Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A world of plenty


At 539 pages, Abundance weighs in as my longest book of the year so far. It was actually a fairly quick read, though, relatively speaking. It reads almost like a diary of Marie Antoinette's life as Dauphine and then Queen of France. I don't think it's the fault of Sena Jeter Naslund's writing, but Marie Antoinette just isn't that interesting. She's rather spoiled, good-hearted but selfish, completely unaware of the world around her -- yes, we get the picture. It's difficult to make a compelling character out of someone who comes across as utterly uncomplicated. Regardless, the book was interesting enough to finish, and I'm planning to read Naslund's Ahab's Wife in the near future, which I've heard has a much stronger and more interesting main character.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Revenge of the parenthetical title


I loved Haven Kimmel's two other novels so much that I had high (perhaps too high) expectations for Something Rising (Light and Swift). I was willing to overlook the weirdness of parentheses in the title (which has annoyed me in the past), but I just didn't love this story. While Cassie is an interesting and well-written character, I couldn't like her or relate to her. The plot felt choppy in too many places -- some of the skips in time made sense, but others made the story too jumpy. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), my favorite parts were the descriptions of the games of pool, something I generally have zero interest in. And the book did end very well. Had I read this one first, I might have enjoyed it more, but up against The Solace of Leaving Early and The Used World, Something Rising couldn't quite compete.

Monday, January 21, 2008

In the middle


I absolutely loved Ursula Hegi's Stones from the River, but her latest book, The Worst Thing I've Done, was disappointing. It lacked the humanity of Stones and replaced it instead with unlikeable characters. The story alternates viewpoints among five characters, three of whom had been tangled in a triangle of friendship and jealousy since childhood. The three seem to feed off of and enable the worst qualities of the others' personalities, which made them more annoying than interesting. Hegi also intertwined political rantings with the plot, and while I'm in agreement with her views, they didn't seem to have much relevance to the book. I did like the descriptions of Annie's art -- she would work through her emotions and let the creation of the collages bring out buried memories and feelings -- but those weren't quite enough to redeem an otherwise dull narrative.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

In dreams begin responsibilities


The Sweet Far Thing is the final book in Libba Bray's trilogy, following A Great and Terrible Beauty and Rebel Angels. Bray brings the story to a satisfying conclusion, with plenty of the elements that made the first two books so enjoyable. As in the first two, Bray balances fast-paced adventure with Gothic-inspired teenage drama, with the characters remaining intrinsically real while they journey into fantastic lands and situations. Bray also handles all of her details beautifully -- she has an excellent handle on the rule of Chekhov's gun. The end seemed a little drawn out to me; the last few chapters felt like they were wrapping up loose ends that had already been wrapped. But throughout, the reader is thoroughly drawn in to Gemma's unfolding battle for the realms and for herself.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mixed grill


I didn't dislike Last Night at the Lobster, but I was expecting more. Stewart O'Nan's little novel (only 160 pages) is almost too realistic. The main character is the manager at a Red Lobster that corporate is closing after this snowy Saturday night. He's feeling guilty and nostalgic and pragmatic all at once. I felt a weird combination of sympathy for and boredom with the characters' lives -- similar maybe to seeing a minor car accident on my way to work. Unfortunate, and I'm glad it's not me. I wanted to care more, but that empathy just wasn't there.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"It was just your life. You were just living your life."


Once again, upon finishing a Haven Kimmel book, I want nothing more than to flip to the front and start reading it over again. Her characters are just amazing -- so beautifully written, complicated, fully realized -- even down to minor passersby. The plot in The Solace of Leaving Early is simpler than that of The Used World, and while I predicted the ending early on, what happens next isn't what drives her writing. She's really an artist of words and particularly of people. I really fell in love with both Langston and Amos (whom I had already enjoyed in The Used World), despite all of their quirks and failings. I think I have a new addition to my list of favorite writers.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A very slow year


The Year of Fog started off well -- heavily plot driven and fast paced, so that I breezed through the first half in one sitting. After that, Michelle Richmond's narrative drifted into a mediocre and occasionally tedious middle, with a slight recovery toward the (entirely too far-fetched) end. Abby's wallowing, however justified, was just not enjoyable reading; the novel needed more of the energy of the beginning, even if the story itself was focused on an emotionally draining search. I found Jake's character to be rather weakly drawn, and most of the other characters seemed repetitive and unnecessary, especially as more and more incidental players were introduced. Overall, it left me bored.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Connected


I put Prodigal Summer on my to-be-reread list after reading somewhere (maybe on her website?) that this was Barbara Kingsolver's favorite of her books. I had read it shortly after it was first published, but I didn't remember it as being one of my favorites. So I wanted to go back and see what made her so proud of it. As a piece of literature, the book is rather lovely -- beautifully intertwining stories, plenty of symbolic elements, and a nice selection of observations on nature and human nature. I enjoyed the plot, though I still wouldn't call it my favorite of hers. I laughed out at several points, thanks to my favorite character, Garnett Walker (though I liked Lusa's storyline better), and other moments were heart-wrenchingly sad. So not yet a favorite, but I did gain a new appreciation of the novel's structure and complexity.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Dysfunction before it was cool


I adored The Hours and respected A Home at the End of the World (beautifully written, but the story was so sad), so I was pleased to wander past Michael Cunningham's second novel, Flesh and Blood, in the library one day. It was originally published in 1995, which, if I recall correctly, was before dysfunctional family novels and memoirs were all over the place. Even today the plot still feels original -- the characters are too real to ever feel clich├ęd, which is impressive considering the size of the Stassos family. Regardless of the subject matter, Cunningham's characteristically exquisite writing makes this book well worth reading.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Finding home


The jacket copy for Haven Kimmel's The Used World ends by saying that it's a book that "charts the many meanings of the place we call home." But for me, it is really more about the many meanings of love and friendship, which I suppose ends up in the same place. I loved Kimmel's characters -- perfectly real, flawed and complicated -- and the intertwining stories that slowly but surely revealed their connections. This is a book I wouldn't mind rereading, just to make sure I caught all of the links and to savor the writing.

One of my favorite characters had only a peripheral role, but he does have his own book: The Solace of Leaving Early. That's definitely going on the reading lists.