Tuesday, June 25, 2013

City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare or What Makes a Good Series

City of Ashes (The Mortal Instruments Series #2)

I am currently reading The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare.  Reading this series led me to think about the different series I’ve read over the years, as a child and as an adult.  Looking at my reading history I found that most series could be described as what I would call static or dynamic.  In a static series there is no overall goal that once accomplished, will bring an end to the series.  Each entry in the series can stand completely on its own.  There’s no need to read what came before to get a character's back story because either it is an unimportant or it is succinctly summarized in each individual book.  The characters are clearly defined, sometimes rigidly so, but are not necessarily described in depth. 

Static books are comforting because you know what you’re getting into when you open to the first page.  The best examples of static series are the ones I read as a kid.  Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High come to mind.  Many cozy mysteries might fall into this category as well – Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason or Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series, for example.  These types of books don’t always have great character development, but that’s okay because that’s not really why you read them.  The appeal of a static series is its formula, its non-changing (or little changing) characters, and knowing that in the end whatever problem presented itself in chapter one will be solved by the last page.  It is the ever inquisitive, mystery solving Nancy Drew, the good girl Elizabeth and her semi-bad (or what we might call to today mean girl) twin Jessica.  It is the always winning, stand up for the little guy no matter the odds, Perry Mason that attracts readers. 

A dynamic series has a definitive beginning and ending.  It pays to read the series in order.  The challenge for the author of a dynamic series is making the series as a whole cohesive, while also ensuring that each book can be read on its own.  Each book must have a unique story to tell.  At the same time, each book should further the overall series by having the characters grow and evolve and should move the overall plot forward, even if only incrementally.  Examples of series that do this well are J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.  (I might also include George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice series here as well, but with the caveat that I have only read the first two books in the series so far.)

I mostly prefer dynamic series now, though it occurred to me in writing this that although I don’t read as many static series anymore, I do watch them.  NCIS, NCIS: LA, basically most of the crime/cop shows currently on TV could all be described as static.  Again, it is formula that most appeals.

The worst series are those that fall into the valley between the static and dynamic camps.  Books that have the misfortune of falling into this valley are those that tend to be both weak on plot and on character development.  Some readers prefer one over the other.  I can read both, but need at least one of the two. 

City of Bones, the first book in The Mortal Instruments started off as a promising dynamic series, but the series stalled in City of Ashes.  The outlines of the characters were laid out in the first book, but they didn’t grow and evolve in the second.  Clary was still stubborn and shrill.  Jace was still a jerk.  Isabelle was still the pretty girl with the whip.  (By the way, why the whip?  Is this an homage to Wonder Woman and her lasso of truth?)  Making Alec gay and uncomfortable about it might have been an attempt to add depth to the character, but his point of view is never presented and labeling a character gay isn’t enough to add depth any more than making a character heterosexual would be.  There has to be more to his story.

In addition to the lack of growth among the characters, City of Ashes lacked a strong plot.  It was more or less a continuation of the “we have to defeat Valentine” theme, but there was no singular problem that needed to be resolved or accomplished in this book.  This is my biggest problem with City of Ashes.  I suppose one could argue that the soul-sword was meant to be the problem to be dealt with, but that seemed like an afterthought for much of the book.  With the exception of the inquisitor, and she is a relatively minor character, getting the sword never seemed to be at the top of anyone's to do list.  In this sense, the book lacked a certain energy.  There was lots of action – characters getting attacked by demons, fight scenes here and there, vehicles usually seen on streets driven in the air and on water – but it seemed liked characters were just dropped into one crisis after another.   There was never a coherent sense of “we have to do this thing and here’s how we’re going to do it.”  That’s what I mean by energy.  There was crisis after crisis and lots of action, and oh look, the soul-sword happens to be right here in arm’s reach, but no overall plan, no energy directed at a particular goal.

Despite my less than stellar response to City of Ashes, I'm going to read the next book in the series, City of Glass, in part because I borrowed the first three books from the library at the same time and feel compelled to finish at least these three. I have a hard time not finishing books.  Plus I liked the first book enough to give the third book in the series a shot.  Bones was a good start.  Ashes fell short, but I’m hoping Glass picks up the torch and runs with it.

One other last thought - I really like the cover of this book, particularly the flaming red hair against the gray/blue background.  I also like the covers of Bones and Glass.  That being said, I'm not sure captures the the book that well.  Clary doesn't yet strike me as the powerful woman shown on the cover.

Friday, June 21, 2013

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

City of Bones (The Mortal Instruments Series #1)  I'm not quite sure where to begin with City of Bones.  In a nutshell, an ordinary teenage girl discovers their magic in the world.  In fact, there's a shadow world populated by vampires, werewolves, faeries, various types of demons, and shadowhunters.  Shadowhunters are warriors who fight to keep the world safe for humans.  Clary Fray, the teenage girl in question, is introduced into to this world when she witnesses a murder.  She quickly realizes no one else can see what she sees.  In short order, Clary's mother goes missing, Clary herself is attacked by a demon, and so the adventure begins!

Over the last six months I have read a few young-adult paranormal series - The Secret Circle, Beautiful Creatures, and now City of Bones, which is book one of The Mortal Instruments series.  This wasn't planned, it just sort of happened.  I picked this up after it was recommended by two work colleagues.  Of these YA paranormal series, I have enjoyed City of Bones the most.  It isn't the best written book.  There are a few issues with awkward shifts between points of view and character development.  And, it certainly isn't the most original.  Pretty early on I couldn't help but think of the Harry Potter series, among others.  (The humans are called "mundanes" for goodness sake.)  Based on the family twist near the end, I'd guess the author is also a fan of Return of the Jedi.  Maybe that's why I liked City of Bones.  I like the stories the author was clearly influenced by, and I liked her interpretation of those stories.

The Mortal Instruments is definitely a series I'll read more of.  City of Bones was an enjoyable and exciting beginning.  Quite a few ends were left dangling loose and I'm looking to find out what happens next.  That being said, I couldn't recommend this to everyone.  That has a very specific type of audience - fans of young adult, paranormal romance.  It that's your cup of tea, you'll find what you're looking for here.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris

Dead Ever After (Sookie Stackhouse / Southern Vampire Series #13)   Dead Ever After is the 13th book in Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire / True Blood series.  Throughout the series Harris has blended romance and supernatural fantasy, with a little mystery thrown in.  In every book there is a problem to be solved or a question to be answered, and here there are two.  Who is trying to kill Sookie and why?  And more importantly, who will be Sookie's next (and perhaps last and lasting) lover? 

If you haven't read the previous books in the series, I wouldn't start with this one.  Harris brings back several old characters, including a few that haven't been seen for a few books.  Arlene, Reverend Newlin, Barry the other telepath, the sexy weretiger Quinn, and even a rogue fairy make an appearance.  It makes up for exciting time, but does require a knowledge of the history of these characters.

Oh Sookie, I'm going to miss you.  That's right, Dead Ever After is the last in the Southern Vampire / True Blood series.  Though some books in the series were better than others, overall I thoroughly enjoyed spending time in Bon Temps and everywhere else Sookie's adventures took her.  Not everyone will be pleased with the man Sookie ends up with, but then that's one of those things on which consensus is never going to be unanimous.  Personally, I liked the ending, and really, it wasn't a huge surprise.  In fact, it was about time.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

In an earlier post I wrote about participating in the Literary Explorations Challenge and reading books from a variety of genres.  Going into it I knew horror would be one of the more difficult genres for me.  I have always equated horror with violence and bloodshed simply for the sake of it.  Maybe that is not a completely fair characterization of horror, I don't know.  In any case, with the goal of completing the Literary Explorations Challenge I was ready and willing to give horror a try.  Being a classic and as I understand it, one of the first of its kind, I chose Frankenstein as my introduction to the genre.  I ended up not enjoying the story all that much, but not for the reason I expected.

When I think of horror stories I imagine something grisly, bloody, and well horrible.  Not horrible as in bad writing, but horrible as in more terrifying that you really want to imagine.  What I don't associate with horror is boredom, and that is what best characterizes my experience reading Frankenstein.  The story begins with a series of letters.  The crazy part is that neither the author nor the intended reader of the letters is Frankenstein, the monster, or any other character directly related to the action.  No, the author of the letters is a sea captain writing to his sister about his voyage.  It is not until the fourth letter that the letter writer mentions discovering Victor Frankenstein on an ice covered island.  When Frankenstein finally entered the story, I thought, now we're getting to the good part.  Instead, I spent the next several dozen pages reading about Frankenstein's childhood, all the while wondering when the monster was going to show up.

I get why this is a classic.  I understand why graduate students have written pages and pages of dissertations about Frankenstein and why it might be taught in school.  The parallels of the biblical story of the creation of Adam (and Eve), the pursuit of knowledge no matter the cost, the power of nature, rejection and acceptance - all these themes (and probably more) are all there.  Still, I was so bored. 

I think I would have enjoyed this more if it were shorter.  There is so much that could be cut out (the correspondence in the beginning, for example).  The parts that were most interesting were when the monster was around - studying the poor family, trying to introduce himself to them, begging Frankenstein to make him a mate.  The rest was background that didn't need to be there.  It would have also helped if it were written more in the present and less in the past tense.  That the sea captain, and later Frankenstein, is telling us about something that happened in the past made the action seem even more muted.

Strangely, although I did not enjoy this as much as I hoped I am interested in trying something else from the horror genre.  Next time I will probably pick something more modern, perhaps a Stephen King novel.  I find him intimidating, but also intriguing.  Lately for some reason I keep hearing about him and gigantic books he's written.  I'm not sure which of his books to pick up first.  Any suggestions?

Monday, June 3, 2013

World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War   Run!  The zombies are coming!  Actually, they don't move all that quickly so maybe a brisk walk will do.  They do tend to travel in packs though, and by God are they are persistent.  So keep your wits about you, and get out of there!  And if you must fight one of them, remember to aim for the head.

The "Z" in World War Z is for zombies and as the subtitle indicates, it is an "an oral history of the zombie war" as told by its survivors.  I don't recall how it started, but all of sudden the dead stop staying dead.  At first, people don't believe what they're seeing.  How could they?  It is absurd, but it's happening and people have to respond in some way, whether it is hiding, fighting, running. This tells the story of how the world responded.

I have a friend who doesn't read or watch zombie anything.  I get it, but as I told her, despite the title, the zombies don't really matter here.  Told in the style of a documentary, the real story here is how people - as individuals, as nations, and as a species - react to a world wide crisis.  To tell this story, the narrator interviews people from all over the world.  The interview subjects include soldiers,  government officials, and civilians.  There are college students, religious clerics, and even an astronaut who watched the war unfold from space.  All are ordinary people trying to survive in extraordinary circumstances.  Some people try to save only themselves.  Many band together and decide to fight together as best they can.  A few figure there has to be a way to make a profit out of all this.

Like any good post apocalyptic story, it doubles as a commentary on the present world.  One of things the zombie war makes clear for instance, is how unprepared and unskilled consumer culture has left at least some (or probably more accurately, most) of us.  We are use to buying things and calling someone else to fix whatever is broken, assuming we don't simply throw away whatever isn't working and simply buy another.  One of my favorite passage books is when the narrator notes the number of consultants, lawyers, and creative directors who survive in Los Angeles.  The problem is that in a post-zombie world no one needs anyone to consult, negotiate a contract, or do whatever a creative director does.  The world needs people who know how to farm, fix toilets, and build stuff.  People with college degrees and big bank accounts complain about being denigrated when told of the manual labor they'll need to now adopt as their new career.  People accustomed to wearing suits and giving orders now have to be taught how to survive by people who use to clean their houses and prepare their food.  People sometimes find themselves having to make unspeakable decisions in order to survive.  And amidst all the chaos and killing, they have to think about what kind of future they want to create, assuming there is a future.

More than anything, this book made me think about how I would survive a disaster, whether natural or man-made.  Where would I go?  How would I get there?  What should I bring with me?  What skills do I need to be prepared?  Coincidentally, today at work I had to attend active shooter defense training (i.e., what to do if someone shows up on campus and starts shooting up the place).  One of the points the instructor made was to think ahead and know your surroundings.  Where are the exits in the building?  Not just the main door that you enter in every day, but the less obvious ones.  If you can't safely reach an exit, where would you hide?  In other words, plan ahead.  After reading this book, again I thought, what's my plan?

I really liked this book.  I haven't read or watched many zombie related books or movies, so I'm not sure where this fits in the zombie canon.  That being said, if you're into zombies the way teenage girls are into moody vampires, this book might not be for you as this book really isn't about the walking dead.  It's about the living and what they're willing to do to stay that way.