Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Writing Wednesdays: The Reformed 1.4

This is Part 5 of my continuing story "The Reformed."  You can catch up by following this link.  Also, yesterday's post on the issue of trilogies verses standalones brought about some interesting discussion in the comments.  If you'd like to share your opinion, click here.  As always, thanks for reading!

January 13, 2020 
            “Where are you hurting, Sienne?”  Dr. Andrews asked gently.
“Everywhere.  My arms.  My toes.  My teeth.  My heart.  I hurt everywhere.”  Her voice was impassioned, uncaring.  
“Why are you hurting?”
“Because I am dead.”
“No, you hurt because you aren’t dead.  The dead feel no pain.”  Sienne didn’t want to believe her, but didn’t think she would lie.  Dr. Andrews cared for her.  She had never hurt her like Dr. Couric had.  She was her only friend in the new world.
“I am not dead.  The dead feel no pain.”  She repeated the words.  If she wasn’t dead, then she had no idea what she was.  Certainly not alive, despite the thumping of her heart and the workings of her lungs.  It took more than body mechanics to be alive.
They were sitting in a small study, filled with books and papers.  Sienne barely registered the chain that bound her legs to a rod beneath the sofa.  A gyroscope-like device was spinning on the table behind her, emitting a soft vibrating sound.  Sienne found its rhythm intoxicating.  It seemed to be singing a soft lullaby, one only she could hear, crafted just for her.
“Why are you hurting?” Dr. Andrews asked again.
“I am hurting because I am not dead and because you and Dr. Couric are trying to make me better.”
“Very good.”
“I am hurting because the tests I go through cause me pain on my tender flesh.  I am hurting because needles are sharp and veins are not.  I am hurting because electricity burns when it runs through my body.  I am hurting because I have not eaten in so long that I imagine my gizzard is shriveled to a pebble and has forgotten what it’s like to house food.  I am hurting because I was once shot through the gut with a harpoon, and ever since then feeling has been returning to my body.  That is why I am hurting, Dr. Andrews.”
Dr. Andrews frowned and put her head down.  For a while she said nothing, though Sienne thought she heard her whispering.  The gyroscope continued to buzz, now spinning quickly on its legs.  Sienne watched the metal within metal turn on itself, orbiting and rotating and vibrating seamlessly.  Three spheres all working together, never touching or affecting the other’s spin, but still deeply connected.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Andrews said.  Sienne turned back to the woman.  Her eyes were puffy and her cheeks flushed.  With her red hair, it looked like her entire head was ablaze.  “I think that’s enough for today.”  Sienne was having trouble hearing her.  The vibrating song was faster now, reaching crescendo, demanding her attention.
“Wh-What, Dr. Andrews?  I...”  The pleasing vibrations suddenly hit a sour note, reaching a frequency high and crippling like the sonic guns that were used on her so long ago.  She tried to bring her hands up, but they were too heavy, like something was keeping them down.  The shrill peaked, bringing an explosion of pain and flashes of light.  The last thing Sienne saw was tears flowing from Dr. Andrews’ soft eyes.

When she awoke, she was back in her room in her own bed.  No longer confined to the dark cell she once was, Sienne had been given a spacious private room on an upper-level floor.  In addition to the bed, she had her own stock of books and magazines, though she cared little for reading.  She preferred drawing, losing herself in the energy from creating works of art.  Dr. Andrews encouraged this.
A dull drum was throbbing inside her skull.  Through the shallow skin above the temple she could feel the pulsating.  Everything hurt.
You hurt because you aren’t dead.
Why did she think that?  Of course she was dead.  The mirror in the room made that obvious.  She was a skeleton, lightly covered in flesh, pallid and fragile.  Muscle definition was long forgotten.  So were the curves of her hips and breasts.  Even the splotchy hair that had clung on for so long was now gone, shaved or fallen out she couldn’t remember.  
She’d been beautiful once.  A creature of night.  Stealthy.  Strong.  A hunter.  Never hungry, not like she was now.  No, you were always hungry.  Never filled.  Her head swam in the hazy words.  The voice sounded like her own, but the words were wrong.  Out of context.  Forced, even.
She arose from the bed and paced around the room.  Through the barred windows she watched the snow fall.  Already everything was coated in the white powder.  Rooftops of lower buildings.  The makeshift tent shelters down the street.  Even the road had an icy sheen to it.  Far below, hundreds of tiny figures swarmed through the streets, moving this way and that.  She watched a dark van lose control and spin completely around.  People scattered and jumped out of the way.  She couldn’t tell whether or not anybody was hurt, but a crowd began to gather around the now smoking vehicle.  She looked away, out into the distance at the large cloud-making facility away from the city walls.  It was this that gave power to the Hub.
She sighed, partially from the throbbing in her head, but mostly out of boredom.  There was nothing to do.  Even charcoal and paper did not entice her.  Most of her animal instincts had waned.  No longer was she complacent to sit idly, content in simplicity.  Of course, she no longer lunged for the nearest throat either.  They assured her that everything was going great.  She was progressing faster than they had expected.  Perhaps in a month or two she’d be changed back.
This confused her more than anything else.  “Changed back to what?” she had asked.  
“Why, changed back to human, of course.”  Dr. Couric laughed and she wanted to tear out his throat and suck down the blood for it.
There was no way that she had once been human.  Sure, they both walked on two feet and had a similar body build, but the comparisons ended there.  The prey was weak-fleshed.  Bags of blood.  They breathed life.  She breathed death.  Destruction.  She was nothing like them.  She was...
What?  They called her a zeta, but the label meant nothing.  Zetas were people like her, they said, people transformed.  And they were sick.  Without treatment they would die.  The doctors were trying to help her.  She had to cooperate to save herself and her people.  They needed her to help save the world.  Something did not feel right about it.
She left the window and returned to the bed.  The revived heartbeat brought another change.  Constant lethargy.  She was almost always tired, never far from sleep.  She stared out the window and watched the snow fall, wishing to be past the walls and floating down with the cold wind.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Problem With Trilogies? a Response

Blogger Kristopher Denby, of The Sound and Fury of Kristopher A. Denby, has recently posted his review on Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself.  In short, he didn't like the book, seeing it as just another overused copycat of Tolkien.  He muses,

"Seriously. What’s wrong with one book that tells an engrossing, solid, character driven story? Oh, right. Those other books are for world building. Setting up the environment, while introducing the audience to the various characters that will inevitably wander some lonely, barren part of a fantasy world on a quest for some holy trinket (sprechen sie ring?). If you’re lucky (not so in the case of The Blade Itself ) the author might get ‘round to telling you just exactly what these characters are going to be getting into in the other two books, and why you should even give one crap about them, their plight, or their silly quest. Unfortunately, by the time Abercrombie begins to explain some of these little details in The Blade Itself, I was too bored to really care one way or the other."

Now I’m all for personal opinions.  Not everyone is going to agree on whether or not a book or movie is good.  That’s understood.  Heck, that’s desired even.  But the part I’m concerned with is the problem with a story that spills outside the bounds of one book.  True, many SFF stories span multiple volumes, telling sprawling epics that take thousands of pages to complete.  The rare standalones, such as Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker or Elantris, are unheard of.

I think a problem people have with multiple-book series is that they don’t have the time to sit down and read them.  In our busy world, we have so many things to do, reading time is not a priority for most.  People get it when they can, but more often than not, reading is cast off until we have time for it.  Personally, I carry a book with me almost everywhere I go.  I read when I take the dogs out.  I read in the bathroom.  I read while my wife shops.  And every night before bed, I usually put in an hour or two.  Books have always been a part of my life, and I’ve always wanted to progress in the story whenever I could.

And therein is my problem with trilogies.  I don’t see a trilogy as three separate stories.  No, a trilogy is one long story spread out over three volumes.  While each individual piece will have its own sub-plot, these sub-plots alone don’t tell the story, only when they come together is everything made clear.  Think of STAR WARS.  A New Hope introduces the characters and the main plot: the Empire is bad, the Rebels need to overthrow it.  By the end of Episode IV, the Rebels had made a huge dent in the Empire, but had they overthrown it?  No.  Empire Strikes Back adds virtually nothing to the main plot (Empire still strong, Rebels still struggling), but it remains one of the strongest pieces of the trilogy, expounding on the Force and the characters more.  Finally, Return of the Jedi brings about closure to the plot, eliminating that pesky Palpatine and his evil side-kick Vader for good, ushering in a new era of peace and pie for everyone.

I read (and watch movies, etc.) for the story.  If the plot and characters are strong, and I can connect somehow, then I’ll usually progress until I’m finished with the story.  That means if it’s a trilogy, I’ll read three books.  I don’t feel right about making my opinion based only on part of a story.  That is why I struggle to give up a book if it’s not working for me, or why I find individual books within a series more difficult to review as opposed to the entire story. 

The same argument can also be made with short fiction.  Some people don’t like short stories because they’re not long enough (i.e. Mom).  They want a thick novel that devotes the right amount of time to character, setting, plot, and the like, and a short story is confined to only a few thousand words, scads less than needed.  You can go back and re-read the quote above and substitute short-story for “book” (and the same logic throughout) and you end up with something that points to our minimalistic, fast-paced society.

The point is, it doesn’t matter whether a story is 2000 or 200000 words, so long as it’s engrossing.  My recent delve in The Wheel of Time comes to mind.  I read The Eye of the World and thought it was merely okay.  Still, being only Book 1 of 13 or something, I pressed on with The Great Hunt.  And I could not finish.  The story is unresolved in my head, but it was not keeping me invested in it.  I felt bad giving up, but I had no desire to finish, either.

This brings me back to the beginning.  Not everyone will agree on whether or not a story is good.  I personally loved The Blade Itself (reviewed here), ranking it in my top favorite reads of last year.  It’s okay that Kristopher doesn’t like the book (who am I to say what people should like?), but I just feel like he’s not giving the story a chance by giving up after Book One.  There’s much more to be found, and I hope he picks up the last two books one of these days.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Graveyard Book, a Review

The Graveyard Book begins with a set of murders, gruesome and dark. An infant baby boy happens to crawl from his cradle during the murders and winds up in a nearby graveyard, where the inhabitants--ghosts, ghouls, and other paranormal things--agree to raise the child.

Nobody Owens grows up under the tutelage of Silas, a mysterious figure that's not quite dead, yet not living either. Life in the graveyard is different for Bod, but the boy adapts quickly and loves the place as his home.

Neil Gaiman is a wonderful storyteller. He has a way with words, like he somehow is able to pierce deep into the soul and speak directly to you. The prose is fantastic, and I daresay the man strings together words with magic. Reading The Graveyard Book (or, in my case, listening to the audio version) was a delightful experience, as all Gaiman tends to be.

In addition to Gaiman's exceptional word choices, the plot itself is rich with real characters. Bod is a young child coming to learn not only about life, but also about growing up in a graveyard with ghosts and what-not for guardians. His teachers and friends are all on a different spiritual plane, and the rare site of another human is something Bod cherishes. The boy has a great personality, and I enjoyed watching him grow and mature through the novel.

As I mentioned, I read the audio version of this book. Narrated by Neil Gaiman himself, the audio book seemed to offer its own type of magic for listening. I found myself captivated by Gaiman's reading. Plus, being the author, I'm sure he's able to act the part (adding inflections, etc. in dialog for example) better than any other narrator. World-famous banjo player Béla Fleck created and played the music that opens and closes each cd, and this music always fit the action.

The Graveyard Book is a deeply imaginative book, honored with a Newberry Award, Carnegie Medal, Hugo Award, and Locus Award. This highly decorated book deserves all the praise it gets. The story is dark at times, but never too dark, and I enjoyed it very much. The Graveyard Book is a fun read that I recommend to anyone. It hearkens back fond memories of childhood, and the trip with Bod was one I feel anyone could relate to.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Heart-Shaped Box, a Review

Horror is a realm I rarely venture into. To me, horror is only spooky and eerie as long as it holds on to the mystery of what's going on. Why is there a ghost haunting me? What was that noise in the closet? Once the questions start to get answered (or once you realize that they will get answered, even) the potency of the story drops dramatically insomuch that the genre transforms from horror to thriller/suspense. Unfortunately, few novels can carry the plot long enough to maintain an overall sense of unease, and Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box falls victim to this very problem.

Judas Coyne is a fifty-something year old retired rock star. He's spent his whole life running away from his past, eager to leave his Louisiana roots behind and embrace the celebrity world of rock & roll. His songs are hard, angry anthems that sing of hate and sex and good times. His current bed-mate, a twenty-something that goes by the name Georgia, is just another girl in a long line of states.

Jude has long had an interest in the weird. He has a private collection of strange things from all around the world, from a hangman's noose to a snuff film. One day his personal assistant tells him that someone is selling a ghost online and Jude decides to buy it and add it to his collection. He promptly forgets about it until the heart-shaped box package arrives, bearing a dead man's suit. Things will never be the same.

The first hundred-and-fifty pages or so of this book had me hooked. I was reading late at night, and after I turned off the light I felt a little uneasy about some things. A shadow might have moved. A dog might have scratched the bed and startled me. A ghost might have been standing at the top of my stairs. Yes, the first half of Heart-Shaped Box was horror, evoking genuine spookiness.

Hill's descriptions of the ghost are haunting. I had a vivid image of the thing in my head, almost as if I could see it myself. The writing style is perfect for the genre, seamlessly jumping from the "norm" to the odd with a sentence, easily keeping the reader on-edge. The plot is fast-paced, and I admit I turned over pages fast to find out what was going to happen next.

Sadly, the book loses its ability to keep the reader spooked. That's not to say that the story goes downhill or gets stupid, because it doesn't, but it simply morphs into a suspense novel. It's like I accepted the ghost for what it was and now Jude is just trying to get rid of it. It relies on the "here's the problem, find a solution"  formula. There's still otherworldly things happening, but it's no longer eerie, and most of the imagery doesn't seem as fresh any longer.

Still, Heart-Shaped Box was an enjoyable read. Jude Coyne is an interesting character, and watching him develop through the read is as enjoyable as the ghost story. Hill's writing is great and, coupled with the quick-paced plot, the book is a rather short read. Overall I enjoyed Heart-Shaped Box, but I ultimately feel that it lost its edge as it drew to a close. To me, horror is best suited to a short-story environment, but Hill's first half of the book certainly hit all the right notes for the genre, so I'm not complaining. That's better than many others can do.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Writing Wednesdays: The Reformed 1.3

This is the fourth part of this story.  Previous installments can be found here or by following the label below the post.  Thanks for reading!

June 6, 2021
   Kent remembered television.  Flashing screens.  Annoyingly loud commercials.  Late night humor.  Even the occasional reality show or, Lord help, a soap opera.  But he’d give his right hand if he could watch some football again.  See some cheerleaders dancing, smiling at the camera.  Bright lights and loud fans.  Even a half would be okay.  Even a Titans game.
    Graham kept a flatscreen above the bar for old times’ sake.  “How can a sports bar be a sports bar without a tv?” he’d say whenever somebody would ask, which was nobody anymore.  The joke was as tired as every patron of the bar was.
    Kent drained the last of his beer and slammed the mug down on the bar.  Alcohol wasn’t cheap, not after the CRC stopped the barman from practically giving it away.  Graham figured everyone needed cheap booze to drown out the past, and for a while the man only charged whatever could be afforded.
    Graham’s eyes went up at the noise.  “Mind the glass there, Kent,” he said smiling.  But Kent wasn’t in a smiling mood.  His head buzzed, the world was spinning faster than normal, and he had business to attend.
    “Mind yerself, Graham,” he said with a growl.
    The smile vanished.  “Glass is getting harder to come by, so I reckon I am minding myself.  And if you want to keep your welcome here, you best learn to mind my word.”
    “Bah!  I’ve ‘ad enough today anyway.”  Kent stumbled to his feet, grabbing his backpack.  The bar was uncommonly full and several heads looked at him.  Usually around lunch time people were out working, finding ways to sustain themselves.  Everybody that was able had a part to play in the Hub’s survival.  Those that knew how worked the fertile lands outside the city, growing all varieties of crops.  This was the most important profession in the Hub.  Without food, they didn’t eat.  Others took jobs with the scavengers or the CRC, picking through the ruins outside the walls.  Some even traveled the long roads, trading with other cities.  There were many legitimate jobs to be had in and out of the Hub, and Kent shunned every one of them.
    “What’re you loogin’ at?”  Kent snarled at a wide-eyed fat man.
    He stepped out into the warm noonday sun.  The light hurt his eyes, jabbing his already throbbing head with a sharp stick.  The streets were busier than normal.  Before, roads were dangerous things, reserved for cars and trucks moving at incredible speeds.  Everybody had their own vehicle, doing their own thing.  Private lives.  Private property.  Private everything.
    Privacy burned to the ground with the rest of the world.  Just looking at the throng of people shuffling together down the street proved that.  Survivors all have something in common, but Kent found it hard to adjust to the new society.  For the millionth time, he wanted his old life back.  He didn’t like communal housing or rationed food.  He was a loner, absorbed in his own misery.
    As much as he didn’t want to, he joined in with the crowd, mindlessly moving in their tide.  He didn’t recognize anyone.  Just faces.  Hard, grim faces.  Where are they going?  Again he wondered why so many people were out today.  Was he missing something?  He thought for a moment that zetas might have been spotted inside the walls, but quickly abandoned that idea.  If that were the case, the crowd would be in chaos, like it was back when he lost Kallie.
    Buzzed and not caring, he spoke his thoughts out loud.  “Where’s everybody goin’?”  But no one answered.  To them he looked like all the other drugged-out lowlifes, ragged and hollow eyed.  They were right.
    He pressed his way through the crowd, cutting across and to the other side of the road.  In the distance he could make out what looked like a stage sitting in the town square.  Is there another announcement being made today?  He couldn’t remember.  Didn’t really care.  There were other things to do today.
    Frans was waiting for him just outside the door to the Old McDonald’s, a one-time convenient store.  His small, flashing eyes always made Kent think the man was paranoid, waiting for something to jump from the shadows and grab him.  Kent couldn’t blame him; he didn’t understand why there weren’t more people like him.
    Frans nodded.  “Hey, man.  What a crowd, huh?”  Eyes left.  Eyes right.
    “Yeah.  Big crowd.  There an, uhm, announcement today or somethin’?”
    Frans laughed.  “Yeah, there’s an announcement.  Something about equality or something for the betas.  More daylight time or something, I dunno.  You know, people always--”
    The world span.  Reforms getting equal rights?  Kent didn’t think so.  He had half a mind to march down to the podium and tell Governor Wallace what he thought about equality.  First they wanted to change the zetas to betas, and now they’re wanting to make betas equal to the so-called alphas?  The scum didn’t deserve equal rights with a tree, let along real human beings.
    “What a load a’ crap.  Those monsters...”  He spat.
    “Who, the betas or the politicians?”  Frans let a wicked smile cross his face.  Tiny teeth.  Beady eyes.  For a moment he looked like a large rat.
    “Funny.  You gonna take me in or what?”  The sun was killing his head, not to mention his filled bladder and smelly backpack.  Briefly Frans’ eyes fell upon his, and Kent thought he might’ve hurt the boy’s feelings.  A second later they were back dancing around.
    “Sure.  Sure.  C’mon.”  Frans led him down an alley.  It smelled like something rotten.  The beer threatened to come up, but soon they were through the stench and standing outside a sub-level door.  Frans tapped a few times and then produced a key.
    Inside, two thugs lowered their guns when they saw who it was.  Kent looked around.  Bodies everywhere, passed out or sleeping.  Some clothed, many not.  Used syringes and empty pill-tins lay cast about.  A cesspool of oblivion.
    They went down a small ramp and through a kitchen to an old office room.  Strung out junkies covered the place.  One woman was talking to herself about her babies, telling them they would be okay.  Several were sitting quietly, mind’s gone in private drug-fueled dreamlands.  Here, at least, one could find privacy.
    Frans knocked on the door and stepped inside.  A man about Kent’s age was sitting in a chair reading a book.  Varden Clark.  The most powerful man in the Hub.  “Ah, Frans.  I was wondering when you’d arrive.  Please, come in.”  They shut the door behind them.  “What can I do for you?”
    Flashing eyes again.  “Th-this is Kent Andrews, s-sir.  He’s got some business f-for you.”
    Varden put the book down and leaned forward.  “Business, eh?  What kind of business?”  His voice was smooth, like honey bourbon and iced Coke.
    Kent withdrew a dark stained sack from his backpack and tossed it on the table.  The bag came open and a head rolled out, falling to the ground.  Frans gasped.  The head smelled like it had been basking in a backpack for a few days.  It didn’t look any better.  A slight smile appeared on Varden’s face.
    “You said the reward was good dead or alive.  Well.  He’s dead.”
    “Yes, Mr. Andrews, he most certainly is.”

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mockingjay, a Review (Spoiler Free)

WARNING: Do Not Read Unless You've Read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. These two books will be used as source material and thus will contain spoilers. Nothing will be spoiled for Mockingjay.


After somehow surviving the Hunger Games twice, Katniss Everdeen's life is in turmoil. Peeta is captured by the Capitol. District 12 is destroyed. War is all across Panem, following the bright, flickering wings of the Mockingjay. Can the rebels rise up and overthrow President Snow and his evil regime?

There was no doubt that I would be reading Mockingjay. Suzanne Collins' phenomenal YA series and its remarkable characters are strong and unforgettable and I had to find out how it all ended. And, lamely, I even cared about who Katniss would end up with: Peeta or Gale. Yes, I had my preference.

I went into Mockingjay expecting tragedy. I've read enough dystopic literature to know that people would likely die. Heck, I knew not to expect a happy ending. What I expected was for the rebels to overthrow the Capitol and society somehow manage to eke out its existence for another few years.  I expected more brutality, more evil machinations, more social commentary, more tough choices, and more fast-paced action for Katniss.

Did the book live up to my expectations? Were my expectations even relevant? I'm not saying. I will say that after finishing the book I had a few minor issues, but I can't see any better way for it all to have ended. There were certain choices that seemed irrational and certain actions that left a bitter taste in my mouth, that's for sure.

The story is heavy and brutal. Not as graphic as the previous books (Remember the muttations from Catching Fire? Or the tracker jacker venom dream Katniss had?), Mockingjay still carries a massive weight to the story. It's not an easy read; there's too much dytopia for that, but it is a quick and entertaining read. Still, the mindset for reading is so heavy that reading a lot in one sitting is sometimes taxing.

I can't imagine anyone reading this without reading the previous two books, nor would I recommend it. Likewise, I can't imagine anyone not reading this after reading the first two books. If you've invested time in the life of Katniss Everdeen, then Mockingjay is a book you'll read to get closure. I was satisfied with the end, and I think Collins did an amazing job at portraying her world. There's plenty of things to think about on the series as a whole, like our current societies love for reality tv or our never-ending desire to be beautiful. But more than that, there's a teenage girl that goes through unimaginable difficulties and she is a character to remember.

Mockingjay is a suitable end to Collins' trilogy.  It has its flaws and certainly doesn't live up to The Hunger Games, but it has enough excitement in it to easily make it worth the read.  

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Writing Wednesdays: The Reformed 1.2

 This is the third post in this story.  You can follow the labels at the bottom (or here) to read back posts.  Thanks for reading!

October 9, 2019

     Sienne’s arm hurt.  She’d been pricked and stuck with so many needles that, if her flesh wasn’t already dead, it would’ve been swollen and purple.  She didn’t know where she was, only that she was trapped and there was no escape.  It had been so long since she’d feasted that the pain in her stomach was now a constant companion, never leaving, always complaining.  Funny how pain never really disappears.
     The room was dark, cold, and void.  She’d grown used to it.  It was almost as if she existed in the deep blackness of space, far from all sources of light.  Or perhaps she was sleeping, mind tumbling through the infinite darkness within, forever.  But she no longer slept.  Not willingly.  A dead body needs no rest, no rejuvenation.  Only blood.  And flesh.
     She had neither.
     A loud bang hit the cell door and she jumped.  As much as she didn’t like the darkness, she hated the outside more.  The bright lights, blinding her sensitive eyes.  The raucous din of life and its ever present smell of human flesh.  The tests.
     She still didn’t understand why she could feel pain again.  She’d gone from a lethal hunter to a weakened animal in seconds, rendered incapacitated by a gut shot.  Since then her body had slowly been changing, almost as if nerves were trying to return to life.  But that was impossible.  Whatever had caused her transformation ruined her body, inside and out.
     The door began unlocking.  She crouched, ready to attack, lightly growling.  When it opened she jumped.  A man yelled.  Light spilled into the room.  The air grew charged and Sienne grabbed her ears.  She fell to her knees as the sonic blast sounded.  Her hands did little to protect her from the noise.
     The next thing she knew she was shackled and being led down the hall.  All around her she could smell them.  Succulent skin.  A hint of flowers and the richness of blood.  Some were heavily armored, like the ones that held her bound.  Others wore simple clothes that would offer no resistance to her teeth.  She only needed a moment of freedom and she’d be satisfied.  Just one taste.
     She tugged and thrashed against the ties, but it was no good.  No one even screamed.  The prey no longer recoiled in fear.  Instead they watched or ignored her, going about their normal business.  Did that even make them prey anymore?  If not, then what was she?
     Sienne was still trying to figure it out when she was led into a holding room.  Gone were the smells of perfumes and exposed bodies, replaced with the sterile odor of nothing.  The cables shackled to her arms were hooked to bolts on the floor and she was abandoned again.  Unable to move, panic poured through her.  She knew what was coming.  Tests.  More senseless babble she couldn’t begin to fathom.  More needle sticks and blade cuts.
     A soft hiss sounded above and the room suddenly smelled of honey.  The panic instantly calmed and the tension in her shoulders lessened.  She felt weary.  Numb.  Even her heightened senses relaxed and she felt her eyes droop.
     “S-33c for batch number 971n.  Doctor Couric and Doctor Andrews reporting.” 
     Sienne opened her eyes to two blurred figures moving about the room.  Everything was hazy, as if a fog had settled. 
     “Subject is responding as expected to gas.  No hostility.  Little movement.”
     Sienne’s vision sharpened.  She saw there were several wires running from her body.  A clear fluid was pumping cold into her left arm, just below the elbow.  Fingers were prodding her, poking and squeezing.  A muzzle was strapped tight around her face.  A metal rod touched her skin and she jerked.  The rod moved away for a second and then pressed hard into her upper leg.  It felt like thousands of squirming maggots were biting her, writhing in a frenzied circle, feasting inside.  She snarled.
     “Do you feel that?” One of the humans.  Male.  Middle-aged.  Hungry eyes.  The man poked again, this time harder, and Sienne whimpered.  The worms spread, gnashing, tickling.  “Subject responding to exploration in the adductor longus, adductor brevis, tensor fasciae latae, and seemingly all other thigh muscles on both legs.  This appears to stop at the knee.”  The human stepped back and eyed her. 
     She wanted to thrash and shake, but her body was heavy.  Lethargic.  She had no control of herself.  The other human stepped into view.  Female.  Similar age.  A smell of sweetened meat.  Fire haired.  The woman looked at her with unflinching weak eyes.
     “Do you hear me?”  The human sounded soft.  Delicate.  “Can you reason?”
     Sienne heard its sounds but she did not understand.  No more than one understands what a dog is saying when it barks.  The tingling in her legs was distracting her.
     “I think she hears me, but she doesn’t comprehend.  See how her eyes try to focus?”  The human stepped closer.  A bright light flashed across her eyes.  “There is some level of cognition, but whatever is causing the infection is inhibiting the human psyche.”
     Sienne faded in and out of consciousness.  Sometimes the room was brightly lit and she was surrounded by humans.  Once she even thought the muzzle was off and something was moving around in her mouth, but she had no energy to bite.  After a while, the lights and sounds and smells faded.  The tests were over.  At least for now.
     She sat up.  She was back in her cell, locked away again in the freezing room.  Her legs felt raw.  New pains blossomed when she moved from the chair, sharp enough that she stumbled and fell.  Spread out on the floor, unable to rise from suffering, she put her head to ground and mewled.  She was pathetic.  She was no hunter.  She was an animal, weak and helpless.  She longed for true death and its cold hands.
     She was still laying there when she heard it.  In the quiet, a soft, slow drumbeat.  Bum.  Bum.  It was familiar.  Bum.  Bum.  Her throat was throbbing.  Bum.  Bum.  Her chest was beating.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a (Film) Review

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Unless you've been hiding out under a rock, you've probably heard of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, written by the late Swedish journo-novelist Stieg Larsson.  The conclusion to the book trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, just came out earlier this year.  All three novels are international sensations, and I admit, I bought a copy of the opening number to see what all the fuss was about.  But, as it goes, I never got to read it, and now I'm not sure if I ever will.

In 2009, a Swedish version of the movie was released.  Like its source material, the film received excellent reviews.  Performance-wise, Michael Nyqvist (Mikael) and Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth) both acted their characters perfectly, so I've read.  The tone of the movie was on par with the book, and all around it's grossed loads of money, if you want to measure success that way.  Knowing that Hollywood would be releasing a (likely dreaded) adaptation soon, I decided to rent the foreign film and watch it on Friday night.  (The movie is in Swedish, but subtitled in English.)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a layered story.  Chiefly, journalist Mikael, recently indicted on several accounts of libel, is contacted by the wealthy entrepreneur Henrik Vanger.  Forty years ago, Henrik's niece, Harriet, vanished, and ever since then Henrik's obsessed over her disappearance.  He hires Mikael to try and uncover what happened to her.  Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander, a modern-day punk with a troubled past, has been hired to hack into Mikael's computer and keep track of him.  Eventually the two's paths cross and from there the film evolves.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo 2 This summary is a rough review at best.  There are several things going on throughout the movie, and the disappearance of Harriet Vanger takes the back burner.  The list of suspects is large, and the film takes time to investigate most.  In America, this stuff would largely be overlooked, I think.  Hollywood seems too bent on churning out action and memorable climaxes that not enough time is spent on the rising action.  In Sweden's movie industry, at least with this film, this is not the case.  The plot slowly unravels, inviting the viewer to learn more about the protagonists and their lives.  The whole time I was wondering what happened to Lisbeth in her past?  Is Mikael as "good" as he's portrayed?  Characterization is truly the main driving force behind the movie.

Lisbeth is a highly fascinating character.  Immediately you can tell she's got something going on with her.  She comes across as cold and uncaring to nearly everyone.  She's obviously smart, being her career choice, but how smart?  She's a character with a past that's strongly affecting her every action, and I was interested to explore her more.  Add Mikael to the mix, who's a bit more open to conversation, and dynamic between the two is amusing.

Stylistically, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a dark film.  Part of this comes from Lisbeth's wardrobe.  Part from the cold, deadly grip of Sweden's winter.  Most of it's from the darkness that's becoming more apparent as each minute ticks by.  Incredible acts of violence, some very graphic, and you can't help but feel a pang in your gut.  By the end of the movie, I remarked how sick and disgusting some things were, and Keisha agreed.  Yet, despite this grisly nature, the movie is great.  The real world is not peaches and sunshine.  It's not hard to imagine every dark action taking place outside of the film, and it's a tragedy that such things happen in our world.  The movie is graphic, as I've said, and borderline Realistic, but that culminates in making the film even better.

After watching The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I can't help but wonder how the final two books pan out.  What's in store for the two fascinating protagonists?  Furthermore, I wonder now if it's even worth reading the book after watching the film.  What was omitted?  Would a Wikipedia summary suffice?  I'm not sure, and if any of you could tell me, let me know.  Overall, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was an exceptional movie, filled with mystery, tension, and unforgettable characters.  It's dark, but in my opinion there's enough light shining through the shadow to make it worth your while.  If you're going to watch it, I'd recommend doing this version instead of waiting for the Hollywood atrocity that's bound to happen. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, a Review

"But if I decide to decide there’s a different, less selfish, less lonely point to my life, won’t the reason for this decision be my desire to be less lonely, meaning to suffer less overall pain? Can the decision to be less selfish ever be anything other than a selfish decision?"
 Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays is a non-fiction book by the late, acclaimed journalist and novelist David Foster Wallace. I first heard of DFW on a recent NPR interview, and, like many NPR stories, I found his life fascinating. Then a good friend of mine was talking about him and it reminded me of the interview, and soon after he loaned me a few DFW books. Wallace was a highly intelligent man with an enormous vocabulary and an unusual-but-enthralling writing style. He is widely renown for his command of language and syntax, and it's nearly impossible to read his writing without a dictionary. Wallace is arguably one of the strongest writers of the 20th century.  This is the first book of his I've read. The essays are reviewed in the order in which I read them.

"Consider the Lobster" was written for Gourmet magazine in 2004. Wallace took a trip up to the Maine Lobster Festival and was hired to write about his experiences there. He goes in to great detail about lobster cooking, how there's a huge boiler that can cook a hundred lobsters at a time. He talks about how smelly the MLF is, how hot the weather was, and how long the lines were. Then he discusses lobster biology in great detail and eventually delves into the heart of the article: do lobsters feel pain when they're being boiled alive? The piece was quite interesting, both objectively and subjectively. Wallace articulates the arguments for and against in his normal style, but he throws in his genuine confusion about the subject as well. He explains that he has certain animals he likes to eat and that he just prefers not to think about what they have to go through in order for us to eat them, to which he then muses on our minds ignoring these ugly truths. By the end of the article, Wallace has made no clear choice about lobsters and whether or not they feel, and neither had I. I just wonder how Gourmet felt about this piece?

In "Up, Simba," Wallace was hired as a pencil for the famously liberal Rolling Stone to write about one of the 2000 Presidential candidates. Wallace was put with Sen. John McCain. The piece is long (nearly 80 pages) and sometimes trying, but the overall quality of the essay was excellent. If you've ever wondered what it's like to be on the campaign trail, not the Hollywood-style glitzy trail, but the Real-World-lots-of-downtime-bored-out-of-your-mind-extremely-hectic trail, then you'll love "Up, Simba." The piece doesn't really get deep into politics, but instead muses on the authenticity of McCain and various other politicians. Wallace is constantly torn between whether or not McCain is genuine in his concern, or, letting his inner cynic take over, the man is just putting out an image. The article was revealing and interesting and slightly boring all at the same time, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. By the end, as with "Consider the Lobster," Wallace has made no choice on McCain's genuineness. For me, the cynic was silent and I dared to believe.

"How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart" is a short review of tennis star Tracy Austin's autobiography. It was written for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Wallace played competitive juniors tennis when he was younger and he decided to read and review the famous starlet's book. He basically said it was rubbish, horribly written, badly edited, and offered little-to-no real insight on Austin. He then goes on to muse on our [American people's, not mine] fascination with celebrities and why we want to read about their lives, especially athletes. This piece was quite thought-provoking, and its brevity makes it much easier to read in one sitting.

"Big Red Son," written for Premiere magazine, is Wallace's account of the AVN Awards, which is basically like the Academy Awards for adult videos. Reading this piece was kind of like staring at a train wreck. I was repulsed a few times, but equally intrigued. Largely, while Wallace does cover the adult video industry, he goes into inane details about certain performers or directors/producers lives outside the screen, and this is possibly even more terrifying than the sex. The lack of humanity in many of the people is frightening. The vain "look at me and laud me" attitudes was loathsome. And the apathetic views of some directors (e.g. Max Hardcore), not caring how humiliating a situation will be for a "starlet," was downright sickening. Wallace talks about the awkwardness of the situation, standing in the bathroom between two male performers, silently obeying male-urinal etiquette. He muses how odd it is to be behind a woman in the buffet line that he's seen up close and personal. He talks about how cheap and foreign everything is, from the awards show itself to the people there. By the end of "Big Red Son," it's easy to see Wallace's disgust with the business and I shared his sentiments. It's just mind blowing how crude some people can be. Still, this essay is worth the read, if only to somewhat try and understand a group of people you'll never be able to really understand.

"Authority and American Usage" is a massive, exhausting book review of Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. I read about a third of this piece before I abandoned it. I just really didn't care much about the finer points of American usage, and there were way too many words I didn't understand. Hardcore English fans may enjoy this, but I couldn't do it.

"The View from Mrs. Thompson's" recounts Wallace's experience with 9/11 and the following days. I really liked this piece a lot, the way he mused and questioned the Horror. Possibly my favorite short essay in the collection.

"Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky" was particularly interesting because I like Dostoevsky (though as of writing this I've not read any of his books) and I wanted to read Wallace's thoughts of the man. This piece is actually a review of Joseph Frank's books on Dostoevsky, arguing that Frank's works are unique and great. Throughout this piece Wallace inserts random philosophical musings (see intro. quote), asking deep questions that at times make you stop and think seriously about things. I enjoyed this essay quite a bit, and recommend it if only for the philosophy.

The three remaining essays I did not read. I had no interest in the odd way "Host" was arranged on the page, nor did I care about the subject. Similarly, I never liked Kafka and had no desire to read Wallace's views on him, and the same goes for the review of John Updike work.

All in all, Consider the Lobster was a great read. It falls into a genre I never read, essays, and the break from the norm was fun. I felt like I was slowly learning a bit about Wallace's life with each piece I read. Wallace's cynicism gets heavy throughout some works, and it's really no surprise to learn that the man eventually killed himself. Still, his writing is top-notch, his essays are enjoyable, and his musings mix humor with serious questions.  (I mean, go back and re-read the introduction quote at the top of this post.  How profound is that?  After I read that line I literally said, "Huh."  The guy knows how to make you think.)   Everyone should read a few DFW essays in their life, and Consider the Lobster is a great place to start.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

A Star Wars Rhapsody

This thing is great. It cracks me up way too much.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Writing Wednesdays: The Reformed 1.1

February 1, 2021

    Kent Andrews cracked his knuckles.  The popping annoyed Chloe and he knew it, but still he continued.  If she was going to keep on working with the Reforms then he was going to keep on protesting.
    She eyed him.  Kent shrugged, snapping his neck left, then right.  She particularly despised neck popping.
    “What?” he asked.  He didn’t hide the frustration from his voice.
    “How many times have I told you that doing that will give you arthritis?  When you can’t use your hands or turn your neck, don’t come crying to me.”
    Kent snorted.  “You still think we’re going to live to be old after everything we’ve been through?”
    The annoyance drained from her face.  For a fleeting second Kent could see the haunted look of the past three years flash across her eyes.  He was almost sorry he asked, but before sorrow could form, hard determination reappeared.  “Of course I do.  You don’t?”
    “No.  I don’t.”  The same images flashed through his mind.  The throng of people closing in.  Not knowing who was who.   Total chaos.  Hands clutching and grabbing, but the one that mattered slipping from his grip.  Screams and gunshots.  Loud wails and gentle moans.  He could still hear her shriek as the things pulled her away.  Daddy!
    Kent drained the dregs of the coffee, the bitter taste of expired beans fitting his mood.  He needed another cup.  Silence hung between them as he refilled the mug, letting the steam rise and warm his face.  Another cold day.
    “I should be back early tonight.  There’s not really much left for us to do.”  Kent didn’t say anything.  Chloe moved from the table and stood next to him.  “Maybe we could get some alone time in?  It’s been a while.”
    Her fingers traced his jaw, but he barely felt their touch.  Where is the woman I married?  He sipped the coffee, turning his face away.  He knew it hurt her, but she deserved it.  How could she want to help the monsters that took Kallie?
Soon she was out the door.  Kent wasted no time.  He threw on his thermals, grabbed his rifle, and headed out.

    Giant snow drifts hid most of the surrounding land.  Even the Mississippi River was concealed, though its churning gave its location away.  Kent sat in a tree on a deer stand, reclining against the pale bark.  His rifle lay loaded and ready at his side.
    He’d been sneaking out hunting for several months now, leaving after Chloe left for work and returning home before she came back.  She knew nothing of his trips into the wild.  The counselor in her would say that they paralleled his inner mind’s descent into darkness.  She’d be right.  Out in the wilds, where things before the Fall were ruins, Kent could find peace.  The budding life within the compound proper was just too much for him.
    Here he could let his mind roam.  He could lose himself in his savagery, like a man going native among scalpers.  The depression of the city did not exist outside its boundaries.  Stepping away was the only time he felt alive any more.
    So why do I keep going back?  He didn’t know.  He guessed he still loved Chloe, but it was no longer the flame it had once been.  After Kallie disappeared, his life went one way and hers went another.  He didn’t understand why she wanted to try and help them, the now-called zetas, as if renaming them would change their identities.  No, they were zombies.  Monsters.  Scum that deserved death, not redemption.  A bullet to the brain was the only mercy he’d show them.
    A few hours passed.  The sun brought a warm glow to the air, but Kent reckoned it was still below freezing.  Occasional gusts would chill him, even through the heavy thermals.  The woods were quiet, but they were not empty.
    Through the binoculars he could make out three shambling figures moving slowly towards the city.  His scent was concealed beneath clothes and a deodorizer, but the rag in his duffel would draw their attention.  They were still far out when he climbed down from the stand and made his way to a low hanging limb a few yards away.  He unlatched the container and slung the bloodied rag over the branch, careful not to touch it.
    Back in the stand he watched the creatures change direction.  Smelling the rag, they no longer shambled but instead ran.  Kent picked up his rifle and leveled his scope on the man on the left.  The thing’s mangy face came into view, skull-like and hollow, and he pulled the trigger.  A second later, the head was gone.  Kent repeated the process with the man on the right.
    The last zombie ran on, slowing only slightly once it realized its companions had fallen.  Kent pulled his scope up and stalled.  He hadn’t noticed before, but this one was young, a girl, probably around ten when she changed.  Wet, tangled hair fell from her head, the same auburn color as Kallie’s.  Kent shivered.
    It would be on the rag in seconds.  It might even be smart enough to see the trap, but he doubted it.  If it made it to the city, the CRC would certainly find it.  It’d be captured and whisked away to one of the RC plants and within a month released out into society, a beta.  A Reformed.
    Kent stared through the scope considering what the do.  Killing them wouldn’t bring back Kallie, but neither would letting one go.  And this wouldn’t be the first time he’d killed a child.  But she looks so much like Kallie...  He lowered the gun and watched the zombie grab the soiled rag.  It groaned as it licked the blood from the cloth, biting and gnawing like a dog chewing gristle from a bone.  There was no denying its hunger, its need for nourishment.  But Kent Andrews felt no sympathy for it.  They were always hungry.
    It stopped and sniffed.  In the quiet woods, Kent could hear its inhale, wheezy and thick.  It did it a few times and then went back to the rag.  Its back was to him now.  And while it took nourishment from the rag, it no longer resembled a small girl but instead the monster that it was.  He took quick aim and ended its existence.
    The rest of the day passed quickly.  Kent moved around to the various stands he’d constructed or found, baiting and killing with ruthless efficiency.  By two o’clock, he’d dropped twelve zombies using only fifteen shots.  The sun was deep in the western sky when he decided to head back home.
    Adrenaline had kept him warm throughout the day, but now that the excitement was over he was starting to cool off.  Long shadows kept his eyes jumping, fully alert for any lingering dead.  But the trip was uneventful, and soon the lights of the compound appeared.
    The place was a large, walled city.  Before the Fall it had been called Middle Port, a small city on the western edge of Illinois.  Now it was known as the Hub by some, Locus by others, and Central Station by most everyone else.  It was the largest of the newly established city-states, current population near two million, not counting betas.  It also was the headquarters for the Capture and Reformation Coalition.
    The west gate was still open as Kent made his way through.  Security wasn’t as tight as it was in the early days, though he still had to walk through the militia lines to enter.  Similar to airport terminals of old, he made his way through his usual line.  As always, Dave manned the station.
    “How’d it go today, Kent?”  
    “Not too bad.  Got fourteen of ‘em.”
    The older man chuckled.  “Good.  Keep it up.”
    “I plan to.  Looks pretty dead around here.”
    “Yeah, cold weather’s keeping most everybody inside I guess.  Or the dark.  Been a few RC crews in and out, but that’s about it.  Couple a transport vans.”  Dave spat.
    The two got along great.  Like everyone, they’d both lost family to the hordes.  Dave was as bitter as Kent when it came to Reformation, though, and because of that the two were fast friends.  If not for the man’s formidable size and prowess, not to mention years of military experience, the Hub’s militia would have decommissioned him after the first betas were released.
    “Well, let’s hope I got more than they brought in, huh?”
    “Gotta head back to the house before Chloe gets home.  Later on.”
    He made his way down Center Street to the large hotel building.  He saw a few stragglers out, moving quickly to get indoors before sunset.  Kent scoffed at the double standards.  In public, people would say they supported the CRC, that they believed betas should be integrated back into society.  The same people hid behind their walls when the betas came out at night, terrified or angry as the next person.
    Before he entered the lobby, a convoy of dark vans drove past him.  They were unmarked, but everyone knew what was inside.  For a wild moment he thought about following them, sneaking behind the betas when they were released.  Maybe even doing a little late-night hunting.  He knew he could do it, but he wouldn’t beat Chloe home, nor would he be able to get away with the murders, either.  The same hiding people would call his actions heinous in the day and execute him without a second glance.
    He watched the last of the taillights disappear.  “Not tonight,” he said.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Fellowship of the Rings, a Review

The Lord of the Rings is arguably the most important work in fantasy. Tolkien's masterpiece is generally considered the foundation for so many aspects of modern fantasy that it's beyond the scope of this reviewer to even consider. His works inspired countless carbon copies, some good, many terrible, but not a one as wonderful as The Lord of the Rings.

I first read The Fellowship of the Ring in 2000. I was graduating junior high and just discovering fantasy. A friend bought the entire trilogy, plus The Hobbit, and once he'd read them he loaned them to me. As an eighth grader, my understanding of the book was rudimentary at best, picking up on the obvious, but losing much of the beauty. I was concerned with The Quest, to see Frodo and Sam make it to Mt. Doom and destroy the Ring and free Middle Earth. The importance of the journey, though, I mostly missed out on. Now, years later, I've finally began re-reading the series.

I imagine nearly everyone knows what The Lord of the Rings is about, but for the sake of normalcy, I'll give a brief summation. In short, the Dark Lord Sauron is searching for his lost Ring of Power and a group of heroes is trying to destroy it before the Shadow can rise again. While this may sound trite, I offer that it is far from it, that Tolkien was deliberate in his story and that he was the originator* of the cliche.

As I mentioned before, I didn't fully enjoy the journey on my first read-through of The Fellowship of the Ring. This time, however, I relished in it. The quirky songs that seemed to erupt at any given time. The odd and ancient Tom Bombadil and his beautiful Goldberry. The dreams of Boromir for Gondor. The longing in Aragorn's voice. The mystery behind Gandalf. The omnipresent optimistic hobbits and their desire for food and comfort. And this only scratches the surface. While some say that Tolkien used too many words (do trees really deserve that much description?), I think that without the lengthy prose the tale would not be what it is.

Another thing I became fascinated with while re-reading this was the mythology of Middle Earth. Tolkien's worldbuilding is so enormous and vast that some colleges offer courses on it. He created many races, each with their own language or languages. Many had their own histories and legends as well, not to mention architecture style and culture. Tolkien was a renown philologist, and his creation of the many languages adds to the "reality" of Middle Earth. I loved hearing old Elven tales or Dwarven history. I even enjoyed the bits of hobbit history, though it was scarce.

It's impossible to not compare the book to Peter Jackson's superb 2002 movie. Some fans do not like the omissions the film makes, and to an extent I agree. Would I liked to have seen Tom Bombadil or Farmer Maggot? Could Lothlorien or Moria have been better done? Yes. But do I dislike the movie? A resounding no I say. I love it. I think Jackson did a heck of a job making his trilogy and it's atop my list of favorite films. Still, reading the books offers plenty of surprises and differences from the movies, and this re-read helped me see a few of the things I had forgotten.

There is absolutely nothing I dislike about The Fellowship of the Ring. The characters develop nicely through the plot, growing as they transform from rubes to world-weary travelers. There is a quote somewhere in the book about Middle Earth's history being filled with sad tales, and reading The Fellowship of the Ring certainly carries a heavy, tragic tone. Yet, through it all, there is a glimmer of hope, of defeating Sauron and destroying the Ring, and this chance keeps the reader glued to the pages.

If you've never read The Lord of the Rings, then I easily recommend you do so. Tolkien's command of the writing done masterfully, such that there are few dull moments in the book. The story is epic and genre-setting, as evidenced by nearly every run-of-the-mill fantasy book from 1955 until recently. You may think watching the movies are good enough, but I urge you to explore deeper into Tolkien's genius and see the wonderful world he has made.

*I realize Tolkien got his inspiration from surrounding myths, but that's beside the point.