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In Review: Brave Story

Author: Miyuki Miyabe (Translator: Alexander O. Smith)
Year of publication: 2009

your brain on books rating: 3

Wataru Mitani was rather surprised to discover that the abandoned building down the street from his family’s apartment houses a gateway to another world called Vision.  And he’s not the only one who knows about it; Mitsuru Ashikawa, one of Wataru’s classmates, has not only seen the gateway but stepped through it and has been granted Traveler status so he can move freely throughout Vision.  Wataru and Mitsuru have something else in common, too.  Their families have been torn apart – Mitsuru’s by murder, and Wataru’s by an impending divorce.  When Mitsuru visits Wataru in the middle of the night and hands him a Traveler’s token, Wataru leaves the real world for Vision, and the two boys begin separate quests to the Tower of Destiny in the hope that the Goddess will change their fates.

The problem is, their own destinies are not the only things hanging in the balance.  The very different paths that Wataru and Mitsuru walk on their way to the Tower have serious consequences for the world in which they are Travelers, and Vision may not survive their stay.

Miyabe’s greatest success is the degree to which her characters are well-crafted.  Wataru is believable not just as a young boy in unfamiliar surroundings, but also as the Brave (literally, this is the category of Traveler into which he falls) he turns out to be.  He experiences nearly every emotion during his journey across Vision, and he bears them all with the amount of grace possible for a person of his maturity in increasingly challenging situations.  Wataru’s traveling companions complement him; they are the humor to his sadness, the certainty to his indecisiveness, the fear to his courage.  In contrast, Mitsuru’s cool indifference to the moral conflicts he faces places him at the opposite end of the spectrum: a testament to Miyabe’s range.

Unfortunately, Miyabe’s efforts to write a story that will (or should) endure fall flat once readers look past her characterizations.  Though the plot is interesting, it is disappointingly unoriginal.  Vision is a realm created and influenced by the imaginations of humans who live in the real world.  Wataru is an ordinary boy who accidentally happens upon Vision and subsequently embarks on a quest to reach a distant, sacred tower where a goddess lives.  He wears a pendant that identifies him as one of the Goddess’s chosen and protected Travelers.  At one point, he passes through a region known as the Swamp of Grief.

Sound familiar?

You’re right – it’s The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende.  Wataru even manages to find himself a nice dragon friend to fly him around sometimes.  Each of these uncanny similarities to Ende’s revered contribution to the children’s literary canon detracts further from Miyabe’s work, until there is little left to applaud that wasn’t already written by Ende thirty years prior.

Readers with a taste for adventure should certainly give Brave Story a try, but they should measure their expectations; this story doesn’t test the borders of the map.

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In Review: The Last Day of a Condemned Man

Author: Victor Hugo
Year of publication: 1829

your brain on books rating: 3

An unnamed man uses sheets of paper supplied by his prison guards to record the last six weeks of his life before he faces execution for a crime never fully detailed.  In this short narrative, he chronicles his day-to-day musings in his cramped cell and notes the drudgery of prison life that is punctuated only by the occasional, brief period in which he has the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the world moving on without him from a barred window.  With an ever-present sentry watching him from the hall as his only companion, the prisoner eventually realizes exactly what he is losing as the shadow of La Guillotine grows darker and the Place de Grève awaits.

The Last Day of a Condemned Man is presented as a real document written by the protagonist and found after his execution.  This type of presentation was a common trend for the time period, in which authors concealed themselves behind purportedly real but actually fictional protagonist-writers or posed as record-keepers for the experiences of the same (think Edgar Allan Poe’s sole novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym).  Hugo’s name was almost certainly attached to this short novel upon publication, but he, himself, was not as well-known at the time as he would be in the years that followed – The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was not published until 1831 and Les Misérables not until 1862.  However, even superficially positioning the protagonist as a real prisoner and Hugo or the novel’s editor as the finders of the historical record would make less threatening a work that had the potential to be greatly controversial in France at the time; The Last Day of a Condemned Man is first and foremost a compelling piece of social commentary that raises questions about the morality of capital punishment by bringing the emotional tolls of a death sentence to light.

Hugo successfully harnesses the protagonist’s growing dread of the Place de Grève as a tool to coerce pro-capital punishment readers into absorbing the prisoner’s trauma before they realize they’d rather turn the other cheek.  The prisoner does not garner much sympathy at the start of the narrative, going so far as to state that he would prefer death to the alternative: life working in the galleys.  But as his six-week stay of execution dwindles – the appeals process was much shorter back then – the reality of his situation dawns upon him with the harsh brightness of, well, the morning sun on La Guillotine’s polished blade.

The humiliation at the prospect of having the townspeople gawk at his decapitation, the anxiety when he thinks of his young daughter growing up without him – these confessions transform the protagonist’s primary role from that of just another convicted criminal to that of a man with whom readers can relate.  Even the fact that his crime remains vague is key for Hugo’s goal; the lack of focus on what the protagonist has done makes the crime unimportant.  The ordeal he faces now overshadows all else, pushing readers’ attention toward his pain.  His desperation crescendos in his final hours, but his final plea for five more minutes to wait for a possible pardon does not lessen his character in our eyes.  The contrast between this groveling, broken man and the indifferent convict from the initial courtroom scene does more to convince us that capital punishment is cruel and unusual than that the protagonist is a coward who cannot face the consequences of his actions.

The merit of this work is the high quality of Hugo’s writing and his ability to argue against capital punishment without ever criticizing it outright.  However, readers should be prepared to find that there is little plot to speak of – a necessary evil of narration from a man locked in an eight-foot-square room  – which can make the story less enjoyable for those who prefer a faster-paced narrative.  The novel’s brevity lightens this blow.

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In Review: Bag of Bones

Author: Stephen King
Year of publication: 1998

your brain on books rating: 3

I have to preface this review by stating up front that I am a huge fan of Stephen King.  I could give you five reasons why It is one of the greatest works of literature of the last 30 years.  In my world, Springtime is King-time, because during the spring of my senior year of high school I read one of his books, and I liked it, so I kept doing it.  I’m big on tradition.

With that said, let’s get down to it.

Mike Noonan, famous author and resident of Derry, Maine, becomes a widower when his wife, Johanna, drops dead of an aneurysm in a parking lot.  His subsequent grief gives him extreme writer’s block to the extent that he can’t even open his computer’s word processor without getting physically ill.  There are nightmares, too – about Johanna and their lake house, Sara Laughs, named for the 1930s jazz singer Sara Tidwell who vanished from the area under mysterious circumstances.  Whether out of curiosity or desperation to face his fears and be rid of them, Noonan moves to Sara Laughs, where he soon gets the feeling that he’s not alone.

But that sometimes spooky, often chummy who’s-rearranging-my-refrigerator-magnets feeling is limited to the house.  Noonan accidentally – and later, intentionally – gets involved in a custody battle over little Kyra Devore, whose mother, Mattie Devore, is the widowed daughter-in-law of computer mogul Max Devore.  The longtime residents of the lake town turn their backs on Noonan out of fear of and loyalty to Max, who might also know a thing or two about what happened to Tidwell back in the day.  In a series of events that range from uncomfortable to haunting, the eye of the storm focuses on Kyra as Noonan is left to deal with Sara on his own; and she wants revenge.

Noonan is well-written, as he should be – we’ve met him before.  The middle-aged, reasonably successful but currently foundering writer who’s facing some fairly vicious inner (and outer) demons is not a new protagonist for loyal readers of King’s work.  Mike Noonan, Bill Denbrough (It), Mort Rainey (Secret Window, Secret Garden), Paul Sheldon (Misery), and Jack Torrence (The Shining) could probably form a support group and find some more of King’s brain children to join them.  I’ll say it only because it seems like he’s daring us to ask: King, are you projecting?

Still, Noonan’s believable, even if readers would be a little more impressed if they hadn’t already gotten to know him under several other names.  The protagonist, as well as the other characters, aren’t the main issue here.  It’s the progression of the story that really puts a damper on the reading experience.

Most stories follow a basic three act structure, adapted from the more classic five act structure of centuries past.  These three acts are comprised of the set-up (character introduction, general back-story, and the inciting moment that leads to the central conflict), the confrontation (the rising action, in which the protagonist tries to resolve the conflict) and the resolution (the climax during which the conflict is finally resolved and the subsequent tying up of any loose ends).  In other words, it looks a little something like this:

However, in Bag of Bones, King’s set-up is excessive.  Years pass before Noonan even decides to go to Sara Laughs, where all of the conflict takes place.  During this time, readers are treated to Noonan trying again and again to write, failing each time in succession, and instead mailing his agent manuscripts he had stockpiled from happier times.  To be blunt, I don’t think all of those words were necessary, to the tune of at least 30-50 pages.

The resolution is also problematic, mainly in that there isn’t much of one.  Once readers get past the set-up and arrive at Sara Laughs with Noonan, King builds and builds and builds his story only to peter out right after the climax.  Readers might wonder if, after all of the excitement had passed, King tired of his own work and just wanted to wrap it up.  I’m not asking for another six chapters, but the ending is too abrupt as it stands, leaving King with a three act story arc that even looks unpleasant:

There is one more warning that potential readers should also heed: let go of your expectations.  In many of King’s other works, such a warning might conjure images of monsters never before imagined, but not here.  And that’s not a good thing.  As the true master of horror, King doesn’t deliver on the promise that his previous works have established; readers will hang on in the hope of being treated to another tale of extraordinary terror, but they may be disappointed to find that Bag of Bones is just another ghost story.

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