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Archive for the ‘Neil’s Picks’ Category

The 39 StepsThe 39 Steps is an espionage story that has been through several incarnations. It began as a very popular 1915 book by John Buchan, the first of a series of adventures involving Richard Hannay, a resourceful engineer bored with London society, whose life takes a complete turn when someone is murdered in his London flat. Soon he’s on the run, framed for the crime by a mysterious spy organization, and in pursuit of a feisty love interest who’s attracted to him but not buying his wild story.

The novel was immortalized by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock in a 1935 film. This incarnation of The 39 Steps was one of the first films to show some of Hitch’s trademarks, a hyperdramatic style, mistaken identities, mysterious villains, a dapper hero, cross-country chases, long tracking shots, and dashes of quirky humor.

Playwright Patrick Barlow keeps Hitchcock’s plot, but injects it with a love for old-fashioned humor in the style of English music halls and a nostalgia for theater in the days of greasepaint, melodrama, and hokum. The resulting play merrily employs grand old traditions into a show that contemporary audiences will find new and fresh.

Barlow’s adaptation keeps Hannay as the protagonist, but uses just three actors in all of the other parts. One woman plays both the femme fatale and the love interest drawn into Hannay’s mad flight, while two very busy actors play all of the other characters from the film, often changing so quickly that they can’t even leave the stage. The results is a suspenseful thriller made madcap with tongue-in-cheek humor, a screwball romance, references to your favorite Hitchcock films, acrobatic antics, sinister villains, and playful re-imagining of the conventions and language of classic theater.

While I recommend reading Barlow’s play for sheer enjoyment of the language, this story needs to be seen. Barlow employs a minimal set, using just a few moving set pieces, props, light and sound effects, and pantomime to suggest locations ranging from London flats to Scottish country inns, foggy moors to campaign bandstands, even the perilous heights of a towering bridge and a moving train car. The rapid transformations of two actors into a merry-go-round of quirky bystanders, leering villains, and thick-brogued Highlanders has to be seen and heard to be believed.

The Williamsburg Players will bringĀ The 39 Steps to the stage March 12th through 28th in a production directed by the Emmy-winning Abigail Schumann, and featuring local actors David Stallings as Hannay, Annie Lewis as Annabella and Margaret, and Chris Hull and Jordan Wentland as the two chameleon-like “clowns.” If you can’t make that, try searching for The 39 Steps on YouTube to supplement your reading.

Check the WRL catalog for Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps

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Maze RunnerEvoking elements of The Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games, even what was good about the silly old Saturday morning show The Land of the Lost, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner isn’t completely original–it couldn’t be in the crowded field of young adult dystopias–but it’s a fun read that deserves the attention of those who love dystopian action fiction.

The protagonist is a teenager who startles awake to find that he is riding some kind of elevator. At the top, he finds himself surrounded by other teenage boys who seem more interested in taunting than helping a new arrival. It turns out that they are the inhabitants of a small clearing they call the Glade. The Gladers (as the residents call themselves–they have developed a whole new argot) have to grow and raise all of the food they eat, supplemented only by a few supplies that arrive, sometimes with a new resident, via the elevator. It’s a tough existence, and one that has created leaders and outsiders, fast friends and bitter rivals among the boys.

They’re trapped in the Glade, which is surrounded by sheer cliffs. During the day, the cliff walls shift via some hidden mechanism, and openings allow a way out of the Glade, but only access a shifting maze that seems to go nowhere. The elite among the boys, called Runners, spend their days dashing through these mazes trying to map them and find a way out. But even the attempt is perilous. The walls shift again at night, trapping anyone who isn’t back by nightfall, when Grievers, biomechanical horrors, come out and sting or destroy anyone who hasn’t returned to the Glade.

As Thomas, the protagonist, slowly emerges from an amnesiac fog he recalls snippets of memory, in particular that the boys are part of some kind of grand experiment. Dashner unspools a twisting plot rapidly after the opening setup, and readers will find it hard to guess what is coming next. The arrival of the next person to the Glade changes all the rules and raises the stakes for Thomas, his friends, and his rivals.

The Maze Runner is followed by The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure in a trilogy. There’s also a movie series under way, which I found good at capturing the details of the terrain, but perhaps less successful at capturing the story’s suspense or character development.

Check the WRL catalog for The Maze Runner

Or try The Maze Runner as an audiobook on CD

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Hell at the BreechTom Franklin is a logical heir to William Faulkner, or more recently, Cormac McCarthy, powerful writers who explore the violent world of the American South through character-driven historical fiction. Perhaps even more than those other two greats, Franklin derives his tales from real historical events.

The subject of Hell at the Breech is the Mitcham War, fought in rural Alabama in 1897. Comparatively wealthy townfolk had been exploiting sharecroppers, and the resulting resentment boiled over into violence when Arch Bledsoe, a man-of-the-people political candidate, was mysteriously murdered. This killing was used as an excuse for violence by the Hell-at-the-Breech gang, a secret society of thugs who had been terrorizing their sharecropper neighbors into compliance. They went into town in a series of robberies and brutal raids, which in turn inspired a vigilante posse from town to ride roughshod into the countryside, attacking anyone unlucky enough to fall in their path.

Franklin’s novel is given extra dimension by wonderful characters. Tooch Bledsoe is a country Machiavelli, a gifted manipulator of men who leads the Hell-at-the-Breech gang. Mack Burke is a 15-year-old, apprenticed to Tooch under mysterious circumstances to work at his country store. He’s trying to do the right things, but unsure of what those are, and he carries the weight of a secret about the murder of Tooch’s step brother Arch. Billy Waite is the aging, decent sheriff–one of the few power figures from town who isn’t out to exploit the sharecroppers–sent into danger to investigate Bledsoe’s murder. These are the lead characters, but Franklin populates his story with a great variety of larger than life ne’er do wells.

This isn’t for everyone. Franklin will challenge your conception of ethics. There are no easy answers and nobody in his novel is blameless. Violence is a way of life for these people. You know you’re in for a dark ride when the opening chapter concerns a boy being instructed by his mother to drown a sack full of puppies. If you can handle that kind of darkness, you’ll find this a rewarding read, a believable if operatic look at the dark heart of the wild days of early America.

Check the WRL catalog for Hell at the Breech

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GoodhouseBeing a teenage boy is tough enough but for James Goodhouse it’s a disaster. In an alternate future that readers will find very plausible, he’s a student incarcerated in one of the Goodhouse homes. These “schools” are the compulsory homes of boys whose families have genetic markers that make them supposedly prone to violent behavior. They’re supposed to be places of training and rehabilitation, but due to a cynical system that pits each student against the others in a competition for the perks given to proctors, the only training is in the very antisocial behavior the Goodhouse system is supposed to be combating. The boys are also subjected to medical experimentation.

As if this weren’t bad enough, an element of religious fundamentalism is growing in the world outside the Goodhouses. This movement, nicknamed the Zeroes, believes that even the schools are too good for genetically tainted boys. They’d like to cleanse them right off the earth, setting fires to the Goodhouse homes and committing other acts of terror. James has been relocated from an Iowa Goodhouse, burnt to the ground, a fire from which as far as he knows he was the only survivor.

His new Oregon home brings new challenges, as particularly sadistic proctors have fought their way to the top of the student pile. The best way to get by in a Goodhouse is to stay under the radar, but James is getting attention due to his contacts with Bethany, a forward girl with a quick intellect and a rebellious nature who forms an attachment to James that may save him, but more likely will just get him in big trouble.

This novel reminded me somewhat of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, with its futuristic school setting, and the sad trait shared by both books’ students: they’ve absorbed society’s unfair judgment of them and come to believe that they are, indeed, somehow inferior. But while Never Let Me Go simmers slowly, remaining a sad psychological story played in a minor key, Goodhouse explodes into action, finishing in a dizzying stream of external events that suggest sequels are to come. Peyton Marshall has written a doozy of a first novel, a great pick for those looking for the next step after YA successes like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’sĀ  Divergent, or James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. Readers will enjoy the blend of coming-of-age, dystopia, social justice story, and thriller.

Check the WRL catalog for Goodhouse

 

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Hum and the ShiverIn the first decade of the new century, urban fantasy went from a blip on the genre map to a big part of the fantasy fiction market. That success was built on kick-ass heroines modeled after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, quirky casts of characters such as those found in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, or glib modern magicians standing in for the classic noir detective, as in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. The novels featured the creatures of classic horror films–vampires, werewolves, and other monsters–and/or the traditions of the English faerie story–the battle of the seelie and unseelie court beneath the noses of regular mortals–all given a modern twist. At the time, these tropes were fun, and fresh, a great variation on the fat doorstops of epic fantasy.

But like any publishing phenomena, the pattern has been repeated so many times that it’s not so fresh anymore. After reading five or six series that follow the same approach, most readers feel like they had been there, done that.

That’s why it’s such a pleasure to see new takes on contemporary fantasy, and Alex Bledsoe has done just that with his novels about the Tufa people of the east Tennessee mountains. Yes, it’s another variation on the fairy courts, but by displacing the fey into the heart of the Appalachians, casting a wounded American woman soldier as the protagonist, bathing the story in mountain music, and putting Hatfield/McCoy-style feuding at the center of conflict, Bledsoe makes something entirely new.

The story concerns Bronwyn Hyatt, a young woman who went into the Army to escape the pressures of a close-knit family, her reputation as a trouble-making girl, and in particular her dangerously wild ex-boyfriend. But now she’s back from Iraq, a war hero with a shattered leg, knowing instinctually that she has to come to grips with her past and find a way to balance her own needs with her family obligation and destiny.

Two outsiders figure prominently. Craig Chess is a young Methodist preacher trying to build a congregation in the midst of people who don’t take to outsiders. There’s chemistry between him and Bronwyn, but that comes with the danger of provoking Duane, the hair-trigger violent ex-boyfriend who doesn’t want to believe that their relationship is over. Don Swayback is a reporter sent to cover Bronwyn’s return who rediscovers his forgotten family history and his own musical gift.

All of this is set in the mysterious Cloud County, a locale where roads seem to disappear or re-arrange for unwanted strangers. Family traditions run deep, with most divided into one of two feuding camps, united only in their dislike of the outside world. Music lovers will love this world, as the magic is intrinsically connected with its playing.

The story continues in Wisp of a Thing, from 2013, and Long Black Curl, due out this year.

Check the WRL catalog for The Hum and the Shiver

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North RiverIf you’re looking for plot-driven action, for big twists, or a wild climax, look elsewhere. Pete Hamill’s North River is a throwback, a lovely novel with sympathetic characters, steady pacing, a setting that feels lived in, and a story that will break your heart and then mend it again.

Set in 1930s Hell’s Kitchen, North River is the story of Jim Delaney, a doctor who was a little bit old for World War I, but went anyway, and sustained some injuries and emotional damage that stayed with him. When he came home, he found a distant wife who was angry that he had left in the first place. The two continued to drift apart, and as the novel opens, we find Delaney alone. His wife has gone missing and her status is unknown, although everyone fears the worst.

But Delaney doesn’t stay alone for long. His daughter, off on the chase for a revolutionary husband, drops off her toddler son Carlito on Delaney’s doorstep. Delaney is the kind of man who takes care of his entire neighborhood, but taking care of a baby who barely speaks English is another thing, and with help from neighborhood friends, he finds a woman, Rose Verga, to work as his live-in housekeeper and care for the child until he can convince his mother to return.

Over the course of the novel, the three begin to form familial bonds, but Hamill throws many obstacles in their way: a hostile crime boss made enemy by Delaney’s assistance to his rival, an old war friend; the differences of class and culture between Delaney and Rose; the steady, sometimes overwhelming of Delaney’s neighborhood practice and the often illiterate working class people who demand his time; the ghosts of past relationships; and the nagging possibility that Carlito’s mother will return and take him away just as Delaney and Rose have formed parental attachments.

Hamill captures the waning days of Tammany Hall politics, a time now dismissed as “machine” politics, but also an era with a positive side: people were still connected and looked out for each other in a way that modern citizens don’t often understand. These are characters who stay with you long after the book is put aside, larger than life, but completely believable. The story has crime, suspense, romance, and history, something to captivate almost every reader.

If you like audiobooks, I can also recommend that format. Henry Strozier’s voice captures Delaney’s world weariness perfectly and he does well with Rose’s Italian-immigrant English as well.

Check the WRL catalog for North River

Read North River in large print

Or try North River as an audiobook on CD

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Soliloquy to StormtrooperAlas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,

Yet have I taken both uniform and life

From thee. What manner of man wert thou?

A man of infinite jest or cruelty?

 

I’m not normally a fan of the mashup. The book that started the craze, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was well done, but in most of these projects, the best joke is in the title. Ian Doescher has created a happy exception, taking the scripts from George Lucas’s Star Wars films and translating them into iambic pentameter, making books worthy of both the Bard and the droids. It’s a fine marriage, with the melodramatic space opera of Star Wars suited perfectly for Elizabethan language.

The success of the project has encouraged Doescher to continue with the series. The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return are already available, and more are in process. If you know your Shakespeare even a little, you’ll catch references to his famous lines throughout the works, as in the Hamlet reference in the quote above or when Han Solo quips, “Nay not that: the day when Jabba taketh my dear ship/Shall be the day you find me a grave man.”William Shakespeares Star Wars

Doescher tackles the challenges of the project with panache. R2D2, for instance, begins speaking in iambic beeps and squawks, but then switches to Shakespearean asides to complain about the “prating tongue” of his pompous golden friend. These extras add extra dimension to the interior world of beloved characters, perhaps even improving on the original. When the action cannot be conveyed by character speeches, Doescher doesn’t fret, he brings in a chorus to inform the audience of necessary plot developments. The book is graced by illustrations in the style of Elizabethan woodcuts.

You know the story, you know the style, but this combination is clever and executed brilliantly. I suspect smart English teachers will be using these books to great effect for years to come, but why leave the fun for the classroom? Take it home yourself and enjoy the experience all over again.

Check the WRL catalog for William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

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