Thursday, January 30, 2014

Tea and Tedium

A Discovery of Witches
by Deborah Harkness
Published by Viking Penguin
1 Out of 5 Stars

In A Discovery of Witches, we clueless humans have no idea that we share our world with witches, vampires and daemons (creatures whose manic bursts of creativity result in some of the world's greatest artistic works). Isn't that exciting? One would certainly think so. So, what kind of shenanigans does this preternatural lot get up to while we live our ordinary lives?

Well . . .

Behold the books that shall be read! Thrill to the revelation that trips to the library will be made time and time again! Gasp as cups of warm tea are made and consumed! Swoon as vampires are repeatedly described as smelling of baked goods! And grip the edge of your seat for the most bizarre yoga-scene in the history of the written word!

That's right, folks. Vampires, witches, and daemons aren't like you and me--in fact, our lives are infinitely more interesting than theirs.

Seriously, what the hell is this? The best I can tell is that it's Twilight for grown-ups. And I can't believe I'm going to say this, but here it goes: Twilight is better. Suddenly vampires playing baseball during thunderstorms seems down right genius compared to vampires attending a supernatural yoga class. You want to drain all the sex appeal right out of your vampiric leading man? Just mention him doing some peculiar yoga move where he seems to be holding himself up vertically from the floor by nothing but his ear.

And then prattle on about how he's cold. And always has his hands stuffed in his charcoal trousers. And gets ridiculously enraged every time someone mentions blood because . . . he . . . might . . . not . . . be . . . able . . . to . . . control . . . himself (despite living a relatively normal life around humans for 1,500 years and seeming to need little in the way of sanguine sustenance). And how he maintains control of himself by always grasping the talisman he wears beneath his some-shade-of-grey sweater. And then have him ply the witch he is inexplicably drawn to with hundreds of bottles of wine and query her as to what every single one tastes like.

Oh, ho! And the witch! Now there's a live wire! Diana Bishop spends her days running, rowing, yoga-ing (?), and reading. Oh, and never using her magic because she wants to be just like us. Well, actually, she does use her magic every now and then, but only when it's really important. Like fixing her washing machine or getting a book off of a really high shelf. But other than that, it's all ixnay on the magic-ay.

At 200 pages in, I decided I couldn't stomach it any more. After all, up to that point, I had already been treated to a baker's dozen of the same basic scene:

--Diana goes to the library

--creatures are there; they pretend to read so they can watch her read all day, but they do so in a really creeptastic and menacing way, man

--Matthew, the vampire, goes to the library and pretends to read so he can watch them watching her watch a book and protect her in case one decides to, oh, I don't know, nick her with a really nasty papercut or something

--Diana and Matthew later go and consume a meal and beverages and talk ad nauseum about food to the point where an epicurean would offer them both a hot cuppa shut the fuck up

--Matthew will get angry with Diana, she'll apologize, and he'll settle his ass down

Round and round they go, where do they stop? Nobody knows! Oh, wait. I do! At the library! It's like freaking Groundhog Day without Bill Murray. And Groundhog Day ain't shit without Bill Murray. And neither is A Discovery of Witches.

When I decided I had a life to live, Matthew was fervently explaining how daemons, witches, and vampires might be going extinct!

To which I can only ask, so what's the problem?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Dull Shine

The Shining Girls
by Lauren Beukes
Published by Mulholland Books
3 Out of 5 Stars

While fleeing the law in Depression era Chicago, Harper Curtis stumbles upon the key to a derelict house with magical properties. Despite its outward appearance, the inside of the house is one of grandeur (well, except for the dead body in the hallway, but real estate being what it is during the Depression, one can't be too picky). There's a stash of cash and a haphazard collection of kitschy objects from different time periods, but that's not the only secret hidden by this house--it is also a portal to the past and the future. As Harper explores the house, it speaks to him and it becomes clear that he's been drawn here for a purpose. He must seek out "The Shining Girls," women from different times and different walks of life who must die by his knife.

So, serial killer stories aren't normally my thing. I'm not particularly intrigued by how a psychopath's mind works, never really interested in his methods and his madness, and I find the whodunit aspect of most of these novels tiresome. But I found that I couldn't ignore the hype surrounding The Shining Girls. The promise of a serial killer who could travel through time and disappear without a trace? Now that is certainly something that I've never read before and it appealed to the part of me that enjoys science fiction. I thought there might be something new and inventive here--something that might help it rise above others of its ilk. However, it proved to be disappointingly, well, average.

Harper Curtis is a casebook psychopath, complete with a childhood history of torturing animals and an inability to empathize with others. In terms of character, there's very little to distinguish him from other literary serial killers--he's fairly bland in comparison to, say, a Hannibal Lecter. Harper's only distinction is provided by the house itself and, unfortunately, the house only serves as a vehicle for Harper. An inventive premise, to be sure, but it's ultimately as riveting as knowing the make and model of the vehicle a killer might use to get from one place to another. Its origin is never explained and its role in the events that transpire is never really clear.

The hunt for Harper is led by the only woman to have survived his brutal attack, Kirby Mazrachi. Kirby is an appealing and interesting character. She's strong, quirky, and hellbent on finding the man who did this to her. As a means of doing so, she becomes an intern for a former criminal reporter, Dan Velasquez, at the Chicago Sun-Times. While he's now on the sports beat, Kirby hopes that she can convince him to help her gain access to files and reports that might help her track down the man who left her for dead. Kirby's investigations seem a little slapdash, moved along by heaping dollops of happenstance and coincidence that fall too neatly into place. I loved Kirby's headstrong nature, but to all those who compare this novel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo I must point out that a few punk rock t-shirts and a nose ring do not a Lisbeth Salander make.

As it weaves back and forth through time, the novel alternates its chapters between Harper, Kirby, Harper's other victims (whose stories, while poignant, aren't as fleshed out as I would have liked them to be), and a few minor characters. The chapters read quickly, but all of the back and forth through time caused it to lose some momentum and suspense for me. By the time the denouement occurs, it is, despite all the weirdness that leads up to it, fairly average and not much different from the resolution one might expect in a more traditional serial killer narrative.

There's no doubt that Lauren Beukes has an interesting idea behind The Shining Girls, but it never really delivered for me. Her writing is serviceable and occasionally finds moments of beauty, profundity, or wit; I particularly enjoyed the chapters focusing on Dan, a middle-aged man who knows he's falling for the much younger and damaged Kirby. Beukes hit the right note of guilt, longing, and restraint in his internal monologues. Despite its strong female protagonist and its creativity, I can only say that I liked the book but never truly fell in love.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Dark Secrets and a Painful Past

by Cynthia Bond
Published by Hogarth
4 Out of 5 Stars

I received an advanced reader's copy from the publisher in return for an honest review.  This title will be available for purchase on April 29, 2014.

The small town of Liberty, Texas, offers its residents anything but liberty. People find themselves bound by secrets, both theirs and those of others. It's a place where God's word is in everyone's mouth, but it's the devil who rules their hearts--and he roams the woods at night. With hypocritical righteousness and dark intentions, the town turns as a whole on Ruby Bell. The beautiful and spirited Ruby is a modern day Eve whose beauty lures in both men and women, while putting her own soul in peril. When Ruby attempts to escape the darkness of Liberty, it's not long before her past draws her back into the town's clutches.

After her return to Liberty from New York City, Ruby's confrontation with the past draws her into madness. She becomes a wild thing, existing on the fringes of society, used by men to satisfy their lust and shunned by the women. Ephram Jennings, a quiet, patient man who still sees Ruby's hidden value, sets about saving her soul with the gift of an Angel Food cake and, in this simple gesture, takes on the prejudices of an entire town. Through Ephram's patient ministrations, we learn of the personal demons that haunt Ruby and of the tangled web of lies and violence that ultimately connect everyone in Liberty. While the narrative can seem somewhat disjointed and sudden revelations about characters can at first seem incongruous with what we already know of them, the reader can be assured that these seemingly disparate threads will ultimately be drawn together into a coherent portrait of a community destroying itself from the inside out.

Using poetic language and brutal, unrelenting scenes of physical and sexual violence, Ruby makes the intra-racial racism within an early 20th century black community tangible and reveals the dangers that come with spiritually cannibalizing one of its own. There are certainly overtones of Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison here, but Cynthia Bond is never guilty of cheap imitation and tells a story that is uniquely her own. Particularly inventive is the use of a supernatural element to explain how the desire for or claiming of "white power" within the black community transfers hate and prejudice to those who were once its targets.

This is not an easy book to read and those with a low tolerance for rape, pedophilia, and graphic sexual scenes need not apply. While I sometimes found the frequency of these scenes a bit over the top ("Please, just give me one, ONE character who had a healthy, wholesome childhood," I mentally begged), it's made bearable as the novel ends with the possibility of hope and redemption. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A New Red Scare

American Vampire:  Volume 5
Written by Scott Snyder
Illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque and Dustin Nguyen
Published by Vertigo
4 Out of 5 Stars

As usual, Scott Snyder's American Vampire continues to kick ass with its gritty, unique take on the vampire mythos.

In this collection, we're given two complete story lines and the teaser for a third. In the first two, there's a return to some of my favorite characters in the series. While I enjoy how Snyder continues to branch out by exploring different time periods in American history, as well as the humans and vampires that inhabit them, the characters of Skinner Sweet, Pearl Jones, and Felicia Book will always be my favorites.

In the first story, Felicia Book is reluctantly drawn back into The Vassals of the Morning Star when a vampiric threat targets her son. But this isn't just any vampire; this is Dracula, the Carpathian king who has lain dormant in the VMS stronghold until freed by the Russians. Of the two stories, this was my favorite as we witness Snyder seamlessly blend the Dracula myth into the world of American Vampire. My one complaint, however, is that the ending is abrupt and somewhat anti-climatic, but this gives me hope that maybe this story isn't as finished as Felicia believes.

The second story returns to Pearl Jones, the vampire whose husband, Henry, hangs between life and death after the events in volume 4. In an attempt to save him (and in a story line that somewhat mirrors that of Felicia Book), Pearl agrees to work for the VMS hunting down vampires who may be hiding in the homes of the Hollywood elite (giving an ironic twist to the "Red Scare" of the time period). This is not an easy decision for Pearl as she must team up with the ruthless, sadistic vampire who turned her--Skinner Sweet. Witnessing Pearl grapple with her feelings for Henry and coming to terms with his mortality is one of the strengths of this arc.

Finally, we have the third story, which does little more than return us to Abilena Book, mother of Felicia, and a new threat known only as The Gray Trader. Because this issue was published before American Vampire went on hiatus, we'll have to wait for its return in March 2014 to know precisely what this threat is, but there's no doubt that Abilena hasn't settled into old age and she's ready to rumble.

Overall, this is a strong collection and I continue to be impressed with Snyder's ability to weave all of these arcs into a story that moves the vampire out of the tired European conventions and into a story as vast and open to possibilities as the American West.

Making Comics Fun

Quantum and Woody:  Volume 1
Written by James Asmus
Illustrated by Tom Fowler
Published by Valiant
4 Out of 5 Stars

In this reboot from Valiant, Eric and Woody Henderson are adopted brothers whose relationship has always been tense. Polar opposites in every sense, Eric is the reliable, straight-arrow, while Woody is your typical case of reckless arrested development. Raised by Eric's biological father, both competed for his attention and felt unfairly judged against the strengths of the other. This rift only grows over the years to the point where the adult Eric and Woody have nothing to do with one another.

When their father is killed for one of his scientific experiments, Woody and Eric are reluctantly reunited and, in the course of investigating his murder, stumble into one of his experiments--changing the course of their lives forever. Now imbued with superpowers they neither want nor understand, they become the world's worst superhero team: Quantum and . . . well, Woody, because superhero names are stupid, right? In too deep to back out, they continue to pursue their father's killers and, during the course of the adventure, there will be sibling rivalry, crude humor, clones, spider-clown hybrid assassins, and, by God, there will be a goat.

On the surface, Quantum and Woody is nothing new. This is the formulaic buddy-cop movie setup, but with one clever twist. In making Eric and Woody brothers, the conflicts between them go well beyond personality and race. Giving them a shared history and childhood means that they're easy to relate to as it all boils down to good ol' sibling rivalry, which Asmus plays for laughs that hit close to home for anyone who knows the joys of loving--and hating to the depths of your very soul--the people who know you better than anyone else in the world.

Because I never read the original, I have no idea how this reboot matches up. But it is a comic that knows how to laugh at itself and its genre and in the grim age of nihilistic anti-heroes always teetering on the precipice of some existential crisis, it's nice to be reminded that comics can also be plain silly fun.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Perfect Winter Read

The Snow Child
by Eowyn Ivey
Published by Reagan Arthur Books
4 Out of 5 Stars

Poignant, melancholy and slow-moving, The Snow Child probably isn't for everyone and I'll admit that it probably would have been a 3 1/2 star if I hadn't read it at such a seasonally appropriate time. With temperatures in the single digits, the wind whipping outside, and my part of the world brought to a halt by the "wintry mix" falling from the sky, this was the perfect book to curl up with and, therefore, I'm tacking on that extra half star anyway.

Well past middle-age, Jack and Mabel strike out on their own when they move to Alaska in the 1920's. Such an adventure would typically be a young couple's game, but Jack and Mabel are lured to the recently acquired U.S. territory in the hope that it will allow them to leave behind the one great disappointment in their lives: the stillborn child they buried in an orchard back home. Proximity to friends and family who have children of their own means that Jack and Mabel's emotional wound has never fully healed, so they purposefully break away in the hope that they will be drawn closer together and move past their grief.

It's not long, however, before the long, dark Alaskan winters take their toll on the couple. Isolated in their own spheres--Jack in the fields, Mabel in the home--depression and blame begin to settle into an otherwise happy marriage. In a moment of youthful spontaneity, the couple builds a snow child one night and it's not long before they begin to see a young girl, a wild thing at home in the cold and the forest, moving through the woods and causing them to tentatively believe that maybe they've at last been granted a child of their own making.

Based upon a Russian fairy tale, The Snow Child could easily be maddening to those who like definitive answers and clear resolutions. Is the young girl (whose name, we learn, is Faina) an orphaned child, a daughter born of snow and winter come to life, or a figment created from depression and longing? There are no clear answers to these questions, but I don't think they are questions that really matter because, in the end, The Snow Child is about grief and forgiveness.

In her portrayal of Jack and Mabel, Ivey gives us the basic template for any marriage:  no matter how strong the bond, individual grievances, both real and imagined, can build and fester. Whether or not a couple confronts these grievances determines if the marriage will fall apart or hold together. There's also complexity to the characters. At first, Mabel seems too refined and erudite for survival in the rugged wilderness, while Jack faces both the past and the future with unflinching stoicism. As we're allowed into their interior lives, however, we learn that Mabel has hidden strengths that hold her in good stead and Jack hurts far more than he's willing to admit, lest it render him unable to protect Mabel. Through their relationship with Faina, Jack and Mabel confront the painful past together and are ultimately blessed with the life they believed was well beyond their grasp.