Book Review: The Replacement

The Replacement: Book Review by Ien Nivens

Brenna Yovanoff performs a rare and eerie brand of magic in her debut novel, The Replacement, drawing a translucent veil of paranormalcy so gently over the mind of the reader that—though she works in plain view, without subterfuge or distracting tricks–we do not blink, we do not look away, we do not speak up to refute a world that cannot be, because it is.  We know it is, not because Yovanoff convinces us, but because we recognize it.  The town of Gentry, with its willful blindnesses and cruelties, its churches, its cemeteries and its slag heap, is embedded, one way or another, in every town, just as surely as the living dead are embedded in every social clique and club and blood drive in America.

Yovanoff substitutes one world for another, surely, but in doing so she restores an original and ancient mystery to our dealings with life and death and the daily transactions we make with both, until the layered world she shows us becomes, once again–as it always was–the real one, living side by side or just a sidelong glance across the surface of the one we’ve been collectively pretending–all of us, all along–to be whole and plausible and independent of our dark imaginings.

Mackie Doyle is allergic.  While he cannot, for the life of him, tell the trugh, he is the most honest and reliable of narrators.  He doesn’t lie; it’s just that he has been conditioned, like most of us, not to admit certain, shall we say, rustic truths–about himself, about his kind, about the way things are, the way things…operate.

The tension between Mackie and Tate, who cannot abide his evasions, is wholly original and true.  They provide the electromagnetic current, the polar orientation, of Yovanoff’s tale.  The other members of the cast, while often serving various emblematic functions, are never less than convincingly and strikingly themselves–except for the ones who are (like Mackie) someone else.  I am thinking of Roswell and the uncomplicated loyalty between friends who’ve grown up together and do not require of one another a great deal of explanation.  And I’m thinking of Emma, whose devotion to Mackie is total, vulnerable and powerful.

Yovanoff demonstrates that the nether world of Faerie is as relevant to post-industrial America as it once must have been to the Celtic world that first brought it into common view.  That region of the imagination (if you insist) still shimmers, and it stinks.  It is vibrant, alluring, fetid and also, in its bruised, addictive way, fashionable.

Mackie Doyle’s momentary and decidedly small-time fame as bassist with the band Rasputin is reminiscent of the vampire Lestat’s open air disguise as a  rock star, and we can see traces of the Weasley twins in Danny and Drew, if we try hard, but in both cases, the references are down-sized and genuine, dressed in the unassuming charm of the local.  We’ve known these kids since they were little.

We’ve also known, since forever, the likes of the Morrigan and her sister.  Petulant, competitive child-goddesses who play at adult games if and when it suits them.  Once every seven years, anyway.

So far this year, The Replacement is the best reading I can recommend.  Yovanoff’s voice is better than original; it’s true.  It’s a voice I hope we’ll hear again and again.

~Ien Nivens

Gum Under The Table

“The place where optimism flourishes most is the lunatic asylum Havelock Ellis

Ien, our favorite guest blogger, brought a topic to the table (and by table, I mean FB table) that struck me as deeply, profoundly important: Writers’ Block.

We’ve all read about the various manifestations of it. Some have experienced each and every one of them. Twice. We’ve read tips and tricks on how to clear those hurdles…but what struck me is how universal a process this is for us. We’ve all been there. We’ve all had moments where the pen (keyboard–shut-up) feels too heavy, the words feel like razors and the story itself—our beloved—is for all practical purposes sleeping on the couch.

It isn’t going away either. It wounds us, but I wonder…does it wound us because we fight it? What if the manifestation has a purpose? It reminds me of a child I once knew who was terrified of diving into the pool. He wasn’t afraid of water, or swimming, or even in hitting the water…it was the jumping that got him. He would dread it like the plague if I pushed him to go give it a shot (I babysat him for years). What if we learned to embrace it. I don’t mean love it. This kid, now a freshman in college, still fears jumping. But, the last time we talked about it, he said something that really caught my attention: “I use it as momentum for the dive–that fear sends me higher and gives me power that I wouldn’t have if I weren’t still afraid.”

I don’t know how to begin putting this bit of advice into play, to be honest. But, I’m looking forward to breaking it open and looking at it closer. So far it feels like one of those painful deep tissue massages: hurts like hell at first, but relaxes places I didn’t know were tense.

The reason this topic was brought up for conversation was because of another author who stated that writers block isn’t real. Or rather, the author stated that acknowledging it is hiding behind it as an excuse to not be productive. I suppose I’m stating the opposite. I think not acknowledging that it is occasionally part of the process can be damaging. Sort of like when my father will push through a round of golf with a slipped vertebra in his back because, “…nothing’s wrong.”

Something is wrong. But, that’s ok. Something’s wrong for me too. For all of us. At some time or another, we’ll all be in that seat. We’ll carve our name on the wall in that diner and we’ll smile when we realize that we’re not alone.

And next time…we’ll know not to stick our hand under the table…

But, I said pretty please…

Yup, that's shit all right...

“One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.”  ~Chinua Achebe

I’m good at offending folks. No, it’s quite all right. I have come to accept that trait like one would a tarnished piece of silver. You keep it around because you can’t bear to part with it, it belonged to your grandmother, it has her initials engraved on it…

Humor me, this hypothetical situation if you will:

You are unemployed. You go to a temp agency to be placed with a company that may or may not keep you on past the trial period. You buy your best suit to wear to the interview. You spend weeks preparing to answer any and all questions. You arrive early (not too early though). You wait with everyone else in a ridiculously large waiting room. Several hours later the interviewer emerges, shakes the candidate’s hand who has emerged with her, then—the moment the candidate leaves—the interviewer turns to those waiting still and makes light of how awful the interview went. Pokes fun at it.  Reads aloud some of what the candidate said because it was “atrocious.”

When everyone has stopped their guffaws, she asks a few questions surrounding if her ‘ass looks big in this‘ (to which of course everyone in the room jumps to slather the interviewer with compliments and adoration). Then, after pausing long enough for dramatic effect, you’re called to return to the interview room with her. Everyone gives you piranha eyes as you clumsily gather your belongings. Once you’re in the stifled, legendary space, you stand before her desk and deliver flawlessly your thirty-second introduction as to what you are looking for in a company and why you are the best candidate for the job. The interviewer looks at your resume and then, without word one, hands you a slip of paper and ushers you out of the door.

The paper reads: Dear Candidate, thank you for your time. You’re one of the lucky ones! You got the green letter!! We’re going to look over your resume in more detail. However, this will take 3 to 6 months. You are, of course, expected not to interview with other temp agencies and certainly not to look for a job on your own.

And so, being a ‘professional’ candidate, you agree and you wait. You don’t look for another job. You don’t interview with other temp agencies. Then, one day, 6 months later, you receive this letter in the mail: Dear candidate, thank you for interviewing with us and allowing us the opportunity to look over your work history and references. While you show merit, we feel that we would be unable to place you in this market. This is subjective, so feel free to continue interviewing with other agencies. Best of luck!

You dry clean your suit and start all over again. Sound ridiculous? Does it sound absurd that you would be expected to sit on your rear end while the TEMP agency decides whether or not it can even try to place you? Really? What do you think you’re doing every time you agree to that same request from a literary agency?

But that’s different…

How? You’re unemployed or not employed in the field you want. Be honest for once in your life and answer truthfully if you’d really do that if the situation were literal. Would you really sit there, waiting on a form letter, from a TEMP agency? I don’t think so. Why? Because it’s unrealistic. It would take YEARS to find a job. Yet, someone said the fated words…if you’re a professional you’ll agree to this…and like magic, it became unwritten law.

For shame. No wonder we spend so much time picking on each other…we’re sitting on our hands by agreeing to this load of horse manure. This is our fault, as authors, because we’re the ones who let it get this far. No, not all agencies ask this…but the great majority do. The wise ones know what it’s like on our end and allow multiple submissions. The bottom line is that if you haven’t even been hired, then you’re under no obligations of any kind…to anyone.

These agencies need to learn that losing out is part of the game. If they don’t read fast enough, tough luck. Why should writers always get the shaft? Before anyone even goes there, yes, I think there are rules of etiquette. Those rules don’t include lying down as a doormat. They include saying please and thank you. They include being grateful when things go your way and gracious when they don’t. They include a great many things, but under no circumstances should we have handed over the reins like this…not even when they said pretty please.

So, yeah..I’m fairly sure this will piss someone off. Maybe they got the red letter instead…

Cinders

Book Review: Cinders, by Michelle Davidson Argyle

For those of you who read this blog on a regular basis, you know that usually Ien does the book reviews. After reading the teaser excerpt for this one, I had to email her. The novella doesn’t release for another few weeks, so I count myself honored to have been given the opportunity to read it early for review.

I didn’t intend on reading this novella in one sitting. However, like good stories are apt to do, this one quietly pulled me in and by the time I realized it—I was past the point of no return.

I’ve read quite a few Cinderella sequels: some playful, some humorous, some full of talking animals and other familiar fairy-tale elements. Argyle’s Cinderella while playful in some areas, humorous in others, is haunting in its elegance and simplicity. The prose itself is pitch perfect for the narrative, to the point where as a reader you forget that you’re reading. It’s presented like the glass slipper that it is: beautiful, translucent, and full of unexpected magic.

The characters are solid, memorable, sturdy and some of them ephemeral (I’ll leave that for you to figure out…I don’t do spoilers). The plot is deftly paced. But what struck me above everything else is Argyle’s use of imagery. So many passages echo after they’ve been read…not because of how they were written, but because of what they said.

…After a moment Cinderella realized she was touching her crown, thinking of the grease on Marion’s chin as she ate her food and told Rowland things weren’t fair…

…Neither of these images represented what Cinderella saw now: a skeleton of a woman so thin and aged she looked as if she belonged to the worn stone walls. Her skin was gray, her eyes dull and lifeless. Her hair had fallen out in clumps, leaving only strings to cover her baldness…

I am actually leaving my favorite passages out because I want them to have the same effect on you as they did on me. They aren’t mere descriptions. They tell the rest of the story.

Cinders takes unexpected turns, ironic turns, turns that some readers won’t appreciate. Those aren’t the readers to whom the story was intended. Few writers have the skill and foresight to craft a fairytale that is applicable to real life, while maintaining the elemental integrity of the story. Argyle does this seamlessly and while you think for a time that you’re simply hearing another classic tale, slowly, you begin to see another layer—the bones beneath the flesh—and it is this layer, that adds the most brilliant aspect to Argyle’s prose. With this layer, she breathes life into characters that we’ve become all too familiar with and gives them new purpose. This layer presents to us another fairytale, a slightly darker, more visceral one…read carefully and you’ll see exactly what I mean. There is no question that each and every line was arranged with clear purpose and if you look closely, you’ll see the reason for the novella’s title.

Keep your eye on this girl. I don’t say that often. This brief journey into Argyle’s imagination left me wanting to see more of what she’ll create in the coming years and there are few things more exciting for a reader than discovering, not just a book that holds promise, but an author with whom we know we’ll share many adventures in the future.

You can find out more about Michelle at her website here.  Or you can find her fan page on Facebook here.