I thought, after In The Woods and The Likeness, that Tana French couldn't get better at wrenching my heart. I was wrong. I think I might like this oneI thought, after In The Woods and The Likeness, that Tana French couldn't get better at wrenching my heart. I was wrong. I think I might like this one best of the series so far, but it's less to do with the plot and more to do with the character of Frank. The first two, the crimes had an aspect of weird, something that could almost be skewed supernatural if French were a different sort of writer. In Faithful Place, the plot is less surprising, but the journey into Frank's past and heart are totally encompassing. Lost love, a shitty family, that "you can never go home again" sort of strife-- there was never any doubt in my mind that Frank would solve the murder, or that the culprit would end up being someone close to him, but I grew increasingly afraid for what that process would do to him, and as usual, there are no easy answers. I know the fourth in the series is out already, but I'm not going to be running off to grab it anytime soon-- French's books are a treat, and I plan to ration them so I can appreciate each one for the rare gem it is....more
I'm speechless. Writing a review for The Rook is going to be really tough-- I never ended up writing a review of The Republic of Thieves because I likI'm speechless. Writing a review for The Rook is going to be really tough-- I never ended up writing a review of The Republic of Thieves because I liked it so much it was almost impossible for me to review in a way that wasn't just me flailing and going READ IT RIGHT NOW-- but I'm going to do my best, because this was SO GOOD it really deserves for more people to know it and love it. ...more
I really enjoyed this book. I wasn't sure where it was going at first, though I could tell it was going to be more than just the story of a kid who suI really enjoyed this book. I wasn't sure where it was going at first, though I could tell it was going to be more than just the story of a kid who surmounts his family's financial troubles by going on a game show, but I didn't really expect it to take the suspenseful turn that it did. I loved the parallels to fairy tales. Ginger was the best part, for sure. I liked that she was confident and self-assured and made choices for herself under her own steam; definitely a great YA heroine. I also liked that no one was a stereotypical villain-- the guy you expected to be the bad guy wasn't, and the guy who was, was creepy as hell. The minor characters weren't fleshed out as much as I'd have liked, but the bits we got of them were fun. A quick, easy read, and a good choice for anyone who likes fairy tales....more
The creepy kid trope is often used as a mini deus ex machina, not to solve the problems of a particular story, but to expose them. The idea of a child that knows too much is unsettling-- a child that can think like an adult, and worse, perpetrate evil or horrifying acts like an adult, is one of the creepiest there is. Even if the creepy kid's job is just to stand by and make ominous pronouncements about what's going to happen, it's still unsettling. Kids are supposed to be innocent, and when faced with one who isn't, it jolts us out of our comfort zone faster than you can say Linda Blair.
(view spoiler)[So if your book contains an albino 12-year-old with a long white rat's nest of hair and pale eyes who barely talks except to read runes and make cryptic statements about the people around her, I just go into it assuming she's one early bedtime away from going Lizzie Borden on everyone around her. Add to that the fact that the pregnant lady gives her a doll and she scratches its face off with a knife because she doesn't like it looking at her, and that she's crazy good at hunting but takes ages to actually kill her prey because she likes watching the animals struggle? RED ALERT EVERYONE, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
So while I may have called it pretty early on that Narigorm (which is a near-anagram for guess which Celtic goddess whose abilities include foretelling the means of a person's death?) was behind the wolf hunting and shredding Camelot's companions, no one in the book seems to figure it out, even as the body count rises.
Which is kind of the point, if you think about it. The best and scariest killers are the ones who do their dirty work right under others' noses and get away without suspicion (hello, Doctor Lecter). And who would suspect a child of murder? As Camelot finds out to his great chagrin, people don't want to even consider the possibility, even when it's standing there telling them in a sepulchral voice that the runes say someone's going to die less than 12 hours before one of their group turns up stabbed to death with his man-bits torn off. (hide spoiler)]
I should also mention this book is not for people who are squeamish about blood. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I really adored this book. I was expecting to, as I loved the Demon's Lexicon trilogy, and Brennan's craft of dialogue and building suspense is as shaI really adored this book. I was expecting to, as I loved the Demon's Lexicon trilogy, and Brennan's craft of dialogue and building suspense is as sharp as ever. Really awesome read-- and I'm SO glad I have the second one to immediately move on to!...more
This is a middle-grade semi-sort-of-reimagining of Pinocchio. There's a sort of conceit to it that I really wish I hadn't known going in-- I think itThis is a middle-grade semi-sort-of-reimagining of Pinocchio. There's a sort of conceit to it that I really wish I hadn't known going in-- I think it really colored my ability to appreciate Oscar's character and relate to him as a person rather than a poster child. And Callie definitely acts way older than her supposed age, one of my biggest pet peeves in YA/middle grade. Also, I thought there were way too many themes and messages for a middle-grade book-- if I'd read this when I was 11 or 12, I definitely wouldn't have "gotten" the conceit behind Oscar's personality (it's never explicitly explained, either) and probably would have felt a little disappointed that there wasn't more meat to the story.
However, the whimsy in the story wouldn't necessarily be a turnoff to everyone, and it is a quick read (I started it Monday morning, finished Tuesday afternoon) and the idea of "you can't have magic without monsters" is one I like. I don't think this is a book that's going to be as alluring to adults as it is to kids, but if you know a middle grade fantasy lover, tell them to give it a shot. ...more
I've never felt a particularly close affinity for Hawkeye before, but I took the strong recommendation of some trusted geek pals and picked this one uI've never felt a particularly close affinity for Hawkeye before, but I took the strong recommendation of some trusted geek pals and picked this one up. Hello there, close affinity for Hawkeye! I already knew I liked Matt Fraction as a writer, and I really *really* enjoyed David Aja's art. The shifting straight lines to shift perspective from frame to frame really worked for me. I liked this almost as much as the Winter Soldier series, which is saying a lot. I'll definitely be grabbing the next couple the next time I'm at the shop....more
It's hard to articulate what it means to be a fan-geek. Someone who doesn't just like a thing, but wants to live it, breathe it, eat it.
At one pointIt's hard to articulate what it means to be a fan-geek. Someone who doesn't just like a thing, but wants to live it, breathe it, eat it.
At one point in Fangirl, Cath muses that in order to be a real fan-geek of something, you have to prefer the fictional world to the real one. That wasn't the first "aha!" moment I had while reading the book, but it was one of the strongest. Rainbow Rowell *gets* geeks. She gets what it means to have that deep-dyed love for a set of fictional people, to feel more at home with people on the page than in the flesh.
Reading this book brought me back to the fall of 2002, when my best friend introduced me to the world of Harry Potter fanfiction. Within a month, I was neck-deep in FictionAlley and would have happily thrown down with anyone over which was more epic a ship, Harry/Draco or Remus/Sirius.
I don't think it's a coincidence that my discovering fandom and fanfiction coincided with my discovering I was gay and my decision to come out. Finding fandom was like finding a home-- and as someone trying to navigate coming out in the middle of my parents' ugly divorce, it was one I badly needed. I discovered a host of people just like me only one click away, AND I discovered stories about self-discovery and falling in love that made me feel included, not ostracized.
I have more to say about this book, which I'll get to in my full review when I finish writing it, but I just had to post here and say that if you're pondering picking this book up, ponder no more. Read it, love it, lend it to all your friends as a primer to how awesome it is to be a fan-geek. XD...more
This is a really, really good second installment of a trilogy that had me hooked from minute one. I could not put this down and now that I'm done I'mThis is a really, really good second installment of a trilogy that had me hooked from minute one. I could not put this down and now that I'm done I'm itching for the third one. Once again Sarah Pinborough has blended a gritty urban murder mystery with an inventively fascinating fantasy world that is still only being revealed to the reader a little bit at a time.
I have some theories about who the Network is-- or more accurately, what they are-- but as for where the story is going next and what's going to happen to Cass, I have absolutely no idea, and that's really exciting. I also love the horror aspect of this series, it's got just the right amount of gruesome to give me a thrill without being too gory to get through. There were a couple of scenes that had me holding my breath in anticipation, practically biting my nails.
To sum up: Sarah Pinborough, why are you so awesome?? And why didn't I wait until the whole trilogy was released in the US to start reading???...more
Christopher Moore's sense of humor isn't always to my taste-- something about it feels gimmicky, and can get in the way of me making emotional connectChristopher Moore's sense of humor isn't always to my taste-- something about it feels gimmicky, and can get in the way of me making emotional connections with the characters-- but in Fool, it's the perfect treatment. Retelling King Lear sounds like something that couldn't possibly be fun, but Moore doesn't just make it fun, he makes it uproariously funny. It takes a special touch to make a comedy bawdy enough to imagine Shakespeare himself guffawing at, especially out of a story that's nominally a tragedy....more
i think this is actually my favorite of the stores so far. anything that gives me more Pam and Eric gets my vote. Quinn doesn't do much for me but i li think this is actually my favorite of the stores so far. anything that gives me more Pam and Eric gets my vote. Quinn doesn't do much for me but i liked the intertwining mysteries in this. Charlaine Harris really has the fast, fun read down to a science....more
I seem to be one of the few people (according to Goodreads, at least) who didn't give this book an overwhelming 5Review courtesy of Plenty of Pages.
I seem to be one of the few people (according to Goodreads, at least) who didn't give this book an overwhelming 5 stars. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the book-- I did. But the niggling dissatisfaction I felt with Nexus was still present in Crux. There was just something off about it-- objectively I could see that it was a good story and pretty well written, but I never really felt it. There were only a few scenes where I found myself actually caring about what happened to the characters, and the ones I cared about were clearly not the ones the author was trying to get me to care about.
I've said it before, I'll say it again: characterization is my weak spot. If I can't get invested in the characters, a book is probably not going to keep my attention. I thought I might start to like Kade more as the series progressed, but I can't bring myself to have much sympathy for him, which makes it hard to get invested in the book. If you're the hero of your story and your clone sidekick is stealing the show, you know you've got problems.
Speaking of, can I just talk about Feng for a second here? I really, really love Feng. A Chinese supersoldier cloned as part of an experiment on hive-minds, he's got the worst best sense of humor ever and a relentlessly cheerful outlook on life that I couldn't help but love. He feels like a real person, which is unfortunately more than I can say for most of the main cast. He's pretty much my favorite character in the series. Also, being in possession of a terrible sense of humor myself, I laughed at most of his bad jokes way harder than I should have.
Naam also gets major points for the diversity of his casting, not only racial but otherwise. Besides a cast of every color and background, he includes not one but two openly queer characters. One is extremely minor and the other relatively so (he has his own POV chapters, but few of them, and let's just say I doubt he'll be returning for the third book in the series), but I was glad to see them. Is it unfortunate that none of the main characters were gay? Kind of. Did I still get a little squee realizing Sam's badass boss and mentor was (openly, textually) gay, or from reading the phrase "her wife" repeatedly in the text? Yeah. Which I guess speaks more to the lack of gay characters in sci-fi than anything else. Still-- props, Mr. Naam. I appreciate the representation.
Besides a lack of characterizational topography, there are some problems with Naam's plot progression. After awhile the entire thing started to feel like one Mass Effect boss fight after another, interrupted by scenes that had no sense of pacing-- some were so fast-moving I had to reread to process what had happened, some felt basically like filler. The Holtzmann plotline was both boring and unnecessary, and I would've really enjoyed more of Breece-- the part where Kade gets caught interfering in the hit man's plans was one of the only scenes that had my pulse racing while I was reading it. And the scene at Shiva's mansion was a hell of a climax, but it felt a bit like the end of Hot Fuzz-- intense and action packed, but with a lot of shooting into the air and going "Aaahh!"
Whether Naam knows he's playing into a lot of action cliches is debatable-- but if I'm being honest, neither that nor any of the other problems kept me from finishing the book, and wouldn't have even if I weren't intending to review it here. The evil government trope scratches a perpetual itch for me (I'm a sucker for conspiracies) and anything with technology that's based on current science trends can always be counted on to catch my interest. In this interview, Naam said of writing the series, "Throughout, my rules were that it had to be a compelling read that was hard to put down, that it had to say something interesting about technology, and the present day." Does he succeed? The latter, absolutely. The former... debatable. In the same interview Naam says "I don’t really find most villains believable. Most people don’t think of themselves as bad guys and aren’t out to take over the world. People act from convictions that they think are moral." Which is undeniably true, and one of the things I really enjoy about this series is that there's no Good and Bad, just a bunch of people doing fucked-up things because they think they're right. But the way all those people intersect doesn't necessarily make a good story-- or, at least, Naam has some trouble getting past all the slick action tropes to tell it well.
I give Crux three stars, inching toward three and a half. It's not a book that will rock your world-- like I said in my review of Nexus, if you're looking for brain-bending cyberpunk, pick up Gibson's Neuromancer-- but it was quick and interesting and I'm not sorry I read it. If anything, it served to remind me how much I like cyberpunk as a genre, and how good it can be when it's really done well.
Whenever I hear a pop cover of a song I really love on the radio, I have one criteria for whether or not I find it acceptable. I feel pretty stronglyWhenever I hear a pop cover of a song I really love on the radio, I have one criteria for whether or not I find it acceptable. I feel pretty strongly that a cover's no good if all it does is make you want to listen to the original. I thought of that when I was finished reading Nexus, and realized I had been left with a strong urge to go dig up my copy of Neuromancer and dive back into the Sprawl.
It's a pretty clear descendent from the cyberpunk classic. Kade is only a step away from Case both in phonetics and personality. Sam is trying desperately to be Molly Millions. There are shades of Dixie Flatline and Maelcum in the ex-Marine Wats, and Su-Yong Shu's powerful string-pulling is highly reminiscent of Armitage. But the reason these characters fall short of their predecessor isn't necessarily a lack of originality-- character tropes are large fish in the pool from which we all go down to drink-- but rather a lack of heart. In Neuromancer, Case is coming back from a long and painful separation from the Matrix he loves, and Molly is trying to get a job done while still grieving for the lost Johnny (Mnemonic) and prevent them both from getting screwed over.
In Nexus, Kade has no such loss behind him. He starts off the book cocky and riding high on his own power, and while he's brought low by the ERD, he doesn't really have time for it to sink in-- he never accepts their control over him the way Case has been forced to accept the change in his life. Sam is his bodyguard but also his handler, his antagonizer. She's protecting Kade because she's been told to, and treats him with a businesslike standoffishness that hides, not any sort of attraction to him, but to the technology he's created. Her journey to accepting and then welcoming the Nexus 5 into her life is much more interesting than any examination of how she feels about him. Which is great, because honestly, I don't see that there's any way to have strong feelings about Kade. He wasn't boring, but he seemed to be a function for furthering the plot-- frankly, as did his fridged co-conspirators Rangan and Ilya. All three of them exist in a perpetual state of reacting to the things that are done to them, rather than acting on their own. And the progression of the plot was hardly unexpected, so that even at the end when Kade did take an independent action, I wasn't surprised by it; it was the only sensible and remotely interesting thing for him to do based on the story he'd walked through up to that point.
Nexus wasn't a bad book-- far from it. It was a fast read and an interesting one, though the best parts about it were the tech bits and the discussions of what the Nexus tech could do-- I wasn't surprised to read that the author had previously written a nonfiction book about the potential posthuman/superhuman advancements that could come out of some modern scientific developments. Naam has a scientist's background, so the science is the best part of the novel. I'll still be reading the sequels... but I'm probably also going to pick Neuromancer back up again this weekend, so I can remind myself of what it's like to watch a master at work....more
I had high hopes for The Night Eternal, but sadly it didn't live up to the hype, and forced me to reassess my ratReview abridged from Plenty of Pages.
I had high hopes for The Night Eternal, but sadly it didn't live up to the hype, and forced me to reassess my rating of the entire series.
It starts off so promisingly, too. The Strain was touted upon its release as "the book that makes vampires scary again", a bounceback from the supposed decline the neckbiters have been on since Bela Lugosi first donned an opera cape. And while I agree that the Cullens, Salvatores, Spikes and Erics of the pop culture world haven't been balanced out by an appreciable weight of run-for-your-fucking-life scary vamps, Del Toro and Hogan sought to tip the scales and ended up overbalancing them. As the series goes on the emphasis is very much on quantity rather than quality-- the characters devolve into predictable tropes; the plot gets bogged down in sidetracks that are boring, transparent or both; and the lion's share of the work seems to have gone into describing battles in as much cinematic detail as possible rather than giving any emotional weight to the characters' development. It is possible to have scary vampires and still tell a good story, and I'm going to point out the main areas where I think GDT and CH went off the rails.
1) They were writing for the screen, not the page. It's no secret that del Toro writes really well for the screen. Or that the trilogy has been optioned for a show on FX set to start shooting next year with John Hurt already cast as the Holocaust survivor and vampire hunter Setrakian. And in some authors' cases, writing with an eye for the cinematic isn't a bad thing-- look how well it worked out for Suzanne Collins. On the other hand, think about how bad the film version of Hannibal was. Writing when you know your book is going to end up on screen can take away a lot of the motivation to think about, well, your writing.
I'm not saying del Toro and Hogan were only worried about making the first book good, though one could certainly make a case for that reality. I have no idea what their thoughts were going into the series. But The Fall starts out in a pretty fractured and distracted state and only gets worse as it goes on, and The Night Eternal is a start-to-finish hot mess. At some point I just hit my threshold for being affected by violence and gore and just started nodding my head, going, "Uh huh, throat torn out, uh huh, head ripped off, uh huh..." The authors forgo giving their characters any real depth in favor of overlong descriptions of scenery, battles, and-- endlessly, endlessly-- the horrific, terrifying, disgusting vampires. They're gonna look great on screen, but God, I'm sick of reading about them. Which leads into my second point...
2) They didn't spend enough time on character development. Again, going back to the Hunger Games analogy-- the big difference between the Hunger Games books and the Strain trilogy is the thought and care with which Collins develops her characters. While it's true that in any epic series it's likely that the characters will end up resembling popular tropes, Collins' characters feel real, their struggles unique. Unfortunately, most of del Toro and Hogan's characters start off mediocre and get weaker, turning into one-note wonders that interact woodenly with each other and their surroundings. There's just so little that's new about this group-- which would be okay if they were sensitively written with any sort of emotional depth that would allow me to care about them. But they weren't.
There are a lot of tropes in this mix of characters, which could be okay if handled correctly. And to be clear, I'm not saying that because characters (any characters) happen to fit a particular trope, therefore they're shallow and formulaic. They don't have to be-- that's what makes the de-evolution of the people in this story into cardboard cutouts so frustrating.
The only exception to this rule was Setrakian, and him being gone was what really ruined The Night Eternal for me. He was the glue holding the whole operation together-- and what's funny is that the characters think so, too. I hadn't made it a quarter of the way into The Night Eternal before two or three separate people had thought to themselves, Man, if only the old man were here, and I spent most of the book thinking the same thing.
3) A lot of time is wasted on narratives that don't add to the story. I got absolutely nothing out of vampire!Kelly and the Master's POV sections. Why go to the trouble of hammering home what inhuman monsters these creatures are, only to then spend time narrating events from their points of view? If there had been some kind of redemption for Kelly in the end, I might've felt like her sections were warranted, but she got the same kind of hack-and-slash death that, let's be honest, she deserved. If the point was to deliver a sense of the net closing in on the rebels, that could have been done in a much defter way.
And what is with all the backstories and side explanations? They happened so often and to so little effect-- while no one would deny the necessity of knowing Setrakian's backstory, there was no need to spend three pages explaining why a solar eclipse is a misnomer, or giving a play-by-play of Quinlan's origins. Have Quinlan tell his story himself, Are-You-Afraid-Of-The-Dark style, or just explain it in a sentence. "My mom got bit while she was knocked up. Sucks to be me. Har har. Sucks... get it?" There was so much filler, and every time the story got interrupted for a three-page non sequitur, it lost the tenuous hold it had on my attention to begin with. Plus, there were so many plot points floating in the series' ether, it was hard to get a sense for how they were all meant to relate to each other. Which brings me to my final point...
4) There are too many plot points and too little satisfying resolution. Clearly GDT and CH haven't heard of Chekhov's gun, which disappoints me. It's one of the building blocks of a good story: if you mention it, use it. The Master spends all this time carting around Setrakian's walking stick like a trophy, and no one ends up using it to kill him? Gus is keeping his vampire mother alive in a basement and she never gets out to wreak havoc? Using her to let the Master talk to Eph had nowhere near the dramatic impact I wanted. And those are just two of the many examples. Story devices were thrown around so willy-nilly that after awhile I didn't even care to sort out the important stuff from the red herrings. Which is pretty emblematic of the entire series, now that I think about it.
And I just have to ask, though I know I'm not going to get an answer: what, WHAT, is up with the comet and angels and sudden hairpin turn into divine good vs satanic evil stuff? I mean, as if a nuclear bomb wasn't a big enough deus ex machina, the whole contrived feel of the last book is compounded and intensified by this. Oh, Eph is meant to defeat the Master, and we know 'cus a comet broke through the cloud cover and fired up all the vamps trying to eat him that one time. Okay... what?
I won't bore you with a recap of any of the rest of the book. Suffice to say that with an epilogue ten times more banal than the much-hated cap to Harry Potter, The Night Eternal couldn't have left me more bored or frustrated. No wonder I turned to Sookie Stackhouse almost immediately afterward-- those vamps may be glamorous, but at least I'm able to care about what happens to them. And while I may look forward to my weekly dose of Damon Salvatore's Adventures in Undead Womanizing as much as the next girl, as a fan of horror I understand and support the drive to take the sparkle out of vampires. In fact, when I first heard about The Strain, I applauded it and was practically salivating for it to hit shelves. But the trilogy comes to rely too much on shock value and tries to cover for its lack of characters you care about by hitting every fight scene trope in the book and hoping you won't notice.
Well, I noticed, and although I rated The Strain 4 stars on Goodreads I'm going to have to rate The Night Eternal at 1 star and the series overall at a 2.5. Sorry Guillermo and Chuck. At least you can be sure this will make a kickass TV show-- though I can't promise I'll be tuning in to watch it....more
Really enjoyable! Definitely 3.5 stars heading for 4; knowing it's the leadup to what is reportedly a really stellar sequel made me excited to get thrReally enjoyable! Definitely 3.5 stars heading for 4; knowing it's the leadup to what is reportedly a really stellar sequel made me excited to get through even the parts that were slow....more
Casino Royale happens to be one of my favorite Bond movies, so I was excited to sink my teeth into the superspy's origiFull review at Plenty of Pages.
Casino Royale happens to be one of my favorite Bond movies, so I was excited to sink my teeth into the superspy's origin story. As much for my own self-analysis as anything else, I was curious to investigate the source of Bond's popularity. What is so engaging about this man, this figure, that he's managed to occupy a significant place in our cultural consciousness for over half a century? Based just on Casino Royale, at least, the sad fact is that I have no idea.
It goes without saying that the fifties were a very different time. The Cold War fed a culture of paranoia where information was currency, making the figure of the spy necessary. The perfect spy had to be both indispensable and expendable, utterly devoted to his job and accepting of the fact that even his most gargantuan effort was just one stroke in a vast picture. He had to be calculating, intelligent and decisive, yet willing to subjugate himself to the directives of his superiors.
But it's always more fun to talk about the exception than the rule, isn't it? Bond is notorious for being a thorn in M's side, flouting orders, taking huge risks and only getting away with them because they (mostly) pan out the way he wants them to. But he keeps his job because he puts it first-- the crazy things he does are never for personal reasons, only to benefit the mission and the agency he serves. All of this makes Le Chiffre an interesting choice of villain for Bond's debut. Different from the faceless agencies and megalomaniacs that try to outwit the spy in the films, Le Chiffre isn't interested in world domination, only in covering his own ass. He's holding onto his fortune and his way of life by a thread, and because of Bond's interference, has to give it up. He's a hedonist-- and I would argue he's not the villain of the book (the agency with the goofy acronym SMERSH takes that cake) but the perfect foil to Bond, who has schooled himself to be utterly disinterested in his own emotional needs.
Disinterested to the point of avoidance, even-- which is why it's such a shock when he finds himself obsessed with, and then head-over-heels in love with, the waifish assistant MI6 has sent to support him as he tries to upset Le Chiffre's plans. Vesper isn't the confident banker we see in the film, but a withdrawn and naive girl who manages to impress Bond by being almost as emotionally unavailable as he is himself. She's got secrets, so he's intrigued-- it's all very calculating, the way he talks about wanting to sleep with her at the same time as he thinks about what a pain in the ass women are. And then she shocks him even further-- no sooner has he admitted he loves her than she betrays him, killing herself rather than face admitting to him that she's been a double agent all along. Distraught, Bond shuts the doors on all the tenderness Vesper had begun to draw out of him, in the last line of the book declaring, "The bitch is dead." And there, in that last line, is the Bond I spent my middle school years learning to love.
I first learned about LARP on a hot afternoon in August of 2003. It hadn't been a good summer-- my parents had spli(Also published at Plenty of Pages)
I first learned about LARP on a hot afternoon in August of 2003. It hadn't been a good summer-- my parents had split up the year before, and my father had stuck around just long enough to determine that out of the house wasn't far enough to go to cure his restlessness, packing off to Florida in the middle of July. I wasn't dealing well-- Mom wasn't dealing well, and we'd spent the whole summer fighting because neither of us could stand to acknowledge the emptiness in the house. But bickering or not, we dutifully went to visit my grandparents in New Hampshire a few weeks before school resumed, where in between avoiding Mom and helping Gram weed the garden, I took the opportunity to meet up with a college friend who lived close by. My friend, Nelle, invited me to meet her to hang out with a bunch of her friends from home, and I was so desperate for something to take my mind off myself that I ignored my social anxiety and agreed.
It was toward the end of the afternoon that we went for a walk-- Nelle, me, her boyfriend Brad and their friend Lindsay. Lindsay had impressed me on our first meeting by unironically wearing a top hat and making us take her to see the basement of the haunted dorm on campus. That day she sported a t-shirt with a big graphic of Peter Pan, her sandy hair coming loose from a short ponytail. It's still clear in my mind, the image of her walking the curb like a tightrope, then abruptly scooping up a stick and turning to brandish it at Brad, calling him Hook and admonishing him for some piece of villainy. Unfazed, Brad grabbed a stick of his own, and the two fenced their way up the street in a joyful dance, laughing and shouting, clearly enmeshed in a familiar pattern that I, an outsider, couldn't understand.
"What are they doing?" I asked Nelle, laughing. She smiled, a little embarrassed, and said, "It's called LARP. We've been playing Neverland lately."
I made her explain-- wasn't LARP just people who ran around the woods in fake livery, hitting each other with cardboard swords? Or like those kids I knew in high school who snuck out at night to pretend to be vampires? Nelle smiled indulgently; I clearly had no idea what I was talking about.
My new friends approached it differently. There were no constructs in their LARPs except the ones they made for themselves, no rules except those which served the story. They had endless iterations, the characters they'd created that they usually played, and when one storyline exhausted itself, they sidestepped into a new universe, most often a departure from the previous one that branched off from the eternal question, "What if...?"
To an outsider, it sounds insane-- juvenile, escapist, pointless. What could the function possibly be, what purpose could it serve? To create characters, stories that could never be replicated or even explained to anyone who hadn't participated, to co-opt characters from fiction and enmesh them in worlds of our own creation?
It was magic. It was exactly what I needed. I dove into LARP with a recklessness that surprised even me, finding inexplicable comfort in creating, not just out of my own lonely mind, but in collaboration with a group of people just as fucked up and weird as I felt myself to be. It wasn't that our worlds were free from pain or drama or fear-- far from it. But like all artists, we found catharsis through performance. Putting our characters through grief and angst helped us to better parse our own, gave us context from which to work through the things that plagued us. Divorce, death, coming out, growing up, identity, inadequacy, independence-- compared to monsters, wizards, curses and quests, how could real life really be that scary? But more than a coping mechanism, it was a bonding experience, a way of helping each other figure out who we were. In telling a story together, we created something that was entirely our own, in a time when for most of us, so little else was.
Some of those stories, those characters, will be with me forever. It sounds dramatic to say they changed my life, but I've always had a flair for drama, and anyway, it's true. Most of the people who were my ferrymen into the underworld of LARP have now been my best friends for over a decade, and those stories are the bedrock of our collective friendship consciousness.
You don't need to have a background in LARP to understand the kids in Doll Bones. Anyone who was a kid with an overactive imagination, anyone who created private worlds with their friends and mourned when you outgrew them, anyone who felt a stubborn resistance to the notion of growing up, will probably see themselves mirrored here. Poppy, Zach and Alice have been playing a storytelling game for years, a game that sustains them through the pitfalls of early adolescence, a story that binds them to each other. They're best friends who rely on each other more than they can rely on any of the adults in their lives for understanding and acceptance; for each of them, the friendship is their one sure thing.
It is, therefore, earth-shattering when Zach's father throws out all his action figures, the physical stand-ins for the characters he plays in their game. Without them, he can't play, and his fury at his father for taking the game from him is so intense that he feels he can't even talk about it without breaking down. So he lies to his friends, tells them he doesn't want to play the game anymore, that it's interfering too much with the other parts of his life. They're upset, but with no alternative, they accept his story-- until they appear outside his window one night with a crazy story about the doll that's been the figurehead for their game since its inception, the ghost that haunts her, and the quest they must undertake to lay her to rest.
What follows is an adventure for the three friends not only in pursuit of their quest but as a metaphor for their journey out of childhood. They confront their sudden autonomy, a series of disasters that challenges their problem-solving and requires them to be both brave and daring, and the terrifying shifting of their dynamic that makes them fear for the future of their friendship.
The book is short-- I started reading it just over twelve hours ago, and slept some in the middle-- but it's tight and well-paced. There's nothing extra and nothing missing. The broad strokes of the kids' families are sketched out, just enough to let us understand where they come from, but not enough that they're ever the focus. It's not important that we meet Alice's controlling grandmother; it's enough that we see how intimidated Alice is by her, and perhaps recall our own twelve-year-old panic at the prospect of getting grounded.
The meat of the story comes in the three friends' relationships to each other. Stuck in the tense space where they've all privately acknowledged that things must change, while resenting that fact and resisting voicing it aloud as truth, we get to watch them try to balance their own changing emotional landscapes with the importance they place on each other. It's poignant, nostalgic, and vivid. I've been in Zach's shoes, bewildered by how the people I thought I was closest to could have changed so much without me noticing; I've been Alice, too, frustrated by my own emotions and afraid of what was coming next.
But mostly I related to Poppy, since there have been times in my life when I felt just like her-- terrified of being left out, confused by watching my friends change while I still felt the same, and willing to go to any lengths to preserve the dynamic between me and the people I felt I couldn't live without. That resistance to change was never healthy for me, and it doesn't work out well for Poppy either. I really felt for her, and in a way I don't think I could have done if the story had been narrated from her point of view. She draws the eye, dynamically self-centered, charismatic yet ridiculous, demanding the attention of those around her just by being her. I laughed and winced in equal measure, reading her scenes, bemused by her ability to infuriate her two friends yet claim their loyalty by so unswervingly giving her own. Being Poppy must be a whirlwind, but in Zach's eyes she's a pillar of certainty in an otherwise unstable world.
The jacket copy for Doll Bones calls it spooky, and I admit if I were someone with an established fear of dolls (or actually a middle-schooler), I'd probably agree. I actually enjoyed the uncertainty, the is-it-or-isn't-it question about the doll's supposed haunting, and I enjoyed that it was never definitively answered. That open-endedness is what makes the story here so enjoyable; it's never really been about the doll, as Zach reflects, but about the bond forged between people who undertake a quest together. The doll stands in for the mysteries of adolescence leading into adulthood-- something they can't quite understand but that is rapidly becoming the center of their collective focus.
I already knew Holly Black was great at character creation; even in some of her works where the story isn't as strong, the characters still shine. Some might argue that it's harder to bring the same complexity to bear on younger characters as on adults, who arguably have more conflict or tension in their lives. But really good YA defies that expectation, and Doll Bones certainly did. The emotional landscape of these three kids may not be hard to figure out, but all three are written with intent and focus, bringing them to vivid life. And maybe this book is Black's way of going meta on herself, commenting on why stories and characters are important to us, subtly defending the investment we can place in the characters that really speak to us, especially when they're of our own making.
I've never thought it was a coincidence that my friend Lindsay had adopted the role of Peter Pan that afternoon almost ten years ago. Throughout my reading of Doll Bones I couldn't help but ascribe my friend's face and voice to Poppy, the champion of childhood, who equates outgrowing her friends and their story with dying. Once upon a time we bonded, a lot of us, over reading Stephen King's horror classic It. Besides also taking an icon of playtime and making it terrifying, that book has a lot to say about the strength of childhood friendship and the power of belief. By drawing on those same themes Doll Bones has earned a place beside It and The Egypt Game as a loud defense of imagination, and the power of a story to change the lives of the people that participate in telling it. ...more