Thursday, February 12, 2009

Review - Koko

by Peter Straub
1989 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

Another day another pretty good novel from World Fantasy Awards... Hold on a moment... Koko wasn't good at all! After a few weeks of books that ranged from "entertainingly good" to "utterly brilliant" it was a shock to run into a book that wasn't good.

At the dedication of the Vietnam War memorial a group of army buddies meet for the first time in years. A pair of killings in south east Asia share some common elements that make them think that someone they knew during the war is responsible. For their own reasons they choose to go after him themselves and bring him home.

I need to say this first: Koko is not a fantasy novel. If I were polite and extended the definition as far as possible, took the prose literally in one or two places where from context it clearly not intended to be, and squinted really hard you might be able to justify it. This is a thriller, a war novel, and a mystery in both content and style. It might contain one ghost for a single page who does nothing for the story or plot assuming that you accept that a grieving father standing at his son's grave after attending a funeral for another child who died in the exact same way seeing someone who he takes for his son grown up isn't just a literary device.

Still, Koko won the World Fantasy Award and I judge books on their own merits, not on how they fit into the context of the award. On those merits Koko fails badly.

Think of every Vietnam cliche you can think of it turns up in Koko. An astoundingly incompetant commanding officer? Naturally there's one that's murderously incompetant. Involved in a covered-up massacre of civilians? Of course they were. An insane slaughter loving soldier? You have to have one of those. The good characters treat the people of Vietnam with respect while the evil ones are all racists who want to kill all of them? Well how else would you be able to tell that things were morally ambiguous?

That segues nicely into the characters and just how poorly they're defined. There's the Lieutenant: in Vietnam he was a short sighted, arrogant, incompetent, racist, self centered loony. Afterward he was a short sighted, arrogant, incompetent, racist, self centered loony. As his character developers he remains a short sighted, arrogant, incompetent, racist, self centered loony. He never changes or develops, he's a joke of a character from the beginning and remains so until the end. The protagonist is a doctor who became a pediatrician because he killed a child. That's the entire depth of his characterization and it sums up Straub's treatment of all of the characters. They're painted in obvious broad strokes, like broad cartoon outlines of real people.

Another issue is the length of the novel: Koko is a 200 hundred page novel in a 600 page binding. Straub pads the novel to the extreme with digressions that do not add to the plot, atmosphere, or characterization. They just spin their wheels letting us know in excruciating detail things like a meeting where the protagonists learn nothing new. Oddly enough the only place where more detail was needed was the Vietnam backstory. Straub spends perhaps forty pages on that backstory giving the reader the barest glimpse of their experiences.

That introduces a second pacing problem with the novel: the mystery of "Koko"'s identity. Thanks to Straub going to the killer's point of view a few times the reader is often several hundred pages ahead of the characters in working out the mystery. While the revelations in unravelling the mystery mean something to the characters they have no weight for the reader because the reader isn't given enough view of the characters to develop any kind of perspective on them. When the suspects have two or three pages of backstory and a two line mention every sixty or seventy pages it's hard to get a grip on why finding some detail out about them later is "shocking".

I can't recommend Koko at all. It a coat tail riding book born out of the re-examination of the Vietnam war that was occurring at the time of its publication (see The Healer's War for another one of those) but it's a faded copy. There are better war memoirs out there if you want that and the thriller portion of Koko isn't any better. It's a bloated, cliche driven mess; there are better ways to spend your time.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Review - Replay

by Ken Grinwood
1988 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

So is that an awful cover or what? Just a note to those who handle cover layout: Microsoft Word is not a valid option.

When a man dies in the late 80's he awakens to find himself returned to his college life in 1963 to live those years over again. He takes advantage of it to become rich and powerful but when the date of his death rolls around again the process starts again and he is once more returned to 1963. As his life repeats he explores the myriad of ways it could have gone with his knowledge of what would come.

This is speculative fiction at its most fundamental: a clever idea and the myriad of consequences of it are explored in depth. Weaker novelists settle for the high concept but Grimwood's concept has very human consequences. The impact is personal and so Grimwood explores how the experiences of replaying ones life over and over changes a person.

This would not have been effective if Grimwood wasn't skilled at crafting characters. The protagonist of Replay starts as an everyman and the reader is with him every step of the way as he changes. Each cycle through his life brings new challenges and developments. His attempts to hold onto what he had before are mixed with attempts to improve and his changing definition of "improvement". It gives the book a heart that it needs to elevate it beyond other more standard fare.

The problem with that character, though, is that there's a lot of time where he's nasty, creepy, and just a bit disturbing such as when he stalks the woman who married him in his original life. If a reader doesn't have the patience to wait for him to change (and he's always changing and not necessarily for the better) then they may get turned off from the book very quickly.

Something I need to mention about the plot is its constantly shifting form. While certain developments progress linearly but each loop of his life is a story of its own. Things shift every thirty to forty pages and Grimwood does an admirable job of juggling the shifting tones. If you're not happy with how the plot is progressing give it twenty pages and it will shift again underneith you and you'll rarely be able to see where things are going.

The worst thing I can say about Replay is that I wasn't impressed by the prose. Grimwood's style is a bit flat and while that's perfectly acceptable it's also not special.

Really that's the worst thing I can say about this novel. Replay is a pretty good book: the concept will hook you, the characters will reel you in, and the plot land you. It's a time travel novel unlike any other and well worth reading.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Review - Coraline

I'm skipping over the continuation of the Nebula reviews for a week because this weekend the long awaited film adaptation of Coraline has finally been released!

Okay, long awaited by me. I'm not really sure how many other people were really waiting for it. The absolutely terrible promotional campaign seems designed to try to drive viewers away (would it really be that much trouble to explain the basic concept in the commercials?). I don't go out to movies very much any more since I can buy the DVD and watch it in comfort for half the price of a movie ticket but of the last four movies I've gone to see three I went to specifically because Neil Gaiman was somehow involved.

So as someone who apparently consumes 75% Neil Gaiman content at the theaters I was inclined to enjoy Coraline. And I did. Oh sure there were some aspects to the adaptation I wasn't thrilled by but there was a lot tweaked for the visual style and pacing that I think worked for the film so that balanced out. I've never been one to hold to the idea that an adaptation must be identical to the original; it's more important to me that the style and themes of the original are represented in a new medium and there I think Coraline is a success.

If you need a plot summary, Coraline is a young girl who has just moved to a remote country house turned apartments. Once there she's bored and ignored by her parents. She also has to deal with zany neighbors. However there is a tiny locked door in the living room that when opened reveals a passage to a house where everything is better. It's a garden of delights on the other side of the passage governed by her "Other Mother" who wants to make Coraline happy in the new world where everyone has buttons for eyes. Naturally that door was locked for good reason.

When I reviewed the novella I mentioned that I was disappointed because it was standard Gaiman fare. It was like Gaiman's greatest hits redone for children; there's nothing wrong with that but as someone who had seen and read a lot of Gaiman's works it just wasn't as interesting as some of his others. In this case I think it's a blessing that there's very little that's been put on the movie screen quite like Coraline. The same general plot (albiet a bit more tidy for the sake of explaining everything) stands out a bit more there.

What everyone will notice about the movie Coraline is the perfect visual styling. The normal world is a washed out grey while the world beyond the door is vibrant and glowing. The Other Mother's "acting" carries a menace that isn't there with the Coraline's real mother despite the two of them having near identical puppets. The subtle changes in tone as the pleasures of the fairy realm turn against Coraline will creep anyone out. And there's one clever peice of design toward the end that was so clever and disturbing that I gasped (you can't miss it; it occupies a good portion of the screen for several extended shots).

The thing that impressed me the most in Coraline is something that I'm not sure everyone would pick up on: the camera is amazingly dynamic. Look at earlier stop motion efforts and you'll see that the camera is pretty lifeless. You'll get occasional pans and zooms but for the most part it just sits there. Cameras just couldn't get close to and move through the sets very well. I'm not a fan of digital photography in films but those smaller cameras allowed director Henry Selick to swoop and curve and dance in and out of the scenes unlike anything ever done before in stop motion animation. He never takes it to the degree that some CGI animators do but he manages to make the whole thing look more lively this way.

Speaking of the camera work I was also intrigued by the use of 3D effects in this film. Selick for the most part takes the opposite approach of most filmmakers working in 3D: he uses it to give the screen depth rather than emerging from it. So instead of having someone thrust toward the camera every few minutes he frames his shot so that the viewer gets more a perspective of remoteness. Unfortunately the 3D effects also make some of his impressive camera work more blurry than it needs to be but I found it a refreshing approach to the concept.

I can't end this review without complimenting the cast. The lack of stunt casting for the characters was a welcome change for me; in my experience selecting people for how well known they are rather than how well they can voice act is more distracting than entertaining (see just about anything by Dreamworks). The entire cast did a natural job with their characters that helped bring them to life. The stand out has to be Teri Hatcher who has to be both an exasperated mother and and the temptingly sinister Other Mother.

So Coraline really was a good movie. I suspect that it will be ignored in the theaters as most animation that isn't completely watered down and safe for five year olds is. And yet The Nightmare Before Christmas was a box office flop on first release that immediately turned into a cult classic. I foresee the same fate for Coraline.