Sunday, November 28, 2010

Is the Golden Age of Pixar at an end?

I'm a huge Pixar fan. I've seen every Pixar film except Cars. The reason why I've never seen Cars is that I don't want to taint my Pixar experience. Every - single - Pixar movie I've seen has been revelatory, emotional, beautiful, complex and utterly wondrous. I can't have Cars, often considered the weakest effort, poison my opinion. That being said, I think the Golden Age of Pixar has come to an end, and I will tell you why I think this.

Firstly, Toy Story 3 might be the apotheosis of Pixar's sensibilities. It's the culmination of a lot of themes and techniques that the studio has been working with. Toy Story 3 is a meditation on loss, coming to grips with it, moving on, and letting the past be the past, looking forward. It's an unbelievably good ending to a movie and to a series. It feels like a natural and organic ending to the adventures of Woody and Buzz, et al. But it also functions as an ending to the Pixar story, if you will.

Toy Story is the movie that started Pixar - what better way to end the era than with the movie that started it all? While Toy Story holds up as a great movie, even today, it still kind of feels like a warm-up to the imagination and skill the filmmakers would show with The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up.

Toy Story 2 began the trend, the trend of real Pixar movies, not just fun fluffy pieces of animation. The theme of coping with reality is compounded with more realistic situations and a truer emotional core, with Jessie mourning the loss of her owner. That is the nugget of Pixar: putting away childish things is inevitable.

Tell me that Toy Story 3 doesn't crystallize this idea, and tell me that it doesn't do it in an adult and mature way. There are jokes for kids, but they're going to be kids born after the first Toy Story. This second sequel is for the people who grew up with Disney and Pixar.

At the climactic scene, when all seems hopeless for the toys, they hold hands and steel themselves for the end. That was one of the most intense scenes in a film that I have ever seen. It's absolutely heartbreaking. This is a scene for grown-ups, made by adults, who have grown past simple kids' fluff. The filmmakers at Pixar want to make a real movie, and they succeeded.

Is there anything left for Pixar to do? Should they stop? No, of course not. But Pixar's future leaves me a little nervous. Their 2011 release is a sequel to Cars. Maybe it will be awesome. I hope so. I hope to watch it and love it.

But after Cars 2? Pixar has decided to make a fairytale movie, complete with princess, and this disappoints me. I'm sure it will still be entertaining. No doubt the fine people at Pixar are putting their all into it, and it will be a fun magical hour and a half.

It disappoints me because Pixar is the studio that gave me The Incredibles, a superhero deconstruction that rises above its sources, thanks to an excellent story and a rather complicated moral. And it's the studio that gave me Wall-E, a cynical love story, that believes even if mankind loses humanity, we'll find it regardless. And it's the studio that gave me Up. And Monsters Inc. And Ratatouille. And Finding Nemo.

Every time I get to see a new Pixar movie, I think that they can't possibly top themselves in terms of quality. I loved Wall-E, but then I saw Up, and Up became the new favourite. This was supplanted by Toy Story 3 right after. Can Pixar really keep up that measure of quality?

I fear not. That's why I think the Golden Age of Pixar has come to its natural organic end. It reminds me of the final Calvin and Hobbes strip. Can you think of any better way to end things than with another beginning?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Day of the Scorpion

I have no idea why I stopped reading The Raj Quartet after the first book. I guess I was just overwhelmed by the sheer size and scope of The Jewel in the Crown. But I decided to read purchased books still sitting unread on my shelf, and I'm glad I continued with Scott's magnum opus, specifically the second volume, The Day of the Scorpion.

After the events of the previous novel, The Day of the Scorpion introduces the Layton family, including intelligent Sarah, her flirty sister Susan, and their host of aunts. Susan is getting married and the best man at the wedding is none other than Ronald Merrick, the superintendent in charge of investigating the rape of the previous volume. Merrick and Sarah begin a shaky friendship.

I think every problem I had with the first volume was corrected this time. I raced through the first 200 pages, almost breathless with Scott's beautiful prose and extremely careful plotting. It's extremely clear that Scott wrote this knowing full well the entire quartet's story. Unlike The Jewel in the Crown, this novel isn't fully concerned with telling the tale in voices. Instead, Scott lets the narrator describe in more formal manner. This helps a lot. It also sharpens the symbolism that Scott is meticulously crafting.

The scorpion is a very complex image in The Day of the Scorpion. It specifically refers to a memory of Sarah Layton. She remembers, as a child in India, a servant encircling a scorpion in fire, and the trapped creature killing itself with its own tail. The metaphor doesn’t become clear until Sarah is older and schooling in England. She realizes that the stinger was moving by reflex, that the trapped scorpion was merely trying to attack the fire. The scorpion as metaphor can refer to Indian politics/independence, but it can also refer to the British Raj as well. Circumstances have trapped the British in remaining in India far too long.

This just scratches the surface of the symbolism in the book. There's also a stone, thrown by an anonymous angry Indian, thrown at the wedding party, but directed mostly at Merrick. That stone resonants throughout the book. Merrick is trying to climb the social ladder, so he's left police work behind for a career in the military. He attaches himself to the Layton family, but things have a terrible way of turning out in the hands of Scott.

Merrick is such an interesting character. Scott has essentially crafted a 2,000 page narrative showing the corruption of racism and power, and there's no better or complex character than Merrick. He's not the personification, but a personification of all that was debased in the Raj. Nobody is innocent in this novel, but Merrick represents an attempt to show that oversimplifying this is dangerous.

Over the course of the novel, Merrick gets a chance to figuratively defend himself, as well as seek penance for what's happened in the past. During a long scene at the wedding reception, Merrick is stuck speaking to a Count, a Russian expatriate who works as a political aide to local royalty. The Count mercilessly interrogates Merrick about what happened during that time, and we get another perspective on the events of the previous novel, but Merrick ultimately shows us that he is utterly corrupt inside, no matter how nice he might act to Sarah.

Sarah, a definite moral centre, is also extremely complex. It's utterly fascinating to me that Scott gives so much of the stage to female characters. From Edwina Crane to Sister Ludmila to Lady Manners to Lady Chatterjee to Daphne Manners in the first book to Sarah Layton and to Lady Manners again in the second. Men are often held at arm's length from the narrative, given to us only as men of action.

A good portion of the book is seen from Sarah's point of view. Sarah was born in India, raised in India, and only briefly went to school in England. The outcome is that Sarah feels that she belongs to India as a concept, but not to India as a country. As I said, nobody is innocent in this book. While Sarah may feel connected to India, she remains distant, unable to emotionally confront Ahmed Kasim, another aide to the local royalty. She's unable to connect to anybody, save for distant memories of English relatives. She's tied to the past, a golden age and she ignores Forster's plea.

At the halfway point of the novel, the narrative drops the Laytons for a bit, and revisits Lady Manners. She's going to witness an investigation into the Bibighar Gardens-rape incident, an interrogation of Hari Kumar, imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. What follows is an incredibly tense 150 pages of Captain Rowan asking Hari to explain what happened. It's the only long section that Scott devotes to voices rather than description, but it's never confusing. We don't necessarily learn anything devastatingly new about the event, but we get another perspective, from another possible angle, the Indian raised as an Englishman.

There's many counterpoints in this novel, like a Sondheim song. From Daphne Manners to Hari Kumar and Sarah Layton to Ahmed Kasim. From Sarah to Hari. From Hari to Merrick. From Susuan Layton to Daphne. And so on and so forth. It's a crystalline structure that's amazing and brilliant.

Obviously, there's a ton to talk about when it comes to The Day of the Scorpion, but this isn't a scholarly paper, so I'm going to conclude by saying that I fucking loved this book. Scott has become one of my favourite novelists ever thanks to the one-two punch of the first half of the Raj Quartet. I'm eager to move on to the next book!

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Killing of Worlds

Okay, let's just dive into this, shall we?

Remember the climax of Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan – when the respective ships commanded by Kirk and Khan are in that energy cloud, and it’s all about manoeuvres and tactics? Moving their ship this way, and responding to the other ship’s motion with something else? Remember how that was part of what made Wrath of Khan so good? Okay, well now imagine you’re reading it, and it lasts 150 pages. That’s the opening of The Killing of Worlds. It’s tense and exhilarating. Another factor that makes this long form action scene work is that Westerfeld so utterly complicates it with a fluid concept of time, which seems realistic. The speeds at which these ships and attack drones fly at are way faster than the naked eye. It makes sense that there would be relativistic effects on nano-sized drones.

The Killing of Worlds is quite a similar animal to its predecessor. There’s the really long opening action scene, the middle parts of setup and exposition, and finally the climax, which is more setup than resolution. Yes, the end of this novel doesn’t wrap everything up in a neat little bow, but Westerfeld implies the end of a few different plot strands.

But is this second half better or worse than the first half? Not necessarily worse, but then again not necessarily better. Certainly, elements can be qualified as superior, such as the character development. There’s an enemy commando alone in the Empire’s world, and she kidnaps a data analysis expert to steal her identity, and the relationship that develops between the two is multifaceted and very engaging.

On the other hand, there's lots of political stuff going on in here. Luckily, Westerfeld doesn't sink the political action into turgid and purple posturing, like in the Star Wars prequels. At no point did anybody care what was happening in the Senate in Star Wars. But with The Killing of Worlds, the whole thing climaxes in the Senate, and it works. One just has to make their way to it through pages upon pages of setup, post-chase scene.

It works because it's a climax and a reveal, the reveal of the teased-at epic Secret. The solution to the secret? I won't spoil it, but Westerfeld has obviously done his physics homework.

The Killing of Worlds moves like a freight train. It's fast, lean and mean. It's a great read. Combined with the previous volume, you're looking at a classic entry in the space opera genre. But I'm not wholly convinced that either of the books say anything beyond "technology = good" and "subjugation = bad". It's not terrible that the Succession series doesn't say anything deeper than that, but I would have enjoyed a little bit more depth. Otherwise, I recommend this to fans of space opera.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Unknown Man #89

So I said I wasn't going to read a million Leonard novels and get sick of them. I would try one more, and see how that goes. I chose a random one, Unknown Man #89, and went with it.

Jack Ryan is a process server who never gives up and always finds his man. A strange lawyer hires Ryan to track down an unknown man, owner of a mysterious stock, so that the lawyer can relieve him of the stock and make some money. But all is not simple. The missing man owes money to a crazy hoodlum, and now everybody's on the trail.

It's a simple crime setup, with simple characters and a basic linear plot. But it mostly works, because of Leonard's storytelling gifts. He's making the "ordinary" crime story captivating and engaging, all due to his skills with dialogue and character.

Yes, Jack Ryan's voice has pretty much every other Leonard protagonist's voice. But that voice is dripping with cool. It's not a bad thing to have a whole novel function just because it's all about the cool. It's not the greatest thing either. The novels succeeds as a whole if everything works together.

Unfortunately, not everything is gravy with this book. The plot moves in a really weird way. After the initial setting up of the plethora of villains, Leonard changes gears by having the missing man's drunken wife go missing herself. She turns up sober at an AA meeting. It's very lucky that Ryan is also an AA goer. Lucky for the plot, that is. Once these two meet up again, the wife very conveniently forgets who Ryan is and what he's after. He hatches a plot to turn things around but then falls in love with the broad.

That's a weird turn in plotting. And it's not terribly effective or believable. The character of the wife changes so drastically that it's almost another person. Sure, some of that can be attributed to sobering up, but it can also be assigned to poor character development. Also, I'm fairly certain Ryan only falls in love with the wife because she's the only female character that's not a stripper.

Of course, this turn of events makes for strange pacing. The novel slows the fuck down when the wife takes a powder, and Leonard has the two protagonists fall in love. It's boring, is what it is. I didn't read this book to watch two ex-alcoholics discuss their boozing and then fuck. I read this book to experience cool badasses shooting the shit out of each other.

Yeah, it does happen. In fact, there's an incredibly suspenseful sequence in which a crazy guy with a shotgun slowly chases Ryan down a busy street, with no concern for civilians or property destruction. It's a pretty ballsy scene and it's very effective. That's the highlight of course. Leonard's novels are plagued by anticlimaxes and this book delivers in spades. It's not the most terrible ending, but it could've been better.

Unknown Man #89 is not a perfect book. It has some strange pacing and plotting issues, and a stock anticlimax. But the dialogue and action is pitch perfect as usual, and you get a lot of the former and a bit of the latter. It's still an enjoyable read, but maybe recommended only for established fans of Leonard. Newbies would be best suited with a different book. Oh well.

So what am I reading now? Judging by my absolute scattered approach to genre, it's impossible to accurately predict what's sitting on my nightstand. But I will tell you. I'm giving The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre a try. I've always wanted to read something by him, but I'm always defeated as soon as I start, and it's mostly due to Le Carre's slow plotting. I'm also getting back on the Raj Quartet train. I started the second book, The Day of the Scorpion, and I'm determined to finish this tetralogy. If you want, you can read my review of the first book by clicking the title, The Jewel in the Crown.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Risen Empire

Space opera! There's a reason why Star Wars rules, and that's cause space opera is often awesome. I thought I'd read some space opera and give crime and horror a break. I'd heard about this Scott Westerfeld character and his duo Succession. I read the first one. It might seem unfair to review half of a novel, but dammit it's my blog and I'll review in whatever format I feel.

There's a war brewing between the Empire and the Rix, two systems so ideologically opposed. The Empire is controlled by a ruler who has managed to cheat death, and stay in power for 1600 years, whereas the Rix are only interested in propagating their vast AIs. When the Rix kidnap the sister of the Emperor, an elite frigate warship led by Laurent Zai is sent. But there's more to the Rix's plan than simple kidnapping.

Here's some balls to the wall epic badass fiction to kick you in the face. This novel started out so frigging strong that I read half of it in one sitting. Westerfeld starts the novel media res, with the Empress already kidnapped. We start right in the middle of battle, and The Risen Empire doesn't let up for 150 pages. When Westerfeld finally releases the tension, he plunges the reader into a couple different plot strands that will no doubt converge in the next volume.

Structurally, this is an interesting animal. The plot is so unbelievably focused on one strand for half the novel's length. Westerfeld does little heavy lifting in regards to back story. He reveals only enough for the reader to comprehend, but really, not much is needed. This is strictly a Rebel vs Empire level complexity.

But once this strand comes to a head, Westerfeld indulges in multiple important characters and then slowly moves his pieces across the board.

Frankly, one has the admire the ballsiness of such an approach. I've never read a book so second-half heavy before. The fact that he carries it off is impressive.

What isn't is Westerfeld's tendency to use science-y words to describe things when regular words could have sufficed. It's the way space opera seems to have gone nowadays. This tendency no doubt influenced by Roy Batty's dying speech, I guess. It doesn't make the work any more or less believable. I'm already hooked, you don't have to keep trying so hard.

While that habit is distracting, it's negligible beside Westerfeld's stunningly evocative description. There's a scene in which a crewmember of the ship pours water onto a table to watch the artificial gravity move the tiny puddles. It's didactic as all hell, but he really nails describing the table and water. If I closed my eyes, I would've been there. When Westerfeld drops the jargon gimmick, he hits out of the park with description.

The Risen Empire is a fantastic space opera, full of action, danger, romance, pew-pews, and it's seriously epic. I'm excited to read the next chapter in the sequence.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

I really liked George V Higgins' At End of Day. Really liked it. I'd heard that Eddie Coyle was his best book, though, but my library didn't have it. Finally I found a cheap used paperback and gave it a read.

Eddie Fingers Coyle is a smalltime crook who's about to be sentenced, and he wants a good reference from a cop, so he concocts a scheme by which he rats out a smalltime arms dealer. Things don't quite go as planned, though.

My paperback goes to 186 pages, and while that may seem short, Higgins packs a good amount of plot into it. There's a couple suspenseful bank robbery scenes, a sting operation on an illegal deal, and some shooting. Plus, there's the copious amount of dialogue that Higgins seems to excel at.

Pretty much the same things that I had to say about At End of Day apply here. The plot is complex and mostly implied - the dialogue is amazing and circuitous - the subtext is focused - but with Eddie Coyle, there's something else.

What Eddie Coyle is missing is relaxation. When I said the 186 pages had a ton of plot crammed into it, I wasn't fully complimenting it. Sure you get a lot of bang for your buck, but - man - Higgins needs to take a breath and slow down. Let the story breathe. It's like Higgins is there at the art show with you, hustling you along from painting to painting before you get a chance to let the whole thing sink in.

It doesn't help the pace that Higgins' customary dialogue isn't quite as complicated or nested as At End of Day. Really, this is a fairly straightforward crime book with a nasty end. It's isn't difficult or hard to grasp. Certainly, Eddie Coyle could've used some space and a chance to deepen its themes.

Overly critical? Maybe. I still enjoyed the hell out of this book. Like I mentioned earlier, the bank robbery scenes are gripping reads. And while the conversations weren't dizzying, they still whip off the page like all expert dialogue.

I really liked Eddie Coyle, but I didn't love it. It could've used another hundred pages of development and complication. Other than this, it remains a taut read with some fantastic setpieces that show Higgins isn't just a master of conversations, but a great storyteller overall.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Missing

Sarah Langan was contractually obligated to write a sequel to The Keeper. Now, when I found this out, it put a sour taste in my mouth. Most "contractually obligated" works are lifeless and forced, with the artist not putting everything they have behind it. But I liked The Keeper enough to give The Missing a try, based on Langan's strong skills. Hopefully I wouldn't be thrown off.

After the town of Bedford has its mysterious meltdown, the neighbouring town of Corpus Christi moves on with its lives. That is until a fourth grade teacher takes her class on a field trip to the woods between the towns, and a little mischievous boy brings something back, a viral infection. Within days, everything has changed.

I shouldn't have been worried. Even with a contractually obligated novel, Langan delivers. In fact, I would say that this is better than The Keeper. It is dark, mean, vicious and relentless. Langan uses similar tricks, but more effectively this time. She purposefully builds her little town, populates it with very well drawn characters, and has them do awful awful awful things.

But with The Missing, Langan doesn't pull any punches. This might be one of the more harrowing and bleak horror novels I've read in a long time. And it works because Langan puts everything into her characters.

Some of the more effective scares in the book work just like in her last, that is to say, throwaway lines and casual mentions of horrific things, and it's the laissez-faire style that creates the true horror, juxtaposing the normal tone against the obscene.

However, the novel could do with a little trimming. This is especially true of the opening sequences, particularly the library scene. This goes on way too long. The book is slow to build up speed, and it struggles a little in the middle. Once the infection has hit the town, Langan tries to maintain a balance between moving the characters around in their lives and having the terrible evil hit the world. The result is a bit of a lag between the two. Realistically, if shit was hitting the fan that hard, regular people wouldn't be doing normal things - they'd be getting the fuck out of dodge.

The Missing is a great horror novel. It's cut-throat, harrowing, and is written with skill and well drawn characters. Anybody who's looking for something beyond the paranormal romance genre could do themselves a favour by reading The Missing. Horror needs somebody like Langan, somebody not afraid to go into the deep dark and come back with a great story.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Power of the Dog

California fiction really does it for me. I especially love noir or crime set in Cali. Just trolling around on the web allowed me to discover Don Winslow. He's written a lot about California, and the best reviewed book in his repertoire seemed to be his gigantic novel, The Power of the Dog. I picked it up and read it, so let's go.

Art Keller is a DEA agent, looking to bring down the Mexican drug cartels. Sean Callan is an up and coming Irish hitman in a predominantly Sicilian industry. Nora is a very beautiful, very smart, very professional top of the line hooker. Father Juan is a priest with a big mouth. And more. And over the course of three decades, they engage on all sides in the War on Drugs.

Have you seen Steven Soderbergh's Traffic? Have you read later-era James Ellory? What if you combined them both? Well, then you'd get The Power of the Dog. And that's not a criticism. This is one of the best novels on drugs I have ever read.

It's huge in scope, and Winslow keeps the information and the plot flying at an amazing rate. He's certainly learned at the school of throwing everything at the reader and trusting they'll keep up. If they do, they're going to be entertained.

Winslow's prose is as sparse as they come. Sentences are brief and contain only the most essential of information. Very rarely does he allow tangential information to be released. What makes this approach work is his relentless and breathless pace. There is hardly a moment to sit and cogitate on events. As soon as something goes down, Winslow whisks us off to another training camp in the jungle, into the mansion of drug lord, into a fire fight in the streets of Tijuana. There's so much action, and Winslow keeps it clear and cool.

I had so much fun with this book. The action's great, the characters decent, and it's incredibly epic. When I started reading it, I was distracted by comparisons to Ellroy, specifically his Underworld Trilogy, but eventually, I was won over by Winslow's distinct voice and the hammering on of the plot.

If there was a complaint to be made, it's the rather 70's style approach to sex. Everybody's a sex god in this book, and it's irritating. Whenever I read a novel like this, but published in the 70's or earlier, there's this obsession with having the cast get it on, and they're all just - gosh - amazing in the sack. People can't just have sex in The Power of the Dog, they have to have mind-blowing epic sex that shakes the windows with screams. It didn't ruin the book, but the adolescent approach is distracting.

Other than that, The Power of the Dog is a fantastic gripping read. It's a page-turner in the classic sense. I loved Winslow's unrelenting plot, his control over description, sparse prose, and just plain awesomeness. I am most definitely reading another Winslow novel. Good thing he's a prolific publisher!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Caretaker of Lorne Field

Here's a book that I was first in line to read about my local library. I'd heard about this guy and thought I'd give something a try by him. I like horror. Hopefully this guy was as good at horror as he is allegedly at crime. His last name is horrible to spell.

Jack has been the caretaker at Lorne Field since he was 21, taking over for his dad who had been the caretaker since he was 21, taking over for his father, and so on for nine generations. Their job is simple: remove the weeds growing on the field before they grow into vicious unstoppable monsters. But Jack's life is spiraling out of control as the town he lives in has turned against this quaint custom, his eldest son doesn't want to take over, and his wife has plans to turn the field into an amusement park.

Another horror book, another throwback to classic era Stephen King. If someone had switched the dusk jacket and had King's name on it, I would've believed it. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. King is such an ubiquitous presence that he looms over any modern horror novelist.

Zeltserman isn't the world's greatest scare writer, so he goes with what he knows: the slow disintegration of a man's sanity. He sustains the ambiguity of the monsters for the entire novel, and it never feels like a cheat.

He wisely chooses to keep the point of view close, sticking mostly to Jack and only straying a couple times to show information crucial to the plot that Jack would have never seen. It's strength in focus that keeps the novel tight and the plot brisk.

Where Zeltserman falters is his dialogue. It's average for the most part, and there's only a couple cringe worthy sections. Some of the dialogue just never rings true, like a real person would never talk like that. It's unfortunate, but it's doesn't ruin the experience.

As for the monsters, the less the said the better. I feel that if the reader knows next to nothing about the plot, the novel flows a lot better. Understanding what's at the heart of this novel will simply derail all the fun in finding out.

The Caretaker of Lorne Field is a nice quick brisk horror novel that doesn't scare very well, but is still entertaining in its portrait of a man unhinged. It's tight and gets where its going with minimum hand-wringing. Certainly not a white knuckle ride, but a nice fun time in the darker regions of the imagination.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Keeper

When I was looking to read some new (and good) horror, Sarah Langan was a name that kept popping up. Everybody was falling over themselves to praise her including Peter Straub (an author who's work I've decided to loathe). So I grabbed her first book, The Keeper, from the library and went at it.

Bedford, Maine is a dying town. The mill has been closed, which is the final straw in a long slow decay for the town. There's also the local crazy girl that everybody dreams of, who wanders the streets, lets men sleep in her bed, and never says a word. When this girl is accidentally killed by her ex-boyfriend, the darkness that sits below rumbles to the surface.

I enjoyed this book. I didn't love it. But I enjoyed it. The novel builds and builds and builds, but never sets off. It just ends. Kind of a let down.

But the build is great. Langan uses some amazing dream imagery to keep the townsfolk and the audience guessing about the nature of reality. There's some incredible scenes in the book that are absolutely chilling and there's some throwaway lines that hint at something so monstrous that's it is effective only because it's throwaway.

Langan seems to have a very firm and cogent grasp on oneiric styles. The only other author that I can think of who has such haunting images is J. G. Ballard. I was reminded a lot of Ballard with Langan, but in prose, but in theme. This is a novel, after all, about the disintegration of the system and the individual.

In addition to this, Langan has a masterful control over her characters. She uses effectively very spare details to sharpen and deepen her rather sizable cast. Most first time novelists have trouble fleshing out the supporting cast, but Langan does this rather superbly. The alcoholic teacher, the quiet morose sheriff, the lanky young mom, the grizzled old merchant marine, the ex-manager of the mill. All of these characters were convincing and breathing.

However, as aforementioned, the end is a bit of a sizzle, and it's related not to plotting, but an over reliance on dream imagery. Langan uses a bit too much symbolism to convey action instead of actual action. In horror novels, the symbolism should support the action, instead of replace it. It's like the ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey, except with a bit less opacity.

The Keeper, Sarah Langan's first novel, was really good up until the last few pages. Overall, I enjoyed the novel, and I'm definitely going to read another one by her. Her command of imagery and of her characters is skillful and strikes me as more of a seasoned veteran than a first time novelist. Very good.


Joe Hill's first novel Heart Shaped Box was a surprise. I wasn't expecting much, but I was taken in, and read it in one sitting. However, in the long run, I don't remember much about it other than its skillful characterization. Considering the novel's weak plotting, it comes off as a practice run, moving towards a more structured long-form novel, with well-drawn characters. Joe Hill then published Horns, his second novel, and I finally got a chance to read it.

One day, after getting really drunk, Ignatius Parrish wakes up to find horn-like protuberances coming out of his forehead. As well, any person who sees his horns compulsively spill their inner thoughts. The thought to speech barrier is broken down. Ig learns that everybody in town hates him because of his girlfriend's brutal rape and murder from last year, in which Ig was the main suspect. But when Ig learns the awful truth of the crime, he decides to take some vengeance.

If another novel has ever started out so strong only to peter out so sadly, I can't think of one. This novel was a struggle to finish, and it's heartbreaking when one thinks about the strength of its opening.

The gimmick of spilling secrets is well done, sometimes shocking and sometimes heartbreaking, and Ig's slow desensitizing to the horns is also convincing and sad. Hill's characterization is almost always excellent with Horns. Each person we meet is believable and has motives and wishes and hopes and malice.

It's the plot that's terrible. Yes, terrible. The big reveal of who killed Ig's girlfriend is given in the middle, and then Hill spends almost a quarter of the novel in flashback to the murderer's past. Not only does this derail the forward movement of the plot, but it begs the question of why Hill felt it was necessary to fill in every single little gap in Ig's past with the other guy's.

Ultimately, all these flashbacks amount to boredom. Hill spends so much time showing us how evil the antagonist is and so little time showing us what the fuck Ig does with his new found power.

The promise of the horns is unfulfilled by the end of the novel. There's no horror or suspense. We know Ig is going to get revenge. We know he's indestructible, when the murderer lights Ig on fire and he survives. So where's the suspense?

If an editor had taken out all instances of the word "horn" then we would be left with the same poorly constructed novel. Utterly disappointed is my overall feeling with this novel. The metaphor of the horns and the devil by proxy is okay, but it always takes a backseat to flashbacks and nostalgia.

Horns was not good. I liked the characterization, but that wasn't enough to overcome the painful plotting and lack of suspense. This novel displays a fundamental lack of understanding on how suspense works and how to keep the reader's attention. I was bored and irritated for a good portion of the book, and that's not a good thing.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Man with the Getaway Face

I've always meant to read Richard Stark and his bad boy thief Parker. Ever since I saw Payback with Mel Gibson, I've had a jones for it. Payback is one of my all time favourite noirs, and I can quote whole passages. So I got around to reading the second in the series, called The Man with the Getaway Face.

After going up against the New York syndicate in the last book, Parker is on the run, and he goes under the knife, changing his face, by a weird plastic surgeon with a tough guy chauffeur. Once he's healed, Parker gets mixed up in an armored car heist, conceived by a busty waitress looking to double cross. Of course Parker sees it coming, but what he doesn't see coming is the surgeon's chauffeur. It seems somebody killed the surgeon and the chauffeur's looking for blood - Parker's that is.

This book started out amazing. I was in love with every sentence, every tough guy act and growl. I loved the setup, how Parker sees all the angles, and I loved the characters. However, everything derails at about the three quarters mark when the structure of the novel completely falls apart.

After the heist goes off without a hitch, Stark stalls Parker's narrative and switches to the chauffeur, who's trying to hunt down the killer. When he gets into trouble, Stark rewinds and shows the same thing again, but from Parker's point of view.

The armored car heist is the meat of the novel, and everything after is denouement. Or at least, it would be in a normal book. But there's this extended tying up of loose ends, and it's tedious, except for when Parker goes balls out and shows he's quintessential noir.

Without spoiling anything, the very last couple pages sort of make up for the weird detour into the dumb chauffeur's head. Parker does some pretty foul and lowdown things and we're constantly rooting for him. That's the mark of success.

The Man with the Getaway Face was fun for the most part, but a very strange "what are you thinking" detour derails the novel. The saving grace is the relentless thunder of Stark's prose, and the perfection of character that is Parker. I can't wait to read another Parker novel.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

At End of Day

I'd never heard of George V. Higgins before, but I'm glad I did. Apparently his most famous work is Friends of Eddie Coyle, also made into a movie with Robert Mitchum. I went with Higgins' last published work before his death, called At End of Day.

Nick and McKeach are Boston's best criminals. They've been doing it for decades and the local police and FBI have nothing on them. The reason why they're so clean is because they're a) really good at their jobs, b) not the La Costa Nostra, and c) they've been supplying info to the Feds for years. But some local cops have accidentally stumbled onto evidence that implicates them, and things might finally change.

I can honestly say I've never read a novel quite like this. At End of Day is made up mostly of conversations, monologues and speeches, with most of the action being in the past. The big scenes in the novel occur just after a big dinner the main characters are having, and it's a thirty page conversation.

The dialogue everybody has is full of long meanderings into the past, lots of tangential anecdotes, and a ton of funny lines. This is a novel weaved from what people are saying, rather than doing.

Luckily, Higgins' mimicry is excellent, but not masterful. Everybody honestly sounds the same. This could be because they're all from the same Boston neighbourhood, or it could be that Higgins isn't William Gaddis. This is a really slight criticism, however, because even if everybody sounds the same, they're all equally entertaining.

And they're all talking about the same subject: the symbiotic relationship between the cop and criminal. The order and the chaos, and how similar they truly are. I've never read a book that so intimately explored how they need each other. Sure, there's been some books that talk about it, but none of them truly mined that territory in such idiosyncratic and unique fashion.


The crucial moment in the novel is when a high ranking Fed needs a loan, and his underling suggests Nick and McKeach for the supplier. It turns out the two criminals have been lending out interest-free money to the local top dogs for years. It's a careful system that's worked. The climax of the novel occurs when the Fed, who's previously has been all about the rules, takes the loan.

As I said, not really about the action, but about the dialogue, and the symbolism of the act. The Fed has made himself complicit in the criminals' world, and he's explicitly condoning it now. But the thread of corruption had been seeded long before - it's implied quite heavily that there are very few honest cops in Boston, and most of them are in on the system.

And why not? Nick and McKeach keep the streets relatively safe from the bloodbaths of the Mafia. There's a long sequence in the novel, all explained by characters, that chronicles the infiltration of the Mafia and the subsequent expulsion by the hands of Nick and McKeach.

This is carefully structured and controlled novel. While it may seem like Higgins allows his character free reign to go off on tangents and non sequiturs, really it's all about weaving a tapestry of speech, circling around subjects and letting the reader do the heavy lifting. This isn't to say that it's boring or work. It's quite fun and breezy.

At End of Day is a fascinating portrait of the symbiotic relationship between the cop and the criminal, all delivered in byzantine conversations and monologues. The dialogue is excellent, and other than a feel of sameness with the characters, I really enjoyed this book. I will definitely be reading some more Higgins.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Down There

I was really impressed by David Goodis and Nightfall, so I thought I'd give another one of his novels a try. I went with Down There, which was adapted by Francois Truffaut into a 1960 French film called Shoot the Piano Player, which is the preferred American title for the novel nowadays.

Eddie is a pianist in a saloon in Philadelphia who minds his own business and only ever pays attention to his piano. One day, his brother storms into the bar, on the run from two Mafia guys, and Eddie stupidly gets involved. A beautiful waitress by the name of Lena wants to give Eddie and hand and so begins a chase, ending with the revelation of who Eddie really is.

I didn't love Down There as much as Nightfall. There are two definite reasons why. The first is the structure of this novel is weak. If you were to chart the novel, you'd see intense rising action, a brief detour, another intense but tangential bit, and then another detour and finally the end. It's off-putting and stinks of amateur hour. While this may seem harsh, I just expected more from Goodis, a writer claimed to have produced 10,000 words a day.

The other reason why this novel isn't quite as good is the narrative voice that Goodis employs. The novel is written in third person limited (with brief forays into omniscience), that is to say most of the book focuses on Eddie, goes into his thoughts, but stays away from making Eddie the narrator. However, the problem here is that Goodis is not consistent at keeping the narrator and Eddie separate. A lot of the time, Eddie is giving himself a running commentary, I assume some sort of comment on his deteriorating mental state. Goodis would have done Down There a huge favour by sticking to one or the other. He should have just down full tilt with first person narration and let Eddie do the talking.

On the other hand, this novel isn't bad. In fact, it's quite good. Down There features one of noir's most prized and oft-repeated themes, ie you may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with you. Eddie's constant repression of memory, his family, and the past is the hallmark of the book. It's a gripping read each time something is revealed to the audience.

While I may have complained about the structure of the novel, I did enjoy the main plot of the novel. It's very simple, and very effective. Goodis could have even simplified the plot and I would have been pleased.

I was reminded a lot of No Country for Old Men with this novel, with the comparison in relation to the plot. The villains of both novels are unstoppable relentless creatures. There's a bag of money to be found that's really inconsequential to the themes explored. There's a regular person caught up in the mix, making increasingly poor decisions. I wouldn't be surprised if McCarthy said Goodis was an influence.

On the whole, I enjoyed Down There, but maybe not as much as Nightfall. It's a classic noir, archetypal, atmospheric, nihilistic and utterly bleak, and that's what I want from my noir. Other than structural and narrative voice problems, Down There is a great book and highly recommeded.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Killer Inside Me

Here's another author I wish I had read when I was younger. I would have absolutely adored Jim Thompson when I was in high school, and most of his stuff was available. I should've bought 'em all when I had money to spend. Now, I'm broke, and the only Thompson my library has is The Killer Inside Me. I was able to grab it though and give it a read.

Lou Ford is a deputy sheriff in a small mining town in Texas, and he's got himself mixed up with a local prostitute, a blackmail scheme, and the local rich man's son. Ford sees no other way out than murdering anybody who can implicate him. What starts out simply ends with Ford trying to control the killer inside him.

Remember when I said that Nightfall was hard as fuck? I had no idea. This is one of the hardest harrowing noir novels I've ever read. This book is a fucking masterpiece. It's lean and unbelievably mean. Lou Ford is one of the most despicable protagonists in American literature.

What's amazing is how well it works. How Thompson uses little things to make it all work. For example, when speaking to people, Ford speaks mostly in cliches and idioms, trying to sell that he's a hick of low intelligence. But he goes to great lengths to convince the reader that he's actually smart. He's looking for approval. The person he's narrating for? Is it his father? That he was too cool to try and impress, but now wants to? Not sure. It's not clear.

The violence is harrowing. The outlook is bleak. The characters low and depraved. There is absolutely no moral center in this book, and it's awesome. This is exactly why I read noir, so that I can stumble across a work like this.

The Killer Inside Me is a masterpiece of noir. I had such a great time reading this, and I want to read more by Thompson. I'll have to settle with watching the latest greatest adaptation of this novel, directed by Michael Winterbottom.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Doomsters

I said I'd give Ross Macdonald another try, and I'm certainly glad I did. I went with what critics consider his transitional novel, the one that straddles Macdonald's own voice and his Chandler voice, a novel called The Doomsters.

Archer meets an escaped inmate from an psychiatric institution, and he hires Archer to discover who actually killed his parents. Archer gets thrown into this family, one of wealth and means, and the lives shattered by greed and murder.

This started off pretty weak, with all sorts of authorial hand-wringing about how to deal with lunatics in a novel - make 'em crazy or make 'em misunderstood? Macdonald straddles the line for a bit, but the novel really gets cooking when Archer meets the corrupt cop and the corrupt family doctor.

When we arrive at the solution, it's surprisingly logical and fits, and the twists that take us there are complex and enjoyable. But it's not the solution to the mystery that's most affecting in the novel. It's the amazing weight that this takes on Archer. I spoke of this in the previous review, and this is where Macdonald shines.

Archer leaves behind a life of black and white dichotomy, a world where there's bad guys and good guys and he's on the side of the white hats. He finally understands that the whole family shares the guilt, the whole community shares the guilt and the culpability. It's an astonishing sequence - what could have been trite and irritating comes off profound and affecting.

Macdonald's use of imagery is still sort of weak. The Doomsters of the title refers to a poem that the deceased matriarch used to repeat. She was delusional and felt that these nameless doomsters were following her and causing destruction. Archer makes the conceptual leap that the corrupt family are the Doomsters, in a figurative way. It's obvious, but I guess for detective fiction, it's somewhat sophisticated. The central image is also used better than the underground man of the previous novel I read by Macdonald.

However, The Doomsters suffers from a lack of atmosphere. The fire that rages in The Underground Man was effective and useful. It created a miasma for Archer to wade through. In this novel, there's nothing of the sort. The locale is unimportant to the story, which is disappointing.

On the other hand, Macdonald's tough guy dialogue is way better in this novel. Previously, I was unimpressed with the prose, but Macdonald blew me away with The Doomsters. It was tough, lyrical and sharp.

On the whole, I really enjoyed The Doomsters. I'm glad that I gave Macdonald and Lew Archer another try. This is was a surprisingly deep and complex mystery buried under the captivating theme of the cyclical nature of greed. It's a great book and a great mystery. I will read more Macdonald!


The great thing about a library is that I can try new authors without buying. I mean, I can't believe I didn't make use of the library until I was out of university! I decided to give David Goodis' Nightfall a try, based on some recommendations via Amazon.

Jim Vanning is a commercial artist living in New York who's being hunted by a trio of nasty criminals. Or Jim Vanning is a murderer holding onto 300,000 dollars from a bank robbery. Fraser is the cop assigned to figuring this all out, and he's confused as all hell. Who to believe?

Nightfall is, to use some profanity, hard as fuck. This is the ultimate tough guy book. The dialogue is staccato, the atmosphere thick and oppressive and the characters lean and mean. I really loved this book. It reads like a fast thriller, but it says something about identity along the way.

Goodis very skillfully makes the identity of some the characters ambiguous for most of the book. It's not until the halfway point where we learn the truth about Vanning, but at the same time as this is revealed, Goodis sets up another shadowy identity crisis in another character. The audience is always questioning who someone is. It's extremely effective.

It helps that Goodis has a background in poetry. While his dialogue is extremely effective and sharp, his descriptions benefit from lyricism.

However, Goodis' structure leaves a lot to be desired. The weakest part of this novel is when Goodis shifts the perspective to somebody other than Vanning. He lets Fraser, the cop, be the point of view, and it's off-putting and ineffective. Goodis is trying for comparison, using Vanning, Fraser, and the main antagonists as points on a triangle, but it doesn't quite work.

Also, the ending isn't as badass as I was hoping. Vanning is thrust into a situation that he can't possibly get out of, the evidence, real and fake, mounted against him, but Goodis manages to tie it all up with a neat little bow, a happy ending. It almost compromises the hardness and noirness of the rest of the book. It's not a fatal mistake, though.

Nightfall is a fantastic and ballsy noir novel. Goodis never lets up, either with the themes, the staccato dialogue or the lyrical descriptions. True to the genre, things are dreamy and hard to believe, identity is mercurial, and it's hard as fuck. I loved this novel, and I'm excited to read more by Goodis, although it's going to be hard to come by him, as he's mostly out of print. Wish me luck.