This is one of those books where the back-story itself is almost good enough. Years after he originally wrote this novella (at age 19) in 4 Compositio...moreThis is one of those books where the back-story itself is almost good enough. Years after he originally wrote this novella (at age 19) in 4 Composition Notebooks (remember those black and white ones that you did all your Important Writing in in middle school?), Capote hastily moved out of his brownstone and asked his Super to throw away anything that he'd left behind in the rush. The detritus included a box containing this manuscript. A neighbor found the box and decided that such a thing should be kept for posterity. Which he did--in his closet--until he died recently. Then his relatives came across the manuscript and sold it to Sotheby's which sold it to the NYPL to house in their Truman Capote collection. And after various arguments about the ethics of publishing that which was intended to be un-published, we now have Summer Crossing in all its colon-happy, run-on sentenced, uber-similied splendor.
It's a sweet story, in its way, although the brassy 17 year old precursor to Holly Golightly ends up getting hers in about every sense. In essence, what begins as a hedonistic summer of independence becomes a rather doomed coming of age, with very little hint of redemption.
I'm not entirely sure I agree with the choice to publish this manuscript (although I look forward to seeing it at the NYPL). On one hand, I'm glad we get a glimpse of What He Was before What He Became. However, there is something a bit sobering about the appropriation of an author's work after his/her death.
At any rate, reading Summer Crossing will definitely give one a chance to think "I could do [better than] that!" which is probably reason enough to make it available.(less)
A quick, if not entirely 'fun' read, Later, at the Bar takes an accessible idea and fluidly, efficiently, sees it through. The idea of a novel-in-stor...moreA quick, if not entirely 'fun' read, Later, at the Bar takes an accessible idea and fluidly, efficiently, sees it through. The idea of a novel-in-stories is appealing for many reasons--the aforementioned pacing, the ability to follow through multiple, compact narratives with the same characters, etc--and Barry was smart to test it out in spheres of varying hermetics (a small town; a smaller bar). Furthermore, she treats her characters well--nonjudgmental, but without kid-gloves--though not without a certain sense of nurturing recognition: I'd venture a guess that Barry was herself once a Regular in some out of the way, east-coast township, at least before she gave it up so that she could just write about the occupation all the time.
The characters found within the dusky confines of Lucy's Tavern fall somewhere in the middle of lost-hope Bukowski bar flies and idle, artistic expats. And while there is perhaps less romance in this middling, Cheers-styled (to borrow the reference) substance-dedication, the stories themselves are still satisfying--simple and straightforward, and occasionally even hitting (briefly) upon a poignant truth about human relationships and the type of friendship that can form between strangers, if given the right 'chemistry.'
Even though I've still yet to finish The Cancer Ward, I did essentially read the book. And it was touching and funny and a lot more enjoyable a read t...moreEven though I've still yet to finish The Cancer Ward, I did essentially read the book. And it was touching and funny and a lot more enjoyable a read than I would have expected. Unfortunately, I ended up having to read about 12 other books while I was reading this one, and never finished the last fifty pages or so. Which is embarrassing.
I take heart, however, in words offered by a friend of mine who just so happens to be a rather accomplished literary scholar: "Whatever--it's not about narrative closure."(less)
I'd been planning to read Holm's book of essays, Windows of Brimnes for quite some time. Not because I'm familiar with his poetry, but because it's a...moreI'd been planning to read Holm's book of essays, Windows of Brimnes for quite some time. Not because I'm familiar with his poetry, but because it's a book (travel narrative/memoir) about Iceland. But reading these essays spread over about a month in the best of circumstances--on trains, before bed, with my morning coffee--I found myself constantly going back and forth on how I felt about the collection--and Holm--over all.
On one hand, Holm is observant and anecdotal and rather funny, in a crotchety sort of way. He is nostalgic and sentimental and writes about nature and small communities and memory with an eye for detail and a distinctly romantic lyricism.
On the other, he can be really a pretty irksome narrator, chastising the reader for his/her dependence on cell phones and television, for not being able to play the piano, for not having read Spinoza. (I don't have cable, I read every day--I still can't play Hayden myself and don't feel the worse for it...)
Windows of Brimnes is a distinctly, explicitly post-9/11 meditation, but even when you agree with Holm, it's hard not to be aggravated by his often self-righteous kvetching. It becomes a case of Old Man Yelling a little too often.
But all the same, there are several really wonderful essays in this collection, so even when I was irritated, I found myself returning to the book. I'd even consider reading another one of Holm's essay collections, provided that I had something else to turn to when I'd had enough of his tsk-tsking.
After reading a review of this on the crime/mystery fiction review site Reviewing the Evidence, I decided to track down a British copy prior to the U....moreAfter reading a review of this on the crime/mystery fiction review site Reviewing the Evidence, I decided to track down a British copy prior to the U.S. release in late April. Why the rush? Well, because firstly, the prospect of a really delightful, sweet, and stylized tale (a quaint little British murder, if you will), narrated by a plucky eleven year old with a penchant for poisons sounded rather fabulous. And because--for reasons I'll enumerate below--I'm almost positive that this is going to be the big book of the spring/summer and wanted to see if I could call it ahead of time. So I want to go on record predicting that come beach season, every Joe Schmo on the train, in the park, and hanging out in the Barnes and Noble will be reading this.
Sweetness has the hallmarks of a smash success: a strong first person narrator, a quirky story line, a suspenseful premise without much in the way of blood and/or guts, pleasantly predictable--but not too predictable--plot twists, and, not for nothing, a good back story. (Bradley, is a seventy year old Canadian who had never been to England when he wrote the book, and won a two book deal when he submitted five pages of Sweetness in a publishing contest.)
Happily, the book lives up to expectations. It's a cotton candy, share-with-your-mom, read on a rainy day sort of book. Which we all need now and again.
A few notes on Flavia:
While our wunderkind heroine is a delight*, as far as I'm concerned, Bradley only wrote her as an eleven-year-old for two reasons: A) the enjoyable prospect of really indulging in fictional creation and writing a pigtailed chemistry whiz who outwits her elders while tooling around on a bicycle named "Gladys," and B) to avoid some of the sexual tension that might arise if Flavia was any older. There are at least a few scenes in which Flavia uses her girlish charm to convince adults (particularly men) to give her information or let her have her way. If she was even marginally over the age of puberty, this type of pandering and strategizing would take on an entirely different tone.
For the most part, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief and go along with her memorizing the periodic table, quoting from Dickens, adoring the Sonata Toccata by Pietro Paradis, and whistling the theme song from The Third Man. So what if some of it seems beyond her age? It makes her a more interesting character. However, there are moments when this goes a little too far--no eleven year old compares themselves with Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man when climbing up on a windowsill.
(*A subnote to Flavia's delightfulness: as she is written, Flavia possesses a bit of a British colonialist attitude that I could have done without. Yes, it's the 1950s, but I'm not sure there was any reason to write in bits with her mentioning how the Brits 'civilized' people in India...)
This book basically jumped off the shelf when I was volunteering at a local library this week. It's not something I would normally pick up, and perhap...moreThis book basically jumped off the shelf when I was volunteering at a local library this week. It's not something I would normally pick up, and perhaps none of the suggestions are particularly earth-shattering, but it strikes a nice balance between fuzzy encouragements and step-by-step instructions. It does well by removing the mystique around the writing process (at least, the mystery writing process) and draws your attention to the formulaic aspects that are present in any good mystery. The chapter on character creation was particularly helpful, I thought. (less)
After reading Sense & Sensibility, I had pretty much decided that when it came to Jane Austen, I was probably going to have to count myself as one...moreAfter reading Sense & Sensibility, I had pretty much decided that when it came to Jane Austen, I was probably going to have to count myself as one of those heathens who prefer the movie adaptations to the books. S&S is a novel that felt a bit contrived too me—if character A would just come out and say X to character B, the novel would end immediately. It felt like an exercise in needless plot expansion, which might explain (besides Rickman—dear Rickman!) why I liked the movie so much better. You get the pleasure of the relationship complications and the storyline without having to drag it out for pages upon pages, upon pages.
But here's the thing: I have watched the BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries featuring the strangely, but undoubtedly, compelling Colin Firth about 100 times. It has been my go-to 'it's three AM and I'm still awake' white noise selection, and what I watch when sick in bed or feeling lazy on a Sunday. I'm not sure I can adequately justify why I'm so attached to this series—it's rather out of step with my usual tastes—but alas, there it is. And so it seemed truly silly to me to not have read this book. Hence the project.
Starting with the iconic first line (“It is a truth universally known...” you know the rest), I am happy to say that P&P was a delight to read. At first, I found that I was glad that I could hear characters' voices from the series reciting lines (apparently, the BBC version is very true to the book), if only because it allowed me to get the full dose of understated, ironic, oh-so-English humor that's liberally peppered about. At least at first, I might not have caught the amusing cadence of the dialog as well if I hadn't seen it performed first. (Kind of like Shakespeare.) But once I got more accustomed to the flow of the dialog and the style of the humor, there were definitely passages I found myself giggling out loud while reading.
Other than the ample humor, one of the primary things that struck me about the novel was how highly the characters value the art of conversation. Where S&S, as I said before, is a novel whose characters routinely stifle their thoughts and feelings and don't talk, P&P is a book overflowing with chatter. Now, certainly, much of it is completely idle and meaningless chatter, but nevertheless, characters (particularly Elizabeth) routinely make character assessments about other people based uniquely on their ability to hold a good conversation. Therefore, Bingley is immediately determined to be 'affable' (lovely word, used all the time throughout), as is Wickham, who Elizabeth notes at one point can make the most basic conversation about the weather seem interesting. Poor Darcy, of course, has no gift for chit-chat with strangers, and is almost immediately decided to be a 'proud, disagreeable sort of fellow.' There certainly may be other factors the play a role in these character judgments, but it seems that they all spring from the same initial assessment of conversational skill.
What I think I found most surprising about this reading experience, though, was discovering what was actually left out of the series (and also the movie version with Keira Knightly and Judy Dench, which as far as I can tell, is more a remake of the series than of the book). The adaptations are almost entirely parallel to the novel, right until the last few chapters. For one, there's a whole excruciating dinner party after Elizabeth determines that she is, after all,in love with Darcy, where she's trying to find a way to talk to him and keeps being thwarted by her mother's meddling attempts to start whist games and a girlfriend's unintentional diversion. So much of the story is filtered through Elizabeth—we get her frustration, her free-spiritedness, her devotion to her sister, her cheerfulness and mischievousness, but other than in this scene, we don't get a whole lot of her discomfort—her 'lovesickness,' her fear that she's come around to Darcy just too late to actually have him and the fear that things won't work out for her as she would hope. It's a great addition to her already strong character to have her grapple with a little vulnerability and weakness.
After all is resolved, however, the other thing that is in the novel and sadly missing from the adaptations is the amount of time that Darcy (I should probably say 'Fitzwilliam'--another thing we're shorted in the adaptations is his incredible first name) and Elizabeth spend actually talking about their relationship and their respective characters. Much of their courtship and acquaintance has been conducted indirectly—through letters, stories told by other people—so getting a sense of the frank and open way they actually speak to one another suggests that the romance is actually built on a durable foundation. (less)
I ran across Vivian Vande Velde's (great) name in a list of popular teen vampire novelists and picked up Companions of the Night on a whim. I read it...moreI ran across Vivian Vande Velde's (great) name in a list of popular teen vampire novelists and picked up Companions of the Night on a whim. I read it in about a day and really enjoyed it. The plot moves along at a quick clip, and while the characters do have a strong rapport, the romance element is not given much attention until the very last chapters. (Side note: I wasn't overwhelmed by these characters—they are certainly serviceable, but I didn't completely connect with them. Some of this is just because we learn a limited amount about them in the confines of the story. Kerry is given a nice backstory, but in attempting to maintain Ethan's mysteriousness, we learn very little about him, which ultimately, was unfortunate. It leaves room for lots of speculation, but honestly, one of the things I enjoy most about vampire novels is finding out about well, the vampires...)
Overall, however, what I enjoyed most about this novel is the fact that the vampires--particularly anti-hero/romantic interest Ethan--actually remain vampiric. They kill people without remorse and even admit to enjoying it. Even more interesting is the almost off-hand way in which Vande Velde embraces the sexual undertones of the vampire story—casually integrating a short conversation between Ethan and Kerry:
Ethan was speaking hesitantly, having a hard time putting this into words. “It's not just the nourishment from the blood itself...There's a physical and mental bond, a sharing of the spirit for lack of a better word...”
Kerry took in a deep breath. “I think I've heard this line from the boy who took me to the Harvest Dance.”
Ethan laughed with what sounded like genuine amusement, which was disconcerting because she hadn't meant to be funny. “There is a similarity.” He looked at her appraisingly, as though trying to gauge how experienced she was.
She folded her arms in front of her chest, determined to keep him wondering, before she realized that her gesture had probably told all.
Ethan said, “Sometimes, not always—but with the right partner—vampires mix the two acts: sex and the drinking of blood. Either of itself is...very pleasurable, but the combination...”
Parked on the side of a dark road, Kerry didn't like the direction this was taking, even though Ethan was showing no inclination to demonstrate. She said, “I'm sure praying mantises and black widow spiders feel the same.”
With 'de-fanged,' conscience-laden, human-obsessed vampire lovers becoming more of the rule than the exception, I was actually delighted to read a novel that didn't try to bridge the mortal-vampire gap. She doesn't want to be a vampire, and he doesn't want to repent of his evil ways.
Also, enjoyable is the fact that Vande Velde is an affirmed one-off novel writer. No sequels (see: http://www.vivianvandevelde.com/seque...). So while the ending of Companions leaves the story open for continuation, it's unlikely that we'll see an overwrought second and third novel of undead romance. And it's nice to see a story stand on its own once in awhile. (less)
My first P.D. James novel (and also the first book I finished in our bright and shiny new decade), An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is precisely the type...moreMy first P.D. James novel (and also the first book I finished in our bright and shiny new decade), An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is precisely the type of crime novel that I can really get behind: ample backstory and character development, rich setting, sordid--but not gratuitously violent--circumstances, surprising secrets revealed (but no silly plot twists with new evil villains), and a general sense that solving the case and finding out 'what really happened' may not actually make things any better in the end. (That's a lot of key requirements to have for a novel, I know, but every so often, they are all incorporated together and the result is deeply satisfying.)
Cordelia Gray is a fully realized character, with James perhaps providing a fair amount of information about her past--that her father was "an itinerant Marxist poet and amateur revolutionary"; that she spent six years being educated in convent school by accident--which is not entirely relevant to the plot (or, actually, to our understanding of how Cordelia reacts in particular situations), but interesting and well wrought all the same. Cordelia is "a survivor" in her own words, a young woman isolated from her peers without confidants, susceptible to fear and unease and self-consciousness, but still resourceful and resilient when forced into tough situations.
She's is also ethical, but not prigish or overly moralistic, a quality which becomes vital to the plot, but is also--I think--vital to the character of a novice private eye. I personally tire equally of honor-bound vigilantes operating above the law on their righteous missions and of staunchly by-the-book police officers with a sense of obligation to the service of wholly legal justice. (Characters of the latter style, are, of course, not really in vogue these days, but are no less tiresome when they do shamble along.) At any rate, Cordelia fits somewhere in the middle of these stereotypes, and is rather fresh, fallible, and very likable for it.
Cordelia's character (and her commie background, for that matter) are part and parcel of the time and world that James has set her story in. The novel takes place in Cambridge, England in the seventies. There is a feeling in the story that a very recent sense of idealism and change has given way to a more cynical decadence. And although this cynicism is expressed in response to a variety of ideals and circumstances--justice, truthfulness, morality--this comes across particularly in Cordelia and other character's discussions of sexual relationships. Characters--particularly female characters--are sexually frank and unabashed, but overtly skeptical and not a little derisive about their experiences. We're told that Cordelia "...had never thought of virginity as other than a temporary and inconvenient state, part of the general insecurity and vulnerability of being young." Having discovered her son in a surprising sexual situation, one woman sardonically comments, "We're all sexually sophisticated these days." We're also told that Cordelia grew up with a band of hodge-podge 'comrades' for whom "sexual activities were...more a weapon of revolution or a gesture against the bourgeois mores they despised than a response to human need." This pervading sense of unromantic realism provides a useful background for the circumstances of Mark Callender's death, particularly as we learn more about his own idealism and the progressively complicated circumstances of his suicide.
I should also note that James is really a lovely prose writer--descriptive without staid embellishment, observant and lyrical while still getting to the point. Consider a passage where Cordelia is attacked later in the book (no worries--I won't say by who or why):
"She wasn't expecting trouble outside the cottage and the attack took her by surprise. There was the half-second of pre-knowledge before the blanket fell but that was too late...The movement of liberation was a miracle and a horror. The blanket was whipped off. She never saw her assailant. There was a second of sweet reviving air, a glimpse, so brief that it was barely comprehended, of blinding sky seen through greenness and then she felt herself falling, falling in helpless astonishment into cold darkness. The fall was a confusion of old nightmares, unbelievable seconds of childhood terrors recalled. Then her body hit the water. Ice-cold hands dragged her into a vortex of horror...She shook her head, and, through her stinging eyes, she looked up. The black tunnel that stretched above her ended in a moon of blue light. Even as she looked, the well lid was dragged slowly back like the shutter of a camera. The moon became a half moon; then a crescent. At last there was nothing but eight thin slits of light."
All said, this was a nice start to the year's reading, and I'll certainly pick up another James book soon. (less)
Arg. This book started relatively well and then went quickly downhill.
I've realized that I have a thing for reading upper-class, Brit detectives-for-...moreArg. This book started relatively well and then went quickly downhill.
I've realized that I have a thing for reading upper-class, Brit detectives-for-pleasure stories as a way of sort of detoxing between heavier reads or a spate of a certain type of book (i.e. 32 YA vampire novels). They are generally straightforward and pleasurably formulaic (I mean that in a good way), while being replete with wit and charm and colloquial phrases that make me giggle. A recent example of a book in this vein that I had success with was Charles Finch's A Beautiful Blue Death. I read that over a few rainy days in Maine and it was perfectly suited for that sort of moment.
I was hoping for the same sort of experience with Chris Ewan's A Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam, particularly because the book's setting is that of my next big vacation. But alas, while this tale of a dashing thief who writes novels about a dashing thief started with the wit and charm and scenery detail that I was really hoping for, it kind of imploded at the end.
(For reference, there will be spoilers.)
I'll start with the positives:
-Ewan's narrator, Charlie Howard, is, as mentioned before, witty and charming. He also is the type of scallywag that you can enjoy without any major qualms. He's a thief who hides or disposes of guns when he finds them in people's houses because he thinks they are dangerous, and practices picking complicated locks for fun. When the book started, I imagined Carey Grant in Charade. Sure he's a thief, but who cares? He's so dashing and bemused!
-There is a lot of talk about specific places in Amsterdam--bars, streets, etc--and that's really what armchair travel is all about, isn't it? Actually getting a sense of that place that the book takes place in. Charlie robs a man who lives on a houseboat, struggles up five flights of precariously steep Dutch apartment building stairs, wanders through Vondelpark, and meanders over canals on his way to brown bars. I'll have to confirm the verisimilitude of all this when I get back from my trip, but at least comparing these descriptions with my travel guides, they seemed pretty accurate.
Where It Went Wrong:
-The whole plot hinges on Super Thief Charlie stealing three plaster monkey figurines (See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil). He spends an inordinate amount of the book trying to figure out why anyone would want to steal these figures, let alone kill for them. Audience: why would anyone possibly want these cheap monkey figures so badly? What's so special about these breakable, plaster figures? Did you guess nothing? Did you guess that there is something inside of these figures within ten pages? Of course you did. So why didn't the Super Thief? (The thing-in-plaster-figure scenario is, I'm told, a classic Sherlock Holmes plot. This only makes it worse. Yes, I need to catch up on my Holmes. But more importantly, in addition to it just being really obvious, anyone who had read that story would know immediately that there was something in those monkeys. So why do we spend half of the book working that out?)
-In a fit of colonial-era exoticism, Charlie wanders into a secret Chinese safe deposit facility. In itself, okay--this could work. Amsterdam does apparently have a Chinatown. But then the woman at the desk is dressed as a geisha, bows in the "oriental style," and is flanked by two "sumos" who could fold Charlie like "origami paper." But all of the writing in the building is in Chinese characters, he says. So apparently, China is mostly Japan, and both are "Oriental" (like carpet or ramen, yes). This is only one scene, I know, but it was awful. This is why you're supposed to have editors. So you don't conflate separate Asian cultures and then use horrible cliched indicators amounting to the entirety of your knowledge about them. The only thing that could have made it more cookie-cutter would be if the geisha had been eating sushi when Charlie came in.
-As the book progresses, Charlie will find things, tell you that they change everything, but not tell you what he's found until an "Ah-Ha!" moment several chapters later. This is obnoxious and serves no other purpose than to make for shocking reveal later on. Except they aren't shocking--they're annoying.
-You know how in Hercule Poirot novels, our favorite intrepid Belgian gets everybody together in the sitting room or the dining car and tells them whodunit? And characters gasp and deny and then are faced with some physical form of irrefutable proof and then crumble immediately? It's fun, right? You know how that passage is usually about five pages--ten pages max? Imagine if that passage were expanded to several chapters. Imagine if part of the reason that passage was so long was because the character/author was "rewriting" the scenario multiple times in a Clue-styled "It Could Have Happened Like This, But Really It Happened Like This" manner. Imagine how annoyed you'd be. Imagine that you'd fall asleep on several different trains trying to finish this awful passage.
"Both stories are very easy to take," proclaims the Kirkus Review quote on the front of my copy. High praise indeed. But really, I very much enjoyed t...more"Both stories are very easy to take," proclaims the Kirkus Review quote on the front of my copy. High praise indeed. But really, I very much enjoyed the two novellas included in Murder in Amsterdam. Baantjer, I discovered, is one of the most-read authors in The Netherlands, and that's certainly understandable. Both stories deal with the deaths of young women (one a prostitute, one a working girl who 'gets around,' to be euphemistic) which on the face, seem completely random. De Kok (the spelling of whose name--originally 'Cock,' which means cook in Dutch--had to be changed for adolescent American audiences) and his young sidekick employ unconventional methods in solving their cases--some of which are not entirely on the up and up. But as we well know, the best detectives always truck in at least a little moral ambiguity and What's Legal, well, isn't always What's Right.
De Kok is a satisfying character. We're told he's a veteran policeman with many little eccentricities and peccadillos (his eyebrows are often said to move independently of the rest of his face, he wears a decrepit little hat all the time), that he is tired of having to prove himself on the force and is more interested in letting the younger generation live up to all of his tales of past glory. He's friendly with prostitutes and well-known pick pockets, and keeps a bottle of his favorite liquor under the bar in a Red Light District Tavern. He has a tendency to withhold the mechanisms of his thought process, allowing his hot-headed partner stumble around in the dark for awhile before explaining his logic--much like Poirot, in that respect. He's quiet and can ignore things that he chooses to take no notice of, but has a violent temper when prodded. All in all, someone who I would certainly enjoy reading more about in future stories.
(For the record, Baantjer also has some of the best pulpy titles I've read in a long time. Some of my favorites are De Kok and the...
Somber Nude Geese of Death Sorrowing Tomcat Disillusioned Corpse Dying Stroller
When I found out that there was a new Babysitter's Club coming out, I actually pre-ordered the book from my local bookstore. I was--although I probabl...moreWhen I found out that there was a new Babysitter's Club coming out, I actually pre-ordered the book from my local bookstore. I was--although I probably shouldn't have been--kind of amazed at the instantaneous nostalgia that this publication inspired for me. Suddenly, I was remembering the family driving trip through the Four Corners where I pretty much missed all of Utah because I was reading the first Super Special (Babysitters on Board!) and literally could not pull my eyes away from the pages. I remembered the awesome passages about Claudia's fantastic wardrobe, which inspired in me a life-long love of red shoes and dangly earrings (and has since been immortalized, to great effect, in the blog ""What Claudia Wore.") I remembered the sympathy I felt for Mary Ann, who had, like myself, a rather strict set of rules to live by. There's really no doubt that this series was one of the pivotal cultural touch points of my young life, which I'm sure is true for a lot of my peers.
The point being, it would be difficult for anyone to live up to the nostalgia created by this series, so I commend Ann M. Martin for being brave enough to attempt to write a new installment. Maybe she was capitalizing on a moment and trying to revive her series' popularity for a new generation, but I'm going to choose not to be cynical. I think it was a bold move, and she pulled it off rather well. There's actually not an excess of babysitting in this prequel, but enough to set the stage. And Martin still treats each girl with a great deal of empathy and concern for the problems--big and small--that affect each of them. She gently captures a range of experiences: Mary Ann sorting through her deceased mother's memory box, Claudia spending the summer with her first boyfriend, Kristy struggling to let go of her absent father, and Stacey getting a fresh start in Stoney Brook after a humiliating year of dealing with her diabetes in New York.
The only real problem I had was that at the end of the book, Kristy, Mary Ann, and Claudia all have a heart to heart after a summer of being a little disconnected from one another and their self-awareness and getting-at-the-big-theme-ness is a little overbearing. Claudia repeats a sentiment that Mimi shared with her--that all girls grow up at different rates--and neither Mary Ann nor Kristy are remotely affronted that she's basically just called them immature. Then there is a whole bunch of dialog where they explicate that they are bonded together through experience and friendship and that (I'm paraphrasing) "we are the glue that holds us together." Now, young girls are extremely intense in their friendships, that is true, but this seems a little too end-of-the-episode/Big Idea for three 12 year olds to be explaining. But, eh--I still don't really mind. It's a sweet set up for the series.
As a sort of side note, I realized reading this book how affirming the actual set up of the Babysitter's Club is for young girls. I didn't realize it at the time, but here was a series of books that was encouraging teen age girls to take a form of employment that almost all young women fall into at one time or another--babysitting--and use it to develop all sorts of important, quasi-feminist qualities. For one, they don't need allowances--they make their own money. (I don't think allowances are mentioned at all in this new book; I forget about the others.) They are innovative (kid-kits!), responsible, independent, supportive, and smart. So I'm just all aglow with the Babysitter's books, all over again. (less)
Imagine Willy Wonka with a space twist (and without the gruesome doings-away with children), and you've pretty much got Cosmic. This book tells the st...moreImagine Willy Wonka with a space twist (and without the gruesome doings-away with children), and you've pretty much got Cosmic. This book tells the story of Liam, an unusually tall and stubble-chinned twelve-year-old who constantly gets mistaken for an adult. Through a whimsical and delightfully convoluted twist of events, Liam and his friend Florida are "specially selected" to go to China to basically test-drive a rocket (with Liam posing as Florida's father). Things, as you might imagine, don't work out as smoothly as they are supposed to, and Liam and the other teen 'taikonauts' end up Lost in Space for a brief time before things all work out in the end.
It's a charming book, so funny that I laughed out loud a few times on the train. It is unabashedly sentimental, but not in the way that makes us hard-hearted cynics cringe. Rather it is an homage to (good) parents and a sweet story about growing up, and well, not growing up, too. Oh, and space.
Having never read any Hiaasen, I picked up Skinny Dip on an outdoor book cart for a $1 and figured I'd give him a shot. This is definitely a summer bo...moreHaving never read any Hiaasen, I picked up Skinny Dip on an outdoor book cart for a $1 and figured I'd give him a shot. This is definitely a summer book and a whole lot of fun. I finished it over the course of this last, sweltering weekend, and while my vague (though expanded) sense of Florida hasn't really improved my perceptions of the state (it seems sort of like a combination of Arizona and Las Vegas with a beach), I did briefly get enthralled by the idea of tooling around off-coast Floridian islands and eating a lot of shellfish on a beach. which actually still sounds great.
The book is satisfying for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Hiaasen is adept with absurd humor and cultivates the type of amusing morbidity that I haven't really read in such full effect since reading Roald Dahl books as a kid. In James and the Giant Peach, James' parents are killed in a freak zoo escape/rampage. In Skinny Dip, Joey Perrone's parents are killed in a plane crash with their pet bear, who was, we're told, strapped into the co-pilot seat and being fed Bailey's Irish Cream right before the nosedive. Another character is dispatched when a sky diver plummets from the sky after a parachute malfunction. In effect, Hiaasen's off-kilter Florida is one which is just one shade too wacky to be taken as reality, and yet when combined, all of the eccentricities and odd happenings and general absurdity seem to fit together in a believable fashion.
Secondly, there's the plot. It's snappy and really action-driven, and follows the sort of vicarious, righteous vengeance scenario that you know it will from the start. Joey's louse of a husband (Chaz--and excellent louse of a husband name) throws her off a cruise liner and then she manages to float to an island where she takes up with a craggy, antisocial ex-cop who is twice her age. There, the clever team comes up with all sorts of cinematic ways to mess with Chaz's head "from beyond the grave." From the start, you know that Chaz is going to get his, that Joey and the ex-cop will fall in love, and that the good guys will triumph in the end. All that remains is to wait and see what kind of crazy antics and hilarity will ensue. And that's the fun.
Hiaasen is obviously a great environmentalist and though Skinny Dip is all in good fun, it's moral about the pillaging of the everglades is anything but. His commitment to his environmental message is admirable, although it occasionally comes off as a little Fern Gully with the Bad Nature Killers taking an increasingly farcical attitude towards the Everglades that they are consciously pumping oodles of fertilizers into. After awhile, there's no need for the references to how much they hate recycling, or how they try to shoot baby rabbits on the highway for target practice. We know they're bad people already...
This book had been on my radar for quite some time, so I was really happy to have the opportunity to listen to the audiobook while commuting to and fr...moreThis book had been on my radar for quite some time, so I was really happy to have the opportunity to listen to the audiobook while commuting to and from the wilds of Long Island for a library class last week. And I can say pretty definitively that this book was one of the only highlights of an otherwise disappointing experience.
What I Saw and How I Lied takes place in the wake of World War II, when a few years of renewed bounty have many former soldiers vigorously chasing after the American Dream, and most of America is trying to forget things done (and left undone) during the war. For Evie Spooner, who has grown up something of a sheltered and unassertive wallflower in Queens, life during the war meant living under the thumb of her contentious step-grandmother, while her bombshell mother worked full time to support the family selling ties in a menswear boutique. When her stepfather Joe returned unscathed, the family settled into a familiar routine of pre-dinner cocktails, sugar in their coffee, and pot roasts. On the strength of a few loans for servicemen, Joe was even able to start a couple of his own appliance businesses, and things are going well. Or that's how it seems to Evie, at least.
As the summer comes to an end and Evie is preparing to go to high school, Joe unexpectedly takes the family to Palm Beach for a few weeks of vacation. Right from the start, things go badly. The weather is sweltering, the town is deserted in the off-season, and the family finds themselves unexpectedly thrown together with a swanky couple named Grayson from Manhattan and a soldier named Peter from Joe's past. As the weather gets hotter and hurricanes threaten the Florida coast, however, things get much more complicated. Joe and Mr. Grayson begin working on a business deal, and her mother and she spend more and more time with Peter, who Joe unaccountably hates. All the while, Evie is falling head over heels in love with Peter, learning to walk in high heels, and discovering that all of the adults around her have secrets that they are trying to protect her from.
What I Saw and How I Lied (a delicious title if ever I heard one), is basically a classic bildungsroman. In the hands of Blundell, however, what could be a rather simple story becomes wonderfully nuanced, historically evocative, bittersweet, and tense. Since so much of what goes on around Evie escapes her understanding, the reader spends much of the book expecting a disaster that she never sees coming. Evie is something of an unreliable narrator, though certainly not because of any ulterior motive. It's simply a matter of limited perspective. Her transformation from innocent to worldly cynic, from a bystander to an assertive actor, is truly well done. Her inability to recognize the subtext around her, her desperate need to feel grown up without understanding what disappointments that transition will entail, and the stubbornness with which she falls in love--it's all tragic and sweet and very true. And so the reader spends much of the book wishing that she would hurry up and figure out what's going on, while all the same hoping that she won't--because it will be so hurtful.
What I Saw and How I Lied is about love, trust, honesty, lies, sacrifices, family, and learning that no one is ever as good (or bad) as they seem. Highly, highly recommended for adults and teens alike. (less)
�Although Edwardson has been on my list of Scandinavian crime authors to read for some time, I had previously put off reading any of his novels becaus...more�Although Edwardson has been on my list of Scandinavian crime authors to read for some time, I had previously put off reading any of his novels because they had been described as rather stringent procedurals, and as a rule, I am not a huge fan of this genre. I understand that meticulous investigations--with their red herrings and dead-end leads and countless interviews with doddering old women who may have seen something relevant to a crime but really just want to serve the dashing inspector biscuits and coffee and have some company for a short time--are some readers’ cups of tea. For myself, however, I’m not really invested in the process so much. I generally like the varied dynamics of a police force that you get in a procedural, but that enjoyment doesn’t really outweigh the sense of stagnation that sometimes comes over me in the midst of one of these novels.
I’ll admit: I like plot. And while this is a literary element that may be somewhat out of vogue in contemporary ‘literary’ fiction, it is (generally) still highly valued in crime novels. So while I appreciate the pleasure that one might take out of reading the intricate, but often dull or frustrating quotidian burdens of a police investigation, I usually prefer that the crime novels I ready eschew that sort of realism in favor of some broader character development, more back story, and/or steadily escalating tension.
All this preamble is to say that I have just finished, and very much enjoyed, Sun and Shadow, the first of Edwardson’s Erik Winter novels to be translated into English (although it wasn’t the first in the series). What is somewhat perplexing to me--and apologies, because this probably won’t end up being the best of sells for this book--is that Edwardson utilizes a number of tricks which I would normally really dislike in a novel. But somehow, even when all of these strategies--and dare I say, cheats--are combined (and I’ll get to this more momentarily), the end product is still a really enjoyable, well-paced, strongly characterized novel which I pretty much gobbled up in a few short days.
To start with the good:
Winter is a great character. He’s reasonably quirky--loves jazz and gourmet cooking (there’s several whole pages where he describes, in recipe-level detail, the meal he makes on New Year’s) --and we’re told early on that he’s Sweden’s youngest chief detective inspector. As the book opens (days before the new millennium), however, he is about to turn 40 and is starting to feel a bit introspective about his life. This is emphasized by the ample family subplot that Edwardson builds around Winter: when the book opens, his father is dying and his longtime girlfriend--who is six months pregnant with his first child--is moving in with him.
Edwardson really takes his time with this domestic development. In fact, although the reader knows right from the start of the book that there has been a double murder, the police don’t discover it until just over 100 pages into the book. The fact that such an elongated reveal works in a crime novel really speaks to how engaging Winter and the other detectives and characters are. You want to spend time with them and become immersed in their lives, rather than just jumping into the investigation.
Anther especially good element is the pacing. I’ve rarely gotten to the very end of a procedural and actually felt a great deal of anticipation to see the case resolved. That feeling that the police are so close! to cracking the case doesn’t usually catch with me. But here, Edwardson manages to develop suspense and build tension because the reader has spent 200 pages or so suspecting that they know who the murderer is. (I didn’t guess the right person, but I was pretty close...) So while the police investigation continues to narrow its suspects and get closer and closer to determining who the killer is, their tangential investigations and incorrect suppositions are all the more nail-biting for the reader.
Now for the elements that shouldn’t have worked, but somehow, really did.
1. Edwardson has a tendency to avoid grim/disturbing/or otherwise particularly visual detail. In some cases, this is almost Hitchcockian--we’re chilled by what we can’t see, what we don’t really know. In others, it’s a little disorienting and maybe suggests a tad bit of squeamishness/avoidance on Edwardson’s part. I don’t want to give too much away, but let me say this: the police discover the first murders around page 100. We know something terrible happened to the victims, and they (the corpses) are described a little. But Edwardson holds the real punch--the actual ‘what’ of the murders--for about 60 more pages. And when you find out what was done, it is an unexpected jolt. But given the circumstances, I was glad to not have had the scene f the crime described in all of its sordid detail--that would have been a little much.
This withholding of details and descriptions happens in a few other notable instances, some to lesser effect. The least successful example happens at the end of the book. A major character is kidnapped--for days. The whole time chronology suddenly compresses, Winter figures out where she is, and the whole book is wrapped up neat ‘n tidy within about five pages. We’re told that the woman “wasn’t hurt physically,” which, great, but because the book ends so quickly, Edwardson also dodges the difficulty of writing the psychological fall out that the kidnapping victim would most definitely have after such an abduction. We’re simply told that “...one of these days it would all come back to her, but not now...Perhaps never.” Which just seems way too easy. It’s possible--given that the Winter series seems to carry over plot lines and character history from book to book--that this character’s recovery will be dealt with in a later novel. But that doesn’t mean that you can just nip the entire experience in this installment.
2. The novel really depends on a bit of a red herring/ bait-and-switch. About a quarter of the way into the book, I had made a guess of who the murderer was. About half way through the book, Edwardson begins really telegraphing this character as the killer. A few other characters also seem like they might have some potential as the killer, but there’s really one who Edwardson focuses on. And while this may seem too obvious, it also plays into the general sense of tension. You start to think that you’re supposed to have guessed who the killer is, and stop minding that it seems obvious.
The problem is that when the character you suspect turns out to be innocent, there’s not a whole lot done to explain the actual killer’s motivations or background or particular psychosis. There’s a lot of groundwork done early on to explain the killer’s possible frame of mind and why he might choose to commit the murders in the way that he does. This makes sense when you think it’s character A who is the killer, but when character B is revealed, it really doesn’t. Neither does the manner in which he selected his victims, or the messages that he left the cops at the crime scene, or the supposed clues that were to be found in the music that was playing at the scene of the first crime.
3. All too convenient endangerment of major character and collision of plot and subplot. The character who is the almost-last victim is far too obvious, far too relevant to Winter’s life. It’s too convenient, really. However, Edwardson even makes this work. He develops the character as a possible person of interest to the murderer and does offer something of an explanation of why she was targeted. Now, she has nothing in common with the other victims and her kidnapping really just serves to ramp the novel’s climax up to a more dramatic level, but I pretty much bought into it at the end. Because again, I was really invested in seeing this case resolved.
In closing, I suppose I would say that Edwardson’s ample gifts of characterization, steady pacing, and satisfyingly determined plot are what make Sun and Shadow a satisfying read. I suppose it’s something like reading an Agatha Christie novel. You know that she’s not playing by the ‘rules’--you know you don’t have all the clues that the detective does, and you know that things are going to resolve themselves rather easily, and you know that all of the clues and plot points might not add up. But the execution (no pun intended) is so fluid and meticulous that you don’t really mind so much in the end.