Squee! To Die for Moonlight by Sarah Monette

A short post, entirely to mention something I apparently missed when it was released: There’s a new Kyle Murchison Booth story! To Die for Moonlight, published by the wonderful folks at Apex Magazine.

If you haven’t read any Booth before, you’re in for a treat. I reviewed “White Charles” last year (still my favorite of the Booth stories) but I really don’t think you can go wrong with this, not at all.

And now, I’ll be off to read it. Good night, good night, and happy hauntings.

Make ‘Em Want What You Give ‘Em: libraries, collection philosophy, and culture

This isn’t a book review, but it is a post spun off of a book. It’s also a post about libraries, which is one of those things I keep meaning to write about more, so there.

A few weeks ago I read The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser, a book about the dangers of the personalized web that we’ve all been opted in to without our consent. Pariser lays out the economic models of the free services we all use online every day – primarily Google and Facebook – and describes the ways that these companies’ efforts to put click-worthy links in front of us turn our lives into smaller, less diverse places. This is a huge, fascinating subject, but one example in particular caught my eye.

At one point, Pariser compares the modus operandi of two editorial boards: that of the New York Times, the venerable institution of newsworthiness, and that of Gawker, the online media network that brings you Lifehacker, Gizmodo, and Jezebel. At the New York Times, they don’t track statistics on individual articles, because the assumption is that the editor assigned that article for a reason and if the editor thinks people ought to read about it, the paper’s staff will write about it. At Gawker, they track the popularity of current articles on a big flat-screen TV in the office and if you don’t write enough articles that make it onto the Big Board, you’ll be looking for work elsewhere. The “give ‘em what they want” philosophy of Gawker, Pariser argues, is disastrous when applied on a big scale, because people tend to ignore things they know they “should” read in favor of something easy and fun right now. If you skim the paper to get to the sports section, you still see the headlines, he points out, but the chances you’ll see something of serious importance while clicking through a Gawker site are pretty slim.

Leaving aside the relative intellectual merits of Gawker and the NYT for a moment, the phrase “give ‘em what they want” grabbed my attention for a different reason – it’s the predominant philosophy in library collections at the moment, particularly public library collections.

There are good historical reasons for this. Back in the day, you had to check out two nonfiction books for every fiction book the librarian would let you have. Heck, back in the day, there were arguments over whether or not libraries should even carry fiction, because it was clearly just salacious nonsense. Patrons ought to be bettering themselves, after all. Eventually libraries became embarrassed by this attitude, and in the early 90s, the Baltimore County Public Library published about their “Give ‘Em What They Want” philosophy of acquisition: if people want romance novels and DVDs, give it to them! Library patrons are the people who vote us our salaries, after all.

It’s gotten to the point where, when the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado decided that since they were getting screwed so hard by the Big Six publishers over ebooks that they’d just buy a batch from Smashwords instead, they were accused of violating good practice by failing to give people what they want. (No, I don’t understand the argument, either. But they did have to rebut it in an interview in Library Journal.)

Look, I’m not saying that romance novels and DVDs and ebooks aren’t great. Of course they are. I get a lot of less-than-100%-necessary things from my library. But if we spend all our money on romance novels and DVDs and ebooks, where do the books about political engagement and green living and social change come from? Suppose that my library shows low circulation for books on women’s history and civil rights. Does that mean we shouldn’t bother with those topics at all?

I’m not saying we should go back to telling people what they should read, or even what they should enjoy. But another point Pariser made got me thinking. Pariser quotes a study finding that a lot of people will put movies they feel they “should” see, like Citizen Kane and Schindler’s List, on their Netflix queues, but keep bumping movies like The Hangover and Scary Movie 3 up to the top. Now, I haven’t seen Citizen Kane. But I straight-up love Orson Welles. Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil are up there at the top of the list of movies I watched on my film noir binge (so rudely interrupted two years ago when I had to move away from my film history library). I don’t feel like I “should” see Citizen Kane, I want to see it. I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy it. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

And books? My god, I can recommend classics with the best of them. Jane Austen is almost a cliché at this point, but there’s always Dickens (any reader who loved The Sopranos needs to read Dickens), and Elizabeth Gaskell for all those Downton Abbey fans, Charles Maturin for horror geeks, and anyone who hasn’t read Shakespeare since high school really needs to give him another try. (I cannot wait for The Hollow Crown to come out on DVD here in the US, so I can start shoving 1 Henry IV at people. And Ralph Finnes’s Coriolanus has been surprisingly popular.)

I’m not pushing these things on people because I think they “should” read classics, although I do think that a firm grounding in the history of literature makes for a more rewarding reading experience all around. And I don’t think anyone should read classics out of a sense of obligation; I think that’s one of the things that destroys a love of reading. But I love Bleak House and North and South and Persuasion and Melmoth the Wanderer and Titus Andronicus, and if you like the kinds of things that make me like those books, you just might love them too. As librarians, especially those of us who do reader’s advisory, we spend a lot of time keeping up with new books so we can give our patrons the new big thing. But there are old big things that are great, too. Sure, Dickens is a harder sell than Robert Galbrath. Doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

 

If You Have to Start from Nothing, Build On It: Tall Ships Down by Daniel S. Parrott

tall ships downI have a fairly serious boat fetish. I blame it on my dad – when I was little, he owned a small sailboat that we’d take out on the reservoir near town on the weekends. I remember curling up on the cushions in the bow, falling asleep to the sounds of waves on the hull. You can just imagine how excited I was when I discovered, in college, that historical naval fiction about the Napoleonic Wars is a thing. My emotional attachment to the Surprise is profound. One of these days, I’m going to save up and take one of those tall ship cruises. And after reading this, I have a checklist of things I’ll be judging before I set foot on board.

Tall Ships Down tells the stories of five major losses in twentieth-century tall ship sailing, breaking down the failures that led to the loss of the ship (and of the lives of crewmembers, in every case) and the impact these disasters had on traditional sailing activities and regulations. There could be so many things wrong with this book. It could be dry, it could be judgemental, it could be defensive. Tall Ships Down is none of these things: it’s interesting, impartial, and deeply invested in only one thing: making sure these kinds of disasters don’t happen again. And even if you don’t care about sailing ships and do not understand the weather gauge and have not the slightest understanding of the difference between a brig and a barquentine, Parrott’s breakdowns of the failures of complex systems are both fascinating and valuable.

A sailing ship is an incredibly complex system, designed over centuries through trial-and-error to harness the effects of bouyancy and wind resistance to move hundreds of tons of cargo, thousands of square feet of sail, miles of rigging, and countless human beings across the most inhospitable territory on the planet. They work, but we don’t always know why, and sometimes we don’t even know how – this is what happens when the entire social structure supporting these complex machines collapses and is then later revived by a small group of people with a passionate romantic interest in the subject. Parrott isn’t arguing that reviving traditional sail is a bad plan (he’d better not be – he was the captain of the Pride of Baltimore II at the time of writing). He’s arguing that it’s hard, and it’s not really like anything else humans do right now, and that ought to be taken into account.

The stories in this book are a fascinating mix of problems and causes, which Parrott never reduces down into soundbytes, but which I’m going to for the sake of a quick comparison. The Pamir was lost because centuries of experience were ignored in favor of someone’s bright idea of how to change things. The Pride of Baltimore was lost because over-devotion to historical accuracy in the design phase led to a ship that was never going to meet modern assumptions about safety standards. The Albatross and the Marques were lost because no one was bothering to keep track of the effects of the changes made to the ships, and the Maria Asumpta was lost because somebody made the wrong decision on the wrong day. Too much historical accuracy or too little, too many changes or not enough, and the good old-fashioned failure of poor seamanship: Parrott neither tries to find a common thread among them all nor throws up his hands in despair at the lack of one. Some things are not safe, he says, but they are worth doing anyway. And we can learn from past failures to make it safer in the future. He doesn’t lay blame on any individual action for any of these sinkings, not even the master of the Maria Asumpta, who was convicted of manslaughter for his choice of heading. Parrott understands that systems this complex fail in complex ways, and the number of possible contributions to the failures are huge. He does his best to look at each and every one.

If the ultimate causes of the sinkings of these five ships are all different, both the fine details and the broad shapes of the problem stand out with striking uniformity. Choices made by the designers, either in the original building phase or when the ships were retrofitted with new rigs or alterations in purpose (such as the conversion from a cargo vessel to a passenger craft), impact the decisions made by passengers and crew during the voyage, which ultimately contribute, if not to the actual fact of the ship’s sinking, then at least to the speed of it. (All of the ships in this book went down in under five minutes, many in under two.) If you only have one hatch offering ventilation to the living space below decks, and that hatch is complicated to secure completely, then odds are good that that hatch is going to let water in at some point, because you can be sure that people are going to leave it open. If you stow your safety equipment belowdecks and the ship goes down in thirty seconds flat, you don’t have any safety equipment. Everything is fine until the moment that it isn’t, and then it’s too late.

Humans are bad at assessing risk, a theme that shows up over and over again in Parrott’s analyses. If we survived it once, we assume we’ll survive it again. We don’t take into account the fact that if we hadn’t survived it, we wouldn’t be here to make a different decision. But humans also like to do risky things, very often because they’re risky. How do you reconcile the two? By paying close attention to other people’s failures, Parrott argues, and by enshrining those lessons into regulations, requirements, and standards of practice. You can’t just assume that people will do the right thing under pressure. Sometimes there’s no time to do the right thing under pressure. Sometimes the right thing to do is well before the pressure starts. And sometimes, yes, people lose their heads and completely under pressure. Don’t count on humans to be at their best when they’re at their weakest, he says; make sure that the weakest points are shored up first. Give people an opportunity to be their best, and they’ll do it. And it will be worth it.

Why I’m Leaving Goodreads (or, Amazon Continues to Take Over the World)

You’ve probably already heard that Amazon has bought Goodreads. Or rather, Amazon has bought the gigantic mass of customer data represented by Goodreads’ databases. And, as soon as I’m sure I’ve exported all the data I want, I will be deleting my Goodreads account and moving over to LibraryThing.

Amazon has not been the best of friends to the book industry, shall we say. Their early leap on the ebook bandwagon firmly established a price point for ebooks that requires some substantial changes for the publishing industry to cope with (and continues to do damage to the self-published authors Amazon is so fond of taking advantage of promoting). Amazon has been known, multiple times, to pull the buy button from titles published by publishers that they are in negotiations with, thus hurting authors who have no control over these negotiations. The proprietary Kindle ecosystem locks ebook buyers into a single retailer, not allowing them even the chance to support their local bookstores, which are still an important part of the process of discovering and purchasing new books. But just because you’ve paid for a Kindle book doesn’t mean you own it, as more than one reader has found out the hard way.* Although Amazon’s business model relies heavily on consumer-created data, the way that data is handled is in no way transparent.

Beyond just the book business, Amazon is a rotten corporate citizen. They donate less to charity than other corporations their size, use a variety of tactics to avoid paying sales tax, and the conditions in their warehouses are nothing less than horrific. (Seriously, if you follow no other links in this post, follow those two.)

But it’s just doing business! you might say. Surely they have the right to do business as they see fit?

Sure they do. And I have the right to take my business elsewhere, and to recommend that other people do the same.

I stopped doing business with Amazon a couple of years ago. I took down any links to them, I stopped ordering from them, I stopped using them to keep my wishlists, and I’ve done my best to stop doing business with the companies they own (did you know that Amazon owns ABEbooks and The Book Depository, now? Gaaaah). I want nothing more to do with this company. They’re trying to eat the world, and they’re doing a very good job of it.

I know it doesn’t mean much. I know I’m one of a very few people who make the effort to avoid Amazon, and I do cave now and again for the sake of free shipping and the ease of ordering six totally unrelated objects all in one box. But — do you remember the story of the little Dutch boy, who put his finger in the dike and saved the town from flooding? It’s a hugely implausible story, really, there would be more holes in the dike than just the one. In the real world there always are. But I decided long ago that I would rather be that little boy than the person who shrugs and watches the water come pouring in.

 


*The same is technically true for the vast majority of ebooks, given the current legal limbo we live in, but I haven’t heard of any other company abusing the privilege in the same way.

Rock Solid Structure: The Art Forger by Barbara Shapiro

(This is my first in a new series of reviews, to be added to whenever I find something particularly apposite, Novels For the Novelist, in which I recommend books that are good for learning from.)

The Art Forger

Although it doesn’t really have the tension to be a thriller, the characterization to be a drama, or the detail to be an immersive experience, I read The Art Forger in less than twenty-four hours, in the middle of National Novel Writing Month, when I was also writing 2,000 words a day on my own novel. Why? Structure, baby, perfect structure.

Novel structure isn’t sexy. It’s not the kind of thing that gets talked about in reviews unless it’s unusually inventive. In fact, the perfect novel structure is invisible, just like load-bearing pillars in a building vanish into the overall aesthetic. In that case, The Art Forger is one step below perfect structure, because it fits the standard pattern so perfectly that its bones sometimes peek through the skin. If you’re trying to learn how to structure a novel, though, you couldn’t do better than to read this book and make notes of chapters and beats.

Turns out Barbara Shapiro is a creative writing teacher. If I had the opportunity to take a class from her, I’d go for it, because she clearly knows what she’s talking about, in this at least.

The actual story that slots so neatly into the plot diagram (http://www.novel-writing-help.com/plot-diagram.html) promises to be a little more thriller-y than it ever turns out to be: Claire is a professional artist, making her living painting reproductions for wealthy Internet customers after her career was destroyed by a complicated mess of an attribution scandal involving her, her boyfriend, and an outrageously famous painting. Now, a gallery owner friend of hers is offering her a chance at a new career if she’ll paint a forgery for him: a copy of a Degas that was stolen in the 1990 Gardner Museum heist. The only problem is, the original she’s been given is also a forgery.

Claire is our only point of view character throughout the book, which is great for spending time with Claire and the painting but does mean that all the thriller-y stuff happens to other people. Then, when you start getting people threatening to cut off other people’s fingers, it feels like another book entirely has intruded upon this one, and not in a good way. Claire herself is entertaining enough, like a poor-man’s version of Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary – but to be honest, Cass Neary is a little too much for me most days, so a poor-man’s version isn’t necessarily bad. The rest of the characters serve their purpose in the plot, but they’re not really anything to write home about.

No, I read The Art Forger in about two sittings because it was manipulative in the very best way: the end of every chapter pulled me along to the next one, the story grew in tension until it hit a moment of false peace and then it exploded, and I always wanted to know what happened next. It may not be the next great American novel, but it ain’t bad.

Be a Good Girl and You Won’t Get Hurt: the works of Gillian Flynn

By now it feels like everyone in the universe has read Gone Girl, last summer’s surprise hit thriller. As summer surprise hit thrillers go, I can’t complain: full of psychological complexity and emotional cruelty, it’s an excellent book. The Criminal Minds fan in me was pleased, but not half so pleased as I was when I went back and read Flynn’s earlier novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places.

It’s been a long while since I read an author with such a coherent body of work. Flynn is at her best when she writes about women, and her women are broken, damaged, sharp-edged, and dangerous. While damaged women all too often seem like objects of fetishization, though, Flynn’s damaged women are more than that, because they’re all broken straight down the fault lines that American culture inflicts on all its women. They’re deeply familiar, in a painful sort of way.

Sharp ObjectsIn Sharp Objects, Camille Preaker once found that the only way to get her mind to shut up was to carve words into her skin. When she’s assigned to cover a murder story in her old hometown and she goes to stay with her mother, you can start to see why. Camille lost a sister when she was a girl, but she gained a new one when her mother remarried, and she’s torn between dislike for her thirteen-year-old half-sister and pity that the poor girl still has to live with her crazy mother. The crime, of course, unfolds apace with the family entanglements, and although I felt the twist at the end was a little rushed, it was still incredibly satisfying.

Dark PlacesDark Places is a little more rounded out; where Sharp Objects feels like a play performed on a sparse stage with a handful of actors, Dark Places feels like a strung-out arty grindhouse movie. Libby Day is the only survivor of the massacre of her family when she was seven – her and the brother who’s been in prison for the crime ever since. She’s never gotten her life together since then, so when The Kill Club offers her money to talk to people about what really happened, she might not be happy about it, but she’ll do it. The point of view cuts back and forth between Libby in the present day and her mother and brother on the day before the murders. Libby is by far the most compelling character, though. Mama Day is a woman with lots of problems, but to go into them in too much detail would be to give away the ending, so the story doesn’t. Libby’s brother Ben is a fucked up kid, but Flynn’s damaged boys just aren’t as earth-shatteringly amazing as her damaged girls. (It’s possible that the reason for this is that there are more than enough damaged boys in literature already, while hardly anyone is writing damaged girls in the way that Flynn does. Either way – it was Libby I was hurting for, not Ben, all the way through.)

Gone Girl completes the transition (in content and story structure, anyway) from girls-with-problems to girls-and-boys-with-problems, but the girls are still what you’re here for. Nick is an ass who probably doesn’t deserve the things that are happening to him; Amy is fucked up in an interesting way. To say much more is to give away the whole second half of the book, so instead I’ll just leave you with the quote about Cool Girls, which is about 80% truth and about 90% cynicism, and if you think that doesn’t add up right, you may not be the right audience for these books.

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)

State of the Blog, 2013

My blog had been dormant for a while when this column from Library Journal got me thinking. In it, Barbara Hoffert talks about the phenomenon that Jacob Silverman termed “the epidemic of niceness in online book culture.” It made me think about the blog I’d been writing, and the problems I’d been having with it. I signed up for a couple of blog tours early on for the same reason most book bloggers probably do – to get free books, of course! And the books turned out to be self-published and awful. I wrote the most honest reviews I could, which were, to be frank, much more complementary than they would have been if I hadn’t gotten a free copy of the ebook and known the author was going to read it. (The authors were still not happy, of course.) I thought about the glowing review I wrote for The Bellwether Revivals, a book I really did love, which I got free from Penguin, a publisher I really have problems with. I thought about how hard I try to write reviews of books I didn’t particularly enjoy, and how hard it was to keep up with reading books for work and for the blog and rereading things I wanted to reread and writing all those reviews at the same time. I thought about how I streamlined my review process to make writing the reviews faster, and about how I didn’t particularly like my reviews as a result.

So I’ve decided to restructure. Part of this is for the book reviews themselves: fewer, and probably not as close to release dates, but better and more interesting (I hope). I’m not so much interested anymore in chronicling every single book I read on the blog; that’s what Goodreads is for. I am interested in talking in depth about what I read, drawing attention to the midlist and up-and-coming authors I love, and making connections across books, genres, and media. I plan to write about movies and TV shows, and about the publishing and media industries, and about the library world and the strange experience of reading fiction because it’s my job. I cannot promise to be timely: I’ve never been good at timely. What I am good at is thinky.

You’ll see a few other changes, too. I’ve ditched the ads and the referral links; they were never worth the effort it took to maintain, and they made me feel cheap. I’m trying to pay more attention to design, so the blog should not only be prettier but also easier to read. (I wanted to have the redesign done before I started posting again, but I realized that I could delay infinitely on that account, so.) I’ve ditched my blogging schedule in favor of writing posts when I have something interesting to say. I’m broadening and narrowing the focus of this blog at the same time: only what I’m really interested in. There’s a lot of room there, I think, even if I did only want to stick to books.

Welcome to the new Hopeful Librarian. I have something to say. I hope you do, too.

New to Me: review of Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman

Where I got it and why:

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while, and I felt like a horror novel, so I picked it up from the library.

Recommended?

It’s not a bad book. It annoyed me a lot. I can’t recommend it, but I wouldn’t dis-recommend it, either.

Summary:

Failed academic Frank Nichols and his wife, Eudora, have arrived in the sleepy Georgia town of Whitbrow, where Frank hopes to write a history of his family’s old estate-the Savoyard Plantation- and the horrors that occurred there. At first, the quaint, rural ways of their new neighbors seem to be everything they wanted. But there is an unspoken dread that the townsfolk have lived with for generations. A presence that demands sacrifice.

It comes from the shadowy woods across the river, where the ruins of Savoyard still stand. Where a longstanding debt of blood has never been forgotten.

A debt that has been waiting patiently for Frank Nichols’s homecoming…

Review:

I can’t talk about this book in the way I want to without giving away something that I think shouldn’t be a spoiler but which the book itself treats as one. Therefore, consider this review to have a mild spoiler warning.

I have this theory about horror. Really good horror does one of two things: either it explores some kind of deep-seated fear or belief or bit of cultural trivia, which may or may not be personally scary to you but probably includes a fair amount of blood and death; or it’s profoundly atmospheric and scares the crap out of you. Those Across the River tried to be both and didn’t manage to succeed at either.

Here’s the spoiler: this is a werewolf book. The summaries, the flap copy, none of the promotional material says this outright, and somehow I’d managed to avoid finding it out in the past year or so since the book was published. The setup is fantastic, this wonderful Southern Gothic setting with an absolutely horrific ruined plantation house story as a backdrop. I loved that part. And then, halfway through, werewolves. Not even interesting werewolves, just – guys who turn into wolves once a month and kill people.

If I’d have known about the werewolves from the start, I might not have been so disappointed when all the promise of the first half of the book, both atmospherically and thematically, fell apart in the face of a monster who’s less interesting than he is in The Wolf Man. (No, really. I prefer Larry to these guys any day.)

My suspicion is that this is another manifestation of the problem that happens when non-genre people try to write genre fiction. As a literary novel, to someone who never reads horror or speculative fiction, Those Across the River might work. As a horror novel, it reads like someone had half of an interesting idea and then decided that werewolves were weird enough, he didn’t need to do anything more interesting with them.

I did love the writing – as I said, before the monster reveal, I was absolutely loving it. I loved the way this small town and its old-fashioned customs were disappearing as the world changed in the middle of the Depression. I liked the characterization of Frank Nichols and his wife, even though I didn’t like them very much as people. (I loved most of the bit characters, though. They were great.)

The writing might have saved the book for me if the thematic content hadn’t fallen flat, too. I’ll try to avoid spoiling the entire book for you by saying simply that if you’re going to feature a small Southern town with a decaying Southern plantation as your creepy setpiece, you had better be careful about who your bad guys are and how you portray them.

In a Sentence:

Terribly disappointing.

Want to read it yourself? (Hey, maybe it’s just me.) Find Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman on Goodreads, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble.

Those Across the River was published by Ace Books, a subsidiary of Penguin, who is not currently making new ebook titles available to most libraries. If you’d like to see new Penguin books in your library’s ebook collection, contact the publisher.

Hot Off the Press: The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Where I got it and why:

I received an ARC through Penguin’s Debut Authors program, which sends previews of first novels by new authors to librarians and booksellers.

Recommended?

Most heartily – particularly if you like books full of psychological complexity and moral grey areas.

Summary:

The Bellwether Revivals opens and closes with bodies. The story of whose bodies and how they come to be spread about an elegant house on the river near Cambridge is told by Oscar, a young, bright working class man who has fallen in love with an upper-class Cambridge student, Iris, and thereby become entangled with a group of close friends, led by Iris’s charismatic, brilliant, possibly dangerous brother. For Eden Bellwether believes he can heal — and perhaps more — through the power of music.
 
In this masterful debut, we too are seduced by this gilded group of young people, entranced by Eden’s powerful personality and his obvious talent as a musician, and caught off guard by the strangeness of Iris and Eden’s parents. And we find ourselves utterly unsure as to whether Eden Bellweather is a saviour or a villain, and whether Oscar will be able to solve this mystery in time to save himself, if not everyone else.

Review:

This is probably the most engrossing book I’ve read in months. Even though I’ve been having a terrible time sticking with anything lately, I sat down with The Bellwether Revivals and didn’t want to leave it alone. And despite the vaguely thriller-ish aspects of the plot and the dramatic opening, that’s entirely down to the characters.
(Here’s where I have to confess that I haven’t read either of the books The Bellwether Revivals keeps being compared to, Brideshead Revisited and The Secret History. Yes, they are both being moved up my to-read list, but you know how large that is. So I can only speak to this book on its own.)
Eden Bellwether is the maelstrom at the center of this book, a small disaster of a human being who draws everyone into his own madness and warps them with the force of his own personality. I wasn’t thrilled, at the beginning of the book, with Oscar as the choice of narrator; as the one normal person in a book full of eccentrics, he’s automatically the least interesting. But I think it was necessary for him to be the point of view for the reader: as the one normal person, he’s the one you can see the effect of Eden’s madness on most clearly.
But is it really madness? (I use “madness” advisedly; “insanity” is too clinical a term for what Eden is like. He’s a near-mythical force, but one with an entirely believable psychology, like a character out of Shakespeare or later Greek myth.) Wood isn’t invested at all in proving Eden right or wrong, he’s only interested in how Eden and the people around him react to believing that he’s right (or wrong).
Lest you think I’m being over-generous in my praise, let me say that there is definitely a sliding scale of characterization in The Bellwether Revivals. Eden is the most perfectly drawn, followed by Iris and then probably the dying psychologist followed by Oscar himself, falling rapidly toward the less-interesting end of the scale with…pretty much everyone else. The rest of the circle of friends, the Bellwether parents, Oscar’s coworkers – they exist and are more than cardboard cutout people, but they exist only to prop up the plot and keep Eden moving. I’d have liked to see someone placed in sharper contrast to Eden, too: he’s a force of his own, and while Oscar could have been an interesting foil for him, I don’t think he makes it to that level.
Eden’s more than enough to keep anyone’s interest in the book, though: Eden and the ongoing mystery of exactly what he thinks he’s doing, and how, and whether or not he’s doing what he thinks he is. All, of course, with the ominous threat of those bodies mentioned on the very first page hanging all over the novel. It’s very effectively creepy in some places, and disarmingly casual in others. It’s a wonderful book, I wish I could read it again for the first time, and I wish everyone I know would read it so we can all discuss it to death at two in the morning over a bottle of wine, as all psychologically complex novels about college students should be discussed.

In a Sentence:

The Bellwether Revivals is a gripping novel about intelligence, sanity, and what happens when you try to push the boundaries of the possible, all wrapped up in a delightful package of family dysfunction.

 

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood will be published in the US by Viking, a subsidiary of Penguin, on June 14. (New Penguin books are no longer available to public libraries through Overdrive, libraries’ primary ebook provider. Let the publisher know if this is a problem for you.) Find it on Goodreads, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble.

New to Me: Time and Again by JiUn Yun

Where I got it and why:

I picked up the first couple of volumes remaindered from a discount bookstore, and got the last four through interlibrary loan. (Best invention ever. Ask your librarian!)

Recommended?

Yes, particularly for fans of supernatural manga (Saiyuki fans would like this, I think).

Summary:

“A grudge is a sentiment that is chained down and cannot move. That fixed sentiment becomes sadness, and when that sadness remains chained with no escape…it becomes hostile…” Baek-On and Ho-Yeon are exorcists-for-hire, traveling throughout the country in search of grudges and ghosts. Each encounter reveals a story of tragedy and loss, sentiments they are all too familiar with themselves. But sometimes the violence of the most murderous spirits is nothing compared to the cruelty of the living. Brush sleeves with death in this beautifully-illustrated collection of ghost stories.

Review:

First off, let’s talk art. This art is absolutely gorgeous. Detailed, elegant, ephemeral, wonderfully researched and with just the right edge to it – these are ghost stories, after all. The artist says she set the story in this period (which, forgive me, I did not write down and cannot find a reference to) solely because she wanted to draw the gorgeous clothes, and she does a wonderful job. All the characters are distinct and easy to identify, which is key in a series like this where the dialogue and naming conventions are not always the same as you’d expect. (Read the helpful cultural notes in the back of the book, as usual.)

I did have a couple of technical issues with the series. First, I am just not used to manga reading left to right anymore. Really, Yen Press? Second, the fight scenes. Now I readily admit that I am not a huge fan of fight scenes in any kind of comics, and that manga fight scenes tend to confuse me even more, and with a Korean manhwa I really shouldn’t have been surprised that I was totally lost – but I think that’s also partially due to the artist’s skill, because I felt that the later action scenes were much better than the earlier ones.

Anyone who’s familiar with Japanese horror movies will be familiar with this type of ghost story – a ghost is someone with a grudge against the living, sometimes one person in particular but sometimes just living people in general. There are quite a few other elements of Asian mythology as well – a number of fox demons make their terrifying appearance, and in volume six there’s a particularly nasty retelling of the Crane Wife story (which you might recall from the Decemberists album of the same name).

There are two kinds of stories in Time and Again, really – stories featuring individual one-off characters or, sometimes, Ho-Yeon and his personal history, and stories featuring Baek-On. The difference between them, basically, is that Baek-On is an ass. I find him hilarious, but if you don’t find a hard-drinking, self-obsessed, terminally lazy exorcist to be an ideal interface with the world of terrifying Korean ghosts, you might not like him as much as I do. Baek-On’s backstory, finally presented in volume six, has a little less of his general assholishness – but really, his disdain for the stupid things humans do gives me endless entertainment.

The balance of humor and creepiness in the series is just right for me: the humor takes the sting away from the horror, but not so much that you won’t find these ghosts creeping up on you in the middle of the night. I got attached to the main characters and some of the demons, and I wanted to learn more about the mythology these stories were based on. I couldn’t ask more from a book I picked up on a whim.

In a Sentence:

Beautifully executed horror stories with a funny twist and one of the best jerks I’ve read about in a long time.

Want to read it yourself? Find Time and Again by JiUn Yun on Goodreads, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble.