Random Review: The Disenchantments

This book is legit.

The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour

Colby, Bev, Meg, and Alexa have just graduated from high school, and they’re going on tour of the Pacific Northwest in a turquoise Volkswagen bus named Melinda. The Disenchantments are a terrible riot-grrl inspired band with their own pet boy/chauffeur/truth-speaker.  They have less than two weeks to tour the Pacific Northwest before they deposit Meg at college in Portland, Alexa returns to S.F. and high school, and Colby and Bev fly to Europe for Big Adventure (and tulips). So when Bev informs Colby on their first day out of the city that she’ll be going to college at RISD instead of to Europe , it not only crushes his heart but throws his whole future (and the tour) into question. The show must go on and as Melinda wends her way along the California coast the four teenagers learn about each other and themselves, the world outside San Francisco and high school, and the difference between dreaming big and doing big.

A few weeks ago I read Lola and the Boy Next Door, and noted that the San Francisco of that novel was a sort of Disney-fied, Full House version of the real deal. The Disenchantments is legit. By the eighteenth page I knew that a Bay Area native had written this book, and checking out the author blurb confirmed. It’s in the locations, the setting description, the way that the characters view themselves and others…it’s in the dialogue:

“Why the fuck not steal a tool kit? That shit is useful.”

I laughed out loud so many time reading this novel just because the venues, conversations, and observations are just so dead-on.  The Disenchantments tour takes them up the California coast to Arcata, a truly singular place where I finished my college degree. Again, it was clear that the author had not only been to Arcata, but actually lived there. It would be so easy to slip into stereotypes for that little city where the sixties never ended.  The description of driving into Fort Bragg, scene of The Disenchantments first disenchanting experience, where the world goes gray is hilariously accurate.

The novel is very rich due to the author’s genuine familiarity with the people and places she is writing about: the hopelessness of Fort Bragg, the anything-can-happen weirdness of Arcata*, the initial appeal and swift boredom of Weaverville, and the clean promise of Portland. The girls and Colby discover that nothing about their summer is turning into what they thought it would be, but in some ways it’s better, because it’s real. Each of the characters has a distinct perspective and journey, and LaCour blends these and their journey together into a rich, true-to-life narrative.

The character development in this novel is outstanding. Each character is so well written that by novel’s end I felt like I could predict what each would do in any given situation. La Cour juggles the complexities of the different relationships beautifully: Alexa and Meg as sisters who are different but loving, Colby’s love for Bev but his uncertainty about her feelings, Bev as the guarded frontwoman for the band and social group. It stirred up a lot of emotion: I felt angry, happy, sad, melancholy, hopeful…the full range while reading this novel.

It’s a beautiful journey written with love by an insider. East-Coasters just don’t write West-Coasters like this. Satisfying.

*Café Mokka (the Finnish hot tubs) is a real place, The Alibi serves nasty-delicious bar/comfort food, and The Disenchantments probably would have played The Green House.

Chair Rating: 

Fun and fabulous, if it's your style.

Fun and fabulous, if it’s your style.

Random Review: The Maze Runner

I hate that the cover is so pretty. I love ivy and an orange-and-green color combo. They made it look SO good!

The book of bad habits.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

When Thomas wakes up in a darkened elevator, he has no memory of who he is or where he comes from. The elevator takes him to a high-walled courtyard, The Glade, full of self-governing adolescent boys who have no memories of their prior lives either. He is informed that a new boy arrives every month. Beyond The Glade is a maze: explored by Runners each day, filled with monsters each night. The day after Thomas’ arrival an unconscious hot girl shows up in the elevator clutching a note informing the boys that she will be the last. What follows is a race against time to solve the maze before resources run out or monsters overrun The Glade.

This book was really hard to finish. The ideas were promising, and I had the feeling that things were just about to get exciting in a few pages…unfortunately I had that feeling all the way through with absolutely no payoff.

Let me state, once and for all, that this book has absolutely nothing in common with Lord of the Flies. Nothing. If you love that book (like I do) and were considering this one because you’ve heard it was in a similar vein, you’ve been bamboozled. Lord of the Flies has depth, sociological commentary, and psychological suspense. The Maze Runner doesn’t.

What it does have are many, many poor choices that rob the narrative of any excitement or suspense. I am afraid of writing a book like this, and I often found myself cringing when Dashner’s novel displayed an unchecked bad habit that I am prone to myself. I am going to list the poor choices for convenience:

1. This should have been a short story. If Dashner wasn’t interested in, or up to the task of, developing his characters as more than two-dimensional personalities; he should have told his tale in a short format to keep the focus on the events. Social dynamics between Gladers are superficial, particularly given how long most of them have been living together in stressful circumstances. Particularly irritating is the way The Gladers refuse to explain anything of what they know about their situation to Thomas. It seems like a pointless attempt to create conflict and suspense, and it is one that fails.

2. Dashner gives away all his suspense and conflict early on. Rather than letting Grievers, the deadly monsters that roam the maze, be a mysterious entity that goes bump in the night until Thomas gets to enter the maze himself; Thomas is shown a Griever through a window on the day he arrives. Teresa, who could brew conflict based on her gender alone, is dropped straight into a coma on arrival and kept off-screen unless it is time for Thomas to interact with her. A very poor choice. The fact that she arrives the very day after Thomas is also a poor choice, because he has yet to learn anything about Glader life. What could have been a huge shock to a settled-in Thomas with a month in the Glade was instead a throwaway moment.

3. Pacing. Holy moly. Dashner and I have something in common with our writing. I have a tendency to slip into a moment-by-moment description of events if I am not being careful. This makes for a bone dry read, and is a terrible disservice to story. I only care what a character ate for lunch if it tells me something about the character. Katniss’ focus on food underscored the general scarcity of it in her daily life, Harriet the Spy’s tomato sandwiches were a quirk of her generally independent personality. Ditto anything else the character does. It only matters to me if it matters to the story. Dashner drags the reader through many dull hours and frustrating conversations, just to get to “wow” moments that fail to thrill because the reader has become so disinterested.

4. The author shows his ass with the character of Teresa. It tells me an awful lot about how an author sees women when he drops a single female character into a story, makes her beautiful, takes away her ability to speak, and earmarks her for the “hero” (and none of the other characters challenge this assumption). It reminded me of Arya in Eragon: she’s there because the hero needs a hot babe to ride into the sunset with, no matter how little sense it actually makes in the context of the story. That is not authentic, that is an emotionally stunted little boy’s fantasy. The way the story is written Thomas basically has “dibs”.

5. Thomas’ self-reflection read like the author describing the character of Thomas to the reader. That doesn’t work in first-person. Awkward. Whenever Thomas had a good character moment: did something brave, devised a clever solution, or worked tirelessly; it was undercut by his previous musings that despite his lack of memory he felt like he was brave/smart/persistent. I tend to think of writing characters like creating a great drawing: if you do a good job rendering the values, bringing out the darks and lights, you don’t need to draw lines.

6. Spiked slugs aren’t scary.

This book was just so frustrating, particularly since I saw some of my own bad writing habits on every page. I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone, because there are so many good sci-fi/dystopian stories with similar themes that are well-written. I will not be picking up The Scorch Trials.

If you would like to read a book like The Maze Runner, but well-written, check out William Sleator’s House of Stairs. He did it better twenty years ago.

Chair Rating:

Could have been epic, but it’s fundamentally flawed.

Top Ten Tuesdays: Gone Wild!

I’m not really feeling the topic set forth by The Broke and the Bookish this week, Top Ten Series I Have Not Yet Finished, because I feel like it would just result in a list that repeats a lot of things I have already written here. So I’m going off-script.

When I’m working to deadline on a fine art piece, I have a tendency to pick out a show on Netflix and let it run. The background noise for my latest piece was The Vampire Diaries, a show I had avoided due to assumed similarities with True Blood and Twilight. Plus, as ever, I’m just not that into vampires. The Vampire Diaries (henceforth referred to as VD) isn’t much like Twilight at all, really  (aside from leads selected to replicate the look of that Stewart/Pattinson pairing). VD milks the “sexiness” of the vampire mythos for all it’s worth: gangly girls bone brooding, bouffanted boys with abandon. The show is packed with capital-D Drama and scandalous plotlines, grotesque and violent deaths, and characters with personalities that are not conditionally based upon their romantic entanglements.

“What does all this have to do with Top Ten Tuesdays?” you might wonder. It’s almost October, and soon the blessed end of the infernal saga will hit theaters. Watching VD has given me a few ideas as to what could be done to make Twilight a passable story, so this week it’s:

Top Ten Ways to Make Twilight Less Scary (Bad)

1. Bella needs to get a life. Really, the girl was in a coma long before Edward abandoned her in New Moon. She wasn’t looking forward to anything: college, adulthood, marriage, children, a job, the prom, the school play… She liked to read, but only books she had already read. I’m not even sure she liked it, she never displayed enjoyment of any activity, I think she just re-read her books because even she knew staring at the wall was pathetic. One time she stood around while other people played baseball. The point is, the girl needs her own interests so that the reader isn’t bored to tears by her and we understand why a boy might find her compelling enough for more than one date (much less all the boys).

Elena on VD is gorgeous enough to entice two vampires, but she also participates in school activities and the town’s social events, and has her own group of friends who are initially independent of the vampires. She works to maintain these friendships despite having acquired a boyfriend. Just when the drama gets absurdly thick on this show, she will do something not related to her boyfriend like help at a fundraising car wash or participate in a pageant that was really important to her deceased mother. The show is more interesting because she is more interesting.

2. People need to die. People the reader cares about, people Bella cares about. Jacob, one of the Cullens (but not Emmet or Rosalie), Charlie or Renée. There is no tension or suspense in Twilight because at the end of every book, all the people who are closest to Bella end up safe and sound. The only deaths/injuries are people designated “bad”, or tertiary characters who exist in name only. To raise the stakes, someone Bella loves has got to die.

J.K. Rowling killed off Fred, Lupin, Tonks, Sirius, even Hedwig! VD killed Bonnie’s Grams (haha), among others. For the love story to be forbidden and exciting, there has to be a legitimate danger that Bella’s lust love overcomes.

3. Jacob needs to be a viable option. New Moon and Eclipse would both have been a hell of a lot more interesting if Bella, rather than crying herself into a deeper coma on the forest floor, had taken up with Jacob in Edward’s absence. If they had actually dated, rather than Jacob aiding and abetting Bella’s masochistic delusion while harboring hope that she might someday upgrade him from the friends ladder. How much more suspenseful if she has a nice cozy relationship with Jacob built on movie dates, beach bonfires, and mutually consensual heavy petting (or premarital sex, I don’t judge!). Jacob could have a secret literary side that leads him to give Bella new books like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina to read, and he could write her romantic ballads on the guitar. When Bella gets the call that Edward is contemplating death by public sparkling will she go? Does she still care?

4. Bella needs more to lose by turning into a vampire/staying with Edward. Numbers 1, 2, and 3 feed into this. As the series stands, all Bella will really lose if she turns is her shitty family situation. Ultimately not even that. She briefly contemplates a life she might live with Jacob, with children and family, growing old as part of a loving tight-knit community. It’s all hypothetical. She needs to actually have everything to lose: loving family, a prominent place in her community, the ability to mix in society and attend college, future children, a career she loves, success in the arts or athletics, another man she truly loves…even if it turns out differently she needs to believe that she is sacrificing those things when she chooses Edward. To make it really count. When she has next to nothing to lose and everything to gain by choosing Edward, it’s not even a story when she chooses him.

5. Edward needs to lose his shit. Edward needs to hurt someone or something Bella loves in a fit of vampiric hunger. He needs to go full Heathcliff and become truly dangerous to the reader and Bella. Accidentally hurting Bella while saving her from Jasper doesn’t count.

6. Bella needs to get some legit girlfriends. The kind of girls who tell you to kick your boyfriend to the curb when he disconnects your alternator in an attempt to dictate whom you are allowed to visit. Girls she can have sleepovers with to talk about all of the stupid things going through her head. Girlfriends who know her well enough to call her on her crap.

7. Edward’s family needs to get on board with Rosalie. In the spirit of adding tension and danger to the story, things would be a lot more dire if Edward’s family were trying to eat Bella whenever she comes over for lunch. On the low-level drama tip, they could just be crazy disapproving of him dating a human. Bonus points for anyone who disapproves of Bella in particular, rather than humans in general.

8. Someone else should turn Bella. Edward turning Bella to save her life is all well and good, but how is he going to mope over such a heroic act? Victoria should have gotten a bite out of Bella before she croaked, to give Edward something else to feel guilty about. Eclipse could have closed with that and the whole battle would have taken on a tragic, rather than anticlimactic, air. If you wanted to go full soap opera and still give Bella a baby by Saga’s end, she could be secretly pregnant by Jacob at the time of the turn (knocked up during New Moon). Edward wouldn’t know because he can’t read Bella’s mind, and she hadn’t worked up the nerve to tell him yet. What effect will Bella’s new vampirism have on half-werewolf spawn? Lots of potential drama with Jacob, and the convenient elimination of that icky plotline where he loves Bella’s egg (how convenient that he loved the exact one, the only one of thousands, which was fertilized).

9. Jacob needs to imprint on Bella. Not any fetuses she might produce. Which might lead him to self destruct. Really, though. If you’re going to have a love triangle, let’s make it equilateral. Scalene ain’t cuttin’ it. It could happen in New Moon, just after he pulls her out of her breakup funk and starts turning into a werewolf. She could experience that transcendent, all-consuming love before Edward comes back to gaze at her moodily and wear her like a backpack. Bella must know that by choosing Edward she is tearing Jacob’s heart into teeny, tiny, squishy little pieces and he will pine forever. She and Edward have to be so fated, or so perfectly matched in their weirdness, that it trumps Jacob’s fate. I want agony, dammit!

10. Breaking Dawn needs to disappear. Even with my proposed sweeping changes to the plot and characters of this saga, there isn’t enough material to support that massive fourth book. Nothing but a cash grab, and anyone who says otherwise is gettin’ some of the cash.

Top Ten Tuesdays: Now on Wednesdays!

I apologize for my continued tardiness with these posts (and my lack of other content). I have a deadline for a print exchange looming in a few days and I’ve been engraving like there’s no tomorrow. Up one index-finger callous and middle-finger blister, plus two sore elbows. Once I am done I promise that this blog will roar back to life with lots of reviews on all the books I’ve been reading, posts of my engraving work, and updates on my writing/bookish plans for fall. But for now, I owe you a list of ten things.

Top Ten People I Wish Would Just Write Another Book Already

1. Harper Lee

What? She’s still around! Maybe she only had one story to tell but it was such a good one that I can’t help wishing for more.

2. Brenna Yovanoff

The Replacement was creepy and modern and all of her characters jumped right off the page as totally believable high-schoolers of their respective genders. What gives, Yovanoff? Where’s the next book? I need more of your creepiness in my life.

3. Janet Fitch

I’ve had enough time to start appreciating Paint it Black, but I’d really appreciate another one of her books to read to pieces.

4. Scott Westerfeld

I’ve read everything he’s got. Vampires, plastic-surgery dystopia, steampunk re-imaginings of World War I (the less popular of the world wars, as far as the entertainment industry is concerned). I need a fix, Scott. Hook me up.

5. Holly Black

Despite being a late adopter (due to the covers’ similarities to those of the Twilight series), I really enjoyed her Modern Faerie Tales. It looks like she’s working on a few things, and I’m looking forward to reading whatever she publishes next.

6. Annette Curtis Klaus

You can’t just turn out a YA novel with as much emotional depth and visceral imagery as Blood and Chocolate, and then stick to short fiction! That’s just cruel.

7. Suzanne Collins

Gregor was a fine adventure, and the Hunger Games are a bona fide phenomenon, but it’s time to see what other shocking delights Ms. Collins has knocking around her noggin.

8. Rob Thomas

I might be willing to sacrifice a limb if he would just take a break from TV to write another YA novel.

9. Laurie Keller

Her books make me giggle, and it looks like she just published one today! Hooray, wish granted.

10. Me

A total cop-out considering that I’ve only just begun editing my first novel, but U have two ideas knocking around in my head and I am itching to get started. One would be a sequel to my first novel, and the other…well I’m not quite sure if it’s a short story, novella, or novel just yet.

As always, thanks to The Broke and The Bookish (even though I totally blew off their topic for the week).

Top Ten Tuesdays: Brain Busters

Back again with another fine Top Ten Tuesday. I love thinking books (and movies) so this one should be a cinch! Thanks, as always, to The Broke and The Bookish for keeping this top ten train a-runnin’.

Top Ten Books That Made Me Think

1. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

I read this one to my husband while we drove from our remote coastal college town back to our suburban hometown for Thanksgiving. Thanks to the wreck of a propane truck on the 101 (which has no alternate routes for hundreds of miles), we got stuck on the road just outside Willits for hours and had time to not only finish the book, but discuss it in detail. This led to the formation of our Zombie Apocalypse Survival Plan. Friends were informed of their roles via text.

2. Battle Royale by Koushun Takami (as translated by Yuji Oniki)

This was just straight-up “What would I do?” musing. If I found myself in the position of being forced to fight my peers to the death, without weeks to prepare or review my strengths, in an unknown landscape and in possession of a randomly assigned weapon. The range of characters in the novel allows for the exploration of an incredible number of responses to an unbelievable situation.

3. Feed by M.T. Anderson

This is one that I think of often, though not consciously. I will see someone do something, hear a conversation or political soundbite, or read an article that reminds me of a passage from this well-observed novel. And then I despair for the future of America (and possibly humanity).

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I think of To Kill a Mockingbird often, for so many reasons. When I think about strong character and virtue I think of Atticus’ courage and integrity. When I think of childhood with my brother I think of Jem and Scout (mostly the baton-breaking). When I am reminded of how small and selfish people can be, or the awful things they will do out of fear, I think of the Ewells. When I think about conformity, Dolphus Raymond comes to mind. I could come up with a dozen more examples, but one thing I know is true: it is weird that I identify most strongly with Scout and Boo Radley.

5. White Oleander by Janet Fitch

I have read my copy of this book to pieces, and hardly a day passes without a line of Fitch’s prose drifting through my mind. It was the first time I read a book and felt like my life had been laid bare. That I had that “How did she know?” moment, wondering about an author. Between Astrid’s observation and experience, and Ingrid’s epistolary instruction, there is plenty to mull over long after the last page is turned.

6. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Rumination on what the modern American finds worthy of worship, or worships without conscious thought.

7. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

I often find myself reflecting on the cultural and generational gap between Tan’s mothers and daughters in this novel. Their desire to please and care for one another, and their sometimes conflicting desires for independence and understanding. Hard-earned wisdom and secrets lost in translation.

8. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

One of the most satisfying things about reading the entire series to my husband was getting to discuss it with him. From the big themes like good vs. evil and the shades of gray in-between, to the minutiae of who made a good couple and why the epilogue makes me mad.

9. Higher Education by Charles Sheffield and Jerry Pournelle

As someone who works in education, after being the first in my extended family to attend college (and still the only one to graduate), I have a particular interest in speculative fiction based on the failure of the education system. Many times during my days at various educational sites scenes from this novel or certain lines will flash through my head. Based on my experience substituting today, I am still not convinced that this future is so implausible.

10. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

I gave this book a lot of thought as a child because I seriously considered running away on multiple occasions. I fully intended to take my little brother with me and I wanted to be just as well-prepared as Claudia. She really picked the primo hideout, and was quite a successful runaway in terms of time on the lam before being returned home.

Top Ten Tuesdays: Fall Reading

Technically I wrote this yesterday, but I wanted to link it up all pretty before posting. Looks like that’s not gonna happen. It still counts!

I’m still plowing through the books on my Summer list, but Fall is less than three weeks away! The ladies at The Broke and the Bookish tell me it’s time for a Fall TBR list, so here goes:

1 & 2. Radiant Shadows and Darkest Mercy, Wicked Lovely series, by Melissa Marr. Time to finish this series once and for all.

3. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. Lola and the Boy Next Door was too cute for me not to give this one a try, too!

4. Ariel by Sylvia Plath. I read The Bell Jar awhile back, and I’ve been wanting to read Ariel since I heard that Matthew Weiner had January Jones read it to inform her performance of Betty Draper during Season 2 of Mad Men. I am one of the few viewers with a lot of sympathy for Betty, and I think January Jones portrays her with a great deal of nuance.

5. Pie It Forward: Pies, Tarts, Tortes, Galettes, and Other Pastries Reinvented by Gesine Bullock-Prado. If I were a steadier sort of gal, I’d love to be a pastry chef. Making beautiful and delicious treats for people to savor every day. Her first cookbook, Sugar Baby, was a hilarious read and beautifully designed. The recipes are aces.

6. A History of Civilizations by Fernand Braudel. It’s been sitting neglected on my bookshelf in favor of fiction too long. Fall is a good time for thinking books.

7. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. I’m going to give it one more try. I was really enjoying it up until the very graphic public-rape scene, and I just couldn’t pick it back up again. A shame, because the science-fiction/dystopia aspect with mutated crops and the Asian sociology aspect were really interesting up until that point.

8. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. This was on my Summer list, but it doesn’t even come out for two more weeks!

9. The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories by Tessa Gratton, Brenna Yovanoff, and Maggie Stiefvater. I enjoyed these authors short stories as The Merry Sisters of Fate, and I kinda miss them now that they are all big, important, published YA authors.

10. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Seems like a good, autumnal read.

Look

I’ve been tagged! The latest meme making the rounds of the writerly blogs is all about looks. The tagged must post the first instance of the word “look” in their manuscript (and the paragraph around it). Unfortunately I have already posted the (unedited) prologue of my manuscript here previously, which contains the word in question. To keep things fresh, I’m going to post the first instance of that word in my first chapter:

“No promises.” He gave me half a smile, swinging the cart around to head back. He looked a little silly, six feet four inches of gangly guy slouching behind a cart designed for a woman a full foot shorter. Everyone I had talked to had a reason for working here, nobody planned on making a career out of it. Dozens of people working their way through school, part-timing it to get a discount while they renovated their homes, kids straight out of high school just trying to stay afloat until they found something better.  I wondered what brought Silas to my neck of the woods.

A big thank you to Kristen at A Scenic Route for thinking of me! 

I don’t know too many writers I can tag, other than Kristen, but I’d love to see something from:

T.L. Albright

I know that most of the other writers whose blogs I frequent have already done this one, so I guess I will leave it at that. If any of my readers happen to be writers and would like to participate, let me know in the comments and I will properly tag you!