Sunday, July 31, 2011

Show, Don't Tell: a Review of Will Lavender's "Dominance"

Dominance by Will Lavender

I was initially drawn to Dominance by its plot:  twelve years into his prison sentence, a Literature professor convicted of murdering two students is given permission to teach a special night class from prison via a video feed.  Ostensibly a class about the reclusive and enigmatic author Paul Fallows, in reality it is the beginning of a game created by the professor to win his release from prison.  Fifteen years later, the members of the night class are drawn together again after one of their members is murdered in a way that suggests that the game never ended.

As I said, it was Dominance's plot that drew me to it, and for the most part, that aspect didn't disappoint; I was invested enough in the parallel storylines which bounced back and forth in time from the original night class to the present reunion that I could hardly put the book down.  Unfortunately, while the plot did not disappoint, the same cannot be said about most every other aspect of the book.

My biggest problem with the book was with the execution of the night class sequences, and their inability to live up to the expectations generated by the present day sequences; to wit, every member of the class talks frequently about how much that experience changed their lives, and their are many intimations about the power of the game known as The Procedure sprinkled throughout their conversations, but the flashback scenes don't convey any of that effectively.  There's only one Procedure sequence, and it most definitely does not exhibit the power that is suggested by all the other references, and the attempts to make the professor's actions during the class feel menacing fall flat.  There's a lot of description in the present of the relationships between the classmates in the past, but very little of that makes it onto the page in the past.

All in all, I think the book could have benefited from one of two things: either an expansion of those flashback chapters to give more depth to the characters and situation, or a complete excising of them. Lavender too often fell back on having characters tell us about the past without effectively showing it when he had the opportunity, but if the story had been told totally in the present, then it's possible that the tantalizing hints given by the characters about their past might have been enough to satisfy. 

I suppose I should stress here that I am not a big mystery reader, so it's quite likely that what I was looking for in the book isn't what a mystery reader craves in their genre.  If you're mainly interested in watching people tracking down clues as the mystery unfolds in ways you weren't expecting, then I think Dominance is well worth your time; the central mystery kept me engaged throughout, and the blurbs on the back about the ending are spot-on.  And, I have to admit that the snippets of  discussion of the works of "Paul Fallows" sprinkled throughout were filled with some interesting ideas that show off the fact that author Will Lavender used to be a literature professor himself.  I just wish he had taken the time to flesh out other aspects as well.

Monday, July 25, 2011

But He Digresses; a review of Simon Pegg's "Nerd Do Well"

Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg

Let me begin by saying if you looked at the name above and thought to yourself "Simon who?" then more than likely this book about the life of the man responsible for such works as Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz isn't for you.  Which is not to say that you wouldn't enjoy it, necessarily; after all, while this is ostensibly a memoir of his rise from young geek to full-fledged Geek Icon, in broader terms it's the story of a man who has found himself living out his childhood dreams and is sometimes still overwhelmed by it all.  Whether it's getting to be a zombie in a Romero movie, a thug in a Spielberg movie, or a certain Scottish starship engineer in the latest Star Trek movie, Pegg is constantly in a state of geeky joy at meeting his childhood icons and becoming a part of the pop culture that helped form his early life.

Unfortunately, his memoir often suffers from his borderline stream-of-consciousness style of structuring his memories.  To be fair, he does warn the reader about this early on in the text, so it is a problem he's aware of, but when writing a book about the events in your life, it can be somewhat confusing for your readers if you don't structure it at least semi-chronologically.  Instead, Pegg hops around from topic to topic, offering up 2 or 3 examples to illustrate how each topic has affected him throughout his life -- a strategy that works well in some respects, but which ultimately wore me out as I tried to piece together whether the story associated with Topic A took place before, after, or concurrent to the stories associated with Topics B, C, D, etc. 

On the positive side, Pegg is definitely a gifted comedic writer whose sense of humor meshes well with my own, although I have to warn you that he does often work blue.  I often found myself enjoying the random fictionalized chapters scattered throughout the book more than the more autobiographical sections -- partially because they don't suffer from the scattered chronology of his more factual chapters, but also because writing comedy is the format with which Pegg is most comfortable, and it is when he can focus on being funny that the nervousness and strain of dissecting his own life for public consumption falls away.

But even in the non-fiction chapters, there is much to recommend.  In school Pegg had majored in film, and his examinations of pop culture sprinkled throughout the text show off a scholarly mindset and intelligent insight into what it is about certain pieces of media that grab onto us and don't let go.  I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on why the original Star Wars trilogy grabbed a hold of the world's imaginations, and why the prequel films were such a disappointment to many; his suggestion for how the much maligned birth of Darth Vader sequence in Revenge of the Sith could have played out in a way that evoked the empathy Lucas was striving for, rather than the derision that he got, shows a mind that goes beyond the simple "it stinks!" mindset of all too many, and that's something which I admire.

As I said at the beginning, if you aren't already a fan of Pegg and his work -- or at least a SF/Horror/Film geek -- odds are good that this book won't grab you; but if you do decide to give it a try and don't mind a memoir with a lot of digressions and backtracking, you could find something of interest.