Review: A Once Crowded Sky, by Tom King

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books / comics

A Once Crowded Sky cover

“Remarkable … the would-be heroes of Watchmen have staggeringly complex psychological profiles.”—New York Times Book Review

Sometimes I think the above quote, which ran on the cover of Watchmen trade paperbacks for years heralding its literary merit, is symptomatic of a movement in the public perception of comics that has done more harm than good. Not to delve too far into this theory of mine, but in the almost thirty years after Watchmen, the signifier of “maturity” in the eyes of the mostly non-comics reading critical establishment remains these “complex psychological profiles” alluded to by the NYT Book Review, instead of more difficult to parse things like visual storytelling, intertextuality and metatextual use of the page. Referring to “complex” in this context, critics inevitably point towards works that to my mind heavy-handedly insert “adult” themes like substance abuse, suicide, and sexual assault without also acknowledging the medium of comics and the attendant weirdness that often goes with it.

The one-two punch of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Frank Miller’s similarly-themed Batman: The Dark Knight Returns birthed what is known as the the “Grim and Gritty” era of the late ’80s and early ’90s: surface-level readings of the apocalyptic milieus and over the top violence shared by both books led to thousands of copycat stories coming out of DC, Marvel, and newcomer Image Comics. The result was diminishing narrative returns and the puzzling stigma comics carry to this day, as being on the whole too childish for real critical appraisal yet also too violent and sexualized for real children. If you take a look at a large portion of DC Comics’ titles, this emphasis on the grim and gritty remains to this day. It also crops up in DC’s film adaptations, much more so than ones produced by Marvel Studios. To me, anyway, this is why you still see Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, which were highly influenced by Miller’s work, praised to the skies as the best superhero flicks currently going while something like Brad Bird’s overall much more intelligent and layered film The Incredibles is relatively forgotten in the ongoing conversation about comics films, perhaps due to its Disney affiliation. (To be fair, though, for the most part Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation was panned by critics, as was his relentlessly grim Man of Steel, so maybe this state of affairs is changing somewhat.) Still, to the outside world, to the critical establishment who don’t really follow comics closely, it feels like this “darkness” still equals depth to some extent.

This reading of the last few decades of comics history has bled over into the literary world as well, with a plethora of novels purporting to take readers behind the masks and spandex and show us the “real” superhero psyche. Out of the ones I’ve read so far, I’ve found them to be average at best: Austin Grossman’s ersatz riff on superscientists like Lex Luthor and Doctor Doom Soon I Will Be Invincible was easily the worst offender, poorly written, horribly plotted and full of flat-out boring worldbuilding, while Carrie Vaughn’s After the Golden Age read like a creative writing class project on how to insert a superhero narrative into garden-variety late-20s ennui fiction. Minister Faust’s From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain, aka. Shrinking the Heroes, is one of the best examples. You can tell that Faust knows what he’s talking about when it comes to comics history: unlike the other books, the cast he devises isn’t just boring Justice League analogues with the serial numbers filed off. He also finds some fun stuff with the emphasis on psychoanalysis in the story, which to me read as a satire of how much the critical establishment has latched on to this “complex psychological profiles” business. The highest compliment I can give to Faust is that you can easily imagine reading an actual comic about the characters he’s created, which is more than I can say about Grossman and Vaughn. Of course, Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is by far the best novel ever written about comics, but it is predominantly about the men who wrote and drew the books and less about the characters themselves. Still, Chabon’s brief origin stories of characters like The Escapist, Luna Moth, etc. are very well done, and the success of the book led to a short comic series in the mid 2000s.

Tom King’s A Once Crowded Sky is another noble attempt at bringing the vivacity of the comics page to the sphere of literary novels, but in the end it falls closer on the spectrum to Grossman and Vaughn than Faust and Chabon. The story begins after the great sacrifice of Ultimate, the Man with the Metal Face, who with his dying actions saved Arcadia City one last time from an apocalyptic event known as “The Blue”. The villains that routinely threatened the city are gone now, and the former heroes, now powerless, have had to find ways to pass the time. There was one hero, though, who didn’t give up his powers for Ultimate to stop the world-shattering threat of The Blue: PenUltimate, the android hero’s own young sidekick. He is reviled by the community of former heroes for his moment of weakness, but when a new foe rears its ugly head, as the sole super-powered hero left he must unravel the mystery behind The Blue and settle things once and for all.

A Once Crowded Sky does quite a few things right. The narrative is backed up by beautiful, Kirby-esque comics pages by Tom Fowler, and individual story sections in chapters are marked off with the clever gimmick of being “issues” of ongoing comics series. PenUltimate’s chapters, presumably carrying on from the adventures of his mentor Ultimate, are heralded as being “Ultimate, The Man with the Metal Face #566″ and so on, while other characters the Soldier of Freedom, reminiscent of Marvel Comics’ The Winter Soldier, also has his own “series” in the book. In a nice touch, PenUltimate’s wife Anna Averies appears to have been the star of a ’60s romance comic at one point before her marriage. King even goes so far as to have some of these sections be “event book” tie-ins, which to me reads like he knows the current comics marketplace, which relies on endless “crises” that coax readers into buying every issue to get the whole story.

I liked Sicko, who used to be able to sprout fire-chains from his wrists and is written essentially as a parody of Grim and Gritty ‘90s-extreme storytelling. His “Vol. 2” stories are much more sedate until he hooks up with PenUltimate for one last shot at glory. Another fun concept is the Prophetier, a former hero whose power essentially consists of his own genre awareness. While this sort of thing is kind of old hat for people who’ve read the comics work of Grant Morrison, a character who knows he’s in a comic is a fun thing to see in one of these literary reworkings of the genre.

As a sop to grim and gritty storytelling, though, we’ve got the aforementioned Soldier of Freedom, who, apart from recounting one entertaining and surprising mission during the Second World War, never rises above the archetype of a suicidal old soldier. The former Doctor Speed has become a full-blown alcoholic with the absence of his superpower, and the Green Lantern-esque Star Knight is a sadly underdeveloped character who seems to consist of money and shadowy plot machination, shades of Ozymandias in Watchmen. There doesn’t seem to be much of a point to putting these kinds of characters in the book apart from attempting a gritty, critic-friendly “realism”. King also never really gives the reader a sense of what it would be like to live in a calamity-prone comics universe. As the story progresses, massive explosions rip through Arcadia City and the surrounding area, but apart from a well-done action sequence where PenUltimate saves some people trapped in a hospital on fire, the human cost of constant violence is never convincingly portrayed.

In the end, I guess I’m still looking for a literary novel that is able to function on the same playing field as a comic series like Invincible or Astro City, a book can that encapsulate the oft-ridiculous medium of superhero books and is able to comment on them intelligently without the superficial trappings of darkness. Perhaps the printed page just isn’t ready yet for the kind of storytelling I’m looking for, although the use of Fowler’s illustrations in A Once Crowded Sky and the more intriguing hero archetypes found in the book are definitely on the right track. Aping the stories of superhero comics just doesn’t seem to work on its own, you need something else to play off of to make the story work. I’m reminded again of Sarah Bruni’s The Night Gwen Stacy Died, which while ostensibly set in the real world, did a great job of amplifying the emotional stakes comics play on, as well as the toll they take on their readers.

Followup Questions: An Interview with Caelum Vatnsdal, author of They Came From Within!

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books / film

Last week I reviewed the ten year anniversary edition of Caelum Vatnsdal’s classic Canadian horror retrospective They Came From Within. It’s an excellent book, well worth checking out if you’re into Canadian film or horror movies in general. I approached Vatnsdal’s publisher, Arbeiter Ring Publishing, about an interview and was lucky enough to ask the talented scribe a few questions about one of his favoured topics. Read on for a fun conversation about the state of Canadian horror flicks!

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Caelum Vatnsdal

This Nerding Life: Going from the assumption that not every remake of a classic horror film is inherently bad (see Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead for an example, at least in my mind), which of the films you profile in your book do you think might benefit from a modern re-imagining? How would you ideally go about doing this?

Caelum Vatnsdal: Some of my favourite movies are remakes: The ThingThe Fly, a few others. (I’m not as wild about the Dawn of the Dead one, myself, though it wasn’t bad.) There are a few candidates for remakes in the Canadian horror world. I myself wrote a remake of Cannibal Girls, and though the treatment apparently met with the approval of Ivan Reitman’s company, I’m not sure it’ll ever get made. The original, of course, was made on a shoestring; the ad-hoc plotting means it doesn’t make all that much sense, and there are a lot of things left hanging. This seemed like an ideal launching point for a remake, and so I made up a whole, epic story for how and why this little Ontario town got into cannibalism. It would be one of those remakes that are barely recognizable as such, but it would also require a budget somewhat heftier than the name recognition of the title would attract, even with Ivan Reitman’s name on it.

It would be interesting to see some Bill Fruet pictures get the remake treatment, particularly Spasms and Killer Party. He’s a director I like, but those two movies were both heavily interfered with, and probably didn’t have the most coherent screenplays to start with, so with the right approach they could certainly be improved upon.

But please, movie remakers: stay away from Cronenberg!

They Came From Within cover

TNL: The films you go into detail on in They Came From Within straddle quite a few horror genres, like body horror, fear of nature/survival, mystical occurrences, and hauntings, to name a few examples. Is there a horror subset that in your recollection has not been tapped in any real way by Canadian filmmakers? If so, why do you think that is?

CV: Well, I complain a lot in the book about there being no great Canadian Sasquatch movie, which would seem a natural subgenre for us to tackle and do very well at. Rituals is of course an excellent example of survival horror, but I’m surprised we haven’t had more of that kind of thing. Gothic horror, on the other hand, is a natural genre for us to suck at, and the few examples of it in Canadian horror history tend to confirm that. But as for the Sasquatch, again, I have a treatment (this one co-authored with a friend) for what could be the definitive Canadian bigfoot picture, were it ever to get made.

TNL: What are the top 5 Canadian horror films featured in They Came From Within that you’d point uninitiated but interested viewers towards? Bottom 5?

CV: The top five I’d point people towards are probably the same ones anybody would point people towards: Black ChristmasThe Brood (though almost any early Cronenberg would do), My Bloody Valentine, maybe Pontypool, and probably The Mask for its historical value, or maybe Playgirl Killer just because it’s so unusual and exotic.

The bottom five – well, when thinking of bad Canadian horror movies one thinks of Things, but ultimately it’s too bizarre to be on that list. (“Bizarre” is a quality I cherish in movies.) The real stinkers are the boring ones made mainly as cynical cash grabs. Now I can’t say that movies like Ripper: Letter From HellReaperBelieveWitchboard: The Possession or that remake of Black Christmas were made for purely mercenary reasons, but I can report I had a tough time getting through each of them. There are lots of pretty bad movies on the Canadian horror landscape though, and that’s what makes the good ones so special.

TNL: One thing I’ve noticed, which also crops up in the new chapter at the end of the book, is that Canadian horror right now is kind of looking back to the past. Films like Hobo With a ShotgunThe EditorWolfCop, all of these point to a grindhouse-type aesthetic that was prevalent during the tax shelter years and before. How long do you think Canadian horror filmmakers are going to stay in this mode? What do you think lies in the future for Canadian horror film?

CV: It’s hard to say how long this will be the Canadian house style, but it’s got a few years left in it yet, I think. The Editor, the new Astron 6 film, should be out pretty soon, and WolfCop 2 is shooting in the spring, and I’m sure there are other examples on the horizon. It’s understandable that current filmmakers would look back this way, as the tax shelter era was kind of our glory days, or what stands in for our glory days.

Predicting the future is a mug’s game of course, but I’m hoping for at least six real superstar filmmakers to come up: people who have a devotion to the genre and whose next movie you’ll be able to count on being good. That would be a great core from which to build an unimpeachable Canadian horror identity and, though I hate to use the word, a brand. On top of that, it would be great to see David Cronenberg return to the genre in a big way, once or twice more at least. I feel like he will. And of course we’d all like to see Guy Maddin finally raise the money for his game-changing horror epic The Necro-Pants.

TNL: Let’s say you had Doctor Who’s TARDIS and were able to assemble any Canadian horror filmmaking team you wanted and get them to make a movie together. What would be your ultimate CanHorror dream team?

CV: I think if you had someone like Julian Roffman, the Canadian horror pioneer who hated horror movies, producing this hypothetical movie, you might have an interesting dynamic right off the bat. It would be nice to have a David Cronenberg script, but have somebody else direct it, just to see what would happen – to see if the old Cronenbergian voice rang through. Of course Mark Irwin should shoot the movie, and I think a big makeup effects crew, with all the current Canadian makeup stars heading up their own sub-departments and working on different sequences, the way they used to do it on movies like From Beyond, would be pretty cool.

As for the director of this project, it would be nice to bring Bob Clark back from the grave, or maybe the famously irascible Peter Carter; or else hand it to currently living directors like Bruce McDonald or Vincenzo Natali; but you know what? I’ve always thought Lawrence Zazelenchuck, the auteur behind The Corpse Eaters, got a pretty raw deal, and I’d like to see what he might do with a big budget and a real crew. It would probably be a disaster, but Canadian cinema almost always plays it safe, and with a few exceptions has been virtually disaster-free since 1931 At this point in our moviemaking history, I think maybe we could use a disaster or two.

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Thanks again to Caelum and the publicity staff at Arbeiter Ring for agreeing to talk with me. They Came From Within can be found wherever good books are sold.

Review: They Came From Within (Second Edition), by Caelum Vatnsdal

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books / film

They Came From Within cover

When you think of a quintessentially “Canadian” film, what is the very first thing that comes to mind? Maybe a windswept Prairie scene, a dilapidated old farmhouse and a family tragedy somehow involving land exchanging hands? An NFB documentary, perhaps, about our country’s vast Northern wilderness, spiced up with some bear, moose or mountain goat action shots? Young men forced from their homes to look for work after economic collapse, headed towards either Toronto in the ’70s, or my home province of Alberta these days? Some kitchen sink drama on a French TV station that might have a topless woman in it? The Toast recently posted a very funny list of “Every Canadian Novel Ever“, and I think many of these could easily be applied to the common conception of Canadian film as well. (My absolute favourite of these is “Magical Realism But It’s Just Gothic Southern Ontario Having, Like, Two Magical Elements”, by the way.)

If you’re a fan of exploitation movies on the other hand, especially horror, you are privy to a much different side of Canuck cinema. If not, that’s where Winnipeg native Caelum Vatnsdal’s They Came From Within would really be of assistance. The book has recently received a second edition, and I think it should be an essential piece of every Canadian film lover’s library.

Vatnsdal takes readers all the way from cinema’s infancy in the 1910s to movies that have just come out this year for a grand overview of Canadian horror, which he refers to amusingly throughout as “Tundra Terror”. Far from a dry academic treatise, the book instead has a slightly snarky tone, like the patter you’d get from a video store owner who’s seen it all, but isn’t jaded. Vatnsdal is to my mind appropriately reverent towards horror movies that deserve close attention, like the early works of David Cronenberg, the Cape Breton slasher film My Bloody Valentine, the Ginger Snaps trilogy, and the amazingly intriguing Rituals (which I’ve not seen, but now I really want to), which reads as a Canadian equivalent to Deliverance. When faced with a bad movie though, like Things, or the later entries in the Prom Night series, Vatsndal pulls no punches with his commentary, delivering hilarious takedowns. There’s also a helpful guide at the back of the book, featuring cast lists and synopses of all the movies referenced in the text. I’m going to be referring to this often in the future as I bulk up my own knowledge in this area.

The bulk of the book takes place during the “Tax Shelter Years” of the late ’70s and early ’80s, when financial incentives drove production of hundreds of horror films in the Great White North. These ranged from knockoffs of popular U.S. fare to completely bonkers passion projects, and it’s a lot of fun to read about the shoe-string budgets and directorial crises faced by a lot of these movies. Less so is the decline of Canadian horror in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but the new version of the book ends on a hopeful note with filmmakers like Jason Eisener (Hobo With a Shotgun), the Soska sisters (American Mary) and the Astron-6 collective (Father’s Day, The Editor) reclaiming Canada’s blood-soaked and economically-priced horror legacy. While I would have liked Vatnsdal to go into a little bit more detail about what themes differentiate Canadian flicks from other countries, I feel like that kind of editorializing might not have fit into the scope of the project.

With his new edition of They Came From Within, Caelum Vatnsdal has done a great job of putting the entirety of Canadian horror film production back on display, in all its gory glory. With a snarky sense of humour and an encyclopedic memory, Vatnsdal has made a highly readable and highly valuable contribution to this country’s library of film criticism. Highly recommended.

Followup Questions: An Interview with Ian Weir, author of Will Starling!

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books

Last week I reviewed Langley, B.C. author Ian Weir’s new novel Will Starling, and as you can see from the post I enjoyed it quite a bit! After reaching out to his publisher, Goose Lane Editions, I was very lucky to able to ask Weir a few questions about the book, the thought process and research that went into putting it together. Read on for a sneak peek into how one of my favourite Canadian books this year was sewn together…

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Ian Weir author photo

This Nerding Life: While the back section of the book shows some of the sources you consulted when working on Will Starling, how much time would you say you spent on this part of the process? Were there any facts you learned during your research that you didn’t have room to put in the novel that you’d have liked to?

Ian Weir: As a matter of fact, I spent a solid two years researching Will Starling before I started writing, and continued alternating between writing and research for the next three years (the novel took about five years, all told). By the end of it I had a bookcase pretty much full of books with some connection to the material, and I’d taken three separate research trips to England.

Partly this has to do with my own writing process. I can’t get untracked until the characters and the setting feel absolutely real to me — what the characters are wearing, what they’re thinking, what they had for breakfast, where they’re coming from and where they’re going and what they’re likely to encounter en route — all those countless little details that we take for granted as we go about our daily business. And I think there’s also a kind of implicit contract that exists between writer and reader, when it comes to historical fiction — i.e. if you’ll agree to come along with me, then I’ll promise to give you a sense of what it was actually like, to walk down that street in 1816 (or whenever).

So yes, there’s a whole lot of research material that never made it into the finished novel, since there’s nothing worse than detail that’s shoe-horned in just for the sake of proving that the writer did his homework. It’s kind of the iceberg principle. Only the tip is visible, but the rest of the iceberg is nonetheless in place.

daniel o thunder cover

TNL: Both of your novels to date, Will Starling and Daniel O’Thunder, take place in England before the Twentieth Century, in the Regency and Victorian periods respectively. Could you see yourself ever writing a book that takes place in the modern day? What is it about England that has such a hold on your imagination?

IW: Martin Amis has a great theory that we all have a “second country” — a kind of homeland of the imagination that serves as a repository for our romanticized impulses. For me, that’s always been England — and London in particular. Why? Good question. I have a hunch that part of it was falling in love with the Paddington Bear books when I was seven or eight years old, and forming the conviction that life in London was somehow more heightened and magical than the version of life that was on offer anywhere else. When I was in my mid-twenties I had a chance to live in London as a graduate student, and I’ve managed to get back every couple of years since then.

And as for the Nineteenth Century? Well, in very many ways it holds up a remarkable mirror to our own era; it’s the beginning of the modern world, and as a story-teller I’m strongly drawn to that. And nineteenth century London is still very much present and vital within the modern metropolis — vestiges of the Victorian and Regency periods still exist, essentially unchanged. There’s something really captivating in that, turning a corner and discovering that you’ve as it were stepped back centuries in time.

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TNL: Many reviewers, including myself, have remarked upon Will Starling‘s resemblance to the “sensation novels” of the late Nineteenth Century. What does this style of writing offer to an author when crafting a story? Are there any other authors operating in this mode now that you enjoy?

IW: Ah, the sensation novel — yes, I’m delighted you picked up on that. Basically, the sensation novel as a form is a direct descendent of the gothic thriller, and I love gothic tropes. (One of my favourite novels of all time is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a perfectly constructed thriller, and a stylistic gem, and it evokes nightmare archetypes that are rooted way down deep in the psyche.)

For me, part of the joy of the gothic narrative tradition is that it offers up so much scope and energy in terms of twists and turns. Anything goes, as it were, and the stakes are never short of life-and-death. Gothic narrative also tends to have a keen sense of its own baroque style, which means it’s ripe for sly, gleam-in-the-eye parody. And of course gothic narrative is all about the clear-cut distinction between right and wrong, good and evil. That can constitute a great a gift to a twenty-first century author with subversive intentions.

As a reader, I’ve always been deeply partial to contemporary novelists who turn traditional modes and styles to their own purposes. Michael Chabon springs immediately to mind. Sarah Waters is another example of a tremendously gifted literary novelist who is keenly aware of gothic tropes and conventions.

TNL: When reading Will Starling, I was struck that while many, many gory details about grave-robbing, surgery and the Napoleonic Wars are detailed to the reader, the writing never seems ghoulish or overly gross. Was this a tricky path to walk given the novel’s subject material?

IW: Well, I’m pleased and relieved that you felt I succeeded in threading that particular needle — and I have a confession to make. I’m a surgeon’s son, but I’m also about as squeamish as it’s possible to be, when it comes to blood and other people’s suffering. So that was basically my litmus test while writing Will Starling. Quite simply: if I can write this paragraph without sending myself fleeing from the room, then I can feel fairly confident that I haven’t grossed out my readers.

TNL: With Will Starling done and reaching great critical acclaim, what are you working on at the moment?

IW: I’ve been really pleased by the critical reception — and thanks so much for the very kind words. And as a matter of fact I’ve begun working on a new novel. I won’t say too much about it — I’m a bit superstitious about these things, and besides it’s still in a somewhat inchoate state — but I will say that it’s a bit of a departure, in some ways (though not in others). It’s historical fiction, but there’s also a framing narrative that takes place in our own era. And it’s western-themed. In fact, it’s set almost entirely in Nineteenth Century North America (though one of the central characters is from London).

At least, that’s how it’s shaping up so far. A novel for me is always a voyage of discovery — I don’t work from an outline. And while I usually start with a notion about where I think the story may end up, I almost invariably discover that I’m mistaken about this.

So far, I’m finding the voyage challenging and stimulating, which is about the best I can realistically hope for. In other words…so far, so good!

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Thanks again to Ian and the publicity staff at Goose Lane for allowing me to put this interview together. Will Starling and Daniel O’Thunder are available wherever good books are sold, and they’re both well worth checking out. You can find Weir on Twitter at @Ian_Weir, and stay up to date on his books over at ianweir.net.

Review: Perfidia, by James Ellroy (2014)

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books / film / film noir

Musical Accompaniment: “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads

In retrospect, I probably wasn’t ready to fully appreciate Perfidia. For background, about five years ago, I tore through James Ellroy’s First L.A. Quartet over the course of a summer. I first got into them by way of Curtis Hanson’s film adaptation of L.A. Confidential, which remains one of my favourite movies ever, and also through Brian de Palma’s ill-fated adaptation of The Black Dahlia, which I still don’t think is quite as bad as everyone says. I wanted to follow up by immediately reading the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, which was just finishing up right around that time with the publication of Blood’s a Rover, but for whatever reason I couldn’t get ahold of the first two books, American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand. So I moved on to other things.

Perfidia cover

Perfidia makes me want to dive right back into Ellroy’s dark imaginings from the very beginning, and to finally follow up and track down the Underworld U.S.A. books. For those of you that haven’t had the pleasure, Ellroy’s (now) First L.A. Quartet charts the twisted, film noir-enfused world of the L.A.P.D. from right after the Second World War till the mid-1950s. Ellroy mixes real life events and personages from the era with the larger-than-life antics of a crew of ne’er do well bagmen, hoodlums and cronies who make up the benighted city’s police force, and also their opposite numbers in the city’s underworld. The Black Dahlia centres around the grisly real-life killing of Elizabeth Short, while The Big Nowhere (my favourite of the bunch) finds the city’s newly-formed Red Squad attempting to quash a Hollywood Communist cell. The aforementioned epic L.A. Confidential features three cops with nothing in common thrown together after a gangland slaying at an all-night diner while White Jazz is a stream-of-consciousness ride into hell with a cop-sanctioned assassin. Characters running through all four of these novels include Mickey Cohen, the real-life mob boss of L.A. (whose story can also be found in the fantastic non-fiction book L.A. Noir by John Buntin) and Dudley Smith, the crookedest goddamned cop in the city, memorably played in the film version of L.A. Confidential by the kindly-looking James Cromwell.

With Perfidia, Ellroy kicks off his Second L.A. Quartet, which will focus on the Second World War years in Los Angeles. The Ellroy universe is essentially kicked off by the discovery of a Japanese family horribly murdered in a relatively swank part of the city on December 6th, 1941. The condition of the bodies seems to indicate seppuku, the traditional suicide practice, but all semblance of normality in the admittedly unusual investigation flies off the handle the next day as the Japanese military attacks Pearl Harbor. Now, with war on everyone’s mind and internment for the city’s Japanese population on the horizon, the case takes on a whole new dimension as the police department’s useful cover for the racist anti-Japanese sentiment that sweeps the city. “Obviously the city cares about its Japanese citizens, look at the time and effort being put in to solve this horrible murder of their number!”, or at least that’s the idea anyway. The truth is a hell of a lot more complicated.

The story is related to us by four narrators: Hideo Ashida, a brilliant young American-born forensics expert, who finds himself in extremely dire straits once the war begins; Kay Lake, a dilettante artist who’s escaped from a hellish prostitution racket and shacked up with a crooked cop; Captain William “Whiskey Bill” Parker, ripped from real life as the alcoholic heir apparent to the L.A.P.D. chief, currently stuck managing the Traffic section; and last but not least, Dudley Smith, the mastermind behind many of the schemes that crop up later on in the First Quartet, at once charming with an Irish brogue and possessed of the most devious mind imaginable.

“That lad shouting racial slurs may be offending Dr. Ashida. Please take him somewhere secluded and kick the shit out of him.” – Dudley Smith

The impact of having Dudley Smith as a viewpoint character cannot be overstated. For readers like me who followed along with the hapless dupes who fall into his web throughout the First Quartet, this is essentially peeling back the curtain on things that were only rumored and briefly glimpsed across two books. If you’re familiar with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, imagine if the next book featured Lord Petyr Baelish, Littlefinger, as a main character, taking you step by step through his schemes against the Iron Throne. It’s kind of intense. He’s a Benzedrine-fuelled, super-cool Hollywood monster, a brilliant detective who on the one hand exists to fulfill Punisher-esque fantasies of instant justice for the worst people in the world, but on the other hand, cooks up plots of his own which are equally if not ten times as vile.

I do think that the Dudley-centric nature of the plot is potentially a bit of a downfall for Perfidia. You can tell that Ellroy loves the character, and he essentially plays on a whole different level than the other four narrators. For me, Dudley overshadows the rest of the cast, but this might also be dependent on whether or not you’ve read his later adventures, I’m not sure. His, and everyone else’s approach to the racism question is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. The attitude Dudley takes towards someone like Dr. Ashida is one of convenience, of further pawns to be manipulated and cruelly dispatched as need be, with no thought given beyond what’s my next move. Sometimes he takes care of minorities, like his association with Ace Kwan, restauranteur and Tong chief, or in the above paragraph, but other times he threatens and cajoles until he gets what he wants.

Ellroy’s writing moves along at a fever pitch. Consider this scene, where Buzz Meeks, later to star in The Big Nowhere, shows a crowd of gawkers why they shouldn’t mess with a police investigation:

“He ran straight at the mob. He tore down cordon ropes. The blues stood back and supplied room. He hit a knot of sailors, low.

He pulled his belt sap and arced backhands. He came in low and stayed low. He went for their faces. He hit noses, he hit mouths, he hit skulls. The sailors froze. Their gawker comrades stood and watched.

Ashida watched. Meeks was a legendary sap man. His sap featured raised stitching and leather-laced lead.”

The fights and other action scenes are relayed through this calm yet completely descriptive narration. It’s tough to read sometimes, sure, but absolutely addictive and satisfying.

So when I said earlier that I probably wasn’t ready for Perfidia, I think that calls to mind to me the most challenging part of the book. The ideal reader will either be coming in completely cold on Ellroy, or be fully up to date on the events of the First Quartet and the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, as characters and events from these books are flung at you constantly throughout this narrative. I was neither of these things, sadly. Things that might be huge revelations come to light, but you might not understand the enormity of the situation without this prior knowledge. When various news sources were opining early this year that David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks might be a bit much continuity for some to handle, I can’t imagine people who had trouble with that being able to keep Perfidia straight in their heads. Ellroy’s imagination is vast and dark, easily comparable to someone like George R.R. Martin, or a David Foster Wallace, and I think this could make Perfidia a little difficult to fully appreciate, at least it did for me.

Still, I am so happy to be back in the squalor and horror that is Ellroy’s Los Angeles. His bebop-lean writing and titanic plotting make Perfidia an instant classic and addictively readable. I can’t wait to see what’s coming up next in the Second Quartet.

Review: Will Starling, by Ian Weir (2014)

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There’s something about the idea of surgery that captures our imaginations. The idea of a person who holds a literal knife’s edge between life and death for a helpless mortal, who’s either tied down or unconscious on a slab? Both of these scenarios hold their own horrors, making this the stuff of great drama. Far from the rich, professional class they embody today, the history of surgeons is until the 20th century pretty barbaric; practitioners were seen as little better than butchers for a long time, and the historic brutality of their profession can lend a nice frisson to horror and thriller narratives to this day. From Frankenstein through to Nip/Tuck and The Knick, the idea of a tortured soul holding the scalpel is still a very popular one in fiction, and with Will Starling author Ian Weir adds another great book to the list.

The eponymous Will Starling started life off as a foundling, a rejected child who grew up in an orphanage in England just before the Regency period began. As soon as he was able to, he ran headlong away from this miserable existence and joined the military. There, he hooked up with a Scottish surgeon named Comrie for five years tour of duty on the Continent as Wellington marched against Napoleon. At the war’s end, Comrie and Starling move to a rough part of London, real Sweeny Todd territory, setting up shop performing the same services for civilians, but a rising star in the medical world steals all of their thunder: Dionysus Atherton. Atherton is wealthy, fashionable and the talk of the town, but when a dinner party he attends goes horribly awry, Will starts to believe that there might be an horrific secret behind the dandyish visage.

The amount of research Weir must have done to fully populate his London astounded me. There’s a brief mention of some informative books he used at the back, but the overall effect is a world that is absolutely drenched in detail, almost as much as it is drenched in blood. The aforementioned horrors of surgery at this time are described in great detail, and by the end the reader has learned also about interesting period funereal practices, the Doomsday Men who steal fresh dead bodies for surgeons to practice on, and the Death House surgeon practice space, which features candles made of human fat. The interesting thing is that none of this is ever played for sheer sensation; there are frightening bits, gory bits and violent bits in this book, but Will Starling never feels like a wallow in depravity and horror.

I’m going to go right back on what I said up there by stating that while the book never feels sensationalistic in the sense that we understand it today, it does recall Victorian sensation novels in its atmosphere of growing dread. As Will begins to learn more and more about the man named Atherton, his suspicions begin to overtake him, and possibly even the reality of the book. It put me in mind of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey of all things, a sensation novel ancestor: a relatable hero who thinks they’re caught up in events far beyond their ken, and whose imagination blows things way out of proportion. The manner by which the story is being related to us, which I won’t reveal here, also puts the reader on edge, and makes us question the sanity of our narrator.

When I read Weir’s previous book Daniel O’Thunder a while back, I was especially drawn to the colourful language he brought to the story. I think in that book I must have learned fifty new words for punching someone, and in Will Starling I must have learned fifty more for dead bodies. One of Will’s most enjoyable tics as a narrator is that he’s a word fan himself, with an elevated vocabulary that is augmented by reading Samuel Johnson but also makes him look kind of foolish. When Will’s not talking, Weir also uses snippets of news stories, broadsheets, and other period literature to fill out the story, something he also did with Daniel O’Thunder. These breaks in the narration give Weir a chance to flex some other muscles voice-wise, and are a welcome addition to the text. Something else that Weir does in this book, that I don’t see in a lot of historical fiction, is the way he plays with names. Will refers to himself often as “Your Wery Umble Narrator” among other sobriquets, British soldiers are named “Tom Lobster” for their red jackets, this facility and play with words is actually very reminiscent of works dating from this period, but often sorely lacking in books that seek to replicate it.

With the one-two punch of Daniel O’Thunder and Will Starling, Ian Weir has become one of the Canadian authors whose next work I most anticipate. His evocation of the feeling of 19th century London is reminiscent of Tim Powers at his height, his attention to entertaining period detail recalls Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon and his facility with language makes every sentence worth savouring.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, by Mark Leyner (2012)

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The Sugar Frosted Nutsack cover

“Even those who consider all this total bullshit have to concede that it’s upscale, artisanal bullshit of the highest order.”

About a year ago, I thought that it might be difficult to summarize the plot of Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge. This line of thinking feels very quaint to me now, as I’ve entered what I’m going to call the “Post-Nutsack” era (P.N.) of dealing with strange storylines due to Mark Leyner’s masterful book The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. It is potentially one of the most complicated and ridiculous things I’ve ever read, but for the most part, I loved it.

I’ll say up front that this will probably be one of the most divisive novels I’ve ever reviewed for this blog. People on Goodreads either seem to love this book or they absolutely despise it, depending on whether or not they can fall into its groove, which vacillates wildly between religious monotony, schoolyard-level humour, in-depth examinations of sexual fetishes, and parodies of academic bullshit writing. I can’t really blame people who fall into the latter camp, even though I’m coming out here as strongly pro-Nutsack. I can completely understand someone giving up on this book, as it seems deliberately intended to annoy you a lot of the time. Luckily, for me anyway, the fun parts outweighed the annoying ones.

Perhaps the best way I’ve come up with to describe The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is as if Hesiod’s Theogony was being read out to you by someone who has just taken ecstasy and stayed up all night watching cartoons, or if The Rape of the Lock was made into a Pixar movie and set in the world of the Jersey Shore. I’d whole-heartedly recommend everyone reading the prologue of the book at least, some of which has been hosted online by Vice Magazine. Here, Leyner lays out his new pantheon of gods, who have names that recall lucha libre stars or characters in turn of the century comic strips: El Brazo, the God of Virility, God of Pornography, God of Urology; Fast-Cooking Ali, the God of Platitudes and the inventor of “woman’s ass”; Mogul Magoo, whose portfolio originally encompassed only bubbles, but eventually came to include any time something envelops something else; La Felina, Goddess of the Downtrodden, the Despised Ones and the Sans-culottes. There are many others, too many to list here, but a lot of the fun of the book comes from the hilariously low-key adventures of these deities.

These gods, who live at the top of whatever tower is currently largest in the world (at the time of the book’s printing, this was the Burj Khalifa in Dubai), are obsessed with one Ike Karton, a recently-unemployed butcher living in New Jersey. Ike is beloved of the gods, and later on it is suggested that he’s the only man on Earth who even knows of their existence, so I guess this makes sense. The main narrative (if you want to call it that) of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is presented as an epic saga that revolves around one morning: After waking up, Ike decides he doesn’t want to eat anything really “breakfasty” for breakfast, electing instead to go to a restaurant for a tongue sandwich. Ike has a conversation with a waitress, writes a narcocorrido for his band The Kartons to perform, hangs out with his daughter’s drug-dealing boyfriend Vance, and then he gets assassinated by Mossad sharpshooters while standing on his stoop. Pretty straightforward, right?

While the actual actions that happen in the human world are relatively simple, your enjoyment of TSFN will come from whether or not you enjoy the litany of things that occur meta-narratively around the story. When I said “epic” above, I really meant it: in the world of TSFN, the story of Ike’s last day on Earth is primarily delivered to audiences by blind, drug-addled bards, who imbibe nothing but Sunkist Orange Soda and bang on the empty jugs with heavy tchotchkes to maintain a rhythm during recitations. The book shifts genres and writing styles constantly, with an arch, cerebral tone throughout that talks about reactions to the epic, the history of its recitations, academic treatises about the epic, an interview with a couple who has just seen the epic, a radio call-in show, an online message board, etc. I actually really lucked out, I think, by listening to this book as an audiobook, as hearing the story read by its author is at least meta-narratively the way it was intended to be. The recording also does some fun stuff with sound, like a few sequences that are read backwards.

“This is Ike the chimera, the hybrid beast with the severed head of a bard and the sugar-frosted nutsack of a hero.”

Like in the above line, which comes in the middle of a dissertation of Ike Carton as a classically doomed epic hero, much of the humour in The Sugar Frosted Nutsack comes from the juxtaposition of highfalutin’ academic language with absurd content which is often riddled with swears and juvenile jokes. In this, TSFN resembles the work of Monty Python, who often used vulgar language in the middle of something seemingly very proper and important, or Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which I think is this book’s closest ancestor. Leyner is incredibly skilled at miming things like academic gobbledygook, a TV Guide entry, or even rap lyrics. His call-and-response songs about big-dicked, blind, drug-addled bards from Jersey City are definitely less embarrassing than say, Don DeLillo’s similar “songs” in Cosmopolis. At least when Leyner name drops MF Doom or various dubstep artists, you get the sense that he knows what he’s talking about on that front at least as much as he does similar references to classic sculpture and the great works of the 19th Century. Not so DeLillo, in my opinion. Leyner shares with Thomas Pynchon a love of trashy, to-the-minute pop culture references: Pynchon’s tossed-off allusions to Pokémon and Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” in Bleeding Edge would not feel out of place in TSFN in the slightest.

The narrative is also under attack throughout by one of the gods, XOXO. XOXO is the god of fucking around with people, and throughout the story it is implied that he is attacking the book itself by inserting “military-grade ass-cheese”, or useless digressions. To me, this recalled Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where the crazed fanboy Kinbote inserts his own recollections and arguments into a poem that literally has nothing to do with him at all. Great stuff, and by the end I kind of felt myself sympathizing with XOXO. The Sugar Frosted Nutsack feels fractal, like it could conceivably keep replicating itself and repeating itself forever, and if you think about it, the end of the book is the destruction of its world, isn’t it? This is the endgame that the Invisibles had in mind in Grant Morrison’s classic comic book series of the early Nineties, but here XOXO‘s attempts at derailing the narrative feel like a desperate attempt to stay alive.

As you might have surmised, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is probably not for everyone. The ideal reader of the book would be someone who enjoys Nabokov, Pynchon, Vonnegut and DeLillo equally as much as say, Masters of the Universe, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! or Gødland. Could this be you?

Review: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell (2014)

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WARNING FOR SPOILERBABIES: There are some things that could be construed as spoilers in this review, so be aware.

The inside flap of The Bone Clocks posts a glowing review from Publishers Weekly, which poses a seemingly-important question: “Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” Since I’ve not read every novel ever written I can’t in all honesty answer the first question, nor can I the second as I’ve only read most of Mitchell’s oeuvre at this point, but this quote attests to the crazy hype surrounding this release, doesn’t it? Not since Abrams and Dorst’s magnificent S. from last year have I felt such a huge marketing push behind a book, and it seems like every major newspaper that still has a book section felt the need to review this so I guess it worked. I’ll guess on both of these questions, why not: 1. No, The Bone Clocks is not the most ambitious novel ever written. I’m no big fan of A Dance to the Music of Time, but it’s certainly much more ambitious than this one; 2. Wondering if a novel is working in a style reminiscent of its author’s other books is a stupid question, but yeah, it’s pretty Mitchell-esque.

Clocks features six narratives coming one after another, moving forward in time from the mid 1980s to the mid 2040s. It is reminiscent of Mitchell’s story layout for Cloud Atlas, although I preferred the way each of the segments in that one stopped suddenly and had their stories concluded only after we moved through all the later time periods. I’m reluctant to tell you much about each of these sections, as even the titles might spoil some of the book’s enjoyment, but the grand narrative surrounds Holly Sykes, who in 1984 is lighting out on her own from the small English country town of Gravesend after a fight with her mother. When Holly was small, she thought she heard something she called “The Radio People”: voices inside of her head that often gave her premonitions of events to come. She even saw one of the radio people, but this was explained away as being a “daymare” and was cured when she went to meet the kindly Dr. Marinus, whose name might be familiar to readers of some of Mitchell’s other books.

Later story sections include the early ’90s adventures of Hugo Lamb, a kind of Patrick Bateman-in-training who is going to a pricey college with some much richer friends, who he often fleeces for cash in poker games and other shady deals. Hugo and his gang end up at a chalet in Switzerland, in an entertainingly amoral sequence that recalls the best of Bret Easton Ellis. We also encounter Ed Brubeck, a war reporter whose story takes place simultaneously at a Sykes family wedding and the streets of Iraq post-2004 invasion. My favourite segment of the story is about Crispin Hershey, whose status as the “Bad Boy of English Letters” is in check as his latest novel fails to cause much of a fuss either financially or critically. The fifth sequence of the book is where I started to become a little ambivalent to the whole project as you’ll see later on. This is where the title of the novel is explained, though, and some of the seemingly-impossible events from earlier sections are revealed to be mere skirmishes in a war that we learn has been going on for centuries. The last part of the story catches up with Holly in a believably dark near future ravaged by climate change and new diseases, foretelling the world of Cloud Atlas.

So when Publishers Weekly asks if Clocks is “the most ambitious novel ever written”, what they’re actually referring to is the amount of intertextuality in this story. In addition to how bit players in one sequence become much more important later on in the novel, like how a character in Hugo Lamb’s story is a die-hard Crispin Hershey fan, there are many references to other books in the Mitchell canon. Again, as I’ve only read most and not all of these (for the record, I’ve read Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and I really enjoyed all of them), maybe I was missing the whole feeling the novel was trying to evoke in me. Clocks is a magnum opus, an ur-book that ties all of Mitchell’s prior books together under a new theoretical framework, and as far as I can tell it basically makes sense? I actually grew to resent this device by book’s end. In cases when I knew which book he was referring to, I had to wrack my brain to remember who exactly this character was in that story, often ending up at Wikipedia. When I didn’t know who he was referring to it didn’t really detract from the plot, exactly, I just knew based on some of the names and descriptions that these bit players would be really cool in other books presumably. This became somewhat jarring in the end.

Intertextuality is not exactly a new thing, no matter how much PW was impressed by it. Comic books do this all the time, with characters from other series appearing in other people’s books, often with an editorial note saying “for more on this exciting person, check out issue x of y”, but this sort of thing isn’t unheard of in the world of literary fiction, either. Thomas Pynchon’s books, for one, have recurring characters like Pig Bodine, the Traverse family and others.

With that out of the way though, for the most part I enjoyed the style of the book. Mitchell’s knack for interesting characters and dialogue that evokes a specific moment in time is convincing throughout. He moves easily from the mind of a disaffected teenage girl in Thatcher’s Eighties to a crusty early-2000s war reporter to a douchey has-been author with the greatest of ease. My main issue with the story comes from the resolution of the device that connects all of the characters in this book, and indeed now all of his characters in all of his books. While I feel like I don’t need my hand held when it comes to explaining characters with magic powers, which the two factions at war in the course of this saga, the Horologists and the Anchorites, both possess, I think the blase nature with which Mitchell tosses off concepts at will in the fifth section of the novel renders them less powerful than they ought to be. I don’t want a Back to the Future II-style chalkboard chart explaining how every person is able to release their inner power and throw fireballs, put up shields, etc. but a little more explanation, a few more encounters in the ostensibly “real” world of the first four segments, would have gone a long way in making the fifth bit feel more real, more lived-in.

So is this the most David Mitchelliest David Mitchell novel? I think I still prefer Black Swan Green of his books that I’ve read, and Cloud Atlas‘ better fleshed-out universe was the most entertaining for me, but I think if you’ve enjoyed all the prior books you’ll get a lot out of this one. Just don’t get your hopes up that it’s the greatest, most complex thing ever, because it’s really not. As I mentioned before, J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. from last year was a much more complicated and beautiful thing, and of course we can’t count out Infinite Jest when talking about complicated novels. Still, The Bone Clocks is a very entertaining, high-concept fantasy novel, one that really recalled Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber (has anyone else made this connection?), which is high praise indeed.

Review: Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People Who Play It, by David Ewalt (2013)

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Musical Accompaniment: “Ready to Roll”, by Flashlight Brown

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I’m not entirely sure for which audience David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men was written. Is the book intended to be picked up by absolute newcomers to the concept of Dungeons and Dragons, or tabletop roleplaying altogether? Is it supposed to be of interest to people who already play, but are interested in the story of the game’s creation? Or is it for readers interested in a memoir of a lapsed geek coming back into the fold, trying out different activities for his own edification?

Of Dice and Men combines three elements in an attempt to give readers a sense of Dungeons and Dragons’ past, present and future. Ewalt crafts a concise history of TSR, the company that first released the game, while laying out his own experiences coming back to tabletop role-playing after a long absence. In an attempt to help readers understand all facets of the gaming world, Ewalt visits a display of ancient boardgames, attends a wargaming convention, becomes a LARPer and finally visits Lake Geneva, the birthplace of D&D. Interspersed among these chapters we also find the fictionalized adventures of some of Ewalt’s own player characters, mostly focusing on his 15th-level cleric Westlock, who battles vampires in a dystopic future Earth.

Of the book’s three features, by far the most interesting and best-written is Ewalt’s look at the history of the game itself. Starting with a brief look at military wargame culture in mid-century America, Ewalt spins a solid yarn around the lives of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the two men whose combined genius in rules and story laid the groundwork for what was originally called “The Fantasy Game” and later D&D. Ewalt works at Forbes, and the facility with which he makes corporate intrigue around the later years of Tactical Studies Rules and the falling out between the two fathers of the game gripping reading is to be commended. Ewalt interviews many of the key players left over from the early days, and digests TSR’s press releases and sales data to give us a sense of just how big the D&D phenomenon grew in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Some great nuggets are dug up around the time of the “Satanic Panic” (one of the United States’ frequent lapses into moral absolutism), which in the early Eighties made parents around the country think that D&D was a gateway drug into occult rituals, human sacrifice and devil worship. This is around the time that Mazes and Monsters was released, a TV film now remembered mostly for being an early Tom Hanks vehicle, but at the time fuelling this supposed crisis around the game.

As can be expected, this massive outcry made the game irresistible to bored teens worldwide, and the company in turn became flush with cash. This led to some entertaining and extravagant purchases around the TSR office, as a bunch of nerds who started a game about pretending to be wizards are potentially not the most prudent financiers as it turns out. Ewalt’s ease at explaining the business narrative makes corporate power plays between Gygax and the company’s investors compelling reading, even if I would have liked a few more details on how the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon show came into being. I would even love to see a movie based on this material, actually.

Less successful for me, though, were the other two facets of the book, the combination of Ewalt’s re-entering the fantasy role-play world and the dramatizations of his own characters’ adventures. Of Dice and Men starts off incredibly slowly with an extended chapter which makes abundantly clear every bit of trivia about D&D readers could be expected to know for the rest of the story. Concepts like player characters, stat points, Dungeon Masters and the like are laboriously explained, and I feel like, in the wake of the massive popularity of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, the average reader probably has at least some sense of what these things are. Given the fact that the cover features a large 12-sided die and marks Ewalt off as a “level 15 cleric”, I can’t see someone even picking up this book without having at least some sense of these concepts. Ewalt then relates his experiences as a young person playing D&D, and how he eventually quit playing in college for fear of being called a nerd. While he explains the things that brought him back into the fold as an adult, what he doesn’t do is really give a sense of how D&D is becoming less of a stigmatized hobby. He also has some weird prejudices, especially towards Live Action Role Playing (LARP), which fall by the wayside as he gains more experience in the modern-day gaming world.

Interspersed here are bits of dramatic fiction set in the various worlds Ewalt plays in. While they were relatively inoffensive to start, eventually these vignettes began to grate on me as they ham-fistedly tried to find equivalencies in Ewalt’s real world travels. It’s a cute idea, but I think it could have been scrapped. I worked at a comic book store for four years, so perhaps the novelty of having someone tell you how cool their elven ranger is has potentially worn off on me, but again, I can’t imagine an absolute newcomer being interested in this sort of material either. It all ties back to my confusion with who this book is actually for. It’s far too inside baseball on the history of TSR and the early days of D&D to really be of interest to a newbie, but it also takes great pains to explain the simplest of concepts, potentially alienating people who’d be interested in that history. It is trying to be all things to all people, and it should have just picked one concept and stuck with it.

This is the first book I’ve reviewed on this blog that I listened to as an ebook. While a professional acts out the fantasy adventure sequences, Ewalt provides narration for the rest of the book, and he is a decent reader. While he’s prone to a bit of overeager excitement when talking about the extent to which peoples’ lives are shaped by D&D, and some of his pop culture references are annoyingly obvious, on the whole it was a good choice for him to read his own work, I think.

Review: Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer (2014)

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Musical Accompaniment: “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue

Annihilation cover

“If I showed you the roses, would you follow?”

The twelfth expedition set out thirty years after the mysterious appearance of “Area X”. All women this time out, the unnamed explorers numbered among them a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a biologist, our narrator. The Area, which once featured a coastal town, is now an Eden untouched by human industry, full of interesting new flora and fauna, and potentially more secrets than that. The eleventh expedition ended in tragedy, much like many of the previous ones, but the four women (who numbered five before the linguist got cold feet) were determined to unlock the Area’s secrets for good. They could not imagine what lay in store for them…

Area X is under the control of an organization known as the “Southern Reach”, which gives this great new series by Jeff Vandermeer its title. Annihilation is the first of three short Southern Reach novels that will be released in 2014, and if the first one is any indication of quality, readers will be in for a treat all year long. Annihilation combines dread and cosmic horror like that found in the works of H.P. Lovecraft with interpersonal dynamics between characters and sheer visceral thrills reminiscent of Stephen King at his best. For whatever reason, the clinical depictions of nature gone mad in the Area recalled to me sequences from Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, much like the last book I read, The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya, although it also put me in mind of the dreamworld landscape found in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The concept of a small area that suddenly changes and goes down its own evolutionary path also recalled an arc in Rick Remender’s excellent run on X-Force from a few years back, when the team returned to the world that gave Fantomex his origin.

All of this is to say that Annihilation is a very good book indeed, a slice of paranoia-inducing, creeps-giving horror that gripped me from beginning to end. I was initially a little put off by the dry, “by the book”-style narration delivered to us by the biologist, but I soon found it a comfort compared to what it could have been. Annihilation is definitely influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, but thankfully omits the overwrought vocabulary and hysterical feel of those stories, preferring instead to lay out its horror for readers in an easy to understand fashion that does not grate. Also like in Lovecraft’s work, journals make up a large part of the story, and I really appreciated how Vandermeer was never sidetracked by this device. He kept his focus on the biologist and her story throughout, and while it easily could have been a collection of journal entries this book never turned into a collection of found works like the annoying Night Film from last year did.

Vandermeer hits you with fascinating concept after fascinating concept, page by page. While we learn next to nothing about the Southern Reach organization in this volume, their management techniques in Area X are on full display in the person of the psychologist, who is revealed very early on as using post-hypnotic suggestion on the rest of the group to keep them in line. No sooner is this revealed, though, than the existence of new animals in the Area is discovered, and then writing made of living beings, and so on, and so on. It’s exhilarating to see so many fascinating new ideas spiraling through the book, each of which could easily have been a short story of their own, if not a novel. I also loved the dynamics between the four women exploring the area. They were instantly recognizable as a group of professionals who may or may not see eye to eye on everything, and this essential humanity is very useful as the plot becomes more and more crazy and weird. I’m intrigued to learn more about the previous expeditions, as the goal of the twelfth one seems mostly to be an offering to the Area, a new cross-section of humanity for it to interact with, and I’d like to see what the previous experiments in this vein were as well.

I don’t want to say too much more about this perfectly-sized volume, as I’d like to encourage all of you to check it out on your own. I’ve already got the second book in the Southern Reach trilogy, Authority, and I can’t wait to tear into it.