Closing up shop

Genre Lasagna was born out of boredom as much as it was out of a desire to write critically about books. Josh and I were both English majors and we’ve remained book people in the years since graduation. The first reviews on Genre Lasagna went up in October of 2011. Since then, Josh and I have reviewed over 50 books. In that time, there have been several highlights. We were the first outlet to review Salvatore Pane’s Last Call in the City of Bridges. Josh worked his way through the entire Harry Potter series again. Joe Hill retweeted a link to Josh’s review of Horns. I convinced Josh that A Dance with Dragons was still pretty good. Both of us read and wrote about a whole lot of books. Even though the site is going away, that’s not going to change. However, Josh and I have decided that, while this blog project was indeed a lot of fun, it has begun to feel like an obligation. Maybe that has shown in our last few reviews, but nonetheless the fact is that for the last few months, my heart hasn’t been in it. That’s not the fault of this site, and it’s not the fault of the act of criticism. I know that I will still be thinking a lot about the books I read, even if I don’t necessary work out those thoughts in writing. That’s part of what led me to become a book person anyway–the impulse to better understand and more deeply engage with books. But, at least for now, I’m okay with the idea of not doing that in writing in a formal (well, as formal as this really ever got) venue.

So, long story short, Genre Lasagna is going away. The site will remain here for as long as WordPress allows us to host for free, but there will not be any new content. All of our reviews are easily accesible from the REVIEW ARCHIVE page. For everyone who read, thanks for reading. This was a lot of fun.



I just want to echo much of what Ben has said (though not the part about him convincing me about ADwD; I hate that book). We started GL because we like books, we like talking about books, and we both gravitate toward writing in one way or another. It’s been a lot of fun, and even when we didn’t get any comments on our posts, I still always felt like I had learned something, either from Ben’s smart analysis of some text or my own working through of a book’s ideas. Much of the time, this site felt like a book journal for me, where every once in awhile a friend (or sometimes a frenemy who can’t see how ridiculously terrible the Dresden Files are) would take a peek inside, and that was pretty neat. And for awhile it was kind of cool to read within limits, forcing myself to look for new books that would be the kind of thing I could see reviewing for the site, but recently that has felt more like a drag than a creative limitation, and reading shouldn’t be that. So, for the time being at least, I think it’s the right move for us, since Ben has been feeling much the same, to close up our little book review site. I’m proud of what we’ve done, and more than that I’m happy with the experience of having done it. Thanks to those of you who read and thanks to those of you who commented.





2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 4,500 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 8 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Josh’s Review: “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” by Ned Vizzini

ImageNed Vizzini’s 2006 YA novel tells the story of Craig Gilner and his depression. The plot covers something like a week or so, but we get ample flashbacks right away to fill things out. Craig, a teenager, worked his butt off to get into Manhattan’s premier high school (Executive Pre-Professional High School) and has not been doing especially well since getting in. At the opening of the story, which is a little hard to sort out because Vizzini is doing this weird present/past mirroring thing right away, Craig is miserable with his place in school, unhappy with his friends, and very seriously depressed. After a night of contemplating suicide, Craig checks himself into a mental hospital, and it’s here that we spend the best parts of the book (even though Craig is only there for 5 days-ish). In Six North, Craig meets a cast of characters, one of them a pretty girl named Noelle, and you can probably imagine how the rest of the story goes from there.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story has a lot of potential, and there were moments where I thought Vizzini was able to capitalize on that, but the book didn’t really work for me overall. As I’ve suggested, the best part of this book (and the part Vizzini is clearly working toward) is Craig’s time in Six North, but it takes us almost 200 pages to get there, and almost everything we get before this is pretty static, treading-water kind of stuff. Craig explains his situation, which is necessary but not especially compelling; Craig tells us about his interiority, which is necessary and interesting, but it also gets pretty repetitive after a little bit (and like a lot of descriptions of mental sickness, doesn’t really benefit from a whole lot of narrative rationalization); Craig hangs out with his friends and smokes pot, which is almost as interesting as when someone tells you about the dream he or she had the night before (which is to say not at all). The build-up and setting are absolutely necessary, but I’m not totally sure that they are 180 pages of necessary.

The other thing is, once we get to the mental hospital, things feel sort of cliché. And this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, because we have standard narrative forms, even standard forms for specific kinds of characters/locations/etc, so I have no problem with the kind of narrative involving a mental hospital (narrator enters the place, thinks everyone is TOTALLY CRAZY but learns, after some strange encounters, that they’re all, like, actual people with feelings and a sense of morality.) I was expecting that going in, and I wasn’t disappointed. The problem occurs when you pair this standard narrative form with flat, stock characters, which Vizzini definitely does here. I don’t say any of this to imply that this is a bad book or anything like that; the whole thing is just very safe, walking over well-traveled paths predictably. And in a book that is theoretically about a kid finding his individuality and belief in his own uniqueness, that’s not a very good thing.

Finally, and this is something that a reader will be able to ignore after the first 70 or 80 pages, this book really reads like an adult trying to talk like a kid. You know how there are things that sound normal when said but look absolutely awful when written out? And you know how a lot of those things tend to be words/phrases used by teenagers? Such as:
‘“Pass it son,’ my other friend is like.”

“‘No, yo, that’s true,’ my other friend is like.”

Vizzini fills his book with stuff like this, and it made getting into this narrative and narrator really difficult.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story has a few moments of genuinely deep and powerful expression, and there are even several funny lines/moments, but all of this is hindered greatly by Vizzini’s adherence to a standard form with relatively shallow characters. I wanted to like this book a lot; it seems to take the emotions and beliefs of teenagers seriously, and that’s important. But I just couldn’t get past all of the structural/narrative problems, and that’s why It’s Kind of a Funny Story gets 2 slices of lasagna from me.

Ben’s Review: “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” by Charles Yu

howtoI came away from Charle’s Yu’s novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe with two conflicting opinions. On one level, the book is an interesting and at times moving story that uses the trope of time travel as a metaphor for aging, regret, and loss. On another, it is a metafictional high wire act that constantly folds in on itself, often getting lost in its own cleverness.

The protagonist of the novel is a time-machine repairman named Charles Yu. He lives in his time-machine, with his computer companion TAMMY and a dog that is nonexistent but “ontologically valid.” Charles Yu spends much of his time fixing consumer time devices that people use to revisit the worst moments of their lives. In this universe, time travel physically cannot be used to change the past, so some elect to stick themselves in endless loops or torture themselves with past mistakes. Charles Yu’s mother is stuck in a voluntary loop, eternally preparing for dinner and talking with her largely absent son.

The novel, with brief interludes, takes place largely within the confines of Yu’s phone-booth sized time machine in the stretches of time between jobs. In this sense, it’s almost a bathtub story–much of the story occurs in prolonged flashbacks that detail Yu’s past and his relationship to his father, the man who discovered the first actionable principles of time travel. After having his principles co-opted and stolen by large a large tech corporation, Yu’s father disappeared into time and space, abandoning his family.

Near the middle of the book, Yu returns to his time machine after a visit with his mother to find another version of himself stepping out of it, which is one of the worst things that can happen to a time traveler. In fear of creating a paradox, Yu shoots his future self in the stomach and takes off in the time machine. The rest of the novel follows Yu as he hurtles inescapably toward his future confrontation with his past self, who will kill him as he killed his future self. To escape the loop, Yu embarks on a quest, armed with a book called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which his future self gave to him before he died, to find his father in hopes that he can help Yu escape his fate.

When the action is snappy, the book is a delight to read. Yu’s narration is peppered with strange scientific lingo, thoughts on the grammar of time travel, and observations about the time he has spent outside of linear time. In other sections, the character falls into long reminiscences about his past. Here, I think that Yu (the writer) gets lost in his own story. It’s hard to leverage criticism against this craft choice because getting lost in overanalyzing the past is one of the main dangers presented by time travel in this book’s world, but due to a few stylistic choices (some truly long, serpentine sentences that go one for pages), I felt pushed out of a story that I had been legitimately enjoying.

Other readers will certainly not have the same experience that I did, but eventually I had had it with Yu’s (the narrator) constant couching of emotionally resonant material in self-consciously elaborate sentences and scientific jargon. I wanted to know more about things that the narrator refused to discuss, such as his relationship with his mother, who, unlike his father, actually wants to be a part of his life. By the end, I felt cut off from the really excellent emotional core of the book. That effect might square with the theme of the book, but it didn’t make for a fun reading experience.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is an amazing concept that feels stretched to fill a length that its content cannot really sustain. There were elements of the book that I absolutely loved and was fascinated by, but by the end I was anxious for it to be over, uninterested in Yu (the narrator’s) overly elaborate ruminations on the metaphorical baggage of time travel.

I think its definitely worth a read, but I give How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe two pieces of lasagna.

Josh’s Review: “Eon” by Alison Goodman

I picked up Eon on a whim; I had just finished a slew of John Green novels and was hungry for more good YA literature. So, I grabbed Goodman’s novel via the recommendation of Barnes and Noble’s “Top Picks” cataloguing system, and then I promptly forgot about it for awhile. However, I uncovered it beneath a pile of papers in the back of my car a few weeks ago, and, since I’m in-between reading projects right now and in desperate need of something easy to read, I gave it a shot. And I’m really glad I did.

Eon tells the story of a young girl (actually named Eona) who has taken on the guise of a boy in order to have the possibility of becoming a Dragoneye. Eona, since being pulled from her terrible life in the salt mines, has been training and living as Eon, the apprentice of the old Tiger Dragon Dragoneye. Goodman’s novel takes place in a land that seems to sort of exist as an amalgam of Chinese and Japanese myths and legends and cultures. In this land, the Empire of the Celestial Dragons, there are twelve dragons and twelve Dragoneyes. Dragoneyes function as protectors of the land, able to wield the mighty powers of their dragons to influence natural disasters and steer them away from towns and cities. The path to becoming a Dragoneye is dependent on being chosen first as an apprentice by one of the dragons (one new apprentice is chosen each year by the ascendant dragon of that year), and in the Empire of the Celestial Dragons, only men are eligible to train and present themselves as candidates to be chosen by the dragons. The system is a whole lot more complex than that, but this at least gives you a general picture of how things work in Goodman’s world.

Perhaps my favorite part of this book (and I had several) was the delicacy and cleverness with which Goodman deals with the larger social issues at work here. The Empire of the Celestial Dragons is a place of deep misogyny, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, and, in addition to our main character, we are shown several characters who have to navigate these socially treacherous waters. Initially I was really worried about a YA fantasy that was trying to deal with all of that stuff while also situating a story in such a complex, rule-driven culture, but Goodman is able to juggle these various demands beautifully, and the resulting story is so much more powerful and poignant because of it. I wish I’d had a book like this during my teen years when I was ravenously devouring any piece of fantasy literature I could get my hands on. It becomes very obvious early on that the reader is in good hands on this trip, and I was able to sit back and enjoy the ride. And though there are certain long-term suggestions or ramifications with which I would probably want to take issue were I lucky enough to talk with the author, I think she presents such difficult issues in an open and neutral enough way that I never felt like I was reading an ideological argument.

Part of the way Goodman gets around directly dealing with some of these social problems is by situating them nicely within the incredibly rule-oriented, hierarchical culture of her world. Now, I usually get kind of bored by this sort of thing, and it’s because it tends to be something the author leans on really unsuccessfully. So, we will get a cultural hierarchy in which social transgressions are the worst thing ever and then, SHOCK!, our main character will break certain social rules during an especially intense moment!! Can you believe it!? Yes. That’s the problem. I almost always totally can believe it, which makes those moments lose any real potency. But Goodman does such a great job of portraying real anxieties about these hierarchical social rules, and the moments when characters break them actually made me feel anxious and tense as a result. There was one moment in particular, near the end of the book, where a major social/cultural faux pas occurred, and I actually put the book down in disbelief, and it was completely due to Goodman’s brilliant portrayal of this culture’s rules and the consequences for breaking them.

My only complaint regarding this novel is that there are certain plot points or character moments that feel a little rushed, and part of this is due to the fact that Goodman seems to really be working on keeping the pacing of the novel going at a steady clip. There were a few points where I had to stop and reread certain passages or scenes because there had been little to no set-up or warning. While this can be a good thing at times, there are a few moments in Eon where it actually seems a little rough, as though this or that plot point had to happen regardless of the happenings before and after it. And while these moments are quickly forgotten in the general awesomeness of the novel, they did still hold me up every once in awhile.

As a YA fantasy novel, Eon is pretty holistically predictable, but that absolutely doesn’t really detract from how completely enjoyable this book is. The fantasy elements in place are really neat and often very unique, our main character is compelling and believable, and the pace pushes along steadily throughout. Despite the book (at least my copy) being a 531-page brick, I read through Eon in about a day and a half. I just loved hanging out in that world; the characters are interesting, and the worldbuilding is really great. And thankfully for all of us, the sequel, Eona, is out. I’ll definitely be picking that one up soon.

Eon gets five out of five slices of lasagna. That fifth piece might be just a tad smaller than the others, but it all tastes delicious and will leave you feeling happily filled.

Ben’s Review: “The Twelve” by Justin Cronin

The Twelve by Justin Cronin is a difficult book to talk about without considering its context. Taken as a single novel, it’s somewhat derivative and narratively unsatisfying. Taken as the middle chapter of a longer story, one begun with 2010’s The Passage, The Twelve finds some life. There are moments are brilliance in the book, and some truly great plays on horror tropes, but by the end of it I was left wondering what it had all been for.

The Passage told the story of a viral plague that turned twelve death row inmates into immortal “virals,” (read: vampires), who break out of their holding facility and, by attrition, more or less murder the entire North American continent. The Passage’s opening sections were told in our historical present, then the story flashed forward to a period 100 years after, which is where the primary action of the novel took place.

The Twelve, ostensibly a sequel, strangely backtracks to those early days, introducing us to a new cast of characters dealing with the viral outbreak. This first section accounts for roughly the first third of the book. Cronin’s portrayal of the recently destroyed world is incredible, mixing the dead-on description of Stephen King’s The Stand and the melancholy lyricism of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

In this way, The Twelve’s structure mirrors that of The Passage. However, when the previous novel shifted forward in time, it was jarring and unsatisfying because most of the characters Cronin had spent a hundred or so pages developing had a trivial impact on the events of the much longer future story. That’s not the case in The Twelve. Over the novel’s first third, we are introduced to several geographically displaced characters. Over time, their story lines begin to converge. The stories of these characters have significant ripples in the novel’s later sections.

Sadly, the first third of the novel is by far the best part. From there, the story flashes forward again, first to a tragic event that occurred roughly seventy-five years after the outbreak, then to about 100 years after the outbreak. This convoluted chronology basically means that the main action of The Twelve occurs roughly five years after the primary action of The Passage.

If you are at all like me, it has been two years since you read The Passage (and, to be clear, if you have not read the first novel, you will get almost nothing out of this one). Two years isn’t that long, but I found myself going to Wikipedia to remember exactly who in the novel’s enormous cast was who, and what they had done in the first book. The Twelve does include a brief summary of events at the beginning, but I still felt adrift. This is partially my fault as a reader, but it also points to just how much stuff there is going on in this book. Worse, we aren’t picking up with these characters immediately after The Passage. Five years have passed, and Cronin largely leaves it up to context clues to fill in the narrative gap between the stories. Characters are not where we remember them, but their backstories are still vitally important to understanding their current situations.

I would have forgiven all of this is the story had gone somewhere interesting, but it kind of doesn’t. Peter, the de facto protagonist of the first novel, is now a member of the Expeditionary, a sort of militaristic organization under the rule of a democratic republic in what used to be Texas. Alicia, who is also now a half-vampire “new thing” after the events of The Passage, goes on a secret mission to Iowa, to investigate claims of a human settlement there. Peter, through various plot machinations, also ends up on the hunt for this city. Exactly what this city is and what those who live there are planning is the central conflict and mystery at the heart of the story, and it feels sadly underdeveloped, especially in comparison to the rich opening sections.

This new city is the source of much of what is new about The Twelve, and I’m sad to say that it’s mostly a predictable bore. The overseer of this city is a character from the novel’s opening section, and while it is fascinating to see how a character I thought was fantastic in the opening section changed over a century, I was left wondering exactly what his deal was. The city is a sort of militaristic totalitarian state, where people are forced to work on one of the many secret projects throughout the city. One of these, an enormous skyscraper that is implied to have some dark purpose, actually never figures into the action of The Twelve at all.

I have to assume that this plot point is being couched for the final book in the trilogy, but it is emblematic of what I think is the fundamental problem with this part of the story–it feels held back. When the curtain is pulled open and we see the kinds of people who govern this city, we find that they are tie-wearing bureaucrats, overseeing a collection of brutish non-characters who never get any characterization beyond behind obedient and sadistic. For many scenes, we see the main villain sitting in his office, looking over documents and other mundane activities that a pseudo-mayor would be expected to undertake. The point is that the city only feels malicious insofar as Cronin tells us that the city should feel malicious. It didn’t feel dangerous or especially thoughtful. Add in a ham-fisted storyline about an underground insurgency, and you have a collection of post-apocalypic tropes that don’t add up to anything novel or especially interesting. Even the mayor’s final plan, having to do with the original twelve virals, is so transparently a bad idea that the climax of the novel was more silly than affecting.

This very significant plot disappointment aside, I remain interested and invested in his series. I rolled my eyes a lot at Cronin’s language in The Passage. In between competently-written action bits, he would inject moment of lyrical interiority that seemed very self-consciously literary. Almost always, it rang flat or false, out of sync with the action and tone of the rest of the book. This problem is not as significant in The Twelve, though still present. There are stale, overly written sections, but then, sometimes on facing pages, I would find section that cut deeply into the heart of the characters, or that perfectly described a mood or setting. When Cronin’s language actually helps the story he’s trying to tell, it’s wonderful. But The Twelve is a very uneven book on a prose level. Some sections are beautiful, others, especially action sequences, seem so heavily edited as to almost resemble screenplays or storyboards.

And yet.

I am fascinated by this world. Cronin is managing an enormous story here, one that spans not only the hundred years since the viral outbreak but, as seen through bits of texts separating the sections, an entire millennium. Cronin is taking a huge risk in this series. And, sadly, some of those gambits don’t pay off. Huge sections of this novel, as well as it predecessor, seem overwritten, forced, or even unnecessary.

And yet.

I want to know more. I want to know where all this is going, if and how the viral plague will be eradicated, and which of these characters will be alive at the end to rebuild the world anew. This series, for all its obvious and significant faults, remains haunting. In these stories, the past matters, and, if you are not careful, it can come back to destroy you. In The Twelve, Justin Cronin has created a continuation of his dark story, and while I did not always love it, I never considered putting the book down. There is dark magic at the edges of these pages, and I have to know what happens.

The Twelve gets four pieces of lasagna. It’s far from a perfect novel, but it remains a fascinating glimpse into this weirdly familiar world.

Josh’s Harry Potter (Re)reading Adventure: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”

I’ve been thinking about this review for about a week and a half now, and despite really loving this book and loving to talk about Harry Potter, I don’t really have a whole lot to say. I’ll try to cover the major talking points that anyone discussing Deathly Hallows, but I’m mostly alright to just sit back, love on this book, and enjoy the ending of the greatest narrative of my generation. (And I know how I broke the cover picture pattern, but how could I not go with this one?)

I love the beginning of this book, from the seven-way split of the dedication to the Snape opening, it perfectly captures how epic this story has been/is. Rowling has so much narrative momentum going into this book, and the opening capitalizes on that majorly. We’re immediately forced to consider our feelings on Snape (side tangent: did anyone else get one of those “Trust Snape” or “Don’t Trust Snape” stickers before the seventh book came out? My sticker is probably my second or third most prized position ever. That includes my health.), and the Seven Potters is such an incredible way to manifest the danger/tension of Voldemort’s newfound presence (brought about by Dumbledore’s death). Even the oddly touching goodbye scene between Harry and Dudley cashes in on six books of narrative capital.

One of the things I really like about this book is the relative absence of a Harry/Ginny relationship. If you read my last review, you’d know that I’m totally a Harry/Ginny fan, but I like that Rowling doesn’t place the focus on that relationship; instead, so much of this book (including the tenting session that everyone likes to complain about despite its relative brevity) is focused on the relationship between our three heroes. I like that the (kind of) recent romantic relationship between Harry and Ginny doesn’t supplant the friendship between Harry/Ron/Hermione. It feels right.

I alluded to it in my last review, but one of the frustrating things about this book (really, the only frustrating thing) is the sense in which Dumbledore is still pretty in control of the game. The death of Dumbledore, our safety blanket, in the last book gives us the sense of despair and fear that so many of our characters are feeling, but it turns out that whole thing was an illusion, that Dumbledore was playing the long long game. I don’t think it ruins the book or destroys any of the emotional resonance (of which there is a ton), but it is a bit disappointing, like finding out that things couldn’t ever be any other way.

Of course, without Dumbledore’s long game, we don’t have the Snape narrative or the reveal, and this book would be so much less without The Prince’s Tale. I have a friend who says that Severus Snape is the very definition of a tragic character, and I absolutely agree. The story of unrequited love certainly didn’t originate here, but Rowling takes a traditional narrative and personalizes it with her characters and her world.

Finally, the epilogue. I know all of you epilogue haters probably won’t be convinced, but I really like the way Rowling chose to end her series. We don’t get anything (seriously, nothing) in the epilogue that we couldn’t easily figure out from the rest of the narrative. The purpose of the epilogue, for me, is a sense of emotional closure for these characters with whom we’ve journeyed for so long, and there’s no way that’s a bad thing. I love seeing Harry be a dad, I love seeing Snape’s namesake and knowing that the Prince’s tale didn’t go unappreciated, and I love knowing that all was well.

Ben’s Review – “In the Tall Grass” by Joe Hill and Stephen King

On paper, a collaboration between Stephen King and Joe Hill, two of the masters of contemporary horror, should be incredible. We have reviewed several books by each of these writers here on Genre Lasagna, and our general opinion of each is pretty high. The novella “In the Tall Grass” was originally published in two parts in Esquire magazine as part of their poorly titled “Fiction for Men” campaign this past summer. The story was recently released as a standalone e-book, which was how I read it. While I went into my reading excited to see what these two masters would cook up together, I was disappointed to find an uninspired, sort of ugly story.

“In the Tall Grass” is a simple story. Two siblings, on a cross-country drive to a new city, hear a strange voice from the tall grass beside the road. They pull into an abandoned church parking lot, where several other cars are parked. The voice in the grass belongs to a young boy, begging for help. The two siblings go into the tall grass in an attempt to save him, and that is where things go terribly wrong.

To spoil what happens in the grass would be spoil one of the few interesting bits of storytelling in this novella, so I will be as vague as I can. Suffice to say, the effect of the tall grass is weird, unsettling, and compelling. But that’s where the novelty stops. After the initial shock of the disorienting properties of the tall grass, the story devolves into a poorly-paced, poorly-plotted mishmash of horror tropes that we seen a thousand times before. Worse, we’ve seen them done far better as well.

There is no subtlety in “In the Tall Grass.” Everything is visceral, gory, and, worst of all, totally unearned. There is so little context for what is happening that the horror bits, the apparent terrible center of the story, fall completely flat. The action of the story, while spare, manages to also be frustratingly vague. I know what happened at the end of the story, but I have no idea why it happened or why I was supposed care about it. There is one tantalizing mystery at the core of the story, but there is no attempt to explain it, or really even acknowledge it. It’s an empty center holding a dull, tedious, and totally bland horror story.

“In the Tall Grass” has none of the qualities we associate with the best writing of either author. It has none of King’s lingering, escalating tension, and none of Joe Hill’s focus on character. The story is short, perhaps only a third as long as a short novel, but it still took me four days to read it because, up until the last quarter, I was almost totally non-engaged. The story relies on weirdness it doesn’t earn and vivid, technicolor gore that it doesn’t need to tell a story about characters I never connected with.

“In the Tall Grass” gets 1 piece of lasagna.

It is currently available for your favorite ebook reader. The e-book version does contain short samples of King’s upcoming “Doctor Sleep” and Hill’s forthcoming “NOS4A2.” Those samples alone were worth my money, but they might not be for everyone.

Josh’s Harry Potter (Re)reading Adventure: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Fair warning before I get into this review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is my favorite book in the series. The earlier books spent so much time setting up a complex narrative, compelling characters, and (mostly thanks to book 5) a deep emotional reserve from which to draw, and Half-Blood Prince capitalizes on all of that. Further, while I’m all for thick books and long narratives, this book feels pointed and focused in a way that those around it tend not to. Order of the Phoenix gets a little too long for me, and even though I love almost all of Deathly Hallows, that too seems kind of overly stuffed. Anyway, you’ve been warned: I love this book a whole lot.

I’m really a sucker for love stories, so maybe I’m a little predisposed to dig Half-Blood Prince based on the Harry/Ginny stuff, but the blossoming relationship between our protagonist and the youngest Weasley actually really nicely shows the development of both Harry and this series. Previously, we’ve seen Harry with Cho Chang, but that relationship was very clearly the middle school type we’ve all experienced: worrying about holding hands or what the other person is thinking or feeling completely awkward around one another. I’m definitely not saying that awkwardness goes away or that it’s the only marker for the maturity range of Harry/Cho, but there is definitely a marked difference in the Harry/Ginny situation. Whereas Cho was a one-dimensional character to Harry (and, therefore, the reader), there’s a way in which Rowling is careful to show Harry recognizing Ginny’s complexity and personality as he grows to understand his feelings for her. This is not only neat to see because Ginny has been a majorly bad-ass, cool character for some time without really getting any recognition, but it also shows a progression in our main character, which makes sense since he’s actually getting older and becoming an adult.

Speaking of growing up and becoming more complex, Rowling does a really nice job in both capitalizing on the intricacies of Snape’s character (and loyalties) and setting up Malfoy to be a similarly enigmatic character. Up to this point, he’s been the cookie-cutter bad guy–mean and evil based on standard reasons (family upbringing, ignorant, friends, just plain bad, whatever) that give him the depth of a kiddie pool. However, Malfoy doesn’t feature as prominently in this book, and when he does appear, it’s almost like he has a range of emotions and the possibility to feel fear and remorse. That scene on the tower at the end of the novel, when Malfoy is struggling with the decision to kill (or not) Dumbledore is the kind of thing that is always so appealing and powerful–the heart in conflict with itself (I think Faulkner said that, but I can’t remember for sure and don’t have the will or internet speed to look it up without taking the next hour and a half). We get to see Draco as a person with a complex and humanistic interiority, and that’s really nice. Pair that with the bitter sweet questions we are left with concerning the loyalties of Severus Snape, and we have a few characters who are suddenly much more compelling than we’ve previously seen.

On a similar note, we also get a good dose of Tom Riddle backstory in this book which, for me, adds a layer of complexity to the narrative more than it does Voldemort’s character. Sure, we get to see Voldemort’s origins and relatives, but Rowling (and I might be wrong on this–correct me if so) never really tries to make the Dark Lord out to be anything but a bad, evil dude. Even as a kid, he’s despicable without too much light. He’s described as handsome in a cold way, smart in a dangerous way, and independent in a scary way. Maybe it’s the teleological effects of seeing where he ends up that colors this reading of young Tom, but it just really doesn’t seem like he’s ever portrayed as anything other than evil. There are moments when it seems like Rowling is trying to fight this impulse–things like eliding Tom and Harry’s fetishization with Hogwarts, but even then she is careful to put some distance between the two characters’ feelings/desires. That said, I think the backstory stuff works really well in this book; Rowling is able to give us some major informational dumps without it ever feeling that way. The pensieve as a narrative device is brilliant because we can get those history lessons in a narrative format without it feeling to forced or contrived. In a weird way, I think I enjoy the backstory we get through the pensieve more than any of the actual narrative arcs in the present of this book.

Of course, the crowning moment of the book is Dumbledore’s death, and on the one hand, I think it’s a really brilliant, brave move by Rowling. Dumbledore’s absence is felt by Harry and everyone else as being akin to the loss of a rudder or guiding force, and that’s absolutely true. Dumbledore’s character has been described since the beginning as the only one Voldemort feared, but we’re also always given the sense that Dumbledore is the guiding hand in all of this, that he’s playing the long game and is definitely going to win. His death, therefore, has to feel like a major blow, one that brings with it despair and terror. On the other hand, as we’ll see in the next book, Rowling’s move here isn’t the brave and adventurous one that it’s made out to be.

Ben’s Review: “Kissing the Beehive” by Jonathan Carroll

Kissing the Beehive is a 1997 novel by Jonathan Carroll, one of my all-time favorite writers. While many of Carroll’s works include magical situations and elements (talking dogs, gods who are polar bears, ghosts who fall in love, etc.) Kissing The Beehive is mostly grounded in a recognizable reality. Unfortunately, there was little about the novel that interested or surprised me. Part of what make’s Carroll’s other novels so delightful is the slightly left-of-center perspective from which they view the world, magical or otherwise. In comparison to those better novels, Kissing the Beehive is disappointingly mundane.

Kissing the Beehive is the story of Samuel Bayer, a popular and successful writer of thrillers. Since the release of his most recent book, he has been crippled by anxiety and writer’s block; his new project, already behind schedule, is going nowhere. On a book tour for a paperback release of his latest book, he meets Veronica Lake, an enigmatic superfan who makes an immediate impression on the author. While driving home, Bayer passes through Crane’s View, his childhood home, where, at fifteen, he found the dead body of a girl in a nearby river. Bayer decides that he has a “great book” in him, and that it will be the story of Pauline Ostrova, the strange young woman whose body he found, and that with Veronica’s help he will write it.

From there, Kissing the Beehive becomes a fairly by-the-numbers crime mystery. As Bayer digs deeper into the Pauline’s mysterious death, he discovered layers of conspiracy, fraught with sexual indiscretion, romance, and betrayal. Working with local police chief Frannie McCabe, Bayer spends several months in Crane’s View and cities all over the country trying to piece together the mystery. Meanwhile, someone, Pauline’s real killer perhaps, seeds clues and bits of assistance along Bayer’s path, leading him in new directions and encouraging him to finish the book.

The plot never really gels. The conclusion comes quickly, and the final piece of the puzzle is not brought on stage until the last chunk of the book, which felt like a deus ex machina. What could have been a surprising revelation just ended up feeling cheap. I think the best mystery stories are ones where the reader can follow along and, looking back, find that the author has cleverly seeded all the necessary information solve the puzzle. That is not the case in Kissing the Beehive.

Still, many of the hallmarks of Carroll’s better work is on display here. This is a story about how stories are made, how myth and memory are formed. Bayer’s narration is peppered with interesting observations about the life of a writer and the nature of storytelling. He and the other characters have a tendency to make interesting, if a little thin, metaphors for their experience (Bayer at once point compares his relationship with Veronica Lake to catching fireflies as a child). These moments often feel forced, but there is an undeniable charm to them. Carroll’s characters view the world in interesting, if not always convincing ways.

In this book, Carroll puts much of his storytelling energies into character relationships. Frannie McCabe (who continues as a character later Carroll work, most notably the excellent The Wooden Sea), is a convincing and lovable reformed child bully. Bayer’s daughter Cassandra is an independent, intelligent young woman who keeps her father level. Even Veronica Lake, who announces herself very loudly as an obvious fictional construct–many of Carroll’s other women characters are, like Veronica, idealized, hyper-interesting, hyper-literate, hyper-sensual beings–plays an interesting role in a story that tries to keep you guessing about everyone’s motives.

It’s unfair to judge the book based on my past experience with an author. The root cause of my lack of enthusiasm for Kissing the Beehive isn’t the absence of a magical or fantastical element, or at least not completely. I was indeed waiting for some magical turn or interesting transfiguration of the plot, not to validate my expectations based on the author’s previous work, but rather because I was waiting for Kissing the Beehive to become more than the sum of its disappointingly familiar parts. Unfortunately, it never really did. It is a wholly serviceable, average crime novel from an author from whom I’ve come to expect brilliance.

Kissing the Beehive gets three pieces of lasagna.