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October 24, 2011

Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris

I recently finished the most recent Sookie Stackhouse book, Dead Reckoning, and I've been debating whether it's worth writing a review. I've written a couple Sookie Stackhouse book reviews before (Dead in the Family, All Together Dead and so I think my general feelings of affection for this series of books is well known and had not changed with the reading of this latest book.

Dead ReckoningSince I really have nothing new to add about my appreciation of Sookie Stackhouse, another option would be to comment on the quality of this book in comparison to others in the series. In all honesty, however, I hate when people nit-pick about how the most recent book or most recent season/installment, etc. of some line of previously beloved fiction is not as good or didn't live up to expectations. Unless there is a serious, steep decline, or anomalous direction taken in a series, why be picky? What happens, I think, is that the first encounter with good fiction is such an unexpected and, in many ways, pure, unblemished experience that people put it up on a pedestal, and nothing can ever compare to that first, fresh encounter. I'm of the mind that good fiction is hard enough to find, and we shouldn't nit-pick when we do.

This is not to say I found Dead Reckoning to be sub-par in any way. What I can say is that it was "quieter" than the last book, Dead in the Family, where there were a lot of conflicts crossing paths and stories coming to fruition. There are two major climactic moments in Dead Reckoning, and one, at least, is quite large in scale, but for the rest of the time this book is more mellow in terms of plot action.

A couple of things I noticed and appreciated about this book. First, the development of Sookie as a character gets more interesting and complex as the story goes forward. While the character of Sookie (and the books as a whole) don't lose their whimsical, folksy nature, the dark and violent parts are well balanced; this point is increasingly an issue, as we would expect repeated trauma and violence to have an effect on our main character by this time in the series. Harris does a good job developing Sookie's inner conflict of morality, without letting the story get bogged down by moralizing. Sookie struggles with, but for the most part accepts, her reality where she has become, not only a victim of the violence, but also a part of the violence. How much violence is too much for Sookie? Where does she reach her breaking point? These are major themes dealt with practically and believably.

The other thing I've been enjoying about the most recent books is that Charlaine Harris seems to be engaging in an odd sort of meta-fictional conversation with the television series based on her books. Sometimes it can be as simple as an inside reference (in the last book, folks in Merlotte's bar are listening to the True Blood theme song on the jukebox), but other times she seems to be reclaiming her story as her own. Maybe it's because she figures the TV show will never get as far as she has written now and so it doesn't matter. The first major change was in the last book when she wrote her own version of the story of Bill being changed by Lorena, an element of back-story that the tv show had taken the liberty of making up already, and in doing so she is essentially reclaiming that plot element as her own.

In Dead Reckoning, she seems to be openly defying the show, albeit in a playful and good-natured way. One aspect of the books that was purposefully left out of the tv series was the vampire Elvis character. Supposedly, getting the rights from the Elvis estate to use his name and likeness would have been too complex and/or expensive. In the books, the character of Bubba, who acts as a body-guard and enforcer for the other vampires, is purported to be the actual Elvis brought over as a vampire right after death; however, because he was so drug-addled at the time, the vampire Bubba suffers from some mental and emotional limitations. Hearing his real name or references to his past life sends him into a state of rage and emotional distress, so people can only call him Bubba (and perhaps that's how Charlaine Harris got around the name rights issue; I don't believe the name "Elvis" even appears in the books, only clear, but euphemistic references like "the king" or "the man from Memphis"). While the Bubba character has always been largely cursory to the plot, in this book, he is made a pivotal and central part of the biggest plot point in the book.

Last but not least, Harris also reveals--again, in a rather quiet way--the true source of Sookie's telepathic powers. Not only is this a major reveal for the series (perhaps the longest-awaited reveal), but it takes yet another stab at the mythology of the TV series, which has already taken the liberty of postulating the source of Sookie's powers.

June 08, 2011

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

CoverI suppose the most accurate thing I can say about Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker is that I didn't hate it. Further, I can credit it with keeping my attention. So many enormous epic fantasy audiobooks get returned to the library before I finish reading them (which did happen here) and never get re-ordered (this one actually did).

Brandon Sanderson is a newly crowned heavy-hitter in modern fantasy. His inaugural solo publications (such as Elantris) held promise, and then he was chosen to aid the terminally ill Robert Jordan in finishing his vast Wheel of Time epic. Sanderson is now a full-fledged epic fantasy author of large reputation. Problem is, I find the quality of Sanderson's stories pretty middle-of-the-road.

Part of my unenthusiastic reception to this book comes from the fact that it is a certain shiny, glowing sort of epic fantasy, all about bright castles of polished marble, bored and snarky men-made-gods and characters who talk like modern day Americans. This novel comes down definitively on the "sorcery" side of "sword and sorcery," and does not much medieval/historical sort of world-building. The center of this story is its high concept magic revolving around Sanderson's invention of "bi-chroma," a color-laden version of the concept of the soul (at least, a partial soul). Both of the main characters, while not one dimensional, are certainly not challenging in any way. They are both young, naive girls with the moxy to take on great odds and defy authority to make a difference in the world. They don't wrestle with moral conflicts of any depth, or at least not ones the reader can relate to (Vivenna's moral qualms over accepting a supply of bio-chroma isn't exactly an issue burning in the heart of contemporary man).

Sanderson's fantasy is "clean." The story is crisply plotted, the concepts are well-explained, the characters are likable, if not incredibly nuanced. Despite a few moments of violent conflict, this novel is certainly not belonging to the genre of gritty realism within fantasy. It was simply not my style, but despite this fact, Sanderson did, at least, give me motivation to read on.
 
One more thing must, unfortunately, be said about this novel on audiobook. Normally I don’t mention much by way of review of the audio production unless it is downright fantastic (such as in the case of Sookie Stackhouse books or anything by Orson Scott Card). I must say that this audiobook reading rubbed me the wrong way. The more I listened to it, the more I managed to ignore it, but the audio actor (I’m purposely not looking up his name because I don’t want to blame it on him if his performance was prompted by the audiobook director) had a tone of voice in reading this novel that was a bit overdone. It reminded me of the way a teacher might read chapters of a book to his fourth grade class. Again, not fatal, but it affected my enjoyment of the book in a subtle way.

February 11, 2011

Zero History by William Gibson

CoverFamed for his canonical novel, <i><a href="http://arwz.com/zinereviewSKS31.php">Neuromancer</a></i>, William Gibson is among the few classic SFF authors still producing regularly today. His latest novel, <i>Zero History</i>, echos my experience with some of his other recent works, including <a href="http://arwz.com/zinereviewVIO54.php"><i>Pattern Recognition</i></a> and <i>Spook Country</i>. Which is to say, I like it... sort of.

This novel did not start off very strongly for me. The initial build-up and scene-setting was simply too abstract for my taste. I had a difficult time holding on to anything concrete, be it characters, scenes, plot lines, etc. It took me awhile to get a handle on exactly what was going on and who were the major players. Once I got situated in the story, I found some intriguing threads to follow, but the journey there was longer than I would have entertained in a print book (I read this novel on audiobook during my daily commute).

Characters Hubertus Bigend, Hollis Henry and Milgrim from Gibson's <i>Spook Country</i> are back to find themselves entangled in a new round of semi-covert interactions. Bigend has hired Hollis to research a secretive clothing line called Gabriel Hounds, bringing Milgrim in to assist following a Bigend-funded off-the-grid stint in rehab. The concept of a clothing line so secret that nobody knows where to buy it is an alluring plotline in Gibson's fashion. The characters of Hollis and Milgrim are appealing, the character of Bigend both larger-than-life and mysterious.

The problem with this novel, and the previous ones, is that it goes in and out of being compelling for me. It keeps my interest often enough for me to continue listening to the audiobook, but my attention fades for stretches and comes back. The characters and plots are interesting enough for me to pick up on for a time, but I feel that ultimately they are not compelling enough to keep consistent interest. This novel reads, perhaps, more like a conversation than a story. There are lots of intriguing bits, but I wasn't terribly concerned with where they were going. I'd just tune in when the line of thought piqued my interest, and tune out when it lost me.

I'm sure Gibson fans would love this book, and perhaps readers with a better attention span than me.

February 04, 2011

Moonlight, the Complete Series

CoverMoonlight is one of those phenomena you hear about among cult cadres of SFF fans bemoaning the cancellation of a promising show before its time. I finally got my hands on the DVDs the sole season of Moonlight a few weeks back, and while it's no <a href="http://arwz.com/zinereviewRYH1.php">Firefly</a>, there is some merit to the cult complaints. Still, I think this series is ultimately plagued by the question:

"Do we really need another vampire romance?"

Further, do we need another rehashing of the vampire mythos? Another spin on vampire lore with a slightly different set of rules? Another on screen telling of the pathos of the relationship between an immortal and a human? The answer is that unless it also brings something spiffy and new to the table, then no. The genius and vision of Joss Whedon's <a href="http://arwz.com/zinereviewVIO2.php">Buffy</a>? Yes. The charm and irreverence of <a href="http://arwz.com/blog1/2010/07/dead_in_the_family_by_charlain_1.php">Sookie Stackhouse</a> and <a href="http://arwz.com/blog1/2010/08/true_blood_season_two.php">Trueblood</a>? Yes. Moonlight? Er... probably not.

It's unfortunate, though, because this series had a lot to recommend it. The vampire mythos it creates is interesting, just not revolutionary. The writing is good, just not sparklingly fantastic. The actors are appealing, if a bit too "WB" (despite being on CBS!). If fact, this series was almost completely recast, save for leading man and apparently fast track up-and-comer Alex O'Loughlin, who seems to have been in ever new series on network television in the last three years (forgive a gal for some hyberbole?), in order to give the show that "young and cute" appeal.

Leading man O'Loughlin is probably the foremost strength of this show. Not only does he have the young and the cute, but he has gravity and complexity as well as some lighter and comedic appeal. I can see why he's popping up everywhere in television pilots, because he has a lot of Hollywood star cred. While this show may suffer from not being "different enough" from other vampire fiction, it's not without novelty in its storytelling. O'Loughlin's character, Mick, has a couple of standout storylines. One is his quest as an "anti-vampire vampire" to find a cure for vampirism when the mysterious reappearance of his thought-dead vampire wife suggests that it may be possible. Vampires longing to be human, of course, are nothing new (ahem... Angel), but the way this storyline plays out with the ex-wife, the new girlfriend and his passionate resentment against being turned (in a mythos where the biggest downsides to being a vampire are not being able to eat real food and having to sleep in a freezer) makes the plot intriguing and refreshingly character-centered. Mick's anti-vampire sentiments reach a particularly dramatic pitch when he refuses to turn a series regular in order to save his life. Another highlight is when Mick discovers he may have fathered a son (before he was turned in the 1950's) and finds himself confronted by his missed humanity and a middle-aged son in a storyline that is peculiarly touching.

It's not difficult to see why this show was canceled. A rather ordinary rehash of the tried and true vampire storyline wasn't bound to survive very long on CBS. Maybe it would have had a chance on the WB or another secondary network, and maybe it would have grown into something more unique given some time. It was entertaining, well enough written and acted that there would have been plenty of room to grow, but just not enough of a seed to keep general public watching.

January 26, 2011

Towers of Midnight

CoverI will say right off that Towers of Midnight is the THIRTEENTH book in the Wheel of Time series, and so anyone not familiar with the series needs to go back to the beginning and read the first twelve books before starting in on this one. It may take you awhile, but believe me, it will be worth it. Once you're caught up to speed on the first twelve books Towers of Midnight will offer you something that you've been waiting for. What is that?

Resolution. Robert Jordan was a master of creating narratives and interweaving them to create a world where major characters can effect one another in major ways without ever even having met, but with all of these intricate story lines resolution of the major plot points has been long in coming. But it is here. Brandon Sanderson, writing for the now deceased Jordan, answers questions that have been plaguing readers for four or five books now. In this penultimate novel, true identities are revealed, characters come to realizations about themselves and their cultures, and major moves are made that will plunge the world into chaos as the last battle approaches.

Here's a heads up on what the major characters are up to. Rand, fresh from his life changing revelation at the end of the previous novel, sets about trying to put right the world that he has torn asunder, while also keeping an eye on his upcoming confrontation at Shayol Ghul. Perrin and Faile are still stuck herding an army and a group of refugees toward safety, but soon they cross paths with a group of whitecloaks. The confrontation will lead both parties in a direction they never imagined possible. Mat is once again in Camelyn, but he is less than thrilled when he discovers a bounty has been placed on his head. While dodging assassins, Mat also has to deal with the sinister gholam. Thom, Mat and Noal all still have a difficult task ahead of them, the rescue of Moiraine Damodred from the Eelfinn and Aelfinn. Aviendha completes her training to become a Wise One, but is disturbed by new revelations concerning the fate of the Aiel. Egwene is struggling to piece the White Tower back together, a task made more difficult by the knowledge that among the Aes Sedai lurks one of the Forsaken. Woven throughout the novel is an account of Lan's journey toward Tarwin's Gap and a battle which he cannot hope to win.

All over the world plans are in motion, and no one knows who will survive the coming conflict. Many questions will be answered in this novel, but still more are left to be resolved in the fourteenth and final installment of the WOT series. Look for the final book A Memory of Light in the fall of 2011.

January 03, 2011

Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning

Book CoverI recently popped in the audiobook version of Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning. I have not read any of the earlier books in the series, and perhaps that is partially where I went wrong, but I frequently start with later books in this type of series (i.e. semi-episodic paranormal romance/thriller) without trouble.

After listening to the first two CD's of this audiobook, I found I simply had no motivation to continue. The problem I had with this book, I have come to believe, is the writing style. Usually audiobooks make up for a lot of sins in terms of writing style because the actors can change intonation for emphasis and clarity. Occasionally an audiobook narrator can affect my feelings on a books, but no complaints about the audiobook actress on this one. This book had an essential disconnect with my reading affinities.

The first issue is the fact that it's written in present tense narration. Now, present tense itself is not a fundamental deal-breaker. But the present tense gives story-telling a more fluid, immediate quality. It lends itself well to faster paced story-telling as it gives the reader a sense that the story is happening right now up to the minute. The downside is that present tense narration loses a sense of the concrete, a grounded feeling that past tense (the much more frequently used narration style in fiction) storytelling gives.

The second issue is that Moning's narrative style hinges predominantly on internal monologue. There are bits of action and dialog sprinkled throughout the internal monologue, but these are few and far between and told in such an internal monologue style that it's easy to get lost. Most of all, I feel these first few chapters I read lacked a concrete sense of scene. The quick return to internal monologue after any snatch of concrete scene development made this story hard to follow; this problem is exacerbated by the use of present tense narration. The lack of definitive scene creation and the more fluid sensation of the present tense narration made this story too ethereal for me. There was nothing to grab hold of in terms of scene or character interaction, and the story kept losing my attention until finally, I stopped reading.

December 06, 2010

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

CoverBetter known for his literary fiction in more or less contemporary settings, Michael Chabon is a writer I have often been curious to try, but previously have not had the time or motivation to read. I was excited recently when I happened upon an audio version of Gentlemen of the Road

This story turns out to be a calculated departure from the "literary fiction" of his existing canon. For those of you who may not be familiar with the lingo from within university writing programs, "literary fiction" is a term reserved for the work of writers striving to create serious art, whereas "genre fiction" of "commercial fiction" is the derivative and formulaic claptrap written for the mindless public... in other words, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, adventure, etc. You know, all the books we enjoy reading. After all, books with swords, sorcery, space travel, other planets, etc. can't possibly be serious art. But I digress.

It turns out Chabon is similarly skeptical about this artificial division between the literary and the "not so literary." In his afterword to this novel, he discusses his desire to write a rousing tale in the tradition of adventure fiction. I certainly applaud his motivation and his effort. That's why I read and write fantasy. However, while I admire what Chabon was trying to do, to break free of the constraints of his literary background for a rip-roaring adventure novel, I think he only partially succeeded.

Old habits are hard to break, and I think Chabon brings a lot of his literary breeding into this novel, and that is in places good and bad. I generally do prefer an economical writing style, and his is crisp and clear with strong verbs and nouns. However, in his effort to be elaborate in his writing, perhaps to hearken back to the florid prose of genre forebears, the vocabulary ends up being a little too dense. I, of all people, plead guilty to using too many million dollar words, but with so many vivid words in so economical a style, I felt like the audiobook narrator barely had time to breath, let alone the reader. Chabon's economical literary styles comes into play with his use of plot elements, as well, including characterization and world-building. The problem is that in literary fiction, one can pay very close attention to character and plot without necessarily worrying about world-building. Since literary fiction is often set in the contemporary world, the writer can do double duty with many plot details, evoking what the reader already knows about modern life or recent history to set a scene while with the same detail developing character or scene. For this reason historical fiction writers and fantasy fiction writers typically have to spend more time separately on both. In this way, pacing has become a very important part of the genre. Don't get me wrong, it is a delicate balance, and many genre writers do go over the edge with too much description and too meandering a path on their way to the plot, but I feel Chabon has erred in a different direction. This book seems simply too short to me for a proper adventure tale. Part of getting into the other-worldly setting of a historical or fantasy adventure is spending time with it. A large part of what the reader enjoys is spending time with the characters, spending time in the world, watching the characters interact, feeling the wonder or hardships of the setting. Chabon's economical style may work well for literary fiction, but I felt like the time we spent within his story was just to brief to get absorbed by the world and the characters.  

I found this novel to be too suffuse with the author's literary writing habits to be as rip-roaring as I would have hoped. Certainly a worthwhile read, though, and since it is so short, most adventure/fantasy readers should be able to fit it easily into their reading lists.