27 May 2014

Books: Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line By Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham (2014)

While waiting for the Library to notify me that the next book I ordered has arrived, I picked up Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham that was sitting on my shelf. 

Media tie-ins are always tricky. Mostly because what happens in them is not canon to the TV or movie franchise they’re based on. So they sort of exist in a parallel universe, even as this title picks up some two month after the events of the movie. If Thomas can produce another movie, however, there is no obligation to follow what happens in this breezy, easy to read novel. 

Its spring break, which means Neptune is crawling with co-eds, so when a girl goes missing while on vacation with some of her girlfriends, Veronica Mars takes on her first case after the events of the movie. But like the TV series, nothing is quite as it seems and Veronica soon finds herself dealing with people far more dangerous than she had originally planned. But when a development in the case brings someone important back into her life, Veronica must do something even more challenging: confront her past.

The book is able to give more time to characters that got to little screen time in the film (Wallace and Mac), and a few lingering questions about some of the individuals answered almost immediately after they’re introduced in the book -like how Keith got his new detective digs (though no real explanation of the house he lives in now, considering in the series they lived in a crappy apartment {though realistically, that crappy apartment was on the ocean and there should’ve been no way Mars could afford that place as well}). We see almost every character from the show, with the exception of Piz –and I’m assuming they’ll explore that issue in further novels or another movie if Rob Thomas gets a chance to do one. 

The best part is the novel progresses much like the TV series; a few red herrings and the usual plot twist/game-changer that occurs towards the end. Like I said, this book is so easy to read, you feel like your watch the show!

While the mystery itself isn’t quite up to par with some of the best Veronica Mars episode, it’s entertaining. Strangely, though, the book is told in third-person point of view, while the movie and TV series always seemed to be told from Veronica’s point of view. First POV usually works better for these whodunits, but here that different style actually works better –we get a better insight I think into what Veronica is feeling.

Again, with this tie-in, none of what happens can actually be called canon –even if there are no other movies (which I doubt). But it was a nice cleansing pallet after the last two Donaldson books that I can look pass some of its shortcomings and enjoy these wonderful characters.

25 May 2014

Books: Fatal Revenant by Stephen R. Donaldson (2007)

Fatal Revenant picks up where The Runes of the Earth ended with the return of Thomas Covenant and Linden’s autistic son Jeremiah. Happy to see both of them alive –considering Covenant is dead and her son in the clutches of Lord Foul- she races to greet them. But, of course, this is a Stephen R. Donaldson book, and nothing goes anywhere near to perfect.

Covenant, who is part of the Arch of Time now, claims he is using vast amount of power to “project” himself and Jeremiah to be in two places at once. And if she touches either of them, she’ll undo time itself, because she has the powerful Staff of Law and the wild magic of white gold. 

So Linden has to somehow be close to her son and not be able to hold him; so, Donaldson being par for the course on causing his characters more pain and suffering. 

I really liked the first part of this book, as Covenant, Linden and her son go on a quest, apparently, to save the world – but something is manifestly wrong. Linden’s journey once again takes her into the past and she learns more about the world’s history (this happened in the first book as well). While this first half really consists of Linden tagging along with others, in ends with a startling reveal and a violent confrontation with her many enemies. And the best set piece by far in the first two books.

As with the previous book, there’s a lot of travel and talk, but here everything moves along with more of a purpose (I think the first book covered less than a week, but even here the days seem to go on). But Linden remains not a strong hero, which is probably why I liked the first half better. Covenant at least brought some humor and some much needed lightness (which is ironic, considering he is a hugely dark character) to the book. The angsty crap of Linden Avery gets repetitive and slows the story down. So the second half seemed to drag and found myself passing over a lot of pages. 

My other issue is all the seemingly all-powerful, all-knowing characters who continually pop up and tell Linden what to do, but don’t explain why or answer her questions. While I assume there is a purpose here, it gets tiresome after a while. Also, one of these folks, the Insequent, we are seeing for the first time and they come across as being awkwardly wedge into the history of the Land. If they’re so important (they seem like Time Lords in many ways, arrogant and all knowing), why are we just hearing about them now (though it’s his universe and if he wants to add more dues ex machina to it, whom am I to complain)?

Donaldson admits he has a large vocabulary and is not afraid to use it, and he especially seems to have a fondness of obscure old English words, many which sound made up, but are, in fact real –he gets his money worth out that Roget apparently.  After reading many fantasy books over the last three decades, I can easily pass over them and I do get the gist of them, but this can be daunting for a new reader. 

As I move onto book three, I ponder where this will all end – he seems to be turning Linden into the one who’ll destroy the Land and Roger who will save it. Is it red herring? With Donaldson you never know.

17 May 2014

Books: The Runes of the Earth By Stephen R. Donaldson (2004)

When Stephen R. Donaldson returned to the series that made him (bad or good) famous some 20 years after the last book in that series, the biggest question was could he recapture the same audience who read those six tomes back in the early 80s, plus find a new audience that –most likely- never read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (Lord Foul’s Bane, The Illearth War, The Power that Preservers) and The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (The Wounded Land, The One Tree, White Gold Wielder)? 

It’s always a huge gamble to let a series sit so fallow, but Donaldson felt to complete the series, he needed some time -"the SecondChronicles taught me that I needed to become a much better writer before Itackled The Runes of the Earth and the rest of the Last Chronicles.” So between 1983 and 2004, he spent a good amount of time writing the science fiction themed The Gap series and penning mysteries. As mentioned previously, he was one of the first few authors in the late 1970s to really build on what J.R.R. Tolkien began in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series. Of course, to set his own distinctive voice, his books were darker and a bit more modern, with an anti-hero whom refused to believe that a place like The Land could exist in the first place. His “high fantasy” books were designed to be more realistic (which, I realize, in a series set in a fantasy land is an oxymoron), with environmental themes and a lot of existentialism. 

When I read them back then, I remember enjoying them because while they were much like Tolkien, they were completely different as well. But I never re-read them (and to be honest, I never knew he had intended to continue the series) if only because I was reading so much other high fantasy, I could never find the time to return to The Land. So in 2004, when this book came out, The Runes of the Earth, I began (what ultimately became) a ten year odyssey of whether I should re-read those six books just so I could read the first of four new books (and I had made a choice back then to stop reading multi-volume series because A, there was so much more I wanted to read and could not devote my time to them, and B, unlike like the first six books that where released one year apart, it could be many years now between books.

But realizing he finished the last book in October of 2013 (almost ten years after he started up again), and that I had at least book one sitting in the garage, I decided to come back to The Land without re-reading the other books again, even though now in 2014, it had been thirty years since I read them. The good thing about them is that Donaldson always wrote a “what came before" -basically, it was “previously on Thomas Covenant" for today's audience.

While it is helpful, as I read I began to wonder if maybe I should’ve re-read the other books. It wasn’t that I couldn’t follow the book, it was that Donaldson kept bring back small pieces, ideas from those books with little explanation (not that I guess I needed them, I’m assuming he felt that anyone reading this new series was a fan and had already read them). But if you were new to this series, you were going to be lost a bit. 

The story begins 10 years after White Gold Wielder (though in the Land, some 3,500 years have passed) and “Linden Avery is now in charge of a clinic for the mentally ill and is responsible, among other things, for caring for Joan Covenant. Roger, son of Thomas and Joan, comes to visit for the first time in many years and seeks to take Joan out of care, claiming that he wants to assume responsibility for the task himself. Roger also demands of Linden his late father's white gold wedding ring, which she does not relinquish. Linden remains suspicious of his intentions, but she is not able to prevent his forceful removal of Joan at gunpoint, and his abduction of Linden's adopted son, Jeremiah. Casualties mount as Joan is taken and — whilst attempting to intervene — Linden, Joan, Roger, and Jeremiah are plunged into the Land, where they must adjust to its new demands.

“On return to the Land, she discovers that the people have no knowledge of the Earthpower she had so cherished before and this knowledge has been denied them by the blight on the land known as Kevin's Dirt. Also this ancient lore is kept from them by the Haruchai, who have now taken upon themselves total responsibility for the Land's defense, discouraging the learning of Earthpower and a knowledge of the Land's history. They have become the "Masters” of the Land. Also, the Land has been beset by caesures (or "Falls") which are strange disruptions created from wild magic by Joan in her madness.

“Linden learns that the Staff of Law, which she left in the care of Sunder and Hollian at the conclusion of The Second Chronicles, was later lost by their son. Its loss has contributed to the degradation of The Land and the changes she discovers, though there is evidence it may still exist, hidden somewhere. This is her only hope, for past events have also altered the Law of Time, the prison which confines Lord Foul, whose abrogation and presence can be discerned in the caesures which currently roam and menace the countryside. Thus Linden begins a long and arduous search for both her son and the Staff, aided as well as opposed by likely and unlikely foes and allies, including the Ramen and Ranyhyn, the Demondim and their spawn, and the mysterious, possibly deranged and near omnipotent character Esmer, son of Cail and the Dancers of the Sea, as well as, regardless of his father, the implacable enemy of the Haruchai.”

While the book runs 513 pages, Donaldson spends nearly 80 pages in the real world setting up what comes after. It’s tedious and takes forever to schlep through. But once the characters make the transition to The Land, the narrative quickens and tale launches into a more assured and sustained focus. Donaldson writes with all the narrative vigor and imaginative world-building that made me enjoy the first series. His tale is rich in paradox, with metaphor and symbolism, and he continues his explorations into the psyches of his characters, as well as themes of madness, estrangement, guilt and personal responsibility.

04 May 2014

Books: The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore (2014)

We return to the late 13th Century and to see how Pocket of Dog Snogging is getting on since the events of 2009’s Fool. And as much as that book was a skewering of Shakespeare’s King Lear, this one takes on both The Merchant of Venice and Othello by the legendary writer and adds a bit of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Cask of Amontillado

I like Christopher Moore, but I kind of wish he not do sequels to his books. I mean, I loved his 1995 bestseller, Bloodsucking Fiends, but his 2007 follow-up You Suck and 2010 follow-up of that, Bite Me, never achieved the same sort of hilarity of the first. And while I kind of wish he do a follow up to 2006’s A Dirty Job, I’m now hoping he doesn’t -but I think he is. I saw him in 2012 for the tour of Sacré Bleu in Pasadena and he mentioned he was working on one.  

Pocket has been sent to Venice by his queen, Cordelia, to stop a war, and he quickly finds himself caught in multiple revenge schemes. The cast of characters is drawn from both of these famous plays, but also adds a disappointingly brief cameo of Marco Polo (which made me pine once again for the long-lost Doctor Who serial of the same name). The problem here, Polo’s appearance seems wedged in just to move the plot along. It’s a bit contrived and to be honest, now reflecting on it hours after finishing the book, Polo would’ve made for a much more interesting story without all the theatrics of Shakespeare added in.


Yet, even a sub-par Christopher Moore book is still better than most. While this story is not fully narrated by Pocket (which it should’ve), Moore still shows why he’s a genius at what he does, as the book does some great and snappy dialogue with a lot of self-referential comments. The bawdy jokes remain as well (there is not a four-letter word Pocket cannot use), and Moore’s marvelous prose remains as his greatest trademark (the Pound-of-Flesh trial shines with his abundant wit and cleverness). 

Not as astute or as amusing as Fool, but Moore’s The Serpent of Venice reads like an old friend you’ve out grown -it’s still nice to see them every once in a while.

Stephen R. Donaldson and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

It was 1983 when author Stephen R. Donaldson released White Gold Wielder, the third and final book of The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (The first 3-book series, Lord Foul’s Bane, The Illearth War and The Power that Preserves, thus making up The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, was released in 1977, 78 and 79 respectively). The late 70’s and early 80’s was the Golden Era of High Fantasy, as writers who read The Lord of the Rings trilogy came of age and began building on what Tolkien had started some thirty years before.

I read a lot of those books back then, but the Thomas Covenant series was very different from the fantasy tales by Terry Brooks and Piers Anthony (two authors who continue to this day to publish novels set in the universe they created back in late 70s). I’m not sure, but I think Donaldson could be credited with creating the first anti-hero of fantasy. Thomas Covenant was not in any way a likable character, yet the way Donaldson writes him, the reader can have sympathy for him, even if you get angry at his actions. 

The premise of the series is this: Thomas Covenant is a young, best-selling author with a wife (Joan) and an infant son (Roger), whose world is turned upside-down when he is diagnosed with leprosy. After six months' treatment and counselling in a leprosarium, he returns home to find himself divorced, alone and an outcast in the community. On a rare trip into town, he is accosted by a beggar who makes a number of cryptic pronouncements. The beggar refuses Covenant's offers of charity, including his white gold wedding band, leaving Covenant with the admonition to "be true." Confused and disturbed by the encounter, Covenant stumbles into the path of an oncoming police car and is rendered unconscious.

He wakes to find himself in the Land, a classic fantasy world. He first meets the evil Cavewight Drool Rockworm, wielding the magical power of the Staff of Law, who summoned him to the Land. Drool is guided (manipulated) by a malevolent, incorporeal being who calls himself "Lord Foul the Despiser." Foul reproaches Drool for his arrogance and transports Covenant to Foul's demesne. Addressing Covenant as "groveler", Foul taunts him with a prophecy that he (Foul) will destroy the Land within 49 years; however, if Drool isn't stopped, this doom will come to pass much sooner. He tells Covenant to deliver this message to the rulers of the Land, the Council of Lords at Revelstone, so that they can make preparations to combat Drool Rockworm and recover the Staff of Law.

Once again, Covenant is somehow transported and wakes on Kevin's Watch, a tall finger of rock attached to a mountain overlooking the Land's southernmost region. He meets Lena, a young girl who uses a special mud called hurtloam to heal some minor cuts caused by his fall. To his astonishment, Covenant discovers, albeit somewhat later on, that the hurtloam has also cured his leprosy. This is only the first example Covenant will see of the Earthpower: a rich source of healing energy present throughout the Land. Covenant's loss of two fingers on his right hand, a consequence of the failure to promptly diagnose his leprosy, causes him to be identified by Lena as the reincarnation of Berek Halfhand, an ancient Lord who saved the Land from Lord Foul during a war which occurred in the Land's distant past. His special identity is seemingly confirmed when Lena's mother Atiaran identifies Covenant's white gold ring – in his world a plain wedding band, which he had been emotionally unable to discard notwithstanding his divorce – as a token of great power in the Land.

Believing that he is unconscious from his collision with the police car, and therefore experiencing a fantastical dream or delusion, Covenant refuses to accept the reality of the Land. Appalled and indignant at the expectations the people of the Land have for him as their new-found saviour, he gives himself the title of "Unbeliever."

Also, in one of the most harrowing scenes in the first book, the cure for his leprosy also cures his impotence. Driven by mental anguish and the thought that while he feels, he still does not believe, he is driven into frenzy and rapes Lena –an act that is so horrible yet will prove pivotal for the rest of the series. And while her family and friends learn about the rape and fail to comprehend Covenant’s crime, they are forbidden to take vengeance due to their Oath of Peace.

From here on out, the series takes a dark tone, something that seems to go against the fantasy genre of the time (and long before anti-heroes would be the rage in the media of TV and movies). Our hero is flawed, mean, angry and destructive, yet you still feel some sympathy for him. And for me, this was made the series stand out besides the other sword and sorcery tomes that came out between 1975 and today.

After White Gold Wielder was released in 1983, Donaldson went on to write other books, including the two-book Mordant's Need series, The Mirror of Her Dreams (1986) and A Man Rides Through (1987). He also penned the science fiction themed Gap Cycle (The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story -1991, The Gap into Vision: Forbidden Knowledge -1991,  The Gap into Power: A Dark and Hungry God Arises -1993, The Gap into Madness: Chaos and Order -1994, The Gap into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die -1996). He also wrote a series of mysteries, The Man Who Killed His Brother (1980), The Man Who Risked His Partner (1984), The Man Who Tried to Get Away (1990) and The Man Who Fought Alone (2001) under the pseudonym of Reed Stephens, which was derived from his full name, Stephen Reeder Donaldson. According to Donaldson, who "always hated" writing under a false name, he was forced to by his publisher, Ballantine Books. Back then, apparently, the publisher felt “that readers would feel betrayed if books of such different genres were published under the name of a single author” (though, ironically, when the books were released under Donaldson’s real name in later years, they never caught on with the readers of either fantasy or mystery. While I don’t think this proves Ballantine right, it does reflect the thinking of that time when publishers made sure their bestselling authors stuck to what made them famous in the first place. But every writer must go where the muse takes them and sometimes they just have to bust out of the category publishers sometimes force them into -see Ann Rice and J.K. Rowling, both modern day authors faced with challenges of their evolutionary writing life –breaking out of the “brand” that made them household names).

Then in 2004, twenty-one years after White Gold Wielder, Stephen R. Donaldson released The Runes of the Earth, the first book of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Part of me wondered why, after two decades, Donaldson felt the need to revive this series (he was quoted at the time saying he always planned to continue the series, but felt he needed to become a "better writer."). While he was, by all accounts, a successful full-time writer, he also seemed to understand (unlike Brooks or Anthony) that all series must come to an end, and when I read White Gold Wielder, I felt he concluded the series. Sure, maybe I wondered what became of Linden (a character that became prominent in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), his son Roger and his ex-wife Joan, but I never lost sleep over it. 

And for me personally, I had moved on from reading the genre. I spent so much of the 1980s trudging through it, I grew bored with the endless quests, plus by the 1990s, those series of books began to expand into multiple volumes (I still think that series in this genre should be no more than three books per cycle. Of course, there were –as always- a few exceptions to my three book rule, Harry Potter being one of them ), which meant spending years waiting between books. By the late 90’s and into the ‘naughts, I was expanding my reading beyond just fantasy and science fiction.

But when The Runes of the Earth came out in 2004, I pledged I would not read this new four book cycle until all the books where out so I could read them in one fell swoop.  But as thing always happen, I kept putting the series off. Though I bought the first two books in the new series, I stored them away, always pondering if I should go back and re-read the first six books in the series again (this is something I struggle with, much like Stephen King, I feel re-reading books is a bad use of my time –it means I’m missing out on other things). I missed book three in 2010 and since being out of the book business since September of 2011, I was unaware Donaldson completed the series last October with book four, The Last Dark.

So that brings us to today. While I have so many other books on my shelf –some as recent as The Goldfinch and the paperback version of Gone Girl –I’ve decided to forgo re-reading The First and Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and plunge into these next four books that make up the final chronicles. Of course, Donaldson does give readers like me a “what’s gone before” synopsis of the first six books and I’ve decided that is all I need.

Now I hope to spend at least most of May and early June reading this series (I’ve got the new Stephen King, Mr. Mercedes and the next book in The Expanse series, Cibola Burn, by James S.A. Corey coming then).  The sad part of my life is that I will never have enough time to read everything I want because work, TV, the internet and friends will distract me. I hate it, but the reality is, as Lemony Snicket said “It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read.”