Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review: Twilight

Written by author Stephanie Meyer, 'Twilight' is a young adult novel that explores the life of seventeen year old Isabella Swan and the difficult decisions she must face when she finds that she's fallen into an unexpected romance with Edward Cullen, an older boy - a one hundred and four year old boy - who also happens to be a vampire.  If that doesn't sound thrilling enough, trouble erupts very quickly in their forbidden paradise when Edward realizes that he can barely resist the urge to drain her sweet life's blood, an action that would most certainly change her from a  socially awkward and slightly misanthropic  teen to an even more awkward and far less interesting corpse.
    Reading 'Twilight' was a unique and unexpected experience for me. Like Bella, I too found it  difficult to navigate my way through the mire of uncertainty that she traverses while trying to stay alive and win her beloved's heart. Not only does Mrs. Meyer display an over-use of less than creative adverbs (a Cullen femme's wildly curly dark hair springs to mind), but she also seems unsure of which narrative tense she wanted to use throughout the course of the story.  The moments that I had to re-read certain passages to grasp the flow of information were both numerous and bothersome.
    Existing in it's paperback form at five hundred and forty-four pages (that's four hundred and nine-eight for you hardback fans), 'Twilight' does very little to carry its reader to the climax of the story, making the  task of finishing it a trying one. The first three quarters of the novel are spent in a tiresome back and forth between Bella and Edward, with Bella affirming the validity of her love for the vampire teen, only to have him skirt around the notion of a serious relationship. Of course, all of this takes place with Edward consistently and casually reminding Bella that he could essentially murder her at any given time.  While I'm sure that this sort of banter is marvelous for a fourteen year old girl, it gives rise to a glaring violation of traditional story telling - a distinct lack of a villain or antagonist.
 While one could argue that the forbidden love between Bella and Edward is the story's true conflict,  the fact remains that the actual villains of the story are not introduced until less than a quarter of the way from the end of the book.  Granted, there was a bit of foreshadowing via reports of alleged "bear attacks" in the forests outside the story's town, but it was so vague and sparse that it's easily forgotten, leaving the reader a bit confused as to who these new characters are when they appear or how they're remotely relevant to the story.  What's more, the exposition of the main antagonist  who wants to slowly torture and murder our main character for sport,  describes him only as "average and nondescript."
    I'm sorry. What?
     You mean to tell me that the vampire who has taken Bella captive, intentionally trying to ruin the life of our  main point of view character, is described in such a way as to evoke absolutely no emotional response from me?
    Even by looking at all of the above with a forgiving eye, it's hard to see past Bella's inevitable  rescue at the chalk-white hands of dear Edward. Further, when you see that the whole novel was barely anything more than Edward saving ( i.e.  clutching, hauling, or domineering ) Bella, it's really just not much of a surprise by the end. In point of fact, I don't believe that I've ever been more relieved to reach the end of a novel.
    There are very few redeeming qualities to be found within this book. There is not one character inside of 'Twilight' that exceeds more than two dimensions, and the author's ability to construct a coherent paragraph leaves much to be desired. If you factor in the utter lack of imagination when it comes to character description ( I think that I read Edward's face described as "perfect" at least six hundred and seventy-two times) and the unfortunate truth that there really is no solid story structure, 'Twilight' should by all right have never gotten to see the light of published day, sparkling pseudo-vampires or no. 
    If I could think of only one way to describe this novel to anyone, it would more than certainly have to be "average and nondescript".

Monday, March 5, 2012

Book Review: The Strain

I knew that I'd found a winner in writer/director Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Strain when I realized that I didn't want to be left alone while reading it. You can bet that it went double when the light of the sun traded spaces with the night and its unknowns...
    Quite fittingly, night is where our story begins, along a lonely stretch of JFK tarmac where a derelict aircraft has arrived from Europe. Landing with no apparent signal or notification,  the craft is finally boarded by a CDC response team when bio-terrorism is suspected.
The consternation upon boarding the craft is eminent - all but four passengers are D.O.A. No sign of a struggle or violence. The only other discovery made upon the ghost aeroplane is an elongated and ornate box carved from ebony and filled with rich, black earth...
    If the above set up doesn't sound vaguely familiar, then consider yourself shamed. If it does jingle the bells of recognition for you, don't worry - the writers of The Strain have done more than cut and paste a re-telling of Bram Stoker's classic Dracula. In a keen genre-bending twist, the writers have managed to merge supernatural mythos with modern day paranoia - the cursed blood of the damned has merely been enhanced by the microbe terror of disease and pandemic outbreak.
    The Strain initially focuses on the characters Dr. Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather and his assistant Nora Martinez, the two leaders of the Canary response team responsible for investigating Flight 777. As the pair come closer in their investigation to uncovering what looks to be a massive conspiracy involving a dying billionaire's hellish quest for immortality, Dr. Goodweather finds that he has been blacklisted, thus transforming him into a fugitive on the run from his own government.
While Eph and Kelly dodge the spooks of ghost agencies and government officials, their desperation leads them to the Van Helsing of this story, Professor Abraham Setrakian. A Holocaust survivor of Romanian Jewish decent, Setrakian's haunted past may serve to aid them all in their mutual struggles against the forces of death, as he is one who has encountered the master strigoi and survived. As the city crumbles beneath the weight of spreading infection and death, the renegade vampire-hunting team must make the stand that no one else can.   
    I had a great difficulty putting this book down, but it was not without it's disappointment. The only downside that I found within the 401 pages of The Strain was a certain dryness of the actual characters themselves. At times, it was all I could do to remain convinced of their depth, instead hoping to get back to the horror in the form of Del Toro's God-awful monstrosities. Eph's drives, by way of instance, are a tad formulaic, and it shows in the form of hurried narration and tired dialogue. The vampires, by way of contrast, are given ample attention by way of description, and their motivations are more than clear. After all, how could they not be?
The vampires in The Strain are far from the ethereal beauty of Anne Rice's blood drinkers, or the European romance of Dracula. More akin to Del Toro's monsters from the Blade franchise, these nasties are hairless, red-eyed  abominations, all smooth skin and alabaster, with an elongated talon in place of a middle finger.
The creatures' distinct  feeding habits are a demonstration in grotesquery also. Instead of fangs, the ghouls are equipped with a six-foot long stinger that's rooted beneath the tongue, an instrument that not only extracts blood, but infects the victim as well. With paper thin hide, the capillary worms that carry the disease can be seen wriggling beneath the surface of their skin - just the right touch of gut-turning detail.
    The ways in which The Strain mirror Bram Stoker's work are complimentary,certainly.  I felt like I was going to be disappointed by such a stark borrowing of story, but the narrative is chock full of the style that I've come to admire so strongly in Del Toro ( the immaculate and near-perfect Pan's Labyrinth comes to mind).  As for author Chuck Hogan, I can't say that I'm familiar with his work, but I do know that his novel Prince of Thieves was used as the basis for the Hollywood production The Town.  For what it's worth, The Strain carries with it a highly cinematic feel - however, I imagine that this particular quality owes more to the input of Mr. Del Toro.
    Despite the aggravation of only slightly unbelievable characters, this book was one of the best that I'd read in some time. Even with the Dracula template, The Strain brings its own dynamic and themes, and I believe that they reflect the story with a perfect symmetry. While the story does skirt around the edges of the supernatural or occult, it's still quick to illustrate the depth of human knowledge in the face of the unknown. As Eph's wife observes during a total solar eclipse that precedes the carnage of The Strain, " ... but how could any sentient being not imbue it with some significance, positive or negative, religious or psychic or otherwise? Just because we understand how something works doesn't necessarily mean that we understand it..."
    I couldn't agree more.
    If you're still digging the vampire fiction wave, then I highly suggest that you catch The Strain. I guarantee, you won't be sorry.  You may, however, not wish to turn out the light.