Monthly Archives: July 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling

Raincoast, 2007, 607 pages, C$45.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-551-92976-7

I’m going to miss the little wizard.

Oh, I’ve never been much of a Potterphile: I’ve been quite happy to read the books right after the movie adaptations come out, and if I have generally enjoyed the tales so far, I’ve left to my siblings the pleasure of obsessing about the series and going out to the midnight events celebrating the release of the series. I probably won’t read the last book until the release of the film sometimes in 2009-2010.

But sometimes, you don’t need to read a book in order to review it. Regarding Harry Potter 7, I have gleefully spoiled myself rotten, starting by reading the leaked epilogue and going on to query people who have read the book as well as reading tons of spoilerrific discussions. I can tell you who dies, who married who and the reasons why the epilogue may or may not please readers. I may not have read the series so far, but I certainly know where it’s going, and it doesn’t take much more than that to bloviate about the series.

So, first up: That seventh volume pretty much goes through the expected motions, doesn’t it? There’s little in here that’s genuinely shocking. The generally amiable tone of the series is darkened but preserved, and if a few minor characters die, well, it’s just to show that Rowling has raised the stakes a bit. Of the main characters, there’s little surprise in who dies and who ends up snogging who. Though I’m disappointed to learn that my long-awaited Harry/Draco fist-fight never happens, the rest is pretty much by the numbers, up to and including the not-really-murder of You-Know-Who by You-Know-Who-Else.

As for the epilogue, well, I’m usually the last one to complain about heteronormativity, but using “they all got married” as a shorthand for “they lived happily ever after” has always struck me as a bit easy. It’s even worse considering that just about everyone marries people they met in high school: can you imagine being stuck in a universe where that was true? The English wizard world is a bit inbred, isn’t it? Goodness forbid Harry should find a hot non-British witch to woo if he is to maintain the purity of English wizardry. (And what’s up with Cho’s puff-like disappearance from the series? Oh, OK, never mind.)

But generally speaking, it looks as if that seventh volume is what fans expected, so that’s that.

It may be more fun to discuss the series’ lasting impact. The Potter series has been a publishing phenomenon beyond measure: It was an experience to go though Ottawa’s biggest bookstore on the eve of Volume Seven’s launch to find the store re-done in Potter regalia, along with a bunch of customers and employees dressed up for the occasion. “This feels like a science-fiction convention”, I said to the cashier who seemed to understand what I was talking about.

Trying to explain why the series took off involves a conjunction of events and narrative hooks that may not be repeatable. The universality of the series’s premise is wonderful, and so was its ability to expand in a world that was much more complete than the first book suggested. (Though I’d love to study the changes made mid-way through the series.) The vast cast of characters meant that there was something for everyone, and the evolving maturity of the series also meant that the book could appeal to kids as they grew older.

Ironically, I think that “for the kids” label of the series explained why it reached so many people. The clear prose presented no reading challenge, and the parents could hop along the series alongside the kids. More broadly speaking, I think that the “you know, for the kids” appeal of the Harry Potter universe freed parents to enjoy the fantasy trapping without self-consciousness. Beyond the habitual fantasy readers, adults could just show up on the bus or at the office with the latest Potter book and no one batted an eye. There’s probably a lesson in there for expanding the fantasy readership, but I don’t think anyone inside the SF&F community paid any attention to what it was.

I’m also wondering if the Potter Craze was well-timed alongside the Lord of the Ring mania of 2001-2003, or the Star Wars Episodes craziness of 1999-2003. More than anything else, I keep hoping that something will manage to catch similar broad attention. Potter may have been the 800-pound gorilla in the fantasy field, but he’s been useful in decrazifying the image of the average fantasy reader. Yes, it’s “for the kids”, but you won’t find too many people saying that it was “just for kids”. As the wonderfully cool concept of people lining up at midnight to buy a fantasy book recedes in the rear-view mirror of 2007, I just realize again that I’ll miss the little wizard.

Crooked Little Vein, Warren Ellis

Morrow, 2007, 280 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-072393-4

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Warren Ellis’ blog, but it had one feature that I remember clearly. Once every few days, a link called “Don’t click here!” would appear. These days, “Don’t click” is usually an invitation to see how jaded you can be. Thanks to the Internet, everyone now think that they’ve seen more of human perversion than the Marquis de Sade himself. Well, Warren Ellis meant it when he tells people not to click. Goatse is mere fluffy comfort compared to what he proposed under those links. Most people learned quickly that if Warren Ellis said not to click, you didn’t click.

For more than a decade, Ellis has written almost exclusively for comic books, racking such hits as Transmetropolitan and becoming something of a net.personality thanks to his work and an active on-line presence. His prose fiction debut, Crooked Little Vein, was eagerly anticipated. Would the book live up to the hype?

I can probably answer that question with two words: Godzilla Bukkake.

  • If you don’t know those words, Warren Ellis isn’t for you, and I’m not the one who’s going to explain what they mean. (Also: You’ll regret knowing. Don’t click!)
  • If you know those words and recoil at the thought that they could be combined, Warren Ellis and Crooked Little Vein aren’t for you. But at least you already know that.
  • If you know those words and wonder (maybe queasily) how they could follow one another, get Crooked Little Vein and turn to chapter 4. Your questions will be answered. In detail.
  • If you’re hollering and clapping “Godzilla Bukkake! Hell, yeah!”, you probably read the novel before I did. (Also; please stay at some distance until I get to know you better.)

To see a pope of pop perversion like Ellis turn to novel-length fiction is fascinating on many levels: How will his sensibilities adapt to prose? How will he handle the structural demands of a novel relative to comics? Would be he able to sustain a narrative over hundreds of pages? (Albeit barely: I’d be surprised if the book goes much longer than 50,000 words.)

The answer is surprising in its cleverness. First, Ellis takes on a standard boilerplate noir template to kick off the action: His narrator is a hard-boiled Private Investigator who’s asked to find an important national relic. Michael McGill is a protagonist living out of his time: He may be in 2006, but he truly belongs to the classical pulp era. His ability to attract the weirdest elements of contemporary society is a handy excuse for Ellis to trot out the worst of what he can find on the Internet, but it also sets up the novel’s examination of what’s weird. The stated assumption, at least at the beginning of the narrative, is that America has lost its way. That the ills of American society are caused by permissiveness and encouraged by the broad availability of amoral depictions.

But from this hard-boiled premise, Ellis turns to the road novel as inspiration. Chapter by chapter, McGill heads west from New York to (inevitably) Los Angeles. Every step along the way, he meets richer and more amoral characters. From Godzilla Bukkake, we go to genital saline injections, naked animal wrestling, Jesus-themed sex toys and even worse. I would say that delicate natures should abstain, but that should be obvious by now. But it also minimizes the fact that the novel is very funny. McGill’s narration is impeccable, and his mixture of world-weariness and “you’ve got to be kidding me” bewilderment at what he sees is the perfect middle ground for the readers.

What doesn’t work so well, as the book advances, is the false conflict between America’ “new perversion” and McGill’s so-called conservatism, as given voice by arguments between McGill and the female side-kick that follows him along his trip through darkest America. Ellis is too obviously fond of off-beat weirdness to be truly impartial in the matter, and the two or three plot beats that depend on McGill being an old-fashioned moral beacon in face of contrary evidence don’t really work. The conclusion is entirely expected: Much like Jerry Springer’s series is surprisingly moral under the freak show veneer, so is Crooked Little Vein once you accept the idea that unusual acts between consensual adults can be no one else’s business. It’s interesting to see, late in the book, where Ellis ends up drawing the line between good and bad behaviour. Morality is about people being hurt, not about people being vicariously shocked or offended.

But if trying to fit Ellis’ novel in an analysis of contemporary morality may be fun for budding sociologists, it’s not where the true worth of the novel truly lies: Crooked Little Vein is the type of vibrant little novel made for the comic-book generation, a short trip through a fun-house world that first wants to entertain its target audience. I have already met people who couldn’t finish the novel, and that’s OK: Much like more of Ellis’ work so far, Crooked Little Vein is bound to offend (or disgust) just about every reader at some point. It’s hardly perfect as a sustained narrative (the episodic structure is transparent, and some passages feel forced into the story, such as the plane ride with Falconer in Chapter 42), but it’s a lightning-fast read and a delicious summer treat for jaded readers.

Just make sure that you really want to “Click here”.

Not a review

A Just Determination, John G. Hemry

Ace, 2003, 259 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-01052-0

In this cheery twenty-first century where everyone’s interests are being thrown in a swirling melting pot, it may be not be a surprise to find authors attempting unusual genre combinations. Military Science-Fiction has long been a staple, but what about judicial military SF? In this first volume in the “JAG in Space” series, John G. Hemry ends up writing an unambitious, but remarkably enjoyable hybrid of three flavours that, all things considered, go well together.

A Just Determination begins in 2099, just as newly-minted Ensign Paul Sinclair steps upon the USS Michaelson, a warship (“Long Endurance Cruiser”) protecting U.S. interests in space. As you would expect from the first book in a military SF series, the narrative first dedicates itself to the introduction of the characters, from protagonist Sinclair himself, to the chain of command above him and the other members of the Michaelson. There are a lot of characters, so the time it takes to introduce them all isn’t insignificant. It takes chapters before the action properly starts, but that’s not a big problem: Hemry’s clear prose is readable enough, and Sinclair’s early trials in space are the kind of stuff that will quickly charm readers.

But the emphasis of the series is different from that of most military SF novel. This “Novel of Universal Law” is far more interested in the mechanics of a military spaceship than in big action scenes or cheap political points. Hemry is a career military officer, and it shows: His depiction of military minds and protocols is surprisingly engaging, and should appeal to readers of all political orientations. As Sinclair learns how to do his job (which includes an unwelcome judiciary dimension, as he’s designated the ship’s lone legal officer) and as the minutia of shipboard life is explained, it feels as if we’re given a tour of life in the military.

It’s no accident if the Science Fiction angle ends up being the weakest of A Just Determination‘s blending of genres. The USS Michaelson is very obviously a United States warship, which not only provides a solid grounding for readers, but also enables Hemry to use established US naval traditions and procedures as a given for his action. You could easily take the bones of this novel and re-cast them in a current-day technothriller without unduly harming it.

On the other hand, the military and legal aspects of the novel are non-removable, especially when the main plot of the novel kicks in: During patrol, the Michaelson ends up firing on an unarmed research vessel from “the other side”. The captain of the ship is soon slated for a court-martial, leaving Sinclair to contemplate whether this is a fair trial, or a simple scapegoating exercise. Despite his personal dislike of the man, will Sinclair be able to do his duty and speak the truth?

If that sounds like a dull and low-stakes plot, you’re not entirely mistaken: A Just Determination is not a novel of intricate twists and sudden revelations. The events unfold evenly, at an expected pace that will shock no one. This is a procedural novel, maybe even a didactic one: Hemry’s goal seems to be to explain why military procedures are the way they are, and find where personal responsibility lies in the grey areas where no one is a hero or a villain. Readers used to more high-octane action may balk, but they’re going themselves a disservice: Hemry’s first “JAG in Space” volume is a compulsively readable, even charming piece of pure military fiction. The characters are well handled, the prose is clean and the procedural approach to military justice leads to some terrific courtroom sequences.

While it’s true that some characters are too quickly sketched, or that Sinclair’s internal narration is often too one-the-nose, this has little impact of the novel’s overall effect. A Just Determination‘s simple plot allows Hemry to focus his message and wrap it up in a judicious amount of characterization. Readers who think they’ve given up on military fiction may want to take a look at this one: above-average verisimilitude is a welcome breath of fresh air after far too many alien-shoot’em-up tripe. Though I started the series with only the first two volumes in hand, I quickly went out and purchased the third and fourth volumes. Stay tuned for the next adventures of Paul Sinclair, military lawyer in spaaace!

Dexta, C.J. Ryan

Bantam Spectra, 2005, 451 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58776-5

It’s summer and I’m mellow, and that just may be the only reason why I’m still amused by C.J. Ryan’s generally deplorable Dexta. Some books are mesmerizing because it’s hard to believe how ludicrous they are, and Dexta falls squarely in that category. I suspect that the story of how that book was purchased, edited and marketed by Bantam Spectra is a lot more interesting than Dexta itself.

Where to start? Oh, I know: Let’s first tackle the irony of purchasing this book.

You see, I’ve been feeling guilty of not reading enough female authors. I thought I’d make an effort and so purchased two unknown SF novels by an equally unknown “C.J. Ryan”. In Science Fiction and Fantasy, first initials are often a reliable indicator of female authors: From C.J Cherryh to J.K. Rowling, many female authors were/are advised to use initials as so to “not scare off the boys”. I assumed that this would be the same and thought I’d bravely do my part to support SF written by women.

How hilariously wrong this would turn out to be.

Dexta takes place in a universe a thousand years in the future, at a time where the human empire reigns supreme over thousands of planets. Naturally, such machinery of government requires a bureaucracy, and it’s the lower rungs of the Department of Extraterrestrial Affairs (Dexta) that we find our heroine, Gloria VanDeen. As the manager of a handful of planets, it’s her job to solve the problem when extraterrestrial natives take up arms against their human masters.

So far, so dull: there isn’t much here to distinguish the premise from countless other mid-list SF novels. One would think that a twenty-first century SF novel with this conventional starting point would use it as a pedestal from which to question the assumptions of imperialism, or as a framework on which to hang the weirdness of a very different future. But I don’t think anyone could have predicted where C.J. Ryan would take this novel. Because within pages, it’s clear that Dexta has taken a turn for the bizarre.

There’s the power-fantasy element, for instance. Not only is Gloria VanDeen a living DNA-sculpted goddess (perfect “coffee with a little cream” skin, “gracefully flowing blond tresses the colour of honey”, “intense sky-blue” eyes, “high and broad” cheekbones, etc. [all P.16]), but she is the emperor’s ex-wife and is succeeding brilliantly in Dexta despite a rough first year.

How rough? That’s where Dexta really dives into bizarro-land. As described in the novel, Dexta’s environment is so competitive that its inner rules allow for rough play and aggression at the lower levels of its hierarchy. Quoting the book’s logic, “sexual harassment and intimidation were simply part of the game at Dexta” [P.53] Chapter 4 describes an organization so fundamentally dysfunctional that it suggests an elaborate satire: “Sleeping with a superior at Dexta was a normal and accepted part of life… there were no formal rules governing sex at Dexta, but everyone knew what was expected.” [P.58] There is some thin justification about how Dexta discourages its lower-level employees from forming stable relationships with people outside Dexta, but the damage is done: There’s no way such an organization (one financed with public money, no less) could hope to exist a long time.

Described like this, from afar, this could be satire… if only it was written as such. There is a very long sequence describing the “Dexta Bestiary” [P.49-53] that feels like an inner-office joke taken too far and then taken seriously for the rest of the novel. What little we get in term of self-awareness about Dexta’s dysfunction comes very late in the novel, as the heroine is basically told “ha-ha, you passed our hazing rituals!” Every character’s mention is tagged with his or her level within the Dexta Bureaucracy, which is obviously very important in the scheme of things. Chapter 4 sets up a particular gag: “Assault was forbidden against either a superior or a subordinate. But staffers at the same level could and often did resolve disputes through sheer force. [P.51] You won’t be surprised to learn that it lead to a good old-fashioned cat-fight in Chapter 20: “You’re a Thirteen, I’m a Thirteen… if we can’t resolve our differences calmly and rationally, Dexta has a time-honoured alternative” [P.316].

But that’s small potatoes compared to the fascination that the author seems to have for describing what little clothing Gloria chooses to wear. It may seem like an exaggeration to say that her physical appearance or wardrobe is lauded every five pages, but let me just go through pages 100-120:

  • “[He] noticed Gloria. Her ran his eyes over her quickly.” [p.103]
  • “…a wide, plunging neckline that left her breast almost completely uncovered”. [p.105],
  • “Ah, ladies, he cried, you look exquisite.” [P.106]
  • “…those tits of yours won’t get me babbling the way they did with young Olivera.” [p.109],
  • “Standing before the mirror, she pulled some fabric farther apart, completely exposing her nipples.” [P.113]
  • “Gloria… I appreciate your interest, and under any other circumstances, I would appreciate the excellent view of your breasts” [P.114]
  • “She was wearing a loose, nearly transparent white shirt, unbuttoned and knotted at the waist, and… denim blue jeans. Gloria’s were tight and rode low on her hips, a fetching five inches below her navel.” [P.117]

Throughout the novel, we’re told all about her outfits, her hair, her curves, the way he adjust her clothes to be nearly transparent, or how she makes strategic use of her pubic hair. I have quotes for that too: “She looked at herself in the closet mirror and saw that a single stray pubic hair was curling over the top of her skirt, golden and obvious against her cocoa-toned flesh. She rather liked the effect.” [P.60] Later: “Her blond pubic delta at the junction of her long, silken thighs, and her round, firm breasts were entirely uncovered. She stood before him and let him get as good a look as he wanted.” [P.324]

The rare passages that aren’t from Gloria’s point of view are no better. Later in the book, a superior reads one of her memos and is impressed that “Her brains were obviously as good as her breasts” [P.374] A few pages later, the emperor himself gravely remarks “Did you see her? Did you see those tits of hers? How in hell can I compete with that?” [P.382]

Hurrah for Gloria VanDeen, symbol of female empowerment.

It may be meant as a Statement of some sort, but it frankly comes across as puerile and embarrassing. There’s a Mary-Sueish vibe to Gloria that gets stronger as the novel unfolds, along with an overall feel of creepy bafflement. Despite living in a society without nudity or sex taboos, Dexta’s male characters seem easily swayed by an attractive woman showing some skin and hinting at further carnal knowledge. It’s not only insulting: it’s bad writing and lazy plotting. Once, just once, I would have liked Gloria to face down a gay or happily married man who would just look at her and say “lady, you ain’t all
that.”

Throughout, Dexta teeters on the edge of being soft-core SF sex novel. Gloria has a fling with the emperor (her ex-husband), reflects on the many people she’s had to sleep with at Dexta, has a relationship with a handsome outdoors type, shows her body as a social favour to keep up the morale of the troops [P.355] and entraps an enemy by soliciting date rape. (“Gloria cried out involuntarily as he reached the blond tangle of her pubic mound. She felt his wet, slick tongue on her, and then his short, pudgy fingers, stroking and probing and finally penetrating her.” [P.328]) A powerful aphrodisiac is a key plot driver on both the meta and the micro level. Throughout the novel and despite the so-called permissiveness of Gloria’s universe, “having sex with” is a crude and constant shorthand for the fact that two characters have a strong relationship of some sort. Usually a relationship that works to one person’s advantage, or can be exploited by a third party.

It gets better, or worse, late in the novel as Gloria arranges for storms to be transported around the planet. Whenever the torrential rain starts falling… she strips down naked and starts a good-natured mud fight with her female assistant in front of soldiers: “Gloria brought Petra down with a Qatsima move and both of them were soon rolling around in a puddle, shrieking and giggling madly. Gloria gained her vengeance, ripping Petra’s clothes off as the delighted Marines watched.” [P.360] I swear I’m not making any of this up, nor stealing from porn movie script. (For one thing, there are no lipstick lesbians here despite the girl-on-girl mud-wrestling: the vast majority of the actual or implied sexual relationships in Dexta are strictly heterosexual. It could be all of them, but I’m not re-reading the entire book to check.) A plot twist in the last few pages of the book has Gloria rewarded for refusing to sleep with a superior, but by that point we know what this novel is really about.

So, soft-core porn or not? The excerpt speak for themselves, but if Dexta wanted to be a naughty care-free sex satire, it keeps misplaying in tone: As mentioned above, Dexta is heavy on coerced sexual relations, twisted power dynamics, attempted rape and a general feeling of distastefulness. Enough to darken any fun (or, heck, any arousal) one could get from the constant sexual content of the book.

It’s hard to get a naughty thrill out of a novel that reads as if it came out of a cesspool of dominance power games. Dexta is a rude awakening for those who think that SF has become more sexually mature over the past few years: part of it read like adolescent fantasies, while others just make one reach for soap and a hard brush. Say, has anyone seen John Norman shopping a new Gor novel around lately?

The emphasis on really stupid plot points is enough to make us think that yes this may be meant as a serious SF adventure novel. The background never holds up to scrutiny, and the details give the impression of a fake lazy future with no internal coherency. For instance: The native rebellion, set a thousand years in the future on a planet far away, relies on good old AK-47s. Manhattan/America is still the centre of human civilization. There are mentions of a brand-new religion called Spiritism that reaches “more than 70 percent of the Empire’s human population” despite doubts regarding its origin. But, hey, why worry since it has no nudity taboo and “no one had fought a religious war on Earth for more than a thousand years.” [P.32] Handy!

And ooh, don’t get me started on the complete lack of perspective on the colonial imperialism issue, or the way the extraterrestrial natives are described as being small, furry, primitive, stupid and smelly. Just don’t.

Other issues abound, but I’ll make an even bigger fool of myself if I kept treating this novel like a colourful piñata of silly treats. I’m sure that a Dexta fan, somewhere, can argue at length about how this isn’t meant to be taken seriously, shouldn’t be considered as anything but “good fun” and really doesn’t try to describe humanity as we know it. They’ll have a harder time convincing me that the novel is conventionally interesting: The obvious plot peters out and struggles to reach the finishing line. Without the naughty material, there wouldn’t be much to distinguish this book from countless other manuscripts languishing in the slush-pile.

So that’ll do to explain why, despite enormous misgivings regarding just about every aspect of Dexta, I’ll hold off on calls for mass bonfires. It certainly had its entertainment value… though maybe not in the way that the author intended. On the other hand, Bantam Spectra has dirtied its hands by touching this novel: Dexta wouldn’t have been surprising as a self-published novel, but coming from what’s still known as a major publishing house, it’s an embarrassment. Who acquired this book? Who edited it? Who thought it would reflect well on the brand of the Rooster? I keep feeling there’s a heck of a story under the surface, a Big Name under the shadows or else an intricate joke that I can’t grasp at the moment. Did it, at the very least, sell?

No one will be surprised to learn that C.J. Ryan was (and is still, two years later) a pseudonym for, and I quote from randomhouse.com, “an author who lives and works in Philadelphia” with no further detail except the added gender-specific note that 2007’s Burdens of Empire “is his fourth science fiction novel.” In a way, I’m happy for Ryan’s true name to remain shrouded in mystery. This way, we can project our own wishes on “his” identity, from a young inexperienced macho geek to a frustrated middle-aged government bureaucrat to a skilled feminist writer brilliantly undermining the clichés of misogynistic SF. I don’t know who C.J. Ryan is, and I’m not sure I want to know —though those things eventually come out sooner or later, often to everyone’s embarrassment.

[August 2007: Glorious Treason, the sequel, really isn’t much better. It improves nothing (except for a lighter touch on the Dexta bestiary metaphors) and feels a lot uglier. It lazily re-uses a Gold Rush theme and setting without bothering to add SF elements, and barely delivers the outline of a thriller plot. On the other hand, almost all of the naughtiness of the book is tainted with either coercion or manipulation, leaving little harmless fun. The violence is harsher, the scenes generally duller and this time we know exactly what C.J. Ryan is all about… Frankly, there’s little to recommend here, and it will take a while before I even want to touch another Ryan novel.]

The Acme Novelty Library, Chris Ware

Pantheon, 2005, 110 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-375-42295-1

This may have been one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read.

Anyone who’s seriously interested in comic books has known that the medium isn’t limited to happy happy stories. Many of the acknowledged classics of the genre, from Maus to Watchmen, have been grim and uncompromising. But few people can be as hilariously dark as Chris Ware and his ACME Novelty Library, and this collection shows why.

There are, simply put, no heroes in Ware’s work. Every character is revealed to be weak, doomed, deluded or pathetic. Much like Robert Crumb’s work at its most unflinching, Ware has made it his mission to unbolt the little lies that we tell about ourselves. The effect for readers can be a lot like Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex, and just as shattering. Everyone sucks, and that’s life.

In its blandest form, The Acme Novelty Library is a repackaged collection of Ware’s work. (Actually, its full title is The Acme Novelty Library Final Report to Shareholders and Rainy Day Saturday Afternoon Fun Book) Since the artist’s material appears in a variety of formats and venues, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the book will feel like a collection of already-seen pieces: if you don’t faithfully buy every issue of the “Acme Novelty Library” periodical (not necessarily available at your neighbourhood comic book shop), chances are that most of the material will be original to most readers. Better yet: Ware has adapted the material in the book, making it feel like a more unified creation.

Not enough good things can be said about the design of the book. Produced as an oversized “poster-book” hardcover, The Acme Novelty Library is beautifully packaged, leaving little detail to chance. Every aspect of the physical object has been pored over: It features a gilded cover, a comic strip on the edge of the book, another one on the back of the (glued) bandoleer, full colour pages, a glow-in-the-dark astronomical chart as well as cut-and-paste paper-craft projects. Every single page has been filled with material, requiring some deft physical manipulation to twist one’s way through reading all of the content. Ware is a perfectionist’s perfectionist, and the care with which he has designed the book is obvious throughout. Much like McSweeney’s 13, also designed by Ware, The Acme Novelty Library is sure to become a standout piece of show-and-tell whenever guests come over to take a look at your library.

Whether you’ll let them read the book is another matter. People undergoing depressions, comic fansboys and fragile natures may want to stay well away from The Acme Novelty Library until they feel better about life, the universe and everything else. Every single character in the book’s numerous strips is repelled, deluded or fated to a lonely death. (Loneliness is a big theme for Ware; so is death. Lonely deaths inevitably follow.) Despite the awe-inspiring layout of some pages (just have a look at the “Big Tex” strips on page 33 and 40), there’s a profound sense of misery here. Characters do nasty things to each other, are fated to repeat their failures, and can’t communicate effectively with each other. It’s easy to pinpoint unmarried obsessive comic-book collector “Chester Brown” as the saddest character of the lot, but being married and mature is not much better in Ware’s view of the world: The “Chalky White” strip on page 97 is heart-breaking in how it shows how even the best-natured characters can be misunderstood by the ones they love. Even moronic “Big Tex” is doomed to an inglorious end, surrounded by hostile family members and fated to a vegetative state. And that’s if you do have family members: most of Ware’s characters are stuck alone in joyless surroundings, often self-exiled away from the rest of the world. It doesn’t take much to identify with them. I may not be a comic-book collector, but am I necessarily more aware of my place in the world than Chester Brown’s deluded obsessiveness with useless trinkets? Don’t answer that.

Ironically, some of the funniest material in the book appears in written format, as satirical advertisement tearing down consumerism, American foreign policy or just plain obsessive collecting. There’s a vivid, chameleon-like quality to Ware’s writing. It’s no exaggeration that he packs more funny text in one oversize page than other writers manage to cram in entire prose chapters. My advice: Read the text whenever the comics get too depressing.

And yet, The Acme Novelty Library isn’t a dreary piece of work. Wickedly funny, strongly heartfelt despite what initially looks like a mechanical drawing style, it pushes back the limits of what we expect comics to do, and packs an emotional wallop. I’ll gladly lend you my copy… and provide my phone number in case you need to talk to someone.

[August 2007: As improbable as it may seem, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Boy on Earth is even more depressing than The Acme Novelty Library. Far less amusing, it’s a 300+ pages exploration of loneliness and despair, set against four generations of losers. It’s enough to make you consider suicide, if only for the characters of the book. In some ways, Jimmy Corrigan is pure genius: it tackles issues seldom confronted and nails them with sharp accuracy. In other ways, it’s like being stuck in someone else’s nightmare for a few hours. The few sympathetic characters are shunted away, and even the two glimmers of hope at the end of the book are carefully hidden under uncut pages. Even the flow of the art seems deliberately clunky, which I blame on either the original publication constraints of the story, or a willingness to deliberately trip the reader. At least the typical design touches so characteristic of Ware’s work are everywhere to be found, and add a bit of interest to a profoundly unpleasant experience. It’s a piece of art all right; but it certainly won’t please everyone.]

You Kill Me (2007)

(In theaters, July 2007) Independent comedy alert! This film will be quirky, off-beat and ultimately not that funny because the directory can’t make up his mind whether he’s going for the laughs or for indie street-creds. Same old story. The only question left pondering is; is it still interesting? Well, yeah. For starters, the premise has some kick to it, as a drunk assassin joins an Alcoholics Anonymous group to wean himself of some bad habits. There’s a hilarious scene in which the Anonymous part of AA truly comes into play. The film’s humour is of the very dry variety, quipped by a splendid Ben Kingsley, with pretty good supporting performances by Tea Leoni, Bill Pullman and one of the Owen brothers. Alas, the film can’t commit to either a crime drama or a romantic comedy, and so treads a middle ground that ends up satisfying no one. Dead bodies end up leadening the storyline with little positive impact. At least Winnipeg gets to play Buffalo and parts of San Francisco (!) and we get another good-enough independent comedy film.

Transformers (2007)

(In theaters, July 2007) After years of laughing and pointing at everyone whose childhood was brutally violated by Hollywood’s nostalgia cash-grab, Transformers is my turn in the victim’s seat. Hence my divided expectations: I wanted to see big transforming robots fight it out on screen, but I also wanted to be able to scream and cry that this was a suck-fest. Thanks to Michael Bay, all of my expectations were fulfilled: The film does feature giant transforming robots fighting it out on screen, and it’s also one of the most disappointing action pictures of the year. At its best, Transformers is a mean and lavish techno-thriller in which humans do their best to fight against a robotic alien invasion. At its worst, it’s either a so-called comedy in which the robots have sub-moronic IQs, or a mish-mash of CGI without shape or coherence. Prepare to be dazzled and stunned in your seat as the film keeps flipping between best and worst. There is certainly a lot of money on screen. Unfortunately, the design of the Transformers themselves is too complicated to allow for a good representation of their heft and bulk: all we see are CGI moving pieces without any physical presence. This makes the chaotic action scenes even more difficult to follow: at time, the movement across the screen is meant to be the action, but all we’re left is an impressionistic idea of action without reference. I realize I’m sounding like an old crank when I say this, but trust me: Transformers grabs Armageddon‘s place as “Most obvious proof Michael Bay’s must stop chugging Energy Drinks”. Otherwise, well, the lowest-common-denominator comedy is painful, and the film can’t be bothered to keep all of its subplots straight. Too bad: one of the film’s most enjoyable element is a CGI-free performance by John Turturro as a man with far too many secrets. It all amounts to a pretty mixed summer blockbuster, one that will have as many fans as detractors for exactly the same reasons. I got to see my favourite toys duking it out on screen and I got nostalgic trauma out of it. Life is good.

Taxi 4 (2007)

(In theaters, July 2007) I swear, this series keeps getting dumber with each successive instalment. It wouldn’t be so bad if the action kept up with the plot, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here: The titular taxi gets a very small portion of the action, and most of the film is spent in comedic mode, sadly centred around the increasingly irritating character of Bernard Farcy. While it’s fun to see the characters of Samy Naceri and Frédéric Diefenthal settle in as fathers, the absence of Marion Cotillard is deeply felt and seems to send the film careening without any moral centre. While generally amiable, the film merely plays to a fraction of the first two entries in the Taxi series. The disappointment is palpable, and represents a second strike after the lacklustre Taxi 3.

Point of Impact, Stephen Hunter

Bantam, 1993, 569 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-56351-3

It’s commonplace to say that movie adaptation are a chance to re-interpret the material to another medium’s strengths, but it struck me while reading Point of Impact that adaptations are also a form of wide-screen literary criticism. Everyone can read a book and complain about the lengths, the characterization, the ending and the hundred of other choices made by the authors. But who can actually do something about it? Who can authorize radical changes to a story that has already been published? When you realize that the audience for the most average Hollywood blockbusters is an order of magnitude bigger than even New York Times bestsellers, it’s no exaggeration that filmmakers can forever change the perception of a given story. Maybe even improve it, if they know what they’re doing. Have you tried reading Mario Puzo’s The Godfather lately?

Point of Impact was finally adapted to the big screen in 2007 as SHOOTER after fourteen years on bookshelves. Director Antoine Fuqua transformed Stephen Hunter’s potboiler thriller into a decent action/adventure film that wasted little time and delivered the expected thrills. But it wasn’t a transparent adaptation: a number of details were updated, simplified or changed, and it can instructive to study what has been changed, and why.

The basic premise remains the same: a retired top sniper called Bob Lee Swagger is called back in service to counter a possible assassination plot against the president of the United States. Unbeknownst to him, his counter-sniping groundwork ends up forming the plan for a true assassination, and he is framed for the attempt. Running for his life, Swagger has to uncover those who played him, clear his name and take revenge. Both the ex-wife of his deceased partner and a disgraced FBI agent end up playing a parts in the events that follow.

One of the most dramatic change from the book to the movie has been the update of all temporal references. In the 1993 novel, Swagger was a retired Vietnam veteran tied to a plot linked to Central America. In the 2007 film, Swagger is a recent veteran of dirty little wars in Africa, which also ends up being a part of the overall true conspiracy. In order to be played by Mark Wahlberg, SHOOTER’s Swagger is younger, and the events of his personal history have been compressed to only a few years of back-story. Also much younger is sidekick FBI agent Nick Memphis: In an effort to streamline the film, a fairly important subplot about a botched hostage rescue attempt and its consequences has been excised from Memphis’ history, with little adverse consequences.

Also simplified are Point of Impact‘s main claim to fame as a thriller: Its detailed and lucid description of the art of sniping. Hunter has obviously done his homework in studying the field of precision shooting: The novel is crammed with details about the rifles, the techniques and the shooters themselves. One of the blurbs on the back cover of the paperback edition of the book says that “Stephen Hunter has done for the rifle what Tom Clancy did for the nuclear submarine” and they’re not kidding: Point of Impact is mesmerizing in no small part thanks to the slew of references, lore and little quirks about this specialized field, and the result will certainly appeal to all techno-thriller fans. Perhaps inevitably, this aspect of the novel isn’t carried over to the film, something that will benefit readers tackling the novel after being impressed by the movie.

One area in which the film does complicate matters is in describing the conspiracy facing Swagger. The Clinton-era book limits itself to rogue elements operating at arm’s length from the government’s intelligence agencies. In the film, reflecting the prevailing winds of the Bush administration, the conspiracy is far more pernicious as it reaches up to the Senate and diffuses loosely in the American “military-industrial” complex. The book ends up with a decisive victory; the film, with a quixotic revenge fantasy.

But the film at least has the good sense to wrap the action quickly, boiling down a length courtroom epilogue into a short, sharp and hugely enjoyable confrontation in an FBI briefing room. The main point is the same, but it’s handled far more efficiently.

And that may end up forming the epitaph of every competent adaptation: “Faster, more efficient, more intense” is what’s needed to boil down a satisfying 550+ pages novel into a movie that fits within two hours. If you’re worried about the movie’s simplification, stop hyperventilating: the book is still available, and it’s very entertaining even for those who have seen the movie.

[August 2007: Black Light is not just a sequel to Point of Impact, but also to Hunter’s Dirty White Boys. Bringing together events and characters from both books, Black Light is smaller in scale and more intimate in tone. Here, the conspiracies take place on a rural level, involving secrets buried for decades. Swagger is once again teamed with a younger, less knowledgeable partner and their quest for the truth takes them in unexpected places as the twists keep piling up. While it’s pleasant to see so many red herrings and plot complications, the conspiracies-over-conspiracies that end up defining daddy Swagger’s death also stretch credibility, even as they allow the book to go back to the sniping theme of the original. Fortunately, Hunter’s prose is readable, the characters have their own appeal (even the antagonist is a likable operator), and no one will feel cheated by the ending. More sniping tactical tricks will appeal to fans of the first volume. On the other hand, it is a bit of a let-down after the large scale of Point of Impact, and is best reserved to fans of Hunter’s entire body of work.]

Talk To Me (2007)

(In theaters, July 2007) This fictional biography of a fast-talking radio personality can’t completely escape the usual problems and issues of multi-decade narratives “adapted from a true story”, but it’s good enough not to matter much. Don Cheadle is at his usual excellent self as Petey Green, a black ex-convict who manages to get a talk show in the Washington DC area. But it’s Chiwetel Ejiofor who continues his string of exceptional roles as ambitious manager Dewey Hughes: he’s got a terrific couple of scenes (including a wonderful speech around a pool table) and gradually emerges as the true protagonist of the story. The rest of the cast is just as good, though Taraji P. Henson earns particular attention as the third essential dramatic player. The historical re-creation is believable, and the terrific soundtrack does much to sustain the atmosphere. While the third act is problematic in the way that most docu-fiction third acts usually are (with the requisite drugs subplot and the lull in-between early success and redemptive conclusion), Talk To Me eventually pulls itself together to deliver a fitting epitaph to Green. Watch it for the actors, for the look at a piece of American black history and for the laughs.

Sunshine (2007)

(In theaters, July 2007) Is there something about “restarting the sun” plots that poison scripts? First Solar Crisis, now Sunshine, and not a good movie in the bunch. Though promising and with strong visuals, the latest Danny Boyle film succumbs to the stupid camera work that plagued 28 Days Later and the even sillier script that never works as well as it thinks it does. The first mistake of the film is to pretend that it’s a hard-SF film without quite understanding how science works: Consequently, we’re stuck with bad geometry, unexplained artificial gravity, oxygen deprivation despite a cargo hold the size of a warehouse and tons of other small details that keep bothering viewers who pay attention. It gets worse with a plot inspired by Murphy’s Law and a tiresome third-act monster-movie finish. It’s not as if the film is entirely worthless: There are some terrific visuals here and there (the Sun itself is almost a featured character), and some of the tension between human characters leads to excellent scenes. But in the end, the film devolves in shaky-cam silliness and interminable pretension: Every character death is saluted as a sign that the end is that much closer. Frankly, I’d rather have no science-fiction films at all if the alternative is Sunshine.

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

(In theaters, July 2007) Longest. Episode. Ever. Not that this is a bad thing if you’re a Simpsons fan: The movie faithfully replicates the feel and humour of the TV show, and seldom lags despite the length. A few concessions are made to the big-screen format: some context-specific jokes are hilarious, the animation is quite a bit better (including several CGI-boosted sequences) and the jokes are slightly more risqué than usual. (Nothing much: some nudity, rude gestures and less-mild swearwords barely bring this to a PG-13.) Otherwise, the usual plot tangents just take longer to resolve and the stakes are significantly higher than usual. Was it necessarily worth seeing in theatres? Well, you probably answered that question by yourself by the time you read this, but yeah: I had a good time despite the most annoying talk-backer ever heard in a theatre, and that’s almost all you need to know about it.

Under my Roof, Nick Mamatas

Soft Skull, 2007, 151 pages, C$15.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-933368-43-6

Nick Mamatas has long been known for being an iconoclastic Internet personality, and his fiction is no different. Would you , for instance, expect his latest novel to be a young adult novel promoting the joys of home-built nuclear weaponry and secession from the United States?

Well, maybe. After all, Mamatas’ first novel-length book was Move Under Ground, a horror-story retelling of Kerouac’s On The Road featuring elements of the Cthulhu mythos. After that, no one can really predict what Mamatas will write next.

Suffice to say that the subject matter isn’t the only difference between Move Under Ground and this new book. From the dense Kerouac pastiche, Mamatas switches gears to deliver a chatty first-person narration from a telepathic twelve year-old (he’s not smart; he just reads smart people’s minds). The first chapter is a little gem as young Herbert Weinberg describes how his father manages to build a home-made atomic bomb from dumpster-diving and mail-order material. (I’ve been lucky enough to hear Mamatas read the first chapter at a Chicago event; it was hard not to imagine his voice narrating the rest of the novel.)

It’s a good start, but the rest of the book quickly heads in meatier territory. Now equipped with a nuclear deterrent, the Weinbergian household declares independence from the US and, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, eventually finds traction for its claims. The US government, not to mention Herbert’s mom, don’t find this funny or acceptable: the rest of the novel is concerned about Weinbergia’s attempts to remain independent, Herbert’s efforts in making sense of the situation and the reader’s delight in finding where Mamatas is taking the novel.

To say that it’s meant as satire is to understate the tone of the novel. But there’s a real message under each joke, and Under My Roof goes much farther than expected in its exploitation of its theme. Nationhood, suggests Mamatas, is a consensual illusion. It just takes a few denials to put it at risk. And if that’s subversive, well, why not?

Still, it’s possible to read through the novel and not think about the deeper issues: the prose is deceptively easy, and the pacing just keeps going. I’m not so fond of the last act (which seems to diffuse the narrative build-up and then scatter in multiple directions), but Mamatas is a writer who seems to spend a lot more time thinking about prose than about plot: complaining about the structure of the book is missing the point of it.

It’s not as if there isn’t much more to enjoy. Mamatas credibly describes the mechanics of nuclear secession, imagining the media circus, practical issues and political repercussions of such an event with wonderful small details and plenty of quick jokes. Much like the Atkins diet, secession quickly becomes a popular fad and narrator Herbert is in the middle of the attention storm. Given everything else going on, will he have time to grow up?

There’s a lot to like about Under My Roof, from the narrator to the satire to the understanding that Mamatas can write whatever he wants and it’s going to be worth reading. What are you waiting for? Under My Roof is short enough to be read in one lazy sitting, and it’s going to stick in your mind. If you’re really smart, you’ll even lend it to the brightest twelve-year old you know, and see what he does with it. Just don’t lend him your credit card, and start paying attention if he goes out and purchases a garden gnome.

Ratatouille (2007)

(In theaters, July 2007) After a temporary half-eclipse with Cars, the Pixar team returns in full force with an unbelievably slick film about a gourmet rat and the pleasures of gastronomy. An unlikely mixture, but one that works well: through a mis-matched pair of protagonist who each need something from the other, we’re able to explore the inner workings of a French restaurant. But as usual for Pixar’s best offerings, there’s a lot more under the surface here: Terrific comedy, strong details, sweet romance, superb action scenes, heartfelt moments (including a number of epiphanies, a rare-enough emotion in movies) and exceptional characterization. None of it would be possible without a solid script that allows itself third-act curveballs (it’s not over until it’s really over) and some of the best computer animation ever seen so far. Pixar takes pain to make it appear as easy as they can, but there’s a lot of sophistication under the surface. Witness, for instance, the cleverness in which the photo-perfect food and backgrounds are integrated with the more stylized human and rodent characters: It allows identification and sympathy for the cartoons, while immediately exploiting all we know about food and the physical world. There’s a neat bit of synesthesia at play during some of the sequences, and very clever use of imaginary characters as an expository device. But the mechanics are there for a good reason, and the result is nothing short of a movie-long delight. Funny, thrilling and effortlessly accessible, Ratatouille, like director Brad Bird’s previous The Incredibles, immediately vaults to the top of this year’s list of films.

(Second viewing, In theatres, July 2007) Worth seeing a second time? Certainly! Freed from the constraints of the story, I’m left to enjoy the flawless slapstick animation, the details of the photo-realistic backgrounds, the way the filmmakers set up the shots and the reaction of the crowd around me. A few flaws appear (I’m not too thrilled at who says the line “That’s bad juju”, or the dumb line “I hate to be rude –but we’re French”. After all, you seldom hear “I hate to be the immature product of a delusional capitalistic imperialist society –but we’re American”), but they’re really minor things: The film holds up in every aspect, sign of the meticulous care in which it was fashioned. Ratatouille confirms its place in the yearly Top-10 list, and makes a serious contender for best-of-the-year honours.

Nitro (2007)

(In theaters, July 2007) You can make a film that deals with touchy ethical issues and you can make fun action movies. Just don’t try to blend them together, otherwise you’ll piss off the audience that’s there for what the marketing campaign promises. The problem with Nitro, surprisingly enough, isn’t with the action scenes: Despite the typically minuscule budget of French-Canadian films, the filmmakers work wonders with what they’ve got, and know how to move the camera for a decent amount of tension. An underground racing sequence inspired by The Fast And The Furious is the film’s best moment, complete with a brutally enjoyable fight with nitro bottles. Other chase sequences later in the film do well, including a spectacular parkour sequence through a low-rent Montréal neighbourhood. Guillaume Lemay-Thivierge more than holds his own as a credible action hero with believable emotional depth. But the film fatally missteps in the dramatic structure that holds the action scenes together: a bad ethical choice by the lead character forever erases any sympathy we would hold for him, and the web of issues surrounding him does little to raise the stakes. It doesn’t help that the script goes awry in other various ways. The strongest female character, wonderfully played by Lucie Laurier, is relegated to a stand-in who lives only for the hero: a sad simplification for a character who could have stolen the protagonist’s mantle at any moment. Martin Matte is another issue: though he has a strong screen presence, it’s not that of an underworld boss. Ultimately, the small and big script mistake accumulate and rob the film of any enjoyment we may have gotten from the action scenes, leaving us with a grim conclusion and the sentiment of having been manipulated in gratuitous pathos. You can forgive even the worst mistake if it leads to a happy ending, but even the slightest mistake will make nuanced endings just feel cheap.