Archive for March, 2012

Charles Dickens – David Copperfield (Book Review)

David Copperfield cover

Charles Dickens - David Copperfield

David Copperfield is the first Charles Dickens book I’ve read, other than the not very representative A Christmas Carol. The novel is the fictional autobiography of the title character, covering his time from birth to young adulthood.

Most of what I’ve heard about Dickens’ writing is correct. His chief strength is his skill with characterization. Varied, memorable, and believable, the people who populate this novel are fascinating. No two have the same motivations or personality, meaning that even the story’s villains play distinct roles from each other. Dickens does have a tendency towards catch-phrases and annoying tics in order to keep characters easily memorable, but most of the people I got tired of turned out to have new depths or went through interesting changes later in the novel.

The complaints you may have heard about Dickens are accurate, too. Whether it was due to the different standards of the time, or the fact that he was being paid by the quantity of writing, his prose is wordy and repetitive. Some of the drawn-out parts are necessary for setting the scene, but the book is still filled with extraneous asides, page-long speeches that only needed a few sentences, and adjectives that serve no purpose. With an editor cut those and make some hard choices about winding plot branches, I suspect that half of this thousand-page book could be chopped out with little loss.

Many of the story’s memorable passages happen near the beginning, during Copperfield’s childhood. Dickens captures the innocent way a kid looks at the world, but doesn’t omit the evil that is actually there. Mean people lie and take advantage of Copperfield, while good ones hide harsh truths from him, and the reader gets to experience both the child’s and adult’s view of the world at the same time. His childhood is by turns both funny and tragic.

Given the strength of characters in this book, it’s a little frustrating that Copperfield himself at first has less personality than anyone else. He’s positioned as a silent observer of those around him, and even goes through many different names to reflect the identities that others project onto him. Eventually, a personality does begin to emerge, though it’s still very passive. As a reader who was at least discussing this story with others, I sometimes felt that I was taking a more active role in his life than he was himself! If the point of the story is to see his personality forming in response to the world, though, then it succeeds.

Dickens could write in a variety of styles. His preferred one seems a bit too melodramatic today, though when he dials up the emotions for “retrospective” chapters (which brush over the emotional impressions that he carries from that time in his life, and writes in the present tense to emphasize their lasting impact), it actually works well. A confused chapter capturing the jumbled experiences from a drunken party is my favorite, with a style that actually seems somewhat modern. I’m left wishing for an editor’s intervention again, because I wonder what Dicken’s could have produced with a little more stylistic focus.

The plot is at times realistic and at times exaggerated Victorian fantasy. From today’s perspective, it’s difficult to tell exactly when Dickens was bucking trends, but it is obvious that he included some challenging social commentary and at times made characters realistic enough to force readers out of their comfort zones. At other times, though, everything comes together in perfectly clichéd ways, with the deus ex machina and dramatic speech required to give us a morally satisfying outcome.

Unfortunately, this weakens the last couple hundred pages of the book significantly. Characters have sudden life changes necessary to give them the expected closure, the rate of coincidental meetings skyrockets, and one dies for no other reason than the narrative convenience of letting Copperfield move to the next chapter of his life. (Ok, that character’s death is given an in-story reason, but it was predictable even before the vague illness begins.) Copperfield’s own adult successes feel entirely unearned. He becomes a famous author, but glosses over the hard work it must have taken and any details about what he actually produced, simply saying that it isn’t interesting to him to narrate that part. By the end of the story, others are frequently proclaiming his greatness and success, but we never get to see how it grew out of the hundreds of pages that were supposed to be establishing him.

By turns excellent and flawed, my final impression is that David Copperfield is the thousand-page first draft of a great five hundred-page novel. We only get to see hints of what that could have been.

Grade: C

Kingdom Builder (Game Review)

Kingdom Builder box

Kingdom Builder

Though Kingdom Builder is very different from Dominion, Donald X. Vaccarino’s previous game, it’s fair to say that they come from the same design approach. Both are based on rules so simple that it hardly seems like they could contain a worthwhile game, but include a variety of items that all interact with the rules in different ways. The player’s mission is to find the best use of the offered items, which is tricky because each game only contains a few of them. The vast differences in strategy when different combinations of items are available is what gives the game its depth and replayability.

The similarities end there, though. Dominion was built from elements so elegant that it’s hard to remember how original they were at the time: deck-building games, and, less obviously, systems of “undirected attacks”, came from Vaccarino’s mind. Kingdom Builder, on the other hand, starts with an element already exhaustively covered by Eurogames: placing cubes on the spaces of a map, which are defined by their terrain and possibly by neighboring special spaces. From there, he applied Dominion-style elements to provide different powers (based on the unique spaces that are included in the modular map) and scoring rules.

Kingdom builder in playThis isn’t a Dominion clone. Kingdom Builder feels less like a Dominion knock-off than deck-builders such as Ascension and Thunderstone. Just as two very different Reiner Knizia games can both be recognized as having common elements, these two Vaccarino games share a similar approach. They deserve to be judged on their own merits, though.

So, looking at its merits, different Kingdom Builder games do feel fairly different from each other. The presence of Stables, for example, which will let you jump one already-placed cube two spaces every turn drastically alters the strategy when it appears (the normal rules are strict about forcing you to play adjacent to your other pieces on the board, so the ability to move beyond that is huge), and scoring points based on spreading your pieces evenly around the quadrants of the board is very different from scoring based on majorities in each quadrant. Games last about 20 minutes, and the ideal strategies vary each time. While Kingdom Builder doesn’t feel like a completely unique game, it doesn’t quite feel like any other, either.

However, the game has some frustrating elements. For one thing, the terrain type you may play on is chosen by a card draw each round. While your “special” moves are generally not affected by that, it randomizes a major element of the gameplay. Also, this reverses the pattern of most games, in which players build up an engine and find themselves making their most powerful or point-gaining actions near the end. Instead, Kingdom Builder is usually won in the first few rounds, when players race to choose special powers and aren’t yet limited by having pieces on the board they must play adjacent to. If the game weren’t so short, either of these elements would be fatal to it. Fortunately, it’s the perfect length for its depth. Victories and good play still feel satisfying, but losses that were outside your control aren’t painful.

Pleasant but ephemeral, Kingdom Builder is a good game to own, but also not one that anyone should feel bad about skipping. It’s real worth will only be judged once the inevitable expansions are released. In this respect, Dominion comparisons are necessary again, because that game felt drastically different once a few expansions had opened up its possibilities. I’m unsure what to expect here. The potential of “place cubes on the terrain your card shows” doesn’t seem as broad as that of Dominion’s deck-building system, but Vaccarino has definitely earned the chance to prove himself. The only thing I can say for sure now is that this initial release of Kingdom Builder offers less variety than the initial release of Dominion did. With four of eight special buildings, and three of ten scoring rules, used every time, elements seem to repeat more often. No Kingdom Builder item yet changes the game as much as the most notable Dominion cards, and the most fundamental abilities (such as “play on an extra space of a given terrain”) feel less distinct than Dominion’s basic cards (such as “+2 cards, +1 action” versus “+1 card, +2 actions). My best guess is that Kingdom Builder will continue to be fun, but never essential.

Grade: B-

Marvel Comics Capsule Reviews (And A Rant!)

After last month’s flurry of new DC reviews, it’s time to check in with Marvel comics. (Don’t worry: I plan to get to titles from other publishers in April.) In addition to the reviews, I also have some commentary at the bottom about the company’s apparent direction.

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Mark Twain – A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court (Book Review)

Since my copy of the book had no cover image, here is an internal illustration.

A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court is the most famous of the Mark Twain books that nobody reads anymore. So I read it, and concluded that that’s probably the right status for it to have. It’s not bad, but it hasn’t held up nearly as well as his best-known works.

As promised by the title, this is the story of Hank Morgan, a man of Twain’s era, who finds himself back in the time of King Arthur. Realizing that his yankee ingenuity and science make him superior to the people around him, Morgan quickly establishes himself as a magician more powerful than Merlin and attempts to reform the country to match his ideals. He is often successful in the short run, but can’t always overcome the nation’s obstinacy and superstition.

Twain was a master satirist, though the target of his satire isn’t always obvious to a 21st-century mindset. I really couldn’t tell what to make of Morgan, for example: At times, he seems selfish and materialistic, announcing his plans to take over the medieval country and become rich. As the book goes on, though, he is clearly a mouthpiece for Twain’s own politics and values, bemoaning slavery and the tyranny of the upper class, while holding surprisingly vicious opinions of the church.

The main target of the satire is the mythical courtly system of King Arthur, though, and that holds up well today. In fact, his deconstruction of the traditional tale feels surprisingly modern, occasionally reminding me of my recent read of The Magicians. According to the book, the fantastical stories we have today are remembered not because they were real events, but because the people at the time were too stupid to question the grandiose claims that knights made. In fact, people even believe their own lies as soon as they make them. One section involves a woman so confident that a pen of pigs is a group of captive princesses that she can’t even believe that anyone else would think they look like pigs.

While the traditional stories of King Arthur focused on the upper classes, Twain gives equal time to the starving peasants, who are horribly abused by an unjust system. Though the narrator comes off as silly or selfish at times, his American belief in freedom and hatred of monarchy definitely makes him into the hero of the book.

The story was obviously intended to read as a light farce, though the 19th-century prose makes it a heavier work today. It’s not too bad once the reader adjusts, but it does skew the feel of the story. It also doesn’t help that Twain’s style recalls the episodic stories of the Knights of the Round Table. Though a plot is continually progressing, it does so in fits and starts. One of the most important developments, Morgan’s training of a secret group of scientific, freedom-loving men, happens almost entirely behind the scenes. More than once, the story skips over long stretches of time, and most of the progress in both Morgan’s life and his plans occur during these gaps. Twain’s skills lie in a humorist’s eye for the little details of life, but his characters and their lives always feel two-dimensional.

Of course, Twain is more than just another humorist. His scathing anger at injustice is both the book’s best and worst quality. His skewering of the knighthood is relevant today, when people still celebrate an idealistic version of those times. However, that anger culminates in a very bloody ending, with thousands killed in a war against the forces of tyranny. Exaggerated but unsatisfying, the conclusion doesn’t feel like a natural progression of the story. It seems that Twain’s own emotions ran away with him, and he lost control of his own story. That’s not a bad way to describe the book as a whole.

Grade: C+

Wild Flag – Wild Flag (Music Review)

Wild Flag cover

Wild Flag - Wild Flag

For fans of the much-missed Sleater-Kinney, 2011 was a banner year. Corin Tucker returned with a new album after years of silence, and Carrie Brownstein started the surprise hit comedy Portlandia. Around the same time, Brownstein also joined forces with Janet Weiss, the only Sleater-Kinney member who had stayed active in the music scene, to form the band Wild Flag. While I found Tucker’s album to be so-so, the self-titled Wild Flag album has manages to capture the spirit of Sleater-Kinney without ever being stuck in the past.

(I should admit to one issue with my review right away: Wild Flag has two more band members, Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole, with resumés that stretch back as far as Brownstein and Weiss’. They are integral to this new band, but since I’m not familiar with them, my personal reaction to Wild Flag is through the lens of a Sleater-Kinney fan.)

Brownstein, once listed by Rolling Stone as one of the most underrated guitarists of all time, is only improved by the move from a trio to a quartet. Wild Flag’s sound is rich and varied, with one foot in the Kill Rock Stars-led scene of indie 90’s rock, and the other ready to fill clubs today. The balls-out rocker “Boom” is several steps above the treatment that the comparatively stripped-down Sleater-Kinney would have offered, while “Racehorse” (with its confident, sexualized declaration, “I’m a racehorse/Put your money on me”) is like a tighter version of The Woods’ challenging “Let’s Call It Love”. That’s not to say that the band needs to be compared to Sleater-Kinney at every turn. Some songs, such as the tension-filled “Endless Talk” go in a direction that that previous band simply wouldn’t have thought of.

Brownstein remains as energetic as ever, with Wild Flag being first and foremost a love letter to music. This is made obvious, and literal, right from the opening track: “Romance” is specifically about the joys of live music, and directly calls out any fans who are too cool to sing and dance themselves. That theme of movement and abandon repeats throughout, most notably on “Boom” and “Short Version”. Though it’s difficult to reconcile this attitude with Brownstein’s half-decade under the radar, you’ll be best off simply ignoring that and enjoying the result.

As someone who always wants to see artists trying new directions, I feel a little strange emphasizing Wild Flag’s connection to Sleater-Kinney at every turn. I’m doing it not to reduce them to a nostalgia act, but because they feel like deserving heirs to Sleater-Kinney at every turn. It’s not just the girl-rock, complex lyrics, and Brownstein’s distinctive voice, but the fact that they don’t seem beholden to the expectations that those might create. In 2006, Brownstein and Weiss risked alienating their fans by following their muse to The Woods, a jammier album made for large arenas. That same freedom is evident here. Follow these musicians to their new band not in the hopes of hearing a repeat of Dig Me Out or All Hands On the Bad One, but because they still have the creative spark that drove them then.

Grade: A

China Miéville – Looking for Jake (Book Review)

Looking For Jake cover

China Mieville - Looking For Jake

While novels are much more popular these days, I enjoy short story collections as well. Freed of the requirement to develop the same ideas for hundreds of pages, the author can toss out many different stories that capture the essence of their writing style. Also, readers tend to expect happy endings when they devote the time to a full novel, but short stories allow for much more unpredictable variety. Looking for Jake, a collection by China Miéville, has these aspects to some extent, but they seem less significant in this case.

For one thing, Miéville already tends to write stories with open, not completely happy endings. That isn’t any different in this collection than in his other works. The main difference is that he’s just setting up situations and leaving the reader to wonder how they will play out instead of letting us get to know the characters before things work out halfway for them. And since some of his novels (notably Perdido Street Station and Kraken) constantly threw ideas at the reader, the variety that these stories offer also doesn’t seem as different as it would for most authors.

The biggest difference is that his novels tend to be set in different worlds than ours, while the stories in Looking for Jake are consistently on modern-day Earth, or in the sorts of post-apocalyptic scenes that could be just a month away. This does create a different atmosphere for his writing. While Miéville’s fantasy/sci-fi “New Weird” blend had a horror influence in the mix, several of these stories could simply be classified as out-and-out horror. And his socially conscious metaphors seem more obvious in this setting, as well. This feels preachy at times (“Foundation” is about the nightmare creatures drawn to a man who participated in a real-life war crime), but is very effective in the best stories (“The Ball Room” begins as a standard ghost story, but becomes more unsettling when we wonder how a profit-driven corporation would react to such a situation).

On the whole, Looking for Jake offers an experience more like a standard Miéville novel than expected. That’s not a bad thing, though. Several of the stories are excellent. Some could have easily been dropped into one of his existing works with little effort: “Familiar” (a sympathetic look at a blob of flesh conjured by a wizard and then discarded) would fit right in to the world of New Crobuzon, and the horrors of “Details” (a creature that appears when your mind makes faces out of the random patterns in cracks or clouds) seem appropriate to the fractured world of cults in Kraken. Others don’t (yet) fit next to any novel, though. The uncertain protagonist of “Go Between”, who follows mysterious orders without knowing if he’s helping good guys, bad guys, or no one, is pure Miéville, but in a new way.

I often believe that short story collections make excellent introductions to an author. (See Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things or Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others.) In this case, though, Looking for Jake doesn’t feel any more like “pure” Miéville than his novels do, and it’s not as consistent as his best. Even if it’s not my go-to recommendation for new readers, though, this has quite a few stories that every fan should experience.

Grade: B-


Ray Lawrence Jr. – Raw & Unplugged (Music Review)

Raw & Unplugged cover

Ray Lawrence Jr. - Raw & Unplugged

Ray Lawrence Jr. is positioned for the archetypal country success story. Broke, divorced, and living in a homeless shelter when someone gave him an old guitar, he eventually found himself given a seven-minute spotlight on Hank3’s Ghost To A Ghost album. Lawrence’s simple, traditional approach made a great counterpoint to the rest of that aggressive album, but the songs would have stood out anywhere.

If Lawrence’s rise continues, though, it won’t be due to his first full album. Rushed straight to CD Baby to take advantage of the sudden attention, Raw & Unplugged features nothing but Lawrence singing and playing acoustic guitar. These country ballads certainly don’t need fancy production – that big break was with recordings of him in the back of Hank3’s bus, after all – but he could have used a fuller band. The guitar work is better described as “minimalist” than “simple”, and Lawrence’s voice doesn’t have the energy that it did when surrounded by fellow musicians.

Do the songs live up to the promise of those initial hits? Sometimes. Lawrence is a very traditional songwriter, more in line with Hank Sr. than the standard-bearers of later generations. He’s also focused on pain and no-good women almost to the point of parody. Songs like “Two Timin Mama”, “She Stopped Lovin Me”, and “There’s Another Cheatin Heart” apparently cover what he knows, but don’t offer a lot of variety. His voice is perfect for those mournful ballads, though, to the point where he even sounds defeated when the song has him courting women. (“Tonight She’ll Be Making Love To Me Again” simply makes him the lucky recipient of a cheating woman’s affections, but still seems to regret the other man’s situation.) Maybe, though, he intends to sound hopeless when going after women: The less said about his approach on “You Can Hide Your Body But You Can’t Hide Your Beauty”, the better.

Despite all that, Lawrence knows how to write a memorable song. “She Stopped Lovin Me” and “My Hurtin Will Be Done” are every bit as good as the songs that appeared Ghost To A Ghost. “Lot Lizards Don’t Love You”, a trucker’s guide to prostitutes, also stands out. It’s good enough to support the gimmicky nature, but the delivery makes it clear that it’s not intended as a gimmick after all. He has that classic gift of making simple, personal tales feel memorable and catchy.

I firmly believe that Ray Lawrence Jr. has at least one great album in him. He has some handicaps, most notably that he’s decades too old to still be in these early stages of artistic development. Raw & Unplugged mixes great songwriting with too much filler, but it’s still notable for the level of raw talent on display. It’s chief selling point is the vision it provides of Lawrence’s potential future. As an album on its own, though, it feels incomplete.

Grade: C

Carl Hiaasen – Hoot (Book Review)


Carl Hiaasen - Hoot

With Hoot, Carl Hiaasen adapts his style surprisingly well for young readers. After the adult themes are stripped out, he’s left with a slapstick story of wild Florida and the seedy businessmen who threaten it. Seen through the eyes of children, it makes for a good adventure. It starts with Roy Eberhardt, the new kid in town, noticing a barefoot boy running along and obviously not going to school. Determined to investigate it, he finds himself caught up in something that is alternately mystery, adventure, and environmental quest.

That running boy is the selling point of the book. Wild and mysterious – a lot about him is still unknown at the end – he brings the untamed corners of Florida alive and will excite kids’ imaginations. There is a bit of nuance (and outright tragedy) to his home life, which will grab the adult readers who are too jaded to fantasize about running away to the wilds.

Despite this, the other main characters just seem to be thrown together to build a plot around that boy’s adventures. Roy, the main character, is bland and never fully defined: He’s shy, but people want to be his friend. He’s tormented by bullies, but stands up to them with the kind of self-confidence that only appears in children’s stories. The book frequently tells about experiences from his past, but the sheer number of those events (such as seeing a dead body or running into wild animals) is hard to believe for a boy his age. The book’s poor grasp on Roy’s character is most apparent when he devises a plan that involves taunting a bully. The narrator explains that this was unnatural for a shy boy like Roy, which comes as a surprise to the reader who has made it through half the book without noticing a trace of shyness!

There are two other point-of-view characters, both adults who become caught up in the “seedy businessmen” side of a Hiaasen book. They are simplistic and dumber than the reader, and their relationship to their job (alternately daydreaming about promotion and having their bosses threaten to fire them) work only because the target audience is too young to understand the adult world. It’s hard to blame the book for this (it is aimed at readers slightly younger than a standard YA novel), but it does make it less interesting for adults.

The story is interesting, especially while Roy is chasing the truth in the first half of the book. Hiaasen paces it well, with stumbling blocks and unexpected threats keeping the plot unpredictable. This does fall down near the end, as Roy’s ultimate plan to win the day is telegraphed far in advance, and then doesn’t actually make as much difference as the bumbling of the bad guys.

Though flawed, Hoot provides a page-turning thrill that is unusual in books for this age. It has a great character in the “running boy” and a look at family dynamics that makes up for the otherwise silly depiction of the world. I don’t know that it would be enjoyable for many adults, but it’s a fun children’s book.

Grade: B-