Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

snow country

Standalone, Perigree, 1957, 175 pgs.
Translated from the Japanese Yukiguni by Edward Seidensticker

Along the western coast of Japan, in the mountains, the snow falls oppressively every winter. It’s a bleak and remote area, a somewhat barren countryside, not at all the place for an often-bored urbanite from Tokyo. Something there keeps drawing Shimamura back to it though, something revitalizing about the mountains and the forest, something charming about the tiny hot springs where he stays. Something intriguing about Komako, the geisha who he visits every year and who he’s been having an affair with. She’s a nice girl, sweet and bright, and strangely loyal to a man who she sees for maybe one week out of fifty-two. Shimamura can never quite bring himself to actually love her.

So, uh, funny story. I initially picked this up at a secondhand store, knowing absolutely nothing about it. I read the back, thought “Oh, a cheesy geisha story! I love cheesy geisha stories,” and bought it.

And then I started reading. This book began with an introduction from the translator, talking about the novel’s “haiku-like” prose and the author’s place in the new lyrical movement that was happening in Japan around the beginning of World War Two. Which is emphatically not the sort of introduction they put in front of cheesy geisha stories.

Confused, I looked it up. Yeah, this author won a Nobel Prize for literature. This novel was one of the three named specifically as reasons for that win.

I am officially out of my depth here: I know next to nothing about Japanese literature. I’ve watched a decent amount of anime and know what a haiku is, but that’s the equivalent of trying to really dig into Shakespeare on the basis of Doctor Who and the vague idea of iambic pentameter. I’m not sure I’m qualified to review this; I’m possibly qualified to review a modern light novel, but that’s about it.

So this is going to be more exploration than review, I guess. I don’t want to make a lot of hardline statements, because I know that I’m missing a lot of context, both culturally and in a literary sense.

I also don’t want to go too academic, partially because that could get really dry, really quickly and partially because several days of frantic googling do not an expert make. This did require some research on my part, though, and a short introduction to what the movement Kawabata was a part of was about, where it came from, and what it was reacting to isn’t a bad way to begin to work into this novel.

So, very shortly, Kawabata was part of a literary movement called the Shinkankaku-ha, or New Sensationalist School, which came up in Japan around the 1920’s and 1930’s as capitalism and urbanization became more prevalent forces in the country. Like a lot of literary movements, it was concentrated around a core group of authors who all had a roughly similar artistic ideology.

This specific group seems like they were trying to do something similar to the western Romantics, in that they were looking to inspire a more honest and spontaneous emotional reaction in their audience, and to get closer to the heart of a matter through that. The ideal here was to create “new sensations” or “new impressions” for the people reading their stories, in opposition to the, to their minds, stagnant and entrenched Japanese Naturalist movement, and to work under an ethos of “art for art’s sake,” unlike the political, proletariat literature that was also common at the time.

Their main influences, though, were the Modernists, specifically Paul Morand. Which makes sense, I suppose; they were reacting to a lot of the same societal forces that the Modernists were.

And, from a fairly ignorant perspective, Modernist is my overall impression of this piece. In everything from the style of the prose, to the way the characters are written, to the overall feeling of melancholy and loss that permeates the book, I kept coming back to the idea that this feels like a book written in the 1920’s while reading.

Let me pick out some of the major points here, though this is a pretty non-exhaustive list. I guess I’ll start with the prose, which is not quite disjointed, but definitely has elements of that. The mood or focus will switch quickly, characters speak in half-thoughts or things they want to say but can’t, and dialogue tags are almost non-existent. It’s the sort of book where you’ll have to reread a page because it’s sometimes a challenge to figure out who’s saying what, let alone what they’re actually trying to say to each other.

The emotions that a woman’s eye reflected in a train window inspire in Shimamura, our lead, are described in detail, but what each of these people are actually thinking about each other is never clearly spelled out.

The characters don’t feel like people I might have known, but they also don’t feel flat to me. They have that thing where they seem almost like walking reminders of what a culture has lost: disaffected from society, dissociated from their own feelings, but with sporadic bursts of intense emotion or connection that belie their underlying humanity. They trend toward the outcast, the unwanted, those that society has left behind.

I don’t know that I can say they feel real, but there’s still depth there. Even if human connection is hard to come by; one of the points the author keeps coming back to with Shimamura is the idea that if he understands something too much, if he can’t keep it idealized, then he can’t love it and has to throw it away. And this applies to everything, including his lovers.

It seems less experimental in form, to me, but there’s every chance that’s a combination of my lack of knowledge in the Japanese literature that preceded it and my reading it in translation.

I can’t say I’ve ever read any of Morand’s work, but I do know that if Joyce of Woolf don’t do much for you, even at their less crazy, not stream-of-consciousness points, this is also probably not something you’ll like. It has a similar feeling to those things; everything is loss, and jilted hope, and the characters’ lives not being what they want, all told in strange, small moments.

Which is not to say this feels entirely like a western Modernist piece. The beauty in transience, a particularly Japanese ideal, weighs heavily here: the setting is a country bath house, a place people pass through but never stay at. As is, I have a sneaking suspicion, the lead’s being drawn to Komako because she’s rough, natural, and unpretentious.

That said, I’m fairly certain I’m missing a lot of what this book is trying to do. It’s the sort of novel that cries for essay-length analyses of single paragraphs, done with far more knowledge of where this author is coming from than I have. I can’t say it wasn’t an interesting read, though, and I may have to do some more research and come back to it.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

every heart a doorway

Wayward Children Book 1, Tom Doherty Associates, 2016, 169 pgs.

Nancy was once an attendant to the Lord of the Dead himself; after she went through her door, into that other world, she learned quickly to stand still as a corpse, to let the quiet of those colorless halls overtake her. Then the Lord of the Dead sent her back to her own world, so she could be sure she wanted to stay, as though she wasn’t already. Back to her parents and their movement and color and noise. And then, because she refused to denounce her “kidnappers,” from her parents to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Everyone at the school is like her, once the chosen hero of a fairyland or the favorite daughter of some mixed-up, candy colored world. And like her, all of them are trying to heal, trying to cope with the idea that they may never get home again, and trying to keep up hope that they will.

You know, I really thought this book was going that hit me where I live. This was sold to me, basically, as a story for the people who never got to go through the looking glass but always really wanted to, and yes, well, I guess I have to raise my hand there. I was generally expecting to imprint on this book.

I didn’t quite.

Which is not to say that this wasn’t good, or that I wasn’t emotionally invested at all. Just that I was sort of thinking this was going to be another Fangirl, and it wasn’t for me.

That sort of thing is pretty subjective, though, and I can see where and why others could imprint on this in the way that I didn’t. This is only the second book of hers that I’ve read, but in both of my experiences, McGuire’s been a wonderfully solid and inventive writer. Not only does she seem to be consistently good with story structure and character building, she also seems to be consistently interesting.

I’ll get back to that last bit later, but the takeaway here is that, while I didn’t feel some soul-deep connection to the novel, I did really enjoy this book. I was just expecting a little less murder mystery and a little more soul-searching. This is more a question of scale than of content, and even emotionally it definitely had its moments.

I liked pretty much all of the leads, and their struggles and tragedies were relatable. From Kade’s knowledge that he was kicked out of his world, essentially solely, for being trans, to the unfair suspicion leveled against Jack and Jill because of the darkness their world involved, to Nancy’s desperate longing for her world’s stillness and quiet, they all scan pretty well to issues that people might actually have to deal with.

And there are some beautiful, heart-wrenching passages here that detail exactly what it feels like to finally be seen as yourself, to finally find the place where you belong, and then to lose that. McGuire’s prose is beautiful throughout; I started pulling out quotables around page one and never really stopped. It didn’t strike straight to my heart, but this is clearly a story where the author has something to say. I may not have had that soul-deep connection to it that I was looking for, but, again, I can see where others would.

I want to be clear on this: my saying I wasn’t as emotionally invested in this as I was expecting to be in no way does justice to how much I actually enjoyed this book. I was expecting a lot, going in.

And it’s also that my enjoyment of it had more to do with something else. Like I said, McGuire’s always interesting, and in a different way than I usually mean that. Usually I’m praising a unique environment or a plot element that I’ve never seen before, or maybe a different take on a stock character, when I say something is “interesting.”

Given, a lot of that is here. McGuire, though, seems to have an almost academic interest in dissecting and classifying stories. Indexing may have been using the pre-existing Aarne-Thompson-Uther index to do that, but here she’s created her own scale to classify the relatively modern genre of portal fantasy, a sliding X and Y axis between Virtue and Wickedness, and Logic and Nonsense, respectively. And the characters spend so much of the novel discussing their own worlds and where they fit in to that rubric that you almost find yourself doing it too, with your own favorite fantasy worlds.

The entire plot is, also, notably, the part of this story that no one ever tells. What happens when you come back from Oz and know it’s not a dream, but everyone is telling you it is? What happens when you step into the wardrobe again and find that now it’s just some musty old coats and a wooden back-board?

How do you deal when the place where you were hero and ruler and chosen one spits you out and you return home to be a powerless child? Only with all your memories and scars and trauma intact?

It takes the sort of person who thinks deeply about genre and genre conventions to write a story like this, the sort of person who takes joy in picking at what-ifs and loose threads. And McGuire certainly seems to have thought about this particular problem for years; my introduction to her was this song, which I first found almost a decade ago.

While I can’t say I’ve read her entire catalogue or anything, I think that unapologetically meta element may be a feature in a lot of McGuire’s books. It’s definitely part of what’s drawn me to the two I’ve read.

That ability to think of your narrative as a story first and foremost, to use all the variations on a type that you can think of to explore all the ways that a given genre could go, and to pick out the problems caused by the typical tropes is something I really appreciate. It speaks to me of expertise and broad understanding; McGuire knows the genres she’s writing in, loves the genres she’s writing in, and is willing to take them apart like Tinker Toys and reassemble them. It’s less uniqueness and more critical thinking, that makes McGuire’s books really interesting.

I liked this book so much because you could so easily take the structures it provides and apply them out to everything else. It’s the sort of novel that makes you think about genre as a whole. That was one of the things I appreciated about Indexing, too, and whoops, we’re back to “stories about stories.”

Basically, this book fed the part of me that likes that sort of classification, that likes to take apart the mechanics of a story. And even if I had been completely uninvested in any of these characters, I think that still might have made it worth it for me. When you add in about the amount of investment I would have for a novel I generally liked, well, you get the idea. Indexing made me want to pick up more of this author’s work, and I can only say Every Heart a Doorway has continued that trend.

Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge

crimson bound

Standalone, Balzer+Bray, 2015, 436 pgs.

In the days of old, the Devourer ruled the world, hunting humans in the darkness before Tyr and Zisa stole the sun and moon from him and bound him in his own realm. Not that things are perfectly safe now; The Forest, the dark world that lurks just behind our reality is still there. And the Devourer may be bound, but his servants, the forestborn, still hide in the shadows, waiting to tempt those who would stray off the path and mark them as bloodbound, cursed creatures who must kill to survive and who will eventually lose their human hearts to become forestborn themselves. Rachelle should know, she was trained to protect against them before she became one of them. Now, instead of weaving charms to ward them off, she fights for the king as a bloodbound herself, using her preternatural strength and speed to atone for her crimes in any way she can. Because the Forest is becoming stronger, the forestborn becoming more active, and signs are saying that the Devourer is about to reawaken. And, however much she has given herself to the darkness, Rachelle has still never lost the idealistic girl who deliberately stepped off the path, looking for the information needed to destroy him completely.

I love a good fairytale retelling; I know I’ve said that before when talking about “stories about stories,” but really, there are multiple ways a story about stories can go. A well-done fairytale retelling has a charm all its own, and seeing what an author chooses to keep or change from a particular tale can lead to endless analysis on endless variations.

What can I say? I like thinking about story evolution, and that urge is especially satisfied in a novel where the author is pulling from about five different tales, using and reworking some fairytale ideas that I’ve never even seen brought up in current novels, and mixing in some modern genre tropes to create something that has some of the most nicely layered lore that I’ve ever seen.

And while all that sounds spectacular, I’m going to be frank here and say outright that this only gave me about half of what I was looking for from it. I picked the novel up initially because I’d read a short story by the author and was hoping something long-form could capture the same amount of poetry and drive that did.

Which Crimson Bound does, to a certain extent. The book is split between the main story of our heroine, Rachelle, and little snippets of the world’s backstory with Tyr and Zisa. Those backstory pieces are everything I wanted here: dreamy and fable-like and timeless. The ending of each one felt like a punch to the gut, as each bit of information revealed forced you to reevaluate what was happening and who this world’s heroes really were.

The writing on the bulk of the main plot is a little more prosaic, unfortunately. It’s not bad at all, but in a novel that I picked up for the writing style, the back and forth between the two was a little galling.

The plot, too, plays into some YA tropes that I’m not that fond of. I could have done without the love triangle, even if this one was far less annoying than they usually are, and after the first couple of chapters Rachelle changes from a reckless girl who wants to be a hero, which is exactly the sort of character I like, to a more standard jaded, angry protagonist.

That’s not to say any of this is badly done. It’s all fine, and I don’t know if I would have even noticed it in a novel where the first fifteen pages weren’t so absolutely tailored to me. Once that sort of perfection was established though, the fact that I didn’t get more of it was a little disappointing.

Just a little, though. Minor problems aside, this is generally strong and put together beautifully.

The plot is fun and interesting, and Hodge is, at least in this book, incredibly talented at ending a segment of the story at exactly the right place to make a reader want more. She manages, in this, to give a plot that actually has fairly little action more than enough page-turning tension. Even where there is some padding in the main plotline, the tantalizing little pieces of Tyr and Zisa’s backstory keep things moving.

The mystery and treasure hunt aspects of this are well done, too. I was actually surprised by the ultimate hiding place of the magic sword Rachelle spends most of the book looking for, and being caught off guard that much in a novel is something that’s becoming rarer and rarer in my old age.

And the opening may have skewed my expectations for the characters, but I can’t say they were badly done at all. A large portion of her arc is about Rachelle learning that she doesn’t have to be perfectly pure and innocent to be that reckless girl who wants to save the world, that sometimes understanding darkness can help in defeating it.

So, while I may have wanted a novel about who she was at the beginning, rather than the bitter, almost hopeless person she became after a couple of chapters, I can’t say I came away completely disappointed on that front. The tension between the two states actually adds some nice layers to the character; I can appreciate a lead that sometimes wants to slap people for being blindly happy, even as she wants to protect them.

The rest of the characters follow suit with the same depth. Armand, who plays the stupid dandy at court ends up being the moral center of the novel, and la Fontaine, who comes off as the mean-girl bully at first has a similar arc. Even Erec, who from the get-go is portrayed as despicable is fun in his horribleness; he’s written with the sort of life that means the author didn’t just create him to be a moralistic plot device, and actually enjoyed writing the character.

His awfulness is never used to undercut how personally important he is to Rachelle, either, which is a complexity I like to see a novel balance. That sort of complexity in the relationships carries through, too; Rachelle has realistically mixed feelings about everyone she interacts with, and the romance plot never takes over all of her thoughts, the way it does in so many novels.

The thing that really makes me love the book, though, the thing that almost completely makes up for its only giving me half of what I wanted, was the lore. The little bits and pieces of other stories that are blended together here make for a book just so full of ideas, and I can’t help but love trying to pick them all out.

This starts out reading like it’s going to be a straight “Little Red Riding Hood” retelling, but then Hodge starts pulling from other fairytales, and British myths, and actual fairy lore (which I consider sort of a different category than the other two). There’s even a splash of modern superheroes and urban vampire fantasy, with Rachelle brooding on the rooftops at points.

The fairytales referenced aren’t the ones that you normally see picked up, either. The two major ones are “The Girl Without Hands,” which I’d never heard of before, and “Little Red Riding Hood.” And while I have seen adaptations of the latter, I’ve never seen anything working with its “The Grandmother’s Tale” variation; Hodge’s take on the idea of the “path of needles and the path of pins,” is particularly interesting, and not only because I’ve never seen that concept brought up in a modern retelling.

I also love the idea of the woodwives, country women who are the main force working against the forestborn, using charms made of string and cloth and flowers. It’s a lovely little homage to the people who originally told these tales and the setting in which they were originally told.

Mix in some “Hansel and Gretel,” some “The Juniper Tree,” some Bran the Blessed, and some Unseelie Court, and you have a wonderful, layered mishmash. And that’s not even getting into the things that seem unique to this story. The two swords of bone are perfect for this tone, but I can’t place them and google’s turning up nothing. Ditto the idea of hunger being at the center of fairyland; it fits perfectly into fairy myths, but it’s nothing I’ve ever seen before. Hodge seems to have some innate understanding of classic fables, and it means that this cherry picking from so many sources, which could have seemed random and disjointed, holds together perfectly and works beautifully with the themes and character arcs she wants to create.

Basically, while there are some slip ups, most of this works together so wonderfully that I can forgive all its faults. The themes, plot, and characters all work together here in a way that’s rare for a novel: everything just clicks. And when you add that to the sort of fable-like storytelling I love and toss in a whole lot of mythology nerdery, you have something I can’t resist.

Codex Born by Jim Hines

codex born.jpg

Magic ex Libris Book 2, DAW Books, 2013, 379 pgs.

Having managed to stop an impending war between his group of book-wielding magicians, the Porters, and Michigan’s entire vampire population earlier this year, Isaac’s finally clawed his way out of drudge work and into the research position he’s always wanted. Unfortunately, it’s a research position that involves some rather arduous tasks. Like “working out what the vengeful demons lurking just inside the boundary to magic are.” Or “figuring out how to destroy them when the best minds of several generations have only been able to keep them at bay.” All with an unknown, but crucial, time limit hanging over his head. And even things that should be a break from the stress of that, like solving the mystery of who’s been killing werewolves and wendigoes near his hometown, are having an odd tendency to explode into larger problems. Because that investigation is going to bring Isaac face to face with a long-buried rival organization who hate the Porters, who have magic like he’s never seen, and who are, for some reason, targeting his old partner and new girlfriend, Lena.

I’m going to start by saying that most of this review is predicated on the idea that my thoughts on the first Magic ex Libris book were relatively objective and that the beginning novel in the series was actually as meh as my feelings on it were.

And, well, if you go back to that first review, you’ll see that I don’t think either of those statements are particularly fair, but I also have no other basis for comparison. In spite of the fact that I’m pretty sure my feelings on that book were more to do with my mental state than the novel itself, they were what they were and, outside of a reread, I have no way to pull up anything else.

All that out of the way, I’m happy to say this played out exactly as I had predicted there. Regardless of whether it’s Hines finding his footing with the series or me finding mine with life, I had a hell of a time with this second novel. Everything that I thought was missing in Libriomancer is here in spades: this had the sort of creative, engaging, genre-bending joy that I expect out of a Hines book. The dialogue and action are snappy, the characters’ big personalities shine through, and their crazy schemes in the face of impossible odds have all of the zany vigor you could want.

This if Fun, with a capital F and enough underlying meaning to make the novel more than silly fluff, which has always been this author’s strength.

Again, it’s a little hard to compare with my thoughts on the first novel so uncertain, but even if the problems were with the book itself, it’s all fixed here. This was the sort of light, fast-paced read that I had been looking for.

Working off the assumption that my problems there were on Hines’ head, though, I think I can distill exactly what Codex Born does better than its predecessor down to one word: integration. The mystery, the characters, the action, the themes, all coexist here far more harmoniously than they did in the first, meaning that the fun and the philosophy can work together, rather than being sectioned off into chunks.

If the first book had a plot that was mostly mystery, with bursts of action at key scenes, this has both woven throughout, setting the heavier problem-solving alongside constant little showcases where our magical characters can quip and learn new tricks and show off their powers. This keeps things snappy while allowing more build, making the mystery plot both tenser and far easier to swallow.

The characters, too, feel far more consistent, not in characterization, but in presence. This is probably just down to structure. Libriomancer had Isaac hopping from place to place, trying to figure out what was going on, which meant that, by the nature of the plot, very few characters could be in the entire book. Codex Born has The Porters as an institution preparing for war, which means that everyone is present and together from pretty early on in the book, making it easier to not only build quirks and personalities for characters we barely saw in the first, but to build rapport between all of those different personalities.

And while my harping on how much more fun I’m having in this book might make it sound like this is a sillier, less intelligent novel than its predecessor, that’s really not the case. This keeps all of the things that were strong about Libriomancer, and Hines’ ambitions for the series are still very obvious.

There’s still a crazy amount of things going on here, in the plotting, in the meta, in the morality, in the genre deconstruction. All those heavy ideas about collective media experience, love of narrative, and personal agency? Still here. All the surreal, metaphorical language that seemed like such a departure for this author? Check. All the shades of gray, down to the head of the Porters being the shadiest of the shady? Uh-huh. All the questioning of the tropes of urban fantasy, from simple things like giving our heroes magical therapists so they don’t have to tough it out until they’re broken to something as big as asking whether magic is even a desirable thing to have? Yep.

You’d think those weighty ideas would be the sticking point, too; they certainly were in the first book, for me. Most people don’t find philosophy fun or easy to set alongside action one-liners, but if anything we get more depth on those themes and somehow it works. Hines is a clever enough author to integrate by shading in his world rather than by flattening it, which might have something to do with how well he always thinks his worldbuilding through.

I’m trying to figure out why this flows so much better for me. Maybe it is just the structure; hopping from place to place creates a far more episodic plot by its nature. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re starting to get into the meat of the story, which means that Hines, as an author, is free to exposit less and reveal more.

Or maybe it’s just that I read this is a relatively sensible time period, rather than over two months with weeks-long gaps in between sittings, as I did with the first: that sort of thing can make any novel seem disjointed.

Either way, I’m smiling and laughing at all the neat little genre touches and references again, which is most of what I want from Jim Hines. I can honestly say I’m looking forward to the third in this series on its own merits, rather than as a litmus test for my mental state. And, while I can’t say I doubted that much, that really was what I was hoping for here.

Snack-time Reviews: For When I Don’t Have Enough Ingredients for Dinner

Hello all! So, I’ve been trying to work through my giant back-catalogue of books, some of which are still left over from last year, and, to be frank, there are a couple that I don’t really have that much to say about. So, in the interests of paring down the ever-growing list and not trying to wrack my brain for more commentary than I have, I’m just going to write up three quick reviews to fill out the post. These are in order of least-liked to best-liked, but I do have to say that none of these were particularly terrible. Which, come to think of it, is probably part of the reason I don’t have much to say about any of them.

#1—No Passengers Beyond This Point by Gennifer Choldenko

no passengers

Standalone, Dial Books, 2011, 244 pgs.

Life is falling apart for Finn Tompkins and his siblings: his family is losing their house, meaning he and his sisters are being forced to move away from everything they’ve ever known. Worse yet, their mother can’t come with them on the flight to their crazy Uncle Red’s place, leaving them to deal with the change on their own. So when they land in Falling Bird, a town that appears to give them everything they’ve ever wanted, instead of at Uncle Red’s, it seems like a dream come true. Can they trust this new place, though?

This is by far my least favorite of the three, as well as the hardest for me to talk about. That’s probably because there was nothing actually wrong here, so I’m not sure what turned me so strongly against it. Most of what I remember as my problem was that everything just seemed far too generic. The characters are archetypes that develop a little, but not enough, the plot goes about where you expect it to at the beginning, and even the prose feels like the author just pulled the stereotypical voice for a teenager, tween, and young child. Even the world it creates, while interesting, feels like it needed another draft to add some depth and meaning to it. And while it has its moments of honest emotion and has its ambitions with regards to commenting on family and poverty and the effects of the housing crisis, all those little elements that never move beyond the easy and generic really do get in the way of anything it was trying to do. Like the last on this list, it’s a book meant for pre-teen children, so I doubt most of the intended audience is going to notice, but this just failed at what it was going for, for me.

#2—One Night That Changes Everything by Lauren Barnholdt

one night barnholdt

Standalone, Simon Pulse, 2010, 242 pgs.

Ever since she was little, Eliza has kept a notebook listing all the things she’s scared to do: all the things she’d wear, all the places she’d go, all the boys she’d talk to if she were a braver person than she is. And now that notebook’s disappeared, from out of her locker and into the hands of her lying ex and his ratfink cronies. To get it back, without it being posted for the whole school to see, she’ll have to do everything she wrote down, everything she’s ever been terrified to do. She’ll absolutely have to find the strength, too, because her own secrets aren’t the only ones in that book.

If I had to choose one word to describe this novel, it would be capslocky, both literally and figuratively. This book is set almost entirely in a state of panic, and that colors everything about it, from the stupid decisions the characters make to the almost spastic thought process our lead and narrator has. Even when the text is perfectly normal, you can just see the capslock lurking under it, waiting to be brought out again. I don’t normally want a character that manages to handle all her emotions gracefully, but even I thought Eliza here needed to stop, chill, and think things through. I get why the book does this: it is, in part, supposed to be an over-the-top high school comedy where people act crazy because it’s funny, but that aspect of it is also the book’s main problem. If you, like me, have fond nostalgia over She’s All That and movies like it, you probably won’t hate this, but the execution definitely could have been better. This plot felt like it should have been over before it began because, by the time it had started, I’d already thought of three ways out of the major problem, the characters’ antics were often more annoying than funny, and my main reaction to the lead was wanting to hand her a Xanax, because most of the secrets she was freaking out about were nothing that anyone would bat an eye at. A teenager, nervous about asking a boy out or wearing revealing clothes? No one can ever know! That said, nothing happens here that I wouldn’t have easily accepted in some silly teen movie. If physical comedy and facial expressions had been available to back some of this stuff up, it could have been very funny. Basically, this probably should have been a script instead of a novel. Make of that what you will.

#3—The Disappeared by Gloria Whelan

the disappeared

 

Standalone, Dial Books, 2008, 136 pgs.

The place is Buenos Aires, and the date is 1977, a time of political upheaval and widespread government oppression. The military junta currently in power tolerates no dissent, leading to Argentine citizens vanishing in the middle of the night, whisked away by the police for their beliefs. These people are known as The Disappeared, most of whom will never be seen again, and Silvia’s brother, Eduardo, has just become one of them.

I was, actually, very impressed with this one, especially because I picked it up for the topic, in spite of knowing that it was geared at a far younger audience. It’s a children’s book, no doubt, but for all the simplifying of complex concepts that entails, it does perfectly right by its heavy subject matter. If it weren’t so simple, plot and character-wise, or so short, in fact, this would probably be getting a proper review. In some ways, that simplicity actually helps the novel, too; the prose, for example, consists of short, plain-spoken sentences and easily understood imagery, but instead of detracting from the emotional appeal of the book, it gives the whole thing a feeling of understated tragedy and despair hidden by a brave face. This also never, surprisingly, pulls its punches on anything it’s talking about. As a children’s novel it never gets graphic, but it doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of a government imprisoning its political dissidents. There are torture scenes, and people being killed secretly by the police, and people’s families being threatened because they were protesting. A lot of the topics Whelan covers, and a lot of the emotional responses the characters have seem almost like they were pulled directly from some of the nonfiction books I’ve read on Argentina’s Disappeared; it’s obvious the author did her research here. It’s not perfect, by any means. The characters don’t really develop over the course of the book, and the prose seems more like it fell out of 1940-something than the late seventies. But in spite of those things, I was pleasantly surprised with this.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

cursed child

Harry Potter side story, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2016, 327 pgs.

Nineteen years later, Harry Potter stands again on Platform 9 ¾ watching two of his children board the train to Hogwarts, to the best years of their lives, and to their own adventures. To, presumably, safer adventures than he and his friends had; his scar has never acted up since the Battle of Hogwarts, and life has been peaceful since the war, minus some rumors about time-turners and crazy Death Eater plans. In fact, his biggest worry anymore seems to be his strained relationship with his middle child, Al. Unfortunately for Harry, that’s all about to change, with both of his minor worries coming together in the worst way possible. Children will go missing, timelines will change, and the threatened return of an enemy long defeated will once again throw Harry’s world into chaos.

Well, this was a long time coming. I read this ages ago and have been wanting to talk about it since I finished it.

I’ve been putting it off for two reasons, really. The first is that I wanted to finish my reread notes first, but, well, those are pretty firmly on the back-burner indefinitely, which I’ve known for a while now. Then there’s the other reason, which is that I’m not really sure how novel what I have to say about Cursed Child is. I really do agree with the consensus here: there’s just something about this that’s a little off for a Harry Potter story.

I also agree with the consensus that a lot of that has to do with the way the characters were written. Funnily enough, for that, the couple of big things that I’ve seen most people complaining about didn’t bother me all that much. I didn’t have much problem with the way Hermione was written, and the parts I did take issue with, like the complete lack of protection for a very important artifact in her office, I haven’t seen much discussion about.

But I had no problem with her being a complete jerk in the first alternate future, where she’s just very uptight and kind of mean. Do you remember eleven-year-old Hermione? Who was very uptight and kind of mean? She only chills out when she becomes friends with Harry and Ron, and, while this decision would have made more sense in an alternate timeline where that never happened instead of in one where she and Ron never got together, it’s not out of keeping for the character. I had no problem either with the dystopian future, where her personal life gets put on hold to fight the rebellion. That just makes sense, right? Apparently I can deal with cruel, emotionally-constipated Hermione, but stupid Hermione breaks me.

Ditto Harry telling Al that he wished he weren’t his son. I mean, it was an awful thing to do, but by the point it happened it was implied that Harry had been trying to be patient with an increasingly distant and angry kid for years. And it happened after Al had a) spit on a gift that was one of the last things Harry had of his parents and b) started in with that sentiment in the first place. Everyone has their breaking point in those situations, and Harry’s always had a temper. Snapping and then immediately regretting it seems exactly like what he’d do, to me.

On the other hand, I can’t ever see him trying to get his child to do something by saying “I need you to obey.” That’s never how he was won over by authority, and in turn that was never his method to try to win other people over. The demand to obey without question seems farther away from the spirit of the character and, really, of the series, than any awful comment made in anger ever could.

Mostly, though, my issue with the characterization comes from other people. I can’t see Cedric ever becoming a Death Eater; people that decent just don’t go that way because of a single, humiliating event. I can’t see spitfire fighter Ginny Weasley in the role of kind, forgiving saint who is trying to get everyone to accept Draco Malfoy as a friend. And at some point during the writing process, someone seems to have confused Ron with either Fred or George.

Again, it’s all just a little bit off.

That feeling has roots in everything, too. It’s in the framing: if this is supposed to be the second generation’s story, then why is it left to Harry and company to save the day again? It’s in the plotting: bringing Voldemort back seems too much like an attempt to return to a story that’s already firmly ended. It’s in the small mistakes of the world details. Hell, it’s in the overall feel of the piece: the seemingly too-fast pace is probably down to medium, but even considering that it’s still missing some sort of essential cleverness or intrigue necessary for a Harry Potter story.

And this may be a small detail and a non sequitur, but it really does bother me that, after all these years, nobody’s learned to go on high alert whenever boomslang skin goes missing from Hogwarts potion’s cupboard.

I’ve seen people talk about Cursed Child as fan-ficcy, and yeah, from the weird characterization to the recycled story elements.

For all the faults that causes, though, that’s also a lot of what I loved about it. The analytical side of my brain might have spent most of its reading time raising its eyebrows, but the lizard brain was definitely jumping for joy at a lot of this.

I don’t think it was just being able to return to this world, either. For all the weirdness and rehash, there were parts of this that made me genuinely happy to see, and those parts were also elements that could be considered fan-ficcy.

Some of that comes from its looking into the untold stories of the world, the alternate universes, the ways things could have gone, the things the second generation gets up to. Some of that is in the parts that are straight wish fulfillment. Getting to see Snape be openly funny and helpful, or to see Malfoy getting to go on an adventure with the leads are dreams long deferred for certain parts of the fandom; parts which generally include me.

And the best of these aspects comes from what is possibly the most fan-ficcy: the fact that the characters actually sit down and talk about their various traumas rather than just silently dealing on their own, and use them to relate to each other. This is a far more human happily ever after than the perfect, golden vision of the epilogue.

Arguably, part of the problem with this script was that they didn’t push the fanfic aspects far enough, or pulled too much from what fandom does wrong instead of what fandom does right. Instead of creating a new villain and storyline, they stuck too close to what had already been done. Instead of meticulously working out character traits, they inserted a bland original character. Instead of picking through every detail of how this world works, they just did what they wanted to make their plot easy. Where every fan writer worth their salt would have done the former every time.

As much as I can’t hate this, and even really loved some of it, those former examples were what I wanted. I wanted that attention to detail. I wanted a new story. I wanted to see the second generation come into their own.

And that’s really the problem here. They needed to move to the future, they needed to do it by paying close attention to the past, and they only halfway accomplished either.

The Ruining by Anna Collomore

the ruining

Standalone, Razorbill, 2013, 313 pgs.

Annie finally feels like her life is beginning. She’s moving away from her run-down, broken home in Detroit to go to college in California and make something of herself. Moreover, she’s moving away from her awful past and into a taste of what she hopes is her future; she’ll be working as a nanny for and living with a rich couple who have the sort of life she’s always dreamed of. Life in California seems wonderful, too. Walker, the father of the family she’s staying with, is funny and easygoing, Zoe, the little girl she’s watching, is sweet and adorable, and their house is beautiful, like something out of a magazine. There’s even a cute boy next door and the excitement of finding herself in her classes to round things out for Annie. So if the mother, Libby, is a little nit-picky and gets worked up over tiny things, that’s fine, right? She’s still fun to be around, and attentive, and seems to think of Annie as a little sister, even if she sometimes does strange things. Ok, so maybe it’ll be a little tougher than she thought it would, but Annie can’t throw this chance away. She just can’t.

I’ve read quite a lot of smart books; it always brings me a little pang of joy when an author does something clever with the characters or plotting or references. I’ve read quite a lot of stupid books as well, sometimes unintentionally, but also because sometimes everyone needs to relax with something fun and light.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read something that is somehow both at the same time.

I realize that’s sort of an odd statement to make, but this book is pretty clearly split on how well it was thought out. There are parts of this that are done beautifully, where the author obviously did detailed, studious research, and there are parts of this where things seemingly happen only because it’s convenient to the narrative.

To start, though, I will say this to the book’s credit: the parts that don’t really fall into either of those categories are generally good. The characters are engaging and decently three dimensional, and the prose is pretty evocative and beautiful. If you’re not going to be bothered by some plot contrivance then you’ll probably be perfectly fine with this.

Similarly, the major driving theme is really well-researched, especially for a YA novel.

A novel about the way abuse can work its way into your brain and make you think that the only problem in a situation is you could have easily been hackneyed and melodramatic, but here nearly every part of the novel that works toward exploring that side of things is well drawn.

What our villain, Libby, is doing to Annie isn’t exactly subtle, but you do really get the sense of her deliberately fishing out another person’s weaknesses and using them. You do really get the feel of Annie blaming every little thing on herself, because obviously no one would react that strongly if she hadn’t done something wrong. You are confused along with her as she begins to doubt her own senses and memories. It’s clear Collomore looked into how an abusive situation works and tried to do as much justice to it as she could.

And Annie herself is set up very well, with regards to that. It’s made clear at the beginning of the novel that she comes from a sort of neglectful background anyway and has some mental issues along the lines of PTSD and self hatred from her sister’s death when she was younger. She’s fresh from escaping the first and has never really dealt with the second. These are all things that make her susceptible to Libby’s manipulation in the first place, and, when she trusts Libby with them towards the beginning of the novel, they become hinge points for Libby to work her way in.

Again, this is all set up fairly cleverly. There are parts of this book that are smart.

Also again, there are unfortunately parts of this book that are stone-cold stupid.

Like Collomore’s tendency to make her lead behave in irredeemably dumb ways when the plot calls for it. I never expected Annie to see through the abusive behavior of someone she trusted and liked, especially when she saw this job as her one chance to get away from her awful life and Libby’s craziness and impositions were introduced slowly. I did, on the other hand, expect her to be a reasonably intelligent person who could put two and two together from easily offered pieces of information.

There were several key points along the way that Annie really should have figured out sooner. For at least one of them I’m not even sure if you could rightfully call it plot contrivance, because knowing it wouldn’t have broken Annie’s mindset of “Libby is good and giving me far more chances than I deserve,” so it wouldn’t have really affected how things played out. Knowing it might have even given her more sympathy for Libby.

I’m not sure why Collomore decided to dumb down here character there, except as for a cheap twist that didn’t work because it was too obvious. I suppose that’s a sort plot contrivance too, though.

And in some ways this tendency toward plot contrivance breaks the typically good characters. Annie’s supposed to be a smart person, and fairly fighty. She spends most of the novel trying to keep herself up out of the swamp of manipulation, even as she’s slowly slipping down. Then, at the end, the author completely throws out what has been some careful work with this character’s arc in order to have her break down completely, seemingly overnight.

And this example is plot contrivance in a way that the former might not be: this needed to happen for the love interest to have motivation to actually interfere in the situation. So, complete breakdown from a character who really didn’t seem that far gone.

It’s just little pieces of sloppiness that destroy something that could have been really interesting. Like some other things I’ve read, Collomore really needed to take the careful thought she put into taking apart an abusive situation and seeing how it worked, and expand it out to the other pieces of her novel.