Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

Title: Get in Trouble
Author: Kelly Link
Publication Date: February 3, 2015
Target Age Group: Adult
My Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5

Book Description (from inside cover)

She has been hailed by Michael Chabon as "the most darkly playful voice in American fiction" and by Neil Gaiman as "a national treasure." Now Kelly Link's eagerly awaited new collection - her first for adult readers in a decade - proves indelibly that this bewitchingly original writer is among the finest we have.


Hurricanes, astronauts, evil twins, bootleggers, Ouija boards, iguanas, The Wizard of Oz, superheroes, the Pyramids... These are just some of the talismans of an imagination as capacious and as full of wonder as that of any writer today. But as fantastical as these stories can be, they are always grounded by sly humor and an innate generosity of feeling for the frailty - and the hidden strengths - of human beings. In Get in Trouble, this one-of-a-kind talent expands the boundaries of what short fiction can do.

My Review

What can I say about this book? A collection of short stories by one of my favorite authors. Why do I like her so much? Because she writes amazing stories about people who may be quirky but have real problems deep down, placed in the most surreal, and many times totally unreal, settings. 

One recurring theme in most of these stories has to do with people who are in strained relationships - whether it be with spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends, friends, and in one case, a sort of caregiver/client relationship. Another common theme involves people who make rash decisions with harsh consequences and how they try to rise above those decisions. 

These serious problems are set against what are arguably some of the most bizarre backdrops ever imagined in short fiction, and it's the juxtaposition of these two elements that provides much of the dark humor in these stories. 

And, her story ideas are just plain the coolest that I only wish I could've come up with myself. I mean, where else can you read about:

- a jealous girl who tries to steal her best friend's animated doll-like Boyfriend? ("The New Boyfriend")
- a group of space travelers who tell each other ghost stories, and who have their spaceship, who knows a secret ghost story of her own, place the travelers in the stories' settings? ("Two Houses")
- a girl who meets someone on the internet and goes to a secret rendezvous at a hotel that is simultaneously hosting superhero and dentist conventions? ("Secret Identity")
- a girl, caretaker of the mysterious visitors inhabiting the cottage behind her house, who is grooming her replacement? ("The Summer People")

My only reason for not giving this book a 5 out of 5 is because I've read some of the stories before, and a couple of them I don't find to be quite as strong as the others.

My recommendation, in a nutshell: Read these stories. Be amazed at the directions Kelly Link's stories will take you. You're in for a very wild ride.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review: The Slippage by Ben Greenman *** MILD SPOILERS ***

Title: The Slippage
Author: Ben Greenman
Publication Date: April 23, 2013
Target Age Group: Adult
My Rating: 4 out of 5

Book Description (from Amazon)

The Slippage is a wry, wistful tale of marriage, lust, and disconnection from Ben Greenman, the critically acclaimed author of What He’s Poised to Do.

William Day must confront some uncomfortable truths about his life and his future when his wife Louisa asks him to build her house. The take-it-or-leave-it demand becomes all the more difficult to swallow when he finds himself grappling with a past recklessness, an ex-girlfriend’s son he considers his own, and his own wants for what lies ahead.

Sure to appeal to everyone who has ever been in love and had their heart broken, The Slippage shares uncanny truths about intimacy and modern relationships.

My Review:
***NOTE: In this review, I feel there may be mild spoilers, especially some thematic ones, so reader beware. ***
First off, I want to mention this is another book I obtained at Book Expo America in 2013, so thanks again to them and to the author, Ben Greenman.

Second, this book is not my typical reading material.

Third, in light of that, this book was a pleasant surprise. In general, one way I judge books as being good ones if they stick with you long after you've read them. This book is definitely one of those books.

As I was reading this book, I thought it was a bit slow. Which is my usual reaction to literary fiction. Then I realized, yes, I'm reading about William Day's life, but I'm also reading about life in general. This is a book of themes, which are the things that stick with you when the book is finished.

Here is a definition, right from one of the characters in the book. Slippage - "the moment when you start to lose your footing." When we first are introduced to William in the book, the slippage has already started to happen to him. As we read further, his reckless behavior with regards to his relationship with his wife and his job causes him to slip even further.The question is: why? Why the reckless behavior? 

At first, you can't really sympathize with him. He's the cause of his own misery. Some people might be able to relate to him, but you can't like him. Maybe because, were you in the same situation, you couldn't like yourself. 

Then I started to think about one of the elements of the "human condition". Like how people build layers upon layers of "things" - feverishly working long hours at a job, climbing the career ladder, building a new home or addition, going on a vacation, settling into the humdrum existence of suburban life - to hide from what is truly troubling to them. For some, these "things" can be much more reckless.

Another great line, from Louisa, William's wife - "We make a pact with another person to follow as far as they go, but we do not really mean it. We mean that we will follow so long as we do not start to feel lost. Love, or what passes for it, is about believing that we are never truly lost." This is a powerful theme that sticks with me after reading the book, because here lies the cause of many problems in relationships, the fear to go where the relationship takes them, no matter where that might be.

There are other positive things I'd love to say about this story - one such thing is about Louisa's brother, Tom, and his "graph" art, which are funny but thoughtful asides in and of themselves - but I think this review has already gotten longer than I expected.

Check out the book. It's thought-provoking, a little slow and melancholy, but an interesting read.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review: The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

Title: The School for Good and Evil
Author: Soman Chainani
Publication Date: May 14, 2013
Target Age Group: YA
My Rating: 4 out of 5

Book Jacket Blurb

At the School for Good and Evil, failing your fairy tale is not an option.

Welcome to the School for Good and Evil, where best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

With her glass slippers and devotion to good deeds, Sophie knows she'll earn top marks at the School for Good and join the ranks of past students like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White. Meanwhile, Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks and wicked black cat, seems a natural fit for the villains in the School for Evil.

The two girls soon find their fortunes reversed—Sophie's dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School for Good, thrust among handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.

But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are . . . ?

The School for Good and Evil is an epic journey into a dazzling new world, where the only way out of a fairy tale is to live through one.

My Review: 

This is another book I acquired at Book Expo America 2013, so again I'd like to thank BEA and Mr. Chainani for the opportunity to read it.

First off, I love twisted fairy tale type books. In the past I've read books like The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer and the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. The reasons why I loved those books is because of the new fresh life they breathed into well-known classic fairy tales, plus a generous helping of humor thrown in. This book fits both criteria rather well.

Although some of the plot of the book I guessed right off the bat, what makes it surprising are the characters. You think the two main characters, Sophie and Agatha, are going to act one way, and then they surprise you. The reason why they do this is that these are real people, and even though students in this story are taught that their personalities place them squarely into either a school for good and a school for evil, who do you know who is totally good or totally evil? 

The supporting characters are also real people. I love their personality traits and their talents. Dot, one of the School for Evil students, can turn anything she wants into chocolate, and she is constantly eating. At one point she even turns her textbooks into chocolate. Tedros, son of King Arthur, is a student in the School for Good, but he's not like other princes. He's not looking to simply ride his father's coattails, and he's not into the whole "princesses swooning over him" thing. He wants a princess with personality. And so on.

Finally, I like how this book has created its own mythology, loosely based on the fairy tales we all know and love, but unique in that here is a whole new cast of fairy tale characters whose stories we can follow.

Overall, a highly recommended book. I can't wait to read more in this series.

Review: Hauntings, ed. by Ellen Datlow

Title: Hauntings
Editor: Ellen Datlow
Publication Date: March 12, 2013
Target Age Group: Adult
My Rating: 3 out of 5

Book Jacket Blurb

This ghastly anthology, compiled by the horror genre's most acclaimed editor, drags you into the twisted minds of modern literary masters, including Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Connie Willis, and Peter Straub, at their fiendish best. Visionary storytellers fill this collection of twenty-four tales, lyrical and strange, monstrous and exhilarating, horrific and transformative. Here you'll find a sweetly vengeful voice on the radio who calls a young soldier out to join a phantom patrol; a hotel maid who throws her newborn child from a fourth-story window, then lingering in an interminable state; an intern in a paranormal research facility who delves deeply into the unexplained deaths of two staff members; and a serial killer who plans his ultimate artistic achievement: the unveiling of an extremely special instrument in a very private concert. At once familiar and shocking, these riveting stories will haunt you long after you put down your book and turn out the light.

My Review: 

This is one of the books I acquired at Book Expo America 2013, so I'd like to first thank them and also Ellen Datlow for giving me the opportunity to read this book and autographing it for me.

Before I go into my review, I just wanted to list all the authors whose stories are included in this anthology so they receive proper recognition:

Pat Cadigan
Dale Bailey
E. Michael Lewis
Lucius Shepard
David Morrell
Caitlin R. Kiernan
Joyce Carol Oates
Elizabeth Hand
Neil Gaiman
F. Paul Wilson
Jonathan Carroll
Terry Dowling
Paul Walther
Simon Kurt Unsworth
Connie Willis
Stephen Gallagher
Michael Marshall Smith
Richard Bowes
James P. Blaylock
Jeffrey Ford
Gemma Files
Kelly Link
Adam L. G. Nevill
Peter Straub

Every so often, I return to my roots for reading material: horror. I love a good horror story. They're very difficult to find these days, as my tastes in horror have gotten very picky over the years. I'm always on the look out for stories that don't just offer cheap thrills but really haunt my very soul. Also, I have to care about the main character. I'm not that thrilled with the whole "innocent victim gets terrorized by the killer/monster/etc for no apparent reason" anymore. Nor am I drawn toward the "mean person gets what's coming to him" type of story. Nor am I thrilled with stories that aren't really stories but more like incidents. Of course, there are always exceptions, if the story is unique enough.

Using these criteria, Hauntings is a mixed bag for me. Every short story in the book is written extremely well, in the very capable hands of all the authors included in the anthology. However, in some cases, either the stories are not really "stories" - in the sense that there is a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end and there is some type of character growth involved - or they are of the type where the evil main character gets his "reward". There are some stories that definitely break the rules I mentioned above that are so unique they stand out. There are others that also break the rules that are just "meh".

A few stand-out stories for me and why they stood out:

- "Anna" by F. Paul Wilson. A revenge story that was very unique, so I loved it.

- "Two Houses" by Kelly Link. VERY unique ghost story, set in space, that haunts me still.

- "Hunger, an Introduction" by Peter Straub. This is one of the only stories in the anthology that I would consider a complete story, AND unique, and very well told.

Having said that, I'd invite everyone who loves a good ghost story to check out this anthology and these talented authors. I think there is something here for everyone. Don't just go by my own picky tastes. My rating is purely based on personal preference but in no way is a reflection on the talent and storytelling abilities of the authors.