Wednesday, October 27, 2010

CR Book 27: Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

My final entry in this year's CR (it ends in November, right?) was crap. Utter crap.

So... I was drawn to this book after I heard the basic premise. Two words: "Killer unicorns."

Sounds awesome, right?

Astrid Llewelyn is a sixteen year old girl who dreams of becoming a doctor. She's a typical teen girl, caustically sarcastic, constantly fending off her boyfriend's advances and fighting with her mother. She and her mother Lilith don't see eye to eye on most things, the biggest of which is her mom's firm belief in the existence of unicorns. But these aren't your typical, fluffy, friendly unicorns, the kind you might see Robocop riding. No, these are the venomous, snarling, bloodthirsty beasts Robocop probably wishes he could ride. And according to Lilith, Astrid is descended from an Order of unicorn hunters known as the Order of the Lioness, which extends back to Alexander the Great's descendants. Astrid, naturally, believes her mother is loopy and that unicorns are mythical.

Then, one night, as Astrid is trying to keep her boyfriend out of her pants, they're attacked by a wild unicorn. Astrid calls her mother in a panic after the boy is mortally wounded, and Lilith arrives with something called "the Remedy," which is somehow extracted from unicorns and has magically healing abilities. Not long after the attack, Lilith informs Astrid that the unicorns are reemerging, and the Order must stand once more to fight... which means Astrid will be moving to Rome post-haste to live in a Cloister and train to be a hunter.

Yup, a Cloister. Because only virgin girls can fight unicorns. They are drawn to the girls because the girls possess a "potentia illicere," which the author never bothered to explain and my Google-fu tells me that it roughly translates to "alluring power." So, magic. Or whatever. Unicorns like 'em pure, apparently.

So Astrid goes to Rome, meets the other virgins who have been sent to the Cloister, and tries to amp herself up to devote herself to fighting unicorns. It's not as easy as it sounds, though, as unicorns possess super healing abilities - you basically have to cut off their heads or cut out their hearts to get them to die. And Astrid feels like her mother has forced her into this life, which she basically has, and tries to find a way out. The most obvious way? Lose her virginity. Enter Giovanni, an American going to school in Rome. Will Astrid give in to temptation? Or will she stay true to her calling and protect the world from the scary horsies?

Should you even care? Not really.

My first gut reaction to reading this book was, Look, another lame attempt to cash in on the supernatural craze kicked off by Twilight! Seriously. I think when Stephanie Meyer finished her last novel, she created this vortex of Suck that could only be filled by more Suck, and that's how this book ended up getting published. This one WAS published in 2009, but who knows, maybe it was kicking around before Twilight hit the presses.

Look, I'll be honest. I really wanted this book to be one of those so-bad-it's-good novels. But it's not. It's just BAD. Astrid is insufferable (rather like whiny Bella); she bitches and moans about everything. The unicorn stuff needed to be totally balls-out crazy, and the creatures needed to be terrifyingly scary, but the author kept undercutting their fearsomeness, like by giving the girls a pet unicorn named Bonegrinder who sounded rather adorable. The book kept forgetting its own rules and tripping up over details. For instance, regular people (aka not hunters) can't see unicorns because they're unable to see magical things. But then Giovanni is able to see them and it's never really addressed why he can or why the Don of the Cloister can as well. And then there's a whole subplot about the Remedy that goes nowhere until it's conveniently mentioned again at the end of the book, perhaps setting up a sequel (oh let's hope not).

I don't think this one is going to catch on like Twilight did. I just don't think the world wants scary unicorns. And I can't blame them. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a book to donate to Goodwill.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

CR Book 26: House of Leaves by Mark. Z. Danielewski

Well, I've achieved my goal of a half Cannonball Read. Not that I'm going to stop reading, but at least I've reached that point.

"House of Leaves" is a sprawling, audacious story within a story within a story... I think I hit all the levels there... that describes a documentary called The Navison Record. Will and Karen Navison have moved their small family into a house in the Virginia countryside and make an odd discovery: the house is larger on the inside than on the outside. Curious about this physical impossibility, Will (referred to as Navison or Navy by friends) brings in friends and family to help him determine how this could be. But the house is not finished playing with its inhabitants; doorways begin to appear in walls where nothing stood before, and soon a full hallway appears in their living room. Navison, a photojournalist who has never been afraid to explore and to capture his findings in film, decides to travel the hallway with the help of some well-know explorers and lots and lots of video cameras.

That's just the first story. On top of that, we have the work of Zampano, a blind man who has spent what would appear to be years compiling notes and references about The Navison Record. And on top of that, we have the footnotes (that tell the life story) of Johnny Truant, a loquacious ne'er-do-well who spends his days working in a tattoo parlor, dreaming of a stripper named Thumper, and his nights getting drunk with his friend, Lude, and charming drunk women with his ability to spin a good yarn. One night, Lude brings Johnny over to check out the deceased Zampano's (Lude's neighbor) apartment, and Johnny finds a trunk full of Zampano's work and decides to take it home.

Johnny's curiosity about the man's work quickly becomes an obsession, and as he tries to finish what Zampano started, his life begins to collapse around him. The shifts in his mental state appear to mirror the changes occurring in the Navison Record. One of the most impressive things about the novel is the way Danielewski plays with structure in order to give you the impression that the book itself is changing, just like the house. As Johnny's life begins to disintegrate, the footnotes become more chaotic; as Navy's explorations of the hallway begin to resemble that of someone wandering a labyrinth, so too do the words on the pages begin to change, moving backwards, upside-down, and so on. As you read, you feel just as lost and confused as Navy and Johnny (and I would assume Zampano, but I didn't get as strong a sense of him as I did the others).

The book is filled with Appendices and Exhibits that are full of poems, images, and extra bits meant to help support (or, in some cases, contradict) the work Zampano did on the Navison Record. But the most interesting addition would be the section titled "The Three Attic Whalestoe Institute Letters," a series of letters from Johnny's mother that not only shed some light on his life, but IMO throw the whole veracity of everything into serious question. After all, Johnny tells us over and over in his footnotes that he's a fantastic storyteller; and he himself states that he's never found any record of The Navison Record even existing (as he states in the introduction); who's to say he didn't just make it all up?

If you go to, you'll find a whole message board devoted to puzzling out the truth behind this mazelike novel. I personally will be rereading this novel... not soon, but I know that I will be revisiting it. I might try to read it a different way next time - ignoring Johnny's footnotes altogether, then go back and read those alone. There's a lot to think about with this one; but no guaranteed answers. Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I'm ok with not having clear answers. It's the journey, the experience of reading it, that's important with this book.

I've heard this called a horror novel, and that seems a bit misleading, but I can understand how it got that label. I myself actually got spooked enough that I had a nightmare and spent a sleepless night warding off bad dreams. Johnny talks of something lurking in the darkness, and, well, Danielewski creates a very realistic sense of dread that was enough to make me stop reading the book at night. But if you're looking for outright gore and scares, you won't find them here. This book is more about the empty spaces, the darkness in our lives, and what that means.