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Monday, July 22, 2013

The Books I Read: May - June 2013


The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To by D.C. Pierson

You might remember this story from the famous "Yahoo! Answers" response to someone who asked for a summary, wanting to skip the summer reading. The D.C. Pierson himself responded, saying how disappointed he was trying to avoid it because it sounded like work, when the book is much better than other classics that could pop up on such a list. (Christ, Charlie Brown got assigned War and Peace, and that was just for Christmas vacation!)

But the book is everything Pierson said it was. The thing is it's really rather... how do I put this... The title promises science-fiction, but it's really more literary. It only gets into supernatural stuff in the last sixth, and it has nothing to do with what takes place before. The bulk is more about two geeky friends in a typical "enjoying their comic books video games when everyone rags on that and wants them to like football". A wild girlfriend appears! to put them back on the mainstream track and drama ensues. It's a branch off the "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" tree. But I do recommend it.


The Sandman by Neil Gaiman

I pre-ordered it this last year with my birthday money (May 2012), but it didn't get released until November. Then I forgot about it, because I had so much to read. I didn't think about it again until my queue was more manageable.

I think I burned myself out on Sandman near the end. It's one thing to get one or two volumes at the library. It's another to read the whole thing continuously.

But you practically have to read it beginning to end.  There is so much inside.  There are characters in volume one that don't become significant until the last book.  You could easily forget who's who with everything that happens in-between. I'm not even talking about the literary references, the hidden meanings, the subtlety, the abstract thinking.

So it started to become drudgery after a while. Trudging through the swamp of such abstract thinking (as such is the stuff from which dreams are made). I myself am not a fan of the poetic, existential writing. I like concrete.  I like stories where I can tell what's happening and don't have to think on artsy things. It's like the writing is engineered to have so many meanings that it means nothing. Sandman defies critical analysis, like why do the Furies care about killing Sandman? Why does he kill himself? What is up with his elephant-man mask?

I think Sandman is meant to be read like a comic book -- a little bit at a time. Slower than I read it. But I had to read it fast or I'd forget who everyone is.


Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Well, it was better than "The Last Unicorn", which I consider to be its contemporary in "post-modern fantasy" (which means it was part of that weird eighties fantasy influx). But it sags in the middle, just like the old lady main character.

Nothing happens. There is no action. There are no stakes. Characters talk, but no one moves a plot forward. Sophie turns into an old lady, but then she doesn't really care about getting a cure. She's more comfortable as an old lady than as a young'n. They fall in love at the end, but there's nothing leading up to that. Sophie is a nag, and Howl is an emo git. They don't fall in love, they just get used to each other.

And then to give the semblance that there's a story in all this, the ending is a huge deus ex machina of making stuff up. "Oh, yeah, um, how do I end this... OK, I'll make this guy show up from nothing and say that this this person was the bad guy all along and... and Sophie's "talent" will suddenly do something important. And this scarecrow who did nothing, I'll turn into a main character."

I don't want to disrespect Diana Wynne Jones -- there's a lot of good ideas in here. But I liked the Miyazaki movie better.


Loss by Jackie Morse Kessler

Jackie: this series is not your confessional. It is not your soapbox or your diary. It is a book, meant to inform and entertain. You introduced a great concept with "Hunger", but gave up decent exploration of the topic for superficial YA thrills. Then you screwed up with "Rage". You screwed up with this one. And (now that I have "time-sink fallacy" and I have to finish the series) I know you'll screw the pooch with the last.  I know it.

Her author's notes say the book went through twenty-two drafts before it was finished. Well, gee, I wonder why that was? Maybe because you put in so much junk that had nothing to do with the central concept? Pestilence. One of the four horsemen. Responsible for plague, sickness, poisons, germs. Dominion over disease. Do you want to tell me what that has the fuck-all to do with school bullies and Robin Hood? (At least the other books had a tangential theme: Famine to eating disorders, War to self-harm.)  It's like Kessler is writing some other story she wants to, other than the one presented to her.

(And maybe you shouldn't be advertising your failures in your own book.  How many times do movies with multiple directors, multiple drafts, multiple production companies, become lauded bestsellers?  They have a term for that: development hell.)

The story is all over the place and none of it has to do with the protagonist. There are more words dedicated to the backstory of the deuteragonist than the main one. And nothing is resolved in the end -- he's still got bullies. He's going to get his ass kicked the next day.

This series has lost such potential. I'm frustrated because there are some great themes she could be working with. But what does pestilence have to do with self-esteem? What does unrequited school crushes have to do with being assigned as a harbinger of the end-times? You've got a character who's got the power to make anyone sick. It's a hero's journey. A call to adventure. And what does the author do? Watch some guy in a coma be Robin Hood and King Midas.

It's like "The Dark Knight Rises". Don't shove the wrong story into the wrong milieu.


Pulling Up Stakes Part 2 by Peter David

My review of the first one, you can find here. The first part had more whiz-bang stuff, but a lot more info-dumping. This one is the reverse: less whiz-bang, more plot. My big problem is that there's not much mystery -- everything that they think is happening (who the bad guys are, what their plot is), turns out to be what is happening. No third act twist.

The ending appears to be setting up for a series, which I'm just not into. Not in this genre (urban fantasy). There's just something about it which makes the story feel "not so important".


Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I wasn't sure I'd be into this book at first. My mom didn't care for it, and my tastes run alongside hers.

At first it felt like hipster reading. The language was so clever you could feel it was in love with itself. But the story itself is mundane. Just a boy and a girl having marital problems.

So why couldn't I stop reading it?

I'm not sure where it got me. It must have been some time in Amy's diary entries where she's talking about dating in Manhattan, where she's dating Nick and talking about "monkey husbands".  It sounded like a girl I could like, and a boy I could sympathize with.

But all the women love having uber amounts of sex and speak vulgarly.  I know my experiences are limited, but I just don't know any women like that. I don't know any women who know women like that. Are they out there? Is there anyone like in this book? Everyone's acting like they do in Sex and the City but it's played for farce in there. No woman's ever asked me to "fuck them".

Here's the other thing. I read that the author tried to make it ambiguous to the reader whether the man was actually the killer or not in the first half, as in all the other "Lifetime movie/Sleeping with the Enemy" scenarios. I never got that part, so I never figured Nick was the killer/kidnapper. I read part one completely straight -- a man trying to keep his name clear when the world's out to get him.

At a certain point it started reminding me of those shows like "Revenge" and "Damages" and "Pretty Little Liars" that are all intrigue and scandal but never reach a resolution. They're soap operas. This one has a resolution, but it also has the amazing coincidences of the characters needing to be who they are (good thing her stalker, who always denied being a stalker, was really her stalker, and happened to be rich and have an isolated place on the lake) and do what they do when needed.

Not to mention what does she hope to gain from all this rigmarole when it gets to the end? I know she's a sociopath, so she might not be thinking straight. But she seems to have a plan for everything else.  She's now pregnant and forced herself into staying married because.... yay? (I'm not really sure about that sperm thing -- medical doctors are sticklers for property and my wife can't even call in the credit card number for which we're both on the account). Gone Girl? Yeah, more like gone in the head.


Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

I liked Blubber better, but this book was more plausible. I couldn't remember if I had ever read this one when I was little or not. But even if I did, at least now I can appreciate it better.

It's about a girl who just moved to New Jersey. She's got split-religion parents (one Christian, one Jewish) but is being raised as "neutral", which I could identify with. Despite this, she talks to God in the form of diary entries/letters asking for strength to handle things in her life. And for her year-long independent project (at ninth grade? I don't think so), she's studying various church worships.

The other big rub is her new friends, which are classic "Queen Bee/Wanna-Be"s. They're so concerned about being mature, the queen makes them grow up too fast (recording what boys they like, getting bras they don't need, slumber parties with seven minutes in heaven). Given Margaret's personality, she asks God to speed her development along.

The conflicts culminate when her twenty-year estranged grandparents want to visit, and remind the family why they were estranged in the first place, which causes Margaret to lose her "faith(?)" in God.  He's been giving her all this trouble, but nothing she's been asking for. But as soon as things settle, the bees disintegrate (after rejecting all this forced maturity), and she gets her period.  Thus is Margaret's confidence is restored.

The reason I'm summarizing it like this is because all the pieces work beautifully. In harmony, almost. There's the conflict of Margaret's religion, with ties into her clique, which ties into her faith, and it takes place in the frame of time, while continuing development of the character. It all fits together so nicely. Everything works like a piece of music.


Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

I was hooked by the beginning excerpt (the trailer and endorsement by Wil Wheaton didn't hurt either).


However, the story fizzles after the first third. It's a fantastic draw-in, just like any good comic book writer should do. Like Pushing Up Stakes, there's no real twists or gotchas through the plot. Everything you thought was happening is what's happening. I guess my problem was that the promises set up by the beginning don't reflect the ending.

And what you think might be bizarre or supernatural turns out to be normal realism. It's called "Gun Machine" but there is no machine, much less one made of guns. Big locked door, guns in circles. You're thinking aliens? Cult ritual? Something ethereal (at least based on the trailer). And it turns out to be mundane.

That being said, the characters (especially the CSI forensics team) is fantastically written, as are the antagonists and the smart protagonists. It's a crime thriller written by a comic book writer, one who subscribes to the Neil Gaiman school of writing. That means it's sharp, short, and witty. I think it's worth a try.


The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

And speaking of Neil Gaiman, boy was I excited for this one (as was the rest of the world, undoubtedly). I wanted to read it slowly, to appreciate it. Because there probably won't be another Neil Gaiman book for five years.  And it was short.

It started really well, even with the prologues/framing devices. I loved the stories of the main character, the introduction to the Hempstock family, anecdotes, being a seven-year-old. It evoked images of Roald Dahl and British coming-of-age novels.

But in the end, it gets really abstract. This is his most abstract novel to date, and it reminded me of the Sandman.  Not in terms of cultural references but in of leaving things vague and up-to-interpretation instead of keeping a firm story.  You never know what's going on -- what the stakes are for doing all this magic or seeing all these obstacles -- that I never got a sense of sympathy to any of the characters to stay caring what happened to them at the end. It felt like the story didn't match the characters.

Especially Lettie. I wanted to like Lettie. I wanted her to be like Marci from "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town", Alaska from "Looking for Alaska", Leslie from "Bridge to Terabithia" -- eccentric, but crush-worthy girl-next-door fantasy. Maybe that wasn't what Gaiman intended. Either way, there's just not enough interaction between her and the main character to get enough of a sense of care.

My favorite Gaiman novels are still American Gods and Anansi Boys. I guess I just like my novels to contain answers, instead of raising questions.
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