Review: The Fault in Our Stars


The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green


2012 • 313 pages • Dutton Books

The thing about my incredibly long lead time on most media (imposed on me by both library wait lists and my own reticence to do as I am told) is that I get to see both the thing itself and the response to it. When The Fault in Our Stars dropped in 2012, it was hot. White hot. So white hot, in fact, that even while I was working at the Tattered Cover a year later, we could barely keep the damn thing on the shelves. (To be fair, the post-humously constructed Esther Earl memoir This Star Won’t Go Out had just been released, boosting sales.) I still have the occasional waking nightmare of the rickety overstock stacks I had to make over the John Green section in the young adult nook. Tumbling, bright blue, entirely hardcover overstock stacks.

But, to quote The Dark Knight, The Fault in Our Stars has lived long enough to become the villain. Specifically, John Green has. Where he was once recommended to me, he’s, of late, been side-eyed. Some of it is his own behavior—Green’s misjudged breathless declaration that the kiss in the film adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars is the first lady-initiated kiss in ALL OF CINEMATIC TEEN ROMANCE, anyone?—but a lot of it is how the work of a cisgendered straight white dude is being used by the mainstream to legitimize young adult fiction. (Which is not his fault, obviously, but is still something to take into account.) This backlash eventually came to his books, especially The Fault in Our Stars. After the film hit, I saw many a tumblrina rolling her eyes at “metaphors,” although I had no idea what they were talking about.

So when I finally got around to reading the darn thing, I was prepared for the worst. After all, I did not care for Will Grayson, Will Grayson, his collaboration with David Levithan, whose work I otherwise enjoy. And fifty pages into it, I may have immediately texted a known Green unfan of my acquaintance that Augustus Waters was a total turd.

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Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon


Throne of the Crescent Moon


2012 • 288 pages • DAW Books

Where is the God in fantasy?

There are speculative fiction novels that deal with faith and spirituality—while I haven’t read it yet, I am told that Mary Russell’s The Sparrow touches on it. But I don’t mean faith and spirituality as a core theme of a text; I mean faith and spirituality as both worldbuilding and character building. In my experience, fantasy worldbuilding is often predicated on the existence of gods or goddesses. There is no question that the gods exist. Their decisions make be questioned or influenced or what have you, but they made the world, they exist, and that is that. Depictions of faith and religious practice tends to be dramatically diverse—the dwarves worship their god, and the elves theirs—

It’s something I’ve never really thought about. My only religious training as a kid was pointedly not being actively Catholic with no viable option presented, so religion as a whole was never on my radar. (My mother once panicked before a family funeral and tried to make me learn the Lord’s Prayer. I was what, eighteen? Nineteen? It did not take.) Since organized religion has never played a role in my life, I’ve never wondered what kind of role it can play in secondary worldbuilding.

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Review: The Locusts Have No King


The Locusts Have No King
by Dawn Powell


1998 (originally published 1948) • 303 pages • Steerforth Press

I was introduced to Dawn Powell through her journal entries included in Teresa Carpenter’s sublime The New York Diaries. In those entries, she gives off the impression of being a hard-working woman leaning into the wind, a little in the vein of Dorothy Parker. She makes strong decisions about her next novel (always, given her prodigious output, on the horizon); she paints quick caricatures of character she meets; and she swoons over New York, bolstered by her dreams of the city during her early life in Ohio.

It’s that last one that gives Powell her power as sharp observer of life in New York City. Her 1948 novel The Locusts Have No King does technically have a plot, in the reversal of fortune between Mrs. Lyle Gaynor, the famous and successful playwright, and her lover Frederick, an intellectual but ignored writer whose latest book finds success. But Powell is far more interested in the nooks and crannies of New York than the internal lives of her much-mocked characters. She roams far and wide, dispensing the little details that make her New York come alive—roommates squabbling over the phone, foul weather friendships, and, as always, those damn hipsters taking away the real New York.

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Review: Publish and Perish


Publish and Perish
by James Hynes


1998 (originally published 1997) • 338 pages • Picador

The more I read about the peculiar, insular world of higher academia, the more I think of it as a horror show. It’s an obviously biased perspective, especially since I respond to my mother’s repeated queries about the possibility of grad school by braying “NOOOO” at the top of my lungs. I mean, I have friends from college who are attending graduate school with the elegance, grace, and ferocity I expect out of my fellow Valkyries (look, your college wasn’t as cool as mine, it’s okay, we can move on together). They seem to be managing just fine! But reading about why Our Lady of Gossip Anne Helen Petersen left academia for BuzzFeed last December sent me leaping from article to article about both the poor employment prospects facing would-be academics and the poor treatment those academics receive if they do get hired.

With that atmosphere firmly planted in my headspace, out of the depths of my reading list emerged Publish and Perish, a trilogy of three horror novellas set in academia. Long time readers may remember that the unnameable behemoth that is my reading list was birthed in 2009 out of a copy of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust in my high school library. Publish and Perish is, if I recall correctly, one of the first recommendations in Book Lust (or More Book Lust, which I also heartily raided). I bring this up because Publish and Perish feels like a blast from the past—both my personal past, when I gobbled up recommendations essentially sight unseen (…like, way more than I do now) and the past of 1997, when Publish and Perish was published.

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Review: Doll Bones


Doll Bones
by Holly Black


2013 • 256 pages • Margaret K. McElderry Books

After adoring her The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Ana’s amazing review of Holly Black’s Doll Bones made the next logical step for exploring Black’s back catalog obvious. I always had books at the bookstore that I would shelve and whisper “soon” to (oh, like you don’t talk to yourself in public), and Doll Bones was one.

I am kind of tempted to point you to Ana’s review and hand you off, because she, as ever, gets to the marrow of the matter. Doll Bones is the story of three friends who have played, essentially, a homemade version of Dungeons and Dragons since they were little—Alice, Zach, and their game master, Poppy. Now in middle school, Zach is starting to feel self-conscious about his best friends being girls and playing pretend so much. When his dad throws out his figurines, he, although enraged, takes it as the easy way out of the game. But Poppy is not to be deterred, and she demands that all three go on a quest to bury the creepy, antique doll that represents the Queen in their game world because it’s supposedly haunting her. As Ana beautifully writes, it’s about growing up into a strict gender binary being enforced by the various adults around them and how all three negotiate that. While Zach, a basketball player, and Alice, a theater kid, have access to prefabricated narratives that supposedly mesh with their interests, Poppy, who describes herself as the actually weird one, doesn’t.

So instead of retreading the ground that Ana covered first (and better), I wanted to focus on Poppy. Continue reading

Review: The Price of Salt


The Price of Salt
by Patricia Highsmith


2004 (originally 1952) • 292 pages • W. W. Norton & Company

I’ve decided that this is the year that I’m actually going to start tracking how diverse my reading is.

Over the course of the last five years (!), I haven’t really made a specific effort to read diversely. As a queer fannish lady type, I’ve sort of assumed that my reading will be more diverse than the average bear. But that assumption obviously doesn’t make up for my blind spots as a middle-class white girl who most people read as straight. I felt kind of sheepish about it last year, but there’s nothing to be gained by feeling awkward about it, so it’s time to fix that. Plus my newfound (okay, it’s been like two years, but it still feels new) love for nonfiction means that there are a lot more straight white dudes on my reading list as I seek out “canonical” texts about media and media history.

So I tackled my behemoth of a reading list recently and updated it to reflect the gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation of the authors. And… well, there’s a lot more straight white dudes than anticipated. Which is exactly why I needed to start doing this. I’ve decided to start out by focusing on women writers for the first six months of 2015 (specifically, one book by a woman for every book by a man at the least) and then taking stock in the summer to see what I’ve learned about balancing my reading list and applying it to the other categories.

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Review: Heart of Iron


Heart of Iron
by Ekaterina Sedia


2011 • 320 pages • Prime Books

I talk a lot about narrative structure in speculative fiction. Not that it’s not a problem in other genres, but who knew that Britain’s postwar paper shortage would give us so many speculative fiction series that didn’t need to be series? But a separate, although related, problem is narrative heft. In my readings, I have come across many, many stories that either try to stretch out a thin story farther than it can go or, less frequently but more frustrating, attempt to cram too much story into too little words.

I find the latter more frustrating because the fix is simple. In fact, the fix is simple in both cases, but there’s only one where you actually get to indulge yourself. If you have so much story, tell it—don’t compress it.

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Review: Bastard Out of Carolina


Bastard Out of Carolina
by Dorothy Allison


2012 (originally published 1992) • 336 pages • Plume


Sia has adopted the young dancer Maddie Ziegler as a kind of avatar, and so I expected to see her crop up when Sia appeared on Saturday Night Live this weekend—even without knowing that Ziegler had already turned up in the music video for “Elastic Heart.” Less inevitable was seeing another dancer, Denna Thomsen, don the leotard and blonde bob as well. But by the time Ziegler was stomping on the back of her older dance partner, I was enthralled. The performance can be read many ways, but the more I read about the larger context of the song—the official music video features Ziegler dancing with a bearded Shia LaBeouf as a pair of “warring ‘sia’ self states,” according to the artist—the more I was convinced that the performance on Saturday Night Live yielded plenty of fruit as a treatise on motherhood.

Between that performance of “Elastic Heart” and Bastard Out of Carolina, I’ve been thinking about motherhood, lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the spiritual violence of motherhood. Louis C.K. has a joke about how adopting a dog is just starting a countdown to sorrow, because owners will usually outlive their dogs. I deeply suspect that the same is true of raising a child. There comes a moment when you look into your child’s eyes and discover that she is both the same as you and different from you. There comes a moment when you look into your mother’s eyes and discover that she is both the same as you and different from you. It’s the moment in Sia’s performance when the child wraps her arms around Sia, declaring agency, and it breaks her mother’s heart; it’s the moment when Bone loses her mother, because her mother can still love the man who abused and raped her daughter. It’s the moment when you recognize each other as independent and fallible beings. It’s the moment when you are discover that you are now equals.

I fell in something hotter and drier than love with Dorothy Allison’s writing when I came across her essay “A Question of Class,” where she talks about the difficulties she’s faced at the intersection of queer and poor. It’s as visceral as she confesses to wanting her prose to be, so off I trotted to said prose. And here is another thing to fall for: she writes of an angry girlhood.

Bastard Out of Carolina is often taught in high schools and is, as you can imagine and as Allison discusses in the afterword to this twentieth anniversary edition, hotly contested. But I don’t think it’s about the level of abuse Bone suffers at the hands of her stepfather, but about Bone. I remember the rape narratives I came across in middle school and high school featuring faultless heroines who suffer silently until rescued, presumably to forestall the “enjoyable” discussions about consent my middle school Health class I stewed through. (I slaked my anger on correcting misinformation about abortion in the textbook.) Bone is no such long-suffering, pure heroine. she’s serious, quiet, and righteously angry. She understands the world both better and worse than she thinks she does. She deeply suspects and speculates on her mother’s coping mechanisms. She knows how others think of her people—the poor, the backwoods, the Boatwrights. And she spends the novel grappling with her mother’s seeming desire to ignore what is happening to her.

And Bone is righteously, incandescently angry at the world, society, and mother that fail her:

After that, when I passed the Woolworth’s windows, it would come back—that dizzy desperate hunger edged with hatred and an aching lust to hurt somebody back. I wondered if that kind of hunger and rage was what Tommy Lee felt when he went through his mama’s pocketbook. It was a hunger in the back of the throat, not the belly, an echoing emptiness that ached for the release of screaming. Whenever we went to visit Daddy Glen’s people, that hunger would throb and swell behind my tongue until I found myself standing silent and hungry in the middle of a family gathering full of noise and food. (98)

We do not see enough angry girls in fiction—girls whose anger is not dismissed or ignored, but recognized and validated. Girls, even girls protected from what Bone suffers, have every right to be angry. To see an angry girl, and an angry girl who dominates the novel with her own searing voice at that, is more than a breath of fresh air. I was an angry girl myself, but I never realized it, no matter how hateful and spiteful I was, no matter how deeply I overreacted to other things, no matter how loud I raged. No one around me knew what to do with a overgrown girl’s unreasonable anger, largely because I don’t think they thought young girls could be that angry, and we all largely pretended it wasn’t happening. (It got better, eventually.) It, thank God, was not for the reasons Bone is angry; it was a different, internal anger. But it was an anger all the same. Validation comes in all forms, even if it’s the barest fingerprint of Bone’s life against mine.

Bone, eventually, thankfully, and mercifully is given a way out—through her extended family, who defend her against Glen, and specifically her aunt Raylene, who ultimately takes her in. But Bone ultimately rescues herself, by making the heartbreaking realization that her mother cannot help her. It’s a messy novel, as it has to be, and it’s searing. I opened Bastard Out of Carolina to read a few pages at lunch on Saturday and could not physically tear myself away. I have so much to learn from Dorothy Allison.

I rented this book from the public library.

Review: The Snow Queen


The Snow Queen
by Joan D. Vinge


1980 • 471 pages • Dial Press

One of the things I love most about genre fiction is texture. I think it has something to do with imprinting on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy at puberty; there is something soothing and fascinating about exploring a meticulously put together and elegantly revealed world, be that world the future, the past, or something completely different through an engaging story. Actually finding such a world in genre fiction can be rare—because of how selectively I read (look, I know it doesn’t seem that way, but I can be discerning sometimes), I tend to read a higher percentage of great worldbuilding, but I have spent my fair share of time picking through every sf book available at bookstores, as both a customer and an employee. So it sometimes feels like an event when I do find a book with the kind of swooning texture that makes me slip my skein of skin and look up at the end of my commute and remember, wonderingly, where I am and who I am.

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Review: Animal Farm


Animal Farm
by George Orwell


1990 (originally published 1945) • 124 pages • Harcourt Brace Modern Classics

I’m not going to review Animal Farm.

I mean, what would be the point? As I once said to my baffled mother in a California Pizza Kitchen, I grow less and less interested in determining the objective value of a text and more and more interested in the value people derive from a text. Every review on this blog is about the value I personally derive from each text I consume. (Look, Gossamer Axe isn’t for everybody, but, for me, it’s almost perfect.) There are some basics to be still be observed—did you spell everything more or less right? Is there a whole story in here? Do you treat marginalized minorities as people?—but, by and large, it’s the personal resonance that makes pop culture criticism such a fascinating and engaging field.

But there are some texts that I can’t sink my teeth into in a personal way. By and large, in my youth, these were books forced on me that I deeply resented. (Madame McBride made me read Silas Marner before I read Good Omens. I completed her terms, but immediately and willfully forgot the novel. Never underestimate the spite of preteens. They are monsters.) These days, they’re mercifully rare, but Animal Farm rates among them. While I enjoy texts that examine the world around us—speculative fiction is where it is at, people—I still want them to also be engaging stories. That’s, after all, why it’s a story and not an article; it’s easier for people to learn a lesson through a narrative. George Orwell obviously understood this, which is why Animal Farm is a fairy story, as the novel’s original British subtitle goes. He has a point to make about Stalinist Russia and he makes it stridently, over and over again. I don’t think you can ask if it’s effective as a story with well-developed characters, because that’s hardly Orwell’s point. I seriously doubt contemporary reviews of the novel that bemoaned how obvious the novel was bothered him one whit. It works exactly the way he wants it to work, which is no mean feat, and that’s all I can really say about it.

So I thought I’d talk about, instead, reading books in the classroom.

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