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.***