Friday, December 18

Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer

written by Van Jensen
created and illustrated by Dusty Higgins
SLG Publishing 2009

It's a clever idea for a graphic novel, marred slightly by clunkiness and serialization, but still fun.

Picking up where Collodi's original story left off, Pinocchio is older, only slightly wiser, and still a puppet. No, he wasn't turned into a real boy. And his town is suddenly being culled by dark creatures of the night who seem to be doing the bidding of the Master. Pinocchio has lost his "father" Geppetto to these creatures and now, with the aid of his carpenter friend Cherry and the Blue Fairy, stalks and kills the vampires in town with the aid of stakes he conveniently caries with him in the guise of a nose. While Pinocchio tries to warn the townsfolk the appearance of a pair of familiar-looking businessmen do their best to prove puppet-boy a lair.

Of course, if he were lying his nose would grow, but the townsfolk conveniently overlook this. He is, after all, only a talking puppet. Why would they listen to him anyway?

There's always been something almost Transyvanian about the story of Pinocchio to begin with, and the current vogue of vampires makes this an easy match-up. The storytelling in Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer is a little uneven – secondary characters and antagonists need to have emotional story arcs, I've recently figured out – and the chunky illustration style Higgins uses gets lost in the heavy zipatone, but I'm still left wanting more. For me, this is a good and a bad thing; good that I'm interested in following the story, bad because I hate waiting for serialized books and will generally lose interest by the time the next installment arrives.

At least, I'm assuming there's more to the story here. If not, well, then there's a bigger problem here.

Wednesday, December 16


by Pam Bachorz
Egmont 2009

How do you deal with unruly teens? Send them to live in the mind-controlled community of Candor, Florida.

Oscar's father built Candor in the wake of losing his oldest son. The town is a model community, perfect picket fences and everyone striving for greatness. To achieve this effect Oscar's father built subliminal mind control into the town's architecture, through music constantly playing and reinforcing only the messages he wants.

But Oscar's mother resented her husband's methods and left. Oscar was strong-willed and able to resist the messages long enough to teach himself how to counter-program himself and other rich kids for a price. He's helps a dozen or so kids escape and set himself up a little secret offshore bank account. He could leave any time he wants, but he'd rather help others get out while they can since he can keep up the charade without giving into the messages that totally remove his personality and turn him into a robot like the other teens.

Problems arrive in the guise of a girl, Nia, who fascinates Oscar. She's a hard case, but Oscar eventually convinces her that he's not the model citizen everyone believes and he's slowly preparing her to escape. Because he's in love with her. But Nia's parents don't feel her personality is conforming fast enough and they send her to a special room Oscar's dad has set up where she spends four days having her brain wiped clean of "bad" behavior and replaced by his extreme programming. Once out, Nia is as brainwashed as all the other kids and Oscar decides to risk everything to save her.

Author Bachorz lived in the planned community of Celebration, the "perfect" town created by the Walt Disney Company. If you've seen the Jim Carey movie The Truman Show you can picture this sort of community perfectly, because they filmed the movie there. Superimpose another movie, The Stepford Wives, on top of that and you've pretty much got Candor. Which is not to say it's a bad idea - it totally feeds into the notion teens have about their parents wanting them to be perfect little robots - but it isn't without problems.

Mostly what bothers me is that is the entire community is being fed messages, that would include adults and they wouldn't be able to argue about the treatment of their children (as they do here) because they wouldn't understand it. Oscar's dad, the staff at the hospital, all the adults are somehow immune to this subliminal messaging, and that selectivity just isn't possible in a town where the messages are 24/7. Oscar proves that deprogramming is possible, and the kids who are taken off-message do have to maintain a veneer of still being model Candor citizens for fear of being found out, but there's no sense that the adults are going through this same sort of counter-programming. Oscar's dad, who must maintain control over every aspect of the town's carefully planned existence, could not remain as analytical as he is if he weren't somehow constantly unaffected.

That this detail is never explained (either that or I blinked and I missed it) crushes the novel for me. World building in sci-fi and fantasy, including real world dystopias like Candor, live and die by their ability to not let the world outside the book take over. At every turn I was constantly finding myself pushed out of the narrative and wondering how this was possible, how these people were affected while others were not, and ultimately how a town could be built on mind control by someone without a degree in psychology and be kept secret from the outside world. This last part is most puzzling, as kids who graduate and leave Candor must do so with a pre-recorded set of "messages" to keep them in line else they will suffer from psychosis. One family is reported to have gone on vacation, forgotten their messages, and killed themselves and each other in a hotel as the programming "wore off." It all just doesn't hold up well under close scrutiny.

I ran this book by my resident 13 year old dystopia expert, and while she enjoyed it she had nothing to say about it afterward. This is unusual because most of the time she wants to talk about the Big Ideas that speculative fiction generates. When I posed the question of the adults not being influenced by the messages she had a couple of theories, but nothing that came from the book itself.

A for the idea, C- for the effort.

Tuesday, December 1

Sharp Shot

by Jack Higgins
with Justin Richards
Penguin / Speak 2009

Bond movies were the first place I encountered the idea of a story starting with an action sequence that was unrelated (or tangentially at best) to the rest of the story. The idea was to get the blood pumping with Bond in some perilous chase, have him come out victorious, slide into the title sequence, then into the story at hand.

It's an effective "hook" but what if you took it further. What if you opened with an action prologue set in 1990's Iraq, with British special forces getting ready to blow up a secret nuclear facility. Then jump ahead to today where one of the people from that mission shows up on the doorstep of his former team leader begging to be saved from unknown enemies, which sets off a chase that doesn't let up until the end... with a double assassination threat against two heads of state.

This is set-up for Sharp Shot, the third book in the Jack Higgins series featuring the teenage Chance twins, chips-off-the-block of their Bond-like father, John Chance.

As established in the previous books, Rich and Jade are more than up to the task of international intrigue and quick-witted action. If the plot gets stretched too the edges of credulity the pages burn at a frantic rate

Normally, if you asked me, I'd say I don't generally like these political espionage thrillers. At least not as books – I love this sort of thing as a movie. But I've read all three of the books in this series and I have to say, these things read like relentless action movies. No one is going to confuse these books with literature, but that's not the point; where's the fun of reading if every once in a while you can't just go with the fun?

(this review is also cross-posted over at Guys Lit Wire)