Saturday, December 19, 2009

Review: Horns by Joe Hill

I'm not usually one to get swept up in a frenzy bandwagon read, but the last time I followed the recommendations of my fellow TLs at the bookstore, I ended up reading the terrific (and now critically overlooked) The Magicians by Lev Grossman.

The six of us have fairly diverse tastes, and because we're always picking up new stuff, it's rare for any two of us to be reading the same thing around the same time, let alone three or four of us. Sure, there's always new books we're talking up, and each of us is almost always lobbying the others to read something so fantastic, so well-written, so thrilling, so entertaining, so funny.... etc. When a book takes the manager staff by storm, it deserves a little attention.

When Chris, our general manager, received several advanced copies of the upcoming Joe Hill book, she was ecstatic to hand them out to us. I took a copy not because I'm a huge Joe Hill fan - I haven't read Heart-Shaped Box, though I have enjoyed the few of his short stories I've read - but because I'm almost always willing to read anything having to do with the Devil. Also, I figured I might want to read it before Hill's appearance at our store in March. And Chris couldn't stop raving about it, so I thought it was worth having a copy on hand if the buzz continued to build.

And it did. But truthfully, being as awash in the upcoming 2010 kids' books coming out, I never would have been able to get to this book before March had it not been for one very priming factor:

I'm burned out on kids' books.

Sad but true. Finishing up the must-reads of 2009 while simultaneously tackling the first of the must-reads for 2010, as well as trying to keep up with the reading for my store-sponsored kids' book clubs and the ever pressing Shelf Awareness Reading Challenge, I've been covered in an avalanche of kids and young adult reading... and I'm still nowhere near where I want to be.

I've read so many terrific kids' books. Books entertaining, silly, sad, moving, thrilling, even frightening. I've had moments of reading this past year that have remained with me since their conception. Even now, reading a little piece of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate or When You Reach Me or Catching Fire will send my body into pulses of goosebumps. The other day, while pitching the positives of Kate DiCamillo's latest, The Magician's Elephant, I realized that every element I attributed to the text - beauty, profound and lovely, but also equally comprised of cold and of loneliness - was absolutely true, and that this was truly a book that any reader could fall in love with.

But trying to keep up with an ever-growing supply of new, hot titles to read has numbed me a bit to the subtle charms of the recent kids' books I've picked up, and that has made me hesitant to start new reads until I recharge my enthusiasm.

I also suffer a little bit of deprivation having to do with the lack of darkness in so much of kids' lit. Every once in a while, a YA book can surprise you with its demons - The Hunger Games or The Chaos Walking Trilogy or The Graveyard Book - but mostly it steers clear of really dangerous ideas and plotlines. Sometimes what I want to read is the literary equivalent of a punch to the gut, and that doesn't happen to often in books meant for a younger audience.

Hence, Horns. Now that you've read my life story, you're probably wondering why I'd bother going into such detail about the whys of reading this fantastic new book.

Well, if I wanted a punch to the gut, I received it and more. A promising first chapter got me thinking that this would be one of those "you've just got to read this" books, in the effect that Hill could pull off a premise whose directions could vary wildly in scope, tone, and quality.

Ig Perrish wakes up with a raging hangover and a pair of horns growing out of his head. A night of hard drinking to console himself about the anniversary of his girlfriend's unsolved murder remains a mystery, as does the appearance of the horns and his sudden strange effect ont he people he comes into contact with. After a series of odd interactions where complete strangers tell him the deepest and darkest of their secret actions and desires, Ig makes a trip to his parents' house where he encounters surprising and unexpected truths from his family, including the identity of his girlfriend's murderer.

Just as every culture has their own way of understanding and interpreting "The Devil," Hill creates his own version, this one with a compassionate streak, an affinity and affection for the serpents who seek him out, a snarky sense of humor and rock'n'roll soundtrack. Hill also effectively withholds actually coming to the devil conclusion until long after his readers have made that decision for themselves, which is nice because it doesn't make the issue a forgone conclusion - after a while it would be easy to take for granted Ig's condition, but Hill's a better author than that.

What he does give us is a complex main character whose previous virtues as a human being were both innate and coincidental. It's a conclusion that doesn't come up much in high concept mysteries and thrillers - how people are as much defined by the evil they don't do, and how the line between what a person is capable of doing is never fixed, never permanent, and almost always dissolving in the murky waters of doubt, confusion and anger.

Hill pulls off his big concept, although not without faults. The book is divided into sections each following their own narrative thought - a section telling the story of Ig as a fifteen year-old, meeting his best friend, Lee, and his future girlfriend, Merrin, as well as exploring the relationship between him and his older brother, Terry. A later section changes course entirely, inhabiting the mind and memories of another character, and it is in this section that Hill gets some of his best and slowest moments - while it is key to telling the story, the section drags, especially as placed so close to the concluding action of the primary plot. I found myself fighting the urge to skim longer paragraphs of description, as if they represented walls of distraction obstructing the course to the answers and actions I wanted most to reach.

Of course this is, truly, a minor complaint. If a storyteller has so captivated you to the point of irritation in not being delivered answers straight away, then he's obviously doing many, many things right. Hill gets points for using explicit violence and language effectively, naturally enough to be the part of everyday vernacular and extraordinary circumstances, but not so much as to be distractingly crass or off-puttingly vulgar. One could be off put by the rampant misogyny, but in a tale exploring the hidden natures of good and evil lying within everyone, issues between genders are inevitably going to occur, and in volatile expressions of hate, disgust, and desire.

It's a relief to read a thriller about morality that doesn't pretend to fully comprehend or espouse its theories. Notions of good and evil are just that - elements of thought, some layered one upon another upon another, roughly resembling something like religion, spirituality, morality, evilness or goodness.

While my co-worker, Maureen, said it gave her nightmares, I didn't find the text dauntingly frightening. It messes with you, certainly - any good fantastical tale of good and evil really should screw with your mind - but I see this more as a potboiler with thriller elements than a straightforward horror. Or perhaps a horror for mystery lovers. Or a horror for those who love religious metaphors and themes.

Whether it's a horror, mystery, thriller, religious parable, I like mine dark humored, violent, and more than a little gritty. I needed to get my reading hands a little dirty, and this novel did the trick.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Heart is a Lazy Blogger

To any and all loyal readers, please excuse my recent blog negligence. To explain:
1. I work in retail at a large independent bookseller.
2. I manage the children's department of said bookstore. In addition to the wide array of books we carry, we also feature a huge variety of toys and merchandise for babies to teenagers.
3. It's the holiday season.

So please forgive me if I'm a bit slow to update the page. I promise, I'll be adding a bunch of posts late this week/early next week, especially as things slow down at work.

But right now, I admit, I'm a little booked out. I need to recharge my reading buzz, refuel my writing tanks, then I'll be back full blast. Hopefully my metaphors will improve as well!

Read recently:
- Lips Touch:Three Times by Laini Taylor
-Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
- Horns by Joe Hill (long awaiting follow-up to Heart-Shaped Box, out in February)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

It's hard to turn the page when your fingers are frozen...

We have held off turning our heat on, fearing overwhelming gas bills in addition to the large electricity tab running every month. But the cold has proved itself a constant, and our efforts to stave off the chill in our apartment have gone largely unrewarded. This morning, the space heater, which I have taken to snuggling like a romantic partner, broke down.

So it's me, a heating pad, a sea of blankets, and an effort to read without exposing my fingers. Maybe the Snuggie people have it right - I am having trouble moving my arms without losing some of the blanket's protection. Still, I will not pay twenty bucks to wear a robe backwards, even if it means reading underneath the blanket... and missing out on a cool and useful complimentary booklight.

This week has been a fairly good one for reading. I finished Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go last weekend, followed it up with the surprising The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, Francisco Stork's follow-up to this year's acclaimed Marcelo in the Real World. I'm now a bit more than halfway through Michael Adams' funny and brisk year-long quest to find the worst movie ever made, Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies. Adams' doesn't have the innate charm of other year chroniclers, notably AJ Jacobs, and the heart of the text doesn't completely make-up for the format's limitations, but still, it's an easygoing, even compelling study of what makes a "bad" film and what makes a truly terrible film, told with enthusiasm by the likable Adams.

If I don't freeze to death, I'll finish that one today. Then it's back on kids' upcoming releases. There's a new one coming out by Esperanza Rising author Pam Munoz Ryan that I've got to check out, and several from Random House that look great. I also might give Scott Westerfield's Leviathan a shot. I've been in a bit of a steampunk mood, ever since discovering this fantastic Etsy shop, but because I'd have to finish The Court of the Air to read its just released follow-up, maybe I'll stick with the new Westerfield.

And of course, there's always book #2 in the Shelf Discovery Reading Challenge. Oh, and I have to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid before Mother-Daughter Book Club on Thursday.

So much to read, so little time, so little heat. Let's hope that gets fixed soon.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review: Split by Swati Avasthi

No matter how much young adult literature I read, it's still sometimes difficult to deal with the matter of expectations. I'm not of the mindset that you have to lower your expectations when reading children's literature. Actually, I often experience the opposite: I appreciate a well written adult book, but when a work of literature intended for a young audience really works, I find myself even more inspired by it than its possible adult counterparts.

Maybe it's because so many people underestimate the intelligence of young readers, underestimate their abilities to discern quality from what they read, that when a children's book holds such complexities and depth of story and character, I'm relieved that not only was the writer talented and creative enough of a storyteller to give a young audience something it really deserves, something it really needs, but that there was a publisher that saw the potential in the book, that there were other people behind the book, pushing it forward, paving the road to its eventual audience. I'm relieved that there are people out there that really give a damn about what children are reading and want to provide them with the very best that kids' lit can offer.

But expectations... they can still be trouble. Whereas my expectations as far as quality of writing hardly ever differ between literature intended for adults or literature intended for children, sometimes I have to accept that the way information is conveyed to an audience may depend on the age of the target demographic. When young adult books focus on a serious topic, there must be some acceptance of the fact that this will probably be handled in a way that is going to teach a lesson. It's just a matter of fact in YA lit. But serious topics are usually met with eventual preachiness or life-building, lesson learning coming-of-age.

There are sophisticated ways that this is done, of course. I recently had the joy of reading Sherman Alexie's excellent, National Book Award - winning YA book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and I was really impressed by how well Alexie works in the life lessons learned by Arnold Spirit. The way the book weaves flooring moments of crushing reality with exuberant bursts of friendship, love, hope, and humor, so much humor, often all of it within pages of another, and yet, nothing feels disconnected or haltingly incongruous. And yes, the main character learns life lessons. A lot of them, actually. But the novel doesn't seem to screech to halt every time Arnold has an epiphany of one kind or another.

Split by Swati Avasthi is not quite as skillfully handled. The story of two brothers, reconnecting after years of separation due to the physical and emotional abuse inflicted upon them by their father, never goes into full on After-School Special mode, but it also falls flat on its mild attempts at wryness or humor. Jace, the younger brother, is kicked out of his house after physically challenging his father, and he gets into his car and drives thousands of miles to his brother's apartment in Albuquerque. He's carrying with him almost nothing except the address to his brother's place, the little bit of money his mother could sneak him, and the revolving wheel of tormenting memories, recollections of his father's abuse on him, his mother, his older brother, and Jace's subsequent destructive relationship with his high school girlfriend, Lauren.

Jace's older brother hesitantly welcomes him, and from then on, it's the slow-moving transformation between an almost-man, desperately trying to ignore what he ran away from, and his teenage brother who can't shake lose what he only just left behind.

To the credit of the author: So many YA books about abuse border on exploitive. It's something I deplore so much about these books that purport to be doing something cautionary, even important, but are simultaneously reveling in the "how bad it can be" scenario. Split never gets overly graphic or needlessly specific. It doesn't overwhelm with the dirty details. Avasthi allows the small details to compensate in the large spans where there are no major revelations, and this allows the reader to process the information gradually, in the same way Jace reluctantly allows himself to remember or dwell on the memories of his life back in Chicago. His brother is even slower to admit to certain details, but as the siblings go beyond living civilly together, they allow themselves to divulge long-hidden details of the abuse and subsequent escapes.

Avasthi also does well in examining how a family's tradition of abuse can lead to long-term problems with physical violence and aggression in the children of the abusers. Jace is running from this violence, but it lives within him, and the prospect of him becoming his father is even more terrifying than the original monster himself.

What drags the novel down are stretches of stiff dialogue. The awkward tension between Jace and his brother is understandable, expected, and natural in its restrictiveness... but it makes for some fairly dull passages. The problem recurs in almost every conversation in the book, whether it's between Jace and his brother, Jace and his brother's girlfriend, social worker/teacher/den mother Miriam, or Jace and his would-be love interest, Dakota. Whether he's talking through his problems, actively avoiding talking about his problems, or even flirting with a girl he likes, Avasthi never really gives Jace a credible voice. For how interesting his inner thought process can be, Jace, personality-wise, is a bit flat. He's good at soccer. He's naturally charming with girls. He's intelligent, seemingly, likes to take photos... He's a lot of details with a big backstory, something overbearingly awful to overcome. As much as find out about the character, he never quite comes alive.

Because these characters never quite go beyond the archetypes they're inhabiting - victim, survivor, caretaker, motivating beautiful girl -any emotional catharsis is reached in a series of almost maddeningly stiff dialogue. It seems to be Avasthi's limitation as a storyteller and not necessarily the limitations of the story chosen to tell - there is a wealth of interest in Split, but it's mishandled in a series of slight ways, all of which add up to an imperfect, but readable, piece of debut YA fiction.