Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

If it isn’t blatantly obvious by the title of this post, I’m going to get on my soapbox for a bit on why I am so totally appalled and mind-boggled by the Twilight phenomenon. (Disclaimer: If you are a rabid Twilight fan incapable of discussing the novels in any kind of objective fashion, leave now before you’re traumatized. You have been warned.)

If you have been living under a rock on the other side of the Milky Way, you might be unacquainted with this particular work of fiction. If so, I’m going to assume you have access to Google just like everyone else. I’ll wait.

*waits*

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, here are my biggest issues with Meyer’s series:

The writing is bad, okay? It’s just bad. But Kellye! I can hear you say. A gazillion readers can’t be wrong! And anyway, there are tons of books out there that are just as badly written as Twilight, and you don’t hold them to some ridiculous standard of competent writing! 

A: Actually, as an editor I do hold authors to high standards of literary competence (and maybe unfairly so – when you spend ten plus years of your life studying literature, it kind of ruins pulp fiction for you). While there are thousands of books out there that are published and poorly written, they typically languish in the midlists or on remainder tables. As Twilight, by all sane accounts, should have, because that is the level of competency it hits, both in terms of prose and the power of the story itself. But it didn’t – it became a blockbuster breakout smash with a multi-movie deal and a comic book and the hits just keep on coming. As such, I keep expecting the dead to rise from the grave, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.

Also, there is something to be said for building on the canon that other writers have set up in genre fiction. (There is also something to be said for breaking out of that canon, but that’s the subject for another post.) Meyer does do something unique with her vampires and werewolves who captivated the imagination of millions – unfortunately, her “new take” on vampires missed the mark for me. This is probably more of a personal issue than anything else, because I’m a horror writer and because I have been reading vampire fiction for a long time. Meyer’s take on vampires and werewolves is overwhelmingly juvenile and unrealistic, given the canon. In any case, I do not associate “sparkly” with vampires, and am offended in the name of all the ravenous undead for their depiction in this manner. When I think of vampires, I think of bloodthirsty demons of the night. I want John Steakley and Stephen King. Hell, if I want my vampires a little…well…gay, I’ll go to Anne Rice or Poppy Z. Brite. But I do not want a sparkly, sniping uber-teen who is a “vegetarian”. Thirteen-year-old girls may prefer the Prince Charming version of the vampire tale, but luckily they don’t set the bar for what makes good literature – they just (apparently) set the bar for what gets published and consumed by the masses.

^ Reasonable portrayal of vampire. Notice lack of sparkles and foot-like countenance (I’m looking at you, Pattinson).

Finally, speaking of suspension of disbelief, Bella and Edward are two of the worst protagonists I have seen in a novel in a long time. Bella is underdeveloped, basically acting as a shell for the reader to project on (which works really well to emotionally manipulate romantics and thirteen-year-old girls). She’s obnoxiously dependent on Edward, even though he spends half his time being cruel or distant towards her (that’s a really good message to push on our impressionable young women). She is the epitome of a Mary Sue, which is (via Wikipedia) a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. Why is this important? Because Meyer wrote a novel with a wish-fulfillment protagonist in a really grim, harrowing time period for people across the world (and for Americans in particular). As such, Americans are especially susceptible to “wish-fulfillment” fantasy these days, as the runaway success of several escapist narratives lately will tell you. What does that say? It says that Twilight might not be the best book around (might being a laughable understatement) but it is filling an emotional want for a lot of people.

I just happen to be of the opinion that what you want and what you need are two different things.

Basically, in a nutshell, I blame Twilight for the death of Michael Jackson, the recession, and the devolution of literature at large. However, here are a couple of vampire stories I would recommend:

Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton (and her other Anita Blake novels)
Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite
Five of Cups by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Vampire$: A Novel by John Steakley
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice
30 Days of Night by Steve Niles

^ Out of this list, I’d have to say Five of Cups and Lost Souls are the best of the lot, even beating out my beloved King. And that’s saying a lot. 

PS: Team Jacob.

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Me and the roomie started watching The Matrix this morning, and man has it been a long time since I’ve seen this film. I only got to watch part of it before leaving for work, but I’ll go ahead and post my literary-related notes from this morning with regards to the movie. (NOTE: There might be spoilers in this review – fair warning. This movie came out over ten years ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, you probably aren’t going to.)

Notes:

The Matrix starts out in media res – for those of you who don’t know what that means, it’s Latin for “in the middle”, and frankly, it’s the perfect literary technique for our spastic ADD generation, many of whom have the attention span of a ferret on crack. In media res is a quick way to hook your readers in with a quickly laid sense of setting and an introductory shot of suspense and/or conflict before they’ve had a chance to bond with the main character (or lose interest).

– Trinity is, from the get-go, a strong female character, which I really like. Some writers have the tendency to cast their main characters as strong, self-confident men and their secondary female characters as weak or dependent. (If you want a good example of this obnoxious phenomenon, see Indiana Jones: The Temple of Doom or any of several different police and medical dramas on cable.)

– The movie starts out at a high octane pace and keeps it up. Action is very important in fiction, even if it’s not physical action. From the very first line and the very first scene, conflict should be high – if there is no physical action, the character’s mind should be taking great bounds on the page.

– Introduce your villains quickly, and build them up from the beginning. Lots of writers suffer from the syndrome of having a hero that has been lovingly built up and an underwritten villain. Let the protagonist and antagonist grow and develop alongside each other in a narrative, so that your villain feels like just as much of a real person as your hero does. Otherwise, you are damaging your suspension of disbelief. To have bigger-than-life characters, you must maintain suspension of disbelief.

– Disorientation: Neo as the main character is jerked very abruptly out of his normal world. With regard to Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, this would be considered The Ordinary World/Hero at Home act of a classic literary quest. Even after several frightening encounters with the alternative world of the Matrix and the Agents who guard it, Neo is very resistant to the idea that he is a messiah, which correlates well with the next phase of the Hero’s Journey, Refusal of the Call.

– Neo is very defiant towards authority. Personally, that’s a trait I love in heroes, and it’s a good one to have, as it brings with it an inherent amount of conflict right from the start.

– I would almost consider The Matrix to be a Lovecraftian techno-thriller. Why?
   a) Its obsession with semi-gelatinous textures as a horror trope.
   b) Neo is a detached and intelligent hero.
   c) Helplessness. The entire situation that humanity faces in the premise of The Matrix is fairly hopeless – the battle against artificial intelligence is all but lost, and remaining humanity is down to relying on prophecy for their salvation. However, in fiction this kind of hopeless situation is useful, because it locks in your main character. After leaving the Matrix, Neo has no choice but to come to terms with the “world behind the world”…
    d) Mystery – Neo spends the entire first part of this movie just trying to figure out what’s going on – his unanswered questions are a steady driving force within the story. The knowledge he gains is also forbidden knowledge, which is even more interesting to the audience, as is the suggestion that “some people just aren’t ready to be unplugged” and the implication that they would go insane if they were stripped from the Matrix improperly. 

– In relation to d) of the previous note, somebody knows what’s going on. This is nice – it is a promise to the audience that they will get this information soon. They look forward to hearing more about the Matrix. This is the suspense people.

– Intense secondary characters: Your main character needs a foil; secondary characters are great for providing humor (in the form of banter), conflict (in the form of arguments), information exchanged in dialogue, and physical/emotional support to the beleaguered hero. Everyone needs a sidekick or two.

Verdict: Five out of five salt shakes, I’m not going to even pretend impartiality on this one – definitely one of my favorite movies of the last twenty years.

Inception (review)

Posted: July 26, 2010 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Notes:

– Exposition dump via sales pitch at the beginning of the movie – usually a bad thing, but in a complicated story like this, getting your premise out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible is important. The reason for this is that motivating scenes (any kind of buildup in which the character is getting ready to act) slow the story down. The place for this is not at the beginning of a story (usually). The beginning of stories should be immediate and charged with some kind of conflict. If the premise can be explained by a series of events rather than one or two character monologues, do it. Give us backstory, but do it in passing. Christopher Nolan does this with a dazzling combination of special effects and snappy dialogue in Inception.

– Nolan does a pretty good job balancing his audience’s need for enough information to keep up with the breakneck pace of the story versus their desire to see pretty stuff like imploding buildings in slow motion and other strong imagery. This was undoubtably a difficult task, given the complexity of the movie’s narrative.

– I’m a big fan of Leonardo di Caprio, mostly because I think he picks awesome films that don’t get the credit they deserve, like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and The Beach, just to name a few. (The novel of the same name by Alex Garland is inevitably better of course.) I’m a big fan of Ellen Page for the same reason – both of them did a fantastic job in this movie.

Verdict: High octane action, a great original premise, and special effects that are out of this world make Inception a sure bet. My only complaint would be that the story was so complex, it’s not really a movie you’d want to watch while doing something else. It would be easy to get lost. 4 out of 5 salt shakes.

Notes:

– Every hero needs a weakness in order to avoid coming off as unbelievably perfect. Sheriff Oleson (Josh Harnett) is asthmatic. This increases tension in later fight scenes because he is at a physical disadvantage.

– The main character also has an emotional weakness – his estranged girlfriend is along for the ride. This girl is not some vague distant “damsel in distress” but a constant influence on the driving action of the film. The relationship adds ambiance, but does not detract from the immediacy of the dangers the ensemble of good guys is up against (that is, a pack of ravenous bloodthirsty vampire scum).

– Speaking of vampires, these are not your average Stoker vamps either – they have enough fresh elements to make them intriguing (their own language, for example) but they don’t wander into the realm of the ridiculous (does a vampire really have nothing better to do than hang out in a high school?). The vampires worked, and that’s because they hit a pleasing note between originality and implausibility.

– Use your setting as inspiration to set up conflict. People (especially people in crisis) tend to be hindered by their environment. 30 Days of Night takes this to an extreme by stranding a town full of Alaskans in the middle of nowhere and having vampires descend down on them. Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide.

Verdict: Due to the artfully gruesome fight scenes and the unique setting, not the mention the fresh take on vampires, I give 30 Days of Night 4 out of 5 salt shakes. Be sure to check out the graphic novel that the movie is based on as well: http://www.amazon.com/30-Days-Night-Steve-Niles/dp/0971977550