Friday, October 24, 2014

Literary Phone Book Reading

What is the literary equivalent of "I would pay cash money to listed to her read from the phone book?"  Because I used to say that about actors I loved (hell, I still might give a nickel to Matt Smith if he'd read me a couple pages from the W's), but I kind of think this describes how I feel about Rainbow Rowell.

As you may know, I loved Fangirl and Eleanor & Park, and I found Attachments charming when I suspended disbelief and my squick reflex regarding the stalky overtones.  So I figured Landline would be fine, even if the crumbling marriage aspect seemed really too depressing to be redeemed by her ability to charm me.  I went in figuring it would be a charming veneer on a total bummer of a story, probably with a pasted-on upbeat ending.

Well, I have my thoughts on the ending, but I should never have underestimated Rowell.  Georgie McCool, the improbably named heroine (kind of?) of this novel, is infuriating and lovable at the same time, and her problems are big and both inevitable and caused by her own bad choices, and this book says SO MANY things about relationships that I keep getting sidetracked from the many thoughts it has generated on magic phones and the ability to change the past.

Okay, so short story: Georgie is married to the love of her life, Neal, who is a stay-at-home dad to their two young daughters. She's also incredibly passionate about her career as a TV writer, and she and her writing partner/best friend, Seth, have the chance of a lifetime--to pitch their pet project, the show they've been dreaming of and working toward for years, to a very interested producer.

Only problem: they have a TON of work to do before the meeting in on week.  And it's Christmas.

When Georgie tells Neal she has to work over Christmas, she figures she's ruining the holiday by canceling their trip to see Neal's family in Omaha.  But instead, Neal takes the kids and goes without her, and Georgie isn't quite sure what this means about their relationship.  But when she tries to call Neal in Omaha on the old landline at her mother's house, she gets Neal in Omaha--only not her Neal.  Young Neal, a Neal who hasn't proposed to her yet.  She talks with Neal in the past, trying to get a feel for what's wrong with her marriage, and how it could have gone differently, and whether there is any way that two people who are fundamentally Georgie and Neal can ever really be happy together.

Okay, this is already a long post and I'm just finishing up with the premise of this book.  There are SO many things I want to talk about.  Someone I was talking to was saying that they didn't think it would be a good book club book, but I think it would be an AMAZING book club book, provided you had a certain type of book club.  No book club I've ever been in has fit the profile, though: my old ones were too literary, reading novels from a writerly/lit crit point of view, while my new one is composed primarily of single people about 8 years younger than me.   But the prototypical book club I picture--married ladies with kids meeting mostly to gossip and dish and talk about how they liked the book--could get a LOT of mileage out of this.

And because I have SO MANY THINGS TO SAY, we're doing them discussion guide style.  I love numbered lists--they save so much trouble in organizing your thoughts.

1) Start off with a softball: if you had a magic phone--well, the obvious question is who would you call, but what I want to know is, who would you tell?  Would you try to convince someone?  Would you think you were going crazy?  Would you try to document it scientifically or just start dialing?

2) Did you feel, as I did, that Neal going to Omaha without her was the obvious solution and not a crisis?  I mean, there's a crisis going on--he's mad, and she deserves it, I think--but it's not this Christmas that's the problem.  If you spend 15 years showing up in your marriage, choosing work one time, even for The Big Holiday, is not the end of the world.  Christmas is the straw that broke the camel's back here, right?

3) So why was Georgie like this?  I mean, yeah, she loves her job, but it's more than that.  You can love your job and show up for your family, even if you don't have a ton of hours.  You can be present.  Where did she go wrong?

4) Answer (and next question): Seth.  Seth, Seth, Seth.  He's the elephant in the room/book, right?  I mean, he's there, but mostly as an object.  To Georgie he's an object; to Neal he's a subject.  Is Neal righter than Georgie?  In college, Georgie was waiting around for him to choose her, and I'm betting he'd have kept her hanging for decades while he went through hot babes, had she not chosen Neal.  But did she, really.  Does Seth get more of the best parts of Georgie than Neal does--not her work, but Seth?

5) I think this marriage could be interpreted in more than one way.  I felt like Georgie had been screwing up for years, but I've heard it said that she gave up a lot for Neal, and that's not how it looks to me.  How much variability do you imagine in people's responses to this?


6) Really, it's Neal who screwed up by choosing Georgie, right?  She's the one who came with requirements, and he chose to take them on.  The fact that she blows him off for Seth all the time is on her, but even before this, he knew that she wanted to work as a TV writer and run in those circles, and he hated it, and he signed up for it.  Jesus, it just gets more impossible the more I think about it.

7) The ending.  Too pat, or way too pat?  It's like all these complicated, impossible questions that are set up are solved at the end of the half hour.

Really, the book is kind of glib.  It's like it was written for TV--honestly, it might make a decent rom-com, if a mostly-unhappy married couple nearing 40 could be described as rom-com material.

This is definitely my least favorite Rainbow Rowell book so far, but that's like saying it's my least favorite flavor of ice cream.  If you gave me a cone of peppermint stick, I would still feel only pleased to have ice cream.  Whatever else was going on here, it was fun to read.

And, before I go and while on the subject of Rainbow Rowell, check out this video recreating a really touching scene from Fangirl.  The guy's a bit too old, but still, this is romance.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Your Classic Ghost Story

Halloween, right?  Ghost stories.  The Swallow, by Charis Cotter appears on Netgalley and I am attracted to the book--I'm thinking of the creepy Mary Downing Hahn books of my youth.

I didn't quite get what I expected, and I'm not sure if it's because I came to this as an adult and you can't go home again, or if this is a different type of book.  The defining quality of a ghost story, I suppose, is its atmosphere, and atmosphere is what you've got here, most definitely.  In my mind, there is fog in pretty much every scene in this book--possibly even the indoor ones.

Rose is a lonely, sad girl whose parents are rarely home and whose housekeeper dislikes her.  She is strange and quiet, and because she can see ghosts, she is often tense and scared. She feels invisible.

Polly lives next door with her enormous, boisterous family.  All she wants is some privacy, but her twin brothers, the Horrors, are always in her business, and now she shares her room with the new baby.  She loves to read, though--especially ghost stories.

When Polly and Rose discover they are neighbors, the girls form an odd friendship.  But Polly is suspicious of the solitary Rose--could she be a ghost?

The thing about this book is that it's old-fashioned.  It takes place in 1963 (in Toronto, and there's lots of geographic detail), but it reads like a book that was written in 1963.  I found the pacing quite slow, especially for a middle grade book.  Again, it's wonderfully atmospheric, but even one day after finishing, I can't really remember the trajectory of the story--just the two girls and their friendship and the ghost who bothers them, and the ending.

The friendship is especially lovely--I love that Rose isn't particularly interested in making a friend, but Polly's just so out there she hardly notices, and that wins Rose over.  (Could it be because this is the pattern in so many of my social interactions?)  I like how having this friend, this person who really sees her, gives Rose strength and pushes her out of her comfort zone and into what is eventually a much better place.

I will say that I guessed the ending, but I think that was mostly luck.  I tend to speculate, and when you're looking for confirmation of a "surprise" that you expect, you can often find it.  I think it was very well-presented, though--there is a real sense of uncertainty all the way through the book.

I wish I could figure out how kids would feel about this book.  I didn't find it as engaging as I wanted it to be, but I think I've reached a point where middle grade books have to be exceptional to make my hit list.  I think this was a good book for the kind of child reader who love old-fashioned books, like Anne of Green Gables and Betsy-Tacy.  It's much creepier than that, but the sense of place and time reminds me of that kind of classic--only with ghosts!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Comics Round Up!

First off, okay, I lied about posting this weekend.  It was a crazy weekend; I did the best I could.

But I did manage to finish a lot of books, so let's do some quick comics hits. I feel like I never have a full review-worth to say about a comic, unless I'm reviewing a bunch of volumes at the same time.  But since I have a bunch of first volumes to talk about, may I present:

Graphic Novel Mini-Reviews!

My new favorite thing is Amulet, which is fodder for another post, but it's made me a huge fan of Kazu Kibuishi.  He hasn't written a ton of books, but he's edited a ton of comics anthologies, and I recently read Explorer: The Mystery Boxes, which was quite charming.  As with any anthology, some of the stories were better than others, and I'm pretty sure it was intended for a middle grade audience.  Some of the stories are completely charming--I especially liked Jason Caffoe's "The Keeper's Treasure," about a treasure hunter and the beast who guards the prize, and Rad Sechrist's "The Butter Thief," about a girl who is transformed into a spirit and has to steal a stick of butter from her wily grandmother to win back her form.

But I think my favorite was Emily Carroll's "Under the Floorboards."  Carroll is one of my new favorites, and this story was just the right blend of creepy and clever. 

Morning Glories was listed as a favorite by someone I know online, and the rest of her list read exactly like mine, so I picked it up.  The premise seemed really promising--six oddball teens end up at an elite boarding school that is more than it seemed--but as I started reading, I felt like it wasn't quite coming together.  It was just kind of crazy and a little warped.

Then I read a little further, and I realized, no, this book isn't a little crazy, it's BAT$&*^ INSANE, and it's not off the wall, it's hanging from the ceiling dripping black ichor on your shoulders (metaphorically; no beasties (yet)), and yeah, I'm totally on board now.  The pretense that we were going to take the notion of boarding school seriously when there are attempted murders and actual murders and etc. going on was bugging me, but we left that behind, and now it's about our heroes versus their captors/teachers, and being the rats who can see the maze but can't escape it.  Volumes 2 and 3 are both already acquired.

This next one was an advance copy from Netgalley, and as soon as I requested it I felt a little dirty, because it's about serial killers and the beginning is kind of gross and I know I'm a bit of a sucker for horrifying sensationalism. But I kept reading, and guys, Nailbiter is really, really good.  Like, fast paced and actiony, not spending too much time on the gore, but really about investigation, with very likeable detectives. 

Basically there's this town in Oregon with the unlikely name of Buckaroo and the even more unlikely honor of being the home of 16 separate serial killers in the past 50 years.  This is weird, and when a disgraced FBI agent gets a call from an old friend who claims to have figured it out, he heads out to Buckaroo to meet him.  But the friend is missing, and the most recent killer, the Nailbiter, is out on parole, so the agent teams up with the local sheriff (who dated the Nailbiter in high school) to try to sort things out. 

This summary doesn't cut it--this book is really about the mystery, which is probably supernatural.  There's dying, but very little of it is visually graphic, and it's not particularly grosser than most supernatural detective stories.  I mean, it is violent--I'm not recommending this to people who are averse to serial killer stories.  But I'm really excited about this discovery; can't wait to read more!


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Apologia

I've been on such a roll of blogging regularly that I feel the need to tell you that I can't post a review today; I'm just flat out with work stuff and class parent stuff.  BUT I do have a bunch of comics to review, so I'll try to get a post up this weekend, and back to my regularly scheduled program on Monday!

Just for visual interest, here's a selfie of me and some redwoods from our trip to San Francisco this summer. 


Not particularly flattering, but hey! Redwoods!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I Had a Dream

I've been thinking about doing NaNoWriMo this year, but I wasn't sure what to write.  And then I had this crazy dream the other night that might actually have a story in it (though I doubt I can keep the climax where we have to get Jon Bon Jovi to Germany in time to find an interdimensional portal).  So guys, I think I might try to do NaNoWriMo this year.

If I do, I have to do some prep work in the next few weeks.  I don't need a detailed outline, but I need a vague idea of an endgame or I write myself into corners.  I don't understand how everything always turns out okay in most books.  I'm much better at coming up with insurmountable problems than with surmounting them.

Am I crazy?  I think I might be crazy.  But I need to kick into gear, and this might be just the thing.  If I do it, my reading will probably go downhill, though I think I'll probably post here for accountability.  (Speaking of which, hi, Lianna!)

Exciting.  Nervous.  NaNo.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Conspiracy Facts

This book...I don't know what to make of this book.

Paolo Bacigalupi is someone I've always thought I should read more of.  I loved Ship Breaker; I really want to get to The Drowned Cities sometime soon.  The first few pages of The Windup Girl and was a bit overwhelmed by the world building, so I never finished reading it, but I've begun to suspect that that's a shame and I should really give it a try. 

So I was excited to read an ARC of The Doubt Factory from Netgalley.  (As of this writing, the book's not out yet, so the links go to the free Kindle preview of the book.)  And it confirms my belief that Bacigalupi is a writer I like, even while I can't say I love the book.

How do I feel about it?  Well, it's definitely not bad.  I would say that the first half suffered a little from being dragged out, and I have a guess about that--the pacing of the setup is very much the pacing of a world with a lot of building to do.  This is the first Bacigalupi book that takes place in the here-and-now, and the amount of time spent setting up Alix and her privileged life at her fancy boarding school and happy family is more appropriate to the setup of a world like Ship Breaker, where we need to spend pages on the characters' day-to-day patterns of living because they are so very unfamiliar, and they are the only way we'll come to understand the character.

This book, on the other hand, is an Issue Book (I wish I could remember/find the blog I read that reviewed it recently, because it pointed this out very neatly), and as such it depends on the reality of the world it takes place in.  So all that world building and scene setting starts to feel like back story, and the fact that the actual Point of the book (and the Point of this book has a capital P) is kind of teased for a long time without being explicit starts to become a weakness before that aspect of the storytelling plays itself out. 

(Note that the rest of this review will be a little spoilery thematically, though not plot-wise.)

Not that the action doesn't start out right away.  We begin when Alix, gazing idly out the window of her upper-crust prep school chem lab, sees a guy staring up at the building.  When the principal approaches the guy, he punches him.  The students are intrigued, but that's about it.

Then we spend some time in Alix's life, and there's another incident at school, and Alix realizes that this guy--this group--is targeting her.  Her family gets protection, law enforcement gets involved, and eventually we come around to the Point, and the Issue of this Issue book.

The issue is about how big corporations seriously screw the little guy.  It's about how regulation is inadequate, and business is amoral, and products (especially drugs) are not sufficiently safe, and people make tons of money with lies.  Think Big Tobacco.  Not just ignorance, but lies. 

Now, these are things I believe to be true.  Is this a factor of me being an adult reading a YA book?  I know this is how the world works, and I have no doubt about it.  But it makes the book a little heartbreaking to read, because I feel like I already know the ending--we are not going to bring down corporate America or our fabulous "capitalism as morality" system with one big movement.  The book even makes the point that people who see and point out the "conspiracy" are labeled as nuts, even when they are and can be proven objectively right.

So I feel like this book was trying to open my eyes and mind to an idea that I've already thought about a lot and found an uneasy truce with.  This is a place where a teenager might be motivated to action, or taught a healthy and constructive cynicism, but where I, a (let's admit it) middle aged lady, am left kind of deflated by my inability to connect with the characters' sense of hope.

When it comes down to the story--the characters, the plot--it's very well-told, and I loved a lot of the secondary characters, from Cynthia, Kook, and Tank to Lisa the Death Barbie.  I liked that Alix was really a very typical girl, not a Chosen One or super-special--though Moses's fascination with her from the beginning leaned a bit in that direction, and their fascination with each other was really quite Instalovey.   

I can't tell you the end, because I'm not quite there yet.  I will say that this book has definitely encouraged me to read more Bacigalupi (and I'm starting to love typing his name and saying it out loud: Bacigalupi, Bacigalupi), and that it's cemented that he can build character and construct a story.  This just wasn't the particular story for me.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Hollow Girl

I will admit that I requested Tin Lily, by Joann Swanson, from Netgalley because it sounded like it might be sensational and melodramatic.  Lily and her mother have left her father, until one night he shows up and shoots her mother.  Now Lily's in mourning and trying to move on to a new life, with the threat of her uncaptured father still hanging over her head.  I'll admit to kind of wanting an angsty thriller.

So any disappointment around those expectations were clearly my own fault; this is a story about someone who's been through loss and trauma and is trying to find her way back to feeling again.  She's hollow and unconnected, without her mother, unable to understand how her once-beloved father has become this horrifying person, hoping that the aunt she's never been close to will keep her.  It's about dissociation and flattened affect, about the inability to feel anything.

The second half of the book is much stronger than the first; in other circumstances, I might have put it down halfway through and given it two stars.  It wasn't bad, per se, but there's not a lot there--a description of events, almost procedural in nature, like someone describing an episode of Law & Order from the point of view of a witness.

Really, it's about dissociation, flattened affect, and the sense of blankness that comes from trauma.  Lily is made of tin because she's light hand hollow, with no room for feeling.  So after a very brief scene of violence at the beginning, there's a LOT of going through the motions, which is not that interesting to read about.  There are a few interesting observations of that sense of hollowness--her use of a thread, or train of thought, to keep herself from thinking the dangerous things, for example--but for the most part it's bare motions being gone through.

I might have put it down halfway through, but it was going quickly and I wanted to review it, so I kept reading, and the end was better.  The process of Lily's healing gets more active--she makes a new friend, gets a good therapist, learns more about her parents' histories.  It's a very mundane story of surviving trauma, which is kind of what I liked about these parts--the therapist is good and trustworthy, her new friend is human and helpful, and the self help book is actually useful.  If she keeps some secrets that would have better been shared, well, her reason is relatively understandable, given her state of mind, and she changes course at a point where a reasonable person should be expected to.

But then, at the end, I got my action when Lily's father shows up to finish the job.  I think Hank is the weak point in the whole thing--by trying to make him both realistic and human, he turned into kind of a parody of irrationality.  He's clearly an alcoholic, but is he also schizophrenic?  He was abused as a child, but how was he just a flat out great guy till he started hanging out with his dad? In trying to show how Lily and her mom could love him and stay with him so long, the frail human and abusive monster and loving dad got all jumbled together, and his psychology actually didn't seem to make much sense to me at all.

I don't know--as I read the book, I felt like it was probably two stars.  By the end, I kind of wanted to give it three.  Looking strictly at the labels Goodreads gives their stars (two is "it was okay" and three was "I liked it"), I think I'd be solidly in 2.5 land.  I haven't decided how many I'll actually give.  I'll be very curious to see what the author does next.

So there's my review.  Do with it as you will.