Ransom Riggs – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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The world has its outcasts. They often have unique talents, like creating fire out of nothing or transforming David Bowie’s music into worthwhile. This gives them power. Emma can burn you down, and Marilyn Manson has sold a lot of records. Power makes people to react to you in funny ways. Some hate you just because you’re weird, others because you’re a danger. Some follow you, either because they’re afraid or they think you’re some sort of badass God.

How the outcast manages their situation is a question for many authors to answer. After all, not all powers are the same. The hatred people have for Justin Bieber is vastly different than the hatred people have for Manson. People hated Manson because he ruined kids, told them God isn’t real and that they should remain weird. As for Justin Bieber, people hated him because girls loved him. How does this work I don’t know – maybe they were simply jealous. The X-Men series is supposed to be an exploration of this question. It’s about two factions with two different views on their position. Riggs’ novel features almost direct copies of these factions.

Now, the common platitude of “everything’s been done before!” will rear its head if you’re inexperienced in literature. That’s not how originality works. Copy a template, fine. Just fill it with different materials. For a while, Riggs is successful at that. His characters, in a way, live up to their ‘peculiar’ title. Their powers are small, often coming off as genetic defects. The levitating girl doesn’t control her levitation. She’s like a balloon and has to wear weighted shoes so she won’t slip off. The invisible person takes advantage of that, but it’s a radically different life when people can’t see you.

For a while, Riggs is interested by what being an outcast is like. Our hero is thrown into that position and everyone around him calls him mentally ill. They either feel sorry for him or reject him. He’s too confused in that position, so all he can do is shoot everyone including himself. His only solid connection is with his grandfather who’s an outcast like him. He can only connect to peculiar children like him.

There’s an interesting parable here to mental illness. Look at subreddits like Sanctioned Suicide. Many mentally ill people can only connect deeply to people in the same boat as theirs. Pro-ana communities develop their own culture and jargon. We’re so quick to judge them. X-Men was meant to parallel the struggles of LGBT people, but mental illness is different. Even with social acceptance, anorexia and suicidal thoughts and self-harm are weights people carry. Even with social acceptance, peculiar people are a minority. No amount of acceptance will give the floating girl the ability to control her power.

Too bad all these ideas are blended with a dull mix of genres. If Riggs wanted to write a multicolored story, hopping from genre to genre for fun then fine. It never feels like this. He never throws the story convincingly into the elements. There’s some conviction when he dabbles in horror. The spooky monster remains shrouded in mystery for a while, and even pushed aside for some pages. Focusing on the uncertainity of the spooky monster makes the horror aspect more convincing. Unknown things are pretty scary.

All mysteries dissolve when a character just spits out exposition. In fact, no information is actually discovered or figured out. People just hand over the answers to the questions when it’s time to advance the plot. It’s like a Game Master telling you the background and name and disposition of every NPC. The knowledge descending on your character makes it stronger, but also makes the game more boring.

The bad guys want to take over the world and subjugate humanity. That’s fine, since a lot of people in real life actually did that. Why, though? Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Caligula were real people. They had philosophies, personalities, and inner lives. They didn’t laugh maniacally when they ordered massacres but saw their vision of their bright future taking shape. The villains may view themselves as right, but we never get the philosophy behind their desire for power. The reason they want power isn’t because power is attractive, but because that makes them evil and useful antagonists.

Their disease infects all other characters, too. Very few characters have unique reactions or talk style. Some are silly quirks that can’t be taken seriously. The two rapper dudes are straight out of a horrible John Green novel. The natives of an island talk with broken English because that’s how people in the sticks must talk like. Others fare a little better, but Enoch’s cynicism is never elaborated upon.

He’s a great potential wasted. His power is to put actual hearts in material and make it kind-of alive. That’s the sort of power that leads one to view the value of life differently. He can bring back people from the dead but only halfway. He uses hearts as tools. Enoch often slides into a cynical, detached speech. Even among the peculiars he’s an outcast. Yet Riggs never expands on that. What is his philosophy? To which kids he relate to more, to which less? What kind of things did he do besides building a miniature army?

The protagonist is the worst insult to character development. Again, there are seeds of something worthwhile – a little cynicism, insecurity and pessimistic worldview that might lead to something. It plays instead like a side-quest in a cheap RPG game. Person meets dying man, dying man leaves some clues and person goes on to explore these clues to discover a bigger mystery. Video game protagonists are rarely well-written since it’s the player doing all the acting. Fifty pages or so into the novel, Jacob loses all personality and follows clues. He’s sometimes not sure whether he can do something, but the only drive for his decision is the reader’s desire to know more. There’s even a silly romance there that doesn’t pretend to be profound. Green mined the trope of weird girl loving a skinny dude who’s sure he’s ugly (despite skinny people being all over magazines), but Riggs merely puts a few make-out scenes. It’s too boring to be creeped out by the fact the girl is actually 80 years old or so.

The last pages of the book are a long-winded action scene. This is too sad to talk about, because it makes the book seem entirely worthless when it isn’t. The idea of a loop is quite brilliant. These kids may live long but they haven’t matured a bit, and here you have a chance to mediate about time. Riggs occasionally paints a pretty picture in his prose. The few paragraphs about the bombs and reset have enough to suffice for a short story. Why does he fill the last pages with chasing the bad guy, shooting people and a cliffhanger that relies on reading the rest of the trilogy?

Riggs’ prose is easy and pleasant enough. It’s fast, sometimes slides into introspection but never too much. That makes a decent story bearable. It’s not offensively boring, just kind of ‘there’. If Riggs did something wild with his ideas and failed, fine. He barely tries since it concludes in info dumps and shoot-outs. The photographs are actually real, which is cool but doesn’t add anything. Riggs intergates them by saying “here’s a photograph” and showing them. It’s like illustrations, only pictures instead. Maybe if Riggs tried to write a single short story surrounding them, he’ll have a safer but wider space to work his ideas.

It’s not a terrible book but not a great one, either. Maybe, as a distraction, it’s good enough. There are good ideas that may stick around and the prose is pleasant. Life is too short for distractions, though. If you like X-Men or stories about hidden strange worlds just beneath our own you might enjoy this. It’s too inoffensive for me to tell you to avoid, but also too unremarkable to offer it to anyone.

2 photographs out of 5

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders I

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The glass ceiling shines gloriously bright here. Isn’t the trouble with glass ceilings that they’re invisible? Yet the flaws here are so obvious. The series is no major experiment. Creators who fall to such obvious flaws often can’t get the basics of storytelling. I haven’t seen an anime that gave up so miserably since Sword Art Online. There’s no other way to describe what happens to the series halfway through. You literally see the band members running out of ideas, but the concert is still rocking.

It’s not a major disaster like Sword Art Online because the nature of giving up is different. That anime hinted at psychological and philosophical insight only to deliver a boring monomyth about an asshole and a helpless princess. Stardust Crusaders simply gives up on pushing its idea further. It’s content with sitting in the same place, offering good variations but never breaking out of the mold. I’m not sure what it says about the creator that they managed to create 10 episodes that barely add anything, yet are still a lot of fun.

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The improvement over the first installment is that this one lives up to the title of ‘bizarre’. The previous season gained its energy from pushing archetypes to the extreme. Nothing about it was weird, thought. It was all archetypical, tough guys posing and using battle startergies. Stardust Crusaders throws the same passion for archetypes into bizare-ness.

There are about 15 villains of the week here, and each of them is a puzzle in its own. Anytime you think they ran out of ideas, something new comes up. No villain is truly like the other. The creators use this to play with genres and story types. You get the dream narrative, the killer car, the hostile creepy-looking town and the ghost ship. It’s a prime example of why people who whine about good guys winning miss the point. Of course the good guys will win – there’s no reason for them to lose unless ‘the world is unjust’ is something you explore. The fun thing about these stories is how they solve the puzzle. Just like the first series, it’s never about shouting and brute strength. Each villain is a puzzle to solve. In a way, it’s a mish-mash of mystery and battle shounen.

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Yet this successful formula is exactly what keeps the series down. The series’ ideas never progress. There’s no gradual change in tone or characters. Events happen, but they’re too self-contained. It’s a heroic journey that’s told as a Slice of Life anime. The disconnection between the events lowers their meaning. An anime about a band of heroes fighting a different enemy every time can be fine, but it clashes with what the series is at heart. The result is something that’s stuck in-between. It’s too Slice-of-Life for the journey to feel like it actually progresses, and too journey-like for the episodes to truly deviate from each other.

It doesn’t help that the series gives up at some point. What’s worse, sitting comfortably behind your limits or trying fruitlessly to break them? The Stands eventually lose their meaning. They carry Tarot card names but their powers have little to do with it and the creators don’t even try to come up with names. What started off as using Tarot and colors as inspiration for villain was dropped in exchange for weird superpowers. They’re entertaining superpowers, but it only reinforces the disconnection between the events.

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The series stops halfway through the actual arc. You’d think that would be a problem, but the lack of conclusion comes more from the format rather than splitting up the series. It’s these aforementioned flaws that make the last episode feel anticlimatic. All these events and enemies, and in the end nothing changed. Our heroes arrive in Egypt, so what?

Stardust Crusaders is never bad. What’s frustrating is that it always threatens to be way better than its predecessor. The characters are way better – distinctively quirky and silly. They each contribute something to the group but have enough agency to create as much conflict as they solve. The focus also never locks in on one character. They each have equal screen time. It’s so balanced it’s easy to forget Jotaru is kind of meant to be the main character. Both the enemies and the characters are more bizarre, sillier, more mythic and lifelike than the predecessor. The art is also more colorful and varied. While it doesn’t play so much with colors, the scenery is varied and the characters suffer less from Same Face Syndrome.

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The glass ceiling is tough to break. Maybe the series didn’t even try, but chose to sit under a different ceiling. It’s still recommended to anyone who’s into fighting and macho dudes. The genre hardly gets better than this unless you’re going full retard with Kill la Kill. It dodges all the problems long-running shounen shows have – there’s focus, no babbling, no info dumps and it actually ends. Despite doing pretty much everything right, the result is only a good anime and nothing beyond this.

3 stands out of 5

 

 

 

 

 

Haruki Murakami – A Wild Sheep Chase

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Murakami created a unique niche in literature. He’s been called un-Japanese, but there’s something distinctive about him that separates him from his influence. He borrowed Western literature’s tough, rugged nature. Carver doesn’t just loom over his literature. You can feel him sitting behind Murakami as he writes. His novels also contain a fantastical nature that’s uncommon in Western fantasy – the bizarre, surreal events are far more similar to anime.

It’s a long road to such a distinctive, versatile style. Murakami kept his first novels from being translated worldwide because he found them the work of an inexperienced author who wasn’t ready. The result is the bizarre situations where A Wild Sheep Chase – the last of the trilogy – is the only one published worldwide. Based on Murakami’s words, it should’ve remained unavailable.

It’s far from a bad book, but it screams ‘inexperience’. There are first novels which show their authors’ age – think Fight Club and Less Than Zero in their minimalism – but they also have a firm grip on their style. Ellis’ novel was skeletal, but he had a small enough aim that fit. Moreover, he knew exactly what he was making. Murakami doesn’t. He mostly tries to get away from Carver’s influence while paying him tribute.

The two styles Murakami tries to play with here are opposites. Carver deals with the ordinary, with the so mundane that his stories and characters blur togehter. His writing reflects that with how straightforward it is, but the result is something not resembling storytelling but poetry. He creates an intimacy with his situation because of how direct he is. Anything strange is the opposite of his literature.

Murakami’s fantasy aims for the bizarre. In contrast to the worldbuilding-obsessed West, the world in the novel is one where anything can happen. The key to doing this right is to make sure the bizarre events appear in rhythm, and have different levels of weirdness. You’ll get things that seem ludicrous but somehow possible like a girl with an extremely attractive ears. Then you’d get something that’s out of place in a realist novel – like a shadow organization controlling everything. At last something completely fantastical happens, like a spirit sheep.

Just because these two styles are opposite doesn’t mean they can be merged. Murakami did it later, but here he can’t. He doesn’t really try. The novel jumps from one style to another. Whenever it settles into one, it tries to make the best of it. It never tries to find the connection between the two.

The result feels dishonest and self-centered. Adding something a new element to a familiar style isn’t enough. If the new element doesn’t affect how the style works, then what have you done? Moreover, Murakami doesn’t so much tell a story as he exercises his style. Showing off what the writing can do is nice, but that’s not a story and you need to be a great author (and a lot less pages) to make a stylistic exercise work.

When he imitates Carver, he does nothing but makes me glad I’m reading something like Carver. I have pretty much all of Carver’s bibliography on my shelf and some followers who took his style to new directions (like the aforementioned Easton Ellis). Why would I want to read a copy? Worse, it’s often a caricature. The nameless protagonist is apathetic towards everything. It’s not just the writing, but he describes all his interactions with apathy and treats them like they don’t mean anything.

Easton Ellis tried to do this, but he explored a specific lifestyle. The apathy was contrasted with the hardcore partying. When Ellis wrote this, he wrote with full conviction – the writing so apathetic he crammed many events into one sentence but the events themselves were both ridiculous and not very different from each other. Apathy in this novel doesn’t mean anything. The protagonist feels alone, but why? What does it say about loneliness? What his journey have to do with loneliness?

As for the fantastical part, it’s cowardly. As an attempt to revamp the hardboiled pulp detective thing, it’s unconvincing. The mystery isn’t exactly related to crime, but the protagonist doesn’t actually try to solve it. Rather, answers drop on him from the sky. Twice his girlfriend provides a quest arrow. Her ability ends up a little meaningless. It may have something to do with how our protagonist needs her, needs anyone because his loneliness is suffocating but you don’t see it. Loneliness is there, but its effect isn’t showing.

Although the protagonist moves from place to place, every situation is the same. Paragraphs full of apathetic writings about eating and drinking and occasionally having sex are the result. Unlike the master minimalists, Murakami is bad at choosing what details to include. When Ellis piled them on, it was because the abundance was meaningful. Carver simply stripped everything that didn’t matter. What our protagonists eats exactly, what is in the room exactly isn’t important. There’s no reason for an RPG-like description of a room once the protagonist enters. Describe the couch when it comes important.

What carries the novel is the seeds of Murakami’s potential. He may not know what to do exactly with these two styles, but their combination is intriguing. The story is bizarre enough, and while the writing is inexperienced it’s not horrible. The unnecessary details occasionally appear but not too much. If the events don’t gel together very well, they’re at least memorable on their own – a completely ordinary girl with extremely attractive ears? A professor obsessed with sheep? These type of ideas are things Murakami would later work with in his short stories with better results.

One lone highlight is when our protagonist stares at an office building. His describes what goes on, what each person does but he can never understand what the purpose of the office actually is. It’s either a statement about how uniform, dull and caging office work is or an expression of the protagonist’s loneliness and inability to connect. If Carver wrote this scene, he’d mine it for a brilliant short story.

Compared to other works by Murakami, it’s much worse. It shows its age and Murakami’s youth, but also his potential. If I read this without knowing about his later works, I could easily imagine him making something fantastic like Hard-Boiled Wonderland. There’s a unique mind at work who chooses his influence rather than throw everything. He just didn’t find an idea to express here.

2.5 wild sheep out of 5

Clutch – Psychic Warfare

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Clutch are, what, 24 years old now?

That’s a very old age in Rock & Roll, especially when your music is about driving rock. Most bands burn out or get tired of rocking. They take the stage, get the girls and lose the frustration that makes for good loud music. Even the best turn artistic. Monster Magnet rediscovered Psychedelia and Local H flirted with Progressive Rock as soon as their started moving units.

Clutch never had that artistic bent. They were all about riffs and catchy hooks. You could lump them up other dumb Hard Rock like Drowning Pool and Nickelback. The only difference between them and Clutch is that Clutch had better hooks and and outsider’s perspective.

Clutch were outsiders, and still were. For all of their rocking and rolling, they had weird lyrics that were poetic as they made little sense. Neil isn’t a big rock star out for the sex and money. He’s a weirdo who likes turning up his weirdness loud.

That makes them an almost perfect band. Combine the hooks with the odd lyrics, and they sound more badass than anyone else. This also gave them a glass ceiling. They were so focused on just kicking rock songs that they will never make a masterpiece. If there was some hope in the past they might knock one out, it’s all gone on Psychic Warfare.

It’s a confusing album that will only make sense depending on what comes after. It’s either the sound of a band giving up and not even trying to make a “Mice and Gods”, or it’s the sound of a band being comfortable in their place and just having fun.

The first tracks rock hard and got the energy, but none of the hooks. They’re driven by sound with the melodies as an afterthought. “X-Ray Visions” isn’t sure what the melody for the hook is. If it wasn’t for Neil’s brilliant lyrics and charisma, the song would’ve been boring to death. “A Quick Death in Texas” is the only chorus that sticks, and would’ve been just another good song on Robot Hive/Exodus.

Clutch may be giving up, but every song is performed with enthusiasm. Clutch sound happy in their place. Neil sounds like he’s happy to spit big words like ‘dynamite’ and ‘telekenetic’ on “X-Ray Visions”. In another band’s hands, it would run out of steam in 30 seconds.

The second best song here is “Noble Savage”, and it’s where the band (again) declares how rock and roll is their life. It doesn’t have a melody, but the band sounds so energized that it’s convincing. Neil might be 43 years, but no one sounds better than him at capturing the appeal of rock and roll. It’s about having fun and letting out your weirdness. Other bands try to convince you they’re having fun by singing about how much sex they have. Neil has a wide-eyed approach that makes “Decapitation Blues” sound more fun than them. That one is about neck damage from headbanging.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Clutch are more interesting in performing live than writing songs. These songs are more about loudness and energy than melody. They’ve been rocking weird for 24 years. How much left do they have to say? Still, if they perform these songs with the energy it promises it means Clutch should keep going. If it’s a sign of things to come though, maybe they should stop. They’re still a melodic rock band, and a good live show is hard to make of bad songs nobody wanted to write.

3 noble savages out of 5