Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen

Read: 16 October, 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is, as you might imagine, a bit gimmicky. It’s the kind of book that looks great on the shelf and will never fail to elicit some titters. It’s a book that makes a great novelty gift, but that I can’t see too many people buying for themselves.

Because it really is a gimmick. Grahame-Smith adds fairly little to Austen’s original work. What does get added is a bit clunky. The writing doesn’t match Austen’s style very well, zombies notwithstanding.

The strength of Grahame-Smith’s version is in the world building – how a different era might respond to a zombie crisis, how such a hierarchical society might encoroporate zombie fighting training as another measure of class (the wealthiest are trained in Japan, while the lower echelons of wealth train in China). Unfortunately, Grahame-Smith is so bound by Austen’s writing that he doesn’t really go far enough with it.

I enjoyed the story, but mostly as an opportunity to revisit one of my favourite Austen novels. What Grahame-Smith adds is a little weak, but still fun. There’s a joy in seeing Lizzie Bennett slaughtering zombies!

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Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green & David Levithan

Read: 14 February, 2016

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is the story of two teenagers who share a name and just happen to meet by pure luck in a Chicago porn store. Though they have very little in common when they initially meet, their lives soon become entwined through Tiny Cooper, the first Will’s best friend and soon-to-be the second Will’s boyfriend.

The premise is somewhat ridiculous (I’m being generous), and that’s largely why I waited so long to read the book (I went through my big John Green phase around 2012, when The Fault In Our Stars came out and pretty much everyone went through a big John Green phase).

There’s a lot about the book that I liked, but it didn’t really do it for me. Overall, this felt like a “I didn’t read it at the right time” problem more than a “this book sucks” problem. In any case, there are particular aspects of the book that I wanted to touch on:

A lot of John Green books have these moments where characters have these perfect monologues – they express themselves perfectly, they say exactly what the other character needed to hear, and it’s very scripted. And that’s okay. Because fiction doesn’t need to be real, it just needs to be realistic, and sometimes things are said because the reader needs to hear them. A not-insignificant factor in my surviving until adulthood was hearing fictional characters say exactly the thing that I needed to hear at that moment (I’m looking at you, Janeway). These monologues don’t feel fake in the sense that people don’t feel these things or need to hear them, but fake in the sense that so few of us have living people around us capable of saying them. That’s an important difference because while I might groan that yet another character is delivering a John Greenologue, I’m also crying because I am touched by it. That has value.

The chapters about lowercase-will were difficult for me to read. I was also a depressed teenager (complete with medication, though I was never able to find a brand/dose that actually worked without unlivable side effects) with no real friends and an online relationship. The early chapters, where will is deep in his online relationship, felt like a mirror. That life where he’s just barely hanging on throughout the day until he can get home and talk to that one good thing in his life, that was me. As I was reading, there was this uncomfortable humour sensation of “wow, I was such an asshole.” I mean, it’s not like I didn’t already know I was such an asshole, but it was still difficult to have to watch it all over again.

The problem is the plot. I understand the necessity of having Isaac turn out to be fake, but the assumption that online relationships aren’t real, that the person I’m talking to must be either a predator or someone playing a joke, made getting through my late teens very difficult because there was no social approval of my relationship. Not that teen romances get all that much respect anyway, but they’re usually at least acknowledged as legitimate by other teens. In our case, however, telling anyone about our relationship meant lectures about “how do you know he’s not some 50 year old pervert?” Even from people who had met him. Even later, when we were living together and people found out how we met. The “so how did you guys meet?” question still gives me anxiety. All this made me rather disappointed in Levithan for creating yet another brick of stigma against online relationships, for reinforcing the idea that they aren’t really real. Just once, it would be nice to read a book about a character like lowercase-will who has an online relationship and that online relationship’s fakeness is not at the centre of the story’s conflict.

The focus on appearance was bothersome as well. Lowercase-will, in particular, is vicious toward women (covered in pimples so big they could be bee stings?), while every male is cute (even while he expresses his astonishment that he could ever find them so because of their disgusting body). The other Will isn’t much better (Jane’s hair is too curly?). The descriptions of Tiny’s weight are relentless from both authors. As someone who, like Tiny, has always been overweight, and as someone who has been severely bullied for it, it was very difficult to read. To make things worse, I don’t see why it was necessary. Couldn’t they just acknowledge that Tiny was overweight without making it so central to his character? Without being so relentless in insulting him? I mean, every single time someone encounters or thinks about Tiny, his body is central. I understand that there’s a set up for the climax there, but overweight people should not exist to be life lessons for thin people. Not even in fiction.

They could have focused on Tiny’s manic make-myself-feel-valuable-by-always-trying-to-serve-everyone attitude instead without losing much. As with the relationship with Isaac, there’s a point where it felt like the authors were less trying to help teens transcend and grow through their harmful attitudes, and more just buying into them themselves (and thereby reinforcing them for their readers). I would have liked for them to show a little more care when fat-phobia is literally killing people, not to mention all the less visible harm a lifetime of bullying trauma, self-hate, and social exclusion can cause.

I liked the focus on friendship in the book. Yes, everyone kinda pairs off by the end, and yes, the Will/Jane relationship takes up a lot of ink. But, ultimately, the central relationships that are dealt with in the climax are platonic friendships. That’s pretty rare to see, and I think it’s a harmful aspect of North American culture that we privilege romantic relationships to the point where friendships are almost seen as casual entertainment while we’re waiting for the main event. I’m not sure how I feel about friend relationships being central in a book that is so much about homosexuality (like, couldn’t we have sacrificed a hetero love story in favour of friendship instead?), but I do still appreciate it.

Overall, the book was fine. Like most of John Green’s books, it was a fairly quick read with tears at the end. I thought the two authors did a great job of meshing their characters, and I appreciated Levithan’s more brutal style. I’m not sure I’d want to read a whole book like that, but it worked well interspersed as it was by Green’s silliness.

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Earth’s Children #5: Shelters of Stone by Jean M. Auel

Read: 7 March, 2013

In Shelters of Stone, Ayla and Jondalar have reached the land of the Zelandonii and Ayla must find her place among her new people.

As in books #2-4, Ayla is pretty much the most awesomest person ever. I lost count early on of how many times the reader is reminded that Ayla is totally gorgeous, and how many times other characters reflect on how amazing and wonderful and perfect she is.

The trouble is that the narrator makes these claims about things that we can verify for ourselves, and the things that the narrator says and the things that the narrator describes don’t always match up. For example, we’re reminded several times about Ayla’s fantastic memory, yet we’re shown her forgetting several things – things that I, with my pathetic ordinary memory, had been able to remember. For example, she forgets what she’s been told about the Zelandoni of the 14th cave’s prior issues with Zolena and has to be given the information a second time.

Another example would be when Zolena decides to start talking to Ayla about becoming Zelandoni while Ayla is trying to care for someone she cares very much about who has been gravely injured (no spoilers!), despite knowing that the idea of becoming Zelandoni is very distressing to Ayla. So even though we’re told that Zolena has a way with people, she seems to pick the absolute worst times to approach sensitive subjects.

And there’s a reason for the repetition. Ayla, as the foreigner, is the reader’s surrogate into the Zelandonii people. She conveniently forgets details for the reader’s benefit, not because it’s what her character would actually do. And this reflects Auel’s general lack of trust in her readers. Given the length of time between publication dates, I can understand Auel feeling that she needs to repeat details from previous novels – she can’t expect everyone to have read them in a fairly short period of time, as I have. But she repeats details from earlier in the same novel, as well. She seems to assume that her readers are incapable of remembering even important details. I don’t know if she was getting paid by the word or just genuinely thinks that her readers are idiots, but it made me feel rather insulted – and bored.

There’s less sex in this book than there was in Plains of Passage. In fact, there wasn’t a sex scene at all until all the way into chapter 5! This works with the plot, of course, because Ayla and Jondalar are now around people most of the time and can’t just drop trou and boink whenever they feel like it.

There is, however, plenty of lists about plants and animals that read more like encyclopaedia entries than parts of a narrative story. But it works. It’s what’s I expect from an Auel novel and I do enjoy the information she provides.

I find that Jondalar, in his exuberant monogamy (which is out of place in his cultural context) , makes me rather nervous. And Ayla’s focus on her theory about how pregnancy happens kinda feels like the big reveal in the next book is going to be “Ayla invents patriarchy.” I mean, yes, she’s biologically correct. But she seems to really be stuck thinking about her theory, and in this book, a social conclusion is introduced. Jondalar is having this existential crisis because women are the ones who have babies, so he feels useless, and the procreation theory is starting to take on a “don’t worry, we need men, too!” spin. I’ll just have to wait and see what Auel does with it, but it makes me nervous.

Anyways, I’m inching my way towards the finish line and just have one more book left in the series to read!

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The Hunger Games #2: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Read: 5 March, 2012

After Katniss defied the Capitol in Hunger Games, forcing them to allow two winners of the Games for the first time in their history, she returns home and tries to patch together a life that has been irrevocably changed by recent events. Her budding feelings for Peeta become even more confused now that Gale is once more by her side. But for now, she’s tried to put the events of the Games aside as best she can while she carves out a new routine. Unfortunately, the Capitol is not so willing to forget her defiance.

Discussing Hunger Games with a friend on Facebook recently, someone chimed in to say that they truly enjoyed Catching Fire and actually considered it superior to the first book. I’m not sure I agree, but I can certainly understand where she was coming from. It starts out fairly slow, showing us a Katniss who is trying to make sense of her post-Games life, but then the story really catches fire (har har) and I found it impossible to put down. And with the fictional world and character exposition taking care of by the first book, Catching Fire was free to focus on development.

There were some weird authorial issues. I don’t want to give too much away, so… this next bit is a total spoiler. Sorry. So, in both books, Haymitch communicates with Katniss in the games through the gifts he either gives her or does not giver her. So when there are five people in Katniss’s alliance and they keep receiving bread rolls in multiples of 6, I assumed that Haymitch was trying to tell Katniss that her group should be looking to include Chaff (since Chaff was Haymitch’s friend, and because Peeta had so easily remembered that he was still unaccounted for). And yet while much page space was given to Katniss trying to interpret all of Haymitch’s other gifts, she barely gives the rolls a second thought. The only reason I could think of for this is because Suzanne Collins knows the answer, knows that it isn’t anything she wants Katniss to guess, so she’s just dropped it. It feels like a missed opportunity for some character development. Up until that point, Haymitch’s gifts were always communicating to Katniss, but this time the message was meant for her allies. Katniss could have tried to guess the meaning and come to the wrong conclusion, and then had to deal with her feelings later about Haymitch “cheating” on her (which, frankly, would have made her anger at Haymitch’s supposed betrayal at the start of Mockingjay – which I’ve only just started reading, so forgive me if this does get covered – far more palatable).

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The Hunger Games #1: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Read: 11 February, 2012

Every year in Panem, two children are chosen by lottery from each of the twelve districts to compete in the Hunger Games. Twenty-four kids enter the arena to fight to the death, and only one can survive.

The general story is a fairly common one, and I don’t do well with stories heavy on action, so Hunger Games could have gone quite badly. But the action was just present enough to keep the story interesting without ever making me feel “actioned out.” As for the plot, the interesting characters keep it fresh.

There is a love triangle, which seems to be a required theme in these sorts of books, but it never felt forced. Katniss naturally starts to develop feelings for Peeta when she finds herself in a life-or-death, high stress situation. Rather than coming off as a silly girl unable to decide what she wants, Katniss is instead confused by the stress of being so near death. I found this to be much more psychologically plausible and it avoided the demeaning perception of girls/women as too silly to know their own minds.

Even beyond the love story, the gender portrayals were refreshing. There are no helpless princesses in need of rescuing in The Hunger Games. Peeta is vulnerable, but even he shows enough strength to prevent the story from simply being a flat reversal of gender stereotypes. Katniss is strong, but realistically so, with failings and weak moments that don’t feel token or trivial. She is a genuinely strong person, and a complete character to boot.

It was a bit of a shock to read The Hunger Games right after reading Clash of Kings. For one thing, the simplicity of the plot made for a difficult switch in my reading. But once my brain caught up, I found that I truly enjoyed the book. The setting was a dangerous one, and the novel could have easily devolved into a bludgeoning “message,” but while the criticism of our present world are very much there, I never felt like it was overly forced.

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Ice Land by Betsy Tobin

Read: 26 December, 2011

It’s the end of the world. Christianity is growing in Iceland, threatening the power of the old gods, and the land itself seems to be in revolt. Meanwhile, two star-crossed lovers fight against the feud that divides their two families against a landscape that is both real and mythical.

There are two stories being told in Ice Land, that of Fulla and her growing love for Vili. Theirs is a Romeo and Juliet story, their families feuding, perpetually seeking revenge on each other in a never ending cycle. Meanwhile, we have Freya’s quest for a magical necklace that has the power to end the apocalypse, preventing the destruction of the world.

I enjoyed the story, or at least I feel like I should have. Despite a fairly standard outline, Tobin does manage to take her two stories in a fairly unique direction. In particular, I enjoyed the way that she tried to mingle the real world with the world of mythology, making the one seem plausible and the other magical.

But maybe I just read the book at the wrong time. I found that I simply couldn’t lose myself in the story and I rushed to finish towards the end. I do suspect that the problem was with me, though, since I can’t think of anything that could have turned me off.

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Dracula by Bram Stoker

Read: 7 February, 2010

I took a course during my university career on Science Fiction and Fantasy, taught by a heavily accented Ukrainian woman with very little qualification in the subject other than personal interest. The class structure was very informal. We had a reading list, but the syllabus included notes for each book where watching the movie would be a suitable alternative. Dracula was one such book, although the syllabus stipulated that only one version would be acceptable.

This was the same year that I was taking Victorian Literature and Colonial Literature, both courses assigning full length novels on a bi-weekly basis. I read so much that I got eye-fatigue and had to wear glasses for the rest of the year. I read so much that one of the professors (the Victorian Lit one) apologized to my mother at graduation. If I could lessen me reading load by one book, all the better.

I’m glad that I took advantage of the movie option because  I was so harried by schoolwork at the time that I was reading far too superficially – skimming to intake just enough for the tests but not enough for enjoyment. So I was able to approach the book a few years later with a clean impression and all the time chance and nature give us.

I didn’t realize from the movie or pop culture that the book is written entirely in letter, news articles, and diary entries. In the story, this style is explained when one of the main characters collects all the story’s fragments from the other characters and compiles them chronologically (so that they can examine and compare what they know so far about the story’s baddy). It’s done wonderfully, adding a sense of realism to the story.

The epistolary style is rarely done well. With the more usual narrative style, characterization is easier to fudge. But when characters are given their own voices, it suddenly becomes much more obvious if the author fails to give them unique personalities – or, just as bad, tries to differentiate them with the use of cheap gimmicks. But Bram Stoker pulls it off perfectly, making Dracula the single best example of the multiple narrator style that I’ve ever seen.

I really can’t emphasize how much I enjoyed this book. It’s brilliantly written, the plot is interesting, the characters have depth, the suspense is maintained, and there’s an actual ending (something of a rarity among those easily-distracted Victorians). Other than a few points of plot, it’s really nothing like any of the pop culture we’re all familiar with.

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A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

Thanks for the recommendation, Kristin!

Read: 3 October, 2010

In a small Wisconsin town, Ralph Truitt, a wealthy business man, places an advert in the papers for a reliable wife. After carefully reviewing the applicants, he finally selects Catherine Land. Now he waits in the bitter cold for her train to arrive. But when she disembarks, Truitt sees that she looks nothing like her picture. And so begins a relationship fraught with deception.

This is a novel of bad and broken people trying to find hope in each other. It’s a sad story, set in a bleak and unwelcoming landscape. It was difficult reading at times, with characters I couldn’t help but like despite knowing that I shouldn’t, doing things I know I should disapprove of.

The writing style was excellent, very accessible. It’s always lovely to be able to focus on the story without having to worry about meandering sentences. The characterisations were excellent. I really felt as though I were getting to know Catherine and Ralph, as though they were real people with complex goals and emotions that exist independently of the author.

This is a fantastic book to read on a cold wintry day!

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Bear by Marian Engel

Read: 2005

Lou is a recluse, working in a basement and rarely going out. After five years of living like a mole, she is given an assignment: to catalogue a 19th century library in northern Ontario. Soon after she arrives, she encounters the house’s only other inhabitant – a bear.

This is a rather shocking story about a woman exploring her sexuality with a bear. Yes, you read that correctly. Yes, it’s graphic.

I read this book as an assignment for my Canadian Literature course in university – a course that prompted this émigré to define Canadian literature  as “roughing it in the bush with animals.”

Reading this book for a class was a great experience. We spent about two weeks on it, during which we had to discuss, as a class, sex with bears. By the end of the unit, our chairs were polished with the amount of uncomfortable shifting we were doing. The best part was that, at the beginning of the year, we all had to sign up to read a portion of a book (pages to be decided by the professor) in class. We got to pick the book, but of course no one had read Bear yet so no one knew to avoid it. I will always remember that poor girl who had to stand up before at least 50-60 people and read a scene in which a woman has sex with a bear. Her face would have blended in perfectly with a basket of tomatoes.

I initially enjoyed Bear because it was shocking. It was fun to tell my friends about what I was reading for class, and to watch their faces contort in wilful disbelief. But as time passed and I’ve had the chance to remove myself from the “omg, I’m going to be sick” factor, I’ve come to realize that Bear is actually a great work of fiction.

There’s an economy of elements to the book. No character is present who isn’t necessary to Lou’s psychological development. There are no filler scenes. I’ve also come to notice that much of the book is either symbolic or allegoric. Even the house Lou is living in, and her movements within that house throughout the story, can be reinterpreted in view of her transformation.

This is a really good book. It’s rather uncomfortable to read, but it’s short and you then get to say that you’ve read a book about a woman having sex with a bear.

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The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Read: 6 April, 2010

True love is incredibly rare, but Buttercup and Westley have found it. When Westley is killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, Buttercup agrees to marry Prince Humperdink. She’s kidnapped just before her wedding, and is followed by a mysterious stranger. Who is he? Has he come to rescue her?

This was a fantastic book. I was pretty sure it would be after knowing and loving the movie for many years, but there was so much more to the novel form. The movie follows the story of Buttercup and Westley pretty accurately, but that’s only half the book. The other half describes the narrator’s relationship with S. Morgenstern’s novel, the way it impacted his relationship with his father and with himself, and the way he hopes it will impact his relationship with his son.

The Buttercup portions of the novel are greatly entertaining for readers of all ages. The adventure is exciting and fast-paced, and it never takes itself too seriously. But the addition of the narrator’s story is what promotes The Princess Bride from great novel to masterpiece. The novel could pass for a treatise on the value of books and literacy, and for the deeply personal and emotional ties we can have to our books.

Choose to read this superficially and be entertained. Or, choose to read it deeply and be challenged. Goldman pulls both facets off with rare skill. This book should be on everyone’s reading list!

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