Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Horror Movies

This doesn't count as Brenda's Forcening (TM-Thefted Material) pick, since it was just a straight-up recommendation. She discovered Gemma Files and fell in love, and I couldn't resist, so I picked up Experimental Film.

There's a darkness to this book that really belies almost anything you can say about it.  The story is about a woman, Lois Cairns, whose cobbled-together career as a teacher of film history and a critic of art films has pretty much stagnated.  She has an autistic son, a truly great husband, and a loving but critical mother. Lois is an abrasive person, and in a lot of ways she struggles to get along in the world.

At a screening of an experimental film, she recognizes the imagery in some of the old footage the filmmaker has used. As she starts to research the source material and the filmmaker, she realizes she might be on the trail an undiscovered artist, the first female Canadian filmmaker. But she also learns that the woman's life was plagued with troubles that hit close to home with Lois herself, and get stranger the more she learns.

I don't always like books with unlikeable narrators, and Lois is someone I particularly wouldn't like in real life--she has no patience for fools or for sensible people who contradict her; she is endlessly frustrated with everything around her; she experiences chronic health problems but does not attempt to address them or take care of herself.  I would never expect to like this character. 

But she carried the story so well for me.  I can't quite figure out why--maybe it's because she actually did run into so many fools and it was cathartic to watch her strip them down to the bone.  Maybe it's from watching Simon--who is endlessly patient, but also smart and perceptive and somehow in love with Lois. Or maybe it's her awareness of her own fallibility. Whatever the reason, I felt so much more sympathy for her than I would expect to for a narrator who's this much of a crank.

As with many good horror novels, the first third is mostly about a real, normal world, but I will say, that may be the darkest part.  I picture the entire first half of the book taking place at night, in a cold rain.  The fact that the glaring noonday sun is the pervasive imagery here doesn't take away from the sense of darkness gathering at the corners of everything.

One thing that I found both rough and appealing was all the information about art and film and Canadian experimental film in particular.  There are a lot of references, whole passages that explain how this character's work reminds her of the aesthetic of Artist X and the sensibilities of Filmmaker Y, none of whom you've heard of.  The claustrophobia of the tiny, intimate world in which she operates--partly elite and partly irrelevant--adds to the sense of creepiness, but you're not going to get the references, and you just have to coast over them and let them form a rich background for you to not look at too closely.

As the horror gets deeper, it gets stranger, and honestly, I feel like Lois comes to terms with the unreal situation she's in faster than I would have.  But she also has such an authentic voice, she's such a real person, that I felt like I was right there with her in the story--even when that was a creepy as hell place to be.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Gonna Regret This

As you may know or have gathered, my to-read list is out of control.  And based on the way I acquire books, it's pretty outrageous.  There are literally hundreds of unread books on my kindle.  I currently  have a dozen novels out from the library in print, not counting the comics or the "chapter books" to read to my son.  My Goodreads to-read is over 1300 books long--and I have a B-list consisting of another 1500 books.  If writers stopped writing tomorrow, I'd still be set for life.

But the length of this list means that things I am incredibly excited to read and have been pushed at me for ages never percolate to the top.  And it kind of kills me, especially when my friends are all reading books that I recommended and I haven't read their recommendations yet.

So I'm going to try something.  I'm usually reading a bunch of books at a time, and sometimes I manage the load by assigning a slot to a specific category.  I'm usually reading at least one ARC and one library book at a time, even while I'm reading other things.

New category: recommendations!  One at a time, of course; I will take more suggestions as I go, but one from each person should make a short list that I can use while still balancing the types of books with other things I'm reading.

My plan to start off:

Welcome to the God Damn Ice Cube, by Blair Braverman. After seeing the excellent play Franklin this weekend (doomed Arctic expeditions for the win!), I'm about to enter a spell of novels about freezing to death or nearly so, and this memoir is where I'll start. It's about a woman who unexpectedly finds herself living in and falling in love with the Arctic and becoming an accomplished sled dog racer.  Recommender: Lily.

A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab. There are actually a ton of Schwab books that I want to read, but this is the beginning of a trilogy that just ended, and two separate people have called it a Must Read.  When the person who pushed me to read Fifth Season says a book is amazing, I take her word for it.  Recommenders: Sarah and Elizabeth. (Two for one!)

That's actually all I've queued up so far--not really much of a list.  BUT: I would like to solicit choices from the other book recommenders in my life, especially the ones that I've been ignoring for so long.  Brenda, Curse of the Chalion, do you think? Or do you have another vote? You moved a bunch of stuff to the front page of my kindle a few weeks ago. Lianna, which of your favorites have I forgotten? Linden, do you want to put a pick on the table?

Now that I think about it, this reminds me of the Forcening, an event on the Reading the End podcast where each Jenny picks a book that she's wanted to the other to read and they read it together.  (Damn I love that podcast.)  So, help me, friends! Bring on the Forcening!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Prequelization

I was drawn to Brother's Ruin, by Emma Newman, when I saw it on Netgalley, partially because of the premise, but mostly, I'll admit, because her book Planetfall got such great reviews, but I never got a chance to read it. So hey, I thought, I'll get out ahead of this new one!  But I have to say, I think this was the wrong place to start.

I'm on this novella kick lately, partially because I like the size--you know it's going to be a quick, tight story, but not in the spare fashion of a short story.  I just don't think I'm a short story person--I always want all the details laid out for me. No, when I want short, I want a novella, but sometimes that falls short of what I'm looking for.

The premise here is promising--Charlotte is a young woman who is happily engaged and becoming quite successful in her work as an illustrator (under a pseudonym, of course, because it would not be respectable for a young woman to have a career).  Her brother, with whom she's very close, suffers from ill health, so her income, in addition to those of her parents, helps keep the family afloat.

When her brother begins to suspect he has magical abilities, it looks like it might be the family's financial salvation; though magical training is compulsory for anyone with talent, their families are generously compensated.  But bringing the testers around endangers Charlotte in a way her family doesn't know--she's been hiding her own magical abilities to avoid having to give up her fiance and career. 

Now she has to make sure her brother passes his tests while keeping herself hidden--and uncovering complicating secrets about the politics of the city's maguses.

(Is maguses a word? Let's roll with it.)

So there's my back cover copy.  I have to say, a lot of this book is like a breath of fresh air.  Charlotte frequently considers keeping secrets the way people in books do to keep the plot moving forward, then blurts out what she was thinking anyway.  First, I find this relatable; second, it prevents Plot By Unnecessary Withholding, which I'm pretty much done with.

I loved how close Charlotte was with her family, and I thought this book did the best job I've read in a long time setting up why someone with special powers might not want to seize hold of the opportunities that come with them.  I've always been kind of skeptical of "I just want to be ordinary" as a beginning and end to a person's motivation. But the things Charlotte has to lose are laid out quite well here, and the mystery and possible discomfort that would come with the opportunity are made pretty obvious.  The premise felt grounded in a way that a lot of similar stories don't.

The drawback here is the pacing, I think.  There's too much setup, and then it ends all in a rush.  This actually felt like the first third of a book, and it should have continued into Part 2, rather than ending itself.  From the broader pacing (I was shocked to realize that I was closing in on the end, and that they were going to wrap everything up in what felt like just a few pages) to the scene-by-scene details (the domestic descriptions were important to evoke what Charlotte's life is really like, but there was just SO MUCH time spent on the family getting the house ready for fancy guests), the pacing felt off. 

As the first third of a novel, this worked swimmingly, and I will definitely read what comes next (because oh yes, this is just the setup for a bigger story).  But I was pretty disappointed to get to the end--not in an eager to move on way, but in a "that's all there is?" kind of way.  A sad feeling to be left with, even if it's a good problem to have.

(Thanks to Netgalley for the free copy for review.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

On the Rails

We had book club today, talking about The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead.  It's the first book I've ever read by Whitehead, and it was really an incredible book--painful and exhilarating and pretty explicitly a work of genius.

Unfortunately, I don't even feel remotely qualified to do a reader's guide for this one. It's just too...big? raw? intimate? It's a lot of these things, but most of all I'd say it's brilliantly structured.

Cora is a slave on a plantation in the South, which is pretty horrifying, as you might imagine.  Her mother escaped when Cora was young, leaving her on her own in a horrible situation and now, many  years later, Cora takes thee opportunity to run. She travels with another escaped slave, Caesar, on the Underground Railroad. In her travels, she sees different parts of the country and the different situations of black people.

It's kind of a Pilgrim's Progress of horrors. Magical realism isn't quite the right term, but there is the feel of a fairy tale or a parable about this. The first clue is the actual railroad that runs underground, on which Cora makes her escape.  It's not really dreamlike, not the way I expect magical realism to be.  It's actually much more realistic--different stations in different states of repair, and the characters wonder over who built it and how it works.

But it's also both ends of a metaphor--the railroad and the mysterious connection going to no one knows where. And at every point in the journey, each stop takes you on a tour through a lot of the horrifying things that have been done to black Americans through history. It's not literally an antebellum landscape--we get a glimpse of the Tuskegee experiments, of Jim Crow sundown laws (only worse, so much worse), of all kinds of horrors in all kinds of guises. 

Cora is an interesting protagonist--she's prickly and not terribly personable, and she's not an adventurous person.  Although she does several heroic things, she's not a hero.  I'm reminded of Sansa Stark--when you read a story about great injustice, you expect your protagonist to rise up and vanquish it.  But really, if the world was full of heroes there'd be a lot less injustice, and the most a person can often hope for is to survive and not be to horribly damaged by the journey.

Okay, I do have a couple of talking points, in case you have a book group of your own.  Here are my questions.

1. What did you think of the interstitial chapters, where you get glimpses of other characters' back stories?  Did you feel like they fit together with each other?  They seemed to serve many different purposes; did they have anything in common?

2. What did you think of Ridgeway? Did he feel like a real person, or like an archetype of a slave hunter?  He stood for the institution--indifferent and implacable.  How did he work as a human being.  And, corollary, how did the character of Homer work for you, as an archetype/stereotype and as a person?

3. This is the worst question, but which state was the most horrifying to you?  Which atrocity struck you hardest.  I was surprised at the different answers in our group.

4. What did you think of the ending, both as a symbolic ending to the journey and as a place to stop the narrative?  What do you think would come next--or maybe I mean what would be the logical next place for this story to go?

Discussing in book club, we kept saying "so depressing, horrifying."  But the fact is that it was a beautiful book to read.  It was horrifying, but it also gave you enough space among the horrors to catch your breath and appreciate the storytelling that was going on here, and the craftsmanship that takes on the enormity of an historic experience and shapes it for a modern audience in a most accessible way.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Binti

Nnedi Okorafor is an author I've been meaning to read for a long time.  I used the excuse of my Black History month reading goals to pick up a few of her books, so I ended up reading the novella Binti and its sequel, Binti: Home very close together.

Binti got a lot of glowing reviews when it first came out, and I can absolutely understand why. Binti herself is such a lovable character--brave, smart, headstrong, and loyal. She's been accepted to the best university in the known galaxy, Oomza Uni. She's not the first human to go, but most people who travel are Khoush, while Binti is Himba. She's the first member of her community to travel off planet, and she pretty much has to sneak away.

On the ship to the university, though, the ship is attacked by the Meduse, a race with a feud against the Khoush. Binti survives, but she has to use every resource she has to stay alive and prevent a war.

The great parts of this book were the details about Binti and the people she meets.  Her connection to her people, the clay she wears on her skin, the mathematical skills she has--these details are lovely.  I got confused, though, when the ship was attacked and the plot started hinging on a random object she had in her pocket--a trinket she found in the desert years ago and carried for good luck, but that also turned out to have magic? technological? properties that saved her life.  I don't know if it counts as deus ex machina if it happens in the beginning of the story instead of the end, but it threw me off my stride, and it left me stumbling for the rest of the story.

In the second book, Home, Binti has been studying at Oomza University for almost a year and decides she wants to visit home, along with a new friend.  This is a fraught decision, because her family does not approve of her leaving, and her friend is from a race that has been at war with humans (Khoush, not Himba, but isn't a human a human?) for ages.

Again, I started off confused, because Binti was being hit by waves of anger that seem to come from nowhere, and also maybe an empathic connection that lets her know what her friend is feeling when it's far away. This part seemed very disjointed and unconnected from the narrative; I wasn't quite sure what it meant, either what it was describing or what that implied. 

Anyway, though, the next part of the story is really lovely and powerful as Binti undertakes the second space journey of her life.  Since the first one ended in terrible violence that has haunted her, the middle part of this story is a powerful recounting of facing trauma. I especially loved that it didn't have any easy answers; sometimes things are hard and sometimes they're easier, and she takes care of herself and feels a little better and maybe will continue to get better.  It's a very realistic sense of fallout from the previous story and I admire that a great deal.

Then at home, there are some really lovely family relationships to explore.  Again, the strength here is that nothing is black and white--her family loves her and is angry that she left.  Binti wants to belong and doesn't quite anymore. By leaving, she has become something different, something that their society doesn't have a place for, and it's not a simple thing to deal with that.  The nuances of how the different characters handle this and react to the changes in Binti--everything from her new friend to the different clothes she wears--are well-observed and generous, even to those who behave the worst.

There are further plot developments that seem to come out of nowhere--people and legends who come up in the middle of the book and turn out to have been a part of her history all along--that I found a bit confusing from a narrative perspective.  But I think that this is a different style of storytelling, with less of a through arc and more of an emotional arc.  I'm still wrestling with how to read it right.

There is so much to love here--the representation, the cultures, and the diversity that Okorafor brings to her universe.  And the depictions of complicated family bonds, and how it's not always possible for everyone to get what they want, is something I've always wished someone would depict in this way. I'm not sure I've found my footing on these books, but I can tell you that when the next one comes out (because warning: cliffhanger!), I will be picking it up instantly.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Death By Therapy; Therapy By Death

I'm so behind on my ARC reviews, guys.  Another by-product of the cold that won't quit.  But I want to tell you about all this stuff, even if it's no longer in advance!

Seanan McGuire produces novellas at a thrilling rate, and I've been digging novellas lately.  I got Final Girls by Mira Grant (McGuire's more horror-ish pen name) from Netgalley for review recently after reading and loving Every Heart a Doorway.

The premise is the real draw here, and I think it kind of stands in for my feelings about the whole book. Esther is a skeptical reporter who's doing an investigation of a new type of therapy. This therapy, invented by Dr. Jennifer Webb, involves a complete virtual reality simulation of a novel trauma experience--basically, you get into a VR tank and have a completely convincing experience of living through a horror movie.  It seems like mostly the therapy is being used to heal very damaged personal relationships--by surviving a carefully controlled horrible experience, two sisters, or a father and son,  or whoever, can get over long-term feelings of antipathy to have a positive relationship going forward.

This brings up a LOT of questions, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Esther is skeptical because the therapy is a little too reminiscent of repressed memory therapy, which of course has been thoroughly debunked, but not before it ruined her father's life.

More questions, but give me a second.

During a demonstration, there are complications, and there you have most of the plot.

So there are three central stories being told here. The two that comprise most of the book are the story of the illusion--Esther and Jennifer, growing up together and encountering evil--and the violent story playing out at the clinic that sends the inside story spiraling out of control.  The framing story--Esther investigating this new therapy--might not even be worth counting as its own, but I actually found it one of the most interesting ones, especially from a worldbuilding perspective.

Because the new therapy was just meant to set up the story, but it raises SOOOOO many questions.  I'm not even worried about the scientific issues, like the fact that they can control dreams with drugs or see what's going on in the dreams with monitors (though that at least gets a nod in the story).  I'm talking about the viability of this business.  Like, you have a fully immersive VR system--one in which the subject has no idea the experience is not real--and your go-to application is...this?

Actually, I guess I think therapy is a good first application here, but therapy specifically based around healing relationships by inducing a shared trauma experience just seems...unlikely.  How many people have relationships in their lives that involve deep antipathy and a desire on both sides to get rid of that antipathy?  And are those the people who are trying expensive, cutting edge therapeutic technologies?  Are they really the ones who are being failed by talk therapy?

It just seems like a campy level of setup for an otherwise kind of serious story.  Like, I would expect this to be the premise of a very cheap, B-grade horror story, the kind that winks at you with its own silliness. The kind that is a movie on Spike TV. (Though now that I think about it, they actually made this movie and it was anything but cheap.)

I also found Esther's conflation of this with recovered memory therapy to be kind of spurious.  I mean, this is kind of the opposite--it's creating new, purposefully false memories. I could see a whole host of problems with it, but none of them are the ones Esther's looking for.

As horror novels go, it was engrossing and kept you wondering what would happen.  I really did enjoy reading it.  But what I walked away with were questions--so many questions, and not ones the story gave me a lead on. 

Also, would you ever go into an immersive virtual reality experience? Would it make a difference if you would know inside the story that it wasn't real?  I think my answer might be no, but I'd like to know yours.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Black History Month, Retrospectively

Two things about February: Black History Month, and the cold that wouldn't die.  This means that I have been reading a bunch of great books by black authors, and that I haven't been blogging about them. And now I'm in that place where the backlog of amazing books is intimidating.

So, in the interest of taking the job in bite sized pieces, let's do a run down of my February reading list.  My policy was to only start books by black authors in February, and I got some great ones in.

I read Nnedi Okorafor's novellas Binti and Binti: Home, which have gotten great reviews.  I didn't love the first one as much as everyone else did, but I thought the sequel was exciting and much stronger.

I also started the audio book Okorafor's The Book of Phoenix, which I'm still in the middle of. I liked the first part very much, but I'm not clear on where the story's going, and I'm wondering if Nnedi Okorafor just might not be a writer for me. Her manner of storytelling is very fairy tail-like, and I'm not actually that big a fan of fairy tales and mythology.

In February I also finished N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season, which we read for book club at work.  Not a lot of people managed to finish it--it's dense and DEEPLY world-buildy--but it was incredible.  Seriously, an unbelievable masterwork of storytelling. I am now creeping my way up the library's infinitely long waiting list for the sequel, The Obelisk Gate.

Just yesterday I finished Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, which has been getting a ton of buzz, and for good reason.  This is an incredible book and will win many prizes, I think. We'll meet for book club next week and I hope I can do a list of question after that.

Also a lovely book: Brit Bennett's The Mothers.  This is exactly the kind of book I say I don't like--it's pure literary fiction, a story of the closely observed lives of a young woman and the people around her in the wake of her mother's suicide.  The story centers around a church, and how the pain of many people can interact in so many ways.  It's sad and sweet and so, so lovely.

I also started and am still reading both Tiny, Pretty Things (Jenny: murder bunheads!), by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra, and You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain, by Phoebe Robinson.

February has been a really terrible month for my body but an incredible month for my mind.  Hopefully now that we're deep in March, I can get back to telling you all about the latter!