Murder of Crows by Athena

I’m not sure how to review, per usual with my 3-star outings, which in my universe means “I liked it” just to be clear. The prose and a lot of the ornament, characters, and set-pieces really worked for me. The overall structure of the novel and its pacing did not. I was confounded at least once in my expectation that this was paranormal romance, which is a problem of my expectations, and not of the book. It is closer to dark fantasy, nearer in tone to Neil Gaiman than Karen Marie Moning. Maybe Charles de Lint is the best comparison.

Fable Montgomery returns to Portland to deal with her beloved Aunt Celeste’s murder. The opening is slow, the hot cop and his chilly female partner settling in for some round-the-clock surveillance, with what I felt like was the usual hand-wringing about pasts and lost opportunities and tense conversations, cut with a little spooking for fun. The fairy statue keeps moving whyyyy? Then, the whole thing shifted leftwise, and the air filled with feathered beings and the house filled with funny, drunk aunts, and I really started enjoying myself.

Fable is whisked to a otherworld called Aria, learning her lost history and managing her grief for her aunt. I find these paranormal otherlands pretty great landscapes for characters to work out grief. It’s a good metaphor because the world no longer makes sense without the loved one in it, its customs antique and occult, and if only she were living everything would make sense. Fable flounders, learning the way we often do more about her aunt in death than she knew in life. We sit in rooms, hearing stories from those who knew the dead in ways we couldn’t or didn’t, and it’s an otherworld. That this otherworld is also cut with half-remembered childhood – the way the lost family member is also the loss of childhood on some level – that was some seriously cool stuff.

As I said, the ornament here is fantastic, in both senses of the word, and there’s some great stuff involving evil ravens that bloom out of tattoos on the edge of a knife, or the landscape blurring past in the arms of what is morphologically an angel. However, I don’t think this is a spoiler to say that Fable’s past is a secret history, a childhood in Narnian escapes run to amnesia for occult reasons, a common enough trope in fantasy literature to be both familiar and frustrating. She catches up much slower than I would prefer, especially given the complex backstory and world-building that is attempted in the blank space of her memory, characters allowed to explain at length what is going on, but not what really is going on. The expository restraint was too restrained.

I think I’ve said this before, but an intrinsic problem with modern characters swooped into fantasy worlds is that that characters have to spend too much time on the exposition couch mutteringthis is not happening. We as readers know they are in a fantasy novel, but they don’t, and while it would blow character believability to have them accept their new fantastic surroundings too fast, it’s still a little frustrating to watch them flounder. This can can be made up for by the potential for neat, anachronistic – this is the wrong word, but whatever – dialogue, where fantastic creatures ask about the most recent season of Survivor, or Fable drops an f-bomb. Maybe this is sounding like a cut-down, but I really do dig this, when modern folk rub shoulders with all the ye gads fol de rol of the Grimmish mythic idiom, and the modern folk get all Buffy dialogue up in the house. Good.

The device of the lost manuscript – Fable writes a seemingly prescient account of the novel’s proceedings in a near swoon, which is then stolen but for precious pages – is deployed somewhat clumsily. At times it is this nifty almost postmodern commentary on linearity in story and the whole bothersome fate business in fantastic fiction, and at others it’s a tiresome infodump that set me itching to skim. The lost manuscript folds up really nicely in the end, so my issue is more structural than anything – I think there could have been a mechanism other than the bald reading-out of the pages that transpires.

Though I said this wasn’t paranormal romance, and it isn’t, there is a love story on the edge of the proceedings, which in many ways I dug. Fable’s not some half-assed virginal dimbulb who doesn’t understand her own feeeelings down there. And while I said that her love interest was functionally an angel, the fact that dude is part bird is understood and freaked out about as the partial bestiality it is. No, he’s not a dumb beast, but he isn’t exactly human either, right? Maybe this sounds like a turn-off – oh noes, TEH BESTIALITY – but I really dig when writers own the unsafe edges of these creatures and their hybrid natures.

This bit here is an actual spoiler, I think, dealing with something that happens very late in the book. It isn’t, like, totally plot pivotal, but it is an aspect of the love interest’s relationship that is pretty central. SPOILERS. Anyway, the only thing that flipped my shit – and I admit this is a personal hang up of mine – is that my eyes roll back into my head whenever the mate-for-life trope is activated. And when angel man high-handedly pulled off some lifelong “mating” with Fable without her knowledge or consent, I was eye-rolling. This wasn’t as coercive as I’ve seen it done before when the trope comes up – there are complexities due to the secret history which make consent/identity/etc murky – and the lead up was cooler and more sexy than usual – but mate-for-life still ticks me off.

I think my real problem is I don’t get the point of the mate-for-life trope in fiction, except as a pander to lame, simplistic readerly or authorial instincts. This man is not just true-blue, he’s so true-blue he’s biologically incapable of loving someone else ever! No worries, forever! (See, for example, the treatment of Jacob and all of the other imprinted wolves in the Twilight books.) And one that introduces ethical and behavioral complications no writer yet has taken on, as far as I’ve seen. So, he’s bound for life to his mate? And she is not in the same manner? What happens when, in a couple months when the thrill is gone for her, she tries to leave? Or even, let’s give it 20 years, and they’re empty nesters (har-de-har-har) who have grown increasingly apart, and she discovers the writings of Erica Jong? He descends into martyred alcoholism? Or does he kill her because he owns her in his mind?

Love is an emotion, and never unconditional or unbreakable. Nor should it be, imao; people are capable of terrible, love-destroying acts, and while it’s tempting to pull out a bunch of genocide and other rhetorical point-scorers to make my point, even some of the more garden variety betrayals and cruelties should not (or cannot) be forgiven or gotten over. That someone could be stuck in a love relationship he has no emotional agency within – literally forced to love – regardless of anything the other person does, this strikes me as seriously depressing. Admittedly, I’m a bitter old crank though, and given how often I run into mate-for-life motifs, I’m probably an outlier in freaking out about it. And, the way it was used here was more to establish our fella as a gauzy dreamboat with feeelings, which is the best of the options with this trope. /SPOILERS

Again, this is not a huge part of their relationship, and in other regards I liked the ways they interacted and related, especially Fable’s checkered romantic history and her general competence despite the weirdness and danger going on here. There’s another situation that impinges on her autonomy, but that is also politically sensitive. She doesn’t lay out an offensive monologue about how unfair it is waa-waa, and then everyone reorders their civilization to make her feel better – something I see happen a lot in fantasy; Mary Sue reorders it all. Nor does she dissolve into a dishrag, but wends to a third option. That’s neat.

So. I enjoyed this world and its characters. There’s a lot of there there, and some real comings to terms with grief and lost childhood. However, the plot felt thin, with no solid payoffs, and the ending dot-dot-dots to the next installment in what I felt was a frustrating manner. This felt like scene-setting or prologue, and the ending is not so much a cliffhanger as an indecisive break. Which bums me out, because there is certainly something here. All that said, I think I’m on the hook for the next installment. First novels are what they are, and given the strengths of this one, there’s a lot of potential. And actual and fantastical. Which, boo yah. Plus, I adore the cover.

(And, just a final aside, although I almost never, ever do this, I was approached by the author on GR offering me a copy, and the description was honestly interesting to me. I bought it fair and square, because I geek out a little about direct transactions between authors and readers, but she did kindly send me a cleaned up copy about halfway through my read. As a self-pub, the usual typos had slipped though the editing process – I noticed a few before I switched to the new version – but have since been expunged. So. Here is your stupidly detailed full disclosure abut how I exchanged a few emails with Athena, who seems like a really cool lady. The end.)

Born to Darkness: Compromises that Work

Another day, another plane read. 

Born to Darkness by Suzanne Brockmann was on the deck due to one of those library displays that I both drat and keep falling for. This turned out well better than I’d hoped, an extremely active little story that lets the characters just barely get out their conversations before the next twist bang bang shoot shoot. The set up is a cross between X-Men and Wild Cards, where a very limited number of people, the Greater-Thans, have a “metal integration” much higher than your average person’s, allowing then to do things like violate physics and read minds and stuff. Of course, there is a group of good guys, and a group of bad guys, and the bad guys are producing a drug which induces higher integration, yet also has the side effect of making its users batshit insane, or “jokering”. Which is what reminded me of Wild Cards, I’ll have you know. 

As a sort of cross between science fiction and the romance novel, the story occasionally fails the way a compromise can. There are three romantic pairings, an abduction to solve, and a whole Second Great Depression America to sketch here, in addition to fight and love scenes, and that the story hurtles along the way it does is no small feat. While the sex scenes did not gross me out or make me laugh, I was occasionally irritated by the lovers and their simultaneous orgasms – seriously, get out of the damn way, lovers, and explain the mechanism by which the whole “integration” thing works instead of experimenting with bjs. 

But! Because of the sometimes romance novel sensibility, Born to Darkness tackles some issues I can’t imagine a straight science fiction writer – and I kind of mean the double entendre there – taking on with success. One of the Greater-Thans, the unfortunately nicknamed “Mac”, has as one of her powers the ability to thrall sexually any person who swings towards girls. When we meet her, she’s full adult and aware of her powers – down to using them seriously unethically, seriously – but as a teen when her powers were first presenting, there was a fair amount of ugliness and violence as people – including her own father, yuck – respond to her unwitting transmission of sexual power. 

Mostly this backstory is used as an impediment to her romance with hot SEAL dude – the Navy thing, not a selkie. Oh noes! He might love me only for my super-charged vagina! But that the complex relationship between a woman’s sexuality and sexual violence was addressed at all was really notable. I was just this afternoon stewing because of some comment threads I read about the recent Walking Dead episode – the one where a character is threatened with rape and sexually assaulted – where some commenters were like, it’s realistic that she would be near-raped because obviously men are just waiting for civilization to break down so they can rape to their hearts content. (Of course, leaving aside the realism of walking cannibal corpses, etc.) I just, I mean, I hate the fuck out of this view of both women and men, that justifies sexual violence by conceptualizing male sexuality as this disgusting violent nightmare, and then acting like this view of people is the “reasonable” one. Fuck you assholes. Point being, I guess, that I thought the whole interplay here between sexual violence, coercion, attraction and whatever was an interesting one, even if it was treated kinda topically in the text. 

Because this was not wholly science fiction either, I had some irritations with how exactly the Greater-Than thing worked, but then I also get the impression that this is just the first in series, so information will be parceled out as it comes. The mechanism of the magical/scientific powers was certainly better than a lot of PNR I’ve read, which seems to pull magical rules out of its ass to fit the needs of the romance and not the other way around. (Does that metaphor even work?) The whole post-Depression America thing was kind of a kick, especially because the sensibility seemed a lot less regressive than I usually find in romance novels – the creeping lack of availability of birth control, for example, is seen as the dystopian nightmare it is. 

The ending seems to fall off a cliff of dotdotdot next episode next week. But the nice thing about continuing series is that there isn’t the need to tie off all relationships into perfected bliss, and the almost downbeat conclusion to some of the romantic plotlines was cool and unexpected. (Especially because I almost wanted to barf, given how happy two of them are. Especially given that mind-reading was in the mix. Maybe I’m just a whole-hearted bitch, but there is no way I want even my own husband of 14 years in my mind ever. That is not romantic to me.) Anyway, pretty brilliant plane read, and probably deserving of another star from me just for sheer enjoyment. Shiny.

LZR-1143: Perspectives – Worst Title Ever?

I’m not afraid of flying. Better put, I’m not afraid of flight, but I don’t particularly like being stuck in a metal tube with a bunch of other humans breathing the same air and having far too many elbows. My daughter, for example, is positively made out of them. And it’s not even so much the usual blah-de-blah about crying babies and pretzels and halitosis as it is plane travel post 9/11. And that isn’t even my fear of terrorists – I think Flight 93 pretty definitively showed that no hijack could ever work that way again – as it is my fear of all of the other assholes on the plane thinking about 9/11 and how they’re going to jump up and save the day, or even worse, that they are going to preempt them terrorists by being the worst people ever. It wasn’t much after 9/11, when feelings were obviously much hotter, when a red-faced dickhead with delusions of USMC browbeat my teenage step-brother to the point of tears because my step-brother wasn’t following Mr. Angry White Man’s codes of conduct. Apparently, dangerous devices such as ipods, even when they are allowed by the flight crew, should be put away to make every paranoid jerk more comfortable. The worst thing about about it was that absolutely no one stood up to this dick. Oorah. 

So, a collection of short stories that opens with a zombie outbreak on a plane and involves a number of other mass transit zombie outbreak situations that are similarly public-yet-confined is absolutely perfect reading for a plane flight on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I probably would never have read this had my daughter not completely commandeered my ereader on the way back, leaving me stuck reading whatever random kindle freebie I downloaded whenever ago off my phone, but it turned out okay for me. None of these stories are going to be anthologized anytime soon – these aren’t notable examples of the short story form at all – but they certainly got the job done for me in the creeping dread in public department. Good job, me. Excellent timing. 

These stories are apparently vignettes of people glimpsed in the full length LZR-1143 novels – which, I might add, is a terrible name for a novel, as it is impossible to remember – and as such, limits the snap of wondering whether these cats are going to survive. Despite some really bad scene transitions – like, really bad – I probably liked the boy’s narrative the best. The boy had enough lightly-touched backstory and teen survivalist goodness, in addition to an upsetting restraint when it came to the gore – sometimes things are worse if you can’t see them – to feel deeper than its short pages. The fry cook pulls off a pretty nice zombie joke in its opening scene – omg, the lunch rush is like zombies – and the one about the pilot is fine. I also liked the businessman on the DC subway story, partially because I read it on the DC metro schwink schwink schwink. The sniper story I could take or leave, and the inmate one is terrible, just terrible. I’m on the fence whether to bother with the full novels – and I get the impression this freebie is there to entice me into them – but maybe the next time I travel I’ll give it a shot. 

So, I made it through both flights with neither zombie outbreak nor blowhard dickhead ruining my fragile calm, my luggage was not lost because I didn’t check it, and I got to see the Smithsonian. Oh, and here’s a pro-tip: if arrivals is totally full up with holiday travelers, call your ride and have him meet you up on departures, which will have that empty, garbage-spinning-in-the-wind feel about it, so you can make your clean getaway once the outbreak begins. You’re welcome.

Review: Walking Dead: When the Dead Come Walking

I know that this is probably the wrong reaction to last week’s episode, When the Dead Come Walking, but pretty much all I want to do is ship for Daryl and Carol. I mean, their names even rhyme, and I’m sure without much workshopping, we could come up with a cute name like Bennifer or Brangelina. D’Caryl? ….aaaand a quick search of the Intertubes offers up Caryl, complete with tumblrs, twitter handles, and unbelievably adorable fan art. Holy hannah, but do I love the Intertubes.

Carol’s come a long way from her incarnation in the comics, or even from last season, where she was a dishrag in both incarnations. I can’t rightly remember if she had a daughter in the comics, but mostly last season she got to be distraught mom. But she, like Maggie, has done some amazing work this season, and it’s possible that it’s more the actress than the writing (like Maggie.) The actress who plays Maggie has this big expressive face, all eye-whites and teeth, and her reaction shots absolutely anchor scenes like Rick finding out about Lori’s death or Glenn’s torture. The actress who plays Carol plays it smaller, with more flicks of the eyes and sly humor, but she also just nails the small moments: a look passed to Daryl (♥♥♥♥) before he sets out, the wordless understanding that passes between her and Rick when she meets Asskicker/Judith without her mom. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Walking Dead does so much better when characters don’t talk, but honestly, this is still pretty much up to the actor to bring it.

Which brings me to Michonne. I’m sorry I’ve been doing this so much this season, and I will throw in my hedging that comic and show have diverged so much that nothing I say about the comic could ever be a spoiler for the show, but I’m really bumming that two of my favorites from the comic, Michonne and Andrea, have become so shabby in the show. Andrea was a cold sniper in the comics, competent and hard-edged, and watching her blonde it up so bad with the Governor just depresses me. Michonne…I don’t even want to say this too loudly, but I’m thinking the actress just isn’t up to the task, short of some good physicality when it comes to fight scenes like the one that opens the show. Maybe that scene where she’s interrogated by Rick and Daryl is badly written, maybe not, but comics Michonne was a ton more sly than the bald-faced glowering that went on there, especially considering the smart reaction shot that had her observing the Rickocrats quiet emotional upheaval of Carol’s survival and her revelation of Lori’s death. We should have had moments of quiet and humanity from Michonne at any point to date, but we don’t have much more than nostril-flaring and hard stares.

I am not, nor have I ever been, much of a fan of torture sequences – it’s all so much Sun Tzu by way of 9/11 – and given the whole descent into feudalism we’ve got going on, it feels a little cheap. Which is not to say that Glenn didn’t bring it big time – Merle’s assessment that he’s the sneaky one is pretty right on, pulling out a can of whup ass when Merle unleashes a walker on him. But godamn it, rape. Shows like Walking Dead do not have the nuance to be able to pull off the Governor’s sexual assault of Maggie – and that was sexual assault, right down to his gross “comforting” of her – even while I admire the way the actress played some very tricky scenes. I get the whole “things worse than death” they’re trying to pull, but action-driven horror shows that are fundamentally about how two white men manage leadership should not fuck around with rape. You guys can’t handle the truth; don’t even try.

So, what else? Oh, the the sequence where they find the cabin-bound dead-dog dude was almost funny to me, because if this had been last season, we would have spent several long episodes getting to know dead dog dude, but here it was in the house, stand off, run through, out to the porch to be eaten by walkers. Why doesn’t he seem to know about walkers? Why does he ask for a badge? Whatever! Moving on! Merle’s racist stuff about T-Dog was also inadvertently funny: remember that dude who once had a line? Aww. I don’t know what to think about how dumb mad scientist dude is about his colon cancer friend, but it was nice to see Andrea not be a total waste. I still want to punch Andrea though. I think that’s probably it for incidentals.

This episode is obviously very much setting up the mid-season finale, moving the players from one place to the next for their inevitable conflict. The writers are also obviously playing hide the football with Merle and Daryl, and let’s hope they don’t fumble that meeting. This whole season for me has been met and often exceeded expectations for me, cut with horrible anticipation about how badly the writers might blow it. Which on some level is a pretty great metaphor for life with the walking dead.

Review: Walking Dead: Hounded

Spoilers, per usual.

This really strange dude who lived in my freshman dorm was fond of rolling up and saying to people, apropos of nothing, “100% of smokers die,” as he pulled hard on a smoke. Zombie stories are pretty much this statement, only with everyone, and real soon. It’s a numbers game, and we’re all redshirts.

In terms of narrative, this long, slow dirge for humanity is going to be hard to pull off long term, which makes Kirkman’s continuing comics (which I have not followed, past the prison sequence) such an interesting exercise  I can see how it might fall into holes, playing out Rick’s creation of new community, and then that community’s eventual demise like an episode with the A-Team where they roll into town and sort out the bad from the good and then roll on. Continued existence is going to boil down to soap mechanics, or action movie mechanics, and this episode does both in a way I found pretty satisfying.

“Hounded” covers a lot of ground, running at least three plotlines, maybe four if you consider the stuff in the prison as separate arcs. Most of this was taunt, almost understated stuff, although maybe understated is just in comparison to the usual histrionics. It opens with Merle and a bunch of redder shirts than usual hunting Michonne through the usual Georgia underbrush, and while the zombie cryptoquip was maybe lame, the sequence let Michonne be the badass she is. Everything Merle did was telegraphed 15 minutes before it happened, sure, but beheadings are always fun to watch.

Andrea continues to be terribly blonde, and while I’m not surprised by her falling into bed with the Governor – call me Phillip – in this incarnation, I’m not exactly happy about it. On the one hand, I like her admission that she likes the zombie fights, that she understands them. Things like the zombie fights are usually run to make us, the viewer, understand that the people involved are without morals or reason, so we can write them off and revel in their deaths. When someone like Andrea, who is, admittedly, still seriously blonde, can admit she likes the catharsis and action of the fights, it kinda validates all of our morbid rubbernecking from the couch. On the other hand, quit being so damn blonde. I say this as a blonde, so, you know, I’m not being racist.

And Rick, ah, man. Here’s where the mortality issue comes in. We’re going to be dealing with character death for episode upon episode – 100% of Rickocrats are going to die, it’s just a matter of time scale. But this is the really shitty thing about death: they don’t all matter the same way. When Rick lost Lori, man, that was a mind job. You pretty much know he has to be bananas when he’s on that phone, his series of stark, honest confessions about what he’s done and why, but the writers play it pretty close. I kept watching that walker he shot and then gut-stabbed last episode like it was going to heave up and come for him, but it never did. Death is final in the end, it’s 100%, and the acting out of Rick’s grief was just right.

And Daryl, my God, his strange eulogy for his mother while he hunts through the prison for leftover walkers was just poetry, even if Carl’s “I shot my mom” felt accidentally funny. (Sorry Carl.) And Daryl’s realization that it must be Carol’s corpse banging the door in the closet was wrenching, even if I was pretty sure she was alive. (Seriously, why did they dig a grave for her last week if there was no body? Whatever, tv does as it will do.) But her being alive is a small bright moment against the horrible, inevitable statistics of this show, one I will take, given the end.

Because here’s where the soap mechanics come in: in all the shitty Georgia strip-malls, Merle’s gonna stumble on Glenn and Maggie in this one? Okay. I mean, sure, we’ve set up our antagonists, and we have to get them in conflict in some way or another, and this is it. I’m kinda dreading next week, based on some stuff I know from the comics, but maybe Kirkman & writers will avoid the mess they made there. Fingers crossed. Here’s hoping against the statistics.

Un Lun Dun: I Love You For Your Mind

China Miéville is my new boyfriend. I mean, look at him:

Hubba hubba. I mean, I’ve always had a thing for guys who have had their noses obviously broken at some point, but this man is just wicked attractive. Now that I’ve been super lame and girly about this authors merits, I do want to say that I love you for your mind, Mr. Miéville, your hot, hot mind. And the fact that your name is weird. And you’ve got those little French thingees over the e that I can’t get my word processor to do. (I roll with cut-and-paste; it’s a kluge, but it gets the job done.)

I’m too young to have this be emotionally real for me, but one of the reasons Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was so upsetting is because it discombobulated the viewers notions of main character. Hitchcock spends all this time documenting Marion and her crime and escape, lavishing scenes on her switching cars, chatting with the bf, all that. Then she checks into a motel, has a little dinner, dips into the shower and SWINK SWINK SWINK end of story. Like, WHAT? I imagine everyone in the theater thinking. You just killed off the main character! In steps Lila, Marion’s sister, and we all kind of breathe a sigh of relief, but it just has to be said: Lila’s not as interesting. Norman is, though, and then you realize that the story’s about him, and he’s a bloody killer.

But maybe that’s not even it, maybe it’s that we can’t trust Hitchcock anymore because stories should be about one thing and not another, one person and not another, and we like it when character is destiny, but more importantly, we like it when characters have destinies, because, like, isn’t that the point of fiction? Fiction winds up these little marionettes who trundle forward in little dioramas, and maybe the fictions are more or less life-like, maybe the dolls have real silk dresses, or the walls are actually lathe-and-plaster with horsehair and newspapers from the turn of the last century as insulation, but it’s still fiction, which means there’s a simplicity at it’s soul, even when it’s complicated – there’s just no way to make a 1-to-1 model of everything. We root for main characters, even when they suck and are terrible, because we are main characters all; I don’t care how much empathy you have, you simply can’t know what goes on in another person’s head, anyone’s. So Hitchcock kills his main character, and we all start, because, holy wow, man, you just killed us.

Anyway, Miéville does this with the concept of Destiny in Un Lun Dunand I just want to give him a big smooch for it. (Well, okay, for other reasons too.) A pair of girls fall into the Un Lun Dun/unLondon of the title. UnLondon is just fantastic, not entirely because it’s trying to be fantastic, but because it isn’t, sort of. Man, that didn’t make any sense. Okay, here’s an example: our protagonists run in with folk called the Roofrunners, who seem like those sort of aggressively clannish Klingon types who are always crowing about how no one has stepped onto the ground in three generations and wear a lot of leather. You can see where this is going, right? Some Roofrunner is going to have to step onto the ground at some point very soon to Save Them All, but then, when it actually happens, turns out the roofs are false roofs, just sitting there on the ground with no houses under them, so all they really have to do is STEP DOWN. That is so freaking funny! I mean, it’s all fiction right? The roofs, the city, the people inside, why not have the roofs on the ground? Why not make the danger something that comes from the stories these people told, and not the imaginary gravity of their imaginary environment? Whoa. I just freaked myself out.

There’s other sublime weirdness as well: a school of fish in a diving suit who constitute a sentient entity, or a bird in a robot man with a birdcage for a head, or any of a hundred other frightening or comic people and things. There’s pictures too – little pen and ink sketches by Miéville himself – more swooning – that aren’t obnoxious or distracting, but help catalog the oddments without interrupting the narrative. He has the good sense not to interfere with my notions of how the main characters look, instead stuffing the peripheries with the ideas I might miss out of the corner of my eye.

BUT, all soul mates have to have their their first fight, and here’s my opening salvo: sometimes puns just piss me off. There should never be places called Webminster Abbey…made of webs! Inhabited by the Black Window…who is like a window with spider legs! It’s just, you know, lame. (Although, the actual descriptions of the Black Windows, even though just typing those words made me die a little bit, was unsettling and powerful.) Gaiman’s Neverwheregets mentioned a lot with this book – I think it’s mentioned by and Miéville himself – I had the same problems with that one. Additionally, one of the reasons I didn’t groove on Neverwherelike some of Gaiman’s other stuff is that Richard Mayhew is milquetoast as all get out, and his problems with his gf were kind of stupid, Sex and the City style antics, and he just needed to sack up, in general. Deeba is similarly unrealized, in some ways: I don’t have a good sense of how she is when she’s alone, but at least she didn’t have a harpy-ish girlfriend who seemed like a sexist caricature.

Sorry Gaiman! I still love you too, but I’m throwing you over for this Miéville fellow!

Breaking Dawn: Narrative Tension Goes Fsssst

I read Twilight more or less on a dare, mostly so I could swirl my chardonnay and get my schadenfreude on. While I can certainly snob out about how horribly Twilight is written on so many levels, I was surprised by how uncomfortable it made me. Meyer captured itchy, awkward adolescence with such an evocative squirm, and then she relieved that adolescent discomfort with a monstrous romantic bliss. I can see why so many people responded to this, even though I was still too busy breathing into a bag having flashbacks to middle school to relax and and get swept up in the romance. When she’s good, she’s good because she is not in control of her subject, not able to stop the outpouring of discomfort and terror underlying the domestic bliss that is a woman’s expected relief, and while Twilight ends with a certain romantic harmony, Meyer doesn’t perfect the ending. All impediments to Bella and Edward are not swept away, and they don’t fade out to domestic harmony.

If you think about it, that’s fascinating. I think if Meyer had been a seasoned writer, following the rules of mass market romance – and yes, I know that Twilight isn’t mass market romance, but it does share some commonalities – she would have written a series of books shifting to other points of view, working out other romances within the Forksverse. Edward’s coven would have been all unattached, the tribe would be introduced, and they would have hooked up pair by pair: Mike with Alice, Jacob with Rosalie, that one chick with Jasper. Edward and Bella and then the later couples would cameo in epilogues and picnics with their babies, doling out advice to the new lovers while they writhed in romantic incompleteness until they didn’t, and then the sparkle ending could have been repeated ad infinitum. But Meyer is not that kind of writer; her strengths, such as they are, reside in her uncalculating evocation of…I’m struggling here…the terrors and pleasures of American femininity? The inherent conflict between the self protagonist and traditional gender roles? Some shit like that. 

Fascinating or no, I had zero interest in reading any more Twilight books after the first. But because Twilight talk is pretty much what fuels the Goodreads engine – although this is changing a bit, thank heavens – I’ve followed roughly 89 kajillion conversations about the series, spoilered myself on the plots of each book, and spent more words on books I haven’t read than is wise. I’ve wanted to read Breaking Dawn bad for a while, because I’ve been assured that Breaking Dawn is where the wheels come off, where Meyer’s unexamined domestic panic goes insane and burns the house down. Those assurances were not wrong. I’ve been hamstrung by my disinterest in plowing through nearly a thousand pages of love triangles, cheesy stand-ins for the Catholic church, and racist, Rousseauian garbage about how Native Americans are in touch with their inner furry beastie to get to this book. (Also, Edward is not Heathcliff, he’s Linton, and I’m not sure I can handle watching Meyer act out that mistake in Eclipse.) Anyway, point being, thank god for movies, because I got good and drunk and watched the movies of the middle two books with Elizabeth, who explained the stuff that they missed, and I was good and ready to read this. 

I can see why they split Breaking Dawninto two movies, because it is two books. One is a shockingly naked expression of procreative terror, an effective horror novel which is effective because it is so completely, so thoroughly, so devastatingly unconscious. The other is a boring, mechanical attempt to cauterize the previous blood-letting, an act of wish fulfillment so severe it almost negates the power of the previous installment. The wish is to unsee the terror of the previous entry, but whoo boy, there is no unseeing that. Before reading this, I tried to think of novels that detail the process of pregnancy and childbirth, and I mean embody, not just use as grist from some guy’s mid-life/Oedipal crisis, or mention as the conclusion to the novel. I blanked for a long time, but eventually I came up with two: BelovedToni Morrison‘s ghost story of slavery, and BarrayarLois McMaster Bujold‘s court intrigue of the domestic. I find it interesting that the pregnancies in these fictions are all metonymous in some way, dissociated. From Beloved, I have a vivid image of Sethe’s water breaking in an unstoppable stream of piss, while her daughter-ghost rises in her high-necked white dress, or from Barrayar, Cordelia helping a woman deliver a baby during a battle, while her own swims in a tank, his fragile bones breaking. But neither of these births are normal by any stretch: disembodied, metaphorical, political, even while they have a fierce physicality that I can remember years later. 

The dissociation in Breaking Dawncomes from the fact that the point of view shifts to Jacob for the whole of Bella’s pregnancy. The book starts with the Swan-Cullen wedding, a dreary obvious affair with requisite reference to clothing. The newly minted Cullens then whisk to Brazil to a desert island, and a series of sexual encounters that feel like S&M literature written under the Hays Code. I found them alternately hilarious and unsettling: a bedroom filled with white downy feathers after Edward has pillow-bitten his way through the grind; Bella waking covered in bruises that she can’t remember receiving, and begging a remorseful Edward into doing it again. She gets knocked up – pun intended – on the first try, though doesn’t realize it for nigh on 100 pages of snorkeling, eating eggs, and trying on lingerie. We’re in kill-me-now territory, for this reader. But they eventually figure it out, Edward making a tight-lipped phone call to Carlisle, his father/doctor, and Bella going completely fucking insane with baby fever. 

Here’s where the point of view shift happens, and it’s breathtaking to behold. I try to avoid speculating about authorial motivation, but I think it’s obvious that Meyer is bound up in Bella, at the very least as a wish-fulfillment vehicle, if not a full-blown author proxy. (Breaking Dawndoes goes full Mary Sue in the last half though – more on that later.) And Meyer, for a variety of reasons, can’t have her stand-in express the terror and discomfort of pregnancy, the doubt and fear, the sheer towering life-and-death of it all, so she turns to another who can. Jacob performs his task admirably, giving voice to thoughts that by all rights Bella should be having, would be having, if she weren’t silenced by her standing as idealized womanhood. The pregnancy is breakneck, almost literally, a week of gestation collapsed into a day. Bella grows hollow-eyed, starved of nutrition by her fetal parasite, her ribs cracking by the sudden ballooning of her body, sipping blood out of a styrofoam cup with a lid and straw. In one awful scene, her pelvis snaps. 

Holy fuck. I’ve had some babies, and I was harrowed by these descriptions. While I found much of pregnancy novel, and enjoyable in its novelty in some regards – when else can I experience being kicked in the bladder from within my own body? – pregnancy was also uncomfortable and scary, on both physical and existential levels. My son gave me an umbilical hernia, which necessitated surgery; I am riddled with stretch marks; I had never once experienced heartburn before my nascent kids pushed my stomach into my throat. (What is this sensation I am feeling?? My heart it burns! Oh, so that’s heartburn. Sucks.) And I had it easy compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard from friends, bedridden with a variety of leaking, potentially lethal pregnancy-induced conditions. I’ve been dithering for the last half hour, trying to figure how to say this out loud, this unspeakable truth, but I believe that every pregnant woman, regardless of her politics or her beliefs, thinks to herself at some point, this thing inside me has no right to kill me. I resent that I may have to choose between my life and another’s. I resent that I am expected to love someone more than myself, sight unseen. I love myself. I choose me. 

Phew. I’m feeling a little gross after writing that, but there it is. Bella doesn’t say anything like this, and Jacob twists and howls, saying it for her. I thank the starry heavens that we make it through Bella’s pregnancy in another character’s head, because she is freakishly placid and resigned. Bella is surrounded by unwomen – the barren, the childless – who protect Bella’s wishes to go through this unwise, fatal pregnancy because they don’t care about her at all, they only care about the baby. The sterile werewolf who hates Bella and Jacob, Rosalie who has been opposed to Bella’s transformation into a vampire on the grounds that Bella will not be able to have children, these women give voice to the conundrum that they are giving Bella what she needs to become a woman, in this traditionalist mindset, but that the woman is disposable in that act of creation. Good gravy, think about it, it’s so fucking sick and perfect that it kills me a little. 

At the end of Jacob’s pov section, Bella goes into labor, such as it is. Honestly, I have never read anything scarier in my life, the placenta detaching, Carlisle, the doctor, conveniently off set. This is a mutant, remember, encased in a placental sac so hard that it can only be gotten through with teeth, the infant’s teeth. It is a shower of blood, one that had me flashing back to my own deliveries, and not in a good way. This following bit is gross and overshare: I had repressed this memory, but after 42 hours of labor, and a nail-biting finish where I nearly bled to death, I remember being wheeled out after all the stitches and happy conclusions (in that neither I nor my son were dead) and seeing the river of blood and fluid on the floor, leading to a drain. I remember lying in bed, two mornings before, after waking up to my water silently breaking, and thinking, holy shit, there is no way out of this now. I have to experience the next 12 hours – this was hope talking, though I didn’t know it – and there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop it. It was the moment before the roller coaster went down the hill, and I didn’t know if there were tracks at the end, and that was panic, pure panic. 

The birthing sequence is told twice, once from Jacob’s pov, and once from Bella’s, and it’s fascinating to compare. Jacob is angry and horrified, like you are when you are a rational human watching a mutant baby eat its way out of a woman you love. Bella’s perspective is batshit insanity. I went back and re-read this part today, after I finished, because I have this horrible image of Bella’s child smiling at her with a full set of teeth – seriously, close your eyes and imagine an infant with a full set of teeth, smiling – shudder, shudder – and I couldn’t remember whether Bella noted this, or Jacob. It was Bella, and that image fills her with joy. I’m running out of expletives, but holy cussed godamn fucking shit. I’m losing the capacity to talk about this coherently, because this is so fucking bananas. 

So. Baby born, who is flawless and perfect. Bella transformed into vampire, now flawless and perfect. From here on out, the plot could not be more boring, more impossible, more unnecessary. There’s some thing with the Voltari making a power play for the baby or something – seriously, I’m not detailing the plot because it makes so little sense. I barked out some laughs when Bella and Edward go at it like marble rabbits every night when the baby goes to sleep – haha, such an accurate depiction of new parenthood. I completely lost my shit when, after roughly seven hundred new characters are introduced, Jacob says something to the effect of: how am I going to keep all these people straight?! Next to his statement is a little asterisk.*

*See page 756 is written below, and I am sent back to an index – hahahahahaha – that is a list of characters complete with helpful little strike-throughs for the characters who have died in previous books – hahahahaha. Holy shit, woman, have a little more faith in your writing. 

It’s like Meyer squeezed out this horrible truth, and then panicked, canonizing Bella and stripping out all the narrative danger, all the reality. We don’t really hear again from Jacob or the wolves, which is incredibly frustrating, because obviously Sam and Jacob make up at the end, but all of that occurs off-stage. And there are a bunch of new wolves??? And they are not really werewolves, we learn in an infodump?? Everyone recedes into a prop for the perfect child, one that makes everyone instantly love her. Meyer spent all her truth on the trauma of childbirth, and once we’re back in Bella’s head, she can’t express the impolite notion that infants can be difficult to love. I do believe in a certain amount of parental instinct – we wouldn’t make it far as a species without it – but for most new mothers, we are struggling with exhaustion, blood loss, and a dizzying hormonal stew when our babies are at their neediest: screaming, feeding, pooping on a loony schedule. Teeth or not, they do not smile for weeks, and while that first smile is intensely satisfying – I can still remember the first time the boy laughed, and that was sheer joy transmitted by sound – the weeks before are managing an uncommunicative alien who has consumed your life. 

Oh shit though! How could I forget the imprinting?? Sweet zombie Jebus. Jacob does express this impolite anger at the child at the end of his section, stalking down to murder the infant for what she has done to Bella. It is the cheapest, grossest cop-out ever that his anger is magicked away by some sort of gross sexual soul mating. (I know I’ve used gross twice in that sentence; sue me.) I’m way ZOMG about the idea of imprinting – this is what I get for not reading the previous books, where they explain why only guys imprint, and why imprinting isn’t the most kinked idea ever. Edward’s convenient mind-reading keeps telling us that Jacob only has pure thoughts for his infant bride, but come on. I suspect that Meyer pulled this stunt to give poor, rejected Jacob a consolation prize, and to keep him from running out of there. One of the last chapter speeches is about the power of family, and how family is choice and a bunch of other garbage. Jacob would never choose to stay with this family Meyer has constructed without magical duress. But with imprinting, now the cult can be complete! (And, though these thoughts lack coherence, I think there might be something in this imprinting business that is about sexual competition between mothers and daughters, and the uncomfortable reality that all children grow to become sexual beings. The imprinting puts a tight leash – pun intended – on the child’s inevitable adolescent sexuality. Best mother ever!) 

Bella goes full Mary Sue in the end, even her trademark clumsiness erased, her beauty perfected, her talents blooming into story-destroying weapons. She’s so good at everything that she makes conflict impossible. I was sorely disappointed by the big “battle” with the Voltori, who succumb to her perfect motherhood in the most boring episode of Vampire Matlock ever. Which is super funny, because Alice’s clairvoyance is obviously the real reason that any of that worked out, but that’s the trouble with clairvoyant characters – they really know how to spoil a plot. I spent a fair amount of time laughing when Alice bails, and everyone is like, nooooes! That must mean we are dooooooomed!! Because, you know, there’s no other good reason for a clairvoyant to head out on some super secret mission when there’s a big throw-down on the horizon. Certainly she won’t arrive at the perfect moment with some major trump card. That’s not more likely at all. But Alice’s decampment serves as grist for the emo mill, and without all the hand-wringing brought on by her leaving, there would be almost no emotional drama – clearly fake as it is – to the any of the boring, perfect proceedings leading up to the end.

Much as the last section bored me to tears, at least when it wasn’t grossing me out, I was zero to the bone on the last page. Bella and Edward’s forever and evers to one another, the vision of this family locked into an unchanging perfect stasis, unable to sleep or dream, fundamentally cut off from the larger world, this hit me like a ton of ice. Good god, who wants this? Who aspires to shed every single vestige of their humanity in the attainment of domestic perfection? And having gotten there, who thinks this perfection is anything but a horrible nightmare? Edward was right at the first: an existence of unchanging perfection is no life at all. Throughout this book, the people in Bella’s life disappear on by one: only a brief mention of her school friends at the wedding, then silence, her mother considered and then discarded again, her father brought in in the most ancillary way possible, the concerns of lives of the werewolves dropped after Jacob is neutered. Breaking Dawnis a chilling portrait of the most self-serving narcissism, that old Freudian saw about procreation as immortality turned monstrous in its perfection. I just went and tucked my kids into bed, and I feel fiercely in this moment how transitory their childhoods are, how precious it is that they grow and change, what a gift it is that we fight, and even that we inevitably die. It’s quite a feat Meyer performed here, making me cozy up to my death while I tuck my kids in. Grief is the left hand of happiness, to misquote my beloved Ursula K Le Guin, and I hold my children with both hands. Anything else is as dishonest as it is awkward.


This review also brought to you by cold medicine. 

Not so very long ago, in review not so very far away, I stood up for the present tense and all of its breathless immediacy, at least in regards to the young adult fictions. I’m not going to do that here. In Divergentby Veronica Roth, the present tense maybe wasn’t a mistake, because it works at the end, but it makes that beginning so horribly hard to get through it might not be worth it? As usual, it is hard to imagine readers other than myself, because I am self-involved like teenagers, so I can’t say for sure. All I know is that it took me well over 100 pages and a sinus infection to get over the clunky ass opening of this story and get into it. 

Beatrice lives in a frankly laughable post-apocalyptic society, where everyone has been split into like-minded factions: Dauntless (courage), Amity (love), Abnegation (selflessness), Candor (truthiness), Erudite (Goodreads). You know, to keep people from fighting over perceived differences that are inconsequential. (Pause for laughter.) At 16 you have to choose your faction, and Tris chooses Dauntless despite her Abnegation upbringing. And despite the fact that her test scores come up inconclusive – she’s the dreaded Divergent who has aspects of all of those things in her personality. Ahahahaha. Omigod, teenagers, you freaking kill me. Why wouldn’t everyone have more or less of these…forget it, I’ll just take it faith for the moment.

The opening parts are really summer camp movie-esque, if you will allow me to coin an awkward phrase, and have the sort of fun frission that Ender’s Gamehas, but without all the nudity. The world, the politics here make zero sense, and Roth even knows it, drawing out Tris’s understanding and misunderstanding of the senseless world she inhabits like a revelation. Omigod, the electoral college makes no sense at all!!1! You guys! Listen! 

After just an appalling beginning – I am still somewhat miffed about how boring that opening is – the book begins to pick up steam, drawing out action sequences and tight, whispered conversations with force and verve. (Um, did I really just use the word verve? I blame cold medicine.) I know I had some thoughts at some points about how this compared to The Hunger Games, but I feel like I’ve forgotten all of that. 

Oh! I know! It was that while the factions here might seem like the various Districts in The Hunger Games, the better analogy is/are the Houses in Harry Potter. The districts are geographical, and although the separate districts have their distinct industries and cultures, they aren’t so much self-selected as born into. Harry Potter has a distinctly summer camp vibe (or boarding school, if you’re British, but then you have the whole born-into thing of the British caste system, which is not something an American writer would do. Could I be more confusing please? Gawd.) 

Anyway, point being, I think the factions in Divergent work pretty well as a metaphor for the emotional code switching and cliche-forming that goes on in adolescence. Find a group of like-minded people, claw your way in, develop and enforce the norms that the group adheres to. Cry in your pillow when you don’t even fit into a group you yourself joined and maintained. And then figure out there is an epic conspiracy that will shake your dumb little schematic world and render everything you know obsolete: you’re going to graduate. Just kidding! But also for serious. The later half of Divergent is super fun, full of really action-y action and what would be almost trite revelations if they weren’t so badass. My parents areadults who have histories and secrets! Boys are fun to kiss! OMG! The two-party system feels occasionally rigged! 

So, in sum, I really liked the end of this, enough for me to want to read on, but I’m still not going to forgive that opening section for being so boring and clunky. I’m reasonably sure this isn’t cross-over YA material – like, if you don’t like or read YA, this is not a smart thing to start with – but if you have a sinus infection and have already gotten through the first boring 100 pages, it’s going to be just absolutely perfect.

Review: Walking Dead: Say the Word

Spoilers for everything!

Can I just say first that, holy crap, can Daryl rock a serape or what? He’s easily my favorite character on the show, and I think this episode has finally showed me why. It’s not necessarily because of what he does – although his easy slide into the leadership role once Rick goes off the deep end is very nice – but because we know stuff about him. He’s got a foil in Merle, the attack dog lieutenant for a smooth sociopath (and also, of course, his brother). He’s had little moments and big moments, so that when he drops the Cherokee Rose on Carol’s grave, you totally heave a sigh. We know what dude’s about, so his ease with the baby while still being a stupendous badass is perfect, giving the remaining group a moment of levity and wonder. Awww.

Contrast Daryl with T-Dog. Glenn runs an unconvincing eulogy about how T-Dog saved a bunch of kittens and old people from trees when Atlanta was being evacuated, and I’m like, why the hell am I only hearing this now? Nobody puts any work into the minor characters, and the writers squander the dialogue they have on these really baldly expository stuff. I re-watched last week’s episode because my husband missed it, and he was like, really? Michonne is going to pretty much tell the Governor she knows he killed all those National Guardsmen? Why would she do that? She’s already telegraphed her super-sleuth skills checking the bullet holes and stuff. Can’t you trust us as viewers? (This isn’t dissimilar from psychic Dale, who suddenly knew Shane was trouble due to magical zombie dust, and then told him so at every opportunity.)

There’s some credible work being done with the Governor (“No, randomly call me Phillip.”) His creepy hair brushing of his creepy zombie daughter was a super nice touch, especially when contrasted with Rick’s total melt-down at the prison over the loss of his wife. You’ve got a non-zombie baby, Rick! Man up! Lincoln is pulling out the stops with Rick, and he’s doing just an amazing job with his physicality. Morrissey is interesting to watch too, despite some really clunky lines, because he’s soft-selling the Governor’s insanity. But Michonne! So bad. We’re not getting any character moments with her, short of some glowering and an admittedly joyful zombie beheading sequence. But that doesn’t say anything about her, and when the fine people of Woodbury drag her back and start ‘sperimenting on her (or whatever happens), we’re not going to care. And Andrea: ugh. Her sole motivation seems to be blonde. The little moments have to be so much less expository if the big moments are going to work.

I’m not sure what to think about the zombie MMA sequence. I know it’s in the comics and everyone thinks it’s sweet, but the staging felt really small, with no real sense of danger. I was more worried during the netting and tooth extraction scenes. Or, wait, omigod, when Daryl and Maggie go to the daycare? I was really dreading a sequence where they have to mow down a whole house full of dead children. Walking Dead hasn’t been afraid to kill zombie kids before, but they tend to be individuals and used specifically. Anyway, the restraint there was nice, and made the whole sequence really melancholy and sad. And the character work between Daryl and Maggie was great: “I’m not putting that in my bag.” Compared to the pointless Merle-posturing and blonde-Andrea-ing of the MMA sequence, this scene does some serious work.

So, an uneven episode, but the writing is still markedly improved from last season, and Lincoln is really bringing his game. Let’s put everyone in serapes!

The Whole Stupid Way We Are

This is the kind of book that gets me right between the ribs like a blade, but softer, like I’ve been running and my own body cuts itself as my breath heaves. Trying to talk about this book is a blinding overshare in the offing, my desire to remember myself as I was in a series of cutting anecdotes and sloppy regret almost overwhelming. I’m not going to do that this time, but that is just an accident that never happened, but could, and did, and will. 

The Whole Stupid Way We Areby N. Griffin is written in the present tense about two teenagers, Skint and Dinah, in a series of building days, in a place that feels like my snowy Midwest, an adolescence parceled out in hats unworn and coats outgrown. Lots of people hate the present tense, which is fine, you’re welcome, but here it is the breathless presence of adolescence, that moves along presently until that final blinding tense shift at the end. The one that put the blade at my ribs solidly into my heart.

I honestly don’t know that this book will track with young people, which is the usual shame of youth being wasted on the young, or them being cursed with it. I’m not even trashing young people here; I didn’t know like Dinah how all of my present tense flailing was going to turn out. Skint and Dinah are fierce friends, on the edge of something more serious than simple sexual attraction, running bullshit and antics. Dinah, she can almost see the shape of Skint’s damage, his coatless pain and anger and violence, but she’s too happy and grief-stricken and herself to see him in a resolution that makes sense. 

It’s all a long breathless anecdote: I had this one friend. One time, I got a call from my grandmother that Grandpa was dead. I brought videotapes to my sister when she was sick this one time. A million stories that I’m not going to tell. One time, Dinah and Skint saw a dancing donkey, and waved to two old people on a porch. One time there was a box of food in the food shelf, and freezer full of fish. Once, Skint thought so hard about Dinah that he almost put her through a wall. Memory is violence that never happened, or could have, or did. Once, I grieved for myself and everything I did wrong trying to do right. Memory is holy because it is profane, because it is mistakes unmade and in the making. 

I don’t know. This book is beautiful, stark, voice-driven young adult literature of the highest order. I love it. I love it like grief and my present-tense adolescence that cuts a stitch in my side if I think about it too much. It’s the brutal, gentle ‘I am’ that puts me right through the wall.

(I received an ARC from a bookseller, but no expectations were put on my review.)