03 September, 2014

Fuck the Higher Bird: A Review of 'Yoga Bitch' by Suzanne Morrison

More often than not on this blog, I've reviewed genre fiction-- that is, sci-fi or fantasy or something other than straight-up "literary" fiction. What I've never done is review nonfiction, simply because I don't, as a rule, read nonfiction. David Sedaris notwithstanding, my experience with other people's memoirs has more often than not been an exercise in eyerolling at the self-aggrandizing navel-gazing contained therein. Memoir is what people write when they think they're more special than they are.

When I went to the AWP conference in Seattle this past February, I went to a panel about book reviews where the editors of several review publications offered advice on how to make reviews pop. The best piece of advice I got was that a review shouldn't be a summary of the events of a book-- it should frame the book in context. Simply laying out the events of the book isn't enough; you can get that by going to Amazon. A good review tells a reader not if the book is good or bad, but why it's relevant.

It was also at AWP that I, on a whim, attended a panel on humor in memoir, and got to hear Suzanne Morrison read from her book Yoga Bitch. When I tell you I laughed so hard I cried, I'm not exaggerating. Her sarcasm, her unflinching honesty about her own inner failings, and most of all, the unbelievable story of a group full of grown adults who willingly drink their own pee, had me hooked.

26 August, 2014

A Guide to Recognizing Your Geeks

goodbye old school...
Remember "Revenge of the Nerds?" It's a terrible movie, not one I'd recommend watching if you haven't suffered through it already, but it stands as a testament to the Bad Old Days when cool was king and "nerd" was one of the worst insults to hurl. The film presented what was, then, a novelty idea: that geeks can be good for more than shoving into lockers.

That idea isn't so novel anymore. Over the past few years, geek has actually become chic. Or at the very least, it’s got a certain cachet. The days where dweebs were automatically equated with Steve Urkel are over, and for those of us who spent elementary school defending our prized Boba Fett lunchboxes, we’re now enjoying a bit of blowback from the je ne sais quoi of Chuck, Katniss, and the rebooted Star Trek franchise.
...hel-LO new school.

It's not just coming from one corner anymore, either. Glee lifted choir kids out of the social-strata underworld; supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, and Misha Collins are all over late-night TV; and the ubiquity of the Marvel films— not to mention the collective dazzle from the MCU's star-studded cast— has made it gauche not to know your Avengers on sight.

So what's separating the geeks from the muns, these days? Some might argue we've got to step up our game to keep our street cred. In the wake of the Lord of the Rings movies, I wasn't the only person I knew willing to go to any lengths necessary to prove I'd been a fan before the movies— in fact, my fervor was outshone by people two and three times my age, from my father to my college advisor, who actually offered a seminar on Tolkien in 2004. In those brief and brilliant years when we were inundated by a new Rings or Harry Potter movie every time we turned around, it became the shibboleth of nerd culture to know "how it really happened", to toss out pieces of trivia like Quaffles through a goal hoop, each of us hoping to rack up the highest score.

And I get it— I really get it. When I was little, books were my best (sometimes my only) friends. Frodo wasn't just real to me, he was important. Knowing him was important, and discovering someone else who felt that way about him was the best kind of surprise, an instant recommendation of someone's character. It was how I learned who was like me and who wasn't— who it was safe to be myself around— who I could trust. Geek was my identity, and when you own an identity that slaps you firmly onto the margins of mainstream society, you come to terms with the fact that most people will never know that part of you. You just can't trust them to understand it; you'd rather hide it than have it denigrated.

better question: who doesn't like debating
the finer points of Westerosi politics?
So as the curtains have been drawn further and further back, the titans of geek media given spit and polish for presentation to a wider audience, we nerds have found ourselves swimming in a much more crowded pond. All of a sudden, knowing who Frodo Baggins is isn't a barometer for geekdom, because everybody knows. Dropping a joke about Thor's hammer isn't an indicator of who's a geek versus who just wandered into a showing of the Avengers by mistake. You can no longer automatically trust that you've found a kindred spirit in someone wearing a Winter is Coming t-shirt. So how do you tell who it's safe to debate the finer points of Westerosi politics with, and who will look at you like you're nuts for thinking that much about it? The sieve has to get finer; the tests have to get harder. Are you really a geek, or are you just pretending?

It feels like an important distinction to make. Because in labeling ourselves different, we set ourselves up as a foil to that which we're different from. The opposition is right there in the title— Revenge of the Nerds. Sometimes it can feel that dire— that we do need revenge for all the slings and arrows we've weathered defending our right to enjoy things unironically, without caring if it's cool. And reading a Red Wedding freakout on Facebook from someone who mocked you mercilessly for reading fantasy books in high school can be— well— a little galling.

Right now we're at the epicenter of the earthquake, the blast point where counterculture becomes culture. And I'll be the first to admit it's not pretty. Sharing sucks; I'm an older sister, I know. It feels like something's being taken from us, that our stories are no longer our own, and in order to keep our identity intact we have to pull up the stakes and retreat further into geek territory, rebuild our pylons and siege towers to keep the non-geeks out. We can still use our geekdom as a stick to draw a line in the sand; it can still be us versus them.

But that's a bat'leth that cuts both ways. Nobody can absorb all facets of geekdom— there just aren't enough hours in a day. I can talk Star Trek and fantasy literature for days, but the number of video games I can hold a conversation about can be counted on one hand. So does that mean I'm not a "real" geek? Does the fact that I'm 30 and only just contemplating buying my first game system somehow make me "less" than people who've been using controllers as long as they've been using silverware?

There's been a lot of talk lately about gatekeeping in geek culture as it relates to women— about girls who go into comic shops and get awkward-stared off the premises, women who go to cons and get harassed for their cosplay, women who get quizzed and challenged by whiny men who feel threatened by the presence of women in "their" geek space. I know I don't need to state that that's bullshit; we can all smell it from where we're sitting, and we know enough to avoid stepping in it.

But if I'm being honest, it's not okay to do to anyone. Who cares when someone became a fan of something? If you were lucky enough to be born with a Silver Age spoon in your mouth, good for you. But we geeks put our pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else. Who are we to judge whether someone's interest is "real"? Who are we to stand with our arms crossed and say "Not you, you are not worthy, you shall not enter here"? We're not Gandalf— we don't get to say who shall or shall not pass.

Fantasy, sci-fi, video games, comic books, they're all ways of telling stories, the purpose of which is to talk about our experiences of being human. I've talked a lot about fandom and how it provides a haven to people who are underrepresented in media— that fandom is where I go to find people like me, whether on the pages of fanfiction or in conversation with other fans. That's what draws all of us to partake in geek culture, isn't it? Sharing our experiences of what a book or movie or comic or game meant to us. Sharing. Communicating. Interacting with people who are like us.

Pardon me for waxing a little Professor X here, but we— we geeks— have more in common with the rest of the world than we might think. Peaceful coexistence with the uninitiated in a geek-oriented space is possible— and not just possible, it's happening already. So maybe this is where we find our common ground: in the exposure of our touchstones to the public eye, in not only allowing, but inviting non-geeks to experience them along with us. In welcoming the newcomers, not excluding them.

Who knows— maybe in being a guide instead of a gatekeeper, you'll help someone discover they've had a Browncoat inside them this whole time. You'll be the one that opened that door into Narnia, the giver of that Green Lantern ring. The analogies I could make are endless. The point is, we all know the experience of reading a book or watching a show and feeling the tops of our heads lift off as that spark in our brain catches and turns into an inferno of excitement. We know it, and we live for it. It's the best feeling ever. And take it from me, watching someone else experience it is like a contact high— and who wouldn't want to be the bearer of that wondrousness?

Look at it this way— this pervasiveness is the nerd's ultimate revenge. We're everywhere now, and we're turning "them" into us without even warning them first. Instead of the geek taking off her glasses to reveal the "normal" girl hidden inside, we can be responsible for the opposite transformation. It's the ultimate comeback to the challenge of hipster culture, which asks us to love things only ironically, from a safe emotional distance.

Screw that. Reject the idea that by sharing our culture there's less of it to go around. Stop worrying, and learn to love the spotlight. Love your stories, share your stories, and make other people love them too. Those people are our people now. And if the proliferation of the nerd herd doesn't sound intensely awesome to you… are you sure you're really a geek?

06 August, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: A-Holes, Whores, and Things You Just Don't Say to Your Friends

Marvel used the word "whore" in one of their movies, and I'm really not okay with it.

Let me back up.

When I was sixteen, I called my best friend a whore, and it ended our friendship.

Okay… let me back up some more.

30 July, 2014

'Ghosts of Tupelo Landing' by Sheila Turnage

Starting the sequel to a book I loved is always a bit of a risk. But it was one that paid off with Sheila Turnage's Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, the sequel to last year's sidesplitting Three Times Lucky. Despite the volume of books I read, there are few that can make me laugh out loud without a care for how many funny looks I'm getting from commuters or coworkers around me. But like its predecessor, Ghosts of Tupelo Landing had me chortling on the regular. Mo's voice is so strong, and the humor comes in many flavors, from the bait-and-switch ("Connoisseur", I whispered. "French for 'know-it-all.'") to rueful self-deprecation (The problem with having a temper is you find out what you're going to say at the same time everyone else does.). I can't help but recognize a bit of the fiery troublemaking kid I was in Mo, but even if I didn't have that soft spot, I'd still be laughing my ass off.

I trusted Turnage not to try to "one-up" the plot of the first book (one of my biggest peeves about mystery series) and she didn't disappoint. This time instead of a murderer on the loose, the real threat is to the livelihood of Mo's nearest and dearest, and in a way she can't fix just by figuring out whodunit. This is only tangentially a ghost story, with the title referring more to the shades of the town's past than to the actual ghost Mo and Dale are chasing. The overall feel of the book is of things coming full circle-- an out of town boy coming back to live with his grandfather, schoolchildren learning about their town's history by interviewing their elders, a historic building given new life through the town's collective effort. It's a deft way to frame the characters' development as they take on bigger challenges, both practical and personal.

Change is a common theme in middle-grade fiction, as most of its readers are already hurtling into adolescence at breakneck speed. Mo is growing and changing-- it's no coincidence that for the first time we see her in school-- and the scope of her world is growing too, as she turns her outward "Upstream Mother" focus inward to the people around her, and her place among them. The mystery was harder to solve, too, as it involved navigating the often confusing world of adult emotions and motivations. But Mo's facility for people (and for bullshitting her way out of sticky situations) helps her hold her own against bitter bootleggers and grouchy grannies alike, keeping the story moving constantly forward.

But the biggest strength of this book is in its unquestioning acceptance of Mo's experiences, and how it refuses to compromise her agency as the storyteller. Whether or not the ghost of Nellie Blake is "real" is never even brought up-- Mo experiences her as real, and therefore so do we, the readers. It's part of what makes Mo such a great narrator and such a strong character-- her world is the world we live in while we're with her, and it's a colorful explosion that doesn't step outside itself for a moment. Turnage has said that when she first sat down to write Three Times Lucky, Mo emerged almost fully formed, her voice clear and distinct, and that solidity certainly translates to my experience as a reader. If only all characters-- especially all female characters-- were as complete in their humanity as Mo LoBeau.

I'm assuming Turnage will be putting out another sequel soon, only because I can't imagine saying goodbye to a character and a place I've come to adore so much after only two books. People often deride adults who read children's books (James Wood's recent invective, quoted here, springs to mind), but whatever your age, Ghosts of Tupelo Landing gets my full-throated recommendation to anyone who likes good writing or is in need of a good laugh.

Overall rating: 4.5/5 stars (rounded up to 5 for how much it made me laugh)
Geek quotient: 2/5 stars
Girl quotient: 5/5 stars
Gay quotient: 2/5 stars (Mo has a gay "uncle" who's a very positive role model in her life- normally I wouldn't give this two stars, but in a book for this age group it gets more weight.)

17 June, 2014

"Prince of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence

With no ado at all, I'm back! Shit's been crazy; I'm finally reading again, at last.

So, Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence. I have really mixed feelings about this book-- I'd been really excited to read it, but when I got into it I just... couldn't get into it.

A synopsis: When he was nine, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath watched as his brother was murdered and his mother raped and then murdered by villainous Count Renar's men. His father the king is a neglectful vicious jerk who refused to enact vengeance upon Renar in favor of using the murders as leverage to bargain a profitable trade agreement with him. Furious and betrayed, Jorg peaces out of home at age ten, and collects-slash-joins a bunch of thugs who then pillage their way across a bunch of kingdoms under his command, all with the ultimate goal of vengeance upon Renar and overthrowing his father to take the throne of Ancrath for his own. But there's more at play than just bloodlust; the Hundred Kingdoms are at war, and the closer Jorg gets to understanding how to win it, the more he starts to realize he has no idea what he's up against.

16 April, 2014

springtime... maybe?

The calendar says it's spring, yet when I woke up this morning there was a crust of snow on the daffodils in my front yard. I'll say again what I've said several times this year: Go home weather, you're drunk.

I just wanted to pop in and say hello, and apologize for the long silence. I hit a little crisis of faith toward the middle of February, in writing a few reviews and realizing I wasn't sure what I was trying to say, which led to this anxiety spiral of questioning why I was reviewing books, was anyone even reading my reviews, and if not, what the point of it all was.

The lesson here is clearly that Seasonal Affective Disorder is not to be underestimated.

Now it's spring (sort of) and I'm working on finishing the draft of that pesky novel that I started back in November, and trying to get back on the reading horse after a few months spent rereading the Harry Potter series and a boatload of Captain America comics. Also, I'd just realized that due to some weird glitch, my last blog layout was not letting you actually read more when you clicked the "Read More" link in my breaks, so the pretty layout has been swapped out in favor of something more basic and functional. Snazzing it back up will be a project for another time. Apologies if anyone was trying to read my past posts and couldn't make them work!

The point is, I'm reading again, which means you can, I hope, expect to see some reviews popping up here again in the near future. Probably shorter and less rambly than my previous sort, but who knows. I'm still working this out as I go.

Thanks for still being along for the ride, readers. Till next time!
♥ emily

22 January, 2014

'Company of Liars' by Karen Maitland

'Company of Liars' by Karen Maitland
Hey everyone, happy 2014! It's good to be back. I hope all of your holidays were merry and bright and full of good books. I've missed blogging-- to be fair, I didn't end up reading a whole lot in December that I could've blogged about anyway, but even still, it's good to be back in the saddle.

I'm really excited about this post, because I've been looking forward to reading (and reviewing) this book literally for months. Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, whose back cover describes it as a reimagining of the Canterbury Tales.

Bear with me through a brief history lesson, which I'll start with a confession: my focus in college was Old and Middle English literature. And I am a giant, embarrassing, drooling Chaucer fangirl. I'm not only talking about the one played by Paul Bettany, either. Chaucer was the man. He was one of the first writers to decide that he'd had enough of this "real literature is only written in French and Latin" crap, and wrote in the vernacular that actual regular English people spoke on a daily basis. He's credited with starting the legitimizing of English as a language good for anything besides singing dirty songs in bars or figuring out how many bales of wheat to trade for a sheep.

While he wrote a bunch of other works, he's most famous for the Tales, which live at the crossroads of sociopolitical commentary and self-insertionist fanfic. The narrator of the Tales is a guy named (you guessed it) Chaucer, and though the poet himself isn't on record as ever deciding to go on a pilgrimage, he used his vast experience of people from all walks of life to create a bunch of believable characters-- archetypes if you will, of the sorts of people that most English people would know-- a nun, a priest, a miller, an innkeeper, et cetera. Though they came from all occupations and classes, the pilgrims all thought that going on this holy road trip would absolve them of their sins. In some cases, Chaucer found this ironic and hilarious; in others, noble and commendable. It all depended on the person. Further setting the Tales apart from most literature of the time, there's no one main hero in this story, just regular people, and Chaucer immortalized every one of them, quirks, warts, farts, and all.

So-- back to 2013, and Company of Liars. The narrator of the book is called Camelot, not a name but a title, held by an old scarred man who sells useless trinkets claiming them to be holy relics. Rumors of the pestilence (the early name for the Black Death) have been circulating, and Camelot is trying to make it to a shrine to spend the winter in. Unfortunately for him, he keeps meeting people who he feels compelled to allow to join him, for their safety as well as his own-- a young couple expecting a baby, an albino child who reads the future in runes, a midwife, a musician and his apprentice, a one-armed storyteller, and a sideshow operator with a wagon full of marvels.

As the title of the book would suggest, all of these people are liars. And between the incessant downpour, the lack of food, the growing stories about the plague, and the growing tensions between various members of the group, it becomes clear pretty early on that something's going to go FUBAR in this medieval station wagon-- the only question is when. The fact that there's a lone wolf that seems to be following their caravan-- hunting them, even-- only adds to the fear. Then, one by one, the members of their company start dying in increasingly gruesome ways.

This is the point at which it becomes clear, both to our narrator Camelot and to the reader, that whatever is preying on the travelers (be it wolf or human) isn't doing so at random-- that rather than being absolved of their sins as Chaucer's pilgrims hoped for, they're being punished for them instead.

This is the part where we get spoilery, so if you want to remain in the dark about whodunit, now's the time to stop reading.

Still with me? Okay, good. Because we're going to have a chat, you and me, about creepy children.

Nope, this town is totally normal.
The creepy kid trope (don't click that) is often used as a mini deus ex machina, not to solve the problems of a particular story, but to expose them. The idea of a child that knows too much is unsettling-- a child that can think like an adult, and worse, perpetrate evil or horrifying acts like an adult, is one of the creepiest there is. Even if the creepy kid's job is just to stand by and make ominous pronouncements about what's going to happen, it's still unsettling. Kids are supposed to be innocent, and when faced with one who isn't, it jolts us out of our comfort zone faster than you can say Linda Blair.

So if your book contains an albino 12-year-old with a long white rat's nest of hair and pale eyes who barely talks except to read runes and make cryptic statements about the people around her, I just go into it assuming she's one early bedtime away from going Lizzie Borden on everyone around her. Add to that the fact that the pregnant lady gives her a doll and she scratches its face off with a knife because she doesn't like it looking at her, and that she's crazy good at hunting but takes ages to actually kill her prey because she likes watching the animals struggle? RED ALERT EVERYONE, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

So while I may have called it pretty early on that Narigorm (which is a near-anagram for guess which Celtic goddess whose abilities include foretelling the means of a person's death?) was behind the wolf hunting and shredding Camelot's companions, no one in the book seems to figure it out, even as the body count rises.

Which is kind of the point, if you think about it. The best and scariest killers are the ones who do their dirty work right under others' noses and get away without suspicion (hello, Doctor Lecter). And who would suspect a child of murder? As Camelot finds out to his great chagrin, people don't want to even consider the possibility, even when it's standing there telling them in a sepulchral voice that the runes say someone's going to die less than 12 hours before one of their group turns up stabbed to death with his man-bits torn off.

I should also mention this book is not for people who are squeamish about blood.

Anyway-- one of the funniest parts of the Canterbury Tales is how Chaucer exposes the divide (in some cases, the chasm) between how the pilgrims think of themselves, and what their actions actually say about them. also In Company of Liars this theme is just as important, but it's used for horror, not humor. Each of the people in the group either has secrets of their own or is hiding someone else's, or both. They have a facade that they're desperately trying to maintain, and the growing dread that mounts with each chapter mirrors the characters' growing realization that those secrets won't stay buried for long. So reading Company of Liars is like traveling this double spiral of horror-- not only the realization that Narigorm is a practiced murderer who assembled this company on purpose to torment them, but that no one in is safe while they're with her.

It seems strange to say about a book about a road trip, but Narigorm is the only thing that moves the plot along. Without her, the travelers would be content to keep living their lies, and would probably have finished their journey in ignorant peace, but she is always nudging them toward exposure. And while she as a character may be motivated to kill, her function in the story is to bring about that unearthing of the truth. She reveals how fucked up each one of these people is-- proves to them that the truth cannot stay hidden no matter how desperately they wish it-- and then punishes them for their sins.

Strangely, she fulfills the same function for the book's travelers as the Narrator does in the Canterbury Tales. In this perverted, horrific reimagining of the Tales, Narigorm plays the part of Chaucer, pulling back the veil on the secret lives of the people around her and meting out retribution-- not by immortalizing their flaws in fiction, but by reminding them how worthless their lies, and their lives, really are.

This makes the book sound bleak, but for all that it hasn't got a happy ending for almost any of its characters, I found it very satisfying. Maitland has a beautiful writing style and she paints emotion and atmosphere with a vivid brush. I was totally captivated by this story; each chapter was something to savor and linger over, and I was thoroughly sorry to turn the last page.

You can buy Company of Liars on Amazon, and read my reviews crossposted to Goodreads