Literal Daze #6

Oh ho ho, what’s this? My semi-regular feature Literal Daze, wherein I review books and audiobooks (and maybe the occasional movie thrown in for fun), has reached a lucky half-dozen! Let’s not waste any time then.

 

Book

The Wise Man’s Fear (Patrick Rothfuss)

The Wise Man’s Fear is Patrick Rothfuss’ second book in the fantastic Kingkiller Chronicles trilogy. This one picks up basically right where the first one leaves off, with the main character Kvothe attending a sort of medieval version of a university for magicians known as the Arcanum. The story takes us from his trials and tribulations there, through to his search for a wealthy patron and then his adventures out in a bandit-infested forest known as the Eld. Eventually it ends up back at the university, bringing us full circle once again.

I’ll be honest. Never has a book frustrated me in the way this one has.

It’s long. Longer than it needs to be. Despite being a thousand pages long, the plot seems to be paper thin. Everything happens, and yet nothing happens. The story suddenly splits off on a tangent at a moment’s notice, like a child with ADD trying to follow an angry cat. By the time it returns to the thread it left so many pages ago, you’ve forgotten what you were doing there in the first place. Never have I read a book where so much and yet so little happens simultaneously.

Despite all this, I still loved this book.

Kvothe is just such a fascinating character, it almost doesn’t matter what’s going on in the story, I don’t know, maybe that’s the point. I could read about his exploits all day, regardless of what he’s doing. It was especially enjoyable seeing how his myth grows in the book, how the mix of truth, half-truth, and outright fabrication mix together to make Kvothe into the legend he has already become by the end, even though he hasn’t even reached his twenties.

Give me more, Mr. Rothfuss. I need more Kvothe like a bad drug. Just please don’t make me wait too long.

 

Audiobook

The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)

I’m genuinely surprised that I liked this book as much as I did. I’m not real big on historical fiction most of the time, and the very fact that this book had so much hype behind it (Oprah’s book club, Television Series, etc) made me wary to give it a shot. However, when I could find nothing else at the library, this caught my eye and I reluctantly decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did.

For those in the minority like I was who haven’t read this book, The Pillars of the Earth is the story of the building of a new cathedral in the fictional city of Kingsbridge in England during the Medieval period of time known as “The Anarchy”, around the mid 12th century. Sounds like a snoozefest, right?

Wrong! It turns out, the building of the cathedral is only the backdrop in a story that’s actually about war, political intrigue, mystery, and love. The various characters we follow throughout the story and how their lives interweave with the new church are interesting and three-dimensional, whether they are likable protagonists, hated villains, or the many who fall somewhere in between. The scope of the story itself is impressive, covering about forty years and nearly the entire lives of some of the characters. This makes sense of course, since the building of a new cathedral back then took decades, but being able to pull of such a feat and managing to still keep the plot moving forward and interesting throughout is something that is not easy to do. Here, Follett made it look easy.

Overall, the only conclusion I can draw is that, for once, the hype was justified on this one. It’s just a wonderful book through and through. I can’t wait to read the sequel.

As usual, since I listened to the audiobook version, I’ll also make a quick note on the narrator, John Lee. At first, I wasn’t crazy about his narration. His voice and british accent are well suited to the material, but it almost seemed too soothing, and the voices of the different characters didn’t seem all that distinct. However, as it went on, his style really grew on me. I realized that his different characters actually were pretty distinct, just very subtly so, and his tone and inflections really drew me into the action of whatever was happening in the specific scene he was reading. Overall, he did a great job.

 

Movie

John Carter

I never read A Princess of Mars, the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs that the new movie John Carter is based on. In some ways, I think that’s probably a good thing. I’m always weary of movies based on books that I’ve already read. They never seem to be able to live up to the hype. So, when I went into John Carter, I was fresh to the material and had no preconceived notions about the story. I didn’t even know what it was about.

For a quick summary, the story is about a guy named John Carter (funny how that works), a confederate soldier in the old west. After a series of incidents, he finds himself wandering into a cave, where he meets a strange futuristic figure and somehow ends up unconscious.  When he comes to, he’s on Mars, though he doesn’t know it yet. The premise here of course is that over a hundred years ago, perhaps Mars actually did have an atmosphere and alien cultures inhabiting it. When he comes to, John has to adjust to the reduced gravity of the planet, and soon realizes he is like a superhero there. He can jump higher, he’s stronger, and faster than any of the natives. Eventually, he joins up with the struggles of some of the people there and finds his place in this world, so to speak.

Though John Carter wasn’t exactly Oscar-worthy material, or even anything above the level of a popcorn-flick, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it thoroughly. It’s good, pulpy, fun Science Fiction, unabashedly embracing the clichés of the genre and playing to their strengths. There’s no deep message behind the movie, save for the idea that it would be awesome to be a superhero and save an entire planet. It never tries to be more than that, and in the process reminds us of how fun going to the movies can be. Frankly, that’s good enough for me.

 

Next Time

Make sure and come back again when I’ll be reviewing Ghost Story by Peter Straub, as well as the audiobook of World Without End by Ken Follett. It’ll be a smashing good time.

Literal Daze #4

After a long, long wait, the fourth installment of Literal Daze is here! This is an ongoing segment where I generally review two books, one in written form and the other in audiobook form. I might occasionally throw a movie in as well for fun. Let’s get started!

 

Book:

American Gods (Neil Gaiman)

What if the various Gods throughout the history of mankind were physically manifested through humanity’s sheer willingness to believe in and sacrifice to them? What would they look like, and how would they behave? And what would happen to them when they were eventually forgotten and left behind?

This is the idea behind Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel and modern fable, American Gods. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this book. I liked it and didn’t like it at the same time. It’s central concept, the idea of America being this strange melting pot of the various Gods man has created over the course of human history and brought with them when they came to this country, is an interesting one. As time marches on and the old Gods are forgotten, they are replaced by new ones, Gods who are probably more familiar to you than you know – The Internet, Television, Media, etc.  I liked its approach to this idea for the most part (Though I was bothered by one glaring omission.  Hypothetically, if this were the way things actually worked, if the “Gods” flourish through our adoration and worship, wouldn’t the most powerful American God be, you know, Jesus? I understand that Christianity wasn’t really the focus of this story, but 70-something percent of Americans claim to be Christian, so the fact that it was basically glossed over seemed strange to me).

Still, a concept can only take you so far, even when well executed. Despite being well written and featuring subtle yet fascinating characters, the heart of any story is the plot. This one does just a bit too much meandering and side-tracking for my tastes. I found myself caring more about the secondary mystery plot that isn’t even introduced until halfway through the book than about the main story, which ends in highly anticlimactic fashion.

So yeah, this one wasn’t my favorite, but it wasn’t terrible either. If nothing else, it’ll probably get me reading more Neil Gaiman.

 

Audiobook:

Angelology (Danielle Trussoni)

Here’s my review of Angelology:

This book sucked.*

The end.

 

 

 

 

*It should be noted, however, that the narrator for the audiobook was quite good. Probably the only good thing about this book. If I’d had to actually read it in print I probably would have gouged my eyes out.

 

 

BONUS Audiobook!

Surface Detail (Iain M. Banks)

I admit, I’ve never read a single novel in Banks’ “The Culture” series. Frankly, I didn’t know the books existed until sometime last year. Considering what a huge fan I am of Science Fiction, this is probably a crime against the genre, but there it is. In my defense, I have heard of a couple of the books in this series, such as Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward and simply didn’t realize what they were, so at least that’s something.

Anyway, yeah, back to Surface Detail. The good thing about the Culture series, in this case at least, is that it isn’t really a series at all. Notice that little tag on the cover picture that says that it is “A Culture Novel” instead of “A Culture Series”? There’s a reason for that. The universe that these books take place in spans millennia, and so books can actually take place hundreds of years apart. Other than the titular civilization of the Culture, a hyper-advance, sort-of anarchic conglomeration of different species and artificial intelligences, there is no real common thread between any of them. Each stands alone as its own story, and other than some background on the Culture itself (much of which is filled in in each book), no knowledge of previous books is required. So hopping straight into Book 9 as my first foray into the series wasn’t as jarring as you’d think it might be.

In Surface Detail, there are a couple of different story threads that kind of dance around each other. The first, more personal story, is about a young alien woman who is born as an lifelong indentured servant on her home world to an extremely wealthy yet sadistic businessman. Even before birth, she is marked on a genetic level with intricate and amazing tattoos all over her body, the incredible patterns of which help define the novel’s title. The book begins with her attempted escape and subsequent murder by her owner. However, where the Culture is concerned, not even death is always permanent. When she seemingly resurrects many light years away on a Culture ship, she eventually teams up with a slightly insane but powerful warship named “Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints”. Yeah, if that’s not the best name for a starship ever, I don’t know what is. Eventually her story brings her back to face the man who so wronged her, and she must deal with the implications of what she has become.

That story is set against a larger backdrop of war – in this case, a simulated war which isn’t actually real. Not yet anyway. As many civilizations become more advanced, they learn how to manipulate virtual worlds, creating artificial reality constructs that seem as real as the real world. So what happens when some of them take this a step too far Several worlds eventually decide that letting God take care of the afterlife isn’t good enough, and take it upon themselves to create their own virtual heavens and hells. When someone dies, the government downloads their mental state as a digital copy and decides which of these afterlives to place them in. You can imagine how a system like this might be abused and wielded for nefarious purposes.

The war, then, is between the worlds who condone the virtual hells and those who want them destroyed (the Culture falls in this latter camp by the way, though they vow not to become directly involved). Ironically, the war itself is fought in a virtual construct to prevent deaths in the real world. This story line is followed by a soldier who lives and dies a hundred times, fights in every scenario imaginable, and who’s shoulders the war eventually comes to sit upon. In parallel, another human woman who is a representative of the Culture investigates some strange happenings surrounding the war, and why it may be close to breaking through into real bloodshed.

Finally, there’s one more storyline that follows a pair of alien quadrupeds who hack into their own world’s virtual hell. It seems that some on their world don’t believe these virtual afterlives don’t actually exist, and so these fellow activists decide that the best way to blow the lid off is to get solid proof. The only problem is, their escape plan goes badly awry, and in the end only one of them manage to escape. After this their story splits into the man doing his best to expose the virtual hell to his countrymen, while the woman suffers through seemingly endless lifetimes of pain and torture still trapped inside.

If all of this sounds like a pretty complicated affair, you’re right, it is. Each story on its own is pretty good. However, even though Banks tried to tie them all together, it never really feels like any one of these stories has much bearing on another. If I have a complaint, that would probably be it. Though each character’s story comes to a natural end with varying levels of satisfaction, the novel as a whole still feels incomplete somehow.

Despite this, it’s a great book. If you like grand, epic science fiction, it’s hard to get much better than this. I’ve read that there actually may be some modest connections to another book in the series here, which is apparently something Banks doesn’t generally do, so I know I’ll have to go back and start catching up. If the rest of them are anything like this one, great things are in store.

Oh, and as for the Audiobook? Fantastic. I’ll just say right now, the narrator of this one, Peter Kenny, is without a doubt the best audiobook narrators I’ve ever heard. His normal accent and voice is just perfect for reading, soft and gentle yet engaging, and his ability to create new voices, accents, and tones for every new character that pops up is simply remarkable. Narrators like him are the reason I listen to Audiobooks in the first place. Bravo.

 

Next Time:

Get ready, because the fifth installment of the epic “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, A Dance With Dragons, is coming up! At nearly fifty hours, this was the longest audiobook I’ve ever listened to by far, so we’ll see whether or not that worked in its favor or against it. See you back here then.

Literal Daze #3 – Horror Edition

As promised, to celebrate the release of my first short story in print, today marks a very special edition of Literal Daze.  As usual, we’re going to look at a print book and an audiobook (sorry folks, no movie review today), and this time they both fall under the horror genre.  Are you ready to be horrified, terrorized, dread-taculated?  Then let us forge ahead into the great unknown…

 

Book:

Midnight (Dean Koontz)

 

Believe it or not, I have never read a single Dean Koontz novel before this one.  I know, right?  What kind of person calls himself a horror fan but somehow misses Dean Koontz?  I think part of it was the fact that, for a long time (especially after high school), I only wanted to read the best of the best – the books with the highest literary acclaim, the best reviews, etc.  Book snobbery, if you will.  It’s not a bad plan in theory.  After all, there are so many book out there, a person has to use some sort of filtering method to decide which ones to read.  Dean Koontz has always had a stigma attached to him, this idea that his books, though wildly popular, are the mental equivalent of junk food.  Something to pick up when you’re bored or getting ready for a long airplane ride.

In recent years, however, my thoughts on this matter have changed somewhat.  I still look into reviews and everything, but I’ve found that critics don’t, and shouldn’t, account for personal taste.  Filet Mignon is wonderful, but sometimes I just want a good old fashioned cheeseburger.  And sometimes, I just want a pulpy horror read, and I finally decided that it was time to stuff my face with Koontz.  Or rather… eh, you know what I mean.

As it turns out, in small bites, Koontz is pretty tasty.

Midnight starts off as many horror stories do; somebody gets killed.  In this case, the killers are a ravenous group of monsters who seem to be infesting the sleepy coastal town of Moonlight Cove.  When a hardened FBI agent pays a visit to investigate this and other shady murders that have taken place, he walks into a bit more than he bargained for.  Through the eyes of several different characters, some more nefarious than others, we see a plot unfold involving technology run amok, societal devolution, and fighting the internal forces in us all.

I’m hesitant to say that Koontz writing is bad exactly, because… well, he’s published like fifty novels and I’ve published one short story, so I’m in no way qualified to critique him.  However, I will say that I wasn’t a huge fan of everything in the book.  Many of the characters were one-dimensional, never changing throughout the novel (which admittedly takes place in about 24 hours, but still, a lot happens in those 24 hours).  In addition, there were several threads brought up that just kind of didn’t go anywhere, or ended in an unsatisfying way.

Still, overall, it was an enjoyable read.  A straightforward horror story that doesn’t pull any punches, and for that I have to give it some credit.  Will it make me a Koontz fan for life?  I don’t know, probably not yet, but it does at least make me want to pick up more of his stuff in the future.

 

Audiobook:

The Ruins (Scott Smith)

 

This one was written by another somewhat well-known author who was new to me, Scott Smith, who also wrote the novel and screenplay for A Simple Plan.  Reviews for this one were wildly split online, which piqued my curiosity.  Many loved it, many hated it, but there were few middle-of-the-roaders.  Still, the premise looked interesting, so I took the plunge.

If nothing else, I now understand the split.  I think my own opinion of the book is split, so it’s no wonder that the critical response is so polar on this one.

The Ruins begins with a simple premise.  Two young couples take a trip to Cancun as a final fling before they all move onto new stages in their lives.  While there, they meet up with an athletic German fellow and some fun-loving Greeks who don’t speak a word of english.  When the German’s brother runs off with some girl he just met to investigate an archeological site of some ancient ruins, the German convinces the two couples and one of the Greek fellows to go after him.  They eventually find the site, and after some Mayan villagers round them up onto the ruins at gunpoint and don’t let them leave, the story really gets moving.

Of course, as you would expect, there are horrors at the ruins worse and more deadly than the mayan villagers.  What’s interesting though is that, almost from the very beginning, we know what these horrors are.  There is no dark secret they all have to eventually uncover – the deadly beings stalking them are known right from the start.  The horror here comes in this overwhelming sense of dread that covers the story like a blanket, a sense that their doom is inevitable and we’re simply along for the ride as it happens.  Like watching a forty-car pileup in slow motion.  By the end of the story, you feel that catharsis, the knowledge that at least it’s over now and you have nothing more to invest.  And of course, that’s when the gut-punch comes.

Frankly, I thought it was great.  However, I can understand where some of the hate comes from.  Many of the negative comments I’ve read about the book are related to the characters themselves.  Specifically, that they are too much alike and that they act in some stupid ways throughout the story.  I don’t agree that they’re too much alike, personally.  Some of them have similar personalities, especially the two girls, but there are important differences between them which are subtly exploited as the plot moves along.  As for their actions… yeah, sometimes they act like idiots, both individually and as a group.  But isn’t that true in real life too?  People act in differently based on their personalities, and not always in a good way.  I don’t think the characters are stupid as much as they are simply true to real life.

So yes, I fall solidly in the “liked it” camp.  I can’t say I would always recommend it, though.  Some of the scenes here require a strong stomach and a stronger will to keep reading to find out what happens next.  But, for horror fans such as myself who can appreciate it for what it is, it might worth picking up.

 

Next Time:

As promised, The Hobbit radioplay and The Wise Man’s Fear are still forthcoming, but they have been pushed down the road a bit.  Otherwise, look for Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and the audiobook for Iain M. Banks’ newest Culture novel, Surface Detail, to appear in the coming weeks.  Until then!

Literal Daze #2

Last time on Literal Daze, we were terrified, blinded, and… clipped?  I don’t know any good bird puns.  Today, we’re going to take a look at two new and vastly different genres; Heroic Fantasy and Cyberpunk.  Actually, they’re probably not that different when you think about it.  They come from the broader “Fantasy” and “Sci-Fi” genres, which are practically two sides of the same coin.  Orson Scott Card once said, half-jokingly, that the difference between Fantasy and Science Fiction is that one has trees and the other has rivets.  That’s it.  I actually don’t think he was too far off.

In any case, I’m rambling now, so on to the reviews.

 

Book:

Neuromancer (William Gibson)

 

Okay, I’ve gotta be honest here, I didn’t actually finish this book.

GASP!

The thing is, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to the realization that I don’t have time to waste reading stuff I don’t want to read.  When I was younger, it felt almost like a heresy to put a book away before finishing it, and sometimes I still feel the same way.  Here though, I had no problem putting it aside.

It’s not so much that it’s a bad book.  There are actually some pretty interesting concepts in it, and I imagine that for its time, it was revolutionary in terms of genre fiction.  However, after the first quarter of the book or so, it became a chore to continue reading.  By a third of the way through, I just couldn’t stomach it anymore.  The main issue is that everything simply feels too abstract to me for me to care.  The protagonist is a master inside of this virtual world, but everything is so vaguely defined that I had a hard time telling what was even going on half the time.

I think that, under the right mindset, I could possibly enjoy this book.  I have no doubt that it gets better later on.  Maybe one rainy weekend, when I have nothing else to do and I’ve rightly steeled my will, I’ll pick this one up again and go for it.  Until then though, I have better things to do, and better books to read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audiobook:

The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss)

 

Now we’re talking!

I have to admit, even though I always try to set aside preconceptions when reading a new book, it was hard to avoid with this one. Chatter about The Kingkiller Chronicle (of which this is the first book) was all over the internet for years before I picked this up, and it only got louder as the second installment was released earlier in the Spring of 2011. I’d heard a great deal about it, everything from “this books is amazing” to “don’ waste your time” to everything in between. On top of this, I had to set aside my usual indifference for Fantasy in general. When it comes to genre fiction, I generally prefer Science Fiction, Horror, or Thrillers over Fantasy, so it took some self-motivation to finally check this one out.

I have to say, I’m glad I did.

The main draw in this book is unquestionably the main character Kvothe (pronounced almost like “quoth”). We essentially follow his life from childhood up through his teenage years. In many ways, he’s your stereotypical fantasy hero – he’s handsome, charming, unusually intelligent, and has a propensity for problem solving. He’s still young, so we can’t exactly say he’s super athletic and strong yet, but you can pretty much guess that’s how he ends up.

Despite all of this, however, he isn’t as stereotypical as he first appears on the surface, which is where the story’s true charm comes in. The novel is told mostly in flashback form. Kvothe owns a small inn in a remote village, and when a scribe seeks him out to hear his story, he agrees on the condition that he is given three full days to tell it, and that nothing will be changed from what Kvothe tells him. This novel is the first day’s story, and the flashbacks are told in first-person. Why am I going to this much detail to outline the structure of the novel? Because it’s actually quite important to the theme at the heart of this story. You see, by the time Kvothe tells his story, he’s already a legend. People love him, hate him, fear him, and adore him. Stories of his adventures are told throughout the land, and everyone knows the name Kvothe. And all this by the time he’s 30 years old.

So you see, Kvothe is a legend in his own time, and this book is about him telling the true story of how he became a legend, from his own point of view. We hear the origins of his mythos, and how the real story wasn’t always as incredible as the legend. Sometimes things happened more or less how people say they did, and other times the truth isn’t nearly so dramatic or heroic. Many of them are stories Kvothe made up himself, simply to further his own reputation. As he says many times, for much of his young life, his reputation was his only possession of any value, and so he wanted to make the most of it.

The only real criticism I have of the novel is the fact that, despite it being quite long and covering a large chunk of Kvothe’s life, it doesn’t feel like a whole lot happens of any significance. The event that sets the real plot in motion happens fairly early in the book, and though it’s brought up several times throughout, it doesn’t feel like it’s the main driver for everything else. There’s a lot of dead time in there. It’s still fun to read, but other than supporting this idea of “building the legend”, there’s not much to it.

Still, despite that, it’s a fantastic read. Even when it feels like nothing is happening, you can’t help but enjoy it simply to keep reading about this fascinating character. When something as mundane as a college lecture can become a page-turning, thrilling (and in this case, hilarious) read, you know you have something special. I only hope that the real good stuff starts creeping into the second book. But hey, even if it doesn’t, I don’t think it’ll matter. This story is about Kvothe, and whatever is happening to him, that’s what I want to read about.

 

Next Time:

Make sure and join me next time as I wander through Middle Earth with the BBC radio-play dramatization of The Hobbit, and put my thinking cap on for (what else?) the next chapter of the Kingkiller Chronicle series, The Wise Man’s Fear.