Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review: Wake, by Amanda Hocking (2012)

Here is yet another paranormal romance story inspired by the success of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, only instead of vampires we have mermaids/sirens. It seems to me author Amanda Hocking could have had a lot more fun with this story if she left out the broody, serious teenage romance. At least Hocking doesn't romanticize being a siren the same way Stephenie Meyer romanticizes being a vampire. This is better written than Twilight, and has a better story, but I don't think it benefits from its uber-serious approach to monsters and love, what with its two uptight female heroines, all-too-nice boy love interests, and predictably moody villains. Still, I'm sure teenage girls will grow giddy with what transpires on the pages of Hocking's Wake, the first of four in her Watersong series, and boyfriends relieved to have survived the Twilight saga may find themselves having to put up with yet another paranormal romance series.

Gemma, a sophomore in high school, is a talented swimmer. She and her coach have set their sights on the Olympics. In fact, Gemma feels so drawn to the water she likes to go out for nightly swims all by herself. But she's a good girl; she always makes it home in time for her ten o'clock curfew. Her sister, Harper, a recent high school graduate, is the more protective of the two. She despises her sister's going out every night to swim in that dangerous cove where something could happen to her, which inspires some tedious dialogue between the two sisters. Their father, Brian, tries his best to make both girls happy. In keeping with YA tradition, Hocking keeps Brian out of the story as much as possible. Harper is the adult in the family. During a scene when Gemma is missing, Harper convinces her father to go into work instead of help search for his youngest daughter. He's a very unconvincing father, and the mother, who has suffered a mental illness that seemingly transforms her into a hormonal Justin Bieber fan, is even less convincing. Hocking could have at least done some research on mental illness.

The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Harper and Gemma. I think it would have been much improved sticking with Gemma, since Harper's sections aren't as interesting and only slow the story down. However, Hocking knows what her readers want - not one, but two hunky boys for her heroines (and readers) to crush on. Harper gets Daniel, the handsome, muscular, tattooed twenty-year-old who lives in a dingy boat on the docks where her father works. Their meet-cute happens when Harper is delivering her father's lunch, and Daniel happens to be peeing over the side of his boat and gives Harper a glimpse of his genitals. When Harper reacts with disgust, Daniel laughs at her, and apparently this is charming. You might find it hard to believe that he's actually a very nice guy. And he spends a good chunk of the novel shirtless, so he can hug Harper close when he helps her onto his boat.

Gemma's boy is the next-door neighbor, Alex. He's pure fantasy, a high school video game nerd who has suddenly developed muscles. Hocking must not know very many video gamers. You don't magically develop muscles by sitting on the couch all day long. He and Gemma fall for one another well before either are aware of it. There's plenty of hand-grazing, heart-fluttering, and near-kisses, all to whet our sensual appetite. However, there isn't any real romance. There's some melodramatic, broody, I-need-to-be-there-in-your-time-of-need kind of stuff, and very awkward, clumsy conversations with bad jokes and prying comments that are supposed to be sweet, I guess. If that sounds wonderful to you, then this is definitely the book for you. It seems that, thanks in part to Twilight, our culture has embraced broody, serious romance. There's no wit. Love's no longer any fun. It's more like a job, a duty. And it's very tiring.

Gemma eventually becomes tempted (seduced?) by a group of three beautiful girl new to the town: Penn, Lexi, and Thea. These girls have a menacing feel to them, but they're also very seductive and capable of washing away any ill-feelings towards them in a matter of a few singsong words. Obviously these are the sirens. The story eventually breaks down into Gemma becoming pulled in by these girls and Harper on the other side worrying about her. You can probably imagine which story is more interesting. Where some have mentioned Twilight as a metaphor for abstinence, I see Wake as a metaphor for joining the wrong crowd. Penn, Lexi, and Thea strut about town like they're straight from the movie Mean Girls, and Gemma feels a strong compulsion to be one of them. Hocking could have had a lot more fun with this had she allowed Gemma to become more fully consumed by her new group of friends. Instead of exploring the consequences of going full-on bad girl, though, Hocking is more concerned with Gemma's feelings for Alex, because the most important part of a girl's life is pleasing the boy in her life.

As I said, Wake is a better novel than Twilight, though not by much. I would say Hocking is also a better writer than Meyer, though again it's not by much. Hocking, like many other modern YA authors, uses too much bad dialogue and has the bad habit of describing every feeling and desire of her heroines. Knowing less about a character makes that character more compelling, because oftentimes knowing more is disappointing. Also like Meyer and most other writers of fantasy, Hocking takes a very serious approach to her material. It seems a lot more fun could have been had with the mermaid theme, with the freedom of swimming in the sea and with the grace and power one would have as a mermaid. But Hocking avoids that because to become a mermaid means to give in to one's baser instincts. Saints are much less interesting characters than those who, like any human being, have a dark side and can't help but give into it. But really, Hocking must know what she's doing because plenty of readers have fallen in love.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor (1976)

Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, on its surface, seems to be a response to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. They're both similar in their setting and their themes. While a major theme in both is racism in the Jim Crow-era South, they tackle this theme from different perspectives. Harper Lee's heroine is a young white girl, and Mildred D. Taylor's young heroine is a young black girl. To Kill a Mockingbird was written 16 years earlier than Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and perhaps in 1960 it would have been more difficult for a black woman to write the sort of critique of the South that Lee does. However, one of the problems with To Kill a Mockingbird is that it tells its story of racism from the safe eyes of a young white girl, and its portrayal of race ends up being condescending. It takes a virtuous white man like Atticus Finch to defend the injustices done to the black community, and in the novel Atticus is revered as a saint. On the other hand, Taylor's Logan family is strong and self-sufficient and doesn't need the aid of whites to survive. Taylor tells an inspiring and compelling drama.

Nine-year-old Cassie Logan is a fortunate young girl because her family owns their own land. In 1933 in Mississippi, this is a rare thing for a black family, and the other black families are sharecroppers, owing huge debts to the more powerful white farmers in the area. This helps keep the white-black power hierarchy of slavery times alive. The whites don't like the face that the Logans own their own land, because it makes them independent, which is a kind of power on its own.

Cassie is the second youngest of four kids, with her oldest brother Stacey beginning to transition into manhood, her next oldest brother Christopher-John the most timid of all, and her youngest brother Little Man not afraid to speak his mind, and a strong little mind he has. Cassie and her brothers live with their mother, Mary, and grandmother, Big Ma, and her father, David, spends most of the year in Texas working on railroads. The family grows cotton to help pay off the mortgage and taxes, while David's money buys things the family needs. Mary earns some extra income as well, teaching at the local school for blacks, where she spreads progressive values.

The Logan kids walk a mile to school every day in the short school year, which is based around the crop cycle. The white kids ride the bus to a separate school, and the bus driver takes special joy in tormenting the black kids that cross its path. This upsets Little Man, who prides himself on his cleanliness, when the bus sprays him with red dust from the road on his first day at school. Little Man is also upset when he and his classmates receive books for the first time, but they turn out to be ragged hand-me-downs from the white students. Little Man's teacher scolds him because she believes everyone should be happy with what they have, but the Logan family disagrees. It's a matter of equality and fairness.

Other important characters include T.J., Stacey's best friend. He likes attention and will do anything to get it, even though this gets him into big trouble. There is also Mr. Morrison, who Cassie's father brings from the railroads to live with the family because he got himself into some trouble. He's a very large and very kind man, and it's clear that Cassie's father, David, feels better having him there to protect the family from danger. The main antagonist is Harlan Granger, whose family used to own the land the Logans now own, and he wants to buy it back from them. When the Logans begin trying to shake up the white power, Granger does everything in his power to try to get them evicted. Cassie's Uncle Hammer stirs things up even more when he comes from Chicago to visit and shows off his brand new car. In Mississippi, blacks should know their place, but Uncle Hammer isn't afraid to flaunt what he has.

The story is told from the perspective of Cassie, in the first person, and it's clear to readers that she and her brothers are only beginning to realize the realities of racism that is an everyday source of fear for the adults. Cassie has a strong sense of fairness, and when she, Stacey, and T.J. are neglected by a white shopkeeper in favor of the white patrons, she speaks her mind without realizing the dangers of doing so. She doesn't understand why her grandmother won't back her up in another dispute with a white girl, either. She's expected to keep her mouth shut though it goes against her very nature. Worst of all, the law turns a blind eye to the crimes committed by whites against blacks. For example, everyone knows the Wallaces, another powerful white family in the community, burned two black men for supposedly flirting with a white woman, but nothing's done about it, and Cassie doesn't understand why. She has a sense that everything should be fair, but hasn't yet realized that the world she has grown up in is more fair to some than to others.

There are a couple of sympathetic whites in the novel. There's the boy, Jeremy Wallace, who tries to befriend the Logan children. He doesn't like the way his family treats blacks, but because he's a Wallace, the Logans are wary of his attempts to befriend them. The reader can't help but root for Jeremy, and it seems the story is about to head in a direction towards friendship when Stacey confesses to his father that he actually likes Jeremy and thinks he would be a good friend. His father, however, warns Stacey that good things rarely come from a relationship between a black and a white man. The white man, being in a position of power, will always think of himself as better than the black man, and one day the sweet and innocent Jeremy might think himself a man while he still regards Stacey as a boy. Pragmatism is more important for survival than romanticism.

The other sympathetic white man is Mr. Jamison, a lawyer who helps the Logans with their mortgage and other legal matters. He takes a big risk when he decides to help them shake up the racial power dynamics by backing the credit of the other blacks in the community so they can shop somewhere that they won't be held ransom to their debt. The Logans are reluctant to accept his offer, but find that they have no choice. It would seem that this black family must rely on a benevolent white man to improve the situation of their town, but things aren't so simple, and Mr. Jamison is not portrayed with the same reverence as Atticus Finch.

Most of all, this is a story for young teens. It's about a young teenage girl growing up in a harsh and unfair world, though still experiencing the same growing pains and life lessons as anybody else. Anybody can relate to this story, and it has an even deeper resonance because of this nation's history. It has a beautiful story, and its power is felt the strongest at its conclusion. While I agree that everybody should read To Kill A Mockingbird, I also believe the same is true of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It is a powerful, important, and enjoyable piece of American literature.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Review: The Lottery and Other Stories, by Shirley Jackson

The world Shirley Jackson creates in her collection of short stories is a strange and haunting one. While her stories seem mundane on one level, there's something unsettling, just out of sight. The concerns and issues Jackson tackles are contemporary to the time she wrote them, the 1940s, but they are also relevant to us today. Race, gender, identity, assumptions we make about people, right and wrong, the question of whether to keep or break with tradition. These issues are all explored in sometimes comical, sometimes unusual, and sometimes frightening fashion.

It's about impossible to talk about all 26 stories in one blog post, and some are more worthwhile than others, but I'll try my best. "Like Mother Used to Make" is one of the few stories with a male protagonist. This is a story about identity switch. A man living on his own in an apartment likes to keep everything very neat and tidy. The woman who lives across from him, on the other hand, is a slob. He has a key to her place, and the reason becomes apparent by the end. She comes over and eats dinner with him and seems polite, but then a stranger knocks, a guest of hers, and this is where the identity swap happens. She pretends it's her place, and the man, though upset, does not object and goes to her apartment. Jackson's characters adapt to conditions rather than fight them, and this is true of human nature in a lot of ways. In "Trial by Combat," where an older woman steals trinkets from a younger woman's apartment, the younger woman backs off from confrontation when she finally has her chance. Jackson's goal is not to explain why people do this, but to merely show it and allow her readers to ask questions.

Another issue Jackson explores is assumptions people make about others. The bizarre story, "The Daemon Lover," tests the readers assumptions about its heroine. A woman waits for a man she plans to marry that day, only he doesn't show up. When she looks for him, her neighbors all seem to have seen him, but end up leading her on a wild goose chase. She never finds him, and the reader is left wondering whether or not she imagined this man. Character assumptions are tested in "Of Course," when a woman excited to meet her new neighbors, learns the awful truth once she begins talking with them. More comically, a boy takes advantage of his parents' assumptions in "Charles," one of Jackson's best.

Several of Jackson's stories take a look at 1940s racism, showing the powerful danger of not discussing race. In "After You, My Dear Alphonse," Mrs. Wilson's son brings home a friend, a black boy, and she makes many statements to and about him that reveal her assumptions about him because of the color of his skin. Condescendingly, Mrs. Wilson offers the boy food and extra clothing, and becomes offended when he boy declines. She also wonders whether his parents work, surprised that his mother is a stay-at-home mom like herself. The two boys are oblivious to Mrs. Wilson's racism, seeing her behavior merely as one of the strange peculiarities of a mother. In "Flower Garden," a woman new to the neighborhood asks a poor black boy on the outskirts of the neighborhood whether he would like to help with her flower garden for some money. This goes against the advice of her new friend, Mrs. Winning, and when the boy's father comes to help and she accepts, she finds herself alienated from the rest of the neighborhood. Mrs. Winning, who had become best friends with the new neighbor, goes out of her way to avoid her. A power silence from the community is what eventually forces the new neighbor to move, and it's also what ensures the blacks, those who aren't part of "normal" society, remain on the outskirts of society.

The brunt of these societal norms seem to fall on the women. In "The Renegade," Mrs. Walpole, a homemaker whose schedule revolves around those of her children and her husband, finds herself in a frightening situation regarding her dog. News spreads around the neighborhood that Mrs. Walpole's dog has killed some of her neighbor's chickens, and everyone is of the opinion that the dog must be put down. She asks if anything can be done, and everyone has their own story of how you might stop a chicken-killing dog, and each one is more horrendously brutal than the last. Besides, none are guaranteed to work. And when her kids begin telling her methods even more horrendous than the rest, Mrs. Walpole feels alone in her compassion for her dog. Once the neighborhood has made a decision, it get its way, at the expense of the woman.

Jackson's masterpiece, "The Lottery," portrays a cruel tradition that has gone on far too long. Though many members of the town seem unhappy with it, it still persists under irrational arguments. One man argues that if the Lottery is stopped, then what's to stop men from working, though this has absolutely nothing to do with the Lottery's purpose. Sadly, this kind of argumentation persists in all wakes of society, and this story is relevant to all times. I'm sure everyone has parents or knows people who continue on with a tradition only because their parents before them did it. When kids complain, they are merely shushed and their reasons aren't heard. Though these traditions aren't as harsh as the one in "The Lottery," Jackson effectively shows the dangers of doing something simply because it's been done for generations.

Not all of the stories in this collection are great, though most are. Some are puzzling, sometimes in good ways, but sometimes not. The nice thing about it is the variety. Jackson experiments with style now and then. "My Life with R.H. Macy" has a sci-fi feel to it, in its critique of corporations and their treatment of employees. "The Tooth" has a sort of gothic, psychedelic feel to it in its critique of the treatment of patients by doctors. Anyone interested in women's lit should give Shirley Jackson a read, if you haven't already. Those interested in a look at 1940s American life, from an interesting perspective, should also give her a read. At the very least, seek out these three stories and read them: "The Lottery," "After You, My Dear Alphonse," and "Charles." They represent some of her best work, and they are some of the best short fiction in American literature.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review: The Archaeologists Part Two, by Christopher Lee (2012)

Back in August I reviewed the first short story, which is part of a series of short stories, called "The Archaeologists," written by Christopher Lee. Now here's part two, which is an improvement, though not by much. In my review of part one I wrote, "Lee's world seems populated by people who are so much on edge they're about ready to snap at the slightest provocation, such as boredom." These are characters who hate life, and why these friends continue to meet up for dinner is a mystery, as they seem to have absolutely no warm feelings for one another. That lack of any warmth is what makes this series so difficult. Sure, there are authors, such as Robert Cormier, who portray evil as victorious over good, but at least in Cormier's stories there are characters who are essentially good. Also, Cormier writes stories that have a sense of purpose and whose plots lead somewhere. So far it's difficult to say what Lee's purpose is, and it's even harder to say where he's going with the series.

The end of part one finds a conversation between Henry and John interrupted by the arrival of the rest of their friends, Joe and Adam, at the restaurant the story mostly takes place. While Henry remains the central character, the story also branches off into the perspectives of John and Joe. These three characters are essentially the same, with some slight differences. They are all very unhappy people, Henry most of all. Henry's anger seems directed at nothing in particular, but everything all at once. We know he's unhappy because at one point he wishes he would have been aborted with a rusty coat hanger

Unfortunately the cliffhanger ending of part one has not been fulfilled by part two. Instead a new plot thread begins, probably related to the first, in that Joe has a story to tell about a brief encounter he had with John. But as Joe begins to describe this story, John decides he needs to use the restroom, so the story comes to a pause. Of course, by the time John returns, food is served and another character, Scott, has arrived. Scott is the most talkative, and for this reason he is also the target of most of Henry's venom. Scott believes that time travelers from the future come to visit future brilliant scientists, like himself, and risk changing the future. Or something like that. It's a detail that adds a brief whimsical charm, but it really only exists to establish Scott's character, though Scott unfortunately plays no role in the rest of the story.

Lee writes with a lot of care, and he uses a unique style that's a mixture of stage play and short story. There's a character list at the start and scene breaks throughout. Instead of using only dialogue, the scenes are written as stream-of-conscious expositions from the perspective of one of the characters. Henry has the most scenes, John has a couple, Joe has one, and there is a return by Michelle, John's maybe-girlfriend, in a much different circumstance than we saw her before. Michelle is the one character who breaks the mold. We find her now in college, suffering mentally from the loss of her child during childbirth. She writes a poem about her experience and reads it aloud to her class. She's the only character I really cared about because she has a reason for her suffering, and towards the end we see that she's trying to rise out of it. She also provides the only glimmer of hope in the story. Her two scenes come towards the end, when the story begins getting good.

The main problem is that Lee refuses to tell his story. The plot gets delayed again and again, and I'm not sure for what purpose. Up until the last six or seven pages the story is a confusing mess of negative feelings, and sometimes we're transported to unknown settings where nothing much happens. Things finally settle down and start to come together in those final two scenes. Michelle develops into a person the reader can begin to care about, and in the final scene Joe finally begins telling the story he wanted to tell at the start. But then, unsurprisingly, the story comes to an end before Joe can get to the good part. We, the reader, must read part three to find out what it is, but if part three plays out anything like the stories preceding it, it'll be a long wait before we know what's going on. I'm sure there's a good story in there. The trick is just getting it out.

 (I received a free copy of Christopher Lee's story in exchange for an honest review)