12 September 2018

Books: Storm Front by Jim Butcher (2000)

I’ve never found a real reason to like Urban Fantasy novels, mostly because while they are a legitimate sub-genre, I always suspected they were books for people who thought hardcore science fiction of Asimov, Heinlein, and fantasy novels in the vein of The Lord of the Rings were a bit too pretentious. While I know science fiction and fantasy are still –more or less- considered cult in nature, they wore that badge of honor, they did not compromise.

I think this genre does compromise, because even though Storm Front, the first novel of The Dresden Files, features a wizard, it is also set in contemporary Chicago, with cars, bars, and mobsters. These are the “hooks” that allow people to read this genre; because those are things they can understand and see in everyday life. Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, these are properties that are seen as too “far” out, too unreal.

So this series marries fantasy with hard-boiled detective fiction and while I found it fun, it’s not deep and really has not much to say:

“Harry Dresden is the best at what he does. Well, technically, he's the only at what he does. So when the Chicago P.D. has a case that transcends mortal creativity or capability, they come to him for answers. For the "everyday" world is actually full of strange and magical things—and most don't play well with humans. That's where Harry comes in. Takes a wizard to catch a—well, whatever. There's just one problem. Business, to put it mildly, stinks. So when the police bring him in to consult on a grisly double murder committed with black magic, Harry's seeing dollar signs. But where there's black magic, there's a black mage behind it. And now that mage knows Harry's name. And that's when things start to get interesting.”

Author Jim Butcher tries to make his Harry Dresden character less The Chosen One of the Harry Potter books (this series started about 4 years after JK Rowlings hero began) and more The Chosen One’s half-brother who caused an awkward event at a family reunion a few years ago so no ones speaks of him again. The magic here is based on thermodynamics, with Butcher’s version of Chicago being gritty, dirty and slightly left of Law & Order realistic. But it also features a “hero” wizard who doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut, which is a trope of the classic noir films.

And that’s the problem here for me, as Harry is too much an arrested developmental nerd, a dude whom uber-geeks probably wish they could be. But he’s also a character we’ve seen before. I mean Columbo has his wrinkled overcoat and Harry has his black duster and cowboy boots, the comparison ends there (of course, this image of Harry that Butcher continues to remind you of certainly makes for great looking covers). Harry also rambles on and on about some mystical White Council that keeps tabs on him because, apparently, he killed a woman who was his first love, despite her being really evil (“Yes, she was a bit of meanie, but you should’ve not have killed her”). They’re like the Time Lords on Doctor Who that “allows” the Doctor to travel in time and space and help people, despite their no interference policy.

Plus, if these books are supposed to take a page from the classic noir characters of Raymond Chandler, Butcher fails miserably with Harry. He has no confidence, he is certainly not tough, lacks street and book smarts, and seems blunder around solving his latest mystery only because he wound up at the corner of Coincidence and Convenience.

I can now understand why I’ve never felt the need to read them, why this genre is not for me. It offers nothing new, even though it tries to sell itself as something new.  It’s designed too much for those who can’t grasp the subtleties, analogies, and metaphors of Star Trek

And if your going to set your books in Chicago, it would be nice if Butcher used real locations, real streets, and highway names. For Chicagoians like me, it would be fun Easter Eggs for me if he mentioned names like Lake Shore Drive, the Skyway and what not. Los Angeles native and dark fantasy writer Tim Powers name drops local LA stuff all the time. But Butcher lives in Missouri, so why did he not just set his books in and around his native city of Independence? 

06 September 2018

Books: Booked to Die By John Dunning (1992)

"Denver homicide detective Cliff Janeway may not always play by the book, but he is an avid collector of rare and first editions. After a local bookscout is killed on his turf, Janeway would like nothing better than to rearrange the suspect's spine. But the suspect, local lowlife Jackie Newton, is a master at eluding the law, and Janeway's wrathful brand of off-duty justice costs him his badge. Turning to his lifelong passion, Janeway opens a small bookshop -- all the while searching for evidence to put Newton away. But when prized volumes in a highly sought-after collection begin to appear, so do dead bodies. Now, Janeway's life is about to start a precarious new chapter as he attempts to find out who's dealing death along with vintage Chandlers and Twains."

I was working in the retail book business when Booked to Die by John Dunning was released in 1992. I remember it well, knew it got some great reviews, and knew that (even at that time) the book was bound to be a perennial backlist title. But at the time, I was still reading mostly fantasy novels and after having burned myself out on whodunits in the late 1970s and early 80s, I was not really interested in reading mystery novels with pun-like titles (and to this day, we get horribly pun-like whodunits that have all the depth of a puddle).

Still, when I was reading Agatha Christie in High School and never really capturing all the clues that lead to the killer –though Christie was known for her complex plotting and multiple red herrings- I began to think myself an idiot. So I did attempt to read broader, less complicated whodunits only to find a lot of them boring, convoluted, and uninteresting. Christie may have cheated us by having the real killer pop up in one scene and never heard of again until the last twenty pages, but I have to admit she created some wonderfully knotty stories with cast of neurotic characters.

I also thought that this new book series was mostly a one-trick pony. I could not see Dunning really going to town like Sue Grafton would do with her Alphabet series. Then again, maybe he was aware of that, as he only produced five books between 1992 and 2006.

I liked this book a lot and found his Cliff Janeway detective to be flawed, funny, and intelligent, but not have overtly developed powers of observation that crime fiction is riddled with. But the theme of books, collectible books, and passion that some people have for them is what really drew me in. In the pre-internet world, book collecting was a journeyman’s job. Much like the Hoover salesmen of a bygone age, there were bookscouts who went from city to city, state to state searching local Goodwills, jumble sales, estate sales, used bookstores in search of an elusive 1st edition of almost any novel, though the ones done by the early masters (like Steinbeck, Chandler, and Hemingway) were the real Holy Grail's.

Yes Janeway is at times a trope filled cop –he breaks the rules, he’s tough but has a heart of gold- but the way Dunning writes him, you can’t help but like him. Being an avid collector of books helps, as well. I did not like the whole subplot with Jackie Newton. It was one trope of the cop genre I think Dunning should’ve avoided.

I will probably get to the rest of the books, but with less time in front of me than behind, that effort may take some

26 August 2018

Books: How to Stop Time By Matt Haig (2018)

“Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he's been alive for centuries (439 to be exact). Tom has lived history--performing with Shakespeare, exploring the high seas with Captain Cook, and sharing cocktails with Fitzgerald. Now, he just wants an ordinary life. So Tom moves back to London, his old home, to become a high school history teacher--the perfect job for someone who has witnessed the city's history first hand. Better yet, a captivating French teacher at his school seems fascinated by him. But the Albatross Society, the secretive group which protects people like Tom, has one rule: never fall in love. As painful memories of his past and the erratic behavior of the Society's watchful leader threaten to derail his new life and romance, the one thing he can't have just happens to be the one thing that might save him. Tom will have to decide once and for all whether to remain stuck in the past, or finally begin living in the present.

I’m unsure how this novel became described as a “love story across the ages.” Because this is not like The Time Travelers Wife, which had a love story, but How to Stop Time has no real time travel whatsoever (though the book time-jumps between chapters –more on that later), and Tom’s wife Rose is long dead. And author Matt Haig’s character spends a massive amount of time wallowing in self-pity over having been alive so long. There is also a bit of conflict with a group called the Ablatross Society, which is run by an abla named Hendrich – a man so obviously manipulative, it makes Tom look like an idiot for not catching on faster.  But really, Tom’s hand-wringing comes tedious, as he whines about how everything changes, but really doesn’t. This becomes a mantra throughout the book, as the author tries to come up with more and more clichéd ways of saying this.

The book has short chapters, and as mentioned, time-jumps between modern London and days of yesteryear. While this may sound like a great idea, these jumps actually slows down the narrative –and most seem almost pointless. Tom also becomes a sort of a Forrest Gump of Time as he interacts with historical figures as Shakespeare, Will Kemp, James Cook, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Omai (who was, according to Wikipedia, was a young Ra’iatean man who became the second Pacific Islander to visit Europe). The name dropping and historical-events dropping becomes tedious after awhile.

Long before the How To Stop Time comes to an end, however, you understand the coda that Matt Haig is foisting upon his readers:  don’t be afraid of happiness and love. So yeah, I did not love this book, but I can’t say it’s awful either. It’s a collection of good ideas, with a depressing douche as a lead. Sort of like all the roles actor Dylan McDermott plays.

20 August 2018

We The Animals By Justin Torres (2011)

“Three brothers tear their way through childhood  -smashing tomatoes all over each other, building kites from trash, hiding out when their parents do battle, tiptoeing around the house as their mother sleeps off her graveyard shift. Paps and Ma are from Brooklyn -he’s Puerto Rican, she’s white- and their love is a serious, dangerous thing that makes and unmakes a family many times. Life in this family is fierce and absorbing, full of chaos and heartbreak and the euphoria of belonging completely to one another.”

Justin Torres autobiographical novel is often brutal, sad, and a kick in the balls for its no-holds bar look at a family in who can be lovable, but seem unable to break the cycle of despair. It’s also coming of story about three very close brothers who know that while life is bleak, as long as they have each other, things seem to work out. That even as their parents argue and Paps vanishes for long stretches of time, they’re animals that somehow survive. The book almost comes off as a fever dream, with each chapter a sort of self-contained short story, a snapshot of their lives as the slowly age. Torres prose is searing and leaps off the page.

However, this short novel (125 pages) does have a flawed moment, which comes near the end. While Jonah’s two brothers and father seem to hint that the youngest sibling is “different” it’s never alluded to by the boy, who is recounting the story (and who is Torres). But Jonah’s sexual awakening seems a bit convoluted and even out of place in the narrative –as does the part where he mentions he’s been keeping a journal (like when did this happen?).

My understanding is that while the novel takes place over a few years, the movie version out now takes place over a smaller time period (and where Jonah is 10, while in the book he is eight), so I’m curious how the films narrative will incorporate Jonah’s sexuality.

A good first novel, if not a bit isolating. 

19 August 2018

Books: Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn (2018)

There have been only a few authors who’ve written in the Expanded Universe that is Star Wars that can be said truly understand what George Lucas created and expand upon it, giving us a more in-depth look into the franchise, give us very realistic characters and stories that don’t rely on so much magic, coincidence, and convenience.

When Timothy Zahn helped re-launch the dormant Star Wars universe back in 1991, his Thrawn trilogy was highly regarded. Of course, until then, Zahn was a highly successful science fiction writer, so while stepping in the space opera world of Luke, Han, Leia, the Empire and everything else was fairly easy for him, he was able to make his stories resonant. He was able to set himself above some the other tales that would spin out over the next twenty-five years.  

While the character was killed off in The Last Command, Zahn would continue over the next two decades to keep the character alive, writing a sequel to the Thrawn Trilogy (Specter of the Past, Vision of the Future) along tales that used his visage for nefarious uses (Survivor’s Quest, Outbound Flight). The character would also pop up a few times in other writers stories, as well

With his latest duology, Zahn has given us an even greater look into the Chiss Admiral and his actions with the Emperor and Darth Vader.

Thrawn: Alliances gives us, essentially, two tales set years apart, but are essentially two sides of one coin. The first part opens a time after Thrawn's appearance in season three of the TV series Rebels- prior to A New Hope. The second part set somewhere after season 5 of the TV series The Clone Wars -between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  This allows Thrawn to team up with Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker.

“On Batuu, at the edges of the Unknown Regions, a threat to the Empire is taking root -its existence little more than a glimmer, its consequences as yet unknowable. But it is troubling enough to the Imperial leader to warrant investigation by his most powerful agents: ruthless enforcer Lord Darth Vader and brilliant strategist Grand Admiral Thrawn. Fierce rivals for the emperor's favor, and outspoken adversaries on Imperial affairs -including the Death Star project- the formidable pair seem unlikely partners for such a crucial mission. But the Emperor knows it's not the first time Vader and Thrawn have joined forces. And there's more behind his royal command than either man suspects. In what seems like a lifetime ago, General Anakin Skywalker of the Galactic Republic, and Commander Mitth'raw'nuruodo, officer of the Chiss Ascendancy, crossed paths for the first time. One on a desperate personal quest, the other with motives unknown . . . and undisclosed. But facing a gauntlet of dangers on a far-flung world, they forged an uneasy alliance -neither remotely aware of what their futures held in store. Now, thrust together once more, they find themselves bound again for the planet where they once fought side by side. There they will be doubly challenged -by a test of their allegiance to the Empire . . . and an enemy that threatens even their combined might.”

These two books offer some more wonderfully insightful look into Thrawn and his purpose to both the Empire and his allegiance to the Chiss Ascendency. Thrawn has always been complex, a non-human who straddles the fence between the Empire’s iron-fisted rule and his own belief system, but here we get an deeper look into what he’s willing to do to help his own people. Also, we get a great look into Anakin Skywalker, who remains impatient and bratty that we all saw in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith (not unlikable, but certainly childish). But like two sides of any coin, we get to see another side of Darth Vader that is rarely described in such wonder -his own internal conflict to keep his past identity that must be kept secret, but his effort to disassociate from that past identity.  This battle of wills with himself gives another window into the world of the character, and deepens the conflict Luke senses in Return of the Jedi. Vader has always been portrayed in a no-nonsense sort of way, which can make him one dimensional, but under the steady hand of Zahn we see that the character is more than the sum of his parts.

The pacing between the two timelines is well handled and never ends up being a distraction to the narrative. And while the Padmé sub-plot is interesting, it does plod along slowly –but that may have to do with her and Anakin being separated for so long. She remains a well constructed character and you see the DNA that Leia will build upon decades later, but it is just a plot device, predictable and somewhat pointless. Still, since Thrawn has now been folded into the new Disney Expanded Universe, even this device will be used in later books and TV series.