Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The 2012 Summer Reading Spectacular #9

Earlier this week I finished On, Off by Colleen McCullough.  It was one of those books about which I felt ambivalent in the early chapters, but to which I warmed considerably once the proverbial ball was rolling.  Unbeknown to me until after I finished reading, McCullough drew upon her own experience in the fields of medicine and medical research to some extent in crafting this novel about a series of murders linked to a neuroscience facility in Connecticut.

While reading I had some reservations about some things -- McCullough's use of inventory-styled description; timelines, interviews, and interrogations which sometimes called into question the thoroughness of the police department; and the apparent willingness of the protagonist to make assumptions about suspects -- I still found myself interested in the story and, about halfway through the book, felt my reading build momentum and motivation.

While the characters aren't as well developed, on the whole, as those in recent crime thriller reads from Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø, (perhaps surprising, since McCullough also wrote the character-driven Thorn Birds), they worked and sat suitably in the story.  There are shudderingly horrific revelations about the crimes, but they are handled with tact; there are sufficient clues to allow the reader to play along with the police (I managed to identify the guilty, though I was a bit frustrated that the Lieutenant took longer to grow suspicious than I, a lowly couch-detective).  In the end, my verdict is that it's a solid, if not spectacular, crime novel.

When I first heard of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I was mildly amused and thought little more of it.  When it became a best-seller, I became more interested.  I'd read Jane Austen's novel many years ago and wondered how the added element of zombies might play out, particularly when set in the language of Austen's work among the plot which centres on nineteenth century manners, attractions, morality, and marriage.

And it was surprisingly entertaining, with the Bennet sisters well-versed in the "deadly arts" and acting as protectors of their beloved Hertfordshire community against the hoards of the living dead, or "unmentionables", even as they go about the business of calling upon neighbours and seeking out husbands.

That is to say it was surprisingly entertaining for a time.

The opening paragraph of Seth Grahame-Smith's ... let's call it an adaptation ... is quite a delightful spoof of Austin's opening.

Austen's:  "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Grahame-Smith's:  "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.  Never was this more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead."

The problem is that once going, Grahame-Smith isn't quite sure to do with the zombies.  There are a few wonderful scenes that marry this concept with the material -- a dinner party interrupted by a necessary slaughter of the undead, though a few among the living meet a bloody end along the way -- but after a point, Grahame-Smith just doesn't know what to do with the idea that he has committed to (or, more accurately, been committed to, as he was approached by the publishers to create the adaptation in the first place).  The story is more about exploiting the idea that the Bennet sisters (and Elizabeth, in particular), are masterful killing machines than about the zombie threat.  Indeed, there is a shark, and it is jumped surprisingly early in the book (on page 132, to be precise).

What started as an amusing spoof and homage to the styles of language and manners in Austen's work simply becomes arduous.  By the final third of the book, I was wishing I was just reading the original again, as it would have been more purposeful and focused.  I have no need of reading the prequel nor the sequel which have since been created by other authors sucked in by the publisher.

Finally, and most upliftingly, I read Wonderstruck, the latest marriage of text and images by Brian Selznick, author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Ben, in 1977, is mourning the death of his mother and, following an accident that leaves him deaf, becomes obsessed with finding the father about which he has known nothing.  Rose, in 1927, is fascinated by a silent film star about whom she keeps a scrapbook. The two stories, one told in words and one in images, are presented in tandem until, inevitably, they become interlaced.

Selznick's copious illustrations capture a cinematic style, making extensive and thoughtful use of framing and composition, and he's expert at storytelling with simple images.  If there is a criticism to be made, it's that he seems to have difficulty capturing movement of his human figures, and perhaps that his characters tend to be too consistently possess wide-eyed expressions, but the truth is that these are minor complaints when set within his visual storytelling.  His style is very different from that required by the usual graphic novel, where movement and activity in images take the place of most narrative text and therefore require the energy and punch to sustain the audience from cover-to-cover.

Wonderstruck is a worthy follow-up to Hugo Cabret and, while it may be a story told at a gentler pace, it breaks new ground for Selznick in structure.  It's a worthwhile read for a young audience, for certain.


albie said...

Ummmm.....it's Austen, actually.

Jerome said...

Yes it is. Fixed.