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book review: locke and key (complete series)

Last year I tried reading Joe Hill’s first novel Heart-Shaped Box and couldn’t finish it. It was horror but to me felt like an Eli Roth movie or part of the Saw franchise where it was just sort of unremittingly shitty to its characters, kind of revelling in the power that the writer has to play god with the shits under their command. I hated that book.

I love Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke and Key.

Maybe there’s a bit of a softening to how Hill portrays people, but damn did I ever give a shit about the Locke family and their myriad not-great decisions that let terrible supernatural things happen to them.

The story starts off with the violent death of the father of the Locke family. He dies trying to protect his wife and kids from a murderer. He’d always said though that if anything happened to him the family should move back to his family home in Lovecraft County.

In the first volume (which I’d read a few years ago without following up) that kind of cutesy naming thing (“See, it’s in New England and it’s horror, so the county is Lovecraft! Like the writer! Get it? Eh?”) bugged me. Everything felt very on the nose and wink-nudge nerdculture nodding (the gym teacher named Whedon and stuff). It was a little less annoying this time (especially after having recently dealt with all the Dark Tower self-referential bullshit) and once you get past the first volume the story really settles into itself and gets good.

The hook to the story is that in this family home there are all these magickal keys and locks and doors that the kids find and have to protect from nefarious forces. It’s a great hook and as it goes along the “stupid rules” make sense. The villain has an actually interesting endgame and uses one of the traditional horror tropes that gives me the screaming habublies to achieve it.

So yes. It won Eisners and all that so the book isn’t some undiscovered gem; it doesn’t need my praise but it has it.

book review: in the shadow of blackbirds

In the Shadow of Blackbirds, by Cat Winters, was a “holy fuck that was great” YA historical/sf novel. It’s set in San Diego in October 1918 with fresh-faced teenage boys heading off to die in the war and the Spanish Influenza killing everyone else.

Mary Shelley Black is a 16-year-old girl who’s just fled to her aunt’s home because her father’d been arrested back in Portland for helping young men escape the draft. Down in San Diego, where Mary Shelley’s childhood friend (and first kiss) was a young photographer before heading off to France, she gets caught up in a world of superstition, spirit photography and death. She’s got a scientific mind and hates all these frauds that surround her, until something happens. Which I won’t spoil.

I loved this book so much. I think what I loved most was that it kept knocking my expectations off-kilter. I thought it was going to be a story about this practical skeptical girl staying steadfast in her belief in facts and waiting for her true love to come home from the war and her father to get out of jail. Then I thought it was going to become a story of rebellion against her young widowed aunt (who works building battleships and is distraught she had to cut her hair and lose so much of her femininity for going to séances) who believes too much in what other people say. Then I was scared it was going to turn into a wide-eyed ghost story, and then I was happy to see it become a mystery. It didn’t settle into a pattern early.

One of the things they say about writing is to start as late as you can. Have the most interesting thing happen right at the beginning and then you can fill in backstory later. Though Mary Shelley’s father is arrested pretty much on the first page, there are other later parts where the story maybe could have started. But I’m so glad it didn’t. The way this skeptical heroine was set up in the beginning would not have worked as well as backstory. Seeing her before and after for ourselves was, in my mind, integral to the layers of shifting belief and the scientific mindset on display throughout what is to be honest a ghost story.

Along with being a historical ghost story, it also feels apocalyptic with the flu and all that death and folk-remedy hanging over everything. Plus it’s got this great anti-war activist stance running through it. It’s not anti-heroism, but it calls out so much of the adventure story bullshit. The heroes in this story are all about these basic acts of decency in a world that’s sick.

So yes, this is highly recommended. I’m bringing it to my Teen Book Club meeting next week even though our library won’t be getting it for a while (it was just released last week, I think).

book review: the raven boys

The Raven Boys is the first book I’ve read by Maggie Stiefvater, which probably makes me a bad teenbrarian. I’m sorry. If I knew she was this good I’d have started earlier.

Blue is a girl who’s grown up in a house full of women. Who are psychics. As a result she’s grown up with the very specific prophecy that if she kisses her true love, he will die. Oh, and Blue isn’t a psychic herself.

The Raven Boys are all students at a posh private school. Gansey is born to be a politician, but is fixated on discovering a dead Welsh king buried on a ley line in Virginia. He’s assembled a posse of friends to help him. Once Blue is added to the mix the quest kind of takes off.

So yeah, there’s loads of good pop-occult history going on, but what made this book work so well for me is all the class division going on and how fucking important it is to these characters. Gansey and Ronan (his scary friend who spends most of the book reckless, fighting or nursing a baby raven) have more money than god. Blue and Adam (who lives in a trailer with his abusive father and works a million jobs to pay for his schooling) are not rich. And these divisions are hugely meaningful to these people. Gansey is utterly condescending to his friends and offends people because he has no real concept of the value of money. Adam won’t leave his abusive situation and let his friend take care of him because he does not want to be bought. Gansey doesn’t want to buy his friend; he wants to help with the means he has.

All of the tension and argument that happens in this book is along those kinds of lines. There is no one person who is being an ass and could make it all better by just doing one little thing differently. It’s these worlds of money and gender and privilege all colliding in great ways with an epic quest. That the flaws of characters are built into the structure (or energy if you want to use the lines of power that the book takes seriously) of the world they find themselves makes it fucking great. (Also, I’ve cussed more in this review than there are swears in the book, but Stiefvater does the whole “he let out a stream of inventive invective” type thing really well.)

Excellent book. Cannot wait for the next one in the series.

book review: johnny and the dead

Johnny and the Dead is a book about a boy who can see and talk to the deceased folks in his local graveyard. Terry Pratchett uses this short kids’ novel to deal with the importance for living people to remember the dead (and the dead people to forget the living). The basic plot is that the village council wants to put in a new condo development on the graveyard and the dead people tell Johnny to stop them. Johnny gets his friends together and (this is where the book really shines) do not organize a protest or anything big and outside the scope of what a bunch of 11-year-olds could conceivably do, they just ask questions about the people who are in the graveyard.

Now, it’s Terry Pratchett writing this, so the characters are funny, but the situations never really are. Even though it’s a bit dated (it’s from the ’90s), it’s a pretty excellent story for Remembrance Day, especially since it talks about how sad it is that soldiers go off and die (instead of doing some bullshit celebratory thing about their noble sacrifices or whatever). Also, it’s the middle book of the Johnny Maxwell trilogy, but I haven’t read the first one and did not feel like I was missing anything.

book review: under heaven

Under Heaven is the first Guy Gavriel Kay book I’ve read in years and years. I don’t know why I haven’t read more of his since the Fionavar Tapestry, but I haven’t. Weird.

Under Heaven is a fantasy novel set in a world almost but not exactly like Tang Dynasty China. The difference is basically just enough to let Kay stray from history and include ghosts and someone who is something else. Also women have stronger roles than you’d usually see in a story actually from the first millennium.

When the book begins Shen Tai has spent the last two years burying bones from a decades-old massacre. He is given a gift in recognition for his service, a gift that means he must go to the capital. Someone is also trying to assassinate him, even before the extremely valuable gift is made known. The story follows Shen Tai and his bodygurd (and eventually a poet he befriends, who is one of the Banished Immortals) as they go to the capital to see the emperor and confront whoever is trying to kill him.

Shen Tai’s younger sister is a secondary character who has been traded to the barbarians beyond the Long Wall by her other brother (who’s at court in the capital). Her story is interesting and provides motivation for Shen Tai, but even though it’s the more fantastical part of the book, it feels a bit perfunctory.

I really enjoyed the book, especially since it is self-contained. As the end nears we’re learning more and more about what happened in history because of these events and the sense that we’re just dipping a ladle into a river of events that make up these lives is emphasized. It feels right in the way a historical epic should. Traditional, I suppose. Romantic. Very recommended for fantasy/historical fans.

book review: friends with boys

Faith Erin Hicks first published Friends With Boys as a webcomic, which is how I read it. It’s a great story about Maggie, a homeschooled girl heading to high school (in Nova Scotia). She’s not alone there; her three older brothers went through the same transition, but somehow it all seems different. And she’s being haunted by a silent ghost.

The story is about Maggie making friends and dealing with the aftermath of relationships other people have left for her to stumble over, including her mother who doesn’t live with the family any more. There’s also interesting discussion of horror movies, ghosts and home-schooling.

I love the black and white art for this book. It’s a great mix of textures. One of my favourite recurring bits is Maggie’s map of the school that gets annotated. I think it only shows up twice, but it’s a great visual for how a person gets used to a place.

Obviously there are comparisons we can make to Anya’s Ghost (which is a little more cartoony in its art and has a very different kind of ghost in its story) and I hope that Hicks’ book gets the same sort of attention and accolades.

book review: doctor 13: architecture and mortality

Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality is a metatextual comic by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, about superhero universe retcons and the lives that get snuffed out when they happen. All of the main characters in the story are long-forgotten 8th-string DC characters fighting The Architects, who are comics creators. There are lots of puns and things that must have been awesomely fun to draw because they’re pretty excellent to look at (in the same way Dr. McNinja does this kind of madness). By the end the Nazi Gorilla Vampire is saying “I guess I’m an anti-hero” and the fourth wall is smashed quite nicely. But there’s also a good little meditation on how the past is all the universe there really is.

I was actually surprised this was done back in 2007. It felt very much like a pre-New 52 kind of story, but I guess that just shows how regurgitative the business of superhero comics really is.