Sunday, September 30, 2007

I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN by Joanne Greenberg (Hannah Green)

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is Joanne Greenberg's autobiographical novel about her schizophrenia. In it, Deborah, a 16-year-old girl, spends several years in a mental hospital overcoming her illness.

There is little doubt that the story is rooted in personal experience. There seems to be no other way to explain schizophrenia in such minute detail. Emphasis on certain details, particularly with Deborah's parents and Dr. Fried, clearly indicates to the reader that many aspects of the story have not been fictionalized.

There are some problems with the writing. At times, Deborah reads people, both doctors and patients, in impossible detail that is annoying rather than profound. Just when the reader has decided, "Wow, maybe Deborah should be a psychiatrist," we're immediately told how Deborah never knew why many people disliked her.

The dialogue is also problematic. Deborah certainly doesn't talk like the average 16-year-old, which is fine, but everybody else in the book is similarly refined and sophisticated. The dialogue is stilted. This, combined with the author's narrative style, causes the book to come across as pretentious from time to time.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden starts out promisingly enough, but after its first third it becomes rather tedious. The reader may well skim and then skip page after page of internal rambling monologue and dialogue and interaction with other patients that does nothing to advance the story. Ultimately, the novel is boring.

A note: the book also comes across briefly as unfriendly toward both pacifists and Christianity.

Come for the personal insights into mental illness, stay for- well, there's really nothing else to stay for.


Monday, September 17, 2007


The Time Machine is your seminal time-traveler book, and after all this time, it's still a good one. Eight hundred thousand years in the future, Wells makes it very plain that the earth is very hot. Did Mercury crash into the sun, as Wells suggests? Or, was it…GLOBAL WARMING? How very prescient.

I didn't really get into the storyline with the good, moron Smurfs and the underground, cannibal Smurfs. Seemed like Wells was trying to make an evolutionary point on class structure in England at the turn of the last century. Good for him.

Who really thinks the world will still be going eight hundred thousand years from now? Don't we expect Jesus to come back at some point? Or at the very least, won't we use up all the earth's resources or blow ourselves up?

More interesting to me was the main character's trip to the end of time. That kind of cosmic viewpoint helps one put life, the universe and everything in perspective, giant mutant crabs not withstanding.

The Time Machine is a humorous and engaging little work. The funny thing is, in over a hundred years of science and literature, time travel is one plot device that few people have done better at.


Saturday, September 15, 2007


The Island of Dr. Moreau was originally published in 1896. I had not previously read it, nor had I seen any of the several film versions, although I was familiar with the basic story. It has inspired untold variations on the "mad doctor tampers with the laws of nature" theme.

Wells does not really address the hard science of the story, but that really isn't a problem. Going back in time through literature, the "science" in science fiction operated in increasingly broad strokes.

The novel was not as engaging a read as I'd anticipated. One doesn't really feel much if any suspense, although that might have been a different story a hundred years ago.

However, the novel does stick in the mind, almost hauntingly, and causes one to think about some of its themes (beyond the obvious themes of eugenics, genetic engineering, and the ethics of medical research), particularly human nature and what it means to be human. The main character's reactions when he returns to human society are quite interesting.

On an interesting historical note, the publication of this novel coincided with a massive movement to abolish vivisection in Great Britain.

Ultimately, The Island of Dr. Moreau is an engaging read and one of the cornerstones of science fiction.


Sunday, September 9, 2007


The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner is a collection of short stories by Alan Sillitoe. The stories are all vignettes of working class Britons.

The stories are quite well-written, as Sillitoe has a good head for imagery, and he writes dialogue in the vernacular. This is only a problem in the title story, in which the first-person narrator, who is uneducated and barely literate, writes using this lush imagery, which seems unlikely.
The stories have running themes of loneliness and social isolation, often in relation to emotional problems.

The stories are an ocean, fifty years, and quite a bit of socioeconomic status removed from most pampered, middle-class Americans, although the themes on human nature are timeless. There's really not a lot else to say about these stories, perhaps because I am so far removed from them. They are well-written and moderately entertaining, with good insight into the human condition.


Thursday, September 6, 2007

DRAGONS OF THE HIGHLORD SKIES by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Dragons of the Highlord Skies is the second in a trilogy of fill-in novels for the original Chronicles trilogy, which had some narrative gaps due to space constraints. These gaps weren't major, and they didn't wreck the series, and so they come across as somewhat unnecessary. But as I'm a huge fan of the original Weis and Hickman novels, I picked this up. Highlord Skies fills in portions of Dragons of Winter Night. It tells how Kitiara got Lord Soth on her side and how the Companions got the dragon orb out of Icereach.

The longer I spend as a professional writer, the more I tend to read like an editor. I have to say I haven't read any of the other Dragonlance books in a long time (except Dragons of the Dwarven Depths, which also had major editorial issues), so I don't know if the narrative here is significantly different from the old books. There are editorial concerns here as well, including a few things spell-check should have caught, since there some non-words here.

The "previously on Dragonlance…" introduction was nice. I was reminded that the Dragonlance world has some of the best fantasy place and deity names around. Coming up with good ones is a skill in and of itself.

The second thing I noticed is that the narration is heavy-handed and repetitive, as though we can't remember what we read early in this same book, and can't figure out somebody's attitude. The book has a ton of adverbial modifiers (as have all the Weis/Hickman Dragonlance novels), which are generally considered poor writing, and which serve little purpose (it's telling rather than showing). Their use creates a fair number of minor Tom Swifties. "I'm mad," said Tom angrily. See? There are other problems. You can't use the word "capacious" as a descriptor twice in five pages. Put down the thesaurus and walk away.

The authors seem overly sentimental with the characters, who at times seem like caricatures of themselves. You can only go to the well so many times, and it's about dry. Flint never had a lot of depth to him (he just does everything "dourly"). Even Tasslehoff, who seems to appear in every Dragonlance book ever written, has his comic relief styles starting to feel old.

One of the things that makes the book rough to read is that it's bogged down by a lot of characters you don't root for. There's Kitiara, who you don't root for because you already know what happens to her, and there's Derek Crownguard, who you don't root for because he's a jerk, an ass and a low-IQ moron who's completely oblivious to the world around him.

The book is slow at the start (there's a reason some of this stuff wasn't in the old books), but picks up nicely at the end, and we get a few humorous moments of "behind the scenes with Fewmaster Toede." But ultimately, the whole book feels unnecessary, because we already know what happens to every character. And Kitiara's ending was lame. All build-up and no payoff.

So this was disappointing. What every really wants is more of everybody's favorite black-hearted hero, Raistlin. Good thing the last book in the trilogy is about him.


Monday, September 3, 2007


I picked up Soon I Will Be Invincible because it was a superhero novel with a completely original cast. I was very excited when I heard about it. I love comic books and I love superheroes.

Soon I Will Be Invincible is written in the first person present tense, and chapters alternate between the viewpoints of Doctor Impossible, supervillain and world's smartest man, and Fatale, rookie cyborg superhero. The main problem with this, beyond the use of the present tense (which doesn't work at all here due to the number of flashbacks), is that there's very little difference between the two characters' narrative voices.

Doctor Impossible never sounds like the world's smartest man. He's not articulate at all. He says stuff like "Shut up! It's the Ice Empire, and it's totally going to work." and "They pretty much forgot about me." With the number of times he says "totally" and "pretty much", he often sounds like Napoleon Dynamite.

Grossman's narrative style doesn't work. He likes weirdly-constructed sentences. He throws strings of words together seemingly at random, like he's trying to do stream-of-consciousness. Sentence fragments abound. They are tacked onto paragraphs. We get lists along the lines of "It was blue, red, green and orange. Yellow." (That's not a quote from the book.) Grossman describes things in detail that the reader has no need to know (and no interest in). We get descriptors that don't fit, like Grossman tried and failed to be "literary", like, "She acts like you'd think a fairy would act - cute and flighty, blond and haughty." These problems are especially glaring because Grossman has chosen to present this in the first person, so we get narrative completely unlike how anyone would talk if they were telling you a story. The dialogue isn't good either; It's corny and wooden.

The bad dialogue compounds the book's style problems. On the one hand, we've got superheroes and supervillains to the absolute silliest extreme, with brightly-colored tights, ridiculous names, and laser beams shooting out of people's eyes. On the other hand, we have every character in the entire book taking everything completely seriously.

Character development doesn't really happen, especially with the non-narrators. We're told early on that Blackwolf is autistic, but he doesn't do a single autistic thing except take five minutes to wash his hands. And while we have tons of backstory on the two narrators, most of it does little to develop their characters or the plot.

There is no plot to speak of, a fact which is made more glaring by the lack of character development. A great deal of the book, particularly early on, is spent reflecting on the past. Everything from Doctor Impossible's past attempts to conquer the world (robot armies, time travel, insect armies, dinosaur armies, fungus armies, fish armies, et cetera) is more interesting than anything that happens in this book.

The editing didn't catch the worst of the writing. We get "Blackwolf stands", "Lily's on her feet, and Blackwolf is, too", and "'...' Blackwolf says, getting to his feet" all within a page, all without Blackwolf ever sitting back down. Only a real superhero can stand up when he's already on his feet. Twice! Can't blame the autism for that one.

Grossman purports that his book is unique because we get "what it feels like to be inside a superpowered body, what heroes and villains are really thinking during a superfight, what they're feeling." It just feels like we've been here before, and none of this is as interesting as it sounds.

Ultimately, Soon I Will Be Invincible is poorly-written and boring. The combination of bad narrative, bad dialogue, undeveloped characters, lack of plot and inconsistent style and tone absolutely sink it. You can get away with a little more of this in a comic book, but this would make a bad comic.