Friday, November 7, 2014

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

Main character:  Amanda Palmer, musician and performance artist
Location: around the world, though mostly the Boston area
Time period: Contemporary
Genre:  Nonfiction, Memoir, Sociology

Dear Amanda,

You wrote such a personal book that I feel the need to be personal as well.  You have built a devoted following by being so open and generous and trusting--and maybe naive--that your fans respond in kind.  You have suffered a few betrayals, but that has not diminished your trust.  I have a feeling that you are the kind of person that considers everyone who spend some time with your friend.

I was fascinated when you talked about being the Eight-Foot Bride.  (You didn't have to get permission to be a living statue?  Really?  Who knew!)  I like the thought of setting up the limitations for yourself, and then trying to make a connection with individuals within those limitations.  (And my bone and joints ache in sympathy for standing still for such long periods of time..)  It made me think of when I go to a farmer's market or an arts and crafts fair--the stall holder who strikes up a conversation and talks to me--about their product, the weather, my t-shirt, anything--is the one I will buy from, even if it's something I did not intend to buy.  Yes, making a connection makes someone want to return that connection.

If there are degrees of fandom, I would have to say that I am a casual fan of yours.  I have not been to any of your concerts and I'm not familiar with much of your past work, but I enjoy your music videos.  The Bed Song is heartbreaking, and there are segments of Want It Back that I find absolutely terrifying.  But I follow you on tumblr and facebook, and will sometimes click through to read your blog.  When you started referring to certain incidents in your book that I was already familiar with, I started trying to remember when and how I first became aware of you.  I think it was on a Doctor Who special where you were one of several "celebrity Whovians" and I wasn't sure what to make of this person in a lovely white gown, very blue eyeshadow, and high penciled Joan Fontaine/Bette Davis eyebrows.  (I was a little obsessed with your eyebrows for a while--I'm glad you explained them in a footnote.)  I heard about your Kickstarter campaign, but since I wasn't yet familiar with your music I didn't contribute anything.  Sorry.  (However, since I missed out on that, I have contributed to Jason Webley's "Margaret" purely on your recommendation.  Pay it forward.)  Then Neil Gaiman posted a link to the video for Want It Back on his blog, and I was just blown away.  Later I saw a link to The Killing Type.  After that I started seeking out your videos.  Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn is astonishingly creative.  I am amazed at the work it takes to plan and execute something like that. When I listen to The Killing Type and Gaga, Palmer, Madonna: A Polemic, I am reminded of Tom Lehrer ["and it don't matter if you put a couple of extra syllables into a line."]  This doesn't really relate to anything in your the book, but I wanted to say it.

I was glad to read more fully about your relationship with Anthony--hearing about what he has meant to you for so much of your life made your facebook postings about his health make a little more sense to me.

I am delighted by the thought of you and Neil Gaiman as a couple and am grateful that you shared as much as you did--even though many things were deeply personal and not really any of my business.  I was worried about you two because you spend so much time apart touring and working, but it sounds like you have crafted a friendship/marriage/relationship strong enough and understanding enough to withstand the separations.  For all that your books reads like it just spilled out in a stream of consciousness, the way you crafted the story of the tomato, schedule and banana was lovely.  When you had those items taken to Neil during his signing when he learned his father had died just brought tears to my eyes.

I am so glad that you included the conversation that you had with your mother about her computer programming--that story works on so many levels.  Who among us hasn't as a teenager thoughtlessly flung something hurtful at our mothers?

Obviously this book is a very personal book--for you the author, but also for the reader.  As I read it, it was easy to imagine us sitting in a living room drinking wine and sharing stories about our lives and our beliefs.  Nearly every anecdote resonated with me--not because I shared the same experience but because an experience I had somehow related to it.  If you're ever in my town, I would be honored to lend you a spare bedroom.

Thank you, Amanda.

I read this book as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Mary: The Summoning by Hillary Monahan

Main characters:  Teenagers Shauna, Jess, Kitty, and Anna
Location: Solomon's Folly, Massachusetts
Time period: Contemporary
Genre:  YA Fiction, Horror, Supernatural, Ghost Story
Series: Bloody Mary, bk. 1

Jess has become obsessed with the legend of Bloody Mary, and has decided to research the historical Mary. She learns enough to convince (or some might say browbeat) her friends into performing the summoning ritual.  What they don't know is that Jess doesn't just want to play the game for a few scares--she wants to set Mary free.

When Mary is able to reach through the mirror, she claims Shauna by scratching her.  Now she is able to attack Shauna and those with her through any reflective surface--not just mirrors, but bathroom fixtures, shiny picture frames, car windshields and sunglasses.  There is nowhere that she cannot reach.

I'm not necessarily a fan of current horror films--which influence this book a great deal--but there were some things I really liked about this book.  One is the way the author revealed Mary's history through letters that showed how Mary's abuse at the hands of a powerful preacher led to her mental and emotional breakdown and turned her into the vengeful ghost of legend.  This is not a restless spirit who wants to be laid to rest--in life Mary was tormented and bullied and now she wants to make others suffer the way she suffered.  In this, she reminds me of the ghost in Susan Hill's The Woman in Black.  The other thing that caught my imagination is this thought that Mary haunts a victim until she becomes fixated on another.  Once Shauna is marked, she meets Cordelia, the woman who had previously been Mary's victim and only now knows peace.  By visiting Cordelia in her house, Shauna is given a look into what her life will become--a solitary life trapped in a dark house with no light and no reflections.  Cordelia also gives her the awful news that Mary torments her victims by going after those close to them, forcing them to retreat from the comfort of friends and family. 

Shauna is a very nice, empathetic character.  Jess, however, is despicable.  She withholds information from her friends when not outright lying to them.  Her obsession with Mary blinds her to the danger that she puts her them in, and then she is cold-blooded enough to try to trick other girls into performing the ritual in order to save Shauna.  As much as I would hate to have her as a friend, she is a crucial catalyst to the story.  I can't wait to see what will happen to her in the next book.

I read Mary: The Summoning  as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Blackhouse by Peter May

Main character: Fin McLeod, a police detective
Location: Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides
Time period: Contemporary, with flashbacks to Fin's childhood
Genre: Fiction, Mystery

Fin McLeod thinks that he's escaped his childhood home in a isolated village on the Isle of Lewis.  He went to university, and though he didn't finish he did become a cop, got married, had a son.  But now his son is dead and his life is crumbling.  And because a particularly gruesome murder back on the island matches the MO of a case he had been working on, he is sent back to his childhood home to help with the investigation.

An interesting choice by the author is to write the contemporary sections in third person, but the flashbacks to Fin's childhood in the first person.  It took a little while to get used to this, but it does mean that we don't have to depend on chapter titles with time and location listed to know what takes place in the present and what is in the past. (Peter May must know readers like me who don't always pay attention to those headings.)  It also makes sure that we don't have any information that Fin doesn't have--for this murder has more connection to Fin than just a similar MO to a crime he's been investigating.

As the book went along, I was so much wrapped up in Fin's story that I often forgot about the murder that brought him there.  The real mystery was what happened to him.  Was it his experiences with the town bully, the bane of every boy's life and the murder victim? Or the romantic triangle between him, his best friend Artair, and Marsaili?  Or maybe that one time that he joined the traditional guga cull on a small rocky island.  (The guga is a bird that can only be hunted for 2 weeks a year and is considered a particular delicacy.)  Somewhere in his past the seeds were sown that lead us to the present crime.

This is a richly drawn picture of life in a bleak and desolate place and the people who stay there.  The wind, the scent of the sea, the smells of the boats and the guga hunt--reading this was a totally immersive experience.  It drew me in and I did not want to leave.  I highly recommend this book.

I read The Black House  as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey

Main characters:  Melanie, a gifted 10-year-old; teacher Miss Helen Justineau; Sergeant Eddie Parks; Dr. Caroline Caldwell;  and Pvt. Gallgher
Location:  England
Time period:  sometime in the not too distant future
Genre:  Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction, Horror

I quite enjoy stories that take a classic horror monster--in this case, zombies--and plays with the traditional tropes.  One of my favorites of this type of story is Scott Westerfeld's Peeps, which draws a comparison between vampirism and parasites and includes details of some real-world parasites and their effects of their hosts as illustration.

In this book, a fungus has infected most of the population and turned them into canabalistic "hungries."  Certain children though, like Melanie, seem to be unaffected.  While the hungries are brain-dead and mostly immobile unless they scent prey, these children of the hungries seem almost super-normal, with high intelligence, speed, and strength.  A group of them have been captured and taken to a research facility where they are taught a traditional school curriculum but are strapped in wheelchairs or locked in cells for the protection of the scientists, soldiers, and teachers who work at the facility.

When they are overrun by hungries, Melanie, her teacher Miss Justineau, lead scientist Dr. Caldwell, Sgt. Parks and Pvt. Gallagher are the only survivors and begin a journey south to try to join up with another facility. 

Though there are some good action scenes, the main thrust of the story is a character study of these five survivors.  We are already primed to like Melanie--it is mostly her POV that we experience for the first part of the book--and we like Miss Justineau because Melanie loves and trusts her.  But Sgt. Parks and Dr. Caldwell start as Melanie's enemies--Dr. Caldwell because she has dissected the children to study them (and is about to dissect Melanie's brain when the hungries attack) and Sgt. Parks because he is the guard who enforces Melanie's captivity.  As they travel together and become more acquainted, Sgt. Parks becomes more sympathetic; he and Melanie never quite trust each other but they do gain a certain amount of respect for each other.  Dr. Caldwell never becomes sympathetic, but she does become more understandable.

It did take me a while to get into this book and I had to re-start a few times before I got acclimated to this new world.  By the time the hungries attacked, I was invested and really enjoyed the journey these five characters took.  I would recommend this to zombie fans who are not averse to re-interpretation of the zombie genre.

I read this book as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I Am the Mission by Allen Zadoff

Main character:  a teenage assassin whose real name is unknown; this time he's going by Daniel
Location: New Hampshire
Time period: contemporary
Genre:  YA Fiction, Action Adventure, Thriller
Series:  The Unknown Assassin
Sequel to: I Am the Weapon

After the events of the previous book, Daniel needs to take a break.  He goes off-grid, hiding in a summer camp.  But even with all his training and precautions, the Program finds him and he is extracted.  Mother and Father are unsure whether or not he is still loyal, so they subject him to a number of tests before being sent on another mission.  (Or is this mission just another loyalty test?)

This time, his target is Eugene Moore, leader of the survivalist Camp Liberty where he is indoctrinating teenagers to perform terroristic acts with an ultimate aim to bring down the government.  Following his regular MO, Daniel will use Moore's own children to get close enough to eliminate his target.  But of course things don't go according to plan; Daniel is cut off from the Program's resources and forced to improvise.  He is able to handle Moore's son, Lee, with little trouble but the daughter, Miranda, is another story.  Daniel's training in the Program apparently did not cover teenage girls and he is totally blindsided by her actions at the climax.

Again, I am reminded of the Alex Ryder series by Anthony Horowitz, but this series is much darker and more violent.  My sympathies are mostly with Daniel, though he does some things in this book that seriously shake those sympathies.  We do learn a little bit more about the Program, and how many other assassins like Daniel there are.  As Daniel becomes more isolated and less sure of who he can trust, he turns to Howard--the high school computer geek that he met in the first book.  I was so happy to see Howard again; he is refreshingly uncomplicated and totally loyal to Daniel.  However, that loyalty also winds up putting him in danger and Daniel is forced to choose between their friendship and Howard's safety.

If Howard is a recurring character that appeals to Daniel's lighter side, fellow assassin Mike is the recurring character of Daniel's nightmares.  Mike was instrumental in recruiting and training Daniel, but what is his true role in the Program?

I will be looking out for the next book in this series.

I read I Am the Mission as an e-galley from NetGallery.