Zombie Baseball Beatdown, Paulo Bacigalupi

Happy Halloween everyone! And by “everyone,” I mean those of you who celebrate Halloween. For the rest of you, Happy Thursday! It’s almost the weekend, and my brother’s birthday is tomorrow…and oh yeah, National Novel Writing Month kicks off. Tomorrow. Huh. That came up quickly. Thank goodness today is Halloween so I can drown my problems in bite sized candy bars! (Tomorrow I’ll be doing the same thing, but all the candy will be marked down eighty percent, so that will be something special.)

I’m actually not big into Halloween. I’ve never liked costumes, and I hate being scared, so the only thing this day has going for it is the candy. Don’t get me wrong – I do really enjoy free candy, but even that’s less exciting as an adult. I can go buy candy whenever I want, and I don’t have to wear a wig or a hula skirt or whatever to get it. As a child, I always just latched onto the biggest group of trick-or-treaters I could find so I could hide in the back and score treats on their enthusiasm. (That’s a pro-tip right there, so if you have a child who loves candy but finds it difficult to break the “don’t talk to strangers” rule, I highly recommend this method.) Even though I don’t get particularly excited about October 31, I did want to give you all a fantastic quasi-horror story to enjoy when you come down off that sugar rush, and thankfully for all of us, Bacigalupi delivers in spades.

I’ve actually owned his first novel, The Windup Girl for quite a while but have never gotten around to it. When I read his Big Idea post on Whatever about his foray into middle grade fiction while I was traveling in September, I decided not to wait around. Sure, other people were giving him crap about branching out to try something new, but I wasn’t tied to his other books. I had no reason not to like this novel, and, as it turns out, about a dozen reasons to find it utterly delightful.

I highly recommend you scroll up and click on the link to his Big Idea post because I actually think Bacigalupi can sell this book to you better than I can. I’m so worried about spoiling it (and I really don’t want to spoil it for you) that I keep writing and deleting a list of the things I love about it. I can’t decide what information you should have to convince you to run right out and buy a copy (or twenty, if you happen to teach fourth through seventh grade – and yes, I do think it would appeal to that wide a range of readers, not to mention adults, who would be crazy not to enjoy Bacigalupi’s approach to the zombie apocalypse), so I’m going to share the one paragraph from his post that sold this book to me:

Ultimately, it turns out that whether I’m writing novels for adults or for middle school zombie enthusiasts, my themes and agendas still sneak into my stories. It was probably inevitable that my zombie apocalypse would come oozing out of the local meatpacking plant, with its overuse of antibiotics and strange feed supplements and questionable government oversight. And of course, once you’re writing about industrial meat, you can’t help but write about the workers who are often exploited by the meatpacking industry. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, a story about bashing zombies with baseball bats becomes a story about food safety and corporate greed, immigration policy and race in America. (excerpted from The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi at whatever.scalzi.com)

I mean, come on – it has something for everyone! Kids, baseball lovers (and baseball haters, incidentally), zombie fans, vegetarians, political junkies…and I’m actually none of these (well, I do love the Rockies, but I’d never read a book about baseball by choice, so that hardly counts), and I still thought this book was freaking fantastic. I’m already hounding my library to get more copies because it’s just that good. Seriously. It grossed me out, and I teared up on at least three separate occasions, but mostly, I laughed and cheered and generally felt a sense of awesome that can’t be denied.

But, you know, I’m not going to twist your arm. If you’re not into it, that’s…cool. I still have this bowl of candy to help see me through the dark times, and when I come out on the other side of…well, today, it will be November. I’ll be trying to write three thousand words a day. I won’t have time for your rejection of zombies, people! Nope. I won’t have time for anything but pretending you love what I love, so you may as well just give in and love this book now.


For more about Paulo Bacigalupi, head over here.

Untold, Sarah Rees Brennan

“Good practice, everyone,” Rusty said at last. “Light on the actual learning, heavy on the emotional catharsis, and thanks to Jared I think I need a rabies shot, but them’s the breaks.” (loc 1627)


I’m going to come right out and say it. I read book 2 of The Lynburn Legacy because I wanted more Rusty. He’s only a peripheral character in the first book; fortunately for me, he plays a bigger role in the second. My hope is that by the third installment, he has completely taken over the narrative so that I’m no longer forced to read about an obviously unhealthy romantic triangle, and I can spend all my time delighting in the antics of Rusty, his badass sister Angela, and her spunky crush, Holly Prescott. I’m even happy to invite Brennan’s protagonist, Kami Glass, to the party as long as she doesn’t bring her mopey suitors along.

I like Kami and her friends, I really do. The first book had a lot more of her with them, and the romance was more of a side note. That was great. Although I have no problem with romance – not even fraught romance – I’ve never been a fan of the Romeo and Juliet school of pining, or the even more dire Othello method of investigation (guilty until proven…nope, just gonna kill her without bothering to talk it out). One of my biggest pet peeves is when assumptions are made over and over again without a single question ever being asked. One assumption? Sure. We all occasionally make decisions based on hearsay or a meaningful look, but how many times does a character have to be proven wrong before he or she figures out that a little conversation can go a long way?

This sort of thing is overdone in YA fiction, and it drives me crazy, especially when a character is written to be as smart and inquisitive as Kami Glass. She’s a journalist! She’s comfortable cold calling strangers to ask about their potential involvement in sorcery and murder, but she can’t be bothered to ask her quasi-boyfriend how he really feels about her? I know she’s a teenager, but I just don’t buy it. She hasn’t been written as a pushover, so why does she have to fall into that stereotype when it comes to romantic relationships? I’m not saying never write that person, but newsflash: some teenagers are comfortable talking about their feelings! Some teenagers are actually pretty mature about these things, and it’s okay to occasionally portray such a person on the page.

Maybe it makes good drama. I happen to think murder and sacrifice coupled with a major family meltdown is plenty of drama. Why can’t dating be a little less…extreme? Why can’t it be more of a comfort in the midst of all the craziness? I remember very few people in high school bandying around the word “love.” Instead, there were group dates, and people to dance with and giggle over. There were parties, and hooking up, and girls getting pregnant. There were summer flings at camp, and major school year crushes. There were notes passed, and occasionally, two people got their shit together and actually dated for longer than three weeks. They were looked on with a certain awe because, regardless of what books and television want us to believe, few teenagers actually have the time and energy to be in love, and even fewer fall in love with people who love them back. Between homework, sports, work, band, etc, the teenagers I know have about fifteen minutes of free time a day. I don’t think most of them would even have time to deal with the crucial murder-y part of this story, much less that, plus magic,  a love triangle, and running the school newspaper!

I’m willing to suspend my disbelief about how little time these kids spend in school, how often they spend the night somewhere other than their own homes without so much as a check-in text with their parents, or how every day seems to be about forty-two hours long, but after all of that, my powers of suspension are pretty much spent. The only thing I have energy for in the end is Rusty and the self-defense classes he teaches in a little room above the grocery store. Because that’s helpful, and adorable, and he deserves all the love.


For more about Sarah Rees Brennan, go here.

Fortunately, The Milk, Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s having a pretty big year (who am I kidding – he’s having a pretty big life). In June, his newest adult novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, hit the stands, and he made another splash in September with a new brief chapter book for children called Fortunately, the Milk. Since I buy every novel Gaiman writes in hardcover months before it’s actually published, I usually forget all about his books until they show up on my doorstep. (Well, that’s not entirely true. I follow him on twitter, so “forgetting” is not exactly possible, but I zone out after I reach a certain saturation point on promotional material.) As it happened, I was traveling when Fortunately, the Milk arrived, so although the internet seemed insistent about spoiling it for me, I didn’t get around to reading it until about a week ago.

If I seem a little annoyed with the internet, I am. This is the second book in a row by Gaiman that has been so mercilessly hyped through the few channels I pay attention to that I felt a little underwhelmed when I actually got around to reading it. Don’t get me wrong – it’s adorable, and, as advertised, it is definitely Gaiman’s most ridiculous book to date; if you have young children (or, like me, enjoy the occasional foray into picture books, or picture short stories, as this turned out to be), this book is a lovely choice.

It’s written as superbly as ever, and the illustrations in the American version (a different artist worked on the UK release, although I can’t remember what this means for copies going to other countries) were wonderful, if not my personal favorite style. As far as I can tell, every other person using a computer and writing in English adored it, and I don’t think they’re wrong. I’ve already recommended it to my friend (both for herself and to enjoy with her sons), and I will happily buy copies of it for the upcoming birthdays of several children I know. I often found myself smiling as I read it, and although I don’t want to share the plot, I will say it’s a sweet book for the slightly absent-minded but wonderful fathers in our lives (an interesting juxtaposition, in fact, to the father figure portrayed in Ocean).

I think, though, that the reason I’m not over the moon about this book (and why I liked but didn’t love The Ocean at the End of the Lane) was not because Gaiman’s writing has suffered any changes in recent years, but because his books no longer feel like the secretive, magical experience I used to have. I’m now so inundated with information about him as an author and human being, with dates of tours, with promotional material months before his books are released – I just don’t have the opportunity to discover his work in the way I once could. I desperately want to love them because he’s been my favorite author for nearly as long as I’ve had such a thing, but this year, it just hasn’t felt the same.

Maybe I need to pull back, disconnect myself from the special opportunities and information he provides on sites like Twitter so that I can return to a place where I am once again delighted by the incredible stories he has the power to tell. I certainly never get tired of rereading my old favorites, but I don’t want to miss out on having another experience like the one I had when reading, say, The Graveyard Book for the first time. That novel was published almost exactly five years ago, and I still remember how powerfully it moved me. I had been reading Gaiman for nearly two decades, and yet I was overwhelmed anew by his gift for storytelling. I want that feeling again.

I want to wander into a bookstore and be surprised by the sight of a new book by him. I’d like to take it home and curl up with it without ever having heard a word about it. I need selfish me time to be alone with his stories before the whole world shares their very special feelings, and those perceptions start to bleed over into my own.

Maybe that’s too much to ask for. Or maybe it’s too much to receive, but I can still ask, and hope, and work to find that lovely old feeling again.


For more about Neil Gaiman, go here.

Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell

Do you ever read a book, or trip over it, really, and when you stand up it’s a day later and you can’t concentrate on any of the other things you thought you loved even though you can’t fully understand why? And somehow, that tripping hazard is gone, finished, but you’d rather it not be, and then you just laugh because the protagonist is a fangirl and it’s so unbelievably appropriate to feel this way that there’s nothing to do but laugh and gnash your teeth and wonder why your mouth tastes sort metallic and stale.

I’d never even heard of this book or this author, and her name is Rainbow, so I was all set to be annoyed, but then I couldn’t be because it was so loving and perfect and I’d never read anything else quite like it. Because yeah, a lot of my friends are Fans with a capital everything, and they were reading fic before the internet was even really a thing. They used to print out reams of it and share back and forth, awake all night long because otherwise one might accidentally spoiler the other, and I never understood it, but that’s because I was always busy writing my own fic in my head.

I just didn’t realize that’s what it was. The stories were always there after I finished a great book or movie, or if a show I watched disappointed me; they crowded into my head, waiting to be twisted around to something better. I didn’t know it made me a fangirl until maybe a year ago. Then I finally admitted it, but I felt like I’d come to the party so late that all I do was stand in the corner and watch other people do this thing better than me. It was like being back in a junior high gym class, but this time the jocks didn’t care; it was all about the sparkliest nerds loving each other, and I still felt as invisible as I was back then. New clique, and cliques still weren’t my thing.

I’ve always been more of a drifter, keeping the stories to myself, straying from the group because groups are loud and hard and exhausting. It’s easier to just have the stories and to have friends who tell me about their groups without my ever having to meet them. I like it that way, even though, yes of course I’m jealous, sometimes, that I wasn’t made in the right shape to fit into groups, but we can’t have everything and when it comes down to it, I’d rather have the stories.

And when I saw this book, I thought, she’ll never get it right. It will be a stereotype, and the girl will be forced to completely change for anyone to like her. She’ll have to give up living in one world to be a part of another, but then she doesn’t, and it made my heart so happy that I couldn’t do anything else but write this.  Because this book is sweet, and it’s funny, and I love how Rowell know that it really isn’t impossible to get the best of both worlds, even if it takes some juggling to get there.


For more about Rainbow Rowell, who has become my special unicorn of happiness in just twenty-four hours, click here.

Fated, Benedict Jacka

Mages like me aren’t common, but we aren’t as rare as you might think either. We look the same as anyone else, and if you passed one of us on the street, odds are you’d never know it. Only if you were very observant would you notice something a little off, a little strange, and by the time you took another look, we’d be gone.

It’s another world, hidden within your own, and most of those who live in it don’t like visitors. Those of us who do like visitors have to advertise, and it’s tricky to find a way of doing it that doesn’t make you sound crazy. The majority rely on word of mouth, though younger mages use the Internet. I’ve even heard of one guy in Chicago who advertises in the phone book under “Wizard,” though that’s probably an urban legend. (loc 78)

For the record, that “guy in Chicago” is Harry Dresden, my very favorite wizard (yes, he nudges Hermione Granger out of first by a hair’s breadth), and Jacka earned major points with me for that reference.

The man knows his audience, and I happen to think that’s a crucial part of a writer’s job. I used to get into huge, rambling discussions about this with one of my roommates in college. He was a screenwriter and just masochistic enough to allow me to critique his first drafts. (I always have to warn people who ask for my honest opinion when it comes to this sort of thing that as nice as I may seem, I’m vicious when it comes to the red pen. I’m a big fan of the up-down-up method of critique, but the down can be…prolonged.)

We went to a school that was best known for two (out of only six) majors – film and radio. The students from the radio department were some of the nicest, most hard-working people I’ve ever met, and they produced damn fine shows every week. The film students…well, I was mostly friends with film students, so I was privy to a lot of the drama that’s inevitable when so many big fish are removed from their small ponds and dumped into an ocean of talent. (Spoiler alert: it can get ugly.) I was lucky to fall in with a more down-to-earth crowd, and one of the elements that truly set them apart from their classmates was the ability to take criticism and actually create something better the next time around.

This roommate, in particular, thrived on pulling his work apart completely with me and rebuilding it into a story worth telling. One of the ideas we came around to again and again in this process was that the phrase “But I get what I was trying to say” should never be uttered in response to “This isn’t really making sense to me.” We both agreed that such an answer was where the creative process went to die. It was defensive and short-sighted, and the end result was never as good as it could have been.

He and I were exceptionally tough on each other when it came to that idea. We spent countless hours defining our respective audiences for every project, and then we considered who else we would want to reach if we could. It was the kind of exercise I didn’t fully appreciate in the moment, but when I think about the projects I choose now, I realize how critical those evaluations were. Benedict Jacka clearly knows his audience for the Alex Verus novels and some of the sharpest moments in this first book of the series are when he gives a nod to the writers who have come before him.

Jacka seems to realize he’s picking up new readers based, not on name recognition or white-hot fame, but on the cache of the insider. He makes it work for him, and although at times, I found myself wishing he would challenge himself to dig a little deeper, he certainly knows the urban fantasy trope inside and out. His characters are likable and fun, plagued though they may be by an overly sharp delineation between good and evil. While I’m planning to pick up the next book, I have to admit I’m hoping for more shading, for a subtly in character that the author is clearly capable of, if his plot is anything to go by.

He’s a solid writer, but I got the impression at times that he was so excited to get the story on the page he sacrificed some of the moments where we could have lingered meaningfully with the characters. I have that problem in movies and television all the time, but in a book, I feel like character development should never be squeezed by time constraints. I’ll be curious to see how he does in the next few installments; now that he’s set the scene, he has the opportunity to make this series better than the wink wink nudge nudge he does so well.


For more about Benedict Jacka, head over here.