Raylan by Elmore Leonard

RaylanPublished: January 17th, 2012
Publisher: Harper Audio
Genre(s): Crime, Thriller
Format: Audiobook
Length: 6 hrs and 15 mins

When I was in high school, I watched Out of Sight and Get Shorty and became intrigued by Elmore Leonard, whose books were turned into such crackling crime thrillers. I quickly took it upon myself to familiarize myself with his work. I actually read the first two Raylan Givens novels, Pronto and Riding the Rap, back then, so when my book club suggested we read Raylan, I was curious to see where Leonard would take the character. From what I remembered of the first two books, Raylan wasn’t actually the primary focus; instead, he was a big part of an ensemble cast, and shared equal billing with other characters. Raylan, on the other hand, focuses entirely on the titular marshall’s adventures.

The first thing you should know about Raylan is that it apparently covers a lot of the same ground as the TV show. I haven’t watched it yet, so I don’t know for sure how similar the two versions are. Most of the one-star reviews complain that Leonard must be “riding on the coattails” of the show’s success with this book, when I believe the actual story is that they asked him to write another book as a sort of tie-in to the show, and he gave them pages to use as they pleased.

The second thing you should know is that this is a book made to be read aloud. On the page, Leonard’s writing seems affected at first glance. Words and punctuation are missing, and it’s hard to get a sense for the rhythm without hearing it. When I switched to the audiobook, the book immediately came alive for me and was much easier to follow. In fact, Leonard’s writing began seeping into the way I spoke and wrote, which is one of the surest signs you’re dealing with a true master of the craft.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that Leonard’s spare, crisp writing is in full effect throughout, Raylan is clearly one of his minor works. It doesn’t read like a full novel; instead, the story feels episodic, as if several short stories were stitched together to create a novel-length work. The book comes in three loosely defined parts. First, Raylan tangles with weed dealers who steal body parts and sell them back to the victims. Next, he works as a bodyguard for a coal company woman who works in “disagreements”. Finally, he chases down a young female card shark who may be mixed up in a bank robbery scheme.

The first section has the most tension because it feels like Raylan is in the most danger, but even still, he drawls his way through most encounters, always impeccably cool and quick on the draw. If the book had ended there it would have been an excellent novella. The real problem is that it never really feels like the disparate stories add up to much of anything. I also got the impression that the book was relying on the reader’s likely familiarity with the TV show, and the characterization suffered as a result.

It really is a shame that Raylan doesn’t quite deliver, because I enjoyed the book while I was listening to it, loved the rhythms of Leonard’s writing, and was immediately drawn to get back into reading his stuff as soon as I finished. I read the book with my book club and I don’t think any of them had ever read any of his other works, and I have to wonder if they’ll seek them out now, because most of them came away disappointed.

Ultimately, Raylan is a quick read worth checking out, but not the best place to start with Leonard’s work. If nothing else, it reminded me that Leonard is one of my personal heroes. I’m planning on reading more of his work as soon as possible (I’ve already started Bandits), and I’ll have to be careful that I don’t start writing all my stories to sound like him.

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Horrible Author Thinks Libraries Are Outdated Concept

LibraryEarlier this week, Terry Deary, author of the popular (in the UK) Horrible Histories series, started quite the shit-storm when he declared that libraries “have been around too long” and are “no longer relevant”, among other things. Apparently Deary just wants people to buy his books instead of getting them for free. Never mind the fact that he also says library use is declining in the UK, which would seem to lessen the impact on his bottom line.

First off, something I wasn’t aware of is the fact that UK authors are paid a small fee every time one of their books is checked out from a UK library, with the total amount capped at £6,600 annually. That sounds like an awesome idea that I wish was feasible to implement in the US. I have a feeling that it wouldn’t fit into library budgets, however. Even still, that payment wasn’t enough for Deary, who feels entitled to the sales he thinks he would have made if those were books bought instead of checked out.

Deary’s rant, focusing as it does on his need to get paid, manages to come off as petulant, greedy and classist to boot. In one gem of a quote, he declares that “this is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature” because I guess poverty is no longer a worldwide epidemic, right? Poor people who want to read should just skip a meal and pay for books instead, and when physical books go the way of the buffalo, they should start paying for e-readers and internet access too. (But that’s a whole other issue.)

Never mind the fact that books are more than just commerce. A good book is food for the soul, and libraries make readers. Readers buy books. Just because it’s possible to get books for free from the library doesn’t mean people stop buying books as well, and it never has. I’ve always got a good half-dozen books checked out from the library, but I still spend $50-$100 a month on new and used books.

Also, it’s a fallacy to assume that if libraries went away that people would buy as many books as they borrowed. I buy a lot of books as it is, but I’d probably have to double or triple my budget to buy as many books as I check out from the library. It’s just not going to happen. It’s the same fallacy record labels use to claim that every pirated mp3 equates to a “lost sale”. When people can get things for free – from the library or by piracy – they tend to pick up more than they would ever buy.

Of course, libraries are about more than “free books”. They’re one of the few public spaces where you can sit and work or read and use the wifi without having to buy a cup of coffee. They provide easy access to computers and the internet for people who wouldn’t have access otherwise. They offer community events, meeting places, educational programs and more. Also, librarians do more than shelve books. They’re skilled researchers, talented educators, and passionate evangelists for great books. Every librarian I’ve ever met is a huge book-lover, and you don’t want to get on a book-lover’s bad side.

Ultimately, you have to wonder what exactly Deary was thinking when he decided to air his complaint. I suppose he felt like an iconoclast declaring a subversive opinion, but mostly he just came off like an avaricious, tone-deaf idiot. It’s bad enough that bookstores are closing by the dozens; if libraries started closing down at the same rate, I’d consider us lost as a species.

To paraphrase John Waters: “If you go home with someone, and they don’t like libraries, don’t fuck ’em!”

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride

Hold Me Closer, NecromancerPublished: October 12, 2010
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy
Format: eBook
Length: 352 pages

In Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, Sam LaCroix is a college drop-out with a dead-end job at a burger joint. He just coasts along, hanging out with his friends/coworkers Ramon, Brooke and Frank, never quite satisfied with his lot in life, but not exactly unhappy, either. That all changes one night when he accidentally smashes the headlight of a sports car while playing potato hockey behind the restaurant.

It turns out the owner of the car, Douglas, is a dangerous man with a chip on his shoulder, and when he comes into the restaurant to complain about the smashed headlight, he sees something in Sam that puts him directly in Douglas’ crosshairs. Apparently Sam has been hiding in plain sight his whole life, but Douglas is suddenly able to sense his powers and demands to know what he is doing in Seattle. Sam blows him off, but finds out very quickly that this is a huge mistake.

First, Sam is attacked by one of Douglas’ henchmen, a man who somehow manages to slice up Sam’s back without using a weapon. Sam makes it out of the encounter alive, but Douglas isn’t done with him. The next morning Sam wakes up to discover his friend Brooke’s decapitated head in a box… and then she talks, and explains that she was sent as a message. Things only get weirder and more dangerous for Sam and his friends after that.

For whatever reason, this book took me a long time to finish. I started it about a month ago, but put it down for weeks before finally plowing my way through most of it in one sitting. I ended up enjoying it overall, but there were definitely a few plot holes and strange choices throughout that didn’t bother me while I was reading but felt a bit more problematic once I finished and let the book sink in.

First off, the book jumps back and forth between first person and third person. The first person scenes are told from Sam’s point of view, and take up most of the book, but the third person scenes are both longer and more common than I was expecting. There are several scenes from Douglas’ perspective as well as some from a girl named Brid whose connection to Sam’s storyline isn’t immediately apparent. These scenes do eventually come together with the main storyline, but in retrospect I think part of what bogged me down for so long was getting stuck in one of those third-person scenes without understanding its purpose.

Also, Douglas’ motivations don’t entirely makes sense. He tells Sam that he needs training and can either die or be his apprentice, but never even tries to gain Sam’s confidence. It’s clear to both Sam and the reader that Douglas only means him harm from the outset, so there’s never really any danger that Sam might be tempted towards the dark side. It’s kind of a shame, really, because if Sam had been presented with more of a moral quandary, it might have ramped up the tension a bit.

That said, I enjoyed the book enough that I immediately bought the sequel when I was done. I like McBride’s writing style, and I enjoyed the setting and characters. I’m curious to know what happens next, even if this book started unravelling a bit after I let it sink in. I think there’s a decent chance this is a series that will actually improve as it goes on despite my criticisms of the first book. Worth a read.

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For Sale: Used Ebooks, Electrons Slightly Creased

"Used Books And Vinyl"Amazon raised eyebrows in the publishing world last week with news of a patent they received for reselling used ebooks. Several authors I follow on Twitter expressed immediate concern, including Chuck Wendig, who wrote a hilariously foul-mouthed blog post and began tweeting jokes about used ebooks.

Now, it’s possible that the patent is just Amazon covering their bases. Apple is known for patenting technology that never sees the light of day, and I’m sure they aren’t the only one. It’s also possible that the patent isn’t exactly what it sounds like at first blush.

However, it’s hard to imagine how reselling used ebooks would work any better than piracy does for authors. Authors don’t actually receive royalties when you walk into a used book store and buy their book second-hand, so would that still be the case if you buy a digital version of their book “used”?

Also, what exactly does it mean for an ebook to be used? It’s not like the files degrade, after all. It’s generally understood that used books are cheaper than new books in part because of wear and tear. Would it make sense, then, to discount a used ebook? Amazon’s currently system involves selling new and used books side-by-side, sometimes with a fairly prominent one-click button to buy the book used, so would they also start displaying cheaper “used” versions of ebooks?

Along those lines, I can definitely understand why the immediate reaction from authors was disbelief and concern. A form of this business model already exists on a website called ReDigi, which bills itself as a “pre-owned digital marketplace” and lists “used” and “new” prices for MP3 files right next to each other despite the fact that the files are probably identical. The whole thing just feels sketchy, and if Amazon goes down the same route, they’ll do nothing but alienate authors and other content creators.

However, I do think there is a counter-argument to consider. After all, as more of the content we consume starts existing only in “the cloud”, what exactly does it mean to own something digital in the first place? In most cases, companies make a clear distinction between owning the “license” to content and owning the actual content. A license is something that can be revoked, and digital rights management means that you can’t circumvent that license.

If I’ve spent hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on digital books and music, what happens to those licenses when I die? Do they just evaporate into the ether, or should I have the right to hand them down to my heirs? What if I read and enjoyed an ebook and would like to give it to a friend to read at her leisure?

If you start thinking about license transfers on the personal level instead of the corporate level, they start making a bit more sense. The problem to solve is finding a way to allow someone to give an ebook to a friend without also making it possible for a corporation to sell thousands of copies of that book without paying royalties.

It might actually all come down to branding, really; the concept of “used ebooks” is patently absurd because calling something “used” is irrevocably tied to its existence as a physical object. However, if you reframe it in terms of digital content, transferring content licenses starts sounding a bit more reasonable.

Ultimately I think there needs to be a legitimate way for content licenses to be transferred between people, and if Amazon has figured out a way to do it, it might not be such a bad thing.

A Selection of Scary Stories

I’ve never been a huge fan of horror, but over the years I’ve gained an appreciation of scary stories. They aren’t necessarily the same thing, either. As I see it, horror is a genre with a few common tropes, one of which is that the story may or may not be scary. For example, I’ve never really thought that slasher movies were scary. They’re mostly just gratuitous. I’ve read a bunch of Stephen King, but few of his books are truly scary and most feel more like dark fantasy than outright horror. Evil Dead 2 isn’t particularly scary, either, but it’s definitely a horror classic.

Scary stories, on the other hand, can exist in almost any genre. I think a good author can wring a bit of terror out of something entirely realistic and/or mundane. However, it’s pretty rare that I read something that genuinely freaks me out. When it does, it’s the sort of thing that sticks with me forever, which is definitely something to strive towards as a writer. I’m certainly drawn to writing scary stories myself.

LullabyWhen I think of scary stories, one of the first that springs to mind is Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, which tells the story of a man who discovers an African culling song in a children’s book. Unfortunately for him, he only discovers the song’s powers after he’s read it to his wife and child and accidentally killed them both. Then, of course, the song gets stuck in his head, and if he inadvertently thinks it at someone, they die. Needless to say, I found the concept of a deadly thought virus completely and utterly terrifying.

CoralineNext in line is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which is probably my most favorite of all his books. The funny thing about the book is that I’ve heard it tends to scare adults far more than children. Apparently a young girl exploring a frightening alternate universe full of terrible danger tends to freak out adults but sounds like an adventure to kids. Go figure! Gaiman skillfully uses surrealism and an omnipresent menacing atmosphere to keep the reader constantly off-kilter, and the tension just keeps building. Coraline isn’t the only work of Gaiman’s that I’ve found creepy and/or disturbing. Some of his short stories are particularly chilling as well.

The End of EverythingI’d also argue that Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything fits in this category. The narrator, Evie, is a teenage girl in the 1980s whose best friend suddenly disappears one day. Was she abducted? Did she kill herself? Panic in the community builds as the disappearance drags on and on, and Evie takes it upon herself to investigate what happened. Part of what makes the book so terrifying are the uncomfortable parallels between Evie’s crush on an older man and the increasing likelihood that her friend was abducted by a pedophile. Nothing in the book is black and white, and even though it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, I hesitate to recommend it to anyone simply because it filled me with such a palpable feeling of uneasiness throughout.

I hope to someday tell a story that manages to convey the same sense of dread and uneasiness I felt when I read those books and others. Until then, I’ll continue on my quest to read truly frightening books wherever I may find them.

Old Friends -or- The Same Book Over and Over Again

The "double-reading" selfportraitWhen I was a kid I read and re-read the same handful of books. The complete works of Douglas Adams were in heavy rotation. Hitchhiker’s Guide, sure, but I also read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency until the cover fell off. I also picked up Roald Dahl over and over again. I remember reading The Witches most often, despite the fact that when I tried to watch the movie version it terrified the hell out of me. (The girl stuck in the painting? Nightmare fuel.) Those are the books that stand out in my mind, but I’m sure there were others.

This habit didn’t stick with me, though; as I grew older, I got out of the habit of re-reading books. Part of it may have been that as I had more disposable income (and a car), I could pretty much always get my hands on something new to read, so I no longer felt the need to go back to familiar old books. I certainly have plenty of new books to read now, so It’s rare that I’m willing to make the time to re-read something, even if it was years ago.

However, whenever I talk to people who are regular readers, re-reading books seems like a fairly common pastime. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, I get the impression that re-readers are far more common than folks like me who only tend to read books once before moving on. The simple explanation for a lot of the people I’ve talked to is that they like re-reading books because it’s comfortable. Sure, they might know what happens in the story, but reading it again is like visiting old friends or a familiar place. I’ve never been drawn to re-read books out of comfort, but I can understand the appeal.

I can also definitely see the value in re-reading books like Catcher in The Rye at different points in my life. That book meant something different for me when I was in high school than it did when I was in college, and I’m about due for a third reading. I’ve also re-read books for purely practical reasons, such as when I had to read A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings for a second time because I was completely lost when I tried to start reading A Storm of Swords.

Lately I’ve been considering going back and picking up books and/or series from my childhood and reading them again just to get a new perspective. Despite reading Hitchhiker’s Guide a dozen times, I don’t remember too much about it, so reading it again now would be a revelation. I am a little hesitant, though. Sometimes the things we love in childhood don’t stand up to scrutiny when we return to them as adults.

I did actually start a Harry Potter re-read last year – this time listening to the audiobooks – but I only made it through the first two books before I got distracted by other things to read. I’ll finish the series eventually, but once I do, I want to take a crack at some other iconic authors from my childhood. I’m also seriously considering picking up some of the books ruined by my high school English classes. The Great Gatsby got it the worst, but I might also take another crack at A Tale of Two Cities. Not sure if The Scarlet Letter is worth a third read, though.

Ultimately, however, I don’t think I’ll ever be a re-reader by nature. I’m always looking forward to the next new book in line. I only pick up books I’ve already read by conscious choice… or if they were so unmemorable that I completely forgot about reading them (which has happened before). That said, I think I will be making a conscious effort to dive back into some past reads over the course of the next year, just to see what I may have missed back then.

My Most Anticipated Books of 2013

The Human DivisionThe Human Division by John Scalzi, January 15th to April 9th, 2013 – The first two installments of John Scalzi’s episodic novel set in the Old Man’s War universe have already been released, but there are eleven more episodes to look forward to over the next few months. The first episode, The B Team, felt like the opening of a novel, but the second episode, Walk The Plank, was very different stylistically and focused on entirely different characters. I have a feeling that Scalzi plans on playing with our expectations over the course of the series, and I’m very curious to see what he does next.

HomelandHomeland by Cory Doctorow, February 5, 2013 – I have mixed feelings about Cory Doctorow. On one hand, I don’t always agree with his politics – or at least the extremity of his views – but I thoroughly enjoyed Little Brother when I read it a few years ago and I am definitely looking forward to this sequel. Much of Doctorow’s work seems closely tied to his personal politics, and Homeland is no different. Here he tackles a Wikileaks-style information dump that young hacker/activist Marcus has to decide how to disseminate, all while he is being chased by mysterious agents and trying to rescue a kidnapped friend.

The Teleportation AccidentThe Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman, Feb 26, 2013 – Whoever wrote the blurb for this book is an absolute genius. The book is described alternately as “a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner” and “a science fiction novel that can’t remember what ‘isotope’ means” among other things. The book sounds hilarious, weird, obsessed with sex and exactly the sort of thing I’d like to read despite the fact that I’m not entirely sure what it’s actually about. Those kinds of books either turn out to be my all-time favorites or complete wrecks that I abandon within fifty pages, but they’re always worth giving a shot.

YouYou by Austin Grossman, March 26, 2013 – Austin Grossman – twin brother of Lev Grossman and author of Soon I Will Be Invincible – draws on his experiences working in the game industry to tell the story of a game designer who joins a legendary developer in an attempt to solve the mystery of his friend’s death. However, once he starts working on their upcoming game, he discovers a “mysterious software glitch” that leads him on a path towards discovering something bigger and far more dangerous. I haven’t read Grossman’s first book, but this one sounds like it’ll scratch the same itch as Ready Player One and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

Life After LifeLife After Life by Kate Atkinson, April 2, 2013 – Kate Atkinson’s first novel in several years that doesn’t focus on detective Jackson Brodie also has an intriguing time-bending premise. Ursula Todd is first born in in 1910 only to die that same night. Except she also lives, only to die again and again throughout the course of her odd life. This one completely snuck up on me; I haven’t read all of her Jackson Brodie books, but I was starting to get the impression that she was planning on sticking with that series for the foreseeable future.

NOS4A2NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, April 30, 2013 – I still need to read Horns, but Heart-Shaped Box and Locke & Key were more than enough to convince me that Hill is a talent to watch. Here he tells the story of Victoria McQueen, the girl with “a secret gift for finding things”, and Charlie Manx, a very dangerous man in a Rolls-Royce that can travel between worlds. They cross paths one day and Victoria barely escapes with her life. The story picks up again years later when Charlie comes after Victoria’s son. The book sounds intense and ambitious, and I’m definitely looking forward to checking it out.

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, June 4th 2013 – First off, this book gets absolutely ecstatic reviews from everyone that reads it, so that’s definitely a vote in its favor. I read Beukes’ Moxyland a few years ago, and although I did enjoy it, it felt a bit like William Gibson-lite. Here it seems like she might have truly come into her own with a story about a time-travelling serial killer and the girl who survives to hunt him down. Also, it’s being published by Mulholland Books, who seem to have a lot of fascinating crime/sci-fi crossovers on their schedule this year.

JoylandJoyland by Stephen King, June 4th 2013 – Joyland is the first of two King books coming out in 2013. What makes this one interesting is that it’s the second book he’s published through Hard Case Crime (the first was The Colorado Kid), which implies that even if there are supernatural elements, the book will fall more on the pulp/thriller side of things. As you might guess from the title, the book focuses on a young man who works at an amusement park and discovers something sinister. King’s last few books have been epics, so it’s nice to see him stepping back and telling a story that isn’t quite so wide in scope.

Bohemian HighwayClaire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran, June 18th 2013 – I read the first Claire DeWitt book with my book club, and Gran immediately joined the short list of authors whose every work I want to read. City of the Dead focused on the detective’s return to post-Katrina New Orleans, and the mix of mysticism, surrealist detective manuals and local New Orleans flavor combined to make an incredibly compelling read. Here DeWitt travels to San Francisco to solve the murder of her musician ex-boyfriend. One of the things I loved most about City of the Dead was that New Orleans felt like a character, so the choice of San Francisco as a setting seems like a natural progression.

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, June 18th 2013 – I don’t know what Gaiman’s next novel for adults is about, but I know I’ll be picking it up and reading it as soon as it comes out. It’s actually kind of pleasant not knowing the synopsis of such a big release, so I think I might do what I can to stay relatively unspoiled until June (if at all possible). I will admit that the last few things I’ve read by Gaiman haven’t grabbed me as much as Neverwhere or American Gods, but Coraline is one of the few books I’ve read that actually freaked me out, so I’ll forgive the occasional bit of uneven writing after that terrifying little book.

Naptune's BroodNeptune’s Brood by Charles Stross, July 2, 2013 – Far-future “mundane” space opera set in the same world as Saturn’s Children with a storyline that apparently involves interstellar finance. Stross is one of few authors I’ve read who manages to make wonky discussions of economics, technology and politics both exciting and palatable. I finished reading his Merchant Princes books last year, and although it was occasionally a bit of a bumpy ride, I was fascinated by all of the economical maneuvering Stross wove into the story.

SkinnerSkinner by Charlie Huston, July 9th 2013 – Huston is another one of those authors whose books I will buy and read immediately upon release. I absolutely loved Caught Stealing, Sleepless and The Mysterious Art of Erasing All Signs of Death, so it’s hard to contain my excitement for Huston’s debut with Mulholland Books. The blurb describes it as “a combination of Le Carre spycraft with Stephenson techno-philosophy” and that just sounds like it’ll hit all the right buttons for me. Huston is a master of spare, intense crime thrillers that are alternately grim, gruesome and hilarious. Can not wait.

Doctor SleepDoctor Sleep by Stephen King, September 24th 2013 – A sequel to The Shining that catches up with Danny Torrance as an adult working in a nursing home. One day he meets a young girl who has “the brightest shining ever seen” and she draws him into a battle both against his personal demons, including the legacy of his father’s alcoholism, and against a murderous tribe of paranormals called The True Knot. I never actually finished The Shining, but I’m still looking forward to this sequel. I plan on reading a lot of Stephen King this year, and have made a pile of King books next to my bed in preparation.

SteelheartSteelheart by Brandon Sanderson, September 24th 2013 – The synopses for Sanderson’s books don’t generally grab me, but that’s probably because I’m really not much of an epic fantasy reader. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the description of Steelheart, which tells the story of a world where people called “epics” were granted superpowers by a burst in the sky. Instead of being a force for good, epics used their powers to become despotic tyrants. The only people willing to fight against the epics are a group of normal humans called “reckoners”, who spend their time working on finding ways to assassinate the epics. I love the idea of normal human beings fighting against super-powered tyrants, so I’ll definitely be giving this one a chance.

Short Stories of the Week: Driftings and The Taste of Starlight

I’d like to talk about two short stories I read this week: one I loved, and one I found absolutely revolting.

Clarkesworld Magazine, January 2013The first, Driftings by Ian McDonald, is available in the January issue of Clarkesworld Magazine. I own The Dervish House – a 2011 Hugo nominee for Best Novel – but haven’t read it yet, so this was my first exposure to McDonald’s writing.

The thing I noticed almost immediately about this story was the language. McDonald definitely has a way with words:

Ocean cold was beginning to infiltrate the wetsuit but the slump of a wave, the side-slip of a gull on the air, the sudden hiss of eddying drizzle; all said stay, speak.

Driftings tells the story of an artist who lives in a seaside town and spends his time scavenging the shore for items washed away during the Japanese tsunami. He takes what he finds and builds bizarre sculptures in his house, which is almost entirely full of the sea’s detritus. One day he meets a mysterious girl… and I don’t want to say too much more than that.

The pleasure of the story rests in its simplicity, in the slow creeping otherworldliness that builds one paragraph at a time. McDonald doesn’t provide any kind of pat explanations for what is going on, and the ending throws a nice little curveball. Highly recommended.

•••

Lightspeed Magazine, October 2010On the other end of the spectrum is The Taste of Starlight by John R. Fultz, which is included in the print and audio versions of Lightspeed: Year One. I’ve been listening to the audiobook version on and off for a few weeks now, and most of the stories so far have been pretty decent, with a few standouts like the Catherynne M. Valente story I discussed last week. I’ve found something to like about pretty much every Lightspeed story I’ve ever read or listened to, but there had to eventually be an exception, and this was it. It has certainly stuck with me, but not in a good way.

The Taste of Starlight tells the story of a doctor on a seven-year interstellar mission to a far-off colony. A systems malfunction causes his cryopod to open early, and he becomes the only person awake on the ship with more than a year left to go before landfall. He discovers that there aren’t enough emergency rations to last him for the whole trip… and I’m sure you’ve figured out where this is going.

I don’t remember exactly when I started guessing that he would resort to cannibalism, but it was definitely telegraphed pretty early on. Sure, the main character eats all the emergency rations first and does his best to live without food for as long as possible, but there comes a time when he decides that the “mission has to succeed” because a starving colony is depending on his expertise.

When he finally got around to eating someone, I checked the timer and discovered that I was only about a fourth of the way through the hour-long story. Checking the time in the first place is a bad sign, but I kept listening because I wanted to see what the author had to say that would take another forty minutes.

It turns out that most of this length consists of increasingly gruesome descriptions of the main character torturing, mutilating and eating his crew-mates. We are told that the ship isn’t equipped with cold storage (or backup cryopods, for that matter), so the doctor has to keep his victims alive to prevent the meat from spoiling. At first he sedates them, but eventually he runs out of medicine and stops caring. Then he starts taking culinary pleasure in the various body parts he’s eating, and the author goes out of his way to top himself with nauseating details in every paragraph.

Ultimately the story is just gratuitous. The basic structure is entirely predictable, so the only thing that makes The Taste of Starlight unique is a grotesque fixation on the particulars of eating a dozen human beings. If the author was trying to make a point about the potential horrors of space travel or the darkness hidden in the human soul, he drives it into the ground and then keeps going.

On Gender and Genre

The Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeI’ve been in a book club with some friends from college for a few years now, and a couple of months back we had a discussion about whether or not certain books could be considered “girl books” or “boy books”. The discussion was inspired by The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which my friend Aaron argued was more of a “girl book” than he would have liked to read.

Our book club – largely composed of women (and librarians, to boot) – ultimately did not agree with Aaron’s assessment, but the concept of books that are only appealing to a specific gender is not a new one. The romance genre, for example, is one that is traditionally considered targeted towards women, but it isn’t the only one. There are also sub-genres like books about shopping, cozy mysteries or anything involving quilts that are stereotypically female. Some, but not all, of these books exist under the designation of “chick lit”, a marketing term designed to simultaneously alienate men and patronize women.

However, when you try to turn it around and consider books “for men”, there isn’t a corresponding umbrella term. I would imagine that genres like military fiction, epic fantasy and hard scifi are considered stereotypically male, as are books about no-nonsense action heroes or middle-aged men reminiscing about sex, but I feel certain there are women who read and enjoy all of those genres. Surely even the “fond memories of vagina” genre has its female readers.

So what, then, does it actually mean when someone refers to a book as “chick lit” or “for women”? People have a habit of confusing genres with reading levels or target audiences. Young adult fiction is another case in point. Maybe what someone actually means when they say they think a book is too girly is that they don’t like or understand the book’s genre. More likely is that they haven’t read the right book or books in that genre. Ultimately, though, it all seems to come down to the marketing.

Literary fiction, for example, is a genre that likes to believe it isn’t one, and if a “romance” novel is marketed as literary fiction, it will probably reach a wider audience and gain more respect. In fact, I’ve read a number of books that were essentially romance novels sold under another name. For example, Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is sold as fantasy but has a very strong romantic/erotic plot line. It’s also a fantastic book that I would recommend highly to readers looking for something a bit different. The Time-Traveler’s Wife is sold as literary fiction but has elements of both scifi and romance.

My good experiences with young adult books and “stealth” romance novels lead me to believe that there must be books I’d enjoy that are marketed as romance novels. If it’s simply a matter of being embarrassed to be seen holding the cover in public, then reading the ebook is an easy solution. I’m starting to suspect that I could find a book I would enjoy in every genre if I just knew where to look.

Young Adult: Just Another “Dumbed-Down” Genre

Harry PotterRecently while thoroughly frittering away an evening online, I decided to respond to a commenter who was doing a bit of trolling with some admittedly low-hanging fruit. The thread was over at io9, which actually has what I consider the rare comments section worth reading, and it was on their post about essential SF&F reads of 2013 (my own list is in the pipeline!).

The commenter’s complaint was related to the inclusion of a number of young adult books in the list. As they saw it this was clear proof of “a decline in reading comprehension and vocabulary”. Yes, I should know better than to try and respond to that, but I couldn’t help myself. I was of course tempted to point out the irony of complaining about a “dumbed-down” genre on a post (and site) devoted to science fiction and fantasy, but I reserved that bit of snark for Twitter instead.

Unfortunately, this kind of opinion doesn’t just appear in comments sections, it’s also propagated by professional critics, as my friend Kiersi noted in her recent discussion of criticism directed at the “new adult” genre. This particular criticism seems to rely largely on the assumption that young adult writers aren’t doing anything but churning out simplistic hack-job trilogies intended for a quick turnaround as the next summer blockbuster. That just because a book is intended for teens means it can’t or won’t address weighty themes. Or that the writing will be childish and simplistic.

The Catcher in the RyeWhen did simplicity and readability become such a crime? Hemingway would surely disagree. The Catcher in the Rye – possibly the ultimate prototypical young adult novel – stands the test of time because the writing is simple, straightforward and clean. Holden thinks and talks like a teenager of his time, and if that book was published today, it would be marketed as young adult, no question about it.

I’d also argue that some of the best writing I’ve read recently was in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I thought the book had some pacing issues near the end, but Taylor’s prose was so drop-dead gorgeous that I still consider the book a five-star read. In fact, it easily outshone the writing in some of the “adult” books I’ve read recently.

The thing I find strangest about the argument against reading young adult fiction is that its proponents seem to believe there isn’t inherent value in reading just for the sake of it. The only response I received from the comment’s originator was a petulant dismissal of my “‘at least they’re reading something’ argument”. It boggles the mind.

The Bad BeginningSee, I know from personal experience that reading lots of young adult fiction is part of what helped me get back in the habit of reading in general. A few years ago, when I first set a goal to read 52 books in 52 weeks, some of the very first books I read were A Series of Unfortunate Events, which aren’t even young adult books because they’re pitched at children, not teenagers. I also listened to a lot of audiobooks, which I’m sure is another literary no-no (Tim Curry reads the Unfortunate Events books, which are marvelous). However, once I was in the swing of things, I decided it was time to challenge myself, and picked up the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo.

I don’t think I would have been mentally prepared to tackle a 1400+ page classic novel if I hadn’t already reminded myself that reading is fun, and I’m sure my experience isn’t unique. I feel certain that there are people who got back into the habit of reading thanks to Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, or some other YA series, and once they remembered how much fun it was to read, they decided to keep doing it. Maybe they only read YA books now, but who cares? How can reading for fun ever be a bad thing? I don’t care what you’re reading as long as you just keep doing it.

People who argue otherwise are assholes.

That’s all I’ve got to say about that.