Book Review: The Dark Tower #3 – The Waste Lands

Title: The Waste Lands
Author: Stephen King
Year of Publication: 1991
Series: The Dark Tower
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.22
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

You’ve Been Warned: Watch For Spoilers

the waste lands

Plot Description: Roland, Eddie and Susannah travel along the path of the Beam until they meet up with Jake Chambers, the boy whose death Roland had allowed to happen in The Gunslinger. Then they search for Blaine the insane monorail, who might be able to get them to their next destination.

What is it about this book? I almost feel like a failure for not liking it so much. Goodreads is filled to the bursting with glowing reviews. I also have a sneaking suspicion that I might have liked it more right after I’d read it, but since I binge-read the entire series at a go (and these are BIG books), the ending of the series as a whole spoilt most of the books that came before it. The only real exception to this rule is Book No. 4, Wizard and Glass. 

After all of the world building and game-board setting that the reader had to endure in The Drawing of the Three, Roland’s ‘ka-tet’ is almost complete – with the exception of Jake Chambers and Oy the billy bumbler, to whom we are introduced in this book. [The creation of the billybumbler? Pure genius]

The Waste Lands is a roadtrip book. The characters are constantly on the move, and their journey is peppered with notable incidents – gunfights, mental battles, even the odd sexual battle. (Yeah, that was pretty odd). It’s not a bad book, but it’s far too long and could have done with some paring down. It also ends on a cliffhanger, which as I understand it, wasn’t resolved for about a decade after this? That’s awful, and I’m glad I wasn’t a Stephen King fan living in the 90s.  Waiting two years for the next Harry Potter was torture enough, not to mention my current love-hate relationship with G.R.R. Martin. If you can look past the mangled language (or inexplicably happen to love it), and you don’t mind settling in for a long journey, then this is definitely the book for you. I’ve also begun to classify anything strange within the books as the natural consequences of Stephen King’s penchant for horror.

Next in this Series: The Dark Tower #4 – Wizard and Glass

Next Review: Bloodlines #4 – The Fiery Heart

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Book Review: The Sisters Grimm # 1 – 3

Title: The Fairy Tale Detectives; The Unusual Suspects; The Problem Child
Author: Michael Buckley
Year of Publication: 2005; 2005; 2006
Series: The Sisters Grimm
#: 1, 2 & 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.98; 4.21; 4.26
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3; 3; 3

Spoilers!

Thefairytaledetectives  theunusualsuspects  theproblemchild

Plot Description: A pair of sisters discover they’re descended from the late, great Grimm brothers when they’re sent to live with their grandmother in a town filled with fairy tale creatures. The fairy tale characters can’t leave the town because of an ancient curse, and along with their grandmother, the sisters Grimm go around solving crimes occurring in the little town.

The Fairy Tale Detectives is a book for children in the same way Percy Jackson is a book for children, or Harry Potter. Despite dealing with similar subject matter, it is also the kind of work that is antithetical to the spirit of the late, great, Enid Blyton, queen of saccharine goodness. And never does it go to the lengths that Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events go. (And thank goodness for small mercies).

I may have been impressed by the sisters Grimm if I wasn’t already a die hard Oncer – a fan of the show Once Upon A Time, for the uninitiated. And while they’re hardly the same story, a few themes remain the same, like fairy tale creatures leading normal lives and blending in. It’s always interesting to see how their natures translate into our ordinary occupations and appearances.

The story picks up a year after the disappearance of Henry and Veronica Grimm. The sisters believe (for some reason) that their parents abandoned them, and have since been sent to live in an orphanage kind of right out of a Dickens novel – or Annie. Their social worker, a hard hearted (spinster) sends them off to a slew of foster homes right out of a horror story – like the one where they were chained to the radiator, or that other one where they were forced to play caretakers to a room full of ferrets.

So it’s with a great deal of understandable suspicion and anger that the sisters are on their way to yet another foster home, and this one owned by a grandmother they know for a fact is dead. Sabrina – older and cynical and jaded from trying to protect her sister from the world’s nonsense – is already making up escape plans in her head.

Her suspicions aren’t stemmed even after coming face to face with Granny Grimm – the kindliest old lady a children’s book writer could dream up. Granny Grimm is eccentric as hell – she talks to her house, she cooks food that no one in the world has ever heard of, and she fancies herself a private eye. And not any private eye – the sort of private eye who solves mysteries like ‘The Case of the Farmhouse Squashed Flat by a Giant’s Foot’. Sabrina thinks she’s one lost marble away from the loony bin. Daphne thinks its ALL great fun.

The stories deal with individual mysteries set against the backdrop of a much more sinister long term conspiracy targeting humans. The characters are all realistically drawn, adding quite a bit of dark humour to the storytelling. Sabrina in particular is supposed to be more complex than her sister, as someone harbouring a certain amount of intrinsic bigotry towards the Everafters, and with her natural instincts prompting her towards an addiction to magic (which, if Uncle Jake is anything to go by, runs in the family).

The first book deals with the kidnapping giant, whom I think I have discussed ad nauseam already. While working to figure out who released the giant – and why – the girls run into various residents of Ferryport and begin to figure that the line between good and evil is mucho blurred-o – as Daphne would put it. Characters the fairy tales tell you are good are revealed to be sometimes unpleasant, or downright villainous. Some of the bad guys – like the Big Bad Wolf or the witch from Hansel and Gretel – have either reformed, or were badly misunderstood to begin with. Then there are the Everafters who actively hate the Grimms and are trying to get them killed, and the Everafters who hate them, but opt for gritted teeth and tolerance instead.

The second story, The Unusual Suspects, deals with a couple of murders of human beings at the school Sabrina and Daphne have begun to attend. The Problem Child brings them face to face with previously institutionalized homicidal maniac Red Riding Hood, who, it turns out, has been holding their kidnapped parents and is working for a much greater villain identified only as The Master.

The books engage with gender stereotyping, with the girls calling out various characters on their casual sexism. Puck in particular is a vast treasure trove of idiotic stereotypes:

Puck: “First things first. I want you two to prepare a hearty meal so that I will have plenty of energy to kill the giant.”
Sabrina: “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Puck: “The old lady always makes lunch when a mystery is afoot. I know it’s not the most glamorous work, but I think you two are best suited for domestic tasks.”
Daphne: “What does domestic tasks mean?”
Sabrina: “The way he means it is women’s work.”
Daphne snarled at the boy.

Prince Charming is another guy who, when he’s not spending all of his time trying to protect Snow from things she doesn’t want to be protected from (she’s a self defence teacher, for Christ’s sake), comes up with lines like these:

“Well, haven’t you ever snuck out before? This is the perfect opportunity. Your grandmother is distracted. Take the magic detector and go! If she asks for you, I’ll tell her you’re upstairs fussing with your hair or playing dolls.”
“Is that what you think we do with our free time?” Sabrina said, aghast.

The Sisters Grimm series is nine books long, and the first three cover just enough ground to be considered not boring. If finding the children’s parents had taken any longer, it’s possible that the reader would have begun to lose interest. Typically, a happy ending isn’t at hand yet, even though their parents have been found by the end of Book 3. The children must focus on finding a way to get their parents out of the deep magical sleep they’ve fallen into. They also need to find the baby brother they didn’t ever know existed, and who has also been kidnapped by the mysterious Master.

The Sisters Grimm series doesn’t flinch away from darker topics, but somehow leaves me with the feeling that these topics weren’t dealt with correctly. After all, The Unusual Suspects deal with murders committed by juvenile suspects, but the only scene shown from the aftermath is that those suspects are reunited with their birth parents. No mention is made of their victims, nor of the effects committing murder can have on a child. Perhaps this is not the kind of subliminal message that ought to be sent across in a bunch of children’s books.

And yes, both Percy Jackson and Harry Potter involve children fighting and using violence. They both depict children who fight for good as well as evil. But Percy learns in Tartarus that even the most evil of his enemies was allowed to curse him at their moment of death, and he felt the combined burden of their curses. Harry and Draco Malfoy both see the consequences of their actions, and it changes them. The subconsciously uttered message in those books urges good judgment and that even doing ‘good’ comes with consequences, and yet Michael Buckley’s books show children getting away with murder simply because they’re children.

Next: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Next in this Series: The Sisters Grimm # 4 – 6 by Michael Buckley

Book Review: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Title: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda
Author: Becky Albertalli
Series: N/A
#: N/A
Year of Publication: 2015
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.3
Goodreads Rating (Mine):
5

simon

Plot Summary: A slice of life novel told in the first person narrative, centering around Simon Spier, a sixteen year old gay boy who’s dealing with coming out, with crushing on a boy he’s never met in real life, and the Defaults in our lives.

“It’s a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost don’t realize I’m being blackmailed.”

This is a great way to start a book. It has all the classic hallmarks of a very good opener, and it sucked me in instantly.

A successful first person narrative needs an engaging protagonist who’s likable on at least a few levels. Simon is that protagonist, and he’s likable on a whole bunch of levels.

As a closeted gay boy in a not particularly liberal high school, Simon keeps his crushes a secret – especially his ongoing non-relationship with an anonymous batchmate identified only as ‘Blue’. As a fan of unconventional narrative devices, I’m especially delighted every time an author successfully conveys at least part of a story in emails or via instant messaging. There’s so much to discover in these narratives – especially in emails: the screen names and email ids used, the constantly changing subject line, the use – or non use – of contemporary internet slang, and the things we choose to put into email form. These are all subtle hints about the characters, left around like Easter Eggs for the readers to hunt around and find.

Simon swears a lot, and it’s not weird or crude, but what I would designate ‘artful use of language’ to ‘create quite the effect’.

“What are you trying to say?” I ask.
“Nothing. Look, Spier, I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just not that big of a deal.”
Except it’s a little bit of a disaster, actually. Or possibly an epic fuckstorm of a disaster, depending on whether Martin can keep his mouth shut.

As the book proceeds, Simon keeps trying – unsuccessfully – to unearth Blue’s identity. This brings me to one of the book’s many beautiful truths – that we always imagine someone to be who we want them to be. Simon wrongly assumes Blue is a guy he’s already crushing on, something which Blue picks up on, and seems slightly miffed about. On the other hand, Blue points out that he was able to guess Simon’s identity correctly because he was already crushing on Simon.

And when Simon’s crush hints at liking him, Simon is torn. After all, Blue is proving reluctant to reveal his identity or meet in real life, and his crush is right there – tangible, real, and reciprocating. Ultimately however, there’s no running or hiding from the very real love into which Simon and Blue have fallen.

The romance is well crafted, drawing the reader in and getting them to fall in love with both Simon and Blue. The scene where they meet for the first time is especially lovely, and I think I’m not wrong in suggesting that even the most astute of guessers would feel their worlds tilt a little before righting itself. I did guess Blue’s identity right, but the thrill of the mystery unraveled had me in its grasp for a moment or two before I could indulge in exultant fist pumping.

Simon v. THSA is also a wonderful coming-of-age novel. Simon getting drunk for the first time, Simon coming home drunk and freaking his parents out, Simon drunk texting. It’s all portrayed extremely realistically, as I can attest to from my own not-so-long-ago teenage years. Drunk Simon, might I add, is a riot, especially thanks to his tendency to go all Social Justice Warrior.

Here’s Simon engaging in an intellectual discussion on race:

“Leah, did you know you have a really Irish face?”
She looks at me. “What?”
“You guys know what I mean. Like an Irish face. Are you Irish?”
“Um, not as far as I know.”
Abby laughs.
“My ancestors are Scottish,” someone says. I look up, and it’s Martin Addison wearing bunny ears.
“Yeah, exactly,” I say as Martin sits beside Abby, close but not too close. “Okay, and it’s so weird, right, because we have all these ancestors from all over the world, and here we are in Garrett’s living room, and Martin’s ancestors are from Scotland, and I’m sorry, but Leah’s are totally from Ireland.”
“If you say so.”
“And Nick’s are from Israel.”
“Israel?” says Nick, fingers still sliding all over the frets of the guitar. “They’re from Russia.”
So I guess you learn something new every day, because I really thought Jewish people came from Israel.
“Okay, well, I’m English and German, and Abby’s, you know . . .” Oh God, I don’t know anything about Africa, and I don’t know if that makes me racist.
“West African. I think.”
“Exactly. I mean, it’s just the randomness of it. How did we all end up here?”
“Slavery, in my case,” Abby says.
And fucking fuck. I need to shut up. I needed to shut up about five minutes ago.
The stereo kicks back in again.

The book, as evidenced by the above passage, is full of humour. And the humour isn’t in your face – it’s casual and laid back, and jumps out at you when you least expect it. Like here:

It’s chilly and unnaturally quiet—if Abby weren’t with me, I would have to drown out the silence with music. It feels like we’re the last survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Wonder Woman and a gay dementor. It doesn’t bode well for the survival of the species.

I couldn’t explain how funny this book is, unless I chose to quote unquote like, 85% of the book. It’s a MUST-READ. Just for the humour. Oh, Simon. He’s downright freaking HILARIOUS.

And here he is, discussing coming out with Blue:

Simon: As a side note, don’t you think everyone should have to come out? Why is straight the default? Everyone should have to declare one way or another, and it should be this big awkward thing whether you’re straight, gay, bi, or whatever. I’m just saying.

Blue: It is definitely annoying that straight (and white, for that matter) is the default, and that the only people who have to think about their identity are the ones who don’t fit that mold. Straight people really should have to come out, and the more awkward it is, the better. Awkwardness should be a requirement. I guess this is sort of our version of the Homosexual Agenda?

Simon: The Homosexual Agenda? I don’t know. I think it’s more like the Homo Sapiens Agenda. That’s really the point, right?

And there you are. Challenging the Defaults. The pure core of intersectionality. The heart of this book.

Simon v. THSA is that one of a kind YA Fiction novel that makes you want to run through the streets, raving about the genre and the good it does in the world. It’s that book you’ll keep going back to, over and over again, because it keeps you laughing from start to finish. It’s that romance that turns even the most hard hearted of cynics all gooey and giggly. It’s the book that makes you believe in love and in the spring of youthful innocence again.

Simon v. The Homo Sapiens Agenda: Proudly carrying on the torch first lit by Harry Potter and staunchly carried forward by Perks of Being A Wallflower before it – at least as far as my reading list is concerned.

Next: Shifters #1 – Stray

Overview: Michael Buckley and The Sisters Grimm

Series Name: The Sisters Grimm 

Book Name: The Fairy Tale Detectives

Author: Buckley, Michael

Genre: Fantasy; Fairy Tales; Middle School Level Stuff

The Universe: This series is set in present day United States of America and focuses on a small town near New York called Ferryport Landing, where the Everafters – aka all the fairy tale creatures you’ve ever known or read about – live together. A spell placed on the town mean that none of the Everafters can leave Ferryport, and the spell is tied to the presence of the human family of Grimm – the descendants of the famous brothers Grimm – in the town. The original point of the spell was to keep the existence of the Everafters a secret from humans – and to protect the humans from the magic of the Everafters. Other communities of Everafters, it turns out, also exist outside of Ferryport – such as the Faerie kingdom in New York City. The Everafters in the town coexist with humans, hiding their identities an appearances with magical disguises and liberal amounts of forgetful dust (much like the Obliviator Squad in Harry Potter).

Summary by List

Primary Organizations, Groups and Alliances:

  1. The Grimms:
    The Grimm family is bound by the magical spell, and at least one of them should always live in the town. In The Fairy Tale Detectives, the only known and active members of the family are eleven year old Sabrina Grimm, her seven year old sister Daphne, and their grandmother, Relda Grimm, who fancies herself a private eye for fairy tale mysteries. Their motley crew is rounded off by Elvis the Great Dane (best tracking dog in the world), Mr. Canis the meditating old man with multiple personality disorder (the Big Bad Wolf), and Puck, the Trickster King .
  2. The Ferryport Government:
    On their very first day in Ferryport, Relda takes the girls out to inspect a farmhouse that was stomped on by a giant – not that this was obvious to them at the outset – where they run into the Mayor of Ferryport (Prince Charming) and his loyal and long suffering lackey Seven (one of the seven dwarves). They’re also introduced to the four man strong police force (consisting of the Three Little Pigs and Ichabod Crane, who figured he’d be safer from the headless huntsman if he was a cop).
  3. The Everafters:
    The Everafters hate the Grimms (and with good reason, considering they’re locked in a tiny, non – happening town because of the very existence of the Grimms). They blend in with the rest of the populace as much as they can, taking on ordinary jobs – the trolls deliver the mail, and Snow White teaches elementary school. In keeping with the spirit of the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales, these Everafters are decidedly un-Disneyfied. The Beast doesn’t look like a handsome prince, Red Riding Hood is a homicidal maniac who ‘suffered a break from reality’, and the Queen of Hearts – well, she’s pretty much the same. For the most part, they’re an unpleasant lot, although that’s an unkind generalization, as Snow White reminds Sabrina at one point.
  4. The Scarlet Hand:
    A shadowy group of rebel Everafters who’re trying to – as far as I can tell – assassinate the Grimms so they can get the hell out of dodge.

Main Characters:

  1. Sabrina Grimm:
    Eleven and on the cusp of puberty, forced to singlehandedly protect her younger sister for almost a year, and a die hard cynic to boot – Sabrina’s life sucks. She scoffs at her grandmother’s tales (and indeed, refuses to believe that the old woman is her grandmother) until she comes face to face with a two hundred foot giant (the giants in Harry Potter were tiny in comparison). The giant promptly kidnaps Relda and Mr. Canis, leaving it to the sisters Grimm to solve the mystery of who brought the giant here, and why, and to ultimately save their grandmother.
  2. Daphne Grimm:
    Seven, gullible and naively loving to a fault, Daphne is willing to see the good in anything. Despite her age and Sabrina’s protectiveness, it’s obvious that Daphne is more than capable of taking care of herself. She exhibits maturity and wisdom well beyond her years in how well she reads people and she’s not above manipulating them into doing whatever needed to be done. To top it all off, her appetite resembles something that’s a cross between a T-Rex and a Percy Jackson satyr – she’ll eat anything, and she’ll eat all day.
  3. Relda Grimm:
    Relda exemplifies the physical stereotype of a kindly grandmother, and has the energy and enthusiasm of a Daphne Grimm. She’s pleasant and non confrontational, which makes it so much worse when she actually loses her temper. She also shows an excellent knack in handling children – particularly the volatile Sabrina – perfectly.
  4. Mr. Canis:
    The Big Bad Wolf has mended his ways – sort of, and is now the Grimms’ full time bodyguard. He’s silent and seems to always be on the edge of a foul temper, but Daphne’s hugs always manage to catch him off guard enough to make him smile briefly.
  5. Puck:
    Puck is your average, stereotypical, boisterous eleven year old boy on steroids. He’s arrogant, ego maniacal, and an irrepressible prankster. He’s convinced that he needs to safeguard his reputation as a villain, but his soft heart means he ends up helping to save the day every time.
  6. Mayor Charming:
    The arrogant and power hungry Mayor of Ferryport is a far cry from Prince Charming – who, if stories are to be believed, was the saviour of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty… and any other princesses not already spoken for by, say, a frog or a beast, no doubt.
    I mean, is charming really the most important attribute you’d look for in a prospective husband or partner? Really? It kind of goes to show that these girls aren’t meant to be thinking for themselves – they’re meant to be blinded by the riches, beauty and charm of the princes, and marry them without any further thought given to the matter. Ugh.
  7. Ernest Hamstead:
    The sheriff of Ferryport, and the first of the Three Little Pigs (the one who got huffed and puffed out of his straw house). He’s kindly and sweet, and always happy to help the Grimms, despite the fact that all the other Everafters hate them.
  8. Mirror:
    The magic mirror who safeguards a walk in closet filled with magical items, and is oddly fixated on beauty products and fitness regimes.
  9. Henry and Veronica Grimm:
    The children’s parents, who they had believed had abandoned them, but were later revealed to have been kidnapped and put in a deep magical sleep. I’m on Book # 5, and these two are still asleep.