Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Not Your Momma's Teenaged Vampire

Welcome to A More Diverse Universe! Check out the link for a description of the event and tons of reviews from other bloggers.  Thanks again, Aarti!

One of my goals for Diversiverse this year was to discover new-to-me authors.  Zen Cho's name came up when she was on a panel with somebody that I saw in someone's blog post--I'm sorry, I don't even remember who, I just saw a photo of the author doing something silly and knew she wrote speculative fiction and thought, "hey, I should check her out."

So I found her novella, The House of Aunts. (That link, by the way, is NOT to Amazon, but to a site called GigaNotoSaurus, where you can download the story for free.  The site publishes novellas, and it's an exciting discovery in and of itself!)  After a little bewilderment wading in, I was absolutely charmed by the story of Ah Lee and her crush on Ridzual, a boy in her class.  Her feelings hit her suddenly, and she's overwhelmed by a shy kind of fascination.  But she lives with her many aunts, who insist that she must concentrate on school, get a good education, and maybe someday later she can think about boys.  The aunts' haranguing, the stories you learn of their lives, and Ah Lee's growing friendship with Ridzual are the three components that make up this mostly domestic, family/romance story.

Except the aunts are vampires, and so is Ah Lee. Nothing so melodramatic as your nocturnal bloodsuckers, they are both more prosaic and, we learn in hints, more frightening than that.  They eat human entrails, though the aunts insist on cooking them, because we are not animals.

But mostly, the aunts pester Ah Lee about her education, and about not getting involved with a boy, and about not getting involved with this boy, and about anything they can pester her about.  And Ah Lee gets to know Ridzual, becomes friends with him, and maintains her poise in spite of herself.

Finally, though, her feelings and her undead state get tangled together, confusing, and everything comes to a head, and I won't tell you how it turns out because spoilers!  But it's good reading, I'll tell you that.

There were things about this novella that confused me; I think the main one was the dialogue.  I'm pretty sure this takes place in Malaysia, but on and off, some of the characters would speak as though there was a language barrier.  I finally realized this pretty much only happens at school and never at home, so it's either a slang thing, or else there is an actual language barrier, and the language Ah Lee speaks at school is different from the one she speaks at home.  I found it quite distracting at first, though, because it reads like pidgin English, which distracts you from the fact that they're not actually speaking English at all.

Another thing that I wasn't sure of at first was the aunts. At the beginning, they are somewhat tedious--there are so many of them!  And they nag so much!  As you go further, though, and you begin to tell them apart, you see snippets of their previous lives; you begin to tell them apart and see their distinct personalities; you see Ah Lee's personal relationship with them as people, and their fierce love for each other.  And you begin to realize that it's a fairly typical adolescent thing, isn't it?  The adults are sometimes a faceless mass telling you what to do, and sometimes individual people who offer you amazing love and patience and whom you love fiercely.

It just came together, is how I would describe this.  And the vampire part added a lot more personal drama than it did horror--though the glimpses of horror, seen kind of around the edges of the story, make me think there's another, much scarier tale you could tell.  I'd be interested to read that, too--in addition to other stories by Zen Cho.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Girl from the Well

Welcome to A More Diverse Universe!  I'll begin the two-week event with a book I read courtesy of a NetGalley ARC.

I got this book, The Girl from the Well, by Lin Chupeco, from Netgalley, mostly because my best friend is super into Japanese horror movies.  Horror novels are a completely different beast from movies--tension is built differently, images have to be used differently--and I've never quite gotten the hang of them.  I think I'm just a jaded cynic.

I suppose it's not the most innovative thing, to tell the story from the point of view of the ghost.  But what I would usually expect from a book like that is a ghost who is really your average person, only, you know, dead.  Incorporeal.  Living in the afterlife.  This is something different, though, about this ghost--straight out of a real legend, straight out of the well, straight out of The Ring.

The narrator is Okiku, the ghost of a girl who was murdered 300 years ago in Japan.  She is based on real Japanese legends, and in this story, as in those, she is a vengeful spirit who horribly murders those who remind her of her killer.  In this case, it is people who harm children; she follows those people, drifts into their lives, and enacts horrific retribution--they are found, nowhere near water, looking days-drowned.  In this way, she also frees the spirits of the children who are bound to them.

Then she meets a boy, Tark, whose tattoos surge with power and whose personality bristles.  He carries a shadow--another ghost, but he doesn't understand it.  Tark and his cousin Callie find the world more complicated and creepy than they'd thought.

Okiku is far and away the best part of the book--although she narrates the whole thing, there are parts that are clearly told with her "voice" and point of view, and there are parts where she narrates Tark and Callie's lives, where her voice has more distance.  Those parts are fine, but the touch of her foreignness, her otherness, is really excellent.

Callie is in many ways the protagonist of the novel--she's the one who figures out that something unnatural is going on and investigates.  Her love for her cousin and her general good-personness drive the plot and hold the bits of the narrative--Okiku's distance and rage, Tark's father's confusion, and the possibility of resolving his haunting--together.

I think the biggest weakness here is the dialogue, which is pretty stilted; all the characters sound the same.  The best part is our antihero, our murdering, horrifying, rising-from-the-bathtub-in-her-unholy-glory ghost.  It's the world through a completely different set of eyes, and it's what sets this apart from another creepy story.  Thumbs up, I think.  Very much up.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Little More Wrap Up

Whoopsie doodle--I've been doing so much reading I feel like I've dropped off on my blogging.  The worst part is the feeling that there were books I wanted to review but let slide away before I remembered to.  That's incredibly depressing to me, for reasons I'm not quite sure of.

Also, more vaguely, I feel like I'm a better blogger when I write while I'm reading instead of after.  My straight-up reviews always feel forced, and I'm terrible at summaries.  I need to start writing while reading more.  Note to self taken.

Okay, here's what Goodreads cut me off from yesterday--two more mini-reviews before we swing into the Diversiverse!

The Naturals, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.  This one is perfect for a mini-review, because there's not a lot to say; it's about the unlikely scenario of a teenaged girl being invited to participate in an FBI pilot program in which particularly perceptive young people are trained up to be profilers.  This was the exact equivalent of a very special episode of Criminal Minds starring the cast of Beverly Hills, 90210.  It was that profound, edgy, and literary, but on the plus side, it was that watchable--sorry, I mean readable. 

(Aside: Criminal Minds is replacing Jeanne Tripplehorn with Jennifer Love Hewitt.  I think this might be the end of the affair, especially if J Love wears her eyelashes and her backup eyelashes on the first day.)

Where was I?  Oh, yes, Cassie was raised by her stage-psychic mom until she disappeared in a big puddle of blood and was presumed murdered.  Now, at 17, she works for the FBI with some other perceptive wunderkindz, learning to profile.  Only cold cases, though, or else it would be unethical or something, except then THE CRIME COMES TO THEM and NOW ITS PERSONAL and also there are two cute boys who are both hot for her.  Yeah, it was YA, but there was profiling and I read it like lightening.  And I already have the ARC of the sequel, so expect more!

Locke & Key.  I finished it.  Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez.  Holy crap.  I can't believe I haven't posted about this yet.  The last volume is called Alpha & Omega, and it's nuts and scary and oh, so satisfying. 

Okay, I haven't written anything, and I don't know how to talk about the whole thing.  Basically, the Locke family moves back to the ancestral homestead after their father, Randall Locke, was killed by one of his students (guidance counselor).  Mom's drinking too much; Ty, a senior in high school, blames himself for his father's death; Kinsey, a few years younger, can't stop crying; Bode is only seven but has gone strange and quiet.  They're hoping that starting over in the town where their dad grew up but they've never been will help, somehow.

When they move into the big old house called Keyhouse, strange things start to happen, and the kids realize that the house comes with a set of keys with magic powers.  They experiment and change their lives a little with them, make new friends and try to move on a bit.  But something wants the power and will stop at nothing to get it.  (Cliche much?  I told you I can't do summaries.)

Anyway, the book is really an amazing account of grieving--Kinsey wants to stop crying and when she uses the head key--you can open up your head and take out a memory or thought or feeling--to remove her fear and weeping, she appears stronger, ready to take on anything.  But this leads her to make some risky choices and hurt some of her friends.  Bode likes to use the death key, which lets you drift around as a spirit (while your body lies there dead) and then return to your body later.  The cycles each person goes through of strength and weakness, of starting to get a handle on their grief and then being overwhelmed again, are really powerful.

For the first few volumes, I found the most frustrating thing to be that we were following most of the story from the point of view of the bad guy, who the kids don't even know exists.  I mean, they have no idea that there's anyone out to hurt them, any bigger agenda, any larger playing field.  Watching him manipulate them when not only do they not know he's the enemy, they don't even know there is an enemy, was one of the most effective and frustrating uses of dramatic irony I've read.

This was a tight story that fit together perfectly--the historical material (from the Revolution, and from Randall's childhood) added enormously to the modern story, both with information and with emotional tension. There's no extra, and everything builds toward the climax.

As for the ending, it did everything I needed it to.  There was a lot of loss, and a lot of death, but at the very end, we're given back just enough to boost us up.  And seriously, the Touching Parental Moment is not my favorite trope, but damn if this one didn't make me cry.

Highly, highly recommend.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Clean Sweep: Mini-Review Edition

So many books.  Can't keep up.  Reading intensely for A More Diverse Universe.  Behind on blogging.  Round up post!

Rapture Practice, by Aaron Hartzler, is subtitled A True Story about Growing up Gay in an Evangelical Family, which to some extent wraps it all up, and to another extent is misleading.  Aaron Hartzler is definitely gay, and he definitely grew up in an evangelical family, but that's not really the focus of the book.  It's more about growing up as a normal, open-minded person in an evangelical family.  At the end of the book, Aaron is graduating from high school, and he's only begun to admit to himself that the idea of "gay" might have something to do with him.

Most of the book is about being someone who loves the arts--movies, plays, and acting; singing, playing, and listening to music--and is held back at every turn. His parents instill him with a love of music, and prevent him from playing anything but conservative Christian music (Christian rock is unacceptable, as are more traditional songs by artists who also perform Christian rock).  He is pulled from his Christian high school to go to a more Christian Christian school, where the cheerleaders can't show their knees. Aaron finds space to be himself--he sneaks to movies, buys Wilson Phillips and Amy Grant tapes, drinks at the house of a friend whose piety he has described to his parents in perhaps inaccurate terms.

This book was so much better than I expect from your typical growing up Christian memoir, especially since it doesn't really break the mold in any specific way.  It's really an account of his family life, his friends and school, and how his thought process worked as he began to recognize the edges of the small world he was raised in.  But his assessments of everything are so clear-eyed, and his generosity toward everyone, even when they're wrong and damaging, is really remarkable.  He loves his parents, but even more than that, he sees them truly--sees their fear for him, their true faith, and their own love for him.  His descriptions of all his relationships with his peers are also perfect--he describes dating girls and friendships with boys, but the attention and care and emotional intimacy in his male relationships is noticeable long before the idea that he might be gay arises explicitly in the story.  If you like this type of memoir, this one is absolutely worth reading.

Emily Carroll's Through the Woods is a set of stories, a comic, really, but something simpler and infinitely creepier.  It's like Charles Addams and Edward Gorey and H.P. Lovecraft got together to work on the haunted house this Halloween.  That was the most scared I've been from a book in my memory since reading Stephen King at 14 years old.  Each story is small, each one builds, and most of them are just...eerie. 

I don't know if I can explain it.  But I found her website, which has a bunch of her other stories, and they pretty much capture the feeling perfectly--that place where unsettling turns to horrifying.  Delightful and gruesome.  I think my favorite might be "His Face All Red," which is also on her site.  At the very beginning--"that man is not my brother"--chills.  Very highly recommended.

....And now Goodreads is crashing on me and it's past my bedtime and I can't remember any of the other books I've read lately.  Godspeed and more posts Friday.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

In Which I Participate: Diversiverse!

The fabulous Aarti is hosting A More Diverse Universe again this year, and I'm incredibly excited.  My to-read list is overflowing with good stuff that fits the criteria here--any book written by a person of color--and I have plenty of books that I've been itching to read, but that just never make it to the top of the pile.  So, I'm totally planning to overshoot here, and seriously even challenge the hell out of myself. 

Two full weeks of Diversiverse posts.  I'm going to stick to my (recent, consistent, and fingers-crossed) MWF posting schedule, and I'll have six posts during that two weeks.  I'm pretty psyched about this.

Now, I will admit that I do not expect to read all of those books in two weeks.  I am too slow, and there will be a book club meeting in that period.  But I have a couple of queued up reviews for books I've read recently, including some comics and novellas, and I'm reading an Aliette de Bodard novel right now.  I will definitely read at least one book that fits the criteria during the actual week.

I think the exciting part is that I've already started finding new authors because I'm going out proactively looking for this kind of work.  It's great that I'm digging people out of the TBR list who were already there and bringing their books up to the (teetering near the moon) top of the pile.  But to me, a lot of this is about finding new books I wouldn't have found, because their authors didn't cross my path or catch my eye.  I've already found one great new novella because I went exploring for this event, and I've added several comics I didn't know existed.

So, starting next Monday, two weeks in the Diversiverse!  I'll have a list and a schedule and everything.  Make sure to head over to Aarti's blog and check out all the activity for the event, including some cool suggestion lists she's already put together.  Welcome to a wider world, everyone!

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Tolkeinier and Tolkeinier

I'm so incredibly closing in on the end of LOTR.  But here's the thing--I've hit about the 3/5 point in the last book--section 29 of 49--and they've defeated Sauron (sorry, retroactive spoiler there) and Aragorn has been crowned king, and Faramir and Aeowyn (audiobook; I can't spell these things) have found each other, and it's like, what's left?  What is the last 10 hours of this book going to sound like?

Because so far, it sounds like "and clad he was in mail of ebon, his tunic girded by a belt of shining gold. And far from the plains of Burlthonwig and Lurdsonveil there came joyful masses singing of the glories of the latter days of Middle Earth, and throughout Berithdwall and Emmeline there was much rejoicing."  And seriously, I believe this could go on for ten more hours and I heartily, heartily hope that will not be the case.

Seriously, JRR.  Pacing.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Asterios Polyp, Snob

For the first time in my four years at my job, I have coworkers whose taste in books overlaps with mine.  I have not jumped on them too aggressively (what are you reading? you should read this! what do you like???), but deep down I am full of squee and I made Lily read Lexicon, which went well.

Even better, Kelly's into comics!  The other day she handed me a copy of David Mazzucchelli's  Asterios Polyp and said, "this completely blew my mind, you have to read it." This is the kind of statement that cannot be argued with, and it is my experience that someone who shows up with a book recommendation that includes the book in hand is Serious and should be taken Seriously.

Which is why, when I started Asterios Polyp and found the main character to be horrible and off-putting, I didn't give it up.  I might have, otherwise, because snobby academic is not my kind of protagonist--postmodernism and architectural or linguistic deconstruction and the seriously David-Foster-Wallacian notion of an architect who has won awards and is highly regarded in spite of never having had a building built and I'm somewhere between wincing and queasy.

So yes, Asterios Polyp is an architect.  He's an academic.  He's tailored and polished and smokes; he likes to hear himself talk and his nose is perpetually, literally, in the air.  He is enough of a jerk that I hated him, but also enough of a realistic, understandable character that I know I'm not supposed to hate him.  Which means I'm not sure I want to read this book, if it's going to treat this guy like someone I should admire.

Thank you, Kelly, for pushing it into my hands, because I probably wouldn't have kept reading otherwise, and holy crap, this is MIND BLOWINGLY GOOD.  It's about a very smart person who is not a very good person, so there's all kinds of very smart stuff--like, complicated intellectual stuff--that's just lying there casually on the page, not as the point of the book, but as background for how smart this character is as we read a book whose point is that all this brilliance isn't quite enough.

The narrator is Asterios's stillborn twin brother--another version of him, one who didn't live his life, but watched it, and the story's structure is around Asterios walking away from his life when his apartment burns down.  We follow the present, where Asterios travels as far as he can with the money in his pocket and takes up a working man's life, and we follow the past, where he meets his (now absent) wife, and spends his time surrounded by and judging brilliant people.

I don't know how to explain this to you.  It's not about looking down on intellectualism, or even snobbery.  It's about how snobbery is actually vulnerability, but that's impossible to see from the outside, and sometimes even from the inside.  It's about how connections can make us better people, and how the world around us affect us whether we like it or not, and it can be beautiful if we can find it in our hearts to embrace it.

Hana, Asterios's wife, is the lynchpin of the story, of the past and the future.  She's his opposite, and when they meet, they are drawn in different styles.  As they come closer, their styles blend, but in moment of discord they separate again.

This technique is used throughout the book--characters have distinctive colors, illustration styles, and fonts for their speech.  They come together and move apart as they know each other and become aware of the inevitable gaps between them.

As for the ending...I'm not sure what I think.  It's both right and startling, and because of that, maybe inevitable?

Seriously, if you are interested in comics and how they can be literary fiction, you absolutely have to read this book.  It's seriously breathtaking.