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August backwib (mib?) part one

September 2, 2013

Almost done catching up.  I’d promise to never let getting behind happen again, but we all know that as soon as I get back to having a job, that goes out the window.

I reread Misery, which I don’t think I’ve read since I was a kid.  My daughter’s summer reading list had not one but TWO Stephen King novels on it, so I figured I’d knock one out myself (she ended up choosing The Shining; she may never read King again).  I don’t remember King ever being so autobiographical in a work before.  My reread of Sandman may have pointed out to me how much of it is about stories and storytelling–well, Misery is about writing.  And King’s car accident and painkiller addiction and the price of fame.  But what really stuck out for me were all the things I remembered incorrectly:

For one, #1 fan Annie Wilkes.  In my head, she was another version of The Grandmother from Flowers in the Attic–evil, unattractive, and big-boobed.  Upon rereading, I found this wasn’t true.  I mean, not even true at all.  She’s crazy, yes, but it’s a surprisingly telegraphed, consistent level of crazy–REAL crazy, sociopath crazy.  The Grandmother, not so much.  But for some reason, young me missed the obvious cues and thought, “Evil.”

Which is actually connects to the other thing I misremembered: Misery herself–that is, the character that Wilkes loves so much and the books that the author, Paul Sheldon, has come to loathe.  Because Sheldon has to bring Misery Chastain back from the dead to continue the books, my brain classified the Misery novels as horror and read them that way, when really they’re supposed to be Victorian romances.  I’ve read League of Extraordinary Gentlemen since then (I’m rereading the first one now), and I’m jokingly trying to say that I get Victorian writing more now, and I cannot believe how wrong I was about the books-within-the-book.  Oops.

Anyway, it was an interesting book but I wasn’t crazy about the ending (no pun intended) and I doubt it’ll be a big reread for me over the years.

To clear the graphic nature of the book from my head, I read two solid romances: A Rogue by Any Other Name (Rule of Scoundrels #1) by Sarah MacLean, and Seducing Mr. Knightly (Writing Girls #4) by Maya Rodale.  As always, I read romance and put them right out of my head, but both were fun, engaging reads that kept me turning pages.  These were BEA books but both published, I believe, last year.  I was grateful that Rodale’s isn’t Emma fan fiction, but rather a solid tale of a girl who writes an advice column who decides to ask for advice from her readers instead.  Very amusing, and Knightly himself is your usual swoon-worthy hero, if a bit dense.  I got the third in the series as an ebook from BEA and I plan on going back and reading things in order later.  I also plan on picking up more MacLeans if I see them around, and since I don’t often put myself out for romance, or bother checking them out from the library, I think that says a lot.

Oh, speaking of things out of order, have I mentioned that that’s all I’ve been doing lately?  I accidentally skipped a book in Sandman and had to go back.  Netflix glitched and played a later episode of Jericho than it was supposed to.  My husband and I were watching Rome and we took out the disc to put in a game and then moved to the next disc, missing an episode.  The funny thing is, except for the romance, there was always the sense that mistakes hadn’t been made.  Rome is big on time-jumping.  The book I missed in Sandman was one of the short story collections, so I didn’t even notice at first.  Jericho only mentioned a character being out of commission, and I thought he had a cold or something.  I mean, I figured these things out fairly quickly (except Rome), but still.  Weird.  Not like me at all.  I love things in order.  I need things in order.  So it was kinda funny that one happened after the other after the other.  But I knew going in that the Writing Girls book was number four, and I think my recent glitches helped me think it was okay to read it.  Plus, if you’re writing a loosely-connected series, you should be making it so people can get in at any book.  Romance is usually loosely-connected, and it’s no spoiler to know that the leads get together at the end.  Rodale drops enough hints of past stories to interest you but not really spoil you.

Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower has a certain level of popularity among readers of YA.  I’ve seen it on summer reading lists, and I think that’s part of why it seems to carry a love-it-or-loathe-it reputation: assign a book to any group of people and you’ll see that response.  Charlie shows all the signs of being a slow bloomer, either out of naivete or autism (some argue; it’s never said in the book), I don’t know.  Charlie is not the most likable protagonist either.  But he too has to get through high school.  He becomes friends with two kids who are generally self-destructive, and makes it through the year.

My husband and I, as I think I’ve said before, have very different perspectives of what it’s like to go through high school.  Even though we are only two or three years apart in graduation years, and our towns were only an hour’s drive from one another, and we’re fairly similar in that we’re both nerds, our experiences only lined up in our tight-knit, nerdy circles of friends.  Otherwise, his school was gang fights, racism, crappy education, and classism.  My graduating class decided around junior year that it was uncool to be so “judgmental” and I only saw one, maybe two incidents of fighting the whole time I was there.  (The biggest problem one year was…food fights.  Yeah.)  We had awesome classes like mythology and mass media, and the only time race moved to the forefront was when kids whose parents grew up in other cultures talked and took questions about how things were at home that might be different from how our own (white) homes were.  (“Do you have to have an arranged marriage?”  “No, but we’re expected to marry someone our parents introduced us to.”  “Wow, even in America?”)

I have no high school memories of holding anyone’s hair back when they puked, because I didn’t drink.  Other kids did, but if they drank to excess, I didn’t know because we just didn’t hang.  There was pot around, I knew people who smoked it, but generally they were called “burnouts” and looked down on.  Doing well academically was important, and while there were kids who were more well-known, I wouldn’t say that there was a specific group of “popular kids.”  You were known by what you did.  If you were on Student Council, people knew because they had to vote for you.  The theater kids were known by their talent; the stage crew by their hard work.  If someone was weird or unusual or different, people were either impressed or not impressed, depending on how.  (My yearbook is filled with messages from people complimenting me on how true I was to myself, whatever that means.)

Was there bullying?  Yes.  But it’s like my daughter’s high school orientation tour guide said the other day, if you talk shit (she didn’t use that word) about someone, they’ll do it back.  You respect them, they respect you.  I think this is the advantage of privilege–mainly white school in a middle- to upper-middle class area.  Lucky us.  My husband didn’t have that advantage, or that privilege.

What does this have to do with Chbosky’s book?  I still can’t manage to wrap my head around good kids who do bad things.  For one thing, access.  Occasionally you’ll get a book that discusses where kids have access to alcohol, drugs, fake IDs, and I’ll be like, oh okay.  But otherwise, I can’t even wrap my head around it.  One time I was hanging out with a group I didn’t know that well and they all got into cars and drove into Camden and bought pot.  I guess it was pretty simple, but once I was far far away from them, all I could think of is, “How did they know where to go?  I guess word of mouth, but WHY do they trust that they can do this and not get caught?”  I just didn’t see the benefit, when you looked at the risk.  I still don’t.

So it’s harder for me to have sympathy for the teens of this world that go off the deep end that way.  (I know from experience that teens can find all sorts of ways to self-destruct, which have much easier and legal methods of access.)  But I did like Charlie, and I mostly liked his friends, and I was creeped by the teacher that took an interest, as I have been creeped by all teachers that take an interest since a friend told me a “nice” story about how her teacher used to confide in her about his marriage problems and all I could think was “GROOMING! GROOMING! GROOMING!”  This is not like that, just to let you know, but when you’re talking about someone as strange and simple as Charlie, you can’t help but worry for him.

It’s an interesting book that I probably won’t read again, or at least for years, because it’s not the kind of YA that interests me.  As an adult reader, I mostly enjoy YA where I see myself, or sci fi and fantasy that speaks to my interest (in the apocalypse, apparently).  I can see why people love and hate the book.  It’s easy to get frustrated with Charlie, but in a familial, loving way.  I’m sure some people’s experiences reflect the characters in the book–I, for one, was a big Rocky Horror attendee back in the day, and liked to see its presence in the book.  But some of the criticism I’ve seen for the book I completely agree with: there are a lot of “issues” in this book that barely get skimmed because of their sheer number.  Charlie, being fairly passive, only skims the surface of these things, and even when he’s involved in these things, we see them through the eyes of a narrator who doesn’t make a lot of connections.

Frustrating.

But interesting.

Next I read my book club selection for the month A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama.  Set in the time of Mao, it’s about a family who loses a member to the “reeducation” camps for dissenters.  Focusing on the family rather than the politics, it’s an engrossing look at Chinese culture of the 1950s, and it’s impossible not to compare it to the portrayal of the cookie-cutter America of the 1950s.  The book begins with a small child climbing a tree and falling, and after last month’s selection I was like “Not again,” but the book does not go where you think, in any way.  Despite this, it is not shocking, although there are surprises.  It is more that you glide along with the beauty of Tsukiyama’s writing and her wonderfully realized characters.  Although the book was ultimately lighter than I expected, that’s not a bad thing, and I recommend this book for readers of general and not-that-historical fiction.

All right, two more, and then I’ve got to stop this because we’re topping two thousand words here, and I really need to clean the house.  And myself.  We just had a huge storm and I was disinclined to get into the shower, but…yeah, we’re approaching necessary here.

The second, which I’m writing about first, is the graphic novel Welcome to the Jungle by Jim Butcher, with art by Ardian Syaf.  It is a Dresden Files book that takes place before the first novel, Storm Front.  It’s a quick, funny story that shows you early Harry, before everything got so heavy and dark…er.  I really enjoyed it.  Not every author can make the transition to comics (I’m looking at you, Picoult), but Butcher does it with his usual Dresden style.  It’s still weird for me to think of Harry having a look–I found him so difficult to pin down visually in the first couple books–but apparently this is exactly what Butcher was going for.  Harry’s so young!  But I guess we all were, once.  Recommended for Dresden Files readers, even ones who aren’t inclined to comics.

Finally, a new book from BEA, one that I think comes out very soon?  Dresden Files readers, here’s your new favorite series: It’s called Pax Arcana, it’s by Elliot James, and the first book is called Charming.

What’s Charming about?  What’s the Pax Arcana?  Well, imagine a word like Buffy, but instead of people just kind of rationalizing things away, there’s more of a glamour going on as well.  The magical world’s there, and maybe you see it out of the corner of your eye, but not really.  There are those who defend the Pax Arcana, are drawn to do so by blood and by magic, and one of those people is John Charming.

As in…Prince Charming.

John’s no prince, hehe, but he is one of a line of families tied by blood and magic to defend the Pax Arcana.  The problem is, the rest of those who do so don’t want him, because of, let’s say, certain impurities in his line.  That doesn’t stop him from solving the problems that come his way.  In this case, a vampire problem.  A big one.

While Charming is not a perfect first novel, it’s darn close, with the kind of dense writing that’s hard to find in the usually-fluffy genre of “urban fantasy.” (Ugh.)  One thing that bothered me at first was that the lead’s name lends itself to a fairy tale world, and we don’t get that, so toss that expectation now, please.  The other was the TV-show nature of the romance: it’s got some stereotyped elements that bugged the crap out of me for the instant they were on the page, then immediately vanished as the story kept going.  The villain is not quite fleshed out enough for me, but everything else is great.  It’s funny, it’s fast-moving but…is hearty the right word?  Like a stew, the plot’s thick and filling.  I think James will definitely pick up the Dresden Files crowd with this one, and blow past some of the others in the genre who aren’t quite giving us what we want.

So look for it!

Next up: everything else I just said, and OMG MADDADAM SHIPS IN ONE MORE DAY!!!

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