Trace my IP address

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

When a Fairy Tale is Good... and When it Isn't

Sometimes, you really need a slice or three of your favorite pizza. (Go on, admit it.) Other times, nothing but a bowl of decadent ice cream (you know, the good stuff) can quench that craving you feel. And often, only the thought of a stiff drink at the end of a long day can put things to rights in your world.

When it comes to books, though, what is an equivalent treat/reward, when you're feeling sort of done in, when you're effectively "toast"? Something not too heady, too erudite, clearly; if your goal is escapism and guilty pleasure, you’re not exactly gonna pull out the Dostoyevsky or Hawthorne, are you?

No, for me that sort of release—the polar opposite of a trying day—is generally going to involve a fantasy… and one on the more effervescent, playful end of the spectrum rather than the elaborately-built-out-worlds end, because if it’s escapism I’m after, I really don’t wanna be tasked with thinking too hard.

So, over the past month or so, I’ve found myself flipping through two such lighthearted little bits of frivolity, in between other books and, you know, life. One turned out to be exactly what I needed; the other… eh, not so much.

And here’s the kicker: both were by the same author... with rather different results. I present, W.R. Gingell’s Masque and Spindle.

* ~ * ~ * 

The description of Masque hooked me from the start: “Beauty met the Beast and there was… bloody murder?”. (Major points for adapting a fairy tale; what could possibly be more escapist than that?)

Better yet, though, the book followed through on its promise. Lady Isabella Farrah is the perfect heroine for this sort of piece—beautiful, charming, spunky, ever-so-witty, and (conveniently, for the plot, natch) an “old maid” (at the advanced age of 28, gasp!). While her younger siblings are at home or off doing other things, she is acting as her politician-father’s aide while they’re in the capitol city seeing to political business. When, during the course of an evening at a big party, she stumbles into a murder scene—the victim being one of her friends, no less-- she finds a new/secondary purpose for herself: to (help) solve the murder.

The only problem with that? The man tasked with solving it—one Lord Pecus (Commander of the Watch, as well as rich, eligible, and suitably-mysterious bachelor)—has no desire to have her help. At all.

What follows is, of course, somewhat predictable… but who reads fairy tales (light fantasies, etc.) expecting to be gobsmacked, anyway? (Certainly not about the final outcome.) But it’s an utterly-delicious ride from those first pages to reach the end of the story, full of little twists, plenty of humor, a good sense of place, and a host of very well-drawn supporting characters.

Spindle, on the other hand, provided me with very little of what I had found so utterly fun and absorbing in the previous book.

Oh, it started off with some promise; where Masque was clearly a riff on “Beauty and the Beast”, Spindle took on “Sleeping Beauty” (which, in and of itself, was certainly fine). The problem, though, is that Spindle almost entirely lacked in great (or even, particularly good) characters.

Polyhymnia (thankfully, “Poly” for short) is the long-hidden princess who’s been slumbering away whilst under a sleeping curse… which is finally, after many decades, broken by one Luck, a—erm—rather lucky enchanter. The surprise for Luck? Poly insists she isn’t a princess. (Of course, she also insists she has no magic in her, which is clearly not the case.)

Now, it’s certainly no shock that these two are destined (by the author, if not by the reader’s common sense) to wind up together. But, as just intimated, that’s sort of an issue, here… chiefly, because neither of the two main characters acquits her-/himself in a particularly interesting manner, nor do they have any discernible chemistry. Like, none at all.

In fact, the only character in Spindle I actually found myself enjoying was a dog who… well, is more than he appears. (And even the novelty of that wore off after a time.)

Additionally, if I were editing Spindle, I could easily (and would joyfully!) have hacked off a good third of it, and suggested it be offered up as a novella rather than a full-length work. (It still wouldn’t have been aces, but removing so much sheer drudgery—page after page, chapter after chapter—of nothing of any interest or import happening, would at least have tightened up the story and made it considerably better.)

As it stands, though, I was so weary of a whole lotta nothingness that when the end was in sight—and the few things that were going to happened actually did—that I had a hard time caring.

 * ~ * ~ * 

Ms. Gingell definitely has some talent for this sort of tale, and—on the basis of Masque, alone—I’ll definitely look at some of her other works… but I’m going to need a while, because I simply couldn’t face the potential disappointment of finding I’d had the misfortune to latch onto something more like the dreary Spindle than like the delicious Masque, quite so soon. 


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Big Dreams and Even-Bigger Disappointments... That's Showbiz, Folks!

Los Angeles, California--What People (who don’t live there) Think It Is: Endless sun, beaches, surfing, skateboarding, movie and TV stars, glamourous shopping meccas, ostentatious wealth, kooks, vineyards, pot, egos, traffic, earthquakes, and big dreams.

Los Angeles, California--What It Really Is: All of the above… plus dust, smog, pedestrians, industry folks moonlighting in a lot of inglorious jobs (because they can’t make ends meet, otherwise), ratty apartments, ordinary people, fabulous diversity of foods, loneliness, and unfulfilled dreams. 

Prior to making the Golden State my home, I probably wouldn’t have come up with everything on the second list; you can’t really know a place unless you spend some time there… as author Robert Bryndza (writing with husband Jan Bryndza, this time) clearly did, going by the tale told in Lost in Crazytown.

Lost in Crazytown centers around Filip--a guy not unfamiliar in Hollywood… transplanted from somewhere else (in his case, London), trying to get over a recent breakup, youthful, gay, with dreams of making it big (as a celebrity stylist). 

Aside from having to leave everyone and everything he knows behind and moving thousands of miles to a place where he knows a total of one person, it seems like a sensible enough plan, right? Well, sure… until the plane touches down and he learns that his sole L.A. acquaintance isn’t picking him up at the airport, but is leaving the country at that very minute for a gig, tossing Filip the keys to an apartment and a rental car as they pass each other on the concourse. (It’s important to point out here that Filip’s first experience driving on the “wrong” side of a car—which must be returned the next day—and the “wrong” side of the road, will be in L.A. traffic, leaving LAX.) 

This situation is not remotely ideal. Nor, as it turns out, is much of anything else. From the eccentric gay couple (of the “have-wealth-but-lack-anything-remotely-resembling-good-taste” variety) with whom he eventually strikes up a sort of not-exactly-friendship (more out of necessity than anything else), to the fading B-list actress (desperately trying to cling to the last vestiges of her former fame) for whom he winds up working, Filip finds not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (or bottom of the Hollywood sign), but rather, frustration and disappointment at nearly every hairpin curve. 

Until, that is, he somehow manages to find himself, again… and discovers what he really wants—what really matters to him—in life. 

Robert Bryndza has become an author whose works I look for and anticipate before they come out. (The Erika Foster detective series keeps getting better and better, and his lighter works showcase witty comedic chops.) So, in addition to the obvious allure of reading about a fellow newbie in Tinseltown, it seemed a safe bet that Lost in Crazytown would provide some good fun, and I wasn’t disappointed. By turns amusing (sometimes even laugh-out-loud funny) and almost unbelievable (meaning, the situations he lays out are actually just the sorts of things that happen for reals, yo), I raced through this small tome, anxious to see how it all worked out… even as I was sad to say “buh-bye” to Filip (an imminently-likable protagonist). 

For anyone who has ever toyed with the idea of living around Hollywood (or pretty much anywhere in the vast L.A. metro), or just visiting (particularly if you’re of the mindset that everything is rosy out here), Lost in Crazytown is a great little read. 


Friday, April 28, 2017

(Fewer Than 13 Reasons) Why "13 Reasons Why" is Important

Although I finished watching Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” more than a couple weeks ago, now, it’s taken me a little while to corral my thoughts. (Granted, I’ve been busy, but attributing the length of time to only that would be disingenuous; this was one of those series which struck a chord or three.)

[I should mention here that "13" is based on a Young Adult fiction book by Jay Asher under the same name, "Thirteen Reasons Why", which I have not yet read... but may well look into, after this.]

Initially I bypassed “13”, on purpose—not because I knew what the subject matter was (which I did), but because of an (unfounded) assumption that it was probably just another in a string of annoying, modern-teenagers-acting-out pieces (which, at my age, I’m SO OVER).

I’m really glad I was wrong. And, I’m glad that curiosity (fate?) led me to push the “play” button on my remote one night, when searching for something to watch while I worked out.

For anyone who doesn’t know—and this is not a spoiler—“13” is about the suicide of a 17-year-old girl (“Hannah”)… all the events which inexorably led to her last and (very) final act, the parts that other people played (and, interestingly, how they were viewing the same events and circumstances), and—of course—the repercussions which followed.

One interesting choice the writer(s) made was Hannah’s use of audio cassette tapes (yeah, as in “the 1980s are calling, and want their mix tapes back”) to convey her thought processes to everyone she left behind, post mortem. (This actually didn’t ring true for me, since she wasn’t a Luddite; she used her cell phone—exactly as most of us do, and as the other kids in the story did [with great effect regarding several key plot points, no less]—all the time, throughout the series, which would’ve made recording digitally—both audio AND video—way more likely. Still, the tapes and boomboxes were a little blast from the past for Gen Xers [and earlier], so a nifty plot contrivance, at least.)

And sure, the teens were—in some ways—just as annoying as I expected… but much more importantly, they were just as I remembered… and that, to an adult (especially one who doesn’t have any children) is where this series really shines: in its ability to put you right back in the middle of your own high school career, feeling Every Little Thing—whether it be a joy or a slight—so very, very deeply.

It seems that things—people, in particular—haven’t really changed, despite the aforementioned Gen Xers' (and beyond) insistence that “kids these days”… know nothing, have no clue what “it” was like, etc. High-school girls are shown to still be catty, fickle, and often cruel to/about each other, and their male counterparts are depicted as over-sexed, cocky, and way too into their own statuses to be aware that anyone else even has feelings. (See? Just like when I was younger, and no doubt, when you were, as well.)

Well… at least the “popular” kids still regularly exhibit such traits. The less-popular—from the misfits to the brains to the “just-plain-different”—have their own things (although typically not quite as hurtful to others, by sheer dint of understanding what it feels like to be slighted, and trying a little harder not to do so). The point is, ALL of them are dealing with their own STUFF… and, just like the adults we run into every day—friends in real life, people we know on Facebook, or strangers in the news—not everyone deals with his/her stuff successfully.

What “13” really got right, to me, then, is that concept: every single person is affected by all sorts of things… but each individual’s reactions to the same/similar things may be vastly different… so different, in fact, that we may not have any inkling that someone else is going down the tubes, circling the drain, or ready to pull the plug. (Just how many sayings with negative connotations having to do with water are there, anyway??)

Did “13” successfully take me back? Hell, yes, it did. And were they comfortable, those memories? Some, sure… but there were plenty that were anything but pleasant, too. I even shed a few tears (though not, I suspect, where the writers expected me to).

As for the overarching “lessons”—in what my admittedly-jaded self longs to refer to as a “glorified, thirteen-episode-after-school special” (which again, is something Gen Xers will get)— what of them? Was anything solved, were there any brilliant pieces of new wisdom that came through? Well, no. Teenagers will, it’s no great stretch to assume, likely always be some combination of cruel and unthinking to each other (and don’t even go into how they are with adults; anyone who is no longer a teen remembers what a mess all of that was). And technology and social media—which have only increased the scope of how such damages can be done—are surely not going away, ever, so there’s that, too.

In the end, the best we can do, I think, is probably not all that different from what our parents and other adults tried to do, back whenever… Pay attention. Be aware. Ask questions. Have uncomfortable conversations. Set boundaries and enforce rules. Be compassionate. And hold onto a hell of a lot of hope, because when one person does slip through the cracks? It creates a hole we are all left trying to figure out how to fill… which is, when you think about it, really just as it should be.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Librarians Only WISH Their Jobs Could Be So Fascinating...

The Masked Library is the second in author Genevieve Cogman's "Invisible Library" series, and certainly has much to recommend it as a follow-up to the first in the series, The Invisible Library. We continue following the activities of Irene, a young (but not too-young) librarian, which... well, let's refresh a bit first, shall we?

In Cogman's well-constructed environment, there are actually multiple worlds (and alternate worlds) in existence, most of which have some level of magical powers present. (Think a sort-of-Steampunk-meets-magic place, as Irene's current base of operations is a Victorian London.) The fae and other magical folk, not-too surprisingly, can move between these worlds; regular humans can only do so with a little magical help. And then, there are the Librarians--normal-ish people who study, intern, and are eventually hired by great institutions known as Libraries--who can move between the worlds (along with being able to do a host of other useful things, when needed) by their use of a special Language (and generally, a proximity to books, if not an actual library). The Librarians' main purpose is to--ehem, acquire--rare books for the particular Library where each of them is employed... by whatever means necessary (and yes, you should draw your own conclusions from there).

In this outing, Irene isn't tasked with finding a book, but rather, takes off on her own when her apprentice--the (only-slightly-younger-than-herself) dragon, Kai--is abducted by a nefarious husband-&-wife fae duo and transported to another world (an alt-version of Victorian-era Venice, as it happens)... one in which his own powers (not to mention, that of his family) are very weak.

Cogman's descriptions--particularly as seen through her protagonist, Irene's, eyes--are sumptuous... but therein lies part of the problem, for me; the author tends to go on, a bit, leaving me to skim long passages while searching for the next thing (as in anything) to happen. Some of the scenes with multiple characters are much the same; after I, as the reader, had "gotten the point" in a scene, it would have behooved Cogman to pick up the pace, again, rather than belaboring said point(s). In other words, another pass of editing may well have tightened things up just enough to omit the definite lags I experienced. (Visuals can only carry one so far, before one wearies of a sight... no matter how breathtaking or fascinating that sight might be.)

Still--provided you're willing to put yourself through a bit of wading-&-skimming--I'm give this book a strong recommendation, on the basis that it's a competent continuation of an interesting, compelling series which sets itself apart from other Steampunk-ish/historical-urban-fantasy tales by sheer dint of originality.