Book and Movie Review Monday: The Last Werewolf and Sherlock Holmes–A Game of Shadows

Next Monday I will post more six sentence stories. For today I am going to offer my opinions about “The Last Werewolf” by Glen Duncan and the new Sherlock Holmes movie.

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

I recently read somewhere that writing a story or a novel means you have to continuously keep your reader engaged, but in a novel things are a little different. In novels the first page will get the reader to read the second if it is well written. If the reader reads the second page, then they will probably read the first five pages. If the reader reads those five pages, then they will read the next ten. With each successive number of pages the amount of “good-will-and-interest-in-the-book credit” grows and the reader will finish the book if it reasonably well written throughout.

The first four chapters of The Last Werewolf absolutely snap with crisp prose, are packed with ideas, and the plot shows promise of being innovative. The book’s premise is that the main point of view character is the last werewolf in existence. It begins to explore what it would mean to the world to have such a creature extinguished, but then shies off in my opinion. The book tentatively edges towards talking about real existential issues, and then devolves as I saw it.

Jake is a werewolf. He smokes, drinks, and has a great deal of sex. Part of this comes with the condition of being a werewolf. A secret agency that hunts supernatural monsters is tracking him after having killed the supposed only other werewolf in existence. No new werewolves seem to have been created in about 200 years so they have been picked off. The book could have done more to address Jake’s unique status and situation. As a hunted being he does run and at one point is about to give himself over, but rather than exploring what extinction might mean for a creature of fantasy and what that would mean to the world the book cops out. An honest examination of that theme would have been fearless and far more dangerous than the story that ensued. I don’t want to give any plot spoilers, but I will say that to my mind this had the potential to be a brilliant novel and then it went the way of playing safe and turned into an action thriller. Further the last few chapters had a point of view shift so they were told through the voice of a different character and I did not feel they were even well-written. This second point of view character sounded too much like Jake, she was supposed to be a modern day American but her part was told with British idioms, and the last few chapters felt like an add-on because the book needed to come to an end.

Would I recommend to someone else that they read The Last Werewolf? Yes, overall it is an engaging read. I think Glen Duncan has some significant storytelling ability and is an able wordsmith based on the first one third or so of the book. I don’t finish books that bore me or are too horribly written to bother with. For me this book just was somewhat of a let-down in the end because the beginning held so much promise. I think I had my hopes higher than I should have had them.

Sherlock Holmes– A Game of Shadows

I went to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie last Saturday evening. I very much liked the first Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr. playing the enigmatic detective. The first movie had some incredible sequences where the director showed how Sherlock analyzed fight sequences and then followed them through to win fights. It was innovative and a beautiful “show” of how quickly the great detective could problem solve. The second movie also uses some of these sequences and it takes the ability further. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I thought the movie was brilliant in the way that it further showed Sherlock Holmes mental capabilities.

Where the first movie was complete with the end of the movie, this second movie featured Doctor Moriarty. Doctor Moriarty was Sherlock Holmes nemesis. Where Blackwood was certainly corrupt and plotting to take over the world, his ego overrode his plans. Blackwood as a villain was not subtle and in part this made him evident as the villain and his end was inevitable. Moriarty is cunning. He does not put himself to the forefront to dominate the world, he plots and takes over behind the scenes. He manipulates to achieve what he desires. The second movie is expansive and it feels like there are more adventures to come.

In my opinion, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law both did a fantastic job portraying the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Noomi Rapace, who was last seen in the Steig Larsson movies, demonstrated again that she has a mysterious depth that she brings to her roles. Would I recommend to someone to spend the money for the price of admission to Sherlock Holmes– A Game of Shadows? Yes. Matter of fact I would like to see it again.

Science Fiction as Literature

Science Fiction is often maligned as a genre of fiction. In truth, there are science fiction works that are lacking and there is exceptionally well written science fiction. I once read a poll by Writer’s Digest where they asked people what types of written material that they liked to read. I was very disheartened that poetry ranked lower than non-fiction books about fishing. The other thing that I found very disheartening was that science fiction was low down on the list as well. People who were asked why they placed science fiction so low on the list responded that it was because they did not know what to read and picking a random novel had proved to be disappointing.

Now, I have to say that walking through the science fiction/fantasy section of a chain bookstore like Borders can be somewhat of a turn off. Science fiction and fantasy book covers leave a great deal to be desired. There often are scantily clad women or spaceships floating in a field of darkened space. Further, as stated above the quality of the fiction can vary dramatically.

I would also say that if one entered the “literary” section of the store there would also be great variance in the quality of the fiction to be found on the shelves. Dickens, Austen, Irving, Chabon, Atwood, Picoult, du Maurier, etc. — all are found in the “literary” section alongside schlock.

So last blog post I said that I would put forth some science fiction titles that I think are literature. They are as follows and I do not believe this is an exhaustive list:

The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford
To Say Nothing of the Dog and The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
1984 by George Orwell
Dandelion Wine, The Martian Chronicles, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin
Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Contact by Carl Sagan
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
The Drought J.G. Ballard
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

This is, as I said, not an exhaustive list and it covers decades. Please add to this list and pass it along because I think that science fiction suffers from a bad reputation– a type of ghettoization. Perhaps if more people knew what to reach for on library shelves and at the bookstore, then attitudes towards science fiction might change. And minds might open. In more than one way.

More on this in another post.

Homer the Great Storyteller

Currently, I am researching academic articles for a reference volume about epics and I was in a discussion about the Iliad with a friend. In the middle of that discussion I realized that it had been a number of years since I had read the Iliad and I was speaking from memories of an updated fictional novel about the Trojan War that I had read. It suddenly confused me and feeling a little sheepish I decided that I needed to reread the Iliad.

Wow! I forgot how truly amazing the Iliad is. It is not simply a recounting of the Trojan War. It talks about different aspects of strife and begins with a dispute over a woman who was given to Agamemnon as war booty. Her father tries to ransom her and Agamemnon refuses. Chryses goes to Apollo and asks that a plague be visited upon the Greeks. To stop the plague, Agamemnon has to give up Chryseis. He is not pleased with this idea and despite that he tries to convince Chryses that she is as important to him as his own wife Clymenestra, he then wants Achilles’ war prize, Briseis, to replace Chryseis. Achilles complies because Minerva tells him to. He then asks his mother Thetis to intervene and make sure the Greeks get solidly beaten while he withdraws his troops. It is more complicated than an afternoon soap. And much more poignant.

Things that I have picked up from the Iliad so far are that in telling stories one can choose where to begin. The Iliad begins after the Greeks have beseiged Troy for nine years. The subplots that are put forth give information and perspective on the main plot, make the story interesting, and advance the themes. There is also a great deal of information that is cultural information that is in the background of the Iliad that is assumed that the reader/listener would know and bring to a reading of the Iliad. This unstated information helps to draw the reader in and tighten up the epic. It relies on readers/listeners knowing that Troy has no patron god or goddess because the Trojans didn’t keep their bargain with Poseidon when he helped to build the walls of Troy. It relies on readers knowing that Eris the goddess of strife threw out the golden apple inscribed with the words “for the fairest”. The epic utilizes cultural assumptions like that the intervention of the gods and goddesses is not always a good thing and that fate cannot be averted.

All of this raises questions in my mind to consider when I am writing a piece of fiction. Questions like the following: Whose point of view would be the best one to tell the story from in the most natural manner to get across the subplots and themes that I want to address in order to make the story the most interesting? How could I use the prior knowledge of a reader
who resides in the current time period to cleverly build the world of a future time? What kind of things could I leave unstated and yet the reader would project into a story?

I am still working my way through the Iliad and thinking about the way themes, action, and characters are depicted.

Thoughts from Researching Lisa See

I was reading yesterday about the author Lisa See and her various writings and this spawned some different thoughts.

First, her autobiographical book about her family is entitled On Gold Mountain and it is the story of her family coming to the United States and settling in California. As I was reading about this book, I read something in an interview with Lisa See where she commented on that the book that people remember about World War II is the diary of Anne Frank. This is a book written from a very intimate perspective from the experiences of one girl as she is in hiding. Lisa See said something about how this kind of intimate view can sometimes illustrate a story more than the grand perspective.

So this inspired me to think about the intimate story versus the grand view. I was wondering about what kind of science fiction or fantasy stories could be told in the intimate view and what commentary on the current time, past time, or future might be made depending on the stories and the themes. What about an intimate novel told from the perspective of a girl who is a “slip-gene” daughter trying to escape oppression and war in a series of star systems and has been detained for questioning on a Federation space station for six months? What about the story of two brothers who have been captured in a raid on their planet and are being transported to become slaves? What about the story of a street girl who sells processing time that utilizes her brain and does brain damage but the processing time has benefits/minuses to be compared with her real time life?

I am still thinking about what kinds of things are possible and what stories might come from an intimate telling.

Secondly, I read about the background for Lisa See’s novel entitled Peony in Love. The book utilizes a classical Chinese opera called The Peony Pavilion that was first introduced in the late sixteenth century. It was very popular. It also spawned a phenomena whereby lovesick maidens wasted away. The opera is about a character named Liniang who sees her true love in a dream and wastes away and is then brought back to life by the love. Educated and isolated young women from the upper classes of China would see this opera and then waste away and die in hopes of having some control over their lives. These women had little control and were married to men they would never see prior to their marriages. The hope in starving was that they would get some choice in who they would marry. The opera also inspired another book that was written by the three wives in sequence of one man that was called The Three Wives’ Commentary. It was a piece about The Peony Pavilion and it was written by women. Lisa See wanted people to know about this book and other writings that were published in China by women– thousands of pieces of poetry, literature, and commentary were written by women and published in China at a time when little was written and published by women anywhere else in the world.

I had several thoughts that were inspired by learning all of this. One was about the circumstances around The Peony Pavilion and how this particular opera touched the souls of so many women and inspired a type of fantastical hope that caused their demise. The opera had a type of power because it was relevant in an incredibly meaningful way at that time and place. I am still thinking on what would be something that would touch so many in such a powerful way (and hopefully not so destructive a way) now in our time and place.

I was also just thinking about how the facts of things are sometimes obscured. For instance, I did not know that there were thousands of women writing and publishing in China in the seventeenth century. I know now and I will go looking for translations of some of their writings. The slippery representation of history via perspectives from the present is nothing new.

I was also thinking about the way that Lisa See wrote the character of Peony in Peony in love. Peony is a “hungry ghost” through much of the novel and a great deal about Chinese ritual, customs, and metaphysics comes through. This got me thinking in some different directions and I may need to email a friend or two to brainstorm with me.

Watch, Reflect, Write, and Awaken

I have just returned from seeing The Watchmen.

I am utterly ramped up right now.  I remember the US release of The Watchmen in 1987.  I was living in a co-op at the time and a bunch of us used to walk to the local comic book store and buy comics when they came out.  My favorite at the time was Swamp Thing that Alan Moore had been writing since about 1983.  I read The Watchmen before it was a phenomena and was blown away. In part by the writing which reflected the angst of the time.  The Berlin Wall had not fallen.  The Soviet Union was still a dominant force.  Afghanistan was a quagmire. The threat of nuclear war was something that hung in the air.  And into this mix appeared The Watchmen.
I have been thinking about what makes good science fiction or good speculative fiction.  The goal has to be more than the aim to just get published.  Last weekend I critiqued a bunch of stories on an online critique that I participate in.  I try every week to read as many of the stories that are up for critique as I can so that I can get a feel for what people are writing.  I am not going to comment on basic things like good grammar and punctuation, showing and not telling, and maintaining a consistent, and appropriate to the endeavor, voice.  Just having a facility with words is necessary that I don’t think needs to be repeated, but I want to move beyond that and comment further.
I think writers need to uncompromisingly strive for more. Writers are the observers and commentators on society.  We are those who are watching.  It is up to us to watch, reflect, and write.  We need to engage all of our faculties and see the world as it is and reflect it back with a bold, unflinching fierceness that will cause shock waves of thought.  That’s what we are here for. Not to write prozac to numb the minds of those who would just as soon look away and go about their comfortable lives. Not to write dreams for those who would escape into fantasy to lose the painful connection with this world.  We need to awaken the sleepers with whispers of unsaid injustices, rouse to consciousness those who would rather not consider or be made aware, argue passionately for vision, and engage those who would spread somnolence and make the selfish nature of their actions visible.
Our words need to ring out and echo with meaning, reflecting our thoughts, and adding to societal dialogue in regards to bigger issues.  Setting has to become more than setting. Characters have to be more than the mind doppelgangers of their creators or stock puppets that we move through the trite time worn tales that have predominated since shadows cast from cave fires flickered on the flinty walls of early man’s shelter.  Metaphor and meaning have to be rife.  There has to be well thought out and considered ideas embedded within the writing.  The fiction has to explore greater themes for the writing to move into the arena of being considered good fiction.
The possibilities are endless– there are so many things to comment on in one’s writing.  I think the message can be anything from an uncompromising intimate exploration into difficult personal situations as a commentary on the roles of various subgroups of the population to an exploration of one aspect of the use of some scientific breakthrough and its impact on people.  There are so many possibilities that I cannot even begin to name them all.  But the commentary and exploration of thought within the fiction needs to be real and immediate and it needs to be timely and it needs to be fresh.  The author has to have some new or expanded thoughts on themes or come up with new themes.  Recycling the same old same old only works with a fresh infusion of some new and expanded thought.  Otherwise don’t bother.
Good fiction also stays with a person who has read it and the person finds themselves reflecting upon it later.  More on this in another post.  It is well past midnight and I must go to bed.