Sunday, September 10, 2017

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Elizabeth Hand's Wylding Hall

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand
Published by: Open Road Media Sci-Fi and Fantasy
Publication Date: July 14th, 2015
Format: Kindle, 148 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Julian Blake was a temperamental genius. His manager knew that if Julian stayed in his bedsit in London all summer he'd get no work done and mourn the death of his girlfriend Arianna who committed suicide. So Wylding Hall was let. Julian's British acid-folk band Windhollow Faire would secret themselves in the country for the month of August to work and reconnect. It was a summer that would produce an album named after the grand estate they stayed at that would be under everybody's Christmas Tree that December but would also lead to the disappearance of Julian Blake. A disappearance linked to a white haired girl who mysteriously appeared on the cover of the album whom no one remembered seeing. But then a lot of mysterious things happened that summer. Weird hallways and chambers that went on forever. A library that only two people ever found. A room with hundreds and hundreds of dead birds. A tune in the air that Julian couldn't help humming. And the walks in the woods that the locals warned them never to take. Yet the band and the other people who came in and out of their lives back in that summer in the seventies never compared notes, until now. Now there's a documentary being done about the album, inspired by construction that has unearthed discoveries at the house, and secrets are being revealed. The shape of things is starting to come into focus, but it doesn't seem possible. In the end it comes down to a photo in the local pub, a song Julian unearthed, and a half-naked girl with feathers on her feet.

Sometimes there's a confluence of events that come together just right that elevates an experience to another level. This occurrence started at a joint birthday party where fate decided the next book club selection would be Wylding Hall and ended in an extremely rare consensus that we all liked the book while we dunked fruit into delectable chocolate. But we all agreed, it wasn't just the book, it was something in the air. It's almost as if we were haunted and the book manifested itself for our entertainment. The waning days of summer had set in, mirroring the time frame of the events that happened to the members of Windhollow Faire as August drew to a close and their lease on the hall was up. Despite reality versus fiction and the present versus the past there was this connection that made the book almost real. It's such a short read, a mere 148 pages, and yet I just wanted their summer to be endless and for me to be able to live in this spooky yet somehow homey world. What aided the book so well was the suspension of disbelief was possible through Elizabeth Hand grounding the book in the real world. If she hadn't got the music scene of the time just right nothing else could have fallen into place, and yet she did it. Making this story of the real world yet somehow not quite of it, like the characters had walked through a fairy ring and everything was just slightly distorted. Like when Sergeant Howie ventures to Summerisle in The Wicker Man, the townspeople seem a little off, a little unwilling to talk, and pictures that might illuminate events are quickly hidden away. The balance between believability and the unknown is perfectly struck here.

Yet the way Elizabeth Hand chose to tell the story was an interesting one, yet it did present problems. She goes the route of many a documentary with each of the characters telling their part of the story, therefore capturing that feeling of reality, we've all seen this before. We could be watching a VH1 Behind the Music special about Windhollow Faire after all. Yet given the brevity of the book I had issues with the dramatis personae, it took awhile for their character traits to come through and in the interim I was lost. They were written too similarly and what was odd in my mind, there wasn't a hint of unreliability and their stories all synced up. Maybe I'm just too used to unreliable narrators and Agatha Christie trying to pull one over on me. There was just a sameness to them as Elizabeth Hand quickly cut from one POV to another. It took me quite awhile to realize that Lesley was a female, and seriously, can authors NOT use two too similarly named characters, like Jonathan and Julian? I'm not proud of this but I totally stereotyped the characters to remember who they were, the folklorist, the girlfriend, the dead guy, you get my drift... and not all of them were flattering monikers, just something so I could quickly tell who was who. A really good writer is able to distinguish the different characters enough with their voices that this shortcut of mine wouldn't be a necessity. I felt like it lowered the book. But you could argue that Elizabeth Hand wanted to sew confusion from the start. That she wanted her readers to not get a firm grip on anything. If that was the case? Good on her! See, I'm totally willing to see the other side of things because books are fluid, what the writer intended and what the reader gets could be different, but that doesn't mean both aren't true at the same time.

Though what enchanted me most was the era. Ghost stories just seem to work better when set in a time before technology ran rampant. But I've come to realize that for a ghost story or supernatural spookfest to really catch me there has to be something I connect to. More and more this isn't character driven Victorian stories but more modern pieces set in the not-too-distant past. Like the 70s and 80s. There's a reason why The Conjuring series is doing so well and has so many spinoffs and why so many people have embraced Stranger Things. These are eras that have a distinct look and feel, a time when to get a hold of your friends you had to hope they got your message left with a family member on the one phone in their house or you'd just show up and pray their parents knew where they were. A time when plans couldn't be easily changed. A time when I was innocent and to see that innocence turn malevolent, there's something supercharged about that. Here it's the 70s, and it's perfect. Not just for the distant haze that memory has given me about the decade in which I was born, but because of this insidious supernatural phenomena creeping around the familiar. We have the isolated house, one lone phone, and this kind of golden haze and heat hanging over the events. Therefore when there are clouds or cold, you know something is going to go wrong. There's strange things happening in the house, it's rambling and easy to get lost in. A library that almost no one has found. Yet all of it could be explained away. Everything could be just too much indulgence, until there's proof that this isn't the case. Proof that comes almost at the very end.

Yet that ending is really abrupt. The whole book is kind of a summer idyll interspersed with supernatural phenomena. There's a laziness to it, not in that it's badly written, but in the luxurious pacing. You just want to inhabit the story but then they leave the house, put out the album, and then this interview happens years later... and as for Julian's fate... well, we aren't given anything concrete, we aren't given anything really. That throwaway line about one of the band members maybe seeing him years later doesn't count in my mind. I became invested in these characters lives and I didn't just want the story about THAT summer and their one "hit" album, I wanted to know what came after. How did Lesley become a star? How did Nancy, the girlfriend, end up a professional psychic in Florida? But more importantly, these interviews are all happening not just because of some anniversary for an album that achieved cult status but because there is work being done at the house. Work that uncovers artifacts of archaeological as well as personal interest to our characters. There seems to be a momentum throughout the book that they will all reunite and return to Wylding Hall and yet that never happens. It felt as though right when Elizabeth Hand was about to bring all the different threads together she decided instead she'd finished and just cut the work off prematurely. This is a three-quarters finished story. There is no final act. And THIS was the only bone of contention me and my fellow book clubbers had. Where is the resolution? Where is the final chord?

Because if we are to compare this to a song, they all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. All stories do too. But this one apparently won't. Yes, I have to accept this. I have to concentrate on that which worked so well. What I'm talking about is the purpose of fables and myths and epic songs, all that which goes into folk music. All these tales were told not because they were used as entertainment, but to impart warnings. "These are songs that have been around for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They existed for centuries before any kind of recording was possible, even before people could write, for god's sake! So the only way those songs lived and got passed on was by singers." These songs were things that needed to be remembered. Things that needed to be known so that danger wasn't stumbled into blindly. While the Brothers Grimm might have gone a little too far with the moralizing, all tales that are passed down are done so with intent. There's a reason the locals get their backs up when these musicians come in asking about what shouldn't be talked of. Though logically IF the locals wanted them to behave perhaps some truth about the village and it's local legends could have warned them off. But that's not the purpose of villagers in these stories, their purpose is to see the strangers blithely walking into danger and keep their mouths shut. The danger that lies in the woods and lures Julian away with the fairies. It's this root of what folk music and folklore is that grounds the entire book in the human experience of tradition. So while it may falter, it still resonates.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Dave Eggers's The Circle

The Circle by Dave Eggers
Published by: Vintage Books
Publication Date: October 8th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 497 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Mae Holland had dreams that took her east of the Rockies to an elite liberal arts college yet here she is, back in her home town, working nine to five at a utility company of all places. Whereas her college roommate Annie Allerton doesn't just work for the most important tech company on the planet, she's one of the Group of 40, one of the forty most influential people in the most influential company in the world. Thanks to Annie pulling some strings she gets Mae in the door for an interview at The Circle. As Mae walks through the campus she realizes that she is in heaven and she doesn't care if the job she's interviewing for is only in Customer Experience, answering questions and obsessively keeping track of her satisfaction rating, it's where everyone started, even Annie. Yet her transition into The Circle isn't that smooth, she makes more than a few mistakes in not fully engaging in the culture that the company wants its employees to embrace. She also upsets a few of her coworkers by her lack of participation.

But leeway is given as she's a friend of Annie and there are extenuating circumstances with her family. Her father is suffering from MS and her mother is struggling to cope. With Mae now further away they are relying heavily on Mae's ex, Mercer. The pressure to help, to be better, makes Mae reckless and one night she breaks into a kayak rental store she frequents after-hours and what happens next changes everything. It's not just that Mae is caught by technology that The Circle created, it's her blind ignorance that she was cheating others of a once in a lifetime experience that now only exists in her memories. Because sharing is caring. This experience is the beginning of her full integration into The Circle. Through a talk with The Circle's co-founders, Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton, Mae becomes "transparent," broadcasting her life 24/7 to the world. Soon she has eclipsed Annie and becomes the face of The Circle. Mae has everything she could possibly dream of, what could possibly go wrong?

The Circle is an interesting book to read because I think I can say that it's easily the most uneven book I've ever read with an ill-defined endgame. Because of my blog and how many books I review in a year I kind of get a sense while reading about what star rating a book will end up with but here I was flummoxed. The narrative is continually waffling between searing satire and heavy-handed often clumsy world commentary. If The Circle hadn't ended on just the right note that it did, with that perfect level of cynicism pushing it towards darkness, it would have been a fail. With literally one witch-hunt worthy of the Wicked Witch of the West and a two and a half page conclusion everything comes together and all the faults can be overlooked when you finally see the bigger picture. That ill defined bigger picture is so badly articulated until those final moments when you learn what the end goal of "closing the circle" is that The Circle is almost a book without a plot relying on vaguely interconnecting scenes and too much kayaking. While a book can be redeemed by it's ending, it's far more satisfying to have enough clues that give you a hint of what's to come without actually being able to put all the pieces together. Structure is important to all things in life, not just architecture!

What struck me most forcibly reading The Circle is how it resonates at the moment. This transparency of life is exactly the opposite to how we are currently living. The trolls of the Internet are everywhere, even in the highest office of the land, and they hide behind fake news and fake identities. Truth isn't actually something you hear very often anymore. Yet The Circle created TruYou, where your identity isn't just synced across all platforms, but that it's verified as actually being you, like Twitter verification to the umpteenth degree that has access to your credit cards. Everyone can be held accountable for everything they do. This is just such a weird polarity to living in a world where the president doesn't even want to be on camera for plausible deniability. And all this got me thinking, could what is happening now spawn a future like Dave Eggers has created? Will all these lies lead the coming younger generation, who are the early adapters of all tech, to force a TruYou situation? Which I personally think would be the other extreme. Just because it looks perfect doesn't mean it is, that's the whole point of dystopian literature, it's someones utopia.

And as we all know, utopia is heaven, and heaven is found through religion and the church, and oh yes, there are religious metaphors aplenty here. While the most obvious would be to see this as very much of the school of Scientology, I think it's more the school of Apple, or Google, or even, to go a little homegrown, Epic. All secretive organizations, all have vast sprawling campuses that encourage a community formed of your work colleagues, and all kind of indoctrinate you. Years ago a study was done on true Apple acolytes and under scientific observation they had the same reaction to seeing the Apple logo as true believers when show the cross. Eggers is on fire when he leans towards the dark humor. The book soars when comparing the three founders to the father, the son, and the holy ghost, or, as the case is here, an octopus, a shark, and a seahorse. Their inability to see who is the most dangerous of the three founders. The dark intents that "the son" has for the future. I just want to yell it from the rooftops that this is what works, this is what makes the book such an amazing read. But then Eggers comes along every once in awhile and goes all earnest and I want to smack him. Being earnest has no place in a dark satire, and those scenes when Mae is smiling or frowning at 50 million different "tweets" or posts while using so many screens it's almost incomprehensible I want to highlight them and ask Eggers to make the rest of the book like this.

Because whenever Mae has to deal with anything outside The Circle it's like a damp towel has been thrown over the book. Her off-campus life is painful to read. It's not just that there's no spark, no subversive humor, it's that it's too earnest. Mae dealing with her family and Mercer is painful. Yes, I know that this kind of needs to be the case. There needs to be a disconnect between her old world and her new world, but that doesn't mean it has to be so bleak. Her parents dealing with MS was almost too painful for me to read, and not just because I've spent this year suffering from caregivers syndrome, but because it didn't read true. It read as plot contrivances. We need Mae's parents to push her further into The Circle and Mercer to be the sacrifice that is the nail in Mae's coffin. But could they at least have been written better? This needed the polish that the rapid fire dialogues Mae has with her co-workers received. It just needed to be a piece with the rest of the book. THIS is what makes the book uneven. This disconnect between her two worlds, like trying to shove a FireWire cable into a USB port, and it needed to be addressed. As did Mae's love life, because Eggers sure doesn't know how to handle sex in a way that isn't clunky and unbelievable. But I'm willing to tackle one subject at a time.

For my final subject I will tackle tech. Technology is rapidly changing and each year that passes it speeds up more and more. By the time you buy a new phone or computer it's already obsolete. Just think about this, in my lifetime computers have gone from the size of large rooms to being able to be held in the palm of your hand and I'm not yet forty. And that computer in your hand is FAR more powerful than the one that took up a large room or perhaps even several buildings. Phones are now in our pockets instead of only in houses and on street corners. Therefore in the five years that have passed since The Circle was first released the leaps and bounds in tech have lead the amazing and revolutionary tech that Eamon Bailey introduces in his big presentation that Mae goes to laughably out of date. SeeChange, the streaming camera service that causes Mae so much grief but then makes her a celebrity is common now. When Bailey is talking about how crystal clear images can be I was thinking, yeah, just look at Netflix, or Hulu, or even Skype. This "revolutionary" tech is no longer so. Which makes me wonder about the longevity of The Circle. Will it somehow become a dystopian classic that looks back on a certain time with it's quaint tech or will it be forgotten? Personally, I think it will be forgotten. If you look at the classics of this genre there's a timelessness to them. While they may have been written in the 70s or the 80s they don't quite feel of that time but of all times. The Circle feels very much of one time and I fear it's time has already passed.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Miss Eliza's Book Review - Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Published by: Houghton Mifflin
Publication Date: 1968
Format: Hardcover, 422 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

On the island of Gont a young boy nicknamed Sparrowhawk is born with innate magical abilities. Motherless, his Aunt sees his potential and teaches him what she knows of magic and the words of power. When Kargish invaders threaten his small village of Ten Alders he is able to protect it by summoning a fog, concealing it from the enemy. The great mage Ogion who lives on the other side of Gont in Re Albi hears of the young boy's gift and journeys to Ten Alders to bestow the boys true name Ged on him and offer him an apprenticeship. Ged is grateful for all that Ogion does for him but is impatient. In his impatience he releases a shadow from one of Ogion's spell-books and Ogion realizes that he is not the teacher for Ged and he sends him to the island of the wise, Roke, to attend the school for wizardry there. On Roke Ged's power is apparent to all, but he is headstrong and aloof, making enemies easily. One enemy is Jasper who Ged challenges to a duel. The duel will release a shadow creature into the world and almost destroy Ged. Taking months to recover he is a far changed man. He is more circumspect and willingly takes a humble posting in the Ninety Islands once he earns his staff. There he does much good but is still hunted by the shadow. He knows now that it will chase him to the ends of the earth, so perhaps it's time he started chasing it. The battle will go one of two ways, but so it will be. As Ged sees it, this is his burden to bear.

As a kid I of course had heard of Ursula K. Le Guin, not so much because of her Earthsea books, but because of her Catwings series. They were released through Scholastic in the late eighties and seriously, it's about flying cats, there's no way I wouldn't have fallen for these books. They were basically marketed just for me, as evidenced when I laboriously filled out the Scholastic order forms to return to school. But as for delving into Earthsea? It's been something I've always meant to do for years but just never got around to. When the Sci-Fi channel adapted the first two books into a major television event I finally bought myself a copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. And like most books I buy, it just sat on my shelf all alone, until it was joined by the omnibus edition I bought from the Science Fiction Book Club containing the first three books, it was then eventually joined by The Lathe of Heaven for book club, but still the languishing continued. As I have mentioned before a joy of book club, with my group of friends all having similar tastes though vastly different opinions I've been getting around to a lot of these long neglected books. Ender's Game, Middlesex, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Misfortune, Catch-22, The Shadow of the Wind, American Psycho, The Family Fang, The Magicians, and finally, A Wizard of Earthsea, these are ALL books that have been sitting on my shelves for years unread until book club. And once I started A Wizard of Earthsea, it was the work of a moment until I knew I had to read the whole cycle as soon as I could.

What amazed me so much about this book is that you can see how Le Guin's writing influenced everyone from Terry Pratchett to Patrick Rothfuss. This book was written in 1968 and feels like the origin of all origin stories for modern science fiction and fantasy with the young boy's journey into manhood. This prototype is Ged! He can be seen in everyone from Keladry to Harry Potter to Kvothe to Kell. While many of you might be objecting and saying what about Tolkien? What about Lewis? What about White? What about her only choosing "K" protagonists? Yes, you do have a point, but they are the authors that broke the mold, they helped create this fledgling new genre and it was Le Guin who struck this new mold. She built on what they had created and made a blueprint for all the authors that came after. Yes, after accepting this you might start to shake your fist at her that she's the one who brought about the callow youth who needs a good smack down, a trope that sometimes can be too much, but at least here, well, Ged sure does get smacked down. But what happens to us readers who experience this smack down of Ged is that in his growing up we begin to like him. The truth is kids can be bastards. There's a reason none of us had the best of childhoods with bullying and regimented schooling, but we outgrew that. Perhaps that's why we hate Ged so much in the beginning? He reminds us too much of the untested swagger we all possessed about our beliefs. He is perhaps painfully relatable, and that's why he has become a trope. Because we get it. We get the journey because we've been through it ourselves.

Though it's the success of the magic system that for me makes this book not only so readable by so relatable. Let's look to Harry Potter. I adore Harry Potter but the magic isn't exactly logical. I mean, they just magic food together? Why? And yes, I was just rewatching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them so this is obviously the first example to pop into my head. I mean, can you make bad food as a wizard? I seriously want to know. They can mend that which is broken, they can kill with the swish and flick of a wrist, but what are the consequences? Where is the balance? Here magic is balanced. As Ogion shows, it is sometimes easier to just let the rain fall on your head than to magic the weather away. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, hence dark magic summoning a dark force. Magic is never just used for it's own ends, it's used only when needed for the betterment of life, for helping to control goats, or making a ship sail true, or maintaining the balance of the universe. Everything is about equilibrium. Nothing should be attempted without knowing the full consequences of those actions. If you think about this the way magic is approached should be the way we approach all things in life. The whole do onto others but with a magical backlash. A Wizard of Earthsea through magic shows us how to properly live with the world around us, and that is indeed magic.

There's one thing I want to talk about though that is a little controversial, and that's the color question. My first real image of Ged was the marketing for the miniseries staring Shawn Ashmore, a whiter white boy you could not get. So imagine my surprise when I realized that everyone in Earthsea is dark skinned. So yes, the miniseries was whitewashed. And the thing is, I just don't get why. Maybe I was just raised right, believing everyone is equal no matter what gender, skin color, or sexual orientation. Therefore changing this makes no sense to me. Especially when this miniseries was made so recently. I applaud this book for making a strong fantasy series outside the trope of the skinny white boy who will pull some magical feat and become king therefore subverting the genre. In fact, I think I would have read this series earlier had I know that it was so progressive. On many levels. But I'm also writing this from a place of privilege. Seriously think about how you picture the characters of a book when you read it. If you're white your just going to assume they are like you because they usually are written as such. But if you're colored, it's rare that you're actually going to see an accurate depiction of those who people your life. Therefore I think this book needs to be talked about more. Look what it did and when it did it. Seriously, admire it.

If this book has a flaw, moving beyond the color question, because that's the reader forcing the issue, also going past Ged being so callow because over the course of the book he does move beyond that, it's that the ending is rather abrupt. We've grown up with Ged, on Gont, on Roke, when he took a lowly possession but did real good, when he negotiated with a dragon and chose the people he cared for over his own chance of survival, so many adventures, and yet the ending is bam, done. For the hundreds of pages leading up to him confronting the shadow and giving it a name we journey the width and breadth of Earthsea, we are on his little boat Lookfar, we have travelled to the very end of the world, and then he just stands there, gives the nameless a name, and bam, over. And yes, I'm sorry for repeatedly saying bam, but the ending is just so abrupt that it felt like a door was slammed in my face. I kept re-reading that section thinking to myself that that couldn't be all. Ged couldn't just solve all that plagued him in an instant. The resolution is too fast to be satisfying, and perhaps that is why I so quickly picked up The Tombs of Atuan. I thought that this story had to go on somehow. But it didn't. That was the end. And while it was the ending that was always in sight, could we perhaps have admired the view before being thrown overboard?