Batman: Arkham Origins

Batman Arkham Origins. Developed by Warner Bros. Games Montreal. Published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Batman: Arkham Origins. Developed by Warner Bros. Games Montreal. Published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Batman: Arkham Origins is the third entry in the Batman: Arkham series. The Arkham games have been tremendously successful, and let gamers everywhere know that good Batman video games are possible. We’d been led to believe otherwise for a long, long time (just a warning that the reviewer cusses somewhat in the linked video). Batman: Arkham Origins is a prequel to the excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum, and takes place during the early days of Batman’s crusade against crime and prior to his forming a relationship with the future commissioner of the Gotham City Police Department, James Gordon.

The story begins with Batman’s attempt to thwart the escape of the criminal Black Mask from Blackgate Penitentiary on Christmas Eve. Bats nearly succeeds, but falls just short when Black Mask turns Killer Croc loose on the Caped Crusader. After defeating Killer Croc, Batman learns that Black Mask has hired eight of the world’s deadliest assassins to hunt him down. Batman tracks Black Mask to The Penguin‘s hideout, only to learn that Black Mask himself may not be all that he appears, and lurking behind Black Mask’s shadow is a mysterious and dangerous figure known as The Joker.

Black Mask about to do something torturous to a member of the GCPD. Arkham Origins begins with Batman trying to prevent Black Mask's escape from Blackgate Penitentiary, but all may not be as it seems...

Black Mask about to do something torturous to a member of the GCPD. Arkham Origins begins with Batman trying to prevent Black Mask’s escape from Blackgate Penitentiary, but all may not be as it seems…Image from Game Informer.

The story holds a lot of promise, and for the most part it does a good job in keeping with the series’ tight narrative and character driven focus. It doesn’t succeed on the level that its predecessors did as the developers open a lot of narrative threads at the beginning that often distract from the main story and don’t interweave as tightly as those found in Batman: Arkham City. There are also a lot of side missions that are helpful in terms of allowing the player to gain experience points and upgrade Batman’s moves or tech, but don’t add anything to the story and only serve as distractions from the plot. Still, the story does move along at a decent clip, and comes to a satisfying conclusion that is reminiscent of the ending of Batman Begins. The characters themselves are just as round and dynamic as one would hope from a story having anything to do with Batman. Alfred and Bruce, though allies, are often in disagreement, and they gain an understanding of one another’s feelings through the course of the story. The Joker also gets some great, if lunatic, development that helps players to understand his motivations and his fixation on Batman. And, though minimal, the growth of James Gordon and his daughter Barbara are nice additions.

Gameplay in Arkham Origins is akin to that of its predecessors. Batman is faced with an open-ended, sandbox environment that is quite large and offers players plenty of nooks and crannies to explore and baddies to beatdown. The fighting mechanics are still as top-notch and fluid as they’ve been in the previous games and, once again, it is pure joy to kick butt as Batman. Fan-favorite predator encounters have also made a return. They’re still fun and can be intense though it does seem that the developer tried a little too hard to give players unique or additional challenges. The difficulty also seems to curve a little sharply with the enemies having night-vision goggles, and proximity mines pretty early-on.

Batman facing down Deathstroke in Batman: Arkham Origins. The Arkham series has suffered from lackluster boss battles from its inception.

Batman facing down Deathstroke in Batman: Arkham Origins. The Arkham series has suffered from lackluster boss battles from its inception. Image from Dual Shockers.

One criticism that the series has endured is that of lackluster boss battles. The bosses in Arkham Asylum were pretty much awful. Arkham City did a good job improving the bosses, and the fight against Mr. Freeze is one of the most intense and satisfying boss battles I’ve ever played. The rest were definitely an improvement from those found in Arkham Asylum though they ended up being mostly forgettable. Arkham Origins entices players into thinking that these problems have been addressed when facing Deathstroke early-on in the game. Here is an enemy that is just as skilled, if not moreso, than Batman in personal combat, and it is a wonderful fight though perhaps a touch difficult. Of the five boss fights in Arkham Origins, the fight with Deathstroke is the most memorable. Two more definitely leave an impression and are enjoyable experiences (though nothing to write home about), and the other two are just as bland and disappointing as the boss fights in previous entries in the series. One would think that considering the rogue gallery of the Batman comics that developers could offer up more satisfying boss fights, but, with a few exceptions, they have largely not been able to do so.

One issue that must be addressed regarding gameplay in any review of Batman: Arkham Origins is the loading times. Though the gameplay does a good job of living up to the expectations set by its predecessors, it is unfortunately hampered by long and often unexpected loading times. I understand that the Gotham City of Arkham Origins is a pretty expansive world. If I were to guess I’d say it is around two to three times larger than the world of Arkham City. One would hope that this world would be seamless like many other open-world games out there. However, when entering a new area, players are often greeted with a frozen screen and a loading icon that can last for as long as twenty or thirty seconds. Even when players use the Batwing they’ll sit through a long, cinematic scene of the Batwing flying to its destination that one would think is a loading screen in disguise, such as the elevator sequences in Metroid Prime, only to be greeted with additional loading time when they arrive at their destination. These long and interruptive loading times severely disrupt the flow of the gameplay and only serve to irritate players as they wait, unable to do anything, until the game catches up with them.

Batman

Despite some minor flaws, Batman: Arkham Origins largely holds up to the expectations set by its predecessors. The gameplay and story, while not quite as good as the previous games, are still fun and satisfying. If it weren’t for the long load times impeding players’ progress far more often than should be necessary, Arkham Origins would stand nearly on the same level as the other Arkham titles. The last entry of which, Batman: Arkham Night, is due to arrive this Fall.

We Loves The Bookses Forever!

Last post about books for now. Next up will be video games.

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Published by Square Fish.

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Published by Square Fish.

I’d been hearing great things about Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak ever since I started working with YA literature; one friend even placing it right up with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders in terms of its importance to the YA genre. I stumbled across a copy one day and decided to finally see what all the fuss was about, and I was definitely not disappointed.

Melinda Sordino is a normal teenage girl even if she is a tad on the dorky side. At least she was normal until the party over the summer that she broke up by calling the police. Now Melinda finds herself isolated at school. Her friends shun and mock her and her reputation as a spoilsport casts its shadow over the eyes of other students that don’t know her personally. What Melinda isn’t telling them all is that she had a very good reason for calling the cops the night of the party, but she is too traumatized to be able to say anything about that night. As the months go by, Melinda’s social and academic life continue to deteriorate due to her repressed emotions. But when she notices one of her old friends headed for trouble, Melinda must choose to either speak out or let her friend get hurt.

I was immediately impressed by Speak. Anderson really knows how to write in a voice that is familiar and comfortable to teens, and Melinda is a wonderfully complex character battling demons both within and without. The circumstances for the plot aren’t contrived or unrealistic at all. In fact, the realism is one of the major reasons that I was drawn into this book. What happens to Melinda can happen. It has happened before, and sadly it will continue to happen. Speak is a fantastic book in the sense that it can let the victims of sexual abuse know that they aren’t alone in the world, and that it isn’t shameful for them to let the world know what happened to them.

Justice for the Damned, by Priscilla Royal. Published by Poisoned Pen Press.

Justice for the Damned, by Priscilla Royal. Published by Poisoned Pen Press.

Justice for the Damned is the 4th in Priscilla Royal’s Medieval Mystery series. I first learned of this series while working as an intern at the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press. The novelty of a monk and nun solving murder mysteries in 13th century England was too good to pass up, and I first read the 8th book in the series, A Killing Season, and was pleasantly surprised by it. Royal is an expert at crafting a setting, and, while the mysteries themselves aren’t very complex, the characters are believable and lovable as readers follow them through their struggles and adventures. I was impressed by A Killing Season, so I started reading the series from the 1st book shortly after completing the 8th.

Prioress Eleanor of Tyndale Abbey has returned to her aunt’s home in Amesbury to recover from a deadly fever she’d had during winter. Her friend and healer, Sister Anne, has journeyed with her, and Anne alongside the warming weather of Spring are helping Eleanor to recover. Brother Thomas, the handsome young monk, has also come to Amesbury with Prioress Eleanor and Sister Anne with a mission from his mysterious superiors to investigate rumors that a valuable manuscript is in danger of being stolen. But much more awaits the trio in Amesbury than a recuperative rest and rumors of thievery. Shortly after their arrival, they hear rumors that a vengeful ghost of a local woman (who supposedly committed suicide haunting) the surrounding area. The ghost turns deadly when a man is found beheaded nearby, and Eleanor’s aunt asks the trio to help investigate the murder to determine who or what committed the foul deed. But with Thomas’s own covert mission, and Eleanor’s weakened state, the group will need all the help, divine or otherwise, to protect others and themselves from the murderous specter.

As I already stated, the mysteries in this series are not complex, and, with the small cast of characters and small community, it may be easy for readers to point out the murderer pretty early into the story. Royal does a good job though of giving readers enough red-herrings to keep them occupied. Meanwhile, the Prioress and Brother Thomas are once again facing their own trials. Eleanor laments her physical attraction to Thomas, while Thomas continues to face the consequences of his battle with same-sex attraction. These two characters in particular are richly drawn, and very relatable for readers. A book, or story, will never be good if the characters that populate it are not well-rounded and dynamic, and this book easily succeeds.

That’s it for the books. Next up I’m going to write about Batman: Arkham Origins.

Filthy Little Bookses

Okay, I guess I’m taking the Gollum reference to its logical conclusion, and slowly but surely I’m catching up on all the reading I’ve done over the past six months. I’m actually glad I don’t write about the books my company publishes as I’d never catch up at this point if I did. Rest assured none of the books included in this post are filthy!

William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily a New Hope, by Ian Doescher

William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope, by Ian Doescher. Published by Quirk Books

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, this book really exists. And yes, it is completely and unabashedly nerdy. And yes, it is completely awesome. William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope, by Ian Doescher, answers the age old question of what would happen if the Bard himself had written Star Wars? The answer is simple: an entire trilogy of plays written in blank iambic verse. Guys, there are soliloquies. Darth Vader soliloquizes. Luke gives grand speeches. And Chewbacca, well ok, he still growls and roars, but he does so iambically!

Alright, so how can anyone seriously review this book? Anyone who has been even remotely alive in the last 35 years knows the story, and almost everyone loves it. The complete nerdiness of this book also makes it instantly desirable. While reading it on the train I had numerous people catch sight of it and ask me about it. I live in New York. People only talk to you on the subway if they are extremely drunk, very creepy, or just downright crazy, but completely normal and well-adjusted people politely asked me about this book. I even took the dust jacket and off and people were still asking about it! It just goes to show that this is actually a really fun idea, and what’s more is it actually works out great. Ian Doescher has done a wonderful job rewriting the movie we all know and love into Shakespearean verse, and without the obscure Early Modern English vocabulary.  The dialogue, speeches, and soliloquies are all written with care, and will make readers smirk at the cleverness imbued into each line. William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope is an accessible, enjoyable, and short read for any lover of Star Wars, Shakespeare, or both! And yes, it will be a trilogy. The second entry in the saga, William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back, was released last month, and William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return is expected to go on sale in January.

The Testing, by Joelle Charbonneau. Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.

The Testing, by Joelle Charbonneau. Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.

Since the success of The Hunger Games, many publishers have released similar futuristic, dystopian young adult novels to cash-in. Some of these imitators have been hugely successful in their own right, such as the Divergent series. Others have done okay, and still others have not done well at all. Unfortunately, The Testing, by Joelle Charbonneau, doesn’t leave much of an impression in a market swamped with other books just like it.

Cia Vale is the daughter of a somewhat well-to-do family living in what was once the Midwestern United States. Her father works to remove toxins from the soil and engineer hardy plant life that can grow in the inhospitable landscape of a devastated world. Cia has a loving family, she lives in a small and welcoming community, and though the circumstances of her life aren’t perfect she has little room to complain. That all changes when she is accepted as a Testing candidate that will determine if she will attend university, and go on working to rebuild and rejuvenate her country. Unfortunately for her, the Testing is intense in more than just challenging candidates’ mental faculties. It will also push them to their physical and mental limits, and the punishment for failure is death. The testing culminates in a lengthy survival exercise in which the candidates must travel hundreds of miles back to the capital of the United Commonwealth all while avoiding traps, wild mutant animals, and each other. And even if she survives, Cia won’t remember any of it.

The Testing largely fails right from the beginning. The lives of the people living in Cia’s community, while hard, are not desperate. Cia and her community actually appear to have their lives under control and live seemingly without a Big Brother-ish shadow hanging over their heads. So the first problem with The Testing is that it really doesn’t seem like anything is at stake. The next problem is the overall contrived nature of the plot. If you’re expecting someone to die, this book won’t let you down, and they’ll die gruesomely. Third, and most importantly, it shares way too many similarities to The Hunger Games. Readers could easily replace the names of characters in The Testing with those of TheHunger Games and you’d have essentially the same book. Perhaps this could be said for many other dystopian young adult novels, but they’re more forgivable because they are actually well written. The Testing is not. The prose is every bit as infertile as the toxin-ridden soil surrounding Cia’s home. If you’re hungering (Yes, I just made a stupid pun. Yes, I am ashamed.) for some good dystopian novels like The Hunger Games, I’d recommend skipping The Testing. There are much better books out there.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. Published by William Morrow Books.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. Published by William Morrow Books.

In the world of speculative fantasy, Neil Gaiman reigns supreme. He is the author of the novels Neverwhere and American Gods, and prior to that he was well known as the writer behind DC/Vertigo’s amazing Sandman comic book series that originally ran from 1989 through 1996. Not to mention the numerous children’s books he has written, such as Coraline. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Gaiman’s first novel intended for adult audiences since 2005’s Anansi Boys, and it was well worth the wait.

At the beginning of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, readers learn that the narrator (who is never named), is returning to his childhood home to deliver a funeral eulogy. I don’t remember if it ever says whose funeral he is attending, but that hardly matters. While back on his boyhood stomping grounds, his mind wanders back some fifty years distant when a man was found dead in his car not far from the narrator’s old home. Shortly afterward many strange occurrences begin to happen, which eventually lead to the narrator meeting the Hempstocks, two women and a girl claiming to be a multi-generational family. The narrator soon learns that the Hempstocks are far more than they first appear to be. They are actually ancient creatures or spirits, nearly as old as creation itself, and they protect our reality from encroaches by malevolent beings from realms beyond that of human experience. The narrator tags along with the youngest Hempstock, Lettie, as she journeys into the ether to put a stop to the creature that is causing mischief in the human world, but something neither of them expect happens when the creature buries a portion of itself inside the narrator and comes returns to our world with them. Once there, the creature decides it is going to stay and lead our reality to ruin, and the price paid to stop the creature is especially high.

To put it simply, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the best book I read in 2013. Gaiman once again proves that he is a master of his craft. Every little detail, every odd happenstance, every bit of fantasy is instantly believable and written with extraordinary care and attention to detail. If that isn’t enough, readers will share all the joy, heartbreak, and loss experienced by the various characters. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a short, wonderful read that is perfect for anyone who has ever wondered if there is more to our world than meets the eye, and is a great introduction for any reader unfamiliar with Neil Gaiman. I don’t think anyone will regret reading this book.

The Eye of the World, Book One of The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan. Published by Tor Books.

The Eye of the World, Book One of The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan. Published by Tor Books.

At the start of the year, I made it a goal to begin reading an epic fantasy series. I’d been craving a good, high-fantasy novel for a while and I asked friends which series I should check out first. Mainly I was looking at The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Stormlight Archive. Most people I talked to said I should check out The Wheel of Time since the series recently finished and I could read book after book if I felt the need. So I purchased the ebook edition of the first book in the series, The Eye of the World. Now, I know that I may lose nerd points by the fact that I haven’t already read this series. I was always a little intimidated by the length and scope, and I was getting all the fantasy fixes I required from video games for a long time. Anyway, I was pleased to find that The Eye of the World has all the makings of a strong and expansive fantasy series.

Rand al’Thor is a young, unassuming shepherd living a secluded life near the village of Emond’s Field in the kingdom of Andor. He was blessed with loving parents (his mother having died before the book begins), and he lives a simple life. Rand and the other villagers are preparing for a Spring festival, but the preparations are cut short, however, when Emond’s Field is inexplicably attacked by Trollocs, the grotesque, inhuman minions of the Dark One. Moiraine and Lan, two strangers in the village who are actually a sorceress and her guard, know that the Trollocs are searching for a young man Rand’s age. Realizing that they aren’t safe in the village, Moiraine and Lan persuade Rand and some of his friends to flee the village in a desperate attempt to escape the Trollocs. What Rand and his friends don’t know is that the Trollocs aren’t after just any young man, but the Dragon Reborn, the reincarnation of a man named Lews Therin Telamon who had resealed the Dark One in his prison thousands of years before. As the Dark One again stirs in the depths of his prison, Rand must come face-to-face with his destiny if he, his friends, and the world are to survive the impending darkness.

The Eye of the World is a solid first entry for a series. The characters are strong and each is well-developed. The world is expansive and mysterious, and overall the book hints at great things to come. I did find the book archetypal in its approach, and by that I mean specifically the mythic story of the farm boy learning he has a great destiny and going off to save the world, princess, and etc. I also found that Jordan isn’t quite as capable as other fantasy masters at creating a world that is as alive as it is large. Finally, the book moves at a pretty slow pace that is only exacerbated by the fact that the ebook edition I read is a whopping 751 pages long (50 pages or so of that is an appendix/glossary), and not a lot of the questions brought up are answered through the extent of the book. Still, the last 150 pages or so got pretty intense, and the climax was especially thrilling. If the rest of the books in the series can match that intensity, then this could be a great series indeed. But don’t tell me! I want to find out for myself.

That’s it for this post! I only have two more books to write about, so I’ll tackle those in the next post. Afterwards, I’ll try to catch up on some of the video gaming I’ve done over the last six months.

Even More Bookses

Alright, jumping right back into it, here are four more books that I’ve read over the past six months!

The Returned, by Jason Mott. Published by Harlequin MIRA.

The Returned, by Jason Mott. Published by Harlequin MIRA.

The Returned, by Jason Mott is the source material of the new show on ABC titled, Resurrection. As the TV show’s name makes obvious, this book tackles the notion of the dead coming back to life, but not as zombies (which is only mildly disappointing in this case). Instead, The Returned follows a more Biblical approach to the dead rising from the grave, and does so intelligently and thoughtfully.

Jacob Hargrave died after his eighth birthday party in 1966. His parents, Harold and Lucille did not have any other children and have tarried in this mortal coil for decades since their son’s passing. You can only imagine the shock of one day answering the door and finding that their only son has returned from the world beyond having not aged a day since he died. Lucille, a faithful Bible thumper who had previously decried the other Returned popping up all over the world as the work of Satan, is overjoyed by her own son’s return. Harold is not so sure, and he isn’t the only one. As more and more Returned come back to life, the country and the world begin to overflow by the vast increase in global population. The Returned are discriminated against, confined to prisons and detention camps, and often killed (they don’t come back to life immortalized). As their world and society crumble away due to the rising of the deceased, Harold and Lucille do their best to protect the son they had lost and pick up the pieces of their long since shattered lives.

I was very intrigued by the premise and to see how Mott handled a topic as surprisingly unconventional as resurrected beings, and I was pleased to see that he capably did so. Mott’s writing is somewhat dry, but the characters are drawn with all the complexity one would expect of good fiction writing, and develop accordingly throughout the course of the novel. The plot moves somewhat sporadically, and advances by jumping weeks or months ahead of time frequently, which unfortunately made the the overall plot seem disjointed at times. Overall, though, the payoff makes the read worth it. The return of lost loved ones may be what all of us desire at certain points, perhaps even everyday throughout our lives. Mortality doesn’t work that way. Instead, we must persevere and hold onto the love we felt for those we’ve lost, and use that love to help shape our relationships with the living.

Death of a Nightingale, by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnette Friis. Published by Soho Press.

Death of a Nightingale, by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnette Friis. Published by Soho Press.

Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnette Friis is the second book from Soho Press I picked up while attending last year’s BEA. It is the third entry in the authors’ Nina Borg series and takes place in Denmark. Again, it’s hard to pick up a series in the middle when the characters have already developed in previous books, but like A Blind Goddess, I was able to jump into Death of a Nightingale with little difficulty.

Nina Borg, the series’ eponymous character, is a Red Cross nurse in Denmark where she works at a crisis center. At some point in the past (probably in one of the previous books in the series), Nina met Natasha Doroshenko, a Ukrainian woman who fled to Denmark after her husband was brutally murdered in Kiev. Now, Natasha is once again on the run from an abusive fiancé, but while on the run he too is killed in the same manner as her first husband. Natasha, who was suspected for the murder of her first husband, is the prime suspect in this murder, and she escapes from police custody in a desperate attempt to get to her child in the Red Cross crisis center and escape from Denmark. While Natasha is on the run it is up to Nina to clear Natasha’s name, but Nina is unaware that lurking behind the murders is a sinister presence from Russia’s sordid past that will stop at nothing to find Natasha and her child, and silence them forever.

Death of a Nightingale is another solid mystery published by Soho Press. The characters are all believable, and the Danish setting is actually quite alluring. The action is broken up into a few different interweaving plot threads, and the authors manage them all deftly. These different threads all come together at the end for a dramatic and satisfying conclusion. Like the Billy Boyle series, I probably won’t go out of my way to pick up another entry in Nina Borg’s series. Though, if I come across another, I won’t have any qualms at all with reading it.

Deadly Heat by Richard Castle. Published by Voice.

Deadly Heat by Richard Castle. Published by Voice.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I love Castle! Though this season hasn’t been the series’ strongest, it is still my favorite TV series, and this makes the tie-in novels all the more satisfying to me. Deadly Heat is the fifth in Castle’s Nikki Heat series, and it features all the twists, turns, bullets, and explosives as the previous books as well as the TV show on which the books are based. Just a disclaimer once again, the author, Richard Castle is a fictional character on a TV show. He doesn’t exist. The Nikki Heat books are ghost-written. With that out of the way I must admit I may be biased toward the Nikki Heat series due to its connection to Castle, but these books have proven that they are more than just a cheap way for ABC and parent company Disney to cash-in on the success of the show. They are fantastic mystery novels in their own right.

Deadly Heat picks up right where Frozen Heat left off. Nikki Heat has found the people responsible for her mother’s murder and is on a mission to bring them all to justice. Having dealt with her mother’s murderer, Nikki now sets her sights on the people who might be able to tell her why her mother was murdered. But Nikki is interrupted by her duties as an NYPD cop, and when it’s discovered that a serial killer is on the loose, New York’s finest turn to Nikki to track him down. Nikki wavers as she is torn between her desire to hunt the people who had her mother killed while the trail is still hot and her duty to the people of New York as a cop. But she had better make up her mind quickly as the serial killer has named her as his/her next target. Good thing Nikki has her colleagues who have her back, and her ruggedly handsome professional and romantic partner, Jameson Rook, at her side.

Deadly Heat is definitely an improvement over Frozen Heat. The plot pacing is back on track this time around and the book doesn’t suffer from the two cases running side-by-side. The characters are just as lovable as always, and reminiscent of their influences on Castle. It is still somewhat difficult not imagining the actors from the TV series as the characters in the Nikki Heat books, but that isn’t anything to worry about as the characters themselves are more than capable of standing on their own. The story is just as frenetic as an episode of Castle with plenty of red-herrings, false trails, and setback to keep the reader guessing right up to the (as always) action-packed conclusion.

The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright. Published by Shadow Mountain.

The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright. Published by Shadow Mountain.

Switching gears from mystery and the speculative, the last book I have for this post is The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright. I picked up this book at last year’s BEA as I like to keep up with what the publishers back home in Utah are doing. I found myself pleasantly surprised by The Rent Collector as it is an ambitious work of literary fiction that is based on actual circumstances found in Cambodia where the novel is set.

Sang Ly and her husband, Ki Lim, are scavengers living on the cusp of Stung Meanchey, a large garbage dump on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital and largest city, Phnom Penh. Each day, they traverse the hazards of the dump collecting items to sell or have recycled in order to eke out an existence for them and their sickly young son. Hovering over their heads is the eponymous rent collector, an old, bitter drunkard who patrols the property demanding that Sang Ly and her neighbors pay their rent and threatening to turn them out of their meager homes if they don’t. This is difficult for Sang Ly and Ki Lim as they try to make enough to provide for themselves and for their unhealthy child. Sang Ly realizes that the caustic atmosphere of Stung Meanchey is setting her family on course to destruction, and knows that they must escape somehow. One day, she finds a children’s picture book while scavenging the dump. Though Sang Ly is illiterate, she takes the book home hoping that her son may take an interest in the pictures. This gives Sang Ly an idea. Perhaps she can escape Stung Meanchey by becoming literate, and she finds an unlikely teacher. However, being literate may not be enough to undo the damage already done by Stung Meanchey to Sang Ly and her family, and, when push comes to shove, Sang Ly must rely on her own tenacity if they are going to survive.

The Rent Collector is definitely a good read, with great characters whose tragic struggles and lives are so different from our own. I can heartily recommend it as being worth the time of anyone that may be interested in reading it. However, I don’t think The Rent Collector quite succeeds in its literary aspirations. Part of this is due to the fact that the novel is being narrated in English though the characters are actually thinking and speaking in Cambodian. Wright mostly does a good job easing readers into the gaps created by the different languages, but it is still confusing at times and readers must simply shrug their shoulders and continue reading. The book also comes to a bit of a contrived conclusion. Far be it from me to want a happy ending, however, it seems that Sang Ly’s quest for literacy isn’t what saves her family so much as the extenuating circumstances that occur while she is working toward her literacy goal. This turns the importance of literacy, one of the central themes of The Rent Collector, into more of a plot device than something of real, useful value.

Phew! That’s it for the post. I still have enough books to write about for probably two more posts, so I’ll get to those next time.

Catching up on Bookses

It’s hard to write about books when most that you read are published by the company that employs you. But even then I’m way behind in writing about all the books I’ve read since summer. So I’ll get to work catching up. Here we go!

Joyland, by Stephen King. Published by Hard Case Crime.

Joyland, by Stephen King. Published by Hard Case Crime.

To get started, I read my first Stephen King novel last summer, Joyland. As ubiquitous an author as Stephen King is, I honestly didn’t know what to expect, but I was very happy with what I found.

Devin Jones is a college student whose girlfriend has just dumped him. Like a lot of guys that find themselves in Devin’s shoes, he is in complete denial about the breakup and hopes that he’ll reunite with his girlfriend amid clouds and unicorns. But sensing that reality won’t be so kind, Devin takes a job in North Carolina working at a seasonal amusement park called Joyland. While working there, Devin learns of a murder that happened on the haunted house ride years prior and that the ghost of the young woman who was killed haunts the ride. Throughout the course of his summer at Joyland, Devin makes new friends, saves lives (a couple of times), and also meets a mysterious and seemingly cold-hearted single mother and her sickly son. Yet Devin continues to dwell on the murder that happened in the haunted house and tries to figure out who the perpetrator was. However, Devin is just a naive young man, and the harsh reality of the murder and the demands of the real world could be too much for him to handle.

Simply put, Joyland is one of the best books I read last year. Devin is an extremely likable protagonist and narrator whose struggles to grow into adulthood are as real as they are sincere, and his distinctive voice reads with the freshness of some of the best YA novels out there. It also became clear to me that Stephen King is such a ubiquitous author for a reason; the dude can write an engrossing page-turner while not neglecting the little details. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen characters develop believably with such ease. Those little details and the fantastic characters were the cherry on top of a fantastic whodunnit.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. Published by Scribner.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. Published by Scribner.

I don’t know that there is much that I can add to what has already been said about this book, or Hemingway in general. His novels, and other writings are Modernist classics, and widely read by scholars and recreational readers everywhere. My own Hemingway readership is sadly lacking. Though I enjoy what I’ve read very much, I can only take so much of Hemingway’s terse writing style at a time. So far, I’ve read a pretty significant amount of his short stories, A Farewell to Arms (so amazing!), and now For Whom the Bell Tolls. In this novel, Hemingway again takes us to war-torn Europe where another good fight is being fought; the Spanish Civil War in this case.

Robert Jordan is a pro-Communist American, and a university Spanish instructor who leaves the U.S. to go fight for his cause in Spain where he serves as a demolitions specialist in the International Brigades. At the start of the novel, Jordan is dispatched into the mountains where he is to rendezvous with a small guerrilla outfit and demolish a crucial bridge that will prevent the forces of Francisco Franco from resupplying their army for a major, decisive engagement that is being planned. When he arrives at the guerrilla camp, he finds a colorful cast of characters from the cowardly leader of the band, Pablo, and his no-nonsense wife, Pilar, to the loyal and brave Anselmo, and, finally, the beautiful, young Maria. It’s up to Robert Jordan to get this ragtag band organized and ready to assist in his task of demolishing the bridge. He faces many complications in the few days during which the novel takes place, and none more distracting than his budding relationship with Maria. Like other Hemingway stories I’ve read, Robert Jordan and Maria crash into each other with the force of a tsunami breaking on high cliffs. Fast, hard, and passionate. But Robert Jordan has a duty to perform and a cause that is greater than himself, and war is no place to fall in love.

While I don’t think it reaches the devastating masterpiece that is A Farewell to Arms, I did find For Whom the Bell Tools composed of the same hard thematic material as its counterpart, such as the love/war dichotomy I’ve already mentioned. Hemingway does a great job of bringing these themes to the reader’s mind through the ruminations of the various characters and the stories of their lives. And while the ending doesn’t pack the same punch as A Farewell to Arms, Robert Jordan’s fate is no less compelling.

The Cocktail Waitress, by James M. Cain. Published by Hard Case Crime.

The Cocktail Waitress, by James M. Cain. Published by Hard Case Crime.

Another one from Hard Case Crime! As the cover clearly states, The Cocktail Waitress is the recently discovered final novel of James M. Cain, one of hard-boiled pulps’ biggest names. It had some decent media coverage, and was released in hardcover back in the latter part of 2012, and it piqued my interest. I received the book while I was reading Joyland, but, while Joyland was one of the best books I read in 2013, unfortunately The Cocktail Waitress was one of the worst.

Joan Medford is a recently widowed mother whose husband died under questionable circumstances in a car accident. The police suspect that Joan somehow had something to do with it since her marriage was on the rocks. Unfortunately for Joan, now that she is husband-less, jobless, broke, and under suspicion for (at worst) foul play, she is no longer able to take care of her young son by herself, and so she sends him off to live with some crazy extended family while she tries to find a job, and, more importantly, a new husband so that she can once again care for her son. She gets a job as a titular cocktail waitress where she has the pleasure of meeting two potential husband candidates, one older but wealthy, and the other handsome, ambitious and scheming. A love triangle ensues, and Joan finds herself in many odd situations with her two new squeezes, but she can only have one husband, and Death has yet to be satiated.

Regardless of the fact James M. Cain died before completing the novel, The Cocktail Waitress was a big disappointment. Whether or not Joan is to blame for any of the deaths that happen in the novel is never definitively established, and readers are left to decide for themselves. But the circumstances are so coincidental that it seems hard to believe that she didn’t have at least some hand in them. Leaving it to the readers to decide would have been a nice touch if it weren’t for the fact that Joan is not a compelling or interesting narrator. This coupled with the flatness of the rest of the characters and the mundane and boring plot lead to a sloppy read that begins and ends nowhere.

A Blind Goddess: A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery, by James R. Benn. Published by Soho Press.

A Blind Goddess: A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery, by James R. Benn. Published by Soho Press.

I received James R. Benn’s A Blind Goddess at BEA this year from the fine folks at Soho Press. A good mystery is always welcome on my shelf and I was interested in seeing what Soho has to offer. I was particularly interested in two of the books they had (I’ll get to the other one in my next post). While interning at a small mystery publisher, I learned of the historical mystery sub-genre, and what better place to set a mystery than the time period that defined the world as we know it: World War II. A Blind Goddess is the eighth in Benn’s Billy Boyle World War II series, and it’s easy to see why the series has had such longevity.

Newly promoted Captain Billy Boyle hails from Boston and is the cop-kid of a member of Boston’s finest. Billy himself currently works as a detective for the U.S. Army helping the British solve criminal cases that involve U.S. troops in some way. Just prior to his going on a well-deserved leave, Billy is contacted by an estranged childhood friend, a Black soldier serving in the 617th Tank Destroyers unit, Sergeant Eugene “Tree” Jackson. Tree asks for Billy’s help when a member of the 617th is charged with kidnapping a young English girl. And to make matters worse, an accountant has been murdered in the same village and the U.S. Army may be somehow involved in the murder. Billy doesn’t lament the loss of his vacation, and dives straight into both cases hoping to bring resolution to the involved parties as well as mend bridges with his old friend, Tree. His time is short, however, and it’s only a matter of time before Tree’s pal is punished for his supposed involvement in the kidnapping, and before the murderer strikes again.

It’s always a little disorienting jumping into an established series and trying to get to know characters that have developed over the course of many previous books, but Benn does a great job of setting up the backstory and characters for new readers and I was able to jump right into A Blind Goddess without any trouble. The characters were well written and developed nicely throughout the book, and the mysteries Billy faces kept me guessing until the reveal. The book also tackles a big, shameful issue from America’s past: racial segregation, and the relations between whites and blacks during wartime. Benn’s writing doesn’t tackle the issue in a deep, or complex manner, but Benn does a good job presenting it for what it was as well as the hatred that racial segregation created and exacerbated. A Blind Goddess is a solid mystery even if it wears its themes on its sleeve. I can’t say that I’ll ever seek out another Billy Boyle book, but if another were to come my way I would happily read it.

That’s all for now! I’m about six months behind in my book entries, so I do have a lot of catching up to do. I’ll write about four more books I’ve read in the next post. Until then!