Monsters of Venus, by Martin Berman-Gorvine / ***

513gh0jx4ul-_sy344_bo1204203200_Monsters of Venus boasts a pretty great premise – it’s a science fiction tale set on Venus, but one created from the mind of a Polish Jew alive during the rise of the Nazi party. Desperate to escape, her pulp tales took on a life of their own, and she ultimately escaped into the world she had created, along with a couple of other girls – and she can still make changes to this world by writing them on her typewriter and having others read it. But now, others have found their way into this universe, and they have more malicious intentions – and typewriters of their own.

That’s a really cool idea for a book, and at its best moments, Monsters of Venus becomes this wonderful piece of metafiction, with characters literally writing their way out of their predicaments. Mind you, it’s worth noting that Monsters of Venus is actually a follow-up to an earlier book entitled Seven Against Mars, which I hadn’t read, nor did I realize going in; the learning curve here is a bit rocky, although you’ll get the hang of everything eventually. It’s just that Berman-Gorvine doesn’t exactly lay out his premise or things that have already happened in any sort of clear, easy way for a new reader.

Unfortunately, that’s also the case for much of Monsters of Venus, which feels constantly jumbled and unclear, with characters bleeding into each other, overwrought accents, and messy action scenes that left me trying to figure out what was going on. None of which is to say that the big picture of Monsters of Venus isn’t a lot of fun – on the macro level, there’s a neat story here, and a lot of cool ideas. But the execution is less effective, with me often confused as to who was where, why certain actions were taken, or what people’s goals were. Add into that a number of literary allusions that feel fun but ultimately distract from the story (I’m still not quite sure what the point of all the Hamlet allusions is, or what they were supposed to mean; while they end up aligning with a couple of characters, the question of what it matters beyond being cute is unclear), and the result is a great idea, poorly executed.

That seems to be Berman-Gorvine’s M.O., though – I said similar things about his Heroes of Earth, which had great ideas but once again felt overstuffed and cluttered. Still, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here, and some really cool ideas; it just feels like it needs some tightening and polishing to make it work as well as it should.

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Roofworld, by Christopher Fowler / ***

9780399180422A London man with a boring job and average life suddenly finds himself drawn into a side of London that he’s never seen before – a place where those who have dropped out of normal life have set up their own alternate society, where the rules are different, life is dangerous and exciting, and there’s nothing but disdain for the “normal” people. There’s a sense of old ways here, a sense that this is a way of getting back to something primal and mysterious, and maybe even magical. But our hero finds himself falling into something he doesn’t understand, and not only this new world, but our own, could be in danger.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “ooh, I’ve read that – it’s Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman,” well, you’re not wrong, really. Indeed, even though Roofworld predates Neverwhere by some time, I couldn’t help but spend a lot of the time as I read it comparing it to Gaiman’s richer, stranger, and altogether more successful novel. It doesn’t, however, really detract from Fowler’s imaginative idea, for this society lives on the roofs of the city, navigating from building to building with ropes and ziplines, and refusing to touch the ground. That’s a neat idea (I constantly found myself thinking of the navigation of Bioshock Infinite as I read), and the glimpses we get of this world are more than enough to draw you into the strange, shadowy society on the roofs of London.

It’s a shame, then, that Roofworld doesn’t have the substance it needs to support the fun and imagination that it promises in the first half. The book’s opening promises all sorts of fun, with a missing book of notes, a dangerous death cult, a series of brutal murders, and an odd couple romance. But by the time I hit the halfway point of the book, I was rapidly coming to realize that Roofworld is in desperate need of some fleshing out. Yes, it’s fun, and yes, it moves well. But the characters end up thin and generic (even now, less than a day after finishing, I’m struggling to remember much about some of them), and the plotting ends up making little to no sense, with the bad guy basically being motivated by…um…evil, I guess. (It doesn’t help that I never quite figured out the point of his evil scheme or what he was hoping to do, and it doesn’t seem like the book wanted us to, either.) It feels like a book that’s had about 30-50 pages of exposition and character work cut out of it, and the result feels like nothing so much as the weak screenplay based off of the fun and imaginative book.

Is there some fun to be had in Roofworld? Most definitely. But don’t be surprised when you end up feeling like it’s got nothing beyond a neat idea and a few fun scenes when you’re done.

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Baby Driver / **** ½

baby-driver-posterI frequently cite Roger Ebert’s famous quote, in which he argued that “a movie is not about what it is about; it’s about how it goes about it.” That rule informs so much of my opinions about Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, because if all you focused on with Baby Driver was the story, you’d be pretty let down. This is a heist movie, and pretty much every character in it is an archetype, at best – the Good Kid, the Crazy Psycho, the Femme Fatale, the Good Girl, etc., even down to that famous One Last Job. What unfolds, by and large, is what you expect, with few true surprises or shocks.

And yet, I’d be lying if I said any of that mattered that much, because Baby Driver is so wonderfully stylish and well-executed that I forgive pretty much all of those flaws. Because, yes, it’s a heist movie, or even a car chase movie…but it’s also one that basically turns the genre into a musical, with every gunshot, punch, swerve, brake, and accident timed out to the beat of the constant soundtrack, and the energy never flagging. And it’s hard not to get swept up into the fun of that, even before you realize that Wright isn’t just doing it in his action sequences – it’s his dialogue, his solo walks, his briefings, all of it. (Even better is an early-film tracking shot where the graffiti and passerby all sync up the music quietly, without ever drawing attention to themselves.)

So, yes, Baby Driver has some issues. Almost nobody surpasses their archetype in their role (though I think Jon Hamm does better than most), and Jamie Foxx’s character is particularly underserved by the film, bringing evil and violence for their own sake in a role that could use some fleshing out. (And yes, it’s a heist film, which is a genre that uses archetypes as a rule, but these are pretty flatly presented ones.) Even our hero and his love interest don’t really exist much beyond the confines of the plot or their roles in the big picture, and that’s a bit of a letdown. And yet, every time Baby gets behind the wheel of a car, or the laundry in a laundromat spins in time with the beat, or Wright times all of his pieces so masterfully that you can’t help but just giggle in happiness, all of my complaints washed away. Yes, Baby Driver is all style, no substance…but when the style is this well-done and this entertaining, I’m pretty okay with that.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming / ****

ono08hbmbenyI am, at best, an agnostic towards the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and that may be generous. I’ve skipped most of the entries in the MCU, and by and large, the ones I’ve seen have been fine, but forgettable – in other words, they’re boring, empty calories. Yes, there have been highlights – the weirdness that James Gunn brought to the original Guardians of the Galaxy, Shane Black’s surprisingly subversive plotting in Iron Man 3 – but for the most part, I haven’t even been able to motivate myself to watch more than a couple of them. And making it all worse is watching interesting, talented directors and actors being sucked into a world where everything comes out as the same generic, homogenized product.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying, I wasn’t that excited about Spider-Man: Homecoming, even before you take into account the needlessness of another reboot. And yet, what I was excited about was the chance to take my son to a superhero movie, because one of the things that the MCU has done is pitch so hard for an older audience that it’s forgotten to be there for kids, who can’t always deal with big, apocalyptic battles or constant double entendres (especially if your kids already get anxious easily). But with its high school setting and wisecracking character, I got the vibe that this might be the perfect one to take a ten-year-old boy to go see in theaters.

And I’m glad I did – not only for him (he loved it), but because I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up really enjoying it.

Spider-Man: Homecoming does a lot right, but one of the most welcome changes is the lowering of stakes and the resulting focus on more personal connections. The film’s villain, played by the always welcome Michael Keaton, isn’t interested in taking over the world, or killing people, or destroying a universe. He wants to provide for his family, and little else matters to him. What that means is a villain without some big, grandiose plot – no giant glowing columns of energy; even more to the point, no attacks on civilians at all – but instead, a human being, and a sympathetic one. Yes, Keaton is the film’s villain, but he’s likable, and more importantly, he’s understandable. He’s terrified for his family and their lives – and those are stakes that can matter to us.

Similarly, with its focus on high-school life and Peter Parker’s inexperience and age, Homecoming makes its themes more interesting than “responsibility” or “power” or “justice”. Instead, it’s the story of a kid who wants to be taken seriously, who wants to figure out his place in the world and to be special. That’s prime material for a superhero story, and Homecoming makes it work, making it echo through every part of the film, from Parker’s high school life to the combat sequences. And when things like “responsibility” do come up in the film, the movie has a way of making them sneak up on you, playing with the risks of super-powers more effectively than most, and reminding us how they can do a lot – and that works in a lot of ways.

But best of all, Homecoming echoes the best lesson from Logan: the best superhero films realize that “superhero” isn’t a genre in of itself, but an element. Where Logan was a Western injected with superhero DNA, Homecoming feels like a high school film – one of those where a nerdy kid gets the chance to prove himself as something more, only using superhero material to elevate it all. And what that results in is something that feels like an actual movie, not just an extended trailer for a film yet to come.

Mind you, there’s still some of my usual Marvel grumbles – for instance, the way that at least two different characters are clearly there only as placeholders for greater roles to come, or a general lack of interesting style of any sort. But by and large, the film overcomes its MCU obligations nicely, handling them with humor and wit (see the clever method of recapping Civil War as the film opens, or even better, the final credits scene), or else making them vague but solid subtext (the villain gets his start cleaning up battle sites from the earlier films). And instead of worrying about spending too much time about what’s to come or what may happen (or, for that matter, on telling a story about Peter’s uncle that we’ve heard too much), the film can focus on being its own satisfying, engaging story. And really, that’s what I wanted from a superhero movie in the first place. Yes, some style would be nice…but in the meantime, I’ll settle for fun with an emphasis on character and world.

IMDb

Wizard and Glass, by Stephen King / ****

This is the fourth entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and The Waste Lands. As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”


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I remember being a bit let down with Wizard and Glass upon its release back in 1997. It’s not that the heart of the book – which revolves around Roland’s coming of age, both in terms of becoming a man and becoming a gunslinger – is bad by any means. Indeed, for many people, that story – an extended flashback that takes up probably 80-90% of the book – is one of the best sections of the entire Dark Tower saga. And as I re-read it, I came to agree with them to some degree, even while I also remembered what frustrated me about the original book.

Essentially, most of Wizard and Glass is the story of 14-year-old Roland Deschain, fresh off of his testing with Cort, and sent into his first mission in an effort to keep him and his friends safe from a world in the process of “moving on”. But rather than ending up with a quiet, easy job to do, Roland and his friends find themselves in a dangerous, volatile situation with threats on every side, from a town increasingly hostile towards the Affiliation to a failed gunslinger who’s the match of all of them, from an unclear conspiracy to a demented witch with a dangerous artifact. And once you add into the mix the fact that Roland falls in love with a young woman who’s to father the mayor’s child, an already tense situation gets even worse.

There’s a lot to love about this story, but one of the best things is getting to see Roland’s world as it was, not as it is; we see how society worked, get an ear for the patter and conversations and rhythms of the world, and a feel for the traditions and beliefs that helped shape Roland to become the man we know. More than that, we see Roland not as the hardened, ruthless figure we met in book one, but as a young man desperate to prove himself – and more capable of failing than we’ve ever known him to be. That it does all of that while telling a gripping, compelling story and bringing to life dozens of rich characters is just icing – and that doesn’t even get into the action sequences and pacing King brings out, every bit as good as he’s ever been. In other words, the story here could be a novel all on its own, and it would be a knockout – exciting, richly characterized, fleshed out, and surprisingly moving.

And almost as good is the opening section of the book, which provides a fantastic resolution to the last book’s cliffhanger and tosses us into a strange new world that may bear some familiarity for the true Constant Reader. It’s a surprising move, and one that throws all of the characters off kilter, putting everyone on unfamiliar territory and making the reader realize that, in the world of the Tower, the boundaries of reality aren’t as firm as we might think. It’s a great start to the book, and one that was worth the wait.

So, if all of that is so good, why was I disappointed then, and a little bit now? It’s because of the book’s finale, which indulges some of King’s favorite tropes (letting pop culture allusions slowly become literal and ominous) without much purpose. It’s a threatening ending, yes, and one that lets our heroes realize that their quest is being watched…but it’s also more than a bit over the top and silly, and ultimately feels like it’s unworthy of the book before it. Is it truly bad? Not entirely…but it definitely ends the book on a weaker point than any other part, and you never want to leave the reader on your weakest point – especially when you’re going to leave them hanging for almost another decade. Add to that the realization that the book we’d been waiting for for so long amounted to the end of a cliffhanger and a lot of backstory, and not much progress at all, and you can imagine some of my frustration.

Even with the ending and the lack of momentum, though, Wizard and Glass gives the Dark Tower books something it wasn’t even obvious they were missing: it gives them heart and soul, and more importantly, it humanizes Roland – and clarifies him – more than perhaps any other book before. And although the forward momentum of the quest doesn’t get us very far this time, it would be hard to imagine the series without this extended flashback, this glimpse into the world that was and the choices that helped define Roland as the man he would become.

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“All Things Serve the Beam” (series spoilers follow) Continue reading “Wizard and Glass, by Stephen King / ****”

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly / **** ½

71mvwmg4azlThere are basically two ways to review A Game of Ghosts: one is by comparing it to just about any other thriller out there, and the other is by comparing it to the rest of the Charlie Parker series. On the former scale, as usual, John Connolly reminds you that he’s one of the greatest thriller writers working today, and blows just about any of the others out of the water; on the latter, it’s a solid, engaging entry, but not among the best of the series.

As usual for the Parker series, A Game of Ghosts blurs the lines between the crime genre and supernatural horror; while the book opens with Charlie Parker being tasked with tracking down a missing private detective, it doesn’t take long before the story spirals outward into a malevolent cult whose female members are in touch with vicious, dangerous spirits. And, as usual, Connolly doesn’t just deliver gripping action set pieces and a complicated crime saga; he’s also genuinely terrifying throughout, giving even the hardiest readers chills and unease as he plunges deeply into what he’s called “the honeycomb world”. As for the question as to whether his supernatural entities or his villains are more evil and horrifying…well, that’s up for debate.

A Game of Ghosts is the 15th novel in the Parker series, and it’s not an ideal spot for new readers to come in, even though the plot is entirely self-contained. But the best parts of A Game of Ghosts come as Connolly adds to the complex ongoing mythology of his world, whether it’s the increasingly odd aspects of Parker’s daughter Sam, his tenuous and uneasy relationship with federal authorities, or some unexpected developments with regard to that strange, tobacco-stained figure only known as The Collector. Even better, though, are the character beats; while the ongoing saga draws me in, the horror unsettles me, and the writing moves me, it’s the characters that I love, and that wonderful trio of Parker and his friends Angel and Louis continue to bring out life and friendship in wonderfully strange, dark ways.

For all of that, though, A Game of Ghosts often feels like Parker barely needs to be in the book; indeed, near the end of the book, Parker makes the comment that he feels like he’s constantly playing catch up with everything that’s going on. It reminds me of the earlier entry in the series The Whisperers, which again felt as though Parker was merely an observer – or maybe “witness” is a better word. Much happens here, and there’s little denying that Parker is a central part of it all, but it almost feels as though he’s reduced to a passive role in the novel rather than driving the story along. That this is perhaps intended by Connolly (and, given that Parker frequently comments that he feels that much is being kept from him in all of this, it seems likely) doesn’t quite stop it from being a bit frustrating.

Even so, A Game of Ghosts is a Charlie Parker book by John Connolly. And what that means is that it will be riveting, darkly funny when you least expect, intense, morally complex, terrifying, and disturbing – often all at the same time. And while all of that is happening, you’re also getting beautiful writing, complex characterization, and fantastic plotting. In short, it’s another brilliant read by one of the best authors that a lot of people aren’t reading. And if it’s not quite my favorite in the series, that’s okay; I’d still read even the weakest Parker book multiple times, and hold it up as a knockout.

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A Time of Torment, by John Connolly / *****

A brief note: I actually read A Time of Torment a year ago, when it was first released, but apparently my review never actually published, or perhaps was eaten by some Internet goblins. Since I just finished Connolly’s newest novel, I figured this would be as good a time as any to get it put back up here.


     “I used to think this was all about good and evil,” said Rickett, “but it’s not.”
     “No?”
     “There’s a kind of evil that isn’t even in opposition to good, because good is an irrelevance to it. It’s a foulness that’s right at the heart of existence, born with the stuff of the universe. It’s in the decay to which all things tend. It is, and it always will be, but in dying, we leave it behind.”
     “And while we’re alive?”
     “We set our souls against it, and our saints and angels, too.” He patted Parker on the shoulder. “Especially the destroying ones.”
     Parker walked to his car, got in, and started the engine. The past is more real than the present, he thought, and we carry our histories with us.

– John Connolly, A Time of Torment


a-time-of-torment-9781501118326_hrI’m going to be straightforward here: John Connolly is one of the best writers working today. Period. Full stop. His prose is astonishing – it displays a poet’s ability with words, a gift for finding beauty even in the most nightmarish of places. (That quote above? It’s an aside – not even a major moment of the book. That’s how good he is.) But he also has the soul of a horror writer, creating some of the most disturbing, unsettling, and truly nightmarish characters, settings, and entities that I have ever read – and I am an avid horror fan, to put it mildly. And in book after book, Connolly has delivered gripping plotting, unsettling horrors, a great sense of humor, and a gift for writing that is unparalleled.

And even with all of this, A Time of Torment may be his best work to date. And that is no small feat.

A Time of Torment is the latest (#14!) in the Charlie Parker series, an ongoing series which defies easy description. Nominally, it is a crime series, one that finds Parker investigating cases and dealing with horrific crimes, often accompanied by his friends Angel and Louis. But that quick overview doesn’t quite prepare you for the darkness and true evil that lurks at the core of the Parker books, which have become an examination of good and evil, of morality, of the nature of human cruelty, and more than that, an unblinking look at human depravity and insanity. And as the series has continued, the lines between “reality” and the “supernatural” have blurred, often overlapping until there’s no clear distinction between the two.

But A Time of Torment is different from the rest of the books – and that difference lies in Parker. Parker’s inner war with himself – his nature, his choices, his actions – has anchored every one of the Parker novels to date, and Connolly’s willingness to engage with his character’s guilt (and lack thereof) has been part of the series’ greatness to date. But the events of the last few books have changed Parker irrevocably, forcing his hand and turning him from an unwilling member of this battle and into a hunter. And A Time of Torment finds him embracing that role, searching for the source and heart of the evils that have beset him, and using those around him in an effort to cleanse this world.

It’s a dangerous, ruthless new version of Parker – and given that Parker wasn’t exactly weak to begin with, that’s saying something. And yet, he’s undeniably the same man; A Time of Torment opens with Parker tracking down a man who is responsible for a series of murders, and rendering his own judgment against him. But that’s only the start-up for A Time of Torment, which finds Parker helping a man who worries that he has angered a small West Virginia community known as The Cut – and perhaps an entity known as “the Dead King”.

From there, A Time of Torment unfolds with the relentlessness of a nightmare, as we see not only what the Cut is capable of, but the evil that it seems to inspire in those who inhabit it. More than that, though, we see what Parker looks like when he is on a mission, as he, Angel, and Louis slowly focus in on the Cut with the precision of a laser, but the devastation of a force of nature.

A Time of Torment is part crime story, part thriller, and part unsettling horror novel. The crimes and murders at the core of the book are horrifying beyond words, and the glimpses Connolly gives us into the hearts of these men disturbing. But even with that, what grips you about the Parker books is the riveting plotting, which displays Connolly’s incredible gift for starting with a simple incident and letting it expand until you feel that you’ve entered into a whole second world, one filled with shadows and creatures best left unseen. And his depiction of the Cut ranks among his best examples of this, bringing to life a community that defines itself in opposition to the world around it, and enforces its own rules with ruthless force – all while being infused with the constant presence of some thing at its core that corrupts everything around it.

Indeed, it’s that incredible sense of atmosphere and dread that makes Connolly’s books so strong and stand out so much. Yes, his books can be surprisingly funny – there’s a recurring plot thread involving Angel’s obsession with restrooms that never stops being hilarious every time it pops up – but what lingers is the sense of a world, one where evil is very real, where there is a corrupting influence in our reality…and yet, also a world where there is a force of good. But when that force of good comes in the form of the violence and destruction that Parker brings, that becomes a source of ambiguity – a shade of gray where Connolly excels.

Here’s the thing, in short: A Time of Torment just may be the best book Connolly has written yet, and that’s in a career where he has written some of the best thrillers I’ve ever read – and I am a voracious, obsessive reader. To miss this book is to miss a masterpiece, plain and simple. Should you start at the beginning of the series? Almost definitely – but whatever the case, read this book, and be scared, excited, moved, and terrified.

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