Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bohjalian One-Two: Nuclear Homelessness

When you have an author you like and then you read too much of him, you can get burned out.  I thought I was burned out on Chris Bohjalian, but either I had a bad run or the burnout has passed, because I just finished his newest book Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, and reading it was a really good experience.  Hooray; we're back in business!

Emily Shepard is a pretty normal girl living in northern Vermont--kind of an underachiever, a bit of a wild child, but mostly in a standard high school parties-with-beer kind of way.  And it's not too surprising--her parents probably drink a little too much themselves, and fight a little too much.  Northern Vermont isn't for everyone, but it's where the job is; Emily's dad runs a nuclear power plant.

Then one day, everything goes figuratively up in smoke (literally it's more of a meltdown).  A stormy autumn flooded part of the plant; the town is evacuated.  Emily finds herself with no parents, no connections, and a last name that is synonymous with "drunken screw-up who destroyed a community."  She walks away from the evacuation center, and keeps on walking.

Bohjalian writes Issue books--each one takes an event around some topic and brings you the points of view of different characters, different aspects.  Midwifery, holistic medicine, interracial adoption, transsexuality, animal rights. Here you might think you were getting the book about nuclear power, but really you're not--that's not what's explored here at all.  This is a book about a homeless teenager--someone who starts out pretty much fine, but a combination of impulsiveness and a bad situation and suddenly she's doing drugs, shoplifting, cutting, and selling sex at the truck stop for cash.  Emily is a smart girl, but she's a teenager who can't always deal with her own feelings, and when her situation falls apart, she follows very quickly.

It's about how those little decisions get made, what friendship and family and safety look like when everyone around you is a mess.  Why do you walk out of a warm apartment full of sad, stoned kids onto a winter street and never go back?  How much of the mess is about the past and how much about the present?

The story is not linear, which I think is a huge strength.  Sometimes you'd get glimpses from multiple points in time on the same page.  The structure of the book is Before Cameron and After Cameron--a young runaway Emily takes under her wing--but you learn hints of everything.  You know someone is going to leave before you even meet them; you know things will fall apart before they even come together. 

The structure just makes sense, not only from an emotional standpoint, but also from a pretty practical one--life on the street is a jumble of events and people and problems.  They happen in order--the order is never lost--but really, they relate to each other in constellations around issues, and around Emily's attempts to come to terms with her past, her present, her parents, and herself.

I'm really glad to enjoy a Chris Bohjalian book so much again.  Someone said I should read Skeletons at the Feast, and I really think I'm going to now.  My streak continues!

Note: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dallas vs. Chevalier

I had the absolutely bizarre experience of having 26 hours to myself this weekend, and I suspect no one is surprised that I used it to read a bunch of books.  One of them was Tracy Chevalier's The Last Runaway, which I'd been pretty excited about.

I think part of my excitement was that a mainstream historical novel had caught my eye.  I do read an awful lot of speculative fiction. Another part was the Quakers--love the Quakers!  Love most books about religious people wrestling with real world problems, actually--it's not so much about the spirituality as about how processing the world might be different if you have a firm set of rules that you're starting with, however you feel about them.  Anyway, it's an interesting time period, from a point of view I didn't know much about, and I was excited.

In retrospect, part of the appeal was probably that the description of the book brought Sandra Dallas to mind.  I really should read more Sandra Dallas; I have a whole backlog of them.  (Including one about Mormons!)  But I think that the idea of a Sandra Dallas type book with the literary cachet of Tracy Chevalier (does she have literary cachet?  Or am I just remembering that one big Girl with a Pearl Earring moment?) really got my hopes up. 

In the end, I was wishing it was more like a Sandra Dallas book.  I ended up feeling very disconnected from most of the characters, and not particularly emotionally invested in their fates.  I liked the details of living in 1850 Ohio, especially coming from a bustling city in England--milliners, dairy farmers, crazy liberals in Oberlin.  And I can't say I didn't like Honor Bright, the story's heroine.  I just didn't really connect with her.

When Honor's spunky sister decides to move to America to marry a man she  hasn't seen in years, recently jilted Honor--pretty much the definition of non-spunky--makes the most spontaneous decision of her life to join her.  A month of harrowing seasickness convinces her that she will never be able to return to England and is stuck in America.  Halfway to their new home in Ohio, her sister dies suddenly of a fever.  Now all Honor has to look forward to is a never-to-be brother-in-law in a place she wasn't all that keen on going to in the first place.

Honor (and her family, and her future community) is a Quaker, and in 1850, this often means being in the middle of the slavery question.  I think the political angles of that question were quite interesting, and the fact that all of the Quakers appear to feel differently on the subject was also nicely complicated.  But Honor is so reserved, so distant from everyone, you really don't get to know anyone in this book.  Everything is seen from the outside, and I felt very detached.

Then there's Donovan, the charming slave hunter who crosses Honor's path repeatedly.  This is a Jordan Catalano moment if there ever was one--which might mean something different to you than it does to me.  I never understood the appeal of Jordan Catalano.  I mean, yeah, he's cute.  I get that a high school girl would fall for this.  But everyone--parents, teachers, viewers--seems to think he's deep and smart if only he'd try harder.  He's not.  Jordan Catalano gives every indication of being actually, genuinely dim.

Somehow everyone things there's a good man in Donovan who will do the right thing.  Even though he's a slave hunter.  Even though he's quite cruel to many people.  Honor keeps saying that she thinks there's the potential for a good man in him, but I assumed that was wishful thinking talking, except that the book never contradicted it.

And just as Donovan's unpleasantness is minimized, so is the physical brutality of slavery.  I guess it's just that everything is downplayed here--everything plays out at a very mild-mannered level, when I was really expecting more of a sense of the drama.  I mean, there are deaths and births and marriages and mourning here, but the tone is all very even and understated. 

I guess I just wanted more from this book.  It wasn't bad; there just wasn't much there.  I'm really surprised that I've written so many words about what was missing.  And now, like I said, I really want to go read True Sisters for a fresh Sandra Dallas fix.  Or maybe reread Alice's Tulips, which I think is much closer to what I wanted The Last Runaway to be.

Look; I summed it up in one sentence after all.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Moral Ambiguity, Part 2: Kicking Ass and Taking Names

I loved Rachel Bach's Fortune's Pawn with a fiery passion, as I have mentioned previously.  The band of misfits rattling around the galaxy, Devi Morris and her amazing suit of armor, with just enough confusing mystery to keep me tempted, but not so much that I'm bewildered.  It was a fun, Firefly-esque, action-packed charmer of a romp.

And then along comes Honor's Knight and turns it all inside out, pretty much instantly, in the most AWESOME way possible. The charming madcap crew is on a deadly serious mission that involves some VERY morally sketchy behavior.  The gruff-but-respectable captain, it turns out, is pretty much torturing innocent children for the good of the universe.  The Bad Guy (not to be confused with the Dangerous Force of Nature) from the previous book might actually be on the side of the angels.  And the angels may or may not be psychotic.

I am always craving books that don't pretend the answers are easy.  I'm always a little disappointed when the "right" thing to do is easy to determine, and turns out to actually work.  No, we can't sacrifice those civilians to save the world--there's got to be another way!  And then--here's the place where it falls apart--there is. How uplifting! I love a happy ending as much as the next guy--more, depending on who the next guy is.

But reality isn't like that, and the world is full of trade-offs.  You can't Kobayashi Maru your way out of every situation, in spite of what Doctor Who has tried to tell us for the past few years.

There are some good examples of these stories: the episode of Torchwood where they need to sacrifice one child to save the world.  The Cabin in the Woods, where the whole premise is to save the world by killing a bunch of teenagers.  It's wrong to kill a bunch of teenagers...but what if it's the only way to save the world?

E.M. Forster said, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." (The internet, by the way, usually quotes this as "courage" instead of "guts."  I find the original charming.) But there's a difference between a country--an idea and a political system--and The World, humanity, and life as we know it.  But how can you tell the difference?

I'm deep in the rabbit hole here.  The point is, this book starts out turning things on their heads.  This might be the best second book in a trilogy I've ever read--it makes things more complicated, explains the things you wanted to know from the first one, sets up its own whole set of action, raises the stakes, adds depth to the characters--it was so good, guys.  Just so good.

AND!  And Heaven's Queen is coming out next month.  AND I HAVE MY ARC!  I will get back to you on that very, very soon.  I got an ARC of this book, too, for the record.  I would have bought it the day it came out if I hadn't.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Moral Ambiguity, Part 1: The Bad News

I've got a really fun and thoughtful and morally complex book that I want to talk about, but I also squeezed in a little something I grabbed from NetGalley that sounded like a Hunger Games knockoff, and I thought it could be fun.

The good news is, I finished it.  I don't think I've ever skimmed a book so skimmily--I caught most of the dialogue, but pretty much any moment that involved standing still, I was reading two or three words per page, and it was more than enough.

The premise: instead of a death sentence, criminals are sentenced to a short period in the Compass Room.  They're monitored through implants and put through tests to determine whether they're evil.  If they're evil, the Compass Room kills them; if they live, it means they're not evil, and they go free.  Because SCIENCE.

Anyway, Evelyn's been sentenced to the Compass Room, and she's confident that it will kill her.  She was convicted as a terrorist and for the murder of her best friend, and what she's guilty of is left vaguely up in the air.  She's put into the Room--NOT to be confused with the Hunger Games arena, which it is exactly like--with nine other young criminals.  Illusions test their reactions to figure out what kind of people they are--NOT to be confused with the testing in Divergent, which it is exactly like.

Let's start with the petty stuff: the title sounds cool, but "wicked" isn't a noun.  The past tense of "lie down" is "lay down," not "lied down."  The word "tenseness" should probably be "tension," and I'm only saying "probably" to be polite.  Not sure whether I should blame the author or the editor, but this book was packed densely full of these touches--somewhere between little errors and bad writing.

But the real thing that both got me excited and pushed my buttons in the book was the idea of blame, guilt, and goodness. The idea that they might be measurable, malleable, or even just that they're worth wrangling with.  I love when things wrap up neatly in fiction, but I'm also intensely aware that it's a fantasy.  Things in the real world are never simple, or black and white.  The idea that guilt is more complicated than a factual statement of events is such a seller for me in a book.

It's very clear from the beginning that Evelyn didn't kill  her friend, but it's also clear that she considers herself very guilty.  This is a YA trope that is generally pretty weak--I understand survivor guilt and all, but the book that teases you about how guilty the protagonist is and then reveals that--gasp!--they are not what you would consider guilty at all! is old hat.  I'll grant them this--Evelyn is guilty of something.  What she is guilty of and what she feels guilty about are not the same thing, but there you have another interesting seed that isn't explored.

You also have a room full of convicted murderers sentenced to death, all of whose crimes are lurid and horrible, but none of whom are really traditionally "guilty" of much.  I'm as big a believer as anyone in the idea that the bad guy wasn't born that way, but was shaped by the world he lives in and the life he's led, but that does not mean that everyone who commits murder is really a sweet, pure-hearted soul who genuinely did it to save someone else's life.  Seriously, if you took 10 people on death row, I would be willing to grant you that five of them shouldn't die for their crime (probably a few of them are even innocent), but I bet you wouldn't find that five of them DID commit murder, but for genuinely good and pure intentions. 

This sounds political; it's not.  It's just that there is so much moral complexity in the world, and very little of it was on display here.  And I know I was asking for more than I should have from this book, but between that and the rocky use of the English language, the only thing here to recommend the book is that I read it in about two hours. 

Well, skimmed.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

If It's Good Enough for Hitchcock

I was never able to get into Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, probably because I saw the movie with Joan Fontaine and therefore a) knew the ending, and b) kind of hated the narrator because Joan Fontaine is kind of whiny.  But I didn't know that du Maurier wrote the short story "The Birds" until this anthology popped up on Netgalley. (I got a free review copy of this book.)

I remembered the short story from a high school English anthology, and I remembered really loving it.  I've thought of it occasionally over the years and wondered who wrote it, and I was so excited to have the opportunity to read it again.

And man, it didn't disappoint.  Reading this again, I recognize it as a part of a genre that I didn't think about at the time; "dystopia" wasn't a YA section word at the library when I was a kid.  But this is process dystopia at its finest--change is coming and you can only hunker down.  

The story is only related to the Hitchcock movie in the broadest strokes--the birds are attacking.  This is a tale of dread and preparation--you know the kind.  There's also a very interesting forward here about du Maurier's relationship with Hollywood, particularly Hitchcock, who said that he read source material only once and then forgot it to make his own story.

Honestly, this is a great example of the book being better.  It's just a short story, but the sense of dread, the eeriness of the setting, and the narrator's practicality and localness make such a difference in the experience here.

The other stories both range wide and have a lot in common.  Mostly, the commonality is tone--the slow build of suspense, the sense of events unfolding toward some inevitable ending--sometimes known, sometimes not--that is mysterious and unnerving.  Some of them have a twinge of the supernatural; in "Monte Verita," the narrator tells of a remote mountain fortress and the people who are drawn there, mysteriously, never to return.  Some might be supernatural or psychological; in "The Apple Tree," the main character finds the tree in his yard reminds him of his deceased wife, and we learn about their marriage and their characters through that recognition.  Some of the characters you have to hate, like the Marquise in "The Little Photographer," who married an older man for money and lives only for admiration.  Others you wish the best for, like the narrator of "Kiss Me Again, Stranger," who is regular chap who falls for a girl and has one fascinating night with her.

Each of these stories is creepy, in its way, or maybe just full of a building tension that carries you through the methodical unfolding of the narration.  You have an idea where each one is going, but by the time it gets there, it's both stirring and inevitable.

So yes, I'm still having a great book year.  Brenda, I recommend this one for you.

Monday, March 10, 2014


I just finished Finnikin of the Rock, by Melina Marchetta.  I owe Sarah a huge, huge than you for the insane gushing she did about this series, because I must have started this book four times, and I would NEVER have finished it if she had not shouted it from the rooftops.  Repeatedly.  In all caps.

I've tried to read other Marchetta books before--I tried Jellicoe Road several times, and I had the same problems that I had at the beginning of Finnikin.  It's not exactly an in medias res beginning, but there is a serious infodump right out of the gate.  In Jellicoe Road, there was the main character's mysterious background and her complicated relationship with her school and with her teacher who is also by the way missing and then there are all these other characters who I think are in flashback but who are they and I don't know--what?

Finnikin is the same.  You start out with a happy kingdom and Finnikin and his friends and family.  That lasts about three pages.  Then the five days of the unspeakable happen--the kingdom is invaded, a bunch of awful stuff happens, half the population is ejected and there's a magical barrier around the kingdom and BAM--ten pages in, it's ten years later.

Marchetta doesn't so much do worldbuilding as she dives in with two feet, as though you already knew all this stuff, so there's no point in telling you any of it.  And there's so much of it--so much about the politics of the kingdoms and the family and friends of the main characters and how everyone's spent the past ten years and and's just a jumble.  So I couldn't get a handle on why Finnikin was so cranky, or whether Sir Topher was weak or just wisely measured.

And for a while, it seemed like a bunch of random things happened.  Finnikin had a dream, and then there was this girl at the convent, and then they're going somewhere.  And I'm not sure why, or what they'll do when they get there, and then some random things happen, and characters are introduced.  This is all the part I read several times, because I kept putting it down for ages because it made no sense.

You know, it reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter, in that I had very little idea what was going on, and just basically went with the flow.  For a while it's like surfing--you just let the wave take you.  Eventually, though, I find that sort of thing gets old; if I can't connect to the action, I can't care about it enough.

And this is where Finnikin came through for me.  I think the point where I really started to get it was just after Finnikin and Evanjalin became friends, when Finnikin went to the mines.  It's such a huge reversal, but that section is the part that really turns all the Lumaterans into real people for me. 

Because really, this book is about home and family, and what makes your people yours, when all the easy and practical stuff is stripped away.  The Lumaterans have been living in exile for ten years--in refugee camps, integrating into other societies, wandering.  Their passion for their culture, their homeland, their lost families--it's absolutely overwhelming, and the connection that just their nationality and experience of exile creates is so moving.  I won't spoiler, but I love that the last scene takes place in a crowd, because it's not just Finnikin's story--it's everyone's story

The sequel is Froi of the Exiles, and I've already put it on my kindle.  Sarah tells me Finnikin is good, but Froi and the third book, Quintana of Charyn, will KILL ME.  I believe her now, and I'm a little afraid.  But in a good way!