Sunday, August 24, 2014

Middle of the Road Dystopian

The Girl in the Road
by Monica Byrne
Published by Crown
2 Out of 5 Stars

Set in the not-too-distant future, The Girl in the Road focuses on the brutal journey of two women fleeing from violence in patriarchal cultures: Meena, a young woman from India, and Mariama, a girl enslaved in Africa. Told in alternating first person narratives, their stories converge by the end in not entirely surprising ways due to the symbolic overlap we see in each of their tales. Both have been attacked by snakes, both show signs of mental illness, both have suffered tremendous loss, both encounter words and images that have a spiritual significance to them alone, both are journeying toward a future they hope will be better.

In Mariama's story, she flees her home after finding a light blue snake in her bed. Heeding her mother's advice, she decides to flee and becomes a stowaway in a caravan transporting oil to Ethiopia. During this time, a beautiful woman named Yemaya joins the caravan and Mariama adopts her in her mind as a mother/lover/goddess figure. Born into a life of poverty and subservience, and bearing witness to her mother's repeated rape by their owner, Mariama is a surprisingly driven, courageous character, but her childlike naivete and bluntly sexualized view of the world are a dangerous combination in one so young.

In Meena's story, she awakens to find that a snake placed in her bed has bitten her; she immediately assumes someone is trying to kill her and flees India for Ethiopia, the place where her Indian parents were brutally murdered before her birth. She undertakes the dangerous journey across "The Trail," a bridge consisting of "scales" that runs from India to Djibouti. The bridge is intended to harvest wave energy and to cross it is an illegal, dangerous act. As Meena's trek goes on, she begins shedding that which is inessential and facing the truth from which her traumatized mind has been shielding her.

There is a lot to like about The Girl in the Road. The futuristic setting is at once recognizable and alien, but doesn't overshadow what is essentially an emotional and spiritual story about violence and healing. The world of Meena (which is set a few decades after the story of Mariama) is a racial, cultural, and sexual melting pot, and reading a book with characters from diverse backgrounds was a pleasure. Byrne's prose is lovely and minimalist, and her inclusion of Indian and Ethiopian cultures is seamless.

However, there was a lot that I did not enjoy. First off, the persistent phallic imagery, both the snakes in the bed and The Trail itself, is fraught with psychological and symbolic implications that had me expecting the big reveals in the end. I'm not a prude faulting an author's use of phallic imagery; rather, my complaint is that it lessened the suspense toward the novel's end because it seemed a little heavy handed. I was also disappointed that, in a novel that initially challenged the stereotypical view of transsexuals, it ultimately bolsters that stereotype.

And then there was THE SCENE, a scene that has apparently generated a lot of debate.**Since discussing the scene in question involves spoilers, I'll post it in the comments section below.  Be forewarned.

I do want to make it clear that this scene is not responsible for my 2 star review. The disappointment I feel stems from the book blurbs leading me to believe that this is a sci-fi action/thriller. This is certainly a very different reading experience than the one I thought I signed up for. In addition to my misguided expectations, this is a novel of unlikable characters that engendered my sympathy, but not my empathy.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

“A woman sees war differently.”

The Lotus Eaters
by Tatjana Soli
Published by St. Martin's Press
4 Out of 5 Stars

Initially set against the fall of Saigon and then flashing back to the early 1960's, Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters evokes the hypnotic horrors of war set against a lush, culturally rich landscape that lured many photojournalists during the Vietnam War. Falling victim to the intoxicating mix of adrenaline, fear, curiosity, and self-righteousness, they--just as the lotus eaters of Homer's The Odyssey--forsake their homelands as war becomes their passion and their comfort.

The novel focuses on Helen Adams, a naive, uninitiated field photographer whose desire to connect with the military life of her father and her brother leads her to Saigon. A born tomboy, Helen has always resented being shut out of the masculine pursuits she longed to be a part of and quickly finds her experience in Vietnam is to be no exception. As a woman in war, she's viewed as a curiosity, a sexual object, a harbinger of bad luck, an inconvenience. However, her tenacity and her willingness to stoically endure the soldiers' hardships begins to earn her a grudging respect. It also helps that she's willing to understand and experience Vietnam in a way other Americans aren't--to look beyond the headlines and the government shading of events; to know its people and its culture: "That was the experience in Vietnam: things in plain view, their meaning visible only to the initiated" (7).

Soli's characterization of Helen is presented as a woman who is constantly evolving, growing as she tests herself in the ultimate masculine sphere and as she confronts her own hypocrisies in pursuing one iconic image that will capture all the horror, all the waste, and all the courage of war. Helen knows the power of photographs to change the hearts and minds that really matter, those of the Americans back home, and, as such, "Pictures could not be accessories to the story--evidence--they had to contain the story within the frame; the best picture contained a whole war within one frame" (118). At the same time, she knows her craving for such a photograph is that of an addict's and will never be sated; as soon as she has a photograph that seems to define everything she wants to communicate, she knows she'll take increasingly dangerous risks as she tries to top previous successes. 

The novel also presents the stories of two men who will help define Helen's life in Vietnam: Sam Darrow, a veteran war photographer whose only home is in conflict, and his aide, Linh, a photographer and translator who has belonged to and been damaged by both Vietnamese armies. Through these two men, Helen learns the toll war takes on those tasked with documenting its reality. While not equal to the burden of the young men in battle, the weight of being the one behind the lens, bearing witness to atrocity after atrocity, comes with its own spiritual price.

As lovely as the cover is, it's also deceiving. It's clearly marketed to a female historical fiction audience, so I feared it would be a torrid love story set against a Vietnam that was as authentic as a 1940's sound stage, with maybe a water buffalo roaming through for a dash of "authenticity." While there is a realistic romantic element involved, the real love story is between the photographers and the war. Soli has done her research and the Vietnam in her novel is fully realized: its beauty, its filth, its people, its cities, and its jungles. Her war scenes are harrowing, brutal and realistic, and seeing them through the eyes of a female photojournalist is a uniquely satisfying point of view for a war novel. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

All the Evils of the World and One Little Girl

The Girl With All the Gifts
Written by M. R. Carey
Published by Orbit
4 Out of 5 Stars

When Joss Whedon says, "read this," I heed the call.

Only 10 years old, Melanie is brimming with curiosity about the world and unabashedly enthusiastic about school. Blessed with a genius intellect, a kind heart, and a love of mythology, it's easy to fall in love with the precocious protagonist of The Girl With All the Gifts. However, despite these gifts, the world is very afraid of Melanie--every morning, two armed guards arrive at her cell, strap her by the legs, arms, and neck to a wheelchair, and escort her to her classroom. This is fine with Melanie as it's the only world she's ever known and as long as her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau, is there, Melanie has everything she needs. It's not until the outside world comes crashing in and Melanie is saved by Miss Justineau that she learns how truly dangerous she is to others . . . and to herself.

I'm working hard here to avoid spoilers as most of the enjoyment of The Girl With All the Gifts comes from the fact that M.R. Carey plays his cards close to the vest during the first fourth of the novel. It's also obvious that the publishing company went to great lengths to keep the secret with that awful cover and perplexing title. To be honest, had I known what the book was about I would have never bought it because this genre isn't my bag, baby. I go out of my way to avoid it and it's hard for me to express how much I detest this genre, both in literary and movie form. Still, despite my strong bias against it, I enjoyed The Girl With All the Gifts immensely.

Part of the reason as to why I was able to lose myself in a book I'm hardwired to hate is that, despite there being some of the obvious genre tropes, there are plenty of inventive twists. Carey has developed a believable world, complete with a devastating history and scientific origin for the tragic events that unfold (I really appreciate that there is a "why" offered instead of going with a "who-cares-how-it-just-did-so-let's-move-on-to-the-awesome-stuff" explanation). 

The other reason I enjoyed it is because of the strong characterization of Melanie and her ability to constantly adapt as the world she knew crumbles around her. The novel's title is a reference to Melanie's favorite myth, that of Pandora, whose name means "all gifts." Melanie is a mystery to herself and, as she begins to open the box of who she is, she finds both the capacity for terrifying evil, but also for strength and resilience. The other main characters (Helen Justineau, Sergeant Eddie Parks, Dr. Caroline Caldwell, and Private Kieran Gallagher) are given depth by the same moral duality and by pasts that haunt them as they move into an uncertain future.

The quick narrative pacing and the inventive spin on a tired genre make The Girl With All the Gifts well worth a read.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Should Have Been Titled "The Grift"

The Griff
Written by Christopher Moore and Ian Corson
Illustrated by Jennyson Rosero
Published by HarperCollins Publishers
1 Out of 5 Stars

Hey, Michael Bay, I found your next movie concept! And you can't screw this one up because it comes pre-fucked. Inexplicable, ridiculous threat to humanity? Check. Shallow characters? Check. Nonsensical plot with holes big enough to drive Optimus Prime through? Check. Cliche action dialogue? Check. Females who offer little more than T & A? Check and check. 

Now, where do I go to pick up my finder's fee?

I love Christopher Moore's novels. His zany sense of humor, hilarious dialogue, and obvious compassion for his fellow man is a combination that I find irresistible. But, hole-e fucksocks, The Griff is no Christopher Moore novel and, to be fair, that's established up front in Moore's preface (which also happens to be the best part of the book). Essentially, Moore came up with this idea that he thought would work well as a movie, he and a buddy (Ian Corson) wrote the script as a way of avoiding real work, and then tossed it in a drawer because they knew it would never be picked up as a film. Then the comics came calling and Moore remembered The Griff screenplay and brought it back into the light as a graphic novel.

And he should have left it in the dark. While I have no doubt that Moore and Corson had a hoot writing it, it's a hot mess. There's no sense of time (entire weeks pass with no clear signal to the reader, making it seem as though everything happens in the course of a day); the artwork is pretty, but inconsistent and the panels are often confusing (one gets the sense that there were lots of blanks in the plot that they decided to quickly "flesh out" with artwork that has no real sense of narrative direction); and it follows the standard summer action flick formula so faithfully that it offers nothing new. It reads like a screenplay with pictures and has a rushed "Wham, Bam, No-Thank You, M'am" feel to it." 

A plot this ridiculous (giant alien dragons show up out of nowhere and wipe out most of mankind) could have been fun if it had been more of a spoof or featured more of Moore's signature humor. There are a few bits of dialogue that are pure Moore and, while hilarious, still not worth the price of admission.

My advice? Read Moore's FoolA Dirty Job, or Fluke and give The Griff a pass. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Raises the Ante

Cold Shot to the Heart (Crissa Stone #1)
by Wallace Stroby
Published by Minotaur Books
4 Out of 5 Stars

With the exception of Elmore Leonard, I'm generally not that interested in crime novels. I read Leonard for the sharply drawn characters and the wit, not the crime. So I picked up Cold Shot to the Heart with some trepidation, but the promise of a female protagonist intrigued me. It wasn't long before Wallace Stroby had me hooked and I found myself for the first time in a long time thinking, "Just one more chapter and then I'll stop." This went on for a few hours and I pretty much read the whole thing in one sitting.

Crissa Stone is a professional thief whose cool head and steady hand make her well-suited to the volatile situations that tend to present themselves when you're trying to forcibly take someone else's dough. After a disappointing haul from her last heist, Crissa is drawn into a scheme to rob an illegal big stakes poker tournament. Of course, easy money is seldom easy and when things go wrong Crissa finds herself matching wits with Eddie "The Saint" Santiago, a recently released convict with homicidal tendencies who is hellbent on getting Crissa's score at any cost.

Stroby's fast pacing and dialogue driven narrative are reminiscent of Leonard, though his characters don't follow Leonard's smart-ass-with-a-glib-tongue template. In that sense, Stroby's characters seem more realistic, but they're not quite as entertaining. Crissa Stone, however, makes an intriguing protagonist. Crissa doesn't just steal for the thrill of it, nor does she do it just for herself. Her primary motivation is that she's got bills to pay in the form of care for a daughter who doesn't even know her and bribes to spring her significant other, Wayne, from a Texas prison. She seems a woman trapped by circumstance--crime is all she knows and the only way she can make the big money necessary to protect those she loves. Separated from her daughter and her lover, she leads a solitary, painfully lonesome existence when not on the job. Being a female also gets her into some hot water. She's not as comfortable with violence as some of her male counterparts and it's her nature to avoid conflict that ends up creating some of her most dangerous enemies. But make no mistake--she's not a tragic, weak character and these same qualities also allow Crissa to kick ass when the situation calls for it. 

Overall, Cold Shot to the Heart is a fast, entertaining read and I'll definitely seek out the other books in the series.

Fun, But the Edge Needs Sharpened

The Sword-Edged Blonde (Eddie LaCrosse #1)
by Alex Bledsoe
Published by Tor Fantasy
3 Out of 5 Stars

In the medieval kingdom of Arentia, Queen Rhiannon has been charged with a particularly horrific case of infanticide. King Philip desperately believes in his wife's innocence, despite all evidence to the contrary. His only hope? Eddie LaCrosse, the tough as nails sword-for-hire investigator and the king's childhood friend. Having spent years trying to outrun his past, LaCrosse begrudgingly returns home and is forced to confront his demons while trying to unravel the mystery of whether or not the beautiful blonde bombshell actually killed her own son.

The Sword-Edged Blonde is the snappy title for this noir/fantasy mash-up that's light on the noir, easy on the fantasy, and not as snappy as I wanted it to be. This is a bit of fun and forgettable reading, perfect for vacation but little else. While I enjoyed the book as a light, quick read, I could have loved it if it weren't for a few peeves:

--First off, that cover. Ye gods, that cover. Even by the artistically lacking and inept standards of mass market paperback sci fi/fantasy covers, that is one fugly cover. And wtf it has to do with the novel, I have no idea. It appears as though a giant troll king will manifest somewhere in the novel, and it's difficult to tell if he will be friend or foe based upon the back-to-back stance with the protagonist. Is he being sneaky-sneaky, trying to catch our hero off-guard, or has he simply got his back, bro? You know what--doesn't matter because this character and this scene never appears in the novel, at least not in any recognizable form.

--Ditto with the title. Sure, there's a blonde, but nothing about her is particularly "sword-edged." She's basically clueless and pouty. The reality is that she's more of a butter-knife-edged blonde. Or maybe a spork blonde, kind of confused and essentially useless.

--The protagonist, Eddie LaCrosse, is a bland character. He's not hard-boiled enough. I expected a world-weary, wise-cracking antihero (maybe a character like Ash from Army of Darkness). But LaCrosse is basically just a good guy who wanders around while clues smack him in the face. The only real nod to noir is that he has a suitably tragic past, but it doesn't seem to have shaped his character in any significant way. He occasionally ruminates on his past woes, but then snaps back to the present and soldiers on.

--Ineffective use of the locked room mystery presented as the crux for the case. I won't say much regarding this since I don't want to ruin anything, but a locked room can have so much potential for an unexpected twist that The Sword-Edged Blonde never capitalizes on.

While I didn't particularly like the objectified female characters, such is the territory with a noir-esque novel and there's nothing here that suggests Alex Bledsoe harbors misogynistic tendencies; instead, he's just tipping his hat to one of the defining characteristics of the genre. Still, it bothered me a bit that so many other noir tropes were dodged, but this was the one that was adhered to. 

Essentially, this book is like a cheap and ugly hooker. Pay your $10, try not to look at it too hard, and you might have a relatively good time. 

(That's right, I went there even after my little speech about objectifying women--hypocrisy, thy name is Amanda.) 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Time Keeps On Slipping Into the Future

A Tale for the Time Being
by Ruth Ozeki
Published by Penguin Books
3 1/2 Stars Out of 5 Stars

You know that experience when you learn something new and only a few days later, references to it start popping up in the most unexpected of places: a television program, a book you're reading, a song on the radio, a friend mentions it in conversation? It's like the universe made certain you knew about this fact or concept because there was fixing to be a pop quiz over it and you needed to be ready. It's these types of connections and coincidences that make up A Tale for the Time Being. While it at first seems as though the novel is filled with sometimes irrelevant facts and digressions, just hang in there--Ruth Ozeki weaves them all together in a tale that serves as a metaphor for how writing and reading, or the interaction between writer and reader, can help us see ourselves in the life of another and ultimately save us from isolation and existential angst.

A Tale for the Time Being alternates between two women who, at first, seem very different: Ruth, a writer living on a small Canadian island, and Nao, a teenager living in Japan. When Ruth finds Nao's diary in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, their worlds defy time and space to collide in unexpected ways. The diary, however, is far more serious and sophisticated than its cartoonish packaging might lead one to believe. Written inside of a "hacked" copy of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (Nao purchases it in a craft shop in Tokyo that takes old books, guts them, and inserts new paper), Nao directly addresses her unknown reader as one would a close confidant and introduces herself as a time being, one who is aware of and chooses to exist in every moment in time, though it is becoming more and more difficult for her to do so. While reading the diary, Ruth becomes obsessed with finding the girl--at first for fear that Nao may have been a victim of the 2011 tsunami, but later for fear that she is a danger to herself. The diary allows us to experience Nao's unique voice as she relates her inability to fit into her new culture, her father's descent into depression after losing his job in the U.S., and the brutal, horrific bullying she endures at the hands of her classmates and teachers. As her diary goes on, the faux title begins to prove true: Nao is becoming more lost as time goes on. 

As Ruth reads the diary and desperately searches for Nao, we learn about her life as well and find that the two women overlap in surprising ways: both are Japanese-Americans, both are transplants to a place and culture not their own, both have somewhat strained relationships with the men in their lives, both have strong connections to a revered female elder, both feel a failed sense to accomplish what they want in their writing, both have an expatriate's experience of 9/11, both worry about losing time. Nao's name often functions as a pun on the word "Now," leading to overlapping meanings as to what both Ruth and Nao, feeling stuck in time, may really be searching for--hope for a "now" in which they can fully exist without being immobilized by fear, worry, or sorrow. 

While I enjoyed the book, I can't say that I loved it. Ozeki's meditations on time and existence are beautifully rendered, but sometimes difficult to understand as they rely upon the reader to retain information from previous chapters when they are echoed in later events. There is so much here and so much that I don't fully comprehend. For not only is this a story about relationships, but it's also one about the concept of time, especially as it relates to zen and quantum physics. Ozeki plays with the idea of parallel universes, of time and existence as nonlinear. While I was able to keep up with the general idea, I still feel like there's a whole layer of meaning that I kept grasping for without success. This is a book that I think I could really love upon a second or third reading as I think more and more tumblers would fall into place and allow me to really unlock the full depth of meaning here.

Surprisingly, though, I had the opposite reaction to many readers in that I often found the Ruth chapters more compelling than the Nao chapters. Nao's diary doesn't really read like a diary; instead it reads like a first person narrative. And, yeah, okay, a diary is a first person narrative, but it usually doesn't read like a novel as it's more bare bones in terms of physical details, focusing more on the emotional inner life of its writer. Nao's voice also reads more like that of an adult; for a teenager, she is very precocious and while the details of her life as an adolescent are rendered authentically, she herself doesn't sound much like a teen. In Ruth, Ozeki excels at capturing the subtle seismic shifts in a marriage and, if one pays close attention, there's much about Ruth that makes her the perfect recipient for Nao's diary. I also enjoyed the tension created by whether or not Ruth will be successful in her search for Nao--especially since the Nao she is looking for is one of the past and may or may not exist in the present, regardless of whether or not she can be physically found.