Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A Surprisingly Dull Shine

The Shining Girls
by Lauren Beukes
Publishied by Mulholland Books

3 Out of 5 Stars
Reviewed by  Amanda

While fleeing the law in Depression era Chicago, Harper Curtis stumbles upon the key to a derelict house with magical properties. Despite its outward appearance, the inside of the house is one of grandeur (well, except for the dead body in the hallway, but real estate being what it is during the Depression, one can't be too picky). There's a stash of cash and a haphazard collection of kitschy objects from different time periods, but that's not the only secret hidden by this house--it is also a portal to the past and the future. As Harper explores the house, it speaks to him and it becomes clear that he's been drawn here for a purpose. He must seek out "The Shining Girls," women from different times and different walks of life who must die by his knife.

So, serial killer stories aren't normally my thing. I'm not particularly intrigued by how a psychopath's mind works, never really interested in his methods and his madness, and I find the whodunit aspect of most of these novels tiresome. But I found that I couldn't ignore the hype surrounding The Shining Girls. The promise of a serial killer who could travel through time and disappear without a trace? Now that is certainly something that I've never read before and it appealed to the part of me that enjoys science fiction. I thought there might be something new and inventive here--something that might help it rise above others of its ilk. However, it proved to be disappointingly, well, average.

Harper Curtis is a casebook psychopath, complete with a childhood history of torturing animals and an inability to empathize with others. In terms of character, there's very little to distinguish him from other literary serial killers--he's fairly bland in comparison to, say, a Hannibal Lecter. Harper's only distinction is provided by the house itself and, unfortunately, the house only serves as a vehicle for Harper. An inventive premise, to be sure, but it's ultimately as riveting as knowing the make and model of the vehicle a killer might use to get from one place to another. Its origin is never explained and its role in the events that transpire is never really clear.

The hunt for Harper is led by the only woman to have survived his brutal attack, Kirby Mazrachi. Kirby is an appealing and interesting character. She's strong, quirky, and hellbent on finding the man who did this to her. As a means of doing so, she becomes an intern for a former criminal reporter, Dan Velasquez, at the Chicago Sun-Times. While he's now on the sports beat, Kirby hopes that she can convince him to help her gain access to files and reports that might help her track down the man who left her for dead. Kirby's investigations seem a little slapdash, moved along by heaping dollops of happenstance and coincidence that fall too neatly into place. I loved Kirby's headstrong nature, but to all those who compare this novel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo I must point out that a few punk rock t-shirts and a nose ring do not a Lisbeth Salander make.

As it weaves back and forth through time, the novel alternates its chapters between Harper, Kirby, Harper's other victims (whose stories, while poignant, aren't as fleshed out as I would have liked them to be), and a few minor characters. The chapters read quickly, but all of the back and forth through time caused it to lose some momentum and suspense for me. By the time the denouement occurs, it is, despite all the weirdness that leads up to it, fairly average and not much different from the resolution one might expect in a more traditional serial killer narrative.

There's no doubt that Lauren Beukes has an interesting idea behind The Shining Girls, but it never really delivered for me. Her writing is serviceable and occasionally finds moments of beauty, profundity, or wit; I particularly enjoyed the chapters focusing on Dan, a middle-aged man who knows he's falling for the much younger and damaged Kirby. Beukes hit the right note of guilt, longing, and restraint in his internal monologues. Despite its strong female protagonist and its creativity, I can only say that I liked the book but never truly fell in love.
Seven Years in TibetSeven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Now the Living Buddha was approaching. He passed quite close to our window. The women stiffened in a deep obeisance and hardly dared to breathe. The crowd was frozen. Deeply moved we hid ourselves behind the women as if to protect ourselves from being drawn into the magic circle of his power.

We kept saying to ourselves, ‘It is only a child.’ A child, indeed, but the heart of the concentrated faith of thousands, the essence of their prayers, longings, hopes. Whether it is Lhasa or Rome--all are united by one wish: to find God and to serve Him. I closed my eyes and hearkened to the murmured prayers and the solemn music and sweet incense rising to the evening sky.”

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14th Dalai Lama as a child

Heinrich Harrer was part of a four man team who were the first to successfully scale the North face of the Eiger. They reached the summit on July 24th,1938. Harrer had been a member of the Nazi party for just two months. He had also joined the SS with the rank of sergeant. After the ascent he and the rest of the team had a photo op with Adolf Hitler. They were national heroes. His life could have very easily spiraled toward an early death on the battlefield or he could have been compromised in the many atrocities perpetrated by the SS during the war.

As it turned out, the only day he wore his SS uniform was the day he got married.

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The one with the cheesy moustache is Adolph Hitler. Standing on his right is Heinrich Harrer. Harrer renounced any association he had with the SS stated that he was too young to be making those decisions.

Harrer was in India with a four man team scouting the viability of climbing the Diamir Face of the Nanga Parbat when war broke out in 1939. They were picked up by the British and interned in a detention camp. In 1944 after several failed attempts to escape Harrer, Peter Aufschnaiter, and two others are finally successful. They strike out for Tibet. The other two men, after experiencing the hardship of travel with improper clothing, inadequate food supplies, and a nagging doubt about what life will be like once they do reach Tibet, decide to go back. Harrer and Aufschnaiter press on.

They rely on the kindness of strangers. Lucky for them, by nature, Tibetans are kind.

Their ultimate goal is to reach Lhasa, but there are public officials, miles of red tape, and many hazards to be faced before they reach that destination.

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Princess Coocoola, wife of the governor of Tibet is one of the many beautiful Tibetan women.

They meet a young couple on the road. A young woman fleeing her THREE husbands. She dutifully married three brothers and took care of their household until a handsome young stranger appeared. The couple were fleeing her husbands to start a new life. Most cultures still do or once did allow men, usually wealthy men to collect wives, but this is the first time I’ve heard of a culture that allows a wife to collect three husbands. The problem, of course, is always choice, and she wasn’t a willing participant to marry the three brothers.

When the proverbial traveling salesman comes to town she takes the opportunity to escape.

January 15th, 1946 they finally reach their destination.

”We turned a corner and saw, gleaming in the distance, the golden roofs of the Potala, the winter residence of the Dalai Lama and the most famous landmark of Lhasa. This moment compensated us for much. We felt inclined to go down on our knees like the pilgrims and touch the ground with our foreheads.”

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Because of their uncertain status Harrer and Aufschnaiter, despite the pleasant welcome they received, were always worried that they would sent back to India and internment. They receive reassurances followed by neck snapping counter orders to leave. They begin to ingratiate themselves to the government by designing and producing better irrigation for the city. Harrer builds a fountain for the backyard of one of his friends and soon all the nobles want a fountain (seems to be a human tendency regardless of country to compete with the Jones’s). There are various levels of nobles who are very wealthy, happy; and yet, pious people. There was an uprising and several people were arrested, too many for the local jail. The nobles had to each take responsibility for a prisoner.

”As a result one found in almost every house a convict in chains with a wooden ring round his neck.”

Talk about putting a damper on your social situations.

The Tibetans have a rather gruesome, especially to westerners, way in how they dispose of their recently departed.

”The decorated pine tree which stood on the roof was removed and the next day at dawn the body was wrapped in white grave cloths and borne out of the house on the back of a professional corpse carrier. We followed the group of mourners, who consisted of three men only. Near the village on a high place recognizable from afar as a place of ‘burial’ by the multitude of vultures and crows which hovered over it, one of the men hacked the body to pieces with an ax. A second sat nearby, murmuring prayers and beating on a small drum. The third man scared the birds away and at intervals handed the other two men beer or tea to cheer them up. The bones of the dead girl were broken to pieces, so that they too could be consumed by the birds and that no trace of the body should remain.”

To them the body of the deceased is an empty shell. The consciousness has already moved on towards yet another in a series of countless lives. Their belief that the fly that lands on the rim of the rancid butter tea, that they like to drink, could be their grandmother causes Harrer no ends of problems when he is asked to build a movie theater for the Dalai Lama. Every worm that is disturbed by the shovels must be carefully relocated back to a safe spot.

”The more life one can save the happier one is.”

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Henrich Harrer

Harrer becomes a paid government official, a translator and court photographer that along with his side projects gives him a satisfactory income. He becomes close to the Dalai Lama, instructing him in Western culture and the way the world works beyond the Tibetan borders. There is even a scene that had me chuckling with the Dalai Lama wanting to shadow box with Harrer. It was just hard for me to imagine this national treasure with his fists raised dancing around throwing punches.

In October 1950 the army of the People’s Republic of China invade, defeat a Tibetan army, and take over the country. Harrer and his friend Aufschnaiter have to abandon their peaceful lives and return to Europe. As he leaves he waves up at the roof where he knows the Dalai Lama, possibly one of the most lonely people in the world, is watching him depart through the singular eye of his telescope.

In 1959 during a Tibetan uprising the Dalai Lama fearing for his life, fled to India where he established a Tibetan government in exile. Harrer continued to go on mountaineering expeditions around the globe and wrote twenty travel books about his exploits. His photography is considered to be among the best records of Tibetan culture ever obtained. This book was a huge bestseller in America showing the hunger that people felt, and continue to feel to know more about Tibetan culture. It certainly has inspired me to want to know more.

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Friends for life.

A movie was made of Seven Years in Tibet in 1997 starring Brad Pitt. The movie focuses more on Harrer’s abandonment of his wife and child (not a subject he discusses in the book), and also revealed an arrogance and a selfishness that is not in the book either. We see the movie version of Harrer become a better person under the influence of the people he came to know and love in Lhasa. The movie is visually stimulating and was the reason I decided to read the book. I hope that others who see the movie will be encouraged to explore the subject matter further as well.

”Wherever I live, I shall feel homesick for Tibet. I often think I can still hear the cries of wild geese and cranes and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa in the clear, cold moonlight. My heartfelt wish is that my story may create some understanding for a people whose will to live in peace and freedom has won so little sympathy from an indifferent world.”

View all my reviews

It's a Strange World, and they Plan to Keep it that Way

Planetary, vol. 1: All Over the World and Other Stories

Warren Ellis and John Cassaday

Wildstorm (DC Comics)

Reviewed by: Terry 

5 out of 5 stars


Warning: there are spoilers for some issues in this review. You have been warned! 

I think the Planetary series by Ellis and Cassaday may be one of the most ambitious, and certainly most enjoyable, comics (excuse me, I mean graphic novels!) that I have ever read. It is yet another post-Watchmen, post-Dark Knight meta-textual exploration of the genre, but manages to be one that doesn’t lose its sense of humour or sense of wonder as it dissects some of the weird, wonderful, and even silly elements of the genre…no small feat! Also, Ellis does not restrict himself solely to an examination of the world of superheroes as it’s been portrayed in the funny books, but also includes a myriad of other pop culture genre tropes in a heady brew that’s chock-full of pulpy goodness! Conspiracy theories meet the world of metahumans, the science of the occult and the magic of super-science rub shoulders with genre standbys, and a world of strangeness and wonder slowly unfolds like a snowflake.

The premise is pretty simple, and kind of ingenious given Ellis’ aims: it’s a strange world, but the powers that be have been covering up every weird, wonderful, strange and scary thing that has reared its head in human history. Enter Planetary, an inter-continental organization of “archaeologists of the impossible” whose avowed goal is to unearth the secrets from which the enlightened ones would shield us and broadcast them in their yearly publication, kind of a Whole Earth Catalog of the weird and strange. The field team for Planetary is composed of three main agents: Elijah Snow is a gruff and taciturn leader who also sports the ability to generate cold on a superhuman level, Jakita Wagner the beautiful and nigh-invulnerable superwoman, and the Drummer, a prototypical slacker-geek whose ability to interface with anything electronic is truly extraordinary.  Oh, and since this is a graphic novel/comic book I should note that the art by John Cassaday is consistently extraordinary, some of the best I’ve ever seen, really! I’ll break down the individual issues below and try to avoid any heinous spoilers.

Issue 0 (Preview) - “Nuclear Spring”: A secret military base; a genius cold war scientist decades ahead of his time; a quantum bomb that is able to rewrite the nature of reality; a friend of the scientist’s caught in the blast zone during the final test. What mysteries will the Planetary team find when they crack open this decades-old secret of tragedy and transformation?

Issue 1 - “All Over the World”: Jakita Wagner recruits the misanthropic loner Elijah Snow to join a mysterious team called Planetary. Details on their operations and make-up are scarce. They have scads of cash, but all the field team seems to know is that they are funded, and ultimately directed, by a shadowy figure known only as “the Fourth Man”. The organization’s aim? To uncover the mysteries that the powers that be want kept secret. Despite his suspicions and doubts Elijah decides to come along for the ride (a paycheck of a million dollars a year doesn’t hurt either) and on his first mission witnesses the uncovering of a decades-old secret base of operations for a team of heroes the world didn’t even know existed. We have a literal round table of pulp hero analogues: newly minted characters who are stand-ins for Doc Savage, The Shadow, Tom Swift, Fu Manchu, Tarzan, Operator 5, and G-8. I love this stuff. Homages to the great icons of pulp and comic book heroes are the kind of thing I eat up with a spoon, primarily, I think, because while the ideas behind these icons are fantastic the execution of their stories often leaves something to be desired (often either because the company that owns the properties doesn’t want anything ‘bad’ (read interesting) done with them, or simply because they were written into formulaic and kind of crappy stories by mediocre writers). Those problems can be remedied in this kind of ‘elseworlds’ context and Ellis proceeds to do so both here and throughout the Planetary series with panache. Love it.

Issue 2 – “Island”: Welcome to Monster Island! (Well, Warren Ellis’ version of it anyway.) What do you get when you combine an isolated and remote island populated by creatures out of a Kaiju film, government cover-ups, and Japanese death cults? You get issue 2 of Planetary. Pretty good stuff that helps widen the lens beyond superheroes and show us just how strange Ellis’ secret history for his world really is.

Issue 3 – “Dead Gunfighters”: We continue our tour of Ellis’ strange world with another one-off tale centring around a ghostly cop in Hong Kong out for revenge and yet further hints about the ‘quantum reality matrix’, the snowflake, that underlies all of the strangeness being catalogued by Planetary. Think John Woo meets the X-Files.

Issue 4 – “Strange Harbours”: This, and issue 5, are where things really started to gel for me with Planetary; things began coming together and the “oh shit, that’s cool” moments were multiplying fast and furious. In this issue the team investigates the hole left after a single office building in the middle of a New York City block is vaporized. It seems as though something was unearthed by mysterious forces under the direction of people unknown and an investigator for the Hark corporation (the name will have meaning once you’ve read this far in the series) will be changed into something wonderful and strange. What does a homesick starship meant to fly between realities do when it’s been trapped under the earth for millennia? Recruit a new crew for starters. Captain Marvel (the Shazam version) meets Flash Gordon with a dash of the many worlds theory thrown in for good measure.

Issue 5 – “The Good Doctor”: Secret societies from the French Revolution with a breeding plan for superhumans, a Man of Brass (or is it bronze?) who devotes his life to saving a world that does not know he exists and collecting together similarly endowed individuals in the hopes that together they can solve the world’s ills, a pulp fiction extravaganza highlighting the glories and the dangers of thinking you can save the world. Elijah Snow’s suspicions have been accumulating since he joined Planetary and now he goes to talk with Doc Brass, saved in issue 1, to help clear his head. Things will start to roll from hereon in.

Issue 6 – “It’s a Strange World”: Now we get to the meat of it. What if the cold war space race was nothing more than a smoke screen for what was really happening behind the scenes? What if four astronauts (the number is important and the corollaries are very cool) were sent into the void and met up with forces unknown, forces that could transmute mere humanity into something more? What if they were the most evil sons of bitches you’re likely to meet and had both the will and the power to take the reins of the secret organization that had been keeping everything strange and wonderful from surfacing in the daylight world? What if Planetary finally found out about them? This issue single-handedly made the Fantastic Four a cool concept, something they hadn’t been, for me at least, well, um, ever. It also helped to answer the question that might nag any self-respecting comic book nerd who really thought about the whole concept behind the Fantastic Four (or science-based superheroes in general) as superhuman adventurers who discover the secrets of other worlds and realities: why doesn’t any of that gleaming gosh-wow tech ever filter down to the man on the street? Why don’t they have a cure for cancer? Where are the flying cars, dammit?! Well, it’s because the ‘superheroes’ are keeping it all for themselves, dumb-ass!

One thing that really worked well for me in this series overall was the way in which Ellis balanced between the self-contained one-off stories that were compelling in and of themselves with a greater story arc that made the journey all the more satisfying. He didn’t always manage to pull this balance off perfectly (sometimes the one-off tales seemed a little light, or the connections they had to the wider context weren’t sufficiently drawn, and occasionally the bigger story arc seemed a little bit rushed, especially at the very end), but overall he did a pretty exemplary job with this. Kudos! The sense of mysteries to be uncovered and of an answer greater than the sum of its parts (as gosh darn cool as those parts may be) was very well-played and, unlike some genre fiascos that have attempted the same trick (I’m looking at you X-Files and especially you Lost), Planetary mostly lived up to its potential in this regard.  It looks like Ellis had mapped out his ideas and goal from the beginning instead of just engaging in some half-assed attempt to retroactively join together the disparate elements that were all thrown into the soup willy-nilly at the last minute. I love, love, love this series…and there’s more to come! Can I squee? Well, I will anyway. Squeeee! 

Also posted at Goodreads


"But primal dreams have made me wise..."

The Emperor of Dreams

Clark Ashton Smith


Reviewed by: Terry 

4 out of 5 stars

Ah, Clark Ashton Smith. For those of you unfamiliar with this writer imagine someone with the fevered imagination of Lovecraft and the lyrical stylistic chops of Lord Dunsany and you'll get an idea of what you're in for. For my money Smith is perhaps the best of the "Weird Tales Triumvirate" of Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Ashton Smith. I would probably place Howard as a close second on that list...heresy I know, but for all of the coolness of Lovecraft's ideas he really was just a god-awful writer.
Take a dip into this tome and visit one of Smith's created worlds: medieval Averoigne, antediluvian Poseidonis, far future Zothique, or ancient Hyperborea, all tinged with the dark fantasy Cthulhoid elements borrowed from his friend Lovecraft and embellished with his delicious prose.
I'd heartily recommend the tales "The Double Shadow", "The Beast of Averoigne", "Mother of Toads", and the 'Malygris tales' "The Last Incantation" & "The Death of Malygris" as good starting points, though there are few places to go wrong here.

Also posted at Goodreads