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My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland

My Life as a White Trash Zombie[/caption]Angel Crawford is not what you would consider a sympathetic hero. She’s a drug addict who dropped out of high school to enter the real world but can’t even hold down a simple retail job long enough to move out of her alcoholic father’s house. Her boyfriend is involved with a whole lot of criminals, including the guy who sells Angel a stolen car that sends her away on federal charges. As if life wasn’t bad enough, she’s turned into a zombie after a bad car wreck.

My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana Rowland is another urban fantasy book that changes the rules of what it means to be a zombie. So long as the living dead feed on brains every couple days, they pass as living humans with all their faculties in tact. The difference from other modern romance/horror/urban fantasy books is that Rowland’s mythology is well-developed and works for the story she’s telling.

Angel is forced to work in a morgue by a mysterious benefactor after landing in the emergency room. This benefactor gives her an introductory supply of a smoothie drink and tells her she’ll be sent straight to jail if she doesn’t hold onto her new job for at least 30 days. The unexpected benefit is Angel discovering she can be a productive member of society. People think she’s smart and funny and don’t dismiss her as nothing but white trash if she actually tries to do something positive for once in her life.

mylifeasawhitetrashzombie My Life as a White Trash Zombie by Diana RowlandRowland’s strength is creating a believable universe. Despite the new twist on zombie lore, My Life as a White Trash Zombie feels pretty grounded and realistic for an urban fantasy title. There’s a lot of good research into actually crime scene and morgue procedures. The various characters–cops, doctors, funeral shop employees, and junkies–feel real.

Angel herself quickly turns into a strong leading character. She reflects everything through a pop culture lens, letting her initial judgment of personality types and scenarios by way of crime scene shows determine how she reacts in a situation. They’re just quick gestures to establish characters before using them in meaningful ways. It creates a nice sense of style and reality without becoming too serious. This is a zombie story, after all.

The biggest issues with the book are passive voice and excessive action. There are entire paragraphs built on the “While doing something completely irrelevant, Angel does something that actually matters to the story” framework. Do you really need to let the audience know a 105 pound woman is breathing heavily the first time she lifts a dead body? I initially thought the passive voice element was an artistic choice to weaken Angel at first, but it continued throughout most of the novel. These moments distract from the rich universe and serviceable mystery being told.

Style issue aside, My Life as a White Trash Zombie is a solid start to an urban fantasy series. Romance takes a backseat to actually telling a story and it makes all the difference.

This review was written for Cannonball Read IV. Come support good book reviews for charity.

Ring by Koji Suzuki: Lost in Translation

The challenge of translating a novel from another language is balancing the style and tone with the literal text. Lean too far towards literary flourish and you’re radically altering the content of the book. Stay too true to the literal text and you lose the nuance of wordplay in the original language that probably can’t carry over directly.

The English translation of Ring by Koji Suzuki poses an even greater challenge. The novel centers on a newspaper reporter and a philosophy professor who use the scientific method and many hours of research to solve the riddle of a potentially deadly video tape. Is the blunt prose the intended effect of Suzuki to best represent the non-fiction world of the two main characters? Or is it an unintended side effect of translating a medical sci-fi novel so couched in Japanese culture?

ringkojisuzuki Ring by Koji Suzuki: Lost in TranslationRing, the inspiration for the popular Japanese horror series and blockbuster US remake, is a quiet investigative thriller. Kazuyuki Asakawa, the newspaper journalist trying to find out how four teenagers all died at the same time from heart failure, is not a particularly engaging protagonist. He is a calm and understated man more than willing to take no for an answer. He would rather hold his cards close to his chest than risk being told no before he sees a story through to the end.

Ryuji Takayama, the philosophy professor who gets caught up in Asakawa’s nightmare, is a loathsome protagonist. He brags about all the girls he has raped and is more concerned with drinking and his young female students than getting any work done. When he focuses, he’s smarter and more intuitive than Asakawa. He just chooses not to focus as hard as he should.

Asakawa travels to a remote resort to spend a night in a cabin rented by the four deceased teenagers. He finds a note in the guestbook that mentions a strange unmarked tape and chooses to watch it himself for clues into the death. The man has convinced himself that the four young people died from an undiscovered virus and anything in the cabin could lead him to the cause. The end of the tape tells him he will die in seven days if he does not carry out a charm to save himself. However, the charm instructions were erased from the tape by the teenagers after they watched it.

The Ring series is now defined by the iconic image of the stringy-haired ghost Sadako (or, in the US version, Samara). Koji Suzuki presents a far more disturbing alternative. Sadako is not some monstrous child built of pure evil and chaos. She is a staggeringly beautiful young woman who faced overwhelming adversity throughout her life. Once you take out the evil element of the tape’s curse, you enter a bizarre world where the plight of two men fighting for their lives is less tragic than the tale of the woman responsible for their ordeal.

Suzuki’s Ring novels are willing to explore a very dark world. Your level of interest will come down to how well you respond to the translation. The prose is very dry and matter of fact. The tone doesn’t change when the focus shifts between Asakawa and Ryuji and the description of the tape reads the same as a discussion over when to break for lunch at the library. Ring is a fascinating story that doesn’t pop on the page like it could.

This review was written as part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read series. Go read some great book reviews for charity.

A Bright Room Called Day, or, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Zillah?

I recently had the pleasure of chaperoning a group of advanced high school theater students to a production of Tony Kushner’s little seen play A Bright Room Called Day. I’ve known for years about the problematic text (and even saw a production or two before), yet had neither a reason or desire to read it. This one black box production opened up the play in such a revolutionary way that I had to get my hands on a copy and actually read it.

A Bright Room Called Day is an experimental play, creating parallels between Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany and the Reagan administration’s treatment of the AIDS crisis in America. During President Reagan’s second term, a Jewish woman named Zillah moves to Germany so she can safely protest the administration. In 1930s Germany, a group of artists and communists fight against the rise of the Fascist party led by Adolf Hitler. By chance, Zillah has moved into the same apartment once owned by Agnes Eggling, a silent film actress who reluctantly joins the communist movement in Germany.

abrightroomcalledday A Bright Room Called Day, or, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Zillah?This play is not a light read. Kushner takes his inspiration from a Bertolt Brecht play called The Private Life of the Master Race. Instead of subverting the story to bring in the modern social issues, Kushner apes the form of Brecht to tell an original period story. Every brief scene–there are dozens only a page or two long–is book-ended by a suggestive title spoken in German (and translated to English on a projection screen) and a blackout.

Kushner’s text encourages the use of music to break up the story and further the alienation effect. Obviously, you cannot judge the songs and suggested placement by the text alone, but the lyrics are deeply metaphorical and intentionally inflammatory. Once you realize what Zillah or the communists are singing about, you’re going to become very uncomfortable.

This is a play that, in one Zillah Interruption–her presence is treated as an intrusion on the main period story, even though she is the character that opens and closes the play, mathematically proves Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan are both the devil. The devil himself is summoned at the end of Act I to announce the coming chaos of the World War II. A ghostly figure–representative of old Germany, inescapable patterns of human behavior, or perhaps even Agnes’ future–breaks into the apartment every night to cackle about World War I and the starving citizens on the streets after the sanctions.

The problem with A Bright Room Called Day is that it’s filled with ideas. Reading the text outside of this production I saw, I found it as troubled as I had been told for years. The historical parallels are clear in the context of Kushner’s writing. There’s just too much going on to really drive the point home. Or perhaps driving the point home is the only focus at the expense of cohesion.

Zillah is the core flaw–a shame, since her scenes are very fascinating. She is literally shoved off into a corner of the set for the entire play. She is an unseeing witness to the rise of Hitler and her interruptions but, a few throwaway lines about dreams of a German woman wandering the apartment aside, they don’t really line up well with the text. Kushner includes a note about creating your own parallels to other periods in American history so long as you obtain his permission to replace his interruptions. This reveals that, for Kushner, Zillah is not a character or even an essential device. She is a political tool for the theater above the creation of accessible art.

It takes a strong director to beat Zillah into submission without losing the simultaneous insanity and insight her character brings. If you remove her, the play would just be an pointless exercise in Brechtian theatrical techniques. With her, it’s an exciting and flawed text that falls short of its many lofty goals.

This article was written as part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read 4. Check out more book reviews (for charity!) here.

How to Make Webcomics by Brad Guigar, Dave Kellett, Scott Kurtz, and Kris Straub Review (Book, 2011)

How to Make Webcomics is not a book you’re going to pick up as a casual read. It’s a well-planned guidebook to all the big technical topics that come into play when you want to launch a webcomic. Brad Guigar (Evil, Inc), Dave Kellett (Sheldon), Scott Kurtz (PvP), and Kris Straub (Starslip Crisis) break down everything you need to know about running a webcomic.

There’s a big area of webcomic creation that falls outside of the book: actually writing and drawing a webcomic. This is not an art guide book. There are some design suggestions–silhouette exercises to help identify character, creating a line-up showing the relative height and proportion of the characters–and a few writing tips, but this will not teach you to draw or write a strip. You’ll have to find that experience elsewhere.

howtomakewebcomics How to Make Webcomics by Brad Guigar, Dave Kellett, Scott Kurtz, and Kris Straub Review (Book, 2011)How to Make Webcomics focuses on putting your comic on the Internet. One chapter teaches you how to properly scan hand-drawn line art into your computer for upload or further manipulation. Another discusses all the possible factors you need to consider when naming and branding your website. The more business-driven the task, the more detail the creators put into the chapter.

This is a great first stop for learning about turning a webcomic into a business. The four writers are focused on marketing, monetization, and brand stability. They say right from the start that you need to learn about everything and try it all so that you can stretch your limits and minimize cost. The worst case scenario is hiring someone else to run part of your webcomic from the start because you can’t be bothered to learn for yourself.

The big drawback to How to Make Webcomics is the assumption that the reader doesn’t understand the subject at all. Every chapter starts with defining the most fundamental terms. Maybe I’m naive, but I highly doubt anyone who is interested in launching a webcomic as a possible business doesn’t know what a pixel is. Yet, the start of one of the chapters is a general overview of the topic and then a lengthy definition of pixel. Pixel is extrapolated to resolution, then file format, then manipulating digital images.

I understand the need to establish the fundamentals. It’s just really heavy-handed in the text. It’s almost like the writers decided that every subject, no matter how simple, needed to be handled like the reader had no idea what anything was. The problem with that approach is that a person who is going to pick up a book like How to Make Webcomics knows what a webcomic is. There’s a big difference between establishing an easy learning curve and pandering to an audience. This book panders at the start of every chapter.

When you get past the tone, How to Make Webcomics becomes a good resource for anyone interested in creating a webcomic. It would just be nice if they assumed a bit more knowledge on the part of the reader.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read IV. Find out all about it here.

Book Review: Idiot’s Delight by Robert E. Sherwood

The year is 1936. The location is a remote ski lodge in the Italian Alps, formerly the Austrian Alps. An entrepreneur is struggling to keep his hotel in business. Just when his manager tries to tell everyone to clock out early, a group of varied international tourists all show up at once. There’s a British honeymooning couple, an American burlesque troupe, a beautiful Russian femme fatale, a German doctor, a French anarchist, and a rotating band of Italian soldiers. As soon as everyone is settled in, the planes from the Italian military base are heard taking off toward France.

idiotsdelightplaybill Book Review: Idiots Delight by Robert E. Sherwood

Surely nothing could really go wrong in Idiot’s Delight. Right?

Robert E. Sherwood wrote the play Idiot’s Delight three years before the start of World War I. He was a cautious man convinced that something was going to happen on an unprecedented scale. All of the characters in his play represent the best and the worst of their country’s role in his imagined conflict, yet none believe that another war could ever happen like The Great War. Didn’t we all learn our lesson from that?

Sherwood’s masterful satire accurately predicts so much of what happened in WWII that you’ll get a chill down your spine. Switch Italy for Germany and France for Poland and he gets the order of involvement in the war perfectly. The minor elements he gets wrong are not so far from the truth. His text is so powerful that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1936 for Drama.

The technique of building the conflict of Idiot’s Delight is pure Modernism. Sherwood takes every opportunity to mock trends, imitate society, and comment on the nature of theater. The manager of the American dancers, Harry Van, constantly sits at the piano in the lounge and comments on the nature of manipulating an audience. My favorite moment in the script is how Sherwood describes the minor changes he makes to turn a Russian folk song into jazz, “Indian” music, and utter chaos.

This scene is the key to unlocking Idiot’s Delight. Anytime internationalism rises, sparks fly. If two people are holding a conversation in Italian, three people are talking in English at the same time. Characters like the Russian woman, Irene (ih-rain-uh, like Cat People), routinely flow through multiple languages and accents to ignite conflict. It’s bad enough that their countries all hate each other. It’s worse to mock their mother tongue with poor use of dialect. That’s just not proper behavior.

Like any good work of Modernism, there is a play within the play. The American girls and their singing/dancing manager put on an elaborate floor show for Germans, Italians, Austrians, French, and English alike as the planes return to the Italian military base. The show is interrupted by a quartet of troops who are greeted with a “fascist anthem” before the girls go right back into a soft shoe number. The world has changed while they focused on frivolous entertainment and civility is no longer a worthwhile commodity.

Their true biases come out. The accusations of war crimes and mistreatment flow like champagne at the bar. People are written off and lives are changed forever. Even the silly showgirls are told to change their act and step up their game as the key to success in the new world order is cooperation, not competition.

It’s rare for any play, let alone a work of Modernism, to read this well on the page. After a slow introduction–an intentional device of discomfort, Sherwood packs so much action and movement into the script that you have no choice but to engage. Seeing it performed will only add timing and music to a beautifully composed play.

Cross posted at Cannonball Read IV.

Book Review: JTHM Director’s Cut by Jhonen Vasquez

Of all the comic compendiums/graphic novels I own, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: Director’s Cut by Jhonen Vasquez is easily the one I’ve read the most. I still have the first copy I picked up at a mall Hot Topic in middle school and it’s been through a lot. It’s been attacked by stupid dogs (they were mine and bright is not an appropriate descriptor), thrown in the trash by over zealous Catholic relatives, and defaced by a terrible roommate my first year in college. If none of that could stop me from reading it, what could?

johnnydirectorscut Book Review: JTHM Directors Cut by Jhonen Vasquez

JTHM Director's Cut is a killer collection. Literally. It's in the title.

The answer seems to be nothing. Vasquez’s ultra-violent dark comedy comic series ran all of seven issues before ending with a literal hiatus for the series. Side stories came out–I Feel Sick followed Johnny’s ex-girlfriend and Squee followed Johnny’s traumatized little neighbor–but the original series has not expanded (beyond awful fan fiction, which obviously doesn’t count).

The concept is encapsulated in the title. A man named Johnny is a homicidal maniac. He kills people in horrible ways using an expansive subterranean torture chamber and some on the street ingenuity. Are you supposed to root for the killer? Nope. The victims? Guess again. The survivors? Only one, and she gets her own issue to deconstruct everything that should stop you from reading the series at all.

The key to Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is realizing that it’s an exploration of character, society, pop culture, and storytelling. Johnny is an anti-hero up to the point when he crushes someone’s skull. Then he’s just comic relief in dry satire of the over-saturation of violence in American media. Except for when that violence is against a particularly vile archetype that slips by in America. Then he’s the symbol of justice, like Batman with razor blades and surgical hooks.

If you don’t recognize how disturbing the content of the book is, you’re part of the thesis. How often are we willing to look the other way just because? Do we ignore heinous behavior from well-admired people because they’re well-admired? What about people with serious mental health problems? Do we just brush them into the basement to do who knows what as self-therapy? And can anyone actually make a meaningful impact on the world by himself? Or is a singular quest for justice, peace, revolution, or better treatment at the checkout line a lost cause from the start?

johnnytrappost Book Review: JTHM Directors Cut by Jhonen Vasquez

JTHM is violent dark comedy based on self-reflection and social commentary

Jhonen Vasquez works alone on JTHM, creating a singular noir vision of violence and mayhem in society that refuses to take itself seriously. The panels are filled with hidden messages and notes from Jhonen about the quality of his art, the stupidity of the characters, and handy reminders of when something connected to the overall arc of the series happens. Some of the stuff he does is so wrong that it’s just right in context. I struggle to think of a time where it’s appropriate to say “Wow, this sucks REAL bad” about your own work as a way to keep people reading. This happens in every issue of the collection.

The downside to Director’s Cut is a matter of space. The original run of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac had multiple side comics contained within. “Happy Noodle Boy” is the schizophrenic stick figure comic that Johnny himself writes in the main story. “Public Service Announcement” mocked the absurdity of the slippery slope anti-everything campaigns of the 80s and 90s and the Anne Gwish side-stories skewered the target audience of the comics. These are all represented in the collection. However, the riotously funny, Twilight Zone-esque “Meanwhile” comics were left on the cutting room floor. Now where will you get to see pinatas take revenge on a four year old after a birthday party?

The book is filled with a ton of bonus content at the end, including character bios, the history of Johnny, and Jhonen’s commentary on each issue. This is the part of my copy that is the closest to recycled material. Ink is missing and the pages fan back to the spine. While Jhonen Vasquez has a clear voice in the comics, his persona connected to his creation of the comics is hilarious. This is a man who knows exactly what he’s doing when he puts pen to paper and starts coloring shadows.

It takes a certain kind of person to get a kick out of JTHM. This collection is filled with disturbing violence, angst-ridden stream of consciousness narration, and really offensive humor. If you come in with the right perspective and know what you’re getting into, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: Director’s Cut can be a fun read.

Cross-posted at Cannonball Read IV.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Book Review: Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey

How do you evaluate a book that fails to meet its structural conceit? This is a problem for anyone reviewing Ceridwen Dovey’s Blood Kin. Dovey wrote a book from three perspectives–the chef, the barber, and the portraitist of a dictator–about the intersection between the fall and rise of dictators in an unnamed foreign country.

bloodkinbyceridwendovey Book Review: Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey

What has happened to the throne in Blood Kin?

The problem is one of perspective. Had Dovey written the book in the third person, it would work. Instead, she tasked herself with telling three concurrent first person narratives. There is nothing beyond plot details and character backgrounds to distinguish the voices. If you removed the tags that start the chapter, you wouldn’t know who was telling their story because they all sound exactly the same. The only real distinction is what they’re doing. The cook will mention food, the barber beauty, and the portraitist art in every chapter.

This is a shame. Blood Kin otherwise has an interesting story to tell. The three men were so isolated by the previous leader’s regime that they didn’t even know a revolution was brewing. They spend the rest of the novel finding out just what, exactly, their beloved employer did to result in a bloody coup. Their lives are forced together in uncomfortable ways as the new president boards them in the same room without access to their friends and families.

Worse still, Dovey has a beautiful voice. She has a great eye for detail and isn’t afraid to go for unpleasant details if they’re the easiest way to get the image across.

I have the rolling pin in my hand–it is time to creep up on the abalone and surprise them with a death blow She watches me walk the length of the kitchen toward the darkened pantry; I tiptoe the last few steps for dramatic effect and then crouch above them. Three I kill before they contract, but the last realizes what is coming and stiffens. I will have to throw it out.

If the only issue was the unvarying voice, Blood Kin would be a better book than it is. Unfortunately, the characters become obsessed not with the intriguing mystery of the shift in leadership but the fate of their lovers and wives. They use those relationships to learn more about the coup, true, but everything focuses on the romance. It becomes all consuming in the novel. It might be more realistic for the trapped men to worry about their loved ones, but it does not make for a particularly compelling book when a revolution is happening.

Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey had the potential to be a great novel. Unfortunately, the misguided structural conceit and the focus on romance over the main narrative drags it down.

Cross-posted at Cannonball Read IV

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Book Review: Corridor by Robin Parrish

Corridor is a twisted science fiction novel for a YA audience. Troy wakes up in a blinding white room with the voice of a girl, Victoria, in his head. Victoria tells him he has to run in order to survive. Before he can understand what she means, the ground he sits on collapses beneath him. Troy is trapped in a life or death battle with a sentient and ever-adapting labyrinth taking him through the harshest environments known to humankind.

corridorbyrobinparrish Book Review: Corridor by Robin Parrish

In Corridor by Robin Parrish, the rules of the game never stop moving or adapting.

Robin Parrish writes in a clear and authoritative third person limited perspective. He does not step away from Troy’s plight to explain what is happening. What you do learn is told entirely through the challenges and nothing more. The result is a novel that crosses over from too blunt to an accurate reflection of split-second decision making.

Are Troy and Victoria likable characters? No. We never learn enough about them beyond personal tragedy to gauge that. They’re more developed than foils, but not anywhere near as developed as your typical sci-fi survivor/last one archetype.

But are they empathetic? Goodness, yes. We believe Troy’s desperation and Victoria’s panic because Robin Parrish keeps them in the moment. If they have time to talk, it’s fleeting. Time is constantly ticking away and Troy will not live long enough to meet Victoria in the flesh if he does not keep running. The novel only works as well as it does because the two leads are believable. We can connect to their emotional states because the stakes are obvious.

Corridor does suffer from an overly episodic structure. The rules of the environment may shift within a task, but the look, style, and details do not change beyond the initial presence of danger. The only time the parameters of a really well planned alternate universe grow is when Troy moves into another room.

The rooms are defined by color on a very basic level. White is light, orange is fire, and green is plant life. Parrish could have delivered a more compelling world by playing against these expectations. Why does blue have to be water and ice? It could have been space, depression, fear (shivers, as if from cold), blood, or something unrelated to add more challenge to Troy’s tasks. The rooms themselves are menacing and imaginative, but the linear relation to common associations is perhaps a bit too plain.

Corridor is being marketed as Hunger Games-ish in content, which is sadly a poor reflection on Parrish’s intentions. He did not set out to write a great commentary on modern society or teach a lesson about the fleeting nature of fame or the harsh reality of war. His goal wasn’t even to create a strong and self-reliant protagonist. He wanted to make a twisted game come to life in the world of science fiction and he succeeded.

A better parallel would be Cube, where there is no guarantee that anyone will survive the ever-changing environment. There is an internal logic to the structure of the challenge. It’s just not the most direct logic. The guiding force is obvious in hindsight and acts as a strong denouement at the end.

Robin Parrish subtitles the novel A Mythworks Novel, implying some kind of series to come from Corridor. It’s hard to imagine where he would take it. Will it be a collection of related novels in the same universe? As close to a continuation of Corridor as possible given what happens in the novel? Or will it be some kind of exploration of the limits of YA science fiction? All of these seem possible given how Corridor works. If the books stay consistent in quality, it’ll be worth exploring future books.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Book Review: Danse Macabre by Stephen King

I have a very strong love/hate relationship with the writing of Stephen King. When he is on point, it’s hard to find his equal in contemporary horror and horror criticism. When he’s off, he epitomizes the worst of horror cliches that give the genre a bad name. I prefer my King in small digestible bites–articles, short stories, essays, and book forwards/afterwards.

scaledphpserver687filen Book Review: Danse Macabre by Stephen King

Prepare to be schooled by Stephen King

Before I even got past the newest introduction to his treatise on horror cinema Danse Macabre, I knew I was in for a bumpy read. King listed what he believes to be the three most important horror films in recent memory. He starts with The Blair Witch Project, a film I did not care for at all. Then he jumps to the Dawn of the Dead remake, a film I did not care for at all, but focuses on the strong opening sequence and stabs at Romero-esque political/social commentary. Then he writes about the controversial Last House on the Left remake, doing an updated take on the common feminist reading that is dismissed by so many because rape, that’s why. We started and ended this introduction on the same page.

The challenge with a book like Danse Macabre is teetering on the line between an objective/historical look at horror films and a subjective reading of which films are the most important. No one critic is ever going to line up 100% with your views on film. It’s impossible. The whole medium of film is so subjective that no two people will even see a film the exact same way. Now do that with thirty years of horror history and see how the fans respond to your work.

To Stephen King’s immense credit, he shows his work in Danse Macabre. He breaks down the source of his opinions in great detail. It’s not enough for him to make a bold statement that amounts to “Mary Shelley sucks; Bram Stoker rocks.” King actually takes the time to explain why he has that opinion. You might not agree with him (I sure didn’t), but you can at least respect his reasoning.

Danse Macabre is not a book you’ll be able to read straight through. King crams so much information (and so many little digs at films he doesn’t like) into the book that you need to pace yourself. It’s a dense text of sincere horror criticism that, remarkably, reads like a casual conversation about the genre.

The only real downside to Danse Macabre is how readily available this information is elsewhere. With IMDb, Wikipedia, and horror communities all over the web, the search for that perfect early slasher film is a few clicks away. There are also countless texts that focus exclusively on the content King squeezed into forty pages of prose. If you’re researching horror, Danse Macabre is the equivalent of a specialized encyclopedia entry, not a compendium of heavy research material. King’s information has not been updated since the second printing of the book. There are stories about films that don’t tell the whole story as we know it today. No one is expecting him to constantly update the text, but the availability of this information has far exceeded the scope of a single book.

If you have an interest in horror but haven’t spent much time examining the genre, Danse Macabre is a good standing point. The book also works as a memoir, of sorts, of King the horror fan. Aside from the personal anecdotes about encountering films throughout his life, his views on horror have so radically changed in the past thirty years that this book serves as a gateway to a King who no longer exists.

Let me put it another way. Did you ever think the man who said the made for TV The Shining is better than the Kubrick film ever had anything nice to say about the latter? He sings its praises over 400 pages in Danse Macabre. It’s the level of interesting inconsistencies that made me keep reading.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Book Review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

In the acknowledgments page of her YA novel Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins thanks her father for his efforts to find a way to teach children about the reality of war and peace. It is clear in the third book of The Hunger Games trilogy that Collins has found a way to continue her father’s work. The novel is dark, ambiguous, and shocking because war will never form together into a tidy little package.

unavail image Book Review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The Mockingjay is unleashed against the Capital

Katniss Everdeen has been transported to the underground and completely independent District 13. There, under the leadership of President Coin, the progeny of the sacrificed district live a highly regimented life. Everything is done on a strict schedule and deviation is grounds for swift and severe punishment. President Coin has been planning the rebellion against the Capital for years. All it took was the right symbol, Katniss, to come along and set the plan in motion. The rebellion will be the deciding factor in the fate of Panem, as everyone on both sides of the conflict is willing to sacrifice their lives for their cause.

Mockingjay is the darkest book of the trilogy. Gone is the safety net of only twenty-four participants in a battle to the death. Anyone and everyone can be blown to ash as an act of war. Katniss is no longer in a stable enough place to be considered a reliable narrator. Her fellow former victors are harvested by the Capital or the rebellion as key strategists in the war.

The elaborate death traps and mutations still exist. Collins does not celebrate them with great detail as she did in the first two books. Katniss is numb to the manipulation of the Capital in the same way that she can only feel the pain of the ever increasing death toll in her nightmares. The pods that explode to unleash unimaginable pain and destruction are more horrifying than ever before. Katniss is just incapable of responding to them unless customized for her own experience.

Much like the Mockingjay in The Hunger Games and self-sacrifice in Catching Fire, Mockingjay has a recurring but not overwhelming image that defines the tone of the novel. It is the smell of one of President Snow’s genetically altered roses. Katniss encounters a fresh bud in her Victory Village home and is haunted by Snow’s promise to destroy her for the rest of the book. It is not a steady presence of doom; it is a shock to the system as that rose smell is the one thing that forces Katniss to deal with the reality of her situation.

After the disappointment of Catching Fire, which was almost a self-indulgent exercise in exploring Katniss’ psyche, it’s quite remarkable to see that Collins was capable of exploring PTSD in a believable way. Not only do you believe that Katniss is suffering from the psychological ramifications of two trips to the Hunger Games, you believe that Katniss is still a teenage girl who is not very good at picking up on social cues.

The difference between the successful novels in the trilogy and the failure is the believability of the narrator. Katniss did not act like Katniss until the last few pages of Catching Fire, which made the whole novel feel like an exercise in needless manipulation. From the first page of Mockingjay, Katniss is back. Without her, The Hunger Games trilogy would just be an exercise in literary destruction. With her, they’re powerful, accessible, and thoughtful novels about government responsibility, fighting for what’s right, and the psychological and social ramifications of war. Conflict is inevitable. How you choose to respond to it is your choice.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Book Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

As much as it pains me to admit, sometimes, the common belief that a sequel can never be as good as the original is right. In the case of Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy, the belief holds true. The book starts out too slow and then routinely tilts its hand to too much foreshadowing when the story becomes worthwhile.

Katniss Everdeen is readusting to life back in District 12 after her victory in the Hunger Games. She has no need to hunt anymore, yet she still crawls under the fence to catch wild game with her bow and arrow. She brings food to all the suffering people in the district and shops everywhere with her enormous winnings to help her people.

The Capital begins to crack down on the town after the victory tour to all the districts fails to soothe a growing rebellion caused by Katniss’ actions in the Hunger Games arena. As punishment, District 12 is stormed by Peacekeepers and the 75th Hunger Games are used as an excuse to kill off 23 former victors: one male and one female from each district. Katniss automatically has to enter because she is the only female victor in the history of District 12.

catchingfirebookcover Book Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

The problem with Catching Fire is that Suzanne Collins gets too trapped in Katniss’ psyche with a lazy device. Katniss admits that she’s not strong on picking up social cues, so things that are quite obvious to the reader the first time they’re mentioned are labored over again and again. The moments where Katniss has horrific nightmares and flashes of what might be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are quite strong and moving. However, those are all secondary to a teenage girl who previously only picked up on details to survive turning into a young woman who labors over ever scene of every event like the deluxe edition of an encyclopedia set.

Unlike The Hunger Games, Catching Fire is clearly targetted at the YA market. Collins doesn’t trust her target audience to pick up on delicate foreshadowing this time. She rams recurring images into the story again and again for pages upon pages until Katniss realizes what is happening. It’s the prose equivalent of an episode of Blues Clues. Everything is spoonfed to the reader tiny bite by tiny bite until you know what’s happening. Then you keep getting it piecemeal until Collins is convinced everyone will understand it.

It’s a terrible disconnect with the content of the piece. If the YA audience is mature enough to grasp the reality of the rebellion and the horror the 24 prior champions have suffered through only to be forced back into the arena, then they are mature enough to not need the under-4 educational TV angle.

Worse still, Catching Fire becomes quite graphic in its depition of violence, death, and destruction. Whippings, chemical burns, eviscerations, and electrocutions are all provided in gory imagery. How do you solve the disconnect between overly simplistic/leading prose and mature subject matter?

The structure and piecemeal writing style in Catching Fire are a shame. Once you get past the first of three sections, the story comes alive. It moves quick and jumps forward in time over and over to get the 24 former victors together. The arena they are to battle in is more menacing than I could have imagined and the secret of surviving cruelly ripped away time and again.

There are moments in Catching Fire that put The Hunger Games to shame. Unfortunately, it feels like Collins’ editor or publisher suddenly didn’t trust a YA audience to understand the style and structure of the first book. The whole thing reaks of manipulation to dumb down the book and it becomes a disappointment. Katniss’ story is so much better when Katniss stays in character, which only happens for about a quarter of the novel. What started out so strong in book one starts teetering dangerously close to the worst trappings of mass market YA paperbacks.

There’s enough in Catching Fire to keep a big fan of The Hunger Games happy. There’s just not enough there for the sequel to survive on its own merits.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is the first novel in a YA trilogy about a country that rises out of the ashes of America. Panem is divided into twelve districts and a capitol city. As punishment for an early uprising in the nation’s history, the capitol runs a barbaric game every year where two children–ages 12 to 18–from each district will be trained to fight to the death in a televised competition. Katniss, a 16 year old from District 12, volunteers for the games in place of her 12 year old sister Prim.

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Katinss' Mockingjay Pin in The Hunger Games

Told in first person from the perspective of Katniss, The Hunger Games works as a thrilling look into teenage psyche. We never leave Katniss’ mind and go through the entire ordeal in choppy detail. It’s surprising how well Collins captures this particular character and makes her such a self-realized independent young woman. To see a character this strong as the lead in a YA novel is encouraging considering the weak lovesick puddles of nothing that can masquerade as iconic characters in the field.

Katniss is not a friendly person by nature. She hates the Capitol for the yearly Hunger Games and its oppressive rule of the people. For her family’s safety, she’s learned to keep her mouth shut and not show any emotion. She is a highly trained hunter who sells her kills on the black market to keep her family alive. Katniss has an eye and an ear for minute details but does not dwell on them. She grabs enough information to stay alive in District 12 and that’s enough.

I’ve actually avoided reading The Hunger Games because of the conceit of the novel. One of my favorite modern novels is Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, another post-modern society thriller about young people forced into a deadly game. Takami provides so much detail in his prose–every character has a beautifully composed moment to shine before their deaths–that I feared Suzanne Collins was riffing on a theme she had no chance of pulling off. I was foolish to avoid the book this long.

Collins’ novel is broken into three sections of equal length. You’ve already developed a strong bond with Katniss and her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta before the games even begin. From there, you are so invested in their safety that missing out on most of the other characters is no great loss. You learn what you need to learn to get by and focus in on the underdogs from District 12. The few times Collins dares to step away from this laser-focus are welcome diversions into humanity, not misguided attempts to pad the novel to reach some magical length.

The biggest strength of The Hunger Games is Collins’ succinct descriptions of a very imaginative environment. The Capital is filled with bizarre looking people painted every color you can imagine, though their artificiality is made clear when Effie Trinkett–a civil servant of sorts who becomes responsible for the care and well-being of the District 12 tributes–is knocked off-balance during the tribute ceremony.

Then [the mayor] reads the list of past District 12 victors. In seventy-four years, we have had exactly two. Only one is still alive. Haymitch Abernathy, a paunchy, middle-aged man, who at this moment appears hollering something unintelligible, staggers onto the stage, and falls into the third chair. He’s drunk. Very. The crowd responds with its token applause, but he’s confused and tries to give Effie Trinket a big hug, which she barely manages to fend off.

The mayor looks distressed. Since all of this is being televised, right now District 12 is the laughingstock of Panem, and he knows it. He quickly tries to pull the attention back to the reaping by introducing Effie Trinket.

Bright and bubbly as ever, Effie Trinket trots to the podium and gives her signature, “Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!” Her pink hair must be a wig because her curls have shifted slightly off-center since her encounter with Haymitch.

What starts out as a tendency towards too much exposition quickly becomes the actual voice of Katniss. She picks up on the general idea of events and only details important identifying information. Haymitch–her trainer for the Hunger Games–is a chronic drunk and Effie is obsessed with appearances. The rest passes by as “this happened then this then this” because Katniss has already moved on in her mind.

Collins creates a believable sci-fi world of new technology and strange new creatures in The Hunger Games. The story works so well because the changes are not so radical that the reader cannot relate, but the world is just different enough to not horrify the reader. Some of the changes are wonderful; others are disturbing. I’m particularly fond of the mockingjay, a hybrid bird that can memorize and repeat long strains of music. Collins always weighs the narrative in favor of character development, using a few choice invented elements to give the novel its own unique rhythm.

Where Takami’s goal was to mock the ineffective methods of forcing children to stay in school in modern Japan, Collins’ goal is to create a story of survival. She’s not trying to push a specific satirical element. There are elements of encouraging the reader to think independently and not believe everything they’re told at face value, but they are presented in such a specific context in the story that they become part of a more universal message. You need to focus on your own well-being and do what you can to protect your best interests. Help others when you can but remember that you can’t help anyone else if you hurt yourself.

The Hunger Games does work as a standalone narrative and I cannot recommend reading it enough. This is not a case of an author leaving you with no resolution at the end of the story. If the second and third book were never written, you wouldn’t miss them. However, there is enough depth and interest in the first book to make me want to continue in the trilogy.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Book Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

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The trio of adventurers descend into the volcano in Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Journey to the Center of the Earth is a science fiction/fantasy novel from 19th Century author Jules Verne. Our protagonist is Axel, the nephew of the acclaimed Professor Liedenbrock, who unwillingly breaks a code detailing directions to the center of the Earth. The Professor immediately drags them on an expedition to a slumbering volcano in Iceland, where their guide, Hans, will lead them down into the vast series of caverns beneath the Earth’s surface.

Filled with technical jargon and a love for debating the merits of translation, Journey to the Center of the Earth holds up better as a novel of defying expectations than a traditional work of science fiction. It’s a given that the assertions of another world hidden within the core of our own are preposterous on face value. Verne even acknowledges this again and again throughout the novel. In spite of this impossibility, the book compels you to keep reading.

One thing I found absolutely fascinating is how easily this could have turned into one of the first non-Gothic horror novels. Take, for instance, the chapters where the trio of explorers wander for days without enough water down a dead-end path thousands of feet under the earth.

In fact, we had to ration ourselves. Our provision of water could not last more than three days. I found that out for certain when supper-time came. And, to our sorrow, we had little reason to expect to find a spring in these transition beds.

The whole of the next day the gallery opened before us its endless arcades. We moved on almost without a word. Hans’ silence seemed to be infecting us.

A handful of times, the characters are driven to the brink of utter madness by the Professor’s refusal to return to a safer area. From scalding hot water sources to monstrous creatures battling each other, Verne pushes the characters into literally and metaphorically darker territory. The further they descend into the Earth’s crust, the further they remove themselves from reason. It becomes impossible for them to just turn around and leave their expedition because they no longer know a goal beyond finding the center of the Earth.

With the exception of the super-tidy ending, I liked Journey to the Center of the Earth quite a bit. It has this great sense of life and energy. Verne’s prose, translated from French by Professor Von Hardwigg, is beautiful. Long passages of scientific discourse read like melodies and the repeated punctuation of measurements–temperature, angle of descent, depth, and direction–become the earmarks of the novel. It’s a lovely piece of science fiction that transformed to pure fantasy once science conclusively proved Verne wrong.

cross-posted at Cannonball Read IV

Thoughts? Love to hear them.