Sunday, October 23, 2011

Christopher Pike: A Retrospective

I remember being sold on the Final Friends series in middle school, and then sweeping through the rest of his classic YA horror novels:  Last Act, Chain Letter, The Weekend, Slumber Party (what kind of genius YA horror writer doesn't write a book called Slumber Party?).  I've read and reread Remember Me dozens of times over the years, well into  my 20s.

I can't say a lot about those books--they're teen mystery/horror novels--a bunch of high schoolers are away for the weekend and get picked off one by one, and then at the end we find out the twist of who did it.  They're fun and innocent and seemed very smart and realistic when I was 14.

Then there was Sati, which blew my mind in high school.  I wrote a paper comparing it to C.S. Lewis's Perelandra.  A girl who claims to be god turns up (appears?) in the desert of southern California and touches the lives of a group of friends and neighbors.  There's a Buddhist influence, and all these ideas about god that are apart from the mythology of specific religions, where god is so simple and magically spiritual.  I haven't read it in years, and I suspect I'd be embarrassed now at how I felt about the book, but I really loved it.

It turns out the Christopher Pike was a teenager when he started publishing those books.  In retrospect, they regain a lot of the ground that they lost as I matured past them.  I also recently learned that Christopher Pike is actually a pen name that he took from that other famous Christopher Pike, first captain of the starship Enterprise

Then we hit a wall.  I believe Scavenger Hunt was the first of his books where I balked.  It got really dark, really fast.  Witch, Die Softly--books where there was a lot of dying and a lot of hopelessness.  It was too sudden to switch from one, maybe two dead people in the book to everyone being destroyed by an ancient evil.

Looking back, though, Scavenger Hunt was a pretty good horror novel.  It's just that his books had always been thrillers, and I wasn't ready for it.  But that's when I stopped reading his books, gave up, and moved on.

I recently learned--realized might be a better word--that he kept writing, though.  A lot, actually.  He wrote a whole big vampire series, before vampires were big.  He wrote two sequels to Remember Me, very weirdly spiritual and all around strange.  And some "grown-up" books that I decided I had to try.

I picked The Listeners because the plot made me wonder if he'd gone more deeply into the mythology of Scavenger Hunt.  There is another world, maybe another dimension, populated by possibly lizard-like creatures that have evil intentions.  The lizard part isn't there, but the idea of another world touching ours and a gap that potential enemies can slip through--there was a lot of potential there.

I'm so sorry to report, after just a few pages, that the book is nearly unreadable.  The very simple precaution of reading your characters' dialogue out loud would have helped a lot here.  In the first scene, two high-level FBI agents, who are close friends, have a conversation in which one briefs the other and assigns him a case.  They do not speak like FBI agents, friends, or people having a conversation.  They speak like someone reading prepared remarks--the same person on both sides. 

Also, they're investigating an organization of psychics in the midwest for being suspiciously successful at predicting the future, and the briefing begins with information about what the ancient Mayans knew about astronomy--because it's very relevant.  It's not color commentary or in-depth subtlety; it's where you have to start briefing your friend and direct report before you send him to the midwest.  If you don't explain the Mayans, how could he possibly look into the suspiciously successful psychics?

God, I'm a whiner.  I've been writing this post for days, but I'm too depressed by this loss of my childhood innocence.  Plus, the absence of the Amazon Associates widget for adding book links is bringing me down.  Also, on a more personal note, it's bedtime and my living room suddenly smells like skunk.  I'll come back with something better in a couple more days; it's been a while since we've had a Mercedes Lackey retrospective around here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Short Story Sorrow

(Excuse the lack of links; Amazon stole my widget.  I'll add them in tomorrow when my laptop is charged.)

I don't know why, but I'm just not a short story person most of the time. I wish I could come up with a general reason, but it seems more like I just have a series of less-than-pleasing short story experiences.  Although thinking about it, what I really don't care for is a book of short stories all by the same author.  It's not stories I don't enjoy, per se, but a book full of stories.  Especially by the same author--stories by the same author tend to have a very uniform flavor that gets redundant in a way that a continuously unfolding story of course does not.

So that's interesting; I seem to have had a little insight there.  This feeds nicely into the two books I want to talk about  here, one a surrender, one a thumbs up.  There's not a lot to say about the thumbs up that isn't said by the title: Zombies vs. Unicorns.  It's just what it sounds like, with an all star cast of YA fantasy/sci fi writers--Scott Westerfeld, Libba Bray, Libba Bray, Carrie Ryan, Garth Nix, Maureen Johnson, and Naomi Novik.  And those are just the ones I've read--Meg Cabot, Cassandra Clare, Margo Lanagan, and a bunch of others turn up, too.

Zombie stories alternate with unicorn stories as the two editors (Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier) argue about which is cooler.  I think that, objectively speaking, Team Zombie takes the prize, though mostly because a lot of the unicorn stories involve the undead.  Anyway, this is one of those things that I'm sure to get sick of soon, where someone decides to put together an anthology with a Theme and a bunch of people write stories about it.  The stories aren't all spectacular, but they're diverting and different and I'm having fun with it.

Surrender, however, is The Great Frustration, by Seth Fried.  I picked it up because the title caught my eye, and when I opened to a random page, it was the beginning of a story entitled "Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre."  It was a funny, charming beginning that looked like it might be satire.  And you know, it might actually be satire, but if it is, it's too heavy-handed for me to appreciate. 

It's about how every year the whole town goes to this picnic and a bunch of people get killed.  And everyone gets all upset and wails and laments, but then the next year they all go again.  And it's run by a big faceless corporation so no one ever gets held responsible.  It wants to be really observant and insightful, but it's just kind of hollow, like the profound things that you realize about the world when you're in high school.

As for my earlier insight about short stories by the same author having the same tone?  The first two stories in this collection are told in the first person plural.  It was just too much for me; I think I need a good literary magazine instead.

Saturday, October 08, 2011


Ernest Cline wrote Ready Player One with a very specific reader in mind.  This person grew up in the 1980s and played a lot of video games.  He loved Rush, WarGames, Asteroid, Monty Python, Dungeons & Dragons.  He played video games obsessively--he was the beginning of the current geekiarchy.

This book was a ton of fun.  The world building is intense, amusing, and incredibly well thought out.  It's pretty explicitly laid out--the narrator gives you a history lesson, and drops a lot of information throughout the book in the manner of someone whose audience needs info.  What's kind of cool is that he's filling you with '80s trivia and late 21st century history in the same tone of voice, and you never feel like he's laying it on too thick.

I got most of the movie references and almost none of the video games, but you are handed more than enough information.  Mike was actually turned off by all the name dropping, and I can see that--programmers who worked on obscure video games, characters in specific Dungeons & Dragons quests, shots that appeared in specific movies, the book is loaded up.  I'd argue that it's not overloaded, and that part of the point is that these people are all weirdly submerged in a pop culture that isn't even their own.  But you could argue with me on those points.

Instead of the internet, these future folks have the OASIS, which is a simulated universe where most modern life takes place.  Everyone has an avatar, and access to the OASIS is free and anonymous (though you can only have one avatar at a time, which is an interesting twist), per the specific plan of its kooky creator, Halliday.  When Halliday died with no heirs, he left his enormous fortune to whoever solved the scavenger hunt he'd left in the OASIS and found his Easter egg.

Now our hero Wade (avatar Parzival) and everyone else in the world are trying to track down the egg.  Including mammoth corporations who want to monetize the OASIS, and will stop at nothing to win the prize.  You can imagine that Wade has a series of adventures and near misses, learning about the true meaning of freedom, friendship, and Zork along the way, and you'd be right.  It's action packed.

And if it played out a little more straightforwardly than I had expected, if the boogeyman I kept waiting for didn't jump out, well, there's a sweetness and innocence to the feel-good ending that I can't help but love. 

Also, I played Joust once.  The '80s were crazy, man.

Friday, October 07, 2011


When I finish all my books at the same time, I have to start a bunch of new ones all at once.  This is what leads to these brief, awkward, one-night flings that I have with the things I eventually put down.

Things like The False Friend, by Myla Goldberg.  A library book that caught my eye, this was always a long shot.  The basic plot summary, first page, and even the cover fit a certain template, reminding me of Jennifer McMahon's books (Promise Not To Tell, Island of Lost Girls).  A little girl vanished 20 years ago and a woman today is trying to come to terms with her understanding and memories of what happened to her friend.  In The False Friend, it appears from the beginning that the teenager whose friend disappeared actually witnessed her fall down a well (maybe?) but lied and told everyone she got into a car with a stranger, and then blocked the memory out until one random day in adulthood the truth came back to her.

This is all I got about the theoretical plot of the book before the main character decided to go back to her hometown and face her past.  From this point, we get a lot of pages about her parents, their relationship, how the old neighborhood had gone to the dogs, how those dogs were all college students, her relationship with her brother (who has not appeared in the book yet), etc.

At this point, I'm 10% of the way into the book and I've had about four pages of "OMG, I think I have suppressed memories!" and 25 pages of "her parents are in love but her father is the dominant personality and he's kind of in denial about not being in his prime any more (physically and real estate-wise) and her brother finds her education intimidating...."  And it's not even family psychodrama--it's setup, prequel, backstory.

So, done.

Then there's The Agency: A Spy In the House, by Y.S. Lee, which has the best plot summary ever: in Victorian(ish) England, a school for impoverished girls is actually a training ground for secret agents who will pose as servants in the houses of important people.  I have no idea what the details are, but is that not the best premise ever? 

Sadly, the writing doesn't live up.  I have pretty high expectations for the writing in YA books, and this is just kind of clunky, full of expository conversations where characters inform each other of things they both already know, in ways that don't even pretend to be phrased realistically. 

I'm probably going to read it eventually, because boarding school and spies!  But this is the kind of book that I have to read as a side project in the middle of something awesome, so next I need the something awesome to get into.

Next candidates: A Game of Thrones (you may have heard of it) and Terry Pratchett's Nation, which is not high-profile but universally raved about.  We'll see what sticks first.