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Monday, March 20, 2017

The Books I Read: January - February 2017

 
 
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

I wasn't aware of this novel until the author died, which was recently. Neil Gaiman and a few other writers used this as their parting memory--a particularly influential book (Kurt Cobain cited it as an influence). I looked it up and found the summary intriguing -- a married couple engineers their children to be circus freaks for their literal "Family Circus". It sounded horrific and darkly bizarre, like all those dark carnival/clown tropes I love.

The accolades are not dismissible. Whereas a book like "Stranger in a Strangeland" is tainted by anachronisms (like the hippie counter-culture and there being actual life on Mars), this one has no such compunctions. Although it has the sensibilities of the mid-seventies (published in 1980), it's not steeped in that culture, adding to timelessness. It's basically the family story the husband and wife traveling carnival owners and their four circus freak children -- one's a dolphin-boy, one/two are Siamese twin girls, one's an albino hunchback who's our POV character (because she's just a run of the mill abnormality). The main plot thread involves the dolphin-boy who gets hungry for fame. So he grows his mild audience of curiosity into a migratory cult of amputees.

But this is just one--it reads like a rise and fall of an empire as jealousy and ignorance lead to destruction. There's also a strange framing device about the hunchback keeping a stalker eye on the daughter she gave up for adoption, and this starts in the beginning but doesn't come back until the end. I think that's the novel's biggest flaw.

I can honestly say I've never read a book like this. Like "Freaks" crossed with "East of Eden". The characters are well-developed and evolve over the course of the story. Even the infodumps are fun to read, assuming you like reading "top five miscarriages I keep in glass jars in our trailer". Is this book for everyone? Definitely not. It's for the subset of people who like Rob Zombie and Alan Moore. It contains elements we take for granted now that made big booms on the 1980's video shelves, like surgical horror and deformity. For some reason, it seems to resonate with females more than males, maybe because of the "freaky but family" vibe. The shock value has a pay-off.

Now... all that being said, this is the book that made me re-evaluate my criteria for selection and sticking with a book on the "to-read shelf". It's really good, but it's JUST SO LONG. I felt trapped by it at a certain point, like I was in book jail. Reading the same set of characters in the same plot forever on, never coming to an end. Is there such a thing as hate-reading? Like hate-fucking? Where you're enjoying the act on a base level, but your forebrain is motivated by spite or malice to continue? That's what it felt like. Maybe I've got a short attention span, maybe I'm the MTV generation, but this book didn't need to be as long as it was. I am of the mind that editing is a golden gift. As crucial as knowing what to put in is what to take out.


Dishonored: The Corroded Man by Adam Christopher (sampled)

I'm glad I didn't start this. It starts with a long prologue to communicate a whole bunch of exposition with minimal dialogue, minimal character development... ALL of which is condensed 100% in the four-line epigraph at the start. Nothing happens that isn't repeated a hundred times.

It doesn't feel consistent with the games. The games have high speech, Shakespearean plotlines, and compelling characters. Nothing is told, everything is shown--in setting, dialogue, and logs you find. Not so here. It's like fanfic--all narrative and description. The author forgets to the make the characters speak once in a while. I counted half a dozen places in the prologue alone where dialogue could have been used to exposit, let alone making the story INTERESTING.

Then I remembered out the author was the same as "Made to Kill", which I gave two stars (meaning I wouldn't even take it with me to a desert island if I could take any and all books I wanted). That was the final nail in the coffin (even though I had already buried the book). So even though I've never read a video game tie-in that was any good, I place the fault of this tie-in entirely on the author. There is great material to work with and he botched it with poor writing techniques. Have someone talk once in a while, Christopher.


Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews (sampled)

Everyone makes a big deal out of this one, mostly for the incest, but I liked the idea of children being forced to live in an attic while waiting for an old man to kick off so they can inherit his fortune. However, the writing style is entirely too Gothic. Maybe I wasn't in the right headspace for this one at the time, but I don't think I ever will be. The composition is too flowery, too overtly elaborate with vocabulary rooted in mystery, gloom, and atmosphere. Full of gender stereotypes too. I guess the problem with stuffing kids in an attic is that there isn't a lot for them to do. A Series of Unfortunate Events is much better at making the kind of cheerless ambience without being depressing. This book is for good girls to read when they want to feel naughty.


Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls by Jane Yolen

Ah, here's some bread and butter -- folk tales and female protagonists. This isn't exactly "Rejected Princesses", but it's a nice change from all the fairy tale compilations I've read in the past (Grimm's Fairy Tales, The Book of Goodnight Stories) where, if the hero is a girl, her objective is to learn some kind of domestic skill (like Rumpelstiltskin) or how to stop being a bitch (like The Frog Prince).

In this book, sometimes the female hero is just a substitute for a boy (there's a very Jack and the Beanstalk-like tale at the end), but several remind me of Mulan. There's marriages, there's fighting, there's monsters, as there are in most folk tales. Nothing new there.

Like any short story collection, it's a mixed bag, and it's hard to judge stories written nine hundred years ago. I don't know if there are better collections out there, but this seems like a good one to start with. It's a breath of fresh air from Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and if you liked Brave, this will accompany the coffee table nicely.


Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

Very average. The style is like her tweets -- hilarious and offbeat -- but there isn't enough content to write about. She talks about her start as a child theater actor in New York, going to Hollywood, living like all new actresses do, being starstruck by fame, yucky guys she met, and so on. The big thing is that she suffered no obstacles on her road to stardom. No ill effects. Amy Poehler spent years struggling in improv, Tina Fey was responsible for bringing SNL out of the lean years of Norm MacDonald and heralded the coming of the SNL Women (Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon, Ana Gasteyer, etc), and then THE maker for a nine-season TV show. Lindsey Stirling failed America's Got Talent, had an eating disorder, and tours the world without a major label backing. Felicia Day was homeschooled, addicted to WoW, and became an actress after graduating college at 18 as a classical violinist. But nothing bad ever happened to Anna Kendrick (besides the standard new-to-Los-Angeles-living-hand-to-mouth stuff) because she was cute and spunky. And Hollywood loves cute and spunky. She's never been rejected -- she got handpicked for the biggest money-maker of the decade (Twilight) PLUS the most critically-acclaimed (Up In the Air).

I had a hard time deciding how many stars to give this one. Two means it doesn't make it to my desert island (where I don't bring anything I wouldn't read again, but no limit on the number I can bring), but three feels like too much. It's got great humor, but she's too young for even a memoir. You got to have SOMETHING interesting in your life, something with CONFLICT, before you should consider committing pen to paper (or fingers to keys). I would love to see a book by her about something other than herself (like Aziz Ansari did for Modern Romance). But in this one, the stakes are no bigger than unwashed hair.


Library of Souls (Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children #3) by Ransom Riggs

Much better than the sequel. I'm glad I stuck around -- I was very close to giving up series completion after that tepid book 2. This one fixes the mistakes made in the last. It's much more action-oriented, and stays focused on the two main characters (and their talking dog) instead of an entourage of children. New characters add new obstacles, both of which have dynamic identity. It gives the villain some personality and motivation, develops him and his desires finally. The settings are creative and original. The plot is a bit by-the-numbers (the "quest to stop the bad guy"), but the brush and art painted on the framework are lovely.

It reminded me of The Golden Compass, but it's much easier to understand. Given that, the peculiarity becomes more of a gimmick. But I believe this can be a modern near-classic, like "The Great Brain". It's trying to emulate Harry Potter, with larger-than-life characters and settings, and though it misses the moon by a mile, it's still among the stars.


Return to the Isle of the Lost by Melissa de la Cruz

I expected better out of the sophomore effort. This is too much like the last one, maybe even a little worse because of that. The first third is spend tooling around the school, doing NOTHING. It's even more cutesy than the Wicked World shorts, and spends too much time dwelling on things the audience already knows (no one is going to read a Descendants novel without knowing the Descendants universe). Then another third tooling around the isle. And the last third is the SAME four quests, one for each character.

It doesn't even expand new characters. The deus ex magicka is overplayed. There are plot threads that were super out-of-character (if they don't drop away into irrelevancy/forgetfulness), like Yen Sid being a Dumbledore wizard instead of a Samuel L. Jackson don't-fuck-with-my-hat motherfucker. The "twist" is viewable from a mile away. I have a bad feeling I won't be able to complete the third one.
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