Saturday, August 29, 2015

French, Tana (The Likeness)

I have to give French her utterly ludicrous core concept: two people who are almost exact doppelgängers, not related. Yea, pull my other leg. And, I couldn't care less in the end. It did bother me in the beginning, and made me worry that the sophomore effort was not going to live up the freshman effort (and what an effort that was). There is nothing to fear here.

Once again, she pulls all your emotions out of your stomach, tosses them around like soccer balls for 500 pages, and then lets them fly away like little birdies on the last page  That's how spent you feel when you're done. I don't really know how she does her magic - action that flows from page to page and from one plot device to the next, seamlessly. And especially at the end, never telling you the whole story so that you absolutely must read between the lines, and absolutely must remember plot devices from 200 pages back. When you "get it", you literally gasp. That is stellar writing.

And there's more. In between all the plot devices are little descriptive passages that take your breath away. In this book, descriptions of tiny country lanes in the dark, of long and sweet hot summer afternoons, of the kind of house that isn't lived in anymore and can only be seen in a museum setting. I'm convinced she's had some experience writing poetry (and I'd like to read some of it).

After reading two of her books, I think it's safe to say that I'm considering her the best mystery series writer I've ever read. Yup.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Hornby, Nick (High Fidelity)

At first, I was irritated by this book. I enjoyed the movie, like most people, but in the book you see way, way more of the protagonist's noodling and over-thinking and pointless ruminations and it just gets so tiresome. Especially if you're a woman reading this. And a woman way too late in her game to care about these kinds of ruminations. You can't help shouting at the page: get over yourself and bite the bullet, dude!

However, the novel redeemed itself in two ways:

- It's funny as all get out. It's unfortunate that I can see Jack Black in my mind every time they riff on a top-5 list in the store. I'd like to know if those scenes would "play" as well in my mind without the movie version there in advance. Regardless, and obviously, the discussions of music are integral for both the main character's growth and to provide a lot more than a thought-provoking essay on the state of being a man in the modern era.

- The girlfriend is really well written. She's a mess, but she's a thoughtful, brave, heartfelt mess. You can see why he likes her and you can see why he should be with her. She may teeter a bit on the "fantasy-woman" edge because no one is quite that put together, but this kind of woman is believable.

I doubt I'll be reading his other books. In the end, they're too "male" and I just find that boring.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

McCall Smith, Alexander (The Miracle at Speedy Motors)

Short and sweet, since these are all pretty much the same, and I'm trying to blow through the rest (what are there, 7 more?) this year, if possible. Not surprisingly, they are usually available on Kindle loan from my public library...

I found this one slightly more poignant than usual. I loved the bit about what you can talk about with old friends and what you can't. And, I wasn't surprised by how McCall Smith finished this one. The end.

Monday, August 10, 2015

King, Gilbert (Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America)

It's not so much the telling of this tale that made it a worthwhile read for me. It is, as it likely is for most readers, the tale itself that is worthy of the read.

If I were to pinpoint the one thing about this book that struck me as ridiculous - and saints preserve us, there are so many ridiculous things about this case and these trials - it's the KKK in 1951 getting themselves together and drafting a resolution stating that they were opposed to the NAACP and the ADL because they were "hate groups." Flabbergasted is the only word that mirrors my reading of that particular paragraph.

I will say that I was not hugely enamored of the writing itself. Yes, it more than gets the job done in telling the tale of Marshall and his legal posse fighting and re-fighting these deplorable Southern cases, long before Marshall was appointed to even the District Courts. It is relentless in its description of the problems that faced both the black lawyers and the black workers in Florida in those times. In fact, what it does is repeat itself a bit more than necessary. (Yes, I remember that Marshall traveled extensively. Yes, I think I've had a decent description of McCall's clothing enough times now, thank you.) But by doing this King makes it far less likely that you will forget what he's writing about, so in that respect, it's worth repetition.

And, I have to give credence to the ending, because King pulls back in a number of loose threads that you may (or may not) have forgotten about, creating a strong, emotionally resonant final chapter to the entire story. It's worth reading just for that - but actually, everyone should be more familiar with what transpired in the 50s in the South. I'd call it required reading.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Amos, Kim (And Then He Kissed Me)

You just couldn't pick a better beach read. Sun, sand, waves, and lots of hot sex. The last bit in the book, of course, not literally on the beach.

Which is why I enjoy reading Amos' romances. She adds as much humor (and gravitas, see below) into her romances as sex scenes. Case in point, you will learn what "literally" actually means by the end of the book. Every book should have one lesson, no?

I don't read romances on a regular basis, so I enjoy her world-building as much, if not more, than the lover's quarrels, make-ups, quarrels, make-ups, etcetera etcetera. I admit I missed the interior design aspect of the first book in the series, but this second book provided its own share of fun facts, mostly in the form of motorcycles.

I felt it did skimp a tiny bit on the Knots and Bolts get-togethers (but I can see why) and that it had a surprisingly dire denouement, but that won't keep me from reading the last book in the series. Firefighters? Accountants? Non-profit tutoring centers? Perhaps a slightly mousier protagonist? Count me in. I want to see where she can take all that.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Whitehead, Colson (Zone One)

I like a good zombie story. I especially like one that plays a teeny bit with the rules, which this one does. I guess I don't much like one that has a not-so-hidden agenda that I find boring and obvious.

Whitehead lives in NYC. He loves his town. He describes his town, in both its fantasy and its reality, to all and sundry in this book. He is the master of asides, meaning that there is a plot but it is obscured by description. This is my least favorite thing in books, which is probably why I've never been a fan of Joyce or Faulkner or Melville or novelists of that ilk. Perhaps this is my pragmatic nature coming through, but give me plot over poetry any day. Give me Hemingway and be done with it.

So, I love that he separates the zombies into two different types, that he calls them by names that haven't yet been used, that he channels the world as it would exist after this catastrophe (the hopes, the personalities, the obvious violence). This is all fun and engaging. I just wish he hadn't tacked an overwrought love letter on top of it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Saunders, George (Tenth of December: Stories)

Oof. It's like Raymond Carver has come back and is slightly less grumpy, a little more hip, and a teeny weeny bit less depressing.

That's a positive review, really it is! Because I love Raymond Carver - in all his spooky, crazy, true, oh-so-real attitude towards life. Saunders writes similarly, focusing on people who are down on their luck, but his focus seems to explain and clarify rather than obscure. That may seem strange to folks who have read Saunders' work before. What I mean is that each intriguing story has a purpose that we understand immediately and have a vague idea of where it is heading. It is not heading there! (In most cases.) But the situation is immediately understandable, and therefore our ride along its path engages us rather than furrows our brows.

Also, he comes up with the worst game-show idea ever. Yes, that is also a positive review.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Wharton, Edith (House of Mirth)

This might be the most complex piece of writing I've read. And not just for its florid writing.

On the surface, a social commentary about the mores and dictates of late 19th century New York, it felt like much more than that to me. It's not as if any of the crazy shenanigans surrounding society - and by society, I mean any kind in any place - have disappeared. There are still rules, although they may have become more relaxed. There is still old money and new money and how people are treated if you come from one versus the other. And there are still problems in marrying or courting above or below your station - again, no matter where you come from.

The novel tends to age well, since it tells the story of society in general, not just that of New York in its time. It's as if nothing has changed, and our culture is not more enlightened 100 years further on. For instance, never does Mr. Rosedale appear that his manner and forbearing are not associated with the fact that he is a Jew. For all Wharton's obvious liberal attitudes, she was not able to bridge that cultural divide. Upbringing? Lack of education? We struggle with those to this day.

Far more interesting, though, is Lily herself. You want to whomp Lily over the head, bringing her to some reasonable sense of where her life is going because she cannot be reconciled with her own desires. She wants to be morally upright, but she also abhors anything not beautiful and expensive. That conflict makes it impossible for her to choose the right path, time and again. I understand how that could work in her head, but the ending makes you truly wonder if anyone would choose this path, lacking any foresight about where it can end. That makes her a true innocent, more than anything else, and I think it's likely that Wharton could never have told this moral tale without an innocent at the center.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sanderson, Brandon (Firefight)

It's my fate in life to natter on about how difficult second books of series are. Can we forego all that and get to the meat of the problems?

Firefight has the same tropes as the first volume in the series (Steelheart), i.e., young nerdy kid, with an aptitude for fighting Epics and a super-creative mind, who has a heck of a time creating appropriate metaphors (nice to know we have one thing in common). Obviously, he's meant to save the world in the end, and I don't think there are any spoilers in that. Why else would Sanderson make him the main character? Also, you'll see what I mean at the end of this second book.

But I think perhaps he's a bit too heroic in this book. Sanderson does his best to show that some things do require hard work in order to make an impact in the world (life lesson #149), but we're talking about fighting people with superpowers. It's just all too easy for David! We have to keep our protagonist alive, of course, but also too many difficult scrapes he gets out of too easily. And the denouement at the end is really bloody obvious. I continue to keep in mind that I am not the primary audience (young adult), but still! Ugh and bother.

Oh, of course I'll read the final book. It is Sanderson, after all, who's a better writer than most fantasy authors out there.

Monday, July 6, 2015

French, Tana (In the Woods)

Any book that keeps me up past my bedtime is worth more than its weight in salt. (Gold, salt, you choose.) Way past my bedtime. I couldn't stop reading, as the twists and turns kept coming, and I kept wondering what would happen next.

It wasn't perfect: I think French telegraphs her main "bad guy" pretty strongly. I believe that if you're a woman reading this book, that may be more obvious than if you're a guy, but that's simply a guess based on my strong reaction to the character. I also had a strong dislike to our main protagonist, again maybe because I'm a woman reading this book. At the same time, I found it astonishing that French could inhabit and personalize the experience of the main detective, who is a man, in a genuine and revealing manner. I may not have enjoyed his idiocies (and his constant need to explain how idiotic he was a certain junctures), but he felt like a real person, and that's not easy to achieve.

Mostly, though, I was truly heartbroken at the end. Because, surprisingly, the book isn't about archaeological digs and the reasons to keep them pristine, or the beauty and mystery of woods that we should protect and save for future generations, or politics just sucks all around, no? It's about our main characters, as it should be. And I will certainly be getting the next one of the series out of the library, but will hearing it in Cassie's voice break my heart even further?