Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Saturday, March 17, 2018

“The Couple Next Door” by Shari Lapena

AAAGH. UGHHHHH. I can't believe I read the whole thing. (Actually that's not true. I can hardly bear to not finish a book, no matter how bad it is.) I feel as if I just ate an entire mega-sized bag of peanut M&Ms: a little bit sick, and full of regret.

I suffer a slight twinge of guilt when I slag off a book by a living author, mainly because I imagine how the author would feel if they read my blog post (however unlikely). In this case I will assuage my guilt with the knowledge that this book was a NYT bestseller, so surely Ms Lapena won’t care if one lowly little blogger didn’t love her book. Or even if one lowly little blogger hated her book. 

I can understand why readers (including me) find the idea of this book intriguing. The Gone Girl-esque cover draws you in, and then the blurb piques your interest: Anne and Marco’s perfect little family suddenly begins to unravel after “a terrible crime” is committed while they are at a dinner party. And there is the promise of many secrets, and a shocking truth. 

But OMG, the writing was awful. Gone Girl it was not. It was pretty bad all the way through, but it certainly wasn’t helped by the resolution of the plot that was so explain-ey... and then there was that last part at the very end. It was just so stupid and pointless and unnecessary, existing purely for shock value, and not even doing a very good job of that. 

In fact, this book was so bad that I refused to read the selection from the author’s next novel that was tucked in at the end of this book, which is totally out of character for me. (Ms Lapena, if you are reading this, console yourself with the thought that I probably couldn’t have done any better if I had tried to write a book myself. Not to mention the fact that you HAVE written books, and I haven't.) There was a plot, and it wasn’t boring, but I can’t think of any other positive things to say. Other than the fact that the book was short. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

“Grendel” by John Gardner

I’ve always been curious about Beowulf, but never quite curious enough to attempt to read it (yet . . . and even if I do read it someday, I won’t reach for an original Old English version). But I have never familiarized myself with the plot. When I picked up Grendel (at The Wild Detectives) I was hoping it might be a Cliffs Notes-cum-Gregory Maguire version of Beowulf.

Unfortunately I found Grendel was more obscure and less accessible than I’d hoped. I think someone familiar with Beowulf wouldn’t describe it with either of these adjectives, but alas, we’ve already discussed the fact that I am not familiar with Beowulf. Thus, obscure and inaccessible it was.

It’s not as if I couldn’t follow the plot and didn’t appreciate the book whatsoever. It’s clearly an old tale told from a new perspective—that of the monster Grendel. To me he seemed bitter and angry, like a sullen teen but with an age-old weariness. The book appeared to suggest (without explicitly saying so) that Grendel was a descendant of Cain—that his kind were once human, but had grown increasingly less so over time. The book follows Grendel as he terrorizes Hrothgar and his people.

An interesting side note: I'd assumed Grendel was a new publication. It wasn’t until I read the bio at the end of the book that I learned the author died 35 years ago and this book was first published in 1971. That changes my perspective. I feel less “Maguire did it better” and more “Gardner did it first.” And knowing the publishing industry finds enough value in it for it to remain in print makes me think I should probably find more value in it than I did. Maybe it’s time to tackle Beowulf...

Monday, February 19, 2018

“I Am, I Am, I Am” by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell is a really strong writer, which I first realized when I read and loved After You'd Gone, probably fifteen years ago. Since then I've also read Instructions for a Heatwave, and I have two other O'Farrells waiting in the wings, and now I'm not sure why I haven't gotten around to reading them yet. I think that MO'F and Geraldine Brooks must be my two favorite female authors . . . and I haven't read everything of GB's yet either. But maybe I need to reframe? Rather than berating myself for not completing their canons, I can feel a little frisson of delight at what I have to look forward to. 
I Am, etc, is a collection of short stories bound by a stronger-than-usual thread, as all the stories are tied together by a common theme (made clear in the book's subtitle: Seventeen Brushes With Death). The collection is made even more unique by the fact that each chapter relates a real-life (as well as near-death) experience of the author's. It's basically a morbid memoir. 
Before reading, I found it slightly belief-defying that any one person would have almost died seventeen times during what is more than likely just the first half of their lifetime. In fact, one of the chapters is about O'Farrell's daughter, and (though I must admit I already don't remember many of the remaining sixteen incidents in great detail) I remember thinking at least one of the others had a pretty tenuous claim on belonging in this book. But as I read I found it didn't matter whether the number of experiences defies belief. O'Farrell's writing made me feel, and made me care, and made me understand. 
One passage that particularly resonated with me: towards the end of the chapter about her daughter, O'Farrell lists all of the things that might make the typical parent panic, but are nothing compared to the issues her child has dealt with; issues that have caused O'Farrell to realize, "This stuff is small; life is large." How fortunate for her readers who can come by this wisdom (and, I hope, hang on to it) without the heartwrenching experiences that wrought it. 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

“Lullaby” by Leïla Slimani

Released in the US next week, under the title of
The Perfect Nanny 

This one's a definite page-turner, and great to blog about because I don't think it would be possible to post spoilers. I mean, what you would think would be the biggest possible spoiler is right there on the cover of the book. 

Lullaby tells the story of a killer nanny. It's not your typical thriller; the who, what, where, and how are all laid bare in the first (brief but intense) chapter. The rest of the book is about the why.

I think, despite the fact that it's deeply horrifying, the story is also very satisfying. Not, by any means, due to justification or retribution or resolution. It's because we're given the explanation. Think about it—any time something like this happens, what do people want to know? Why. How could she? And this book delves into the gritty details, the complex blend of circumstances that could lead to needless tragedy. 

And explaining why fills an entire book. It's an extensive study of the main characters and their various relationships (but nowhere near as boring as that makes it sound), and not something that could be distilled into a headline. But really, as satisfying as it is to know the back story . . . knowing why never *really* explains it. Knowing why doesn't help as much as you'd think it would. I mean, it's not as if knowing why makes it acceptable. I suspect the same would be true for all of those horrifying crimes you hear about on the news.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

“After Alice” by Gregory Maguire

I have always enjoyed stories for children. (Alice in Wonderland is no exception.) And I have read and reveled in a number of books by Gregory Maguire, all of which were unique retellings of beloved fairy tales. So it's no surprise that this book caught my eye. It didn't hurt that it has a great cover (I love the silhouette look, and the font is perfect, but it gets even better--it's hard to tell in the photo, but that's a vellum dust jacket over a map of Oxford). AND it was on sale for less than seven dollars! Can you say no-brainer? 
Unfortunately, the book wasn't amazing. It seemed like more of a Carroll rehash (albeit from the perspective of a new character, and with some additions to the cast) than I've come to expect from Maguire. It's the story of Ada, an acquaintance of Alice, who falls into Wonderland and experiences much of what Alice did, just one step behind her all the way. There were no real surprises, and nothing was new enough to feel clever. And (though I suppose I'm displaying my ignorance by admitting this) I don't understand where Siam went. (Trying to avoid spoilers while also recording my hunch for posterity: I suppose he suffered the fate that Ada and Alice narrowly escaped.) I just wish it were more clear how the three children ended up in their predicament. (No, I didn't miss the suggestion of how Ada ended up there, but what about Siam and Alice?) Nevermind that I'm fully aware I would probably be complaining about the insulting level of clarity, had the explanation been  more plain. 
I don't regret buying the book (it's so beautiful!) or reading it (it definitely wasn't horrible or boring) but the best news is that now I get to read something new! Sam bought me three magnificent  hardcovers for Christmas. My only problem now is trying to decide which to pick up first . . . 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

"Second Life" by S.J. Watson

I picked this book up from the Little Free Library at Bringle Lake Park because I'd read Before I Go To Sleep (which, while not amazing, was an enjoyable read). Second Life tells the story of a woman whose younger sister is murdered. The police aren't getting very far in tracking down Kate's killer, so Julia takes it upon herself to try to do some investigating of her own . . . in a rather unorthodox way. Apparently Kate had made a habit of meeting strange men online and then hooking up with them for casual sex. Julia decides to look for Kate's killer by frequenting the same websites Kate had used, looking for men Kate may have had assignations with. A somewhat uncomfortable and sometimes downright squicky tale of danger and infidelity, I wouldn't call this book any more amazing than Watson's first, but it was oddly addicting and I can't even explain why. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

"Retribution Road" by Antonin Varenne

Ugh, I did not want to read this book. It looks so horribly boring! Yep, I'm a cover-judger. And I'm totally not into Westerns. (Books or movies... Hate me now? I don't care. Or, can we call a truce if I admit I really enjoyed Lonesome Dove?)

Anyway . . . Whoever designed this cover shouldn't quit their day job. Unless their day job is designing book covers. I never would have picked this book up if it hadn't been for Sam's insistence that the inferior cover didn't match the novel itself. And Sam is usually right about books.

So I read it. And Sam was right, of course. I wonder how many other readers were put off by that cover? Maybe more will be drawn in by the next one, as shown on the Quercus website:

This book covers a lot of ground. Originally written in French and published under a title that translates to "Three Thousand Horsepower," it begins in 1852 with Sergeant Arthur Bowman of the East India Company, who is selected for a secret mission in Burma that doesn't end well. Six years later, back in London, he finds himself tracking down the other men from that mission, which eventually leads him to the American West (hence that awful book cover, which made more sense once I got to that part of the story, but that didn't make me like it).

Friday, July 21, 2017

"Confessions of a Fallen Angel" by Ronan O'Brien

Picked this one up in a used bookstore despite not liking the title much (or its font). I was drawn to the premise (Irish boy has premonitions of the deaths of his loved ones) but I think it was Maggie O'Farrell's praise on the front cover that actually sealed my decision to buy it. 
This was a fast read that I really enjoyed, but I don't have much to say about it. It was somewhat predictable, though in a sinister and chilling way rather than in the annoying way that makes it clear the author thinks his readers are idiots. 

However, I don't think I've yet forgiven this book for making me cry real tears. In public, no less. Ever since the movie Fried Green Tomatoes tricked me into crying over a boy's arm I've internally frowned upon shedding tears when It's Not Real. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"Version Control" by Dexter Palmer

Surely it's not just because the last book I read was pure torture. And it also can't be the influence of my lovely surroundings (see the photo. Are you jealous?), because I finished that last book in the same surroundings and had no positive feelings about it. It's got to be the book itself. I thought it was brilliant! And I really enjoyed it. Nice to have my faith in reading restored once again!

Rebecca is a physicist's wife. Her husband's life's work is what he calls a "causality violation device," or, in layman's terms (to the annoyance of those involved with the project)... a time machine. But the theory behind the device, and its potential use, are neither as impressive nor as functional as the sorts of time machines you read about in all the sci-fi books, where you can input and travel to any specific date you'd like, anywhere in the past or future, no matter how distant. The device in this book is much more limited in scope, making the possibility much more realistic. Besides the fact that it's not really working.

The beginning of this book reminded me a lot of the novel Time Out of Joint, in a really good way. And the ending was satisfying and thorough without being annoyingly neat, which was great, because it too often seems like really promising books have very disappointing endings (including TOoJ!) as if the author didn't know where to go from there, and just gave up; or as if a grand gesture was the aim, but the reality falls short. But not here! And the middle is part mind-f*ck, part excellent character development, and part thought-provoker, bringing up a lot of interesting questions (about religion, privacy vs data collection, even race) without being didactic or otherwise annoying.

Two thumbs up, in every iteration of the multiverse! I wish I could remember how I heard of this book . . . I'm pretty sure the Internet told me to read it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"Nights at the Circus" by Angela Carter


Looking back, I'm not sure why. It's short (less than 300 pages) so it shouldn't have taken me forever to read... although it did. I wouldn't describe it as boring... although it bored me. It wasn't poorly written... although there were a small handful of instances where Carter used the same word twice in close proximity when a synonym would have flowed more nicely (it seemed like laziness rather than emphasis).

So it took a long time for me to read, it bored me, and the writing was occasionally a minor annoyance, and I don't have a good explanation for why I didn't like it. Not even the cute little penguin clown icon on the cover could salvage the experience.

Nights at the Circus tells the story of Sophie (more often called by her Cockney nickname of Fevvers), a winged wonder in Colonel Kearney's circus. She's an acrobat (or arialiste) aided by the giant, feathered wings that sprout from her back, and she's the acclaimed and beloved star of the show. But are her wings real, or a clever sham? That's what reporter Jack Walser would like to know as he interviews her (while simultaneously and unsuspectingly falling in love with her).

I'm pretty sure this is the first book I've read by Angela Carter. She's supposed to be a pretty important writer or something. Maybe she invented magical realism? (I can't be bothered to look this up, so if you're curious and want to know the truth, it's on you.) This book is certainly rife with it. But the book's unfettered strangeness runs amok with no explanation. I really like the "is she real or is she fake" premise, with the possibilities questioned but never really answered; unfortunately none of the rest of the oddities in the book are treated this way. The weirdness just shows up, no explanation, no questions asked.

I'm definitely ready to move on (and have been since about page 12).

Saturday, May 27, 2017

"Arthur & George" by Julian Barnes

I picked this book up with absolutely no prior knowledge of its contents--just Sam's recommendation of the author. That turned out to be a really great way of coming to this book, so I almost feel bad giving you details that I really appreciated not knowing ahead of time. 
So I'll give you a choice. I'll start off by saying that I really enjoyed this book, it was well-written, and I highly recommend it. Then I'll start telling you why . . . but if you think you might like to read it and want to come to it blind, stop reading here. 

Last chance . . . 

OK, so here are the main things I didn't know about this book ahead of time:

1. It's historical fiction--a true story. I'm sure there was some embellishment going on, as is necessary in the genre, but the framework of the story is based on fact.
2. The titular Arthur is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

This book tells the story of the intersection between the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a half-Indian Englishman named George Edalji, who was accused and convicted of slashing a pony. George and his family steadfastly insisted on his innocence, and Doyle became George's champion, trying to clear his name. 

My only complaint about the book is with its ending. Unanswered questions and unexplained mysteries remained, and I wanted things neat and clear. It was too messy . . . but that's the way real life is. 

And I couldn't have had a nicer location to read it!!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

"The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck" by Mark Manson

I first heard of Mark Manson through a link to his blog shared by a facebook friend. Of course I can't remember exactly what that blog post was about, but I'm sure it was typically funny and thought-provoking, because on its basis I subscribed to his newsletter and have read a good double handful of his writing since then. A few months back when he started banging on about his book, I had no intention of buying it, but I guess he wore me down because here it is. 

When I was about two chapters in to this book I started wishing I'd been taking notes. Which of course I hadn't. I was tempted to start over at the beginning, pen in hand, but laziness won and I just kept reading. Only problem is, I still had that same exact feeling by the time I finished with the book. I felt sure it could be distilled into a few good sentences (or perhaps a paragraph) but, having taken no notes, the possible felt impossible. But, superhero reader/blogger that I am, I am going to attempt distillation on the fly. 

1. First of all, it's impossible to not give a f*ck about anything. Humans care about things. It's just what happens. But you don't have to give a f*ck about everything. You need to put some serious thought into determining a limited number of things that you actually care about. THOSE things are the only things you need to give a f*ck about. For everything else: let it go. For instance, do you ever get angry because you're angry, or get annoyed that you're annoyed, or feel sad because you're feeling sad? Don't. Focus on the first feeling and deal with that; don't give a f*ck about your feelings about your feelings. 

2. Our society rewards the exceptional. For a lot of people, this ends up one of two ways: there are those who think "I'm exceptional!" which leads to a sense of entitlement (give me special treatment, because I am special), and there are those who think "Everyone else is exceptional, but I suck" . . . which leads to a sense of entitlement (give me special treatment, because I am the victimized underdog). The solution? Accept the fact that you are average and ordinary, and focus on appreciating the things that really matter (see #1). 

3. Think about your dreams. Do you realize that you'll spend a greater portion of your life working towards your dreams than you will enjoying the fruits of your labor? Better make sure you enjoy the process of working towards your dreams as much as (or more than!) you think you'll enjoy the dreams themselves. If you're not willing to do the work it will take to reach your goal, maybe you need a different goal to focus on--something you actually want. In fact, you're better off focusing on goals you never really truly reach (meaning something internal, with no real endpoint, rather than ones that are unattainable), because working towards that sort of goal is more likely to bring you happiness than reaching an external, material goal.

4. "The Self-Awareness Onion." When you are feeling a feeling, first you need to define the feeling. (What is the feeling?) Then peel back a layer. Why are you feeling that feeling? (What is the cause of the feeling? This is not your opportunity to blame others.) Then peel back another layer. Why does this feeling matter to you? Why do you see this as a success or failure? "This level, which takes constant questioning and effort . . . is the most important, because our values determine the nature of our problems, and the nature of our problems determines the quality of our lives."  

Aaaaaand that's the first third of this book. I was wrong. Simple distillation is impossible. I am overcome with the odd (and possibly heretical) impulse to study this book like the Bible.