The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Video Interview with Max Barry!

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

Hello all my children of literature!

I just started school back, hence the lack of updates. BUT, to make it up to you all, I've just posted a video interview with Max Barry. Max Barry is the author of four quirky novels, including Machine Man (which we recently reviewed), and Syrup, which is currently being adapted into a movie.

You all must watch the video below. It's awesome.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

James Halliday was the world’s greatest video game mogul. The pioneer of virtual reality software, OASIS, Halliday transformed the way the world lived their every day lives. People now spend the majority of their days logged into OASIS, traveling, working--even attending school.

When Halliday dies a multi-billionaire with no apparent heirs, he leaves behind a set of clues to a hidden artifact called Halliday’s Egg, somewhere inside OASIS. The Egg could be on any world, in any place, found by anyone. And the finder of the artifact will inherit Halliday’s fortune.

Wade Watts is an eighteen year old gamer living in the slums of modern America. Along with millions of others around the globe, he too has dreams of finding Halliday’s Egg. Armed with an insane amount of geek knowledge, and inherent tech savvy, Wade finds himself suddenly thrust into circumstances he never imagined when he stumbles across the first key to the egg. Now he’s up against monsters, traps, crazy gamers and domineering corporations in the biggest cyber race the world has ever seen.

Ernest Cline’s debut novel, Ready Player One reads like the lovechild of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and an MMORPG. It’s fast, fun, and full of geeky nuggets of unconventional goodness. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Ready Player One is the feel-good sci-fi book of the summer.

Wade’s is a casual, personable, relatable character. Far from perfect, but willing to change. It’s his eagerness and drive that really propels the novel in the first place, and we readers just have to follow along. Not that we mind much.

Plot-wise, Ready Player One is almost always made of pure awesome. At it’s core, it’s a genuinely epic quest through the heart of geekdom that will keep readers both engaged and playing along. There’s a brief lull in the middle of the book, yes. But come on people, I finished it in one sitting. There’s not much to slow you down.

But the magic of Ready Player One really lies in the author’s geek technique and mode of storytelling. Every time Wade is presented with a clue in Halliday’s hunt, readers will scramble to connect the dots right along with him. Sometimes they’ll be able to scrap together some semblance of an answer, and sometimes they’ll have to wait for Wade to figure it out first. But it doesn’t really matter either way. The magic of the book lies in the fact that readers feel involved.

Of course, none of this would’ve worked with Cline’s obvious love and affinity for geek culture (which is also apparent in his film, Fan Boys), and I applaud the author all the more for it. This isn’t to say that the less science-fiction inclined won’t appreciate the book, but those of you with geek cred will enjoy it all the more.

In the end, Ready Player One is a risky sort of novel. In a market currently dominated by dark or dystopian selections, Cline’s debut stands out as a quirky piece of feel-good fiction, and once the sci-fi community catches wind of it, it’s popularity will spread like wildfire.

By the end of the year, every geek with a bookshelf will be asking: “Are you ready, Player One?”

Ready Player One hits shelves this Tuesday. Make sure to run out and get it! NOW!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Machine Man by Max Barry

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

This review first appeared in issue #6 of Bull Spec magazine. It appeared in a collection of half a dozen or so interviews by yours truly, and you should really go check out the magazine. It's pretty spiffy. :D

Also, be sure to check out our video interview with Max!

What is it that makes us human? Is it our collective parts, or our collective self? Is it our emotions and intellect? Is it the things that we do, and the people we love? Max Barry lets readers decide for themselves as they rip through the pages of his latest novel, Machine Man.

Charlie Neumann is emotionally as mechanized and industrialized as his job as an engineer at mega company, Better Future. But when Charlies loses one of his legs in a machinery accident, he takes it upon himself to build a better prosthetic--a biological upgrade--and suddenly finds himself wired into a world on the cusp of creating cosmetic prosthetics and weaponized limbs. And the more in touch he becomes with the people around him, the more fantastic and illusory reality seems.

Max Barry’s dark comedy Machine Man takes Charlie’s prosthetic journey and turns it into something that’s a superhero/comedy hybrid with a character drama on the side.

Plot-wise, Machine Man is at once terrifyingly believable, and utterly absurd. And that’s what makes it magical. The dynamic characters--complete with likeable Prrostheticist Lola, anxious middle manager Cassandra, and insecure security guard, Carl--keep things fresh when the plot slows. Charlie grows from a cardboard engineer/inventor, into a living, breathing creature of the page.

Stylistically, Barry’s writing is bizarrely minimalist and technical, but still humorous and personable--a fact that becomes particularly clear when readers realize that under layers of comedic gold, Machine Man is an emotional story. One that questions not only ethics, but the definition of humanity. Where do we draw the line between mostly-man and mostly-machine? And do these lines change our perceptions of those around us?

Riveting? Yes. Absurd? Yes. Original? Heck yes. Max Barry’s Machine Man is a biting near-future tale that seems all too realistic to discount. We’re living on the cusp of the science-fiction age, my friends. And though literature continues to toe the line between fact and fiction, that line is more and more easily blurred.

Friday, June 17, 2011

An Interview with Steve Hockensmith (Part One)

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

Steve Hockensmith, author of Dreadfully Ever After, sequel to the much-lauded Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was kind enough to stop by The Daily Monocle for an interview. We'll be posting his interview in two parts, due to length.

***

Well, to start things off, I was wondering if you could tell the readers of The Daily Monocle a little bit about yourself?

Oh wow. Okay well, my name is Steve, and I write books, among other things and golly, the books that people might be the most familiar with are the prequel and sequel I did to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls and Dreadfully Ever After. And I’m a Leo, and I have brown eyes, and I like spicy food.

Okay, and about how long have you been writing?

Well, Let me think here. I mean, I have been writing I guess, you know, I’ve been writing since I was about four [years old], which is the same for everybody I guess. Except for you perhaps, I expect that you might’ve been a prodigy.

Laughing: No, no, I wasn’t a prodigy.

Okay. But, for me, I got started around preschool/kindergarten. But when I got serious about it... it wasn’t until I’d been out of college for a few years. I was a journalism major so I knew that I wanted to write for a living, but I tried to be practical about it, and I thought (genius that I was), “Oh, journalism! That’ll be around forever. They’ll always need people to do that kind of stuff.” So that’s the field that I went into.

But in terms of fiction, I didn’t really start--I didn’t really give it a shot--’til I was probably, oh, 23 or 24, or something like that. And I spent some time kind of wondering in the wilderness, trying to figure out what kind of writing I wanted to do. And it wasn’t until, oh gosh, I was around the age of--it was a little bit before I was 30, somewhere in my late 20’s--that I figured out... I sort of stumbled into writing mysteries, and that seemed to do real well for me. And through that door, stumbled into writing RomZomComs: Romantic Zombie Comedies.

So, but, kind of a long answer to your question, I guess I’ve been writing pretty much all my life. You know I was one of those people--and I’m betting you were the same way--that when you got an assignment in schoo, in like fifth grade you know, like “write a sentence with each of your vocabulary words”, I wouldn’t just write a sentence with each of the vocabulary words (‘cause that’s boring), I would write a story with all of the vocabulary words, which would be quite challenging if, you know, “circumnavigate” and “boulder” or whatever, you know a very odd mixture of words. I guess “circumnavigate” and “boulder” wouldn’t be *that* hard, but you might have some very interesting words from which to choose. And it was fun to see how you could put them together, and the teacher would be like, “Uh, Steve, you didn’t have to do that.” and I’d be like “I know!” But, you know, I always had the urge to have fun with words.

Let’s see... what made you want to write “altered classics”, you know with these zombies and such?

Well that would... I wanted to do it because it was an opportunity. I wanted to do it because they *needed* somebody to do it, and I wanted to give it a try. I mean, the story is that there’s this brilliant editor--I believe his title is “associate publisher” now--at Quirk Books and his name is Jason Rekulak. And he’s the guy who actually came up with the idea for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. This would’ve been about three, four years ago. He had this brainstorm and thought: wouldn’t it be fun to take a public domain classic, you know something that’s no longer under copyright--you can have as much fun as you want with [it] and no one will sue you for it--and combine that with some sort of classic element of geek culture. So as I understand, he got a legal pad and drew a line down the middle and on the left hand side he wrote down classic novels, you know “Moby Dick”, and “Vanity Fair” and what have you. And on the *other* side he wrote “Robots”, “Ninjas”, “Vampries”, “Werewolves”, “Pirates” (if I didn’t say pirates already... maybe he wrote it twice, I don’t know.).

So he then started to draw lines, back and forth, connecting them. You know “Moby Dick” and “Pirates”--which, actually, there might be a link but just didn’t have the magic. Or “The Scarlet Letter” and “Mummies”--which would be like “no”. But then there was that magic moment with “Pride and Prejudice” and “Zombies” and a franchise was born. And he hired a guy--Seth Grahame-Smith--who had worked for Quirk before to take that idea and run with it (which he did beautifully). He did it so beautifully though--a massive sensation--and Seth got bucketloads of money from it and could go off and do other things. So, what does one do when one has a hit property?: One extends the branch. So he needed someone to do a prequel and my agent heard they were looking for somebody, so we threw our hat in the ring, and got the gig.

But to take it back to why did I want to do it... From the first time I heard about that magical combination of words: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I thought it sounded hilarious. I thought it was a stroke of genius. And then when I read the book I thought, they [had] pulled it off, it’s a lot of fun. But the thing I would not have wanted to do it--and this is not a knock on anybody who did the mashups--but I would not have wanted to do the mashup. I wouldn’t have wanted to take another writer’s work and stick my little jokes into it. And I’m not denigrating that, I’m just--it was not something I wanted to do. And what appealed to me was that I would be able to take this completely wacky world that had been established and tell new stories in it, and try to kind of make sense of that wacky world, because in the original it’s part of the humor, you just kind of have to go with it. [There are] very incongruous elements: ninjas and zombies that are stuck together and the juxtaposition of those things is funny, but once you try to create a *story* you have to take that world more seriously; you have to make it make sense. And I really liked the idea of that challenge.

Alright.

I’m probably talking way too fast, considering you’re going to have to transcribe this... So my apologies to you for that.

You’re fine. You’re completely fine; I type fast, it’s no problem.

*laughs* Alright cool.

Okay, so were you ever concerned about alienated fans of the Austen work? Or were you pretty much tied in to the mashup already and you weren’t worried about that?

Well it was nice to know that the section of the audience that was going to be offended had been pre-offended. They were already up in arms because they made their feelings known about the first book--the one that Seth did. And there were definitely some haters--there are many out there, in fact. And there you go! They are offended. So what do I have to worry about? The people that are going to hate this concept and get their hackles up about it.. they’re hackled. So I initially didn’t really let it worry me. When I went into it. And yeah, I think that was the way to do it. You can’t write with that kind of fear. It’s an interesting mix because you’re trying to please two very, very different audiences. So that, for me, [was] more of a challenge. Not so much in trying to to offend everybody, but trying to please everybody. Or--not please everybody, because you can’t do that--but you have Austenites, Janeites, Austen fans on the one hand, and the romance fans who would be receptive to this material. And you’ve got horror fans, and zombie fans and those are two very, very different groups of readers. And you had to give them both what they wanted. And that was a challenge, to try and hit that balance. But I wasn’t worried about--I wasn’t worry about anyone coming to my home brandishing pitchforks and torches.

Well that’s good... we wouldn’t want any pitchforks in the way of the writing!

No! That can be very distracting.

Yes. Well, I noticed in addition to all of the blood, guts, gore and Victorian lace, there was a lot of sociopolitical commentary in Dreadfully Ever After. And I was wondering if this was intentional or just a natural byproduct of the setting and the circumstances of the characters?

Well thank you for noticing! Oh, it was 100% intentional that I really felt like with the last book, with Dreadfully Ever After, I did pump up the volume on the social criticism and satire. And that would be because, why do this if you’re not going to have fun with it in that way? Why go to the trouble if you’re not to lend some kind of unique perspective to it? And, I suspect what a lot of Janeites would not like--because what they want is a piece of writing that captures Jane Austen’s view of things and her style of approaching that in prose. And that from the beginning was not what I wanted to do. I’m looking at many of the same things she [Jane] looked at, but I’m looking at them from an American guy’s perspective. Which doesn’t mean it’s a raunchy fart-fest, or anything like that, it just means I just thought “why do this if you can’t bring your own, unique perspective to it?” So I do a lot of poking of fun at the British--or the English, I should probably say. But it’s good humored poking of fun. It’s poking of fun with love. Because I’ve always been an Anglophile. I’ve always loved English culture. But, you know, I think we can all admit--plenty of English who admit this today--there’s things that one could probably point at that are less than admirable in any society, and that would include English society. There were just so many opportunities that the whole “zombie” element provided, to open that up, and have some fun.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Blood Red Road by Moira Young

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

Books--especially YA coming-of-age tales--are often touted as literary journeys. And some, in the most cliched ways, are actual journeys or quests. But rarely does one come across a book like Blood Red Road, which is, in fact, a YA journey novel that avoids the cliche trap.

Brought up in the post-apocalyptic settlement of Silverlake, Saba has lived the whole of her eighteen years in the shadow of her twin brother, Lugh. All of that changes when Lugh is kidnapped by four horsemen arriving in a cloud of dust. Suddenly Saba finds herself on a mad quest to rescue her brother, but she’ll have to brave enslavement, combat, and a host of other obstacles first.

Blood Red Road by debut author Moira Young is visceral, harrowing, and helps fill the battle-shaped gap left by a market saturated with glossy dystopians.

The story itself is in quest-format, but the plot is fresh. How? Young has landed her protagonist in a dusty, ugly post-apocalyptic world that’s part future-esque, and part old west. It isn’t glossy--it isn’t glamorous--and because it is admittedly dark, sets itself apart from other novels on the same shelf.

Young also chooses to take the literary high road, so to speak, and allows her story to operate on two different planes. Rather than falling for the YA device of dumbing her story down, or over explaining, Young respects her readers enough to allow Blood Red Road’s quest factor to operate on both a psychological and physical plane.

Young’s characterization skills are powerful, exhibited in polar personalities as the elusive Lugh, and the rogue, pirate-like Jack. Even Saba herself begins Blood Red Road unlikeable, ungainly and insecure. But by the end of the book, Saba’s strength rivals that of every YA heroine on the shelves.

The only downfall here is the dialect in which Young chooses to write. This self-imposed “limit” doesn’t cripple the story by any means, but the book could’ve been even better had the author allowed herself a more extensive vocabulary and educated manner of speaking. The strange, often intentionally misspelled slang will snag readers who are used to the way words look and feel, and comes across gimmicky, rather than as a point of strength.


They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but Moira Young takes that saying to a new level with Saba and her story. Blood Red Road is daring, different, and challenges its YA contemporaries to raise the bar.