Thursday, August 8, 2013

Caught Between Story and Style

The Storycatcher by Ann Hite is an intriguing, sometimes frustrating, circuit from Black America, through a hillbilly noire looking glass, and back. This book is filled with the sort of inveterate controversy that has divided the United States for over 150 years, and like the American vista that it articulates it is more of a moire pattern than blend.

The narrative is first person with the feel of autobiography, rather than fiction, and a plethora of personal points of view (POV) which combine to eliminate any clear narrator. In addition to the quirky style, the stories wind about one another in a slipstream fashion that defies categorization, and ultimately identifying a clear target audience. At times it reads like a YA paranormal romance, at others a gothic horror, and still others it seems to be reaching for literary fiction. But without a clear focus, the story never really catches and falls a little short of the passion and drama necessary to satisfy readers of any one genre'.

The story opens with the POV of self employed housekeeper Ada Lee Tine. Her racism and two dimensional portrayal of whites and light skinned blacks is disturbing and off-putting enough to make her unsympathetic. By starting from her POV the author inadvertently promotes this perspective. Without the introduction of a mystery, which is not solved until the end of the book, I would have found it impossible to continue beyond the first chapter. Introduction of the mystery was a bit too cryptic and risked losing interest as well.

Despite its flaws, The Storycatcher manages to capture the imagination and entertain. The disparate pieces gradually resolve into a coherent plot that is both imaginative and unusual. The black characters, living and dead, are vital and compelling. When Ada Lee reappears toward the end of the story, we find her a very different and likeable person.

Bottom line: Readers of genre' fiction will likely find The Storycatcher inaccessible and tedious, and readers of literary fiction will tend to find the story bland and esoteric. However for those who are willing to make the leap it can be enlightening and offer a perspective on 20'th century life that has been quashed in the name of political correctness; a perspective impossible to explore in its contemporary setting. For the believer, in particular the Methodist, this story will offend. The Storycatcher's jaundiced, two-dimensional portrayal of Christianity and promotion of witchcraft and necromancy as morally superior alternatives will be a clear and unjust indictment. This is a book that will offend and should probably be a pass.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Okay--Whose Turn is it Now?

R. A. Salvatore's new entry to the Dungeons and Dragons (R) franchise, The Companions: The Sundering Book I, is a bit of a patchwork. If you are a hardcore fan of the various rpgs (role playing games not grenades) offered by Wizards of the Coast, and you are very familiar with the history of the recent campaigns and modules in their milieu, then this book will be a fun way of introducing a new line of expansion modules (called Dungeon Modules for those who don't play). However the structure of the novel is a little like the previous sentence.

The prologue is composed of a series of infodumps, designed to inform the experienced reader of the point in the history of the fictional worlds of D&D (R) where this story picks up. Beginning in chapter one, the Principle Characters are introduced and their personal relationships are explained rather than demonstrated, as they awaken in a temporary way station on their way to the various eternal rewards. All four are dead and have been diverted by the goddess Mielikki, although three of them are not adherents of her cult. After a lot of unconvincing soul-searching, three set off to be reincarnated so they can be available twenty years later to help a good friend in his darkest hour. The Fourth decides he must honor his own God and wades into the magical pond that will take him to his heaven of rest.

Salvatore has a brusk style that often leaves the reader with little idea of setting, but this is typical of YA fiction whose readers tend to be impatient with introspection and internal dialogue. Overall it is well composed and intercalary vignettes keep the principles, who are scattered to the three (four?) winds, in sync with their individual timelines. For a reader of more adult or literary fiction, and many readers of Fantasy genre' fiction the plot will be thin and lacking in a discernible climax. Passages about the growth and development of Little Arr Arr (aka Breunor) are very off-putting and difficult not to skim. His self indulgence is trite as are his staged epiphanies. It will likely be difficult for even a teen to identify with this characters brand of angst.

For the believer, several things may stand out as positive. In the process of "getting his priorities right" Breunor expresses a great deal of miplaced anger at his God, which he eventually makes peace with by learning submission and differentiating between personal discipline and honor versus pride and accomplishment. This theme is strong but handled poorly, as if the author lacked the insight to really handle the topic. Regis does some convincing growth, making a few false starts (e.g. picking a fight just to prove he's brave, attempting murder to help his father deal with alcoholism) but eventually makes peace with his personal horrors and finds the courage to face his new life. Cattie-brie is a generally positive model who grows up with loving parents and the courage to face life's challenges squarely without arrogance or rebellion. You will also be happy that the violence is kept to the PG-13 level, albeit due to the tensity of description.

However several elements will be disturbing:
A character experiences a short lived reincarnation and a post birth abortion, Caligula style. Every success is achieved through violence and even self sacrifice is portrayed as a means to self aggrandizement and personal glory. Selfish pride is a thing to be sublimated but only in support of obligation to close friends and family.

Overall I'd give this book 3 stars on a scale from -5 to 5. A YA reader will enjoy the fast pace and light drama. And the authors attempts, with varying degrees of success, to be compatible with Judeo Christian values.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Pardon the Dust

I've revived a number of reviews that were written over the last two years but had been orphaned as I changed the purpose and focus of another Blog. They fit here well enough, and while not cutting edge remain relevant and informative.

Good Reads

Reprint: 9 May 2013 at 2:38 am

FetchFetch by Scott Roche
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
While far from edgy or avant garde, Fetch is a remarkable little story with a number of uncommon observations lurking just beneath the surface. The story is written from the POV of one reverend Ian, the parish priest in a small Irish town. In a tone reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor, he tells his tale in an unaffected manner, while relaying the most agonizing circumstances and emotional trauma.
Father Ian is approached by a parishioner fearful that a doppelganger has come to do him harm and asks Father Ian to reconsecrate an old and disused cemetery in order to insure protection. Father Ian puts the old man off but is drawn into a supernatural intrigue when he later finds the old man dead in his own easy chair.
Like O’Connor Roche focuses on the observations of the POV character painting the world with the broad, surrealist strokes and sparse description that characterize human recollection, with intermittent swathes of intense detail that relate the Character’s and possibly author’s heightened emotions.
It’s a good read and well worth the price of admission.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Wrought

Reprint: 9 May 2013 at 2:41 am

The Wise Man's Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #2)The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Rothfuss is incredible. He is a rare good author in a period dedicated to shlock, yet seemingly genuinely self deprecating and humble about his work. "A Wise Man's Fear" is a sophomore novel and you might expect certain predictably disappointing shortfalls in such. From the terse yet poignantly humorous dedications to the bookend afterward, you should be pleasingly surprised. The secondary story, told in intercallary vignettes is easily as compelling as the greater epic told in Kwothe's colorful narratives.
Rothfuss apologizes for the time taken to write this second volume in what promises to be as rich and grand as Jordan and as literary as Steinbeck. But he needn't have. The time taken shows in the quality of the writing and the obvious measures taken to overcome the Sophomore Slump. One can only hope that Rothfuss has produced a "schema" such that others may follow his example. In writing he has proven to be as painstakingly efficient and creative as any Artificer in the "Fishery". "The Wise Man's Fear is a solid continuation of "The Name of the
My only real complaint was, where the name of the wind was very nearly a character in the book of that name, a wise man's fear is part of a thread that is nearly tangential, and only mentioned once. Though I suspect a good deal of the unresolved bits in this book relate to it and are really foreshadowing, he doesn't connect them to the fear in any direct way. That doesn't detract from the substance of the book in any way, but it stood out as an oversight because of the precision with which "A Wise Man's Fear" is constructed.
It's a good read, go ye forth and act accordingly.

Dragons Lost

Reprint: 9 May 2013 at 2:42 am

Dragonsdawn (Pern: Dragonriders of Pern, #6)Dragonsdawn by Anne McCaffrey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When I read this novel several years ago it was awesome. The development of characters was as fascinating as the space opera romp. This time I was not impressed. What changed? A new edition. In the interest of increasing the ever shrinking bricks and mortar shelfspace and (I presume) to keep the attention of an ADD population who think Mark Twain wrote in "old English", Publisher are gutting past works and passing the readers digest version as an improvement.
What was a great novel by a respected author is now a much diminished work that I'd have passed on if I'd known. Plotting suffered, characterization was flattened and in certain cases characters were simply eliminated along with entire chapters of plot development that was necessary to a smooth and coherent conclusion.
I'd still recommend reading it, just find a 1st edition mass market. You'll be a lot happier.

Dragons on Ice

Reprint: 9 May 2013 at 2:44 am

A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, #5)A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Song of Ice and Fire is not my favorite foray into the classic Fantasy Epic. While I agree that a world patterned after our own middle ages or Early Modern period cannot avoid grittiness and brutality without being trite or juvenile (as in YA). But George RR Martin seems has created a narrator and a narrative that argues in favor of viciousness as a strength and kindness as a weakness that can only be be rewarded by justifiably brutal loss. In fact, the waters are so muddied that no good deed goes unpunished and only brutality done in the name of good intentions can ever be truly good. I find it tainted and the least among peers.
That said, reviews of A Dance with Dragons have, in my opinion, been equally vicious and unjustified. Martin is a Hollywood writer and that is an important consideration, when reviewing his work.
It has been said that this book was Jordanesque in an attempt to denigrate it, and it it true that the book lacks a clear plot arc. However, It is clear that Martin has taken the time and effort to give a number of his previously two-dimensional (dare I say Anime-esque) characters more life and believability. The more ADD reader may find such trivialities as motivation, self reflection and growth to be wasted text in need of editing, but it seems to me that this is the necessary improvement to transform SoIaF from pornographic violence into a story with meaning and depth. It is an encouraging step.
The other aspect that other reviewers have missed entirely is that, Martin's cinematic style, born of long hours writing scripts for TV and film, leaves him cutting critical material in favor of an audience with poor attention span and difficulty following subtle plotting. One might view this book as the deleted scene's reel that should have been interleaved into a Storm of Swords and a feast of crows. This material was cut for length and "readability" to accommodate a ninth grade reading level, and a rigid plot arc.
Someone said something about a marketable book format being the harbinger of critical acclaim or something like that. I paraphrase of course. The vast improvements in setting, characterization and plot development make this the best of the series and the necessary panacea to keep me reading what was in danger of becoming an offensive and banal celebration of vice and brutality. Hurrah for Martin.