18.07.10

You Are So Undead to Me by Stacey Jay

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:17 pm

Q: HOW MANY ZOMBIES DOES IT TAKE TO RUIN A SOCIAL LIFE?
A: NOT MANY.

Megan Berry is a Zombie Settler by birth, which means she’s part-time shrink to a whole bunch of semi-dead people with killer issues. All Megan really wants is to go to homecoming, but when you’re trailed by a bunch of slobbering corpses whenever you leave the house, it’s kinda hard to score a date. Let’s just say Megan’s love life could use some major resuscitation.

Megan’s convinced her life can’t get any worse – until someone in school starts using black magic to turn average, angsty Undead into scary, hardcore flesh-eating Zombies. Now it’s up to Megan to stop the Zombie apocalypse. Her life – and more importantly, the homecoming dance – depends on it.

In a lot of ways, You Are So Undead to Me is Buffy with zombies instead of vampires.  Whether or not that’s a good thing will, of course, depend on your perspective.  And while Buffy has spawned a slew of outright imitators and just generally a lot of interested in the kick-arse-girl-fights-monsters genre (yay!), this is one of the better kinda-homages I’ve come across for a while.

Megan Berry is a high school student, aspiring cheerleader, and Zombie Settler – not that she remembers that last part, until an undead turns up on her doorstep right before a hot date and needs to be settled.  Megan has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of being attacked by Reanimated Corpses as a child, which are the evil beings more often associated with zombism.  She doesn’t remember her powers or anything about the Settler world, until her powers begin to re-emerge and it becomes apparent that someone is out to get her.  That’s when gore starts to hit the fan and Megan is assigned a bodyguard/teacher in the form of Ethan, a dishy older guy who used to be her best friend before the Reanimated Corpse attack.

One of the things I really enjoyed about You Are So Undead to Me is the book’s zombie lore – while Reanimated Corpses are the relentless, brain-hungering monsters we’ve come to know and love from movies, actual zombies, the kind Megan settles, are more like traditional ghosts – folks with something to get off their chests before they can finally rest.  The fact that zombies are drawn to Settlers around their own age adds a tint of pathos to what is otherwise a frequently frothy book, particularly when Megan remembers her powers manifesting as a young child, and visitations from pre-school zombies.

Jay’s writing makes the story bounce along, with just the right amount of genuine horror and reality mixed into an otherwise humourous, bubbly story.  Megan isn’t given to a great deal of introspection, but she’s smart in her own way and likeable regardless; she reminded me a little of both Louise Rennison’s Georgia Nicholson and Legally Blonde‘s Elle Woods.  Her “realness” is frequently what gives the story both its pull and its humour – like her anxiety about getting rid of an inconvenient undead not because he’s a dead guy in her loungeroom, but because she’s about to go on a high school popularity-defining date with a hot guy from the football team.

You Are So Undead to Me is the first book in a series; Undead Much? has recently been released, and My So-Called Death will be released in Australia later this year.  I’ll be looking forward to both.  I suspect that “high school zombie novel” is a trickier genre to get right than it appears to be, and Stacey Jay does it very well.

01.06.10

Censorship, Gossip Girl, and the Function of Reading

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:17 pm

So there’s been a bit of stuff in the news lately about the mother from Florida who decided she didn’t want her daughters reading the Gossip Girl books, and decided that the best, smartest and most sensible option to go with was to steal the books from her local library and keep them.  For three years.

Tina Harden is on record as saying “It’s not that I lost the books or I didn’t feel like turning them in,” she said. “I want us to work together. Hopefully they have the same goals as I do.”  I think she’ll probably find that libraries rarely have the same goals in mind as censorship-happy wowsers who steal public property.

The sense of entitlement in her comments boggles my mind.  Sure, parents can and should play a role in deciding what they want their children exposed to (although I’d argue that, by the time they hit their teens, you should be giving them a liiiiittle bit of freedom to make some of these decisions themselves).  How on earth can someone possibly think they have the right to decide what other people’s children should read?  As a librarian, I should probably be used to this kind of thing by now, given that I’m an avid fan of the ALA’s Banned and Challenged Book Lists, although fortunately my own career has so far been free of these kind of challenges.

She is also on record as saying that she hopes the library will waive the paltry $85.00 in fines she accrued while making her point.  I think she’s lucky she’s not being charged with theft; a similar stunt from a bookstore would no doubt result in charges, regardless of whether the stock was recovered, and rightly so.

On a similar note, Dan Gutman, the author of the My Weird School series of short children’s novels, has a great article about novel content and censorship.  Gutman’s starting point is a letter from a concerned/outraged parent who accuses him of committing a “literary abomination”, which is a little harsh, and also makes me suspect that the parent in question has never read any of Dan Brown’s books.

Gutman makes many excellent points in his article, most strikingly to me:

“Nearly all the complaints I receive inform me that it’s my responsibility as an author to promote positive messages and moral lessons in my books. Honestly, that never even crossed my mind. I always thought it was the parent’s responsibility to raise their children.”

Well played, Mr Gutman.  The idea that every book for children and young adults should contain Important Messages or moral guidance is well-meaning but completely misguided, and has lead to the publication of some bog-awful books.  Children and young adults read for the same reasons that adults do, and should be allowed to do so without the wringing of adults hands concerned with whether they’re learning something or gaining moral guidance from everything they rake their eyes over.

The idea that we should ban or keep books away from children and teens because they might “get ideas” is a furphy.  The whole thing with books is that they’ve got ideas in them – it’s like banning them on the basis of that humourous euphemism “contains language”.  Of course it contains language.  It’s a bloody book.   But worrying that books alone will Corrupt Our Youth ignores the positive functions of literature, while ignoring that you can’t control the host of other factors that will influence children and teens, like, oh I don’t know, being a member of society.  One of the functions of literature is that has the potential to both complement and expand our experiences of the world.  Censoring books takes away people’s freedom to engage with that experience.  It generally doesn’t work in the long run (does Tina Harden really think that her daughters couldn’t read Gossip Girl anywhere else, or that the library couldn’t replace its copies of the books she stole?), and on the rare occasions when it does work, we are all poorer for that lack of intellectual freedom.  Especially those of us whom censors would seek to protect – children and youth, for whom books can be a fantastic tool for making sense of the world.

03.04.10

Book Review: Wake by Lisa McMann

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:30 am

Wake by Lisa  McMannFor seventeen-year-old Janie, getting sucked into other people’s dreams is getting old. Especially the falling dreams, the naked-but-nobody-notices dreams, and the sex-crazed dreams. Janie’s seen enough fantasy booty to last her a lifetime.

She can’t tell anybody about what she does — they’d never believe her, or worse, they’d think she’s a freak. So Janie lives on the fringe, cursed with an ability she doesn’t want and can’t control.

Then she falls into a gruesome nightmare, one that chills her to the bone. For the first time, Janie is more than a witness to someone else’s twisted psyche. She is a participant….

I broke one of my sternest personal reading rules with this book.  That rule is, don’t start a new book at bedtime, just in case it’s so good that it makes you stay up all night reading.

And guess what happened?  Yep.  Stayed up all night reading.  Was so keyed up by the time I finished (and possibly a little overly affected by the nightmares and dreamscapes of the book) that I had to re-read an ancient copy of New Scientist cover to cover before I was able to settle down enough to get some minimal shut-eye.

Check out that cover.  It was almost enough to give me nightmares on its own.  I don’t think I’ve seen a cover so perfect for a book as this one is for Wake in a long time.

I really admire what Lisa McMann has done with this novel (which is the first in a trilogy, and I can’t wait to read #2, Fade): she’s taken a paranormal plot that could have gone in a lot of directions, many of them not so great, and turned it into a taut psychological thriller with a deeply sympathetic main character, Janie.  Janie’s experiences of falling into other people’s dreams are frequently genuinely frightening, although the stereotypical sex dreams offer plenty of smirk-worthy material too.  The novel’s tendency to jump around dates and times helps hurry the plot along without coming across like a self-conscious construct.  It also works well to introduce the staggered relationship that Janie slowly builds with a boy in her year level, Cabe, who keeps to himself but seems to be as full of secrets as Janie herself.

I also appreciated that Janie is a main character who comes well and truly from the wrong side of the tracks; her mother is a hopeless alcoholic, and Janie has been teased all her life for being “white trash”.  She’s been working in a nursing home since she was fourteen, saving for college and to buy little luxuries not covered by her mother’s welfare cheque, like food and clothes.  However, Janie’s circumstances aren’t massively played out; she’s quietly accepting of her crappy circumstances, and determined to work around them.  She’s kind of a nice change from angst-ridden middle-class teenage heroines that often populate contemporary YA fiction, without being treated by the author as some sort of lesson in tolerance and class issues.

The only criticism I have of Wake is that the characters besides Janie and Cabe are fairly superficial; on the plus side, this helps keep the plot moving at breakneck speed, and stops the reader from being bogged down in their minutiae , since half the time we’ve gotten a glimpse into their unconscious thanks to Janie, anyway.

Anything else I could share about Wake might end up as a spoiler, so I will conclude by saying that there’s some unexpected plot twists (well, I didn’t see them coming, anyway) that shouldn’t be ruined, and you should pick it up for yourself.



24.02.10

Book Review: Somebody’s Crying by Maureen McCarthy

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:58 pm

Three years have passed since the murder of Alice’s mother, but still the killer is unknown. Alice, her cousin Jonty and his friend Tom are drawn together by the mystery, but what is each of them hiding? Will their secrets bind them tighter or tear everything apart?

First things first: I loved this book.  I read it compulsively and was extremely reluctant to put it down until I finished it.  McCarthy has a gift of creating entirely believable characters and then getting inside their heads; quietly mourning Alice, easygoing Tom and even loose cannon Jonty feel like people I’ve met and hung out with at some point.   Their emotional responses, psychological makeup and dialogue feel entirely real, and sweep the reader up.

Set in Warrnambool in Victoria, Somebody’s Crying felt at once familiar and alien; having grown up in a rural Victorian town myself (albeit on the other side of the state), the atmosphere McCarthy creates seemed intimately familiar in some ways, but as I don’ t know Warrnambool at all, there was still a measure of distance.

The mystery of who killed Alice’s mother, Lillian, forms the binding narrative of the book, drawing in the three distinct characters of Alice, Tom and Jonty.  The chapters skip between the three main characters, with McCarthy using third-person omniscient narration to great effect.  Flashbacks to the past from all three characters help to round out the story’s history and build up the intrigue as to who is Lillian’s real killer – a crime for which Jonty, her nephew, was arrested, but not convicted due to lack of evidence.  Jonty has returned to Woollongong, and faces a cloud of suspicion wherever he goes, despite his lack of conviction.  Alice has returned to her hometown to face her mother’s death and find the killer once and for all, and Tom is drifting after three years away, looking for some answers in his life.

Somebody’s Crying is not a perfect book; there are some fairly major plot points that feel somewhat flimsy, and the characters occasionally behave in ways that it would be very difficult to imagine someone behaving in real life; Alice’s choice to take a job with Luke, who is Tom’s father and the lawyer who represented Jonty in court, seems unlikely, yet several aspects of the plot hinge on this decision.

Overall, however, it’s a strong and compelling novel that shows great insight into its characters; despite the tragic backstory, there is also a great deal of emotional reality in the lives of the three main characters, and many of the minor characters are well-developed and engaging too.  It’s definitely worth reading if you haven’t already done so.

However.  There is just one thing I’d like to address – briefly, because I suspect it’s going to come up in its own post sometime soon.  See that cover up there?  Moody, dramatic, evocative of a scene in the book, and pretty eye-catching. The girl on it is meant to be Alice.  Except it’s not.  I don’t say that as a fangirl who thinks they’re Doin It Rong, either.

See, Alice is meant to be fat.  Not pudgy.  Not a normal-sized girl with body image issues.  Fat.  It’s made explicitly clear in the book; it’s by no means a plot point, it just is.  It’s not really an issue for her either; she suffers some moments of self-consciousness about her weight, but a lot of young women her age do anyway.  She’s written as being an intelligent, captivating and beautiful young woman, whose weight generally isn’t an issue for her, and whose attractiveness is absolutely unquestionable.

So why did the publishers choose to portray her this way?  Well, okay, I get that: fat panic!  But why stigmatise a stigmatised physical characteristic further when an author has done such a good job of portraying it sensitively and in an empowering manner (something which McCarthy has also done in previous books such as Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life)?  Alice is one of three main characters whose journeys are followed in the book, yet she’s the only one depicted on the cover, and is depicted incorrectly at that.  If featuring a fat girl, even a conventionally stunningly beautiful one such as Alice, was so distasteful, why not feature the guys as well, or one of them?  Why not have an abstract, moody cover with no people in it at all?  I guess what I’m really asking is why can’t a fat character be fat?  Yes, yes, I know, fatphobic society, book sales to consider, fat girls aren’t “aspirational” or whatever.  But why couldn’t this book been jacketed in a way that doesn’t lie about one of the characters, particularly about a part of her appearance that sometimes affects how she interacts with the world, and how the world sees her?  It puts me in mind of the (rightful) fiasco surrounding the American cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar.

But like I said, this is something I’ll probably come back to in another post.

In the meantime, read Somebody’s Crying if you haven’t already done so, and let me know what you think of it.

19.02.10

To-Be-Read Pile: Three Werewolf Tomes (Sort Of)

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:53 pm

The following books are on my to-be-read pile (which, like for many people who love books, is in reality a series of piles, and some shelves, and a wistful with for more reading time); expect reviews when I finally get down to reading them.

Shiver by Maggie StiefvaterShiver, by Maggie Stiefvater

For years, Grace has watched the wolves in the woods behind her house. One yellow-eyed wolf—her wolf—is a chilling presence she can’t seem to live without. Meanwhile, Sam has lived two lives: In winter, the frozen woods, the protection of the pack, and the silent company of a fearless girl. In summer, a few precious months of being human… until the cold makes him shift back again.

Now, Grace meets a yellow-eyed boy whose familiarity takes her breath away. It’s her wolf. It has to be. But as winter nears, Sam must fight to stay human—or risk losing himself, and Grace, forever.

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while, after hearing great things about it, and finally got around to getting my hands on a copy.  Gorgeous cover, and I’ve become a fan of Maggie Stiefvater’s thanks to her blog and that Kraken video.  I’m looking forward to this one a lot.

Lonely Werewolg GirlLonely Werewolf Girl, by Martin Millar

Lonely Werewolf Girl is an expansive tale of werewolves in the modern world. The MacRinnalch family contains elegant werewolves, troubled teenage werewolves, friendly werewolves, homicidal werewolves, fashion designers, warriors, punks, cross-dressers, musicians – an entire Clan of Werewolves, involved in conflict from the Scottish Highlands to London, and several dimensions beyond.

I picked this one up in the bookshop, not having heard ot it before, but doesn’t it sound like fun?  Plus, the edition I own has a very flattering comment from Neil Gaiman on the back.  That man could convince me to buy just about anything.

SteppenwolfSteppenwolf, by Herman Hesse

This Faust-like and magical story of the humanization of a middle-aged misanthrope was described in The New York Times as a ‘savage indictment of bourgeois society’. But, as the author notes in this edition, Steppenwolf is a book that has been consistently misinterpreted. This self-portrait of a man who felt himself to be half-human and half-wolf can also be seen as a plea for rigorous self-examination and an indictment of intellectual hypocrisy.

All right, so it’s something of a departure from the other two, for a variety of reasons.  But werewolf (or man-wolf, however you want to play it) as metaphor is just as compelling to me as werewof as actual werewolf, and is something I’m tinkering with in my own fiction writing.