Adventures in Reading


Fiction: Coraline by Neil Gaiman, 2008
December 16, 2008, 2:50 pm
Filed under: book reviews, fiction | Tags: , , , , , ,


On a rainy day in her new home, Coraline Jones’ mother shows her a door that opens to a brick wall. But over a stretch of the overcast and final days leading up to a new school year, Coraline discovers a hallway through the door identical to her own home that leads to her apartment, her house, her yard. It’s a strange world slightly off kilter from Coraline’s reality and here she meets her other mother and other father: strange likenesses of her parents with buttons for eyes (and that want to sew Coraline’s eyes closed). When Coraline’s real parents go missing, she must return through the door to save them.

Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is a children’s horror book written with children in mind, for children, and with the structural simplicity of children’s books. Coraline has thematic issues of losing and rescuing parents, searching for home, and exterior and interior realities. And it’s all a bit gruesome as the world is slightly off and includes button-eyed people, rats (enough to creep me out), and a hand that chases Coraline. I will say from reading the quotes on the book jacket I expected something stupendous and I thought it was fair (though I do look forward to the movie). I found it similar to Vivian French’s Robe of Skulls.

Conclusion: Tossed.



Fiction: Nation by Terry Pratchett

I’ve been trying to write on Terry Pratchett’s Nation for ages, so here are a handful of notes I wrote down while reading: story begins with a creation myth, looks at god superstitions, written by an atheist, some characters taught an unquestioning faith in belief, religion and/versus science.

Nation is Terry Pratchett’s most recent novel and the first in quite awhile not to occur within his fantastical Discworld series. In a bit of an alternate reality that is very similar to our own 19th Century, a tsunami strikes destroying much of the populations of this world’s equivocal South Pacific and also happens to shipwreck an English ship. The only immediate survivors are a man-child (with no soul (give me a moment on this)) MAu and a British girl going by the pseudonym Daphne.

I can think of three reasons why you would want to read this book, and the first most easily being that you love Terry Pratchett and as there is no new Discworld book this year what else are you going to read? Believe me, you won’t be disappointed!

Secondly, this is a wonderful book for young adults. Our protagonists are both at the coming-of-age period when the tsunami strikes – it’s The Lord of the Flies with much less madness and much more humor. Mau is returning home from his rite-of-passage during the disaster and his ceremony is never concluded, and thus he finds himself in limbo without his soul from childhood, but no way to enter manhood. Daphne is going to meet her father who is a member of the British Empire and one in a long queue to be the next king. Nation is interesting, thoughtful, funny, and has some brilliant speaking points: sex and gender, religion, colonization, beliefs, etc.

Three, you love atheism, hate atheism, or are interested in atheism. Pratchett, an atheist, has written a book on belief, why people believe, and perhaps even the need for some people to believe. The book concludes with a series of warnings including that the book might make you think. Unlike Pullman’s more in your face style, Pratchett is putting out the query of why do people believe and trying to present his answer.

The book concludes with Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins visiting the island. Really, what more do you need?

Conclusion: Keeper.

Other opinions: Book Addiction.



Short Stories: Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, 2008
December 10, 2008, 11:55 am
Filed under: book reviews, short stories | Tags: , , ,

Of contemporary short story authors Kelly Link is one of my favorites. I fell in love with her collection Magic For Beginners and was pleased to discover this most recent collection Pretty Monsters in the young adult section. The collection includes stories from her previous collections, previously published stories, and the title story “Pretty Monsters” is unique to the book. Link includes fantasy, supernatural, and horror in the book as well as zombies, teen angst, and a 200-year-old grandmother. And as always Link’s ever-precise language usage has somewhat of a haunting effect on the book.

Where Pretty Monsters stands apart from Link’s other collections is that it includes some lengthier stories in quite different styles. For example the “The Wizards of Perfil” or “The Constable of Abal” are more reminiscent and thematically similar to traditional fantasy stories while in the past her fiction has been more skewed, more surreal. Some of the longer tales have made me curious if Link is possibly considering a novel, but personally I’m satisfied with the short stories: so please keep them coming!

Conclusion: Keeper.



Fiction: The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti’s Good Thief is an adventure tale following the life of the one-handed and orphaned Ren. His life begins in a Catholic orphanage in New England until he’s reclaimed by his “brother” Benjamin Nab. Benjamin is a crook, a forger, and a grave robber; and much of the book explores Ren’s descent from a relatively mild-mannered and good orphan to the life of a little criminal. In case you didn’t already catch the influence from the title, The Good Thief has a complexity of moral and religious issues based upon underlying Catholic doctrine.

I’ve been rewriting this review for more than a week now because it’s an okay book, a good story, and a pleasant experience. However, I wasn’t thrilled with it. After completing The Good Thief, I saw a write up of it in Entertainment Weekly, I believe, but even there I don’t recall much of an opinion from them either. Reading it so close to the heels of Mercedes Lackey’s Foundation I found some parallels. It’s a text that runs smoothly and is easily read. There are allegorical qualities to the book that perhaps a more knowledgeable Catholic may perceive. Overall though it was not a book I was particularly excited about.

I was somewhat surprised to discover at the unboxing that The Good Thief is listed as adult fiction. Though the book has the briefest dabble in sexual innuendo and certainly explores violence, it really isn’t questionable material. Tinti’s piece is compared to the classical works of Robert Louis Stevenson, which was originally adult fiction but thanks to the many incarnations of the children’s adaptation and Disney, it’s very much a children’s classic.

Conclusion: Giving away at Bookmooch.



Looking Back at Stephenie Meyer

Before picking up Meyer’s final book in the Twilight series, I wanted to reflect on these recently read books. I asked another blogger about the pathos driving the series and the response was along the lines that they didn’t feel emotionally manipulated by Meyer, but I must beg disagreement. In fact, the entire series revolves around emotional manipulation and Meyer’s talent at doing so.

I didn’t realize this at first and was so blinded by my own emotions, by my heart going pitter-pat over Bella’s love trysts, by the teenage fan girl quality of the books that I nearly missed it. But a friend and co-worker who happens to be an exuberant fan of all things vampire related pointed out that in her opinion one reason this series has become so popular is because the whole vampire thing doesn’t matter. (Meyer even seems to agree with this.) In fact, one of the major marketing points of this book could be amputated and the reader would still have an emotionally alluring novel. And when I gave this some thought, I realized with some relatively minor editing Twilight wouldn’t change that much if the whole vampire thing was taken out and was replaced with straight up teenage hormones and sex (adíos double entendres).

This is less true about the next two books in the series: New Moon and Eclipse. And that is because without something else (anything else) occurring they’re not well-developed novels. New Moon is five hundred pages of near-suicidal reflection of an angsty teenage girl after being dumped and Eclipse is a sexually charged soap opera that dares to defy some of the best love triangles on Spanish speaking television. In retrospect, I think a more strict editorial process could have helped the story. After reading these three books, I firmly believe that Meyer did not have enough plot for an entire series of books. Maybe she had two (depending on Breaking Dawn three books) encompassing these characters. But then, Meyer describes herself as being “character driven” and that “The plot comes from the characters. If you have interesting personalities, the stories write themselves. Some writers love intricate plotting, some love the beauty of language. For me it’s all about the people – always.” [1] Honestly though, the characters were not interesting enough for me but I still found myself pushing through these three novels.

This doesn’t necessarily make the series bad (and the cotton candy stickiness is undoubtedly what keeps me coming back). It depends mostly on your tastes. If you feel exploited and used when an artist depends on provoking a purely emotional response or if you feel that this sort of narrative is too easy then avoid this series. It reminds me of the movie reviewer Pauline Kael when she bashed one of the world’s most beloved movies: The Sound of Music. Kael described the film as: “the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat,” and “we have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.” You see, The Sound of Music is a melodrama and one of the intentions of this movie is to make the audience cry and for the most part the film has been quite successful at doing so. (Seriously, how many people aren’t choked up by the time the Von Trapps are being chased through a nunnery by Nazis?) But Kael hated the movie for this very reason and there is something malicious in it and masochistic involved for the viewer.

Regardless, I still immensely enjoyed Twilight (and The Sound of Music) and I stand by my Dworkian interpretation of events (if only because I love to look for layers everywhere). But the remainder of the series has been too extended, too melodramatized, just too much. (And I suppose my interpretation isn’t even necessarily about a work being character driven. After all one of my favorite directors is Woody Allen and the majority of his films are character driven. But Allen’s characters say interesting things and prod interesting ideas for 90-minutes.) They’re fun books in that they offer an extended exploration of the characters. (Like when Pride & Prejudice is over, even the real Austen purists must have a tiny burning desire wondering now what’s in store for Elizabeth and Darcy?) I read these books with a similar mindset to my near-obsession to the X-Files or Moonlighting. These were television shows that were fun and interesting, but the one thing that kept viewers coming back was that magnificent animal-like sexual tension pouring off of the screen. Meyer is a master at this! The woman definitely knows how to write passion and tension and I admit I quickly got lost in it.
But like with X-Files and Moonlighting, once that tension was burst I didn’t really care anymore? And this is why I’m roughly 1,500 pages into a series that I am finding increasingly running cool on but that has allowed my emotions to stampede over my best intentions.
[1] On July 31st an interview with Stephenie Meyer was published by the Wall Street Journal.



Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
August 7, 2008, 9:57 am
Filed under: book reviews, fiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

A co-worker asked me to define my Stephenie Meyer experience up through the initial three books and the only way I could aptly describe it was by pointedly saying the series starts at a high point and proceeds to steeply decline. Meyer’s pumps Twilight full of teen angst and heartbreak that many people seem to relate with, but it has now been two additional novels and more than one thousand pages that she’s trying to string this out on.

Come on Meyer, I need more than that.

In Eclipse the reader delves into the drama of Bella’s love for both Edward (a vampire) and Jacob (a werewolf). Of course they’re arch-nemesis because of species but are now drawn into a selfish and long drawn out love triangle. Over these three books Bella has proven she is more than willing to alienate nearly everyone around her for her drug-like addiction of Edward. Eclipse is another book without a great deal of plot. Yes, Victoria reappears with a herd of newly turned vampires to kill Bella and you think this would be sensational but it’s not. In fact, it’s almost an afterthought tossed into the text. Once again Meyer produces a book highly dependent on pathos and one that barely responds to all of the questions produced in New Moon.

It’s also becoming more apparent that while Meyer is by no means a poor writer, her writing reads as stilted and she seems overly dependent on certain style techniques. For example, you’ll be hard-pressed to pages in her series not highly decorated with dashes. Often what Meyer is dashing off are unimportant asides that would be better suited for parentheses or commas, but the dashes help add qualities of emergency and excitement for the reader. However, I’m not sure if these aspects of the book would be as strong without them.

While I did not read Eclipse nearly as quickly as I read the previous two novels in the series (it actually took me about three days), I did still finish it and intend on reading the final book of the series Breaking Dawn. I confess my excitement is flagging. Despite this increasing lull in the books and Meyer’s exhausting abuse of emotions, I still admit I like it and found myself in an Edward versus Jacob (versus Mike) conversation at work. The series has started to dally into more philosophical themes of souls and existence as well as more commonplace issue such as sex, but I Meyer’s does not explore any of these issues to a great enough extent to compensate for what the books lack.

Perhaps my favorite part of Eclipse and what kept me going were Meyer’s references to Wuthering Heights. Now there is a real heart-throbbing book and that is well-written and with conviction.

What other bloggers have to say: Kay’s Shelf, American Bibliophile, The Ax For the Frozen Sea, In the Shadow of Mt. TBR, and Book Nut.



Fiction: Twilight by Stephanie Meyers

When I decided to finally pick up a copy of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, half of my co-workers cheered while the others half groaned. This sensationally popular young adult series has been flying off the shelf, but I confess I have had relatively little attraction to it. First, I’m not much of a fan of vampires and particularly when these mythic creatures are explored in the traditional manner. That is strong, ethereal beauty, stylish, almost immortal – too near-perfect for my taste. I have similar sentiments towards werewolves, which is why I did find Sharp Teeth such an appealing book.

So imagine my surprise when I found myself swept away by Twilight. Bella has decided to move in with her estranged stepfather in Forks, Washington. Bella’s experience at her new school is dramatic and enticing to most any reader; she is immediately popular—particularly with her male peers—and attracts the attention of the bad boy of the school Edward Culleton: who happens to be a vampire. Meyer’s vampire story is not traditional in every sense as it unfolds in a suburban, high school environment and some vampires have acquired special characteristics, dare I say superpowers, carried over from their past human life.

Bella is the normal outsider favored in contemporary novels. Though placed on the edge of peer acceptance, she is an attractive, slender, intelligent, well-read, and well-spoken teenager. Her one flaw, beautifully represented throughout the novel by Meyers, is her clumsiness. Perhaps Bella’s most endearing quality is Meyer’s quality ability to inject high-school desires into Bella believably and simultaneously pulling (even long stagnant) heartstrings of the reader.

Vampire violence itself has a sexual connotation to it through penetration, passion, and spilling blood. Twilight is not exempt from this interpretation. Repeatedly throughout the text, Edward comments on how he must control himself from “taking [Bella],” which literally refers to drinking her blood but is a barely disguised euphemism for sex. The sexual tension throughout the book is taught and is one of the more alluring and well-written tensions in the book. Likewise, at the conclusion when the traditionally virginal Bella pleads with Edward to “change” her it’s likewise a reference of offering herself to Edward.

But Bella is no longer a “virgin.” Andrea Dworkin describes in her book Intercourse, when discussing Bram Stoker’s Dracula, “The place of sex is moved to the throat; and the meaning of sex is in draining her body of all its blood.” When Bella is lured by the vampire James to the dance studio, is violently attacked, is bitten by him (though in the hand), and all while being videotaped—it’s an experience synonymous with a violent rape and at that a recorded violent rape.

The “vegetarianism” that the Culleton family has resigned themselves to, that is rather than attack humans they hunt and drink the blood of animals, is a rejection of vampirical violence and in a sense the sexual violence that accompanies it. The Culleton’s have refused the misogyny of their kind, which is an interesting parallel to Bella’s English report on the misogynistic tendencies of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

I admit, I am taken with the series and am looking forward to picking up the next book in the series Eclipse. Perhaps what I am even more impressed with though is that I would disagree with the oft heard banter that it’s a fun or fluff series: candy for the brain. An argument that too often cuts the legs out from under “children’s books” and refuses said books to be considered seriously. Though I still think roughly 50-pages could have been chopped from Twilight to make it a tighter novel, it really is a sensational book to read for pure enjoyment or literary interpretation.

Other opinions: books i done read, Necromancy Never Pays, Two-Legged Animal, and the Lit Connection.