Sunday, July 31, 2011

The 5 Worst Novels I've Ever Read

I think it's only fair to excoriate a book when I spend equal amounts of time praising a different book. I've written before of my favourite novels, my favourite comics, my favourite movies. Now I'd like to take a second, sit right there, and I'm going to explain why I've chosen these five novels as the worst I've ever read.

Before we get into it, let's take a look at what I mean by the worst. Mostly, if I hate a book, I'm going to be actively angry. My review will probably end in saying "fuck you, author" or whatever. The novel could be filled with poor prose, badly drawn characters, limp plotting, or it could have distasteful politics. Obviously, I tend to avoid novels that I'm certain I won't like. I won't read Tom Clancy because he's far too Republican. I won't read the Twilight books because frankly, there's so much better stuff out there. And I won't read fantasy. These are examples of things that I'm predisposed to dislike, prejudiced, if you will. These five books were novels that I expected to enjoy. And I was extremely disappointed.

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

I read this at the height of Da Vinci Code hysteria. It was summer time and I saw the paperback for cheap at a used bookstore. I read it in a couple days. It was ludicrously bad. From the syntactical errors to the egregious misunderstanding of science to the cardboard characters to the breathless and annoying pace, I hated everything about this book. Everything. I can't think of a single element that interested me. I knew who the villain was from the first 30 pages, despite Brown's disgustingly elementary red herrings. The part that stands out so firmly in my mind, beyond Brown's donnish protagonist bedding a Bond girl, on a bearskin rug by a fireplace at the end, is when the hero leaps from a helicopter (in flight) from an "anti-matter" bomb and somehow, he and Rome survive. Are you fucking kidding me? The villain's scheme is overly complicated and the hero's method of deduction so reliant on coincidence that I was frustrated. Did I mention the book is riddled with syntactical errors? The very first scene features a mistake so bad I thought I was going to get a headache. Sure, I make errors in grammar and spelling. But this is a blog. It isn't edited by a professional proofreader. How did prose this poor get past the eyes of a proofreader? AGH! This book makes me mad.

Daniel Martin by John Fowles

You can click here for my review. Looking back on this review, I don't think I want to change my stance. I think this book sucks. I think it's self-indulgent, poorly structured and almost offensive to the readers that have plowed through his previous novels.

State of Fear by Michael Crichton

This "novel" is essentially a textbook. Most of the exposition is delivered by a guy armed with PowerPoint. And most of the book is exposition. The plot, or at least the excuse for exposition, is flimsy. Like Lolita in lingerie flimsy. There's no immediate danger to anybody or anything in the book, but that doesn't stop Crichton from writing as if the danger of environmentalists is palpable. I would almost applaud him for taking a controversial position and then trying to defend it, if it wasn't for his fudging of data and his arrogance while doing so. Many climate experts have denounced the science contained in State of Fear as misconstrued or even misrepresented for the sake of the argument. Crichton was accused of twisting the facts to support his thesis: that global warming is in fact a liberal conspiracy to keep American complacent. I'm always skeptical of books that claim to open the audience's eyes. Included in this category are books such as Fight Club. Claims to open my eyes are always greeted with a rolling of those very eyes. It's all so dubious. Crichton's self-appointed position as oracle and whistle-blower is infuriating, considering he believed himself a man of science, and up until this book, I believed it too. Reading journals and presenting graphs does not make a good novel. Neither does a hamfisted and poorly explained thesis. This book sucks.

Diary by Chuck Palahniuk

Or frankly, anything by Palahniuk. I hated this book so much that I've purposefully forgotten any details about it. All I remember is hating it. And I read this when I was in university, and reading a bunch of shit like Palahniuk, trying to be cool and edgy. Therefore I tend to be embarrassed about my past experience with him, and I'm often embarrassed for readers who confess to liking him. I almost always want to slap the Palahniuk out of their hands and present them with something - anything - that will wash the taste out of their mouths. It's not just the over-reliance on twist endings. It's not the formulaic presentation. It's not even the characters, all of whom are merely sketched and then manipulated by the plot for the sake of the twist. No, it's the prose. It's the terrible aping of minimalist style that desperately relies on cool things like a chorus or constant repetition. Or the cool scientific "facts" that Palahniuk crowbars into the narrative, rarely changing the language of the exposition so it just bounces off the rest of the slack prose. Diary is the worst of the books. It's the novel that utterly destroyed my confidence in the author. It's turgid. It's incomprehensible and it's so juvenile. Any statement that the author is trying to make about "art" is lost when he uses such childish prose and twists. I hated this book. I'm embarrassed to even say that I've read it. This was the second to last Palahniuk that I read; I stopped with Haunted, after I realized I was too old for such juvenilia.

The Neanderthal Parallax by Robert J Sawyer

So this is a cheat. These three books make up a trilogy, essentially one long work split into three. I couldn't possibly choose one of the three. That's like asking which part of Lord of the Rings is worse. Suffice it to say that if you ever wanted to read the worst dialogue ever written, Sawyer is your man. What makes this trilogy so disappointing is not Sawyer's obsession with pandering to Canadian audiences or Star Trek fans, but the promise of the setup and missing the mark so totally. If you're not familiar with the books (pat yourself on the back), it's about a female scientist with a quantum computer which punches a hole in the fabric of space and comes out the other side to a male Neanderthal scientist with a quantum computer. They fall in love, have an adventure which includes a preposterous and totally annoying political melodrama and a murder mystery and even a legal drama thrown in. But in the usual Sawyer style, the main character can't simply be a person. No, she's a symbol. At the beginning of the trilogy, the protagonist is raped and the super adult theme of "oh god guys, rape is bad" is echoed over and over again. Violence for sex never solves anything. Yes, thank you, Sawyer. We get it. Sawyer often gets praised for using real world issues that involve science or technology and asking hard questions, like if aliens have a God or would an alien be subject to immigration laws. Yes, I'm being facetious. I don't fucking understand the critics who pour adoration all over Sawyer's treatment of pseudo-topical subjects. He deals with his subject matter in such a facile and childish manner that I can't even describe to you how it felt to read this trilogy and see Sawyer come to grips with the issue of male sexual violence via NEANDERTHAL scientists and politicians. If that doesn't trivialize the subject matter, I DON'T KNOW WHAT DOES. Caps lock was needed for that sentence. Notice that I've written a few hundred words about these books without even mentioning the fact that Sawyer's science is incredibly bad. His conclusions about how a Neanderthal society would come about are wrongheaded, illogical and were quickly overturned by any real scientist in the field. According to one critic, Sawyer didn't get anything right, and yet the layperson critics just puked their praise all over the place. This isn't an instance of me hating because it's popular. This is an instance of me hating it because it violates fundamental principles of basic storytelling. It's terribly written. I hate it. It's frustrating and fucking stupid.


The five worst books I've ever read. I might do another one of these and post another five. Maybe for movies. I'm not sure. Either way, I'm going to read some Le Carré to wash the taste of this shit from my mouth.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Dream Line-up 1

Here's a new feature that I'm going to do every once in awhile. Inspired by a conversation I had with a dude at work, I'm going to detail the dream line-up of a team that I would like to write. Not read, but write. The limits are as follows: the maximum amount of members is 7, the members must have already been a member of the team in question. Other than that, there are no rules.

I'm going to start with the Avengers, inspired by the movie that's coming out next year around the same time as The Dark Knight Rises. So here we go.

The Wasp
Janet Van Dyne has proven herself to be a qualified leader and she's a fashion icon. Back in the day she wasn't written very well, lots of feminine nonsense about being into boys and clothes. I'd like to change that and show her as a strong female leader who can kick ass and take names.

Sandman
Flint Marko was given reverse status back in the nineties when he briefly turned into a hero. The idea of a villain turned hero is irresistible to a writer. There is so much story potential here. Plus, I've always found Sandman's power to be a cool visually speaking, so the artist would love drawing it.

Ms Marvel
Carol Danvers has always been well written. She's strong, she's got spunk and her fluctuating powers and changing status always creates angst and drama. I'd like to write her because she's a powerhouse.

Monica Rambeau
Captain Marvel has the powers of a god. She's easily one of the most versatile characters ever. She's essentially the Batman of the Avengers because her powers let her do anything. When you can control your physical makeup, you are indestructible. Rambeau would be the secondary leader of my Avengers team.

Hawkeye
He's a wiseass. Clint Barton is the humour and soul of the team. I'd write clever banter for him so he could play off the seriousness of the other characters. You need a little comic relief, plus you need somebody the reader can relate to.

She-Hulk
I almost went with Thor because I wanted a heavy-hitter, but then I remembered that only Simonson wrote an interesting Thor to me. He's too foreign and too alien to write, I find. She-Hulk is a character with heart and wit and extreme power. She could partake in the banter with Hawkeye.

Spider-Woman
Julia Carpenter is a character I know next to nothing beyond that she has a costume I like the look of, and she's kind of quiet. She has a weird crime origin story, as some shadowy group bought her powers for her, so there's some story potential there. But otherwise, she's a blank slate and I'd like to change that. Give her some personality and whatnot.

You'll no doubt notice that my Avengers team is weighted more to the XX chromosome than the Y. The reason being is twofold: political and story potential. There's not enough three-dimensional female characters in comics. There are some, but not enough. I'd like to change that. My Avengers team would be female-friendly. If they had sexy costumes, I'd have the artist redesign them. I'd have stories that females would want to read. It would pass the Bechdel test a lot. Why, you ask? Because that's important to me, bringing in more female readers into comics. Every child needs a superhero to look up to, and often they look up to the ones they identify with. I identified with Peter Parker because I was a nerd. Little girls need superheroes to look up to, and I want to provide that possibility. The other reason that this is female-heavy is because I think there's more potential with these specific characters than with the same old team of Cap, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, etc. They have their own titles. These people don't.

Villains that I'd like them to face:
The Supreme Intelligence
Doctor Doom
Kang the Konquerer
Thanos
Spider-Woman's shadowy government benefactors (which would be an ongoing arc)
Ultron

Classic villains, really. I'd throw in a mix of newly invented villains and whatnot.

So that's my Avengers dream line-up for writing. I'd love to have Alan Davis on art, if only because he can handle team books. Although Stuart Immonen would be awesome, too. With both of those artists in mind, I'd probably not do a whole bunch of dark and edgy stuff like ripping arms of people or whatnot. I'd want to try to keep it somewhere between for kids and for adults, which is a very tough balance to hold. Hmmmmm... if only Marvel would hire me.

The next line-up I'm thinking of is the X-Men. The only way I would write the X-Men is if I could make the line-up. There are so many shitty X-Men....

Friday, July 29, 2011

Killshot


Armand is a Native American hitman nicknamed the Bird. Richie is an idiot bankrobber living with a former corrections officer who has a fetish for cons. When they cook up a scheme to rob a real estate agent, they accidentally run into Wayne and Carmen Colson. Wayne, an ironworker, teaches them a lesson with his fists and sends them on their way. But they're embarrassed and angry, so they come back for revenge...

Here's a great joke from near the three quarters mark of Killshot. The woman speaking is the stereotypical scary mother-in-law, but she isn't too bright. Here's the joke:
Richie said, "You like birds, huh? I notice you have feeders out'n in the yard."
"I've always loved birds," Lenore said. "My mother named me from a poem about a bird. I guess I just love nature."
Hahahaha too funny, Mr Leonard. Too funny. (Click here if you need the joke explained to you.)

It's been awhile since I read a Leonard book, but I think if I stretch them out, I won't get sick of them so quick. I know I mentioned this last time, but it still stands: Leonard's plotting is so weak and his structure so formulaic that I tend to grow weary. The only reason I come back is because of his characters and his perfect dialogue. I mean perfect.

Killshot isn't any different. You already know the ending of the book when you start it. Even the characters are pretty much what you expect after the first few pages. What makes Killshot so enjoyable is simply Leonard's immaculate use of dialogue. Plus this is a lot funnier than the other books by him that I've read. In addition to the joke up above, there are hilarious moments everywhere. It's a funny book in dialogue and in plot. Richie and Armand are morons, of course, and Wayne is the stereotypical man's man. Putting them together in the same room is comedic gold.

But with Killshot, Leonard throws a few curveballs. There's a scumbag US Marshall that wants to get into Carmen's pants, and there's the whole witness protection angle. Leonard finds a way to twist his usual yarn. Unfortunately, the endpoint remains clear from the opening chapters. His plotting is just weak, man. No bones about it.

There's really not much to say about this book. It's a stereotypical Leonard novel: the pitch-perfect quips, the lean cool prose, the badass characters, and the stunted plot. Why do I keep reading Leonard novels, then? Because they entertain me. They are the quintessential fluff book. Leonard is a man's version of a romance writer. All of his books are the same, but we read 'em anyway. It's the summer time and I want to be entertained. When September starts, and I'm back in school full-time doing Honours courses and reading Beowulf in Old English, then I'll read real books. But for now, I'll stick with my Leonard and my spy books and the occasional horror book.

The IPCRESS File


A regular English spy gets involved in an operation to retrieve a kidnapped scientist. From there, he becomes entangled in a vast conspiracy all involved in a mysterious dossier called the IPCRESS File.

Len Deighton is apparently one of the grandmasters of the spy novel. The IPCRESS File is his first novel, and the first to star an unnamed protagonist who ends up being called Harry Palmer in the film adaptation starring Michael Caine. Allegedly, one of the reasons why this novel is so important and so beloved is that it reinvigorated the spy genre, which had gone stale thanks to a million Bond clones. It's also a portrayal of the mundane aspects of a spy's life: the actual spying, the bureaucracy, the tedium.

That's really the best word to describe this book: tedious. Which is a shame, because there is plenty to like about the book. The overall structure of the book is taken from the private eye genre; this is essentially a Raymond Chandler novel in both tone and in first person narration. The dialogue is snappy and the unnamed protagonist makes all sorts of quips. Deighton also shrouds the novel's real plot by focusing instead on mundane details, sort of how Philip Marlowe always manages to stay a couple steps ahead of the audience by keeping his real thoughts to himself. However, in the case of Deighton, this works against him. Instead of looking at the real plot, Deighton's narrator is obsessed with food, fashion, other people's nonessential conversations, what his secretary is wearing, what the weather is like and so on and so forth ad infinitum. This is why it's exceedingly tedious and it took me a week and a half to read a 200 page novel that I can normally swallow in one or two sittings.

Like I say, it's a shame because there are things to like, not just the Chandler-esque wit. The complexity of the game is really well done, and it takes Deighton fifteen pages of exposition to explain to the audience at the end of the book, which is part of a twenty five page epilogue that goes on forever, focusing on mundane details AGAIN. The brainwashing plot is horrendously dated, of course, but I don't read these books to experience modern life. It's a way to relive life in the Cold War. On that note, Deighton succeeds admirably. His writing is evocative and puts the reader there in London, the Swinging Sixties, the Cold War. This is, in part and paradoxically, because of his narrator's fixation on details. Unfortunately, you can't have it both ways. Either it's an evocative portrayal of a bygone time or it's a spy potboiler, and it doesn't quite pull off the potboiler.

That's partly because of the odd pacing and plotting. The novel feels episodic, almost. The spy goes from one little adventure to the next with seemingly no connection. It's not until about page 160 (in my 212 page edition) that the plot actually goes anywhere. Certainly the last 50 pages are the best because it starts to make sense, and the narrative finally hurries up a bit, shows some hustle instead of lackadaisically meandering from one meal to the next.

Of course, as soon as I became interested in the novel, around the 160 page mark, we reach the climax, which is unbelievably boring. It should come as no surprise in this food obsessed novel that the villain and the hero of the story share the climax in a kitchen, over a hot stove while making a meal. My reaction to this was, and I quote, "are you fucking kidding me?"

Perhaps the paradigm-shifting revolutionary significance of the novel is lost on me, considering my mother wasn't even born when this novel changed spy fiction for better or for worse. That being said, I'm often cognizant of literary sea changes, so I can't quite forgive the novel for my youth. It remains a weak novel. Gorgeous prose and witty repartee does not save the novel from its tedious pacing or epicurean and sartorial obsessions.

I will give Deighton another go. He's written far too many classics in the genre for me to dismiss him outright. If I read another Deighton, I'll go with Funeral in Berlin, which purports to be another classic. If I like that, I'll read his Game Set Match trilogy. Hopefully all goes well. Life is too short for novels I don't like.

[I chose as my image, the original and hauntingly effective cover design for The IPCRESS File that shook up the book design world. It's been 48 years and the cover design still works perfectly. It might be one of the best designs ever. My feelings for the novel are in stark contrast for my adoration of the design.]

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Trailer for Amazing Spider-Man



I've said before that the second and third parts of a trilogy are always my favourite. There's a reason for this. Generally, with more installments, the creators get to iron out the wrinkles and focus on what made the first one good. That is to say that they get to improve upon the previous; practice makes perfect and all that. The other reason why I prefer the middle and final parts is that I don't like origin stories. The first part of a trilogy, or even the first part of a movie is all about setting the pieces up and moving them into position. It's a waiting game in which I sit there annoyed because I know that the plucky reporter and the cop who plays by his own rules will eventually team up, regardless of their shared animosity. The set-up is the least interesting part of a movie.

When I watch the Spider-Man movies, I don't watch the first one. I'm so intimately familiar with his origin that it's incredibly tedious to sit through that movie. That, and the second one is simply a masterpiece. So why then are we getting a new Spider-Man movie that fucking rehashes the third most well-known origin in the history of superheroes (only Batman and Superman are more familiar)?

The trailer for this movie does two things to me: bores me because it's an origin story, and depresses me because the filmmakers have totally forgotten that Parker is a wiseass and makes jokes at all the wrong times. Instead, he looks like an emo llama.

What surprises can be held in this movie? That his parents were actually secret agents? Yawn. Already done. Or that his parents are involved in the genetic manipulation that inadvertently gives Parker his powers? Yawn again.

Everybody knows his origin. Tell some new stories, please. I don't want to be that jaded internet guy who is never happy and never pleased, so I will no doubt see this movie hoping to be entertained. If anything, at least the special effects will be worlds ahead of 2002's Spider-Man. I just hope it doesn't depress or bore me.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows


Dumbledore is dead. Snape is the new headmaster. Voldemort grows in power and controls the Ministry of Magic. The war on the muggles is escalating. The darkest times have come. But Harry and the Order of the Phoenix aren't resting. They're working tirelessly to find the legendary horcruxes, the items that give Voldemort his immortality. Although Voldemort himself is getting closer to finding the legendary deathly hallows, three items that if put together will give ultimate power.

Or something. So I watched Part One the other day and then I went with some friends to see Part Two. I wrote a review for Part One, but I don't really like it. Also, my problems with the first part continue with the second part.

It's confusing. Confusing as fuck. Who the hell introduces new characters in the last part of a series? That's ludicrous. Maybe they're not even new and I just can't remember them because everybody including their distant cousin is named in the Harry Potter books. I'm almost not joking. Everybody gets named. It's ridiculous.

I gotta be honest, I don't what the fuck is going on in this movie. Is this how normal people feel when trying to watch Doctor Who or Star Trek? I don't understand practically anything. I had to consult Wikipedia so many times during the first part I think I lost track of everything. And it's not like I haven't seen the last six movies. Did the filmmakers just cut out anything helpful and hope only the diehards show up for the premiere?

And again, so many things would make much more sense if fucking Dumbledore had just been upfront with Potter. If he had just sat him down and explained shit, then Harry wouldn't have wasted all this time with goblets of fire and books and shit and he would've just destroyed these horcruxes or whatever the fuck in the beginning.

Plus, it drags. Thank God they split it into two and didn't put out a four hour movie, because that would have been a serious marathon. The first part is so slow, not just in pace but in plot. At least half of the movie are the three leads standing around in the woods trying to figure out their next move, based on cryptic clues left by everybody in the world. The second part spends a lot of time with emotional moments, but sine I care nothing for these characters, these moments just went on forever.

However, all is not terrible. The first part has a great chase scene and the second film improves on the promise of the action in the first. I was really impressed that the director somehow managed to make a wand battle seem dangerous. Normally, with modern films, the CGI effects are so overpowering, I never feel like the characters are in any mortal danger; it's simply blobs of light being lobbed from one end of the screen to the other. But with Deathly Hallows, it feels like those blobs of light are deadly. It helps that the director borrows the visual language of a gunfight for the magic battles, minimizing the non-diegetic music and increasing the diegetic sounds of ricocheting magic and exploding furniture.

The Battle for Hogwarts at the end of the second film is equally epic and awesome. When the forces of darkness amass for a final confrontation, the stakes feel ludicrously high, and many cast members meet their end, including one of my beloved Weasely twins (!). It's cutthroat. However, a small criticism: sometimes it feels like Rowling and by proxy the filmmakers are killing characters not because it makes sense, but because they have a huge cast and it's a cheap way of conveying to the audience that shit is getting real. In other words, characters were introduced simply to kill them off for an easy shock.

One of the best parts of the movies has to be the emergence of Neville Longbottom. He starts out in the first six movies as a fat awkward kid who tries really hard but can never quite succeed. The actor was saddled with fake teeth, a fatsuit and prosthetic ears. In the last part, he sheds his fatsuit and ears (but keeps the teeth) and BECOMES A GOD. I've never been so impressed by a character before. He goes from fat kid to awesome badass and it makes sense and it's totally awesome. When he leaps up and cuts the head off the snake, I almost cheered in the theater. On top of that, at the very end, he's sitting around all badass with the sword just chilling and it's fucking sweet. Yes, I know, not the most professional of reviews, but whatever, this is my blog, not yours.

Pretty much Neville's ascent to godhood made this movie for me. I loved it because it. I was bored and confused for the first half of the film, but when (the attractive) Neville steps onto centerstage, I was enthralled.

The absolute worst part of this film is the epilogue. In case anybody doesn't know, the film adds on a flashforward (or prolepsis if you speak proper English) that shows us the cast 19 year later, when they'll have had a litter of cute ragamuffin wide-eyed kids. For some reason, the primary cast felt as if having one kid wasn't enough. They all have three or more. It's disgusting. That complaint can be expanded to encompass the entire epilogue. It's INCREDIBLY superfluous. It adds NOTHING to the characters' arc which had come to a satisfying conclusion not five minutes before. One of the hardest parts about telling a large scale story such as this is knowing when to end the story. Often writers can't help themselves and keep dragging it out (see Lord of the Rings - the movie and the books - for a perfect example of how to avoid an ending). This epilogue might go down in history as one of the worst endings I've ever seen in a film. It's dismally poor.

I understand that many fans want to know what happens to their favourite characters, but that's an awful thing to ask of a writer, because many of them will indulge in this. This problem comes up in geek culture all the time. Fans don't know when to say goodbye to a character. We want to keep following them and find out what happened, even if we were provided with an entirely satisfactory ending. I don't necessarily mean a neat ending. If the character's arc has come to a logical conclusion, to what end is there following him or her? The answer is fan entitlement and indulgence. Just let them be.

Rowling has proven herself to be a writer who won't shut up about Harry Potter. She constantly teases that she knows everything there is to know about Harry and his friends and what happens to them all. She keeps teasing things that aren't in the books, like Dumbledore's sexual orientation. Rowling is the perfect example of a writer who doesn't know when to stop. Her fundamental storytelling skills are excellent, but her more refined skills leave much to be desired. She has to know when to stop. Stories aren't like life. Lives peter out and end without any symbolism or poetry. Stories end because stories are circles. Lives are not; they end because that's life.

The epilogue really soured me on the movie, but Neville Longbottom and the final battle kept me from hating the film. I could probably write another thousand words on the incoherence of the Macguffins or the poor acting from the leads, or the fantastic casting or the amateurish pacing, but I think that this will suffice. Overall, I liked the film, but I will probably never see it again, and it did not make me want to read the books.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Defection of A J Lewinter


One day, a ceramic engineer working on some not so secret missile parts decides to just up and defect. On a trip in Japan, he walks into the Soviet embassy and offers important information about missiles and asks to defect. So begins a careful and subtle game between the Soviets and the Americans.

I read The Company a long time ago, way back in 2005 or something and I really liked it. Instead of being a spy thriller, it was a clandestine history of the CIA from the early beginnings to the relative present, focusing on a small group of characters. I recall being impressed with the spycraft element, but less thrilled by Littell's prose and dialogue. Since I'm on a big spy kick currently, I thought I'd give one of his earlier efforts, or even his first novel, in this case.

The Defection of A J Lewinter was equally confounding and relieving in regards to expectations. I thought that it was going to be a spy game between the Americans and the Soviets, and that was certainly fulfilled. However, I also predicted more of a con game from the author, but this expectation was not fulfilled. That isn't to say that this novel doesn't contain any surprises or fun; it's just that I would have written a more complicated ending. This is intentionally vague for a reason - to explain anything of the plot would give away more than necessary. Going into The Defection of A J Lewinter not knowing anything will make the reading experience that much better.

It's a good novel, but it's not terrific. It's tremendously readable and palatable; it goes down easy like Sunday morning. I read this in two marathon sessions and always had a good time with it. Certainly the prose isn't anything exciting nor the dialogue. Littell's skills with speech are workmanlike, but never unrealistic, a measured compliment if anything.

What works best in this novel is Littell's unironic integration of chess into the narrative. Certainly Littell isn't the first to put together the game of chess with the spy game, but he puts them together nicely here. The structure of the narrative is constructed around a game of chess: opening, middle game, gambits, endgame, etc. While the integration is, at times, needlessly pointed out by characters, it still remains well done, especially near the end of the book when things get... interesting.

For me, what makes a good spy novel isn't necessarily the action, the gadgets or the hero. This is another way of saying that my preferred spy novel isn't a Bond adventure (even though I love Bond). I prefer the more cerebral and intricate spy novels, like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or this. The theme of the spy game comes up in this book, and many characters comment on the zero sum game that is the Cold War. The Americans make a move and then the Soviets interpret it. Then the Americans try and interpret the Soviets' interpretation. Then the Americans try and interpret how the Soviets would interpret the American's interpretation of the Soviets' initial interpretation and so on and so forth. It's a mindgame that has no end. The better spy novels, it seems to me, take this into account and never let up. Nothing is as it seems in a spy novel. It is the unknowable and the game that interest me most.

With this novel, Littell conveys this problem with spying using both the Americans and the Soviets, a very smart move. Showing the audience both sides provides a better picture of how complicated and convoluted a spy game can get. He uses a handful of key spies and their nonprofessional outsider friends as exposition. It's an obvious way of explaining things to the audience, but it works if only because eventually Littell uses these nonprofessionals later in the book.

If there is a problem with this novel, it's that it could have been bigger. This is a rare case where I found the book to be too short, too slight, when there is so much story potential. However I must temper this complaint for expansion: a modern writer of thrillers, in this day and age, would not know what I mean. When I say this book needs to be longer, I don't mean that it needs to be 600 pages and filled with the most complicated backstory in the history of the world. Modern thrillers don't know when to stop. They just keep piling on things until the reader is exhausted. No, any increase in complexity in this novel would require an even hand, a steady hand, one that could expand on the themes and the plot without losing the thrust of the novel.

As it stands, The Defection of A J Lewinter is a good book, a fun spy yarn that keeps the reader off balance. It seems facile to criticize Littell's basic prose style and dialogue, considering this is his first novel. Even with that in mind, this is still a confident and strong debut, promising much in the way of future novels.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Winter of Frankie Machine


Frankie Machianno is a sixtyish guy who owns a bait shop on a pier in San Diego, has a beautiful fortyish ex-dancer for a girlfriend, and his daughter just got accepted into med school. Everything seems perfect until some guys from his past ask him to do a job, cause he's the only one who can handle it. But it turns out to be a setup, they try to kill him, but they can't cause he's Frankie the Machine, one of the best button men in all of California until he retired. Now he's running for his life and trying to figure out who wants him dead and why.

God I love Don Winslow. If I'm ever depressed or sad or anxious about the world, I can just grab one of his books and escape for awhile. Every book I've read by this guy has filled me with happiness and excitement and satisfaction. If his books had any literary merit, I'd do graduate studies on the guy. But alas, his books are just simply the best ass-kicking crime fantasies out there and nobody writes these better than he does.

I compare him to James Ellroy a lot, but Winslow is a lot leaner and a lot tighter. His thrillers are shorter and use less extra space getting everybody from point a to point b. Winslow's also kind of like Elmore Leonard, a big influence on him. Except Winslow knows his way around a plot a little bit better than Leonard. With most of his books, Leonard exudes cool and awesomeness, especially with dialogue and cool cats for a cast, but his plots aren't the tightest. They kind of flounce around until the inevitable showdown and shootout. But Winslow keeps you guessing a lot. Yes, it always ends in an inevitable showdown and shootout, but with whom and over what often remains a mystery until the last twenty pages.

The Winter of Frankie Machine is really no exception to the Winslow formula, which I'm starting to see and frankly, I don't really care. Frankie Machine is an ex-soldier, a smart guy, an honourable guy, and a guy who just wants to do right in the world, even if that means smoking some wannabes and poseurs. He's like all the previous guys. Yeah, and he surfs. Of course he does.

Normally the formula would tire me. I'd be bored with the same old. But Winslow's prose and use of characters are still fantastic. I loved this book. Not as much as Savages or Bobby Z (which are fucking masterpieces), but I loved it more than most thrillers I've ever read. I'm going to heartbroken when I run out of books by this guy. That's why I don't read them all at once, you see. I just finished this one, and I'm super excited about reading another one, but I just can't. I can't do it cause then I'll be another book closer to the finish line, and that makes me a sad panda.

Oh well. This book still rules. It's not quite as exciting as Bobby Z, and it leans a little too heavily on the background instead of the present. Plus, the central mystery is pretty complicated and there are a million little flashbacks, some of which are integral to the mystery and some of which are just flavour, but both categories are given the same narrative weight, so you never know which ones you need to remember. Plus the cast is fucking huge. There's gotta be over a hundred named characters in this 300 page book, and they all have Mafia-style names.

This book is more like an early Winslow book, like he's finally stumbled upon how he wants to write from now on, and he's just got to iron out the kinks. It's not a big deal. This book still kicks more ass than Jean Claude Van Damme and it lasts longer than a movie. It's got some sweet episodes of dudes being fucking stonecold motherfuckers, if you know what I mean.

Regardless of the flaws, I still loved it, so go out there and grab yourself a copy.

A rebuttal in defense of Geek Culture

Here is an interesting and woefully misguided article from Nerve that offers 5 reasons why "geek culture should go away". If you don't feel like reading it, let me sum up the five reasons for you.
1. Geek culture is escapist
2. It's simplistic
3. It's dogmatic
4. It's sexist
5. It was better when it was cheap.

So let's take a look at Mr Peter Smith's logic and figure out why he's wrong. But before we do that, let me add my disclaimer. I do this out of love for geek culture, rather than a defensive position. I have my feet planted firmly in worlds like geek culture and firmly in the literary world for my degree. I'm not a fat virgin living in his parents' basement. I go to the gym, I hang out with my friends a lot (maybe too much - it's not easy on the wallet) and I'm able to speak with girls. I'm not reacting defensively to Peter Smith's article; I'm reacting logically.

1. Geek culture is escapist

Well no shit, Mr Smith. Tell me which aspect of popular culture isn't escapist anymore. The crux of his argument is that the worlds portrayed in geek culture have become so deep and so complex that nerds could "live on Dagobah and never leave". That's potentially true. But he's pointing out a small minority of nerds who cannot separate reality from fiction. He's also forgetting that there are millions of people out there who have shitty terrible lives and need to forget their problems. That's why they watch television that lets them unwind and escape, shows like reality TV or Jersey Shore or Dynasty or any show with rich people. Popular culture is escapist and not interested in conveying the harshness of reality. The US is in a recession and people want to avoid thinking about it. You can hardly blame geek culture for being good at this.

2. It's simplistic.

Have you read Game of Thrones, Mr Smith? Let me tell you, the simplistic monochromatic books and movies get short shrift where I'm from. I loathe simplicity. I seek out moral ambiguity, complexity and opacity. I want something to surprise me and make me think, and I tend to discover it. The most popular authors in fantasy and sci-fi are doing the biggest and most sophisticated storytelling in decades. Say what you will about Harry Potter, but it isn't simplistic. Or how about His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman? Or the giant and morally murky Peter F Hamilton books? Mr Smith trots out the familiar examples of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars in the defense of his weak proposition that geek culture is morally simplistic. I might add that logically speaking, Mr Smith is conflating geek culture with geek art. I'll get back to that point. LOTR and Star Wars are monomyths, Mr Smith. They are designed to be morally simple. A monomyth is the archetypal story of the hero's journey, and both LOTR and Star Wars use their predecessors in interesting ways, such as Beowulf or the Norse myths or Kurosawa. Their distillations of other more primal stories. Certainly simplistic in morality, but complex in world building

3. It's dogmatic

With his third point, Mr Smith actually reaches a logical one: his complaint is that geek culture has a sense of entitlement and is out of control defensive about its works of art. I might agree with him, but again, he's tackling a smaller subgroup of geek culture than the whole. Logically speaking, Mr Smith's argument rests on anecdotal evidence. He provides no proof of this beyond a hazy recollection of nerds getting uppity when people complain about The Dark Knight. In my experience, Mr Smith can only be referring to the dungeons of forums such as 4chan or the Newsarama forums, where the angriest and most vocal nerds shout their opinions. On the forums where I participate, such as Barbelith, anyone who had no understanding of logical discourse was routinely banned. You had to be able to defend your position, with proof and with logic. I think Mr Smith does have slight point, here, actually. But he's missing the mark ever so slightly. He thinks all nerds spring to the defense of their favourite work of art. Is he saying that he wouldn't defend The Beatles? Of course we're going to defend our art. It's ludicrous to think that if somebody is shitting on our favourite thing then we are going to meekly stand by and watch them do it? No I don't think so. However, and this is where I think Mr Smith does have a slight point, some of us are reduced to ad hominem attacks immediately and we drag out the worst defense ever: "you just didn't get it". If Mr Smith had refined his argument a little bit more, I would have agreed.

4. It's sexist

Now this one is a little bit murky. He says that geek culture uses female characters mostly as eye candy, that they are not afforded much complexity as male characters, that they are glittering prizes to be won. I almost want to agree with him. I'm almost there. However, speaking from personal experience, I've been to comic cons, and I can tell you positively that the female nerd is a demographic that is quickly multiplying. When I went to the anime convention, I saw two cosplayers in amazingly authentic Doctor Who costumes; both of them were female. Here's a logical proposition for you, Mr Smith, the more females that come into geek culture, the more diversified the art will become, and it's already happening. From twenty years ago to today, women creators in comics have flourished, from the indie scene to even Marvel and DC. With that, so do female characters. However, caveat emptor, shit like the women in fridge phenomenon or fans telling Kate Beaton that they want to impregnate her, that shit just won't stand, man. I've written a lot about how sexist our culture is, so I almost can't even dispute. All I can say is that I'm personally trying to be less sexist and less racist and less of a dick. Many other geeks are doing the same so we can let more cool people into our circle. The more people who watch Doctor Who means more people I can chat with and make friends with. Plus, I would love if my next partner was a Who fan!

5. All this stuff was better when it was cheap

This is a terrible and weak argument that rests wholly on nostalgia. Mr Smith thinks that big budgets do not equate with better storytelling. Yes, that's totally true. There's no correlation between them, inverse or otherwise. The Bell Curve shows us that most stories will be average, irrespective of budget. This is true now and the same is true of the past. In the heyday of sci-fi, either the fifties or the seventies, there were more schlock and b-movies than masterpieces. There has to be, that's the law of averages. The difference now is that there is MORE of everything, more movies, more TV, more comics, so it seems like there's a lot of shit. Well, yes, there is. But there's also more excellent stuff, too. I've fought this argument countless times on forums and it's always the same tired claim: everything is crap now, it was all better back in the day. Wrong wrong and wrong. Not everything is crap and NOT all of it was better back in the day. There were some shit movies done with big budgets back in the day, as well, Mr Smith. The Dark Knight is a good example of big budget storytelling done right. So is the new Battlestar Galactica. Same with the first Matrix film. There are tons of examples. I think that in the future, I'm going to call this the Nostalgia Law, kind of like Godwin's Law. Here it is: any discussion pertaining to culture will inevitably descend into arguments based on nostalgia and hazy fuzzy warm childhood memories of art with no connection to its objective quality. Boom, I just made history.

Also, and here's the best part, he claims that "[g]eek culture was better when it was the underdog; geeks, of all people, should know that sometimes things are worth more when you have to fight for them." This is sort of contradictory to his point regarding the dogmatic aspect. If everything is better because we have to fight for it, why would you not let us fight for it? It's either one or the other, Mr Smith.

This whole thing rests on conflating geek art with geek fandom. As with anything, there is a veritable rainbow of different kinds of fans. There are the obsessives, there are the moderates and then there are the entry level nerds. It seems that the obsessives, the trolls, are the most vocal, but that's changing. The stereotype of the fat neckbeard virgin is going the way of the dinosaur thanks to regular people coming out of the nerd closet in defense of their favourite geek art. I'm proud to say that I'm a nerd, but I don't just do it behind the anonymity of my blog of a forum. I tell people in person that I'm a Doctor Who fan, and that I go to comic conventions and that I had a custom made winter jacket designed on Captain Jack Harkness' coat. I defend my points with logic and reason, rather than nostalgia or emotion. Mr Smith ought to do the same.

New tattoo


Yes I got a new tattoo. I won't explain what is of.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Most Wanted Man


Tommy Brue is a sixtyish British expat living and working in Hamburg, the son of a bank owner. When Annabel, a social lawyer comes to him with the story of Issa, a refugee and prisoner from Chechnya, Tommy is forced to relive the past. That is, his father's bank holds money from rich men trying to get out of the USSR. But this is 2008 and the world has changed. Annabel says that Issa stands to inherit the last of these accounts, but Tommy soon finds out that numerous intelligence agencies want Issa. Inexorably, the three of them are drawn into a game they cannot hope to win.

The post-Cold War le Carré is a more politicized le Carré, I'm finding. After reading the justifiably angry Constant Gardener, I gave this one a try, and it's suitably furious, except the target has changed. Instead of rich pharmaceutical companies and the governments with whom they are in bed, it's an anger directed at the intelligence communities. Before 9/11, le Carré and the world no doubt imagined that our shadowy protectors could never stoop to doing the things featured in - well - le Carré novels (or Ludlum novels). But alas, they did. After Guantanamo Bay and other such embarrassments, it seems that the world of spies had gone from the cerebral games to the business of torture. And le Carré is not happy about it.

After reading two post-Cold War le Carré novels and one classic spy-era novel, I can't decide which I prefer. All three of his books feature similar technical elements: the reliance on dialogue and thick jargon, the hapless and awkward protagonist who uses humour to mask his discomfiture, the careful structure that takes time to build. But unlike Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Most Wanted Man isn't quite the ingenious mindgame. Nor is it like the Constant Gardener in that this novel doesn't quite have the same emotional core. A Most Wanted Man is a polemic disguised as a le Carré novel. This isn't necessarily negative, but it's not really a credit to the book's identity as a story.

The structure is somewhat awkward. With Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the novel takes its time building a very careful history, but you think it's merely a backdrop for most of the book until it becomes apparent that the whole history is a lie, and crucially important. A Most Wanted Man offers more history of the world of spies post 9/11 in a more general sense - not rooted per se in the cast. The background of this novel is more for demonstration purposes. le Carré wants to show us that these spies are not the same spies we're used to. Plus, the game in A Most Wanted Man doesn't become apparent until late in the novel, not late in the game. The setup and execution of the spygame happens past the halfway point of the book. It's like the first half was le Carré spinning his wheels trying to invest his thin cast with some personality.

The two main characters aren't the problem; both Tommy and Annabel are interesting and real in the way le Carré manages to do it. What is problematic is the crucial character of Issa. His origin is confusing, his mannerisms even more, and he never rises above the point of one dimensional. This is a tragedy because he is so unbelievably important to the plot.

As for the spygame itself? Surprisingly simplistic. I had no trouble following this book at all. Even though Tinker Tailor is half the length of this book, it was doubly complicated. A Most Wanted Man is fairly by the numbers in its complexity. It's a decidedly minor le Carré plot, unfortunately.

I still enjoyed the novel though. le Carré's prose is consistently muscular and his dialogue always puts a smile on my face. I just wish the plot itself had a bit more meat on it. The end is fairly devastating but not in the way that you expect. I didn't see it coming, but according to the New York Times, I should have. Regardless, I liked the book; alas it feels like missed opportunity.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Story of My Life


Alison Poole is a 20 year old actress in training, living it up in Manhattan of the 80's. Her roommate is going nuts, her best friend is doing way too much, her new boyfriend might be cheating on her, her ex boyfriend is attracting her and her father isn't paying her bills. Life is hard for the postmodern party girl.

Jay McInerney. Yep, I'm reading him. I haven't read a McInerney book since I was 16 and I was reading anything that felt like a Bret Easton Ellis novel. I read two of his books, Model Behavior (which I don't remember at all) and Bright Lights Big City, which was more memorable for the second person voice than for anything else. I'm not sure why I gave up on his stuff. But on the other hand, I'm kind of glad I did, because now I can read his stuff without all the baggage of being 15 and reading about coke. I can look at McInerney in a more objective fashion, and critique him based on the book itself, rather than its associations with Ellis.

On the other hand, Story of My Life stars Alison Poole who would go on to be co-opted by Ellis in Glamorama and another book. So I guess I can't really separate my reading from Ellis. If you really want to know what it's like reading this book, imagine a Bret Easton Ellis novel crossed with Catcher in the Rye.

There's a ton of shadows of Salinger's novel - from the hatred of phoniness to the broken family and even to the voice itself. However, the postmodern girl thing, which is heavily played up in the book, kind of makes the Salinger thing an ironic echo rather than a re-write. While Holden Caulfield absolutely loathed phoniness and went out of his way to announce that to everybody, Alison is an actress and sort of understands the purpose of hiding yourself.

The major theme running through this book is Alison's tension with society. Man, that sounds like a high school paper thesis, doesn't it? But it's kind of true. By tension with society, I mean that Alison has conveniently forgotten how to function in society: she has trouble disassociating honesty from social interaction. She values a "if it feels good do it" philosophy, and her boyfriend has to patiently explain to Alison that sometimes a white lie is best as to maintain the social fabric. She also values acting because it acting is truth, it's a way to express her deepest emotions, forgetting of course that acting is putting on a mask and hiding the truth. There are moments when Alison forgets that she values honesty and mentions how good of an actress she is, how well she is at pretending with her boyfriend or her friends.

It's hard to read this book without looking at this stuff. It's painfully easy to read - took me about 2 hours, and it's written in the plainest least verbose style possible, but it works, surprisingly. McInerney mostly nails Alison's voice. I say mostly, because there's the absence of a lot of real stuff. Both men and women, but especially women like Alison tend to worry about their physical appearance. In fact, physical appearances are almost absent from this book. It kind of presages American Psycho in that the only physical descriptions of people are about their clothes - specifically the brand.

Unlike Ellis' novel, Story of My Life is almost sensitive in its approach and its handling of the cast. Alison Poole isn't the most sympathetic protagonists out there, and the cast is full of unlikable people, but I got the sense that McInerney didn't hate these people, he's not a strict moralist like his friend Bret. The novel is more tragic than satirical, but retains much of the bite of satire. Alison feels like a real girl with real impulses and wishes and hopes and dreams.

Her constant reminiscing on horses and her past points to Alison's guarded nature. She comes from a broken home and it clearly affected her more than she'd like to admit. Her retreat from the pain of divorce into the world of horse riding is clear, as well as her preference for her grandparents and not her own parents. This make the tragedy all the more pronounced when Alison sells her inheritance from her grandmother for coke money. I can imagine how Ellis would have handled the scene, and it certainly wouldn't have had the punch of tragedy.

Story of My Life is too much of a fast read though. The language is simple, as I mentioned before, and there's not a lot of plot to it. The book flits by like a generic moth, utterly forgettable and disposable, which is a shame because it has more to offer than it appears. Unfortunately, Story of My Life will never stand beside Breakfast at Tiffany's or The Great Gatsby in its evocation of #whitepeopleproblems because there isn't quite enough substance. There's some, but not really enough to recommend it beyond as a time capsule, a representation of a group of people in the late Eighties getting high and fucking each other. McInerney stumbles upon the conclusion that there has to be more to life than that, but he goes at it with half-measures: Alison sort of thinks this, but then never finishes the thought. Either come up with the maxim for catharsis, or ignore it completely for maximum tragedy. Story of My Life has neither. Instead, it's platitudes encased in stylish shadows of other writers.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Thing remake



Here's a trailer for the oft-delayed remake of The Thing. Or is it a reboot? Or is it a prequel? I'm not really sure. But give it a watch and I'll wait.

Oh you're done? Okay, let's talk about this. First, to get it out of the way, yes, Carpenter's version of The Thing is a masterpiece of suspense and special effects. The "creatures" that are on display in this film are works of art. Yes, works of art. The whole movie is a work of art, a seamless blend of horror and science fiction, with some incredible acting on top of everything. With no explanations provided and an ambiguous ending, you have the recipe for the sco-fi horror movie that I absolutely adore.

But this. Well, I'm not quite sure what I expected from the film. It looks and feels like the same thing as before except for instead of a badass Kurt Russell as the lead, you have a twenty year old paleontologist from Columbia played by that girl from the second Final Destination or third or whatever. That doesn't seem right.

All the familiar elements are already in place: the beards, the flamethrower, the dog scratching at the cage, the showdown where someone is accused of being not human. However, this movie appears to have a higher body count (more suspects) and a lot more of the thing itself.

The overall feeling from this trailer? Familiarity. What's the point of this movie that pretends to be a prequel? Why not just remake the movie instead? Because that's essentially what the filmmakers have done here. This reboot looks exactly like the first movie. What surprises could it possibly contain?

If this is truly a prequel, then we know exactly what will happen to them. The dog, probably not played by the same dog from the first film, will escape and carry the thing to the Americans. So we know that a) the girl dies cause we saw only men alive at the beginning of The Thing and b) there ain't no happy ending for them. Knowing they die kind of removes the suspense from things.

This is exactly why I said I wasn't going to watch trailers anymore. I saw the trailer for John Carter of Mars today and I thought to myself, hey now I don't have to see it. Also, the guy playing John Carter doesn't look nearly as burly as the literary Carter was. Like, what happened to the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers of the world? These new action stars are so puny; they are the girly men, to quote somebody.

So now I've seen trailers for The Thing and John Carter and I'm not going to see either of them. After seeing the Captain America and Thor trailers, I planned to stay away. The only way I'm going to watch a trailer is to figure out what the hell the movie's about, like that French Sleeping Beauty movie coming out this week somewhere where I am not.

I promise you I'll be avoiding trailers for The Avengers as much as possible. I want to see that only because it's going to be such a big deal. But on the other hand, it's Joss Whedon, AKA the guy who writes every single person with the same voice: his own.

Source Code


Captain Colter Stevens wakes up on a train in somebody else’s body. He has eight minutes to figure out who is the bomber on the train. It seems that this morning, somebody has blown up a train and it’s only the beginning salvo in a war against Chicago. Stevens has been tasked by his military to go into the source code, over and over, and re-live the last eight minutes of the body he’s occupying, until he has discovered the bomber so he can save the lives of countless millions.

This is a tight movie. I like tight movies. I like movies where the end wraps back to the beginning. This should be no surprise that I like movies like this; I have an ourobouros tattoo for fuck’s sake. Source Code is a fantastic sci-fi thriller that rushes through its hour and a half and left me exhilarated. I was super excited about seeing this movie and I was super excited upon finishing the movie.

Part of this is the screenplay, part of this is the fairly slick direction from Duncan Jones (son of my beloved David Bowie) and a very large chunk of it due to Jake Gyllenhaal (I had to Google the spelling). I’ve always thought he was an excellent actor, from Donnie Darko to Zodiac to this, he’s able to convey so much in his gigantic eyes and expressive face. I also like that he’s rather easy on the eyes. His face is in almost every single scene of this movie, which makes sense because this is kind of a puzzle box like a Chandler novel. Where Marlowe is in every scene unraveling something in a linear fashion, Stevens is figuring things out one piece at a time at the same time, if you think macrocosmically.

Yes, it’s Groundhog Day meets Murder on the Orient Express. Yes, it’s Memento but instead of backwards, simultaneity. However, due to its slick execution and great performances, it rises above its tired mashup genre background. It’s constantly thrilling, and the twists in the plot start coming early, so you’re constantly off kilter, but in a good way, the way Memento is always thwarting you. This is the intelligent sci-fi thriller that Inception wanted to be. Instead of being sprawling and overly linear and frustratingly simplistic, Source Code is tight, moves quickly, and doesn’t dwell on the fact that its very premise makes no sense.

For the thousands of people who inexplicably found Inception to be far too confusing, then avoid this movie. You’re not going to like it. That’s not to say that Source Code doesn’t find a way to make sense; the ending is a good ourobouros set up from the beginning, so once you finish the movie you’ll find it satisfying. Source Code keeps on your toes intellectually speaking. I like movies where it doesn’t hold my hand. I don’t need to be led through the plot or the mystery. Let me figure it out, or, if I can’t, then I’m going to be doubly impressed.

I did not predict how this movie ended. I was happy about that. Source Code is a great movie and you should see it. I don’t really have anything to add to that.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Constant Gardener


Justin Quayle is a British diplomat working in Africa. Her beautiful, young, activist wife is found murdered, while the African man she was with has gone missing. Quayle, mostly ignorant of his wife’s extramarital activities, begins to suspect that there was more to her murder than simply a random killing. His search takes him from Africa to Italy to Germany and even to Saskatchewan to uncover the truth about his wife, the multinational companies in Africa, and am anti-tuberculosis drug that might have serious side-effects.

Years ago, I read Naomi Klein’s seminal No Logo, a passionate and angry polemic against the corporations that are slowly taking over the world. It inspired activism in me. I grew up. But now that I am a little bit older and a bit wiser, it seems that the whole activist bug has been awoken thanks to such works as The Wire and books by Coetzee. The world is an awful place. There is no winning. Any resistance is futile, it seems.

This is the stage set by Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener, only the second novel from Le Carré that I’ve finished. It’s a grim and bleak novel, but filled with anger. Righteous anger. The pharmaceutical companies and the oil companies have taken over Africa. Only the corruption of the African leaders keep the conglomerates in check. There is no hope.

Except there is. Tessa Quayle, wife of the protagonist, fights desperately, strongly, courageously against the two companies who have brought an unsafe drug into Nigeria and Kenya and the Sudan. She amasses documents, interviews, facts, proofs and everything. Her reward for her high standard of ethics? Murder.

The plot here is almost inconsequential to the points that Le Carré is making. The whole premise of this book is that the author is morally outraged. He is offended by this. So he writes a beautiful and sad and entertaining spy novel about it.

The Constant Gardener is not a perfect novel. It suffers from problems that I’ve faced when trying to read a Le Carré novel before: it’s overlong, it’s excruciatingly slow, and the dialogue is heavily stylized. Certainly the moments of “action” are few and far between and when they do happen, they’re not really that interesting in the face of the more real sections.

This is more of a psychological drama, in which Le Carré slowly builds his cast and puts the pieces in place and then dismantles them with the confidence of a professional and elder writer. He’s more interested in how individuals, yes real people, choose to compromise basic human ethics for the sake of profit. The villains of this novel aren’t cackling bad guys like “Karla” from his acclaimed trilogy. The villains are just regular people who have made mistakes and it has cost them too much; they are unable to turn back.

Justin walks through this world and uncovers each piece of the conspiracy, which may or may not even be a conspiracy. He travels from one part of the globe to the next in search of truth. Not for revenge. Not for retribution. He just wants answers. Why was his wife taken away from him when she was just trying to go good? She was simply following her heart.

I really liked this novel. I thought it was entertaining, and Le Carré’s skill with dialogue is exceptionally good. However, the plotting was not nearly as meticulous and careful as I’ve come to expect from the old spymaster. There were very few surprises to be held in this book, and maybe that’s because I’m already somewhat familiar with the problems facing Africa. The idea of a pharmaceutical company being in cahoots with the British Foreign Office doesn’t really faze me. It’s par for the course, if you ask me. The Constant Gardener is kind of sad in this way. There’s not a lot I can do about it, personally. I want to help, and I donate to the Red Cross and whatnot. But I can’t take on the corporations.

There’s a scene in which a scientist is explaining to Justin that her safe was opened, the contents looted, and then the safe was locked again. She concludes, probably correctly, that the thieves had the key. She says to Justin that in the world of giants, one of them asks the other for the key and they just give it – after all, they’re both giants. They take no notice of the smaller ones beneath them. It’s sort of sums up the entire novel in a way. There’s no protection, no hope.

Despite the depressing nature of the book, it’s still a good read. It’s captivating, interesting, intriguing and teaches you a thing or two about Africa. It’s also populated with a cast of seemingly real people who make mistakes and find them to be costly. They’re as helpless as we are in the world of giants.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Items


1.
This is the first poster for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. I'm putting this here for posterity, and - honestly - some cheap traffic. Maybe I'll get some readers if they come here via Google Image Search. Anyways, I'm excited for this movie, but it can't be better than The Dark Knight. I'll end up liking it as much as I like Batman Begins, I'm guessing. I'm also trying to avoid spoilers like nobody's business.

2.
I'm listening to A Tribe Called Quest, Katy Perry, Thrice, and The Notorious B.I.G. I'm also listening to select tracks from Kanye West's discography.

3.
I'm trying to read Jonathan Maberry's Pine Deep Trilogy, of which the opening novel suffers from "first novel syndrome" even though it's clearly not his first novel. I'm also trying to read Ludlum's Bourne Trilogy, just because the movies are some of my favourite of all time. It's hard going though, because the prose is just so weak.

4.
I haven't had access to the Internet in my apartment for three weeks and it's killing me. My landlord offers free Wi-Fi, but he's messed up the router somehow and I can't access it through any of my devices. My cellphone bill is going to be huge because I've been doing my surfing through that. It's really frustrating not having access to everything.

5.
I still weigh 185 pounds. I'm fucking awesome.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Pitch Black



Vera’s on the run from some men that she doesn’t know. Wyatt and Opal own a motel, but haven’t been the same since somebody shot up the diner they were eating in. When Vera shows up at the motel, with those men on her tail, the strangest and scariest night of their lives starts. They want what Vera stole and they’re willing to destroy everything to get to it.

I’m not even 100 percent sure what to say about this book. It’s a supernatural thriller, a big chase scene and then a “base under siege” kind of story. People get shot. People get tortured, maimed, and the villains say scary things. It’s always clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. It’s always clear how the book will end, too.

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a suspenseful and taut thriller. It just wasn’t great. That’s all. Steven Sidor, the author, has a fairly good grip on the small details that make horror so effective. It’s not the monsters that make horror books so good – it’s the people, that could be you or me, in danger that make it work. Sidor understands that and invests in his cast, to a certain extent. He gives backgrounds and personalities to most of the cast, save for Vera, ostensibly the protagonist. I’ve never got the sense that she was a real person. How did she get mixed up with the crazy boyfriend who stole from a coven of lesbian witches? How does Vera go from being a normal person to a girl with an addiction to bad boys? Has she always been like this? If she likes bad boys and whatnot, shouldn’t she be more of a badass in this book? I don’t know. Vera’s a sketch rather than a character. Opal and Wyatt, however, are fairly fleshed out. They seem like real people.

The problem is that the idea is better than the execution. To properly do a base under siege kind of story, you need a few solid elements. One, you need a really good cast. Sidor has half of that. Two, you need a villain so scary and so merciless that it keeps the stakes high. Well, Sidor’s villains are okay, if a little faceless. The main villain, the one with a name and a story, isn’t scary at all. Like, at all. He should have put a little bit more effort into making the core group of villains as scary as possible by having them do inhuman or unspeakable things. Three, you need a good reason WHY the base is under siege. Sidor has got this one pretty well under wraps. The Macguffin of the book is essentially Clive Barker’s Lamont Configuration, but with a different name. Except, Sidor gives it a logical background. It makes sense.

So Pitch Black is missing a good cast, missing a good villain, and why is this? Because the premise sounds so much better than the actual book. The problem and this paradoxical considering what I just said about logical backgrounds, is that Sidor tries to explain too much. If we hadn’t heard so much about the past, I would’ve been more interested in the present. The thing is, Sidor tells instead of shows. He goes out of his way to explain motivations and how dangerous things are. I’d rather he didn’t. What makes Clive Barker so effective is that he never explains. He just lets things happen and escalate, and everything is so confusing. Barker’s worst novel? Everville, the one where he explains too much! If Sidor had just let his premise be the execution, without too much explanation, I would’ve loved this book.

And that’s not to say that this isn’t a good book. Sidor has an excellent handle on pacing and tension. Once the shit hits the fan, things never quite calm down. It’s a pretty incredible thrill ride. But it could’ve been better. The climax is a little too down to earth considering how supernatural this book is.

I liked Pitch Black. It was a fun easy read. Took me two sittings to read it. I just wish that it had been a little bit better, a little bit more confident and more balls to the wall. In the hands of a ballsy-er writer, we would’ve had something more like Scott Smith’s The Ruins. Oh well. They can’t all be perfect.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Moonlight Mile


The last Dennis Lehane book I read was Shutter Island while I was in university. So we’re talking years. During a brief but feverish time, I read everything published by that guy. I loved every single page. That is until I tried reading that historical fiction monstrosity he wrote. Which was bad. It should be no surprise that my favourite book by Lehane was Gone Baby Gone. It’s a masterpiece. In fact, Lehane’s third, fourth and fifth books are all masterpieces. Fast forward twelve years and Lehane has published a sort of sequel to Gone Baby Gone, as well as a final adventure for Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro.

Twelve years since Patrick handed four year old Amanda to her drug addicted and alcoholic mother, in spite of everybody telling him otherwise, and Amanda’s gone missing again. This time, the strong-willed and academically-stellar sixteen year old has disappeared on her own. When Patrick and Angie track her down, things aren’t quite as cut and dried as they seemed.

I refuse to divulge any other information about the plot of this book. Not because the contents are so incredibly shocking but because it’s the journey, man, not the destination. We all kind of know how a book like this is going to end, so it’s all about how they get there. And they do so in the same strong style that Lehane’s been writing in.

He’s so good at this kind of thing. He makes it look so effortless: the dialogue, the plotting, the subtle use of the first person narration to a) withhold info from the audience and b) keep them in the know just enough. I love George Pelecanos. The Night Gardener is one of the best mysteries ever written – but the guy writes cold books. Lehane does what Pelecanos does but with more humanity. It’s been – what – seven or eight years since I read a Kenzie-Gennaro book, but let me tell you, I can still remember the scene in one of the books where Patrick, who’s been sporting a beard due to some facial scars from a previous book, shaves it off to intimidate somebody and he feels sick about doing it. The best parts of those five books is the toll that it takes on the cast, how they grow and yearn and love and develop over five books. No other mystery series I’ve ever read (not a lot) has been able to do that. Plus, Lehane’s dialogue is just fucking brilliant. Maybe not as good as Richard Price, though. In fact, some of the bits of dialogue show a clear influence from his time working with Price on The Wire.

The Wire’s influence is also apparent. The biggest problem facing Patrick these days isn’t villains but the recession. Lehane spends a long time setting the scene for us with descriptions of suburbia, debt, health insurance, shitty jobs, and the overall state of affairs in Boston. But where you read Boston, mentally substitute it for America. It’s a shitty place nowadays and Lehane isn’t afraid to shove our noses in it.

That’s not to say that this whole book is doom and gloom. Far from it. There’s a scene in which Patrick and Bubba go after Patrick’s stolen laptop and it has some of the funniest one-liners I’ve ever read. And Lehane just makes it look so fucking easy.

Did this need to be a sequel? Couldn’t we have had one final adventure that doesn’t involve reading Gone Baby Gone? Well, yes and no. Sure it could’ve been its own novel, but you’d never get the closure and the emotional catharsis from finally shutting the book on that case. Patrick carries the scar of Gone Baby Gone through to the next novel and then again to Moonlight Mile. He needs it over and done with. It’s not the most subtle piece of characterization, but Lehane pulls it off by basing this need in emotion, by investing in the two main characters. They’re still people. They feel like real people.

Not much to add to this, unfortunately. It’s a fantastic read. Easy, digestible and at times, hilarious. I hope Lehane keeps writing stuff that isn’t historical fiction. He’s so much better at this.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Jennifer Morgue


Bob Howard is a civil servant working for the occult espionage organization called The Laundry. He’s sent on a mission to stop multibillionaire Billington from raising an eldritch horror from the ocean’s depths. He’s assigned Ramona Random, assassin from a rival organization, as a partner, but it seems she has secrets of her own. Bob needs to prevent this ancient weapon from the bottom of the sea or else the whole world will be destroyed.

I like Lovecraft. I like James Bond. Seems like it would be a pretty cool fit if they were mashed up. Like I say, seems cool. The Jennifer Morgue is all about the cool ideas rather than the execution. The actual novel itself is – in a word – tedious. The author, Charles Stross, wouldn’t know subtlety if it hit him the face. It’s a James Bond pastiche, but it’s also a metafiction, in that the characters know they’re in a James Bond pastiche, and that fact becomes integral to the plot, I think. Pointing out a joke to the audience is a cardinal sin in comedy, unless your joke is an anti-joke. If Stross hadn’t gone to such pains to remind us that we’re reading a James Bond parody, then maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad.

It also doesn’t help that the book is just boring. There are action scenes, but they’re so cluttered with dialogue and with tangents and jokes that there is absolutely no suspense or tension in any scene. Not even the climactic scene, in which the boat self-destructs while the heroes escape, is very exciting. And it’s all because each scene is just full to the brim with exposition, characters yelling at each other (here’s a statistically prevalent snippet of dialogue: “what the fuck?” – imagine that over and over and over), and technobabble. Tons of technobabble.

This wouldn’t normally bother me so much and in fact, the technobabble is fun at the beginning of the book, when the audience is learning the rules of the world that Stross has built. Magic, sorcery and technology are actually all compatible in this universe, so you can write a TCP/IP protocol using sigils and magic. This sounds pretty neat, but after Stross piles it on page after page after page, you just end up exhausted. I get it, Stross, you’ve done some research. I’m suitably impressed. Now lay off of it and get back to the story.

Which never really goes anywhere. The plot structure, which mirrors any James Bond adventure you can think of, is surprisingly empty without the presence of Bond. The protagonist goes from one exotic locale to the next, there’s a car chase, and then bang you’re at the climax. It’s astonishingly vacuous and empty. This novel is as forgettable as you can imagine a novel to be.

It’s a shame, because Stross’ jokes are funny, his technobabble interesting, and his genre mash-up kind of fun. But underneath it all, there’s just nothing. There’s no heart beating in this book. It’s an exercise for Stross and it has no humanity. It’s a boring book that’s in need of editing. If this had been a 200 page fun thriller, I would have loved it. However, it’s 150 pages too long and that’s all exposition, an attempt to the give the plot some depth it doesn’t really need.

If you really want to know what it’s like reading this book, imagine Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon mixed with Neil Gaiman, but without any of the light or deft touches that either of those authors have. The Jennifer Morgue is a bludgeoning hammer of a book that goes out of its way to explain everything to the audience, including the jokes.

It does sound like I’m being overly negative here, even though I did enjoy aspects of the book. It was just a tedious read. Boring, overlong and far too direct. Give the audience some credit, Stross. We can understand jokes without your fatherly hand guiding us.

Friday, July 8, 2011

White Darkness


The TARDIS crew need a vacation, so they come to Haiti, in 1915. It’s not much of a vacation: rebel groups are fighting the military in charge, the German army sits off the coast waiting for their chance to strike, a small detachment of US Marines are on their way, and on top of all of this, somebody is bringing corpses back to life.

One of my problems with the Russell T Davies era of the show is that the Doctor only ever spends time in England. Or in Wales. That’s about it. He never ventures out of his comfort zone. This is due to a) budget and b) Davies’ desire to develop the supporting cast. The New Adventures line has no problems with a) and has no interest in b) so it’s nice when an author takes the Doctor somewhere other than London. In this case, we have Haiti during the First World War.

Another problem with Doctor Who, that’s slowly being rectified by Moffat’s era, is that everything is just so goshdarn white. The Doctor’s white, his companions are white, and everybody who is ever on the show is white. The Doctor needs to be introduced to people other than whiteys every once in a while, if you ask me. Again, it’s nice when the Doctor is taken someplace inhabited by people other than white people.

This novel also makes explicit something that’s been implied in the past few books, and that I understand will occur even more: the Doctor meeting Lovecraft’s creations. In this book, we have a great setup – the Doctor and his companions discover that the Haitian’s brand of voodoo or however you want to spell it, is being subtly influenced by the Old Ones, in an attempt at psychic subjugation. It’s a fairly clever connection to make.

However, this novel doesn’t really capitalize on the cleverness of the setup. While it sounds very interesting, White Darkness is interested in only a few things: showing how racist everybody is and shooting everybody. Or exploding everybody. This book might have the highest body count yet in Doctor Who books. The end of the book is just thirty pages of a long protracted shootout and explosions. So many explosions. I don’t think I’ve ever read so many variations on how to describe something blowing up. It’s tedious.

Which is a shame, because most of the book is decent. The Lovecraftian stuff is kept hidden, to its benefit. White Darkness doesn’t expose its best tricks too early. Instead, it’s a slow burn of reveals which add to the sense of uneasiness, a requisite feeling in anything related to Lovecraft. While this slow burn occurs, the author takes the cast from one point of the island to another and back again, keeping everything suspenseful and action packed enough.

McIntee writes a good Benny and a good Doctor. He has an okay handle on them. He even remembers that Benny is an archeologist. However, he stumbles a bit with Ace. Now this is probably due to more of an editorial influence than to McIntee himself, but it’s worth mentioning. The new Ace is all about violence and killing people and being sexy. In White Darkness, this is still true, except Ace does a lot of hand wringing and whingeing about it. She experiences remorse about killing a dude. This is kind of annoying and doesn’t quite fit with the Ace of the previous book, who was totally okay with kicking ass and not thinking twice.

If this is an attempt to give Ace more depth to her character, then McIntee is doing it in a clumsy manner. If this is just the editors having no idea what to do with the new Ace, then it’s even worse. Either way, it wrenched me from the book and had me question the competency of both the author and the editor.

I do have to commend the author for one thing, though: the black people of Haiti are not all the same. Just like any group of people, there are bad guys, good guys, opportunistic people, cowards and just people trying to live their lives. McIntee kind of captures the feel of a village in revolt, angry at those currently in power, but not organized enough to do anything about it. He also captures some of the normal people, swept up in the violence of the time, but wanting to do good and not knowing how. A perfect example, one of the Doctor’s allies in this book is a young Captain who is disgusted by his General’s sadistic methods eg. executing, in cold blood, all of the poorly treated and malnourished prisoners. McIntee really nails the tension in this Captain, one who wants to be a good person, but is still loyal to the military. He’s a well written and sometimes ambiguous character, up until the final third when he fully commits himself to helping the Doctor.

White Darkness could have been better. There’s more the author could have mined out of the excellent premise. That being said, the novel isn’t bad. For most of the book, he weaves a suspenseful and entertaining yarn that unfortunately disintegrates into a messy and overlong gunfight finale. Still, it’s always nice to see Lovecraftian elements combined with the Doctor.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Lucifer Rising


Benny and Ace ask the Doctor to take them to the planet Lucifer in the 22nd century in order to figure out why, in the 26th century, the planet is completely sealed off. Lucifer, a gas giant, is orbited by two hollow moons, Moloch and Belial, one covered with insane vegetation and the other with incomprehensible technology. A team of scientists are trying to figure out how to get to the newly discovered “heavy” elements on the gas giant, how to communicate with the “Angels” on Lucifer’s surface, and how to help turn Earth’s problems around with either of these things. Of course, soon after the TARDIS arrives, there’s a murder and the Doctor can’t help but get involved. Things aren’t quite as simple as they look however, and why they came to Lucifer in the first place isn’t what it seems.

The “base under siege” plot in Doctor Who is well worn. Essentially, you have one set, you populate it with expendable characters, have the Doctor and his companion(s) run amok, solve the problem and then move on. Lucifer Rising is really no exception. What separates it from the classic serials is how convoluted and complex it is.

The synopsis I gave just barely skims the surface of this overlong, overcomplicated book. The beginning of the book is decidedly nonlinear, and important information is held back from the reader in order to – I’m not even sure exactly – make things more opaque? Plus the book plods along so very slowly for the first half of the book and without direction it seems. So many little details are added and added, especially about the cast, wholly expendable, and the Doctor just smirks and taps his nose throughout all of it.

At the halfway point, the plot changes considerably, throwing away the murder mystery aspect and adding a more military sci-fi angle. This allows Ace to become a huge bitch, armed with guns, who turns out to be manipulating the Doctor for a change. The “new and improved” Ace has plans within plans it seems, but they fall apart instantly when Benny challenges her loyalty. Ace will never be the master chess player that the Seventh Doctor is, but who can?

This is a hard book to judge because it’s not terribly good and it’s not terribly bad. It’s too long, as I said and the second half just spins its wheels, with various members of the cast going back and forth and switching groups over and over. And the cast is filled with annoying unlikeable people. The plot is an excuse to kill people in quite imaginative ways. But on the other hand, some of the ideas are pretty cool, and there’s some intense foreshadowing of the coming Dalek War.

I’m really enjoying that the New Adventures are slowly balancing being standalone books while at the same time having a larger story arc. They’re creating their own future history, one that’s sometimes easy to follow and sometimes unclear, but at least it’s a timeline that starting to coalesce. The TV show could never do this with any measure of specificity if only because there was so much to cover. But the New Adventures are doing it with subtlety and always in service of the characters’ arcs.

And while I’m not the hugest fan of the new Ace, at least the cast is growing as people. Even the Doctor is growing and changing, seeing the error of his ways in his constant manipulation. Ace is a much easier to see arc, and it’s satisfying when she reaches a sort of catharsis at the end of the book.

Specifically to this book, though, the longer range plans are done well and the characters are written well. I’m falling head over heels with Bernice Summerfield. I can see why fandom adores her. Lucifer Rising is a decent book that at least uses Doctor Who tropes properly, but suffers from being too convoluted and not in the good way. Withholding information from the reader can sometimes be excellent. Sometimes it’s the most annoying thing in the world (the Harry Potter series, I’m looking at you. If Dumbledore had just had a normal fucking conversation with Harry, so many problems in the books would have been avoided. Dumbledore might even have avoided his own death for fuck’s sake).

At least the prose is decent. Not too self-indulgently poetic and not too Terrence Dicks. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Let’s move on.