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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Books I Read: January - February 2012

Holy Smoke. Last edition, I read seven books in five months. This time I read eight books in two months! Thanks eReader, but it also probably helped that I was reading at work too. Onto the books! More exclamation points!!

Lightning by Dean Koontz

My wife picked this for book club because it was one of her favorites growing up. I liked it too, and you know what's weird? The character has the same name as her. I don't get to read books I've previously read too much. I've got so many on my to-read stack, the idea of repeating books seems negligent. I would re-read books if I could, especially ones I read in my teens. Now that I'm an adult, I gain so much more perspective. Both in terms of maturity and now as a writer. I can see the things I missed the first time around.

For example, the biggest problem is that the story takes a long time to explain the plot. I only remembered the interesting half -- as Laura is growing up. The other half which I selectively amnesiaed was Stefan setting up explosives in some building, and watching the "gate". But we don't know why, who he is, or what he wants, besides keeping Laura from dying. This building of tension would be fine, if we knew what the stakes were. Plus the explosives never result in any consequences to the plot. It falls flat because there's no investment (and because it doesn't work). If I was writing this, I wouldn't have included any of Stefan before the halfway point.

When I first read it, I had no idea he was a nazi until he says that he is. And I still wouldn't have any idea now, if I didn't know the ending. I guess Koontz kept it ambiguous for the big reveal. I also didn't remember how annoying the comedienne best friend was or the main character conveniently knowing someone rich up the ass AND an underground gun dealer working out of Chuck E. Cheese who has access to super-lethal nerve gas. What I'm trying to say is that the book is more flawed then I remember. Rose-colored glasses and all that.


Mapping the World of Harry Potter: An Unauthorized Exploration of the Bestselling Fantasy Series of All Time by Mercedes Lackey, et al.

This was written before "Deathly Hallows" came out, so a great deal of the essays deal with now defunct speculation over "what will happen?" Even so, it's still fun to see what people were thinking and how many of their predictions were eerily accurate. For example, one suggests that Harry must fight Voldemort alone, that Harry will not die, that Harry will die, that Neville will take a larger role, that Hermione and Ron will get together, that Snape is not as evil as "Half-Blood Prince" made him out to be.

Besides the predictions, it's also great to read analysis of a literary series I know about and love, so I can see exactly what was done right and wrong. I learned that the Dursleys have a purpose beyond comic relief, why Snape has so many creepy fan girls, the series's roots in "English boarding school" books, and not only why Dumbledore died, but that he had to die, because he's the mentor on the hero's journey. My favorite is the last essay that details a "what would happen" scenario if Voldemort does win. Basically, Hermione goes medieval. I wouldn't have minded seeing that ending either.


The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I had this on my "to read" list for a long time, and I finally got it for Christmas. I had no idea when I was reading "Soon I Will Be Invincible" that I already had a book by his brother in my possession. I just didn't make the connection to the names, probably because "Invincible" was an impulse read.

Midway through it, my interest started to wane. It's so grim. I know it's trying to show the darker side of the Narnia/Hogwarts "magical escapism" fantasy. And I was interested in that concept too -- I always wondered why a guy who can control dragons and set people on fire with his mind is content to stay hidden from the world, tinkering with candies that make your tongue swell. But the main character never seems to want to seize that opportunity either. Maybe the scope of the novel is too high. Maybe there's not a strong enough goal for him, besides to learn magic at not-Hogwarts. Maybe that's part of his character (it's a boring one, if it is).

And I'm not fond of any book where characters hate their parents when there's no reason to. "The Tree of Life" did that. When we visit the romantic interest's parents, she vehemently hates them. She hates them because they don't really talk to each other. She hates them because they do self-indulgent stuff. One is concentrating on a report about fairy music (which may or may not exist) and another spends all his time transforming the house into various fancy historical architectures. Yet, they're still together, they raised her well, they apparently love her, there's no abuse or discipline, and they support her studies. Well, fuck you book. What do you want out of parents? I'm sorry we're not all made out of solid gold.

I guess when you learn magic, you can only change the world in "subtle" ways. Can't let the secret out. That would ruin the whole thing. In case you can't tell, I'm calling bullshit on that because A) that's implausible -- no one can keep a secret and B) who would want to? You're now a superhero. But when they graduate, the book becomes "Magic & the City". The group gets a Manhattan apartment where they fiddle around, have casual sex, and get drunk ALL the time. I mean all the time. Maybe my body is different but I can't believe you can consume this much alcohol per day and still function. I get a hangover if I'm dehydrated and have 2 Captain's Cokes.

Why do I feel I would appreciate this book more if I lived on the east coast? It seems like rich white kids messing with power and getting everything they want, and no one is happy. Or maybe it was aiming for that audience, written NYT bestsellers list in mind. The thing is, it's a good book, but I'm not sure I want to read the sequel. It's just so gloomy. It's not a fun story. But it's not boring, and it has some terrifying moments. Maybe the TV show will work better.


Boy Toy by Barry Lyga

I've wanted to read this for a long time. It's a YA book about a high school student who had a sexual affair with a teacher when he was twelve. Now he's eighteen, about to graduate, and he is angry. And he has every right to be. He feels extremely ostracized, mostly by his self. He hangs onto what he has -- baseball and math, as he has flashbacks to his sexual assaults incidents of abuse molestations... I guess there's no real good word to call it. Because there's a huge double standard when it comes to this sort of thing. And it's nice that the story is written in such a way that there's no thing you can point to and say "if we eliminate that, this'll never happen again".

And it fascinates me. Not to diminish anyone who was in this situation but, as far as the "dominant, aggressive, older male with younger female" relationship goes in writing, it's been done to death. "Dominant, aggressive older female, younger male" is not. Especially with stories like Mary Kay Letourneau, Debra Lafave, and Pamela Rogers Turner. It follows the mental state of the boy very nicely, as he struggles for normalcy in his current relationships, and how his past troubles color him. But he's really coloring himself.

Once again Lyga knocks it out of the park (baseball!). I haven't read a book of his yet that I didn't like profusely. I got exactly what I wanted -- an answer to the question of how a boy gets in a sexual relationship with a teacher. The only thing I wish was that we got a little more insight into the teacher. We never really learn her deal. Was she abused? Was she just unhappy? What was her motivation in starting this relationship? She makes a confession, so there has to be something in there. Maybe this is like real life, where the state keep the victim and victimizer in the dark about each other's state. And that is the scariest part.


The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

My recommendation of the month months. I was almost going to make it Boy Toy, but this book was just too much fun. It's also the first real Terry Pratchett that I've read (the exception being Good Omens co-written by Neil Gaiman). Dunno why it took so long, some authors just slip around the radar from time to time. Maybe I was afraid because he's so prolific, so well-liked, and all his books take place in "Discworld", which must be a giant universe by now.

But I didn't need to know a damn thing about his previous books to read this. My favorite part is the setting -- a small town in... Scotland? Northern England? Made-upland? Not sure. But it's cool, because it's about a daughter and her relationship with her grandmother, the town "might-be-a-witch-not-sure-I'm-not-gonna-ask", one of the many shepherds. I love everything Pratchett says about shepherding, like burying one with a piece of wool to let God know that this was a shepherd and maybe didn't go to church every Sunday because when sheep give birth, you gotta be there for that.

And the funny thing is the titular "wee free men" are only in about half the book (but scattered throughout). And they're hilarious too. They speak in thick Scottish accents and love drinkin', fightin', and stealin'. And they swear fealty to a little girl who's a smart cookie due to trading vegetables for lessons at the local bazaar.

My only beef is the last part, where the final battle with Generic Queen Witch drags on for quite a few chapters. It bobbles back and forth between "is it a dream or isn't?" and repeats the same tension. Not to mention that the bad queen has no strong beef with the protagonist, so the dramatic conflict has nothing invested in it.


A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

An old man with little physical strength and no hiking training decides to travel one of the hardest and longest trails in America. Hilarity ensues.

Bill Bryson returns with... not his best narrative, but not his worst. It's not a must-read by any means, but parts of it are entertaining. Especially if you're into hiking. I am not. He experiences annoying fellow hikers, equipment quirks, and frightening himself with bear attacks. Those are entertaining parts. Then there are other parts which are pure description of the purple mountain's majesties that don't work for me, punctuated by random histories of the trail -- what it could have been and what it is.

I still like Thunderbolt Kid best. Once his fuck-up friend leaves in the first half, the book takes a nose dive into tedium. It's too bad he couldn't have deleted those parts and just left the highlights. Hiking is hard to make a compelling story, unless you have bears. Of which, there really aren't any.


The God Engines by John Scalzi

When John Scalzi announced that he'd be donating all proceeds from Subterranean Press eBook sales for Feb. 1-8 to Planned Parenthood, in response to the Susan G. Komen kerfuffle I jumped on board. A) I love contraception B) I got a new eReader that needed some love and C) it gave me an opportunity to read some Scalzi I wouldn't have purchased otherwise. I bought his writing book, a short story, and his Hugo-nominated novella - The God Engines.

It had been on my "to-read" list for a while, and seems to be Scalzi's first try with fantasy. Dark fantasy. But it still has plenty of space action. It reminded me of the Old Man's War trilogy with the contrast turned way down and added religion. But it's a hella awesome combination - space opera with "mythological religion" - two great tastes that taste great together.

But I gotta air one beef. And I didn't realize this until I was doing my fun thing where I look up trivia/info about the story. I saw this review that called attention to one component -- the established harem on the ship designed to give the crew "release". That's all fine and dandy -- not uncommon practice for this level of cultishness -- until Scalzi points out he never assigned any pronouns to the prostitutes. No physical gender characteristics or anything that could define as this, that, or the other.

This is creepy. It's clever, but it's creepy. And I'm not sure how I feel about it. On one hand, it's a neat writer trick, one that I didn't see coming. I guess it's a technique to let the reader fill in the blanks with what he/she wants to. Which is the sign of a good writer. On the other hand, now that I know that the prostitute could have been a girl or a guy, I feel icky. All I can do is imagine him as a guy. Maybe it's my instinctive homophobia. Maybe in my mind, if the character has no gender, it's potentially both -- a hermaphrodite or someone like Pat.

I also feel betrayed by the author, that he fooled me. Maybe it's that I know how the trick is done. Maybe it's that I feel, as a writer, omitting information for the sole purpose of messing with the reader is not cool.


Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler

This book is really short, more like a novella. Nonetheless, I love the concept. Death calls upon a teenage girl with anorexia to be Famine, one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. It's something I should have thought of. I like the parts that seem real for anorexics -- constant calorie calculation, excessive exercise, obsession with what she eats (to a point where it starts to interfere with the narrative), and denial.

But I was a little sad that, despite being a horseman... horsewoman of the apocalypse, there is no apocalypse. And I'm not sure what her purpose in being Famine was. One says her job is to spread chaos, another indicates she's supposed to pave the way for War, to work in tandem with Pestilence. Or is she supposed to eliminate hunger?

In fact, that's what she does, once she starts to understand it, to feel the joy that satisfied hunger brings. And she ends up killing War, then renouncing her crown, making her stint seem pointless pandering to dark fantasy nerds. The four horsemen stuff is kinda what I came here for, so it was disappointing that most of it was about the girl and her horse. There are other books in the series though.

And they don't wrap up nice and tight either. Her disease is still there after the climax and she seeks help. I think the author did a good job and gave me what I wanted -- a plausible portrayal of an eating disorder + a little dark fantasy.
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