John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Library books

I really ought to make more use of the local library: they have a pretty good selection, it's free, and it lets me try out things that I wouldn't normally read. The only snag is that it can be difficult to get there during opening hours. Anyway, here are my thoughts on the books I borrowed recently.

Superman: Critical Condition (J.M. DeMatteis, Joe Kelly, Jeph Loeb, Mark Schultz). This was pretty dire, and it felt like a chore to finish it. Most of the writers have done far better work elsewhere, so this may be an effect of "writing by committee". This paperback is a reprint of some comics from 2000, but Supergirl bears very little resemblance to the way she was portrayed in Peter David's series at that point.

Lex Luthor: Man of Steel (Brian Azzarello). This was better, since at least it tells a coherent story, although I'm not a huge fan of Azzarello's writing. (I bought the first volume of 100 Bullets and it didn't inspire me to read any further.) This TPB collects a series from 2005, and I think I would have got more out of it if I was familiar with the context, i.e. current events in Metropolis from other comics.

The Book of Fate (Brad Meltzer). This was my attempt to diversify a bit, since it's not science-fiction. Admittedly, I picked it up because I liked Meltzer's writing in Identity Crisis (a comic), and I was amused when he included Noah Kuttler ("The Calculator") in his acknowledgements at the start. This book is a political thriller, a bit like some of Clive Cussler's novels, although it's clearly been marketed as if it's the type of thing that Dan Brown would write. In particular, the back cover talks about a 200 year old conspiracy by the Masons, but that's just a lie that someone makes up so that he can persuade a nutjob to work for him. My main problem with this book is that it shifts back and forth between 1st person and 3rd person; it would have been much better to write the whole thing in the 3rd person. However, that's something that I'll elaborate on in another post. Aside from that, it's ok if you accept it as a trashy novel to take on holiday with you, but it's nowhere near as good as Identity Crisis. I have no intention of re-reading it, but I'm willing to try another of his novels if I can find one at the library.

Angel: image (Mel Odom). This is the first Angel (as in Buffy) novel I've read, although I previously read one of Mel Odom's short stories in the first "Tales of the Slayer" anthology. That story was ok, although I think it squandered its potential. It involved a German who became a Watcher during the Great War, and I'd be interested to know how the Watchers handled their divided loyalties, i.e. loyalty to their countries vs their shared cause, but the story didn't address that at all.

As for the Angel novel, I think the basic story could have been made into a reasonable episode of the series; not one of my all-time favourites, but something that I'd be happy to spend an hour watching. However, it was let down by sloppy writing, so I get the impression that everyone concerned just wanted to shove this thing out of the door as soon as possible, rather than taking the time to proof-read it properly.

One quirk of this story is that apparently everyone in Los Angeles knows about demons, which doesn't really fit in with the rest of the series. I'm not just talking about the lawyers at Wolfram and Hart; Angel can walk into a bar, and the first woman he meets will say "So, you're a vampire, huh? The guy you're looking for was talking to a demon last night." The odd thing is, I really liked the end of Buffy season 3, which basically did the same thing (the "Class Protector" award), but it bothered me here.

There are actually two stories going on in this book, which don't have much to do with each other, so the "B story" (about a newspaper blackmailing people) could easily have been chopped out. Again, this shouldn't really bother me; Baywatch used to do that all the time. However, in this case it just seems like a way of padding out the novel, because the main story was too short. As for the main plot, it's set during the second half of season 2, while Wesley is in charge of the agency; the problem is that there are a lot of similarities to the Holtz/Connor storyline in season 3.

The book includes a couple of flashbacks to Angel's time as Angelus, which is reasonable enough. However, the writer doesn't seem to have grasped the character at all. Think about when Angel became Angelus in Buffy season 2, and killed Jenny Calendar; he didn't simply do it because he was hungry, he then went out of his way to upset Giles (leaving a fake trail of roses), out of sheer cruelty. In the book, Angelus and Darla visit Venice in 1815, and come across a couple of guys attacking an artist; Darla tells Angelus that she wants the artist to paint her (since she can't see her reflection any more), so he needs to get rid of the thugs. Now, that's a decent enough explanation for Darla's actions, but Angelus spends several pages trying to negotiate with them, and even offering to pay them off. Why? At this point, he's supposed to be an evil, soulless, demon! I can only assume that the writer doesn't want to give Angel a murky past, which is frankly bizarre.

Later on, Wesley and Cordelia are discussing a demon (p256):

"No," Wesley agreed. "Tharrolves have the ability to look human, usually female, but they can't exist in our world long. Something about the rays from a yellow sun."
"Ah, reverse Superman. I suppose they live on a planet with a red sun."
"According to legend, they live on a plane that has a blue sun."

According to the comics, Superman was born on Krypton (which has a red sun), and gained superpowers when he came to Earth (with a yellow sun). So, Cordelia's reference is quite correct. However, I don't think she's the type of person who would know that. It would be a great line coming from Xander, but in this case it's just been glued onto the nearest character.

There's also some pretty clunky dialogue here. For instance, here's Wesley talking to someone on the phone (p243):

"No," Wesley assured the man. "I wouldn't want our agency's reputation tarnished. Yes, I understand there is a lot of work that can be done in this city by a reputable investigations and security firm. Of course I'd like to see Angel Investigations be that firm."

Now imagine how that conversation would sound if you could hear both sides of it:

Man: "Do you want your agency's reputation tarnished?"
Wesley: "No, I wouldn't want our agency's reputation tarnished."
Man: "You do understand, there's a lot of work that can be done in this city by a reputable investigations and security firm?"
Wesley: "Yes, I understand there is a lot of work that can be done in this city by a reputable investigations and security firm."
Man: "And would you like Angel Investigations to be that firm?"
Wesley: "Of course I'd like to see Angel Investigations be that firm."

Parroting everything like that makes him sound like a complete idiot. The only reason for that is to help the reader fill in the blanks, because if Wesley said "No ... Yes ... Of course" then you wouldn't know what the client had said. In a play, that might be excusable, where there's no easy way to show both ends of the conversation, but in a book I expect the writer to take advantage of the medium.

A couple of pages later, Angel figures out who is responsible for the blackmail (in the B plot), but refuses to tell the others. This makes no sense in the context of the story, so the meta-reason is clearly that the writer wants to keep the readers in suspense a bit longer. I wonder whether there's an antonym for "exposition"? If so, that term would apply here.

Then there's the issue of product placement. In TV/film, it's a bit tricky, because it seems a bit bizarre for characters to live in a world without recognisable brands (i.e. the companies who haven't paid for advertising). In books, there's a bit more flexibility, so you can refer to items without giving an exact description. For instance, you could say that someone is drinking coffee, without needing to show/hide a corporate logo on the cup. Bearing that in mind, consider chapter 19 (pp252-254):

Fatigue pulled at Cordelia's eyelids, threatening to close them. She shook herself back to wakefulness, then reached for the Starbucks cup in front of her. When she picked it up, she noticed that it was empty.
She turned her attention back to the book, tried the empty Starbucks cup again, then stood up.
Cordelia thought that food with her Starbucks coffee would complement each other.

Is the writer being paid to advertise Starbucks? Can we expect more of this in future books, where the characters spend a few pages comparing notes on which brand of laundry detergent works best on demon slime?

Another problem is where the writer couldn't be bothered to keep track of his "props". In chapter 21, there's a flashback to Geneva in 1816, where Angelus and Darla are staying with Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft (later to become Mrs Shelley), etc. Angelus goes wandering in the night, and witnesses a demon confrontation in a cellar. Mary Wollstonecraft also witnesses this, and faints. According to the book (p281):

The cellar hatch opened abruptly and Gabriel dropped down, still holding onto the candle. He stared at Angelus, who held the sword and the shoe.

Hang on, what shoe? I went back and re-read the previous few pages, and there's no mention of Angelus carrying a shoe when he entered the cellar, or picking one up while he was there. On the following page, it turns out that this is Mary's shoe, but there's no mention of her dropping it. In a comic, I'd accept this, because each panel is a frozen moment in time and the reader is expected to fill in the blanks between them. In a book it would have been easy to just add one line, saying that Mary's shoe fell off; however, the writer clearly couldn't be bothered, and nor could his editor.

I realise that I'm nitpicking, but if there are enough small niggles like this then they do add up. Overall, I may read more of Odom's short stories if they come up in anthologies, but I'll give his novels a miss from now on.

Star Trek: Vulcan's Glory (D.C. Fontana). This is one of the "old school" Star Trek novels (published in 1989), i.e. it's independent of all the other Trek novels, but you're expected to be familiar with the TV episodes. This book is about Spock's first mission on the Enterprise (under Captain Pike), and it's a decent enough story. It's been a while since I've seen any of Fontana's episodes, but I remember seeing her name in the credits for some good ones, so I was willing to try out one of her novels, and I think she did a good job with it.

My only real criticism is related to context. For instance, you will benefit from watching the TOS episode "The Cage", so that you can picture Pike and Number One while you read the book; however, if you haven't seen that episode then you can make something up, and that will still work. By contrast, this book has a sub-plot with T'Pring (Spock's fiancee), which is resolved in the episode "Amok Time"; if you haven't seen that episode then it will just seem like a dangling plot thread, and there's nothing in the book (e.g. an afterword) to say "Watch that episode to find out what happens next". Similarly, the book mentions the mystery of Spock's cousin Selek, but never resolves it; you need to watch the animated episode "Yesteryear" (also written by Fontana) to find out who Selek was. I think the best approach would have been to include an appendix with the necessary references; Kurt Busiek did that with some of his comics that were very continuity-heavy (e.g. Avengers Forever), and that worked well.
Tags: books, buffy, comics, star trek

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