There is a lot of territory one could cover when discussing David Wong's John Dies At The End. You could talk about the identity of David Wong, or abo...moreThere is a lot of territory one could cover when discussing David Wong's John Dies At The End. You could talk about the identity of David Wong, or about the self-insertion narrator/protagonist angle of the book, or the structure of the book and its prologue and epilogue, or the kitchen sink approach to novel writing. You could dissect the genre of the book, trying to determine if it is a humor book with elements of horror and social satire or a satirical horror book that dips into gross-out humor. Or, one might adopt the attitude of titular character John and just say, like, whatever.
Instead let me step back and tell you in general terms what I thought of the book as a reading (note: I listened to the audiobook) experience. Because the thing is, John Dies At The End had me. I was in, I was invested, I was loving the ride, even willing to overlook the regrettable overuse of the word "retarded" as an invective. I was laughing, I was delighted by the absurdity and the supernatural conspiracy angle (which I have to confess a particular fondness for). And then, around the last quarter of the book, Wong started to lose me.
The humor in the book is what carried me through, ultimately. This is an unsophisticated kind of satirical humor, the type that relies as much on fart gags as on witty insights because, bearing both, the scatological giggles protect and frame the genuine wit. It's kind of like hearing Sir Patrick Stewart repeating Beavis and Butt-Head jokes: funnier from the contrast. So yeah, it's amusing and occasionally insightful in its nihilistic wryness and I ended up pretty much loving John (particularly Stephen R. Thorne's languid stoner-slur characterization).
But there are some problems with the book as well, and they don't really coagulate into anything distasteful (provided you go with it from the outset) until you're pretty much committed to the book. For one thing, it's too long. After a while Wong's repeated encounters with the unseen evil forces behind the veil of the world get repetitive, especially because practically the first half of the book is an extended prologue into the real arc of the narrative, at least from a character point of view. There's something problematic when we don't start to get any sense of our narrator and protagonist (and, I suppose, author persona) until about 250 pages in. And then we have to start realizing that our kind of hapless loser primary is actually pretty dark and has serious personality conflicts that weren't all that obvious up front so the whole misadventure from the beginning needs to be re-examined in light of this, only it isn't (I guess the exercise is left to the reader).
All of which is a fault, I suppose, of a big idea and the difficulty in bringing that idea and its attendant details to life while also crafting a character who is at the same time a pseudonym and… let's just say I think Wong might have been a bit over-ambitious. But then you have the other factor to this which is that somehow in spite of the book being wonderfully weird a lot of the time, there's something incredibly constrained about the imagination on display here. Every monster Wong dreams up, for example, is pretty much a zany hybrid of two or three improbably matched real-world animals. Or a variation of an insect. Or both. And often Wong handwaves the sort of lazy conjuring away with phrases I detest in fiction like, "I don't know how else to describe it," or "beyond description." Sorry authors, but, yeah…
And these are aspects of the book that didn't work all that well for me but I think I might have been able to get over them if I felt like there was a payoff at the end. But as the extended and poorly demarcated epilogue rolls around, it becomes clear that a lot of the twisting and mired threads of plot scattered through the novel up until that point—including, it bears noting, the title—just aren't going to snap together into a cohesive apex. Maybe it's cliché at this point but I love when these kinds of stories work around to hinting or, most effectively, convincing of their own validity. John Dies At The End doesn't do this, and as far as I can tell, doesn't even try.
Which is the biggest complaint that I have with the book's flawed—though perhaps not fatal—finale: it feels like the book stops trying.
I do lightly recommend this book. I had a simple, fun time reading it (or listening to it in this case), which is something I find necessary every so often. If you can tolerate the mild disappointment of the ending and deal with the sophomoric humor, this is a silly, scary good read.(less)
A couple of months ago my wife and I got sucked into some television show about 90s gangster rap and the glib details in that program prompted a discu...moreA couple of months ago my wife and I got sucked into some television show about 90s gangster rap and the glib details in that program prompted a discussion about the shooting deaths of Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G./Biggie Smalls) and Tupac Shakur. I got kind of interested in the story because of course I had heard about it and I remember the news coming out at the time, and I'd heard the grumblings and rumblings since that there was something fishy about the way the murders had never been solved. That interest prompted me to watch the Nick Bloomfield documentary "Biggie & Tupac" (which was okay but not great) and check out Randall Sullivan's book LAbyrinth from the local library.
Like the documentary, Sullivan's book is okay, but not great. The story underneath this is interesting, but watching the two you get the distinct sense that all the conspiracy theorizing smoke is coming from a single source, an ex-LAPD detective named Russell Poole. Poole worked on the Wallace murder case and was part of the task force investigating internal corruption that would eventually be known as the Rampart Task Force. Sullivan goes as far out of his way as possible to make Poole look like a supercop and something of an idealized example of the perfect police officer, which makes sense when you realize that his book hinges on the credibility of this one principal source.
Documentarian Bloomfield cites and interviews Poole in his film as well, which further reinforces the notion that a lot of the "this came from the top" language and veiled (or not-so-veiled) cries of "cover up" originates in a single man's mind and is propagated by those who either believe or are predisposed to believe his tale. Which is not to say Poole is incredible, only that it would be nice if the characterization Poole gives that there were others in his department who agreed that something odd was going on during the investigations would step forward and either state definitively that they believe in Poole's evaluation or that they dismiss him out of hand.
The nutshell version of the yarn is that Shakur and Wallace were killed as part of an elaborate plot by CEO of Death Row Records, Marion "Suge" Knight, to get rid of Shakur who was preparing to leave the label, and solidify the cover story that Shakur was killed as a result of the surging East Coast/West Coast tensions in the rap world, notably between Death Row and Sean "Puffy" Combs's Bad Boy Entertainment label (of which Biggie was a part). By this explanation, then, Wallace's death was more of an opportunity to prove, after the fact, that Shakur's death was related to the rivalry. The explanation doesn't make a lot of sense; if Suge Knight wanted to blame Shakur's death on Bad Boy Entertainment, it might have been more logical to kill Wallace first and have Shakur die as the retaliation. Of course, the case could be made that such a reversal might have cast more suspicion on Death Row for instigating/escalating the tensions as opposed to casting them as simply wanting revenge for their downed star. In any case the story only makes sufficient sense when Sullivan characterizes the attack on Wallace's convoy that left him dead as being most likely intended to eliminate Bad Boy CEO Combs, but his car had run through a yellow light, leaving Wallace's car as the de facto convoy lead, suggesting the bullets weren't meant for him at all.
Sullivan paints a portrait of Suge Knight as a gangster in the sense of Al Capone, perhaps even worse. Sullivan gleeful recounts hearsay of every mythical or urban legend style tale of brutality, intimidation and shady deal perpetrated by Knight and explains away the brazenness by saying that he was protected by a group of cronies who were dual employed by both Death Row and the LAPD. These gangster cops seem to float through Sullivan's narrative like phantoms, showing up when it seems convenient and drifting away whenever legitimate law enforcement personnel try to make solid connections between the label and the department. Of course, they have help from a corrupt Deputy Chief (and later Chief), Bernard Parks (among others), who pushed back on any avenue of inquiry that may have revealed links between the record label and the police.
However, Sullivan somehow manages to both connect and decouple the insinuations at the same time by contextualizing the whole attitude of the department (and perhaps the city at large) in the framework of the heavy racial tensions of the time. This is, remember, the era of Rodney King and the riots in 1992, OJ Simpson and the racially-charged "Trial of the Century," not to mention the event that Sullivan opens the book with, the shooting of African-American Kevin Gaines by white cop Frank Lyga (Gaines, it turned out, was also a cop who may have had ties to Death Row). The problem with explaining why the department wouldn't deal with the possibility that black cops might be working with Death Row is because it fully explains why the department would be reluctant to investigate black cops, period. Sullivan (and Poole) try to characterize the feet dragging by the top brass as indications that Suge Knight had more than just a few dirty cops on his payroll but had the direct or implicit backing at the highest levels, but I think that's just sensationalist wishful thinking. It doesn't necessarily excuse the LAPD from making matters worse by not dealing with dirty cops, but it isn't quite as book-selling as saying "Parks helped cover up hundreds of crimes on Death Row's behalf!"
In a lot of ways that summarizes my complaints with LAbyrinth. Sullivan comes across like Oliver Stone in JFK, making every possible connection he can and tying it all into a central—and intentionally vague—thesis of "There Is A Conspiracy!" Some of the items stick, I'm sure, but for all of Sullivan's shots leveled at the LA media (principally The Los Angeles Times) for being predisposed to dismissing a conspiracy angle, he's no better, just working from the flip side of that coin. Sullivan also comes across as a strangely prejudicial narrator, injecting his personal politics not overtly but at that just-beneath-the-surface level of a slightly off Vietnam veteran talking about the war. There may not be any actual racial slurs tossed or anything you can pinpoint as being obviously racist, but the tone and phrasing leaves no doubt what the opinion really is. It's evidenced even in the way Sullivan throws in disgusted asides about how white cops can't follow the evidence if it looks like it might lead to anyone black being accused of a heinous crime. The subtext of reverse racism is obvious and highly distasteful coming from the author of the book. If these kinds of accusations are pertinent to the material, a truly neutral journalist would let them come in quotations from sources.
I'm really rather torn about this book. On one hand, it's a fascinating look at a set of cases that will probably always be linked together, it's a wonderful conspiracy tale and an incredibly interesting, if frightening, look at a particular time in Los Angeles' history. On the other hand, the book is clumsily written and lacks a lot of journalistic integrity which makes it feel salacious. I suppose that may just come with the territory for conspiracy books (another example is Jim Marrs's Crossfire about the JFK assassination, which has the same grudging appeal to a reader like me), but one wishes there were somehow a more studious examination of the subjects out there.(less)
When I was in junior high school, I started reading Stephen King novels. I was a timid, easily frightened little kid and I think in part my interest i...moreWhen I was in junior high school, I started reading Stephen King novels. I was a timid, easily frightened little kid and I think in part my interest in the creepy stories of King's early work was part of an effort to deal with the anxieties I labored under. Books were safe, salvational, and though titles like It, Carrie, and Pet Sematary were terrifying, there was something about them that I could confront where trips to the Halloween store and VHS copies of horror films were overwhelming. I read a lot of King's work between the ages of about 12 and 19, basically everything he published under his own name (I think the only Richard Bachman work I've read is The Regulators) up through 1996 (the only major novel release from that time period I skipped was Rose Madder). Since then, I've drifted from King's work, with a few exceptions like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and On Writing.
The reasons for me branching out don't have all that much to do with the quality of King's work (although the Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne era found me not really loving what he was putting out toward the end of my obsession there), and more to do with the fact that I no longer needed to prove myself capable of conquering literary fear and I transitioned to getting my chills and thrills from a long back catalog of horror movies while my reading preferences drifted into epic fantasy and other genres. Eventually my fascination with all sorts of macabre stuff faded along with my sense of invincible youth and the prospect of gaining entertainment value from death and terrestrial horror (regular humans doing despicable things, as seen in trash like Hostel and Human Centipede, perhaps influenced by similar subject matter in the less effective King novels around the time I stopped lining up for each new release) so I never really went back to the Stephen King well. And admittedly a big part of my inability (or unwillingness) to keep up was tied to the copy of The Dark Tower IV Wizard and Glass, which came out so long after I had finished the previous entry that I had trouble keeping up and frustrated me.
11/22/63 then is the first novel I've read by King, then, since probably 2000, and there are two key factors that did it: time travel and JFK. I don't think it mattered who wrote a novel that incorporates these two elements, I would have been intrigued either way; the fact that it represented an opportunity to re-visit an old favorite author was just a happy coincidence. So I picked up a copy of the 850-page brick that is 11/22/63 and re-acquainted myself with Mr. King.
The first thing that stood out to me—something I had forgotten—was what an easy, natural storyteller King is. His prose isn't jump-off-the-page spectacular, but he has such a way of drawing the reader along through even his epic tales that it never feels like you're reading a near-thousand page monster. He's particularly great about doing this kind of baldfaced foreshadowing thing where he doesn't allude to the significance of an early event, he plainly spells out that it matters, but he doesn't connect the dot right away, instead circling it in yellow highlighter so that the tension mounts as the chapters fall toward the front cover leaving the reader anxious to discover why that particular event matters.
11/22/63 is the story of Jake Epping, a divorced high school English teacher who stumbles across a sort of wormhole in the back of his friend Al's diner that he can pass through and come out in the same spot only in 1959. Each time through the portal, the world in 1959 is reset, but the effects of Jake and Al's actions in the past can have ripple effects so that when they return to 2011 (always two minutes later than when they went in, no matter how long they stay in the past), things may be different. Initially, Jake tests this theory by saving a family doomed to a horrific fate he knows about from a janitor pal at the school he teaches in, and though he is successful, he realizes there is sufficient uncertainty in the outcomes due to the oft-cited butterfly effect. But Al is convinced that the risks are worth it for one big intervention, one key opportunity to improve the past and create a better future: Stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Yet Al is dying of lung cancer and his final attempt sees his illness progressing too rapidly for him to make it to 1963, so he implores Jake to take up the cause. Thus begins the main thread of the narrative where Jake travels to the past for a four-year stint in which he is determined to find Lee Harvey Oswald and stop his plans. Under the guise of his past (King refers to it often as The Land of Ago) alias, George Amberson, Jake returns twice, once to stop the janitor's fate and check the outcome, and once to push all the way through to 1963 (if necessary) and do whatever it takes to prevent the death of the president.
The principal antagonist in the story is what Jake (and King) refer to as "the obdurate past," which in the world of 11/22/63 means that the past resists efforts to change it. And though Jake/George is determined to succeed in his mission, the obdurate past requires careful planning and patience to execute any sweeping ripple effects. As Jake's time in the early sixties drags on, he makes his way through by carefully manipulating the details he knows about, betting on sporting events to provide cash, lying smoothly to most everyone he meets, and he begins to sort of fall in love with the simpler times of Ago. Then, he falls in love with a woman, Sadie Dunhill.
The threads of Jake's existence in the past begin to twist themselves together, propelled along by that not-foreshadowing trick, the careful pacing squeezing tension deliberately like a snake slowly wrapping itself around prey, only tightening uncomfortably at the moment when it is too late. Sadie and George (Jake) have a cheer-them-on kind of romance, though George's secretiveness threatens their happiness, you see the bond they share working behind the scenes in what has got to be Stephen King's best depiction of love and tender romance that I've come across. Of course, this is Stephen King, so an ominous cloud hangs over them throughout, further dragging readers through the pages wondering how it will all work out.
There is an awful lot to like about 11/22/63, from the clever but simple mechanics of his time travel, the fun fanservice-y tie-in with his earlier novel (and one of my favorites), It; even the portrayal of life in the 60s through the lens of a modern man is impressive. Jake himself is a likable character, full of self-doubt and occasionally self-importance, but with a sharp wit and a not-too-schmaltzy big heart.
Late in the book there is a point at which the mounting tension hits a break point and King makes a specific decision that sets the stage for the dramatic climax and it was here that I remembered the other thing about Stephen King: he really struggles to find endings that leave readers—or at least me—feeling satisfied. I've wondered for a long time if King's books tend toward the epic in length because the author doesn't really want the stories to end, that he has more fun creating the worlds than making them change. If you've read a few of his novels, you can start to recognize where this process begins and King tends to make a particular decision that will define the context for the final push to the end and in 11/22/63, the point comes at just past the three-quarters mark in the 842-page book, (view spoiler)[when Jake's association with shady bookies catches up with him (hide spoiler)].
From that point on the book is not quite as delightful, and the event comes across as an obvious writer-tool to set up a race against the clock to try and avert the assassination. I didn't hate the turn the story took, but I felt it could have been executed more subtly or at least in a less formulaic fashion. Another side effect of this choice is that a book that has been... well, not exactly light-hearted, but at least fairly upbeat until the turning point. From there, the last quarter of the book passes by under a grim, dark shadow. I can't quite decide if this is an effective note to hit or if it feels uneven, though I lean toward the latter. There is something off-putting about the hasty final chapters that doesn't quite spoil the experience of the whole thing, but left me with a sense that at some point King decided the party just needed to end so he shut off all the lights and screamed, "Get Out!" It's not a bad ending, it's merely one that falls short of the promise shown in the first half. For a book that I loved for that long, to end with sort of a depressing sense of, "Yeah, sure, okay" was a disappointment.
(view spoiler)[One thing I did appreciate about the ending is the way that King—without stuffing it into your throat—points a spotlight on the fact that while it's easy to find people who bemoan the present, who wistfully speak of "the good ol' days," to even get the sense from reading a daily news site that things are tough all over, modern society has a lot going for it. There is a hard-to-spot undercurrent of hope in the bleak closing chapters which has no bearing on Jake at all, but says something larger about the way that we view the past and the way we might be best served when looking at the future. I liked that. (hide spoiler)]
In spite of a lukewarm sense about the end, I will say that it shouldn't stop anyone from reading the book. Stephen King may not be my favorite author anymore, but he remains a master storyteller and this book is a showcase for what happens when you give a great storyteller a great story to tell.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
There are some obvious parallels to make between Veronica Roth's Divergent and The Hunger Games: both feature a spunky young female protagonist who te...moreThere are some obvious parallels to make between Veronica Roth's Divergent and The Hunger Games: both feature a spunky young female protagonist who tells the tale in first-person present tense of a fragmented, dystopian society. There is also a progression that includes a dawning clarity of what the world they inhabit is really like, a coming-of-age tale intertwined with the science fiction trappings and more than a little violence in both. But Divergent isn't quite as direct of a parallel to The Hunger Games as, say, Battle Royale, it is more of a spiritual similarity. Where The Hunger Games might be thought of as kind of an action/adventure take on some of the same concepts that are present in Divergent, this book is more of a thriller/conspiracy entry into the young adult dystopian fantasy.
So I'll do my best herein to avoid drawing all the connections and comparisons to The Hunger Games. To me, Divergent is just the right kind of coattail rider in that it appeals to fans of the more popular (and earlier) series by filling that same narrative niche but it has its own perspective, its own world building and its own perspective on how such a society might look and what could come from it.
Divergent takes place in a future variant of Chicago, where society has been divided into five factions, each of whom organize their tasks and daily activities around a principle characteristic that they hold most dear: Abnegation believes in selflessness; Candor holds honesty as the highest virtue; Erudite value knowledge; Amity elevate pacifism; Dauntless hold courage above all else. Each child is born into a faction, where they stay and try to uphold the defining principle until they turn sixteen. At that point they are given an assessment test to see where their personality might be best suited and then are allowed to choose to stay with their families in their birth faction or switch to align with the results of the assessment.
(As an aside, it struck me as funny that the book almost seems to have been written with the idea, "Let's make a story that shows young readers how awesome thesauruses are!" That's not a criticism, really, the faction names are good words to know, it just made me laugh.)
Enter Beatrice. Abnegation by birth, she struggles with the faction's insistence on forgetting the self, but fears the prospect of abandoning her family. In spite of her society's adherence to the mantra "faction before blood," she knows it would crush her parents and her very Abnegation-like brother if she abandoned them. Then in her assessment she gets a curious result: inconclusive. The test giver describes her with an unfamiliar word, along with a dire warning never to reveal it to anyone: Divergent.
A conflicted Beatrice doesn't know what it means or what she is supposed to do. At the last minute she chooses to switch factions (this isn't a spoiler, although I'll refrain from revealing where she transfers to; it would be a very dull book if it chronicled the initiation process in Abnegation) and the majority of the book describes her initiation into the new faction, her inner turmoil over her decision, the fear she retains over the test results, and the frightening, possibly dangerous new Divergent label she carries.
I will say here that I really enjoyed this book. Roth's pacing is rapid and her protagonist is likable, flawed and has a clear voice. Some of the supporting characters are less well developed and harder to identify with, though a few (mostly the ones who matter) are nicely rounded. The revelations here don't come all that quickly, Ms. Roth seeming to prefer to pack them all in at the end, which is breakneck and tense. This is not to suggest the book is dull or pointless before this point, but the development of the characters and the world takes precedence for about 75% of the novel and I get the sense that the deliberate tempo through the first three-quarters will be welcome as the series unfolds since the situation the characters are left at just before the drop-off cliffhanger ending seems to not leave much room for additional background on the world or the principals.
A couple of small nitpicks: there is a certain morbidity to the book in that by the end the body count of significant characters gets pretty high and there is a bit of casualness to the violence that I wasn't all that crazy about. Also the central romance is less effective than in other, similar books. Thankfully there is no love triangle to speak of but the relationship between Beatrice and her object of affection lacks that "root-em-on" element that other authors have been better able to capture.
And then the larger complaint: I don't know that I fully buy the premise of the dystopia here. I'm willing to overlook a lot of the questions I have about the whats and whys of this fictional society because Ms. Roth simply doesn't reveal enough about the world's history or the social constructs that prop it up to make a determination about its plausibility. But I see a potential for great narrative disaster in forthcoming installments if she doesn't manage to inject some believability into it at some point. The fact that young members of the society can (even if its considered somewhat rude) switch factions carries a number of implications that aren't addressed well enough here to determine if they hint at a grand social experiment gone awry or a core social structure that is doomed, even at the conceptual level, to failure. It's not a fault inherent in Divergent, because this book skirts the issues, but it is potentially problematic down the road, and I hope Roth has a clever plan in place to make it pass the smell test when revealed. I suppose it might be possible to continue to avoid the issue and never reveal how it all came about or what (might have) gone wrong. But there are enough hints throughout this volume to suggest that won't be her approach and I wish I could say I was more confident that when all is explained it will still permit suspension of disbelief.
Still, this is a very good novel, tons of fun, a quick (if not blistering) read and a truly effective launch into a new series that had me picking up the second book, Insurgent, before I had even turned the last page so I could continue reading about Beatrice's exploits right away.(less)
There's really no mincing around it, I really struggled to get through this book. I tore through the first entry in Veronica Roth's Divergent series i...moreThere's really no mincing around it, I really struggled to get through this book. I tore through the first entry in Veronica Roth's Divergent series in under a week. It took me just shy of three months to reach the end of Insurgent.
I compared Divergent to The Hunger Games in my review of that novel, but Insurgent is more like Mockingjay: full of irritating inter-character conflict, packed with a deconstruction of the protagonist that makes her suddenly unsympathetic, and paced so poorly that each chapter in the lengthy middle grinds by like each tick of an insomniac's alarm clock.
Essentially the entire—and I kind of hesitate to use the term—plot of Insurgent relies on poor communication between Tris and Tobias/Four. On one hand, okay, sure. These are two teenagers in love. Miscommunication is okay. Except they are constantly presented with opportunities, even mandates to clear the air and they refuse. At one point they are each forced to unburden themselves of the secrets they've been keeping and somehow still manage to avoid sorting it out. Perhaps the most annoying part of this is how frequently Tris considers telling Four what she's thinking and then flatly rejects the notion with variants of this rationale: "I'd tell him what I'm thinking, and I know it would make everything better, but I just can't." Eventually this deficit of logic (recall, too, that Tris is supposedly Divergent toward Erudite as well) simply makes Tris loathsome. Perhaps these flaws are supposed to make her more human, but they don't come across as flaws, they come across as stupid mistakes, mistakes that break the suspension of disbelief.
The culmination of all this comes during the finale, when Tris confronts Four about trusting her. "I am exactly who you think I am," she chides him, bitter that he is expressing doubt about her motivations. My eyes rolled around in my head. After all her fickleness, deceit, lies and erratic behavior, no one—least of all Tris herself—knows exactly who she is. For this to be her play to get a closed-off, secretive Four to accept her at face value is laughable. Of course it works, because it has to.
Beyond the mushy character drama, we also have the problem of the rest of the story. Too many side characters traipse in and out of the narrative, offering little, frequently dying in what I guess are supposed to be emotional hooks. Tris and company kind of float around, with things happening that are vaguely central to the arc that follows the aftermath of Erudite's hostile takeover bid. But none of the transitions between the scenes really make a lot of sense, none of the key events seem to propel the plot forward. This was a vague criticism in the first book as well, but at least the meat of the second act was the Dauntless training program which was interesting and exciting in itself. Here the central cast waits passively for off-camera characters to make decisions and occasionally strain credibility by inserting themselves into those larger conflicts. For me, that just made it drag, and drag. And drag.
And then suddenly I hit about the 85% mark (according to my Kindle stats), which is roughly Chapter 40. And, as with Divergent, the pace quickened, the action kicked into gear, and I was interested again. From this point on the book flew by. Yes, that conflict at the end between Tris and Four was laughable, but aside from that it was exciting and I remembered why I had been so excited to read this book. Moreover, these last seven or eight chapters reminded me that this could have been a fun book to read; the first certainly was.
Now, there is still the lingering problem of the glibness Ms. Roth applies to her violence. Even when Insurgent is at last opening up the pace and racing to the end, people are being brutalized and killed without much weight being applied to the act itself. Tris internalizes the grief about the results of violence at the end of the first novel (she spends a lot of time struggling with her parents' death in this novel, which is supposed to be part of the source of tension between her and Four, though it doesn't work) and she uses her outrage at the demise of others to spur her to action. And yet, the horrors of the actions themselves are not sufficient. There is a clinical air to the depictions of shootings, stabbings, fisticuffs, murder and other assorted mayhem that reeks of video game consequence. In this world, carnage is only significant if the person mattered to someone else, it seems. It's quite unsettling.
Lastly, two other observations. One is that the title of this book is referred to in-dialogue complete with a character giving a dictionary definition along with it. I guess my joke about these books being subtle hints for readers to love their reference manuals wasn't such a joke. The scene was so corny, I had to laugh. The other is that my suspicions about the truth behind the world building (I'm sure they were practically everyone's suspicions; they amount to (view spoiler)[a city in a bottle(hide spoiler)]) were apparently true. And that's kind of bad because it means the premise of this dystopian/utopian Chicago is fundamentally flawed, suggesting the whole series premise is flawed.
So I can't recommend Insurgent. The last few chapters do help turn around a very frustrating book, but not enough to truly salvage it. I certainly can't say I hated it, but there are too many problems within. At this point I'm on the fence about continuing with the next series entry. I suspect it will depend on whether this ends up being a trilogy (as in, will the next book wrap up the loose ends or not?); if so, I'll probably finish it out. If it's ongoing, I think I'll take a cue from the Dauntless: I'm jumping off here.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Sometimes I pick up a book or graphic novel for reasons I can't really explain. Maybe later I'll try to retroactively ascribe meaning to it: "Oh, I he...moreSometimes I pick up a book or graphic novel for reasons I can't really explain. Maybe later I'll try to retroactively ascribe meaning to it: "Oh, I heard the writer's name in passing" or "The [cover|title] really grabbed me" or "It was a staff recommendation and I just went with it." Whether those things really had an impact on my decision to try the book in question or not is probably immaterial. Occasionally I'll just give something a random chance, just to see.
I did that with Fatale. I knew nothing about it, or its creative team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Maybe I should have known Brubaker since he's done a lot of comics work that I might have heard of, but I've only gotten back into comics again (after a decade-and-a-half hiatus) in the past year or so. Anyway, I didn't know really what to expect going in.
What I got was a gripping, classic hard-boiled noir story with a heavy coat of Lovecraftian weirdness. That alone probably would have hooked me, even if the execution was hackneyed, but fortunately Brubaker belts it out of the park here. Phillips's art is tonally appropriate, skirting the line between modern and classic pulp expertly, and what really struck me is how cohesive the whole thing feels. These two have worked together in the past and it's pretty impressive to see a professional relationship gel into something tangible in a final work. This is the kind of thing that was most hit-and-miss with, say, Neil Gaiman's Sandman run: as good as it is, that show belongs to the writer. The artists just try to keep up. Here it feels like a collaboration, and that elevates the work overall.
I will admit I had some trouble keeping track of the characters sometimes. Phillips's character designs aren't quite sharp enough to make every one (except for sort-of title character Jo, and then only because she's lamentably the only real female character) easily distinguishable, but it made me read a little more closely which was to my benefit anyway since this is a complex story that gets even tricker very fast.
My biggest complaint is in the area of Brubaker's portrayal of women. He succumbs to the women in refrigerators syndrome and even Jo is, in spite of her intentionally archetypal trappings, kind of one-note through the five issues collected here. I get that with the time period and types of characters the story needed to focus on it makes a sort of sense to be a little dude-heavy, but I mean, c'mon, can't even a few of the evil cultists be women?
Still, there are two more collected volumes and the story is still ongoing in monthlies so I'll spare the heavy judgment until there's at least two arc's worth of stories under my belt. And that should be taken as a given that I'm going to continue to read this series.(less)