Thursday, December 14, 2017

I Wish It Worked

I am a huge Krysten Ritter fan, have been since her Veronica Mars days. (Here you should picture a meme or video clip of Gia asking Logan what he really thinks of her and Veronica dragging him away before he starts something that will end in tragedy, which meme does not appear to exist.) Right now she's famous because of Jessica Jones, of course, in which she plays the Marvel universe's cynical, haunted, alcoholic, superpowered PI. Remember this; it bears on our story later on.

When I saw she wrote a book, a mystery called Bonfire, I was all in.  I'm a fan of Ritter's work, I'm a fan of her characters and a lot of the stories she's been in.  No reason to think she can write, but no reason to think she can't; she seems like a very smart woman. And the book is about a troubled woman going back to her hometown to figure out a thing that happened in high school, so okay, sure thing!

Oh, I wanted to like this, reader.  I want only good things to happen to Krysten Ritter.  I want her to be happy and successful. The character is an alcoholic investigator who is haunted by a troubled past, so Jessica Jones  herself should be quite comfortable with the characterization. The main character, Abby, is described as plain and awkward, but I still pictured her as Ritter, with that gangly Jessica Jones, "I'm not trying to look gorgeous" thing going on. 

But unfortunately, I don't get her. She was bullied horribly in high school, for being awkward, and poor, and from a too-religious family. Now she's a hot-shot lawyer with an environmental defense organization, and she's come back to town to investigate whether the One Big Corporation that keeps the town alive is poisoning the water, though of course what she's really doing is Confronting Her Past.

Except it's not clear what about her past needs confronting.  Her ex-best-friend-turned-worst-enemy got mysteriously sick in high school, but it was "proven" that she faked it for attention, then she "ran away" and no one ever heard from her again. For some reason Abby is haunted by this girl, but it makes neither rational sense (which, okay, your high school obsession won't always) nor emotional sense. 

Neither does her intense attraction to a guy named Condor who is one of those salt-of-the-earth good guys you find when you go back to your corrupt small town.  As soon as she makes eye contact with him she wants to be near him but doesn't let herself, because Reasons, I guess?  It also doesn't make sense that she makes nice with her second-biggest high school bully (like, she panics and befriends her instead of expressing her real emotions). Or that she drifts away from her investigation partner. I guess the drinking makes sense, but the beach party where only the members of one graduating class attend doesn't.  Once you grow up, even in a small town, you have acquaintances a few years older and younger than you.

The hardest part is that the writing is so close to good, you can feel the wind go by as it misses.  The language is neither overly flowery nor workmanlike; it's got a nice level of character and flourish that would be perfect if it was just a bit more deft. I have some highlights that struck me as off, but most of them don't make sense out of context.  She refers to high school as "spending years as a bullseye in a field full of arrows." It's so close to being a solid metaphor but maybe because a bullseye can't move, or maybe because a field full of arrows sounds like they're standing still.

Or "how many storage rooms are built out of broken hearts and broken relationships, dead fathers and brothers and wives." That's an interesting thought and image, how much sad, dusty past you find in your average storage business, but "storage room built out of" seems wrong, doesn't it? Like it's filled with composed of, something else.  I understand the metaphor, but it sounds wrong to my ears.

At this point, about halfway in, I'm pretty sure I can guess what's going to happen, to the point where I'll be pleased and excited if I'm wrong.  (See scare quotes above for hints as to my guesses.)  But the fact is that it really feels like I'm reading about someone who is going through the motions of being a disaffected noir detective confronting her past without actually thinking or feeling anything that said noir detective would actually think or feel in the context I'm following. 

I'm so sorry, Krysten Ritter.  I really do see the bones of something good here. I just think there are a few more drafts, or maybe another novel, between what I'm reading now and a really great detective story (in which you will definitely play the lead role).

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley for review.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Companion Piece

I wrote a long and thoughtful review of Naondel earlier this week, before I'd finished it, and for some reason it disappeared when I thought I'd posted it. This review will be much inferior, I am sure; the old one was poetry.

But I did just finish Naondel, Maria Turtschaninoff's sequel to Maresi, which I read earlier this year and loved so much that I don't know if I can explain it. Maresi was about the power of community, and women caring for each other, and the potential strength of just standing up for what is good and right.  It's almost domestic fantasy, with a lot of the story being devoted to what it's like to live on the island of Menos, where men are not allowed, and where women from all over the world come to learn, or to escape, or to live in safety.

Going into Naondel, I knew it was the story of the founding of the Red Abbey. The experience of reading it was not what I expected, though.  I guess you could consider this spoilers, though it's more like what the back of the book should have said; the fact that I was surprised by most of what the book contained actually probably hurt my enjoyment of it. It was a strong book, but not a good surprise.

The seven founding women of the Red Abbey each tell the story of how they came to be a part of this group, how their life took them to this point.  The actual point of joining together to go to a new place and create a new home is the conclusion, practically the epilogue. The contents of the book are basically the brutal ways the world treated each woman before this. And not just the world, but one man.

We start with Kabira; she is the young daughter of a wealthy family. She falls for a handsome vizier's son, who is maybe courting her and maybe courting her sister. She shares the secret of her family's magic spring with him.  It is in no way surprising that he turns out to be a power-hungry jerk and uses the spring to steal political and financial power. Bad things happen, Kabira (not incorrectly, but incompletely) blames herself. "And then forty years went by."

That line killed me.  Wait, forty years? When do we get to the girl power?

It's a long time. We meet each of the women as they come together in the palace from different places, with different knowledge and magic and skills.  We spend years with them as they are oppressed, beaten, raped, trapped.

This is not to say there's no beauty here. The strength of the imprisoned is actually one of the greatest lessons here; you don't have to escape your prison to be free in your heart, to own your own soul.  It's not just those who break out of jail who are triumphant over their captors or live a complete life.

But the long brutality of the story is not entirely what I expected, and not as glorious as I had hoped.  It's a powerful story, but powerful with sorrow and pain.  It's got so much truth in it, but the claustrophobia of the palace isn't always pleasant.  The introduction of so many characters is actually a skillful way of dealing with this problem--each one introduces us to a new culture and environment and cast, even if they only last a little while. They are a breather in between the breathless boredom of the House of Women.

I do recommend this book, for its beauty and for the important parts of the story of oppression and freedom that it tells.  But I think that enjoyment of it depends on knowing that the feel-good warmth of Maresi is not what you should anticipate.

If anyone reads this book, though, I would love to talk about Kabira.  I think she's a fascinating character, moreso for her long, deep, dangerous flaws.  I would like to know what you think of what kind of leader the First Mother must have been.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an advance review copy of this book.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Something on Sunday, 12/10

I actually wrote a real post, a review, on TUESDAY--stayed up late to do it--and it disappeared into the ether.  I wrote it, posted it, closed the computer, went to bed, and in the morning, the link from my Blogger management page didn't work and the post was not on the site.

Enormous Sigh.

So I'm going to rewrite it, but I still has a sad.

In nicer news, the week has been exhausting but good.  I went to see then Christmas Revels, which was, as always, dorky and delightful. Indirectly related, here is a post from Blair Thornburgh that I love about what makes a good Christmas Carol--spoiler: Latin, food, and Satan are the keys. Here is one of my own favorites (a former Revels singalong).


In other news, the amazing and wonderful Kelly is in town, so I stayed up way too late playing games with Kelly and Lily and Lanya, which was delightful fun and I want to see them all of the time and then more than that. 

I got my first paycheck from my new job and checked out a bunch of exciting books from the library. The new job is pretty delightful; it's just what I wanted it to be, and I really like all my coworkers, and the patrons.  I have a LOT to learn, and there are a lot of personalities there, but I feel like I'm in a good place where my skills will fit very nicely.

A good week for me. Time to knuckle down on the holidays, though!



Sunday, December 03, 2017

Something on Sunday, 12/1

Okay, so I failed at my resolution to write a review this week, but it's a new month and I have high hopes for myself.  I've been pretty bored by my own writing lately--I feel like the spark is gone.  I just kind of ramble.  I guess I've been reading without really thinking about it very much lately. Not sure how to shake that off--I'm not sure "be funny and lighthearted" is something you can brute force. Advice welcome.

But, as for some things to be happy about this week: there are many.

1) Started my new job.  I work in a library! And it's lovely!  I still feel like a foolish simpleton because I can't do three things at once, but I know I'll learn, so that's okay.  Which is weird on its own; usually I feel like I'll NEVER learn and everything is HOPELESS. But I really like some of my new coworkers, which is just lovely.

2) Adam's ninth birthday party was today, and I think the kids had fun, and I know we all made it through alive.  Plus, hours spent cleaning ahead of the party and the house actually looks pretty nice after sweeping up all the popcorn and crumbs.

3) Hugely successful book sale yesterday; go Friends of the MPL!  It was fun and relaxing and so nice to just chill with Tamar and Sarah and Jan, help folks out, be in my place with my people doing my thing. 

4) It is an incredible month for fanfiction; I am following new fics that are posting weekly on all different days so my list is PACKED, and I'm so enjoying chatting with some authors I love on a forum and it just makes me feel love for the world.

There's so much more--a friend is in town for THREE WEEKS, which will be amazing, and my sister's coming to help me purge the craft cabinet this week, which gives me hope for my future.

And maybe this week I'll finally review a book or two!