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

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. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

"Nightwoods" by Charles Frazier

For a book that started off feeling a little less-than unique (why does it seem like I've read a half-dozen other books about a slightly odd young woman living in the backwoods, kind of hiding from society to protect herself and pretend she's not as vulnerable as she really is?) this one turned out to be really good. That's not completely surprising (I liked Cold Mountain, and Thirteen Moons is waiting in the wings) but I like how I enjoyed it in a backhanded way. 

Nightwoods is the story of hermit-like young Luce, unofficial caretaker of an abandoned lodge in the Appalachians, who has just been saddled with her murdered younger sister's twins, Frank and Dolores. This is an adjustment for all three, not least because the twins--though old enough to talk--are practically mute; and soon their situation is made worse by the man Luce suspects was her sister's murderer (as well as the cat who got the twins' tongues). Though the first half of the book is more of a rural North Carolina vignette, this is quickly superseded by high tension brought by Bud the Killer. 

This book was well-written and enjoyable but . . . is it too obvious that I'm in a hurry to get this post over with so I can move on to my next read?

Sunday, April 2, 2017

"Euphoria" by Lily King

I really enjoyed reading this book. Lily King has a gift for subtly evoking settings and characters so it seems you're really there, in the book, an anthropologist on the Sepik river in the years between the two world wars. 

Anthropologists Nell Stone (loosely based on Margaret Mead) and her husband Fen are transitioning from their largely unsuccessful study of the Mumbanyo in New Guinea when they cross paths with fellow anthropologist Andrew Bankson. This intersection brings both a professional collaboration and a personal connection (more commonly known as a love triangle). Each character has a slightly different attitude to their work, and to each other, and the pages crackle with the resulting tension.

I can't remember why, but as soon as I finished reading the entire book (which, of course, included the Reader's Guide at the end), I turned back to the beginning and reread the first chapter or so. It was interesting to see how different an experience this was. The first time around, the characters had a clean slate. The second time around, I could see the quiet clues that later added up to the negative slant of one main character. I think I was even more impressed with the book after seeing this evidence of how carefully and delicately King had crafted her characters and plot.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

"A Widow for One Year" by John Irving

Literary amnesia notwithstanding, I remember that years ago I read The Cider House Rules, and I remember that I liked it. So it came as somewhat of a surprise to find that I didn't especially like the writing style in this John Irving book.

Where to begin? Annoyance. I was annoyed by all the italicized words. (I'm perfectly capable of using the correct emphasis as I read.) I was annoyed by all the brief, inconsequential jumps into the future ("so and so would go on to do such and such") that seemed less like intriguing foreshadowing and more like pointless, truncated rabbit trails. The story loses immediacy that way. And, erm, I was annoyed by all of the parenthetical asides. (I mean, who would do that in a novel?) I was even annoyed by the title, which I will explain later.

And then--beyond my annoyance with the writing style--I didn't really like any of the characters, or even believe in most of them. Quite a few of them seemed amorphous in my mind; I couldn't picture them, and didn't have a firm grasp of their personalities or mannerisms. I guess it's debatable whether that's Irving's fault or mine.

Finally, at times the plot felt so aimless and meandering that I decided Irving must be one of those authors who just "waits to see what the characters will do" as he writes. So it was really weird to read in the author interview at the end of the book that I was completely wrong. He basically plans his novels out in minute detail before writing them. He told his characters exactly what to do in every situation, not the other way around. So I don't know why the book seemed to have a weird "Hmm, let's see what happens next" structure. Not to mention the fact that the plot doesn't feel nicely balanced; in the first part, the two characters who I would have considered the main characters end up being of little consequence in the rest of the book.

The weirdest thing of all is that, despite all of my complaints, I didn't hate this book or find it boring or dread picking it up to read it. It certainly never reached critical mass, and I obviously didn't love it, but I've read much worse. The first part focuses on an affair between 39-year-old Marion and her husband's 16-year-old assistant, Eddie; the rest of the book is taken over by Marion's daughter Ruth, who was a child in the first part but is a grown woman during the remainder. Marion, Eddie, Ruth, AND Marion's husband/Ruth's father Ted are all writers (which was another little tidbit I found hard to believe).

And as for why I found the title annoying: it's a nice title, but it doesn't really exemplify the book the way a title should. Yes, Ruth does end up being a widow for one year (which happens after she publishes a novel by that title), but the book hardly touches on that year--it's certainly not about Ruth's year as a widow.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

"The Book of Strange New Things" by Michel Faber

Sam came across this book first, having chosen it last summer in Emerald Isle. The blurb really appealed to him (if not to me), and we'd both read Under the Skin by the same author (which we both enjoyed). But when Sam finally read Strange New Things last month and found that he couldn't put down, I knew I wanted to read it too. (I had to time it wisely, however; Sam had actually said that, while he read, the story seemed more real to him than real life. I decided that I needed to wait for some vacation time  before reading it myself.) And it's a good thing I chose to read it . . . it's possible that, if I hadn't read it of my own volition, Sam's head would have popped right off. He was pretty eager for me to experience this book. 

The Book of Strange New Things tells the story of Peter Leigh, an English pastor chosen to be a missionary to . . . wait for it . . . aliens on a distant planet. There's more than one thing in that sentence that I have no interest in reading about, and mashing them together doesn't make it any more enticing. Not to mention that it sounded strangely similar to The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. But Sam was right--this book was utterly compelling, and I didn't want to put it down. I actually found myself torn between finishing it in a marathon reading session, and deliberately slowing myself down as I read (you know, so it wouldn't end.) 

The book focuses on Peter's relationships: with the Oasans (aliens) and the other humans who had been transported to Oasis before Peter, but mostly with his wife Bea, who he'd left behind--light-years away!--in England during this temporary stint in a galaxy far, far away. Peter and Bea are able to communicate through email-like letters to each other, but something emerges that neither could have predicted: the choice to travel to Oasis has set Peter and Bea on such different paths that the emotional distance between them soon seems to yawn even wider than their physical distance. It became frustrating to read all of Peter's missteps--as he said all the wrong things and left all the right things unsaid--and to watch his marriage deteriorate. It was also slightly depressing to read about how the world was falling apart back home--not just Bea's world, but the entire world--because it all sounded really, really awful, and too plausible. But despite the frustrations and discomfort the book aroused, it was completely absorbing. Great book!