Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Curse by Mike Norton


The Curse by Mike Norton is a graphic novel the writer/artist created during the 24-hour comic challenge.  Curious to see what he created, I was glad to get a peep at this book.  Part one was created during the challenge in 2009.  The premise is quirky and amusing from the very first few pages, with a young woman shrilling at her boyfriend about his being lazy before slapping her way out the door and the relationship.  What happens next has to be read to be appreciated but I hadn’t finished the first part before I was thinking, “I know a few people who’d enjoy reading this one.”


In part two of the comic, the premise seems to have been dropped although there is a parallel theme in a shrewish woman hurling insults, this time at her husband as she carries their child.  This part was created in 2010.  Last but not least, part three leaves the bitchy women behind (thank goodness) and continues making peculiar allusions while picking up the story of Baxer, the pug dog. 

There are allusions to more random things than I could possibly list, but as a sampling I quickly found references to classic movies (like Werewolf, Labyrinth, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Birds) all peppered with a plethora of vulgarities and metaphors that focus on genitalia.  (I snorted at a reference to Stephen King’s wet dream.)  The illustrations are bold and remarkably well done considering the limitations of the challenge.  I don’t know if Norton intends on picking up where the third story leaves off and I can’t say that there is a large audience for this series if he does.  The vulgar language will likely turn many away and the misogyny is discomfiting.  But the potential of the quirky premise is not fully realized and this reader will at least want to check out what comes next, if only for a few minute’s weird distraction.

The Curse by Mike Norton is a graphic novel the writer/artist created during the 24-hour comic challenge.  Curious to see what he created, I was glad to get a peep at this book.  Part one was created during the challenge in 2009.  The premise is quirky and amusing from the very first few pages, with a young woman shrilling at her boyfriend about his being lazy before slapping her way out the door and the relationship.  What happens next has to be read to be appreciated but I hadn’t finished the first part before I was thinking, “I know a few people who’d enjoy reading this one.”

In part two of the comic, the premise seems to have been dropped although there is a parallel theme in a shrewish woman hurling insults, this time at her husband as she carries their child.  This part was created in 2010.  Last but not least, part three leaves the bitchy women behind (thank goodness) and continues making peculiar allusions while picking up the story of Baxer, the pug dog. 

There are allusions to more random things than I could possibly list, but as a sampling I quickly found references to classic movies (like Werewolf, Labyrinth, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Birds) all peppered with a plethora of vulgarities and metaphors that focus on genitalia.  (I snorted at a reference to Stephen King’s wet dream.)  The illustrations are bold and remarkably well done considering the limitations of the challenge.  I don’t know if Norton intends on picking up where the third story leaves off and I can’t say that there is a large audience for this series if he does.  The vulgar language will likely turn many away and the misogyny is discomfiting.  But the potential of the quirky premise is not fully realized and this reader will at least want to check out what comes next, if only for a few minute’s weird distraction.

Please Note:  I read this as an ARC and the book itself is not due for publication until September 2012.  By then we'll know if the creator took on the challenge in 2012 and if Baxter's story is allowed to continue.  

Friday, April 27, 2012

Game of Thrones by George R R Martin


Game of Thrones by George R R Martin is the first in the Song of Ice and Fire series upon which the television show is based.  I read a novella that made me consider reading the series before I even saw the television show.  When I saw the first season of theshow, I wanted to read the books but the entire series is not fully published, with at least two more books on their way.  Given that I have a personal rule saying I will not read a series of books until it is fully published, why am I reading these novels now?

Because of Marc.  Grrrrr . . . 

Someone recommended the series to him and he bought himself a copy of the first book and borrowed the first book of the Wheel of Time books by Robert Jordan from the library.  But I heard he’d bought the former before he explained to me he was reading the latter.  By the time I realized his shift in focus, I was halfway through Martin’s novel.  Oops. 

Now, if you’ve seen the television show, you won’t find a lot of surprises within the cover of this book.  There are a few changes but they are narratively insignificant.  My favorite characters (Arya (I adore her), Tyrion, Jon) lose nothing in my appreciation for them.  Naturally, there is a greater depth of character when one can read the internal struggles and ideas.  However, one can’t help but be impressed how well the writers of the television show manage to translate these characters to the screen. 

Eddard, Daenerys, and Bran are all strong characters but I was pleasantly surprised by Sansa, who rose in my estimation.  She’s woefully naïve and idealizes circumstances, with her romanticized vision of how things should be, not how they are. 

Martin does a wonderful job of interweaving a complex plot, shifting the character point-of-view flawlessly, each character moving the plot forward so seamlessly that this novel could be a textbook on how to write a novel that uses multiple viewpoints to tell a story.  The chapters are also fairly short so even when you’re in a story thread or character who is less than engaging, you know that there are only a few more pages to go before you return to one you prefer.  Not that the story is ever slow, boring, or not fascinating.  Far from it.  And the choice of viewpoint, as I have already said, is so perfectly crafted you don’t begrudge even a moment of being in a less favored character.

There are a few things I did not like.  I always feels suspect when a writer ends a novel with a cliffhanger because it implies to me that the author doesn’t have enough faith in his/her writing to trust that the reader will follow along.  However, while Martin does end on a cliffhanger, the story is so intricate that he could hardly have ended it with any clear closure.  Of course, this probably means that every other book in the series will be like that except for the final one.  (This is why I vowed a long time ago I would not read a series until it was completely published.  Why am I doing it now with this series?  Because the men in my life hate me but that’s another story for another time.)

Another thing I find troubling is how very few truly strong women characters there are.  For the most part, they are treated like chattel or they are bitches.  Personally, I see little difference between Catelyn and Cersei, albeit the latter is a bit more cold-hearted.  Sansa and Daenerys seem to be the same side of one coin.  Arya alone stands out as different from the other women and I can only hope that there will be some other female characters who are worthy of admiration and even adoration.  (Seriously, I must reiterate how much I adore Arya.)   

Currently, Rob and I are watching season 2 of the series so I already know that there are new characters who will be introduced and some minor ones will be moved front and center.  From what I understand, the first two seasons follow the first two books and, when Marc does get around to reading the first book and starts the second, I will be right there with him, reading alongside, as it were.  And I already know that this means I’ll be reading the story lines for characters I don’t adore as much as I do Arya.  (Have I mentioned that I love Arya?)

To the best of my ability, I’ll try not to give away any spoilers and, if a favorite character from one review doesn’t show up in another, please don’t assume that character has been killed off in the previous book.  I’m going to purposely avoid mentioning my preferred characters from one review to the next for this very reason.  (Yes, even Arya.)  The good news is that, since my son shifted over to the other books, I am now able to freely set aside this series without feeling too much guilt.  At best, we can expect the sixth book to be published in 2015 and that still leaves at least one more book to be finished.  Under the circumstances, I’m understandably reticent about continuing onto the next book so don’t  look for a review of the second, third, or fourth books any time soon.  Or don't look for them here.  However, you can look at the video clip below of Maisie Williams talking about Arya.  Really.  You should watch it.  In fact, you should be watching the series so we can talk about the characters and moral ambiguity and the role of women in this society and such.  


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An Atheist Manifesto by Joseph L Lewis

An Atheist Manifesto by Joseph L Lewis is a sort of call-to-arms rallying cry against Christianity and the Bible.  Lewis vilifies the teachings of Christianity, denying the existence of God, denouncing the supposed deism of Jesus Christ, and esteeming science above and beyond anything religion has to offer.

In this very short text, Lewis declares that nothing good has come from religion which has only hindered progress.  He makes no bones about his belief that, were it not for religion, and Christianity in particular, we would be living close to a utopic ideal.  He cites the numerous scientific advancements and discoveries made following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, going so far as to suggest that we should no longer number our eras with BC/AD (or BC/BCE) but from that significant American moment.

Ummmm . . . yeah.  This sort of inflammatory rhetoric that typically turns people off before they even start listening is not likely going to convert many.  Then again, I doubt that many believers would bother reading a book with this title, no matter how brief it may be.  At best, it serves as a sort of affirmation for those who are already atheists and could prove a pivotal conversion point for an agnostic.

I do not begrudge Lewis his rhetoric.  I do, however, take exception to some of the sweeping claims he makes.  Mind you, I don’t necessarily disagree with them.  Unfortunately, the scope of this argument is so narrow that there isn’t room for him to support his contentions.  And if I don’t necessarily disagree I also can’t quite say that I fully agree.  For instance, I can see how he would come to the conclusion that the Grand Experiment that is our government system here in the United States opened doors for inquiry.  However, to suggest that the reason knowledge seems to have made strides above and beyond anything the preceded it is being a bit blinded by a particular viewpoint.  Nobody is arguing that research and knowledge is growing by leaps and bounds but hasn’t the doubling of information become more immediate over the millennia until now we see it narrowing down to such an extent that soon by the time we know something it will already be old news. 

Is that even possible?

Anyway, because Lewis makes such aggressively sweeping statements and doesn’t really back up anything he says, he sort of begs the question:  has religion wrought any good thing?  And because he generalizes his attacks (being specific only when he is defending his argument), I can see how a believer would easily dismiss what he is saying, even when what he is saying is fundamentally true. It may be a matter of this being such a short text that he did not have the necessary room to develop his arguments.  I can appreciate that but it doesn’t help me appreciate this book.  It’s a quick read (I read it in less than an hour with interruptions) and is a foundation from which other writers could likely build stronger and more fully realized arguments.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

This book is the first of many free on kindle books I'll be reviewing.  So if you're inclined to read this book for yourself, you can easily find it for free.  Woohoo!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Goodbye Mr. Chips by James Hilton

Goodbye Mr. Chips by James Hilton is a novel (really novella) about a man who is at the end of his life which has been, by some standards, unremarkable.  Mr. Chipping, after graduating with adequate grades from a middling university, becomes a teacher at an ordinary boarding school, not elite enough to streamline its students to Oxford.  Mr. Chips, as everyone calls him, serves a long tenure at the fictitious school and the story of his decades of teaching leading up to and following the first World War is told in reflection.

This is a sentimental story, one that is meant to make the reader feel good.  Typically, such novels are not very challenging but I was pleasantly surprised by a scene that occurs during the Great War when Chips is reading something aloud to the student body. To say too much would give away some details but this moment, for me, elevated the eponymous character from being a cliché, overly idealized doddering old man, to an interesting and inspiring individual.  Until this scene, I couldn’t understand the appreciation his students held for him.  That he had endeared himself is evident in how many of his former students continue to visit him for years after he is no longer teaching. 

There is something fulfilling about this little book.  It is not a profound story nor is it meant to do more than what it does.  Hilton wastes no moment and no word, although he does give Chips a rather tedious speech affectation that I found a bit bothersome.  It would have been downright annoying in a longer novel and I respect Hilton’s choice not to draw things out.

What makes this novel interesting for me is that the reader sees a lot of change through the nearly stagnant perspective of the protagonist.  He is neither fundamentally conservative nor radically liberal.  When faced with change, he remains, for the most part, unchanged; however, he does not remain untouched; therefore, the events that touch his life resonate with a more universal significance.  If the novel's conclusion is unsurprising, it is precisely that, because it is not a surprise, which makes this novel a pleasant read.  I can see why it was made into a movie more than once and, although I haven’t seen the story on film, I have no doubt that anyone who enjoyed the movie, whatever version they saw, would love reading this novel.  I certainly enjoyed it and will probably watch the more recent film version sooner rather than later. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein


The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein is one of those novels that has the potential to be brilliant and falls short of realization.  I had never heard of it or, if I had, overlooked it, dismissed it, moved on.  I chose to read it because I saw a movie trailer and paid more attention to it because of one of the actresses.  Curiosity peaked, I borrowed the book.

Perhaps I’m being cynical but, at this point, any gothic cum vampire movie that is made at this point has the taint of coat-tail riding.  With the whole Twilight phenomenon, there seems to be a scramble to milk some money out of the Twi-Hards.  Obviously, I am not one of those, given my loathing for the first novel and my lack of appreciation for the film version.  But I anticipated that there would be a twist, some unexpected flip of the inevitable that would have me thinking this story would be more intelligent.

The story begins in the present and immediately shifts to the past.  The present is the frame for the story, beginning and closing the first person narration, but it is not used to strong effect.  I am not sure how the author might have given closure without the afterword; perhaps it is not necessary to have it there.  Is closure necessary?  Can a novel be ambiguous and still fulfill the promise of telling a story?

The bulk of the novel is told through the journal of the narrator who is one of a few borders at an all-girl school.  Set in the sixties, there are a few anachronistic moments (for instance, one character referring to her parents as ‘rents) and the period does not seem to inform the story as much as I had anticipated.  By placing the protagonist and the other characters in a boarding school, the intensity of the situation should be heightened.  The sexuality of these girls, because they are adolescents and living at a time when the sexual revolution is rising, is bound to be all the more heightened, under the circumstances.  Obsession and curiosity take center stage but the far-reaching implications are sacrificed for a sort of melodramatic conclusion.  

The unreliability of the narrator herself is immediately established because of the frame.  As a result, the preponderance of the tension is lost altogether.  The reader is never afforded the opportunity to doubt the sanity or question the experience of the young girl writing in her journal.  The reasons she may be emotionally confused are established but, because of the frame, there is no need to fully explore anything.  Her father’s death, her mother’s depression, are all left “out there” in the world beyond the perimeter of the boarding school and the narrator’s emotions.  How these experiences inevitably weave into the events that are recorded in her journal are glossed over, at best, as are the many emotions she struggles to make sense of as she confronts the contradictions that make up the self.
I suspect that the movie will prove to be better than the book, especially considering the director who is taking up the reins of this story.  A movie doesn’t have to deeply explore the more universal questions that the novel almost lays out; a movie just has to look pretty.  The novel gives the reader enough pretty moments and the casting director has offered up sufficiently pretty actors, to make the movie a success.  If the novel doesn’t bring much new to the table, that’s unfortunate.  It certainly hints at so much more and, because it only hints and never fulfills, I was disappointed.

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