Fiction

Some new "meh" fiction for your consideration.

Last week was not a real winner for me and fiction.

First off, I read David Duchovny's new novel Holy Cow, and all I can say is, wow, David Duchovny needs some more people around him to tell him when something's a bad idea. It's not the worst novel I've ever read, but I pretty much made it through only because it's a fast read and 206 pages long. It's narrated by a cow who dreams of going to India, where cows are sacred, because she learns by sneaking out of her enclosure and watching TV through her humans' windows that Americans raise and butcher cows in horrible surroundings. This shocks her, and she starts making her plans for exodus. Along the way she picks up a pig who wants to go to Israel (where they don't eat pork, of course), and a turkey who wants to go to Turkey (just because). I'd say, hilarity ensues, but it doesn't, really. Here's your sample bit:

"My ancestors, my great-great-great-great-great-etc.-grandmother came from somewhere in what humans call the Middle East. That's where the Maker made us and first put our hooves on the ground. They called it the land of milk and honey. And guess who provided the milk? Though I'm told that goats also get milked by humans. Are you kidding me? Come on. No offense, but goat's milk does not compare with cow's milk, unless you're a goat kid. Have you ever seen a cow trying to drink milk from a goat? Case closed.

And now I hear stories of humans milking something called an 'almond' and another called a 'soy.' I've never seen a wild almond or a say galloping about in its natural habitat, but cow milk is the best. I'd bet three of my four stomachs on it." (pp. 11-12.)

And there you go. All I know is all week when I was reading other novels and Mr. CR wanted to know how they were, he would phrase the question this way: "Is it better or worse than the Duchovny cow book you've got in the bathroom? Because that thing is terrible."

Your other "meh" choice (although better, I think than the Duchovny cow book in the bathroom) is Ellen Meister's Dorothy Parker Drank Here. Here's the premise: Dorothy Parker, witty member of the Algonquin (Hotel) round table of the 1920s, along with many other authors and luminaries, signed a guest book owned by the hotel's manager. Turns out it was a magic book and if the person so chooses, after death they can "go to the light" or sit around the Algonquin. Dorothy chooses the latter, but is lonely, so she tries to get another author staying in the same hotel to agree to sign the book, so when he passes, she'll have company. Enter a gung-ho TV producer who wants to get that author booked on her talk show, and who learns Dorothy Parker is still hanging out at the Algonquin. I'd say, hilarity ensues, but, well, it doesn't. It's an okay book and actually Dorothy Parker's lines are believably witty, but all the rest of the characters (and most of the story) is serious dullsville.

Back to nonfiction for a while.


Reading experiences of 2014: Best

So last year I found the literary equivalent of the biggest box of the tastiest bon-bons ever.

Best reading experience of 2014: Hello, Poldark!

Also known as the Poldark Saga, written by Winston Graham (incidentally, I'm not linking to the Wikipedia page on the series because there are spoilers there). The first book, Ross Poldark, was published in 1945, and the last book in the series (#12!), Bella Poldark, was published in 2002. Somewhere in the middle of the series' run, a very popular BBC series, also titled "Poldark," ran from 1975 to 1977.

On the surface of the matter, the Poldark series looks like just another historical fiction saga. Set in Cornwall during the years of 1783 through 1820, it follows the fortunes of one Ross Poldark,* a Cornish squire who returns from the American Revolutionary War (so strange for an American like me to think of British soldiers returning home from that) to find that his father is dead, his ancestral home is in a shambles, and the woman, Elizabeth, to whom he thought he was engaged, is preparing to marry his cousin Francis. Hilarity does not ensue, but an entire Cornish soap opera does: over the course of the series, the relationships between Ross and Francis and Elizabeth, and then Ross and Demelza (a woman about ten years his junior, who he first rescues from a too-rowdy country fair and then employs as a kitchen maid), and then Ross and his family and George Warleggan (a local banker and self-made man, and Poldark's arch-nemesis).

The plot is not really the point. As noted: it's pure soap opera. But the characters are notable: Ross is one of those noble souls who sticks his neck out for the little guy (incidentally, I've noticed this sort of thing usually turns out a lot better in fiction than it does in real life) and inspires both strong loyalty and strong antipathy, and Demelza? Well, Demelza is a revelation. She puts up with too much from Ross but other than that I simply LOVED THE HELL OUT OF HER. Even Graham's female characters who I did not like (Elizabeth chief among them) ended up inspiring something like respect from me. And although their stories were intertwined with the mens', they seemed to have their own inner lives and did not serve primarily to "reveal glimpses" into the souls of the male characters. What a treat that was, for a change.

There's lots of other good stuff in the series; there's a lot in it about mining that I found interesting (and which gave me a lot to think about when I later read the book Blood Diamonds, also about mining in Great Britain), and even the storylines about the poorer characters in the books held my interest.

I'm ashamed to tell you what I all neglected while I plowed through all twelve books in this series.** The house went uncleaned for weeks, I made some horrible ready-made meals, and I let CRjr and CR3 tackle each other until (inevitably) too much ha-ha led to boo-hoo. But oh, it was time deliciously spent. So worth it. Right around Christmas time I realized I had forgotten to request the next book I needed in the series from the library it time to take it along to my in-laws', where we stayed for a couple of days, and I actually felt despair at having to pause in my reading.

It was a thoroughly great reading experience, and I'll always think fondly on 2014 for it.*** I also look forward to waiting a few years and then re-reading the entire run of books. AND, total bonus, soon I'll get to see an updated TV version, thanks to the BBC. Awesome.

*Every time I say his name I follow it with a catchphrase I enjoyed from the otherwise entirely forgettable Ewan McGregor movie "Down with Love": "Ross Poldark: ladies' man, man's man, man about town."

**I almost never read series fiction. I might read the first book in a series just to see what it's about, but very rarely do I make it through ALL the books.

***Incidentally, if you know of readers who enjoyed the cult classic The Cowboy and the Cossack, I think this series, or even just the first book in the series, might be a good readalike for that book.


Reading experiences of 2014: Best and Worst

Well, it's April now, so it feels like it might be time for some posts wrapping up my reading experiences in 2014. As you can tell, productivity and I have simply not been in the same room since the arrival of the CRjrs.*

So I'm looking back over my clumsy reading spreadsheets for last year, and strangely enough, I think my strongest reading experiences, pro and con, were both centered on fiction books. Let's start with con, shall we?

Horrible fiction, thy title is Shotgun Lovesongs. Back in July of 2014 I had a few choice words for that novel. I still can't believe the good press it got**--the more I think of the author's portrayals of women, which were one-dimensional in the extreme (although his portraits of his male characters also needed at least one more dimension to be considered "multi-dimensional"), the more sickened I am that they're making it into a movie. Bah.

On the other hand, the positive reading experience...was so POSITIVE. Tune in tomorrow to see what book (or books) made my whole reading year worthwhile.

*But who cares? Lately CRjr has been hitting the local libraries--hard--for all their shark books (although books on the planets are running a strong second), and it's so awesome. Our living room looks like we are starting our own juvie nonfiction library.

**Incidentally, the positive New York Times Review accidentally reveals what I thought sucked about the whole novel: "The real star of “Shotgun Lovesongs” is Hank’s wife (and high school sweetheart), Beth, who provides the novel’s most substantial female voice. Both insider and outsider to Little Wing’s buddy culture, Beth offers our clearest glimpses into the hearts of the men around her." Yeah, she's the "real star" of the book, and what does she do for us? Ooh, she gives us glimpses into the hearts of the men around her. Thank God we have women characters around to use to get to know the male characters better. Bah!


The second time was not the charm.

So Much for That (P.S.)
by Lionel Shriver
Powells.com

I found Lionel Shriver's bestseller We Need to Talk about Kevin a really disturbing but really interesting read. So I thought I would try her follow-up novel, So Much for That.

Incidentally? I am in a really fiction place lately. Is it because I'm permanently tired and somewhat overwhelmed, even though I am very lucky and things are going very well? Is this why women read a lot of fiction, because they're always holding this mess up and they only have so much energy left?* But does that assume that fiction is an easier read than nonfiction? Why would I feel more like one than the other?

But I will not be able to finish this one. It's got a compelling premise: man dreams of retiring to Third World island to live simply (and cheaply, off his nest egg); man's wife gets cancer; man's bank account, even though they HAVE insurance, drained, and their marriage pushed to its breaking point. I am on board with that premise. But, if Shriver used a scalpel in her Kevin novel, here she uses a sledgehammer, as when the wife, Glynis, is speculating that exposure to asbestos (via her contractor husband) might have caused her mesothelioma:

"'You could easily have known, and you should have! Evidence about the dangers of asbestos goes back to 1918. The evidence was really beginning to accumulate by the 1930s, but the industry had the research suppressed. The specific link between asbestos and mesothelioma was made in 1964. That was before you even started Knack [his construction company]! By the 1970s, that asbestos could kill you was basically a known fact. I grew up surrounded by these stories, and so did you!'" (p. 55.)

That's just not terribly subtle. Actually, I know I've sounded like that in the past, especially when I've just learned something, but there's too many of those types of speeches here. I may try some earlier Shriver, but I'm done with this one.

*I know this assumes a lot, but I do happen to think women are doing a lot of multitasking to keep this world going.


Holy depressing books, Batman: The Silent Wife

The Silent Wife
by A.S.A. Harrison

Powells.com

Third and last in our series of fiction books I read, three in a row, that kicked me in the gut.

Today's book is A.S.A. Harrison's novel The Silent Wife, and I'm telling you, if you haven't yet read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (or even if you have), kick that one to the curb and read this one instead. In all fairness, I think Gone Girl was meant to be just a thriller, whereas this one is a thriller with a bit more literary style behind it. This is how it begins:

"At forty-five, Jodi still sees herself as a young woman. She does not have her eye on the future but lives very much in the moment, keeping her focus on the everyday. She assumes, without having thought about it, that things will go on indefinitely in their imperfect yet entirely acceptable way. In other words, she is deeply unaware that her life is now peaking, that her youthful resilience--which her twenty-year marriage to Todd Gilbert has been slowly eroding--is approaching a final stage of disintegration, that her notions about who she is and how she ought to conduct herself are far less stable than she supposes, given that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her." (pp. 3-4.)

Now, that makes you think this is going to be a straight-up thriller. But it's not. And in their own "imperfect yet entirely acceptable way" (I love that phrase), the main characters here are both somewhat sympathetic and likable.* For a long time the story just moves along, making you think it is one thing (quite skillfully), but then...in the middle, there's a couple of sucker punches that I was completely not expecting. Maybe you will--there are hints throughout the book. But I did not, and the punches were very sad ones.

I think my one-sentence review to Mr. CR was, "this book is horrifying--in a good way." And that sort of sums up how I felt about all three of these depressing books. They made me think; I thought they were good books; but can I, in all conscience, actually RECOMMEND them to others to read? I just don't know. What do you do when you want to suggest scary or depressing books to others?

*Unlike in Gone Girl, where I found the husband and wife both to be completely uninteresting, unlikable people. Which hampered my caring about them, or the story, in any way whatsoever.


Holy depressing books, Batman: The Chocolate War

Have you read this thing?

Okay, Robert Cormier's classic YA novel The Chocolate War was published before I was born. (God, it's getting rare to be able to say that about a book.) It's often listed on lists of classic books for teens, especially for teen boys, and it's still one of the most challenged books in libraries (it's number 3 on the list of top 100 banned books for 2000-2009). Because I'd heard of it so often, I think I read it somewhere in my mid- or late twenties, and I remembered that I found it interesting...

...but what I didn't remember is this book's ending.

This is all I'm going to say.

The plot is not complicated. Jerry Renault, who attends a private Catholic high school, is singled out by the school's secret society, The Vigils (along with some other students) for an "assignment" (the "assignments" are basically hazing). His assignment? To refuse to sell chocolates as part of the school's fundraising chocolate sale. But when the assignment ends...Jerry does something that no one expects. And at first it has some unexpected effects, but then...well, that's all part of the ending, which I'm not going to tell you.

But I can say this: not often does Mr. CR say "holy shit" (or the equivalent) when finishing a book. Both of us were stunned. It's a great book. It's a crushing book. But is it a book that should really be read by YAs? I just don't know.

What do you think?


Holy depressing books, Batman: We Need to Talk about Kevin

And now, for your reading pleasure, a journey through my recent fiction choices, which have been depressing the living shit out of me. Please do pardon my French, but if you read the three books I'm going to talk about in quick succession, I think you'll find a little bit of profanity is the least of all our worries.

And apologies: I'll get back to nonfiction. I've been reading nonfiction too. Interestingly enough I've been doing some research for a variety of projects, and the research has required fiction reading.

A case in point: Lionel Shriver's novel We Need To Talk About Kevin. I first saw this one in a bookstore, and because I have a friend named Kevin, I almost got it for him. But then I read the jacket copy and thought, well, perhaps not: "If the question of who's to blame for teenage atrocity intrigues news-watching voyeurs, it tortures our narrator, Eva Khatchadourian. Two years before the opening of the novel, her son, Kevin, murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and the much-beloved teacher who had tried to befriend him."

And that really sums it up. The book follows the format of Eva's letters/diary to her husband, Franklin, about their son and what happened in the years leading up to the "incident."* For the first couple of hundred pages, I thought it was a bit too pat, and that Shriver made Kevin out to be to easily "evil," from the day he was born. But somewhere in the middle I started wondering if this was a quietly genius book (and indeed, if that all-knowing feeling of evilness from the beginning wasn't some of the point, as the book is told entirely from Eva's viewpoint; is she a reliable narrator, or is she not?). Somewhere in the middle, she is describing how she goes to visit Kevin in jail (a juvenile facility, as he committed the crimes a few days before his 16th birthday), and this is what she discusses with another mother who is there visiting her also-incarcerated child:

"'It's always the mother's fault, ain't it?' she said softly, collecting her coat. 'That boy turn out bad cause his mama a drunk, or she a junkie. She let him run wild, she don't teach him right from wrong. She never home when he back from school. Nobody ever say his daddy a drunk, or his daddy not home after school. And nobody ever say they some kids just damned mean. Don't you believe that old guff. Don't you let them saddle you with all that killing.'

'Loretta Greenleaf!' [This is said by the guard.]

'It's hard to be a momma. Nobody ever pass a law say 'fore you get pregnant you gotta be perfect. I'm sure you try the best you could. You here, in this dump, on a nice Saturday afternoon? You still trying. Now you take care of yourself, honey. And you don't be talking any more a that nonsense.'

Loretta Greenleaf held my hand and squeezed it. My eyes sprang hot. I squeezed her hand back, so hard and so long that she must have feared I might never let go." (p. 166.)

Something about that got me. I've read reviews of this book where they said Lionel Shriver, as a woman without children, is not qualified to write this type of book. Which is ridiculous--should all fiction writers only be allowed to write about experiences they've lived? But if there are any faults with this book it is not with Shriver's imagination.

It was hard to read, and parts of it (especially if you thought about them too much) were almost enough to make a person sick. But I think the author did the subject (a very hard one, by the way) justice. Has anyone else out there read this thing? What do you think?

*I actually read it because I was interested to see how you could structure an entire novel this way, and tell the story backwards, as it were.


And one book I outright hated: Shotgun Lovesongs.

Shotgun Lovesongs
by Nickolas Butler

Powells.com

Well, I'll say this for Nickolas Butler's novel Shotgun Lovesongs: it jolted me out of my "meh" week of reading. Mainly because I hated it so, so much.

If you are not familiar with this novel, be aware that critics are treating it like the second coming.* (And: really? Two reviews in the New York Times? They can't find any other new novels around to review?) Because of all its good press, and because it is by a Wisconsin author, I thought I would give it a try. I must admit that the description of it at Powell's is not one that would have made me pick it up otherwise: "In this love ballad to the Midwest, author Nickolas Butler gives us a glimpse inside small-town Wisconsin. The novel follows a circle of friends — a farmer, a rock star, a businessman, a mother, and a rodeo cowboy — as they each come to grips with the choices and events that have set the course in their lives."

If I'd read the phrase "love ballad to the Midwest" before I requested the book from the library, I probably wouldn't have bothered. But one day I was casting about for something to read, and as my sister had been asking me about this one too, I thought, well, I'd better read this. I only got about three chapters in and I was having a pretty strong reaction to it (much the way one "reacts" to milk when one is lactose intolerant, just to keep my metaphors suitably "love ballad to the Midwest"ish). So yes, I probably should have put it down. But then I read another review that said Butler had a real touch with writing his main female character, so I thought I'd stay with it through one of her chapters, and by the time I was done with that, I thought, well, hell, I just need closure now. And I got closure, in the form of a completely stupid "insight" about marriage, that I will not reveal to you, but which I will say was the lamest, most surface, most conventional "insight" about marriage ever, and one which, in the course of my twelve married years and my many more years of observing many other marriages, is almost completely untrue.

So what was there to dislike?

Well, perhaps I can best sum it up like this: this book is "Man Lore" to the extreme. Which should be no surprise, it's about a group of small-town Wisconsin friends in the two decades (give or take a few years) after their high school graduation. The story is told from several of the friends' points of view, as well as the point of view of one of their wives, and yes, each chapter is headed up with the initial of the person doing the talking ("B" for Beth, e.g.). Now this is your first problem. If I can't tell who's talking from your writing, without someone's name or initial at the head of the chapter, then you, Mr. or Ms. Lazy Writer, are not properly doing your job.

Forget the Midwest; most of the men telling the stories in this book talk like they're in an old Western:

"Ronny dried out in the hospital over the course of several months, often restrained in his bed, and we came to the hospital to hold his hand. His grip was ferocious, his veins seemed everywhere ready to jump right out through his sweaty flesh. His eyes were scared in a way I had only seen in horses. We wiped his forehead and did our best to hold him down to the earth." (p. 7.)

Brother. There's a whole lot of passages like that. Here's salt-of-the-earth farmer Henry describing how he and his wife Beth get ready to go to their other friend Kip's wedding:

"Beth changed her ensemble five times that morning, switching out her shoes, her necklaces, her earrings. I understood. Had I owned more than one suit, I would have done the same thing. As it was I just sat in a battered old chair in our bedroom and watched her. She was beautiful to me. I could see that she had shaved her legs, supple and taut above the easy grip of her heels. She mussed her hair and pursed her lips at the mirror.

'What do you think?' she said finally, turning to me.

I stood and went to her, understanding right then that we were already growing older, that we would grow old together." (p. 30.)

As if that isn't painful enough, they actually share a little slow dance together after that.

Now, if I may? I actually am a Midwestern farmer's daughter. And let me paint you a little picture of how real dairy farmers get ready for a wedding:

"Mom rushed around with her dress unzipped, yelling at her daughter to call out to the barn and see where the hell Dad was. She did, and her brother told her their Dad was still out raking hay; rain was forecast the next day and acres of hay were going to get wet and ruined if they didn't get it put in the barn before that. The girl reported this news to her mother, who muttered, 'every damn time we have a wedding to go to...' before dashing off to finish making a cold cuts plate and salad for her brothers' supper. The girl sighed. She'd been counting on having Mom and Dad out for the afternoon, but now she knew they probably wouldn't leave in time for the ceremony and that they'd also probably have to leave the reception right after bolting some supper because Dad hadn't missed a milking, morning or night, in twenty-five years, and he certainly wasn't going to tonight for some stupid wedding dance."

Stick that in your "love ballad to the Midwest" pipe, Butler, and smoke it.

Anyway. I digress. Here's the takeaway: if you want to read a novel about a bunch of small-town Boy Men who are in love with a bunch of their Boy Men buddies, and one of their wives, who actually seems like a pretty unpleasant woman in her own right--she advises a friend who wants a baby (but whose husband is dragging his feet on the subject) to "make a mistake" with her birth control--then boy, do I have a novel for you.

If, on the other hand, you do want to read an authentic and beautifully written book about the Wisconsin experience, and one which features actual adult men who think about someone other than themselves at least every now and then, do yourself a favor and go get Michael Perry's memoir Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. You'll thank me, I promise you.

*This last review really hurt me, because it was by Jonathan Evison, whose novel All About Lulu I loved.


"So-so" books: Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey
by Val Mcdermid
Powells.com

I am, of course, a woman with a Jane Austen problem.

And that problem, the one wherein I love Austen beyond all reason, means that I will read pretty much anything with a Jane Austen connection. Modern retellings, like Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey? Yeah, you know I had to read that. So I got it, and here's how it starts:

"Cat, as she preferred to be known--on the basis that nobody should emerge from their teens with the name their parents had chosen--had been disappointed by her life for as long as she could remember. Her family were, in her eyes, deeply average and desperately dull. Her father ministered to five Church of England parishes with good-natured charm and a gift for sermons that were not quite entertaining but not quite boring either. Her mother had given up primary school teaching for the unpaid job of vicar's wife, which she accomplished with few complaints and enough imagination to leaven its potential for dreariness. If she'd had an annual performance review, it would have read, 'Annie Morland is a cheerful and hardworking team member who treats problems as challenges...'" (p. 1-2.)

McDermid actually did a good job keeping to Austen's style, but, as in most Austen interpretations, she just doesn't approach the original's sense of humor. Because it's a modern retelling, of course, it comes complete with references to cell phones, texting, and the popularity of vampire books (in Austen's time she picked on the popular gothic novels of the time), and McDermid handled all of that quite well too.

I did read the whole thing, but I can't say it really set me on fire. So-so.


John Green: 0 for 2 on reading recommendations, thus far.

I hardly ever seek out reading recommendations, particularly from people I do not know personally. Partly this is because I almost never have a problem finding things I want to read (I currently have 59 books checked out from the library, I'm on the hold waiting list for nearly that many more, and I've always got books that I own that I still need to read). Mainly I have a problem finding enough time to read books that I just seem to keep tripping over, and that doesn't even take into account that I know several great and interesting readers who often make suggestions to me in person.

So why I was watching John Green's entire YouTube video on the 18 books you probably haven't read but which he thinks you should, I couldn't really tell you. Yes, I do like John Green. Yes, of course I enjoy listening to anyone and everyone talk about books. But how I found that video I don't know, unless it's because I somehow heard that he also recommended Tony Hawks's travel books Round Ireland with a Fridge and Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, which are two of my all-time favorite nonfiction books.

On John's recommendation (librarians: please see John Green for how to make books sound interesting; he can do so in very little time), I checked out Joshua Braff's* novel The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green and Alice Domurat Dreger's One of Us : Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal. I am actually very sorry to report that neither one of these books really worked out for me.

There really wasn't anything wrong with Braff's novel; it seems to be a fairly standard male coming-of-age story, featuring an extremely complex relationship between Jacob and his father, but I just wasn't in the mood. (Or, I should say, I kind of just kept picking it up and reading it when I couldn't decide what else to read, but I never really WANTED to go back to reading it).

The One of Us book was a bit of a different story. It's actually quite interesting, and you wouldn't believe that a book about conjoined twins would have so much to say on so many different topics, among them what we consider to be "normal" where our bodies are concerned, and how much doctors and medical professionals are involved with helping us judge and "fix" our appearances. I thought it was a bit dry, at first, but I spent a bit more time with it today and it's actually quite the fascinating little book. Again, I'm just not quite in the right mood for it. It reminded me of Amy Bloom's superlative Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude, which I would heartily recommend to anyone.

On the whole, though, I wouldn't say these were bad suggestions. And I'm going to give Green another try; he mentioned several other titles in his "18 books" video that sounded interesting. Happy weekend, all.

*Yes, he's the brother of actor Zach Braff.


Fiction Interlude: Divergent.

Yes, I know this purports to be a nonfiction blog. But I find this year that I have been in something of a fiction place. This is okay but not really working out--I've read a lot of fiction so far that has been "okay"--but certainly nothing special.

Another case in point of this phenomenon is Veronica Roth's super-hit Divergent. It's a Young Adult novel, written and published (I would guess) largely to cash in on the Suzanne Harris/Hunger Games popularity. This is another futuristic dystopia story, also featuring a female main character. In this society, people are organized into five factions: Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Candor, and Amity. The factions represent what their members think are the answers to society's problems: Abengation, for example, thought people were too selfish, so they practice selflessness; the Erudite thought people didn't think things through, so they focus on intellectualism; and so on and so forth. (A more thorough synopsis can be found at the book's Wikipedia page, but watch out for spoilers, of course.)

Beatrice, the main character, is born into the Abnegation faction, but when tested as a teenager to see which faction she might fit in with and choose, she learns that she is something considered "Divergent"--a person who could fit in several different factions. This is, evidently, a dangerous thing to be, so the woman testing her helps her keep it a secret, and she eventually chooses the Dauntless faction (which prizes courage above all else).

So she learns the new Dauntless ways, makes friends, is faced with the challenge of being accepted by the group so she doesn't have to wander "factionless," she falls in love*, blah blah blah. Perhaps it's because I have read The Hunger Games trilogy, as well as Lois Lowry's The Giver, too recently. This seemed like familiar territory. And that's really not what one is looking for in one's speculative or science fiction, is it? It was an okay read, but it really left me with just the one overwhelming impression: how hard would it be, I wonder, to pound one of these YA dystopian trilogies out? And make big bucks on the sales and movie rights?**

*Although, I must say, I thought the love story here was done better than the one in The Hunger Games. I was totally bored by the two male choices in that series, but the male protagonist here actually holds his own against the strong female character.

**I know, still pretty hard. But it does make one think.


The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

I felt vaguely dirty upon finishing the novel The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry.

I got it from the library because I saw it getting a lot of word-of-mouth attention, and it popped up on the New York Times bestseller list, and sometimes I like to keep an eye on the current tastes in fiction. And then I started it because I heard the first chapter read on my public radio station's "Chapter a Day" program, and I thought, hey, that book's here, I should just read it. And then I kept reading it because it's about a bookseller and a bookstore.

But did I enjoy it? Well, not really. As a matter of fact, I think it was totally formulaic and manipulative, and I further think that Algonquin Books (a publisher of whom I have thought very highly in the past) should be just the tiniest bit ashamed of themselves for publishing such schlock.

The story is: small-town independent bookseller A.J. Fikry is foundering. His wife has died, his business isn't doing well, he's drinking himself to death, and his retirement plan, a first edition of a rare Edgar Allan Poe book, has just been stolen. But then: a baby is left in his store, abandoned by a mother who wants her "to grow up in a place with books." He falls in love with another book professional. Life is good, and then...well, I don't like to give spoilers. But what follows next is a tear-jerking device of the highest order. So yeah, yeah, reading is great and love is everything. I don't argue with the message. But I do not enjoy novels that purport to be gentle little things delivering that message with a sentimental sledgehammer. Consider the folksiness of an early passage:

"That Christmas and for weeks after, Alice buzzes with the news that A.J. Fikry the widower/bookstore owner has taken in an abandoned child. It is the most gossip-worthy story Alice has had in some time--probably since Tamerlane was stolen--and what is of particular interest is the character of A. J. Fikry. The town had always considered him to be snobbish and cold, and it seems inconceivable that such a man would adopt a baby just because it was abandoned in his store." (p. 69.)

I did not like this book in pretty much exactly the same way I did not like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And do you hear much about that book anymore? Nah, pretty instantly forgettable. And I'm guessing this one will be the same way.

Other reviews: Kirkus Reviews, Washington Post


Howyeh, Jimmy?

The Guts
by Roddy Doyle
Powells.com

Oh, Roddy Doyle. Even when you're phoning it in you do nice work.

As mentioned a while ago, I recently blew through Roddy Doyle's new novel The Guts. In it, he revisits characters he first introduced in his novel The Commitments. I've never actually read that book, but I've seen the movie roughly a million times.

A brief interlude here, to describe my relationship with movies: When I love a movie, I LOVE a movie. It is really not hyperbole to say that I have seen The Commitments about a million times. I was obsessed with it in high school and college. I owned both the soundtracks. I pretty much know it by heart, which scares Mr. CR, but not as much as the fact that I also still know Top Gun by heart. (Don't ask. I was YOUNG when I first watched that movie.)

Of course Doyle's books get made into movies, because they are largely written in dialogue and they feature fantastic characters and relationships. Take this conversation between Jimmy and his dad, to open the book, when his dad asks about Facebook:

"His da had a laptop at home. He knew how to google. He'd booked flights online. He'd backed a few horses, although he preferred the walk to the bookie's. He'd bought a second-hand book online, about Dublin During the War of Independence. He'd nearly bought an apartment in Turkey but that had been a bit of an accident...But the point was, his da knew his way around the internet. So Jimmy didn't know why he was pretending to be completely thick.

--Why d'yeh want to know? he asked.

--Ah, for fuck sake, said his da.--Every time I ask a fuckin' question.

--What's wrong with yeh?

--I ask a fuckin' question and some cunt says why d'yeh want to know.

--You're askin' the wrong cunts, said Jimmy." p. 3.

Now that I think of it, you might also want to stay away if you don't like profanity.

Jimmy has grown up: he has a wife, four kids, an online music business (that he founded and sold, but at which he still works), and, as is revealed pretty early on, cancer. So throughout the book he tries to balance all of the above, while going through cancer treatment. But the cancer isn't really the story--Jimmy (and the rest of the characters) are. At one point I was invested enough in him that when he did something that annoyed me in the middle of the book, I felt personally affronted, like Jimmy is someone I actually know.

Other reviewers have not been overly positive* about this book. But I enjoyed it. It was fun to revisit the world of The Commitments. And it was fun to care enough about any character that I wished I could give him a slap upside the head when he was being an idiot.

*By the way, look at this review just to see the UK cover of the book, which is a million times better than the American one.


A disappointing YA read.

The Giver
by Lois Lowry
Powells.com

When I worked in the public library, I always felt I should do a better job of reading and suggesting kids' and YA fiction titles. Every time I shelved Lois Lowry's novel The Giver, for instance, I thought, I should read this. The book was a Newbery award winner (in addition to winning many other awards)*, it got checked out a lot, and it was even a bit controversial.

But yet? I just never got around to reading it.

So when I came across the trailer for the forthcoming movie, I thought, this is it. It is time to start reading some kids' and YA "classics" so I know what CRjr and CR3 will be reading soon. So I checked it out.

And I was super disappointed.

Yeah, the story was compelling enough. Eleven-year-old Jonas lives in a futuristic society in which the community has found ways to keep from feeling much of anything, valuing "Sameness" and tranquility over the messier human emotions of anger, passion, and love (to name just a few). But of course, that tranquil surface belies not-so-tranquil things happening underneath, as Jonas starts to learn after he is chosen to be the community's next "Receiver," or repository of the community's memories from before the "Sameness."

But I was really, really disappointed by the ending. And there were several small plot points along the way that just seemed like lazy writing to me.** And yes, I was not surprised by most of the unpleasant secrets of the society, because I'm an old cynical lady (not an impressionable young YA) and because I've read a lot of dystopian fiction and none of it differs all that much. But still. I was underwhelmed.

*Don't read the summary of this book at its Wikipedia page if you don't want to read any spoilers.

**I'll try not to give away too much, but at one point the main character hides himself from heat-seeking radar (or whatever) by recalling his memory of "cold." Um, I don't think that's how that works. And that just seemed lazy to me in a work that is considered "science" fiction.


Happy St. Patrick's Day!

I am not Irish, so I have never felt completely comfortable going all out for St. Patrick's Day. I don't mind if you do, regardless of your ethnic heritage, but I've never, say, felt compelled to wear green on March 17.*

However, I would be remiss today if I did not suggest to you a fantastic backlist title: Tony Hawks's Round Ireland with a Fridge. The title says it all: author and comedian Tony Hawks decided to hitchhike around Ireland with a mini-fridge in tow, and his account of the types of people willing to pick up such a hitchhiker (and his baggage) is nothing short of fabulous. It's been years since I read it, but just thinking about it has put me in the mood to get it back from the library.

In other Irish author news, please note that Roddy Doyle has a new book out (The Guts), which is a sequel to his novel The Commitments (which was made into a fantastic movie of the same name). I haven't read it, but I'd like to. I like Roddy Doyle.**

*Which is a good thing, because I'm currently down to very few items of clothing that are acceptable for going out and about, and none of them are green.

**And once, when indexing a book, I suggested to the author that she might not want to refer to Roddy Doyle as a "British" author. I still think that was the right call, although the author was not best pleased with my opinion.


Even I have a thriller weak spot.

Cell
by Robin Cook
Powells.com

Oh, Robin Cook. How I enjoy you and your terrible, terrible writing.

If you've not heard of him, Robin Cook is the author of multiple bestselling medical thrillers. He is perhaps best known for the thriller Coma, which became a well-received movie by the same title.* I personally know him best for an even earlier book, the (non-medical) thriller Sphinx, which featured a feisty Egyptologist who stumbled onto an antiquities scam while in Egypt. As I first read this book when I was about eleven, when I actually wanted to BE an Egyptologist, you can imagine that was a reading experience that stuck with me.

Cook's medical thrillers are almost always based on some recent medical breakthrough or topic; in this one, Cell, the focus is on a medicine app called iDoc. While being tested (and seeming very successful at becoming patients' virtual primary care provider), iDoc eventually starts taking all that it learns about patients and uses that information in some unorthodox ways. I'll give him this: his books are all that thrillers should be: quick reads (I plowed through this one in couple of days) and somewhat unnerving (especially for someone who already distrusts the medical establishment). Hilariously, they also always offer one tryst scene, and here is the one from this book:

"With a certain desperation the two old friends hesitantly clung to each other, then abandoned restraint. They tore off their robes. Sinking into the canopied bed, they devoured each other, making mad, passionate love. For a few paradisiacal moments they allowed their minds and bodies to be completely absorbed in the giving and receiving of pleasure. Some time later, locked in an embrace as if afraid their coupling had been a dream and that the other was going to disappear, they fell into an exhausted, sublime sleep." (p. 337.)

Ah, canopied beds. So great for sinking into. But what can I say? Even a hardcore nonfiction reader sometimes needs a good fiction reading vice.

*Note to my sister: it featured Tom Selleck!


Fiction Interlude: Still a solid Victorian mystery series.

I have always enjoyed Charles Finch's Charles Lenox mystery series, set in Victorian England. I'm not much of a mystery reader and the Victorian era isn't my favorite in British history, but I was originally drawn to the first book because of its beautiful cover, and each book in the series has shared the same style (to good effect, I think, they're always quite visually striking).

Every now and then I simply check my local library catalog for "Charles Finch" and see if he's come out with a new one, and last month I was not disappointed--I found the seventh book in the series, An Old Betrayal. In this installment, gentleman detective and esteemed Member of Parliament Charles Lenox finds himself ever more conflicted in his desire to be a good politician while also still pursuing his real love, which is crime detection. The story features a damsel in distress, two murders, and eventually, a dastardly plot involving high-level burglary and treason.

Mr. CR read the book too (as he has read most of the books in this series, when I bring them home) and found it a serviceable read. I enjoyed it, although I think Finch is starting to phone these books* in just a little bit. You really only notice when he is trying to work in some period detail or information and the best way he can find to do it is in parentheticals or asides.** And, sadly, what I liked best about the first book in the series was the relationship between Charles Lenox and his neighbor, Lady Jane Grey. Now that they're together the Lady Jane is not given much to do and their conversations don't seem as lively. I'll refrain from making any commentary on what that says about marriage in general.

But these are small quibbles. I still enjoyed the book, and I'm sure I'll read the next one in the series too.

 *And how could he not? He's been publishing one a year, and has written another contemporary novel (The Last Enchantments, just published) during the same time period.

**Yes, yes, I should give you an example of this. But I forgot to mark the proper pages with bookmarks. You'll just have to take my word on it.


I'll stick with the source material, thanks.

Longbourn
by Jo Baker
Powells.com

I finally read Longbourn, by Jo Baker, because I read about it at Bookshelves of Doom (a blog I enjoy and trust) and also because I saw it on a lot of "best of" fiction lists last year. And hey, I cannot turn down books based on Jane Austen's works.

Longbourn (the title is from the name of the house in the Austen novel Pride and Prejudice, of course, where the Bennets live, and the inheritance of which is entailed away from the Bennet daughters) follows the plot points of Pride and Prejudice closely (exactly, as a matter of fact), only from the point of view of Sarah, one of the Bennets' household servants. As Jane and Lizzy are busy trying to sort out their prospective romances with Bingley and Darcy, the servants' lives of routine and order and never-ending work are also shifted. The household is also changed by the addition of a new servant named James, a young man who seemingly appears out of nowhere, and who is just a bit too uninterested in Sarah, if you know what I mean. Various subplots involving the long-suffering Mrs. Hill and other bit players such as Wickham round out the story.

It was interesting, a good idea, and it is written well. I enjoyed both Sarah and James as characters, particularly James, whose truly upstanding nature provides a nice counterpoint to Austen's Darcy. It was hard to put down, really, until I read the whole thing.

So why didn't I love it?

Well, I just didn't. I think it might be hard to love Austen the way I do and to also love this.* Austen's writings are romantic, of course, and sharp in their own way--old Jane obviously knew plenty about human foibles and weaknesses and neatly skewered a wide variety of them in her various novels. But they are not really dark. Or ugly. Take Wickham. Now, in the original book, Wickham is a capital-S Scoundrel who preys on girls who are really a teensy bit younger than they should be. But the ickiness factor is compounded here. Consider this exchange between Wickham and the very young Lonbourn housemaid Polly:

"'How old are you, Little Miss?'

'Don't know quite. Twelve, thirteen, maybe. Why?'

'Shall I buy you some pineapple bonbons, then, and send them back to you?'

Polly stared up at his big face, which everybody said was handsome; the sprouting moustache, the open pores between his eyebrows, the broken veins on his nose. Grown-ups could be so very unpleasant to look at, if you got too close.

'Oh, would you, though? Would you really?'

She wanted to ask what the other flavours were, before she committed herself to pineapple; whether there would be lemon drops and cough candy, coltsfoot rock and aniseed.

'I would. I will. If you'll be sweet to me now.'" (pp. 207-208.)

Uck. You know, I don't really need too much help picturing the earthiness behind Regency England. Every time I finish a re-read of an Austen novel I mentally add the line: "And they lived happily ever after, until Lizzie [or insert heroine name here] died giving birth to their first child a year later." So yeah, I can do dark. But for fiction, fun reading? I guess I just prefer the lighter touch of the Austen source material.

*Maybe not. Perhaps I'm completely wrong on this point.


Thinking about Joyce Maynard.

Labor Day (P.S.)
by Joyce Maynard
Powells.com

Last Friday the movie Labor Day, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, was released.

I first saw the trailer for this movie about a month ago, and I thought, huh, I've always enjoyed Joyce Maynard. Maybe I'll read the novel before the movie comes out. So I did.

The story, not to put too fine a point on it, is ridiculous. A teenage boy, Henry, and his recluse mother, Adele, while out doing some necessary shopping, are abducted by a bleeding man who tells them he has a gun. They take him back to their house, ostensibly to hide out, but while he does so, over the course of the long, hot Labor Day weekend, he gains the affection of both Adele and her son (who eventually learn he has escaped from prison, where he was serving time for a crime that had extenuating circumstances). It ends both tragically and hopefully, with a betrayal that you could see coming from the introduction of a certain character.

But still? I enjoyed it.

I think the crux of the matter is that I just like Joyce Maynard. If you've never heard of her, she's probably most well-known for being one of J.D. Salinger's paramours (an experience she wrote about in her memoir At Home in the World), and for selling his letters to her at auction when, after a divorce and trying to raise three children, she needed the money. She's also a novelist, and has written a YA book (or books, I'm not certain) as well.

Be that all as it may, here's what I like about Joyce. This ridiculous story grew out of an equally (well, in my opinion) ridiculous experience in Maynard's own life, when she started exchanging letters with a prisoner who wrote her some fan mail. You can read that entire story (and I recommend it, it's interesting) here. Maynard's real-life story was not as romantic as the novel she eventually wrote, but I find the whole situation fascinating. Who on earth corresponds with a prisoner, without knowing what he's incarcerated for, when you live by yourself with three kids? And, further, who on earth takes that experience and writes a romantic, ridiculously hopeful and forgiving of human nature, novel about it?

Joyce Maynard, that's who.

At the end of the book, Henry, all grown up and with a daughter of his own, has this to say about how he comforts the baby whenever she cries: "What she will register, at least, will be the fact that she is not alone. And it has been my experience that when you do this--slow down, pay attention, follow the simple instincts of love--a person is likely to respond favorably. It is generally true of babies, and most other people too, perhaps." (p. 241.)

Yeah, I like her. And I liked her sappy novel too. Didn't expect that one, did you?


Finishing off the week with a depressing YA read.

For some reason, while I spent some time this week reading kids' and YA books, I started thinking about S. E. Hinton (of The Outsiders fame) and her novel That Was Then, This is Now. I read it a long time ago, and I remember it depressing the hell out of me. Now that I'm older and more jaded, I wondered, would I still find it as depressing?

I did.

The story, in brief, is this: Bryon and Mark are best friends, and because Mark has lived with Bryon and his single mother for some years (after his abusive parents shot each other--one of the first clues of the true downer nature of this book), they are really more like brothers. They spend most of their time hustling pool, trying to find money to live while Bryon's mother is in the hospital having an operation, and eventually (in Bryon's case) dating the older sister of a gentle, hippie-ish young teenager in their neighborhood.

I won't spoil the ending; I'll just say that eventually the hippie-ish kid has a bad LSD trip (the book was first published in 1971, when LSD was the scary drug of the day), and this calamitous event forces Bryon, when he learns that Mark is dealing drugs, to do something it seems he really ends up regretting.

All I can say about this one is, wow, brutal. I feel like I need a nice adult murder mystery or something to cheer me up after this one. I've actually never read (and still don't read) a lot of YA books. Are a lot of them this melodramatic?