Review: Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix

22729262[1].jpgBook #101 for this year was a surprise to me.  It was absolutely not the parody of horror novels I thought it would be, but a wry, dryly funny honest-to-god horror story. And it was damn satisfying in spite of being horror-lite.

The action takes place in the Orsk the “all-American furniture superstore in Scandinavian drag,” an IKEA knock-off where the prices are lower and, presumably, the merchandise reflects that.

You have your usual cast of characters.  Amy is a disaffected 20-something who is beyond barely making ends meet.  If she doesn’t pay the $600 rent she owes, she’ll have to go back and live in her mother’s trailer.  She hates her job, hates her life, and sees no percentage in making any sort of effort.  Consequently she always feels as if she’s on the verge of being fired.  Basil, her manager, comes from the gung-ho-memorized-the-entire-manual school of management, and Amy hates him.  Ruth Anne is an older woman who is beloved of everyone because she’s unfailingly nice, and she works hard.  That these three are the people who stay after hours to figure out who is vandalizing the store (broken items, human, uh, substances left on the sofas) is a recipe for, well maybe not disaster, but you know it won’t end well.

When they do find the intruder, a homeless man named Carl, and are joined by two other employees who think the store is haunted and are trying to document the supernatural activity in hope of selling their show idea to Bravo, things begin to get strange.  The police are called, there’s a seance, Amy gets a dose of reality that shakes her out of her don’t-care attitude, and there are ghosts. Lots of them.  Because the Orsk property has a horrible history.

Screenshot_2017-08-17-18-29-18Most of the humor comes out of the send up of IKEA, their product names, and the products themselves, and Hendrix has a really good ear for that kind of parody.  It’s funny without ever going over the top, and without ever blunting the real horror.  The product names become more sinister — Mesonxic struck me as Lovecraftian — and the products themselves become less faux Scandiavian and more Scando-Spanish Inquisition style. I laughed even while I was thinking, Euuu, that’s SO wrong!

Terrible things do happen, people die, bits get torn off, and ultimately those who get out alive come away with the sense that this isn’t finished.  When I reached the end, I thought, There has got to be a sequel.  I want a sequel!

So yeah, I enjoyed the heck out of it.  And if it’s a little lightweight, that’s fine.  I don’t need buckets of gore with my horror.  I like it when my imagination is a big part of why I have The Wiggins.  I don’t often smile when I think about horror stories, but this one does make me grin even as I think, Well, I’ll never look at IKEA the same way again.

Hate is Hate Except When it’s Mine. Or Something…

I don’t like making political posts here, it’s not what I intend for this forum.  But there was something I felt I had to say, and it required a bigger stage than Facebook.  I wanted to talk about hate.

We all know that that is, we use the word every day, probably.  “I hate that music.”  “I hate spiders.”  “I hate cilantro.”  We say “hate” a lot, when what we mean is “That music does nothing for me.” or “Spiders scare me.” or “Cilantro tastes awful to me.” We use the word because humans are essentially lazy.  Just look at the evolution of language and how we drop sounds and change words to make them easier and faster to speak.  So hate? A convenient shorthand for the most part.

I’m not going to fuss about using language more carefully, though we might all find we have more in common than we think if we paid more attention to how we express ourselves.  Rather I wanted to talk about the phrase “hate is hate” which is something a friend said a number of times recently.  And in the most basic sense of the word, he is quite correct.  Hate is hate.  But I hope he would agree that hating Nazis and hating cilantro are two entirely different things.  (I don’t think he’d agree about spiders, but I’m not going to involve myself in some nonsensical argument over Nazis and spiders.  You all can do that on your own time; I’m at the point where I am hard pressed to find such things amusing.)

What I would point out though is that there is justifiable hate of the sort we feel for those who consciously and with malice, cause harm or incite to cause harm.  In this group I put Nazis, white supremacists, members of the KKK, or anyone who engages in malicious speech or behavior against a person or group, because of race, religion, or country of origin; because of what they look like, who they love, how they gender-identify, or their physical or cognitive abilities.  You start mouthing off about how any of those things are a problem for you, about how people who are different from you are bad, or how those same people need to have something bad done to them, and buddy I can guaran-damn-tee you that I will have a serious problem with you, and that you deserve it.

Why?  Because Nazis, white supremacists, the KKK and their ilk all indulge in the non-justifiable sort of hate.  Sorry, no, you’ve got no business hating me because I’m a fat old woman, or my friends because they’re black, or Jewish, or gay.

To put it more succinctly, if you hate someone because of the color of his skin, you’re a dick.  If that person hates you because you call him the N word, you’ve got it coming.  And that makes it pretty much a lose-lose situation for Nazi scum.  Nobody really likes them except other Nazi scum.

Which leads me to the question which is being bandied about lately: Is it okay to punch a Nazi?  Well… yes and no.  The rules are pretty much the same as for everyone else.

  1. Is the Nazi attacking you?  Defend yourself!  Punch him as hard as you can and as often as you can to get him off you.
  2. Is the Nazi attacking a loved one or your home?  Yes.  Punch.  If someone comes after me or someone I love or my home, I will hurt them if I can.
  3. Is the Nazi attacking a total stranger?  Wade in there punching if you are able, to stop the attack, because you can be pretty sure that if a Nazi is punching someone, that person is part of a group that’s been punched repeatedly and often legally in the past, and they deserve your support and aid.  Be a fucking ally.
  4. Is the Nazi standing around yelling racist, or anti-semitic shit?  By all means, yell back, tell him he’s a douche and a dumbfuck.  You can even tell him that all Nazis are scum and morons and deserve to burn in Hell.  But punching?  No, that’s not quite enough to warrant violence.On the other hand it is hate speech and the government (local or above) can and should step in because hate speech can be seen as incitement to violence, and is not protected under the First Amendment.

    And lest anyone think it’s clever to say “Well aren’t you indulging in hate speech against Nazis?” I would tell you not to be such a dumbass.  If you don’t get that your comment is a false equivalence, then please go back and reread my explanation of justified hate vs unjustified hate.  And then STFU, because you’re not making any sort of cogent argument, you’re just making yourself look like a moron.

  5. Is the Nazi standing around minding his own business?  If yes, walk away.   I don’t care if his very existence offends you, don’t be a jerk who picks fights just because you don’t like who someone is.  Jesus Christ, that’s what Nazis do.  If you want to make sure he and his kind never get any traction, donate to and/or work with anti-hate groups.  Make the world a better place, not a worse one.
  6. Violence never makes the world a better place.  It just makes you feel better.  And honestly, if you’re at an age where you can even consider punching people, you’re old enough to know that the world and the people in it aren’t all about you.

So… yeah, hate is hate. But it’s never that simple, and it absolutely isn’t a justification for violence.

P.S. Yes, I cuss a lot.  I’m an old woman and I’ve ceased to care what most people think of me.

Review: The Lonely Hearts Hotel, by Heather O’Neill

51A29-7p1VL[1]What a strange and enchanting book this is. It’s disturbing, heartbreaking, and joyous by turns, and while I liked it a great deal I couldn’t quite bring myself to give it five stars, though I’m not entirely certain I understand why that is.

For anyone who has trouble with themes of rape and child abuse, or explicit sexuality, I’d say, STAY AWAY!!!!!  Seriously, it’s all here.  Did it bother me?  Not really, because almost from the first I realized that I was reading a fairytale, and anyone who knows fairytales knows that they are terrifying and awful, and no one really escapes unscathed.  But instead of the classic story of changeling children struggling to survive the cruelty and chaos of Faery, Rose and Pierrot are the changelings from that strange world who struggle to survive the cruelty and chaos of the human world.  (No, this is never made explicit, this is my interpretation of the text.  YMMV.)

From the get-go you know they’re different.  People are drawn to them and their strange ways. People both love and hate them, sometimes simultaneously.  People hurt them, seduce them, long for them, fall under their spells, but in the end they belong only to each other.

Rose learns how to survive in the world.  She reads minds, she understands and even panders to human baseness, she has no qualms about condemning to death those she considers to be harmful to her or those she cares about.  She gets it, and she eventually prospers. Pierrot doesn’t.  The world is a confusion to him, and he seeks to escape it however he can, with drugs, or Rose, or meaningless sex.  But he never really fits in.  People think he’s dull-witted, and perhaps he is, but his heart is open and honest.  How could he survive and prosper in this world?

There are so many wonderful, hilarious, horrible things about this book that it’s difficult to put my finger on exactly the effect it had on me.  Frex:

“What in the world do our clothes say about us when we put them on?” Rose said. “There’s no real dignity in any of these costumes. If I’m a maid, I do what the owner of the house tells me to do. If I’m a nurse, I do whatever the doctor tells me to do. What are we as women, other than barnacles that attach themselves to higher life forms in some pathetic attempt to clean up messes? Tidy up what men have left behind—make the world a lovelier, better place for men. I would like to play a part in which I don’t have a superior.” The director told Rose that she should save her philosophical speculations until after work because they were causing the male actors to lose their erections.

and:

Men were taught to have so much pride, to go out into the world and make something of themselves. This Depression was deeply humiliating. Since women were taught that they were worthless, they took poverty and hardship less personally.

It’s dry, and slightly removed from the visceral responses that most narratives would evoke.  I think it’s supposed to engage our emotions on the same level that this life engages Pierrot and Rose.  In that sense, it works beautifully.  I saw my own world from the outside, and found it sad and shocking, but unsurprising.

I loved reading this book.  I don’t honestly think I’ll ever read it again.  I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad one.

It is what it is.

Exploring the world, one bite at a time

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Today’s haul from Mariano’s and Trader Joe’s

I have this thing I used to do.  Every year I’d pick a different fruit or vegetable — something new to me or something I’d never cared for — and I’d explore it.  If it could be/had to be cooked, I’d try different cooking methods.  I’d figure out what flavors went well with it and try it in different combinations.  If I didn’t like it one way I’d try it another way, and keep on trying it until I grew to like it or accepted that for the time being, I just really hated it.

I haven’t done that in a long time, and I’ve been thinking lately that I needed to start diversifying my diet again.  I’ve gotten lazy.  And also, since we’ve been going to Tony’s which specializes in unusual produce, I’ve been thinking about how much I’d love to try some of the truly exotic items they offer.  They sell like a gazillion different kinds of choy, for godssake!  Okay, I exaggerate a little, maybe half a gazillion.  I only ever saw bok choy in markets.  I didn’t know there was anything else.

My intention is to go about this a bit differently this time around.  Instead of concentrating on one, I’m going to let my fancy take me and pick out whatever looks good.  I’ll try it and if I don’t like it, try to figure out why.  Is it the flavor?  The texture?  Was it not properly ripe or too ripe?  And then I’ll decide if I ever want to try it again. This is a bit like this year’s reading, I think.  Diversify, try new things, follow odd trails, get to know more about this world.

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So today, we went shopping and at TJ’s I picked up these tiny potatoes.  I plan to steam a few to have with my fiskeboller for lunches.  A few at a time with butter, salt, and some fiskeboller?  Heaven on a plate.  I should add something green, but… oh wait, DILL!

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There are not a lot of odd and unusual fruits at Mariano’s anymore, now that Roundy’s has been bought by Kroger, but there are always a few tucked away near the bananas.  Today I found a dragonfruit, which I’d been wanting, IMG_20170812_150301having been inspired by a Facebook post featuring a dragonfruit.  I wanted to taste one.    They’re so odd looking, inside and out.
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I also found a quince and since I’ve seen them before but never even considered eating one, I figured that now was the time.  The quince is an unassuming little fruit, and you could easily mistake it for something else.  This one looks like a pear.  And the third odd fruit of the day was one that I’d had before and enjoyed, but never really followed up on, the cherimoya, also known as a custard apple.  It could also easily be called a dragonfruit. But it’s not.

 

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I brought them all home and realized that I know next to nothing about dragonfruit, quince, and cherimoya, so I started googling.  The quince and dragonfruit should be ripe, the cherimoya may need a few days, as will the peaches.  The quince should probably be cooked, though no one actually said that you can’t eat them out of hand.  But apparently they have the same issues that Hachiya persimmons have: tannins.  Lots and lots of tannins.  So unless they’re absolutely ripe, cooking is the better bet.  I may try poaching this one, or baking it.  We’ll see.

Next time we shop at Tony’s I look forward to running wild in their produce section and hauling home bags of weird shit.  Until then, I am going to see how all this shakes out, and maybe share some thoughts.  And maybe I’ll branch out to new cuisines, or new dishes within familiar ones.  Who knows where I might end up?  I just know that this time last year I’d never had pho, and now I love it.

It’s anyone’s guess what can happen!

ETA: Just found a fantastic resource for what is known as “specialty produce.”

 

 

Review: Daddy-Long-Legs, by Jean Webster

51JYuza97wL[1]I love this book.  I’ve read it a dozen times, maybe more, and was bereft when I couldn’t find it in my stacks recently.  So when it was a freebie through Early Bird Books, I jumped at the chance to have a digital copy at least.  Though I admit i approached it with trepidation last night.  I’d just finished a book I didn’t really care much for, and after rereading A Wrinkle in Time and finding that it didn’t really live up to my memories, I feared that I might be setting myself up for more disappointment.

And in fact, there was one, which I will discuss later in the review.  But the story itself? Still captivating.  The characters, all seen through the eyes of the narrator, Judy Abbott, are both amusing and quite human. She — Judy/Jean Webster — has an eye for human silliness, but a forgiving one.  It’s a humane book that made me smile and gave me some warm fuzzies when I needed them.

It’s the story of an orphan who is sent to college by an anonymous benefactor on the condition that she writes him one letter a month to let him see how she’s progressing.  But Judy, who has been an orphan since babyhood, and was raised in an orphanage, is hungry for some kind of familial contact, so she creates a kind of grandfather/father/uncle figure in her mind, and addresses her benefactor as “Daddy Long-Legs,” since all she knows about his is that he’s tall and wealthy.

Her letters are warm, rich, and amusing, and it’s easy to fall in love with a girl who is in the process of falling in love with the whole world, a world she couldn’t even imagine growing up as she did. I could read Judy’s adventures all day, and recommend this book as a balm to treat weltschmerz.  Five stars for the story.

Alas, three stars for the Open Road Media Young Readers version.  The original is filled with charming drawings, but Open Road didn’t include any of them.  Or rather, they included exactly ONE. Why they chose to do that is beyond me.  It’s either weird or it’s sloppy, but that one illustration really irritated me.  I wasn’t happy that all the rest were gone, but had there been some consistency I’d have shrugged and thought “Oh well.”  But including one of them meant that including them all wouldn’t have been a problem, and they just decided not to bother.

So I’m happy to have the text, but I would recommend a different digital version.

Review: The Clockwork Dynasty, by Daniel H. Wilson

61fmZTQWGLL[1]Do you ever find yourself reading a book that you should be loving, and you’re having trouble motivating yourself even to finish?  You don’t think it’s a bad book, quite the opposite, you think it’s a good one.  It’s competently written, and the plot and characters should be totally compelling. But they’re not, not to you.  So you check the reviews that have posted and find that you’re pretty much in the minority.  Almost everyone else loves it.  So what’s up?

When I began reading with an eye to figuring out why I wasn’t engaging with the narrative I recognized that what I was reading was an action/thriller with science fiction themes rather than the reverse.  And while many thrillers sacrifice characterization for action, connecting with the characters is something that has to happen in order to find a way to identify with them and the things that happen to and around them.  So there has to be a level of connection to the main character(s).   And this is, I think, where Wilson falls down on the job.

He has two protagonists, an avtomat named Peter, and an expert in automatons, named June.  We do get glimpses of Peter’s internal life, but Wilson wastes that opportunity by making Peter utterly boneheaded.  He’s stumbling through the centuries, assuming he has a purpose, but not understanding it, he’s obsessed with his “sister” avtomat, Elena, and yet treats her as if she’s an accessory rather than family while expecting her to treat him like family. When confronted with the bare facts of his purpose, he doesn’t seem to understand or accept.  He’s been stumbling, in an active way for three centuries since he opened his eyes in Peter the Great’s Russia and became his new self. For three hundred years, Peter has managed to avoid capture, but he doesn’t know why, and he doesn’t care enough to try to find out! Wilson squanders every bit of sympathy or empathy I might feel for Peter by making him one of the most passive protagonists I’ve ever read.

And then along comes June.

You know the whole White Savior trope?  It takes a white guy to save the dark-skinned people.  Well this is the Human Savior riff on the same trope.  June comes along, joins Peter — albeit unwillingly at first — in his quest for whatever it is he’s supposed to do, he still has no idea, and she saves the hell out of him and possibly all the surviving automatons. I might not have minded this so much, might not even have noticed it, if June had had a single memorable characteristic.  But she is so bland that she barely registers. But robots apparently need a human savior to save them from themselves, so we need June the Human.

Had I seen real, compelling evidence that the avtomats had made our world better, or even that they had a culture that might enrich and inform our own, I might have had a stake in the outcome.  I might have felt that it would be a shame to allow them to die off because we could learn so much from them, we could have amazing allies in our journey through history.  Wilson hints a bit about this, but never truly commits to creating a rich and vibrant automaton culture that has successfully hidden in plain sight, driving human culture towards greater knowledge and accomplishment.

At this point I’m tempted to crack wise about keeping your ’87 Chevy running, but that wouldn’t be apt.  The automatons are more than just machines, they’re clearly sentient creatures, and I’d have given a lot if Wilson had made us feel that keenly, had managed to make the machines touch our hearts with their eerie humanness, and the depth of their internal lives.  I think of Roy Batty’s “Tears in the Rain” speech:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost, in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

And I can’t help but feel that if there’d been even a fraction of the emotion I found in those five sentences, in the whole of The Clockwork Dynasty, I’d have given the book five stars and forced all my friends to read it.  But I didn’t.

This might just work

I reedited the first 5K+ of the ghostwriting novel I’m working on, in an attempt to get this project moving again.  But when I finished, and ended up exhausted from schlepping out garbage and recycling, I sat down to look over the novel I’d been working on for years now.  I finished it a year or so ago, and set it aside because I wanted to see it with fresh eyes when I did my final run through.

So far it’s made me cry.  This is a good thing.  Anyway, the opening chapter is short, and it sets things up, so I thought I’d share it just to see what y’all think.  It’s a time travel romance set in St. Petersburg on the eve of the Russian revolution, and in the mid 1990s here in the United States.

The house was dark and silent.

Everywhere Sasha looked, there were shapes like sleeping animals hunched in the darkness.  The room seemed familiar to her as if she had seen photos of it, old photos in sepia and shadow.  She looked up, above the fireplace, expecting to see a portrait there, but it was covered with a cloth, like a shroud.  Sasha tugged the cloth, it caught for a moment, then drifted down to pool on the floor like an exorcised ghost, to reveal a portrait of her great grandmother, a golden-haired beauty in a tobacco-colored velvet gown. Around her neck the famous Kharkov amber necklace.

Sasha knew where she was.  This was Kharkov House, her family’s home in Saint Petersburg, a home that had been lost during the Russian Revolution when her grandfather, Roman Kharkov, walked away from his title and his inheritance, and into a new life.  She had seen pictures of this room in an album of photos Roman had brought away with him.

There was a sudden, sharp sneeze, and Sasha jumped back from the fireplace in surprise.  “Who is it?”  An old woman poked her head into the parlor and gave a yip of distress, falling on her knees, crossing herself over and over.

“Oh Blessed Mother, Oh Holy Saints forgive me, forgive me!” the she moaned. “Forgive me Madame, I know I did wrong but I– I thought you wouldn’t need it anymore!”

Coughing nervously the whole time, she produced an object from inside her coat and held it out to Sasha, averting her eyes as if Sasha was too hideous to look at. Sasha took the thing – a necklace she guessed, from the feel of it – from the woman’s trembling hand. “Where did you get this?” she asked sternly.

“May the Holy Mother forgive me, I know I did wrong but it was so beautiful and you weren’t going to use it anymore! You’re dead! All the Blessed Martyrs forgive and protect me, but you are dead! I saw you die.”

Sasha realized that the woman had taken her for Natasha. “How dare you steal from the dead?”

The woman began to weep loudly, messily, rubbing her eyes and nose, and smearing her face with tears and mucous. “I am so sorry, Madame, so sorry. But I was bringing it back.  I swear to you I was.  It’s a thing of ill luck,” she insisted. “It cursed me for stealing.”

Sasha frowned. “You did a very wrong thing,” she said sternly, figuring that her best bet was to play along. “Had you kept it I would have haunted you all your days and brought evil luck to your children’s children unto the seventh, uh, generation. Now leave this house and don’t ever return!” And she raised her arms in a sort of Dracula-meets-Frankenstein’s-monster gesture, just to emphasize the threat. She only just managed to keep herself from adding, Booga-booga!

The old woman scrambled to her feet and ran from the house as fast as she could, leaving the door wide open to the chill air from the street.

Suddenly it wasn’t all that funny anymore. There was something sad about the house, an abandoned feeling that sucked the humor out of Sasha’s little joke. She walked slowly to the door and closed it behind the woman, turning the key in the lock. Then she raised her hand until it caught the moonlight that spilled into the house through beveled windowpanes.

The thing she held, the necklace, was a long golden chain from which dangled a pendant so familiar to her that it was like holding a piece of herself.  It was the Winter Rose, a red gemstone that had been dug out of the earth at her family’s home in Kharkov, centuries ago. She felt power surging through the stone as it began to glow in her hands.  She’d always been told there was magic in the Winter Rose, but she’d never believed it until this moment when the necklace shone with a pure, clear light. Instinctively she reached up to touch the one that always hung around her neck and gasped as she realized it was missing.

There was a noise behind her. Sasha turned to look, her eyes following the line of the stairwell to the top where a pale, fair-haired boy stood, clad in a nightshirt and holding a sword.

It was Roman.  His eyes widened and he opened his mouth to speak.  And then everything went black.

Sasha woke, clutching the necklace.  It was as warm as a living thing in her hand.