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What’s new Pussycat? – “The Meowmorphosis” by Franz Kafka and Coleridge Cook

Franz Kafka’s 1915 classic “The Metamorphosis” was the story of  a young man – Gregor Samsa – who awakened one morning to find himself turned into a giant insect.  The book is widely discussed and read in schools and years of debate have raged about exactly what sort of insect Samsa becomes.  (Vladimir Nabokov, for example, was adamant that Samsa did not become a cockroach, but rather a large beetle.)

Those clever brains at Quirk Classics – aka, the company that launched a million mashups after the smash hit success of their “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” – decided to turn the monster genre on it’s head.  Instead of a classic piece of literature with some monters worked in, Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” became “The Meowmorphosis,” and Gregor Samsa awakens to discover he’s become an adorable kitten.

I love the concept.  However, I only liked the book.

While the idea behind it is clever, Samsa’s becoming a kitten somehow led to the inclusion of a section where Samsa ventures out of the family’s apartment and into the dark underworld of other people who’ve also become cats.  Kafka’s original novel takes place entirely within the confines of the apartment, and manages to say a lot more about family and society by staying in those walls. “The Meowmorphosis” strives to become a gonzo meta-fiction, by sending Samsa out into the world to get caught up in a storyline that has many (MANY) familiar echoes of Kafka’s “The Trial.”

It’s a tribute to Kafka, really. With Kittens.

That said, it’s a decent read, though it pales in comparison to some of Quirk’s other entries to the mashup genre. (I still hold “Android Karenina” dear to my heart, and in truth the 3rd book in the “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” trilogy is one of the most exciting books I’ve ever read. It’s like a Jane Austen movie with zombies, ninjas, and society women with swords. Unstoppable!)

If Kafka is your homeboy, you’ll probably enjoy this book more than I did.  I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of references and twists that are pulled from his works that I didn’t catch.  That said, at it’s basest form, the book is interesting enough to be a good read, if not a great one.

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A Queen for the (Dark) Ages – “The Secret History of Elizabeth Tudor, Vampire Slayer” by Lucy Weston

On the eve of being crowned Queen of England, Elizabeth Tudor is whisked from her bedchamber by two of her most trusted advisers, and learns that she is much more than just a soon-to-be queen with an unfortunate family history.

Elizabeth Tudor is a Vampire Slayer.  Oh yes, she is!

Admittedly, I’m nearing the point of being totally over the whole trend of taking historical figures (Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth) or works of classic fiction (Pride and Prejudice, Little Women) and shoving vampires or werewolves into the story line purely as a gimmick.  There have been a couple of mashups that I’ve seriously enjoyed, but overall it’s a trend I won’t be too sad to see fade away into the bookcases of time.  What saves “..Elizabeth Tudor..” from being another ridiculous entry into this tricky genre is the author, Lucy Weston.

Ms. Weston is into vampires.  So into them, in fact, that her biography claims she’s the vampire/woman who inspired Bram Stoker to create the character of Lucy in Dracula.

Whatever she is, she’s a good writer with a strong sense of what people are looking for when they pick up a book like this. Wisely, the book is a sexy, fast-paced adventure in the royal court of England, with throwbacks to the court of Camelot, and there are vampires, too!  (Imagine a Phillipa Gregory novel with vampires.  It’s kind of like that.  Which I mean as a compliment.  Really, I do.  Say what you will about Gregory, she’s infinitely readable.)

After discovering her powers, Elizabeth comes face to face with the most powerful vampire, Mordred.  Yep, the Mordred from the King Arthur tales.  Though Elizabeth knows he’s evil and has been warned against him, she’s drawn to his seductive powers and torn between her loyalty to God/her kingdom and her carnal desires and the temptation of eternal life and beauty.  Assisted by her human lover Robin, her advisers, and the spirits of both Anne Boleyn and Morgaine LeFay, Elizabeth goes head to head with the darkest of villains.

Will she or won’t she give in to her dark desires, readers?

You’ll have to read and find out.

“..Elizabeth Tudor..” surprised me.  It’s a fun book, and an easy way to escape from the real world even for a few hours.  Why not get swept up in Queens and Vampires for a while, right?

A classic tale of sisters, now with Werewolves (for some reason) – “Little Women and Werewolves” by Louisa May Alcott and Porter Grand

So far, I’ve been a giant fan – and proponent – of the concept of literary mash-ups.

From the forefather of the genre, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” to the under-appreciated “Jane Slayre,” I’ve had a blast reading these clever mix-ups of classic literature and monsters.  I’ve even defended them when some of the more book-snobby people I know said they were stupid and pointless.  (Not that they’re not stupid and pointless, it’s just that sometimes stupid and pointless is just fine.)

However, I think I’ve reached the end of my appreciation for the genre – as evidenced by my feelings on “Little Women and Werewolves.”

Though I like the concept (Louisa May Alcott’s original draft of her famous novel included a werewolf plot which her publishers made her remove – and that this is the true original) the actual mixing of the March sisters and werewolves falls flat much of the time, and doesn’t seem that well integrated into the events of the book.

Instead of the civil war, there’s a werewolf war going on.  The March’s neighbors might be werewolves.  Yet, the March sisters are almost as silly as ever, putting on plays and spatting over Christmas presents.  Also, instead of grand, sweeping romances, Jo writes werewolf stories. 

Well, to quote the heroine of a recent book I reviewed here: “Fiddle-dee-dee!”

Basically, the insertion of werewolves doesn’t make the original scary, nor does it add anything to the wonderful original it’s supposedly paying tribute to. 

For example, anyone who knows anything of “Little Women” knows that Beth dies. (There’s even an episode of Friends that centers on that.) If it’s a spoiler to you, sorry, but really – it’s just a thing people know.  Beth’s death in the actual novel is heart-breaking and a key event. Here, it’s thrown away rather stupidly and completely ineffective.  I think it’s supposed to be a big, brave thing, but it’s…. snooze-worthy.

The only upside to this book, far as I can see, is the revelation that is Amy March.  Bratty Amy, a one-dimensional character if one was ever written in the original novel, is actually the most interesting part of this version of the story.  As Laurie is a werewolf, Amy’s eventual falling in love with him – and the actions she takes to secure her place with him –  provide about the only interesting plot.  Extracting that plot-line, developing it, and making it a book called (perhaps), “Amy March loves a Werewolf,” would have been a far better tactic.

So, there’s a lone bright spot.  And her name is Amy.

Jo, Meg, Marmee, and Beth, however (who’ve always been more interesting than Amy) are all really boring here.

Figure that one out.

The inclusion of werewolves into this classic tale of sisters seems a little….haphazard.  It never made it past the original thought, or something.  And its a shame, because this book could have been as grand as some of the books it tries to follow.

Le sigh.

Oh well, I’ll always have “Android Karenina.”

Zombies and Trekkies and Leia, Oh my! –“Night of the Living Trekkies” by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall

You don’t have to know anything about Star Trek to find “Night of the Living Trekkies” tremendously entertaining and a lot of fun.

Trust me.  Other than a few obvious facts (like William Shatner played Captain Kirk and that Tribbles are fuzzy creatures that look vagugely like guinea pics) I’m a Star Trek novice, and I was able to totally dig this book.

“Night of the Living Trekkies” is the latest release from Quirk Books, a publishing company most notorious for combining Jane Austen and zombies in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. ” This time, instead of adding zombies into a literary classic, they’ve done something different – and added zombies into a modern novel about a place and time that should, by all rights, not have zombies in it.  It’s a wise publishing move – Zombies are all the rage.

Authors Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall, per their biographies, are life-long science fiction nerds, and it shows.  Pop-culture references and lines of dialogue are so easily inserted into this book, they never distract from the book as a whole.  Star Trek, Star Wars, this book is like manna for sci-fi fans.

The short version of the plot is this – Jim Pike is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan.  Now, he’s an assistant manager of a hotel in Houston, Texas, and resigned to a pretty boring life.  During a Star Trek convention at his hotel, things start to get weird.  People are being bitten and disappearing.  Yep, zombies are attacking, and it’s up to Jim and his strong survival instincts to save himself, his sister, a hot chick in a Princess Leia costume (you’ll see), and a few other remaining souls from unpleasant zombie-dom.

Christopher Moore is my favorite living author, and “Night of the Living Trekkies” reminded me of something he could have written.  (Consider that a huge compliment.)  The absurdity, the witty and quick dialogue, and the cinematic pace are all trademarks of Moore’s works, and Anderson and Stall have used them wisely to keep this book moving. Also, the strong and interesting characters are essential to the books success.   Jim himself is a pretty fantastic hero to spend 253 pages with.  He’s an everyman, but with skills. From the second Rayna (Jim’s sister) arrives for the convention in an RV decked out to look like the USS Enterprise, you know you’re going to love her. And I can’t even explain the leading lady known simply as “Leia” without giving spoilers away.  Just by mentioning her name and existence, I’ve probably spoiled something. (My bad.)

“Night of the Living Trekkies” would make a fantastic movie.  I imagine it’d be like a cross between “Shaun of the Dead” and the Star Wars buddy movie “Fanboys.”

I read this book while sitting by the pool in Hawaii, enjoying a fruity beverage.  It’s not a heavy read, and it’s nothing you have to work too hard to process.  Simply, it’s an enjoyable adventure with loads of laughs and more than a few unexpected twists.  It’s a little gem of a novel, and I thought it was just swell.  Here’s hoping Anderson and Stall keep up the great work and give readers some more books loaded with smarts and laughs like this one.

Tolstoy goes Steampunk: “Android Karenina,” by Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters

(Originally published in my personal blog, The Kids Got Moxie, on 6/8/2010.)

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Literary hybrids of Jane Austen novels and zombie stories? That’s so last year.

– The New York Times.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been trying to read Tolstoy’s original Anna Karenina for probably about ten years now, and have failed miserably.  Its sitting on my bookcase even now with a bookmark at about the halfway point, where I inevitably lose interest and set down the book.

And this comes from a huge book nerd, so take that as you will.

Now you understand why I was so excited when I first heard about Android Karenina, the newest literary mash-up from the people at Quirk Classics. (AKA, the people who brought the world Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.)

In it’s basest form, Anna Karenina is a soap opera played out by awkward wealthy Russian people.  Roughly, Anna is married to Alexi but in love with Vronsky. Levin is in love with Kitty, who refuses his marriage proposal in the hopes that Vronsky will turn his attentions to her. There are opulent social events, stolen kisses, entrances into society, and a whole lot of internal struggle and angst.

Android Karenina doesn’t really change that plot.  Despite what the book’s cover and title may suggest, rather than turning the main characters of this classic novel into robots themselves, Winters wisely surrounds our protagonists with robot sidekicks.  In this steampunk version of Russia, the wealthy are given robotic sidekicks (called “beloved-companions”) who are at times both personal assistant and therapist to their human counterparts.  These sidekicks can do anything from fighting off evil robots to re-playing the memories of their masters.

Behind the romantic entanglements of our five main characters is a cyber-war beginning, as the robots (clearly serving as a symbol of industrialization) get more and more powerful and begin to think for themselves. Technically, they’re bound by “Iron Laws,” but laws will only hold back enslaved beings for so long, as we know from history.  There’s also another threat looming, which I won’t spoil by mentioning here, but it’s a sci-fi dream come true.

The book is a success largely due to it’s welcome injection of sci-fi, which enhances the original novel without taking all that much away from the source material.  It reminds me a little of the Baz Lurhman/Leonardo DiCaprio Romeo & Juliet movie in how it grabs your attention from the very beginning to help the daunting text go down a little smoother.  The robots and cyber-war begin slightly gimmicky, but eventually manage to become such a vivid and vital part of the novel that I honestly can’t imagine ever reading Anna Karenina the same way again.