Alice in Zombieland, Gena Showalter

I know we’re only two days away from a three-day long weekend, but the last week has been a real slog of post vacation blues. Usually this is a condition I suffer, at most, a day or so, but I have not been able to let go this time. I crave more sun! More family time! More hours to lazily read zombie novels while the waves crash at my feet!

Yes, while on vacation, I finished the two books I’d brought (unheard of!) and ended up downloading one at random from my Amazon wish list. As is the case with many of the titles collected there, I couldn’t remember where I had tagged it from or what it was about; all that mattered was that it looked like just the right level of popcorn fiction for the occasion at hand. Judging by the quick three-day turn around (read exclusively on beaches or while waiting for my turn to scrub sunscreen-cemented sand off), it was the right choice.

Now, this is not one of those books I’d blithely recommend to just anyone. First of all, it has a teen romance element I was neither expecting nor particularly enamored with. Secondly, it’s about zombies. Now, personally, I love a good zombie book. While I often find television and movie depictions of the genre too intense, I find the right novel, laced with a healthy dose of humor, to be intriguing. (For example, I’m more of a Shaun of the Dead fan than The Walking Dead.)

It’s not an area of fiction where I’ve generally found much traction. While vampires, werewolves, and otherworldly spirits have long dominated the shelves, zombies seem to continuously slip by on the reader popularity scale. I think I’ve only reviewed one other even remotely similar title here, and that was a few years back now. I’m certain some of you are genre aficionados and will be able to point me toward some great titles, but it still stands that as far as monster fiction goes, the pickings are rather slim.

It was with great joy, then, that I discovered Alice. Although the character is flawed in some very realistic adolescent ways, the writing was never less than compelling. The pacing was perfect for such a story, and even when I rolled my eyes at descriptions of muscle-bound teenage delinquent zombie hunters, I was also completely hooked. The kids Showalter was describing – burn outs and troublemakers and victims of great tragedies – did seem like the perfect army to fight the undead. They had that ideal combination of ridiculous unflagging energy and young bones that could take brutal beatings and realistically recover in a few days or weeks.

The end result was a guilty pleasure that practically had “vacation reading” stamped on the cover. I didn’t even have to break a sweat to finish this before we flew home, and it was the perfect companion to that brief bit of summer I glimpsed during this interminable winter.

 

For more about Gena Showalter and the White Rabbit Chronicles, head here.

The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

Way back when I started this blog, I wrote a review about the second book in Grossman’s Magician trilogy. It was one of those stories that ripped out my heart, mutilated it, then tried to shove it back into my chest in only a rough approximation of where it had originally been. It was that good (or bad, depending on how you want to look at it). Either way, it was one of those books I can’t bring myself to reread because it was too painful the first time, even though I often find myself thinking about it and recalling specific lines with a sort of perverse heartbreaking pleasure.

I was fortunate enough to discover the first two books in the trilogy through John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea” and of course read them back to back. I was surprised to find that the second was my favorite, since in general I find the middle book of a trilogy to be, at best, a placeholder, and at worst, a dull repetition of the first book.

I had two years to dwell on that second volume though, since Grossman didn’t publish his conclusion, The Magician’s Land, until early fall of this year. I thought I would tear right into my pre-ordered copy when it arrived in September, but I found myself putting it off again and again, strangely hesitant to reenter the world he had so lovingly created. I don’t know why I hesitated, but some part of me wasn’t ready. The end of the second book was just…well, I can’t quite explain it, but it stuck with me so deeply that it was nearly impossible to move into the end of the story. Let’s just say that I still get choked up when I think about that book, and reading the third one almost felt like a betrayal of what had come before.

I finally did it though. Christmas break turned out to be a good opportunity, especially given that the third book turned out to be a lot less devastating than the first two (not exactly holiday heart-warmers, I promise you that). I ended up reading it during breaks from family time and in the various airports we had to travel through, and I wonder if that stuttered timeline influenced my perception of the book. Grossman still writes a hell of a compelling story, it didn’t win me over nearly the way the first two did.

The biggest challenge seemed to be that the author himself was having a hard time saying goodbye to his world. It’s something I completely understand, and it actually makes me like Grossman even more than I did before, but it didn’t all come together for quite as powerful a conclusion as aI was expecting. Things were a little too easy for characters he had made suffer in the other books, and while I’m all for them catching a few breaks after everything they’d experienced, I wanted a little more of that pain he writes so beautifully.

I wonder what the experience would have been like if I’d been able to read all three of these volumes back to back. Hopefully, some of you will do it and let me know if I’m completely off-base with my interpretation of the final installment. Grossman is certainly a major talent, and his books are well-worth the emotional investment. Part of my problem is that I can’t tell if I set myself up with unrealistic expectations, or if he really did go a little too easy on his “children” this time around. The plot certainly filled in a lot of fascinating holes left in the first two books, and I enjoyed the story very much – I just did’t have that shot to to the heart reaction I was hoping for.

*As a side note, I do want to mention that these books contain material that may not be suitable for everyone. The second book, in particular, has a triggering scene so violent I still find it disturbing years later. The series is not, in general, overly violent or sexual in nature but I wouldn’t want to recommend these across the board without issuing this as a consideration.

 

For more about Lev Grossman, head over here.

Skin Game, Jim Butcher

Michael snorted. “You destroy buildings, fight monsters openly in the streets of the city, work with the police, show up in newspapers, advertise in the phone book, and ride zombie dinosaurs down Michigan Avenue, and you think that you work in the shadows? Be reasonable.” (p 267)

There are few things I love more than a new Dresden Files book. I have to give Jim Butcher major props too, because come spring, he delivers. I’ve been reading this series since 2007 (seven years after he began publishing stories about Harry Dresden), and although it’s painful to wait for the next volume after I finish a new one, it’s comforting to know I won’t be left hanging indefinitely. I cannot overstate how much I value consistency when it comes to a series I love.

An author can buy my affection for the low, low price of a great book written every year. Piece of cake, right? If you have a pact with the devil, maybe. Or you’re heavily into witchcraft. I suspect Jim Butcher of both. And I am fine with that. He works hard, and his books are such fun that even while my rational brain is applauding him for the grueling writing schedule he must have to keep, I never get the feeling it’s hard work – just the contrary. His style is sarcastic adventuring at its best, and it reads like he enjoys spending time in his version of Chicago more than the world outside of its pages.

I don’t know anything about Butcher’s personal life. I don’t where he lives, or whether he’s married or has kids. I’ve never seen him speak or read any interviews, and yet I’ve created a mental image of him after reading his books that informs my own work as a writer deeply. I greatly admire his work ethic. I don’t need to do more than look at the number of books he’s published to know that he lives by the adage “a writer writes.” I, like many writers, go through periods over the course of every year where I write more or less, and at the moment, I’m in one of those lulls that forces me to confront the fear that I’m not doing enough to prove myself in my field. When I read books by authors like Butcher, I’m humbled by his dedication to his characters, to his fans, and to his own desire to tell stories.

It’s such a beautiful thing to read books by writers who are clearly in love with writing. That creative fire ignites their work to create spectacular energy on every page; Butcher is the kind of writer who stokes that fire for all its worth. He could just as easily fall back on the great novels he’s written in the past, but instead, he breathes new life into his characters with every book. When I finished Skin Game, I was reminded again of the joy that lies beneath his stories. It’s a feeling that makes me wish I had time to go back and reread the series every year. I could easily live in Dresden’s universe for months at a time, and the most butt-kicking part of realizing that is that knowledge I should take as much pleasure from my own fictional worlds as I do the ones created for my enjoyment…

 

For more about Jim Butcher, go 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.

Salsa Nocturna Stories, Daniel José Older

I have gotten to the point where I can no longer say I’m iffy about short stories. I’ve always loved them, but novels take up so much more space in my brain that I forget how great they can be every. single. time.

It’s not the worse problem to have, of course – a terrible memory means I get to experience that unexpected burst of joy whenever I venture into short story territory. I’m not even picky about genre the way I am with longer books, I suspect because a short story is so much less of a commitment. I can read it in two or five or thirty minutes, and if it wasn’t my favorite, no great loss. I’m not emotionally over-investing, so I have a lot of leeway for experimentation.

Older’s stories fall into the urban fantasy category, and since I wasn’t expecting that when I got the book from my mother, it turned out to be a lovely surprise. While I’m willing to read just about anything under ten pages, the special place in my heart where urban fantasy lives is absolutely infinite. I just devoured this book, with its sweet, interconnected character arcs, each story building on the delicate tales that had come before.

The author manages to capture a New York City that is almost tastable. The overly sweetened coffee with unfiltered cigarettes, cologne masking sweat, rot and the sewer rushes – it all blends together to create a space on the edge of life and death in one of the world’s most vibrant cities. He sweeps the unbelievable in with the want-to-haves, writes friendships as tough as his characters are fragile. Older hovers in the margins of the city, and in doing so, casts his spell over any reader who has been there herself.

He doesn’t shy away from horror, but underneath the creepiness, his gentler heart shines through. He is an optimist, at least on the page, and his characters reflect a kind of friendly hopefulness that seems to run counter to the horrific settings they find themselves in. The balance worked for me though – too much terror and I wouldn’t have made it through the second story, too much light and I would question the true shape of his created world. Swaying in between the extremes, his stories found my happy place and took up residency there.

 

For more about Daniel José Older, head over here.

Libriomancer, Jim Hines

I’ve been meaning to read a book by Jim Hines for about nine months now, ever since I saw him competing with John Scalzi in a fantasy cover pose-off for charity (not his first time doing such a thing, but the first I’d been aware of it via Scalzi’s Whatever). Since then, he seems to be everywhere, defending the rights of women to be geeks, defending the rights of geeks to like whatever they want to like, and defending his own right to say and do whatever he wants in support of these things.  All the stories I’ve heard about him have been delightful, and when it comes right down to it, nothing makes me want to read more than liking the person behind the story.

I’ve discovered that when I know a little more about an author, when I’ve heard about his or her life, I’m inclined to like the book just that much more.  It’s especially important now that the internet is a thing; when I was a kid, I probably read and enjoyed books by all sorts of simply terrible people, and I never had a clue. That was fine. I didn’t have immediate access to blog posts, tweets, or Wikipedia pages for essentially every author I read, and maybe it was better that way.

Who am I kidding? Of course it was better. I read so much more before the internet and all of its distractions! I didn’t know terrible things about writers whose books I love! I didn’t have deep existential debates over nearly as many authors because I was too busy stuffing myself with delicious stories!

And yet, the internet has its uses, doesn’t it? For example, through this blog, I’ve been able to at least tangentially connect with almost 9000 people who love books with a passion kindred to my own. I also hear about and buy books with an abandon that borders on disturbing. Thank God for ebooks, which I basically treat as another limb, and for sites that recommend people like Hines – authors perfectly suited to my taste because, well, the internet is equipped to do such a thing.

Alright, so the internet is brilliant, and it also drives me crazy, so I guess that makes me…normal? I get distracted by it, but then it leads me to a sweet, funny, wonderful urban fantasy like Libriomancer and I get all excited all over again. I like that with a couple clicks, I can find out what conventions Hines goes to, or that the first few chapters of the sequel to Libriomancer is available for free on his website. It makes me happy to know I bought a book in support of a nice guy who tries to make a difference in his community of fans, and I think it’s great the internet is a powerful tool for him to speak out when things happen in that community that upset him.

I don’t know how great an effect such knowledge had on me when it comes to enjoying his novel. I already love the genre he writes in, and I’ve always had a soft spot for funny, bumbling protagonists, so if I had come across this book in a store, I’m sure I would have bought it and enjoyed his work because he tells a good story in a way I like to hear it told. It doesn’t hurt though, that in this case, the internet played the part of an excellent librarian, or a friend with complimentary reading taste. I don’t get recs from either type of person very often anymore, so the ability to discover new authors hinges, more than I’d ideally like, on this massive web of information.

 

If you find yourself craving more about Jim C Hines work, check out his site (and its free samples) here.

City of Bones (part the second), Cassandra Clare

This isn’t going to be a completely spoiler-filled post, but as a person who hates to be ruined for a book  I haven’t read, I feel obliged to warn you that it crosses into spoiler territory. I won’t tell you what happens (past a few plot points in the first two or three chapters), but I do want to talk about some of the emotional choices made by the protagonist, and if that will ruin a book you potentially want to read, stop here.

* * *

If you’re still with me, I’m going to assume you’ve read the book/don’t mind spoilers/don’t plan to read it, and I’ll dive right in to what I see as the greatest disappointment to an otherwise enjoyable fantasy adventure. The protagonist, Clary Fray, is a fifteen year old girl and the daughter of a widow. At the beginning of the book, it is well-established that she has a tempestuous relationship with her mother. The exchanges we see between them are limited to heated arguments and misunderstandings – a relatively believable situation that I’m sure many people can relate to. Within the first few chapters, Clary’s mother disappears under violent circumstances, and the rest of the plot is put into motion. Clary, unsure whether he mother is even still alive, is determined to rescue her.

With what resources would a fifteen year old girl go about this? This is an urban fantasy, so we know the police will not be involved (not when they would immediately contact social services and remove Clary from any further investigation). No, Clary – with absolutely no information besides a panicked phone call from her mother, disconnected moments after she tells her daughter to stay away from their apartment at all costs; a second call to the closest thing she has to a father figure, who tells her to never to contact him again; and the appearance of a beautiful, seemingly magical (and broodingly handsome) boy she met one night earlier – decides she’s going to find her (potentially alive but certainly in terrible danger) mother herself.

I actually wouldn’t have a problem with this if it weren’t for what followed. I have no difficulty suspending my disbelief in the possibility of a teenager succeeding whether countless other adults with more experience have failed (and died). I was raised on a steady diet of books just like this with protagonists even younger, facing even greater odd. It’s exhilarating to tout the talents of young people – their ingenuity, bravery, and occasional ignorance of the shades of grey existing between moral absolutes. Books like that inspire hope and batter at the idea that children are less capable, when really, it is only that they have less experience to temper their natural abilities.

The problem for me is not the idea of a girl with zero resources facing down a brutal villain in a world she barely understands; it’s not even that Clary is distracted by her position in a love triangle (oh, if only I had a nickel for every love triangle I – or anyone I knew – faced at fifteen…I would have, maybe, seven cents…). Those are both standard for the genre. No, the two things I find unbelievable are 1. how little consideration any plan of attack is given (by all means, token adult, allow these teenagers to throw themselves into incredibly dangerous situations without the slightest protest or backup plan) and 2. how very little time is given to the relationship between Clary and her mother after the disappearance.

The first point annoys me, but knowing how brilliantly sneaky real teenagers are at getting away with far less dangerous plans they have their hearts set on, I can cut the plot a little slack. I would like to believe that the gorgeous but also well-trained man-child Clary meets in the first chapter would have spent some time studying strategy during his life-long tutoring to become a demon-hunter, but, you know, hormones, or something. The guys I knew at fifteen, well, they were incredibly smart, but they often seemed clueless about manipulation and planning. Only those on the extreme ends of the spectrum (uber-geeks and jocks) spent much time considering strategy on any level. My female friends, on the other hand, strategized about everything; often, it felt like living inside a critical game Risk. So sure, I can buy that Jace would barrel headlong into dire situations, and perhaps that Clary would follow him in that embarrassing way that most of us, regardless of gender, can remember doing from time to time when feeling both smitten and emotionally vulnerable. I get it. I don’t love it, but I understand.

The element I cannot reconcile, however, is the relationship (or lack thereof) between Clary and her mother, Jocelyn. They fight, sure. We are made to understand the Clary feels intimidated by her mother’s beauty and talent, and that they maintain a relatively distant relationship with each other. We never learn enough about Jocelyn from her own perspective to understand this, and Clary’s feelings are so scattered that it’s impossible to get a solid read on their history from her.

Surprisingly, I don’t doubt that she loves her mother, despite their difficult relationship, but I never get the feeling that she needs her. Clary spends a few sentences worth of time right after the disappearance crying over it, and then we never get another moment of genuine grief or acknowledgement about what it would mean for her if her mother was dead. We see some anger, and we see her steadfastly pushing forward to find Jocelyn, but it mostly feels robotic. Clary’s more energized by the pain inflicted on the boy she’s known for a week than she is by what has happened to the woman who raised her.

Even that could be legitimate if I were certain Clary and Jocelyn had only a cursory relationship with each other, but that’s never made clear. Honestly, I know people who hate their mothers who still would be deeply affected by a situation like this, if only because, regardless of the relationship, the bond between parent and child has a tremendous capacity for both joy and pain. The rarest thing to evolve in a family is true indifference. Indifference masking disappointment, frustration, abuse or abandonment? Certainly. But complete apathy? It may happen, but I personally haven’t witnessed it. And regardless of the potential for indifference, that isn’t what’s insinuated in the book. The author wants us to believe that Clary and her mother are…something to each other. Maybe she doesn’t even know what they’re meant to be or what their history is, and as a result, as a reader, I got increasingly frustrated.

If it were my mother, who admittedly, I’m very close to, who had gone missing and was potentially dead, the rage, despair, and fear I felt would eclipse everything else. If I had moments of relief or rest, they would be followed closely by unbearable anguish. I would be thinking of heroics, revenge, and my own future, in that order. If a cute boy happened to appear to help me, great. Maybe after we saved my mother, I would have time to appreciate that fact. Maybe, in a moment of terrible loneliness, I would even choose to bury the pain and (given age-appropriate conditions) make out with said boy; after which, I would feel incredibly guilty that I had allowed myself to do such a thing when my mother was in mortal danger.

There is just so much potential for angst and savior complexes here, and it goes completely unmined! This kind of story was made for character-building agony! I don’t understand how a writer who came up through the ranks of fan fiction could possibly miss the opportunity to torture her characters. There’s no doubt in my mind that the resolution would be much more satisfying if Clary had suffered more along the way. Clare sets up an interesting premise, and she creates a vivid world for her characters to play in, but ultimately, I needed her to commit to the pain.