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.

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.

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.

Review: The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

27177204[1]I’ve never found Steampunk to be more than a nice change in genres; I don’t seek it out, but I often enjoy it when I find myself reading something that employs Steampunk elements.  But with The Invisible Library, I found myself relishing it in all its idiosyncratic glory.  Here it’s not overdone, the story doesn’t revolve around steam and mechanics, though both shape this part of Cogman’s greater universe.  And that’s as it should be.  Gimmicks and gadgets are not plot or characterization, they should simply add color to a story.

And the story itself is a delight as are the characters.  Irene has a lively sense of the absurd, and so won my heart right out of the gate.  She’s all too human, she gets muddled, angry, jealous, has girly crushes on handsome detectives, and is prone to non sequitur thoughts such as noting a character’s amazing grammar as he delivers a swashbuckling speech to a room filled with people being attacked by cyborg alligators. It’s a quietly hilarious book.  There are laugh-out-loud moments, but mostly the humor makes you grin and think, “I like these people.  Even the awful ones.” or “Irony so thick you need waders.”

Don’t expect anything too heavy here.  There is violence, blood, and some ookiness likely to make you cringe a bit, but the story itself isn’t a dark one.  Rather it strips down to a fairly tame detective story about the search for a special book.  Which is fine, it’s good.  A familiar structure makes the grace notes shine brighter. What you can expect is a heckuva good read, and the raging desire to get right to the second book in the series.

Review: Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke

28194[1]I had a lot of reactions to this book beginning with OMG, I love this so much! which I did.  I do.  It’s a wonderful tale about the power of stories and storytelling.  It has wonderful characters, and a plot that kept me guessing where it might lead.  I want to read the rest of the books ASAP.

Another reaction was: This is way dark for a children’s book.  It made me uneasy and I know dark.  I’ve written it.  It isn’t so much that there’s violence because that’s more implied than shown.  Rather it’s the sense that decent people can have some difficult secrets, and the others carry around horror and misery that they enjoy visiting on anyone who gets in their way.  There are a whole lot of damaged people in this book, and not a lot of redemption.  Quite the contrary.  Even Meggie, the 12-year-old protagonist, is not immune to terrible thoughts and desires, and it’s disturbing to watch a child who is old enough to know what death is, wishing death on another person.  And yet, it’s also completely understandable given what she’s going through.

Everyone seems to be working at cross-purposes, either because they’re unable to communicate with one another, or they’re so stubborn that no matter how many times they’re told what’s what, they’re sure they know better.  Meggie’s aunt, Elinor, is a great example of a character who always knows better than anyone else how things should be, and I found that she reminded me of John Hammond from Jurassic Park.  As I read about Elinor, I gritted my teeth.

And then I realized something about the difference in writing between Funke and Crichton.  Crichton made Hammond a cardboard figure, almost clownishly so.  But Funke has created a complex character in Elinor.  She has an internal life which informs what she does and says, and we understand her even if we don’t always like her.  We know she’s acting for everyone’s good, even though it often seems as if the opposite is true.

It’s the characterization which is one of the stand-out qualities of Inkheart. It’s a story of magic in an unmagical world, of people doing and saying things that are stupid, or petty, or stubborn, or cruel, sometimes because they’re just that awful, but sometimes because they’re trying to keep their heads above water.  And in every case, we do understand why they are who they are.

In fact, the conceit of fictional characters being pulled out of a book, and meeting their author gives us  an opportunity to consider character behavior vs human behavior.  Capricorn is a complete and utter villain because that’s how his author wrote him.  He cannot be anything else and wouldn’t even think to try. But Meggie is written as a human being and her motivations are complex. Her behavior can change.

I can’t help but feel that Inkheart is a lesson about human character, and how we have the ability to change the things about our lives and behaviors, if we wish to.  It’s a valuable lesson for young people, though I wonder if it’s a little too complex for the target age group.

But all that aside, it’s just a hella good story.  I devoured it and want more.

July Reading Recap

I passed the 90-book mark in the wee hours of July 25th and now I’m counting down toward 100, which will be a personal best for at least the last few decades.  So…

  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay — Full Review  I hope that readers will understand what it is Gay is saying here, not just about being fat in a world that values only thinness, but about being female in a world that values us as objects, not people.  Hunger isn’t just about Roxane Gay.  It’s not just about being fat.  It’s not just about being different or challenging society’s expectations.  It is about being female in a world where everything you are is public property, and where you are expected to take up as little space as possible.
  • 30517272[1]Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson —  Full Review  I can’t improve on Lawson:  “I’m fucking done with sadness, and I don’t know what’s up the ass of the universe lately but I’ve HAD IT. I AM GOING TO BE FURIOUSLY HAPPY, OUT OF SHEER SPITE.”
  • Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher —  Full Review  I ended up with more respect for Carrie than ever before, but a deeper sense of sadness that she’s gone too soon, and as a result of her own emotional problems. I hate seeing her as a cautionary tale, but I can’t help but feel that she might enjoy being thought of as a terrible warning.
  • Ash and Quill (The Great Library #3) by Rachel Caine — Full Review  After a bit of a slow second book, this series picks up again with Ash and Quill, and races to an unexpected (for me) cliffhanger that had me shouting at my Kindle at one in the morning.  Yeah, that good.
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle — Full Review  An old favorite from my childhood, one I’ve read dozens of times.  I decided to read it again on the strength of the first movie trailer which looks fantastic.  I was not  wholly disappointed, but I did realize that I’m past the point of being uncritical about it.
  • Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson Full Review  Hanson is what I think of as a great science writer. He engages our imaginations while imparting facts, and I suspect that is at least in part because he has such a lively sense of wonder that he can’t help but infuse even the most prosaic of information with a feel of awe as if the evolution of feathers or seeds, or whatever else he’s writing about is pure magic. And in a sense, the things he writes about are magic, or as close to as we get in our world.
  • Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill Full Review (such as it is) What caught my eye, and my imagination was this comment about how time will not change Murdoch’s novels, and yet with each subsequent generation that discovers them, they do change; every reader changes them.  Hill says: “…because until it is read, a book is a dead thing.”  That’s true.  Books depend on us as much as we depend on them.  They must be read to live.  I underlined that in neon pink, in keeping with the color scheme established by the Roald Dahl fan who owned this book before I did.  …  This is a book with heart, not just because of its contents but because the physical copy I own has been well read, loved, perhaps shouted at, as I did when Hill went on a rant against e-readers.  And I will concede this one point to her: No ebook could ever be so beautifully aged.  People who insist on pristine copies miss a lot of the deeper beauty of a physical book.
  • 41f6b9uCFpL[1]Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West — Full Review   I didn’t find Shrill as laugh-out-loud funny as Furiously Happy, nor did it make me break down in tears as did Hunger.  It made me furious, it helped me — here’s that word again — assimilate a lot of the experiences I’d had in my life and understand how they’d shaped my attitudes.  It helped me to forgive the unintentional hurts and view the intentional ones with a resolve never again to let anyone make me feel like a bug to be squashed.  And remember: “They talk to you this way until you make them stop.”
  • Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini —  Full Review Avast, ye lubbers, here’s a fine tale of hearty men, stout ships, proud wenches, (well, one anyway) and brave deeds! … I’m declaring this one a No Guilt read.  Read what you want, put it down when you want, pick it back up only if you want, and have some fun with it.  It’s not to be taken too seriously.
  • Parnassus On Wheels by Christopher Morley —  Full Review There’s a lot of charm to this book.  The characters are all too human, but in the end they have become sympathetic and appealing, and I found myself cheering for them.  So while I’m not at all sure why I spent the $0.99 on the ebook, I’m heartily glad I did.
  • The Golden House by Salman Rushdie –  Full  Review  The Golden House is far greater than a fictionalized view of the House of Trump. Rushdie is not heavy-handed, he doesn’t make this a thinly veiled portrait of an easy target, but creates Trump-flavored touchstones in an attempt to do much more than simply criticize or satirize a single figure or family. Rather, peppered as it is with popular culture touchstones, it becomes a portrait of an age in American life, and not a pretty one.
  • 23647530[1]The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami –  Full Review  I still have no idea what actually happened.  I mean, I know what the book says happened, but I don’t really understand it at a visceral level except as a fairytale that doesn’t seem to make any sense.  To be fair, I find a lot of fairytales from outside the most familiar cultures make little sense to me, and this is more alien than I’m used to.  I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be clear on why.
  • Jurassic Park  by Michael Crichton Full Review  I’m willing to give props for a compelling story told in such a break-neck fashion that had I not been paying close attention to the text, I might never have caught these problems. Or at least they might not have gotten up my nose so completely.  What you have is a decent thriller with a great plot and a damn good hook: cloning dinosaurs.  It was timely then and it still is, it plays to our fears and our desires, and Crichton knows how to manipulate both.  My 94th book this year.

I started The Invisible Library, by Genivieve Cogman last night, in hope that I could finish it today, but since I virtually passed out about 15 minutes in, and woke up at 3:45 this morning with all the lights still on, and since I still have work to do, that’s not going to happen.  My final tally for the month is 13 books.  Year-to-date: 94  (oooh, so close to having done 95!)  I’m going to start adding some statistics to my monthly recaps so when I do the year-end one, I can see what kind of progress I’ve made in reading more widely and diversely.

Statistics for July

  • Books read this month – 13
  • Books by Women: 7
  • Books by People of Color: 2
  • Books in Translation: 1
  • Books by LBGTAQ Authors or with those themes: 1
  • Books about Books: 4
  • Sci-Fi and Fantasy: 4 (I count The Golden House as a fantasy, though it’s as much a Greek tragedy as contemporary mythology.)
  • Mysteries and Thrillers: 1
  • Science: 1
  • Bio/Memoir: 5
  • High Adventure: 1