Tuesday, August 26, 2014

PTSD, Horror Movie Style

The internet has been telling me to read Daniel Gregory.  Possibly the internet primarily consists of Jenny at Reading the End, but I don't keep track of how things end up on my to-read list, so we can just assume that the internet is to blame.  On Wednesday I read her review of We Are All Completely Fine and immediately requested a copy fro Netgalley.  They sent it, I started reading it, and I read it in one big gulp last night.  She was right; I should be reading this guy.

I think I was turned off because his books are hard to blurb--a combination between complex world-building that doesn't read well in succinct, back-cover layout, and somewhat grim, grotesque images that seem offputting without the context of a gripping story.  Check the blurb for The Devil's Alphabet; long, confusing, and not actually that appealing.

But we all know what a good author can do with a complicated story. 
We Are All Complete Fine is a novella, and its simplicity belies all that's going on here.  First, the premise is so intuitive that I wish there were more stories like it; this is a support group for people with...unusual histories.  Really, it's made up of five people who have survived, essentially, horror movies.  I won't give them away, because the unfolding stories are half of the book, but the point is, if you are that one person who survives to the end of The Ring or The Hills Have Eyes or whatever horror movie I haven't seen but seriously, how do you go on?

There's always this point made at the beginning of a movie like that of how normal life is, how this person is Just Like You, living in a world where Weird Things don't happen, and then suddenly reality changes for them and they are in a horror movie.  There would be some emotional fallout there, right?  This is what I always liked about The Hunger Games, that there's no pretense that you come out of that just tougher, stronger, more cynical.  You also come out confused, and broken, and miserable.

So we have a therapy group.  And I mean "we" literally, because each chapter is framed in the first person plural, then zooms into the third person singular to follow a character.  This was a weakness, only because the group goes from "we" to "they" and back to "we" in each chapter, which is just weak.  I know first person plural is tough to pull off, but if you're going to do it, commit to it.

That's my only complaint.  It's complicated, rich, creepy as all get out.  It's about survivor guilt, but also about how much responsibility we should actually accept for what we suspect or know about, about how small, casual choices can have big repercussions, and how no bystander is completely innocent.

And now I ran out to the library and have more Daryl Gregory on my stack.  Because Jenny was right and I should really be reading him.

(Thank you to NetGalley for my review copy of this book.)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The End of the Bees

It's always sad when I put down a book I was really excited to read.  Laline Paull's The Bees got a lot of buzz (oh, that wasn't going to be a pun, but look, there it is!) earlier this year because of some NPR coverage.  It promised to be odd and charming and informative.

Well, I definitely found it odd, and it's pretty informative.  Unfortunately, I'm not charmed enough to finish it--which I'm pretty sure puts me in the minority.  I'm finding it a slog, actually, and I'm putting it down about 1/3 of the way through.

This is the story of Flora 717, and it begins with her birth, when she hatches from her honeycomb cell to begin her life as a sanitation worker in the hive, for the love and benefit of the goddess/queen/Holy Mother.  She is plucked from obscurity by a Sage sister (categories of bees are identified by their "kin," with plant names, and individuals with numbers) and taken to the nursery--an experiment, to see if a sanitary worker can be taught to feed the larvae.

Through the following days, Flora moves from area to area, changing jobs and learning new things in a world where life is strictly regimented, where nonconformity is policed and treated with the Kindness (execution), and hierarchy is clear, firm and biological.

Except it isn't.  And I think this is my problem: in order to anthropomorphize something as alien as bee society, you need to layer on all these features of independent mind and free will that are--for a human audience--human traits.  So, from this human point of view, bee society is horribly repressive and messed up.

Except, it's not, because they're not human--they're bees.  Being a human in bee society, even outside the obvious issues of size and wings and trivia like that, would stink.  Life would be nasty, brutish, and short.

What I think she was trying to do is what a science fiction author would do with an alien culture, which is to use it as a lens for us to look at humanity, so we can step outside of the familiar and see things from a new angle.  Which is great, but the reason that works is because the SF author gets to make things up.  This book is more like an extended analogy, and because nature limits what you have to work with, it doesn't seem to work very well for me.  But then, I've been pretty frustrated with Oppressive Societies Are Oppressive fiction lately.

On the subject of bees, though, let me give you a positive recommendation: Clan Apis, by Jay Hosler.  This is comic book with essentially the same objective as The Bees--to dramatize the life cycle of the bee and to teach us something about humanity at the same time--and I believe it was much more successful. 

First of all, it's funny--it a broad, kid-directed way, but funny.  It's quite direct about its educational sections--at various points, a young bee gets lectured about the life cycle by older characters.  It's a comic for kids (in spite of a little bee sex and plenty of death), but I found it absolutely charming and heartwarming, and I cried a couple of times when I was reading it.  I recommend this one highly.

One thing I will say about The Bees--it's left me seriously wanting to reread Watership Down to figure out how Richard Adams made that whole "real facts of nature and anthropomorphic drama convincingly wrapped together" thing work.  That book was amazing.  I think it has to do with the characters, but I haven't quite figured it out yet.  I'll let you know if I do. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Verity Revisited

This month, book club read Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein.  I read and loved this quite a while ago, and I was excited to get a chance to talk about it.  My fellow clubbers were not as excited about it as I was, though they mostly liked it.  It definitely ended up on that list of books that weren't bad, but didn't give us a lot of conversational fodder.

Which also means this reader's guide will be pretty short.  They're some of the things that I was thinking about on this read-through, along with points that were made at book club.  It's funny how I am never surprised or thrown off when someone else doesn't have the same feelings or opinion about a book as I do, but I am surprised when they have different perceptions or expectations. 

1) This book has been much reviewed and discussed in the blogosphere, and it's generally known to have a "twist" in the middle.  Did you see the twist coming?  Do you even think it was a twist, or was it more of a reveal?  What's the difference?

2) What expectations did you have going into the book? The cover blurb tells you that two women crash in occupied France--this small amount of information removes some tension that would exist if you were reading blind (which I did the first time; I had an ebook with no cover blurb).  Between cover information and other background knowledge, how was your perception of the book affected by what you knew before going in?

3) Related, what do you think of this cover?  This was the cover when I first read it, though I don't think it's current now.  The cover led some of my fellow clubbers to expect the story to take a romantic turn, possibly even a sexual one. 

4) Springing from that, what do you think about Julie and Maddie's friendship?  "It's like falling in love, finding your best friend."  Julie says they would never have been friends if not for the war; even if they had, do you think this type and intensity of friendship is ever replicated outside of wartime? 

5) Do you think Maddie and Jamie end up together?  (There's info on that in Wein's companion book, Rose Under Fire, so I know the answer, but it was a discussion at book club.)

6) This is one I've thought about a lot, and it applies to a lot of books.  When you have a book where the narrator's reason for telling the story is part of the narrative--basically a story that is being written by one of the characters, as opposed to just "told"--there's a certain stylistic bar that needs to be cleared.  This is true in epistolary novels, books that are structured as diaries, and book like this, where the narrator sitting down and writing the account is part of the account.  The fact of voice is a huge deal in a book like that, because real letters and diary entries don't sound like novels, and very few people actually writing their life story are going to sound like they're writing a novel.

The way I see it, there are two problems faced by a writer working like this.  First, providing information to the reader of the novel in a way that is narratively pleasing while remaining authentic to the in-story writer's intent.  Like, when I sit down to write in my diary about the day Something Big happened, I probably don't start with all the details of how it was an ordinary day and I ate breakfast, etc.  Honestly, in my diary I start with the BIG point and then maybe backtrack to details, but there's no tension in a diary entry, because I'm writing for someone (me) who already knows the end of the story.  Similarly, if I write a friend to tell them Something Big happened, I make an announcement.  I'm not likely to draw it out with a detailed account that leads up to it.  Maybe some people do, but I don't.  So it's on the author to come with a voice that seems to be someone who would authentically write like that.

The second problem is related--backstory.  Someone writing in their diary is not going to describe the fight they had with X today while giving details of the history of their friendship with X, and info about X's parents and history and all the info that the reader needs.  Some of that info might come up peripherally (I mean, I know her mom is critical, but that doesn't mean blah blah blah), but you're not going to find a way to get an incident from years ago that informs this one into the document.

Verity solves that by making Julie a) a very literary writer, who b) is purposefully rambling.  There are in-story explanations for why she wants to give so much detail and history and go over every bit--self-comfort, stretching the time out, and other, below-the-surface reasons.  Maddie, on the other hand, is a blunter, more practical person, and while her writing because she has literally nothing else to do makes some sense, I think the image slips more here.  Wein does a good job using a different voice, but she does get into narrative parts and it starts to sound like a novel, and not like what Maddie would write. 

And heaven help us, one of my pet peeve lines in literature is "I have to write this down or I'll go crazy" or forget, or it won't seem real.  If you have to tell me that, it's because you know I'm not quite buying it.

So to summarize the question: how does the semi-epistolary nature of the novel work for you?

It's really my one critique--I don't mean to sound like I hold it against the book.  I love the book, and I love how Maddie's cold hard facts reveal so much about the truths behind Julie's narrative.  Really, though, I just love Maddie and Julie, and that they have each other and love each other.  I've read a million World War II books, and I think this one might have touched me the most.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


There is something about rarefied atmospheres that appeal to me.  It's what I love about books set in convents and boarding schools, and occasionally I find myself drawn to a book set in the Ivory Tower.  I enjoyed Allegra Goodman's Intuition (though I agree with Kris's criticism that the science is not good science); I was very bothered by Francine Prose's Blue Angel.

When I read a blurb for Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher, two things caught my eye: epistolary novel, and "droll and inventive."  A comic novel is hit or miss, and a comic novel that sounds like it might have an axe to grind--a beleaguered academic writing reluctant letters of reference promises to be thinly veiled whining from someone in a similar position--sounds just awful.  But...but.  I don't know what the "but" is--"but" I requested it from NetGalley anyway,

I needn't have worried--it is NOT about whining.  I mean, the character whines a lot, but he's genuinely hilarious.  I did get annoyed with him when he went off-topic--I completely understood why so many people couldn't stand him--but I also found it kind of charming when he wrote way-too-honest letters:

"This letter recommends Melanie deRueda for admission to the law school on the well-heeled side of campus.  I've known Ms. deRueda for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes.  This young woman is certainly tenacious, if that's what you're looking for.  A transfer student, she appears to be suffering under the delusion that a recommendation from any random faculty member within our august institution will be the key to her application's success."

This would get old, but it's just the framework and the vehicle for telling the story--the story of his life, and the story of this school year.  He writes to his department head and the dean, complaining about cuts to the English and Creative Writing departments.  He writes to his exes and old classmates, who work at other institutions, in other parts of his university, or in business.  He recommends students and tries to find a position for his protege. He soothes exes, complains about the state of academia, and worries about old friends.

And over the course of this, we get a clearer picture of him--his early literary success, his conflicts with his exes, his reputation as a crank in the department.  It's not just a character sketch, though--you can watch the relationships work out in this one sided correspondence.

I also learned more words in this book than I ever have.  My Kindle is earning its props for instant definitions; I've highlighted mephitic, senescence, strabismic, ding an sich, and yclempt, and that's just in the last quarter of the book when I started highlighting.

If this review does not adequately convey that I found the book amusing, whimsical, and touching, then it's because I'm still kind of jet lagged.  Sometimes it's the books you really like that you have a hard time explaining.

(Received a free copy from NetGalley for an honest review.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Of Rings and Crowns

I was wooed into reading this book by several skilfully deployed marketing factors.

The Ring and the Crown, by Melissa de la Cruz

1) Gorgeous cover.  Seriously, GORGEOUS.  Look at this cover.  I am drawn in by packaging, but usually for its hints, not for its sheer beauty.  Here, it's just lovely.  And the endpapers are marbled!  I had no idea I was such a sucker for things like marbled endpapers!

2) Ungettable galley.  It was on Netgalley, I requested it because the premise sounded great (an alternate early 20th century England, where magic is real and has allowed the British Empire to essentially conquer the Western world).  I was turned down for the galley--not too surprising, I'm a small-time blogger.  But it put the book on my radar much earlier than it otherwise would have been.

3) Tight blurb.  Besides the basic premise, the blurb teases some straightforward story possibilities: four women of different characters and fortunes come together during a fateful London season and determine the fate of the Empire.  Also: two girls, one who will be queen, the other her loyal servant.  And one is a traitor!  Which one is what?  Who now?  Between the back cover, the preface, the inside flap, some copywriter had convinced me that this was just my kind of book.

It is....not.

The titular Ring is the marriage ring, because this is the story of the London season and everyone trying to find love and/or someone to marry.  The Crown is just the crown you think it is--a princess and several princes are among the MUCH TOO LARGE cast of characters looking to mate.  These people are all 16, and they act like it.  They want love and money and whatever, and the princess wants to not be a princess but this other girl wants to be a princess, and arranged marriages and poor but beautiful girl looks for a sugar daddy and a prince has to break one engagement for another and and and. 

Not enough politics.  Some characters come on screen, have their little parts, and then wander off.  There's a diabolical plot at the end, and I think this one whole character only existed in the story so her cousin could look suspicious for about five minutes. It feels like the last 10 pages of the book contain the last 25% of the action as the characters summarize what happened since the second to last chapter.  And then everyone has a change of heart spontaneously and everything is okay the end.

People in this England, 1901 say things like "okay" a lot, and a lot of other modern slang that no one seems to have noticed in the editorial process (I am NOT going back to look for quotes, sorry).  Also, empires are GREAT, and thank god they are preserved, because otherwise ANARCHY.  The guy who's ruled with an iron fist for 1,000 years is totes the best guy for the job and has everyone's best interests at heart, even when he's blatantly manipulated and POISONING THEM.

But there are gay people just fitting in with society, so that's cool, I guess?  Honest to god, that alone is probably all that got the book the second star.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

My Crush on Kristen Bell

Due to the fact that my phone can only hold one audiobook at a time (because of it being a classic/antiquated/having buttons), I had to put aside The Thousand Dollar Tan Line for a while after I started it, at least until I had finished The Two Towers.

Once we were back in business, though, I just listened to it pretty much straight through, lending only one ear to things like my child and traffic, and even then, only on occasion.  Short, punchy chapters, packed with action, twists, and sketchy characters--as well as old favorites.

Many familiar characters make an appearance, though a lot of them only get a cameo.  I think Weevil's drama is being saved for the next movie or something, and Logan is relegated to a couple of awkward video chats.  (I like this--that relationship is huge and messy and I feel like it would be too much to ask of the book to flesh it out, unless the personal stuff was going to be the focus.)  Dick shows up at some pivotal moments, and there are some really nice moments with Veronica and Keith and Veronica and Wallace.  Mac is present throughout, and Cliff (her dad's lawyer friend) gets a nice cameo.  Sheriff Lamb, Jr. is, of course, a major antagonist.

You can tell Rob Thomas did some real writing here, because the dialogue is SO Veronica Mars perfect.  But I give a lot of credit to Jennifer Graham (whom I haven't read), because the plot of a mystery novel has to be more complicated than a movie or episode of a TV show, but less string-alongy than a seasonal story arc.  The pacing here is just right, and I was surprised at several points in the story.  One of the investigative lines did sort of peter out in a way that I wish it hadn't, though--there was a lot of potential there.

Anyway, the best part--absolutely, hands down best--was Kristen Bell's audio performance.  Listen to the sample here, and I highly, HIGHLY recommend that you listen to this book.  Her performance is amazing.  It's like Veronica is RIGHT THERE.  I know, I know.  But her Mac, he Wallace, her Keith are all just so perfect at capturing them without imitations.  Her bit part characters are wonderfully fleshed out and distinct.  There are a few voices she doesn't quite get as dead on--Logan is one--but even those are as good as anything I've heard from another voice actor.

I love Kristen Bell--LOVE--and Veronica Mars, and I hope like anything that they'll make another movie, or a revived TV series, or webisodes.  And heck, definitely more audiobooks.  In fact, look!  The next novel, Mr. Kiss and Tell, is coming out this fall!

You can bet I'll be on Audible on release day.  Strike that--I'll be checking the website periodically until it's possible for me to preorder it. 

I love you, Kristen.  Do you wanna build a snowmanOr feed my new pet sloth?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Skeletons in the Garden

Three Graves Full, by Jamie Mason, is the reason they invented the three star rating--though I'd give it 3 and a half if I could.  It is incredibly excellent except for the flaws.  I loved every page but had a hard time getting all the way through it.  Compelling except that it dragged.

What you've got here is a thriller. Jason Getty is a nervous little fellow with a body buried in his backyard, which jacks the nerves up a bit in and of itself.  It's not hard to keep the lawn guys away from it--unfortunately, they find another body buried in the front yard.

So now the house is swarming with cops, there are two bodies in the front yard, and Jason--who is not the confident, quick-thinking type--is trying to stay half a step ahead of the cops.  Into the mix we bring two smart detectives, Body #1's girlfriend, Body #1's husband (widower, I suppose), and the true story of how Jason of all people ended up putting a body in the ground behind the tool shed.  There's detecting, there's chasing, there's menacing, there's a con artist.  It's a thriller.

So, the good part: the writing is absolutely wonderful.  It's not so much about style or anything particularly artistic--it's straightforward great turns of phrase.  You've got clever metaphors, you've got spot-on imagery, you've got word games that turn cliches on their ear.  Literally, you can flip to any page and with one page turn max, you can find something that you want to read out loud to someone because the sentence is so great, the image is so clear, the observation is so spot on.  The language is SO good.

There just isn't quite enough story to carry it.  It's more than a short story, but the plot here is more of a novella than a full novel.  There are no twists, no real subplots, and very few revelations.  In a thriller, there needs to be some mystery, but there really isn't here--since we're following the criminal(s) as well as the cops and the victims, we know everyone's details, who did what and where the body is.  And while the chase scene contains all the "can they get away?" tension you could hope for, there's no longer, broader tension to draw you through the story.

The exception, I suppose, is the question of whether Jason will get caught.  I wanted to know the answer to that.  But I wasn't particularly invested in what the answer would be--Jason is not evil, but he is very, very pathetic, and so I didn't hold out much hope for him, or even root for him very much.  I had plenty of other people to root for, but none of them had any tension behind them.  There wasn't a romantic subplot, there was no will they-won't they, and all the sketchy pasts are outlined as back story early on. 

This also leaves you with a little less meat than you need to fill up 300 pages.  This filler is in the descriptions--the book is full of darlings, and not enough of them were bumped off in the making of the story.  Sometimes you see a good description taking up more sentences than whatever is being described is worth, just because the metaphor is so perfect.  You can't begrudge it, but it doesn't make a page turner.

So you have a really well told description of a bunch of interesting things that happen.  Which leaves me with three stars, and a suggestion that it might be worth reading just for the words, which are wonderful words. 

And I will say this: I'm absolutely and without question going to read whatever Jamie Mason writes next.