If I didn't mention (cough BRAG cough) that I've had a poem published this week.
This was a re-read for me. I loved it madly when I first read it a decade ago and decided to give it another whirl as a good October pick.
And it was a good choice, although I doubt I'll read it again. I didn't love it quite as much the second time, although there's still much to admire: the author's creation of a Gothic world in nearly contemporary times, the story-within-a-story framework, plenty of fun twists and turns.
If you can suspend enough disbelief--and I could--this is a pretty fun romp. It starts with a young boy, Gerard, in Australia, snooping through his mother's bedroom and finding puzzling items, and eventually leads to a mysterious correspondence with a paraplegic girl (and some mighty erotic correspondence at that) and a burning desire to explore his mother's childhood home in England to look for clues about why she's such a mess. As an adult, he finally gets there, and finds a deserted Victorian manor that's about as chilling and haunted-seeming as they come.
Within the book are several short stories by Gerard's great-grandmother, Viola, and the stories stand by themselves just fine as wonderfully Gothic tales. But within them are clues to the mysteries of Gerard's past--and to the past of his mysterious correspondent.
The pros are that Harwood does a great job with the Gothic tone, even as he moves towards the present day (well, it was originally published in 2004, so already that's not quite present), and Viola's stories are like a bonus. The downside is the ending is incredibly rushed and a bit convoluted. As I got towards the end I found myself thinking, geez, he's only got 10 pages to wrap this all up. Ten pages didn't really do it.
Still, if you're looking for a fun October read, you could do far worse than this one. At least it reminded me that I haven't read his other books. Guess I'll start a pile for next October.
One of the things I've always liked about the BASS series is that the final selection of stories is picked by a different judge every year, so you get some variety based on that judge's own personal preferences, and you get some insight into what these writers like to read themselves. As Jennifer Egan is a writer I admire greatly, I looked forward to seeing what she likes to read.
So it pleases me to say that for the most part, Ms. Egan and I have similar tastes. Devastating stories like Peter Cameron's After the Flood and Nicole Cullen's Long Tom Lookout, the slow burn of David Gates' A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, Lauren Groff's luminous At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners, and Molly McNett's La Pulchra Nota, all knocked me over. Karen Russell, a writer who has frustrated me many times with pieces she's written that start strong and then fizzle, finally carries her potential forward all the way through Madame Bovary's Greyhound, a story told from the point of view of--well--Madame Bovary's greyhound, a story that should be outlandish and ridiculous and instead is a moving, bittersweet story of the impact first love (really, all love) makes in your life.
There were a few mehs. Am I the only reader in America who doesn't get Ann Beattie? Nell Freudenberger's Hover tries to use a supernatural event as a metaphor, but it's labored. Brendan Mathews' This Is Not a Love Song would have benefited from a more traditional narrative structure.
But overall, the majority of these stories really drew me in and made for a happy reading experience, even when they weren't happy reads (and most of them aren't).
My two biggest quibbles: In all the years I've been following this series, the stories are always presented in the order of the authors' names, alphabetically. That seems practical. There was one guest judge, I forget which one, who bucked tradition and arranged the stories as s/he saw fit instead. This is a collection that would have benefited from a little more curation like that. At times, stories that were too alike were back-to-back, and it would have been nice to have them separated.
Second: for years the series has been published with colorful covers, using a textured matte finish that's attractive and pleasant to the touch. This year, it's still colorful, but the publisher has gone with a glossy untextured finish. It feels cheaper (probably was) and isn't as appealing to the eye as the old textured matte versions.
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy.
As I mentioned last week, I was horrified to discover that the collected stories of Angela Carter includes at least one story that's been horrifically edited down. I went back to the original published collection that contains the edited story, which is Saints and Strangers.
It's a slim volume, only 125 pages. I can't say I liked it quite as well as The Bloody Chamber; there are a couple of stories in this volume that left me cold. That said, the ones I liked--hoo boy. Angela Carter was a most singular writer, and at her best, she was insanely good.
I talked last week about The Fall River Axe Murders, a look into the morning of the day Lizzie Borden did her business with said axe. It's a story that easily bears more than one reading. There's also the chilling Peter and the Wolf, the hallucinogenic The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe, and the sly The Kitchen Child. The final story is Black Venus (which is what this volume is titled in Britain), a melancholy story based on the true-life relationship between the poet Baudelaire and his Caribbean-Creole mistress, Jeanne Duval.
Overall, this collection has fewer stories of a fairy-tale, supernatural flavor, and I think maybe I missed that. The more realistic approach seems to have constrained Carter at times (although not in the Lizzie Borden story). Even one of the more fantastical pieces, Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, feels forced.
But in the stories that shine, Carter sails high. Look at this lovely description from The Kitchen Child:
"And, indeed, is there not something holy about a great kitchen? Those vaults of soot-darkened stone far above me, where the hams and strings of onions and bunches of dried herbs dangle, looking somewhat like the regimental banners that unfurl above the aisles of old churches. The cool, echoing flags scrubbed spotless twice a day by votive persons on their knees. The scoured gleam of row upon row of metal vessels dangling from hooks or reposing on their shelves till needed with the air of so many chalices waiting for the celebration of the sacrament of food. And the range like an altar, yes, an altar, before which my mother bowed in perpetual homage, a fringe of sweat upon her upper lip and fire glowing in her cheeks."
And then there was this, in the back of my library copy:
Well, not really a problem with Angela Carter, but with different versions of her work. A few years ago I read her collection, The Bloody Chamber, and loved it. So I picked up the collected stories for a future Halloween read, and this year decided to crack it open. I didn't read in order, but skipped around, and greatly admired a story called The Fall River Axe Murders, about Lizzie Borden. It's quite an accomplishment in terms of storytelling--we never see the actual murders, and the action, what little there is, takes place in the early morning hours of that fateful day, as Lizzie rises and reflects on her life. The narrator, who is not Lizzie, gives us more context. Little happens, but even though we all know the outcome of that day, it's suspenseful and dripping in dread.
So. I decided to look up more information about Carter and this story. Imagine my surprise when I found some indignant Amazon reviewers who--rightly--complained about this edition's brutal editing of this very story. Well! There was nothing for it but for me to try and find the original version, which was published in a British collection called Black Venus (and in the U.S. as Saints and Strangers).
Those Amazon reviewers are right. The version in Saints and Strangers is longer, and better. Saints and Strangers was published while Carter was still alive, Burning Your Boats three years after her death. Salman Rushdie wrote the intro to the collected works, and he singles out the Borden story for praise, but makes no mention of the cuts. Is this something Carter herself sanctioned before her death? If not, who did, and for goodness' sake, why?
Comparing the stories side-by-side, I found many cuts, and in other places, sentences and paragraphs that were entirely rewritten (and not for the better). On the chopping block (sorry):
"In this city of working women, the most visible sign of the status of the Borden girls is that they toil not. 'Clickety clack, clickety clack, You've got to work till it breaks your back!' the looms sing to the girls they lured here, the girls fresh from Lancashire, the dark-browed Portuguese, the French Canadian farmers' daughters, the up-country girls, the song whose rhythms now govern the movements of their dexterous fingers. But the Borden girls are deaf to it.
"Strange, that endless confinement of these perpetual 'girls' who do not labour in the mean house of the rich men. Strange, marginal life that those who lived it believed to be the very printing on the page, to be just exactly why the book was printed in the first place, to be the way all decent folks lived."
Why would you cut that?
Worse, an extended scene involving family meals is cut entirely, and that's a terrible loss. It ends this way: "In and out of the ice-box went the slowly dwindling leg of mutton until Thursday dinner was cancelled because corpses and not places were laid out on the table as if the eaters had become the meal."
It's shocking and disappointing that such a massive editing of an iconic story took place with no acknowledgement or explanation. My copy of Burning Your Boats has just tumbled onto the donation pile, and I'll continue reading the library copy of Saints and Strangers instead.
I've read every one of Tana French's Dublin Squad mysteries, and each time I've found myself thinking, well, the first one (In the Woods) is still the best. And I thought that when I read this one too, but this time, I had to think rather hard about it before concluding that this one is a close second.
What French does so well is she doesn't follow the mystery tropes--she writes a novel with fully developed characters who happen to be dealing with a mystery. In this case, the mystery is the death of teenaged Chris Harper, found murdered on the grounds of a girl's boarding school (his own boys' boarding school is nearby). Who killed him? Why?
Months pass, and the murder remains unsolved. Then one morning, a girl from the school shows up at the police department. Her school recently put up a bulletin board called the Secret Place, where the students can post "secrets" and remain anonymous (think PostSecret). Someone has posted a card that says they know who killed Chris Harper, and the girl thinks the police should know.
After that, we tumble down a rabbit hole of mean girls, school politics, and teenage emotions. But--lest you think this is just a tiresome teen book, French also illustrates how these teen foibles, evil as some of them are, become part of the adults these teens become, even if they become more sophisticated in how they behave.
French has built a great narrative structure for her story. The book is told in alternating chapters: the first set is from the point of view of Stephen Moran, a detective who's been stuck in Cold Cases and sees this as his chance to make the move to Murder, even if he has to work with Antoinette Conway, a Murder detective who has quite a few issues of her own. Their chapters are told across the span of one day, from the arrival of the postcard and through their interrogations at the school, until the truth finally makes itself known.
The second set is in third person, spanning a longer time frame from months before the murder until the present day, as two separate groups of girls--one of which definitely qualifies as "mean girls"--circle and harass each other, with both groups having an interest in the lovely Chris Harper, and both having multiple candidates for the murderer.
The storylines converge beautifully, and all the characters--including the murder victim--are multi-layered, with flaws and good points and all the vagaries of human nature. The Murder Squad is no less a hotbed of gossip and backstabbing than the common room of the girls' school.
My only quibbles are that the book is a tad longer than it needs to be. There are some sections, especially during the interrogations, that get a bit repetitive. At the very end, there's a scene with one of the girls and her mother which feels forced, as if French wanted to make a final point about friendships established during your teens. The mother hasn't made an appearance anywhere else in the book, and the point she's making has already been driven home many other ways.
Still--I really liked this and could hardly put it down. I read somewhere that French is already at work on the next book, and it features the prickly Det. Conway. I'm in.
The Shining Girls is the October read for one of my book groups, and I was excited for it. October is a great month to read scary/suspenseful things, so hey! Time-traveling serial killer? Should fit the bill.
But, alas, this one was not a winner for me. In spite of the fun, trippy premise, the book tries too hard to do many things (and at least one of those things seems to be to sell the movie rights). We learn about each victim of the serial killer, but why? No good reason. The one we need to know about is the one he doesn't succeed in killing, Kirby, and she in turn goes on the hunt for him.
We do get to know her, or try to, given that her character isn't terribly three-dimensional. Clue: quote often the dialogue tag assigned to her speech is "sniped". Yeah, she's a tough broad who's always sarcastic.
Her partner/potential love interest is a newspaper sports reporter who used to cover crime until it got to be too much for him (as in, he covered her attack). His last name is Velasquez, but it's not until the very end that he starts sprinkling his dialogue with Spanish.
And the time-traveling villain? About as one-dimensional as you can get. He just goes around time, killing girls who "shine"--and no, we're never told what exactly that means or why it's important. We don't know why he ended up this way, or how the house he uses as a time-traveling base is important, or why he keeps re-murdering some old Polish guy.
Worse, at various points I just didn't care. It was a slog to get to the end. Which, by the way, was rushed and unsatisfying.
So, this is not a good start to Scary October for me. Thankfully, I have a re-read of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House coming up, and some Angela Carter on deck. That should help.
What do you like to read in October/
Man, I so, so, so wanted to like this book. I mean, c'mon--Sherman Alexie, who rocks, touted it on The Colbert Report! Sherman Alexie! Stephen Colbert! That's a whole lot of wonderful in one short video segment!
Alas. By the time I got to the end--because I had to see how it ended--I wondered: what first-time authors were passed over for the spotlight? What a shame to think about it.
The premise is intriguing. The apocalpse has come, but it's not a large-scale, instant cataclysm, like a nuclear war. It's more of a slow disintegration of society and nature, with communities falling apart and anarchy reigning. To escape an increasingly frightening Los Angeles, married couple Frida and Cal (nicknamed California--d'oh) head out to the wilds to try and survive. And they do, in slovenly fashion, living on beets (yuck) and sprouts. But when Frida finds herself pregnant, they decide to go out into the world and see if there is any kind of sort-of-stable society they can belong to, to be safer. They find one, but it's a community that has its own issues and secrets, and safety may not be assured.
Sounds good, right? If only it had lived up to its premise. A huge chunk of the book takes place in backstory, to the point where I wondered if the author had ever considered changing her narrative structure. I don't mind a little backstory when necessary, but I'm going to guess that at least 40% of this book is told that way--if the reader needs all that backstory, maybe the author should have begun the book with that, and then moved into the present. It's irritating to constantly be dropped into a character's reverie about the past and how it led to this.
Which leads to a second problem. I won't give spoilers, but there's at least one horrific scene that's told by someone remembering it, years later. So the reader gets it second-hand, long after the fact. How much more terrifying it would have been to be told in as it happened, first-hand.
The story is told third person, with chapters alternating between Frida's and Cal's points of view. If they were more interesting people, this would have worked. But they don't seem terribly realistic, and worse, they're awfully whiny and bratty.
And there are weird little plot holes. If they've barely been surviving on beets and sprouts, how was Frida nourished enough to become pregnant at all? Seems odd.
Some of the plot feels more than just a little derivative, especially of things like Lost, The Walking Dead, and even The Stepford Wives. If you like any of those shows--and I do--you're better off staying with them. Even Lost, with all its plot problems, was more intriguing than this.
Finally, there's often much wailing and moaning about writers with MFAs writing in a "workshop" style, which no one seems able to define. But California gave me some prime examples. There are phrases that are beautifully written, but out of place--apparently no one gave the author the "kill your darlings" speech--or similes that are interesting, but unclear. Here's one: "The damage of those fights trailed them like a pack of hungry dogs." At first glance, it's great, but then I start thinking about hungry dogs and all the different ways they might behave, and now I'm not sure what it means.
Oh--and there's a posthumous novel by Jonathan Franzen. Yeah.
So, as much as I wanted to like this, I just couldn't. I'm sad for myself as a reader, and I'm sad for the other first-time novelists who didn't get this chance to shine.
I was excited about the first installment of the Southern Reach trilogy, and anxious to read volume 2, Authority. The first volume was very short, and one question I had after reading it was: why a trilogy? Why not just a long book? But then I thought, hey, maybe the second volume, which is almost twice as long as the first, will have much more going on.
Sadly, I was wrong. Authority, in spite of its wonderfully creepy cover (and yes, it's relevant to the story), drags. A lot. It's told from the POV of John Rodriguez, or, as he likes to call himself, Control (because of his job, but yeah, pretty heavy-handed metaphor right there). He's been sent to Southern Reach to find out why the expeditions into the mysterious Area X keep having unsettling--and sometimes horrifying--results.
So far, so good. The first book set up Area X as a place of terrifying unknowns, so yeah, let's get behind the people who are trying to figure it out. But John--er, Control--spends so much time talking to people...and thinking...and talking...and thinking...and thinking about saying or doing things that he then decides not to say or do...
It's not until the last 50 pages that the story really kicks in, and that's so frustrating. There's a great deal that occurs that would have borne more detail.
It's also frustrating because Vandermeer is a good writer:
"But it had seemed to Control like the companionable silence of shared experience, as if he had been initiated into membership in an exclusive club without having been asked first. He was wary of that feeling; it was a space where shadows crept in that shouldn't creep in, where people agreed to things that they did not actually agree with, believing that they were of one purpose and intent."
There's also a wonderful section where Control thinks another person is referring to the "terror" of Area X, but comes to find out the word is "terroir", which does work as a metaphor, and maybe could have been extended later in the book.
Ah well. In the end, I gave it three stars on Goodreads rather than the two I originally thought about giving it, because: 1. I was never tempted to stop reading, even though I was frustrated; and 2. I still want to read the third volume when it comes out this month.
Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley is a book I was excited to read. I loved the Scott Pilgrim books. This, alas, is not quite as good as the Pilgrim series--no doubt due in large part to the fact that it's one book, not a series, so he doesn't have as much time to flesh out characters and storylines as he did in the Pilgrim books.
Seconds is the story of chef Katie, who's facing her 30s with more than a little trepidation. She's working on a new restaurant which will be hers, but things are not going well. To make matters worse, her hunky ex shows up at the original restaurant with a gorgeous girl.
When Katie has an encounter with a supernatural being who gives her the option to change one thing in her life, she quickly takes advantage of it--and then figures out how to do it over and over again. She spends her days doing things she knows she shouldn't and her nights reversing the days.
Obviously this can't be sustained indefinitely, for a variety of reasons. No spoilers, but things spin out of control, and Katie finds herself in a larger mess than she could have anticipated.
There was much I enjoyed about Seconds, including the vibrant artwork (and the very offhand reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but by the end, I felt like O'Malley rushed to wrap everything up without explaining most of it, at least not to my satisfaction. I would have liked to get to know some of the other characters better, especially Hazel. Katie's romantic life just didn't seem worth the trouble to me.
In other words, the world O'Malley created here was deserving of more than it got. That's the verdict from a frustrated reader, anyway.