27 March 2016

Books: The Pirates of Perilous By John DeChancie (2015)

Between 1988 and 1994, John DeChancie put out 8 novels in his Castle Perilous series, which revolves around Castle Perilous, whose lord is Incarnadine, a sorcerer. Within the castle lay 144,000 doors (or "aspects") which lead to other parallel universes. Now some twenty years later, the author returns with the ninth book in the franchise, The Pirates of Perilous. The novel, more or less, reintroduces the characters after this long hiatus and (probably) serves as a good prequel to the previous eight books. 

While it’s been equally that long since I finished the series (and have never re-read them), I was impressed with the way DeChancie balanced out catching us up on what has been happening with our old friends, and telling an adventure story that borrows many elements from real history, Hollywood and pop culture. 

It's been years since Gene Ferraro has had a real adventure. Bored and unable to find a dimension that can satisfy his sudden desire to be a pirate (shades of Pirates of the Caribbean are threaded throughout the book, though its more real history than the Disney version [plus a little of Tim Powers, but I may be just ever hopeful]) he asks Shelia to use her magical skills to create (I guess) a pocket universe by using a Living Picture spell so Gene can wander into a image of a pirate ship. As always, things go awry, trapping Gene and Linda in a world of pirates, zombies, vampires and slavery. Meanwhile, the Castle, always the source of the problems with everyone’s magic, decides to use Cleve Dalton (who has avoided gaining any powers from the Castle) in an attempt to undo 5,000 years of entrapment.  Lord Incarnadine, making the connection between Dalton’s problems and the two trapped in a picture, decides that he needs to fix the Castle once and for all, but to do so will violate not just the Castle’s universe, the entire Multiverse. 

While he sticks to the short chapters like the previous books, he expands on the characters, giving them a bit more to do, and also give us a deeper look into their minds and motivations; he also serves up a few more subplots than those old Ace Paperback versions did. 

Yes, there are a lot of references to past adventures and absent characters, which may frustrate new readers if they had not read the previous books, but like I said, it’s been 20 years since I read these books, so you could say I’m new to the franchise again. So if someone was to pick up this book (and the previous eight are out of print, but they can be found on occasion at used bookstores or through Amazon or Powell’s websites and I think they're all available for downloading on an e-reader) it can still be read as a prelude to the others. 

While the series was sold as humorous fantasy novels (which were the rage back in the day), the Castle Perilous books are more than one genre; with 144,000 aspects this series can be more than one genre (as it proved in its previous life). DeChanice still fills the books with a lot of laughs, but it’s not hard core fantasy either. It’s just fresh, light, and always fun.

While the author, in his forward, gives no real reason of why he returned to the series after such a long hiatus, he does join Stephen R. Donaldson (and soon Tad Williams) as a writer revisiting an interesting time in history when fantasy novels were more fun and less savage.

24 March 2016

Books: Will Grayson, Will Grayson By John Green & David Levithan (2010)

“It's not that far from Evanston to Naperville, but Chicago suburbanites Will Grayson and Will Grayson might as well live on different planets. When fate delivers them both to the same surprising crossroads, the Will Graysons find their lives overlapping and hurtling in new and unexpected directions. With a push from friends new and old - including the massive, and massively fabulous, Tiny Cooper, offensive lineman and musical theater auteurs extraordinaire - Will and Will begin building toward respective romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history's most awesome high school musical.”

It’s strange reading a book like Will Grayson, Will Grayson. As a very old person, it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around how much has changed from the time I went to high school from 1977-81 and today’s teens trudging through the endless days of classes with a wide variety of people. I hated my schooling years, especially those 4 years of high school, and reading about the lives of the character’s in this book was one part “I wish it was that way when I went to school” and roll my eyes knowing that both authors are giving us a hyper-reality version of life, where someone as large and in charge as Tiny Cooper could be a popular football player and a musical theater lover who has decided that his life needs to revealed in a school play.

In some ways, this book reminded me of Glee, which while being a fairly realistic portrait of high school life (well, in its first season only), it had a weird fantasy part where everyone kind of, well sort of, respected each other. Will Grayson, Will Grayson sort of lets that fantasy part be the main thrust of the novel. Which works for me. 

The book is told in alternating chapters, with John Green handling the odd numbered ones and David Levithan taking on the even ones. Straight Will Grayson writes with proper grammar and uses capital letters and feels sort of left out when his best friend Tiny is off with another short-term boyfriend or preparing for this play. The other Will Grayson id gay and writes all in lower letters and is on a few drugs to control his depression. His only real friend, besides Maura (who seems totally in love with him), is a guy named Isaac he’s been talking to on IM. When they finally plan to meet –in of all places, a porn shop in downtown Chicago- suburban Will gets a shock of his life, but he also meets Chicago Will and Tiny Cooper.

Again, while the odds of meeting someone with your name is fairly good, the whole rest of the book relies on much coincidence and convenience. This is where the hyper-reality version takes over. Also, I never got attached to gay Will Grayson, even though I guess his depression about what ever split his parents up seems very realistic. I also think the book sort of glosses over the whole catfishing incident, even though someone pays for what they did. But I felt it was a bit mishandled, becoming more of a illogical plot device; it wasn’t treated seriously. Then there is Jane, a smart, very realistic character portrayed not as someone who's obsessed with looks or cloths, but one whom brings balance to those around her.  

There is an incredible amount of foul language in the book, and while this probably plays true to the characters and real life, I was sort, I don’t know, shocked that kids talk like this? But I suppose I swear a lot, but I don’t think I swore that much when I was these characters ages. 

Gawd, I’m old.

22 March 2016

Books: A Darker Shade of Magic By V.E. Schwab (2015)

Back in the 1980s when I began to read fantasy novels in earnest, I liked the idea of multiple volumes –usually three, but longer ones were fine- those tales, however, were usually compact in size; no thousand page tomes per book, another words. I liked that format a lot, but over the decades, trilogies have expanded into ongoing series of seven to twelve (or more) books, each carrying anywhere from 800 pages to nearly a thousand.  And I’ve found that longer does not necessarily mean better. They may be richer in depth and world building, but I’ve found that writers have become so obsessed with the detail, that they’ve forgotten to move their story along. 

One thing that I like about V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic is the book moves swiftly. She is able to do her world building in an efficient and understandable way, without getting caught in the ennui, the detail of details that have stopped me from reading Brandon Sanderson, George R.R. Martin, and Diana Gabaldon. Don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of people think this is impressive, and it is, but I don’t have the time or the inclination anymore to read books that need flow charts to keep tabs on characters and their adventures.

The unique premise has four London’s living parallel to each other. There is grey London, one under the rule of George III, white London, red London, and they mysterious and destroyed, black London. Kell is an Antari, one of the magicians who can travel between these worlds. Now grey London (our world) does not have much magic and most people have forgotten magic even existed. Red London, the world in which Kell is bound to, is a place full of magic, where people exist in balance with it. White London is where magic is dying, and where those who live there and wield it, are willing to do anything to get control of more magic, even trying to open the doorway to black London. But Kell knows this will destroy everything if that doorway is re-opened.

As one of the last of his kind, Kell tries to keep all three remaining London’s in balance (with great power comes great responsibilities danced through my mind a lot reading this book) and implies that King George III (the mad king) knows of the existence of the other London’s and this could be the reason he was a bit off his rocker. Kell is also willing to smuggle items between worlds, which is how he eventually bumps into Delilah Bard, a women with lofty aspirations. Lila is what they once called back then, a highway man. Or in this case a highway woman, essentially a thief and a pickpocket. And when these two people meet, our heroine picks the pocket of Kell, stealing one half of a magical stone, an artifact from black London (shades of the One Ring here). And that begins an adventure that leads to being chased by all means of magic and those bent on obtaining the stone that can give them unlimited power.

While a lot goes on over 400 pages, the Schwab does not go much into the background of either Kell or Lila, though she drops enough information to make me want to know more. As characters, Lila is much more interesting than Kell, and there were at times where I wished the book was more about her. And Kell comes off a bit naïve; he has lived in luxury with the royal family of red London (so much so, he’s seen as the son and brother of the royals) and lacks the ability to see that others have to struggle to make ends meet. He also, strangely, seems oblivious to politics of power that exists between these three remaining London’s and lacks any diplomatic skills.

Perhaps, because of the influence of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, we also get a glimpse of the ruthless rulers of white London, run by the twins Astrid and Athos Dane. Both crave power and are willing to destroy everything, kill everything in their way to do it. They are stereotypes, paper tiger villains that are pretty dumb. I mean there is no style to them, no grey area so to speak of; they’re one dimensional and, in the end, weak, so their threat to balance of magic is never really believable. 

Again, Lila is a fun character and may be the only reason I continue reading the series. But it moves swiftly, and that is also a key reason to follow up with the sequel. I just hope that Lila figures out a way to dump Kell.

16 March 2016

Books: Me Before You By Jojo Moyes (2012)

 Me Before You is the second book I’ve read in the last couple of months that dealt with someone wanting to end their life due to an illness, or in this case, an accident that left Will Traynor a quadriplegic. Though The Universe Versus Alex Woods took a more in depth look into assisted suicide and leaving the reader to decide if it was right or wrong, in this novel, the idea of what Will wants sits like an elephant in the room. No one wants to talk about it.
While we don’t get much of a glimpse into Will’s life before the accident, writer Jojo Moyes alludes enough that he was once an adrenaline junkie, moved fast, owned his own company, and was generally living the high life of a very successful, very wealthy man (some may venture, an elitist white man as well) who also comes from an equally wealthy family. But after the road accident that left him paralyzed below the chest, with only minimal movement in his right arm, his life comes to a standstill. And he discovers, as time passes, that he lost more than the use of his body.

Two years later, Louisa Clark loses her job at the local café The Buttered Bun. She is a 26 year old, unambitious woman with very few qualifications. She lives with her working-class family and is constantly outshone by her younger, more intelligent sister, Treena, who is a single mother. Her parents become disappointed because the entire family depends on her wages. Louisa goes to the Job Centre where Syed, the Job Centre assistant, finds an ultimate option which is to look after a disabled man. Louisa gets accepted and is hired by Camilla Traynor, the mother of Will, because she thinks her son needs someone able to brighten his spirits. Louisa also notices how falsely everyone is acting in Granta House, Will's family mansion.  During her first few weeks, Louisa notices that Will's wrists are covered with scars, and then, one day, she overhears Will's mother and sister talking privately and finds out that he tried to commit suicide shortly after his mother refused to grant his wish to end his life through an assisted suicide organization known as Digntas (a real life group based in Switzerland). Horrified at his attempt to commit suicide, his mother agrees to honor his wish, but only on the condition that he agrees to live six more months. In that time, Louisa secretly plans to change his mind and show him life is still worth living.

I liked this book, despite the fact that this could be considered “chic lit”, a derogatory description for books generally designed to be read by women. While I knew of the book (well, mostly because of its sequel, Me After You, was being set for release soon and there was press about it), it wasn’t until I was working on the film adaptation of novelist Jay Bell’s Something Like Summer last summer in Portland that I saw someone actually reading it. One the star’s of this film, Ben Bauer, was reading it between scenes one morning. He was nearly finished with it, and I knew he was a big reader, so I tried to engage in conversation about books. But that didn’t go very far. Of course, he finished it, mentioning he was in tears during the final pages. So, as I generally am with books, I stored the information in a cabinet in my brain and knew I would eventually consider reading it.

Then Katie, a former co-worker of mine at Borders, posted a picture of used books she recently acquired. Then another co-worker, Jen, asked Katie if she read Me Before You. I chimed in mentioning I was considering reading it as well, but Jen seemed to think that was a silly idea. Well, as I’ve discovered in my old age, it’s things like this (even in some minor way like this) that make me then want to read it. It’s part stubbornness and part competitiveness, I think.  

Anyways, I enjoyed the book, even though I knew the ending (the sequel’s title sort of gives it away. Not a very bright piece of marketing, if you ask me. Then again, The Return of the King sort of did the same thing). I think I liked it, partly, because of it being British. While correct manners and what’s proper is subtly played out here, but what I loved the dry humor and Louisa’s family. Katrina is a blast, and the sibling rivalry is painted very well (though Treena’s son Thomas seems to get very little in the way of development and seems, more or less, to be used as a plot point later in the book).

It’s not maudlin in any sort of way, which I think is good. I was happy, yet also disappointed for some reason, that book never got into great detail about the moral ambiguities of assisted suicide. There is some minor discussions -can someone be prosecuted for it, and what not, but it’s oddly glossed over with Louisa only talking to other quads in chat rooms on the internet. But Louisa is the Cinderella heroine that books like this are targeted towards women have a tendency to be. But she is flawed and vulnerable in very believable way, she’s like today’s Millennial’s who grow up not really achieving much and suddenly discover they’re on the road to thirty with nothing to show for it. And while she seems fine with this, it’s clear what she needed (and what many of us need) is a mentor to push them onto the right path.

Of course the pusher is not always handsome and rich, but then would anyone really want to read this book and see the movie version (trailer here) if he wasn’t? Not sure I will read the sequel, but I may end seeing the film (mostly because it’s got Jenna Coleman (Clara from Doctor Who) playing Louisa’s snarky, smarter younger sister.

11 March 2016

Books: Why We Came To The City By Kristopher Jansma (2016)

We begin at a New Year's party in 2008, with a snowstorm that is blowing through Manhattan. And while the economy is collapsing, none of that matters to a handful of guests at a holiday party. Five years after their college graduation, the fiercely devoted friends remain as inseparable as ever: editor and social butterfly Sara Sherman, her troubled astronomer boyfriend George Murphy, loudmouth poet Jacob Blaumann, classics major turned investment banker William Cho, and Irene Richmond, an enchanting artist with an inscrutable past. Amid cheerful revelry and free-flowing champagne, the friends toast themselves and the new year ahead—a year that holds many surprises in store. They must navigate ever-shifting relationships with the city and with one another, determined to push onward in pursuit of their precarious dreams. And when a devastating blow brings their momentum to a halt, the group is forced to reexamine their aspirations and chart new paths through unexpected losses.

In many ways, I found Why We Came To The City refreshingly old fashion in its tale, but also remarkably present day in its themes. I mean, we’ve seen many authors attempt to write a love letter to the city of New York, and we’ve seen many stories featuring characters moving through its veins, attempting to survive and live in a place that seems magical most of the time, but like a thief in the night, it can take things from you. So when you read the opening sentence, you almost become instantly hooked into the coda of the novel: "We came to the city because we wished to live haphazardly, to reach for only the least realistic of our desires, and to see if we could not learn what our failures had to teach, and not, when we came to live, discover that we had never died.”

I admit I was at first reluctant to read the book, feeling that we’ve seen this story before, but after reading Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards back in January, and the opening sentence of this book, I knew no matter what, I was going to be in for a linguistic treat. The novel is warm, often funny, sad at times, and a bit sentimental, but as a love letter to New York, it brims with so much charm, so much love, you can sometimes over look the over-romanticizing.