Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Tender Wings of Desire, Part 2: Extra Crispy

All right, guys, let's bang this out (pun intended but failing, since there is not even a romantic lead in this book yet, never mind any chicka-chicka-pow action).

Chapter 4
Up all night riding a horse through the dark forest, not tired at all.  Madeline's running on adrenaline.  I'm trying to remember being that young so I can believe that, and I'm almost there.  She is surprisingly cool with being in the woods in the middle of the night, though, for someone who has never been camping.

She's heading for the sea--I think that's telling.  I think she's going to meet a visitor from America, a dashing, white-haired Colonel....seriously, what's gonna happen with the age thing?  Remains to be seen.

But also, on the subject of the sea, if you live a two days ride from the sea, how have you only seen it once? Did your family not go on vacation like proper rich folks?  HAVEN'T YOU BEEN TO BATH, MADELINE, WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU?

Speaking of all caps when she considers going back, "her heart answered with a resounding NO." Sic.  Her heart is shouty.

She's on the road "when dawn hits," as any good "simple woman" (ie no particular status, because that exists) would be.

She looks out at the sea.  Would she ever have seen such a sight if she'd married Reginald?  You know, if the Duke had kept her locked up in his mansion instead of traveling, because everyone knows that Dukes don't go to Bath every year to take the waters.

"Madeline had never been in love, she was too practical for that."  Practical, just the word I would not use for her.  Her sister "relied too heavily on the world of servants and fancy dinners."  The only people who didn't have servants were servants (and some of them even did), and fancy dinners were just called dinners.  I am more and more convinced that the only way this book even begins to make sense is if time travel comes into it at some point.  This is Lianna's theory, and I am rooting for it so hard!

A normal town looks pretty run down to her eyes, but hey, destiny awaits! On to chapter five!

Chapter 5
Not shabby, in fact, but charming and quaint!  I really hope she sees someone without teeth or missing a limb soon before she drinks the water or she'll romanticize her way into some sort of dysentery.


Oh, here's the opportunity she's been looking for--a run down tavern!  She's never been in a tavern before, but serving wench down by the docks just "feels right." Paris Hilton has just found the dive bar in which to support herself on tips, just like she's always dreamed!


Most beautiful woman she's ever seen working behind the bar.  The sea air hasn't roughened her features.  Also she's a redhead, and "the woman smiled with kindness" and hired her on the spot, so that's all right, then.

OMG, it's gonna be like Cheers!  That would be amazing--she's the Diane character who comes in all eager to help and with her weird, upper-crust ways and....yeah, no.

But hey, it turns out that being a waitress is super easy, and the redheaded hottie is named Caoimhe, which is pronounced Keeva (Kweeva, actually, according to Wikipedia). She has a pat response about not asking her to spell it, which is interesting considering the literacy rates of barmaids in the countryside a few hundred years ago.

Do not worry, sailors on shore leave are not actually troublemakers!

The Irish don't use contractions, either, I guess.

I can't even with this writing.  Boss asks, do you mind if the new girl shares a room with you? The answer, direct quote, is "I figured you'd ask me to do that, so I did not have much of a choice."  Those words don't make any sense.

I am at 45% of the way into the book, and I believe we have a hero!  "Madeline turned to answer the man, not quite caring for his tone, only to come face to face with the most handsome man she had ever seen." Aaaaaand chapter.

Chapter 6
Ooh, he's tall and crusted with salt.  Like a delicious margarita. And his hair is both light and fair, which must be very pale indeed.

Run on sentences, and his eyes "hid behind glasses with dark frames," which "somehow made him seem all the more handsome." I'm gonna dwell on this; I don't know when this book takes place, but when were thick black glasses invented? I'm doing a little internet research, and it really doesn't look like there were non-wire glasses before the 20th century. Certainly not big thick black ones.  What would they have been made out of? Tortoiseshell would have been brown.  Ebony, I guess?

Her mouth is dry, he likes what he sees, she can't figure out why this conversation is happening....

You know what? Me neither.  This is AWFUL.  Even posterity isn't worth this.  I'm sorry, internet, I love you, but I can't do this to myself.  I'm deleting this book; it is all my self restraint not to burn my poor kindle to prevent contamination.

I'm sorry I did this to you, and to me.  God help us all.

Monday, May 22, 2017

White Tears

Like, whoa.  I probably wouldn't have picked up this book if Jenny hadn't recommended it and called it incredibly scary. It's about music aficionados, and music is none of my business.  But it's a ghost story, and ghosts are most distinctly my business, so here we are.

White Tears, by Hari Kunzru, is about Seth, who is an oddball audiophile, and his best friend Carter, who is a wealthy dilettante audiophile. They live in New York on Carter's money, collect old blues records, and produce music, giving it a classic sound and printing it on vinyl.  Carter is obsessed with older and older records, more authentic, less heard--true blues, he says, is played on the porch and on the corner, not in the nightclub.

I mentioned Seth is an oddball, right?  He wanders around the city recording ambient noise to play back later.  One day, he records a singer in the park.  Carter becomes obsessed, lays a guitar track over it, and pretends that it's a long lost record by a made up blues man, Charlie Shaw. But when they put it online, they hear from a collector who has heard the record before.  And then things go all Big Tuna.*

So this is a ghost story and it's creepy as hell.  It's also a ghost story where you're kind of rooting for the ghost.  From the beginning, Carter and Seth are not a likeable pair.  Carter is a pushy, privileged rich kid who is obsessed with the pursuit of "authenticity," the ultimate hipster appropriation of the work of marginalized people.  If you get less marginalized, then you are less authentic, which is why Carter is obsessed with early blues records. 

Seth, our narrator, is the kind of nonentity that you start out feeling sorry for--he doesn't get people!  He's socially awkward!--and end up finding incredibly off-putting because he lets people walk all over him. He's so complicit in Carter's awfulness that he's not really sympathetic either, and the fact that he lets it go is almost worse.  There's a scene where they're trolling a guy on the internet--casually, almost as a throwaway moment--that is just the worst. 

Then there's Carter's sister Leonie, who is also rich and privileged, though she seems to have her head on straighter than Carter.  But because Seth has a serious creeper-crush on her, we really only see her as an object of his desire, and just about the only other person in his world.

Okay, but let's get to the point here--this is a book about race, in which there are pretty much zero black characters.  This is a book about guys who worship the music of black people but don't know any black people, and are afraid to go into their neighborhoods.  This is about privilege that doesn't recognize itself, and #notallwhitepeople #exceptreallyallwhitepeople.  It's about appropriation lifted up and taken all the way through to the horrifying extreme--and the results of that.

I wanted it to be cathartic, just because it was so horrifying in so many ways.  But even when things follow the path that you would script for catharsis, it doesn't really come to that.  Revenge may or may not be justice, and it may or may not be necessary, and better than nothing, but it can still leave you cold, and dead, and lost.

I hope that doesn't sound like a pan--this was an incredible book.  I'd recommend it for people who like their fiction stylish with a lot of substance, too.  I am thinking Brenda will love this, because it's so damned creepy.  So. Damned. Creepy.

*This is a reference to the point at which David Lynch's movie Wild at Heart goes from weird to creepy-doomed weird.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Disambiguation: Long May She Reign

Rhiannon Thomas's Long May She Reign should not be confused with the final book in Ellen Emerson White's President's Daughter series. I read that Long May She Reign years ago, and it was a really excellent book about the aftermath of things.  That whole series is fascinating in the way it's structured and how different the books are, but that is NOT the topic of this post.

The topic of this post is this book:

This is a YA fantasy about an awkward nerd girl (she's a chemist who gets panic attacks when called upon to speak in public) who, when hundreds of nobles are poisoned, finds herself queen of a country in pretty rough shape.  She has to cement her hold on the throne and solve the murders at the same time--a classic Power Thrust Upon Her scenario.

This is one of those books that skews just a little young for me; the thing about YA is that they market so many books that way that it's not as useful as I wish it was as a category.  The story is interesting and the book is good; I feel like it's missing some of the political complexity that could have made it greater. 

But it had its own kinds of complexity that I really admired.  People with good intentions do bad things, and people with bad intentions do good things.  The bad guys are given interiority, at least in the end--even the off-page ones. Mourning is a big part of this book, especially mourning people you have a complicated relationship with. It's maybe not quite deep enough for me, but it's refreshing anyway. 

This book is really the same story as The Goblin Emperor in many respects--it's a very YA version of that incredible novel. Freya here is less centered than Maia is in that book, but the problems she faces are the same.  Freya spends a lot of time telling herself to think and very little time acting, though, which I never really understood as a new ruler.  Grab hold of things--someone's got to take charge!

Maybe that says more about me than her.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Distractions: A Beautiful, Terrible Thing

Netgalley, the new release shelf at the library, the $0.99 Kindle sale page--these things suck me in.  The list is long enough, but when I see a description like this one, I can't walk by, and Netgalley is kind enough to provide a review copy so I can read the memoir of a woman who realizes her husband is a psychopath.

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal, by Jen Waite, sells itself with a straightforward appeal to those of us who read advice columns for the problems: It's the story of the author's realization "that her loving husband—the father of her infant daughter, her best friend, the love of her life—fits the textbook definition of psychopath."

Now, I'm not here for a marriage falls apart memoir. There are plenty of those, in real life and in literature, that dissect the vagaries of the human heart, where people try but can't, or won't try at all.  No, I'm here for the elaborate web of lies, so outrageous it's shocking he even dreamed it up, never mind tried to convince you of it.  I'm here for the many who is living a double or triple life, who kept you believing in him through months or years of manipulation.

That's not this book, though.  I don't want to complain that Marco's indiscretions are too quotidian--he basically has a lot of sex with a lot of women and dumps his wife right as she gives birth.  It's ugly, and he's clearly got a personality disorder.  And the story of Jen's realization of the extent of his lies is interesting, a dissection of the play by play of its exposure. 

But really, he wasn't playing at a very advanced level. He didn't send emails from fake accounts or make up fake business partners.  Heck, he didn't even get a separate Uber account for visiting his lady friends.  This is not about recognizing how the complicated webs of our society depend on a certain baseline understanding of reality, and how people who are willing to play with that can mess with the rest of us who take it for granted.  No, it's about a guy who was really good at faking being a decent person, but who actually was not a decent person after all.

Given that limitation, though, it's a good book and a well-told story.  Some of the recreated conversations are clearly more "what I wish I'd said" than what could actually have taken place, but that doesn't mean she doesn't admit to the places where she breaks down and acts like less than her best self.  I respect that; we don't always present well in the crisis.  And her journey toward understanding, especially her parents' unwavering support, is really reassuring. 

There is definitely an angle to this where her safety net is so vast (her parents have a huge house and are retired and have plenty of money to take care of her and the baby till she figures out what's what) that the stakes feel kind of low--all that's at stake here is her heart.  And she gives that enormous privilege only a glancing mention near the end of the book. 

But your heart, your faith in the world--those are real things to be at stake, and real losses, and I don't know how I'd deal with it if something like that happened to me.  The presentation here of this exact situation is one that I think a lot of people will be fascinated by, and a few people will recognize to the point of discomfort.  Definitely a fascinating summer read, for the interested observer.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Tender Wings of Desire

It is impossible to shock me with the name of a romance novel, so I might not have noticed that Colonel Sanders was starring in his own book unless it was explicitly pointed out to me by a coworker.  Let us take a moment to acknowledge the existence of this:


Let's bask in it.  Tender Wings of Desire. Bask in the Colonel's exposed shoulders. Bask in the mom jeans that his beloved is wearing, and the key chain attached to her purse strap.  Bask in the highland castle, flowered field, ocean waves, AND sunset al captured in the background.  And bask in the delicious chicken wing she gazes at past her beloved's head.

And because I love you, dear Internet, I am going to read this.  For you! Normal people would live Tweet it--I'm sure someone has, and if so, point me to it, please!--but what I have is a blog, so that's where we're going with this.  Strap in, kids--we're doing this in real time.

Dedication: for mothers everywhere. Thank you, Undisclosed Author (Who I Assume Is a Marketing Writer Who Said "Yeah, I Could Whip That Off For You In a Few Hours, Sure.") I'm touched you thought of me.

Chapter One.  Our heroine is named Lady Madeline Parker and she hates embroidery and thinks it's pointless.  But her sister Victoria is prim and likes embroidery, unlike Madeline, who likes riding horses.  So wait, where are the mom jeans?  This is all Regency!  THE COVER LIED, CALL THE PAPERS!

Okay, moving on. It's hard no to judge this on Regency terms--like, "zero musical ability" is not a colloquialism of the time, and this many adverbs would be bad writing any day. Oh, and both sisters have "pale, dewy skin," which just makes them sound...moist? Maybe pre-fungal?  

Chocolate colored curls, thick golden ringlets, marrying a duke, blah blah blah. Someone has read enough romance novels to know the patterns, anyway.  It's actually impressive how many cliches are packed in per paragraph.  

Madeline doesn't know why her sister cares "so terribly much" about marrying "so very young" when there is a whole world to see. "Victoria looked as though she might faint from the scandal."  This is actually well supported in literature--the British upper classes are likely to faint at anything.  Strong men have been known to fall over dead upon opening a startling letter.  So this part is legit.

Wait, Madeline's embroidery hoop is next to her on the settee?  I thought she threw it across the room a few minutes ago?  I can't be bothered to scroll back; make a note for the continuity experts.

Stubbornly, matter-of-factly, fully, preferably, terribly. Every page, packed full.

Ooh, Madeline doesn't feel a spark with her handsome fiance-to-be Reginald.  He's too bland and blond.  Perhaps a white-haired colonel will sweep her off her feet?

For some reason no one uses contractions here.  "I do not know about being a duchess." I guess that's how they talked in ye olde fashioned times.

Two sisters who envy each other, because the younger wants to marry but the older wants the freedom to wait.  What will they do?  WILL THEY SWITCH PLACES?

Chapter 2
Interesting--a lot of books that go for this kind of cliche (we like our heroine because she's a tomboy, not a girly girl) end up being pretty femmephobic, but Madeline likes to get dressed up and look pretty.  I can appreciate that.

I don't think "sure" was used as a synonym for "admittedly" by anyone who referred to the ton by that name. Especially not twice in the same paragraph.

Fashion porn--petal pink, green ribbons, hairstyles. I have never read an actual romance novel that spent as much time on clothing (well, on clothing that was not about to come off) as this.

Did the Victorians or the Regenciers or whatever "throw" balls? Either way, Madeline has terrible manners.  She can't keep her parents' friends straight and she doesn't know enough not to drink when people toast to her.  And oh my god, you do not address a duke as Duke!  I am rolling my eyes so hard at this girl. She has clearly not learned nearly as much about being a society lady as I had at the same age.

Chapter 3
Okay, there's an amorphous "plan" taking shape now.  Will she run away to the new world and meet Colonel Sanders?  Will she discover the glories of fried chicken?  I mean, the cover didn't give any real information at all!  All I know is, waiting till the day before the wedding was a bad plan, kid.

(Also, a bride did not plan her own wedding back then; her mother did.)

The pauses to describe people's looks reminds me of the Babysitter's Club and Dawn's long straight blonde hair and Stacey's short blonde perm and Mary Anne's two brown braids.

The extent to which they will go to avoid contractions is amazing.  "'Little late for that, do you not think?'" That's the weirdest combination of modern and faux-antiquated phrasing I can think of.

I read a fanfic recently that made a point of the fact that saying "okay" would mean nothing to the Victorian gentry.  I do not want to denigrate fanfic by pointing out that this is worse than most fanfic, but it is SO MUCH WORSE.

Chapter 4 
I'm 30% of the way through the book and there is no hero yet.  Unless she ends up with Reginald?  No, that's not going to happen.  I have to call it quits for the night, though.  I was really hoping this would be funnier--it's not a send-up of romance novels; it's just a really bad romance novel.  Like, really bad.

I wonder if someone could make a living out of this?  Cranking out specialized tie-in novels for products?  Romancing the Roomba. Whirlpool of DesireThe Cowboy Duke's Honda Civic.

To Be Continued!






Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Space Between the Stars

I go back and forth about putting the book name in the name of the blog post, but you know, I think it's useful to know what you're getting into: today, I lean in that direction.

The Space Between the Stars, by Anne Corlett, is a book that I received for review from Netgalley, and the blurb couldn't be more up my alley. Post-viral civilization collapse! A ragtag band of survivors aboard a spaceship! A lone wolf developing grudging respect for her new compatriots!  What's not to love?

But I don't love it. There are a few things that come together, some of which fall into the "just not for me" category and some of which are, I think, real weaknesses.  "Just not for me" is that the characters are all very angry; "actual weaknesses" I would mostly categorize as clunky. Thinking about it more, I think this is an issue book--an after school special-level point-maker.

Jamie is a veterinarian working on a backward colony planet when the plague hits.  Thanks to a long incubation period, it's spread through all the inhabited worlds before anyone realizes the danger, and the fatality rate is 99.9999%--meaning across the known galaxy, there are only a few thousand survivors.  And thanks to the nature of the virus, people who stay close to other people pass the mutating virus back and forth--the denser the population, the higher the fatality.

This does not explain why there aren't more survivors on the cattle station.  However.

Jamie is a bit of a misanthropist and very much a loner.  A few things to know about Jamie: she is separated from her husband. She recently lost a near-full term pregnancy. Her mother died when she was a young teenager.  And she was born as a conjoined twin whose sister died in the surgery to separate them.  So in case you didn't notice, Jamie is a person who is very distant from other people.

We pick up other characters as we go along, and at first I thought the fact that they were all somewhat opaque was going to be a mystery--that everyone would be hiding a secret, or that we would learn that there's more to people than  meets the eye. But although there are some secrets, there's not a lot more nuance--Lena is an eccentric religious zealot; Lowry is a level-headed, spiritual man; Mira is every stereotype of a woman who has suffered sexual abuse (sometimes she reflects contradictory stereotypes at the same time); and so on.

The whole book takes place pretty immediately after the end of the world, but there's not a lot of complexity to the emotions of the characters. Sometimes they get upset, and that's the explanation, but there's no unexpected depth to anyone's reactions.  Eventually it's turned into a story about how society is evil and corrupt and the people who try to run things are out to stomp down on individual choice.  Honestly, I'm reading The Handmaid's Tale right now, too, and once we get into the totalitarian part of the book, the comparisons are too easy to draw, and this book is almost a caricature of that much better one.

There are several autistic characters, as well as others who fall somewhere between extreme introvert and apparently on the spectrum--including Jamie, who is very sensitive to touch and often uncomfortable in social situations.  Sometimes the book almost reads like a fantasy of how much easier it would be to live in the world if there weren't so many people in it, and that maybe it would even be easier to connect. And sometimes that came across in ways that really bothered me, like when Finn, who is explicitly autistic, doesn't want to be touched, but Jamie persists in trying to comfort him, and eventually he holds her hand gratefully.  That is not my understanding of how to handle that kind of touch sensitivity, and it feels kind of disrespectful of that kind of difference.

So sadly, this is not the book I had hoped it would be.  I think what I like in a good apocalypse/dystopia story is how people come together in adversity--to find hope, to find peace, to stand up.  I don't mind if it's a long road to that--whether it's Man vs. Nature or Man vs. Himself, it's about how the human spirit survives.  But these characters are so blank that I just can't find the human spirit in them; all the non-misfits are blank-faced fascists, and the misfits end up monologuing in detail about how there's nothing wrong with living the way they do.  I'm calling this one clunky, preachy, and not for me.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

American Gods

Can you believe I never read American Gods before now?  I blame Neverwhere.  I didn't love that one, and that left me a little hesitant to read Neil Gaiman's other big novel.  But then they made it into a TV show and book club picked it for the month and here we are--I wrapped up the novel a couple of days before the show premiered.

Let's start with the novel, since that's how I did it. (Deliberately; I can't read the novel after the show or movie.  Once I've watched it, that's pretty much a commitment not to read the book; see Little Big Lies.)

Shadow is in jail for three years on a small time offense, but he'll be out in just a couple of weeks, and he can't wait to get back to his wife Laura.  When she dies days before his relief, his whole world is pretty much empty--until, on the way to her funeral, he meets Mr. Wednesday, an unorthodox con man who offers Shadow a job.

Mr. Wednesday is charming and insistent, and Shadow is at loose ends, so they begin to cross America together, enlisting other old-timers like Mr. Wednesday in the impending war.  Apparently, the old gods and the new can't get along. Shadow is his driver and assistant, sounding board and sidekick, and he begins to learn about the much, much weirder side of the world.

So, the thing that Neil Gaiman does so well is to place the fantastical and portentous beside the mundane and everyday.  It's what Stephen King does, only where King goes straight to grandiosity and horror, Gaiman lingers in the land of wonder--Gaiman's gods are as mundane, in their own ways, as the human world in which they coexist.  But the power of this book is in the long drives through small towns with their high school athletes' achievements on the welcome signs, the stops for roadside chili and pie (not bad, but not the best chili in the state, however it was advertised), and the neighbors you get to know when you realize that you are unprepared for a Colorado (I think?) winter and need some help finding the long underwear store.

Even Shadow is an everyman--the loss of his wife has him drifting across the top of life, not really digging into it (or maybe he's just like that?)--but he is not prepared for the supernatural that starts to go down.  He takes it in stride like someone on a mild tranquilizer would, in that he realizes that this is impossible nonsense, but also that it's happening and that rolling with it is really the only viable option.

I think that's what I loved best about the book--how it really captured the feel of a diner or an apartment full of old people or a public park in a way that allowed you to follow the story when it drifted into the "backstage" experiences that involve the moon and the world tree.

But (and here we're going to be switching over to episode 1 of the Starz series) this is just where the TV adaptation drops the ball, I think.  Or no, that implies that it tried something and failed; the TV adaptation is playing a totally different game--I was expecting some kind of ball game, but I got pro wrestling instead.

The show could not possibly be more glossy.  It uses slow motion and shifting frame capture rates to create hi-res visuals. There are multiple scenes in which a curtain of blood just washes across the screen, looking like cherry Kool-Aid. The best chili in the state is served at a bar shaped like the inside of an alligator's mouth.  It's a really cool visual--but it goes straight to surreal. The experience of a mundane world that touches a stranger one is missing, because the entire world is strange and hyperfocused.  Instead of seeing the banal in the gods, we are seeing the otherworldly everywhere we turn.

I might be the only person who was not impressed by this.  I'm somewhat less of a sucker for high art on TV than a lot of people--I like a good looking show, but not when the style gets in the way of the substance--characterization, emotion, story--which I think was happening here.

See? Glossy.
Maybe it's that I just finished the book and it was too fresh in my mind.  Maybe it was casting a hunky action hero as our everyman (I cannot picture the actor who plays Shadow smiling.  Cannot.)  Or maybe it's just that I don't like gloss as much as the rest of the world.  But I just couldn't feel at home in the show the way I did in the book. If anyone else runs across a non-glowing review of the show, I'd be interested to read it.  I'm feeling pretty alone in this assessment. 

But I will say, I did really love the book.