Friday, September 30, 2011

Quote of the Week: Well, If He Says So....

"Gaiety is the most outstanding feature of the Soviet Union."
- Josef Stalin

Thursday, September 29, 2011

In Which I Express a Great Admiration for a Band With a Long, Odd Name

I've been listening to the new They Might Be Giants album, Join Us, for a couple of months now -- in fact, through the magic of iTunes, I can say that I've been listening to it since 10:42 AM on July 23rd -- and I have to admit that my initial opinion of it has undergone a 180-degree change.

(This isn't uncommon with TMBG, but I seem to have forgotten about it during the last half-decade, when they mostly made pleasant but more surface-y music for young people. When they're officially working for adults, they make the kind of music that often takes some listening to get used to, and I generally end up liking that better than material that's catchy on the first listen. Come to think of it, the new Okkervil River record this year, I Am Very Far, had almost exactly the same pattern.)

At first, I thought Join Us was a bit of a mess, with songs all over the place that didn't quite click, and very little of the really punchy stuff. Of course, I can also remember when "the really punchy stuff" -- the full-band rock TMBG that started with 1994's John Henry -- was the new TMBG music that I wasn't sure that I liked. (I've been a fan since they showed up on late-night MTV in the mid-80s; I'm pretty sure I bought an EP or two even before They Might Be Giants came out, so I've had a long history with not being quite sure if I liked the new record until I decided I loved it.)

There are still songs on Join Us I don't entirely love, of course -- that's always the case -- and I do wish there were more real barn-burners like "Stomp Box" or "AKA Driver" or "Till My Head Falls Off" or the live version of "Why Does The Sun Shine?" or "Cyclops Rock" or "Am I Awake?" or "Vancouver" or "Vestibule" or "The Shadow Government" (or even "See the Constellation" or "Ana Ng"). Only "You Probably Get That a Lot" really goes in that direction.

But there are some really fun, quirky songs on Join Us, like "Cloisone" and "When Will You Die" -- which is nearly as good, and along the same lines, as "Turn Around" and "Older" -- and "2082." I think it's mostly that TMBG has been in an aggressively quirky period -- at least for their adult records -- for most of the last decade, after finishing out their "rock" period with Mink Car in 2001. (And I am much too old, because I can remember listening to that record a lot walking to and from work that year.)

So, to celebrate a band that's been making fun, goofy, weird, unique music for nearly thirty years, without ever becoming a parody of themselves -- and because I like making widgets, and haven't done one in a while -- here's a widget with (almost) all of the TMBG songs I just mentioned.

And, just because, here's a random TMBG video as well -- "I'm Impressed," from their 2007 record The Else:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Parenting: Harder Once You Actually Do It

I was a much quirkier parent before I had kids. The Wife and I had all sorts of schemes and plans for the kids we thought we'd eventually have, and none of them actually happened. It turns out that when you're chasing around an actual screaming toddler, all of the amusing plans you made five years before aren't as funny.

Our big punishment was going to be making the kids Amish. Bad behavior? "You're Amish for the week, kid! No electricity, and no rides in the car." We never quite committed to actually buying a full set of shaming clothes for the prospective children -- though we vacationed in Lancaster, Pennsylvania pretty much every year, so it would have been easy to pick up a bonnet and calico dress -- but we were sure that we'd be turning off their electricity and sending them to school on one of those '30s-style apple-carton scooters whenever necessary.

That never happened, of course. And we never bought the house we really wanted, the one with a flyspeck island attached to the back yard, in the lake community where my mother lived. We loved the idea of sending kids to the island when they were bad, though -- "Go to your island!", we'd yell, and, if we were feeling particularly smug at the time, we'd imagine a drawbridge that we could pull up after the little hellions were safely across the water. No matter that the tiny stretch of water was small enough for even a shaky kindergartner to jump; it was the thought that counted: we knew we'd want to be able to exile our children when necessary.

But no: we were stuck with time-outs and stern talkings-to and the full panoply of deadly dull punishments that everyone else uses. The Wife still has Thing One go sit on the stairs when he gets particularly unruly, and he's thirteen now -- I bet we'll never manage to turn either of them Amish, even for a day.

Even their names didn't work out right. Long before we actually really planned to have kids, we planned a huge brood with "fun" names. The girls would be Roberta, Wilhelmina, and Thomasina -- called Rob, Bill, and Tom, of course -- and the boys would be Vivian, Leslie, and Evelyn. Sure, they'd probably get in a lot of fights and come home in tears from school more often than not, but a bad childhood is practically required for success later in life, right? I wanted to be one of those kooky families, like the ones in minor '70s YA novels, where the father is an absent-minded but brilliant something-or-other who smokes a pipe, while the mother is a swirling ball of energy that never quite gets anything done right. But it turned out that living like that was not just a lot of work, it also required being actually fictional.

Eventually, we settled down and started picking real names. And we focused on girls' names, because that's what parents do. We found it a lot easier to pick names for girls than boys -- our first-choice girl name actually fissioned into two names, because we liked the middle name so much. OK, we also had some family names, and those always have to be shoveled into the middle, so they can't do too much damage.

Neither of those names saw the light of day. If I remember right, they're still secret -- only The Wife and I know them. That seems silly now, but I'm certainly not revealing what Thingette 1 and Thingette 2 would have been called without an official sign-off from She Who Must Be Obeyed. We did manage to come up with one boys' name that we really liked -- with the same initials as mine, a touch that still makes me feel smug even now -- and smacked Thing 1 with that when he came along.

Thing 2, on the other hand, was named very late in the process -- we were vaguely fighting between Jack (The Wife's preference) and Graham (mine), when his eventual real name snuck in as a compromise candidate at the last minute. We only really decided on it the moment he was born, when I said "Look! It's <Thing 2>!" and that made it stick. (Making important decisions when your wife is under powerful sedatives, tied down to an operating table, and has several medical personnel elbows-deep in her abdomen is, I discovered, an excellent route to getting your way. Though I probably should have held out for Graham.)

You know, Thing 1 is a teenager now, and he's acting up like one. Maybe Amishness is just what he needs -- now where did I put that straw-hat and suspender catalog?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Feed by Mira Grant

A novel must always be judged by what it tries to be, and not by what the reader wants it to be; that's perhaps the first rule of reviewing. And so I am compelled to look at Mira Grant's Hugo-nominated novel Feed as a work of science fiction, set in the near future, about, among other things, a political crisis and the rise of blogging-as-journalism.

That's unfortunate, since the science in Feed is so laughable as to be essentially nonexistent; its politics are bland and derivative, with a plot lifted from every second-rank airport thriller of the last thirty years; and its view of the brave new world of blogging is severely pre-Huffington Post, with a breakthrough Presidential campaign of 2040 that actually has less blogger coverage and importance than the real 2008, and a cadre of bloggers who are vastly less organized and professional in Grant's future than they were in our shared past.

(Many of Feed's problems could have been solved with a slight rejiggering of the timeline -- if the Rising had happened in the late '70s, say, right after Dawn of the Dead, the George Romero cult would have made a lot more sense, and the "now" end of the timeline would be, well, now, which would fit the technology and society much better.)

Since I'm going to focus primarily on Feed's flaws -- it has many of them, each with their own distinctive characteristics -- I should somewhat counterbalance that, up front here, with a discussion of its strengths. Feed is a compulsively readable novel, with an engagingly grumpy first-person voice, and it does present a near-future world that's not quite like anything else I've seen before. I'll complain about aspects of the worldbuilding later, but that voice probably won't even get mentioned after this point, because it's strong, and it works as well as any narrative voice in any novel.

Unfortunately, that voice is forced by Grant's plot to engage in an endless series of talky and relentlessly explanatory lectures about the historical background and the social details of this world -- the incredibly unlikely and scientifically laughable way the zombies came to be, the utterly impossible social arrangements that couldn't possibly sustain an industrial civilization, the silly blogger triumphalism, and dozens of other things that the reader is asked to swallow, one by one, in a sequence of foul-tasting horse-sized pills. Grant writes as if Heinlein had never invented the inclue, from a world in which dinosaurian infodumps still roam free, which gives her narrative not just a herky-jerky stop-start pace but a musty sense that this story could, somehow, have lept out of a Grensback magazine and been only lightly updated before publication.

I suspect that stems from a central issue: Feed is not, taxonomically, a SF novel at all. It's an urban fantasy book with a thin and tattered SFnal skin wrapped around it strategically, like a fan dancer with a shabby old bit of second-hand feather desperately trying to hide all of her business at the same time. SF, particularly near-future SF, relies on a web of consistency and continuity -- it doesn't need to be completely realistic, but it must remain plausible, and somehow connected to the world we actually live in. Feed, on the other hand, clearly began from a high concept -- what if the zombie apocalypse was blogged? -- and ran forward from there, with only about as much verisimilitude as your typical zombie story ever has. (Which is to say: very little at all.)

Speaking of the blogging, which is central to Feed -- any media more organized than four people and their rented servers has either disappeared or is so far in the background as to be essentially nonexistent -- it also suffers from a very old-fashioned kind of SF furniture, the "we all do it this way" explanation. Of course, in an actual, complex world, there's no function that everyone all does the same way -- look at the recent furor over the Huffington Post's blogging model, which relies on lots of essentially unpaid drones working for "exposure" -- but there's no sign that anyone in the world of Feed is organized in any way other than the way Our Heroes are. So our narrator, Georgia Mason, is a "Newsie," who does traditional reporting. Her brother, Shaun, is an "Irwin," who does dumb things and hopes to survive them. And their third wheel, a girl who calls herself Buffy, is a "Fictional," who writes pretend stories that, in some never-quite-specified way, somehow fits in with the nonfiction produced by the rest of the team. (It's as if a major newspaper had three desks: News, Survivorman, and Slash.)

One can also note that the terminology -- irwin, newsie, buffy, and so on -- is much more reminiscent of 1995 than of 2040, or even the present day. Authors often have idiosyncratic cultural referents, and want to embed those in their fictional worlds, but those referents need to make sense within those worlds, and Feed just doesn't read as a society twenty-five years in the future, but as an alternate 2000 or so.

No zombie explanation ever makes real science-fictional sense, of course -- the best explanations for zombies are either intrinsically fantastic, of the "there's no more room in hell" variety, or are mere head-shrugging for something that's still completely unknown in the story. Feed throws around gobbledy-gook in an attempt to build a SFnal justification for its zombies, but its two-tailored-viruses-collided-and-gosh-darn-it-just-happen-to-reanimate-the-dead postulate is just too much to swallow for anyone familiar with the second law of thermodynamics. If you want to have a tailored biological organism responsible for zombiism, it has to be entirely designed to that purpose -- and, even then, it's highly implausible to begin with.

The central plot of Feed isn't about the zombies, though, which is a good thing: zombies are dull, since they only ever do the same thing over and over again, so stories need to use them as an element rather than the centerpiece. (Though that does raise the question: if everyone lives massively sequestered lives, and hardly ever goes out or does anything, what are all of these bloggers actually doing and reporting on? Is it purely that there are dozens of "irwins" going out every day, encountering zombies, and trying not to die?) Instead, Feed pretends that it will be uniquely newsworthy for a blogger team to be part of the media entourage of a Presidential candidate in 2040, because nothing like that has happened in the last three election cycles and certainly wouldn't happen in the quarter-century following.

The candidate that Georgia, Shaun and Buffy get embedded with is, I'm sorry to say, a complete cliche: the outdoorsy, anachronistically liberal Republican with a down-home, aw-shucks manner who instantly bonds with them and has the massive charisma of a born, natural leader. The only intraparty rival that we see is equally stereotyped, a corrupt, nasty Southerner with a steely eye, dark secrets, and stupidly unyielding principles, a man who even the dullest reader will tag as a villain from the first moment he oozes across the page. As to the opposition party, I'm sure that Grant mentions the Democrats at least once, and might even have dropped a hint that the USA has a current President at the moment, but none of that matters in the slightest to her narrative. (As opposed, of course, to any real campaign, which is obsessed at every turn with the opposition, both within and outside one's own party, and whose operations are focused, from day to day and minute to minute, on tactics to counter current and expected attacks from all of those opposition forces.)

It's a very hermetic, quiet campaign that our bloggers sign up for: there are very few in-person events, presumably due to the entire population's zombie-induced agoraphobia, but there also doesn't seem to be any replacement virtual events. No online fireside chats, no massively multi-voter dungeons, not much of anything. Georgia says that it's very hectic and tiring, but she doesn't actually tell us about much, aside from a few plot-important events where zombies cause trouble -- due, we soon learn, to sabotage from unknown forces. (Oh, and another way that this is a quaintly old-fashioned campaign: the only important women involved with it are the bloggers and the candidate's long-suffering, good-hearted wife. This is a 1970s political world, in which the good white men battle against the bad white men for supremacy.)

So this campaign has no scandals, no manufactured controversies, only a tiny number of plot-relevant issues -- in short, none of the actual complexity and confusion of a real campaign. (Look at what's going on right now, as a flock of Republicans squabble for next year's nomination, and compare that to the vastly quieter and more staid campaign in Feed.) Senator Ryman steams amiably forward to his inevitable nomination, because that's what happens in books about a political campaign, right?

Of course, those acts of sabotage continue, and worsen, until even the dimmest reader is sure who the responsible party is. They also allow Grant to continue to beat her zombie drum, and gives her some actual events to break up the endless paragraphs of narration-driven backstory and detailed descriptions of security arrangements. (If Grant showed the slightest awareness that Feed could be read as a metaphor for the US's current frightened-chicken state of security theatre, this would have been slyly funny and biting, but she's much more interested in yet more tedious physical details of bleach-baths and clothes-changes; Feed is one of those novels where the research has eaten the story.)

There is a shocking event at about the two-thirds mark, though I found it mostly annoying -- it damaged one of the core strengths of the book for the sake of cheap drama, and felt like a stand-in for all of the real activity and energy that an actual political campaign would have. It's too bad that Feed isn't a young adult novel, though; it would be a strong contender for the Newbery Medal if it were.

And then Feed ends, as predictably as it has run -- aside from that one shocking event -- with good triumphant and the characters who have not been nibbled by the walking dead left to shuffle forward into the inevitable sequels. (Which I have no intention of reading.)

Feed takes second-hand materials -- zombies, the political-campaign thriller, modern blogging -- and makes them all duller and less interesting than they have been in other hands, or in the real world (where applicable). It is pleasant to read on a sentence-to-sentence level, and Georgia's voice is a pleasant thing to spend a few hundred pages with. But if that's all that it takes to get a Hugo nomination these days, then I'm pretty damn angry at the shallowness of the nominators.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/24

Q. How is this week like every other week?

A. Books have arrived in my mailbox, from publishing companies far and wide. (Though mostly headquartered in midtown Manhattan.)

Q. And what is the right and proper thing to do with those books?

A. Read them, of course. But, even before that, to describe and identify them, for the delight and edification of multitudes worldwide.

Q. Will you do that now?

A. I shall -- though first I must give the ritual weekly disclaimer: I haven't read any of these books yet, so there is always the possibility that some statements below may later become inoperative.

First up is Circle of Enemies, the third book in the contemporary fantasy series "Twenty Palaces" by Harry Connolly. I reviewed the previous book, Game of Cages, last year, and then named it one of by Top Twelve books of the year, so I'm really looking forward to this one. It's a mass-market paperback from Del Rey, just out this month, so I'm sure nearly all of you could easily make room in your book-buying budgets for it. (And I'd recommend that.)

Speaking of mass-market paperbacks, this is also the time of the month when DAW sends me their mass-markets for the coming month -- in this case, October, for those of you frantically trying to count on your fingers -- and so I should mention them as well:
  • Vamparazzi, the fourth book in Laura Resnick's Esther Diamond urban fantasy series, about a struggling actress in a world full of supernatural creatures. I used to have a copy of a previous book in the series, Doppelgangster, because I loved the title (and had really enjoyed a traditional fantasy trilogy, loosely based on the history of Sicily, that Resnick wrote for Tor about a decade ago -- the first book is In Legend Born), but I think that floated away in my recent flood. So maybe I'll read this one instead.
  • Magebane, a fat steampunky-looking novel by Lee Arthur Chane, an author I'm not familiar with. It's set in a small kingdom, cut off from the rest of the world, where magic still works, where a moustache-twisting villain is about to launch a coup and attempt to Take Over the World (Bwah-ha-ha!), when a young man arrives from the outside in an airship.
  • And then there's Intrigues, the middle book in Mercedes Lackey's "Collegium Chronicles," the latest trilogy set in her popular world of Valdemar. (And don't atttempt to read condescension into that particular sentence, since I had read almost all of the Valdemar books up to my departure from the SFBC, and enjoyed most of them quite a bit -- Lackey is a substantially better writer than she usually gets credit for, especially when she pushes herself.)
We've reached the point where everyone wants to create manga stories -- case in point, this week, is Laddertop, Vol. 1, the first in an expected series, written by Orson Scott Card and Emily Janice Card (OSC's daughter), with an assist from the other daughter, Zina Card. The art comes from Philippine illustrator/children's book author Honoel A. Ibardolaza, who, in the typical way of manga written by a bigfoot author, gets an "Illustrated by" credit, as if this were a prose book entirely written by the Cards. The story is set in a near-future where enigmatic aliens have given humanity four beanstalk power stations -- and, in a twist both very OSCish and manga-netic, only children can fit through the maintenance corridors of these stations. (It's always sad to read about futures in which robotics and telepresence technology goes backwards so quickly.) Laddertop will be officially published tomorrow as a paperback by Tor/Seven Seas.

Ken MacLeod has a new novel in The Restoration Game, from Pyr but also officially publishing tomorrow in paperback. (And that reminds me that I read MacLeod's first half-dozen or so novels, but somehow missed most of what he's done this last decade.) Restoration Game is a near-future thriller that combines political intrigue in the former Soviet Union with online gaming -- and the back cover also promised "cutting-edge philosophical speculation," for looking for such things.

I'm very much not the audience for zombie novels, as I keep cheerfully mentioning, but I must be in the minority, because the damned things just keep coming. (Metaphoric echo intended.) This week's entry is David Moody's Autumn: Purification, the third book in a series in which 99% of the human race (including you and me, of course, but zombie-book readers never seem to mind that) has just died horribly and come back as brain-eating automatons. St. Martin's Press published Purification, in which things get even worse for a small band of survivors trapped in an underground base by an ever-increasing horde of the undead, in late August.

Sea monsters, on the other hand, are right up my alley, so Jonathan Case's debut graphic novel, Dear Creature, looks like a real kick. Somewhere in Beach-Blanket-Bingo days, a thoughtful monster named Grue lurks just offshore, torn between his urges to keep eating those tasty young teenagers (as his chorus of crab friends urges him to do) and his growing sense that there's more to life. What will he do? This one is coming from Tor on October 11th.

But we're back to zombies with Jack and Jill Went Up to Kill: A Book of Zombie Nursery Rhymes, the follow-up to the Xmas parody It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies! by Michael P. Spradlin with illustrations by Jeff Weigel. I think the title completely explains the appeal of this slim book (coming from Harper on October 4th); it's the kind of thing that traditionally sells in an eye-catching display right next to the cash register, and I wonder how books like that are faring in the ever-more-online bookselling world of today.

Most of the stuff I get in the mail is closely related to the worlds of SF/Fantasy and comics/graphic novels, and that's fine -- but I do miss seeing other genres, and quirkier stuff, the way I did back at the clubs. So I'm thrilled every time something like I ♥ Kawaii shows up, just because it's different and interesting. This comes as a hardcover this week from Harper Design, "Selected by Charuca" (a character illustrator/designer from Barcelona) -- and it's a collection of art by nearly three dozen artists and collectives from around the world, all of whom are influenced strongly by the Japanese idea of super-cuteness, "kawaii."

William J. Birnes and Joel Martin, bestselling authors of books on psychic and paranormal topics including the recent The Haunting of America, focus on the last century of local history with The Haunting of Twentieth-Century America, including stories of mediums, UFOs, out-of-body experiences, and other uncanny events. The ex-Skeptical Inquirer reader in me leads me to note that Birnes and Martin seem to believe in all of this stuff, and so, presumably, their readership is equally open-minded to every possible bit of unlikely hooey. This was published by Forge (Tor's less-speculative twin) on September 13th in trade paperback.

Publicists are essentially optimistic people, which is why one of them sent me the third book in a trilogy that I've never previously seen. The book is James Dashner's The Death Cure, completing the YA dystopian (do I repeat myself?) "Maze Runner" series, and Delacorte will publish it on October 11th.

George Mann returns with the third book in his "Newbury & Hobbes" steampunk detective series, The Immorality Engine. (I still haven't read any of them, but maybe that will change soon.) This one is coming in October as a Tor hardcover.

And last for this week is Stan Lee's How to Write Comics, a big, heavily-illustrated book cowritten by Bob Greenberger published by Watson-Guptill in association with the comics company Dynamite Entertainment. As far as I can tell, none of the illustrations credit artists, but, then, this is a book about writing comics, so I suppose that's understandable. This one is hitting stores October 11th.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Nasty Reviews, Redux

I've just set a particularly mean review to publish on Tuesday morning -- in part so that I can, if I feel like it, look it over again tomorrow and perhaps tone it down before it actually publishes.

I doubt that I'll change it -- I read this particular book (why am I being so coy? It's Mira Grant's Feed, the second-least deserving Hugo nominee of this past year) well over a month ago, and I've been seething about it ever since, so it's unlikely another day will tone down my bile. But it does seem like an official cooling-off period is in order, just to be sure.

So there could have been a major post here today, but I postponed it for what might even be humanitarian purposes. You're welcome, I suppose.

(I think of this note as a coda to the three-year-old On Bad Reviews rather than as a tease to the upcoming post, though I've just realized that you folks reading this will probably take it as the latter. To make it up to you, I'll now reveal that the book I was talking about in that old post was Jack O'Connell's The Resurrectionist. You're welcome again.)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Juxtaposition: Two Books for Younger Readers with Words & Pictures

Sometimes words and pictures come together in the same story. There's more than one way of accomplishing this -- comics is the most obvious, with the story told in a sequence of pictures and text (captions and/or dialogue), but there are other options -- and books for pre-adults have typically made more use of pictures than those in the more adult portions of the library.

Remember: adults are dull and staid, and must not be upset or disconcerted by mere pictures in their very, very serious books. Children are more mentally flexible, and can handle the shock of the pictorial.

Teens are somewhere in between: they usually want to be adults, but they're still young enough to question that dull stolidity, and still, sometimes, will gravitate to books with pictures in them. The two books I have in front of me today were published to be read by pre-adults of various ages -- though I think the first had an older expected reader-age than the latter -- and they're chock-full of pictures. In fact, both of them are stories told through and about their pictures, in different ways -- and, more interestingly from my point of view, neither of these books use the language and techniques of comics. They both use pictures as part of their storytelling, but come at it from different traditions, and don't tell their stories from image-to-image the way that comics do.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is the more conventional of the two books; it's a novel by Ransom Riggs (his first), illustrated by a sequence of real, mostly unaltered vintage photographs. (Riggs is clear about the "mostly unaltered" stipulation, since some of these are quite odd photographs, as with the cover shot, showing a hard-faced girl standing rigidly still a foot off the ground.) Those photos are part of the story in the most basic, literal way -- every so often, a character talks about looking at a photograph, and then, lo! the actual photo appears on the next page.

In fact, that's the main problem with Miss Peregrine: it's a fantasy story about people with strange, unlikely abilities living among us -- the "peculiar children" of the title -- but the story is slow and plodding for more than its first half, and the reader comes to feel that Riggs assembled the pictures into a sequence first, and then made up a story to fit that sequence. That story chugs along in a low gear for most of the book's length, ambling slowly from one picture to the next, when the reader would really prefer fewer pictures -- or fewer interruptions for "and I have a picture of that as well!", at least -- to get a story that picks up the pace a bit.

That story is told by young Jacob Portman, a quiet and mostly solitary teen in modern-day Florida. His paternal grandfather used to tell him unlikely and amazing stories from his own youth, but stopped when Jacob insisted that those stories were lies. But then Jacob finds his dying grandfather in the woods near their home, and catches a glimpse of a tentacle-mouthed figure that may have killed the old man. Of course everyone insists that Grandpa Portman was killed by a wild animal, but of course Jacob doesn't believe that.

Jacob spends time with a psychiatrist, Dr. Golan, but still has regular nightmares, no matter how many drugs Golan prescribes. Eventually, he convinces his dreamy father -- whose latest, soon-to-be-abandoned project is a book about birding -- to take the two of them to the remote Welsh island where Grandpa Portman grew up during WWII, for the one to investigate the waterfowl and the other to find the titular institution, and possibly track down people who knew his grandfather.

There, he finds the orphanage ruined, the victim of a bombing raid on September 3, 1940. Only one person emerged from the wreckage: his grandfather, who set off immediately to fight. But of course it's not that simple: there are peculiar children, and he finds them, in the place they fled to, or created, that fateful day in 1940. And where there are good mutants, there must be evil ones as well, so the monsters that his grandfather killed -- after a long life spent hunting and killing those same monsters, as Jacob learns -- are soon found to be hot on  his trail. Eventually, after lots of backstory and vaguely-interesting old pictures, there's a confrontation, a battle, various choices and dramatic speeches, and an exodus that I expect will lead to a sequel.

The bones of that story could easily be exciting, and Riggs makes many of his scenes exciting -- but the overall sense, for most of the book, is of plodding from one photo that isn't nearly as eerie or evocative as it should be to yet another one. Riggs also has an occasionally tin ear for invented terminology -- ymbrynes being the worst offender -- and the kind of lack of imagination that's only startling in retrospect. (It's been nearly 70 years since the bombing raid, and one must wonder why the peculiar children haven't changed at all since then -- Riggs has in-story reasons for part of the lack of changes, but seventy years of accumulating days, all very much the same, cannot but have an effect on those children.)

Miss Peregrine is one of those fantasies written by an outsider, with an initially intriguing idea that turns out to be the oldest of hats -- a cousin of X-Men and Wild Talent and Zenna Henderson -- and that has not been thought through, or integrated into the world, quite as thoroughly as the reader might hope. It's nice enough, but the kind of book that inevitably reminds the experienced reader of a dozen better things. So the ideal reader for Miss Peregrine will have to be someone who is really, really impressed by those old photos.

Wonderstruck is the second book by Brian Selznick in a format that he, as far as I can tell, invented: a story told in alternating sequences of prose and pencil drawings. The drawings are not comics -- they each take up an entire spread or page, and the transitions from one to the next are always cinematic, with an imagined camera clearly moving through space. Unlike The Invention of Hugo Cabret (which I reviewed here in 2008), the two stories in Wonderstruck are initially separate -- but any reader of an experience knows that a book with two separate plotlines must eventually see them intertwine and merge; it's an iron law of literature.

In the summer of 1977, Ben Wilson is twelve years old, living in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota with his aunt and uncle mere steps from the house he used to live in with his single mother, until her recent accidental death. Fifty years earlier, Rose Kincaid is the same age, living unhappily in her father's home in Hoboken, dreaming of her run-away movie-star mother. Both of them are deaf -- Ben at first just partially. Both of them are unhappy, in the care of family members they don't like or connect with as much as they should. And both of them dream of other things -- those those "other things" are still unformed.

Both of them make their way to the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, connected by a love for museums and the things they celebrate, by unexpected family ties, and by Selznick's current enthusiasms. And, for all of Wonderstruck's over-600-page bulk, it's a short, slim story -- they both run away, they both find family, they both fall into better lives.

Rose's story is told in pictures and Ben's in words, up until the point when they meet -- after that point, Wonderstruck has a single narrative thread that bounces back and forth from words to pictures, as Selznick did in Hugo Cabret. Selznick's pictures are excellent, though his aping of the film camera does become monotonous after a while: comics have developed so many other techniques for transitions between pictures over the past century that it can be annoying to see Selznick ignore all of them in favor of a late-talkies swooping camera. His words are serviceable, though, here and there, they can feel overdone.

Wonderstuck, in the end, has less at stake than Hugo Cabret did, and that makes it feel smaller -- even when Ben is cast adrift in New York, deaf, knowing no one and nearly aimless, he doesn't seem to be in real danger, and he swiftly finds both a friend and a safe place. It's a sweet book for middle-grade readers, though, and may be particularly good for reluctant readers -- it's a massive book that even they can charge through in no more than a few hours.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Quote of the Week: Tests

"I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights."
- Maya Angelou

Thursday, September 22, 2011

My Favorite Song As of This Exact Moment

I've listened to this at least four times today...which is impressive for an eight-minute song.

The band is Low, the record is C'mon, and the song is "Nothing But Heart."

It's even more impressive if you turn up your speakers and get to doing something else (driving is particularly good) while the song builds up to about the five-minute mark.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

I just realized that this book -- which I read last month -- was due back at the library today -- so I should probably write about it now, before the book's out of the house and my memory gets even worse.

I will type the whole title just once; it's long but perfectly captures what's enticing and glorious about the book, and immerses the reader in Valente's version of that old-storybook style: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

This is a book with a story; it was originally a nonexistent book-within-a-book in Valente's adult novel Palimpsest -- a book she had no real intention of actually writing. But people kept asking about it, and she found herself in a tough financial position -- so common these days, especially for someone trying to work a freelance life -- and so she wrote the book, chapter by chapter, in public, for free, on her website. (A huge chunk -- not the whole thing, anymore, but more than enough to get the flavor of it -- is still there, free for the reading.) It was one of the more successful examples of the new online "tip jar" culture -- it apparently made enough money to help keep Valente's family going as long as it needed to, from donations by readers. And, along the way, it won the Andre Norton Award, for best young adult book, from SFWA. And, this spring, it turned into an actual book, with covers and illustrations (by Ana Juan) and everything.

The story is a very traditional one -- since that's what it was supposed to be, back when it was a piece of furniture in another novel -- in which a girl named September, close to a hundred years ago, is ravished away, very much of her own will, to fairyland by a Green Wind and a Leopard. They, sadly, cannot accompany September into fairyland, so she sets off to have her own adventures. Fairyland turns out to be more dangerous, and tricky, and changeable than she expected, but September is a girl with a strong will and a good heart, so she comes through it all in good shape -- though not unscathed, and not without losing an important part of herself.

It's a very episodic book, as one would expect from a book written in separate chapters, so I don't want to talk about the episodes -- you can just click that clink, up above, and read the first half-dozen of them, anyway. (And I hope you do; Fairyland is one of those books that reads just right, and that you sink into like a warm bath.) Valente does not entirely give up her usual tough and slightly jaundiced view of the world just because she's writing for younger readers, and Fairyland is stronger for the fact that there's plenty of bitter mixed in with the sweet.

I found Fairyland to be inspiring -- it made me want to write a book something like this, about a different young person thrown into a strange and fantastic situation. Not because of any flaws in Fairyland, but because it's all done so well -- Valente makes it look like so much fun that I couldn't help but want to do it myself. This is a lovely, thoughtful, and subtly subversive -- in the way that all great young adult novels are subversive -- novel for young people, probably the best YA novel to come from an fantasist for adults since Neil Gaiman's Coraline.