Update: Since writing this little review, I've learned that Elmore Leonard gave the manuscript of Raylan to the writers of Justified a couple of years ago so they could "hang it up and strip it for parts." This answers some questions of mine but doesn't change my opinion of the book.
raylan.jpg Let me say up front that I adore Elmore Leonard. Wait, rever might be a better word. Worship. Idolize. I've been working my way through his immense canon for years. When I bought my iPad, the first thing I did was load it up with his ebooks. His minimalist, dialog-driven prose conveys more than most writers' wordier, clumsy attempts at clarity. He's surely our greatest living writer of crime fiction, and I wish I could write like he does.

That said, Leonard has always had a problem with sequels, which is what his new novel Raylan essentially is. Whether bringing Chili Palmer from Get Shorty back in Be Cool or Jack Foley from Out of Sight back in Road Dogs, he simply seems to have trouble finding a story of equal weight to build around characters who've already had their perfect turn in the spotlight. I appreciate the fact that major characters from some Leonard novels often show up in supporting roles in others, but two major outings always seems to be one too many.

This, I regret to say, is the case with Raylan. U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens was a supporting character in Leonard's 1993 novel Pronto, then a more major character in 1995's Riding the Rap, but he probably enjoyed his finest role in the 2000 novella "Fire in the Hole." In that story Givens, who sees himself as a modern-day gunslinging lawman, is punished for his trigger-happy ways with a reassignment from Florida to Kentucky, where he grew up and mined coal as a teenager. He is drawn reluctantly but inevitably into a showdown with his former friend and colleague Boyd Crowder, who has gone the other way into a life of crime and violence.

"Fire in the Hole" was the direct inspiration for the FX series Justified, which is in its third season and is currently one of my favorite shows on television. Unfortunately Justified seems to have been the direct inspiration for Raylan, which is less a novel than three slightly overlapping Raylan Givens novellas smooshed together into one book. The first plotline, about a gang who steal kidneys and then try to sell them back to the victims, has appeared in slightly different form on Justified already this season. The second, about a mining company's attempts to intimidate land owners into selling, was the story underlying most of Justified's second season. The third features hookers coerced into committing dangerous robberies in exchange for oxycontin, a plotline that appeared in last week's Justified, and I think it's reasonable to assume that the high-stakes poker subplot will show up in a future episode.

I found the book to be an unfocused, disappointing mess. I'm not sure whether Leonard assembled it from scenarios he'd generated himself as an executive producer of Justified or borrowed ideas from the show's writers, but either way it's hard to see how it would appeal to anyone. The narrative is too fractured and too reliant on familiarity with past Givens stories to appeal to new readers, and it recycles too much familiar material from the show to appeal to Justified fans.

In the end, though I'm pained to say it, Raylan simply comes off as a crass attempt to cash in on the popularity of the show, and on that level I guess it worked. It fooled me into parting with my 25 bucks.

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill
shunn: (Elder Shunn)
It used to be that when people would find out I'm a former Mormon, they'd ask me whether or not I watch Big Love and how closely it matches my experience of growing up in Utah. (Answers: "Yes" and "Not much.") Over the past year, though, that has changed. Now they ask whether or not I've seen The Book of Mormon.

The answer to that is yes. In fact, as soon as the Broadway production was announced, Laura and I started making plans to visit New York and see it. With my background, how could we not? We put together a group of friends that included my agent and got tickets for April 9th, about two weeks after the show's official opening. I bought our tickets early enough that it wasn't hard to get seats for a group of eight on our preferred date. But by the time we actually saw it, the hype had revved up to such a wild extent that people were asking us how on earth we'd managed to score tickets.

The Book of Mormon—from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez—was the most celebrated new musical of the 2011 Broadway season, and it's easy to see why. book_of_mormon_poster.jpg It has everything an audience in search of some dangerous New York City titillation could ask for—dirty words, blasphemy, violence, Mormons, sexual innuendo, frequently all crammed together into catchy production numbers—all consumable from the relative safety of a plush theater seat. It's been a giant hit with crowds and critics alike, landing nine Tony Awards (including Best Musical), five Drama Desk Awards (including Outstanding Musical), and who knows how many best-stuff-of-the-year lists. It kicks off a national tour this August, and a Chicago production will take up residence in the Bank of America Theatre this December. People are falling all over themselves to tell you how good it is.

Is it really that good? I don't think so. Did I enjoy it? Yes, to an extent. Was it funny? Yes, to an extent. Was it anything like my experience as a missionary? Yes—but to a very small, almost irrelevant extent.

The Book of Mormon tells the story of Kevin Price (Andrew Rannells), a Mormon youth who dreams of serving as a missionary in Orlando, Florida. Instead, he gets assigned to Uganda with Arnold Cunningham (an irrepressible Josh Gad) as his companion. Elder Cunningham is just about the biggest screw-up ever to pass through the Missionary Training Center, and Elder Price tries to put the best face on both disappointing assignments.

But Uganda turns out to be even more hellish than he could have imagined. The more experienced, longer-serving missionaries have not managed to convert a single soul in that war-ravaged land. Poverty and famine reign supreme. AIDS is rampant, its spread only exacerbated by the belief that it can be cured by having sex with a virgin (which spawns a surfeit of baby-rape jokes). A local warlord rules with a bloody iron fist. And the villagers get through their days by cursing God in no uncertain terms from behind philosophical grins.

Elder Price, depressed, does his best to preach the gospel according to Joseph Smith, but throws in the towel after the warlord, General Butt-Fucking Naked (Brian Tyree Henry), murders a man in front of him. It falls to Elder Cunningham to take over the proselytizing effort. But the well-meaning Cunningham, who didn't pay very close attention in class at the MTC, has never actually read the Book of Mormon, which forces him to invent gospel stories more tailored to the realities of life in Uganda.

The Book of Mormon is, above all else, funny—side-splittingly funny through a couple of long stretches. Okay, I'll say it. I think my first viewing of the South Park movie in a crowded theater was the last time I laughed as hard as I did right up through the show-stopping musical number "Hasa Diga Eebowai," an incredibly profane and blasphemous riff on sunny, reductive ditties like The Lion King's "Hakuna Matata." (On the off-chance you've been living in a cloister for the past twelve months and don't know the translation of "hasa diga eebowai," I won't spoil it for you.)

The songs are mostly terrific too, certainly up to the standards of the past twenty years of Broadway musicals. The production numbers are tuneful and funny, and there are even good laughs to had in the quieter numbers. book_of_mormon_scene.jpg (A particular favorite of mine is "Baptize Me," a song that very cleverly casts a request for cleansing from sin into the mode of one of those syrupy R&B loss-of-virginity ballads.) And the performances are certainly spirited, especially Josh Gad's in the role of the hapless but well-meaning Elder Cunningham.

But the show suffers in other ways. From a dramatic standpoint, the story's through-line is fractured by the disappearance of Elder Price, the nominal protagonist, through large portions of the second act. (I know that Price's character is meant to skewer the trope of the Broadway hero whose naive confidence enables him to conquer the world, but that doesn't mean it works.) Characters behave in inconsistent ways that undermine the plot—the murderous General Butt-Fucking Naked, for example, who early on is unafraid to shoot an innocent villager in the head or to sodomize a missionary with a holy book, but in the end is cowed by inspirational stories. The violence itself plays more like a blatant attempt to shock than an organic element of the plot, as if a page from a Quentin Tarantino script had been pasted by accident into the book, and introduces an unwelcome tone of reality that sits at odds with the relative sweetness of the rest of the production.

All that is forgivable, but the worst sin The Book of Mormon commits is to grow boring through much of its middle. Somewhere on the way to the muddle that takes Elder Price out of the spotlight, the show just stops being clever. It never exactly stops being funny in a low-level way, but neither the plot nor the jokes rises above a certain bland level of predictability. Oh, so one of the older missionaries is a repressed homosexual? Yawn. So the naive young Nabulungi (Nikki M. James) imagines Salt Lake City as a magical wonderland where the warlords are kind and there's a Red Cross on every corner? Ho hum.

The show catches fire again toward the end, after the miraculous conversion of nearly the entire village catches the attention of the Mormon mission president, who comes to congratulate the local missionaries and is treated to a hilarious production number in which the villagers rehash all the mixed-up misconceptions Elder Cunningham has taught them about the Book of Mormon. Some of this material verges on the racist, but The Book of Mormon is ultimately saved, if not redeemed, by the villagers' innate understanding that they are not being taught literal truth but rather a series of parables intended to help them process and deal with the harsh realities of their daily existence.

This final message about religion's palliative effects in a grim world did enable me to leave the theater with a smile on my face, but I still can't shake my conviction that The Book of Mormon is hardly the flawless gem so many people seem to think it is. Still, I can't deny that I had a lot of fun watching it, and the funny parts are so funny that most theatergoers will probably forgive the parts that drag.

All right, so that's my review of the production itself. But how accurately does it reflect the realities of Mormonism, and of the lives of Mormon missionaries? Well ... not all that well.

Don't get me wrong. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done their research, at least into Mormon history and doctrine, as two rather funny numbers ("All American Prophet" and "I Believe") amply demonstrate. They've come a long way from the days of Orgazmo, their 1998 film about a Mormon missionary who becomes an accidental porn star, which was wall-to-wall stupid-funny but didn't have the glimmerings of a first clue about Mormon teachings or missionary life.

They had a much better handle on things Mormon by the time they made the infamous "All About Mormons" episode of South Park in 2003, which I gave high marks for the accuracy of its portrayal of the way the church presents its own history. book_of_mormon_elder_shunn.jpg But in the interim Parker and Stone have only somewhat improved their knowledge of the way missions work.

One of the things they get right, which matched my experience to a scary degree, is the crushing sense being exiled to a strange land for a period of time that seems so long it may as well be forever. They also nail the feeling of despair that comes from being saddled with a companion not of your choosing who doesn't share your same work ethic.

But the mechanics of missionary life they get mostly wrong. "Two by Two," for instance, the song in which the young elders at the Missionary Training Center get their assignments, makes for a fun production number, but is based on fantasy. In reality, missionaries learn where in the world they'll be sent months before they report to the MTC. They also are not normally assigned to be companions with other greenies, and certainly aren't assigned to just one companion for the full duration of their missions. New missionaries get more experienced elders as their first companions in the field, and their companions rotate every two or three months. (I had over a dozen different companions myself over the course of my mission.) And no missionary would ever be allowed to leave the MTC with as non-existent a grasp of the basics of Mormon theology as Elder Cunningham demonstrates.

Most wrong of all, though, is Elder Price's desire to serve his mission in Orlando. I have no doubt that plenty of lazy young men, hoping for two cushy years, have no greater ambition than to serve an English-speaking mission in a subtropical tourist destination, but that in no way reflects the thinking of young Mormons with ambitions to set the world on fire with their preaching. No, the glory-seekers among us (myself included) hoped for the most difficult assignments in the most exotic locales imaginable. Central America. Southeast Asia. Communist Russia (which was rumored to soon be opening to missionaries at the time I was putting my application papers in). These were the places we wanted to go. An elder as ambitious as Price would have been beside himself to get a calling to Uganda.

But if it sounds like I'm calling out the creators of The Book of Mormon for sloppiness, I'm really not. The reality of Mormonism is almost incidental to the show, which is not actually about Mormonism. Instead Mormonism is a proxy for religion itself, a safe choice for giving adherents of other faiths room to distance themselves from any critiques leveled in the production, which really aren't very deep. I can't even call The Book of Mormon a black comedy because in the end it doesn't have the conviction of its meanness. It has no interest in skewering the religious impulse, or in pushing its ideas to any absurd dark extreme. It lands sunny-side up, and is satisfied with the status quo. This, despite the lip service to naughtiness and edginess, makes The Book of Mormon a supremely conservative production, and thus perfect for Broadway success.

If I had to sum my opinion up in one sentence, I'd say that The Book of Mormon, while quite funny and entertaining, did not offend me nearly enough.

Coming to London's West End in 2013:  Book of Mormon London

Find tickets here:  Book of Mormon Tickets

And for more great shows:  London Theatre Tickets

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill
For a while there, AMC was a network that could do no wrong when it came to original scripted series. First there was Mad Men. (I don't watch it, but people I respect love it.) Then came Breaking Bad (which just closed out a stellar fourth season and is still my favorite show on television). And then there was Rubicon, a slow-building but hypnotic show about the lives of intelligence analysts that crescendoed into one of the most gripping shows of 2010. I was devastated when it wasn't renewed for a second season.

But AMC is losing me with its new crop of programs. The Walking Dead started out okay, but this second season is testing my patience. For a show that has the word "Walking" in its title, there sure doesn't seem to be any sense of forward momentum. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that I'm sick to death of everybody being stuck at the damn farmhouse. It's more like The Walking-in-Circles Dead. Yes, I'm sure we're building to something, but is it too much to ask that the characters exhibit some personality in the meantime, or that the pacing doesn't flag like a sailing ship in the doldrums? The show only comes alive anymore when there are dead people on the screen, and that doesn't happen nearly enough. Frank Darabont's episodes last year had their problems, but he is nonetheless sorely missed. The zombie apocalypse should be more exciting than this.

And AMC's newest show, Hell on Wheels, isn't exactly bowling me over yet. The characters on this please-call-us-gritty western at least have the advantage of being far more colorful than any on The Walking Dead, but I haven't yet gotten the sense of much humanity beneath the surface of any of them. There's something a bit remote about the acting. I feel a great distance between myself and most of the characters. Colm Meaney is the exception, but his railroad baron is so over-the-top that I really can't buy him, especially in the way that he cheerfully explains his evil plans to anyone who will listen. If you're going to have such a loquacious villain, it helps to fill his mouth with great dialog, like Ian McShane's on Deadwood. But no one on Hell on Wheels, cast or crew, is operating at that level. Not that that would matter if they didn't seem to be cribbing everything down to the seams and themes from David Milch. This show literally looks like a low-rent traveling production of Deadwood. But maybe they'll find their way. (I really hope they give Common something more interesting to do than just look angry.)

Anyway, AMC used to get the automatic benefit of the doubt from me, but those are days gone bye.

Nice review

Mar. 5th, 2010 09:55 am
Via the PS Publishing newsroom, here are excerpts from Peter Tennant's recent Black Static review of my collaboration with Derryl Murphy, Cast a Cold Eye:

This short novella does many things right. For starters, its setting is immaculately captured on the page, with a real sense of rural Nebraska in 1921 coming over thanks to a wealth of tiny details, such as the ins and outs of photography or a look inside the house of a wealthy widow. There's a strong emotional grounding too, for both Luke and the society in which he is placed, an aching sense of despair undercut with a feeling that perhaps the worst is past, so people can look to the future with hope, an optimism confirmed in its denouement. Characterisation is spot on, with no-one who can be considered either evil or a criminal, just ordinary men and woman with all the flaws and virtues that implies....

The supernatural side of the story is suitably understated, so that we believe but also take on board the possibility that the ghosts could only exist inside the hearts and minds of the people who see them. With a subtext suggesting that the spectral world is just another aspect of life, wishing us neither good nor evil, but just there, a case could be made for Luke as the 'I see ghosts' boy from Sixth Sense picked up, rather like a reverse Dorothy, and put down in rural Nebraska, but that might be stretching things. In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it without reservation.
Order yourself a copy, without reservation, here.
There's a good chance that you've seen this already, but if you haven't and you care about good, clear storytelling and you have 70 minutes to kill, you must watch this epic deconstruction of The Phantom Menace.

Aside from the pointless serial-killer subplot (seriously—the narrator of the review is supposed to be a delusional serial killer), this is a brilliant and funny dissection of why the Star Wars prequels suck so hard. It crystallized for me many of my own unfocused thoughts about the films, and gave me ten times as many new reasons to hate the them. The sequence where the reviewer asks friends to describe specific Star Wars characters is alone worth the price of admission.

Because of the 10-minute limit on YouTube content, the review is broken up into seven parts. (Part 7 doesn't always seem to play in its original configuration. If you have that problem, try this version of Part 7 instead.) Here's Part 1 to whet your appetite:

I'm reminded of a couple of my own objections to The Phantom Menace (which I have not seen since its opening week in 1999). First, I was disappointed that Anakin as a child showed no sign of any of the dark character traits—cruelty, rage, craftiness, whatever—that would later turn him into Darth Vader. That, for me, meant I felt no tension in his interactions with the other characters, and it made his eventual seduction by the Dark Side seem kind of arbitrary.

Second, even if that had been in the script, I doubt the child actor who played Anakin could have conveyed it. That kid had no charisma or acting ability whatsoever. I think I remember Orson Scott Card saying somewhere around that time that they were trying to get the same actor to play Ender. Why? Because Card wanted the Ender's Game movie to suck too?

Anyway, I hope this same reviewer tackles the other two prequels someday. After the clusterfuck that was Attack of the Clones, I didn't even bother seeing the third movie. Still haven't.
It was as straightforward as I had hoped to find the November Locus in Manhattan. I simply walked up to the usual place on the newsstand at the Union Square Barnes & Noble and picked up a copy. I'm trying not to be frustrated that I don't yet have the ability to pull off similar feats in the city of Chicago. But it will come.

Anyway, I was finally able to read the Nick Gevers review of my chapbook, which leads off his short fiction column. It says, in part:

William Shunn is one of those SF writers who, because they specialize in short fiction, are not given quite the recognition they deserve—no novels, no mass-market publication, so only the plaudits of the cognoscenti of the short form. Yet Shunn is a fine writer; ingenious, stylish, closely in touch with current global trends and expert in producing thought-provoking near-future SF, and at last he has a collection to show off that keen ability, even if it is only of chapbook length. [It] contains six stories, including two impressive original novelettes.

"Objective Impermeability in a Closed System" is an intense evocation of the ethical and emotional dilemmas of a scientist of whom idealism is expected but for whom compromise is easier.... A temporal paradox exists; AIs and a time machine become involved; but rather than the conventional circular narrative this implies, Shunn opts for an unusual, psychologically resonant conclusion, and a subtle questioning of the essentials of cause and effect. The implications run quite deep.

A similar impatience with genre clichés informs "Not of This Fold," a first contact tale with a difference.... Perhaps a little predictably, [the Mormon missionary protagonist] becomes instrumental in communicating with the aliens, but the process is bizarre, eerie, ironic. Shunn's own Mormon background comes into idiosyncratic, richly humorous focus, and the soul's quest for consolation and communion is affirmed in salutarily non-sectarian fashion.
Those are about the best reviews one could hope for, and both stories made Gevers's recommended reading list for the month.

Steven H. Silver did not seem quite as enamored of the collection in The Fix, but he did call the writing in one story "reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem's" at times, and he seemed to find "Not of This Fold" very satisfying.

You can make up your own mind for a measly five bucks!
I still haven't seen a copy of the November Locus, but I have learned that Nick Gevers put both new stories from my chapbook on his recommended reading list for the month.

Locus pocus

Nov. 6th, 2007 07:17 pm
So I've now heard from three different people that my chapbook got a nice review in the November Locus. Only problem is, the October issue is the one that just came in the mail. Argh.
Should you jump in the stream, or let this one slip by? My review of Anthony Hopkins's Slipstream.

(Turned out I was closer to Stephen Holden than Roger Ebert on this one.)
It's been such a hell of a long time since I've received any hate mail, I almost forgot what it was like. Thank God that hole in my life is plugged again, though I was more than a little surprised that the precipitating incident was, apparently, my mild slagging-off of the film The Last Starfighter in the course of my nearly-three-year-old review of the stage-musical version of same. I said:

Even to its ardent defenders, the movie version of The Last Starfighter has always played like a low-rent version of Star Wars, with a thinner, more maudlin story, inferior special effects and a production design no more convincing than the original Star Trek's. The genius of this new adaptation lies in its recognition that these apparent weaknesses are really strengths when translated to the musical stage.
My estimable correspondent said:

Re: Your review of The Last Starfighter, musical and film versions.

I loved the movie.
I have it on DVD.
I consider it one of my favorite inspirational films.
The effects are ground breaking in this, the first film to rely completely on CGI.
If you told me the sky was blue, I'd check first.
Screw you, Mary.
Goodness. That's the last time I speak out of turn about the film's ardent defenders. And I won't breathe a word about Tron.
I saw a little British film called Cashback earlier this week at a strange mall here in Chicago that seems to have modeled itself after the Guggenheim. I'll tell you about the movie over at Science Fiction Weekly. The mall, well, let's just say the spiraling ramp frustrated my best efforts to exit.
'The Outback Stars' by Sandra McDonald Strangely, I first met Lt. Jodenny Scott and Sgt. Terry Myell in Sandra McDonald's second novel, which I read in part last year at Blue Heaven. I say "strangely" because the first novel, The Outback Stars, was only published a couple of weeks ago. But I loved the characters enough from the partial second manuscript that I couldn't wait to go back and find out what happened to them earlier.

I got my chance a couple of months ago with an advance reader's copy of The Outback Stars, and I was not disappointed. Lt. Scott and Sgt. Myell serve in Team Space, a future starfaring naval corps whose ships are more than just military vessels. The ships ferry huge container modules—some bearing cargo, others luxury passenger accomodations, others prison populations—up and down the Alcharinga, a sort of spacetime manifold that permits hyperspatial travel. (A slight weakness of the book is that it took me too long to piece together all that information.) The Alcharinga was built by a vanished race and offers access to seven planets that seem to have been set up expressly for human habitation, but no one knows why. Team Space doesn't seem to want to look this gift horse too hard in the mouth.

Into the Alcharinga! )
What a hectic day yesterday was! After most of a frantic morning at the office, I sneaked out to spend an extended lunch hour watching the new independent supernatural thriller First Snow, after which I rushed back to the office to crank out a quick same-day review for SciFi.com, then stayed late at the office working frantically to try to make up for some of the chaos my absence had caused.

At home that night, even with a nice glass of Lagavulin in hand, watching Borat on DVD did little to relax me. Call me not a fan.

This morning Laura and I hauled two rolling suitcases full of books from Queens to the Strand in Manhattan. Nice little payday, and not one of our books was rejected. Laura has really figured out what books they'll take and which ones they won't—which is nice, because the Strand used-book counter I remember from my early days in the city is one characterized by sneering and snobbishness. I like this morning's Strand much better.
It's always a lovely thing to find someone saying something nice about one of your stories, but when it's a story that was published thirteen and a half years ago it's even nicer. Part of [livejournal.com profile] jamietr's very interesting project of reading through the full run of the late, lamented Science Fiction Age from the beginning.
My review of the new German film Requiem, about a girl who believes she is possessed by demons, is now available at Sci Fi Weekly.
In Rich Horton's roundup of Asimov's for the year, he has kind things to say about "Inclination." I see at least three other Blue Heaveners mentioned, including [livejournal.com profile] paulmelko, [livejournal.com profile] tim_pratt, and [livejournal.com profile] gregvaneekhout. Did I miss anyone?
My review of Evil Dead: The Musical is now available at Sci Fi Weekly.

I sense a group outing in the air....
My review of the new French animated film Renaissance (opening today in selected U.S. cities) is available now at Sci Fi Weekly.

(Also, you should check out the English and original French versions of the movie web site. I like the French version of the trailer better, even though I don't understand most of it.)
Boy, if this doesn't get me writing faster on the novel, nothing will!
Roger Ebert throws up his hands in response to readers who took issue with his review of An Inconvenient Truth:

I cannot get into a scientific discussion here. There will be no end to it. All I can say is, the Gore documentary made a deep impression on me. I urge you to see it. You will not be seeing a "campaign film," or "sour grapes," or "Gore still being bitter." George W. Bush has repeated for six years that global warming "requires more study." If Gore has spent six years studying it, aren't his findings worthy of attention? Yes, I'm "being political." But saying the issue "needs more study" is a political statement when energy groups are among your major supporters and your family is in the oil business.  [full response]
Good point.

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