Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday Reviews, 2/11/2011

More blood, but also some laughing this week.

Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt - Dracula, The Un-Dead

A sequel to Dracula.  Ambitious, and a deliberate attempt to address an issue with US copyright law - because Bram Stoker did not cross every t and dot every i, Dracula has been in the public domain in the US since 1899. That means that, when people noticed that the story was pretty good, round about 1912, and started adapting for film, they did not have to ask permission. As a result, most of the film versions have taken rather a lot of liberties with the original story. So, part of the purpose of this sequel was to get something called Dracula out into the market with the Stoker name on it. This is, perhaps, commendable, and is also evidence of the best part of the book - the short essays at the back about the history of Stoker's novel and the decision to write this novel, and the explanation for the liberties that were taken with the original text to make it conform to the sequel.

Wait, what? The essays complain about the liberties taken by film makers, and yet the authors take liberties of their own? Indeed. Stoker and Holt made a conscious decision to merge the narratives of the original novel with the most popular elements of the film version. In the original, for instance, Dracula can go out during the day, he is only greatly weakened by sunlight. In the sequel's version of the original, sunlight is anathema to the vampires, as has become widely accepted in the years since Stoker's book. Many of the movie versions have some sort of romantic relationship between Dracula and Mina Harker - Holt and Stoker incorporate that, even explaining where it might have slipped into Bram's original. These alterations and others were included, say the authors, so that people who had only experienced the story through the movies could still connect with the sequel.

Leaving aside the possibly faulty logic of that assertion, the authors also changed some other things for their own narrative purposes - most notably, moving the action of the original novel backwards in time from 1893 to 1888, so that it coincided with the Jack the Ripper case. This allowed them to set the sequel in 1912, which allows for a cameo appearance by Bram Stoker, while still having Quincy Harker be old enough to logically participate in the action of this novel. This, I found to be somewhat more dubious than the inclusion of alterations from the film versions - was it really necessary to have Bram in the novel? For that matter, would 5 years really have made that much difference in re: Quincy? I'm not sure that his age was every definitively established, but if we assume that he was born in 1888, or even 1889, he would be 23 or 24. Surely 18 or 19 is entirely old enough to participate in a monster hunt - perhaps even more logical, given that Quincy's role is to be headstrong, naive, and brash - characteristics more suited to late teens than early twenties.

Anyway. The foundation of the novel is shaky, because of the changes that Holt and Stoker felt necessary to include in the original, and the rest of the novel rests uneasily on that shaky foundation. Once you've altered the setting, changing the characters is not too much of stretch, and so that stretch is made. I felt that the decision not to use letters and diary entries as the primary narrative form was a mistake as well - granted, a more conventional (by today's standards) narrative form allows the authors to fill in narrative gaps that letters and diaries are prone to, but to completely leave the element out of the sequel seems like a mistake. (I know, I complained about the letters and diaries in the original - surely there is a happy balance between all epistolary and not at all?)

In the final assessment, I did not really like this book. It was a bold idea, and had a great deal of potential, but the authors were timid where they should have been bold and inclined to blaze new trails where hewing to the original would have been a better idea. I did finish the novel. I think I would be inclined to say that, were it not a sequel to Dracula, but rather a vampire novel in its own right, it would have worked quite nicely. The reliance on the Stoker name and the desire to write a sequel were, I think, a mistake.

After the serious Dracula business of last week, this week I went for something rather lighter: vampires as comedy. I started with:

Brian Meehl - Suck it Up

This was not as funny as I thought it would be. There were several cutely amusing bits - names of characters, little character quirks, things like that - but the novel was quite serious, and increasingly so as I made my way through it. Meehl understands something that Holt and Stoker seemed to have forgotten - vampires work very well as metaphors, and less well as protagonists. Here, the vampires are a stand in for many other minorities in society struggling to get their justice and full citizenship. Meehl tells a strong story about the desire of the majority of vampires to leave the selve obscura (the dark woods) and enter the daylight world as full and equal partners with "lifers." He has carefully thought out the implications of vampirism, and kept the bits that make sense in his narrative while discarding much of the rest - his vampires, through careful training, can walk in the daylight, for instance.

The plot: Morning McCobb, 16 year old vampire and brand new graduate of the International Vampire League academy has been chosen (for a series of highly logical reasons) to be the first vampire to publicly reveal himself - the "Jackie Robinson of the Vampire League", as he is called several times. With the assistance of a savvy PR director, McCobb gets his 15 minutes of fame. Some old vampires, who don't want to live peacefully with humans, try to stop him. Moderate mayhem ensues.

There were two things I didn't like. First, there is a fairly significant plot point in which McCobb acts completely against type, which was explained, but still troubling, and I'm not sure it was necessary. Second, Meehl in his author's note thanks "all those politically correct producers in children's television [Meehl was a puppeteer for Sesame Street, and wrote for Between the Lions] who, over the years, have saved me from ignorantly offending minorities I was unaware of." While it's possible to read this as straight thanks, it felt a little off to me - to easy to put a tongue in cheek spin on, too much like "gosh, those easily offended minorities." I dunno, perhaps I reading something there that  I shouldn't, but it seemed ... off, given the content of the book.

Despite that, a surprisingly deep and complex narrative, I really enjoyed this one. It was a quick read, the characters were engaging, the action was good, there was a touch of romance, and a happy ending.

Christopher Moore - Bite Me and You Suck

These are, respectively, the third and second of Moore's vampire trilogy, which starts with Blood Sucking Fiends, which my library didn't have. I read them in the above order, and I think the experience was better for it.

Moore is a comic author, and his books are quite genuinely funny. There were several places where I was literally laughing out loud through these books. They were a rollicking good time, a romp even. Jody and Tommy are two young folks, in love, in San Francisco. They are also freshly turned vampires, trying to figure out what that means. They are surrounded by a complex cast of wacky characters, from Abby Normal (goth/valley girl, and blogger), their minion, and her friend, Jared (goth, also), to a group of Safeway night stockers (stoners) who seem intent on hunting Jody and Tommy down. There's a fairly significant role played by a man claiming to be the Emperor of San Francisco (and his two dogs), and there is a pair of homicide cops who would really like to retire and open a book store. In the second book, there is a Las Vegas call girl whose schtick is that she's dyed blue, and a truly ancient vampire (who turned Jody in the first book) who is stalking San Francisco. This cast interacts, they misconstrue things, they get in each other's way, they jump to conclusions, they fail to pick up cues, and, ultimately, hilarity ensues.

There are two problems with Moore, though. First, the comedy is often fairly shallow, based on character traits and stereotypes. There's nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't make for particularly satisfying novels - popcorn, rather than steak. Second, he has a nasty tendency to write himself into corners, and then introduce powerful new characters with a solution to the corner in the last 1/3 or 1/4 of the book - deus ex machina, largely. It's like he hasn't properly figured out how to get from his initial starting point to his ultimate conclusion before he sits down to write, and doesn't go back to pull his later arrivals more neatly into the narrative. As a result, Bite Me is, mostly, a more satisfying novel than You Suck (although I found the ending of Bite Me to be a bit of a down note in an otherwise up novel).

Additionally, trigger warnings for references to cutting, suicide, eating disorders, and, possibly, broad gay stereotypes.

Terry Pratchett - Carpe Jugulum

Mr. Pratchett, as is often the case, proves that a novel can be both truly fantastically funny, and also very deep and philosophical, often at the same time.

King Verance and Queen Magrat of the tiny Discworld country of Lancre, have had a baby. To the christening (although, is it a christening in a world where there is no Christ? Hard to say, actually.), Verance invites neighboring dignitaries, include the Count and Countess Magpyr and their children - vampires from nearby Uberwald. This was, it turns out, a bad idea. The attempt by the Magpyr's to take over Lancre is thwarted by the resident witches, Nanny Ogg, Agnes Nitt, Magrat (the Queen, yes), and Granny Wetherwax. They accomplish their task with a great deal of funny puns, footnotes, innuendo, and sheer bloody mindedness. En route, Pratchett delivers a simple and delightful meditation on the nature of faith and religion - "sin is treating people as if they are things."

Here, incidentally, the vampires are both a metaphor (for dictatorial governments, perhaps, or multi-national corporations, or, possibly, a mindless desire to advance without retaining any traditions - or something else, that's the wonder of metaphors, really) and satisfying characters, at the same time. The humor is of a highly British sort (I firmly assert that most British humor comes from placing characters in situations where they absolutely fit, and then intensifying their natural predilections to hilarious effect. American humor comes from taking characters and putting them where they do not fit at all, and watching them flail about, trying to make sense of their new environment.). This is also, I think, the first appearance of the Nac Mac Feegle pictsies - Pratchett fleshes them out and makes them somewhat more comprehensible in the Tiffany Aching series, but the broad strokes of the characters are here, the fighting, the drinking, "the snaffling o' coobeasties," the swearing (Crivens!). I had forgotten that they were in this book first.

That was it. Next week, vampire romances, which might be funny, but not on purpose, perhaps.