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Original Essays | April 11, 2014

Paul Laudiero: IMG Shit Rough Draft

I was sitting in a British and Irish romantic drama class my last semester in college when the idea for Shit Rough Drafts hit me. I was working... Continue »
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Variant by Robison Wells

Cora, December 9, 2013

5 Wins and 5 Fails for Variant by Robison Wells

I wanted to like Variant, a dystopian novel by Robison Wells. After reading the positive reviews, I was excited, but alas, sometimes books that are hyped just don't live up to expectations.


The basic story idea is great: there's intrigue, conflict, and unanswered questions. The beginning of the book is spooky, a little creepy, and chilling.

Benson Fisher, a boy without a family who bounces from one foster home to another, is accepted at Maxfield Academy, where he expects to get a wonderful education and gain some freedom and independence. When he arrives at the school, he discovers that the doors lock behind him; there are no supervising adults, and he is a prisoner. Like all the other students, Benson doesn’t have family or friend who will check up on him.

The suspense builds. There are classes without teachers, rules, and student factions, but the kids are on their own and regimented by unseen adults or a computer system--the reader isn’t entirely sure. Some of the students claim that those who don’t conform are killed. Again the reader doesn't know if this is exaggerated or true. The school is a dangerous, and there are many unexplained questions.

My Reactions:

Until about halfway through the book, I was completely enjoying the story and looking forward to finding out the secrets of Maxfield Academy. However, in the book's second half, the plot begins to fall apart and doesn't recover. Once the big secret was revealed, I expected the mystery to unfold and be solved, or at least find answers to some of the pressing story questions. There was a brief moment when the “why” is hinted at, but there is never a satisfactory or logical explanation.

The ending seems pointless and disjointed. The secret is intriguing and interesting. The desire to find out kept me reading; however, once the plot began to unravel, it never recovered, and I became a frustrated reader. Because the end doesn't give answers, the violence seems futile.

For me, the biggest disappointment was the last scene. It feels as if Wells borrowed from The Giver, which worked because Jonas wasn’t just escaping, he was saving his community and the child who would have died. But in Variant, Benson’s only goal is to escape, which in itself is an okay, but there is no purpose, no hope, and most of all no reason for what happens. So, the ending wasn't an “Oh, wow,” moment; it was a let down.

5 Wins:

It’s well written.
The action scenes are fun, detailed, and exciting.
It’s realistic about what might happen in today’s world if teens were trapped in a dangerous situation.
The central idea behind the story is fascinating and could have been developed into a great story.
At the beginning, the suspense is strong and builds, which kept me reading when I was impatient with the plot. I thought the story might redeem itself in the end.

5 Fails:

Benson is one-dimensional: he doesn’t grow; his only desire is to escape; especially at the end, he doesn’t grapple with the senselessness of the situation.
In the second half, the plot loses momentum and logic, creating gaping holes in what should have been a great story.
The surprise ending wasn't a surprise; it felt contrived and rehashed.
The big secret isn’t explained or developed.
There aren’t logical or believable reasons for the events at the end of the story.

I was left with the feeling that Well's wanted to leave things hanging for a second book; however, he lost me as a reader. I was frustrated and feel no desire to read a second book.

Yellow Cautionary Lights Flashing

There are a lot of people who like this book. You might be one of them. For those who are thinking about reading Variant, consider of my review as flashing caution lights: bumpy plot ahead.
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The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Cora, November 4, 2013


The OCEAN at THE END of the LANE is the kind of book that stays with you long after you’ve read the last sentence. The story spotlights a disturbing aspect of the human condition: often, broken people can't be fixed. We recognize this in the nameless protagonist and in some people around us, but we fear it might also be true in our lives.

The protagonist comes back to his childhood home for a funeral. We aren’t sure who has died, but by the end of the book our best guess is that it’s his father. After the services, instead of returning to his sister’s home, he takes a drive and ends up at the farm at the end of the lane, which is where the duck pond/ocean was. Both the farm and the three women who live there are magic, filled with an ancient magic that goes back to a time before the earth was formed.

The farm girl, Lettie, her mother, and grandmother befriend the protagonist when he was a lad of seven. The mother still lives on the farm and allows him to walk to the pond, where he sits and remembers what happened when he was seven-years-old.

Two things are apparent almost from the beginning: the narrator/protagonist is unreliable, so we can’t trust his judgment, and he is a broken, misfit. He’s a friendless boy whose world becomes bearable through the books he reads.

This is a story about how unfair, chaotic, and frightening childhood can be. It’s about a lonely boy, living through a time when money is scarce, parents are inattentive and neglectful, and fantasy become more real than anything else. It’s a story about how books and perhaps imaginary friends can help a child survive.

Our hero is surrounded by strong women: the three farm women, who are strong, powerful, and protect him from the evil that has entered his world; his sister, who is an annoyance and has no clue the trouble he’s in, but takes pleasure in making his life miserable; their new governess Ursula Monkton, who is an evil entity from another realm and tries to imprison, harm, and finally wants to kill him; the mother, who is mostly absent and inattentive.

Ursula gives people what they want: money to those in hard times trying to make ends meet; sexual favors to the father; attention to the sister; freedom to leave the house to the mother. These gifts bring negative consequences. Ursula only wants to take from the protagonist--he was her entrance into this world, and she will use him or kill him as it suits her.

The father is the second villain of the story.
What kind of father scoops up a seven-year-old boy and takes him to see a body? At first, I thought he was clueless. Later, I began to realize the father does not consider the needs of his son. Whatever the father’s reason, the protagonist was traumatized by seeing their lodger’s body after his suicide. It's the police officers, not the father, who suggest the boy go with Lettie away from the crime scene.

The father’s insensitivity foreshadows greater cruelty to come: a father trying to drown his son. Water imagery abounds in this book. The pond is really an ocean, and it's magic: it can heal, carry things out of the world, and bring things into the world.

The bathtub scene reeks with the kind of terror and betrayal that scars someone for life. It’s obvious that the father suspects that his son has seen something and will tell the mother about his affair with Ursula. In the end, even the father's death does not release the son from the brutality of his childhood.

The story ends with the protagonist leaving the farm to return to his sister’s house and re-enter the real world. As he moved away from the pond, he already starts to forget the story, that Lettie isn’t in Australia but in the pond, that the farm is magic, that for a while he remembered. Lettie's mother knows he'll return, the reader knows, and at some deep unconscious level he knows. But for now, all his memories slide away as he returns to his adult world, the same broken man he was when he drove to the farm.
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Infernal Devices by K. W. Jeter
Infernal Devices

Cora, October 14, 2013

J. W. Jeter wrote Infernal Devices in 1987. He also coined the term Steampunk to describe the new Victorian books he, Tim Powers, and James P. Blaylock were writing. I wanted to go back to Steampunk's beginnings, and since Jetter is one of the touchstone authors, I decided to read Infernal Devices first.

The Story

The narrator, George Dower, runs a clockwork shop, which he inherited from his father. His primary problems is that he knows little about clocks and makes a living accepting small jobs his assistant can handle. George's life is uneventful until an "Ethiope" comes into the shop and convinces George to try and fix one of his father's complicated clockwork mechanisms. The "leather-skinned" man gives George a strange coin, and the Victorian adventure begins.

George is curious about the coin, and, putting the mechanical device aside, sets out to investigate the coin's origins and meaning.

His adventures twist and turn in every imaginable way. He winds up in the seedy part of town, is in trouble with A Ladies Union for the Suppression of Carnal Vices, falls in with a criminal who speaks in 20th century American vernacular, repels numerous sexual advances, and is betrayed by nearly everyone.

The story might be described as Monty Python meets the Pink Panther in Victorian England. Humor runs throughout the tale. There are lots of clockwork devices, which George cannot manage and often destroys. Most of the social problems and issues of the era are addressed in a dark brooding atmosphere.

"The Complete Destruction of the Earth" chapter is funny, and for a while I thought the story might take a better turn, but alas, for me, it didn't.

My Response

On an intellectual level I like the story and see value in what Jeter is doing. However, to be truthful, it took me an agonizingly long time to read it.

Here are the strengths of the book:

•the humor,

•an honest look at the dark side of Victorian life and the social issues,

•the automatons and clockwork gadgets,

•Scape and the sexually aggressive women, who were far more interesting characters than George.

Here are the issues I had with the book:

•the Victorian language--I know I'm supposed to love Dickens, but I don't; the language is tedious and puts me to sleep;

•the first person narration; George is an unsympathetic character, which was my biggest issues--I really didn't care what happened to him;

•the unrealistic and often contorted plot twists, which I either figured out or suspected.

Since I love Monty Python, Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett, it's a little odd that I found this a difficult read. I think, if you like Victorian language and are engaged with a protagonist who is thick and naive, you'll enjoy the book. It's not bad. In many ways, it's excellent, but for me it was flat.
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Steampunk: The Art of Victorian Futurism by Korero Books
Steampunk: The Art of Victorian Futurism

Cora, October 5, 2013

Steampunk: The Art of Victorian Futurism--An Amazing Book!

If you love Steampunk or want to know more about it, get this book.

Have you ever bought a book and wanted to show it to everyone? Steampunk: The Art of Victorian Futurism is that kind of book.

Yesterday, while doing "face time" with my daughter, I was showing her the pictures. I flipped through the pages as she leaned closer to her phone to see on the small screen. I'm sure she wasn't getting the full effect, but my excitement spurred her to squint and admire.

So, why is the book so great?

Four reasons:
First and foremost, the pictures and illustrations. I'd estimate the book devotes two thirds of its pages to excellent, high quality photographs. I've included three in the post so you can have a little taste of what you'll get.
It does a good job of exploring the literary roots of Steampunk, including a run down of authors who influenced the literary movement. I enjoyed the pictures of magazine covers from the old pulp-fiction writing of the 1800s.
There's good coverage of early, middle, and contemporary Steampunk authors. I sometimes found the prose a little dull, but over all it held my interest.
It addresses the sub-cultures that have emerged from the Steampunk literary movement: writers, books, magazines, fashion, art, cosplay, craftsmanship, music, conferences and exhibits.

I expected The Art of Victorian Futurism to focus on the art, but the book went beyond my expectations. I have to give Jay Strongman kudos for selecting and showcasing excellent photographs and illustrations. Also, in the early chapters, he gives detailed background information on Steampunk's beginnings and the movement's progress up to 2011. He managed to be at once brief and detailed, a nice balance, which allowed him to devote much of the book to art.

I recently reviewed another Steampunk book: The Steampunk Bible by Jeff Vandermeer. The strength of Vandermeer's book is that it devotes more space to the Steampunk movement in all its facets. There are some lovely pictures as well, but the emphasis on Steampunk history, development, and current trends provides a solid knowledge base for anyone interested in the movement. I think the two books complement each other and provide a nice Steampunk library.

I don’t often give a book a 5 star rating. This deserves top rating.
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The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature by Jeff VanderMeer and S. J. Chambers
The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature

Cora, October 1, 2013

Three Excellent Reasons to Read The Steampunk Bible

Have you noticed that Steampunk seems to be everywhere? Are you curious and want to know more?

If you don’t know a lot about Steampunk, but you like the new Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law) movies, then you’ve experienced Steampunk. Jules Verne and HG Wells meet Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: new, improved, and updated. It’s about the clothes, the gadgets, and the time period. Plus, it’s lots of fun because there’s always a little bit of the fantastical thrown into the mix.

If you want to know more about Steampunk, then The Steampunk Bible (Jeff Vandermeer) is one of the books I'd recommend.

Here’s why I recommend it:
It gives detailed background information on the literature: the Steampunk movement began with books.
It explores the other areas that have morphed from the Steampunk books: fashion, cosplay (grownups playing dress up), the craftsmen who make Steampunk gadgets, the conferences, gatherings, exhibits, as well as the music, art, photography, and films.
It includes aspects of the global nature of the movement and how the movement manifests in other countries and cultures.

Who will enjoy The Steampunk Bible? This book is for the neophyte, who wants to learn more, and for the seasoned Steampunk veteran as well as those between these extremes. I'd bet that someone who knows a lot about Steampunk would learn something from this book. Before reading it, I didn’t realize the extensive influence and many facets of Steampunk.

One of the nice features is the seven chapters focus on a different aspect of Steampunk. So, you can return to a specific section and find what you want.

Photographs and Illustrations: The other big plus is the liberal use of photographs and illustrations. Do you like ray guns? Wondering about period costumes or Steampunk creations and the artisans who make them? There are pictures and illustrations to satisfy your curiosity.

To be honest, I’ve sipped coffee and spent a few hours admiring the pictures. No one will complain that there aren't enough pictures.

It's a Keeper: The excellent background information coupled with plenty of illustrations makes this book a keeper. It’ll stay on my bookshelf as a reference and as a fun book to take up again and again. Who wouldn't want to look at a Steampunk guitar, a steam powered elephant, or lust over a Steampunk laptop?

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