Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Raising the Stakes

August 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: from here on in, there will be minor spoilers for A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, medium-sized spoilers for Breaking Dawn, and MAJOR spoilers for A Game of Thrones.

This summer I read two books that featured a similar plot line. A a seemingly young man who for various reasons is really older than his appearance/years meets a pretty sweet young woman* who is socially several rungs below him. Circumstances bring them together and they fall in love. The young woman is a virgin. The young man has strong notions about marriage and honor, believing that when you sleep with a woman and take her virginity, you should marry her. Preferably, the marriage comes before the sex. However, this story of young love unfolds against a chaotic backdrop featuring old conflicts and uneasy truces between rival factions. The union of the young lovers threatens the stability of the world around them. Those around them who who better understand current circumstances realize this and brace themselves for potential disaster.

* Whether we as readers actually believe the girl is pretty and sweet is besides the point. The point is that this is what the author wants us to think and how she comes across in universe.

One of these books was Breaking Dawn. The other: A Storm of Swords.

Without giving away too many spoilers, lets just say that in one of the stories, everything ends happily, but in the other the happy ending is not forthcoming.** Unsurprisingly, the latter was a far better story.

** Understatement of the century I know, but work with me.

I had seen the first Twilight movie a while back, which was bearable thanks to pretty scenery and Rifftrax. However, morbid curiosity prompted me to borrow Breaking Dawn from the library to see if there was something, anything in the alleged climactic final chapter that would explain why people fell in love with these books.*** The book disappointed me, but reading it alongside the literary crack that was A Song of Ice and Fire helped to not only understand my disappointment, but why others find the books so appealing. It’s actually the same reason–there are no stakes.

***And the love was for the books as Twilight-mania predated the movies and lust for Robert Pattinson/Taylor Lautner by a good couple of years.

Don’t get me wrong, Breaking Dawn is full of “conflict” and “angst.” Edward’s fear for Bella’s life during pregnancy, Bella having to completely sever ties with her human life to become a vampire, the Cullens being angsty about what they are, the uneasy peace with the werewolves that threatens to break out into open war. There’s even a potentially creepy intrigue involving a dark chapter of vampire history with toddlers (trapped in the terrible twos no less) being turned into vampires and wreaking havoc. However, every one of these things resolved in such a way that Bella does not lose anything she values or have to make any painful choices. There is an appearance of suspense, but how can a reader invest in any of the conflicts or ever truly worry about the characters if you know the universe will find a way to warp itself to Bella’s wishes no matter what. If Bella is meant to be an audience surrogate, then those who inhabit her get the pleasing thrill that comes from the illusion of stakes without the messy reality of having to deal with the consequences of her actions that would be inevitable in a universe that does not warp itself to one’s will. I can see that being addictive to a teenage girl (or maybe even those older Twi-Moms), but it makes for an unsatisfying story.****

**** And, if you happen to be one of the many who thinks Bella is a whiny, sociopathic, narcissistic twit, it makes the stories downright infuriating.  

Now, anyone who reads the A Song of Ice and Fire books, (or has watched the HBO adaptation of the first book, A Game of Thrones) knows that George R.R. Martin has absolutely no qualms about following his plotlines to their natural, albeit traumatic ends. Ned Stark’s execution was painful and shocking, but in retrospect was inevitable. Ned not only did not know how to navigate the intrigues of Kings Landing, but also he refused to learn. Until the bitter end, he always chose the “honorable” option over the best option, which won him few allies and countless enemies.

When one spends as much time as Martin describing what a viper pit Kings Landing is, it is inevitable and dramatically necessary that someone get bit by the snakes. And it can’t be just random guardsman number 3 or even better, a Lannister. This is a treacherous world and in treacherous worlds, characters the audience cares about are going to suffer–it isn’t just the bad guys who get hurt.

Is there a risk of going too far the other way, i.e. inducing audience apathy by making things unbearably bleak and having NOTHING work out for the people we care about? Martin sometimes dances at that precipice, and the resolution to his “young lovers” plotline is probably the most traumatic and brutal denouements to a story I’ve ever read,***** but I understand why it had to be. Martin stated repeatedly that, considering the context, the young man’s romantic side would lead to dire consequences. Even if you could argue that the consequences were too harsh, it was clear that a price had to be paid. To walk away from the mess with deus ex machina characters and events making things alright for the happily ever after would have been insulting to the readers who have invested so much in this story.

***** When my friend recommended the books to me, I was warned in particular about that scene and how it almost made him walk away from the series. At Comic-con, Martin himself stated that should Game of Thrones last long enough to reach that scene, he’ll be sure to be out of the country when it airs. Those of you who were shattered by Ned Stark’s death–you ain’t seen nothing yet.


Soon I Will Be Invincible: A Review

January 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Soon I Will Be Invincible
Austin Grossman
Pantheon Books, 2007
Hardcover, 288 pages

Since movies like Megamind and Despicable Me, which focuses on the supervillain as protagonist have become popular this year, it’s no surprise that I found Soon I Will Be Invincible.    This is also the first book that will fulfill my Speculative Fiction Challenge.

I really wanted to like this book.  I really did.  The first chapters seemed promising: villain protagonist that the author had a sense of humor about, a half woman/half cyborg superhero that I cared about, and an obvious love of the genre.

Neurotic Supervillains are so hot right now.

The problem: I felt like I was reading first chapters for most of the book.  My main problems:

A) We didn’t need to be told every other chapter how Dr. Impossible was a picked on nobody who later became a supervillain. His origin story was stretched way too thin over too many chapters. And dear lord the lists. There are only so many times you can rehash your litany of cartoon supervillainy before it just gets repetitive.  For instance, page 152, when Dr. Impossible was reminiscing about his ex-girlfriend Lily:*

Who is she trying to kid?  I’ve seen her tear the door off a Wells Fargo truck bare-handed, laughing, dragging a guardsman out by his shirt.  I was there when she took the depleted-uranium rounds that chipped and scored the right side of her collarbone.  We rode the roof of a D train together out of Manhattan that time, while the Metaman was still scouring Broadway for us, and we leaped off the Manhattan bridge together when they finally found us.  We crawled ashore at Williamsburg, to the cheers of drunk party-goers…

If that was the only such list, I could see it as an effective way to show Dr. Impossible reminiscing about his partner in crime and discomfort seeing her sit with this universe’s equivalent of the Justice League.  However, this is not the first time we hear about Lily–we learn what we think is her origin story way back in Chapter 1.  I could also see it as an effective way to show Dr. Impossible’s character: a supergenius bent on world domination with cartoon supervillainy, but in reality was an ignored socially awkward guy who seems to get off more on the attention than the success.  But again, that was already established, back in Chapter 1.

Grossman I think handicapped himself by alternating the chapters between the heroes and Dr. Impossible.  There are 21 chapters and Dr. Impossible bragging about/pitying himself while he builds so vaguely scientific superweapon is not enough to fulfill eleven chapters.  Each chapter does have a nugget of something interesting: meeting the legendary Baron Ether, finishing his fetch quest for the key ingredients for his weapon, battling the heroes.  But this is was maybe four or five chapters worth of material, tops. There just was not enough depth to him to justify spending over half the book in his head.  Also, devoting so much time to Dr. Impossible led to the book’s other major problem.

B) With eleven chapters devoted to Dr. Impossible, we only had ten chapters to learn about the Champions (the Justice League team), their predecessors the Super Squadron, their collective back story as a team, and original origin stories.  The result was ten chapters of exposition dump about characters that a)I didn’t care about and b) were not relevant to the story as it were.**  I like that the author included all the heroes to show how expansive this world with superheroes is. But you shouldn’t be introducing new names to drop three-quarters of the way through the book.   Here’s the back story that was necessary: why Fatale was asked to join the team,*** why we should be wary of Lily, and why the team broke up in the first place.  That’s enough back story to stretch through the first five or six hero chapters.  The last five or six hero chapters could then focus on watching this team act knowing these dynamics.  Instead, Lily’s back story is seemingly disposed of in the first villain chapter, Fatale’s in the second chapter, and the back story of Champions is told in 12 pages as Lily and Fatale watch an unauthorized DVD documentary that the Champions own, even though they refused to be interviewed for it.

Why the Champions broke up and how they were able to reconstitute themselves should have been the heart of the hero chapters.  They should have informed character dynamics and at the end you should feel like the team worked through their garbage and found a way to reunite, stronger in the broken places.  Instead, we get a 12 page exposition dump disguised as Lily and Fatale watching a conveniently placed DVD and chapter upon chapter of unnecessary subplots for the heroes and repetitions for the villains.

C) The climax, or rather anticlimax. All the heroes, who have presumably known each other for over a decade (save for the new cyborg woman Fatale, the one character I really cared about) should know each other’s origin stories.****  We didn’t need the origin story dump at the end.   And Fatale***** hanging a lampshade on the fact that she’s about to hear yet another origin story does not make the device any less cumbersome.  Further, there was a twist that could have been awesome if it was handled less clumsily.  As it was, this twist only served to drain all the coherence from one of the main characters.

Maybe this book was meant to be a parody of superhero movies and comics and conventions. The parts describing Dr. Impossible’s previous doomsday/take over the world devices (Fungus army?) were funny the first time around. The soap opera dynamics of the old Champions team  as seen through the eyes of the new recruit was fun and could have been even more fun if we spent more time seeing how their present was informed by the past and less time recounting origins and back story that was only tangentially related to the plot. It’s obvious that the author loves the genre. But I think the book is too much a fanboy compendium and not enough of a story.

* Lily was easily the most intriguing character.  I wanted to know why she chose to make a Heel Face Turn and there was a nice bit of tension about whether Lily would just change her mind and become a villain.  However, Grossman decided that a better resolution to this character would be to offer an M. Knight Shyamalan twist regarding who she is.

** Examples of such unnecessary plot threads is Damsel’s stepmommy issues with Regina (complete with her origin story), Elphin’s vague mission for Titania (complete with her origin story), and Super Squadron’s tension with the Champions connected with the Face Heel turn of Paragon (thankfully no origin story).  I would argue that save for the mention about Super Squadron’s Stormcloud being Damsel’s father, we didn’t really need to know anything about the previous team.  It felt like Grossman was trying to wedge in a Sally/Laurie Jupiter plot thread less to comment on the nature of inherited superherodom and more to pay homage to Watchmen.

*** Introducing us to the dynamics of an established group by doing it through the eyes of a new person is a well-worn trope, used by works as high brow as Mad Men.  It is fairly effective here and had Grossman used Fatale’s nativity to slowly reveal the dynamics of this team over the ten “hero” chapters, it would have been even more effective.

**** Especially Damsel and Blackwolf (this universe’s Wonder Woman and Batman), who were MARRIED for a while.

***** Grossman set up what seemed like was going to be a big mystery about the people who turned Fatale into a cyborg to save her life.  It seemed like it could have been a sequel hook for the next book in the series–find out who these people were and make them the next book’s villain.  But it seemed like Grossman decided at the last second that he didn’t want to tell this universe’s version of X-Men 2 and tied that the plot thread up in an unsatisfactory way.

The Devotion of Suspect X: A Review

December 27, 2010 2 comments

The Devotion of Suspect X
Author: Keigo Higashino
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
Minotaur Books, 2010
Paperback (ARC), 298 pages

This one wasn’t originally on my reading list, but because I won it from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program, it shot to the top of the list.

So, The Devotion of Suspect X then…

Instead of a classic whodunit, this story had more of a Crime and Punishment style cat and mouse game.  Ishigami, called “the Buddha” by his admirers and chroniclers (he really doesn’t have friends) is a brilliant mathematician who’s madly in love with his neighbor Yasuko Hanaoka.  At first his devotion is understated; each day she goes to work at the lunch box shop, he faithfully buys his lunch from her.  Then when Yasuko and her daughter kill her deadbeat ex-husband, Ishigami’s devotion becomes much more overt; he offers to cover up the murder and build them the perfect alibi.  We as readers know whodunit and who was covering it up.  The mystery comes from figuring out just how Ishigami managed to factor in so many variables (forensics, the Hanaoka women’s mental states) and almost retroactively plan the perfect crime.

However, as Ishigami realizes, there was one variable he did not consider.  The detective assigned to the case is friends with Yukawa, an old classmate of Ishigami’s.  While the detective has a sense that Hanaoka’s alibi isn’t quite right, it takes Yukawa’s own brilliant physicist mind (and his old knowledge of Ishigami’s personality) to finally figure out just how elaborate and deep the cover-up (and Ishigami’s devotion to Hanaoka) runs.

While the story is good, I feel like it needed at least one more good revision to tighten up some of the writing and plot elements.  Several early parts in the book are bogged down with Captain Obvious statements.  For instance:

“I think it’s great that they go out to karaoke together.  It’s not often you have a mother and daughter who get along so well.”  It was clear from his tone that [junior detective] Kishitani did not consider Yasuko Hanaoka a suspect.

That second sentence about Kishitani’s tone is unnecessary.  The preceding scene, heck the preceding sentence conveys Kishitani’s favorable view of Yasuko sufficiently.  A sentence or two like that in the beginning is not a big deal, but they occur so frequently in the early part of the book that it almost feels like the author* doesn’t trust his readers to pick up on his characters thoughts and feelings on the murder.

Captain Obvious states the obvious.

The second issue I have is with the timing of Yasuko’s great love, Kudo’s introduction.  We learn early on about Yasuko’s old job as a nightclub hostess, but we do not even get a mention of any man she met that she might have considered a life with or that she even considered her hostess job as anything but work.  Around page 100, when the mystery is really getting into gear, Kudo visits the shop and we are given his intro and expository background in one fell swoop.  Now, I don’t mind Kudo first appearing at this point as there is a good in-story justification for it (he heard about the murder of his old hostess friend’s husband on the news and wanted to see how she was).  But there was no noticeable foreshadowing that a character like Kudo (a man for whom Yasuko’s nightclub hostess personality wasn’t just an act) existed.  It feels like the author realized a hundred pages in that he forgot to introduce the complicating factor of Yasuko falling for a man who was NOT her protector and scrambled to get that subplot going.

Even with these complaints, I do think the book is worth reading.  I like the battle of wits between the physicist and the mathematician who, if not fully realized, are at least three-dimensional enough that I can mostly understand why the characters were behaving as they did.**  I appreciate the effort to keep Yasuko a player in this story.  The relationship with Kudo reminded us that Yasuko wasn’t merely a woman stuffed into the fridge*** giving Ishigami et al. the impetus for their adventures.  She was a person (at least as much any other character in the story) who had her own thoughts.  She truly was the person that Ishigami was devoted to, rather than the object of Ishigami’s affections.  As she was a person and not merely a prize, she was allowed to fall for Kudo and not be vilified for not “rewarding” her protector with reciprocated devotion.

Most importantly, when watching Ishigami and Yukawa at work, I believed the text’s repeated assertions about their genius.  Without that, the story would have collapsed regardless of how well realized the characters were otherwise.  The book as written is pretty good.  If the author and editor had taken the time to fix some of the pacing problems and edit out the Captain Obvious lines, it could have been really good.

* Or the translator.  I couldn’t tell you whose decision it was to add the Captain Obvious sentences.

** Though there is a particular revelation about Ishigami that shouldn’t have been saved until the last ten pages.  It was not necessary to wait that long to maintain the suspense about whether Ishigami would continue to protect the girl when it became clear that he would not get the girl.  By the time he played his trump card, the reader knows he’s not going to turn on Yasuko and we didn’t need to wait another fifty or so pages to find out why.    Again, where it was placed, it felt like the author realized at the last minute “whoops, I need to solidify the lead’s character motivation.”

*** For more information, see this page at TVTropes.  While Yasuko was not murdered, she could have easily been shunted aside once she committed her crime with no thought to her worries or feelings of guilt or her concerns about whether she can actually move on with her life.

A Wind Named Amnesia: A Review

December 15, 2010 Leave a comment

A Wind Named Amnesia
Author: Hideyuki Kikuchi
Illustrator: Yoshitaka Amano
Translator: Joe & Yuko Swift
Dark Horse Books, 2005
Paperback, 230 pages

Nota Bene: A Wind Named Amnesia was originally written in 1983, but was published in 2005 as a double novel with Invader Summer. Originally, these books were published in Japan under the title Invader Street.  As I do not speak or read Japanese, I do not feel qualified to critique specific language use or turns of phrase; everything I am reading from Kikuchi’s original story is filtered through Joe and Yuko Swift’s interpretation.  This is the first in my series about speculative fiction and fantasy books from places other than the United States or UK.

A Wind Named Amnesia was an odd choice for me to pick up.  Normally, I’m not a huge fan of stories set in a post-apocalyptic world, though I make an exception for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Yet even this science-fiction classic written by one of the major names of the genre left me at best, lukewarm.  However, the particular apocalypse as described in Amnesia felt different–it wasn’t an all out war or an obvious alien invasion.  Something stole the memories of humankind, specifically their memories of civilization.  Therefore, our intrepid duo of Sophia* and Wataru not only had to survive their cross-country odyssey, but they also had to learn just why America (and the rest of the world) has reverted to a primitive state.

In a postscript to the book, Kikuchi wrote about how this story was inspired by his own trip to Grand Canyon and the surrounding areas, and how he was blown away by the vast American landscape.  That awe does come through.  As odd as it is to say considering this book is set after America is destroyed by loss of memories, but it really is a love letter to the United States.  The story goes from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco to the ruins of Hollywood and Las Vegas to a mysterious national park in New Mexico built around a meteor impact and home to giant mutant animals, to a New Orleans that somehow has remembered its jazz roots, if not the dangers of the levees breaking.**  In between escaping giant robots and cannibalistic serial killers are moments where Wataru takes in the splendor of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, or the characters marvel at the scenery while speeding down the Pacific Coast Highway.

May 15: Las Vegas, Nevada is founded with auct...

Now with 1000% more primitive human tribes.

Yes, giant mutant animals in New Mexico.  In fact, the New Mexico interlude illustrates quite nicely the two aspects of this book I find most troublesome.  First is that the characters are less fully realized people and more vehicles for which Kikuchi uses to take us to the various bits of post-apocalyptic scenery.  Sophia knows more than Wataru for reasons that are explained later in the book, but Wataru due to some sort of experiments in Montana at least has the knowledge of human speech, using a gun, and driving a car (all thing that were forgotten with the amnesic wind).  Often he just stands there, hand on his gun waiting to be attacked while waiting for Sophia to explain the customs of the latest tribe of primitive humans that they come across in the desert.  Wataru loves to travel.  Sophia is curious and strangely powerful. But neither one really seems to have any sort of reaction to the chaos around them.  Perhaps you could argue that they have become numb in the ensuing three years, but that doesn’t feel quite right either, especially since the other humans they meet clearly have not lost the ability to have an inner life and emotions amidst the chaos.  When Wataru and Sophia meet Tonto and Rita, the latest group of people banding together trying to survive while trying to stay away from some sort of predator (the aforementioned giant mutant animals, among other things), there is no sense that this group’s plight affects them, even in a grizzled “only the strong survive” sense.   The characters are hollow not because life has hollowed them out, but because the author put nothing in them to begin with.  It makes it hard to really care about anyone’s fate.

The giant mutant animals are indicative of another problem: way too much of the good stuff is prologue.  Not only is this world three years into its amnesia, but apparently there are also space colonies, giant metal walkers that behave like malfunctioning Robocops, experiments reminiscent of Weapon X on Wataru and his dead friend Johnny, and genetically engineered giant animals. Now, I’m a huge fan of little details that give the setting texture and make the story feel like it’s set in a real place, even if the “real place” is in some imagined future of America.  However, there comes a point when all these details overwhelm the back story and instead of feeling situated, you become unmoored. For me, that happens when we learn that the park in New Mexico was created by a meteor that crashed into the Earth some years back, dropping the temperature 4 degrees centigrade and killing off the tropics.


At that point, I started wondering why we started this story when we did.  A meteor drops the world’s temperature four degrees centigrade and kills off the tropics, but ever resourceful humans use their technology to turn the site of the impact into a national park.  A national park with genetically engineered giant bears and owls.  This same technological savvy allowed humans to create space colonies, turn other humans into X-men in the wilds of Montana, create Imperial walker type street patrollers that can vaporize “criminals,” and regular sized sedans that can drive 700 miles on one tank of gas.***  It feels like there were several far more interesting stories about far more interesting people that occurred before the book started.  Every stop along the way seemed like it could have been a story on its own.

Their expies survive in the future.

As it’s written, A Wind Named Amnesia feels like a video game.  The hero and some Black Magician Girl stop in several cities, meet some townsfolk who may be friendly or hostile.  Wataru fights some of the lower mooks off before they face the Boss (which could be anything from a giant tentacled monster to rogue construction equipment) before moving on to the next city/level.  The quest is to get the meaningfully named Sophia from San Francisco to New Orleans (which in part is a sewer level)**** to….well, if you read the book, you’ll know.  Not giving away that spoiler.

Because for all my complaining, the book is worth reading.  Kikuchi may use flat characters, but there is suspense in finding out why the world lost its memories and whether they can ever come back.  The individual scenes he sets are wonderfully detailed and really situate you in these imagined parts of America.  The ending, while not a truly satisfying resolution for the characters, somehow fits the video game aesthetic this book seems to portray.  This book builds a world with multitudes of history only hinted at.  Now we just need some enterprising fanfic writers to not only develop this history, but actually populate the world with characters in their own right.

* That the female lead is named after the Greek word for “knowledge” is no coincidence.

** To be fair, this story was first written in 1983, long before Hurricane Katrina.  However, it was bizarre to read about how the Superdome held 80,000 people and hosted Super Bowls, but have no mention of what that place became in the wake of the storm.

*** The need for gas varies as the plot demands.  Though it is odd that in this world, they still used cars with internal combustion engines before the Wind Named Amnesia struck.

**** Should the Sewer Level really be the one just before the fight with the final boss?

Solar: A Review

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese, 2010
Hardcover, 304 pages

After writing such a lengthy post on one paragraph in Solar, it seems strange that I would use such few words to talk about the book as a whole.  However, this is an Ian McEwan novel which means that it has already been reviewed in countless widely circulating publications and highly trafficked websites.  So I’ll stick with this small blurb.

As I was reading this book, I kept thinking of Alan Lightman’s essay “A Scientist Dying Young,” anthologized in A Sense of the Mysterious. Lightman describes how many scientists do their most revolutionary work in their 20’s and early 30’s, and how he entered “early seniority” at age 35.  In particular, I thought of this line:

The administrative and political plums conferred in recognition of past achievements can crush future ones.

Lightman describes the many avenues the old scientist can take to stay relevant: lectures, book writing, advisory committees, etc.  He could be describing Michael Beard.  However, Beard is the dark side of this “scientific aging;” instead of getting older wistfully and gracefully in the way Lightman describes, Beard is the 50-year-old actor who gets 10 plastic surgeries in 5 years to convince everyone he’s still 30 and still thinks he’s entitled to 20 something blonde fashion models even though everything that made him relevant is a good 15 years behind him.  He has fed off the prestige of his Nobel Prize until he became bloated and lethargic, both physically and spiritually.  However, as we later see in the book, perhaps it’s safer when he’s lethargic because when the chance comes for him to be the big hero again…*

Usually,  I cannot be in the head of someone so narcissistic and unlikable, but somehow McEwan makes it work.  Perhaps because he makes it abundantly clear how a monster like Michael Beard can come into existence.

Some parts of the book dragged (the “women in science” imbroglio seemed less like something the Beard character would do and more an excuse for McEwan to filibuster on the old Larry Summers controversy and his own personal drama).  It’s not his most well written (Atonement) or his funniest book (The Innocent).  However, there is still plenty here to showcase what McEwan does best: morbid humor, protagonists that are at once thoughtful and completely unselfaware, and the fluent incorporation of complex science into the overall story.

* And that chance comes from the cumulation of several unsavory actions by our protagonist Dr. Beard.

Categories: Ian McEwan, Review Tags: , ,

Wicked Lovely–A Review

September 3, 2010 1 comment

Wicked Lovely
Melissa Marr
HarperCollins, 2007
Hardcover, 328 pages

Before I get started, let me get one thing out of the way: I know I’m not the intended audience of Wicked Lovely.  It is published under the HarperTeen imprint, signalling that I am at least a decade past the intended audience.  That being said, I did find a lot to like about Wicked Lovely.  And the parts that I didn’t like as much I can probably chalk up to being “features of the genre” that would probably go over better with the intended audience.

I appreciate that Marr did the research into the folklore of the fey and did not just make up mythos to suit her story.  I like that while focusing on the love triangle (because there always seems to be love triangles in these types of stories), she did enough to build up the intrigue of the Fairy Courts that the love story isn’t the only thing to drive the plot.

That being said, I tend to roll my eyes at stories where the plain ordinary girl suddenly has every suitor coming out of the woodwork to woo her, especially when she seemingly does nothing but be a thoroughly unpleasant person.  Even in my beloved Southern Vampire Books I find the fact that pretty much every man within the 20-40 age range who meets Sookie is in love with her tiresome sometimes. (The overt focus on all the suitors was part of the reason Dead as a Doornail is my least favorite of the series so far).  However, at least with those books a) I can see what all these people see in her to some extent and b) there are other factors at play that get explored in the later books.

In Wicked Lovely, you have Aislinn who is your typical meek high school girl, being pursued by the two “dreamiest” men in the book–her longtime friend/reformed rake Seth and Keenan the Summer King.  However, the pursuit of Aislinn is part of a far bigger story.  Beira, the Winter Queen and Keenan’s mother (a role that was meant for a Hollywood Grande Dame who feels like chewing scenery–paging Susan Sarandon/Narissa) does not want to lose her power, even if means plunging the world (aside from the Western PA city of Huntsdale) into eternal winter. Narissa/Beira long ago set up rules and rituals that Keenan must follow to fully realize his powers as the Summer King.   As for Seth, the book established early on that he and Aislinn have been friends for a long time and that the increased fairy threat is relatively new.  So I can buy that over time he could start to see her as something more and be in love with her, even if she’s drippy and whiny through the major chunk of the book.

The other main player in all this is Donia, the Winter Girl who Keenan thought should be his queen and the one he is still truly loves.  However, Donia was not the Chosen One and when she tried to become the Summer Queen, she turned from human to Winter Girl instead.  Now she has to play a complicated game where she needs Keenan to find the Summer Queen to break the spell, but at the same time wants Keenan for herself, but at the same time is threatened by Beira to make sure Aislinn never goes through the ritual.

The middle section dragged a bit, focusing on how much Aislinn did not want to be Summer Queen and how she’s still running scared from everything.  As realistic as it would be considering the circumstances, it was tiresome to read.  But thankfully Aislinn finds her strength.  More than finally facing her fate, she manages to negotiate it on her own terms once she realizes what’s at stake.

What makes Wicked Lovely work is that it the human scale (Aislinn trying to come to terms with her fate) and the larger scale (the fate of the fairy world) intermingle nicely.  With the exception of Aislinn’s “girlfriend speaking”* high school friends,** the characters are either fully realized, or have hints of depth that will likely be explored in later books.  You care what happens to them because they are people, not plot devices.  At the same time, the love triangle does not become a Romantic Plot Tumor, threatening to overshadow all else in the story.  There’s only so much mileage you can get out of a courtship and a chase before it just becomes tiresome.  Thankfully, that point is resolved in this book in a satisfying way, leaving the next books in the series open for other stories that could exist in this decently built world.  Hence the reason Ink Exchange has been added to be TBR list.

* By “girlfriend speak” I mean that painful slang that writers use to allegedly make women sound more realistic but rather makes them sound like parodies.  Reliance on terms such as “girl” and “hottie” are indicators that we are in girlfriend speak land, but much like porn, you know it when you see it.  Err…read it.

** Who basically are indistinguishable, except for Rianne who has a disconcerting tendency to refer to men as “tasty morsels” and other food related bits of objectification.

Real Vampires Have Curves: A Review (of Sorts)

August 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Real Vampires Have Curves
Gerry Bartlett
Berkley Publishing Group, 2007
Paperback, 317 pages

I took enough notes that I could do a regular MSTing of all the absurdities of this book and how it fails to combine urban fantasy and chick lit effectively. But that would get tedious. Instead, let me quote a passage from page 225 of the book.

“I couldn’t do it, Glory.” Lacy prowled the shop like a caged tiger.
“He wouldn’t get in the shower?” I was learning way more about Lacy’s sex life than I wanted to, but I had a nagging feeling my security was at stake. Oops. At stake. Gee, I hate vampire jokes.
“Of course.” Lacy flushed. “He’s got a great body, absolutely nothing to be ashamed of on his part. So we’re in the shower, the water’s just right, but I just couldn’t make myself to read his thoughts. Ryan’s insisted he’s not put off by my flat butt, but what if he hates it?”
A flat butt, what a body issue. I didn’t have to look back to know my own butt was asstronomical.

Context: Glory is a 400 year old vampire who owns a vintage shop* called Vintage Vamp’s Emporium. It is open all night.** Lacy is her daytime manager, a 300+ year old werecat.  In this universe, werecats can read minds.  So can vampires, but Glory never learned how to in her 400+ years of existence. Ryan is Lacy’s new paramour,  a human she’s not known for more than a month (likely less).  Glory and her other vampire friends were nearly killed a couple of times by some vampire hunter.  They’ve already buried a couple of other vampire acquaintances/friends earlier in the novel.  There is fear that someone’s a traitor in the midst.  Ryan has already shown himself to be squirrelly, which is why Glory asked Lacy to read Ryan’s mind in the first place.

Task: Since it is apparently very difficult to read a mind when the person is wearing glasses,*** Glory asked Lacy to read his mind while they do a sexytime shower together, since presumably one does not shower with glasses.

Other Background: Glory has Bridget Jones-esque body issues.  She also speaks in some strange parody Sex and the City patois, with repeated references to “roomies” and “hotties” and “cute shoes” and a propensity to call everyone “girlfriend.”  Also, this is page 225 of a 317 page trade paperback.

If you want to write a chick-lit vampire novel about cute shoes and hating eternally thunder thighs, then don’t tack on a plot about how everyone’s in mortal danger.  In fact, there was a perfect seed for plot that would fit a frothy chick-lit novel: setting up the Vintage Vamp’s Emporium.****  There is some goofy comedy to be mined from a 400 year old vampire trying to open her own business, making use of her centuries of connections and many lifetimes of being a fashionista.  You can focus on the two love interests***** possibly getting in the way.  You can emphasize the wacky hijinks with Flo, Glory’s lusty life loving roommate (and the sister of one of her love interests).  You can mine the black comedy that comes from Glory’s friend vampire Freddy and his mother CiCi, who opted to be turned into a vampire when her son was turned.  And you can play up the adventures that such creatures would have in a city as full of nightlife and character as Austin, TX******

I’m may prefer my vampire stories darker, but there definitely is room to create a pink confection of a vampire novel, essentially “Bridget Jones becomes a vampire and moves to Texas.”  But pink confections do not work with the dark intrigue of plot devices vampire hunters.  Maybe there is a way to combine the two.  However, Gerry Bartlett does not manage to do it.

* Apparently the only one in Austin, TX.

** And yet Glory and the other vampires are stunned that the plot device vampire hunter that’s been chasing them throughout the book was able to figure out that she’s a vampire.

*** Also, wearing glasses and typing on a laptop in a coffee shop in Austin is enough to make you a computer geek as per Glory.

**** This world is masqued (i.e., vampires are ostensibly a secret), but think of the potential of the world was  unmasqued.  With vampires out of the coffin, you could focus on an entrepreneurial vampire who giving shopping options to the undead who can’t make the limited mall night hours (and other human night owls).

***** Jeremy Blade and Damian Sabatini.  They’re personalities can be boiled down to “I must protect you, lass (by the way you’re hot)” and “I want to sex you up, cara (by the way you’re hot).

****** Aside from mentioning a couple of Austin streets, there is nothing about this book that makes its Austin setting different from any other generic city.  If you’re going to set your story in an actual place, don’t squander it.

Categories: Chick Lit, Review Tags: ,