Review: Magonia, by Maria Dahvana Headley

August 29, 2015

MagoniaAza Ray is a fifteen-year-old girl who suffers from a rare lung condition; so rare, in fact, it gets named after her, which doesn’t impress her very much. Throughout her young life, the doctors have been setting and resetting her expectations for how many years she has left, but the answer is always ‘not many’. The end is getting closer now, and she and her best friend are coming to terms with that, and their unspoken feelings for each other, when Aza is beset by strange hallucinations. It starts with a ship in the sky, briefly glimpsed between the clouds; a ship that’s calling her home.

Magonia is a very strange book. It’s not strange because it has skyships, and stormsharks, and little birds that live in people’s lungs. It’s strange because the best parts of it are the ones that avoid all of those things and stay grounded in our world. And believe me, I’m usually all about the fantastical.

The first part of the story necessarily has Aza ignorant of the origin of her hallucinations, so around the unravelling of what Magonia is and just what Aza’s seeing, the meat of the story is more concerned with her ongoing struggle with her illness, as well as her family’s, and her coming to terms with its final stages. The writing here is, largely, really quite good. Aza is ridiculously precocious and doesn’t sound like a fifteen-year-old at all, but that’s hardly uncommon for young adult fiction, and since she believes herself to have a terminal illness she has one of the better excuses out there. As smart-mouthed teenage protagonists go, she’s one of the more likeable ones, even if her dialogue frequently ventures into ‘No one talks like this!’ territory.

It’s the secondary characters here who are just wonderful. Aza’s family are loving and supportive and, although she has some of that fifteen-year-old independence-slash-contrariness, it’s obvious that she loves them too, and they are not treated as an obstacle in her life the way families are in so many young adult novels. Their fear, their grief, their ways of trying to fight and cope with what’s happening to their daughter and sister, are allowed to take shape on the page. There’s an ambulance scene that is one of the most affecting ‘family deals with loved one’s serious illness’ moments I have read. And then there’s Jason, Aza’s best friend, and the way their feelings for each other are bitterly intertwined with the knowledge that she will not be here long enough for them to have the kind of relationship they want. Jason is far too lovely and mature to be believable as a sixteen-year-old boy, but hey, he’s had to grow up fast too. I really like that mental illness is part of his background and it’s not a plot device or a character flaw, it’s just a thing he’s had to go through, and the people around him treat it in a way both matter-of-fact and compassionate. He also has two fantastic mothers who are each wonderful in totally different ways, and I love how those ways were highlighted.

The problem with Magonia is Magonia itself. It’s such a cool idea, but it never progresses beyond cool idea into fully-developed world. It reminds me of developing settings for tabletop role-playing games, where there’s a tendency to get caught up in stuff that sounds great on paper — ‘Aztecs! In space! At war! With bunnies!’ — and forget to actually make all of this live and breathe on a human level. I can suspend disbelief for just about anything, for spacebunnies and stormsharks and bug people, if there is verisimilitude and concrete world-building and depth of character.

But in Magonia? Not so much. People who have no rationale for not answering questions refuse to answer them because, I don’t know, it extends the mystery for the reader or something. The characterisation is so thin that it’s difficult to believe that the same author who made me feel so strongly for Aza’s family could leave me so ambivalent about the entire crew of the Annapenny (except Caru), to the point that I can’t seem to remember Dai’s name whenever I’m not looking at it. I have absolutely no idea what Magonian society looks like and no real curiosity to find out, because in lieu of that all I got was window-dressing about squallwhales and other celestial oddities, which, while beautiful in concept, didn’t really amount to anything.

Actually, I’m not sure any of it really amounted to anything. Aza’s personal storyline is addressed with a deus ex machina, and a total tossing-out of logic and character development in favour of a pat ending. The ramifications for Magonian society (whatever that may be), the motives held by the humans who landed Magonia in such trouble in the first place? Well, I guess it’s a good job I wasn’t given many incentives to care about any of that, because there’s no closure to be found here.

I wanted to like this book. It should’ve been right up my alley. And in fairness, I didn’t hate it — I really do think the characterisation in the first half was excellent, and that the writing, although annoyingly stylised at times, was quite evocative, especially in Jason’s sections. But if I had to summarise it, it would be ‘Pretty, but empty’. There’s no there there. If Headley returns to Magonia in another book, I sincerely hope she gives the world as much love on the page as she did to Aza and her family in this one.

2 stars

Review: Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh

August 29, 2015

Hyperbole and a HalfAs one of the few remaining people on the internet who isn’t all that enamoured of webcomics, I was a latecomer to the Allie Brosh fanwagon, because I was under the mistaken impression that Hyperbole and a Half was one. And then someone pestered me to stop making my Oh No Not Another One face and actually go read it, at which point I realised that a) they’re more like illustrated essays, and b) they’re brilliant, insightful, and blisteringly funny.

It’s not easy to be consistently funny. I’m currently marathoning through a show made by one of the world’s best stand-up comedians, and for every moment in which he’s breathtakingly hilarious, there are more in which he’s just good, or sometimes merely weird and awkward. Admittedly, as an audience, I’m a tough nut to crack. But it’s even harder, a lot harder, to be genuinely funny about serious and deep issues, the kind of issues that people are generally a bit too mortified to crack jokes about, and yet which can be rendered more approachable by humour. Allie Brosh has both of those talents.

I received this collection as a gift from my family after using one of Brosh’s pieces, Depression: Part Two — which is in here along with the corresponding first part — as a way of explaining what it’s like to live with that kind of illness from the perspective of a sufferer. I use that essay to explain myself to people a lot, because it’s simultaneously better at summarising the actual experience of it, not just the external effects, than any other material I’ve found, while injecting just the right amount of humour to lift the dialogue out of the awkwardness that usually surrounds discussions of any long-term illness, but especially ones pertaining to mental health.

Her self-examination is unflinching, whether it’s on the experience of, or beginnings of recovery from, depression, to the questions of identity that a lot of us struggle with and/or sweep under the carpet: What makes a good person? Does intent matter when considering an act of altruism, or even just the decision to refrain from harm? Where does each of us really lie in the gap between what our inner narrative tells us we are and what we present to the outside world? Personally I try to be a believer in the philosophy that thoughts, often being involuntary, do not matter; that only actions, which are chosen, do. But when your little inner psychopath is busy constructing elaborate revenge fantasies — possibly involving fire and blood — against your ex, your employer, the person who cut you off in traffic, or the parent who decided that a classy alcohol-serving restaurant was the correct place to bring a screaming toddler, you sometimes have to wonder whether other people are as twisted on the inside, or whether you’re the lone sinner in a flock of saints. The mirror Allie Brosh holds up may or may not help you smile at your reflection, but it will certainly help you laugh at it.

Although her introspective essays are my favourites, everything from her childhood memories (which are a brilliant reminder of the easily-forgotten fact of just how weird we all are as kids) to the stories of her adorably deranged dogs (if we didn’t live on different continents, I’d think we adopted our animals from the same funny farm) are side-splitting, perfectly illustrated, and understatedly poignant.

I can’t talk about an illustrated collection without taking a moment to appreciate the illustrations, especially as they are such an intrinsic part of her humour. When I first saw them, I didn’t initially appreciate how much they contribute to her work. The style is simple, but not simplistic — she can capture so much in a facial expression, even the dogs’. That moment in Depression: Part Two where she’s sitting and hating all life? I am pretty sure that’s the exact expression I have on my face whenever a well-intentioned hippy feels the need to tell me that I could cure my rheumatoid arthritis by drinking honey and cinnamon and that antidepressants are all a Big Pharma hoax to stop us from realising that all we need is yoga.

If you are a human being, you will probably get a good laugh out of this book. Several of them, in fact. If you are a weird human being, or related to one, well, this is just the book that keeps on giving. My only disappointment is that the alot didn’t make it in. Now he’s sad alot.

5 stars

Review: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

August 23, 2015

UprootedAgnieszka grew up in a quiet little village by the Wood, enjoying bright summer days with her childhood best friend, Kasia. Her home is a little different from the idyll it sounds like, however, for the Wood is corrupt and home to many dark things, things that sometimes come to take people away and return them twisted inside or out, and the girls grow up with the knowledge that Kasia will be lost to Nieshka when the wizard who guards their valley comes, as he does every ten years, to take the most remarkable young woman to serve a decade in his tower. Except he doesn’t take striking, beautiful Kasia at all — he takes Nieshka, and although at first she seems singularly ill-suited to the new life before her, soon she and the Dragon must teach each other how to work in harmony against the Wood and those who unwittingly serve it.

I love fairytales, but because they typically involve characters who are very archetypal, even the best of them can suffer from shallow characterisation. Uprooted is an object lesson in how to do it right. Even before the first reference to Baba Jaga lands, the root of the novel’s inspiration in Slavic folklore is richly evident, and the otherworldly feeling remains throughout, but never at the cost of the characters; hero and villain alike, they rise off the page, full of love and anger and foibles.

One of the best expressions of that love is in the friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia. It’s realistically flawed, exploring the ways in which each is jealous of the other even as they would do anything for one another, but it’s also so heartwarming. It’s just such a nuanced take on a devoted female friendship, on the role that a best friend plays in a young woman’s life and on how those friendships are impacted when growing up means one person leaving the place the two called home and the other staying behind.

I was initially concerned that the characterisation of Agnieszka herself might be shallow, especially with the deep array of personalities surrounding her, because there were a couple of the warning signs of Mary Sues such as clumsiness being presented as her main ‘flaw’. But in a refreshing twist, they turned out to have really good reasons for existing, and Nieshka went on not only to display much more genuinely flawed but compelling humanity, but also to do a great deal of growing up throughout the novel, despite being left little time to breathe.

In focusing first on the fantastic characterisation I may have made the novel sound slow-paced; it’s anything but. Once the initial groundwork has been laid, the story is densely plotted and excellently paced, darting from action to intrigue and back without losing its dark fairytale vibe. And that vibe is very dark at times, in exactly the way I like — sometimes the Wood corrupts people in obvious ways and sometimes in subtle ones, and it’s the ones who are charming and normal and utterly alien and wrong on the inside who provoke the visceral horror familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed nightmares of their loved ones smilingly turning to knife them. The author does a brilliant job with haunting little touches like the sweet little sigh of letting go a corrupted soldier gives before he turns to slit his comrade’s throat.

The only noticeably slow portion of the book for me was a section Nieshka has to spend at a court without the Dragon, but then the events were meant to be agonisingly slow for the character as well, and the buildup paid off. I think part of it was also being denied her partnership with him, which I didn’t expect to like as much as I did. He’s a crotchety bastard, and I don’t generally enjoy male characters who are jerks unless they get called on it, especially if they are love interests — but there are a number of reasons why it worked for me here. Firstly, one of the purposes of the slow court section is to show, through the lives of other wizards, the solid rationale he has for putting up walls; secondly, the process of going from being terrified by his legend, to humanising him, to giving as good as she gets, and finally to seeing how much of him is façade, reaching past it and shaping their magic together to be greater than the sum of their parts, is all a huge part of Agnieszka’s growth.

As for romance, it is present, but it is a grace note in an otherwise jam-packed book, and I think its primary purpose is to serve as a reflection of the magical partnership that is simultaneously developing, of two people shaving off their rough edges to fit together, to meld their vastly different styles into one double-edged blade.

I’ve read Novik’s Temeraire books before and I liked them, but I didn’t love them like this. I don’t know if it’s just the accumulation of writing experience or if the different style of the book speaks to me more, but I feel she’s a much stronger writer here, with her prose reading as positively lush at times. I don’t know whether or not I would like to see her return to this world, though. Part of me wants more, now, and the other part of me simply wants this book to stand perfect and untouched. This deserves a place alongside Stardust as one of my favourite modern fairytales.

5 stars

Review: The Fog, by James Herbert

August 22, 2015

The FogGrowing up, I was a huge fan of horror, the cheesier the better. James Herbert’s The Rats and sequels were an early stop on my tour of all things gruesome, and I loved it, but somehow the only other Herbert book I’ve read over the years has been Fluke. An impulse to read some traditional British horror led me to pick up The Fog, the earliest of Herbert’s standalone titles.

In a remote West Country village, the kind of friendly but stifling little place where everyone stops for a daily chat with the greengrocer and marries the boy next door, the ground abruptly trembles and ruptures into a chasm which swallows part of the main street whole. It releases a yellow-grey miasma which begins to envelop the surrounding countryside, twisting the minds of those it touches, and one of its first victims — the only one to regain his sanity after being in its clutch — is compelled to discover whether the cause has any link to his work, and whether a solution can be found before it touches upon a major settlement. Or a metropolis…

Holman, the lead character, has the potential to be interesting, being an employee for the Department of the Environment who’s sent to investigate Ministry of Defence bases his boss suspects are sited on land the MoD is holding onto without cause. Unfortunately, he’s sort of a bland 70s stereotype of an everyman, complete with ladykiller history despite lack of charm or personality. He’s also constantly referred to as Holman in the narrative and by pretty much everyone he deals with, which means I actually had to look up his first name before writing this review because I’d already forgotten it. It’s John. Well, of course it would be John.

He’s the sort of character who would fit comfortably into pulp fiction, but is a bit of a hindrance to a chiller where the reader would benefit from a sympathetic connection to the person whose psychological reactions inform our experience of the horror. So it’s probably to the best that the book frequently cuts away from his story to indulge in vignettes about the victims of the fog. Although some of them are predictable, the majority are nicely atmospheric, one of the best being a broken-hearted woman who chooses to end her life by walking into the sea, only to discover when she has a last-minute change of mind that she’s not the only one with that idea. Herbert takes his time building the characters in these segments up into authentic people, feeding us enough of their pasts to give it resonance when they meet their expected ends, though sometimes in very unexpected ways.

Although a lot of the time I felt mildly disappointed when the story would return to Holman, he does eventually end up taking us through one of the most atmospheric sequences of the book as well, where everything is blanked out by the fog and a lot of the suspense comes from heard snippets of what he knows is going on just beyond his sight, and of sudden encounters with the fog-afflicted standing only feet away. Herbert doesn’t rely exclusively on death and gruesome murders to deliver his shocks, either; sometimes the creepiest thing is someone functioning normally in a situation where normality is the last thing one ought to be expressing.

The Fog was published in the mid-70s, and in some respects it’s aged fairly well. The lack of ubiquitous technology which today would lead to much faster spreads of news and greater difficulty containing outbreaks of suppressed information wouldn’t ring quite true to today’s reader, but when it comes to fears about how far our governments are willing to go in experimentation and weaponisation, and what they will do to cover it up, it likely plays on the modern mindset quite well. Less translatable are the social attitudes — although I only encountered one truly racist passage, there is a great deal of paternalism in the way female characters are treated both by others and by the narrative, from throwaway derogatory remarks about the intelligence of the average housewife to the limp characterisation of Holman’s girlfriend. He even spends the entire novel referring to her not by her given name, but by a pet name that reminds him of his childhood dog. To be fair, she kind of reminded me of one as well, but that’s because Herbert isn’t very good at writing women, at least not here. There are also some questionable portrayals of LGBT characters. Lesbians at least fared better than gay men, where unfortunately we visit the tired trope of gay male teacher is implied to be a paedophile, although it’s possible to read it in such a way that that might not be true.

Books are a product of their time, but so are we. The Fog remains an entertaining, suspenseful, and well-written, but neither deep nor well-characterised, entry in the horror canon. Not one perhaps for the type of reader who needs to forge a deep connection to characters in order to appreciate their experiences, but still a good way for the horror fan to get their chills.

3 stars

Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), by Felicia Day

August 14, 2015

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)I’ve never read a celebrity memoir before. I have a general disinterest in knowing most celebrities outside the context of their work, and generally prefer to express my appreciation for their talents by just buying more of whatever it is they make. Felicia Day is an exception. I’ve been following her since my childhood best friend told me I had to watch this hilarious web-series called The Guild. I’ve been bowled over by the way that she has pioneered the creation of a whole new audience for independent web content built by creators who make their own stage on which to share their geekiest passions with a direct connection to their viewership. She essentially took the parts of herself rejected by society at large, or at least typically rejected by the society at large of a decade ago, and built a successful and innovative career out of sharing them with all the far-flung geeks around the globe. And she did it while remaining authentic, down to earth, funny, and extremely friendly and accessible to everyone her work spoke to — no matter how much shit certain corners of the internet flung at her for being a highly visible woman who wouldn’t stop sitting at ‘their’ gaming table. So hell yeah, I was excited for this book.

In reading the opening chapters, I came to the conclusion that Felicia must be my spirit animal. She, like me, was home-educated from a young age for non-religious reasons, and ended up gradually shifting from a more structured curriculum to one largely powered by her own reading choices. She, like me, forged her social connections not with local kids, but on the internet back when the internet was regarded by the population at large as something for scientists and serial killers. (CompuServe RPGames, represent.) We both got our PC gaming start with Ultima games. And so on. On a deeper note, her struggles with anxiety and depression, and her over-investment in a video game to deal with them and with a lack of direction are also familiar ground for me. So this made her narrative really relatable. I think one of the many reasons why The Guild was such a tearaway success is because there are more of us out there who fit this kind of mould than we ever tend to think, and it’s cathartic to see that addressed in a humorous way. I expect anyone who found a piece of themselves in the series would find a lot to empathise with in Felicia’s own story.

She is really candid about her struggles and keeps a gentle sense of humour about the whole thing, which makes it even more inspiring when the book turns to her successes. Because she really didn’t get handed anything. It seems like a lot of the time when people who have had any kind of runaway success share how they did it, their ‘You can do this too!’ attitude comes off a bit phony because they don’t see how many privileges they enjoyed along the way. That’s not the case here. She’s not one of those people who had great contacts or money or family history to fall back on. There weren’t any massive strokes of luck. There was a lot of hard work and disheartenment. There were a lot of those inner ‘Why did I think I could do this? I’m a phony’ conversations that most of us neurotic types have had with ourselves whenever we try to do, well, anything. She just kept going, and when told there wasn’t an audience for the kind of thing she wanted to do, she made one. And as a part of that audience since the early days, I find that she continues to make it over and over again each time she rolls with a new idea — when her Vaginal Fantasy book club started, I thought ‘Why did no one ever do something like this before?!’ Reflecting on it after having read this book, I can hazard a guess at the answer: Because they didn’t think there would be an audience. Perhaps one of the best lessons to take away from You’re Never Weird on the Internet is that there never is, until you create one; that audiences are made, not found.

I can’t imagine not walking away from this book feeling inspired. Not to create any specific thing, but just to create — to dig through your mental catalogue of ideas that have always made you go ‘I would love to do ____, but there’s no market/audience for it’ and just do it anyway, just build it no matter what it takes.

That said, even what might be termed the success story part of the book is not a feel-good fluff piece. She talks about the hardships too, about the impact of over-achieving on her health and her personal relationships, and the work it took to find a better balance, or the loss of privacy and security and the fears that come along with being a really engaged public figure in an arena that’s traditionally very hostile to women (and as much as it’s improved in some areas, it’s deteriorated in others). There’s no magic wand to cure these things — she’ll probably continue to battle them throughout her career, just as she acknowledges towards the end of the book that her remarks about things like GamerGate are probably going to earn her some renewed backlash when it’s published. Yes, unfortunately they probably will. But she’s been a huge part of creating safer spaces for so many women in the gaming world, and in normalising the image of the female gamer.

If you know who Felicia Day is, I probably don’t have to sell you too hard on reading this book. And if you’re part of the sphere of geekdom that prizes everything from World of Warcraft to Star Wars, you probably know who Felicia Day is, at least a little bit. So to that group I’ll just say: Get it, it’s a keeper. But I think this is also an excellent introduction to Felicia for people whose only familiarity with an orc is watching Lord of the Rings that one time, but who could use a little dose of inspiration from a quirky, funny, and intelligent voice.

5 stars

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