Saturday, August 29, 2009

Modern Hansel and Gretel

A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Graveyard Book... a number of dark books for young readers have been doing rather well of late. I do not think for an instant that this is because children like darker themes; more than a handful of boys have come into the bookstore in the past week looking for silly fiction, NOT SCARY, they insist. But if your tastes fall along the darker side of things, snatch a copy of Keith McGowan's The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children.

This is not "cooking with children" in the sense of "let's get together and make some nice cookies." This is cooking in the "stick a child in the oven" vein. Did I mention it's dark?

Siblings Sol and Connie move with their father and stepmother to a new town and are suspicious of the lack of children and the femur they see a dog knawing on. With pieces of the Witch's journal mixed into the narrative, readers unearth information just before Sol and Connie, heightening their sense of peril.

Connie is tomboyish and animal-loving while Sol is interested in science, technology, and books. While the two have their sibling spats, they remain close and work together to save themselves from the frying pan and the fire. Lovers of A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Sisters Grimm will devour this story and then stay up all night hoping for more while jumping at shadows.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters

I am halfway through an advance copy of Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters (one of the perks of working at a bookstore) and have finally realized what is lacking. I did not love P&P&Zombies and I am not loving S&S&Sea Monsters; they are intriguing, based on interesting ideas, but they have not been fully carried out. Both are first drafts of a novel, they have not been taken nearly as far as they should nor have the basic issues of setting and characterization been resolved.

In Austen, etiquette and manners take precedence. What makes an accomplished young lady? Good husband material? When does one go to London for the Season? In adding Zombies and kung-fu or submarines and seamonsters, Winters and Grahame-Smith are changing the very setting of Austen's novels. Therefore, before writing, they should have answered these questions for themselves: what makes an accomplished young woman in a place overrun with zombies? If everyone of high society goes to Submarine Station Beta for the season, what has become of London?

This is not to dismiss the idea of playing with Austen's classics, the idea is very much in vogue with Mr. Darcey: Vampyre coming out August 31st, Vampire Darcey's Desire on December 1st, and P&P&Zombies deluxe edition October 21st (with much better illustrations- see the samples on amazon). However, Austen's writing needs to be complimented by strong ideas and writing, otherwise it will fall into the category of has-been spin-offs. Therefore, I urge Quirk Classics and others to consider what is lacking: editing. S&S&Sea Monsters and P&P&Zombies have the potential to be enjoyable reads, they simply need a good editor to get them there. So, ask those questions, resolve your worlds, and then come back to me- I'll give you another chance.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A friend's reply to Lamb with some Austen Zombies thrown in

A number of months ago, I posted my reaction to Lamb by Christopher Moore. I then lent this book to my friend Sarah Bentley and told her to give it to someone else when she finished as I didn't want it back. Sarah likes video games and zombies (but also Jane Austen) so I wanted to get her view of the book. It's very much a raving sort of reaction, the sort emailed to a friend; she's given me permission to post her reaction here:

So I started out actually liking the book. It was like reading a fairy tale being retold!

And then everything went downhill and was horrible and annoying. And even though the author claims to have done research, I disbelieve him. He was unconvincing in the book and unconvincing in the afterward. The scene with the praising of the goddess Kali, it sounds like he only went to one source, which was Campbell's book, which was written during the British occupation of India. Yeah, that's totally unbiased opinion of someone else's belief being recorded right there. And roughly 1900 years out of the proper time. Gee, you think the religion might have changed a bit much? Especially since Kali doesn't even really show up in historical documents until 600 C.E.? Though, to be fair, there was a goddess who probably transmuted into Kali mentioned some thousand years prior to Christ. Even though when animals and men were sacrificed to her, it was only men and male animals. No women. Until the Thuggees, which were much, much later.

And if you're going to quote the Kama Sutra, than actually quote the damn Kama Sutra. Even though it wasn't properly compiled until about 200 years after Christ's supposed death and resurrection. Point is, this book did not sound well researched and just made stuff up. Which would be fine, if the author could have actually fit the made up stuff into the damn world. I mean, okay, the author is already working with a fairy tale, but he's also claiming that this fairy tale is something that has historical basis. Either make shit up, or actually base the damn story in real history. Don't make shit up and then claim to have done research.

And I felt like he had a lot of plot elements that he could have worked with, and didn't. And Biff and Joshua seemed to travel really, really quickly.

And I'm sorry, but even if you are using modern vernacular to tell a story, you cannot have a character say "Oh, jeez" two thousand years ago, because that is the shortened version of saying "Oh Jesus". You can have them using some other kind of modern vernacular, so long as it is not some form of Jesus's name!

Also, to quote the author, he says "I felt [an important question that] needed to be addressed, which is, "What if Jesus had known Kung Fu?"". Well, apparently nothing. Because it isn't like Jesus ever actually used Kung Fu, so why the hell would you bother to make a character learn Kung Fu if he isn't even going to use it?! Even Biff didn't get as much mileage out of that as he should have for the sake of the story. So why sacrifice historical accuracy for what is essentially a useless storyline?

This book was a trial in frustration and terrible writing. I can see why you don't want it back. But I can't think of anyone I hate enough to lend this book out to.

My response:
I think this is the problem with a lot of spoofs these days; there is no reaserch involved, not even an editor saying, "this needs to be more integrated," or "this is obviously anachronistic." I would argue that the reasons Lamb fails are the same as the knock-off Austen remixes. And the thing is, both of these were good enough concepts (fair reading materials have been founded upon less) it's just that they read as first drafts in which nothing as been called into question, including the fact that there are obvious historical differences. Yes, some anachronisms work, but if they are a key component of the book or the story you are playing with, they need to be incorporated into the story- and the seams need to be carefully hidden or embellished with pretty- and appropriate- trim. Something on which to muse: we enjoy A History of the World Part I, but not these recent knock-offs. Is this the key difference the medium used, or the way in which they were written and considered?

Also have you seen that Philip Pullman has a Jesus book coming out?

Sarah again:
Also, I think what made A History of the World Part I more enjoyable was that is was actually researched, crazily enough. Or at the very least, researched enough to be funny, and funny enough that anything anachronistic was amusing as opposed to annoying. Whereas my problem with say, the rewritten Austen books is that no woman in the Regency period would act that way, zombies and kung fu not withstanding. Possibly because no human would react that way, no matter the time period.

History of the World Part I works because the script is joking within the historical setting about the history that the story lines take place in. So if you are going to put zombies in the Regency era, you really should sacrifice the Kung Fu trope (Wait, you don't have enough money to give the girl's reasonable dowries, but you were able to take them to China? And like any respectable Dojo would have taken them on, anyways!) and make the story a dialog about the Regency era and how people back then would have reacted to zombies.

Granted, this would have taken talent and actually rewriting the books as opposed to adding the idiotic zombie plot in piecemeal, but there's a better chance of something halfway decent coming out of it.

Anyway, feel free to add your thoughts, opinions, and arguments. I've heard good things about Christopher Moore's other work, so if you suggest something else, we may try it out.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Another God Story

(can't you tell I'm catching up?)

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff.
When I read I do laugh out loud. Sometimes. Or squeal (at the I-knew-it moments of authors I love). Or flail. And I did laugh at moments of Lamb. But soon after a laugh emerged, it would become bogged down in stupidity. Authors, pay attention here: There is a big difference between humor (think Douglas Adams, Wodehouse, Good Omens, Sedaris) and stupidity (think bad television). And though the line between the two may be thin, one cannot be replaced with another. Perhaps where Lamb went wrong is in this specific area: teenage boy humor is stupidity to all but a select few teenage boys. Got it?

The long and short of it is that if you are one of those select people who are amused by "teenage boy humor," Lamb is wonderful beach reading. To all others, perhaps you should read it and take another stab at it- Lamb was a good start, but I'm sure with a couple of drafts you can do better (much, much better).


Just to highlight sibling differences, I'll throw this one in next- lent to me by the brother of the girls who lent me Nancy Drew.

First of all, Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, is a hefty tome that is easily three books, not just in sheer number of pages, but in the number of stories being told. World War II stories of soldiers and mathematicians are mixed with the stories of computer communications development in the late 90s. Serving heavy doses of war stories, cryptology, treasure-hunting, math, computers, special operatives, and much more, Stephenson builds a multi-generational novel from actual history and technology. The fast pacing of the story is occasionally broken up with sections detailing the mathematics or codes being used by characters. And while I was interested in these sections, it's difficult to take the time to really read them while another character, in another place and time, is at the brink of death or in terrible danger(and they always are).

After the epic chronicling of multiple stories, Stephenson's ending leaves much wanting. While ties have been drawn between generations and certain conclusions therefore reached, the novel ends in the middle of heightened action; the characters could die, they could become rich, or all might be forgotten, reclaimed by the jungle. But Stephenson never says, he just abruptly stops on the edge of a cliff, leaving speeding readers to fall off. With the extensive development of characters and the many faucets of their stories, they (and readers) deserve at least a ledge or branch on that sheer face of cliff.

But sometimes the fall is worth it- and in this case Stephenson gives readers so much that they'll manage to construct something before they hit bottom. Or they'll just get another of his books.

Nancy Drew

Yes, that infamous girl detective, whose early days were spent with a pistol in hand (early days which have since vanished). Now, up until June, I could safely say that I had never read a Nancy Drew Mystery. This statement was so shocking to some friends that a number of mysteries were forced upon me. I say "a number" because the friends in question had just been gifted the entire collection and had some difficulty in deciding which I should read first. As it turns out, The Scarlet Slipper Mystery was to be my first and last foray into the world of Nancy Drew.

Nancy Drew is a Mary Sue character; pretty, "slim", rich, well-loved, good at everything she tries, she is a character without major flaws, and therefore one who does not experience change. With a perfect boyfriend, a perfect father, and two friends who highlight her perfection, she is boring. Nancy Drew is the ideal of an upper-class American girl. And while the many (many) mysteries add spice and drama to her life, it is always at the expense of others- always less fortunate people. And while these less-fortunate individuals fawn over the perfect Miss Drew, one is left long longing for Miss Drew to finally fawn over one of them, showing that everyone can look up to someone else.