book review: forgive me, leonard peacock

One of the things I enjoy about Young Adult literature is how much fantasy and science fiction there is in the category. The whole “it’s a world like ours, but plucky protagonist discovers there are dragons in human form” kind of thing. There’s a way of turning the big existential questions that plague young people (well, I hope we never totally grow out of existential questions, but for young people especially) into metaphors to look at them differently.

Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock doesn’t do that. The only fantasy in this story is a series of letters Leonard Peacock has written to himself from the future, at the request of his Holocaust teacher.

This is the story of Leonard Peacock’s birthday which is also the day he brings a dead Nazi’s gun to school for a murder-suicide.

It’s kind of amazing. There are four characters he has farewell gifts for before he ends his life and the life of the young man who was once his best friend but has become something else, and we follow him through the day and his life with these people in his memory. We meet these four – his elderly neighbour he watches Humphrey Bogart movies with, the Iranian violinist who goes to his school, the homeschooled evangelist he has a crush on and his Holocaust teacher – and learn about the other people in his life and how it has come to this.

Quick has written Leonard as a smart kid who loves Hamlet and he tells the reader his story directly, with many asides in the footnotes. He’s also weird, and critical and feels very authentically teenagery. He snarks at the “It Gets Better” campaign, but really really wants some help with life. One of my favourite things about the book is that the people he’s giving his gifts to, they aren’t stupid. He cuts off all his hair and everyone is worried. They see the warning signs and can tell they’re warning signs but it’s hard to tell what to do. No one is stupid; they’re just people.

I loved the book and recommend it highly (probably not for middle-schoolers though). And it makes an interesting companion piece to We Need to Talk About Kevin.

book review: father and son

Larry Brown’s Father and Son is a novel about a small town in the american south in the ’60s. A man comes back from serving three years for running over a little boy while drunk driving. His mother died while he was in prison. He gets stopped by the sheriff coming into town and warned to be good. He kills some people and rapes some more.

Also in the story is the sheriff, who is the killer rapist’s half brother. He wants to make a life with this woman who works at the diner, but who said she’d wait for the killer rapist to get out of jail to be with his kid.

The sheriff and killer rapist’s father lives in a shack and takes his illegitimate grandson fishing some times. He can’t walk so well and life is hard.

All of that makes up the novel, but the art to the thing is in the sentence by sentence construction. Brown is good at describing this terrible claustrophobic ominous little place I would never ever want to live anywhere near as a place where someone could try and be happy. It definitely reminded me of No Country for Old Men, but even more strongly of the X-Files episode Home.

book review: dark eden

Chris Beckett’s book Dark Eden felt like it was going to be a lot like The Knife of Never Letting Go when it began. It’s about a small community called Family on a planet with no sun, but warmth comes from the trees that extrude from the ground. They struggle through their lives trying to gather enough food to keep them going another day. Every AnyVirsry they tell stories of Hitler and Jesus fighting over the Juice, and the three companions who came and settled Eden from Earth in their Veekle, and how if they stay right by the Circle when the ones who left for help return from Earth they’ll be able to get them.

Family has been waiting for the people to return from Earth for 160-ish years.

The story begins with 15-year-old (though they don’t naturally talk in terms of years or days, not having a sun, but wombtimes and wakings) John Redlantern asking why they do things the same way they’ve always done them. Why don’t they try to do something new? The rest of the book is about what happens when John Redlantern tries to do something new. Which is cool and the stuff of many an adventure tale. That’s not where Dark Eden stops though.

What makes the book great is that it really gets into what an asshole John Redlantern is, and how he manipulates people, and how that’s a part of the myth he’s creating for himself. It’s done by giving chapters to a number of other characters, some of whom are more aware of the importance of things than others. The moral ambiguity of everything in this book makes almost everyone sympathetic. John Redlantern is the kind of quintessential frontier-pushing explorer, and this story doesn’t just hold that up as a model of what people should be, but how that can break people. Killing a person was unheard of on New Eden, and they had no word for rape.

The other thing I love about the book is how it tries to avoid imposing 21st century Western moral scruples on things. Everybody has sex with everybody, and there are loads of batfaced and clawfooted people resulting from 160 years of breeding from the two people who started human life on New Eden. Sex is really interesting and eventually when things get more tense in Family you can see the germs of patriarchy and sexual control of women start to arise. There’s an incident where a character is almost raped and the way they dance around giving that act of violence a name is so intriguing.

All in all, it’s a great book and also has things to say about how we build the stories of a society and how we use the stories as well. If you’re interested in science fiction you should really give this a try.

book review: tender morsels

Tender Morsels is Margo Lanagan’s fairy tale that doesn’t feel like a fairy tale because of how terribly it begins. [TRIGGER WARNING] Liga is raped by her father in their cottage in the woods repeatedly and the third time he gets her pregnant he’s killed on his way home to give her the abortion weeds. And then after she’s given birth to a daughter she’s raped by a bunch of the town boys.

So yes, dark.

That terrible horrible beginning is so important for the rest of the book though, which is about Liga protecting her daughters and her daughters trying to find their own ways in the world. It’s so good. Each of the women, Liga and her two daughters, have very different ways of dealing with the world and the story of how they do this is deep and affecting. It doesn’t have the same sense of fun with the grimness of the fairy-tale that A Tale Dark and Grimm does, and it’s written for a much older audience.

book review: atlantis: three tales

Atlantis: Three Tales is a non-SF book by Samuel R. Delany, and one of the reasons I don’t go looking for Delany books systematically. I didn’t know it existed when I found it in a used-book store in Seattle in February.

It contains three stories. “Atlantis: Model 1924” is about a young black boy who comes to New York City in 1924 to live with his brother. Delany does some interesting parallel text things to represent memory and its strangeness. Sam crosses the Brooklyn Bridge where he maybe watches a man drown after pissing into the river and talks to a queer guy who invites him to his apartment in Brooklyn. “Eric, Gwen and D.H. Lawrence’s Esthetic of Unrectified Feeling” is about art and feeling and profanity. There’s an impressive cussing milkman in this one, and stuff about boys introducing boys to sex. “Citre et Trans” is about a queer young writer travelling in Greece who gets raped by a couple of sailors and his relationships with a bunch of expatriates, and a dog.

The thing that affected me most about the last story is how the rape was violent but more importantly, complicated. It wasn’t “These terrible sailors raped this writer” it was very complicated, even with the blood and the theft and the downplaying of the situation afterwards. It was the kind of story that sticks with you. Yeah. Delany’s really good even once he left science fiction behind.

book review: maelstrom

Maelstrom is Peter Watts’ sequel to Starfish. I thought it was better. I thought it was pretty fucking excellent in fact, (though Blindsight is still better).

All day today I’ve been absorbing the Twitterfeeds about the Fukushima nuclear crisis. One of the characters in Maelstrom, Desjardins, is a person who deals with those kinds of crises, by using statistics and analysis in the name of the greater good to determine when to quarantine something and say “this is beyond saving.” Desjardins’ is chemically wired up to be really good at pattern-analysis and is also unable to be corrupt in his decisions, through manipulations of the chemical components of guilt. One of the things I fucking love about Peter Watts books is waiting for the References section at the end to see how much of the science is true, how much might be true and how much is “Well it’s kind of like this but cranked up to 11.”

Two of the rifters (undersea adapted cyborgs) return from Starfish and there’s an apocalypse coming to the planet. One of the rifters is the harbinger for it. The awesome thing about Watts’ writing is that the whole situation is so bleak, everything is looked at so clinically (guilt is just chemicals, humans evolved to be able to handle quite a lot of sexual trauma, intelligence doesn’t mean a goddamned thing) you’re actually rooting for apocalypse. It’s amazing how well it works.

book review: norwegian wood

Another book Holly had kicking around for me to read while hanging out at the bakery was Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. I love this book so much. I think this was the first time I’ve ever read it while being in love, though, so it was a new experience despite being the 8th or 9th time reading it.

There are two parts to the book that I hate. Not that I hate the writing or whatever, I just wish things would go differently each time I read it. I hate what happens to the characters.

The first is the story of Reiko and the evil little girl who fucks up her life. Just for a lark. I mean, there’s not a lot of subtlety to how horrible this girl is and it flips all these sexualized roles around and is so creepy and it’s just to be evil. There’s this whole lack of control in the telling of that story that makes my guts twist up. It’s not Reiko’s fault, but this awful thing happens to her anyway. Shudder.

The other part I hate is how Watanabe doesn’t comment on Midori’s hair. How he goes to get a coffee and finds her writing him a letter. And then he’s fucked everything up forever. Because he didn’t comment on her haircut. Saying “Cute hair” is the kind of thing you can forget so easily. I hate to think about that being the gap between love and nothing.

But it’s such a good book. I can’t think of a better love story.