Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Courtney Alsop in Surreal Grotesque Issue #6: Urban Legends

The Surreal Grotesque Issue #6: Urban Legends


It's time to get your Halloween on! The wickedly awesome lady Courtney Alsop is in this month's issue of Surreal Grotesque with reviews of the recently popular Slenderman games and a book she won't stop raving about called The Architect by Brendan Connell. In her defense, that book is beyond awesome...
If you like the Slenderman mythos go check it out. Plus it has other great writing in it, especially if you like the weird side of horror.

Over here you can get the handy PDF with a contribution of $5. Pretty snazzy for a lovely magazine.
And here is where you can view it free on the web.
The Surreal Grotesque official site is here.

(Sorry I scheduled this to appear at 9:55 pm. Seriously, I'm just stupid and assumed it would appear at 12:01 am. My bad.)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Devilish By Maureen Johnson-Discussion Questions and Answers

I haven't been reading much for myself lately. Mostly for book clubs that I organize. I've decided to start doing review/rants about the teen lit we read for Teen Book Club at the library I work at. My group is still pretty small, as we are relatively new and getting new teens to come in is like pulling teeth. Lil Bunny is one though. I've decided to post up my discussion questions, my answers, the answers from my group of clever little cookies, and some ranting.

*Note: I did some research on the ol' internet and it seems that people either loved this book or hated it. There are a few questions that I asked them if they agree with the criticisms or not.

Devilish by Maureen Johnson


Teen Book Club Discussion Questions, Some Answers, and Some Ranting.

Summary: Quirky outcasts Jane and Ally are seniors at their Catholic high school. On Little Big day, the day when seniors get younger girls to mentor, something so horrible, so unfortunate, happens to Ally that she is embarrassed enough to just want to die. And out of the blue comes the younger Lanalee, who offers to be Ally's Little despite the shocking display. However, once Lanalee arrived on the scene, Ally begins to change. She stops hanging out with Jane, she gets a new haircut, new clothes, and a new phone. Jane is confused, and eventually hurt. What follows is a tale we are all too familiar with: Ally has made a deal with a devil, and only the highly intelligent Jane can figure it out.

Spoilers Ahead!  

Did you find Jane's character to be believable? Did you connect with her?
On the internet I've read lots of criticism about Jane's character. I found her to be believable as far as any character goes. She didn't touch my heart like some characters do, but she seemed more believable than a lot of characters. For instance, she tells the reader that she has totally gotten over her ex, Elton. But she hasn't. Not really. She has her faults-she talks too much and is a bit of a know-it-all. The teens had no problem with her; they liked her and thought she was believable. Our verdict: The Internet Is Dumb.

Did the story seem unoriginal? 
The teens didn't even know what I was talking about. As teens, they have yet to encounter the vast field of literature of the "deals with the devil" type. They liked it, and they said that they had no idea that it was going to happen, nor who the devil was. I saw it coming a mile away, and I chalked it up to being an "adult".
I got to rant a bit about Dr Faustus (oh lord, I heart Faustus!), who had a similar encounter and a similar contract, and this mythology is entrenched in our culture, and has been since around 1590. Deals with the devil are not new, and maybe not so scary since we've lost the "OMG every stranger could be the devil trying to temp you-even if they are really nice and good looking men OMG stranger danger!" attitude.
I also tried to explain the trope about "the new student" (you can find info on that here) who just comes in as the new kid and suddenly they stir up all the events of the story. Side note, anime needs to think of a better plot device, damnit!

Would you have signed the contract to save Ally after everything she had done? 
The big "everything" was threatening to kill herself and then say that she didn't do it to make Jane look like a complete lunatic. To be honest, I wouldn't have given too much thought to her after this. I would have wiped my hands dramatically, thrown them up in the air and been like "Nope, I don't care. Have fun in hell, I'm going to be awesome over here, without you two losers." I thought I would have been alone in my view but the teens had the same view as me. Why go out of your way when she did that? There is the whole matter of Ally dating Jane's ex, but we came to the conclusion that while it might seem bad, we could get over the idea with time. Turns out my teens in my group would also have walked away from her and not given a damn either. We suppose it makes Jane a much better person than us, and that works to her benefit.

How did you feel about the snarky remarks about the popular girls?
I thought I could get some "Jane seems to be unjustly hard on them" out of the group, but nope. They see the A3 as the mean popular girls. I see them differently. While they don't ever include Jane or Ally, they don't seem to outright antagonize them either. Instead I found Jane to come off as mean as she related to the reader that they are constantly putting moisturizer on. And I, an admitted addict to scented moisturizer, don't really see a problem with this. I'm probably worse, as I've been caught a few times at work putting moisturizer on my hands and elbows. I have an obscene collection now, to the point where my male friends scratch their head in confusion. What am I getting at? Well, I don't see much reason to really despise the A3 on their behaviour. I feel that Johnson just told the reader that they are the popular ones that need to be hated. If you hate the A3, lets face it, you hate me too because all we see the A3 doing is moisturizing.

116-year-old love interest? Is it creepy? 
The answer, a resounding YES! We even discussed if we are Team Elton or Team Owen. Turns out, we are all Team Neither. While my sister said that Owen was better, she was also a team Neither. They couldn't really explain why they didn't like Elton, and I say it's because Jane realizes that she doesn't like him either. I told them that Jane realizes that he buckles under pressure and that he is little more than the "nice guy". So, then there's Owen for the love interest. He's 116-years-old, with a 14-year-old's body. Creepy? This was met with a resounding: "OMG YES! EWW!" Gross that he looks 14 and she's about 17-18, and gross that he's much older inside and going after a minor.
Side note that we talked about: Why didn't anyone just tell Elton to kill Jane so Ally didn't have to enter the second contract?! Argh!

What did you think about the "dream" with Mr. Fields? Do you think it was necessary?
I thought it was kind of boring. It didn't really add anything though. If we really needed confirmation that Lanalee has had dealings with other terrible people in history, it could have been done in a different way that didn't take up so many pages. I got some agreement on this one.

Did you like how Ally broke Jane's contract with the "kiss"? 
I liked it. I didn't see it coming and I was like, AWESOME! Why didn't I think of that?! So bloody clever.
And the teens thought it was ok. Shot down, QQ.
We talked a bit about the intelligence levels in the book, which I don't think they gave much thought to. Jane is the uber intelligent one. Cassie is just under her. Ally is the "average" student. Joan, Jane's sister, is pretty and has lots of friends, but is sadly considered to be dim.
I want to talk about Ally and Joan.
Neither are considered to be bright. No colleges are fighting for them. But in the end, they make all the difference because they think differently from Jane. Ally gave Elton the "kiss" to save Jane. Ally alone broke Jane's contract. Joan was the one who brought it to Jane's attention that she could very well go after Lanalee with a steak knife if she wanted. Also, I hate it that "the pretty sister" is also surrounded by friends but ultimately dumb as a door nail. Why is this also so formulaic? I dislike it, but I also liked how Joan got her moment in the end with Jane.

Did the devil seem just too easy to defeat? 
Jane is exceptionally intelligent but educated adults who know the bible inside and out AND a 116-year-old couldn't figure it out. Yes, the rules. That apply to them, not her. The teens didn't have much to say about this. I think it's something they didn't really think about it much. In the end it's Joan and Ally that are breaking contracts and putting Joan in the right direction.

Did you really think that either of them (Ally or Jane) was going to die?
Jane really did cut it down to the wire. In the end she doesn't die, but Lanalee still does some damage with Ally's contract. The teens were like, "main characters never die." I was nice enough to burst their bubble and say that sometimes main characters, even the protagonist, do die. I couldn't give examples without destroying the plot of some fantastic books. They said it couldn't work, and I said that killing off the main character has a different affect on our minds and our reading experience. "You know," I said, "sometimes people that we are attached to do die in real life." Snarky-snark-snark.

Lets talk about Jane cutting off Ally's toes!
CLEANEST MUTILATION SCENE EVAR! I got lots of agreement with this. First off, Jane cut off all 10 toes in one swipe with a steak knife. No. That's not happening. You have bone to go through, and to get off JUST the toes you would have to curve your cut. This would take more than a clean swipe through butter. Ally/Lanalee would have LOADS of time to, as one girl put it, "use my other foot of toes to kick her in the face!" I thought maybe they would be too squimesh to talk about it, but my group is awesome and weird like me and got into it.
We've read gory scenes in YA lit. That's not a new thing. But why is this so...unrealistic?

Have you read any other Maureen Johnson books? How does this one compare to the others? 
And they hadn't so it was just me talking to myself. Johnson is probably better known for her other novels like Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes, The Bermudez Triangle, and Girl at Sea. These are all based in reality and revolve strongly around human relationships. In reviews from even this year, I see criticisms along the lines of "why is she writing paranormal fiction? Where does she get off doing that? She writes slice-of-life stories! Blah blah..." However, she also wrote The Name of the Star in 2011 which deals with ghosts.Why does no one go look at her bibliography before writing such dribble? Yes, I can excuse the reviews that were actually from 2006 when Devilish was published. But the newer ones? No, stop reviewing and hang your head in shame for not even looking at her bibliography. Second, stop saying that people shouldn't step into another genre just because YOU don't like it. The teens were kind of lost on my rant but I think they understood. My sister said something along the lines of, "if they don't like this kind of story...just don't read it." Exactly! I have some very beloved authors whom I follow, but if they release something that just isn't my cup of tea, I a) don't read it, or b) read it and take it as is. Let's take Anne Rice. I LOVE her Vampire Chronicles. I haven't read her Christ The Lord series because...er, it just doesn't float my boat. Would I criticize her for writing something other than paranormal fiction? Nope. You don't need to read everything, you don't need to love everything, but you sure as hell don't get to dictate what an author writes. Bam.
Side note: I would LOVE to read The Bermudez Triangle when I get more teens in the group, but I fear the conservative nature of this small town. It could only lead to me being run out of the town by torch and pitchfork wielding illiterates.

A criticism is that this book isn't "deep" enough. Do you agree?
I don't think they really understood what I meant here. Here's how I tried to explain:
High schools have you write essays basically about "deep" stuff, called themes. Themes are the big issues of the work, such as racism, sexism, sexuality, political issues, poverty, social status, etc. In Devilish we have some social issues with the A3s as they tend to dominate, and I'm sure you could write an essay about the intelligence levels of the characters in this novel. But other than that...there's not much. There's a lot of "because friendship!" and that's the main driving force for Jane.
I compared it to The Hunger Games. There we have poverty, social injustices, human rights issues, political issues, etc. They got that. THG is HUGE with them. They understood that completely and they seemed ready to write essays on it if given the chance. But for Devilish? They couldn't really do it.
So I asked, does this novel NEED "bigger issues?" Response: No. The story was great and it held our attention and made us care about the characters. Inserting bigger issues would have been weird. Verdict: The Internet Is Over-Thinking.

A criticism is that there is no enough action. Do you agree?
My favourite part of the novel is when the devil gets a cupcake smooshed right into her face! I wish I someday will have reason to smoosh a cupcake into someone's face. One girl said that she had-"Did you have a good reason?" "Kind of. He was trying to take my cupcake away so I squished it into his face." "Then I fully endorse your actions."
Is this really considered "action"? Not really in the right sense of the term. Just like the "deep themes" discussion, does crazy heart pumping, car explosions, chase scenes, etc, fit in here? Response: Um, no. It is a story that takes place in high school. Although we have deals with the devil here, it is basically a slice-of-life high school story. I asked, don't the days just blend in to one another? One girl's response-"I saw four kids get pushed down the stairs all at once today. That was exciting." But admittedly, these things don't usually happen. You go to class, there might be typical drama between students, and that's basically it. Jane had to deal with the situation in the realm of her universe, which is very similar to our own.

And that's it. I enjoyed this book and I highly recommend it. Everyone seemed to like it and that makes me especially happy! Next up is Neil Shusterman's Unwind.