Monday, December 31, 2018

Harrington, Karen (Sure Signs of Crazy)

Surely, there are less blatantly obvious set-ups in YA fiction?

You know right away (so there's no spoiler here) that Sarah's mother is in a mental institution because she tried to drown her and her twin brother when they were small. Everything leads from there, as you would expect it to - obvious confusion about not having her mother in her life, wondering who her mother really is, angry at her father for essentially being the only one left, etc. etc.

But the confusing part about this novel is that Sarah is just super-duper more intelligent than anyone. She asks mind-bendingly advanced questions and has an emotional presence of someone in their thirties. At twelve. It's too unbelievable. I can understand crafting a character that has some smarts, but all of them?

The tale didn't resonate with me, then, and the obvious ending - where Sarah is less than emotionally resilient in order to effect the plot - was also not believable. A pity, since I think Harrington has the chops to create something far more plausible.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Li, Lillian (Number One Chinese Restaurant)

Quite simply, this is not the kind of writing I can appreciate. I wasn't ever able to understand the shape of a relationship or conversation or event because the protagonists seemed to change their mind or mode of interaction at the drop of a hat (or the next sentence Li wrote).

That's not to say that Li didn't create a story with a beginning, middle bits that describe the difficulties faced by each main character, and an ending that does, in fact, wrap things up for the reader. She did that! But along the way I couldn't pinpoint the important elements of each character. Case in point: Nan's boy, Pat, is alternately a typical teenager and then not at all a typical teenager. When he's not, it doesn't fit his profile whatsoever. Another case in point: Nan and Jack's platonic relationship makes oodles of sense, but their foray into something other than that is befuddling because of how Jack has been described throughout the book. At heart, I think the problem is that I couldn't match physical descriptions - of the people and the places - with actions and events. And that left me utterly confused.

I also deeply wished that the description of the Chinese restaurants had been more evocative. You get some flavor of what it feels like to work in a Chinese restaurant, but it's veneer. Nothing is actually illustrative, at least from an outsider's perspective.

Abercrombie, Joe (Last Argument of Kings)

Finally. The end of this horror show. And I do mean horror show. I have learned that I am definitively not a fan of revenge fantasy. And not because not everyone gets a happy ending. Precisely because no one is ever, ever happy and no one gets a happy ending!

Actually, to unpack that more, this kind of writing is designed to tease all the awful things out of what humans do to other humans, describe it in all its specificity and mundanity, and then not offer any hope of growth or learning from all that description. What is the freakin' point of showcasing all of human foibles if not to talk about how we can learn from those mistakes?? Quite seriously, I think that's just utterly stupid.

I'm not entirely sure why I read the third book in the series. The second book had no hints that anything would be resolved in a good way. I suspect this is also human. I hoped that he would craft some happy endings. That hope kept me going.

Smith, Alexander McCall (Tea Time for the Traditionally Built)

Sweet and warm, as all No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books are. Of course, because the protagonist is a thoughtful, caring lady, in her own right.

In this installment in the series, the most pressing concern is not the mystery - which involves a soccer team - but what is happening with Mma Ramotswe's beloved car. That sounds ridiculous when written down, but Smith is able to imbue actual emotion into that part of the story! I did also like what ended up solving the mystery, though, as it was both banal and amusing at the same time.

Also, you learn a small bit more about her relationship with her husband and her kids, which is welcome because if there's anything lacking in these books, it's details about that.

King, Laurie R. (Island of the Mad)

It was super fun to read a mystery set in Venice that isn't written by Donna Leon! If for no other reason then to get an American viewpoint on it.

However, it has a distressingly obvious plot structure. An old friend of Mary's disappears, and the disappearance is clearly due to her relationship with her family, and specifically her relationship with her brother. Gosh, I wonder where that is going and why that relationship is fraught. Along the way to that reveal (way too late in the book), we see a number of very odd communities, such as a set of rich party-goers and a reclusive women's group. Oh, also, the real-life character Cole Porter, which was triply strange.

Anyway, because the reveal was obvious to me, the best part of the book was the portal into what Italy was like in the days before WWII, with fascism taking hold. I'd certainly never thought of what it meant for Venice - as a relaxing vacation destination - to have war thrust upon it. In that sense, Porter's inclusion made a great deal of sense. (Still off-putting to have actual living beings in a mystery series, no matter how you swing it.)

Heller, Peter (The Dog Stars)

Even though I read this book a while back, I'm having no trouble dredging it up in my memory. Dystopia alert, for those of you who don't like those kinds of things!

This dystopian future has all the things you'd expect - individuals learning to team up to defend themselves from rogue "evil" bands of folks, learning agriculture as well as foraging, reminiscing about the good old days. However, in this book we have an airplane pilot as our protagonist. Because of that, travel is easier and sustaining oneself is easier. Also more complex because of who you meet this way, what your obligations are towards them, and worrying about whether they're going to steal your airplane fuel before they steal your food.

I won't give away what I found the most fascinating aspect of the book - in fact, I won't even give away a hint of what it might be. Suffice it to say that... the part about reminiscing about the times before everything fell apart? I haven't seen a novel approach (novel as an adjective) to this since Station Eleven, and it was both well thought out and disturbing in that thoroughness.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Beukes, Lauren (The Shining Girls)

This was, in so many ways, such a unique take on a traditional thriller that I'm still wrapping my head around what Beukes did here. To be specific, she created a unique take on a serial killer thriller. Just to boggle your mind some more.

First and foremost, Beukes is from South Africa. She is not from Chicago. This will surprise you because of how detailed and spot-on she crafts her fictional Chicagos. Yes, multiple Chicagos because this has time travel - of a sort - in it. Some folks have trouble with time travel in novels that aren't technically science fiction, so I'm noting that in case it matters to you!

The chapters in her novel are split between the point of view of the serial killer in question and each of his victims. You might find it a bit difficult to keep up with when our killer has gone to specific points in the timeline of his victims' lives, but even when I was a bit lost, I didn't mind. Beukes makes up for that with her descriptions of the milieu of each victim. You immediately get a sense of who they are and their personality, as well as their hopes and dreams. It's almost unbelievably well crafted (the "dog in the woods" scene with our main protagonist / victim was one of the most eerily evocative scenes I've read in a long while).

Also, if you feel... weird while you're reading this, give it some time. I was quite creeped out at the beginning, but the novel grew on my pretty fast (likely about 40 pages in).

Monday, December 17, 2018

Abercrombie, Joe (Before They Are Hanged)

Frankly, I don't remember much of this book because I was able to move right on to reading the third and final book in the series. I remember it was about the journey - so very definitely NOT a hero's journey - to the edge of the world, and I know it ended disappointingly. For the participants as well as for the reader, in that as usual this is revenge fantasy so no one is happy-go-lucky and no one gets what they want. Everyone ends up being unhappy, and in some cases it's even worse than that.

I'll leave my major complaints for the final book (already finished but I need to corral my thoughts).

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Carmon, Irin & Knizhnik, Shana (Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg)

This is an adorable little love story, but it's such a heartfelt one that I enjoyed every minute of it.

The authors do their best to prop up their narrative of RBG's life with facts - in fact, there is an extensive notes and references section, just like you'd see in a heavily researched non-fiction book. They also provide annotations for the full text of RBG's dissents, which is both welcome and done particularly well. They make their main points several times without resorting to true repetition - such as, RBG's reluctance to move full steam ahead on particular feminist agendas, certain that the test of time was the better approach.

I read the book both before and after watching the documentary (with the same "authors") and they're the same story. The documentary just has representative visuals. Each are adorable, heartfelt, and most importantly useful in today's climate.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Lipman, Elinor (On Turpentine Lane)

This is a typical Elinor Lipman novel - chic, clipped sentences; descriptive, but not florid; contemporary, but not full of cultural references. Her tales are often amusing, and usually relevant to our lives. No one in these tales seems like a true realized person, though - they have lives but how they go about living them is always a bit fantastical.

Case in point, this tale involves, a woman who finds herself first in a terrible relationship and then in a good one. Neither seems typical. They're each far too much one way - the bad relationship is ridiculously stupid (obviously so) and the good one is utterly perfect (obviously ridiculous). As well, there is a wayward father, a tragic mother, and an understanding brother - all of these characters are par for the course in her novels.

The mystery at the end of the book doesn't have a lot of weight to it, also because it's intentionally ridiculous. The house is, of course, the central point of the novel - everything derives from it - so the reveal of the mystery feels like it should more directly impact the lives of the characters. In the end, it's only the window dressing.

Still, I always enjoy a Lipman novel. They're, at their core, no-nonsense and because they're not really based in reality, they're a delightful escape from it.