Saturday, January 26, 2013

Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality Review

Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality - Bill Peters

So I kind of had to read this book because it takes place in my hometown. Since not that many do, I always get really excited when I find one that does because then the book is all "I drove down X street, past Y street, and that shady gas station", I'm like "I KNOW X STREET AND Y STREET AND THAT IS  A DAMN SHADY GAS STATION" and it's just a really good time. Rest assured, there was a lot of that in this book.

Right. It's 1999 and Nate Gray is the definition of a twenty-something loser-- junior college dropout, unemployed with no immediate plans to become employed, lives with Mom...etc.  He spends most of his time cruising around town, making jokes with his friends...and that's about it really. Suddenly, his best friend, Necro, starts hanging out with some freaky weapons-touting-NeoNazi-types and there's all these explosions and fires around town and Nate starts to suspect that maybe Necro is involved. But really he just wants to know if they're still friends or what.

To be honest, it felt kind of like a really extended short story and was kind of meander-y. There was an actual Plot, but the narrative seemed to drift in and around it. There'd be a chapter speculating on the arson and Necro's possible involvement in said arson, and then in the next chapter, they're driving some random girl to Buffalo.

  And I get it, the Plot's not the point of the story, it's a coming-of-age/slice of life story. But there's a certain level of cohesion I just felt was lacking. Then the Plot ended...and stuff still kept happening, and while none of that is necessarily bad per se, it just felt what?

In fact, I think that's pretty much the main thing  about this book. Peters tries a lot of interesting stuff that isn't bad, so much as...improperly executed? For instance, Nate and his friends use this in-joke slang that Peters melds into the dialogue and narration of the book which reminded me a little of A Clockwork Orange, but it didn't come off as successfully as A Clockwork Orange in that it never really seemed to click. But like I said, it's not terrible. There are some nuggets of really, really, good writing scattered throughout. The problem is that the whole book isn't at that same level. That's not to say that the rest of his writing is bad, it's just...not as good.

This is Peters' first book and it really reads as such, but he's by no means a lost cause--he definitely has potential and, as with everything, I'm sure he'll improve with time and practice. I just don't think Maverick Jetpants was quite as well put-together as it could have been.

 I was sort of wavering between 2.5 and 3, because I kind of liked it, but I was also kind of meh, but it's not really that bad, but also it wasn't that great...........

 3/5 for the sake of hometown pride.

Read A-Likes: Ghosts & Lightning by Trevor Byrne

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Stay Awake Review

Stay Awake - Dan Chaon

 This was sort of my re-bound book from Miss Peregrine because it had gotten me all worked up for something spooky and then didn't fill my spook-quota. I found this title on Goodread's Best Horror of 2012 list and it looked creepy enough and happened to be in the library, so I gave it a shot.

First off, it's not horror as you traditionally think of horror, like spooks and monsters and demon-children. It's a collection of short stories and while some of them  reference or hint at the supernatural, nothing is totally confirmed. Despite this, I still found it rather creepy because it's dismal and bleak, and there were overriding themes of dead babies, birth defects, widowed/ex-spouses, murdered children, etc,...but all very muted and kind of in the background of the story, such as: "The baby dies and there is a little funeral" and then the story is about the parents, which has a sad, haunting quality to it, rather than someone opening a box and finding dead babies, which is more of the shock & horror approach. These were apparently written over a period of time and published individually in journals prior to this collection, so don't be surprised if something oddly specific like...I don't know, losing your finger while falling off a ladder, happens more than once. The funny thing about collections is that you sometimes read stories in conjunction with stories that weren't meant to be together.

As a creative writing major and as an intern at a literary magazine, I've read and analyzed a lot of short fiction and I am of the camp that believes short stories do not necessarily have to have a definite, conclusive, "the butler did it" ending. I think that short stories can get away with vague, open, conclusions (as long as they are well written, of course). This book is full of those kinds of endings, so if you're the kind of person who wants to know exactly what it was all about and you want stories that end (and there's nothing wrong with that, matter of taste), you will not like this book. But I liked it.

Admittedly, I feel like some of the stories may have ended too vaguely--like I was just getting into it, and suddenly it was over. But then there were those that really worked well, such as: "To Psychic Underworld:", "The Bees," and "The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands." If you think you might pick up this book to try one of the stories, I heartily endorse that last one. It's the final in the collection and a good example why you should always leave the best for last.

 I had initially averaged this book out to 3/5, but then, the final story just blew me away and so I racked it up to 3.5/5.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children Review

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Ransom Riggs


You see this creepy-as-all-hell cover and then you see the book is smattered with these weird and freaky vintage photos and you think “This looks like one spooky book!” And the inside flap continues to lead you along that track—horrific tragedies! Abandoned houses! Dead children! Wales! If that’s what you’re looking for…just flip through the pictures and put together your own story in your head because I guarantee you it will be 10x scarier than this book.

I feel like so much more went into the marketing and package of the book than into the actual content of the story. The cover is nice and eerie, the end paper and title pages are full-color (or rather, black and brown, but that’s more color than most books get), the paper's thick, and of course, there are those creepy photos throughout. It even has a book trailer. But no matter how fancily you wrap up a dead bird, it is still a dead bird.

 So, Jacob's grandfather likes to tell these stories about how when he was a child he was sent away from home to an orphanage on a Welsh island, he was accompanied by other "peculiar" children and supposedly kept safe from "monsters". As Jacob grows from wondrous child to petulant teen he realizes that his grandfather's tales are probably just tall tales. Then his grandfather is horrifically killed in an "accident" and Jacob heads off to Wales to visit his grandfather's old home as a form of closure. But it soon becomes apparent that his grandfather was telling the truth all this time. That's about as far as I can go without spoiling anything and that's about as far as the blurb goes also. But if you think this is going to be some really creepy ghost story, I'll save you some time. It's not.

 When I first saw the book, read the summary, and heard a bunch of reviews talk about how scary it was, I was really hoping for something like The Orphanage. What I got was just another YA supernatural fantasy, complete with tacked-on romance, unsupervised precocious teens, and a sequel in the making.

I'm not angry, I'm just very disappointed. Okay, and a little bit angry.
Admittedly, I don't read all that much YA (and this book is one of the many reasons why), but I can tell when a book is written at a lower level but written well versus when a book is just poorly written. Unfortunately, I have to say this book fits the latter. But the really frustrating thing is that it didn't start off that way. Riggs clearly knows how to write, as least some of the time. And I did actually finish the book, which I guess says something. Even when it became apparent that this book was not what I was looking for, I kept going because I still wanted answers (I won't be reading the sequel, though). However, as the book progressed, the quality of the writing seemed to decline. Maybe Riggs and his editor were getting too close to deadline or something because by the end, his sentences, dialogue, and plot points were just downright sloppy. Also I find it hard to believe that a 16-year-old in "gifted" classes, who uses words like torpor and soporific, has never heard of Ralph Waldo Emerson and lacks the ability to draw basic conclusions from fairly obvious clues. It's like Riggs couldn't decide whether this was an older teen or a middle grade book and then kind of failed at both.

Then there’s the matter of the pictures, which Riggs seems to use as a crutch, except that it’s a broken crutch. Rather than giving us a description of some characters, he would simply say something like “They looked like their picture” INSERT PICTURE. But the problem with this is that he’s not consistent. When he introduces us to one character, he tells us he recognizes her from a picture, and proceeds to show us a rather blurry, unclear photo of what I thought was a ten-year-old girl. And so I assumed this character was a ten-year-old girl, until pages later it became apparent that she was a teenage girl. The same thing happens with another character. We’re given a picture, in lieu of a description, of a little boy. And then later on, we’re given another picture of him only this one shows a much older boy. WHICH IS IT RIGGS? And then there’s the actual incorporation of the photos. Riggs describes the picture “It has this in it and with this and looked like this” and then we’d get to see the picture which just felt very…pointless. What I really didn't like, though, is that he gives an explanation for the oddities in each picture which diminishes their creep-factor. I don’t think Riggs realizes that not-knowing is far scarier than having a detailed explanation for everything, especially when the explanation itself isn’t all that scary.

There's so much more I could say against this book, but that would be spoil it and make this review longer than I'm sure anyone cares to read, suffice to say (hint: mild spoiler coming up), Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is yet another incarnation of X-Men/Harry Potter/Charlie Bone, and a poor one at that. If you're cool with that kind of story, then go ahead and read it because you'll probably enjoy it more than I did.

  Speaking of twins, 2/5 Fancies. 

Read Instead: A Dark Dividing by Sarah Rayne

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Swamplandia! Review

Swamplandia! - Karen Russell


The best way to describe this book is like the Florida swamps where the story takes place. It moves kind of slow, but the longer you stay, the more you are sucked in. Some parts flow quicker than others and though it is mostly open and bright, it can sometimes lead you through some pretty dark spots. Also, there are a lot of alligators.

Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree lives on an island, one of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, where her family wrestles alligators for tourists in their self-run amusement park, Swamplandia! The story begins, though, with the beginning of Swamplandia’s decline. Ava’s mother, their star wrestler, dies of cancer, and a rival amusement park opens on the mainland.  As Ava and her siblings struggle with the loss of a parent, the park struggles with a loss of revenue. Ava’s self-proclaimed genius brother, Kiwi, flees to the mainland in hopes of landing a job to send money home and discovers the joys of minimum wage work. Her teenage sister, Osceola, begins communicating with the dead and goes on dates with ghosts—or so she claims.

The eccentricity of the book’s setting reminded me somewhat of E.L. Konigsberg. The story does, however, take a rather dark turn towards the end, which serves to mark the shift in the characters' attitudes and I could go into some literary analysis ripe with dichotomies and symbolism here, but that would be spoiler-y, and besides this is a review not an essay.  Basically, I think I see what the author was going for...though it also sort of put a damper on the whole tone of the book. I don't want to give too much away because what I really liked about the book was the ambiguous IS IT REAL OR IS IT NOT feeling--is Osceola really dating ghosts? Is the entrance to the underworld really in the swamp? I went back and forth a number of times throughout the novel. Too often I read books that attempt to do similar things, but the author lacks the subtlety for me to really question both sides.

As I mentioned, the book does begin slowly and what I initially thought was the Big Plot Event doesn’t happen until almost halfway through. Looking back, I realize that the Big Plot Event, really isn’t the main plot of the story, and that’s why it happens so late. The story is about the decay of Swamplandia! and with it, the Bigtree Family’s way of life. It is also about the swamp and one of the things I really enjoyed about this book was that Russell completely brought me there.

Now, the most I've experienced of Florida swamps was a short trip to the Everglades. It began as an ambitious and highly romanticized adventure into one of our nation’s great parks and ended as a half-hour tromp across a humid boardwalk where I spotted one lazy and bemused alligator, and then a hike through a wooded area that was comprised of 30% air and 60% mosquitoes.

The point is, I was previously aware of  how much I dislike being near swamps (yes, I realize I am a massive baby).  But Russell doesn’t just transport you to the swamp, she transports you through the eyes of Ava Bigtree, and so her familiarity and love of her surroundings comes through in the descriptions as well. I kept catching myself thinking “I really should check out the ‘glades again” (though perhaps that just the 20-degrees-outside talking) before remembering the stupendous fiasco my trip was.

Aside from the ending where things get a bit...uncomfortable, the majority of the book is fairly light and there's a good smattering of humor, particularly in Kiwi's chapters. Overall,  Swamplandia! really draws you into the environment and it certainly beats trudging through the swamp myself.

4/5 Fancies.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Reading Resoultions 2013

I know it seems like I'm posting things in rapid succession, but I swear this is the last post until I actually finish a book. So, here are my reading goals for this year:

1) Read all the books that I own that I haven't already read
I have this really bad habit of never reading books that I own because there is no due date on them and therefore library books always take precedence. So this year I'm determined to make a concentrated effort in reading them.

2) Read more Faulkner, Hemingway, and Twain.
As some of the BIG NAMES of American literature, I'm kind of embarrassed to say, especially having been an English major, that of the three, I've only read one book by Faulkner and...none by the other two. Whether you like them or not, it's always good to have read SOMETHING by them. Especially if you're like me and like to act snooty and well-read. I think at least one of each should qualify for meeting this goal.

3) Read The Silmarillion 
I've only ever gotten through about half of The Silmarillion, which is another embarrassing secret of mine because as a massive Tolkien nerd it really is just something that I ought to have read five times by now. Also, I own a really nice copy which means it also falls under my first goal of reading everything that I own.

Last year I had the simple numerical goal of reading 50 books, which I met. I was thinking of upping the ante this year and challenging myself to read 75 books, but between work and school, I don't think I'll have the time. Also, I'm afraid that if I do set a numerical minimum I'll start picking quantity over quality and I don't want to shy away from some books (coughcoughKENFOLLETTcoughcough) just because they have massive page counts. I suppose if I can just get up to 50 again I'll be pleased with myself.

That should be enough to keep me occupied this year. Especially as I am gazing at my bookshelf and realize that I own a lot more books than I recall owning...
Stay tuned for whenever I finish the First Book of 2013! And honestly, I'm not sure what it's going to be yet because I started about 3 these last two days.