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patfrench

Stop Making Sense

I read anything that's nailed down, or even just moving slowly. Cereal boxes, candy wrappers, all genres, etc., and I don't always have much time for arbitrary distinctions like literary fiction vs. genre fiction.

Flaming Austen!

Tooth and Claw - Jo Walton

So: Pride and Prejudice in a world with dragons.

If this description pushes any of your buttons, I heartily recommend this book. I especially liked the way Walton mimics the language of Austen, not simply the manners, customs, and limitations of her era. Not to mention extrapolating all of these to dragons!

Crossing Borders Without Traveling

The City & the City - China MiƩville

This story is set in the cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma, which are fictional but co-located somewhere in the Eastern European/Turkish area our own world. The two cities basically occupy the same physical spaces, but the residents of each city are not supposed to acknowledge or interact with the other in any way or Bad Things Will happen (this is called a breach, which is punished by an all-powerful Breach committee). Into this environment comes Besz Inspector Tyador Borlú, who is investigating the murder of a young woman who is not what she appears to be. The case takes Borlú across to Ul Qoma, where Things Take A Turn and Complications Ensue.

Pluses:
--The world-building. Miéville successfully creates a simultaneous there-but-not-there, tonally distinct feeling in each city. Really excellent.
--The language. I'm a huge Raymond Chandler fan, and this reminded me of his stuff. (I gather this is a departure from Miéville's typical style.)
--The protagonist. I connected with Borlú, a good man who's just trying to do his job, bureaucracy be damned.

Minuses:
--The secondary characters aren't particularly fleshed out, particularly Borlú's counterpart on the other side and his female colleague on his own side.
--The plot gets bogged down by the end. After I finished the book, I had trouble remembering who did what to whom among the red herrings and false starts.

I'm glad that I read this book, but I don't think it'll be sticking with me for the long haul. Your mileage may vary, of course.

The First Meta Airplane Book?

Heat Wave - Richard Castle

If you're a fan of the TV show Castle, this is a ton of fun. This is the first of the books "written" by the titular character on the show, who's played by Nathan Filion. The story follows Detective Nikki Heat (Kate Beckett, played by Stana Katic on the show) as she investigates a murder, "assisted" by reporter Jamison Rook (the pseudonym for Richard Castle) and her colleagues. Follow all that? This is about as meta as it can get.

Note: You won't be reading it for the in-depth characterizations or complex plots. You'll be reading it because you like the humor of the show and the relationship between the leads. So the next time you're on an airplane, or on a beach, or need something light to read, pick this one up.

Another fine mess...

Doghouse - L. A. Kornetsky

Installment #3 of the Gin and Tonic series brings us a nice level of comfort between the leads, further development of selected secondary characters, and everyone's entanglement in yet another "fine mess."

As with the previous books in the series, the dialog is snappy--a main draw, as far as I'm concerned. The plot remains a bit thin, but it's certainly worth spending a couple of hours with the crew at Mary's bar to see how they're going to get out of this one.

I'm liking this series, and I hope Kornetsky continues it. My one wish is for longer, more complex plots. Throw in some red herrings, or even plaid ones; I'm not picky.

The World War II Stories You Won't Hear Elsewhere

The Good War: An Oral History of World War II - Studs Terkel

This is the World War II info that you won't find in the history books. If you've read any of Terkel's books, you know what to expect: an expansive cross-section of people giving their perspectives on the topic at hand. It sounds so simple, but it isn't. I wish our military and civilian leaders would read a book like this before they get us into any more messes. (Note: I'm NOT saying that WW II wasn't worth fighting; it absolutely was.)

Just one little story by way of illustrating the value of Terkel's approach. I had no idea that young women of that era were pressured into marrying the soldiers and sailors that were leaving for combat, some of them they barely knew. You know, the whole "send them off with a smile" thing, but writ large. When these men returned home, the couple had to learn to live together somehow, with the added complication of PTSD in many cases. I wonder what the ramifications of this phenomenon were, and whether it contributed to the rise in divorce down the road. I've never seen this covered in another WW II work, let alone the stories of the others in this book.

This is an amazing achievement, and I strongly recommend it for everyone.

To Sail into the Sunset?

Howard Elman's Farewell (Darby Chronicles) - Ernest Hebert

[Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book through LibraryThing.]

I'm not sure whether it helped or hurt that this is the first "Darby Chronicles" book I've read, and it might be the last one written! I do wish I'd discovered them before now, because I like this cast of characters very much.

To recap the bidding: 80-something widower and self-appointed Darby, NH constable Howard Elman is heading toward "the big sleep" and wants to do a great thing before he kicks off. He wakes up one fine morning to find that his eponymous elm tree has been cut down. Howard is on the job!

Along the way, though, he has to wrestle with petty town politics, technology he doesn't understand, the voice in his head, his crazy(?) friend Cooty, friends, relatives of all flavors, dead bodies, and the weather.

This is a novel about not going quietly into that good night, about putting up a fight while you still can, and about seizing opportunities to still make a difference. As somebody who's increasingly been thinking about this stuff in her own life, I totally connected with Howard on that level. Younger readers might not click with this aspect, but there's enough other stuff going on to make it a worthwhile read, especially if you're already a fan of the town and its motley crew. Howard's inner dialogs were a particular pleasure for me:

Pride is a sin.
Yeah, maybe for a Catholic. For me it's the branch sticking out of the cliff that I'm holding on to.

What is it about you, Howie?
I like rust, I like dead end streets, I like a break in a Jack Landry curve ball, I like a crack in the pavement; there's humanity in a mistake; there's entertainment in guesswork; and hope is a four-letter word.

I'm not going to lie: I cried in several places in this book--Howard's seen a lot of loss, and he doesn't shy away from it. But he can also laugh at himself and others (especially others), and I'd like to go have a beer with him. He's good company.

Essays on Films that Changed the Industry...

Profoundly Disturbing: The Shocking Movies that Changed History - Joe Bob Briggs

Joe Bob Briggs has written a thoughtful, inside-baseball look at 15 movies that changed how we think of films. Here they are:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
Mom and Dad (1947)
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
And God Created Woman (1956)
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Blood Feast (1963)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Shaft (1971)
Deep Throat (1972)
The Exorcist (1973)
Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1974)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Drunken Master (1978)
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Crash (1996)

The most valuable thing about this book, in my view, is that Briggs gives the origins, context, and consequences for each of these films and their casts/crews, not just critiques of the films themselves. It does such a good job that I almost feel that I've seen them (when in reality, I've seen only three of them).

Briggs' style is authoritative and accessible, a winning combination. His biases do show up in a few places, particularly for the last two films listed, but they don't overwhelm the critique. The bibliography and index are most helpful, as well.

NOTE, however: Briggs does not pull punches in the language, background stories, or imagery, as you might guess based on the book's title. Some of these essays are not for the faint of heart--I do confess to getting queasy at times. Trigger warnings for sexual abuse and extreme violence, at a minimum.

If you're interested in how films come to be made, or in any of the listed films specifically, I can recommend this book, with the caveats above.

Not the Pulp Story Shown on the Cover

Joyland - Stephen King

This is an odd one. The cover makes you think you're going to be reading a pulp, Chandleresque caper from the 1930s, complete with tagline "Who Dares Enter the FUNHOUSE OF FEAR?" But the writing and story are much more reminiscent of The Dead Zone--a nostalgic, bittersweet coming-of-age story set in the 1970s. I also don't see it as a horror story at all, despite what the back cover says--the closest it comes is including a bit of magical realism.

On a whim, jilted college student Devin Jones signs up to work at a North Carolina beach amusement park for the summer. Once there, he becomes immersed in the world of the carny: the attitude, the language, the comraderie, the culture. I think this is where King shines most in this novel--painting the picture of life in a pre-Disney, "non-corporate" amusement park. Wonderful.

Along the way, he a) makes friends with a single mom and her frail son who live down the beach from the park, and b) finds out about a 4-year-old murder that took place in the park's Horror House, which is now "haunted" by the victim's ghost. Devon and his friends become a little obsessed with uncovering the truth, which of course, leads to a dangerous climax that involves everyone.

A main strength of this book is that it's not a typical late-career King doorstop--it's a return to the simpler times of The Dead Zone and Cujo. The language is appropriate for a 61-year-old narrator telling a story of his 21-year-old self--accessible, wry, a little bitter in places, a little wise in others. King hasn't forgotten how to tell a story and to give you characters to root for, and I'm glad.

The story is a little thin in places, and the denouement relies *heavily* on Deus ex magica. But it's still a fun ride, a bit of literary cotton candy.

Fun overview of the film industry underbelly

Schlock Value: Hollywood at Its Worst - Richard Roeper

Richard Roeper has been a solid movie critic for decades, but he's perhaps best known for being half of the duo of Ebert & Roeper (RIP, Roger). In this somewhat slight (218 breezy pages) 2003 book, he dishes about the seedy underbelly of the film industry and its critics. Here are the chapters:

 

1. Attack of the Hacks: how promising actors/directors, and even some veterans, end up in stinkers
2. Money Changes Everything: misleading analyses of the weekend grosses, massaged numbers, and other statistical sleight-of-handage
3. The Envelope Please: why the Golden Globes are the cinematic near-equivalent of the International Library of Poetry "awards"
4. Cliches, Foul-Ups and Blunders: or, there's no such thing as a perfect movie
5. Hype and Whoring: "critics" who aren't honest, or even critical
6. What the Hell Happened?, or when the Next! Big! Thing! isn't
7. Behind the Scenes: it's harder than it looks to be a critic, folks
8. Let's Go to the Movies: what it costs, in terms of money and time, to go see a film
9. Politics and the Movies: in which Ann Coulter is schooled about General Patton
10. The Unreleased Film Festival: the best movies you've never heard of
Epilogue: In America. Roeper uses the film, "...story of an Irish family that comes to New York to start a new life after the tragic death of the youngest boy...," as an example of the best that films can offer.

 

The book has aged well, in most places, although some of the "facts" are no longer true (Matthew McConaughey being washed up, for example). He also uses a few terms that would raise an eyebrow today (see the title of Chapter 5, for example, or the term "quote sluts"). But he gets most of the big stuff right--his section on Woody and His Women, for example, could have been lifted verbatim out of this year's headlines.

 

The only thing that Roeper gets wrong is his criticism of Tom Hanks' emotional Oscar-acceptance speech for the film Philadelphia. To quote Roeper: "What the hell was Hanks saying?" Hanks was saying that "all men are created equal," Roeper; it's that simple. Hanks used language evocative of the Declaration of Independence, and then refered to it all but explicitly ("written down by wise men, tolerant men, in the city of Philadelphia two hundred years ago").

 

This is a fun overview for movie buffs, film industry wonks, and fans of movie criticism.

Stunning novel, and it's a debut?!

We Are Not Ourselves - Matthew   Thomas

[Thank you to LibraryThing and Simon & Schuster for this advance copy.]

 

We Are Not Ourselves is a stunning novel, and it almost defies belief that it is a debut effort. (Although the publisher does state that he had already put two other novels in a drawer before this one.) It tells the story of three generations of Irish-Americans in Queens who are linked through Eileen--the daughter, the wife, the nurse, and the mother. As such, it is the classic story of immigrants in the U.S.: disoriented at first, but then adapting, integrating, and thriving (one hopes).

 

But it is also the story of Eileen's relationships with the men in her life: her father, "Big Mike," who is the godfather (in the Mario Puzo sense) of their community; her husband Ed, a brilliant but unambitious academic and neuroscientist; and her son Connell, who bears the legacy of both of his parents.

 

And it is also the story of a George Baileyesque character from It's a Wonderful Life, in which every time he thinks he's on the brink of getting what he wants, it's taken away, but he ends up richer for it.

 

If you read this book for no other reason, read it for the evocative and beautiful language:

 

    • "The tree was heavy with ornaments, strings of lights, and tinsel clumped thick as cooked spinach."
    • "She had worked hard for years, and if she had nothing to show for it but her house and her son's education, there was still the fact of its having happened, which no one could erase from the record of human lives, even if no one was keeping one."
    • "After a few months had passed, the cup of guilt he'd been carying around--for having gone away when his father needed him, for letting him go into a home--simply dried up, and he was left holding the empty vessel of his routine."
    • "...she patted the ground in search of pebbles to leave on the gravestone. It was a Jewish custom she had picked up like a magpie building a nest of grief."
    • "For now, while he breathed and moved, while he felt and thought, there was still, between this moment and the one of his dying, the interval allotted to him, and there was so much to live for in it: the citrus snap of fresh black tea; the compression and release of a warm stack of folded towels carried to the closet between two hands; the tinny resonance of children in the distance when heard through a bedroom window; the mouth-fullness of cannoli cream; the sudden twitch of a horse's ear to chase a fly; the neon green of the outfield grass; the map of wrinkles in one's own hand; the smell and feel, even the taste of dirt; the comfort of a body squeezed against one's own."

 

Now, having said all of that, a couple of caveats:

1. Be in a strong emotional place when you read it. I'm serious.

2. As epic as the book is (620 pages in my copy), there are a few places where the narrative jumps unexpectedly. If the book is truly Eileen's story, where are the details of her time in college? Surely there was some culture shock when she left her sheltered neighborhood and met students from other backgrounds, at least. There isn't much about her daily work, either--I think the book would have been stronger if we'd been shown how she became such a good nurse and supervisor, given the role this will play eventually.

 

Final word: I have a major collection of bookmarks--I seem to pick them up without realizing it, and then I can't get rid of them, because reasons. I didn't notice, until I was almost at the end of the book, that the one I had selected for this book said, "Life is under no obligation to give us what we expect--Margaret Mitchell." Uncanny how well it mirrors the theme of We Are Not Ourselves.

Ginny and Teddy are back! (and so are Georgie and Penny...)

Fixed: A Gin & Tonic Mystery - L.A. Kornetsky

Once again, we have the snappy banter, the humor, the heart, and picture of "life in the big city" that Kornetsky (the nom de mystery of Laura Anne Gilman) does so well. And once again, we have the animals leading the humans by the, er, paw toward the important stuff, without crossing the line over into "preciousness." Where this novella has the advantage over the debut Gin and Tonic mystery (Collared) is in the story--it's better fleshed out, there are more red herrings and a more complex plot, and the action takes place "on screen" this time. So kudos to Kornetsky.

I also really appreciate the way Ginny and Teddy are getting to know each other slowly, figuring out how to work together as a team while still ragging on each other every chance they get. :-) I'm a big fan of the slow burn, and so far, so good.

I'm happy to spend more time in the Seattle of Ginny and Teddy, and I wish I could have a drink at Mary's with them.

Bottoms up!

Collared - L.A. Kornetsky

This is the story of Ginny, a personal concierge, and Teddy, a bartender, and how they get involved in something way, WAY over their pay grades. It involves a missing patriarch, some shady real estate dealings, and pistol-toting dames, not to mention a dog and cat who consult with each other on the care and feeding of The Humans.

Kornetsky (aka Laura Anne Gilman) has a real gift for snappy, snarky dialog and capturing the urban scene. Although the novel is set in Seattle and environs, her NYC roots show (that's a compliment), especially in Teddy's thoughts and lines. Lots of fun.

This is her debut mystery novella (she's also done urban and epic fantasy, in addition to short fiction and a bit of nonfiction), and that's where the only weaknesses are apparent. The plot is a little thin, and the story ends a bit abruptly and somewhat off-screen--I felt slightly shortchanged. But this is a promising debut, and I've already gotten the next two books in the series.

Here's to Gin and Tonic! (hic)

SPOILER ALERT!
The Bastard of Istanbul - Elif Shafak

The best books have a balance between language and story, between atmosphere and plot. This one came down a little too much on the side of language/atmosphere for me, for a book that's about "...a secret connection linking (two families) to a violent event in the history of their homeland." I kept thinking, "yes, yes, it's all beautiful/poignant/horrifying, but let's get on with it!" The secret is revealed on page 353 of 357, for those keeping score at home.  

 

The title refers to Asya, the daughter in a house full of women--her mother, her three aunts, and her grandmother. But this isn't really Asya's story. It's not really the story of anyone in that house, either. It's the story of <spoiler>her great-grandmother, </spoiler>Shushan, an elderly Armenian woman living in San Francisco, but you don't know that until the last two pages, and we never get to hear Shusan's own voice tell her story! In the meantime, the book skips forward and backward in time from Istanbul to San Francisco to Arizona in showing the consequences of Shusan's life and choices, down to the most recent generations.

 

The book's main strength, besides the language, is illustrating the history between Armenia and Turkey, a subject I'm grateful to learn more about, as well as the cultural aspects of both. Very well done.

 

The other main weakness concerns a way-too-overused trope <spoiler>, the rape of a character to drive the plot.</spoiler> It's unbelievably lazy, especially when used by a woman! The fact that it also involves <spoiler>incest</spoiler> makes it even worse, although I do understand why Shafak chose that scenario. 

 

I'd recommend this book for people interested in Armenian and/or Turkish history, and students of literary fiction. 

SPOILER ALERT!
Outlander - Diana Gabaldon

Trigger warnings: rape, physical abuse

 

This is another one where I think if I had come across it when I was 20, I probably would have eaten it with a spoon. As it is, this old fart has been around the block too many times to accept scenarios in which abuse is presented as a way to engender respect and in which rape (threatened or actual, male or female) is used as a plot device.

 

Look, I understand that "life was like that" back the 1740s. Life is still like that, unfortunately. Doesn't mean that writers, especially female writers, have a free pass to rely on these very, very tired methods to drive their plots. Every unnecessary instance of rape both sensationalizes it and desensitizes readers to it. We writers can do better than this, and we readers should expect better than this.

 

It's a real shame, too, because there is a lot to like here: Gabaldon paints beautiful pictures of life in both 1945 and 1745 Scotland, for example. The writing in general is very good, too. I do think at 600+ pages, it could have been tightened. Claire herself is a great character, right up until the beating. At the beginning of the story, she's a battle-scarred nurse: resilient, independent, authoritative, competent. Afterwards, she's a loyal woman "in love." She has no agenda of her own any longer, no goals other than to be a good wife. Blech.

 

I could have used less lust and way more about the political intrigues of the time, the backstory of the town "witch," etc. Your mileage may vary, of course. I'd recommend this book to historical fiction fans who won't be triggered and who like lots of sex scenes.

SPOILER ALERT!

aka The Untold, in the U.S.

The Burial - Courtney Collins

This is the fictionalized story of Jessie Hickman/Henry/Bell/Hunt/Payne, a horse rustler in 1840s Australia, a wild and harsh place. When the book opens, Jessie has just killed someone and is on the run (again). The book tells the story of her journey toward the wilderness mountains, where she figures she can disappear. In the meantime, two men are chasing her, and they won't give up.

The book is beautifully written, and it has an interesting style of detached, almost dreamy language describing extremely harsh, violent settings and events. The lack of dialog tags (all dialog is in italics) helps with the stream-of-consciousness feel to the writing, but not in an overbearing way. I can see where it might get confusing at times, but I didn't have any trouble following it. I *will* say that the preface didn't become clear to me until an embarassingly long time after I'd finished the last page. Dur.

Gotta be honest, though--I almost threw up (and threw the book down) when I got to page 9, and I'm no lightweight. It's brutal, seriously. [BEGIN SPOILERS] In the opening chapter (after the preface), Jessie goes into labor 2 months early, just after she's killed someone and needs to get away immediately. The baby is in trouble, but Jessie can't produce milk or help the baby breathe, so Jessie digs a grave, slits the baby's throat, buries her, and goes on her way. The rest of the book is then told mostly from the buried baby's perspective, which was really hard to take in places (the author does slip into limited third-person here and there).[END SPOILERS]

I would recommend this book to people who like stories about outlaws, rustlers, the Australian Outback, and survival. I would NOT recommend this book to people sensitive to violence.

SPOILER ALERT!
The Bastard of Istanbul - Elif Shafak

 

The best books have a balance between language and story, between atmosphere and plot. This one came down a little too much on the side of language/atmosphere for me, for a book that's about "...a secret connection linking (two families) to a violent event in the history of their homeland." I kept thinking, "yes, yes, it's all beautiful/poignant/horrifying, but let's get on with it!" The secret is revealed on page 353 of 357, for those keeping score at home.

The title refers to Asya, the daughter in a house full of women--her mother, her three aunts, and her grandmother. But this isn't really Asya's story. It's not really the story of anyone in that house, either. It's the story of 
[spoiler]her great-grandmother[/spoiler]Shushan, an elderly Armenian woman living in San Francisco, but you don't know that until the last two pages, and we never get to hear Shusan's own voice tell her story! In the meantime, the book skips forward and backward in time from Istanbul to San Francisco to Arizona in showing the consequences of Shusan's life and choices, down to the most recent generations.

The book's main strength, besides the language, is illustrating the history between Armenia and Turkey, a subject I'm grateful to learn more about, as well as the cultural aspects of both. Very well done.

The other main weakness concerns a way-too-overused trope [spoiler]the rape of a character to drive the plot [/spoiler]. It's unbelievably lazy, especially when used by a woman! The fact that it also involves [spoiler]incest [/spoiler] makes it even worse, although I do understand why Shafak chose that scenario.

I'd recommend this book for people interested in Armenian and/or Turkish history, and students of literary fiction.