Monday, November 1, 2010

Stuff I've Been Reading October

“Tessa’s feet were screaming in her fasionable boots.”

This sentence, dropped in the middle of a chase scene involving dozens of vicious automatons, apropos to nothing, should let you know all you need to about Cassandra Claire’s immense deficiency as a writer.

In my line of work it behooves me to keep abreast of at least a few YA titles. So when I came across Clockwork Angel, I realized “Hey I like both Victorian London and Eternal Battles against the Darkness! How bad can this be?” Hoo boy.

The blending of Victorian and Occult fiction is a natural one. Both depend upon the thrill of the hidden society concealed within the world. Wheels within wheels powered by arcane codes of conduct.

Anyway the story is the usual mumbo jumbo of a young girl caught in between the forces of darkness represented by blah blah blah. The point is she soon ends up predictably caught between two life support systems for abs and we go on from there.

All the usual flaws are here, characters who range from vapid to merely dim. A plot we’re several steps ahead of at all times. Writing that’s declaritive and dull (It doesn’t help that Claire makes the decision to start each chapter with some of the finest lines of Victorian verse. Reminding our poor brains what good writing does look like) and Banter that is jarringly contemporary.

But here’s the real bad news. There are scenes here, isolated though they may be. That actually suggest Claire could become a good writer. A scene where our young heroine stumbles into an abattoir where the corpses of the innocent are being fused with machines, are written with a vividness that suggests a dark and fertile imagination that Meyer’s and most of her ilk never had.

Should Claire ever shrug off her bad habits it’s possible she could become a hell of a writer.

As she has already been amply rewarded for those bad habits, that seems rather unlikely.

I have begun a delightfully unexpected late in life love affair with Ray Bradbury.

When I was the age when most discover Bradbury his indirect florid prose frustrated me. And to a certain extent, say in something like "Jack In The Box", it still does. But setting aside his stylistic ticks Bradbury is one of those treasured authors who marches in no one’s territory but his own.

Most of the stories in October Country aren’t quite horror, fantasy or sci fi, though some like The Small Assassin would fit quite comfortably. Most just hum along on a kind of all American wrongness. A feeling like you’re conversing with Will Rogers after ingesting a few tabs of acid.

The Halloween Tree exists on the same inimitable plane. It’s hard to imagine a children’s book with scenes as intense as the children’s encounters with Samhain and it’s grisly aftermath being released today. At least not without the school board getting buried in letters. But The Halloween Tree maintains a feeling of good natured malice, if not comprehensibility.

Yeah I’m pretty sure I dug this one.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk finds David Sedaris in an unusually vindictive mood. Though there are few writers better at ripping apart people behaving badly, Sedaris more vicious tendencies are usually countermanded by his inherent amusement and affection for people.

He apparently feels no such need when faced with animal characters, and most of his stories quickly fall into levels of bad behavior and misanthropy which are Ellisian. Things pick up a little at the end, when Sedaris lets up on his targets just a little. And his prose is witty and graceful as ever. But it can’t help but all feel more then a little pointless.

I was lucky enough to attend a reading of Sedaris earlier in the week, where he read a few stories. And as expected they worked much better (though unexpectedly, despite what his persona may have you believe Sedaris is borderline gregarious in person. He also drew an owl in my copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day. I have no idea of its meaning and it haunts me) Sedaris reading of his own material has always been as much a key to his success as his prose itself, if not more so. And Squirrel is no exception, in this regard. But perhaps it is an exception as it is the first of his works that cannot stand without it.

Bill Bryson an author of boundless curiosity, humane temperment, lucid civilized prose and a lacerating dry wit is one of the most purely pleasurable authors I know of. A Walk In The Woods is of course, no exception, and arguably his masterwork.

The saga of Bryson’s attempt to walk The Appalachian Trail, A Walk In The Woods is hilarious and unsentimental, and yet full of wonder. Accompanied by his obese fouled tempered Sancho Panza, Katz Bryson chronicles his attempt to hike the AT, intercutting it with musings on the trails history, the disastrous ecological state of America, bemused vignettes on the short comings of other hikers, a fear of bears to rival Stephen Colbert's and whatever else enters his mind.

It’s a worthwhile trip as it always is with Bryson, even if he grows a little defensive at the end. But for anyone who has yet to walk with him, this makes for a perfect introduction.

But in all these tales the dog is the innocent shoot star/
We all wish upon/
Until It burns up, aging fast and disappearing/
Beyond our jagged horizen

I already covered these in my five horror books column. I’ll just note that beyond all it’s affectation Sharp Teeth is a truly human horror story. And even if the master plot never really holds together as much as it seems it is going to, watching it get there is still a thing of beauty.

John Dies At The End is a tough book to review. Since so much of it’s pleasures come from it’s unpredictability. It’s rare when one of its 375 pages does not contain a turn on a dime plot twist, hilarious joke, or truly horrifying concept.

I regret even to inform you that there is a cock punching demon named Shitload (One of the books cleverest jokes. Think about it for a second.) Feeling vaguely like I’m robbing you of something. So if talking about what I like about the book spoils it, and talking about my very minor quibbles, like the fact that it’s really more of two or three novellas stitched together then a cohesive novel, make me feel grinch like, what does that leave me with to talk about?

Well how about this. Buy it! Buy it Now!

I’ll admit I did not have high hopes for American Vampire. I have an aversion to co-authored work And it seemed at first glance to be yet another toss off in a year of toss offs for King. Which he’s used to clear the pipes after Under The Dome.

So it as suprising and thoroughly gratifying to learn that I had thoroughly underestimated American Vampire.

It’s a stylish, funny, badass, dark, substantial, and yes scary reworking of the vampire mythos.

King sums the mission statement up perfectly in his introduction.

“Here’s what Vampires shouldn’t be: pallid detectives who drink Bloody Marys and only work at Night, lovelorn southern gentlemen, anorexic teenage girls, and boy toys with dewy eyes.

What should they be?

Killers. Stone Killers who never get enough of that tasty type A.

At the heart of American Vampire lies a surpringly potent metaphor. The title is not accidental. The story follows as the increasingly decrepit and outmoded European Vampires fall in the wake of WWI as the titular American Vampire Skinner Sweet (Who puts the anti in hero then goes ahead and throws away the hero part) rises. His vitality inextricable from his viciousness.

If there is a flaw in the book its that the parellel stories really are parellel stories. Never quite meeting despite the final stinger.

They’re both fine they just plain don’t touch on each other. In the intro King writes that he requested to write Skinner’s origin. And given how the book is structured it’s hard to believe that Scott Synder wouldn’t have waited to reveal Skinner’s origins for a later issue, or perhaps even a miniseries. And for those annoyed by them, be aware that King’s idiosyncrasies as a writer are in full affect. Only King would introduce his full formed Vampire lead by having him burst out of his watery grave, like a pissed off jack in the box with the line “HELLO MOTHER FUCKER GOT ANY CANDY?”

Still I found American Vampire the perfect way to wrap up the holiday season.


Matt Keeley said...

That Claire sentence... the "fashionable" makes it. So vague, so irrelevant, so unintentionally comic. The rest of the sentence is just mediocrity and cliche, but that "fashionable" is special.

Glad you enjoyed the Bradbury. The ending of The Halloween Tree... Also, love the cover. Try looking at it from different distances, if you haven't already.

Neil Fulwood said...

It's the interplay between Bryson (a writer I normally find occupying a literary middle ground between smugness and complacency) and Katz that makes 'A Walk in the Woods'. I love the argument that sends Katz huffing back to his tent and calling out, to the accompaniment of the soft pffftttsss of a can being opened, "You hear this, Bryson? This is me drinking the rest of the beer." Great stuff.

Damned if that cover of the 'Halloween Tree' didn't make me watch the "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury" video for the eleven millionth time!

Bryce Wilson said...

@Matt: Yeah. Leaving aside how bad the sentence is in and of itself, the fact that she just HAD to interrupt the narrative of her story to let us know that her heroine was wearing pretty shoes is hilarious.

@ Neil: Katz is just such a delightful ball of Id. The flirtation between him and the pancake waitress at the start of the trail had me howling like a madman in an unfortunately public place.

As for Bryson's complacency, different authors strike different people in different ways, (My opinion on Jim Emerson compared to others makes me wonder if I'm wearing the They Live glasses when I read his work) so I can't blame you. I will just say that I usually find Bryson far too self effacing and occasionally prickly to be really smug.

And while complacent he may be, the subject matter he chooses doesn't really allow for a lot of radicalism. Which since he's such a sharp writer I can see as disappointing, but the fact that he's just so civilized is a lot of his appeal.