Wednesday, July 30, 2014

“A woman sees war differently.”

The Lotus Eaters
by Tatjana Soli
Published by St. Martin's Press
4 Out of 5 Stars

Initially set against the fall of Saigon and then flashing back to the early 1960's, Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters evokes the hypnotic horrors of war set against a lush, culturally rich landscape that lured many photojournalists during the Vietnam War. Falling victim to the intoxicating mix of adrenaline, fear, curiosity, and self-righteousness, they--just as the lotus eaters of Homer's The Odyssey--forsake their homelands as war becomes their passion and their comfort.

The novel focuses on Helen Adams, a naive, uninitiated field photographer whose desire to connect with the military life of her father and her brother leads her to Saigon. A born tomboy, Helen has always resented being shut out of the masculine pursuits she longed to be a part of and quickly finds her experience in Vietnam is to be no exception. As a woman in war, she's viewed as a curiosity, a sexual object, a harbinger of bad luck, an inconvenience. However, her tenacity and her willingness to stoically endure the soldiers' hardships begins to earn her a grudging respect. It also helps that she's willing to understand and experience Vietnam in a way other Americans aren't--to look beyond the headlines and the government shading of events; to know its people and its culture: "That was the experience in Vietnam: things in plain view, their meaning visible only to the initiated" (7).

Soli's characterization of Helen is presented as a woman who is constantly evolving, growing as she tests herself in the ultimate masculine sphere and as she confronts her own hypocrisies in pursuing one iconic image that will capture all the horror, all the waste, and all the courage of war. Helen knows the power of photographs to change the hearts and minds that really matter, those of the Americans back home, and, as such, "Pictures could not be accessories to the story--evidence--they had to contain the story within the frame; the best picture contained a whole war within one frame" (118). At the same time, she knows her craving for such a photograph is that of an addict's and will never be sated; as soon as she has a photograph that seems to define everything she wants to communicate, she knows she'll take increasingly dangerous risks as she tries to top previous successes. 

The novel also presents the stories of two men who will help define Helen's life in Vietnam: Sam Darrow, a veteran war photographer whose only home is in conflict, and his aide, Linh, a photographer and translator who has belonged to and been damaged by both Vietnamese armies. Through these two men, Helen learns the toll war takes on those tasked with documenting its reality. While not equal to the burden of the young men in battle, the weight of being the one behind the lens, bearing witness to atrocity after atrocity, comes with its own spiritual price.

As lovely as the cover is, it's also deceiving. It's clearly marketed to a female historical fiction audience, so I feared it would be a torrid love story set against a Vietnam that was as authentic as a 1940's sound stage, with maybe a water buffalo roaming through for a dash of "authenticity." While there is a realistic romantic element involved, the real love story is between the photographers and the war. Soli has done her research and the Vietnam in her novel is fully realized: its beauty, its filth, its people, its cities, and its jungles. Her war scenes are harrowing, brutal and realistic, and seeing them through the eyes of a female photojournalist is a uniquely satisfying point of view for a war novel. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

All the Evils of the World and One Little Girl

The Girl With All the Gifts
Written by M. R. Carey
Published by Orbit
4 Out of 5 Stars

When Joss Whedon says, "read this," I heed the call.

Only 10 years old, Melanie is brimming with curiosity about the world and unabashedly enthusiastic about school. Blessed with a genius intellect, a kind heart, and a love of mythology, it's easy to fall in love with the precocious protagonist of The Girl With All the Gifts. However, despite these gifts, the world is very afraid of Melanie--every morning, two armed guards arrive at her cell, strap her by the legs, arms, and neck to a wheelchair, and escort her to her classroom. This is fine with Melanie as it's the only world she's ever known and as long as her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau, is there, Melanie has everything she needs. It's not until the outside world comes crashing in and Melanie is saved by Miss Justineau that she learns how truly dangerous she is to others . . . and to herself.

I'm working hard here to avoid spoilers as most of the enjoyment of The Girl With All the Gifts comes from the fact that M.R. Carey plays his cards close to the vest during the first fourth of the novel. It's also obvious that the publishing company went to great lengths to keep the secret with that awful cover and perplexing title. To be honest, had I known what the book was about I would have never bought it because this genre isn't my bag, baby. I go out of my way to avoid it and it's hard for me to express how much I detest this genre, both in literary and movie form. Still, despite my strong bias against it, I enjoyed The Girl With All the Gifts immensely.

Part of the reason as to why I was able to lose myself in a book I'm hardwired to hate is that, despite there being some of the obvious genre tropes, there are plenty of inventive twists. Carey has developed a believable world, complete with a devastating history and scientific origin for the tragic events that unfold (I really appreciate that there is a "why" offered instead of going with a "who-cares-how-it-just-did-so-let's-move-on-to-the-awesome-stuff" explanation). 

The other reason I enjoyed it is because of the strong characterization of Melanie and her ability to constantly adapt as the world she knew crumbles around her. The novel's title is a reference to Melanie's favorite myth, that of Pandora, whose name means "all gifts." Melanie is a mystery to herself and, as she begins to open the box of who she is, she finds both the capacity for terrifying evil, but also for strength and resilience. The other main characters (Helen Justineau, Sergeant Eddie Parks, Dr. Caroline Caldwell, and Private Kieran Gallagher) are given depth by the same moral duality and by pasts that haunt them as they move into an uncertain future.

The quick narrative pacing and the inventive spin on a tired genre make The Girl With All the Gifts well worth a read.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Should Have Been Titled "The Grift"

The Griff
Written by Christopher Moore and Ian Corson
Illustrated by Jennyson Rosero
Published by HarperCollins Publishers
1 Out of 5 Stars

Hey, Michael Bay, I found your next movie concept! And you can't screw this one up because it comes pre-fucked. Inexplicable, ridiculous threat to humanity? Check. Shallow characters? Check. Nonsensical plot with holes big enough to drive Optimus Prime through? Check. Cliche action dialogue? Check. Females who offer little more than T & A? Check and check. 

Now, where do I go to pick up my finder's fee?

I love Christopher Moore's novels. His zany sense of humor, hilarious dialogue, and obvious compassion for his fellow man is a combination that I find irresistible. But, hole-e fucksocks, The Griff is no Christopher Moore novel and, to be fair, that's established up front in Moore's preface (which also happens to be the best part of the book). Essentially, Moore came up with this idea that he thought would work well as a movie, he and a buddy (Ian Corson) wrote the script as a way of avoiding real work, and then tossed it in a drawer because they knew it would never be picked up as a film. Then the comics came calling and Moore remembered The Griff screenplay and brought it back into the light as a graphic novel.

And he should have left it in the dark. While I have no doubt that Moore and Corson had a hoot writing it, it's a hot mess. There's no sense of time (entire weeks pass with no clear signal to the reader, making it seem as though everything happens in the course of a day); the artwork is pretty, but inconsistent and the panels are often confusing (one gets the sense that there were lots of blanks in the plot that they decided to quickly "flesh out" with artwork that has no real sense of narrative direction); and it follows the standard summer action flick formula so faithfully that it offers nothing new. It reads like a screenplay with pictures and has a rushed "Wham, Bam, No-Thank You, M'am" feel to it." 

A plot this ridiculous (giant alien dragons show up out of nowhere and wipe out most of mankind) could have been fun if it had been more of a spoof or featured more of Moore's signature humor. There are a few bits of dialogue that are pure Moore and, while hilarious, still not worth the price of admission.

My advice? Read Moore's FoolA Dirty Job, or Fluke and give The Griff a pass. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Raises the Ante

Cold Shot to the Heart (Crissa Stone #1)
by Wallace Stroby
Published by Minotaur Books
4 Out of 5 Stars

With the exception of Elmore Leonard, I'm generally not that interested in crime novels. I read Leonard for the sharply drawn characters and the wit, not the crime. So I picked up Cold Shot to the Heart with some trepidation, but the promise of a female protagonist intrigued me. It wasn't long before Wallace Stroby had me hooked and I found myself for the first time in a long time thinking, "Just one more chapter and then I'll stop." This went on for a few hours and I pretty much read the whole thing in one sitting.

Crissa Stone is a professional thief whose cool head and steady hand make her well-suited to the volatile situations that tend to present themselves when you're trying to forcibly take someone else's dough. After a disappointing haul from her last heist, Crissa is drawn into a scheme to rob an illegal big stakes poker tournament. Of course, easy money is seldom easy and when things go wrong Crissa finds herself matching wits with Eddie "The Saint" Santiago, a recently released convict with homicidal tendencies who is hellbent on getting Crissa's score at any cost.

Stroby's fast pacing and dialogue driven narrative are reminiscent of Leonard, though his characters don't follow Leonard's smart-ass-with-a-glib-tongue template. In that sense, Stroby's characters seem more realistic, but they're not quite as entertaining. Crissa Stone, however, makes an intriguing protagonist. Crissa doesn't just steal for the thrill of it, nor does she do it just for herself. Her primary motivation is that she's got bills to pay in the form of care for a daughter who doesn't even know her and bribes to spring her significant other, Wayne, from a Texas prison. She seems a woman trapped by circumstance--crime is all she knows and the only way she can make the big money necessary to protect those she loves. Separated from her daughter and her lover, she leads a solitary, painfully lonesome existence when not on the job. Being a female also gets her into some hot water. She's not as comfortable with violence as some of her male counterparts and it's her nature to avoid conflict that ends up creating some of her most dangerous enemies. But make no mistake--she's not a tragic, weak character and these same qualities also allow Crissa to kick ass when the situation calls for it. 

Overall, Cold Shot to the Heart is a fast, entertaining read and I'll definitely seek out the other books in the series.

Fun, But the Edge Needs Sharpened

The Sword-Edged Blonde (Eddie LaCrosse #1)
by Alex Bledsoe
Published by Tor Fantasy
3 Out of 5 Stars

In the medieval kingdom of Arentia, Queen Rhiannon has been charged with a particularly horrific case of infanticide. King Philip desperately believes in his wife's innocence, despite all evidence to the contrary. His only hope? Eddie LaCrosse, the tough as nails sword-for-hire investigator and the king's childhood friend. Having spent years trying to outrun his past, LaCrosse begrudgingly returns home and is forced to confront his demons while trying to unravel the mystery of whether or not the beautiful blonde bombshell actually killed her own son.

The Sword-Edged Blonde is the snappy title for this noir/fantasy mash-up that's light on the noir, easy on the fantasy, and not as snappy as I wanted it to be. This is a bit of fun and forgettable reading, perfect for vacation but little else. While I enjoyed the book as a light, quick read, I could have loved it if it weren't for a few peeves:

--First off, that cover. Ye gods, that cover. Even by the artistically lacking and inept standards of mass market paperback sci fi/fantasy covers, that is one fugly cover. And wtf it has to do with the novel, I have no idea. It appears as though a giant troll king will manifest somewhere in the novel, and it's difficult to tell if he will be friend or foe based upon the back-to-back stance with the protagonist. Is he being sneaky-sneaky, trying to catch our hero off-guard, or has he simply got his back, bro? You know what--doesn't matter because this character and this scene never appears in the novel, at least not in any recognizable form.

--Ditto with the title. Sure, there's a blonde, but nothing about her is particularly "sword-edged." She's basically clueless and pouty. The reality is that she's more of a butter-knife-edged blonde. Or maybe a spork blonde, kind of confused and essentially useless.

--The protagonist, Eddie LaCrosse, is a bland character. He's not hard-boiled enough. I expected a world-weary, wise-cracking antihero (maybe a character like Ash from Army of Darkness). But LaCrosse is basically just a good guy who wanders around while clues smack him in the face. The only real nod to noir is that he has a suitably tragic past, but it doesn't seem to have shaped his character in any significant way. He occasionally ruminates on his past woes, but then snaps back to the present and soldiers on.

--Ineffective use of the locked room mystery presented as the crux for the case. I won't say much regarding this since I don't want to ruin anything, but a locked room can have so much potential for an unexpected twist that The Sword-Edged Blonde never capitalizes on.

While I didn't particularly like the objectified female characters, such is the territory with a noir-esque novel and there's nothing here that suggests Alex Bledsoe harbors misogynistic tendencies; instead, he's just tipping his hat to one of the defining characteristics of the genre. Still, it bothered me a bit that so many other noir tropes were dodged, but this was the one that was adhered to. 

Essentially, this book is like a cheap and ugly hooker. Pay your $10, try not to look at it too hard, and you might have a relatively good time. 

(That's right, I went there even after my little speech about objectifying women--hypocrisy, thy name is Amanda.)