Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter, by Theodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter, by Theodora Goss

In this novel, Goss has created an excellent homage to Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with a thoroughly entertaining twist. Where Moore took classic characters that starred in their own novels such as Captain Nemo and Allan Quatermain and formed an alliance, Goss takes the daughters of fictional characters (some appearing in their progenitor's novels and some created by Goss) for her team: Mary Jeckyll and Diana Hyde are the children of the two halves of Dr. Jekyll, Beatrice Rappaccini is the eponymous Rappaccinis Daughter, Catherine Moreau is one of Dr. Moreau's creations, and Justine Frankenstein the second monster of Victor Frankenstein. Toss in Holmes and Watson as occasional partners for the women and Renfield as one of a group of notable antagonists and we have a band of heroes (calling themselves the Athena Club) and villains (the Société des Alchimistes) set for an epic showdown.

Well written, The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter has a unique narrative style. The story purports to be a novel written in the early 1900's by Catherine Moreau, but has the main characters injecting commentary along the way. The first person narrative erratically shifts between the various characters which I found odd at first, but came to appreciate. This distinctive technique is self-referentially explained away in the course of the plot: "JUSTINE: Is the story supposed to be jumping around like that, from Mary's head, to Diana's, to Beatrice's? CATHERINE: I told you, this is a new way of writing. How can I write a story about all of us if I don't show what we were all thinking?" Clever and quirky, this approach to storytelling adds greatly to the overall literary experience. With a compelling plot and fantastic characters, I eagerly look forward to reading the next adventure of the Athena Club, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman.

First Sentence:
Mary Jeckyll stared down at her mother's coffin.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

The Sherlockian, by Graham Moore

The Sherlockian, by Graham Moore

Moore has spun a captivating debut novel that takes place in parallel at both the end of the 19th century and the early 21rst. He takes details from history (Bram Stoker and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were friends; Conan Doyle hated Sherlock Holmes, his greatest creation; and Conan Doyle was a diligent diarist but one of his volumes was discovered missing after his death) and the present (the Baker Street Irregulars is an active private society of dedicated Holmes aficionados) and blends them into a couple of mysteries with a single narrative. The Victorian thread follows Conan Doyle and Stoker on the trail of a serial killer, and the modern thread is an investigation into the murder of a prominent Sherlockian who had recently claimed to find Doyle's missing diary, which just so happens covers the time of the earlier adventure.

Chock full of trivia about Conan Doyle and Holmes this is a book clearly aimed at fans of the oeuvre but I don't think one needs to have read every Sherlock adventure to enjoy this; simply understanding and appreciating the caricature of Holmes is enough. There are actually several mysteries explored here: who was killing young suffragettes in 1900, who killed the scholar in 2010, what was written in the missing diary, and what happened to it? All these questions are answered more or less satisfactorily, although the conclusion in the Swiss Alps was a bit farfetched—is breaking and entering a public museum really that easy in this day and age? Overall I found some of the characterization (especially of the modern sections) was sacrificed for the plot throughout, but the plot held together well and rocketed from scene to scene so this wasn't the negative it could have been. An enjoyable read for both Holmes devotees and casual mystery fans.

First Sentence:
Arthur Conan Doyle curled his brow tightly and thought only of murder.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Song of Spider-Man, by Glen Berger

Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History, by Glen Berger

Even though Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is often called one of the biggest disasters ever produced on Broadway, it is a show I dearly would have liked to have seen. Spider-Man is one of my favorite heroes, and the descriptions of the action scenes in the show sound amazing. Spider-Man and the Green Goblin battling in the air above the audience, leaping off walls, briefly landing in the aisles before soaring off again. As great as that sounds, Song of Spider-Man makes it clear what a mess the musical actually was.

The reason the show was such a train wreck was the creative minds behind the show didn't understand what makes Spider-Man special. Interestingly, the author of the book is one of those creative minds. Berger details how he and Julie Taymor came up with the story, and then proceeds to cover how it clearly didn't work while they steadfastly held to their original vision. Spider-Man was created in 1962, and in the decades since has been populated with scores of memorable characters. For whatever reason, Berger and Taymor decided to have the main antagonist in the musical be a character from Greek mythology instead. Eventually the producers of Turn Off the Dark brought in a different creative team that salvaged what they could, but the show never could shake the bad press.

Sadly, for as honest as Berger is while discussing the trials and tribulations of the musical, I don't think he ever came to terms with why it all went wrong. He writes of how the plot was eviscerated on the internet and he was so upset he'd go online and respond to the haters (spoiler, it didn't help). He simply couldn't understand why people were disemboweling a show that they had never seen, much less not even being complete yet! I agree the internet can be an awful place and comic fans in particular are famously impossible to please, but it simply isn't that difficult to see why. Imagine if in The Lion King Simba defeats Scar at the end of act one, and then in act two he has to fight a poacher that is Artemis in disguise. It would be awful, right? Well, that is basically the plot of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Amusingly, Taymor is the force behind The Lion King as well, but didn't stray from the source material there.

Song of Spider-Man is a great look behind the curtains at what it takes to create a Broadway production. (It is especially interesting as the musical wasn't a successful one.) Berger doesn't pull any punches either. As a main character in the tale he comes off as indecisive and feckless in some places, fawning and obsequious in others; but, he shares it all, giving an overall impression of honesty. Anyone interested in musical theater should enjoy this.

First Sentence:
The four drinks I knocked back on an empty stomach in the empty VIP room were finally kicking in.

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