Book Reviews

Rise Headless and Ride: A Book Review

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I picked up the Kindle version of this book last fall in a fit of autumnal yearning for American folklore. For growing up in the southern USA, I think I have a decent grasp of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. I’ve seen bits of the animated film, and I’ve even seen a couple of live theater performances of it. Fortunately, if you’re not as cultured as I (Ha!), the original short story is included with the novel if you need to catch up.

Rise and Headless and Ride, by Richard Gleaves, was released in 2013. It tells the story of a young man, Jason Crane, as he moves to Tarrytown, New York, or more famously Sleepy Hollow. There he explores the legend and its characters, and finds some startling truths about it, and about himself.

The plot surrounding Jason’s investigation of the Sleepy Hollow legend is interesting, especially if you’ve an interest in the tale already, but for me the true strength of the novel lies in its characters.

I’m always a fan of good characters and this novel offers that in abundance. The tight, effective plotting requires only a handful of characters, and the main ones especially are well motivated and realized.

My favorite is Liza, the main character’s grandmother. Her eager perspective on life despite her age actually reminds me of someone I knew, which made her really jump off the page. Even if she is a mere construct for the purpose of the plot, she seems like a plausible figure who is seamlessly stitched into the story.

The main antagonist for the story is a joy to dislike. He isn’t some apologetic, morally gray figure. No, he is unabashedly unethical, manipulative, and he knows it. It is completely within his power to be otherwise, but he chooses his path, and for the purpose of the plot, he is a conducive catalyst for dramatic conflict.

Also, there are a couple of gay characters in the book. As a gay person myself, it was refreshing to see. What was really great, however, is that these aren’t just token gay people who were injected to create an illusion of diversity. They had their own motives and drama that existed outside of the main character, and actually wound up enhancing the main conflict.

Even more, each of the gay characters provides a different perspective on what it’s like to be a gay teenager, without being stereotypical or satirizing. Being gay isn’t the overwhelming quality about them, but neither is it some superficial addition that the author made to garner extra points.

Overall, I get a positive impression from the book that reminds me of a really great pilot episode of a promising TV series. The comparison to television is not meant to be demeaning. Outside of novels, television in the past several years has provided some of the best writing of both story and characters.

There is a good degree of restraint applied to this story. Not everything is explained all at once. Elements are left to simmer and develop. The right moments are allowed to happen, while even more dramatic things grow in the background. The novel concludes intensely, and cleanly, but it beckons you for more.

At the novel’s start, we are introduced to a world that strongly resembles our own, but by the end we are escorted into new and surreal territory. This kind of transition is not often done so smoothly, with many authors being quite blunt about it.

One last thing that surprised me was that the novel is listed as Young Adult Horror. This isn’t a bad surprise. In fact, I didn’t really feel like I was reading a young adult novel. What I mean by this is, don’t let that category deter you. There is much to enjoy here.

Its sequel, Bridge of Bones, was also just released in October of 2014.  It’s exiting to see that there is more to come.

Image from Goodreads.

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The Hunger Games. A Review of the Books.

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There are a couple things I generally don’t do. One is that I don’t usually read young adult fiction, though in the past I have and been pleasantly surprised (Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series was incredible).

Another is that I don’t usually read novels after I have seen a film version of them. Before seeing the film? Yes. But after tends to spoil the experience.

I did both after seeing the first Hunger Games film the other year. I had heard of the books a couple of years prior to that from a friend who rather glowingly praised them. She mentioned that the books at that time were only just beginning to gain notice but that films were planned.

They are quick reads, not overly long despite the content, and read almost like a transcription of some of the film’s story boards. It’s generally not the kind of writing I’m used to, but among other things I considered that the price to pay for reading young adult fiction.

I found the initial presentation of the characters to be pretty good, and the plots were tightly written through the first book and a half. But that price I mentioned paying started to take its toll on my experience about half way through the second book and was pretty rough through Mockingjay.

My main problem with the books was how they were written. I couldn’t tell if the writing was kept more simplistic to prevent things from getting too complex for younger readers or something else, but the result is that the quality of writing seems insufficient to support to wealth of themes and concepts and plots Suzanne Collins attempts to convey.

Action sequences seemed frenetic and chaotic, but not purposefully so. The writing just jumped around inconsistently. The conspiracy in Catching Fire was okay but not nearly as engaging as the more focused struggle in The Hunger Games. By the end of Mockingjay, everything was so rushed that all of the plots were scattered and sloppy in their resolutions. Characters no longer made distinct choices as much as they were moved by the author via deus ex machina square by square across a checkerboard of trite plot points and contrived emotions.

Filmmakers are releasing Mockingjay in two parts. The novel would have benefited by doing the same instead of Collins’ rigid attempt to shore horn everything within a trilogy of three act books based on her playwright experience. 

Perhaps the worst casualty of the writing was Katniss Everdeen herself. Initially, the character was presented brilliantly. She is an independent, capable, clever teenage girl who can stand up to others physically and intellectually and win. She even confronts the despotic President Snow and tries to beat him at his own game.

Katniss unravels by the end of Mockingjay. Instead of the pressure of her previous trials hardening her into a diamond, she shatters. I understand the author’s theme with this is “war is bad” or “this is what conflict does to people”, but the way in which Collins depicts this is disrespectful to the marvelous and inspiring character she crafted, and her plight could have been handled more capably if there were more time and pages for this story to be fleshed out.

The final nail into the Katniss’ coffin is how she finds her happily ever after as a married women with children. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to raise a family, but for a character such as Katniss, the ending is too cliche, simple, and frankly (with all due respect to the wonderful films of Disney) Disney-esque. Introducing her as an independent young woman but then leaving us with a broken housewife puts the author’s views on women into question. Is this the future she wants her young adult female readers to glean from her work?

Despite these frustrations, there are a few things that I enjoyed about the books. The setting, a dystopian future where dissent is quelled with deadly reality television, is curious and enthralling. The backstory frames the setting quite well, and poses some implicit questions such as how our world came to such a state as Panem.

Tracker Jackers, mockingjays, the different characteristics of each District, these qualities and more brought the world to life. I liked reading the tidbits of lore.

The “bread and circuses” games themselves are horrifying and appropriately bloody and traumatic affairs. I was slightly shocked reading about them, but completely entertained. The premise of this whole series is a really strong one, and held together even when other things fell apart.

Even the decadent culture of the Capitol is sickening in a way and provides a mirror of sorts to our own obsession with entertainment and vanity. Taking Katniss from an Appalachian backwater and seeing her forcibly transformed into a TV star was mesmerizing. The fact that even all out war was televised is eerily familiar to our society.

Just like Katniss, great concepts and sci-fi elements were made over into something flashy and stylish. I found myself wanting the substance to shine through instead. I also found myself wondering if the films were always planned and that quickly releasing these books to the young adult market was just a way to expedite the movie-making process.

I especially enjoyed the first book and a half, but my issues with the writing heavily affected my enjoyment of the rest. Mockingjay itself had great potential, but was too speedily and clumsily resolved. Maybe the films will do it better, which is, to me, a compromising sentiment. On the other hand, had these novels been treated and released as full-on speculative science fiction, we would have had a wonderful modern classic that explores the evils of war and statism. Instead we got a watered down teeny bop pop culture phenomenon in the vein of Twilight. 

Lord Foul’s Bane, A Book Review

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Lord Foul’s Bane, first book of Stephen R. Donaldson’s series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever was released way back in 1977. This is the year of Star Wars, and a decade following the preeminence of Lord of the Rings, so another epic fantasy on the book charts is no surprise. But is Lord Foul’s Bane just another epic fantasy? Let’s see…

High fantasy setting? Check.

Magic? Check.

Bearded, wizardly men with staves that shoot fire? Check.

Mythical creatures? Check.

Wicked evil foes? Check

Quest for a magical artifact? Check

Main character has a magic ring? Check.

Main character is a bitter, bitter leper who commits rape within hours of arriving to this wondrous fantasy land? Er… … Check?

While Lord Foul’s Bane has many standard, even trite, elements of the fantasy genre, it turns the system on its head by providing you with a rather agonizing protagonist.

The story starts regularly enough. Thomas Covenant is from our world. He is a published author. He used to have a family, but they left him when he discovered he is afflicted with leprosy. The stigma against his ailment is more painful that the disease itself, and Thomas now lives as an outcast, and society wants nothing more than for him to keep his distance.

By means unknown, Thomas is transported to The Land when he is struck by a vehicle. There he is greeted by the villains of the novel straight away. Goulish Drool Rockworm, who does the bidding of Lord Foul the Despiser. Foul, oddly enough, almost stupidly, gives Thomas a message to relay to the lords of the land that spells doom and destruction.

Thus begins an adventure through The Land where we meet its peoples, learn that is has a deep history, and a dark past.  The journey, too, seems pulled right out of any mythic form. Thomas must assemble a group of companions who can both fight and provide him with knowledge that will help him unlock mysterious and innate powers that will help him overcome a great evil.

On the surface, that’s exactly what this novel is about.

But remember: Thomas is from Earth. Our Earth, our time (well… the 70’s). Things like this don’t happen. Can’t happen. Furthermore, Thomas is a leper. His severe nerve damage limits him drastically, and even the merest cut could spell his demise. He certainly isn’t the stuff of heroes, and his magic ring? It’s just his white gold wedding band that he nostalgically wears even though his wife has long since abandoned him.

What the story really explores is the internal journey Thomas makes as he struggles with his disbelief with this entire experience (hence his title The Unbeliever). But Thomas is a bitter, bitter man. He is wholly unlikable, and he digs himself in a rather deep hole with his attitude. He is an anti-hero to the extreme.

This is where I had problems with the book, originally. You see, I generally don’t like novels about anti-heroes. They seem to me like the author’s chance to live out a fantasy of being an asshole to everyone yet still be celebrated for it. I have been surprised before, such as with Anne Rice’s Lestat character, and was surprised here as well.

I still don’t like Thomas, but I pity him. He has had a difficult life, so it’s not like he chose to be a leper, or that he chose for his wife to leave him, though that doesn’t excuse all of his choices. It’s a sour irony that Thomas is an outcast at home and wants to be a part of society, but while in The Land, he is a vital figure but he wants nothing more than to be alone.

As far as the setting Donaldson created, he obviously has a lot of affection for it like any author would, but he shows some restraint as the novel progresses and doesn’t encumber us with every minute detail of the world.  While I do think parts of the journey in the novel dragged on during passages of travel, I didn’t feel like I was on a guided tour with signs explaining the history of ruins on the hill, or some relics in the grass.

When compared to other fantasy novels like Lord of the Rings, there are quite a few shared elements. Donaldson even writes with an archaic, expressive vocabulary that makes the novel seem like some ageless and forgotten tome. But the abrasive character of Thomas Covenant, who clashes with every generous offer and benevolent character in The Land, is an intriguing and effective story telling device that sets Lord Foul’s Bane apart from its contemporaries.The unlikable character is such a conductive element that the conflict and drama in the book become explosive, but not just because of physical battles or magical spells.

If you find yourself bored with conventional fantasy, and you feel like you’re reading the same thing time and again, give Lord Foul’s Bane a try. It retains the superficial fantasy elements so that the whole affair has that flavor, but there is a twist to it all. Lord Foul’s Bane may very well be a rebel among fantasy novels, but it’s not one to be quelled.

Meandering Ponderings: Just finished American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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Something happens to me when I finish reading a book I really enjoyed. I tend to feel sad, depressed even, and I feel like I get withdrawal symptoms. I’ve made a book, the reading of it, the characters in it, the events, part of my life. Once finished, my body is slow to commit the experience to memory. Instead, it rebels like a petulant toddler that it wants more and throws a tantrum until it gets what it wants.

I am in the middle of such an episode.

I put off reading the wonderful book American Gods because it came so highly recommended so many times that part of me was afraid it wouldn’t live up to such high expectations. In this case, expectations were shattered.

I had never read Neil Gaiman so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I can be very picky with authors and their styles of writing. I was glad that he could deliver his world to me so deftly. His style is up front. He doesn’t inflate his text with wordy descriptions and tangents. His dialogue is expedient, but engaging, and when he does take time to describe scenery or characters, he quickly sets the stage without wasting your time.

His characters, some of them fantastical given the premise, seem lively and plausible. They have habits. Faults. Skills. I never got the feeling that characters were merely placed to move along the story. They felt alive.

In a land, a rather familiar America to be exact, where gods walk with men and feud with their rivals, successors, and descendants, I felt at home. The main character Shadow, who seems mysterious all on his own, becomes a constant companion, and his journeys and troubles become familiar in an intimate way.

As you can see, I became enamored with several of the book’s elements.

The most unfortunate thing about having finished this novel is that there are no direct sequels (yet). The part of me used to long series of novels that span years and years feels cheated. Where’s the rest?  That’s all folks.

But that is a good thing. A sharp and powerful single novel is rare and it seems more and more writers venture down the path of multi volume series that wind up being full of long stretches of nothing. American Gods delivers the goods in a single blast like from a shotgun and I’m still reeling.

On a final note, a television series is in the works, formerly through HBO, and Neil Gaiman has confirmed he is writing a sequel. I’m definitely not complaining about that.

Now, what will I find to read next?