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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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.

Bad Medicine Volume 1

Bad Medicine Volume 1Story: Nunzio DeFillipis & Christina Weir
Art: Christopher Mitten
Colors: Bill Crabtree

Published: January 30th, 2013
Publisher: Oni Press
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Format: Paperback
Length: 120 pages

Bad Medicine follows disgraced former cardiologist Dr. Randal Horne and hard-nosed NYPD detective Joely Huffman as they work together to solve strange murders apparently caused by fringe science and exotic diseases. Also along for the ride are the ever-cranky pathologist Teague and his oh-so-snarky partner, Hogarth. The first collected volume of Bad Medicine includes two story arcs. In the first arc, detective Huffman discovers a dead man with an invisible head in an experimental lab, and tracks down Randal Horne to help solve the mystery. In the second arc, the CDC asks Horne and Huffman et al to investigate what appears to be a werewolf attack.

As I was reading Bad Medicine, I couldn’t help comparing it to Fringe, and it isn’t just because the mysteries are caused by weird science. It’s also the fact that the main characters are an eccentric, disgraced doctor who went on walkabout and a no-nonsense blonde female detective. Even still, that wouldn’t be such a big deal if Bad Medicine brought anything unique to the table, but it really doesn’t have much to offer in terms of originality. The first mystery seems stranger than it actually is thanks to a bit of misdirection from the villain, and the second is a fairly bog-standard werewolf story.

However, I did generally like the art in the book. It’s reasonably unique, stylized enough to be distinctive while still feeling fairly grounded. I did have occasional problems figuring out what was going on in panels that were either too stylized or laid out poorly, but I was usually able to decipher the action upon further reading. It may also have been a side effect of reading a digital version of the book. The real problem with Bad Medicine is that the writing is stilted and uninteresting.

The dialogue never feels very natural, and the cast consists entirely of stock characters without any real defining traits. Horne talks to a ghost and Huffman has a pet cat she dotes on, but the characterization doesn’t go much deeper than that. We’re told that Horne has a terrible bedside manner, but he never actually says anything particularly off-putting, so it’s hard to see how he got the reputation. One of the supporting characters, Hogarth, spends most of his time throwing out wisecracks that just fall flat or feel out of place, and he ends up coming off as a one-note attempt at comic relief.

Overall, Bad Medicine was a pretty forgettable read, and I definitely won’t be checking out future volumes of the series.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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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.

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.

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire

Discount ArmageddonPublished: March 6, 2012
Publisher: DAW
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Format: eBook
Length: 368 pages

Discount Armageddon is the story of Verity Price, a blonde twenty-something cryptozoologist and recent transplant to New York City. She pays the bills by working as a waitress in a strip club, supports the family business by working to help the local populations of cryptids – monsters to the unenlightened – and secretly dreams of making it big on the ballroom dancing competition circuit. She hates public transportation, instead getting around by running parkour-style across the city rooftops, all while armed to the teeth with every kind of weapon she can hide under her skimpy waitress uniform. Oh, and her roommates are a colony of talking mice that venerate her every act with religious celebrations and feasts.

Things in the city are going swimmingly for Verity until the day she finds herself accidentally hanging from a snare set by a member of a monster-hunting sect called the Covenant. The Price family’s ancestors were part of the Covenant, but broke with the party line and decided to start helping cryptids instead of hunting them into extinction. Naturally, this didn’t endear them to the Covenant, and the Prices have been in hiding ever since. Complicating the situation is the fact that this Covenant member, Dominic, is strikingly handsome when he isn’t indiscriminately hunting and killing cryptids. Verity isn’t too happy about Dominic’s presence in the city, but when cryptid girls start disappearing and she hears credible rumors of a dragon – long though to be extinct – living under the city, they form an uneasy truce to stop the beast and sparks start flying.

In broad outlines Verity’s story feels familiar. It has the standard trappings of the urban fantasy genre: a secret world, hidden in plain sight, a main character with a special connection to that world, and a romance storyline involving a bad boy love interest who just needs a little redemption to make him boyfriend material. What makes it stand out are the unique details that McGuire works into the mix.

The mice in particular add a good bit of humor to the proceedings. They have dozens (if not hundreds) of religious ceremonies, all named for mundane events in Verity’s life, and all celebrated with a fervor that makes it difficult for Verity to have visitors. I also liked that there isn’t a single vampire or werewolf in the book. There are creatures who can switch between human and animal forms, but they all feel like off-the-beaten path choices, like the Japanese tanuki and an Indian creature called a madhura. Additionally, Verity’s background as a cryptozoologist isn’t just window-dressing; an important plot point revolves around actual biological processes becoming evident in one of the creatures she runs across.

The only real criticism I can come up with is that although title is catchy, I’m not really sure what it has to do with the actual story. In any case, Discount Armageddon is the first book in a new ongoing series for McGuire, and I look forward to picking up the future volumes. I’m also excited about reading her other books. She’s Hugo-nominated for her work as Mira Grant, and I’ve heard great things about her other urban fantasy series, the October Daye books. I get the impression that McGuire likes working with familiar tropes and genres while subverting them just enough to make them feel fresh and entertaining.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

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The Postmortal by Drew Magary

Published: August 30, 2011
Publisher: Penguin
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Dystopian
Format: eBook
Length: 384 pages

The Postmortal is pitched as a darkly comic satire about a world where a cure for aging is invented and becomes widely available. However, if it is a satire, it is of a character most similar to Jonathan Swift’s infamous essay advocating the cannibalization of Irish babies as a solution to poverty. If you happen to smile while reading The Postmortal, I imagine it will be a mirthless rictus intermingled with horror rather than anything signifying amusement. For my part, I don’t think I laughed a single time reading the book in a mad rush over the past two days, but I don’t count that as a mark against it. In fact, I found it both gripping and chilling in equal parts.

When the cure for aging, commonly known as “The Cure”, is first invented, doctors are quick to point out that it isn’t actually a cure for death, either by cancer or a more violent end, but that and the fact that it is initially banned by the government don’t stop the main character, John Farrell, from spending seven thousand dollars at a black market clinic to get cured at the age of twenty nine. The narrative follows John over the next 60+ years of his life, as he learns what it truly means to have eternal youth from both a personal and a global perspective.

An early scene where John takes his roommate back to the same clinic to get the cure sets the tone for the rest of the story, as unexpected tragedy decisively intrudes. John’s life is forever changed in an instant, both by the looming spectres of death and destruction that seem to lurk just around the next corner for the rest of his life, and by the fleeting glimpse outside the clinic of a beautiful blonde woman he feels certain he will meet again some day. Magary does an excellent job of setting up a palpable sense of dread very early on in the book; we quickly learn to expect that nothing good will ever come to John without some greater evil following quickly behind.

The book alternates between John’s journals/life recordings and excerpts of articles, interviews, and news headlines. We soon get a fuller picture of the way that the cure for aging affects the world around John in new and terrifying ways. One particularly chilling article recounts the story of a woman who gives the cure to her child so that the girl will stay a lovable, innocent baby forever. Magary also spends a good amount of time establishing the particularly catastrophic results of the cure in already over-populated China, and you get the sense that an entire novel could be set in that particular corner of the apocalypse.

The book jumps forward in time over the decades of John’s artificially extended life, and we watch as his personal tragedies and disappointments all add together to transform him from a hopeful young lawyer to a cynical, hardened “End Specialist”, a sort of bounty hunter who ekes out both euthanasia and questionable justice as forms of legalized population control. My only real criticism of the book is that John still felt like a bit of a cypher by the end of the story; Magary does a great job of portraying the personal hardships that he experiences over his long life, and we get little snapshots of emotion and grief, but John feels more like a window into the world rather than a fully lived-in protagonist.

The Postmortal is a brisk read even at just under 400 pages in print, and if I hadn’t started reading it so late at night, I might have finished the entire thing in one sitting. The scenes of action peppered throughout the book are written in a clear, compelling style, and Magary has a knack for grabbing the reader just in time to show them how bad things can get. The brightly-colored cover and the author’s history as a comedy writer are a bit misleading considering the searing bleakness of his debut, but if you can stomach it, The Postmortal is a incredibly thrilling piece of dystopian gallows humor, and I highly recommend it.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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