Book Review: The Silence of the Lambs

silencelambsI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

I have hinted at this in other reviews, but I will say it now directly: horror and I do not get along. When I was a kid, if I saw a horror movie by accident, I wouldn’t sleep for weeks. Thankfully, as an adult, my tolerance for horror books seems to have grown (I can read Stephen King without too much trouble), but still, I was decidedly trepidatious about reading the notorious Silence of the Lambs. Why did I read it? To see if I could. Will I be seeing the movie? No. No I will not.

Silence of the Lambs is equal parts gory suspense-thriller and police procedural drama. FBI trainee Clarice Starling has been sent on what is almost certainly a fool’s errand–to visit Dr. Hannibal Lector, imprisoned serial killer and cannibal, and see if he is willing to talk to her. The FBI is trying to build a database of profiles of serial killers, and for obvious reasons they want the database to include Lector. Lector doesn’t fill out the questionnaire. Instead he does something that is, at first, inexplicable: He tells Starling that there is a Valentine’s Day gift for her in the car of one of his victims. And so it begins, this cat-and-mouse between murderer and student, and it’s hard to tell who in the relationship is in control, especially when Starling’s interviews with Lector pull her into an investigation to capture an active murderer. Lector speaks in riddles and hints, so the action, while generally straightforward, is never predictable. And to my fellow horror-phobics: though the action ramps steadily upward, the horror doesn’t really; if you can get through the first ten chapters, you can probably get through all the way to the end.

The most surprising aspect of the book for me was Thomas Harris’ prose, which can be unexpectedly beautiful and affecting in a way that very, very few suspense novelists are. There is a moment, near the beginning, after Clarice Starling has seen the body of a murder victim. Any cop’s first body is bad enough (so I’m told), let alone one that’s been murdered as savagely as this woman has. Harris describes Starling’s reaction thus:

“In her life she had seen some of the hideously offhand ways in which the world breaks things. But she hadn’t really known, and now she knew…The knowledge would lie against her skin forever, and she knew she had to form a callous or it would wear her through.”

The knowledge lies against your skin, and you must form a callous or it’ll wear you through. That’s the most beautiful way to describe a most horrible thing.

Oh, and if you were wondering, the scariest moment in the whole book?

When the lights go out.

Book Review: S.

sI first reviewed this book on my Goodreads page over here.

THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD.

I’m actually only halfway through. So I don’t have much to tell you. And it’s one of those books where you don’t want to give anything away. But I’m more absorbed in this book than in any book I’ve read for a long time. SO GOOD.

***FIVE DAYS LATER***

ahem. Okay, I’ve finished the book now.

The reason for the squealing of awesomeness above has to do both with what a different book S. is as well as how good it is (both in terms of its technical construction and it’s plot/likability/that ineffable thing that makes us label books “good”). In case you haven’t heard of it, S. is two stories within one book. The first story is The Ships of Theseus, purportedly written in the 1940s, a symbolic/metaphorical retelling of the labor and Communist movements in Europe (as well as….other things). The physical book itself has been published to look like a library edition of The Ships of Theseus.The other story, which is handwritten in the margins of The Ships of Theseus, is of two college students writing notes, passing the book back and forth between them–notes about the book, the mysterious author V.M. Straka, and their own lives. The book also contains numerous inserts–longer letters and postcards, maps, newspaper articles, decoder wheels–that Eric and Jen (the college students) share with each other (I would be remiss at this moment if I didn’t beg of you, dear library patron, please try very hard to not lose these inserts).

You will almost certainly like one story better than the other, and there will be times when one is more exciting than the other (in the best parts of the book, the two stories trade off between who’s being exciting and who isn’t), and that’s okay. But it’s important to read–and pay attention to–both stories. (The Margin Story, since it’s told out of order, is harder to keep track of, but also simpler.) It would’ve been easy to sacrifice one story in service to the other, but Doug Dorst resists this temptation and gives full service to both.

This is not a book to read in fits and snatches, here and there, on short bus rides or quick waits in the doctor’s office (and not just because a catch-as-catch-can strategy makes you more likely to lose inserts). No, to fully appreciate this book, you need to put on a pair of comfy pajama pants and some wool socks, make some tea (or some coffee, or some hot chocolate with some Bailey’s in it), clear a couple of hours off of your calendar, put your smartphone in the other room, and sit down and just read. When is the last time a book commanded your entire attention? When is the last time a book really challenged you, not Dostoyevsky-challenging, or frustrating-challenging, but one that makes you work, just enough to make it more fun, to make sure you’re getting all the details and aren’t missing anything? Don’t you miss that? Don’t you want that back? I didn’t even realized that that was something I missed until I started reading S., and it demanded that I read it this way.

That said, if you like your stories direct; if you like the line of the plot to be, not predictable, but to at least proceed forward in a straight line; if you like at least knowing what the characters in a book are trying to do; this may not be a book for you. This book is indirect, and it meanders, and it can be hard to tell which details are important to remember and which aren’t (this is especially true of the Margin Story). It doesn’t build to a big final climax or moment of truth (which is not to say that I didn’t find the ending satisfying). If you need your stories to be concise and cohesive, this book might just be a slog to get through, and seem pointless. You need to be okay with narrative ambiguity. (On the other hand, if you asked me as a reader if I like my stories direct, cohesive, and concise with clear narrative goals, I would tell you that yes I do. And I loved this book. So maybe give yourself a chance either way.)

S. is getting huge amounts of publicity, largely because of its format. Time will tell whether the book is just a gimmick or whether it stands up on its own feet after its shiny unusualness wears off a bit. I’ll have to read it again in six months or so and see if I still like it as much in the future as I do now, in some awe of its uniqueness and strangeness. If that happens, I’ll come back and amend the review again. But for now? Loved it. Loved. It.

Book Review: Bossypants

bossypantsI first reviewed this book on my Goodreads account over here.

I have a confession. It’s something that distanced me from my peers in middle school, and interfered with my ability to make friends. It’s not something that I tell a lot of people.

I don’t really like Saturday Night Live. It’s possible that I straight up don’t like it at all. There have been some funny skits here and there, but it’s largely just uninteresting to me. I feel the same way about all of the movies that have been made by and with SNL alum, including anything with Will Ferrell, Chris Farley, or Adam Sandler. I also have no use for South Park, which my friends have all been obsessed with since middle school.

Lest you think I completely hate fun, I assure you that I do watch and love and quote The Simpsons like any self-respecting Millennial.

At some point, though, somebody forced me to sit down and watch 30 Rock and, to my enormous surprise, I liked it. It’s clever and funny and random, but most of all, good-hearted. It’s not a mean show. So, I watch 30 Rock and The Office and maybe one of these days I’ll take a chance on The Mindy Project and then I will have comedy mojo.

None of that is why I picked up Bossypants, though. I picked up Bossypants because Buzzfeed.com put it in a list of “65 Books You Need To Read In Your 20s,” and I’d gotten all the way to age 31 without reading most of them, and was concerned that maybe I had missed something important. Other than cultural literacy, I mean.

I admit I didn’t like Bossypants much at first. I wasn’t opposed, didn’t dislike it, but didn’t respond to it. But it grew on me. I think most of this is just that I’m plain more interested in Tina Fey’s adulthood and current philosophies than I am with anything that she did as a child. But the other part is the we never really hear from Childhood Tina. We hear from Adult Tina, talking in Adult Tina’s voice, about Childhood Tina. And as a result, I didn’t feel like I knew Childhood Tina very well, and didn’t really care much when she got left behind and we transitioned to Adult Tina. In the latter half of the book, we get to hear both from Adult Tina and about Adult Tina, and the whole character of the narrative changes for the better. Also, I’m a sucker for behind-the-scenes looks at TV shows and movies and things (I am the person who always listens to DVD audio commentary and watches the “Making Of” featurette). It also just started being funnier as her voice grew on me–right around the time when, to preserve his anonymity, Fey gives her husband a different alias every time he’s mentioned in the chapter about their honeymoon. (Conversely, she refers to her daughter as “my daughter” through 80% of the book, and then starts suddenly referring to her by name with no qualifying introduction, so keep that in mind and just make the inference you think you should be making.) I also appreciated her advice, specifically: if you are put in charge of hiring creative people and you need to work with those people for 80 hours a week, pick the people who are least likely to go crazy and punch you in the face (related: If you’re hoping to get hired to do something creative for 80 hours a week, don’t come across as the kind of person who will go crazy and start punching people in the face. You may be a genius, but that doesn’t matter once you start hitting).

There is also a word that you should remember: blorft. It means “Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.” Thank you, Tina Fey, for giving a name to that feeling, for that I will be forever grateful.

So. Life changing? Nah. Best book ever? Not really (even if I’d been a huge Tina Fey or SNL fan going in, I don’t think that I would think that). Worth reading? Sure. Funny? Yes.

Book Review: Seraphina

seraphinaI first reviewed this book on my Goodreads account over here.

Here’s the thing about fantasy: It is so dominated by JRR Tolkien (who, in turn, was heavily influenced by European mythology–English, Norse, and Celtic, most notably) that you can sometimes forget that there’s space for anything else. Dwarves and orcs and elves and men. Dragons and unicorns. There may be minor variations (i.e., Robert Jordan and his trollocs), but for the most part, no matter who writes the fantasy, a dragon is a dragon is a dragon.

Unless you’re Rachel Hartman.

When is a dragon not a dragon?

When he folds himself up into the shape of a human, and lives in a human city.

Honestly, that should be enough to make you read the book, I think. Dragons that attempt (and mostly fail, unless they’ve been doing it for a very long time) to pass as humans. But Hartman’s prose is also both beautiful and subtle, descriptive and poetic without being overly flowery. Wanting to figure out Seraphina’s world and how it works will pull you in, but the plot keeps you going until the end. This is such a unique and creative novel, even if you don’t like fantasy (perhaps especially if you don’t like fantasy because it all sounds like JRR Tolkien to you), it’s worth trying this book. The biggest problem with this book is that the sequel (of course there’s a sequel, it’s a fantasy novel, after all) doesn’t come out until 2015.

It got me thinking, too, without ever being didactic about its themes. It makes you think about trust, between individuals and between cultures. About xenopobia. About how we accommodate (or fail to accommodate) people in our society who are different, and about how hard we try (or don’t try at all) to communicate with people that we don’t understand. And about what we lose, as a society, as humanity, when we fall into the traps of distrust and xenophobia and the rejection of difference.

There were times when the plot felt a little too plotted; when characters have revelations or realize things just at exactly the right moment. Hartman throws a lot of balls into the air and doesn’t always do full justice to all of them, and the cast of characters is large and (for me) somewhat confusing (there is a glossary in the back, which I didn’t realize was there until I finished the book, but there you go). But that’s small potatoes. This is Hartman’s debut novel. Which is completely insane to me. I hope she writes more–not just finishes out the story of Seraphina, but takes us to other worlds too. I’d love to see through her eyes more.

Book Review: Valdez is Coming

valdez I first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.
If you know anything about Elmore Leonard’s style, you’ve probably been told one of two things: His prose is “spare,” and the way he writes dialogue is beyond compare (him and Mark Twain. They can listen to people, and write the way people talk–a deceptively difficult skill to master). Leonard’s dislike of adverbs, of any speech attribution other than “said,” of prologues–of any superfluous words–has been well and truly immortalized in his 10 Rules of Writing that he wrote for the New York Times in 2001. (You know you are indelibly associated with something when The Onion uses it as the basis for your obituary.)

What the ten rules boil down to is this: every single word that Elmore Leonard uses moves the story forward. He wastes nothing. He gives nothing away, either: he may tell you what a character is thinking, but he will never tell you what a character is planning. He may tell you what a character’s doing, in which case he doesn’t feel the need to tell you what the character’s thinking. He doesn’t waste time setting scenes or describing landscapes, unless you need to know what the landscape looks like, in which case he tells you in the fewest possible words. He reminds me of Dashiell Hammett and other mid-century male crime/noir authors–stories where Men Are Men, Actions Are Self-Explanatory, and If You Can’t Follow Along You’re Not Paying Enough Attention. Even if you don’t like Westerns or crime novels, if you like to observe different authors’ styles, you could do much worse than checking out Elmore Leonard.

So. Valdez is Coming. In a small Arizona town, the town constable (Valdez) has killed an innocent man. When he tries to get the town to make amends, he’s beaten and mocked.

And then the town finds out what Valdez–who has lived in their midst for ten years, but who nobody really knows–is capable of.

It’s a deceptively simple tale with a very easy premise. Leonard probably could have told it as a short story, rather than a novel, if he’d had a mind to. But when you read it, with Leonard’s trademark taciturnity, with no words wasted, you know that the story is exactly as long as it needs to be. Ironically, it is because the prose is so spare that the story gets away with being as long as it is (in the hands of a lesser author, like me for example, it would’ve bogged down and gotten completely boring and lagging in the middle, and I would’ve been justifiably critized for putting in too much narrative padding). And it is Leonard’s disinclination to over-explain that keeps the climax of the book a surprise for the reader, even though you suspect all along what the ending will be or must be (this is a Western, after all, there’s only a few ways it could end).

So yes. You should read this book. It’s not just a good story, but it’s a story told by a master, a guy who managed to simultaneously impress book critics and literature professors and ordinary readers. I will be finding more Elmore Leonard to fill my life.

Book Review: Beka Cooper

bekacooperI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

From the book jacket: “Beka Cooper is a rookie with the law-enforcing Provost’s Guard, and she’s been assigned to the Lower City. It’s a tough beat that’s about to get tougher, as Beka’s limited ability to communicate with the dead clues her in to an underworld conspiracy. Someone close to Beka is using dark magic to profit from the Lower City’s criminal enterprises–and the result is a crime wave the likes of which the Provost’s Guard has never seen before.”

As much as I like fantasy, I’d never read any Tamora Pierce before. Just as well, since I understand that this book is a bit of a departure from her usual stories in style and setting (though it takes place in the same universe as some of her other books). I was prepared for this to be somewhat formulaic and ordinary–the book jacket description, after all, doesn’t give credit to Ms. Pierce and what a good writer she can be.

First off, I really like the character of Beka Cooper. She likes to be physically active, and will, someday, make a good cop (“Dog” in the parlance of the book). But she’s shy, painfully shy, and it interferes both with her work and her ability to make friends. And I can’t think of a lot of other literary characters who have that trait (at least, none who don’t overcome their shyness over the course of the story, or who get around their shyness by staying strictly within circles and situations where it doesn’t come into play). For Beka, being shy is a thing that is there with her all of the time. She has to be twice as good a Dog in other areas (she’s a really good fighter, and she’s smart) to make up for her inability to talk to people. Anyone who’s spent a lifetime being shy knows how this is.

It’s Beka’s first week on the job, and she stumbles into evidence of…well, we’ll say “organized crime,” and leave it at that. It might be stretching the bounds of credulity to believe that the most rookie of rookies can pull off an investigation like Beka does, but Pierce does a pretty good job of establishing Beka as a character capable of such a thing (and also of making the investigation a collaborative effort, which also helps to keep the story from breaking the bonds of the credible). There’s characters to meet and murders to solve and fights to fight and criminals to arrest and pigeons to talk to. What more could you want from a fantasy novel?

I listened to the audiobook version, so a moment about that specifically: It’s well read. I mean, really well read, by Susan Denaker. The Lower City, where the story takes place, has its own syntax and slang and way of speaking (and, because it’s written as Beka Cooper’s journal, this language is throughout the whole book, not just the dialogue), and Ms. Denaker gives the voice of the Lower City life and heart. Just as different classes of British citizenry have different accents, so do the classes in the Lower City, and Ms. Denaker is able to shift between them. I got brought into the book in spite of myself. Well-produced and well-performed audio book.

Not-so-great things about the audiobook: Really, the only thing is that, since this is a story that takes place in a whole nother world with other vocabulary, names, and places, it can be hard (especially if you’re a touch hard-of-hearing like me, or if you’re listening to the book in a noisy place like on a bus) to understand proper nouns. There’s a lot to keep track of, and since you’re listening to it, you can’t easily go back and refer to previous passages and check your understanding. The print version of the book has a map, glossary, and a list of characters, all of which would’ve been enormously helpful for me to have to refer to in the audio version. This isn’t really so much of a problem with this audiobook in particular as it is a weak spot of audio books generally, but there you go. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to look at the character list in the print version before you get started, to learn how all the names are spelled.

Book Review: Rose Madder by Stephen King

rosemadderI first posted this review on my Goodreads account over here.

Of all of the scary, supernatural subject matter that Stephen King is (in)famous for–haunted hotels, psychic/telekinetic/pyrokinetic children, demonic clowns from the Macroverse, sinister aliens, rabid dogs, vampires, possessed cars–what scares me the most about his novels are the twisted, hellacious things that his human characters occasionally do to each other. Particularly parental figures (Margaret White, Annie Wilkes, Jack Torrance, Andrew Landon in Lisey’s Story, to name but a few) and husbands. (I don’t like to psychoanalyze authors based on the fictional stories they create, but jeezum crow, Stephen King, what did childhood do to you?) Rose Madder’s antagonist, abusive husband Norman Daniels, might be one of the creepiest, most tangible, most violently scary villains King has ever come up with. Let’s just say that you won’t ever look at a tennis racket the same way again.

(This is supposed to be a review of the book, not the audiobook, so of the audiobook I will simply say: 1. I have half a theory that the reason Stephen King narrated Norman Daniels’ chapters himself is because there wasn’t a male voice actor in all of the country who was willing to become such a despicable person, and 2. Don’t listen to the audio book out in public if you have one of those faces that will give away your reaction to what you’re listening to. Strangers on the street will think you’re looking at them funny.)

So, first: trigger warning. Like CAPITAL LETTERS trigger warning. If you have any experience with domestic violence, this may be a hard or impossible book for you to read (though it could also be redemptive: Norman Daniels gets his comeuppance in a way that few real-life abusers do). Anyone who’s read any Stephen King knows that he doesn’t pull any punches, but describes things in extreme, close up, totally gorey and horrifying detail (and honestly, knowing that Stephen King does this makes Rose Madder even more horrifying in the very beginning, before anything even happens, because you know something’s going to happen and it’s going to be bad).

The only thing that really aggravated me about this book is that nothing truly supernatural happens until halfway through, and by that time, I felt so established in the non-supernatural world that the appearance of the [spoiler redacted] felt machinated and random. I’d become convinced that Rose was going to find her way out of her situation through the strength of her own resourcefulness and the community she’d found, and getting there by [spoiler redacted] felt like cheating. (I’m told by the Internetz that the [spoiler redacted] is a thing that appears in some of King’s other novels, too, so if I’d read those novels maybe it wouldn’t have felt so random.) On the other hand, though, the [spoiler redacted] enables Rose to truly escape from Norm without having to sacrifice her own humanity or essential gentleness as a person, which is a nice turn of events–one that other King characters, like Wendy Torrance, would probably have appreciated having a chance at. One of the things that Rose does, when she sets out to survive, is not just survive in the physical sense, but to survive emotionally and mentally–to not let her marriage to Norm poison the rest of her life after she’s walked out. And she’s able to do that, in ways big and small. She’s able to rewrite her own internal narrative, wiping out the narrative that Norm had written for her, and that transformation that she goes through is almost as satisfying as watching what happens to Norm.

Rose Madder really is Stephen King near the top of his game as a writer (and though I avoided him out of my general dislike of both horror and novels available in grocery stores for most of my life, I’m gaining a reluctant admiration of him). We get to know Rosie slowly, as she gets to know herself and who she is when not completely dominated by Norman. Norman is almost cartoonishly evil, a terrible person on every possible level (seriously, there’s no way this character won’t disgust and horrify you). Since I’ve already made a few comparisons to The Shining, I’ll make another: Jack Torrance had redemptive characteristics, and was never totally evil, and that was part of the tragedy of his undoing throughout The Shining. Norman has no redemptive characteristics, but that’s okay, because this book isn’t about him. It’s about Rose, and to give more time to plumbing the depths of Norman’s psychosis to find the sad, scared little boy at the middle would somehow feels disrespectful to her and all the horrors that she’s been through. And besides–his lack of redeeming qualities just makes it that much more satisfying when you get to the end and he [redacted].