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Thursday, September 06, 2012

The Books I Read: July - August 2012



Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I was really looking forward to this one.  I kept hearing all these tales about how it's made for my generation and persona type, the geek who grew up in the 1980's.  It is not a grand epic book with grand themes.  It is meant for a specific audience and never deviates from that.  But if you are in that audience, you will love this book.

Unfortunately for me, I found out I am juuuuust a bit outside that audience because I was born in 1981, and most of the nostalgia is too early for me.  Video games are Atari and arcade cabinets, not Nintendo and Sega.  Movies are WarGames and Ladyhawke, not Batman or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Music is from Rush and Van Halen, not... well, I have no idea.  I didn't really listen to pop music growing up.

Nonetheless, this is my favorite book I've read these two months (as I knew it would be), and I hope the sequel moves the date up juuuuust a little bit.


Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

For book club.  This is... well, it's hard to describe.  It's weird.  Maybe I'll start by summarizing it.

For 3/4ths of the book, there's one main plot about a king in the past seeking immortality.  We focus on him 75% of the time, and the other 25% is three other plot lines in the present.  One is about a starving artist in Seattle trying to hit on a blockbuster amateur perfume, one is about a perfumer in New Orleans, and the other is about the brother co-owners of a fragrance company in France.  The remaining 1/4th is all these plotlines merging together.

The main hook of the story is the colorful prose.  And it is very colorful.  The prose is fantastic to read -- jazzy metaphors, extravagant similes, splashy hyperbole.  It's like every sentence is dessert.

But the problem is, you eat enough dessert, you start to get sick of it.  And you want some meat and potatoes.  I would love a short story written like this, but it's too intense for an entire novel.  It hinges on style over substance, and fore gos plotholes and cohesion for what's neat and creative.  There's a lot of weird stuff, a lot of graphic sex.  It feels like it was written by a hippie for hippies.


Catching Jordan by Miranda Kenneally

This is not the novel I was expecting, but it is still pretty good.  I was sold on the tagline: the main character is a girl on a high school football team.  Not just a girl, but the quarterback and the captain.  And that's not the big conflict.  The big conflict is that a new kid, a new HOT kid comes in, threatening to take her position, and she has to choose between a boy she likes and sport she loves.

Well, that's not exactly what happens.  The threat of the new hotness is minimal at best -- her position's never in jeopardy.  What she's really torn about choosing between the new hotness or her best friend who likes her likes her.  There's nothing worse than advertising that fibs on the product in order to sell.  Plus, they've been best friends since grade school and only NOW she realizes he likes her, after countless sleepovers and school projects.

The story is YA to the core, and hinges on implausible teen-ness.  The only characters in the book are footballers and cheerleaders.  Normally, I'd expect main screen time for jocks and cheerleaders with this kind of subject matter.  But no one talks to anyone BUT cheerleaders and footballers.

And no one talks about anything but their relationships.  That means guys only talk about girls and girls only talk about guys.  No one has a life outside of school - no one talks about jobs, or family problems, or homework, or colleges, or non-football activities/hobbies, or other friends.  They all exist in their football bubble.

The other big flaw is that the character development is two-faced.  The girl quarterback constantly derides the cheerleaders for being slutty, indecisive, and flitting from boyfriend to boyfriend.  Whereas she is just as gossipy and self-absorbed as the girls she purports to hate.

So if you're looking for an awesome book about shattering gender stereotypes or a woman succeeding in a man's world, not really here.  But If you're looking for a high-school romance that's not in a cliched setting, this is it.


Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

Goodreads kept recommending this one, so I picked it up from the library.  It's not great at all.  Stick with the movie.  The connection is tenuous at best, and features none of the wit, themes, or charm that made it great.

The plot has no cohesion.  The chapters are more like vignettes.  In fact, the very second chapter, the one after she's been employed and the scene is set, is her hanging out with Bert.  No establishing scene of her with the kids.  And to boot, Bert only has a one-shot appearance.

Occasionally, something magic happens, like Mary Poppins hears the babies talking (babies that are not in the movie), or they take a magic umbrella to various spots around the world (which was originally cut for being racist).  But it's filled with stodgy Britishness, which makes the characters and the path they take unlikeable.


Rage by Jackie Morse Kessler

I had previously read Hunger, which was about a girl fighting an eating/image disorder who becomes the Horseman Famine.  This one follows the same formula, and is maybe a little bit worse.  The first one dealt very well with eating disorders, keeping plausible and never going for TV-movie melodrama.  Maybe because the author had an ED.  Not so with War's chosen psychological disorder.

In this one, the girl is a cutter/self-injurer.  But I've studied this, and cutters cut to get the emotions out.  They feel helpless, with situations they can't control.  They can't control their rage, but they can control the pain, and thus control themselves*.  This does not apply to our main character -- her family life is ideal: two parents, non-screwed up sister.  She plays soccer.  And she does not demonstrate being emotionally stunted or repressive, a la Bruce Banner.

Like Hunger, it also takes place over an extremely short period of time.  There's a lot of runaround and nothing much happens.  There's a lot of internalized thinking that feels like padding.  The girl is fucking War for Christ's sake.  It seems like something exciting should happen, but I can find a key event except for the beginning and ending.

It also seems that key events in the lot would have higher consequences.  For example, at a party, the main character disrobes in anticipation of a sexual encounter with a boy who's already spurned her once (and she's convinced in an extremely implausible teen-ness way).  But it's all a cruel trick, as the students burst in and take pictures and videos of her, a la Carrie.

In the real world, that's sexual assault, child abuse, sexual abuse on a minor, and other crimes I'm sure I'm missing.  Half the students would get arrested, and the story would blow up nationwide.  Instead, it's glossed over, and wrapped up at the end by finding some other kid to make fun of and forgetting about her.  Not plausible.  Christ, we're living in a world where kids can sexually abuse themselves (by sexting pictures if they're under eighteen).

*This comes up in Baby Blocks, available at fine Fan Fiction sites near you :)


Redshirts by John Scalzi

Ah, Scalzi.  You're my go-to man for a good book.  You never disappoint.

This book feels less epic than Fuzzy Nation, which felt even less epic than Old Man's War.  It's good, but not great.  If you're a Star Trek nerd, you've already heard all the jokes.  It's really just a throwaway sci-fi cliche, drawn out very, very long.  But only Scalzi could write a book like that and make it good.  Although, as you can tell on the cover, the book has to tack on three codas and still falls short of 90,000 words.

It feels like nothing that happens really matters, because the main characters have no faces, no personality (although that might be the point).  It might work as a high-level pitch, but not in fiction.  Not if you want the reader to latch onto the characters and sympathize.  The ending(s) feel syrupy and forced.  I heard a lot of people were crying at the end, but I wasn't one of them.  Because the characters did not offer enough emotional capital to invest in.

I feel like it's spread out too thin.  I can almost see in the text that Scalzi was stretched too thin to give this book as much polish and thought as his other books.  That it's the result of being SFWA president, and taking care of a family, and a blog, and conventions, and all sorts of other things that I'm sure came up.


Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

I never thought I'd be able to read this one, because I thought it was part of some exclusive UK thing.  But it was at my library.  God bless those things.

I like it.  It's short and sweet, classic hero's journey, coming of age, bildrungsroman.  Takes place in Norse times with the fab three -- Odin, Loki, and Thor.  Plenty of Gaiman-style humor--bickering among superpowers, themes of innocent, charming story elements, plenty of magic.  It's hard to describe it without spoiling anything.  But it's a tasty treat, like an Oreo Blizzard.


Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Also one that kept being recommended by Goodreads.  And it's one of those books that everyone's read, that you always see on the library shelf, but I never got around to reading.  I think because the cover was never very appealing to me -- Jewish star + Norwegian-looking girl = historical fiction = not interested.

And it is historical fiction, and an exceedingly simple story.  But that's not a bad thing.  Simple stories need to be simply told, but that doesn't mean their content is simple.  Straightforward might be a better way of putting it.  We follow a girl in occupied Denmark who watches the Germans tighten their grip, to the point where they need to help her best friend escape.

And it's a good escape.  But the story is told through the lens of the girl, so she doesn't really participate.  We watch her watch.  This kind of book would be a great introduction to WWII and the Nazi movement.  Like Schindler's List Junior. Perhaps I am just too old to appreciate it for what it is.  The moment's passed me by.  But I think even if I caught it at the right age, I'd still be meh.


The Boy at the End of the World by Greg Van Eekhout

The first chapter sold me on this.  Unfortunately, same thing happened with Norse Code, another Van Eekhout novel.  This one wasn't NEARLY as disappointing, but still... my big complaint is that the story is more about survival and full of action, rather than character, cleverness, and intriguing plot.  I guess that's just my personal preference.

A boy wakes up as a result of an "Ark" preservation project.  Except everything's gone wrong, and he's the only one who survived.  And he's got a cute robot for an Obi Wan.  A boy and his robot story?  Who could resist?  And it is pretty good, but it's not as much about that bond as it is about survival, and what happened to the world.  Which I guess is all right.  The book is somewhere around the middle-grade/YA border though.  As a result, you get some kiddie stuff like the pet mammoth who acts way too domesticated (and poops a lot) mixed with scary stuff like a robot with good intentions for humanity.  You know what I'm talking about.


The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Cleverness, on the other hand, abounds in John Green.  This one's far superior to "An Abundance of Katherines".  It's the closest to the emotional impact of "Looking for Alaska", but where that one was male POV, this one is female POV.  My personal preference is still for "Alaska" (emphasis on personal), but this might be his finest work yet.  It's certainly getting him press.

It's a tragic romance about a teen girl and a teen boy, both with cancer, and their daily struggles (spoiler: their daily struggles are much harder than ours, like being able to breathe).  And it's not schmaltzy like Nicholas Sparks -- no one kisses in the rain, no one writes letters (well, they do, but in a much MUCH better way).  It's much more realistic, and the tragedy is the realism of dying.  That it's not glorious or romantic, but authentic.  And that is so much more tragic and so much better.  And so much of a good story.

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