Book Review: The Female of the Species

Image result for the female of the species

The Female of the Species

by Mindy McGinnis

 

It is probably best, in reviewing books, to stay away from comparisons; no two authors are the same, no two books are the same, no two readers are the same, and so any attempt to compare experiences will inevitably come up short.

On the other hand, if you can’t compare two reading experiences, there’s not much point in book reviews and recommendations in the first place. So let me give this a shot.

I have two comparisons I want to make with this book. The first is to another book, probably more famous, called Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. That book is about teenagers, as this one is; it is about grief and heartbreak and mental illness, among other things, as this one is; it is an indictment of rape culture, as this one is. So there are enough points of comparison for me to say something valid, I think. Now here’s the difference: that book, compared to this one, is crap. Absolute shlock. The characters are unrealistic, the events are underwhelming and overdramatized, the ending and the book’s overall message were just obnoxious, in my opinion.

This book is none of those things. These characters are some of the most fully-realized and relatable that I have ever read. My favorite thing about this book is that none of the characters – not even the static characters, the foils for the protagonists, the minor characters who only pop into a chapter or two – none of them are permitted to be one-dimensional. The bitchy cheerleader has depths, and real kindness. The golden boy is not all golden: he has flaws, and shortcomings, and he fails, more than once. The villains are recognized as not being that different from the heroes.

And the hero is a psychopath. An entirely sympathetic and fascinating psychopath. I know there are other books that have taken that approach – Dexter, American Psycho, I Am Not a Serial Killer – but this one is by far the best, in my opinion. (Since I’ve been talking about comparisons, let’s be clear: Dexter and American Psycho are entirely different books, different stories, different characters. I Am Not a Serial Killer has some similarities in that it is also a YA book with a teenaged hero; but that book is about self-doubt, and this book is not. At least not from the psychopath’s point of view.) This psychopath, you cheer for. She’s a badass, which was a lot of fun to read. And she volunteers at an animal shelter, and is good to the dogs. I got more than a little upset with the other characters for not being able to relate to her at times, when she’s so clearly right.

But at the same time, because she’s not one-dimensional, the psychopath is not only right. Some of the things she does are terribly wrong, and we know it. This is part of the advantage of McGinnis’s use of multiple point-of-view characters: we get to see all of the major characters from multiple perspectives, both inside and outside themselves, which is part of what makes the characters, and the book (which is entirely character-driven) so good.

And that brings me to the second comparison: the writing. I am a writer. I’ve written for young adults, and I’ve written about violent, mentally ill protagonists. So though I know I shouldn’t, when I encounter a book that is in some small way similar to something that I’ve written, I tend to compare the writing to my own; particularly when it is the first time I’ve read something by a particular author. I don’t do it all the time; when I’m reading something by Steinbeck or Khaled Hosseini or something similar, I don’t even try. But I do think, “I would have done that differently,” or, “I could have written that better.”

I couldn’t have written this book better. I wouldn’t have done it differently, but: there’s no way I could write this well. I actually got a little sad for a while when I was reading it, because this book was so good, so well-written, the characters so genuine and interesting, the action so arresting, that I thought, “Well, what could I add to the literary world when it already has something like this?” I got over myself, of course, but the point is this: this is one of the best pieces of young adult fiction I’ve read. This is one of the better novels I’ve read, period.

So here’s one last comparison: me, to you. I’ve read this book. You haven’t. Which means I’m happier than you. You should fix that. Go get it.

I’m going to go try to learn to write better. And read another book by Mindy McGinnis.

Advertisements

Book Review: Three Dark Crowns

Image result for three dark crowns

Three Dark Crowns

by Kendare Blake

This book got me. Got me good. If we had been fighting a duel, I would have bowed my head, said, “Touche,” and apologized for however I had given offense. And then probably applauded my honorable opponent for the impressive victory.

And then the next thing I knew, I’d be flat on my back, completely stunned, looking up at the book smirking over me, hearing the onlookers making shocked noises at how badly I had been slammed. Because just when I thought the book was done – it wasn’t done. It was just setting me up for the knockout.

All right, enough metaphor: let’s just get into it, shall we?

This is a young adult fantasy novel, one with young female protagonists and a fair amount of romance and social drama – friendships being made and broken, trusted advisors turning traitor, and so on – and so it would most likely appeal to young female fantasy fans. But I am only one of those things, and I enjoyed reading the book, so don’t let me pigeonhole it: it’s a good fantasy novel. It’s the first in a series, so it’s setting up the world and the long-haul plot; both are interesting. The world is based around a magical island, hidden by mists and guarded, so the people believe, by a goddess. This goddess creates a new group of potential rulers for the island once a generation, and that group is always the same: a set of triplets, all girls, born to the previous queen.

The difficulty is that only one of the girls can become queen.

The other two have to die.

The other key factor here – and honestly, the part of this book I had the most trouble with (Other than the portrayal of a couple of the teenaged boys, who were idiots or cads, but I’m not going to complain about that because Lord knows there have been more than enough fantasy novels where the female characters are the crappy ones, and it’s certainly not all the guys in this book who are twits; just two, one idiot and one cad. I’ll just shut up and take my lumps.), because it doesn’t work terribly well – is that each of these triplets has a magical power. There are three main magical powers on the island, grouped into houses; whichever house has the triplet who wins the crown becomes the ruling council for the length of her reign. The three powers are: elemental control, animal telepathy, and – poison.

Look, I don’t mean to be one of those comic book guy, gaming fantasy nerds who complain about a fantasy world being not as good as, say, Tolkien; but this honestly felt off to me. The animal telepathy I’ve got no problem with; there’s not an epic fantasy story in the world that hasn’t made me want to pull a Doctor Doolittle. I want to speak to the Eagles like Gandalf, and run with the wolves like Perrin Aybara, and communicate with dragons like Daenerys Targaryen. So that power was great. The elemental power seemed overbroad, because that queen can do everything: she can bring storms, she can bring earthquakes, she can dance wreathed in fire. And on the other hand, the poison-powered queen can, umm, eat poison. And not die. That’s it. Seems lame in comparison. Also not terribly useful in a magical duel to the death. So I admit, that bugged me a little, particularly because the story is about these three girls approaching the age when they are supposed to start fighting over the throne, meaning they have to kill each other; and really, what are the odds here? The animal telepath can control animals and send them to kill her sisters, and the elemental sister can bring fiery wrath from the skies; the poison sister can – not die while she eats poison. I really couldn’t make that work well in my head, and so it was a bit of a stumbling block.

But here’s the thing: apart from that, the story is great. The girls have different power levels, which means some of them expect to die and others expect to kill their own sisters; and neither is a good place to be. That tension is very well done. The desperation of the weaker sisters to find some way to make their powers sufficient to survive and even kill, that’s also well done. And all of the intrigue, the social interactions, the boys hovering around them trying to become the consort of the next queen (which also means they have to bet on who’s going to win this fight), that was very well done. I liked all of that. I liked all three of the sisters’ characters, even though they’re all entirely different. I was trying to think of a way out of the conundrum they were in, and regretting that I couldn’t; that’s a sign of a good piece of writing, when it leaves the reader looking for a solution to the conflict.

But then: then it got me. At the very end (and no spoilers), an event happened that I pretty much expected, though the means of it was a surprise. But it turned out to have a twist, which I really didn’t expect; Blake set this plot up so well that I was genuinely thrown when the twist happened.

BUT THEN THERE WAS ANOTHER TWIST! Completely unexpected, totally out of left field. And that one, hooooooo BOY – that was the one that knocked me on my ass. But it was great, because it also changed the way I saw the book I had just read: I went from thinking it was okay, to finding it much more interesting once I had this new piece of information. And the best part about it was that it set up a whole different expectation for what would happen in the second book, which means that, of course I have to read that one, now.

So this was a good one. I will want to read the sequels before I recommend it entirely, because I’m not going to recommend a fantasy series that doesn’t end as well as it starts; but this was definitely a promising beginning.

Book Review: Noir by Christopher Moore

(Been a while, I know. Even with my avowed intentions to use this blog to talk about my experiences trying to become a published writer. I didn’t want to sound like I was kvetching —  so instead, I haven’t been posting.

But I got this ARC of Christopher Moore’s newest novel, and I could not think of a better way to come back into my book reviews, at the very least. So here it is.)

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling

The product model is my birb Duncan.

 

Noir

by Christopher Moore

Trouble walked in, shaped like a dame.

Also shaped like a black mamba. (Though he didn’t walk in.)

Also shaped like an alien straight from the crash in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. (He didn’t walk in, either. Also might not be a he. I mean, probably not, really.)

Also shaped like the usual suspects from a Christopher Moore novel: smartasses and dumbasses, goons and gadflies, men in drag and women in drag and a venerated Chinese uncle who runs an opium den and has a most unfortunate nickname. (It sort of translates to “cat lover.” In a non-traditional sense.)

The trouble? Noir. In San Francisco, in 1947, and it all comes down on Sammy Two-Toes and his friends and allies, and enemies and victims, and especially on that rotten little foul-mouthed kid that keeps waking Sammy up.

Hate that kid.

But I love him, too. And I loved this book.

It is hilarious: I don’t know of anyone else since Douglas Adams who writes books that can make me laugh out loud, hard enough that I have to put the book down, but Christopher Moore can do it, and he has done it again; from the description of the manly scream on the first page, to the black mamba giving a raspberry to the guy he bit on one of the last pages (Not THE last page; the book ends with one of those wrap-ups describing how everything falls out for all of the characters, and no spoilers here –well, not big ones.), I laughed all the way through this book. There are some fantastic zingers, some absolutely glorious descriptions – my favorite is the one of the whorehouse madame in her tight green dress and flaming red hair described as looking “like a tube of red paint that someone squeezed hard in the middle,” because my God, that is just incredible – and some utterly delicious dialogue, particularly when the characters get into their snappy 1940’s noir patter, which I doubt that anyone writing today could do as well as Moore can. In the afterword, he describes his own book as a cross between Damon Runyan and Bugs Bunny, and I think that’s perfect, too. There is also some slapstick, some goofy sex jokes, a bit of gross humor, as there usually is; because that’s Christopher Moore, too.

And then there is the love story (Remember that dame who walked in and brought trouble? That’s the one). It is wonderfully sweet and romantic, and also a little sad; and for me it elevated this hilarious book into something that I would recommend to anyone who doesn’t mind a little filth in their fun; it’s not the whole plot, as of course there is the wacky story line that I will leave to be discovered, but there is also a Cannery Row sort of story about the boys, the ones who live right on the edge of the skids, but who hang on, mostly because they hang together; on some level this is their story, and it’s a good one. I was rooting for them the whole way. And once again, I don’t want to spoil anything – but at least one of these plot lines turns out all right, which made me walk away with a smile, even after the laughs stopped.

This is a great book. You should read it.

Letter To My Congresswoman

I’m an American high school teacher, so as you can imagine, this last week has been a time of turmoil. And for the first time — a fact which I find shameful– this latest school shooting has actually driven me to do something. I wrote my representative in Congress, Martha McSally, who is currently running for the Arizona Senate seat that will be vacated by the retiring Jeff Flake, about gun control.

I should have done this many times in the past, and I can’t justify my own inaction. I’ve argued about this topic for years, but to say that I’ve never voiced my opinion to the people who can actually do something — well. I’ve done it now. Sent the email ten minutes ago. I will also be sending a version of this to every candidate who runs for McSally’s seat — one which will probably be hotly contested, considering the political climate in this country and the fact that this is a Democratic area with a Republican representative — and I welcome anyone who wants to use this as a framework for their own letter. Steal it, steal a paragraph, steal everything you want. Do more than I have done. Let’s see what we can make happen.

February 23, 2018

To Representative McSally:

I am an independent voter living in Tucson, in the 2nd Congressional District for Arizona. I am an educator: I have taught high school English for eighteen years, for the last four at Sonoran Science Academy, one of the premier STEM charter schools in the state – the only high school in Tucson which Governor Ducey visited this past year. I am writing to you despite knowing that you are currently very busy, seeking a new job in addition to performing the duties of your current position, because you should know that I will also be seeking a new position, and quite possibly a new profession, unless you and your fellow Congresspeople can do the right thing. Unless you bring some sense to the debate over gun control, and specifically firearms in schools, then Tucson, and Arizona, and this country will lose thousands of outstanding teachers and educators. Like me.

The sense I seek – the sense I demand – in this debate has three elements, one positive change, one negative stance, and a general direction. The positive change is simple: Congress must repeal the Dickey Amendment of 1996, which prohibits the Centers for Disease Control from performing any research into gun violence in this country if said research “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” I find this law appalling, entirely apart from my stance on gun control, because it is nothing more than enforced ignorance: it is a law passed by our government intended solely to limit and suppress knowledge. It flies in the face of science because it presumes an outcome and refuses the research for fear of that outcome – but it is entirely possible that the outcome of that research would be evidence against gun control! There is absolutely no reason to prevent the CDC from investigating the causes of gun deaths, and 30,000 reasons to allow that research to go forward, every year. I say that as an educator, not as an advocate for gun control; the truth is always better than ignorance, and I for one would gladly change my stance on gun control if the evidence supported such a change. Congress must allow the CDC to dispel our ignorance, to teach us why this problem is unique to the United States. That knowledge, suppressed for twenty years, is why this debate is still so acrimonious: because we do not know the facts behind it. We do not know if the right to bear arms is a cause of those 30,000 annual deaths, or if it prevents even more deaths while contributing to none. We are left searching for reasons, for answers, while the body that could provide us with several of those answers sits with its hands tied. Please: make this the first action you take regarding this debate. Jay Dickey himself regrets his namesake law and argued for its repeal in 2012, after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Strip away the veil of ignorance, and let us know the truth. Repeal the Dickey Amendment.

The negative stance I would ask you to support has to do with a common reaction to the atrocity of school shootings. I have been a teacher since 2000, and I was in school to become a teacher when the massacre happened at Columbine; I have watched, again and again, as maniacs with firearms have devastated communities by targeting our children. Every time this happens, whether the debate remains local or expands to include the entire nation, at some point, someone will suggest arming the teachers. This time the suggestion came most clearly from our president, Mr. Trump. He Tweeted that “Highly trained, gun adept, teachers/coaches would solve the problem instantly, before police arrive. GREAT DETERRENT!” Allow me to state, unequivocally, that this is false. Highly trained teachers is what this nation already has, but we are, as we should be, highly trained in education, not in combat. I would never presume to lecture you, who have been in combat, on what that experience means and what training and preparation went into making it possible for you to fight for our country, but I am entirely and absolutely sure that I do not have what you had. I do not have the training, I do not have the preparation, I do not have the will to fight. My classroom is not a battleground, and I am not a warrior. What’s more, I will not become such. Turning me from an educator into a fighter would destroy too much of what I need to be successful in my profession: it would change my relationship to my students, it would change my view of myself and my role, it would change the priorities for my continuing professional development and the allocation of resources. It would make my position untenable for me, and if it ever becomes policy, I will quit. I will quit immediately and without reservation, and I will not be alone: please recognize that thousands and thousands of teachers feel as I do. The country already has a teacher shortage, and a longstanding problem with hiring and retaining quality educators; do not make it worse by misunderstanding who we are and what we do. I will never carry a weapon in school, and I will never fire on a student. Don’t ask me to.

Lastly, I would ask you to join me in moving the gun control debate in a general direction that I hope you will be able to support. I recognize the right to self-defense and the concomitant right to keep and bear arms. I oppose authoritarian government, and applaud the democratization of physical force through the private ownership of firearms. But the reality is that the ready availability of firearms, particularly of weapons that have uniquely destructive properties, allow for the unequal and devastating use of force in a way that reduces individual rights: one 19-year-old man’s ability to purchase an AR-15 and “countless” magazines has taken the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to pursue happiness, away from thousands of students. While of course such simple measures as a waiting period for semi-automatic rifles, or an age limit of 21 on the purchase of long guns, or a limit on magazine capacity, or a universal background check system, would not stop all massacres and would not affect the majority of gun deaths, the simple fact that such measures would stop some massacres, and would reduce gun deaths, without materially affecting the right to bear arms or the ability of Americans to defend themselves, makes these measures requisite. It makes them necessary. It makes their continued absence a failure and a dereliction of duty. I myself was inspired to write you, an action I have not taken in the past, by the political will and activity of the victims of the Parkland shooting; I consider myself to be derelict in my duty in not having taken up this cause in the past with the same vigor and determination that these teenagers are showing us now. I am a teacher; I am an adult; I should have been fighting this fight, not waiting for children to fight it for me. Had I fought for these measures in the past, had everyone who agrees with me done so, had all the congresspeople and elected leaders in this nation done what we all (I hope) know to be the right thing, then this particular massacre would not have occurred. That weighs on me, and though I don’t hope it weighs on you, I hope you can empathize with me about it. I hope you can understand the determination that I now have, that this situation not continue as it has in the past, that we not let this moment sink back into oblivion and change nothing and do nothing. I will not take up arms and fire on a student: but neither will I be silent while madmen do exactly that.

I hope you can agree with me on these three actions: to repeal the Dickey Amendment and allow the CDC to investigate the causes of gun violence; to oppose the absurd idea that our schools should encourage or require teachers to carry arms as a means of defending students from attack; and to press for some common-sense gun safety measures that would help to regulate arms without removing any citizen’s inalienable right to self-defense. Please believe that my vote, and my support, depend on that agreement.

Sincerely,

Theoden Humphrey

Two Books by John Wyndham

Image result for rebirth john wyndhamImage result for the secret people john wyndham

Two by John Wyndham: Re-Birth and The Secret People

 

I’ve gone up and down with John Wyndham. A couple of his books – The Midwich Cuckoos and Day of the Triffids – are outstanding; Chocky was just okay. Generally I like his storytelling, and his ideas are wonderful; but they can’t all be gems, no matter who the author is. No problem. Really, this fits in nicely to the Golden Age of Science Fiction, where Wyndham deserves a place, since even Heinlein and Asimov wrote some stinkers. I like Wyndham, though, and I like that I keep finding his books in cheap paperback editions from the 60’s and 70’s with interesting cover art. That cover art was what made me pick both of these.

So I had two of his novels to read, and once I read them, well – to be honest, my opinion of Wyndham went down. This has been mitigated now by the fact that one of these two, The Secret People, was one of his earliest works, written in 1935; my first book isn’t very good, either. But that’s not enough: because this book wasn’t just “not very good.” It’s a stack of crap in a cover.

We’ll start with the good one, though. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.) Re-Birth, from 1955, (Published in Wyndham’s native UK as The Chrysalids, which is a way better title but I assumed they changed it because the American public’s response was overwhelmingly, “Wut’s in tarnation’s a chrysalid?”) is a great book in two ways: it has a post-apocalyptic setting fully as interesting and disturbing as A Handmaid’s Tale, with the same kind of theocratic hypocrisy in full bloom. Told from the point of view of a young boy whose father is a pillar of the community, it has that excellent innocent perspective that makes social commentary novels genuinely effective, from The Giver to To Kill a Mockingbird. We learn how screwed up the society is as the protagonist does, and it works extremely well. There’s a nice twist, too: because we find out that the main character, David, is actually one of the forbidden people, one of the untouchables, as it were, but in a way that enables him to hide it. So we get the view of the society from both a child’s perspective and an outsider’s perspective, and it’s very well done.

The society is an agrarian theocracy after the world-shattering nuclear war; it is probably somewhere in Greenland, though that isn’t entirely clear. (That maybe my poor grasp on world geography – or, honestly, it’s been a couple of months since I read it; I may just not remember.) The society has an absolute rule against genetic mutations, which are more common because of the radiation; anyone who is born with any king of imperfection is essentially exposed to the elements. (Turns out they don’t always die, but that’s not for the society’s lack of trying.) David is a genetic mutation, but not with any physical alteration, and so he slips through the net, and eventually finds several others who are like him.

I don’t want to spoil it any more than that, because it is essentially worth reading. I didn’t really like the ending, though. We get two glimpses into other societies, one of the outcast genetic mutations who have survived on the fringes of the theocratic society, and one highly advanced society from another part of the world; and frankly, both suck. The book as a whole just made me dislike people. Which, I mean, that’s fair, but it’s not always the kind of book I want to read; I also felt that this one didn’t hold out any real hope for a better world or better people. I guess there’s a small chance that David and his friends are the hope, but they continue to be a part of the crappy societies, so I don’t really see it.

But I did like the characters a lot, and I thought the society and the central conflict over genetic “perfection,” with the underlying theme of questioning that very concept – what exactly is the “correct” genotype? Or more importantly, the correct phenotype? At what point does variation become too far from the “norm?” – all that was great. If you’re a Wyndham fan, go ahead and read this one.

Don’t read The Secret People. Not anyone, not for any reason – not even for that epically bizarre cover. Because the cover is a lie! There aren’t any weird dirt-people with mushroom horns! They’re just short! I wanted freaky gnomes and dwarves and stuff, but what I got was – crap. Racist crap.

So The Secret People, originally published in 1935, is a lot like an H. Rider Haggard novel, except Wyndham wasn’t as good a writer. And they both had crap ideas. This book starts with a couple of poorly explained technological advances to get us in the sci-fi mood; the main character is an international playboy with his own jet plane – and I mean, it’s a rocket ship with a cabin and everything, that flies in atmosphere – and at one point, he picks up his newest Bond Girl and flies over the inland sea that is being made where the Sahara used to be. Sadly, they crash into the water, and through a series of mishaps, they find themselves in an underground world peopled by strange beings! Living under the Sahara! SO WEIRD!

Except they’re not. They’re Pygmies, from Africa, who apparently wandered into underground caves centuries ago, and just kept wandering. And just like Haggard, who had a serious case of TheWhiteManIsTheRightMan-itis, Wyndham describes these “secret people” as essentially savages who have been unable to advance their civilization in any way past their original stone-tool-and-superstition society. The modern Eurotrash heroes get chucked into a prison cavern with all the other surface dwellers who have found their way underground now that the inland-sea-over-the-Sahara project has compromised the Secret People’s secrecy, and then they have to find their way out and back to the jet plane, which is their only hope of surviving. Because, you see, the inland sea has started leaking into this vast underground cavern world, and the whole place is going to drown.

But that doesn’t matter! What matters is who gets to the plane first: the heroes, our playboy and his Bond Girl, or the sinister criminal element, who were already in the cavern when our heroes arrive, and who are both rapey and swarthy – an unforgivable combination. But that’s okay, because they’re also stupid and cowardly and everything else you would expect from a swarthy criminal type, and so yes, our heroes are the ones who make it out alive before all of the Secret People drown. Which, y’know, is a happy ending.

Terrible book. Don’t read it. Go for Re-Birth/The Chrysalids – or even better, read The Midwich Cuckoos.

Book Review: Mortal Engines, Hungry City Chronicles #1

Image result for mortal engines

(Also, see that hot air balloon on the cover, with the tiny gondola the two characters are in? Not at all how the airships are described.)

 

Mortal Engines (Book One of the Hungry City Chronicles)

by Philip Reeve

 

I kind of hated this book.

Not everything about it. Some things in here are wonderful. The concept is fantastic: a future world where cities are mobile, enormous steampunk structures on wheels, rolling around in the wasteland that is all that remains of our world, destroyed (of course) by World War III and hyper-advanced war machines. These cities follow a philosophy of “municipal Darwinism” (great name), which teaches that the largest, strongest city will devour the smaller cities. It’s a “town eat town” world, and the mobile towns do exactly that: they capture the smaller, slower towns, swallow them, tear them apart and use their raw materials as fuel and building materials to maintain and expand the larger town.

That’s a cool idea.

The main town in the story is London, and London is now governed by four Guilds: the Historians, the Navigators, the Merchants, and the Engineers. The Historians, who comprise both doddering old museum relics and Indiana Jones-style explorers who search through the wreckage of ancient civilizations to find useful artifacts from the time before the wars that ended everything (This is our time, of course, and the Frankenstein We-let-our-technology-advance-too-far-and-it-destroyed-us theme is vigorous in this book), are sort of the main protagonists, and the Engineers, who care about nothing but power and control, as those engineers would, are the antagonists. There is also the Anti-Traction League (the moving cities are called “traction cities”), which have settled in parts of the world not dominated by moving towns nor devastated by ancient wars, and they oppose the traction cities as a whole.

This is fine and good. I was a bit annoyed by the stereotypes of the heartless engineer and the hapless-but-wise-and-kind historian, but I like the plotline that involves the Lord Mayor of London and his megalomaniacal schemes, and the discovery of a new doomsday weapon that allows his city to destroy any other; the weapon is actually a rediscovery from the ancient times, and I thought the book handled that well, particularly at the end. (Though there are some pretty severe plot holes, especially regarding the time lapse between the ancients and the traction city era:  it’s been like two thousand years. So really, the ancient technology? It just wouldn’t work. At all.) I like the Anti-Traction League, and I particularly like the subset of non-city-dwellers who live in the air: this being a proper steampunk novel, there are airships galore, and even a flying city, and those parts were great.

No: I hated the characters. The specific characters who play the roles of hero in this book are half crappy, and by the end, half dead. I won’t say which group is which so as not to spoil, especially since this book is now being made into a movie by Peter Jackson, who probably won’t be able to save this thing, in my opinion. However, since the book won oodles of awards, I suppose most people liked the characters a whole lot more than I did. But really, they aren’t good characters: there’s one who should hate everything London is doing and all that it stands for, but at a crucial moment, this character freaks out on those who want to stop London from destroying everything good with its doomsday device; and then later the character realizes, “Hey, wait – London sucks! I should do something about that!” But this epiphany comes at an entirely random time, and is annoying because of that; I would think that the betrayal by a Londoner whom the character worships would have changed the character’s mind, or maybe when the two main characters are tricked and enslaved by a traction city; or maybe when they are captured and abused and threatened and nearly killed by a bunch of half-insane traction city pirates. No: it’s while the character is – climbing stairs. It’s ridiculous.

The other big problem for me was the writing. Half of the characters, good and bad, are entirely unbelievable; their emotions and motivations don’t make a lot of sense. There are a ton of cliches and platitudes, and some of the descriptions and action sequences are just not well done.

And then, at the end – he killed the fucking dog. That’s right: Philip Reeve kills the dog. No reason, either; we already hate the people who do it, and the character who I suppose is intended to be inspired to murderous vengeful rage by the death of the dog WAS ALREADY AT THE POINT OF VENGEFUL RAGE. It’s an entirely gratuitous dog-killing. And I don’t mean to overstate how much this bothered me, because I was already annoyed by the plot holes and the poor characterization and the mediocre writing – but really, that moment just took the cake. And then for the next thirty pages until the very end (when almost every other sympathetic character dies, too), Reeve kept mentioning the dead dog: the dog’s owner kept looking around for the dog, kept expecting to hear the dog’s footsteps, but no, because the dog was dead.

Screw you, Reeve. Dog killing crap writer.

No, that’s too strong. But really, I didn’t think much of the book. I wish someone else had thought of this idea and done a better job writing it. I hope the movie is better, but I won’t be watching it: because they’ll probably kill the dog.

Looking Up

I woke up this morning about 5am. I usually do. The alarm is set for 5:20, and I often get up before the alarm so that I can take my shower and then have a few minutes to relax, browse the internet, eat breakfast, make even more coffee; though my morning timing is more dependent on my wife, who gets up after I do, and then has to finish her morning so we can go to work together around 7:45. First thing I do when I wake up every morning is take the dog outside, since he hasn’t had a whiz since the night before. Usually I take my phone, look at Twitter; he’s only out there for thirty seconds, maybe a minute. No big deal.

This morning when I opened my eyes, I saw light coming through the windowshade, and I thought, “Oh, right – blue moon, supermoon, blood moon, right? Cool.” So when I went outside with the dog, I looked up at the moon.

It was eclipsing.

It threw me off, at first; I had a student tell me that the eclipse would happen between 5 and 7 pm, the evening before (Though at this point, I realized he had probably seen the times and not realized that they were am, and this is why I don’t trust student recommendations of things.), so when I saw the moon looking less than full, I was confused. But I quickly realized that it was shadow that I was seeing, not a different phase of the moon.

I tried to take a picture: didn’t work. I only had my phone, and it isn’t set up to take precision images of celestial events. So I just looked at it for a minute while the dog trotted around the yard, and then I went inside to take my shower. I glanced out the bathroom window, and I could still see the moon, so I checked on its progress, which was much faster than I would have thought; so I hurried. I went back out to look at the moon before I brushed my teeth, because I wanted to catch a glimpse of the almost-but-not-complete eclipse.

Here’s the thing: I have a telescope. A pretty nice one, not an observatory telescope, but a step up from the Junior Astronomer telescope that grandparents buy their science-y grandkids. I never really use it, sadly, but I do have it sitting in the corner of the living room. But clearly now is the time to bust it out, right? So I take it outside, fumble off the lens caps in the pitch black cold, and then I swivel it around in the general direction (After trying to use the spotter sight on the side of the telescope, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t set that thing up right, as it never shows what the main eyepiece sees.). And it takes a minute, because my dumb luck is actually pretty dumb, but eventually, there it is! The lunar eclipse.

I mean, it’s a gray-white blob, part of it darker than another part of it. I focused the telescope better, and now it is – a gray-white blob with some dark patches. Those are craters. I think: they might be mountain ranges. The most interesting thing is actually a tiny point of light that zips around the edge of the moon’s disk, and is either an interesting effect of the sun’s light, or some imperfection between my eye and the telescope. I am not riveted, is what I am saying. And I’m cold.

20180131_051518

My best camera photo of the eclipse. SEE HOW IT’S NOT ROUND?!? COOL, HUH?!?

So I went inside to brush my teeth, and then wake up my wife. This is when I would be sitting down on the couch, petting the dog while I look at the internet, starting with social media and then moving to the New York Times. (Hey – there was a State of the Union speech last night. Another craggy, reddish-white object that I didn’t watch as it turned slowly darker and more shady. Fancy that.) But instead, I went back out to look at the moon, which was now fully eclipsed, and starting to turn reddish: the Blood Moon.
Now, I love the idea of a blood moon. I’m a fantasy/horror fan, and a writer of same; the blood moon is vampires and werewolves and things that go bump in the night. It’s awesome. I’m also a longtime collector and player of Magic: The Gathering, and I have a card called Blood Moon, which I’ve used to good effect in the past. (If you don’t know the card but do know the game, it’s a red enchantment that turns non-standard lands into mountains. I had it in a goblin/mountainwalking deck with two Goblin Kings – who give all goblins mountainwalking. Mwahaha. If you don’t know anything about Magic, sorry for the delay: back to the actual moon now.) So I am psyched for this blood moon. I’m happy that I have a little free time in my mornings, so that I can do some gazing. I’m happy that I have a telescope so I can see it close up.

Except now I can’t see the moon in the telescope. It moved in the intervening ten minutes while I was brushing my teeth and getting coffee, and now I can’t find it. I also can’t work the controls that make the telescope move, because though I learned how to do this, it’s been too long since I have done it, and it’s too dark outside to see what the various dials and gadgets do. I keep trying, fidgeting with the fine adjustment wheels, unsure if they’re actually doing anything because all I can see in the field is blurry darkness and occasional stars. And sometimes the very edge of what appears to be a very large circle of light, which is either light pollution zipping across the lens, or the end of the world, I don’t know which. Finally I tip the whole telescope, lifting one of the tripod legs, and the moon shoots across the field. Success! I hold it there and try to find a way to move the controls to make it point at that exact spot without me holding it up.

I can’t do it. I don’t know which levers to loosen, which wheels to turn; when I find something that can turn, I can’t tell if it’s working, or whether or not it’s going in the right direction, so do I keep turning it, or do I turn it back the other way? I picture my students laughing at my telescopic incompetence. I get more and more pissed as I spend more time trying, and still failing, to center the telescope. Goddammit – my morning is ticking away; the blood moon won’t last forever; I’m getting cold – WHY CAN’T I TURN THIS FUCKING TELESCOPE?! WHY?? WH – Oh. There it is. I finally get the moon in the field, and I see –

A gray-white blob. Somewhat reddish. Mostly blobby. I focus, and I see – a gray-white blob with dark spots. Still somewhat reddish. Those are craters. I think.

I lift my head and look up into the sky, and I see: a blood moon. Big, fairly bright, definitely red, quite clear. It’s excellent. I look back through the telescope, having to adjust it again to center the moon in the field; it looks – I mean, it’s a little larger, a little clearer. But without the whole sky to frame it, to make it into the moon I have looked to all of my life, it’s . . . boring.

So I spent a few minutes looking at the moon, this morning, while I drank my coffee. I put the telescope back inside, and when Toni was done with her morning shower and all, I called her out to look at the blood moon, and I just pointed at the sky. “Wow,” she said. “Beautiful!”

So it was. When you just looked up at the sky.

 

You know what I thought about today? I thought about how often I try to look very, very closely at things – particularly literature, since that’s my job; but also my life and what I’ve accomplished and what I’m worth; my reflection in the mirror and how my hairline is changing, and my jawline, and the shape of my eyes; my career, what I can do, what I have done, what I should do – and how, when I try to look really closely, I take away the bigger picture. Often I am looking through a lens that I am not using correctly: when I decide to write a blog about politics, for instance (as this one was going to be when I first thought of it), I’m setting myself up to have a hard time, because I just don’t know enough about politics to really see clearly. I know there are people who can use telescopes and could have used mine to see far finer detail of the eclipse and the blood moon than I could see with my naked eyes; I know there are people who can see far more nuance and historical significance in political events than I can see. For me, I just sort of fidget around for a while, turning things and twisting things, getting more and more frustrated, and nothing gets any clearer.

When that happens, I should step away, and just – look at the sky. It’s worth seeing, all by itself, even without a telescope.

This morning, I saw a blood moon. It was wonderful.