Archive for August, 2010

Book review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson, John Green and David Levithan

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Alternate title: In Which I Write the Words “Will Grayson” over and over and over…

There’s a lot to like about Will Grayson, Will Grayson: it’s strong and honest and funny, its teen melodramas feel so authentic (when you’re a teenager everything is so! important! and! dramatic!), and some of its characters are truly likeable.

But… I’m not sure I liked this book.

That’s because, despite its title, Will Grayson, Will Grayson isn’t actually about someone called Will Grayson. The dominant character is Tiny Cooper, an ironically named high-schooler whose body is almost as big as his personality. Tiny is the long-time best friend of Will Grayson, a pessimistic introvert who’s determined to avoid any sort of emotional experience. By a strange quirk of fate he meets another Will Grayson: this one is starting to open up about his sexuality, and entranced when he meets the openly and extremely gay Tiny.

The book wavers between the viewpoints of Will Grayson and Will Grayson (Green wrote from one point-of-view, and Levithan from the other), and it’s cleverly written – it’s a book with gay characters, though it’s not a gay book. (Not that there’s anything wrong with gay books, as such; I mean it’s not a Problem Novel about being gay.)

(For the record, the gay Will Grayson was my favourite Will Grayson.)

I found Tiny annoying, and it annoyed me that the other characters fawned over him so much – the book literally ends (spoiler!) with scores of people declaring to Tiny how much they appreciate his sheer awesomeness. If you’re like me and don’t buy into Tiny’s awesomeness, this is a serious problem. I didn’t really get why Tiny, who’s so overbearing (not to mention gay to the point of stereotype; he reminded me of “too gay to function” Damian from Mean Girls), is so important to these characters.

That said, I did like that the straight Will and Tiny have a friendship where sexuality is not an issue. And a crucial part of the adolescent experience is having at least one friend who is kind of a dick. (Years later, you reflect on your teenage years and wonder why the hell you spent so much time with so obvious a jerk.) Perhaps this is what Green and Levitan are really writing about – major kudos to them if so, though such an analysis seems like a bit of a stretch.

Book review: World War Z, Max Brooks

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

You know when a book is so good, its scope so wide and so imaginative, that it leeches into pretty much every thought you have? World War Z, an epistolary novel documenting mankind’s battle against rising zombie hordes,  is one of those books.

For example: I read it while holidaying in the Cook Islands, on a tiny dot of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. “I’d be pretty safe from a zombie invasion here,” I thought. Then: “… right? What if the zombies crossed the sea somehow? What if the island became crowded with refugees, who carried the zombie infection? Would my hotel room provide a safe place to hide from zombies?” (I decided it wouldn’t.) It’s an exciting book, in the literal sense of the word.

It’s told as a series of short stories documenting the experiences of people all over the world1 before, during and after the zombie apocalypse, and though I’m not paticularly enamoured of the zombie genre (all those eviscerations and eyeballs hanging from stalks. Eeeeewwwww), World War Z is fascinating in its realism. Yes, realism. It’s an odd word given the subject matter, but this truly feels like what would really would happen if a mysterious virus started turning its victims into the flesh-hungry living dead. The human weaknesses that allow the zombie plague to spread and the (sometimes shockingly cynical) strategies that enable the survivors to win are convincing, propped up by Brooks’s incredible attention to detail – especially when he imagines scenarios that aren’t immediately obvious: what would happen aboard an international space station during a zombie invasion? How do you train dogs to detect and attack the living dead? What animal species would be ravaged by the zombie war (spoiler alert: the whales bite it. Sad face)?

What’s also surprising is that World War Z isn’t a gore-and-guns splatterfest that glorifies weapons and gung-ho violence. It’s hopeful, unexpectedly uplifting, partly because it’s set after humanity’s victory (mostly) over the zombies), so you know it has a happy ending (again, mostly); but also because it’s a celebration of humanity’s pluck and moxy. Many of the people respond to the zombie crisis as selfishly as you’d expect, but many more behave admirably. (And there’s a strong satirical undercurrent that keeps it all from ever becoming too mushy – win!)

If you’d rather listen than read, the audiobook sounds excellent, and the upcoming film adaptation is also promising.

The book almost makes me wish that the zombie apocalypse really will happen. Fingers crossed it won’t break out till after I track down a copy of Brooks’s companion book, The Zombie Survival Guide

  1. Unfortunately, Australia is hardly mentioned. Did we endure the zompocalypse or not?! []

Book review: Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

Neil Gaiman writes in the preface of this short-story collection that the most important rule for any tale is that is must consantly answer the question: “And then what happened?” Because why would you keep reading (or listening, or watching, or whatever) if you don’t care about what happens afterwards?

Not all the stories live up to the rule (I won’t name names, but a handful are so uninteresting that surely they only made the cut because the writers are pals of Gaiman and co-editor Al Sarrantonio), though almost all of them do, and many exceed it. An everyday husband develops a taste of blood (and then what happened?). An elderly woman’s dead twin sister attempts to manipulate her way back from the grave (and then what happened?). A “retired” serial killer releases his victims before killing them… mostly (and then what happened?).

There are many other tales worthy of a mention, but including synopses of them all would make for a super long post, so I’ll just say: there’s a heck of a lot of imagination stuffed between the covers.

The stories range from chilling to funny to outright bizarre, from the very short to the very long, and while they cross genre lines there’s a touch of fantasy to almost all of them (not to mention a pervading theme of death). It’s such a diverse collection of superb writing that there really is something for everyone – assuming that “everyone” likes their stories black.

(PS: This is my first book review in ages not because I haven’t been writing them, but because I’ve been trying to learn French in the time usually allotted to reading. But then I went on holidays for a week and read like a mofo, so.)