Tag Archive: Literature


Why is it so hard for writers to give satisfying endings to series? On TV, I can only think of a handful of truly stellar series finales (Lost, M*A*S*H, Six Feet Under) while I can name a litany of programs that either had miserable finales (The Sopranos, Seinfeld) or should have ended long before their final season (cough cough Dexter cough cough). Books don’t get off any easier. I love the Dark Tower series, and I don’t have the same spiteful reaction that many fans have to its controversial ending, but I recognize that Stephen King could have probably delivered something slightly more satisfying. I also love Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows but there’s still no logical explanation for why Harry didn’t die in those woods (I don’t think the series should have ended with Harry’s death but J.K. Rowling shouldn’t have written herself into that corner). With Suzanne Collins history of writing rushed and hackneyed endings for The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, it should be no surprise that the series itself comes to an artificially forced conclusion in Mockingjay.

Spoilers beware for anyone who hasn’t finished Catching Fire (obviously, I’ll try not to spoil any major plot of points of Mockingjay). After destroying the force field surrounding the Quarter Quell’s arena in the last book, Katniss, Finnick, and Beetee have been rescued by the rebel factions opposing the tyrannical Capitol. The rebels are led by the long thought to be destroyed District 13 which ekes out a livable by strict life underground as they prepare to go to war against the Capitol. However, Peeta (and fellow former victor Johanna) was captured by the Capitol and is being used as a propaganda tool by the evil President Snow. District 13 wants Katniss to become the symbol of the rebellion, and although Katniss initially has questions about their motives and methods, she eventually agrees as she helps to rally the fight to rescue Peeta, take back the 11 Districts (since 12 was destroyed at the end of Catching Fire), and overthrow the government of Panem.

While I felt that Mockingjay stumbled in many respects (especially the ending but more on that later), one of the surprising areas where it succeeded was setting up such a morally ambiguous and brutal tale of war. The main powers that are standing up to the Capitol (District 13) are nearly as totalitarian as Panem. If you replaced the rampant greed of the Capitol and its use of the serfdom of the Districts with an essentially Marxist sense of egalitarian communalism, you’d get District 13. Either way, the power in both governments is centered in a very small group of people. Katniss (in her never-ending and often unnecessary inner monologue) constantly reflects on the morally questionable things that District 13 asks her to do for the war effort, but then Suzanne Collins always helps cement the ambiguity by presenting the moral necessity of removing the cruel and brutal Capitol. How far do you go before you become as bad as the despots you overthrow? It’s a question all revolutions face and its at the core of a young adult novel of all things.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that Collins does not shy away from graphic descriptions of the horrors of war considering all that she put her characters through in the previous two books. Yet, I still can’t think of a single young adult book that dealt with war in as serious and brutal a manner as Mockingjay. Katniss becomes a soldier in this book, and if Suzanne Collins tried to have Katniss only kill when absolutely necessary in The Hunger Games, she is forced to kill a ton of enemy soldiers (and even a civilian in a truly shocking moment) to keep herself and her loved ones alive. Actually, by the end of the novel, Katniss has become such a cold-blooded killer that I couldn’t tell if Collins was advocating those actions are making a comment on how war changes people. In fact, the brutality of the novel almost becomes one of its flaws because at times it almost seems like Collins is going on a Heinlein-esque ode to militarism.

If you thought the ending to Catching Fire was abrupt, it has nothing on Mockingjay. For two straight books now, it’s almost like Suzanne Collins has another 200 pages or so planned out in her head but then she has to rush to the finish line because the book’s due date was coming up. This is what happens when you stick to a one book a year release schedule. I don’t want to spoil anything about the ending because it contains a handful of truly shocking moments, but it was painfully obvious that there was a lot more to this story. There were a million dangling plot threads, but Collins must have realized she was running out of time because she made a massive author’s saving throw to bring it all to a close. Whether the ending is remotely satisfying will be up to each individual reader, but for me, it was a mess that managed to rush the climax and then drag the ending out more than it should.

Well, the series is finally over. I’m not sure what I’m going to read next. Neil Gaiman (who responded to me on Twitter!!!!!!!!!) just announced that he’s writing a prequel to the Sandman series so maybe I’ll do my semi-annual re-reading of my favorite book series ever. I used to read it like once a year but it’s been two now. I feel it’s high time to get back in the swing of that awesome book series. Although at the same time, I sort of want to read something more serious. I have On the Road which I’ve never read and I’d like to read it before I see the movie. Anyways, I don’t regret the time I spent with The Hunger Games trilogy. As I’ve said before, Suzanne Collins is a mostly excellent storyteller who just happens to be a terrible writer (her prose is abysmal but I’ve beat that dead horse enough in the reviews of the first two books). However, by the end of Mockingjay I came to a conclusion. She isn’t writing children’s books. She just happens to be writing semi-mature themed books that are enjoyed by children because she’s only capable of writing at their level.

Final Score: B-

My feelings about Suzanne Collins’ breakthrough novel (and worldwide sensation) The Hunger Games are complicated. I think that Suzanne Collins is an accomplished storyteller and her sense of pacing and suspense are superb. However, she is the clumsiest “writer” (in the literal sense of the word) that I can think of in modern, popular fiction. Her vocabulary is more limited than the audience she writes to and her prose is amateurish at best. She writes the way that I imagine an especially talented middle schooler would write. And the fact that she writes young adult novels isn’t a good enough excuse. I used this analogue in my The Hunger Games review but it bears repeating. C.S. Lewis also wrote for children but there was more deft poetry and inspired imagination in his wordsmith than Collins could ever hope to imagine (thankfully her books are devoid of Lewis’ overbearing proselytizing and Biblical imagery). I read The Hunger Games back in the beginning of January before I left for New York City, and I figured I’d wait til I got home to read Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Friday, when the electricity was out, I read nearly the entirety of Catching Fire by candlelight. While Suzanne Collins has yet to improve her atrocious prose, her storytelling is on even better display in Catching Fire as the characters seem more sharply realized and the universe of Panem finally began to take a clearer shape.

After Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark foil the plans of the evil Capitol of the dystopian nation of Panem by both surviving the annual Hunger Games, Katniss knows that she has officially become an enemy of the state. After a visit from the despot known as President Snow (something tells me no one actually elected him), Katniss is informed that her act of rebellion by threatening to kill herself and Peeta (to rob the Capitol of a winner) has become a symbol of anti-Capitol resentment throughout the 12 districts of Panem. As bluntly as possible, President Snow informs her that she has til the end of her Victory Tour with Peeta (where they have to continue their charade of being star-crossed lovers) to convince the districts that she’s truly the smitten lover he knows she was pretending to be or he’ll kill her and every one she cares about. It doesn’t take long for Katniss to realize that the decks are stacked against her. The sparks of revolution are simmering across all of the districts and even the most innocent acts by Peeta and Katniss as they tour Panem have become enough to sweep the oppressed masses into rebellion. When the Victory Tour is over and President Snow makes it clear that she failed in her duty, Katniss prepares to flee into the wilderness with her family and friends but the arrival of the Quarter Quell, the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games, and the devious machinations of President Snow means that Katniss’ fight is only just beginning.

I’ll try to keep this review short because I still need to review Sunday’s True Blood as well as my surprise movie reveal (here’s a hint. my female readers are the most likely to be interested in my review of this summer movie). I’ve said enough about Suzanne Collins’ inability to string a beautiful sentence together so I’ll skip to the ways she’s improved on her storytelling in this novel. Other than District 12 and the Capitol, the details surrounding the rest of Panem were very vague in The Hunger Games. In Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins takes the opportunity (roughly the first 200 or so pages of the book) to finally paint the scene of what her universe is like. It’s a two part morality tale. On one level it’s a child’s introduction to fascism (with hints of Battle Royale to maintain their attention) as well as a subtle commentary about the moral wasteland of massive wealth inequity (i.e. the ludicrous wealth in the Capitol compared to the squalor in the Districts). And as much as her world and themes become clearer, the characters become significantly more defined. Katniss goes from being a boring, nondescript blank slate for young readers to project themselves on to a hardened veteran going through obvious levels of post-traumatic stress disorder who has to make tough choices between saving herself and saving those she cares about. Peeta is still a conventional hero but Collins continues to make him so charming and sympathetic that you can forgive him for being relatively flawless (except for perhaps being so secretive). However, I can’t really comment on the biggest improvement in the novel without spoiling one of the major twists but let me simply say that my complaints about the nameless, characterless Tributes from the first novel is a thing of the past.

(Yeah. I know that picture is from The Hunger Games movie. Sue me.) Anyways, I told you it was going to be a short review. It’s a young adult novel. I don’t need to write a grand discourse on its multi-layered themes and the less I think about Catching Fire at an intellectual level, the better. I’ll leave on one final note. There’s a new character introduced in Catching Fire named Finnick Odair who manages to come even with Haymitch as the most interesting character in the franchise. His name is Finnick Odair, and ever since I finished the novel, my sister and I have spent hours debating about who should play him in the movie. I’m leaning towards either Chris Hemsworth or Channing Tatum. Alexander Skaarsgard (Eric on True Blood) is my preferred casting choice there but he’s a little too old for the part (the character is 24). Do any of my readers have an opinion about who would make a good Finnick that have read the book? I’m curious to hear other people’s opinion.

Final Score: B

I love Stephen King. Anyone who read my review of Under the Dome (his best novel in nearly twenty years) knows just how much I’m willing to defend Stephen King’s legacy as one of America’s most prolific and (yes) talented authors. His Dark Tower saga is one of my three favorite book series of all time (the other two are A Song of Ice and Fire and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels). So, when Stephen King announced a while back that he was working on another Dark Tower novel, I was filled with a layer of excitement and trepidation. I knew it wasn’t supposed to be a sequel but instead it was going to fit in between Wizard and Glass (my favorite of the Dark Tower novels) and Wolves of the Calla which was good because there was no way that a sequel to the final book’s controversial ending was going to please anyone. However, it’s been so long since Stephen King had written any Dark Tower material that I wasn’t sure he was going to be able to get back into the flow of the novels. Since the vast majority of The Wind Through the Keyhole doesn’t even feature everyone’s favorite ka-tet of Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah, and (of course) Oy, it was a moot concern. The Wind Through the Keyhole is a return to the world that has moved on  known as Mid-World, but it functions more as an opportunity for Stephen King to craft an excellent modern fairy tale (in a way only he could accomplish) than as a chance to see more of our favorite heroes. So, if you’re expecting more gunslinger adventures, you’ll be disappointed but if you allow yourself to be taken on Stephen King’s fairy tale journey, you’ll find it to be a highly enjoyable and fun read.

After escaping the machinations of Randall Flagg in Emerald City at the end of Wizard and Glass (which marked the formal beginning of the invasion of modern pop culture into Roland’s world that became the driving force of Wolves of the Calla), Roland and his ka-tet make their journey to Call Bryn Sturges along the Path of the Beam on their ultimate quest to find the Dark Tower. However, the bumbler Oy begins to suffer from strange symptoms and while Roland at first thinks it means they’re being followed, he quickly remembers (with the help of a ferryman) that Oy is trying to warn the ka-tet that a massive (and fatal) snow storm/tornado called a “starkblast” is making a beeline in their general direction. The ka-tet takes up shelter in a church in an abandoned ghost town to survive the storm and Roland decides to pass the time by telling his companions a story from his youth after he had murdered his mother thanks to the sorcery of Marten Broadcloak (also known as Randall Flagg also known as Walter o’Din). He is sent by his father to the town of Debaria to investigate reports of a “skin-changer” (a werebeast variant) who is massacring farmers. Roland arrives (with his fellow gunslinger Jamie) to find a farm with nearly 30 people slaughtered and the only survivor is a young boy. As Roland waits with the young boy in a jail house to protect the child, he tells the boy a fairy tale from his youth of a young lad named Tim Stoutheart who goes on a fantastic quest to find the wizard Maerlyn to save his mother’s sight and to avenge the murder of his father by his newly adopted stepfather.

The last book I reviewed for this blog was V. by Thomas Pynchon. Going from the post-modern insanity of Pynchon’s masterful prose to the relative simplicity of King’s every man language was a surreal and at first confusing switch. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to not have to guess what the hell an author was talking about (seriously Pynchon’s V. bordered on being incomprehensible at times. actually it played hopscotch with the incomprehensibility line). It was pretty refreshing although at the same time, I have to admit that King is not the best prose man out there. There isn’t a lot of poetry to his writing. That’s okay though because his storytelling skills are second to none (and he doesn’t have half the prose problems that say Suzanne Collins has). He can occasionally imbue a very dark sense of humor into his writing that won’t come through unless you’re really paying attention. However, credit must be given to King for being able to write a novel in three distinct styles. You have the traditional “King” style when he’s telling the story from the point of view of the entire ka-tet. Then, he writes a story the way that Roland would speak when Roland is telling his story to the ka-tet. And then he switches it up one more time (for the style that the majority of the book is told in) when he writes the way that a Mid-World fairy tale would be written. Since Wizard and Glass is my favorite entry in the series, it should be no shock that my favorite passages from the novel are the ones where we see young Roland. I like the combination of science fiction, westerns, and high fantasy that is melded so perfectly there.

The novel is only around 300 pages long, so unlike The Stand or Under the Dome this isn’t some sprawling epic. There isn’t a huge ensemble cast of characters and there isn’t a grand social message hinted at in the novel through extensive use of allegory. No, it’s simply a (disturbing) fairy tale which Stephen King uses as a chance to show the important of storytelling and the blurring between fiction and reality in the Dark Tower universe. So, this can be a pretty short review. For Stephen King fans and especially for Dark Tower fans, it’s a must read. You don’t see much of the ka-tet but it expands on the Dark Tower universe and I’ll never pass up an opportunity like that (I’m also a fan [though not as much as the real novels] of the Marvel graphic novel series that expands on Roland’s backstory). Also, for fans of writers like Neil Gaiman (especially Stardust), you’ll likely appreciate the grown-up fairy tale that King crafts with the story of Tim Stoutheart. All in all though, it’s not one of King’s best novels, but it’s far from one of his worst, and I enjoyed all of the time I spent returning to Mid-World.

Final Score: B

V.

I’m a pretty smart guy. I’m not being cocky. That’s just how it is. Honestly, it’s a pain in the ass more than it’s a blessing. Try finding people to discuss movies and books with when you’d rather watch the latest Terrence Malick film or some old Italian neo-realist pictures than sit through the latest summer blockbuster. It doesn’t lend itself to watercooler conversations. That’s for sure. Still, I prefer to be challenged. Life’s too short to go around reading the book equivalent of comfort food (although sometimes the easier stuff is nice and gives my brain a rest, hence why I’m reading the newest Stephen King novel right now). You need to find material that pushes you every now and then. Otherwise, you’re never going to experience any intellectual growth. So, if you’re ever looking for an author that is going to push you to your limits, can I go ahead and recommend Thomas Pynchon? I’ve already reviewed the indescribably dense and complex (and border-line incomprehensible at moments) Gravity’s Rainbow many moons ago. It has a reputation as being one of the most “difficult” novels in the English language, and it totally is. However, after a semester where all I really read was manga because I didn’t have any of my real books with me in NYC, I decided to read Pynchon’s first novel, V. . I’m not going to lie. I actually think its far more amorphous and obscure than even Gravity’s Rainbow. While Gravity’s Rainbow had moments that left me completely baffled and confused, I felt like I understood the novel. I think I get what Pynchon was going for. V. has the same brilliant prose and construction that I associate with Pynchon but at the end of the day, I’m at a complete loss as to what the point of the novel was.

It’s not that I didn’t understand what was happening in the novel. I can recount the events that occurred. It’s tying them all together into any sort of meaningful thematic statement that is difficult (though knowing Pynchon that was obviously his intention). In the 1950s (though the story flashes back as far back as the turn of the 20th century), Benny Profane is a schlemihl (read: loser/bum/layabout) who gets involved with a group of pseudo-bohemians known as the Whole Sick Crew and gets into all sorts of misadventures in New York City including alligator hunting, gang violence, drug use, and escaping the military police that are after him and his friend Pig Bodine (who makes an appearance in Gravity’s Rainbow). At the same time, a man known as Stencil is on a quest to find the truth surrounding a mysterious woman known only as “V.” Stencil’s father may or may not have known V in the years surrounding World War I, and with the help of his father’s journals, Stencil, has devoted his life to solving this mystery. Along the way, in typical Pynchon fashion, we are given a history lesson in post-World War I Maltese politics, turn of the century Florentine conspiracies, and regular spiels on other, even more diverse subjects because this is Thomas Pynchon we’re talking about. Digressive novels is the name of his game (as well as being transgressive but this one was surprisingly tame compared to the parade of depravity in Gravity’s Rainbow).

Honestly, this is the kind of novel that you need to be in a discussion group while reading. Perhaps it’s just me, but any solitary reading of this novel is going to be surface-level at best. I even took my sweet time with the book (it took me a little less than a month to get through and to me that is reading at a snail’s pace), and I still felt mentally exhausted every time I put it down. No doubt, Thomas Pynchon is a genius. His prose is uncanny, and a friend of mine once said (and I totally agree) that reading his novels is like watching a David Lynch film. You’re not sure what you just read, but you know it’s brilliant. Although, I generally actually understand David Lynch films. Inland Empire is the only one I really have any actual confusion about. At the end of the day, with a Thomas Pynchon novel, you just pray that the parts that stuck were the parts that were important to the overall themes of the novel (although the way he deconstructs the whole concept of plot and theme and structure and the notion of things needing to mean anything is often far more important than his actual subtextual “thematic” statements). If you were to quiz me right now on the individual moments of the novel, I could probably recount them fairly well (I finished reading the book about four days ago) although I’d likely screw up the names of the legion of characters (once again, small in comparison to Gravity’s Rainbow). But if you were to ask me right now to say exactly what Thomas Pynchon was trying to accomplish with V., I’d have to throw my hands up in defeat and say I don’t know. I need more time to ponder on it.

I would love to write more about Thomas Pynchon’s novel. I know that it’s great (even if I don’t totally grasp it yet), but I just don’t know how much more I have to say. His insights into the life and outlook of a schlemihl like Benny Profane are fairly profound and tapped into much of the Beat Generation angst and disconnect that defined a generation of authors like Jack Kerouac. Similarly, if Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow was the definition of (justified) paranoia, then Stencil is one of the best literary representations of obsession that I’ve ever seen. However, I think the novel is meant to be more than just a sprawling character study of these two individuals. There’s (I believe) some commentary about the mechanisms of our ancestors and the turning of history that affect our lives in ways we can never comprehend because we never witnessed these tiny moments in history that would force our hands decades and decades later. See, it’s that kind of fucking novel. As I write about it, I come to new realizations about its meanings. Perhaps I should just free-thought respond to the novel but no one wants to read that. If you have any interest in post-modern literature and the school of hysterical realism, Thomas Pynchon is the undisputed master (along with David Foster Wallace). If the idea of using every single cell in your brain and still possibly coming up disappointed though doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, you should probably leave Thomas Pynchon alone. I know I relish the challenge though.

Final Score: A-

There is an inherent difference between a good writer and a good storyteller. Anyone that doubts Stephen King’s ability to craft a mesmerizing story and construct almost mythic universes has obviously never picked up The Dark Tower franchise; it is his accessible, every man’s prose that fuels the flames of his detractors (along with his absurdly prolific writing schedule which guarantees not every book will be a winner). At the other end of that spectrum, you have a man like Thomas Pynchon or James Joyce who agonize over every word in every sentence of their novels for maximum poetic and intellectual value but whose ability to craft an engaging story is less apparent. I read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow for his masterful deconstruction of the structure of the novel and his ingenious prose, not for the nearly incomprehensible plot involving potentially non-existent German rocket. Some authors can do both, and they tend to be my favorites like Neil Gaiman or George R. R. Martin (and of course there are those who can do neither like Stephenie Meyer). I just finished the young adult novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (which is about to be adapted into a film starring Academy Award nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence), and she is assuredly more storyteller than writer. Her prose is almost criminally deficient (though I feel guilty judging her for what is a young adult’s novel), but her pacing and plotting are spot on even if the book bears some remarkable resemblances to the Japanese manga Battle Royale.

Set an indeterminate number of years in America’s future, The Hunger Games is a dystopian post-apocalyptic novel of one girl’s will to survive. After a vague cataclysmic event nearly destroyed the nation, an autocratic government formed the nation of Panem in the Rocky Mountains. The rest of the nation has been divided into 12 separate districts. As punishment for a failed uprising against the Capitol’s overlords, each district is required to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 every year to the Capitol to compete in a bloody battle to the death until there is only one “tribute” left standing. The story is told through the eyes of 16 year old Katniss Everdeen, a young hunter living in District 12 (Appalachia) who has been forced to take care of her young sister and helpless mother in the many years since her father’s death when she was five. When Katniss’s younger sister Prim is chosen to participate in the titular Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to be the tribute in her place along side the boy that was chosen, a resourecful young man named Peeta Mallark who has always shared an unspoken connection with Katniss since childhood. Katniss and Peeta are forced to travel to the futuristic capitol (as opposed to the crushing poverty of their home town) to do live, televised battle against the other district’s tributes and see how far each is willing to go to live.

Let me be upfront. Suzanne Collins has an even less impressive mastery of the English language than Stephenie Meyer, and I’m not sure if I can think of a more unfortunate thing to say about someone. Something tells me that I’m judging this book far too harshly as it is primarily intended for middle-schoolers and high schoolers but as a grown up reading it and trying to figure out what all the fuss has been about this last year or so, it’s really unfortunate. The book is told through very bland first person perspective in an almost constant mono-syllabic drone of cut and dry descriptions. There’s no poetry to the way she arranges her sentences, and there isn’t even some of the wit or self-effacing humor that makes less prosaically impressive authors like Stephen King more acceptable. Had her storytelling not been so impressive (at least until the novel’s last 100 pages or so which are over-reliant on some questionable deus ex machina), her writing style would have been completely unacceptable and I would have simply been unable to explain the book’s success. However, I feel like being a young adult novel isn’t enough of an excuse to forgive the amateur writing as J. R. R. Tolkien considered The Hobbit a children’s story as did C. S. Lewis for The Chronicles of Narnia and they are still engaging reads (though Narnia‘s overt religious undertones make me more uncomfortable now then they did as a child).

Fortunately, for Collins, she is an exciting and action-packed storyteller. The novel comes off as a cross between Battle Royale and the film adaptation of The Running Man but with a modern and youthful slant. The novel isn’t afraid to display occasionally shocking incidents of gruesome violence, and Collins’ decision to include such subject matter as the violent deaths of children makes her childish writing more of a problem. Supporting character Peeta Mellark is a fun and engaging hero, and the increasingly deep layers of his character consistently make him more interesting than the more conventional action girl that is Katniss. By no means is she boring (she runs circles around Bella Swan or Sookie Stackhouse) but she experiences very little in the way of growth over the course of the novel, even when the situation she’s been thrust into would cause anyone to undergo horrific transformations. Also, the novel isn’t afraid to deal with some morally ambiguous grey areas and forces its heroes to do some awful things in order to survive. It presents several different ethical conundrums and while they aren’t necessarily the deepest issues on the planet, their presence at least shows that Collins wishes her book to be a little bit more than a violent science fiction adventure story.

There are very few opportunities where I will say I am more excited for a movie than I am about the book, but the forthcoming film adaptation of The Hunger Games will be one of those moments. Free from Suzanne Collins stilted prose, her wonderfully evocative world should translate to a colorful and distinctly visual film experience. Plus, Jennifer Lawrence is starring as Katniss and if that wasn’t an inspired casting decision, I don’t know what is. Ever since she completely stunned me with her break through performance in Winter’s Bone, I have pegged her as one of the most talented and promising young actresses today. If she continues to make smart career decisions, the sky is truly the limit for someone with as much talent as her. She seems like a perfect fit for a tough role like Katniss, and I’m very excited to see a version of this story that isn’t held back by weak writing in the technical sense of the word (Woody Harrelson should be a treat as the loutish Haymitch, the drunk mentor of Katniss and Peeta). All in all, if you enjoy young adult fiction, you may appreciate this tale. I know I’m going to end up reading the two other books in the trilogy. However, for everyone else, you should wait for the movie because I would willing to bet a not insignificant sum of money that it will be a more entertaining product and I almost never like the movie more than the book.

Final Score: B-

I often like to imagine my life having a theme song at any moment, and my past love of creating mixtapes that matched my current mood only speaks of my most pretentious music inclinations. When I went to NYC for my interview for the internship, my theme song was LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” because if there is a better hipster/indie anthem then I don’t know what it is. When I returned to America at the end of my first trip to Italy, we flew in to Logan International Airport, and of course, classic rocker’s Boston were blasting from my headphones. Despite my own personal agnosticism, when I dated an extremely conservative Christian girl during the summer before college began, my theme song was “Into My Arms” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (one of my top five love songs of all time and it fit the relationship perfectly). Right now my theme song should be Amy Winehouse’s (in retrospect) darkly accurate “Rehab” because I have an addiction to Star Wars: The Old Republic and “I don’t want to go to rehab. So I said no, no, no!” It’s a problem. Ever since it came out, if I’m not at work, I’m playing it. It’s more addicting than Skyrim was (although I would argue Skyrim is still a much better game). Anyways, if readers are wondering why my writing has slowed to a crawl, my awesome Zabrak Imperial Agent/Sniper named Yoqeed is the reason why. Anyways, time for a review in a day that I have set aside as being for absolutely no video games.

Dennis Lehane is a hot property in so many different worlds right now. He wrote several episodes of the single greatest television program of all time, The Wire. His novel Mystic River was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film that would have likely won Best Picture had it not been up against the Oscar juggernaut The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I actually enjoyed Gone Baby Gone even more than Mystic River, and Martin Scorsese left his directorial comfort zone to direct the psychological thriller, Shutter Island, another of Lehane’s novels (though I’ve yet to see the movie). If you want intelligent and morally challenging crime fiction, you don’t have to look much further than Mr. Lehane who has made a name for himself as arguably the premier crime novelist of the 2000’s. I bought my little sister all of the Lehane novels I mentioned earlier for Christmas one year and she ate them up like candy. I haven’t had a chanec to read any of them yet (until now), and I can say that his delirious and mind-bending Shutter Island makes me very excited for something in a genre that Dennis Lehane is more accustomed to working in. As much a gothic horror story as a frenetic whodunit, Shutter Island managed to keep me on the edge of my seat and guessing even though it’s big climax had been partially ruined for me by unintended spoilers from the film version.

Shutter Island is set in the 1950’s and follows the investigation of U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck Aule as they investigate the disappearance of a mental patient from a secure room in an experimental mental hospital on the remote titular island off the Boston coast. A veteran of World War II and one of the best Marshall’s in the service, Daniels has been called in because every inch of the island has been scoured and the patient, a woman named Rachel Solando who murdered her children and then placed them at the dinner table like dolls, still hasn’t been found even though it should have been physically impossible for her to escape her cell in the first place. It doesn’t take long on the island for Teddy and Chuck to realize that something isn’t right. All of the doctors and orderlies seem like they have something to hide and one of the key doctors left the island around the same time as the patient escape. It also looks like potentially illegal and Nazi-esque techniques are being used on the patients and not to cure them but for the sake of experimentation. When it’s revealed that Teddy may have had ulterior motives for accepting this mission in the first place and a connection between one of the patients and the murder of Daniels’ wife years ago, the tale journeys further down the rabbit hole until it reaches its shocking and truly brilliant climax.

I can’t talk about the one thing I thought was the most brilliant about this book without giving away its ending, and if you’ve somehow managed to not see the movie or read the book yet and no one has ruined the twist for you, I have to avoid any spoilers out of good conscience. So without wanting to ruin anything, let me simply say that form most definitely follows function and for those of you who have read it, you know just how deftly Lehane foreshadows the books climax if you read it with an eye for what’s coming ahead. Most endings like this books are cheap but if you pay attention, Lehane lets you know its coming at least half-way through  and its great just how intimately Lehane is able to get the reader into the head of the protagonist. This is a psychological thriller at its finest, and while I haven’t heard as many great things about the film adaptation, this book almost reminds of a David Lynch film except for the fact that the ending is rather clear compared to Lynch’s more ambiguous works. Let us just say that this is a taut and thrilling page-turner that will keep you hooked til the final moments.

This is an easy read but at the same time the pacing is absolutely top notch, and I was left dissecting the myriad ways Lehane’s story bowled me over hours after I finished the book. I knew how it ended (but not necessarily the exact details) and the ending still managed to have me saying “Wow.” and “holy crap” to myself over and over again and it made putting the puzzle of the novel together while reading even more enjoyable than the shocking twist would have been had I gone in cold. It’s simply a great book. Not perfect by any means but Lehane is a top-rate novelist, and I’m excited for seeing the rest of his library. I’m torn as to whether I want my next Lehane novel to be Gone Baby Gone or Mystic River. I know which movie I prefer, but Nicole (my sister) says neither book is like the film. I’m sure I’ll enjoy them both quite a bit.

Final Score: A-

Anansi Boys

I’m going to preface this particular review with some exciting news for my long time readers. I’ve been regularly updating this blog since February (though in a post Skyrim world, my blogging has slowed down slightly cause my addiction can only be called immense), and for the first time in years, I’ve finally found something I love. My ability to turn my insatiable appetite for popular culture into something productive (i.e. thoughtful and entertaining analysis) has given me more direction and stability in my daily routine than I’ve had in ages. A couple of months ago, I realized I wanted to try and do this for a living. I’ve been applying for jobs here and there but with my lack of professional journalism experience, I hadn’t heard from anyone. Well, recently I got in touch with an upstart music journalism site called baeblemusic.com who were looking for an editorial intern. Thanks to some networking and hopefully what they perceived as my potential as a writer, I got the job. So, next semester, I’m going to be in NYC as an editorial intern helping to review albums, going to concerts in the city and writing about them, and helping with artist interviews and recording sessions. It should be a blast and the time I’ve spent writing for this blog has helped me hone my crafts as a writer, and it unearthed my hidden passion for entertainment journalism. Thanks for reading everyone, and I hope you’ll keep up with me once I’m a real professional writer.

I’ve already reviewed one Neil Gaiman novel for this blog, 2001’s American God‘s, and I plan on covering the entire Sandman series at some point in the future (since it’s my favorite book series of all time). With American Gods, Sandman, Good Omens (co-written with Terry Pratchett), Stardust, and his children’s book Coraline, Neil Gaiman has certified his position as one of the most imaginative and consistently entertaining voices in the modern fantasy market. If George R. R. Martin is the pessimistic and brooding epic in the vein of a tortured Tolkien, Gaiman is the clever and energetic younger brother who delights in the mischief and comedy of fantasy and myth. 2005’s Anansi Boys is Mr. Gaiman’s last adult novel (he’s written some children’s books in the interim), and while it may lack the sweepingly mythic tone of American Gods (even though both books share a universe and some ancillary characters), it is once again Gaiman’s wit and playfulness that pushes Anansi Boys beyond so much of the trite and cliche drivel that is produced in the fantasy realm. The book may say all stories are Anansi stories, but this a madcap comic tale that could only come from the brilliant mind of Neil Gaiman.

“Fat” Charlie Nancy (who is anything but) is a mild-mannered temp in London. African-American (and originally from Florida), “Fat” Charlie moved to England when his mother divorced his lay-about prankster of a father. Decades later, “Fat” Charlie is on the verge of marrying the woman of his dreams, Rosie, and life may not be exciting, but that’s just the way “Fat” Charlie likes it. Then, Charlie’s father (who hasn’t seen in years) dies in a karaoke bar in Florida, and at his father’s funeral, “Fat” Charlie Nancy discovers that his dad was in fact the spider and trickster god of myth, Anansi. To add to his confusion, it turns out “Fat” Charlie has a long-lost brother he never knew that inherited their dad’s godlike powers and that his brother can be summoned by whispering to a spider. Well, one day Spider shows up on “Fat” Charlie’s door, and after an epic night of boozing and dancing in memory of their father, Spider pretends to be “Fat” Charlie in order to steal Rosie, and with the further complications of a serial killer and vengeful gods, “Fat” Charlie’s life will never be the same again.

While Gaiman has always maintained a comic tone in his books, none (except for potentially Good Omens) could ever explicitly be called comedies. Anansi Boys is pure madcap and screwball comedy gold. Outside of the George Carlin joke books like Napalm and Silly Putty, I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh out loud as many times as Anansi Boys. I exclusively read this at work, and I’m fairly certain I was confusing my customers with my seemingly random outbursts of hyena-esque laughter. While telling an almost painfully accurate tale of family (in all its awkwardness and pain), Gaiman still manages to inject more life and joie de vivre into these characters than you would find in any 30 minute sitcom. Whether our heroes are escaping a horde of flamingos, discussing embarrassing high school memories involving President’s Day, or Gaiman’s re-interpretation of a beloved Anansi tale, the humor never lets up, and even the book’s darkest moments (of which there are plenty) show a sparkling wit and creativity that most author’s would die for.

While this isn’t my favorite Gaiman story (that award goes to his A Midsummer Night’s Dream issue of Sandman), it is still a fun and wildly imaginative tale from one of the most talented writers working today. I have read all of his novels now (except for Neverwhere), and I have simply come to the conclusion that the man can do no wrong. From the moment he wrote his first story in Sandman that featured Death, he’s just been on a roll. For all fans of fantasy, his books are simply must read as his only contemporary that comes close to matching his spirit and passion is George R. R. Martin (though they are diametrically opposed in tone and style). With brisk pacing that still manages to capture a certain enthusiastic love of myths and the nature of storytelling, Gaiman’s works remain a bastion of intellectual but accessible fantasy, and Anansi Boys is no different.

Final Score: A-

SPOILER ALERTS

Well, it only took about two weeks and a thousand pages of reading, but I’ve finally finished the second book in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, 1998’s A Clash of Kings. With a story that spanned continents, encompassed hundreds of named and important characters, and featured more scheming, plotting, and battling than the War of the Roses (which I feel is a major influence on the novel), A Clash of Kings served up a sequel to A Game of Thrones that was as necessarily epic as one would expect. While I may not place this one in the same deified spot as the original book, it still proved addicting enough to keep me coming back from more, staying up til 7 in the morning reading cause I couldn’t put it down, and insatiably hungry to jump into book number 3, A Storm of Swords.

A Clash of Kings picks up shortly after the end of A Game of Thrones. With the murders of both Ned Stark and the king, Robert Baratheon, young Joffrey, product of the incestual relationship between Queen Cersei and her twin Jaime Lannister, sits upon the Iron Throne, while his uncle Tyrion serves as the new Hand of the King. Despite his claim to the throne as Robert’s heir, two others have staked up claims to be the new King of the Seven Kingdom’s, Robert’s two brothers, Renly and Stannis. Robb Stark has also been deemed by his people to be King of the North and has broken all fealty to the Iron Throne. Across the Narrow Sea, Daenarys Targaryen mourns the loss of her husband Khal Drogo while celebrating the birth of her three dragon and is ferried to a mysterious kingdom known as Qarth where all would see the Mother of Dragons but nothing is as it seems. At the Wall, the brothers of the Night’s Watch strike north in search of Jon Snow’s missing uncle and to prepare for war against the barbaric wildlings. The Stark children are spread far and wide. Sansa is a hostage of the Lannister’s at King’s Landing, Arya travels in hiding as an orphan boy hoping to get back to Winterfell, while Bran rules Winterfell while brother Robb wages war against the Lannisters and defends his homeland.

The book clocks in at nearly 1000 pages (969 to be precise, not counting the appendices), and with the exception of Martin’s tendency to go into Tolkien-esque (and by that I mean excessive) ramblings about the myriad details of the world that the characters possess, I never felt like any of that space was wasted or filler. Page after page, he simply delivers one of the darkest (at times depressing) and mesmerizing fantasy tales of all time. While my head began to spin trying to keep track of the book’s ridiculously large cast (this is coming from someone who has no problem following The Wire), as long as I understood each character’s motivations, ambitions, flaws, and strengths, I couldn’t help but to continue reading the book. I have become so emotionally invested in the point-of-view characters from the series, that I feel each and every one of their triumphs and tragedies as one of my own, and since Martin puts the Stark brood through more hell than kids in an Orson Scott Card novel, it’s an emotionally grueling journey, and if you thought that Martin wouldn’t be able to surprise you anymore with where he takes these characters, you would be so very wrong.

If there’s anything about the second book that keeps it from being quite the masterpiece that the first one was, it’s that I almost felt like Martin was afraid to take quite as many risks in this book. By the end of A Game of Thrones, several main characters and a healthy chunk of the supporting cast are dead. Ned Stark’s death, while tragic and sad, was an emotional high point of the first book, and it showed you that Martin was not playing with kid’s gloves. There was never a death of that magnitude in the second book, and I was sort of disappointed by that. I’m not saying I want Jon or Arya or Tyrion to die. That would really piss me off, but if Martin does something like that, and he does it well, the books are better for it.

Before I go to bed tonight, I imagine that I will have read at least 100 pages of A Storm of Swords. I am incredibly thankful that I started reading the series now and that I haven’t had to wait nearly a decade between books like his more veteran fans have had to between A Feast for Crows and the soon to be released A Dance With Dragons. By the time that I finish book number 4, A Dance With Dragons should be released within a month or so, and I will be eagerly awaiting it more than any new release for a book since the last Harry Potter book.

Winter is coming.

Final Score: A-

Well, this blog has just completely escaped the original vision that I had for it. Originally, I foresaw this blog as a way for me to continue to write in a way that I enjoyed since my school work was sucking all of the joy that I had for writing away from me, while at the same time exposing me to as wide a variety of movies as humanly possible, since cinema is one of my great passions in life. However, slowly but surely, various other media have slipped inot the fray. From anime to one video game review (that I never finished cause I never finished the game) to television, and now we have our first book review. Ever since I watched the first episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, I knew that it was high time that I actually read the book the series is based on. So, without further ado, my review for the first book of George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, the masterpiece A Game of Thrones.

A Game of Thrones is a fantasy novel, but it is fantasy more in the tradition of historical fantasy such as The Once and Future King more than high fantasy like Lord of the Rings. While the supernatural exists in the novel’s world, it shows up very rarely and is used for some of the bigger shocker moments in the story. At the end of the day, this is a fantasy story where the characters and their motivations shape the plot and universe more than an epic adventure story, not to say that this story is devoid of its fair share of epic moments and is honestly more exciting for me to read than any of the Lord of the Rings books. Not since I descended into the world of Gilead and Roland Deschain in Stephen King’s magnum opus The Dark Tower, have I had so much fun escaping into a fictional universe.

A Game of Thrones is the story of the fictional nation of Westeros as well as the unruled land of the savage Dothraki across the sea. The primary protagonists of the novel are members of the Stark family which are lords of the northern stronghold of Winterfell which forms the barrier with the uncharted and dangerous North which is blocked off by an imposing ancient edifice known as The Wall. The head of the Stark family is Eddard, also known as Ned, who is the Lord of Winterfell. He has 5 legitimate children and one bastard son, Jon Snow. Ned’s life is forever changed (much for the worse) when he gets caught up in the politics, scheming, and back-stabbing of the southern Capital of the nation, when his old friend and the current king, Robert Baratheon, asks him to become his newest advisor after his last one died under mysterious circumstances. What plays out is an epic ensemble piece that sprawls across two continents where life, romance, peace, and the throne hang in the balance.

This book easily has one of the largest casts, if not the largest, of any book I’ve ever read. The main story is told from the point of view of about 10 characters, but you also have to take into account the dozens and dozens of other important characters that appear as well. By the end of the story, one of the most important heroes of the book never even had his own chapters to tell his story. I love books with giant ensemble casts because it leaves me free to choose which characters I actually like the most rather than having predetermined main characters shoved down my throat. My three favorite characters from the book are Tyrion Lannister, a man with dwarfism who is perhaps the most cunning and brilliant schemer in the book, Arya Stark, Ned’s youngest daughter and an irascible tomboy, and Jon Snow, Ned’s bastard son who has as much courage and honor as any of Ned’s natural born children.

A Game of Thrones serves as perhaps the most brutal deconstruction of the fantasy genre that I’ve ever read in my entire life. At every possible juncture, it subverts and turns on their head every single cliche of the fantasy genre. The good guys do not always win, honor and valor do not always save the day and in fact are not always the wisest approach, the beautiful people are not the heroes. One of the point of view characters is a girl who believes she is, in fact, in a fairy tale and Martin uses her part of the story to effectively cut apart such expectations and beliefs, although it leaves her so completely broken by the end of the story that it was heart-breaking. This is a dark and gritty story, and if you require neat and happy resolutions, you should probably look elsewhere.

If you enjoy fantasy novels at all, you should without a doubt check this book out. Hell, even if you aren’t a fan of fantasy, this is simply the cream of the crop of the genre and you should give it a twirl. I found myself ignoring my responsibilities to regularly update this blog in favor of reading at least 200 pages a night of this book, if not more. After, perhaps, a slower beginning, the book quickly develops a break neck pace that never lets up and I immediately jumped right into its sequel, A Clash of Kings. If you can handle a book that nearly verges on being 1000 pages long, you owe it to yourself to give this one a go. I really can’t see you being disappointed.

Final Score: A