Category Archives: Review

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Ben’s Review: “Spook” by Mary Roach

I am not a scientist. I took a geology class once and thought it was neat, and I never bothered with AP Biology in high school because books were cooler and less intimidating. Mary Roach is my kind of science writer, in that she’s not a scientist. Roach writes nonfiction that attempts to bring scientific research down to the level of the non-academic enthusiast. Spook Roach’s second book, investigates claims of the human soul continuing after death. In other words, Mary Roach is trying to find out if ghosts are real. Spook‘s interesting premise and central question carried me through the book, but near the end my interest was flagging. Nonetheless, Spook remained an entertaining, if a little predictable, read.

The most obvious component to the charm of Roach’s work is the author’s adopted persona. Roach approaches her material as a self-described amateur, someone who is willing to do their homework, but also one who understand that there are limits to her own understanding. Her self-deprication and sarcastic wit was charming in the first pages, but by the end of the book I was annoyed with her, ready to be done. To be clear, Spook is not a serious work of scholarship, nor does it have any real aspirations to be. This is meant to be accessible, interesting, and fun. But, for me, Roach’s persona got in the way of my interest in the material.

Around the midway point, I started to notice a pattern. Roach’s chapters almost always center on interesting stories about paranormal inquiry. She discusses actual academic case studies on reincarnation, a man who tried to weigh the human soul, and the many grotesque applications of ectoplasm during spiritualist seances. These sections of the book are engaging if for nothing more than their profound weirdness. But when Roach attempts to discuss current research, the drive of the book wanes. Many chapters follow a predictable pattern. The author would relay an interesting story, introduce us to researchers who are trying to determine the validity of the stories, explain their research methods, and then conclude by saying that the results are inconclusive. Perhaps this is the fault of the subject matter, but there are no answers in Spook, no conclusions, not really any interesting leads. The chapters describe dead end after dead end.

At the end of the book, Roach grapples with the issue of scientific evidence versus personal faith. Roach foregrounds her own struggle with religious faith and her almost childish desire to believe in things like ghosts. This was one of the strongest parts of the book. Roach (smartly, I think) makes the point that almost everyone has a point at which evidence no longer can dissuade us from a belief. But, as a (sort of) scientist, she understands that any conclusion based on faith will be ultimately flawed, but perhaps more palatable.

In the end, Roach questions the utility of using science to back up a belief at all. The trouble is, the book that preceded that revelation did not back that conclusion up, which, I guess, was sort of the point. Still, I was left wondering why someone who seemed to have already made up her mind about her personal belief in the afterlife spent to much time stacking up evidence that showed that it probably does not exist. There is a paradox at the center of Roach’s book, one that I’m not quite sure she totally earns or owns.

Spook gets three pieces of lasagna out of five.

Ben’s Review: “Last Call in the City of Bridges” by Salvatore Pane

Last Call in the City of Bridges is the upcoming first novel by Salvatore Pane. In many ways, the novel treads familiar territory. The story of a young adult making sense of the world he has inherited is a common trope in fiction. But this is a novel that transcends the trope. In many important ways Last Call in the City of Bridges feels both fresh and absolutely vital.

Michael Bishop is twenty-five and lives in Pittsburgh. He grew up, like so many of his generation, with a secret certainty that he was destined for greatness, preordained to change the world. But now he finds himself subtitling DVDs for a living, sharing a house with a disenfranchised graduate student, and unhappy with almost every aspect of his life. Like many, he finds solace in the digital world, compulsively updating his Facebook page, surfing YouTube, updating his web comic, and spending hours and hours in front of a Nintendo Entertainment System, reliving the important games of his childhood.

Early in the book, Michael makes a startling claim about the defining moment of his generation. Earlier generations, he says, had clear historical touchstones to define them–D-Day, the Kennedy assassination, Woodstock, the Challenger explosion. Michael suggests that, even more than 9/11, his generation is defined by the advent of Facebook. Facebook, he says, is the source of a uniquely 21st century narcissism. On Facebook, everyone is made important. Everything one does has significance, even if that significance is an illusion. Facebook was also the catalyst for a strange new immortality–everything one puts online about could ostensibly last forever. These digital ghosts, as Michael call them, will persist long after we are gone. Michael and the other characters in the novel are haunted by the very thing they live for, isolated by what is meant to connect them.

Indeed, social media and internet saturation define each of the characters in important ways. Oz, Michael’s depressed roommate, spends his time trying to justify the digital as a legitimate focus for his graduate work. Noah, another friend, posts instructional basketball videos for kids. Sloan, Michael’s friend and one-time lover, hosts a series of YouTube videos that showcase nothing more than her counting to 250,000 out loud. Irony saturates their interactions with the world. No one displays their true internal selves, partly, I believe, because they don’t know who they actually are. Michael certainly does not. This anxiety and search for meaning serves as the novel’s primary narrative force.

One of the greatest strengths of the novel is the voice of Michael Bishop. He’s arrogant, insecure, often insufferable, but there is a genuine intelligence and emotional depth to him. He is a protagonist who is at once able to clearly articulate the painful eccentricities of his generation, while also being firmly participant in them. He guides us through this story with startling clarity. A few of the secondary characters bled together, but I didn’t mind because Michael’s progression is so well-draw.

It’s easy to compare Last Call in the City of Bridges to other novels with similar concerns like The Catcher in the Rye and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. But I think in this case those comparisons don’t tell the whole story. While those are fine novels that I have enjoyed, read in the current context they always feel like artifacts to me. By contrast, Last Call in the City of Bridges is an uncomfortably clear reflection of a world I have lived in and understand.

Michael Bishop finds metaphors in the NES version of Ducktales and measures his interactions with women against Han Solo and Princess Leia. But this referential saturation never once feels false or exploitative. It feels absolutely true, which also makes it sort of sad. I recognize so much of my own experience and feelings about my generation in the novel, but I needed a writer like Pane to articulate them, to reflect them back at me. I was ultimately uplifted by Michael’s conclusions about his fate in the world where irony rules, posturing is default, and the desire for connecting to another human being is the source of our most potent and devastating longing. It’s the best depiction of my generation that I’ve come across in fiction.

Last Call in the City of Bridges gets five pieces of lasagna. It will be available this November from Braddock Avenue Books. I highly encourage you to check out the book trailer here.

Josh’s Harry Potter (Re)Reading Adventure: “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”

Rowling’s 4th book in the series, Goblet of Fire really takes what has been a pretty insulated world and expands it drastically. Here we get a close look into the size of and variety within the Ministry of Magic, exposure to Harry’s past and the world’s past, and a sense of the culture/politics operating in the wizarding world. It’s almost as though Jo realized at the start of this book that she needed to push at the boundaries of her landscape pretty heavily because shit is getting so. dang. real. We get a sense of this from the very beginning. We have the first opening chapter of a book (so far) to begin away from Harry (though we find out that he’s linked through his dream) and the chapter not only foreshadows Voldemort’s return but also shows a dangerous crossing of the streams between the Wizard and Muggle worlds. Frank’s death shows the chaotic and wide-spread effects of Voldemort, and it strikes me as a really intentional move here, because we’ve had pretty insular effects from the Dark Lord up to this point. Certainly Rowling has provided whispers about the anarchy of the past, but so far in the present we’ve had relatively contained bad guys, and it can’t be an accident that we have this first convenience killing in the book that so drastically widens the scope of the narrative and the textual landscape.

In my read-through this time, I was struck by how completely uncomfortable the dispute between Harry and Ron made me. There are so many lovely plot elements and cool story pieces at work in these books, and it’s easy to forget how completely integral the friendship between The Three (Harry, Ron, Hermione) is. There seems to be a pretty strong emphasis in this text on the importance of Harry and Ron’s relationship, and Hermione’s role, as is often the case it seems, is to act as the mature, level-headed, and responsible character who acts as the group’s foundation for success. Seriously, I don’t think it can be said often enough how awesome Hermione is.

One of the other elements at play in Goblet of Fire, an element that will come back to haunt us in later books, is the Dumbledore as deus ex machina piece of the story. Though it’s certainly there in earlier books, the idea of Dumbledore playing the really long game and being the “one whom Voldemort always feared” seems to be especially present in the 4th book. Harry thinks his secret correspondence with Sirius, full of talks of strategies and attempts to decipher plot elements, is, well, secret, but we find out that Sirius, whom Harry thinks is a sort of ace up his sleeve is actually a piece in Dumbledore’s larger game, just as is Moody, Snape, and even Harry himself. And don’t get me wrong, that scene at the end when Dumbledore busts into the office, drops Barty Crouch Jr. like a bad habit, and sends Harry into bouts of awe just with the blazing look in his eyes, I mean, that scene rocks. But there’s a way in which it serves to reinforce the idea that Dumbledore is always watching, always alert, and always there to save people when they need it. Sure, Barty Crouch Jr. was able to wear a Moody suit under Dumbledore’s crooked nose for most of the year, but when things got really bad, and it seemed all was lost, he was there because he was observant enough to detect the Moody switch and powerful enough to stupefy faux-Moody through a door and still slam him to the floor. The scene emphasizes that Dumbledore is the goddamn man, that’s for sure, but I can’t help but feel a little bit like I’ve been given a slightly-too-obvious safety blanket. I’m certainly not saying I dislike Dumbledore (The book 5 fight–you know the one I’m talking about: that has to be one of the most badass chunks of any of the books), but there’s a way in which Rowling’s own dependence on him, her own staging of him as the Deus Ex Machina, is revealed here at the end of this book. And yeah, Rowling is a good enough writer to do something with this in the future, but here I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with how comfortable I am.

And finally, there’s Cedric. God. I remember when I read this book the very first time. It took me all day, and I didn’t finish until 10:30 or 11:00pm, which meant I’d read all day and my eyes felt like they’d been scrubbed with extra strength lemon juice. I fell asleep right after finishing it, woke up the next morning, went up for breakfast, and found that I couldn’t sit at the table with my family because I couldn’t stop crying. Why was I crying? Because Cedric F’ing Diggory, barely a major character in this story, died and Dumbledore said those really nice things about him. The end of the Headmaster’s speech kept running through my head, and after reading it this time (several years later) I still found myself tearing up: “Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.” It struck me as a beautiful and painful sentiment then, and it still does now. And really, what are these books about if not standing up for what is good and right in the face of all the hard stuff your world has to throw at you.

Ben’s Review: “Saga” (1-6) by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

The first six-issue arc of Saga, Brian K. Vaughan’s new creator-owned comic book series, concluded last month. It’s not fair to judge a comic as a whole on its first six issues, but, nonetheless, this first story of Saga left me cold.

Saga is set in the midst of an galactic-spanning conflict between the planet Landfall and its moon, Wreath. Two races, each with distinctive non-human features (wings and horns respectively) have been battling each other for generations. But because the planet and the moon are dependent on each other to maintain a stable orbit, the armies outsource the conflict to other planets, turning them into enormous, hellish battlefields and leaving Landfall and Wreath planets relatively unscathed. The entire galaxy, it seems, is affected by this conflict, and there is no end it sight.

The story centers on Alana and Marko, two deserters from either side of the conflict, who, in the first issue, are on the run. In the first pages, Alana gives birth to the couple’s first child, who is an uncommon hybrid of the two warring races. People in high places on both sides of the war view the child as a threat and want the parents murdered and the child taken in custody.

The story is occasionally narrated in first-person by Hazel, Alana and Marko’s daughter (whose birth we witness is the first issue), from an indeterminate point in the narrative’s future. In frequent in-panel asides, Hazel will comment on events that are happening in an oblique, sage-like way. These asides underscore my biggest concern about Saga: tone.

I have no idea what the tone of this story is. Hazel’s narration is dramatic, with a lot of emotional introspection about the nature of family and insights about the other characters. However, the actual world of the story and the characters who inhabit it don’t cohere with this emotional tone. Moments that could be dramatic are undercut by strange attempts at humor and levity, and truly violent and dark moments occur abruptly with little narrative follow-through. The story is unfolding, and I anticipate that we will learn more about the strange behavior of these characters in later stories, but for now I’m left with a large cast of characters that I care almost nothing about.

The reason I don’t care about these characters is because I don’t know who they are. Much of the characterization feels very surface-level, in a frustrating way. Everyone, from Hazel’s mother Alana, to the crazy freelance murder The Stalk, talks like a teenager (in addition to the actual teenager in the story, who is also apparently a ghost). Each character speaks with an affected, cavalier, pseudo-witty comical tone that undercuts almost every moment of genuine drama. The dialogue and character attitudes recall the snarky, referential speech patterns of Joss Whedon, but the story does not yet have the strength of character and emotional core to support it. Again, there have only been six issues, and there are certainly pages and pages of story left to tell, but, to be frank, I just really don’t care about anything that happens in these first six issues.

One highlights of Saga is the art by newcomer Fiona Staples. Her line work is heavy, almost sketchy, and she is able to evoke the scale of this universe, the gleeful weirdness of the character design, and satisfying facial emotion with her pencils. The art is colored in a deceptively simple, almost pastel style. Saga is a beautifully book too look at. I was continually impressed with Staple’s art, even when the story fell flat.

The first issues of Saga do all of the things we would expect from the first part of an epic–it introduces us to the principal characters, the world they inhabit, the conflicts they’re likely to face going forward–but in a fairly bland, uninteresting way that left me with a book that I’m even sure I want to continue reading.

Saga 1-6 gets two pieces of lasagna.

Josh’s Review: “Looking For Alaska” by John Green

So, after my last post about John Green’s Paper Towns, I immediately went out and read his other books. I wasn’t planning to do another Green review here on Genre Lasagna because, you know, we’ve already had two and we don’t want to make this a predictable, monotone thing. So, being on the YA kick that I was, I picked up Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25. I got about 35 or 40 pages in before I couldn’t take anymore. I realize it’s maybe written for a slightly younger audience than Green’s books based on the age of the protagonist–clearly the YA stamp is a bit homogenous–but I’m also in the midst of reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Harry’s just about the same age as the titular Michael Vey, and Rowling’s book is so much more readable than Michael Vey. Anyway, this is all to say that I tried to branch out, I really gave it a go. But I’d rather just write about John Green’s first novel, Looking For Alaska, than read and write about Michael Vey. So.

Looking For Alaska was published in 2005; it tells the story of Miles “Pudge” Halter as he heads to Culver Creek Boarding School, falls in with the schools best pranksters, and learns to smoke like a chimney. I mean, there’s other stuff in there, but really there’s just a huge number of cigarettes smoked in this book. Like, if we could use page instead of capita, this book would have a per capita cigarette count of, like, 3 or something. Anyway, apart from the cigarettes and pranks (but not disconnected from them), Pudge meets a girl named Alaska Young who changes his world.

In a lot of ways, I’m glad that I read all of Green’s books before I did this one, because it allowed me to see how many beginnings there are in Looking For Alaska for the rest of Green’s works. For instance, you might say that Paper Towns is all about how we connect with other people through simplified ideals of who they really are, and much-if-not-all of that book is dedicated to exploring and exploding that idea. And here, in Looking For Alaska, we see the real germination of that idea, because Green doesn’t deal with it in the careful, slow-burn kind of way he does in Paper Towns. Here, Green touches on it, but Looking For Alaska is about so many things that there’s no real space in the narrative or thrust of the book to cover this idea in depth, and the result is that Green’s book feels a bit more messy than the rest of his stuff (which, hey, it’s his first book) and whole heap more raw. We still get some of the moral-of-the-story kind of gesture he likes to make at the end of his stories, but here it feels a bit less fulfilling, which I kind of liked. If anything, I think John Green absolutely excels at plunging his readers into an emotional stratum that is both painful and necessary, and I think he runs the risk of undercutting that experience with some of his final gestures in his books. This isn’t to say that I didn’t love them all, because I really, really did. And I think the overall structure of Looking For Alaska loses out a bit on the carefully constructed feel of his later books. But this one also felt a bit more jagged and fractured at the end of the day, and I have to have respect for an author who can do that.

Looking For Alaska gets five slices of lasagna from me, and I hope all of you can get a chance to read it sometime.

Ben’s Review: “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” by Karen Russell

Karen Russell is already on her way to becoming a literary superstar, insofar as such a thing is possible these days. Her first novel, 2011’s Swamplandia! was a finalist for Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a high honor even considering that no award was presented. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is Russell’s 2006 short story collection, released when the author was only 25. In it, she displays skill, precision, and invention that is uncommon for an author of any age. The stories in the collection run the gamut between disappointingly pretentious to strangely transcendent, making for an enjoyable, if uneven, whole.

Russell is certainly writing literary fiction–that is, in my prickly definition, fiction that holds imagery, language, and metaphor up as primary concerns. (One could argue, quite rightly, that all fiction has these concerns, but I wish to draw a distinction between the style of work Russell writes and other work that has obvious syntactic and stylistic differences.) We get stories focused on the complications of growing up, of trying to fit into new social situations, of dealing with the growing awareness of parental fallibility. Then we get a story with a Minotaur father pulling a wagon across the unsettled nineteenth-century United States, or the one where a boy finds a pair of swimming goggles that allow him to see ghosts. The two qualities aren’t extricable; each story is dependent on the marriage of these two seemingly incompatible literary concerns. It’s an interesting high-wire act, even more interesting considering the mainstream literary attention Russell has received. Her stories have hallmarks of contemporary literary realism, sprinkled in with a gleeful, disruptive love for genre tropes and the outright weird. A few fall flat, but many of the stories are sharp, surprising gems that call into question the way we have traditionally classified literature. It’s not really useful to reduce Russell’s work to either “literary” or “genre.” Her work makes a convincing claim that, to some extent, descriptive terms like those have limited utility. This is simply good writing.

I found myself with a strange mix of readerly emotions while reviewing this book. I sometimes rolled my eyes at an overly ornate sentence or at half-baked attempts at emotional or metaphorical resonance. Often this was because it felt like Russell was using intentionally strange metaphors and images to gesture toward meaning that seemed absent to me. But then, often in the very same story, I would be broadsided by a passage that would leave me staring mutely at the page, knocked flat by the clarity and perfection of a detail or character exchange. Russell uses weirdness to deepen and sharpen her metaphors (such as in the superb “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Western Migration”), while in others she leans on weirdness a little too much, relying on surrealistic, discordant images to effect the reader (such as in “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows.”) The best stories use the weird elements as a means to making meaning, rather than as a focal point.

Sense of place is also important is nearly every one of the stories. The sweaty Florida setting is rendered in the stunning coastal caverns of “Haunting Olivia,” the roadside gator-wrestling show of “Eva Wrestles the Alligator,” and as a counterpoint to the false indoor winter wonderland in “Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows.” The misty, mysterious Everglades are described with an otherworldliness and just-left-of-center quality that they almost become mythic, full of history, malice, and beauty. The stories in this collection are so enmeshed with the setting that they simply could not have taken place in any other location.

My most significant criticism is in regards to Russell’s choice of narrators. Many of the stories are narrated by precocious children with large vocabularies and a sharp talent for introspection and self-awareness. Many of these narrators are young boys, usually from broken or reconfigured families. Taken on their own, these narrators are fine, but when reading the stories closely together, the voices tend to blur. Russell has a startling command of language, but her (mostly first-person) child narrators share a similar speech style, which diminished my enthusiasm for a few stories. I kept waiting for Russell to break away from the mold. A few of the stories do so with great success, but over half of the stories feel very similar.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is an uneven collection that left me seething with a kind of blissful envy. Russell stumbles in a few of the stories, but the ones that work do so on a stupefyingly high level, to say nothing of the writer’s age at the time of publication. Reading the collection made me very excited to check out her renowned novel, and also deepened my anticipation for her new collection of stories, which is out next February.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves gets four pieces of lasagna from me. Not every story is a winner, but those that are are beautiful and unlike anything else I’ve read.