Tuesday, September 26, 2006

I don't really care about genre labels. I'll read anything as long as it gets higher than an "eh" on my vague rating scale. So the whole girlfight over "chick-lit" vs. "very serious literature which just so happens to be written by a woman" just makes me roll my eyes. If it's good, read it. What's so hard to understand about that? This was on my mind as I read Anybody Out There? by Marian Keyes. I'm sure she's considered chick-lit (she was right out of the gate with Helen Fielding), but her books, especially those about the sisters of the Walsh family, have more depth than the publishers would have you expect, given their pastel, genre-approved paperback covers. Anybody Out There? is her strongest so far. Anna, second youngest of the Walsh sisters, is home in Ireland recuperating from a horrible incident that left her battered and with a disfiguring scar on her face, but unable to reach her husband. When she leaves her family to go back to New York, we discover what happened and watch Anna as she begins to put her life back together. It's good. Really good. Plain and simple.

This weekend I also read Tomb Of The Golden Bird by Elizabeth Peters. Also known as the one where they finally find King Tut's tomb. Oddly enough, for a book largely dealing with one of the greatest archaeological finds ever, it was surprisingly without drama. I'm not sure what it was, but this time around I noticed how all the dinner parties and picnics and "look how cute the little ones are" scenes have been taking over the books in the series, leaving the mystery plots to become less focused and intense. Could I finally, after some 23 years and 18 books, have (gasp!) grown out of Amelia Peabody? Or is it just that the books aren't as good any more?


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Dan Wickett has been raving about Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell so much lately that I decided to bump it up to the top of my to-be-read list. I read it Monday and I completely agree with him that it's one of the best books of the year. It's about a 16-year-old girl in the Ozarks whose father jumps bail leaving her not only to fend for her two younger brothers and mentally ill mother, but also to find her father so they don't lose their house and land if he doesn't show up in court. Ree, the heroine, is a marvel - brave, stubborn, and matter-of-fact, with no illusions about her life or her relatives. Woodrell's writing is gorgeous and evocative without ever distracting from the story or even feeling out of place in the harsh and brutal setting. I loved it and have already checked out several more of his books.

Yesterday I read The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, the first in a planned series following 12-year-old Percy Jackson, who discovers he is the son of Poseidon and attends Camp Half-Blood with other kids like him. If you think that sounds like Harry Potter goes Greek, you'd be right. Normally I'd just write this off as a lame wannabe, but I have a longtime fascination with Greek and Roman mythology so it was actually kind of fun playing spot the mythical creature during Percy's hero quest to find Zeus' missing thunderbolt in order to avoid an all out war among the gods. The book has fun with the premise (including chapter titles like "I Become Supreme Lord Of the Bathroom" and "We Take a Zebra to Vegas") and, while not nearly as good as Harry Potter, I wouldn't be surprised if the series became a hit. It's far more deserving of it than the gawdawful Eragon.


Monday, September 18, 2006

Last week I read Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover, a non-fiction book in which the author describes his experiences as a guard at New York's Sing Sing prison. A journalist by trade, Conover went undercover as a guard for over a year because his attempts to gain access and interviews for an article were rebuffed. The book not an expose - there are no shady deals or gotcha moments, although he does not ignore the very real corruption that exists in the prison system - it's more of a thoughtful examination of the daily chaos and intense stress the average prison guard deals with and the mental toll this takes on him or her. He includes a short history of prisons, Sing Sing in particular, and several pages on the ways prisons have evolved over the years. There is a brief exploration of the death penalty but not a lot of information on rehabilitation or education programs. The most interesting parts of the book were his interactions with the prisoners and his observations on the different styles of the officers he worked with. He says he initially was interested in the project because of the overwhelming number of negative portrayals of corrections officers in print and film and he succeeds in humanizing his fellow guards as civil servants placed under enormously stressful and dangerous conditions. The thing that stuck with me the most however was an exchange he had with one of the inmates over the growth of prisons run by private corporations as for-profit enterprises:
"It says here in this article that the government is planning right now for the new prisons they're going to need in ten or twelve years. I got that right?"
Again I nodded.
"That's wrong."
"What's wrong about planning ahead?"
"Because, dig this. Anyone planning a prison they're not going to build for ten or fifteen years is planning for a child, planning prison for somebody who's a child right now. So you see? They've already given up on that child! They already expect that child to fail. You heard? Now why, if you could keep that from happening, if you could send that child to a good school and help his family stay together - if you could do that, why are you spending that money to put him in jail?"


Friday, September 08, 2006

Blood On The Saddle by Rafael Reig was good - a nice mix of Raymond Chandler and Jasper Fforde (which is interesting given that it was originally published right around the same time as The Eyre Affair). It plays with noir conventions, but there are interesting touches of fantasy: characters from books go missing in the real world, some bugs are actually discarded lines from despairing authors, magicians' assistants have their magically separated heads stolen from their bodies during performances, all of which add up to a mystery that I enjoyed quite a bit.

It made me want to read another Raymond Chandler book, so I pulled out Playback, his last. I swear he must have known it was his last because Marlowe totally gets tons of action and is even left with the possibility of a happy ending. Crazy.

But why I'm really here, posting close to midnight on a Friday night, is because of Special Topics In Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. It's got the private school, outsider in the secret society, magnetic teacher thing going for it (think The Secret History lite), which made me keep turning pages quickly (about 400 in a day or so), but then I hit the last 100 and they started flying by. In fact, the mom I was babysitting for tonight came home when I was 20 pages from the end and I swear I broke more speed limits than usual so I could get home to finish it as soon as possible. I loved the main character, Blue, a misfit high school student wandering the country with her professor father (who describes a certain Ben & Jerry's flavor as "overwrought." Hee!), overeducated and constantly sourcing her life from the books she's read. They settle in one town for her senior year where she is drawn into a small circle of students orbiting one of the teachers who takes a special interest in her. That's all you're getting because I don't want to spoil anything, but I totally loved this book. (Daisy, you can borrow mine if you don't want to wait on the hold list.)


Monday, September 04, 2006

I've been reading a lot while I convalesce, and I figured I should do a quick rundown to bring things up to date. First up was But Enough About Me: A Jersey Girl's Unlikely Adventures Among the Absurdly Famous by Jancee Dunn. I liked her voice and the writing was nice and breezy whether talking about her sisters or freaking out about meeting Madonna. And I loved the interviewing tips between chapters.

Next was Witch Hunt by Ian Rankin, which I think he actually published previously under a different name. It felt a little flat to me. While I enjoyed the characters, especially the two new agents, I kept wishing for more development for them. This kind of book could have been an epic spy story, but it felt like he was holding back, making it smaller than it should have been. I definitely prefer his Rebus books.

I saved A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore for when I felt like I could laugh without reopening an incision. Good thing too, because it's one of his best. I liked the blend of genuine emotion and slapstick he's mastered since Lamb and I hope that he is indeed working on the promised sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends.

After that one I switched gears completely and read Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip. To be honest, it was a little disappointing. It was reminiscent enough of her Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy to invite comparison, and suffered as a result. Maybe if I hadn't read the trilogy I would have loved it, but as it was all it made me want to do was pull those out and read them again.

I knocked out Brent Hartinger's Grand & Humble in an afternoon which, while interesting, ultimately struck me as a sort of teenage version of Sliding Doors.

Next I read Possible Side Effects by Augusten Burroughs, a collection of autobiographical essays. As always, he knows how to make even the most commonplace event worthy of a smile or a laugh. I especially enjoyed the punishment his friend came up with for those who committed certain traffic violations. I'm still laughing about that one.

And last of all we have Ballerina by Edward Stewart, one of Daisy's favorite books from when she was kid that she insisted I read after we watched both Center Stage and The Company. It was... well, is there anything beyond melodrama? Because that's where you'd find this book. It was a total soap opera, the writing was bad, the ending totally predictable, and I loved it anyway. It's got the overbearing mother, living out her dream of being a successful ballerina through her daughter; the scheming company director, determined to recapture his inspiration; the gossipy company, jealous and backbiting; the playboy principal dancer sleeping his way through the corps; and the ingenues: long time friends forced to compete. What more could you ask for in a trashy novel?


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