Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings – A Book Review

You may remember that my wife and I very much enjoyed Killing Eve, which aired on BBC America.  As is my habit, I had to go check out the source material, which turned out to be a novel entitled Codename Villanelle.

Written by Luke Jennings, this fast-paced, brisk thriller served as the basis for the television show.  However, as you read the book, you’ll notice the show greatly enriched virtually every character.

Villanelle is still present–obviously.  So is Eve.  Konstantin and Niko, too.  Several other characters were adapted into new characters for the show, or outright jettisoned.

The show also used the same general plot.  Villanelle is an international assassin who comes from less than nothing.  Konstantin is her handler.  Eve is a UK agent obsessed with apprehending Villanelle.  Niko is still her husband.  However, Jennings keeps them fairly bare-bones.  Yes, he introduces some of their little idiosyncrasies.  Eve is still something of a social train-wreck.  Villanelle is still a sociopath.  Niko is still incredibly patient and helpful.  But, we seem to just skim the surface of these interesting attributes.  None of them have the charm nor the depth of their televised counterparts.

The novel is very plot driven.  Jennings is incredibly specific with locations, weaponry, procedures, and technology.  There is ample action that moves at a whiplash pace, but, again, the characters are somewhat flat.

I have to wonder if I’m being unfair to the book.  Killing Eve is clearly such a special show, is it unfair to judge the source material too harshly in this case?  Could Killing Eve’s charming, odd, wonderful characters have existed without Jennings groundwork?

Honestly, I don’t think I’m being unfair.  The book was an entertaining read, but it didn’t strike me as monumental.  Without the show, I don’t think it would have made much of an impression on me.  Keep in mind, though, I don’t read much suspense or espionage spy stories.

Frankly, there were times when I thought the book was a little sexually gratuitous.  Jennings makes a point to depict Villanelle as a sexual predator.  He absolutely objectifies her and her prey.  It largely felt unnecessary to me, because it is–again–dealt with at a very shallow level that makes it seem like it’s there only to shock the reader.

If you like quick reads full of detail, action, violence, and suspense, this is the book for you.

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(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

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Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – A Book Review

Neil Gaiman has written an incredibly engaging account of the Norse gods in this slim book.  Often seen as lesser than the Greek gods, I believe the Norse deities are enjoying a resurgence of late primarily thanks to the Marvel Thor movies.  Has Loki ever been more popular than during the last several years?  However, the Thor of the Marvel Universe is most definitely not the Thor of Norse mythology.  Not at all.  If you’re looking for a quick read to gain familiarity with these fascinating beings, Greek Mythology is the book for you.

Though all the names remain the same, Gaiman has written their tales in a more contemporary fashion, one that our modern society will find fluid and easy to comprehend.  Gaiman focuses on the most relevant of the stories, and so you can expect to learn about the major events and figures of the Norse pantheon.

Readers will be surprised to learn that Thor is something of a meathead in his original incarnation, Loki is actually Odin’s blood-brother, and Odin himself is far more dangerous than the movies ever depicted.  You’ll experience trolls, frost giants, serpents, dwarfs, monstrous dogs, and Ragnarok – the fall of the Norse gods.

A quick read, I would have no problem putting this book in the hands of my eight-year-old daughter.  It is not a children’s book, but it’s also not inappropriate for children to read.  As I already said, I can’t imagine a better book to provide a basic knowledge of the Norse gods.

Gaiman is no stranger to Norse mythology, by the way.  Odin is a major player in his novel entitled American Gods (which is soon to appear on STARZ as a television show).  He also uses Thor, Loki, and Odin in his seminal comic book series called The Sandman.

(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

Moonglow by Michael Chabon – A Book Review

While I admit that Michael Chabon is my favorite author and that I’ll read anything he publishes, I won’t go so far as to say that I love every single thing he releases.  Gentlemen 0f the Road missed the mark for me, and Telegraph Avenue simply did not connect to my soul like I thought it would.

On the other hand, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is the book I name when someone asks for my ultimate favorite.  Nearly all of Chabon’s books are the perfect blend of writing prowess and narrative charisma.  He not only writes engaging, relatable stories, but he writes them better from a technical aspect than nearly anyone other contemporary author out there.

So, with all that being said, Moonglow is my second favorite book by Michael Chabon.

Let me tell you a little bit about the plot without spoiling too much.  Essentially, in 1989, Chabon visited his dying grandfather.  Terminal, Chabon’s mother transported the grandfather from his home in Florida to her home in Oakland.  There, while the grandfather fought against death and the painkillers flooding his system, the grandfather did something which had before proven a rare occurrence – he spoke … at great length.

Chabon learned more about his grandfather in that last week of his life than all the years previous.  He learned of his grandfather’s misspent youth, his grandfather’s time in the war, his grandfather’s prison stay, his grandfather’s kinship with the stars, his grandfather’s struggles with fatherhood, his grandfather’s last months in Florida, his grandfather’s obsession with rockets, as well as his grandfather’s passionate love story regarding his grandmother.

Make no mistake, however, this story is not just about the grandfather.  The grandmother quickly becomes a star in this book as well.  Mysterious, emotional, brave, witty, beautiful, and ultimately unbalanced, Chabon’s grandmother is not what she seems – not to Chabon’s grandfather, his mother, or even to the grandmother herself.  In fact, in the end, Chabon is the only one who seems to know the truth about his grandmother.  I won’t tell you why or how.

I love this book because his grandfather is the coolest man to have ever lived.  You can’t help but think of the best aspects of your own father or grandfather as you read this story, and, believe me, he will remind you in some facet of your own paternal role model.  Chabon’s grandfather isn’t perfect, not by any means, but that’s also what makes him so loveable.  Plus, as you well know, much like ourselves, our own fathers and grandfathers are not perfect, either.

Chabon also plays with the narrative style quite a bit in this novel.  In terms of time, it is not linear.  Nothing happens in order, and it’s up to the reader to piece it all together.  But Chabon makes it a fairly seamless task for the reader, and in using such a structure, he ultimately builds mystery, suspense, and provides great emotional payoff.  Chabon’s choices are right on target; his pacing is a joy to experience; his tone, while at times very somber, is also light and warm in a manner that will draw you in and make you happy.  There’s even a great joke about Chabon’s style, delivered from the dying grandfather himself.  Be on the lookout for it.

Furthermore, Chabon makes a point to let you know that while this story actually happened, his novel is fiction.  He’s the first one to admit that he has taken great liberties without too much care or concern.  Some of it is probably word for word truth, and some of it is probably completely fabricated, and the beauty of it is that we, the readers, have no idea how to distinguish one from the other.  And to that I say, “Who cares?”  In my mind, reality is always a matter of perception.  When I read a book, I perceive, interpret, and process the story within my mind, which thus makes the book a part of my own personal reality.  As a result, “fiction” and “nonfiction” become a bit of a moot point when it comes to things like this.

I’d also like to say that this is perhaps the most straight-forward of any Chabon novel I’ve ever read.  Is it well-executed?  Magnificently so!  I laugh with my friends that I don’t believe Chabon used the same sentence structure more than once in the entire thing.  That’s an exaggeration, of course, but he’s that much of a master at writing.  And yet, this novel is easy to digest.  It’s easy to follow.  It’s not rife with metaphor.  It’s got great humor, great sadness, great love, and great action.  Oh, what action!  The World War II parts of this book set my imagination on fire.  In fact, because the grandfather is such an unusual everyman, and because the WWII scenes are so vibrant, I actually gave a copy of this book to my own father for Christmas.  I’m not sure when he read a book last, but he made a point today to tell me how much he’s loving Moonglow.

As we live our lives, they, for the most part, probably don’t seem that varied or interesting.  Yet, by our life’s ending, I’ll warrant most of our stories could fill a book, and I imagine that most of our children or grandchildren would love to read that story and experience who we were at 15, 35, 55, and even 75.  Chabon tapped into something wonderful by utilizing such a concept, and he’s got the talent to make it work.  Moonglow has shot to the top of my list of gifts to give friends, family, and coworkers.  I truly believe it’s a guaranteed good read for any reader.

How good is this book?  The minute I finished it, I turned back to page one and started reading it again.  Even better the second time.

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The Humans – A Book Review

A friend recommended I give The Humans a read, so I thought I’d give it a try.  Written by Matt Haig, The Humans is about a mathematician who is killed and replicated by an alien.  The alien must eradicate anyone the mathematician shared vital information with concerning a breakthrough concerning prime numbers.  The alien’s race believes this revelation will advance humanity beyond its means and lead to utter destruction.

 

What makes this interesting plot all the more so is that we are told the story from the alien’s vantage point.  Funny, endearing, revolting, and oftentimes revealing, The Humans forces us to take a good long look at ourselves and find both the horror and beauty inherent within our species.  In fact, the alien itself learns to love humanity and becomes quite entangled and invested within the life of the mathematician it killed.  I won’t spoil too much, but suffice it to say, the alien is ultimately far better at being human than the mathematician ever was.

 

Each chapter is rather short and the book is a very fast read.  I enjoyed it because of the unique narrative style, though I must admit that the point of view also proved a disservice because I never really connected to the alien.  Of course, I can only presume the author intended this to be the case – after all, how much should we connect to a creature existing in a plane of reality beyond our comprehension?

 

I would certainly recommend The Humans for fans of science fiction, math, and even philosophy.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – A Book Review

Though aimed primarily at young adults, I can attest as a grizzled thirty-seven year old that I adored every single thing about it.

I don’t want to summarize the book for you, plenty of others have already done so, but I can tell you that though this story may not be new in terms of tone or theme, it is absolutely a page-turner.  Rowell delivers two wonderfully developed characters that will, by book’s end, occupy a space in your head and become a part of your existence.  Eleanor and Park will make you angry, they will make you laugh, they will make you giddy with delight, and they will destroy your heart, and you will love them for all of it.  In other words, they are very much like real people.

Beyond the well-rounded characters, Rowell successfully captured the essence of high school love.  She understands the rapture, the awkwardness, the rush, the torment—she understands it all and displays her understanding through Eleanor and Park.  Whether or not you experienced high school love, I know you will find something of yourself in both Eleanor and Park.

Furthermore, I believe by alternating points of view between Eleanor and Park, Rowell found a way to hasten the pace of the story, thus creating tension.  The emotional honesty, the characterization, and the writing execution is truly what makes this book shine.

And there is quite a bit of emotional honesty.  In fact, parts of this book read very autobiographical.  Frankly, I don’t care if Rowell based any of the book on her own life.  I hope not, of course, because Eleanor goes through a lot of very painful things, but I’d be a fool to think children don’t suffer through the things Eleanor does.  If Rowell used her own life as the basis for Eleanor’s, then I say more power to her.  If it all came from her own imagination, then I say her empathy is nearly superhuman and it will serve her well with future books—books I’m certain to read.

Though initially a quirky love story not unlike several other young adult novels, Eleanor & Park rocketed past them and entered a space all its own.  Funny, provoking, enlightening, and heart-breaking, Eleanor and Park invite you into their lives, and you will be both overjoyed and saddened to have visited.

No matter what your age or reading inclinations, I urge you to give this book a chance.

Tell-All by Chuck Palahniuk – A Book Review

Tell-All is about a nearly forgotten Hollywood starlet, her personal assistant, and a younger man who seemingly pretends to love her in order to write a “tell-all” book about their relationship, right up until the moment he kills her.  It is a book that really evokes two strong reactions from me.

The first reaction is one of appreciation and commendation.  Tell-All is a radical departure from Palahniuk’s past work, and I appreciate authors who strive to do something different, especially when they’ve fostered a certain loyalty amongst a specific group of fans.  Furthermore, Tell-All, in the true spirit of its stars, name-drops like you wouldn’t believe.  The technical term for what Palahniuk does is called “allusions,” and he has at least five allusions on each page, in bold print, daring you to disregard them.  Admittedly, most of them I didn’t recognize as they were (apparently) the names of past, well-known actors and actresses.  I also want to mention that Tell-All is funny, but it’s the kind of funny that doesn’t seem funny at the moment.  After you’ve finished the book and gone about your business, it seeps into your mind, and then, as you’re doing something else, you realize just how funny a particular scene was.

Unfortunately, the other reaction is not as positive.  Tell-All is a simple plot, and it tends to get repetitive rather quickly.  And as much as I appreciated the sheer determination to include as many allusions as possible, they sadly became distracting pretty fast.  Tell-All was very slow to start, and there were several moments when I wanted to throw in the towel.  I really and truly didn’t care about any of the characters in this book.

All-in-all, Tell-All is not a particularly enjoyable work, but I do greatly admire Palahniuk for writing something unlike anything he’s ever done before, and I also respect the fact that he completely dedicated himself to the idea of including as many allusions as possible.  To depart from his normal offerings is to risk upsetting a committed, previously established fan-base, and I believe that is both brave and artistically honorable.

First Sketch of the Burnt Ones from Souls Triumphant

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This is my first sketch of the Burnt Ones, Ned’s army of evil doers.  Without revealing too much, they are much more than they seem at first glance.  Oddly enough, they always have a bit of a burnt smell to them as well.  

They have a grudge against Joseph Zadkiel, one he doesn’t remember.  Nonetheless, they will have their revenge as their master, Ned, has his way with Joe’s love, Alessandra.  You can find out what happens in my novel Souls Triumphant.  

These characters and sketches were originally conceived for a short story back in my creative writing class at Illinois State University.  The above notes are from the 1998 journal I used in the class to flesh out ideas.