September 23, 2011

Book Review: Those Across The River

Those Across The River by Christopher Buehlman
Genre: Horror (with historical southern flavor)

I've never waited so anxiously for a debut novel to come out. I read about it earlier this year on Charlaine Harris' blog and fell in love with its title. It's got to be up there with The Sun Also Rises and The Sound and the Fury in the "best-sounding titles" awards: read it out loud. Are you in love with it yet? And then I saw the amazing cover and there was no going back for me.

It's about professor Frank Nichols, who leaves academia under a cloud of scandal after absconding with his co-worker's wife and moves down to an old family home in backwoods Georgia. He intends to write a book about his great-grandfather, a Civil War soldier and slave abuser whose ruined plantation stands somewhere in the woods. But Frank is haunted by memories of his time in the Great War. And the more he learns about what lies in the woods, the more he comes to realize that the town is as haunted as he is. Except the things in the woods have a score to settle, and it's Frank who is going to pay the price...

Let me start by saying that this book is geeeroSS in places. It's a horror novel, people: body parts do fly (and land with lots of squishy splats). But it is so well written and engrossing that I found myself not really minding the gross.

To say this book is atmospheric is putting it mildly. Buehlman invokes the sound and feel of the 20s with grace and believability and paints a funny and affecting portrait of the small southern town of Whitbrow. I love the playful affection in Frank's relationship with his young muse, Eudora, and how Buehlman uses the lighter elements to make the nasty bits all that much more affecting. This is a classic horror novel in the sense that its true creep-factor lies in what you can't see; Buehlman leaves just enough to the imagination to keep you up at night, in a good way.

The narrative voice is unique, lyrical, and haunting with a lot of surprisingly funny moments. It's one of the most original werewolf stories--or any story, really--I've read in a while in the way it is crafted. The fine craftsmanship is the thing I both loved and sometimes felt frustrated by.

Buehlman likes to do single-line paragraphs.
Which sometimes is haunting.
And sometimes lovely.
And sometimes breaks up the flow of the story.
Because it creates big pauses.
Like this.
And this.

This book is not warm and fuzzy. But if you like mystery, horror, history, and damn fine writing, you should most definitely give it a whirl.

September 18, 2011

America and Awesome Things

I've just moved back to America after a very, very long absence. I'm still getting used to being here... because the US of A is a little overwhelming. 

No offense, homeland; you know I love you. I'm just saying that living in Australia has illuminated some of your quirks. Why do we talk so loudly on the street? Why are we so obsessed with the weather, and what's with all the parking meters? It's not that these are bad things (although, dear Mother Country, there are moments when I want to punch you). I just don't feel like a part of the tapestry yet. It's a strange and discomfiting experience to find that 'home' doesn't feel like it did when you left it.

So I took myself for a walk through lovely Annapolis, Maryland and was reminded of a book my friend Lyndsey put me onto called The Book of Awesome. I haven't read it yet, but I'm subscribed to the website and enjoy the weekly emails immensely. The book originated from a blog chronicling 1,000 small, everyday things the writer thought were awesome. Things like running hugs; finding money in the pocket of pants you haven't worn in a while; finding your lost keys in the very first place you look. These emails always make me laugh because the writing is smart and funny, and because they remind me how many awesome things in life there are to celebrate. Here are some of mine from Annapolis. 

The hugely satisfying CRUNCH of shriveled fall leaves underfoot.

Going into a shop on a whim and finding exactly what you didn't know you were looking for. (A turn-of-the-century hessonite ring, in case you're wondering.) 
Rediscovering a place you used to know and having it feel like it's the first time.

A stranger stopping to tell you how beautiful your photo's going to be, just because they feel like it.

September 9, 2011

Book Review: Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion
Genre: let's call it Adult Literary Dystopian Love Story?

I'm planning a trip down to Charlston over my birthday weekend to finally meet my lovely critique partner and to go to YALLFest. The list of authors attending this YA-focused shindig is fairly spectacular and nerd-girl spasm inducing, but there were a few I didn't recognize. I was intrigued enough by Isaac Marion's premise (and, judging by his author photo, his ability to blend lumberjack chic with artistic flair) to go out and pick it right up. Be warned: gushing is about to ensue, because I fell a little hard for this book. And not (just) because of the lumberjack chic.

Warm Bodies is told from the perspective of R, who is a zombie... I know, I know. More zombies? Really? More guts and deadness? I don't usually go in for these things, and yet I keep giving you guts and deadness. Whatever. Just keep reading. He's living in a rapidly deteriorating world where human civilization is dying out and R is struggling to shake off his undead apathy. Like the rest of the zombies who live in the airport, R can barely form sentences or move with anything approaching grace, but inside he's alive with beautiful thoughts about being free. And then he meets Julie, the beautiful live wire whose boyfriend's brains he's just eaten, absorbing his memories and last living thoughts. Julie and R have some strange kind of bond that makes him want to care about living. Julie's passion starts to bring him to life - quite literally - and they set out to make something of the world they thought was lost.

There are a couple of things that made me fall in love with this novel. First, there was R himself. I wasn't sure I could love a zombie narrator. I mean, he eats people... not something I normally condone, although writing about shape shifters has kind of liberated my literary moral compass. There are a couple of gross-out moments that make you want to close one eye. But Marion's narrative voice makes you care. I loved R's well-crafted inner voice, filled with a thoughtfulness and a yearning that makes him easy to connect to. By the end of the novel you're fist-pumping for this guy, wanting what he wants, wanting to see him get a second chance at living.

For me, this book is magical realism at its best. It doesn't try to make sense of the nonsensical elements; it simply hands them to you as truth without making a big fuss about it in a way that reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's stuff. You've got a stark, dystopian world - scenarios that we've seen before - peppered with surreal memories and connections that rope you in. In absorbing Julie's boyfriend's brain R becomes inextricably linked with Perry; using shared memories and dreams, they find a way to connect with Julie and bring both men to life. Sound trippy? It is. This is one of the most original stories I've ever read, infused with wit and a subtle exploration of the power and beauty of language.

And then there's the writing, which is truly lovely. The rise and fall of it is pitch-perfect, with each passage blending into the next, melting on the tongue. This is one of those books that makes me despair  that I'll never be able to write so beautifully, but that does a good job in inspiring me to try.

I feel like R: I'm a little bit lost for words on this one. This zombie needs another cup of coffee.

September 8, 2011

Book Review: Forever (plus news!)

Forever, the last book in Maggie Stiefvater's Wolves of Mercy Falls series, had fairly giant shoes to fill in my life. I took it with me on a very tumultuous, round-the-world plane journey, one I knew was destined to be the worst of my life on many levels. I brought Forever with me because I figured it was the only thing that could actually bring some enjoyment to my journey, and it did that and more. For me, it was one of those reads that seems to speak for you, that reaches into you and illuminates dark places.

"When we kissed, it didn't matter that I had been a wolf hours ago, or that I would be a wolf again. It didn't matter that a thousand snares were laid for us as soon as we left this moment. All that mattered was this: our noses touching, the softness of his mouth, the ache inside me."

Forever is, among other things, a story about a boy and a girl trying to find a way to be together when everything around them seems to want to keep them apart. Grace has turned into a wolf and Sam, her boyfriend, is now firmly human and trying to figure out how to make her so. Stiefvater's writing is sometimes funny, sometimes haunting, and always beautiful. She has an amazing feel for using dialogue, and the gaps in conversations, to enhance the mood she's trying to evoke. The plot strikes a good balance between light and shade, doling out fist-pumping moments and achingly sad ones in fairly equal measure. I wish we could have spent more time with Cole and Isabel, whose strange bond was one I really enjoyed getting into, but I liked where Stiefvater left the series. If you haven't read it, I really think you should.

As an avid follower of Maggie's blog I don't think I've ever felt as close to a writer. She evokes a sense of fearlessness that has often inspired my own writing and the way I try to approach it. So I was fairly psyched to have the opportunity to co-interview Maggie with my friend Fiona for The Book Burglar, a blog Fiona writes for Boomerang Books. Check it out to see Maggie's answers to my many fan-girl questions, here.