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Monday, July 18, 2016

The Books I Read: May - June 2016


The Second Book of Swords by Fred Saberhagen

So I never read a dungeon crawl before.

Certainly not what I was expecting -- not from something written in 1984 (I thought fantasy authors were better than that) -- but it's the best way to describe it. It's straight out of Dungeons & Dragons. The main characters start by going to a  town. They meet some supporting cast who are on their way to a quest. There's negotiations and debates and arbitrary motivations. One of the characters drops out and is never seen again, like she stopped coming to the meetings. And then they break into this vault guarded by a dragon, and descend one floor at a time to get the priceless treasure, ending with a confrontation with a hell-demon and a god. That's the whole book. And it's not really thrilling. Just a paint-by-numbers.

You'd think the second book of a trilogy would focus more on bridging the first book and the second. Nope -- here we're just getting more swords. Adventuring in a hole while exploring nooks and crannies, occasionally losing redshirts. There isn't any greater sense of what's at stake. No new character development. No changes to the world. In fact, it seemed the whole purpose was to warp the characters closer to collecting all the swords (although who knows what happens when they do that). If this is supposed to be the "defining moment" for the character, it's not a very explicit one. Everyone's still bland, and worse, there is zero female presence. It's no wonder I stopped reading here years ago.


The Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty's Prince by Serena Valentino

Some people called this the "Grey" (the book from the abusive male's POV in "50 Shades of Grey") of Beauty & the Beast. This is not really true, except for the styling. It's Gothic, overwritten, and changes the canon. It can't even get lines from the movie right. And this is not forgivable for its primary audience -- people like me who have the movie memorized after seeing it so many times. I may not be able to recite the script from beginning to end, but I know when it's wrong. And I know when the author's being lazy. Christ, just watch the movie again.

You don't find out anything useful or entertaining about the prince or his life from this story. Barely anyone from the castle shows up, missing an opportunity to show why the British Cogsworth is here in France or how the castle conducts business with the town. And the main character doesn't get a name -- he's always "The Prince". He doesn't even act within the theme of the movie -- that one should not judge by exterior appearances, to look beyond what you see. He used to be friends with Gaston, was engaged to another woman but broke it off because he got bored, and the enchantress isn't actually one person but three, like the Weird Sisters. And the primary plot has more to do with the conflict between them than anything to do with Beauty & the Beast.


It doesn't provide explanations for certain trivia -- like that the prince must have been eleven when he was cursed, and his parents were likely deceased. That's the kind of book I look for in those "untold stories" -- filling in the gaps. And I know you can do so, and I know you can do it creatively. I've done it myself. Maybe you can get away with this kind of thing for a character with zero to know backstory (e.g. The Wicked Queen), but not someone like the Beast. This is just capitalizing on nostalgia.
 
And this book is not a standalone. There seems to be some kind of thread to the other "the villain's story" books from Disney Press, meaning you have to read the series to understand it. This kind of commercialism is the final straw that puts the book in the garbage pile for me.




Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner

Loved it, loved it, loved it. Maybe it's because these are the games I grew up with. This is the story of how John Romero and John Carmack got together and defined a decade of PC gaming. The rise and fall of the first person shooter. And there's nothing better than reading behind the scenes of something you grew up with and played over and over. Finding out about their methods, their personalities -- the conflicts between employees, where the ideas came from, and how the little guy gained success in the world.

This is a nonfiction must read for any nineties kid, computer gamer, or new past historian. Forget all those Steve Jobs biopics -- this is the movie they should make. There's enough plot twists and colorful characters to make it like a zippy version of Spotlight. The narrative crackles with true facts and incentivizes with cliffhangers and drama. You may not like what you see, but it's impossible not to be drawn in.

A Frozen Heart by Elizabeth Rudnick

This tells (unnecessarily) the story of Frozen from Anna's and Hans's perspectives (minus the singing). No Elsa, except for the scenes she shares with either of those two. Anna's chapters -- except where she's presented in a fan fiction, overthinking style -- are the movie word-for-word. And did we really need to know Hans's thoughts? Here he's presented WAY too sympathetically, which I think is dangerous for young girls. Making him a victim of circumstance undermines his actions, which are truly dangerous and a cautionary tale for young women (see TricksterBelle's Report on Misogynistic Disney Characters).

The most original part is the prologue that spends a little time on his life with his twelve brothers (while Anna would be in the middle of her "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?" sequence). But it skips over the three years where he's truly formed -- when his father orders him to go to a village and "ensure their loyalty". That's the Hannibal Lecter/Ramsay Bolton origin story I was expecting. But nope, it's still squishy. It even tries to paint him such that he wasn't going to take over until someone said "Arendelle looks to you".

You're better off just watching the movie. Frozen doesn't translate to a good novelization. It needs the songs, the animation, the quick-wit, and the comedic timing to make it the phenomenon it deserves to be. Some novels can become great movies (like Lord of the Rings and Gone with the Wind). But a movie into a good novel? I've never heard of such a thing. The mediums are too different. Olaf's face melting when he gets close to the fire doesn't come across the same way. Although Rudnick gets more points than Serena Valentino for not outright contradicting the source material.

If you want to read a Frozen book, you are *way* better off reading the "Sisterhood is the Strongest Magic" middle-grade series.

Tithe by Holly Black (unfinished)

This book was not for me. I think it's target audience is alternative teen girls into fey/bad boy romances. It's too concerned with imagery and doesn't explain enough of the backstory. We suddenly jump into a mysterious murder and no one bats an eye. The author keeps the audience in the dark when the POV character knows something and we don't. It's drama through obfuscation.

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

I was worried this was going to be like Kendra, full of ghetto culture and irredeemable/unsympathetic characters, like a literary YA Boyz N Tha Hood/Menace 2 Society, which, while realistic, gave us poor morals and convenient conclusions for the sake of a happy ending.

This is not like that. In fact, this is the first book I've read with a black main character who I could relate to. And he's not just black in name only.

This boy is getting over the death of his mother, and in doing so, takes a job at a funeral parlor. Watching the funerals becomes his way of coping, hence the black suit. But ironically this doesn't have much to do with the story. It's actually more of a romance. At least it turns into one partway through, which is where it loses the initiating thread. It seems like the author started with a high concept and then didn't know how to end it. It's an okay book. It's a quiet and unassuming that won't knock your socks off but gives a few hours of entertainment.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari with Eric Klinenberg

For those worried this is more Klinenberg with flavors of Ansari spread out to sell the book, rest assured this is not. It's Aziz Ansari front and center, doing something I've never seen a comedian do -- write a book that's not just a memoir or replication of their stand-up. This is a sociological study in the same vein as Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but with the humor backing it up. Like The Daily Show. And I don't believe there's anything wrong with presenting facts and truth in an entertaining way. 

And it's not just reports and findings one after the other. But it's also instructional to young singles for what works and what doesn't. Or what tools to use to accomplish your goals. What kind of profile picture gets the best results in online dating? Where do I go to meet people post-college? What is wrong with women/men these days? A whole chapter is dedicated to the text message. What's the difference between texting back right away or waiting a while? I recommend this whether you're single or married. Especially people who are "tired of the whole bar scene".


Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

I read this to my daughter to completion, so I added it to my collection, though I would never have chosen to read it myself. This is book is supposed to be a classic, but I did not find it interesting. But I'm sure that's just me -- I'm not into survival stories like Hatchet and White Fang. In this case, it's a native girl who was left behind on an island when everyone else fled to somewhere more mainland. She builds shelters, finds water, harvests fish and seafood, makes friends with the wildlife, all typical survival stuff.

My problem is that it doesn't really build toward something. There's no rising action. There's a teensy amount of dialogue. The action is frontloaded to the beginning. And at some point, you wonder why this story is important (and you don't find out until the end that it's because this was a true story -- hence the dullness).

Roadwork by Stephen King

Every time I look at my list of Stephen King books I want to read, I whittle it down a little more and a little more. This one survived the stack, but I wish it didn't. Maybe because I liked the theme of it, like Rage and The Long Walk. Written around the same time too, and published under the Bachman pseudonym. Like Rage, there is nothing supernatural and it's about a guy getting his revenge Charles Bronson style. Or at least it was supposed to be.

From the beginning there is a promise that this is going to end in tremendous violence. In a one-man standoff against the government, standing up for what he believes in. The little guy who won't be pushed off his land, who won't be evicted from his memories in the face of progress. But it takes WAY too long to get there. And then it's only fifteen pages at the end. The part you came to see is buried under overwritten prose, Maine catechisms, and wool-gathering. The book is more about the main character toodling around while he doesn't make plans to evacuate his place of work and home in lieu of a new freeway they are building. Not to mention the content is outdated now (the energy crisis, making a big deal of buying a TV, laundry facilities).

The tension is so strung out by the end the climax sags like a Las Vegas showgirl's chest. The main character doesn't do anything but gripe and drink -- two Stephen King staples -- letting the time until 90,000 words are written expire. His wife leaves him, his friends abandon him. It brings up interesting issues, but I can recall at least two Star Trek episodes that dealt with this exact issue in a much more entertaining way.
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