnny's secret damages him both psychologically and physically. George has little psychological or emotional investment in what he is doing, and perhaps that is why King decides to add the romance plot. George is a nice guy who wants to do the right thing, which is a fine quality to have, but it makes for a less compelling hero.

The ending of the novel is sadly predictable. I won't spoil it except to say that King had all kinds of options at his disposal, but seems to have lost interest in true science fiction speculation. He throws in elements of fantasy that serve to help him take an easier, safer route. For history buffs this is a disappointment. Despite a novel whose title and premise promises speculation, King fails to deliver. Not to say I wouldn't recommend the novel, especially if you are a King fan. There are plenty of engaging moments and the book is well-written and easy to follow. 800+ pages is a bit much for the story King wants to tell, but there are plenty of effective moments within those pages. Read and enjoy, but prepare to speculate on the matters at hand on your own.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review: A Dance with Dragons, by George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin's fifth installment in his A Song of Ice and Fire series stumbles over its own excesses. A Dance with Dragons has the advantage over its predecessor in that it has some of the series' most popular characters: Tyrion, Daenerys, and Jon. However, it lacks the compelling story arc that A Feast for Crows had with Cersei. This book, and the previous one, has Martin trying to do too much with his world: too many characters to follow and too many details about settings outside of Westeros. It seems that Martin has fallen in so much love with his world and his characters he forgot to write a story around them. We learn "much and more" about the lesser known free cities across the sea, but as the goal of the series is to land somebody on the Iron Throne, why should we care about the history of the free cities? This is the first novel in the series that forgets its characters are supposed to be playing a game of thrones, and in the end it is the worst the series has to offer.

***Warning: This review contains spoilers. If you have not read at least the first four books in the series I would not recommend reading on.***

A Feast for Crows was the first novel in the series not to kill off a king, but it certainly had fun with a certain queen regent. A Dance with Dragons doesn't have quite so much fun with its kings or queens. The only two it features, anyway, are Daenerys and Stannis, and it may be surprising to learn that Stannis fares the better of the two. Stannis is the only character playing the game of thrones; anybody else interested in playing are too far from the action to make an impact. However, the problem isn't simply that nobody is giving this game a go, but that for those who aren't, very little happens, despite the promise of A Storm of Swords.

A Storm of Swords ended with a lot of very interesting events that gave readers plenty of reason to want to read the next book. Unfortunately, after two books the most interesting of these still have not come to fruition. If you remember, Tyrion murdered his father and fled with the aid of Varys and Jaime. Where he went and what he would do was one of the biggest mysteries of the series. It turns out he was shipped off to Magister Illyrio, who you may remember from the first book as the man who aided Viserys and Dany. The plan is to get Tyrion to Dany so he can give her some aid (or she could kill him for being a Lannister). Tyrion travels with a group led by Griff and his son Young Griff, who are both more than they seem, though I think it's a mistake for Martin to introduce two such high profile characters so late in the series. While the idea of Tyrion counseling Dany sounds fun, what really happens is that Tyrion sets off on a series of misadventures. Fortunately Tyrion's signature humor is still intact, at least early on. Later he becomes more serious, and he's continuously brooding over his first wife, Tysha, and wondering where whores go. This sudden obsession with Tysha slows Tyrion's sections to a crawl.

Dany, if you remember, was having an exhilarating time conquering the free cities with her Unsullied army and freeing slaves. Her path to Westeros seemed all but paved. However, readers will be disappointed to learn that Dany has decided to settle down in the city of Meereen, where a faction of people called the Sons of the Harpy have started a small rebellion against her. People are upset she has abolished slavery. Dany has a decision to make: stay and fight, or move on. Her conscience tells her to stay, though her closest advisor, Ser Berristan Selmy, tells her otherwise. Dany's sections are some of the novel's dullest, as she addresses the complaints of the Meereenese people, obsesses over the sellsword captain Daario, and begins to realize her dragons are growing larger and more unruly. Because Meereen is not Dany's end goal (or is it?), it's difficult to care about the city's internal politics.

Jon's conclusion in A Storm of Swords was just about as exhilarating as Tyrion's. I was looking forward to seeing him in action as the new Lord Commander on the wall. To be sure, Jon has the fastest and best start in the entire novel, but it's sad to say the highlight of the entire novel is when Jon punishes Janos Slynt for insubordination - and that's in the first hundred pages. Jon's main struggle is his balancing act between obeying the vows he made to the Night's Watch and his desire to help Stannis win the north. Once Stannis, leaves the wall, though, Jon's sections slow to a crawl. We learn far more about the wildlings than is interesting, and Jon broods over the fact that those who counsel him disagree with everything he does. Towards the end Jon's decisions grow more questionable. He mirrors Dany (and even Cersei) in the fact he makes poor decisions and fails to heed the counsel of those wiser than him. While this could have been intriguing, it gets bogged down in too many needless details.

Theon makes a return. For those who have kept up on the show, it will be no surprise to learn that Theon is still alive, but this is his first appearance in the novel since A Clash of Kings. Just as in the show, Theon has been kept alive as Ramsay Snow's pet. If you thought Joffrey was bad, wait until you learn Ramsay's hobbies. Theon has been reduced to less than a man, less than a dog, into a creature named Reek. He has become so fearful that he quickly dispels any thoughts of his previous identity. He is Reek, it rhymes with meek. However, Theon becomes instrumental in helping the Boltons capture a fort and then establish their claim to Winterfell by marrying Ramsay to a false Arya Stark. Though I thought Theon was a despicable character in book two, I found Ramsay so revolting I was hoping Theon would finally get the better of him. Theon's parts, however, move just as slow as the rest. So slow, that a promised showdown towards the end of the novel gets delayed by heavy snowfall.

As for the rest of the characters, a large number receive their own perspective at some point or other. Davos and Bran are some of the more interesting of these, but each only receives three sections and they are done halfway through the novel. Davos, in the fourth book, was reportedly beheaded. Whether that actually happens I will leave for you to discover. However, his parts are some of the most suspenseful and exciting in the book, thanks in part to an awesome showing by Wyman Manderly. Bran finally reaches the three-eyed crow, which turns about to be much different than imagined. Here Bran realizes his destiny, though the novel is done with him almost as soon as he gets started. Asha Greyjoy has a couple of chapters, though mainly for the purpose of keeping an eye on another major character. Victarion also has a few sections of his own, as he sets out on his quest to marry Dany. Some of Victarion's parts are actually some of the best as the novel approaches its end. He is one of the few characters actually taking action and there is some promise in what he has to offer.

Quentyn Martell promises to play a major role, though ultimately disappoints. In the fourth book, it was revealed that Arienne Martell had a secret marriage pact with Viserys, but Doran believes that pact might have some weight in convincing Dany to marry Quentyn. Quentyn's marriage to her would also have the benefit of lending her a large army in Westeros. However, he's not a very attractive fellow and doesn't have the stomach for bloodshed. Arya has a pair of chapters that show her continued training to become an assassin for the many-faced god, however not much happens. It's a shame where Martin has taken Arya's story and her character. Hopefully he improves on it later. There's an appearance by Areo Hotah, though I forget the contents, and Jaime has a single chapter that ends by closing up one cliffhanger from the previous book and simultaneously creating another. Late in the novel Barristan Selmy gets his own chapters. He's similar to Ned Stark and Davos in that he has a high regard for honor, only it's too bad he's not in a more compelling situation.

Part of the fun of the series has been watching people effectively or ineffectively playing the game of thrones. The problem with this last book is that very few people play at the game effectively. Dany and Cersei fail to listen to the wise counsel of those around them. Jon does the same on the Wall. Most of those who do have the ability to play effectively are either too far from the action (Tyrion) or not given a perspective (Varys and Littlefinger). Jaime's sections in the fourth book were so refreshing because he was actually getting things done, and Griff and Victarion also seem to be making very strategic decisions. It's just too bad those last two are newcomers to the series.

The first three books in the series are excellent because each chapter ended with a compelling revelation or twist. In A Dance with Dragons, you will find yourself underwhelmed by the conclusion of a majority of the chapters, and none of them will excite you. That's not to say this is a bad book. It's still an impressive feat and it still has its moments of entertainment. Overall, though, it feels like sitting on a roller coaster that climbs up and up very slowly, but once it reaches the top and begins its descent you realize you're only ten feet off the ground and wish you hadn't wasted so much time waiting in line.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review: Under the Dome, by Stephen King

Stephen King's ambitious Under the Dome plays out almost like a science fiction version of George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones series (and indeed it inspired a TV show as well). While geographically it's much more confined than Martin's epic, it boasts a nearly equal cast of characters. King's novel is longer than any of Martin's novels in the GoT series, but it's a quicker read because it's much faster-paced. While Under the Dome lacks in the character development category, it has an engaging, gripping story that at times transported me completely into its world.

Like Martin's A Game of Thrones series, the opening of Under the Dome will have you scrambling back and forth trying to figure out who's who and where's where. King tells the tale from many different perspectives, which means that by page 80 you've advanced no farther than the dome just dropping (it first drops on page 3), but you've seen it drop from almost every angle possible. The parallel structure of the story is most obvious at the start. First a woodchuck gets sliced in two, and then the story moves backwards very briefly to show a small airplane crash into the dome at the exact same moment the poor woodchuck meets its fate (for dramatic effect, it's a cow in the show), and so on. What happens is probably well-known by now. A forcefield-like dome surrounds the small town of Chester's Mill (population two thousand or so). Many animals die, people included. The dome is invisible, which creates a driving hazard, but it emits a static shock when you get close and touch it. Only once, however. Once the dome drops, all us helpless readers can do is watch and see how people react under this bizarrely (impossible) intriguing scenario.

Summarizing the plot will be impossible, as there are so many characters who want to achieve conflicting goals that it would take far too many words to give you a good idea of what's going on. So I will give you an idea of some of the main characters stuck inside said dome. There is Dale Barbara (aka Barbie), an ex-army captain and now short-order cook at Sweetbriar Rose. Barbie was just leaving Chester's Mill when the dome said otherwise. Barbie had gotten in a fight the night before with the son of the town's most powerful man, Jim Rennie. Rennie is the town's second selectman Andy Sanders, but he's the real muscle behind the town's leadership. This political situation invokes the Bush-Cheney era of American presidents, with Bush viewed as a dummy and Cheney as the brains. However, just as Cheney needed the charismatic Bush to achieve power, Rennie needs the charismatic Sanders. Rennie's son, Junior, is a psychopath. When we first meet him he is strangling Angie McCain. Junior has problems. There is also Julia Shumway, editor of the town's newspaper, the Democrat, and perhaps a romantic love interest for our hero, Barbie. Lester Coggins is a reverend with about just as many problems as Junior. Rusty Everett is a young physician's assistant, husband to police officer Linda and father of two daughters. Colonel Cox is the town's one outside contact who attempts (impossibly) to establish order inside. Romeo Burpee owns the town's largest wholesale store. Joe McClatchey is a computer geek who sees the dome incident as a government experiment and organizes a protest. Duke Perkins is the sheriff, and his unfortunate early demise (pacemaker explodes near the dome) paves the way for Rennie to achieve near-unlimited power.

This covers many of the main characters, but there are so many more. One of the problems with the characters is lack of dimension. Barbie is your typical good guy hero, and King's attempt to add some depth to him later feels like an afterthought. Rennie, on the other hand, is pure evil. His only motivation is power at any cost. I prefer the version of Rennie portrayed on the television show. That Rennie genuinely seems to love the town, and he actually helps the people out. However, flat characters are not always necessary for a good story. Charles Dickens was often accused of writing flat characters, yet he is one of the greatest novelists ever to live. The main problem I had with the characters, though, is that their decisions seemed to come at the whim of the plot rather than their own intellects. Too often the good guys do stupid things, such as decide to have a "chat" with the bad guy alone, that helps make Rennie's rise to power that much easier.

Thematically, King runs the gamut. The drive for power is a major theme. Chester's Mill does not, once we see its workings, seem like an ordinary small town (some crazy stuff is going on there, with one too many messed up people). However, it is apparent that if it weren't for the power-hungry Rennie, the town's operations would run much more smoothly under the dome. The townspeople want things to go well and they want to help one another. People instinctively know the right decisions to make. Barbie sees the wisdom in rationing Sweetbriar Rose's meal times. Shop owners see no use in rationing their own goods, not yet. However, Rennie has no care about wisdom. He sees an opportunity to gain power and to make a good name for himself once the whole dome thing blows over. One of the motivating factors behind Rennie's power grab is that he can get away with it. He has stuffed the police force with men loyal to him (and too stupid to question him). The dome also serves to his advantage because nobody on the outside can stop him. Chester's Mill, in a sense, becomes a separate nation from the United States, one that doesn't have to bow to the laws of Constitution. When put in such a situation, the majority of people will want to do the right thing, but it's the powerful minority that will abuse their power.

King's novel is politically-charged. He seems concerned with a radical movement within out politics, and I think it's safe to say his target is the Tea Party movement. Chester's Mill serves as a microcosm of the United States, and perhaps even the world, as a whole. The question King seems to pose is, what happens when a radical minority within our government decides to start making bad decisions for the rest of us? This radical minority can be a force that galvanizes the people because it's fresh and energetic, and some people will believe even the most irrational words to come from its speakers. King's villains take advantage of this fact in this very frightening scenario by enforcing irrational laws against the better wisdom of the majority of the people. Today's rabid political climate makes the situations in King's novel more believable. As much as I wanted to tell myself Rennie's actions were unrealistic, I could think to real life examples that told me otherwise. And if those individuals who lead our more radical political parties were to be trapped inside a dome like this, there's no doubt they would behave in a similar way.

There's also the importance of the human condition, particularly how it interacts with the environment. As the town is now enclosed in its very own atmosphere, the effects of pollution become much more apparent. With people still driving their cars and using propane to fire up their generators, the dome quickly becomes cluttered with the resulting pollution. Eventually people see a hazy sunset through a filter of pollution and they become afraid of what it means. The human condition goes hand in hand with this environmental problem. At one point we find animals who have committed suicide, likely due to the drastic and frightening change in environment. Eventually we also find humans doing the same thing. Humans and animals aren't so different after all. The last fifty pages contain some of the novel's most powerful passages, as great tragedy strikes and we see people at their most vulnerable, trying their best to survive and to ensure the survival of others. There are images that may stay with me for the rest of my life.

The story itself is very well-told, sometimes funny and sometimes thrilling. At spots it was difficult to put down. At other spots, such as when a dog hears a dead person speak, it was characteristic silly Stephen King. You'll get a good dose of King's slang, the types of words you don't usually hear in real conversation, but still have a poetic touch to them. You'll also recognize some of King's tropes, such as villains who suffer some unseen ailment: Junior suffers horrible migraines and Rennie suffers the occasional arrhythmia. The most unfortunate trope is the discovery of the origin of the dome. Anyone familiar with King can probably guess fairly early on what elements will come into play later, though I will say King handles it far better than I expected. There's currently a TV show, airing on CBS. I've watched the first two episodes and am amazed at just how different the show is from the book. This isn't a bad thing. It means I will get a different experience from both. One major difference I noted, however, is that the television show avoids the topic of religion almost completely, whereas religion plays a key role in the novel. What that tells me is books are much braver than television shows.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Review: A Feast for Crows, by George R. R. Martin

A year later, I finally got back into George R. R. Martin's massive fantasy series, A Song of Fire and Ice (usually referred to as A Game of Thrones). Due to the complexity of the plot and the world Martin has created, it was tricky getting back into the series after such a delay, so I can only imagine how difficult it was for fans who waited five years after the third book, A Storm of Swords, came out. Based on many reviews I've seen for the book, it seems this is where readers have begun to grow unhappy with the series. Perhaps it's because they were so upset about the long wait. Or maybe it's due to the fact that the series' most popular characters, Tyrion, Dany, and Jon Snow, are all MIA. There's also the problem that Martin takes up a few unclear plot threads that, by the novel's end, lead seemingly nowhere. These are legitimate gripes, but it's important to evaluate the book as it is and not as it should have been. Here you should find that A Feast of Crows, though uneven at times, is just as addictive as its predecessors.

***Spoiler Alert! If you have not read the first three book in the series, I would not recommend reading past this point.***

Wars in the previous books have left the Seven Kingdoms in shambles, but chaos and death are perfect conditions for crows to thrive in. Bands of outlaws have taken to raping, killing, and stealing. Some small groups such as the Ironmen have decided to make an attempt to fill the leadership void left from the death of several kings. Many have become more devout in their religion, and a group called the Sparrows has risen to cleanse the lands of corruption. Events in the previous book left the Lannisters as the lone bearer of power, though not without adversaries. It was the deaths of two characters in particular who have given cause for crows to feast.

While Robb Stark's surprise execution during the Red Wedding did away with the Lannisters' harshest opposition, Tywin Lannister murder by his own son, Tyrion, harmed the stability of the Lannister hold on the throne. However, it fits perfectly into the as yet unknown plans of the Tyrells, who saw to the poisoning of Joffrey, and now have a much younger, more malleable Lannister in Tommen to wed the twice-widowed Margaery. However, Cersei, as queen regent, has hopes of making herself the greatest ruler who ever lived. For Cersei alone this book is worth reading. She's a crazed, egotistical, paranoid woman who believes herself a goddess. She will do anything to hold onto the reins of power and knows how to use her sex appeal to win the obedience of certain men. Her paranoia, however, guides her decisions more than her wisdom. Against the good advice of those close to her, Cersei quickly removes as much Tyrell influence as possible, and as the second-most powerful family in the realm, you can probably see that's not a good idea. Cersei comes up with scheme upon scheme as though she can't have enough of the drink of power, and the desire to see how this scheming pans out makes the book difficult to put down.

Jaime makes a return from the third book, much humbled since losing his prized sword-fighting hand. He was the one who released Tyrion from prison and set in forth the events that led to his father's death. But Jaime has also grown suspicious of Cersei since Tyrion told her she'd been sleeping with Osmund Kettleback and their cousin Lancel (and maybe Moon Boy for all Tyrion knew). These words haunt Jaime. Regardless, it's clear that without his sword hand Cersei has become less attracted to him, and she grows upset with him when he begins to counsel her on how foolish her schemes are. As such, Cersei sends him along on a quest to get him out of her hair. Jaime's parts are welcome, as they give us insights into King's Landing from a more observant point of view, and then later let us see some of what's happening outside King's Landing. He also delivers the funniest line in the whole novel ("This must have been an uncommonly sinful horse"), which is certainly welcome in a book where humor is in such short supply.

Brienne is the third major character, and her parts are much better than you might expect. In the previous two novels, Brienne was accused of killing Renly, though his death was the work of Melisandre's black magic, and she later escorted the prisoner Jaime to King's Landing, through a roundabout way, on Catelyn Stark's command. The end of book three found Jaime sending Brienne on a mission to seek out and return Sansa, who disappeared after Joffrey's fateful wedding. Brienne, in previous books, was a bit of a dull character who spent much of the time sulking. On one hand I do sympathize with her for being a woman who does not fit in with the traditional ideals of a woman. Men tease her about her ugly looks and they don't believe it's right for a woman to take up the sword, but very few of those men would stand a chance against her in battle. Perhaps it was unfair for readers to see her from behind the eyes of Jaime in the third book, as he hurled insult after insult at her, but her character is much improved when seeing things from her point of view. One of the reasons I enjoyed her part is because she's the only character who truly gets to set off on an adventure, one with an unknown ending. That said, though, her finale is disappointing, leaving the reader in a cliffhanger.

Martin also gives the reader a look at characters we have not yet been acquainted with. Three Greyjoys each have a chapter or two. Aeron Damphair, Balon Greyjoy's youngest brother and a priest, starts the book off. The religions of the drowned men is a strange one. Priests perform an extreme form of baptism where men are drowned and then resuscitated, and it is Aeron's opinion that a man is no good if he has never been drowned. In the third book we learned that Balon Greyjoy, one of the many kings, died from falling off a bridge. At issue is who should be crowned king next. Euron "Crow's Eye" Greyjoy, the oldest brother behind Balon, is on a return voyage to claim the throne, as Theon is assumed dead, but Aeron wants the next oldest brother, Victarion, to become king because he is a godly man. Asha, Theon's sister, also has a strong claim to the throne, but she's a woman. The Greyjoy passages were much more interesting than I imagined. Aeron summons what is called a kingsmoot, which is a semi-democratic meeting to elect the next king. The Iron Islanders are a perfect example of the "crows" who feast on the remains of the bloody war of the five kings.

We also meet some of the Martells, people from Dorne. Here I had to consult the back of the book and the map several times to situate myself. If you will remember, the Dornish people hail from south of King's Landing. Prince Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper, visited King's Landing for Joffrey's wedding in order to win the head of Ser Gregor Clegane as justice for the death of Elia Martell, wife of the late King Aerys. Prince Oberyn had his chance when he championed for Tyrion, who was accused of murdering Joffrey, but in the fight with Ser Gregor the two killed one another (Ser Gregor's death much longer lasting and more painful). In Oberyn's stead rules Prince Doran, but Oberyn's bastard-born daughters, the Sand sisters, have been clamoring for rebellion. The Dornish sections, unfortunately, are a little scattered and confused. First we meet Areo Hotah, the massive bodyguard for the young prince betrothed to Myrcella Lannister, and then we see Arys Oakheart, the kingsguard sworn to protect Myrcella, and finally we stick with Arianne Martell, daughter of Doran and heir to Dorne. Some of this is interesting, but part of me wonders whether Martin would have been better off without it, and the revelations at the end aren't particularly earth-shattering.

Of course, there are still other characters. Samwell is the fourth major character, sent on a quest to take Gilly and her child to the Tarly home, while he remains in Oldtown to study to become a maester. I've always liked Sam, and I also like the choice of actors to play him and Gilly in the HBO show. His portions of the novel are a little slow and not as interesting as some of the others, but I still enjoyed them. I hope the best for Sam's fate in the series. Arya and Sansa play very small roles. Sansa's parts are rather good, as we get to see behind the scenes of Petyr Baelish's schemes and plots. Arya's parts, unfortunately, are not so good. When we last saw her, she left the Hound and headed for a ship to take her to Braavos, where she could find Jaqen. When we see her in this book, it's unclear what she's doing. Having heard a little bit regarding what happens in book five, I can see now what is she's up to, but Martin doesn't make it particularly clear in book four. Perhaps this is deliberate, but it doesn't do much to wash the bitter taste in the reader's mouth following her strange conclusion in this book.

What makes these books so great is the human factor. These novels are about human failures and the frailty of human success. Many of the characters have some major flaw, defect, pain, or weakness. Brienne is a woman with the build and looks of a man. Tyrion is a dwarf. Bran is a cripple. Jaime is a warrior without his sword hand. Sam is fat. Prince Doran has terrible gout. These are men and women who are unable to mask their vulnerabilities, but must work that much harder to make up for them in the novel's cruel world. Pain comes much more often than not. Almost all of the characters are strongly driven to achieve some goal, which makes it that much more disappointing when they come upon a powerful force working against them. The end goal of this series is that somebody will be crowned king/queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and maybe more. Only one person (or two) can achieve this goal, which means that most of the characters in the series are doomed to failure, and that's just a part of human life. We will fall in love with characters and root for them, but only one can win, and it can't always be the one you're rooting for.

While there is certainly a little unevenness in A Feast for Crow's story, Martin's accomplishment in this series is astounding. He has done the incredible feat of juggling a massive assortment of complex characters and intertwining them in a fantastic story. Part of my own feelings of disappointment lie in the fact that the book had to end. There's also the fact that I really wanted to know where Tyrion ran off to, and I want to see Daenerys continue to kick ass, and I'm very curious to see how Jon Snow handles his new Lord Commander position. At least book five is already out. My main concern is that by the time Martin finally releases book six I will have forgotten so much I'll need to keep turning to the map and the character list every five sentences. Nonetheless, the imagination of the author who wrote these books is phenomenal.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Review: The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford

As a kid, I fell in love with the movie inspired, thirty years later, by Sheila Burnford's novel, The Incredible Journey. That movie was called Homeward Bound and had a cast of talking animals who set out on an incredible one hundred mile journey to return home. The Disney film gave the animals human personalities: Chance the bulldog was goofy and reckless; Shadow the golden retriever was wise and loyal; and Sassy the Himalayan cat was, well, sassy. Burnford's novel deals with the animals much more realistically. They don't talk with one another except by language of instinct. The novel is much more about survival and animal behavior, though companionship is important as well. What Burnford does is show just how amazing our two favorite pets, cats and dogs, are.

The Hunter family, leaving on a nine-month trip to Europe, have left their beloved animals with their trusted friend, John Longridge. These animals, not named until the very end of the tale, are an old bull terrier, a young Labrador, and a Siamese cat (Disney decided to go with more popular and attractive animals for Homeward Bound). Burnford skips the requisite drama of the kids, teary-eyed, leaving their beloved pets behind, and she also does away with any tensions between the three pets. These animals have grown comfortable with their stay at Longridge's place. Except for the young Labrador. The Labrador, rather than being the goofy animal his counterpart is in Homeward Bound, plays the role of the leader. That's because in the animal kingdom it's not the old and frail who are the leaders, but the young and strong. On the day Longridge sets off for a lengthy fishing trip, the Labrador decides it's time to return home, and the other two follow along.

Life isn't so easy in the wild for these animals. This is especially apparent to the bull terrier early on, whose age slows him down. Amazingly, this pack of animals is attuned to the injuries and weaknesses of its members, and the Labrador leads them to a resting place when the older dog runs out of energy. This suggests animals do have a sense of empathy. Survival instinct would say to leave the old dog behind, but companionship tells these animals to behave differently. We also see this when the cat begins hunting in order to feed not just itself, but the weak old bull terrier as well. That the cat would do this for the dog is believable when you consider the number of little dead mice your own cat leaves for you on the front porch.

Burnford describes these animals with fondness. They aren't judgmental. They crave your attention and companionship. They can sense when you are feeling lonely. They can even protect you if need be. They also seem to sense that their family extends beyond just the humans, but one another. We see this in the way the animals feed each other and provide warmth at night. It's the cat whose perhaps the most impressive of the bunch. He scares off a full-grown bear, and at another point he must outwit a much more terrifying hunter than himself. The dogs have their own adventures as well, but excel the most when it comes to begging food off of the humans they come across on their journey.

The novel is a tribute to our beloved pets. They are attuned to their owners so much that they are able to travel one hundred miles through wilderness to return home. In order to survive their journey, they must depend on one another for sustenance and for comfort. These animals are not only loyal to their owners, but to one another as well. While these animals do travel on an incredible journey, Burnford provides just the right details to make it credible - and enjoyable.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: Adam Bede, by George Eliot

Adam Bede, George Eliot's first full-length novel, borders between traditional values and liberal attitudes regarding women (at least for its time). The novel features two young women who dream of something bigger than their prescribed course in life. For Dinah Morris, it is to be a Methodist preacher and live among the needy, much to the chagrin of her family. For Hetty Sorrel, it is to leave her farmer life and enter a higher class through marriage to a gentleman. Both women risk ridicule; the difference is that one woman's pursuit is much more noble than the other's. Watching the characters in the novel try to make a happy life for themselves, it becomes clear there is more social pressure placed on women to conform than on men.

There are four central characters in this sprawling narrative: Adam Bede, Hetty Sorrel, Arthur Donnithorne, and Dinah Morris. Adam Bede is an honest working man with a powerful build, a charismatic personality, a sometimes fiery temper, and a strong moral character based on the ethics of hard work. Adam is perhaps the most remarkable young man in the town of Hayslope. He is well-liked by everyone. He lives with his constantly complaining mother, his drunkard father, and his brother, Seth, who is in all regards an inferior version of himself: meek, smaller, and kinder - too kind. Adam could have his pick of any woman in the town, and he sets his eyes on the beautiful Hetty.

Hetty is a seventeen year old girl who lives with her aunt and uncle, the Poysers. She's not well-educated and always appears aloof, but she stands out because of her remarkable beauty. Adam's not the only one fond of her. There are several other suitors, but Adam is superior, at least among those in his own class. Hetty, however, does not love Adam, though she knows he loves her. She has dreams of moving into a higher social class, where she can look pretty all day and be admired for her beauty. Yes, she's shallow, but by the story's end she was the character I felt the most sympathy for, partly because she's so naive. In our modern world with our modern cultural thought, there should be nothing wrong with Hetty rising to a higher class if a man of higher social standing is willing to marry her. However, in this world of England in 1799, such a marriage would be seen as scandalous. As such, Hetty sees something more than mere flirtation in the attention she receives from the well-groomed Arthur Donnithorne, who is heir to the Chase, the estate overseeing Hayslope.

Arthur is the most respected, most liked man in the entire town. His father, the old squire, is cranky and stingy, and the people can't wait until he dies so Arthur can take over and make improvements to the town. Arthur prides himself on how well-liked he is, but this ego manifests itself in a friendly face. He is careful to wrong nobody. But this doesn't prevent him from falling falls in love with Hetty. It's difficult for a young man not to fall in love when a beautiful young woman appears so madly in love with him. Why this love is so wrong is because it's deceitful. Arthur, wanting to lead the life of a respectable gentleman, cannot marry a farmer's niece. His marriage must be with somebody of his social rank, not below it. Arthur continuously convinces himself their feelings for one another aren't very strong. It's just a little bit of flirtation. He tells himself again and again, "Tonight, tomorrow, I'll tell her this must stop." It's like when we tell ourselves that tomorrow we will start eating healthy, no more ice cream, but when tomorrow rolls around we convince ourselves that it's no harm to indulge just a little bit more. We always have tomorrow to do the right thing. For Arthur I do feel sympathy, because the world he lives in would not allow him to follow his heart in this case. Nonetheless, between the two, Hetty is more the victim because she risks losing everything.

The final major character to discuss is Dinah. Dinah serves as a foil to Hetty, and those who have some knowledge about Victorian literature (or even some modern romantic comedies), will be able to predict how the story ends based on this information alone. Dinah is remarkable in that she is a Methodist preacher, a position generally reserved for men. She has no desire to be married, but wishes to go off to the small town of Snowfield, where the people are poorer and more miserable than where she lives. Her aunt and uncle, again the Poysers, don't want her to leave, and her aunt begs that there are plenty of people who are miserable where they are. Dinah, though, wants to be with people who are more miserable and are in more need of her. To stay with the Poysers would mean Dinah is choosing her own material welfare over the spiritual welfare of a more needy people. Dinah is the one virtuous character without any faults. One could argue her desire to leave home to care for strangers is a fault, but I see it as a strength. She is choosing the terms of her life rather than allow society to make this choice for her.

The novel begins slowly, very slowly, being written in the verbose style of Victorian authors. Sometimes Eliot describes one too many pieces of furniture in a house, or one too many pieces of scenery. This is typical, and I see it as the author painting a scene with her words. Eliot, I admit, is a very effective painter of people and scenes. Characters are developed in full before things begin to happen to them. The reader gets to know each character very intimately, and we also get to know the narrator very well. This narrator is omniscient, though not objective. She passes judgments on characters and feels sympathy for them. In this day and age, such a writing style doesn't fly, thankfully. It's nice when the reader can make their own judgment of a person or action. However, Eliot is much more effective at developing characters using the omniscient narrator than many authors today are using a less knowing narrator.

After a slow start, momentum builds quickly. Some of the best scenes are the seduction of Arthur and Hetty. Most romance authors today fail to recreate the thrill of seduction the way Eliot does here. I felt just as giddy as the characters felt, though I knew what they were doing was wrong according to the values of this world. I also felt compassion for characters when things didn't go their way. Adam and Dinah may be the most perfect, most flawless of the characters, but my favorites were Arthur and Hetty, because it is more human to be flawed. It's clear the narrator loves her two "good" characters the most, but she still feels pity towards those two flawed lovers. Pity, however, is a condescending emotion, and it is Adam and Dinah who are the most rewarded.

In the afterword of the Signet Classics version of the novel, Regina Barreca argues that this novel belongs not to Adam Bede, but to Dinah and Hetty. I would agree, except that I believe this novel is more Hetty's than Dinah's. Dinah's fate is sealed early on, though nobody realizes it yet, because of her goodness. Hetty's troubles feel much more real, much more modern than Dinah's. It's true that Dinah chooses to assert her independence by choosing to live life her own way, but this assertion is cloaked in a very conservative disguise, since she is still serving under the one ultimate male: God. Hetty, sure, is selfish, but she dreams of a better life for her own sake. Her teenage mind grows tired at the prospect of living a life of toil, and can you blame her? She has the makings of a modern heroine. Disney princesses, such as Cinderella, Ariel, and Belle, all dream of bigger, better things than the simple, toilsome lives they lead. Perhaps it's true that Hetty has no larger aspirations than to be wealthy and comfortable, but it seems a tad unfair the way the novel punishes her for daring to dream of a life other than the traditional one prescribed for her.

Class mobility is impossible in this world, especially for women. There is an assumption about the natural differences between people of different classes. The narrator herself holds many prejudices towards the peasants, as she calls them, and can't help but point out when certain peasant feelings get the better of even the superior-minded Adam Bede. Those of higher social classes look upon the peasant class with either condescending pity, apathy, or disgust. They enjoy inviting peasants to lavish parties just to see how amazed they are at the sight of such a huge mansion and so much food. However, it seems that very few of the farmers dream of achieving a higher class. In fact, they frown at the thought. When Hetty puts a rose in her hair, given to her by Adam, Adam disapproves and explains that he dislikes when women decorate themselves with such ornaments. Today Adam would be seen as controlling, and I would say that may be true, yet Adam is a good man and he is only speaking based on the values of times long past. It is dangerous for Hetty to ornament herself because then she might soon see herself as too good for an artisan such as Adam. Adam's disapproval, then, is a protective instinct.

The novel is an extraordinary read. It doesn't measure up to Eliot's Middlemarch, but that is a novel leagues better than most anything ever written. Not only does it have an enjoyable story (mostly), but it's fun to dissect the cultural differences between this time and our time. Eliot, however, does describe a lot of universals, particularly in terms of human feeling, and that's why it's so valuable. And old as it is, the love triangle is a plot device loved by today's readers. That said, this is a novel whose story could not possibly play out in the same way today because the values that determine the story's direction come from a more traditional, less progressive era. Anyone who wants to read a great story, or anyone who loves Victorian literature, should set aside some time for Adam Bede - or any George Eliot, for that matter.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Guest Video Blog: Fahrenheit 451 Video by Jack Collins (Academic Earth)

I am pleased to share with you a video on Fahrenheit 451 done by Jack Collins, for the website Academic Earth. This video, in less than three minutes, succinctly summarizes the plot, characters, and themes of the novel, and the voice over is accompanied by very stylish and poignant drawings.

The purpose is to provoke thought and discussion, so please feel free to add to the discussion on my blog here or at the following link where you can also watch the video:

I hope you enjoy this video as much as I did.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Review: Wringer, by Jerry Spinelli

Wringer is aimed at around the same age group as Jerry Spinelli's Newbery Award winner, Maniac Magee, but it has a more cohesive narrative. The fact that this is, in essence, an animal story will make this more enjoyable for all age groups, even though that animal is a very unusual one. The novel has some dark themes, as suggested by the cover. While friendship is a major theme, abuse is another underlying theme - namely the abuse that we put up with because we believe it is for our own improvement. Wringer is about a boy who feels compelled to do something that terrifies him.

Wringer has two plots that merge together. Both revolve around the main character, nine-year old Palmer. Palmer's desire is to become initiated into a group of boys that include the obnoxious Beans, his sidekick Mutto, and the acquiescent Henry. Palmer's mother despises these boys and wishes Palmer would befriend the nice girl across the street, Dorothy. But moms just don't get it. Sure Beans treats Palmer like dirt and gives him a cruel nickname, Snots, but the important thing is to be a part of the group. The guys take Palmer to receive The Treatment from an older boy. This Treatment involves getting punched in the arm ten times, so that Palmer has a bruise that lasts a good week. Sure it's painful, but it's nothing compared to the satisfaction of being part of the "in" crowd. The bruise serves as a badge of honor. Now Beans, Mutto, and Henry are best friends of Palmer's.

The other storyline involves Pigeon Day at the annual Family Fest. Five thousand pigeons are captured for this event, for the purposes of being shot for sport. The person who shoots the most pigeons wins a golden pigeon trophy, one of which proudly sits on Palmer's fireplace mantel for the day his father won it. The shooting event raises lots of money for the park, and it serves as a great attraction, however, Palmer dreads this day every year. One part of the sport involves boys, aged ten, who run out to collect the bodies of the downed pigeons. If a pigeon is still alive, it's the job of these boys to wring its neck and kill it. One simple twist to put the bird out of its misery. Palmer has nightmares about the first day he witnessed this. Worse, it's expected that all ten-year-old boys will become wringers, and Palmer fears nothing more.

So things take an unexpected turn when a pigeon begins to visit Palmer's bedroom every day. This is when things begin to change for Palmer. He starts spending less time with his friends, because they are vicious pigeon-haters. In fact, Beans relishes the thought of becoming a wringer so much he tortures helpless animals in preparation. Palmer is afraid that if Beans knew about his new pet pigeon, Nipper, that would spell the end for the bird.

The story of friendship that Spinelli tells between the Palmer and Nipper is surprisingly effective. One usually doesn't attach sentimental feelings to a pigeon, which is usually referred to as a rat with wings, but Spinelli gives the bird personality. I have no doubts that there are kids who, after reading this novel, will want a pigeon for a pet. Spinelli inserts pigeon facts throughout the novel, facts that don't really enhance the story but help bring the bird to life. The way he describes Nipper's actions suggests Spinelli has a special fondness for pigeons. Such as the fact that they walk, where most small birds hop. Or the way they nod their heads as though they are the most agreeable creatures on the earth. Spinelli's description of Nipper reminded me of Herman Melville's discussion of whales in Moby-Dick, which are viewed with awe and affection. Spinelli paints the lowly pigeon as though it is just as grand as the magnificent whale.

The novel does begin to move in predictable fashion. Based on the plot elements I have shared, you can probably guess with a good degree of accuracy where the story heads. There are moments towards the end where the story moves very slow as it makes its trek towards its inevitable conclusion. Still, this is a very enjoyable book overall. It uses lots of humor and provides good insight into the thoughts and feelings of a nine-year-old boy. This book is a testament to how our love for an animal can cause us to grow as a person.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review: Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli

Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee won the Newberry Medal in 1990, and I can imagine that the age group the award is aimed at, late elementary to early middle school, would get more of a kick out of the absurdly goofy scenarios in the story than I did. Reading as an adult, the book seems random and ungrounded, though I will admit it has heart.

At the age of three, Jeffrey Lionel Magee lost his parents. He lived with his uncle and aunt for some time, but their strict Catholic ways left him feeling stifled. So he ran away. Only, unlike other runaway stories, Jeffrey was never caught. In fact, he makes a name for himself in the town of Two Mills, which has a East End where blacks live and a West End where whites live. The name he makes for himself is Maniac Magee. His feats become part of the town's legends, and Spinelli playfully suggests we shouldn't believe all the stories we read about Maniac. This isn't a story, though, where the reader is supposed to guess reality from myth. That would be fruitless. Maniac's feats are as much fantasy as the setting the story takes place in.

Stories are told about Maniac's untiring ability to run endlessly. He can untie even the most difficult of knots. He is allergic to pizza. He also frog bunted an inside the park home run against the best pitcher in Two Mills. Yes, ridiculous. As a kid I can imagine I would have hooted with laughter. These stories seem to exist simply for the amusement of younger readers, but as this story is made up of random bits of such tales, it fails to feel cohesive.

The story deals with themes of homelessness and race. Maniac is known for fearlessly crossing the border between the West End and East End, which are divided on racial lines. Most residents from one end won't mingle with residents on the other end because of the racial tensions. Maniac does more than cross the border, however. He lives in the house of Amanda Beale, a black girl, long enough to become an honorary part of the family. Spending much of his life without a home or a place to learn about social constructs, Maniac doesn't understand the concept of racial tension. This suggests that people are not innately born with racial prejudice, but learn it. Living on the East End, Maniac does learn about racial prejudice, and it chases him away for a time.

Maniac's outsider status allows him to see things others can't. He realizes that households on the West End aren't terribly different from those on the East End. The Beale household is a normal home and there is a feeling of warmth and love. Maniac also experiences the same thing with a large white family that welcomes anybody to join for dinner. And where the white families all believe black households are trashy, Maniac spends a few weeks in a white household trashier than any he's seen on the East End. But because nobody crosses the border as Maniac does, nobody else knows how similar to two sides really are.

Unfortunately the novel doesn't do much with its themes, except maybe the theme of friendship and family. There are some touching moments, particularly when Maniac befriends an older man named Grayson. The novel is most enjoyable when Maniac settles down somewhere, but he's on the move so often the novel feels just as homeless as its title hero. Perhaps that's the point, and maybe I'm missing something. It's not that this is a bad novel, but it's one more geared for the kids than the adults.