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Monday, June 2, 2014

Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Title: Night Film
Author: Marisha Pessl
Publisher: Random House

Rating: 3.5 stars.
Goodreads Summary: On a damp October night, beautiful young Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Though her death is ruled a suicide, veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova—a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years.

For McGrath, another death connected to this seemingly cursed family dynasty seems more than just a coincidence. Though much has been written about Cordova’s dark and unsettling films, very little is known about the man himself.

Driven by revenge, curiosity, and a need for the truth, McGrath, with the aid of two strangers, is drawn deeper and deeper into Cordova’s eerie, hypnotic world.

The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time he might lose even more.


Whether you like this book or not depends on the kind of reader you are.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl is a mystery, a fast-plotted semi-noir with glimmerings of the paranormal. The plot follows disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath and his tagalong motley crew—there’s Nora the coat-check girl who wants to be a star, Hooper the drug-dealer, and a supporting cast that comprises of everything from a piano tuner to witches to Jamaicans to washed-out heroines to adorable kids to Armenian drag-queens (this last only in passing, unfortunately.) 

In Night Film, a freakish cult-like following worships the legendary (and very fictional) film-maker Stanislas Cordova, who has made some of the scariest, darkest, most secretively filmed movies Hollywood has ever seen. Think maybe a cross between Stephen King and Vito Corleone.

Cordova has a motto of sorts: Sovereign, Perfect, Deadly, and his fans hold red band screenings for his movies in catacombs, meet up in darkened Montauk beach-houses, collect Cordova movie paraphernalia from black markets, and really get up to a sort of cult-like idolatry. Cordova himself has not been in the public eye for years, living instead in the comfort of his sprawling Adirondacks mansion, with prodigious daughter Ashley and a line of wives/women who comes and goes on Cordova’s whim/turns of fate. By staying away from the public eye, Cordova attains a sort of bogeyman image, and this force of Cordova’s charisma is what alone drives the book and Pessl’s other, much forgettable characters.

The novel begins with the death or apparent suicide of Cordova’s daughter, the beautiful and talented Ashley Cordova, in a seedy neighbourhood in New York. The narrator, Scott McGrath, immediately delves into the case all guns blazing—aiming to clear his name of the disgrace he wrought on himself by implying that Cordova was a danger to society on national TV. With his marriage fallen apart, and his career in the dumps, this is McGrath’s only chance. But he quickly realizes that there are forces that want to prevent him from finding out the truth, and the complicated twists and turns of the case take him places he never thought he’d go, and into cultures and lifestyles he never thought he’d be a part of. Magic, whether real or not, is a very important part of Night Film.

Where Night Film succeeds is with Pessl’s engaging writing. She brings twists and turns and new concepts to the plot that enriches it, and McGrath is a reasonably authentic voice for a 40-something cynical man. New York appears to be as much a character as anyone else. Ashley’s mystery touches upon Native beliefs, voodoo, and even takes detours into wicca. It’s fun and fast-paced and doesn’t have a boring moment. It’s a mystery in a grand sense, and while I didn’t like the resolution all that much, I still liked this book well enough that it kept me turning the pages well into the night.

The book uses extra media—images, paper clippings, photographs, and using a scanner app on your phone, you can access even more media online. While these kind of gimmicks are growing more popular in books, it occasionally detracts from the actual story. Some of it is necessary, most not at all, and Night Film maintains a precarious balance between the two. I think it’s rather time for Pessl to leave behind these gimmicks and visual tricks and focus on the story she’s telling.

Another problem I had with Night Film is that it set up to provide some sort of great, cataclysmic meeting between McGrath and Cordova, but instead I first got a false alarm, and then half-involved descriptions of a meeting that was mostly just talking and boredom. I wanted some crazy, crazy twist.

Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was praised by readers and critics alike for its self-parodying, quirky teenager voice, the storytelling, and the general throwing around of references that range from obscure botanical journals to quotes from every writer under the English Literature curriculum and then some. I enjoyed Special Topics to an extent, and thought it had its flaws. Night Film is not anything like it, which I sort of see as Pessl’s growth and her ability to produce works that belong to a wider range.  Pessl’s characters are still all unfortunately quirky and similar-sounding, and while quirk is good, too much of it just comes across as amateurish. There are some metaphors that seem overblown, and likewise with her tendency to populate her pages with extremely colourful characters—sometimes it’s quite overdone, and can be quite tiring.

Bottomline: Night Film is entertainment, plain and simple. It’s not a deep foray into the mind of a crazy man, as I half-way expected it to be. Go into the book expecting a character-driven novel and you come out disappointed. Go into it expecting a cozy murder mystery...and you just might like it enough to finish it, or even actually love it. I did.

I have to applaud the E-Book makers—with all the extra media, it’s always a gamble whether images and text will mesh well in iBooks, and Night Film does the job well where several other books, including Special Topics and the honestly silly Miss Peregrine’s whatever-it-is failed to work.

3.5 stars.  

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review: Alabaster by Caitlin Kiernan

So I was talking the other day about discovering new authors and new ideas in literature. Here's something very YA friendly, and honestly, if it were released by a major YA publisher, I can see this book doing very very well in the YA demographic. As is, Alabaster by Caitlin R Kiernan has a comic-book adaptation that is equally wonderful, but let me just take a moment to review the book.

Warning though: it was difficult to get my hands on this one.

TITLE: Alabaster
AUTHOR: Caitlin R Kiernan
COMIC-BOOK Artist: Steve Lieber, cover designed by Greg Ruth
RATING: 5 stars

GoodReads Summary:

An albino girl wanders the sun-scorched backroads of a south Georgia summer, following the bidding of an angel - or perhaps only voices in her head - searching out and slaying ancient monsters who have hidden themselves away in the lonely places of the world.

REVIEW (Please note that this is the review for the book, not the comic)

Dancy Flammarion is an albino girl with a big blade and an angel watching over her. Or is she? Is the angel only in her head, a fragment of an insane imagination? What about all the monsters that she has to face on lonely Southern roads and in the dark places that others don't see? Could that be her imagination too?

Caitlin R Kiernan creates an incredibly fascinating character in Dancy Flammarion. The concept is enthralling: a young girl, pink-eyed and white-skinned, wandering the lonely roads of America facing down monsters who are centuries old, sometimes incomprehensibly evil, all at the bidding of an angel who may or may not be good himself. Kiernan pulls no stops in describing the darkness of Dancy's world, or the extent to which magic worms through it.

Alabaster is actually a collection of five stories featuring the character, from her childhood in Wampee Creek, to her misadventures on the road. If the first story in the collection, Le Fleurs Des Empoisonnes ( "In the Garden of Poisoned Flowers") takes you from a dark highway to a bright house populated by ghoul women, Waycross and Alabaster feature monsters shacking up in derelict old lighthouses or the basements of gas-stores. The Well of Stars and Shadow, is about Dancy's childhood, while Bainbridge is slightly different from the others, skipping between Dancy taking on a monster a little too much for her to chew and two other timelines, one of which is reminiscent of dark faerie tales.

This kind of story-telling is quite effective, for the YA market at least, as it cuts down on the tedium of a novel with a beginning, middle and end. I love that these horrific creatures that Dancy faces don't exist in another dimension, and that Dancy does not exactly have any magic powers except for her knife. She's quite often at a disadvantage, only barely scraping out of the messes alive.

Dancy is also an insanely complex character. Why does she obey this angel? Exactly what happened to her mother? Is it, all of it, just in her head? All the monsters try to mess with Dancy's head, but the girl has some spunk. Here's a heroine who is both vulnerable, lonely, and desperate-- but beautiful and kickass at the same time.

The magic in Alabaster is also worth mentioning. There's bottled pain and creatures that ask riddles; ghouls that augur corpses and dead girls and vampires. There's Dancy's terrible, magnificent angel who never helps her. There's the ghost of her mother. There's Kiernan's writing, which is absolutely enchanting. There's lonely highways and boys with silver eyes and a panther in a cage.

If you can get a copy, read Alabaster. Or grab a copy of Dark Horse comics' version of it. Steve Lieber's art is absolutely wonderful.

*The first image used is actually the comic-book, while the black and white one represents the jacket of the hard/paperback collection.

Here are some links to reviews of Alabaster: Wolves:

Reading Graphic Novels's kinda-review
Comic Book Nerds Are Cute

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Comeback Post: Hi again, and How are You? (+free stories)

Remember me? How are you, dear follower? Drop me a line so it doesn't feel like shouting out into empty space. I've missed book-blogging, and hope to get back to it, but I see a few of you have left, there are plenty new faces around, and the YA blogging world is still its fiiiiiine self.

I’m incredibly busy these days, trying to fit in projects and final semester and job interviews and such into a schedule made worse by my writing commitments, but I had to talk about what I was reading and my relationship with Young Adult literature in general.

 I haven’t been reading very much YA these days, basically because I stumbled across writers in an adult genre who I enjoy reading. Granted, I am still very much enamored by fantasy and speculative fiction, and I have been reading a lot of what is called “slipstream” or “weird fiction”, the likes of which you don’t find a lot in YA.

One of my favorite authors at present is Catherynne M Valente. Her writing is incredibly touching and beautiful, drawing from vast sources that stretch from Russian history to Japanese mythology, creation myths to popular culture, film noir to universes populated by intelligent singularities. For all the fantastic characters that populate her pages, Miss Valente can still do sentences like this:

Cassian Uoya-Agostino set the box on the boardroom table. I caused it to sink down into the dark wood. The surface of the table went slack and filled with earth. Roots slid out of it, shoots and green saplings, hard white fruits and golden lacy mushrooms and finally a great forest, reaching up out of the table to hang all the ceiling with night-leaves. Glowworms and heavy, shadowy fruit hung down, each one glittering with a map of our coupled architecture. Ceno held up her arms, and one by one, I detached leaves and sent them settling onto my girl. As they fell, they became butterflies broiling with ghostly chemical color signatures, nuzzling her face, covering her hands. Her mother stared. The forest hummed. A chartreuse and tangerine-colored butterfly alighted on the matriarch’s hair, tentative, unsure, hopeful.

 [From the highly remarkable Silently and Very Fast]

And this is why I love fantasy with all my heart; because it is so unsure, so hopeful, so beautiful in that it makes you dream. The author’s novel Palimpsest, is a speculative fiction triumph. It is incredible, and if anyone is looking to crossover into the adult genre, Palimpsest is a book that gives you the wonder of new ideas and new mythologies as in YA, but does it in a lyrical way that will weave a spell about you. Here are links to 3 free works by Valente, so you can get a taste of her writing.

SILENTLY AND VERY FAST, won the Locus award for best short novella, and was a Hugo and Nebula nominee. For the uninitiated, these are all very prestigious awards in the speculative  genre. This novella tells the story of an artificially-intelligent house-like being called Elefsis, and is wonderful.

THE GIRL WHO RULED FAIRYLAND FOR A LITTLE WHILE, is set in the same world as the author's popular The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in A Ship of Her Own Making and is as wonderful as the book. If you're a Gaiman fan, you will love this.

Here is finally, a collection of three poems, one of which is a Rhysling Award winner. One is a retelling of Rapunzel, one addresses loss and rootlessness through the eyes of the girlfriend of a Russian immigrant, and the last one is both about love and about how we relentlessly destroy the earth in pursuit of precious metals.

Have a read.

Other than that: things are changing in life, but I'd like to come back to blogging about books and writing. I'd like to do more Trifecta, and more reviews. How are you all? Got any great book recommendations? Just want to say hi? Hit the comments!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Trifecta Week 85: Little Monsters

Owing to ridiculous amounts of school-work, I couldn't do Trifecta last week or the weekend, but thank you for the first place on Week Eighty Four, the support spurred me on to think about more plots with the character, and maybe there'll be a book. We shall see.

Obviously, this one is fantasy too, I shall call it Little Monsters.
The word this week is: 

FLY (intransitive verb)

1a : to move in or pass through the air with wings

b : to move through the air or before the wind or through outer space

c : to float, wave, or soar in the air <flags flying at half-mast>

2a : to take flight : flee

b : to fade and disappear : vanish

3a : to move, pass, or spread quickly <rumors were flying>

b : to be moved with sudden extreme emotion <flew into a rage>

c : to seem to pass quickly <the time simply flew>


Sometimes we’re baby dragons, nibbling at a piece of string or wilting flowers with puffs of smoke from our nostrils. Sometimes we’re tiny ants building a giant home with ten storeys and a hundred windows. Once we all planned together and built up ourselves to look like a man— flesh and bone and legs, hands and arms and fingers, little crescent moon nails so white and perfect.

We thought and thought of what he should wear, from the shape of his tie to the little mole on his cheek (that was my best friend Maura: she was so very proud!) and then we walked out of the house and down the rolling green hills and to the train station, and when the first train came,  we only stood and watched the wagons fly past: we were rapt in the shimmering strangeness of it all.

We climbed into the second train and climbed out at the city, and our feet owned the sidewalk and our smile charmed the girls. There was a starlet with a string of rubies around her neck like drops of blood, and she flirted coyly so we bought her dinner (we were the money too: how confused the manager must have been when we fell apart!) and after dinner we bought her wine, and then we stood on the threshold silhouetted by moonlight on one side and candlelight on the other, and she kissed our lips so firmly, and she tasted of strawberries and smoke, and we all fell apart amidst all the kaleidoscopic feelings, and went skitter-scatter over the asphalt. Everybody screamed and the starlet collapsed and we think she had to get therapy later.

The witch was very angry with us when we came back and locked us in a jar for a month and there really was no space and we nearly ate each other.

These days we’re only ever dragons or ants: humans are too much work.


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