“Think Twice Before Falling Asleep”: Welcome to the Dark House

A Review of Welcome to the Dark House, by Laurie Faria Stolarz

Hyperion (Disney), 2014

Welcome to the Dark House Laurie Faria Stolarz

by REBECCA, August 6, 2014

hook

For seven horror fans (well, six horror fans and one traumatized girl who’s trying to desensitize herself) this will be the weekend of their lives. After submitting essays about their scariest nightmares, they’ve won an exclusive look at horror director Justin Blake’s new movie and the chance to stay at a bed and breakfast crawling with creepies. But when you hand someone else a guide to your most terrifying nightmares, don’t be surprised when they come true . . . [Come on, that clearly should’ve been a sentence in a blurb about this book; you’re welcome, Hyperion!]

review

I’ve been on a total horror/supernatural/mystery kick lately, so I was excited to read Welcome to the Dark House (good title; good cover). I liked the premise a lot: horror fans competing to win an in-the-middle-of-nowhere weekend that’s all about their favorite horror director. It’s got the promise of thrills and chills alongside the possibility for some nerdy meta-horror fandom.

752px-john_henry_fuseli_-_the_nightmareWelcome to the Dark House starts really strong. Ivy Jensen’s nightmare is rooted in reality. Six years ago, her parents were murdered by a serial killer as she slept across the hall. After she called 911, their killer came to her room and spoke to her before police sirens scared him away, leaving her in constant fear that he would reappear and finish the job. Ivy’s fear hasn’t lessened over the years, so, at the end of her rope, she decides that she needs to somehow desensitize herself to it. Imagining that she might do so by learning what so many people seem to love about horror movies, Ivy enters the contest, even though she isn’t sure how she got put on the list to receive its announcement, and when she wins, she decides she will conquer her fears by facing them.

And it pretty much goes downhill from there. Here’s the thing: this isn’t a terrible book. It’s fun and has a few scary moments. But it could have been totally good, so I found myself getting more and more disappointed as it went along. What it suffers from are the same things that make so many horror films throwaways, and it’s frustrating to see, because a novel is the perfect medium (to me) with which to take advantage of everything that’s awesome about horror but also to add in a lot of that to which horror movies aren’t as suited.

Horror Film Problem #1. Welcome to the Dark House doesn’t go in depth enough with character development to make me care about the characters as people to care when they die (that’s not a spoiler if you’ve ever seen a horror movie). The reason that I wasn’t able to care much about the characters is that the book is written from six different perspectives, shifting every chapter. For the first few chapters this worked fine because the characters hadn’t gotten to the bed and breakfast yet. But once they were all together, there was NO REASON for a shifting perspective because . . . they’re all together. So, the shift in perspective seemed arbitrary—why have Garth tell this part of their dinner and Shayla tell this part? No reason. Because they’re all together.

Of course, there would have been a reason if the characters’ POVs deepened our understanding of them and their backstory, or if, as I always hope for in a shifting-POV book, the different characters’ views of events are quite different, revealing internal mysteries and hidden motivations. But that wasn’t the case here. As such, I was constantly having to flip back to the chapter to see whose POV it was from because the voices of the characters are not distinct from one another. This is a huge pet peeve of mine in general: if you’re going to use shifting perspective, your characters’ voices need to be unique enough that there’s never any doubt in my mind who is speaking.

It also turned out to be a problem because (no specific spoilers:) some of the characters die. So . . . it’s kind of awkward. Really, this should have been either in third-person, so we could fully experience things from all characters’ POVs or it should all have been from Ivy’s perspective since she’s established (as any horror aficionado will see) very early on as what Carol Clover calls “the final girl.”

haunted-dark-house_1680x1050_29115Horror Film Problem # 2. Like so many horror films, Welcome to the Dark House starts out as one kind of book and becomes a different kind in the third act. The first act, where our horror fans are arriving at the bed and breakfast and meeting each other, and the second act, when they begin to experience the delights of the horrors that have been planned for them there, feel very much of a piece. This makes up the first half of the book, which was both too long to glean as little depth about/investment in the characters as I did, and also too short to really develop the B&B as a house of horrors. It was, as horror goes, kid stuff.

The one exception to this is Natalie, a character whose nightmare is her own reflection. Her character has some interesting shit going on, which I appreciated, but which merely served to make the rest of the characters feel generic by comparison, unfortunately.

Halfway through the book, it decides it’s not satisfied with the B&B concept and takes the characters to an amusement part where, in order to be shown the new Justin Blake film, they must each face a carnival ride that is their own nightmare. Except there are also a bunch of random other rides that they can go on, so they just hang out for a while, lessening the suspense for no reason. Oh, and they’re locked in. In case that wasn’t obvious.

So, in order to be allowed to see the movie they must each face their nightmare ride, but no one is allowed to go on anyone else’s ride or they forfeit the chance to see the film. No idea why, except that this conceit finally makes it clear which chapter is told from which character’s perspective . . . ?

article-0-1B9A660E000005DC-455_964x633Horror Film Problem #3. Also like so many blah horror movies, Welcome to the Dark House isn’t even satisfied with one shift in frame; it has to add another one. The ending provides an ad hoc explanation of why they’re all actually there, which is thrown away so casually in one sentence that I don’t know why Stolarz even bothered. And, the final nail in the coffin, the book ends with the essays that the characters wrote to win the contest. But, why? Because we already saw what their nightmares were when they lived through them. Like, twenty pages before. (It also serves to remind the reader of a major plot thread that was never tied up . . .)

So, all in all, I think most real horror fans will find Welcome to the Dark House a predictable, unsuspenseful exercise in skimming. However, I would recommend it to folks who aren’t that into horror but are looking for a bit of a scare because it won’t feel as done-to-death for those unfamiliar with the genre, and because it really is only a tip of the hat to horror, so it’s not going to scare the bejeezus out of you.

readalikes

Darkhouse An Experiment in Terror Karina Halle

Darkhouse (Experiment in Terror #1), by Karina Halle (2011). Y’all want a real horror novel that is also called Darkhouse? Of course you do! Karina Halle’s Experiment in Terror series is one of my all-time fave horror series. Perry Palomino has always had . . . issues with the supernatural. But when she meets Dex Foray, she’s willing to dive headfirst back into them to be the host of his online ghost hunting show. As the fear factor rises, so does the chemistry!

The Midnight Club Christopher Pike

The Midnight Club, by Christopher Pike (1994). Five terminally ill teens living in Rotterdam House meet (at midnight) to tell stories as a ward against the fear of death; they pledge that the first to die must send a sign to the rest of them . . . from the other side.

procured from: I received an ARC of the book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Welcome to the Dark House by Laurie Faria Stolarz is available now.

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What’s On the Other Side of Death? White Crow

A Review of White Crow, by Marcus Sedgwick

Orion, 2010

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

by REBECCA, July 8, 2013

hook

The town of Winterfold is slowly falling into the sea and Rebecca doesn’t want to spend the summer there at all. Ferelith has always lived in Winterfold and though she knows all its secrets she doesn’t have anyone to share them with until Rebecca comes along. But their summer-long exploration of Winterfold’s crumbling landmarks will culminate in a game with very real consequences, and a 200-year-old experiment with death will exact its own price.

worldview

White Crow has been on my to-read list for a while now; I mean, what part of two teenagers daring each other to do creepy shit in broken churches and crumbling houses doesn’t appeal to me? And the whole thing is set against the backdrop of the history of Winterfold where, 200 years ago, a priest was taken in by a “man of science” and participated in an experiment to see if they could communicate with people after they’ve been beheaded (based, apparently, on Dr. Beaurieux, a scientist who believed that he could communicate with a person’s head after it had been guillotined because he thought consciousness persisted for thirty seconds). Come on; so cool.

Sedgwick evokes the atmosphere of Winterfold beautifully. I loved the idea of a town that was slowly being eaten by the sea:

“Ferelith has the door [to the church] moving now . . . She’s looking through the door, but she’s not looking into the church, instead, she’s looking through it. She’s looking through it because the church has no back. She can see the nave, the aisles, there are even pews between the columns, and there’s a roof to the columns, but the whole eastern end of the church is missing. What she’s looking at is the last glow of light from the sunset, the dusky sky, some wisps of cloud, and an evening star. Where the pulpit should be, the moon hangs low in the sky, as if rising out of the sea like a bathing goddess” (51).

White Crow by Marcus SedgwickRebecca’s father, a cop, was accused of negligence that led to the death of a girl in London, so he and Rebecca are in Winterfold to escape all that. Their relationship is on the skids, so Rebecca is happy to find a friend in Ferelith, even if the other girl does creep her out sometimes. They become close quite quickly and Sedgwick’s portrayal of their fast and intense connection over loneliness and a teenage obsession with death definitely rang true to me. But, at heart, Rebecca is a pretty average kid and Ferelith . . . isn’t. And, little by little, Ferelith’s games, dares, and challenges become too much for Rebecca. And no wonder, when Winterfold’s sites have such a sinister history.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

The atmosphere and setting were definitely the highlights of White Crow because, despite having many snippets of backstory, the characters really never came alive for me—they felt more like collections of characteristics and quirks. This lack of character depth was owing, mainly, to the narrative style—or, rather, styles.

White Crow braids together three different narrative strands, which switch every few pages. In the present, there’s a 1st person narrative that is from Ferelith’s perspective and a 3rd person narrative that’s limited to Rebecca’s perspective; 200 years in the past, there’s a 1st person narrative from the perspective of the priest who participated in the experiment. Now, https://crunchingsandmunchings.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/song-of-the-sea-the-scorpio-races/I often love a story told from multiple perspectives—Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races or John Green and David Levithan’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson are masterful examples of perspective shifting that is both necessary and beautifully executed. In the case of White Crow, though, it results in a very fractured narrative and not nearly enough time to slide into the perspectives, as they swap every couple pages (or, sometimes, every page). Further, since the 3rd person narrative is limited to Rebecca’s perspective it’s not clear to me why it’s 3rd person instead of 1st. It doesn’t seem to serve any necessary function and results in Rebecca feeling like a blank character.

The trope of the white crow and its relevance to notions of certainty and spirituality runs through the novel, but while there is a vague narrative payoff at the end (no spoilers), the questions with which the characters seem concerned—death, the afterlife, morality, ethics, and good and evil—are really not the topics with which the book seems to concern itself. The book itself seems more interested in loneliness and impermanence, elusive and ephemeral topics that are better served by atmosphere and voice than by the plot machinations that the narrative favors.

Revolver by Marcus SedgwickAll in all, this was a short book that had a small story to tell, but read like a long book that made a bit much of its story. I enjoyed many of its elements, but was made so aware of the work the author was doing to bring it off—so many different voices! so many perspectives! look, 200 year old language!—that the payoff seemed meager. It’s a book that, had it been done differently would have been a tight little gem of a creepy story. Still, it’s an interesting book and Sedgwick is an author who is interested in a lot of the things that I’m interested in reading, so I’m going to give his Revolver (2009) and Midwinterblood (2011) a shot.

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Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

Skim by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki (2008). Although they’re not necessarily similar stories, Skim is the story of a girl who’s trying to figure out who she is by looking into the occult. An amazing graphic novel! My full review is HERE.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008). A toddler is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. That’s normal, right? Well, yeah, because this is a Neil Gaiman book.

procured from: the library

La isla bonita: Burn for Burn

Burn for Burn
Siobhan Vivian & Jenny Han
Simon & Schuster, 2012

review by Tessa

Characters
Lillia, good little rich girl whose world is coming unhinged
Kat, music-loving loner who won’t stand for being called trashy
Mary, suffered more than anyone on Jar Island knows, except for a certain golden boy
Rennie, head cheerleader who only wants to cheer for herself
Reeve, carefree stud . . .or is he?
Alex, nice & popular boy who’s always scribbling in his journal
Nadia, the little sister of Lillia, coming up in the social world of Jar Island High

Hook
Mary, Kat, and Lillia all have their own perfectly good and just reasons for wanting revenge. But you know the old saying about good intentions . . .

Worldview
Island life is like living in a bubble. The differences between rich and poor, outsider and insider, socially visible or invisible, are heightened by the geographical fact of being trapped on a small piece of earth surrounded by water. There’s nowhere to go so alliances are stronger, almost tribal.  But it can also be suffocating.

Jar Island is no different. The popular kids like Lillia, Rennie, Alex and Reeve may have stuck together since the 9th grade, but they want to break free of the island as much as Kat, who dodges rumors and insults daily, due to a really nasty ex-best friend.  Some of these kids are second or third-generation islanders, and some were summer families who decided to stay year round. The new girl, Mary, is actually an islander who had to leave and feels like she has to come back to prove to herself that she’s strong enough to face her past.  This tightly woven world of secrets, friendships, petty hatreds, and not-so-hidden personal ambition is the perfect fodder for the revenge enacted in Burn for Burn.

 

photo by flickr user jlbruno

 

What is this book’s intention and is it achieved?

I won’t say much about this because Burn for Burn comes out in September and I don’t want to spoil it for any reader.  Han and Vivian have written a solid work of realistic fiction, filled with characters that hold their own.  There’s a hint of something else there, too, that will doubtless be examined more in the next books in this trilogy.  But for the most part, this is a world of teenagers who exemplify the problems that appear when you have to grow up — especially if your parents are the lenient kind.

I feel like we all know how cruel middle-school age kids can be, and we’ve probably all been cruel in our time (and hopefully we now regret it).  Maybe in bigger communities the taunters and tauntees can disappear into the crowd and find their own space. Not so on Jar Island.  Now that the teens are in high school, social roles have gelled, and whoever is stuck on either side of the line either tries to forget and get on with their plan to get off the island, stews about past grievances, or stirs up trouble.  If this sounds like a typical teen drama, it’s not.  The kids themselves may think of their peers in 2-D terms, but in the main there’s a background to each of them.  That’s what makes the web of revenge so sticky.

The setting of Burn for Burn is the most seductive part of the book for me – it begins on a ferry! There are beaches and probably houses with shingles worn down by the sea air, and poolhouses, and lilac bushes, and all kinds of one of a kind hangouts that tourists and locals alike love – ice cream shops, crappy Italian restaurants, bakeries, and marinas.

It’s a big relief that the book doesn’t let us off at a cliffhanger, but it doesn’t tie everything up.  It’s a satisfying start to a series that acknowledges the giddy excitement of getting what you want and the sick feeling of watching it spiral out of control.

I received this book from: the publisher, in ARC form, with no compensation on either side

We Love! We are uncomfortable and we respect that!: Joint Review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson Part 2

Rebecca!I was happy when you mentioned wanting to joint review Will Grayson, Will Grayson (by John Green & David Levithan), not only because we are two people and Will Grayson and Will Grayson are two people, but because I remember loving the book so much. (Read R.’s original post here.)

image from the Will Grayson tumblr

 

Of course, the problem is that I tend to read things far too fast, and I was worried that I wouldn’t have any points to bring up about reading the book because it would be far in my foggy past (April of 2010).  The only thing I wrote about it on GoodReads was “John Green and David Levithan are so good at making the world seem full of potential goodness, while staying true to the suckiness of life. Every time I read one of their books my heart grows 3 sizes. It’s gotten to the point where I have a medical condition.”  Ha ha! Good one, me.

Luckily I have library access. So I plucked the book from its shelf and started reading it at lunch today. I KNOW, I know.  But within 14 pages I already had so much stuff to write about. But first I must say: don’t cry into your lemonade! If anything, cry onto your pretzel, because they are both salty.  And here’s a tip: whenever I don’t want to cry, I visualize frogs sitting in my immediate vicinity. Little frogs. Big hulking giant frogs.  It’s 80% effective at distracting me from sobbing, which is good, because once I get started it’s hard to stop.

don't cry, think about this frog from the Open Clip Art Library.

I digress. And so does WG–that’s one of the things that pulled me into the narrative, and I think it’s a key part of the WG2M.  For instance, WG starts off the book by quoting his dad’s aphorism: “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose” and then on page 21 we get back to WG’s point of quoting that aphorism in the first place. To be fair, this could also just be foreshadowing.  But the way that WG narrates, it’s like clicking your way through tabs on a browser – you want to explore all the links, but it makes for a wonderfully digressive narrative.

Another thing about the WG2M, what I referred to in my Goodreads review as “staying true to the suckiness of life”, is also something that made, and makes, me uncomfortable about reading WG’s parts of the book.  He’s not that great of a friend.  On the first page he begins expounding on his two themes concerning Tiny Cooper – WG sees Tiny as primarily 1. Large and 2. Gay, and instead of just being accepting of Tiny Cooper, he brings it up all the time so he can reassure his audience that he’s accepting. He’s so accepting he can constantly joke about it!  This is my least favorite type of “friendly” behavior.  WG also mentions that he went so far as to defend Tiny’s right to be gay and play football in the school newspaper, so it’s clear that he’s not all superficially, insecurely okay with the large gayness of Tiny Cooper.  He goes on and on about how inconvenient it is to be friends with someone so tall and large and gay (are you sick of it yet? Imagine how Tiny feels) and how Tiny is not a friend he would choose.

However, if I remember correctly, Tiny calls him out on this behavior later in the book, and that’s another thing that I love about it. AAAAND, as the story progresses further, we see that Tiny is not the greatest friend sometimes, either. He’s very wrapped up in his crushes.  He’s wildly reactionary to every emotion that courses through him.  And a side effect of that is that all social interaction will revolve around Tiny Cooper, making it easier for WG to not seriously pursue any other friendships.

Whether I like their behavior or not, the fact is that within a couple pages, I’m totally involved in these people and they are real to me. It’s real behavior, it’s familiar to anyone who has had friends at any point in their lives, and it’s detailed without telling me all the details. It’s detailed in the right places.  It puts me at the lunch table with Tiny and WG and lets me figure it out, and then gives them senses of humor! WG is fond of these little asides at the end or slipped into the middle of his regular descriptions that crack me up:

“I say, ‘Mom this is a historical event. History doesn’t have a curfew,’ and she says, ‘Back by eleven,’ and I say, ‘Fine. Jesus,’ and then she has to go cut cancer out of someone.” (9).

wg has the talent of being humorously explanatorily exasperated:

“i do not say ‘good-bye.’ I believe hat’s one of the bullshitist words ever invented. it’s not like you’re given the choice to say ‘bad-bye’ or ‘awful-bye’ or ‘couldn’t-care-less-about-you-bye.’ every time you leave, it’s supposed to be a good one. well, i don’t believe in that. i believe against that.” (23).

To illustrate the flow of the book, I’ll give you a perfect Moment, convincingly written, an amalgam of digression and flow (which is why I have to quote all of it.):

photo of Chicago by flickr user anneh632

“Tiny Cooper lives in a mansion with the world’s richest parents. I don’t think either of his parents have jobs, but they are so disgustingly rich that Tiny Cooper doesn’t even live in the mansion; he lies in the mansion’s coach house, all by himself. He has three bedrooms in that motherfucker and a fridge that always has beer in it and his parents never bother him, and so we can sit there all day and play video game football and drink Miller Lite, except in point of fact Tiny hates video games and I hate drinking beer, so mostly all we ever do is play darts (he has a dartboard) and listen to music and talk and study. I’ve just started to say the T  in Tiny when he comes running out of his room, one black leather loafer on and the other in his hand, shouting, ‘Go, Grayson, go go.’

“And everything goes perfectly on the way there. Traffic’s not too bad on Sheridan, and I’m cornering the car like it’s the Indy 500, and we’re listening to my favorite NMH song, ‘Holland, 1945,’ and then onto Lake Shore Drive, the waves of Lake Michigan crashing against the boulders by the Drive, the windows cracked to get the car to defrost, the dirty, bracing, cold air rushing in, and I love the way Chicago smells–Chicago is brackish lake water and soot and sweat and grease and I love it, and I love this song, and Tiny’s saying I love this song, and he’s got the visor down so he can muss up his hair a little more expertly.  That gets me to thinking that Neutral Milk Hotel is going to see me just as surely as I’m going to see them, so I give myself a once-over in the rearview.  My face seems too square and my eyes too big, like I’m perpetually surprised, but there’s nothing wrong with me that I can fix.” (9-10)

And I feel like I’ve already written too much (and all of it about WG and not wg) but I will mention that the 3rd element that makes me love the book and make it a 5 star book for me (remember our elements are 1. digression 2. realism about the suckiness of even friends) is the addition of People Creating Things.  There’s nothing more satisfying to read about than teenagers creating things–treehouses, forts, treehouse forts, conceptual art happenings, very detailed oil paintings, novels within novels… I say teenagers because I have less joy in reading about college professors struggling with creating things. That’s a separate genre.  Creation of a project is the crux of many a teen movie, except the person is usually a rag tag sports team and the Thing they are Creating is an Underdog Victory.But here the person is Tiny Cooper, and the thing is a musical.  You could also say that the Will Graysons are creating themselves in this book, coming out from under their wallflower/caustically depressed disguises to be in the world more authentically.  But more literally, it’s about a musical called Tiny Dancer: The Tiny Cooper Story.

what can I say, I love the Open Clip Art Library.

Fake musicals are great excuses to be as silly as possible… IN RHYME, which is why Forgetting Sarah Marshall is such a great movie (although I’ve heard that the Dracula puppet musical is a real thing that Jason Segel wrote apart from the movie).  It also makes sense that, although the book is not about Tiny Cooper, Tiny Cooper is the glue of the book, and the most outsized example of someone trying to find where they fit in the world, which is a theme of the whole book anyway, so his musical is the plot device that ended up making my heart swell 3 sizes that day when I read the book.

That’s my non-critical, slapdash analysis of why I loved Will Grayson, Will Grayson.  I look forward to re-reading it this week.

We Love, We Love!: A Joint Review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Welcome to another Joint Review and Discussion! Last time, we discussed Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone and our thoughts on angel literature and overly-attractive characters.  This week we’re discussing Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan              Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan

Dutton Juvenile, 2012

Tessa!

I’m so excited to make you talk to me about Will Grayson, Will Grayson. John Green and David Levithan collaborated on it, each writing alternating chapters, so I feel like a joint review is the most apt mode of review.

image: michiganawesome.org

I started re-reading Will Grayson, Will Grayson in the Philadelphia train station on my way to New York. I had about 30 minutes to kill, so of course I got an Auntie Anne’s pretzel and lemonade (a combination I’ve loved ever since it was the only edible option at the mall where I once worked at a Waldenbooks in Ann Arbor). So, I’m sitting at this wobbly table, trying not to leave greasy finger prints at the top corner of every page and just laughing my face off, pitying the gormless masses streaming past who were not reading Will Grayson, Will Grayson and feeling pretty pleased with myself.

Dawson's CreekOf course, I was feeling quite sheepish about 20 minutes later when I was holding the book right in front of my face so that none of the adjacent Au Bon Pain customers could see me crying into my lemonade. Now, Tessa, as you know, I’m not much of a crier in real life (even though it seems like every book I’ve reviewed lately has involved me crying on a train), and it takes quite a book to make me both crack up and tear up! And I LOVE books that make me cry.

This is all to say: I have been trying to figure out how I would describe what makes the book so affecting for me. I mean, the writing from both authors is great, the characters rich and unique, and the story totally fun and charming. But what finally stands out for me (and makes me appear like a bipolar mess in public spaces) is Will Grayson Will Grayson’s mood.

I would think that because it’s written by two different authors and concerns two very different sets of characters, the two story lines would have different moods. But, even though Will Grayson the first (capital WG) is a go-with-the-flow, anti-drama sidekick type to Tiny, a falls-in-love-every-day, sings loudly, gay football player, and will grayson the second (lowercase wg) is a depressive malcontent who is “constantly torn between killing [him]self and killing everyone around [him],” the mood feels strikingly consistent between the two story lines (22).

Borg Cat

“We are Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.” From: fivecats.wordpress.com

It was like somehow the Will Grayson, Will Grayson mood, henceforth known as the WG2M, was so strong that it permeated the entire book, sucking everything into it (including me) like the borg. In a good way. No, a great way. Of course, the writing and the characters contribute to the mood and they are delightful.

From capital WG:

“I turn around and Tiny Cooper is crying huge tears. One of Tiny Cooper’s tears could drown a kitten. And I mouth WHAT’S WRONG? because Ashland Avenue is sucking too loudly for him to hear me, and Tiny Cooper just hands me his phone and walks away. It’s showing me Tiny’s Facebook feed, zoomed in on a status update.

Zach is like the more i think about it the more i think y ruin a gr8 frendship? i still think tiny’s awesum tho.

I push my way through a couple people to Tiny, and I pull down his shoulder and scream into his ear, ‘THAT’S PRETTY FUCKING BAD,’ and Tiny shouts back, ‘I GOT DUMPED BY A STATUS UPDATE,’ and I answer, ‘YEAH, I NOTICED.’ . . .

‘WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?’ Tiny shouts in my ear, and I want to say, ‘Hopefully, go find a guy who knows there is no u in awesome’ (15-16).

 

From lowercase wg:

“every morning i pray that the school bus will crash and we’ll all die in a fiery wreck. then my mom will be able to sue the school bus company for never making school buses with seat belts, and she’ll be able to get more money for my tragic death than i would’ve ever made in my tragic life. unless the lawyers from the school bus company can prove to the jury that i was guaranteed to be a fuckup. then they’d get away with buying my mom a used ford fiesta and calling it even” (23-4).

And when the two story lines come together delightfully in a porn shop, as these things always must, it feels, like, inevitable.

Frenchy’s Adult Book Store is real

So, T, what about you? Did you find Will Grayson, Will Grayson as delightful as I did?  What did you think of the mood? Who was your favorite character? Who do you think could play the characters if they ever made a movie, &c. Tell me EVERYTHING!

The Path To Wisdom Is Paved With . . . Terror?: Skin Hunger

A Review of Skin Hunger (A Resurrection of Magic # 1) by Kathleen Duey

Simon Pulse, 2007

By REBECCA, March 2, 2012

characters

Skin Hunger’s story is told in chapters from alternating viewpoints.

Sadima’s narrative:

Sadima: Caring and artistic, with a penchant for hearing animals’ thoughts and cheese-making

Somiss: brilliant & sociopathic? sociopathic & righteous? righteous & corrupt & brilliant? yes!

Franklin: Sadima’s love, servant to Somiss, and conflicted about whether the ends justify the means

Micah: Sadima’s well-intentioned but limited brother

Papa: Sadima’s father, ruined by the death of his wife at Sadima’s birth

Hahp’s narrative, centuries later:

Hahp: Slightly suicidal, abused son of a rich merchant with a talent for thought control

Gerrard: Hahp’s roommate, mysteriously astute with the ancient language of magic . . .

Franklin: Distant, if not actively malevolent, wizard who teaches the boys to move their thoughts

Somiss: Somewhat Nietzschean wizard, devoid of mercy, who inspires terror wherever he goes

Jux: Manic and vaguely psychopathic wizard whose backstory is told in the sequel, Sacred Scars

Other pupils at Limòri Academy: fellow sufferers, not allowed to help one another on pain of death

hook

What would you sacrifice to resurrect the power of magic? Once resurrected, what would you sacrifice to possess it?

worldview

Skin Hunger is told, alternatingly, from Sadima and Hahp’s perspectives. Sadima lives in a time when all knowledge of magic has been banned by reigning royalty, who (as always) fear the power it gives to the people. The promise of magic’s resurrection is the promise of closing the immense gap between royalty and the starving peasant classes in the cities and farmers in the country. Magic is a practical tool that could drastically ease these folks’ daily lives—it can cure stomachaches, calm a crying baby, or ease childbirth. In Hahp’s time, centuries later, magic has been resurrected and is controlled by a group of elite wizards, making it (as always) a commodity that fetches a high price— prohibitively high for those whom it might actually help. All this makes for a worldview that values magic and education, hopeful for their ability to change the world. But it also makes for a worldview that is distinctly suspicious that the power to wield magic corrupts absolutely.

Somiss is the ultimate embodiment of this promise and this threat. The son of a wealthy noble family (with one of many claims to the throne), Somiss abandons his family, monomaniacally driven to research the old magic. He is brilliant and tyrannical, and in his paranoia that his work will be discovered he resorts to . . . extreme measures of . . . research. What’s awesome about Kathleen Duey, though, is that Somiss’ goal of restoring magic is absolutely an honorable one that the reader roots for, one that, if it goes as Somiss claims it will, would make the world a better place, flushing out royal corruption and leveling the classes. Sadima, who was raised on a farm and finds her way to Somiss and Franklin’s city garret in her teens, is not naïve, and yet her love for Franklin entices her to participate in their work long after she believes that it has soured. This tension continues in the sequel, Sacred Scars (2009), which is also amazing, and proceeds directly from where Skin Hunger leaves off (review forthcoming).

This ethical tension (how far should we go to pursue knowledge) is one that I find endlessly compelling, and I was quite impressed by how suspenseful Duey’s portrayal of this drama is in both narratives. In Limòri Academy, Hahp and the other boys toil to be the one who “graduates.” They are punished for offering any help to one another, and are punished for their failures with food deprivation, physical torture and, most effectively, mental warfare—how long have they been there? how big is the room, really? when will they next eat? what do the wizards want them to do? The wizards push the boys to their limits in an attempt (we think) to find which of them has the makings of a wizard. It’s just like graduate school.

apples have a role to play

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

Duey was clearly invested in this being a real atmosphere piece—Limòri Academy, in particular, is one of the damned creepiest places ever. With its endless twists and turns, its ability to seem like a huge space when it’s dark but resolve into a normal sized room when lit, the way the wizards seem to be able to hear your very thoughts . . . Eeurgh! Awesome. It also lives up to its intention to have complicated, terrified, weak, strong, conflicted characters. Hahp, especially, is a character that I haven’t seen in YA fantasy before. Because he barely interacts with anyone, Hahp’s characterization is all in his head and how he reacts to the bizarre and confusing challenges of the Limòri wizards. While this could, in a less skilled author, make for a solipsistic or self-indulgent narration, Duey is extremely disciplined in her choices, and so our all-access pass to Hahp’s poor little head reveals the shame, fear, and desperation that seem realistic for a pubescent boy who knows that he is definitively on his own.

As I’ve mentioned, one of Duey’s clear goals is to explore the classic philosophical issue of how far one should go to pursue knowledge. What’s unique about Skin Hunger’s take on this issue, however, is that it looks very different in 11-14 year old boys than it does in Somiss, a man in his twenties. For Hahp and Gerrard, possessing knowledge of magic is a matter of survival—the pure pursuit of wisdom twisted into a desperate Skinner-box lever pull. As the boys go through their classes, learning to move their thoughts into their toes, Hahp fantasizes about how he wants to be the one to graduate and become a wizard, not because of a desire to do magic, but so that he can finally look his abusive father in the face and know that he has the power to protect his mother. One of the more interesting elements of Hahp’s storyline is the way the boys’ deprivation and training seem almost cult-like, the wizards more monks than magicians.

As you likely noticed in the character listings, Franklin and Somiss are in both narratives, and they exemplify the underlying horror of the novel: how did we get from Sadima’s story to Hahp’s? How did we get from Somiss and Franklin’s desire to solve an intellectual mystery and restore magic to the people, to Somiss and Franklin’s mental and physical torture of children in an attempt to perpetuate their hold over magic? Holy crap, this book is disturbing and awesome.

My one critique was that the cross-cutting between Sadima’s and Hahp’s storylines happened too quickly—the chapters are sometimes only a few pages long. However, upon re-reading Skin Hunger and Sacred Scars to write this review, I realized that much of the narrative suspense comes from this style of editing.

personal disclosure

Along with being a totally kickass book that portends a kickass series, Skin Hunger is a really excellent example of how tools of production being controlled by an elite few cannot help but lead to suffering, death, and the suppression of knowledge! Is the resurrection of magic destined to produce a rarified commodity because Somiss, despite having run away, is, and thinks like, a member of the nobility? Or is it because he sincerely believes that he is the only one who could possess power without becoming corrupt? Or because he’s a psychopath?

Many reviews of this book that I’ve read seem to think that nothing happens, or that this ethical issue is treated in an overly dark manner. I can’t help but think that these reviewers are also not fans of Faust, nor are they researchers of any kind, nor do they possess a deep dissatisfaction with the system that controls access to resources and believe that perhaps if we could study what undergirds that system and find the key to toppling it then people would be better off. As such, I dismiss their opinions. More important, I totally understand why they wouldn’t find this book interesting. For me and, I think, for anyone who is intrigued by the razor’s edge on which the pursuit of knowledge becomes oppression, there is a nearly Saw-esque level of tension in attempting to be the one student who graduates (whatever that means) Limòri Academy, potentially at the cost of your peers’ lives. God, Somiss is an evil, evil genius!

I can’t wait for the third book in the series to be released! Kathleen Duey reports that she’s working on it . . . Also, check out more amazing work by the cover artist for Skin Hunger and Sacred Scars here.

readalikes

The Forest of Hands and Teeth, by Carrie Ryan (2009). There is a similar sensitivity to how the lies that we tell about our histories, when revealed, can be just as horrifying as, say, zombies (or wizards, as the case may be).

Winter of Fire, by Sherryl Jordan (1992). Elsha, all her life a member of the slave class that mines coal for the Chosen, has visions that bring her to the attention of the all-powerful Firelord. She becomes his Handmaiden, and discovers mysteries that have long divided the Quelled and the Chosen.

The God Eaters, by Jesse Hajicek (2006). Ashleigh Trine and Kieran Trevarde are imprisoned and studied for their talents, and magic is strictly controlled by, who else, a corrupt overclass. Trine and Trevarde bust out of prison and begin a dusty, epic run for their lives, and for the mysterious patterns that make magic, not to mention love. One of my favorites—check out my review here.

Procured from: the library

Skin Hunger was recommended to me by my dear friend, E—. Many thanks!

The Chocolate War, or why you shouldn’t make high school kids sell candy.

The Chocolate War

Robert Cormier

Pantheon Books, 1974

Characters
Jerry Renault, Our Hero
The Goober (Roland Goubert), Coward with a Heart of Gold
Archie Costello, Assignment Mastermind
Obie, Disgruntled Sidekick With His Own Plans
Emile Janza, Sociopath
Brother Leon, Probably Also a Sociopath
Brother Jacques (the Head), Deus Ex Machina
Brian Cochran, Reluctant Accountant
Carter, Nominal President of The Vigils

Hook
Jerry Renault dares to disturb the universe through an act of double civil disobedience! And pays the price.

Worldview
Nihilist. I think. Or Existentialist?

What was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
There’s no way that The Chocolate War is not a Message Book. I hate to say it, because message books get a bad rap.  But, like any category of book, there are good and bad examples.  And, can I just say that most books have a message somewhere in there.  But what makes a message book a Message Book is that the entire plot is dedicated to delivering a viewpoint on the world. Each cog in the well-oiled plot machine spins just to give life to a philosophical or social problem. The trick is to do this AND get a book that’s not totally didactic with cardboard characters spouting dialogue straight from afterschool specials out of it. Or some God-Narrator who tells you what you’re supposed to be figuring out for yourself.

So, what’s the message in the Chocolate War? I think the best thing about it is that it doesn’t sum up its message in one phrase (a la Jack Black at the end of King King).  In fact, you have to figure it out for yourself. It’s a message book with a personal message for you.  So maybe I should call it an Ethical Dilemma book. But that’s not as catchy.  I see the Chocolate War as an essentially existential dilemma.

Intention Achievement

The intention of the book is to present a real life example of a real-life high school Sisyphus for the reader to mull over.  Here’s a shortish summary (there are many characters, which is why this isn’t shorter): Jerry Renault goes to Trinity High. I’m assuming it’s a Jesuit school because it’s run by Brothers, but it could just be Catholic.  Anyway. Jerry’s a freshman and he’s going out for the football team.  The first chapter of the book kind of sums up Jerry’s character for us.  Let me quote the first line: “They murdered him.” Jerry’s getting his tuchus kicked up and down the field, but he doesn’t quit. Huh. Could that be foreshadowing?

In the second chapter we learn that Trinity High has a not so secret secret society called the Vigils.  Their main thing is making non-Vigils do elaborate pranks.  It’s sort of hazing, I guess, because some of the kids who do the pranks eventually get into the Vigils and go on to force other kids to do pranks.  Archie Costello is the Prankmaster, although he’s not the President of the Vigils, and his second in command is Obie. Obie hates Archie. Archie decides to assign Jerry a task, even though Jerry’s mom has just died. Archie doesn’t give a shit. He’s going to assign Jerry something to do with chocolates.

There’s a big chocolate sale at the school every year as a fundraiser. This year the Head of the school, Brother Jacques, is sick, so Brother Leon is in charge of the chocolates and the school. Brother Leon lives for Trinity, and he has a habit of messing with students mentally to get them to understand that their loyalty to Trinity is super-important. This year he bought double the amount of chocolates and he’s going to sell them for double the price and tell the kids that they have to bring in double the quota.  Even though this is all strictly “voluntary”.  And he asks Archie for the support of the Vigils. In so many words.

So, here comes Jerry. Jerry is assigned to refuse to sell chocolates for ten school days. One would think it’s not a big deal.  But it causes unbelievable tension. It makes Brother Leon apoplectic. It puts pressure on the Vigils because they were supposed to support the sale in the first place. It makes other kids uncomfortable because they’re out there trying to sell the stupid chocolates and Jerry isn’t.

And then Jerry won’t stop refusing to sell chocolates.  He realizes it’s absurd –or, he doesn’t realize anything at first. He just knows he’s doing it.  He has to.

Here’s our dilemma!  And here’s where I really connect with the book. Jerry is restless. Hippies call him a sub-human because he’s living a square life.  He has a poster in his locker that quotes T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (not that Jerry knows this): Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?  He does. Almost just because. Which reminds me of what Camus thinks about Sisyphus:

“Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is,as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth…. All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained [in his rock]. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing….The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

photo by flickr user cdrummbks

I’m not going to reveal what happens to Jerry. I’m just going to say that it’s his choice. And it’s our choice to imagine if his choice gives him any happiness, idealistic or otherwise. (Or I could read Beyond the Chocolate War and see if there are more answers there).

I’ll just say that I really identify with his stubbornness.  I’ll admit that the events of the book might be a little unrealistic and I found myself questioning their plausibility, but then I would often admit that the okay of authority figures, whether heads of schools or secret societies, often sanctions the most unreasonable behavior.  It can be very hard to talk to parents when you’re an adolescent.  In the end I’d say that it wasn’t too hard to believe in the situation.

Readalikes

I’ve got a classic and and upcoming readalike for this book:

The Wave by Todd Strasser. Same old-fashioned language.  Same treatment of a school-wide phenomenon.  But this time… with Nazis.

The List by Siobhan Vivian.  Multiple viewpoints. Divisive list. Dare I say… a message book?  When it comes out in April you can decide for yourself. You can also check out our interview of Siobhan Vivian here!

Disclosures and Digressions

a. I know Siobhan Vivian and I love her lots. As a person.  And  a writer.
b. We had fundraisers something like the chocolate sale at my middle school, so I can identify with the feeling of being emotionally manipulated into becoming a mini-salesperson — at my school they hired people to come in and do a presentation and show you how many AWESOME prizes you could win at what SALES LEVEL.  And then I’d go home and not sell anything.  On the other hand, I won a prize for most Girl Scout Cookies sold one year.  But that was because my dad did the selling.  This isn’t so much a personal disclosure as a nearly meaningless digression.

c. There’s a sequel to The Chocolate War called Beyond the Chocolate War. Is that where they got Beyond Thunderdome from???

I got my copy from: the library

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