Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Liar (by Justine Larbalestier)

I gave a presentation at an academic conference last week about the unreliable narrator, and used the cover of Liar as my opening graphic. This reminded me that I really should read it!

A little history: I had followed the brouhaha about the whitewashed cover with interest (and very glad the publisher ultimately changed it), but the undertones in How to Ditch Your Fairy bugged me more and more as time went on, and I never saw them addressed by Larbalestier, so I was not inclined to read this one. But I do love an unreliable narrator and had heard nothing but good things about Liar (and about the importance of being unspoiled, mostly so someone else can't frame the book for you in the context of their own interpretation).

(Speaking of which, do yourself a favor and do not highlight the spoilered text below. Don't even read the next mostly vague paragraph. Click away until you've read Liar. Then come back.)

Okay okay, you're saying, but how is Liar? Reader, it is awesome. I love the character of Micah, in spite of all her unreliability. I love that we get a character who is biracial, who is exploring her sexuality and gender identity in ways that feel very authentic. I love the ambiguity of the ending, which Larbalestier said is designed to be read in two different ways. And I am dying to hear your take away, for those of you who have read it.

Mine is that (major, major spoilers, don't highlight if you haven't read): the werewolf thing is a metaphor for Micah's losing control, that the pills are antipsychotics, and that when she forgets to take them, she has a psychotic break. The farm is an asylum, the people on the farm are doctors, nurses, and fellow patients, and Micah killed Jordan (accidentally), Zach (for whatever reason), and most likely her teacher and her family. Larbalestier has said that only one of Jordan or Pete is real, but also that they are "twins" of each other. I interpreted Pete as a manifestation of Micah's psyche, that he was her guilty conscience in a way. I guess this could be tied to the death of Jordan (which, along with the onset of puberty, is probably where Micah's psychosis began) but I haven't quite worked that out yet. As much as I really root for Micah and would love her happy ending to be true, this is the explanation that works the best for me, although I might need to re-read it to solidify my ideas.

So if you love unreliable narrators and don't mind dark YA with some fantasy elements, this one is highly, highly recommended.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

How Should a Person Be? (by Sheila Heti)

This was the love-it-or-hate-it book of the 2013 Tournament of Books (it knocked out Bring Up the Bodies in a big upset) and aych, the friend who leant it to me, hated it. Well I loved it. Loved it!

I understand why some people might not like it, might think it's too facile or McSweeney's or gimmicky, but I really loved it. It can be funny: "We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists. Every era has its art form. The 19th century, I know, was tops for the novel." It can be profound: "One thinks sometimes how much more alive such people would be if they suffered! If they can’t be happy, let them at least be unhappy—really, really unhappy for once, and then they might truly be human.

I just loved Heti's writing, I thought it was original and energetic. If it came down to this or Building Stories in my own personal 2013 Tournament of Books, I might pick this one too. (But I wouldn't expect anyone to agree with me.)

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Thursday, April 04, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies (by Hillary Mantel)

A little late for the Tournament of Books, but I just finished the sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies. This one essentially covers the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn from Thomas Cromwell's point of view, with Mantel's characteristic attention to dialogue, detail, and metaphor, and with Cromwell being as inscrutable and ambiguous as ever.

I would not have read it if someone hadn't told me that Mantel fixed the pronoun thing that drove me so crazy with Wolf Hall, and she did! There are a few awkward "he, Cromwell" constructions, but it's better than "he" just floating around by itself in the confusing way that it did in Wolf Hall. So this book is an easier read for sure.

It's also just as gripping as Wolf Hall if not more so, since we know Anne Boleyn is doomed, and we're waiting to see how it happens. Mantel does ascribe a strange motive to Cromwell (which is that he's getting revenge on five men specifically for a play they were in years ago) which apparently does not square with history.  I also feel that whole section of the trial and arrests and so forth is somewhat rushed, and I don't get a clear sense of the characters of some of the men. (That's probably my fault for not being aware of their names beforehand, as I'm sure they're mentioned throughout in nicely subtle dramatically ironic style.)

Mantel doesn't really take sides on whether Anne Boleyn was guilty or not, which I think is done well. (I've read some complaints from the pro-Anne contingent, but I think Anne is nicely ambiguous and not unsympathetic here.) As usual, this left me wanting to re-read Wives of Henry VIII, but this time I am also eagerly anticipating the third book in the trilogy. Bring on Jane Seymour! Bring on Anna of Cleves!

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Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Redshirts (by John Scalzi)

Redshirts is a charming sci-fi novel that focuses on the "redshirts" on an Enterprise-like vessel who realize that a disproportionate number of them die, and that there seem to be strange rules governing their world. Love John, love the concept of the novel, love the sense of fun and humor throughout the book.  I'm going to throw out a couple of issues I had with it though.

First of all, a lot of the characters sound like prototypical Scalzi characters, and many of them use his verbal tics. (One character says something like "I am. I so very am." that I feel like is as classic Scalzi as you can get.) As a result, they're not very well differentiated. (Could be at least partly on purpose, but given the meta twists at the end, I think the characters could have had a little more depth to them, even if it was very broad or cliche.)

Second issue: It feels like this book could have used more sentence-level editing. It has a loose, fun style that you wouldn't want to edit away, but couldn't someone go through and fix the dialogue tags? Every single piece of dialogue doesn't need a "he said" or "she said" after it, and that is an easy editorial fix.

I was also confused about one of the twists. The rule seems to be that in the Intrepid's timeline, the show Chronicles of the Intrepid doesn't exist. So they go back in time using Intrepid timeline rules to 2012--but shouldn't that be the 2012 within the world of the show? The show shouldn't exist there either! So how does it? (I guess that can be explained by the final meta twist, but it bugged me the whole time I was reading that section, even if I did love how that whole 2012 bit played out.)

And I also think Jenkins just laying out the rules of the world was a little too Jenkins ex machina for me. I would have loved if it took a little more time to figure it out, or if we figured out how Jenkins figured it out, since it seems impossible for him to have the level of knowledge he did about, say, Star Trek. Maybe I was reading too fast and missed it, or I don't quite understand the rules of the world.

All of this is not to say that I give the novel anything other than a thumbs up--it is really fun and fast to read and breezy and all that good stuff. But a good edit would have made it even better, in my  humble opinion.

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