Monday, May 30, 2016

Cast Out Yer Demons

It's a good old-fashioned exorcism!  Between zombies and vampires and various other horrifying and world ending tragedies, here's a horror trope that I haven't seen much of.  Grady Hendrix's last book, Horrorstรถr (aside: do you know how hard it is to type an umlaut? Too hard) was a raucous good time of the Haunted Capitalist Mecca variety. So naturally I was up for My Best Friend's Exorcism when it showed up on Netgalley.

It's 1988, and Abby and Gretchen are inseparable best friends.  Abby practically lives at Gretchen's house, because although her parents are strict and religious, they are also happy and well-to-do, while her own family lives on the edge of poor and the edge of despair.

One night, after an abortive LSD experiement, Gretchen is lost in the woods for the night, and when she comes out, she's...not okay.  Little things, like not changing her clothes or bathing; big things, like saying she feels fingers touching her all the time.  Gretchen needs help, but no one will listen and nothing seems to help her.  It just seems like things are getting worse and worse.

I'm not going to give away the twists and turns, because that's what make a horror novel great, but I'll tell you that it gets worse before it gets better--so much worse that I kept wanting to put the book down because I was so worried about Abby, even past the point where I'd pretty much given up on Gretchen.  But Abby won't give up on her friend, even when it looks more and more like that stubborn loyalty will be the end of her.

There is all kinds of grossness here (body fluids, bugs, dead animals) and all kinds of drama, and it's all compelling.  But the absolute best part is the setting--it's 1988, and it's a private high school in Charleston, and Abby is from just over on the wrong side of the tracks. She doesn't have nice things unless she buys them herself, and she can't afford a dermatologist so she wears too much makeup, and she just doesn't quite fit in. 

As with any horror story, it's about something besides the monster.  This one is about being an outsider, and finding that all the systems that have protected you and are supposed to protect you are actually turning against you. The '80s theme was charming and nostalgic, but it also put us in a world where a psychologist was a desperation move, and a scholarship student might be looked at sideways. A lot of closed-mindedness and saving of face happens here, and while these aren't things that don't exist today--well, 1988 was another world in a lot of ways.

Like I said, there are blood and guts. And self-harm and demons.  And the horrible, creeping tension of realizing that no one is listening to you, and that trying to help is just going to ruin your life.  And a good old fashioned exorcism. God, high school is terrifying.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Commonplace Book

I'm not usually a quote-puller, but lately these books have been raining down the wisdom on me.  Dropping knowledge and whatnot.  Figured I'd pass it along.

"You know why experts don't have an easy answer? Because a fucking expert's the guy who knows how complicated the fucking questions are." 
-Claire North, The Sudden Appearance of Hope

"No wolf or bear just gives up when they get beat or hungry. you ever seen a bear jump off a cliff 'cause life handed him a few rough draws? No, you haven't. The wild keeps going till it don't have strength in the muscles and bones. The wild don't give up; it's forever, and so was I."
-Beth Lewis, The Wolf Road

"There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person predetermined to dislike acknowledge one's superiority."
-Jane Austen, Lady Susan

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Now You See Her...

Warning: I have a lot to say about The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North. I have no idea if it will make any sense.

Let's start with the first thing that struck me about the book: it's unusual in that it has two hooks.  The premise--the gimmick--is that the main character is someone who cannot be remembered.  For as long as you're talking to her, she exists in your mind, but as soon as you leave her presence for even a short time--a minute is all it takes--you cannot remember ever having met her or talked to her.  You can be sitting together on a bus and talk for hours, but when you get off at the rest stop and reboard, you will smile vacantly at her, because you will believe you'd never seen her before.  She can give you a giant stuffed teddy bear, and by the time you get home with it you will remember having bought it, or won it, or found it.  You can watch a video of yourself talking to her and have no memory of the conversation.

So this is the hook--this is what makes the book sound intriguing.

But then this protagonist--Hope Arden--finds herself at a party hosted by a company called Perfection.  Perfection is a lifestyle app, gathering your data and giving you suggestions and instructions, and points for following them.  Find the perfect personal trainer; are you sure you want to eat that? Here's the haircut that would look best on you; those shoes are gorgeous--achievement unlocked! Hope watches Perfection wreak havoc on a new "friend" of hers, and is drawn into what I would describe as a battle of wills between herself and this product.

So, early on in my reading, I felt like this was an author trying to write two books at once, about two ideas, and that maybe they didn't fit together very well.  But now I think they come together over the course of the story.  Not that there aren't obvious ways in which the strive for perfection and the notion of being invisible are related. The idea of being seen, being deemed worthy, being judged--all of these are a part of both sides of the story. 

But there's more to it than even that. Hope can never hold a job, can never have friends or lovers (though she has conversations and romantic encounters).  She is a skilled thief, precisely because not only can no one describe her; no one can remember that she was even there.  She is a collector of facts, a counter of objects, a reciter of words, because she must always keep her mind busy or risk thinking too much about what she is and what she isn't, about the things she can never have.

In some ways, this book is in conversation with North's first novel, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. In that book, the main character lives his life to the end and is born again, in the same year, to live through the same years again.  He can live it differently every time, but he can always remember, as no one but one of his kind can, what will happen around him in the world.  It is an inescapable, inexplicable biological destiny that can seem like freedom or like a curse, but can never be set down (for Harry, even in death). 

Harry's problem is the opposite of Hope's--Hope cannot ever make a connection with the world; Harry cannot unmake those connections, cannot escape what has been and will be.  They're both situations that can seem despair-worthy, from the right point of view, or liberating. Immortality, freedom from consequence. What would you give up for those things?

As in Harry August, the plot is driven by scientific notions that are not just hand-waved away, but put into a conspicuous, opaque box with the word SCIENCE written on the outside. You don't want to look inside the box--it's a shadow theater with no meaning.  There are "treatments" that change people, and the main scientist is a neuroscientist who designed an app that makes people "better," and also some kind of deep brain stimulation thing.  The app basically exists already in a hundred forms, but the book paints it as soul-destroying mind control. The treatments are treated as an inevitable next step, in a way that doesn't feel that organic to me.

But I think I can mostly forgive all the Swiss-cheese holes like that because this is a novel of ideas.  It's a novel that asks what perfect means (even if no one in the story really asks that explicitly), whether gamifying life will remove our  humanity, and what it means to live a life entirely without connections. And all kinds of corollary questions: when it's impossible for you to live by any traditional means, what are the limits of your ethics? What elements of interaction go into forming a relationship? (That's one of my favorites; I've always thought about how most of your understanding of a person exists in your mental image of that person; how does that work without a memory?) Is terrorism ever justified?

So I can wave my hands with the hand-wavingest among us and take the facts presented in this book at face value, and then follow the fascinating question of what they mean, what they imply, and what all that says about me and about society.  It's been a long time since a book asked such interesting questions and let its characters really wrestle with the answers.  I want a lot more of these!

(Note: I received this book from Netgalley for review.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A Coda on the Coda

I just need to follow up on yesterday's Lady Susan post, because I finished it right after.  (Aside: that's the problem with ebooks; you can never tell how much endmatter there is; 20% of the book left can be where the story ends!)

So it turns out that the story ends rather abruptly, and the conclusion to all the storylines is wrapped up in a little afterword.  Like, X finds out Y and can never see Z again, and the last letter ends and the afterword tells you who went where and married whom.  I'll admit, it was a letdown; still very much worth reading, but I think going in thinking of it as a fragment helped me a lot.

Also, I wanted to add a thought on Jane Austen--are there any men in Jane Austen (except the heroes) who have any clue what's going on?  Like, I feel like in each book there's maybe one guy who's smart enough to realize how much of life is being played out at the whims of the female characters, but other than the occasional Knightley, no male ever recognizes who is trustworthy or in need or what. 

Does Mansfield Park have a single gentelman in the know?  Well, I guess the bad boy brother.  Wait, the bad boys always get it--Willoughby knew the game, since he was playing it.  But every husband and many of the young men are just letting the world sweep them around at its whims.

Essentially, with a few exceptions, Austen's women are much smarter than her men, especially in their native realm.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Worth Waiting For

I've been saving Jane Austen's unfinished novels.  I've read her six classics, some more often than others, but I've been saving Sanditon, The Watsons, and Lady Susan, knowing that eventually there would be a moment when I wanted them desperately. 

Then I saw this blog post at The Booksmugglers, and the preview for the new movie Love and Friendship, and I knew it was time to read Lady Susan. It's not nearly what I would have expected, and it's also wonderful. 

I don't want to imply that those two facts are connected; I supposed it would be enjoyable.  It's Jane Austen, even if it's polished up by someone else (and I haven't gone into what she wrote and what others did, because I'm not quite finished and don't want to find out till I'm done). The unexpected part, though, is how delightfully catty it is.

Austen's books always have that manipulative character who's thwarting romances for no reason or stealing nice men for herself, but we she is generally the bad guy.  In this epistolary novel, we get the points of view of both Lady Susan and her--well, rival isn't really the word, nor opponent.  Let's say opposite, Mrs. Vernon.  Mrs. Vernon is Lady Susan's sister-in-law; Mr. Vernon's late brother was Lady Susan's husband, and they find themselves living together at the Vernon home when Lady S. determines that she really must repair to the country, as her previous hostess's husband has fallen in love with her.

Lady Susan seduces men mostly to prove she can, though it's often also very practical.  Mrs. Vernon's young brother may be her next target--what shall become of him? We hear the gossip and rumors from Mrs. V. and then the logic and rationales from Lady S., and it's a great lesson in how the things that benefit a person always seem to make the most logical sense.

The movie looks hilarious, and a lot of the charming moments in the preview are directly from the book.  The understated humor of Austen herself is made wry and modern, but it's the same point--"if she was going to be so jealous, she shouldn't have married such a charming man"--and it's a guilty delight to watch her artfully lie to smooth over an argument with a beau, and then punish him for disagreeing with her in the first place, and then brag about it in a letter to her friend.

It's a short little slip of a book, but I'm finding it a charmer and a compulsive read.  Absolutely and without question worth picking up.

Thursday, May 12, 2016


Half-posts and half-finished books.  Good ones, that I want to talk about in a meaty way. I'm sorry!  I've been trying to inhale as many comics as possible to keep the cracks filled in.

You'd think I could talk about some of the kids' books I read with Adam, but somehow I end up wanting to write enormous tracts on amazing authors like Ursula Vernon, whose half-finished blog post languishes.

I will also grant myself that I've gotten involved with the Friends of the Library, and the big book sale is coming up next weekend.  It's not taking too very much time, but it's taking a lot of my mental bandwidth, so I hope after next weekend I'll have the top few slots of my to-do list back for blogging.

So: look forward to a substantial post about Claire North's new book The Sudden Appearance of Hope and, and a co-review of Strong Female Protagonist, by Brennan Lee Mulligan with Kelly, the Comics Goddess.

Oh, also?  Now I really have to read Lady Susan.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

My Favorite Thing About Hamilton Today: These Glorious People!

I wish to god I'd been able to see the show in NY, with the original cast.  I have no idea who's touring, but the chances that I'm going to see Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom, Jr. and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Renee Elise Goldsberry when Hamilton comes to Boston next year is really slim.  But everything I learn about these people is amazing--the shows they do for people waiting on line, their excitement and enthusiasm whenever any of them talk about the phenomenon that they're living right now.  The amount of sheer fun they all seem to be having.

Then I saw this, and it made me literally tear up with joy.

Not because I particularly care about Sweeney Todd (I've never seen it, though I have watching this awesome comparison of various Mrs. Lovett performances), but because there is something so unbelievably compelling about a group of incredibly talented people at the top of their game doing what they're amazing at, as a team.  It's like the ultimate heist movie, only instead of imaginary characters stealing diamonds, it's really actors having fun with something they love.  And I love it, too!  It's like a tiny glimpse inside of this incredible team, and it's absolutely moving.

I also got the Hamiltome for Mother's Day, and as I'm starting to dip into it, so many wonderful details about the actors and their performances and how the show came together, and it's just making me love them all more and more. 

More on this book as I get further in, but after owning it for a few hours, my reaction is that these annotations are amazing and I wish they had annotated every damned word in the whole thing.  I knew this was a work of genius, and it gets better the deeper you get.  The bits that were cut, the rap allusions I wouldn't have gotten, the snippets that the actors brought to their characters--it's freaking amazing.  I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT.

Ahem.  Thank you, Mike and Adam, for my Mother's Day gift.  Good show.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Paper Girls

I knew pretty much nothing about Paper Girls going in, but it's by Brian K. Vaughn of Y: The Last Man and Saga fame, and it was available on Netgalley, so I hopped right on board. And even with no expectations, it surprised the heck out of me.  I kind of want to suggest that everyone go in knowing nothing, but my Awesome Buttons are not the same as everyone else's, so maybe it won't hurt to give you a little hint.

It's the 1980s, and four paper girls are riding together the morning after Halloween, because that can be a rough time to be on the streets at 4:00 in the morning.  These girls aren't friends, exactly, but they're all tough in different ways, and they have an alliance of sorts.  Some toughs are a little threatening, and some skulking figures seem sketchy, and then weird things start to happen.

Like, really weird. People missing, others speaking strange languages, creatures--reality is bending, and the girls are trying to stay alive, find safety, and figure out what's going on.  We're talking volume one, so most of the mystery is only hinted at, but it's kind of incredible.

I think what I love most is the mistakes they make, though.  When they're in danger and find they have access to a gun, some bad decisions go down.  People who should be reliable panic.  A lot of bad stuff with bad consequences happens by accident, because people are making decisions fast, in the moment, with no information.  When reality bends in half, this is what it's really going to look like--half the danger is the mess.

The '80s setting is also just wonderful.  However tough these kids are, it was a simpler time, and maybe more innocent. There's definitely a nostalgia factor here.  And Vaughn's got a gift for a cliffhanger, so each issue ends with a big gasp of a reveal.  The end of the volume is the biggest one, and it's probably giving us the clearest idea of where things are going next; I really can't wait for number two. 

How can Vaughn produce so much awesome in such quick succession?  I don't know, but let's keep him busy.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

The Wolf Road

There is a thing that you can do as an author to ratchet the tension up to 11 for me, right out of the gate.  It's a pretty straightforward tool, but it works on me every time: tell me at the beginning of the scene how it's going to end.  Straightforward, dirt cheap foreshadowing, the bluntest instrument in the toolbox.

Jane Steele used this to excellent effect, and Beth Lewis us using it to tear my heart into little pieces in The Wolf Road. "I wish now that I hadn't done that," or "I couldn't have known how wrong he was," or "I will always remember him that way."  These little snippets that hint at what's coming get my adrenaline going--I am someone who has to pause the movie just before our hero peeks around the corner, to bring my blood pressure down.

Wolf Road starts off with a grand version of this, with a life-or-death confrontation between two characters that leaves one injured and trapped. We don't know who they are or why they are after each other, but it's very clear who the bad guy is based on who's got a scalp hanging from his belt.  We know who wins that battle, and presumably the war.

Then we jump back in time and learn more about our narrator, Elka--about her ornery nature and her absent family and the strange world she lives in.  The world itself is an important part of what makes this book so interesting--the setting is post-apocalyptic, but almost incidentally so.  Elka lives in the woods, and her affinity with the land and dislike for people are a huge part of her personality and world view.  The fact that it's not the 1800s but some unknown future date, after the Big Stupid, is something you glean from details like the existence of plastic and antibiotics.

It hardly matters--the book centers around the forest, and a gold rush, and it feels authentically old-fashioned.  But people know better--ignorance looks different here than it does in history, which I think is important.  The fact that Elka can't read is a surprise to people and an embarrassment to her.  The fact that it feels like 1850 make the unique dangers of this landscape and its unique scars somehow more familiar than they would have been if they were new.

Did you read True Grit?  That was an amazing book, all about the voice of the main character, full of wit and charm.  Though the plot and tone are very different, that's the book that was called to mind here for me, because I loved Elka as much as Maddie.  This was the book I wanted Vengeance Road to be, that it failed to be with its puppy love and noble savage and one-dimensionality. 

This is a book about atmosphere, and about morality.  It's a book about what makes people human, and what makes humans good.  Elka meets a lot of people in her travels, and she judges them with her gut, trusting some and mistrusting others.  And she is very frequently wrong, because she's not very good at people and their subtleties.  But it never stops her, and she continues to take each person on their own merits. And she makes her judgements herself, not based on anyone else's ideas of right and wrong. 

There's a great moment when someone she cares about greatly does something that she considers truly horrible.  Elka has to walk away and spend hours thinking; in that thought, she realizes things about her friend and about herself, and she connects her friend's choice to her own feelings and choices, and when she goes back, she can say to her friend, "yes, I see now."  It's such a small thing, but to include that moment--that thinking something through, looking at your first reaction and realizing it was wrong--to show that moment so clearly and beautifully just made this book perfect.  Because this is just my idea of what it means to be human.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Lived Experience

In the middle of many things, so let's do a snapshot of what I'm feeling in the middle of right now.

Game of Thrones is back on!  I generally don't have time to watch it on Sundays (unless I'm at a party or something), so I watched it Monday night.  This is kind of fun, as my friends have already watched it and I can go on gchat and provide running commentary to Mariah without interrupting her viewing.  Running commentary is my favorite thing.  I've never read the books, but the show is amazing.

I'm also watching Gilmore Girls for the first time, which is a very nice balance with GoT.  It's adorable.  Lorelei is actually kind of annoying sometimes--OMG the babbling is not a sign of emotional health--but Rory is the best, and I love how much humanity everyone is treated with.  Even the worst people here aren't villains.  I love Stars Hollow so very much.  (Except Michele.  He's awful!)

Listening to Six of Crows and Hamilton, pretty much exclusively.  Hamilton remains Hamilton; "Wait for It" made me cry in the car the other day.  Aside from the notion that "everyone who loves [him] has died," I just find that song very true to the inevitability and inexorability of life.  It also reminds me a bit of Colin Hay's "Waiting for My Real Life to Begin."

They have different takes on that same feeling, but it's one that I'm very familiar with--if you keep your head down and wait, the "right" opportunity will come by.  It's something I've had to fight, and I like the two very different senses that these songs have of the same idea.

Finally, I read this blog post by the amazing Siderea (whose Patreon I sponsor--not sure if that's a disclosure or a brag) about how our society devalues subjective experience.  Since I've only recently begun to realize/believe that design has significant value beyond functionality, I've been thinking about this a lot lately; she ties it in to emotional labor and consent in rape culture.
"This seems to me of a piece with how American culture treats all emotional labor. Emotional labor is labor to effect subjective facts. Since in our society subjective facts are deprecated, those who concern themselves with attempting to effect subjective facts are dismissed as engaged in trivialities, and their work to that end is not considered worth much if anything, especially if reckoned in cold, hard cash. From childrearing to design to the arts to housekeeping to customer service to kinkeeping to maintenance: that which concerns anticipating the subjective effect of something on someone is work that is typically low esteem and low compensation – if any."
Everything she writes is great--you should check out her whole site, but this article is the one I've been thinking about this week.

There's my quick and dirty summary of how my week is going.  Reviews of The Wolf Road and the fabulous Ursula Vernon to come soon, which will round out my run-down.  Stay tuned!

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.