Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Atwood, Margaret (The Handmaid's Tale)

I was trepidatious re-reading this book. I read it so very long ago, have also watched the 1990s movie, and just started the TV series, which seems to have become a phenom. Maybe my recollection of its original power would be overwhelmed by the current state of the world (or the US, at least) and colored by my current views.

To some degree, that was true. I didn't feel its power quite so strongly - I remember being completely bowled over by Atwood's strange new world that took everything away from women, including everything they'd fought for. I was young and impressionable then, and probably had nightmares that this world was right on my doorstep. I don't feel that way any longer - despite current affairs - and recognize this more as an allegory and a warning, albeit with real world input (ie, other countries' treatment of women).

I was also surprised by some casual racism in the book. It seemed to me that Atwood was indicating that her Marthas were black, even as she dismissed black women entirely early on in the book (moved to resettlement colonies). It was something that continued to unsettle me until I could put my finger on it. The book now seems to fit the cliche of "white feminist dystopian tale", but it's also way easier for me to see that now than when I read it the first time. I am more educated now - in the press, in social media, and in reading books - and that wasn't quite as prevalent a notion (sadly) when Atwood was writing it.

Regardless, it was still a compelling read, and one that I would recommend to anyone, without hesitation.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Leon, Donna (Beastly Things)

Oops, I grabbed another Leon mystery right away. Now I will set them aside for a while (for reals this time).

Case in point, though, this one did a far better job describing these things: the difference between Venice and Mestre (on the mainland), the need for a deep-seated understanding of the water surrounding Venice, and, surprisingly, how a slaughterhouse truly operates. This latter item was the most disturbing, so be forewarned, and skip ahead when you see it coming, if you really don't want to know (and you probably don't want to know if you eat meat).

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Zevin, Gabrielle (Young Jane Young)

There's a lot here to like - Zevin is a master storyteller, in that she can give a pencil sketch of a person the appropriate characterizations in a few strokes of her pen. She also creates suspense without any of the normal mystery writer tropes. It's a superb talent, and it's why I liked The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry so much, and why I will continue to read her stuff.

What fell flat was the final chapter. Up until that point, you understand Aviva from afar - or you understand and empathize and are proud of her for pulling herself up by her bootstraps. But, that final chapter had a decent number of what I will call "character holes", such that by the end of it I was far less enamored with her. Her choices seemed odder than I expected, and her revival in Maine seemed inconceivable in the way that Zevin described it.

However, I did dearly love Ruby. (Who doesn't love a precocious 13-year-old... on paper?) Her pen pal letters were at times even laugh-out-loud funny. And I appreciated the chapter with Embeth because she was such a confusing, yet appealing character - exactly what I would have expected from the jilted party.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Finn, A.J. (The Woman in the Window)

This mystery has the reveals in all the right places. It may not be perfect - there's an awful lot of set dressing here - but it's way better than the previous mystery I read. At least I didn't figure out who did it. (I figured out a number of other reveals, but not that one.)

Right, the set dressing. If nothing else, you learn - in a lot of detail - what it means to be traumatized to the extent that you cannot face the outside. Real, visceral, terror-inducing agoraphobia. That, in and of itself, is worth the read because it's not a condition many of us are familiar with, or understand what it means to live with and try to fix.

Layered on top of this are classic noir films that our protagonist watches incessantly - set just so in the book in order for you to tie them into the plot as it unfolds. A bit heavy-handed, sure. But also a delight because they're worth the time to enjoy them again in whatever way is presented.

And layered on top of that is a plot that's constantly weaving and shifting. Yes, there are implausibilities - the way-too-mysterious tenant, the cat who gets fed even if nothing else works as it should, heck, the roof scene, for goodness sake - but overall it's a mystery that will keep you wondering, and it's hard to do that effortlessly.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Penny, Louise (Still Life)

I couldn't keep myself from looking online for reviews immediately after finishing this book. Normally, I wouldn't do that until I'd written my own review. In this case, though, I was so conflicted by what I read that I had to look to see if others felt the same way.

My number one complaint about this book is that it should not have won the Anthony (best first mystery novel). If I were reading an Anthony, I would expect stellar writing, characterizations and plot line. I'd say Penny was able to manage about 1.5 out of the 3 of those, so if I had picked it up solely on the basis of the award, I'd be rather pissed off.

The plot is pretty decent because she tries hard not to hold true to the Agatha Christie method of interview-rumination-interview-rumination-repeat-reveal. Besides the fact that it is set in Quebec, which I know little of even though I live so close by, the location is not enough of a draw. The characters are mysteries even by the time you finish the book. They're not realized, they have odd thoughts that jump out at various moments, and perhaps worst of all, you start a paragraph thinking a particular character is talking and this switches partway through the paragraph! I can't imagine a more lazy way of writing. I don't need to be challenged by having to pick through the sentences to figure out who's talking.

And suffice it to say, she doesn't move far enough way from the beaten path of mystery writing, which means that I figured out whodunnit a little more than 1/3 of the way into the book.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Greenwood, Kerry (Death at Victoria Dock)

I like that this one (number 4 of 20, it's clear I'm never finishing this series...) delves into the communist and anarchist tendencies of the characters from this time period in Australia, as well as specifically those of Bert and Cec (her Jack-of-all-trades). There's a lot about Australia's past I know nothing about - even after visiting some museums while we were there last year - so it's fascinating to hear this from the horse's mouth (so to speak).

The rest of the novel is exactly what you'd expect - thrills, chills and spills - except for one aspect of the ending which made me smile happily for a bit, as I actually didn't expect it. Plus one for Greenwood and not using her cookie cutter too exactly.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Harper, Jane (Force of Nature)

I'm writing this review too late! I recall lots of things, but probably not the things I tend to write about in my reviews, like overall impressions or the quality of the writing or other broader aspects.

So, instead I will say that I didn't enjoy it as much as the first one (The Dry), which is likely a factor of The Second Novel syndrome, but is also likely a factor of the ending being both disappointing and out-of-left-field at the same time. It didn't feel as well crafted as the first novel, in which the reveal made tons more sense in the context of the story she was telling.

This novel felt... icky. The vibe of this group of women makes your skin crawl. As do all the horrible beasties that will kill you in the Australian outback. And the bizarrely uninteresting interaction between Falk and his partner. (Also, who the heck would go on a group hike like this without liking each and every one of the people you were going with?? This is why leadership activities blow chunks.)

Harper is still an excellent writer, and nothing about this novel dissuaded me from wanting to continue to read her writing, which is probably the most useful thing I can say here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Graham, Lauren (Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls (and Everything in Between))

Who can't love Lauren Graham? She's cherishable - not just because of her clever, chatty, wise-cracking Lorelai Gilmore interpretation - but because she's demonstrably smart herself, and seems to have navigated her Hollywood path in a carefree manner (to the extent that is possible).

Her having been an English major means that reading her writing isn't painful. I won't say there weren't times when I rolled my eyes at the writing - because that did happen - but in general it was because she was trying to be too clever on paper, and that backfires so damn easily. (I'd like to read her fiction writing, as I'm going to bet it's a bit more suited to that space.)

I appreciated reading about her path to stardom, and the bends and diversions along the way. It was refreshing to read a tale without a ton of saucy gossip, but I do wish she'd dished a bit more about some of the relationships on Gilmore Girls (and Parenthood, which I have yet to watch). I'd heard there were some prickly ones, so tell me more about that! I want a guided tour!

At the very least, it got me to rewatch Gilmore Girls (and I'll follow that with A Year in the Life, because that's what I should have done last year when it came out). One season and some change later, it's as delightful as it was when I first watched it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Abercrombie, Joe (The Blade Itself)

Ah. Now I understand why people writing about this series say that it delves into very uncomfortable - bordering on inappropriate - territory, even for the fantasy genre.

Here's an example to illustrate. There is a scene in this book involving family members physically and emotionally abusing other family members. Besides the difficulty of writing about this if you're not fully aware of the psychology surrounding both victim and abuser, it's really, really difficult to read. Abercrombie has set you up to like his flawed main characters, as would any other fantasy writer, but I'm pretty sure I don't want to like this character at all any longer, no matter how Abercrombie spins it. That's pushing this to an uncomfortable place, and frankly, pushing it off the cliff (the cliff being your readers' enjoyment, the valley being when said reader throws the book in the trash bin).

Abercrombie is creating a world that is quite compelling - one that includes magic, but not so pervasive that everyone in the book believes it already. In addition, he's doing his darndest to cut across social classes, which is more difficult than it sounds in this genre. But even though this is a trilogy, if I don't get a vastly different flavor from the next book, I will be cutting bait.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Leon, Donna (Drawing Conclusions)

I'm finally getting back around to reading Donna Leon mysteries again (I'm about 7 volumes behind; she's a speedy writer!). As usual, I enjoy them but I can't read them back to back. Like most mystery series, the style and characterizations get repetitive and encourage at least a wait of several months between reading them.

This one's Social Agenda is around harassment and assault on women, which is detailed on a macro level and mirrored on a micro level as well. (As Leon does so well, being skilled in this realm, due to her past position as a professor of English literature.) The best Leon novels are the ones that give some new focus to an age-old problem, or that highlight a particularly Venetian problem. Otherwise, you read them for Guido and Signorina Elletra and Paola and all the other characters you've grown to enjoy, interacting with each other.

I'd say this one was not one of Leon's set of best novels, so I had fun watching Guido navigate the streets and canals, eat the good food, muse about Venice in general, and converse with his family. But there wasn't anything new here.