Unreliable Narrators

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn & The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Crown, 2012

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Riverhead Books, 2015

In 2012, Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl and kick-started our current craze for unreliable narrator stories. 2015 saw the release of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and the unreliable narrator novel was firmly ensconced.

Rarely have I witnessed two books compared to each other more than these.

Not only was The Girl on the Train trumpeted as “this year’s Gone Girl,” not only did every critic and reviewer on the planet compare the two, but just about everyone I knew picked a favorite and took a side in the which-is-better debate.

Most people I know like both but have a clear preference for one or the other, and there are more than a few who love one and hate the other.

For most, their preference seems to boil down to which narrator appealed to them best. It’s not a matter of which you like best, as neither narrator is intended to be likeable. But both are meant to be intriguing.

I’m convinced that character appeal isn’t all that’s going on here. I think focusing on which narrator appeals the most is circling around a deeper issue.

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Further Ruminations on Jerusalem by Alan Moore

Reader comments left on a copy of Jerusalem by Alan Moore

Reader comments left on a copy of Jerusalem by Alan Moore

Photo from the ReBound event on March 21, 2017, hosted by the Young Friends of the Kansas City Public Library and KCUR’s Generation Listen KC at the recordBar in Kansas City, Mo.

Image © Kansas City Public Library. Used with permission.

After writing the single longest and most exhaustive review I’ve ever written for Jerusalem by Alan Moore, I find I still have more to say.

I’ve had conversations now with a few other people about this book and discovered that I’m in a minority in my opinion. Most people I know couldn’t stand it. Most didn’t finish it. Mostly, they found it too long, too wordy, too self-indulgent. The general reaction is that Moore desperately needed an editor to reel him in.

I get that. On some level, I feel this way, too. I spent quite a lot of the book convinced that he was over-indulgent and lacking writerly discipline.

However, as others have stated (and I quote Library Journal here), Jerusalem is “[m]ore a work of art than a novel.”

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Book Review: Jerusalem by Alan Moore

Jerusalem by Alan Moore
Jerusalem by Alan Moore
Liverlight, 2016
Cover art © Alan Moore

The greatest challenge about reviewing Jerusalem by Alan Moore is summarizing what it’s about. This isn’t a traditional novel and it doesn’t deliver a normal story. The plot is meandering, almost vestigial in some sections. Setting is paramount—language, tone, atmosphere, characters: all of these matter far more than mere plot.

I’ve come to think of this book as being akin to the Bayeux Tapestry—a sprawling and artistically audacious account of a place and its people. It’s a love letter to a neighborhood as only Moore can write it.

In general terms, it’s a quasi-fictional history of the Boroughs—the poverty-stricken Northampton neighborhood in England where Alan Moore was born, raised, and still lives—from ancient times through the near future, not told in chronological order, and actively eschewing the concept of linear narrative. It’s the story of a unique family who lives there through several generations, and various persons associated with them. It’s a story of the afterlife and eternity and the Universe. It’s a story about life and death, art and work, obligation and free will, ghosts and angles and builders and demons. Visions and dreams are as real in this world as reality.

If I had to categorize this book, I’d probably call it fantastical realism. Everyone is going to shelve it in their SF sections. But it’s more than just these—it’s philosophical, historical, political, religious.

It’s holy and profane, poetic and pedestrian, beautiful and gritty. It’s deeply human. It’s hard to explain. You really need to read it.

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Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, directed by Gareth Edwards
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Screenplay by Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy
Story by John Knoll & Gary Whitta
Produced by Lucasfilm, Ltd.
Distributed by Walt Disney Studios, 2016

I finally saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this weekend and I’m very happy with it. I enjoyed it immensely and I have many thoughts about it now.

I should point out that I never had much to do with the Expanded Universe—I read a couple of the novels but I never paid much attention to it. I’ve also never watched any of the animated series (“Star Wars: The Clone Wars” or “Star Wars: Rebels”). My reactions to Rogue One come purely from the perspective of how well it fits in with the other movies.

**WARNING: SPOILERS**

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My Least Favorite Books of 2016

In advance of my annual “Year in Reading” summary, I thought I’d post a list of the books I read this year that I liked least. Or, more accurately—the books that disappointed me the most. Because reading isn’t just about what you like—it’s about what you don’t like, too.

Inclusion on this list doesn’t necessarily mean the book is bad. There are titles here which are very good—they just weren’t my thing. Some titles make this list because I had hoped for more from them. Other titles are on this list because I genuinely believe they’re poor work.

This is not a definitive ranking. Titles are listed in alphabetical order by author.

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Book Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage by Justin Cronin
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Ballantine Books, 2010

On paper, there’s a lot I could criticize about The Passage by Justin Cronin.

The plot isn’t terribly original: a virus is unwittingly unleashed by the government which turns people into something very much like vampires. Mr. Cronin presents the standard well-intentioned scientist whose work is hijacked by the military (which, as expected, doesn’t go well). There’s a roster of bad guys, a cop with a conscience, and a Chosen One whose arrival can save mankind. There’s even an oracle of sorts.

It’s a man-made apocalypse story built on fairly generic story tropes. We witness the moment it all goes wrong and then spend the rest of the novel living in the post-apocalyptic world of the few survivors.

We’ve seen all this before. I Am Legend, zombie movies, The Walking Dead, et al. The ending offers a faint wisp of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even the hive-mind wrinkle the author incorporates into his vampires is a familiar idea.

But none of that is a problem. None of it is a weakness. None of it feels derivative. This is one of the best renditions of all these ideas I’ve read.

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Book Review: Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke

Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke
Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke
The Overlook Press, 2014

Why do stories work the way they do? Why are they structured the way they are?

These questions fascinate me. Storytelling—its nature, how it works, the role it plays in human lives and society—fascinates me. As much as anything, storytelling is what marks human beings as unique among all the animals of Earth. The act of telling stories partakes equally of our capacity for imagination and our need to discern pattern in world around us. We use stories to try and make sense of our experiences and simultaneously celebrate the mysterious and unknowable. It’s both creative and formulaic.

The stories we choose to tell, and the ways we choose to tell them, tell us who we are and how we understand our role in existence.

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