Monday, August 29, 2016

Review: Aurora, by Andreas Christensen

Aurora, the sequel to Andreas Christensen's Exodus, is a book that could have been intriguing, that could have been thought-provoking, that could have been entertaining, had the author done some research. As it stands, it is far too implausible to take seriously. There's also the problem that the choice of plot and conflict is misguided. A story about a colony of humans trying to survive on a brand new planet, and the struggles they come across in the process, is intriguing enough to write a novel about, but Christensen instead focuses his conflict on a far less interesting political conflict that boils over from the first book. The conflict in fact feels forced, as the government is not oppressive until the plot requires it. It's unfortunate that the author has little interest in developing the more intriguing parts of the world he has created.

Aurora continues where Exodus left off, with the remainder of humanity on their new home planet trying to survive. At the heart of the conflict is the government, which many people protest is too heavy-handed. Having anticipated this, a group of rebels back on Earth had planted people who could change this political culture. One of these is Thomas Dunn, who is such a shady character it's a wonder that the new president, George Havelar, trusts him, or that Maria Solis, the Latino daughter of Ramon Solis, right hand man of Havelar, would fall in love with him. But I guess the characters are so paper thin it's hard to care anyway.

Other key players include Kenneth Taylor, a psychologist who doesn't really like the way Havelar runs things, but keeps quiet. Tina Hammer was one of the commanders of the flight to the planet, but she has retired from military life in order to build a fishing empire. Greg Hamilton was the lead commander, who joins Tina. Ben Waters was one of thirty or so teenager who was smuggled aboard the Exodus and was lucky enough not to be shipped back to Earth. Each of these characters has some sort of grumblings about the way Havelar runs things, but the problem is it's not very clear what he does that's so problematic. The main issue is that he does not allow expeditions to explore very far on the new world. No reasoning is provided, but the complaints seem more akin to a teenager complaining about too many rules than an adult reaction. They hardly warrant any sort of rebellion. And even when Havelar unveils in secret some plan he has, it doesn't sound crazy or evil, just stupid.

Christensen is far less concerned about survival on a new planet than he is with his political conflict, and that's a shame. His brushing off of potential conflicts based around survival also adds immensely to the implausibility of his world. For example, it isn't until a third of the way into the novel that somebody finally dies. After light-years of travel and over 150 years, only two people have died by the time we reach a third of the way through book two. Human history tells us that whenever people colonize a new land, whether or not it was already populated by other people, lots of people die. They die from disease. They die from the elements. They die by each other. They also die by wildlife. It should be no different with colonizing a new planet. In fact, there's reason to believe survival could be harsher on a new planet. Descriptions of life on the planet show characters living a life of luxury compared to what you would expect. It's true that technology is better, but there are so many unknowns that it's impossible that it took so long for anybody to die, even by accident or human stupidity.

Christensen is not a particularly good writer. I don't mean to say he's a bad writer, but perhaps his talents aren't well-suited to fiction. He doesn't dive into the heads of characters very well, even though chapters are split up by character. One character could easily replace the other. Mantras tell writers to show rather than tell, and while there are fantastic tellers out there, Christensen is not one of them. He may have benefited more from showing his plot unfold rather than tell about it. Events happen and we learn about them after the fact, and this has the affect of making things harder to believe. There's also the issue that the dialogue is poorly organized. A line of dialogue will be followed, without a paragraph break, by a description of a character who is not speaking. Here is an example of the way Christensen writes his dialogue throughout the entire story:

" 'Don't worry about it. And by the way, I'm not that kind of psychologist.' She smiled back at him."

In most stories, this dialogue indicates that the speaker is the "she" in the paragraph, who would be, in this case, Maria Solis. The problem however, is that Kenneth Taylor is actually the speaker. It's true that context makes this easy to figure out, but the way Christensen ignores these rules of writing dialogue breaks the novel's magic. It brings the reader's attention to the fact that they are reading a novel because the reader must re-calibrate their brain to say that no, it's not Maria who is speaking, but Kenneth. It is maddening, and this example is typical of how Christensen writes his dialogue throughout the entire novel.

I can say that at least you won't take up a lot of time with these books. They are over fairly quickly, but you probably won't gain any new understandings of the world or even be particularly entertained. Christensen seems to want to reflect the political climate of our time, but he places this sort of thing in the wrong kind of book. In a book about surviving on an alien planet, it's not unreasonable to want to see humans struggling to survive. And just when things begin getting intense, a deus ex machina is inserted that adds immensely to the implausibility. I just can't find it in me to continue reading this series.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Review: American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

In its meandering ways, American Gods is an underwhelming behemoth of a novel. Neil Gaiman himself is a god in the fantasy writing world. His writing is magic and he has written some fantastic pieces of fiction, both in novel and graphic novel form. His voice is also a work of art. He deserves a spot up there with Morgan Freeman and Werner Herzog in creating magic with that voice. While reading American Gods, I couldn't help but hear how his voice might pronounce phrases, the way he might pause, or the way he might stress certain words. And yet Neil Gaiman is not a god (and I'm not implying that he thinks he's one, either). While others may treat him as a god whose pen turns everything he writes into gold, he does misfire now and then, and American Gods is one of those misfires.

Halfway into my reading of American Gods, I was puzzled by my inability to appreciate the work as others had. Despite the praise I had both heard and read, I was bored. I wasn't engaged. The humor was lacking or muted. The characters, none of them, were particularly well-drawn. Shadow is a nothing of a character, somebody who has things happen to him and who does what he is told. Shadow is not unlike the main character from The Ocean at the End of the Lane, about whom I also had the same complaint. This work never quite develops a fully coherent plot, nor does it provide itself with much of a purpose. It feels like it should be deep in purpose, but whenever I try to grasp for it, I come up with nothing. Too many of the travels and plot events end up going nowhere.

Perhaps part of my problem was that I didn't care. I didn't care about the gods. I didn't care about Shadow and what happened with his wife. The gods, and Shadow's wife, turn out to be very unlikeable, and I think that's on purpose. But the gods are the biggest problem. Gaiman is probably trying to say something profound by showing all the gods from all over the world who have come to America at some point or another and have been forgotten. The question is, is it bad that they are forgotten? Is this saying something about America? Is there a critique somewhere in there? I mean, there are plenty of gods who are no longer worshiped. Along with the Norse gods like Odin and Loki and Thor, there are the Roman gods such as Zeus and Athena, and the Greek gods. What is Gaiman trying to get at? I couldn't grasp it.

The other problem comes down to the idea that there is a conflict between the new gods and the old gods. The new gods are gods of internet and television and whatnot. How are those gods? Where do you draw the line? Gaiman suggests that where people used to sacrifice living things to gods, people now sacrifice time. So shouldn't everything that we sacrifice time to be a god? I spent a lot of time reading this book. Do books have a god? Do commutes to work have a god? Does work itself have a god? School? Studying? Vehicles? Zoos? Parks? And on the same line as the previous paragraph, is Gaiman providing a critique in this conflict? The problem was that I spent time attempting to see his larger point, and every attempt I made grasped at straws. People may just say I don't get it, and I can't say I disagree with that. I don't get it. When it comes down to a conflict between gods, I didn't care. The gods were not human enough and whatever they were trying to symbolize is not convincing enough.

Gaiman has proven himself to be a great meanderer. The Graveyard Book is an excellent example of his meandering, and in that book it works. It's fascinating the way he creates a world and brings it to life. In American Gods, though, his meandering merely muddles his world. I get a feeling of fatigue, of searching for purpose. Gaiman has also proved that he can write terrific stories with clear plots. Neverwhere played to Gaiman's best strengths with humor, well-developed characters, and villains who were both amusing and terrifying. In American Gods, anytime Gaiman seems to be getting somewhere, the novel gets stuck in a rut. His villains aren't particularly interesting or scary, and his gods are mostly terrible people, too much to care about. Wednesday charms teenage girls into having sex with him and tricks hardworking people out of their money. Another god swallows men with her vagina. The gods seem more like villains than people we should root for, and I wasn't sure what Gaiman wanted his readers to think.

One consistent thing I saw in reviews, is that if this was written by anyone other than Gaiman, such and such a reviewer probably would have enjoyed the novel more. This doesn't make sense except to elevate Gaiman to that status of a god. It's as if to say that he is such a god that an inferior work written by him would be an excellent work written by another, lesser writer. American Gods would have been as meandering as it is no matter who wrote it, but it might not have seen the same praise. But because this is a Gaiman work, there is some enjoyment to be had. There are moments that do work, where the reading is pleasant even if the purpose is unclear. That said, I would still have trouble recommending this to anyone but a Gaiman fan, or a fan of mythology. Others may find themselves thinking Gaiman is overrated, and they would be wrong. This simply is not one of his better works, in my mind.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Review: Exodus, by Andreas Christensen

It's a terrifying idea: a massive object from space is on a collision course with the Earth. It's terrifying because we could see it coming, but we'd be powerless to stop it. Of course, such Hollywood movies as Deep Impact and Armageddon have imagined ways people could redirect or destroy the comet/meteor. But what if the object was so large that it would be impossible to redirect or destroy it? This is what Andreas Christensen (what a name!) aims to examine in his Exodus trilogy, beginning with his first book, Exodus. The idea isn't original, but it's so fascinating that it's tough to pass by a story that decides to examine it, whether it's a story that you might find on a cheap Syfy movie or a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. As interesting as parts of this book are, it suffers from the marks of an amateur writer. The pacing is off, the character development is poor, and the book just plain suffers from boredom due to repetition and an over-reliance on explaining things.

The prologue introduces a rogue planet that is destined for a collision course with the Earth. Luckily, though, Mars was in the way. Or maybe not so lucky, since the collision with Mars has set the planet in an orbit towards the sun in which it will collide with Earth. Why did nobody notice a rogue planet hurling through the Solar System, you might be wondering? In this version of Christensen's planet Earth, the United States has decided to stop funding NASA because of a terrible tragedy during an expedition to Mars. To make matters worse, the U.S. government had been eroding its basic protections for people, such as the First Amendment, for decades (this takes place in 2070). This is perhaps where Christensen adds something unique, in the addition of a political tyranny of sorts. It's unfortunate that he doesn't fully explain this erosion of rights. It's not clear exactly what is not allowed and what the consequences are for breaking that law. Again, the mark of an amateur author. Maybe Christensen barely knows himself.

Essentially what the conflict boils down to are two things. One, scientists attempt to come up with a way that they can launch a small number of people into a gigantic ship so that they can colonize a distant planet. They only have twelve years before the rogue planet smashes into Earth. I think Christensen is pretty generous here, but in fairness, when all the world's scientists are focused on this problem, I guess it could maybe be possible. The other conflict involves a small number of people who would like to sabotage the plans, politically at least. Not everybody is happy with the direction the United States government was continuing to head, and with the current president in charge of the mission, it seems likely he will attempt to further his regime on this distant planet. So this rogue group wants to get people on board who make sure a better government is in place.

Notice I haven't mention a single name. There are lots of characters, but zero personalities. Tina Hammer, who opens the book, is notable, as Christensen describes her, because she is an African American woman who is a fighter pilot. There's also Maria Solis, a Latino girl whose parents are high up in what is called the Consortium, which seems to be a conglomerate of businesses that have a lot of power and access to government information. Honestly, there are others, including a senator, an FBI agent, a psychologist, and a mix of people chosen to train for the Exodus expedition, but I can hardly remember who's who.

As I said, the solutions to the problem of migrating a population across a massive amount of space is solved rather quickly. Scientists discover a good planet fairly quickly. They solve the problems of speed quickly. They figure out how to create cryogenic sleep rather quickly. Those who've read any Arthur C. Clarke may remember that it took the scientists in Songs from a Distant Earth several centuries to come up with all of this. In fact, Christensen could probably learn a thing or two from Clarke. Human philosophy is often more interesting than a how-to guide in getting us up to space. Christensen's science isn't very specific, not like Andy Weir's in The Martian, but his story does get bogged down too much in mechanics and not enough in humanity. It's amazing how calm people seem to be considering their imminent doom. At the end there is a little bit of chaos, but this doesn't seem to really reflect human behavior in this scenario.

I've begun reading the second book before writing this review, and I will say that Christensen hunkers down and focuses his story a lot better. We get a better look into the characters and motivations and we get much more coherence, rather than a randomly organized set of problems and solutions that Christensen presents here in book one. I considered giving up, but it's a short book, so I finished it. This is tough to recommend though. Serious fans of sci-fi will grow bored with the paper-thin development. Notably, there is a strong lack of any original ideas, with an exception of the political suppression. It's a shame Christensen chose to spend so long on this aspect of the story. Clarke used this sort of story as background in his Songs from Distant Earth, and Christensen proves the wisdom in Clarke's choice by expanding the background story into a full, tedious novel.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Review: The Selection, by Kiera Cass

Imagine mixing The Hunger Games, Divergent, a little bit of 1984, Disney Princesses, Jane Austen, and, finally, The Bachelor. What you'll end up with is Kiera Cass's YA dystopia series, The Selection. You have caste sytems, you have romance, you have a love triangle, you have a little bit of violence, you have a society that entertains itself with reality game shows that have real world implications, you have women fighting over one man (sort of), and you have lots of wannabe princesses. There's even a TV host who must be Caesar Flickerman's twin (if you don't remember, he's the host in The Hunger Games). That is to say, you don't have a lot of originality, but who's to say an artist needs to be original? What Cass does is mix known elements from popular YA stories and from pop culture and throws them together in an entertaining, though not entirely unpredictable, manner.

The United States of America does not exist, and in its place is the nation of Ilea. I won't waste your time with the history of Ilea - Cass explains it for you. The USA may not exist, but America is the name of the story's heroine. Out of a caste of 1-8, she's a five, and I don't mean that in a rude way. She literally lives in the fifth caste, which is a caste of artists. You see, each caste has its own way of life. Just as in Divergent characters live in a caste that defines how they behave and what task they perform in life, in The Selection, it's very similar. Only, instead of choosing the caste, one is born into it. Or married into it. And like a Jane Austen novel, the woman can marry up or down, but not the man. This adds a bit of tension because America is in love with Aspen, who is a six, which is not to say how handsome he is, but that he's in a lower caste than America: the servant class. He's hunky and nice and adorable in a Gayle kind of way, minus the hunting of course.

All the way up in the caste of ones is the royal family. When a princess is of marrying age, the royal family basically auctions her off to some powerful family. When a prince is of marrying age, however, they hold a game, much like The Bachelor, called the Selection. Any woman of the right age signs up, answers some questions, takes a picture, and is selected randomly to compete. Or, I should say, "randomly." American signs up, though she is happy with Aspen, because he couldn't live with himself if she didn't have that chance because of him. And then, well, he sort of breaks up with her, and there's some maybe misunderstandings, and, well, she's selected. Along with 35 other women.

Aspen is important because it is a known rule in YA dystopias that there must be a love triangle (okay, maybe Veronica Roth missed that one). It is also known in YA dystopias that the heroine must exert her strong, independent character through some means of violence, preferably the variety where knee connects with groin. If that's not a meet-cute, I don't know what is. To be fair to America, though, she was told that she must not refuse the prince anything he wants, which means, well, you get the picture. So America was prepared to defend herself at all costs, though, gosh, the prince is such a nice guy. The thought never even crossed his mind. If being kneed in the groin doesn't get you interested in a girl, I don't know what will. Well, except maybe being friendzoned. There's nothing like being friendzoned to drive a guy wild about a girl. America admits to Prince Maxon she doesn't want to be his wife, but she doesn't want to leave, either, because she likes the food. And he's instantly smitten.

Now, if this story was written as adult dystopia rather than YA dystopia, there would be some key differences. Cass's setup screams satire, yet she goes the safe and nice route. In an adult version of the story, a lot more fun would be had with the Selection itself. These are 36 women fighting to become the most powerful woman in the country; you might expect a lot more drama between the contestants. Cass misses a huge opportunity when she makes all of her contestants nice to each other. There is one exception, the physically intimidating Celeste, but she's mostly underutilized. In an adult version, the prince may not be the sweet, innocent man he is in Cass's version. Prince Maxon has free rein to exploit these women sexually and doesn't use it? If he was a giant prick instead of such a sweet guy, a little more fun might be had, and possibilities for satire would open up.

As it stands, the main conflict in Cass's story is that America is upset about Aspen dumping her, and that rebels make frequent attacks on the palace and everyone has to hide on occasion. The attacks provide a sense of 1984 - is there really an attack on the palace? Or is it being fabricated to keep the royal family in power and keep the caste system in tact? I don't want to make it sound like I'm ripping on The Selection. It is entertaining, more so than other YA dystopias. It's mostly entertaining in the back and forth between Maxon and America. It's just that, for being a novel about a dystopic world, it has a rather innocent way of understanding how people work. Everyone is nice, nobody fights that hard for the chance at power, and nobody, not even Prince Maxon, is interested in sex. Parents rejoice!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Review: Greeth, by Charles LaFave

Putting down Greeth, by Charles LaFave, a 380-page mammoth of a novel, I'm still trying to comprehend how I feel. I spent a lot of time with this dark fantasy, gory horror, noir-style novel, and I am left with many questions left unanswered. The creature called Greeth, for one, what is she? Who/what are those beings called the Others and why are they so important that they are mentioned many times throughout the novel? What exactly is the conflict of the novel? Is it that Greeth threatens to come back to the human realm? Things happen to the characters in this novel, but it's rarely clear why they happen that way. Having finished reading Greeth, however, one can't deny that there is a certain charm to LaFave's writing style, and the way he rushes confidently headlong towards an unknown destination.

Greeth takes place on an alternate Earth, one where wizards live amongst humans. The action centers on Japan, where wizard-exile Peter Buraku tries to eke out a meager living. Peter is no longer allowed to use magic because he attempted the dark art of returning the dead back to life. The image of his father, an image of a man with no skin, haunts him. How does one prevent a wizard from using magic? Well, a wizard has two hearts, so all one has to do is put a ring made of a metal called palladium around the two hearts so they can't beat enough to cast magic. Peter can use some magic, but not a lot. For example, he still has the ability to heal like a wizard, and he can still create lesser golem creatures.

Peter is probably the main character, though the novel seems to have no allegiance to anybody. Chapters sometimes switch to other characters, such as Julie Alvarez, Peter's one-time girlfriend, and now a human who does service for the wizards as a sort of wizard-killer. There is also Nigel, Peter's best friend, who is a werewolf (so, do vampires exist? Zombies? Ghosts and ghouls?). Thirdly, and perhaps most inexplicably, is an ex-ninja wizard named Hideo, who uses sound magic and spends his time strumming his guitar. He has some nifty abilities, but even by the end of the story I wasn't clear about his purpose. Or that of his sister, whose immaturity and bratty behavior seems to go against her ninja training.

While reading this, I was reminded of the great film noirs that have stories that make no sense, but they're great fun to watch. Greeth feels like that some of the time, and some of the time it feels gratuitous. LaFave is definitely combining genres, but at its heart Greeth is a fantasy, and as a fantasy would have done well to spend some time world-building instead of plotting. LaFave reminds me of a Ursula K. Le Guin, with some mixes of Clive Barker/Stephen King, but he lacks the clarity of Le Guin's world-building. Le Guin allows her omniscient narrator to fill the reader in on details about her world, answering questions and building reader interest. LaFave chooses to allow questions to remain unanswered. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. But I think as a whole it would have gone a long ways to create a more believable, real world to give readers a greater sense of how it works.

Secondarily, Greeth is a horror novel. Not only does it involve bugs and creepy-crawly things that are haunting the visions of characters, but it contains plenty of gore. Numerous times, characters have guts split open, teeth knocked out, and limbs chopped off, but rarely do they die. Wizards can only die by weapons made of palladium. Humans, however, have the benefit of healing spells cast into capsules that can heal all wounds. But LaFave doesn't keep his horror just to the gory variety, but also uses psychological horror. People see insects crawling all over them and inside them one moment and find the next that it was nothing more than a realistic hallucination. As a horror novel, Greeth is less effective than as a fantasy-noir, but the horror aspects nonetheless add to the story's charms.

So, by the end of this review, I know I haven't given a very solid opinion on the work. There is something enjoyable in LaFave's writing style, the enigmatic way he edges forth his story. Yet it's a story as slippery as its hallucinogenic insects, with an unclear conflict, unknown villain, and underdeveloped world. It's a work I wasn't dying to read, but it wasn't a work I dreaded reading. In the end I would like to give it praise but also a warning - if you need certainty and clarity in your stories, you won't find it here. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

***The author provided me a free copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.***

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Review: Low, by Rick Remender & Greg Tocchini (Issues 1-12)

I've never been a comic book reader, though I do enjoy a good graphic novel, but recently a friend of mine has introduced me to some interesting series, such as Saga and two series by Rick Remender: Black Science and Low. Low is a work of science fiction that is also a play on its title - both "low" in terms of the setting being in the depths of the ocean and "low" in the sense of a feeling of depression. In fact, based on Remender's own admission, the work seems to be something therapeutic for him, something to help him look at life in a more positive light. Hence the focus on his main character's optimism amidst a world filled with hopelessness. In terms of the story and the science fiction ideas, Low is a great read, though one that is bogged down by a simplistic distinction between optimism and pessimism that permeates much of the character dialogue.

The series thus far centers around the fates of the Caine family, who are apparently important and powerful. Their genetic makeup allows them, and only them, to control a powerful machine (one whose power becomes apparent only later on) that helps fend off pirates. Stel and Johl Caine are the mother and father of two daughters and one son. Stel and Johl have opposing ideologies - hers is much more optimistic and his falls in the line of pessimism followed by most other people. They disagree about how the world works and how their children should turn out. Johl wants his daughters to follow in his footsteps as a protector (his son has already made up his mind not to do this), while Stel is convinced the girls want nothing to do with this line of work. She's wrong, but perhaps Johl should have listened more closely. As he takes the girls and Stel in the waters on a ship, pirates overtake them and kidnap the girls and, well, I won't say what else happens, but it sets in motion the events for the rest of the series.

Issue one, for me, wasn't great. I had trouble getting involved in the story. I had trouble deciphering the artwork. I really didn't care about the philosophical battle between optimism and pessimism. However, as soon as I began reading issue two, my misgivings (mostly) disappeared. I was engrossed by the focus on the aftermath of the kidnappings - what happened to the son, Marik, and to his mother. There is a surprising emotional power to the story. This is not a story that cares about action as much as it does its characters. Characters die, yes. Remender would do George R. R. Martin proud. But Remender causes readers to care for his characters. I won't spoil a thing, but issue six was the emotional high point of the series so far and nearly brought me to tears.

The world as well is intriguing. It's a post-apocalyptic world set in the depths of the ocean because the radiation on the surface is too much. Probes were sent out to seek out a habitable planet, and part of the plot involves the return of one such probe, an improbable return when the community Stel and Marik live in is running out of usable air. The world is very fun to explore, with lots of fantasy elements and vast amounts of communities isolated from one another by the ocean waters. It is in these other communities where we again meet back the daughters, and they turn out to be the most badass characters of all.

If I take issue with anything, it is Remender's self-help attitude from Stel. Her optimism becomes the focal point of many conversations, with almost every character taking some sort of issue with how much hope she has, as though her hope is an affront. The problem is the simplicity in which this is handled. There is no nuance - characters either have hope or they don't. And this optimism also serves to make Stel the flattest and least intriguing character of the Caine family. I know a lot of readers will disagree, as each issue is filled with letters to the publisher, many explaining how Stel's optimism has inspired them. I don't take issue with Stel being an optimist. I take issue with the fact that the story falters and stales when the discussion turns to her optimism and how one's internal state of mind can shape the external world (something straight out of a self-help book). The rest of the story is excellent, but I could do without the simplistic take on optimism.

I mentioned earlier having trouble with the artwork when I first began reading the series. That changes. I grew to find the artwork very appealing. The art has a style that adds to the series' appeal. It's not a realistic approach to comics, nor a cartoony approach, but it's a perfect fit for the story. The level of violence can get gruesome, especially one early act of violence, and the nudity sometimes feels gratuitous. I don't mind that the series begins with us seeing Stel nude, as it happens in an appropriate context, but it doesn't make a lot of sense when, later on, one of the daughters is involved in a gunfight with her breasts exposed the whole time. Why? How? Perhaps Remender and Tocchini are aiming for woman power, bare the breasts, but if that's the case, why not just bare them all the time? Not that I'm aiming accusations of sexism or anything. Low has some of the strongest, most badass female characters in any story. Between this and Saga, I think I have become hooked on comics.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Even when his stories are slightly less than satisfying, Neil Gaiman's prose still manages to be absorbing and beautiful. And, as I listened to the Audible version of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman's voice is equally absorbing. He doesn't attempt any funny tricks or give each character a different voice. He simply reads and his voice is magic. As I listened while the narrator (not named) is eating a honeycomb soaked in milk, my mouth watered from Gaiman's evocative prose. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a novel that's not quite a novel (pretty short) and that's not quite young adult and not quite adult. It's a novel that is anchored by a somewhat terrifying, enchanting middle, but left wanting at both ends.

What begins much like a memoir, transforms into a tale of magical realism when the narrator meets a family called the Hempstocks. This family of three women, Gran Hempstock, Ginnie Hempstock, and Ginnie's daughter, Lettie Hempstock, have extraordinary power, able to listen in on conversations from a distance and suggest thoughts and words and actions into the minds of others. The narrator barely bats an eye at this magic. At seven years old, magic is a given. He befriends Lettie and she takes him on some adventures, one of which gets him into some trouble. The novel's slow unfolding eventually rewards patient readers when we finally meet the novel's villain, the wonderfully named Ursula Monkton.

Ursula is not what she seems, and only the narrator knows this. To everyone else in his family, she is a godsend. His mother sees her as the perfect babysitter; his sister claims her to be her best friend; and his dad finds her to be excitingly attractive. When the narrator doesn't fall in line like his family, Ursula lets her power show, entrapping him in the house. Behind her beauty lurks a powerful terror. These scenes are Gaiman at his hauntingly best, and Ursula does more than enchant his family, but the reader as well.

As evocative as Ursula Monkton is, the rest of the novel fails to match her charm. The narrator is a dull, powerless boy, and it is in the vein of modern stories that the main character passively witnesses extraordinary things happening to and/or around him, but he never actively engages in the action. Gaiman's purpose, I believe, is to show how powerless and fragile is man when faced against more powerful forces, but the issue in this case is that he fails to provide a well-developed character who has emotional weight.

Adding to the sense of tedium is the use of cliches throughout this work, something I don't quite expect from Gaiman. These are not obvious cliches, but there were many instances where, while listening, I could predict the next sentence because it was the sort of thing that had been written many times before. When the narrator tells Ursula Monkton, for example, that he isn't afraid of her, it isn't much of a surprise when he needlessly reveals to the reader that he is, in fact, afraid of her. Still, the brevity of the novel means it won't take up too much of your time, and Gaiman does provide some satisfaction even as you wonder if it is a necessary story.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Review: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I don't know what I can say about The Goldfinch that hasn't already been written. It's a novel that has long stretches of engaging writing, and between those stretches are long stretches of dull writing. It's a thoughtful, meandering, wordy text that wanders almost without purpose until coming to a bleak, but daring, philosophical worldview that may or may not have needed nearly 800 pages of story to come to. It has characters like Boris who are lively and compelling, and those like Theo, the main character, who aren't particularly likable and who don't really do anything except have stuff happen to them. Except for Hobie, Pippa, and Mrs. Barbour, every single character becomes involved in something shady, whether it's hard drugs or becoming a con artist - does this truly reflect our world? And this novel really doesn't do its female characters any justice, perhaps with the exception of Mrs. Barbour, who is a marvelous character. One woman is Theo's love interest, but she's out of his reach, and the other is the beautiful rich girl he seems bound to get married to, even though she's clearly wrong for him. All of this is to say, this is what won the Pulitzer?

So many stories written today seem to revolve around a white family that's in poverty, though their version of poverty seem more middle class than poor. Such is the case for Theo's family. His mom and dad divorced and his dad is nowhere in sight. But his mom is angelic. Everyone loves her, and everyone reviles the character who is his father. Of course, all of this we learn only gradually. This is a novel that unfolds slowly. It doesn't have a plot structure, per se, attempting to go with the path of unpredictability, but in the end everything revolves (and in the end rather unconvincingly) around a painting called the Goldfinch. This painting is at the heart of the story, and also not at its heart, beginning with the moment Theo's mom admires it just before the museum they are visiting explodes. At the behest of an older man, named Weltie, who was with a younger girl, Pippa, Theo takes a ring from Weltie and the painting of the Goldfinch from the museum and escapes. Thus begins the series of events where things happen to Theo and he more or less passively goes along on the ride.

Much is made of Tartt's writing style, but I don't particularly see what's so special about it with this novel. What Tartt specializes in, it seems, is lists, lots of lists. Lengthy passages consist of long lists of details that are meant to give us insight into major characters. For example, when we get to know Boris, there are lists of what Boris likes, there are lists of what Boris and Theo do together, and there are more lists about what they do together, and again more. It's as though major portions of the story are written with the movie montage in mind. The dialogue as well is not very engaging. I think Tartt's attempt is to write how people talk, and she may just succeed because sometimes how people talk is not particularly engaging. The dialogue consists largely of Theo listening to the ramblings of another character (and Boris is the biggest rambler of all), and these ramblings become more like lunatic ravings as the character frequently changes topic, goes off on tangents, and then comes back to the point. This is particularly maddening at the end, when stuff is happening, and it takes Boris ten or twenty pages to get to the point.

Not to say this is a terrible book. I'm glad I read it. Tartt shines in portraying Theo's grief after the museum bombing. When we first meet Boris the story truly comes alive. And there are moments later on, too, that are intriguing. But there are just as many that are not. If you plan on reading this nearly-800 page epic, be prepared for long moments of tedium mixed with the long moments of engagement. Ultimately, what I think about this book comes down to when people ask me if I like it. I admire it on some level. But on another level I find it difficult to recommend. And that, I think, is the true test of a book's worth. I just don't know very many people who would enjoy reading it.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Review: The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel, by Radhika R. Dhariwal

Radhika Dhariwal's The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel took me back to my childhood days absorbed by Brian Jacques' epic Redwall series. The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel is much less daunting than Redwall, with a simpler point of view and a less complex, but no less imaginative, world. But in most other ways, the two share many similarities - animals playing the leading roles, good vs. evil, massive adventure, puzzles, and multiculturalism. The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel is an enjoyable story with a good heart, one that may have a stronger appeal with a younger crowd, but adults will find enough nice touches and surprises to make it worth their while as well.

The main character, Squirrel, has no name because he is a slave who serves the PetPost - the story's equivalent of the U.S. Postal Service. He is the last of his kind - the slave that is - as slavery has been banished, though unfortunately for Squirrel this banishment didn't apply retroactively. Squirrel is a slave so long as he has no name, but he isn't unhappy. He earns good wages and nobody is particularly unkind to him. Only when he realizes he can be treated as an equal and has a taste of what freedom is like does he feel differently. This happens when he is invited to the wedding of a prominent cat and dog - Smitten and Cheska. Yes, cats and dogs do have relations in this novel, though it's never mentioned if their offspring are cat-dogs.

At this wedding, Squirrel befriends one of the family members of the wedding party, a dog named Des. Des likes Squirrel so much he sneaks him out of sight to share some Wedded Wine with him, which only the married couple is supposed to drink. This Wedded Wine has an unexpected effect on Squirrel. He goes through an intense pain and recites aloud a poem, one that becomes ingrained in his memory. It's a clue. But before he can think on what has just happened, a clan of crows called the Kowas descend, and Squirrel and Des are rescued by a crow named Azulfa. They are reluctant to go with her, but her intentions seem good and they have no choice. Thus begins their journey.

There's an ingenuity to what happens to Squirrel, as he learns more and more about himself, and to the way the plot unfolds. The rest of the story becomes an adventure as Squirrel travels from place to place finding new clues to seek out a power much greater than he ever supposed he possessed. Along the way the three heroes visit a kingdom of bees, where a romance almost plays out between dog and bee (one of the novel's missed opportunities, I think, in not developing further) and the queen bee is so powerful she compels non-bee creatures to dance when she dances. The bee kingdom is where Dhariwal is at her most creative. I wish we could have spent more time there.

The heroes travel as well to a forbidden tomb, a rural land of field mice, and a desert city filled with thieves and murderers. In the meantime there are moments of mistrust and developed friendship. In the manner of many recent adventure stories, Squirrel, the hero, is one of the least interesting characters, but he does undergo some compelling changes over the course of the narrative. Many of the characters have a good heart, especially Squirrel and Des, though they come off a touch naive, making a character with sharper edges, such as Azulfa, a necessity. Perhaps the biggest issue is the lack of development for the main villain, a cat named Colonel (and later renamed). Colonel shows up in the novel's first pages, but barely turns up until the end. This dulls the menace he could have had were he included in the novel for a longer period of time.

Much of the plot of The Tale of a No-Name Squirrel is so lacking in meanness that when the violence does come it's quite a shock. The violence is not PG-13 violence (though, by today's standards, maybe it is), with blood and surprisingly vivid descriptions. This doesn't necessarily hurt the novel except to provide a challenge in determining its audience. Children may enjoy the adventure elements but parents might not be too comfortable by the descriptions of gore and violent acts. This violence, though, is rare, and adds a little bit of depth to this magical tale, which has some promise for what could be a fun series of books.

***I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.***

Monday, March 14, 2016

Guest Post: Poetry by Samantha White

I'd like to share two poems by Samantha White, a couple of poems that struck me by their imagery and truth. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Here is the first poem:

Lord of the Flies
The beast that lurks in the corners
Is ready to spring any time.
The pain and all of the sorrows
Has labored the lord of the flies.
Like animals haunted and scared
We strive to look savage and wight.
How can we this possibly bare,
If poison is just in the mind?

And here is the second poem:

Image Disappearing
My image – no, the picture! –
Lies deeply… It’s growing
To reach the highness of expectations,
To fulfill my desire of perfection,
To correspond to my measures, if there are any.
It begins to straighten,
It still has curves, but it becomes linear –
And I STILL don’t like it.
I want it to be my creation, not someone’s.
Influences from the outside smirch it so badly.
Here it comes… at last… He’s gaining some unique flesh.
And, finally, He’s disappearing…

Samantha White – freelance writer from You may find me on Twitter and Facebook