The Winds of Winter by George R.R. Martin (I Wish This Was a Book Review)

The Winds of Winter (A Song of Ice and Fire, #6)The Winds of Winter by George R.R. Martin

I’m breaking up with you, George.

I fell in love with the ASOIAF series with the very first book. I happily reread all of the preceding books over again before cracking the spine on each new one. I freaking loved them. I loved you, George. The first four books in the series are some of the best fantasy I’ve ever read.

A Dance With Dragons, not so much. The only really amazing thing about A Dance With Dragons was that it could somehow manage to be 1000 +/- goddamn pages of pretty much nothing happening. After waiting six freaking years for it, I was mightily disappointed. Still, I was loyal. I put it down to Middle of the Series Slump Syndrome and went back to waiting. But I just read that, once again, this year will not see The Winds of Winter. Seven years and counting.

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Fine. I’m not asking.

Stephen King did this to me too, way back when with The Dark Tower series. Five years after the third one, with no fourth one in sight, I gave up and gave my copies away and actively ignored the series. I’d see a new one in the bookstore and go, nope. Not going there. You’re not going to win me back only to let me down again, Steve. Then finally, six or seven years ago, I found the entire series used online, for about twenty bucks including shipping, and I happily lost myself in them, beginning to end. It was better than munching my way dreamily through an entire bag of Milanos, and that’s saying something.

And now ASOIAF. I look forward to reading the entire completed series the same way I look forward to vacationing on the Moon, like something that might be possible in my lifetime but by the time it is, I’ll be too old and decrepit to actually do it. I have shelved this as “the movie was better” not only because the HBO series has been shockingly well done, but because it will actually be finished.

Seven years and counting. And there are supposed to be at least two more books after that? When, in 2057? I’m done, George. I’m happy to clear the shelf space for other books that don’t annoy me each time they catch my eye. Pack up your shit and get out.

It’s not me. It’s you. Bye.

Bookshelves: the-movie-was-better, fantasy, the-shit, i-can-dream-can’t-i

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Kids These Days (Twofer Book Review)

For any young people reading and experiencing bullying in the overall lameness that is high school, here’s my advice. If you don’t really fit in with any one clique – the Popular Girls, the Jocks, the Brains, the Geeks, the Goths, the Future Congresspeople, the Jesus Freaks, the Sk8ter Bois – go hang out with the Stoners. They have a lot more depth than they get credit for and they’ll be cool with anyone who’s cool with them first. You don’t even have to toke up.

Both of these YA books address bullying. The first additionally takes on the modern-day school issue of mass shootings, while the second brings up consent and victim-blaming.

Hate ListHate List by Jennifer Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bookshelves: teenage-flashback, ya, current-social issues

 

Top Ten Strategies for Handling Bullies:

1. Ignore them
2. Remember they’re miserable and they hate themselves more than they hate you
3. Join a club or take up a hobby
4. Make friends with the next new kid to your school
5. Try to talk with them calmly about how their behavior makes you feel
6. Eat right, exercise, get plenty of sleep, meditate, do yoga
7. See a therapist/get some Prozac
8. Report it to a teacher or the principal
9. Transfer schools
10. Kype your dad’s guns and shoot up the school (new option as of April 20, 1999)

Yes, bullying is bad. It damages people in very real ways. But here’s the thing. There have been bullies since there have been people coexisting in groups. Bullying is a worldwide phenomenon. School shootings, however, are a distinctly American phenomenon. I know that modern American culture is fucked up in a lot of ways–raising snowflake children, normalization of violence, lack of access to health care–but you will never convince me that the biggest factor in American mass shooting culture is not American gun culture.

This book does not look at school shootings with regard to guns or mental illness (or chemtrails, or autism, or bad parenting, or video games, or vaccinations, or death metal, or trench coats, or too many doors, or porn, or not knowing CPR, or thoughts and prayers). It focuses on the disconnect many teens experience, the bullying and crappy home lives of Valerie and her boyfriend Nick. Valerie is left coping with her own guilt after venting to her notebook, creating what she calls the Hate List, unwittingly providing Nick with a target list when he snaps and opens fire at their school.

It was a thought-provoking read with more than one trigger for me. I cried a little.

I was a target in junior high and high school as well, although I eventually developed the strategy of showing up for school so completely stoned that I honestly did not give the smallest shit what anyone said to or about me. Self-medication, yay! Unfortunately, I did not consider that an option when I was badly bullied much later in life, by a boss in the workplace when I was a grown woman. It is gratifying to read an account that genuinely reflects how demeaning and demoralizing it is to be so relentlessly humiliated by others. I appreciated that Brown took care to show Nick’s good side, the “Beloved Son” who also died that day. It still angers me that Nancy Lanza is not included as a victim of the Sandy Hook massacre.

So, food for thought. It’s facile to dismiss deeply troubled kids as merely evil. It’s also facile to self-righteously claim that no matter how bad we had it, we would never wish our tormentors to hurt like they hurt us. I admit I pretended I was a Haitian priestess one day and stuck a pin through the head of the yearbook picture of one girl who was an unrelenting hag to me for 5 years. The thought of her possibly suffering migraines because of my amateur voodoo bothers me not at all. The thought of that Cersei Lannister ex-boss of mine being dumped by her husband for another woman or being the subject of a RICO investigation gives me a twinge of angry satisfaction. And I don’t think that makes me evil; it makes me human.

But.

Would I feel differently if I actually saw something horrible happening to either of them? Saw them being mowed down by a pimply-faced malcontent with a confederate flag and an AR-15? God, I hope so.

Would I be able to find common ground with them after that? Or them with me, knowing I’d even idly wished them harm? Would any of us even want to? Would any of us be able to admit the parts we’d played?

That’s what this book is about.

Overall a much better read than this next one.

Some Girls AreSome Girls Are by Courtney Summers

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Bookshelves: teenage-flashback, ya, current-social issues, ugh

After her best friend’s boyfriend tries to rape her at a typically alcohol-flooded Friday night party and she confides in the wrong person, Regina shows up for school Monday morning the subject of a freeze-out.

It’s a good premise, that could have addressed the timely topics of consent/victim-blaming and bullying. Unfortunately, Summers stayed utterly superficial, using these heavy issues as setup for endless tit-for-tat that ultimately goes nowhere.

THE PROBLEMS:

1. Over-the-top-ness. The freeze-out is carried out by every single person in the school. Everybody is snickering and whispering. Nobody will let her sit next to them (except for the emo guy at the Garbage Table, which would be okay, but set against the “everybody hates me” backdrop it becomes incredibly hokey.) In Real People Land, the Popular Girls are not so powerful they can dictate the thoughts and actions of every single kid in the lunchroom. The vast majority of the non-popular kids at school are focused on their own lives and simply do not give a shit about the bathroom rumors about you. This book takes “everybody’s talking about it” and “everybody hates me” waaaaay too literally.

2. Caricatured, two-dimensional characters. Everybody has one personality trait, and that’s mostly just being an asshole.

2.1. I’m awarding an extra star because the main antagonist was named Anna. My high school tormentor was named Anna. I imagine these two Annas have exactly the same snotty smirk.

3. No Adults Syndrome. Regina cannot take any of her problems to her parents because they are “useless,” not having given her the latest iPhone with unlimited everything. Nobody else even has parents, except as a source of unsecured prescriptions and liquor and a house to trash with a party because said parents are never home. Teachers are merely walk-ons, there to orchestrate the agony of Picking Teams or to further humiliate a student by yelling at her because someone else spray-painted WHORE on her locker.

4. Utterly unlikable protagonist. I don’t have to adore the main character, and I even like antiheros, but they have to have some redeeming quality I can empathize with. Regina has none. She’s as nasty as the Mean Girls who have frozen her out, a whiny victim who experiences compassion only as a guise to get back on the good side of people she herself has bullied in the past. I spent most of the book wanting to knock her on her ass myself.

5. Prop overuse. Throughout the book, Regina pops antacids like they’re cocktail peanuts. No wonder she’s full of shit. Probably literally. Those things will constipate you big-time.

6. The ending. After all the back-and-forth revenge, it just fizzles out. No climax, no payoff. Nobody internalizes their experiences, no one learns anything, no one changes, no one grows. Just pffffft.

For my money, you’ll never find better YA fiction than S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now. They’re books about teenagers, written by a teenager, and are classics for a reason.

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The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (Book Review)

The Woman in the WindowThe Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book at the same time I was annoyed with it.

Bookshelves: psych-thriller, trendy, mystery, noir, unreliable-narrator, mfa-style, hot-off-the-press, popcorn-reading, purple-prose

It gets points for not being touted as “the next Gone Girl!” or compared to Gillian Flynn anywhere on the cover. There’s still a trend, though–the narrator who witnesses a terrible crime, but no one believes her because she’s unreliable, and she’s unreliable because she’s mentally ill or a drunk or a pillhead or some combination, and she is styled in the book title as the girl/woman/wife/sister/daughter. Of course you’ve seen these books; they’re everywhere. I’m surprised I even picked it up. Not disappointed, because I actually did like it, but surprised that I picked up a bandwagon book. (I guiltily admit to reading the Twilight books, but only where no one could see me doing it, and I will no longer read anything about vampires not written by Anne Rice. And maybe Stephen King.)

I have a few gripes. The writing is what I’ve seen others call “MFA-Style” and I’m totally stealing it. That flowery, uber-descriptive way of writing each and every moment and emotion and impression and insight that I imagine must be the mainstay of modern writing curricula: “Help,” I shout, only it’s a whisper, creeping through my throat on tiptoe, smearing itself across my tongue. “He-elp,” I try again; this time my teeth bite into it, sparks raining from my mouth as though I’ve chewed a live wire, and my voice catches like a fuse, explodes. (I’m an Elmore Leonard girl: “He-elp,” I croak. I try again: “Help.” Better.) And it seems there wasn’t a single page when Anna wasn’t craving wine, pouring wine, sipping wine, chugging wine, sloshing wine, spilling wine, dropping her wine and shattering the glass, fuddled from wine, trying to remember if this her fifth or seventeenth glass of wine, hungover from wine, opening more wine, swallowing multiple sleeping pills with wine. It wore thin. She stumbles or sinks or slumps or falls to her knees a lot, too–and no wonder, with all that wine–which I cannot recall ever seeing anyone do even once in real life. Between the beating her knees take and all the wine, I’m amazed Anna doesn’t break her neck navigating the endless flights of stairs in her (admittedly charming) gentrified-Harlem five-storey brownstone.

But. A lot of people like that writing style and if you do, good on ya. I don’t hate it; it’s just not my favorite. And even if the premise is rather derivative, the story is still a suck-you-in popcorn-type psych-thriller page-turner, on a par with The Girl on the Train (which I see I never reviewed, but loved) and easily outstripping The Woman in Cabin 10. I find the unreliable narrator hard to resist and Anna’s obsession with film noir darkens the atmosphere nicely. I saw through both of the prestiges well in advance of the reveals but still devoured it in about 24 hours, even with time out for beauty zzz’s and a full workday. It loses a star for being an obvious bandwagon book but is still worth reading, particularly recommended if you’ve got long flights and a layover to deal with.

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The Last Colony (Old Man’s War #3) by John Scalzi (Book Review)

The Last Colony (Old Man's War #3)The Last Colony by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Scalzi for President!

But then, he wouldn’t have time to write his humanistic, cynical, wryly humorous, Joe-Sixpack-philosophy, utterly awesome sci-fi books. So, never mind.

This series is so good.

Bookshelves: gigantic-interstellar-battle-cruisers-playing-chicken, sci-fi, the-shit, action-with-a-body-count

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The Secret Place by Tana French (Book Review)

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #5)The Secret Place by Tana French

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Bookshelves: mystery, detective, psych-thriller, teenage-flashback, mfa-style, coming-of-age, ireland

I think I’ve figured it out, what I do and don’t like about Tana French.

I was disappointed with The Secret Place. It seemed to drag, then picked up about a third in, and the last quarter slogged again. It was bogged down by the same things I didn’t like about The Likeness: the miniscule description of each individual moment, done for moment after moment after moment after, every nuance of feeling and thought and spoken word between each and every character…it was too much. Both books had groups of characters who were close and constantly interacted, so that a two-minute conversation took 30 minutes to read. French’s ability to distill a flash of time into its essence is admirable and her writing is lovely, but I find that more enjoyable in small doses.

I loved the premise for The Likeness even if I found the execution lacking, but I found the gist of The Secret Place to be thin and unbelievable–you get to the solution of the mystery and it’s like, is that all? Somebody killed somebody else for that? If you removed all the flowery atmospheric description and rewriting the same thing from three or four different pov’s, you’d have 200 pages of nothing-much-of-a-mystery. And maybe this is a personal prejudice, but the teen-speak got old after so much of it. I mean, excuse me? It’s just so not totes amazeballs, hello?

In the Woods, Broken Harbor, and Faithful Place are much better bets.

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The Run of His Life: The People versus O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin (Book Review)

The Run of His Life : The People versus O.J. SimpsonThe Run of His Life : The People versus O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Mommy, please call me back. I want to know what happened last night. Why did we have to go to the police station? Please answer, Mommy. Please answer, Mommy. Please answer, Mommy. Please answer. ‘Bye.” ~ Eight-year-old Sydney Simpson on her mother’s answering machine the morning after

I like Jeffrey Toobin’s true crime. They are not merely recounts; they are in-depth analysis of entire cases, including enlightening portraits of the principals and with clear and engaging explanations of forensics, legal machinations, and jury dynamics.

Factoid 1: The O.J. Simpson trial was not the first to be live-broadcast as it happened, but it was the one that proved the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, that the very act of observation changes the outcome. Since this trial, judges have been much less inclined to allow the media to turn criminal trials into reality TV. Thankfully.

Factoid 2: This trial was the first big one to include DNA evidence, and the science was new and confusing, perhaps not to be trusted by a jury that, for the most part, was not educated beyond high school. Barry Sheck and Peter Neufeld, co-founders of the Innocence Project that has used DNA technology on old physical evidence to prove that hundreds of rape and murder suspects were wrongfully convicted, were the DNA specialists who effectively twisted the DNA science for the Simpson jury. Reading about their work for the Simpson defense cost them several notches on my esteem-o-meter.

Factoid 3: Pat McKenna, the lead private investigator brought in by F. Lee Bailey for the defense, later worked to help acquit Casey Anthony,* and is in fact now living with her. The elite world of criminal defense is a small one.

I found it helpful to supplement this book with interviews given by a couple of the O.J. Simpson jurors. Even without that, though, when you look at it from a point of view of what the sequestered Simpson jury was actually given to work with, without news reports and all the media sensationalism, without the back-and-forth between legal teams and the judge, without the 20/20 vision hindsight gives, then it’s a bit clearer how the verdict came to be.

The “Dream Team” ultimately managed to do what it was paid millions of dollars to do: plant reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. But they did it in particularly slimy fashion. It is no longer permitted in criminal courts to slut-shame rape victims, but still almost de rigueur to defend a murderer by trashing the victim, in this case by intimating that Nicole Brown Simpson somehow deserved to be hacked to death on her own front walk with her children sleeping in the house. (And let’s not forget Ron Goldman, who is so often overlooked and whose grieving family has worked so hard to keep a murderer from profiting from his crimes.) The defense, principally Johnnie Cochran, very deliberately turned the “Trial of the Century” into a racial maelstrom. Robert Shapiro later stated, in what to me is a jaw-dropping admission, that they played the race card early, and they “dealt it from the bottom of the deck.” Ignore the veritable mountain of damning physical and circumstantial evidence, folks, and ignore his previous abuse of his ex-wife as well–O.J. Simpson is only sitting at the defendant’s table because he’s black. Was Simpson acquitted partially because his jury was preponderantly black? Almost certainly. But it’s disingenuous to dismiss the importance of race and the weight of entire lives shaped by being on the receiving end of constant and insidious institutionalized racism. A country that insists on marginalizing a good part of its population cannot pretend to be surprised when that population closes ranks to protect its own, particularly when the accused is a celebrity.

Still, in my view, the biggest factors in Simpson’s acquittal were the prosecution and the LAPD itself. Not only did the LAPD bungle some of the physical evidence–and their entry onto O.J. Simpson’s property amounted to a Fourth Amendment violation–they had spent decades engaged in a concentrated war against the people of color in Los Angeles. Without these factors, perhaps the defense would not have been able to weaponize them so effectively. As to the prosecution, it was outmatched in the talent department and often painfully bumbling, clearly unsuited for this particular trial. Marcia Clark was hot-headed and arrogant and convinced that black women on juries loved her despite a professional jury consultant telling her they actually thought she was an uppity white bitch. Chris Darden, who could have been particularly effective as a black prosecutor convinced of Simpson’s guilt, was too easily baited and given to childish outbursts and sulking. Prosecutors worthy of the name should have been able to demonstrate how, despite what a flaming bigot Mark Fuhrman actually was (and he was), he could not have planted O.J.’s right glove and smeared the victims’ blood around O.J.’s home and Bronco without being both a precog and a teleporter. Calmer heads more inclined to cool-headed strategy, damage deflection, and, you know, actual trial and witness preparation may have prevailed here. We’ll never know.

All of this is not to say O.J. was innocent. He was absolutely positively one hundred percent guilty, and if you still doubt it, read his memoir If I Did It, if you can stomach it. (Factoid 4: If I Did It was ghostwritten by Pablo Fenjves, who lived sixty yards from the Simpson murder scene and heard the mournful barking of Nicole’s dog that night.) But reading this book has helped me understand the verdict a bit better. But only a bit. When you can see the evidence and hear the testimony,** all of the various factors pale. “Not guilty” heard twice in that courtroom was abominable.

An eye-opening, highly informative read.

*I was in the small minority who, even without hindsight, believed the Casey Anthony verdict was correct. It was ludicrous for the prosecution to expect a jury to convict and impose a death sentence when they couldn’t even show exactly what crime was committed, when whatever-the-crime-was was committed, where whatever-the-crime-was was committed,  how whatever-the-crime-was was committed, and had virtually no physical evidence to support any thesis at all.

** I did not watch the FX dramatization based on this book. I’m not a TV watcher anyway, and I’ve seen several reviews of the book pointing out that the book is more accurate and complete. Hollywood liberties are the reason I read instead of watching.

Bookshelves: true-crime, in-the-news, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous, misogyny -rules, racism, as-seen-on-tv, social-commentary, controversial, non-fiction

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The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin (Book Review)

The Boys from BrazilThe Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I say in my talks it takes two things to make it happen again, a new Hitler and social conditions like in the thirties. But that’s not true. It takes three things: the Hitler, the conditions, and the people to follow the Hitler.” ~ Yakov Liebermann, “The Boys From Brazil”

Eerie words to read from 1976, quite relevant in 2018’s Trumpmerica. This is not a book about the Holocaust per se. It is the story of a Jewish Nazi-hunter who stumbles upon a Kameradenwerk plot to kill 94 men, all around 65 years old, humble civil servants, in various parts of the world. His investigation leads him to an ongoing experiment by the fugitive Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death.”

This is a headlong, pull-you-in tale that stands the test of time. For some reason I had this marked as “read” even though I hadn’t, so I amended that. I recall I hadn’t liked Rosemary’s Baby all that much, am not much spooked by satanists (the ones I’ve run across have no idea what religion they’re perverting or how to do it correctly and their wannabe-ness really just cracks me up), but I loved The Stepford Wives when rereading it recently. I must now read the rest of Ira Levin’s books.

In reality, Mengele met his end in 1979 when he had a stroke and drowned while swimming in South America, where he’d successfully eluded capture by various Nazi hunters for thirty years. Rather anticlimactic, especially since the world didn’t even learn of his death until 1985. I promise you, you’ll like the ending of the book much better.

Bookshelves: thriller, nazi-hate, intrigue

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