June 19, 2015

6/18/15 - A Trilogy

If you've known me long enough to have a conversation about literary disappoints, you've probably heard about Jason Lethcoe and his series, The Misadventures of Benjamin Bartholomew Piff. I found the first two books when I was about... eleven? The third came out when I was twelve, and I devoured it. It ended on a huge cliffhanger - a game-changer, for sure - and I waited with bated breath for the fourth book, Wish You Were Here.

I kept waiting. Eventually I had to breathe, but my metaphorical breath was still pent up.

I waited years.

It was a traumatic experience. I wasn't into Firefly soon enough to feel the sting of betrayal and unjust cancellation, but I can sympathize, because a series is sort of like a TV show, and my series was cruelly cut off.

This isn't about Benjamin Piff, but it is about Lethcoe. I finally let Lethcoe back into my life after he hurt me (probably unintentionally, I don't blame him). This time it was the mercifully completed series, The Mysterious Mr. Spines.

The Mysterious Mr. Spine's first book, Wings (not to be confused with Aprilynne Pike's awful anorexic plant-fairy story), was pretty similar to Benjamin Piff, to be honest: Edward McLeod is orphaned when his mother dies, and he's in a horrid orphanage, though this is in the 20s. There's an itch between his shoulders that he can't scratch. Meanwhile, a handful of magical people are searching for him - some who are benevolent, like Mr. Spines, a strange little spiked man, and some who aren't so benevolent, like Scruggs, a demonic whip-wielding "man." In the course of the very short book, Edward discovers the hard way that the itch in his shoulders is where his wings are growing.

I'll be frank - it's not the best writing on earth. (It's not as good as Benjamin Piff - but then, I'm biased.) The concept is not totally original but still untrod enough to be interesting: Mr. Spines and his apprentices are Guardians who "fell" from the "Higher Places." Yes, it's basically about Milton's angels and Dante's levels of heaven. The original faller was the Jackal, who busted up the bridges to the seven heavenly levels as he fell, and now the Guardians are awaiting the prophesied Builder, to fix the bridges and let them back up into the worlds.

Not much of this happens in Wings. It's mostly leadup into the next book - it deals with Edward growing his wings, meeting the Guardians, and finding out about the conflict between the Groundlings (fallen, corrupted Guardians) and the good guys. Also about Edward's mother, who was a glorious warrior against the Jackal before she died, and some unsubtle hinting about her relationship with Mr. Spines. Mostly, Edward runs and freaks out about the guys chasing him.

The highlight of the book is at the end, in the Woodbine (first level of Heaven), where all the dead mortals are stuck with the bridges broken. Edward ends up there and is rescued by Jack the Faun and a little man with big hairy feet called Tollers. LETHCOE, I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE.

Flight picks up about where Wings left off. Edward is in the Woodbine with his allies, trying to figure out what to do next.

Honestly, I expected more. These books are too short for anything nonessential to happen, but it feels like 80% of the book is filled with nonessentials. There's a lot of talk about the Bridges and the Jackal and the Builder, and getting Edward's mother back, but there's not a lot of doing about those things. Like Wings, a lot of it is taken up with running away from the bad guys, and Edward Eragoning it up when he miraculously uses a Word of Power he discovered through - luck? - that's too powerful for his strength.

This is, of course, the book where the familial relationships are cleared up. For some reason, there's not a lot of emotional fallout. There is a pretty sad moment when Edward loses a dear possession, but it's not... heartbreaking. Like I said, the book is just too short and shallow to really dive into the implications. I get that it's a middle-grade book, but I've read plenty of middle-grade books that really punched me in the gut. I don't get that from Flight.

But for those of you who were skeptical about coincidences surrounding the names and species of Jack the Faun and Tollers, the "supplemental materials" at the end of this book is a treatise on Mr. Spine's fall from the Higher Places, written by Jack the Faun. His full name? Jack C. Staples. YEAH YEAH YEAH.

Song finishes the story with a resounding... deus ex machina.

At least in the third and final book, we get a little action towards fulfilling the goals that have been in place since Chapter 2 or 3 of the first book. There's the assault on the Jackal's fortress with some questionable choice of companionship, and there are, to be fair, some pretty good scenes between Edward and Lucy, Jack the Faun's niece. Their little thing is pretty cute.

Edward's relationship with Mr. Spines is underwhelming. At first, Edward harbors some understandable resentment towards Mr. Spines, and it makes some amount of sense; it's not the best-written resentment, but it's still good. Then he does a 180, and his opinion of Mr. Spines just... miraculously clears. The end of the story would have been more poignant if the emotions had been more complex - and again, middle-grade fiction is not exempt from emotional complexity!

It ends with one of the most egregious uses of deus ex machina that I've ever read, which is sad because there was plenty of room to build up to this ending - so many ways to fix it so it would have felt organic, and not just an easy out. It made me sad. Lethcoe can do better than this.

It's a very short series - I probably read each one in about an hour or so - and if you have to choose between The Mysterious Mr. Spines and, say, Fallen, please go for Mr. Spines. At least there's Jack the Faun to chuckle over, and the Guardian world is really pretty interesting. (Not to mention Tabitha, a young Guardian who sort of reminds me visually of Pearl from Steven Universe, if Pearl had wings.) Lethcoe writes amusing supplemental material.

I don't know. I'm sorry, Lethcoe; it's not you, it's me.

6/3/15 - A Book Over 100 Years Old

I come to you bearing news of a story that most of us have probably only experienced through film: The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, published in 1908, which gives me just enough room to review it for the Book Over 100 Years Old challenge.

(Isn't that the most adorable cover? I want this edition.)

Like I said, most of us, at least the 'us' who are around my age, are probably more familiar with Ratty and Toad and Mole through the Disney double-feature, Ichabod and Mr. Toad. It's a wonderful little movie. I also saw some animated version of the whole book when I was very young, but it scared the crap out of me. Too realistic. I'd probably enjoy it now because it seemed more faithful to the book, which, as it turns out, is precious.

Wind&Willows is very much a product of its time. If you've never read any novels from around the turn of the century, this is a good one to start with. It's got animals doing human things (around and with humans, no less!) like a children's story, but it's also got some pretty beautiful scenes. The chapter entitled "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" is especially attention-grabbing. 

It's an easy book to read because it's so... well, charming. It's got a bit of everything. How do you not like a book where a Toad drives a motorcar like a maniac? Where, interspersed with Toad's drama, is an episodic unfolding of the idyllic life of a Mole and a Water Rat's friendship? What about a reenactment of Odysseus's return and subsequent routing of the suitors - when Odysseus is actually a delinquent and very naughty Toad?

Meanwhile, under the shenanigans and weasel-beating and the occasional comedy of animal manners, Grahame has a few nuggets of thought to pass on to the reader. What's the meaning of home? When's the time to leave home and when's the time to stay? How do nature and civilization play together? They're never stated outright, but the undercurrents of conflict and questioning are there. It's enhanced by the playfulness of the rest of the story. Somehow, these subtexts are easier to take - they're even lovely - when it's a Water Rat pondering them.

But on the whole, Wind&Willows is a delightful, lighthearted romp through some river country in England, played out by sophisticated animals who may sometimes have too much fun with motorcars and riverboats. 

June 1, 2015

5/28/15 - March Book

Three months late, I finally manage to find a decent-sounding book published in March by - as per the new rules of the Monthly Debut Challenge - an author I've never read. We'll see if we can get something for April and May eventually.

Let's just hope that it's better than Liars, Inc., though, because Liars was a pretty underwhelming offering.

Basically, what happens is that three kids decide that making a profit on lying for their school's high schooled population - forging signatures and such, ensuring that their generation of horny teenagers sleeps with enough of each other so that they won't be a laughingstock for the whole remaining six months of their high school existences - is a really good idea! Except one of the members, the son of a senator, soon vanishes, and because apparently the stupidity of the whole Lying At School, Inc. has rubbed off on the main character, Max Cantrell, he decides to lie to the FBI - the FBI - when they ask if Max knows what happened.

When your MC lies to the FBI because he thinks it might piss off his friend, you know that your MC has some priority issues. Or the story does.

After the painfully bad choice - I mean, this is an agonizingly misjudged, dude-decides-to-hit-himself-between-the-legs-with-a-baseball-bat-painful kind of choice - Max continues to make even worse choices! Running from the FBI? Check. Running from the FBI after firing at them even though you are totally innocent? Check. Trusting the shady privately-employed mercenaries instead of the FBI? Check, check. Max and his Mary Sue girlfriend, Parvati, are idiots. Idiots. As much as I applaud the attempt at adding a little diversity, all Parvati's biracial inheritance supplies is a lot of talk about almond-shaped eyes, ink-black hair, white saris, and a little guilt on this reviewer's part for criticizing her. Parvati is still a Mary Sue.

There's also the general shoddiness of the story. Nothing hangs together well - not the beginning, which is the only part which actually includes the titular organization, and certainly not the ending, which had me physically rolling my eyes. I won't spoil anyone who wants to read this for themselves, but... dear Lord. It was, in all honesty, awful.

If you must read a March 2015 book, go for another one. You're not missing anything, giving this one a pass.

5/26/15 - A Pulitzer Prize-winning Book

Can you believe that this is my first Toni Morrison book? And I call myself an English major.

Beloved is, unexpectedly for me, a ghost story. I never thought that was the kind of thing that Toni Morrison wrote. Then again, I was never really sure what Toni Morrison wrote, which says more about my sad lack of awareness than anything else. Still, that sad lack of awareness made for a very powerful, attention-grabbing experience with Beloved.

I said in my brief Goodreads review that I'm not sure if this is the kind of book that's appropriate to say you liked. How do you 'like' a book like Beloved? Does that mean you like books about racial violence, about the murder of children, about fragments of a fragment of a culture? Don't get me wrong - this is a good book. Beloved is a great book. Sethe is a modern-day mythic heroine somewhere on the level of Antigone or Penelope, while she at the same time is one of the most truly human protagonists I've ever read. The other characters, while never reaching Sethe's transcendent level, are engaging, mesmerizing in their strength and fragility: Denver, Paul D, Beloved of course, and the others.

But what these characters go through, and knowing how much of their story comes from history, makes it impossible to say that I like this book. It might be different if it were a speculative story, if the torture and the dehumanization were tools for the story goal to be pursued and gained, tools for character development. But this is a story about the slavery, the torture and the dehumanization, and while it is also about the people who struggled against and occasionally overcame that, it makes it difficult to really assess my reaction to it.

So I think the best way to assess my reaction to it is to take myself out of the equation completely and deal with the book itself. Beloved is a good book; it's a great book, about a worthwhile subject, told in the most masterfully controlled and yet rightly out-of-control emotion and passion of any author. Read it. It's difficult, but read it.

5/19/15 - A Book Written By Someone Under 30

This is the book I finished on the airplane ride home from Paris! I would say it has good associations now, but that was a nightmare of a homecoming, so... there are no good associations. Except for the delicious bagel I got the morning of the second day of flying, and even that is clouded over by the fact that the airport milk I got was bad... so disappointing. Thankfully, Alif the Unseen, the book for the Book Written By Someone Under 30 challenge, is good enough to provide plenty of good associations on its own.

Go read the Goodreads snippet, if you don't already know what the gist of the story is. Because I, for sure, cannot sum it up myself in a way that would do it any justice. Middle Eastern unrest, a clever yet impossibly lame hacker for an MC, something like One Thousand and One Nights, actual jinn and their supernatural habitat, the mingling of technology and magic! Not to mention fantastically drawn characters! What is there not to love about this story?

I gave it a solid 4.5 on Goodreads, which echoes another recent 4.5 - A Darker Shade of Magic. The two stories give me a lot of the same feelings - there wasn't the emotional depth that would have otherwise catapulted these two books into a full 5 stars, but they have everything else. The writing is not flowery or purple, but it's beautiful, expressive and magical without sacrificing coherency; the characters flow over their stereotypes to become heroes you really, really root for; both authors excel at mingling magic with a sense of the Real World. 

Alif comes with the added bonus of truly beautiful musings on religion. The religion of choice is, of course, Islam; however, like any story with a decent perspective on religion, there are moments specifically for adherents of Islam (a lot rests on the translation, or inability thereof, of the Qu'ran) and there are moments for everyone who believes in a higher spiritual power or deity. And what beautiful moments Wilson gives. They made my brain purr.

This is an adult book (often classified, mistakenly, as YA) and for that reason I would warn younger/more sensitive readers of some brief sensual scenes and strong language, but, seriously, if there's any chance of you not being disturbed by these things, read this book. If there's any more adulty book that you read, it should be this one.