Category: For Readers! (Page 1 of 2)

Think Like A Librarian – Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

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Her Body and Other Parties is a collection of short stories that centers around the horrific in a kind of fairy-tale way.  (I recently talked about the relationship between horror and fairy tales here.)  The writing is clear, elegant, and readable.  “Once upon a time, there was a woman who…” is the main format of the stories, although I don’t recall the phrase “once upon a time” actually being used.

The stories do not stay with the usual territory of “once upon a time, there was a woman who stepped out of bounds in the deep, dark woods and got what was coming to her, only to be rescued at the last minute,” or “once upon a time, there was a woman whose home was more of a danger than she thought, and she got out at the last minute with the help of a prince.”

I think it’s fair to say that this book covers territory even further out of bounds than the normal run of fairy tales.  “Once upon a time, there was a woman who liked sex, and…”

The women in these stories have to deal with the consequences of their own desires, in a way that goes beyond a mere caution not to have them in the first place.  They don’t always walk away from that reckoning, and they never walk away unchanged, although sometimes they do end up with someone who feels right.

I would especially recommend this collection for women, queer, and non-binary readers who are exploring their sexuality at any age, and who don’t want to be lectured.  I would also recommend this for male readers who are feminists or who are exploring the issue, or who have a broad range of tastes in the horror genre.  This book would make an excellent book club book as well–there are a thousand and one discussions to be had about this book among readers of horror, but also romance and crime stories.

I should give a caution about one particular story in the book, “Especially Heinous.”  The structure is of an alternate Law & Order SVU TV episode guide, and really does include 272 episode descriptions of same.  The plotlines build and interweave with each other, becoming increasingly strange, yet meaningful.  The first few pages are necessarily not as rewarding as the rest of the story.  In other words, stick with it; it becomes something truly memorable.

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Think Like a Librarian: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a war novel about the Iraq War.  The characters are caught on a Fox News camera doing something bloody, desperate, and heroic, and, as a special treat-slash-promotional opportunity, are brought back to the U.S. for a brief period to go on a “Victory Tour.”

There is nothing like a war novel for irony.  There really isn’t.  If a reader’s tastes run in that direction, sending them toward sardonic novels like Catch-22Slaughterhouse-FiveJohnny Got His Gun, The Manchurian Candidate, and other such war novels will do them no disservice.  These novels are also great for character voice, and Billy Lynn is no exception.  The clear, funny, and painfully human voice of the main character is a masterpiece.

Few elements of American culture are left unskewered, from family to football to Beyoncé.  Dragged out for particular punishment are hypocrites in religion and politics.  It’s a strange world when Hollywood is more sane than the man on the street, but that becomes the believable world of this book.

I recommend the book mainly for older teens and adults with a taste in irony, possibly also for those who need to be able to cope with a situation out of their control and have a black sense of humor.  If a reader is a fan of something like Shaun of the Dead, this will probably be a most enjoyable book.

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FYI: Zenna Henderson and Quiet Horror

(Please note:  This post was originally guest-posted on Shannon Lawrence’s The Warrior Muse blog for Women in Horror Month.  I’m reposting it here so I don’t LOSE IT!!!)

The sci-fi writer Zenna Henderson died in 1983, which was years before I was given the short story collection The Anything Box by my cousins, and devoured it with such a passion that the front cover fell off. I eventually read the stories she was more famous for, her People stories, but I never really gelled with them the way I did with the stories in The Anything Box. 

Here’s the general idea behind most of the stories:

Once upon a time, there was a teacher. (Or a housewife, although in one particularly memorable case it’s a husband.) Something strange intrudes into her perfectly ordered life. She doesn’t know what to do about it. So she tries to pretend it away. This doesn’t work. Jeez Louise, this is weird, she thinks. I mean, if this is true, it changes everything. She tries to make it go away again…and again…but in the end, it’s useless. It’s not going to work. In the end, she either admits that the world wasn’t what she thought it was, or she gets killed.

Violently.

But usually offscreen. The stories were written in the ’50s and ’60s. Slasher films and splatterpunk hadn’t happened yet. But there were definitely gory, shocking horror stories back then. Psycho was written in 1959. Lord of the Flies was even earlier, in 1954. The pulps were still popular, and they practically dripped with blood.

So what was going on?

Zenna Henderson was writing what we would now call quiet horror—a horror where all the important things are happening inside the mind and spirit, not outside with a serial killer and an ax. It may or may not be relevant that one of the places she taught—she was a teacher—was in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. And if that’s not a setting of quiet horror, I’m not sure what would be.

Quiet horror never really becomes terrifying; it never really gets loud or outwardly, obviously violent, although if it does, the character assumes it was all a dream or something so they can more or less stay calm about it. Quiet horror just sits there at a low-key level, humming to itself in a corner, as it were. And often it’s just plain weird. Reality is broken and things have gone off the freaking rails, not that you’d really know it, since everyone’s acting like it’s business as usual. John Harwood’s books, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Monkey’s Paw,” Charles L. Grant’s stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Peter Straub’s novels, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Robert Aickman’s supremely odd novelettes, Rosemary’s Baby

On the surface, quiet horror just putters along. It’s not until you take a step back that you get struck by what’s going on.

The essence of quiet horror seems to be the statement, “Wait…what?”

In “Hush!” a woman’s vacuum cleaner comes to life and murders her. In “The Last Step,” a teacher interrupts a group of children playing in the mud as their community prepares to evacuate from an alien invasion, not understanding that the children’s play directly controls everyone’s future, and she’s doomed them all. In “The Anything Box,” a teacher literally takes away a child’s imagination and shoves it in her bottom drawer. And in “The Grunder,” a husband who is becoming physically abusive to his wife is driven to catch a possibly magical fish that might take away his urge to hurt her ever again, rather than have to change.

Each situation, when you step back from it, is monstrous, horrible, intolerable. But on the surface, the characters tolerate their worlds with almost perfect equanimity. Definitely nothing gets as tense—let alone as bloody—as a single throwaway murder in something like the Saw series, even when the vacuum cleaner reaches for the housewife’s throat.

I think this is because Ms. Henderson, like most quiet horror writers, laid the responsibility for feeling horror on the reader. She was willing to provide the story, but if you wanted to get wound up about it, that was up to you. Take it or leave it.

I chose to take it. The quiet horror stories of Zenna Henderson’s The Anything Box are still some of my favorites.

Think Like a Librarian: True Grit, by Charles Portis

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

True Grit is a Western adventure story first published in 1968.  Readers who are looking for a tale of the good guys versus the bad guys should look elsewhere–this is a story about the quality of stubbornness, and its benefits and drawbacks.

I would highly recommend the story for reluctant teen readers and reluctant adult readers.  The writing is plain and direct.  The characters aren’t symbols or themes so much as they are flaws with legs.  Not much is romanticized or idealized:  it is what it is, and what happens, happens.  You don’t have to question the text much; not much is implied at a subtextual level.

On a more sophisticated level, the book works as a satire of other, more idealistic books in the Western genre and in fiction in general.  “Don’t try to tell the reader what to think,” this books seems to say.  “Don’t tell them that the past was anything other than dirty, deadly, and full of snakes.”  This level of the storytelling isn’t intrusive, and if a read misses it completely, they’ll still enjoy the book–but this aspect of the book would also make it a refreshing choice for someone who reads literary fiction as well.  And the two main characters are both examples of the best characters in fiction.

Not quite a sly wink at the reader, and not quite the most straightforward novel of all time, it’s the kind of book that can be enjoyed by readers across a broad spectrum.  I would not recommend the book for readers who don’t like gritty details that they’ll remember long after putting the book down.  There is some violence, but more importantly, there are a few scenes that might give a few readers some nightmares (especially regarding snakes).

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Think Like a Librarian: The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

Hope Prisoner of Zenda cover.jpg

The Prisoner of Zenda is an adventure story from 1894.  Unlike a lot of the fiction written in that time period and earlier, the language isn’t laborious to read, and in fact is quite witty.

The book is most famous for its plot setup:  two men who resemble each other meet.  One of the men is a commoner.  The other is the heir apparent of the country in which they find themselves, and about to be crowned.

Something happens to the heir, preventing him from being crowned.  But being crowned is essential; otherwise, the king might lose his throne entirely.

So the second man, who really does closely resemble him, pretends to be the heir and gets crowned in his place, while trying to untangle the politics threatening the true king.

The action is fast and exciting; there is, as in The Princess Bride, fencing, fighting, torture, revenge…no giants, though.

In fact, an entire tradition of fiction arose out of The Prisoner of Zenda, called “Ruritanian fiction” after the country of Ruritania out of the book.  Ruritanian fiction involves a fictional, nostalgic European country playing host to a tale of adventure fiction, often involving royalty and inheritance.

I would recommend this book for early teen and up.  The language isn’t simple, but it’s not difficult either, and most of the concepts are presented very smoothly.  The action happens quickly.  There is violence, but nothing is described in graphic detail.  Look to The Prisoner of Zenda for a catchy adventure that doesn’t need a lot of context to enjoy.

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Think Like a Librarian: Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

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Haunted is a collection of short horror stories tied together by one story that threads together the others.  I do not recommend this collection for anyone who isn’t already a horror fan.  If a reader has any concerns about gore or offensive material, then I wouldn’t recommend this.  This is a much more challenging book than Fight Club, and liking Fight Club isn’t a good predictor on whether a reader would like Haunted.

The general idea is that a patron of literature has offered a small group of amateur writers the chance to get away from it all in order for each of them to write their masterpiece; however, no one will know where they’ve gone and they won’t have any contact with the outside world.

The writers who become involved with this effort are not, shall we say, on the up-and-up, and look forward for the chance to disappear for three months, even more than they look forward for the chance to write without being disturbed.

Which is just as well, because disturbed is what they get.

This collection contains Palahniuk’s infamous short story “Guts,” which is supposed to have made several people faint with how repulsive the story is.  The story is one of the finest examples of gross-out horror that could ever be envisioned, not even barring Stephen King’s work, but I believe the real cause of the fainting is that the story starts off by telling the reader to hold their breath!

Terrible things happen, and I have to warn you not to look for a happy ending.

To put it mildly.

In addition, don’t expect the supernatural.  Palahniuk finds enough horror within the human species to satisfy without turning to something outside it.

I would recommend this book for older teens and up, people with strong stomachs only.  The book is darkly funny, and is really the most vicious of satires rather than horror–but it almost requires an understanding of how horror works in order for the satire to work.  Reading this book will make things like Saw and Hostel look like lightweights; it may also introduce darkly cynical horror-movie buffs to the enchantments of satire as a literary art.

Incidentally, the cover on some of the print versions glows in the dark 🙂

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Think Like a Librarian: My Favorite Thing is Monsters, by Emil Ferris

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is another graphic novel.  (I checked a stack of best-of graphic novels all out at once, so there were a bunch.)  What you’re looking at here is older teens and up.  The main character is a middle-schooler, but I would definitely read the graphic novel before handing it off.  Some middle-school kids will do fine with it; it’s told at a middle-school level, but covers some extremely overwhelming topics.  If you need to cover some extremely overwhelming topics with your kids at that age…this might help.  Death, same-sex sexual attraction, attempted rape disguised as “bullying,” prostitution, murder, and loving someone who makes big mistakes are all covered.

The main character is a (human) girl who sees herself as a werewolf.  She is artistically inclined, and the graphic novel, created by an adult, is presented as her handiwork.  The “panels” in the graphic novel are free flowing, free associative doodles done in pen and ink.  People can be drawn beautifully, mockingly, photorealistically, etc., based on the main character’s emotions at the time.

The story ranges from before World War II, to concentration camps in WWII, to the late Sixties, as the main character attempts to solve the murder of a neighbor, the “blue” woman on the cover.

The art in this is loose and improvisational, yet masterful; the writing is a masterpiece on a level with Art Spiegelman’s Maus.  I’m not exactly going out on a limb to say that this volume is one of the masterpieces of Western fiction, graphic novel or otherwise.

It can be a challenging read, but mostly because it’s literally just heavy.  A second volume is planned to come out in the second half of 2018.

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Think Like A Librarian: Mockingbird Graphic Novels, by Chelsea Cain

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

The Mockingbird graphic novels, #1 and #2, written by Chelsea Cain and illustrated by Kate Niemczyk, are a short series of superhero comics in the Marvel universe (the same as the movies, but with a character that hasn’t appeared in any of the movies yet).  Anyone who has seen the first Avengers movie with probably have enough knowledge of how the Marvel universe works well enough to follow along.

Writer Chelsea Cain is best known for her serial killer/suspense novels in the Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell series, beginning with Heartsick.  

Most of graphic novels in the main Marvel and DC universes are played in all seriousness, not for laughs.  There are some exceptions; one of the more recent characters who consistently gets played for laughs is Deadpool, but comic characters tend to be overwhelmed by the Batmans, Supermans, Professor Xs, Magnetos, and so on.

The comic characters also tend to be idiots; it’s pretty easy to squeeze a laugh out of Deadpool that way.

As portrayed in these two graphic novels, Mocking bird is a comic, yet still brilliant, character.  She faces off, in the first collection, against a hospital bureaucracy that’s almost more puissant than the actual villains she faces as a superhero.  In the second collection, she’s up against powerful forces again, but between her and victory stand two conventions and a cruise ship, including lots of adorable corgis.

My recommendations here are for people who want some light, humerous reading in a graphic novel format.  I would caution that this is a series that fits in the greater Marvel universe, so you’re just going to have to let some of the references fly by.  I don’t recommend this series for most teens, not because of the subject matter or language (which is more hinted at than shown), but because of the faster, quippier level of humor.  However, if a reader can keep up with Deadpool graphic novels (which can be quite witty and satirical), I’d give it a try.

The character is a bit Mary-Sue-ish:  good things happen for her and she is extremely irreverent toward the men in her life, but nothing happens without complications, reactions, or challenges.

would some readers that the humor here treats very lightly of some very serious issues, including a rape that happens before the events of the story.

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Think Like a Librarian: Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Last week I did Jeff Lemire’s Roughneck.

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Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is a standalone novel in the Agatha Christie Poirot mystery series.  She’s most famous for Murder on the Orient Express, in the same series.

Most of Agatha Christie’s work fits comfortably in the subgenre of mysteries known as cozies.  A cozy is a mystery that you’re supposed to read in a comfy chair in front of a fire with a mug of cocoa and a cat on your lap.  It’s a low-key book in which the murder is mostly there to provide a focus for the story.  The focus of a cozy is on the intellectual puzzle and the characters of the people involved, both the suspects and the detective.

All of Agatha Christie’s work focuses on exploring one or more assumptions that readers tend to make, and exploiting that assumption to force the reader to guess the wrong murderer.  She anticipates the clever guesses that you might make…and uses those guesses against you.

This genre came about between World War I and II in the UK and Europe.  Where the U.S. was focusing on ripping detective stories, the other side of the world, almost literally shell-shocked, needed slightly less excitement in their lives, and went with cozies instead (although of course that’s an oversimplification).

The plot here is that a cantankerous old man’s family is gathered around him for one last time–and it really does turn out to be one last time.  Everyone has a motive, and most of the characters had the opportunity…except for the minor detail of the door having been locked from the inside.

I recommend this book for people who have had enough stress today, thank you, and possibly even people who have had enough family stress for the holiday season, thank you very much, and would like to see someone poke a few gentle holes in the windbags typical of more than a few families.

In particular, I think Gen-Xers are going to start reading more cozies as they get older–when epic fantasy starts to feel like too much drama.  Some days, sure, you can imagine yourself swinging a sword against dragons.  Other days, you just want to know that the jerky family patriarch gets what’s coming to him.

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

Think Like a Librarian: Roughneck, by Jeff Lemire

I’m not sure how to explain it, but I’m trying to look at the best of the best books that I read and see them as a librarian might–who needs this book? who would love it?  I read this one recently and was very impressed.

Roughneck by [Lemire, Jeff]

Roughneck is a standalone graphic novel by Jeff Lemire, who does a lot of work in comic books and may be best known for writing Old Man Logan, the inspiration for the movie Logan.  What I know him best for is his series Sweet Tooth.

This is a book that features a lot of violence, but focuses on the question, “What happens when you throw yourself away?”  Two First Nations siblings in Canada who have gotten themselves into what at first seems like an insurmountable amount of trouble are given a narrow, narrow window to save themselves–but it doesn’t look like they’re going to be able to change enough to do so.

I highly recommend this book if you need something to hand to a teen reader who is struggling with violence or short-term thinking, or who just doesn’t like to freaking read.  It’s a quick but chunky read, about 270 pages more filled with action and the ice-cold Canadian setting than it is with dialogue or weighty description.

I also have to admit that if you’re a grown-up who loves Bill Patterson’s art style and wondered what it would look like with adult material (there are no stuffed tigers), this would do up a treat, too.

Readers’ breath will fog up the air when they read this…even in July 🙂

It takes writing time to write these posts.  If you enjoyed this post, please take a moment to check out my latest book, One Dark Summer Night, or sign up for my newsletter.

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