"Our candy's real gone"
Book Un-Collecting: When do you stop?

Review Round-up: Go Ask Alice, Fairy Debt & Straight Cut

Go ask aliceThree more quick reviews - Go Ask Alice (1971), Gail Carriger's Fairy Debt (2013) and Madison Smartt Bell's Straight Cut (2006). From drug memoirs to cake to...uh... Kierkegaardian noir. 

Go Ask Alice (1971) - the anonymous "diary" of a troubled teenager in the late Sixties, as she succumbs to anorexia, depression, copious drug abuse and ultimately [spoiler!] suicide. One of those rare occasions where the story surrounding the book is more interesting than the book itself: Go Ask Alice is now generally assumed to be the work of a child psychiatrist, Beatrice Sparks. Ms. Sparks made an authorial career for herself out of pseudo-diaries, some of which seem to have been loosely based on actual patients, others potentially the work of other authors. (The story of the story is worth a read.)

As for the book? ...a bit dull and a lot preachy. Interestingly, I wasn't aware of Go Ask Alice's history when I picked it up, and, by the time I was through it, I had already assumed it wasn't authentic. The nameless narrator doesn't sound like an actual teenager - even given the difference in generations, the way she wrote felt bizarrely stilted. She harps on the drugs: how seductive they are, how much she needs them, how she wants to be 'good' and knows that they are wrong... Certainly, there's a harrowing strength to the prose in some scenes (especially when she's at her lowest points), but Go Ask Alice reads a bit too much like a Chick Tract at times. There's no real sense of gray: our narrator is doomed from the instant she touches drugs, and even when she's recovering and 'passing as normal', she's still stained from the experience. They aren't 'drug memoirs' per se (a real sub-genre? Who knew?!), but for similar-but-better reads, I'd recommend Girl, Interrupted or Prozac Nation instead. They have all the horrible lows, but don't feel so 'composed', artificial or, worst of all, preachy.

Fairy DebtFairy Debt (2013) is a quick read - a new direct-to-reader short story by Gail Carriger. Those who know Ms. Carriger for her whimsical (but extremely clever) steampunk books won't be disappointed - and those that don't, well, here's a nice way in... Fairy Debt is the bouncy tale of an adolescent fairy who can't grow her wings because, sadly, she owes a human princess a debt (there's an explanation, but it doesn't really matter). Our heroine, armed only with her Childhood Wishes (sort of a 'junior league mutant power' to bake really well) heads off for a life of servitude. Until she can figure out how to pay back the Princess, our trusty fairy will be stuck spending her days as a court fool. Poor thing.

Fairy Debt is a contemporary fairy tale, and, as such, there are a few nice twists - not least of which is an overt acknowledgement of how silly (and slightly classist) the whole princess/wishes thing is. As our heroine notes, given the structure of a feudeal society, it ain't the princess that needs magical assistance to get on in life. There are also some nice touches of world-building: a strange thing to say for a deliberately ephemeral short story, but Ms. Carriger has the ability to bring a setting to life with a few words or phrases. We're quickly up to speed with the magic, the monsters, and the history. Cleverly, by casually using titles like "Least Jester" and "Greatest Cook", we not only get an idea of the cartoon-feudal structure, but also the deeply hierarchial instincts that it is founded upon. Still, not to make too much of a short-short about cakes and dragons, Fairy Debt is ultimately a sugarly little stand-alone with a creamy core of intelligence. Unlike, say, that metaphor, which rapidly spoiled on me.

Straight CutMadison Smartt Bell's Straight Cut (2006) is the 'way past deadline' next review in my Hard Case Crime series. It is Hard Case #21, first published 1986. Tracy Bateman is an out of work film editor who, at the start of the book is "living" out on his half-abandoned family farm. He drinks too much, his wife has left him and he's had to shoot his dog. When his friend Kevin calls with some work, Tracy takes it. But he has misgivings... Kevin's a dodgy type - he juggles money in strange ways and takes it from bad places. Furthermore, Kevin may be where Lauren, Tracy's wife, went. It is an unpleasant sort of love triangle. Kevin's the unrestrained, frenetic id. Tracy's the disciplined, ruthless superego. Lauren's the waffly everywoman ego, bouncing between the two of them.

Kevin's cheque doesn't bounce and the job seems a real one, so Tracy heads to Italy. There he finds a messy documentary about drug abuse, an eager local assistant and a mass of film that's in a terrible state. He throws himself into his work and starts to feel better about things... until Lauren shows up. Things get messy, there's some drug-smuggling involved, I guess people fall in love and blah blah blah it ends. 

It isn't just that Straight Cut isn't a crime novel (it isn't), or that it has dubious messages (wait, drug smuggling is the answer?) but that it is boring. Mr. Bell, who, by all accounts seems to be an impressive literary writer having a one-night stand in genre, is doing all sorts of stuff with philosophy and the subconscious and morality and... you know, stuff. This is a book where Tracy edits a lot of film (oddly - the highlight is the description of the [now-obsolete?] art of editing film), thinks about himself a lot and has really intense relationships in place of, I dunno, doing things. Straight Cut is also the sort of book where the narrator goes to live overseas for months and takes one thing to read: a volume of Kierkegaard (and he reads it!). A small thing, but it symbolizes how utterly stylised and alien Tracy is to me as a protagonist. Given the absence of a plot (much less a catchy, clever one) or other interesting characters, there's just not much I can latch on to. Of the two dozen plus Hard Case Crime books I've reviewed, there are only two that I genuinely disliked: The Colorado Kid (hiss, seethe) and Straight Cut.

(Nice Chuck Pyle cover - so red! - but it doesn't redeem the book.)