CBR #92 — High School AP English, My Dear Watson!

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

One does not dive in and devour a Dan Simmons historical speculative fiction so much as slowly immerse yourself and gently tread water so that you are not drowned in the literarity. It’s a word now.  Suck it.

Dan Simmons writes whatever the fuck he wants, straddling like five different genres expertly.  My introduction to him was his historical fiction — The Terror.  Which was excellent, if not problematic.  I then read the first of the Hyperion Cantos, which was also excellent, but there’s no way you can shotgun those. Then I read Summer of Night, his vampire story, which was my favorite of his by far.  Then I read Drood, which I should have been shoving in my face with both hands, as it was basically Dickens as told by Wilkie Collins hopped up on opium.  It made me go out and add Wilkie Collins books to my list of to reads.  But I didn’t quite love it.  And that’s pretty much how I felt about this one.

The Fifth Heart is a story about author Henry James teaming up with Sherlock Holmes to stop an assassination plot by Irene Adler’s bastard son and Professor Moriarty.  It alternates between James and Holmes, Holmes constantly shooting heroin or cocaine and James being a flibbertigibbet.  It changes styles and apes Victorian literature, something Simmons is awesome at.  It works in Simmons master class on the history of the day all while having a blast.  We get a crotchety ol’ Samuel Clemens and a badass Adlai Stevenson.

The story is bogged down with so many complexities, because it can’t decide if it’s supposed to be a Henry James novel, a Sherlock Holmes potboiler or a Wild Wild West era steampunk version of Patriot Games.  Further complicating matters is this existential throughline where Holmes is trying to determine whether or not he’s a real man or a fictional construct — complicated further by Holmes’ constant costumes and personalities.  So we never really know if Holmes is Sherlock Holmes or a Talented Mr. Ripley.  The novel is already patchwork enough without twisting this barbed wire of “What is Reality” like it’s Jules Verne’s The Matrix.

I give it three stars but it’s probably two and a half.  But it’s probably four.  I don’t even know.  Like with all Simmons speculative fiction, the research is remarkable, the fun being had is delightful, but the overall plot is so languorous and convoluted.  I love the set pieces but I hate the arrangement.

CBR #91 – Terryin’ Up My Heart

The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

I guess I just fucking don’t like fantasy by guys named Terry.  Or guys named Terry.  Except Terry Crews.  He’s my favorite.

Most of my friends who have read this series and liked it read it when they were much much younger.  This book came out in 1977.  So it’s more of a respect your roots kind of deal.  It reads like every fantasy game ever because it was written before all those games came out.  It pretty much went Tolkein, Brooks, Eddings/Dragonlance, and then everyone else.  Brooks — who was a law student at Washington and Lee University (holla!) — was given a copy of The Hobbit and thought, “Eh, I could do this.”  And thus NaNoWriMo was born.

It’s very slow going.  I was told to give it time, and I’m at least giving it the first three books.  And it’s not bad.  It’s not great, but it’s not blatantly Goodkind bad.  Though the reviews for this series tend to be the same on Goodreads — five stars or one star.  But I just think those are folks who came off of the violent fast paced rapery of A Song of Ice and Fire.  It’s like comparing Dragon Warrior to Final Fantasy XVIIXXLLVIVIV or whatever fucking number they are on now.  We’ve come a long way, baby.  But I still like Dragon Warrior.

Essentially, Allanon (I cannot get past that name.  Did Al-Anon not exist back then?) is a mighty Druid Gandalf who must gather the last blood of an Elven line and with it get the Sword of Shannara which is the only weapon that can stop the Warlock Lord Brona.  The world is populated with places like Dragon’s Teeth Mountains and the Silver River and the Mines of Minor Reekage and shit like that.  It’s chock full of the whole, “We must journey through Nihalhaven through the Bogs of Despair and up through Sheerstocking Valley to the Plains of Perryfarrell.”  Along the way they gather a collection of all the bravest warriors of the races — men, Dwarves, Elves, Trolls, Gnomes.  And two reluctant innocents who discover they are truly to be heroes.

The pacing is super slow, in that Allanon takes every opportunity to exposition dump legend like he’s the fucking Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past From The Future.  Long ago this is the history of our peoples.  It’s just sort of clumsy and wordy and there’s not a lot of action.  It is very Tolkeinesque in that way.  I mean, it’s not an outright crib, but it’s pretty damn close.  But it feels more like linking the chains and paying homage to the lineage of fantasy.

It’s pretty boilerplate, but not bad enough where I’m gonna shuck the book across the room and at least he’s ripping off J.R.R. Tolkein and not Ayn Rand.

CBR #90 – Arkham Divided By The Dark Knight Carry The Suicide Squad Equals Wonder Woman?

Supervillains Anonymous by Lexie Dunne

This book was confounding as a motherfucker.  Dunne capitalizes on the chaos of the cliffhanger ending of Superheroes Anonymous with the first quarter of this book and then she sells all of that out for some cheap rehashing and rekerjiggering, only to turn around and fix it all and then make it confusing again, and then slap on another almost as good cliffhanging jawdropper.  I get that Gail’s confused as a bastard in this whole whirligig, but that really should mean we’re snapping our necks trying to follow the plot twists.

Spoilers abound if you haven’t read the first book, so be forewarned.  There’s literally no way to discuss this without spoilerizing a bunch of the first book.

So Gail’s in jail after being set-up for killing Angelica, her mentor.  She’s confined to the supervillain facility which is…super nice.  Fed exquisitely, top notch gyms, it’s basically Arkham Spa and Resort.  Only the women have to work for the IRS tormenting people.  Oh, and many of the villains who have spent their lives kidnapping Gail are her new bunkmates.  Except her actual bunkmate, Rita, the world’s foremost and first supervillain.  This part reads like Orange is the New Black meets Every Martial Arts Movie Ever.  Rita takes it upon herself to train Gail so she doesn’t embarrass her.  This training takes the form of beating the fucking shit out of Gail with surprise attacks and generally making her life miserable.  Right up until she literally throws her out of the prison.

From there, things get even more fucking crazy.  Gail and her friends (who totally believe her) run on the lamb learning all these secret secrets.  Everyone gets popped like a pimple here with the double crosses and double dealings and secret agendas.  Crazy ex-girlfriends hellbent on revenge, a competing corporate entity, double agents, the truth about Mobium — it all gets laid out on the table.  Not in any semblance of order or with any sort of panache.  More like playing Frogger.

Dunne cut back on the Twilight levels of mooning, but she replaced it with Twilight levels of moping.  Gail spent much of book one moaning why me?  And she does it even harder in this one.  But it’s still enjoyable.  If you just sort of let this wash over you, you can dig it, and it sets up semi-intriguing potential for what’s coming in book three.  Which may or may not be the final entry?  Plus, I have no fucking idea what she can call it.  Superfriends Anonymous?

CBR #89 – Sad Birthday Parties and Smoking Wrecks

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

After two novels, Makkai decided to release her collection of short stories, which kind of works as Polaroids of an Author As A Young Woman.  You write what you know, and so Makkai has delved into her Eastern European roots and dug out this collection of wistful yet beautiful short stories.  Timeline-wise, they’re jarring, in that they take place over the burgeoning years of her career as a writer.  You don’t see the stumbling photos of a baby trying to walk, you see the event parsed out as Makkai finds her voice.  And her voice is full of survivors guilt and smarmy wit.

There might be great novels about Eastern Europe, but for me, it’s pretty much Dracula, ghoulash, and the new mobs.  I mean, when we think of atrocities and WWII, we think of Germany or Poland.  But not much gets said about the region, who in our lifetime has shuffled names and borders and allegiances.  My most famous film review was about A Serbian Film, and even in that, people told me it was a metaphor for the politics of the state, and all I could see was the horrors before me.

Makkai writes about war, almost like fairy tales told by grandparents who want their children to know not everything ends happily ever after, because, as she poignantly states in one of the stories — “May this be the worst you ever feel.”

Makkai has had four stories selected for the Best American Fiction series, and it’s no surprise when you read them.  They aren’t feel good stories, but they aren’t told to wag a finger or pass judgment.  They’re just facts of life.  This shit happened, to Makkai herself, or to people in her families or to people her family members knew.  But they bear the benefit of being fictionalized, parsed and pulped and shaped so that they get the maximum impact in a way that seems almost effortless.  The collection is filled with emotional papercuts, where you turn the page, reach the end, and realize you’re bleeding and wounded.

It’s difficult to pick out a piece.  Unlike most short story collections or studio albums, there’s no stand out single while the rest feels like filler.  These are of a whole, of Makkai’s formation as a writer, and they feel uniform and delightful.  If I had to pick a favorite, it’s probably “Cross.”  A violinist comes home to find a memorial cross buried in front of the tree in her front yard.  A young girl died in a motorcycle wreck and two women are placing increasingly gaudy plastic memorials in the yard.  It’s such a horrible thought — a moral dilemma wracked with Makkai’s signature thoughtful guilt-ridden characters — and yet shaped around it is an even more intriguing story.

I always look forward to a new book by Rebecca Makkai, so this collections is a nice reminder as to what she has to offer to us.

CBR #88 — Chuck? It’s Your Cousin, Marvin Berry! Don’t Read THIS GODDAMN BOOK!

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

I guess the bloom is off the rose for me with Rainbow Rowell.  Maybe she’s like Chuck Palahniuk.  I have such love for her earlier stuff that the later stuff is leaving me a bit sour.  I mean, I adored Eleanor and Park, and Attachments was pretty good too.  But dude, Landline just didn’t do anything for me.  Hmm.  It could be the female protagonists versus the male protagonists.  I’m just making that connection.  Attachments was all about a lonely guy.  And Eleanor and Park had the benefit of getting in Park’s mind, though I did much prefer Eleanor’s mindset to him.  But both the last two books were from the mindset of a woman, and I didn’t dig them as much.

The premise of Landline would make a terrible television show.  It’s about a showrunner who has a chance to create her own new television program.  She’s currently working on a terrible comedian-based sitcom with her partner-in-crime Seth.  She was supposed to go to Nebraska with her husband Neal and her kids.  But she needs to work on the show.  So Neal goes without her.  And she’s left home, thinking that they’ve broken up and because Neal refuses to answer her phone.

That relationship dynamic alone was frustrating.  But now couple it with the premise that Georgie – yes, the lead’s name is Georgie McCool, isn’t that so CUTE – finds a magic telephone that lets her talk to Neal in the past.  See, a Christmas 15 some odd years ago, the same thing happened, Neal was fed up with Georgie and the television bullshit and the Seth bullshit, and so he went home to Nebraska and maybe they were broken up.  And Georgie never called him.  But then Neal showed up Christmas Eve having driven the 1000-some odd miles to propose to her.  So Georgie of the future is talking to Neal of the past.  However, this has no bearing on anything.  Georgie can’t change the past, and talking to Neal doesn’t alter the future.  It might have been a far more horrifying and fascinating novel if that were the case.  Some sort of phonebooth back-to-the-future type shit.

Nope.  Instead, we spend an entire novel with a frazzled protagonist struggling with her love life.  Showrunners have their shit together.  Neal’s a stay-at-home dad.  Yeah, it can be wearing on relationships, particularly since writers work fucked hours and are constantly on call.  It doesn’t make for drama.  It’s like spending time in a washing machine – a story element that involves pugs giving birth to a lesbian relationship and sacs.  I don’t want to talk about it.

Georgie is a flawed protagonist and I can’t deal with her bullshit.  Seth’s a douche, and Neal’s a grumbly douche, and filling a house with quirky doesn’t make it any less ridiculous and annoying a relationship.  It’s the characters of Fangirl blown out to an even more abstractly fucked level.  Lady is successful, wildly successful, but going insane and a mess in her personal life because she has one guy who loves her and one guy who uses her but still loves her a little and then she goes slowly insane with the stress over it.  Not my bag.

CBR #87 – Awk-WORD

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

It’s funny when you go to cons and you see the various nerd cadres.  Now there’s plenty of cross-over.  But you might see a gaggle of steampunks, a horde of pastel-haired anime fans clutching massive weaponry, or even a few stormtroopers.  Fandom has it’s fans.

I guess I never considered myself as big of a Harry Potter geek as I truly was.  When I worked at the bookstore for the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I dressed up as Hagrid.  When the sixth book came out, I wasn’t even working at the bookstore, but I was around town, and agreed to appear as Hagrid, provided they gave me a free copy of the Half-Blood Prince.  And I happened to be working in LA at the release of the final book, also dressed as Hagrid.  Now, I never dressed up for the movie releases.  But I totally went to a few midnight showings.  (Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s what soured me on midnight releases. I like to hear dialogue.  Not wolf whistles and loud clapping when a character appears on screen.)  But yeah, I’d call out of work to finish the books in one night.  And I’d re-read them before each subsequent release — something I’ve taken up with the ASOIAF series.

Also, Steven Wilson and I went to the Twilight Fan Fiction panel, which was fascinating to listen to.  There are people who truly just write porn to get their rocks off.  But there are people who legitimately love these characters and want to bend the world to their will.  E.L. James was there, and she was the least impressive speaker of the batch.  And she coddled her fandom into a multi-million dollar sockfuck.

So it was interesting to see what Rowell does with Fangirl.  Twin sisters headed off to college and one isn’t handling it well.  They write fanfic for Simon Snow — a Harry Potter cum Twilight fantasy series that’s facing down its final book.  I always felt for the kids who started the series when Harry was ten and so were they.  When that last book came out, they were in their twenties, but no less spellbound.  And fanfiction is strange animal.  It worked for the story.

But the characters were doing it for me.  I really didn’t feel for Cath, or Wren, or Levi or Reagan or any of the characters.  I was glad for someone to finally put in print the whole grossness of craving twins.  You’re essentially asking two girls to commit incest.  Maybe you fuck your sister.  Most people don’t.  Nebraska.  But the whole writer writing about writing thing got a bit on the nose, and the drama this time through felt more manufactured.  Not into the great wide world of afterschool special, but it was just a whole lot to deal with. What worked in Eleanor & Park, and to the same extent in Attachments, just wasn’t doing it for me in this one.  And it’s strange, because Rowell’s next release is going to be Carry On, which is essentially the fictional story that Cath writes in Fangirl.  It’s going to extremely meta, that’s for damn sure.

CBR #86 – Lumberjacking Off

The Devil’s Only Friend by Dan Wells

I really dug the John Cleaver trilogy. It was kind of a trippy intro into a serial killer’s mind.  Demons essentially were possessing the bodies of people around him and he was Dextering the Christ out of them.  It was unflinching in its murders, and that was the appeal.  Cleaver tried to maintain his sociopathic lack of empathy, but even he was crushed by some of the people in his life who were taken from him.  It definitely ended with the potential for more story.

And so they took advantage of that in what I was stunned to find was a fourth book.  It’s hard to explain what my problems are with it without getting too spoiler-y, so I apologize.  If you’d like to read a dynamic trilogy, check out the series.  But this one was a little disappointing.

It got a bit procedural.  Now that John’s working with a crack team of FBI agents to track down the Withered, and with the help of Brooke/Nobody, they’re basically going from city to city, murdering up the Withered as part of a secret government cabal.  It felt like Law & Order: Supernatural.  The beauty of both Dexter and John Cleaver were their strict moral codes.  They weren’t trying to be bad guys.  They were trying to satiate their own dark appetites.

And while this certainly tore the door off the hinges and fucked up everything in the china shop, it was a bit empty.  It just didn’t have that verve that watching a boy pretend to be normal in a strange situation did with the first three.  If there are more books, they’ll be John tracking down more Withered — even though he maybe iced the big bad?  I guess it’ll involve him confronting Brooke at some point.  I don’t know.  It was so humdrum.

It wasn’t quite the fuck you to the fans that the Dexter finale was.  But ironically, Dexter’s book finale is due this summer, so we’ll see if Lindsay can bow out gracefully.