|Wednesday, May 4, 2016 12:59 PM|
|Book Report - Lovecraft Country|
| by Fëanor|
This audio book I just listened to was so great I thought I'd swipe the mothballs off the old blog to write it up.
The popularity of weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft only seems to increase as the years go by. But so does scrutiny of his racist politics and beliefs, which were so often given such lurid life in his writing. One of the things Lovecraft found most horrifying, for instance, was miscegenation. For many years a bust of Lovecraft was presented to the winner of the World Fantasy Award, but just last year the bust was retired due to Lovecraft's history of racism.
I love Lovecraft's work, but had of course always been deeply uncomfortable with his racism. I hadn't heard of a modern interpretation of Lovecraft's horror universe that dealt in any meaningful way with this topic - until I read about Matt Ruff's novel Lovecraft Country. Lovecraft Country not only deals with the topic, but makes it its central theme. The book's purpose, in fact, is to wrest ownership of Lovecraft's universe away from its racist beginnings and place it firmly in the hands of people of color. (I'm a little disappointed, therefore, to have discovered after the fact that the author, Matt Ruff, is white. It seems like this story was for a person of color to tell. But there you are.)
The novel is set in America in 1954, and is told as a series of short stories, each an episode in a larger, over-arching story, each with a different narrator, with the final chapter bringing all the narrators and stories together in an exciting climax. All the narrators are members of, or close friends with, the Turner family. The novel opens with the story of Atticus Turner, a young black man still trying to find his place in American society after returning from serving in the Korean War. He receives an odd letter from his estranged father, Montrose, about a secret birthright that he's entitled to, and he decides to head home to Chicago to see what it's all about.
If you're expecting magic and monsters in the first few pages, you'll be disappointed. Ruff takes his time getting to that, first introducing you to the surreal insanity and horror that is the Jim Crow South. On his way home, Atticus is assaulted, harassed, and stolen from by a policeman for the crime of being black. As the story goes on, and incidents like this are repeated again and again, we come to realize that threats to your life and property from white men with power are just a part of everyday life for black people in America. And yes, sure, we should all already know that. But being a white guy, I need constant reminders, and Ruff forces you to really examine and internalize what it must be like to live like that: in constant fear, in constant danger of death, with little or no recourse to the law, the whole world against you, hating you and suspecting you on sight.
And that's just the baseline of horror in Atticus' world! As his story progresses, things get even more dangerous, and way more weird. A mysterious, untouchable, silver car with tinted windows seems to follow him everywhere as his search for his father takes him through a maze-like forest - where unseen things lurk in the shadows - to a tiny, insular town called Ardham. Ardham isn't Lovecraft's Arkham - not quite - but it is in "Lovecraft Country" (New England). And it is the home of a Manor House on a hill, where the Braithwhite family lives, leaders of a sect of a secret cult called The Order of the Ancient Dawn.
I won't tell you any more about the plot, because experiencing it for yourself will be fun as hell. But it includes intrigue, theft, espionage, double-dealing, murder, magic, devil dolls, ghosts, potions, curses, body-switching, and man-eating aliens. And still, even among all this weirdness and horror, we never lose sight of the novel's real focus: the real-life horror of being black in America. So not only is it a rollicking read - a brilliant, thrilling, enthralling, bone-chilling story - it's also a very important and powerful book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
|Saturday, February 14, 2015 05:12 PM|
|Book Report - The Shadow Police series|
| by Fëanor|
So far, Paul Cornell's Shadow Police series consists of two books - London Falling and Severed Streets - but I'm hoping there are many more to come because I love these stories, the characters, and the world they inhabit.
The series is an interesting combination of genres: police procedural and supernatural horror/fantasy. Although, Cornell takes his time introducing the supernatural aspects in the first book, so for the first few chapters you might think you're reading a standard cop novel. London Falling follows the story of Detective Inspector Quill; his boss, detective superintendent Lofthouse; his two undercover agents, Costain and Sefton; and analyst Ross, as they attempt to take down drug lord Rob Toshack. There are only hints that something deeper and stranger is going on - until they get Toshack into an interrogation room. Then everything blows up, rather literally. Faced with something inexplicable, the odd little team of investigators soldiers on, following a lead that takes them to a creepy house owned by a strange old woman who just might be a serial killer. And that's when things get even weirder. Quill, Sefton, Costain, and Ross all acquire (via a process that remains mysterious) a gift or a curse called the Sight, a brand new sense that makes them aware of the horrifying supernatural forces that lie underneath the London they thought they knew, and that plunges them into a world and a war that they are completely unprepared for.
The first book sees our team facing off against a powerful and ancient witch. In the second they must deal with the return of Jack the Ripper. Behind the individual evils they face in each case, they discover a larger evil, quietly seizing control of London and its forces and bending them to his will: a mysterious, silent, smiling man who may be the devil himself.
Besides the thrilling, suspenseful stories, the books are filled with fascinating characters, relationships, and magical concepts. Each of the members of the team has their own strengths, complexities, and ways of dealing with the insanity. Quill stubbornly continues to apply standard police techniques and procedure even to the most awful horrors of hell (his uncover of the true identity of the Ripper is a great moment that throws a big wrench into all the crazy conspiracy theories). Ross turns everything into graphs and spreadsheets and charts. Costain was the bad boy cop who got a little too deep into his undercover role as a gangster. When he comes to believe he's destined for hell, he tries to clean up his act, but it's just another role he's playing, another mask he's trying to wear. (In the second book a bit of a thing develops between the character who analyzes everything to death and the character who's nothing but layers of artifice, leading to one of the more complex relationships I've ever read.) Sefton, meanwhile, throws himself completely into the world of the Sight, trying to become the team's expert in, for lack of a better word, magic.
The way magic and the power of London works, however, is something that has to be learned slowly and carefully, with a lot of really dangerous trial and error. The team are beginners in this world and they blunder into it like blindfolded babies toddling into a minefield. We get to learn along with them, and it's a fascinating ride. Cornell has created a complex world with many mysteries, and even by the end of the second book there's the strong feeling that we've only scratched the surface. It's not a frustrating feeling, though - it's thrilling knowing there's so much more to come.
Cornell also has a very dark, very odd sense of humor that often caught me by surprise. I didn't expect so much of the first book to be about football, or for our heroes to be texted by Hell, and then call it back later and tell it off. Some of the ghosts and ghouls they see so regularly that they wave at them on their way to work. When a real world celebrity made an appearance in the second book, I expected it to just be an amusing cameo, but then that character became an integral part of the story.
The books are also often deeply disturbing. There are images and events in here that will stick with you for a long time. It's great stuff.
These are real page turners, too. I burned my way through the second book too fast, in fact. I don't how long the wait will be for the third, but however long it ends up being, I'll stick it out. I want back in that world.
|Friday, February 13, 2015 05:42 AM|
|(Last updated on Friday, February 13, 2015 05:45 AM)|
|Book Report - The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black|
| by Fëanor|
E. B. Hudspeth's The Resurrectionist is a horror novel in an unusual format. It's split into two parts. The first is a biography of Dr. Spencer Black, who lived during the late 19th and early 20th century. The second is a document supposedly written and illustrated by Black, with editorial commentary throughout. The whole is written as non-fiction, as if Black was a real person. The first section even includes quotes from various primary sources - letters, manuscripts, newspaper articles, etc.
Black starts out a promising and brilliant surgeon, but his choice of specialty - deformities and mutations - is frowned upon as a waste of his skills, and his studies, the theories he develops, and the wild rage with which he defends them make him less and less popular with the establishment until he is finally forced out completely and decides to take his theories and work on the road as a traveling circus or freak show. His controversial theory is that mutations and deformities in modern people and animals are actually nature's way of harkening back to other, ancestral forms of life. So, for instance, a person born without arms is just a failed attempt at a throwback to a time when people had wings instead of arms. He is utterly convinced of the truth of his theory, and so determined to find proof for it that he begins, horribly, to manufacture his own hideous hybrid creatures.
There's the suggestion that perhaps Black isn't entirely mistaken, or at least that he's been able to create some actual living, functioning hybrids, but the narrator remains unconvinced, and there isn't enough in the text to do more than vaguely creep out the reader.
I've always enjoyed the technique of creating story through letters and journal entries. It's a great way to build drama and horror. The most effective part of Bram Stoker's Dracula is the series of journal entries from the doomed ship. This book fails to take full advantage of the trope, however. There are definitely effective sequences, such as the description of the scene that occurs when Black brings his family out to his shed to show off the hideous progress he's made in his work. And I enjoy the matter-of-fact tone and the effective parody of a real biography. But Black's theories are never convincing or particularly frightening. The book comes close to achieving something really atmospheric and disturbing but doesn't quite make it.
Part of the problem might be the entirely disbelieving narrator. H.P. Lovecraft was fond of using educated, skeptical narrators, and having them only come to believe in the horror long after the reader was already convinced, thus making the horror that much more convincing, and the narrator's fall that much more dramatic. The problem here is that the narrator is never convinced, which just makes it harder for us to believe or to be really scared.
The second part of the book is a series of detailed illustrations of the anatomy of various mythological beasts (which, according to Black, are not mythological at all, but entirely real), accompanied by explanations of the beasts' behavior. The art is quite good, the drawings scientific looking, but if you're hoping for some continuation here of the story in the first part of the book, or some more deliciously creepy horror, you'll be disappointed. It's an oddly dull way to finish out the book. Scattering these drawings throughout the biographical portion of the book might have worked better. As it is, any sense of building horror that was created in the first part of the book just sort of peters out here.
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. As it is, it's still rather entertaining, with some wonderful ideas and some effective sequences. It's just disappointing to feel like it could have been so much more.
|Monday, January 5, 2015 11:40 AM|
|Book Report - Perdido Street Station|
| by Fëanor|
I said in my review of The City and the City that I'd be seeking out more of China Miéville's work, and I finally got around to doing so. I'd heard a lot about Perdido Street Station, so it seemed the obvious next step.
After I got a dozen or so chapters in and realized there were still some 40 chapters left, I nearly gave up on the book. This is because the novel's world and its characters are aggressively unpleasant. Miéville seems to be deliberately attempting to turn the reader away. He opens with a first-person description of his setting (the sprawling city-state of New Crobuzon on the planet Bas-Lag) from the perspective of someone who thinks of it as a filthy, awful hell - and it's hard to disagree! Miéville follows this up by switching over to third-person (the main perspective of the novel; only the short introductions to each major section are in first-person) and giving us a pretty disgusting introduction to our main character. We meet rogue scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin (I know) lying naked and fat in bed and picking bugs off himself. His girlfriend, Lin, is an artist who has a normal human body, but a head that is a giant beetle. She's a member of one of a number of alien species in the book, the khepri. She and Isaac eat a gross breakfast and have gross sex and Isaac reiterates his despicable desire to keep their relationship secret and just ugh.
But! I'm here to tell you, it does get better, though it takes quite a while. Part of the problem is that the story doesn't take on its shape and the plot doesn't start driving forward until quite a ways into the book. The perspective just wanders about and you meet various people and learn various odd details about New Crobuzon. Miéville's world is big and complicated, with steampunk technology and various schools of magic, or thaumaturgy, and he takes his time introducing you to its ins and outs. Some of the ideas he throws in (like the Torque) apparently just because he thinks they're cool, as they don't end up having anything to do with the story.
Eventually Isaac meets Yagharek who, besides being the first-person narrator from the beginning of the novel, is a wingless birdman from a race called the garuda. He wants his flight back, and commissions Isaac to give it to him. Isaac takes on the job, and eventually realizes he can tie it in with the subject he's most passionate about: crisis energy. It's Isaac's research into flight, and his not entirely legal requisition of various flying animals and insects as subjects for study, that finally kicks off the real action of the book. And it wasn't really until then - when the first Slake-Moth finally appeared - that I became really interested in the book. (And even then I didn't feel fully committed to finishing it until the scene where we meet the Ambassador of Hell. Because that scene is amazing.)
Miéville's thematic preoccupations are well stated by one of his own characters, the monstrous crime lord Mr. Motley. Motley, besides being a brutal drug dealer, is also an art lover, and commissions a sculpture from Lin. His interest, he tells her, is in nexus; the meeting points of opposites; borders and liminal spaces. He himself is such a thing: a hideous collection of eyes and mouths and appendages, as if a pile of creatures had been smashed together into one. And the great train station that sits at the center of New Crobuzon, and that gives the book its title, is another such thing: the meeting place of all the rail lines in the city, the way to all ways, the beating heart of everything. Many of our main characters also embody the meeting of opposites - living paradoxes. A flying man who cannot fly, banished by his own people. A beetle that is a woman, who rejects her own culture and people, who uses traditional art styles to create non-traditional works. Later we meet Constructed Intelligence, dead tools that somehow think and live - the undead, the living non-living. The Slake-Moths are the meeting of beauty and terror, of dream and waking, monsters that eat dreams and shit nightmares. And then there's crisis energy itself, sustained by paradox, by almost-not-being, by truths that are false.
Miéville had similar preoccupations in The City and the City, but here he delves into them in more detail. As it happens, I'm fascinated by the same themes, and Perdido Street Station is packed full of other interesting ideas and weird, fascinating creations. Miéville builds a big, bold, hideous world which, though ugly, ends up being pretty hard to look away from. It helps that the story he tells, once he finally gets around to telling it, is a thrilling one, and that his main characters grow and change and become more sympathetic as we get to know them better.
It looks like this is only the first book set on the planet of Bas-Lag, so I'll have to seek out the others eventually. I'm not done with Miéville yet.
|Thursday, December 18, 2014 03:39 PM|
|Book Report - The Underland Chronicles|
| by Fëanor|
Most folks know Suzanne Collins from the Hunger Games books, but she also wrote a series of YA fantasy novels called The Underland Chronicles. I finished "reading" it (I actually listened to the audio books) quite a while ago, but I never got around to writing about it until now.
The main character of the books is a poor kid named Gregor whose father has mysteriously disappeared. One day, he and his baby sister tumble down a hole into a strange land under the Earth inhabited not only by a race of pale humans who haven't seen the sun in generations, but also by multiple species of gigantic, intelligent animals - rats, spiders, cockroaches, bats, ants. At first Gregor is focused on getting himself and his sister home as quickly as possible, but he quickly discovers that will not be as easy as he hopes. The Underland, it turns out, is a dangerous place with some pretty complex politics. The various creatures that live there are extremely dangerous and live in an almost constant state of war with each other. Plus, the founder of the human community in the Underland was a visionary who wrote a whole room full of prophecies, and Gregor seems to fit the characteristics of a person called The Warrior who looms large in said prophecies. And finally - and most tantalizing of all for Gregor - this place might just be where his father disappeared to.
A nobody from nowhere stumbling into a magic land and finding out he's a famous warrior out of prophecy might sound pretty darn familiar. But Collins doesn't stick to the well-trodden paths. The humans present themselves as the good guys and the rats as the bad guys, but Gregor quickly realizes things are more complicated than that, and spends most of the series wrestling with those complexities. When he's offered the sword of legend, he refuses it. When he's sent off to vanquish the most evil rat of all, he finds he cannot do it. He falls in love with the beautiful princess, but realizes he can't stay with her. And those prophecies that seem to guide everyone's lives in the Underland may just be a bunch of nonsense.
The Underland Chronicles gets into some pretty deep territory - loss, fear of death, the horrors of war. It even includes an allegory of the Holocaust. But at the heart of it all is the realization that all living things are worthy of respect; that there's almost always a solution that does not involve violence if we work hard enough to find it; and that it's possible that maybe, some day, our children or our children's children will live in a world without war.
On one level, The Underland Chronicles are a fun and engaging fantasy adventure, but on a deeper level, they are a tough, unflinching examination of the worst and the best of humanity; a reminder that life is hard, that nothing is black and white, but there are things worth hanging around for. It's quite lovely.
|Monday, September 29, 2014 10:33 AM|
|(Last updated on Monday, September 29, 2014 10:36 AM)|
|Book Report - Horrorstör|
| by Fëanor|
If you took a quick glance at the cover of Grady Hendrix's new horror novel, you could easily mistake it for the latest Ikea catalog. It's about the same size, the text is written in the same font, and the photo is of the same kind of clean room and simple, stylish, modern furniture you always see in the Swedish superstore, labeled with the same foreign names and reasonable prices. But if you look a bit closer, you'll see a mouthless, pupiless face staring out from the picture frame on the wall, and dark silhouettes of hands pressed against the nearby frames, as if something is trying to get out. The back cover is the same picture, but now obviously transformed into a horrific, decaying torture prison, cracked and rotting, infested with rats, hung with hooks and chains, blood-stained hands reaching out at you.
Setting a horror novel in an Ikea knock-off and designing the book to look like an Ikea catalog (complete with blue and white maps, seductive product descriptions, and fake ads full of brain-numbingly meaningless slogans and buzzwords) is a brilliant premise. There is, after all, something inherently creepy about the sameness of each Ikea; about Ikea's windowless, labyrinthine interior, with its confusing shortcuts and secret passageways, in which we've all gotten briefly lost; about its faux rooms in which no one lives, but which have been carefully furnished with cardboard televisions and false doors all the same. Hendrix takes full advantage of our familiarity and unease with this setting, executing skillfully on his premise.
The book opens by introducing us simultaneously to our protagonist, the perpetually down-on-her-luck, one-step-away-from-bankruptcy-and-disaster Amy, and her hated workplace, Orsk, which promises "a better life for the everyone." Amy has few hopes or dreams, except to be transferred away from this particular Orsk and its irritating deputy store manager, Basil, a passionate Orsk zealot who has had it in for her from her first day on the job. All she has to do is make it through one more shift, and she'll be out. But strange things are happening at this Orsk. For some reason, it's just not meeting its sales projections. And merchandise keeps turning up broken in the morning, or covered in mysterious, stinking waste. Corporate is on its way down to investigate, but before they get there, Basil is determined to have the mystery cleared up and everything ship-shape. He singles out Amy and her beloved-by-all coworker Ruth Anne for a special mission: stay in the store overnight with him to catch the intruder that's causing the trouble, and hopefully remove him/her with a minimum of fuss. It's the last thing Amy wants to do, but she desperately needs Basil's approval for her transfer to go through successfully, not to mention the double overtime he's offering to make her rent. And after all, it's just one night, right?
Horrorstör is a quick, fun, creepy read that is made doubly entertaining by the brilliant design by Andie Reid and wonderful illustrations by Michael Rogalski. It's alternately funny, clever, and deeply disturbing. I particularly like the little touches and references - that the passageway that customers are meant to follow through the store is called the Bright and Shining Path; that the store sells bunk beds called Magog, a name associated with the Biblical apocalypse (I wonder how many of the furniture names are similar allusions that I didn't recognize); that the fact that Orsk's most popular closet is maddeningly difficult to assemble and constantly falls apart ends up being an important plot point. In one surreal sequence, Amy and a friend find themselves traveling in circles in the store's eerily warped geography, unable to trust their senses to find their way, and ultimately forced to rely instead on the view through a video camera's lens.
But I won't give away any more of the book's surprises. You should check this out for yourself. The ending gives the suggestion that a sequel might be in the offing, and I hope that's the case. I'd love to visit Planet Baby!
(By the way, here's the book trailer for Horrorstör, if you're into that kind of thing.)
|Wednesday, June 11, 2014 10:34 AM|
|Book Report - William Shakespeare's The Jedi Doth Return|
| by Fëanor|
Author Ian Doescher's William Shakespeare's Star Wars trilogy comes to a close with this third entry, The Jedi Doth Return. It is perhaps too close an adaptation of the film, since I found it, like the original, to be the least interesting episode in the trilogy. But it's still entertaining and still worth a read for fans of either Star Wars or Shakespeare.
The book takes its time getting going, but some early highlights include the Max Rebo Band's song about how good it is to be a gangster, and the Rancor Keeper's moving lament after the violent death of his beast at the hands of Luke Skywalker.
Doescher had more difficult linguistic puzzles to solve in this book, but I'm less pleased with the way he handled them this time. The first problem is all the Huttese dialog spoken in Jabba's Palace. His solution is to simply transcribe it exactly as it's spoken in the film with no changes, which was a bit disappointing to me. I was also disappointed by his solution to the problem of the Ewok dialog. The idea of making every piece of Ewok speech a small poem is a good one, but composing the poems by mixing the dialog from the film with an embarrassing and childish pidgin English is... not.
There are plenty of moments of humor and brilliance, however. I enjoy Luke's awkward conversation with Obi-Wan's spirit on Dagobah, and Obi-Wan's aside about midi-chlorians. And as usual there are some great scenes featuring Imperial grunts, such as the boastful speech by a Biker Scout which ends in him crashing into a tree, and the hilarious conversation between two guards, one of whom worries about the possibility of the Rebels doing... exactly what they are doing.
Also as in the previous volumes, there are some really interesting soliloquies and asides that explore the inner life of the characters in more detail than the films ever do, and cleverly nudge at the fourth wall that separates us from the play. In the films, Luke and Leia never really get a chance to talk much about the fact that they are brother and sister, and how uncomfortable that is given their previous dalliances with romance. Also, Princess Leia never really deals (aloud, at least) with the fact that Darth Vader is her father. Here those gaps are filled in in dramatic fashion. Leia also takes the time to muse on the courage and fortitude of her Ewok allies, and the strange fate that has drawn them together. The Emperor gives us a manifesto on the primal importance of power. Wedge contemplates his part in all the major moments of the Rebellion's fight, and points out that he's been an observer of these great events, just as we have been, even while he's also acted in them. R2-D2 helps us visualize the battle of the Rebels and Ewoks against the Imperial troops on Endor by narrating it for us. And Darth Vader has a number of speeches that reveal the conflict and turmoil inside him, conflict that centers around and emanates from his discoveries of the existence of his son and, later, his daughter.
Some other highlights include the Shakespearean redesign of Admiral Ackbar's famous line ("Fie, 'tis a trap!") and Lando of Calrissian's rousing and very Shakespearean speech to rally the troops before they fly into the bowels of the second Death Star, in which he gives prominence to the theme of redemption that runs through all the various storylines of the play:
And finally, the third result of this
Great Death Star's fall shall be the rising up
Of all whose pasts conceal some awful guilt,
Some aspect of their lives that brings regret.
In this battle we fight not
To merely terminate an enemy—
Full many of us rebels seek the bliss,
The balm and healing of redemption's touch.
So let it be, my noble comrades all:
Fight now for the Rebellion, fight for all
Who dwell within our galaxy, and fight
Most ardently, indeed, for your own souls.
Thus shall we raise those who by Empire's might
Have died, and forth from their celestial graves
Shall they ascend and with a rebel's voice
Cry "Havoc!" and let slip the dogs of war!
Of course the central moment of redemption in the story is Vader's, and his transformation back into Anakin Skywalker, Luke's true father. As in the film, that moment is the most moving of the play, and Doescher plays up the drama and humanity of it without making it melodramatic.
Even though this entry is not my favorite in the series, the trilogy as a whole has been highly entertaining, and I would love to see it actually performed live on a stage. Even though this is clearly the end of this particular series of books, our Fool and narrator R2-D2 gives us some hope of a continuation in his final soliloquy, wherein he hints at some future story yet to be told. I have to admit I'm not quite sure what he's referring to. It doesn't sound like he's talking about the Prequels, as one might expect, as he mentions the Rebels and the Empire, neither of which existed during the timeline of those films. Maybe a Shakespearean adaptation of the forthcoming Episode VII? Or of one or more of the books set in the Extended Universe? I'm not sure, but I'll keep my eyes open for it!
|Friday, March 28, 2014 03:30 PM|
|(Last updated on Friday, March 28, 2014 06:53 PM)|
|Book Report - William Shakespeare's The Empire Striketh Back|
| by Fëanor|
Here's my review of William Shakespeare's Star Wars: A New Hope. I've now read the inevitable sequel, and just like with the movies, it's even better than the original. Author Ian Doescher has become even more skilled at melding the poetic language of Shakespeare with the story of Star Wars, and early on he shows his flair for invention and humor by giving the Wampa an illuminating soliloquy that's so well done it forces you to sympathize with a man-eating monster. Later on, he gives similarly clever speeches to a squad of AT-ATs, and the space worm that nearly consumes the Millenium Falcon.
And there's plenty more thoughtful twists in the text. Han and Leia's angry bickering is interspersed with asides that reveal their true, passionate feelings for each other. Artoo gets his own clever asides, revealing once again just how smart and aware he is, how strongly he feels about his comrades, and how integral his actions are to the story. In a contemplative moment, Vader asks:
—Hath not a Sith eyes?
Hath not a Sith such feelings, heart, and soul,
As any Jedi Knight did e'er possess?
If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you
Blast us, shall we not injur'd be? If you
Assault with lightsaber, do we not die?
I have a body as do other men,
Though made, in part, of wires and steel.
Meanwhile, Admiral Piett muses about Vader's mask and whether it's not more honest to wear one openly, given that the rest of us wear them secretly. Luke speaks of his deep feelings for his friends, and the great conflict within him when he learns the terrible truth about his father.
There's an interesting Afterword in which Doescher speaks of some of the options he considered and the challenges he faced when writing the book, including how to handle Yoda's speech. In the films, of course, Yoda speaks with a kind of backwards grammar that's very distinctive. But everyone speaks a bit like that in a play that's written in iambic pentameter, so how to differentiate Yoda? Doescher's solution is to have Yoda speak entirely in haiku. It works quite well.
Another character with his own unique speech pattern is Boba Fett. Being of the lower class of bounty hunter scum, he gets to eschew the standard iambic pentameter for plain prose. Meanwhile, the Ugnaughts of Cloud City don't speak at all, but rather sing cheery little songs. Speaking of songs, Chewie and Leia get to sing a lament for Han after he's frozen in carbonite. Luke and Vader also have a kind of poetic duet as Luke rejects Vader's offer and falls into the endless pit.
And yes, Doescher does explore that oft joked-about absurdity of the Star Wars universe - that so many of the structures in it have gigantic chasms built into them that are completely lacking in safety precautions. A hilarious discussion between two guards in Cloud City reveals this is all according to the Empire's building standards, and is probably meant to impress us with the Empire's immensity, strength, and fearlessness.
One character who really opens up in Doescher's treatment is Lando. Through asides, Doescher is able to explore Lando's guilt, conflict, and eventual change of heart and redemption.
Another point Doescher makes in his Afterword is that he relied too heavily on the Chorus in his first book, and he tried to minimize his use of it in this one. I don't remember noticing that about the first book, but I feel like the decision was a good one and makes this a stronger play. (Although I appreciated, in the concluding speech by the Chorus, the use of the phrase "by George." By George, indeed.)
Doescher finishes things up with a sonnet that points you to the website for more content, and teases The Jedi Doth Return. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to it.
|Wednesday, August 21, 2013 02:26 PM|
|Book Report Roundup|
| by Fëanor|
The Cuckoo's Calling
This is that detective novel J.K. Rowling wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I have to admit, I had not even heard of it until the true identity of Galbraith was leaked, but having picked it up, I found I couldn't put it down. A great read and a fascinating mystery with some wonderful characters. I thought I'd figured out who did it before I got to the big reveal, but I was way off-base. Interestingly enough, the book is about some of the same things the Harry Potter books are about: fame and family. Although there's a lot more sex and expletives; I imagine Rowling enjoyed being able to let loose as far as that was concerned. There also seemed to be a lot more Britishisms, some of which left me a bit puzzled, but hey, it's a British book, so that's only fair. Definitely looking forward to more books from "Galbraith," and more books about Detective Strike and his sidekick Robin.
The Arabian Nights: Their Best Known Tales
Somehow I have never read The Arabian Nights. Sadly, I still cannot say I have, really, as this is an abridged "best of" collection which was the only audiobook version I could find. It doesn't even include the frame story with Scheherazade telling the tales to the King to stay alive. But it does include the story of Aladdin, "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," and Sinbad's voyages, among various other tales - some of which are mighty odd.
I don't know if it was just the translation, or if this is the case in the original text, but the language is often extremely belabored and repetitive; it seems like the author(s) never said something in one sentence if they could use five instead. I almost stopped listening to the book many times because of that, but I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did. There's a lot of neat stuff in here - plenty of magic, adventure, and madness. I recognized some of the basic story structures and elements from other collections of folk tales I've read, but there was still a lot new to me here. There's a very religious bent to many of the tales, with many exhortations to trust and believe in the one true God, and many examples of the terrible punishments visited on those who did not. The story of Aladdin is quite a bit different from the Disney version. For one thing, this Aladdin is really a bit of a jerk, although he does change for the better as the story goes on. For another, the genies (there are numerous) are never given personalities, and there is never any talk of freeing them. A few slaves do get freed in the course of these tales, but in general slavery is something that's accepted and taken for granted. There's also, unsurprisingly, a pretty conservative view of sexuality and gender roles and a good deal of blatant and unapologetic racism. The morality is also of a violent, eye-for-an-eye sort. All that being said, the female characters are as well drawn as the male and never feel like less than whole people. It's also a woman who is the real hero of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" - the young female slave, Morgiana. She is brilliant, brave, loyal, and a deadly enemy, and her story is one of the best.
I also enjoyed Sinbad's adventures, although as with Aladdin, there was almost no connection between them and any Sinbad movie I've ever seen. Each story is just a random series of crazy events which almost always involve Sinbad's ship getting wrecked and all his fellow crewmates getting horribly killed (as poppy said when I was describing these stories to her, you'd think people would stop going on voyages with Sinbad after a while). Sinbad rarely has any over-arching mission, beyond a quest for adventure, and money - he is, after all, a commercial traveler; a trader. He admits himself that after his first or second voyage he really should have just stayed home and enjoyed his wealth, but he always got bored and headed out again. Like Ishmael, he either had to go to sea, or start knocking people's hats off in the street.
My journey through Neil Gaiman's bibliography continues. I saw the BBC TV movie version of this at Movie Night ages ago, but never read it until now. The audiobook I got was a good one, with creepy sound effects, neat musical interludes, and a reader with a nice strong, appropriate accent. It's a fast-paced fantasy adventure of the "average guy pulled into a secret magical world that has actually always existed invisibly all around us" sort. In this case, the magical world is London Below, a mostly underground, upside-down version of London that exists in the basements, sewers, and rooftops of the city we know. London Below is a wonderfully realized setting with fantastic atmosphere, populated by a host of fascinating and colorful characters, many of whom are archetypes of one sort or another. Door is an opener, Hunter is a hunter, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar are a pair of awful, demonic destroyers - a fox and a wolf. Famous London landmarks appear either personified (Old Bailey, The Angel Islington) or twisted into strange, literal interpretations of themselves (Knightsbridge, Earl's Court, Blackfriars). It's a short, fast-paced tale that includes a murder mystery, surprises and betrayals, and a quest to retrieve a magical artifact. It's good stuff.
The Neil Gaiman Audio CD Collection
This fantastic collection of children's literature includes three short stories, a poem, and an interview with Mr. Gaiman conducted by his daughter, Maddy. One of the stories I'd read before: "The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish." It's a surreal, funny piece that's about exactly what it says it's about. "The Wolves in the Walls" might be even better - a fantastic, hilarious, faintly creepy tale that had me smiling and chuckling throughout. "Cinnamon" is a story about a tiger, a princess who won't speak, and a bunch of silly adults. It's quite wonderful. "Crazy Hair" is an amusing poem that reminds me a bit of Shel Silverstein. And the interview at the end is great.
The City and the City
I'd heard a lot about China Mieville but never read anything by him. I grabbed this audiobook with no idea what it was about; it was just the only Mieville audiobook I could get my hands on. Well, I'll be seeking out more stuff by Mieville soon, because this blew me away. The book contains a double mystery: the murder mystery that is the plot, and the mysterious pair of cities that is the setting. (I enjoyed having both mysteries slowly revealed to me by the author, so if you'd rather go in completely ignorant like I did, stop reading now.) The cities - Beszel and Ul Qoma - are apparently somewhere in the Eastern Europe of a parallel Earth that is otherwise very like our own (so much like our own that it's sometimes very jarring; you'll be reading about some entirely alien facet of Beszel's history, and then someone will mention The Terminator, or Van Morrison). Economically, Beszel is on the downswing, and Ul Qoma on the up. They have their own languages, their own politics and laws, differing relations with the world's other major powers, their own ways of seeing the world. The weird thing about them is that they exist on top of and within each other, sharing many of the same roads, buildings, and parks, but they are kept separate and inviolate by carefully maintained differences in architecture and fashion; by just as carefully maintained cultural taboos; and by the mysterious and terrible Breach. The populaces of both cities are trained from birth to unsee, unhear, and even unsmell their neighbors. It's an absolutely fascinating concept, and one which Mieville explores in depth, with lively intelligence and astonishing cleverness. In one scene, a man chases another man down the street, but cannot look at him, because technically they are in different cities. In another, a man walks his way carefully through the crosshatches of the two cities, dressed and moving in such a way that no one can tell which city he is actually in, and so all carefully unsee him, and the police of neither city can take him - he is effectively invisible and untouchable, a non-entity.
The first part of the book takes place in Beszel, the second in Ul Qoma, and the third... in between. The main character is a bit of a mystery himself: Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. We learn little about his thoughts or his past, but come to know him almost entirely from his actions. These reveal that he is passionate, determined, and dedicated to his job. In each part of the book, he finds himself partnered with a member of the police force of whatever city he's in, and he drives each of those partners to become just as dedicated as he is to solving the mystery.
After getting us acquainted with the two cities, Mieville introduces the haunting ghost of a third city, that exists in the spaces between these two - a hidden city out of folktales that might be secretly controlling everything. On one level, The City and the City is an engrossing police procedural, with plenty of conspiracies and political intrigue, but on another level, it's a novel about the delicate, invisible, and insane ideas that all our lives are built and depend upon. I finished the book some time ago, but I can't seem to stop thinking about it. It's utterly brilliant.
To Be Or Not To Be: A chooseable-path adventure
This book is the product of a Kickstarter I helped fund! It's William Shakespeare's Hamlet, rewritten as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. Which you have to admit is a pretty brilliant idea. The author is Ryan North, who is also responsible for Dinosaur Comics, a web comic I enjoy. I guess you could say I've "read" this book, insofar as I've followed it through to the end a couple of times, although on the other hand, it's really the kind of book you can't ever say you've really "read," as there are so many different possible paths you can take it would be almost impossible to follow them all. North's style - which is light, conversational, and jokey - can grate a bit in large doses, and some of the ideas in here really seem to come out of left field (how did this become a book about inventing central heating?), but it's still generally entertaining, and I'll probably pick it up and run through it again a couple more times some day.
|Wednesday, July 10, 2013 02:03 PM|
|Book Report - The Fall of Arthur|
| by Fëanor|
It's a new release from J.R.R. Tolkien! Yep, Christopher managed to scrape together enough text from his father's copious notes to make another book. This time it is a poem, written in contemporary English, but using Old English-style alliterative verse (the format of the original Beowulf), telling the tragic tale of King Arthur's defeat and death. I've been excited to read this ever since I first heard about it. Tolkien on Arthur?!? OMG!
Here's the thing: the book is 240 pages long, but about 200 pages of that are introduction and end notes from Christopher explaining the form of the poem, how it took shape, and where it sits in the context of his father's other work and in the context of other Arthurian texts. And the 40 pages of poem that are here are just the start of what was clearly meant to be a much longer work. I don't know what I was expecting - obviously if Tolkien had finished it completely it would have been published well before now - but I still found this a bit disappointing.
The fact that what we have of the poem is lovely and powerful almost makes it worse. It's really a shame he never got around to finishing this. I enjoy the alliterative verse form quite a bit, and Tolkien is an expert at it. The story is a familiar one, but Tolkien has an interesting take on it. In his hands, Arthur's world feels like one on the edge of a precipice - a dark, stormy place about to be swept aside in a rising tide of chaos and destruction. His characters stalk through the gloom, brooding and raging ineffectually. Although his Middle Earth works do have a bit of romance, they are entirely devoid of lust, so it's interesting to see a bit of that here, in the form of Mordred's desire for Guinevere.
Speaking of Guinevere, Tolkien's characterization of her is particularly unflattering. She's always the reason, in every telling of this story, for the rift between Arthur and Lancelot that ends up destroying everything, but most writers see her as ultimately blameless - a star-crossed lover and a lady from beginning to end - and give her a saintly, penitent end. Not Tolkien. He makes her selfish, grasping, and unfeeling. It seems like an unnecessarily harsh treatment of the character.
Fans of Tolkien's Middle Earth works will see a few interesting connections here, which Christopher helps highlight. Mirkwood makes a brief appearance in the text, although here the word seems to be used more as a kenning to describe a random dark forest, and not as the name of the specific wood that Bilbo Baggins once worked his way through. Tolkien's plan for the end of the story has a more direct connection: he meant to send Lancelot out in a boat to seek the injured (possibly dead?) Arthur where he lay in Avalon, and parallel this journey with that of Eärendil the mariner, when he went to Tol Eressëa seeking the help of the Valar.
This note from Christopher, as well as another that reveals his father had planned to write a time travel novel that tied in with his Middle Earth work (!), is interesting, as are some of the passages about alliterative verse and Arthurian scholarship. But as fans of Tolkien already know, Christopher's style is dense, dry, academic, and painfully precise, and it can make some of the appendices a bit of a slog. Particularly hard to get through are the parts where he's trying to describe the various different versions of the text he found in his father's notes and how they differ from each other. Trying to follow his A's and B's and LT's is like trying to put together a piece of IKEA furniture.
Disappointing in many ways, The Fall of Arthur is still a fascinating work and worth a look for die-hard fans of Tolkien or Arthur.