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review 2017-07-12 15:02
The Book of Dahlia, by Elisa Albert
The Book of Dahlia - Elisa Albert

Dahlia Finger is kind of an asshole. She's 29 and spends her days sprawled out on her couch, smoking weed and watching movies, funded by her well-off father. One night she has a seizure and learns that she has a brain tumor. Though no one will actually say it, she doesn't have long to live.

 

This is not one of those novels of illness where there's redemption ahead or that's supposed to make you hopeful and grateful for life (beyond not having a brain tumor). For that reason, I appreciated and responded to it. Unlike all the books on cancer Dahlia and her parents buy in bulk that say "you can beat this thing" if only you have the right attitude, in effect making you responsible (and to blame) for your own illness, The Book of Dahlia illustrates how we as a culture fail to deal with mortality. Though it's not addressed specifically in the novel, I personally wonder how much that American idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is at play, which easily translates into victim-blaming when one can't.

 

One of the platitudes often given regarding illness and healing is that a sufferer must let go of old resentments and anger, that these can make or keep one sick. As Dahlia considers and recounts her past, it's clear she has almost nothing but resentments, from a mother who essentially abandoned her family to the older brother, once close, who took out his own pain on her in the cruelest ways. Throughout her life she's plainly asked for help and been ignored. Maybe it says something about me that I couldn't blame her for her stubbornness in forgiving and forgetting. It feels like the only way she's able to have any agency during her illness.

 

If this sounds grim, it's not, or not only! Dahlia's voice is often funny, enough to make me laugh out loud while reading. Her humor may be bitter, but that suits me fine. At the end of the book there was a reading group guide that asked more than one question about whether one is able to sympathize with her; I absolutely could. I often like female characters in popular culture that others find abrasive, though I often wonder how much it's about gender.

 

The toughest and most affecting aspect of this book was the relationship between Dahlia and her older brother. As a younger sister myself, I'm always interested in and more sensitive to depictions of that dynamic. It broke my heart to read about the turn their relationship takes, how long Dahlia holds out and has faith in him, even insulting herself to get ahead of his insulting her. I both wanted and did not want Dahlia to forgive him. It made me want to call my own brother and thank him for not being a dick!

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review 2017-06-04 03:07
Visual novel review - Fault - Milestone One

 

Fault - Milestone One stars Selphine and Ritona. Selphine is the kind-natured Princess of Rughzenhaide, while Ritona is her bodyguard. Rughzenhaide is a country whose people use mana to do everything from learning languages to crafting weapons. Mana-powered telepathy is considered perfectly normal and helps with everything from communicating a restaurant’s entire menu to its customers to long-distance communication. In fact, communication via mana is an integral part of the country’s monarchy. Rughzenhaide’s monarchs can use something called the Path-down to directly transmit their memories and knowledge to their heirs.

The Path-down must not be interrupted. When the palace is invaded and most of its inhabitants are killed, Ritona uses a special teleportation technique she’s spent years developing and escapes with Selphine at her side. Unfortunately, they end up someplace completely different from where Ritona planned: the Outer-Pole. The Outer-Pole is best known for its lack of mana. People from the Outer-Pole can’t travel to mana-rich areas without developing mana-sickness and dying, while people from mana-rich areas only have three to five days in the Outer-Pole before mana-sickness either robs them of their ability to use mana or kills them.

Selphine and Ritona have to get away from the Outer-Pole and back to Rughzenhaide. Before they leave, however, they want to help Rune, the first friend they made after arriving at the Outer-Pole. Although everyone keeps insisting that slavery has long since been abolished and that Rune is definitely not a slave, that’s certainly what she seems to be. In an effort to free and protect her, Selphine and Ritona learn more about life in the Outer-Pole, Rune, and the terrible history of the Zhevitz family.

First, a few things. Although I’ll be referring to this as a game, it’s really not - it’s kind of like a book with visuals and music, that comes in software form. All the other visual novels I’ve reviewed allowed you to make choices at various points in the narrative. Fault - Milestone One asks you to make a choice once during the entire thing, and the only difference your decision makes is a few lines of text right after the choice. I had the whole game play on Auto Skip just to make sure the other choice didn’t change the ending slightly or something. Two, this thing ends on a cliffhanger. I didn’t know that going in. I expected another hour or two of story and got “hey, this character’s personality has suddenly drastically changed, The End!” I finished the whole thing in maybe four and a half hours.

If this had been an actual novel, I couldn’t recommend it. The writing was terrible. The main reason it usually didn’t bug me was because I was zipping through it pretty quickly (my preferred method: keyboard on my lap and hand constantly on the Enter key). I did take the time to jot down some of the more painful sentences, though. For example:

“Concerned for Rune, our mother forced her frail, weak body as she tried to bring Rune to a hospital on the outskirts of town.”

Also:

“However, luckily, due to her weak body, her body had rejected the mana before her body had taken a lethal amount.”

I understood the text, but it definitely needed better editing. It bugged me that the author (or translator) couldn’t seem to keep their verb tenses straight. I also didn’t like the way the POV kept changing - usually first-person from Ritona’s POV, except when it was necessary to show scenes Ritona couldn’t be part of, at which time there either was no clear POV (just dialogue) or the story changed to first-person POV from another character’s perspective. Since the story was mostly dialogue, I honestly didn’t think that first-person POV contributed anything. Third-person POV throughout would have made things less confusing.

Gameplay-wise, I’m not sure why players (readers?) were asked to make only one choice throughout the entire game. Either there should have been more choices, or none. Also, the controls weren’t entirely intuitive. I had to google how to use the regular save spots - the only obvious options were Autosave and Quicksave. A note for other confused players: right-click on the screen while you’re reading and you’ll get an extra menu option, regular saves.

I haven’t said anything good about Fault - Milestone One yet, and you might have gotten the impression that I disliked it. You’d be wrong. It took me until Chapter 3 (maybe an hour and a half?) to really get sucked in, but from that point on I was hooked. I will say, however, that I’m glad I got it while Steam had it on sale for 66% off. The full price would have been a bit high considering how quickly I finished it. (FYI - the sale has two more days to go.)

The things that kept me reading until the story finally grabbed me were the artwork and the music. The game’s visuals were lovely, and I liked the way the camera occasionally zoomed in or out, adding movement. I loved almost all of the character sprites, and they all had a great range of emotions. The music was wonderful and usually helped enhance the mood of settings and scenes. I can only recall one scene where the music seemed very inappropriate, a character’s bouncy theme song that continued playing as that character met another character who was clearly near death.

The story was slow to get going and prone to massive infodumps (be prepared for occasional walls of text), but once I reached some of the bigger revelations I couldn’t stop reading. The world-building had some issues, but I enjoyed reading about the way the people at the Outer-Pole had adjusted to their mana limitations. While the mana-rich areas had access to something that was basically magic, the Outer-Pole had to rely on science. I was surprised when the story went from something I expected would be 100% fantasy to something with a little alternate history sci-fi (sort of) mixed in.

Rune’s story brought me to tears. I was glad that Selphine and Ritona were there to speak up for her, and I was glad that everything worked out in the end, but… I don’t know. This was one of those stories that would be a prime candidate for fix fic. Everything was resolved too easily for my tastes, especially considering how badly many of these characters had hurt each other, and how many years they’d been doing it. It should have taken more than a few words, some tears, and a hug to fix everything. And I kept thinking about that boy who got stabbed in the eye, and who had to continue living in the town and make nice with the family of the person who did it. I also had questions about whether Past Rune and Present Rune could still be considered to be the same person.

Although I had issues with the story, I enjoyed it overall (except for that cliffhanger, darn it). Also, like I said, the music and visuals were wonderful. I definitely plan on reading the next installment, Fault - Milestone Two Side: Above.

Extras:

There’s a gallery that allows you to access all of the game’s movie clips and event CGs once you’ve finished. There’s also an audio gallery where you can listen to the game’s music. While you’re reading the story, you have access to an encyclopedia explaining in-world terminology and concepts.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2017-04-16 16:50
The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik
The River at Night - Erica Ferencik

A compulsively readable survival thriller ala Deliverance and The Descent that is begging to be adapted into a show or film. It features a group of friends in their late 30s, all women, who don't regularly see one another in their day to day lives but who take periodic, adventurous vacations away from it all. On this vacation their fearless leader, Pia, has arranged for them to raft a river in Maine, one that is virtually "undiscovered," according to their young, male guide. Read "undiscovered" as in the middle of nowhere, no cell phone coverage, and no help nearby. You see where this is going.

 

Disaster strikes during the trip, and the group is forced to make tough decisions and survive a dangerous situation that only gets more dangerous. The strain heightens tensions and reveals cracks in the group, and everyone loses their shit in a way specific to each character. Our narrator is Winifred (Win or Wini), clearly the least brave of her friends, a woman who's recently lost her husband (divorce/separation) and younger, deaf brother. She's lonely, at sea in her life but without the impetus to make changes and be happier.

 

All the women bring their own baggage, but it's Pia's need to be "off the grid," be authentic, whatever that means, that brings them to the river. Besides Win's relatable narration, the adventure, and some very cool descriptions of their environment, the book's refusal to say, simply, that nature is better and civilization is corrupt is a favorite aspect of the story.

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review 2017-03-11 20:24
Black Wave, Michelle Tea
Black Wave - Michelle Tea

The more I read (and watch movies and TV), the more I value encountering something unlike anything else I ever have before. Black Wave, by Michelle Tea, immersed me in a world new to me in several ways.

 

Though there are occasionally individual queer characters in the books I read, I haven't read much queer lit where a larger community is represented, especially queer women. Black Wave is set in San Francisco in the 90s at the start, an alternative past where gentrification has strangled most of the culture(s) from the city. In addition, the world appears to be ending due to advanced climate change: it's dangerous to be out in the sun even incidentally, the ocean is a trash wave, many animals are extinct, and invasive species have overtaken the dying native flora. In other words, the environment's death mirrors a cultural and, as is soon apparent, a personal one.

 

The protagonist, Michelle (like the author), is in her later twenties, and is the kind of addict who tells herself she's not because she doesn't shoot heroin but snorts it and is able to keep her job at a bookstore. She falls in love (or becomes infatuated) easily and hooks up with many of the women who come into her orbit, despite being in a "steady" relationship with a partner more stable than she is. At one point the point of view shifts from Michelle's to her girlfriend's, who thinks she's a sociopath.

 

That feels pretty accurate, but one of the amazing things about Black Wave is that despite Michelle's objectively unlikable character, I still felt very much invested in her. In part this is due to the humor and energy of the writing. For example:

 

Michelle seemed more like some sort of compulsively rutting land mammal, a chimera of dog in heat and black widow, a sex fiend that kills its mate. Or else she was merely a sociopath. She was like the android from Blade Runner who didn’t know it was bad to torture a tortoise. She had flipped [her girlfriend] Andy onto her belly in the Armageddon sun and left her there, fins flapping.

 

I may also personally respond to Michelle because she's a writer, one who's even published and had a sort of local fame. Around the midpoint of the book when she moves to L.A., the narrative is deconstructed as she attempts to write a new book. It becomes clear that not everything we've read so far is as it happened. Another aspect I liked is that somehow this sudden shift doesn't feel like a trick as can happen in many modernist and post-modernist writing and metafiction. How and why I don't know, but after some minor readjustment on my part as a reader, I was still invested.

 

I've often noted what a structure fanatic I am, and the last major selling point of Black Wave is the way it beautifully spins out in the last third.

 

Tangents were Michelle’s favorite part of writing, each one a declaration of agency: I know I was going over there but now I’m going over here, don’t be so uptight about it, just come along. A tangent was a fuckup, a teenage runaway. It was a road trip with a full tank of gas. You can’t get lost if you don’t have anywhere to be. This was writing for Michelle: rule free, glorious, sprawling.

 

As the world ends, people begin dreaming vividly and lucidly about others who exist in the real world, all over the world. They're dreams of connection and love where identity is fluid, and some begin living in them, like Michelle's bosses at the bookstore who hand over the business to her. So the world ends, but somehow Michelle's in a good place, and so was I.

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review 2017-02-05 17:54
American Housewife, by Helen Ellis
American Housewife: Stories - Helen Ellis

My first thoroughly enjoyable read of the year. Despite never having been a housewife (or wife, period) myself, I felt like this short story collection's ideal audience. There are plenty of films and books that cover similar ground--the details, drudgery, absurdity, and even darkness of being a housewife--but Ellis manages to make the content fresh through voice and form.

 

All the stories made me laugh out loud or grin sardonically, from the first, brief portrait of a modern housewife, to the email exchange between two passive aggressive--and then just aggressive--ladies occupying the same building (my favorite), to the Dumpster Diving with the Stars reality show. Some stories, like the first, are flash fiction and read like prose poems to me. Others are fuller, like the ending story about contemporary novel writing in the age of sponsorship and social media. In that story and others, the horror of aspects of our culture becomes real.

 

Satisfying and sharp-tongued (without looking down on its characters), this collection completely won me over from the start.

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