Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Catfishing on CatNet

The first thing I need to acknowledge is that the title and cover of this book are pretty awful. I would have had ZERO urge to pick this up based on either of those, and they do not really give you any hint of the facts or feeling of the story you're getting into.


Ignore that.

I book talked this one so aggressively at work that all the YA librarians have read it and are spreading the gospel of Naomi Kritzer's Catfishing on CatNet. This is a book for people who love heartwarming stories about finding friends and family who will take care of you when the world gets scary.

You might have heard of Naomi Kritzer recently because she wrote a pandemic story a few years ago that was so prescient it's been getting a lot of notice--"So Much Cooking." But what I first read by her was the story "Cat Pictures Please," which is the story on which this novel is based. Go ahead and read it first, if you want--it doesn't give anything away. It's just about the character; the book introduces a bunch of people and problems.

The main character and heart of the story is a sentient AI that knows all about you. It knows everything about everyone--it is basically comprised of all the information on the internet. Mostly what it loves and wants are cat pictures, so it started a chat room for people to post cute animal pictures. It acts as a mod and calls itself CheshireCat, and it chats with friends, reposts pics, and studies human nature.

One of CheshireCat's friends is Steph, a teenager on the chatroom. Steph and her mom live a life in hiding, running from her scary dad. She's finally making IRL friends in the new town they've come to, though, so she'd really like to not have to run again. But when Steph's problems start getting bigger, the AI and her friends might need to save Steph from IRL dangers that might be over their heads.

Ugh, I'm not a blurb writer. Two big selling points here: one, everyone in this story is lovely. Well, not everyone. There are bad guys. But the big group of online friends and friends at Steph's new school are just all great. The show up for each other, and trust and respect and believe in each other. They roll with each others' weird home situations, changing pronouns, romantic confusions, and new attempts to understand humanity. Some of the bad guys are scary, and those bad guys come after them, but this story is full of people taking good care of each other, without being perfect.

Point two: watching an AI figure out how people work will never not be fun. CheshireCat is sweet and well-meaning, but only knows the internet parts of life--which is a lot, but not everything. Watching it navigate interactions with a combination of expertise and bafflement is just so heartwarming and charming and funny.

I loved this book. And the Amazon page says there will be more CatNet books, about which I am super excited. So please ignore the cover and give it a try.

(Welcome to post 2 of my dreck writing. I apologize. I make no quality promises for at least a month.)

Thank you Netgalley for sending me an advance review copy of this book before it came out months and months ago.

Monday, May 11, 2020

New Kindle, New You

I have a full dozen unposted drafts, because I haven't written in so long that everything I write is dreck. See this? This is dreck.

But the only way out is through, so from now on I'm posting a tiny bit of dreck all the dang time. I've got a backlog of reviews to do (literally years of neglected ARCs) so let's make this happen.

So the book I currently haven't quite finished is called Nothing Can Hurt You, by Nicola Maye Goldberg. I was expecting a straight-up standard thriller or mystery--you've got a murdered girl in the woods outside a small college town and her loving boyfriend, high on LSD and mood stabilizers. Is it open and shut but-we-were-wrong? Is it going to be a courtroom drama, where the clever defense attorney will put the police to the test? Will the other serial killer arrested just a few weeks before in the same town be related?

Whatever I thought I was getting, this is not it. This whole novel is a series of vignettes, barely interconnected, all about people tangential to the events. It's very well written, and I'm enjoying it a lot, but it's such a strange beast of a book that I am having trouble imagining its market.

The book opens introducing a woman who moved to the small town because of a strange medical condition, whose marriage is on the rocks. We follow her through entertaining her husband's coworker, a fight with her husband, an angry walk in the woods--when she finds a body--Sara's.

Next we meet a totally different character a thousand miles away. We get to know her in rehab, and why she's there, and about her life and personality. We get a little invested in her rehab, and are concerned about the crush she develops on a fellow patient, who is rumored to have killed his girlfriend. Which he admits to; he was high on LSD.

And then we jump forward. We flash around, meeting the dead girl's half-sister, who barely remembers her, 15 years later. A reporter covering the murder trial, whose section is mostly about her fraught relationship with her mother. A teenager who Sara used to babysit for, whose lonely high school life leads her, in a sideways fashion, to a correspondence to the other murderer who was active in the town at that time. The guilty boyfriend's nanny, many years later when he has children of his own.

There's no mystery here; we know who did what and when. We even know why, because mental illness and contraindicated drugs leave it pretty obvious. We're not angry, necessarily, but we are maybe as befuddled as all these people who are trying to make sense of a world that has such a horrible crime in it.

I liked this book very much--which is impressive for a book that is carried so heavily on its writing. Each section is a really thoughtful dive into a character, sympathetic and clear-eyed. There are no bad guys here; everyone's doing their best, although some of their bests aren't very good.

But it's so far from what I expected when I picked it up, and from what I think most people expect when they look at a book about a murdered girl in a small town, I worry that it'll have a hard time finding its audience. This is a book for people who know that a murder like this isn't something that disappears after the show ends in an hour--it changes everyone around it, in every kind of way, for the rest of their lives.

Thank you to Netgalley for a review copy of this book.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Returned

Hi, guys! Miss me?

Been reading a bunch, of course; lots of stuff to talk about. Also realizing as I open Blogger for the first time in over a year that I'm not sure I remember how to put words together to form thoughts and say...things...with them. So let's see how this goes.

Here and now, I just finished The Return, by Rachel Harrison, which, whatever its literary merit (read: lack thereof), absolutely sucked me and would not let go.

But I don't know if I can properly review it. See, going in, I only knew what the cover copy told me: Julie went missing two years ago, and by now she's presumed dead by everyone except her best friend Elise. So Elise is the only one who's not surprised when Julie turns up on her own front porch with no memory of where she's been for the past two years.

Now Elise and Julie and their other two best friends, Molly and Mae, are getting together at a Catskills hotel for a girls' weekend, to get to know each other again and maybe try to figure out what really happened to Julie.

That was all the info I had. Somehow, I had it painted in my mind as a domestic-thriller type of book, where it's probably the gorgeous and sweet-seeming husband hiding a dark secret, and probably all these women are various flavors of rich suburban white ladies.

I was very wrong.

I don't think it's a spoiler to get more specific, because I've seen other reviewers doing it, but if you would like to go in blind, here's the spoiler-free version:

the book is about a bunch of 20-something post-college women who are not very good at being emotionally mature people. While each one was definitely a trope (Molly wears no makeup and takes no bullshit; Mae is a rich personal stylist in NYC wearing weird, fashionable clothes and always sweet as candy; Elise has a dead end job and can't keep her life together), and they were all seriously not emotionally healthy.

I have rarely felt so much affection and hope for characters just like this. I generally have no use for 20-somethings who are aimless and whiny and not so much bad at self-examination as unaware that it exists. People who are miserable and not trying to fix it; people who are only into appearances and feel hollow; people who are prickly and rude and treat it like a badge of honor. These are my nemeses.

But what the author captures here in such an amazing way is their friendship. The kind of friendship that is most like a good sibling relationship--where you can doubt each other and lie to each other but still love each other, still always come back to each other. A friendship based on living as one organism with four bodies for the crazy, charmed years of college, so you know each other's strengths and weaknesses as well as your own. A friendship where years may pass but your new, older selves click right into place together.

So: portrait of a friendship, not what I expected. Not great literature, but very readable.

Now for the spoilers.

You are warned.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

This is actually a horror novel. There's some haunted house tropes, some standard hotel-in-the-woods stuff, but in the end it comes down to body horror, and BOY HOWDY is it horrifying.

For so much of the book you mostly get hints. Heavy hints--like, it's really damned obvious hints, but the characters don't know they're in a horror novel, so maybe it's just the lighting that makes her hair seem thinner last night than today? Probably that's rusty condensation dripping from that vent, not some...other red stuff. Your suitcase totally didn't move by itself; you're remembering wrong. REALLY IT'S FINE.

Friends, it is not fine. And while, looking back on the book, there are many unexplained weirdnesses, many hints dropped that in the end don't actually go anywhere, by god I don't care. I spent most of the book looking up every half hour saying, "vampire? zombie? werewolf?" I finally came up with "wendigo," which is also not quite right but closer than anything else.

If your idea of fun is sitting in a hotel room with your besties, reality TV in the background, pouring liquor into half-full soda cans and knowing that you are the funniest, snarkiest, people you'll ever meet...and you don't mind the rattling in the walls or the occasional spurting gouts of blood....this one's for you.