Tag Archives: reviews

Book Review: The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore, one of my favorite authors, is a comic master at putting a twist on old tales and themes. He has a trilogy of vampire novels. His novel, Lamb, is the story of Christ’s youth told from the point of view of Biff, his childhood pal. A Dirty Job makes the Grim Reaper a mild-mannered secondhand shop owner. His novel, Fool, tells the story of King Lear from the point of view of the king’s fool, a short-statured, sharp-tongued, well-endowed jester named Pocket. Pocket’s apprentice is a dimwitted giant named Drool, who doesn’t understand basic human interaction or any nuance of language, but has a good heart and can perfectly mimic voices.

Moore’s most recent novel, The Serpent of Venice, follows Pocket and Drool again. This time, Moore doesn’t just tackle a Shakespeare play. He tackles two, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, and mixes in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” It is an ambitious novel, which makes its success all the more thrilling.

Beware: Moore doesn’t hesitate to alter the original storylines. Most notably, several characters are killed off that do not die in the original plays. Whereas Fool kept the plot of Lear but told it from a new point of view, Serpent is more original.

Another element that carries over well from Fool is the written voice. Moore employs a mixture of excerpts of text from the source material, a sort of faux-Shakespearean that uses Elizabethan language but is entirely original Moore writing (he does this with the whiz-banger insults, especially), and plain-old modern anachronism. It seems like these three elements: authentic old, fake old, and contemporary– would make a horrifying, clanging mess for the voice, but actually it works well. Thus it comes across perfectly believably when Shylock asks “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and one of the Sals (Salanio or Salerino) whines “I didn’t know there was going to be a bloody quiz!”

One of Moore’s greatest strengths as a comic writer is that he also dips into heartfelt territory, too. The funny parts are funny, but even more so when set against the truly moving parts. As funny as Pocket is, he starts out as a grieving widower being tortured by a maniac. To me, this elevates Moore above the label of “comic writer,” a term I associate with writers who make me giggle but little else.

Moore also does “character management” well, knowing just how much of each character to use. I felt that in the vampire trilogy, the character Abby Normal made a great side character, but became tiresome as a protagonist. I worried about this when I read Serpent, that the highly entertaining Drool would take on such a prominence that his voice would overpower the story. But Drool is kept in reserve until the second half of the novel, and when he appears, it’s great. One can almost hear the resounding cheers of fans around the world.

In fact, Serpent might be one of Moore’s greatest achievements. Between the technical mastery of juggling multiple storylines and characters, the brilliantly blended styles of old and new, and the harmony of shenanigans and earnest emotion, The Serpent of Venice is a smart, fun, funny novel.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Every so often, maybe once every couple of years or so, I come across a book so engrossing, so compelling, that it takes on a drug-like quality. Whenever I’m not reading it, I’m wishing I was, and when I am reading it, I never want to stop. If life permitted me, I would have read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken in one, well, unbroken sitting. The most amazing part of this book is that it is nonfiction. As a piece of storytelling and as a piece of history, it is a stunning achievement.

Hillenbrand first established her reputation by writing Seabiscuit, the basis for the film. In Unbroken, she tells the story of Louis Zamperini. In the opening of the book, we learn about Louie as a child– fractious, wild, untamed. It isn’t until he is directed towards athletics– track and field, specifically– that he harnesses that energy into something productive. And productive he is. In a few years he goes from local troublemaker to college star to Olympian in the 1936 Berlin games. At the outset of World War II, he becomes an officer in the Army Air Corps and works as a bombardier. When his plane crashes and he is forced to survive on a life raft with two other men with little chance of rescue, his trials are only beginning.

The book is a testament to the strength of human spirit and the will to survive. There are numerous others around Zamperini who cannot endure the brutal challenges he survives. Some give up, some fall apart, some run away. Yet Hillenbrand is careful to not overly glorify Zamperini. His shortcomings and struggles are also portrayed, and in the end he comes across as simply a man whose desire for life was so intense that nothing could steal that life from him, though his suffering exacts a toll on his spirit.
Hillenbrand’s book is meticulously researched. In the acknowledgements she lists pages of people and databases she mined to get her information. In fact, she held seventy-five interviews with Zamperini alone, until he even joked that she remembered more details of his life than he did. Beyond that, she interviewed family, friends, Army buddies, even Japanese relatives of those he fought against in the Pacific Theater.

Yet part of what makes this book so remarkable is how readable it is. Though there are passages that are saturated in historical facts, but every bit of research is used to give the readers context, so the story matters more. I think this is a shortcoming of many nonfiction books, and what turns some people off to history writing. When the writer becomes so enamored with the details and facts that they insist everything is shoved into the book, the story dries up. But when the history is used to give meaning to the story, the story comes alive.

For instance, in Unbroken, there is a lengthy section about the actions of Japanese officers and their vicious treatment of prisoners of war. At that point in the story, Zamperini was just starting to fly his bombing missions, so the information about POWs might seem out of place. Instead, it builds tension, causing the reader to see just what was at stake if a plane went down and its crew captured. So when– spoiler alert– Zamperini is captured, the reader is already terrified about what was in store for him.

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. Rare is the book that is both so rich in history and research– I feel like an expert on the WWII Pacific Theater now– and also so compelling a story that I could swear it was the work of a master novelist. For anyone with an interest in World War II, the psychology of imprisonment and survival, and in taut storytelling, read Unbroken.

And P.S. it has been made into a film directed Angelina Jolie, due out this December. So there’s that to look forward to, as well.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

An Unexpected Blog Post

My first blog post here was back in August, about the announcement that The Hobbit was being made into not two, but three films.
Well, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has now been out for nearly a month. Most of us who have hoped to see it have seen it. What did we see?
Ian McKellan is Gandalf again, and his portrayal of Gandalf is a touch lighter, more playful than in the first films. The two principal character newcomers—Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin, are both very believable. Armitage’s proud portrayal of Thorin was compelling, as well. Thorin is proud and prickly, but sympathetic, and Armitage evokes all those feelings. When I heard Freeman would be Bilbo, my first thought was “My God, he already LOOKS like a hobbit. Just give him prosthetic feet and a wool coat and I’ll believe it!” And sure enough–.
The scene stealer (as usual) was Andy Serkis. His Gollum performance is right on par with what he did before, perhaps even better. The Smeagol/Gollum split is distinct, both facially and vocally, and he uses it to great comic/horrific effect. Though Gollum isn’t on screen long in the film, his presence dominates my memory of the film.
All the other goodies are abundant, as well. Lush New Zealand landscapes, sweeping musical score (including some refreshing updates on old themes) from Howard Shore, and seamless visual effects. There’s so much to love about the film.
So…much…
And that’s also the chief complaint against the film, that there’s just so much. The Hobbit, the novel, is a story for children, told in 300 pages with a single narrative. It’s an epic, but a small, focused one. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, is a three-volume, multiple narrative, sprawling epic across Middle Earth. Sure, it took Peter Jackson three films to tell the story, but it took Tolkien three books to tell it, as well. The Hobbit should be small; The Lord of the Rings should be big.
But this film feels as big as the LotR films, or at least it’s stretching on its tippy-toes to be so. And here is where the film feels tedious. There are scenes when old characters are introduced that interrupt the narrative flow, such as an unnecessary stop in Rivendell to see Elrond and Galadriel and bicker with Saruman. There are scenes where new characters are introduced (Radagast the Brown) who only seem to bog the story down with additional back story and information, and distract from the quest.
“But wait!” you protest. “Be patient! Jackson is surely setting up developments for the next two films!”
I agree! But there’s just…so…much.
I don’t blame Jackson entirely, though. He’s kind of been pushed into this. The first three films set the bar very high for Quality (which he could have matched with The Hobbit) and for Size (which he couldn’t). If he’d made a single-film version of The Hobbit, even it were great, people would leave feeling unsatisfied. So his choices were to leave the audience feeling hungry or leave them feeling overstuffed.
No, I don’t fault Jackson for cramming The Hobbit with unnecessary stuff. My only objection to his direction was his tendency to blur the line between the heroic and the ridiculous. In the heroic mode, seemingly average, normal individuals take on tasks bigger than themselves and rise to the challenge. Bilbo represents this. However, there are moments in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when I found myself doubting the plausibility of the characters’ actions. This was most pointed in the Goblin caves. The dwarves, who had been set up as a group of ragtag refugees, definitely NOT warriors, slay dozens upon dozens of useless goblins. Sometimes, to make things efficient, they simply take ladders and other parts of their environment to sweep the foes into the pit. I’m not looking for Black Hawk Down here, but battle scenes should leave me pumped up and breathless, not scoffing.
That said, go see it. You probably have already. Just be sure to stock up on popcorn and patience before you go in.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Adam Knight

Author and Freelance Writer

Talk Blog Research

What you find changes who you become.

Diane Ravitch's blog

A site to discuss better education for all

Eli Glasman

Site of author Eli Glasman

The Were-Traveler

Don't be afraid, dearie...it's just a story.

Vegan Cinephile

Movies, mindfulness, and musings.

Carpe Libris Writers Group

Seize the Library, Write the Books!

Jill Barville

3Rs = wRiting, Running and Reading

The Day Dreamer & Candy Eater

Dreaming, Munching and Reading...

Weekends in Paradelle

My weekend retreat online

Utopia or Dystopia

where past meets future

Pechorin's Journal

A literary blog

Biography As Fiction

Telling other people's stories.

bottledworder

easy reading is damn hard writing

Shane Halbach

Author, blogger, parent

Writingalife's Blog

Just another WordPress.com weblog

bohemianromance

Steampunk: Nostalgia for a Time that Never Was...

SpookyMrsGreen

The pagan housewife: Mindful parenting, ethical consumerism and modern pagan lifestyle.