Friday, November 21, 2014

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy



THE TRUE STORY OF HANSEL AND GRETEL is a holocaust book. It is also a retelling of the classic German fairytale, Hansel and Gretel. TTSoHaG is not the first book to do this: Jane Yolen also wrote a fairytale retelling about the holocaust called BRIAR ROSE.

TTSoHaG takes place in Poland. Why Poland? Because, according to the author, it was "the Devil's anvil" of WWII -- I guess the Nazis went there a lot to get stuff done. As far as atmospheres go, Murphy has woven a pretty fearsome one. SS soldiers are everywhere, and so are their spies. Some are living in a haze of war-fueled moral ambiguity. Others wallow in their depravity (like a certain Oberfuhrer who gets sexual gratification from blood transfusions from Aryan women because he believes it gives him power). The Russians are coming, and pushing back the Germans, but they maybe aren't so great, either.

Hansel and Gretel are on the run with their father and stepmother. They are on a motorcycle, and the stepmother points out that they will be faster without the deadweight of the children. So they abandon the children in the woods. The children leave a trail of breadcrumbs (ha) behind them as they push further into the Polish wilds, and end up in a small village, where they get taken in by a Rom woman named Magda, who has been (unfairly) branded as a witch because of her Gypsy ancestry.

Hansel and Gretel were given new German names by their father to help them hide better, and Magda takes it a step further by completely consuming their identities (ha). She gives them a new backstory, saying that they were put into a Karaite camp by their crazy mother, who imposed a circumcision on the boy. She dyes Hansel's hair blonde with peroxide. She tells them to avoid notice. Because the SS are abducting children -- perfect, blonde, blue-eyed, Aryan children. And Gretel fits the bill.

So does Magda's niece, Nelka, and her baby.

The fairytale references were pretty clever. At one point, Gretel goes into a cage because she keeps lashing out while she's in a fever. Magda moves the cage near the fire to keep her warm. When the Nazis come, Magda hides the two children in the oven.

One thing that really bothered me was that there was a lot of cruelty to children in this book. It's a holocaust book, so I wasn't expecting a happy ending, but I was surprised by how dark and terrible the content was. Gretel gets raped...while she's still a child. Nelka's lover, Telek, decides that the children of the village need to be horribly mutilated so the Nazis won't want to take them away, so there's a lovely description of that going on for about a chapter. Gretel gets molested by the crazy, creepy, blood-transfusion-loving Oberfuhrer.

I liked TTSoHaG, but it started to bog down towards the end. It was just misery heaped upon misery, and it didn't look like it was going anywhere for a bit. Also, Nelka and Telek's plot arc halted pretty quickly, which was a bit surprising considering the big role they played in the story. So one chapter they're there, and then that's the end of it? Okay, then.

The Polish setting was novel, and I liked the backdrop of TTSoHaG, but it was nothing special. The author said she did a lot of research about Poland and the Bialowieza forest for her story, and it really shows and adds a lot of atmosphere to the book. But I also feel like the characters became a bit nebulous at times, because there was less importance placed upon them, especially the children. When the two of them were walking alone in the forest, on the run, it dragged on and on, and I got flashbacks to RPG games where you're stuck in a desert, or a forest, looking for the magic switch that will get you the hell out of there. Meanwhile, enemies keep coming. That was this book.

3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Soppy: A Love Story by Philippa Rice



SOPPY definitely lives up to its name. Done entirely in black, white, and red colors, SOPPY is a graphic novel about love in its simplest and most rudimentary form: comfort and kindness.

Reading this graphic novel actually reminded me of the "Weird Things Couples Do" series from Buzzfeed, with Justin Abarca and Elizabeth Triplett. Seriously, they have to be the cutest couple ever (and yes, they really are married).

With abusive pseudo-BDSM relationships being the current vogue, a lot about what really constitutes love gets lost in translation. The sheer number of women claiming that they want these abusive men as boyfriends boggles my mind, because I have never wanted that.

This is what I want. Someone who is always there, rain or shine -- but especially in the rain. Holding the umbrella. And my hand.

4 out of 5 stars.

The Art of 5th Cell by Edison Yan



I would call myself a girl gamer, but I'm afraid I'm pretty stereotypical -- I like the cutesy sim and platformer games. Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, the Mario games, Yoshi Story, Chibi Robo, Pokemon...these are all games I own and love. I suspect a lot of people would probably laugh and sneer and say, "Of course, typical girl games." But whatevs. They're cute, and fun, and I like them. I like more "male"-targeted games, too, like shooter games, RPGs, and I'm just getting into the Zelda (fucking Ocarina, y u so hard?!) series, but sims and cutesy platformers have always been my favorites.

I stopped buying handheld consoles with the Gameboy Color, so I'm pretty limited in terms of the games I own. But I've been thinking about getting a DS for a couple years now, and THE ART OF 5TH CELL has given me a push in that direction. The games it features--Drawn to Life, and, of course, Scribblenauts--look right up my alley.

I like behind the scenes concepts, and the artist has a really great voice when he discusses his art and the process behind his work. He doesn't come across as pretentious at all; instead, he seems like a really cool, geeky guy who loves what he does and is lucky enough to be able to do it for a living. His art is great, and quite versatile, and a couple endearing typos on his blueprints (like 'guages' instead of 'gauges') made me warm to him that much more.

It's kind of surprising, the different kinds of games 5th Cell put out. For example, there's a phone game called Run Roo Run that looks an awful lot like Angry Birds. Then there's a first-person shooter game with futuristic guys in space suits and high-tech guns called Hybrid. And then there's the puzzle adventure games, DtL and Scribble, and, lastly, the RPG with anime-style characters, Lock's Quest (I'm getting a steampunk Tales of Symphonia vibe).

THE ART OF 5TH CELL works well as a standalone. Even if you haven't played any of the games, the art is still pretty impressive. I never really thought about the backgrounds of a game, but they do add a lot to the atmosphere of a game (and a level) and often go ignored. It's interesting to see the schematics behind what often goes unappreciated in game design. It's also a commercial success, in my opinion. THE ART OF 5TH CELL is basically a 168-page advert for 5th Cell's games, featuring a sneak peek of up-and-coming games by the company at the very end. It's fluff, but fun, and would make a great addition to any gamer's coffee table. And on that note, my thumb is starting to itch for an A-button to press.

3 out of 5 stars.

Good-Bye Geist by Ryo Hanada



Two words: cat deaths.

Yuki is pretty much the epitome of the Japanese schoolgirl stereotype -- tiny and petite, pretty and popular, and a little too free with her emotions. When she's not being groped by perverts and filmed by other perverts (who later turn out to be love interests), she's caring for people and filling her eyes up with earnest tears.

There's a bit of a love triangle. Chiba, her best friend, is in love with her, and so is Matsubara, the creeper she befriends on the train who video-records her with his phone. (Later, he claims that he did it because he wanted to get to know her better. Uh-huh...)

The thing about Matsubara is that he might also be Spirit, a serial-killer wannabe who slaughters cats (the bastard!) and biology lab frogs that are slated for dissection (why?). The killings are eerily similar to another set that happened seven years ago, culminating in the death of a boy named Tsuji. (I just tried to spell culminating with a 'K.') Is it the same person? Or a copycat? Is Matsubara a killer as well as a lonely pervert?

DUN, DUN, DUN.

I haven't been on Netgalley in a while, so GOOD-BYE GEIST was my first foray back into internet crackdom. As far as hits go, it gave me a non-existent buzz. Don't get me wrong; as an indie author myself, I can really appreciate attempts to showcase indie work, and that's what Gen Manga does. They publish indie manga (doujinshi) that isn't available anywhere else, translate it, and then publish it directly to the masses without the use of an intermediary. It's a great idea, and I've read some pretty interesting work from them. Artists struggle even more than writers, because the effort put into their creative output really exceeds the pay-off, unless you are both extremely talented and lucky.

But GOOD-BYE GEIST was a miss for me. The cat deaths really put me off. I love cats, and Yukiko, one of the victim cats, looked a lot like my own pet cat, Yang. And like Yukiko, Yang was also abused and has trust issues, so the whole time Yukiko was in the plot, I was thinking about my poor itty bitty kitty, and, well... I WAS NOT HAPPY, OKAY?

The use of "sexual violation" for titillation was a bit trashy and circumspect, too. And I feel like "sexual violation" is a bit...sensationalist for what actually happens. It suggests sexual violence, when all that happened (unless I missed something) was a grope. (Although the groper does at one point shove an umbrella under her skirt, and into her panties--so maybe that's what they were referring to? I don't think it's actually shown in the panels, but the characters were discussing it at one point and I was like, DA FUQ.) There doesn't seem to be much point to it either, except to provide a way for Matsubara to take an interest in Yuki, which isn't cool. I don't really like the two-opposite-sexed-characters-meet-and-bond-over-thrwarted-sexual-abuse trope. It suggests (to me) that women need men to help save them from being raped... which is a disturbing message to send.

Another thing that annoyed me was the fact that the identity of Spirit is never revealed. There's a flashback at the end that is maybe supposed to provide background to the mystery, but if the killer was revealed, I never figured it out. (I was kind of suspecting Yuki or Chiba, but hey, your guess is as good as mine.) That lack of closure was irritating. I feel like making it through a book entitles you to something. Leaving the reader hanging, that's just bad manners. And that's the problem with this book: GOOD-BYE GEIST is too nebulous, and uses violence and sex to keep the reader turning the pages.

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs by Elissa Wall



One of my favorite videos on Youtube is called Mind Control Made Easy, or How to Become a Cult Leader. It is 12:37 minutes long and worth every second, because, if you have read any books about cults or cult survivors, the tactics are there.

I studied psychology in school, and one of the facts that was always emphasized was the plasticity of the brain. It's pretty easy to shape, and under rigorous abuse, the mind tends to change pretty dramatically anyway, purely as a survival technique. When people are in cults, their entire lives become enmeshed in the cult superpower. It's the framework with which you live your life; and when that framework is gone, you feel totally lost.

For these reasons, I am really interested in radical religions, cults, and fundamentalism. I am not at all religious, so it is interesting to see the devoutness with which people approach religion in their daily life, imposing limitations, suffering under the yoke of constant guilt. I can't imagine putting faith in something other than myself so unequivocally, to the point where I would even compromise my own well being because it was this deity's will. It is such an alien thought to me, that I can scarcely comprehend it.

STOLEN INNOCENCE marks the third polygamy memoir I have read. The first was ESCAPE by Carolyn Jessop, which is probably the most famous. Carolyn's ex-husband, Merrill, is actually mentioned in this memoir, because Elisa and Allen end up going to his hotel to be married by Warren Jeffs, if I recall correctly. Ms. Jessop's story was powerful, and her narrative voice was very strong. Since she was a little older at the time of her marriage, the horror was mostly from the abusive family dynamic, which was enabled by the closed-door policy of their religion. I actually reviewed this book, so if you want to read more on my thoughts about it, you can check out the review here.

The second memoir took a totally opposite interpretation of polygamy. It was called LOVE TIMES THREE by the Darger family (the man and his three wives). They were one of the families that inspired the popular TV drama, Big Love. The book itself wasn't all that good, but having read STOLEN INNOCENCE, I can see a lot of the things that Elisa talked about -- the defense mechanisms, the self-contradiction, and the knowledge that what they are doing goes against society's norms and laws, and yet attempting to rationalize the illicit marriage as a holy thing. LOVE TIMES THREE is actually a better book if you read between the lines, because it is a powerful work of psychological turmoil and stress coated in thick layers of having "kept sweet." I reviewed this work as well, so if you would like to read my thoughts on LOVE TIMES THREE, you can do so here.

It's difficult to put my thoughts about STOLEN INNOCENCE into words. Even though I'm working all the time now, I devoured it in just under three days. It was compulsively readable; the horrors Elissa went through as a young woman were just so awful. At fourteen she was married to a cousin that she hated, because of how cruelly he treated her when they were children. He raped her for years, and Jeffs would not let her quit the marriage and get a release, and she received pressure from her whole family to "keep sweet", put a good face on things, and pop out babies. So she was raped for years, and suffered through three miscarriages and a still birth -- which, according to church doctrine, were all her fault for not being devout enough and not loving her husband enough. Can you imagine living in a society in which woman is the fault of everything, whether it is from a lapse in health, or a man's straying? I can't. But Elissa can, because she did, and her experience is disturbing.

It should have dawned on me that many aspects of the religion were based on revoking the rights of women. If a girl speaks her mind, get her married. Once she's married, get her pregnant. Once she has children, she's in for life -- it's almost impossible for any FLDS woman to take her children if she leaves, and no mother wants to leave her children behind.

Even when Elissa did manage to leave, most of her family stayed behind, and when she acted as a witness against Jeffs in court, members of her family signed affidavits against her, and friends testified against her in court. The web was that powerful, and even when she was allegedly free, Elissa still felt its stranglehold.

I think one of the saddest parts of the book was when Jeffs was fleeing, and in the car the authorities found a duffel bag of tithing letters from FLDS Mormons. Jeffs hadn't read the letters; he had just extracted the money they contained to help him run away. That just about broke my heart.

STOLEN INNOCENCE is a good book to read because it offers much in the way of discussion. I could see this being a good book club book, because even if you don't like Elissa (I did), you can still respect the enormity of what she did and how much bravery was required to do it. Her escape from the FLDS community was an incredible triumph over adversity, and I can't even imagine how she began to summon up the courage required to turn away from everything she had ever known in life in order to gain back her freedom.

4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Good and Useful Hurt by Aric Davis



A GOOD AND USEFUL HURT is a puzzling book. For starters, I can't even remember where I obtained it. I'm usually pretty good about remembering how I get my books. For example, just looking around at some of the titles in my room -- I won SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY in a Goodreads giveaway. I got FOREVER AMBER at a thrift store. I bought the Saint-Germain series at a shop in San Jose, while on a trip with a friend. And I got THE EIGHT at a FoL sale after remembering how much I loved the first copy that I bought and read several years before (also at a FoL sale). But this one ... this one is a mystery. Maybe it just crawled into my room?

At first, I liked A GOOD AND USEFUL HURT. It has an indie feel to it, in the sense that the writing is a little awkward, and the MC is kind of Gary-Stu-ish -- but it's good indie, and deals with some interesting topics. If your tastes run anything like mine, you're probably bored to death of the tattoo schtick. I know I'm tired of middle-class pussy boys trying to be all, "Look at me, I'm badasss because I've got tribal tattoos and wear Axe Gold Temptation!"

No, A GOOD AND USEFUL HURT is worth reading if only because it shows that all kinds of people can get tattoos ... whether because they're into BDSM, or want to remember an important life event, or want to re-own their body after some kind of trauma or abuse. Or just because, you know, they feel like it. That's a good message to send, I think. Tattoos really aren't a Big Deal, and neither are piercings. They're only stupid if you do it to look cool or be a bad-ass, because that means you haven't thought about this decision beyond the superficial aspects. Never a good idea.

So. The message. I liked it.

Now, this review is going to contain spoilers, because a lot of the things I didn't like the book will contain plot information that will spoil the 'mystery.' Or at the very least, the suspense.

If you do not want this to happen, you shouldn't read any further.

Seriously, do not do it.

Also, this book also contains spoilers for Dean Koontz's ODD THOMAS, so if you have any vested interest in reading that series, maybe you should also back away.

Okay, so Mike, our main (slightly Stuish) character, is a tattoo artist. I think he's the mouthpiece for the author, because there's a lot of proselytizing about accepting people for who they are, especially when it comes to tattoos, and getting over racial and sexual prejudices, and just a lot of paragraphs devoted to this opining that really have nothing to do with the plot.

The plot is that there is this creepy psycho man named Phil who likes raping and dismembering and killing women (in that order). Especially if they have tattoos. There's also this plot where all these people keep coming to Mike, asking him to tattoo their dead loved ones' ashes into their bodies. Which is a little creepy, but I didn't mind that too much because it was an interesting thought, and people have done weirder things in grief. (Or even not grief. I seem to recall a certain celebrity pair who wore each other's blood around their necks in little vials.)

Meanwhile, Phil has hired a sassy new piercer named Deb who basically takes no shit. Deb kind of reminded me of this girl I knew in college. We weren't really friends, but we hung out sometimes, and she was really wild and crazy and just really happy with her life. Like, she had this persona, and you could tell that she was totally happy with it, and life was this giant adventure to her, even the bad stuff. She's the kind of person you envy, because you can't keep up with, and sometimes you call her fake because you just can't believe that anyone could really be so out there. That is Deb.

I liked Deb.

And then she died.

At first, I could not believe it. Because on the back of the book, it says, "And when the life of a serial killer tragically collides with the lives in the tattoo shop, Mike and Deb will stop at nothing in their quest of revenge..." So no way could Deb die, because the two of them are in this together.

Right? RIGHT??

Wrong.

Because it turns out that tattooing the ashes of your loved one into your skin gives you the ability to communicate with them telepathically. That's how come Mike has been getting all these weird customers. Word on the grapevine is that Mike's tattoos are magic. And his first hoodoo client, Doc, has the brilliant idea that if they collect the ashes of the serial killer's previous victims and tattoo them into Mike, they'll collect enough info to find out and get revenge upon the serial killer. Oh, and since Mike tattooed Deb's ashes into his arm, he sees Ghost Deb.

Odd Thomas, much?

Except, with Odd Thomas, there was a depth to the relationship that was tangible. When I saw the movie Odd Thomas, even though I knew what happened, even though I was emotionally prepared for what happened ... I wasn't. And when the grim reveal happens, I sobbed like a baby and went through like a whole roll of TP. Even now, I'm starting to tear up -- because it was so EMOTIONAL.

That wasn't here, partially because Deb gets so little air time, just when you're finally starting to like her and get a feel for her, she's gone -- and that was a really bad tactical move on the author's part.

And then there's how the girls get revenge on the serial killer. It is probably one of the most grizzly scenes ever. They Freddy Krueger his ass Hannibal Lecter style, and the clinical dispassion with which it is written makes the scene even more unpleasant than if it had been labored over. Especially when one of the transitions involves the main characters going HEY LET'S GET SUSHI. Yeah, that's what I want to think about. A guy getting skinned alive before having his balls chopped up and then transitioning to raw, skinless fish. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THAT IMAGE.

(At least it wasn't carpaccio?)

The last 140 pages really killed my enjoyment of the book. For a while, I was like, "Okay, this isn't perfect, but it's interesting and I like the way their relationship is progressing." And then Deb was dead, and the torture starts and I'm just like ... what was the point of this? It wasn't even satisfying ending-wise, because Mike ends up all alone at his friend's wedding, and the serial killer gets tortured to death, and the cops are just like, "Hmm, that's odd that he has strangle marks even though nobody ever touched him ... oh well!" (Hashtag -- worst cops ever.) It was a big downer, basically.

I was really hoping that this could be a small press book I could recommend in good faith to people, but alas ... nope. Even my friend who is interested in tattoos and piercings probably wouldn't like it, because of all the darkness in the book, and the lack of redemption. (I mean you could argue that Mike allowed the women to be at peace, but still. He ended up alone, and kept having all the women in his life die. How fucking depressing is that? Not something I want to be reading for fun.)

So overall, I think I'll give this book 1.5 stars.

(There was also this one chapter where the book randomly switches into first person. No idea why.)

1.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill



So the internet now shuts off at 12:15 in my house now, which is ridiculous, especially since I usually get home around midnight from work, so my time to do author stuff is basically nil. Let's see if I can crank out this review in twenty-seven minutes.

I've been reading THE GIRL WHO WAS SATURDAY NIGHT for several weeks now, and it's in that book purgatory where I didn't hate it, but I didn't really like it, either. It's kind of like when the TV switches over from the news to daytime television, but you're too lazy to get up and find the remote, so you end up watching Jerry Springer or Maury Povich. It's not good, but you can't stop watching, or it's not terrible enough that you actually want to take an active role in ceasing its being on the television.

So it was with this book.

TGWWSN is about two French-Canadian people in their early twenties who are twins. If they were American, you'd probably call them white trash. They're famous in Quebec only because their father was a Bob Dylany/Crash Test Dummiesy-type folk singer who never really let go of his allotted fifteen minutes of fame. No, he dug his claws in and hung on for dear life, leaving the kiddies without a parental hand to hold.

Nicolas and Nouschka are attractive and coast on their looks and the remainder of their father's fame. But soon they start to grow up -- either because of their own initiative, or against their will, and they learn that being an adult, with consequences!, pretty much sucks. It means giving up your dreams, or finding out you're no longer as sexy or attractive, or that you can't get off the hook with a winning smile, or that people expect more of you, and no, you can no longer get away with murder.

At first, I liked TGWWSN, although it was really (REALLY) reminiscent of her first work, Lullabies for Little Criminals. Both of them had a very strong WHITE OLEANDER set in Canada vibe that was really hard to ignore. I like loss of innocence as a motif, especially in literary fiction (high brow Maury Povich, bitches), but it has to bring something new to the table, and O'Neill had a lot of writing tics in this book that really annoyed me. Like her constant attempts to sound twee and profound. Or her overdependence on ridiculous similies (THEY HAPPENED EVERY OTHER PAGE). Examples:

...he glowed, like a baby that was fat on breast milk and about to pass out (299).

The smoke swirled inside [the bong], looking like a mermaid trapped in an aquarium, banging on the walls (255).

[The swan] held its wings in front of it, like a naked girl with only her socks on, holding her hands over her privates (161).

[The cat] looked like a boy at a funeral whose suit was too small for him (60).

[The] white Pomeranian [had] a face like a chewed-up tooth-brush (64).

The dog was trembling with excitement...like he was waiting to add a detail to your anecdote (64).

These occurred pretty much every other page, although sometimes as many as three to a page. These aren't even the worst one. The last author I read who did this was Vikas Swarup in his book, SIX SUSPECTS. I thought he went overboard, but O'Neill may have done it even more.

On the other hand, there were some beautiful passages like these:

There was a feeling, when we were together, that we were little kids dressing up as adults. That the universe was something that we drew with crayons and there was no such thing as tragedy (191).

And,

Love is like this small room where a child brings you to show you all their treasures. First the child shows you all the new toys that are bright and shiny and top of the line. But then she shows you all the stuff that has ended up at the bottom of the trunk. There are dolls with eyes that wobble, hair that is falling out of their heads, and dirt behind their ears. Their fingertips have been chewed off by dogs and they have been drawn on with ballpoint pen. It has been so long since they have been held or anyone has told them that they are lovely. They lie at the bottom of the toy chest, hidden and ashamed. You are either going to be disgusted by them, or you are going to be so filled with love for them that your heart almost breaks (228).

And,

When you are young, you can dress in rags and stand on the table and piss in telephone booths. In a young person, these are the traits of a poet. But if you exhibited any of these behaviours at forty-five, people would think you are a degenerate (341).

TGWWSN was an interesting read, but not particularly good. It definitely suffers from second book syndrome, and is proof that you should not let critical acclaim go to your head, or make you think you are invulnerable. Instead of continuing to be edgy and daring, like her first book, O'Neill stayed with what was comforting and got lazy. The result was extremely disappointing.

2.5 out of 5 stars.