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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

"The Grownup" by Gillian Flynn

Oooh! Oooh! A ghost story? BY GILLIAN FLYNN??? How did my radar miss this one for almost three months???

I was super-excited to read this book. And as it's a super-short story, it went by super-fast. (It arrived on Friday afternoon and I finished it before I went to bed on Friday night. And I did do things other than reading during the evening.) I kind of wish I'd taken the time to savor it but that didn't seem possible at the time.

The Grownup is a novella about a pseudo-psychic who is hired to stop the mysterious goings-on in a house. I feel like I can't say too much more without giving spoilers, but it's a story of suspense with a supernatural flavor.

When I was done reading it, I wasn't sure how I felt about it. I almost wanted to re-read it to solidify my opinion. But it turns out I'm more eager to pick up a new book than to re-read this one right away. I bet I'll re-read this one someday--just not today.

My general opinion certainly wasn't one of disappointment. The reason I flew through the book wasn't only due to the brevity of the text; it was also a very compelling story. But I was left with the sense that there was something rushed about the plotting. It's as if the story wasn't polished enough, or there wasn't enough time spent on it prior to publication. Sam (who hasn't read it yet) said it was short enough to be perfect, but I don't think it was quite perfect. It wasn't tight like Gone Girl. Also, it bothered me that the protagonist is presented as having a facility for reading people, but she wasn't as perceptive as that might suggest.

So, I enjoyed this little story, but (possibly due to too-high expectations) it wasn't as great as I thought it would be. Will I still read every single piece of fiction that Gillian Flynn manages to get published? Why, yes. Yes, I will.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

"The Bookseller" by Cynthia Swanson

So, I would categorize this one as "women's fiction," which is generally Not My Thing. Dunno why. I mean, I'm a woman, and I love fiction. So why wouldn't I love women's fiction? Somehow I have the sense that it sucks more often than not. Maybe that's an unfair assessment, I don't know. Maybe it results from a small irritation about a specific genre supposedly written for my demographic with an expectation that I will like it because of my gender. Maybe I don't like the idea that I'm typical.

Aaaaand I said all that only to say that for some reason I actually kind of liked this book. I mean, it wasn't perfect, and it wasn't amazing, but I snuggled comfortably into it, drifting in and out as I found the time, never desperate to read it (which means it didn't reach critical mass) but likewise never having to force myself to read it or wishing I could get it over with already. I doubt this is the kind of book that I will think about far into the future--I'll probably barely remember it--but it was pleasant while it lasted.

The Bookseller tells the story of Kitty Miller, an old maid of 38 living in Denver in the early 60s. She's co-owner of a bookstore with her best friend from high school, Frieda. Kitty's life may not be picture-perfect, but she's happy. Until something strange begins to happen at night. Over and over again, Kitty dreams that she is Katharyn Andersson, wife of Lars, mother of triplets. Katharyn's past and Kitty's are one and the same, but somewhere along the line the dream life of Katharyn diverged from Kitty's existence.

The concept of a dream life intertwined with real life first captured my imagination in 6th grade when we read a short story about a man who had been in a motorcycle wreck; each time he drifts into unconsciousness he is an ancient Mayan, preparing to be sacrificed. Which is dream and which is reality? It was pretty obvious to me that the reality had to be the motorcycle wreck (how could an ancient Mayan dream a motorcycle?) but the way it was written, it was ambiguous. So the concept behind The Bookseller isn't a new one. And I felt it was a bit predictable, if not unforgivably so.

Another good-but-not-great book off my TBR. Maybe my next pick will be incredible?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"Vernon Downs" by Jaime Clarke

Here's another book we picked up in NYC. (I can't remember if I realized it when we bought it, but it mostly takes place there, too.) It's the story of Charlie Martens, a rather aimless and unremarkable guy who thinks he can impress his British ex-girlfriend Olivia into coming back to him if he has connections to her favorite author, Vernon Downs.

I wanted this book to be more than it was. I wasn't impressed with the writing (though there was nothing wrong with it), unlike my previous read, and the story fell short of what it could have been. It did almost reach critical mass about three quarters through, and I started to think, Wow, yes, I LIKE this, but then (and I don't think this has ever happened before! I'm not sure I even realized it was possible) it lost it and the pace slowed again. I don't mean to say it ever felt slow-paced or boring, but I never really emerged from my I-could-take-it-or-leave-it coccoon.

It doesn't seem right to have a main character who is completely unchanged by the events in a book. If Charlie has always been "a bit player in an array of people's lives" it would make sense for some sort of evolution to occur throughout the story, but by the end of the book, that's still all he is. At the very least there was a huge opportunity for him to experience a great fall, but instead he compartmentalizes this episode of his life just as he has every other that came before. He has never previously had to deal with consequences in his life, and we don't see him dealing with any consequences from his actions in this book, either. He makes no impact, no lasting impression, on anyone. I know that was the point, but in a book it's unsatisfying.

My overall impression: this book was good but not great. I don't regret reading it and wouldn't call it a waste of time, but it fell short of my expectations.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

"The Wallcreeper" by Nell Zink

I might never have picked this book up if I had known what a wallcreeper was. It sounds like something quite sinister or menacing, when it's really just a cute little bird. But I am truly glad that I was slightly misled, because this book is a rare gem. It made me think a silly thought: how is it that some books are so interesting and well-written and others . . . aren't? Of course, some books are just downright bad. Others aren't bad, and I feel I ought to enjoy or appreciate them, but I have to convince myself to do so by making excuses for them. And then there are books that impress me effortlessly. Like this one.

This book is clever and quirky without being coy. The characters are real: nowhere near perfect, but not so imperfect that they are dislikable or unbelievable or revolting. I'm not sure I have any interests in common with any of them, and yet I related to them despite this. The writing is high quality, but not highbrow, by which I mean it's intelligent without throwing it in the reader's face.

As I was reading, Sam asked me if The Wallcreeper had a good story. I wasn't sure how to answer that question. It's certainly not the sort of book where nothing happens, but the plot is much less important than the protagonist's internal monologue. At the risk of skimming the surface rather than distilling it down to its essence, I want to try to describe the book, but all I can come up with is "a sketch of a woman's unusual attitudes about her relationships" and that not only sounds like crap, but also could describe half of all the books published these days (most of which either need excuses or are bad).

The things I've said to Sam have intrigued him enough that he wants to read The Wallcreeper next. I'm almost afraid to let him, though. What if he hates it? I, however, bestow upon it a reader's praise in the highest form: I would definitely read it again someday, and not just because it's short.

Friday, January 1, 2016

"New York Stories" (Everyman's Pocket Classics)

About six weeks ago I was mulling over the idea of starting a new, limited-edition blog (New York: What Gives? A chronicle of the good, the bad, and the ugly from our NYC weekend in early November 2015) but that fire has since died. In the meantime, I have worked my leisurely way through this compilation of short stories edited by Diana Secker Tesdell. This was one of a short stack of books we brought back with us, and I selected it due to the fact that its theme made it a memento of our trip.

I found almost all of the stories in the book to be very evocative of the city (mostly Manhattan). Of course you should take that statement with a grain of salt, considering my relative unfamiliarity with the subject matter--one travel weekend and a childhood in New Jersey notwithstanding. But I enjoyed picturing the setting of each story, slotting in my own memories where I could.

Inveterate bookworms that we are, Sam and I made bookstore research a sizable part of our pre-journey preparations. This book was purchased at The Corner Bookstore, a small and cozy nook at Madison and 93rd. (If I ever own a bookstore it wouldn't hurt my feelings if it looked like this one.) If you have some time to kill in NYC and you love books, you won't regret browsing here. On the other hand . . . if those same stipulations apply AND you love a good deal, I would have to recommend The Center for Fiction instead. Their store isn't much larger, but you can find some decent prices on gently-used hardcovers there. Disclaimer: I am sure there are many other worthy bookstores in NYC, but these just happened to be the only two we visited.