Archive for Books

Book Review: Railsea by China Mieville


This review contains minor spoilers for Railsea, but does not spoil the ending.

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The review you’re reading now will be the third review I’ve written of a China Mieville novel. I’ve read all his books except for King Rat & Looking for Jake. Most of them have similar themes & tropes — the love of home, phantasmagoric settings & creatures, some form of transportation that’s central to the story, & an ending that leaves you wondering why you read the book if you’re going to be left empty when you’re done.

Note that I said empty. Not unsatisfied.

Well, Railsea broke the trend on at least one of them: I wasn’t empty at the end. But otherwise, we’re looking at pretty standard Mieville here.

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Book Review: “Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion”


This book contains spoilers for all films and television shows Joss Whedon has written, and therefore the review shall consider such material fair game. Reader discretion is advised.

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It doesn’t take an astute student of my Twitter feed or my blog to know that I’ve been on one hell of a Joss Whedon kick over the course of the past year. From full viewings of Buffy and Angel to my opinions on Cabin in the Woods (excellent) and The Avengers (waiting for the DVD), you must know by now that I’m a fan of the man’s work.

So when Amazon’s algorithm suggested I purchase PopMatters’s Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion, I figured it would be something I’d enjoy.

Perhaps I should’ve thought a little more about the purchase first.

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Three Dragons, Three Tattoos: a review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Part 2 of 2)


The following article contains spoilers for both the novel and filmed versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It contains discussions of adult material contained in both. Reader discretion is advised.

This is the second part of a two-part article.

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Casting and Characterization

The two main characters in the film are Mikael Blomkvist, a 40-something disgraced journalist convicted of slandering a major financier, and Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old genius with a dark history and a major problem relating to people.

In the Swedish version, Mikael is played very seriously by Michael Nyqvist. He really looks like a journalist — he’s not glamorous and he doesn’t dress well. He exercises, he cooks with his nieces, and he has some genuinely amusing lines in the film. To me, he seems a full, well-rounded character.

In the American version, Daniel Craig — best known to American audiences as James Bond — portrays Blomkvist. Because Craig is… well, let’s be honest here… pretty darn studly, it’s up to both the actor and the director to make him appear more like the Blomkvist of the novels. As such, Craig affects mannerisms that Nyqvist didn’t have to — he wears his glasses around one ear when not using them, and he rather ostentatiously uses what looks like a Moleskine notebook.

I’d have to give the edge to Nyqvist in the case of Mikael’s character — because he gets the look down, he doesn’t have to affect mannerisms. Also, when he celebrates, he looks much happier about it than Craig; I don’t think I’ve ever really seen Daniel Craig look happy when he’s acting.

As for the other main character, Noomi Rapace (Swedish version) runs away with it. Rapace is small, skinny-but-muscular, and very expressive. Even when her face is shut down to emotion, it’s still quite clear what Lisbeth Salander is feeling. In all ways I found her more believable than Rooney Mara.

Mara, who was until this film probably best known as the sister of Kate Mara (American Horror Story), gets the look down pretty well, although a lot of that has to do with costuming and makeup. I think, unfortunately, Mara’s portrayal of Lisbeth suffers from writing and directorial issues. In the novel, Lisbeth has had a tough life, but she still has emotions; in the American film, Lisbeth only has anger and diffidence (and, at the end, sadness).

I think the biggest difference in their characters is the way they play the “holy crap, Martin’s the killer” scene: Mara’s Salander does rush to save Mikael, but Rapace’s really makes me think she cares about him. Again, writing and direction — even during the sex scene, Mara seems disconnected, whereas it’s very clear (via acting) that Rapace’s Salander enjoys the hell out of sex. (Mara does have a great line late in the American version during another sex scene, but even then it’s more like she’s using Blomkvist than they’re sharing something.)

One portrayal I want to also pay additional attention to is that of the adult Harriet Vanger (hey, I told you the articles had spoilers). Although in both cases she only had a limited amount of screen time, the reveals the actresses had to… um… reveal… made it important that a talented actress was cast. And, because of changes made to the ending in the American version, they had to look vastly different as well.

In the Swedish version, Ewa Froling had to look like she’d lived for forty years in the Australian outback, and she did — she was still blond, but her face was weathered and tanned. Because of that appearance, I’m sad to say that I couldn’t get over how silly she looked even as she discussed being abused by her father and brother. This is the actual ending from the novel, by the way.

Joely Richardson, portraying Harriet in the American version, was more convincing to me as Harriet. First shown as pretending to be Anita Vanger after the real Anita’s death, Harriet was revealed to be a financier living in London. She looked more like the girl who played 16-year-old Harriet than Froling did in the Swedish version. Again it comes down to writing — and probably the need to not marginalize the role for a well-known actress like Richardson, as well as avoiding expensive location shooting in Australia (or somewhere that looks like it).

Other important actors and characters in the film:

Erika Berger — Mikael’s on-again-off-again lover, played by Lena Endre (Swedish) and Robin Wright (US). My biggest problem with the American version here is that Berger is not supposed to be glamorous — and Wright plays her just as well as Endre did. The issue is with the casting of Craig; he seems too glamorous for the likes of Wright, who is made up to look like your average 45-year-old woman who’s worked all her life at a difficult job (journalism is hard; trust me). I believed Nyqvist and Endre more than Craig and Wright.

Henrik Vanger — Here I give the nod to Christopher Plummer (General Chang in Star Trek VI) over the Swedish actor Sven-Bertil Taube. Plummer simply emoted better than Taube, especially at the ending; Taube’s acting occasionally seemed forced. I will give Taube a slight edge in the beginning because, instead of appealing to Blomkvist’s journalistic instincts, he appealed to his memories: in the book, both occur, but only in the Swedish film is as much attention paid to his connection with the Vangers (as a boy, Harriet and her cousin Anita used to babysit Mikael).

Martin Vanger — This one is pretty much down to the writing and usage of the character. In the novel, Martin was relatively low-key until it was revealed that he’s a killer. The Swedish version (Peter Haber) was more faithful to the book in the build-up, whereas in the American one I think more foreshadowing of Martin’s activities gave Stellan Skarsgard more to do. Also, Skarsgard simply got to be more evil in the final sequence than Haber — again, writing. Advantage: Skarsgard.

Beyond those four, I had occasional issues with some of the characters, but overall everyone else was in the background. Christer Malm, Dirch Frode, Cecilia Vanger, and Plague weren’t too big on the stage. It was nice to see Goran Visnjic as Armansky, despite the small role — he’ll have more to do in the sequels. There is, however, one more character worth noting, and I think you know who I’m talking about.

THE Scene. You know the one I mean.

Trigger warning: I am about to discuss the scenes in which Lisbeth Salander is raped. If you wish to skip this part, click here.

In order to really understand why Lisbeth was put in a situation where she could be raped by someone in direct authority over her, people who haven’t read the book need to know the following: when Lisbeth was twelve, she tried to kill her abusive father by lighting him on fire. This led to her being institutionalized, and her mother also ended up in a facility (I believe she had some sort of catatonic disorder). After her release, Lisbeth responded to bullying and violence at school with violence of her own. As a teenager, she committed small crimes and was also seen in the company of older men. She was already under guardianship because she wasn’t an adult, but she remained in that situation even into adulthood because, in Sweden, that’s how the social system is. Once a person has a guardian, that person is legally charged with assisting their ward in whatever way he or she needs.

In the case of Lisbeth, her guardian had been Holger Palmgren — in the American version, this is the person Lisbeth plays chess with, and who she finds on the floor having suffered a stroke. Palmgren, as Bjurman states in his moment of exposition, had let Lisbeth have free reign over her life and her finances (in the novel, it’s explained how Palmgren formed a positive relationship with Lisbeth and that she cares for him… at least as much as she cares for anyone). Bjurman, however, believed that Palmgren had not had Lisbeth — someone whose records indicated a mentally-disturbed and extremely violent individual — on a short enough leash. So far, Bjurman has not done anything wrong, per se — again, as Lisbeth’s legal guardian, he has to do what he believes is best for her.

Bjurman menaces Salander in the Swedish film

The three Bjurmans are very different, though. In the novel, after being forced to perform oral sex, Lisbeth investigates Bjurman and finds that, other than what he did to her, there’s no dirt to dig up. In the Swedish film, Bjurman (Peter Andersson) is a little older, but both Bjurmans are portrayed as good-looking single men. In the American version, since being fat automatically equals being evil, a heavier actor (Yorick van Wageningen) was cast. Also, in the American version, Bjurman has children, whereas in the other two he does not. All three behave the same way once they decide to take advantage of Lisbeth, though, and the oral sex scene is pretty much the same in all three.

When I went to see the film, my friend Will said he’d heard the second rape (the one in Bjurman’s apartment) was more brutal than it was in the Swedish film. I wasn’t quite sure how that could be pulled off, since in both films Lisbeth is beaten, bound, and raped. (I noted with somewhat-clinical distraction that both Mara and Rapace scream more or less the same way.) The novel indicates that Bjurman engages in anal sex with Lisbeth, something not explicitly discussed in the Swedish film (although afterward Lisbeth does limp home — which occurs in all three versions). The American version makes it particularly explicit by having Bjurman actually say what he’s doing.

Yorick van Wageningen as Bjurman in the American film

Lisbeth’s “recovery” from the rape is different when comparing the book and the two films. The book is very clinical — in it, Lisbeth retreats into herself, staying in and taking painkillers and sleeping until she feels capable of fighting back. The Swedish film is similar — the limp home, the pills, the cigarettes. The American film is more explicit, showing Lisbeth breaking down in the shower, washing away the blood from the attack. While more powerful, the final scene shows something we never see Lisbeth do anywhere else in the film, and to me that makes it less consistent with the character — especially given the Asperger’s tendencies Mara (and the writer and director) gave the character. I’m more likely to believe Lisbeth turning inward than expressing her pain via tears.

The revenge scene is also similar across all three presentations, although the kicking of the dildo doesn’t occur directly in the book — she kicks him, but not there. It’s much more threatening in the American version than the Swedish, being metal instead of plastic or whatever as well as much larger. In all three she shows him the video; in all three she makes her threats; in all three she tattoos him.

The threatening scene in the elevator, by the way, is exclusive to the American version.

(If you skipped the discussion of the rape scenes, here’s where the article continues.)

Final Analysis

Should you go see the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? I’d say yes: it’s a well-made film with decent acting and a coherent mystery plot. But I think that, to really get the full impact, you need to sit down and read the novel first (or, failing that, right after). The novel is tough to read — it’s very clinical and dry in many places, but it’s not boring. At least, not after the first hundred pages or so.

I also think you should see the Swedish version of the film, if for no other reason than Noomi Rapace’s excellent portrayal of Lisbeth. Once you see the Swedish film, you’ll probably want to watch the second and third ones, and read the second and third books in the series as well. (For my money, the second book is probably the best of them, only slightly edging out Dragon Tattoo.)

Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist

Given how much money the American Dragon Tattoo made ($76 million — the budget was $90 mil, and I expect it to hit that number soon enough), and (more importantly) how much buzz it received, I’d be extremely surprised if there aren’t adaptations of The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet’s Nest in the next year or three.

I just hope they’re a little more faithful to Lisbeth’s character in future adaptations. With the American version of the film, Fincher, Zaillian (the screenwriter), and Mara have pretty much locked us into a certain portrayal of our hero. Unfortunately, that portrayal isn’t quite as accurate as what Stieg Larsson intended when he wrote the book. He didn’t want Lisbeth to be an emotionless machine who sometimes gets angry; he wanted her to be a fully-rounded character. In the Swedish film, she is so much more than what Mara played her to be. Maybe we’ll get that the next time out.

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Note to Parents: These films — and the book — contain graphic violence, explicit language, explicit sex, and rape. I usually say you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children, but I hope that, in this case, I don’t have to.

Three Dragons, Three Tattoos: a review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Part 1 of 2)


The following article contains spoilers for both the novel and filmed versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It contains discussions of adult material contained in both. Reader discretion is advised.

This is the first part of a two-part article.

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I’m not quite sure how it happened, but Stieg Larsson’s novel of murder, intrigue, history, and hacking, Men Who Hate Women (published in the U.S. as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), became a nationwide best-seller.

Well, okay, I know how it happened. It’s a good, interesting book. But compared to other popular American authors — Grisham, Roberts, Connelly, Reichs, and so on — Larsson’s style of writing doesn’t really fit. The first hundred pages are a combination of dry-as-dust infodumps about Swedish financial journalism interspersed with a somewhat-clinical account of an intelligent young woman trapped in the Swedish social work system. Readers have to deal with dozens of characters, many with names they’re not used to reading. The setting is probably unfamiliar. The characters’ motivations are often unexpected.

Still, for whatever reason, Dragon Tattoo became a sensation in the U.S. It was only a matter of time until someone made a film of it.

The thing is, someone already did. And that someone is Niels Arden Oplev, a Swedish director. [NB: He’s actually Danish. Sorry about the mix-up.] The cast? Swedish. The setting? Sweden. The language? You guessed it: Swedish.

I first saw this film in 2011, after I first read Dragon Tattoo and its sequels (I’ve since seen all three Swedish Millennium movies*). I thought it was pretty darn good, and that it was a decent interpretation of the novel.

And then it was announced that David Fincher, an American director probably best known for Fight Club and Se7en, would be helming an English-language version of the film.

Now that I’ve seen both versions of the film, I can actually say that they’re both good adaptations, although both have their downfalls.

The Script**

Let’s start by comparing the American film to the novel, because the movie is an adaptation of the book, not of the Swedish film. And, just in case you didn’t catch it before, here there be spoilers.

I think, for starters, my biggest problem is the way Lisbeth was characterized in the movie. I just finished reading the book for the second time, right after I saw both versions of the film, and in the American version of the film I was quite surprised at just how heavily they played up a throwaway line in the book, about how Blomkvist muses that Salander might have some form of Asperger’s syndrome. Maybe she does; maybe she doesn’t. But in the book, after the climax — Salander saving Blomkvist from Martin — there’s another hundred pages or so of the two of them getting closer. They spend several weeks together piecing together Wennerstrom’s evildoings — the stuff Vanger just hands over to Mikael in the film is actually pretty well-researched by Lisbeth in the book — and it’s clear that Lisbeth cares for him. In fact, she actually admits to herself that she thinks she’s in love with him.

Other than that, there wasn’t a ton left out from the book, and anything that was wasn’t necessary. The film starts after Blomkvist has been convicted and sentenced — in the book, he has a three-month jail sentence, but I didn’t mind so much missing that, especially since we would’ve needed an infodump on the Swedish criminal justice system (which we’re going to get anyway in the third film, should it be made). Some shortcuts were taken in the film vis a vis Greger Vanger, and Mikael’s relationship with Cecilia wasn’t included but it also wasn’t truly necessary except to cement Mikael’s position as a ladies man. Also, the book spends much more time on hacking, and how important Plague is to Lisbeth’s activities as the hacker “Wasp”, but I can understand why that was left out of the film — too complicated.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander

Oh, one other interesting small note: in the book, it’s noted that Lisbeth is a redhead with dyed-black hair. In the American film, we can see Lisbeth’s light eyebrows — the actress has light hair, so it works. (In the Swedish film, the actress has dark hair, and I guess it wasn’t important enough to lighten her eyebrows. Or anything else.)

The ending was substantially changed, as I’ll discuss again when I compare and contrast the two Harriet Vangers. I wasn’t unhappy about it, and it did make sense.

Now, to compare the two films; that’s a horse of a different color. A lot of it is contained in characterization and writing, but I’ll be saving the characterization for later. The most notable differences (other than the scene, which I’ll talk about at the end of the article) include:

  • The broken laptop — In the Swedish film, Lisbeth is so self-absorbed that she bumps into the guy who leads his friends in beating her up in the subway station. However, in the American version, she’s simply robbed and fights back. Both have the same outcome, however. Interestingly, in the Swedish version, Bjurman only gives her 7,000 kronor, which he says is “enough” to buy a decent computer; in the American one, he gives her everything she asked for.
  • Mikael’s family — In the Swedish version, Mikael is made more human by spending time with his family. However, later in the film he doesn’t meet up with his daughter (which happens in both the book and the American film). Instead, in the Swedish film, Lisbeth figures out that the numbers in Harriet’s diary are Bible quotes and e-mails the information to Mikael.
  • Mikael (Daniel Craig) confronts Lisbeth (Rooney Mara) in her apartment. He brings her breakfast and coffee as well.
  • The confrontation between Lisbeth and Mikael — I think this is handled best in the book, the way Mikael just barges into her apartment and offers her breakfast. In both films, Mimmi is present, having just spent the night with Lisbeth; however, in the films Mikael is more severe about confronting her. The American film is more accurate in that he finds her out by way of an unpublished press release, while the Swedish one is related to the Biblical revelation. I think the Swedish film handled it a bit ham-handedly, though it was consistent with the Mikael character that had been established to that point.
  • Lisbeth and Mikael’s road trip — Until I reread the book, I’d forgotten that the road trip in the Swedish version of the film wasn’t actually there. They did go somewhere (I forget where at the moment), but it wasn’t a journey around Sweden to learn more about the murders noted in Harriet’s diary. The American film shows Lisbeth doing the investigating on her own.
  • Sex in the cabin — The American film used Mikael’s being grazed by the bullet to build the rapport between him and Lisbeth, and also to get Mikael out of his clothes. Lisbeth seems particularly Asperger-like in the scene where she undresses in front of him. In the Swedish version, she’s simply forward — not at all detached. She also sleeps with him more than once, and we see Mikael becoming more interested in her past and actually starting to care.
  • Who’s on top? — I don’t remember the sexual mechanics of Mikael and Lisbeth’s first time together as recorded in the book, but the two films handled it a bit differently. The Swedish one lets Lisbeth stay on top the entire time, lets her stay in control; I believe this was done to further cement her need to be in control of every aspect of her life (underscoring what was taken away from her by Bjurman). In the American film, Daniel Craig does “the move”, the one seen in so many films but so rarely in actual bedrooms — the “pick up the girl and turn her over without losing the connection” move. It looks romantic and sexy… but even if Lisbeth trusts Mikael enough at that point to sleep with him, she’s still close to what happened with Bjurman and I don’t know if I believe that her character would’ve allowed Mikael to do that move. I do think some of this is related to the time aspect in the book — between the Bjurman scene and Lisbeth sleeping with Mikael, Mikael spends three months in jail. The Swedish film puts the jail term at the end, but it’s still clear that at least some time has passed. The American one compresses time even further — not really a problem overall, but in this case, it made the Lisbeth character behave in a less-believable way.
  • Sex in London — This happens in the book and the American film, but not in the Swedish film. The American film plays it off really amusingly (Mara delivers the “just a minute” line brilliantly), but at that point I’m not sure why they were having sex at all. By that point in the book, Lisbeth and Mikael were comfortable enough together to have sex when the mood took them, but in the American film there just wasn’t enough for me to believe it happened organically.
  • Lisbeth’s mother — I think it was a foregone conclusion that there would be three Swedish films, which is why we spent so much time on Lisbeth’s mother and father. As I said, in the book her mother dies at the end, but in the Swedish film she’s still alive. She’s not even mentioned in the American version, which really skims over Lisbeth’s past — far too much, I think.

I do want to go back to the bit about Mimmi: in the book, enough explanation is provided for us to understand that Lisbeth isn’t gay, although in both films the fact that she’s with Mimmi so relatively-soon after the Bjurman atrocity makes the viewer think she is, thereby making viewers even more sympathetic. However, in the book the situation is clearly explained and also sets the stage for future books by establishing Lisbeth’s friendship with a group of like-minded rocker girls. It also makes her night spent with Mimmi much more sensible; in the Swedish film, she just slept with a girl, no explanation, and in the American one we see her hit a club but we have no idea that she has any history with this person. In short, what was a well-established scene becomes nothing more than shock value.

Finally, the ending: in the book, Martin simply crashes his car into a logging truck and is killed on impact. Unfortunately for filmed audiences, this wasn’t enough. In the Swedish film, Lisbeth sees Martin’s car go over an embankment and then she watches as it catches fire. She later admits she would’ve been able to save him, but chose not to.

The American version, though, I think suffered from the need for American audiences to have a hero who kills the bad guy. After Martin runs, Lisbeth takes his gun and chases him. He crashes his car in front of the convenience store in Hedestad, and that’s where Lisbeth finds him. She cocks the gun, is ready to shoot… and then the car catches fire and explodes. Lisbeth, therefore, doesn’t actually get to do it, although she does witness it (as with the Swedish film). Before she takes the gun, though, she asks Mikael’s permission to kill him. Clearly he deserves it — he’s a multiple murderer — but the line felt kind of lame to me, as if we needed to have a quip to lighten the mood.

The mood didn’t deserve what was done to it.

Music

If you’ve been reading the EP blog for a while, you know I notice music in films. The Swedish film had pretty much just incidental music — nothing really special — but for the American version the producers hired Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and they did not disappoint. A combination of traditional and modern soundtracks, both hard rock and symphonic. I was a little surprised by the remake of the Bryan Ferry song “Is Your Love Strong Enough?”, which I first heard in the Threesome soundtrack (one of my all-time favorites), playing over the credits, but I guess it made sense given the ending.

Location

Clearly Fincher had a lot more money to work with than Oplev, and he put it to use. Although both films take place in Sweden, and both were filmed at least partially there, the Fincher version is darker, grittier, and more realistic. It had a Fight Club vibe to it. The Swedish version, to me, felt more like a movie than an actual place, even though I’m fairly certain that Oplev did a lot more location shooting simply because he is from the region (he happens to be from Denmark). IMDB indicates that, with the exception of the ending sequence, all of the Swedish version was filmed in that country, while the U.S. version was filmed primarily in Sweden but also partly in the U.S.

The most obvious use of non-location shooting I observed was the scene in which Frode talks to Blomkvist in the cabin; if you look carefully at the wall behind Frode (I believe the refrigerator is to his left, our right), it moves in an odd way, suggesting to me that it wasn’t really there. Perhaps the cabin was at a movie studio in Sweden, but it wasn’t a real cabin.

The Dragon Tattoo

The film — and translated book — is named The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for a reason: Lisbeth Salander has a dragon tattoo. In the book, it definitely plays a part; in the Swedish film, it’s a massive thing on her back that goes all the way down one leg and we see it every time we see her with her clothes off.

Noomi Rapace's dragon tattoo

But where is it in the American film? When Lisbeth was in the shower, or having sex with Mikael, I can barely remember seeing it. It’s the name of the movie; shouldn’t we get a good look at the thing? And when we did, it seemed so much smaller than it should have been.

Rooney Mara's dragon tattoo

I think, perhaps, that was what most disappointed me about the American version — it was more about the core idea of the book (Men Who Hate Women, its original Swedish title) than the tattoo itself. However, no one would’ve understood if the film was called Men Who Hate Women; the book phenom is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so calling the movie something different would’ve been an epic failure to capitalize on its popularity — something definitely necessary, given how hard it is for R-rated films to make as much money as PG-13 ones.

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Part two will cover casting, characterization, and the scene. You know the one.

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Note to Parents: These films — and the book — contain graphic violence, explicit language, explicit sex, and rape. I usually say you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children, but I hope that, in this case, I don’t have to.

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* Millennium is the name of the magazine where the main character, Blomkvist, is a writer. The entire series is sometimes referred to as the “Millennium Trilogy”.

** Since I wrote the various parts of the article out-of-order, I apologize in advance if some of it seems a bit repetitive later on.

Book Review: “Out of Oz” by Gregory Maguire


The following review contains spoilers for the first three “Wicked Years” novels.

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I’ve never seen the stage version of Wicked, but when I saw the book in the bookstore, I bought it and read it. I’ve always enjoyed Oz, from the original film to the original Baum books to the newer retellings (Tin Man, The Wiz, etc). And I enjoyed Wicked.

I didn’t really care for Son of a Witch, and I thought A Lion Among Men was pretty blah, but since Out of Oz was supposed to be the conclusion of the Gregory Maguire “Wicked Years” series, I figured it was worth taking a look.

Perhaps I should’ve just learned my lesson.

All of the Maguire Oz books start slow — very slow — and take many years, if not decades, to complete. They get good toward the end, but getting there is a long, sometimes arduous journey. Out of Oz was no different. It begins with a very long Dorothy story, sending her back to Oz so she, along with pretty much everyone else we’ve known along the way, can be in the book. Maguire included dozens of Oz characters — many in passing mention only — that readers of the Baum novels might recognize, including Jellia Jamb, Jack Pumpkinhead, and even the Woggle-Bug. But for the most part, this book focuses on Rain, granddaughter of Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) and daughter of Liir (the son of a witch) and Candle (a Quadling with the power to see the present).

The beginning of the novel, to me, was quite off-putting — it jumped from Rain’s long-lost memories to the Time Dragon to Glinda and back again until, finally, the plot got on track. It turns out that, sometime between the end of Wicked and the end of A Lion Among Men, Munchkinland seceded from Oz and took with it the nation’s largest source of fresh water, a lake mostly in Munchkinland territory called Restwater. The first act of the book takes place in and around Glinda’s country home — she is now the Lady Chuffrey and a former Throne Minister (president) of Oz. Soldiers usurp her home and lands in their attempt to take Restwater back for Oz, and it is at this point we meet Rain, who is a young girl sweeping the floors. We don’t know why Rain is important; we just know that she is.

Eventually Rain departs Glinda’s home with the Time Dragon — a machine important to the three previous books, run by a dwarf named Mr. Boss. With the Dragon we find Brrr (the Cowardly Lion), his wife Ilianora (daughter of Elphaba’s baby-daddy Fiyero), and the Grimmerie (a magic book that Elphaba once owned, now locked safely away in the Dragon). The travelers end up in Quadling Country (the south of Oz) and spend a year there* before finally meeting up with Liir and Candle, where Rain gets the whole story of her life.

The second act of the book focuses mostly on Rain, with detours into Dorothy’s trial for murder (she did, after all, kill two women the last time she was in Oz), and also introduces the character Tip, a boy about Rain’s age (maybe slightly older). I think you know what will happen between the two of them, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it except to say that, if you’ve read the Baum books… well… what happens to Tip is pretty similar when you compare the Baum books to the Maguire ones.

Act three is the grand finale. I can’t tell you much about it, except to say that after the climax the book goes on for another 100 pages** before ending in what, to me, was a rather unsatisfying fashion. I don’t need a happy ending, but I want to be satisfied.

As with the previous Oz books, Maguire does a masterful job tying his own interpretation of Oz into the Baum version. As someone who’s read about twenty of the original Oz books***, I appreciated the inclusion of events and characters from the original stories. I wasn’t surprised by what happens to Tip because I’d read it before, although I was waiting throughout most of the book for it to occur, so that was interesting. His worldbuilding is excellent, as is his characterization, and never once did I feel that I had learned either too much or too little about a place or a character. It’s also very funny in places — especially the parts with Daffy and Mr. Boss.

I think my biggest problem with the book was its time-scale. I realize that makes me somewhat of a hypocrite, given that my favorite book takes place over about the same scale (ten or so years) and its sequels occur almost twenty years after that, but there was just something about the way Maguire cavalierly tossed off “a year passed” or “a year later” that turned me off to the story. It took away from its urgency, and in a book that takes place against the backdrop of a nation at war, that is problematic for me. Also, as I said, I found the coda (the part after the climax) unsatisfying.

All in all, I found Out of Oz to be a good book, mostly enjoyable and mostly interesting, although it definitely wasn’t as good as Wicked — which, admittedly, suffered from many of the same problems. If you’ve read the other three Wicked Years books, you’ll probably like it just as much as you liked those. However, if you’ve only read Wicked and haven’t really wanted to pick up the others before now… I’m afraid I’ll have to suggest that you pass on them.

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Note to Parents: I would rate this book a hard PG-13 or soft R. It contains lots of bad language, some violence, prurient humor, and a few sex scenes. There are mentions of self-inflicted mutilation, but it’s not actually shown, only discussed. I think teens could handle it, because none of those things are pervasive. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

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* There’s a fascinating treatise in the book about how time is measured in Oz, but even if you consider a year to be “four seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter”, that’s a long time to do absolutely nothing germane to the plot.

** I have the font set pretty large on my Kindle app, and according to it, the book was 1002 pages. The actual printed novel is 592, so if I do some math, that tells me it’s actually closer to 50 additional pages. Most of it contains whining on the part of Rain, sadly.

*** Admittedly, I read them about 20 years ago, so my memory might be muddled, but I did read them.

Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente


Myths of OriginIt is easy to love a book when it has been cruel to you. Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente is a hard book, and one that will encourage most readers to put it down. It contains four short novels, each of which will challenge the reader to make sense of its elaborate metaphors and strange perspectives. The language in this book shows a poet’s fondness for unexpected juxtapositions. Anyone who cannot read a book simply for the beauty of the writing should not pick this one up at all.

However, those who are brave enough to read the Myths will be rewarded with four extraordinary novels. The first one, The Labyrinth, is by far the least comprehensible. Most of it seems to be happening inside the protagonist’s head. She reminds me of Alice, and her Wonderland is the Labyrinth of Crete. Whether or not there’s a minotaur in the middle is still an open question at the end, I think — there is a bull of sorts, but it’s complicated. This novel is dense and wild and does not seem to have much of a point other than to prove that a novel like itself can exist. I liked the bit with the rabbit.

The second novel is Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams. This is the one that I was most looking forward to when I picked up Myths of Origin, though I found that the next novel in the sequence did most of what I wanted this one to do. Once again, Valente finds the connections between totally unrelated things — in this case, a wild woman living in an abandoned pagoda in the mountains of Japan, and the Sphinx of Thebes. Each chapter begins with the name of a season from the Japanese calendar of the Heian period, and most don’t last more than a page. Like Labyrinth, this book is filled with powerful images. I had a sense that if I’d spent more time studying Japanese folklore or Babylonian creation myths, I might have gotten more out of Yume no Hon.

The Grass-Cutting Sword is my favorite of the four, but also the most upsetting. It tackles the story of Susano and the eight-headed maiden-eating dragon. It also speaks to the varied cruelties inflicted on women — on beautiful women, on plain women, on obedient women, on wild women, on mothers and on sisters. Valente plays with voices in The Grass-Cutting Sword. The dragon and the eight maidens speak while sharing the same body, while Susano narrates his own story and the story of his mother. This book is bloody.

Under in the Mere proposes that California is a place where questing knights from King Aurthur’s court can go to hunt their beasts or find their grails. It matches each character from Arthurian legend up with a card from the tarot and with an overarching image — Kay the robot, Galahad the shapeshifter, and so on — and plays each image out to its furthest extreme. It quotes the relevant passages from Malory in case the reader is unfamiliar, and then takes them in the most unexpected directions. It is a fine book in and of itself, though I will admit to being tired after reading the other three.

If you can treat each of these novels as a separate piece, and perhaps take breaks between them, then Myths of Origin is a fine collection. Fans of Catherynne M. Valente should read this book, not just because it is more of her beautiful prose, but also to see reflections of ideas that she returns to in her other works. Myths of Origin is beautiful. It demands patience; it speaks in riddles. I am glad that I read it, but I am also a little bit glad that it’s over.

Book Review: “Bigfoot: I Not Dead” by Graham Roumieu


In beginning, Josh think it funny to write review of book Bigfoot: I Not Dead using Bigfoot style of writing. However, realize will get annoying fast and not want annoy readers. So will stop.

While I was on vacation recently, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Graham Roumieu’s third Bigfoot book, Bigfoot: I Not Dead. At first blush, it looks like a kids’ book; it’s full of illustrations and the text is artfully hand-written. It’s also a very slim volume. But she and her husband both said it was hilarious, and it’s quite short, so I figured, why not?

After reading the book, I can say that I should find it funnier than I actually do. The style of humor is supposed to be right up my alley — Bigfoot is written as a self-deprecating, lonely guy who just wants to be understood, but occasionally gets angry about his life or the state of the world. I did laugh a few times, but mostly I just found it generally amusing in the way one finds the comedy club emcee’s jokes generally amusing.

As the book is so short, it doesn’t really justify one of my usual 1000-word reviews, but I do want to call attention to some of my favorite bits, including:

  • “Me look awesome on camera.”
  • A reference to the lore of consuming someone’s brain and gaining their knowledge.
  • Bigfoot’s bitching about his neighbor.
  • “The Question” about Bigfoot’s big feet.
  • “Never let them see you earwax.”

As for the pictures: I don’t really know how to review, critique, or even react to artwork*, but I’ll give it a shot, since after all this book is illustrated: the artwork is good, and appropriately primitive-looking — after all, Bigfoot is ostensibly the writer of this book. The pictures really fit well with the narrative. The ones containing blood aren’t quite as good, I think, perhaps because that part of the narrative gets away from Bigfoot’s “trying to fit in as a person” dialogue in favor of his “I’m a giant forest creature who can bash your head in with one blow” dialogue, but overall it works quite well.

Bigfoot: I Not Dead retails for $15 USD, according to the UPC on the back. I don’t think I could pay that much for a book this short, and I’m glad it was a gift. However, I do think the book is funny enough to be worth reading, especially if you enjoy juvenile humor and/or retellings of the lives of mythic creatures. If you can find it in the library, or you’re one of those “go into the bookstore, sit on the couch, and read a book” people, why not grab all three Bigfoot books? Most folks should be able to read them all in one sitting.

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Note to Parents: This is not a book for young children, despite its appearance, size, and font. It contains violence, adult language, and discussions of sex. I’d say it’s PG-13 at worst, though. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

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* My grandfather, now that he’s retired, has taken up art — he paints, carves wood into really amazing carnival horses (especially for someone suffering from Parkinson’s in his dominant hand), and he’s learning to play the piano. When we visited his house during Thanksgiving weekend, he showed me everything he had made and was currently working on. I tried to make the appropriate appreciative noises, but I felt like I was being repetitive. I’m certainly proud of him, and I often talk about his work when grandparents come up in conversation, but when it comes to actually reacting to artwork for the sake of artwork, I often have difficulty. I suppose members of my family who don’t read genre fiction but are forced to read my writing are the same way.

Book Review: “11/22/63” by Stephen King


I think most people can agree that the assassination of JFK on November 22, 1963 was a watershed event in human history. It led to Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and possibly a prolonged Cold War*. Had he not been shot in Dallas on that day, perhaps Vietnam might not have happened, or at least been smaller in scope. Perhaps the Civil Rights movement might have unfolded differently. Perhaps the Cold War would’ve escalated into a full-blown nuclear conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

There’s really no way to know what would’ve happened, other than via alternate historical fiction. Which is exactly what Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/63, is all about.

11/22/63 takes place in both 2011 and the late 50s/early 60s. In 2011, high school English teacher (and all-around tall dude) Jake Epping is contacted by his friend, diner owner Al Templeton. Al knows he’s in the end stages of cancer, but he doesn’t want to die before showing Jake the secret of his diner: a rabbit hole in his stockroom that leads to September 9, 1958. Jake takes a quick trip, enjoys a root beer, and then returns to Al’s diner. Only two minutes have passed in the real world — only two minutes ever pass in the real world, no matter how long someone stays down the rabbit hole.

That’s when Al drops the bomb on him: for the past four years, he’s been living in the hole, trying to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. He’s amassed a notebook full of research, one that he can no longer use because he knows he has very little time left. So Al implores Jake to take on the mission.

Jake, meanwhile, has plans of his own for the rabbit hole. On October 31, 1958, the father of one of his adult education students back in 2011 murdered an entire family, and Jake wants to set it right. That’s when he learns that the past is obdurate — it doesn’t want to be changed. It’ll throw up obstacles to try and stop anyone who does. And if it’s this hard to save one family — a minor part of the tapestry of history — how hard is it going to be to save the leader of the free world five years later?

In general, I’ve enjoyed what Stephen King novels I’ve read, with the exception of The Regulators and Desperation, which I think I may have been too young (at the time) to get the full experience out of. King has written the only book I’m too scared to read again — The Sun Dog, about a Polaroid camera that takes photos of a dog about to attack, and nothing else — and, clearly, he knows his craft well enough to keep putting out bestsellers that are later adapted into TV shows and films. I did enjoy 11/22/63, despite its slow start; clearly the novel was exhaustively researched, and although it does have the requisite Maine scenes, there are a lot of other set-pieces across the eastern half of the U.S. as well. In the past, Jake travels to two towns in Maine, along the eastern seaboard, southwest Florida, and finally to Texas where Oswald is going to shoot Kennedy.

But the book isn’t just about that. Even if Jake does have a mission which will end on November 22, 1963, when he — he hopes — stops Oswald from committing murder, he can’t spend the entire intervening time just doing nothing. I mean, I get bored on a Sunday afternoon if there’s no football on TV, and that’s in 2011 when there’s plenty of other things to do. Eventually, after setting right some wrongs, Jake settles in a small town in Texas — the first truly-friendly place he’s found since coming to the past — and takes up his old mantle as an English teacher.

That, I think, is where the story starts to get good. It more-or-less ceases to be about Oswald and starts being about Jake, and how he conducts his life in the past. And what he learns is that, be it 1961 or 2011, life still goes on. People go to school, go to work, and fall in love, just like in his own time.

On Star Trek, time travel is often used to right a wrong or fix a mistake, or even just to do research into the past. The thing about Star Trek is that, at the end of the episode (or movie), everything wraps up in a neat little bow. Lieutenant Christopher is returned to his fighter jet, the whales save earth, Captain Sisko isn’t killed in an engineering accident, and Harry doesn’t miscalculate and kill the entire Voyager crew. 11/22/63 shows us that that’s not exactly the case — which, I suppose, is what happens with a lot of alternate history and time travel fiction. King reminds us often that the past does not want to be changed, and it will fight any way it can.

And it fights Jake pretty hard, even going so far as to exact revenge upon him for what he does.

I found 11/22/63 to be somewhat of a departure from the King fiction I’ve read in the past — there are no monsters, no supernatural forces, no blood-showers at prom**. Just a rabbit hole in the stock-room of a diner that, when you walk through it, takes you to September 9, 1958 and allows you to change history. The rest of the novel is almost pure historical fiction — a man of today experiencing the past first-hand. It speaks to King’s exhaustive research on the subject, as well as his storytelling skill, that someone like me (whose favorite era of American history is 1875-1930) can pick it up and become immersed in it almost immediately — it’s believable, relatable, and damn interesting.

According to Wikipedia, 11/22/63 was released at the beginning of November 2011 and quickly became a bestseller. I can certainly see why. It’s a doorstop all right, but it’s a doorstop you won’t want to put down. I definitely recommend it.

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Note to Parents: This is a Stephen King novel. It contains explicit sex and explicit violence, as well as adult language. I don’t think the sex is anything today’s older teens can’t handle, but as for the violence… just remember that King has been doing this for a long time and, unlike in an R-rated film with a fight sequence, King is fond of taking away all hope a character has of escaping unscathed… and then having someone beat the crap out of him. Keep that in mind. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.

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* I wasn’t a history major, but according to the book, JFK was trying to end the Cold War.

** That’s what happens in Carrie, right? I’ve never read it, or seen the film. Sorry.

Book Review: The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer


The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of CuriositiesBefore the internet, before television, before jets and superhighways shrank the world to a manageable size and science gave us the tools to understand it, men of substance and education created wunderkammer. These rooms showcased curiosities, genuine artifacts and forgeries, from around the world. Their creators did not distinguish between plant and animal, ancient artifact or modern painting, classical relic from down the road or clever device brought from half a world away. The beauty of the wunderkammer is in the juxtaposition of strangeness that drives the human mind to find patterns in an assemblage of the bizarre.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, is an attempt to capture the same feeling in a book. At times tongue-in-cheek, the Cabinet of Curiosities brings together authors, styles, and illustrations, all arranged to keep the reader off-balance and wondering.

The book itself is a lovely artifact. I knew that I had to have it the moment I picked it up. Hardbound, without a dust cover, the Cabinet of Curiosities feels deceptively light for how much material it contains. It is filled with black and white illustrations. Most are fake etchings, but there are some photographs and some paintings. I’ve dragged my copy halfway across the country, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at it.

The introduction to the Cabinet warns the reader not to try to read the book all in one sitting. Believing that I knew better, I ignored this warning, to my dismay. The Cabinet holds more things than it ought to, given its size. I now agree with the VanderMeers — readers should not expose themselves to all of the Cabinet’s weirdness at one time.

Readers who are familiar with Thackery T. Lambshead’s Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases will already understand the underlying premise of the Cabinet. The book assumes that there was (or, depending on which conspiracy theory you believe, still is) a doctor, scholar, and collector named Thackery Lambshead who lived (or lives) in our world and interacted with various historical figures. The authors, too, make appearances in the book, both in the editorial notes and in a few of the stories.

The book is divided into themed sections. There is no reason not to skip around — the sections are only loosely related to one another, and often seem to describe very different Cabinets and Doctors Lambshead. Some sections deal with items in the Cabinet, their origins, histories, and uses (if known). Others describe visits by such luminaries as our own Mur Lafferty to Dr. Lambshead’s house and his Cabinet. China Mieville, Mike Mignola, and Greg Broadmore each curate their own sections. Other contributors include Michael Moorcock, Amal El Mohtar, N. K. Jemisin, and more.

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities is weird, and disturbing, and probably not most people’s idea of a good time. Those readers who enjoy a dose of old-timey macabre should pick this book up. Readers who really want to mess with their heads should read it all at once, the way I did. By the end, you may find something composed of incongruous parts and loose bits of prose lurking in a dusty corner of your brain. Try not to worry — after all, it was a very good book.

Book Review: The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein


The SteerswomanRosemary Kirstein’s remarkable book, The Steerswoman, exists in the place between science fiction and fantasy. It looks like a fantasy novel, and uses the familiar story of an improbable band of heroes on a quest through a fantasy kingdom as a backdrop, but its core is made of the hardest science fiction. The underlying story of The Steerswoman is about the triumph of science and the human will over superstition and elitism. I like nothing better than a book that plays with genre and a protagonist who wins by being smart. The Steerswoman does both, and does them well.

Kirstein’s straightforward writing lets her ideas and her characters dominate the story. One of my favorite aspects of this book is the friendship between the two main characters. Rowan, the eponymous Steerswoman, is a member of an order of traveling map-makers. A Steerswoman’s job requires her to answer any questions asked of her, provided that her questioner is willing to answer any questions she asks in return. Refusing to answer a Steerswoman’s questions or lying to a Steerswoman puts an individual under a permanent ban — no Steerswoman will answer their questions ever again.

Steerswomen (there are some Steersmen, but only a few, due to most men being uninterested in learning the necessary skills) are trained to investigate anything that catches their attention using a system of data gathering and hypothesizing. They are, effectively, an order of scientists. Kirstein avoids turning Rowan into an unapproachable Holmes-type character by keeping her chains of inductive logic clear, avoiding absurd over-generalizations, and allowing her to be wrong. Rowan wants to help people, and that makes her an easy character to root for.

Bel, on the other hand, is a warrior. Born on the extreme edge of civilization, she walked into Rowan’s world for the sake of seeing something new. She meets Rowan in a tavern (a very familiar fantasy story, as I said). Her skill as a warrior is not only reflected in the way she fights, but in her outlook on the world, and makes her a perfect foil for the Steerswoman. Their friendship, born out of mutual respect, is simply a pleasure to watch as it grows.

The Steerswoman is constantly winking at its audience. The characters behave as if they were living in a fantasy novel, but an astute reader will quickly recognize what the “magic” that the wizards use really is. While this might annoy some readers, I found it charming. I also found that The Steerswoman only improves upon rereading. For me, knowing why a wizard might not want his spells jostled or placed too close to a fire only increases the drama of the situation.

I will add one caveat to my otherwise wholehearted recommendation of The Steerswoman: While this book comes to a satisfying conclusion (with one of the best do-your-worst speeches I’ve read in a long time), it does not resolve all of the mysteries. The sequel, The Outskirter’s Secret, answers many of the questions left hanging at the end of The Steerswoman, but it also isn’t the end of the series. As far as I know, the end of this series has not yet been written. I cannot blame readers who pass over The Steerswoman for that reason; however, I do think they’re missing out. The first two books are currently available in one volume, called The Steerswoman’s Road.

Too much science fiction glorifies mere scientific fact and appeals to scientific authority. Such books are doomed to obsolescence as the state of the art passes them by. Rosemary Kirstein’s books, in contrast, are made timeless by their emphasis on the process of science, which anyone can do. The Steerswoman is a fun work of fantasy fiction with dragons, sword fights, and magic — and also a well-honed work of science fiction, demanding to know the answers to hard questions and the logic behind the magic. The Steerswoman lets the reader watch as the characters use the scientific method to discover the true nature of their world. I cannot recommend this book, and its sequels, highly enough.