Book Review: Joyland, by Stephen King

cover of JoylandStephen King has written some books that are great, some that are OK, and some that are awful, but he has never, ever, written a book that is boring.  Joyland is a book that is OK.  It has flaws, but being dull is not one of them, even though the story is more a coming-of-age story than one of horror or suspense.

Dev is a twenty-one year old college student with a broken heart who accepts a part-time job at Joyland, an amusement park.  He makes friends, he saves two lives, he bonds with a sick kid and the kid’s overwhelmed mother, and he recovers from being dumped by his first love, Wendy.  He also tries to solve an old murder that happened in the park.

I was thinking there might be some murderous clowns or something, but actually the horror quotient is quite low.  This is a coming of age story, and although the murder ties all the elements together, and gives the book a certain sense of dread, there’s not a lot of scary stuff.  There is a show down with the bad guy, and there are some hints of the supernatural (a ghost, a psychic kid) but this book is more about coping with the kinds of losses that are devastating but not supernatural in origin.

The book seems sort of thrown together – it feels like Stephen King has two completely different books in mind and he just chucked them in a blender to see what would happen.  I never understood why the murder is so important to Dev, or why solving it was such a catharsis for him.  I was also disturbed by an undercurrent of misogyny.  In general, I don’t consider King to be a misogynist writer – books like CarrieLisey’s Story, and The Gingerbread Girl (a novella), not to mention Rose Madder, Dolores Clairborne, and Gerald’s Game, have viewed women with deep sympathy and celebrated their individuality and their ability to survive.  Maybe I’m just a little bloodthirsty, but reading The Gingerbread Girl was one of the most cathartic experiences in literature I’ve ever had.

But there’s a weird thread of hostility to women that runs through Joyland.  I’m not speaking so much of the murders – they are clearly viewed by all (except the murderer) as despicable acts.  I’m more concerned that Dev is so angry that Wendy, his first love, never had sex with him.  Guess what Dev – Wendy doesn’t have to have sex with you.  Not having sex does not make her a tease.  Having sex does not make her a slut.  She dumped you for another guy, and that’s shitty, but sex isn’t something that’s owed to you, dude.  So get over that.  Really, that’s all we know about Wendy – Dev adored her, she wouldn’t have sex with him, she dumped him for someone else.  Not having sex with Dev, but presumably having it with someone else, is her one defining characteristic and we are supposed to hate her for it.

The other two women in the story are sweet and supportive.  Annie, the mother of Mike, the sick kid, is initially hostile, but she warms up to Dev and rewards him for his goodness to Mike with – you guessed it – sex.  And Dev’s friend Erin is uniformly sweet.  She is, in fact, the perfect girlfriend (although she’s not Dev’s girlfriend).  And yes, she does have sex with her boyfriend, and not with anyone else.

What I liked about Joyland was its description of carnival life.  With the carnival, and the boardwalk, and the feeling of the transience of summer, overlaid by ghost story shivers, this is a great summer reading book – but not, overall, a great book.

Mini Review: The Golem and the Jinni

cover of Golem and JinniThe Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker is a beautiful and remarkable piece of historical fantasy.  Set in New York City in the early 1900’s, the book follows the lives of a golem named Chava and a jinni named Ahmad as they try to adjust to life among humans.  Chava has lost her master, and without a master, she is overwhelmed by the needs and wishes of those around her.  Ahmad is bound to a wizard, but he doesn’t know who the wizard is, or how to free himself.  While Chava struggles with a crushing sense of obligation towards others, Ahmad has no sense of empathy and no understanding of how his actions affect others.  He does what he wants, when he wants.  For the most part, these two characters face New York separately, but when they finally meet, they are able to help each other reach a tenuous sense of balance between responsibility and freedom.

I loved this book for its rich sense of culture and of place.  Wecker is equally adept at describing daily life in a busy bakery and life in a glass castle in the desert.  I loved the language and the characters and the feeling of being in another world.  The fantasy elements are subtle enough that I think people who don’t normally enjoy fantasy will love this for the historical fiction.  At the same time, these elements are rich enough that people who aren’t crazy about historical fiction will like it for the fantasy.  There is a love story, though it develops slowly and carefully – in fact, for most of the book, I didn’t think the romance would happen at all.  This is a book I can’t stop thinking about.  You can find my full-length review at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

Wednesday Video Might Cause You To Swoon

WednesdayVideoThere I was, looking up a completely different video, one infused with humor and snark, when I found this tribute to romantic period dramas.  There’s quite a bit of Austen in here, and my very favorite Jane Eyre couple (Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson).  Seriously, this just pure, unabashed romance. I have to go watch it about ten more times but I guess I’ll have to pick myself off the floor first.

John Scalzi: Making Conventions Safe For All

In the last couple of years, convention attendees, both male and female, have been working to confront sexual (and other) harassment at conventions.  John Scalzi is the past president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SWFA) and the author of books like Redshirts and Old Man’s War.  Recently, Scalzi announced on his blog that he will not attend conventions unless they have a sexual harassment policy in place.  You can read his initial entry here.

Since Scalzi just can’t stop being more and more awesome every day, he wrote another, longer piece explaining why he took this action here.  It is some kick-ass writing (and funny, too).  I urge you to read it.  You can also co-sign his pledge should you care to.

As a woman and the mother of a daughter, I’m deeply appreciative not only for women who fight for my rights but for men who ally with me.  To those who view women at conventions as playthings, sex toys, or objects of derision, I have a news flash for you:

1.  We are here.

2.  We are people.

3.  We are not leaving.

And oh, yeah, in case only an appeal to baser instincts will convince you to treat me with respect, here’s one more thing:

4.  We have money and we represent a considerable portion of your audience and your clientele.

I’ve always been treated well at cons and I hope for all people to have as delightful of experiences as I’ve had.  I’m hoping to hear glorious fan tales of a busy, safe, and fun convention summer this year!

That’s the News from Westercon, Where all the Costumes Are Above Average

A milestone in the geek girl family – I took my daughter, who shall herefore be referred to as Princess Leia for costuming reasons, to her first science fiction convention, and here’s what happened:

girl and toy yoda wearing Victorian hats

Yoda goes Victorian

Westercon was a small-scale, relaxed con.  It didn’t feel as commercial as a lot of cons do – in fact, people were almost compulsively giving my friend’s daughter free stuff and saying things to me like, “Oh, it’s fine, we trust you, just mail us a check”.  This convention had a focus on writers and fiction.  It was a really laid-back, happy gathering of some serious geeks.  I loved it, and Princess Leia is now, as they say in The Big Bang Theory, “Queen of the Nerds”.

It wouldn’t be a Con without Cosplay.  My thanks to the many cosplayers who gave me permission to take and post pictures.  I apologize for the fact that my camera is crap and my photography skills are nill.  These photos aren’t very polished, but I hope they’ll give you a feel for how colorful the Con was!

cosplay (TARDIS maid outfit)

The TARDIS – original, fun, and check out the stockings!

You have to have some steampunk in your life, right?  This trio was immaculately outfitted right down to their shoes:

three people in steampunk cosplay

Ready for their airship departure!

Jesus Brienne, you look terrible.  What did you do, get in a fight with a bear or something?  On a happier note, Daenerys and her dragon were trailed all afternoon by adoring children.  I guess they haven’t found out what the dragons eat yet.

cosplayers (Brienne and Daenerys

Brienne and Daenerys

Beautiful sparkly things from Jewels By Olivia.  See the green tiara on the top left?  I MUST HAVE IT.  I will earn a zillion dollars and achieve world domination and make the nations cower before me, and when they cry out to me for mercy, saying, “What do you wish for?”  I shall say, “BRING ME THAT TIARA.”

tiaras from Westercon Sealer's Room

Jewels by Olivia, Westercon Dealer’s Room

I didn’t go to many panels due to the presence of children (mine and my friend’s, not other people’s).  But I did go to one on Finding Your Muse, where I got some great advice from M. Todd Gallowglass:

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block.  No matter how difficult a passage is, you can always write just one more sentence.  and then just one more sentence after that.  and then just one more after that”.

Wise words, indeed.  Thanks for a great day, Westercon!

Book Review: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

cover of Life After LifeI’ve read a lot of good books lately, but it’s been a long time since I was reading a book at one o’clock in the morning because I just had to know what happens next.  EVERYONE has been talking about Life After Life, and I can tell you why – it’s freaking amazing, that’s why.

Life After Life is historical fiction with one speculative fiction twist.  The main character, Ursula, dies moments after she is born, and, for lack of a better word, reboots.  She starts her life over, with no memory of having lived before.  Everything reboots.  She dies and reboots over an over again, as a child and as an adult.  The only thing that remains for her from each past experience is that at critical moments she experiences a feeling of dread and déjà vu.  She feels compelled to keep the maid from going to London during the influenza epidemic, or compelled to convince her sister that they should make sandcastles instead of going swimming.  But she doesn’t know why she feels compelled to do these things, and the results are uncertain (she has a hell of a time surviving that influenza epidemic, let me tell you).

Many people have reviewed this book so I’ll just touch on a couple of things and then urge you to go read it.  One thread is that changing one thing can change your whole life.  Sometimes that one thing is a big thing.  In one version of her life she is raped, and in one version she fights off her attacker.  Her life diverges drastically based on the outcome of the attack.  Sometimes smaller things change, or even save, her life – she puts a doll in a drawer instead of leaving it out But many things stay the same no matter what, like her aunt’s wild nature, her mother’s bitter one, and her sister’s pragmatic loyalty..  I found this fascinating, and I’d love to re-read the book so I can pay less attention to the suspense of “what happens next” and more to the underlying philosophical themes about life and love and relationships and identity.

Which brings me to my next point – there’s a lot of thoughtful stuff in this book, but above all it is an incredibly engrossing read.  Did I mention that I was up at one am reading it?  And then I couldn’t fall asleep because I was thinking about it?  I cannot overstate how compelling and suspenseful this book is.  I thought the flu epidemic section was a real nail-biter and then Ursula grows up and has to survive London during the Blitz, and she just keeps rebooting, in all these variations, and each time you hope that this time she’ll make it…one in the fucking morning, people.  I’m both appreciative and a little bitter about this.

The final thing I want to mention is that the vividness of detail and the feeling of historical accuracy is remarkable.  Everything is drawn in fine, beautiful, careful language, whether it’s the pattern of the wallpaper in Ursula’s childhood home or the appearance of bodies during the blitz.  There is a great love for the mundane, and it grounds the story in a real place, with real, flawed, people.

I’m not sure exactly how to interpret what happens at the end – but it left me feeling hopeful, and proud of Ursula, who comes so far, so many times, and makes a heroic choice that makes terrible sense.  This amazing book is funny and harrowing and suspenseful and moving.  It made me feel, it made me think, and it let me vicariously experience life in a big city, a mountain retreat, a crowded cottage.  I can’t recommend this book enough.