[ Best and Worst ] Little Lo & Big Blu

Incidentally, both the best and the worst books I’ve read were courtesy of the same professor. One was an unassigned, personal recommendation, and the other required for class. One of these books I’ve read so many times in the intervening three years that I’ve inadvertently memorized the first chapter. The other I will never, ever forgive my dear professor for implanting in my memory.

Best: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Once again, I return to my original Lolita, with its ailing spine, peeling cover, and well-thumbed through pages. It’s the 50th Anniversary Vintage Edition, with fleshy pink lips gracing a cover that I know Nabokov would abhor. The précis, which I am fairly sure Nabokov would decry as a clumsy, cliché, and cursory sketch of his most complex novel, reads:

Awe and exhilaration – along with heartbreak and mordant wit – abound in Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert’s obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Most of all, it is a meditation on love – love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.

When I learned that half my task was to write about my best read, it took less than a millisecond for Lolita to burst to the forefront of my prefrontal cortex. It was instantaneous, reflexive. I’m not even sure it came from my memory, but rather my spine. However, it took only another half a second for me to say to myself, “No, Whitney, you cannot write about Lolita. I forbid it.” Continue reading

Best and Worst: Finding (a Red Tree at) the End of the World

Reading is an experience. I have fond memories of re-reading James Joyce’s Ulysses while sitting in St Stephen’s Green and the delightful coincidence of being introduced to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged while travelling the USA by train. Name a book I’ve read, and I can tell you about the when and where. Choosing the best and worst reads came down to choosing the best and worst reading experience, which is why I’m going to do it backwards. My Worst Read Ever is seriously depressing, so let’s get that out of the way first:

Feed by M. T. Anderson

In 2011, I read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction for my studies in Children’s Literature. Spending a year reading books about various ways the world ends and how we’ll be left rotting in a dystopian landscape definitely does something to a person. It was Feed that left me crying for weeks whenever I saw anything that even remotely reminded me of the characters and world constructed in the novel.

Feed is set in an eerie imagined future in which corporations run everything (including SchoolTM), advertising is everywhere – including in your head – and language is coming to… you know… that thing…

Told from the first-person perspective, it tells the story of adolescents in an apathetic world driven by consumerism. If you’re not a consumer, then what use are you to society? Titus, the main character, reflects that the power of the corporations isn’t ideal “because who knows what evil shit they’re up to? Everyone feels bad about that. But they’re the only way to get all this stuff, and it’s no good getting pissy about it, because they’re still going to control everything whether you like it or not”.

Which begs the question: at what point do we stand up and say “hang on, I don’t need this, and you can’t keep doing what you’re doing?”

As the world of Feed deteriorates, so do the people. Physically, their bodies decay – the severity of which is concealed through excellent media campaigns making it “cool” to have lesions. Emotionally, they struggle to express themselves as society gradually loses the ability to construct meaning through language.

Scared yet? Then you should probably get your hands on the book I’ve chosen as my Best Read Ever, instead. Continue reading

[ In The Nest ] Q&A with Empress Chronicles author Suzy Vitello

The Empress Chronicles: Historic Fantasy with a New Kind of Heroine

by Melissa, theLibraryCanary

The Keepsake is the soon-to-be-released first novel in the Young Adult Empress Chronicles series, a fantastic look at the life of teenage princess Elisabeth in Bavaria—known familiarly as Sisi.

In The Keepsake, Sisi’s magical locket takes her back in time and gives her the power to predict true love—but it also embroils her in a dangerous competition with an evil enchantress who would use the locket to wicked ends.

The character is based on the historical princess Elisabeth who goes on to become the Empress of Austria and the Queen of Hungary—a cult figure legendary for her eccentricity: bizarre diets, extreme exercising, exotic pets, a penchant for pink, and a mother-in-law from hell. In other words, the stuff of a novelist’s dreams.

The Empress Chronicles brings us Sisi as researched and imagined by Suzy Vitello.  And when Vitello’s not busy writing novels and running a popular series of writer’s workshops, she also maintains Sisi’s Blog. She first began writing the blog as a way of organizing her research, as well as delve more deeply into the mind and persona of the 19th century princess.

What would Sisi have made of Twitter, blogging, and Facebook gossip? What would she sound like? The result is, by turns, hysterically funny and eminently educational.

I asked Vitello to tell us a little more about her interest in Sisi, the scope of the series, and when we can expect to get our hot little birdclaws on The Keepsake. Continue reading

[ Small Chirp ] Year of the Dragon (Tattoo)

In Which a Reader of Young Adult and Fantasy Crashes into a Sweedish Mystery Thriller

I tend to avoid harsh (realistic), contemporary fiction. This is a fairly new development for me (at least four years new). I fondly recall the days when I could sit through an action flick and simply enjoy it. I could read whatever I wanted to without being overwhelmed with fear, sympathy or angst.

Then, I had a baby. The moment I became a mommy, action movies became too graphic. Novels that never fazed me are hyper violent or too gritty. My “sensitive” switch is flipped and all the action I used to watch without a second thought to suddenly evolved into the brutalization of innocents. It makes me glance at my children and throw the book/movie into the “maybe someday” pile.

Despite all that, I picked up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s set in modern Sweden and revolves around reporter Mikael Blomkvist and hacker/researcher Lisbeth Salander as they attempt to solve a 40 year old murder.

I should have known better. Continue reading

[ Small Chirp ] New York Times Top 100 Books of 2011

The obvious thing to say about the New York Times list of the  100 noteable books of 2011 is that every book appears on the list is superbly crafted. That gets a resounding ‘duh.’ But mixed among this year’s best selling lit fit, poetry and nonfiction, there are some interesting genre titles that The Canary readers may delight in.

THE LAST WEREWOLF by Glen Duncan. Jake Marlowe, a 200-year-old werewolf, is the last of his kind. But while on the run from both a hunting agency and a horde of vampires, he discovers that perhaps he is not as unique as he once believed. What makes this book particularly noteworthy is the eloquence of the prose. Most reviews go so far as to call the narrative downright poetic, even when describing a werewolf transformation and the kills that follow. I find the concept a nice break from so much of the supernatural lit we’ve gotten as late. This time, the story is not told from the mind of the monster hunter, but rather from the monster himself.

THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta.  This is by far my favorite title of the year. “The Leftovers” focuses on just that: those unlucky souls who missed the Rapture. Specifically, it focuses on Kevin Garvey who, three years after the “Sudden Departure,” finds himself with a wife who has joined a cult, a son following a character known as the Holy Guru, and a daughter who fallen in with stoners.  The ramifications of the event—which was decidedly nonconformist as it took not only Christians but those across all faiths—echo through the story that is chockfull of satire with a heaping plate of strong characters on the side.  The New York Times summed it up the best: “The Leftovers” is, simply put, the best “Twilight Zone” episode you never saw.”

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.  On a recent pop into Barnes and Noble, my mother picked up this dictionary-sized book and said, “That better be an awesome story for that many pages.” And from what I’ve heard, awesome doesn’t begin to cover it. Murakami has always been a master storyteller, but never more so than when tackling dystopian lit. Set in 1984 (of course), the story is a combination love-psychological-political-thriller tale, and, in general, defies condensed description of plot. Suffice it to say, it’s crazy—and crazy good.

You can check out the rest of the list here.

What about you, Canaries? What is your favorite book of 2011?

[ Small Chirp ] The Elements of Horror

Years before I became one of those Neil Gaiman fans, I picked up Coraline at the Vancouver airport to wait out a layover. I read the book in its entirety before the plane even boarded, and handed it off to my travel partner, throughly happy to get the novella out of my hands and out of my mind. It had, more than anything I’d ever read, given me the absolute creeps.

Had I been as well-versed in Gaiman then as I am now, I would have been better prepared for his particular approach horror. He presents everything in a straightforward manner, as though the fantasical is an everyday occurrence. He weaves horror into the normal, letting it creep into the parts of the brain that positively tingle at the sight of something out of place. And then we realize that the eyes have been replaced by shining black buttons as happens in Coraline.

I tend to not read books that are billed as horror. I have a weak constitution for terror. But that has made me remarkably unprepared for it when it sneaks up in books. I don’t see the warning signs; I just suddenly find myself holding my breath and listening to my own rapid pulse in my ears. And what amazes me the most is the many different ways horror can rear its head out of the blue.

These are my favorite elements of horror:

1. The Sideways World. Perhaps my favorite element of horror is the character/situation that is ever-so-slightly off kilter–not enough to send up red flags of doom, but…perhaps enough to set off little internal alarm bells. Gaiman is a master of this, especially in his short stories and YA books. Coraline and the Newberry-award-winning The Graveyard Book both establish worlds that are just slightly offset from our own to such a degree that when the weird things begin to happen, the reader’s so off center that the mind cannot cope.

2. The Tilt from Normal. In the titular novel of Michael Grant’s Gone series, a character is holed up in a run-down shack in the middle of nowhere. And out of the pitch black night, someone is calling for her to leave the safety of shelter. Grant describes the voice in terrifying detail, the gravelly quality, as though the person has not spoken in days. How it almost sounds as though it isn’t a person speaking at all, as though it is something else, something otherworldly. Something…distinctly not human. Grant plays out the moment, so that that mind connects the dots and takes the first step off the cliff into the terrifying unknown.

3. The Relentless Rush.  Unlike my other picks, which are subtle and often slow-paced, sometimes there is nothing better for a scare than the never-ending situation from Hell. I read one most recently in Mira Grant’s Feed. It was a zombie battle that went on for pages before dying down into a lull of safety.

But the safety is a brief interlude before another wave hits. Then another. And every time the characters seem safe, something new is thrown at them until I am on the edge of my seat, gripped with paranoia, just waiting for the next scare to emerge.

How about you Canaries? What is your favorite element of horror?

Tell us about your favorite creepy scene from a book.

Related Posts:

Halloween Week: Scary Stories

Seeing my swashbuckling self now, you wouldn’t believe it, but I was a huge scaredy-pants when I was a fledgling. My friends read the Goosebumps series; I couldn’t read the summary on the backs without glancing nervously behind me, sure that something was creeping up on me. Most of the year, I stuck to stories free from ghosts, monsters, and unhappy endings.

Every October, though, when the librarians put out the Halloween displays, everything changed. I was drawn to the collections of scary stories–and always ended up checking one out. I could handle most of what I read, but there was invariably that one story that scared the daylights out of me, reducing me to a sweating, whimpering mess when it came time to climb the dark stairs to my room.

One year, it was the story of the Wendigo, a wind spirit that made people run until their feet caught fire. In it, a trail guide returned to camp swaddled in a blanket. When the others, angered by his silence, pulled the blanket away, all that was left underneath was a pile of ash.

One year, it was a story of a demon scarecrow that killed the farmers one by one and laid their skins on the roof to dry in the sun (I still say that story had no business in a book for kids).

My mother tried to discourage me sometimes. Several years of early-November nightmares were enough to convince her that the scary books should stay on the shelf.

“Are you sure about that one?” she’d say in the check-out line, staring at the skull on the cover. But I would not be denied. Continue reading