Book Review: What the Hell Did I Just Read?

David Wong takes chaos and makes it relatable, in a dark and humorous way.

Capture
What the Hell Did I Just Read? by David Wong

Synopsis

Dave, John and Amy recount what seems like a fairly straightforward tale of a shape-shifting creature from another dimension that is stealing children and brainwashing their parents, but it eventually becomes clear that someone is lying, and that someone is the narrators.

The novel you’re reading is a cover-up, and the “true” story reveals itself in the cracks of their hilariously convoluted, and sometimes contradictory, narrative.

(Via Book Depository)

My Impressions

Here’s what I expected from David Wong‘s What the Hell Did I Just Read?: a boyish romp through nihilistic philosophy and loads of gratuitous violence, eldritch horror, existential dread, and dick jokes.

What I got: exactly that, but with more thoughtfulness.

Just before the release of What the Hell Did I Just Read?, I reread the first in the series, John Dies at the End. I found it as good on the second read as on the first, but the difference four books (and countless articles at Cracked.com) can make in a writer’s skills and priorities shows. Wong (or Jason Pargin, really) has put his platform to work in order to touch on a few social issues, set against the background of absurdity.

I still don’t know for sure what happened in What the Hell Did I Just Read?, because as the synopsis and the title suggest, our narrators are incredibly unreliable this time around. (They may have always been. Who even knows?) It would have been easy to give readers a new logic-defying adventure characterized by the IDGAF attitude of David, John’s occasional wild narrative inputs, and Amy keeping up with the usual lunacy. That’s how it looks at first — just another fun time with our trio of badasses.

But unreliability, I think, is the point of the narrative. Real life is messy and noisy and confusing. Stories get convoluted when one person tries to cover for another, your friends prove somewhat untrustworthy, and, like internet comment threads, nothing gets tied up in a neat, satisfying bow. Wong takes chaos and makes it relatable, in a dark and humorous way.

You tend to hear “it’s about the journey, not the destination” as a consolation for an unsatisfactory conclusion. By the time I tumbled to the last page of What the Hell Did I Just Read?, that phrase is exactly what I was thinking. As I mulled over the events of the narrative, I realized that, as in life, what happened along the way was far more important than the end. I had fun and that was what mattered.

I won’t spoil, but there are two “along the way” events I really cared about: Amy’s role in this unholy trinity and the issue of David’s mental health. Both of them indicate Wong’s changing social issue stances.

My favorite part is that Amy gets to have her own agency, her own (contradictory) opinions and desires, things she does outside of hanging out with David and John, actions that impact the narrative, and even acts as the household provider in her and David’s dynamic. Things women don’t often get to do in fiction, despite them being daily realities for us all. Things Amy didn’t get to do much in the previous two books.

My next favorite is that, while Wong has never forced David into taking action about his depression before now, he finally takes a dig into the resistance depression sufferers often show toward psychological improvement, using David and company as his mouthpieces to get the message across to his readers. He’s made no secret of David’s mental health issues, but here he brought it to the forefront instead of letting it stagnate in the background.

Overall, I’m pleased with Wong’s execution of this newest installment, particularly since it takes the frightening and makes it familiar through the lens of relatable characters who could, at this point, be any of us.

Goodreads rating: 4.43 stars
My rating: 5/5 stars

Book Review: All the Crooked Saints

Maggie Stiefvater weaves metaphors like a spider weaves silk, and she filled this brief, slim novel to the brim with them. There are so many to examine, but I think I’ve picked out the main one…

20171015_155204.jpg
All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

Synopsis

Here is a thing everyone wants: A miracle. Here is a thing everyone fears: What it takes to get one. Any visitor to Bicho Raro, Colorado is likely to find a landscape of dark saints, forbidden love, scientific dreams, miracle-mad owls, estranged affections, one or two orphans, and a sky full of watchful desert stars.

At the heart of this place you will find the Soria family, who all have the ability to perform unusual miracles. And at the heart of this family are three cousins longing to change its future: Beatriz, the girl without feelings, who wants only to be free to examine her thoughts; Daniel, the Saint of Bicho Raro, who performs miracles for everyone but himself; and Joaquin, who spends his nights running a renegade radio station under the name Diablo Diablo.

They are all looking for a miracle. But the miracles of Bicho Raro are never quite what you expect.

(Via Book Depository)

My Impressions

Here at last, I thought as I began reading All the Crooked Saints, was a Maggie Stiefvater book I wouldn’t love with all my heart. That’s a natural thing; no reader will adore every single piece a writer sends out.  I was prepared to accept this and look forward to her next book while rereading her previous ones.

The tone of All the Crooked Saints is more fanciful than usual, for starters, presented like an old folktale, with sparkling liveliness glinting in its eye. Also, it’s told in third-person omniscient, a style that I tend to dislike, as it jumps point-of-view too often for my taste.

But this, it turns out, is because while there are a dozen characters, each with their own wants and fears, darknesses, miracles, and personal arcs, there are really two characters in this story: the Saints and the pilgrims.

In a Facebook post prior to the release of All the Crooked Saints, Stiefvater alludes to last year, when she became inundated with requests for advice. “I found myself with a Tumblr inbox overflowing with readers asking me for #dubiouslifeadvice. But even as I answered the questions, I asked myself: what qualifies me to answer? Aren’t I imperfect, too, maybe more than the seeker?”

That very question shapes this story. Stiefvater weaves metaphors like a spider weaves silk, and she filled this brief, slim novel to the brim with them. There are so many to examine, and I very well may in the future, but I think I’ve picked out the main one.

Once, in an article for Jalopnik, for which Steifvater writes pieces about cars that are actually metaphors for life, she pointed out something about my generation that stuck with me:

…young people can be anxious and say they’re anxious. There’s no longer a stigma to admitting it. On the one hand, this is beautiful. Name the monster and you can kill it. But on the other hand… people aren’t killing it. They’ve named it and now they’re keeping it as a permanent fixture of the household. It lurks in the living room with its pretend immortality. Will you kill it for me, please? They ask.

That’s us. We’re the pilgrims, asking the Saints for a miracle, then finding that once we’ve named the monster, we must be the ones to kill it. No one else can do it, because they’re all wrestling their own darknesses. “This is one spider you’ve got to kill on your own,” she writes.

The takeaway here, I think, is that we cannot cease solving ourselves. To work through our own problems (instead of setting them on the mantelpiece) is to help others with theirs. But, as in the tale, one follows the other. Perhaps it also returns on itself.

So, in conclusion, I loved this book. It’s filled with tasty morsels for my mind to chew over a good week after closing it. I identify with Beatriz Soria, who struggles with a darkness that gnaws at my own heart at times. I’m sure readers can find themselves somewhere inside this story, too. But will you be a pilgrim, or will you be a Saint?

Goodreads rating: 3.93 stars
My rating: 5/5 stars

Book Review: Un Lun Dun

The story itself mockingly dodged predictable hero’s journey tropes, twisting around and jumping the curb every chance it got, as if to say, “you just thought you knew what was coming next.”

Capture
Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

Synopsis:

What is Un Lun Dun?

It is London through the looking glass, an urban Wonderland of strange delights where all the lost and broken things of London end up . . . and some of its lost and broken people, too–including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas; Obaday Fing, a tailor whose head is an enormous pin-cushion, and an empty milk carton called Curdle. Un Lun Dun is a place where words are alive, a jungle lurks behind the door of an ordinary house, carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets, and a dark cloud dreams of burning the world. It is a city awaiting its hero, whose coming was prophesied long ago, set down for all time in the pages of a talking book.

When twelve-year-old Zanna and her friend Deeba find a secret entrance leading out of London and into this strange city, it seems that the ancient prophecy is coming true at last. But then things begin to go shockingly wrong.

(Via Book Depository)

My Impressions:

Un Lun Dun, by New York Times bestselling author China Miéville, sets the typical hero’s journey on its side. Or perhaps inside out. For a city that’s London but very much not London, both familiar and strange, no destined chosen one will do. The very opposite, in fact. Just a girl with the stubborn courage to act, a girl who could be any of us, undestined, unchosen, but still capable of changing an entire world.

The tone of Un Lun Dun is a marvelous, whimsical cross between Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, two of my favorite stories, the likes of which I rarely find elsewhere. It shows the heart of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobethe main character perhaps being a tribute to C. S. Lewis’s wonderful character Lucy Pevensie. (If not, I know Lucy would get right along with Deeba Resham.) Throughout the course of Un Lun Dun, Miéville masterfully weaves in descriptions of his curious and complicated UnLondon without losing the momentum of the narrative. I won’t forget Wraithtown or the binjas, moil houses made from random objects, or the unbrellas (because I may be stuck thinking of my umbrella as an unbrella from now on). Also, carnivorous giraffes.

The story itself mockingly dodged predictable hero’s journey tropes, twisting around and jumping the curb every chance it got, as if to say, “you just thought you knew what was coming next.” The characters as a group become a powerful force, strong individually by the end, but mighty when brought together. The close of the story left me with the impression that not all problems are solved over the course of one book, but that the characters who took me across Unlondon and back can now face up to any challenge with the trust they have in each other.

Goodreads rating: 3.81 stars
My rating: 4/5 stars