Sunday, December 30, 2018

Oh, the Whammy

I was putting down books left and right this month, so I didn't blame the book itself when The Witch of Willow Hall failed to hold my attention and I ended up setting it aside. A coworker read it, though, and when we started discussing it, I decided I wanted to finish it so we could have a full conversation.

So that's what the last to days have been--aggressively skimming this what-a-crockery and texting outraged observations to Library Lily. Comments like "that's not how duels work" (her reply: "that's not how life works") and "All she had to do was yank the letter out of his hand when I shouted at her!" I ended up reading the climactic scene out loud to my family because it made so little sense.

Great cover, though, right? I had some hopes. It's 1821 and our heroine, Lydia, arrives in the present tense in New Oldbury, a stupidly named town (upon which the narrator remarks) in western Massachusetts. Her father's going to start a mill and ignore his family, and the rest of them are going to flee the scandal that has been hovering over their good name.

Older sister Catherine is gorgeous and flirty and in trouble. Little Emeline is Lydia's closest friend. Mother drifts through the house in a haze. There is theoretically a brother named Charles off somewhere. Lydia meets Mr. Barrett, her father's young, handsome business partner. There are maybe ghosts.

The pieces start to line up all right, but when they all come together, it collapses into a hot mess. This book includes such thrilling details as incest, death of a child, and miscarriage, but spends most of the time on the page describing the physical locations of people in the room, their expressions, postures, seated positions, and state of their dress. The story cannot carry off the gravitas required by the themes.

Lydia makes literally no choices and takes no action on any subject at any point. She does not tell anyone how she feels about anything, even when they ask, for reasons that don't make much sense. She spends a lot of time trying to pretend nothing is happening--sometimes more than once on the same page (if she doesn't open her mother's door she can pretend her mother isn't sick; if she doesn't open the book, she can pretend she doesn't have any need of the information in it).  This lasts right up till the very end, when she does one thing in the last scene (which doesn't go very well) and we're supposed to be impressed.

Catherine would have made a much better main character. She's scheming and conniving. Much of her behavior doesn't make emotional sense, given the shallow characterization--but maybe it would have made sense in her head. Her aggressive attempts to flirt her way to a husband are at least practical and well-planned, unlike literally anything Lydia undertakes in the whole novel.

Everyone in this book behaves so erratically, with so little human feeling or common sense. There was a good idea here--girl with latent powers moves to haunted house--but what I ended up reading was, disappointingly, the least lurid incest book ever.

I got an ARC of this book from Netgalley for an honest review.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Speaking of Bad...

See, some books are just so silly that I have no problem giving them a big ol' raspberry. Darcey Bell's A Simple Favor is one of those books. I picked it up because I had seen a preview for the movie with Anna Kendrick, whom I find oddly charming, and Blake Lively, whom I find oddly offputting, and figured what the heck?

What the heck indeed. This book is mostly just Not Good.  I'm not 100% sure why I read through to the end, except possibly that A) I hoped there would be a really twisty twist that set all that came before on its ear (spoiler: newp), and B) I was baffled by the idea of Anna Kendrick playing Stephanie.

I knew from the movie trailer that Stephanie (Kendrick) was the boring one whose best friend, Emily (Lively) is all amazing and glamorous but turns out to have Secrets.  That's about all I knew.

But it turns out that Stephanie is not just the square one (which Anna Kendrick can do quite nicely, thanks), she's the frumpy one.  She runs a mom blog in which she frequently talks in broad, saccharine generalities about moms.  Like, "Moms have amazing mom powers, and their mom strength holds them together through a crisis.  The amazing community of moms etc. etc."  She's very uptight, sure, but also pretty dim.

Emily, on the other hand, is a glamorous PR manager for a fashion company in New York City.  Stephanie is a widow, but Emily is married to a gorgeous husband.  Their sons are the same age and they're friends.

The simple favor is to watch her son for a few hours after school.  The drama starts when Emily doesn't come home. The police get involved, and is there foul play, and where is Emily?

It's the most Gone Girl plot since Gone Girl itself, but it is not anywhere near as clever or shocking or gritty as Gone Girl.  As the plot unfolds, it starts to look like literally  no one in this book is actually all that smart, and instead of having fun watching an evil genius pull the strings of all the regular people around her, you're watching a sneaky stupid person play childish games with a dopey stupid person.

And, insult to injury, the major plot twist hinges on one of the classic daytime soap opera twists.  Think "amnesia!" only even cheesier.

So yeah, I read the whole thing.  I'll probably even watch the movie when it's available to stream, because Anna Kendrick is a dear.  But whoo nellie, this one was pretty dang cheesy.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Why I Stopped

Not why I stopped blogging; I'm not self-aware enough to write about that, and it's not very interesting.

But why I stopped reading this book that I had been excited about and that seemed to be giving me everything I always ask for when I talk about books. I've been thinking a lot about why the book I just set aside, Beneath the Citadel, didn't work for me, and about what to say about it.

Self-conscious aside: writing a negative post about a book that I didn't actively dislike but that just didn't work for me feels mean. I often just skip those--I'll write a pan of something that was amusingly bad (foreshadowing; watch this space), but a book that I have some respect for but that didn't work for me--taking the time to pick it apart feels kind of petty.

But the question of why I felt that way is interesting, and it's what's been on my mind. So my apologies to the author, and all of my respect for the good work that went into this book that ended up being not for me.

First, let's say that the cover is glorious. I stared at the cover for a long time before I got a chance to start reading (when it was on my desk at work), and it brought me a lot of joy. The first chapter was also truly excellent; four young rebels appear before a tribunal and are sentenced to death for breaking into the citadel. We learn their characters, get some great moments, and spend some interesting time inside the head of the Chancellor, who is surprisingly sympathetic for the head of the government against which we're going to be rooting.

This is just what I ask for--start me in the middle of some action.  Not the climax, but I have so little patience for a first page that is mostly descriptive.  Don't start me with the weather or the landscape; start with our characters doing something, so I can learn about them by watching them interact with the world.  Perfect here.

Then they're taken into the dungeons, to be executed tomorrow. They execute an unlikely escape, which is pretty cool and impressive, and they flee into the catacombs that are, appropriately enough, beneath the citadel.

Now, I read the first quarter of this book, over 100 pages. The entirety of this section was our four main characters on the run.  Aside from one very important plot driving incident, not much happens in this run.  They are finding their way through the catacombs; there are soldiers chasing them, sometimes closer sometimes further away.

What's really happening in this section is backstory. And there's a lot of it--you've got four characters to meet, to learn how they ended up here and how their relationships with each other work. We also have a huge amount of world-building--who are the rebels, and against what are they rebelling?  We have to learn about how the visions of the seers have governed this world, how the rebellion arose and was put down, where these characters fall in the hundreds of years of political backstory this represents. 

There are a lot of gaps to fill in, and there's a lot of explaining to get us caught up to date. There are scenes from the past, but there's no tension to them, because the outcomes are all foregone conclusions--here is how Cassa and Kestrel met.  We already know they'll become best friends; watching it happen doesn't have the tension, the chance of the unexpected that keeps me reading.

I think what I'm seeing is that, while the book so far has a decent amount of things happening, there is not nearly enough surprise. There is almost no change at all, not even small moments of surprise, at this point in the book.  On a different day, the writing and the characters might have kept me going; I suspect it's going to change shape soon.

But today, I'm antsy and impatient, and I'm lost.  I still want very much to go back and read this author's previous book, Iron Case, which I've heard is excellent.  But here and now, I'm just going to have to shift gears.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Slump-Buster: Sawkill Girls

I've been starting things I was really excited about and wandering away for weeks now. I'd pick up a highly anticipated new release and find I just couldn't stick with it. But then I started reading Sawkill Girls, and I burned through it in a couple of days.

At first I was concerned that this was going to be a book that depended on Hidden Information--there's a mysterious something going on on Sawkill Island, what could it be?  Marion is new there and weird things happen to her; Zoey is mostly an outcast and has lost her best friend and has Suspicions; Val is popular and has a Dark Secret. The cover copy did not give you a lot more information than that, and if the book had tried to run out the hinting and the mystery, I would have exploded.

But it didn't!  We gather information as the characters do, and "what's going on?" is only the first of many questions. You see, girls go missing on Sawkill Island--not too often, but more than you'd think.  Zoey is suspicious. Val knows the darkness.  Marion is about to get caught up in it.

Where can I begin with what I loved? It's got all the touchstones of what I need from both a narrative and emotional point of view.  There are lots of young women who are all very different but fully developed.  There many configurations of friendship, family, and love, and they all look very different and involve different emotions.  There is real emotional fallout from huge things that happen.

The more I think about it, the more I think that it's the depth of emotional reality that I loved here.  Taking just one example, the idea of forgiveness--people hurt each other in ways large and small.  One character, exhausted and hurting, lashes out at a friend with the most hurtful thing she can say, something she doesn't mean. What happens to their relationship?  It doesn't end entirely, but it doesn't snap back to normal in an instant, either. 

But there are other betrayals, large and small, everything from going out to have fun and leaving someone behind to helping a demon kill people. How the characters treat each other and how that treatment evolves is so exquisitely rendered, I'm just bowled over.

But this makes it sound like a languid, internal book, when actually, there is a monster, and a secret society, and doppelgangers, and chase scenes, and superpowers.  There is blood in this book, and gore, but it's not gratuitous. It's huge, world-breaking.

So one other thing I loved--you can't have a story of superpowered girls fighting monsters without at least noticing the existence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  There are some nice little nods here--the use of the word slayer, the creepy controlling team of old men who stick themselves in the middle to steer things, etc.  I'm not sure if they count as Easter eggs or references or if it's somewhere between an homage and just an ur-story. But I'm pretty sure there was a nod to Buffy fandom in there, if only because you almost never hear the word "effulgent" in day to day life.

Anyway, this book made me supremely happy, and I am going to have to run right out now and read more Claire Legrand, because she clearly has a direct line into my reader brain.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Backlog: Grist Mill Road

Catching up on the books I read during my long hiatus, I come back to Grist Mill Road, by Christopher J. Yates.

I've been on a long run of thrillers lately--I don't know why, maybe because they're kind of fluffy?  You get a lot of tension without using up a lot of brainpower. The fantasy and sci fi that I enjoy in generally pretty intense in world building and when they're dark, it just seems more significant, somehow.

So: thrillers, suspense, murder.  I got Grist Mill Road from Netgalley for review, because a blogger with dark tastes liked it a lot. She and I don't always agree, but this one was good.  It takes advantage of multiple points of view to tell a twisty story that keeps you guessing without a lot of surprise revelations--just a slow unfolding of perspective.

At the beginning of the book, our narrator is Patrick, looking back on his childhood and telling the story of his friendship with a boy named Matthew--a little older, a lot rougher, getting up to some dangerous games.  A girl named Hannah comes into their lives, and eventually a Big Awful happens.

Later in the book, we get more perspectives--we get information from Hannah and even from Matthew, and we learn about their lives now, years along, as well as more aspects to what happened back then.  We learn where the cracks are in their lives, and we learn more and more about that horrible day.

My favorite part about this book is the ambiguity that it leaves you with.  It starts with a clear story, the kind of story you usually get in a narrative.  And then it muddies the water more and more without changing the facts, until you can't see who could have done what to change things.

Less fluffy (really, is that the word I want?) than what I'm usually going for in my suspense, but worth it, because the twists really illuminate a lot about how the world is.  What more does anyone want in their books?

Monday, September 03, 2018

Everyone Is Horrible

No, wait, that's not the name.  You Were Made For This, that's what it was called, by Michelle Sacks.  Given where I heard about this book (Kelly, who reads mostly grimdark books about creepy rural poverty, found it ridiculously dark), I knew I was in for a rollercoaster of garbage people, and oh em gee did it deliver.

We meet Merry and Sam, who have left behind the hubbub of New York City for the Swedish countryside.  Merry gardens, cooks from scratch, and takes care of their baby son Connor.  Sam travels into the city to build up his new video production business.  They walk in the forest and swim in the lakes and eat nourishing food and take photos of their gorgeous lives. They are perfect.

Maybe there are cracks.  Maybe we wonder why they really left New York, and whether Merry is quite as natural a homemaker as she makes out.  But their life looks pretty perfect.

They hear Frank is coming to visit.  Merry's childhood best friend, Frank is a gorgeous, successful globetrotter whose life is the opposite of Merry's.  She's a consultant with a new boyfriend every season. She's going to spend her sabbatical with Merry and Sam.  It sounds lovely; Merry could use some company, living way out in the country.

I don't even really need to tell you the forms that all of this unraveling will take; it's right there in the setup.  I mean, if this was another kind of book--an intimate examination of characters and life choices--I would still spend the rest of the book waiting for the lives I've described above come crumbling down.  And they do, most spectacularly.

The story is told from all three points of view, which works very well. It doesn't rely on mystery to carry it; there are things you don't know for a while, but you're not relying on the weight of the thing the characters know and you don't to drive the tension.  Flaws start to crack open and what spills out is darker than you even thought, while still remaining entirely in the realm of what you expect from these characters--Merry isn't as tranquil in her role as we thought; Sam isn't just a doting husband and father; Frank doesn't have it all.

If there is anywhere you're wondering if the book will go, yeah, it goes there. It gets ugly, but never in any way that you were not promised from the beginning.  The use of different points of view to paint each character as both real and human while also nasty and cruel is fascinating because it works both ways; you learn both the good and bad about each person not only from their internal story but also from how they see each other.

This is a very specific kind of book; if you're looking for domestic suspense that is very character-driven and not afraid to go ANYWHERE, this is for you.  It wasn't the book of the year by any stretch, but it kept me reading right straight through.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

DNF: Night Film

I wanted to love Night Film, by Marisha Pessl. I'm not sure if my reasons were very pure (The Jennys liked it! It's both scary and highbrow!), but I made it to page 100 (of almost 600) before deciding that I couldn't do it.

I wish I could say that the book is just not for me, but in many ways it is for me.  The narrator is an investigative reporter who has fallen into disgrace due to his weird behavior during an investigation of a reclusive filmmaker.  Now, years later, the filmmaker's daughter is dead of an apparent suicide, and the reporter finds himself looking into the daughter.

This is basically a good and interesting (if overly long) book; I think I would have finished it if it was 400 pages instead of 600. I can list the things that bothered me very precisely, and I tried very hard to put up with them.  But at the rate I was going (that font was small), I was going to spend three or four weeks with this book, and my nitpicks would have driven me bonkers.

Three main problems, from broadest to narrowest.

1) The book really depends on the sense of eeriness that comes from the mysterious filmmaker Cordova.  He never makes public appearances; all of his movies were filmed on his enormous private estate. The movies are so scary that his later ones weren't shown in theaters; there were secret underground (literally, in Paris catacombs) screenings with coded messages about when and where, and people who saw them were never the same again (woo!).

It takes a lot of people to make a movie. And the whole "art so profound it literally drives people mad!" is just too hard to imagine.  I just wasn't convinced by the idea of these movies being supernatural, and if the book wanted to convince me, it needed to show me earlier not just tell.

2) The main character, reporter Scott McGrath, is very much an obnoxious white guy.  If the author had been a man, I would have put it down on page 20 when he comes home 4 hours late without letting the babysitter know, complains about his ex-wife's hobbies, and bullies his way into conversations he wants to have with people who don't want him around.  Because the author's a woman, I gave the book a lot more space, but I only appreciate an unlikable narrator if the book is pretty explicit about the unlikability being deliberate.  While I don't think he's supposed to be likeable, per se, I am not convinced I'm supposed to despise him as much as I do.  (This is very much a "not for me" factor, though; I am very down on entitled men right now.)

3) Finally and possibly most annoyingly, the italics. They are everywhere. Within dialogue or in the narration, any word that's emphasized, even if you would have naturally emphasized in in your head, got the italic treatment anyway.  It was like listening to Holly Golightly talk when she's in prime society girl mode (note that italics are sometimes used to call out phrases, rather than emphasize; still annoying). 

While this is maybe the most shallow of my issues, it's also probably the one that killed me in the end. I think that's because this persistent annoyance in the text really separated my judgement from the author's, which made me not trust her on the other issues.  As I said, I can deal with an unlikable character if I feel like the author and I are in on that together, but the use of italics made me feel antagonistic toward the author--not the narrator, Scott, but the author--and that was the kiss of death.

I might still pick up Special Topics in Calamity Physics to see how different it is and whether I can connect with the author in another context.  But for now, I'm dropping back to something simpler and possibly involving some Crazy Rich Asians.