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.)
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
Ambitious, weird, metafictional horror-fantasy set in a magical city where all but three faeries have fled post-war. It’s now occupied by tightropers who spit out ropes and live in the air, and gnomes who live belowground. Faeries are immortal and every part of their body has its own sentience; they shed glitter constantly and each speck of glitter has its own awareness, which they tune out because otherwise they’d lose their minds. They are not considered dead until there is literally nothing of them left, so the heroine carries her father’s ear and eyeball in a jar; it presumably is still able to see and hear, though not speak. Pre-war, faeries had a wary co-existence with the gnomes, which eat faeries, usually bit by bit. Each eaten limb stays aware until digested. I think. It’s a little unclear what you have to do to a faerie part before it ceases to be aware.

And that is just one of the many, many, many things which are unclear in this odd, frustrating book. The ideas are intriguing, original, and horrific; the execution often uses that maddening trick of excusing its flaws by pointing them out and saying that they’re deliberate. The plot makes no sense? Well, real life often makes no sense. The emotions are weirdly distanced? The narrator is traumatized and emotionally numb. Key incidents are incredibly confusing or elided altogether? The narrator is traumatized and doesn’t want to think about them. Basic facts like how the body part sentience is actually experienced, how big faeries and gnomes are relative to each other (the gnomes can eat a faerie in one bite, but can also have normal-sounding sex with them), what the tightropers look like, the characterization and relationships of major characters, how any race survives when almost all females are killed by the act of giving birth to their first child, etc, are vague or confusing or contradictory or make no sense? It’s because the narrator is a traumatized teenager writing about experiences they don’t understand or can’t face, not a professional writer.

Here’s an example:

Once upon a time there was a writer who couldn't write a fucking book.

I don't know what comes next. That whole chapter's going to need to get thrown out anyway. You completely forgot halfway through that you'd said it was raining at the beginning.

Was it raining?

No one's ever going to know and it's all your fault.

Put a fucking map in the next draft.


The novel held my attention and is certainly plenty weird and ambitious, but using “in real life a traumatized teenager would write an incoherent mess of a book” as excuse to write an incoherent mess of a book did not work for me. The novel was too realistic to work as surrealism, too inconsistent to work as fantasy, and the whole “everything makes no sense because the narrator is a traumatized teenager” device didn’t work for me. These are the exact same problems I had with Moskowiz’s other novel I read, Break, so this is clearly her signature style and I’m just not her audience.

The worldbuilding is really interesting, which made it all the more frustrating that it had so little focus and what we did get didn’t make much sense. However, the novel also does some unusual (spoilery) things with narrative and metafiction, so if you like that sort of thing and don’t mind the issues I had with it, it’s worth a try. The horror is more conceptual than graphic, but dismemberment is crucial to the plot. (One of the things I found most frustrating was that I was really intrigued by the concept of having scattered awareness via shed glitter, eaten body parts, clipped hair, etc, but because the characters tune this out, you rarely get a sense of what that actually feels like.) Note that it contains underage (late teens, not children, but still) sex work (not graphic, but still).

A History of Glitter and Blood
This is for bookelfe/skygiants. Of course. (Yes, I'm out of order.)

I’m sticking with books here. A lot of manga and anime operates on different narrative rules, so the bizarreness makes wacky internal sense. I do have to mention, though, the complete works of Kaori Yuki if you have any interest in things like random flying Heavenly whales, apocalypse by army of flying zombie angel embryos, and people getting turned into masses of writhing tentacles and kept in the bathtub.

Even so, it was very, very difficult to narrow this down to five. There are bizarre premises (“I will break every bone in my body because then they’ll grow back stronger and I WILL BE INVINCIBLE”), the sheer weight of ridiculousness in a single book (the bone-breaking book also featured the near-death of the hero’s milk-allergic brother when the hero’s cheating girlfriend ate pizza, then kissed the brother), the sudden intrusion of absurdity into a previously non-bizarre book (two-thirds sensitive exploration of sketchy power dynamics, one third EVIL BALL OF MASKED S&M SMALL PRESS POETS), and unwanted intrusions by the author’s peculiar id (of course the most desirable whores have hooves.) Not to mention Terry Goodkind's infamous evil chicken. How to choose?

I have so many contenders that I was forced to name winners in categories.

Most Stupid Protagonist

Runner-Up: Oscar, the hero of Myke Cole’s Control Point. When faced with the difficult decision of who he should get help from— a) his best friend, b) a friendly acquaintance, or c) the sociopathic supervillain who is currently locked up after going on a mass slaughter rampage but who promises to help him out if he’ll only release her from the magical wards laid on her to stop her from slaughtering everyone in sight— guess who he picks?

Winner: Summer in Mary Brown’s Master of Many Treasures, for failing to get rid of a traveling companion whom she easily could get rid of, after he repeatedly and deliberately endangers her and all the rest of her companions, including trying to kill a friend of hers in a random fit of temper. Also for ignoring all advice by people who clearly have her best interest in mind, and taking all advice by people holding up HI I AM EVIL signs, and for failing to learn from very consistent consequences, like falling into quicksand full of rotting corpses because she couldn’t bear to take her best friend’s advice that the left-hand path led to the Swamp of Rotting Corpses. Also for believing that a good excuse for stalking her dragon ex-boyfriend is explaining that she actually fell in love with him when she thought he was a flying pig.

This doesn’t have anything to do with her intelligence, but I just want to mention that during the course of the book, she lays an egg.


Once Is Tragedy, One Million Times Is Hilarity

Crazy-Beautiful, by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Gee, if I'd known spilling my orange juice was this effective, I'd have spilled it in Dad's direction every day when I was younger. Then maybe he'd have made time to do things with me like, I don't know, play catch in the yard. Not that I'm complaining or playing the neglected child card. I'll never do that. I know what I've done. I know who's responsible for everything in my life, past, present, and future. Still, a little catch would have been fun, when I still had hands.



And what of me and my hands? Or, I should say, lack of hands.



I finish loading the dryer, hookload by hookload, use my hook to set the dial at seventy minutes, use my hook to depress the button.

Most Ridiculous Plot Twists

Runners-Up:

All books by Sheri Tepper. Future ones too. Every Sheri Tepper book in which infanticide is presented as the solution to the problems of the world. Also the one where the heroine turns out to be a de-aged squid-person. She might lay an egg too, I forget.

The indie gangster movie, name forgotten, in which the screenwriter’s poorly thought-through desire to add on one more surprise reveal meant that the entire action of the movie consisted of a drug lord hiring people to steal his own drugs.

The Isobelle Carmody books with the love quadrangle between two humans and two transformed dogs.

Dan Simmons’ The Rise of Endymion. The climactic revelation of the entire series is that quantum strings are made out of love.

Frank Herbert’s God-Emperor of Dune. It makes sense in context, but I still find it hilarious that the climax consists of the main character becoming a million worms.

Lord of Legends, by Susan Krinard. I still have no idea why the heroine’s housekeeper turned into a talking fox.

And finally… drum roll… the winner!

Spider Robinson’s Starseed. The heroine is paralyzed via drugs, has multiple bad guys holding guns on her, and isabout to be killed. As her last request, she asks for a moment to meditate. When they grant it, she achieves enlightenment. This enables her to become telepathic, overcome the effects of the paralyzing drug, and slaughter the bad guys with kung fu.
I usually enjoy Brockmann's books a lot, but she can be uneven and has written a handful of stinkers. Unfortunately, this, an older book in her "Tall, Dark, and Dangerous" series, was one of them. It had the single least convincing romantic obstacle I've encountered in romance so far, and that's including Brockmann's own "Because I'm your boss... in this civilian temp job that you don't even need."

Navy SEAL Bobby Taylor, on leave after being wounded on a mission, is dispatched by his teammate and best buddy Wes to convince Wes's civilian little sister Colleen not to stupidly go to a war zone to try to rescue orphans. Wes, who comes across as creepily controlling AT BEST, is dead set against anyone dating his sister. Ever. Especially not Bobby, his best friend and a completely stand-up guy. If Bobby dates Colleen, Wes will feel terribly betrayed, punch him out, and never speak to him again. Colleen, by the way, is 23.

I gather that "no one is good enough for my little sister" is a known trope, though thankfully this is the first time I've encountered it so hopefully it's died the death. But it's a trope that only makes sense if the hero has an (undeserved) bad reputation or a shady past, so the brother has legitimate reasons for wanting to protect his sister from him. It makes NO SENSE if the hero is a completely great guy who is also the brother's best friend. Wes goes so berserk over the thought of Bobby dating his adult sister that it makes him seem creepy and batshit and possibly incestuous. (Luckily I read Wes's own romance first (it's much better) or I never would have picked it up.)

Then there's Bobby. He's a tough Navy SEAL, so why is he so cowed by his buddy's nutso fixation on nobody dating his sister? He's completely inconsistent, too, bouncing every five pages from kissing her to telling her he wants nothing to do with her because, horrors, Wes wouldn't approve. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I kept thinking, "Grow a pair!" But sadly, he mostly only manages to be assertive when forbidding Colleen to do anything dangerous.

And Colleen. I actually mostly liked Colleen. At least she knew what she wanted and went for it. Except that I wanted to back her belief that if Bobby was allowed to do dangerous things he believed in, so was she, but her orphans in the war zone mission actually did sound like a terrible idea. I also lost a lot of sympathy for her when the orphan she had meant to adopt was killed, and she was boinking Bobby about two hours later and thereafter mostly seemed to forget about the death of her nearly-a-daughter.

There's an accidentally hilarious climax where Wes appears, goes berserk upon finding out that Colleen is dating a man even though he doesn't know who it is and forbids her from dating whoever it is, finds out that it's Bobby, goes even more berserk, punches Bobby, declares that the reason Colleen shouldn't date Bobby is that Navy SEALs are never home, says she can date a military man as long as he's an officer (Bobby and Wes are enlisted), says it's terrible if she and Bobby are dating casually but it would be fine if they were married so they must MARRY IMMEDIATELY, then suddenly and for no reason decides it's fine if she dates Bobby. If I was Wes's commanding officer, I would have sent him for a mandatory psychological evaluation. Also drug testing.
Anderson is an extremely well-known and acclaimed writer of YA problem novels (also historicals and one charming comedy, Prom). I’ve reviewed several of her books under her author tag. Speak is excellent, but Wintergirls, with its mythic resonances, is my personal favorite.

The pattern of her problem novels is a teenager with an “issue”-type problem (rape, anorexia, etc), their struggles and ambivalent relationship with the problem and their family, a dramatic (sometimes melodramatic) climax which forces them into a final confrontation with the problem and their need to get help, followed by a quick conclusion in which they’re getting help/therapy and are clearly on the road to recovery.

They sound very formulaic, laid out like that, but her characters are vivid and often pleasingly snarky, her prose is excellent, and in the better books, the characters are much more than the sum of their issues. I particularly liked Wintergirls, in which the heroine is haunted by her dead best friend, for its refusal to provide simple answers to the question of whether the ghost was an actual ghost, a memory, a fantasy, a delusion, a metaphor, or several of those.

The Impossible Knife of Memory, unfortunately, did feel formulaic, and did have characters who were exactly the sum of their issues. It also had a climax that stepped over the melodrama line and plunged into laughable.

Teenage Hailey is being raised by her veteran father, who returned from Iraq with a bad case of PTSD and has been a depressed alcoholic ever since. Her mother and grandmother are dead and his army buddies are rarely around, so the main relationship in the book is (or should be) between Hailey and her father. Their actual relationship consists of him being a disaster and her alternately mopping up after him and avoiding the fallout.

It’s not that this is implausible. It’s that there’s not enough actual emotion between them. There should be a bond, however strained, or the angry ghost of a broken bond. But I didn’t get a sense of that. Hailey thinks about her father’s actions and their effect on her a lot. But she doesn’t spend much time thinking about him as a person, or about her feelings about him. There’s surprisingly little actual interaction between them, and what there is isn’t very revealing of anything but “Severe, untreated PTSD wrecks your life and makes you a bad parent.”

I read some criticism of the book on Goodreads that the PTSD is whitewashed. I didn’t get that feeling, given that the Dad’s an alcoholic who can’t keep a job, can’t have a relationship, can’t parent his daughter, trashes the house, does drugs, and attempts suicide. That seems sufficiently serious to me. As far as PTSD goes, he’s on the low-functioning side of the spectrum. My criticism is that we never see him in a scene that isn’t about his PTSD. There’s little sense of what he was like before, or what he’s like beneath the array of harrowing symptoms.

The actual relationship in the book is between Hailey and her quirky new boyfriend. I believed them as a couple— he’s aggressively quirky, she’s quirkily aggressive— but the book felt like it should be more about the father-daughter relationship. The generic teen romance didn’t interact much with the Dad-has-PTSD story, resulting in a book that felt like two different books awkwardly integrated.

And then there was the accidentally hilarious climax, complete with physics-defying injuries. Read more... )

Even in much better books of the kind, include Anderson’s own better books, I find it frustrating that after an entire book full of lovingly depicted trauma, the healing is almost always summarized briefly rather than shown in depth, or at all. Or, to phrase it fannishly, you get 386 pages of hurt and 7 sentences of comfort.

Part of the issue may be structural. If you follow the forms we’re taught in school, a story is supposed to have a beginning, a long period of rising action, a short climax, and a very short conclusion. If the decision to seek help is the climax, you can’t see the healing, because that’s the conclusion. The only way you can show the process of healing, if you stick with this model, is if the start of healing begins right after the beginning, and the healing is the rising action. I’ve read books like that— The Secret Garden comes to mind— but they’re rare.

If I may make a modest proposal: there is no law of nature stating that all American books and movies must slavishly adhere to a single model of dramatic structure. There are perfectly valid alternate types of structure.

I wish more writers would try some other model out when they’re writing trauma stories, so they could show more of the recovery. It can be very interesting and dramatic, seriously. And it’s way better than the OMGWTF you broke your ribs how climax of this one.

As for this book, as far as books featuring a daughter living with her veteran father with PTSD go, I liked Flora Segunda better.

The Impossible Knife of Memory
Anderson is an extremely well-known and acclaimed writer of YA problem novels (also historicals and one charming comedy, Prom). I’ve reviewed several of her books under her author tag. Speak is excellent, but Wintergirls, with its mythic resonances, is my personal favorite.

The pattern of her problem novels is a teenager with an “issue”-type problem (rape, anorexia, etc), their struggles and ambivalent relationship with the problem and their family, a dramatic (sometimes melodramatic) climax which forces them into a final confrontation with the problem and their need to get help, followed by a quick conclusion in which they’re getting help/therapy and are clearly on the road to recovery.

They sound very formulaic, laid out like that, but her characters are vivid and often pleasingly snarky, her prose is excellent, and in the better books, the characters are much more than the sum of their issues. I particularly liked Wintergirls, in which the heroine is haunted by her dead best friend, for its refusal to provide simple answers to the question of whether the ghost was an actual ghost, a memory, a fantasy, a delusion, a metaphor, or several of those.

The Impossible Knife of Memory, unfortunately, did feel formulaic, and did have characters who were exactly the sum of their issues. It also had a climax that stepped over the melodrama line and plunged into laughable.

Teenage Hailey is being raised by her veteran father, who returned from Iraq with a bad case of PTSD and has been a depressed alcoholic ever since. Her mother and grandmother are dead and his army buddies are rarely around, so the main relationship in the book is (or should be) between Hailey and her father. Their actual relationship consists of him being a disaster and her alternately mopping up after him and avoiding the fallout.

It’s not that this is implausible. It’s that there’s not enough actual emotion between them. There should be a bond, however strained, or the angry ghost of a broken bond. But I didn’t get a sense of that. Hailey thinks about her father’s actions and their effect on her a lot. But she doesn’t spend much time thinking about him as a person, or about her feelings about him. There’s surprisingly little actual interaction between them, and what there is isn’t very revealing of anything but “Severe, untreated PTSD wrecks your life and makes you a bad parent.”

I read some criticism of the book on Goodreads that the PTSD is whitewashed. I didn’t get that feeling, given that the Dad’s an alcoholic who can’t keep a job, can’t have a relationship, can’t parent his daughter, trashes the house, does drugs, and attempts suicide. That seems sufficiently serious to me. As far as PTSD goes, he’s on the low-functioning side of the spectrum. My criticism is that we never see him in a scene that isn’t about his PTSD. There’s little sense of what he was like before, or what he’s like beneath the array of harrowing symptoms.

The actual relationship in the book is between Hailey and her quirky new boyfriend. I believed them as a couple— he’s aggressively quirky, she’s quirkily aggressive— but the book felt like it should be more about the father-daughter relationship. The generic teen romance didn’t interact much with the Dad-has-PTSD story, resulting in a book that felt like two different books awkwardly integrated.

And then there was the accidentally hilarious climax, complete with physics-defying injuries. Read more... )

Even in much better books of the kind, include Anderson’s own better books, I find it frustrating that after an entire book full of lovingly depicted trauma, the healing is almost always summarized briefly rather than shown in depth, or at all. Or, to phrase it fannishly, you get 386 pages of hurt and 7 sentences of comfort.

Part of the issue may be structural. If you follow the forms we’re taught in school, a story is supposed to have a beginning, a long period of rising action, a short climax, and a very short conclusion. If the decision to seek help is the climax, you can’t see the healing, because that’s the conclusion. The only way you can show the process of healing, if you stick with this model, is if the start of healing begins right after the beginning, and the healing is the rising action. I’ve read books like that— The Secret Garden comes to mind— but they’re rare.

If I may make a modest proposal: there is no law of nature stating that all American books and movies must slavishly adhere to a single model of dramatic structure. There are perfectly valid alternate types of structure.

I wish more writers would try some other model out when they’re writing trauma stories, so they could show more of the recovery. It can be very interesting and dramatic, seriously. And it’s way better than the OMGWTF you broke your ribs how climax of this one.

As for this book, as far as books featuring a daughter living with her veteran father with PTSD go, I liked Flora Segunda better.

The Impossible Knife of Memory
With e-publishing getting so easy (unless you are trying to format poetry, sigh), there has been a boom in self-published books. I've found that if I apply the same selection methods I do to traditionally published books (premise, recommendations, reviews, read a sample), the quality is surprisingly similar.

For example, my single favorite romance novel of last year was Courtney Milan's Unraveled. (Click on author tag to see my review.) For a different type of example, click my "awesomely bad books" and "implausible plots" tag-- most of those books were traditionally published and edited by professional editors.

Since self-published authors don't get any publicity beyond what they can drum up themselves, I'm sure there are many self-pubbed books and authors which are completely off my radar. Please recommend self-published books or short stories to me. (I'm not including reprints of books which were originally traditionally published.)

I am already aware of Courtney Milan, Andrea Host, Sarah Diemer, Zetta Elliott, Neesha Meminger, and Judith Tarr's Living in Threes. If you want to rec them in comments for the benefit of other readers, go ahead, but please try to additionally rec something else which I may not know about.
Five queer kids save the world after an apocalypse!

With that premise, I expected to enjoy the book a lot more than I actually did. It’s largely a comedy, with the apocalypse caused by Muldoona, a Goddess lurking in her Fortress of Despair and eating peeled grapes. Humor is the most subjective of forms, and others might well find this book funnier than I did. I mostly found it totally unfunny.

The first chapter introduces Skilly, a bisexual 5000-year-old caveman in a 17-year-old body, due to having been given an Amulet of Immortality by his brother Urf.

It is a rule of fiction that protagonist cavepeople get names that sound like names, and non-protagonists get guttural grunts. See also The Clan of the Cave Bear: Protagonist: Ayla. Leading Man: Jondalar. Supporting Cast: Creb, Brun, Broud. In both books, this is explained within the text: Ayla and Jondalar are Cro-Magnons, who are more verbal, and Skilly was not his birth name. Still, the rule stands. Why don’t cavepeople ever get brief names that don’t sound like manly grunts, like Eee, Bip, or Baa?

I am always complaining that ancient immortals never sound, talk, or act like ancient immortals. But in a comedy, why not mine the fact that a main character is prehistoric for laughs? Though Skilly mentions ancient stuff sometimes, he otherwise seems like a modern 20-something.

The other main characters are Vikky and Ginger, a pair of indistinguishable shallow, snarky teenagers, Julia, a less shallow but still snarky teenager, and Marly, who is trans or genderqueer. Marly’s gender identity is not clear-cut, which I liked. Marly is in a locked-in juvenile facility for skipping school. It was explained that teenagers can be locked up for stuff which is not illegal for adults. This is true, but, as was typical of many plot points, an unlikely motivation or occurrence does not get any more plausible just because it’s given one line of justification. Some of this was clearly meant as a joke, but I generally didn't find it funny. In other cases, even satire needs to make sense on its own terms, and this book often didn't.

The apocalypse consists of magically-induced nuclear catastrophe, which kills hundreds of thousands of people and leads to Ginger and Julia getting stranded, along with other shallow American tourists, inside Anne Frank’s house. This is every bit as embarrassingly anvillicious as it sounds. Meanwhile, Marly is stranded in juvenile detention. The kids’ predicament has some nice narrative tension… until Gods give them all magical amulets that solve everything.

If this had been about straight kids, I would not have made it past chapter one. If I hadn’t been on an airplane, I would have given up right there. However, I made it to the end, and I’m kind of glad I did, because the WTF just kept coming. Starting with Marly, previously the most sympathetic character, in the space of a single conversation, becoming one of the least sympathetic characters I have ever encountered in anything.

Read more... )

Not my cup of tea. But it might be yours! I have a low tolerance for hipster irony, and very particular tastes in comedy.

The End
In between finishing the very long online course, I read Shadow Ops: Control Point. Good premise, nice military details, good first third. Everything after the first third slowly disintegrated under the weight of the hero's incessant flip-flopping between "the magic army is evil and I want no part of it and will loudly say so at every opportunity" and "I'm in the army now and I better make the best of it," not to mention his truly remarkable ability to make the worst possible decision under any given circumstance.

Below the cut is a spoilery poll involving a particularly crucial decision. Basically, I'm curious if everyone else shares my thoughts on what the worst option is; the best is probably debatable.

Read more... )
Dystopia is a society based on personality quizzes.

In Chicago of the future, society is divided up by virtues: Dauntless (courage), Erudite (intelligence), Candor (honesty), Abnegation (self-sacrifice), and Amity (peacefulness.) All sixteen-year-olds must take an unimaginative virtual reality test, whose scenarios consist of choosing a knife or a piece of cheese, seeing a girl threatened by a dog, and being accosted by a creepy guy on a train. They are then told which faction they’re suited for, but have the option of picking a different one. Once they join a faction, they must pass a series of tests or be kicked out and join the factionless underclass.

Beatrice is born into Abnegation, who wear gray and eat boring food and take the stairs rather than elevators. As is typical in these sorts of dystopias, no one ever has hobbies or interests or does or says anything unrelated to the subject of the dystopia, unless they are the spunky rebel heroine, in which case they can think rebellious thoughts and obsess about the handsome, distant jerk they love. It's also the standard "everyone is heterosexual, no one has a culture, and everyone is white except for one supporting character" contemporary YA dystopia.

Beatrice tests as Divergent – the rare person whose personality is not defined by a single trait. She is warned that she’ll be killed if this is discovered. (Being Divergent turns out to be somewhat less stupid than initially stated, I should note.)

She picks Dauntless. They turn out to be a bunch of idiots with no apparent social function, who spend their time beating each other up a la Fight Club, leaping off the trains which circle the city seven stories up for no apparent purpose and with no apparent power source, getting tattoos and piercings, and playing paintball. Yes. Paintball, the ultimate pursuit of the brave!

The heroine, now named Tris because that’s way cooler and edgier, becomes a perfect shot and a bad-ass fighter in one month of practicing without, as far as I could tell, being trained in any specific techniques. (Getting beaten into unconsciousness on a daily basis does not, in my opinion, constitute useful training.) She’s bullied because she’s cooler and braver than anyone, and she falls for one of her trainers, a boy named Four, even though they don’t interact much.

To me, the appeal of romance is interaction, not staring at the hero and then going off to contemplate him in solitude. The interaction they do have is underwhelming. For instance, Four is overcome with admiration at Tris’s intelligence when they’re playing paintball and it occurs to her to… climb a tall structure to spot the other team. Genius!

Ender’s Game, though flawed, kept coming to my mind as a novel which did a lot of these tropes better. “Maybe I should look for the enemy” is not convincing evidence of brilliance. “The enemy’s gate is down” does work as an example of thinking outside of the box. Also, while Card’s book too was heavily paintball-based, it was at least spiffed-up zero-g paintball, not the real thing. Why would I need to read a dystopia to get my fix of the exact same game I could walk outside and play for real?

Much of the plot of Divergent made no sense. Early on, Tris makes a shocking discovery about her mother. About 200 pages later, she makes the same shocking discovery all over again. Either this novel was never edited at all, or it was severely over-edited, to the point where no one could keep track of what had or hadn’t been cut or added. My guess is the latter. That sort of continuity glitch happens a lot in TV when there’s excessive interference by the network.

The whole book was full of similar glitches and holes:

If everyone can choose their faction, what’s the point of the tests?

How does this society function? Does it have an economy? What do the factionless do? Since Dauntless doesn’t seem to produce cops or soldiers, who does? If no one does, who’s keeping the factionless down?

What does Candor do other than tell people their new dress makes them look fat?

What’s the trial for Amity, the nice faction? Endurance Kumbaya?

Spoilery plot holes )

My biggest issue, though, was that the novel didn’t follow through on its own premise. If I buy a book about a personality quiz society, I want to find out how each society does its tests and organizes itself. And I want to have some means of sorting myself. We learn barely anything about the other factions, and the initial test is ludicrous.

The idea of being sorted into a category has enormous appeal. I too love online personality quizzes. (I am a Gryffindor and an INFP, and the character I most resemble on A Game of Thrones is Arya Stark.)

But these factions not only have no appeal (which, to be fair, is part of the point that Sorting Is Bad), but you can't even use the book to amuse yourself by figuring out in which one you belong. Without context, choosing a knife over a piece of cheese is the equivalent of choosing a triangle over a square. It's like that online test going around a while back which gave completely random personality diagnoses on the basis of questions like "Which hexagon is watching you?" But without the hilariously paranoia-inducing questions and images.

Divergent
rachelmanija: (Fishes: I do not see why the sex)
( May. 31st, 2011 07:50 am)
I would never be a crazed sex-teen!

Someone could write a good teen dystopia based on the screwed-up messages that modern American society sends to teenage girls: If you have sex with boys, you’re a slut. If you don’t, you’re a prude, a lesbian, or a reject. If you dress fashionably, you’re a slut. If you dress conservatively, you’re a prude. If you really are a lesbian, you don’t exist, unless you proclaim your identity, in which case you’re shoving your sexuality on innocent heterosexual victims. If you use contraception, you’re a slut. If you don’t and you get pregnant, you’re a stupid bitch who’s ruining society.

XVI was clearly inspired by some of those messages, but it’s not good. Its problems begin with the phrase that undoubtedly sold the book, “sex-teen.” That is an inherently ridiculous word. It might work in a satire, but in a work intended to be serious, it can only produce unintentional comedy. Luckily for me, the book had lots of that.

Meet Nina, the heroine. Ginnie is her idolized mom, and Sandy is her sex-crazy “best friend.” The quote marks are because… well, judge for yourself:

Ginnie always taught us that thinking for yourself is the most important thing. When I see how Sandy blindly follows whatever the latest Media-induced frenzy is - I know my mom is right. But it's hard being the only person who thinks like me. Sometimes I wish I could just be like everyone else my age and not think at all.

[…]

Her clothes fit her a lot better than mine fit me. As Gran would say, "She's built like an MK lunar pod." Which I'm sure is why her stepdad looks at her the way he does.

[…]

Sandy’s Saturn blue plether pants were so tight there was no way she could have gotten them on over underwear – and it was obvious she hadn’t. […] The outfit made me cringe. I sincerely hoped the Sandy I knew and loved was under the Media-hyped crap she was wearing.

Isn’t Nina charming? Wouldn’t you love to spend an entire book with her?

When I was sexsixteen, I too was judgmental and looked down on many of my peers and thought I was more special than you. But I didn’t despise my friends! I loved my friends! And that, I think, made me merely self-centered rather than awful.

Here’s Nina again, rescuing an apparently homeless person and being more compassionate than anyone ever:

I should have gone. Anyone else would have left him. […] It seemed like the older I got the more I believed that everyone, homeless or not, deserved to be treated at least like a human.

Her friends, of course, are baffled and horrified that she would help a homeless person. But it turns out that he’s actually upper-class and only dresses like he’s homeless so he can sneak around being rebellious, so he is acceptable boyfriend material for Nina. (There is an official ten-tier class structure.) While Nina is currently low-class, she came from a high class and her mother voluntarily demoted herself for political reasons. All the sympathetic characters in the book are high-class or formerly high-class. Only Sandy the wannabe-slut is genuinely low-class.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I plunge into the plot, here’s the background:

Girls who turn sixteen are tattooed with the number XVI and called sex-teens. They are then legally able to have sex. I think that while they aren’t legally required to have sex on demand, they are assumed to be sex-crazy and so they are treated as fair game, and while they could theoretically press charges if they’re raped, those cases will invariably be dismissed. But it’s not very clear. They may or may not also become legal adults in other ways.

I couldn’t tell whether or not boys were tattooed, or if they were tattooed at the same age. I also have no idea why the government was so obsessed with making sixteen-year-old girls available for sex, especially since it turns out that the government also collects sixteen-year-old virgins. Given how central the sex-teen concept is, it’s oddly under-explained.

While modern teenage girls are also under a lot of pressure to have sex, may be called sluts, and can often be raped with impunity, there’s no enormous mystique about how since eighteen is the legal age to have sex, you can only have sex once you turn eighteen and absolutely have to have sex the instant you turn eighteen OMG. If a modern girl under eighteen wants to have sex, she… has sex. Since the XVI society doesn’t strictly penalize underage sex, I don’t buy the way that everyone acts like no one ever has sex before sixteen, and everyone must have it the instant they turn sixteen.

Don’t ask me what the ramifications are for non-heterosexual girls. Only straight sexuality exists in this world. (Only straight sexuality exists in all of the recent teen dystopias I’ve read, but it’s a particularly weird omission for the one which is entirely about teen sex.)

In further implausibilities, there’s an organization called FeLS, which I kept reading as FeLV (Feline Leukemia Virus), a diplomatic corps made up entirely of low-class virgin teenage girls. All sixteen-year-old low-class virgin girls must be available to be selected for it, unless they can buy their way out. Almost none of them ever come back even though the term of service is only two years, but nonetheless it’s supposed to be wonderful and glamorous and all the sixteen-year-olds who are still virgins are dying to become part of it.

I have no idea how the virginity test works, other than that it’s “physical.” I guess they check for a hymen. There are many factors which make this a dubious method of virginity testing. The hymen can be broken in other ways. Some hymens stretch rather than breaking. More significantly, and as I believe most modern American girls know, you can have oral, anal, manual, and intercrural sex without damaging the hymen. (Okay, most modern American girls probably don’t know the word intercrural, but I bet they know the concept.) So the virginity test is meaningless. They’d be better off borrowing King Math's magic broomstick from the Mabinogion and having the girls step over it to see if a baby falls out of them.

The utterly non-shocking twist at the end is that FeLS is actually a sex slavery ring run by and for the government. When Nina finds this out, and her “friend” Sandy is about to join FeLS, Nina tells Sandy what’s really going on so Sandy can make her own informed decision.

Just kidding! Like that would ever happen. Nina actually decides to make sure Sandy fails the physical virginity test by giving her a large, vibrating, brand-name, sparkly pink dildo, the “Sex-teen Sizzler,” which she knows Sandy will be unable to resist.

Nope, kidding again! This is not a book in which girls enjoy their sexuality without men around. What really happens is that Nina doesn’t tell Sandy anything, but decides to get her to have sex with a boy so she’ll fail the virginity test. Cue ridiculous angsting over whether Nina should offer Sandy her own boyfriend for this purpose.

Nina, of course, never has sex, and her boyfriend doesn’t want to have sex either. Her actual best friend, Wei, is sex-teen but still a virgin. All the positively portrayed teens want to stay virgins, while the only teenager who wants to have sex, Sandy, is a dumb slut.

There is a hint of a promising story in this mess of a book, which is that Nina has good reasons to hate and fear the thought of sex and romantic relationships – her mother is in an abusive relationship – and that creates a conflict between her increasingly undeniable sexual impulses, and her desire to both stay safe and rebel against social expectations by avoiding sex and romance.

Unfortunately, all that consists of about fifteen pages total. The rest of the book is taken up by a largely nonsensical mystery plot. Ginnie, Nina’s mom, is murdered, and with her dying breath tells Nina that her supposedly dead father is still alive. Nina and her younger sister Dee, who was fathered by the abusive Ed, are sent to live with their grandparents.

(Ed is a member of another evil government agency, B.O.S.S. I am not kidding. I immediately guessed that Ed killed Ginnie (no else is even presented as a plausible suspect), that he’s not really Dee’s father, and that the only reason Ginnie was with Ed was some idiotic revolutionary plan, because an intelligent woman would never stay in an abusive relationship unless she had a master plan that requires it. Right on all counts!)

At her new home, Nina learns that not only was the “homeless” boy she rescued coincidentally the son of one of the revolutionaries her father was involved with, but the only girl she befriends from her new apartment building is coincidentally the daughter of some more of them. This conveniently allows other people to step in periodically and give Nina bits of information, a little at a time, even though there are at least four people who could have told Nina the entire story at any time.

But aimless plotting, incoherent worldbuilding, an unlikable heroine, clunky prose, and preachiness is not all that’s wrong with this book. There is also the very, very bad decision to attempt future slang by calling vehicles “trannies.” Not only is it a real-life pejorative term, but just picture the mental image I got every time there was a line like, A trannie came out of nowhere, nearly knocking me down. Not to mention lines of dialogue like, “I told him you really like trannies,” “Girly trannie,” and “Sal’s cool. His brother has all those great trannies.”

I also laughed at every use of the word “sex-teen.” Never not funny!

But what bugged me the most were the anti-sex, anti-female desire, and anti-sexy clothing messages, mostly directed at poor authorial punching bag Sandy. Nina is constantly obsessing about the slutty way Sandy dresses and how it will tempt men to rape her. Here’s Gran on the same topic: “Why, two years ago she was as sweet and innocent as can be. Now she’s on the verge of becoming a wild sex-teen!”

Sandy, unsurprisingly, is raped and murdered at the end. At the casket, Nina muses, For all her sex-teen ways, she’d been so naïve and trusting. Victim-blaming to the very literal end!

Terrible. Terrible. Terrible. And there are many terrible aspects I didn’t even mention. Other intrepid readers, should any step up to the plate, will find unspoiled depths of awfulness to plumb.

Scariest of all, judging by the lack of closure to several major plot points, there will probably be a sequel or two. I eagerly anticipate XVII (Semen-teen), and the conclusion, XVIII (Ate-teen).

Thank you very much to the sponsors who made this post happen! If you enjoyed reading this review, please consider making a donation to the organization this review was written to benefit, The Virginia Avenue Project. ("Using the arts to help kids discover their full potential! 100% of Project kids graduate from high school. 95% go to college. 98% are the first in their families to do so!"

If you do donate, feel free to say that Rachel Manija Brown sent you. Please don't say, "I'm here because of sex-teen!" Given the nature of the Project, that could cause some unfortunate confusion. ;)

XVI
Divergent, by Veronica Roth, is an extremely high-concept YA with yet another absurdly orderly society. In this one, everyone is divided by virtue: Abnegation, Amity, Dauntless, Candor, and Erudite. Though the groups (and the unfortunate, oppressed factionless) live together, every single thing each individual does expresses their chosen virtue and only that chosen virtue. This leads to some moments of (probably) unintentional comedy, such as when the Dauntless kids all leap off a moving train. (“If all your friends jumped off a bridge…”) They fear nothing but peer pressure!

Beatrice, born into Abnegation, takes the aptitude tests which suggest which faction she should choose. (The selection method is weirdly cumbersome: first you get tested, then you select a faction (even if it doesn’t match the test results), then the faction puts you through more extensive testing.) After going through some very basic virtual reality scenarios testing courage, honesty, self-sacrifice, intelligence, and niceness, she is told that she is one of the very, very, very rare Divergents: people with multiple aptitudes. Shock! Horror! She must tell no one!!!

Even apart from the inherently implausible premise, I find it very difficult to believe that most people would not possess more than one quality, especially very common ones like intelligence and niceness. Maybe later there will be the shocking reveal that pretty much everyone has multiple traits but is told to tell no one.

Though ridiculous, the concept of social division by personality traits has enormous appeal, and I expect the book to sell quite well. It’s a novel-length version of an online personality quiz, and who doesn’t love online personality quizzes?

Well – I love them, but not enough to buy the book. It was too simple and implausible to grab me. And in a story where the fun is the personality-trait testing, the entrance tests were way too unimaginative and unrevealing to make me want to read more of them. In total, they consisted of picking a piece of cheese or a knife, being confronted by a hostile dog which then attacks a little girl, and being challenged by a creepy guy on a bus. They seemed especially flat when compared to more evocative, psychologically revealing, or fun fictional tests, like the humanity test in Blade Runner, the Giant’s Drink in Ender’s Game, the entrance to Roke in A Wizard of Earthsea, or Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat.

See comments to the SEX-teen book post: I will eventually do a review-for-charity poll to determine which of these I will read and review in full.
An obscure Gothic by the author of one of my very favorite children’s book, the seminal psychic kid novel The Girl With the Silver Eyes (Apple Paperbacks). The latter holds up well to reading as an adult, or at least I still enjoy it.

Return to Darkness is entertaining but forgettable, though enlivened by some memorably ridiculous plot twists. Young RN Brianne Jorgensen takes a job as the private duty nurse to Simon Ruechelle, an old man who has had a stroke, because her mother never speaks about her family, and Brianne suspects that they are the same Ruechelles. The family is weird, Simon can’t speak, and ominous lipsticked messages appear on Brianne’s mirror!

The second-best part is the reveal:
Read more... )
The best part of this book was the ads for other Lancer Gothics. If anyone can locate and mail these to me, I will certainly read and review them:

Inherit the Darkness (also by Roberts): Thomasina must find her missing twin—before they both die!

These lack blurbs but make up for it with the titles alone: Curse of the Island Pool, An Air That Kills, Ghost of Ravenkill Manor, The Ashes of Falconwyk, Gemini in Darkness, Bride of Terror, Jewels of Terror, Castle Terror (the last is by Marion Zimmer Bradley!), Children of the Griffin (sadly, the griffin is almost certainly metaphorical) and best of all, The Love of Lucifer.

Vanish with the Rose.

I am very fond of Barbara Michaels, though I never got into her other series’ as Elizabeth Peters. Her Michaels Gothics and romantic suspense generally have sensible and tough heroines, likable heroes, and clever twists on genre expectations.

When lawyer Diana’s brother disappears after caretaking at a historic estate, Diana decides to impersonate a landscaper to gain access to the property without raising suspicions. As one does. As she frantically tries to keep up with the charming old lady owner’s knowledge of rose history and botany while searching for clues to her brother’s fate, she is haunted by spooky visions, flirted with by the owner’s eccentric son and manly handyman, stalked by a local wife beater, and forced to face her own family dysfunction.

All these threads come together in a surprising yet satisfying manner. I especially liked the resolution of the romance and the lesson that there is much more to fluttery old ladies than meets the eye. The ghost is creepy, the characters are appropriately likable or hissable, the history and rose lore is interesting, there are some very funny bits, and the whole story is much more thematically coherent than I had expected. If you like this sort of thing, this is an excellent example of it. I have more Michaels reviews under her author tag.
A teenage girl mourning her missing brother meets a snow-white boy with mysterious powers. He’s being chased by equally mysterious people, and soon they’re after her too. He can’t be photographed, but he eats solid food; he’s been accused of rape; he’s neither male nor female or maybe both; he’s a fallen angel or a ghost or a telepath; he remembers nothing of himself but knows all about the narrator’s disappeared brother Josh and also her neighbor’s dead brother Jonas.

Extremely suspenseful and creepy—seriously, several scenes could be studied as models of how to generate fear and curiosity in readers— but ultimately unsatisfying. Many of the details which created a great deal of the mystery are never explained (I’m still waiting on “can't be photographed but eats solid food,” for instance), and in retrospect were probably created solely to make the obvious reveal less obvious. The explanation we do get is convoluted and hard to swallow. If, like me, you were waiting for a reason why there are two different people’s lost brothers whose names both begin with “Jo,” you will wait in vain.

View others' frustration with the ending on Amazon: Frozen Fire

Yeah, right )
Whitcher is also the author of YA fantasy Enchanter's Glass, which I recall as interesting but flawed.

The Fool Reversed is... wait for it... and interesting but flawed YA novel distinguished by the precise delineation of emotional states and by the WTF turn it takes halfway through.

The first half of the book is a painfully realistic story about a naïve teenager’s abusive affair with a horrifically plausible total jerk of an adult poet. Aspiring poet Anna’s romantic view of their relationship makes it even more clear how Thorn (who I bet renamed himself from the original Bob or Tim) is both taking advantage of it and caught up in his own fantasy. Meanwhile, she’s involved in a theoretically healthy and appropriate relationship with Dylan, a boy her own age; I had issues with this that were different from the ones Whitcher had.

It’s all quite beautifully written and plausible, Reading this as an adult is like watching an impending train wreck. A young teenager might be swept away along with Anna; I’m not sure.

Thorn’s emotional and (albeit consensual) sexual abuse of Anna is sufficient to make the point that he’s bad for her. Going further than that was not necessary, and tipped the novel into territory bordering on OMGWTFPOLARBEAR! Or at least OMGWTFPOLARBEARCUB.

Okay, so technically there was no actual Satanism. )
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