Sunday, May 01, 2016

Six of Crows

Leigh Bardugo.  I'm not sure how I feel about her; I listened to Shadow and Bone, and it was fine--I liked the worldbuilding better than the plot, and certainly better than the characters.  I started the sequel, Siege and Storm, and just couldn't get into it. I wasn't invested enough in what was happening to want to go back and find out how anything ended.

But here I am listening to Six of Crows, because I just CANNOT resist a heist story.  Eccentric but super-competent people come together to do something impossible and pull one over on some version of The Man--you are in my sweet spot, with chocolate sauce.

Not very far in yet, but very much enjoying it.  It's got one big glaring flaw, which is that all the characters are 17 years old FOR NO REASON.  I mean, I guess it's so it can be a young adult book, but really it's nonsense, and they keep talking about it (don't condescend to me, we're the same age; he's young to run a gang). Each member is the best at what s/he does--the best sharpshooter in the Barrel is 17.  Not someone who's been to war and done a hundred things--this 17 year old kid.  Also the best thief--invisible, skilled, ruthless, reserved.  17.  And she was enslaved for a while and then worked for the Dregs for a while, and before that she was an acrobat with her family.  There literally aren't enough years for you to have had all these experiences.

It's ridiculous, especially with Kaz, the leader. He has all kinds of connections, long term plans, and the whole town wired.  He's 17.  And while his backstory has only been hinted at, he arrived in town just a while ago.  Practically speaking, it makes no sense.

Okay, so that's my nitpick.  Let me tell you one of my favorite things now, just to make up for it--the Dregs operate in the rough side of town, which is called the Barrel.  You get to know it--East Stave and West Stave; the Lid, down by the docks, where the rich folks come in and out to gamble away their money.  They come in costume, to disguise their identities, as characters from a famous opera.  I love this city--how it works, the flavor and feel of it.

But, as Sarah says, I just pretend they're all 35 and it's a great book. Only 17 year olds think 17 year olds know everything.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Let's Read Comics!

I've been collecting comics, reading some and not others, generating a backlog.  They don't take long to read, though--there's no reason I should have the latest volumes of amazing things like Nailbiter, Saga, and Rat Queens, not to mention tantalizing new possibilities like Paper Girls, Orphan Black: Helsinki, and Hexed: The Harlot and the Thief.  And stuff I've read and want to go on about--Bitch Planet!

So, let's start here: Django/Zorro, by Quentin Tarantino and Matt Wagner, which I got from Netgalley.  I'll admit that I'm starting here mostly because I don't have a lot to say about it; Django Unchained was an amazing movie in classic Tarantino fashion--take the worst bad guys you can think of and unleash an offensive amount of violence on them.  It was the best of revenge fantasy, and one of my favorite Tarantino films, I think (though I don't know if I could watch it often) partly because Jamie Foxx played Django so straight.  He wasn't a caricature or a stylized placeholder; he was a real man with nothing to lose in an impossible situation.  It was a great combination.

I was kind of hoping to find that combination of irreverence and steely practicality here, the flavor of Django, that Tarantino thing brought to the character of Zorro. But this felt like a straight Western.  It probably wasn't a bad one for that--the bad guy had a pretty cool evil plan/backstory, and Don Diego de la Vega is fun, in a fussy, flamboyant way--but there isn't much characterization, not much feeling, and not a lot of depth here.  You can hardly see characters' eyes in a single image here, which feels emblematic of how little connection I felt to the story.

It's not a bad Western.  It's a great episode of an old Zorro program. But I expected more whimsy from Zorro, and more intensity from Django.  I think I'd set my hopes too high.

But never fear!  Soon I'll bring you Princeless, Rat Queens 3, and a lot more goodies. Watch this space!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Beware That Girl

Kate has fought her way from private school to private school, leaving her past as far behind her as she can, looking for her best shot at Yale.  Waverley is her chance, and she'll do whatever she has to to make it work.  When she meets Olivia--reserved and maybe lonely--Kate sees an opportunity for access to money and resources that she completely lacks on her own.

Both girls have secrets, but they find a friendship in each other that they haven't had before. When a handsome young staff member comes to school, though, the delicate social world of the campus is thrown into turmoil.  Kate is a master game player and she won't let anything get in her way, but Olivia's friendship means everything to her--emotionally and practically.

So there's my back cover blurb-style summary of Beware That Girl by Teresa Toten.  This was one of the most un-put-down-able books I've read in a long time--it's quick, and I'm afraid I have to use the word trashy, though that is in NO way a pejorative.  I love books about manipulators of human behavior, whether they're the protagonist or the antagonist, and I love Kate, who at first seems like a major antihero, but whom I really come to see as focused and maybe a little too hardened.  Olivia's fragile reserve gets more ominous as you go on, and it's amazing how each character develops so much over the course of the book--they keep unfolding as you go along.  It's masterfully done.

One other small thing that I loved was that, while most of the adults had huge blind spots, they were all well-intentioned (except the evil ones).  They screw up and make mistakes, but they're not brushing off kids asking for help, or pretending they don't exist, or trivializing them.  They're blind, but there are a lot of people trying to take care of Olivia and Kate, and I think that went a long way to making me believe that this was a world full of real people.

The big weakness I do want to touch on is the treatment of mental illness, though--a lot of thriller tropes about mental illness are sort of lumped together.  Sociopaths are fascinating, but they're not all the same, and they're not even close to all murderers; having no empathy doesn't make murder enjoyable.  Sure, when those things go together, you get a bad scene, but the psychology here is definitely ripped from the headlines, and not of the most reputable scholarly journals.  There are a lot of mental illnesses that come up here as central plot points, and almost none of them are more nuanced than somewhere between melodrama and slasher movie.

But woo, Nellie, it kept me reading.  Fast-paced, switching back and forth between Kate's intense, smart first person and Olivia's spaced out, nervous third person, and I wasn't sure if the book was ever on the rails till it got yanked directly off them.  It was a wild, wild ride, and there was a cute dog named Bruce, too.  I wish there was a dispenser that would give me a book just like this one whenever I need it--on long train rides, and between big dense literary novels.

Thanks to Netgalley for an ARC of this one!  I guess they're my dispenser.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Fellside

One thing about advance copies--because I prefer to write a "real review" (whatever that means) for those, I try not to write about them from the middle of the book. I think this serves me poorly as a blogger, because I feel the most strongly in the middle of the book.

For example, the experience of reading M.R. Carey's Fellside was one of picking up and putting down. It begins with a very slow and gradual setup, and when all the pieces are in place the tension ratchets higher and higher, to the point where it seemed like every twenty minutes I had to put it down because I was getting myself all twisted up with anxiety that SOMETHING BAD WAS GOING TO GO DOWN AT ANY MOMENT. This is a very good thing in a book, usually, and here it worked in very much the best way, because in almost every case, the bad thing did happen, and the results were worth watching.

M.R. Carey wrote The Girl with All the Gifts, a really excellent zombie apocalypse book that came out a couple of years ago. You probably knew that, though, because they put a little callout from that somewhat iconic cover on the Fellside cover.  While I get it--Carey had a big hit with that book--I think it served this one poorly.  The books are very different, and the implied relationship doesn't serve Fellside well.  It works on its own merits, but not as well as Gifts, and in a very different way.

The book begins with our protagonist, Jess, waking up in a hospital, badly burned, with no idea what happened.  The first part of the book takes us through her trial and conviction for murder in the death of a neighbor boy based on the fire she set in her apartment while high, ostensibly to try to kill her boyfriend.  (There are a lot of clauses in that sentence. I rewrote it a few times; parse at your own risk.)  Jess has no memory, but the court proves their case and sends her to prison.  Her own guilt is worse, though, and she chooses to end her life with a hunger strike.

Fellside is the prison she is sentenced to, and it's where the story really starts; everything before this is setup--necessary, but really just the building blocks.  We meet the rest of the players--Harriet Grace, who rules the block with an iron fist; Devlin, the guard in her pocket; Salazar, the good-hearted but weak doctor; even the ghost of Alex, the boy Jess has been convicted of murdering.  There are a lot more characters--inmates, nurses, a few guards, lawyers--and the best part of this book is that each one is the center of the story from their own point of view.

I read an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda recently that asked about his favorite books, and one question was about his favorite villains.  His answer was perfect: "I don't believe in villains."  There are people who are selfish and damaged and who enjoy others' suffering, it's true, but nobody would call themselves a villain.  Each of these characters is doing what makes the most sense to them based on their own weakness and strength and motivations.

The big exception here is Harriet Grace--everyone else, you get deep enough into their head to see the unique logic that drives them, but Grace is just a tyrant.  We get her backstory, which could construct her motivations, but I didn't feel it; her combination of cold business and unnecessary rage doesn't ring nearly as human as Devlin's petty need for power or Salazar's sad, small fear of taking action.

But the story really hinges around the ghost.  Here's where I have to stop the deep dive for fear of spoilers, but I will say that Alex as a vehicle for Jess's second life--getting clean, having a purpose--is really interesting.  But the ghost, the body-leaving, the trippy, dreamlike landscape where a chunk of the plot takes place--these things fall toward my pet peeve category of reading long dream sequences, or drug trips, or basically out of body experiences where any description is an impressionistic approximation of what you're trying to describe.

And when the action shifts to that landscape, there's a simplistic, almost fairy-tale-like aspect to the action that feels less nuanced than this book deserves.  The shift from character-driven examination of human motivations to "everyone gets what they deserve" in a dream landscape feels like a bit of a cheat. 

Essentially, you've got a really compelling prison story with a heavy (and somewhat heavy-handed) ghost subplot.  They're tied together tightly; the prison story is amazing and totally worth it; the ghost part is much weaker, but doesn't come close to canceling out the really excellent story.

Again, I feel like this post would be better if I'd written it in the middle of the book.  But then, my full opinion wasn't formed then.  I think there's a prime window of a few hours when I'll need to write all blog posts.  I'll work on that for you.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Where Futures End

I think Parker Peevyhouse, in addition to being an incredibly talented young writer, might have the best author name ever.  You can argue the point with me, but I'm going to need citations if you try to claim there's something better out there, and I don't believe you can provide it.

And then there's the book.  Where Futures End is a set of five connected stories; the first one takes place in the present, the next one ten years from now, then thirty, then sixty, and finally a hundred years in the future.  Interconnected stories is something I usually either love or hate; short stories are not usually my favorite, but when the connections are tight and a strong overall narrative is formed, my book nerd heart goes pitter patter.  This is why David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is one of my favorite book; when it's done right, this is a format that has so much going for it.

And this is very, very right.  In the first story, a boy named Dylan doesn't seem to fit into his life, and wants to return to the Other Place, a magical country that he used to be able to cross over to when he was small.  Ten years later, a girl named Brixney struggles to pay off her family's debt with a fast food job by making a live feed of her life as interesting as possible--and meets someone who knew Dylan. In the next story, Brixney's life is pop culture history, and Epony's family is forced from their farm as droughts and floods--and other things--change the face of the world.

And so on, each about a young person in an unfriendly and unforgiving world, trying to find a magic way out.  And there is magic here, but it's not harmless.  The idea that there's another world you can go to--like Narnia--and that everything is better there and you can leave your problems behind is so familiar, so tempting, and so impossible; even if there was such a world, it would not be problem free.  (Do you know how to get to Solla Sollew, on the banks of the beautiful river Wahoo, where they never have troubles--at least very few?)  Even when things work out for our characters, there are no easy answers to the problems they're facing--just lucky breaks.

There is a line in Epony's story, "When We Went High Concept," in which her boyfriend Cole talks about their situation: their farmland flooded as the government tries to save the cities, their families without any selling points to make them worth a corporate relocation.  "They set the price, and we pay it."  This happens over and over again--we live in the world as it exists, in a complicated society and economy that doesn't care about the individual.  Is it any wonder that traveling to a beautiful land of magic and wonder seems so appealing?

There is so much going on here--ideas of privacy, of media, of economics and loyalty and the environment--but each story is driven by its own characters, and the things those characters desperately want and need.  Each one is irresistable, and then by the end, you see the trajectory that is mapped, the consequences of all the small choices that were made by everyone in the world.  It's gorgeous, and heartbreaking, and thrilling. 

I'm excited about this book.  Welcome to my eternal wishlist, Parker Peevyhouse!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Roses and Rot

Kat Howard's Roses and Rot is about art and magic and love, and fairy tales.  I keep tripping over the fairy tales.

Imogen is a writer, starting a year at an elite artists' retreat.  Her sister Marin, a ballet dancer, is there, too, and they're hoping to reconnect after years of distance. The retreat, Melete, is idyllic, and they have mentors and housing and delicious food, and they make friends and meet charming men and are surrounded by geniuses and work on their art.

You can see that there's a dark side coming, right?  Not really so dark, actually; it turns out Melete is run by the fae; it's a doorway to Faery, and the presence of artists feeds the fae.  But they need more than that; once ever seven years, a tithe is chosen, a person to live in Faery for the next seven years.  Your emotions sustain the fae while you're there, and when you come back you are guaranteed genius and success.  They choose the most brilliant artist for this coveted position.

So the big theme this book seems to wrestle with is what an artist will do for their art.  Spending seven years in Faery is not all sunshine and rose petals--the fae feed on human emotions, and so you're basically gonna be on an emotional rollercoaster the whole time you're there, but most of the characters think it's worth it for what you get in return--guaranteed greatness, guaranteed success.  You will become a legend in your field.

I have a lot of thoughts on this, some of which are simply raised by the book and some of which are critical of its treatment.  It would be interesting to discuss this book next to The Family Fang, which is another novel in which the characters wrestle with the importance of art when it interferes with family relationships. This book is very different from that one (which I really enjoyed), but it takes on some of the same questions from a completely different angle.

Imogen and Marin have an extremely abusive mother, and her presence in their lives has bound them as allies, torn them apart with lies, and informed each of their relationships with their art in a different way.  When they're faced with the question of what they would give up for their art and whether competition between them will cause a rift, you watch the practicalities of that conflict play out, which is very interesting.

I do think that there's a flaw in the idea of art here, which the book doesn't ignore but doesn't really resolve--the idea of talent and success as black-and-white, all-or-nothing concepts.  When you have forty of the world's most talented artists and only one will be chosen, it doesn't make sense to think of the rest as failures. When you have a magic spell guaranteeing you success (through brilliance; that's part of the deal, but the success is the main part), does that mean you're really "better" than anyone else?  It seems like the ultimate desire for a lottery ticket, or to have things handed to you on a silver platter; I understand the desire to make this tough path easier, but the notion that there is any value at all in what the fae are offering is kind of questionable to me, and I feel like the nod in the direction of that doubt isn't as clear as I'd want it to be.

Some other great things about this book: Imogen has a relationship that no one at any point mistakes for a "true love always" relationship, but that is treated as important and meaningful anyway.  You never see this--sometimes you'll get a book where what looks like TLA ends up not working out, but you rarely get one where two people like each other and want each other and so date, knowing they're not in love, but are still expected to treat each other respectfully, and still value each other.  It was something I didn't realize I'd missed till I got it. 

Melete sounds amazing.  The buildings, the art, the characters; it's like the ultimate college experience, only you're old enough to appreciate it.

Some things that didn't strike me right: I'm pretty sure the author's not from New Hampshire.  Mid-October is not early fall in central New Hampshire.  A foot of snow is not something residents freak out about. A minor issue, but I found it amusing.

There is a risk, when writing about brilliant writers, because you will probably at some point have to show me their writing.  The author made the wise choice to show any of the poetry that some of the secondary characters wrote, but she did have to include some of the fairy tale-like stories that Imogen wrote, and this was a struggle for me.

See, the stories in fairy tales are deep and dark and rich and creepy.  But the telling of fairy tales is blunt and unadorned, without characterization or subtlety.  No one has depths; characters are types. There is no internal life to a character in a fairy tale, and the language has a very standard, practical, straightforward style. So while the metaphors between the creepy Grimm brothers lives of Imogen's characters and the real-world experiences of the sisters worked just fine, there is no way that you can convince me that this is writing that's supposed to be transcendent.  I think Margo Lanagan is probably the go-to character for a fairy tale-style story that also packs an enormous emotional wallop; reading Imogen's excerpts, the metaphors are masking the dark reality, not enhancing it.

So what's the verdict?  Well, I enjoyed reading it, and it moved me along through the story.  And there were some interesting issues that it made me think about from very interesting angles.  I feel like it didn't meet me squarely on those issues, though; I was less in dialog with the book than prompted to do the thinking on my own.  Definitely a good read, but there was some missed potential there for it to be a great one.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Fun Family

Oooookay then.  The Fun Family, a graphic novel by Benjamin Frisch.  Billed as a "what if the family behind (an off-brand) Family Circus was really messed up?  Review copy from Netgalley, and my thanks to them, in spite of my feelings about the book.

At first, it looks like the happy family from the comic strips, mediocre punch lines based on cute kid misconceptions and all. Mom made sticky buns and the kids are so cute! Then we start to see the cracks--Dad is defensive and secretive; Mom does all the work and is starting to resent it. They're going to therapy, which Dad thinks is stupid. This is the kind of story I'm expecting, so it makes sense and I follow it.

Then...oh, then.  Dad shows Robby his secret hobby (which is Ned Flanders creepy, not Charles Manson creepy, but any hobby you keep in the crawlspace is suspect). The therapist is a complete quack who misinterprets everything Robby says to fit his own framework. Mom is leaving, but she's only taking two of the kids.  Dad is semi-catatonic and Mom still expects her alimony, so it's up to Robby (who's, what, 10?) to put food on the table, while his sister finds God through Grandma's ghost and the baby is still nine months old.

So, it's not the unlikeliness of the story that bothers me, and it's not even the "everyone's a selfish idiot."  It's the combination of all those things baked together with a straight-man kid protagonist who is so immersed in the real world that the cartoonish nightmare he lives in doesn't make sense (even on its own exaggerated terms) by comparison.

I mean, there is not a single non-insane adult here--which works as satire, that's fine.  But if it's straight satire, you shouldn't have a narrator from the real world wandering around going, "wait, each of you is a two-dimensional cardboard cutout who has no real-world thoughts or feelings!" It doesn't make sense.  The parents are selfish and ignore the kids entirely; the therapists (there are several) are quacks who don't listen to anything; the pediatrician is oblivious; the reporter is focused on the story.

Which is a storytelling strategy I could get behind, but then you pull the rug out from under these observations you're trying to make by making the central problem of the story not a search for meaning or comfort or connection or adulthood (since we're following this with the kids), but rent money.

So yeah, this was a heavy-handed satire about all the ways people search for meaning and avoid connection (which is a weird combination to focus on to begin with, but let's go with it) that really shot itself in the foot with a protagonist who doesn't leave room for satire.  Really, this book reads like the therapy project of someone who's very angry at all the adults from his childhood who didn't realize that no one was taking care of him.  It made me very sad, and pretty angry, and not in a good way.