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: (Books: old)
( Apr. 10th, 2013 12:31 pm)
What I've read: Re-reads of "Liavek" and Agatha Christie.

What I didn't finish: Legend, by Marie Lu. YA dystopia, Type A: Moderately Controlling Government, Class Issues, Sorting Hat. (The government controls most things, but not at the level of your love life or shoelaces. The poor are brutally oppressed, and there is a rigged sorting system, in this case based on academic test scores.) This is a reasonably good example of its type. I am completely bored with the type.

What I'm reading now:

Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Bestselling YA contemporary fantasy about a boy whose small Southern town sucks, and then a beautiful magical girl shows up. The first person male narration makes this one a bit different, as does the Southern Gothic atmospheres. A bit. I'm not very far in, though - they've only just met.

Force of Nature (Troubleshooters, Book 11), by Suzanne Brockmann. Jules, the gay FBI agent, juggles his complicated love life while running an investigation of a crime lord; a second romantic/action plot involves the PI and his new hire who got hired by the crime lord and are double agents. Wisecracking, wire-tapping, and cameos by a yappy little rat-dog. I haven't liked Brockmann's most recent books, so it was nice to find an older one I hadn't read yet.

Clinician's Guide to PTSD: A Cognitive-Behavioral Approach

Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, Fifth Edition

What I'm reading next:

Quicksilver, by R. J. Anderson. YA sf that's not a dystopia! Woo-hoo!

DW readers, there is a (not brain-safe, not work-safe) image of another book I mean to read on LJ - it wouldn't post here.

Please comment if you've read any or otherwise have opinions.
A conversation on Goodreads gave rise to a brilliant idea for a new YA dystopia. Just watch, someone will actually write it some day.

Sane. In a terrifyingly plausible near-future, sanity is banned and the government controls mental illness. Taylor, a 17-year-old privileged Mad with social anxiety, has never imagined that the world could be any other way. Her life is a peaceful routine of attending online school and emailing her Mad boyfriend, the handsome Zack, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder.

But her life changes when she meets the dangerous, sexy Jayden, who is one of the forbidden Sanes. Taylor has always been told that Sanes are dangerous and must be locked up for their own good. But now, with everything she has always believed to be true crumbling around her, will Taylor dare to breach the barriers between Madness and Sanity?

[Totally literal barrier. Everyone is living in Domes with Sane or Mad painted on them in big red letters. The Mad Domes are painted green and white, like Prozac.]
I have often had this book recommended to me as a small classic of YA sf in the subcategories of post-apocalyptic, psychic kids, and Australian. It was written in 1987, when there wasn't quite such a glut of psychic kid and post-apocalyptic YA as accumulated later on. But it was still unimpressive.

As is explained in prologue of infodump, after a nuclear war, mutations and science were banned. Mutants can be executed or exiled if caught.

Teenage Elspeth is a telepathic mutant who can read minds, force people to do her bidding, and communicate with animals. She also has other extremely powerful abilities which are revealed later, when it's convenient for her to be able to unlock doors and kill people with her brain. Despite these abilities, her family has been executed and she is in a precarious position, under threat of death if her talents are discovered. Her brother, a teenage total jerk, has a somewhat higher status for reasons I forget and is not very helpful to her.

She ends up exiled to a prison/lab/boarding house for teenage mutants. There she is forced to slave in the kitchens, while sinister experiments are going on off-page. This section occupies about two-thirds of the book, and it felt like absolutely nothing was going on.

I was mostly bored by the book. Elspeth has very little personality. In fact, the only character with personality is a stray cat. Though a summary of events would make it seem like exciting things are happening, they are often narrated rather than shown, and are so underdeveloped that the sense is that nothing is happening. Dullsville.

Obernewtyn: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 1
In an alternate future America, everyone is born with two souls in a single body. They are given two names, like the novel’s protagonists, Eva and Addie. But by about age five, one of the personalities fades away—effectively, it dies. The rare “hybrid” children, who grow older with both personalities intact, are considered a menace to society and are whisked away, never to be seen again. The “multiple personalities are banned and the government controls hybrids” premise is not given a detailed explanation, but the reason for the ban is at least given a justification with slightly more substance than the usual “because.”

Eva and Addie seemed on track to become hybrids when they were children. But, realizing that this would doom them, they instead pretended that Eva had faded and died. In fact, the novel is narrated by Eva, who is very much alive. However, she has lost the ability to move their shared body, and exists only as a secret presence, able to communicate with Addie, but with no one else.

This intriguing YA dystopia is both promising and disappointing. It is far better-written than average, has a genuinely clever premise, and avoids a number of stupid tropes which seem almost obligatory in YA dystopias. The unusual choice of narrator— Eva, who lives within Addie’s body— is quite compelling, and their shared existence and peculiar dilemma is handled with a touching emotional realism.

The first third or so of this novel, which simply explores Eva and Addie’s situation, is excellent. However, after that, they spend most of the rest of the novel locked up in a government facility with other hybrid kids. The story becomes much more conventional, moving from an intimate exploration of identity under strange circumstances to a typical “teenagers learn that their dystopia is a dystopia.” Zhang is excellent at little emotional moments, but not so good at action sequences; the book moves away from emotional moments and toward action sequences, to its detriment.

Her choice of plot doesn’t serve her premise as well as it could; it probably needed to be smaller and more character-focused, or else broader and more about social implications. The second two-thirds of the book rest in an in-between place, no longer intimate but without showing much more of the wider world. Also, considering that the entire premise is about two souls in one body, it would have been good if any of the hybrids beside Addie and Eva actually had two souls with noticeably different personalities.

That being said, Zhang is a talented writer, and the premise really is great. I would check out the second book to see if it focuses more on being a double soul, and less on "dystopian governments are bad."

What's Left of Me: The Hybrid Chronicles, Book One
rachelmanija: (Godchild: flapping embryo)
( Oct. 3rd, 2012 11:31 am)
I found a fascinating blog entry by Rahul Kanakia, the guy who wrote the bedbugs-and-squatters story, with a gay teenage Indian hero (yay!), for Diverse Energies. (I see elsewhere on the site that "I'm currently shopping a gay-themed YA novel -- set in a dystopian Washington, D.C. -- to agents." I hope it sells. Depressing or not, I would read it.)

The sly humor in his story also comes through in his post, but that's not why I'm linking it. It's about how he got into the anthology in the first place. He was not solicited for a dystopian story, but for "an action-oriented SF story with a teen protagonist who had some kind of diversity."

He adds, "Actually, no one ever told me (when I was writing a story for it) that it was going to be marketed as an anthology of dystopian stories. I wonder if that’s because they just assumed my story would be dystopian (which it was, of course) or if everyone else also turned in dystopian stories and they just decided to roll with it, marketing-wise."

In comments, anthology editor Tobias Buckell notes, "In the YA market they’ve decided anything that looks SF is ‘dystopian’ because ‘SF’ is like a bad word, so if there is a way to shoehorn the word dystopian on the cover it seems to end up there."

Regarding Diverse Energies, it intrigues me that, when given the guidelines Kanakia quotes, almost every single author wrote a genuinely dystopian story - a story in which the world is objectively awful, oppressive, and/or doomed. (Exception: Tempest Bradford. The other two non-quite-dystopian stories were reprints, not stories written for that prompt.)

This is not just about marketing, but about perception. Buckell could have just as easily received a bunch of non-dystopian stories, in which the world was not horrible, and slapped "dystopian" on the cover to satisfy the demands of marketing.

But in fact, not a single author read the prompt "action-oriented sf with a teen hero and diversity" and wrote a space opera, a story about teens meeting aliens, a non-horrific future world like Nnedi Okorafor's biotech wonderland, a story about mutant or psychic or uploaded or immortal or robot or alien teens, or anything that could not be very easily and accurately classified as a dystopia. (Again, exception for Bradford, who wrote an intriguing alternate realities story with dystopian elements.)

I see some circularity going on here, not merely regarding this particular anthology, but perhaps in YA as a whole. All science fiction is labeled "dystopia," whether it is or not. Actual dystopian fiction is popular. Writers begin to assume that "science fiction" means "dystopia," so when they get a request for science fiction, they write a dystopia. Non-dystopian stories are harder to sell, and so don't make as many appearances.

And so, the fictional future, at least as far as teen sf is concerned, is incredibly bleak.

Too bad! I don't much like dystopias, or the sort of post-apocalyptic stories that are about cannibal rape gangs and mass slaughter. I like post-apocalyptics that are about a transformed and marvelous and terrible landscape (like Railsea or Nnedi Okorafor's books), space opera, other planets with different cultures and aliens, and mutants. I like to think that the future will be different rather than doomed.

As far as my own personal tastes go, the future of my YA sf reading looks dystopian indeed.
Sponsored by [personal profile] mme_hardy and [personal profile] lab.

This is the sequel to XVI, the infamous Sexteen. I tried to keep an open mind about the sequel. Honest. However, two pages in, I realized that liveblogging it would do a better job of capturing the reading experience than a normal review.

Page 1: Hey! This one actually begins with a concise and clear explanation of the XVI tattoo: Given to girls only at the age of 16, wears off in about sex six years, means that they’re legally available for sex. Does not legally mean that they can be raped with impunity, but in practice it works out for that. Good job. Seriously. Book one never explained it clearly.

Page 5: B.O.S.S. as the acronym for the evil government agency will never not sound like something out of Get Smart.

Page 8: “John’s got an appointment with the big trannie dealership in Evanston, so I have the afternoon free.”

The plot so far: Nina has quit school to work for the Art Institute. She’s dating Sal, who spends most of his time disguised as a homeless person to cover his NonCon (revolutionary) activities. (I can never not read NonCon as “nonconsensual.”) Sal is showing signs of being a creepy, stalkery control freak. Nina and her little sister Dee are living with Pops (her disabled and mentally fading grandfather) and Gran. Her revolutionary father, Alan Oberon, is out there somewhere. B.O.S.S. doesn’t know that Nina killed Ed, the evil B.O.S.S agent who murdered her mother.

The Resistance is sexist and doesn’t let girls do anything dangerous, but there are still girl Resistance members. Wei, Nina’s high-tier friend, will induct Nina into the Sisterhood.

Page 30. Slang of the future: “Skivs! Dee’s been waiting!”

Page 31. Slang of the future, Part II: “Zats! Nina, you look awful!”

Page 42: Slang of the future, Part III: “Welfs” for “welfare recipients” joins “verts” for advertisements and “digi” for digitize in a further demonstration that good invented slang needs to consist of more than just abbreviating words.

Pops has been taken away by evil government ops, and Gran has a heart attack, then is confiscated for an experimental procedure done by the creepy Dr. Silverman. Dee and Nina are evicted, and go to live in Wei’s ultra (cool) home.

94. Wow! A teenage interracial lesbian couple pops up! Good for Karr, seriously. Even if this brief mention is the last we see of them, they are the first lesbians I have spotted in any teen dystopia. More props if they both survive till the end of the book. (If the brown-skinned one dies, a prop will be withdrawn.) They are part of the Sisterhood.

117. Nina gets carried away and almost has sex with Sal. He takes her no for an answer, protesting, “I’m not a sexer.” Despite the idiotic slang, this is the best part of the book so far, as Nina struggles with real and complicated questions about love, sex, and how to tell the difference between her impulse to rebel against society by refusing to have sex, and genuinely not wanting to or not being ready.

149. “Here’s a free hire trannie ticket.”

168. Classic moment of unintentional comedy: Nina’s Dad makes a daring illegal interruption of the constant stream of verts to broadcast subversive propaganda! The content of the subversive propaganda? “Once upon a time, Holiday meant more than a buying frenzy. It was a time for family and friends and compassion for the less fortunate.”

168. A trannie spun out of an alley, nearly knocking me over.

171. There should be a ban on the scene, which I swear I have read about a billion times, in which, hundreds of years in the future, the classic baby boomer musicians are enthusiastically praised by hip future teens as world-changing and superior to modern pap. I love Bob Dylan and Joan Baez too, but come on!

188. The inevitable appearance of the love triangle. Chris, Wei’s brother, treats Nina as an equal, unlike the possessive, over-protective Sal. Nina points out to him that she can take risks just like a boy, and that murder is not gender-specific. I wonder if Karr got criticized for all the victim-blaming in book one? This one has way less of that, and some actual discussion about victim-blaming. Again, seriously, good for her.

This was a big improvement on the first book in the sense of being less politically objectionable, and less hilariously bad. The points Karr seems to be trying to make are more supported by the actual text, so it doesn’t constantly switch back and forth from lectures about the evils of sexism to in-text virgin-whore dichotomies. I was also surprised and pleased that the lesbians survived – even the brown-skinned one!

That being said, The Truth is mediocre. The plot is aimless, many of the supporting characters are blank slates, and I didn’t care what happened to anyone. Sal randomly vanishes about two-thirds of the way through the book, apparently just so that Nina can get some quality time with his rival, and it’s explained in an epilogue that he’d been off on a mission. There are a lot of loose threads, which may be tied up in the presumably forthcoming sequel. I don’t feel moved to seek it out.

The Truth


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