Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Crashing Eden by Michael Sussman (YA/Urban Fantasy Debut)

I had never heard of this novel – naturally as I do not follow YA/MG novels unless of course they are like hot-on-fire runaway international bestseller and probably has like five Hollywood studios fighting over movie rights ( The Hunger Games anyone? Or maybe…the Twilight saga?)
So this came out of the blue to me – as Michael reached out to me to check if I was interested in reviewing his debut YA/Urban Fantasy book titled “Crashing Eden” – the hook was, how would it be if we regained Paradise? I jumped for it. Two reasons:
a.   a.  This was going be my first foray into “Urban Fantasy” realm as I have not yet really been caught with that bug. 
b.        b.This was kind of like the first ARC Copy I was getting direct from an author.

A minor one, if not very instrumental, was Michael’s casual mention that the book also featured an “Indian” as a central character. It piqued my curiosity but I decided to play it professional and not get influenced by my origins (Ha! Ha!)

So here was the official blurb on “Crashing Eden”:
For one boy and his friends, the path to Paradise comes at a cost—one they may not be prepared to pay.
When a biking accident leaves 17-year-old Joss Kazdan with the ability to hear things others can't, reality as he knows it begins to unravel.
A world of legends exists beyond the ordinary life he's always known, and he is transported to the same Paradise he's studying in World Mythology. But the strange gets even stranger when his new friends build a device that delivers people through the gates of the Garden of Eden.
Now Samael, the Creator God, is furious. As Samael rains down his apocalyptic devastation on the ecstasy-seeking teens, Joss and his companions must find a way to appease Samael—or the world will be destroyed forever.
My thoughts:

I had no idea what to expect as this was new territory for me. For the first 50-odd pages, it was easy light reading – getting dragged into the depths of this seething cauldron that is 17-year old Joss Kazdan’s troubled angst-ridden mind. The hurt, the anger and the frustration of a teenager misunderstood by the world and hell bent on the path to self destruction – is wonderfully wrought out by Michael’s easy flowing prose and I was slowly beginning to enjoy this ride.
The initial portions deals very authoritatively with the usual issues that teenagers deal with – love, confusion, guilt, devil-may-care attitude. To make things interesting, having chosen a first person narrative through Joss, we find him to be a shade darker than your normal teenager and as we dwell deeper we find the tons of issues he is grappling with in his daily life. I was waiting to be hit by an asteroid that might fuel things up and take me to the next level with the bike accident – as the blurb promised me that Joss starts to experience things a bit differently.
However the pace never picks up – the same easy going feel laps over into this section as well. I didn’t feel euphoric or any urgency as the life-changing event for Joss happened. The “ability to hear things others can’t” – this secret, I must admit, was very creatively chosen and nicely put forth that forms a central part to the entire plot. This ability puts him in touch with the “nicer” aspects of his life and he decides to spread the good cheer among his friends. All these made me feel I was watching a TV soap about college kids.
Michael builds up the mythology pretty nicely – the research shines through – and manages to seamlessly weave in motifs of religion and theology into the fabric of things. There is a lot of religious themes in the book and these parts are very smoothly done.
In terms of characters, Joss clearly stood out – as he is the tour de force in the entire book. The others clearly pale in comparison to this 17-year old who’s got issues larger than world peace and the environment to deal with in his mind. I was pleasantly surprised with the authentic feel to the Indian character, Shakti who befriends Joss and is instrumental in changing his life. There are a bunch of others, including Joss’s girlfriend, Alessa, his sister Callie, his parents, his school friends but these kind of remained in the shadows like cardboard effigies – with stereotyped dialogues and mannerisms.
The easy summer toy-train kind of pacing never picks up until the last couple of chapters. While initially the pacing works as it’s probably one of the lightest easiest reads I’ve done in ages, it backfired as I expected the conflicts to come in and turn the pace frantic. I was disappointed; however the author packs in an elegant closure to the conflicts built on some fantastical elements spiced up with religious themes that redeemed the book for me in the end.
I liked the ending and I rooted for Joss, the troubled kid at the centre of the universe. A YA-debut with its own set of flaws, especially with respect to plotting (some logical holes which I decided to overlook keeping in with the fact that the audience is the YA and they wouldn’t mind taking those leaps of faith to keep the coherence intact)but the high point is that it definitely transported me back to my teenage days – when I loved reading racy books with a teenage protagonist at the centre of saving our universe allowing us to live out our wildest dreams (including that of having attained perfection or paradise! ) And am sure this will strike the right chord with the YA audience. 

A solid 3-star for the entertainment and for having given us a wonderful 17-year old protagonist, flawed and at the same time heroic.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Requests for Review

You all know I had started this blog purely to keep track of my interests in speculative fiction ( of course secretly hoping that someday I become a hugely successful blogger and win the "Hugo" of SFF Book Blogs!!)

But yesterday, I hit the ceiling when a newbie author reached out to me to have his book reviewed. I was ecstatic. I have no idea where Michael got my reference from, but Heehaw! I got my first "unofficial" ARC kinda copy ( ahem  it ain't ARC, but what the heck, when I am self-pimping myself to glory and gold.....)
and am sitting down to finish this one.

A YA/urban fantasy/cross-over - firmly speculative fiction though - with a very interesting premise to it - What happens if we were to "re-discover" the lost Paradise or Eden as its called here? told from a first person narrative, this book till now has been a fun ride though still too early for anything significant to break loose and scream "Got You!"

Look forward to my review on "Crashing Eden" by Michael Sussman on the blog. Coming right up!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Leviathan Wakes by James S A Corey: Book Review

Wanting to take a break from an overdose of “Gritty realistic” fantasy – I decided to try the hugely successful Hugo-nominated space opera, Leviathan Wakes by James S A Corey that came out last year (2011) and was definitely the toast of the entire SFF Community for over a year. True to all its hype, awards and favorable reviews on the net, this book was a rip roaring fun ride with all stops pulled out. A sweeping space opera that brings back the joy of light-hearted science fiction with the just the right bit of intellectual overdose but a lot of character-driven drama that forces you to think and digest the believable premise to the story. This book forms part One of a series called The Expanse, with two more on its way ( part-II, Caliban’s War is out even as I write this and I believe the Epstein-drive powered space joy-ride takes readers to the next level!) 

The Expanse is set in a time-frame where space travel to the far out galaxies is still a science-fiction dream, but humans have gone out to start living on Mars and the belt of asteroids, moons between Jupiter and Saturn. Peppered with interesting org names like the OPA (Outer Planetary Alliance), the first book introduces us to the Earthsters & Martians known as the inner planets and the far out people living on the Belt. It sets up quite nicely the beliefs, philosophies and conflicts between these set of people that is relevant to the basis of the series. Government clashes, political intrigues, nuke explosions, space – chases, gun fights and zombies – a heady concoction of all this in a light SF-esque base, this describes the Leviathan Wakes best. 

It’s at heart a character study of the two men, Holden and Miller around whom is pivoted the entire plot. As different as chalk and cheese, it’s the crackling interactions between these two that make up for most of the golden moments in the book. Wit and sarcasm as sharp as the acetylene-cutting torches used in space drives, the conflicting mental make-up of the two heroes drives the book forward.
Holden is your quintessential hero, smooth talking, good looking hero material with a heart of gold and a righteous conscience hardwired in ethics of black and white. At the beginning of the story, he’s the XO (Exec Office, something like a second in command or First Mate) of this space ship freighter that lugs ice from the moons of Saturn back to space stations in need at the Belt. The story goes on an Epstein-powered high speed drive once this harmless freighter locates an abandoned space ship that looks to have been attacked and boarded on by pirates. The ship is attacked by a stealth ship and everybody on board the freighter is killed. Holden and four of his immediate crew escape. Holden relays this dastardly act to the entire galaxy  - making it seem like a Martian naval fleet attack.
Back on the Belt, Miller who is a detective on board one of the Belter space stations, responsible for peace and security gets a new case: tracing a missing girl. the complications arise when he realizes the missing girl had been a passenger aboard the abandoned ship that was attacked and boarded on in the middle of nowhere – which Holden’s crew had stumbled upon. 

Authors weave in an air of mystery/noire into the proceedings with Miller tracking down the clues and piecing together what happened aboard the abandoned space ship and why was Holden’s crew attacked. Meanwhile Holden on the run from unknown assailants – join hands with Miller and they unearth a deadly secret that might spill out from the Belt and engulf the whole galaxy. A secret for which they are being hunted by powerful organizations who would stop at nothing. From here on, the tale just blows over at a scorching pace till the jigsaw puzzle is put together at the end.
The authors go subtle, dropping hints and not revealing the entire master plot and this kept me hooked on pretty fine. The detective’s best qualities are perhaps his detachedness and a grim sense of realism that keeps him and the entire Holden crew alive through the book. A dour faced drunken loser with little or no hopes of human salvation, Miller is a far more interesting character than Holden. I found him to be much more engaging but clearly, Holden is the star of the book for the authors, for he is the character that grows up and evolves through the book. The others are all well etched out – a winner for me is the sinister Colonel Fred Johnson – whom we don’t really know if he is evil or a savior of humanity. The author keeps the suspense till the end. I did find bits a little boring – but as the boredom tended to slip down a slope and gather momentum, the authors would kick in with a new tit bit that would make my ship soar again. Very well written, brilliantly paced plot.
The authors have set out to write just that. A lucid old fashioned space opera that is RARE these days – keeping things simple and shooting straight. Thank you for introducing me to the Expanse. Would definitely be on the ride for the rest of the exploration. Five stars.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

We’ve all been enthralled by the beautiful story of Snow-white and the Seven Dwarfs and Prince Charming – when we were growing up
Only fitting that we get Snow-white and the Huntsman – a grown up version of the same story – albeit in a much darker vein – a stunning visual treat. Fantastic cinematography that will steal your heart and transport you to fairy land. That is the rich impression you take away when the end credits roll.

And of course, there is the gorgeous Charlize Theron. We can’t get enough of her in this movie – she truly takes the cake. The best costume (oh remember that sheer jaw-dropping black oozing gown melting and flowing on the floor while she’s writhing in pain? Oh wait, am getting ahead of myself hereJ ), the best lines and of course some of the best camera shots and special effects. A good villain always makes the hero ( in this case, heroine!) look good. Remember Joker? Here Charlize Theron as the evil queen wins the applause – she’s pure evil. Black, menacing, unforgettable. Brilliant performance towering head and shoulders above the rest of the cast.

A grim bleak setting of a stone castle by the sea forms the centre of the power struggle where black tides are about to drown the kingdom. A young helpless girl is taken in by the King – ahem, he is captivated by the doe eyes and that blond hair, not withstanding a lovely show of the legs – the girl unfortunately for the king is a Man-eater ( or should I say, Hater?) who kills him on their first night bed and then invites the enemy to take over the kingdom. Queen Ravenna (what a name! does it bring you visuals of black ravens screeching like possessed witches? You might just be right!) devours pretty young girls for their beauty and stays forever looking young, beautiful and bitchy. She shuts up the king’s young daughter in the highest tower and kills everybody else in the kingdom. Times fly and the young thing grows up to be Kirsten Stewart (the pale stone-washed Bella from Twilight with bugs-bunny teeth and zero expressions ) – our Heroine Snow White. My opinion: Kirsten Stewart plays a zombie snow white – a little washed out and definitely NOT the embodiment of everything pure white and innocent. That’s one casting I would say they definitely got wrong. We were debating who else would have fit the bill the entire time. Natalie Portman? Keira Knightly? Blake Lively? Sigh. Even Kirsten Dunst would have been better? But to her credit, she puts some weight behind the final action scenes – kinda reminded me of Kate Beckinsale’s Underworld character.  But altogether, am willing to forgive the director this slip-up. Coz even though she gets to play the titular character, this story wasn’t about Snow White.

She escapes and heads out into the Dark Forest; the Queen sends out a drunk shifty huntsman to hunt her down. In our childhood versions, this character is hardly worth an eye-blink. An older fellow who takes pity on the young innocent girl. But here he gets a full blown role. We got the charming Chris Hermsworth playing the huntsman, out to woo the ladies with his drop-me-dead blue eyes and long dreadlocks tied up in a pony. But really, he does not get much to do. He keeps mooning over his dead wife and gets to swing a mean axe and hack through mail chain and armor spilling blood. But wait, it gets interesting. It goes into a love triangle as a long forgotten prince ( remember the Prince Charming who kisses Snow White from her death sleep?) – Son of the duke loyal to the King and her playmate from childhood, comes back into action. A wicket bowman who can shoot down almost anything. Sam Clafiflin plays the lover boy and plays it reasonably well. The good thing is the love triangle is not resolved. In the sequel perhaps? Into this confused mix, come in the large hearted Dwarfs – seven of them with their great straggly beards and gruff demeanor who fall for the pretty Snow White. Does this rag tag bunch finally get their revenge against their Evil Queen? This is what we get to know as the movie hurtles to a screaming climax with the final raid against the stone castle by the sea.

It’s a hodgepodge of a lot of little things – sadly left unexplored fully. But personally, I loved it. For all it’s unfinished themes, I came away a happy camper. I love these dark grim tales. And it don’t come darker and meaner than this movie. ( hasn’t in a long time!)

The show stealer was definitely the Evil Queen and the brilliant camera work! Gawd! Some scenes were mind-blowing and eerily haunting – a pale Queen dripping milky white and disappearing into the milk bath complete with her iron-black crown.  Three drops of blood splashing onto the niveous white carpet of snow laid out at the start of the movie. The movie ends with the same three drops of blood splattering onto a bleak stony castle floor. When the queen explodes into a murder of screeching black ravens. The fairy land and beautiful greenery dotted with the most amazing looking animals. Fantastic animation effects. 

A word for the newbie director: Rupert Sanders. We're gonna hear a lot more of this guy for sure! What visual flair.

Go watch for Charlize Theron. And for the funky animation effects guaranteed to blow your minds. And of course a grim re-telling of your favorite fairy tale.