Review Round-up: The Rig, Stadium Beyond the Stars, Resort Girl

Three quick reviews of books with pretty much nothing in common.

The RigThe Rig (Joe Ducie, 2013) - Will Drake is a 15 year old prisoner, a victim of the corporate dystopian evil future state. The Rig is his third prison - a converted oil rig in the middle of the North Sea, where all the naughtiest teenage culprits spend their days. The setting of the Rig - a sort of anti-Hogwarts - is the best part: a methodically mercenary system wherein the kids are charged for ‘room and board’ and have to earn it back through demeaning labor (mostly crawling around in icky pipes). There’s even a sport called “Rigball” that’s the anti-Quidditch, with decidedly not-flying children whacking one another with magnetised lacrosse sticks.

Drake finds, as one might expect, some friends (a geeky sidekick and a spunky girl), and some dark secrets. The Rig isn’t just a prison, it is also home to sinister experiments! Perhaps our evil corporate dystopian overlords are... up to something? The best parts of The Rig are the trails and tribulations of Will Drake’s daily existence in a hellish prison, and when things escalate to an over-the-top comic book battle, the book loses its way somewhat. Still, a fun read, and I suspect that some will enjoy the unexpectedly epic conclusion more than I did.

After the jump - vintage SF YA from Milton Lesser and some properly pulpy sleaze with Resort Girl!

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Film 101: The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2009)

Princess and the FrogFilm 3: The Princess and the Frog

Method of viewing: I watched this on my laptop, having rented it online. 

(Spoilers for the film appear throughout the entire essay below. Sorry!)

Have I seen it before: Nope! The obvious reaction is disbelief: I have a well-documented affection for animation and for Disney films, and yet had never seen this one. Well, now I have. And you know what? It was pretty good.

Tiana is the (black) daughter of a working-class dressmaker, who makes a reasonable living making princess gowns for the spoiled (white) daughter (Lottie) of a sugar magnate (Big Daddy) in Jazz-Age New Orleans. Tiana and her family live in a comfortable but poor working-class neighborhood, where we learn that she has a flair for cooking and that her father dreams of opening a swanky restaurant. Fast forward some years; Tiana is now an adult and working long hours to save up for the building her (now deceased) father planned to turn into his restaurant, an abandoned sugar factory. No one except her mother believes she'll get the money in time, or that her ambitions matter much anyway. Adult Tiana is so hard-working that she never takes time off to have fun.

Her spoiled childhood playmate Lottie is now a spoiled adult puffball and still entirely obsessed with all things princess. When she learns that an eligible young bachelor prince is about to hit New Orleans while touring the US, she hires Tiana to cook for her royal masquerade ball - which she and her father have set up to capture the heart of the young prince.

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Friday Five: 5 (More) Fantastic Fictions with a Female Focus

Our first guest Friday Five of the year comes from Laurel and Lucy of Holdfast, a new online magazine devoted to examining (and enjoying) speculative fiction. 

Please welcome them as they share some great reading recommendations... and don't forget to swing by Holdfast for more reviews, original fiction and other wonderment!

As a pair of women who are passionate fans of Speculative Fiction, we decided to devote the first issue of the magazine we co-edit, Holdfast, to exploring where women stand within genre fiction. Part of that was our Bookshelf, a list of brilliant books that we wanted to tell people about. Obviously this is an ever growing list of fantastic books, and people have come forward since with a lot of ‘what about this one? How could you have missed that one out!’

Thankfully, Pornokitch has given us the opportunity to rectify this a little. So, in no particular order, here are five more books that we love written by women or featuring female characters and themes, which we weren't able to include on our original list.

Fly By NightFly By Night by Frances Hardinge

I have come incredibly late to the feast that is the writing of Frances Hardinge. I picked up Fly By Night after it was carefully suggested that it was quite scandalous I had not done so already. Within a few paragraphs I began to grin, and that grin rarely left my face for the rest of the book.

Mosca Mye is an orphaned girl living in the watery village of Chough, whose only friend in life is a homicidal Goose, named Saraken. The only legacy her father left her was a love of reading and words, and when Eponimous Clent, a smooth talking conman, comes through town, she is drawn to him by his impressive vocabulary. Together they embark on a dangerous adventure that draws them unwittingly into the heart of treachery, rebellion, sedition and danger.

Besides the incredibly imaginative, complex and well-drawn plot, it is Hardinge’s characterisation that is so very impressive. She has the ability to construct an image of individual personality and appearance in a single sentence, which imprints that character instantly in your mind’s eye. You know that feeling you very rarely get, when you find an author whose writing makes you feel as if you were coming home? With this excited feeling in my belly, I read the rest of the book in the kind of absorption that certain books commanded of me as a child, that I rarely experience anymore. Adults, do not be discouraged by the fact that this is a book for children. After reading Fly By Night, this particular adult is very excited about getting her hands on every other book Hardinge has ever written. - LJS 

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Review Round-up: Red Rising and Charm & Strange

An upcoming release and a recent one - Pierce Brown's Red Rising and Stephanie Kuehn's Charm & Strange.

Red RisingFirst up, Red Rising. But, before that, a tangent! Proudly introducing - My Theory of the Matrix Trilogy.

The first movie came out, and all the viewers loooooved it. “Holy cow," we cried,"Those special effects! The cinematography! The fight scenes!”. Then we saw it, like, 15 times each, because it had that crazy camera work that we'd previously only seen in Gap adverts but with leather jackets and GUNZORS. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood HQ, the Wachowskis saw all the ticket sales and glowing reviews and immediately misunderstood. “YES! People really like it when we have long monologues about pseudo-existential philosophy! And crazy-complex plots! And Keanu Reaves feigning human emotion! People love him! Let’s give them MORE!”. Then they high-fived. Because that's what they do in my theories.

And thus, the two worst sequels in Hollywood history were born.

So that’s my Matrix theory, and, the best part is, it can be retconned really nicely to fit Orson Scott Card’s Ender series. You know why Ender’s Game is cool? Battle school. Little genius geek kids laying down the whoopsmack on one another in a lethal space-sport. It is oddly empathetic (given that 90% of the readership of Ender’s Game are or were little genius geek kids) and seriously cool. OSC in his infinite wisdom was like, “YES! PEOPLE WANT ME TO TALK ABOUT ETHICS! Oh, and Ender's seriously creepy relationship with his sister! More of that too!”, and thus, he shat out an endless series of sequels.

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(YA) Review Round-up: A.S. King, A.S. King, A.S. King and Amy Kinzer

The OddaA few more contemporary Young Adult titles I've read recently. A slightly rapid-fire list of reviews this time, as I'd dearly love to enter 2014 with a clean slate.

Amy L. Kinzer's The Odds (2011) - Ethan and his little brother Gavin have an over-protective mother. She's an actuary and, ever since her husband (the kids' dad) ran out on her, she's become, well, paranoid. Ethan wears hemp clothes, eats carcinogen-free vegan food and is perpetually mortified by his mother's interference in his life. He watches his little brother grow up even odder - forced into baby clothing at age 4, still using a sippy cup, given clunky wooden toys to play with. Ethan also watches his neighbour - popular Trey Scott - live his all American life, complete with boozy parties and girls. Ethan's rebellion? He starts testing the odds that his mom keeps throwing at him. What if he does fall out of a tree? Or jump into a river? Or, god forbid, drive a car

This gives the book a great central shtick as Ethan works his way up from the little rebellions to the big one. And Ms. Kinzer captures Ethan's perpetual, horrifying embarrassment well - imagine the kid from About a Boy (you know, the one that grew up to be in Skins, and then the Beast?) - and you're pretty close to The Odds. I have two mild criticisms - one literary, one frumpy. The first is a subplot about a neighborhood crazy person/missing child that doesn't wholly link in to the rest of the book. I think it was there to talk about 'real' danger as opposed to Ethan's mother's 'statistical/fictional' danger, but even that theme was undermined by a rushed resolution that took a... safe... way out. The second - and imagine a bit of this - I'm not entirely satisfied by how Ethan resolves his relationship with his mother. I'll hold off on the spoilers, but it feels a bit implausibly extreme (more on this thought below), and the final conversation (and resolution) was too one-sided. BUT, ignore all that: as noted above, Ethan's unpleasant social life is captured perfectly (without over-egging it) and the probabilities theme is a clever one.

And now, three from A.S King...

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(YA) Review Round-up: Rainbow Rowell and John Green

Another batch of quality contemporary young adult fiction - three books from two authors with Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl and Eleanor & Park, and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars.

Let's start with the two books from Ms. Rowell... 

Fangirl-Rainbow-RowellFangirl (2013) follows Cath through her tumultuous first year at college. She's an identical twin (with Wren, who is quite noticeably not having a tumultuous year) and a die-hard fan of the Rowling-esque "Simon Snow" series. Cath's dreadfully shy on campus, but on the internet she's the author of the Simon Snow fan-fic. (Although Rowell is very good about seeding the basics of fan-fic, I do suggesting reading something like Renay's fan-fic introduction first - it helps not to go into the vocabulary completely cold.)

Cath struggles at college. She doesn't like being separated from her sister (Wren's choice, by the way). She's terrified of her roommate. She struggles with her classes, boys, the dining hall... everything, really. Cath discovers that "all the trickiest rules are the ones that nobody bothers to explain to you. (And the ones you can't google.)" - where does she sit? What should she say in class? Can she let her roommate's boyfriend into her room? The list goes on and on, and despite her popularity and social profiency online, the offline world is all a little too much.

Curiously, I thought I'd enjoy Fangirl for the fan fiction element, but actually wound up skimming the "Simon Snow" inserts. In most situations, I'd say that was the lesson: it isn't about the magical online world of escapism, it is about learning to face reality, and 'real' [fictional] drama is better than 'fictional' [fictional] drama. But Fangirl takes an unexpected twist at the end, balancing both worlds equally. There's no cosmic, cross-dimensional intervention, rather, Ms. Rowell takes the approach that we're all secret 'geeks' - fans of our own special interests. And that's totally ok: the trick is to be open to everyone else's enthusiasms as well as your own. Cath never has to choose between her two worlds, she winds up happy in both of them. (Er. Spoiler. I suppose. But were you really expecting otherwise?)

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(YA) Review Round-up: Speak! Knives! Football!

Three utterly fantastic YA titles: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Keeper by Mal Peet and The Knife That Killed Me by Anthony McGowan.

SpeakSpeak (1999) is the story of Melinda Sordino, a freshman at Merryweather High School. The transition to high school is always traumatic: a shift from the (relatively) care free days of youth and innocence to a vastly more complicated world. In high school, the future matters - you're told about college and sex and adulthood - life isn't about potential any more - your acts now have meaning. (Ah, the "permanent record", is there anything more terrifying?) Moreover, high schools have hierarchies: not just the cliques and clubs, but also the ages. There are Varsity and Junior Varsity, Seniors and Juniors; as a freshman, you're the lowest rung on the social ladder, told to look up at, admire and emulate, those above you.

For Melinda, this transition is especially brutal. At the last of the big summer parties, she's raped by "IT" - her way of referring to the senior boy who takes advantage of her. In a state of shock, she calls the police and has the party broken up. No one knows of the sexual attack, but everyone knows that she's the girl that ruined the party. Melinda's not the lowest rung on the ladder: she's buried deep underground.

Speak is a beautiful, horrible novel: layered with manifestations of Melinda's enforced silence. She cannot find someone to talk to. When she does, she can't make them listen. She begins to believe that she has no voice and then, ultimately, it disappears - leaving her completely silent. The truly terrifying part, of course, is how little that seems to matter: although there's a bit of token concern by the "system" (parents, school), Melinda's unnatural silence is simply brushed aside, dealt with as routine adolescent angst. It is only through isolated incidents - connections with individuals - a teacher, a friend, a lab partner - that Melinda regains the power to communicate.

Ms. Anderson wraps up Speak in a way that's empowering without being a fairy tale. The ultimate lesson, I suppose, is something along the lines of people are good, even if individuals can be evil and, collectively, we can be dingbats. Communication is critical - it isn't that people don't want to hear, it is that sometimes they can't. But, just as critical: we need to make sure that people have the room, and the time, and the opportunity and the power to speak. A simply brilliant book in both story and message.

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Review Round-up: Beauty Queens! Heroes! Housewives! Chalk! Answers!

Eight even-briefer-than-usual reviews as I do some catching up: Peter Haining's The Hero, The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer, Libba Bray's Beauty Queens, Max Brand's The Streak, Sue Kaufman's Diary of a Mad Housewife, Pat Cadigan's Chalk, Patrick Ness' The Ask and the Answer and Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three. 

Cold War thrillers, domestic fiction, horror, young adult fantasies, Westerns and... everything else. A genre pick n' mix.

The heroPeter Haining's The Hero (1975) was terrible. I mean, I was expecting 'bad', but this was terrible. A Cold War thriller, it posits a world filled with peace-and-love-for-all except for the evil Chinese. An ordinary English civil servant is chosen to run an impossible mission behind the 'bamboo curtain': to photograph a doomsday device before the Chinese use it to level the West. A parallel narrative follows a group of film-makers as they make a movie of our hero's adventures. Neither are particularly appealing, and the conclusion is both senseless and distasteful. Oh, also racist. And filled with plotholes and paranoid conspiracy theories. If I were the type to give stars, here's an instance where I wouldn't.

The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer (1967) was my first experience of the man's work. I'm still going to plow on, as I'm extraordinarily interested in "New Journalism" as it applies to, well, blogging. A few stories fell flat with me - "The Time of Her Life", "Advertisements for Myself on The Way Out", "Truth and Being, Nothing and Time", "The Notebook"... all seemed, well, either overly deliberate or too linked to the mores of the time. Others, say, "The Patron Saint of Macdougal Alley", "The Paper House", "A Calculus at Heaven", "The Killer" are some of the best I've read. I suppose any survey of a career this diverse is going to have its ups and down, but I'm pleased that some were so good. 

Libba Bray's Beauty Queens (2011) made me laugh out loud a half-dozen times. A dark, slapstick comedy about teenage pageant competitors stranded on a desert island while a bumbling Evil Corporation does Evil Stuff in the background. Ms. Bray takes wonderful pokes at reality television, consumer culture, nepotism, television, the South,... pretty much everything. But beneath it, there's a really lovely positive message about doing what you love and being yourself - whoever you are. Very highly recommended, both as a charmingly progressive book and a hilarious one.

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Review Round-up: Madams! Savages! Wolves!

Catching up with some recent reading (of not-so-recent books): Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk?, Joseph Chadwick's Savage Breed and Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Mary StewartMadam, Will You Talk? (1955) is Mary Stewart's first published novel, and, from the few others I've read, sets the tone for many of the others: an attractive young woman, an exotic location, some thrills and the inevitable love interest. In this instance, we have the wonderfully-named Charity Selbourne, Avignon, car chases and an is-he-isn't-he-a-murderer, Richard Byron.

Although a "romantic thriller", the scenery is both the most romantic and the most thrilling part, with the south of France beautifully evoked. There are crumbling ruins, glorious landscapes, even the cultural quirks and proclivities (every meal, coffee, wink of an innkeeper is rendered in affectionate detail). There's no crisis so critical that Charity can't stop and have a delicious omelet at a quirky roadside inn. In fact, if Madam has a moral, is it to always stop and have an omelet - or an aperitif. Rushing around leads to confusion and musses the hair. To be fair, there are worse lessons.

Madam isn't quite as twisty and turny as I would've liked; the 'reveal' is a bit obvious and the actual "whodunnit-and-why" is, rather clunkily, pondered out at length by the protagonists. That said, as well as the gorgeous setting, Charity's an impressive protagonist, especially for 1955. Although her taste in men is a little dubious, she's never outclassed nor outgunned, and, rather surprisingly (again, 1955!), doesn't shy from action. Madam also has one of the best car chases I've read, with Charity doing her best Bond impression on the back roads of France. Madam, Will You Talk? is "charming" - not a word I'd generally use to describe a thriller, but in this case, it feels right.

Joseph Chadwick's Savage Breed (1959) is a dense little Western that combines the tropes of the genre with a surprising conclusion. Given the recent conversation about tropes in fantasy (see Sam Sykes' thoughtful blog post on the topic), this came as a convenient reminder that the growing pains of one genre can just as easily be found in another. Fantasy and Westerns make a good pair: two overtly macho, American-dominated genres that are often categorised solely as escapist entertainment (and, indeed, both genres often play 'down' to that level). But Westerns, I would argue, are a more mature genre - not in sales figures (despite the critical success of Westerns, they're still on the decline), but in the way the tropes have evolved. From epic to 'grimdark' to a synthesis of the two; archaic to contemporary to back again... pretty much everything fantasy has gone through in the past few decades, Westerns went through a half-century before. 

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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.

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