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Monday, November 13, 2017

The Books I Read: September - October 2017

This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

In a word, melodramatic. In many other words...

The tone of this story skews so heavily feminine it's distracting. I'm not saying femininity is a bad thing, but an event like this is going to have a lot of different reactions from different people. It's supposed to be about a real school shooting, but it's so cheesy it doesn't feel real. The narrative is split into the perspectives of four victims in four different situations. One is the ex-girlfriend of the shooter, another is the sister of the shooter, another is that sister's lesbian girlfriend, and last is the trouble-making brother of the lesbian girlfriend (do you see how relationshippy this is?). Two are trapped in the auditorium with the shooter, the brother is trying to get them out, and the ex-girlfriend is ROTC and running for help.

The sister, who I guess is the main character because she's the closest to the shooter and has the most to lose, is obsessed with dance. Her dead mother was a dancer. Dancing is the "only time she feels free." And of course she's going to Julliard. Maybe it's because I'm not a dancer, but this feels like such cliched rhetoric. See any dance movie or book in the last ten years. You cannot combine Bowling for Columbine with Step Up. The shooter makes his sister dance on stage, like he's the Joker. Don't you want to mix it up a bit and make her want to be an astronaut?

And there's way too much thinking. Four different narratives + limited amount of time (about an hour) means minute by minute breakdown of each POV. In high-risk situations, there is NEVER this much thinking going on. No thinking about the past or "why does he like her and not me?" high school junk. That all drops when you're just trying to survive. Even with the wordiness, the lack of detail is appalling. The author never even mentions what kind of gun the shooter has. Is it a rifle? Shotgun? Handgun? Automatic? That's an essential detail, to know what kind of damage can be done, what the stakes are. I'd venture to say the author didn't research school shootings, instead opting to make a soap opera around a dramatic event.

There is so much Lifetime-worthy drama cheese it's embarrassing. The name of the town is Opportunity, and the author never lets you forget it. Lines like "the sky feels endless" and "she looks so beautiful" and kissing a guy during a crisis like at the end of Speed. Is this really your biggest concern with a gunman? Was there kissing going on during Columbine? Because I read that book and no one reported any post-tragedy romance. Add in a nice dose of parent abuse, sexual assault, and all the other things you expect from a "serious" YA novel about "serious issues" that it seems everyone deals with on a CW show. This is not worth your time. Read Columbine by Dave Cullen instead.


Wizard's Bane by Rick Cook
(unfinished)

Boring as hell. I thought it would be a cozy fantasy like A Computer Programmer in King Aragorn's Court. I wanted to see how you could decompile magic or turn the Council of Elrond into a stand-up meeting. But no, it's a bunch of walking and walking and nothing happens.

A girl guides the guy through the woods and it's boring. He only regards the girl for how hot she is, always looking down her blouse. The girl is a bitch throughout, complaining how he doesn't have the stamina to hike or knowledge about dangerous magic stones. The guy doesn't regard anything with wonder. There's dragons and elf kings and magic, and all he's worried about is being cockblocked. He doesn't even try to impress her with knowledge of the future.

The only reason I made it to 46% was because it was a short book. But once it decided to take a chapter to tell a story within a story, I was out. I barely cared if the main characters lived or died, you're not going to pad pages with someone else's tale.


Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King

The book is a straight and true narrative that deviates very little from the movie, plus Stephen King-isms (twangy blue-collar metaphors that seem more at home in the Appalachians than Maine). But the movie is still better. The cinematic-ness adds emotion and removes unnecessary elements. Stephen King can produce material that results in good movies, as long as the makers of that movie are chosen well.


The Shamer's Daughter by Lene Kaaberbøl

This is the cozy fantasy I was looking for. Well, maybe "cozy" isn't the right word, but it's well written. Good characters, good conflict, and good setting. Said premise is that "shaming" is the magic here, which really means looking into the subject's eyes and making him feel guilty enough to confess his crimes. Sort of like Ghost Rider's "penance stare", only it's in Eragon. That's a solid premise in itself, but the characters are interesting enough to carry it, especially when it becomes a murder mystery and political throne-grabbing.

It reminded me of Far Far Away in terms of style. Maybe that's the translation at work. There is no slowness (maybe because it's YA, which also means it's not too long), and I see potential for storylines in the next sequence. Characters are not douchebags and no one holds an idiot ball, but there are a few trappings, like evil princes and dumb peasants. It's one of the few books of a series that makes me want to find out what happens next.


Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly by Gail Carson Levine

Levine is the person who wrote Ella Enchanted. I liked that book so much I wanted to check out her non-fiction book on "how to write". I thought, by the title, it would have to do with specifically magic and fantasy, but no, it's writing in general. That's not a bad thing.

This is one of the better writing books I've read. Liked it more than "Bird by Bird" (but that's not a high bar to jump for me). The focus is on prompts and exercises (i.e. you learn to write by writing). It also never wears out its welcome. Some books emphasize sentence structure and adverb placement -- too much nitty gritty. This one doesn't care, and it shouldn't. It's wants you out there and producing.

However, it is definitely skewed toward younger audiences. Middle school and high schoolers will get more out of this book than I did from Stephen King's "On Writing".


Danse Macabre by Stephen King

I was hesitant on reading this, worried it would be out of date. (It's as old as me!) There have been a lot of... advances? (I don't know what you'd call them) in horror that no one could have predicted in 1981: slasher franchises going mainstream (e.g. Freddy Krueger action figures), J-horror, psychological horror (like Black Swan), torture porn, home invasion films, indie horror (e.g. The Blair Witch Project), the second rise and decline of zombies. Enough time has passed that now we have meta-horror for all those tropes (e.g. Scream and The Cabin in the Woods).

Nonetheless, much of it still holds up, to my surprise, because it's really all about roots. And those roots take place in three things--films, TV, and books. It takes examples from timeless phenomenon like B-movie monsters, anthology suspense, and Lovecraft books. Each reflects the time period they were born into. And it's all delivered with Stephen King's tight and witty prose (he was still high in these days so his writing is still good). It's the kind of book that might be assigned in an "Introduction to Horror" college class. Plus, it contains some of the missing biographical elements from "On Writing".

However, I don't think it's required for any horror aficionado. There's a lot of examples from the 50s-70s that maybe influenced King more that it influenced everybody. Read this if you're a fan of Stephen King's style. You get to see him put on his college professor hat. But there are more current books that do just as well.


Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney

It's a marathon, but a good one. The story is a basic portal fantasy (a B-52 crew flies into another dimension), but you feel like you're there: all the detail about the plane, the crew's lives, how they interact with each other, the equipment, and the war. It got me excited about World War II (there is a lot more detail about World War II stuff than the fantasy world) and balances description with plot.

The fantasy elements are underwhelming. It's a standard domed city, a flying mechano-dragon, bad guys in the other domed city across the wasteland, the man from the past falls in love with the woman from the future, and so on. It's all very sixties Star Trek or H.G. Wells "The Time Machine". Nothing exceptional. Mundane even. I kept waiting for the thing that made the world extra-special and unique.

And I have a hard time believing that any of the crew could help with anything mechanical in this world. It would be like a watchmaker fixing my iPhone. Besides that, some threads don't go anywhere (like the whole chapter dedicated to the new crewmember's "story" of his haunted plane), making the book unnecessarily long. I hate when that happens.

The magic comes from the plausible character development. It's a satisfying read and entertaining, but make sure you can handle some World War II history and mechanics.


Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

John Green's latest. How could I not read? If you're looking for a remix of "The Fault in Our Stars", this is not it. It's not a romance. It takes the romance elements out and focuses more on the character's disease. Only this time it's not cancer, it's compulsion disorder/intrusive thoughts. A mental illness that the main character neglects to resolve.

The primary plot driver is extremely unimportant, so there won't be a lot of twists and events. What exists is the thin thread of mystery--the lugubriously rich father of an old childhood friend disappears to escape indictment. Our two heroines hope to find him and earn a reward. Our POV character is not the main driver of this story--that's her friend. But it retains the same peculiarity and quirkiness that Green is good at. It's closer to Paper Towns, but minus the insufferable pining over a crazy girl. Green also fixes the mistake where his teenagers speak way over their vocabulary range, like college freshman milking every damn page from a thesaurus to sound smart on an English paper (e.g. Augustus Waters).

It's more of a character study, like "Looking for Alaska" was. In that, the pathology was someone with an unredeemable crush on a real-life MPDG. Her, it's someone broken by anxiety and mental illness, self-centered (not because of ego, but because OCD does that to a person) and unable to have relationships because of that. Green says that the best thing you can get from books is to "imagine humans complexly" and I think he does just that in a package that's fun to open.

Will it become a classic? I wish I could say it's likely, but I wouldn't believe that myself. It probably won't make you cry, but it will make you understand. And I think that's a better achievement.


Beyond the Castle: A Disney Insider’s Guide to Finding Your Happily Ever After by Jody Jean Dreyer
(unfinished)

This did not deliver on what I wanted. I wanted anecdotes about working at Disney. Stories about dealing with douchebags, cast member affairs, triumph of the storyboard room. It sounds like this woman has worked nearly every job, seen every facet of the company. You'd think there'd be dozens of anecdotes about that. But no. This is more of a self-help book, full of quaint little lessons and morals and life advice.

There are anecdotes sprinkled in, but most of it is stuff you could learn from the IMDB trivia page of any Pixar movie. It's far more thematically about being the best "you". And entirely too much focus on "giving yourself to God". That's where it lost me--all the strong Christian overtones, saying God wants you to be happy and using Disney stuff to illustrate that. Disney wants you to be happy, because happy people give you money. I'm not under any illusion that Disney isn't a business. It gives you a lot back for your dollar, but it wants your dollar first and foremost.

I stopped reading when it spelled "Lotso" (the antagonist from Toy Story 3) as "Lostoso". If you can't proofread well-enough, especially regarding a Disney term, then I'm done. It's minor and stupid, but, hey, that's why they call the camel back-breaker a straw, not a brick.


The Selection by Kiera Cass

Oh, boy, where do I start with this one. I'm afraid this might turn into another 5,000 word rant like "Wild" or "The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer" or any of Jackie Morse Kessler

I guess I'll start with expectations, the blame for which I shall receive none. It shall go to the marketing team and author. The description makes it sound like a cross between The Bachelor and The Hunger Games, which I was fine with. The ceremonies and reality TV part of The Hunger Games was my favorite. I'd like to see what happens when that's expanded to a whole universe. But the author is doing her best to make it feel like a dystopian YA novel/clone of THG, but it doesn't get any more savage than a Disney Channel original movie.

The first red flag was all the telling in the first chapter. Exposition, exposition, exposition. Not even infodumped in a clever or interesting way, just *plop* there it is. The universe is described to us like it was a textbook.

And then it's nothing but cliches. I swear to god, I thought I was reading the Dystopian YA twitter account. Society's in a caste system that sorts people because of course there is. Her family is poor. It includes a little sister and an overbearing mother. There's a love triangle between the guy she left at home and the guy society expects her to pair with. There's rebels and a dictatorship and interviews and dresses and a Cesar Flickerman and my god did this author create anything on her own? I know "everything is a remix" but at least use some unique ingredients (how about The Hunger Games with dwarves?).

For a book about thirty-five teenage girls competing to marry a prince, it's surprisingly chaste. Like a Mormon version of Survivor. Getting a kiss is like winning the lottery. I would think, in a competition where the prize is you and your family being set up for life with money and power and royal titles, there should be boobs flopping out all over the place.


No one acts plausibly, least of all the main character. She doesn't want anything, she's just along for the ride. She doesn't take action, action happens to her. The only thing going for her is "feistiness" compared to the other snobby upper-class girls. She's not even really competing with them--she sets herself up as a confidante, but of course, this means the prince likes her best. As a result, there's no conflict. They're all trying to help each other, instead of figuring out who your friends an enemies are. It doesn't even conclude like a normal book. It just ends--there's no climax, no build-up. It's like they just cut it off at 300 pages so they could call it a series.

Surprisingly, I'm not depressed that this book got published. I am depressed that readers rated so high. It's so shallow and cliche. I kept reading because I was waiting for that "more"--that reason it garnered such attention. But it never came. And that's three hundred and thirty-nine pages of my life I won't be getting back.
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