New Look @ Cat’s Liminal Space

Don’t worry, you’re still in the right place. Cat’s Liminal Space just had a facelift! I was getting a little frustrated trying to navigate with the old layout, and I figured if I was getting lost the rest of my readers probably didn’t have a hope in hell. So tell me what you think? Better? Worse? Do you miss my creepy cyborg pic?

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Fantasy Book Review: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

3/5 Stars

A Discovery of Witches was a pleasant surprise for me. I didn’t really know what to expect, coming into it, which is probably a good thing. I hate having a book built up in my mind before I start, and the inevitable disappointment after imagining that it will be different than it is. Deborah Harkness’ debut novel came up as a book recommendation based on other books I’ve read. I gave the blurb a cursory glance, decided it had all the makings for a nice fluffy read next time my brain was too tired for “real” books, and tossed it into my virtual shopping cart. “Magic Realism” is a kind of cotton candy genre for me. They are light and sweet and disappear too quickly. And when I’m finished I have that twinge of guilt that I shouldn’t have gone there, and I worry about rotting some important bits of my head.

But A Discovery of Witches did not end up being the fluffy read I imagined it to be. Harkness has built a surprisingly complex world in which three supernatural species—witches, daemons, and vampires—coexist, mostly unnoticed, with humans. She works a vast amount of history, science, and religion into this world and blends the lines between them quite seamlessly. A large portion of the novel is set in Oxford, particularly the Bodleian Library, where an enchanted text from the 1500’s finds its way into the hands of our heroine—Dr. Diana Bishop is a Scientific Historian—as she is researching her latest paper on alchemical poetry. Bishop, though she is a witch by birth, has long since denied her magical heritage and wants nothing to do with the shimmering book before her. She promptly sends it back to the stacks, and tries to forget about it. Which, of course, is never going to work. Her denial of the book sends a shockwave into the supernatural community, and suddenly Diana Bishop is thrust into the very world she has been avoiding for her entire life.

Now I didn’t go to school anywhere near as awesome as Oxford, but Harkness had me yearning for those early years of university. Reading it makes me reconsider my decision not to pursue a career in education. Oddly, the most “magical” aspects of this book for me were Harkness’ simple descriptions of that great, historical campus and the vast libraries, coffee shops, and academic fuss-budgets that are at the heart of any college or university.

Even better, is the fact that Harkness has peppered the text with beautiful little excerpts of poetry from some of my favourite writers—and some I’m not familiar with—which she almost seems to have written the text around. If you are in any way a lit geek, this book holds more than a few thrills. Harkness also uses folklore and mythology to her advantage. Myth enriches her story when she decides to embrace it, but she’s not afraid to deconstruct it intelligently when it doesn’t suit her purpose.

My only complaint about A Discovery of Witches is that it leans a little more heavily on the romantic subplots than runs to my taste. The star-crossed lovers theme has never been my thing. When the lovers in question are a witch and a vampire, my cheese-o-meter starts flashing. Their love, however idealistic and sickeningly sweet it is, is actually integral to the main plot, though. And so I will forgive it. But please, Harkness, if you’re going to make me sit through chapter after chapter of goo-goo eyes and endless descriptions of what vampire breath smells like (if it’s not blood, I’m not interested) you’d better make with the fucky-fucky. Seriously. If Diana and Matthew don’t have wild monkey sex in the first three chapters of the sequel I’m going to be writing a strongly worded letter.

Okay, that’s not my only complaint. The book moves a little too slowly at times. Diana seems to spend an inordinate amount of time denying the fact that she is a witch given the fact that she has been shooting sparks out of her fingers, reading people minds, and calling on torrents of wind and water every time she has an emotional breakdown. It felt a little bit like Diana’s acceptance of her situation was being dragged out so that the rest of the plot could catch up.

Also, Matthew is annoying. And his bleeding heart routine kinda made me want to stake him. In real life people lose friends, lovers, children, family, to any number of things: war, illness, car accidents, vengeful lovers, wild animal attacks, whatever. Death happens. For the most part, we expect a person to move on from loss within a reasonable amount of time. Of course you won’t forget the people you love, but if you lose your partner in your twenties and are still emotionally crippled by the loss when you’re eighty, there’s probably something wrong with you. Now, imagine you’re a two thousand year old vampire. Imagine that you lost your wife and child to some epidemic in the year 535BC. Shitty, right? Sure. But I’m pretty sure you’ve gotten over it by the time 2012 rolls around. Just sayin’.

Anyways, I prefer my vampires to be bloodthirsty assholes, I guess. And although Matthew spends a decent amount of time being an asshole it’s usually because he’s trying to hide his tender soul from the rest of the world. It’s all a little too cutesy.

All in all, I’m giving A Discovery of Witches 3 stars. The world building on its own deserves at least 4.5, but the characters fall a little flat for me. Or the dynamic between the two MC’s did. I realize that a lot of this has to do with personal expectations and tastes, so I’m not going to weigh characterization as heavily as I would if the plot and setting had been mediocre. I’m going to give Harkness the benefit of the doubt and assume Diana and Matthew’s relationship will gain a little more depth in the next book. Or at least hope their hormones get as much play time as their hearts did in book one.

YA Fantasy Review: Glimmerglass by Jenna Black

1/5 Stars

Glimmerglass is the kind of YA book that makes me wonder why I ever read YA books. I mean, I have my guns and usually I stick to them. But Glimmerglass… I was the victim of cover-lust in the worst way. I was so disillusioned by the experience that I just tried to forget about the book rather than writing the review I said I would write. I hid it on the back of my shamereads bookshelf and pretended that it hadn’t happened. I usually don’t like to add my two cents when a book just isn’t for me. I prefer to use Goodreads to tout the books I love. And when I don’t like a book, there are usually tons of people out there who do like it (as there are for Glimmerglass) and a healthy smattering of those who didn’t and aren’t afraid to let loose a real rant.

So, let me start by saying that there are things I liked about this book. I’ve already mentioned the cover. I like the title, too, and the idea that it represents (although we really only get an inkling of what Black intends to do with the Glimmerglass concept). But that’s about it. Jenna Black had a good idea, but she let me down. I just don’t understand why an apparently intelligent and educated woman would choose to write so simplistically and transparently. Kids aren’t dumb; you don’t have to spell every little detail out to them a hundred times for them to understand you. It’s not like training a puppy. As a kid, nothing infuriated me more than being talked down to by condescending adults. I never would have finished this book were I still in the intended age bracket. In my more visceral years I would have hucked the thing across the room and picked up an Anne Rice.

Young adults are exactly that, young adults. Black insults young readers everywhere with her vapid, boy-crazy idiot of a protagonist, Dana Hathaway. Dana ditches her alcoholic mom to meet her biological father—whom she has never met, but has been told her whole life is a dangerous, power hungry jerk—in the gateway city of Avalon, which resides in England and marks the border between the human and faerie worlds. (I would have thought that this gateway between our world and that of the Tuatha Dé Danann , if it existed, would be more likely to show up in Ireland than England. But that’s beside the point).

This move, as foolhardy as it is, is actually the only decision Dana makes for herself that moves the plot forward in any way. After this, it’s all Dana being dragged from one catastrophe to the next by her menacing Aunt Grace, the too-good-to-be-true-lover-boy (or is he?) Ethan, her insta-best-friend Kimber, her father, and basically anyone who bats his eyelashes at her. Dana is a textbook passive character (not good, especially for a protagonist).

None of the characters have well-rounded personalities or believable motivations. The closest we get is Kimber, who has a complicated relationship with her brother Ethan (who remains seemingly unaware of their issues), but we are not given to understand why she finds herself so attached to Dana. The only character I felt like I actually understood was Dana’s mom.

If I had to live with Dana for sixteen years, I’d be driven to drink too.

The ending is sadly predictable. Here’s a hint, Jenna Black, if your protagonist is suspicious of everyone it will never be surprising when the true bad guy is revealed. The only surprising aspect of Glimmerglass’s ending was the fact that Black was able to pick one antagonist and stick to it. I almost expected a giant conspiracy where everyone was working against Dana just like she thought all along, because that’s how transparent the rest of the plot was.

I likely won’t be reading the next installment in the series.

Unless it has an even prettier cover…

Non-Fiction Book Review: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

5/5 Stars

Note: This review refers to an uncorrected and unpublished proof copy, provided by Penguin Group (Canada) through the Goodreads Giveaways program.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is described as “a self-help book for people who hate self-help books”. I’ll admit, I’m probably the ideal reader for this kind of book. I do hate self-help books. The problem is, I hate self-help books enough that if The Antidote were to be found only in the self-help section of the book store, I would never find it. Or if I did accidentally stumble upon it, I would automatically assume that some self-help guru thought they could trick unwitting nay-sayers into buying into the ‘cult of optimism’ by appealing to their curmudgeonly position only to perform some sleight of hand mid-way through to end up at the same, tired “Be Positive” message that is pandered to us everywhere else. I sincerely hope that Penguin doesn’t choose to market The Antidote as a self-help book, because the genre doesn’t do Burkeman’s work justice.

The Antidote is both a philosophy and psychology text. It analyzes the 20th and 21st century’s obsession with happiness and not only questions the ways in which we choose to pursue the elusive emotion, but why we bother to pursue it at all. It raises interesting questions about the things we are taught to value in life and the validity of our assumptions about what makes us happy in the first place. Not surprisingly, to any of the realists and pessimists out there, pop culture gurus have it all wrong. The ‘cult of optimism’ that Burkeman deconstructs is poisoning our minds and lives, ultimately making us less happy and content. The Antidote successfully explains why the societies that most aggressively seek happiness are often the most discontent and unhappy in the world.

But The Antidote is not, in itself, a self-help book. It points the way for those who are interested in getting deeper into a study of the “negative path” to happiness. I have a virtual shopping cart full of new, interesting-looking reads on everything from Stoicism and Buddhism to Business and Marketing Strategies—and none of them are self-help titles. Burkeman’s “negative path” is not a strategy for sneaking up on happiness through negativity. It is not really about seeking happiness at all. It is a guide to ways of looking at the world that do not directly value happiness and how letting go of our obsession with the emotions (and its antitheses) might actually be the closest that we get to achieving it.

The Antidote is short and concise. It is well-written, easy to understand without being condescending. Burkeman tackles complex philosophical and psychological theories and leaves the reader with something tangible and useful to everyday life. In each chapter he discusses a different “negative path,” but he ties the paths together well and refers back to his thesis often enough that the reader is never left wondering how each philosophy relates to the next, or to the pursuit of happiness itself.

Overall, I believe The Antidote is a huge success. As a natural Stoic (I would never have known to classify myself as such before reading this book) I found my own personal world-view to be validated. Many of the personal anxieties I’ve had, stemming from being a pessimist in a world so blindly focused on optimism, have been deflated. I realize that, in the greater scheme of things, my way of seeing has been much more common historically and that this obsession with happiness for the sake of happiness is as much a contrivance of the modern era as are microwave dinners. I now have an arsenal (in my virtual shopping cart) of like-minded philosophers from which to hone my argument. It is actually a relief to be able to put the words some of the things that I have instinctively felt my entire life. I look forward to looking more deeply into some of these ideas and solidifying my own personal philosophy.

My only complaints about this book are not actually about the book at all. And really, I should call them concerns rather than complaints. I am concerned that The Antidote will be marketed as a self-help book, and that it will never reach the audience it deserves. I am also confused by the book jacket description of it as a travelogue. Of course Burkeman does travel in the course of his research, but it is not a travelogue usual sense of the word. The book is entirely about the ideas that he is pursue and never about where he goes in the course of his pursuit. Many chapters I would be hard-pressed to recall where they occurred (with the exception of a couple of more obvious references). I was a little put off by these two descriptions. I entered into a draw for the book as a Goodreads First Reads Giveaway, but likely wouldn’t have purchased this book based on the cover and blurb. I was pleasantly surprised, obviously. And having read it, I will likely purchase a few copies for people I believe will benefit from its message once it is available. Like I said, I’m concerned that The Antidote won’t reach the audience it deserves.

But all I can do is my part, and here it is. I’m spreading the word. the Antidote is a great little book that might just change your life, or at least your perceptions of it. A truly genuine 5/5 stars from this reader. I hope this is the beginning of a change in cultural perceptions, I hope the “negative path” takes off and revolutionizes the way we see ourselves and our world. But if it doesn’t, at least it give us the tools for change on a personal level.

Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

4/5 Stars

Sometimes I’m in the mood for a good crime novel. I like mysteries. I like whodunits and cop dramas and psycho-thrillers. I like them when they’re done well anyways. Unfortunately, it’s often hard for me to pick one up because the genre on the whole is pretty mediocre. It’s the genre that defines commercial fiction, that defines rehashed and recycled plotlines and clichéd characters and predictable stories. So even when I’m in the mood, I find it hard to pick up yet another alcoholic-detective-seeks-redemption-in-solving-dead-end-case kind of novel.

I want something more than that but I don’t know where to find it. I’ve idealized the crime novel and struggle with the fear of disappointment every time I pick one up. More often than not, I decide it’s not worth the risk. When I picked up Gillian Flynn’s second novel, Dark Places, I felt that same uncertainty wash over me. I bought the book a few months ago, thinking the plot sounded out-there enough to be different, dark enough to not feel like a cheap thrill. Then I forgot about it.

Yesterday, Dark Places practically jumped off my bookshelf and landed in my lap. I was in the mood, and Flynn was there for me. I had actually forgotten what the premise of the book was, but somehow knew it was what I felt like reading. I didn’t even scan the book jacket again. (Sometimes the same catchy teaser than makes me buy a book in the first place can talk me out of cracking the book once I have it.) I just started reading…

Gillian Flynn does not disappoint. I haven’t read her debut novel, Sharp Objects. But halfway through Dark Places I ordered it. And I added Gone Girl to my shopping cart as a reminder to keep my eyes peeled for the paperback (I have a weird thing about hardcovers, I don’t like holding them… ). Dark Places is exactly what I was looking for in a crime novel, a darkly atypical whodunit with an endearingly unlovable heroine.

I’m usually not that into books that switch perspective too often, I find it hard to get invested in any of the characters. But in Dark Places Flynn does the near impossible, making me equally interested in Libby Day’s present story as with the those of her brother Ben, and her mother Patty 25 years earlier—the day that Libby’s mother and two sisters were slaughtered at the family’s farm.

For years, Libby has believed her brother to be the murderer of her family. At seven years old, she testified to that fact and Ben has been serving a life sentence ever since. Libby spends the rest of her childhood being handed off from one distant relative to another as she becomes an increasingly dysfunctional and destructive child. She becomes a barely functioning adult, living off the dregs of a trust fund created for her when she was “Baby Day” the lone survivor of the Day family massacre. When the trust fund finally runs dry, Libby is forced to think about moving on with her life.

When she’s contacted by the Kansas City Kill Club, a group of true-crime enthusiasts bent on proving that Ben Day is innocent, Libby finds a way to profit once more from her disturbing past. She agrees to interview the key players from that fateful night, for a fee. Libby doesn’t plan on changing her mind about Ben, but as the truth emerges Libby becomes more and more obsessed with finding out what really happened to her family.

Flynn’s descriptions of people are poignant and painfully real. She has a way of breathing life into the unlikeliest of characters. Or rather, people so ordinary they shouldn’t make good characters. The lowest and dirtiest of her creations, the kind of people you avoid eye contact with on the street, Flynn makes them matter. She doesn’t make them likable, she makes them real. She gives every one of her characters, minor or not, a story of their own. And she does it well.

Libby Day starts out a bitch, and she pretty much ends up that way too. But she makes realistic movements towards change and growth. I appreciated the fact that Flynn didn’t try to make her into something she wasn’t, there are not great life-changing revelations for Libby. She just ends up a little less messed up than before. She connects with people in a realistic way, remaining mostly reserved, but giving in to a couple of kindred spirits. She isn’t a nice person, but she doesn’t try to be so it’s hard to hold it against her. The secondary characters are like that too. None of them are people you want to be friends with. But they’re people you believe in. That’s tough to accomplish.

The only reason that I’m not giving this one 5 starts is that I found the ending a bit too much. There was too much going on, it stretched the credibility of the plot (which is saying something, when you’re reading about Devil worshipping cult massacres). I felt almost like Flynn had two ideas for an ending and couldn’t pick, so she just went with them both. Sadly, either choice on its own would have held up. Together it was just a bit too messy (no blood-spattered pun intended).

But that being said, it was a hell of a ride. I’m more than willing to give Flynn another go. There are bits of Dark Places that I will re-read just for the language. Her simple prose hides some real imagery gems. I’m looking forward to Sharp Objects arriving in the mail. I’ll be looking to Flynn to satiate my next few hard-boiled crime novel cravings. Definitely.