Murder and Suicide on the Appalachian Trail

I mean, it’s not actually called that, but it should be.

Oh. Spoiler alert. In the title. I’m not sorry.This whole post will be a spoiler, and yet it won’t matter because reading Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail is an experience, not just words to paper. I mean, just words to paper, but spacing and style and sectioning count (things that I find stylistically very appealing).

Caution: Don’t idly read on the beach while your friendzoned best friend is rubbing sunscreen on your back. Or maybe that’s the perfect time to read this. I’m not sure. At 195 pages, if you’re a voracious reader, you can finish it in one sitting. If you are a growing writer taking lessons, read it all the way through once and then again very slowly. There is a lot, as a writer, to learn from this book. There is a lot, as a reader, to learn from this book (mostly, death is never the answer, which happens to be the very last line).

Do you know how many people die in this book? It would give George R.R. Martin a run for his money, and it’s less than 200 pages. And it’s all kinds of death — it’s death by dementia, death by murder, death by addiction, and death by love. We’re talking figurative death and real death. Bodies tumbling over cliffs. Handguns to the temple. Needles to the veins.

Funnily enough, the novel is about living.

I have this dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. I’ve held this dream in my heart for several years now, and I feel it coming for me. I have no idea if I’ll succeed, but if I fail, it will be spectacularly. One character, Taz Chavis, succeeds. Two others, Simone and Richard, fail spectacularly. Granted, I don’t want to fail by throwing myself off a cliff, but exaggeration serves its purpose here.

There are these three hikers, but there are more: Leona, holding onto the memories of her husband when he was young as he lives his final days as an in-human. Dalton, who wants to be a father more than anything, and Deirdre who refuses to have a baby and brings an adoption catalog instead. Giuseppe, who wants to officially be a part of his lover’s life and trades a threesome with an 18 year old for his name on all the titles. He doesn’t care about the money — he just wants to be recognized. All of these lives, these questions of birth and death but mostly of those lives in-between, the late twenties through fifties where life is so muddled and unknown, even for those whose lives seem so straight (Simone the genetic scientist, Deirdre the ambitious postmaster) and ultimately heartbreaking.

Yes, I cried. I cried because I realized that life doesn’t actually get any easier. You might finally figure out who you are, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to like it. And how do you change it? Is change even possible? Simone had come to the conclusion that every single human had one gene that made them flawed, and this genetic flaw was inescapable. Taz — you could say he escaped it — all the death, the addiction, prison — while Simone, Richard, and even Giuseppe, they gave into it.

Is change possible? What constitutes change? Is when you’re dying the only time you actually live? And what do you do when you find out that the person you are is not someone you like at all?

Feel free to offer some answers to these questions. I sure as hell have no idea.

 

Beyond the story itself, I want to talk about the book. Here is a quote from A.M. Homes cited on the back of the book:

T.J Forrester’s narrative explores the weird heart of American darkness with echoes of Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, cousin Raymond Carver, and the young and very talented Brad Watson. At times this book makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road look like hallucinogenic cotton candy. I couldn’t put it down.

Can I say, first of all, that “hallucinogenic cotton candy” is the coolest description ever?

Ray Carver is my literary love, and this book did invoke him. Forrester’s prose may not have been quite as tight as Carver’s, but not necessarily in a bad way. His prose was raw and no holds barred. I’ll readily admit that I have a hard time reading about animal abuse/ animal deaths at the pound, etc. This book kicked me in the stomach a few times in this manner, and hey, that’s the real world. That’s what this book is: the real world, full of ugliness and neglected children and people who give up. A far cry from my dystopian fictions where these things are expected because it’s dystopian, it chills me to think that well, here’s the world in all her ugly and beauty. And it shares the same heart as any dystopian novel because, and I really believe this, we have always entertained some state of half-dystopia, at least in our personal lives.

The book is written in mostly short chapters, often changing perspectives with each one. They read more like extended vignettes, with the hikers being the mostly-solid narrative that all these stories clung to. Most characters had more than one vignette, not giving them an arc but giving them an end. Forrester was not about beginnings in this novel; he pursued ends in all of their hard glory. I’m going to parse through the novel again, looking for the writerly bits, try to find the nuts and bolts. Maybe I’ll tell you more about it, if I discover anything that I can knowledgeably talk about. Or I might choose Forrester’s path and leave it with endings.

Do I like this book? I’m not sure. When I finished it, I dropped it on the coffee table and said f**k really hard. And that, I think, is the point.

Cassandra Clare’s Brilliance & Beautiful Boys

I’m going to put this out there. I love Cassandra Clare. Her books have excited me in a way I haven’t felt since Harry Potter, and that, my friends, is an accomplishment.

I could go on and on about the books, and I will at some length in a few moments, but I want to deliver some praise towards Clare herself. For a writer, she is good. For a young adult writer, she is great. Her prose is beautiful, she does some excellent characterization, really creates empathy between the reader and the characters, and I quite enjoy the various plots and subplots that always hint  to more stories ahead (regardless of whether or not she intends to write them). And, please don’t let me forget the fabulous world-building she’s done. It truly is quite remarkable, both in the modern-day Mortal Instruments and the Victorian Era Infernal Devices.

That being said, there is one thing that can really make me….sad. I suspect it has something to do with editorial pressure/the desire to sell to the YA audience, and that is copious romance.

I like romance. I even like cheesy romance. But there are times in both series when the romance almost leaves the plot line a forgotten thread in the reader’s mind. She creates flawed characters, gives them their own battles and arcs, but the boys (who the two main female characters find themselves falling for) are inevitably gorgeous in some way or another, and Clare doesn’t let you forget it. Having the shape of someone’s shoulder blades beneath his tight black shirt described for the umpteenth time is really just wasted space and, I’m afraid, can come across as filler. This makes me sad, as a reader and as an author. However, following the love debacle that is Twilight, editors (and writers) in the YA genre know that romance gets you hooked and sunk before you even realize you’re in the water. Dammit.

Spoilers Follow.

In Mortal Instruments, Clare had intended six books as three separate trilogies that, for some reason, just ended up being a sextet. There is a clear and obvious break between #3 and #4, but the threads between them are strong enough to continue in a believable single line. Clary, a girl of 15, is a Shadowhunter who doesn’t know it. She is suddenly thrust into the world of Shadowhunters in modern-day New York with the kidnapping of her mother. Shadowhunters, it turns out, are a race of half-human half-angels who protect the world from demons, and Clary’s mother has been keeping this secret from her in hopes of protecting her from the oft-short life of pain and danger shadowhunters live. In the meantime, her comedic-relief best friend Simon gets caught up in the whole mess of Clary being trained and trying to find her mother, ending up a vampire for his troubles. And Clary, predictably, falls in love with the beautiful-but-flawed Jace. While the book’s main plot revolves around the return of Clary’s father Valentine (think, Lucius Malfoy — pale blonde hair, air of superiority, evil, etc.) who wants to destroy the Shadowhunter world — and all the Shadowhunters, save his loyal followers — with it, in the name of purifying the Shadowhunter race (sound familiar, anyone?).

This is the plot that runs through the first three books, that gives it forward momentum. So does Jace’s and Clary’s undeniable soul-mateish attraction that is doomed because they’re siblings except……THEY’RE NOT! (book 2) Hurray! So now they can properly make out without having to feel like they’re in a George R.R. Martin novel. Commence the descriptions of shoulders and golden hair and golden eyes and Clary being all awkward and bony except then she’s not and Simon the vampire is completely friend-zoned until he falls in love with both a Shadowhunter and a werewolf, both of which are more than capable of kicking his ass. So you see, it’s not just the main character’s romance, it’s everyone else’s romance — her mother and father, her mother and mother’s best friend, Jace’s “brother” (not blood, but might as well be) and a glamorous warlock who enjoys pretty boys, as well as the people who raised Jace (they’re getting a divorce..maybe…I’m rather unclear on that) and it’s all just a big love mess. But you keep reading because you love the characters and the prose is compelling and there IS an actual plot. Clare is quite apt at keeping you rather surprised, and I appreciate and enjoy that. I think it’s important in a series, just as important as evoking strong enough responses in your readers to make them laugh, cry, get angry, throw a fit, and ultimately come back.

With as much as I enjoyed Mortal Instruments, I have enjoyed the Victorian-Era Infernal Devices even more. Yes, there is more romance with more beautiful-but-flawed boys, but there is an entirely new — and interesting — plot line that pulls the main character Tessa into the center of it. Whereas Clary was important but not the central-most ingredient to the plot, Tessa is right smack dab in the middle of it. Tessa, as with Clary, has no idea who she really is in the beginning, but unlike Clary, she doesn’t find out. She has the power to change into any person as long as she has something that is associated with their person (yep, even dead people). The plot here is that a man, quite intent on marrying Tessa for some unknown reason, is developing a clockwork army of automatons to destroy the Shadowhunters. His plan is incomplete without Tessa, and though I haven’t read the third book yet, I know she’s kidnapped. So somewhere, the s**t is gonna go down. And soon. And Tessa’s messy love triangle is…..messy. I’m intrigued how it will be resolved though I theorize that the boy she’s engaged to will die so she marry the boy she actually loves…who loves the boy she’s engaged to like a brother….mhm. Thanks, Clare.

What makes me so excited about Infernal Devices is Clare’s command of literature really shines through. I’m not a Victorian literature/poetry person, but reading these books makes me want to be. Characters are constantly referencing situations and quotes from books whose titles sit on my shelf unread, and each chapter begins with a sliver of poetry that seems, to my uneducated brain, nearly perfect for each chapter. I shall have to go back and re-evaluate once I finish my Victorian Poetry course in the Fall. I think, given a little more time and practice, Clare and her use of language and literature will become a great writer.

I just have one request:

Please, Ms. Clare, please let one of the boys be average for once.