Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

The Litwits March selection was Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter which was bound to incite a fabulous discussion…and I missed the meetup due to sinus migraines.  SHAME.  I hated to miss the discussion since I’ve not missed a single, solitary meeting since we began in September 2010.  My husband was slightly appalled, but as I had been mostly living in a dark hole all week moaning and inviting dear, sweet death to take me away – he understood.  Was that dramatic enough for everyone?

The ladies assured me that the discussion was fabulous – aren’t they always though?  I can’t wait to catch up with everyone in April and get a rundown everyone’s general feelings towards the novel.  Or ladies, if you’re reading this – please leave your feelings in the comments!

Anyway, everyone will just have to suffer through my own opinions for the time being!  And a word of warning, THERE BE SPOILERS LATER IN THE PROGRAMMING.

So – Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter takes place in small town Mississippi 25 years after Larry Ott is believed to have murdered a local girl.  He’s not in prison and was never convicted because they never found a body or much evidence beyond the circumstantial.  All the town knows is that he was the last person seen with her.  Of course, like any good little blip on the map, the townsfolk ostracize him from society and he becomes the ultimate loner.  When another girl goes missing, everyone immediately suspects “Scary Larry” and onetime childhood friend turned town constable, Silas, is left to uncover the whole imperfect truth.

Franklin’s novel is well-written, atmospheric, and succeeds in creating some of the best character development of almost any ‘mystery’ novel (literary or otherwise) I’ve ever read.  He smartly and realistically tackles heavy themes such as racism with the respect and depth they deserve.  On the other hand, the plot is very slowly paced and the book took me a long time to get through – particularly the middle.

I’ve seen some readers cite the plot as a bit too predictable, and I both agree and disagree.  Nothing that happens within Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter surprised me.  I saw most everything coming well beforehand, but I don’t think Franklin intended to shock his readers with plot twists.  Instead, I believe he wants his readers to fall into the same biases, prejudices, and yes – even racism that the book’s characters find themselves victim to.  That way, you are just as complicit in condemning Larry or Silas or the stepfather or whoever else you believe might have done the crimes.  After all, we never actually know who killed Cindy or even if she was killed, but we sure do have our conspiracy theories and rash judgments to guide our way.  Well done, Mr. Franklin, well done.

As an aside, Tom Franklin notes that the title comes from how southern children are taught to spell Mississippi – ‘M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I’.  I loved that and thought it extremely apt as the novel’s title.  As a southern child, I absolutely knew this little way of spelling Mississippi and appreciate the trip down memory lane.


Movie Review: The Hunger Games! (As told from a non-reader’s perspective.)

Saturday night, my husband and I along with several members of the Litwits went to see The Hunger Games.  The movie is particularly special to my book club because The Hunger Games was the first book we ever read as a group.  Before watching the movie, I spoiled myself on all the book to screen changes so I wouldn’t spend the whole time moaning and groaning and instead could just enjoy the movie.  And enjoy it, I did – immensely.  Far more than I thought I would.  I think most of my enjoyment comes from having read the books though.  Together, book and movie are excellent companions and each medium enhances the experience of the other.  I loved the additions to the movie outside of the Katniss-only POV and didn’t miss the omissions as much because they live firmly in my imagination as supplied by the book.

That being said, halfway through I began to wonder what viewers who had never read the book were thinking.  And I had the perfect candidate for questioning – the HUBS!  Jimmy doesn’t read – or at least, not books – so he was going into the story almost completely unspoiled and virginal.  As soon as we got into the car, we immediately proceeded to have it out because he wasn’t a fan.  It was like someone calling your kid ugly.  I felt personally offended which may not be rational, but I’ve never claimed rationality as a strong suit.  I had sad panda face for a long time after our discussion.  So, what didn’t he like?

He never felt compelled by Katniss as a character/hero.  Nothing seemed super terrible about her upbringing.  He gets that her dad died, that her mom sucks, and that’s she’s been hunting for their food ever since.  He really does – but he thinks her hunting in the woods, joking around with her super buff BFF, and being obviously not starving doesn’t paint a particularly convincing overcoming the odds type of story.  The flashback with Peeta giving her the bread was also lost on him because he didn’t get that they were supposed to be younger and that she was on death’s doorstep.  And how could he?  It wasn’t portrayed well at all to non-readers.

As for the games themselves, he also found Katniss and her struggle for survival weak and watered down.  He felt that physically she didn’t struggle that much – just hid out, walked around, and waited a whole lot which, in his opinion, doesn’t make Katniss a particularly striking face of rebellion.  He wanted more action and a lot more violence/blood/visual grimness to truly believe she had beaten crazy oppressive odds to be the victor.  He wanted to see her struggle finding water and food, to have more injuries, to battle more with the Careers (he hated the Careers – didn’t see what was so fierce about them – all they seemed to do was talk).

Listening to his complaints, I can’t really argue with them – I tried, but he was never convinced.  My best argument was that many of his wishes were handled much more solidly in the book.  He countered that a movie should adequately subsist on its own merits outside the confounds of the book or it fails at visual storytelling.  He understands that readers will be part of the audience, but that the movie isn’t made specifically for readers – but for moviegoers regardless of their reading status.

I think another disconnect between our viewing experiences exists in what kind of stories we are drawn to.  He loves action, suspense, super obvious background story, and very little emotional drama.  I love a nuanced story, great character portrayals, emotional depth, and need very little flashy action.  Rue’s death scene made the whole movie worth my while because of how sad I was at her senseless slaughtering and how distraught Katniss was at her loss.  Jimmy was upset because Katniss didn’t kill Marvel more impressively out of revenge and then set off to seek further revenge on the other Careers.

For now, we’ve agreed to disagree and have found a certain level of peace.  He believes the movie was “fine”, but has no desire to see the next film.  Since he’ll be seeing it regardless, out of his undying devotion to me, he only hopes they ditch the shaky camera technique because it makes him sick.  In contrast, I can’t wait for Catching Fire next November! Finnick is one of my favorite characters and I’m anxiously awaiting his casting.

Anyone else not so impressed by the movie?  Or end up fighting over varying reactions afterwards?

Happy Friday!

I know I’ve been a total slack-ass this week.  Unfortunately, I’ve been really sick.  It feels like a hundred things have gone wrong in my body all at once.  The one thing keeping me from reading is my horrendous sinus migraines.  Thank you so much, Georgia pollen count.

Anyway, I haven’ t read anything this week whatsoever.  I reread Catching Fire last weekend, but didn’t feel like posting AGAIN on THG stuff.  The interwebs are filled with enough of it right now.  I’d rather do a movie review once I see it tomorrow night (as long as my body doesn’t totally shut down).  I will say that Catching Fire didn’t hold up as well the second time through.  It felt like two novels crammed into one, less emotionally developed, uneven, and I began to dislike Katniss – I even had moments of seeing New Moon Bella Swan in her characterization which left me not happy.

I have managed to read at least half of The Walking Dead’s Compendium One collection.  This particular collection is the first 48 issues of the comic and has over 1000 pages.  I’m enjoying comparing and contrasting the source material to the show – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  They actually compliment each other well and tell a much more complete story next to each other.

Our Litwits discussion is this Sunday and I still haven’t finished Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin.  Feels a little show to me.  I have about 100 pages left, but can’t manage to read more than 10 pages at a time.  It’s not bad; I just don’t feel compelled to keep going.  I don’t know if it’s me or the book at this point.  Will push through.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Around 20 years have gone by since I last read Matilida, or any novel by Roald Dahl.  What was I thinking?  Dahl was my rock star in elementary school.  I think I tried on multiple occasions to crawl inside of his books.  He is, without a doubt, a masterful storyteller with the ability to enchant young and old audiences alike.  I’ll probably spend the rest of the year ferociously ordering his stories and rereading every single word he ever wrote.  Every moment spent with Dahl is a moment well spent.

Matilda is a precocious child with a tremendous amount of brainpower and the unfortunate reality of having deplorable parents and an EVIL headmistress, Miss Trunchbull.  Luckily, her teacher, Miss Honey, and local librarian convince Matilda that decent adult humans actually exist.  When she’s not reading, Matilda is determined to outwit and outmaneuver all despicable adult evil-doers in her midst.  And there’s telekinesis!

The first few pages of Matilda immediately and delightfully took me back to third and fourth grade where I could still hear the voices of my teachers reading the story aloud.  Matilda is so special to me because she is a reader – she reads every single children’s book at her local library – something I desperately wanted to immolate.  She helped convince me that bookish people would one day rule the world and were by far the coolest people in existence EVER.

Reading as an adult was definitely a new experience – a different experience, but still utterly worthwhile.  You realize just how amazing a child’s brain and imagination works.  When I was a kid, all of the really kind of overt cruelty and physical violence never phased me – instead, I just saw a funny imaginative story that made me giggle and root for kids to triumph in a world that often believes kids are silly and worthless.  To know that Roald Dahl knew kids would be able to see his stories in this creative way – to know they would be able to enjoy and understand the serious implications of the story without making the book’s themes too heavy really speaks to his genius and understanding of the young mind.  As an adult reader, I almost gasped at times during the cruelest moments – the physical abuse – the indentured slavery of Miss Honey and wondered about what had happened in the last 20 years to make my reading so very different.  I gotta say – I miss the younger me who didn’t read colored by the reality of society – who read with innocence, abandon, and the ability to get lost in the magic of make-believe.

If, like me, you haven’t re-visited some of your childhood favorites – please do!  You won’t regret it in the slightest and you might just find your way back to being the kind of reader you were as a child – open to any and all, grinning like a mad idiot, and believing that anything is possible in this great magic world we live in.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I can honestly say that The Hunger Games was better the second time around.  I haven’t reread the final two novels in the trilogy, but the first was just so much more dynamic when I wasn’t focused on the major plot points – like who lives or dies.  I got to sit back, enjoy the characters, be amazed at the world Collins creates, and feel fully vindicated in my utter obsession with this series.  Yes, I am a total TwiHard for The Hunger Games.  I make no apologies.

After reading several YA duds, I really needed to revisit something I loved to reassure me that YA can be done beautifully and take its readership seriously.  In all the movie press junkets I’ve watched recently, I’ve been really struck by how much Donald Sutherland believes in the political and revolutionary atmosphere of Panem, especially in regards to young people.  In an election year and a world already obsessed with TERRIBLE, STUPID reality television programs, The Hunger Games could not be written or filmed at a better time.  And trust me, I’m not a bleeding heart liberal political activist by any means – or a conservative ready to take away women’s rights either – but I do believe in being aware of the world we live in and holding ourselves accountable for things we have the ability to affect or change.

Sorry for the PSA, back to the book!  When I initially read the trilogy in fall 2010, I thoroughly enjoyed the books, but didn’t LOVE them.  Honestly, I loved what they did for the Litwits book club more than what they did for me.  They were our first books and a smashing success – I’m not sure we’ve had a better discussion.  So what bothered me the first time ’round?  Easy – everyone’s obsession with the obvious to most (but not to me) love triangle.  I preferred Gale to Peeta as people, but wanted Katniss without either one.  Nothing about any romantic relationship with Gale or Peeta rang true to me and felt very forced.  I thought Peeta was lame, weak, and very manipulative.  Gale was strong, more an equal to Katniss, but firmly in a platonic way.

Now, I’m hardcore, full-on, TEAM PEETA.  Like in the completely disgusting, you’re-too-old-for-this, cougar-stalking, totally-up-for-robbing-Josh-Hutcherson’s-cradle kind of way.  Again, no apologies.  And I’ll be upfront and honest, the movie casting does play a slight role in this change.  Miley Cyrus ruins Liam Hemsworth for me (sorry, Liam – but that dress she wore to the premiere and her comments about being arm candy were puke inducing).  Josh Hutcherson, however, is just too cute to be true.  Even with his Vanessa Hudgens past.  He succeeds in encapsulating the vulnerability that I’ve come to love about Peeta.

Sorry…I digress.  That first time through, I thought Peeta was weak.  Here’s this physically sound boy with love as his motivation to survive and he lies down to die in a  mud puddle.  I believed Katniss, with her slightly blackened and shriveled heart, would eat this boy alive if they were to actually date.  Romantic love doesn’t register with Katniss – that kind of love is far too superfluous, indulgent, and silly – things she has no time for while keeping herself, her mother, and sister alive.

But Peeta is not weak.  His strengths are just softer (sorry for the lack of a better term).  They lie somewhat outside the traditional male role and masculine stereotypes and I’m ashamed for not noticing them.  Peeta’s strength is his ability to care, to empathize, to put others before himself, and to understand that to love is much stronger than to hate.  Katniss needs Peeta because Peeta’s the only person qualified to teach her about love – the one thing that wholeheartedly mystifies her.  Sure, she loves Prim, and perhaps her mother, but she’s a survivalist at heart.  And so now, when Peeta climbs into that mud hole, ready to die after sacrificing himself to save Katniss, I know what he’s really crawling into is the rather large hole or system of holes that reside inside Katniss – the loss of her father, her mother’s depression, her fear for Prim’s safety.  I’m obviously over-thinking things a bit, but my madness keeps me warm at night.

I still don’t know if I can see Katniss and Peeta ending up together in any real world scenario, but I do believe Peeta would be essential for Katniss to ever end up with anyone.  So, you Peeta lovers win.

I rambled on there, huh?  In other news, Cinna is awesome and I can’t wait for the movie!

We the Animals by Justin Torres

I finished another book!  At this point, I’m patting myself on the back for every 50 pages I read.  We the Animals was a perfect book choice for me at this stage of my slump because it was over and done with in 125 pages.  Excellent.

We the Animals chronicles the upbringing of three brothers born to teenage parents.  The boys struggle to come of age among poverty, a dad who slaps around his wife and children, and a mother who works the graveyard shift to keep everyone alive.  Our narrator begins as the collective ‘We’ of brotherhood and eventually evolves into the nameless ‘I’ of the youngest brother against the ‘They’ of his family.

The language is stark, poetic, and packs a punch with no superfluous language.  I love writing that can add layer after layer in 125 pages worth of concision.  To me, that takes natural talent.  This novella reads like sharp, poignant vignettes of the author’s childhood.  Bits and pieces of his memory, images of his youth, told through the short stories of each chapter.  While this technique may turn away some readers, I think this style  remains true to the nature of memory.  Our earliest memories are often just brief images at best with almost no true sense of linear progression whatsoever.  You just get glimpses that tell a story when all placed together.

Language aside, the first 3/4 of this story was wonderful.  Each character is fully realized.  Within just a few pages, I found myself emotionally invested.  Even the abusive father managed to garner my sympathy at times which muddies the water of good vs evil smartly.  He might act like a monster at times, but deep down you know he loves his family – after all, he’s stuck by them – but at the same time, love can never be an excuse for violence.  The family, especially the boys, battle with cultural and racial identity issues.  But gender identity is foremost in this novel, which is a favorite theme of mine.  The father is often unable to hold a job, struggles with traditional male roles made more difficult by being Puerto Rican in an American world.  His wife, for all intents and purposes, is the family breadwinner.  The boys see a weak father who beats them and a strong woman who lets him.

Despite these beautifully complicated themes, the last 25 pages or so let me down in a HUGE way.  The novel shifts abruptly, time jumps around without reason, and I just ended up feeling confused and lost.  The concreteness I was so fond of initially transforms into abstract metaphorical language that honestly left me wondering what the hell was going on.  The clunky ending did not work and that’s sad because Torres could have had a near perfect debut.  Despite this pitfall, the book is definitely worth the read and I can see nothing but bright things in the future for Torres.  And if you have read it, what did you make of the end?

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Warning – I don’t have the power or patience to be objective about this book.  I can only rant.  On Goodreads, I rated this 2 stars – one for attempting original mythology and the other for a pretty cover.  When I’m in a reading slump and read something atrocious, I get bitchy.  Let the bitchfest commence.  And there might be spoilers.

Beautiful Creatures attempts to tell a Southern Gothic story about witches (I mean, Castors…sorry) from a teenage male perspective.  Ethan is 15 or 16 (who really knows or cares?), never been away from his small hometown of Gatlin, South Carolina, dreams of escape, hides the fact that he reads literature (he’d be shunned in the South for reading…how did I ever survive?), and doesn’t ever have a single solitary sexual thought about his beyond gorgeous, mysterious girlfriend.  He’s super popular, a star basketball player, and tortured over the death of his mother.  Oh…and he’s the most boring teenager I’ve ever met in fiction…or real life.

Lena, the mysteriously beautiful new girl in town is a witch (eh, Castor…forgot again).  She’s got really huge green eyes, a woe is me attitude, no fight, and likes poetry.  She also prefers sexless mannequin boyfriends who struggle with saying “I love you” and aren’t the least bit freaked out that they can telepathically communicate with her.  On her 16th birthday she’s doomed to be claimed – either by light or darkness – can these star-crossed lovers save themselves from the inevitable darkness swooping in to consume her?  No, but a cloudy sky comes to the rescue and leaves our nearly 600 page snooze inducer with a sequel that’s sure to send you off to the land of nod all over again.  Don’t you just love plot recycling?

Want more snark?  Cool beans.  I have lived in the South my ENTIRE life, including South Carolina, and have never visited a town that resembles Gatlin.  Everyone I know refers to the Civil War as the Civil War, maybe occasionally the War Between the States, but every character in Beautiful Creatures calls it the War of Northern Aggression – you might even fail your history class for not obeying this rule.  And, yes, Civil War reenactments do exist, but I don’t think they often use live artillery, especially if such live ammo has already killed a resident.  Just sayin’.  Oh, look there…see how I dropped that ‘g’.  We do love to drop our ‘g’s sometimes.  And I’ll admit to replacing the preposition ‘of’ with ‘a’ every now and again – but to have every Southern character in your novel do this on every page, all the time, like ‘g’s and ‘of’ don’t exist is RIDICULOUS and OFFENSIVE.  For instance, I have never dropped the ‘g’ on the word boring and if the title of a book is The Book of Moons then I’ll use ‘of’ every time.  Because I know how to read.  Don’t get me started on how poorly the slang ‘fixin’ was butchered.

Guess what?  Southerners also have these things called television, the internet, radio, and many other news outlets.  We even know how to use them!  So we’d know when a hurricane was coming long before it got to our shores.  We wouldn’t think every single thunderstorm was a hurricane just waiting to destroy us.  Know what else?  People visit hurricane alley all the time during hurricane season.  In fact, most of our visits occur during those months.  BECAUSE WE HAVE THIS MODERN THING CALLED THE WEATHER CHANNEL.  They keep the Hurricane Ninjas from sneaking up on us.

Let’s see…can I get really picky for a moment?  No self-respecting Southern high school gives a crap about basketball.  Football is our king.

I can’t stop now – Garcia and Stohl get downright cruel in bullying a popular ‘fat girl’.  They constantly harp on how she’s not skinny, has a butt the size of Texas, and must like to eat pie all the time.  Disgusting.  I felt like really boring invisible high school girls who wanted to be mean girls wrote this book.  And that was not a good thing.

The number one reason to not read this book?  It is boring as hell.  Nothing happens.  Nothing is resolved.  The characters are flat and dull.  The Ravenwood mansion was the most alive, honest, intriguing character.  When I relate to a house more than the humans, something is wrong.  If you like a book where professors can’t possibly have southern accents, black people don’t exist – or really any people other than rich, white, ‘Old Money’ Southerners, and 400 of the 563 pages are plot-less, poorly paced filler, then you’ll love Beautiful Creatures.

This book made me mad.  I think I need to stay away from books set in the South, paranormal romance, star-crossed lovers/insta-love romances, and most YA literature.  I can’t believe the amazing cast of actors that have signed on for this movie.  The screenplay must be compelling and completely retooled.  Viola Davis deserves so much better than this trite, shallow crapfest.