In case you ever wondered how lazy I was

I became aware a couple of weeks ago that Dr. Jekyll (and, along with him, Mr. Hyde) appeared in the new Mummy movie.  I have no interest in seeing that movie at all but it reminded me that I’ve never actually read the original book.

Wherever I was when that thought occurred to me, I mentally scanned my bookshelf and decided that I probably already owned a copy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but that I wasn’t sure.  Normally the idea that I don’t know if I own a book is very unusual, but in this case I had a decent reason: at some point several years ago those cheap Barnes and Noble classics editions went really cheap– like $2.50 a book– and I scooped up a ton of them on the assumption that I’d want to read them eventually.  I was pretty certain that DJ&MH was among that list, but I wasn’t sure.

This is a picture of some (yes, some) of the bookshelves in my living room, taken from the perspective of my recliner, which is where I spend a substantial proportion of my time when I’m at home, to the point where my son calls it “Daddy’s chair”:

FullSizeRenderHelpful pink arrows are indicating where the Barnes and Noble editions I was referring to are shelved.  You will note that some of them are behind a rocking chair and a few of the boy’s toys.  Those items were not put into those places for the purpose of this picture; that is where they generally live– meaning that my view of the shelf on the right was blocked from my recliner.  In addition, my eyes aren’t quite good enough anymore to resolve individual titles of the books on that shelf from my chair, although I knew the rough size and color of the spine so I was pretty sure it wasn’t in the bunch on the left.

It took two weeks for me to simultaneously 1) remember that I had been wondering if I had a copy of DJ&MH when I was actually in the house and 2) have the energy to get my lazy ass up out of my chair to go check those books on the right.  There were multiple occasions where the first happened and the second did not.  Multiple.

The answer was yes, by the way.

#REVIEW: RIVER OF TEETH, by Sarah Gailey

31445891I wanted to like this book so much.

So, here’s the premise of River of Teeth, and tell me if you aren’t chomping at the bit to read this motherfucker after you hear it:  It is a true fact that in the early 20th century the US Government actually planned to import hippopotamuses into the delta of the Mississippi in order to raise them for meat.  This didn’t actually happen, because are you kidding, of course it didn’t.

In River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey backs that timeline up by a hundred years or so and then gives us an alternate history where it actually happened.

And, like, you’re in, right?  Look at the damn cover.  Cowboy adventures on hippos.  How could you not go buy this immediately and read the hell out of it?

And for a while, it’s cool. Hippos have been in the US for long enough that we’ve domesticated them into a few different breeds (I’m good with the idea of breeds; less so with the “domesticated” idea, but whatever) and so there are, like, meat hippos and ridin’ hippos and one that, honest to God, appears to be some sort of ninja stealth attack hippo, and each of the main characters has their own hippo that they have a relationship with and ride on and are bonded with.

So, that premise gets you through about the first third of the book, and you’re still super excited, and then the cracks start to show and it becomes pretty clear that the utterly fantastic premise was all the book had, and maybe it was worth reading anyway, I think?   But the following things all happen:

  • The hippos get sidelined for big chunks of the book because you can’t get hippos into buildings and such.  The hippos are cool!  Make this a road adventure so that the hippos are around more often!
  • The book is weirdly structured; the author was clearly trying to write to novella length and had a bit more story than that so the actual Big Adventure part is sort of unfocused and gets resolved really abruptly.  There’s also a weird scale thing happening where it’s never clear at all just how much open land they have to work with; it could be anything from a few acres to several square miles. That’s a big difference when you’re hunting hippos!
  • Speaking of: the Mad Caper is almost an afterthought for most of the book.  There’s a big Putting the Band Together sequence that is well-written and neat until you realize that it’s never really clear why any of these characters are necessary for the Caper to occur, or for the most part what their roles are intended to be– especially once the Caper occurs and it turns out to have been the least complicated plan of all time.
  • The main character Wants Revenge from a certain other character for, no shit, burning his hippo ranch to the ground and killing all his hippos.  Cool!  Motivation! And then a third character kills the object of revenge at about the 2/3 mark of the story for cheating at cards and well I guess that storyline can sorta fizzle.  Sure, things like this might happen on earth, but they’re not narratively very interesting. There’s a reason the bad guy never randomly dies of a heart attack or a car accident halfway through the story.
  • One character is inexplicably hugely pregnant.  The parentage of the child is kept in the dark until it is Suddenly Revealed, at which point no one cares, because we don’t know these characters so why does it matter who they were banging before we met them?  Also, the pregnancy is ignored whenever convenient.
  • Another character is French, which is fine, except the accent she’s written with is ‘orribly annoying and involves huge numbers of apostrophes.
  • And then there’s Hero.  I feel crappy complaining about Hero, but I’m gonna do it anyway.  Hero is… trans?  Maybe?  Nonbinary, somehow?  Genderqueer?  Unconcerned?  Who knows, but Hero is referred to with plural pronouns throughout the book, including by characters who have never met them prior to referring to them as “they.”  And we are never told why.  Now, I have an entire race of characters in my Benevolence Archives book who don’t conform to gender binary and use specialized pronouns, so maybe I ought to shut up here?  But the combination of constant plurals with a deliberate refusal to ever actually describe Hero is insanely annoying. Hero even gets into a relationship with the main character at one point!  They have sex, I think!

And here’s where I break away from the bullet points, because they’re going to become unwieldy:  there’s nothing wrong, obviously, with including nonbinary characters in your book.  I recommend it, in fact!  My favorite book of the year so far features a trans main character!  But give me some way to hook into these characters, or at least to picture them.  And as much as I hate to complain about historical accuracy in a book about people riding hippos, I feel like no one in the mid/late 1800s who has never met Hero is going to look at Hero and automatically call them “they” without even asking any questions.  Similarly, the love relationship: Hero flirts with the main character throughout the book and they eventually end up in bed together.  Cool!  Except that when they meet Hero immediately tries to poison him.  It’s not so much “trans (maybe!) character gets a love interest” that I have an issue with– that part’s fine– but I don’t know how many romantic relationships begin with attempted murder.(*)

I’m gonna keep an eye on Sarah Gailey, guys, because the cool things about this book are really cool, and the writing in general is fast and snappy and it’s a fun book.  The issues with it are mostly issues of authorial control; I feel like if she had been writing a full-length novel a lot of the issues might have gone away.  One way or another, I’m disappointed with this one, but I’m pretty sure I’m still in for her next book.

(*) Okay, I’ve referred to Rhundi holding Brazel at gunpoint on their first date repeatedly in the Benevolence Archives books.  But y’all haven’t seen the whole story yet.

A brief, charming little story

Sure, why not.

My wife is out of town again, through Friday this time, and as he tends to do when one of us is out of town the boy has requested to sleep in the “big bed.” I put him off last night because for a five-year-old he takes up an astonishing amount of room and is somewhat less receptive than my wife to the occasional nudge if he strays past his side of the bed.

(For the record, I have no idea how receptive I am to such nudges.  I’m sure I do it too.)

My wife is reading IT for about the hojillionth time right now in preparation for the upcoming movie.  We have at least three copies of the book in the house and two of them are on her nightstand– the paperback copy she started reading, and the hardback she ganked from her parents when she realized that reading a thousand pages of the tiny print in the paperback might not be in her eyes’ best interest.

As I’m reading the boy his bedtime stories, he notices the books and asks if tomorrow I can read IT to him instead of, oh, Disney’s 5-Minute Fairy Tales or whatevertheshit.


“Why not?”

“It’s too scary for you.  You can read it when you’re old enough,” I say to him, reflecting upon the fact that my first Stephen King book was Misery, published in 1987, and therefore first read (I stole my grandmother’s copy on an overnight visit, and I was 2/3 done with it before she realized what I was reading, well past the point where she could have objected) when I was in fifth grade.  I went on a serious King bender after that and so it couldn’t have been much longer before I got to IT.

“Oh, okay,” he says.  “They taught me to read yesterday at school.  I can do that now.  Can I read it to myself?”

I think about this for a second.

“Sure.  You can start tomorrow, though.”

“Okay,” he says, and hands me the fairy tales book, apparently satisfied.

I’m really gonna feel ridiculous if he actually did learn to read yesterday, I imagine.

#REVIEW: The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

32075671One of our local radio stations does a bit called Group Therapy in the morning, which is usually airing just as I’m driving the boy to school.  The general pattern is this: they pose a problem, submitted by a listener, that should generally be easily dealt with by anyone with an average middle schooler’s level of sophistication and emotional intelligence.  They do not provide enough information about the problem to allow listeners to give useful advice, and people who like hearing their voices or names on the radio submit useless advice on Facebook or on the air so that the person involved can do whatever they were going to do anyway.

I’m going to start listening to Pandora more in the morning, is what I’m saying.

This morning’s problem was as follows: a parent’s 11-year-old has stolen their credit card, for the second time.  It wasn’t made perfectly clear, but it seems that as of the time of the advice-asking, the boy still had the card.  He had used it to buy $50 worth of drinks and snacks from a local convenience store and not to, say, order hundreds of dollars worth of electronics from somewhere, which is what you’d think most kids would do with a credit card they’d stolen.  Anyway, this parent had reported the card stolen, and apparently under the (incorrect) idea that the police would show up if the kid attempted to use the card again– which, yeah, right— was wondering if he/she should just talk to his/her kid or let the police “scare him straight.”

And all I could think of, listening to this, was that the person asking for advice and every single one of the dumb motherfuckers providing (generally approving) advice for the latter piece of advice had to be white.  Because every black parent in America knows that you do not let the police anywhere near your child unless someone is guaranteed to die if you don’t.  There are no optional encounters with the police.  Fuck, I’m white and I live in a nice neighborhood and I’m never calling the police again unless somebody is under serious immediate physical threat.  And you’re gonna call the police on your baby because of a $50 credit card bill?  Your privilege is not only showing, it’s leaking out of the dashboard of my car, and I ought to be able to charge somebody to clean that shit up.

(Leave aside the ridiculous notions that 1) the police care about a $50 fraudulent credit card charge because they have nothing else to do and 2) they have time to help you with relatively routine parenting decisions.)

Which brings me to Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, or THUG for short.  The title of the book is a Tupac reference; Pac was fond of the backronym, explaining, for example, that “nigga” stood for “Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished.”  “Thug Life,” to Tupac, meant “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody,” and the meaning of that phrase is discussed throughout the book.

The story is told through the eyes of Starr Carter, a sixteen-year-old black girl.  Starr is the sole witness when a policeman murders one of her oldest friends during a traffic stop.  Her friend, Khalil, was unarmed and unresisting when he was shot.  The rest of the book spins out from that one moment; the different sections are even dated by it: “Three Weeks After It Happens,” and such.

You can probably predict the overall story beats from the premise, right?  America knows this story pretty Goddamn well by now, and the tension here is less from what happens (anybody want to put money down on whether the cop is exonerated by the grand jury or not?) than how the people in the book react to it.  Starr herself is a fascinating character; she lives in a rough neighborhood but her parents scrape and save to send her to a private school 45 minutes away, so many of her best friends aren’t black and she thinks of herself as being two different people, one at school and one at home.    Her uncle is a police officer, her father a former gang member.  Khalil himself has a complicated backstory, and the book dives into the inevitable attempt by the media and the police to slander him and make him responsible for his own murder.  For a large portion of the story Starr’s school friends and her (white) boyfriend aren’t aware that she’s the anonymous witness the news keeps referring to, and the way she reacts to their treatment of Khalil’s death is complex and fascinating.  Her navigation through the web of relationships and identities she’s struggling with throughout the book is a pleasure to read.

I recommend books here all the time; I rarely bother to review anything I didn’t love unless I think I can hate it in an entertaining way, but it’s not terribly often that I use the word important to describe a book that I’ve read.  You need to read THUG, and you need to get THUG into the hands of as many other people as you can, particularly young people.  Angie Thomas’ writing is crisp and clear, Starr herself is a wonderful character, and I can’t wait to get my hands on more work by this author.  Go read this book.  Do it right now.

Pre-review: THE HATE U GIVE, by Angie Thomas

I hav32075671.jpgen’t been around much lately– I’ve had a distinct lack of things to say, to be honest– and this post isn’t going to change things all that much, but at the moment I’m halfway through Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and I figure I may as well start right now: this book is a big fucking deal, and a whole goddamn lot of people who aren’t reading it need to be.   This book is fucking important in a way that nothing I’ve read in a while really has been, and I know I’m frequently all sorts of ebullient whenever I write about a book around here, but take this seriously.

Full post incoming once I finish it, of course.  I can imagine a world where the back half goes pear-shaped, but I don’t know that it even matters.  I can’t imagine it going sour enough that I wouldn’t be recommending this to everyone I could find when I was done with it.