Archive for the ‘ Books ’ Category

Glen Duncan – I, Lucifer (Book Review)

I, Lucifer cover

Glen Duncan – I, Lucifer

Glen Duncan’s I, Lucifer is the story of Satan, after God offers him the chance to possess a mortal body for a month. Rather than take the chance at redemption, he splits his time between the pleasures of the modern world and writing his side of the story for us all to read. Naturally, Lucifer’s version of things differs slightly from God’s.

In general, there are two ways to write stories about the devil. Either his rebelliousness can be cool, setting him off against an out-of-touch God, or he can be the scapegoat for all pain and suffering. This book tries to have it both ways, and fails. Lucifer’s writing is confident and collected, and he expects us to identify with his freedom-loving worldview. But then he keeps interrupting that narrative to brag about persuading people to rape and murder. These aren’t kept abstract, either. He’s especially proud of the damage these crimes do to innocents. If you can’t handle scenes of child rape and very detailed descriptions of Medieval torture, this book is not for you.

Of course, even if you can handle those scenes, there’s no reason why this book should be for you. I can enjoy stories about anti-heroes, and even about villains. But I don’t automatically like them just because they’re about bad people. And I, Lucifer doesn’t offer any reason to read it. Possibly worst of all (if you’re not one to get disturbed by the scenes in this book) is how boring he actually is most of the time. When he’s not being the original rebel or the reason for torture, he’s just in over his head in the human world, sounding a lot more like a hedonistic mortal than a deity who has seen ages pass.

Duncan is a great writer. Allusions and economical turns of phrase flow through the prose, and he can set scenes and describe people very insightfully. This book is not well-written, though. Lucifer’s tendency is to wander off on tangents constantly, jumping between philosophy, the “real” versions of Biblical stories, and the modern-day events. Almost no time is dedicated to the plot, and all these aspects end up feeling disjointed. Many individual scenes are good. There’s one digression near the end that justifies the contradiction between Lucifer’s roles as freedom-lover and a perpetrator of suffering. If that had come earlier, and been supported throughout the book, it would have been a very different, much more interesting, story.

I, Lucifer has very good moments, but they’re all temporary. For all Duncan’s skill, the book he wanted to write just wasn’t very good. The main character merges the worst parts of unlikeable and uninteresting, the other characters barely exist, and there’s almost no plot to speak of. I do find myself vaguely curious about what Duncan’s other novels are like, but unless someone promises me that they are very different than this, I won’t be giving them a chance.

Grade: D+


John Scalzi – Redshirts (Book Review)

Redshirts cover

John Scalzi – Redshirts

It’s a running joke that the bit characters on Star Trek get killed cheaply, but what do they think about it? Redshirts is the story of the crewmembers on a ship very much like The Enterprise who realize that they’re always the ones to die on missions. They look for an explanation and a way to save themselves.

It’s no secret that I dislike John Scalzi’s writing style, but I still had high hopes for this. Redshirts didn’t need to be brilliant, but just the clever, well-structured sci-fi adventure that Scalzi does best. And I assumed that his writing had probably improved over the years.

How wrong I was.

Oh, it’s clever at times. Scalzi takes a metatextual nerd joke and builds a story around it that actually makes sense at times. But the characters are flat and pointless, and the writing usually doesn’t feel right for the content. Redshirts should either be a light farce that doesn’t take its situation seriously, or a psychological horror piece about people who can’t escape the force that is killing them one by one. This dallies in both extremes (some death scenes are played for laughs, while at other times characters betray each other to save themselves), but it usually ends up stuck in an awkward middle. The story is played seriously, but without the pathos it needs. And I’m never given much reason to care about anyone in the book, which makes it awkward when the story stops to give a minor character some growth.

Seriously, this is what passes for character development in Redshirts:

“Man, I owe you a blowjob,” Duvall said.

“What?” Dahl said.

“What?” Hester said.

“Sorry,” Duvall said. “In ground forces, when someone does you a favor you tell them you owe them a sex act. If it’s a little thing, it’s a handjob. Medium, blowjob. Big favor, you owe them a fuck. Force of habit. It’s just an expression.”

“Got it, Dahl said.

Yeah, I get it. Light, funny, sexually-charged banter can be fun. But this scene feels lifted from a C+ paper in a class called “Character Quirks 101”.

It’s not just the characters, though. The plot and its resolution, which seemed like another good Scalzi effort at first, eventually go completely off the rails. Redshirts jokes about the nonsensical science in Star Trek-like dramas, which is fair enough. But after establishing the bad science rules, the characters proceed to solve their problems in ways that barely follow from that! Let that sink in: Scalzi presumably meant his writing to rise above the sci-fi hackwork he jokes about, even if it was working in the same system. But instead, he makes fun of those systems, and then proceeds to do a worse job himself.

Seriously. One of the most important actions the characters take comes a few pages after they discuss the fact that it wouldn’t work. They don’t find a way around it. One of them just pops up in the next chapter and says “Hey guys, it’s time to do this.” Some major later plot points also don’t follow from the established rules. (I can’t talk about them without spoilers, so I’ll put them below in the comments.) This book is supposed to work because it plays around with sci-fi clichés in clever ways, so it’s a real problem that the cleverness fails after the first hundred pages.

Then there’s the rest of the plot. It ends abruptly, with a twist that barely makes sense. It’s then followed by three codas, named (and written in) “First Person”, “Second Person”, and “Third Person”. Each one fleshes out a character who only appeared for brief moments in the main story, giving us closure about something that doesn’t matter at all. And yes, one is written with an irritating second-person point of view, for no discernible reason other than the writing gimmick. The final coda would be a pretty good short story on its own, but in context it just reminds us of the single awkward scene its person appeared in: Witnessing a moment of growth for another character that no one cared about.

Yes, I know Redshirts is up for a Hugo award right now. I can’t imagine why. It has an interesting set-up, but it falls apart thanks to flat characters, inconsistent events, and a plot structure that barely even makes sense. Save yourself the effort.

Grade: D


Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep (Book Review)

The classic noir novel The Big Sleep has in many ways not aged well. The female characters are petty, childlike, and even get smacked around a bit by the hero. That pervasive sexism is eclipsed by section in the middle with vicious, angry homophobia. And the famous “convoluted plot” (so complex that author Raymond Chandler reportedly forgot who shot one of the characters!) is actually pretty straightforward compared to a modern heist or mystery movie. (To The Big Sleep’s advantage, though, the plot twists feel more natural here, whereas many stories today go out of their way to cram in surprises.) And the ending, whose pop psychology probably seemed right to people in 1939, feels forced and unbelievable today.

But the core of the story still works surprisingly well. The main draw is Philip Marlowe, the private investigator at the center of this mystery. Confident and street-smart, he always lands on his feet (if not without much profit), and is in control even when on the wrong side of a gun. Almost everyone Marlowe meets is scared, hiding secrets, and making stupid decisions, but as the hero he sees right through them. This is a compelling fantasy. Like a cool friend we can aspire to be, seeing the world through Marlowe’s eyes makes us feel like we’re also smarter than everyone else.

The writing feels a little clichéd, of course. This story is the template for the hard-boiled PI, and everything is appropriately harsh and gritty. Marlowe uses metaphors of crime and violence just to describe everyday scenes, because that’s what is on his mind. While it does get ridiculous at times, most of it feels more natural than I’d expect. Lines like “dead mean are heavier than broken hearts” are easy to laugh at in isolation, but build a consistent character and worldview in their place.

The Big Sleep has some real strengths, and still works if you have the right sensibilities. Overall, though, I can’t quite recommend it. The book’s best parts can be found in other works today, without the offensive parts and dated references.

Grade: C+


Party of One (RPG Gamebook Review)

Party of OneKobold Press has a series of single-player RPG adventures released as Party of One. They’re simple gamebooks based on the Pathfinder system (a D&D spin-off), with all the stats, battles, and die rolls that that implies. However, they explain all the needed rules in the text and keep them streamlined (with no initiative, critical hits, or similar items). Presumably they’re aimed to bring new people into the Pathfinder world, though I don’t know how many people out there are interested in a Choose Your Own Adventure dice-fest but don’t already know the basics of D&D.

I’m reviewing all three as a single item, since each costs $3 and can be completed (with some time peeking at other paths) in about a half hour. They’re sold as downloadable PDFs, and average only fifteen pages each. That page count includes a title page, a page of legal details, and two different character sheets – even though the game explains all the stats needed without referring to those character sheets, and even contradicts them sometimes. Obviously, that doesn’t leave much space for the game.

Each one casts you as a low-level (pre-made) adventurer, faced with a crisis that can basically be resolved in one scene. Your chances of surviving all the battles seem to be about 50-50, and the choices seem fair without arbitrary death or sudden plot twists. However, your decisions do matter: Two of the scenarios have multiple endings, depending on what you did while playing. (The choices it offers frequently depend on past events, so the paths can keep merging together and then branching back off when appropriate.) The real challenge, though not a difficult one, is to figure out how to get the different endings.

These are simple fun, and I never felt like I was being jerked around by unexpected consequences of my decisions. They really are like playing through a story, and are more successful than I expected. They’re still very slight, though. I wonder whether these worked because they were so short that they didn’t need to offer many branches or hard decisions. I’d definitely be interested in longer-form work by author Matthew J. Hanson, but as far as I can tell he’s written no other solo gamebooks. Though these are decent, each one is like an introductory chapter that ends quickly. I’d expect more from a $9 book, let alone a PDF-only product.

The one I’ll highlight is Kalgor Bloodhammer and the Ghouls through the Breach, which features the best and worst of the series. It has the least linear storyline. Once your Dwarven hero discovers his city is threatened, the choices are based around a central hub with options that the player can do in any order. It does matter which ones are chosen first, and that lets the story proceed in a natural way. Of course, I’d prefer a longer story with a few more choices, but it’s still a good structure. On the other hand, it could have used some editing. A supporting character’s stats change without reason (another story has the main character’s damage change as well), and if you choose not to do an important task and later return to that location, the book assumes that you had previously tried and failed. Even stranger, all of the endings give the impression of being “bad” ones, but there really isn’t one where the hero is satisfied with the outcome. Normal linear stories can get away with unhappy endings, but when the reader is an active participant in a challenge, there needs to be a chance to win.

Party of One is very different from the last gamebook I tried based on an existing RPG system. Unlike Tunnels & Trolls, this doesn’t expect the player to be an expert in the rules and it keeps the player on a fair path through a coherent story. It provides a template for RPG gamebooks that feel like a satisfying story experience. Being very short and a little rushed, it is only a template, though. I’m still looking for a completely successful one.

Grade: C+


Liane Moriarty – What Alice Forgot (Book Review)

What Alice Forgot cover

Liane Moriarty – What Alice Forgot

I was a little worried when my new book club chose a chick-lit selection for the second month in a row, but it ended up being an interesting opportunity to consider what makes “chick-lit” good or bad. Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot doesn’t always feel like it’s aimed at me, but it’s still a very good read.

At it’s heart, this book is about understanding people: Alice Love is a woman who bumps her head at the age of 39, and can’t remember anything from the past decade. In her mind, she’s a flighty 29-year-old woman pregnant with her first child and madly in love with her husband, while in reality she’s a sharp, efficient middle-aged soccer mom going through a bitter divorce. Alice sets out both to fix and figure out her life. The reader will be pretty interested, too, especially after the abrupt beginning that puts them right in Alice’s shoes.

I guess the common complaint about “chick-lit” is that it focuses on exaggerated clichés about domestic women, leaving everyone else out. In the past, I’ve argued that the problem with most romantic comedies and similar works is that the characters feel as much like unrealistic fantasies as the people in action movies. But while characters are expected to be secondary in an action movie, I want interesting, believable people in a story about relationships. I’m not completely sure if that was a fair criticism on my part, but if it’s true, What Alice Forgot is the answer I’ve been looking for. It’s protagonist will definitely appeal to the chick-lit audience, but the book is smart, funny, and features three-dimensional characters. Some early character-building is based on flashbacks and discussions that simply tell the reader what to think of everyone, which is an overused technique, but the book proceeds to reveal nuances that sometimes call those first impressions into question. Most main characters have to reconcile the person they used to be with the person they are now, and if it’s a little suspicious that everyone has changed so much, each individual person is believable and sympathetic.

Alice’s unfolding story is fascinating, with lots of uncertainty about if, or how, she’ll reconcile with her husband, bridge the gap with her sister, and keep up on her life. The book relies too much on “muscle memory” and scheduled events keeping Alice on track, but the scientific realism isn’t the point. The biggest problem is a couple distracting side stories: While Alice’s story is told by a third-person narrator inside her head, her sister Elisabeth gets frequent interludes with diary entries. Elisabeth’s story is as interesting as Alice’s, and makes a good counterpoint to it, but her writing voice is overly precious and seems too aware of the fact that she’s in a book. Worse, an elderly friend occasionally shows up in letters that tell a story about her falling in love. That whole plot is telegraphed in its first page, but is supposed to be funny and surprising. I’m sure that it was shoe-horned in by an editor who said that the book needed another romance in order to appeal to women, since it barely intersects with the main story at all.

I was disappointed by the ending, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that that is mainly due to the high standards set by the rest of the book. There are several sudden twists related to Alice learning important details of her past, and it jumps ahead to provide a couple different endings. The important thing is that the characters end up in places that feel fair to them, and the full details Alice learns do flesh out her backstory believably. But the strength of the book before that point is in how the characters evolve according to the surprising events. When the ending rushes through that to just show the surprise and then the eventual result, it feels like we’re missing the most important part of the experience.

What Alice Forgot is a moving, memorable book. Though I don’t feel any compulsion to run out now to buy more books featuring blurbs from Woman’s World and Marie Claire, I will be interested the next time my book club selects a title along these lines.

Grade: B


The Gatsby Mythos

While reading The Great Gatsby, I was struck by the end of the first chapter. This is how F. Scott Fitzgerald chose to introduce the title character:

 I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and faraway, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

A brooding figure in early Twentieth Century New England, gesturing over the ocean? Everything about that quote screams “H. P. Lovecraft” to me. It’s mysterious and moody, and both that paragraph and the preceding one (in which Gatsby “regards” the stars) could easily describe someone attempting to wake Cthulhu from his slumber.

Unlike Lovecraft, who spelled out every detail in the end of his stories, the narrator of Gatsby never admits to anything supernatural. I couldn’t help watching for hints of this, though, and there were enough to keep me interested. Here is what I found.

(From here on, there are major spoilers for The Great Gatsby.)

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F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby (Book Review, Mixed with Off-Topic Rambling)

The Great Gatsby cover

F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby

I’m one of the few Americans to somehow make it to their mid-30s without reading The Great Gatsby. Finally trying it, though, I’m glad I waited. It’s a beautiful book, but one that I’m sure would have seemed dry and frustrating if it were forced on me as a youth. Its culture and vocabulary is a century old, while the prose is flowery and would be slightly daunting to a teenager. Why do we always insist on forcing adults’ ideas of classics onto children? Without the perspective to see the qualities that adults do, and also without the romanticism about a title that charmed previous generations, kids just find most classics off-putting. I think we’d be much better off using fun, age-appropriate novels in schools to foster a love of reading, so that the students will be motivated to seek out the classics when they’re ready.

The Great Gatsby still seems to be one of the most accessible ones, though, and that’s probably why so many people consider it to be the Great American Novel. With a light story, anger at a hypocritical society, and a short reading time, it must come as a relief to students picking this up right after The Scarlet Letter. It describes the upper-class people of the “Jazz Age” the the matter-of-factness of someone who knows no other way of life, but also with insightful criticism. Less frequently remarked upon is the fact that most of the story establishes very common tropes of romantic fiction, but the story takes an abrupt turn away from the comforting ending one would expect. It’s cynical and different, but in a way that doesn’t feel challenging.

Like many classics, Gatsby has beautiful writing, complex characters, and a weak plot. The prose has an efficiency that sets the scene and people, while leaving enough unsaid to keep them intriguing. The best parts of the story are watching them react to each other, whether it’s happily or angrily. Nick, the narrator, is amazingly passive in his own tale and usually serves as a stand-in for the similarly powerless reader, but his motivations and internal reactions to people make him surprising as well. That magic only falters when the plot has to move things along. Gatsby’s implausible rise is fortunately not shown first-hand, but the collection of people who end up around him is harder to swallow. The discoveries and misunderstandings that unravel the web of deceit near the end feel contrived, more like necessary steps to reach the climax than natural actions of these otherwise three-dimensional characters.

The Great Gatsby remains one of the rare classics that really does hold up well today. And for those students who found this page while looking for help on an essay, I’m just going to say: Don’t bother. I’m writing an intentionally vague, spoiler-free review, which is not what your teacher wants to see. But take heart in what I said in the first paragraph: If you didn’t like Gatsby, go find whatever sort of story you would like to read, whether or not it’s “low art”. Stories you’ll like are out there for you. Then try this book again in five or ten years for your own sake, and you’ll probably like it. And that is an idea you can take from this webpage to your teacher.

Grade: B