Tuesday, September 3, 2013

What I've Been Doing Lately...

Between trying to write and trying to keep myself fed, I've been really busy lately. In my spare time, I got into a lot of stuff I really wanted to review here, but didn't have the time too. So today, because I had a brief break, a bunch of mini-reviews:

Secrets of the Wolves: Sequel to Promise of the Wolves, which I reviewed on Lupines and Lunatics awhile back. Been meaning to get around to it for awhile. Now I have, and it's... eh, okay, I guess. It has the "middle of the trilogy" problem where the heroes are running around a lot and getting nothing done. Kaala is juggling three or four goals the entire book and all of them remain unresolved by the end. I liked the characters and the evocative world-building, but I don't think I'll bother with volume three. Not really invested in it.

Shift and Alpha: Yes, I finally got around to finishing Rachel Vincent's werecat series. But I didn't have much to say about it, so I didn't write a review. Honestly, the series kind of ran out of steam in these last two volumes. Alpha, in particular, is padded up and dragged out, making it especially annoying when it fizzles after the final battle, with about ten pages of wrapup. More annoyingly, much of that padding involves milking the Marc/Faythe/Jace love triangle for everything it's worth, which is not only annoying on the surface, but badly undermines the series' feminist underpinnings. Still a strong series overall, but it's too bad that Vincent couldn't keep it together the whole way through.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian: Picked up this collection of Conan the Barbarian stories to study for a writing project. I was really surprised when the first story, The Phoenix on the Sword, reminded me of Shakespeare. More violence and gore than the bard, yes, but the characters and their dialogue feel like they jumped right out of one of the history plays. Somewhat unfortunately, this turns out to be Early Installment Weirdness, and the subsequent stories trade verbal eloquence and kingly dramas for pulpy adventure yarns. Which is not to say the stories are bad. To the contrary, it's easy to see why Howard is still being ripped off decades later. Evocative writing and Conan's charismatic mix of boasting bombast and "fuck off" cynicism allow Howard to transcend the formulaic storylines. They cannot, however, transcend Howard's less-than-progressive attitudes towards women and people of color. Still enjoyable, but I cringed inwardly at several points.

The Lone Ranger: I didn't dislike this anywhere near as much as some people did. In fact, I thought it deserved more credit than it got. A lot of the critics overlooked the frame story. They shouldn't, and not just because Johnny Depp is reminding us that he can still act instead of just mugging for the camera. It's because it provides context for the entire film. Here is the minority sidekick, left on the sidelines of history, reduced to literally working for peanuts in a circus sideshow. Now, he has his chance to tell the story his way, and to hear him tell it the story is a lot different than what you may have heard; he, the alleged sidekick, is a larger-than-life character and the white hero is a dull, boring cipher. It's over-the-top, yes, but so was the original Lone Ranger, what with his squeaky-clean image and impractical silver bullets. So who's to say there isn't as much truth in this as the story we'd heard before? This isn't really a film about cowboys and indians and outlaws and crazy-awesome train chases. If the old west is america's time of legends, than what this film is really about is mythmaking, and myth-remaking, and our changing perspective on the american experience. It does has problems; most notably, the middle of the film is overlong and overstuffed. But I think it's a much deeper movie than everyone has said.

Pacific Rim: On the other hand, this one everyone seemed to like and I just didn't get. People were all like, "Holy shit, america actually made a good kaiju movie/mecha anime!" And I was like "Well, yeah... but it's kinda dull." It made for a decent time in the theater, but the plot was cliche and predictable, coasting on the strength of it's cast and effects. Which were enough, but the next day I couldn't remember a single thing that happened.

Elysium: Like Pacific Rim, I liked this in the theater, but the luster wore off quick. People have said casting Matt Damon as the hero to a bunch of oppressed people of color makes the film racist. While that certainly doesn't help matters, the real problem with Elysium is that it can't decide whether it's about A) classism and economic injustice, B) healthcare, or C) immigration. The correct answer is B, because that's the only way the plot makes sense from an "under the hood" standpoint. As a class parable, it fails because the resolution does nothing to alleviate the poverty in the world. As an immigration story, it's a very black-and-white treatment of a complex issue of international relations, and the metaphor becomes riddled with holes. Not understanding this, the film waffles around a while before settling on C and imploding. Another criticism I'm hearing is that it's overstuffed. It is, but I think that it still could have worked if they had picked one thing for the film to be about and stuck with it. I kept mentally comparing it to 2011's vastly underrated In Time. That film also covered a lot of ground, but did so successfully because they chose one theme and rode it all the way through. But Elysium has the screenplay equivalent of ADD, resulting in a disorganized film that's not only heavy-handed with it's message, but isn't sure what that message is. And who the HELL thought it was a good idea to cast the consistently-awesome William Fichtner in a role where he has nothing to do?!

Teen Wolf: I keep waiting for the moment when this series finds its voice and ascends to awesomeness, but after three seasons, it still hasn't happened. Not that it's a bad series. It's held back a lot by weak writing, with bland dialog in abundance. But a talented cast and solid production and effects shores it up. Actually, any given episode of Teen Wolf is a well put-together hour of television. But every episode is also predictable; with maybe one or two exceptions per season, the things that happen are exactly what you'd expect to happen. And the show shies away from killing important characters- bit players and tertiary characters die by the dozen, but anyone who's popular with the fans or close to one of the main cast is pretty much immortal. We rag on Joss Whedon for killing off people we've come to love, but that element of danger- the feeling that nobody's safe- is the very thing that keeps us invested in his characters. But Teen Wolf is gun-shy, and after three seasons of it there's no tension in the plot. And it doesn't help that this season's overarching story was virtually identical to the last one, with screentime stretched thin among a bloated cast. I continue to watch and hope for that Grow The Beard moment, but I have an awful feeling that if it hasn't hit by now, it ain't coming.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Kitty in the Underworld

How about that? The first time I've gotten an offer of a review copy for a major release, and not only have I more or less given up on my blog, but I already bought the book for myself. The irony, it burns...

I've been a fan of the Kitty Norville series since I started Lupines and Lunatics back in 2010, and these past three years I've seen it be good, bad, and indifferent. The last book hit "good", and this one continues the momentum, although it's also a different kind of book. The appeal of Kitty Rocks the House was in the way it spotlighted the many characters in Vaughn's universe. By contrast, Kitty spends most of her latest outing either alone or interacting with a small group of newcomers.

Said newcomers, are, essentially, a crazy evil cult. A vampire with a trio of underlings who tranq Kitty, lock her up in an abandoned mine, and attempt to convert her to their cause. Much of the early book is Kitty being tortured with hunger, confinement, and isolation, along the way plunging into the occasional soul-searching monologue. Once she cracks and lets her wolf out, her captors let her in on the purpose of all this: They need Kitty for a magical ritual that will, they hope, destroy archvillain Roman. So, still a crazy cult, but not really evil. I guess?

The main issue here is that, once it comes out that Roman is their common enemy, the antagonists suddenly stop looking like bad people. Instead, they're flawed but basically decent individuals pursuing a noble cause. It's a strange twist to drop on the reader, and moreso the fact that, after half a book of making these people out to be loonies, Kitty suddenly decides to join forces of her own free will.

It's to Vaughn's credit that this doesn't come off as stockholm syndrome or anything of the sort. Or maybe it isn't, because frankly, stockholm syndrome would have made more sense. Instead we get the idea that Kitty is entering into an alliance of convenience. That's certainly a good move from a practical standpoint, but it's the same issue I had in Rocks the House where Kitty talks Becky down from the planned pack-coup and Becky never even brings up Kitty using her as bait back in Kitty Goes to War. Real people are not this reasonable. Is Kitty so detached emotionally that she can just shrug off the events of the previous two days and throw in with her captors? She certainly wasn't back in book 2, where she got a similar treatment over a much shorter period of time and likened it to being raped.

But keep in mind that all this comes after having a few days to reflect on the book. In the moment of the story, there's enough good in play that even major missteps don't kill it entirely. This a very introspective book, with Kitty considering her place in the world and just what it might require to defeat Roman. At the same time, though, Vaughn doesn't overdo it and descend into navel-gazing, but keeps the focus always on the driving conflicts and driving questions of the story. Along the way we get backstory on Roman and set up for future conflicts. I'm still not sure that the Long Game storyline is playing to Vaughn's strengths as a writer, but things have gotten a lot more interesting now, and with the various forces starting to move openly, maybe there's life to be breathed into this plot yet.

One thing that struck me as particularly interesting, and it's so subtle I can't be sure whether or not Vaughn intended it. Kitty's relationship with her wolf half has changed due to the events of this book. Before, it was a very one-way thing; Wolf-Kitty was a oppressive presence that whispered things in Kitty's ear and took control of her once per month. Kitty mostly tried to ignore her influence. But by the end of this book, the relationship has become two-way; now Human-Kitty exerts the same influence over herself when in beast mode, and at one point they have something akin to an argument. The implications for Kitty personally and her universe are fascinating, and I hope those get explored further going forward.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Blood and Chocolate

(I finished this book more than a week ago, but drama kept me away from the blog. Sorry. Hopefully regular posting will pick up from here.)

Twilight may have busted the YA Paranormal genre open, but Blood and Chocolate was out eight years before. It's an artifact of an earlier time, when Anne Rice and White Wolf roleplayers still ruled the night. More cynically, you could say it was from a time when authors and publishers still cared about quality, when the emphasis was on polishing stories rather than releasing tons of them fast, like the metaphorical spaghetti thrown at the wall. So Blood and Chocolate is a very well-crafted book, tightly plotted and effectively written. But for all that, it proves that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The plot is a victim of history; it wasn't yet insufferably cliche in 1997, but it is today. Paranormal girl - subtype werewolf - meets muggle guy, falls in love, and tries to pursue that love in defiance of the supernatural community's rules. A crisis of leadership among the werewolves, resolved by the usual bloodsport, complicates things.

What becomes apparent very early on is that this is very much a 90's story, meaning a lot of things are dated. Teenagers without cell phones, just for example, but it's not just the difference in technology that's off-putting. Blood and Chocolate is also rather obviously written by a baby boomer observing "those crazy kids". I don't mean to say that it treats its cast with disrespect, because it doesn't. It's just... off. Major characters seem like stereotypes; our chief love interest is a bundle of new-age cliches, halfway between hippie and hipster. His wannabe girlfriend is a perky goth girl with jealousy issues. The two of them hang together with a circle of misfits that pretentiously calls themselves "The Ameoba", and attend concerts for vaguely-described but implicitly loud and obnoxious bands. I imagine teen readers of the day rolling their eyes and saying "This author just doesn't get it."

If you can get over that, Blood and Chocolate a pretty good read. It takes a bit long to get going, but once it does it sucks you in. Until the end, where it gets hit hard with two of the persistent gremlins in the genre's gears: the romanticization of borderline-abusive men, and the bullshit non-ending that resolves nothing.

(Spoilers ahead)

In addition to muggle boy Aiden, wolf-girl Vivian is pursued by Gabe, the pack's alpha. While Gabe isn't much older than Vivian and does harbor affection for her, he's clearly in it out of a sense of entitlement. As the new king, he needs a queen, and in his mind he deserves the pick of the litter, so to speak. Which eventually leads to him pinning Vivian to a kitchen counter for make-outs, a scene that dug up bad memories of the attempted bathroom-rape in Nightshade. However, in the last thirty pages or so, the novel's treatment of Gabe does a complete 180 and in the last scene Vivian agrees to move away with him and the pack to their new home.

What makes this extra-squicky is the way in which Gabe ultimately wins Vivian over. She's moved to sympathy when he bares his soul to her and admits to killing a past lover.

Yes, really. But he regrets it a lot, see?

Well, alright, it is more complicated than that. He fell in love with a human woman and one day transformed accidentally while they were in bed together. When he did, she freaked the hell out. He tried to calm her down, but she was too scared to listen to reason, so he struck her, forgetting all about his lycanthropic superstrength. This is supposed to humanize him, and to make the point that weres and humans Just Can't Be Together. It succeeds on the latter, since something frighteningly similar happened when Vivian tranformed for Aiden. But the former? No sale.

Even if you can put that aside, though, there's the fact that the ending undermines the entire strory. Blood and Chocolate is about Vivian struggling to break out of an oppressive society. She fights with her mother, her old friends, and the pack itself to reach for something greater, something she loves, something she can't have under the old ways. Then at the end, she decides that she'd rather stick with the old ways after all. This isn't played as a tragedy, either. It's sold as a positive outcome that will eventually bring Vivian happiness. My first thought is that it was a sequel hook, and had the book been written today I would take that as a given. If so, it serves as an example of why not to do that: since no sequel was ever released, everything is left hanging and the reader never gets closure.

Now that I think of it, though, there's another explanation. Remember, the author was a 40-something, possibly with children of her own, writing during the era where Gen-X and Gen-Y were ascendant. To her, this is the happy ending: the kids get over their teenage rebellion and settle down to realize their parents were right. Life goes on as it always does. It's not a bad theme necessarily, but it's woefully ignorant about just how deep the cracks between boomers and post-boomers run. (And just how disgusting we find it that an entitled prat is held up as Prince Charming.) Again, Blood and Chocolate is a victim of history: it sees the generation gap of the 90's mending over time, when in reality the rift between 20th and 21st century values would just get worse.

(End of spoilers)

Annette Curtis Klause is a rather obscure writer. If wikipedia is to be believed, she's a YA librarian who dabbles; she published three novels over a seven-year period, a fourth nine years later, and a smattering of short stories since. Blood and Chocolate was the only one of those that really found a following, partially because after Twilight blew up, Blood and Chocolate rode it's coattails to renewed prominence. I'm glad she's still around in some capacity, since she's certainly skilled enough to write for a living. I just hope she's been able to keep up with the times.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


Sorcery! is a 1983 Fighting Fantasy spinoff, recently re-released as an iOS app by inkle. inkle has done something here that takes courage - instead of porting over the Fighting Fantasy system, as with Tin Man Games' House of Hell port, they risk the slings and arrows of nostalgic fans by changing the rules. I never played the original, so I don't know how much it's been changed, but the gamble has paid off. I would, in fact, go so far as to say that Sorcery! is a new quality benchmark for app gamebooks.

The plot is nothing special; to save the realm from an evil wizard, you must go on a long journey to find a MacGuffin called the Crown of Kings. Sorcery! was originally a four-book series, so you don't find the crown in this first volume - instead, you spend the book traversing the Shamutanti Hills en route to the city of Khare. What you encounter - and how you deal with those encounters - depends on which of the many paths you take to Khare.

Sorcery! was originally aimed at an older audience than its parent series, and so set out to tell a more significant tale with deeper mechanics. On the first count, it seemingly failed; it serves up a bog-standard "long journey to find MacGuffin and defeat evil wizard" affair, although hints of a deeper backstory are scattered through the book. The main selling point in the plot, though, is that it spreads out through four books, with the player being able to import his character to the next upon successful completion. Unless I miss my guess, Sorcery! was the first book to actually do this, but many of the best-remembered books of the golden age; Way of the Tiger, Lone Wolf, Fabled Lands, etc., were built on the same conceit. But Sorcery! did it first, so chalk up one point for that.

The mechanical innovations are more significant. An innovative spell system and options for stealth and guile provide multiple solutions to problems, rather then just hacking your way through everything. If battle is too much randomness for you, you can always just take a different path. There are several routes through the Shamutanti Hills, and many allow you to rely on wits or magic instead of swordplay. It's even possible to get through the entire book without once entering combat (excepting a tutorial fight at the beginning) through use of the right paths, spells, and choices. Alternatively, you could risk danger for loot or other advantages. There's enough replay value here that you can keep coming back. Just yesterday I thought I was done, but then read a post on inkle's blog which mentioned things I hadn't even heard of, and now I want to replay again to find the jewelled collar.

When you do have to (or wish to) fight, you'll find that inkle has overhauled the combat system. In place of dice-rolling, you have blind bids in a manner similar to Queen's Blade, although much simpler. Each turn both you and your opponent bid a certain number of Action Points. Whoever puts in more wins the round and inflicts damage proportional to the loser's bid (so bigger attacks leave you exposed). Alternatively, you can bid 0 AP to defend, doing no damage but ensuring your opponent won't do more than one damage either. AP regenerates, but slowly, so a big attack also means you can't bring as much force to bear next turn.

It's fairly brilliant. It solves the age-old problem of making a fight challenging within the limited mechanical confines of a gamebook. There are tradeoffs to consider, but not so many that it becomes a chore to make decisions. A bigger bonus is that each round of combat is described in fair detail, and these descriptions  contain hints to the opponent's next action. Now this is a great idea. No longer are we just stopping the story to roll some dice before proceeding. Instead, we're actively participating in a fight and being rewarded for paying attention.

The biggest success in this book, however, is the writing. Yes, the plot is cliche, developing somewhat but  never rising above the standard 80's fantasy fare. But the characters shine. Jann, the helpful but annoying pixie, is the biggest standout, but nearly every character has personality and life, even the nameless townspeople whom you get some information from and then walk away from. The main character has personality too, or at least develops some in response to your choices.

There are some flaws worthy of mention - aside from the plot, the big one is that looking up spells in the middle of the action is a chore. It was apparently much worse in the original, where you couldn't consult the spellbook at all once the action started, but even this less retarded version is annoying. There's no search function or index, instead you have to page through the spells one by one until you find the one you're curious about. The overworld map, though a nice touch, is tough to move around on, with a larger than necessary player character making the screen cramped, and controls are finicky. And the app itself is a serious battery guzzler, at least it is on my iPod Touch. But none of this seriously impedes the enjoyment. Sorcery! is the best app gamebook in the genre's short history, and a definite must-play.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Unwind captivated me so much, I got fanboyish. The first thing I did after reading it was grab the sequel from the library, something which I never do. I originally intended to review them both at once, but backed off on that because my feelings on them are radically different. While a perfectly good book, UnWholly isn't quite on the same level as its predecessor.

The story is certainly gripping. As before, Shusterman sets a fast pace, and his world-building is excellent. In fact, in terms of craftsmanship UnWholly is arguably better than Unwind. The latter had issues with characterization and occasionally slapdash plotting. UnWholly gels much better as a story, but it's also a much more conventional story. I'm reminded a bit of The Matrix trilogy; The first installment was never really intended to have a sequel. Yes, the ending left things open, but the story that the writer intended to tell had been told. More importantly, all the good ideas had been used up. So the creators escalated, going from battles to wars while keeping the same basic style and format.

So too with UnWholly. The first thing that happens is that the hopeful ending of the first book gets a reality check. Turns out that's it's not as easy as implied to change the world. The small victories of the first book have created new problems, and those that benefit from the existing social order are fighting back. The plot proceeds with both new and returning characters caught up in a struggle to keep what they won from falling apart. Good drama, but not as original. Several plot points are retreads, and one of the new characters is a blatant carbon copy of a major player in the previous book. And while the ending doesn't leave us hanging on everything, few of the major points are resolved, because a trilogy (Now expected to be a quartology) is soooo much more interesting than a duology.

Well, that last bit is a little unfair. I can't in good conscience accuse Shusterman of the issues that usually go along with writing for a series. There's no padding; in fact, he crams quite a bit into these 400 pages, and most of it is interesting. He also paces perfectly: brisk movement, but not so fast you lose track of what's going on. And while there are open threads at the end, he wraps up just enough to make the reader feel satisfied instead of teased. But he does cram in too much. We have heroes both major and minor returning from book 1, additional protagonists, and two or three new villains. That's a lot of plot to go around, and at times it feels like those NYC dog-walkers who march through the affluent areas holding a dozen leashes at once. The author is able to keep all the dogs walking straight and the leashes relatively untangled, but one hopes the third volume doesn't collapse from the mass of it all.

My major issue with the book, however, is that the nature of the conflict has changed. Unwind had no major  antagonist. Minions like juvey cops and uncaring beaurecrats were personified, but they were punch-clock villains or glorified muscle. The main villain was a nameless, faceless, disembodied social order. This isn't bad; Winston Smith never meets Big Brother, and the closest thing to an antagonist Guy Montag has is his disillusioned boss. In both cases, it worked marvelously well. When you remove any guiding force from an antagonistic society, the villain becomes the society itself, and a society is simply a manifestation of the will of its citizenry. In other words, the villain of Unwind was us, the readers. Our decisions, our desires, our failures in the present are what caused this mad world of the near future to come into existence.

By giving us clear antagonists, UnWholly dilutes the effect. We now have someone to point at and say "You are the problem!" Worse, UnWholly adds a conspiracy angle, which means the problems are no longer our fault at all- we were tricked by some distant schemer or schemers. Both of these plot developments are well executed, but one of the themes of Unwind was that people must be treated as people. Giving the audience a human target upon which to project their disgust undermines the message.

I don't mean to imply that UnWholly cheapens its predecessor. Dystopians and realpolitik stories have been written with human antagonists, and they've worked. And UnWholly works, too. I dove right in, finished it in less than a week, and then cursed under my breath that the third volume isn't out until September. I rarely recommend a book more highly than that.

But while it's not a step down, it's definitely a step sideways. It's driven by story and character where Unwind was an exploration of ideas. They're both great, and I recommend them both, but I recommend them for different reasons. UnWholly is Tom Sawyer to Unwind's Huckleberry Finn. The latter will be studied decades from now. The former is that other great book with many of the same characters.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Winston Smith, hero of the seminal dystopian 1984, once remarked "The best books tell you what you already know." Whether George Orwell meant it to be ironic or not is debatable, but it's very true. A great story doesn't preach to the reader. Rather, it brings clarity to things the reader already knew from his or her own life experience. It uses what the reader already knows to impart an understanding - perhaps great, perhaps small - of the nature of the world and the human condition.

I'm prepared to call Neal Shusterman's Unwind a great book. In fact, I'm prepared to call it one of the most significant YA books of the past ten years. I'm even prepared to say that it's the kind of book that will, and should be, stocked in school libraries and taught in junior high english classes decades from now. It's skillfully written and tensely plotted, but more than that, it has ideas. Important ideas about important things.

The premise is that a generation or so before the story begins, the pro-life and pro-choice factions of the American public came to all-out civil war. The problem was solved by a compromise: from conception to thirteen years of age, human life is protected by law. However, from thirteen years to eighteen, a child can, with his parents' consent, be "unwound". He or she is carved up into his component organs, which are then transplanted into donors who are in need (or just prefer new eyes to wearing glasses all the time). The rationalization is that life of the body doesn't technically end, but pretty much nobody actually believes this, least of all the kids sentenced to it. Our main characters are Connor, Risa, and Lev, three teens due to be unwound. Escape from the authorities, they go on the lam, trying to survive until they become legal adults.

It's a great premise, and as I said, it makes for a great book. I am not, however, prepared to say that it is perfect. The plot has a kind of thrown-together feel; essentially, our heroes move from one adventure to another, meeting other characters and situations along the way. I got the feeling that I wasn't really reading a novel, but a series of short stories jerry-rigged into one. I don't mind that either. Dystopians are about dysfunctional societies, so many of them use the plot as simply an excuse to move the protagonist around and observe the setting. But there are places in Unwind where the seams are visible. Lev's character arc shows it the worst. When we first meet him, he's a doe-eyed innocent brought up to celebrate his potential unwinding as a religious experience. Early on, he's separated from the other two and disappears, then the next time we see him he's a kind of Artful Dodger in training. The next time we see him after that, the world has beaten him into a cynical loner with anger issues. How he got from point A to point B to point C is given only a cursory explanation.

I don't mean to say that the plot of Unwind is bad, because it isn't. Despite some rough edges, it moves at a brisk pace and is never anything less than involving. But it's obvious that neither the plot nor characters are really that important. What's important are the ideas.

So, what about the ideas?

Well, Unwind has been marketed as a book about abortion. It isn't. The pro-life/pro-choice civil war is given only the barest of mentions, and in so far as Shusterman  has an opinion, it would seem to be contempt for both sides. He portrays the Great Debate Of Our Times as an unhealthy distraction that blinds us to more serious issues, and engenders fanaticism and obsession. This idea is developed further in the sequel, which explicitly defines the Unwinding Accords as a method of avoiding problems rather than having to talk about and deal with them.

If you wanted, you could construct a Liberal Christian interpretation of the novel that frames it as a condemnation of the pro-life movement. The idea that unwinding is acceptable because the body lives on as a collection of transplanted organs is a slap in the face to Conservative Christians for focusing on the life of the body - which never lasts forever anyway - over the life of the soul. But except for a discussion between several characters about what makes them alive (the eventual conclusion being that they can't know), Shusterman eschews any spiritual or metaphysical argument in favor of concrete, secular ones.

No, the true thrust of the book goes deeper. Broadly, it's about man's inhumanity to man. Specifically, it's about a lot of things: selfishness, political partisanship, apathy towards others ("Not my problem" is practically the mantra of the damned), trophy children. Most of all, though, it's about depersonalization. It's about what happens, and what we're capable of, when we start thinking about our fellow human beings as problems rather than people. It's about what happens when people stop having names and instead become part of a "them". It's about how absolutely critical it is to a society that everyone be acknowledged as someone.

This is something that we, the people of this place and time in history, need to learn. But then again, it's also something we already know.

Read this book.

Monday, May 13, 2013

On Dirty Hands

See that picture? It's a quote from one of the internet's favorite movies, The Big Lebowski. It occurs after Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski has just watched his best friend Walter Sobchek pull out a loaded gun and shove it into the face of an old man, finger on the trigger and screaming at the top of his lungs... because said old man crossed the foul line in a bowling game. An important bowling game, sure, but as The Dude points out, it's kinda hard to see Walter as the good guy in this situation. It's a lesson that people in politics ought to take to heart, and don't. In a democracy at least, supreme power is in the hands of the people, and a smart politician tries to get the people on his side. Being an asshole is a bad way to do that. It's an equally bad idea in religion; whether you're evangelizing or just trying to go about your business and worship as you choose, you need at least a silent agreement that the rest of the populace won't run you out of town. Acting like a jerk is a great way to turn said populace against you.

This isn't rocket science, and in fact smart people in both fields have known it for centuries, even millenia. So why do we now, at the most educated time in human history, still have people dragging the names of their own causes and churches through the dirt with obnoxious behavior?

A few weeks ago Tim Dolan, Cardinal of the Archdiocese of New York, posted a rather condescending article on his blog, which compared homosexuals attending church to people coming to a dinner table with dirty hands. He intended it to be a "love the sinner, hate the sin" message, a sentiment no good Christian would disagree with. What people disagree with is his interpretation of what is dirty or sinful, but that's an argument for another day.

Reasonably enough, some gay Catholics and their supporters took exception. Last week a group of them gathered to stage a protest. Or "vigil", perhaps. Same difference. They smeared their hands with dirt and ash, attempted to attend mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and were prohibited from doing so. In fact, the church called the cops, which may seem a little extreme until you realize that church authorities are ill-equipped to respond if protesters get violent. We can debate how likely such a possibility was. On the one hand, if there's enough anger in the air, all it takes is one good shove to turn a protest into a brawl. But on the other, the slideshow shows about eight or nine protesters, hardly an army of revolution. In any event, the protest eventually ended with neither violence nor arrests, and everybody went home and presumably got on with their lives.

I heard about all of this via Anne Rice's twitter feed, which ought to be a required follow for all liberal and moderate Christians. The link led me to the article linked in the above paragraph. It was written by Joseph Amodeo, who organized the protestr, and I have to seriously wonder what in the blue hell he was thinking.

I don't know how many of my readers have ever attended a Catholic Mass, but there's this point near the end where you're supposed to shake hands with anyone around you that you can reach. And you're also supposed to receive the Eucharist in your hands, and take the chalice to drink the sacramental wine. And your hands are touching the pews, the missals, the doorknobs, and all these things which are in turn touched by other parishioners. So if you come in with filthy hands, you're going to get that filth on everybody around you. It's intrusive and unhygenic, but more than that, it's rude.

In other words, Cardinal Dolan acted like an asshole and the protesters responded by acting like assholes themselves. And then Amodeo writes the above article, with its "poor, pitiful me" tone of voice, trying to portray himself as the victim here. At the absolute best, the protesters are pricks the same as the cardinal. At worst, they're bigger pricks. And they doesn't seem to get this at all. I quote:
"What astounded me most was when he said that we could enter the cathedral so long as we washed our hands first. Even now, writing those words I find myself struggling to understand their meaning, while coming to terms with their exclusionary nature."
Hey, moron, maybe the meaning is that you shouldn't come to a church expecting to smear dirt on everything within reach and be surprised when they don't let you do so?

More than that, however, what annoys me about this protest is the utter immaturity of it. Accused of being dirty, the protesters opted for the grade-school response of "I'll be dirty if I want to be!" That's the wrong argument. The right one is "There's nothing dirty about me!" The protesters don't seem to realize that by embracing the analogy instead of rebuffing it, they legitimize Dolan's opinion.


In the end, this protest probably won't amount to much. It'll vanish into the news cycle and be forgotten, and a week from now we'll all be bitching about something else. But it's disappointing. As Christians, we ought to be better than this. As human beings, we should at least have the intelligence to think through the consequences of our actions. I try very hard to have respect for all my brothers and sisters in Christ, and then they go and make me wonder why I even bother.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Iron Man 3

When I heard that The Mandarin was going to be the villain of this film, I was wary. The Mandarin is an awkward and slightly embarrassing character for Marvel, what with the "Yellow Peril" undertones that the company tries to downplay these days. How they wound up handling it is very clever; I won't spoil it here, but I will say it was satisfying both in terms of the story and in terms of Ben Kingsley's awesome performance. There is a problem, however, in that he's really not the Mandarin. Instead of a megalomaniac genius with a set of alien/mystical power rings, we have a guy who's basically bin Laden with superhero technology. I thought that a lot more could have been done with the character. Given that Tony Stark is an american industrialist, Rhodes is a member of the U.S. military, and Mandarin is (traditionally) a Chinese mastermind, it makes fertile grounds for exploring realpolitik.

Yes, yes, I know. judge the story you're given rather than the story you would have wrote. But this particular film invites it because it felt like a long series of missed opportunities. The story seems to want to be about something, but can't decide what; Tony suffering PTSD from the events of The Avengers? Tony's struggling to balance his life as Iron Man with his life as Tony Stark? Tony struggling to deal with the consequences of past mistakes? Learning that he can't protect the ones he loves? All these things are brought up, fiddled with a bit, then dropped in favor of fight sequences and Tony trading barbs with everyone. The film is great to watch anyway, since Robert Downey Jr. does the latter very, very, well. But still, but still, but still...

One of the big selling points of the original film- arguably the reason why it succeeded at all- was the fact that it was done without a script. Downey insisted on being able to ad-lib his lines, and eventually they wound up improvising the entire film, resulting in very naturalistic dialog that humanized the characters. (Jeff Bridges famously described it as "a $200 million student film".) The second film continued suit, but for this third installment they've got a new director and the movie feels a lot more scripted. That's not bad per se; the dialog is good, and the performances are first-rate as well, but the lack of spontaneity makes it so much easier to nitpick the film's flaws, including rampant fridge logic, uninteresting villains, and the fact that the plot relies so much on supposedly smart people - both Tony and the villains - doing stupid or nonsensical things. (The latter two have been recurrent problems with the Iron Man films.)

The performances, as I said, are first-rate, and when added to some great action setpieces, the resulting film is far from bad. (And I love what they did with Pepper Potts near the end.) But the spark isn't really there, and I have a feeling maybe it's time to put this particular hero to bed.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Hungry Ghost

Self-published novels take Goodwin's Law to an extreme: A few rough diamonds are obscured by shelves full of poorly-written, badly-structured, generally awful crap. But Allison Moon's Lunatic Fringe is one of the diamonds: a passionate romance that drew the reader in to the strange life of a protagonist discovering her nature as a lesbian, a lycanthrope, and a peacespeaker (a kind of psychic translator/mediator/shaman). While engaging, the book was not without its issues; the plot was uneven, the characterizations spotty at best, and half the book was spent on Lexie and her lover Archer having lots of sex. But it was still a good read, and showed a lot of potential. Eighteen months later, the sequel is out, and Moon has... umm... traded up to different problems.

I'm hard to please, okay?

To be fair, there is plenty enough good material here to justify a purchase. Most of it has to do with the characters. In this respect more than any other, Hungry Ghost surpasses its predescessor. Lexie's packmates in the first book were horny lesbians and little more, which had some unfortunate implications. That's fixed here by giving them more page time and more distinctive personalities. New characters - of which there are more than a few- fare just as well, as do the handful of other returners. The best of them is Sage, Archer's brother who shows up for the last third of the book and proceeds to become the most interesting thing in it. A shape-shifter who favors beast mode, he provides an experienced perspective on the world and a smattering of fish-out-of-water humor. I wish he had come into the story earlier, because in a book about defying social norms, it's of great benefit to have a character who doesn't care about social norms. In a zen way, that is, rather than a dickish way.

The interactions between these varied characters are interesting, and in fact some of the best parts of the book. Well, most of the time. There are moments when the dialogue stumbles and feels contrived, unreal, or overly clever. At other points, it veers into gender-issues soapboxing. For more most part, though, the patter is snappy and engaging. In fact, on a nuts-and-bolts technical level, Moon's writing is much improved since book 1. She is at her best when writing sensually, by which I mean "about sensations". The sound of a wolf's howl, the taste of a live songbird, those are the moments that jump out at me as memorable. It's probably why she chose to write about werewolves to begin with, and you can't deny she has a knack for it.

Now to the bad: Story structure remains a weakness, and in fact it almost sinks the book outright. The main plot involves Lexie & co. investigating a lycanthropic murder that eventually leads them to a pack of rogue full-blood werewolves. In the meantime, Lexie struggles to find her own identity, cope with the loss of Archer, and eventually juggle three potential love interests: Sage, a butch biker chick named Randy, and Renee, the pack's new leader. On a fundamental, "bedrock" level, all that is fine.

But the story is crippled by a grand clusterfuck of a second act. The hundred pages or so around the middle are full of subplots that go nowhere: Rory, the mysterious book in the library, Lexie's digging into her mother's past, and the whole business with Lexie's knife. All of these things show up, look like they're going to mean something, then get more or less get tossed aside. Randy also gets tossed aside, despite being central to the first third of the book. The gay male pack is the only one that really makes an impression, and even then they seem to exist mainly to beef up the heroes' army during the big climactic fight.

Some of this is setting stuff up for later books. Long-time readers know what my opinion is on that: tell the story you're telling NOW, dammit, not the story you're going to be telling a year from now. In any event, the plot does eventually get back on track, but by then it's spent so much time going in so many directions that the reader is likely to feel lost and disoriented. I certainly was, and I was never able to get completely back in to Hungry Ghost after that.

There's also an absence of passion in that middle part, and I'm not just talking about the switch from erotic romance to a more traditional urban fantasy story. The first book was an endless parade of Lexie and Archer sexing it up during its' middle, and I chided it for that. But I at least got the impression that Moon was deeply invested in her material, on an emotional level. This time around, not so much. In fact a large part of that slog in the middle is because she's trying to set up pieces for the finale, with an air not of enthusiasm, but of rote busywork.

Hungry Ghost is still in the top 5% of self-published fiction, but it can't get out of its own way. In this it's a bit like its protagonist, struggling to find her own voice and figure out what she's about. But while a confused protagonist makes for a good story, a confused story just brings itself down. Still, I'm hopeful. Moon has improved, and here's hoping she improves more with book 3.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Django Unchained

I actually saw Django Unchained back when it first came out, but didn't have the time to write anything major about it. But as I won't be done with Hungry Ghost until next week, I decided that it's better late than never.

This is a Quentin Tarantino film, so before even seeing a single frame you have some idea what to expect: subtle self-awareness, top-notch acting and writing, and brief scenes of brutal violence punctuating a surprisingly deep story. In fact, I think this is not only Tarantino's deepest film, but his riskiest. He's very knowingly and deliberately put himself in the awkward situation of being a white guy writing about racism.

He pulls it off. I would expect no less from Tarantino, but a big reason why he pulls it off is Christoph Waltz. Waltz won an Oscar for his performance, and deserved it, because his character King Schultz is the single most important person in the film. Consider him to be the perspective character for the white audience member, a stranger wandering the land of slaves and plantation owners. Schultz is an outsider by means of being a German immigrant, whereas the audience is separated from the setting by time, but the principle is the same. We know enough to properly identify the heroes and villains, but take for granted what makes them so. Schultz's character arc throughout the movie is his coming to realize just how awful things are. He begins the film regarding slavery as a bad thing, but his distaste is academic and detached, and he's not above playing the system against itself. But as his journey with Django takes him deeper and deeper into the belly of the beast, the true inhumanity of the institution slowly unfolds before him.

The plan to rescue Hilda is perfectly sound, but the genius of it is also its great failing: it's legal. This means that Schultz and Django can pull it off while still remaining respected members of society, but it also means that they have to acknowledge the rightness of the society, or at least pretend to. Schultz is fine with this at first, but becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the prospect of turning a blind eye to the brutality around him. Finally, he's offered the chance to walk away with everything he came for, exactly the victory he planned, in exchange for just one thing: he has to acknowledge that Candie is a honest man, and that the society that he lives in just. And Schultz can't do it. He scuttles his own plan at the very moment of success because, as he tells Django, "I just couldn't help myself." He couldn't go on paying lip service to a society so fundamentally corrupt.

If Schultz is the most important character in the film, the second most important is probably Stephen, Candie's loyal slave. Stephen's first scene is one of the best constructed scenes in the film, because it tells us in a few minutes 90% of what we need to know about the character. We see him sitting at a writing desk, writing out a check to which he affixes Candie's signature with a stamp. Then, through the window, he sees Candie's carriage approaching, and so he goes out to the front porch where he plays court jester, lobbing insults and repartee at Candie's entourage and even Candie himself for the amusement of all. Later scenes establish him as the power behind the throne, smart where Candie is merely educated and subtle where he is brutish.

So, to break down the conflict: we have a black hero and his white mentor/sidekick on one side, and a white villain and his black servant/vizier on the other. What you'd expect from this setup - the traditional/cliche resolution - is that Candie kills Schultz, then Django kills Stephen and Candie, probably in that order. Or, alternatively, Candie kills Schultz, Stephen backstabs Candie in some fashion before dying, possibly redemptively, and then Django kills Candie. But neither is what happens. Instead, Schultz kills Candie - sacrificing his own life in the process - after which Stephen takes over the plantation in all but name and becomes the villain that Django must defeat in the denouement. And the movie is much, much better for it.

Django Unchained is a movie about racism, but it's also a movie about the rejection of racism. It's about the evil that white men do/did, and how that evil is destroyed. Had Django killed Candie, the film's message would be simplistic and wrong: a white villain as the source or avatar of evil, and a black hero restores justice by killing him. Black = good, white = evil. Simple, and completely off base. This happy ending would have been achieved through the demonization of whites, which is merely racism in a different form. Django becomes the man who hunted monsters and became one himself. Instead, Candie's death - and the symbolic rejection of what he stands for - must be at the hands of a white man. In doing so, and accepting his own death as penance for standing by and doing nothing for so long, Schultz earns redemption for his race.

Portraying Stephen, a slave, as a villain on par with Candie is perhaps Tarantino's most controversial choice as screenwriter and director. One could even, if so inclined, see it as of blaming the victim. But the story is more complex than that. As Django was once a slave, Stephen is a slave as well. But while Django has only ever been seen fighting against the system, Stephen has embraced it, sacrificing his dignity in exchange for power. In many ways he's a shadow figure to both Django and Schultz; Django in that a slave's life has affected them both deeply, Schultz in that they both game the system for their own purposes. Stephen would have learned firsthand the cruelties of the society in which he lives - he mentions having seen slaves castrated before - and he went along with it because the society empowered him personally. In Stephen we see most clearly that it is not a person's skin that makes him righteous or corrupt. The society is the source of corruption, and whether individuals are good or evil depends on whether they allow it to corrupt them, or defy it to follow their own conscience and sense of justice.

Django Unchained was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar last year, but ultimately lost to Argo. I never saw Argo, so I'm in no position to say whether or not it's a better film, but Django is certainly a film that deserves respect. It is, as the Library of Congress likes to say, "culturally significant," and one of the deepest and most thoughtful meditations on racism in recent years.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Seven Lady Werewolves

120 pages into Allison Moon's latest, and making steady progress. Review when I'm done (probably about a week and a half), but I just wanted to share something. Those who've read the book will know what it refers to.


Seven lady werewolves, lying all in bed, and the little one said:

LEXIE: "Roll over, roll over."

So they all rolled over when they heard her shout and the one on the outside... fell out!

HAZEL: "Stop crowding m... AHHH!"


Six lady werewolves, lying all in bed, and the little one said:

LEXIE: "Roll over, roll over."

So they all rolled over when they heard her shout and the one on the outside... fell out!

JENNA: "Lexie, we're trying to slee... AHHH!"


Five lady werewolves, lying all in bed, and the little one said:

LEXIE: "Roll over, roll over."

So they all rolled over when they heard her shout and the one on the outside... fell out!

SHARMALEE: "Hey, I don't need any more brui-"


Four lady werewolves, lying all in bed, and the little one said:

LEXIE: "Roll over, roll over."

So they all rolled over when they heard her shout and the one on the outside... fell out!

MITCH: "Brat! When I get my horm-"


Three lady werewolves, lying all in bed, and the little one said:

LEXIE: "Roll over, roll over."

So they all rolled over when they heard her shout and the one on the outside... fell out!

CORWIN: "See, this is why I'm drifting bi-curi-"


Two lady werewolves, lying all in bed, and the little one said:

LEXIE: "Roll over, roll over."

So they all rolled over when they heard her shout and the one on the outside... fell out!

RENEE: "Oh no, you're coming with me, sister!"


One lady werewolf, all alone in bed, and she looked around and said:

LEXIE: "..."

Lexie, that was your cue...

LEXIE: "..."


LEXIE: "..."


Monday, April 15, 2013

Kitty Rocks the House

Since I don't have the time or energy to write long-ass reviews anymore, I'm suspending my review blog. But since I still read, and still have things to say about the books I read, I'll provide leaner, meaner mini-reviews here for now. With luck, it'll be less filler and more killer.

The fact that I liked the latest Kitty Norville book will surprise nobody. Those who read my review blog will know what a fanboy I am. You'll also know that I've felt the series has been in a slump. Read through the reviews of the past three books, and you find the same overarching theme: entertaining, but the series has "lost it's spark".

Kitty Rocks the House has the spark.

It's not perfect, of course. The middle is slow, and there are missed opportunities along the way; things that could have been awesome, but aren't. It lacks the unbridled creativity that characterized the early books. And I still think this Long Game nonsense is a misstep; dragging the series away from the personal drama that makes it unique in the crowded urban fantasy genre. But for the first time since I can remember, what happened here stuck with me.

We have two plots here, advancing more or less concurrently: the first concerns Darren, a new werewolf who gets offered a place in the Denver pack, then tries to take over. A complaint about the series- one that I've echoed myself- is that after Kitty became the alpha of the Denver pack, Vaughn spent most of the subsequent books having her run off to Vegas or London or San Francisco or Central Nowhere, county of Bumfuck, Montana, 59702. She did precious little with the characters back in Denver. So when Darren shows up and challenges her alpha-dom, there's a strong reality subtext: a major argument against Alpha Norville is that she's been spending so much time travelling and playing conspiracy games with vampires that she's forgotten about taking care of things back home. And Vaughn pulls off this bit meta-commentary without seeming either preachy or apologetic about it. Nice.

That said, I wish that Darren had posed more of a challenge. When it comes to a showdown, Kitty essentially flexes her charisma and gets the entire pack on her side. Even Becky, the main holdout, is easily swayed back to Kitty's side after a brief conversation. Given that Kitty used Becky as bait back in Kitty Goes to War, I expected there to be more conflict here.

The other storyline has Kitty, with Cormac's help, investigating a vampire priest. He shows up in town looking for Rick, and after Kitty brokers a meeting between them, Rick goes missing. This is a generally more interesting story. Rick is one of the constants of the Kitty-verse, and to see him questioning himself and being in danger adds the needed tension that's been missing from recent books. The problem here, however, is that pacing is sluggish. Not terribly much happens here until the end- it's a main cause of the sagging middle that I mentioned. When that end comes, though, it's totally worth it. There is action, and pathos, and revelation, and new ideas that I looked at and thought "Dude, awesome!" And the ending sets up better stories for books to come, and teases the possibility of a spinoff. (Another spinoff, I should say. Cormac's getting his own soon.)

Those who are following this series have already bought Kitty Rocks the House. Those who aren't want to start at the series beginning. But those who were following it and gave up at some point want to give it another chance now, because the series has come home, and I have a feeling good times are ahead.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Movie Review: Warm Bodies

I'm late to the party, seemingly as usual. Girlfriend and I wanted to see this movie for Valentine's, but got delayed until last weekend. The movie was worth the wait. It was funny, it was moving, it was romantic. And it was very well acted; Nicholas Hoult is perfect, and Rob Corddry plays again type so well I didn't know it was him until the end credits.

It was also rather overtly political. I seem to be seeing political overtones in everything these days; maybe I'm still recovering from election season. But then again, perhaps the resurgence of zombie fiction speaks to a kind of cultural zeitgeist. Humanity has always made supernatural monsters out of natural horrors. The vampire, for example, represents the allure and danger of sexuality, which is why they've become more sympathetic over time as society's attitudes change. The zombie, likewise, represents the "faceless masses"; apparently human, but unable to think, or show mercy, or be reasoned with by any method other than buckshot. It's the fear of being destroyed by your fellow men. This has been an underlying theme of politics for much of the 21st century to date; the "us vs. them" mentality that characterizes partisan rhetoric and undermines attempts at compromise.

The movie is aware of this. It doesn't draw direct parallels, as well it shouldn't. Doing so cheapens the message into a tract. But the producers are aware of the deeper meanings in the plot; one of the headlines that fly by in montage near the beginning reads "President Infected". Later R tells us it's been eight years since the trouble started; the typical duration of a U.S. Presidential regime. And the zombies are divided into normal zombies (moderates), and skeletal "boneys" (extremists). The difference, according to R at least, is that the former seek to hold on to the shreds of their humanity, even though they must now eat humans out of necessity. The boneys have given up all hope and embraced their inhumanity, existing now only to kill and eat.

Many great love stories -- especially those in the Romeo and Juliet mold -- are actually stories about cultures in collision, and Warm Bodies is no exception. We don't see much of the human culture, but enough that we know what it's like; reeling from years of fighting for their lives, these people close themselves off, building a great wall to keep the zombies out, and sending the young and fit out into the dead lands to scavenge what remains, knowing that they are likely to return as zombies themselves. These people aren't inherently bad, rather they're mortally afraid of something they don't understand; afraid enough that they're not willing to take the risk to understand. In their own way, they're not so much different than the zombies, and their stone wall and stockpile of arms only perpetuates the problem. Salvation for both sides comes only through understanding; in the end, we have to teach our children about playing hide and seek rather than scoring headshots. As R notes, "It was scary, but all great things start out a little scary."

The ending has been criticized as being too upbeat. While I can see where that criticism comes from, it's important to remember that this is fundamentally a story about hope; the hope that we can, despite everything, learn to overcome our fears and look at each other with respect and dignity.