Archive for the ‘ Books ’ Category

Elmore Leonard – LaBrava (Book Review)

LaBrava cover

Elmore Leonard – LaBrava

Elmore Leonard’s LaBrava is a fun, fast-reading crime novel. Leonard has a strength for memorable characters, clear prose, and a plot that slips surprises into a comfortable formula. In fact, he revels in that formula, building the conflict around an aging actress who starred in films exactly like this.

Protagonist Joe LaBrava even serves as a stand-in for Leonard: He makes art that celebrates the characters on the streets, and he had a childhood crush on the “bad girl” actress. LaBrava is admittedly a more interesting character than the real-life author would have been: He quit the Secret Service due to his love of photography, but he can still throw a punch and is as quick-witted as, well, an Elmore Leonard hero.

This is a great book in many ways, but I found it to be a little uneven. The beginning is a deliciously seedy portrait of early 1980s Miami. Every new character is distinct and memorable, even if they’re just present for a few pages, and Joe’s banter with his friends is as fun as a Tarantino script. The end of the book features a very satisfying resolution to the crime plot. It seems predictable early on, but takes several clever twists that feel true to the characters.

In between that beginning and end, though, the book drags. The colorful characters and setting fade into the background once the plot gets going, but that plot takes a while to really become interesting. None of the time in the middle is really wasted, but it does seem like a poorly-planned structure. Two of those three sections are great, though, so it does still feel worth reading.

Some aspects of the female characters do bug me. (The rest of this paragraph has very minor spoilers.) For much of the book. LaBrava is sleeping with two women at the same time. And yes, that is a genre convention, even if he didn’t seem to have earned the second woman’s attention in the first place. But the thing that bothers me is that that second woman starts out as a very interesting character. After she sleeps with LaBrava, her character arc abruptly halts. They even discuss this in the book: She shows up a few times to complain that he’s ignoring her, but that she’ll still happily sleep with him any time. As if to rub salt in the wound, her only development after that is to change her hobbies to be more like his. The book couldn’t be more casually cruel to her if it tried, but there’s no sign that this is an intentional statement. LaBrava does play around with the cliché of the “bad girl”, but it can do nothing with its “good girl”.

Most of the book is good. The other characters tend to hit the right balance of lowlife and human, and the beginning and the end are both great in their own ways. The novel doesn’t come together in the right ways to realize its potential: That opening seems like the start of an amazing character study that never appears, while the ending has a wonderful plot that didn’t start up quickly enough. Even if I can’t get excited about the novel, though, almost everyone will enjoy it. This is a sporadic but memorable showcase of Leonard’s skills.

Grade: B-

 
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Ryan North – To Be Or Not To Be (Book Review)

To Be Or Not To Be cover

Ryan North – To Be Or Not To Be

To Be Or Not To Be is one of the strangest projects I’ve seen lately: A choose-your-own-adventure version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s an interesting but also ridiculous idea, and the author plays up this idea with plenty of absurd humor.

Just a year ago, I gave the original Hamlet a weak recommendation, saying that the language and title character were fascinating, but the plot and other characters were poor. This puts me in an interesting position with To Be Or Not To Be, since it’s entirely re-written with new prose. Author Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics fame is a very intelligent man, but he’s known more for writing dialog like “I am tripping all the balls” than philosophical soliloquies. Admittedly, North is good at that style. He’s arguably even the Shakespeare of faux-dumb AWESOMESPEAK, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his style is a natural replacement for Shakespeare.

While this new book loses a lot of the original’s language, it adds a lot of humor. Weird situations, modern humor, literary humor, and random factoids all show up throughout the book. There’s even a choose-your-own-adventure Chess game stuck in the middle. (Not to mention that the play-within-a-play of the original has been replaced by a gamebook-within-a-gamebook. And it fleshes out some parts of the story, like why Polonius would want to hide behind a curtain.) I bought this expecting a lot of laughter and not much literary value, even given my interest in gamebooks as an untapped art source, so I can’t say that that surprised me.

I was surprised, though, by the interesting points that North makes throughout its retelling of the original story. This offers a lot of choice, even letting you play as other characters or setting off to become a pirate, but it also marks the “canonical” choices with cute little skull icons in case you want to play through the Shakespeare version of the story. Usually I feel like the only person willing to point out that Hamlet is filled with flat characters and stupid decisions, so it’s a relief to see North poke fun at the same things. The book actually makes fun of you for doing ridiculous things, and gives you plenty of chances to kill the King easily instead of moping around for weeks and acting crazy. It even berates you for sticking to the original’s misogynistic treatment of Ophelia. Though this version’s depiction of Ophelia (an ass-kicking, liberated woman scientist) is not supported by the real text at all, its point is well-made. In fact, although I wasn’t expecting much from this as a story, I found the canonical walk-through to be very satisfying. It guides the reader along a predictable path, but also gives them enough agency that they feel responsible for their decisions. It examines the story by making the reader an active part of the experience, and that calls attention to things we’d otherwise ignore.

However, there are many other plot branches through the book. I have to say that most of them undermine the point that the main path makes about the ridiculousness of Shakespeare’s writing. This book can let you play Hamlet’s dead father and give up vengeance for marine biology, or lead an army of ghosts against an alien invasion in the future. With options like that, it’s difficult to complain about the holes in Shakespeare’s version.

I should also mention the Kickstarter campaign that funded this book. For the most part, I try to rate this separate from a campaign that you can no longer choose to join, but it’s pretty difficult to separate my appreciation for this from the Kickstarter in general. This was the campaign that made me realize how valuable it can be just to join a community with the creator being backed, and I felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth out of the project updates even before the book arrived. I also ended up with a multipronged bookmark designed to hold different places in a branching story and a small “prequel” adventure called Poor Yorick. (The bookmark is cool but impractical to use, and the book has as simple a structure as it’s possible to find in a choose-your-own-adventure, but it certainly is funny.) But some of the bonuses from the Kickstarter did make it into this book. It is huge, with over 700 pages, and color illustrations at each ending provided by a Who’s-Who of webcomic artists. Yes, the two-page spread at each ending (one picture plus a “THE END” page) does eat up many of those 700 pages, but it’s still a lot of story. Usually, I feel compelled to read through every path of a book like this. In this case, I got my fill long before I’d finished it all, and I look forward to coming back from time to time so I can page through to new surprises.

So is To Be Or Not To Be worth it? Well, first of all, it provides a great reason to read Hamlet in this modern age. You’ll understand a lot more of the jokes that way, and gain an appreciation for why people say you should read the classics in order to get modern references. Beyond that, though, I also recommend this book. Yes, it’s a flawed treatment of a flawed story, and so it only gets halfway to the brilliant deconstruction it teases us with. But it’s a humor book in the “court jester” style, able to speak truths that the intelligentsia often ignore because they’re couched in dumb jokes, and it also provides as much funny Shakespeare gamebook content as you’ll ever want. This is a good deal.

Grade: B

 

Redshirts and the Hugo

Redshirts cover

John Scalzi – Redshirts

Well, yesterday we learned that John Scalzi’s Redshirts has won the Hugo Award for best novel. I’ve read more than twenty books so far this year, and that was definitely the worst one. (In fact, it’s tied for the second-worst book since I started my blog, only beating out an artless ode to fascism.) I knew when I wrote my review that I was going against popular opinion, but it still baffles me how much some people like it. The people I’ve discussed it with generally found it light and amusing, and say they liked it because they also liked Star Trek. Fair enough – those elements were enough to get me through the first 75 pages or so, but even the people who enjoyed it don’t seem to be describing a Hugo-worthy novel.

If you’re curious, I stand by the complaints in my review. Scalzi tries for metatextual jokes about Sci-Fi characters who know they’re surrounded by “bad” science, which is fine. But their own science and logic, used in situations where the “bad” science shouldn’t take effect, are even less sensible! The main point of the story is supposed to be clever reactions to a weird situation, but every reaction is predicated on something that felt wrong. The character development, pacing, and tone are all poor, as are the rushed ending and its awkward “codas” that don’t feel like appropriate follow-ups to the story.

But I don’t mind the Hugo Award too much. I knew Redshirts was likely to win it, so I’d already dealt with that. The thing that really shocked me is that Patrick Nielsen Hayden won a Hugo in the editing category. As far as I know, the award doesn’t specify which book or books factored into the award. But I doubt it’s a coincidence that he won at the same time as one of the books he edited. And while I generally have a lot of respect for him and think he deserves his multiple Hugo wins, I still feel like Redshirts should have disqualified him this particular year. Most of my biggest complaints about the book were logical errors that should have been fixable given the flexible science that the book had available. I feel like a good editor should have been able to catch them. (For example, “If your characters are going to do this thing, cut out the conversation a few scenes earlier in which they decide it’s impossible.”) This book literally made me wonder whether John Scalzi had decided to start working without an editor. For the book and the editor to both win awards both seems wrong.

Let’s hope for better results next year.

Update: I worry that I may have sounded too harsh in my post. So let me clarify.

I am a big fan of Scalzi’s blog. I also think he has done great things for the SF community, both as president of the SFWA and through his personal quests to educate aspiring writers. He’s willing to make personal stands on issues even when they cost him readers. Basically, I’m a huge fan of just about everything BUT his professional writing. Usually, I just shrug my shoulders and accept that it’s not for me. But Redshirts seemed especially bad, enough so that I’m still perplexed by its reception.

Similarly, though I can’t say I pay as much attention to Hayden, I love what his company does and what I see of him as a person when I’m pointed to his blog or Twitter. I’m glad he’s won Hugos before. I just think this year’s Hugo is connected to Redshirts, and I can’t agree with that.

I still suspect this is some sort of Emperor’s New Clothes situation. Like I said at the start of this article, all the people I’ve heard from who liked this book seemed to find it light and enjoyable. No one makes it sound like a Hugo contender. I get the impression that a lot of voters just said “He sells well, he has a big fanbase, and he’s won Hugos before. This book wasn’t bad. I guess he gets another one.”

Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory

The Wasp Factory cover

Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory

I recently panned I, Lucifer with the explanation that I can enjoy stories about bad people, but I don’t have to, and since then it seems that my statement has been really put to the test. The Orphan Master’s Son centered on awful things happening to hopeless people, and now I read Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. This is told from the point of view of a methodical, mass-murdering teen, and it really doesn’t pull any punches.

It wouldn’t be right to call narrator Frank Cauldhame disturbed. His life may be dominated by rituals, both practical ones like patrolling the land around his home and mystical ones meant to predict the future or grant him power, but he is rational and relatable most of the time. That’s almost the most disturbing aspect of the book: As awful as his actions are, Frank seems relatable, and can even be realistic about whether his rituals mean anything. He’s simply someone who acts on the thoughts that everyone has, but he understands that and is comfortable with it. His home and family are plausible, and add to the overall impression of real people disconnected from sane society.

This is never the kind of realism that made me worry someone like Frank could be living next door, but he definitely felt like the sort of person who could be out there somewhere. And that adds to the most disturbing part: The child relatives he murdered. Told in the same precise, clear-headed style as the rest of the book (yes, he has emotional outbursts, but justifies them with a pseudo-rational approach), he builds up to the deaths slowly and horribly. He takes advantage of their trusting nature, and murders for ritualistic reasons that the victims are not responsible for. Suffice to say that I wish I’d read this book before becoming a parent, because it’s very hard to read afterwards.

So this is powerful and well-written, unlike I, Lucifer, but is it good? That’s a trickier question. The Wasp Factory is a fascinating character study, and it’s mercifully short. It’s interesting, but rarely enjoyable. Even if you’re looking for a visceral thrill, it’s too dry and horrifying to provide that. The book’s main problem, though, is that it doesn’t sustain itself even through its short length. The worst of Frank’s actions have been described long before the book is over, and then he just spends his time acting like any other drunken, self-destructive teen trying to one-up Holden Caulfield. It coasts on the strength of the first half and the promise of a big conclusion. But that ending is based on a twist that feels half-successful. It recontextualizes the book, and does make the character study more interesting, but it isn’t foreshadowed well and it derails the plot, leaving the book no way to end.

The Wasp Factory is memorable, compelling, and often directionless. Its impact on the reader is a testament to Banks’ writing skill, but it still doesn’t feel like it had a point at the end. It will be a great book for some people, but certainly not everyone.

Grade: C+

 

Adam Johnson – The Ophan Master’s Son (Book Review)

The Orphan Master's Son cover

Adam Johnson – The Orphan Master’s Son

Usually, I have a pretty good idea what I think of a book after reading it. With The Orphan Master’s Son, I’m a lot less sure. Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is at times funny, horrifying, insightful, and boring.

Set in North Korea, it’s basically a real-life dystopia. Full of double-speak, blatant propaganda, and misconceptions from people who know no other life, it has a very good bleak humor to it. It is also full of horrors, and doesn’t shy away from emphasizing how cheaply the lives of children, families, and animals are tossed away. North Korea is largely unknown to us, so it’s difficult to decide how realistic this is. However, the setting still gives it a feeling of reality. Instead of enjoying this as a clever book in the abstract dystopian tradition, the horrors feel real. But after a few chapters, just when you’re wondering if you can take a whole book like that, it settles down into a more standard plot about an aimless young man with no identity. Rather than being about some place on the other side of the world, it feels like yet another naval-gazing American story about finding yourself. The main character goes through a series of increasingly unlikely adventures, and despite what I thought at the beginning, it got harder to read as it got further from the cruelties of common life.

A little before the halfway point, it suddenly changes. It jumps forward in time, after some major events have happened, and then unravels that story using flashbacks and new characters’ reactions. This gives the second half the purpose that had been lacking at first, with all the early disjointed plots and themes tying together nicely. It also feels less wild, though, as the reader now knows more or less where the flashbacks are headed. In general, this does save the book – the mix of memorable atrocities and arbitrary plot shifts just couldn’t have been maintained for very long.

Also, the book is saved by the themes it develops. Johnson chooses to make his study of North Korea to be about identity and story. In his vision of this land, the truth is whatever the leaders tell you it is, and no part of your identity is safe from the rulings they can impose. It’s no coincidence that the protagonist is named Jun Do (“John Doe”), and he goes through many very different positions in his life. At first, like a dystopian David Copperfield, he does nothing but accept every new identity he’s given. Eventually, though, he learns to take control of a system in which words redefine reality, and eventually extends that power to the extreme. This builds up gradually so that the result feels like a triumph over the system that defines North Korea, as long as you let yourself forget that the author’s conceit may bear little resemblance to the actual nation.

At times too ridiculous to take seriously, and other times so tragic you wish you couldn’t take it seriously, The Orphan Master’s Son is as full of contradictions as the land it portrays. Some scenes will stick with me for a long time. I have to conclude that it was worth reading, though I sometimes had to struggle to get to the parts that made it worthwhile.

Grade: B-

On Authors and Delays

This video from Comic-Con has been making the rounds this week: Paul & Storm start singing “Write Like the Wind”, their song asking George R.R. Martin to hurry up with his next book, when Martin comes on stage and angrily attacks them. It’s obviously staged, but has still struck a chord with lots of people.

It’s time for me to speak up, because I think the conversation is getting one-sided. The common point of view now is Neil Gaiman’s statement that “George R R. Martin is not your bitch“. And, yes, that’s true as far as it goes. The (few) people who are personally attacking Martin are offensive and wrong. However, I think this statement is usually being used to set up a straw man. It’s perfectly possible to be frustrated with a series’ delays without acting entitled.

The question that Gaiman was replying to wasn’t really that strong at all. Someone asked whether or not it was realistic to feel that Martin was “letting him down”. My answer: Hell yes it’s ok to feel let down! The fundamental assumption of my blog is that people have a right to feel any arbitrary way they want about works of culture, and that emotional responses are good. No matter how disappointed I may be in a work, I don’t personally judge the creators for it. But I have every right to feel good or bad about my reaction to the work, and to make it known.

Series are tricky things. The individual installments affect each other, and a new one can change how we see the earlier bits. If you’ve never had an old story retroactively ruined (or saved) by a sequel, then you read very differently than I do. And a book that leaves plot threads dangling would normally be bad, unless you buy into the promise that they will be resolved later. If we aren’t enjoying the work in a vacuum, then those external factors can change it later. (I’m not touching on the balance between timeliness and quality here. Yes, sometimes it’s best in the long run to make fans wait while you make a story right. It’s a fine line to walk, and I’ve seen plenty of successes and failures both ways.)

Authors want us to buy into the promise of the ongoing story. As Gaiman says in his article, almost no one can afford to write an entire series ahead of time and only publish it after it’s complete. But the reason consumers are willing to buy the story before the final installment is complete is because they trust the author to work on it, and their experience will be an open and ongoing thing in the meantime. The claim that “if you enjoyed the work at the time, you have no right to complain now” is a fundamental betrayal of the way series are supposed to work. If authors really believe that, then the only rational response is for people to wait until the series is finished before risking any money on it. And if everyone waits, of course, it would destroy the industry.

We need to accept a middle ground between “authors should slave away for the fans” and “it’s selfish for readers to let delays impact their experience”. The new era of crowdfunding and social media is teaching us a lot about the contract between creators and their fans, and it should be relevant even to existing publishing systems. People support the creators that they like in order to see new works from them, and creators need to respect that trust. There’s no contract in place, of course, but the fans are taking it on good faith that the author will try. It turn, fans need to show good faith when unexpected events get in the way. Fortunately, transparent Kickstarters are helping to teach everyone about all the things that can delay projects. Good reasons typically earn forgiveness. Taking on side projects or saying “sorry, I had no idea what I was getting into when I took your money” typically does not.

In the end, fans have every right to make inferences like “the author will make it a priority to continue his best-selling series”, and every right to complain when delays are justifiably hurting their enjoyment of the books. George R.R. Martin is not our bitch, but we’re not his trust fund, either.

Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Book Review)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane cover

Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a surprising book. It’s Neil Gaiman’s first adult novel in years, but it actually feels reminiscent of his younger stories. Coraline makes the best comparison: A young child stumbles into a world beyond his own and faces a magical being that threatens him through his family ties. The story moves along with comfortable fairy tale logic, and no one who is familiar with Gaiman’s influences will be surprised by the way the plot unfolds. The half-explained cosmology is intriguing, though. Being a Gaiman story, the writing has a slightly lyrical, twee sensibility, and it’s simple enough to fit the child protagonist, but it always makes the story’s otherworldly logic seem perfectly natural.

Ocean is an adult novel, though, and not just because of the slightly gruesome death early on. It’s told from memory by the adult narrator, and he understands some things that had gone over his head at the time. One theme of the novel is the different perspectives of children and adults. It opens with a quote from Maurice Sendak saying that children know terrible things that would scare adults, and the story seems built around that. The narrator can’t tell the people around him what’s going on, but shoulders the responsibility with a strength that few adults remember. Gaiman does appreciate that aspect of youth, and again, that makes it seem pretty comfortable to its readers. It’s a metaphor for childhood, and we understand what’s going on even though adults aren’t supposed to. We’re in control of the story, right?

But that’s why I introduced Ocean as a surprising book. Things slowly but surely go off the rails for us, even as the fairy tale heads towards its predictable happy ending. The magical threat is a childish horror that wasn’t supposed to scare us after all – there are other surprises here that the kid doesn’t even notice but that did unsettle me.

At the end, we’re treated to a discussion of what it all meant, and it turns out that simple fairy tale logic doesn’t translate to simple answers. We’re left to draw our own conclusions about life’s meaning and value, and how childhood experiences define us as adults.

Like Gaiman’s best stories, Ocean is a slow-building book that doesn’t seem too impressive until all the pieces start to fall together. In this case, the real payoff is in your thoughts for the days after you finish. It’s a very quick read, though, so you can expect that to happen right away. I finished it two weeks ago, and I can say that the haunting thoughts about life faded after only a few days. The book is still there as a faded memory, though, and one that tugs at me. I hardly ever re-read books, but I’m expecting to come back to this one in a few months. Much like the narrator, I need to see what turns up when I reexamine the memories.

Grade: A-