Friday, June 28, 2013

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus (2011)

Morgenstern, Erin, The Night Circus, NY: Doubleday, 2011.

The enticing cover is by Helen Musselwhite

The Night Circus at ISFdb
The Night Circus at Goodreads
The Night Circus at IBList

Rating: 4/10

There is a lasting cultural tradition linked to the circus, both as concept and in fact. While circuses no longer generate the kind of interest from visitors they once did, what with the incredible alterations to our sources of entertainment, particularly as affected by modern technology, as well as our evolution from primitive gullibility, there still exists within pop culture a fascination with the circus. Whether it be an unfortunately short-lived series such as Carnivale or a persistently beloved novel such as Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, even if we haven't visited an actual circus, replete with acrobats, animals, a bearded lady and numerous clowns, we are drawn to visit them via representations of circus. Everyone has gone to the circus: Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, James Bond, Dumbo, Brother Cadfael, vampire hunter Anita Blake, Batman & company, Cecil B. DeMille, Federico Fellini, John Wayne, Curious George and so forth. The circus permeates our imagination and offers so much possibility.

Though it is a circus as far as spectacle is concerned, The Night Circus adopts more of a Cirque du Soleil approach rather than a Barnum & Bailey approach, replacing more traditional circus elements with a specific type of performance. The acts in The Night Circus, like the acrobatics of Cirque, are very real; nothing like Barnum's "sucker" displays.

Unfortunately, despite a few good ideas and some nice touches, Morgenstern fails to generate wonder with her overly manipulative and consistently under-achieving novel. In the Morgenstern circus the only awe I experienced was with the consistent anti-climax of the carefully generated suspense. The author and marketing department claim there is a competition in the works, bitter and fierce, and yet the competition is illusory, vacuous and even comical. Our male competitor, the dense and dull Marco, knows his competitor is Celia, who is unaware that he is her rival. For over a hundred pages we wonder how she will discover the identity of her bitter competitor, someone she has been told to watch out for throughout most of her life, until finally, in comical fanfare he walks up to her and... tells her. What a reveal! Appropriate for the lunacy that is the circus of the night.

Moreover, Marco is a despicable male counterpart to Celia's ordinariness. Ultimately a selfish and immature boy, he treats his first woman poorly, even cruelly. Psychologists can tell us that a boy reveals himself in his treatment of his first partner, and if Marco's treatment of Isobel is indicative of his future relationships, then the limbo that ensnares Marco and Celia will prove to be a hellish eternity for the latter.

My greatest discovery related to this novel is how, as time passes and distance is created, I dislike this book more and more. At first I thought it dull and unnecessary, granted with some minor good points, like clock-maker Friedrick Herr Thiessen and a few scattered visuals, whereas now, a week or so after completing the novel, I am straining to control my fingers from spewing expletives, something I tend to do only in conversation.

The convenience of character and events allows the novel to unfold in a less than magical, obviously mechanical way. I wondered at its identity: can one class this as young adult, or would most young adults be bored with pages of description, its blacks and greys? On an emotional level the novel is certainly less than adult, as even promising characters such as Bailey are fated to become under-utilized and end up existing only as necessitated by the outcome. I continue to wonder who this novel appeals to and why it is so appealing. Reviews at Goodreads are mixed though the rating is fairly high, and, if we are to gauge by avatars, seems to appeal to all ages.

Ultimately, The Night Circus puts its audience to sleep.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Bookshops: House of Prose (Dubai)

House of Prose
Dubai, UAE
Jumeirah Plaza
Jumeirah Beach Road
(Another location at Dubai Garden Centre)
Visited: March 2013
Purchased: Sarah Waters, The Night Watch, $8

The problem with second-hand book stores in Dubai is that the range of books is limited. Primarily a tourist city, used book stores build their stock on items left behind by travellers, and even the most literate traveller, when on holiday, often chooses to read a mainstream thriller rather than something more challenging or esoteric. Last year The National (UAE) rated the House of Prose as one of the top second-hand booksellers in Dubai, though there are not many to choose from. While House of Prose is quaint and clean and certainly has a large number of books, the bulk of their collection is made up primarily of popular mainstream mystery and thriller novels. The classic literature section is embarrassingly tiny (though many classic novels can be found shelved alongside the general fiction, unless you feel Evelyn Waugh to be more Michael Connelly than, well, Evelyn Waugh.

In general the books are in good condition and sell for about half price or a little less. I would recommend the shop to anyone looking for something ordinary, a bestseller over the past twenty years or less, but not for those who like to browse or are hoping to come across something quaint or rare.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Shimmer: Number 16

Tobler, E. Catherine, ed., Shimmer #16, Salt Lake City: Shimmerzine Press, April 2013

Number 16 presents us with thirteen shorter short stories. There are some unfortunately weak entries in this volume, mingling with some effective ones. Despite a few good tales, the consistent tone and consistent shortness of these stories makes for a somewhat average read, an entirely different experience from Shimmer #15. I think I would prefer the magazine if it included greater variety in style, tone and in the case of this issue, length. The shorter stories make for a choppy, interrupted read, and the similarity in tone unfortunately fails to bind. Something longer? Something wilder? I don't think it would harm.

I do like Shimmer quite a bit, but do feel it can be better than it is, a feeling emphasized when reading a weaker entry. A quote on the magazine's back cover and included on its webpage opines that the magazine features stories "built on fresh ideas or at least interesting twists on established ones," and that fantastical elements pervade each tale either overtly or via "the mere shimmer of possibility..." While true with most tales here, a few fall astray of this definition. There are a surprising number of stories that have no fantastical element, though they do imply fantasy and I suppose that is the "shimmer of possibility."

Side-note: Shimmer has some entertaining author and staff profiles and little photos in their backpages which I genuinely enjoy. In fact, it makes me feel badly when I write less favourably about a particular story. This review, hence, makes me feel badly three times over :( My favourites are those by Leunig, Ginoza, Gardner, Jablonsky and Bell. (Sounds like a law firm.)

Shimmer website
Review of Shimmer #15

Overall Rating: 6/10

Ordinary Souls by K. M. Szpara     6/10
A man continuously attempts to reunite with his lover via magic, ignoring the suspicions that the practice has some unwanted consequences. Somewhat reminiscent of Robert Silverberg's very good novella, "Born with the Dead." As the quote on the magazine's back and its website suggests, an old(ish) idea presented in a fresh form.

Goodbye Mildred by Charlie Bookout     4/10
Aged serial killer reminisces about serial killer wife, Mildred. Brief piece and not very good. Little actual characterization prevents me from caring, despite the obvious attempt at pathos. There are several problems with the narration: husband is too poetic at times to be believable, and tells the story second person to Mildred with such basic linear plot detail as though she has no idea what they'd done together. Contrived and certainly not what I would call shimmery, as per the previously stated quote.

Opposable Thumbs by Greg Leunig     7/10
"Opposable Thumbs" is a first person narrative that slowly reveals itself, and I think I was a little slow to catch on. Among the stronger stories, it follows the thoughts a person who... but that would be giving it away. Notions of identity and purpose from one in an unusual position.

Word and Flesh by Dennis Y. Ginoza     7/10
In a post-apocalyptic setting, a baby is sold to the local church and is transformed into the word made flesh. A powerful and captivating little piece that projects extreme religious fanaticism onto the future, on a society more concerned with preserving the word of God than preserving the outside world. My favourite story in the collection.

The Revelation of Morgan Stern by Christie Yant. 6/10
The letter-journal of a woman traversing the desert amid the apocalyptic presence of killer angels in order to find her loved one. A well written and interesting story that falls apart a little at the end. Unfortunately I couldn't take the explanation of those angels too seriously, non in such a non-metaphorical guise, which unfortunately weakens the piece.

The Binding of Memories by Cate Gardner     7/10
In a world where memories are collected and released after one's death, in order that they may retrieve them in the afterlife, a woman must contend with her aunts while two men are stealing the memories of others. Dreamy and unique, a good concept well delivered, and a story that well represents the shimmery quote from above.

The Death and Life of Bob by William Jablonsky     7/10
After having clinically died, Bob re-awakens and returns to work. At first wary and afraid, his colleagues soon accept him once they realize what a kind and refreshing soul he is. Things are complicated, however, when one person believes he is a zombie and that God hates zombies. A strong story, both amusing and effective. Our narrator is the collective we, the workplace colleagues. The story deals with people looking for a saviour and those for a sacrifice. Miracles are looked upon selfishly, as in how we can individually benefit rather than how we, as a society, can be made a better place. Prejudice abounds.

The Sky Whale by Rebecca Emanuelsen     5/10
Hitomi and her mother are headed to see family when the little girl sees a whale in the sky. This subtle, well written story deals with the loss of a parent during the recent devastating tsunami in Japan. A nice fragment of a story, where the whales, obviously seen in Hitomi's imagination as a coping method for the loss of her father. The story, technically, is not a fantasy, since the whales aren't really there.

Tasting of the Sea by A. C. Wise     4/10
A clockmaker builds hearts for sorrowful orphans. Nice prose, much of the time, but the abstract quality and lack of characterization makes for unremarkable reading.

Lighting of the Candles by Laura Hinkle     3/10
A sketch of a succubus named Unicorn who picks men up at bars. You might think she is a vampire, but the "you dream of me" nonsense alludes more to succubi. The myriad candles of the title seem to represent her numerous victims. Unfortunately the sketch is quite bland.

Gemini in the House of Mars by Nicole M. Taylor     5/10
A tale of twins, both seemingly evil, and the question of whether twin Lora was indeed killed by a cuckolded husband. Flows nicely but story-wise not too interesting. Taylor's Shimmer 15 entry, "The Undertaker's Son," is a superior story.

The Haunted Jalopy Races by M. Bennardo     6/10
Another story that borrows from recognizable fare to deliver something a little different. Two feuding ghosts of feuding boys who were killed during a race in their souped-up jalopies meet on the anniversary of their death to continue their rivalry, as witnessed by the gal they both had the hots for. A little predictable but some nice sentence shaping helps to elevate the story.

In Light of Recent Events I Have Reconsidered the Wisdom of Your Space Elevator by Helena Bell     7/10
An enjoyable ambiguous tale of apocalypse (?), innocence and imaginative story-telling, along with a dash of childhood cruelty and a great title. I also very much enjoyed author Bell's author profile.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Super Friends: The Power Pirate

The Power Pirate (episode 1.1)
Directed by Charles Nichols
Voiced by Ted Knight, Casey Kasem, Shannon Farnon, Norman Alden, Frank Welker and others
First aired: 8 September 1973

Rating: 7/10

Information on DC superheroes abounds online by more knowledgeable sources than I, and rather than discuss backs-story or even criticize interpretations of our heroes, I am reviewing these episodes as though they act as stand-alone superhero fare, and with the belief that readers have enough background information for it all to make sense.

The 1973 incarnation of Super Friends, the first televised interpretation of members of the Justice League of America, was, like all Saturday morning cartoons, aimed at children. The successful production team of Hanna-Barbera (The Flintstones, Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, The Fantastic Four and countless other animated series), managed to borrow from the JLA enough to produce a kid-friendly show. Super Friends and its various spin-offs like Challenge of the Super Friends were highly popular, and yet most were limited run series. Though the show features on four of the vast number of JLA members, it nonetheless maintains many similarities with the early comic, written by Gardner Fox and illustrated by Mike Sekowsky.

The early JLA comics featured the (annoying) teenager Snapper Carr to help bring young readers closer to the our adult heroes, while Super Friends used a similar tact in creating the Wonder Twins: Wendy and Marvin, along with Wonder Dog. Wendy at least had some investigative sense, while Marvin and Wonder Dog acted like a Shaggy and Scooby pair in an attempt to draw laughs from a more serious adventure cartoon. I like the bright and round-eyed Wendy, but I could do without Marvin and his canine sidekick. There are too many Scooby antics featured in the series that detract from the main plot. The antics were part of the Super Friends formula, and each episode seemed to have been allotted a specific antic time-frame.

(Incidentally, I would be interested in knowing why Aquaman was selected as part of the quad over the likes of other original JLA members Green Lantern and The Flash. Perhaps easier animation or opportunities for environmental messages? I liked Aquaman as a kid in the 1980s, but as an adult I recognize his limitations. I preferred the Aquaman interpretation 2001 Justice League series.)

Other similarities with the early JLA comics include aspects of both artwork and writing. The show features poor humour amid high levels of action, constant collaboration between the heroes (hence a good idea to limit the characters to four), often exaggerated alien enemies, and constantly shifting physical proportions in the characters, who at times have thighs wider than hips or suddenly appear to age.

Episode one features a blatant message to young viewers: using your brain can be more important than using your muscles. Batman: "Don't forget, not everyone has super strength but everyone has a brain. You can do super things with your brain." (Is it just me or is the way Batman/Olan Soule enunciate "brain" sound terribly odd, as though his was impending speech? Not to mention the way he says: "Wonder Woman! She's in trouble!") Wonder Woman: "The only thing that can surpasssuper strength is the power of the brain." Aquaman: "We've depended on using our muscles when we should'be been using our brains. The importance of smarts is emphasized by strengthless Wendy who proves to be brighter than super detective Batman.

Aside from messages about using our brains, the 1973 episode features environmental concerns over energy consumption. At the opening of a nuclear power plant, the speaker informs his audience that the plant is a "solution to our ever-increasing energy needs." The plot features an alien named Anthro from the planet Traum who is stealing Earth's energy in order to re-supply that of his own race, who have squandered their energy sources. The episode teaches its young viewers that while we cannot stop sing energy, we should us it wisely. The message was and still is an important one, and the montage featuring Marvin and Wonder Dog clearing home of electronic equipment and then instead better using the equipment is a good visual aid.

Propaganda yes, but good propaganda.

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