Tabs and Follow Me

May 17, 2018

Bunnicula Review

This week’s novel is Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery, middle grade “horror” by James and Deborah Howe.  I heard about this one on the Overdue Podcast.  I’ve been reading a lot of heavy, depressing books lately, which haven’t made it onto the blog because I’ve been not finishing them or just taking a really long time with them, so I felt that something short and goofy was in order.

The story is told by Harold, the family dog.  One night, the family comes back from the movies with a bunny that they found at the theater and promptly adopted.  Since they found the bunny at a showing of Dracula and since the rabbit has odd markings that make it look like it’s wearing a cape, they name it Bunnicula.  But little do the humans know how apt the name is.  Bunnicula sleeps during the day, then magically slips out of its cage at night, opens the refrigerator, and (dun dun dun!) sucks the juices out of vegetables.  Chester, the family cat, suspects the rabbit is up to no good, and sets out to solve the mystery and stop Bunnicula.

This is written in the style of a Sherlock Holmes book in a lot of ways.  Chester is the smart one, who figures out that Bunnicula is a vampire, and he has to explain everything to Harold, our narrator who idolizes Chester and is mostly documenting Chester’s logical leaps.  It’s very much the relationship of Holmes and Watson.  The language and sentence structure also remind me of Doyle (which I admittedly haven’t read in a while).  There’s something formal in the prose and the descriptions.  It’s neat that it works in a children’s book and it adds to the atmosphere, to the mystery and suspense.

Most importantly, I appreciate how the stakes are incredibly low, yet the prose creates suspense.  This is a trope that I really like, because you get swept up in how Harold and Chester are taking the situation so seriously and they are so invested that the reader buys into that investment, but the (adult) reader can easily pull out of the narrative and chuckle that everyone is taking treating it like life or death when it Definitely. Does. Not. Matter.  Usually, I wouldn’t like being thrown out of the narrative, but this is an exception for me.  It’s built in such a way that some meta narrative is intended. 

I’m not sure how this is accomplished.  There aren’t moments of the book winking at the reader, no nudging and going “Get it?  Get it?  This is silly.”  Maybe the short chapters give adults moments for reflection?  Maybe the drama is so over the top as to frighten children, but make adults laugh?  How does that work?  I HAVE QUESTIONS.


Next week: Dreamer’s Pool, fantasy and mystery by Juliet Marillier.

May 10, 2018

One of Us is Lying Review

This week’s novel is One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus.  I heard about this because it was one of the Goodreads Choice Awards nominees for 2017.

Five high school kids end up in detention for crimes they did not commit.  During that detention, one of the kids, Simon, goes into anaphylactic shock and dies.  Now the four remaining students are under suspicion of murdering him, and they all have motive since Simon ran a school gossip app that was about to post devastating information about each of them.

This was a good mystery in that I had suspicions, but I was never 100% sure until the truth came out at the end.  The point of view revolves through the four main characters as they try to solve the murder and deal with the fallout of the police investigating them, the school turning against them, and their misdeeds coming out.  I kept expecting some underhanded compartmentalization nonsense, and I appreciated it when it didn’t happen.  Maybe that’s a spoiler, but I would have liked to know that.

I also liked the weird challenges that the kids had to wrestle with.  When they all lawyer up, their lawyers all recommend that they keep their distance from each other, but at the same time the murder club (as they start calling themselves) can’t explain how hard their situation is to anyone else.  I liked the moral ambiguity in Simon’s app.  His gossip mongering is awful, but at the same time cheating is awful too.  I liked how everyone hated Simon, but after he died few people would talk about how bad he was, and the main characters especially can’t for fear of implicating themselves.

I also liked the characters.  They start off as clichés, but as the book goes on, they fill out and contain multitudes, and it ends up that they had molded themselves into clichés because it was easier for them.


Next week: Bunnicula, silly horror for kids by James and Deborah Howe.

May 3, 2018

Reincarnation Blues Review

This week's novel is Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore.  I heard about this, because it was on NPR's list of best books of 2017.

Milo has lived 9,995 lives and is having a fairly good time spending his alive time as a wise man and spending the time between lives shacking up with his eternal girlfriend, Death, who prefers to go by Suzie.  However, the powers that be explain to Milo that he only gets 10,000 chances to reach perfection in life and become one with the cosmic everything.  If he doesn't manage it in the next five lives, he'll be pushed into an abyss and turned to nothing.

This is an interesting book, because the over-arching conflict is whether or not Milo will get his act together and do something ambiguously perfect instead of being so lazy.  It's funny and light-hearted, and you can assume (from the spacing of the chapter breaks at the bottom of the Kindle screen) that he'll get it (or something equivalent.  I was expecting his act of perfection to take place in the afterlife) done on his last chance.  However, the five lives we watch him live have no promises of a happy ending, and they get bleak real fast.  There's torture, mutilation, rape, slavery, and then the added tension that if he wants to achieve perfection, a deus ex machina to come rescue him from the future prison planet is only going to momentarily relieve my anxiety. 

So that made for an interesting reading experience, because I was rooting for him to get out of terrible situations and then feeling a little bad that a quick fix wouldn't save his immortal soul and also frustrated that there were so many soul crushing systems in place that he would have to fight against to make any changes that would matter enough to the powers that be.

I also have a lot of questions about predetermination that the book never touches on.  When he's reincarnated, he could go anywhere in time.  The ancient past, the near present, the far future.  (It's a good craft technique, because then Poore can keep the humor moderns and consistent throughout.) But then I have questions.  If he goes back to the sixties and shoots JFK, is that how it always happened?  Does he get to choose to do that?  Does that affect things in the future?  How do the powers that be not know how each of his lives are going to turn out?  I HAVE A LOT OF QUESTIONS.


Next week: One of Us is Lying, a YA mystery thriller by Karen M. McManus.

April 19, 2018

Sourdough Review

This week's novel was Sourdough by Robin Sloan.  It's magical realism (kind of) about bread.  This was a Goodreads Choice Nominee and NPR's Best Books of 2017, so that's how I heard about it.

Lois is a software engineer at a Type-A robot arm company, if companies can be described as Type-A.  She has a favorite take out place, run by two brothers who are ambiguously foreign.  The takeout place is delivery only and has basically one item on their menu, the double spicy, which is a spicy soup and a sandwich on sourdough bread.  When Lois starts eating the double spicy every night, she starts feeling better about her life, as if the bread has magical properties that can lift her spirits.  When the takeout guys are forced to leave the country, they leave her with their sourdough starter and a CD of the music of their people.  Lois figures out how to bake bread, and discovers that the starter glows at night, sings the music of their people, and makes bread with a crust that looks ominously like a human face.

I loved this book, you guys.

Sourdough starters are naturally weird, and pushing them into the realm of magical is not too much of a stretch.  But the book makes it seem like maybe there's a rational explanation for the starter's behavior.  There are experts in microbe colonies sprinkled throughout the book who have scientific explanations for why it acts that way, but it's always ambiguous as to if they just don't understand how whacky the starter is or if the ominous nature of the starter is all in Lois's head. 

In fact, I really like how science and magic work together in this book.  I went in expecting Lois to turn away from her soul crushing programming job to move to the country and bake bread in a brick oven she built herself.  That never happens, because Lois' love for technology, and how good she is at her job are a part of her.  Just like how baking comes to be a part of her.  I really appreciate how the two can live together instead of them working against each other, instead of the book ultimately coming out as a condemnation of technology.

I also really liked the ambiguously foreign brothers.  Turns out they were deported to Edinburgh.  They are Mazg, which is a group of people who relocate frequently and don't have restaurants with signs and tables and don't mix their own music to dubstep beats, because they're "second floor people" who remain mostly anonymous.  The two brothers have some tension about this, because they want to share the music and food of their yeast based culture with the world.  They share stories of the Mazg, which are familiar and yet yeast based.

There really isn't that much of a plot to this.  There's no bad guy trying to steal the starter or use the sourdough for nefarious purposes.  No one is pushing Lois to give up technology and be a baker, or to quit baking and get back to work.  The big conflict at about 2/3 of the way through is how Lois is going to feed the starter enough to make enough bread to meet demand.  But it's so enjoyable in its simplicity as Lois learns to work with the bread and works with her robot arm and meets other food experts and learns about the Mazg over e-mail with the brothers.  There are great descriptions of food.  It's a good time.

April 11, 2018

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky

This week's short story collection is What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah.  I heard the titular story of this collection on LeVar Burton Reads, along with an interview with the author, and I was impressed so onto the to-read pile it went!

This collection revolves around Nigerian women or Nigerian ex-pats, which is a super refreshing theme and setting.  It also deals heavily with the relationship between mothers and daughters, and it comes at that theme from a lot of different angles.  The titular story is about a post-apocolyptic word where Europe and North America have been flooded and people have fled to Africa.  There's an additional speculative element where mathematicians have found a formula that describes the universe, making it possible for mathematicians to allow people to fly or take away people's grief, which is a skill in high demand in a country overwhelmed with refugees.  In another, women make babies out of objects, their mothers bless life into them, and then they keep the yarn/clay/whicker/whatever baby safe for a year until it becomes flesh, a process made difficult when you don't have a mother to bless your baby.  But most of them are slice of life stories with no speculative elements.  The one I love most is "Light" about a man who rises his daughter through her teenage years when his wife goes to study in America.  It's about how distance affects relationships and how hard it is to parent when you're not on the ground, how hard it is to relate to your parents when they're not an active part of your life.  There is one of the most perfect examples of what a short story can be in "The Future Looks Good," which I'm going to talk about later, and I'm tearing up just thinking about it now (with emotion for the characters and a stunned sense at the story's beauty and maybe a little bit of envy at how well it's executed).  No matter how high-concept these stories are, the focus stays on the people and relationships that are relatable.  The characters are colorful and flawed and engaging.

There's a technique that I heard about at the writer's conference I went to a month ago, that I will write a full blog post about later.  After some round-aboutness, it basically boils down to how you can create an emotional moment by setting up sensory details that puts the reader there with the character, and then the last sentence in your paragraph (or the last sentence of your story or whatever) tells something emotional that gives the character a feeling and the reader is there with them, feeling that feeling.  I was thinking about how it would be really great if I could do this, and then I read the first story of this collection and had to lie down because it was such an exquisitely well executed example of this concept.  The story tells about a family's backstory through a handful of vivid moments, so when the turn hits at the end, it doesn't have to be much, but I'm terrified for the main character.  And then the story ends.  And, like I said, I had to lie down.  But that one's going to be hard to show you, so let me give a different example.  This is the first paragraph of "Second Chances."

Ignore for a moment that two years out of grad school I'm old enough to buy my own bed and shouldn't ask my father to chip in on a mattress, so that he shows up with my mother, who looks like she's stepped out of a photograph, and she tries to charm the salesman, something she was never good at, but it somehow works this time and he takes off 20 percent.  Ignore for a moment that she is wearing an outfit I haven't seen in eighteen years, not since Nigeria, when she was pregnant with my sister, though not yet showing, and fell down the concrete steps to our house, ripping the dress from hem to thigh.  Ignore that she flits from bed to bed, bouncing on each one like she hasn't sat on a mattress in a while, and the salesman follows her around like he'd like to crawl in with her.  Ignore all this because my mother has been dead for eight years.
Whoa!  That deceptively simple sentence hits because we've got this vivid, solid idea of her mother.  In a very short time, I've grown to like her mom as a resilient woman who's outgoing and joyful about mattress shopping.   But this person I've come to like is dead.  And that sentence blows open the whole paragraph that came before, hints that she's an image from a past time that I didn't catch on first read.

This collection is so good, y'all.  Check it out.

Next week: Sourdough, a novel by Robin Sloan

April 3, 2018

Rootabaga Stories Review

This week's book is Rootabaga Stories, a collection of American fairy tales by Carl Sandburg.  When I was a kid, we had these on cassette tape, read aloud by (I think?) Carl Sandburg.  He had a distinctive cadence to his voice, which I found myself falling into when I started reading these aloud to my son because my mom sent me a brand new copy of this book for Valentines Day.

It would be hard to give a synopsis of these.  There are several of them, they're very short, and the point of the stories is not what happens but rather the language and the imagery.  So you'll excuse me if I post a longer excerpt than I usually do:

Gimme the Ax lived in a house where everything is the same as it always was.
"The chimney sits on top of the house and lets the smoke out," said Gimme the Ax.  "The door knobs open the doors.  The windows are always either open or shut.  We are always either upstairs or downstairs in this house.  Everything is the same as it always was."
So he decided to let his children name themselves.
"The first words they speak as soon as they learn to make words shall be their names," he said.  "They shall name themselves."
When the first boy came to the house of Gimme the Ax, he was named Please Gimme.  When the first girl came to the house, she was named Ax Me No Questions.
And both of the children had the shadows of valleys by night in their eyes and the lights of early morning, when the sun is coming up, on their foreheads.
And the hair on top of their heads was a dark wild grass.  And they loved to turn the doorknobs, open the doors, and run out to have the wind comb their hair and touch their eyes and put its six soft fingers on their foreheads.
And then because no more boys came and no more girls came, Gimme the Ax said to himself, "My first boy is my last and my last girl is my first and they picked their names themselves."
Please Gimme grew up and his ears got longer.  Ax Me No Questions grew up and her ears got longer.  And they kept on living in the house where everything is the same as it always was.  They learned to say just as their father said, "The chimney sits on top of the house and lets the smoke out, the door knobs open the doors, the windows are always either open or shut, we are always either upstairs or downstairs in this house--everything is the same as it always was."

It's poetry.  That cadence that I remember so well, even though I couldn't have told you what any of the stories were about (except I remember Hatrack the Horse, who wasn't in this collection), just arises naturally from your breathing when you read these stories aloud.

I appreciate how this fits the fairy tale form by use of repetition and flat characters that you can read more into if you want or you can use as an avatar for yourself.  And the repetition also works to make the story lulling, almost hypnotic, which is great for bedtime reading.

I appreciate the odd imagery.  A cliched phrase could get the point across, but these stand out, not because they're inaccurate, but because they're so novel.  The kids in this excerpt have "the shadows of valleys by night in their eyes and the lights of early morning, when the sun is coming up, on their foreheads."  I can perfectly picture children with light on their foreheads, but I have never heard that before, and I never would have come up with that.

I also really like how Midwestern these are.  There's a story about corn fairies who wear overalls, and there's a story about two skyscrapers that fall in love.  But it's more than the content, more than let's tell a fairy tale about a staple of life in Illinois.  There's something in the delivery that not only makes it clearly a fairy tale, but also makes it clearly Midwestern, and I still haven't pin pointed what that is.

Next week: ???

March 27, 2018

Mortal Engines Review

This week's novel is the YA steampunk Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve.  This book is getting a movie adaptation, and my husband showed me the trailer, saying, "You've read this book, right?"  I hadn't.  But now I have.

After the apocalypse, where there were earthquakes and tidal waves and all sorts of natural disasters, cities became mobile to survive, and now they roll around the wasteland searching for smaller cities to eat and take their resources.  But these days the hunting ground is running dry of small cities and to survive, London's mayor and head historian, Valentine, have a plan to use a death ray to burst through a mountain stronghold and make its way into Asia, which is populated by static cities and easy pickings.  The story follows Hester Shaw, who has sworn vengeance on Valentine, who disfigured her and killed her parents.  She gets teamed up with Tom, a London apprentice historian who idolizes London and gets thrown off the city in the first couple of chapters, and together they have to work their way back to London, although they have very different motives for doing so.

This is going to make an epic movie, because the set dressing is the big draw here.  The world building has a great aesthetic.  There are several London landmarks that are still around from the London we know, but steampunk-ified.  The city was stacked like a cake into nine layers, where there are still squares and parks and museums.  St. Paul's Cathedral is on the top tier, but it was never meant to be moved around, so it's covered in scaffolding. 

I like the idea that they created movable cities, but I never really understood why they run around and eat each other.  I guess they take the resources from the smaller cities, but I don't understand how that could possibly sustain a city the size of London, and it implies that the small cities got their resources from somewhere.  This ecosystem doesn't feel sustainable.  But then that's kind of the point: they're running out of small cities to eat.  And another part of the equation is that they don't have to be movable.  There are anti-traction cities who have figured out that the city-eat-city way of life is not sustainable, and it's an issue late in the book that this way of life is all the people of London know and that's their whole motivation to keep doing it.  And really that's enough motivation.

There was some technical stuff that struck me funny.  The book is written in the past tense except for when you're in a section that focuses on a bad guy.  Then it's suddenly in present tense, even though it's happening sequentially with the past tense sections with Hester and Tom.  Every time I had to stop and go, "Wait, this is written in the present tense?  I hadn't noticed that until just now!"   And then I'd flip back a page and go, "Wait.  No."  At first I attributed this to the fact that the bad guy these sections focused on was a robot monster with little understanding of his own past, some present tense for him would make sense.  But then it does the same thing with Valentine and the mayor, so I don't know.  The point of view is also strange.  It could be omniscient, with large sweeping views of history and what different cities are up to, but then it zooms in to what I would call close third, only to switch to a close third of someone else in a way that always threw me out for a moment.  Some chapters are broken up into sections, switching from one point of view to another with a section break, and that makes it really strange when it switches point of view midstream.  But then maybe it was all setting a precedent for one particular, well executed moment when a character dies, and you're thrown from their point of view to someone else's.

One thing I really like is that towards the end, you sympathize with the different sides of the conflict enough that you realize there is not perfect outcome.  It made the ending wonderfully messy and human and tragic.


Next week: Rootabaga Stories, fairy tales begging to be read aloud, by Carl Sandburg.