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Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Books I Read: November - December 2015


My Little Brony: An Unofficial Novel about Finding the Magic of Friendship by K. M. Hayes

I found this book at the library and only grabbed it on a whim. I used to be into My Little Pony:FiM (until Lauren Faust left, but that's another entry). I didn't expect much of it. The idea reeked of self-publication and the fan art cover didn't help. I was expecting sappy, amateur Dawson's Creek drama with a cheap gimmick to draw in readers.

But it turned out to be a great little novel. The teens speak realistically. They have plausible problems, not bulimia/my gay mother/sexually confused/vegetarian/alcoholism/pregnancy scare stuff you see in other teen drama books. Adults play a part -- they're not absent like Saved by the Bell. They don't fall to the cliche tropes of plot movement like not telling people what the real problem is when a few words could solve everything. There's no love triangles. The main character doesn't realize he's gay with MLP as the vehicle.  And most of all, there's no "bully", which this material was ripe for.

This is a book about acceptance. Trying to find your place in high school and searching for like-minded people to be around while wanting to make your parents proud. I can really get behind that, since I had a similar experience. There's no cop-out resolution like he realizes he doesn't need friends or moves somewhere. There are consequences and not everything wraps up tidy. It reminded me a lot of Barry Lyga's YA, who I'm a big fan of. I even looked for other things by K.M. Hayes and was disappointed to find this the premiere work. Hopefully this isn't the only story in the author's arsenal.


The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop

I was promised Indian in the Cupboard, but with medieval knights. But what I got was a dull story. Most of the story is about his nanny leaving to return to England. He wants to keep her, so he uses the maguffin to trap her in his toy castle. There isn't any impressive research shown or memorable characters or "oh no!" moments. In fact, the kid is psycho. I don't know how mature he's supposed to be, but he literally kidnaps someone and puts her in his toy castle.

She doesn't even react very strongly to it either. She just sits in the tower and mopes. There's supposed to be some kind of prophecy, and the boy shrinks down to fulfill it. This involves him confronting the evil king who created the magic, fooling him by his gymnastics. (Yes, he's in gymnastics. For a book written in 1985, I give points for being progressive. But that's it.)  The characters aren't competent and because of that, the plot is boring, because the characters aren't sympathetic.


A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (unfinished)

Ah, it's always a gamble when you try and read a classic. You never know if it's going to be unreadable, popular because it was promoted by English Ph.D.s who can A) fully comprehend the material B) have no other job than selecting which books will be "classics". The professor part of me was saying "Mm, yes, mm, quite good, enjoyable prose, mm, yes, harumph". The emotional part of me was like "this sucks. It's not funny. Everyone in here is a douche or an idiot. It's like Birdman, more in love with its technique than the plot."

This book is like experimental theater. Comedy, but no humor. It's called a "picaresque", like Don Quixote. Wikipedia explicitly says this means, by definition, it has no plot (which is already a big-ass stop sign for me), but the characters just go walking around, do silly things, and then it just ends. 

Stories where characters don't want anything or don't have a goal don't sit well with me. Plus it's in a Southern style, which reading Faulkner in eleventh grade turned me off from. (I want to punch someone everytime I think of "My mother is a fish." Hey, I can write incomprehensible narration that is so abstract any meaning can be ascribed to it too.) If you want a comedy book, read Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams.


Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

This is the first non-Tiffany Aching Terry Pratchett novel I've read. Also, the highest rated Pratchett book (at least according to Goodreads). But for some reason I could not get into it. I think maybe because it's too long. Comedy's at its best when short and witty. It's here, in Monty Python-esque glory, but it goes on too long.  The situation wears out its welcome.

It's a character focused, which is good. The characters are the best part -- a human teen who was raised by dwarfs (his name is Carrot because he has wide shoulders and skinny legs from working in the mines), an alcoholic captain of the guards (imagine Aragorn mixed with Sam Spade), and "the others". My favorite is Sybil Ramkin, a woman who breeds small dragons. She's kind-hearted, but doesn't take guff, and has a wonderful way of asking for what she wants without seeming like she asked for anything. Though she's a lady, she's an outdoorsy woman, like Katharine Hepburn. And there's a librarian who's an orangutan.

This is where I come to my problems. They say you can jump into any Discworld novel without reading the others, but I didn't feel that was the case here. Either I got lost because there was too much that seemed to imply I should have prior knowledge (the mechanics and government of a big fantasy city are not explicit) or because the characters are treated like background characters. This is the nature of the story -- the city watch is the guys who come running after something's happened. They're inept, but they do their best.

The plot feels like it was made up as it went along. The lack of chapters bothered me (apparently all Discworld except Tiffany Aching does this) because that meant there were no signals for when a big event occurs. No stopping points. Like each scene was a day of writing. "Okay, something needs to happen here, so... um, okay, let's put in a dragon."

Of course, this doesn't mean I'll give up on Pratchett. This is his eighth novel and written in 1989, so there are plenty of others to sample.


Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army by Kayla Williams

A non-fiction account of a woman in the army. It is a raw and honest diatribe of what it was like, and has no compunctions about lifting the scabs. Most female memoir authors tend towards a "it was all their fault, I was an angel". But there's not much of that here. She's a fascinating character full of contradictions.

And due to that, this book did a good job of making me angry at the army. This is around 2003, when there was the "we don't have body armor" issue and Halliburton fiascoes. This book reveals this was the tip of the iceberg. This war gave soldiers no lack of purpose. They ignore dietary requirements, leaving it up to the soldiers to scrounge like rogues in D & D. They get poor training. They shift everyone around so there's no sense of camaraderie. And so many dumbasses in leadership positions. I know I'm only getting one side of these stories here, but even half of them are true, it's like the blind leading the blinder. After reading this, I feel like the government utilizes the air force, navy, and marines, for their specialization.  But the army is just fresh bodies to do jobs robots can't do yet.

And that eighteen is too young to be in the military. These boys are not mature. They do not know the basics of how to talk to humans or how to treat women without sexually harassing them.  Every woman is categorized as a slut or a bitch, and you can't be neither.  It's like high school, but with guns.  There needs to be more HR type training, because there are more women in the military than ever.

This book is mostly anecdotes. I enjoy that personally, but not everyone will. You won't find "Saving Private Ryan" here -- the narrator didn't see a lot of combat due to her status as a translator. But the book delivers what it advertises -- an account of a woman soldier in the modern army.

Side note: I'd love to see this girl kick Cheryl Strayed from Wild's ass.


Made to Kill by Adam Christopher

I am probably the wrong person for this book. I was pulled in by the robots, not the genre. I've never read Raymond Chandler, and if I'm going to read detective fiction, I'll select current stuff, not classics. Therefore, I can only assume the super-detailed writing is part of his oeuvre. The novel is described as Raymond Chandler meets science fiction and it is. But it's science fiction of his era. Mind control and mad scientists and "Commies From the Planet X".

Oddly, the detail isn't boring, but it does get in the way of the story progress. Certain character aspects are left undeveloped, like the robot's side job as a hitman or the backstory of his creator. I don't know if this is an aspect of the style or the fact that it's part of a trilogy, but neither work in its favor. I believe, even if it's going to be a series, the first book has to wrap up conclusively, like Star Wars, and not leave any threads hanging.


Let It Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle

Now this is the kind of short story anthology I can get behind. Three authors with novellas, each separate but all taking place in the same setting and same circumstances (in this case, a giant snowstorm) and all in the same genre (romance). This is a much better format to introduce readers to new writers -- draw them in with well-knowns and add a guest, like an opening band.

 I know John Green well, love his work. Maureen Johnson I've heard of, but not familiar with. But I loved her contribution. Lauren Myracle I've never heard of, and I wasn't a big fan of her story -- too much navel-gazing, not enough plot moving along. The main character stood in one place and introspected most of the time.

But overall, the book is solid. It's light-hearted and heavy on the adorbz. The kind of stuff fangirls squee for -- quirky characters hugging and such. It's a good book to read around Christmas, which I did. It's a little underwhelming but has a tone like a warm blanket. A pleasant palate-cleanser if you've read too many gritty books about robots and army women.
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