Saturday, December 27, 2014

Books I DIDN'T read this year

In 2014, I read a ton of books.

Perhaps even a literal ton, although probably not. Maybe a couple hundred pounds. Anyways.

Blogging for has upped my reading game, but working at a bookstore has upped my reading awareness. There are so many good books coming out, all. the time. I'm still not reading as much as most book bloggers or many of my co-workers. Instead of posting a list of what I did read, I thought I'd post a list of books I missed out on reading in 2014 ... and hope to catch up on in 2015.

The Wilds
, by Julia Elliot: a collection of short stories that fall roughly into the categories of magical realism or the New Weird. Karen Russell and Kate Bernheimer both blurbed it, and the cover is gorgeous.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: I have never read any Murakami (I know!) and thought I might start this year. But time steamrolled over me and I still haven't read any Murakami.

The World of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin: This encyclopedia of Westeros, written by Martin and Elio M. Garcia, Jr., and Linda Antonsson, the founders of, is a nerd's dream. I can't wait to read it.

The Tudors, by Peter Ackroyd: This book came out in hardback before 2014, but the paperback (the version I can afford) was released in September of this year. Ackroyd is an amazing biographer whose specialty is London. 

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi is another author I haven't read, but who I need to explore. This book, a loose retelling of Snow White, explores issues of racial identity and aesthetic beauty. 

Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson: This is the second book in Sanderson's epic fantasy series, THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE. The first one, The Way of Kings, was really interesting; I want to see what happens next.

Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: I read about a third of this book, but someone at work wanted the advanced reader's copy and I was taking too long, so I didn't get to finish it. I haven't read Cloud Atlas, either. 

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie: Really, I need to read Ancillary Justice, which came out last year, first. Leckie is the first author to win the triple crown of science fiction writing: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke award. And Ancillary Justice was her first novel! I have heard that Ancillary Sword, the second book in the series and published this year, is just as good. These probably need to be moved to the top of the list.

Pacific Fire by Greg Eekhout: I read Eekhout's short story, "California Bones," several years ago. It stuck with me. This book is set in the same world as that story. I made our bookstore stock it, but still haven't read it myself. 

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer: This book, the last in the SOUTHERN REACH trilogy, is bound to be incredible, creepy, and mind-bending; the first two were. Plus, VanderMeer, one of the foremost New Weird writers, is a genuinely nice, funny guy. He lives in Tallahassee and agreed to come speak for my sci-fi/fantasy class one year; how cool is that?

Making Make Believe Real by Garry Wills: When this book came out, I drooled over it. It's about how Elizabethan political and religious structures used theatrical methods to establish their "truths"--how they turned the tools of the stage to their benefit. At the same time, Wills looks at how Elizabethan theater staged politics. Next time I teach Shakespeare, I will use this book.

The Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan: This book follows Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons, and promises to be funny, exciting, and atmospheric. Lady Trent is the world's preeminent dragon naturalist and she is a character. Brennan's writing in general is great and she often writes about topics that I love; just the list of short stories she has published makes my mouth water.

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville: Another modern story hearkening back to a dark fairy-tale world, this book explores Nazi Germany and 1899 Vienna through the intertwined stories of two different women.

Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail by Kelly Luce: This book was published in 2013, but I only found out about it in 2014, so I'm cheating and including it.  We featured this at the bookstore because Luce was coming to read, but I didn't get a chance to pick it up before her visit. However, it looks like the kind of weird magical realism that I expect from Karen Russell and Kelly Link, and I want it.

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, by Frances Larson: This book seems like an interesting way to learn some history, grotesque though it may be. I guess I'm a little macabre in my interests. 

Lock In, by John Scalzi: A police procedural sci-fi novel that seems poised to win some awards in 2015. It has also been picked up for a TV series. 

All in all, I have a lot of reading to do in 2015!

Monday, December 08, 2014

Faith and Family in Once Upon a Time

This fall I re-watched all of OUAT to get ready for the new, Frozen-themed season that just finished on Sunday, which confirmed my love-hate of the show*.

I love the intertwined fairy-tale mythology. But I hate the dialogue, which borders on inane. Example: in one of the initial showdowns between the Evil Queen and the Charmings, the Queen interrupts the wedding of the Charmings to basically say "I'll ruin your happiness." Promises promises, Regina. It's your basic ho-hum Evil Queen platitudes made barely passable by Lana Parilla's scathing looks and deranged smile. As she walks away, Prince Charming hurls a blade at her back and yells . . . wait for it . . . "Hey!"

That's the line the actor was assigned. "Hey!" And it's not a funny awkward, "Hey! I have a really great comeback but I haven't thought of it yet!" moment. That's literally all Charming has to say to the woman who has threatened his life and the life of his beloved countless times, and who just ruined their special day* . . . "Hey!" It's like, instead of cursing him to a lifetime of loss and danger, she just ran off with someone's purse.

Moving on: I am a big fan of the complicated nonlinear narrative, where watching the show becomes an exercise in puzzle-solving to test even the best memory. I can't even count how many times I've had to google Cora's backstory again, to make all the pieces fit together, but they do! And it's delicious! But I hate the lazy episodic plotting which relies way too heavily on deus ex machina, usually in the form of some previously unmentioned magical artifact which happens to save the day.

The kick-ass female leads are . . . well, kick-ass. You've got Snow, a great tracker, rider, and fighter; Regina, mother of all devastating curses and necklines; oh, and before the show even begins, Emma is a friggin' bounty hunter who don't take no crap offa nobody. But this win for feminism (which, at this point, is still countercultural enough that it needs to be mentioned) is balanced out by the general tenor of the show, which is actually pretty conservative in its values.

Which brings me to this season, which is, despite the obvious commercialist pandering in the use of the characters from Frozen, pretty good. For one thing, I finally have evidence that the writers are capable of good dialogue; the character of Anna from this season gives a pitch-perfect reading of the Frozen character, with all her verbosity, quirky insights, and insatiable curiosity. If they can nail that, surely they can phase out clunkers like "Hey!" and "Never bring your heart to a witch fight," right?

This season of OUAT also has the strongest actress I've seen on the show so far. Don't get me wrong, I love me some steely-eyed Jennifer Morrison. But Elizabeth Mitchell as Ingrid blows me away. She blasts through the terrible dialogue of the show like a giant snow-plow of nuance, sarcasm, and staring-contest earnestness. I love her.

The thing that really struck me as I rewatched the show was its all-American conservatism. And I don't mean that as a political stance, but in the sense of Norman Rockwell traditional American values, specifically its emphasis on family and faith.

That OUAT is all about family should surprise no one who has watched even one episode of the show. Almost every main character on the show is related somehow. And most of the conflicts that guide seasons are familial, as well--mother/son, mother/adopted mother, mother/daughter, daugher/estranged parents, father/estranged son, sister/sister, sister/sister/sister, etc. Despite all the family chaos, one of the recurring messages of the show is that "family never lets each other down." You'd almost think you were watching Arrested Development, except that these characters are all so earnest in their belief in family and I don't know what their stance is on breakfast yet.

There's nothing wrong with a TV show underlining the importance of family, but family isn't all it's cracked up to be, either. In modern-day America, a "family" is not just a collection of people who happen to be related by blood, but on OUAT, family members who have known and distrusted each other for years suddenly develop deep affection for each other once it is revealed that they are related. And family can and does let you down; in fact, being part of a family can really suck sometimes. This truth is easy to find in the show's source material; in the original Grimm fairy tales, it's not Snow White's stepmother who seeks her death, but her actual mother. The AV Club puts it this way:
OUAT’s commitment to family seems almost pathological at this point. Emma is a spiritual, perfect-match sister to Elsa and her aunt. Because everyone in Storybrooke must be related to absolutely everyone? Does this make Snow White Elsa’s aunt? It’s all sorts of confusing, and pointless. Especially when family often has its own downsides: Anna’s dark side rightly points out all of Elsa’s nasty behavior outlined in the “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” song from the Frozen movie; although we know why Elsa abandoned her newly orphaned little sister, a simple explanation for little Anna would have been nice.
This belief in family is so pronounced, so central to the characters' worldviews, that it amounts to a kind of religious faith. Not faith in God, necessarily--God is never mentioned--but the show's version of God, which is Hope and Righteousness. Every "good" character is distinguished by their ability to hope when things look bleak, and by their adherence to good actions. These actions themselves are undefined but often fall within Christian morals and standards.

For instance, there are very few suggestions of pre-marital sex in the present-day action. Both Belle and Snow wait until they are properly married--or, in Snow's case, until she remembers that she is already married to her estranged amnesiac prince-in-another-dimension husband--for there to be a suggestion of a bedroom scene. This also doesn't really jive with the original fairy tales, in which sex features heavily. How does the witch figure out that the Prince has been visiting Rapunzel? Oh, it's when Rapunzel's pregnancy starts to show.

This prudishness isn't the case for the Evil Queen, though; if there's one thing you can say about Evil Queens, it's that they don't wait. In the first season, the Sheriff (RIP Sheriff) is her bang-buddy. In the most recent season, she has some crypt-sex (what's crypt-sex, you ask? Some new Internet phenomenon? Nope. It's just what it sounds like--sex in a crypt.) with her married boyfriend. But even then, she has the decency to be embarrassed about an unbuttoned blouse.

I was interested to see where this latent faith-emphasis would go when this season introduced the idea of the Book with a capital B. Apparently, this is the master text of the stories that everyone has been living out, and it has an author who holds everyone's fate in thrall--who, essentially, makes decisions about who is right and wrong and who gets to enjoy their lives. But the show surprised and pleased me when it subverted this clunky, obvious reference to the Bible and to God in Episode 9, "Smash the Mirror, Pt. 2." Instead, Regina and Mary Margaret have what amounts to a theological discussion. Complaining about the unfair nature of their world, Regina pokes holes in Mary Margaret's relentless faith and hope, and instead of getting defensive, Mary Margaret acknowledges that nothing is black and white:

Regina: Whenever you need help, it magically shows up like Henry's book.

Mary Margaret: I believe that when you do good, help shows up.

R: Your wishes are rewarded; mine are crushed.

MM: I refuse to believe that happiness is impossible for you, and yes, you may be sleeping with a married man, but so have I.

R: I've done far worse.

MM: Which doesn't mean you can't earn forgiveness, a chance at grace. I have to believe that.

R: If you do good hoping to be redeemed, is that really good?

MM: You know how selfish and shallow I could be as a child; you know what I've done since. You've literally seen my heart; you know it's not untouched. You are not all evil and I am not all good. Things are not that simple.

R: Well, whoever's guiding this seems to think it is. You're the hero, and I'm the villain. Free will be damned; it's all in the book and we both know how that plays out.

MM: Maybe, maybe not. It doesn't matter what I believe. What matters is that you do.

What I love about this exchange is manifold. First, let's give props to the writers for finally referencing the spot on Mary Margaret's heart, a thread that has been largely left unexplored up to now. I also love the use of the religious language, like grace, redemption, and free will. The quote "You are not all evil, and I am not all good, things are not that simple" is what this show should have been doing a long time ago: challenging and flipping these archetypes, leading these characters to seek autonomy from their own roles*. I'll admit, we've seen it to some extent already with Regina and with Gold, but the characters themselves keep throwing around lazy labels like "hero," "savior," and "villain" like they're candy. This exchange finally shows us the characters themselves unpacking these terms and a hint of what this show could be if they would rely a little more strongly on the darker messages of original fairy-tales: that life isn't fair, that human relationships are dangerous and messy, that "happy endings" are complicated, and yes, Virginia, that "magic always comes with a price."

*What's with my love/hate thing? I think it turns on so strongly when something has the potential to be so good and yet it is mediocre. Robert Jordan is probably the best example of this, but I feel it pretty strongly for OUAT.

*Snow does have a "my special day!" meltdown later, which is great and proves that weddings turn everyone, even people blessed with preternatural kindness and good nature, into monsters.

*It's soooo metaaaaa.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

In which November ends before I finish 50,000 words

Near the end of The Tempest, the magician Prospero has a fantastic speech in which he anticipates what giving up his magic will feel like:

"Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."

That's how I feel right now about my NaNoWriMo project. Like Prospero, I've created a little world, with its own "cloud-capp'd tow'rs" and "solemn temples," except I've done it with words. But it's time to let it "dissolve"--at least for a bit. I think it needs to lie fallow for a while as I finish up some short stories and other writing projects. And I hope that when I come back to it again, I have a clearer idea of where it is going. 

I would hang my head in shame, except that I don't feel ashamed. Yeah, I didn't make my 50,000 word mark, but I did come up with some good material, some material that surprised me. I even unearthed the magician Samiah, an entirely unforeseen character who turns out to be fun, smart, and essential.

The thing that really got me stuck is that I don't know Harvanna's motivation for her quest. There's no reason for her to drop everything she's doing, and there's no time-frame for her to accomplish this quest. Her life doesn't depend on it, nor does anyone else's; there's no material reward at the end. So why should she go haring off after a magical kraken into the deep North? That's what I have to figure out before I move forward with this.

I am glad I tried it. And I'm ready to do it again next November, with some new information and skills in my quiver. I learned that I can write through some uncertainty. I also learned that I can write without attachment to a scene or an outcome. Early on, I wrote a scene and, at the end of it, realized, "Nope, that conversation went entirely wrong; that's not what happens at all." I worried about it for a minute, wondering if I needed to go back, delete the 2,000 words I'd just written and rewrite them. Would it trip me up if I didn't get it right, right now? Then I decided to chill out, that I would change it later, to keep moving forward. That decision allowed me to approach other scenes from a more playful mindset, not so anxious about "getting it right," but just concentrating on getting it down.

The thing I need to do more of next year (probably starting in the summer) is research and note-taking. If I keep on with Harvanna's story next year, I get to read Moby Dick again and do a ton of whaling,  squid, and deep sea life research. I also will put more thought into the world I'm creating, and know more about its various cultures, politics, religions, languages, etc. Finally, I need to spend more time with characters other than Harvanna, to get to know them from the inside so I can write about them more easily.

If I work on the Big Project, though--the one I've been going on about for years--I get to spend time researching genetics, Disney parks, medieval monasteries, and manuscript making.

Either way, lucky me. :)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Jurassic World Trailer

This past Tuesday, the trailer for Jurassic World came out. So obviously I had to watch it six times in one day and then have extended conversations with both my fiance and my parents to know what I really thought about it.

I loved Jurassic Park when I was a kid; who didn't? But then I had a decade and a half of other "favorite" movies: Amelie, Fight Club, Darjeeling Limited, etc. Not all of them were necessarily art-house movies, but unlike most action films, they were movies where the story being told was a little less important than how it was told. The gorgeous shots, the quirky dialogue, the unusual narrative style.

But then, at 28, I re-encountered Jurassic Park and remembered how amazing it is. Yeah, the plot is great, dinosawrs blah blah blah, but mostly I was struck by how every aspect of the film contributed to the entire film's greatness. The music was sweeping and iconic. The cinematography rocked (that scene, where Grant and Sattler first see the dinosaurs? Tears). The characters were well-acted. Most surprisingly, given the recent history of action films, the dialogue DIDN'T SUCK.

Let that sink in for a second. This was an action film, and yes, there were catchphrases--"Life finds a way," "Hold onto your butts"--but the dialogue in general was witty and naturalistic. The words the writers chose meant something. They weren't just cliche filler to add impact to the protagonist's smell-the-fart face or to round out a "character" by giving them that one memorable tic. I think the only bad line in that movie is Lex's when she says, "It's a Unix system! I know this!" Calm down, kid, all you're doing is navigating among a screen of labeled boxes.

So, Jurassic World has a lot to live up to (and a lot of bad sequels to live down). Can it do it?

It opens with Judy Greer seeing her sons off. They are going on vacation and, as a last warning, she jokily tells them that if something chases them, they need to "run." This is one of this trailer's two callbacks to that moment in the first film when Ellie Sattler, clenching her jaw, basically wills herself to run the last few feet from a raptor into Alan Grant's arms.

And then we see it. The park. As John Hammond meant it to be. The doors open. Those doors, you know the ones, you've dreamed about them every night since you were twelve, opening for you like some kind of prepubescent fantasy in which your desires for sex and adventure and unknowability and dinosaurs are all tangled up together, only to be replaced, later, by dreams about the pulsing sound the TARDIS makes when it lands in your street and the Doctor beckons you inside.

In the trailer, the monorail whooshes into the most beautiful theme park you've ever seen, apologies to Disney. There are lots of monorail shots; Jurassic World wants to make sure you see the monorail. There is a huge plaza teeming with visitors, so we can expect major carnage. There is a lazy river where park visitors float by munching sauropods, so we can expect some quiet moments of wonder and awe (and maybe snot). There is an awesome 2-person vehicle that looks like a giant hamster ball; visitors can get a close-up look at the biggest dinosaurs this way, navigating the ball beneath their tree-trunk-sized legs. I think this means we can expect a rousing game of dino-kickball.

A crocodile's god?
Finally we see our first meatosaurus (I'm not allowed to call it a dinosaur, apparently, so I'll just adopt Lex's taxonomy). A shark is suspended above a large marine amphitheater. The music stops; for a second, it is silent. Then, from above, you see something rush up from out of the water: a gigantic set of jaws belonging to what looks like a crocodile's god. It blows T-Rex's goat-killing scene out of the water, no apologies, pun INTENDED (although T-Rex's lawyer-killing scene is still great, also no apologies to lawyers.)

At this point, the trailer reveals the film's conflict. I'd say "plot," but I think that's still a little thin on the ground. The amazing Bryce Dallas Howard, playing Science Lady, talks about how genetics is teh b3st science EVAR, accompanied by shots of mosquitoes in amber and egg-rotating robots. She also happens to mention that they've created a new dinosaur. Andy Dwyer, I mean, Burt Macklin, I mean, Chris Pratt plays a . .  well, it's not real clear what he is in this trailer. Is he a security guard? Army Special Forces? A dino detective? Whatever it is, it is clear that he will be both manly and suspicious of Science Lady and her efforts for Science.

There's not a ton of dialogue in this trailer, but one of Pratt's lines is especially bad. He's looking at a fence gouged with enormous claw marks. A man near him says, "Do you think it could have climbed out?" and Pratt says, "Depends." "On what?" the man asks. At this point, you think they're building suspense, and that Pratt is going to have some awesome and/or spooky answer like "Depends on whether it was chased out by something even bigger," or "Depends if its wings have come in yet or if it's still in its post-larval eight-legged stage," or even a lame joke, like "Depends on if it's eaten its Wheaties today."

But instead he says, "Depends on what kind of dinosaur they cooked up in that lab," which is, essentially, saying, "Depends on whether or not the kind of dinosaur that was in here was capable of doing that thing you just mentioned." Which is not a scary or awesome or even strictly necessary comment. If that was the most catchy dialogue they could find for the trailer, I begin to despair.

The end of the trailer is a 30-second tour of the terror we can expect from Jurassic World. A drop of blood falls on a man's wrist; he looks above him, fear dawning on his face. Two people dive into a waterfall. Chris Pratt tells us the hybrid dinosaur is a brilliant killing machine. There is a clip of raptors being released from cages like dogs, and running alongside Chris Pratt as he drives an ATV through misty jungle. There is a scene where Science Lady, all sweaty in a wife-beater tanktop, holds a glow stick out to her side (Alan Grant callback?). And there's a shot of the boy's face slowly eclipsed by the shadow of something large and heavy-breathing.

And over all of this, the Jurassic Park theme, composed by John Williams, played on a haunted piano by Samuel L. Jackson's dead hand.

In the process of writing this review, I have now watched the trailer eight times. I keep telling myself to temper my emotions, that the movie could be will probably be bad, but I cannot control my feelings. I mean, I cried the first time I saw this trailer. My excitement is already sky-high.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Just One More Scene: NaNoWriMo 2014

"Good novels are written by people who are not frightened."--George Orwell

This month I've finally been doing something I meant to do for the past two Novembers: NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. Before this year, writing my dissertation took too much of my time and energy. When I started writing the diss, I had grand plans of working on it in the morning and still writing 500 words of fiction a day. Maybe it would have been a good thing to do--maybe it would have been creatively stimulating or restoring--but I tried for like half a week and I couldn't manage it. At the end of dissertation work-time, my brain was wrung out and I wanted nothing to do with any Word document. All I wanted was a hot bath, a cold beer, and an episode of Buffy. (Or to sob silently in my car outside the grocery store.)

This year, post-diss, I promised myself I'd really do it. I have a novel outline that I created several years ago. I even have a couple of chapters of it written. But this November I felt like working on something newer: an idea I just had, about a female kraken harpooner on the high seas. Bascially, part Moby Dick, part fantasy novel in the vein of Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Stairs, which I recently read and adored. Harvanna is similar to Bennett's main character in some ways: she's relatively ordinary on the surface, suspicious of magic, and constantly has to prove herself in a male-dominated field. 

Working on this project has been like no other writing project I've done. I don't have an outline. I don't have a plot. I don't even really know what the main conflict is yet. I have a character I love, a setting that fascinates me, and an inciting event. From there, where will the story go? I have no idea. It's frightening; it's the author's version of flying blind. The control freak in me finds this intolerable. The child in me finds this exciting. I generally live somewhere in between those two. 

I haven't been writing 1,667 words a day (the required amount to reach the goal of 50,000 words mentioned on the NaNoWriMo website). And I've taken a couple of days off. But I'm still writing. Here's what gives me hope. When I finish one scene, I have an idea of what the next scene might be, and nothing more. Just the next scene. And usually it's something I'm excited to write about. When I get too freaked out about it, I remember Orwell's quote above, and take courage. I remember Anne Lamott's story of her friend Veronica, who prays for guidance, "one spot of illumination [that] always appears just before her feet, a circle of light into which she can step." The next scene is my spot of light.

The Peripheral: Satisfyingly complex, with a happy ending

Reading William Gibson is like learning a new language. At first you struggle. It’s a bit boring, although you can tell that’s just because you don’t understand, that there are exciting things happening under the surface. Then, one day, you’ve learned enough vocabulary and grammar that it starts to click and you can converse.
His latest novel, The Peripheral, which I listened to on audio, read by Lorelei King, follows two interlocking story-lines. One is from the perspective of Flynne, a young woman in a not-too-distant but horribly bleak American future. Her brother Burton, an ex-Marine, gets Flynne a job running security in what she believes is a virtual reality game. While on the job, she witnesses a horrifying murder. Flynne soon realizes that what she saw was not virtual, but actually happened. As the sole witness, she is drawn into the murder investigation. Puzzlingly, she is still only able to interact virtually with the people investigating the murder; the reason behind this is unveiled about 100 pages in.
The other story-line is Wilf Netherton’s, a publicist, although I’m not entirely sure Gibson is using that word the same way I understand it today. At the beginning, he is indirectly associated with the murder victim and with Flynne, but becomes an integral part of the murder investigation. Netherton is a liar and a drunk. In one of the first scenes, he lies convincingly to one of his celebrity clients, getting her to do  what he wants. When the client agrees, Netherton’s partner croons over his earpiece, “I’d want to have your baby now, . . .  except I know it would always lie.”
The future that Gibson creates for readers in The Peripheral is complicated enough on its own without the vocabulary he invents. Some are invented, like Michikoid (which I’m honestly still a little fuzzy on), but others are just words repurposed, like “stub,” “jackpot,” “builders,” and the titular “peripheral.” Gibson doesn’t bother explaining the terms, either; he dumps the reader into the scene as if you’ve actually been transported there, presumably by the virtual technology he writes about. It took about a hundred pages for me to understand what a peripheral was; basically it’s a virtual body someone can operate remotely, even across time.
At first, the experience of reading so much intentionally opaque dialogue and description was frustrating, but as I went on, I found it perversely satisfying to try to put the pieces together — a little like hitting your head against a wall because it feels so good. The weird thing is, even when I didn’t understand the larger context of what’s happening, I kept reading because Gibson’s characters in The Peripheral are likeable and the immediate stakes of the action seemed important. Some of this was down to King’s sympathetic reading of Gibson’s characters; she got Flynne’s hard-nosed, smart, capable, and kind nature. Her deliberately slow, deep-voiced reading of Netherton’s made him a lovable bastard, kind of a mess but still thoughtful about the world and his effect on it. My favorite was her reading of the celebrity, Daedra, which was child-voiced and completely self-obsessed, like Tara Reid’s Bunny Lebowski from The Big Lebowski. All of the characters were so human, so relatable, that I was happy to read along until I got it. This very fact puts me in awe of Gibson; I’m not sure what crossroads he sold his soul at, but I want directions.
As the murder mystery begins to unravel, the book becomes more and more engrossing. For such a dense book, there is actually quite a lot of action: battles, a kidnapping, some undercover operations. Several of the characters have fascinating backstories that we only get tantalizing hints of here and there. My favorite was Detective Inspector Lowbeer, whose perfectly coiffed white hair hides a brain that, thanks to some added technology, makes it so that she is practically omniscient.
One of the best things about The Peripheral is the worldbuilding. Gibson’s vision of future London — the greenway down Oxford Street, the tiny steamship battles in the Serpentine, the way Cheapside has been turned into a live 24-hour Victorian cosplay event — is breathtaking. The future technology is also imagined with great detail. One character, Ash, is covered with “tattoos, a riot of wings and horns, every bird and beast of the Anthropocene extinction” which move around on her body: “the drawings of animals, startled, fled up her arm, over a pale shoulder, gone.” Ash also has a weakness for amazing outfits, such as “a Napoleonic greatcoat apparently rendered in soot-stained white marble. When she was still, it looked like sculpted stone. When she moved, it flowed like silk.” Of course, not everything about the different futures that Gibson draws is glamorous; Flynne’s world is populated by chain stores and “pork nubbins” from China.
The peripherals themselves are not just clever inventions, but they also allow for effective character-building. One of the most moving moments in the book is when Connor, a friend of Flynne’s who was seriously disabled in the Marines, wakes up in his peripheral skin, the body of a young, extremely athletic man. He immediately takes off for a run:
And as he ran he screamed, maybe how he hadn’t screamed when what had happened to him had torn so much of his body off, but between the screams he whooped hoarsely, she guessed out of some unbearable joy or relief, just to run that way, have fingers and that was harder to hear than the screams.
The least ambiguous part of The Peripheral was its ending, which is almost too happy; [spoiler, highlight if you want to read it] everyone lives, is super-rich, and ends up successfully coupled off. It’s like the ending of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. [end spoiler] Some of the reviews I read found this problematic, and I empathize. It feels like emotional coddling to have all the protagonists live happily ever after, which is especially odd given that, if you’ve made it through the gauntlet of Gibson’s terminology, you’re probably not the kind of reader who needs to be coddled. But maybe that word “coddling” is too condescending; is it immature to desire a happy ending, to want your favorite characters to live, and live well? Maybe I’ve been spoiled for unambiguously happy endings by living in a world circumscribed by HBO and irony. Perhaps the future Gibson has created is gritty, grim, and, in his words, “sadass” enough to provide the dose of harsh reality we’ve become accustomed to from all the deaths in A Game of Thrones.
*This review originally appeared here on, where I gave the book 4 stars. 

The Slow Regard of Silent Things: Suggests rather than reveals

After I read Patrick Rothfuss’s novella, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, I spent some time leisurely cleaning my house, enjoying putting things “just so.” Reading it put me in a meditative mood, the mood to organize my life and, in doing so, organize my mind.
This KINGKILLER CHRONICLES story follows Auri, the blonde urchin who befriends Kvothe in The Name of the Wind. Readers get to experience a week of Auri’s life in the Underthing, the maze of tunnels and ruins that run under the University. During this time, she forages for food, uncovers hidden objects, and prepares for the arrival, in seven days’ time, of a guest — unnamed, but suggested to be Kvothe.
In addition to reading the manuscript, I listened to Rothfuss’s narration. It was lovely to hear this in his own voice; I have spent so much time reading his books and his blog that it felt like a friend reading to me. Rothfuss’s voice is direct and engaging as he reads the author’s note, but as he begins the story, it changes gears. He reads slower, with more weight on the end of sentences and phrases, which made the novella sound almost like a bed-time story.
As Rothfuss acknowledges in his author’s note, The Slow Regard of Silent Things is not a story in traditional sense. It does not follow Freytag’s pyramid, and the closest thing to a central conflict comes in the form of Auri’s quest to find a suitable gift for her guest. But a lot of other things happen along the way, too. With its episodic, meandering format, it’s easy to see why Rothfuss questioned whether or not this story would grab readers. And he was right. “Grab” isn’t the right word for the effect this story had on me. A better word might be “entranced.”
I was entranced into believing that objects — the “silent things” of the title — had a hidden inner life of their own. Auri believes this; she treats each of the objects in her collection like a beloved elderly relative, tenderly arranging them and listening for hints that they might be happier somewhere else, or in a different position. She sees “a secret deep within the hidden heart of things,” man-made or natural, and makes it her mission to arrange the world according to its “true shape.” Is she crazy, or inspired? The story leaves this open to interpretation, while hinting that her ability to see the true shape of things is one of her magical abilities.
The Slow Regard of Silent Things provides chiaroscuro glimpses of Auri’s backstory. We learn that she was a student at the university, studying alchemy under Master Mandrag. She even had her own laboratory, now abandoned. We also get a half-second hint of a traumatic event that might have sent her spiraling to her eventual reclusive life in the Underthing.
We also see more of the world that Rothfuss created for his series. For instance, we finally learn its name: Temerant. And, as this is an Auri story, we see so much of the Underthing, although, predictably, I want more. I want a map, a glossary, a history of how entire rooms and halls ended up there. What is the story behind Wains, or Tumbrel? All we can see is through Auri’s eyes, slantwise and half-supposing.
Rothfuss’s fascination and facility with language is evident in the KINGKILLER CHRONICLES with its magical system based on the “true names” for things. Here, inside Auri’s head, it blossoms into something otherworldly. She plays with words constantly, putting her own spin even on the days of the week, re-naming them “finding day,” “turning day,” “making day,” etc. Her names for the different areas of the Underthing are equally evocative: Mantle, Sit Twice, Yellow Twelve, Clinks.
The third-person narration abounds with compound constructions:
She almost stayed there, too, all cut-string and tangle-haired and lonely as a button.
and riffs on similar sounds:
She felt tamped down. Dim. More faint. Feint. Feigned. Fain.
and even rhyme cunningly hidden in the prose:
She laughed so sweet and loud and long it sounded like a bell, a harp, a song. She went to Clinks. She washed herself. She brushed her hair. She laughed and leapt. She hurried home. She went to bed. And all alone, she smiled and slept.
Rothfuss’s attention to language mirrors Auri’s attention to the world around her, and it could easily edge into preciousness, except for the darkness that constantly inhabits the edges of the story. I don’t know if this was Rothfuss’s intention, but I read The Slow Regard of Silent Things as a story about anxiety and depression. Auri is one of the Kingkiller fans’ favorite characters and it’s not because she’s light and lissom and a beam of fuckin’ sunshine. She has moments when she crumbles, when her grip on sanity is slipping through her fingers and she knows it and is still powerless to stop it. I felt for her; I felt the fear and despair that comes with knowing that mental illness is stalking you.
Despite the darkness, I want to live with Auri for a while, if she will let me. I imagine most of Rothfuss’s readers will feel the same way.
*This review originally appeared here on, where I gave the book 4.5 stars.

Monstrous Affections: Chock-full of horror and hormones

Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales, a new anthology by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, was an interesting and surprising read. Interesting because, duh, anything the duo behind Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet puts together has to be great. And surprising because nothing on the cover prepared me for its YA-focus.
And let’s talk about the cover, created by Yuko Shimizu, for a second, because it is incredible. Red thistles explode out of line-drawn stems. Blood drips from the maw of a fully-colored toothy black beast as it crouches over a prone, line-drawn man… his prey, we assume. Out of the beast’s back arise feathered wings, again line-drawn. I love the contrast between beast and angel implicit in the central image, but I also love the contrast between areas of saturated color and the line-drawn areas of the image. It’s as if the image is still under construction, as if the story hasn’t quite been set in stone yet.
Which is probably a good metaphor for a lot of the stories contained in Monstrous Affections. After all, they allrevolve around teen protagonists, characters whose stories are still being written. And the emphasis of the collection is as much on “affections” as it is on “monsters.” In these stories, human (or not-so-human) desires can make characters display monstrous characteristics, have monstrous effects on their lives, or even be monstrous — disallowed, verboten, socially unacceptable — themselves. Several of the stories are set in high-school, probably because emotions and their consequences are heightened here. A building full of teenagers, their hormones bubbling like a cauldron, their bodies in the throes of changes they don’t understand and can’t control? Perfect place for Monsters and their nasty Affections to reign supreme.
Monstrous Affections contains some of the usual suspects: demons, fairies, harpies, vampires. Surprisingly, perhaps, no werewolves, the ultimate symbol of freaky puberty (all that hair!). But it also includes some non-European monsters, such as Nalo Hopkinson’s Jamaican ghost and Dylan Horrocks’ Maori river spirit. Other writers created entirely new monsters, like Holly Black’s spider-legged alien who’s really not as bad as he seems. Or G. Carl Purcell’s “mercurials,” beings made of shining silver liquid that burrow into live fat and control the humans they feed upon, who are exactly as bad as they seem.
Not every story thrilled me — a couple of them bored me — but by and large, I enjoyed the anthology a lot. My favorite moments were funny, clever, or shocking by turns. I especially loved:
  • The quiz in the introduction, which asks you to answer “true” or “false” to the following statement: “It’s kind of creepy the way vampires are always hitting on high-school kids.” (Link’s love of Buffy definitely shows in some of the questions and answers on this quiz.)
  • The clever list-narrative format in Holly Black’s “Ten Rules for being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind).”
  • Patrick Ness’s description, in “This Whole Demoning Thing,” of falling out of love with a boy the moment he smiles at you companionably, winks at you, and makes you one of the gang.
  • Everything about Sarah Rees Brennan’s “Wings in the Morning,” which was such a great love story.
  •  Nic Houser’s “Son of Abyss,” which explores the forces of love, persuasion, terror, and terrible families.
  •  Kelly Link’s teen girls filled to the brim with catty schadenfreude in “The New Boyfriend.” Also, her invention of the robot boyfriend.
  •  The surprising moment of sheer horror in Joshua Lewis’s “The Woods,” when you suddenly see the monster as human and, somehow, he’s more horrible than ever, the way actual serial killers are way scarier than vampires.
*This review originally appeared here at, where I gave the book 4 stars.