Within the last decade, the Young Adult genre has skyrocketed in irrepressible popularity. It seems that with this increasing regard, film companies have grasped at the opportunity to impress the YA fan club, in hopes of making the next hit blockbuster. Many have tried to replicate the success of such franchises as Twilight and The Hunger Games, but only a handful have succeeded. The movie adaptation of Veronica Roth’s worldwide bestselling book Divergent, has seemingly played its cards right and won the hearts of moviegoers everywhere.
In honor of Halloween, all this month I’m going to be reviewing books that have scared over the years, in a new series I call “‘Round Midnight”.
John Bellairs, I guess you could say, was the thinking man’s R.L. Stine. He, like Stine, made a career churning out a panoply of childrens’ horror books, but while Stine’s work (which isn’t without its merit, mind you) is full of grotesque images, and often aspires to be kiddie Stephen King, ends up being blackly comic self-parody often reminiscent of the Evil Dead series. Read more »
In honor of Halloween, all this month I’m going to be reviewing books that have scared over the years, in a new series I call “‘Round Midnight”.
For a notorious shut-in and misanthrope, H.P. Lovecraft sure knew how to scare a person. His “Cthulhu Mythos” stories are known for their quaint New England settings, their unique cosmology, and overwhelming sense of cosmic dread. He was one of the first horror authors to stray away from your typical witches-ghosts-undead triumvirate, and was met with middling success during his life, but after his death was revered as one of the greatest writers in the genre, and highly influential on authors from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman. He was also a racist in the “grouchy old man” mode, but we’ll get to that later.
His 1927 novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is strange among the works in his oeuvre, in that it grafts his “mind-breaking abominations from beyond the void are slowly taking over the universe” ideas onto a traditional English-style detective thriller. This actually works surprisingly well. It concerns a young man named (you guessed it) Charles Dexter Ward. He’s a pretty normal WASP-y New Englander who develops a strange obsession with his long dead ancestor Joseph Curwen, who was known for his eccentric habits. Not to ruin much, but things go pear shaped, and his doctor, Marinus Willett, is sent in to investigate.
The beginning of the book is a little slow. Lovecraft enjoys building atmosphere gradually over time, but all that eventually culminates to some of the scariest horror writing ever. I was reading this on the train, one of the least immersive places to read, and I was afraid. This is made even more impressive when you see that Lovecraft doesn’t rely on cheap shocks, or overly gruesome/sick description to make you jump. The mystery elements ground it, so it doesn’t float too far off into Lovecraft’s twisted, whimsical head, like some of his other novellas (e.g. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath), and provide a welcome relief and comfort from the stark horror taking place elsewhere. There even is a little comedy at one point, although it’s easy to miss.
I have two main issues with it, though. It takes a long time for Charles Dexter Ward to get going, and it often spends pages digressing into the villainous Curwen’s backstory, which drags a bit. The aforementioned racism is also at play here, but only in the occasional descriptive passage. Lovecraft didn’t get out much (and kind of hated all people), so he ended up with a skewed perception of humankind, that most often manifested in prejudice. This doesn’t forgive his racist biases by a long stretch, but doesn’t diminish the mostly great writing here, and Lovecraft’s impact on the genre of horror. In total, this is a flawed, but singularly frightening work from one of America’s premier masters of spooky.
This is one of those fantasy books that everyone was talking about a couple years ago. They foamed at the mouth about the “serious”, “gritty” nature of the book, how it was all about how “heroism went wrong” and made it seem like The Witcher-level fantasy grimdark. The A.V. Club called it “one of the best stories told in any medium in the past 10 years.” Even though that site has had its issues in the past (pretension, smugness, near-religious worship of Donnie Darko), I was prepared to trust them on this one. And, you see, it kind of lived up to them. Kind of.
It’s about a kid named Kvothe who’s parents get killed by a mysterious monster. He then makes it his life’s work to pursue the monster, by becoming good at everything. He ends up living on the street and having wacky misadventures at a school for wizards. Wait a second, where have I seen this before? I’d say I’m feeling ambivalent about this book. It told a surprisingly good, if formulaic story. It’s a sort of twist on the old “kid gets orphaned but finds out he’s super special” tale, and takes the Harry Potter route of “goof around a bit before advancing the story” to an extreme, reaching almost Gaiman-like levels of “wait a second, there was an overarching plot here”.
This isn’t actually bad, and lets you luxuriate in Kvothe’s world for a bit before a new plot event, but the physical descriptions of places aren’t as lush as J.K. Rowling’s making it harder to get immersed. The wizards’ school is interesting enough, but reminds me too much of another certain child sorcerer’s old haunts, complete with simulacrums of Professor Snape and Draco Malfoy tormenting Kvothe. But my real issue is with the character of Kvothe himself: while being urbane and witty, and a sterling storyteller, he also isn’t bad at anything. Really. Most everyone in the book including Kvothe himself spends their time talking about how awesome he is.
He seems to use his effortless charm and ebullient wit to get out of any sticky situation, no matter how dire. This wouldn’t be as annoying, if he weren’t so accursedly entitled. He acts like he “deserves” everything he’s getting because he’s so much better at everything than everyone else. The author supports him in thinking thusly. Just to compare, in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, when Jon Snow spouts the same sort of whiny “I deserve this” bull, both the author, and the characters around him actively razz him for it, while in The Name of the Wind, everyone else around him seems to basically say “You’re right, Kvothe, you are really that awesome”.
Don’t even get me started on the love story: it’s basically a combo of everything that ever annoyed me about John Green protagonists (angst, neurosis, whiny-ness, putting girls on pedestals), and the aforementioned shameless self promotion. AUGH. No, but seriously, if you can look past all that, there’s a solid book underneath. The world is pretty interesting, if a bit confusing, and the other characters, even Kvothe at times, endear themselves to the reader. The chemistry between Kvothe and his friends is fun, because it’s more like an 80′s coming of age film than Harry Potter, and the plot can be very entertaining at points, leading in unexpected new directions every few chapters.
But as for it being “dark”, it was nowhere near, and except for the occasional curse word or sexual reference, it could be a juvenile fantasy novel. So honestly, for the most part, I enjoyed The Name of the Wind. Is it “the best story told in any medium in the past 10 years”? No way.
Kindness for Weakness - Shawn Goodman
My first post! =)
Summary: A kid named James lives in a town. He has no friends, his dad hates him, and his mom is defenseless and does nothing to care for him. His brother is a tough guy who does drugs and has friends. Because of that, in order to try to be content in life and in order to be popular, James begins dealing drugs (I believe crystal meth) for his brother. The police catch him and send him to Juvy. There, he meets a kid named Freddie, whom he befriends. At Morton (the Juvy place), James is made fun of because he is not like the rest of the kids there, and Freddie is made fun of because he is a homosexual. The head guys at Juvy also make fun of them. There, Freddie and James befriend each other, and they learn about life and how to be themselves and stick up for who they are and what they believe.
My Opinion: This is a really good book. It is well written, the dialogue is accurate, and it shows that you should always be yourself, though it may be hard, because if you’re not yourself, you will not be satisfied. It was also a good eye opener to us about the outcasts of society who are different than us, and it lets us know them better and also accept/respect them for who they are. Overall, this book was great, and it was worth reading. I’m not a fan of these kind of books, but it was far different from any book of this genre I have read.
It’s rare that I describe a book as “delightful”. “Delightful” implies, for me, at least, a book so good that I actually feel physical buoyancy while reading it. The Anubis Gates is one of those rare “delightful” books. It’s about a man named Brendan Doyle who, at the behest of an eccentric old man, travels back in time to 1810, and gets stuck there. At first, it seems a little like Back to the Future in the Regency era, complete with goofy misunderstandings and fish out of water antics, but takes a sharp left turn when Ancient Egyptian magic gets involved.
I won’t ruin too much, though, because a majority of its appeal comes from being surprised at how everything connects. The great part about it, though, is its lack of pretension. It doesn’t make a big deal about its own cleverness: instead of flaunting its elaborate worldbuilding and knowledge of history, like some other historical fantasy and science fiction novels, it lets the audience fill in the gaps, and doesn’t assume too much. If you don’t know about the Regency, it doesn’t matter, because Powers doesn’t constantly hit you over the head with things specific to that time. I also appreciate the lack of put-on Britishness: normally, when an American like Powers writes a book set in old time England, you hear a lot of lines like “Give us some bees and honey guv’nor but watch out for the bloody bobbies”, and often sound like they’re trying too hard.
Fortunately, there’s none of that here. One minor issue I have with this book, is that it’s a bit slow in points, especially in the beginning, but once it gets going, it reaches delirious heights of “I can’t believe he’s doing this.” Another is the slightly politically incorrect Egypt sections, with their cheesy, descriptions of that country’s inhabitants, but they’re milder than all three Indiana Jones movies combined, really. Other than that, this book was great. A perfect brainy beach read for the warmer months ahead.
As anyone who knows their conspiracy theory lingo or has watched an episode of The X Files knows, “black helicopters” are vehicles that some people believe malevolent agents of the government fly around in to look menacing. While I personally don’t subscribe to that theory, or most other conspiracies, really; some people are deathly afraid of these things, and hide out in the wilderness with gun and food stashes to avoid them. This book is from the perspective of one of these people, and details her life, and subsequent downfall. The writing in this was terse and fast moving, and the plot was, like Maggot Moon, mainly based on implication and inference. The protagonist doesn’t explicitly mention militias or suicide bombings, but you can definitely guess that’s what she’s talking about.
The use of in media res and non-linear storytelling was definitely original, and made for a more interesting reading experience. The author does a good job of making you sympathize with a person who is obviously amoral and possibly insane, and doesn’t belittle or disparage conspiracy theorists no matter how easy it would be to do so. Quite thought provoking.
The last dystopian novel I read was M.T. Anderson’s Feed. This book is its polar opposite. Instead of being about a corporate run hell, it depicts a government run hell, and is as hopeful as that book was stomach-churningly depressing. It’s about a kid named Standish who grows up in a version of Britain heavily implied to be run by Nazi Germany. Unlike Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle which deals with a similar scenario, it doesn’t outright state that, though. Everything is implication in this novel, including Standish’s homosexuality, and the identity of the so called “land of Croca-Colas” he dreams about.
The dystopia itself is made up of jumbled bits of other settings: the run-down, veddy British state of V for Vendetta, the Stalinist purges of 1984, and the Nazi run government of the aforementioned Man in the High Castle, but this isn’t really the point of the story. It instead seeks to tell a simple story of the resilience of the human spirit in times of trouble, and on that level, it succeeds. The writing is darkly humorous, and also Dashiell Hammett-level laconic, and the chapters are concise, so there’s no real padding. I wish the author did more with her setting, but that probably would have just served to slow it down. The unnecessarily graphic/gross illustrations might not have been needed, though, just saying. Over all, worth checking out.
“Smart, honest, and full of achingly real characters. And it made me laugh. What else would you want in a book?” -Melina Marchetta
Now, if you really enjoyed Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, and can’t bear to hear a word against it, I suggest abandoning the reading of this review. Now that I got that out of the way, I can begin. Steampunk used to be one of my favorite genres. It combined everything I enjoyed about kids’ books: cool tech, flights of fancy, plucky heroes/heroines, the 19th century, and England. I had heard from people praising this book as the second coming of Alan Moore, and from the back cover, I thought that it was going to be.
It promised a ripping yarn full of everything I mentioned previously, and it did, to an extent. What it didn’t follow through on, though, was making the story interesting enough to survive without all the other trappings. The real test of a steampunk novel is if when you strip away the fantastical veneer, it still tells an interesting story, with compelling characters and a believable, but not too real setting. When you take the veneer off Leviathan, it leaves a sort of formulaic plot, and run of the mill characters. The protagonists are Deryn Sharp, a typical sort of Eowyn-esque “I wanna be a soldier but I’m a girl” character (her plotline actually has scenes that seem directly lifted from Disney’s Mulan), and Aleksandar Hapsburg, who’s a pretty boring “spoiled prince get’s taught about the real world” type, and is also a bit of a jerk, considering that he murdered a guy in cold blood, but his character development consists mainly of him angsting over his inability to pilot a steam powered robot correctly.
Their stories would be interesting, if they went anywhere. There’s no real build up of dramatic tension: Aleksandar, even though he’s supposed to be running from people who want to kill him, spends a lot of time sitting around thinking, and Deryn doesn’t face any conflicts in her quest to become a soldier, besides her gender, but as before, Westerfeld doesn’t build up dramatic tension well enough to make me care about that conflict, or anything else in the story besides the mildly interesting technology system. Which brings me to another point: even if a certain work has a slightly predictable plot, if there are enough interesting ideas being winged your way, it doesn’t matter as much. Look at Star Wars. Even though the plot is simplistic and the characters are archetypal to the point of cliche, there are so many “hey look at that, that’s awesome” things happening to distract you from it.
In Leviathan, even though the genetically engineered animals and steam powered mechas are cool to look at (one good thing about this book is Keith Thompson’s excellent illustrations), and the slang is just the right amount of incomprehensible and annoying to fully remind you you’re reading an SF novel, there’s a point at which one neat device or technology system isn’t going to be as stunningly awe inspiring as it was the first time you saw it. Therein lies the issue: Leviathan doesn’t have enough crazy concepts to change a dull SF novel, into a pulpy guilty pleasure, something Westerfeld’s previous book Uglies did so well. And this would be fine, if the plot were interesting enough to exist on its own. As I said before, it isn’t.
I know there are devoted fans of this book out there, and I fully respect their opinion on this, but for me, I thought the story and characters were dull, and there wasn’t enough insane, off the wall things to keep me distracted from those shortcomings. I won’t even get into the unfortunate implications of having genetically engineered animals fighting mechas in World War I. That’s a review for a different day. And that’s why I quit halfway through.