Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Well, after all the sex and murder in the last book, I decided to take a break and read about yet more sex and murder... but in a really funny way in Janet Evanovich's Ten Big Ones. Ten books in to the series and I still giggle every couple of pages. So what if the characters aren't as fresh as they once were or if the central romantic dilemma has been going on a bit too long? They make me laugh and I have yet to worry that I'm missing any hidden depths in them. They're simply pure, escapist fluff and this latest installment is no different. Except this time Evanovich brings back a favorite character of mine, Sally the transvestite from Four To Score, which was actually the book my friend and I wanted to try and turn into a screenplay at some point. (That didn't ever happen, by the way.)

I'm not sure if I liked In the Cut by Susanna Moore or not. The critics were pretty much united in their dislike of the movie version (except, oddly enough, those at my local papers, who inexplicably loved it), but I was curious about it (okay, mostly I was curious about seeing Mark Ruffalo naked [hello, Googlers]) but figured I'd read the book first. I can see why they thought it would make a good movie - the plot involves a serial killer, dangerous cops, and lots of sex. Unfortunately, so much of the appeal of the book lies with Franny's obsession with language and words (she is writing a book on urban slang). This aspect of it, which is a huge part of the book, seems like it would be difficult to translate to the screen. I'm curious to see how they managed that, and if they were successful in the attempt (which I doubt, having read some of the reviews). Without that layer of academic curiosity, you're left with a fairly run of the mill serial killer story where the main character is solitary and detached and stupidly puts herself in harm's way out of some sort of need to break out of her routine. With lots of explicit sex.

But then there's the opening page about Franny's students and their lack of understanding of Hemingway or irony that has bearing on the rest of the book: "...the idea of him that they have from the writing, makes them uncomfortable. They disapprove of him...The bravado, the resentment in the writing excites them, but they cannot allow themselves to feel it." This essentially describes my reaction to the book (and, more specifically, Franny herself), but I'm not sure if that was Moore's intended effect or if she was pre-emptively chiding the reader for her disapproval and lack of understanding. I get the irony in the book; the irony in the identity of the killer (although it's well-trodden ground in the thriller genre) and in Franny's nature and ultimate fate. I just didn't connect with anything there. Perhaps that's because her character was very remote and unemotional. The other characters are pretty shallowly sketched too and because the book is very short (under 200 pages), I think this was done deliberately so as to keep the suspense and the identity of the killer unknown. That seems like a cop-out to me though. Why not dig deeper into the characters and the obsessions that drive them? Maybe the plot couldn't stand a longer treatment? I don't know. Is it short and terse because of the Hemingway comparison? I haven't read any of his works and don't know his style, so I can't do an accurate comparison. Am I off track on this? Am I missing something? Am I trying to find depth where there is none?


I think I've spent way too much time on this today.


Monday, July 26, 2004

I finished Kage Baker's The Anvil of the World, her first non-Company novel, late Saturday night (actually, very early Sunday morning). It's not exactly a novel - more like three novellas with the same characters, set in the same world. As a novel (which is how it is presented), it feels a little disjointed and each "chapter" seems just a little too abrupt, but as a collection of novellas it works just fine. They're funny and action-packed, with appealing characters and observations, and Baker manages to fit in a decent amount of world-building in a very short time. The last one is the best (I rushed through dinner to get back to it), even though the environmental lectures and parallels got a little obvious. Overall, I prefer her Company series, which is one of the more innovative and interesting science fiction series going right now, but she's proven with this book that she can write excellent fantasy as well.


Thursday, July 22, 2004

I finally got my hands on The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Daisy liked this one a lot better than The Da Vinci Code and I totally agree with her. I raced through it pretty quickly and didn't even yell at it once. When I was on Amazon earlier to make sure of the authors' names, I checked out some of the customer reviews. Most of the negative ones were from people who felt it wasn't as much like The Da Vinci Code as they'd been promised. Honestly, I don't really see why these two have been paired together. The subject matter isn't all that similar and lord knows the writing is a hell of a lot better in this one, although occasionally I felt they were trying a little too hard for artistry. But even then I still preferred it to Brown's ham-handed style. I thought the book had a lot more in common with The Secret History and The Dante Club, both of which I loved. I suppose hitching this book to the inexplicable phenomenon that is Dan Brown ensured bigger sales than a more accurate comparison would have done. As for the story - while the identity of the killer (or the ending) was not a surprise to me, I didn't mind all that much because of the larger mystery of the decryption and the friendship between the boys and the Princeton setting.

(Oh, and to the Amazon reviewer who thought that snowfall in April was too far-fetched to be more than a plot contrivance, I went to a college with the same latitude as Princeton and a couple of my years there it snowed not too long before I left to go home for the summer. In April. So there.)


Monday, July 19, 2004

I haven't had much time to read in the last few days, what with following The Wrens to Los Angeles like the obsessed fan I am and all the napping that trip (and their two previous San Francisco shows) required. But last night I managed to finish Alice, I Think by Susan Juby, a YA fiction book that reminded me a lot of the Adrian Mole books. Alice is a homeschooled high school student in a small town in Canada who, as one of her life goals, decides to go back to public school. Alice shares Adrian's self-absorption and naivete and viewing her world through this lens is pretty funny. Her mother is a hippie worried about the electromagnetic fields the family's new computer emits, her father doesn't do much (although he's trying to get a break by writing romance novels), her cousin is an out-of-control nightmare, and her poor brother is actually the most normal of the bunch, despite being a genius. All of the characters are well-drawn, with endearing quirks and depths, and the situations in the book consistently made me laugh. I thought I'd get annoyed at Alice, but I never really did. Even when I found her irritating, the characters around her were obviously irritated with her too and it made it that much funnier. Plus she never manages to get past page 34 in The Lord of the Rings (I managed to slog my way through to 15 pages into The Two Towers before I admitted defeat). And she loves Buffy. This was an impulse buy when I was scanning the YA section at Barnes & Noble (I must admit the silver moon boots on the cover caught my eye), and I'm glad I got it. Although I just checked and we have it here at the library, so I could've saved myself some money. Oh well.


Friday, July 16, 2004

The rest of my week has been spent in the company of Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt. I've been taking my time with it because it just isn't the kind of book you can rush through; I wanted to savor each story and interaction. In my head Aunt Augusta is played by Ruth Gordon as a kind of amalgam of her characters in My Bodyguard and Harold and Maude. She is amusingly and casually criminal with a kind of blithe self confidence that seems to come from having lived a long and interesting life. I was sympathetic to Henry and his rather dull existence (while at the same time reassuring myself that my own life is much more lively...) and understood why the excitement that his aunt brought would be difficult to give up. Once you've escaped from passivity and dullness, it is hard to be content going back. The book is funny and poignant and I enjoyed it a lot. Thank you to the random surfer who stopped by long enough to recommend it. I'm glad this was my first Graham Greene and I look forward to reading his others.


Thursday, July 15, 2004

So when I got to the cabin Saturday afternoon, someone had left a paperback copy of Angels and Demons by Dan Brown there. Since I hadn't started anything else yet, I decided to give it a try. Now, I read The Da Vinci Code last year and liked it okay. It certainly didn't live up to the hype though and I still don't understand why it is a huge phenomenon. The writing was serviceable at best, the characters were flat and uninteresting, and the plot twists were either predictable or not as shocking as Brown obviously thought they were. Despite that, it was fast-moving and mostly interesting. So, as you can imagine, my expectations were pretty low for Angels and Demons and... well, it fell short of even those. It reads as virtually identical to The Da Vinci Code, but with the Illuminati in place of the Holy Grail. Seriously - gruesome murder with clues on the body at the beginning, beautiful, intelligent woman paired up with Robert Langdon with romantic results, all the action occurs over a period of less than 24 hours, much running around, a treacherous friend, etc. It's the Same. Damn. Book. Bad writing, lousy dialogue, shallow characters and all. You know it's gonna be bad when you spot the killer the first time they even mention him. Yeah, and that was less than a quarter of the way through the thing. Robert Langdon is especially obtuse in this book, not knowing seemingly the most basic of scientific facts or even those in his own freakin' field of expertise. Seriously, I understand that his main character has to have a certain lack of knowledge in order to get the reader up to speed on supposedly difficult concepts or to create tension, but this was a little ridiculous. Sunday night, after reading about the first cardinal getting murdered (it's about halfway through), I decided I'd had enough. (Plus my family was starting to get really annoyed at me for rolling my eyes and yelling at the book every 5 minutes.) I skipped to the end and skimmed the last couple of chapters, found out I was completely right in pretty much every single guess I'd made as to who the bad guy was, etc., and put it back where I'd found it (although the temptation to go throw it in the lake was hard to resist).

Before I left for my short vacation, I finished In the Forests of Serre by Patricia McKillip. McKillip takes the trappings of the genre and reveals depths of character and complicated motives that flesh out stock characters like the wizard, the prince, the princess, the queen, etc. It is also a book about where you keep your heart and what value it holds.

Each book of hers I read feels so familiar, like a fairy tale I'm sure I remember from childhood. And every title is a perfect little gem full of life and love and heartbreak and beauty and magic. Personally, I don't think she'll ever surpass her Riddlemaster trilogy, but I have yet to read one of her books that isn't gorgeous and unique. Whenever I start to complain about the lack of originality in so much contemporary science fiction and fantasy, Patricia McKillip is one of the authors that restores my faith in the possibility inherent in the genre.


Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The last book of the weekend was Blood is the Sky by Steve Hamilton. I've read a couple of his previous books, but I think I missed the one right before this one. I'll have to check it out. I like this series quite a bit - Alex McKnight is an ex-cop who owns a bunch of hunting cabins up in Michigan by the Canadian border. In this book his friend's brother goes missing on a hunt in Canada and they head up there to look for him. I like the Indian characters and how he brings in life on the reservation and the family interactions. It's also fast-moving and very exciting, especially once Alex and Vinnie get stranded by the lake where someone is trying to kill them.

Since I was in a Sean Stewart mood, I pulled out Mockingbird to read. It's the most similar in tone and style to Perfect Circle, and also set in Texas. This one is about two sisters who inherit mystical gifts from their mother. The main character is Toni, who has the responsibility of bearing the visitations from her mother's "gods", who take over her body (very much like multiple personality disorder). She's pregnant, has lost her job, finds out she has another sister she never knew, and has to help plan a wedding. Seriously, is there anything Stewart can't write? Toni is wholly believable; she's sensible and resistant to magic, but realistic enough to acknowledge what's happening and bitter about how it has influenced her life. Her sister's fiance, Carlos, and his Muertemobile make me laugh (up until they get creepily effective) and I love that the sisters call his mom "La Hag." None of the characters lack dimension, even the bit players, and he makes you feel and smell the heat and humidity of Houston in the summer. It's just a great book. It's the first one of his I read and the first that got me hooked on him.

I skimmed the last couple of chapters of the last book because my copy of Sean Stewart's new book, Perfect Circle had come in the mail and I was desperate to read it.

I love Sean Stewart. He is one of three full-blown authorcrushes I have (the other two being Neal Gaiman and Dave Eggars) and while it doesn't hurt that he's cute, it's mostly because he is such a fantastic writer. He has morphed from writing pretty straightforward science fiction and fantasy (Passion Play and Nobody's Son, respectfully) into writing mostly about an alternate North America where a "flood" of magic changed daily life. Those books are more abstract and difficult but well worth the effort because of their dreamy beauty. He also writes more straightforward, but just as wonderful, magic realism books set in present-day Texas. Perfect Circle is squarely in the latter camp. It's about an aging punk rocker (Stewart gets the music so, so right - there's a funny scene with Will's mother bringing him music in the hospital and another concerning cds that had me so enthralled that I almost felt physical pain when the character did) who is still in love with his ex-wife and trying to be a good father to their daughter, but who has just lost the latest in a series of dead-end, low-income jobs. Oh, and he sees ghosts. When he does a favor for a family member, he ends up being haunted by a malevolent ghost who threatens all that he values in the world.

I recommend reading this in one sitting (it's fairly short) because the mood of the story grows progressively darker and without any breaks, the book just... engulfs you. It's not oppressive, though. Will "Dead" Kennedy is a funny guy and his wisecracks help lighten the mood when it gets to be too much. The book can be read as merely a fantastic ghost story, but the real beauty of the story is how Will comes to realize his own status as a ghost in other people's lives and how he begins to change that.

This is one book I will be stopping people on the street to tell them to read. I want to buy 20 copies and hand them out to friends. In fact, I've already ordered another one so I can loan my second copy out. I want to corner our fiction selector in the bathroom and not let her leave until she promises to buy 12 copies and then I want to take them and put them in prominent places in the browsing library. And then I want to push them into our patron's hands and convince them to give it a chance.

It's so good, it almost made me want to move to Texas. Hee.


Friday, July 02, 2004

I borrowed Eragon by Christopher Paolini from my 12 year old cousin a while back. He tactfully (for a 12 year old) asked for it back last weekend, so I figured it was time for me to put it at the top of the list. Back when he gave it to me, I asked him what he'd thought of it. He told me, "you can tell the author was young when he wrote it. It's not great, but it was still pretty good."

My thoughts on it are a little more conflicted. On the one hand, I absolutely admire the author for writing a huge, intricate fantasy novel at such a young age. And I did finish the damn thing. Barely. But on the other hand... I lost track of how many times I yelled about how he stole from another book or movie while I was reading it. The obvious first comparison is, of course, with Lord of the Rings. The quest, the dwarfs, the elves, etc. But Paolini had also been reading his Anne McCaffrey. And his David Eddings. And his Robert Jordan. And had seen Star Wars (he yanks the "Uncle Owen? Aunt Veru?" scene almost wholesale). And had decided that Polonius' speech from Hamlet needed to be incorporated into a book about dragons. Yep, Hamlet. Don't believe me? Go read the part when Eragon's cousin is heading off to his new job and tell me that isn't paraphrased from Hamlet. And... well, you get the idea. So there is very little that is original in the book. The dialogue is pretty bad: frequently overwrought and/or flat. The characters are shallow and every single plot twist is forshadowed with all the subtlety of an anvil dropping on your head. Every time a new detail was introduced you could safely bet it would show up sometime before the end of the book. Characters would say something like, "I never guessed that would happen!" and I had to yell, "I DID, YOU MORON!" right back. (Yes, I talk to books. I am that crazy lady walking in the park while reading and muttering to herself.)

So how much of this is age and how much is just lack of skill? It's hard to tell. Not everyone can be JT Leroy, after all. Of course, I've also read worse fantasy books by adult authors, so it could just be he's relying on the familiar trappings of the genre to get started. Whatever it is, I don't know that I'll read the next books - it's planned to be at least a trilogy, I believe - because I don't really care enough about the characters or the story to bother. Unless he makes astonishing progress as a writer, I doubt I will be reading anything more of his.


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