Friday, April 27, 2012

Sharing Good Books: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants - by Sara Gruen
As a young man, Jacob Jankowski was tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. It was the early part of the great Depression, and for Jacob, now ninety, the circus world he remembers was both his salvation and a living hell. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was there that he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great gray hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and, ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

I seriously wish I could just say 'read it', but it deserves so much more than that. People have been telling me to watch the movie forever, and it's sat in my Netflix queue just as long. I honestly don't know why, either. Anything circus related usually has me chomping at the bit. I'm so, so glad that I didn't watch it, though, and read the book first. (EDIT--especially because I just watched it, and trust me, the book is so much better it's astounding.)

Imagine my surprise and delight when I got to my rental condo in Florida and one of the books on the shelf was Water for Elephants. I snatched it up, spun in circles, and exclaimed to the whole room how much I'd wanted to read it. We were in Sarasota, FL, so it was kind of perfect given Sarasota was the winter home of the Ringling Bros Circus. Caught up in this book, I desperately wanted to visit the Ringling Circus Museum, but at $25 a ticket, I passed on that. (I am full of regret and plan to rectify this next April. CIRCUS MUSEUM. Ugh. Damn me and my thrifty tendencies.)

I LOVED this book. Every few pages I'd tell my little sister exactly how much I loved it. I'm pretty sure she got sick of it.

I love Slaughterhouse Five for the narrative structure. (Among other things, of course.) I read it almost a decade ago, so am due for a reread, but it still sticks in my mind as brilliant. Vonnegut jumped around in time, and for some reason, that non-linear structure really does it for me. Too often I guess the end of movies and books, and I suppose I like non-linear because it's harder to see exactly what's coming. Not to mention it's just fun.

Water for Elephants is kinda like that, minus the aliens. We alternate between a young twenty-something Jacob, and a ninety-something Jacob (he can't quite recall anymore). Part of what makes it so fantastically done is that because of his advanced years, the flashbacks make sense. He loses track of time. The flow between past and present is handled magnificently. There's even a circus in the present time to tie it all together.

The characters are so real, sometimes disgustingly so. Sometimes I wanted to throw the book because I'd get so angry at August. I alternated between disgust, delight, terror, anxiety, and a whole other slew of emotions. It felt real. I was actually shocked when I finished the book and looked at the author and saw it was written by a woman. The male voice was so strong and authentic, I just assumed the author was male. That's good writing. She transported me.

I was so invested in these characters, I literally shouted I'd get so angry. In the present timeline, when Jacob's family let him down, I was pissed. I was more than pissed. I was livid. I turned to my sister and explained the whole situation just so I could have someone to complain to about how incredibly unfair and tragic it all was. (She's thirteen. I'm twenty-five. She humored me.) Jacob was a real person to me. He deserved better. Also, there were clever writerly things Gruen did that I appreciated. (Did I mention how much I love non-linear narrative?)

I actually think the least developed character to me was Marlena, which is kinda funny given she's the love interest. But maybe she was just a little overshadowed by some of the saltier characters like Walter. You could really see the passion the author had for the history of circus. It just felt so authentic and real. I also really enjoyed the photographs from the Ringling museum that were included.

Maybe it's just me, but I was most interested in Jacob's journey, so didn't care one way or another about the romance aspects. The parts that kept me reading were the intense parts... the redlighting and animal abuse. (Would everything turn out OK for Rosie?) I know a lot of the negative reviews I've seen focus on a 'contrived romance and thin character of Marlena.' If you're reading for the romance, this might be a problem for you. I didn't find it contrived. (Trust me. I've read my share of romances with unlikely fate-driven relationships. This was not one of them.) Personally, I wouldn't even classify this as a romance. That's just me, though. Without the romance, you'd still have a strong book, so take that how you will.

Sara Gruen wrote a truly remarkable book. It definitely deserved every little bit of hype it received, as well as its long stay on the NYT best-seller list. I literally cannot think of a negative thing to say about this book. It was executed perfectly. Plus, the cover is so damn cool.

Well, perhaps it gets a little graphic for younger readers. But it's seriously no more graphic than a romance novel, and I started to reading those in seventh grade. I certainly read things a lot more graphic for classes in high school. For high school aged students this would certainly be appropriate. It's a new classic and every single last one of you should trip over yourselves getting to the library to read it. I don't know what took me so long.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Sharing Good Books: Hive

Hive (No Man's Land Series #1) - by Griffin Hayes
Nearly two hundred years after the planet was ravaged by millions of undead Zees, the human race is still struggling to rebuild. The Zees may be long gone, but so too are centuries of scientific advancement.

A group calling themselves The Keepers of Knowledge have set out to retrieve and protect what little technology survived the fall. When four of their Prospectors go missing, the Keepers turn to a no-nonsense mercenary named Azina and her eclectic crew of hardened veterans to find them.

The search leads the group to a crumbling underground city. But what looks like just another ruin from a bygone era isn't nearly as deserted as it appears. Soon, a simple rescue mission becomes a slippery descent into hell as Azina and her men unwittingly awaken a savage, bloodthirsty world. Who will stand and fight, and who will be lucky enough to stay dead?

(Summary from Amazon)

I love zombie fiction, and HIVE is exactly the kind of zombie story I like. It's set far into the future, which is far more appealing to me than zombie fic that takes place during the initial outbreak. I think it's more fun to imagine the lasting effects of the zombie apocalypse rather than read or write yet another version of how they come to be. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. I read those, too. I just love the world-building in post-apocalyptic tales.)

I don't tend to read novellas but am glad I read Hive. For .99 on Amazon, it's a steal. Most of the free or bargain priced books I've gotten for my kindle are painful to get through. It makes me feel for agents and editors tackling their slush piles.

Hive is nothing like those slushy books--it's actually pretty fantastic. The cover is just perfect, too. Creepy and graphic and indicative of what's inside.

The story moved along at a good pace, with the action scenes clear in my mind--which is so important for something action-heavy like this. The voice was great, very engaging. I pictured the MC almost like Frankie from Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow... fierce, badass, and likeable despite (because of) her hardness. I'm usually not even a fan of first person present POV, but Hayes does it so well that it adds to the story, not detracts.

I thought the characters were realistic and well rounded. Especially considering this is a novella, he did a great job fleshing out the characters. Even with the low word count, some of the characters felt more real than those in beefier books. Sneak, especially, struck me as as a compelling character. I want to know her story.

That's the problem with novellas--I wanted more! (But that's just me being selfish and not a fault of the author's.) I could easily have read this at 80-100k words and not been bored. The world Hayes built was really rich, and I loved all the hierarchy and structure, because that's what people do. It made sense. Luckily for us, this is the first in the series. I spoke with the author and a lot of the questions Hive left me with seem like they'll be answered later on. Good! Because in the short time we had, I really grew to love these characters.

Of course, the ending was jam-packed with action, I mean... hello, zombies! Hayes created some really original zombie mythology here. The whole concept of the hive itself--being able to sense the others, their communication--it was so unique, but it made so much sense. It doesn't violate my sense of zombie history, but instead, I feel like it's a missing piece of zombie lore that we're gifted with.

Also, I feel like I must mention that the night I read Hive, I had an Amish zombie inspired dream. Hive was good, I really, really, really wanted more, and it gave me a fantastic scary dream. Why aren't you reading it yet?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Delivering on Promise

One of my first roommates told me:

"You're kinda like a Chucky doll, Q. You're cute and innocent on the outside, but inside you just want to stab the hell out of a soccer mom."

I mean...yeah, kinda. I'll be the first to admit that I get frustrated sometimes. My frustration is usually directed at people who violate the rights of others. Don't get me started on Wisconsin. Seriously. The fact that our country is regressing to the point that women are losing rights like they're car keys?

My dad has this great line that he's used as long as I can remember. I don't know who originally said it, but it's still true. What you permit, you promote. Regardless of what your views are, if you stand idly by while wrongs are committed all around you, you're just as guilty as the perpetrator. For permitting it.

There's a great Desmond Tutu quote that says much the same thing:
"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." (Emphasis mine.)

What does all this venom and angst have to do with writing or art? Well, writers and artists have a pretty unique power. They can change minds. They can open minds. Not to get all spidey on you, but with great power comes great responsibility. When you have thousands, sometimes millions, reading your words, you can actually do something with them. Subtly, of course. No one wants to be hit over the head by some proselytizing albeit well-meaning author.

(There's a reason Dr. Seuss is one of my favorite authors and the proud owner of 99% of my favorite quotes. That man was a genius.)

But this authorial power over minds is one of the things that frustrates me the most when I'm reading. A lot of books with the potential to inspire never deliver on  that promise. The books I loved as a kid are ones I still love today. The Giver. His Dark Materials. I was and still am drawn to books that force me to question authority and evaluate my place in the world. My choices. I love books with (subtle) messages: Question the government, learn and understand your rights, stand up for them before they're systematically stripped away from you.

That's not to say every book needs to have a deeper meaning, or that every theme needs to be heavy. But when a book about revolution or resistance or overthrowing the government doesn't explore the themes at its heart, it's sort of a let down. There are scary things going on in this country right now. If we don't start paying attention, we're going to end up wondering where all our rights went...because we permitted it. So yeah, I'm pretty disappointed when a book doesn't follow through that has so much power and potential and promise to actually make readers care about the world around them.

My two favorite quotes pretty much say the same exact thing. One of them (surprise, surprise), is  a Dr. Seuss quote. (From the Lorax, actually. I really need watch the new movie). The other is Gandhi.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.
Dr. Seuss

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. 

So this is a call to action for the writers out there:

Please, please, make sure your words mean something. It doesn't have to be heavy. But if I read 100k words and nothing has changed inside me, you haven't done your job. Figure out what's meaningful to you, what gets you up in the morning, and yes, what pisses you off. Then use it. Write it. Make your readers care. Twenty years from now, people are going to remember the books that made them cry, that made them think, that made them throw the book at the wall then pick it up again because they just can't stand not knowing what happens. 

And the way you get readers to care? By giving them something to care about.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Dreamers of Dreams and Makers of Things.

I’m a firm believer that trying to pigeonhole yourself makes you neurotic. From birth, we try to figure out who we are, which usually boils down to one or two key words that supposedly sum us up as people.

The smart, quiet girl.
The funny, athletic guy.
The weird, outspoken one.
The class clown.
The artist.
The writer.

The thing is, even fictional characters are too complex to boil down to what are essentially clich├ęs and tropes. You’re not a trope, and neither am I.

When I graduated from high school, I panicked. I thought I’d have to “choose” my future. All I could think of were those Choose Your Own Adventure books and how, without fail, I always died. A lot.

I tried vocal performance. I tried acting. I tried writing and photography. I was even reasonably okay at all of them. But again, you can’t be all things, so you must choose. I chose photography and went to an expensive commercial art school and learned everything I needed to know to be a photographer. 

And I’m not happy. 
My problem is that I like to create the weird things in my head. I don't WANT to be a commercial photographer. I want to live in the woods and run on coffee, writing books and making art and generally doing things that make me happy—not things that stress me out.

Which brought me to a scary realization; I’m not a photographer. Not really.

I’m an artist. A doer. A maker, a weirdo, a maker of images, and a writer of imaginary things.  And I’m so much more than that. So are you.

This blog isn’t about me, though. It’s about writing and art and books and coffee addictions and causes.

Sure, these posts are basically my ridiculous outlook on life. But I don't learn anything from my outlook. I want to interview artists and writers. If I'm ever fortunate enough to get followers, I want us all to share and discuss the things that make art so wonderful and encompassing... because we are all dreamers of dreams and makers of things.

(Yeah, that last bit was cheesy. There will be a great deal of cheese, too.)