Sunday, December 26, 2010

Duds on the Checklist

I only brought four books with me on our Christmas trip, which is not a lot for me.  But I've been taking other people's opinions to heart--why do you need so many?  So I trimmed down and trimmed down.  And you know what?  They were wrong--it wasn't enough.

This is because there were two duds on the top of the pile.  I'd heard excellent things about Maze Runner, by James Dashner.  I'd heard that it was a must for fans of The Hunger Games and Graceling (they're not that similar, but their fan base has a lot of overlap--me, for example).  Anyway, I raced out for it. 

And I kind of hated it.  I gave it a good go--a full quarter of its length before I gave it up.  But I disliked it enough that I had no urge to push on through.  I may have been prejudiced by the horrible blurb on the back cover:  "A boom exploded through the air," or something like that.  (I maintain that a passage from the book on the back cover never does a book any good and often works against it.)  The book is full of declarative sentences that try to keep the pace moving, but there's just way too much tour guide-style explaining of the circumstances we find ourselves in, and not enough storytelling.

The worst part, though, is the vagueness of everything.  It's told in the third person, but the viewpoint character, Thomas, is someone without a lot of information.  He's learning his way around, and he's in a new and frightening situation.  I can't say his reaction isn't authentic, but it's really annoying--his feelings are all over the map with almost no reason I can see.  Take his feelings about Charlie, his first friend.  Thomas finds him annoying, but then kind of charming, and it's good to have an ally even if he's kind of irritating, but he really wants to be alone so can't Charlie just go away?  But he loves the little guy, even for his annoying habits, which are so annoying and why doesn't Charlie just disappear already?

And since all the characters have no memories of their lives before their current circumstances, there are a lot of plot points that are driven on by strong feelings or senses.  He could sense that the creature wanted to get inside the walls and eat him.  There's no indication of what caused that sensation--a baleful glare, impatient pacing, slathering jaws.  He has a powerful urge to be a Runner, and a sense that he's connected to another character, without any clue what that "sense" feels like.  It's maddening.

So, to be blunt, hated it.

The other one was a random shelf-pick, so I'm not so disappointed to have realized that it wasn't a great choice.  The book is called The Rapture, by Liz Jensen, and it had an intriguing premise: in a near future dominated by cataclysmic weather and environmental upheaval, a young woman recovering from a life-changing accident gets a job as a therapist at an institution for violent adolescent mental patients.  Her most difficult patient has visions of an apocalyptic future that come to be more and more clearly prescient. 

Now, this sounds promising.  And the writer had some skill--the language was thoughtful and beautiful.  It's the storytelling that was missing.  The first chunk of the book was a conversation with a psychotic, which was rambling and repetitious.  I'd flip ahead a couple of pages and find something interesting had happened, but I'd go back and think, "You're going to make me read through all this to get to there?"  And then I'd skip a few pages and get bored, and flip ahead again and repeat.

So, two surrenders.  Oh, and Wasteland: Cities in DustWasteland Book 1: Cities In Dust (Bk. 1), by Antony Johnston.  Post-apocalyptic comics--sounds great, right?  I wanted to love it--I like the art, and if you described the characters and scenario to me, I'd be sold.  But somehow the art is flat and hard to parse.  The characters are hard to keep straight, the factions and creatures and cities and dangers.  The naming conventions are cutesy--characters named Abi and Jamez, danger from "wulves."  It's just too much, and I couldn't get into it, no matter how much I wanted to.

So, onward to better things, right?  Witches, The Owl Killers, Marcelo in the Real World.  One of them will stick.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Jerry Bruckheimer's Jane Austen

Joan Aiken, author of The Five-Minute Marriage (the Regency romance, NOT the self-help book for busy couples), has written a number of books based on the characters of Jane Austen.  I loved Jane Fairfax, Lady Catherine's Necklace, and Mansfield Revisited, and so I started The Five-Minute Marriage with pretty clear expectations of a drawing room drama.

The beginning of the book did nothing to disabuse me of those expectations.  Philadelphia Carteret gives music lessons and looks after her ailing, slightly foolish mother, who was disinherited by her wealthy family long ago.  When financial need sends Delphie to her great uncle's estate to ask for a small financial bequest, she learns that an imposter has been using her identity and being supported by the family.

So far, we're in good, solid drawing room territory, right?  But right from the beginning, we kick it up a notch past where Austen would go--Delphie's cousins, believing her to be the imposter, nonetheless solicit her help is convincing her dying great-uncle (a misogynistic old crank who likes to rewrite his will on a whim) that her cousin, Gareth Penistone, is married and worthy of inheritance.

(Let's pause here for a moment to marvel at a more innocent time (apparently 1979) when an author could name her main character Penistone and (presumably) assume you would pronounce it Penny-stone instead of Penis-tone.)

It's more complicated than this--far more complicated--but it makes perfect sense when you're reading it, so I'm not going to bother trying to explain it now. But we'll compact this review by saying that what Jane Austen would have considered a thrilling and possibly lurid tale of secret marriages and impostors devolves into gunplay, illegitimate children, and accusations of poisoning.  Several characters hire coaches and race to beat each other to Kent in hopes of securing an inheritance.  And, in traditional British fashion, a man is struck dead by a startling piece of information. 

In the end, this book was to a Jane Austen novel what the movie The Firm was to A Few Good Men.  Yeah, Tom Cruise was a lawyer trying to solve a mystery in both of them, but in one there was a whole lot more running.  And maybe I liked the better-written one better, but the action was pretty delicious and fun.  

Maybe that's not a great comparison; I like Joan Aiken way better than John Grisham.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


I may have mentioned that I don't really buy books.  There's no point: the books I own always get put off behind the books that come with deadlines (ie. library books), and I'm congenitally unable to stop checking out library books.  My owning a book is the kiss of death to any chance I ever had of reading it.

But I do collect Sandra Dallas books.  I think I'd have a hard time keeping up with them even if I used the library--she's prolific, and has been producing one a year for a while now.  This is particularly amazing given the amount of historical detail that goes into each story, and the wide variation in when and where the books take place.  From a quilting circle in the Depression-era South (The Persian Pickle Club) to a Civil War bride in Illinois (Alice's Tulips), a Midwestern farm girl growing up next door to a Nisei camp in the '40s (Tallgrass) to the denizens of a prosperous bordello in 1880s New Mexico (The Chili Queen), there is hardly a slice of American history that Dallas hasn't learned about in intricate detail.  (Nothing more than 500 miles from the ocean, anyway.)

It's not that I'm a particularly huge fan, either.  I usually enjoy the books--Tallgrass is a particular favorite--and the only one that I didn't like a lot was the first one I read, The Diary of Mattie SpencerI can't even blame her for that, either--it was a good story, but so sad I almost couldn't bear it. 

No, I like her books very much.  But that's not why I collect them.  The reason I buy them is because my grandmother loved them.  Grammy--Mary Kayros Smith--was always a reader, and it's something that brought us together all my life.  She was from a different era and had had a hard life; she wasn't usually patient with people.  But we both loved to read, and I think that helped her feel connected to me.  It's funny to think about her practical, the-opposite-of-dreamy farm wife mentality getting lost in all the fantasy worlds that are part of a literary life, but there you have it.

Anyway, this made her degenerating eyesight in her last years particularly hard for her.  We'd read to her often--my aunts and uncles would come by and read her different things, and I did, too.  Aunt Nancy brought The Diary of Mattie Spencer once, and Grammy loved it.  Poor Mattie, married to a dashing, charming, sometimes violent drunk, far from her loved ones in their sod house on the Colorado frontier.  It made Grammy cry, I think because she felt for a woman who had a hard life, without the love she imagined when she was a girl.  But there are other joys, and successes, and I think that meant a lot to her--though I found it just too sad to bear.

After that, we read them all--The Persian Pickle Club, about quilters (everyone's a quilter in Dallas's books) and a small town murder mystery, and Buster Midnight's Cafe, about a group of friends from a small town, one who became a silent film star and another a famous boxer. The last one we read was Alice’s Tulips, about a flighty young bride who is left living with her new mother-in-law when her husband leaves to fight the Civil War.  I can't remember if we had finished it when Grammy passed away.

And so since then, I collect Sandra Dallas books.  Unsurprisingly, I've fallen behind--I'm three books behind in what I own, but I'm even further behind in what I've read.  New Mercies has been on the shelf waiting for me for quite a while now, but I haven't bothered to read it.  I'm not sure why--I always do enjoy them.  I think it will go on my Personal Library Renaissance list.  Maybe someday soon I'll get to it.  If, you know, the public library becomes infested with poisonous spiders.

I'm kidding.  I'm doing okay, PLR-wise.  And I think I will read New Mercies soon.  It looks good.  I bet Grammy would have loved it.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Real Fantasy

The Nancy Werlin books I've read in the past have been gritty realism.  The Rules of Survival was a shocking, intense story of three siblings struggling to live with a frightening, cruel, unstable mother.  Black Mirror was a confused, boring story of a dot-com millionaire philanthropist running a major drug ring under the guise of a community service organization based at an exclusive private school. 

So I was really curious to see what she would do with fantasy.  Impossible was inspired by the song "Scarborough Fair," made famous by Simon and Garfunkel, but a traditional ballad long before that.  It's the story of Lucy Scarborough, who lives a perfectly normal life with her foster parents, running on the track team, planning for college.  Then she turns 18 and a chain of events begins to unfold--her sweet, shy prom date rapes her, calling her an unknown name and speaking a mysterious language.  She finds herself pregnant and, after finding her biological mother's old journal, she learns that there is a curse on her family line--at the age of 18, the Scarborough girls find themselves pregnant.  Unless she can complete three impossible tasks before her daughter is born, Lucy will go insane, just as her mother did.

Now, here's the part where the book is really cool.  It's almost impossible to believe, right?  I mean, on the one hand you have Lucy's gut feeling, the bizarre nature of her rape, plus the journal of a woman who (might I remind you) went crazy a few months after writing the entries.  On the other hand, you have--well, all the logic of the normal, solid-ground world.  And if you think about how you, in real life, would really react if something so impossible was put in front of you--well, the reader generally has way more ability to suspend disbelief than someone who's just bopping along and living their life.

It's pretty amazing, though.  Lucy's adoptive family rally around her.  They start with research--into her family history (five generations of girl babies orphaned when their otherwise rational mothers are raped and then go mad), into the origins of the song "Scarborough Fair" (the family version, which is slightly different from the Simon and Garfunkel), and into how to do things like make a shirt without using a needle, or how to sow an entire field with one grain of corn.  You'd be amazed at what you can do find on eBay (or, well, maybe you wouldn't).

Of course, they do take it seriously, though there is a poignant mixture of desperation and skepticism.  But I perceived every step--Lucy's pregnancy, her research, her budding romance with her childhood best friend--through the parallel lenses of the tough decisions made by a girl who has to grow up fast as a teen mom, and the urgent, life-or-death decisions made in the face of an elfin curse.  It's like looking at an optical illusion--faces or a vase?  But both perceptions are so convincing, so compelling, that I was as excited by Lucy's understanding best girlfriend as I was by her ingenious solution to the one grain of corn problem.

It's not that the story was unpredictable, or even incredibly innovative.  What I loved about this book was how seamlessly it combined a great teen novel with a great magical puzzle.  I'm even more excited now to read Werlin's next crossover of fantasy and reality, ExtraordinaryI'll probably go back to some of her previous novels, too, but I hold out the most hope for another perfectly balanced blend of faeries and high school.