rachelmanija: (I wrote my own deliverance)
2016-07-14 08:51 am

Be careful what you wish for...

I dreamed that LA mounted a regional production of Hamilton, with easily available tickets at $5.00 each. Of course, I immediately dragged basically everyone I knew, including a group of visiting sf fans from other countries. Most of the people I brought (about 20 of them) were unfamiliar with the play, but I was certain that they would be instant converts.

When it began, I realized that the director had inexplicably decided to combine the play with Three Penny Opera, which he also didn't understand - for instance, "Pirate Jenny" was done as a strip-tease. Also, all the actors were white.

This went on for 15 minutes while I vainly attempted to communicate in whispers to my friends that this was not the play. "This is like going to see Hamlet and finding that they've actually produced Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead!" I whispered indignantly.

Then I was relieved that apparently they were actually going to do at least some Hamilton, as a black actor appeared and shouted "I'm Aaron Burr!"

Then the opening chords of "Alexander Hamilton" began.

I then found that the director had completely rewritten the lyrics to simplify them, and also to use an all-purpose, gender neutral pronoun of his own invention, "zoo."

All I remember was "Zoo are waiting around for zoo," when I woke up, greatly relieved that this travesty - and I don't mean Stoppard's-- does not actually exist.

Yet. (Thanks to Tool of Satan for the link.)
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2016-07-13 03:31 pm

Rose Madder, by Stephen King

An abused wife, Rose, flees her psychopath husband, Norman, who unfortunately for her is a cop, and starts a new life. Because this is a Stephen King novel, her husband comes after her… and she finds an odd painting in a pawn shop that calls to her, depicting a woman in a chiton in front of a temple, and which slowly reveals magical properties, both of a helpful and a dangerous nature.

The opening scenes of Rose’s marriage, and then her flight, are an astonishing piece of writing, horrifying and gripping and completely psychologically believable. So, warning for horrific violence against women (and also against men, eventually, as Norman starts taking out people standing between him and her.) Sure, most domestic abusers are not also serial/spree killers, but I regret to say that absolutely none of the horrifying violence he does to her within their marriage is stuff that doesn’t happen in real life.

This is an odd book, of parts that don’t quite mesh together and aren’t all equally well-done.

Rose herself is a wonderful character, and I loved all the parts that are just her fleeing, learning to be her own person, and exploring the magic of the painting. Unlike most thrillers with abused women, she actually goes to a women’s shelter. That part is also very well done and there are a number of great characters there. The one part of Rose’s story that didn’t quite work for me is her romance. On the one hand, I did like that finds love with a non-abusive guy. My problem is that he’s too idealized and doesn’t feel as real as a lot of other characters in the book – he feels like Rose’s wish-fulfillment reward rather than a real person.

There are a lot of sections from Norman’s POV. They are really unpleasant to read, for obvious reasons, and I ended up skimming them and reading just enough to keep track of what he was doing. Those could and should have been edited down to the absolute minimum. I often don’t mind King’s lack of editing – like, I was perfectly happy to read abou Rose decorating her apartment – but only when I like the characters, and there is absolutely nothing likable about Norman. He’s also not that interesting compared to other King villians. Like, Annie Wilkes is also hard to read, but she’s a great character with interesting motivations. Norman is just a horrible, vicious sociopath.

Then there’s the world of the painting. I don’t want to spoil it (though you can in comments) but it went in some directions I expected and some I didn’t. It’s a thing of power that is never really explained, but makes sense on its own terms, some drawn from our world’s myths, some original. It’s darker than I expected; helpful to Rose, in general, but a dangerous thing and not one that she controls. A lot of it has the same “wellspring of myth” sense that I got from parts of The Dark Tower and is explicit in Lisey’s Story. It feels both dreamlike and real, nightmarish but also a source of power that can be used for good, if you’re clever and well-meaning and determined and wise.

Those, of course, are the qualities of a fairy-tale heroine on a quest. Rose Madder has some interesting fairy-tale references as well as mythic ones; the gap between the prologue and the first chapter could be read as an incredibly dark take on “Sleeping Beauty,” in which the heroine rescues herself by means of a single drop of blood, though it comes from something much worse than the prick of a thorn. There’s a lot of red and roses in the story: Rose herself, roses, the painting called (or signed?) Rose Madder, the color “red madder,” the chiton, blood, pomegranate seeds. For a book that in some ways feels like two or even three books stuck together, the themes (as opposed to the plot and tone) are extremely coherent.

I liked it a lot but it’s an odd book and I’m sure not for everyone. King himself said somewhere that he didn’t think it succeeded, but the parts that work really work; it does feel like he was pushing at his limits as a writer, so maybe he felt like he was over-ambitious and failed. If nothing else, I bet he learned a lot from writing it. As I mentioned, I skimmed Norman’s POV as much as possible and would skip it entirely on a re-read. Lisey’s Story, in contrast, benefits from completely omitting the villain’s POV.

Rose Madder
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2016-07-12 02:39 pm

The Dark Tower, by Stephen King: The Drawing of the Three, The Wastelands; the start of Wizard and G

So this is King’s giant fantasy magnum opus. As you can see by clicking his tag, I did not much like the first book. However, if you read comments (they’re not spoilery) you will see many people suggesting that I give the second one a try because it doesn’t have the stuff I disliked about The Gunslinger, which was that it had a one-note tone, was overly grimdark, and the characters didn’t feel like real people and were almost universally unlikable, and did have the qualities that I like about King (varied tone, good dialogue, likable and real-feeling characters, great set-piece scenes, contains horror elements but not primarily horror) in addition to what I see as flaws but also seem to go with his books that I like best (sprawling, needs editing, all over the place, story falls apart to some degree or another toward the end.)

Upon advice, I started the second Dark Tower book while my knee was being iced at PT and was instantly sucked in. King, like Dick Francis, is excellent for when you really want to read about people having a worse day than you are. I usually have to care about characters to care about their predicaments, but this opened with such a compelling situation that I cared anyway. And then Roland got way more human and likable, and other likable and human characters were introduced. I was hooked.

I liked it SO MUCH more than The Gunslinger. In fact, if you didn’t like The Gunslinger, but you do like the sort of thing I’m about to describe, I would definitely recommend at least starting the second book. (You could even start The Gunslinger, and if you hate it you could read the summary in the front of the second book and just move on to that. If you don’t like the second book any better, give up, you probably won’t like the series.)

The tone is almost a 180 from that of The Gunslinger (the tone is all over the place, but I tend to like that), and likable characters appear THANK GOD. What it does keep from the first book is the sense of epicness, the western archetypes, and the density of references to all sorts of stuff. It and the next book are exciting, funny, and I just adored them.

I loved the characters. I loved the many brilliant set-pieces, including one sequence which I would use in a class to teach the use of suspense in which characters have to do something difficult while under extreme pressure and handicapped, with very high stakes if they screw up – I don’t think I’ve ever read anything better along those lines. It was the written equivalent of the climactic stunts in the Mission Impossible movies, only much more narratively complex. And also demonstrating how humor can add to rather than subtract from suspense.

These are HARD books to discuss without spoilers, but I want people who haven’t read them to get a sense of why they might be worth reading unspoiled. So I will use a spoiler cut for the opening scenes of book two. Read it if you’re not willing to just take a chance on it, don’t if you’ll take my word that you might really enjoy it.

Rushthatspeaks described Book Two as “it feels to me like a very specific kind of seventies movie, usually containing Pacino and/or De Niro, if you put that in a blender with high fantasy and hit frappe.” Sholio called it a hurt-comfort extravaganza. Both descriptions are absolutely correct. Those are both things that I like very much, so it is unsurprising that I adored the book. The sequel leaves behind the seventies movie aspects, and is about a sort of found family traveling around a fantasyland and having AWESOME adventures of AWESOMENESS. The fourth book concludes the hanging plotline of book three, and appears to mostly be a flashback to Roland’s past.

I have not begun the flashback, so please do not spoil me for it or anything past the part where his flashback begins in comments. But you may comment on or spoil anything up to his flashback (that is, through the first few chapters of Wizard in Glass which conclude the “Blaine” storyline and is as far as I've read.)

This cut spoils about the first fifth of The Drawing of the Three. It has minimal spoilers for The Gunslinger - really just the premise.

Read more... )

FUCKING AWESOMEST SCENE EVER WRITTEN. Except for the multiple, equally awesome scenes that are all over the next two books. I loved those two books (and the first few chapters of the fourth, which is all of the fourth I've read so no spoilers beyond that point) as much as anything I've ever read. It's not so much that it's perfect - it's not - it's that it contains so much that I happen to personally love. Those books just spoke to me, and I'm so glad to have something like that right now.

There are two more characters who show up in this book and become main characters and they are GREAT, but they are also hugely spoilery. You can discuss in comments, though. I will try to write more on them tomorrow.

Caveats: Book one is sexist. Book two is politically incorrect– I’m using that term deliberately because unlike book one, where the issues just seemed to be King’s unconscious issues, here he’s clearly thought about them, they make sense within the story, and they don’t involve sidelining the characters who are political minorities. The issues are there, but they may or may not offend you, depending on how much weight you place on context.

One of the main characters in the second two books is a black woman who has some spoilery things that on the one hand, are problematic to the max if described out of context, but there are in-story reasons that make sense. She is not sidelined by the men, and is badass and a great character, at least up to the point where I’ve read. (Though there are three male and one female protagonists, so not much interaction between women.)

The problem with explaining the issues is that they are hugely spoilery and if you can stand them, are also pretty cool to discover unspoiled. So, general warning and if you want to know, read the spoilers in comments here or in later posts I'll make. If you’re familiar with King, you can probably guess the general substance.

That being said, most of the main characters have a disability of some sort or another, and while they’re not done with total realism (for instance, the wrong label is used for a mental illness but it’s a mistake that a lot of writers made at that time) I generally liked how they worked within the story. King does not conveniently forget about them, ever. (Or yet, anyway.) He also clearly thought a lot about how the characters would deal with stuff given their disabilities – it’s a huge part of the story overall.

…and I will stop here or I will write all day. I will try to continue later, but again, feel free to discuss anything up to the flashback section of Wizard in Glass in comments.
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2016-07-11 04:43 pm

Plane Crash Nonfiction: Misc

Before this becomes all Stephen King, all the time, I thought I'd do some quick write-ups of nonfiction I read a while back. All of these are survival stories of plane crashes. I am putting them in order of quality, from best to worst.

Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, by Laurence Gonzales. A meticulously researched and very readable account of the plane crash in a corn field fictionalized in Peter Weir's haunting movie Fearless. Gonzales (author of the fantastic Deep Survival) tells a gripping story of tragedy and heroism, of chance and courage and survival. I ended up skipping the chapter which gets into overly technical details of the exact cause of the mechanical failure that caused the crash, but otherwise it's a very well-done book about a tragedy that could have been so much worse.

About a third of the passengers died; if not for the quick thinking of the pilots (including one flying as a passenger who got recruited to help out), probably everyone would have; if not for their decision to try to land in a cornfield at great risk to their lives, probably people would have been killed on the ground. There are also a number of individual rescues, plus a fascinating account of the emergency response on the ground.

The book has a haunting quality, not just because of the deaths but because of the strangeness of the incident; many passengers found themselves lost in a cornfield, with the plane invisible, as if they'd been transported to another world. And like all large-scale incidents, some questions will never be answered. One man remembers a woman with perfect clarity, but no woman matching that description was on the flight. This is the crash where a man climbed back into the burning, smoke-filled plane to save a baby, whom he miraculously found unhurt in a luggage compartment. I knew that part, but there's a heartbreaking sequel that I didn't know: the baby girl committed suicide at the age of fifteen. No one knows why, or if the crash had anything to do with it.

Highly recommended, if you like that kind of thing and you're not feeling emotionally fragile.

81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska's Frozen Wilderness, by Brian Murphy is the story of Leon Crane, a WWII test pilot who was the sole survivor of a crash in Alaska, and made his way back to safety in 81 days despite virtually no supplies or wilderness training, through a combination of grit, intelligence, and some incredibly good luck involving where he crashed - even ten miles in any other direction might have led him to miss something without which he would have been very unlikely to survive.

This is biography, not memoir, and is somewhat hampered by Crane's reluctance to talk about what happened, apparently not due to trauma but to a combination of natural reticence, humility, and the sense that it was a profound experience which could not be put into words, or which words might spoil. So a lot of the story is reconstructed from second-hand accounts, yet gets into enough detail of what Crane might have been thinking and so forth that I would consider it creative nonfiction rather than strict nonfiction, as the next two books are.

If you like survival stories, you will like this. Despite some hiccups, it's generally well-written, clear, vivid, and engrossing. I would say it's good but not great.

My trade paperback omits dialogue marks apparently at random for the first few chapters; I assume this is an error, because if it's a writing choice it's inexplicable and distracting. Hopefully it is an error and your version will not have it.

Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds: The Tragedy & Triumph of ASA Flight 529, by Gary M. Pomerantz. This is similar to Gonzales' book, but tells the story of a different crash. It's good but not as good; it also has a lot of descriptions of horrific, month-long deaths by burns that I found hard to read. It's also haunting in other ways: the stewardess who saved many people's lives got PTSD and never really recovered; she had to stop flying, and while she finally did get on a plane many years later, as a passenger, she never managed to appreciate the lives she saved, but only blamed herself for the people she couldn't save.

As you can tell, I am fascinated by plane crashes. They seem to cause more and more severe PTSD in survivors than other types of accidents, perhaps because everyone but the pilots feel out of control and because survival is primarily about where you were sitting, not what you did. People don't seem to do well with terrible incidents that rub in how much chance is a factor. The freakish, unusual nature also seems to not help. (PTSD from car crashes occurs, but not that frequently. I think it's because drivers have some sense of control, and car crashes are relatively normal and common, unlike plane crashes.)

The Light of the Moon: Life, Death and the Birth of Advanced Trauma Life Support. A memoir by a man whose father, a doctor, crashed his small plane in a rural area at night with his entire family in it. His wife was killed, but his children survived with severe injuries. He was not happy with their treatment at the hospital they were initially transported to, and discovered that there were no nationwide guidelines for treating mass trauma victims. So he created and implemented them, nationwide, no doubt saving thousands and thousands of lives.

The author was a boy and unconscious after the crash, so he apparently interviewed his father to get an account of it. That part is very good. The rest of the book… Well, he's clearly not a pro author. There's endless accounts of the search for the plane which are sometimes interesting and sometimes incredibly tedious. His account of his own research as an adult into what happened is generally awful - he literally has pages and pages detailing how he googled stuff.

The parts I was really curious about - his and his family's recovery, and how his father managed to implement medical protocols nationwide - are mainly skipped over. He says that his nine-year-old brother lost ALL his memory of everything that happened before the crash. If he means his entire life, WOW do I want to hear about that and how he coped - he would have never remembered his mother, for instance. But since the author says nothing more about it, I assume it was a poorly worded sentence and he means that his brother had some degree of anteretrograde amnesia - maybe days, maybe even months - but not his whole life.

Interesting story, not told too well. Bad or flawed memoirs typically have this issue of too much filler and a failure to distinguish between what the author and reader is interested in.
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2016-07-10 11:03 am

The Long Walk, by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachmann) and a bit on The Dark Tower and others

Stephen King has written one of my favorite books ever (The Stand) in addition to one of my favorite psychic kids books (Firestarter) and also lots of books that I just like a lot, or are worth reading even if I didn't love them.

He is one of my exceptions to generally not liking horror and, in fact, I tend to enjoy his books in direct proportion to how horror-ish they actually are. This is why, unlike some fans, I tend to not like his short stories and prefer his novels. Yeah, sure, his novels tend to be flawed and sprawling and in need to editing while he can turn out an absolutely perfect little horror story… but I don't really like horror, and if I like the characters, I'm fine with unnecessary passages in which they go shopping and encounter random dangers and have lengthy discussions that aren't all that relevant to the story.

The other thing about King is that I tend to like him proportionally to how much I like his characters: hence my adoration of The Stand and why I like It quite a bit despite its weirdness and the fact that it has a fucking evil clown that makes me really hesitate to re-read because, sorry to be a cliche, but I am scared of clowns. But it has wonderful characters.

But I stopped reading him when he was writing some of his worst books (I might have given up at Tommyknockers), but then after reading his nonfiction book On Writing (one of the very few books on writing which I actually recommend, which explains that he was an addict for a while and it had a bad effect on his writing) and re-reading Pet Sematary for Yuletide (the definition of an objectively good book that nobody wants to read again) I checked up and found that popular opinion said he got good again once he sobered up. This turned out to be correct, and I am happily reading my way through his very large back catalogue.

I am currently engrossed in The Dark Tower and will shortly be blogging that. I just started book four, so DO NOT SPOIL anything about the series in comments here. I didn't like book one much, but loved the second and third books as much as I have ever loved anything written, so I want to wait to write them up for when I have a little more time. (I am about to take off to the Farmer's Market).

Meanwhile, I give you my brief thoughts on The Long Walk. It's a relatively short book in which a America has a Norman Rockwell surface but is clearly a dystopia, because it has an annual event in which one hundred boys must walk without stopping across America. If they stop for more than the count of three, they get shot in the head. The last boy standing wins something good, though no one has ever met a winner so clearly the last one is whisked off and then shot too, I assume. No explanation of why this is done. No one seems to think any of this is weird.

It manages to have an even more implausible premise than The Hunger Games by making this a voluntary event in which many boys volunteer, and the winners are selected by lottery. No one is starving, though some could use the supposed prize money, so I found this implausible. I mean, I believe that teenage boys would do it. I find it implausible that their families would be generally okay with it.

What The Long Walk does incredibly well is portray the walk itself, which happens essentially in real time. The boys are under-characterized for the most part, but the depiction of their slow physical and psychological disintegration under pressure is incredibly intense and well-done.

As a whole, the book falls in the Uncanny Valley for me of being too allegorical/implausible to work as fantasy but too realistic to work as allegory. Still, I give it major props for the sheer relentless atmosphere even though it's not really enjoyable to read for that exact reason.

I had a similar issue with The Gunslinger-- not the Uncanny Valley issue, but that the characters didn't feel three-dimensional/likable and while the atmosphere was very well-done, it was also so relentlessly unpleasant as to not be fun to read. The first part of The Stand is my perfect version of people reacting to an extreme event - it feels incredibly real, and the characters are human and likable enough to make it fun to read. It has a varied tone, which I prefer to even the most well-done one-note when the one note is "This sucks."

(The second two Dark Tower books have EXTREMELY varied tones. Probably too much so for some readers. I loved it.)
rachelmanija: (My brother and my mother?!)
2016-07-03 01:16 pm

Writing question

I attempted to google this and got SO CONFUSED.

If there is a romantic couple whose parents are cousins, what familial relationship does the couple have to each other?

ETA: Let me see if I can make this more clear.

Alice Callahan and Beatrice Callahan are cousins. Alice has a daughter, Martha Callahan. Beatrice has a son, Mr. Callahan. (He's a loser and bails on his family before the story begins, he doesn't have a first name. I'll call him Bob for simplicity.)

Bob and Martha get married. What's their familial relationship? (If this is incest, help me figure out some way that both of them have parents with the same surname that isn't incest. In the US, cousin marriage is not considered incest.)
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2016-06-26 11:14 am

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer, by Lynne Cox (Part II)

I am mostly concluding this review to point you to the comments in the DW version of the previous post on this book, in which Rydra Wong recommends a truly amazing set of books and articles, most of which I had never even heard of, by thoughtful athletes in unusual sports who write about why they do what they do and what it feels like. I am very interested in mind-body issues, and these sorts of books are an excellent source of writing on it that is actually good and not just an annoying stew of vagueness, fifth-hand Zen, and blaming the reader for sundry failures of body and mind.

The second half of Cox's book has her pursuing her US/Soviet swim, a darkly humorous endeavor in which she is spied on by some seriously incompetent FBI agents, repeatedly bangs her nose against the Iron Curtain, and ends up with the CIA and KGB simultaneously tapping her phone. No one can quite believe that she really is doing this because she wants to, and primarily because it's the most challenging thing she can think of, rather than for some dark political purpose in which she is merely the cover. (She does, in fact, have a political purpose, but it's secondary and personal: she hopes her swim might have a sort of butterfly effect on US-Soviet relations, showing both sides that they are human beings, not the Evil Other.)

However, the same persistence that makes her a great swimmer enables the swim to happen - she keeps banging down doors until both governments, rather bewilderedly, decide that maybe they can make political hay of it. She makes the swim, and the butterfly effect actually does seem to happen. So for a while Cox does a number of other swims intended to both challenge herself and act as gestures of goodwill between countries. These are all vividly described, as she faces off with sharks, ice bergs, sea snakes, ice sharp enough to slice a boat's hull in half, and her own cold and exhaustion.

But eventually, she can't resist the ultimate swim: Antarctica. This is in water so cold that no one is sure it is even survivable. Once again, she returns to the researchers and their rectal thermometers. This time technology has improved and they want her to swallow a mini-thermometer and data-gatherer, emphasizing that it's very expensive and they need to get it back, both to download the data and because it's re-usable - "Just use a plastic bag!" Cox, suspicious: "Am I the first person to swallow this thing?" The researcher assures her that she is, while accidentally also making it clear that she won't be the last.

The reason I read this book was a brief article on Cox's swim which noted that before the swim, her teeth had to be specially sealed and some of her fillings removed and replaced, because otherwise they would shatter from the cold. That, I thought, was hardcore. At the end of the book, she notes offhandedly that the nerve damage she sustained from the cold (which she only barely mentions otherwise) is repairing itself, and she's resting while looking forward to the next thing.

Once again, highly recommended if you like this sort of thing.

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer
rachelmanija: (Default)
2016-06-24 01:33 pm

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer, by Lynne Cox (Part I)

I'm only halfway through this memoir of a world-record cold-water swimmer, which I am greatly enjoying, but I had to share a few excerpts.

Memoirs by athletes who are famous in non-famous sports are often very interesting: they're not about being famous and meeting other famous people and (often) getting addicted to drugs/fame/sex, they're about what it actually feels like to do their sport. (Also, they're way more likely to be written by the athlete rather than a ghost writer.)

The best ones are usually by people whose sports involve a lot of endurance and are at least somewhat solo (rather than team sports; you're competing as much against yourself as against others.) I am very interested in physicality, people's relationships to their bodies, the mind-body connection, and pushing the limits of the mind and body, so I like that sort of thing. Especially when interesting locales are involved. People who get seriously into things like rock climbing, long-distance swimming, mountaineering, etc, tend to have mindsets that would not be out of place in a Zen temple.

Cox discovered an aptitude for cold-water, long-distance swimming as a child; she was rather hilariously inept at all other sports, and had a three-year battle with a PE teacher who hated her and kept refusing to excuse her from volleyball to do stuff like train to set the world record swimming the English Channel at age fourteen. Cox was completely self-motivated; her family supported but did not push her.

At this point she is looking for new frontiers. This is all swimming in oceans, not pools. While stymied in her hope of swimming from Alaska to the Soviet Union by 1) everyone telling her that the water is so cold that she would die in ten minutes, 2) her only landing point being a Soviet SPY BASE which they understandably did not want to let an American on to, she joins a study on cold water swimming led by Dr. William McCafferty and Dr. Barbara Drinkwater (seriously), partly to pass the time and partly in the hope that she'll learn something that will enable her to swim in water that normally kills people.

Dr. Drinkwater explains that men have less body fat, and so tend to sink. Women have more, and so tend to float. But… "You're different. You have neutral buoyancy. That means your body density is exactly the same as seawater. Your proportion of fat to muscle is perfectly balanced so you don't float or sink in the water; you're at one with the water. We've never seen anything like this before."

Cox is fascinated by this finding, which meshes with both her abilities and her sense that she is, in fact, one with sea water. But they want to see how she reacts in a natural environment, not in a lab, so Dr. McCafferty and his wife walk their dog on the beach while she does her daily workout in the ocean.

Before and after these workouts, I'd hide behind a bush and take my core temperature using a rectal thermometer, the only way to get an accurate reading after an immersion in cold water. I always made a point of telling Dr. McCafferty my temperature just as joggers were passing; they'd give him quizzical looks, since it appeared to them that he was talking to the bushes.

Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2016-06-14 12:14 pm

The Gunslinger (Dark Tower series), by Stephen King

Strange fantasy by Stephen King, one of his earlier books. He later revised it to correct some minor-sounding issues of consistency with later books in the series; I read the revised version, which has a fantastic short essay by King at the beginning. I love his nonfiction writing.

It has a justly famous first line: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Like it says: a gunslinger relentlessly pursues a man in black who is very bad news. That’s not to say that the gunslinger has clean hands himself.

It’s a weird western, somewhere on the border between dark fantasy and horror, in an incredibly bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape. It has a lot of elements I like and does capture the epic, mythic, movie Old West atmosphere he was going for, but it’s also overly gloomy for my taste— the atmosphere felt very oppressive, which was clearly deliberate, but still— and, very unusually for King and me, I was not grabbed by the characters. He was clearly going for archetypal (the gunslinger’s name isn’t revealed till something like halfway through), but for me it just read as flat. His characterization tends to work via specific details and unique speech patterns, and this had few details and most people spoke more or less the same way. The characterization made sense given the overall conception, but it didn’t play to King's strengths as a writer.

However, I gather that the sequels go in very different directions. Should I read them? Am I more likely to like them? I also have a vague impression that the series ending was widely disliked. If you read it, without getting too spoilery, 1) did you hate it if you got that far, 2) did you hate it enough to retrospectively ruin the entire series, 3) if yes to both, is there a good pre-ending stopping point?

There have been rumors of a movie for forever, but it’s now actually happening and Idris Elba plays the gunslinger. This ups my interest in the series quite a bit. Of course I could just see the movies, but that’s a long wait for a lot of installments.

The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower)
rachelmanija: (Engaged!)
2016-06-10 01:45 pm

Yousef and Farhad, by Amir Solani (author) and Khalil Bendib (artist)

This short graphic novel, which can be downloaded here or ordered as a paper review copy from the website, is subtitled “Struggling for Family Acceptance in Iran: the story of two gay men.”

It is that rare thing, a work of propaganda which is also a work of art. The entire genre of protest music contains many wonderful songs so it’s not rare there, but I can’t think of too many examples of written propaganda which are also good art. This is. Since I already agree with its message, I was expecting a “preaching to the choir” effect and enjoy the art more than the story. I loved both. It’s extremely well-written, easily gliding from lyrical metaphors to wisecracks to satisfying story moments. It makes its point, but it does so much more than that, too.

Yousuf and Farhad, which was commissioned by Outright, was created to promote the idea that there is nothing wrong with being gay and that gay people should be accepted both politically and personally, to raise awareness of the persecution and prejudice against LGBTQ people in Iran, and to support Iranian LGBTQ people. It’s also a lovely graphic novel which is sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, and always moving. The art is expressive, and even the most minor characters feel like real people with their own stories. Actually, the supporting characters seem more like real people, while the heroes are more types, but that’s probably deliberately done to create an everyman effect and aid in reader identification.

It’s short and sweet, so I don’t want to give too much away. Yousuf and Farhad are two men in love in a place where their love is forbidden; they face prejudice, persecution, and despair, but also find comfort, support, and aid, sometimes in the most unexpected places.

On a literary level, it continues a very old tradition in Persian literature of linking Earthly love to Divine love with its comparisons of the beloved to holy places and things, and the love between the men with the love of God for his creations. The names of the heroes are taken from two of the most famous Persian works of literature, the heterosexual love stories of Farhad and Shirin and Yousef and Zuleikha. It obviously implies that gay love is equal to and as important as straight love and, more subtly, suggests that LGTQ people and the stories of their love should be as respected in Iran specifically, by tying them in to culturally important stories. (I’m using “Iran” to mean the modern country and “Persian” for its ancient literature; that seems to be the most common usage, but please correct me if it’s not the preferred one.)

This is a story which is radical given the current political context, but it does not appeal to radicalism. Instead, it says that there is nothing inherently radical or counterculture about same-sex love and it does not conflict with traditional values or with Islam, and it is homophobia which is a break from tradition and with Islam. I hope it gets through to the people for whom this would be a convincing argument or the only one they would accept.

I obviously read the English version, but it’s also available in Farsi. Contain people being homophobic and (decode at rot13com to see the spoilers) n aba-tencuvp fhvpvqr nggrzcg.

If you want to know if there’s a happy ending, gurl ner unccl naq gbtrgure ng gur raq.

If you would like to read more of Solani’s work, his graphic novel Zahra's Paradise was hugely acclaimed. Based on the subject matter— a young protestor who vanishes— it also looks hugely heartbreaking.

Jessica Stern of Outright wanted me to give a hard copy to the person who edited the latest Outright benefit anthology. (It's quite beautiful in paper and I wish it was more available that way.) So please email me with your address. ;)
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2016-06-01 11:02 am

Lisey’s Story, by Stephen King

Lisey is a middle-aged woman whose husband Scott was a famous writer. When the story begins, Scott has been dead for two years. Lisey is a reader, not a writer, but Scott’s writing is nipping at her heels in the form of academics and fans who want his papers, stalker fans, and the very real fantasy land from which Scott drew his inspiration, which Lisey once visited, and which she may need to visit once again.

The book interweaves the present-day story of Lisey, widowed but not alone (she has sisters) with the story of their marriage. I was all ready to say, “This book really isn’t horror at all and people who aren’t into horror might really like it,” but then I hit a horrific act of violence (not lethal, but seriously wince-inducing) and also Scott’s childhood turns out to be pure horror in both the abuse and fantasy sense, so I guess not. It’s mostly not horror, though.

King is often autobiographical, though in that odd way of fantasy writers in which either completely real incidents or characters are dropped into contemporary fantasy, or by metaphor, so that drug addiction might appear as addictive and destructive alien powers. King additionally often has writer characters who seem based on himself to some degree or other, and not always flatteringly; I am pretty sure I’ve read him saying that the most autobiographical character in The Stand is Harold Lauder. (Harold isn’t a villain, exactly, but he’s villain-ish, and about the opposite of a Marty Stu.)

Lisey’s Story is about what might have happened to King’s wife if he’d been killed in that bizarre van accident. (His memoir/how-to On Writing, which I highly recommend, contains a vivid account of that.) Sort of. If the van accident had been a shooting by a crazed fan or a weird illness, and if he’d had a childhood that was not only horrific but magically weird, and if his stories were partly drawn from a real fantasyland he can visit. And, of course, Lisey isn’t really his wife and her sisters, who play a major role, aren’t really her sisters. But I have a feeling that to some degree, they are. And that their marriage, which is largely mediated by a shared language of words and sayings, both is and isn’t their real marriage. Lisey’s Story is an extremely real-feeling book, even for King, who built his career on making the fantastical real and grounded and specific.

It’s a book about grief, but not about the initial shock, which is most commonly written about; this is about grief that’s been lived with and adjusted to and become familiar, that’s starting to heal at the same time that it’s finally sunk in that someone you loved is really gone and that is a wound will never really heal. It’s a book about marriage, and the intimacy of years and years together. It’s a book about language and storytelling; Scott’s writing is important but the language he and Lisey use with each other, the mortar and bricks of their relationship, is even more important. It’s a book about family— Lisey’s sisters are much more prominent in the narrative than I expected.

But most of all, it’s about Lisey. All things considered, I expected the story to be more about Scott, but it really is Lisey’s story, even though he’s the one with the fame and the magic. But Lisey has grit and practicality and her own creativity, though it’s not of the artistic sort, and she plows through stalkers, grief, family troubles, crazed fans, and a fantasy world with a stubborn determination that made Scott love her, kept her with him when another woman might have fled screaming, and just might defeat some very serious opponents.

I loved Lisey and I loved the metafictional nature of the book. The very first chapter is about how Lisey got erased from a news article about Scott— she was incredibly heroic, but the male journalist ignored her, credited her heroism to some random dude, and the photo shows nothing of her but the heel of her shoe. The rest of the book is about putting Lisey back in the story, but in a way that she wants— not as a flashy hero in the eyes of the world, but doing what needs to be done and is important to her, in her own way.

I’ve never been married, but I’ve seen a lot of married couples and observed how they often do seem to have their own language. This was the first book that made me feel like I got what it felt like to be in that sort of relationship and have that language. (Some of the language is silly or annoying, but mostly in the way that couple’s and family’s language and in-jokes really are silly and annoying to outsiders— it captured a real thing that I haven’t seen most fiction even attempt.) Similarly, the sisters’ relationships were also very real-feeling in a way that, again, was of great interest to me because I don’t have siblings. As a whole, the book is more about intimacy than it is about fantasy worlds and monsters and stalkers— the latter (especially the stalker) are more sizzle than steak.

That being said, warning for horror elements and one moment of cringey violence. Also, it deals with mental illness in a way that’s sometimes realistic and sometimes fantastical/metaphoric and sometimes both. I’m happy to discuss any of that or anything else about the book in comments, so general warning for spoilers in comments.

I liked the book a lot and it made me want to catch up on King’s later work. I haven’t read any of his other more recent books, so feel free to rec anything within the last 20 years or so.

Lisey's Story
rachelmanija: (Sandman: Dream)
2016-05-31 10:02 am

A Way of Exploring Dreams

I’m sure you all know that most therapists don’t usually do that much dream exploration any more, despite its prominence in Freud and hence pop culture depictions of therapy.

I do a lot of work with trauma-based nightmares, but those are quite different from non-trauma-related dreams. The dreams are not generally subtle, so the work is more to get rid of them than to explore what they mean; it’s obvious what they mean. In those cases, the client was traumatized and is re-experiencing it in nightmares which don't contain any deeper meaning, and from which no insight can be gleaned because the insight (client was traumatized in a specific event) is already known.

However, I do sometimes have clients tell me a dream that either isn’t obviously trauma-related, or might be but also seems to have some deeper meaning, and ask me what it means.

I might say something like, "I can't tell you what your dream means. Dreams are totally individual - you're the only one who can know what it means. What do you think it’s about? Were there any parts that felt especially meaningful, or that reminded you of anything in your life or your past?"

If they don’t have any ideas, I’ll try asking about cultural ideas about dreams. I’d phrase it as something like, “In your culture, do people have ways of interpreting dreams? Is there someone in your family or someone you know who knows a lot about dreams?”

Generally, if their culture does have ideas about dreams, they will know some specific person who could interpret their dream. In that case, if the client says that yes, there is someone they know who knows about dreams and they'd believe their interpretation, I'll ask how they'd feel about asking that person. If they go for it, I’ll check in next session about what Grandma or Auntie had to say, and how the client felt about it.

But if there wasn't anything like that, or the client didn’t believe in it, or if they asked Grandma but found her explanation unsatisfying or insufficient, and they’re still really curious about the meaning of the dream, I tell them that there’s another way of exploring dreams.

"It involves art,” I’ll say, “but it’s not literally drawing anything from your dream. Though you can do that too, if you want to."

If the client doesn't already do art, I’d say, "Anyone can do this. You don't have to be good at drawing, or even know how to draw or paint at all. It's not about making good art, it’s just a way of exploring your dream in a way that you can’t do by just talking about it. It won’t necessarily tell you what your dream means, but it might give you some ideas or insight. It's easier to do than to explain."

This method is based on something I learned in a class and I now am not sure what it's called or what the exact source is; it’s Jungian, though. Possibly Robert Johnson.

This is the sort of thing that a client will either really get into, or not want to do at all. It takes the entire session, so make sure they want to do it before you start. It’s usually something you’ll tell them about and ask if they want to try it in one session, and then actually do it in the next session. All else aside, you’ll need to collect a number of sheets of blank paper, and paints and/or color pens, pencils, or crayons.

To begin the session, even if they’ve told me the dream before, I ask, "Can you tell me the dream you want to work on?"

If there's multiple ones, I have them pick the one that feels most important, frightening, emotionally intense, etc.

The client tells me the dream. I listen to the whole thing. You can listen uninterrupted, or occasionally ask questions.

If there's a lack of vivid detail, in whole or in part, I ask questions. If you ask questions, they should be geared toward enlarging on the details of the dream, not on associations or possible meanings. You want to keep the focus on the narrative of the dream itself.

If it involved snakes, a good question to ask would be, "What did the snake look like? Was it a particular type of snake? How big was it? What color was it? Did it make a sound?" etc. (Not ALL those questions, but one or maybe more if the client doesn't elaborate on their own.)

When they're done, I ask, "Can you pick ONE moment in the dream that feels important to you? Like, the most intense, the most scary, the most mysterious, the one you're most curious about…?"

They say what that moment is. If it's too long or complex, narrow it down. For instance:

Client: "The moment when I opened the door to my home and saw my mother covered in snakes and then the snakes started chasing me."

Me: "Okay, but of that part, which was most intense or meaningful? Was it the door opening? Was it seeing your mother…?"

Client: "I think it was seeing my mother."

Me: "Okay, now paint that moment. It doesn't have to be literal at all. It could be just how you felt. Or if you want to try to represent it literally, feel free, but just remember that it doesn't have to be a good or accurate drawing at all."

Clients are often hugely self-conscious about not being good at art, so unless the client is already an artist, I’d emphasize the “doesn’t have to be good” a lot.

The client then creates a painting. We look at it and I ask if anything jumps out at them about it. If so, we talk about it. Then I ask (if I haven’t already) exactly what part of the moment of seeing her mother the painting represents.

They show me on the painting: “Those black lines are the snakes on her body.”

Me: “Okay, you know how on shows like CSI, they have the photo of the crime scene, and then blow it up, to show more detail? We’re going to blow up that part of your dream. Of the moment when you saw the snakes on her body, pick a detail that seems like the most important or emotional or scary, and just paint that. Maybe a detail of your mother, or of one of the snakes…?”

Client: “Yeah, this one snake had its mouth open and I could see its fangs. It was really scary!”

Me: “Okay. Paint that. Remember, it doesn’t have to be literal – just the feeling of the fangs.”

On a new sheet of paper, the client paints the fangs.

If we have time, I’ll have them blow up the dream several times, painting various details.

Also, have them do at least one association that may or may not be in the dream itself: “Did anything in that moment of the dream remind you of anything else in your life? Was any part of it a real thing from your past?”

Client: “Yeah, the light from the window reminded me of sunset in the town I used to live in.”

Me: “Can you paint the sunset, or the feeling of the sunset…?”

You should end up with at least three paintings: one original, one blow-up, and one associational. Ideally, you will also do a blow-up of the association: one detail of the sunset that seems most important.

Then you have the client go through them one by one and look at them as paintings, as if she walked into a room and saw them hanging on the walls. What feelings do they evoke if she looks at them as if someone else painted them? How are they related to each other? Is there some kind of progression from one to the next?

This is the part where clients should start noticing things they didn’t before. You’re having them step back and look at their paintings from a perspective they didn’t expect to take. Talk about what they see and how it makes them feel.

Then have the client look at the paintings again, this time relating them back to the dream. Do they say anything about the dream that she didn’t notice before? Do they remind her of anything, maybe something from her past? “Looking at the paintings, how do you feel about the dream now? Do they shed any light on it? What about the town where you used to live? Does the dream have anything to do with that?”

You can continue as long as you like, blowing up details or delving into associations, then alternately looking at the paintings as paintings and as they relate to the dream or associations from the dream.

This can be really interesting for a client who wants to explore their subconscious or see things in new ways. It’s not a source of answers, but it’s a source of inspiration, insight, or simply having a new experience in therapy. You can do it yourself, but I think it’s easier to do with someone else. It’s hard to describe, but powerful to experience: a dreamlike experience in waking reality. It produces a feeling of insight which is hard to put in words.
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2016-05-30 01:53 pm

A Diary Without Dates, by Enid Bagnold

By the author of National Velvet, which if you’ve never read it is a quite unusual book with a distinctive prose style and atmosphere that I find quite lovely, especially at the beginning. It doesn’t read at all like your typical girls-and-horses book, though it is that as well.

A Diary Without Dates is Bagnold’s memoir of nursing soldiers during WWI. It’s also written in an unusual, distinctive style, with an unusual, distinctive atmosphere, both gritty and impressionistic. She captures fleeting moments of beauty or horror or unexpected humor, and the sense of how fleeting those moments are, in a way that reminds me a bit of Banana Yoshimoto, of all the unlikely comparisons. I’ve read a number of memoirs by WWI nurses, and this is by far the most interesting on the level of literature. It’s not so much a diary as a record of memorable moments, thoughts, and feelings.

Though it’s not about therapy, it’s one of the books that comes closest to capturing what doing therapy feels like for me. Bagnold delicately and precisely observes the odd mixture of intimacy and distance between nurse and patient, in an institutional setting with inhuman rules against which intensely human dramas are played out, and how you can share a person’s greatest agony one hour, and then walk outside and be moved by the beauty of a flower or annoyed by the next nurse over, and have all those moments be equally real and deeply felt, though some seem trivial and some profound. But to Bagnold, they're all profound because they're all real moments of life, and life itself is profound. A few other works that have that feeling to me are the Tove Janssen's The Summer Book and Anita Desai's The Peacock Garden, and the WWII movie Hope and Glory.

Though it’s not particularly an expose, Bagnold writes rather unflatteringly about some of her bosses and some of the rules at the hospital where she worked. As a result, she was fired when the book came out. So she went to London and became an ambulance driver. I think she must have been quite an interesting person, and reading her diary, I wished that I could have known her. I think we might have had a lot in common and a lot to talk about.

Note: Contains some of-the-period racism and other isms. Not a lot and it’s typical of books written in that period by white people (as opposed to being more racist than usual), but there’s at least one instance though I have now forgotten the details.

A Diary Without Dates (Free on Kindle; the print version almost certainly has better formatting, though the free version is readable.)
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2016-05-27 12:56 pm

Dragon’s Luck, by Lauren Esker

Note: This was written by Sholio, a friend of mine, and I was one of the betas. The sphinx ship was my suggestion.

A gecko shifter secret agent joins forces with a dragon shifter gambler to fight crime aboard a ship shaped like a giant sphinx, while also playing in an underground, I mean illegal, high-stakes poker match. Cue hijinks and every trope ever.

A charmingly over the top fantasy adventure with a bit of romance, but definitely action with romance rather than the reverse. Great action, great characters, utterly cracktastic, and really, really funny. Part of a series about shapeshifter secret agents, but the books are all standalones and you can easily start here. If you liked Marjorie Liu’s Dirk & Steele series, you will like this.

The heroine, Jen Cho, is an adrenaline junkie caffeine addict gecko shifter secret agent who enjoys rock climbing in her spare time and spends much of the book clambering over unlikely places in both human and gecko forms. Jen is hilarious and her unflappable POV is the best.

The hero, Lucky, unsurprisingly has the power to influence luck, which is one of my favorite mutant powers and is played out in consistently entertaining ways. (He can apply it with a purpose, but unless he’s trying for something vey specific, he doesn’t know how it will work. For instance, “Leave the window open” will make the window get left open. But “help me win this fight” could do just about anything.) He is also a dragon shifter, but the way this works is pretty original and clever, not to mention often quite funny.

I don’t want to ruin the hilarity of their meet-cute, but it is truly hilarious. I’ll put it behind a cut, but if you think you might want to read the book, don’t click.

Read more... )

Most of the book is set aboard a giant floating sphinx on which a secret, illegal, incredibly high-stakes poker game is being played. Despite the total ridiculousness of this, so much thought went into the details of how all of that might actually work that it feels weirdly credible.

The supporting cast all feel like real people with lives and motives of their own, down to ship workers who appear in one scene and have two lines.

During the climax, almost everyone aboard the ship is high as a kite for plot reasons, and while the heroes and villains are having their dramatic final battle, they keep having to dodge random people attempting to pet their hair or tell them all about the pretty pink bubbles.

Fluffy and delightful. Definitely a read-in-one-gulp type of book.

Dragon's Luck (Shifter Agents Book 3) is only 99 cents on Amazon!
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2016-05-23 11:43 am

Penric’s Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold

A novelette set in the Chalion world, in which Gods and demons are real, though powerful and supernatural forces rather than representatives of the concepts of good and evil. (People do generally think that Gods are good and demons are bad, but it’s more complicated than that.) It’s set about a hundred years before The Curse of Chalion. (This isn’t obvious in the text, or at least it wasn’t obvious to me; I think I found it in the author’s afterword.) You can start the series here; it’s unrelated to the other books, and a complete story.

A young man on a mission finds both his task and his entire life unexpectedly diverted when he becomes possessed by a demon. In this case, demon possession means having another personality sharing your mind and talking to you, not having your own personality displaced. In the process of learning about his demon in the hope of divesting himself of it, he learns a lot about himself, his world, and what he really wants from life.

The characters and story are likable and engaging, and the magic system and cosmology, which I enjoyed in the other books in the series, continue to be interesting. It’s a pleasant story with a cozy feeling, but a little slight, especially compared to the novels set in the same world. I was unreasonably distracted by a major character having a name that I have previously only encountered in a Shakespeare play, in a world which seems to have no relationship to ours, but this may not bother anyone other than me.

But if you like small-scale fantasy about well-meaning people, in a world in which altruism is neither stupid nor the sign of an approaching cement truck, you will probably like this. It reminded me a bit of The Goblin Emperor, though with a much more down to earth and informal tone. Bujold's Sharing Knives books also have something of this cozy, domestic feel, though they are romances and this is not.

Penric's Demon
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2016-05-22 02:06 pm

Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

I read this ages ago, but never got around to writing it up. So I may be misrecalling some stuff. Luckily, however, I read it on my Kindle and made liberal use of the note function, mostly to write stuff like “YOU IDIOT” and “Did you consider asking her, dumbass?” and “WTF! Idiot.”

This is something like the tenth book in a series with sub-series and related series and so forth. I would definitely not start here.

I’m not sure where I would advise you to start, or if I would advise you to start. There are two trilogies (“Assassin’s Apprentice” and “Magic Ship”) in which I loved the first book, had mixed but generally positive feelings about the second, and disliked the third. But they’re not standalone at all, so you can’t just read the first books because they end on cliffhangers.

Also, be aware that part of what I disliked about the third books was that they either failed to resolve mysteries or plotlines set up in the first books, or resolved them in ways which I found anti-climactic or annoying, so reading the third book just to find out what the hell was up with [X plotline you care about] may not result in a happy experience.

Spoilers for Assassin books: Read more... )

And then there’s more books that resolve some things but not others, and are incredibly padded – in one book, Fitz spends something like 300 pages angsting over whether or not to leave his cottage. Every now and then he breaks up the monotony by making some tea.

I felt like a compulsive masochist just picking this book up, but I had managed to get invested in a certain relationship between two characters (Fitz and the Fool) in the very first book, and wanted to know what was up with it despite my near-certain knowledge, based on something like nine previous books, that the book would be incredibly slow, the characters’ refusal to talk to each other or pick up on incredibly obvious stuff going on would drive me batty, and it would probably end with their relationship not having progressed at all. Spoiler: I was absolutely right! Also, if you thought Fitz made some stupid decisions in previous books… you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Whump fans note: If you wondered if anything could top a character being tortured to death, the answer is yes.

Cut for detailed, irritated spoilers, mostly involving weapons-grade stupidity and also tragic yet somewhat hilariously OTT whump. Read more... )

Fool's Assassin: Book I of the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2016-05-18 01:19 pm

Amends, by Eve Tushnet

Note: I critiqued this novel in manuscript; the finished version differs from the one I originally read. My review is of the rewritten novel, not the original.

“This is the real damage of addiction. It turns you into a bad metaphor for yourself.”

Amends is a satirical mainstream literary novel about an ill-conceived reality TV show about a group of misfits in rehab. The characters were selected for an unholy combination of freak-show appeal and a TV producer’s ideas of diversity and likability, which bear about the same resemblance to the real world’s version of those qualities that reality TV bears to reality, which is to say an unsettling mixture of almost none with, occasionally, a surprising amount, Reality and real emotions seethe beneath the glossy surface, sometimes coaxed to come out and put on a show (and thus rendering themselves fake) sometimes erupting unscripted, powerful and filled with awe. Hopefully the camera caught it...

(Sharptooth, a wolf otherkin, was selected by the producers as focus for the audience to point and laugh; she’s unexpectedly canny in some ways and innocent in others, much closer to being an ordinary person with ordinary life problems than a number of seemingly more everyman characters, and generally a lot more than the producers, the other characters, and probably many readers bargained for. She’s my favorite character, both to read about and as one of the few I would actually want to spend any time with in real life. (Is she convincingly otherkin? Got me. She's definitely convincing as an imaginative young woman with some issues who grew up in a time when otherkin were a known cultural phenomena.)

The show and the novel are clearly meant as mirrors of each other; the backstage discussions on the show, its characters, and its audience invite the readers to inspect the structure and presumed intent of the novel. The show was intended to pull viewers in with sound-bite squalor, then reveal an unexpected amount of truth; the novel is clearly trying to do the same, but with glittering wit, snappy punchlines, and a takedown of contemporary culture in addition to simple squalor. The characters, initially sketched-in or even caricatures, reveal themselves to be more, both within the show and to the novel’s readers. But how much more? How real is anything when the camera’s rolling?

The prose and dialogue of Amends is a real pleasure, biting and clever and snappy, quotable and re-readable. At times it’s almost too polished. One of the points of Amends is how modern American society is constructed to allow us an endless amount of shallow quick fixes we can use to stave off whatever raw and terrifying emotions or reality we’re hiding from. Reach out, and there’s always something there to grab, whether it’s drugs and booze, TV and internet forums, or the cheap fake emotion of talk show revelations and suspiciously modern-sounding ancient religions. Take away the high, take away the social media, take away the camera, and is there anything left? Much as I enjoyed Tushnet’s way with words, there were a few places where her point might have been better made by leaving out the wisecracks, and letting the emotion come through unpolished and unadorned.

It’s possible that I would have read Amends had I not been hired to critique it in manuscript, as I liked Tushnet’s style, which I was familiar with from reading her blog. Or possibly not, due to not being much of a fan of the genres of both satire or the literary mainstream. If I’d passed it up, that would have been my loss. I confess to having fond feelings for this book due to my participation in its evolution, which no doubt add to my liking for the finished result. However, my personal liking is probably counterbalanced by my usual dislike for the genres it belongs to, and so it all evens out.

Amends isn’t my usual kind of book at all, but I liked it a lot. Sentence by sentence, it’s delicious. And while the satire is funny, a lot of the character interactions are downright hilarious. The metafictional conceit is well-done, and while reality TV is obviously an easy target, many of Tushnet’s subjects are less obvious and thoughtfully explored. I don’t think you have to have any particular interest in reality TV, addiction, or rehab to read the book; I’m not the sort of reader who would normally pick it up, and I liked it anyway. It’s not so much about addiction and sobriety as it is about living an authentic life in a plastic world. Or, sometimes, the other way around.

Amends: A Novel Only $3.99 on Kindle
rachelmanija: (Naruto: Super-energized!)
2016-05-07 11:40 am

Stranger made the 2016 Rainbow Book List!

This happened a while ago, but I was so distracted by health issues that I am pretty sure I never announced it. Well-- it did!

The Rainbow Book List Committee proudly announces the 2016 Rainbow List. The Rainbow List is a bibliography of books with significant gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning content, and which are aimed at youth, birth through age 18. The Rainbow List also includes genres I don't read, like picture books, but if you have small children, that would be an excellent resource.

The Rainbow Book List

If anyone happens to know whoever puts those together, you might alert them that the sequel, to Stranger, Hostage, 1) exists, 2) continues (but does not conclude, there are four books total) Yuki and Paco's epic love affair, 3) has many more LGBTQ characters, both major and minor. I am pretty sure that the majority of the people who read Stranger have no idea that Hostage was ever published, so this isn't "You must love my book," it's "FYI, this book exists and you can read it if you want".

Again due to health, I have probably read less in the last year than in any year of my life since I learned how, so I have read very few of the other books on that list. I look forward to reading at least some, and I invite you all to give it a browse. Lots of excellent-sounding books on it. These particularly intrigue me:

*Selznick, Brian. The Marvels. In black-and-white pencil illustrations, Selznick depicts three generations of actors descending from the sole survivor of a legendary shipwreck. As that story closes, another unfolds in prose as young Joseph discovers his connection to the actors and his family history, and he embraces his uncle’s life story as it affects and changes his own.

McCarry, Sarah. About a Girl: A Novel. Astronomy buff Tally plans to go to college, solve the mysteries of the universe, and win a Nobel Prize along the way. When love complicates her friendship with the boy next door, Tally veers off on a quest to uncover her own mysterious origins. Astronomy meets mythology in a magical realist twist, and Tally’s questions get lost in the arms of a beautiful woman determined to forget her own past.

Wilke, Daria. Playing a Part. Tr. by Marian Schwartz. This import—the first teen book translated from Russian—follows Grisha’s coming-of-age in a Moscow puppet theater, as he reels from the impending departure of his beloved gay mentor Sam and the looming heart operation of his best friend Sashok.

*Tamaki, Jillian. SuperMutant Magic Academy. At this boarding school for paranormal teenagers the student body is a wild mix, from witches and shapeshifters to jocks and performance artists. Hilarity ensues.

Has anyone read any books from the list? Got any recs?
rachelmanija: (Engaged!)
2016-04-12 04:26 pm

His Animal Instinct: Gay Shifter stories to benefit LGBQ human rights internationally

Please share this far and wide. It's a very good cause.

His Animal Instinct: More Tales of Wild Pleasure is an anthology of gay romance stories featuring shapeshifters. All profits go to OutRight, which fights for the human rights of LGBTIQ people worldwide. It is an excellent organization and I have personally met its executive director. Please promote this anthology and make them some money. Also, the stories are fun.

Nine sizzling tales of gay paranormal romance! Ten best-selling authors bring you their hottest stories of shifters and the desires that cannot be denied.

From wolves to leopards, alphas to omegas, these men can change their shape… but they can’t change who they love. 

rachelmanija: (Books: old)
2016-04-12 03:12 pm

Cuckoo's Song, by Frances Hardinge

This was one of my favorite books of last year, and I have no idea how to review it.

It's best read entirely unspoiled, but it contains some elements that 1) I would normally warn people about, 2) might not be dealbreakers for people for whom they normally are, due to spoilery reasons, 3) even saying what they are is going to be either spoilery or misleading, 4) but I actually do want to warn people because they really are disturbing, but then the book goes in a completely different direction after that.

Also, most of what I liked about the book is extremely spoilery, but a lot of what made it so enjoyable was that I wasn't expecting it. I can say what happens in the first fourth or so, but again, the first fourth is really different in both tone and content from the rest of the book. ARRGH.

Okay, so, the book contains creepy body horror and a really disturbing (non-sexual) scene of a parent attempting to harm their child. There is an in-book reason for both that may or may not mean that readers who normally wouldn't touch a book containing such things would actually be OK with them in-context. The child is not actually harmed (though scared and upset) and the rest of the book is not disturbing at all, or at least it wasn't for me. Effectively, there is a genre-switch about a fourth of the way in. It starts as a mystery, quickly goes to horror, and then goes somewhere else entirely that is definitely not horror (though it has elements of… um… spookiness, I guess.) Also, it is almost entirely about women and girls and their relationships; there are important male characters, but they're secondary.

Setting is 1920s, post-WWI; I don't recall if we get an exact date, but the time period, like basically everything else in the book, initially looks like a colorful detail but turns out to be crucially important. 11-year-old Triss falls into the river and gets sick. She's sickly in general, so this isn't new; what is new is that her sister acts really weird around her, alternately angry and frightened and generally strange. And Triss herself feels changed, different, with bizarre cravings. Not for blood or flesh, but for much stranger things. Rotten, fallen apples. Doll's heads. Pincushions. And then her parents start whispering about her behind closed doors.

Triss is sure something happened to her in the fall in the river, but she doesn't remember it. Her doctor says this is normal after a shock. But she's not so sure...

And everything on out is giant spoilers for the entire rest of the book. Read more... )

Highly recommended, even in you do need to hastily skim some horrific sections near the beginning. Very vivid and original, with great characters. Definitely not a downer, despite the cover and intro.

Cuckoo Song

I feel bad for the cover artist. They went with the "creepy horror" (very off-putting to me) cover, but a more representative cover would have been spoilery. Probably something that just signaled 1920s; unsettling/non-realistic/odd would have been better.