I just read: We Are All Completely Fine

weareallcompletelyfineFrom Dracula to NOS4A2, from The Exorcist to Friday the 13th, a lot of plots in the Horror genre follow a well-trodden path. A person (or group of people) are targeted by a mysterious and malicious force. The protagonist(s) pass through a phase of disbelief and/or denial, Then they suffer through an increasingly awful series of circumstances that force them to come to grips with the unthinkable. Oftentimes, this is where a savior or advocate figure enters the story. In the final climax, the protagonist(s) face their fear, and they either triumph or they fail.

I have to admit that my own Horror/Paranormal novel, Line of Descent, follows this structure. And I’m sure that most genres (Romance, Mystery, Fantasy) have dozen of examples of great stories that follow the same conventional, comfortable story-beats. Still it’s always refreshing when an author breaks the mold.

That’s just what Daryl Gregory does with ‘We’re All Completely Fine.’ Gregory creates a unique slant on Horror convention by introducing a simple and brilliant premise. ‘What if the characters who survived some of these typical Horror stories came together to form a support-group?’

As we meet the clients in Gregory’s therapy sessions, we pretty much don’t need to know their full stories—although Gregory drops in some skin-crawlingly creepy details. There’s Stan, who survived your typical back-woods cannibal scenario. And Barbara, who was tortured by a sadistic madman. And Harrison, the former teenage monster-detective who helped to foil a demon apocalypse. (If you’re interested in learning more about Harrison’s YA-ish exploits, you can read about them in Gregory’s latest novel, Harrison Squared, which I reviewed here before I realized it was a prequel.)

To say that each of these characters is a short-hand representation of a horror cliche would be selling them—well—short. The ways that Stan and Barbara deal with their post-trauma lives are truly memorable and deeply human. Gregory is the type of author who comes up with ideas that make you say ‘Whoa! I never saw that coming!’ and then moments later, ‘Of course that’s what would happen!’ And this story is no different. And, of course, as we learn more about each group-member’s scarred life, we learn that the incidents that have ruined their lives are all connected in sinister and serendipitous ways.

I really enjoyed this book, and for most of it, I really couldn’t predict what would happen in the next chapter. I recommend it for any fan of the genre.

I just read: Lock In

lock-inFirst of all, let me say that I’m not a big fan of police procedurals… or mysteries in general. Like most genre fiction, they require a swift plot, and a swiftly plotted mystery requires coincidences and synchronicities that push the limits of my credulity.

If a detective decides to check in on a key witness, then she will arrive just in time to find the door to that person’s apartment has been jimmied open. She’ll be the first to stumble upon a dead body, or to catch the assassin red-handed.

If the detective starts hanging out with someone with a weird area of expertise—say, a doctorate in Native American lore—then it’s a given that the case will hinge on some clue involving Navajo mythology.

If, early in the book, the detective attends a dinner party that introduces a handful of characters, then one of those characters will end up being the culprit. Or if there’s no dinner party, and the detective has a random, non-plot-related encounter with a—say, a Bodega owner or a neighbor of the victim—then that person will end up being the culprit.

So. At this point, you’re probably asking why I chose to read John Scalzi’s Lock In, which is quite clearly a sci-fi police procedural. First of all, John Scalzi is one of the embarrassingly large number of best-selling sci-fi authors whom I have never read. One of my goals in 2015 is to mark some of those essential authors off my to-read list. Secondly, my book Idyll touches on some similar ideas (people in weird comas, living in virtual reality networks or through avatars), so I wanted to see how an acclaimed writer dealt with those subjects. Thirdly… it had a cool cover?

Here’s my shot at explaining the premise: A flu-like epidemic sweeps across the planet, and leaves about 1% of its victims completely paralyzed. They have to spend the rest of their lives ‘locked in’ their bodies. Private industries and government programs emerge to help these people deal with ‘lock in.’ The Hadens (that’s what the paralyzed people are called) basically have two choices of how to live their lives: they can interact with the rest of the waking world through remote-control androids—or they can project their consciousness into a communal, virtual reality environment and confine their interactions to other Hadens.

So those are the two dichotomies that drive most of the plot and themes of the novel:
• Private vs. public sector
• An external, very mechanical life vs. a more cerebral ethereal life.

These parts of the book, when the Hadens focus on the philosophical ‘pros and cons’ of their life choices—and the turns that society is taking—are very interesting. For instance: If a person spends every waking moment in a V.R. environment, where they can be anything they want to be, are they even ‘human’ anymore? Also, if a for-profit company is running that V.R. habitat, is it ethically acceptable to insert ‘pop-up’ ads into people’s lives? Is that better than charging them by the minute to have a life?

Then there’s a whole other complicated part about physically functional humans who can let Hadens control their bodies for a limited time. That’s where things start to get a little wonky.

The plot centers around one of these ‘integrators,’ a murder suspect who may or may not have been controlled by a Haden while he was at the scene of the crime. It’s a very complicated set-up, but once the premise has been established, the mystery spins out by rote. All of the tropes that I listed above (friends with a weirdly useful specialties, coincidental run-ins, dinner party with suspects) you’ll find them here.

Wrapping up, I was surprised at the cleanness and simplicity of the plot, considering the complicated premise. Mostly, I take that as a good thing. If you’re a big fan of action-oriented mystery novels, I’d say give it a try. And even though I left feeling disappointed, I could totally see this as a kick-ass, free-on-HBO movie. (Something like Will Smith’s ‘I, Robot’ or Tom Cruise’s ‘Minority Report.’) In fact, I just checked and I’m not surprised that someone has already bought the rights to a Lock In TV series.

I feel like I have to read another one of Scalzi’s books before I can have a true sense of his writing style, because this novel seems anomalous to the majority of his works, which seem to be space-operas. I do have to say he used the words ‘said’ A LOT. I posted a treatise about the dubious writing tip that ‘you cannot overuse the word ‘said.’’ I didn’t believe it then, and I believe it even less now.

I just read: The Martian

The MartianOK, I’m gonna almost brag and say I almost discovered Andy Weir before he blew up. A couple of years ago, I was looking to read a book about life on a planet with gravity that was lower than Earth’s. Mars seemed like an obvious place to start. I stumbled upon this self-published book, ‘The Martian,’ that seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. I added it to my to-read list. A few months later I went back to its page on the Kindle Store, and I was greeted with a weird message, something to the effect of: “The Martian is not available at this time. It will be re-released by Random House on such-and-such a date.”

Good for that guy, I thought. And I decided to keep an eye for the re-published ebook.

At this point, it would be nearly impossible to be regular reader and to not know about Andy Weir’s novel. In less than two years, he has rocketed to the stratosphere of self-published success stories, among the likes of E.L. James and Hugh Howey. Now he’s clocking in with a multi-spread interview in Entertainment Weekly, and a huge movie adaptation of The Martian starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kirsten Wiig… pretty much everybody. You can watch the trailer here.

What’s even more impressive is that Weir reached escape velocity with just one book. Guess what? The book is just that good.

The elevator pitch for the novel would be something like ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars.’ After a freak storm, Mark Watney, an engineer and botanist, is assumed dead and stranded on Mars by his astronaut buddies. The book takes place in the near future, so his landing zone is one of the few spots on the planet where he can find abandoned supplies and technology. It takes an Earth vessel something like a year to reach the red planet, and even longer to prep the flight. And Watney doesn’t even have a way to let NASA know that he’s alive.

First off, if ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ sounds even more boring than the original Robinson Crusoe (take THAT Daniel Defoe!), let me assuage your concerns. Sure, the hero spends most of his time holed up inside tiny habitats or an even tinier rover vehicle, and these settings COULD get monotonous. But Weir deftly turns the narrative to the colorful characters at Mission Control at just the right moments. We also check in with Watney’s heroic former shipmates, who are still traveling back to Earth.

Because of those breaks, Watney’s story stays fresh—and it is riveting. Our lonesome astronaut has to make his own food, recycle his water, recycle his poop, nourish the bacteria in his poop, create oxygen, create electricity, generate heat, get rid of heat, get rid of carbon dioxide, customize a land vehicle, rebuild his shelter. Watney’s challenges are constant, and his solutions are fascinating. There’s no question that Weir knows his science, and his enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. I’ve heard that the publishers are considering excising the swear-words from the book to make an educational version for school curriculums. I think that would be great. If this book doesn’t inspire a whole generation of impressionable youths join NASA, I’ll eat a Sputnik!

But Weir is not only an excellent teacher, he’s an expert storyteller. He uses several POVs and narrative devices to wring drama or  funnies from each scene. Most of the story is told in 1st-person, from passages in Watney’s log. But when the narrative occasionally shifts perspective—and time-frame—to explain how the outer shell on Watney’s habitat was manufactured and assembled… Well you have some good old-fashioned sweaty-palm foreshadowing that something bad is about to go down with that outer shell. Weir uses these narrative shifts to great effect. There’s one toward the end of the book—I won’t explain it here, to avoid spoilers—where the ‘perspective’ of the book shifts cinematically to a very faraway shot of Watney on the silent landscape of Mars. I think that will make a great scene in the movie.

Lastly, let me gush over the character of Mark Watney. Dude is like the nerd version of Indiana Jones. Weir writes him to be funny, and rousingly positive, considering his dire situation. Sure some of that is ‘whistling past the graveyard,’ and it is explained as such. But an upbeat protagonist is a welcome surprise, considering the subject matter. Honestly, I was expecting long, pensive passages as the castaway struggles with depression and loneliness. There is not much of that.

Often in sci-fi or fantasy, you’re presented with a hero that other characters will totally mark out over, and all that fictionally generated admiration can get a little grating. (I’m looking at you, Doctor Who!) But when characters in The Martian start saying stuff like “If anyone can do it, Watney can…” or “With Watney out there, anything is possible…” you start to believe it too. I’m sure Watney is meant to encapsulate what should be our can-do aspirations on space exploration, and Weir flat-out pulls it off. The book ends with a ‘Rah-Rah’ speech about the innate goodness and ingenuity of humanity that almost made me well up. And I never almost do that over a book.

Here’s hoping that Weir’s next book, a more far-flung sci-fi story, will be half as good.

I just read: Grasshopper Jungle

grasshopper_jungle_imageAh, the changes that come upon a man as he enters fatherhood. They are many, varied, and often slightly depressing. One of the more trivial of these is my changed perspective toward books in the Young Adult genre. It’s probably not surprising that I now read these books from the vantage of the father of the young protagonists. If a young character dies, I no longer think: ‘Dangggg, that was uncool!’ I think, “Damn… They had so much life ahead of them, and how horrible it must be for that kid’s family.” With this new, more thoughtful perspective, I was particularly wrenched when I recently read another YA book, ’We Were Liars.’ That ending haunted me. Whereas my callous fourteen-year-old self would have been like: “Wow, that was a gnarly way to end a book! Still, it could have used more boobies.”

I’m sure my fourteen-year-old self would have found parts of Grasshopper Jungle very gnarly indeed. It is steeped—dripping—with adolescent gnarliness. I dare you to find a book that spends more time on sperm, balls, or poop. You won’t be able to do it. This is one YA book that completely immerses you into the persona of it’s sixteen-year old narrator, who is extremely horny, confused, and way into over-sharing. The immersion is so complete, that I never shifted into ‘reading as a parent’ mode. I was right there as a peer for Austin’s wild ride. I also felt like I needed a shower when the ride was done.

Here is the gist of the book:
Austin is an Iowan teenager who thinks he may be bisexual. He’s beginning to realize that he’s in love/lust with his girlfriend and his best friend, Robbie. Austin is struggling to come to grips with his feelings when he and Robbie inadvertently unleash an infestation of mutated, man-sized insects that might bring about the end of the world. Yes, the book goes full-bore into the schlock atomic sci-fi of the 1950s. And I decided to give it a try because I’m a sucker for coming-of-age, apocalyptic books.

Grasshopper Jungle is clearly aiming to go over-the-top. At some points it’s a horror-show comedy. Sometimes, it’s a bawdy parody of American masculinity and the military-industrial complex. (And the agri-industrial complex, if that’s a thing.) Sometimes it’s even a generational tale of Polish immigrants (Austin’s ancestors) striving through tragedy to eke out a happy life for themselves in America. But the book bounces around a lot between all these things. It’s too punk-rock to focus on just one or two defined themes.

Perhaps my biggest complaint of the book is its distinctive voice. Austin is a narrator with OCD, meaning he repeats himself a lot. I get what the author is going for here. Austin considers himself a sort of historian, and reiteration can be a powerful tool for recording history (‘lest we forget’). Also, Austin’s meticulous, snarky repetitions take on a quality like recurring lyrics in a punk-rock song. But all of these semi-lyrical, jokey repetitions might have worked better in a shorter book. Grasshopper Jungle is 390 pages long, and its restatements and re-phrasings make the book a trudge to read in some parts.

Then the end of the book comes all-of-a-sudden, and we have no resolution to Austin’s bizarre love triangle. In fact, there really isn’t much actual romantic conflict in the book either, except for the questions swirling in Austin’s head.

My final analysis is that Grasshopper Jungle is all about bombast and hormones. It created a unique voice, and it makes for an enjoyable read (even if it could have been a bit shorter). Overall, I’m glad I read it, but I’m not sure I would recommend it.

I just read: We Were Liars

91icZ9KND7L._SL1500_I love a good beach book. In fact, at some point I’ll have to write a post about my top ten favorite books I’ve read at the beach. I’m pretty sure ‘We Were Liars’ will make the list.

I added this book to my to-read list a while back, I didn’t really remember what it was about when I decided to check it out over my kids’ Spring Break. I skimmed over the description very quickly. Wealthy family. Private island. Young adult. Sounded similar to LINE OF DESCENT, so that’s probably why I was initially interested in it.

I have to say the title of the book made me think of spoiled, cynical rich kids—something like Bret Easton Ellis might write. I expected characters that would mope, ‘Look how messed up we are since our parents are rich,’ and I wasn’t really looking forward to something like that. Thankfully, there wasn’t much ‘rich kid’ angst. More of just the good old-fashioned regular kid angst.

The book’s eponymous liars are mostly likable, goofy, and insecure teenagers. They still play with Legos and Scrabble. Their hands are scrawled with the titles of philosophy books they want to read. They use terms like ‘sexual intercourse.’ There are some bits about underage drinking and prescription pills, but nothing too hardcore.

The liars are three cousins, part of the WASPy Sinclair clan, and one other friend who is of Indian descent. Every summer the Sinclairs gather at their private island in New England where they bask in the sun or ruminate on setbacks of the previous year (deaths, divorces). And sometimes the adult Sinclairs bicker over their assumed inheritances.

The author E. Lockhart has a great, clean writing voice. Very well suited for a young adult book. Her classic style and the setting and characters reminded me of Lit-class must-reads like The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye. In fact, take away the few modern references (iPhone games, President Obama) and the book has a distinctly timeless quality to it. It could have taken place in the 1920s or the 1960s. That makes sense, because the Sinclairs’ beach estate is an isolated world of its own. The liars mention that nothing else seems to exist while they are on the island together.

Lockhart uses a canny literary trick: occasionally she allows the first-person narrative to drift into free verse poetry. It’s very cool effect that breaks up the flow of her prose, adding emphasis or creating a momentary daydream quality to a scene. She uses this trick very sparingly.

“I had come here to this island from a house of tears and falsehood
and I saw Gat,
and I saw that rose in his hand,
and in that moment, with the sunlight from the window shining in on him,
the apples on the kitchen counter,
the smell of wood and ocean in the air,
I did call it love.”

I feel like I don’t want to talk to much about the plot, because I want to avoid spoilers. I’ll say it’s very character-driven, which is great. There are lots of jumping back and forth in time, which sometimes gets a little confusing. Lockhart’s very economical with her paragraphs, which means sometimes flashbacks come on with whip-quick speed. And the book switches to new moods and plot developments just as quickly. Since I didn’t read much of the product description, I was surprised and intrigued when the story took a turn toward a mystery.

The mystery develops very nicely, but I have to say I was thrown off-balance by its resolution. I think I would have liked the book better if the mystery had been paid off in a completely different way. Even then, the ending was very sad and touching, and I think I will be thinking about this book for a while. As a reader, what more could you ask for? This was one of the best young adult books I have read in a long while.

I just read: Authority

authority_picHey kids! Who wants to read a book about a bureaucrat? No takers? Ah, shucks. That’s basically what you have with Authority, which is the second book of Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘Southern Reach’ trilogy.

I really enjoyed the first ‘Southern Reach’ book, Annihilation, which followed an expedition troop as they explored a stretch of the Florida coast that has been engulfed by an unknowable, otherworldly force. They aren’t the first expedition into ‘Area X.’ In fact, a shady organization call the Southern Reach have been sending people into Area X for thirty years. Some of these people come back as half-amnesiac / half-stupefied versions of their former selves. A lot more don’t come back at all. The expedition in Annihilation had a particularly disastrous go of it. (Hmmm, perhaps the title of the book was a tip off?)

Annihilation had a creepy, cold, Lovecraftian vibe, and to me the book was about maintaining that ‘New Weird’ mood—rather than building vibrant characterization, or in providing concrete answers on what exactly is happening at Area X, and what’s causing it. In my mind, the novel, which is narrated as the journal of an aloof and emotionally scarred scientist, actually suffers if it shows too much characterization—or explains too much of the enigma at its core. Not surprisingly, a lot of readers seem to disagree with my assessment, and I’ve seen lots of criticism that the book was too ‘thin’ on clarity and emotional investment in the characters.

If you had those complaints about the Annihilation, you might be happy to find out that Book 2 is clearly a change-up in style. Unfortunately for me, this wasn’t an improvement. Instead of learning more about what’s happening in Area X, the reader is taken inside the inner workings of the Southern Reach organization. You’ll get a few answers about what these shady folks have been up to, but once again, this is one mystery that gets duller when you pull the shady figures out of the shade. The inner circle of the Southern Reach is made up of bureaucrats in failing careers, vying for interdepartmental power in an outdated and deteriorating arm of the government. Book 1, for all its detached atmospherics, was a tense survivalist tale in a beautiful and deadly landscape. The tone of Book 2 is much more straightforward, but most of the conflict is centered on office politics. Not exactly the most exciting setting.

That’s not to say that Vandermeer doesn’t use the shabby banality of janitor’s closets, old VHS recorders, and overstuffed filing cabinets to create some genuinely creepy moments. Sometimes reading the book I was reminded of some scary scenes from Silent Hill. The employees of the Southern Reach have been ‘gazing into the abyss’ for a long time. They’re cracking up, and the creepiness of Area X is seeping through those cracks.

What exactly is Area X? Who or what caused it? It becomes fairly obvious early into the book that no one in the Southern Reach knows. So how can this book move the trilogy along? It can’t. And despite the creepy fun, there aren’t many ‘significant developments’ in Authority. Not until the last 20% of the book. That’s when the plot picks up, and we start to see more of Area X again.

Was that last bit of plot development enough to keep me going, to finish read the trilogy? Despite my disappointment in this particular volume, I’ll have to admit that Vandermeer’s ideas and writing style are keeping me intrigued. Maybe that’s why Book 3 is entitled Acceptance. I’ll have to accept the fact that he’s already hooked me in for that last $9.99.

I just read: East of Eden

East of EdenI first read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden about ten years ago, and at the time I declared it my favorite book. That was also about the time that I started formulating the first plot to my novel Idyll, and the sibling rivalries, daddy issues, and love triangles in East of Eden were (and still are) big influences on that book.

Upon second reading, I was surprised by how much of the book I’d forgotten in just ten years. In fact, there were only two things I remembered about the book. First, the story involved ‘light’ and ‘dark’ brothers, who are stand-ins for Cain and Abel. Second, the brothers’ mom was a sociopath with a beautiful face and a soul that is 50 shades of cruel, empty blackness.

That’s all I remembered, which means I forgot a hellalot! East of Eden is truly sprawling, and it’s like 4-5 novels rolled into one. It’s like the ‘A Day in the Life’ of novels, or AWOLNATION’s ‘Knights of Shame.’

It’s a grand retelling of the Cain and Abel parable. If there’s one thing you should know about East of Eden, it’s that. And after the black-sheep brother, Cain, kills his favored brother, he leaves his father, Adam, in shame to go live ‘east of the Garden of Eden.’ The Cain and Abel analogies are presented twice, through two generations of brothers in the Trask family: first Adam and Charles, then Aron and Cal. (Get it? A & C initials?)

It’s a semi-fictional history of Steinbeck’s family on his mother’s side. Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, plays a major role in the book. He was indeed a real person, but it’s hard to say how much of what is presented about him is true. Some of his sons and daughters meet tragic ends in the book, and it was interesting to think how much of that actually happened—and if it did, how it happened.

It’s a hard-boiled, murder-plot pulp story centered around a sociopathic woman who becomes a madame/dominatrix/extortionist.

It’s a memoir of the Salinas Valley, and a sort of oral history of America following the turn of the twentieth century: the optimistic rootlessness of Californians, the advent of the automobile, and loss of innocence brought on by World War I.

Here’s the things that struck me:

Who knew that such a popular book, written in the 1950s, would deal with such dark issues: abortion, pedophilia, and S&M. And boy, is there a good deal of prostitution.

Who knew that people love to fry chicken in tiny farm houses in the late 1800s. For some reason I only see fried chicken as an invention that came around at the same time as Spam. But one brooding, hermitic Trask brother fries chicken so much that a scum of grease develops on the ceiling of cabin. Gross!

Steinbeck has a lot of disdain for his golden-child, Abel characters. Those ‘light’ brothers are real douches. They are real Luke Skywalker-types, in that they are kind of petulant and have their heads stuck up their asses. The ‘dark’ brothers are the Han Solos of the story. And it’s been well established that Han is cooler. Case in point: When a movie of East of Eden was made in 1955—three years after the release of the book, James Dean played Cal.

Steinbeck is obviously a master, and it’s amazing at how deftly he can get away with flouting that old bit of writing wisdom, ‘Show don’t tell.’ There are many portions of the book where Steinbeck seems to be ‘telling’ for 2 or 3 pages straight. But is language is so lyrical and his insights so engrossing, that it is a beautiful, intimate thing.

This book is still one of the bests, and still one of my favorites.