Friday, April 30, 2010

Fearless Jones by Walter Mosley

Title: Fearless Jones
Author: Walter Mosley
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (2001)

I have to say right off that this book made me cry so my objectivity might be emotionally compromised. You might not think of a 'whodunit' book as a tear jerker but I'll explain. (This actually might be more of a 'whatthehelzgoingon' than a 'whodunit.' It's a fine line, anyway.) Right, some details. As Fearless Jones opens, Paris Minton is minding his own business - literally, he's reading in the bookshop he owns - when an attractive woman he doesn't know comes in asking about a neighborhood reverend. Shortly after she arrives a man enters the bookstore looking for her. He doesn't appreciate Paris' unhelpful answers and beats him pretty badly. This ignites a shitstorm of unpleasantness for Paris and he decides he needs the help of his friend Fearless Jones to figure out what's going on. As these two black men in 1950s Los Angeles try to figure out what's going on, and avoid further suspicion from the cops, the reader is taken along on a nicely paced ride.

I really liked the writing style and especially the dialogue. There's a real natural quality to it that makes it feel a lot like you're experiencing an actual conversation. Obviously dialogue is never a pure portrayal of live conversation (and let's, like, thank our, yeah, you know, lucky stars for, um, that) but it can often have a representative feel to it. Not so in this case and it's a definite strong point.

Characterization is well done, too. Both the mains and the supporting get more than just casual depictions giving the story a lot of depth. I'm only gonna focus on Paris and Fearless though because I really liked their dynamic. They also made me laugh a lot, too. Chuckles aside, Paris is a bit of an anti-hero. He feels inadequate most of the time and not up to the hero antics of his friend Fearless. On the other hand, you learn that Fearless is the kind of guy that trouble finds and Paris is often there to get him out of a jam. Paris indulges a bit in an inferiority complex and is relentless in his hero worship of Fearless. At first I thought the theme a bit overdone but as the story unfolds the characters weigh in on the idea and, though it's not explicit, I think Paris might change his mind from when we first meet him in the story. The theme is not a new one but I enjoyed going through it with Paris. Here's a little example of Paris' point of view (quote condensed from p. 110 of hardback):

"Somebody going to investigate the death?" I asked.
"Everybody around here got a real job, Mr. Minton. Real jobs and apartments and mouths to feed. [Victim] was just a year outta prison, an ex-con with a bullet in his chest, found after an anonymous call."
Fearless didn't have a job or an apartment or kids to feed. She wasn't talking about him though.

And that's the thing, no one ever is. Paris takes almost everything that can be construed as a criticism on himself. He doesn't resent Fearless and he's pretty funny so these usually had me laughing. The main difference between the friends is that Paris looks at every situation and thinks about survival and Fearless looks at every situation and thinks about the outcome he prefers. He's pretty badass. Well, hella badass and my favorite example of his very obvious badassness was this:

Fearless stood up.
"You don't wanna know what I can do." The 'motherfucker' wasn't said, but everyone in that room heard it.

The two friends have several funny exchanges and Fearless is one of those characters that uses the obvious answer to great effect:

"So he didn't say nuthin'?" I asked.
"How he gonna say somethin' if he's dead, Paris?"

Mosley is one of those talented writers that can describe emotion really well. I kept thinking of Stephen King, actually, who I do not really read as I'm not a big fan (I hear a few other people like him though;), because I've always been really impressed with how accessible King makes emotion. Mosley's got that, too, and he uses it both ways. He conveys extreme emotions just as well as the more superficial emotions that are with us as we make our way through our days (you know, those of us that lead mundane lives reading books).

So here we are at the end of what I have to say and I still haven't brought up that crying bit. It's a bit spoilerish of Paris' back story so I'm going to include it below. However, this reminds me of one last thing that I'll say. Paris' character development and back story are really well done. First person narratives don't always lend themselves easily to this but the type of character Paris is works really well with how his back story is told.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spoilers and crying below:
Paris is a book lover and has worked very hard to be able to spend each and every day doing what he loves: reading books. When his bookstore burns down at the beginning of the story I was pretty shaken up but when he describes his first trip to a library I was in tears. He was thirteen and with some guesstimating that puts him in early 1930s Louisiana. The white librarian sees him reading outside and then brings him into the library for the sole purpose of telling him it's not for him because he is black. It's hard to comprehend the kind of vile person that deliberately breaks a heart.

The Challenges of Crisis Aid

sgwordy's resident humanitarian is back from the field and brought this article to my attention. It highlights a book by Linda Polman regarding the ineffectiveness of aid organizations and posits that they contribute to prolonging war conflicts. The article correctly identifies the book as a polemic but doesn't do much to point out the one-sided nature of the book's arguments (to review: polemic:).

Like many books of its kind it points out some very real problems but then acts like these problems are the norm (rather than the exception) and that the parties involved are unaware and uninterested in solving these problems. That is patently false in many cases and certainly in this one regarding aid organizations. The problem of effective delivery of aid, and prevention of that aid being abused, is a very real problem that aid agencies work hard to resolve in each and every crisis. But remember, it's a crisis! Each situation is different and there are no hard and fast rules. The point is to reach victims and agencies do everything they can to appropriately react to a crisis and coordinate their efforts with local organizations to reach victims.

The book makes no distinction between development aid (which receives the bulk of donor funds if I remember correctly) and humanitarian/crisis aid. It also states outright that ngo's crisis hop for personal gains completely disregarding the years that many organizations spend in locales. These years often precede a media-hyped crisis and continue after the media have moved on. It's been pointed out that much of Polman's field experience has been with media-hyped crises so she may have limited experience in the more on-going projects.

It's one of those books that focuses only on extreme cases that do not reflect the the day-to-day activities of aid organizations. Worse, it's pointing fingers but giving no real solutions. The only solution given is that if you think aid is being abused by those with the power to do it then you [aid agency] should leave. Oh that's productive! Aid agencies want to reach victims. It is their first, last, and only goal. They will seek out every alternative to leaving in their goal of helping victims of all crises (not just political crises). If an agency finds that they can not effectively reach victims then they do leave but to use that as a first response is not an option. Or if it is, then maybe aid agencies are a thing of the past. Why show up at all if you're not willing to face the hard realities of a crisis situation? These are not easy problems.

I think what I found most offensive was her lumping of all aid workers into a category of selfish individuals enjoying the high-life whilst surrounded by low-wage/poverty conditions. What bullshit! My blood is boiling just thinking about this so I better stop while I'm still coherent. 

It's a shame the book is so fatalistic and unproductive because it does make several good points. One in particular is that agencies ought to practice more critical oversight of themselves and each other. Even better if this can be done in the public eye. The good news is that agencies are doing this. The process has begun and, hopefully, will continue and help to improve effectiveness.

Two parting thoughts:

1) While I remain convinced of the good that aid agencies are capable of doing it's vital that you know and trust agencies to whom you choose to donate. Do your homework! Don't forget that dollar votes are the most important so make sure your dollar is going to someone you trust and support.

2) I'm interested in the topic of humanitarian relief and try to remained informed but I am ultimately an outsider. I welcome any views, especially insider views, that can shed more light on any issues I bring up as my goal is accurate information always!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Megan Whalen Turner: Fantastic Writer, Awesome Human

I had the very great pleasure of attending two of Turner's author events in the bay area this week. It was so much fun to listen to her speak and to say hello. I also had a fabulous time meeting with other Sounisians! We had some great discussions! I really could go on and on with this topic but that's what I have Sounis* for. Huzzah!

If you haven't read Megan Whalen Turner yet then you really must go straight out and buy her books. The latest is A Conspiracy of Kings but I recommend starting at the beginning. It's one of those series where the unexpected happens a lot so if you can avoid reading the back covers I would; it'll keep the beginning a surprise. Here's a link listing the order and talking a bit about how the order might change your experience with the books.

*Sounis is a Live Journal community for fans of the series. It's a great place to go for discussion but many spoilers for the early books are included in posts so I would suggest visiting only after reading the books. Here's the link if interested.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Looking for Rachel Wallace by Robert B. Parker

Title: Looking for Rachel Wallace
Author: Robert B. Parker
Publisher: Dell (1980)

I mentioned the inevitability before so now it's time to share my post-reading thoughts. The cover tells me this is a Spenser novel but it's the first one I've read, first Parker I've read, actually. A little visit to the author's website gave me the impression that he had (and probably still has even after his death) quite the fan base. Any Parker fans out there want to tell me which title I should go for next? Start with Spenser from the beginning? Anyway, on to this title...

Rachel Wallace is many things I am not. This is completely irrelevant but it amuses me to say it. Rachel Wallace (and yes, she is referred to by her full name quite often) is an outspoken feminist and lesbian with a new book about to be published. The book makes certain accusations and names names. She's not very popular with certain crowds to begin with and the content of her upcoming release has resulted in death threats. Her publisher hires Spenser to protect her. Her code of behavior is distinctly different from his resulting in several very interesting conversations and a falling out that sets the scene in Looking for Rachel Wallace.

The book is not long with very nice pacing so I got through it really quickly. The writing is good, the dialogue a lot of fun, and the story satisfying. I liked it well enough that I'll seek out some other Spenser novels but it didn't necessarily blow me away or anything. Just a nice, solid read. Two things really stuck with me: the dynamic between Spenser and Rachel Wallace and that I wish I was more familiar with this genre of books. I'll start with the first.

I can't know this for sure since it's the only Spenser novel I've read but Rachel Wallace felt very much like a foil for Spenser. Maybe Spenser gets one of these in every book but she was practically everything he was not so the reader is presented with the perfect set-up for getting to know a lot about Spenser (and his lovely girlfriend actually). Do we get this in every book or was it time for some character advancement? Normally I wouldn't think about this very much but since Looking for Rachel Wallace is about the 7th book in the series and the differences were almost comically large the deliberate foil idea stuck with me. Of course, Spenser's got a pretty good sense of humor and Rachel Wallace absolutely none so a lot of the time I think Spenser's just fucking with her. What makes their differences most interesting is what they do have in common. They are both intelligent, caring, fair-minded, and very sure of how they have chosen to live their lives. It's the intersection of their life choices that makes for the cool conversations between them.

On to the second. This is the third private eye/mystery author I've read lately (and I think the last time I attempted the genre was in the 90s) and they all feel a lot alike. That's not to say I'm not enjoying them I just didn't expect that they would all be so alike. I checked the copyrights and most of what I have read was published in the 80s so it might be that there was a particular style that was super successful in the 80s and it happens to be what I've picked up. The next author in my getting-know-the-genre project is Walter Mosley. The book I'm starting with was published in 2001 but it's set in the 50s. Like the others I've read it's in the first person POV. I rather like to think the ones I've read are in the "first person glib" (this Rachel Wallace has a sense of humor:) because the narrators have all had the same attitude even. They all seem slightly more progressive than those around them, tough but prone to sadness, cynical because of what they see but still pretty keen on humanity, never lacking for chances to score but very sensitive with their partners (this goes for both male and female protags so don't go thinking this is one of those male-only tropes), pretty set in their code of ethics but philosophical enough to entertain other ideas... So help me out here, mystery readers, is this the way it goes? Are they all in first person POV? Have I described the archetype or simply a style-type? Will I be running into some other types or shall I learn to love and embrace this one because any other type is rare? Also, I think I like a good shoot-out as much as the next American but is justice only ever meted out with death in these books? There are some antagonists who I think would have been much more miserable in jail and yet they all die. No hassle or expense with court in these books; much easier to just kill the baddies and complain a bit about the paperwork.

Getting back to Spenser, he very much aligned with the archetype I described above. Course, not being familiar with his series or the genre in general maybe he was the beginning of this. Maybe he was a step forward in the evolution of the archetype. I really don't know. I liked him just fine and won't mind reading some more books with him but I wonder how deeply I'll be able to get into the genre if I always run into the same protags.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

I still have a list of suggestions I'm working through for the genre but if any mystery readers want to add to that list I would really appreciate it. I'd especially love some books that turn all my first impressions/stereotypes right on their heads!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Levels of Death for Fictional Characters, Part II

So sgwordy entered the lair of Achievement Whoring and asked the good Dr to share his Levels of Death theory. Enjoy!

(NOTE: It's probably obvious for a topic like this but beware spoilers.)

Dr Musacha says...

If you missed Part I click here.

Level 2 – They killed X???  YOU BASTARDS!

Now it’s on.  A level 2 death involves a character who has been with us throughout most of the story.  They’re a major part of the narrative, with well-established backstory, personality, and motivations.  Essentially, we’re talking about anyone that you might refer to as “one of the main characters” WITHOUT being the main hero/heroine/villain.

The impact of a level 2 death cannot be overstated.  This is a character that we’ve grown to care about, identify with, and root for (wow, that was a lot of dangling prepositions).  Assuming that the writer has done his/her job properly, we are NOT going to like seeing this person die.  But see it we will, because level 2 deaths (unlike 3 and 4) pretty much never happen offscreen.  After all, the author is sacrificing an important character and obviously wants to reap the full emotional impact of that decision.

The following may seem counterintuitive, but bear with me: Level 2 deaths are the most critical ones to do correctly.  Period.  Now, you might be wondering how that’s possible since we have another level to go.  I’ll get there in a second, but understand that level 1 deaths are actually pretty easy.  But level 2?  They can make all the difference between pushing your narrative to a whole new level and completely derailing it, losing your audience forever.

The key point to understand is that your level 2 death may well mean killing the audience’s favorite character.  Think about it: if you ask someone who their favorite Star Wars character is, how many say Luke?  Sure, you need a compelling hero and villain, but people tend to gravitate to the side characters (at least the ones that are decently developed).  So when you off that person, it better be in a way that respects the bond that’s formed between said character and the audience.  NOTE: This is doubly true for characters in a series, because we’ve had all the more time to get attached.

An example from my own experience: I enjoyed most of Dancing with Wolves.  It was an interesting story (if a bit slow) and shot with a nice eye for the surrounding environment.  Then some jackass army officers take turns firing at Two-Socks, the wolf that keeps Dunbar company, killing the poor animal because it doesn’t know to run away.  Now, I get what the writer was going for here…he wants us to understand that the army officers are the bad guys so we’ll be happy when the Sioux kill them later.  Well you know what guy?  I already figured that out.  There was no damn reason to show Two Socks being unceremoniously murdered.  If you were looking for an emotional reaction, then you got one.  I loathe your crappy movie with every fiber of my being.  Was that what you wanted?

Level 2 deaths are pretty common with villains.  It’s usually the right hand man, who ironically is often tougher/more evil than the main bad guy.  Also note that level 2 deaths often happen late in the story, because they serve as the inspiration that the hero/heroine needs to vanquish his or her foes and achieve victory in their fallen comrade’s memory.

Other examples:
Mick/Apollo – Rocky III/IV
Dumbledore – Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
Obi-wan Kenobi – Star Wars
Count Rugen (the man with six fingers) – Princess Bride

Level 1 – And then there were two

Okay, it doesn’t HAVE to be two.  There are instances where there’s more than one main protagonist (though rarely is there more than one main villain).  Still, we’re definitely looking at the cream of the crop here.

Level 1 deaths happen almost exclusively at the climax of the story, largely because anyone suffering a level 1 death was so key to the plot that it can hardly go on without them.  Imagine if Darth Vader died in Return of the Jedi, but then there was another 45 minutes of faffing about on Endor fighting generic stormtroopers.  Anticlimactic, no?

Compared to level 2, level 1 deaths are actually pretty easy to write.  Most people expect the main villain to buy the farm at the end, so it will hardly come as a shock.  And as for the hero, the idea of the tragic protagonist who sacrifices himself at the end of the story is so old that a guy named William Shakespeare had mastered it back when humans were still trying to invent fire (NOTE: this article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of sgwordy, her parent company, or historical accuracy in any way).

There are too many examples to count, but here are a few:
Butch and Sundance – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Maximus – Gladiator
Hillary – Beaches
Captain John Miller – Saving Private Ryan
William Wallace – Braveheart (this is historical I suppose, but still)
The Predator – Predator
Thelma and Louise – I’m hoping you can guess

So there you have it.  sgwordy…do YOU have a favorite example of one of the Levels of Death?

Why yes, I do! I'm actually going to include something for each level:

Level 4 - All to whom Terry Pratchett made this most hilarious dedication and this poor bastard who did not want it.

Level 3 - I'm gonna cheat a little on this one because I'm choosing a character in my own work in progress. Two reasons: the first - it was this character's death (and your reading of it) that first brought the Levels of Death theory to my attention and the second - because he truly died as he lived, serving the plot.

Level 2 - Since this is the trickiest of all I'm going to give an example of it done badly and an example of it done well. The done badly example was the offing of The Syndicate in The X-Files. I'm a believer (Mulder would be so proud:) that there was no way to do this well and that it being done at all was a mistake. The done well example is Amylin (played by Paul Reubens) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

side note: What I find interesting about level 2 is that the character's relationship with the audience is more important than the character's relationship to the heroine/hero when it comes to a death that will not alienate the audience.

Level 1 - Elphaba in Wicked by Gregory Maguire. Holy damn that was some kind of memorable.

Anyone else have some particularly good or bad examples of the levels?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Dante's Inferno (2010) Final Thoughts

Title: Dante's Inferno
Publisher: EA/Visceral Games (2010)

When I posted about Dante's Inferno before the game was at about the half. Now that it's complete, here are some final thoughts. Lucky for me I agree with pretty much everything in this review so there's no need to hash it out here. But there are a couple things I'd add... 

The game is too short. These Xbox games cost 60 bucks (60 bucks!!!) and the game was about 10 hours. That is a major party foul. As in, unfuckingacceptable! 10 hours? Are you kidding me? I would be more pissed at EA but I sort of have to respect the way they suckered 60 bucks out of me for these piddling 10 hours.

And the story, talk about starting high and ending low. You've got 9 levels of hell to go through before Dante's fight with the Baddest Baddie of them all (to review: Satan) so you've got 9 levels over which the story needs to be spread. Talk about blowing your wad. I think it was at about level 5 that they started mailing it in story wise. And it's a real shame too because the story started out so well. So in this far-from-reflective-of-the-poem story, Dante has returned from a Crusade to find his love, Beatrice, murdered. Not only is she murdered but her soul is taken to hell. This is somewhat confusing for Dante because she has done nothing to deserve to go to hell. Dante goes after her, cue awesome gaming fun.

As Dante goes searching for answers and trying to rescue Beatrice the gamer learns about why Dante has so much guilt and why Beatrice's soul was taken. (The back story is all done in a different artistic style and is super awesome.) You start learning all kinds of stuff about Dante's Crusade, how he behaved, what was going on with his family, what he did to Beatrice, etc - and it's done really well. It's really engaging. You're immediately drawn into the story and the mystery of what really happened. But then it just peters out.

There's this great set-up and then it stops almost completely. The cut scenes become really short, the character back stories become unconvincing, and I wouldn't say more than two of the resolutions for the story were all that satisfying. It was really a bummer after such a great set-up.

So in the end I'd say the game is only average. It started out great but ended with a let down. Mr. Knight was all coy with us but the end said To Be Continued so I assume we'll get to go to Purgatory next. I hope they decide to stick with a story that actually spans the entire game for the next one.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Levels of Death for Fictional Characters, Part I

So sgwordy entered the lair of Achievement Whoring and asked the good Dr to share his Levels of Death theory. Enjoy!

Dr Musacha says...

In real life, death is inevitable. But in fiction, death is the result of a conscious decision made by the author (unless of course it’s based on historical events…that trip to Ford’s Theater is probably not going to end well for Lincoln). And while you may think that character deaths are thrown into stories at the random whim of the writer, the vast majority of deaths fall into one of four escalating categories that I refer to as “Levels of Death”. Each level (and thus each death) has a distinct purpose for a story, and I firmly believe that the misapplication of this system can ruin an otherwise great story.

To illustrate the concept, I’m going to review each level starting at the bottom (Level 4) and culminating at the top (Level 1). For further clarification, I’ll give examples of each level based on the medium of movies (though this concept works for books, video games, and so on). Note that spoilers abound (we’re talking about characters dying here!) though I’ve tried to restrict my examples to well known movies that should come as little surprise. Still if you’re the type of person who’s been holding out on this whole “Star Wars” thing and you have a good feeling about how things turn out for this Darth Vader guy (whoops!) then maybe stop now.

Level 4 – The Red Shirt Guy

If you know anything about Star Trek, then you’re already nodding your head. When Kirk, Spock, Sulu, and some generic guy in a red shirt beam down to the alien planet where another ship’s crew disappeared without a trace, guess who isn’t coming back? Let’s just say they’re paying Shatner a lot of money to captain the Enterprise, not to die before the second commercial.

Wondering if you’re seeing a level 4 death? First, ask yourself if you know the character’s name. Or if he/she even has a name. How about defining characteristics…does he have a back story, a defined personality, an established connection to other characters? If not, you’re definitely in level 4 territory. Even more telling, how do the other characters react when “red shirt” dies? Is it like a dark cloud hanging over the rest of the film/episode/book? Or do they pretty much proceed like nothing happened, as if they were expecting it from the start?

And that’s the thing: they DO expect it. The reason they aren’t getting all emotional is because the writer didn’t care about “red shirt” guy and he didn’t expect you to either. His death is akin to a little science experiment, like tossing a gerbil to a python and taking notes on how the snake dispatches it. It’s the writer’s way of telling you “Kirk and Spock will be facing a tentacle monster this week, and this is how it kills people. Keep watching to see how they defeat it!”

As for villains (because hey, they’re characters too!), a Level 4 death is less of an option and more of a career choice for the vast majority of henchmen. The second you slap on that generic outfit and join the legion of baddies, know that your Level 4 death will come swiftly, surely, and with no fanfare whatsoever from the protagonist. You might as well be a traffic cone with a machine gun taped to it, pal.

Other examples:
Fat guy from New York that gets squashed by a meteor – Armageddon
Guard who gets his heart pulled out of his chest – Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom
Late night swimmer – Jaws
Practically every person killed by Stallone/Schwarzenegger/etc. in action movies

Level 3 – I died as I lived…serving the plot

Congratulations, you’ve been promoted to level 3. You’ve got a name (probably first AND last), some lines, and a personality that can likely be summarized in five or fewer words. You might even be played by a recognizable character actor (Hey, I saw that guy on Seinfeld once…). Here’s the bad news though: you can still die. Oh, you might be thinking “I’m not one of these generic types so I’ll be okay.” No such luck though, because the reality is that the story can still easily proceed without you.

A level 3 death differs from level 4 in several key ways. First, the character that dies is far more distinct. More importantly, the main characters acknowledge a level 3 death as momentous and important. They are often stricken with shock or grief that such an event could transpire. What a level 3 death does is announce to the audience “Shit just got real here…this is a story where people CAN DIE”. Nobody thinks that the monster that offed red-shirt is going to get Kirk. But if a level 3 character death occurs, suddenly things get murkier. The anguish that the characters are showing is partly driven by the realization that “Death is in play and I could be next…”

Level 3 deaths also often serve to “thin the ranks”. As in, the author needed a group of people at the start of the story for the purposes of dialogue/plot exposition/etc., but now things are a little crowded. A nice level 3 death or two can whittle down the group while creating an emotional impact for the survivors and the audience. These usually happen in the middle of a story, since we need time to know the character but not so much that we get attached.

Level 3 death is pretty rare for a villain, as it involves a person who’s slightly higher up than a henchman but still not important enough to survive to the climax of the film.  Generally the proper order is to kill all the generic guys, then the sub-boss types, and finally the main baddie.  Still, it does happen.  I’m reminded of the classic quote from Commando:
Arnold: Remember Sully, when I promised I’d kill you last?
Sully: That’s right, you did!
Arnold: I lied.

Other examples:
Harry Ellis, who pretends to be Bruce Willis’ friend and gets shot – Die Hard
May the hooker – Dark City
Helen, the nice old lady who gets blown out of the bus – Speed
William Laughlin, a member of the resistance – Running Man

Levels 1 and 2 are here.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book Blurbs

Has anyone else read a book blurb after having finished the book and thought, "Did we read the same book?"

Cloud Mountain by Aimee Liu

Title: Cloud Mountain
Author: Aimee Liu
Publisher: Warner Books (1997)

Cloud Mountain is the story of an American woman and a Chinese man who fall in love in California in the early 20th Century. At this time in the United States marriage between them is illegal almost everywhere and the prejudice against interracial couples high. Despite societal and family obstacles, Hope Newfield and Liang Po-yu (Paul Leon) pursue their love and marry in a little Wyoming town where interracial marriage is legal. They make their home in Berkeley for 5 years before moving to China.

The story told in Cloud Mountain was inspired by the author’s grandparents. Aimee Liu, while never knowing her grandparents, used her family’s history, writings, and stories to follow the chronology of the marriage of her grandparents. It is an incredible story and the daring of these two young people should not be underestimated. As modern readers we are lucky to live in a time where the world has become smaller and minds are continuing to open to diversity. But during the time described in Cloud Mountain the idea of marrying outside your race or ethnic background, much less your citizenship and moving around the world, was extremely rare.

This book is very good but it had a slow start for me. The slow start was my fault and not the author's. The opening chapters started off very much like a romance novel. I’m certainly not one to turn up my nose at a romance but it caught me off guard. There was the heroine with a lost love, a current love she wasn’t really interested in, and then the hero enters and zing! there is an instant connection. My mind was ready for a sweeping portrayal of the turbulent racial situation in America and the politics of China but instead there was a boy and girl and they fell in love. After finishing the book I felt like a right dolt (<-- do people still say this?) for my blunder with the beginning. As I described above, Hope and Po-yu were subjected to many obstacles to their being together. The challenges presented by their heritage and cultural backgrounds continue through much of their relationship. In that sense, it would almost have to be a love as instant and over-powering as theirs to have brought them together, and kept them together, through the tumultuous years of their marriage.

Po-yu is highly educated and from a rich family. He is dedicated to ending imperialism in China and his involvement in politics has him in exile from China. Ostensibly, he is in Berkeley to study (he meets Hope because she is an English language tutor) but, more importantly, he works on a Chinese newspaper to inform US residents of Chinese politics and raise money for the revolution against the Manchu Imperialists. After he and Hope have been married 5 years, the Manchus are overthrown and Po-yu can return to China. Hope and their daughter soon follow and for the next 21 years it is where they make their home.

The style that Liu chose for this story is very well done. There is a mix of narrative, diary entries by Hope, and letters between family and friends. The choice to include the diary entries and letters brought much to the novel. The increased intimacy and perspective gave the story a richness that it would not otherwise have had. Also, I was especially impressed with Liu’s ability to show the trappings of culture and how they can divide even those who are actively committed to each other. Hope and Po-yu were clearly very much in love and extremely progressive, yet despite this their cultural socialization often came between them. Liu’s balance of love, individuality, and the wisdom that comes with experience was well-maintained throughout the story making her characters wonderfully layered and accessible.

I think Chinese history is pretty fascinating in general but the 20th Century is especially intriguing to me. The historical backdrop to Hope and Po-yu's relationship is just as interesting as the characters. They are in China as Imperialism is ended but the new republic is shaky (this is the most ridiculously inadequate description of the various political factions involved so do yourself a favor and go learn about the details - it's fascinating stuff) making for a politically unstable government. The entire Century is worth learning about but this snapshot of years is just as interesting as any other and makes for a rich background. 

The following point of discussion is spoilerish so highlight if interested: There’s a time in their marriage when Hope is depressed and estranged from Po-yu. In this period she has a lot of interaction with their friend Mann and feels attracted to him and the life he leads. After she has come to realize that she does not have true feelings for Mann and remains dedicated to Po-yu, she makes a very interesting observation that Mann is the kind of man that can’t survive without a wife and that Po-yu might be someone that should never have married. At the same time she observes how shallow Mann’s feelings are for others versus the depth of feeling Po-yu is capable of. Po-yu is extremely dedicated to his political cause and is often negligent of his family. However, his deep love for Hope is never in any doubt. It's interesting to think about what it takes to love so deeply and what it means to fulfill the obligations of that love. Po-yu is clearly capable of deep and abiding love but he has that same intense love for his country and his country’s future. Is it right for someone like this to have a family? Where is the line between your obligations to your family and to your individual passions? Is there a line? In our more modern times where each partner is more likely to have the opportunities for an independent life and income is this less of an issue? I found myself coming back to this over and over even though I don't think there's any one answer.

I highly recommend this book. The story is compelling, the writing excellent and the end will make you think about what it means to love and how individuals express that love. Though not a short book it never feels long and I think almost anyone will find the experience enriching and satisfying. To learn more about the amazing couple that inspired this story click here.

rating: 5 of 5 stars

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Murderous Procession by Ariana Franklin, or Thoughts on Series Books

Title: A Murderous Procession
Author: Ariana Franklin
Publisher: Putnam (2010)

A Murderous Procession is the latest Mistress of the Art of Death book. Mistress is one of my favorite books. I loved it the first time I read it and I've continued to re-read it and lurv on it some more. My love for that first book is probably the only reason that I'm still reading the series. I was chatting with someone the other day about how I'm not very good at keeping up with series books. It's not that I don't like series, per se, it's just that I usually lose interest. I wasn't able to quite put my finger on why that is so I tried to pay attention while reading this book so I could finally decide what it is about series that doesn't keep me interested. But first, a little about the book...

Adelia Aguilar is back and under Henry II's orders once again. She is to escort his daughter to Sicily for the princess's wedding as her doctor. As usual, she's disguised as a doctor's assistant as the world at large is none to friendly to a female doctor. The ever-faithful Mansur (her long-time protector) acts as the doctor. Her lover Rowley is part of the escort, as well, though with him being a bishop and all they've got to keep their relationship secret. Sort of. Her profession and her relationship with Rowley are starting to feel like Superman's secret identity. Seriously, how many people can you let in on a secret before it isn't really a secret anymore? Ah well, I digress. As with any story involving a forensic specialist/private eye/amateur sleuth ancillary characters begin to die. Time for some mystery solving!

Does my synopsis seem snippy and disinterested? Yeah, I know, it is - but that's how I start to feel when reading a series. So why is this? I used to think it was because the formula annoyed me but, besides the fact that pretty much every book follows some type of formula, I enjoy hard-core formula books. Same plot over and over? No problem! Same tropes over and over? No problem. Write it well and give me some characters I can enjoy and I'll probably keep coming back. So what's the big deal about a series then? Turns out that, for me, it all comes down to the characters.

I was paying close attention during A Murderous Procession and trying to pinpoint why it (and the other sequels) was so unsatisfying. I compared it to another series I've been reading lately, the Elvis Cole books by Robert Crais (thanks to Singular Points for the Crais tip), because I've had no trouble gobbling those books up like funnel cakes at the fair. And that's when the whole character business hit me. It's everything to do with the character arcs. In Mistress there are very good and very interesting character arcs for pretty much everyone. I was invested in them and I wanted to know where I was going to go with the characters (the story's bang up too, btw). But the subsequent books have either completely dropped character arcs or simply rerun previous arcs. I started thinking of all the series I've petered out on and that was pretty much what lost me. I guess I'm just not all that interested in watching the same character arc repeatedly because it doesn't feel like growth. I want to see new discoveries for old characters if they're going to be there.

I tend to also like series that focus on a new character in the same fictional setting as a previous book. The pitfall for these is that then you've got those authors that have to do the laundry list of "where are they now." I am definitely interested in where my old friends are but if it doesn't work naturally in a story then I'm not interested in what feels like an ESPN ticker update. I'm also convinced that new readers to a series don't need this either. All the back story should work naturally with the current story. If it doesn't then it's probably not needed at all. Most times you don't need all that back story to understand the current book so why produce what feels like a little time-out in the current story for the ticker?

So why are these Crais books working for me? Because Cole's character is pretty well-established at the beginning and the fun is watching him interact with the funky cast of characters around him. I'm not overly worried about his growth as a character because it's not the central theme of the books. From one book to the next I might learn something more about him but it's natural to the story and not a re-run of something I saw him go through as a character two books ago. Several books into the series there's a big jump in the depth of characterization but, again, it's natural to the stories and not repetitive. 

So, so, so, there it is. Apparently I need no character arc or a never-ending character arc. What I really can't stand is the same lessons over and over. The whole time I'm thinking, we've already been through this, why are you doing it again? Do you not remember two years ago when you went through all these same issues?

And that brings me back to A Murderous Procession. I think it's my least favorite so far of all the Mistress books. We've once again got to have some sort of snippy thing happen between Adelia and Rowley at the beginning to create some tension, then they can work it out and get back to the hoppin' horny good-luvin'/mystery solving business at hand. They'll get separated for some reason, Adelia will find herself in grave danger, etc etc. I wouldn't mind all this so much if the characters were giving me a reason to stick with them. When everything's a repeat I'd rather just go find some new characters to befriend.

Side note to the publisher: this is a BAD copy edit job. Try harder next time. Bad copy editing is like the actors in a play making eye contact, it ruins the "fourth wall."

rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Star Ratings

Any time I do a review I include a star rating. I usually put these at the end as I feel star ratings aren't all that informative but I like to use them and I always have specific reasons for how many stars I've assigned. Here's an explanation of the method behind my star madness.

Short version:
5 stars - excellent
4 stars - above average
3 stars - average
2 stars - below average
1 star - better used as toilet paper/coaster
DNF - Did Not Finish

Long version:
5 stars - The book/movie/video game is a perfect example of the art. The craft is excellent, the subject matter engaging, the characters realistic and sympathetic. Overall, a joy to experience.

4 stars - The b/m/vg is definitely solid. There are a few flaws but nothing that would severely undermine the work as a whole. It'll appeal to more than just its target audience.

3 stars - The b/m/vg is alright but probably not something I'll go out of my way to remember or even recommend. I'm just as likely to enjoy something I give 3 stars as not. It's probably the most uninformative rating I give but it basically means that if you like this kind of thing you'll like it, if not then probably not.

2 stars - The b/m/vg is so flawed that it's not enjoyable. Thoughts that start popping into my head with a 2 star rating are unrealistic characters, boring, plot holes/devices, characters are caricature-like or walking stereotypes, etc.

1 star - The b/m/vg is so bad that it's offensive.

DNF - Most common reasons I don't finish a b/m/vg: it's so bad it's offensive, the writing is poor, the story doesn't interest me, the characters don't interest me, it's boring.

I've never posted a DNF review because I never do them. If I can't be bothered to finish the b/m/vg then I certainly can't be bothered to sit down and compose a few words on it. It's very rare that I write/post 1/2 star reviews because most often the b/m/vg would end up getting a DNF. If I'm not liking something I tend to stop doing it. Also, if I dislike something I'm generally not that interested in sitting down and reliving it by writing something up. I have been known to take requests on these, though. :)

So what you'll get here are mostly 3/4/5 star reviews. And even though I said the 3 star rating is the least informative, if I review it that means I liked it for what it was and if you like the genre/story/character types then you will probably like it, too. The 4/5 star ratings mean that I think it's worthwhile for anyone to at least give it a try even if it's not something you would normally reach for during your free time.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dante's Inferno (2010)

Title: Dante's Inferno
Publisher: EA/Visceral Games (2010)

Remember back in February when I posted my favorite Super Bowl commercials? Well, EA ought to give themselves a pat on the back because, for the first time in my life, I made a purchase based on a commercial. That's right, no real thought went into the purchase other than, "Damn, that commercial for Dante's Inferno rocked!" So out I went to my local video game store and bought a copy for Dr Musacha's birthday.

I've been watching Dr M play the game and it's certainly become quite the conversation piece - I've even pulled out my copy of Inferno to check a couple things. At times we focus on the awesome art used for the backstory or the slightly dumb look that is constantly on Dante's face or the Bad Nanny* achievement or the fact that the game is so monstrously violent or the nipples with tongues or its unapologetic offensiveness, well to some, I should say; I'm not offended by it. But what we talk about the most is the high-brow tone of the whole game.

Yes, that's right. The high-brow! tone of a video game version of Inferno.
sgwordy, are you pulling my leg?
Emphatically, no!

Beneath the violence and the layers of hell laced with gross, there's a relentless undercurrent of historically accurate religious and philosophical themes. This got a lot of chatter from Dr M and me as we tried to figure out whether it was blind fucking luck or a purposeful thing by the producers. And speaking of blind fucking luck, I got my answer.

So I'm browsing through the scifi/fantasy section of a bookstore the other day and I come by a new paperback with the Dante's Inferno artwork. The translation is by Henry W. Longfellow (not the translator for my copy of Inferno) and there's an introduction by Jonathan Knight, executive producer for the game. The short version is: yes, the themes are purposeful. Well done, J. Knight! The long version is: I almost bought the damn thing even though I already have a copy just for the intro. If you're browsing your local bookstore or just ready for your own copy of Inferno look for this one so you can read the intro. And here's a link to a nice interview with Mr. Knight if you can't get to the intro soon. In another, shorter interview he is asked to respond to people saying the adaptation is a bastardization. I love his response:

Yes, we have done a very loose adaptation. Sure, it’s a bastardization in the sense that it’s a bastard child of the original material. I think that’s completely fair... But the main thing I would say is that the game is actually pushing people to read the poem.

 He doesn't give any information but I sure do hope they make the rest of The Divine Comedy. Or maybe I should wait until the game is finished. I really like it at this point but maybe it crashes and burns at the end. Stay tuned...

*it's 20 unbaptized babies if you're curious but no word yet on whether or not the INA protest is an EA stunt

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Nowhere Is A Place by Bernice L. McFadden

Title: Nowhere Is A Place
Author: Bernice L. McFadden
Publisher: Penguin Group (2006)

Sherry has been a lifelong wanderer. She's always moving on in order to answer the questions inside that keep her from feeling that she knows herself and where she comes from. In Nowhere Is A Place Sherry has reached a point in her life when she wants to find these answers by learning more about her family; and especially why her mom slapped her one afternoon when she was six for seemingly no reason. Even though they are slightly estranged, she calls her mom and asks her to drive cross-country to the family reunion in Georgia. We learn a little more about Sherry's life in the present but the real story becomes about her family's history; the challenges and secrets of the family that have made the women who they are today. The family's story begins in 1836 with Nayeli, a young Yamasee girl, who is captured in a raid by neighboring Westos and sold to a Georgian plantation owner.

This book is quite good and one of its most impressive features is the rich character portrayals by Bernice L. McFadden. There is an emotional resonance with each character that immediately pulled me in to the story. Also, I really liked how the large-scale generational aspect didn't take away from the individual stories. Actually, I'd say her ability to weave the passage of time against the individual family members made their lives more vivid for me. For instance, the birth of Suce, Nayeli/Lou's daughter, occurs under the shadow of what has happened to her twin brothers and we only begin to get to know more about her as an early teen. At this time the family is struggling to stay safe in Georgia during the violent turmoil following the abolition of slavery. But we also see a lot of Suce when she is in her 70s. Even though the shift is now on the lives of her 12 surviving children, McFadden still allows the reader to understand Suce at this stage in her life via the wonderfully sympathetic writing. I'm starting to think I need better vocabulary to explain this particular talent that some writers have. Sometimes when I read characters my response is: what a great character, and such a unique combination of characteristics, I believe this person could exist in these circumstances. But with writers like McFadden my response is immediate without any qualifiers: I believe this person exists!    I really need a word for that.

In between the stories about Sherry's family are parts of the drive she is on with her mother. At the start of the book we're given some information that explains how they have come to interact with each other (or not interact as the case may be) but the reason for their hesitancy and tentative behavior is not exactly spelled out and experiencing them re-learn each other is a great part of the book. We get a lot of perspectives from Sherry's mom which I found particularly touching. She was at times bewildered, resentful, moved, loving, amused and offended - or many combinations of those - but also always curious as to who this person was that her daughter had become and why they were not close. Sherry's mom is also pretty funny. Her reactions to some of the places they stayed and her daughter's dietary preferences made me laugh out loud at times. And since I can't say enough about McFadden's skill with characters, another testament to her talent is that Sherry's mom is the only character we don't see much of outside of the road trip for almost the entire book but I still felt like I knew her and understood her feelings.

I'm sure it's quite obvious that I highly recommend this book but I'm gonna say it anyway: add this one to the top of the TBR pile. And if all the gushing about the wonderful characters didn't convince you let me just say that the poem at the beginning of the book is reason enough to read it. It's absolutely amazing! I'm pretty sure that Ms. McFadden would not want me to copy the whole thing here (much as I would like to) but I'd like to leave the first two lines as a parting temptation for you to run out and get this book.

i was torn from my somewhere and brought to this nowhere place
i felt alone in this land that was nowhere from my everywhere.

rating: 5 of 5 stars