Notes on the Decatur Book Festival

Decatur Book Festival BookzillaOn Saturday my family checked out the Decatur Book Festival. We were there for just a couple of hours, and we met a few friendly authors—or at least walked past their booths. It was both inspiring and intimidating to see so many writers gathered in one place, all in promotional mode, and the place had a vibe like a Moroccan Bazaar—with Saharan temperatures to match the mood. Here are a few authors who were there:

Rosalind Bunn & Kathleen Howard – Children’s book
from Deeds Publishing

Penny McCabe Pennington
“It Burns a Lovely Light”

Vanessa Riley – Romance

Jo Cattell – YA Romance
Fallen Angel Series

Tamara Neal – Children’s Books & Self Help

Linda Joyce – Romance
“Bayou Born” – Fleur de Lis Series

Bryan E. Robinson –Mystery
“Limestone Gumption”



I Just Read: The Magician’s Land

The Magician's LandWait. Is that “The Magician Lands” or “The Magician’s Lands?” Ah, the perils of adding an S (possessive or pluralizing) to a word in of your title. You risk turning your book into the literary equivalent of Kroger/Kroger’s or Longhorn/Longhorns. Mothers Day/Mother’s Day. Daylight Saving/Savings. I could go on and on. But seriously, the title of Lev Grossman’s third Magicians novel makes good sense about halfway through the story. Yes, there is literally a ‘Magician’s Land.’ And it’s not the land you’d think it is.

Grossman’s main character, Quentin Coldwater, has obviously evolved as a character (and matured into a man) as the series has progressed. He’s no longer a binge-drinking dill-hole, and he’s not quite as self-centered and self-delusional as he once was. Quentin’s character arc perfectly reflects the author’s focus on two themes: The idea of a boy awkwardly maturing to manhood, and the conflict of fantasy vs. reality.

Throughout the Magicians trilogy, Quentin has phased through these dichotomies like a trauma victim passing through the stages of grief. Quentin’s stages of development have gone something like this:
1) Wishful thinking
2) Wish fulfillment
3) Disillusionment with said wishes
4) A renewed appreciation in the ‘mundane’
5) Nostalgia for his days of childish wishing

I can’t remember reading a series of genre books that are so dedicated to their themes—to fleshing them out, to adding nuance to the ideas and to progressing them. Just for fun, pretend that you’re back in your high school Literature class and see how many references you find to these two variations of Grossman’s overarching theme:
– Separation from father figures (and deity figures)
– The transforming/transporting power of literature (both the reading and the writing of it)

Another aspect of Grossman’s writing that really stands out is his ability to write a truly memorable villain. Grossman introduces his worst monsters with scenes that make you feel like you’re stuck in a nightmare, moving in slow-motion. These scenes are like David Lynch creepy, and I can’t think of any horror writer that can match them.

Unfortunately, the third book’s creepiest character is not the Big Bad. And the conflict at the heart of the book’s fantasy-world storyline is as weak as day-old Coor’s Light. Even during the strum-und-drang finale, the main characters don’t have much to do. But along the way there are plenty of great scenes and character moments. Grossman does open the door (literally) to more adventures in the future, so this is one grown man who’s childishly wishing that this trilogy has a fourth installment.

In the meantime, at least we have a potential TV series to look forward to.

Ken Doll Crotch = Evil

rocker_strainIf there’s one thing that popular media has taught me in the last 10 years, it’s that you can’t trust a man who is anatomically incorrect. Recently this universal axiom was exposed again on Guillermo del Toro’s FX series, The Strain.

Here are a few other examples of genital-free villains:

dynamicman_twelveDynamic Man – “The Twelve”
Spoiler: If you made it to the end of this comic series (12 issues were published over a span of 58 months), you were probably too numbed to care that Dynamic Man turned out to be a sexless android.



carver_niptuckThe Carver – “Nip/Tuck”
I won’t completely spoil this serial killer plot from 2005. Let’s just say that a Ken Doll Crotch is involved



julie_yourhighnessJulie – “Your Highness”
Ew, gross! Toby Jones plays a spy whose mean streak isn’t revealed until he does some streaking of his own.


ken_toystory3Ken – “Toy Story 3″
I couldn’t complete this list without mentioning the granddaddy or glandlessness, who took a villain turn in the last Toy Story movie.



Putting Toy Story 3 aside, I wonder why the Ken Doll Crotch seems to be such a popular  scare tactic? Is it the fact that it plays on the Freudian fear of castration? Or just a profane way to shock an audience while implicitly maintaining a PG-13 or TV-14 rating? And when will this trend stop? Won’t someone please think of the poor special effects teams that have to mold and apply these fake crotches? Someone should call the union!

I just read: Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice‘Quite a few’ is a weird term. I wonder why adding ‘quite’ to ‘a few’ changes its meaning to ‘a lot?’ Any-whoo, I’ve read quite a few space operas in the last year, and I’ve been struck by how many similar themes and ideas pop up in each of them. Some of these ideas get a fresh spin in Ancillary Justice.

Cloning will be a substitute for space travel.
Make copies of yourself, and you can be many places at once. This is especially helpful when these locations are light years apart. Now keep cloning yourself, and you can effectively live for thousands of years. This is the Ann Leckie’s premise behind the imperial villain in Ancillary Justice. This is also the premise behind Charles Stross’ villain in his novel Neptune’s Brood. The unique spin that Leckie puts on her multiplied monarch is that her motives are not entirely villainous. But she is utterly ruthless in the way she gets things done.

Spaceships will have personalities, and they’ll dress up in human bodies.
The heroine of Iain M. Banks’ novel Surface Detail has several encounters with humanoid avatars of huge, nearly omniscient battleships. In Ancillary Justice, the heroine is an avatar of a gigantic, super-intelligent battleship. Breq is one component (a copy) of an interstellar ship’s AI. She’s been…let’s say ‘separated’…from the rest of herself, and she’s on a mission to right the wrongs that have been done to herself and to the ones she cares for. Breq explains the rationale behind her hardwired emotions: “Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s easier to handle those with emotions.”

In the future, humans will redefine what it means to be human.
Many writers have speculated that life outside of a ‘gravity well’ will change human physiology, change the way humans communicate (both verbally and nonverbally), and create new tribal tensions between planets and planetoids. In 2312, many space-dwellers upgrade their brains and their…naughty bits. When the two main characters decide to hook up, the reader realizes that they are both hermaphrodites.

Ancillary Justice is set in a future that is mostly post-gender. X and Y chromosomes are still in effect (as are, I assume, wee-wees and hey-nanner-nanners), but everyone is called’ she.’ I was surprised at how troubled I was by this ambiguousness. Leckie seems nonchalant as she prunes her pronouns to one gender. As she should be. This is what her characters are used to; they don’t particularly care if their peers are males or females. And I can honestly say that the character’s genders do not affect the plot or even the character arcs in the book. But even now my primitive, binary-sexed brain can’t fully grasp the characters. Was Breq truly a female? No, she was basically a robot. And no, it shouldn’t matter. But why do I want to call her a ‘heroine’ when she could simply be called a ‘hero?’

I Just Read: Life After Life

Life After LifeSnow. Darkness falls. Snow. Darkness falls. If you’ve read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, those words probably make you think of dead kids, and you probably agree with me that Edwardian England was in sore need of a DFACS. The book’s heroine, Ursula, is killed and reborn several times while she’s an adolescent. Whoo-wee there’s some negligent parenting going on here! And when Ursula finally makes it to womanhood, that’s when the sexual assault and spousal abuse begins.

Sound brutal? Atkinson’s novel about reincarnation, fate, chance, and redemption often is brutal. And also fascinating. It’s a piece of onyx carved by a mad, ingenious sculptor. Turn the carved stone over and over—new facets catch the light, jagged razor-sharp edges leave impressions on your palms. This is what the book was like for me, as Atkinson continuously cycles through the milestones of Ursula life (and of England’s history from WWI through WWII). Occasionally I worried that this series of revisited/revised scenes would get monotonous. Each time I got to that point, Atkinson would deftly hew the script into some new bend of her labyrinth.

With each life, Ursula becomes wiser and more aware of he situation (if always just nebulously), and she evolves into a Valkyrie who—in the name of love—is ready to obliterate the whole of our world history and start the second half of the 20th century from scratch. When the novel ends (the cycle of Samsara doesn’t), Ursula is more like Franka Potente in Run Lola Run than Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors.

Stylistically, Atkinson strays far from standard writing format. She doesn’t use commas when she’s technically supposed to. She layers flashbacks over flashbacks over flashbacks, and loves to use asides nested in parentheses. (“Don’t use parentheses,” Strunk & White would say.) The plot often bleeds into cluster of two or three scenes striated together, which actually fits quite nicely with the central idea of the book. In Life After Life, time is not linear. It’s an onion. It’s a Moebius strip, a flat circle. (Cue Matthew McConaughey and a beer-can doll).

Highly recommended. The end. Darkness falls.

I just read: The Magician King

magiciankingIn June of last year, I was lucky enough to read two great books back-to-back: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Some readers might cringe at my drawing a connection between both of them. Reader reviews of The Magicians have been mixed. Some people dismiss it as simply a New Adult version of Harry Potter (others have praised it as a New Adult version of Harry Potter). The Secret History, on the other hand, is an overwhelmingly (and deservingly) adored.

Both novels are set in cloistered collegiate environments, and the authors hardly try at all to make you like their characters, who are selfish, cliquish, and arrogant. In The Secret History, the character’s misanthropic tendencies are the whole point of the book. In The Magicians, the flaws of the characters help to highlight the treacherousness, the ruthlessness of their magical world. To me, reading The Secret History was an event—it slightly skewed everything I’ve read and written since. The Magicians wasn’t that momentous to me, but it was just as enjoyable. Of the two, I would re-read The Magicians first. And when I finished it last June, I was raring to pick up its sequel.

And that’s when I made one of my classic reading mistakes. I told myself to wait. I don’t know why this is my usual inclination when I find a series I like…to let it linger, as the Cranberries would say. It’s like I think genre books are rich desserts, or Italian meals—part of me thinks I need a buffer period between each, or I’d get sick of them. So instead of reading The Magician King right after The Magicians, I read The Secret History, and that ended up being a good choice. But then I read something else. Then something else.

Before I knew it, a whole year had passed before Grossman’s second Magicians book bobbed back to the top of my reading list. And it was just as fun, as scary, and as intricate as his first. Harry Potter was adapted into theme park rides and Lego video games. The Magicians’ world would be more likely to become a series on FX. Sometimes Grossman’s word-choice gets a little clunky: “He took a breath, tremblier than he wanted to be.” But often his descriptions are beautiful. I read several paragraphs twice. He breathes life into his fantastic scenes with small, mundane details. That’s a technique that I hope to remember and use myself. And he’s really good at taking a ridiculous mystical being and making that entity totally terrifying. Which of course, it would be, if you actually saw it in real life.

Here’s hoping that the final book in his trilogy will be just as fun and harsh. The Magician Land will hit shelves on August 5. I’ve learned my lesson this time; I won’t defer my gratification. I’ll snap that book up right away.