Thursday, November 20, 2014

Magical Magicalism

I had never heard of Kelly Link until her name appeared before me on Netgalley.  But she's a writer of short stories, and short stories are Not My Thing, so I pretty much passed the book by.

Then her name suddenly started appearing everywhere (well, at least some somewheres), and I got curious, and I went back to Netgalley and asked politely for a review copy of Get in Trouble, her newest collection.  And Netgalley (well, Random House, via Netgalley) generously let me have a copy with the intent of my providing a fair and balanced review, and I began to read.

I had no idea what to expect.

It started out easy, with a story told in a linear fashion, one with characters operating in a recognizable world, albeit with fantastical elements.  "The Summer People" is about a high school girl, mostly on her own, who keeps house for those other folks.  But she does more than make beds, and the magic that unfolds is lovely--this story made me so happy and I fell in love right away.

This is the point where I emailed Brenda and asked if she'd heard of Kelly Link (because I hadn't).  She said yeah, but magical realism wasn't her thing.  I was surprised, because that's not what the first story was.  I started the next one.

Okay, this is a little odder.  "I Can See Right Through You" is a trickier story--plunks you down in the middle, with a lot of names and not much to get a grip on.  The time jumps around, a lot, and the main character is called "the demon lover."  I got about eight pages in before I got who was who, and then I went back to the beginning and started again.  This time, it was easier.  It's the story of an actor who got famous playing a young, hot vampire, but who's getting a little older now, and whose personal life is falling apart.  He's trying to get himself together by visiting his ex and oldest friend, who played his human lover in that first, definitive role.  It's about getting older, and trying to hold onto the things that are real, and yeah, that's magical realism.

Then we go back to straightforward, with some humor, where a teenaged girl gets off the bus in New York to meet a man she's been chatting with online.  He's in his 30s, and he thinks she is, too, and most of the story takes place in a hotel where there is a dentist convention AND a superhero convention (actual superheroes, not comics or cosplay) at the same hotel.  It's about adolescence and not belonging and painful discoveries, and it's sweet and funny and yeah, there are superheroes, but mostly it's just fun in the way a "meeting someone from the internet and it all goes horribly wrong" stories can be.

By now, I'm settled in a bit, and I can see where the magical realism is.  I can also see that her thing is to plunge you into a new world without only small clues--not just a world of the future or an alternate now, but a cast of characters with a history that they hint at.  Each story starts in the middle of things, and for most of them, I ended up flipping back to the beginning once I figured out who the characters were, what the terminology meant, and where things were going.

All of these are facts, I'm realizing now.  Yes, this is the story of reading the book--what did you think of it?  Did you like it?  Yes, a lot, actually.  I found these stories challenging, but worth it.  I found them all very different from each other, which is not often how I feel about a collection by a single author and which is amazing.  I found them daring, both emotionally and in form.  I found them exciting, with characters I wanted to know more about and mysteries or action I wanted to follow to the end.

Do I recommend it?  Yes.  Very highly, actually.  I'm not a short story person, but if more were like this, I might be.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Minis

Quick and dirty, because I'm backlogged!

I read K.J. Parker's novella Blue and Gold because of this post at Reading the End, and now I'm going to read the rest of K.J. Parker because while it doesn't actually read like Miles Vorkosigan--the world and story and storytelling are all different, and the character is a completely different person--it's all about a narrator who has many hands against him, but is super freaking clever.  (I know that invoking Miles is a very big deal, and I don't want to overuse this.  I repeat that the book is nothing like those books, but the character's appeal is, like Miles', in his extreme competence.)

And he's maybe not a very good person; it gets harder to decide as the story goes on.  Oh, it was so good, thank you, Jenny!  (Also, a bunch of Parker's work is available on the Kindle in convenient omnibus form.  I own this now.)

I read Drew Weing's Set to Sea because I've been enjoying his webcomic, The Creepy Casefiles of Margo Maloo.  Honestly, there isn't a lot to say about it, except that it's kind of a lovely little book with a very simple story about a man who wants to be a poet but is impressed as a sailor.  The moral is kind of about living the life you have, and how that can lead to the life you dream of.  I wish I had more to say about it--the format, with one drawing per page, makes it a very short story, but the art and the broad-strokes rendition of a life at sea made it really appealing.  I don't know--not perfect for everyone, but a nice little volume.

I was about to put in a few kids' comics and books that I've read recently, but I think I might do a Christmas suggestion list next week, so we'll save that up, shall we?  Because who doesn't have a seven year old who needs some comics for Christmas?  And there are only so many volumes of Zita the Spacegirl and Amulet out there.

So let's polish this off with another novella, Ajax Penumbra 1969, by Robin Sloan.  This is a companion--you might even say a prequel--to Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, which we read for book club a while back

I'm going to start by pointing out my annoyance at having Ajax Penumbra clearly defined as being of Spanish descent, because I had always pictured him as Southeast Asian.  So that was kind of a bummer.  Really, this is a charming adventure about searching for a lost tome, and the adventure part is a really fun romp.

But after reading Bookstore, the similarities here actually kind of weakened the whole thing.  First, what really jumped out at me here is the fact that books are kind of a fetish object in this whole series.  These are people who love and study and hunt down books, but they mostly don't read them.  They're about books as objects, not about the ideas and people and lives that are within them, so that the meaning of it is kind of lost.  When I revel in the sheer pleasure of a big pile of books, I'm thinking about reading them; I don't think Robin Sloan is.

Also, somehow Ajax has a computer genius best friend, just like what's-his-name in Bookstore.  It worked really well in that one, with Google culture and the web as an information source thing.  But here, it's big punchcard machines and again, it's kind of weird to work them in.  But at least they're addressed for what they are--it's not just about having a computer--it's about the data you can hold and process in them, and then the real things you can do with that data, like build tunnels under cities and figure out how many people will be riding on the train on a certain Tuesday three years from now.

Anyway, I'm complaining, but really, as I said, it's mostly a treasure hunt romp.  And it's short, and if you liked Mr. Penumbra's Bookstore, then Ajax Penumbra is charming and worth the brief reading time.

There!  A month around the edges of my reading, all in one post.  Enjoy!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Retail Hell

I haven't read enough horror novels to speak to how they compare to each other, or whether the author is doing something mind-blowing vs. old hat.  As the poet says, I don't know much, but I know what I like.

Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix, is something I like.  It actually kind of reminds me of the movie The Descent, in that it starts out as one kind of story and turns into another one.  At first, it's about the horror of retail, the petty indignities and frustrations of working a low-paying job for a big corporation.  This is the cave part of The Descent, when you're watching a good movie about spelunking.

There are hints at what's coming, but you're fully halfway through the book before things truly go to Hell.  When they do, we spin around and now, instead of a creepy, ominous night in a store with some scary stuff going down, reality quite suddenly bends itself backward and you're reading John Dies at the End

So Amy is a struggling drone at Orsk, which is most certainly not Ikea, oh no, no way.  She's afraid she's about to be fired, but when her boss asks her and a coworker to spend the night in the store to try to catch the vandals who are causing problems, she jumps at the overtime.

So Basil, Amy, and Ruth Ann spend the night at Orsk, and creepy stuff happens, and they are joined by Matt and Trinity, who are sure that the store is haunted, and creepy things happen, and it turns out that the store is built on a graveyard or an insane asylum or something and WHOA MY GOD THERE IS ANOTHER REALITY BEHIND THE WALLS. 

So the horror part of it is probably just good, solid standard horror writing--I haven't read a lot of it and can't speak to it in comparison with other things.  What I loved about it was the juxtaposition of Ikea--sorry, Orsk--and the big-box, clean and manageable reality with the dark, inexplicable stuff.  Even before it gets all horror, the difference between the showroom floor and the break room is worth reading about, and Amy's journey from struggling to focused is worth watching. 

I also loved how the group of employees showed a range of relationships of people with work--Basil LOVES Orsk, and while he may take it too far, you come to like it about him.  Ruth Ann and Matt and Trinity--they all have their own reasons for being there, and I think that's my favorite part of the book.

In fact, I feel like the resolution to the real supernatural part is kind of a letdown, not because it's not what it should be--it's just the right ending--but because it happens so suddenly.  It's all unfolding, and then the action (and Amy's change of heart, etc) just wrap up all of a sudden.  The coda was way longer than the meaty part of the climax, which is pretty much my only complaint here.

So: profound, no, but fun?  Hell yes.  Emphasis on "hell."


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Nope, Sorry

I'm a very sad specimen.  I'm out of NaNo completely, and I still didn't manage to write a post for tonight.  But I've read several very good books this week, so I will definitely be back with reviews in the next day or two.

In the meantime, have a gorgeous library--Canada's Library of Parliament. 


(Or really, a bunch of them, via this post.)

Monday, November 10, 2014

The City in the City

Okay, NaNo is going very poorly and I may have dropped out.  At least I'm way behind, but we'll see what happens.  In the meantime, let's get a blog post in so I'm not just doing nothing shall we?

The Walled City is a new novel by Ryan Graudin that I got from Netgalley for review.  It sounded fairly interesting to me, and then other people put it on their lists of things that looked interesting, so I read it, and I really loved it, and it was so good.  There are so many ways this book could have been put-downable and forgettable, but instead it kept me turning pages.

There are three viewpoint characters in this book--I know, very hard to pull off.  Mei Yee was sold by her parents and brought to a brothel--I know, so easy to do wrong.  She was brought to the walled city--a lawless island within the greater, well-run city--and kept imprisoned there.  Jin Ling, her sister, disguised herself as a boy and left home to search for her; she's been living on the streets in the Walled City fighting to keep alive and searching every brothel to find her sister, until finally there's only one left--the headquarters of the Brotherhood, the gang that controls the city.

Dai, meanwhile, has been trapped within the city for nearly two years, and he has a deadline coming--two weeks to fulfill a promise and make it out.  He needs help--a fast runner like Jin.  Jin and Dai will use each other to get closer to the brotherhood, and all three lives hang in the balance.

The idea of the walled city--a densely packed, completely ungoverned urban block within the city, is based on Kowloon's Walled City, which really existed.  Essentially, when the true city's government changed hands, the area's status as a fort meant its jurisdiction didn't follow, and eventually it was run entirely by gangs. 

But the thing that kind of blew me away about this book was that I really through I was reading a fantasy novel, right up until the first glimpse outside, which doesn't come until about a quarter of the way through the book.  Street urchins, prostitutes, gangs--timeless, I guess is the word?  The first time a taxi showed up, I had to flip back through to try to establish why I was so surprised.

I consider this a great thing, to find a book with the feel of fantasy--infinite possibilities, characters who could be anything, a world to learn as I went along--with a very different structure around it.  Maybe it's just that the setting is so unfamiliar, in another part of the world.  Anyway, it was lovely, and that kept me reading. 

The different women in this book are fascinating, and each one--not just Jin and Mei Yee, but the other girls at the brothel, the madam, even the rich lady and the servant at the fancy house near the end--had their own characterization, motivations, and believable internal selves.  It's true of the male characters, too, from the government agent who doesn't actually care much about many people, to the individual urchins who are not just a faceless pack.  Thinking about it now, this was the coolest part of the book.  It extended to the narrators, too, in that each one had a completely distinct voice--Mei Yee's was dreamy and poetic, Jin Ling's fiercely practical, Dai's wistful and intelligent and so sad.

I want to go on about the things I liked--how the coincidences fit together without being off-putting, how Mei Yee really develops as a character despite being so confined throughout the story, how Jin really grows up during the story--but really, it's not so much that these things were Huge Moments Of Awesomeness so much as the book was just a compelling, enjoyable, smart story that kept me reading. 

If I have a complaint, it's that things wrap up a little too pat, but I'm a sucker for that kind of neat and tidy ending, and while I can intellectually appreciate a complicated, messy, not-perfect conclusion, I would rather my heroes walk smiling into the sunset. 

All thumbs up for this one.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Can't Blog, Writing

Even that only sort of.  Back went out.  I'm a bit behind on NaNo words.  But I finished a couple of great books this week, so hopefully I'll catch up with the blog this weekend!

Oh, and don't read a book about the inevitability of physical decay, even an excellent one (Atul Gawande's Being Mortal) when your back is so far out that you cannot quite get up off the couch.  It is disheartening, to say the least.  That one will have to wait till I can tie my own shoes again.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The Emotional Lives of Men

Our book club in general agreed that Sayed Kashua's Second Person Singular was in many ways a book more respected than loved.  There are two storylines; one started strongish but then just kept repeating itself; the other started sooooo slowly and didn't pick up till the second half of the book.

Usually I do a reader's guide (or, let's admit, my thoughts in question form) for a book club book, but it's November and I'm on a time line here, so I'll just toss in a bunch of random thoughts.

This is essentially a book about what it means to be an Arab--particularly an Arab man--in Israel.  It covers a lot of ground in that respect, following two main characters in very different lives.  But since this is a translation of a book that was initially published in the author's home country of Israel, I know that Americans aren't explicitly the audience.  A book meant to tell its reader about a different culture is very different from a book meant to provide insight into the reader's own culture.

This meant that, as an American reader, there were definitely references that went over my head.  Racism and class/status are very big themes here--white Israeli vs. Arab, Jewish vs. Muslim vs. Christian, the professional class vs. the working class vs. students, city dwellers vs. villagers, conservatives vs. progressives.  I could tell that there were all kinds of signifiers flying around, but I couldn't tell what they meant.  I don't think that was very damaging to the experience of reading, but not knowing was sometimes frustrating--when, for example, there are explanations about going from one neighborhood to another, I can't tell if they're innocuous local color, or if they're the equivalent of going from Madison Avenue to Greenwich Village--any American reading a novel would understand at least the broadest implications of those neighborhoods.

So the plot: we have two stories.  In one, a well-to-do Arab lawyer goes about his well-to-do life.  There are scene setting details, and he's established as being basically the definition of bourgeois: very concerned with status, feeling his cultural shortcomings, both very self-satisfied and vaguely dissatisfied.  One day he buys a used book, and when he opens it, he finds a note from his wife--"I waited but you didn't come; last night was wonderful."  This sends him into an obsessive spiral of rage and fear and investigation--every manly, patriarchal bone in his body, including many that he didn't know he had, is fired up.

The other story begins with a social worker--socially awkward, melancholy, aimless in life.  We figure out eventually that he's the one the note was written to, but really, this just follows his life over several years, explaining how the note got into that book and that used book shop.  Unlike the lawyer, who spends the entire book over the course of one weekend, wrestling with the desire to murder his wife, not much happens to this social worker (Amir is his name, we eventually learn).  He provides a broader slice of Arabic-Israeli life: visits to his mother's village, unhappiness in his job, the poor housing and hustling poverty of young educated people.  Eventually he takes a job as a caretaker for a Jewish young man in a vegetative state, and drifts into a withdrawn isolation and passivity.  The rest of his story is the focus of the last half of the book, and while it's probably the most interesting part of the whole thing, I don't feel like I can give it away.

But anyway, it's a slow book, about observed details in these lifestyles.  I found the lawyer's completely irrational obsession with his wife's supposed unfaithfulness to be interesting in a "watching a train wreck" kind of way.  At first, he seems just kind of a yuppie tool, but as soon as he reads this note, he goes INSANE, strongly considers killing her, then decides that maybe he should let her relatives do it, but what if they won't, etc. etc.  Then there's an investigation procedural, in which a savvy lawyer uses the tools he has to figure out the details of her "infidelity."  It's not uninteresting, but it doesn't really build--he goes from zero to nuts and stays ramped up at nuts, running around in circles.

The other story starts out with a torpor that only comes from reading a story about a depressed guy, and it stays that way for WAY too long.  It wasn't a very long book, and many of the details of Amir's life are interesting, but for a long time it's about him being aimless and sad.  And there's an island in the middle of the book where Amir's story hasn't picked up and the lawyer's has leveled out at crazytown, and you don't like either of them and aren't really rooting for them and don't really care what  happens that makes the book kind of weak, even though, by the end, I was rooting for Amir and wanted to know what was going to happen to him.

Finally, I have to add this, even though I'm the only one in book club who noted it: to the extent that the book addresses women (and the infidelity storyline makes it a not-insignificant thing, even though the book is about Manhood), there's a level on which its take is that Arab culture's attitudes toward women are damaging to men.  The lawyer vacillates between condescending, hateful, and idealizing.  At first, this put me off entirely; eventually I came to realize that the author was making a point about how crazy and unhealthy he was, so okay, the author doesn't believe these things.  But when you come back around to these things as commentary on society, I just can't let go of the idea that there's a "poor men" element to the perception of sexism in Arab society.  And that makes me roll my eyes a bit--ooh, look how hard it is to have to deal with my complicated feelings about women.  Try being your wife in this situation, buddy.

(Please note that I say "Arab society" because, while some of the Arabs here are Muslim and some Christian, of varying degrees of piety, most or all of the attitudes displayed appeared to be much more social and cultural than religious.)

Anyway, that's my take on this book.  I thought I was hating it, but in the end I just hated most of the characters.  So it was....okay? I respected it.  I maybe even admired it a little.  But I didn't really relate to the humanity in it.  Hmph.