Sunday, January 25, 2015

Returned!

I've been on vacation.  And book club is this week.  And I will have many things to say.

Right now, though, I have only a moment to say that my two favorite Anne of Green Gables books are Anne of the Island and Anne of Windy Poplars, I think, and that I'm rereading them and glad to do it. They make a very soothing break from the end-of-the-world story that is the excellent Station Eleven, which you might not want to read on an airplane.

Look for more later this week!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

WORST ENDING EVER

I am so sorry to have to write this review. I wish I'd written it two days ago, when I was only 80% of the way through War of the Wives, by Tamar Cohen.  I had a lot of interesting things to say about this novel, the story of two women who find out, after the death of Simon Busfield, that they were both married to him.

It's a salacious setup, and I was looking forward to something very trashy, but what I got was actually kind of a thoughtful character study.  Told in alternating points of view by two very different characters, I felt like it was a much better portrait of Selina, who is older--posh, poised, superficial, and maybe rather shallow.  Lottie, who is flaky, artsy, and kind of a mess, seems to only half-matter; the rest of the time, she's there to show how Selina looks to the outside world.

Both women are pretty irritating in their own ways--I liked Lottie better from the beginning, just because she seemed more human and empathetic, but I think that made Selina more interesting to follow.  As she watches her life fall apart, we get to watch her both figure out what parts of her life actually mean something to her and which she just allowed to happen to her.  We also get her discover the internal lives of everyone she's been casually judging for so long.  It's really an interesting and worthwhile story, if a bit British with the aggressively superficial pretense of everything being fine in the face of a complete mess.

There's also a sort of subplot with a bit of mystery--shady business deals Simon may have been involved in, details about how he died, whether someone is threatening the families.  There's a lot of tension among the kids, which, again, is interesting to read about, if frustrating to watch Lottie fumble everything.

So, 95%, even 97% of a good book.  And then, literally in the last ten pages, A BUNCH OF RANDOM STUFF HAPPENS.  Like, someone turns out to be a murderer, which you find out through the recitation of a stereotypical Bad Guy Monologue.  While there is appropriate setup of this character being sketchy (just the right amount; the setup is well done), it's like the book had to be ended very suddenly.  Oh, plus, it turns out there are TWO crazy people who don't seem crazy until the very last minute--the VERY last. 

So then, we get the scary confrontation scenes, the bad guy announcing their evil to the narrator, who is trapped in a small room with them and scared.  And then....cut to the epilogue, which takes place five months later.  Everything has sorted itself out, and the characters have a bunch of expository conversations revealing what's happened in the past few months, and then the book ends. 

I cannot express the sputtering outrage that I felt at the ending--it was poorly planned, poorly constructed, poorly executed, poorly timed, poorly paced.  The last 10 pages are flawed in every conceivable way.  I don't think I've ever read a book that needed 40 more pages before, but here it is. 

Now is the part where I explain that I got a free copy of this from Netgalley for review.  I hope I don't have to say that it's an honest review.  I don't write many horrible reviews of advance copies, because I don't finish them when I don't enjoy them.  But I enjoyed this one quite a bit. 

Except.

Sigh.  Well, now I'm turning to L.M. Montgomery for consolation; a reread of Anne of the Island and Anne of Windy Poplars is in order, as a palate cleanser.  Not a bigamist or murderer to be had in the Maritimes, no sirree.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

King Again

I'm not going to go on too long.  I know you've heard it before.  You've even heard before how you've heard it before.  But I can't read a Stephen King book without saying it again and again--get an editor, man!  I mean, if only because this short story (which is how it's billed) is 240 pages long.

So the book is called A Good Marriage, and there's nothing new here.  As always, the premise is interesting--a 40-something woman goes digging in her husband's workbench for batteries while he's out of town and discovers the driver's license of a woman who's on the news as a missing person.  That's almost all I know; it's pretty early on. 

Now, I've thought a lot about what I'd do in her situation, and I have to say, no offense to my wonderful husband, but I'd call the cops.  I mean, either he did it--which, I wouldn't believe that, but if it's true, you want that out of the way--or he didn't, in which case someone else put it there.  Someone's been in your house.  Seriously, ladydude, you need the police.

But I suspect this is going to turn into a mano-a-wife face off kind of thing, which would be more interesting if the only thing isolating her with the killer wasn't the fact that she's not going to the police.

All of this is guesswork so far, of course, and the fact that my guesswork and expectations are so annoying says a lot about how I feel about Stephen King at this point in my life. 

But what I really feel is Jesus man, you need to learn some new writerly tricks.  Because I'm so tired of the random catchphrase that someone remembers at an inopportune moment that then keeps flashing through their head at odd, punctuating junctures.  I'm very tired of how, in trying to make his characters normal, he makes them seem boring, as though the inner lives of the people around us were as pedestrian as their outsides appear.  Or maybe more to the point, I'm annoyed with how his women always have this non-person feeling to them, this uncomplicatedness, whether they're being heroic or victimy.

I don't know why I still pick these up.  I blame The Stand, which was amazing, even if it had every single one of his problems, from Madonna/whore female characters to catchphrases to bloat.  Or, heck, maybe I'd hate that if I read it now; maybe I've outgrown him.  Either way, next time I reach for one of these, someone please stop me and hand me something by Sarah Waters, or Aliette de Bodard, or even Joe Hill.  Anything, really.  Thank you.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Gone Wild

I really didn't expect to like Wild.  Why?  I used to rad Strayed's Dear Sugar column at The Rumpus, and if I thought it was a bit verbose for my taste, I couldn't help but admire the true empathy and compassion of the writer.  She told a lot of personal stories, and she used metaphors with a lot of emotional resonance--something that doesn't usually work with me, but somehow made the same advice that anyone rational would give--you need to leave him; you have to forgive her; you must love yourself--feel much more solid that you'd expect.  She acknowledged how hard a lot of these simple prescriptions are, and she talked a lot about the emotional work involved in following through with them. 

But--hiking.  A soul searching journey through the mountains.  I expected this book to be like listening to a bunch of John Denver songs in a row--mostly about being one with the earth, and best done when a little stoned. 

Somehow Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern talked me into reading the book.  The movie looked a little more whimsical, and Laura Dern's appearance in the ads emphasized the relationship with her mother.  Her mother's death is something Dear Sugar talked about a lot--how losing her mother at the age of 24 completely changed her life, threw her for a loop that led to a lot of self-destructive behavior and eventually a lot of wisdom.  I liked that emphasis in the trailers.

So I picked up Wild, and I'm kind of shocked that I loved it.  First off, Strayed can write.  Look, I really, really hate mushy, spiritual, what-life-really-means insights.  I don't like generalizations about spirituality or Truth or the state of one's mind and emotions.  I like concrete specifics.  And here, Strayed dealt with abstracts through concrete specifics, and also blew the straight-abstract stuff out of the water.

Okay, what do I mean?  (Seriously, you're talking about specifics, Sharon, be specific.)  Okay, most of the actual book is spent on the trail.  It's about the days of putting one foot in front of the other, and much of that time is spent on the small facts of hardship, deprivation, exhaustion, solitude, and unpreparedness.  It's a nitty-gritty how-to, only mostly a how-not-to, since she wasn't as prepared as she could have been.  Much more time is spent on the tangible than on the intangible.

But at the same time, this is definitely about the emotional aspects of the journey.  It is not about beautiful views, and she only communes with a couple of animals.  Her mother is tied through the story with memories, anecdotes, and explanations of what Cheryl herself is thinking about.

There's definitely a metaphorical element to the story; that would be hard to avoid.  From the backpack so heavy she literally couldn't lift it at first to the shoes that are too small no matter how much she insists that they're right, there are clear parallels between the internal and external journey.  Between the detailed descriptions of boredom and stupidity at the beginning and the smooth, clear sailing near the end, the writing style definitely captures the sense of both her physical and emotional journey.  But it doesn't club you over the head. 

Essentially, you can't pick apart the hiking story and the emotional journey.  Neither is slave to the other, and both are engrossing and incredibly touching and left me so empathetic to this experience I've never had.  I understand the desire to pitch everything to try to get rid of your ugly baggage.  I'm proud of her for taking on this overwhelming task without being adequately prepared for it.  I know the scrambling sense that if you just try hard enough, you'll be able to hold together the sandcastle that's coming apart in the relentless tide. 

And now I kind of want to go hiking.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Gillian Flynn Complete

I have now officially read all three Gillian Flynn novels published so far.  (Doffs cap for applause.)  Thank you, thank you.

Sharp Objects was, I believe, her first novel, and I'll start out by saying that while it's readable and engrossing, it's not as good as her others.  Dark Places is, I think, by far the best, though Gone Girl takes the prize for wildest reveal and messed-uppest characters

I feel like I'm starting with the bad news, but really, I guess that's because it's not very bad.  I mean, the fact that her other books were better doesn't make this book anything but good.  As with the others, the hardest part is the sheer unpleasantness that Flynn is so good at--discomfort and ugliness, pathos and awkwardness. 

Camille has escaped the one-horse town of Wind Gap where she grew up miserable, and now she's a journalist in Chicago--if not successful, then at least working.  But now two little girls have been murdered in that tiny town, and Camille has been sent to report on it.  This puts her face to face with high school frienemies, her estranged mother, and a decades-younger sister she barely knows.  Camille's investigation of the murders and her involvement with one of the detectives parallels her growing tension with her family and her inability to hold it together.

Camille is not a healthy person, in about a million ways, but she's a great protagonist.  She's such a mess; she vacillates between going along with whatever she's pointed at and fighting against everyone around her.  She's hurting all the time, but she doesn't complain about it; you can just feel it come off the page in her drinking, in her bad choices, and even in her determined attempts to do her job and solve the murders.

The town is almost unbelievably oppressive, between the dead-end jobs, the horrifying hog-slaughter plant, various gaggles of frenemies, and Camille's bizarre family, who if I had read Faulkner I would probably call Faulknerian. A distant, prim father figure, an ultra-feminine mother who alternates between distant and doting, and a spoiled child who demands to be petted and drinks too much.  It's a strange, ugly story--almost too ugly, and almost too obvious in its ugliness. 

But Camille, who's trying so hard, even when she doesn't know how to do more than get out of bed in the morning, is the right protagonist for this place.  You can see how she came from here, and how in a horrible way she belongs here, but you want her to get out so badly.  Only in this book could I root for Camille.

So, what do I think of Gillian Flynn's third best book?  Mostly it makes me desperately want her next book to come out, because even with its flaws, I want more.  That counts very much as a thumbs up.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Summary Season

It's blog round-up season, where we count out how we did last year and name our favorite books.  And I've been offline for weeks (well, mostly) and have not even started, so you'll have to wait, just like everyone on my Christmas card list, and also sometimes the credit card company when I forget they exist.

So, to get myself back into the swing of things: some fun things I've been enjoying from around the internet lately.  I'll get back on the horse this week with a couple of reviews I've had in my back pocket, and I'll try to do a year in review before 2016.

You know which bloggers kill me, though?  The Book Smugglers.  They bring in all these guest authors to give you their Best Of lists for the year, and now my to-read has grown, like, offensively long, whereas before it was just troublingly long, or maybe just mind-blowingly long.  Their month of Smugglivus posts have buried me in book hunger, but I'll just link give you the one link to their own Year's Best list, because I think it's fairly representative of the feeling of "Yeah, I want to read that....and that...and that....and ALL THE BOOKS!!!" that I get from the internet nowadays.

At Tor.com (what deliciousness isn't?), Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer is doing a reread of the original Heralds of Valdemar trilogy, which (the reread) is a delightful geekout on how simultaneously hokey and satisfying those books are.  One of the entries is called "Valdemaran Public Health and Epidemiology."  Enough said, except that I think I love you, Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer, and I know you live in Eastern Massachusetts so call me, 'kay?

This one almost counts as a mini-review, because I just read Cory Doctorow & Jen Wang's In Real Life, and I have nothing to say except exactly what the Book Smugglers said, every word of it.  With underlining on the "convenient ending" and "white savior" parts of the article.  It was fun to read and the illustrations were absolutely lovely but BLARGH.  (Aarti's brief review also linked back to TBS; I think they dealt with this very comprehensively.)

Oh, there's so much more, but I have to go to work in the morning.  Welcome to 2015, everyone!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas Book

I don't read a lot of holiday themed books--I enjoy the holidays a lot, but that enjoyment feels very personal to me, and I don't really relate to the generic heartwarming thing that go into holiday-focused stories.  What feels universal is the stress, which I also feel, and which drives me so far, far away from wanting to read about it.  Let's not talk about all the holiday things I haven't done yet.

And book club never meets in December.  We tried this year, though!  And we picked Wishin' and Hopin', by Wally Lamb,

Yeah...not so much.  This book is the literary equivalent of the movie A Christmas Story, which I hate.  It's for people who are nostalgic for the '50s (to the extent that they extended into the '60s).  It's a great book to give to your father-in-law if he's a certain type of father-in-law.  My dad might like it, because it's about nostalgia for being a ten-year-old boy in an innocent world (and the world is innocent--there's only one black kid at this Catholic school in Connecticut, but he seems to suffer no prejudice.  The Russian girl gets a lot, but she can take it.)

It's also like a grown-up's version of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which there doesn't need to be.  I mean, aside from a couple of dirty jokes that the narrator doesn't understand, there's nothing here that's any more complicated than in that kids book. 

So, yeah.  It's not that the book wasn't well-written, or amusing, but that there was no substance to it, and that the point of it is that life was pretty good back then, though maybe the nuns were stricter than they needed to be.  Big ball of meh.