26 August 2012

YAP Break!; or, fun with connecting titles

The Young Adult Paranormal Break is a time-honored tradition for me, an occasional rebellion against Grown-Up Books, a respite from the worst excesses of literary fiction. This time around, I couldn't resist reading three novels I'd already been interested in which happened to have transitive-property titles: to wit, Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Leah Bardugo's Shadow and Bone, and Robin Wasserman's The Book of Blood and Shadow.

I loved Taylor's Lips Touch: Three Times (despite being mildly embarrassed by the title, and oof, that paperback cover is rough), and Daughter bewitched me on the first dang page, with the phrase "the occasional cheek-chew of bitterness." Yes, thank you! Perfect image, taking the sounds of language into account! It's like she's a writer!!! Oh, all the hearts.

But my girl-crush on this book goes beyond prose, of course. The fantasy world Taylor creates is both wildly detailed and deep and totally original, qualities in woefully short supply. The story centers on Karou, a blue-haired art student living in Prague, known among her classmates for her elaborate stories and sketches of a family of imaginary beasts: serpent-woman, giraffe-man, parrot-lady, and ram-horned Brimstone, the Wishmonger who deals in teeth, with his raven/bat messenger Kishmish on his shoulder.

Except it's all true--the beasts, who call themselves chimaera, raised Karou from a baby. And her blue hair? A wish, a small one, for they come in denominations corresponding to their power. Brimstone (who I inescapably picture as Urkonn from Joss Whedon's Fray comic. She's even got the right color hair!) only ever gives Karou small wishes to spend, scuppies and shings, never a lucknow or a gavriel. (And she's not willing to pull out her own teeth to earn a bruxis, like the sad, demon-haunted Moroccan graverobber, Izîl, part of Brimstone's sketchy global network of dealers.)

Then Karou's double life is shattered, thanks to an angelically beautiful being called Akiva (super-gorgeous people are a YA/romance trope I sorta roll my eyes at, but I heart Taylor too much to really complain), and she finds herself plunged into the middle of a never-ending war in another world entirely, a world to which she's somehow connected. Her unraveling of her true identity, and her search for a way Elsewhere to reunite with her monstrous family, intertwine with one o' them Delirious Scorching All-Encompassing love stories that would be tiresome if it wasn't awesome because, to repeat: Taylor is a dang writer. Liked this book so much I don't even care that it's part one of a trilogy like everything else in YA these days--instead, I'm giddy with anticipation.

Mixed feelings about Shadow and Bone. On the positive side, the setting was amazing! And unique: fantasy Russia, like Tolstoy with magic! The stand-in kingdom, Ravka, is cut off from its ports by the Shadow Fold, a positively Miévillesque rift of darkness teeming with carnivorous winged beasts. Orphaned Alina (hey, that's my mother-in-law's name!) is crossing with her regiment when they are attacked, and in a moment of panic discovers she can channel sunlight. She's whisked away to the headquarters of the Grisha, orders of robed mages with power over everything from metal to storms, led by the mysterious (and alluring) Darkling. The system of magic (is there a technical term for this? Thaumaturgy?) is unique and fun, with the Grisha classified into Materialki (makers and engineers), Etherealki (summoners of weather and winds), and Corporalki (healers and the terrifying Heartrenders), with their own cliques and uniforms. And it's a kick to have onion domes and kvas instead of turrets and mead.

However, I'm not crazy about Alina herself, and since she narrates in first person, she's inescapable. A lot of it's the comes-with-the-territory of fantastic protagonists thinking and talking like modern American teenagers (well, modern American teenagers who don't curse), but she's also kinda whiny about being So Special and it's So Hard. (Yes, this also comes with the territory.) She doesn't ruin the book (see: Setting, amazing); still, I would have enjoyed it more in third person.

I really liked The Book of Blood and Shadow, howevs! It's more of an occult historical thriller than a straight-up paranormal, with dueling, ancient secret societies, and a Renaissance machine for talking to God, and the freakin' Voynich manuscript! Shades of Foucault's Pendulum! (And my friend Hal Johnson's upcoming, awesome Immortal Lycanthropes.) Well-researched, well-paced, whip-smart. Also, when was the last time you read a YA novel with serious discussion of the existence of God?

In one night, Nora Kane's life goes to pieces: one best friend killed, the other (his girlfriend) catatonic, her own boyfriend missing and the prime suspect. Unwilling to believe Max would ever harm Chris and Adriane, Nora suspects a connection to the research project they'd been working on with eccentric professor Anton Hoffpauer (himself the victim of a stroke shortly before the murder): translating a cache of letters related to the Voynich manuscript, an absolutely real and crazy mysterious 15th-century document written in an unknown language and script, full of bizarre astronomical and botanical illustrations that don't seem to correspond to anything concrete. Nora was tasked with the letters of Elizabeth Weston, stepdaughter of alchemist Edward Kelley--both real people; Kelley talked to angels, and hung out in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II until his imprisonment and death. Puzzles in Elizabeth's correspondence set Nora and Adriane on a quest to Prague to clear Max's name, find Chris's real killer, and possibly reconstruct an apparatus known as the Lumen Dei, a four-hundred-year-old direct line to the Lord. Their path is full of danger and classical scholarship, betrayal and secrets and leaps of faith. Oh, and the golem of Prague! And Kepler! And Latin ciphers!

Not to mention: extra cool that Blood blends right back into the Prague setting of Daughter . . . and extra, extra cool that these three word-shifting titles manage to feed right into the sequel to Daughter (NOVEMBER 6TH SO FAR AWAY AUGH), Days of Blood and Starlight! Waiting with bated breath.

25 August 2012

The Pirates! In an Adventure with the Romantics (Gideon Defoe)

You know how you're reading a book, and there's a funny bit, and you snurk to yourself and your impulse is to read said bit out loud to whoever's handy, even if it's just an old Chinese lady sitting next to you on the subway? OK, what if the whole dang book is the funny bit, up to and including the table of contents? How do you keep from going hoarse pestering your friends with jokes, or, worse, coming off as a maniac on public transit as you periodically shake silently with laughter or emit yelps of glee?

Such is the dilemma posed by Gideon Defoe's farcical romp The Pirates! In an Adventure with the Romantics. ("Romp" is one of those book-review words I try to avoid, but it's totes appropes in this case. As is "rollicking.") It's actually the fifth book in a series that somehow no one told me about--if you're my friend, and you knew about these books, and you didn't tell me? ANATHEMA--all following the adventures of a band of buccaneers as they meet various historical/fictional figures (Darwin, Ahab, Marx, Napoleon). This time around, in need of funds, the crew and their Captain answer a classified ad in a Swiss paper requesting "Exotic adventure! Should contain romantic elements, mild peril, and foreign travel," and find themselves at the Villa Diodati . . . occupied, of course, by Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, and Lord Byron, the latter introduced thusly:
Across the room a strapping man with a cascade of wavy black hair so shiny it looked like it had been conditioned in something really expensive, like lobster sweat or dolphin's eggs, balanced on the balustrade of an ornate balcony. The sudden appearance of a pirate didn't seem to bother him at all. He furrowed his brow, and held up two billowy shirts. "Which one do you think would look best on my shattered, yet still unfeasibly dashing corpse?"
I've made no secret of my love of fictionalized Byron (nor my desire to punch the real Byron in his stupid face), and Defoe's portrayal of him as a goofy, melodramatic, jovial fellow--author of a quarterly newsletter of his own exploits entitled Young, Brooding, and Doomed--is absolutely priceless.

Romantics in tow, along with Charles Babbage of difference engine fame, the crew investigates the Captain's mysterious belly tattoo, chases a lost Platonic dialogue, visits a spooky castle in Romania (despite a brochure in which the South-Eastern Romania Tourist Authority "recommends travellers visit the new log flume at Carphatifun Land" instead), and takes every opportunity to dress up in ridiculous costume--for instance, they meet Babbage disguised as a bunch of nannies, except for the Captain, who goes with "sexy fireman." Meanwhile, Mary and the Captain bond over their fandom for monster fiction--she's working on a tale about a half-man, half-kelp creature--and maybe fall in love?

But plot--fun as it is--is naturally secondary here. The real star is Defoe's madcap comic prose, right up there with Douglas Adams for sheer delight. Here, let me pick a random page, and I'll find something to bust a gut over (seriously, the apartment is splattered with viscera). OK, p. 98! "'A man with my hair and physique mustn't trouble himself with numbers. They're literally poison to me. Did I ever tell you how I once caught consumption simply from being in the same room as a times table?'" P. 230: "Some of the pirates had other suggestions, but they were mostly serving suggestions for boiled hams, and so not particularly helpful at this time. Byron announced he was going to go be moody in the kitchen." P. 151: "Please note, I shall occasionally employ the myth of Orpheus to illustrate my passage into the academic underworld. I realise you pirates may not be familiar with the classics, so I've brought along some copies of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Share if there aren't enough to go around. No, there aren't any pictures. Yes, it's in Latin. What? You can't read Ovid in translation! Well, just listen then."

Oh, and that table of contents? Bonus story told through chapter headings for an elementary Russian textbook ("Unit Two: Basic Grammar--Boris and Anna Take the Subway Together"). And a list of entirely hypothetical illustrations ('Fig 1: The Bering Land Bridge at the last glacial maximum, as reconstructed from the latest research. Fig 2: Vin Diesel in "The Pacifier".').

And I have to stop now, or I'll just find myself retyping the whole book. Suffice it to say: I'll be searching out the other installments ASAP.

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (Patrick Hamilton)

Was gonna write about Patrick Hamilton's trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky--my favorite read for the NYRB Classics book club so far this year--back on Wednesday, but then I had a beer (a Magic Hat Elder Betty, which yum! also, we keep having parties, and people bring over beer, and then they leave it, and then we have, three weeks later, 14 beers left in the fridge, and should we just have another party and be like DO NOT BRING BEER WE'VE GOT SOME?). Anyway: had a beer, lost my ambition. Which is in retrospect perfect, as booze and the bad decisions derived therefrom are a recurring theme in Hamilton's working-class epic (and apparently his life, poor guy). Like in my favorite, favorite lines, stuck in my head forever:
He went to bed with a rich and glorious evening, and he awoke at seven to find that it had gone bad overnight, as it were (like milk), and was in his mouth--bitter and sickly. He had been fooled. He had not, after all, had a great time: he had merely been drinking again.
Twenty Thousand Streets' three linked novels correspond to three connected characters: Patrick (The Midnight Bell), Jenny (The Siege of Pleasure), and Ella (The Plains of Cement). Patrick and Ella are co-workers at a pub, Jenny a prostitute who comes in for a drink one night, with whom Patrick pursues a financially ruinous and heartbreakingly one-sided relationship*. Jenny's story is told in flashback, detailing her rise from meek factory girl thrilled at the prospect of becoming a live-in maid, through her introduction to drunkenness, to her rapid slide into streetwalking. Meanwhile, scraping-by Ella suffers the courtship of middle-aged, unpleasant Mr. Eccles, seeing it as her only chance to escape being constantly broke--unless her mother's awful husband dies.

You know the crazy thing? That synopsis sounds like Downertowne U.K. (sister city to Bummerville U.S.A.), but Twenty Thousand Streets is often funny, usually thanks to Hamilton's snappy prose style--dude rocks the Sarcastic Capitals. An extended passage regarding Mr. Eccles's snaggletooth, which often passes without notice but sometimes proves "capable of exercising a partially hypnotic effect upon those who looked at it for too long, and at moments made him look rather like a tiger," is hysterical. Hamilton also, I think, sidesteps miserablism through his empathy for his marginal and tragic-in-the-classical-sense characters. He's not putting these people through these trials, but observing and, yes, loving them--this care allows the reader to inhabit these lives, and the result is immersive, emotional, enchanting.

*(This is apparently autobiographical. Yikes!)

18 August 2012

The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury)

The day Bradbury died (June 5th), I realized I didn't actually own any of his books. Why would I, really--my parents had an old paperback edition of The Martian Chronicles that I read over and over (this one! Holy Toledo, but that's evocative), as well as this version of  I Sing the Body Electric; my Uncle Kurt and Aunt Laura had similarly-vintaged copies of Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. So I was well stocked as a youth. But here, on my bookshelves? Not a one. Luckily, as you may have heard, I work in a bookstore, and I went home with the badassedly-cover-arted edition to the left (painted by Michael Whelan, who won the Hugo for Best Professional Artist thirteen times in twenty-two years, wow).

I don't remember how old I was when I first read this collection--young enough that 1999, when the first stories take place, seemed pretty far off. Now, except for the last three, they're all at least seven years in the past. Bradbury's certainly among the first sci-fi/fantasy authors I read, in the company of Douglas Adams, C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, and Madeline L'Engle. Encountering writers like these in my formative years probably made it inevitable that I'd never make a distinction between "genre" and "good."

My favorite stories haven't changed over the years. There's "The Earth Men," where the ill-fated Second Expedition from Earth is shocked to find the Martian populace so blasé about their feat, until they find themselves locked in an insane asylum with other "Earthlings"; "The Third Expedition," a tiny horror masterpiece; "Usher II," one of my first encounters with the work of Edgar Allan Poe (along with an awesome chunky little Classics Illustrated tome); "The Martian," where one of the few remaining natives uses grief and telepathy to try to carve a niche for himself in an Earth town.

Beyond all of these, though, is the first thing I thought of when I heard of Bradbury's death--the appropriately elegaic "There Will Come Soft Rains," an account of an automated house proceeding in its course long after the deaths of its inhabitants, a story I can hardly think of without crying.

Another thing I realized just now that made me tear up: Bradbury missed--by two months--the incredible landing of the Curiosity rover on the red planet. If not for his writing, I wouldn't have been nearly so excited by the news.

EDIT 8/23/12: Yesterday--which would have been Bradbury's 92nd birthday--Curiosity left its landing site, and NASA announced the spot would be dubbed "Bradbury's Landing." *sniffle*

15 August 2012

Love Slave (Jennifer Spiegel)

How lovely it was to receive Jennifer Spiegel's Love Slave as an advance reading copy from Unbridled Books! Wholly unsolicited books are the bomb diggity, to go with a reference contemporaneous with the story, which takes place in NYC in the mid-1990s. It is extra lovely, of course, that I can recommend the book unreservedly: it's snidely comic, sweet, resonant, and of all things, it ends happily, with holding hands in a snowstorm! Seriously, what's better than that? (As long as there are hot toddies waiting back at home.)

Love Slave is narrated by thirtyish Sybil Weatherfield*, temp by day, columnist for alt weekly New York Shock also by day. By night she and BFF Madeline Blue go to every gig played by Glass Half Empty, whose lead singer, Rob, was famously widowed at 23 and still wears his wedding ring, the better to bed and forget a legion of ladies. When Sybil runs into Rob at her local laundromat and finds out he reads her column (titled "Abscess," full of vitriol and longing alike), they strike up a friendship that walks the edge of romance (despite Sybil's responsible, stable, job-having boyfriend Jeff, with whom she has great sex but little in common).

Argh, and that makes her sound like a floozy. Sybil is indeed selfish, but relatably selfish, in that way that smart, socially awkward people are, and in that way that so many people I know in NYC are. We come to this city because it is this city, and strike balances between scraping by and living the dream, and said balance fluctuates wildly from day to day. And we don't know what we want, so we keep trying different things--or we stop trying, and flail quietly in place, talking about leaving, knowing it's not going to happen, and do we even want it to happen? That's the kind of relatable Sybil is. And that's what made Love Slave such a great read.

*(Note to author: is that a reference to Holden Caulfield's little sister's girl detective alter ego Hazel Weatherfield? Because I totally recorded an album under that name in the mid-1990s, and by "recorded an album" I mean "stuck a blank tape into a boombox and played guitar and sang into it." Album title: Killer Chick Disco Shoes.)

12 August 2012

Liar & Spy (Rebecca Stead)

Rebecca Stead won a richly-deserved Newbery Medal in 2010 for the brilliant time-travel tale When You Reach Me. Her follow-up, Liar & Spy, may be less structurally ambitious, but is every bit as delightful. I read it in one go last Friday! Like slipping back decades to the read-while-walking little kid I used to be. (Yes, I did in fact walk into things, on a fairly regular basis. IT WAS WORTH IT)

Georges ("Here's a piece of advice that you'll probably never use: If you want to name your son after Georges Seurat, you could call him George, without the S. Just to make his life easier") is a twelve-year-old Brooklynite who's just moved out of his childhood house (including the best room ever, where his dad bolted the bottom of an old fire escape to the wall as a totally badass bunk bed) into an apartment with his recently laid-off architect dad and ICU nurse mom, who's constantly pulling double shifts to shore up the family income, meaning she leaves before he awakes and gets home after he's asleep. The two communicate by leaving each other notes in Scrabble tiles. He's lonesome at school--former BFF Jason sits with the cool kids now, and a pair of jerks in his science class have loudly decided he's a freak--but at home, he strikes up a friendship with a kid who lives upstairs, Safer.

Safer's oddities aren't limited to his name. (His parents, it turns out, let their kids name themselves; his older brother is bird-lover Pigeon, his sweet-toothed little sister Candy.) He doesn't go to school; instead, he fills his time walking dogs, observing a nest of wild parrots on a nearby roof, and spying on the mysterious and sinister Mr. X, a mission on which he enlists Georges' help. At first it seems like harmless fun--but Safer keeps pushing, and Georges starts worrying they'll find themselves in real danger.

Stead is fantastic at creating quirky characters with heart--even minor ones, like Georges's lab partner, Bob English Who Draws, so called because he doodles through class, turn out to have layers and interests of their own (in Bob's case, spelling reform, leading to notes like "Smial no madder whut"). And the book's often hilarious--my favorite part is Pigeon relating the story of how he realized with horror as a child that "Chicken is chickens?" Co-worker @salseraBeauty seconds Candy's aspiration to grow up and marry Mr. Orange--"It's the only flavor I don't like, actually. . . . That way we can always share the pack. . . . Starbursts. Lifesavers. Jolly Ranchers. Whatever." I think I've found mine. ;)

There's also the Science Unit of Destiny, the mistaken map of the tongue, a neighborhood Chinese place with fortunes like "It's a cookie, Sherlock," several repetitions of the awesome "interrupting cow" knock-knock joke . . . and a few lies, and a few secrets, a few bittersweet memories, and a few moments of triumph.

Sunday picture book extravaganza!!!!!

I really intended to do these quarterly, but oh, look, 196 days later. So this'll be a long one, at least visually.

Hippopposites, Janik Coat: Not only is this title super fun to say, it breaks out of the usual batch of opposite concepts (small/large, light/heavy) to feature fun pairs like opaque/transparent or clear/blurry, with textural elements to make the dichotomies easier to grasp--full/empty, for instance, removes layers of the board-book cardboard to create a dent in the latter!

Cats' Night Out
, Caroline Stutson and Jon Klassen: Totes in love with Klassen 4 EVA for the brilliant I Want My Hat Back; he's also great when he works with other authors. Here, Stutson provides a sweet counting-by-twos rhyme pairing off dancing cats in all sorts of styles, from waltz to jitterbug to conga.


Little Owl Lost, Chris Haughton: Love Haughton's blocky, graphic character design for this story of a baby looking for its momma.

And Then It's Spring
, Julie Fogliano and Erin Stead: Stead and her husband Philip won the 2011 Caldecott Medal for A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Her delicate pencil-and-woodblock prints are the perfect setting for Fogliano's slow story of winter brown giving way to hopeful green.

Oh No, George!
, Chris Haughton: Haughton again! An adorable tale about the title dog, who really wants to be good but doesn't always hold firm against temptation.

Where's Walrus?
, Stephen Savage: Hilarious wordless faux-puzzle book--kids will love finding the escaped walrus on every page, especially since the pursuing zookeeper remains clueless!

Petunia Goes Wild
, Paul Schmid: Being a human is totally boring and full of rules, thinks Petunia! So she's just gonna be an animal instead. But are there advantages she's overlooked?

Otto the Book Bear
, Kate Cleminson: Gentle tale of a storybook bear who likes to adventure outside his pages. When his book disappears while he's off on a jaunt, he sets off to find a new place to share.

Cat Heaven
, Cynthia Rylant: Oh, man, I can't even think about this without getting sniffly. A wonderful friend sent it to me when I lost a feline friend in February. Right up there with The Tenth Good Thing About Barney in terms of sweetness and solace.

Extra Yarn
, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen: Loved this for the illustrations, obvy, but also it's a story about magical knitting brightening up the world. Hooray!

Dragons Love Tacos
, Adam Rubin and Daniel Salmieri: It's true, they do! But while you might think adding spicy salsa is the perfect finishing touch, that way lies disaster.

Squid and Octopus, Friends for Always
, Tao Nyeu: A new book by Nyeu, author/illustrator of Wonder Bear and Bunny Days, is something to celebrate. This one follows the best friends through four mini-stories, full of warm fuzzies, imagination, and undersea antics.

Chloe, Instead, Micah Player: Crazy-bright rainbow colors splash up this story of an older sister who wonders if little Chloe will ever be the sister she really wanted.

Zorro Gets an Outfit, Carter Goodrich: Oh, gosh, I love this. Poor little pug Zorro is so embarrassed when his owner makes him wear a superhero costume to the park. But then he meets a really cool dog with an outfit too, and decides maybe it's not so bad. Goodrich perfectly captures the why-me expression of a humiliated canine!

Mommies and Their Babies
, Guido van Genechten: Adorable black-and-white board book of animal moms and kids. Sometimes the simplest books are still great.

Good News, Bad News
, Jeff Mack: Repetitions of the title are the only words in this rollercoaster story of an optimistic rabbit and a grumpy rat.

It's a Tiger!
, David LaRochelle and Jeremy Tankard: This one breaks the fourth wall as the narrator keeps trying to flee the title cat, only to find him again in increasingly silly circumstances. The tiger's design is the real winner here--reminds me of when Hobbes would draw pictures of himself.

This Is Not My Hat
, Jon Klassen: You know what? I haven't even read this one. It's not out till October. But if Klassen doesn't continue his hat-based domination of picture-book awesome, well . . . I'll eat my hat.

09 August 2012

Enma the Immortal (Fuki Nakamura)

After my mission re-statement last post, I'm gonna be mentally classifying my reviews for a while--this here, of Fumi Nakamura's Enma the Immortal, is a Boost Up Obscure Title piece. As with most Japanese imports I've enjoyed, thanks are due to Ed at Vertical for sending this my way!

I was utterly charmed by Enma, which is in more or less equal parts a fantasy involving magical tattoos, a bittersweet love story, a murder mystery, an "at least we meet, my nemesis!" thriller, and a historical novel about Japan from the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate (1860s) to the end of World War II. This passel o' genres, nimbly blended, is linked by the prolonged life of the title character, originally a young double agent for the anti-shogunate resistance (confession: Japanese imperial politics is not my strong point, but I'm pretty sure this is right), found mortally wounded by an aging tattoo artist trained in the arcane art of oni-gome--a means of using a tattoo to invite an oni ("demon" would be the closest Western analogue, I think) into a person's body, granting the oni possession in exchange for some favor. Baikou Houshou has never tattooed immortality before, but when he finds Amane bleeding and begging not to die, he jumps at the chance to perform the feat again, hoping to get an obedient apprentice into the bargain, to replace his first, who proved false, tattooing immortality on himself. And who also has a nasty habit of eating people's hearts.

Amane, now Enma (after a Buddhist hell-god), doesn't welcome his agelessness and near-invincibilit, but views them as a curse, wishing to lead a normal life. As the decades wear on, he moves from place to place, inking tattoos both ordinary and oni-gome, his secret known only to a policeman friend, Nobumasa; Natsu, the daughter of a fellow samurai who entrusts the girl to Enma upon his death; and Yasha, the false apprentice, a malevolent shadow. As he remains unchanged, Japan undergoes radical shifts in government and foreign influence. And he struggles with an impossible, though requited, love for Natsu, who he watches grow from a child into a woman and on into old age, her public role in his life going from "younger sister" to "grandmother." (No, it's not gross. It's super tragic and sweet in an operatic sort of way.)

AND there's also a comic! If all those words get in the way.

05 August 2012

Sorry Please Thank You (Charles Yu)

I've been wondering recently, mostly while looking at the big ol' stack of books I've finished and not written about, why I keep this blog at all--and, in a larger sense, why I maintain participation in online book culture, exemplified by Twitter, where most of my connections with authors, booksellers, and publishing types take place. I wholeheartedly agree with Jacob Silverman's recent Slate piece, "Against Enthusiasm," wherein he takes the Twitterati to task for their overwhelming niceness, though I'd add that the online book world is willing to be relentlessly negative within the very narrow band of Things Which Are Politically Offensive, the latest example of which was monotonous (albeit correct) fulmination against a stupid article asking whether recently deceased author Maeve Binchy would've been a better writer if she'd had kids. (Which I refuse to link to.)

Silverman uses my passing acquaintance Emma Straub as an illustration of this sunshine-and-puppies culture. Emma is one of the most genuine, sweetest people I've ever met, both in person and online, I loved her short story collection, and she bakes killer brownies. I totally wish we were best friends! And so, when I read her upcoming novel, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, and thought it was good but not great? I felt like history's greatest monster, for serious. And so I didn't mention the book on social media, and I'm not gonna give it a full review here. (Although I know exactly who I'm gonna sell it to--it makes me wish I still worked at Watermark, because I know a bunch of regulars there who will love it.)

Silverman's essay, and Washington Post book editor Ron Charles's brilliant response, helped focus the reasons I choose to write about books on the Internet. Sometimes, yeah, I just want to join a chorus of approbation, because some books are totally dang awesome and everyone should read them. In this register, I think I'd call myself a "reviewer," my primary concern being to tell you whether you'd like a book. Sometimes, though, I think a book doesn't live up to its reputation, and I want to say so--here, I'm trying to err on the side of "critic," pointing out problems of prose and narrative. I like to think usually I do both. Sometimes, too, I want to boost up older or obscure books that I think deserve a wider readership. And sometimes my friends write books, and I want to support them.

My enterprise, then, is a different animal from a lot of other, far more popular and influential writers and bloggers. And while I will continue to be periodically incredibly jealous, because I am a human being and thus really want people to like me and tell me I'm good at things, I will also strive continually to accept that my willingness to be unenthusiastic, and my total lack of skill at self-promotion, mean I'll never be Internet Book World Famous.

All that said, this post is ostensibly about Charles Yu's short story collection Sorry Please Thank You. Which falls under the category of "totally dang awesome"--if you're at all interested in well-written speculative fiction (and if you aren't, WHY AREN'T YOU YOU MANIAC), you should pick this up, as well as Yu's debut novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. The one thing I'd like to add to the general thumbs-up is to link Yu's name with that of the reigning queen of Spec Fic With Heart, Connie Willis. The best stories here--"Standard Loneliness Package" and "Hero Absorbs Major Damage"--mix emotional depth with sci-fi imagination and humor in a way that immediately reminds me of some of my Willis favorites, like "At the Rialto" or "Time Out." Fans of either of these authors would do well to check out t'other.

Shock Value (Jason Zinoman)

Jason Zinoman's Shock Value, a simultaneously intimate and wide-ranging history of 70s horror film, puts paid to the Christmas 2011 book haul, and it only took me till July 1st!

Horror, an admitted blind spot in my genre literacy, is as marginalized in film as in fiction; Zinoman argues--persuasively--that the seventies saw not only the much-vaunted New Hollywood of Coppola and Scorsese, but a parallel and still more gutsy revolution in scary movies. Directors like Wes Craven (Last House on the Left), Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing) rejected the over-the-top but harmless hijinx of Roger Corman, Vincent Price, and various atomic monsters (Night of the Lepus, anyone?) in favor of raw, primal fears.

Shock Value is a great read for any movie buff (it was, in fact, a gift for my erstwhile-film-major fiancé, who also enjoyed it), but I'd like to applaud Zinoman especially on two points. First, he's really good at describing visuals and sound--I know this seems a necessary skill for any film critic, but it's easy to just assume your audience has seen what you're talking about, and/or gloss over technique in favor of narrative, and he avoids both those pitfalls, without belaboring the reader with data. I've seen several of the movies he chronicles (Rosemary's Baby, Alien), and I wasn't bored reading their stories; several I haven't yet seen that his book made me add to my list (particularly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Carpenter's The Thing); and he ratifies my desire to NEVER EVER EVER see Last House on the Left, yeesh.

He also manages to combine artists' biographies with discussions and analyses of their art without giving in to the temptation to find analogues for every motif in said artist's life, a common and comfortable means of critique that is also really, really boring to me--in that it de-mystifies imagination, turning the godlike ability of the creative brain to create novelty into a sort of psychological waste product. Sure, it's worthwhile to connect the famous chest-burster scene from Alien with writer Dan O'Bannon's painful, lifelong digestive troubles (diagnosed as Crohn's disease in 1980, the year after the movie came out). But lots of people with Crohn's disease (all but one, in fact, out of an estimated half million in North America) didn't write that totally awesome, terrifying, still-shocking-no-matter-how-many-parodies-you've-seen moment. O'Bannon's genius isn't diminished or "explained" by his physical ailment. Zinoman gets that, and this makes Shock Value a much more interesting, entertaining book.
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