Category Archives: recommended reads

The Fault in Our Stars (John Green) 5

fault in our starsBack when I sent Looking for Alaska to Rejectville, I wrote off John Green as a half-talented, Gladwellian media darling.  When my book club decided to read The Fault in Our Stars, which is about two kids with cancer falling in love (/vomit), I was going to just read the Kindle sample for free and call it a day.

Except that the first chapter is weirdly good.

And then the rest of it continues to be weirdly good.

The story is about Hazel, a 16-year-old girl who likes to watch trashy TV on bad days.  Most of Hazel’s days are bad; she’s had terminal cancer for three years and counting.

Hazel carts around her oxygen tank and puts words in just the right places.  Here’s Hazel narrating her kids-with-cancer support group: “Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out.  Then, if it likes you, it takes the rest.”  About twenty minutes later: “I think he’s hurting her boob.”

I don’t know if this book will make you cry (some of you are bastards), but I’d bet my hard-earned cash that it will make you laugh.  Laughter: the secret ingredient of the most effective tragedies, the soft rain that penetrates your tarmac so that ice will crack you in half when winter comes.

And winter, it comes.

Honestly, after Looking for Alaska, I was anxious that John Green might go cheap into that good night.  I half-expected him to climb up the center stage of the Great Mortal Dilemma, panic, and make an undignified dash for the exit while I politely averted my eyes.  Instead, Green stands that stage and gives the eulogy of every lifetime: There are an infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1, and although there may be a larger infinity between 0 and 2, or 0 and 1000, the infinity between 0 and 1 is still infinite.  It’s enough room to fill with meaning; it has to be.

Whether we live 0 to 1, like Hazel and her love, or 0 to some other fragile single digit, the set is always both bounded and infinite.  Pain demands to be felt, and the world is not a wish-granting factory.

UPDATE: The author has a “secret” Tumblr where he answers people’s questions from the book. (Password: Darnielle)


When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead) 5*

when you reach meI’d heard it was about some time-traveling kids, so I was expecting light adventure fare, not an emotional undertow that takes you out to sea.  In real life, I’ve shelved this next to The Westing Game.

Miranda is a kid in New York in the 1970’s.  Public schools had kids from different economic backgrounds back then, and sixth graders were allowed to leave school grounds for lunch.  It’s true that there are time travel shenanigans, but for the most part, time’s arrow moves only forward: Miranda is growing up.

Like The Hunger Games (where the outermost ring of the story is that readers will inevitably swoon over the love story instead of the social message), time travel in When You Reach Me reaches beyond the page. Miranda’s world — the walks up and down Amsterdam Ave., the lady at the corner store who lets Miranda help after school, the crazy sandwich shop guy, her friend’s yuppie parents, and her best best best friend who has mysteriously rejected her — is the real time travel.  Stead folds space and time and takes us to old New York, and then she folds space and time and makes us twelve years old.

Which means Rebecca Stead has discovered the tesseract.

Ashfall (Mike Mullin) 4*

ashfallAfter last year’s very special week of earthquake + hurricane here in DC, I put together an emergency bag in my hall closet.  It contains my passport, cash, handwritten contact list, a detailed map, a bottle of bleach for water purification (12 drops per gallon, folks), a bigass hunting knife with compass and firesteel in the handle, mylar emergency blankets, hand-powered radio and flashlights, instructions for building a solar oven, and assorted other usefuls.

Sadly, this book has made me realize that I’m going to get killed and eaten by cannibals despite the contents of my hall closet.

Ashfall basically inhabits the world of The Road, except that the characters have names, the cataclysm has a realistic explanation, and the reader has a reason to enjoy the story.  This was one of those books that grew on me as I read it.  Mullin takes care to show humanity in all its postures, and he has a real talent for sketching memorable minor characters.  With just a few telling details, we feel the menace of the escaped convict, the exhaustion of the small-town mayor, the compassionate fury of a rescue worker, and the hard-nosed determination of a gun-toting librarian.

When the entire world has become a trauma ward, it can be hard for any particular loss to stand out, but Ashfall finds the nooks and nuances of grief.  All the characters in the book, even the little kids, know that pragmatism should crowd out grief — that there is simply no time for the soft stuff when survival is at stake — yet grief is as unyielding and indiscriminate as the ash that covers the whole world.  Darla, the smartest and most capable character in this book, never stops moving, but in the grip of grief she becomes a smart and capable person who needs a live rabbit as an emotional crutch.  Yes, she needs a rabbit.  It’s absurd, and it’s believable, and it’s real.

Horns (Joe Hill) 4*

horns“Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things,”  says the first line.  When Ig wakes up with horns on his head, his girlfriend doesn’t seem to see them, yet she stares.

And then she says strange and terrible things.  The horns trigger unexpected honesty in everyone who (doesn’t) see them, and soon Ig is up to his pointy chin in other people’s secrets.  Grandmothers and little kids tell him their ugliest temptations, and he can’t shut them up.

Even worse, everyone tells Ig what they really think about Ig.  It turns out that the whole town thinks Ig murdered his ex-girlfriend.  If the menfolk had any testicles, says Ig’s priest, they’d have lynched Ig properly.  Not even Ig’s mother believes his innocence.  She wants to write Ig a nice letter, on her nicest stationery, explaining that she loves Ig very much and wants him to go away and never come back.

Ig’s father says something much worse.

Horns is stabbingly funny as it flirts with the ugly and the sublime; Flannery O’Connor on acid.  Someone will have to read it and tell me what Hill has repurposed the cross to symbolize, though.  There’s light and dark and crosses all ticking like Morse code (and there’s Morse code too), and there’s something Hill said that I didn’t quite catch.

Heat (R. Lee Smith) 3.5*

heatOne of the ladies over at Dear Author, which had delightfully mean things to say about Fifty Shades of Grey, called Heatprobably the best independently published book I have read…this sort of book was [sic] the reason I read indie books. I’m constantly hoping for that one read that will probably never be published by a mainstream publisher, yet is intense and consuming and surpasses all my skeptical misgivings.”

I tried Heat out of curiosity about this intense and consuming thing that could never be published by a mainstream publisher, and I agree that it has a certain je ne sais quoi.  Science fiction and erotica generally don’t mix, but here we have a solidly crafted, well-written novel with levels of graphic sex, violence, and sexual violence usually seen only in Japanese anime.

This is about as hardcore as erotica can get, but I was most shocked to discover that Heat is genuinely character driven.  Smith writes four main characters, each with a distinctive vantage point and spot-on diction.  The stars are Kane and Raven, who have an explosively dangerous Hannibal Lecter/Clarice Starling power imbalance.  Kane is a criminal from the planet Jota who has come to Earth to harvest human brain chemicals to make drugs.  Like Dr. Lecter, Kane fairly vibrates with self-awareness and maturity, yet you never know when he’s going to eat someone’s face.

Raven, a purple-haired teenage runaway, is probably my favorite of the characters.  She’s a survivor who doesn’t expect the world to hand her anything for free, which is a good thing because Kane’s not a nice guy.  “Even in this light, she could see the look on his face–a look that said he was about to kill everything in sight, ending with things that don’t even die, like rocks and trees, but beginning with her.”

Tagen is the lone cop who has been dispatched to bring Kane to justice.  Kane has been to Earth many times with his loving, criminal father and his loyal, criminal crew of slavers and drug dealers.  Tagen, on the other hand, is working from a 500-year-old briefing file because the Jotan government officially quarantined Earth centuries ago.  Tagen’s not as sexy as Kane (because who, who, who could be as sexy as a young, well-muscled, alien version of Hannibal Lecter whose hormones are in spectacular overdrive?), but his chapters are unexpectedly funny.  Tagen is fluent in Panyol, also known as español, and listens to some English language tapes on the flight over.  Then he keeps trying to speak to humans in Spanish because, hey, it’s what he knows.  Maybe if he just says it slower or louder…

As a newcomer, Tagen has a lot of tourist insights, such as quirking at why the humans’ orbital weapons are all aimed at their own planet.  Smith doesn’t overseason this soup, so it’s fun.

Both Kane and Tagen are blindsided by an unusually hot summer as they land their ships in a national park “with the kind of high-summer insect noise that made sane men butcher their families in their beds.”  Summer, which lasts only 9 days on Jota, triggers the mating season and causes extreme pain unless Jotan boys can get their rocks off.  This novel is erotica, so it dives into scenes of sex, violent sex, and imaginary sex.  The imaginary sex comes from Tagen, who has to actually woo a human female rather than just commandeer them the way Kane does.

So this is where we meet Daria, the main character most like the reader (unless you happen to be a teen prostitute or an alien).  Daria is not especially nice, but as Tagen observes, “Niceness is a quality often at odds with sincerity.”  Witty and resourceful, Daria tries her damnedest to act unfazed by the almost 7-foot tall alien who shows up in her home and demands help in tracking down an alien criminal.  And then it turns out that Daria is pretty damn good at detective work, and Raven is pretty damn good at evading the law, and this is as much a girl show as a guy show.

I’m giving a bonus star because this is exactly the risk-taking kind of book that I would love to see more of, but I’m retracting a star because there’s a pacing slowdown in the middle.  I doubt a NY editor would have made a difference, since I see these pacing problems all the damn time, so I guess I’m glad Smith is getting 70% royalties by going the self-published route.  Any professional would have advised her to change the title of the book, though, because one-word titles have signal-to-noise ratios that make it near-impossible to actually find this book on Amazon.  To say nothing of the cover art.  Here’s the Amazon link if you want to try the sample pages for free.

Fifty Shades of Grey – DRINKING GAME RULES

50 shades of greyThis book is so exuberantly, hilariously flawed that it requires a drinking game.

Drink every time:

  • Christian Grey acts like a stalker with poor impulse control.
  • Ana thinks, Oh my.
  • A stray Britishism pops up.
  • Ana’s subconscious [sic] or inner goddess requires slapping.
  • There’s gratuitous product placement.
  • You cringe on behalf of Christian’s servant-people.
  • Someone name-shouts during orgasm.

Chug when:

  • Someone’s mouth “forms a perfect O.”
  • A tampon is pulled.

Finish your drink when:

  • “Rectifying the situation” is used to refer to relieving someone of their virginity.
  • An actual, full-length legal contract appears in the text.

In a nutshell: Young, bookish Anastasia Steele meets 27-year-old business tycoon Christian Grey.  He has a dark past, majorly taut abs, a BDSM playroom in his fabulous penthouse, and a purported fear of intimacy that melts on contact with Ana’s magical vagina.

I was going to make a list of flaws, followed by a tally of the merits, but then I kept moving the flaws to the merit column because the flaws are so awesome, just like the pancake makeup in the Twilight movies.

–         The writing pulls the neat trick of setting the bar so low that I fist-pumped in triumph every time E.L. James did something right, such as understanding the distinction between “figuratively” and “literally.”

–         There are SO MANY ERRORS.  How can this e-book cost $9.99 when there’s well-written erotica available for $0.99?

–          Safe sex, yay!  James gets kind of Pavlovian with the ripping sound of a condom package, and I salute that.

–          Christian Grey, who probably owns a sweatshirt emblazoned “Byronic anti-hero,” is cold and distant but blows his game by saying dipshit things like “I’m like a moth to a flame” and “You beguile me.”  Not to mention, “I want you to meet my mother” right after they Do It for the first time.  HAHAHA HAHA HAHAHAHAHA, this book is awesome.

–          Despite the busload of flaws, I think the romance works.  Ana and Mr. Rochester Grey have very different neuroses, but of the same vector length, which is one of the keys to relationship success.  She’s judgmental and street stupid, he’s emo with a bad temper; they so totally deserve each other!  Win!

–          The meet-cute portion of the story is a delicious, delicious festival of cringe.  Remember how teen magazines used to have reader submissions where people would write in with tales of personal humiliation?  Ana is EPIC in her ability to fuck up in front of Christian.

–          Ana has two cartoon characters that provide windows into her interior life (because first-person narration isn’t enough, what?), which E.L. James refers to as Ana’s subconscious [sic] and Ana’s inner goddess.  Like the Microsoft paperclip that used to pop up in Word, they manifest for no reason and grow more irksome each time.  (Ana’s inner goddess mimes her feelings by doing a hula dance, hiding behind the sofa, or swooning onto a fainting couch.)

–          The British have invaded Seattle!  Although purportedly narrated by an American girl, this story is speckled all over with charmingly misplaced Britishisms.  It’s amateur night at the editing desk.  No, who are we kidding, this novel wasn’t edited by anyone.

–          I don’t know what’s less believable, that Ana has never masturbated or that she doesn’t have a laptop or email account in 2011.  See note above re: editing.

–          This dubious book has the dubious distinction of  having the most true-to-life contractual negotiation I’ve ever read in my fiction-reading career.  The Dom/sub contract appears in its entirety (except Schedule C – Food), including subsequent markup rounds.  Ana comments on legal drafts more astutely than most junior attorneys I have known, which just…I don’t know.  She didn’t catch the redlining errors, though, so I’ll have to mark that on her next performance review.

–          I don’t know much about the theory and practice of BDSM, but even I can tell E.L. James doesn’t know a damn thing.  Some people are rightly offended, but honestly I can’t take this fuckwittery seriously enough to be offended.  It’s like being upset about bad science in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.  Btw, it’s labeled BDSM, but the kink factor is totally mainstream, like the “spicy” Chinese food in the food court at the mall.

In conclusion, this book is optimized for drinking games, preferably in conjunction with a dramatic reading with friends.  I mentioned the name-shouting during sex, right?  It would only take 5 people to do a full-cast rendition (Christian, Ana, Ana as narrator, Ana’s subconscious [sic], and someone to mime Ana’s inner goddess).

The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton) 5*

the outsidersSome books stay good.  No, they stay gold!

But seriously, it really is still good, even down to the Robert Frost bit.  Sodapop and his beautiful hair, Johnny and Gone with the Wind, Dallas collapsing under the streetlight…  It’s a double time capsule: me in eighth grade, Ponyboy in the 1950’s when even cheerleaders barrel-raced at the rodeo.

I heard or misheard somewhere that there’s a Jewish doctrine that there must be 20 righteous people at all times or else God will destroy the world (permutation of Sodom?).  Along the same lines, there are certain books that make me feel humanity has a chance, and The Outsiders is one of them.