Sunday, December 9, 2018

Gay, Roxane (Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body)

It's a rare genius who can write about body issues without resorting to pettiness or histrionics. Gay is able to tell her tale almost as a recital of facts, one after the other. That sounds unbelievably boring, but nothing could be further from the truth. Each sentence continues from the previous sentence, clarifying and providing further context. Each chapter is short and to the point, and nothing is overstated or overcomplicated.

She gives you her tale of how and why she became as fat as she is, the utter tragedy of that and why it was so easy to hide that story from everyone. She tells you what it's like to live as a fat woman in America, the difficulties she has encountered, even as she's being lauded and praised. She informs you of the torture of exercise and eating right, which is in all truth, the same for the rest of us! All in all, she gives you a direct path to feeling what she feels.

If nothing else, this is a treatise on why it matters to empathize with those who are not the same size as you. It's a working manual on not being judgmental towards those who look different. For that reason alone, it should be required reading for the entire U.S., in order to effect some real change.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Crouch, Blake (Dark Matter)

Bah humbug. I have no patience with a book that gives away the entire plot (or at least most of it) in the first 20 pages. The very second our main character is accosted on the streets of Chicago, I knew what the entire book was about, what its plot would be and what plot twists were likely to occur. Look, I'll give it to you without actual spoilers - it's a book about particle physics and the uncertainty principle, right? It's about potential regrets in not pursuing certain paths, right? Put physics and time together and I think you can figure out the gist of the entire novel.

Granted, the tale did have a few extra plot twists I hadn't seen coming, but frankly, those were opportunities to rethink the above concept. Those twists did nothing to change the final outcome. Because there can only be one outcome! Certainly, by the time the important reveal has been made, there's only one way to end this type of novel.

And, if that weren't enough, at the core of the plot is a love story. It's what drives everything (boringly). But you almost never hear the woman's side of the story (boringly), so you're stuck reading the reason he wants to get back to her (boringly). And it's ever only the physicality of her that is described (not boring! idiotic!). As if that's all that's lovable about her. Argh! I thought we'd moved past these kinds of plots in this century.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Scalzi, John (Head On)

What a pity, to see Scalzi fall prey to the second book syndrome. While the first one had the beginnings of an infinite number of interesting premises - people who can skip from robot to robot while imprisoned in their actual human bodies - this one didn't take an interesting turn like the first one did.

The first novel's twist was based directly on the makeup of the people and their environment. This second one was more trite - more of a standard murder mystery. Scalzi clearly struggled with it - heck, he says so in the afterword. And I think it's because he couldn't figure out a better twist in his plotting. It's clear he was trying to fulfill those pesky contractual obligations.

He wrote a surprising number of scenes that involved the same setup. After a while, when the enemy has already arrived before our protagonists get there, you have no option to to begin to expect it. This must have happened at least a half dozen times (really). Repetition is a death knell in these kinds of novels.

Otherwise, we do get introduced to a new sport, one designed specifically for this world. We get a fake game of it (created by Scalzi just for a later scene, once again, far too bloody obvious). But otherwise, we don't get to watch a game. More's the pity, and it shows that Rowling he is not and Quidditch he did not invent.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Miller, Madeline (Circe)

It takes panache to grab classic mythology and spin it for modern times. As the publisher, this would have worried me a bunch - too much hubris and this book would have sunk from its own weight.

So, what Miller does is fairly amazing, as a result. Besides educating the unwashed masses about all those long forgotten Greek gods and demi-gods, she gives you a reason to care about some of the "wronged" gods. Or at least the females who have been mistreated by historical writing for far too long, or so it would seem.

I did think the ending was a bit facile - everything Circe has worried about with respect to her father is turned on its edge through one quick conversation? Totally unbelievable - especially since he's been a completely terrifying asshole for her entire life. Perhaps surprisingly I appreciate Miller telling me about Odysseus more than Circe. He being the far more famous mythological character, it's easier to recognize what's familiar to many of us and understand the complexities she's crafted for him.

I would be interested to see the lesson plans that could be crafted for teaching Mary Renault and Miller together. I suspect, as usual, teachers are way ahead of me.

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.